Out of the Frying Pan,

Into the Fire

By mcat

ATF Alternate Universe

A few hours later, Vin woke up - nature was calling. He saw Chris asleep on the couch in the living area. Not wanting to wake him up, he silently crept past the older man, eventually making his way to the front of the camper. Before unlocking the door, he grabbed one of his handguns from under the driver's seat. Then he went out into the darkness.

The young agent had barely gotten his zipper back up when he heard a distinctive sound. One of his traps had been set off. He looked toward the source of the noise and realized that it had come from near the camper. It was probably Chris, he thought. He was about to call out to his new boss, to tell him that he was fine, 'just out takin' a piss,' he thought, thinking of the ATF leader's mother hen attitude, when he heard another of the traps get set off. This one was closer to the stream. It was not Chris. He kept quiet and yanked the handgun out of his back pocket.


"Goddammit!" EJ Banks swore quietly, wiping the old deer shit off his face. He didn't dare make another sound. He knew Tanner was out there in the woods. He'd seen him leave the camper. But now he had just tripped one of those stupid little fishing line traps the former Marshal was fond of and given away his position. The element of surprise was no longer a viable plan. But if there was one thing EJ knew about Vin Tanner, it was that the man would not just go back to the camper. Tanner did not shy away from a fight, even injured as he was. EJ knew that all he'd need to do was sit and wait right where he was and Tanner would come to him.


Vin knew Banks was out there. As sure as anything he'd ever been sure of. He knew the rational thing to do was head back to the camper, let Chris know what was going on and that he was alright. The stitches on his legs stung with every step he took, the bandages covering them having fallen off, leaving the wounds to rub against the denim. His shoulder, constantly sore from being jostled and moved around His right arm, with the twenty three stitches across his forearm, aching from having to compensate for the loss of the use of his left arm. Those parts of his body told him to go back, too. But the small part of his brain, the part that secretly vowed to exact revenge on one Elias Joseph Banks, told him to seek the man out. Unfortunately, that one small part was the one Vin listened to.

He made his way through the woods and bushes, avoiding the narrow paths towards the stream. There, lit only by the moon, stood EJ Banks, waiting for him. He shakily aimed his weapon at the man, his body still protesting his movements.

"Ah, Tanner," Banks greeted him, his own weapon raised. "Just knew you'd come get me. A Marshal to the end, huh?"

"I just wanna know why, EJ," Vin told him. "What the hell have I ever done to you?"

"Now where's the fun in tellin' you that?" Banks laughed. "I'm gonna enjoy the fact that you never knew why the hell you died," he added, nodding his head.

Vin missed the added meaning of the gesture and the next thing he knew, another gun was pointed at him, this one, touching his spine. A hand reached up and grabbed his left shoulder and gave it a squeeze. Vin cried out in pain, dropping his weapon as he fell to his knees. He looked up and saw Jimmy Beck standing over him, grabbing his weapon up off the ground.

"Why thank you, kindly, Jimmy," Banks said, approaching Vin's fallen form. "I always like to see men on their knees before me. They're so much more fun to kick when they're down," he added, emphasizing the word with a real kick to Vin's abdomen.

Vin let out a hoarse cry as he doubled over even further, his forehead resting on the damp earth in front of him. The dizzy spells that plagued him earlier in the evening came back to him full force now, adding spots and pain to his tightly closed eyes. He was unprepared for the next blow, this one to the side of his face. He landed on his left side, on his bound shoulder and gritted his teeth as the stabbing pains coursed through his body.

He looked up again at the supposed pair of law enforcement officers and again asked, "Why?"


Chris had jerked awake, somehow sensing that something was amiss. He walked to the back of the camper and found Vin's bed empty. 'Shit!' he cursed to himself, grabbing his boots and gun and heading for the camper door. He looked around in the dark for the missing agent, getting more worried about him each minute as silence cut through the night. He took a tentative step toward the path in front of the old Winnebago and immediately ran into some fishing line. About a pound of rocks and pine cones rained down upon his head and again, Chris cursed to himself. He was about to call out to his wayward agent, realizing that he had no idea which way to even look for him, and still wary of the traps full of deer-doo, when he heard the voices. He kept silent and carefully made his way closer to them, drawing his weapon from its shoulder holster.


"I've got him from here, now, Jimmy," EJ told his accomplice. "You go take care of Larabee."

Jimmy nodded and after releasing Vin's shoulders, the ATF agent unceremoniously fell to the ground, his body broken and limp.

Banks knelt down in front of the injured man, making sure he was in Vin's line of sight and smiled.

"You know, Tanner," he began. "I think I'm gonna break my own rule. I'm gonna tell you why. Why you had to go through all this. How 'bout that?" he asked.

"How about you drop your gun, Banks," Chris ordered, his own gun trained on the Marshal.

EJ reacted as instinct told him and brought his weapon upward, aiming it toward Chris. But he was no match for the veteran agent's speed and soon felt the heat of the bullet as it hit him square in the chest. He fell to the ground next to Vin and smiled, knowing that now, as he died, the former Marshal would definitely never know the answer to the question, 'Why?'

"Vin?!" Chris called as he removed the weapons from Banks' body.

Once he was sure the Marshal was no longer a threat, he moved to Vin's side.

"Vin?" he called again, putting his hand to the sharpshooter's cheek.

Vin moved his gaze from the dead Marshal beside him to the ATF agent hovering above him. Chris saw the anguish and pain in his eyes.

"He was gonna tell me why," Vin whispered.

"I'm sorry, Vin," Chris responded, knowing that the question had been gnawing at the younger man. "But I didn't have a choice."

Vin squeezed his eyes shut, nodded his understanding and rasped, "I think I'll take one of those pain pills now, Chris."

"Come on, let's get you back to the camper," he said, gently pulling Vin upright, wincing as the injured man gasped in pain.

Chris grabbed Vin's right arm and slung it over his shoulder and the two of them made their way slowly back toward the Winnebago. They were about halfway there when Vin suddenly stiffened in Chris's grip.

"Vin? What's the matter?" Chris asked, worried that he'd hurt his new agent.

"Where's Jimmy?" Vin asked, trying to look around them. "Jimmy Beck is here. He was with Banks," Vin continued.

"Don't worry, I took care of him," Chris said, disgust in his voice.

He'd been heading toward the voices when Jimmy had jumped out in front of him. He'd just about raised his gun at the ATF supervisor when he hit one of Vin's traps, this one sending a bucket of mucky water down on the man, distracting him enough for Chris to subdue him.

Vin again leaned into the support Chris gave him. When they got to the camper, Chris had to practically carry Vin to his bed. He managed to give Vin one of the pain pills before he got his cell phone from his coat pocket and called Buck.

He'd tried calling 911, but apparently this section of Colorado's back hills wasn't up to date in the 911 department yet and the call did not go through. He didn't even bother trying to figure out why the cellular company didn't connect him to a local department. He just hung up. When Buck answered his phone, Chris didn't even give his old friend a chance to talk.

"Buck, it's Chris," he began. "Somehow Banks found his way out here. I need you to send an ambulance. And a crime scene team, too," he got in before Buck finally interrupted.

"You and Vin okay?" he asked, and Chris could hear the man moving around in the apartment, getting dressed.

"I'm fine, Vin's hurt," Chris replied. "Banks is dead and Jimmy Beck is tied to a tree."

Chris was about to go on when he heard Vin cry out. He rushed back to the sleeping area of the camper in time to see the younger man grab his left arm. It had slipped out of the sling.

"You know where we are, Buck?" Chris asked.

"Yeah, I read the directions right after you gave 'em to me. Been on huntin' trips down that way. I'll get the ambulance and everybody headed your way," he said.

Chris acknowledged Buck's response and turned off the phone. Then he sat down next to Vin on the bed.

He found a washcloth, wet it using one of the bottles of water he'd brought and began washing some of the blood off Vin's face.

"How ya doin' there, pard?" he asked quietly.

Vin opened his swollen eyes as much as he could and turned his head to look at Chris. He immediately regretted the movement as a wave of dizziness, pain and nausea overcame him. Before he could do anything to stop it, he threw up. Chris immediately turned his injured agent onto his side, to prevent him from choking. He rubbed Vin's back, hoping to calm the violent coughing and retching, but stopped short when he saw the blood mixed in with the vomit soaking into the mattress.

"Oh, shit," he whispered.

He quickly cleaned up Vin's mouth and face. Then he grabbed the blanket from the foot of the bed and spread it out. As carefully as he could he sat Vin up, soothing words mindlessly spoken as he worked, responding to the injured man's cries of pain, and laid him down on the blanket. After he wrapped the blanket around Vin, Chris got his phone out again.

"Buck, it's me again," he spoke. "I'm gonna start driving with Vin. Have the ambulance look out for the light, I'll meet it on the highway."

He didn't give Buck a chance to respond. He knew his old friend would hear the urgency in his voice. Chris put the phone away and then gathered Vin up into his arms. He carried the injured man out to the truck as quickly as he could, managing to duck the traps.

"Chris?" Vin called weakly, confusion in his voice as he realized he was in the older man's arms.

"Sssh, it's alright, Vin," he soothed, laying him down on the large bench seat.

He closed the door and quickly made his way to the driver's side of the truck. He gently lifted Vin's head and put it down to rest on his thigh after he got in. After backing out of the small driveway and getting onto the dirt road, he put his hand on Vin's shoulder, not only to hold him in place and reassure his agent, but to reassure himself, as well.

The dirt road seemed a lot longer this trip, Chris thought absently, knowing that the reason for the thought was his worry for the man lying next to him. Vin had thrown up two more times and now he wasn't responding to Chris's voice. Only the movement of his chest reassured him that Vin was still breathing. Finally, the highway appeared before them. He was just about to turn onto it when he saw the flashing lights of the ambulance approaching. He patted Vin's shoulder.

"Help's here, pard," he whispered.

He got out of the truck and opened the passenger side door for the ambulance crew, a sleepy looking trio of two men and a woman, roused out of bed by the sound of their pagers. He was silently grateful for volunteers like these people.

"What happened?" the first man asked.

"He got beat up," Chris replied, watching as the men leaned into the truck from both sides. "He'd already had a dislocated shoulder and a concussion," he told them. "He threw up some blood," he added, making sure they'd know.

"Marley, get me the backboard," the first man called out to the woman.

"I'll get the O2, Dougie," the second man said aloud, following the woman back to the rig.

Chris watched the first man continue to check Vin over, taking his vital signs and trying to rouse him to consciousness. The others returned shortly with the equipment.

"Doug-Doug, get me an airway kit!" the first paramedic called urgently.

Vin had stopped breathing. Chris stepped back and watched as the scene before him blurred. Before he knew it, one of the paramedics had his hand on his shoulder.

"Sir?" the one called Doug-Doug said to him. "We're ready to leave. Can you drive?"

Chris, despite feeling the tremors run through him, replied, "Yeah."

He got into the truck and had barely gotten his seatbelt on when the ambulance took off, lights flashing and sirens blaring. About fifteen minutes later the ambulance pulled off to the side of the road. Chris got out of the truck and approached the ambulance.

"What's going on?" Chris asked, confused.

"Medivac chopper," Doug-Doug replied, pointing to the growing light in the sky ahead of them.

Chris nodded, seeing the helicopter make its approach to the highway. Vin'd be back in Denver in about fifteen minutes that way, versus an hour by ambulance. He was just about to ask the paramedic if he'd be able to ride in the chopper when the paramedic apologized and said he couldn't. After watching them transfer Vin from the ambulance to the helicopter, Chris got back into his truck and resumed his drive to Denver. About twenty minutes later he saw cars with flashing lights heading toward him. He slowed the truck and waited, recognizing Buck's Trans Am and Ezra's Jaguar as they pulled up next to him.

"Ambulance didn't come yet?" Buck asked, worried when he realized that they hadn't passed any ambulance on their way.

"It did," Chris responded. "Medivac chopper met up and took him about twenty minutes ago."

"What happened?" Ezra, now out of his car, asked.

"Jimmy Beck was working for Banks," the senior ATF agent responded, shaking his head with disgust. "He must have heard me and Vin talking about the campsite while we were at the hospital and told Banks. Vin snuck out on me while I was sleeping and Banks must have been waiting for him," he continued.

"And their conditions?" the southerner asked.

"Banks is dead. Jimmy's tied to a tree with fishing line," he reported. "Vin," he tried to continue, but the sight of the injured agent as he was being transferred to the chopper filled his vision and he couldn't.

Before he knew it, Buck was opening the driver's side door to the truck.

"Move over, Chris," he said. "I'll drive."

Chris nodded and did as he was told.

"You boys know how to get to the camp?" he asked.

JD nodded from the driver's seat of the Trans Am and said, "Buck gave me the directions."

"Watch out for his traps," Chris called out as Buck put the truck in gear. "He's got fishing line strung up between the trees."

"Don't worry about us, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said. "You just take care of young Mr. Tanner."


As Buck drove, he glanced over at his old friend. Chris hadn't said a word since they'd continued the drive to Denver. He just sat there, his head leaning back, his gaze focused somewhere out the window. When Buck had gotten into the truck and the dome light came on, he saw the amount of blood on Chris's clothing and the bench seat.

"You hurt at all?" the big agent asked.

"I'm fine," Chris replied quietly, not looking at his old friend.

Something about the way Chris responded, the way he looked, made Buck shake his head.

"It wasn't your fault, Chris," he said.

"Hate to tell you, Buck," the blond agent replied. "But I'm afraid it is this time." Buck was about to counter the argument when Chris continued, "I never should've taken him from the hospital. He couldn't even dress himself. And then I go and take him out to a camper out in the middle of 'East Butt Fuck' with no other back up! Oh, and did I mention the fact that I'm the one who brought Jimmy Beck into the department? Personally picked him for guard duty at the hospital?" he ranted.

"Chris, you had no way of knowin'!" Buck got in. "And you said Vin snuck out on ya," he added.

"I let my guard down, and Vin's paying for it!" the ATF leader shouted, finally letting Buck see the hurt in his eyes.

"You're not talkin' about Banks, are you?" the big agent said, taking in the hidden meaning behind Chris's words. "Vin really got to you, didn't he? He got into that thick head of yours and broke one of them brick walls down," he said with a smile.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Buck," Chris denied, looking out the window again. "I screwed up and now Vin could be dead."

"What I'm talkin' about, Chris," Buck began. "Is that you were human for the first time in three years and you think that that's the reason for this whole mess!" Buck explained. "Well it ain't! You aren't any more responsible for Vin bein' hurt than you were for Sarah and -,"

"We're here," Chris growled, pointing to the hospital's emergency entrance and cutting off Buck's explanation at the same time. "Park over there, it's my reserved spot," he added, getting out his "Official Police Business" card again. Buck parked in the tow away zone as ordered.

"I ain't finished," Buck said, getting out of the truck.

"Yes. You are," the blond agent replied, glaring menacingly at his old friend.


Chris and Buck found themselves in the waiting room again. They'd asked about Vin, but the admitting nurse didn't have any information yet. She promised that someone would be there soon to let them know how Vin was. The older man looked at Buck again. Two more times he'd silenced Buck, not wanting to continue the conversation begun in the truck. He didn't want to believe his old friend, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized Buck was right.

He knew Vin was different, right from the moment they met in the alley chasing after Nunzio and Gatero. This was a man he could trust. He didn't know how or why, he just knew. Especially after that night at the saloon, after Vin had signed the transfer papers - they were having entire conversations while only speaking a word or two. It was if the man could read his mind. The idea of having someone like that for a friend, let alone a coworker in a job like theirs, overwhelmed him. Chris realized that it was nice to have someone like that in his life again. Buck had been that way, Sarah, too. But after Sarah and Adam died. Chris sighed at the thought, remembering the different ways he had shut his friends and family out of his life. Building those brick walls in his mind. And sure as shit, Vin, in only a matter of hours, had found a way to start knocking them down.

"I'm sorry, Buck," he said, sitting down heavily next to his old friend, leaning his head onto the back of the couch. "You're right. You're abso-fuckin' right and I don't know what I'm gonna do if he dies."

Buck didn't know either. He couldn't put any more words together to comfort his friend, so he just put his hand on Chris's and squeezed it.

Before long, a doctor dressed in surgical scrubs came out to the waiting room, calling Chris's name.

"I'm Chris Larabee," the ATF agent replied, standing quickly and meeting the doctor halfway across the waiting room. "How's Vin?" he asked.

"He's in serious, but stable condition," the doctor replied. "While no single injury he'd sustained is overly serious, the combination of them all, including his previous injuries, have left him very weak. We've restitched the leg and arm wounds and the orthopedist is resetting his shoulder, now," he continued.

"He was throwing up blood and not breathing," Chris mentioned, wondering about injuries that caused those conditions.

"We couldn't find any internal injuries, but Mr. Tanner received fractures to his nose and right cheekbone," the doctor began. "Both of those injuries would cause some bleeding. He probably swallowed a lot of the blood, thus you finding it in his vomit, later. As for the breathing difficulties a combination of the concussion, blood loss, possible aspiration of the blood and vomit, the medication he'd taken any of those could have caused the respiratory arrest. He's breathing on his own right now, so that's what counts."

"Can we see him?" Chris asked.

"After the Ortho's done with him," the doctor replied.

"Thanks, Doc," Buck said for the both of them, shaking the man's hand. "See, Chris," he said after the doctor left. "He's gonna be just fine."

Chris nodded solemnly, thanking the powers that be for the day for their help. He headed back to the couch and got out his cell phone. He called Ezra to check up on his other team members.

"How is Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked immediately.

"Serious but stable condition," Chris replied. "We just spoke to the doctor a little while ago. You guys find the place okay?" he asked.

"Why yes, Mr. Larabee, we did," the southerner replied. "Quaint little hideaway Mr. Tanner has," he continued, amusement in his voice. "I'm sure Mr. Wilmington would find "The Vinnebago" quite the luxury suite."

"The Vinnebago?" Chris repeated, turning to see Buck's expression at the term.

"Didn't you notice?" Ezra questioned. "Half the 'W' has been painted over on the side of the vehicle."

"No, I didn't notice. It was dark," he replied. 'Oh, this is too good,' he thought to himself, happy to finally find something to laugh about.

"Anyway," his agent continued. "We found that miscreant Jimmy Beck tied to the tree as you said, and Banks' body down by the stream. Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Jackson arrived shortly afterwards with the crime scene team and equipment."

"Good work, Ezra," the senior agent responded. "I'll keep in touch," he added and turned off the phone.


An hour later, Buck and Chris were sitting on either side of a hospital bed, their young teammate lying motionless on it. Ice packs covered his face in an attempt to reduce the swelling on his eyes, nose and cheek. A tube snaked across his face, supplying oxygen to the sleeping agent. Chris was almost glad he couldn't see the bruises underneath. He still blamed himself. Even though he knew it wasn't rational, he did. It was his nature. Buck stood up and stretched.

"I'm goin' for some coffee. Want some?" he asked.

Chris nodded his head and watched the other man leave the room before returning his attention back to the young agent on the bed. His thoughts were again of the man's influence on him. How in only three days' time, he'd been able to get through the veteran agent's defenses.

"What the hell am I gonna do with you?" he sighed.

"Buy us some beer and use my face as a cooler?" came the unexpected and slurred response.

Chris smiled as he heard the response. He gently lifted the ice packs off Vin's face to see him open his left eye.

"'Bout time you woke up," he said softly.

"Jus' been waitin' for Buck to leave," Vin replied weakly.

"Why? What's up?" Chris asked.

"Jus' need to thank you again," the younger man said. "Seems like I been doin' that too much lately."

"You just haven't had anyone to say it to lately," the veteran agent replied. "But I hope we won't have to be doing this too often, if you know what I mean."

Vin smiled and regretted it, as he felt the pain of the subtle movement. Chris heard the quiet gasp that had escaped Vin's lips and grabbed the icepacks.

"I think it's time to put you back in the cooler," he said, gently placing the packs back onto Vin's bruised face. "Go to sleep. I'll talk to you later," he added, putting his hand on Vin's, letting him know he would still be there.


"Landlord did a nice job fixing the doorway," Vin remarked, walking into the apartment. "Said he ain't gonna charge me anythin' neither, considerin' all the work I do around here for the kids," he added.

"Right nice of him. Especially since we did all the work," Chris replied.

"What?" the younger man asked.

"Oh, don't worry. I'll find a way for the ATF to bill him," the blond replied mischievously.

"Oh, no. Don't want no more political bullshit messin' up my life. Somebody'll do an audit and find out you paid too much money for a nail or somethin'," the younger man responded. "It's done. I'll take it out of my security deposit and leave it at that," he added, letting out a painful hiss as he sank down onto his couch.

"You hurting? Need one of the pain meds?" Chris asked, worried, walking quickly across the apartment.

"Jeezus, Chris. You're worse than Miss Nettie, worryin' over me," Vin replied. "I'm fine. Doc gave me the go ahead to come home today, didn't she?" he asked, eyebrows raised.

"Yeah," Chris conceded. "Just making sure."

"And we're here to make sure, too!" Buck boomed from the open doorway.

Vin looked up in surprise and confusion as his apartment began to fill with friends, old and new. The members of his ATF team, Buck, JD, Ezra, Nathan and Josiah all carried beer and snacks. Miss Nettie, her niece Casey, and some of the children and adults that lived in the apartment building with Vin also came, carrying plates of food and small presents.

"What's goin' on?" Vin asked.

"It's called a party, Vin," Chris replied, grinning.

"Yup! And you're the guest of honor!" Buck put in, opening a bottle of beer and handing it to Vin.

"Figured it was about time you had one," Miss Nettie added.

Vin sat there dumbfounded as each person came and welcomed him home from the hospital and gave him a card or gift or something. The children had made a giant card for him, telling him how much they'd missed him.

Gina gave him her own special one, saying, "Hector helped me. It's for saving my life."

He opened it and saw a crayon colored picture of a little girl holding a fishbowl in one hand and the hand of a tall, long haired man with a police badge with the other. There was a drawing of a motorcycle next to him, as well.

"This is wonderful, Gina," he said, reaching forward to give the girl a hug.

Chris watched the young agent as he talked with all the guests. The attention all seemed like it was overwhelming the young man. Like suddenly he realized that he had friends in the world. Chris had talked at length with some of Vin's neighbors over the past week, as he and the others had come to help fix up the apartment. The everyday stuff Vin did for these people - not just helping the kids, but small repairs, shopping for some of his elderly neighbors, snow shoveling - they were just simple things he did, never asking for anything in return. The different sides he'd seen of Vin in the past two weeks were amazing. The veteran agent was roused from his thoughts as an older woman, Miss Nettie, he realized, called his name. He left the younger agent's side and went to the woman.

Vin was indeed overwhelmed by the attention he was getting. He never realized how many people's lives he'd become a part of. Apparently at least a whole apartment full. He'd gotten a lot of attention at the hospital, too, as the ATF agents came to visit him. He'd gotten to know each of them during their visits. He'd asked JD during his first stay, after the explosion, why they were all so willing to visit after only knowing him for a day. JD had just shrugged his shoulders at first, then said something about trusting Chris's instincts. That if he was good enough for Chris to be friends with, then he was good enough for the rest of them, as well. He watched as members of the ATF mingled with his neighbors. Ezra, of all people, seemed to have a talent with children. He was entertaining them in one corner with card tricks. JD and Casey seemed to be hitting it off well. Vin had seen the young man's eyes widen as the young woman entered the apartment. Hector was showing Buck how to play some tank commando game on the computer. The others were occupied as well. Chris and Miss Nettie were talking about something. Vin briefly worried that she'd mention his writing skills, or lack there of. But deep down, he knew she wouldn't.

A couple of hours went by and the neighbors filtered out, saying their good-byes. The ATF team remained and brought up chairs next to the couch where Vin still sat. Vin looked around, seeing the seriousness in their expressions. The party was over. It was time for business, now.

"Talk," Vin said simply.

"Got a call from A. D. Travis a bit ago," Chris began. "We're off the case. The Marshal's office is taking over the investigation of Nealson and Banks' affairs. They'll be contacting you to set up some interviews next week. In the meantime, we've got to hand over all our case files."

"What about Parker?" Josiah asked.

"He's out on bail," their leader replied grimly.

"Are you kidding?" JD balked. "He tried to murder Vin! Three times!"

"But he didn't, so he's out," Buck explained, a sour expression on his face.

"More political bullshit," Vin put in. "Can't do nothin' about it."

The others agreed with Vin, but shook their heads in dismay.

"But there is something else I can do," the new agent added, looking at his new teammates, getting their attention once again. "I can say thanks to all of ya for havin' faith in me, despite barely knowin' me. It's been right nice to have friends again. I know I can't wait to start workin' with y'all."

"Here, here!" Josiah replied heartily, lifting his beer in the air.

"A toast!" Buck exclaimed, raising his own bottle. "Since I know from past experience, that Chris Larabee only chooses the best friends and coworkers, and we are gonna be one hell of an ATF team, let's hear it for 'The Magnificent Seven!'"

They all raised their respective drinks and joined in the toast.


"What time did you say the others were gonna be here?" Chris asked.

"Told 'em to be here around one," Vin replied.

Chris looked at his watch. It was twelve-thirty.

"You know Buck won't be here until three, then, right?" the blond asked.

"That's why I told him to be here at eleven," the younger man replied with a smile.

The veteran agent laughed and shook his head. Vin had Buck down pat, despite the short time he'd known him. Chris looked at the younger man sitting next to the stream. He sat in the folding chair Chris brought and insisted he use instead of sitting on the ground. Two weeks ago they were here at the streambed under completely different circumstances. If Vin was bothered by the fact that he was sitting in the same spot Chris had found him, beaten up by EJ Banks, he didn't show it. He sat there as comfortably as he could, amazingly deft at using just one hand to cast the fishing line from the rod and reel he held. His shoulder and left arm were still immobilized. Come Monday morning, he'd be starting physical therapy for it. The rest of his injuries were healing as well. The stitches were out of all the cuts except the one on his arm. The swelling on his cheek and nose were gone and just the pale yellow and purplish bruising remained.

"You wanna grab me another beer, Cowboy?" Vin asked, motioning to the cooler sitting in the water.

"Sure," Chris replied, putting down his own fishing pole. "Met up with Miss Nettie yesterday at the office," he added.

"What was she doin' there?" Vin asked, confused.

"Seems you're not the only one that took a lateral transfer to the ATF," Chris began. "During that welcome home party you got at your apartment, she and I got to talking. She said she wouldn't be able to work in that big U.S. Marshal building without you. Something about empty nest syndrome or something," he grinned, handing Vin his beer.

"She's been real good to me," the younger agent responded, taking a sip.

"Her niece Casey's been real good to JD, lately, too," Chris put in.

"Yeah, I'm not surprised," Vin said. "After they met up at the party, I didn't think they'd ever separate!"

"How'd the interviews go this week?" Chris asked.

"Higher ups still aren't convinced I had nothin' to do with Nealson and Banks," the younger man replied, bitterness in his voice.

"But they don't have any evidence," the ATF leader countered quickly.

"Which is the only reason I'm sittin' here fishin' with you, now," Vin said sadly.

"The only reason?" Chris asked, eyebrows raised in mock insult.

"Well, the fishin's good, too," Vin drawled, looking at Chris under the brim of his fishing hat.

"You're lucky you're still hurt, Tanner," the older man threatened. "Despite the A. D.'s orders, we're still on the case, if unofficially, Vin. I've got some contacts in the Dallas and Houston ATF offices checking leads for me. We're gonna find out what Banks and Nealson were up to and why they needed you out of the picture," he added, more seriously.

"Thanks, Chris," the new ATF agent replied quietly, still amazed at how far this man and the other five on his team had gone to help him.

"So tell me something, Vin," Chris began again, changing the subject. "How does a person that needs the cheap rent of Purgatorio wind up with a Winnebago out in the middle of nowhere?" he asked. "Oh, and you know, Buck's gonna ask you about 'The Vinnebago' and its many possible uses, so you better start thinking of good answers now," he added.

Vin laughed at the remark and began telling Chris about his old friend, Charlie Flint, the last man he'd been able to talk to about life and its battles, with only a word or two necessary for entire conversations.