It only took a few minutes to put things together. Even if the entire picture had yet to be revealed just from the little he had read, a couple of quick phone calls, and more than one threat or two, Ezra had enough information to know why this box had been so important that Vin had used some of his last conscious breaths to tell Chris about it. Bounding down the stairs at breakneck speed he nearly bowled poor JD over as the younger agent had started up the stairs.

"Whoa there, Ezra. Who set your tail on fire?"

"Where are the detectives? We must expedite our departure." Ezra was nearly out of breath but still able to confound JD.


"We’ve got to go. Now. A woman’s life is at stake."

Josiah was just stepping into the stairwell. "What’s going on? I just spent twenty minutes convincing the detectives that it was not necessary for them to ransack Vin’s apartment."

"I think I know where the man who shot Vin is headed and if we don’t hurry it might just be too late to prevent another tragedy."

Ezra was flying out the door before the other two could ask any more questions, so they just followed on his heels and hoped that all would be revealed soon.


There were the quiet murmurings of other family members sitting in other sections of the waiting room. The TV was on in the far corner though no one was watching it. The sterile smell of too much cleaner and antiseptic wafted from every direction and the phone rang sporadically, causing more than a few heartbeats to race. Such was life in a hospital waiting room.

And Chris Larabee hated it. Everything about it. The quiet sobs and sniffles, the visitors drifting in and out trying to reassure family members and show support. The smells were making him sick to his stomach. That, along with the gnawing worry deep in his gut and the sight of dark stains on his pants and shirt. At least he had been able to wash his hands.

Buck had offered to go and get him a change of clothes but he had refused, saying that it could wait until they knew something. If the truth was told he didn’t want Buck to leave. Chris Larabee, big bad ATF agent, was terrified. Any minute that doctor could walk through those doors and… He just didn’t want to be alone if… Shit, he couldn’t even say the word in his head, though the reality of it was staring him in the face. Especially every time he looked down at his pants.

The knee of his slacks was torn, his knee skinned up, but that was of no concern. Strange though how his thoughts had turned to the fact that his and Vin’s blood had in a bizarre way mingled. Blood brothers? No, more like brother brothers. Not by blood and not even really by choice. Sitting here with nothing to do but think, Chris marveled at the way he and Vin had just taken to one another. Right off the bat, day one, no questions asked.

‘God, please don’t take him now.’

His life had changed so much over the last fourteen months. With the responsibility of forming a new team, Chris had seen a new direction in his life, but never had he expected it to be a whole new meaning and purpose. And a lot of that was due to the friendship and trust Vin had given him. Now he didn’t want to think about having to live without that strong, willful, sometimes infuriating presence in his life.

The sound of footsteps in the outside corridor had his head coming up for the umpteenth time, but this time he was startled. He had expected to hear from his other men any time. He hadn’t expected to see them. Checking his watch he realized that it had been over six hours since he had found Vin.

As he rose to greet his men and find out what was happening with the investigation, he also noted Ezra’s slightly rumpled appearance. Was that dirt on the incessantly pristine agent’s clothes?

"What did you…?"

Chris felt the words he was saying catch in his throat and his heart fluttered as he caught movement behind his three returning agents. Recognizing Dr. Knight he brushed by the others, followed closely by Buck and Nathan. Swallowing hard he looked at the doctor anxiously, not even trusting his voice to ask the question. Not sure he wanted to know the answer.

"He came through the surgery." Those five words gave a small wash of relief through the six men though they each stood waiting for what they knew came afterwards. Somehow there was always a ‘but’ and the weary look on the doctor’s face spoke volumes. Worry creased the man’s brows and they felt the unspoken tension like an electrical current in the air.

Dr. Knight found himself now facing six anxious faces instead of three, but the change in numbers mattered little to his over taxed brain. Things had not gone well in surgery. The operation itself had been a tedious affair of seeking out and removing each of the bone fragments imbedded within the lung tissue and a few blood vessels. Continuous ultrasounds to find each one had only prolonged the surgery and added to the problem.

"We were able to remove the bone fragments left behind when the bullet nicked the ribs in front and back and got the wound cleaned out and sewn up. He was extremely lucky that the damage wasn’t more severe."

Lucky? The laugh resounded in his head with a sarcastic ring. That word was such a contradiction. They had been over halfway through the surgery and things had been looking pretty good considering, then the proverbial ax had dropped. Vin’s stats had become unstable and the first signs of DIC had begun to show. Holding his breath for a second to allow what he had said so far to sink in he prepared to lay out his final worry. "There are also signs that the blood is no longer clotting like it should."

Nathan felt his blood run cold at the doctor’s last words. "DIC?"



"Nathan?" The medic’s quiet curse had rung like a death knoll in Buck’s head.

"His body's clotting system isn’t working because of the trauma of blood loss.  There are places in the body that are not clotting when they’re supposed to and vice versa." Nathan wanted to keep his explanation simple without sugarcoating it, but also without stealing any hope they had. But he had read about Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation or DIC as it was more commonly called. He knew the problems it could cause and furthermore had seen patients die from it. This scared the hell out of him.

"They’ll keep giving him blood along with fresh frozen plasma and cryoprecipitate that will help replace his clotting factors. Probably some Heparin to help clear out the clots." Nathan watched the doctor nod as he explained to be sure he was telling them the correct things. "Then hopefully his body will recover enough to start doing its job again."

"And if it don’t?" Buck didn’t want to ask the question, but he had to know, they all did, especially Chris. The blond had been frighteningly quiet so far. "What happens then?"

Nathan felt like a deer in headlights. He couldn’t lie, but the truth was too painful for him to think on, let alone say out loud.

Seeing the dilemma, Dr. Knight stepped in.

"He’s young and strong, which is in his favor. Hopefully this is just a temporary setback, his body reacting to the trauma and things will turn around quickly."

"But if it doesn’t?" Buck’s words held an unbridled intensity for he wanted an answer even if he already knew what it would be.

Dr. Knight felt his face take on its usual clinical front as he prepared to give them the unedited truth. Though he didn’t even realize it when his own anger and frustration leaked out.

"It’s unpredictable and not something we can just fix. If the DIC continues no matter how much blood we pump into him, he’ll die."

The harshness of his tone caught him off guard and he was justifiably contrite. "I’m sorry. I know it’s been a long night for you gentlemen. I wish I could tell you that Vin’ll be fine, that with some rest and time, it will all be okay, but I can’t. His body has been through a great deal tonight and it’s just not bouncing back like we’d hoped. All we can do now is wait and pray. We’ll do everything we can to keep him alive until his body can fight back on its own."

"How long before we know anything?" Chris’s responses were always direct and to the point as if the man were weighing all of the information and then cutting through it all to the bottom line.

Dr. Knight’s head shook slightly as he answered. "It could be a day or two or more. I wish I could be more precise. I’m sorry. After we get him settled into ICU I’ll have them let you know so you can visit him. "


The six men still stood taking it all in even after the doctor had left. The situation was grave and no one seemed to want to break the silence, but Ezra felt it important to let them know what had happened, for distraction sake if nothing else.

"We got the shooter." No flowery words or a long explanation, which was highly unusual for the undercover agent.

Chris, Buck, and Nathan looked up expectantly.

"Maybe we should adjourn to the corner where we can discuss this further," Josiah suggested. This was going to be a bit more complicated to explain and they might as well get comfortable and at least out of the public eye. Six men armed and agitated tended to draw more than a few stares.

The men headed for the corner of the waiting room closest to the door then pulled chairs together in a sort of huddle. And once seated everyone’s eyes turned to Ezra for an explanation of what he had found and where it had led them.

"I went to Mr. Tanner’s apartment per instructed and quickly found said metal box in his bedroom closet. There were articles in there on a drive-by shooting that took place nearly six years ago. A young teacher was fatally shot outside of the youth center on Cloverdale by a member of one of the local gangs. The said suspect was identified, arrested, and subsequently bailed out by his associates, only to abscond. According to the clippings the suspect, one Ricardo ‘Ricky’ Torres, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life without parole."

Buck was listening but still not sure how this was all going to tie in. "So what has this…"

"Please, just hear me out." Ezra knew the questions he was raising, but he was a bit more worried about the pieces he was purposefully leaving out and if Chris would call him on it. "Torres was returned to face justice by none other than Mr. Tanner himself.

"Well that makes sense," Nathan interjected. "We all know Vin was a bounty hunter."

Ezra just wished that they would all let him tell the story. Their added remarks were only making it harder for him. True, what he was telling them was the truth, but not the whole truth.

"I called in a few markers in a very short time and discovered that Ricky Torres was killed by another inmate just last week. And the witness that testified against him was a Marissa Carter. Mrs. Carter helped out cleaning up and doing secretarial duties at the center and witnessed the shooting."

"Carter." The light bulb went on in Chris’s head. "Vin figured that the shooter would go after her. This was all about revenge for Torres getting sent to prison and getting killed."

"After obtaining Mrs. Carter’s address, we hastened there."

"More like flew." JD added his own two cents in about the harrowing ride across town. "I never even knew Ezra could drive that fast. And he even put a scratch on the Jag!"

Ezra only frowned at the interruption. "Like I was saying, we flew over to the lady in question’s residence only to find a man with a gun standing just outside on the lawn."

"He drove the Jag right on to the yard, hitting some bushes. Opened the door as he stopped and jumped the guy. It was amazing." JD’s narration concluded with hazel eyes wide with amazement at the remembered actions of his fellow agent.

"Yes, well. He had to be stopped." Ezra was not willing to get into the capture of the assailant lest he remember the all out rage that had nearly consumed him when the gunman had appeared in his headlights. It had taken a lot of strength to steer the jag toward the bushes and not just run the lowlife down. Then as he had tackled the man his fear and rage for what had happened to Vin and what still might… He had been within a hair’s breath of beating the ingrate to within an inch of his life. Ezra shuddered at the thought of such a physical show of violence. It was so unlike him, but then again, since meeting these six men he found himself more and more out of character.

Josiah decided to finish up the rest, already aware that there were parts Standish was purposefully leaving out. "As JD said Ezra stopped the shooter and wrestled him to the ground. Turns out it was a seventeen year old kid named Daniel ‘Danny’ Torres. He’s Ricky’s younger brother. Hopefully they can get a ballistics match on the gun he was carrying and the bullet they pulled out of Vin’s jeep. It went right through the canopy and they found it on the passenger’s seat."

Ezra wanted to finish up quickly. Hopefully it was enough information to satisfy their curiosity on what had happened and why. "He is in custody as we speak and Mrs. Carter is safe."

"Thanks to Vin." Chris said the words after hanging his head down. He was still a bit shell-shocked at all that had transpired. It was hard to believe that so much could happen in such a short time. Just seven hours ago he had been discussing the planned chores for the weekend. Now it was nearly one in the morning. Vin had been shot, the suspect tracked down, another shooting thwarted, the shooter apprehended, and now Vin was fighting for his life. Lord, but he was tired. Bone weary tired.

Looking up as a bag was dropped at his feet, he saw the same mixture of emotions mirrored on Ezra’s face before the carefully maintained mask of indifference went back up. "We took the liberty of dropping by the office and getting you a change of attire."

Buck had mentioned the state of Chris’s clothing when they had called in at the beginning to check on Vin.

Chris met Ezra’s eyes, not caring to try and hide his own frayed emotional state. "Thanks."

It was a simple word that spoke volumes and was meant for a lot more than the clothes. Ezra had done for him what he couldn’t at the time. Torn between staying at the hospital to be near Vin and wanting desperately to be out there helping to track down the criminal who had put him there had been difficult. But he trusted these men to not only watch his back, but to take up the gauntlet when he couldn’t.

Ezra felt an incredible sense of pride fill him with just that one word and the sincere look of gratitude from his leader. It hadn’t even occurred to him, so engrossed in his search, just how hard it had to have been for Chris to just sit idly by and let someone else take over the investigation. A man of action, just as they all were, his leader had depended on him, no, trusted him enough to place this crucial task in his hands. And the implications were staggering. Still, he hadn’t done this just because Chris had asked him but because he, too, had felt that same unquenchable desire to see justice served. To gain some sort of retribution for the injuring of his friend.

But now that the task was done, the suspect safely behind bars, the battle had just begun, for Vin Tanner still might die. And there were questions still left unanswered. Like who was the woman in the photos that Ezra had found and how, if at all, did she tie in to all of this. He had lots of suspicions, but no real answers. How long could he sit on this? It was Vin’s past, his privacy, that had been invaded and if anyone appreciated that it was Ezra. So what did he do now? To investigate further might answer the questions, but at what cost? Somehow he didn’t think Vin would appreciate any further invasion. Deep down though he just wanted Vin to live so he could make the choice himself whether to share or not.

All they could do now was to wait and see.


Sitting in the semidarkness, Chris leaned back into the chair and dozed. At least someone had seen fit to bring in one of the larger reclining chairs for them to use during their vigil that was now going on two days. It was cloudy outside, might even rain, but he not only didn't know what the forecast was, he didn't care. Every ounce of strength left in his weary body had to be focused on one thing and one thing only. Vin and his recovery. For he had to recover because the alternative was unimaginable.

First his best friend would wake up disoriented and in pain. He would keep a firm hand placed on Vin's shoulder or arm or leg, just to assure him that he wasn't alone and that everything would be just fine. Then, slowly, he would begin to remember and heal. Chris would be there for that too whether his sharpshooter wanted to talk about it or if he just wanted to sit and contemplate quietly, by his side he would stay. Finally they would allow the younger man to leave the hospital, though still with a long way to go and weak as a newborn colt and he would sequester him at the ranch until he was certain that enough healing, both physical and mental had occurred. That's how it would be.

If only Vin would take the first step and wake up.

The sound of the door had him instantly alert. Even if the Torres kid was still in jail, it didn't mean that one of his buddies might not decide to take up where he had left off. Larabee had given strict orders that Vin was not to be left alone until further notice. They were taking shifts, many times in pairs to watch over their injured partner, having had to jump through a few hoops and call in the big guns to get it cleared with the hospital administrators. And to get Vin in a private section of ICU normally reserved for the rich and famous. Damn bureaucrats were too busy making up rules and had no clue how they affected real people. Chris himself had only left once to go to Buck’s for a shower and a short nightmare filled nap.

Putting a cautious hand on the butt of his gun he relaxed a little as he recognized the figure that entered.

"Whatcha doin’ back so soon? Thought I told you to go home and get some sleep. You weren’t supposed to be back until tonight." His voice was a low growl, partly due to his mood and mostly because he was just too tired to care.

Ezra spared a fleeting glance at his boss before his eyes were riveted back to the figure in the bed.

Standing up and stretching the kinks out of his back Chris checked his watch only to discover how late it actually was, no wonder it was getting dark. Where had the day gone? Buck had left to round them both up a bite to eat, which he had assumed meant lunch. Hell, it was after five in the evening, which meant dinner. Not that he was all that hungry, but he knew he needed to eat.

"It may have eluded you, Mr. Larabee, but it is evening." Ezra was not about to tell him how little sleep he had gotten. Most of his time had been spent checking up on Marissa Carter. The kind forty something lady worked at one of the local gift shops downtown and still volunteered at some of the local youth centers around Denver. She had also been a bubbling fountain of information, most of which had left Ezra feeling pretty low. Despite his best attempts to derail her narrative she had seen fit to go into great detail on all she knew about the shooting, the teacher involved, and Vin. Not only was the tale horrendously sad, every bit of information she told had felt like a betrayal. Like he was peeking into Vin’s personal file.

Chris saw the look on Ezra’s face. It was rare for such raw emotion to be revealed by his relentless undercover agent.

"Has there been any improvement? Has he awakened at all?" Ezra asked though he already knew the answer. Chris would have called already had either thing happened.

Was that a tremble in the man’s voice? Suddenly Chris came to a humbling realization. What had happened was not his burden alone. Sure, he knew the others cared and feared for Vin’s life, but seeing this… Seeing Ezra so openly upset by the mere sight of their motionless friend brought it all into perspective. Somehow the seven men’s lives had become intertwined. What happened to one of them affected them all. Sometimes they fought amongst themselves like cats and dogs. But let an outside force threaten even one of them and all were ready for defensive action. If Vin died he would not be the only one struck hard. Vin was hurting, therefore they all hurt. And despite how tired he was or how scared he was, the others still looked to him for guidance. Something he hadn’t given thought to in over two days.

Vin’s life still hung precariously in the balance and Chris had lost count of the different antibiotics they had given him or how many bags of blood, plasma, and the stuff Nathan called cryoprecipitate had been pumped into his best friend’s body. The last bits were supposed to help fight the DIC though he still wasn’t completely sure how. It was all so Greek to him. All he knew was that Vin was dying and so far wasn’t getting any better despite all of the medical technology in the world.

They were running blood tests every six hours, but now they had a new concern. Vin was showing signs of an infection that the younger man’s weakened body just wasn’t up to fighting. It wasn’t looking good and with each passing hour Chris felt his own hope waning. But he had a responsibility, not only to his best friend, but to the men of his unit. His family. It was up to him to lead them even at a time, especially at a time like this.

"He’ll be okay. Just gotta give him time." Chris moved closer, wanting to not only reassure Ezra but lend some physical support as well. "You know that damn Texan doesn’t do anything until he’s good and ready."

"That certainly is our Mr. Tanner. The man with a timetable all his own." Ezra hoped to God the shaking he felt inside wasn’t showing on the outside. He had come back to the hospital early, needing to just see Vin to assure himself that the man was still among the living. When he had left early that morning, the sharpshooter had looked like death itself. Pale and lifeless. Covered in tubes and monitoring equipment. Unfortunately, things had changed very little and the sight nearly caused his heart to stop beating. He had the incredible urge to bring in a double espresso and pour it into one of the IVs just to watch Vin bounce off of the walls. Hell, he would be ecstatic right now just to see the young man’s nose twitch.

Chris went back to his seat near the wall, allowing Ezra to take the one closer to the door. Sitting down heavily he rubbed at his eyes and reviewed the few days all over again.

Ezra watched his boss out of the corner of his eye. The man looked more exhausted than he felt. The urge to talk was at war with the fact that he couldn’t. Mrs. Carter’s words kept replaying in his head, compounding the guilt he felt and making him nauseous. Glancing up his eyes met Chris’s and he felt his stomach sour even more. Somehow his poker face was missing and he wasn’t sure how to get it back.

Chris had laid his head back against the wall again. With hooded eyes he had watched Ezra for a few minutes. Noticing the nervous energy where normally there wouldn’t have been any. Something wasn’t right. Thinking back to the night of the shooting and the way Ezra had told them what had happened he remembered things he had overlooked in his exhaustion and worry over Vin. Darting glances in his direction and an almost avoidance of him at other times during the story.

"What didn’t you say the other night?"

With those words Ezra nearly jumped. He should have known he couldn’t hide it forever. A man with the ability to lie, cheat, and steal with the best of them. A master of deception and the art of concealment. And he had failed miserably. Opening his mouth to speak he quickly shut it against the lies that were about to spout forth. How ridiculous. He had already been discovered and to tell untruths now would only compound the issue. Looking up into the eyes of his leader he was surprised to see someone else sitting there. It wasn’t his boss he saw, but his friend. Swallowing hard and meeting the gaze head on he spoke with sincerity.

"There is more than I revealed the other evening. And, yes, I did hold back some noncrucial facts. But I did it for him." Ezra’s head nodded slightly toward Vin before continuing. "This is not my story to tell, Mister… Chris. The facts I omitted were of a very personal nature and I feel that to reveal any more would be a betrayal of his trust even more so than I have already done." Ezra then diverted his gaze to the man in the bed.

The room was silent save for the gentle beeps and whirs of the equipment as both men reflected. Chris hadn’t quite expected that answer. Part of him had thought that Ezra might lie and say it was nothing. He had seen the war of conscience on the man’s face and sympathized. Guilt was a most powerful emotion. And one that he was all too familiar with. It was also a demon that had been his constant companion since the moment he had realized that Vin wasn’t in his apartment.

"You’re a good friend."

Ezra felt the shock of Chris’s words wash over him. Of all of the things he had imagined the man saying this was the farthest from even his imagination. As he looked over to see only sincerity showing on Chris’s face he heard a low moan.

Everything else was forgotten as both men riveted into action, one on either side of the bed.

Chris gripped Vin’s fingers, careful of the IVs. A twitch of movement was his reward. But before either he or Ezra could determine for sure if he was waking up, the nurse came into the room.

"He’s waking up."

Ezra felt a flutter in his chest that he vaguely recollected as pure and simple joy. How easily it came to him. Just those simple words from the nurse had showered a light upon his heart and soul. Even tempered with the obvious fact that it might prove to mean nothing it added a touch of warmth to help beat back the cold fear he had been feeling for the past few days.

Chris felt a tight grin pull at his lips. Yep, Vin was certainly one of the most stubborn and obstinate men he had ever had the pleasure of meeting. And he was certainly thankful to God for that tenacity right now. Blue eyes fluttered into view but were unfocused and sluggish. But they were there and deep within his soul Chris felt Vin, still there.

The doctor on call came into the room with a flourish of white coattails. Glancing up at the visitors he gave a slight frown, but otherwise continued on. "If you gentlemen would please wait outside, I’d like to examine the patient and then I’ll speak with you."

Neither man liked it, but neither wanted to push their luck. Plus, the sooner they stepped outside the sooner they could find out more about Vin’s health. But even as they stepped outside of the room they could see Dr. Knight hurrying toward them.

Though he was no longer Vin’s primary physician the man had been by numerous times to check on him, though not once did he elaborate on how he actually knew Vin. The man gave them a brief nod as he hurried into the room.

It seemed like a long time had passed before the doctors emerged, Dr. Knight stopping to talk to them while the other continued on. Both men looked at him anxiously.

"Vin came around a little, but he is unconscious again. The good news is that from the last blood workup we did there are some small indications that the DIC is abating. The blood is beginning to clot and react as it should in the area of the wound. It’s a good sign." The tired smile was the best thing both men had seen in a long time.

"We’ll still have to keep a close eye on his progress for the next few days. He’s very weak and the infection is a hindrance. But we should hopefully see a great deal of improvement over the next couple of days. Once we get the DIC licked his body should grow stronger and he’ll be able to fight the infection more efficiently and the wounds will begin to heal properly. It’s still going to be a few days before he’s fully conscious. He’s also going to be mighty sore and tender for a few weeks and it’s going to be possibly a couple of months before he’s up to much of anything. He’s really going to have to take it easy. I can’t stress enough how important it’s going to be to make sure he gets plenty of rest and doesn’t overdo it."

Chris only snorted a bit at that remark.

"I take it he hasn’t changed a whole lot since I knew him. Don’t worry I’ll make sure he understands, if I have to put the fear of God in him myself. The damage was thankfully superficial and he should heal just fine, but he’s still going to be weak for a good while."

"So you don’t see any deterrents in him making a full recovery?" Ezra had to be sure things were going to be okay and that this new assemblage he had become so secure with wasn’t going to lose one of its stabilizing forces.

"He’s still in serious condition, but no longer critical. I can’t guarantee anything, but I know how stubborn he can be and that for once is in his favor."

"He’ll fight. That’s a guarantee." Chris added his own agreement and looked upon the doctor with a new respect. Not only had the man helped to save his best friend’s life, he was obviously well acquainted with him. This only added to the continuing conundrum that was Vin Tanner.

"I need to go. My wife will kill me if I don’t call her soon." Dr. Knight stuck out his hand and shook both of theirs firmly before pulling out his wallet and handing Chris a card with his contact numbers. "I’ll keep checking on him, but if you need anything or if Vin does, anything at all, you just give me a call. Day or night."

As the doctor left, Chris and Ezra went back into the room where the nurse was adjusting the sheets around Vin. She looked up and gave them a tight grin before rechecking the monitors and IVs, then left them alone.

Flanking the bed once again they looked down on their injured friend. Vin looked better. Not because he actually did. In fact he looked exactly the same. Pale and still. Now it wasn’t Vin that had changed, but their outlook on his chances of recovery.

Ezra stole a look up at Chris and felt he should give the man a few minutes of privacy. Maybe go and get them both a cup of coffee. Lord only knew when Buck would be able to tear himself away from whatever female he had likely run into and remember to return with the some dinner.

"I think I shall go and procure myself some coffee. Would you like a cup?" Ezra saw a slight nod from Chris. Moving around to the other side he slid the chair up behind Chris and then eased his way toward the door. Of course his choice to leave for a few moments had absolutely nothing to do with the tightness in his throat or the stinging in his eyes.

Chris had heard Ezra, but only barely registered what he was saying. The word coffee popped up and he just nodded automatically, well, at least he thought he had nodded. Either way Ezra had done something behind him and then left. And he was grateful. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could have held out. The death grip he had on the bed’s railing was turning his hand white and the burning sensation in his nose was causing his eyes to tear up.

Hell, who was he kidding?

Wetness touched his cheeks and he reached a shaking hand toward Vin’s arm. With a firm, yet gentle grip he felt his resolve buckle and glancing back was grateful to find the large reclining chair positioned just behind him. Dropping down into it he marveled. Ezra truly was an intuitive agent.

"Still got a rough road ahead, pard. But I’ll be there every step of the way. All the boys will be." Wiping at his nose with his free hand he just hoped Buck didn’t choose this moment to return.

"God, Vin. You scared the hell out of me."

For a few moments he just stared at Vin’s face, hoping to see his blue eyes staring back, but knowing better. Then, rising up upon shaky legs, he moved in closer, his lips only a couple of inches from Vin’s ear. Chris’s voice was whisper soft as he made his heart known.

"Don’t you ever do that again."

With a quirk of his brow he resumed his seat, but kept his hand firmly planted on Vin’s arm as he leaned back into the chair and drifted to sleep.


After three more days of being in and out of it, mostly out of it, Vin awakened one afternoon to find Ezra sitting by the window. They had told him what had happened and though he only remembered bits and pieces he always remembered the pain and telling Chris about the box. It saddened him that his secret had been revealed. Not because it had been really, more because of the way. He should have talked to Chris about it before, but he hadn’t really known how to bring it up. Of course there were still a lot of things the others didn’t know about and some he prayed they never would. Life had been hard for an orphan growing up within a welfare system that was overcrowded, understaffed, and underpaid. He had fallen through the cracks more than once and paid dearly. But he had also learned how to survive in a world that could be truly unkind.

Trying to swallow, he realized just how dry and raw his throat was. The NG tube was still in due to the antibiotics that weren’t always so kind to his stomach, but at least they had taken out the breathing tube the day before. Chris had been there with him through that and the man had looked almost as bad as he felt. Vin hoped Chris was somewhere getting some much needed rest. A cough bubbled up out of him, escaping before he could stop it and Ezra’s head turned just as he felt the pain return. Normally, the undercover man was attune to everything and would have already realized that he was awake.

Ezra heard the quiet cough and looked over to see Vin’s eyes squeezed shut. Chastising himself for his inattentiveness, he stood and moved quickly to his friend’s side. His mind had been replaying the week’s events and wondering just how he was going to explain his intrusion to Vin. Maybe they could just let it drop and things could go back to the way it had been before. But even as he looked down at the younger man and the blue eyes opened, staring up at him with pain deeper than physical, he had to look away. When had all of his training and prowess deserted him? Ezra Standish, with a poker face to rival the greatest riverboat gamblers and an uncanny knack for subterfuge, had lost his edge.

Vin opened his eyes and found Ezra staring down at him. He was so tired and in pain that he couldn’t even begin to hide it. His last thought before the cough had snuck up on him still sounded in his head. Before the agent’s head turned away from him, he had seen it all. Fear, sympathy, and pity. ‘This was all my fault.’

"M’ sor… ry." Another cough erupted and he gasped. A nurse entered and quickly worked to help him get comfortable, administering more pain medicine into his IV, giving him a drink of water, and settling him back into the bed before again leaving. Ezra had stood out of the way, staring out of the window, not wanting to watch for Vin’s sake as well as his own. But as she left he moved back to the bed, gently laying a hand upon Vin’s arm. The eyes were closed, but he could tell Vin had yet to succumb to slumber.

"You should rest. Mr. Larabee will likely return soon and I do not relish facing his wrath should your condition worsen in the least during my watch."

"He restin’?" Vin’s voice was soft and rough as he spoke. "Needs ta rest. Looks like… shit."

"I’ll be sure to relay your concern upon his immediate return." Ezra teased, relieved beyond words to hear not only Vin’s voice, but a touch of his natural wit as well.

"He’s been…" How should he put this without causing Vin more guilt. Then he realized it didn’t matter. Vin would know anyway. "He’s been concerned. We all have."

The blue eyes did open a fraction then, the haziness of the drugs still not fully relinquished, but the mind was still sharp enough. "Sorry. Didn’t mean to put ya’ll on the worry."

"It was not your fault and we are just glad to see you on the mend."

"Still my fault." Vin’s eyes averted to the wall. "Ya all know, don’t ya."

Vin didn’t say about what and he didn’t have to. The subject Ezra had so wanted to avoid was out and he had to address it and quickly. Keeping Vin calm and as stress free as possible was imperative to his recovery.

"We know that about five years ago, you brought in one Ricardo ‘Ricky’ Torres for murder. We also know that he was killed in prison a couple of weeks ago and that the man, boy, who shot you was none other than Ricky’s little brother Daniel. Your clues led us to Marrisa Carter, the witness to the murder six years ago and allowed us to save her and apprehend the younger Torres brother before he could do more harm." Ezra watched Vin flinch slightly at the narrative, but then still as if waiting for the rest.

"That’s all they know, Vin."

Shocked blue eyes turned back to him. Vin heard the words, but wasn’t sure he understood. If they had found the box and Marissa Carter they would have to know. And Chris had told him that Ezra had found the box. That much he could remember from the last few days.

"I did find the box, but once I had the necessary information, I put it back where I found it. I didn’t tell anyone about the photos that were in there." Ezra felt like he was confessing. "I would never do that to you."

Vin felt his eyes water. Ezra knew, and from the look in his eyes, knew it all. Not even what was in the box would tell the whole story. "You know?"

Ezra only nodded. "Mrs. Carter does like to talk."

Vin only nodded back and turned his eyes to the ceiling. The pain he was feeling now could not be relieved by medical science.

"I am sorry, my friend. Know that if you should ever wish to… talk. I am always available." Ezra didn’t know what else to say. The man wasn’t strong enough to discuss it now and may not ever wish to, which was something he would certainly understand, but he had to offer and he meant it. If Vin chose to never speak of it again, he would take it to his grave, but if the need ever arose he would also be there to listen. Though there was one little tidbit he still needed to confess.

"Though I did not speak a word of it to the others, I fear my abilities have taken a turn for the worse." Before Vin could look at him with confusion, he quickly explained. "Chris suspects."

Vin nearly snorted out loud, but it came out as just a breath of air. "Ain’t yer abilites that are lacking, just that damn Larabee radar. Kind of attune to the glare."

Giving a tight grin he looked back at Ezra, so much held within his blue eyes, understanding, forgiveness, deep sadness, and just a touch of humor. "Annoying as hell, ain’t it."

"Ya go all yer life being able to pull the wool over ever’body, then bam, yer like an open book." Vin did grin then, but it faded as the drugs and his body’s exhaustion finally drew him away. His last words were soft and drifted out, but they left a big warm spot in the middle of Ezra’s soul.

"Welcome ta friendship."


Comments to: cowgirlm7@yahoo.com