Magnificent Seven ATF Universe
bar The Replacement

by Titan5

Main characters: Vin, Chris

Author's note: This is my first M7 story. I blame Rosalee as she is the one who kept insisting I needed to watch the Magnificent Seven because I would love it. She was right, as usual. A big thank you to her as well for looking over my work to help keep the mistakes down. I also owe all the writers before me who established and wrote about the ATF world – I have become a huge fan. You guys are awesome!

Friday, May 4

Chris Larabee was not a happy man. The hairs standing up on the back of his neck were in unanimous agreement with the knot in his gut that this was not going to end well. Ezra, in the process of establishing the undercover persona of an arms dealer, happened to overhear a discussion about a huge arms deal going down. The problem was they only had about forty-five minutes to get to the warehouse before they missed the deal entirely. No time to scout out the location. Not enough time to get properly prepared. A man down since there was no way for Ezra to participate and leave his cover intact. So . . . a disaster waiting to happen.

They managed to arrive with five minutes to spare and gathered in a parking lot almost a block from the warehouse. They crept to the building next door so they could get a look at what they were dealing with. It was almost dark, the streetlights casting long shadows as they snapped on. From their position near the side of the building, the team could see an armed man by both the front and back doors.

Chris turned to his men. "Buck, JD, and Vin have the back door. Nathan, Josiah, and I have the front. Denver PD is setting up a tight perimeter, so don't worry about anyone that gets out of the building."

Vin nodded toward the back of the building. "There's a fire escape leadin' to the roof. Once we take out our guy, I can go up and most likely get inside. Can probably find me a high spot to watch your back."

Chris nodded. "Do it. Let me know when you're in position." He dipped his head toward the pack on Vin's back. "Don't forget to harness up. Hopefully, you can clue us in to what we're walking into."

Vin nodded. "Reckon I can do that. Ain't no fun walkin' into these situations blind."

"Who says?" asked Buck, winking as he broke into a big grin. JD rolled his eyes.

Chris smirked for a moment until the back of his neck tingled again. "Keep focused. I've got a bad feeling about this." When everyone nodded and put their game face back on, he lifted his chin. "Let's ride."

Within five minutes, darkness had taken a solid hold and Vin was silently creeping up the fire escape. Everyone else crouched beside the building, keeping watch for stray guards. Chris was just starting to fret when the soft Texas drawl tickled his ears. He had to concentrate to hear the sniper, meaning he'd found his way inside.

"Got me a spot inside in the rafters. They got a van loaded with weapons parked back to back with a Suburban, ready for a transfer. Six armed men standin' between ‘em, makin' the deal. One armed guy at the back door and one at the front. Got another three guys armed with automatic weapons scattered in front of a big pile o' crates against the west wall. Watch yourselves cause they'll be hidin' amongst them crates once the shootin' starts and I'm not sure I'll be able to see ‘em. Chris, that front door appears to go to a hallway and I can't see if anyone is stationed out there or not, so watch your back."

"Got it," Chris said. "Let me know when they start moving weapons between vehicles. At least some of them should be distracted."

"Roger that."

Chris smiled at Nathan and Josiah. Vin had picked the phrase up from a movie they'd watched a few weeks ago and it seemed to have become part of his regular vocabulary lately. A very long two minutes later, Vin said, "Got four people movin' boxes between cars. Now's as good a time as any."

Chris nodded to the men with him and whispered, "Go," into his microphone. They had already checked the door and knew it was unlocked, so they crept in with guns raised and moved down the hall as one. A shot rang out in the warehouse and Chris knew Vin was clearing the doors for them. They burst through screaming, "ATF, put your guns down," knowing full well that wasn't going to happen.

The guard for the door was already down, so they quickly moved in and spread out, firing as they looked for cover in the open space. The sound of gunfire was loud, echoing in the cavernous room. Chris exchanged shots with a man beside the van, diving behind a huge metal desk as the guy went down. Taking a quick look around, he found Nathan and Josiah had made it to stacks of crates against the west wall. It looked like four of the six men around the cars were down and the two left seemed to be firing at Buck and JD.

Grinning, Chris leaned out and placed a carefully aimed shot into one of the two men. The other jerked around, trying to see where the shot had come from. "I'd lay that gun down if I were you," Chris yelled.

The man was probably near Josiah's age, brown hair well mixed with gray. He furrowed his bushy eyebrows over dark, beady eyes. Apparently realizing he was in Chris's sights, he held his gun up and then carefully set it on the ground. The shooting had stopped, although Chris wasn't sure if that meant they had everyone or not. "Slide it away from you," he called, easing out just enough the old guy could see he had his gun on him. Glaring, the man put his foot on the weapon and slid it away from him.

"Chris, down!"

At the sound of Vin's voice, Chris dropped to the floor, a shot whizzing over his head. He heard another go over in the opposite direction and then a thump as someone behind him hit the floor. He glanced up as he started to look behind him. Vin had apparently stepped out from behind cover to fire and was trying to swing his rifle around as he got hit with automatic weapons fire. His body jerked in a grotesque dance, appearing to move by means of some magical force before crashing into the support beams and falling.

"No!" Chris didn't realize until later that it had been him that cried out. He glanced behind him to make sure the man Vin had shot was down before moving out to check on Vin. Suddenly realizing that he had no idea where the shots had come from, he looked toward the crates. Josiah waved him on as the big man ran toward two bloody bodies, crumpled on the floor in front of the boxes.

The whole time, Chris's mind was going full tilt. Had Vin put on his bulletproof vest? He thought he'd seen him do it, but was he remembering today or one of the other hundred times he'd seen? Watching Vin's limp form swing back and forth, he was relieved to see he'd had time to hook up his harness. If he hadn't, the vest wouldn't have mattered.

"Get over here so I can keep an eye on you," he said as he grabbed the old guy he'd been covering. Vin was hanging ten feet off the ground and all Chris could think of was he couldn't reach him to see if he was alive or not. His relief at seeing the vest dissolved when Vin swung past him, his form twisting so that Chris could see his bloody face. Please, not a head shot.

"I'll lower him down," Buck called as he ran past them.

"EMTs are on their way," said Nathan, coming up beside him. "Thank goodness he got his harness on or we wouldn't need them."

Chris tried to prod his brain into working. He was supposed to be leading this team, not standing in the middle of the room like he was frozen to the floor. He glanced around and found Josiah and JD standing guard over a couple of conscious bad guys.

Nathan was apparently reading his mind, because he squeezed his shoulder and said, "They've got everyone rounded up. Backup should be here in a couple of minutes."

Chris nodded, grateful for a team that could function when he couldn't. "Get ready, I'm lowering him down to you," came Buck's voice from above. Vin's body jerked and then began moving toward them. By the time he and Nathan had a hold on the limp form, Buck was leaning over the edge of the rafters. "You got him?"

"Yeah," Chris called. "We got him."

"Good, cause that's all the line we've got. I'm throwing this end out toward the back door, so watch your heads." The end of the line sailed through the air, the bracket on the end clanging loudly on the concrete floor several yards away from them. They eased Vin to the floor. Chris purposely did not look at the sniper's face. He didn't want to see any lifeless eyes or brain matter or any other evidence that his friend was dead.

Nathan's sigh brought his head up and the man's smile gave him hope. "Looks like he hit his head when he fell." Chris watched in numb fascination as the medic checked arms and legs and then pulled open the vest. No blood on the shirt. Chris looked at Nathan for confirmation of what he was seeing.

"He wasn't shot, Chris. He'll be bruised and sore as crap from the ones that hit his vest and this head injury isn't anything to play around with, but . . . " The man sighed as he leaned back on his haunches and grinned. "Vin Tanner is just about the luckiest man I know. All that automatic fire and they all hit his vest." He chuckled and shook his head.

Chris closed his eyes and took a deep breath. For several moments, he'd known Vin was dead. Hadn't seen any way he couldn't be. But he wasn't. Tension rolled out of his shoulders, leaving him shaky and almost dizzy. He grinned down at the sharpshooter, noting the gash stretching from just below his hairline in the middle of his forehead down to his left temple. Bruising was already forming all down the left side of his face. "Ow."

Nathan snorted. "Ow is right. He's going to have one heck of a headache."

"Hey, how's Vin?" Buck asked as he jogged up to them.

"Bruised and most likely concussed, but at least he ain't shot," said Nathan. Denver PD and EMTs with a stretcher came clamoring through the door about then, drawing their attention.

"Want me to take this guy off your hands?" asked Buck, taking the old guy by the elbow.

"Thanks, yeah," said Chris.

"Chris?" The voice was so soft, he almost didn't hear it. Chris looked down to see blue eyes peeking through slits. "Happened?" Before he could answer, Vin coughed and then gagged and then Nathan was rolling him over and they were holding him up so he could puke. A few minutes later, the EMTs were loading Vin on a stretcher and he was out again.

Chris was trying to decide whether to get in the ambulance with Vin or stay here and do his job cleaning up this mess when Buck took him by the arm. "I've got this. Go."

Chris wanted to, but he looked around at the bodies and the weapons and the police and knew he should probably stay here. He almost missed Nathan and Buck sharing a look. He was about to call them on it when Nathan grabbed his arm. "You're his next of kin. You need to be there if any decisions need to be made or papers need to be signed."

And just like that, the problem was solved. Nathan was right. And Buck was capable of handling anything that came up here. He nodded, more grateful than he had words to express. Buck just laughed. "Heck old dog, I may not be Vin, but even I can read what you're tryin' to say right now. You're welcome. Now get outta here." Then he gently pushed Chris toward the moving stretcher.

What did I do to deserve these guys?



"Chris?" The voice combined with the touch to his shoulder brought Chris out of his stupor. Blinking, he glanced up at the rest of his team staring at him. Buck still had his hand on his shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze before releasing him.

Chris cleared his throat, glancing down at the forgotten clipboard in his lap. JD picked up the pen he'd dropped at some point and handed it to him. Chris took it and stood up, setting the clipboard and paperwork down before stretching. "What time is it?"

"Almost midnight," said Nathan. "How's Vin?"

Chris rubbed his face, trying to pull himself together. "I'm not sure." Furrowing his brow, he looked at his teammates. "They kicked me out when they took him to do tests. CT . . . or an MRI maybe?" He shook his head. "My mind was a little paralyzed at that time."

"But he just hit his head, right?" asked JD, his eyes so wide he looked to Chris like he couldn't be more than twelve.

"What happened?" asked Nathan, his jaw set and his eyes knowing.

"It started in the ambulance about halfway here. He just started . . . shaking. Shaking all over like the ground in an earthquake. It just lasted a few seconds, but . . . " He ran one hand through his hair, trying to get the image out of his head.

"Seizure," said Nathan, frowning as he bobbed his head once. "It happens sometimes with head injuries. How bad was it?"

"That's what the paramedic said, and the doctor too. He had two more after we got here. They weren't the big ones like you hear about with epilepsy and stuff. It was just his whole body trembling and kind of shaking for . . . I don't know, thirty, maybe forty-five seconds. I just know it scared me to death."

Nathan grabbed Chris's forearm, waiting until his team leader looked at him. "It means he probably has a pretty nasty concussion, but it's not necessarily bad. I've seen people react that way and recover completely and relatively quickly, so don't let it drag you down."

Chris nodded and his shoulders slumped in relief. "That's pretty much what the doctor said, but . . . "

"You trust it more when it comes from our illustrious medic," said Ezra.

"Yeah." In his mind, he'd equated the seizures with brain damage. It wasn't until Nathan validated that it didn't necessarily imply that was true that he relaxed. Well, not relaxed. But he was a lot more hopeful.

"What exactly did the doctor say?" prodded Nathan.

Chris took a deep breath, the presence of his team giving the strength that had been fading over the last two hours. Tightening his expression and his stance, the leader in him finally slid back in control. "He's got severe bruising across his chest and upper abdomen from the bullets hitting his vest, but no sign of fractures or internal bleeding. The distance from the shooters helped him there. They put fifteen stitches into his head and he's got a hairline skull fracture."

Nathan frowned. "I'm guessing they're checking on bleeding and/or swelling in the brain."

"Yeah, that's what the doc said."

Nathan nodded. "Do you remember which doctor?"

Chris rubbed the back of his neck and closed his eyes, trying to dredge up the name of the doctor. A few moments later, he dropped his arm and looked at the medic. "Yeah, it was a new doctor, Patel. I think he's Indian, had a slight accent. He seemed to really know what he was doing. He kept trying to reassure me, but . . . every time Vin came around he'd just moan in pain or puke and then pass back out. He didn't seem to know where he was or what was going on. I don't think I've ever seen him so confused."

Nathan's frown deepened, which did nothing to ease the anxiety Chris had been fighting. "Was he conscious for long?"

"No, maybe a minute or two at a time. Came to four or five times. The only thing he managed to say was to turn off the lights and another time he said . . . " Chris looked away, staring at the wall. "He said Falcon 2 was down and that he'd had to leave the body in a cave. He kept telling me to be sure we went back for him."

"Ranger days?" said Buck, frowning.

"Probably." Chris ran his hand back through his hair. "He just kept throwing up, even after there was nothing left. Even when he was conscious . . . he wasn't really there."

He turned his head back in time to see Nathan nod. Nathan studied the floor a moment before bringing his eyes up to the team that was waiting on him. "I'm guessing a severe concussion, possibly a brain contusion, or bruise. If there's no severe bleeding or swelling, the long term prognosis is still good. I won't lie to you though. If there is severe bleeding or swelling . . . there could be brain damage and . . . "

"He could die," whispered JD.

Nathan nodded, his jaws clenched together. After a tense moment, he sighed and shook his head. "Look, we don't need to bury Vin before his time. There's every reason to think neither of those things will happen. Most likely, they won't. So let's get our heads up. You know what Vin would say if he saw us out here worryin' over worst case scenarios."

Chris felt a grin slide across his face, almost unbidden. "He'd threaten to kick our collective asses."

Nathan returned his smile. "I'll see if I can talk to the doctor."

"And I shall attempt to procure us some palatable coffee to fortify us as we await word on our endeared sharpshooter."

Josiah clamped a hand on Ezra's shoulder. "I'll lend a hand, brother. I believe they have a Starbuck's next to the gift shop."

"Excellent," said Ezra, straightening the cuff of his sleeve. "Gentlemen, we shall return post haste."

JD looked at Buck. "They'll be right back," Buck said with a wink.

"I knew that," JD huffed. He crossed his arms and sighed. "I just want Vin to be okay."

"From your mouth to God's ears," murmured Josiah as he followed Ezra down the hall.

Chris watched the two men leave. They were down the hall and around the corner before it occurred to him what the problem was. "How did Ezra get here? He's supposed to be undercover."

"He called me a little while ago to see how everything went down," said JD. "I told him about Vin and he said he'd slip away and meet us up here."

"Oh." With a shake of his head, Chris picked up the clipboard and sat back down. "Guess I'd better work on this paperwork."

"Might as well," said Buck, taking the seat next to him. "Nothing else you can do for him right now. Need any help? Maybe we can liven it up a bit."

Chris stared stonily at his oldest friend. "Liven up hospital paperwork."

Buck said, "Well, yeah," like it was the most obvious thing in the world. "Take that one for example," he said, pointing to the information sheet. "When they ask about sex, you should always put yes."

Chris stared at the question with an answer selection of M and F. "Yes is not an option."

Buck grinned. "Well hand me that pen and we'll just do a write-in and make it one."

JD snorted. "I'm not sure Vin would appreciate that. He's pretty private about personal matters."

Buck chuckled. "Kid, everyone appreciates sex."

Chris rolled his eyes, but he felt some of the tension easing out of his shoulders and neck. "That settles it. You're not helping with the paperwork. JD, if I'm ever injured, make sure Buck isn't the one filling my paperwork out."

Buck slapped his hand on his chest. "Partner, you wound me." Grinning, he suddenly sat up straight and stared across the room. "I do believe I see a damsel in distress. Excuse me for a moment."

Chris watched his friend saunter across the room to a tiny nurse trying to push an unusually large woman in a wheelchair. He glanced over to see JD staring with his mouth open at his mentor dancing around, charming the petite woman. Grinning, he looked back down at the form. "Better close your mouth, JD. You might catch a fly."

He still had no idea what he'd done to deserve these people. Although that particular thought faded when Ezra and Josiah returned with horrible vending machine coffee because the hospital Starbucks was closed.

Another hour passed before Dr. Patel came out. He headed straight for Chris as the six stood, almost as one. The physician's eyebrows raised at the sight of the intimidating group waiting on him. "Agent Larabee?"

Chris nodded. "Dr. Patel, this is the rest of my team. Buck Wilmington, Ezra Standish, Josiah Sanchez, and JD Dunne. I think you've met Nathan."

The Indian doctor nodded and seemed to relax a little. He was about Ezra's height, with a head full of thick, black hair and a round face. "I take it this is the extended family you mentioned," Patel said, waving one hand toward the team.

"It is, so you can talk to all of us. Anything you tell me, I'll just turn around and tell them."

Patel nodded in understanding. "Some of the nurses have actually told me about you and your team, so I am prepared to speak to you all. Agent Tanner sustained a rather severe concussion and there is a small amount of swelling. The hairline fracture is very shallow, not unlike a tiny crack. At this point, I believe his prognosis to be good. As long as the swelling does not increase, we are looking at several days to possibly several weeks of headaches, dizziness, and some nausea, especially at first."

"He's gonna hate that," mumbled JD.

"That boy hates being down, period," said Buck.

"How's he doing now?" asked Nathan.

"He has settled some since you saw him last, Agent Larabee. We were able to get the vomiting under control and he is resting. He has not been coherent yet, but that is not unexpected, given the severity of his injury. We will be monitoring him for a few days, until the danger of bleeding or swelling in the brain has passed. They will be moving him to room in the next few minutes."

Chris nodded and locked his eyes firmly on those of the doctor. "We'll need to see him." He wanted it clear that his team was seeing their injured friend, regardless of the time or its relationship to visiting hours.

Patel didn't look surprised. "Yes, I was . . . informed this would be the case. We'll be moving Agent Tanner to room 348. You may take the elevator down the hall to the third floor and the waiting room is just across the hall and to your left. Someone will come get you once he's settled."

"Yeah, we know where it's at. We've been there a time or two," said JD.

"Or maybe three or four," added Josiah with a sigh.

Patel nodded and looked grimly at the team. "I should have known that."

"It's okay," said Buck, reaching out to pat the man on the shoulder. "You're new. But don't you worry none, we'll have ya broke in in no time, right guys?" The rest of the team mumbled some form of agreement to the statement as they filed past the doctor, with Chris bringing up the rear.

"Thanks, doc. Don't worry, you'll get used to us."

As Chris walked toward the elevator, he heard the doctor sigh behind him. "That is what I am afraid of."


The team had been milling around the waiting room for almost an hour by the time the doctor came to get them. Chris felt some tension flow out of his neck and shoulders when a familiar face smiled at him from the hallway.

"Agent Larabee, it's good to see you again, although not under the present circumstances." Dr. Kenneth Beck extended his hand toward the ATF team leader. Dr. Beck was as tall as Nathan and thin, with a long, narrow face, thinning blonde hair, and dark blue eyes. His round, wire-rimmed glasses made him look like a professor preparing to give a lecture, but his broad smile put the men at ease.

"Dr. Beck, I have to say I'm relieved to see you." The physician was well-known to the group, having tended to several of them over the past few years. In addition to being an excellent doctor, he had an easy going nature and was willing to work with the team toward whatever was best for the patient.

Dr. Beck shook hands with each man in turn and then crossed his arms. "Well, I'm sure you want an update on your currently downed brother. I'm sorry it took a while to get out here. We had some trouble getting him settled. I'm afraid all the jostling around from moving him up here reawakened the nausea and the confusion. I think we've got him settled in though."

Chris sighed and rubbed his jaw. Vin just couldn't seem to catch a break today. Sometimes when it rained, it really did pour. He had to remind himself just how much worse it could have been.

"He seems to be sleeping now, which is probably the best thing for him. I know you want to see him, but he needs to rest." The physician held his hand up to halt the growing protest. "You can go in and see him for a few moments and then most of you need to go. One or two of you can stay. To be honest, it would be best to have someone near him that he knows in case he wakes up. He'll probably be confused and have trouble with short term memory the next few days. Don't worry if you have to tell him the same thing several times before it sticks. That's normal."

Buck grinned. "Well, heck, doc. That could be kinda fun."

"Buck." Chris pressed his lips together in a line and glared at his friend.

Buck shrugged and wiggled his eyebrows up and down a couple of times. "Hey, Pard, I'm just sayin'. The boy could prove to be entertainin'."

Nathan snorted. "What you have to decide is whether the revenge that boy will be certain to bring down on you is worth that entertainment you're so hot on gettin'."

Buck's smile froze and he gazed across the room, rubbing his chin. "That boy is good at gettin' retribution."

JD glanced around and then grinned at Buck. "Retribution? Wow, Buck. You're startin' to sound like Ezra."

Ezra's eyebrows drew together as he glared at JD. "I hardly think that is a likely occurrence at any time during this century."

As Ezra was protesting, Buck cuffed JD on the back of the head while the rest of them laughed. Dr. Beck sobered and waited until the laughter stopped. "I know I don't have to tell you to keep it down while you look in on Agent Tanner. It's late and patients are sleeping."

Chris snorted out a huff. "Right. Sleeping."

The doctor sighed and dipped his head. "Well, at much as one can sleep in a hospital. Anyway, quietly in and quietly out. You do not want to wake him up right now."

"We understand," said Josiah. "I'll make sure the boys keep it down," he said, sending a firm look toward Buck and JD.

"We'll be good," JD said quietly. "I don't want Vin to wake up and be miserable."

With that assurance, the doctor led them down the hall to Vin's room. Chris stood back as each team member took a turn to stand over the sniper and whisper soft words of encouragement. Nathan was the last one out, stopping by Chris for a moment.

"We'll be back in the morning with coffee . . . well, later this morning."

Chris smiled and patted the medic on the shoulder. "I'll be needing an extra-large by then."

Nathan nodded. "Give me a call if he has any problems and try to get some rest, you know, in that comfortable chair over there."

"Gee, Nathan, thanks. I will."

Nathan chuckled. "He'll be fine, Chris. See you in a little while."

Chris nodded and then walked over to stare down at Vin, reaching out to lightly touch his arm. He frowned at the deep bruising coloring one side of an otherwise pale face. "Sleep well, my friend. I've got your back." Then he sat down, leaned back, and stretched out his legs.


Saturday, May 5

Vin woke to a pounding headache. He squinted his closed eyes, furrowing his brow and only serving to increase the vise-like pressure that was apparently trying to squeeze his brains out of his ears. He drew in a deep breath, trying to relax the tight muscles extending down his neck when pain arced across his chest. His breathing hitched as his eyes shot open and his brain tried to catch up to what was going on. The wall in front of him seemed to tilt and list to the right, making his stomach twist.

In his peripheral vision, movement drew his eyes to Chris as he closed a book and set it down. "Hey, partner, you awake?" A steady hand landed on his shoulder, startling him. Chris frowned at his reaction.

"Sneaky . . . bastard," he ground out, annoyed that Chris had moved from the chair to his bedside without him seeing it. At least the steady grip of the man's hand seemed to ground him and slow the sensation that his head was about to float off his body.

Chris grinned at the apparently funny insult and reached for the standard hospital pitcher of water. Vin took a moment to blink his filmy eyes and get his brain moving forward. As the spinning sensation went away, his stomach settled down.

"Here," Chris said as he poked a straw at Vin's lips. He sipped at the water, grateful for the way it doused the flames in his raw throat. Man, he was really out of it.

"How do you feel?" Chris asked, pulling the cup away.

Vin started to answer, but goop had collected in his throat and he had to cough and sputter a moment before he could continue. He took panting, shallow breaths as he waited for the reignited fire in his chest to subside. Chris gave him another few sips of water.

"Okay, Pard, let's try that again. How do you feel?"

Vin looked up to meet Chris's eyes, squinting against the sunlight that seemed to be burning through his retinas. "Kinda like Peso stomped me." He was a little surprised at how soft and gravelly his voice came out.

Chris laughed as he set the cup down. "Well, for once that ornery mule of yours had nothing to do with it." He frowned down at Vin and then widened his eyes with a slight nod. "Sorry, I should have remembered what bright light does to a concussed head." Vin watched him head for the window and start closing the blinds. The lowering light made Vin groan with relief.

"How's that?"

It took a moment for his brain to register that he'd closed his eyes and that Chris was talking to him. Vin opened his eyes and met worried green ones. "Hey, you want me to get the nurse?"

"Nah, it's fine. Head's jest a mite touchy. What happened?"

"What do you remember?" asked Chris, leaning against the side bars as he frowned down at his friend. He looked tired, like he hadn't slept much, if at all. Judging from the sunlight streaming in the room, it was late morning. Glancing past Chris, he saw a couple of empty coffee cups on the table.


Vin brought his eyes back up to Chris. Had Chris asked him something? "What?" he asked, scratching at the cannula currently making the bottom of his nose itch.

"Leave that alone. They've got you on supplemental oxygen because your chest is so bruised," Chris said as he pulled his arm down and adjusted the offending plastic tube until it was back in place. "I said, what do you remember?"

"Oh." Vin tried to tame the images swimming around in his head and sort them into some sort of order. "Uh, breakfast burritos . . . followin' up a tip on guns goin' to gangs . . . Ezra called somethin' in."

Chris nodded, looking relieved that Vin was beginning to recall things, apparently in the correct order. "Right. Ezra stumbled on information about a gun deal going down, but we didn't have much time to get there."

"Yeah, I remember us havin' to hurry along." He tried to ignore the pounding in his head as he fought to get through the haze around his memories. "I'm not sure. I remember climbin' . . . shootin' maybe?" A vision of his spotter going down amongst the rocks and dust of the desert suddenly flitted through his head alongside that of a gunman lining Chris up in his sights. Squeezing his eyes shut, he gasped at the sharp pain lancing through his head.

"Hey, cowboy, take it easy," Chris soothed. As the pain subsided, he was aware of the hand gripping his shoulder in support. After a moment, his slid his eyes open to find Chris holding a cup in front of him. "Take a couple of sips," he said, moving the straw to Vin's mouth.


"Thanks," Vin whispered as the cup was pulled away. He closed his eyes again, trying to sift through the confusing montage of pictures and sounds playing in his head.

"You were up in the rafters, providing cover for us. You hollered at me to get down, which saved my life by the way, and then shot the guy that had snuck up behind me. When I looked up, you were standing out in the open."

"Guess it's a good thing you know how to follow instructions."

"Now if only I could get the rest of you to follow instructions, we'd all be better off. By the way, thanks for saving my life . . . cowboy." Chris grinned and reached down to grip Vin's arm.

"Welcome. I reckon you've saved my hide a few times, so it's the least I could do." He frowned, trying to make sense of the flashes in his head. "I think maybe somethin' was blockin' my shot is the reason I broke cover. "

"That's the only reason we could figure you'd leave yourself so exposed," Chris stated, shaking his head. "Two guys on the floor sprayed you with automatic fire before Josiah and Buck took them down. Everything hit your vest, but you know how damaging it can be to take fire like that in a vest. You're pretty bruised up. It also caused you to fall and you hit your head pretty hard on the way down. You've got a severe concussion along with a hairline skull fracture."

"Well, that explains why m' brains feel scrambled." He glanced back up at Chris. "How long do I gotta stay?"

Chris scratched his head. "I'm not sure. You had some swelling and they wanted to keep an eye on it. I guess it depends on when they think the danger's passed. The boys came by this morning to check on you. I sent them off to work on the paperwork for the bust. They're bringing us lunch here in a little while."

Vin nodded and then regretted the action when the room spun for a moment, which made his stomach lurch in an uncomfortable way. Once everything settled again, he sighed. "I gotta remember not to be movin' my head around just yet. Sorry I missed the guys this mornin'."

Chris was weirdly quiet, making Vin squint up at him. "What?"

"Uh, nothing."

Vin's frown deepened. "I'm concussed, not stupid, Larabee. Spit it out."

Chris rubbed his hand through his hair, making it stand up. Vin might have laughed if his head didn't feel like it could explode any minute. "You were awake when they came. You talked to them."

"Did not. I think I'd a remembered talkin' to the boys."

Chris winced and shook his head. "Well, not necessarily. The doctor said you might have some short term memory issues for a while. And you were still kind of groggy this morning."

Vin studied Chris's face, looking for signs of a joke, but none emerged. "Well, shoot."

Chris grinned and patted him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, the doctor said it was normal."

"For how long?" asked Vin, not sure if this would be more frustrating or embarrassing to keep repeating himself to his friends. And he sure couldn't work like that. Fear suddenly drove his heart rate up. "It's not permanent is it?"

"Calm down there, cowboy, it's only temporary. How long all this lasts varies with the person and the injury. Could be a few hours or a few days or . . . "

Vin had been just about to relax when Chris's voice trailed off and he got this deer caught in the headlights expression on his face. "You sayin' it could be longer than a few days?"

Chris screwed his face up like he'd just swallowed a lemon and Vin could almost hear him cursing a blue streak in his head at saying too much. "How much longer?"

Chris sighed and gripped the metal rail. "Depending on how long before the swelling goes down and everything heals, symptoms could last a few days or could be a few weeks. Now that's a worse-case scenario. There's no reason to assume you won't be back at work in a week or two, so don't go looking for trouble on this."

Vin leaned his head back against the pillow and closed his eyes. Right now his head was pounding too hard to contemplate much of anything, so he decided not to think about it just yet. Chris was right. No use borrowing trouble. He rubbed at his sore chest, wishing he could just go back to sleep.


He cracked his eyes open to see Chris frowning down at him, the worry obvious in his eyes and his posture. Vin could almost feel it pouring off his friend in waves, so he smirked and reached over to grab the mans' forearm. "You're tellin' me not ta borrow trouble, but yer lookin' at me like I'm dyin'," he slurred. "Go get yerself some o' that watery coffee ya like s' much and let me sleep. My head hurts." With that he dropped his hand, closed his eyes and waited.

A few moments later, Chris gave his shoulder a quick squeeze. "I might at that, cowboy. Sleep easy, I've got your back."

Vin mumbled, "I know," as he drifted off.


Monday, May 6

A low moan caught Buck's attention, prompting him to shift his eyes from the magazine in his lap to the sleeping man he was parked next to. The patient shifted his legs and groaned again. Setting the magazine down, Buck stood and put his hand on Vin's shoulder, gripping it lightly. "Easy, partner, easy. You're all right."

Vin's eyes squeezed closed more tightly, furrowing his brow. His breathing hitched and then the tension seemed to flow out of his body, relaxing his face. His eyes fluttered open, immediately squinting against the light. "Buck?"

Buck grinned. "Yeah, ole Buck is right here. Thirsty?"

Vin's brow furrowed in an expression he usually had when trying to track someone. After a moment, he sighed. "Yeah."

Buck's grin faded as he grabbed the cup from the bedside table and pushed the straw against Vin's dry lips. It took a couple of seconds for Vin to catch on and pull the straw into his mouth. It was obvious Vin wasn't firing on all cylinders yet and that made Buck uneasy. When Vin was finished, he set the cup back down and studied the young man. "How's the headache?"

Vin huffed and then winced. "Ya mean the guys drivin' spikes into ma brain? They're doin' jus' fine, thank ya." His voice was soft and a bit raspier than usual. The slit between his eyelids was narrow, leaving no question as to the level of pain. Not surprising, considering the spectacular shades of blue and purple mottling the side of his head and face.

"Hang on a second, partner." Buck made a quick trip to the light switch and turned off the light. Since the curtains were already closed, this left the room pretty dark. He returned to the bed to find the tightness in Vin's expression had eased. "That better, Junior?"

Vin's eyes opened to half-mast. "Lots. Thank ya, Bucklin."

Buck set his hand on Vin's arm and gave it a gentle squeeze. "No problem." He watched Vin's eyes roam the room with an increasing expression of confusion. The poor boy couldn't seem to remember much of anything that had happened before. "Lookin' for Chris?"

Bringing his eyes back to Buck, Vin gave a tiny nod as his face and neck flushed. Buck couldn't help but smile at the kid's obvious embarrassment. Vin might not be much of a reader, but he was smart as a whip. He'd figured out that his memory was taking a huge break and become increasingly reluctant at asking questions, only to find out he'd already been told the answer. Buck decided not to mention this was one of those cases.

"Chris had to run up to the office for a bit and finish the report on the bust. Travis was chomping at the bit to put this case in the hands of the DA. I told him I'd sit with ya so you wouldn't wake up alone." Buck recognized the clenched jaw and narrowed eyes as the precursor to Vin's I don't need no babysitterr speech.

"I probably owe you for the opportunity to visit with Miss Valerie again." Buck pinched his thumb and forefinger to where they were almost touching. "I'm this close to gettin' her phone number. When she sees me here carin' for my injured brother, she's sure to give in." When the corners of Vin's mouth edged up in a smile that put a bit of spark into his blue eyes, Buck felt like he'd won the lottery.

The door to the room opened behind Buck and he saw Vin's eyes divert that direction. Looking back at Buck, he waggled his eyebrows. Buck winked. "So, pard, do you need anything else? Ole Buck will get whatever you need."

The nurse came up beside Buck and looked from Buck to Vin. Buck's smile broadened at the lovely Valerie, with her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail and a bright smile that reached her hazel eyes. Vin smirked at his teammate's expression. So maybe his excuse to Vin hadn't been totally made up.

"Hello, Mr. Tanner. It's good to see those beautiful blue eyes of yours. How are you feeling?" Valerie asked as she wrapped her hand around his wrist and looked at her watch.

"Not too bad," Vin said in a low, raspy whisper. "Head hurts some."

Valerie nodded as she finished with his pulse and wrapped the blood pressure cuff around his arm. "Is it better, worse, or about the same as before?"

"About the same I guess." Vin winced as the cuff around his arm was inflated.

She glanced up at the dark light fixture before returning her gaze to the sphygmomanometer. Once the reading was taken, Valerie patted his arm as she let the cuff deflate. "Sorry about that," she said as she removed the apparatus. "Your pressure's a little high, probably because of the pain. It's about time for your next dose of pain medication."

Vin groaned. "Tired a sleepin' all the time."

"I know, but you need to rest to heal and if you're in a lot of pain, you can't really rest. Just give it a couple more days before you go trying to dump your pain medication. Now, how's the nausea?"

Vin made a face as he swallowed. "Stomach's still a mite unsettled."

Valerie pushed his hair back off his forehead, gently moving it away from the stitches. "You feel a little warm, but that's to be expected. How about a little broth or some jello?"

Frowning, Vin seemed to consider the suggestion for a moment. "Maybe some jello a little later. Just don't think I can keep anythin' down right now."

Valerie smiled. "Done. I'll bring a couple of cups and it'll be here for you when you're ready. First I'm going to get your pain medicine and change out your IV. You just relax and let your friend take care of you for now. You'll be up and at it before you know it."

Vin smiled up at the nurse and Buck was struck at how young and vulnerable he looked at that moment. His concern must have shown on his face because Valerie smiled at him and gave his arm a squeeze before leaving. He watched her walk across the room and then returned his eyes to his injured teammate, who was smirking at him again. "I think she likes ya, Bucklin."

"Course she does. What's not to like?" He plastered his trademark grin across his face in an effort to hide the concern he knew annoyed the younger man. "Why don'tcha rest them eyes o' yours while the lovely Miss Valerie fetches your medicine and your jello? I'll be here watchin' your back."

Vin's smile faded as the pain lines deepened and he sighed. "Reckon I might do that. ‘preciate you bein' here, Buck. Hope ya get that phone number from Miss Valerie." His eyes drifted closed, but the his brows remained furrowed.

Buck reached over and gripped Vin's shoulder. "You hang in there, pard. This'll just be a piss-poor memory before you know it."

He barely heard the whispered reply of, "Countin' on it."


Wednesday, May 9

Vin came awake to soft voices that were steadily getting louder. It took him a moment to remember where he was. Scuffling noises were joined by a squeaky huffing that could only be JD in a Buck enforced headlock. Smiling, Vin slowly opened his eyes and shifted his head so that he could watch the entertainment. He was pleased to find the headache had come down another notch since that morning.

"I told you guys you were gonna wake him up," scolded Nathan as he smacked Buck in the arm. Everyone froze and immediately turned to look at Vin. Normally that would be enough to have him squirming, but he'd recently sworn off any unnecessary movement in an attempt to keep pain and dizziness at bay.

"S'okay, I was wakin' up anyway. This is just more fun," Vin said with a grin.

Buck released JD so quickly, the younger man almost fell on the floor. Nathan and Chris both scowled at the pair, while Ezra arched an eyebrow and stepped away from them. "Really, gentlemen, and I use that term very loosely. Please have a modicum of respect for our incapacitated sharpshooter. The poor man is attempting to rest."

"Sorry, Vin," said JD sheepishly.

"It's fine, JD. I'm about sick o'restin'. Problem is I don't feel like doin' much else, so I like havin' you guys here to keep me from dyin' of boredom."

Chris leaned against the railing of the bed and grinned. "This is the hardest stage if you ask me. Awake enough to be bored but you can't do anything about it, especially with that head injury."

"You got that right," said Vin. He looked over at Buck and opened his mouth to ask a question before closing it again. His memory still flickered sometimes, and he didn't want to ask for information he'd already been given.

Buck had seen the look, though, and he took several steps closer to the bed. "You look like you're itchin' to ask somethin', Junior. Spit it out."

Sighing, Vin chewed his lower lip a few seconds trying to decide whether to ask or not. Chris nudged him in the arm, prompting him to scowl at his amused boss. Giving in, he looked back to Buck. "Nothin' much, I was just wonderin' if you ever got that pretty nurse's phone number . . . uh, Valerie I think."

Buck sighed dramatically, putting his right hand on his chest. "Unfortunately, the lovely Miss Valerie has already been snatched up. She has a boyfriend."

"Hah, since when does that stop you?" asked JD with a snicker.

Buck winced. "Valerie apparently takes the commitment seriously."

"Meanin' she turned you down flat," said Nathan.

"Afraid so. Tragic, really. Poor girl doesn't know what she's missin'." Buck shook his head and stared at the floor a moment, before popping his head up and grinning at Vin. "So, Junior, they say anything about when they're cuttin' you loose? Although some of them nurses are so pretty, I don't know what your hurry is. You should just lay back and enjoy the attention," said Buck, waggling his eyebrows.

Vin watched the others roll their eyes, knowing from experience he should not participate. Chris snorted. "Guess that means he's over being rejected by Valerie."

"Reckon so," agreed Vin with a smirk. "They did a scan this afternoon while you guys were at your meetin'. Dr. Beck said if it looked good, I might get out tomorrow." He reached for the bed controls, but Chris grabbed them when his scrabbling fingers just knocked it away.

"Want up more?" Chris asked as he began to raise the head of the bed.

"Yeah, a little." Vin closed his eyes and the room began to swim until the movement stopped. When he didn't feel like he was swaying back and forth anymore, he opened his eyes to meet concerned green ones. "It's fine. Movement still makes me kinda dizzy." He looked down, avoiding the way Chris was studying him. Truth be told, he was frustrated. It had been almost five days and he wasn't anywhere near as recovered as he thought he should be. His head hurt constantly, sometimes at migraine proportions. If he moved very much he got dizzy and nauseated, never mind what standing up did to him.

"It's going to take time this go-round, cowboy," said Chris. "You got your bell rung pretty good when you fell."

Vin sighed. "You mind readin' again, Larabee?"

"Heck, Junior, even I could read what was swirlin' around in that head of yours," said Buck with a grin. "You'll get back to climbin' around in the rafters and runnin' across catwalks. You just gotta be patient and let that hard head of yours heal. Can't have you gettin' dizzy and fallin' off a roof. A broken neck don't exactly attract the pretty girls, if you know what I mean."

Vin chuckled, more at the pained expression on Buck's face than what he had said. "Think I'd actually prefer skippin' the fallin' part altogether in the future."

"That's the most sensible thing you've said all week," said Chris.

Vin glared at Chris, although his near permanent headache-related squint probably muted the intended effect. "Funny. I wouldn't go quittin' your day job just yet."

"I can't. I have to be available to catch falling sharpshooters," Chris deadpanned. Vin closed his eyes and ignored his snickering teammates.


Thursday, May 10

Twenty-four hours later, Vin was sitting in the passenger seat of Chris's truck, his eyes nearly closed against the bright, mid-afternoon sun. Between the wheelchair ride and the insanity of traffic, he wasn't sure what was worse, the blinding headache, the nausea, or the dizziness. His body was rigid, fighting the pain and the bile that kept trying to creep up his throat. Chris huffed as the truck lurched to a stop.

"Sorry, sorry. Where are these morons getting their licenses, a crackerjack box?"

Vin barely heard him, relishing in the victory of keeping lunch down, at least for a few more minutes. He was starting to wish he'd stayed in his hospital bed and how sad was that.

"Look, Vin, I'm sorry about having to stop by the office to sign those reports for Travis. I meant to do that before I left. I guess I was rushing to be sure I got there on time and then they were two hours late with your discharge." He huffed again, his voice strained and angry. "If someone had bothered to call me and let me know the doctor had been held up with an emergency, I could have taken my time and made sure I had everything done."

Vin swallowed, forcing himself to relax his posture. "Sorry. I didn't know what the problem was . . . not ‘til you was already there."

Chris sighed and he could almost feel the tension roll off the man. "No, Vin, I didn't mean you. I meant one of the nurses or something. They had to know he was handling an emergency and would be awhile. It wouldn't have hurt to let someone know. It's not your fault."

"I know, just sorry I didn't catch on sooner. I don't mind swingin' by the office. Not like I got anywhere I gotta be."

"Anywhere except a bed. I know you're hurting. I'm wondering if they should have kept you another day or two." Before Vin could pull himself together enough to answer Chris said, "Oh, finally, we're here."

Vin let his eyes slide open a bit more as they entered the parking garage and the light dimmed accordingly. After parking, they sat silently for several moments. His stomach settled with the lack of motion and the dizziness receded as well.

"Why don't you wait for me here?" said Chris.

Vin frowned as he slowly turned to glare at Chris. "I'm not sittin' in the truck waitin' on you like a kid waitin' on his dad. Long as I move slow, I'll be okay."

Chris studied him until Vin looked away. The concern on his friend's face both comforted and irritated him. Letting out a long breath, he glanced back at the man. "Look, I thank you for givin' me the choice, but I'd like to go up with you. And you know as well as I do that your two minute trip will turn into thirty sure as we're sittin' here." He grinned. "Besides, you know the boys'll have your head if they figure out you left me sittin' in the truck."

Chris rolled his eyes, but Vin could easily see there was no real irritation there. "Fine, you're right. They'll want to see for themselves that you're up and ambulatory. You had us pretty worried those first few hours."

Vin winced as he recalled the conversation he'd overheard a few days before. "Chris . . . do you think we're too close? I mean, we're really more like a family most o' the time. None of the other teams spend as much off time together as we do."

Chris's brow furrowed slightly and Vin looked down at his lap, suddenly wishing he hadn't said anything. "Where's this coming from? Did someone say something to you?"

Vin sighed and looked back up. "Couple o' days ago, Dave and Victor from Team 2 dropped by my room."

"I remember. I made a coffee run when they took you for a scan and when I came back, they were there talking to you. They told you our team was too close?"

Vin could hear the building anger in Chris's voice. "Not exactly. They were waitin' in the hall while the nurses got me settled back in my room. They were talkin' to each other, but the door was open a bit and I could hear ‘em. They were sayin' we were too close and one day when one of us ran outta luck and got killed, the rest of the team would fall apart. Got me to thinkin' about what I'd do if one of you was to get yourself killed."

Chris rubbed his face and looked away, obviously struggling with an answer. After a few moments, he looked back at Vin. "I don't know what to say, partner. On one level, they're right. I don't think we'd be the same if we lost anyone. I don't know that we'd fall apart, but it would be hard. But here's the thing. I think us being so close has been our saving grace on more than one occasion. Because we are so close, we anticipate what needs to be done, what others will do. I think that's saved our lives. We're stronger because of that relationship and I think it's the reason we haven't lost anyone yet. Will it be enough to make sure that never happens?" He shrugged and met Vin's eyes.

"There's no guarantee," Vin filled in.

"No, there's not. I don't want to trade it in for the standard team model though. Do you?"

Vin looked down at his hands, remembering teams he'd been on in the past. "Not on your life," he said, raising his eyes again. "It sure would be hard goin' in and seein' an empty desk, knowin' it would be permanent though."

"Yeah," Chris said softly. Suddenly he stiffened and huffed out a breath. "Crap."


"Okay, I should probably tell you this before we go up. Your desk isn't exactly empty right now. Travis assigned us a temporary sniper, just until you get back. Ezra thinks the Collins case is going to come to a head next week and Travis wanted to be sure we were at full strength. But I made sure he understood it was a temporary assignment." Chris stared at him as if he expected Vin to be angry.

Vin took a deep breath, brushing away the initial feelings of betrayal and making himself work through the logic of the assignment. He didn't want anyone hurt because they didn't have a sniper watching their backs, even if it couldn't be him. Chris made it clear they weren't replacing him, just taking on some needed backup. "Okay, I get it."

"You know we'd never replace you. This guy is only there until you're back in shape, got it?"

Vin gave a short nod. "I got it. It's fine. I want . . . I need you guys to be safe."

"But it still kind of hurts . . . feels like we've traded you in. We haven't Vin, I promise."

Vin sighed, feeling a little like a spoiled child. He wanted them safe, but he wanted to be the one doing it. He knew it was temporary, but it still felt like he was being dismissed. He looked into Chris's worried face and motioned to his head. "I know it here." He moved his hand to point to his chest. "I just need it to catch up here. I want you guys to be protected. I just have to accept that I'm not able to do it right now."

After a moment, Chris nodded. "Believe me, I know how hard that is. Having to turn you guys over to someone else while I was recovering from that broken leg last year almost did me in."

Vin grinned, remembering the daily morning and afternoon calls to check on the team. "Yeah, we kind of noticed. I thought Kramer was gonna disconnect all the phones so we could get some work done. His partin' words were never again."

"I know, I know. Let's get up there before I change my mind."

"So tell me about this guy," said Vin as he got out of the truck. Pausing a moment to let his head settle, he closed the door and remembered to walk slowly toward the elevators. "Is he gonna keep you guys safe?"

Chris was obviously pacing himself slowly enough to stay next to Vin, something he once again found comforting and irritating. "To be honest, I haven't had a chance to check him out yet. Orrin handed me his file and introduced him about thirty minutes before I left for the hospital. I've got the file in the truck to look at when we get home."

Vin resisted the urge to nod, knowing no good would come of it. He tried to learn from his mistakes and unnecessary or rapid head movements were definitely a mistake. "Mind if I have a peek?"

"I was kind of hoping you would," Chris said as he stepped into the elevator.

"Aw, crap," Vin said, eyeing the elevator with a frown. The ride in the one at the hospital had left him dizzy and nauseated.

Chris apparently caught on to his apprehension because he made an "O" with his mouth. Shrugging a shoulder, he pushed the button to hold the doors open. "It's this, the stairs, or wait in the truck."

Vin sighed. No way he'd make it up that many flights of stairs. In his present condition, he'd do good to make it one. And he wanted to see the guys, reassure them that he was back on his feet, even if he wasn't very steady. The decision was made when he realized how badly he wanted to check out the agent that would be protecting his family. He couldn't rest unless he felt someone reliable was watching their back. "Elevator it is."

As the elevator lurched to a stop a few minutes later, Vin moaned, swallowing repeatedly to keep his stomach contents in place. He felt a strong hand grip his shoulder, steadying him as he leaned against the wall. "Take your time, Vin."

It took a few seconds, but the spinning sensation finally stopped and Vin eased his eyes open. His stomach settled pretty quickly, allowing some of the tension to drain from his exhausted muscles. His head hurt so badly that his vision seemed off, but he felt like he could move without falling over. "Thanks. Think I'm good now," he whispered.

Vin didn't fight the supporting hand on his elbow or the slow pace because he was sure he'd fall on his face without them. "You want to sit a minute before we go in?" asked Chris.

Vin took note of his surroundings and realized they were standing by a bench adjacent to the elevator. He was afraid if he sat, he might be there for a while, so he said, "Nah, just give me a second."

The sound of Buck's laughter drifted down the hall, resulting in the two men looking at each other. Vin grinned. "What'd ya reckon ole Buck's up to?"

Chris gave an exaggerated sigh. "I'm pretty sure we don't want to know."

"Speak for yourself, cowboy," Vin said with a snort. "Buck's always good for a laugh and I could use one about now."

Chris shrugged. "Guess we'd better go see the damage then."

They shuffled down the hall, entering the large area known as the bullpen that contained everyone's desk except for Chris's. Buck and a much shorter Hispanic man were jabbing at each other while laughing. JD stood behind Buck offering catcalls to the big man. Nathan and Josiah stood in the door to the break room shaking their heads. He frowned at Ezra's empty desk for a moment before he remembered the agent was working undercover.

"You're full of it, Marco. No way Belinda gave you her number. I've been working on her for three months and if she finally turns loose of that number, it's going to be for me."

The Hispanic man shook his head. The top of his head was just about even with Buck's shoulder. He was thin, looking fit without showing any sign of muscle building activities like weight training or boxing. He had small, dark eyes and a long, thin face. He reached in his pocket and took out a slip of paper, waving it under Buck's nose. "Right here, old man. She was just waiting for someone younger and better looking to come along."

Buck grabbed for the paper, but it was jerked back and thrust into the pocket it came from in a quick flash. "No, no, no, my friend. It is mine and mine alone."

Buck huffed. "That's probably the receipt from your daycare bill. And I'll show you who's old." Buck grabbed for the man about the time JD yelled, "Look, it's Vin and Chris."

Everyone stopped and turned to stare at the two men standing in the entryway. The next few minutes were filled with greetings and handshakes and backslapping, the loud chaos leaving Vin's head spinning. Somewhere along the way, Chris pushed Vin into a chair and the next thing he knew, Nathan handed him a bottle of water. Vin mumbled his thanks and downed about a third of the bottle.

Chris went to his office and others began to wander back to their desks when the new guy appeared in front of him. Looking up at the man was awkward and left Vin feeling at a disadvantage.

"So, you're the great Vin Tanner," Marco said. Vin wasn't sure if he was imagining the sarcastic tone of voice, but the smirk was unmistakable. "Marco Valdez, your replacement," he said, thrusting his hand out.

Vin stared for a moment before shaking the man's hand. "Temporary replacement."

Marco shrugged. "Yeah, whatever." The smirk slid into a satisfied grin, probably because Vin didn't even have the energy to stand, let alone look intimidating. "Good to see you on your feet Tanner, but you look kind of unsteady. Don't worry, I'll watch their backs while you're sitting at home resting."

Vin narrowed his eyes, not so much at the words as the condescending tone they were delivered with. "You do that," he said with as much force as he could muster. The beady eyes were laughing at him, giving him a major case of the creeps.

"Nice to meet you. Gotta get back to it. Some of us have to work for a living." The smirk came back as he winked and whirled around. He leaned over and whispered something to JD as he went by, sending the young man into a fit of laughter.

Vin could feel the anger and humiliation building, sending his headache skyrocketing and reigniting the nausea. Squeezing his eyes shut, he concentrated on relaxing his body, telling himself that he was reading too much into Marco's expressions and comments. You're just tired and frustrated and overly sensitive, Tanner. Take yourself a chill pill.

He jerked back at a touch on his arm, his eyes flying open as his body prepared to defend itself. Nathan squeezed his arm, frowning down at him. "Hey, you okay? You're white as a sheet."

Vin let out a breath, letting his body melt into the chair. "Yeah, sorry. Just got a little dizzy."

Nathan sat down beside him. "Your eyes are telling me a different story. Headache gettin' bad?"

Vin sighed, ignoring the question. Sometimes Nathan read them way too easily. "It's fine. Chris'll be tuckin' me into bed shortly."

The team medic studied him for several moments before nodding once. "Okay. I'll probably run out after work to check on you."

Vin opened his mouth to tell him that wasn't necessary but closed it as he realized Nathan was coming whether it was necessary or not. He smiled, remembering that he was part of a team now. These men were more than that though; they were family. "Thanks, Nathan." There were times when the tender loving care of his adopted family was overwhelming, but not today. Today, he was grateful.

Nathan's face relaxed into a smile. "You take care until then. Don't be out there trying to ride horses or fix fences, okay?"

Vin's grin widened. "No idea why you think I'd be doin' such things."

"No idea, huh?"

"Nope. But don't worry, I'll be good. Heck, I'll be lucky if I don't pass out or throw up tryin' to get from the truck to the house."

Nathan's smile faded. "I know you feel horrible right now, but it will pass. It's just going to take some time this time around."

Vin sighed. "Yeah, that's what everybody keeps tellin' me."

"Well, it just so happens to be true. Can I get you anything?"

"Nah," said Vin. "I'll just wait here for Chris. Everythin's settled down and I don't want to rile it back up before we have to leave."

Nathan nodded. "Sounds like a good idea. Good to see you up and about, even if your gait is a bit on the uneven side at the moment."

Vin snorted. As Nathan moved away, he glanced across the room at Marco, who was now sitting on the edge of JD's desk. JD grinned and nodded, immediately launching to some long-winded story. Marco let his eyes wander and they landed on Vin, who tried to act like he hadn't just been staring at the agent. When JD turned to grab a folder off the shelf behind him, Marco grinned at him and made a gun with his hand, pointing and firing it at Vin before winking. Vin averted his eyes, quickly looking down at his feet. He really wished Chris would hurry.


"So what do you think of the new guy, Marco?"

Vin winced at the question but kept his face turned toward the passenger window in Chris's truck. He wanted to tell Chris that he thought the guy was some kind of a nutcase, but he was still considering that maybe he was being overly sensitive or overly dramatic or both. "I don't know, only saw him for a couple of minutes. What do they guys say? Buck and JD seem to be buddyin' up to him pretty good."

Chris was quiet, sliding his eyes Vin's way for a second. That probably meant that the dislike and lack of trust had shown up in his tone of voice a lot more than he'd intended. Rethinking his words, he realized it probably sounded like he was jealous. Maybe he was.

"They said he seems okay. I glanced at his sniper scores when I first got his folder and they look pretty good. Not Tanner good, but good for most folks."

"How long's he been a sniper? Anyone vouchin' for ‘im?" Vin was torn between wanting to have a reason to reject the guy and wanting his brothers to be protected. He bumped his fist against his thigh a couple of times in frustration. He needed to be up there watching out for his team.

"I have no idea. We'll have to check his jacket out when we get to the house. Although if you keep beating yourself up like that, I may have to carry you in."

Vin stopped pounding his leg. He hadn't even realized he was still doing it. Although now that he'd stopped, his leg hurt. He sighed. For a day that started out so hopeful because he was going home, it was turning out to be a real dud.

"Feel like a nice big grilled steak for supper?" asked Chris.

Vin's stomach growled at the thought. "I'd love one, but I'm not sure my head can deal with all that chewin'."

"How about if we grill some burgers instead?"

Vin grinned. "I'd appreciate that. Think I should grab some clothes from my apartment?"

Chris looked thoughtful, then shook his head. "Nah. You look worn out, partner and I'm pretty sure going up and down them stairs in your building won't help your head. You've got a couple of changes of clothes out at the house. That'll keep you a few days and then we can come back if we need to."

"That sounds good." Vin was relieved. He had been dreading going up multiple flights of stairs. He felt like someone had driven an ice pick into the side of his head. Leaning his head against the window, the cold glass felt good against his skin. Unfortunately, the vibrations of the truck were driving the ice pick deeper and deeper, so he pulled back and leaned against the headrest, closing his eyes.

"Vin, we're here."

Vin jerked awake, groaning at the spike of pain in his head. "What?" he whispered, gritting his teeth against the spinning sensation. A strong hand gripped his arm, steadying him.

"I said we're here. You need a minute?"

Vin slid his eyes open a slit to find Chris studying him. He blinked, wondering why it was so cold until he realized he was in the truck and Chris was standing in the open door.

"Cold," he muttered softly, squinting against the harsh sunlight, its source slinking down toward the horizon.

"Yeah, I noticed," Chris said with a chuckle. "It is getting pretty chilly out here so let's get you inside." Chris held onto him as he slid from the truck, supporting him when he swayed dangerously. They stood with Vin leaning against the vehicle until his equilibrium settled.

"I'm good, we can go," Vin said, the cobwebs in his brain finally beginning to clear. Chris held his arm as they took a slightly meandering path to the front door. Once inside, Vin found himself propelled to the couch, where he gratefully dropped.

"I'll be right back," Chris said. Vin leaned back against the cushions and closed his eyes again. He was exhausted and slightly nauseated, but he didn't want to go to bed. He cracked his eyes open, looking for his keeper. He certainly wasn't going to call out for him because he was pretty sure it would make his head explode.

Chris appeared out of nowhere again, an event that was beginning to get on his nerves. "Bed or couch?" he asked.

"Couch," Vin said. He was probably going to drift off to sleep again, but somehow doing it on the couch seemed better.

"I figured." Chris placed a pillow on the end of the sofa and kneeled down in front of Vin. "I'm going to get these boots off. I seem to remember bending over and head injuries don't mix too well."

Vin grunted, eyeing Chris as he worked. "Don't suppose you'd wanna be wearin' the contents of my stomach any time soon."

Chris grimaced as he finished. "Not especially." He stood and reached over to the end table, handing Vin a couple of pills and a glass of water. "Here, take your meds and then you can lie down for a bit."

Vin stared at the pills, weighing the pros and cons of pain medication. Chris sighed. "Just take them, Vin. I know you're hurting and it's not like you need to stay awake for anything. You might as well get some rest since you don't feel like doing much else. Rest and get better so I can get that interloper out of my bullpen and get my sharpshooter back."

Vin grinned up at Chris and took the pills. He was fairly certain he'd just let himself be played, but as Chris guided him down to the couch and his head rested against the pillow, he decided he just didn't care. A light blanket dropped over him and he felt himself melting into the furniture. Maybe a small nap wasn't such a bad idea.


Vin came awake to voices, talking quietly in the kitchen. He rubbed his eyes and lay there a moment, reminding himself where he was and why. Moving slowly and carefully, he sat up, letting the world settle before pushing to his feet and shuffling toward the soft conversation. Rounding the door, he found Nathan and Chris sitting at the table, sipping on coffee as they talked.

Conversation stopped and Nathan said, "Hey, Vin. Come sit down with us."

"Okay. Coffee smells good."

"I'll get you a cup," Chris said.

"Thanks, ‘preciate it." Vin lowered himself in the chair next to Chris's empty one. His head was better, but he felt groggy and out of sorts. He saw Nathan open his mouth and decided to cut him off. "Headache's a lot better. The nap got rid of the ice pick lodged in the side of my head."

Nathan smirked as Chris set his coffee down in front of him. "Ice pick, huh?"

"Yep, least that's what it felt like," Vin said, sipping on the hot brew. "Mmm, that's not bad Larabee."

Chris chuckled and shared a look with Nathan. "I told you he'd like it." Shifting his eyes to Vin, he said, "Lost count when I was putting the grounds in the coffee maker cause I was talking to Nathan. I'm pretty sure I ended up adding a couple of extra scoops."

Vin grinned. "Figures your best coffee yet was an accident."

"Well, I'd say the boy is definitely feelin' better," said Nathan with a nod. He leaned forward and pointed a finger at Vin. "Now just because you're startin' to feel better, don't go overdoing it. It's goin' to take a bit for you to bounce back from this and you tryin' to hurry it along is just gonna to set you back."

"Yeah, yeah, I got it," Vin said, his good mood evaporating in the face of prolonged downtime.

Chris eyed Vin, apparently picking up on the attitude adjustment because he quickly changed the subject. "So, Nathan, what do you think of our temporary sniper?"

Nathan picked up his coffee and lingered over it, as if stalling for time, which ratcheted up Vin's curiosity. After several moments, the medic sighed. "He hasn't been there long enough to really draw any conclusions."

"But . . . " Chris said.

Nathan shrugged. "But nothin'. He seems okay to me. I think maybe he's trying too hard, trying to make sure he fits in, but that's understandable. It's got to be intimidatin' trying to fill in for Vin when everyone knows he's the best. Add to that he's workin' on Team 7. Imagine how freaked out you'd be to find you're goin' to be the temp filling in with the Magnificent Seven."

Vin scratched his chin. He hadn't thought about it like that. Maybe ole Marco was just nervous and acting overconfident to cover it up.

"Well, I hope he settles in fast because we're probably going to have to roll on the Collins bust in the next few days," said Chris.

"He'll be fine," said Nathan. "Just give him a chance and try not to scare him off before then."

"Buck and J.D. seemed to like the guy," said Vin, watching Nathan's face for his response.

Nathan grinned and nodded. "Oh, that's for sure. Those three seem to try to outdo one another on who can be the goofiest. Don't think I've ever seen anythin' like it. Three peas in a pod."

They talked a few more minutes and then Nathan gave Vin a once-over. Since he felt fairly decent, Vin didn't even complain. Once the medic left, Chris lit the grill. They looked through Marco's file as they ate, waiting until they were finished with both the meal and the papers to discuss it.

"Well, he's no Vin Tanner, that's for sure. While his scores are pretty good, they aren't exceptional like yours," said Chris, tapping the top of the folder. "His evals look okay, although they're pretty generic."

Vin's brow furrowed slightly as he considered what he'd read. "He's played musical alphabet agency in the last few years. I wonder why."

Chris grinned. "I guess he has at that. From Denver PD to DEA, FBI, and now to ATF."

"Never more than four years with anyone." Vin could think of several reasons for the short stints, but none of them were good. Still, his evaluations didn't put up any red flags. "I guess he could just get bored easily."

Chris shrugged. "Maybe he's trying to find that spot where he really fits in." He grinned. "He's kind of odd you know."

Vin slid his eyes up to his friend. "Are you saying he might fit with our team because we're weird?"

Chris shrugged. "Stranger things have happened, and you guys are a pretty unusual group."

Vin held his hand up. "Hey, I'm not up there right now, so you can leave me out of the whole bondin' weirdos thing." He smirked. "You, however, are not only on active duty right now, you're actually the leader of the oddballs."

Chris threw a wadded up napkin at him, which Vin batted away. "Hey, I can avoid your shots even when I'm injured."

Chris got up to fetch the napkin from the floor and gathered up their paper plates to throw away. "So you think this guy might be okay?"

Vin still had an odd sense of foreboding when he thought about his encounter with Marco that afternoon, but he didn't have a solid reason to knock the guy. "Yeah . . . maybe."

Chris turned and looked at him. "Vin?"

With a huff, Vin shrugged. "I don't know. He seems to check out okay, I just . . . got this weird vibe off him this afternoon." He rubbed the back of his neck a moment. "He's probably fine, just . . . keep your eyes and ears open."

Chris nodded as he continued to clean off the table. "Since we don't really know him, I was going to do that anyway. I've met Gary Carlton, his supervisor when he was at the FBI. I might give him a call and see what his opinion is."

"That's not who ya want to talk to. He was the one writin' the evaluations, right?"

"Yeah." Chris frowned at Vin a moment and then gave a quick nod. "Oh, right. He can't contradict his evaluation because if Marco turns out to be trouble and he knew, but didn't report the possibility, he's in hot water up to his neck."

"Yep. If you want an honest report, you need to talk to the field guys who worked with him but weren't necessarily his buddy. Or maybe someone on another team who happened to work with his team a time or two."

Chris sat back down and scratched the side of his head. "That might be a little harder to produce without tipping our hand as to what we're doing."

Vin grinned. "I have one word for you. Ezra."

Chris slapped himself in the forehead. "Why didn't I think of that? Perfect."

Vin bobbed his head once. "Between his contacts and that way he has with them ten dollar words, I'll bet he could come up with a pretty good honest evaluation of how good and how trustworthy this guy is."

"Of course the fly in the ointment is that we'll have to wait until the Collins operation is over. It would be too dangerous to contact him right now."

"Shouldn't be too much of a problem," Vin said thoughtfully. "You guys just keep a little more proactive on watching each other's backs for that operation. You said it was going down pretty soon, right?"

"Yeah," Chris said. "Probably early next week."

"All right then. Just put him on that as soon as he's back in the office."

"That should work," said Chris. "Although I hope you'll be back pretty soon after that, so we may not need him again."

"I hope so too, but if I ain't, I want you guys to be safe. It'd kill me if somethin' happened to one of you that I could've prevented if I'd been there."

"Yeah, I know exactly what you mean," said Chris, thinning his lips in a grimace.

"I know you do." They sat in silence for a few moments before Vin began looking around the kitchen. "Do you have dessert? I've got a hankerin' for somethin' sweet."

Chris glanced at the empty counters. "Uh, not really. Ice cream?"

Vin narrowed his eyes. "You got chocolate sauce?"

"And caramel and whipped cream," said Chris with a smirk.

"Sounds like we're having ice cream sundaes. You get the ice cream and I'll get the good stuff that goes on top," said Vin.

Chris grinned as he went to the freezer. "I'm glad to see your appetite is coming back."


Monday, May 14

Chris had arranged to take Monday off, against Vin's wishes. He wasn't comfortable leaving Vin alone all day yet, even though he did seem to be feeling better. Better being a relative term. Vin was obviously still suffering from headaches, but they weren't so debilitating that he couldn't function. Chris definitely didn't want him going back to his apartment yet and the ranch was so far from town that it would take him an hour to get to him if anything went wrong. So he'd taken Monday off and promised Vin if he was good Monday, he'd take him by his apartment on the way to work Tuesday morning.

Chris spent the day trying to study Vin and evaluate his condition without looking like that was what he was doing. That was not working well and Vin was irritated with him over it. Chris sighed as he cleaned out the last horse stall. Vin had offered to help, but Chris had refused. He was pretty sure mucking out horse stalls didn't fall under the category of resting.

After making sure everyone had food and water, he headed for the house. He had relented and allowed Vin to cook supper. It was that or have a full scale mutiny on his hands. He stopped midway and shoved his hands in his pockets as he studied the sky. The clouds had been rolling in all day, getting darker and darker. The wind was picking up and air getting cooler as well. Weather-wise, spring was such a volatile time of year.

"Gonna storm somethin' fierce tonight."

Chris jumped at the sudden voice from behind him. He whirled around and glared at the team sharpshooter grinning at him. "Vin! I told you not to do that."

Vin shrugged. "Not my fault your powers of observation are a mite thin."

"I'll never understand how you move without even so much as disturbing the air around you."

Vin continued to grin. "I'm just talented like that."

Before Chris could respond, his phone buzzed in his pocket. "It's Buck," he said after pulling it out. "Larabee."

"Got some bad news for you, partner. The Collins buy is tonight at midnight."

"Tonight?" Chris barked. "That's in . . . eight hours. We can't be ready by then. Tell Ezra to stall him until tomorrow."

"He tried that. Collins is spooked over something and wants to leave town tomorrow. Maybe he got wind we were coming after him or something. He wants the money from this sale to fund his getaway though, so he's still willing to meet. He originally tried for earlier, but Ez insisted he wouldn't be able to get the money together before then. He was very clear that it was midnight or never though."

Chris cursed under his breath. "Fine, I guess we'll have to make it work. Start working up a plan and I'll be there as soon as I can."

Chris turned his phone off and nodded toward the house. Vin fell in step beside him. "Trouble?"

"Yeah, Collins wants the sale tonight or never. On top of that, he's making a run for it tomorrow, so we've got to deal with him now. The buy is set for midnight."

"Guess you'd better get goin' then. I'll save ya some enchiladas," Vin said as they entered the house.

Chris stopped, frowning at Vin. "I hate to just go off and leave you here alone like this."

"Can't be helped. Besides, you were gonna take me home tomorrow anyway. Not much difference between bein' alone tonight or in the mornin'." He grinned. "Besides, you got better food here. I haven't been home in ten days so there ain't gonna be much there worth puttin' in your mouth."

Chris snorted as he headed for his room to change shirts. "So you're staying here for the food."

"Sure. What else is there?" Vin said with a straight face.

Chris pulled off the dusty shirt and threw it in the hamper. He was apprehensive about leaving Vin way out here alone, but he didn't have much choice. He could drop him off at his apartment, but he was still essentially alone. And in a dangerous neighborhood to boot. At least out here, he was safe.

"I can tell you're worryin' yourself into a knot there. If I have a problem, Nettie and Casey are just up the road."

Chris stopped buttoning his shirt to stare at Vin standing in the doorway to his bedroom. He could always give her heads up, maybe have her call and check on him before she went to bed. He finished with his shirt and ran a hand through his hair. "Okay, I guess that'll have to do. The horses are set for the night, so all you need to do is put up the leftovers after you eat and clean the kitchen."

"Clean the kitchen? I thought I was supposed to be takin' it easy."

Chris purposely bumped Vin with his shoulder as he left the room. "You've been complaining about not having anything to do all day. That's why I let you make dinner. If you can cook it, you can clean up after it."

"I know, I was just givin' you a hard time."

"Keep it up cowboy and next time you'll be staying in the hospital a few more days," Chris said.

"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Pretty sure the insurance company would balk at funding your revenge."

When Chris was ready to go, he headed for the truck with Vin following behind. He opened the door and stood there a second, noting Vin's tense posture. "We'll be fine. I'll make sure everyone knows to be extra vigilant watching out for each other. I probably won't be back until sometime tomorrow morning."

Vin gave a short nod. "I know. Just . . . be careful cowboy."

Chris made sure he made eye contact before answering. "We will. Promise."

When he got to the end of the driveway, he checked the mirror. Vin still stood in front of the house, his hands shoved in his pockets. Chris sighed but knew there was nothing he could do for the sniper. He'd been in that position himself last year and nothing could make you not worry about your team when you weren't with them. He'd just have to get everyone home safely.


Vin jerked awake, sitting straight up in bed. A rush of vertigo had him leaning on his arm and closing his eyes waiting on the rush to pass. After a moment, he was able to get to his feet. He stood still, listening and trying to figure out what had awakened him. Lightning flashed in the window followed by a house-shaking rumble of thunder announcing the storm he'd been expecting. He glanced at the clock and saw that it was only two A.M. Chris wouldn't be home for hours.

A series of lightning flashes lit up the room, followed by a sharp crack of thunder that made him jump. The horses were probably freaking out. Glancing outside, he noted that although the wind was blowing fairly hard, it wasn't raining yet. He quickly dressed and carefully pulled on his boots, grabbing his jacket on the way out the door. Halfway to the barn, another round of lighting and loud, rolling thunder made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Wouldn't Chris be mad if he came home to find Vin laid out dead in the front yard, struck by lightning?

He could hear the horses whinnying and at least one of them was kicking the side of the stall, probably Peso. Peso really hated storms. The closer he got to the barn, the louder the sounds of them jumping and rustling around. While storms usually agitated them, they weren't normally this frantic.

When he opened the door to the building he knew immediately why the horses were panicking. The smell of burning wood hit him about the same time he saw the swirling clouds of smoke wafting across the open space inside the barn. He froze for about two seconds, his eyes searching for the source of the smoke. Seeing nothing, he stepped inside, turned on the light, and raced for the large double-doors leading out to the corral, all the time calling out to the horses to calm down.

Once he had the door open, he began opening stall doors and chasing horses outside. The whole time he was moving horses, he was searching for the source of the smoke. The way the lighting was flying outside, he figured the barn had been struck. Once he had cleared the building, he stood in the middle studying the ceiling. The smoke was definitely getting thicker.

"There you are," he said, spotting a corner where the smoke was the thickest. When he studied the area, he was able to see the glow of a small fire. The area around it was scorched black, cementing his lightning theory. Vin jogged out to the corral and turned on the water hydrant, grabbing the coiled hose beside it. When he stood up with the hose, the headache that had been building spiked and the world tilted. The next thing he knew, he was going down in a tangle of hose and legs.

He wasn't sure how long he lay there, trying to keep supper in his stomach as the world swayed around him and the guy with the ice pick went back to work on his head. Sprinkles on his face cleared some of the fog from his brain and he pushed himself to a sitting position. For a moment he wondered what was going on and then the horses neighed. Fire . . . crap! Looking up, he could see smoke curling up from a glowing spot on the roof of the barn.

Scrambling to his feet, he staggered the first few steps back into the barn. Turning on the nozzle, he aimed the stream of water at the flames that seemed to have spread while he'd been rolling around on the ground. The spray just barely reached the spot where he could see flames, but he kept it aimed there and they slowly diminished. He kept dousing that area with water for several minutes after he saw the last flame go out, then turned off the nozzle.

Moving around the barn, he looked at the burned spot from several angles. If it had been farther over, he could have gone up into the loft to be sure it was out. On the other hand, if it had been farther over, chances are that the hay in the loft would have ignited and he'd be looking at the burned remnants of a barn now. Standing beside Peso's stall, he turned a bucket over and stood on it. Unfortunately, from that angle, he could still see some glowing embers. The problem was that the smoldering wood was just beyond the reach of the hose, which was why it was still burning. He looked around the barn. The only way he could see to get high enough was to climb a ladder.

Vin sighed and rubbed his aching head. He could call the volunteer fire department up the road, but it would be a little bit before they got people and a truck here, especially in the middle of the night. It wouldn't take much water to finish putting it out. If it would just open up and pour, the rain would probably take care of the problem for him. But instead of rain, they had high winds, which whistled down through the fire hole and kept the embers alive.

He wasn't sure, but it looked like the glowing was spreading. Ladder it was then. It took a couple of minutes to wrestle the ten foot ladder out of the storage room, which did not help his headache. Then he had to drag it around and try to situate it where he would do the most good with the water. He was trying to get the legs pulled out so he could set it up when the dizziness hit. He felt like his head was floating off his body as the room seemed to whirl around him. The next thing he knew, he was falling.

At some point, he realized he was lying down. There was a loud sound, almost like a roaring and every so often, a fine wet mist would dance across him. There was something he needed to check on, he was sure, but he couldn't make himself care enough to figure out what it was. His head hurt and he was cold and his bed was hard and none of that made sense, but he was just too tired to deal with it. Maybe in the morning.


Tuesday, May 15

Chris yawned, glad he was almost home. The sun was just starting to creep up over the horizon, so everything still looked gray in the steadily increasing light. Chris was just happy the storms had passed through without causing too much damage. It had sounded pretty rough there for a while.

The bust had gone down without too many complications. Shots had been fired, but no one had been killed. A couple of bad guys got winged and then everyone threw down their weapons and gave up. The team had gotten everything squared away but the written reports, so he'd told everyone to get some sleep. Actually, he'd told them to go home and get some sleep, but for some reason they interpreted that as let's all go to the ranch to eat breakfast and crash.

He turned onto the driveway, glancing in the rearview mirror to see Ezra right behind him with Nathan and Josiah behind him. Buck and JD were picking up groceries on their way since he'd informed them that his cupboards were pretty bare. He grinned, knowing this was as much about checking up on Vin as it was about team time. They had invited Marco, but he'd declined the invitation. He felt guilty about being happy with that decision. It would have been awkward, especially with Vin there.

He was almost to the house when he noticed the horses were all outside. Why on earth would Vin have let the horses out, especially with the way it stormed last night? The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he swerved to park right in front of the barn. The burnt odor hit him as soon as he got out of the truck and he ran for the barn door. "Vin?"

Throwing the door open, his eyes swept across the interior of the barn. Scattered straw and muddy tracks littered the interior. He squinted in the semi-darkness. "Vin, are you in here?"

The double doors to the outside were open and the barn was cold and damp. He started for them, but two steps in his eyes landed on Vin near the adjacent wall. The large aluminum ladder from the storage room lay next to him and it looked like he was using it to pull himself up. Chris closed the distance between them, sliding to his knees beside his friend.

"Vin," Chris said, helping him to sit up and lean against the wall. "What happened? Are you all right?"

"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra said as he hurried through the door, followed by the rest of the team.

"We're over here."

They gathered around Vin, with Nathan kneeling beside him across from Chris.

"Vin, what happened?"

The sniper scowled, squinting at the rest of his team. "Time is it?"

"Almost six. Are you hurt?" asked Nathan, wrapping his hand around Vin's wrist to take his pulse.

"Aw, crap," Vin muttered. He tried to look up at the ceiling but closed his eyes as he listed to the side. Chris was guessing he had a heck of a headache and obviously looking up had made him dizzy. Vin blinked, getting his eyes back open to slits, which he focused on Chris. "Sorry, Chris . . . lightnin' struck the barn . . . I was tryin' to put it out. Guess I got dizzy and passed out." He glanced around at his surroundings. "Huh, kinda thought me and the barn was goin' up together. Guess the rain finished puttin' it out."

"You guess the rain put the fire out?" said Chris. He looked up to see if the rest of the team was as horrified at that proclamation as he was.

"Are you hurt anywhere?" asked Nathan, running his hands along Vin's arms and legs.

Vin pulled away. "Told ya I'm not hurt; I just passed out." He tried to twist around toward the open barn doors. "Are the horses okay? I got ‘em out before I passed out, but I came to a couple of times and I could swear I heard ‘em back in here."

"Take it easy, cowboy," Chris said, holding Vin by the arm. "They look fine, but we'll check on them." He glanced around the wrecked room. "I think you're right about some of them coming back in the barn. You're lucky they didn't trample you."

"Nah, I was over here by the wall. I was afraid the barn would burn down and they'd be too stubborn or too stupid to get out in time."

Four sets of eyes stared at him. "What?"

Chris sighed and shook his head. "You sat here in a burning barn, wondering if the horses had sense enough to get out?"

Vin massaged his temples with his fingertips. "Well, yeah. I put most of it out with the water hose, but the spray couldn't get to the top part. I was gonna' use the ladder to get up high enough to finish off the smolderin' part." His hand dropped back to his side and he glared at the ladder. "Guess I overdid it a mite tryin' to wrestle that thing outta the storage room. Next thing I knew, the world was doin' a loop de loop around me and the barn floor was smacking me in the side. Must a passed out after that."

Nathan tucked a finger under Vin's chin, lifting his face as he studied his eyes. "You said you woke up a time or two?"

"Yeah. Tried to sit up, but it made me dizzy which made my stomach flip. Thought I'd keep still a minute while everythin' settled, but then I'd go back out. Can we go to the house now? It's colder than a well digger's back end out here."

Nathan looked at Chris and nodded. "Get him up slowly."

"Gentlemen, I'll go on ahead and procure some warm beverages," said Ezra.

"Good idea," said Josiah. "Will we be putting him on the couch or his bed?"

Vin wavered a moment when they pulled him up, then snorted and peered through narrowed eyes at Josiah. "I'll be putting myself in the recliner, thank ya very much."

Chris grinned at the other two, still hanging onto the tracker's arm as they shuffled forward. "I guess he'll be sitting in the recliner. How about you grab a pillow and a couple of blankets. We need to get him warmed up." As Josiah jogged for the house, he glanced at Vin. "Do you know what time all this happened?"

Vin scrunched up his face for a moment. "Uh, I looked at the clock . . . two . . . It was right around two."

"No wonder he's cold," said Nathan, pursing his lips for a second. "He's been out there in the cold almost four hours."

"At least the barn protected him from the wind and the rain."

Nathan nodded. "Otherwise, we'd probably taking a trip to the ER."

"Ain't goin' to no ER," muttered Vin.

Chris bit his lip to keep from laughing and saw Nathan doing much the same. "That's right, cowboy, no ER. Just the recliner and some blankets and some hot tea."

Vin lifted his head as they began shuffling up the steps to the front door of the house. "I was thinkin' coffee."

"Let's see if your stomach handles the tea before we go throwing coffee at it," said Nathan.

Grimacing, Vin said, "You may have a point."

Once inside, they kept him moving until they reached the recliner. After sliding his coat off, they helped him ease down into the chair, where Josiah promptly covered him with a blanket. Vin groaned.

"You okay?" Chris asked, frowning at his friend.

Vin snuggled himself down under the blanket. "Yeah, the blanket feels good."

Josiah spread a light throw on top of the blanket. "Another one for some added warmth, brother. Just let us know if you get too warm and we can remove one."

"Thanks, Josiah. This feels great." He licked his lips and looked up at the three men standing over him. "Actually, I'm feelin' better now. Is there anything to eat?"

Chris laughed. "Now I know you're okay. There will be shortly. Buck and JD were stopping at the store to get some grub. We'll have a big breakfast as soon as the food gets here."

"Good," Vin said. "I should be warm by the time you get the food ready and then you guys can tell me all about the bust. I'm guessin' it went okay since ya'll don't look too worse for wear."

"It did go exceedingly well," said Ezra, handing Vin a mug. "Herbal tea with lots of honey and a little cream."

Vin narrowed his eyes at Ezra while taking the offered mug. "You got a bruise on your cheek there. Did that guy get after ya?"

Ezra gently rubbed his darkening cheek. "I was retreating behind some large crates during our brief spat of gunfire and managed to collide with a corner in my haste."

Vin nodded. "Them crates can get kinda wily when you're tryin' to duck behind ‘em. Had me a run-in or two with ‘em." He sipped the tea. "Hey, you did put a load of honey in there. Thanks Ezra."

"You are very welcome," Ezra said, grinning down at the sniper.

"Buck and JD are here," said Vin, taking another sip. "Good, the more awake I get, the more starved I am."

Chris walked over to look out the window. Sure enough, Buck's truck was coming up the driveway. He walked out to meet them, waiting at the top of the steps until the truck came to a stop. Buck got out and began pulling bags out of the back. "Why'd ya'll park down by the barn?"

Chris took a couple of bags from his friend and shook his head, still amazed at how much trouble one man could find. "Apparently lightning struck the barn last night."

Buck and JD both froze, staring at Chris and then glancing down at the barn. "Is there much damage?"

Chris shrugged and told them about finding Vin crumpled up on the barn floor. "We just got him back up here and settled. I haven't had time to check the barn yet, much less feed the horses. If you want to cook, I can do that."

Josiah took part of JD's load as they reached the front deck. "JD and I can cook if you and Buck want to take care of the horses and check the barn."

"That'd be great, Josiah, thanks," Chris said. They marched through the living room with the bags. Buck paused beside the recliner, studying the team sniper.

"Hear you and the barn went a round with some lightnin'. Glad to see you ain't too scorched."

"Nah, not scorched at all, but the barn roof took a hit," said Vin. "Glad to see you guys draggin' some food in here. My stomach's started rumblin' a bit."

Buck tousled the hair on the uninjured side of Vin's head, prompting the man to duck and bat the hand away. Buck laughed. "Don't you worry none. We'll have some grub ready in two shakes of a coon's tail."

Ezra froze where he'd been walking across the room with a cup of coffee, heading for the couch. "And pray tell, how long does it take a coon to shake its tail?"

Buck looked up, his expression becoming serious. "Well, Ez, if you don't already know, I don't reckon I can tell you." Winking at Vin, he made tracks to the kitchen.

Ezra looked at Vin, but he just shrugged. Chris, watching the exchange from the doorway, gave a pointed look at Buck as he passed by, which the big man ignored completely. "Two shakes of a coon's tail? Really? You're not even cooking."

Josiah turned from where he was standing in front of the open refrigerator. "Something I should know?"

"Nah," said Buck, setting his bags on the counter. "Just having a little fun with the boys. Come on, Chris. Let's go see how big a hole you got in your barn roof."


Vin stood up, twisting around the support beam to get a shot at the armed man behind Chris. After shooting the guy, he pulled back intending to drop back behind his cover only to be hit in the chest multiple times. It felt like someone violently punching holes in his torso as he was battered back, losing his balance. He felt himself falling.

Vin threw his arms out to the side as he jerked awake. He blinked, trying to bring his surroundings into focus.

"Mr. Tanner?"

The sound of Ezra's voice calmed him. Rubbing his eyes, he opened them to find Ezra perched on the end of his seat, staring at him. "Are you well, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin let his head fall back against the cushion as his heart slowed to a more reasonable rate. "Yeah, just dreamin'."

Ezra stood and picked up Vin's empty mug. "Might I get you anything?"

"Nah, I'm good. Reckon the food is almost ready," he said, stifling a yawn. Pushing the footrest down, he slowly stood, one hand still on the chair for support until the dizziness passed. "Just gonna hit the bathroom," he said in an effort to keep the man now standing beside him from helping him to the kitchen. "Gotta get rid of all that tea," he said with a smirk.

Ezra sighed. "Too much information Mr. Tanner."

Vin grinned, well aware of Ezra's opinion of discussing bathroom matters. He'd been counting on that. As much as he loved his team and the fact that they were concerned for him, a week and a half of coddling was about all he could take.

As he was drying his hands a few minutes later, he caught his reflection in the mirror above the sink. Freezing, he stared at the battered face in front of him. An angry red line marked where the stitches had been until a couple of days ago, running across his forehead and down to his temple. The bruising that covered the left side of his face had mostly turned a sickly yellow-green color. His eyes had taken on an almost permanent squint against the ever-present headache and he noticed he was clenching his jaw as well.

"You look like death warmed over," he said quietly. "No wonder everybody keeps looking at'cha like you're dyin'." Closing his eyes, he leaned the uninjured side of face against the cool mirror, only to jump when someone knocked on the door.

"What?" he responded a little too loudly, sending a spike through his temple. Was a minute to compose himself too much to ask?

There was a pause long enough for Vin to wonder if he'd imagined the whole event. Then Chris's voice came through the door. "Sorry. Just wanted to let you know breakfast was ready."

Vin rubbed his right temple as he blew out a deep breath and tried to settle himself. He knew the brewing anger was at the pain and the situation, not at his brothers. It wasn't right to take it out on them and he needed to remember that. He opened the door, looking into the worried eyes of the closest thing to a brother he'd ever had.

"Sorry, didn't mean to snap at'cha. Just havin' myself a little pity party."

Chris grinned. "Well, I can't say as I blame you. You've had a rough week. You still hungry?"

Vin was a little surprised at how good food sounded right now. His stomach had been so touchy since the injury that the thought or smell of food usually made him queasy. "Reckon I could eat." His stomach growled loud enough that Chris looked down at the sharpshooter's abdomen.

"Sounds like we'd better feed that thing before it comes after us."

Grinning, Vin patted his stomach. "Think you might be right about that cowboy."

Chris nodded and led the way down the hall. "Well come on then. And don't call me cowboy."


Vin had been starving when he piled his plate with bacon, eggs, hash browns, and biscuits. His first few almost frantic bites of food had his teammates grinning at the return of his appetite. As they relaxed, they went around the table recounting the specifics of the overnight operation. Vin almost felt bad about being happy Marco had declined the invitation to eat. He was in the midst of figuring out how to ask about their temporary sharpshooter when JD answered his question.

"Vin, you should have seen Marco," the younger man cooed as he bounced in his seat. "He was awesome! One of Collin's goons was about to shoot Buck and Marco shot the gun right out of his hand. Never seen anything like it."

Chris frowned at the tech expert and Vin looked away, trying not to feel like he'd just had the floor kicked out from under him. He didn't need to see the pity in anyone's eyes at how easily he'd been replaced. The breakfast he was only a quarter the way through had lost its appeal as his stomach lurched uncomfortably.

"Never seen anything like it JD?" said Chris, his voice neutral. "You remember us taking down Damien Johnson and his crew a couple of months ago?"

"Well, sure, how could anyone forget that? We really kicked butt that day." Vin glanced up at JD, his open expression and huge grin telling Vin, and apparently everyone else in the room based on their expressions, that he had no idea what he'd set himself up for, much less what was coming. Vin might have felt sorry for him if he didn't feel so . . . . betrayed? Cast aside?

Chris set his fork down so he could maintain eye contact. "Yes, we did. If I understand you correctly, then a sharpshooter taking down three men armed with AK-47s in the midst of a thunderstorm touting thirty mile per hour winds as they dodged in and out of sight behind trucks and storage containers from a perch almost 100 yards away doesn't match up to shooting the gun out of the hand of one man standing out in the open inside a warehouse from a distance of . . . oh, let's be generous and say twenty yards."

The room went dead silent as JD processed what had just happened and began to turn red in the face. "No . . . I didn't mean . . . " He looked at Vin, his eyes wide. "Vin, I didn't mean it that way . . . "

Vin took pity on the poor boy and gave him a half-hearted smile. "It's okay, JD, I know what you meant. Don't matter anyhow. If you guys'll excuse me, my eyes were a mite more excited about all this food than my stomach." He bobbed his head at his uncomfortable brothers and made his way to his unofficial bedroom, easing himself down to sit on the bed.

His stomach was rolling a bit and his headache had ratcheted up a couple of notches. He didn't really feel like sleeping, but he sure didn't feel like doing anything else. The feeling of betrayal had slithered off to be replaced by a numbing sense of apathy.

Chris stuck his head in the door. "You okay?"

Vin rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, just . . . " He waved his hand in the air as if that explained everything. It made as much sense as anything he might try to say. "Head aches some, so I thought I'd lie down a spell."

Chris studied him until Vin looked away. "You know JD didn't mean anything. He gets excited and his mouth runs about a half-mile ahead of his brain."

Vin snorted, because that was a pretty good description. "I know. I'm just . . . " He rubbed his eyes and then pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm just tired of feelin' like this and worried about you guys. I don't have no reason to feel this way, but I don't trust Marco to watch out for anyone but himself." Looking up, he met Chris's eyes. "I'm fine, just need a little rest and to get a little perspective. Be sure the kid knows I ain't mad."

Chris nodded. "Get you anything?"

"Nah, just gonna close my eyes for a bit. I guess last night's catchin' up to me. You goin' into the office?"

Chris chewed his lip a moment before shaking his head. "No, I think I'll get some sleep and then work on my report from here." He grinned and jutted his chin out. "Don't think they'll fire me for that, especially not after last night.

"That cocky attitude is gonna catch up to you sometime cowboy," Vin said as he fluffed his pillow and lay back against it.

"Maybe, but not today," Chris said. He started to turn and then looked back at his friend. "And quit calling me cowboy."


Wednesday, May 16

Ezra sipped his coffee, grimacing at the cool temperature as he read over his report. After making a few corrections, he sent the command to print and headed for the printer. Leaning against the wall while he waited, he eyed their new sniper as he sauntered up to JD's desk and perched on the edge.

"Hey, JD. You finished with your report yet?"

JD looked up from his computer screen and grinned at the new team member. "Hey, Marco. Yeah, almost. Just trying to make it sound more professional. By the way, that was an awesome shot yesterday. I'm sure glad you were there or Buck'd be toast."

Marco smirked and nodded. "Yeah, you guys obviously need me to watch your back." He paused a moment and then leaned down closer to JD. "Think ole Tanner could have made that shot?" he asked quietly.

Anger rose from his gut, causing Ezra to grit his teeth in order to refrain from joining the conversation, although he edged closer to hear JD's response. To the kid's credit, he sobered immediately and frowned at the interloper. "Well, yeah, of course. Vin's the best."

Ezra studied his fingernails as if he couldn't hear what was being said, but inside he was laughing and cheering. At least until Marco continued.

"Right, I forgot. Vin Tanner can hit anything at any distance," Marco said with disdain. "I guess that's why Larabee is so smitten with him. You can't help but notice how close those two are. Not every boss would take you home and take care of you when you got injured."

JD shook his head. "We aren't any team and Chris isn't just any boss. He'd do that for any of us he thought needed it."

"Would he?" asked Marco in a disbelieving voice. "I wonder." He crossed his arms and stared down at JD. "You don't think he'd let Tanner come back before he's ready, you know, to help him out? I mean anyone that cares that much about his team, he might bend a few rules to help him out, right? I'd hate to see you guys without the proper protection on busts."

Ezra almost growled as he jerked his report off the printer and stomped back to his desk. He took a couple of deep breaths, blowing them out slowly to allow the anger to dissipate, somewhat embarrassed at his lack of control. He purposely didn't look in JD and Marco's direction, not wanting to see if they had noticed his behavior. With a sigh, he stacked up his report, stapled it, and headed for Chris's office.

Chris looked up at the sharp knock and motioned him in. Ezra closed the door behind him and set the report on the large wooden desk. Glancing up, he found Chris's brow furrowed as he studied him. "Something on your mind, Ezra?"

Ezra opened his mouth and then closed it, suddenly feeling like an elementary school tattle tale. "I have completed my rendition of the events of Monday evening/Tuesday morning. I trust you will find everything in order."

Chris stared at him a moment before glancing down at the report. He fingered the edge of the papers for a moment before looking back at the troubled agent. "Have a seat, Ezra."

Ezra hesitated and then perched on the edge of the cushioned chair. After a thirty second staring match, Chris massaged his forehead between his thumb and forefinger. "What's you take on Marco?"

Ezra's eyebrows went up. "Marco?"

The team leader's hand dropped to his desk and he glared at Ezra. "Yes, Marco. What . . . What do you think about him?"

Swallowing his surprise, Ezra schooled his features as he considered what to say. "I'm afraid I haven't done much more than make his acquaintance, and that only at the termination of our latest operation. There hasn't been time to form an educated and accurate opinion of the man."

Chris steepled his fingers together, studying Ezra long enough to almost make him flinch. He finally sighed and looked away. "This stays between us."

Ezra nodded, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "Of course."

Chris stared at the desk a moment as if trying to figure out what he wanted to say. Or maybe how much he should say. Ezra remained silent, giving him time to sort his thoughts. After a moment, he looked up and met Ezra's eyes. "Vin's getting a bad feeling off the guy. He admits he has no real reason, but he keeps telling me for us to watch our backs because he doesn't feel like Marco will."

Ezra frowned. "Has he met our illustrious Mr. Valdez?"

"That's the thing," Chris said, his brow furrowing. "We dropped by right after Vin was released from the hospital so I could sign some papers. I saw Marco talking to him, but I was looking through my office window so I couldn't hear them. Vin didn't look happy, but I attributed that to his headache. Thinking back on it though, he was really tense after that, especially when Marco's name came up."

"You think he may have said something to Vin?"

Chris nodded. "Vin won't tell me anything, just says they were introducing themselves, but I think there was more to it."

Ezra sighed and shook his head, unsuccessfully fighting the urge to relay what had happened earlier. "Ezra?"

Pressing his lips into a thin line, the gambler brought his head up. "As you said, this stays in this room." At Chris's nod, he continued. "I was waiting by the printer just now when I happened to overhear a conversation between Mr. Valdez and Mr. Dunne. Without going into specifics, our temporary sniper seemed to be trying to influence our youngest member about his value to the team and insinuate that he could do a more efficient job of watching our backs for the foreseeable future. He also indicated that you were too close to Vin to be able to make that choice. I believe he may be looking for a permanent placement."

Chris's jaw clenched so hard that Ezra was afraid he'd snap a tooth. After a moment, the pressure released. "What did JD have to say about that?"

Ezra picked at an imaginary thread on his sleeve. "I am afraid my anger got the better of me and I returned to my desk." He looked back up at Chris. "I will say that when Mr. Valdez asked if he thought Mr. Tanner could make the shot he made, Mr. Dunne responded with unerring faith in our sharpshooter's abilities."

The corner of Chris's mouth turned up as he nodded his approval. "Good. Sounds like JD may have learned something yesterday." He paused for a moment before meeting Ezra's eyes again. "Ezra, I need to ask you something. Marco worked for the FBI for a while. I'd really like to talk to someone who's worked with him . . . someone who might have picked up on any problems that supervisors might have been unaware of."

Dread crept up Ezra's throat, making his tongue feel thick. "You want to know if I could talk to someone."

Chris winced, probably remembering how much Ezra hated the FBI and how much they hated him. "Maybe there's someone who could at least point us in the direction of who we need to be talking to. You on speaking terms with anyone?"

Ezra thought for a moment, running names through his head. "A couple perhaps . . . probably only one I could trust not to share the information with others who could cause trouble. I would need to know what department he worked in, possibly his supervisor's name."

Chris nodded and his shoulders seemed to sag in relief. "I can get you that information. I just need to know the name of someone I could talk to off the record. If he checks out okay, we'll chalk this up to general paranoia and go on with life."

Ezra nodded. "It may take a few days to get the information without raising any red flags, but I am confident I can do it."

"Thanks Ezra." Chris slid a folder across the desk and stood up. "This is a confidential file that cannot leave the room. But I know it'll be safe with you while I go get a cup of coffee. It might take a few minutes."

Ezra smiled. "I have nowhere else to go Mr. Larabee. Take your time."

"Bring you a cup?"

Ezra frowned. "That depends. Who made it?"

Chris grinned. "I think I'll make a fresh pot."

"Then, by all means, bring me a cup. Oh, and Mr. Larabee? Even if our subject turns out to be clean, he is still a rude, self-absorbed jerk. The sooner our noble sharpshooter is back with us, the better."

Chris nodded, an easy smile on his face. "Couldn't agree with you more, Ezra." With a slight nod, he was gone. Ezra smiled as he reached for the folder.


Friday, May 18

Vin felt good Friday morning, better than he'd felt in two weeks. Chris had dropped him off at his apartment Wednesday on his way into work and had then proceeded to call him at least twice a day to check on him. Nathan stopped by Wednesday afternoon and Buck came by Thursday. During that time period, the intensity of his headache rose and fell, as did the nausea and dizziness. Basically, he'd just felt off-balance until today.

He still had a headache, but it was minor enough to fade into the background when he was busy. He'd awakened early, probably a result of getting so much sleep the last few days. After dismissing the breakfast options available in his apartment, he decided he wanted some donuts. From there he got the brilliant idea to get donuts for the whole team and then deliver them. He grinned, thinking about how surprised they'd be.

Since he wasn't supposed to drive yet, he took the bus to his favorite donut shop and then walked to the federal building three blocks away. His head was beginning to pound a little from the exertion, but it would be worth it to be in the office with the guys for a while. How sad was it that he was so bored that watching his brothers do paperwork sounded entertaining. He figured one of them would offer to drive him home so he wasn't worried about the return trip.

Grinning as he walked through the door, he stopped at the security desk and offered Al and Darleen a donut. He told them not to warn Chris he was coming so he could surprise them. He was almost to the elevator when someone called his name. He turned around and felt his smile fade when he saw Marco coming toward him.

"Hey, Tanner, what are you doing here?"

Vin ignored the smirk on the cocky agent's face. "I work here, remember?" His headache went up another three notches at having to deal with this guy's attitude.

"Actually, you don't. Not until you get clearance from your doctor. Do you have that?" Marco crossed his arms, staring at Vin.

Vin shifted his weight, adjusting his grip on the large boxes. "Not yet, but I'll have it soon," he said, hoping that was an accurate statement.

Marco lifted a brow. "You hope." Glancing down, he jerked the lid up on the top box, almost knocking all three boxes to the floor. "Hey, donuts." He reached in and grabbed one, taking a huge bite out of it. Vin felt completely inept as he watched Marco practically inhale the pastry while he stood there watching. He didn't want to make a scene here in the lobby, especially since he was beginning to feel a bit lightheaded.

Marco must have sensed he was having problems, because before he knew it, his replacement had taken possession of the boxes and twisted them where Vin couldn't just grab them back. "What are you doin?" he said between clenched teeth.

"I'll take these up for you so you can go on home. You're looking kind of green, Tanner. Besides, we've got an op this morning and you'd just be in the way. You don't want to distract your team right before an operation, do you? Might get one of them killed."

Some of the anger building in his chest was displaced by worry. His team could read him like a book. They would know he was upset and that could potentially distract them enough to interfere with their concentration. He couldn't live with himself if his selfishness caused one of them to be seriously injured or killed. "Fine, you take them up," he ground out.

Marco nodded. "Don't worry Tanner. I'll tell them you said hi." He winked and strolled over to the elevator, which just happened to open as he arrived. He stepped in and pushed the floor button, grinned at Vin as the door closed.

Crap. Vin shuffled toward the doors, realizing he'd have to walk back down to the bus stop to catch a ride home. His good morning was gone. His headache was back full force. He didn't get to see his brothers. He didn't even get any donuts since he was going to eat with his team. Probably just as well since his stomach was rolling now as well. He was really starting to hate Marco.


Chris was sitting at his desk and staring at his phone, trying to decide whether to call Vin or wait until lunch when he heard Buck let out a whoop. With a sigh, he made his way out of his office to see everyone heading for the breakroom. Well, he needed another cup of coffee anyway; might as well see what was going on. He came in to find three large boxes of assorted donuts and pastries being laid out on the table. What was shocking was the fact that Marco was the one setting it out.

"Who-ee Marco, you did good son," said Buck, grabbing a paper plate from the counter. "I was just telling JD how hungry I was."

"Hey, you got Angela's," said JD, his eyes widening. "Man, she makes the best pastries in the city."

Marco was leaning against the wall grinning. "Well, I heard that was the best place to go and only the best is good enough for the magnificent seven. I figured I'd treat since it's Friday."

Chris wasn't sure what to think. Marco had proven to be a bit of a moocher thus far, so it seemed a bit of a stretch to think he'd spring for three dozen pastries. He glanced over at Ezra, who looked even more troubled than he felt. The undercover specialist sipped coffee from his Starbucks cup and then went back to his desk. Buck passed by him with a plate full of pastries and said, "Marco brought the good stuff, stud. We oughta keep him around."

A flash of anger burned through Chris's chest. He realized Buck hadn't meant anything by the comment, but it was ill-timed with what Chris knew Vin was going through. He glanced up at Marco to see the man smirking at him. Suddenly he didn't want to be in the same room as the agent. "I think I'll just have coffee," he said, ignoring the donuts as he refilled his cup and headed back to his office.

"Eat and get over your sugar rush pretty quickly," he said as he walked through the bullpen. "The prosecutor will be here at 10:30 to go over the Collins evidence, make sure we have all our I's dotted and t's crossed." Pausing at his office door, he noticed Marco coming out of the breakroom, chuckling. "Something funny, Valdez?"

Marco pressed his lips together, apparently trying to suppress his laughter. "No, sir. Nothing at all." JD threw out his leg, pretending to trip the new agent while he and Buck chuckled. Nathan and Josiah shared a look and shook their heads. Ezra brought his gaze up to meet Chris's. His expression was neutral, but Chris had known the man long enough to read the anger in his eyes. He gave the agent a slight nod and went into his office before he lost his temper at what he hoped would prove to be nothing more than a personality conflict with a jerk. The knot in his gut was telling him it wouldn't be that simple.


Vin eyed his jeep, wondering what the chances were that he could make it to the Saloon in one piece. Sighing, he dropped his head. The way his day was going, probably about nothing in a million. He was tired of catching the bus or a cab and his wallet was tired of it as well. Add to that, he wasn't really in the mood for a rowdy Friday night with the guys, especially if his smirking replacement was there. Maybe he should have just told Chris he was going to skip this one.

"Vin! Vin!"

Vin turned toward the high pitched squeal of his name, grinning at the four-year-old Carla clutching her mother's hand. Lowering to one knee, he held out his arms as she let go of her mother and raced into the embrace. "Hey, Carla." When he released her, she stood back smiling at him, her head tilted forward more than usual. "Is that a new bow? It's beautiful."

Carla nodded. "Mommy got it for me this morning. It's my favorite. It has unicorns."

Vin stood and bent over, making a show of examining the pink, unicorn covered bow. "I can see that. Unicorns are very special animals."

"They're madijical. We watched a movie ‘bout them. I love unicorns."

"Wow, that sounds like a right good movie." He shared a grin with Anita, Carla's mother. "You guys headed over to see Juanita?"

Anita nodded. "Yes, she invited us over to help eat the peach cobbler she made today. Perhaps you would like to join us? I know she enjoys your company and you know Juanita; there will be plenty of cobbler."

Vin frowned, thinking about how he would much rather go with Anita and Carla than go watch half his team or better fawn over that arrogant wanna-be sniper. Wow, and was he bitter or what? He glanced down the road and then back at Anita, who was beginning to look concerned. "I'd love to Anite, but I guess I'll have to pass. I promised the boys I'd meet ‘em at the Saloon here in a few."

She frowned and tilted her head. "Are you alright? You are usually happy to meet your friends. I know you have been recovering these last few days. If you don't feel like going . . . "

"Nah, it's okay. I'm just a mite out-a-sorts from being off work so long. Havin' time on my hands makes me edgy," he said with a grin. "You guys have a nice visit with Juanita and tell her I said hello."

After waving goodbye, he set off down the sidewalk, setting an easy pace that wouldn't drive up his headache. The saloon was almost a mile away, but the cool evening temperature combined with the slow pace made the walk a pleasant one. It would be after dark and cold by the time they left, but he knew Chris would insist on giving him a ride home.

He thought about his encounter that morning with Marco, but quickly decided that he needed to put it behind him. After a lifetime of being alone most of the time, he loved having six brothers that cared for him, harassed him, and watched his back. He wasn't going to let Marco ruin that. If the man chose to join their Friday night activities, then Vin would just ignore him. Hopefully, he'd be back at work sometime next week and Marco would just be a bad memory. Keep positive, as Josiah would probably tell him.

The decision to let Marco be Marco and just stay out of his way for the next few days brought a calm to Vin that livened his step and his mood. By the time he reached the Saloon, he was excited about seeing the guys. He stepped into the restaurant/bar and stood next to the door, letting his eyes adjust to the darkened interior. It was a quarter past six, so he figured the boys would already be here as long as their operation hadn't gone late.

Buck's laughter drew his attention to a large table on the right near the back. He caught sight of Buck and Nathan through the crowd moving around the room. Grinning, he headed toward their table. It looked they were already having a good time. As he got closer, he noticed several things. They were seated around a table for six and they had already pulled up an extra chair, so it was crowded. Everyone was working on a plate of food that was already half-eaten. He knew he was a little late, but he didn't think they would have already ordered and eaten without him.

Vin stopped, right behind Chris, studying the group of men. They were laughing and eating and didn't really look like they missed him at all. Wow, when had he gotten so needy? Marco, who had seated himself beside Chris, was the first one to spot him. His beady eyes seemed to glimmer as he smirked. "Oh, hey Tanner. Didn't think you were coming."

Chris turned around and looked up at him, looking a little startled. "Hey, Vin. It got late so we didn't think you were coming." He stood and began looking around for a chair to drag up. The whole table was staring at him uncomfortably like he'd crashed their party and they didn't know what to say. The old feelings of betrayal and worthlessness began to stir in his gut.

"I didn't think ya'll'd be coming til six or so since you had an operation." Oh, great, so now he was stammering around like some kid caught out of place.

Chris froze and narrowed his eyes. "We didn't have anything today. Just met with the prosecutor on the Collins case to get all the evidence squared away. I assumed you'd know since I didn't specify six that we were coming over just after five. Why'd you think we had something going?"

Vin's breath caught in his chest as he looked at Marco, who was glaring at him. If he said anything, Marco would probably just act like he'd misunderstood and then he'd look like a fool trying to lay the blame for his mistake on someone else. He'd spent most of his life being treated like this, he could do it again. "Never mind. Guess I got my wires crossed."

Heat crept up Vin's neck as everyone stared at him. The room began closing in and suddenly he was hot and a little dizzy. Even if Chris came up with a chair, it was going to be too crowded and if he ordered food, everyone would sit and watch him eat since they were almost finished. He swallowed and it felt like the spit just stuck in his throat. He had to get out of there.

"Uh, don't worry about a chair Chris. I'm not stayin'. Just wanted to say hi and make sure everyone was okay after the bust that didn't actually happen. I got stuff to do, so . . . " He gave a quick wave and hurried out of the building, not caring that he bumped a couple of people in his haste.

His quick walk turned into more of a jog a block later. He just wanted to go home and wallow in some self-pity about how his brothers didn't feel like his brothers anymore. Part of him knew it wasn't their fault, that they had all been played by Marco, but he couldn't get their faces out of his head, the expressions that said why are you here. He'd never thought he could feel that way with his team.

With his head screaming at him and his stomach rolling, he slowed back to a walk. He could still feel the flush of embarrassment at the sudden realization that he wasn't supposed to be there. Maybe he'd gotten too dependent on them. Maybe it was time to move on. He'd thought to retire from law enforcement someday and raise horses. He'd have to check on how much he'd saved toward that little adventure. At the moment, he'd love to have a ranch with a bunch of horses and no people to hide out at.

He stopped at the corner to catch his breath and wait on the light to change. His head felt like it was going to explode and his vision was getting a little wobbly. When he stepped off the curb as the light changed, he stumbled and almost fell as the world tilted around him. Taking a deep breath, he righted himself and staggered across the street and up to the side of the building there. Leaning his head against the brick, he rubbed his forehead, trying to get the dizziness to subside enough he could get home.

Sounds warped, his vision grayed and he felt himself falling. He twisted, landing hard on his hands and knees. Crap. Pushing himself back to lean against the building, he closed his eyes and willed the dizziness to go away before he attracted attention. He couldn't help but wonder if the day could get any worse.

Vin let out a breath as his stomach settled and the lightheadedness began to dissipate. He knew he needed to get up and get moving, but he still felt shaky.

"Hey, buddy, you need to keep it moving." Something hard tapped his shoulder as he opened his eyes to squint up at a policeman nudging him with his baton. "You need to get drunk somewhere else, not sitting out here on the sidewalk where people are trying to walk."

Vin huffed. His day was now complete. "Not drunk," he muttered. "Just . . . need a second."

"Not drunk, huh? I was trying to be nice, but if you want to push it we can do a sobriety test right here. Then I can call you a ride to the drunk tank." He gave the baton one last hard shove into Vin's shoulder.

"You hit him with that thing one more time and I'll shove it somewhere that'll make you walk funny for a year."

Vin blinked a few times, his vision clearing enough to match the familiar voice with a Larabee glare, aimed straight at the officer standing over him. The policemen let his free hand rest on the butt of his gun. "Threatening a police officer in the line of duty –"

"Since when does your duty include harassing a federal officer suffering from the effects of an injury obtained while he was doing his duty? I'm removing my ID." Chris carefully removed his ID badge from his pocket and handed it to the officer.

"ATF?" said the officer, looking decidedly uncomfortable as he handed the ID back.

Chris nodded as he returned the badge to his pocket. "I lead Team 7 and this is one of my men. He recently sustained a head wound, as you can clearly see if you'll take the time to look. He still suffers from headaches and dizzy spells." Chris pursed his lips a moment as he looked down at Vin. "Unfortunately he keeps forgetting the doctor's instructions to rest and not exert himself."

The officer sighed heavily. "Sorry. We've had a real problem with drunks just camping out all over the street around here and some of them have been getting grabby with the women if you know what I mean. I guess I let my irritation with the situation override my common sense."

Chris nodded, his shoulders dropping as he relaxed. "No problem. I'll make sure he gets home."

"You need any help?"

Vin jerked his head up, frowning at Chris, who seemed to get the message. "No, it's fine. We're not far from his apartment. Once the dizziness passes, I'll walk him there."

Nodding, the officer looked down at Vin. "I'm really sorry about the misunderstanding. I hope you feel better soon." Vin stared blankly at the guy, hoping he didn't want Vin to tell him it was fine, because it wasn't. This wasn't his first time being harassed for looking homeless, it's just that this time he actually wasn't. He closed his eyes, willing the day to be over. He felt Chris sit down beside him, settling so that their shoulders touched.

"You want to talk about what's going on?"

Vin sighed. No, he didn't want to talk about anything. He knew Chris wasn't leaving any time soon though. "I got dizzy and fell. He thought I was drunk."

A heavy snort sounded beside him. "I know about that. I meant at the Saloon. Why'd you run out like that?"

Vin sat there a moment, figuring out what he could say. Finally, he opened his eyes and looked at Chris, grateful that the tilt-o-whirl from earlier had settled down. "Ain't nothin' cowboy. I was hot and tired from the walk down there and it was loud and crowded and hot in the Saloon. Got my times mixed up and ya'll were already eatin'. Walls started closin' in and I felt like someone was goin' at my head with an ice pick. Just wanted to get back home is all."

Chris studied him for a moment. "You know we don't care if you're late. Heck, someone is usually late."

Vin sighed and rubbed his hand across his face. "Table was gonna be too crowded and besides, my stomach started churnin' so hard I didn't need to stick anythin' in there anyway. I really just wanna go home and lie down."

"Tell me one thing and then I'll let it rest. Why did you think we had a bust today? There had to be a reason."

Vin stared at his boss, knowing he wasn't going to get out of giving him an answer. "All right, I'll tell you. But don't make nothin' of it, okay?"

Chris shrugged and nodded, looking confused. "O – kay."

Vin studied his hands, trying to work his explanation so that it did not sound accusing. "I ran into Marco this morning in the lobby. I wanted to bring you guys donuts and hang out for a little bit, but he said you had an operation and you needed to get ready. Thought I'd be a distraction, so he offered to take the donuts up for me. I reckoned he might be right and I didn't want to cause you guys not to be ready, so I let him."

After a few moments of silence, Vin glanced up at Chris, who looked angry. Crap, he knew he should have made something up. "Sorry, I guess I should have called first. I didn't mean to throw you guys off."

Chris looked like he was grinding his teeth together, startling Vin. He had no idea Chris would be this angry. "Look, I can get home from here. I'm feelin' better now. You can go back to the –"

Chris put his hand on Vin's arm, stopping him from standing. "You're telling me you bought the donuts and Marco just brought them up for you?"

Now Vin was totally confused. "Yeah, said he'd say hi to ya'll for me."

Chris turned and looked at Vin, his green eyes flaring. "He said they were from him, that he picked them up to treat us. And he knew we didn't have a bust going today."

Vin's hand clenched into a fist almost of its own volition. Anger he had spent the day getting rid of boiled up fresh and hot. "Why would he do that?"

"I don't know, but we need to get off the street. I'm walking you back to your apartment and we can talk about it there."

Fifteen minutes later they walked into Vin's apartment. Chris heated some soup up, insisting Vin needed to eat before taking a painkiller. Once he'd finished the canned chicken noodle soup thickened with a handful of crackers, he and Chris settled down with a cup of coffee. They split the peach cobbler that Anita and Carla had dropped off on their way home from Juanita's.

Chris leaned back in his chair, wiping cobbler crumbs from his mouth. "The question is what are we going to do about Marco? What's his angle?"

Vin frowned a moment, making a decision. "That first day out of the hospital, when you were signing that paperwork and stuff, he talked to me a minute. I thought I was readin' too much into it, but he seemed to be hintin' around that he was there permanent like."

Chris stared at the sniper a moment and then rubbed his chin. "So, he's endearing himself to the team, hoping that you take long enough to recover that he'll become your permanent replacement and you'll be the one shopping for a team." Chris chuckled and shook his head.

"Not funny to me," Vin said, annoyed that Chris found the situation funny.

Chris leaned forward, making solid eye contact. "It'll never happen. Obviously he doesn't know us very well. Just because Buck and JD joke around with him doesn't mean they want to replace you with him. You're their brother. He's just a temporary jester trying to entertain the court."

Vin snorted. "What does that make you, the king?"

"And don't you forget it. And as king, I have the final say so on who makes up the court. Marco is not on the list." Chris studied him until Vin looked down at the table. "You've really been worrying about this, haven't you?"



Vin looked into the skeptical expression on Chris's face. "I haven't," he said indignantly. After huffing, he added, "It's just . . . tonight . . . it's the first time in a while I didn't feel like I belonged. Like I was intruding where I wasn't wanted. Shook me up." He wondered if Chris had any idea how hard that was for him to admit, even to himself.

"Vin." Chris sat for a moment, fiddling with his mug. "I know it was awkward, but the guys didn't mean it like that. After you left, they were annoyed with themselves, with the fact that we didn't wait on you and then how they reacted to you when you showed up. They wanted to pack it all up and come after you, but I talked them into letting me go alone." He chuckled. "I knew if you saw us all coming at you that you'd probably lock the door."

Vin nodded. "That'd scare anyone, cowboy."

Chris rolled his head to the side and frowned. "So now that you know you are not being replaced, physically or figuratively, what do we do about Marco?"


Chris's eyebrows shot up. "Nothing?"

Vin massaged his forehead, just below the fresh scar. "Nothing we can do. Bein' a jerk and a liar ain't a crime last I checked. Just keep an eye on him and definitely watch your back. Marco is watchin' after Marco." Vin brought his eyes up to meet Chris's, making sure the man was listening. "Push comes to shove, he'll put himself above watchin' your back."

Chris sipped his coffee, processing what Vin had just said. "Unfortunately, I think you're right. That worries me, especially if we have to make a bust. I think I'd rather get rid of him than have someone I can't trust at my back, but I can't do it without just cause."

"And lyin' about bringing donuts ain't exactly just cause."

Chris sighed. "No, it's not. Think I should tell the guys?"

Vin hesitated, wanting Marco to be exposed for the fraud that he was but not enough to endanger his brothers. "No, probably not. No use making things awkward and distracting them from what's important."

Chris nodded, a slight smile gracing his lips. Vin snorted, looking down at his coffee as he realized he'd just been set up, Chris giving him the opportunity to make the right choice for the team. It made him feel good that Chris had trusted him to choose wisely. "You just make sure they know to watch their back."

"They know," Chris said. "They know he's not you."

"I don't think JD does," said Vin, regretting the dig almost as soon as it left his lips. He really needed to get over himself. "Sorry, never mind. Just bein' grumpy is all."

Chris grinned at him over the rim of his cup. "Don't worry, I'll make sure the kid understands to be extra cautious. Given a choice, I'll park him in the surveillance van. When's your next appointment?"

"Tuesday. I'm hopin' he'll at least release me to light duty." Vin swirled the remnants in the bottom of his cup around. "If he does, you reckon you could send ole Marco packing?"

"We can sure try . . . cowboy."


Tuesday, May 22

Tuesday afternoon, Vin arrived at the Federal Building with a letter from his doctor approving light duty. While he wasn't thrilled with being chained to a desk for the next week or two, it had to be better than sitting at home. He'd fudged a little on his answers about headaches and dizzy spells, but the scans the doctor did apparently ratted him out. The bruising on his brain was better, but not entirely cleared up. Truth be told, he knew he wasn't fit for full duty and he didn't want to get anyone killed because he got dizzy just when he was needed.

Desk duty is was then.

He stepped off the elevator and made his way to the bullpen, which was empty. Vin stared at the empty desks, the darkened room, and Chris's vacant office. Crap. Now what? Obviously something had come up pretty quickly or Chris would have told him they wouldn't be there. He knew Vin was coming by after his appointment. The old doubts and fears tried to make their way up and he smothered them down with memories of all the times his team had watched out for him.

He wasn't sure how long he stood there, but it eventually occurred to him that it could be hours before they returned. With a deep sigh, he turned to leave. He heard the elevator ding, giving him a brief hope they were back. He met Chris halfway to the elevator, his expression grim and blood on his shirt. They stared at each other a moment before he spoke, his voice choked. "Who?"

"Ezra. I figured you'd be here by now and I didn't want to tell you over the phone."

"How bad? What happened?"

Chris pressed his lips together and shook his head. "Let's head to the hospital and I'll fill you in on the way."

As they were pulling out of the parking garage, Vin said, "Tell me." His gut had been churning since Chris had told him Ezra was hurt and he didn't think he could take not knowing anymore.

"First of all, breathe, Ezra'll be okay. He was hit in the thigh. Nathan said it was a close thing, missed the femoral artery by fractions of an inch, but he should recover. It was a through and through, tore up some muscle but missed the bone. Nathan figured they'd have to do some repair work and he might need some PT, but he should be good as new in a few weeks. Course, now I'm down another man."

Vin felt like his body melted into the seat as the tension left. He took a few slow, deep breaths to get his heart rate back under control. "What happened?"

Chris sighed, growling under his breath. "Stupid gangs. Josiah got word from a kid who hangs out at the shelter that a relatively new gang was bragging they were getting some firepower that would make them a major player in the neighborhood. Everyone tapped into their sources and we figured out they were buying the weapons this afternoon. We barely had time to get there before the transaction was complete. I sent Marco up high and we worked with Team 2 to go in. Things deteriorated pretty quickly from there."

"Where'd it go down?"

"Uh, warehouse on the north side of McCain between fourteenth and fifteenth streets."

"Old shoe factory?" Vin asked. "Big brown building with crumbling cement planters by the front door."

"Yeah, that was it. Anyway, Ezra got a bead on the gunrunner but didn't realize the guy's bodyguard had a bead on him. Fortunately, Buck came along in time to shoot the guy, but he fired on his way down and managed to hit Ezra. Ezra was not happy."

Vin grinned. "Let me guess. He's angry cause his pants are ruined?"

"Yep, got it in one. Since the guy who shot him is dead, he insisted Buck owed him for his pants because he didn't shoot him sooner."

Vin laughed. Hearing about Ezra fussing over his clothes did his heart good. Ezra might have some pain and recovering to do, but he'd be fine. "Looks like I'm gettin' some company on the misery train."

"I guess so. Maybe you can entertain each other. Hey, what did the doctor say?"

"Desk duty, but I'm so bored that I ain't complainin'."

Chris snorted. "That won't last long."

They rode in silence for a few moments while Vin thought about the inside of the warehouse. He'd been in it many times as they periodically used it for meets and buys when setting up a dealer. When Chris slowed to turn, he straightened in his seat. "Hey, this isn't the way to the hospital."

"Can't get anything by you," Chris said with a chuckle. "I have something I want you to look at for me."

After ten minutes and several turns, Vin sighed. "We're going to the warehouse." Chris glanced at him but didn't answer. Something about what had happened wasn't sitting right with Chris and he wanted Vin's take on it. He couldn't help but smile at the trust in Vin's instincts and abilities. They pulled up a few minutes later to find a couple of patrol cars outside with men posted at the doors.

Chris flashed his badge at the officer watching the side entrance and led Vin down the short hall to the huge interior. A forensics team was still searching for evidence. Markers were scattered around the floor and a pallet of crates sat in the middle. Andy Marks, leader of Team 2, finished talking to the man with the camera beside him and came over to greet them.

"Hey, Larabee, thought you'd be at the hospital. How's Standish?"

"He's going to be down a while, but he'll recover. Mind of I get Vin's opinion on something real quick?"

Marks glanced at Vin and frowned. "Tanner. I thought you were on medical leave."

Vin shrugged. "I am, but I just got cleared for light duty."

Marks nodded and looked back at Chris. He opened his mouth to say something and then closed it, chewing on his lip for a second. He glanced up at the catwalks above and sighed. "Do what you've gotta do, Chris."

"What was that about?" asked Vin as Marks walked off.

Chris shook his head. "I don't actually know. I need to talk to him in private because I think he knows something about Marco. He seemed kind of disturbed when he found out Marco would be the sniper covering us on this op. Ezra's been hitting on his FBI people, but he's had to be careful because of his history. He told me earlier he thought he'd found someone to give us the scoop on Marco's performance for the FBI but they've been playing phone tag."

Vin nodded, looking around the room. "So how did this go down and what did you want me to look at?" His gaze automatically went up to the beams above and the spot he'd picked out before that gave him the best view of the floor. When he looked back down, Chris was watching him.

"Part of what I want is what you were just doing. I want to know where you would set up based on the circumstances and why." Vin nodded.

"When we arrived, the deal was already in progress. Marco came in by the roof access you usually use." He paused a moment and studied the metal beams and platforms above them, finally pointing to a large platform near the northern corner. "I think he set up there."

Vin stared at the area Chris was pointing to, a knot forming in his gut. "Go on," he said tightly.

"Two of Marks' men kept watch over the big metal doors. Team 7 came in through the front door and Team 2 came through the back. Once we identified ourselves, the shooting began. As you can see, there wasn't much cover. By the time everything settled we had three dead gang members, two injured, and another hauled off to jail. One of the gun dealers was killed and another injured. The last two surrendered when they saw they weren't getting out. Somewhere in there, Ezra took a bullet."

"Where was Ezra when he was shot?" asked Vin.

Chris led him over to marker 12, sitting next to a puddle of dried blood. Ezra's blood. Vin swallowed hard. He looked up to where Marco has been stationed and then looked to where he had put himself in the past. Sighing, he shook his head.


Vin clenched his fist and looked at Chris, who was frowning at him. Waving his arm towards where Marco had been, he said, "The reason I never used that spot before was because there's a big metal plate attached to the beams that blocks your vision of about a third of the floor, namely this third of the floor. You can't keep everyone safe from there."

Chris's mouth thinned to grim line. "I'm guessing he could keep himself safe there."

"Safest place for the sniper but worst place to protect your team." He ran one hand through his hair, wishing Marco was there so he could punch him in the face. "You have to let me come back, Chris. It's not safe with that yahoo watchin' your backs."

Chris shook his head. "You know I can't let you back full duty until you have an okay from the doctor. Look, you're back to desk duty so maybe you'll get cleared in a few days. In the meantime, I'll try to steer us clear of any big take-downs."

Vin scowled, knowing what Chris said was true but still trying to find a way around it. They stood staring down at the dried blood for several seconds until Chris elbowed him. "Come on. Let's go check on Ezra. He's probably raising a ruckus by now."

Vin nodded and followed Chris to the truck, determined to banish his headaches and dizzy spells before his next appointment.

When they arrived at the hospital, a call to Buck informed them that the team was in a waiting room on the fourth floor. JD met them at the elevator talking a mile a minute.

"Hey Chris, Vin. Buck sent me to get you guys. We figured you know the way already but Buck was determined that I should come get you to be sure you went to the right one on account of we're just waiting for the doctor to come talk to us after they get him transferred to his room. Well, get Ezra transferred, not the doc. Oh, Vin, didn't you have a doctor's appointment today? How'd that go? I mean do you get to come back to work yet?"

Vin's head was starting to spin a little at the rapid fire speech. He glanced at Chris and almost laughed at the wide-eyed expression on his boss's face. He snorted and then coughed to cover it. "Sort of, JD. I got okayed for light duty is all."

"Oh," JD said, looking disappointed. He promptly perked back up and said, "Well, that's okay. At least you'll be in the office and we can talk and see you."

Vin grinned at the younger man's reaction. "Yep. After the last couple o' weeks, I'm lookin' forward to it. Tired o' watchin' the paint peel off the walls."

They arrived at the waiting room to find the rest of the team seated in the corner seats. Vin almost laughed at the glare Chris gave Buck, who ducked his head and shrugged. JD practically bounced his way over to plop down in a cushioned chair, jarring Josiah in the adjacent one. Vin leaned over to whisper in Chris's ear. "I see now why you volunteered to come get me."

"Don't give me up," he whispered back.

Vin grinned and clapped a hand on Chris's shoulder. "Got your back, pard." Sobering, he looked around the room. "Where's Marco?" Judging from Buck's expression, he didn't do a good job of keeping the anger from his voice.

"He went to the little sniper's room. There a problem?"

Vin clenched his jaw shut, not sure if he should air his concerns or not. Buck and JD were frowning at him, while Josiah just raised his eyebrows. JD's eyes widened as his gaze went to something behind Vin and Chris. They turned as one to see Marco strutting across the waiting room, smug grin firmly in place.

"About time you guys showed up," Marco said in a voice that was too condescending for Vin to ignore. The bloodstain on the warehouse floor suddenly flared in the sharpshooter's mind, making the anger well up fresh again. He advanced on Marco and the agent stopped short, taking a step back as Vin leaned into his face.

"You were supposed to protect them, not hide out to save your own skin."

Marco narrowed his eyes, leaning forward until he was almost nose to nose with Vin. "I did my job, Tanner. I was the one there watching over them, not you, so just shut your mouth. You have no idea what you're talking about."

"Ezra's in surgery. That's how well you were watching out for them."

Marco huffed. "Oh, you're telling me no one ever got shot on your watch? I happen to know differently. You know as well as I do that you can't watch everything going down on the floor through a scope."

"Boy's got a point, Vin," said Buck, who at some point had moved over to stand beside Marco with JD right beside him.

"Vin, I saw him take down one of the shooters that were aiming at me and Buck," said JD.

Vin took a step back, feeling outnumbered all of a sudden. Chris moved over to brush shoulders with Vin. "How did you pick your spot?" asked Chris, his voice neutral, but firm.

Marco's eyes drifted up and to the right. "I, uh, just picked what looked like the best spot."

"Best spot to keep yourself safe you mean," snapped Vin. "You can't see a good third or better of the floor from there. That's why I've never used it in spite of the fact that it has excellent cover."

Marco's eyes flashed at Vin so that he could almost see the wheels turning. Marco's posture suddenly slumped as he sighed and let his face drop. "I just picked out a spot. I'm still new to being a sniper and I was in a hurry. I guess I just grabbed a spot without making sure of my line of sight. I'm really sorry."

Buck draped his arm around Marco. "It's alright, Bud. We know you did your best. Ole Vin here is just being a mother hen cause he wishes he'd been able to watch out for us, ain't ya Vin? He's been a sniper for so long he's probably forgot how it is when you first start out."

Buck glanced up at Vin with a big smile, obviously expecting Vin to apologize while JD stood beside him nodding. But Vin had seen the malice in his replacement's expression and he knew he was right about how the man picked his spot. Marco was all about taking care of Marco. Unfortunately, from the expressions of his teammates, Chris was the only one agreeing with him. The arrival of Dr. Beck broke the tension building in the room.

The physician stopped a few feet short, widening his eyes at the group as he apparently picked up on the tension filling the room. Chris moved forward to shake the doctor's hand, which reminded everyone why they were here.

"Doc, how's our boy?" asked Josiah as he joined the others.

Dr. Beck seemed relieved to be back on familiar ground. "They're getting Ezra settled in a room as we speak. We cleaned the wound and sutured him up, inside and out. As you are aware, the internal ones will be absorbed over time. We'll keep him overnight due to the blood loss, but I think he'll be ready to be released tomorrow, probably after lunch. I'll give everyone a rundown of what he can and can't do before I sign him out. He will be on crutches for a while and might need a little PT to really get him back on his feet."

"Thanks, doc," said Chris.

"One of the nurses will let you know when you can go in." He paused, frowning a bit at the group of men. "I'm not sure what's going on with you guys right now, but Ezra needs to rest, so whatever it is, leave it out here. After you've all had a chance to see that he's okay, I'll expect that no more than two of you stay. Capiche?"

"Don't worry doc, we'll be good," said Buck. "We annoy that boy too much, he'll just start using words none of us understand."

Dr. Beck chuckled. "True. Okay, I'm trusting you boys to keep things calm. Rachel will let you know when he's ready for visitors." The doctor then pointed to Vin. "You continue to take it easy." With a nod, the doctor headed back down the hall.

Watching the doctor walk away, Vin could feel the eyes of his team on him, making the spot between his shoulder blades itch. Without returning their gaze, he started for the hall. "Be right back," he mumbled. He didn't offer a destination because he just needed to get away from them and gather his thoughts. The feeling of being on his own returned full force until he realized there was someone following directly behind him. Chris.

Vin didn't stop until he reached the restrooms and then paused to drink from the water fountain. Wiping his mouth on the back of his hand, he moved over to lean against the wall while facing Chris. "I ain't apologizin', Chris. I can tell by lookin' at him that he's puttin' on an act for the rest of the team. Did a good job of makin' me look like an idiot."

Chris didn't say anything for a moment, making Vin nervous. After a moment, he met Vin's eyes. "For what it's worth, I don't believe him either, but he's made some good excuses. If I write him up over this it's going to look like I'm picking on him. If he's got half our team convinced he did nothing wrong, imagine how it will look to outsiders."

Vin hated it, but he knew Chris was right. He spent several moments bringing his anger down to a manageable level. "So there ain't nothin' we can do about him."

Chris shook his head. "Nothing but keep an eye on him." He grinned. "But you'll be in the office helping me do that from now on. And since Ezra's out of action for a while, they'll be less likely to give us anything big. You'll probably be back before Ezra is."

Vin nodded, letting out a deep breath. "That's good I guess. I just . . . " He clamped his jaw shut and closed his eyes a moment.

"You what?"

Vin turned his head. "Nothin'."

Chris clamped a firm hand down on his shoulder. "No, don't shut me out. You what?"

Vin sighed, knowing Chris would never let this go and that he'd know if he lied. "I got used to havin' the support of the whole team is all. This kind of feels like it did when I was alone and didn't have no one to back me up." He looked up as the corner of his mouth turned up. "Present company excepted o' course."

"Of course," said Chris, returning his grin before letting it slide. "You know the guys don't mean it like that, don't you? They aren't seeing the whole picture, and they think you're just upset that someone got hurt while you weren't there to watch their back. They don't mean it to come off as not supporting you."

"I know," Vin mumbled, even though it still felt like that was exactly what was happening. He forced himself to remember what the doctor had said about head injuries sometimes affecting your emotions. "Better get back before they get worried and send JD after us," he said as he pushed off the wall.

He heard Chris mumble, "Yeah," behind him, sounding like he wasn't swallowing what Vin was trying to dish out. Nothin' I can do about that. They arrived back at the waiting room to find Josiah waiting for them alone.

"The nurse took everyone else down to the room. He's in lucky 413," the big man said with a huge grin. "I figured we could wait until a couple of them came out before going in so it doesn't get so crowded."

Vin looked past Josiah down the corridor. AKA keep Vin and Marco separated. Fine by me.

Josiah dropped a hand on Vin's shoulder, startling him. "Vin, I know your path seems muddled right now, but give it time and it will clear up. In the meantime remember that we are your brothers. Family may not always know the right thing to say or the best way to react, but when you are pushed in corner, they will have your back."

Vin studied Josiah's face, seeing only sincerity and concern there. He sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "I thank ya for that Josiah. I reckon I've been havin' a hard time hangin' onto that lately. I'll try to keep it in mind."

"See that you do brother. The good book says that greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for a friend. Any one of us would be willing to do that at any time. And we are all well aware that you would do that for us, that you have done that for us."

Vin didn't know what to say to that so he just ducked his head in acknowledgment. A couple of minutes later, Marco came out of a room and walked past them. He nodded at the group, his expression suitably somber. Vin's gut twisted as he thought about having to be in the office with the lying sack of -.

"Come on, let's go see Ezra," Chris said, giving him a gentle push. Vin followed Josiah with Chris coming along behind him.

They quietly entered the room to find Nathan leaned over talking to a groggy Ezra. Buck and JD were standing over by the window. Buck nodded at the group, but JD stared at Vin with a look of confused disappointment. Vin looked away, figuring if JD was upset with him for wanting to watch their back, he could just be upset. If JD wasn't willing to trust Vin without knowing the whole story, then his trust wasn't important.

"Ezra, this is a little extreme to get to sleep in tomorrow isn't it?" said Chris as he stepped up to the bed.

Ezra licked his lips and frowned at his boss. "Unfortunately it seems that I must employ unreasonably extravagant measures in order to gain an adequate amount of rest."

Chris snorted. "Well, you should get plenty of rest over the next few days while you heal up."

"So it appears," Ezra said with a sigh.

"Hey, Ez," said Vin, stepping up beside Chris. "Sorry I wasn't there to watch your back."

"Not your fault, Mr. Tanner. I'm afraid I managed to be in an inappropriate location at a very inopportune time, although I am told it could have been much worse."

"You got that right," muttered Nathan with a grimace.

"Well, I'm glad you're gonna be alright. Looks like you and me'll be warmin' the bench for a bit."

Ezra frowned and groaned. "Yes, I suppose we will." After a moment, his eyebrows went up. "It occurs to me that since I will be relegated to sitting at a desk for the foreseeable future, surely there is no need for me to hasten to the office at such an inordinately early hour."

Chris crossed his arms and scowled. "When you get cleared to come back to work, you'll show up on time like everyone else."

"Right," Ezra said with a sigh. "It was worth a try."


Wednesday, May 23

Vin hadn't been cleared to drive yet, so Chris picked him up on the way in. As soon as he pulled into the apartment parking lot, Vin came scurrying out and flopped into the passenger seat.

"You sure are in an awful hurry to go back to work," said Chris, shaking his head.

"I'm bored out of my mind. It'd be different if I could go ridin' or campin' or do somethin' interestin', but sittin' in that little apartment watchin' the paint peel ain't my idea of a good time."

Chris shrugged as he pulled out onto the road. "Yeah, I remember that feeling all too well. I couldn't even take care of the horses that first couple of weeks. At least you can get around."

"Yeah, once the dizziness, nausea, and blurred vision calmed down some. Although to be honest, that first few days my head hurt so bad I couldn't think, much less be bored. Thing is, I'm almost back to normal now. I don't understand why the doc won't let me at least drive." He sighed and looked out the window. "Kept talkin' about post-concussion syndrome or somethin' like that."

Chris frowned. "Post-concussion syndrome is serious stuff, Vin. You need to listen and do what he says. He probably doesn't want you driving until he's sure you won't get dizzy or pass out."

"I know, but I haven't been dizzy in several days and the headache has finally calmed down to a level I can mostly ignore. I'm just ready to get back to normal."

Chris snorted. "It's been more like a day or two, but I know what you mean. Just relax, follow instructions, and be patient. You'll get there."

Vin sat staring out at the passing scenery. He understood what Chris was saying and his head agreed with him. It was the rest of him that was having problems doing that. "Heard anything about how Ezra's doin' this mornin'?"

Chris grinned. "Oh yeah. I ran by this morning before I picked you up. He had one of the nurses going off-shift talked into running into the coffee shop across the street to get him real coffee and something edible for breakfast."

Vin chuckled. "That sounds like our Ezra."

"He was buzzing a little from the painkillers, but he seemed okay. I told him we'd get him home when he's discharged and bring him something scrumptious for supper."

"His idea of scrumptious or yours?"

"Mine of course," Chris answered with a smirk. "I may have forgotten to mention that to him though."

"That should be interestin'." All the talk about food reminded Vin that he hadn't eaten breakfast and his stomach answered the thought with a loud rumble. He suddenly straightened in his seat. "Hey, Chris, do we have time to run by the bakery and get donuts?"

"Sounds like we better make time," Chris said, glancing at his passenger's midsection with a chuckle.

Thirty minutes later they stepped out of the elevator carrying three boxes of assorted pastries. Vin took them straight to the breakroom and set the boxes out. He was getting the paper plates out when Josiah stepped into the room.

"Hello Vin, it's good to have you back. Ah, I see you come bearing gifts. We thank you brother, or at least our stomachs do."

"Hey, Josiah. It's good to be back, even if it's only for desk duty. Turns out I'm not much of a soap opera or game show kinda guy."

JD stepped in, his eyes widening. He turned and yelled into the bullpen. "Hey, Buck, Vin's here and he brought donuts."

Josiah winced at the elevated volume coming only inches from his ear. Vin chuckled as the big man put his finger in the offended ear and wiggled it around. JD turned back around in time to see the action and ducked his head. "Oh, sorry Josiah."

Josiah glanced over his shoulder, his expression neutral. "It's all right John Daniel. I think my other ear is still working."

Buck came up behind JD and clapped him on the shoulder. "You know, boy, last time I checked I wasn't deaf."

"Yet," added Josiah as he moved into the room. Buck and Chris chuckled while JD's face turned red.

"Don't worry none, JD. Donuts and pastries are worth gettin' excited over," said Vin, handing out plates as they filed in.

"Oh, Angela's! This looks great," said JD, picking up a filled donut. "Hey, this looks just like the selection Marco brought a week or so ago."

Vin clenched his teeth together, knowing it would just make him look bad to point out what had really happened. His eyes met Chris's for a moment and then drifted over to pick up Marco coming in the door with a big grin on his face.

"Yeah, guess ole Vin here was reading my mind or something." Marco winked at Vin as he smirked.

"Or somethin'," Vin mumbled under his breath. He set his plate back down, his appetite gone, and poured a cup of coffee, reminding himself that he had made his friends happy with his gesture, even if they didn't realize the last time was from him as well. Taking a deep breath, he looked up to find Chris studying him. With a brief nod, he smiled to let his boss know that he was okay. Chris dipped his head once in return before filling his own mug.

Vin left the breakroom and stopped halfway across the bullpen. Marco was just sitting down to his desk, setting the plate of pastries beside the keyboard. The replacement took a huge bite of a jelly-filled donut, lifted his chin to Vin as he chewed, and began bringing up files on the computer. He couldn't help but notice that the horse carving and the piece of driftwood with the image of a falcon burned into it were missing, replaced with a couple of golf trophies.

"Where's my stuff?" asked Vin, barely aware of crossing the room.

Marco looked up with an innocent expression. "What? What stuff?"

Vin's stomach churned with dread. Surely he wouldn't have been so bold as to throw them away. JD and Buck immediately rose and moved closer, their expressions defensive. Vin took a deep breath and blew it out slowly, forcing himself to calm down. When he was back in control, he asked again.

"I had a carving of a horse and piece of driftwood with a falcon on it sitting over there on my desk. My grandfather made ‘em for me when I lived with him for a while. I wanted to know what happened to them." There, he could sound calm and rational when he wanted. He noted JD and Buck nodding as they apparently remembered the items.

"No worries," Marco said, pulling open the bottom drawer of the desk. "I just stuck them in here for safekeeping." As Vin leaned over to inspect his stuff, Marco closed the drawer. "See, safe and sound." He turned back to his computer as if Vin wasn't even there anymore. Vin was more than a little relieved to see a slight frown on JD and Buck's faces as they glanced at one another.

"Problem?" Chris placed his hand on Vin's shoulder as he came up behind him, giving it a squeeze.

"No problem," said Marco, never turning to face the men.

"Two actually," said Vin. "Apparently I have don't have a desk anymore. And since that's the case, I want my carvings back to make sure nothin' happens to them." He stared at Marco, not caring about the insinuation in his comment.

Chris frowned down at Marco, apparently just then realizing that he now had two people to use one desk. Having them share the desk was obviously out of the question. Vin would go back to watching the paint in his apartment peel before he would share a desk with Marco. He didn't want to make things complicated for Chris though since the whole dilemma put him in the middle.

"I can work in the conference room," Vin said.

JD brightened and nodded. "We have that laptop we take when we're traveling. I could set Vin up with that."

Vin tried not to look hurt that he wasn't offering to set Marco up with the laptop. He was beginning to wish he'd just stayed home.

Chris sighed and rubbed his chin. "No, set him up in my office. I've got plenty of room and that'll leave the conference room free if we need it."

Vin glanced around at Chris. "You sure, cowboy? I don't want to crowd ya."

"You don't take up that much room. Besides, I have a meeting with Travis in a little while and you'll have the place to yourself most of the afternoon. There's plenty of room for your carvings up on the file cabinet in the corner. Should be safe there and you'll be able to see them."

Vin would never have been able to explain the relief he felt. It was like having family pull you in when you were sure they were about to kick you out. "Thanks, Chris. I'll just get my stuff."

He went to pull the drawer out, but Marco was sitting with part of the chair blocking it. "Excuse me Marco and I'll get my carvin's out of your way." He was pretty sure he'd left the bitterness and sarcasm out of his voice, at least mostly.

Marco grudgingly shifted his chair just enough Vin could get the drawer to open all the way. He pulled out the driftwood first, giving it a once-over to make sure it was okay. The old medicine man had helped his grandfather make it when they discovered the falcon was his spirit animal, so he was relieved to see that it looked undamaged. He faltered, however, when he pulled out the carving of the horse, a low groan escaping before he could stop it.


He cradled the wood in his hands, staring in disbelief. The carving was rough, done by his grandfather in remembrance of Wapi, the old horse Vin had learned to ride on after his mother's death. Wapi had helped make an unbearable chapter of his life bearable. His grandfather had carved the image after the horse died, giving it to him the last Christmas before he himself passed.

"Oh, Vin," Josiah said softly, staring down at the broken memories in the sniper's shaking hands. The base along with one leg of the horse had been broken off the rest of the carving. "I know it's not the same, but maybe we can at least glue it back together."

Vin continued to stare at the jagged broken edge of the leg, his stomach rolling as he began to feel lightheaded. He'd thought the pieces lost to him when he'd been taken from the reservation after his grandfather's death. He'd worried about the two wooden trinkets that meant so much to him, had spent many nights burying the tears of his grief into a pillow so no one would know.

Then the grandson of the old medicine man had contacted him shortly after he joined the ATF to tell he had them, that his father had saved them in case he wanted them. Vin had gone back to the reservation for the weekend and had spent many hours revisiting the past with old friends, friends he figured had long forgotten him. It had been a good weekend.

But now the carving his grandfather had so carefully worked on was ruined and he couldn't even find his voice to tell Marco exactly what he thought of him. He wanted to rip the scumbag out of his chair and beat the living daylights out of him before throwing him out the nearest window.

Marco popped up and looked at the statue. "Oh, hey, it's busted. That's too bad. I didn't notice it was falling apart when I stuck it in the drawer, or I would have been more careful. Maybe now you can get something new, you know, maybe a little less boring than that old horse carving. It isn't very good anyway."

Vin backed up, sure if he didn't leave now he would hit the smirking face in front of him. And once he started, he wasn't entirely sure he would be able to stop. Clutching his childhood memories to his chest, he turned and headed for Chris's office.

As he left, Vin heard Chris explaining about his grandfather carving it for him, probably trying to get Marco to understand what he'd done. The problem was, Vin was 100% sure Marco didn't care. No, that wasn't exactly right either. He was pretty sure Marco cared enough to have broken the thing on purpose. Eventually, he was going to make it his business to see that Marco cared a whole lot more.

He sat in Chris's office, trying to control his breathing before he hyperventilated himself into passing out. Marco would probably have something clever to say that would have Buck and JD laughing and looking at him like he was a moron. Man, he hated that guy.

The office door closing startled him, which was embarrassing enough.

"You okay?"

Vin sighed and looked up at Chris. "How much trouble will I be in if I just kill him?"

Chris sat down and stared at him a moment as if he was considering it. "We'd probably need to do a sneak attack at night and then hide the body in the mountains."

Vin grinned, appreciating that he had a friend who let him do this. "I know a couple of places where the body'd never be found."

"I'm sure you do." Chris leaned back in his chair and let out a long breath. "You realize we can't, right? You'd be the first person they'd look at for it."

Vin growled under his breath and looked away. "Yeah, I know. Can't stop me from wishin' and dreamin' though."

Leaning forward, Chris reached out to gently pick up the pieces of the horse carving. He eased them together and studied the edges. "I do know that it won't be the same as having it whole, but I think with some good quality wood glue we could put this together where it'd be hard to tell it'd been broken."

Vin stared down at it for several moments. "I'd appreciate that. I guess I'll keep it at home from now on. I liked it on my desk because I spend a lot of time there. When we'd be gettin' ready for a bust, I'd hold it and think of all that grandpa taught me. It was comfortin', like he was giving me strength or somethin'." He shook his head. "Stupid, I guess."

"No, Vin, it isn't stupid. It makes perfect sense. Once we get Bozo the clown out of here, you can bring it back. I'm really sorry, pard. I guess I hadn't noticed him moving your stuff before, probably because I didn't spend much time with him."

"Not your fault. You can't stand over him every minute."

Chris nodded. "I wish we could just get rid of him."

"Can't you? I mean I'm back on desk duty and we've been short a man for a while before while one of us was recovering."

Chris grimaced. "That's one of the things I was going to talk to Travis about this afternoon, but . . . "

Vin's hope dissolved as he finished Chris's sentence. "But now we're down another man with Ezra out. I don't guess that'll help your case."

"No, it won't." Chris straightened and looked back up at Vin. "Look, no use worrying about it. Let's get to work, and we can run see Ezra during our lunch break. I'll talk to Travis this afternoon, and we'll work on your carving out at the ranch this weekend. Maybe we'll have a slow week or two and give you guys a chance to get back up to speed."

Vin nodded, knowing Chris was right. No use wasting time and energy worrying about stuff that might not happen. Maybe his luck would change and they could get rid of Marco for good soon. He looked through the glass wall to see Marco leaning over JD's shoulder pointing at something on the computer screen. Getting rid of that leech couldn't happen soon enough.


Vin stared at the computer screen, realizing he'd been trying to read this same page for almost half an hour. Running a hand through his hair, he closed his eyes and leaned back in the seat. His headache was reaching levels that made his vision swim, in spite of the fact that he'd done more wallowing in self-pity than reading for a while. He couldn't seem to shake the full body tension that had taken hold the moment he saw his broken carving.

Knowing he shouldn't, he glanced out into the bullpen, watching Marco fiddle with the drawer on his desk. At least he wasn't the only one not really working. That should have been comforting, but the very sight of Marco sitting in his desk ‘working' on his computer made his blood boil, which resulted in a sharp pain radiating out from the groove in his skull. With a groan, he slammed his eyes shut and rested the uninjured side of his head in his hand.

He'd almost dozed off when the office door abruptly opened, startling him into jerking upright. The room tilted and he felt like he was falling when strong hands grabbed him by the upper arms and settled him back in the chair. "Hey, easy now. Sorry about that," said Chris softly.

As the room stopped wavering, his vision cleared to reveal Chris's worried face inches from his. Vin pulled back, thinning his lips in annoyance at his continued weakness. "I got it," he snapped, immediately regretting his angry tone. Sighing, he said, "Sorry, didn't mean to snap at you."

Chris stepped back, studying him. "Headache?"

He wanted to deny it with every fiber of his being, but Chris could read him like he was somehow inside his head. "Yeah," he finally admitted as he got up from Chris's chair.

Chris had his hand on Vin's shoulder before he got very far and pushed him back down in the chair. "Stay put. I'm too angry to do any work right now anyway," he said, moving to sit in the chair on the other side of the desk.

"Meetin' with Travis not go like you wanted?"

Chris shook his head. "Nope." He rubbed his hand through his hair, making it stick up on one side. "I knew going in it was probably a lost cause, but it still sticks in my craw that we're saddled with this guy. I couldn't really go into detail without sounding like a kindergartener tattling on the new kid, but I gave him an overview of the guy lying and purposely trying to make you look bad and making statements like you weren't coming back."

They sat in silence for a moment before Vin responded. "I take it Travis wasn't impressed by your reasons for wantin' him gone."

"He was somewhat sympathetic, but in the end, he made the point that without him we were down two men and that it wasn't like Marco had anywhere else to go. He said if we were borrowing him from another team, it'd be different. But he's a floater right now and needs somewhere to be." Chris looked up at him with a small grin. "But if anyone asks me for a reference . . . " He trailed off with a shrug.

Vin let out a deep breath, willing his muscles to relax. "I appreciate you tryin'. Ain't much more we can do other than put up with him."

Chris nodded, his focus shifting to the bullpen as his expression sobered. "I just hope we don't get any big calls because I don't trust that clown to watch our backs. Reminds me, I still need to call Andy about his take on yesterday."

A minute later Josiah came to the door. "You two anyplace special?"

Vin frowned as he looked up at the big man standing the doorway grinning at him. "What?" His head hurt too bad to figure out riddles.

Josiah shrugged one shoulder. "Just seemed like the two of you were miles away from here. I asked if you were someplace special."

Vin watched as Chris glanced toward Marco, thinning his lips. "Future maybe? Like when the team is back together."

Josiah's expression sobered and he nodded once. "Or at least when certain folks have moved on to another location?"

"That'd do," Chris said, shifting his eyes to Josiah. "What's up?"

Josiah stepped in and closed the door, leaning back against it and crossing his arms. "Just had an interesting conversation with one Jake O'Brien from the FBI. He called while I was getting Ezra settled at his townhouse so Ezra put it on speaker."

Chris straightened in his seat, leaning forward a little. "What'd he have to say?"

"Jake worked with Marco's team on an investigation into a terrorist cell a couple of years ago. At first, it was annoying stuff like taking credit for things other people did or found out. Then he started undermining a member of Mark's team. He's not sure why, but he thinks Marco decided at some point he liked this guy's job better than his own and was trying to get in a position to take it." Josiah sighed and shook his head.

"I guess he thought if he discredited this guy and got him kicked out or knocked off the team, he could swoop in and take his place. But Jake's team was pretty close-knit and they banded together and shut him out. He also said Marco looks out for Marco in hot spots and to be sure we watch each other's back because Marco won't unless it's convenient to him."

"Sounds like he hasn't changed much," said Vin.

Chris frowned, staring at his desk for a moment. "So why is this guy still around?"

Josiah held his hands out to the side, palms up. "Heaven only knows. Jake seemed to think he goes out of his way to get on his supervisor's good side and make himself look good to the team. Eventually, his true personality shows itself and his fans start dropping like flies. Once he's on the verge of getting reprimanded for the stuff he pulls, he leaves and goes somewhere else. He's been careful to never stay too long in one place."

Chris nodded. "I noticed that in his records. Even within the FBI, he moved departments several times. I'm guessing he tries to play nice for a while at first but eventually, he lets that attitude out and that trips him up."

"Well, he tripped up with me immediately. He made it clear that he was here to take my job from me," said Vin.

"That's not going to happen," said Chris.

"Amen to that," said Josiah. He studied Vin a few moments, his brows furrowing. "Vin, you feel okay? You look a little like you've been rode hard and put away wet."

Vin huffed and squinted up at the older man. "I'm fine J'siah. Just a bit of a headache is all." He refused to acknowledge that Chris was now staring at him as well.

"He's right, pard. You do look worn down. How about if you . . . " Chris trailed off, glancing at the clock on the wall. "Actually, it's later than I thought it was. I say let's all knock off for the day."

"Sounds good to me," said Vin, closing the computer. "We can go pester Ezra for a bit."

Chris nodded as he stood, came around the desk and opened the top drawer. "Right after you take some Tylenol," he said, handing two pills to Vin. He stared at the bottle a second and then poured two more into his hand. "Heck, after the day I've had, I'll join you."

Vin swallowed the pills, washing them down with a drink from his cold coffee. Chris took the cup from his hand and washed his own pills down, screwing his face up in disgust as he swallowed. "Ugh, Vin. That battery acid you call coffee is bad enough hot, much less cold."

Vin grinned, some of the tension leaving his shoulders for the first time in hours. "That's what'cha get for stealin' my coffee, cowboy."

Chris glared at the sharpshooter for several moments. "You know, maybe Marco isn't so bad after all," he said, turning to head for the door. Josiah's eyebrows went up a moment before a large wad of paper hit Chris in the back of the head.


Tuesday, May 29

The next week passed pretty peacefully. They mostly organized evidence for pending cases and researched possible threats in the area. They assisted in an arson investigation, but another team ended up taking down the suspects.

Vin had spent the weekend at the ranch and they had successfully glued his carved horse back together. Chris and Josiah had been right – if you didn't know where the broken edge was you'd be hard put to find it. He'd taken it home on Monday and that was where it would stay for the foreseeable future.

Vin set up camp on one end of the conference room table when Chris's desk proved too small and they kept getting in each other's way. Marco had ceased tormenting him for whatever reason, so he was finding the set up peaceful. Truth be told, after some of the things said and some of the looks he'd gotten lately, he was perfectly happy having the room to himself. He didn't have to please anyone but himself in here and that brought a peace of its own.

Ezra would be returning in a couple of days, cane in hand, to begin his round of desk duty. Vin smiled, finding himself looking forward to the conman's return. JD and Buck still seemed pretty stuck on Marco. Josiah knew the score but kept shooting him worried looks that made Vin nervous. Nathan . . . well, he was Nathan. Anytime Vin didn't look chipper enough for the medic, he was questioning him about headaches and such. Part of Vin loved that anyone was that concerned for him, but another part was beginning to suffocate under the worrisome looks.

Chris was backing him one hundred percent, but as the boss, he had to play mediator and keep the peace. He hated that his friend felt caught in the middle, unable to do what he wanted to rid Vin of his pain-in-the-neck replacement.

Ezra was a lot like Vin. He'd had a harsh enough life that he appreciated the concern, but only up to a point. They both still had some of their walls in place and didn't like having them tampered with. And Ezra knew enough about what was going on that he could probably talk to him without having to filter what he said. Vin had already had a couple of stress-relieving vents with his friend in the privacy of his townhouse, away from prying ears.

"Hey, cowboy," said Chris, strolling into the room.

Vin leaned back in the chair, looking up at his friend. "What's up?"

Chris glanced over his shoulder before moving closer to Vin and lowering his voice. "Finally talked to Andy this morning. He's got a buddy in the FBI office that called him as soon as he found out Marco was coming over to the ATF. Warned him that if he got stuck with him to watch his back and be careful what he said around him."

Vin chewed rolled his lower lip under a moment. "Sounds like Marco's gettin' himself a bit of a reputation."

"One thing's for sure; your bad vibe is turning out to be right on the money."

"Yeah, unfortunately." Vin wished they could go back to Marco just being rude, but knowing his job. Vin now had verification from two sources that Marco couldn't be trusted to watch his brothers' backs.

Chris perched on the end of the table. "You about ready for lunch? I was thinking of going for some of Inez's enchiladas."

Vin's mouth began to water at the thought of one of his favorite foods. He hadn't realized it was so late, but now that he thought about it, he was famished. "I could eat."

Chris chuckled, obviously seeing through his nonchalant attitude. "Well pack it up before that stomach of yours starts its growling," he said, slipping off the table.

After stacking his loose papers into a pile and closing his computer, Vin stood and followed Chris to the door, freezing as he looked out into the bullpen. "Wait, who all's goin'?"

Stopping, Chris looked around at him. "Us and Josiah. Nathan's eating with Rain and the three mouseketeers are going for pizza."

"Oh, okay," Vin nodded, his shoulders slumping as the tension flowed out.

Chris nodded to Josiah, who began working his way across the room to them. "When's your next doctor appointment?" Chris asked as the big man reached them and they headed for the elevator.

Vin grinned, his step picking up a bit. "Thursday, day after tomorro'. I feel real good about it too. No headaches or dizziness in almost a week. I really think he might clear me this time." Vin's grin broadened as Marco's head shot up, evidently hearing his statement. Vin couldn't help himself; he winked at the scowling man as they passed close to his desk. He barely heard the reactions of the men he was with as he reveled in the glory of that tiny bit of retribution. Hopefully, he actually got cleared Thursday, or he was back where he started.


"Chris, do we have time to run by my apartment?" asked Vin as they pulled out of the parking lot.

"Forget something this morning?"

"Yeah," Vin said with a nod. "I got some snacks for the breakroom. Got a big package with four or five kinds of chips and a box of them little individual packs of cookies. I was just thinkin' about how bare the snack shelves are right now."

Frowning, Chris glanced at the sharpshooter. "We just ate, Vin. How can you still be hungry? You got a hollow leg I don't know about?"

Vin rolled his eyes, ridiculously pleased when it didn't make him dizzy. "Well, I'm not hungry now. But along about three or so I'll be needin' a little somethin' to get me by til supper. And right now, there ain't nothin' there. We got time or not?"

Josiah chuckled from the back seat. "You might want to think about a hungry Tanner trying to do paperwork this afternoon before you answer that."

Chris winced and gave a short nod. "Right. Short stop at Vin's it is."

Vin grinned. "Thanks, cowboy."

"You call me cowboy again and you'll be walking back to the office."

Ten minutes later they pulled up into the lot in front of the apartment building. "I'll just be a minute," said Vin as he climbed out. He was surprised to see Carmen sitting on the front steps alone. The teenager lived in the building down the street with her mother, but her boyfriend, Miguel, lived across the hall from Vin.

"Hey Carmen, what's up?"

Carmen stood, looking relieved to see Vin. "Vin, I am so glad you are here. Miguel and I were coming out of his apartment to run an errand for his mom when we saw a man going into your apartment. We knew you were not home. Miguel sent me down to watch for when he left, to get information about his car. He is watching your apartment."

Vin frowned. "You guys didn't confront this guy did you?"

She shook her head. "No, we did as you have told us before. He did not see us. Miguel is watching your place from around the corner and will text me when the man leaves, so I know to watch for him. We did not know what else to do."

"You did good, Carmen. Did you recognize him?"

"No, but we only saw his back as he entered your apartment. He was not quite as tall as you, dark hair cut short. He had on jeans and a green button up shirt. He wore a gun, like you and your friends."

Vin looked down at his gun belt, looping his finger around it. "Like this? Like law enforcement?"

Carmen nodded. "Yes, just like that."

Marco? Surely not. What color shirt did he have on today? Why would he break into my apartment? "Tell Miguel I'm coming up, but to stay hidden. It's probably somethin' simple, but if there's trouble, go tell my friends in that black truck over there."

"Is that your friend Chris?"

Vin nodded. "Yep, and he'll know what to do."

"I will let them know if this man causes trouble. Be careful."

Vin smiled and nodded, trying to keep the girl calm. "Thanks, Carmen. I'll be right back." Vin went in as she started texting. He hurried up the first two flights, slowing as he approached his floor. As his head came above the floor-line, he spotted Miguel peeking around the far corner. They exchanged a short nod. Just as he reached the top step, his apartment door opened.

Marco slid out, more concerned with quietly closing Vin's door than watching his surroundings. He turned and hurried toward the staircase, coming face to face with Vin. His eyes widened for a moment before the ever-present smirk slid into place.

"Hey Tanner, just dropped by to check on you."

Vin crossed his arms, tilting his head slightly as he tried to decide how to play this. "Why's that? You don't even like me and we was both at work this mornin'. What's there to check?"

Marco shrugged, as if the whole conversation wasn't important. "Just, you know, wanted to check on how repairs to your little statue are coming along."

Vin let the corner of his mouth twitch upward. "Is that what you were lookin' for in my apartment?"

"Well, no, since there was no answer when I knocked, I figured I'd just see you back at the office."

Vin snorted. "Wow, you might be a decent shot, but you're a terrible liar. I saw you comin' out of my apartment. Before I call the police for breakin' and enterin', I'd like to know what you were doin'."

Marco furrowed his brows, shifting his feet into a fighting stance and clenching his fists slightly at his sides. "The door came open when I knocked. I was just closing it for you. You really should lock your door. If anything is amiss, someone else must have done it."

"Why don't we just go see if anythin' is amiss," Vin said, grabbing Marco's arm. Marco jerked to the side, pushing Vin away as he did so. When Vin stumbled back, his foot found no purchase on the air above the first step. He pivoted, his arm flailing as his back slammed into the wall. He tried to use the surface to gain some sense of balance, but his momentum sent his one anchored foot off the landing. The world spun as he tumbled down the steps, grunting at the painful impacts with hard edges. He wasn't aware of reaching the bottom.


Chris looked at his watch and grimaced. They were going to be late and Buck would not hesitate to rub it in. Thank goodness Ezra wouldn't be there.

"That boy surely does have a good heart, staying here when he doesn't have to anymore in order to help folks out," said Josiah, peering through the window at the apartment building.

"Yeah," Chris said, watching the girl on the front steps pick up her phone. A tingle ran across his scalp and down his back, giving him a shiver that made Josiah turn and look at him. "Something's wrong." The girl suddenly jumped to her feet and began jogging their way, her face etched with concern.

Chris opened the door and stepped out, meeting her at the front of the truck. "You are Vin's friend, right? Chris? I am Carmen."

Chris nodded. "What's going on?"

"There was a man in Vin's apartment. Miguel, my boyfriend, he is watching from across the hall. He said the man is on his way out and . . . " Pausing, she glanced behind her.

Chris grabbed her arm and pulled her back to the side of the truck. "Back here, out of sight," he said. Josiah had been halfway out the door, but when he saw Chris pull the girl to the side, he tucked back into the Ram and crouched down just as the front door to the building pushed open.

Chris peeked around the door to see Marco glance around and then jog over to his car on the far side of the lot. Carmen leaned over enough to peer around the edge and then ducked back down. "That is him. That is the man we saw go into Vin's apartment," she said softly.

They watched as Marco quickly pulled out into traffic and took off down the road. "Mister Chris, we must go to Vin. Miguel said that man pushed Vin down the steps and he is hurt."

Chris clenched his jaw as Josiah came around the front of the truck. "Did he say how badly Vin was injured?" asked the older man.

"He does not know and he is afraid to move him."

Chris had urged her forward as soon as he heard Vin was hurt and they were already at the door to the building. "That's good. He doesn't need to move him until we get there and check on him." They hurried up two flights of steps to find Vin crumpled at the base of the third, a slender Latin American teen kneeling next to him. The boy looked relieved to see them and immediately backed up.

"Vin is hurt. I did not know what to do."

"You did fine, son," said Josiah as Chris knelt next to Vin, who was beginning to groan and move around. He was lying on his left side, his left arm extended.

Chris pushed Vin's hair back where he could see his face. The area above his right eyebrow was already beginning to swell and turn blue. "Hey, cowboy, can you hear me? Vin?"

Vin scrunched his face into a frown, his eyelids fluttering as they tried to open. Narrow slits formed with the blue irises underneath barely visible. Vin groaned and swallowed. "I'm gonna kill ‘im," he whispered.

Chris smiled, relief flooding his whole body. "I don't know, you might have to stand in line after this."

"So'kay. I figure I might need a bit o' help. Seem to be havin' trouble movin' around."

Chris snorted. "Maybe just a little bit. Anything broke?"

"Should I call an ambulance?" asked Miguel, his eyes wide as he stared at Vin.

"No, ain't goin' to no hospital," Vin said as he pushed himself to a sitting position. "Just help me up."

Chris sighed, wishing Nathan was there. "You sure that's a good idea?"

Vin growled under his breath. "Neck and back are fine, Larabee." He grimaced as he rubbed his left leg. "Think I might have tweaked my knee a bit and I got bruises on my bruises, but there ain't nothin' broke . . . ‘cept maybe my patience with that sneaky bastard."

Chris looked back at Josiah, who shrugged before moving to Vin's other side. "All right, let's do this." Chris and Josiah lifted Vin to his feet. He sagged for a moment before shifting his weight to his right leg. "Let's get you up to your apartment."

Vin nodded and glanced at Miguel and Carmen, who had joined them at some point. "I thank you for watchin' out for me."

The teens grinned at the men. "You are welcome," Miguel said with a tip of his head. "You watch out for us all the time. It is the least we can do. Do you need us to help you upstairs?"

Chris shook his head. "We can take it from here, but I'd appreciate you letting one of us know if you see anything else suspicious going on."

"We will," they said in unison before heading down the stairs.

"Come on, cowboy, let's get you upstairs," said Chris, tightening his grip on Vin's arm. He could feel how shaky his sharpshooter was as they helped him up the flight of stairs and into his apartment, settling him on the couch.''

"I'll get some ice for that knee," Josiah said, heading for the kitchen.

Chris helped Vin lay back on the battered sofa. Vin blinked heavily for several seconds as if fighting a wave of dizziness. "You okay?"

"Yeah," he said, wiping a hand over his face. His eyes widened and he suddenly began trying to sit up.

Chris quickly put a hand on Vin's chest, pushing him down. "Whoa, Vin, just take it easy."

Vin continued to push against Chris. "No, Chris .. . I've gotta figure out what Marco was doin' in here. He's not takin' any more from me."

Chris sighed and grabbed Vin's flailing arm. "Stop. Just lie back and I'll look around. I've been here enough I think I can recognize if something is missing." Josiah stepped up beside the couch and put a towel-wrapped bag of ice on Vin's knee after stuffing a pillow under it. Vin finally settled back and stopped struggling to sit up.

"Problem?" asked Josiah.

Chris glanced around the room, hands on his hips. "Marco was in here for a reason. We need to figure out what he did or what he took. Vin, you look around this room from where you are. Josiah can help if you need something brought to you or a drawer checked. I'll take a look in your bedroom."

Vin nodded. "Make sure the gun safe is secure."

Chris nodded. "I will." Satisfied that Vin was going to stay put, he walked back to the bedroom. The room was small but tidy. The bed was made and nothing on the floor. Chris looked through the closet first, checking to make sure the safe looked undisturbed. Clothes near the safe were pushed back as if someone had tried to access the safe, but it didn't look like they had made any progress. Vin would have to check to be sure.

Chris found himself gritting his teeth as he moved to the small dresser. The few items on top looked undisturbed. He almost turned and left, but a tingling in his gut made him go through the drawers. In the second drawer down, the t-shirts had been shuffled around. Lifting them up, Chris growled as he removed two guns and a bag of white powder. After checking the other drawers and under the bed, he returned to the living room with his find.

"What is that?" Vin asked, his eyes wide and his expression horrified.

"Found them in your t-shirt drawer. Looks like he tried to get in your safe too, but I don't think he made it. You might want to check."

Josiah sighed and shook his head. "Looks like our temp is setting Vin up."

Vin closed his eyes and cursed under his breath. "Guess he's trying to make his position permanent."

"Well, it isn't going to work. We're not going to –" Chris was cut off by Josiah, who had wandered over to the window.

"We have company. A cruiser and an unmarked car just pulled into the parking lot." The big man turned to nod at the stuff in Chris's hand. "How much you want to bet they are here to find that?"

Chris blew out a breath and looked around. Seeing nowhere to hide the stuff where a search would not reveal them, he stuffed the bag into his jacket pocket and began putting one of the guns in the other pocket. Josiah held out his hand and then put the second gun in his own jacket. Chris looked down at Vin. "You just keep quiet and act semi-conscious, let us handle this."

Vin nodded. Chris was almost undone by the trust he saw in the blue eyes. The moment was broken by a loud knock on the door. Chris looked at Josiah and whispered, "Showtime." He walked to the door and yanked it open in the middle of another loud bout of knocking. "What?" he barked.

The three men standing there jerked back. In front was a short man with a bit of an overhanging belly, a receding hairline, and dark beady eyes. He wore a dark suit that had seen better days. Behind him were two uniformed officers. They were both about Chris's height, an older man with a shaved head, and a black officer with short cropped hair. All three bore serious, almost angry expressions.

The man in the suit slapped a paper at Chris's chest as he tried to push past him. Chris stood firm and the man almost bounced back. "You need to move or you'll be arrested for hindering an investigation."

Chris glared at the man, causing him to step back on the toes of the bald officer, who cringed and jerked his foot back. "I believe the correct procedure is for you to announce yourselves and what you want. We don't live in a police state the last time I checked."

"What would you know about procedure?" the suit asked.

Chris flashed what his team called his feral grin. "Chris Larabee, ATF, Senior Agent in Charge of Team 7. This apartment belongs to one of my men."

The suit sneered, stepping closer to Chris. "Well, that's why we're here. Your man is dirty and we're here to find the proof, so let us in."

Josiah appeared at Chris's shoulder and took the paper, opening it to study. Chris narrowed his eyes. "Oh, I didn't know about the new justice system where a man was guilty immediately upon being accused. I must have missed that memo Mr. . . . "

The man huffed but seemed to deflate a little. The uniformed officers glanced at each other and then looked at their feet. "Let's start again. My name is Detective Gleason. We have a warrant to search the apartment of Vin Tanner for weapons and drugs."

Chris looked at Josiah, who nodded. "The warrant is legit."

Chris backed up and opened the door. Gleason marched in followed by the two officers. "Where's Tanner?"

Josiah nodded toward the couch. Gleason stood staring down at Vin, who looked up with wide blue eyes that made him look about twelve. "What's goin' on?" he slurred.

Chris almost grinned at the innocent and injured act. "It's okay, Vin. These officers just need to look around for a minute." He turned to stare at Gleason and said firmly, "They'll be respectful of your stuff."

"Okay," Vin said softly, closing his eyes. Josiah appeared with a damp rag to lay over Vin's forehead and eyes. He sighed softly and Chris didn't think all of it was an act.

"What's wrong with him?" Gleason asked, frowning slightly. He seemed unsure for the first time since Chris had thrown the door open.

Chris crossed his arms, thinking they probably needed to keep it vague until they had worked out a plan. "He fell down the stairs. We found him just before you got here and managed to get him back up the apartment."

"You didn't call an ambulance?"

"Don't need no ambulance," Vin muttered.

Chris sighed and rolled his eyes. "He was injured a few weeks ago on a bust, spent several days in the hospital. He's not wanting to go back."

Gleason snorted. "Mr. Tanner, we -"

"Agent Tanner," Josiah corrected.

Gleason stared at the big man for several seconds, his expression neutral, before glancing back to Vin. "Agent Tanner, we have a search warrant to look for drugs or weapons in your apartment. You'll need to stay out of the way."

Vin grunted, although no one knew if it was in acceptance or discomfort. Gleason looked at Chris, who shrugged. "We'll stay out of your way."

Chris and Josiah stood beside the couch, watching one of the officers search the kitchen while Gleason went through the living room. Their increasing irritation at not finding anything eased Chris's mind. He and Josiah hadn't had time to do more than a cursory check and he was a little worried they might have missed something. He was going to hang Marco out to dry when this was over. Although he'd been slowly realizing the guy was not ATF material, much less Team 7 material, he had sorely underestimated how low the slime ball would go.

Glancing down at Vin, his worry etched back up a notch. Furrows between his brows and lines around his eyes and mouth told Chris that Vin was in pain. He was debating how to get the keystone cops out of the apartment when the second uniformed officer came down the short hallway.

"Nothing in the bedroom, but there's a safe in the closet."

Gleason's head snapped up and a smile slithered across his face. "A safe? What's a guy need a safe for in a neighborhood like this?"

Chris opened his mouth to respond, but Josiah's tone beat him to the punch. "Seriously? If a safe is not needed here, then where?"

Gleason frowned and shook his head. "You know what I mean," he snapped. "What would anyone living in Purgatory have that needed to be kept in a safe?"

Chris straightened and crossed his arms, pulling out his smug look. "Oh, maybe because he's a federal officer and has guns to keep safe? He lets kids from the building use his computer sometimes. The safe keeps the guns and the kids safe. Sounds pretty responsible if you ask me."

The uniformed officers exchanged a "makes sense" look, but Gleason just huffed and looked doubtful. "Whatever. We need in that safe."

Vin sighed and opened his eyes, looking up at Chris. "Do you remember the date you hired me?"

Chris thought a moment and then nodded. "That's your combination?" he asked with a grin.

"Yeah. That date sticks in my mind for some reason."

Chris laughed and squeezed Vin's shoulder. "I'll take care of it." With a quick glare toward Gleason, Chris led the way to the bedroom, purposely blocking the detective's view as he turned the dial on the safe's lock. He pulled open the door and stepped back, waving his hand toward the open safe. "Knock yourself out." The corner of his mouth twitched as he wished it would literally happen.

"We've got guns," Gleason said as if he'd discovered gold.

"We told you that," said Chris. "What did you think we were talking about, water guns?"

Gleason handed the officer standing beside Chris three handguns and then backed out with Vin's rifle and an antique Mare's Leg. "Interesting collection. Do all of these belong to Tanner?"

Chris nodded. "All registered and legal. Vin is our weapon's specialist and sniper. You'd better handle those with care if you know what's good for you."

Gleason narrowed his eyes. "Are you threatening me?"

Chris stared at the detective. This guy has got to be the biggest moron in the state. "I'm just telling you that if you damage his guns, he'll know. And if you do . . . well, then I wouldn't want to be in your shoes."

"Fine, fine," he said as he quickly handed the other two weapons to the uniformed officer. "Have these checked out."

The guy looked worried as he juggled them around for a second. "Are these loaded? Did you even check?"

"They aren't loaded," said Chris. He didn't mention that the gun Vin kept loaded was in a pocket in the door of the safe. If these guys were too stupid to find it, then who was he to point it out. After watching them leave, he shut the safe and locked it before following them to the front room.

Gleason stood beside the couch, looking down at Vin. "Since we didn't find anything this time, I'm not taking you in. We'll be checking out the guns from the safe though. Don't leave town for the time being."

Chris came in and stood by the door. "I have a question. Why are you here and how did you get a warrant?" He wanted to ask how they got a warrant that fast, but then he'd have to tell them about Marco. Since none of them actually saw Marco plant the guns and drugs, that would only result in Vin getting arrested. "Let me guess . . . anonymous tip?"

Gleason lifted his chin and jutted it out in a move reminiscent of Ezra when he was backed into a corner. Except Ezra did it with class, something this guy was sorely lacking in. "It was an anonymous tip, but the source was reliable."

Chris frowned and glanced at Josiah, seeing the same confusion on the big man's face as he voiced what Chris was thinking. "If it was anonymous, how do you know it was reliable? And how was that enough for a search warrant? Any nut job with a grudge can call in an anonymous tip."

Gleason picked a fleck of something off the front of his cheap suit. "I don't know the source's real name, but he's provided me with reliable information before. Information about those in law enforcement. And he's always correct. He's as dismayed by dirty cops as I am. Judge Reinfield knows information we get from him is always reliable, so he always gets me a search warrant quickly."

Vin snorted without opening his eyes. "Got ‘im a pack o' folks in ‘is pocket somehow," he mumbled under his breath. "Ain't fair."

Gleason glanced at Vin as he continued to mumble unintelligibly and then looked at Chris, who shrugged. "He's still recovering from a head injury and I think the tumble down the stairs has him rattled. If you're finished we probably need to get him to the doctor."

The detective actually looked concerned for a moment before straightening and nodding to the two officers. "We're done. Let's get those downtown," he said, waving toward the evidence bags the officers had placed the weapons in.

Chris opened the door and watched them leave, thinking finally. No one said a word, but Josiah walked over to look out the window. Several minutes later he turned back to them and gave a quick nod. "They're gone."

Chris sighed. "Let's get Vin to the doctor and then I'm going to hunt Marco down and pin him to the wall while he explains what he was doing."

"You can't do that," Vin said, pulling himself up to a sitting position.

"Why not?"

Vin frowned, rubbing the side of his head. "Because no one saw him do anything illegal."

Josiah snorted. "I believe your young friends saw him go into your apartment. That's breaking and entering at least."

Vin looked at Josiah and then Chris. "He's going to say he came by to check on me, that the door was open so he walked in and left when he discovered no one was home. If the kids try to push that he broke in, who is anyone going to believe, a couple of Hispanic kids living in Purgatory or an ATF officer? I'm not putting them on the spot like that. Marco has a way of making it seem like he's the good guy and you know it."

Chris scowled and paced a circle by the door, thinking about how Marco had manipulated the situation at the hospital. "What about the fact that he pushed you down the steps? That's assault at the very least."

Vin flashed a bitter smile. "He'll just say I got dizzy and fell. He tried to catch me but couldn't. I told him I was fine and he thought I was so he left. He'll make it sound like I'm an imbecile for hurting myself and a dirty dog for trying to pin it on him." Vin's expression spoke of defeat. "I had me a run-in with a slickster like him once before and was made to look like the bad guy for doin' the right thing. I ain't doin' that again."

Running a hand through his hair, Chris nodded. "Okay, I see your point."

"We need a plan," said Josiah, rubbing his jaw.

"We do," Chris agreed. "But first the emergency room . . . and no arguments."


Taking a deep breath, Chris stepped outside the ER and walked around the corner, dialing as he went. After three rings, Buck's voice nearly blasted his ear.

"Chris, where are you? You guys are over an hour late."

"I know, that's why I'm calling. We're at the emergency room with Vin. He apparently got dizzy on the way up to his apartment and fell down the stairs." He hated lying to Buck, but they needed Buck and JD to keep treating Marco like they had been. There was a chance Buck could know the truth and not give it away, but JD sucked at lying.

"Is he all right? Scratch that, you wouldn't be at the ER if he was. How bad's he hurt? And what was he doin' at his apartment? I thought you guys all went to lunch."

"We did. He wasn't feeling too good by the time we finished lunch so I talked him into coming home. We dropped him off, made sure he got in the building okay, then left. You know how he is about being escorted up to his apartment, but I guess I should have. Got a call from one of his kids a few minutes later that he'd fallen, so we turned around and came back. He's bruised, did something to his knee, and got banged around some. We'll know more once the doctor checks his x-rays. I just wanted you to know where we are and that we'll be a little bit getting back."

"That's fine, you just take care of Junior. We'll keep plugging along here."

"Good, that's good. Did everyone else make it back? You and JD went to lunch with Marco, right?" He knew that had been the plan, but obviously Marco had made some changes. He was curious if the agent had the nerve to go back to the office like nothing had happened.

"Yeah, we're all here. Marco ended up having some errands to run so he did his own thing. Nathan had lunch with Rain."

"Sounds good. I'll take Vin home after the doc is through with him and then Josiah and I'll be back. Hold down the fort for me."

"Don't worry, we'll be fine. Tell Junior he needs to stay off them stairs til he gets over them dizzy spells."

"Yeah, we've already read him the riot act but I'll pass it on. See ya later Buck and thanks." He hung up and pocketed his phone as he walked back into the hospital. He arrived at Vin's cubicle to find Josiah and a nurse getting him into a sitting position on the side of the gurney. He was frowning in pain but his eyes looked clearer.

"Hey, cowboy, you going somewhere?"

Vin made a sour face at him. "Maybe."

Josiah chuckled as he steadied the smaller man. "The doctor gave us good news. Nothing broken, just bumps and bruises. He did wrench his knee pretty good and has been advised to stay off it the next few days and use crutches when he has to move around."

Chris snorted. "Crutches and dizzy spells. Now, why doesn't that sound like a good mix?"

Vin huffed. "I'm only dizzy when I move too fast, which I won't be doin' for a bit."

Josiah continued to grin unrepentantly. "They wrapped his knee. He'll need to elevate and ice when we get him home. He got rattled good when he went down the stairs, added a new bruise to his already sore head, but it doesn't look like he hit with enough force to cause any new damage. The doc was still worried about a second hit on top of that head injury, so he'll be out of commission for a little longer."

"Thanks to Marco," muttered Vin, rubbing his eyes. Dropping his hand, he looked up at Chris. "Did ya talk to Buck?"

"I did. I feel bad lying to him, but I don't know what else to do. Marco has to think he got away with this until we figure out what he's up to. He came back to the office, so he seems pretty confident right now. If anyone asks, I'll say you hit your head again and don't remember what happened."

Vin nodded once. "I remember you guys dropping me off and then nothing until I woke up at the bottom of the steps and that's pretty hazy. I musta got dizzy and fell."

"That's our story," Chris said.

"What about when I don't get arrested for having guns and drugs in my apartment?" asked Vin.

Chris thought a moment. "We don't mention it at all, just like nothing happened. If he asks, then we can assume he's had more contact with Detective Gleason than just an anonymous tip so we'll tell him what happened, that they came in and searched and didn't find anything. Let him wonder what's going on."

"He may figure out that we covered for you, but since we supposedly don't know he was there, we wouldn't tie it to him. He should still feel safe," said Josiah.

Chris stared at Vin for a moment. "You do realize you have no business trying to go up three flights of stairs on crutches don't you?"

Vin shrugged. "Can't be helped. I'll be careful."

Josiah began stroking his chin again. "Brother Vin, what do you think about staying with Ezra for a few days. I'm thinking the two of you could put your heads together and try to figure out what our favorite detective meant by having taken down other officers using Marco's tips."

Vin furrowed his brow a moment. "You think that's how he gets rid of trouble, by settin' ‘em up and callin' in a tip?"

"That would make sense based on what we've seen today," said Chris, his own mind working through the possibilities. "Josiah, that's a great idea. I'll forward the two of you his dates and places of employment and you look for records of officers or agents that were fired or arrested for illegal activity. Look for any connection to Marco."

Vin grinned and Chris realized the whole get-Vin-to-stay-with-Ezra plan had just gotten a boost.

The nurse returned with a pair of crutches and Josiah helped her adjust the height until they were right for Vin. She handed them the care sheets and prescription for a mild pain killer and then directed them to the check-out desk. Once she was gone, they all laughed.

"Like we don't know where that is by now," said Chris as he held the door open for Vin.


"Showtime," Chris said as he and Josiah stepped off the elevator. They were nearly surrounded as they entered the Team 7 office, questions about Vin being hurled at them from every direction. "Enough," Chris finally said. He noted Marco standing in the back looking uncertain.

Once the team had calmed down and backed off, Chris began to explain. "Vin's going to be fine. He's banged up and sprained his knee pretty good. Must have knocked himself in the head on the way down the stairs because the last thing he remembers is us dropping him off at the apartment building."

"You told Buck he didn't feel well," said Nathan. "Was it another headache?"

"Yeah, headache and his stomach was a little off," said Chris. The accusing looks reminded him that normally he would have walked Vin up to the apartment if he was ill, especially if he was unsteady in any way. "Look, he said he wasn't dizzy, just felt kind of off. We figured he was tired, maybe overdid it today. Obviously I should have ignored his protests and walked him up the stairs."

Nathan's eyes widened and he suddenly looked horrified. "Wait, you didn't take him home did you? He can't be going up and down stairs dizzy and on crutches."

Josiah set a hand on Nathan's shoulder and chuckled. "No, we didn't haul him back up the stairs. He's going to stay with Ezra for a couple of days until he can get around better. They figured they could take turns helping each other."

"More like the blind leading the blind," muttered Nathan, wiping his hand across his face. "I'd better stop by after work and check on those two. Ain't no telling what kind of mischief they'll have gotten in by then."

Chris kept watch on Marco in his peripheral vision, noting how the man relaxed as they talked. He glanced at Josiah, who smiled at him and gave a tiny nod. Looked like phase one of their little operation was successful. Now if Vin and Ezra could come up with something to help them figure out Marco's next move. Lord help them if they had a bust before then.

"All right, back to work everyone," said Chris. "Randall trial is next week so make sure everything is in order, all the i's dotted and t's crossed."

"Got it, boss," said Buck as everyone returned to their desks. Chris hit the breakroom for coffee before continuing to his desk. After closing the door, he cautiously took out the folder on Marco and quickly put together an email with his employment information. Once he hit send, he carefully stored the folder away.

Leaning back in his chair, Chris sipped his coffee and thought about the weird events of earlier. A knock on his door startled him and he tried not to look surprised to see Marco push it open. "Chris, you got a minute?"

Chris carefully kept his expression neutral as he waved Marco in. "Sure. I'm afraid you caught me drinking coffee and woolgathering," he said, watching the younger agent sit down.

"Oh, I think we all do that every now and then," said Marco with a hint of a smile.

If he didn't know what a sneaky back-stabber Marco was, Chris could almost like this version of the agent. "What can I do for you?"

Marco looked flustered for a moment, frowning at the floor before looking up to meet Chris's eyes. "I just wanted to apologize for the bust where Ezra got hurt. I guess I'm greener than I thought at the whole sniper thing. I honestly didn't realize how limited my view was. I just wanted to promise that I'll do a better job of picking my spot next time. I like to think I learn from my mistakes."

Chris studied the man for several seconds, reminding himself of the role he needed to play. He finally gave a short nod. "I respect that you were willing to come tell me that. I can't abide fools who won't admit they made a mistake. We all make mistakes, including me. But you take responsibility and try to make sure it doesn't happen again. Looks like you're doing both."

Marco nodded once and then tilted his head. "So, is everything really okay with Vin?"

Here it was, the push for more information. Chris kept his expression neutral as he answered. "Yeah, he'll be fine. It's just a little setback in his recovery. I guess it's a good thing we have you here to cover for him." That last statement should earn him an extra star in his crown because that had been painful.

Marco's eyes widened. "Thanks. And thanks for giving me another chance. I won't let you down," he said as he stood and held out his hand.

Chris stood and shook Marco's hand. While the agent's tone had sounded sincere, the smirk in his eyes was true to character. Marco thought he was free and clear . . . and that would be his undoing. Chris grinned at the prospect, which only seemed to make Marco relax even more. Phase one was definitely a success.


Vin and Ezra stared at the computer screen. Vin was a little surprised to find that Ezra's hacking skills were so refined. He was no JD, but the agent was leaps and bounds above any of the rest of the team. "I do believe that we have uncovered the incident of which Detective Gleason spoke."

Vin reached back to massage the base of his skull, trying to loosen muscles not used to hanging over a computer screen for so long. "Yeah, looks like it. If this poor guy was railroaded like almost happened to me, you gotta feel for him. Reckon he'd talk to us?"

Ezra sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I do not know my friend. The ill-fated event was almost eight years ago. Time could have either lessened the burden of such a betrayal or fueled the anger."

They sat for a moment, staring at the official investigation into drug running by Officer Greg Whitehorse. The coincidence of his mixed White/Native American heritage did not escape them. An anonymous tip about drug-selling activities had resulted in a search warrant for the officer's residence and vehicles. While no drugs had been found in the house, a large bag had been found in his truck parked outside.

Officer Whitehorse claimed that he had been set up. The fact that no fingerprints were found on the bag and the truck itself seemed to have been wiped clean lent a certain amount of credence to his claim. Friends and family had vouched for the fact that he never locked the truck when he was home, leaving it available for anyone to access.

In the end, no charges were filed, but his reputation was ruined. He resigned and moved to Florida. Vin couldn't blame the guy for getting as far away from his supposed friends and fellow officers who hadn't supported him during the investigation as possible. Vin was painfully aware of what that felt like and he knew Ezra was too. Reading it happen to someone else was like a gutshot to them both.

Probably the most interesting thing was that his partner at the time was relatively new Officer Marco Valdez. Marco came to Whitehorse fresh out of the academy and they had ridden together for almost a year when the trouble started. The report hinted that drug busts had been going wrong, confiscated drugs had gone missing, and certain drug runners seemed to be almost untouchable for several weeks before the tip came in. The tip had been an answer to an escalating problem that was garnering more and more attention.

Vin stretched his arms up over his head. "I need coffee."

Ezra shot to his feet, nearly knocking over his chair. "No, no, let me. You are supposed to stay off your feet."

Vin smirked, turning sideways in the chair to watch the other agent. "You just don't want me to make the coffee."

Ezra straightened the toppled chair. "I refuse to let your lack of barista skills ruin a perfectly good blend. I will procure coffee and snacks while you elevate that knee. I dare say it will be a toss-up as to whether Mr. Larabee or Mr. Jackson endeavors to shoot me because your knee is the size of a melon."

Vin sighed, looking down at his throbbing knee, thankful that Chris had insisted he change into sweats. He'd hate to think of how the joint would feel trapped in the confines of his jeans. "Yeah, you're probably right. One'll probably shoot you while the other goes for me." Ezra handed him the crutches and he used them to get to his feet.

After settling him on the couch with a pillow under his knee and the laptop in his lap, Ezra limped to the kitchen to make coffee. Vin continued to read the reports and interviews, wanting to know as much as possible before they tried contacting Whitehorse. He had to wonder if Marco had issues with American Indians, mixed heritage, or just anyone in his way. He was pretty sure the man hadn't damaged his statues by accident. It was beginning to look like the guy was dirty and just slick enough to get away with it. Unfortunately, he seemed to destroy the lives of those around him in the process.

Ezra returned fifteen minutes later with two large mugs of coffee and a plate of fancy little eclairs. Vin grinned. "Man, Ezra, I should'a been coming to visit you all this time instead of Chris."

"No, Mr. Tanner, I am lacking some things that only Mr. Larabee can provide," said Ezra, taking the chair opposite the end table with the snacks.

Vin stared at him a moment. "The Larabee glare or the bossy attitude?"

Ezra's eyes widened and then he chuckled. "I admit I had not thought of those possibilities. It seems prudent to add them to the list. No, I was referring to the horses and the wide-open space with the spectacular view. I know how much you value being able to get away from the press of people we are daily surrounded with."

Vin nodded while chewing the end of an éclair. He moaned at the way the cool, sweet creamy filling squished around his mouth. Ezra looked a little disturbed, so he groaned louder and then regretted it as he almost choked while laughing.

"That is most uncouth. You have cream along the corner of your mouth," Ezra said, frowning as he pointed while handing Vin a napkin.

"Thanks," Vin said after swallowing. He wiped his face and grinned unrepentantly at the fancy agent. "Those are amazing."

"I am aware," Ezra deadpanned, looking at the pastries as if he had changed his mind about eating them.

"Sorry, Ez, I'll behave," Vin said, reminding himself of the favor Ezra was doing him by letting him stay there.

"Not a problem, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said as he carefully selected an éclair. He looked up to meet Vin's eyes before breaking out in a huge grin and shoving the whole thing in his mouth. Vin's mouth hung open a second before he burst out laughing, wiping his eyes as he thought about the fact that no one would believe him if he told about this. By the time they had settled down, he was more relaxed than he'd been in weeks.

"Thanks, Ez, I needed that."

Ezra wiped the cream from his face. "Since you now feel indebted to me, could you please address me by my given name. Mother named me Ezra, not Ez."

Vin looked at Ezra for several seconds with as blank a look as he could muster. Then he decided he'd had enough fun and they needed to get back to work. "So, Ezra, I was readin' some of them interviews and I discovered somethin' interestin'. A couple of them fellers mentioned that Whitehorse talked to them a few weeks after all the stuff started happenin' with drug busts and evidence, asked them some things about ole Marco. Two mentioned they thought he suspected Marco of bein' involved. After findin' the drugs in his truck, they just thought he's tryin' to point suspicions away from himself."

A small smile crept across Ezra's face. "But perhaps Marco heard about his partner's inquiries and decided to pin the events on him."

Vin sipped his coffee and then gave a nod. "That's what I'm thinkin'. A few weeks after they ran Whitehorse off, Marco traded in his job with the Denver PD for the local DEA office."

Ezra's eyebrows went up. "DEA? Isn't that fortuitous? Allow me to see if I can get more information about his tenure with DEA while you track down a phone number for the previous Officer Whitehorse."

Vin grinned and nodded. "Right after another one of them eclairs," he said as grabbed one and licked a blob of cream off the end. "Heaven on earth."


Chris arrived at Ezra's apartment at 6:30 to find Nathan and Josiah already there. Nathan was checking out the two injured agents while Josiah caught him up on the Marco saga. Chris set two large pizza boxes on the kitchen counter before joining the other men. "I've got supper covered," he said.

Ezra's eyes slowly narrowed as he took in the boxes. "Pizza? Really Mr. Larabee?"

Chris shrugged. "I needed something fast and easy so we could talk. I did spring for Luciano's though."

Ezra's scowl relaxed as one corner of his mouth turned up. "Bravo Mr. Larabee. There may be hope for you yet."

Nathan stood as Chris got plates out. "They're both looking good, Chris. Vin's knee is still swollen, but less than it was. No nausea or dizziness this afternoon, so that's good. Ezra's ready for desk duty, but not much else."

Chris nodded, adding pizza to the plates. "I'd rather he stayed here with Vin since Marco seems to be gunning for him. Plus, they can continue to research what Marco is up to." He picked up two plates and carried them to the coffee table with Nathan right behind him.

"Mr. Larabee, I typically dine at the table, since that what it's there for," said Ezra, frowning at the parade of food coming into his immaculate living room.

"We ate eclairs in here earlier," said Vin. "And we'll be careful."

Ezra continued to look at the plates of pizza anxiously. "Those were small and easily cleaned up and you needed to elevate your knee. Pizza sauce can be quite difficult to get out of fine upholstery such as this."

Chris hesitated, remembering how much it cost to get Ezra's suits cleaned and wondering how much worse it would be to get the furniture done. "Uh, maybe he's right. Let's move to the table."

Chris and Josiah moved the food to the table and got drinks while Nathan gave Ezra a hand up and helped Vin with his crutches. Five minutes later, they were all seated around the fancy dining room table scarfing down pizza. Once they were past the "starved" stage and had slowed down, Chris looked at Vin and Ezra. "Okay, did you guys find anything out today?"

The two men glanced at each other, breaking out into huge grins. "I believe we have uncovered the proverbial motherload," said Ezra. He continued to explain how an anonymous tip had led to an investigation on Marco's former partner, ending with one ruined reputation. After relating Whitehorse's remarks to other agents, he turned the floor over to Vin.

"I managed to track Whitehorse down and got him to talk to us just a bit before ya'll got here," said Vin. "Whitehorse said just a few months after Marco started ridin' with him, all the information on a drug runner named Ace either dried up or proved to be wrong. They'd get a tip about a drug exchange and arrive to find either no one there or no drugs. Whitehorse started asking questions about a possible leak and the next thing you know, Marco starts gettin' tips about other drug runners that turn out to yield arrests."

"So, it never enters anyone's mind that brother Marco might be dirty because he's stacking up drug arrests," said Josiah with an ah ha expression.

"Right. Whitehorse said that's when he started to suspect Marco. The timing of everything combined with the guy's arrogant smirk and condescending tone was like a huge red flag to the guy. Once he started diggin' around and askin' questions, Marco began making cryptic, almost threatening remarks," said Vin.

"For example, he once told Mr. Whitehorse that people who stuck their nose in affairs that were not their own often got that nose whacked off," said Ezra with a distasteful frown. "His words, not mine."

Chris chuckled. "Yeah, I kind of figured. Can't imagine you ever purposely describing something as being whacked off."

"Why, thank you, Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled before dabbing the corner of his mouth with a napkin.

"Anyway," Vin continued, "the next thing he knows, he's out mowin' the yard on his day off when Gleason and two cars of officers show up to serve a search warrant on his house and cars lookin' for drugs. They don't find anythin' in the house, which he attributes to the fact that someone had been home most of that week and they had this big German Shepherd Dog. But they find a big bag of meth in his truck out in the driveway."

"Did the dog not let them know someone was out there?" asked Chris, frowning in doubt.

Vin snorted and exchanged a look with an amused Ezra. "Accordin' to Whitehorse, the dog alerts on everythin'. He wakes them up two or three times every night wantin' to go out and bark at somethin'. If someone farts two counties over, he's barkin' at it."

Ezra winced at the remark, but nodded. "He and his wife had discussed previous to this that if the dog ever barked because miscreants were up to no good on their premises, they would probably never know it because the creature barks at anything that moves. His only use as a guard dog is if his loud barking scares someone into fleeing."

"Which is probably why the drugs weren't hidden very well," said Vin. "They were basically in the passenger floorboard half under the seat. It almost looked like someone had panicked and thrown them down. Whoever it was took time to wipe all prints from the bag and the passenger door."

"Wait," said Chris. "There were no fingerprints on the bag or the truck?"

"Not on the passenger side of the truck. Whitehorse's were on the driver side but the other side was clean."

"That detail along with the officer's clean record up to that date and the fact that several witnesses confirmed that he did not lock his truck when it was in his driveway provided enough doubt that they did not charge the man," said Ezra.

"He was encouraged to resign by the brass and his fellow officers apparently didn't support him as we would've, so he quit shortly after that," said Vin. "One of the dispatchers that wasn't all that impressed with ole Marco told him that Marco had been spreadin' rumors of him possibly being dirty for weeks, apparently layin' the groundwork for getting' rid of him if it came to that. So he resigned."

Chris shook his head, the similarities painting a picture he could not ignore. While Vin had brothers to defend him, Whitehorse apparently had not been so blessed. "What happened to him?"

"In the grand scheme of things, Marco actually did him a favor. It makes me wish I could accost the vile interloper and point that out," said Ezra with a snide grin.

Vin nodded. "He moved his family to Florida. Turns out his brother-in-law has a security company there and had been after him for years to be part of it. He's now the co-owner and head trainer of Coastal Security Company and makin' a butt-ton of money. Said his blood pressure is down and the money is way up. He's happy as a dead pig in the sunshine."

Chris chuckled at the comparison and at Ezra's reaction to it. How those two managed to be such good friends would always baffle him. "Well it's nice that things worked out for him, but I'll still be happy to see Marco go down for putting him and us through hell. What else did you get?"

"Shortly after his success in ridding himself of Officer Whitehorse, he managed to move to the DEA. His success in interrupting the drug flow of everyone but Ace apparently attracted the attention of the agency," said Ezra.

Vin finished his last slice of pizza and mangled a napkin while wiping sauce from his hands. He wadded the offending paper up and dropped it on his plate. "Oddly enough his trend of cleanin' out drug runners that weren't this Ace guy continued. His reviews went from practically building a temple in his honor at the beginning to vague questions of his reliability after about three years. We found a buried report from one guy he worked with a few times toward the end that didn't actually accuse him of anythin', but questioned why Marco was so successful with everyone except Ace."

"Were you able to find this agent to get his opinion of what was going on?" asked Nathan.

Once again, the two younger agents shared a look. Ezra sighed. "The agent in question was killed during a raid against Ace shortly after the report was filed. An anonymous tip of a big buy involving Ace turned out to be an ambush. Agent McMasters was killed along with three other agents. Marco was late to the bust due to a well-timed flat tire and so was uninjured. None of the perpetrators were captured, although there was evidence that one or two were injured. The two agents that survived were both severely injured."

"I did track one of them down," said Vin. "Brad Carmack is retired on a disability check. He was shot three times and one of them resulted in nerve damage to his right arm. He was real defensive at first, but once I heard enough to realize he wasn't a fan, I told him we were lookin' at some irregularities in his work. He opened up a little and admitted that several of them were suspicious of Marco at the time of the raid. They was startin' to put two and two together and it wasn't addin' up to four."

Ezra nodded. "He also told a similar story of Marco taking credit for the work of others. During one raid, a civilian was injured. Marco was much closer and in a safer position to extract the victim, so the agent told Marco he would provide cover while he retrieved the injured man. Marco refused to leave cover, so the agent had to go after the man himself. Fortunately, their back-up arrived from the opposite side of the criminal element, drawing their fire long enough for him to get the man to safety. When he turned in his report, he was instructed to rewrite it or face an investigation. Marco had turned in his report earlier and he had exchanged their actions, making Agent Collins look like a fool. Fortunately, he had true friends who believed his version of events."

Nathan's mouth hung open in an expression of horror. "Did he really have to write up a report saying Marco rescued the guy while he hid out to save himself?"

Chris could see the muscles in Vin's jaw working as they clamped down in anger. "He said the brass was impressed with how fruitful Marco's contact tips were proving to be. His boss told him to rewrite the report where it did not contradict Marco's or risk losing his job. He rewrote the report keeping things as vague as possible. He didn't credit Marco with saving the civilian, but he didn't take credit for it either. He just indicated the man was pulled behind cover when reinforcements distracted the shooters. The brass accepted it."

"They were probably worried he'd go public with his version of events and the fact that they had threatened him to get him to agree with Marco instead of investigating the matter. No matter who is telling the truth, it would have been bad PR for the DEA," said Josiah.

"Mr. Carmack stated that the only reason he remained in their employment was because the field agents he worked with were good, reliable agents. Everyone but Mr. Valdez that is," said Ezra.

"So, whatever happened to Ace?" asked Chris.

"Adrik Volkov," said Ezra.

Chris nodded. "I remember when he moved his gang into that side of Denver and got rid of all the competition. I'm guessing Ace was competition."

"Yes," said Ezra. "Shortly after the failed raid slash ambush, Ace was killed by the Volkov family and our Mr. Valdez went to work for the FBI."

"What are we talking about here?" asked Nathan. "Are we saying Marco was working for Ace, letting him know about impending raids so he could not get caught?"

Vin nodded. "And it looks like Ace was helping provide him with info on his competition so they could take them down or at least disrupt their services."

"Quite the arrangement," said Josiah. "Keeps the competition down for Ace and makes Marco look like some kind of super agent. That not only allows Marco to get promotions and praise from his bosses, but it also keeps the heat off him when they start looking for a leak."

"At least until the people working with him in the field start to figure things out," said Chris.

"Then he finds a way to eliminate them. Guess I should be thankful he didn't have me killed," said Vin.

Chris shuddered, realizing the danger Vin could be in. "So why does he want your position so badly?"

"We are still working on that aspect. We had just begun investigating his time in the FBI when you arrived with sustenance, such as it was," said Ezra.

Josiah chuckled. "I noticed you managed to eat three slices so it must not have been too bad."

"I was hungry."

Nathan stood and began gathering up the plates. "Well, you guys need to get your head out of the computer and rest tonight. You can research some more tomorrow. Vin, you need to keep that knee elevated when you can."

"I will." Vin frowned a moment and then looked up at Chris as he gathered up glasses. "You don't think Marco'd plant more stuff in my apartment, do you? There's no one there to cover for me with me over here."

Chris froze and looked at Josiah. "I don't know, I hadn't thought of that."

Josiah scratched his head a moment. "We should swing by and check on it."

"Mr. Larabee, do you have access to a small surveillance camera? Perhaps you could place one in Mr. Tanner's apartment facing the door to record anyone who breaks in."

Chris nodded. "That's a good idea, Ezra. If they come, they'll be wanting to plant something and get out quickly. They won't be searching the place. As long as the camera isn't out in plain sight, it should be safe." He looked over at Josiah. "We can swing by the office and grab one out of surveillance van. As long as we don't get called out, JD isn't likely to notice it missing."

"Do either of you know how to set it up?" asked Ezra.

Chris scowled, glancing at Josiah who shook his head. "How hard can it be?"

"Perhaps I should accompany you," suggested Ezra.

"Up three flights of stairs?" asked Nathan.

Ezra looked down at his leg and groaned. "Perhaps not."

Chris sighed, running one hand through his hair. "Okay, we'll call from the van so you can help us pick out the simplest one to use and then again from the apartment so you can help us get it set up."

"Ya know, it'd be a whole lot easier to just read JD in on all of this stuff," said Vin. "We may not have enough evidence to take Marco to court yet, but we've got enough to convince Buck and JD that this ain't just me bein' ornery cause of Marco takin' my place on the team."

"Yeah, but we can't afford for them to change the way they treat Marco. If they go from buddy, buddy to the silent treatment or suddenly act awkward around him, he'll take off," said Chris.

The sound of Ezra's grandfather clock ticking seemed loud in the silence that followed. Chris wasn't sure what to do. It would definitely be easier to have JD set up the camera at Vin's, but he just couldn't see Buck or JD being that good of an actor.

"Ya ain't gonna know unless you try, cowboy," said Vin, staring at Chris. "I think if you explain everythin' going on and how we need to play this, they can do it. They'd have tonight to get themselves into the right frame of mind."

Chris shifted his gaze to each of the men in the room. All gave a tiny nod. Chris still didn't know if this was the best course of action, but it seemed to be what they needed to do. "All right. I'll go by Buck and JD's place and bring them up to speed, then get JD to set up a camera at Vin's place after we search it. I hope this works."

"Need any help?" asked Josiah.

Chris ran a hand through his hair again. "No, I'll take care of it."

Josiah nodded. "I'll take care of the dishes and getting the boys settled if you want to head that way."

"Hey," Vin said, looking insulted. "We're old enough to be settlin' ourselves."

Josiah raised his eyebrows. "You old enough to do your own dishes?"

Vin grinned. "Nah, you can take care of the dishes."

Chris snorted. "Good luck Josiah. You'll probably need it. I'll talk to you boys tomorrow." He checked his pocket to be sure he still had Vin's key as he walked out the door. Just before he closed the door, he heard Vin asking if anyone brought dessert.


Chris called to make sure Buck and JD were home. The apartment door opened as he approached and Buck ushered him in. "We've got a pot of coffee brewing, should be about ready. What's this all about?"

Chris followed him to the kitchen where JD was placing three mugs on the table. Chris sat down, still trying to decide how to tell these men that someone they considered a friend was looking increasingly like a dirty cop.

"Chris?" JD said tentatively.

With a sigh, Chris started. "Everything we say must stay here for now. We're working on building evidence, but we aren't there yet and I don't want our suspect prematurely spooked."

The two friends exchanged a troubled glance. "Who are we talking about?" asked Buck.

Chris made eye contact with his teammates. "Marco."

JD started shaking his head and Buck opened his mouth to protest. Chris raised a hand. "Just hear me out and then you can decide for yourselves."

Buck's lips thinned as he stared at his old friend. With a gentle sigh he said, "All right, we can do that. Start talking."

Chris was impressed at the way they listened quietly as he explained everything from Marco's cryptic remarks to Vin and taking credit for the donut delivery to the reports from his former partners. He finished by telling them that Vin and Ezra were going to research Marco's time in the FBI the next day. He studied Buck and JD's expressions as he finished, noting a combination of anger and confusion.

"Why didn't we know this was going on?" asked Buck with a touch of anger. "Do you not trust us?"

Chris shook his head. "If I didn't trust you, I wouldn't be here now. I didn't know for a while. Vin was trying not to overreact." He rubbed the side of his face. "I think at first he was trying to tell himself that . . ."

"That we weren't abandoning him like just about everyone else in his life has done," said Buck, dropping his face into his hands.

"Like we did at the hospital," said JD with a horrified look on his face. "We took Marco's side over Vin's. How could we do that?"

"You didn't know what was going on. Vin didn't have any evidence of wrong-doing, just a gut-feeling that Marco was up to no good. He didn't even come to me with it, I just kind of stumbled onto some of this stuff," said Chris. "Everything escalated earlier today when Marco planted drugs and guns in Vin's apartment to get him out of the way. My assumption is that he needs a place in the ATF in order to assist whatever criminal element he's hooked up with right now."

Chris recognized the moment Buck went from guilt to determination as his friend straightened his slumped shoulders and set his jaw. "What do you need us to do?" JD gave a short nod, mirroring his mentor's actions.

Inwardly, Chris grinned. His team was united once again. "We need to clear Vin's apartment to make sure nothing new has been planted and then I'd like JD to set up a surveillance camera in case Marco tries that again."

"I know just what to use," JD said. "I can hook it up to a motion detector that will ding me if the door opens. We'll know in real time if anyone comes in."

Chris nodded his approval. "Now, the hard part. Tomorrow I need you to treat Marco exactly the same as you have been."

Buck and JD looked at each other, doubt in their faces. "This is why we waited to tell you two until we really needed you involved. I know it's going to be hard to act like you don't know any of this stuff. But if Marco thinks we're onto him, he'll be gone."

Buck rubbed his chin, his brow furrowed while JD just looked one step away from panicking. "Can you do it or not? Because if that's going to be a problem, we need to find an excuse to keep you two out of the office until this is over and hope he doesn't spook."

Buck let out a deep breath and met Chris's eyes. "I can do it." His tone was so confident, that Chris didn't doubt the statement.

"Good. JD?"

"I don't . . . I don't know Chris. I don't want to let Vin down, but I just . . . I don't know." JD had never looked more like a kid than he did at that moment. Chris found himself feeling sorry for the boy.

Buck reached over to ruffle the kid's hair. "We'll talk more after we set up the camera." Looking back at Chris, he said, "If he isn't sure he can pull it off in the mornin', I'll come in and say he got up sick."

Chris nodded. "Good enough. Either way, don't worry about it JD. I don't know that it's a bad thing to say you aren't good at lying. Let's go get Vin's apartment taken care of."


Wednesday, May 30

Vin crutched his way over to sit at the bar between the kitchen and living room. Ezra set a glass of lemonade in front of him. "Thanks."

Ezra nodded, setting his own cup next to Vin's. "Did you speak with our illustrious leader?"

"If you mean Chris, then yes," Vin said with a grin. "No hits on the VinCam that JD set up."

Ezra rolled his eyes. "I am still unable to believe you anointed the surveillance camera with such a moniker."

"I thought it was a pretty good name myself. Anyhew, Chris said Buck and JD have actually done a really good job of acting normal around Marco. I think Chris is thinkin' of puttin' them up for an actin' award."

"That is good news."

"Yeah, I have to admit, I was a mite worried about if JD could pull it off, but Chris said he couldn't a done any better. Guess I'll owe those guys a beer or two for puttin' up with him."

Ezra snorted. "You owe them nothing, Vin. They are the ones who aligned themselves with the miscreant and they are now reaping what they have sown. Mr. Larabee indicated when he called last night that they are apparently quite repentant for having treated you poorly and are happy to have a chance to make recompense for their earlier misjudgment."

Vin frowned at him. "So, they're sorry for how they acted and are tryin' to make up for it?"

"I believe that is what I just said."

"Right, I knew that." Vin was relieved when there was a knock at the door followed by Chris and Josiah coming in.

"Special delivery," Josiah said as they set several bags on the dining room table. "Everyone's order is in its own sack with your name on it." Several minutes later they were all seated with their deli sandwich in front of them.

"Buck and JD get stuck eatin' lunch with Marco?" Vin asked.

"Not stuck exactly," said Chris. "They asked him out so they could hopefully get him to talk about his past some. Don't worry, I told them to be subtle and drop it if he acted nervous or suspicious."

Ezra stopped chewing and stared at Chris. After a moment he swallowed and said, "You expect Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Dunne to be subtle? Who are you sir and what have you done with Chris Larabee?"

Chris glared at Ezra, but only a half-hearted attempt. Vin figured Chris was just as worried about the boys scaring Marco off as they were. After a moment he gave it up and shook his head. "Did you boys find anything helpful this morning?"

Vin dipped his head toward Ezra to let him know he should start. "We did indeed study Mr. Valdez's time in the FBI. He went to work for them almost four years ago straight from the DEA. It appears he was on his best behavior for the first fifteen months or so, with nothing out of the ordinary cropping up. He spent most of that time in a pool of low-ranking agents doing a lot of mundane, random things that usually garnered little danger or excitement."

"In other words, Marco took himself a bit of a break," Vin said. "Don't know if he was lettin' things cool down or he was figurin' out his next gig."

"Possibly a bit of both," said Ezra. "That was about the time the state began having issues with crime families and drug cartels. We had two well established crime families and two more looking to stake their own claim, as well as a drug cartel seeking to establish a presence. Denver of course was in the middle of everything resulting in a rather sharp rise in violent crime."

"FBI established a task force to start dealin' with the crime families," Vin continued. "Marco made noise that he wanted on it, but he was turned down. He hadn't been with the FBI all that long and he'd been kind of coastin' til then so the right people weren't impressed. Two months later, guess what happens to the youngest guy on the task force?"

Josiah broke out in a grim smile. "I'm guessing an anonymous tip led the police to drugs in his possession."

Ezra pointed at Josiah. "Ring, ring, give a prize to the profiler. Following a tip, they found him passed out in his car with a bag of cocaine under the passenger seat. The last thing he remembered was having a drink in a bar, waiting on an informant who had requested his presence. He of course claimed he was set up. This time they managed to find one clear set of prints on the bag, his of course."

Vin growled under his breath. "Guess we know Marco learns from his mistakes. The agent said someone must of slipped somethin' in his drink. No one thought to test the guy for drugs until it was too late. The bartender conveniently didn't remember anythin' other than seein' him there."

Chris sighed. "I'm almost afraid to ask."

"As well you should be," said Ezra. "The poor man was released on bail only to be killed in a mugging on the way home."

"Mighty convenient," said Josiah as he scowled at the table.

"Ain't it just," Vin said bitterly. "And you'll never guess who took his spot."

"Marco," Josiah said with a huff of disgust.

"Bravo Mr. Sanchez," said Ezra. "It's almost as if we have played this game before."

"Startin' to sound like a repeatin' record," said Vin as he pushed the crumbs from his sandwich around the plate. The meal he'd been ravenous for suddenly felt like a rock in his stomach as he thought of all the lives Marco had destroyed. Biting his lip, he tapped down the anger he felt rising within him. Now was not the time for that.

Chris frowned and looked up at the two wounded agents. "So how did he go from too low on the totem pole to get on the task force to the shoo-in replacement?"

The two agents exchanged a look before Ezra nodded once and Vin replied. "Guess who got a tip about one of the crime families runnin' a money launderin' scheme through a construction firm that turned out to be confirmed, bringin' down one of their main operations? Good old Marco scores a home run again."

Josiah frowned and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms. "So, if Marco is operating true to form, chances are that he's hooked up with one of the families. They help him get on the task force, he gives them inside information and maybe helps keep the competition in check."

"That was our conclusion as well," said Ezra.

"Any sign of which one?" asked Chris.

Both men shook their heads. "That's kinda what we were workin' on when ya'll got here."

Chris nodded. "Well keep on it and let me know what you get. Ezra, don't you have a doctor's appointment this afternoon?"

"Yes, at 3:00pm."

Chris nodded. "I'll take a break about then and take you so you can bring me up to speed on whatever you've found. This is all turning out to be a lot more complicated than I was expecting. I just thought we were dealing with an overeager agent hoping to take Vin's place on the team."

One of Ezra's eyebrows raised slightly. "Mr. Larabee, you should know by now that things are rarely as simple as they seem on the surface."

Chris sighed audibly. "I know, Ezra, but somehow I keep hoping."

"Well," Ezra drawled in a reasonable imitation of Vin's accent, "we'll just have t' beat that right outta ya."


Thursday, May 21

"I'm here, just to the left of the door."

"On my way." Vin stuck his cell phone in his pocket and took one final look around Ezra's living room, making sure everything was picked up. Satisfied, he grabbed the cane from where it was propped against the couch and began hobbling to the parking lot where Chris waited for him.

Ezra had been cleared by the doctor yesterday, so today was his first day back at work. He'd been able to dump the cane, although he still had a bit of a limp. Cleared for driving and desk duty, Ezra had done his best not to gloat at Vin's current hobbled existence. Vin had comforted himself during the day by graduating himself from crutches to Ezra's now abandoned cane. He was actually quite proud of how well he was getting around.

Chris had called a team meeting/cookout at the ranch so they could share all their information without unwanted ears listening in. Vin had to grin at the thought of Mr. I'm-going-to-take-your-place Valdez being unwanted. He grinned even wider when he stepped outside the townhouse to see Chris's truck parked and waiting on him, knowing his boss would be upset that he'd ditched his crutches.

Opening the truck door, he leaned against the cane as he swung himself up and into the truck. If he could manage that, he could manage the stairs to his apartment. This day just kept looking up. "Hey, Chris."

Green eyes glared at him. "Where are your crutches?"

Vin returned the glare. "In Ezra's guest bedroom. Don't start on me, Chris. I been usin' Ezra's cane all day and I ain't had no problems. My knee's hardly swollen and it only hurts if I twist on it."

Chris continued the hard look for several seconds before relaxing to throw Vin a grin. "Okay," he said lightly.


Chris shrugged and shifted into drive. "Yeah, Ezra wanted to bet on the likelihood you'd be on his cane tonight and I told him I didn't take sucker bets. It's what I'd have probably done. Now Nathan . . . he might not take it so well."

"Yeah, well, I can handle Nathan," Vin muttered, not particularly thrilled that his teammates knew him so well and discussed him at the office. "If you're so okay with it, then you know I'll be wanting to get back to my own place this evenin'."

Chris frowned and Vin could tell he was deep in thought, probably trying to figure out how to talk him out of going home. He decided to make a preemptive attack. "Look, there ain't been no activity at my place since that one time. I think Marco'll lay low for a bit, makin' sure I don't remember what he done. He succeeded in getting' me out of action for a bit longer. As long as I'm not threaten' to come back, I think he'll leave me be. That'll give us some time to figure him out."

Chris sighed, slowing to a stop at a red light before glancing at his passenger. "I guess. Look, why don't you stay at my place tonight and I'll drop you by your apartment on the way in tomorrow? That'll give you lots of time to impress me with your ability to use that cane."

Vin thought about how late they would probably break up their little meeting and how tired he'd be trying to climb three flights of stairs. "Okay, I can do that."

Chris bobbed his head once, apparently satisfied with the arrangement. After a few minutes of silence, Chris snorted. "Okay, I was going to wait until we met tonight to discuss this, but since everyone else knows the basics, I'll update you. Marco decided to put in some time practicing on the range this afternoon, so we were able to do some snooping without having to watch him."

Vin studied Chris, noting the broad grin on his face. "You found somethin'?"

"We did. Or rather JD did. He dug into Marco's finances over the past few years. Everything looks above board, like he's living within his means as a federal officer. Then he dug a little deeper and did his thing. He found two offshore accounts that total in the millions. Marco looks to be setting himself up for a big retirement, probably on some tropical island."

Vin whistled. "Wow, I hadn't thought about that. As much as I hate to admit it, that's pretty smart. A standard investigation would make him look totally legit. He didn't win a lottery or have some rich uncle die, did he?"

Chris shook his head. "Nope. JD checked out his family history going back three generations. No money there. No records of lottery wins or anything else that would explain away the money. Now we just have to tie him to illegal activity and we're set to take him down."

"Been doin' some studyin' on my own today. I think I know what family he's in bed with. I was goin' to throw that out there this evenin', see if anyone has contacts that could verify it."

After a few moments, Chris huffed and said, "Well are you going to tell me?"

"What, you don't want to wait til the meetin' tonight?"

Chris growled. "No, I don't. Just tell me."

Vin laughed, feeling hopeful that they were on the right track to taking Marco down for good. "Demarkis. I know they're relatively new to the game, but they've advanced faster than any of the others in the last couple of years. First family they pushed back against was Volkov and he's almost been shut down in Denver."

Chris frowned. "What's the Demarkis family into?"

"Up til now, mostly drugs, illegal gamblin', prostitution, and human traffickin', although no one's ever found enough evidence to make a solid tie back to the family."

"So why make the switch from FBI to ATF? From what we can tell, no one was breathing down his neck figuring things out. While several agents seem to have figured out he was in it for him, we know of others with the same agenda and there weren't any red flags that the higher ups were concerned. I know they shut down the task force a few months ago, but he would still have been in a good position to help them."

"Only thing I can figure is Demarkis is wantin' to expand into guns or alcohol or both. Havin' an inside man would be a big help."

"Well, crap. So Demarkis thinks he's moving his ballgame into our park, huh. We'll just see about that."

They stopped by the grocery store on the way to the ranch. Once they were home, Chris got the meat and grill ready while Vin threw together his baked beans. By the time the others began arriving Vin's stomach was starting to growl. "About time you lollygaggers got here."

Buck put his arm around the sharpshooter and pulled his head in close, almost in a headlock. "Well son, you should know that some of us poor slobs have to work for a living."

Normally Vin would loop his foot around Buck's leg and pull it out from under him, but his sore knee prevented that move. He was deciding between tickling the big man or stomping his foot when Buck let him go, giving him a gentle shove onto the couch. "Better be watchin' your back, Bucklin," Vin growled, annoyed that the agent had gotten the best of him.

Ezra patted Buck on the arm on his way by. "It was nice knowing you Mr. Wilmington."

Buck laughed. "Aw, Vin ain't gonna hurt me, are you pard? Just a little joshin' amongst brothers."

Vin paused in his efforts to get off the couch, the word brother hitting him hard. He glanced up to see Buck with his hand stretched out, offering his assistance. The big man's eyes twinkled with sincerity, the care behind the offering deep felt. Brother. These men had become more than teammates; they were his brothers. Vin smiled as he accepted the help up. "Guess I could overlook it this time," he said quietly.

Buck nodded. "I ‘preciate it, Vin." After a moment, Buck sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "Look, Vin, I uh . . . that is to say . . . sometimes my mouth gets a little ahead of my brain and what comes out of my mouth ain't exactly what I'm tryin' to say."

JD rolled his eyes. "Good grief, Buck, just spit it out." He moved over to stand beside Buck, his brows furrowed as he looked at Vin. "What Buck's doin' a horrible job of sayin' is that we're both really sorry. Marco played us like a couple of fools and we let him. We never meant to hurt you, Vin and that's the God's honest truth. We didn't even realize how bad we was treatin' you til we got to talkin' about it. Anyway, we're sorry for being such piss-poor friends."

The anger Vin had carried since the first time he saw Buck and JD carrying on with Marco melted away. The fact was they had always had his back. They weren't the only ones to have had a moment of poor judgment and Vin was honest enough with himself that he could admit that. The truth was that he loved these guys like family, whether he wanted to admit it or not.

Vin took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, watching his anxious friends wait on his decision. "Well, I guess even though family sometimes acts a fool, you still have to stick by ‘em. Josiah keeps sayin' we should be our brother's keeper, so I guess we're all kinda stuck with each other." Vin broke out in a grin. If Buck could give a round-about apology he reckoned he could accept it in an equally round-about way.

They looked at each other a moment and then Buck reached out to muss Vin's hair as he hurried off to the kitchen. "Always wanted little brothers to tease."

Vin stared at the man's retreating back and then glanced over to see Ezra and JD looking as shocked as he felt. JD closed his mouth and shook his head. "Welcome to my world," he said as he also headed for the kitchen.

"I believe I will seat myself at the opposite end of the table from Mr. Wilmingon." Ezra bent down to retrieve the cane from the floor. "You seem to have dropped this."

Vin grinned sheepishly as he took the cane. "Thanks. I took you up on your offer to use your cane. Hope you don't mind."

Ezra shook his head. "Not at all. That is why I offered it, although I am not convinced it was prudent to do it quite so soon."

Vin shrugged. "Them crutches were givin' my arms fits. This just seemed easier." He stepped into the kitchen behind Ezra and ran right into Nathan's glare.

"Vin Tanner, where are your crutches?"

"Aw, crap," Vin muttered, leaning against the cane. "I can get around on this thing a lot better than on them crutches."

"The crutches allow you to keep the weight off that knee, give it more time to heal."

Vin settled into the chair that Ezra had pulled away from the table for him. "Well my knee might be gettin' better, but my arms is payin' a steep price."

Nathan sighed. "I get it. I'm just not so sure you were ready for that transition. Just stay off it as much as you can tonight and I'll have a look later, okay?"

Vin nodded. "Wasn't plannin' on takin' no hike."

"I never know with you," muttered Nathan as he finished setting the table.

Once the meal was eaten, the plates taken, and the coffee served, the team got down to business. They went over everything that had happened and everything they had learned about Marco and his activities. After brainstorming about the man's move from the FBI to the ATF, the team had to agree with Vin's theory.

"Mr. Larabee, if you will excuse me from coming into the office tomorrow, I believe that my alter ego, Ethan Sanford, could possibly gain information on the Demarkis family and their current business endeavors," said Ezra.

"Sounds like a plan," said Chris. The head agent rubbed the top of his coffee cup while he stared at the table.

"You got an idea, Chris?" said Buck. "I recognize that look on your face."

Chris grinned. "Maybe. Let's see how Ezra's information plays out tomorrow. If Marco is working for someone as an information leak, I may have an idea on how to flush him out."

Vin grinned. "I like it when you have a plan. It usually means some bad guys are goin' down."

The corner of Chris's mouth twitched up. "The more I think about it, the more I think it'll work no matter who Marco is working for." He looked around the table, meeting the eyes of each man. "I'll tell you my idea and you guys can play the devil's advocate. Voice any problems you see so we can work our way through all the possibilities." The men around the table nodded.

"We currently have a lot of guns in the evidence room. Teams 2 and 5 both made busts last week and took in a large number of automatic weapons, not to mention what we've recovered recently. I'm thinking of having Marco move them down to the warehouse. I'll get the guard to let it slip that we've accumulated a lot of illegal weapons lately and they've decided to destroy a bunch of them over the weekend."

Vin recognized the glint in Chris's eyes. It was the look he had right before they took down someone who'd really been a thorn in their side. Vin grinned as he saw the hungry look in the eyes of his friends.

Josiah nodded as his grin widened. "If Marco is working for Demarkis, or anyone else wanting to run guns, that would provide a sore temptation and a critical timeline."

Chris nodded. "Hit the guns over the weekend or lose them. If you've got someone just breaking into the gun trade, it's too good to pass up. Get your first load of weapons for free and then sell them for a hefty profit."

"You thinkin' to hit them at the warehouse?" asked Buck.

"Yes. We can't allow them to leave with the weapons. Once they're gone, too many things can go wrong and we can't take the chance of them getting on the street," said Chris.

"What if Mr. Demarkis does not dirty his hands with the act of stealing the guns?" asked Ezra. "Would it not be more prudent to let them take the guns and then set up a buy with Mr. Sanford?"

"Marco's not likely to be at a buy even if he is working for Demarkis, is he?" asked Nathan.

Chris shook his head. "No, probably not. As the inside man, he wouldn't want to expose himself like that."

They all sighed as JD voiced what they were all thinking. "So, if we take them down at the warehouse we get Marco, but probably not Demarkis. If we wait on a buy, we get Demarkis but not Marco and we chance losing the guns altogether."

Vin scowled, wanting both men to go down. After a moment, he said, "Demarkis will send some of his men to meet Marco and get the guns. If he doesn't come himself, maybe we could persuade Marco or one of his guys to call Demarkis and tell him there's a problem he needs to come fix."

"Like what?" asked Josiah, his eyebrows raised.

"I don't know . . . maybe Marco wants more money for his part."

Chris stared at Vin for a moment and then nodded. "Might work. Couldn't hurt to try. At the least we'll get Marco and some of Demarkis' men. We can't chance losing those guns. The bust will go down at the warehouse. JD, we need the place wired, cameras if you can. I don't want him fast-talking his way out of this."

"I'll get on it first thing in the morning."

"We won't have much time to pull this together," said Nathan.

"No, we won't. Do you guys think we can pull it off?" A series of affirmations from each of the team followed.

Chris nodded. "I'll tell Marco that JD and Ezra have gone to a training class on some new software. He knows Ezra's our backup IT guy and with him on desk duty, it sounds like a reasonable thing I would do. JD, you need to be in and out before he gets there. If it looks like a go, I'll send Marco with the weapons after lunch and the rest of us can work out the particulars."

"The good thing is he won't have much time to prepare for the heist," said Nathan. "They'll have to keep it simple."

Chris nodded. "I'll even make it easier by giving him the key to the gate. He'll have plenty of time to get that copied."

Grinning, Vin waggled his eyebrows at Chris. "What, aren't you going to give him a key to the building and a map of the warehouse?"

Chris snorted. "There's making it easy and there's being obvious. I'm trying not to go that far. I'm counting on his arrogance to get him to think I trust him and that I'm not onto him. Besides, might as well make them work for it a little bit."

The rest of the team chuckled at that as Chris continued. "If all goes as planned, he'll take the guns to the warehouse, scope it out while pumping a bored guard for information. Once he finds out the giant storehouse is full of weapons set to be destroyed, he'll call Demarkis or whoever he's selling out to and give them the rundown. He copies the key to the gate and leads a bunch of criminals into the warehouse tomorrow night. We'll be sitting there waiting for him with cameras rolling. If we get really lucky, the big boss will be there. If not, we'll try to lure him in."

"He'll probably have several men if they're planning on moving all those crates of weapons," said Nathan. "And we'll be two men down."

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Jackson," said Ezra, scowling at the medic. "I will be fine to participate in taking down Mr. Valdez."

"You're supposed to be on desk duty Ezra," said Chris.

"Nonsense. I barely have a limp. If you insist, then I shall park myself in a safe locale and stay there providing cover." Ezra's scowl turned into a glare aimed at Chris. "Marco went after one of our own, Mr. Larabee. I will be there."

"Me too," Vin said. He'd been trying to figure out how to broach the subject of going along for the bust. He'd have to thank Ezra later for giving him the opening he needed.

"No," said Chris and Nathan simultaneously. They looked at each other a moment and then Chris nodded to Nathan, turning the building argument over to him.

Nathan leaned forward, poking the table with his index finger as he made points. "You can't get around very quickly with that knee so if everything blows up on us like things have a way of doing, you won't be able to move quickly enough to get out of the way. And that head injury is still giving you trouble. I know you're still having headaches pretty often and under a stressful situation like that, dizziness is a lot more likely. You could pass out right when you need to defend yourself. No, Vin, you are not going."

Vin grit his teeth together in anger. He knew his limitations and he was perfectly capable of staying out of the way if that's what they wanted. He'd been a lot steadier on his feet the last couple of days and he knew he could help with back-up if they'd let him. But Nathan had dug in and Vin knew he was fighting a losing battle. He took a deep breath, crossed his arms across his chest, and said, "Fine."

His team sat staring at him with open mouths. "Fine?" Nathan echoed.

"S'what I said," Vin said tightly.

Chris narrowed his eyes and shifted back in his chair, stretching his legs out in front of him. He clasped his hands together, making a steeple with his index fingers while he studied the sniper. Vin purposely kept his eyes averted, knowing Chris could read him all too well. Finally, Chris spoke.

"You're going, with or without us, right?"

Vin ignored him and sipped his coffee. Yep, Chris could read him all too well. Chris sighed and rubbed his face before looking toward Nathan. "If we don't let him go, he'll just sneak in anyway. At least if he comes with us, we can keep some measure of control."

Annoyance, anger, and finally resolve flowed over the medic's face. He looked tired all of a sudden and Vin felt bad for being so much trouble. "You'll do what we say?"

Vin shrugged. "As long as it ain't somethin' stupid like stay in the truck."

Nathan frowned, studying Vin as if looking at him would give him an honest answer. Finally, he sighed and threw up his arms. "Great," he muttered. "No one listens to me. Not sure why I try. I definitely don't get paid enough for this crap."

"Nathan," said Vin softly, pausing until the agent looked at him. "Thanks."

Nathan gave a short nod. "Just don't get yourself killed or I'm gonna bring you back to life so I can yell at ya."


Friday, June 1

"We're done, Chris."

Chris smiled, letting the tension flow out of his shoulders and the phone in his hand slump a little. "Were you able to get a good view of the front of the warehouse?"

Josiah chuckled. "I think that boy gave us a view from every possible angle. Anybody that sets a foot in here is going to get recorded, both picture and sound."

"Perfect," Chris said, his grin widening. "You guys talk to Max?"

"Max and I had a very interesting conversation about agents that try to play both sides of the street while our young genius finished setting up the surveillance equipment. He was as unhappy with the current situation as we are. I dare say he's looking forward to playing his role in this endeavor."

Chris chuckled, thinking that sounded like something Ezra would say. "He probably is at that. Max gets about as riled as we do about dirty agents. Why don't you two take a long lunch break? Marco should be back in a few and I'll send him out with the guns about 1:30 and then tell him he can go home early."

"Sounds like a plan. Was Marco concerned with the absences this morning?"

"No, didn't seem to be. I got everyone together first thing to tell them JD and Ezra went to a software meeting and that you had been requested to offer your profiling skills to one of the other teams. They all went to lunch a while ago so they should start . . . actually, Marco and Buck are just coming back in. Call before you head this way."

"Will do, boss. Here comes JD, so we'll see you after lunch."

Chris hung up, chuckling to himself at Max's probable reaction. Max had been an agent for ATF for almost 20 years when a dirty cop providing backup for a bust had sold them out. The ATF team walked into an ambush and Max barely escaped with his life. He'd been left with a limp that excluded him from field duty. He was now in charge of security for the warehouse where they stored confiscated weapons until they were destroyed or sold.

Chris watched as Buck and Marco joked around before settling at their desks. He had to admit that Buck's acting skills were much better than he'd anticipated. As far as he was concerned, his old friend deserved an Emmy.

Twenty minutes later the phone rang. "Larabee."

"Chris, it's Andy. We got all the guns loaded into the van. You still want your guy to drive them over to the warehouse?"

"Yes. That's not a problem, right?"

"Oh, it's no problem. You're actually doing me a huge favor. We've got a new case as of this morning and things are moving pretty quickly."

"I understand. As you know, we're down a man and have a replacement working for another man, so we're doing a lot of paperwork right now. I figured we've got more time to play delivery boy with the weapons we picked up in that bust. It'll give one of the guys a chance to get out of the office."

"Yeah, I heard Standish is back and pulling desk duty. I'm glad he's okay. I'm guessing you're ready to get your sniper back by now."

Chris stiffened before remembering Andy had not only been there for the bust but had also talked to him about Marco's soiled reputation with certain folks in the FBI. He knew Andy wouldn't run at the mouth with others. "You've got that right. Don't worry about the guns. I'll get them moved this afternoon."

"I'm not worried, just relieved that I don't have to do it. Take care, Chris."

"You too. Thanks for getting them loaded."

Hanging up, Chris took a deep breath. Time to put the plan into action. He stood and walked over to open his office door to step out. "Hey, Marco, could I see you a minute?" He was careful to keep his voice and expression neutral. Marco seemed relaxed as he got up to follow Chris into his office. So far, so good.

"Do I need to close the door?" Marco asked, hesitating in the doorway.

Chris shook his head. "No, this won't take long." He waited until Marco sat down to continue.

"What's up?" asked Marco as he leaned back in the chair.

"I need you to run an errand." He smiled as he looked at Marco, trying not to think about what he really wanted to do to the weasel. Marco's brows went up. "We've got several crates of weapons from our bust with Team 2 that need to be moved to the warehouse. Team 5 has a few crates as well. Since we're doing random stuff right now, we get to play delivery boy."

Marco straightened and leaned forward, obviously interested. "You want me to drive it over?"

Chris put on his best apologetic look. "Yeah. Look, I know it's kind of a lame job, but someone's got to do it. On the plus side, Team 2 has already loaded all the crates into a van and there should be some guys at the warehouse to unload it."

Marco nodded. "No, that's okay. I don't mind."

Chris smiled. "Great. I appreciate it. Hey, it's the end of the week and we're kind of winding down. When you return the van, you can just take off for what's left of the afternoon, okay?"

"Yeah, great. Thanks, Chris."

"No, thank you," said Chris. He reached into the center drawer of his desk and pulled out a key on a keychain shaped like a horseshoe. "This is the key to the gate. It's usually open during the day, but take it along in case it's locked for some reason. You can give it back to me Monday if you don't want to come all the way back upstairs before leaving." He handed the key to Marco.

"Okay, thanks, I just might do that if you're sure you won't need it."

Chris shook his head. "I won't need it. This is the only thing I use it for and I sure don't plan on visiting the warehouse over the weekend. Don't get any ideas about waiting until tomorrow to take the guns because the building will be closed and locked tomorrow. They're only open Monday through Friday."

Marco nodded, smiling. Chris couldn't help but notice what appeared to be a glint in the man's eyes. He was pretty sure Marco was swallowing this hook, line, and sinker. After explaining how to get to the warehouse, Chris told him where the van with the guns was parked. "You'll need to sign for it at the desk, but the keys should be in it. Marks just called up to say it was ready. Any questions?"

Marco shook his head. "No, I've got it."

"Good. Thanks again, Marco. I'd do it myself but I've still got a stack of reports to review."

"No problem. I'll see you guys Monday."

Chris flipped his hand in a wave and looked back down at his computer screen, listening to Marco return to his desk. A few minutes later he heard him telling Buck goodbye while Buck ragged on him about getting to leave early. Several minutes later Buck appeared in his doorway.

"Looks like we're right on schedule," said Buck.

Chris looked up, leaning back in his chair. "Yeah. Now we need to see if he takes the bait. Did JD get the van wired?"

Buck nodded. "He makes any calls from inside the van and we'll know. Having him drive one of our vehicles was a good idea."

"We'll see," said Chris. Part of him was excited at the prospect of taking Marco down and the other part of him kept thinking this had been way too easy. Well, maybe that was because they hadn't actually accomplished much yet. "Here's hoping."


Marco couldn't believe what a bunch of saps the magnificent Team 7 was. He laughed, thinking that their so-called leader was the worst of the bunch. First Larabee hovers over Tanner like he's his father or something while glaring at Marco like he was the devil himself. Now he's practically falling all over himself to be nice to him while he hadn't mentioned Tanner in several days.

For a moment, that sent off all sorts of alarm bells in Marco's head. Frowning, he went over everything that had happened the last few days, trying to determine if he'd been made or not. Then it hit him. He laughed so hard that his eyes teared and he had to slow down until he could see again. The timing explained it all.

Larabee had begun ignoring Tanner and trying to be nice to him right after the confrontation on the stairs. Although no mention was ever made about the guns and drugs in the sniper's apartment, he knew the police had gone there with a search warrant. The only explanation was that Larabee had found the stuff and covered for Tanner, probably on impulse. His recent behavior could only mean that Larabee was angry with Tanner over the discovery.

"It's one thing to cover for a man on the team you're responsible for, but it's another thing entirely to continue to trust him," he muttered to himself. Just because he was willing to keep Tanner out of jail didn't mean he wanted him on his team. He chuckled to himself. Looked like his move to permanent replacement was getting closer.

He was smiling broadly as he turned into the warehouse driveway. The gates were open, so he drove on to the front of the building. He barely had the vehicle in park when a huge man came out of the front door, walking with a slight limp. The guy was as tall as Jackson and built like Sanchez. Gray touched the edges of his short brown hair and hazel eyes were locked onto Marco like lasers.

"Can I help you?" The giant of a man had a clipboard in one hand, but his other hovered near his gun. Marco was thankful he didn't have to tangle with this guy.

"Yeah, I'm Marco Valdez. I brought some weapons down for storage for Chris Larabee." He leaned against the van, trying to look relaxed.

The large man consulted his clipboard before looking back at Marco. He stood stock still for a few moments until Marco got an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was on the verge of telling the guy never mind when he broke out into a huge grin.

"Max Granger," the man said, extending his hand while chuckling. "Sorry, I just can't resist teasing new guys."

Marco relaxed and returned the grin while shaking the massive hand. Man, this guy was huge. "Max seems a bit prophetic."

Max shrugged. "Max is a nickname that stuck, can't imagine why."

"No, me neither," Marco deadpanned.

Max laughed. "I like you, Marco. Good sense of humor." He walked over to open the sliding door on the van and look at the stacked crates. "Yeah, that's what I thought. How about if you drive on down to those overhead doors. We'll get the door open so you can drive on in and I'll get the boys to unload." He closed the door and looked back at Marco. "Sound good to you?"

Marco nodded and held his arms out, palms up. "Hey, you had me when you said someone else had to unload all these crates."

Max laughed and nodded. "Exactly. See you down at the door."

By the time Marco had the van started, Max was already inside the building. Man, that guy could move fast, especially considering he had a bum leg. Marco arrived at the overhead door about the time it was opening and backed inside the large building. He got out and rounded the vehicle to find Max already there, throwing open the sliding door.

"All right, guys," he said to the two guys trailing him. "These go in Section H3. Put them in . . " he trailed off, flipping through the papers on a clipboard. "Looks like we've got two different busts here and we need to keep them separate. The crates marked alpha tango two go in slot four and the ones marked alpha tango five go in slot five. Got that?" he asked, looking back at his men.

The larger of the two nodded. "Got it, Max." The shorter man pushed a flatbed cart up near the van and the two began hauling crates out to stack on the cart.

"Come on in, kid and I'll treat you to cup of coffee," said Max, motioning toward a glass front office.

Marco followed slowly, looking around the warehouse. "Sure is crowded in here. Are all of those weapons?"

Max turned as he reached the office door and glanced around the building. "Yeah, everything in this building is some kind of weapon, mostly guns. More and more illegal guns on the street means more and more are confiscated and brought here. We've actually gotten so crowded that they're going to destroy a bunch of them this weekend, clear out some space."

Marco's eyes widened as he looked at all the crates of guns in organized stacks covering the warehouse floor. "Wait, destroy them? How can they do that?" He hurried to follow Max past the office to a breakroom on the other side.

Max walked over and pulled a couple of mugs out of the cabinet before reaching for the coffee pot. "They won't destroy them all, just the ones that are long enough past their trial that they won't be needed anymore for evidence." He handed Marco a cup and motioned toward the tray with sweeteners and creamers. "I'll let you doctor your own cup."

Marco finished fixing his coffee and joined Max at the table. Max grinned at him. "I know what you're thinking. Why destroy perfectly good guns? Sometimes they are sold to licensed gun dealers and sometimes I guess you could say we recycle them into our own supply of weapons for use by agents. But right now we have an overload of automatic weapons that have no place on the streets, so the decision was made to destroy them." Max shrugged as if he didn't care one way or the other and sipped at his coffee.

Marco nodded, staring into his cup as he thought about the money sitting out there on the warehouse floor. An idea was already forming in his head, but he needed to be careful about how he asked his questions. "This is quite a set up here. I guess it's got pretty good security."

Max snorted and swirled his drink around in the cup. "No one's getting past the three of us during the day," he said, looking up at Marco. "You probably noticed driving in there are no signs telling what this place is. To the average person driving by, it's just another nondescript warehouse so as not to attract unwanted attention. At night we have locks on the gate and the doors, plus an alarm system on the building itself. It's worked so far."

Marco nodded. "Sounds good," he said but he was thinking this was going to be a piece of cake. Now he just had to make friendly conversation so he didn't get Max's suspicions up. Fifteen minutes later, one of the men stuck his head in the door.

"Everything's unloaded. You're good to go."

"Thanks, Carter," Max said.

Marco got up and took his empty cup to the sink. "Guess I'll head back. It was good to meet you."

Max nodded, following him as he headed for the van. "Likewise. Tell Larabee I said to stay out of trouble." He chuckled. "Like that could ever happen."

Marco shook his head. How in the world did the ATF function with all these goofballs running around? And he'd thought the FBI agents were lame. A few minutes later he was on his way back to the ATF. He was so pumped with how happy he was going to make Demarkis that he decided to pull over and call him. If they were going to go after the guns tonight, they didn't have much time to put it together.


Leaning back in the chair he'd pulled up to JD's desk, Chris crossed his arms and grinned. JD had just finished playing the recording of Marco's phone call to Demarkis for the team. Whatever happened tonight, Marco would not be in the ATF much longer. JD looked like someone had kicked his dog and Chris felt bad for the boy. He was young enough that he still tended to put his heroes on a pedestal and Marco had fallen about as far as one could fall.

Buck, always aware of how his friend was feeling, wrapped an arm around JD's neck. "I know how you feel, pard. He duped both of us. He's just a slick, snake-oil sellin' weasel. But don't you worry none, we're gonna take that pesky varmint down a notch or two."

Ezra's eyebrows rose. "And exactly how many snake-oil salesmen have you dealt with Mr. Wilmington? I thought those particular entrepreneurs to be extinct in our present age."

"Well, heck, Ezra, you got snake-oil salesman in every age. I'd've thought you'd recognize a metaphor when you heard one," said Buck with a grin.

"I know what a metaphor is, Mr. Wilmington, I just wasn't aware that you did. Your descriptions tend to be more on the literal side," said Ezra, straightening his sleeve.

Buck looked to Nathan and Josiah for support. Nathan chuckled and shook his head, pointing to Ezra. "What he said."

"I assume we'll be monitoring the warehouse this evening," said Josiah as he turned to face Chris.

Chris nodded. "Yep. Let's park behind the warehouse next door and walk over before Max closes up. I want us inside and set up long before they get there."

"What about Vin?" asked JD.

Chris sighed. "I'll swing by and get him on my way. If I don't, he'll probably just show up in the middle of things." He grinned, imagining the sharpshooter stalking into the warehouse with guns blazing. "I'll get Team One to be our outside backup. They're about the only other team not swamped with cases right now."

"Their sniper is almost as good as Vin. Might want to poach him to cover inside with us," said Nathan.

Chris frowned, knowing Vin would not appreciate the move, but it made sense. Vin didn't need to be crawling around in the rafters right now. "I'll talk to Akers about it. I don't think he'll have a problem with me using his sniper on this, especially since Vin and Thomas are friends."

They sat in silence for several moments. Chris figured everyone was doing what he was doing, which was thinking of all the things that could go wrong. They needed to work on possible scenarios so they could be prepared for whatever happened.

"Ya know," Buck drawled, "this could get real ugly. And you know how much I –"

"Hate ugly," the rest of them said simultaneously. Buck looked startled and everyone burst out laughing.

Chris stood up and headed for his office. "Grab coffee or a coke or whatever and meet in the conference room in ten. I'm going to call Vin and then we need to make some plans ." He turned around at his office door to face his team. "The better prepared we are, the less ugly for us it will be, so start thinking."

Closing his door, he sat down and dialed Vin. After hearing the familiar voice answer, he leaned back and propped his feet on his desk. "Hey, cowboy, got some good news."


Vin felt better than he had in weeks and healing wounds were only part of the reason. The giant ball of anxiety that had taken up residence in his gut was finally beginning to dissipate now that the Marco issue was finally coming to a head. Once his distrust of the man had settled in to stay, Vin was constantly worrying that the team would be called in to a bust without reliable coverage from a sniper. Things had just gone downhill from there.

He took one last look at his apartment before he went outside to wait for Chris. He didn't think he'd forgotten anything. Chris was bringing his rifle and his sidearm since he'd picked up his weapons once the police department released them. Grinning, he let himself out the door and locked it. Almost immediately he felt the hairs on his neck stand up. Before he could react, a gun was jabbed into his side causing him to drop his cane when he stumbled.

"Going somewhere, Tanner?" Marco. "Don't move just yet," he said as he patted Vin down. "Okay, turn around slowly."

Vin did as he was told and glared at Marco, standing just far enough away it would be fatal to try lunging at the man. "What do you want?"

Marco smirked. "I have a little party later on this evening and I wanted to invite you."

"Yeah, well, I've got dinner plans so I'll have to turn ya down. Maybe later, like after hell freezes over."

Marco chuckled. "You're a regular riot Tanner, you know that? Well, it turns out I really need you to be at this one. Here's what we're going to do. You're going to walk down the steps and out the front door to my car. I'll be right behind you with the gun. If we encounter anyone and you say or do anything to tip them off, I'm shooting them, not you. Got it?"

"I got it," Vin said. Marco motioned to the stairs with his gun so Vin began the trip to the car. All the way down the stairs, he tried to figure out how he was going to get out of this. Maybe he could dodge behind a car in the parking lot. Marco might be dirty, but he was a good enough shot it was going to be hard to get away from him and be alive to enjoy it, especially with his knee aching like it was.

They were just a few steps from the bottom of the stairs when he felt Marco move up close behind him. "Remember what I said."

Miguel came through the front door with his mother, both of them carrying a bag of groceries. Miguel's eyes widened and he whispered something to his mother. Vin wiggled his eyebrows at Miguel and darted his eyes to the side where Marco hovered over him.

"Hey Miguel, Maria. Looks like you guys have been shoppin'."

Maria looked worried, but her voice was solid. "Vin, I see you are recovering from your fall. I am glad to see you getting around better."

Inwardly, Vin sighed in relief that they were playing along. He knew Miguel had recognized Marco by the look in his eyes. "Yes, ma'am, I am. Me and my friend were just going to a party."

"Will your other friend, Chris, will he be there?" asked Miguel.

Vin shrugged. "Don't think he got invited to this one." Marco poked him in the back with the gun. "Well, we gotta go so we ain't late. See ya later."

Miguel and Maria said goodbye and began moving up the steps as Marco practically shoved Vin through the front door. "I guess you did understand," Marco said, keeping one hand on Vin's arm as he pressed the gun to Vin's lower back and pushed him toward the alley beside the building.

"You're a piece of work, Marco, ya know that? Where are we goin' anyway?"

As they approached a white sedan parked in the alley, the trunk popped open. Immediate terror flushed through him like a streak of lightning and he pulled away from Marco with the intent of running. He was not getting in that trunk. That was his last thought as something impacted the side of his head and the world went dark.


Chris pulled into the parking lot in front of Vin's building, slamming on the brakes as Miguel ran out in front of him. Mumbling a curse under his breath, he rolled the window down since Miguel had rounded the front of the vehicle heading directly for the driver's side.

"Mr. Chris, Mr. Chris, he took Vin."

"What?" Throwing it into park, Chris jumped out of the truck and grabbed Miguel by his upper arms. "Calm down and tell me exactly what happened."

Miguel took a deep breath and nodded. "We were coming inside, me and my mom, a few minutes ago. Vin was coming down the stairs with the man from the other day."

"The man who broke into his apartment and pushed him down the stairs?"

"Yes, that man. He was walking right behind Vin, very close. It was weird. Vin made a face at me, so I acted like I didn't recognize him. Vin said they were on their way to a party. I asked if you were going to be there and he told me you weren't invited. I think Vin was in trouble."

Chris nodded and looked around the lot. "He is. I was supposed to pick him up and he knew that. Besides, he would never go anywhere with Marco willingly." He looked back down at the frightened teen. "Did you see where they went?"

Miguel frowned and shook his head. "Not really. I didn't want my mom to get hurt so I waited until they were out of sight before trying to follow. I know they went around to that side of the building," he said, pointing to the alley. "By the time I looked around the corner, they were gone. I'm sorry, Mr. Chris. I should have gone out sooner."

Chris shook his head. "No, you did the right thing. I don't want you endangering your mother or yourself and Vin would say the same thing."

Miguel nodded and huffed out a sigh. "I know he would say that, but I still wish I had seen more." Suddenly his eyes brightened and he looked back up at Chris. "Wait, when we were walking up to the building, I saw a car parked in the alley. It was white with four doors . . . I am not sure what kind."

"That's okay," Chris said. Marco's car was a red challenger, so obviously he'd gotten a car from somewhere else so it wouldn't be seen here. "How long ago did this happen?"

"Just before you got here. I was trying to figure out how to reach you when I saw you drive up."

"Okay, good. I'll take care of finding Vin. Let me give you my number so you can call if they come back or you see anything else."

Nodding, Miguel pulled out his phone and let Chris plug in his number. "Thanks, Miguel, you've been a huge help. If you hadn't seen Vin, we'd have no idea what happened to him."

"You will find him and bring him home?" the boy asked, his expression hopeful.

"I will. And Marco's going to regret ever messing with Vin and the team, count on it."

Miguel seemed to relax as he nodded. "I trust you, Mr. Chris, because Vin says you are the best." Holding up his phone, he said, "I will let you know if I see anything else."

With a nod, Chris got back in the truck and dialed his phone. "Buck, we've got a problem." Setting the phone aside as Buck's voice came through the truck speakers, he pulled out into traffic. "Marco grabbed Vin from his apartment. Neighbor kid saw a white car, but he's not sure of the make or model. I'm going to drive around here for a few minutes in case they're still close."

"What? Why would he do that?" There was a shuffling noise and then Buck came back on the line. "Ezra says maybe he's going to take Vin to the warehouse and set him up to be the thief."

Chris growled under his breath. "Well, that would make sense and follow his SOP. Vin takes the fall and leaves the way clear for him to be assigned to the team permanently. Trouble is, Vin isn't going to stand by and take the wrap quietly."

"Shoot. You think he means to kill Vin?"

"Kill him and leave his body there. Everyone assumes Vin was on the take and got double-crossed by whoever he was working with. Vin goes down dirty and Marco is free and clear to keep dealing with the devil." Chris tightened his grip on the steering wheel, his anger building to explosive levels. He forced himself to take a couple of slow deep breaths.

The phone connection was silent for so long that Chris wondered if they'd been disconnected. When Buck's voice finally came through, Chris could hear the tight anger in it and that somehow made him feel a little better. "Well, I'd say ole Marco will be lucky if he leaves that buildin' still breathin'. He'd better hope team one gets to him first."

"He'd better not hurt Vin or it won't matter who finds him first. Is everyone on the way to the warehouse?"

"Yeah. You'd better get on over there, pard. We've gotta get into position before Max takes off. You ain't gonna find Vin drivin' around over there. Marco's gonna have to kill him in the warehouse for his plan to work. He'll keep him alive til then."

Chris slammed his hand down on the steering wheel. "Okay, you're right. I'm on my way. But I swear if anything happens to Vin, Marco doesn't leave that building alive."

"There's things worse than death, Chris."

He didn't respond to Buck's attempt to keep him from killing Marco. Huffing out a breath, he said, "I'll be there in a few." Then he disconnected the call. It occurred to him that none of their theorized scenarios accounted for trying to keep Vin from getting killed while taking down the bad guys. Why couldn't anything ever just go according to plan?


"Get out."

Vin's head snapped up and he blinked, trying to figure out what was going on. His head was pounding so hard that he was sure the pressure was going to push his brain out of his ears. His vision cleared and he realized he was sitting in the back seat of a car, his hands cuffed in his lap. "What happened? How . . . "

"I said get out. Are you deaf or stupid?" Marco sighed and shook his head. "I already explained this to you twice this afternoon, genius. Shake that shaggy head of yours and pay attention."

Squinting against the light, he looked up to find Marco using the gun in his hand to wave him out of the car. "Get out Tanner or so help me, I'll drag you out," the rogue agent growled. Not seeing another option, Vin scooted to the edge of the seat and stepped out of the car, listing immediately to his right to lean on the door frame.

Marco grabbed his arm and shoved him far enough along that he could shut the car door. The lights, he realized, came from a vehicle parked right behind the car. Noting the darkness outside, Vin realized several hours must have passed since Marco had taken him. As the room spun lazily around him, he heard movement from what sounded like several people and low voices. A large form appeared on his right side and grabbed his other arm. Between the two of them, they manhandled him across the room and into an old metal chair sitting against the wall.

Vin was still trying to figure out what was happening when another large man walked up. He first thought it was Josiah because of the man's build and gray hair, but the fancy suit looked more like something Ezra would wear. As the man began speaking, he realized it was Demarkis. Suddenly he recognized where they were – the warehouse.

"I do not want to waste my time on things we cannot make a good profit on, Mr. Valdez. I assume you can procure a list of everything stored here so that we may make efficient use of our time by not having to look in every box."

Marco nodded. "I'll get it, Mr. Demarkis." Looking at the man who had helped wrestle Vin to the chair, he said, "Joe, keep an eye on Tanner for me while I get the inventory for Mr. Demarkis." After he'd dashed into the office, Joe huffed out a breath.

"He think he's in charge of me?" asked the large man, scowling at the traitor's back.

Demarkis chuckled. "He is anxious to impress me. I think Mr. Valdez has a love of money and the things it can buy. We will use him until he becomes an inconvenience and then we will dismiss him . . . permanently."

Joe smirked and nodded. "I want to be a part of that. That guy's a little too impressed with himself."

Demarkis didn't comment, staring down at Vin. Straightening in his chair, he glared at the criminal. "Somethin' you want?"

Demarkis sighed and looked around the warehouse. "I want many things, Mr. Tanner. I want the guns in this place to kick start my business selling weapons. That will make a nice supplement to the drug sales and other ventures I have going." He looked back down at Vin, his expression smug. "And I always get what I want. As your fellow agent has probably told you, you are to take the fall for this little adventure since your reputation is already in question. That will leave Mr. Valdez free to help me in other ways."

"My team won't believe it."

Demarkis laughed. "They will not have a choice. Your body will be found here along with evidence to suggest that the people you sold the weapons to double-crossed you. Since you'll be dead, there will be no one to dispute the evidence."

Marco bounded across from the office and handed a small stack of papers to Demarkis. "Here's the inventory and a map of the warehouse marked with the storage numbers that are printed beside each entry."

Demarkis scanned the paper and smiled. "Excellent, just what we need. Joe, take this to the crew and start loading. I want crates of automatic weapons like we discussed. Let me know if you see anything else that looks interesting." Joe nodded and headed over to the vehicle parked behind the car. Squinting, Vin was able to make out a large truck. The markings on the side indicated it was a bread truck. The corners of his mouth turned up at the thought of the iron-fortified weapons making bread for Demarkis.

"I'm glad you think this is funny, Agent Tanner," said Demarkis. "I'm sure you'll find your execution equally entertaining," he smirked. "Enjoy your last few minutes of life. Watch him, Marco, while I go oversee the procurement of my business assets."

"Sounds like Ezra too," Vin muttered as the well-dressed man walked toward the bread truck. He glanced around the warehouse, trying not to move his head as he looked for any sign of his team. He knew they were here somewhere. He wished he knew where they were and what they were planning. Maybe he could help, or at least not get in the way.

Marco perched one hip on the edge of a metal table shoved against the wall, his gun pointed at Vin. "Well, mister high and mighty Tanner, how far the big hero has fallen."

Vin leaned his head against the wall, staring at Marco. He didn't know how the bust was going to go down, but he could at least keep Marco distracted. "Ya know, I almost feel sorry for you. You could've had a good thing. Gotten yourself assigned to a regular team, been parta somethin' special, somethin' good. Sounds like jealousy and greed got ya' so tangled up ya' can't get yourself loose."

Marco's grip tightened and his lips thinned out as Vin spoke. "Shut up, Tanner. You don't know anything. Some of us have had to work for everything we got, we didn't have anything handed to us. I grew up one of five kids with a single mother. We never had much of anything. Well, I sure as heck will have something now."

Vin chuckled. "Seriously? You're blamin' your lyin' and thievin' on bein' poor?"

"I don't expect you to understand. I'll bet you had the perfect parents complete with picket fence and a college fund."

Vin stopped laughing, his expression sobering as his voice became hard. "Oh, yeah, Marco, you've got me pegged. My dad died when I was a baby and my mom died when I was five, barely remember her. Lived with my grandpa on the reservation til he died when I was twelve. From there it was an orphanage and a string of foster homes. I was fifteen when I ran away from the last one because the man got drunk and beat me every three or four days. Yeah, I had a heck of a life."

Marco frowned and Vin enjoyed the confusion he could see clouding the man's eyes. "I was on the streets a couple of years until Miss Nettie took me in, got me back in school. By then I was so far behind there weren't no catchin' up, especially with my dyslexia. That's all part of that golden spoon upbringin' I was treated to. She finally let me quit and helped me get my GED. Then I joined the Army because about the only thin' I was good at was shootin'. You're right, Marco. My life was much easier than yours."

Marco's mouth opened, but nothing came out. He frowned and once again tightened his grip on the gun. "Doesn't matter. You made your choices and I made mine."

"That's right," Vin said, anger pitching his voice low. "It's all about choices, not about what you did or didn't have. So quit blaming your circumstances for your decisions. You tell me how many days you went hungry, how many times you prowled garbage cans for food or a threadbare blanket so you wouldn't freeze, and then maybe we can talk about a lack of options."

"Shut up, Tanner, just shut up," Marco yelled, standing so quickly the metal table legs scraped against the concrete floor. He leveled the gun and Vin was positive he was about to shoot him when raised voices could be heard echoing throughout the warehouse. The only thing Vin heard clearly was ATF. Although the gun was still pointed his way, Marco had turned his head to look toward the noise, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open.

Vin shot forward, bringing his cuffed hands up under Marco, forcing his arms up. A shot rang out but fired harmlessly into the ceiling. Vin's forward momentum carried them both to the floor and he heard the gun clatter as it skidded away. As he and Marco grappled on the cold concrete, gunshots rang out across the room. A ricochet sent concrete splinters into their faces and they both automatically turned their heads.

Vin blinked against what he hoped was dust in his eyes as he brought his cuffed hands up to protect his face. Marco rolled them over and pushed Vin away, clamoring to his feet. Rolling to his hands and knees with intention of following, Vin's breath was taken away by a kick that curled up just under his hipbone and threw him back into the table legs.

Blood streamed into his eyes from where the scuffle had opened the wound where Marco had cuffed him earlier. Wiping it away, he used the overturned table to pull himself to his feet. He could still hear shouts and an occasional shot, but his focus was on Marco. As his vision cleared, he saw Marco get into a large sedan parked behind the truck, probably Demarkis' car.

"No, you are goin' down for this if I have to track you to Mexico," Vin muttered as he staggered toward the opening. His foot hit something and knocked it across the floor until it struck the wheel of the truck. Marco's gun.

Smiling, Vin grabbed the gun and began a limping jog toward the open door. He made it outside just as the sedan began picking up speed as it headed for the gate. Planting his feet, he emptied the gun into the tires and back windshield causing the car to careen sideways into the support poles for the gate.

"Vin, you all right?"

Chris appeared beside him, his gun up as he searched the darkness for any threats. Vin dropped his arms, suddenly very tired and very dizzy. "I couldn't let him get away."

Chris stepped in front of him, studying his face. "Couldn't let who get away?"

Vin nodded toward the car and swayed so bad with increasing vertigo that he'd have dropped to the ground if Chris hadn't grabbed his arm. "Whoa, partner, take it easy."

Josiah ran out and looked around before letting his gaze fall on the two men. "Vin, brother, it's good to see you. We were counting on you making an appearance here. You look a little worse for wear though."

"Hey, Josiah. I'm feelin' a mite poorly just now. Would you mind takin' care of Marco for me? He's in that car over there that run itself into the fence."

Josiah grinned, his teeth shining in the light from the open doorway. "I'd be happy to, Vin. Here, let me help you with that." Josiah eased the gun from Vin's hand before pulling keys from his pocket and removing the handcuffs. "There you are. You let Chris get you back inside now, okay?"

"Yeah, I will. Thanks." He looked at Chris and frowned at the way his face seemed to split into two faces and then merge back together. "Quit that, your makin' me dizzy."

Chris frowned, slipping an arm around Vin's waist as he sagged. "What exactly am I supposed to quit doing?"

Vin leaned against Chris, his body aching and his head throbbing. He was pretty sure Chris had asked him a question, but he couldn't remember what it was. The edges of his vision began going dark and his legs felt like jello. "Think I might need . . . to sit down." Strong arms supported him as the darkness closed in and shut everything else out.


Monday, June 4

Vin listened to the soft rustling sounds for several seconds before he realized he was awake. Keeping his breathing even, he surveyed his senses to help him figure out where he was. Whispered voices. Something soft beneath him. Pain in his head, an ache in his side, and a small pinch in the back of his hand. Antiseptic smells. Hospital?

"I think Junior's playin' possum." That sounded like Buck.

Movement at the edge of the bed, near his arm. "I think you might be right." Chris.

Vin furrowed his brow slightly as he tried to convince his eyes to open. After a few moments, Chris came into view, smirking down at him. "There he is. You with us this time?"

"Think so," he mumbled, his voice rough. A humming noise was followed almost instantly by the head of the bed raising. The next thing he knew a straw poked him in the lip.

"Here, take a few sips of water." Blinking, he stared at the straw for a moment before obeying. After a few sips, Chris pulled the cup away. Vin coughed and tried to clear his throat of the gunk it felt like had taken up residence there.

Chris and Buck held a short conversation with each other while Vin cleared the cobwebs from his mind and tuned in to listen. Marco's name caught his attention. "Wait . . . what?"

Buck chuckled. "Oh, now you pay attention."

Vin frowned at Buck and then moved on to Chris. "Wait, what's goin' on? How long have I been here?" Bits and pieces of being kidnapped by Marco and the subsequent fiasco in the warehouse flashed through his head. "Shots, there were shots. Everyone okay?"

Chris pushed him back when he tried to sit up. "Take it easy, pard, everyone is fine. Demarkis and his goons, what's left of them, are behind bars. He gave up pretty easily once Marco took off in his car, figured his fancy lawyer will get him off. Marco's upstairs in the prison ward with a shoulder wound from you and a broken nose from the airbags. He'll be transferred tomorrow."

"Good . . . that's good," Vin slurred, blinking sleepily. His head throbbed and he decided he wanted to go back to sleep.

"Hey, cowboy, keep your eyes open a few minutes," said Chris, chuckling.

Vin tried glaring at the man, but with his head aching and his brain sluggish, he didn't think he pulled it off. "Why? Head hurts somethin' fierce."

Chris and Buck's expressions sobered and they exchanged a look before meeting his eyes again. "Because you took another blow to the head from Marco and it caused some bleeding in the brain. They had to keep a pretty close eye on you for a while. It looks like it's resolved itself, but the doc said if you woke up to keep you awake and talking for a few minutes if we could. You gave us a bit of a scare."

It took Vin a moment to process all of Chris's words. After a moment, he gave a tiny nod. "Okay. What's a while? How long I been here?"

Buck rubbed his head. "Well, let's see. The warehouse thing was Friday night about midnight and it's now Monday mornin' about 10:30. You been kinda in and out since yesterday, but not like you was really awake or knew what was goin' on. Just kinda opened your eyes, rolled ‘em around a bit, and closed ‘em again."

Chris nodded. "Kind of worrisome to be honest. It's good to see you coherent finally. Doctor said we couldn't all be here cluttering the place up, so we've been switching off in pairs since Saturday afternoon."

Vin felt the corners of his mouth turn up, almost on their own volition. It always warmed him to know these men were willing to sit around watching his back. Although he never expected it, at least it had stopped surprising him. His head didn't seem as troublesome now as he thought about Marco getting his just desserts and him here with friends watching over him.

"Vin, that's an awful big grin you're totin' there. Care to share?" asked Buck, his eyes twinkling like he knew exactly what Vin was smiling about.

Vin smirked at the ladies' man. "I was just wonderin' how many of them pretty nurses you been wooin' is all."

Buck's grin widened. "You know ole Buck. I got a couple of ‘em eatin' outta the palm of my hand."

Chris barked out a laugh. "More like trying to bite your hand."

Buck frowned, putting his hand over his heart. "You wound me, pard."

The door opened before Chris could respond. The men parted for an attractive nurse with dark blonde hair pulled back in a French braid. She had gray-blue eyes and smiled when she saw that Vin was awake. "Well hello there, Mr. Tanner. I'm Kayla and I'm your nurse today. It's nice to finally see those beautiful blue eyes of yours."

"It's just Vin, ma'am. I ain't no mister."

Kayla chuckled as she took hold of his wrist. "Okay, Vin, then. I'm just going to take your vitals."

Chris moved back against the wall to give her more room, but Buck continued to stand next to her as she took Vin's pulse and blood pressure. Vin noticed her frown at the big man a couple of times, but Buck was oblivious. If Vin's head didn't hurt so bad, he would've laughed out loud.

When the nurse went to move around the bed to check the IV, Buck moved the same direction she did causing them to collide. She huffed out an angry breath as he apologized.

"Sir, could you possibly wait over there until I finish checking Mr. uh, Vin. I can't move with you right under my feet."

Buck backed up next to Chris. "Why certainly, darlin'. I'll just get out of your way and maybe later, when you're done with your shift, I can apologize properly by buyin' you dinner. I know this romantic little Italian place you'd just love."

Kayla checked his IV bag and port. "How's the headache?"

Vin shrugged. "It's there, but not too bad."

Looking back at him, she smiled. "How about I get you some pain medication now that you're awake. And maybe some juice."

Vin smiled back at her, enchanted by her silky voice and her honest concern. "I'd be much obliged, ma'am."

Laying her hand on his shoulder, she said, "I'll make a deal with you. You don't call me ma'am and I won't call you mister, okay?"

Vin could feel the heat in his cheeks as he stammered out, "Sure, okay, we can do that. Thank you, Kayla."

Patting his arm, she nodded. "Good. I'll be right back."

As she went back around the bed, Chris grinned at Vin while Buck just looked dismayed. Kayla stopped right in front of the door and turned to face the ladies' man. "In case you were wondering, that's a solid no on the dinner invitation." With a huff, she threw the door open and left.

Vin almost felt sorry for Buck with his crushed expression and his sad eyes. Almost. He sighed audibly. "I guess she was one of them biters, huh Buck?"


Wednesday, June 20

Setting the boxes of donuts on the table, Vin began getting the coffee started. The office was silent except for sounds of his work. He picked up the open coffee can and inhaled deeply. He'd always loved the smell of coffee. Once he'd set the two pots to gurgling, he leaned against the counter and smiled in contentment. He was back.

He'd spent yesterday getting the correct form releasing him from the doctor's care and requalifying on his rifle, then getting everything turned in to the right people. Today was his first full day of active duty in what seemed like forever. He'd had worse injuries with longer recuperation times, but Marco had made this journey seem so much worse. On the surface, he knew his team would not betray and replace him like that, but his past fed that little voice in his head that advised him to never trust again or he would get burned. He hated that voice.

"Hey, cowboy. Itching to get started?"

Vin jerked his head up, chastising himself for woolgathering instead of paying attention. The smirk Chris was wearing announced that the man knew what had just happened. "Sneakin' up on folks before they've had their coffee ain't nice, cowboy."

Chris's brow furrowed. "Don't call me cowboy."

"Likewise. Coffee's almost done. And yes, I made a pot of dirty dishwater for those of you who can't stomach the good stuff."

Chris sauntered over and stood in front of Vin, his arm outstretched. Vin cocked his head and looked down, reaching out to grasp his friend in a forearm lock. The returning grip was strong and Vin looked up to meet Chris's eyes.

"Good to have you back where you belong."

The words were simple, but the eyes said so much more that Vin found himself unable to speak for a moment. Chris waited patiently, a hint of a smile telling Vin that he knew what was going on. But then, when didn't he? This man could read him like no other.

"Thanks," Vin said when he finally found his voice. "It's really good to be back." He tried to convey how true that statement was with both his voice and his eyes. Chris gave a short nod that told him he'd succeeded.

They separated and began filling their cups as the gurgling came to an end. Chris motioned toward the table. "I see you brought donuts. That should put everyone in a good mood."

Vin shrugged. "I was hungry so it sure put me in a good mood to bring them. Any news on Demarkis or Marco?"

Chris rubbed his face. "Demarkis refused to say anything, just like we figured, but he turned a little green as we outlined all the evidence we have to him and his lawyer. I think they'll be busy trying to figure out how to get him out before he dies of old age. On top of the recording at the warehouse, the search warrant yielded a computer with some pretty damaging evidence."

"Marco?" Vin wanted to forget Marco ever existed, but he wanted to be sure he was going away for all the stuff he'd done first. Chris looked down at his coffee in a way that made Vin nervous. "Chris?"

Huffing a breath, Chris brought his eyes up to meet Vin's. "Marco cut a deal." He held up his hand when Vin opened his mouth to protest. "Not that kind of a deal. He's still going to jail and for a long time. We told him we were onto him for all that prior stuff, setting up other cops to take the fall and selling information. When we started shelling out details he got scared. So he offered to confess to everything and clear the names of people he'd set up, along with providing the names of other law enforcement people who are dirty if we didn't charge him with any of the prior crimes. But he's going down for kidnapping and attempted murder of a federal officer along with several other charges."

After a pause, Chris scowled at the cup in his hands. "I wanted to keep gathering evidence and nail him for everything he's done, lock him up for good. But the DA wanted his testimony against Demarkis and the people upstairs wanted the names of the other dirty cops."

Vin nodded, his gut churning at the thought of Marco getting away with actions that had cost the careers of some good men and the lives of others. But he also understood the need to clean house. "I guess getting' bad cops off the street where they can't cause more senseless deaths is a good thing."

Chris gave him a tight smile. "I guess. On the plus side, he'll spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder after testifying against Demarkis. The man has a lot of money and a lot of friends. And when Marco does finally get out, he'll be starting from scratch since his overseas retirement account has been confiscated." His eyes glinted as they met Vin's again. "He may actually find out what it means to be hungry."

Vin froze, remembering what he'd said in the warehouse and that it had been recorded. Heat rose up his neck as he thought about all the eyes that would see and hear his rendition of his childhood. Why hadn't he just kept his mouth shut?

Chris's hand on his arm brought his eyes up. "Don't be sorry about the things you said. It took the wind out of his excuses and it showed that a good man can overcome his circumstances. It's like you said, we all have choices and we have to take responsibility for the ones we make. You made a lot of good choices and I'm proud to call you my friend. Now pick that head up and be proud of who you are, Vin Tanner."

The moment of horror passed with Chris's assurances and Vin thought about what he'd said. He was proud of what he'd become, in spite of bad circumstances that were beyond his control. He'd had some bad times, but he'd had some good times too. His mother and his grandfather had instilled a sense of honor and integrity in him that bad foster homes and time on the streets could not take away. He grinned at Chris, his shoulders relaxing at the warm gaze that met him.

"I'm a Tanner."

Chris returned the grin and nodded. "You sure are."

They both looked toward the door as a ruckus from down the hall began getting louder and louder. Chris sipped his coffee and sighed. "Sounds like Buck and JD are here."

"Yep," Vin said, grinning broadly as the feeling of being home grew. It was probably weird to feel this way since he'd been back on desk duty for the last week, but there was something about knowing he was ready for whatever presented itself during the day that made it seem real. If they got a call, he could go and watch their back. That knowledge had vanquished the tension that had kept his body almost rigid the whole time he sat his desk.

Chris stepped out the break room door as the scuffling and arguing reached the bullpen. With a wink at Vin, he turned to face the noise with the Larabee glare and a voice that was just as stern. "What's going on out here? This is the office of a federal law enforcement agency and as such, I expect a little more professionalism here. Is that clear?"

The office became dead quiet so that Vin could hear the refrigerator running. He found that he had unwittingly straightened to attention at Chris's lecture and snorted in amusement. He could hear apologies coming from his two rambunctious teammates and he thought he heard Josiah's deep voice make a comment.

After another few seconds of silence, Chris relaxed and grinned, pointing into the breakroom. "Our guardian angel from on high is back to full duty and he brought donuts." There was a brief pause where he knew the guys were trying to figure out what the trick was, and then the room filled with people who were talking and laughing, congratulating him on being back, and loading their plates with donuts.

Vin watched it all with a grin on his face and smile in his heart. No one could replace any of his brothers and he thought, just maybe, they felt the same way about him.