Note: This was written as the January Birthday Christastrophy for the Black and Buckskin List. So, best wishes to all those who celebrate their birthday in January.
Also, I know very little of the workings of the US government other than what I see on TV. I apologize for any inaccuracies or inconsistencies, some of which are deliberate to achieve certain things, but most of which are my ignorance in action.
Thanks: To Selene, for Beta'ing this for me, despite the length and a severe breakdown in communications (probably my fault).
Warning: I broke the Cardinal Rule with this one. I make no apologies as, the way I see it, it is crucial to the story, however, don't say I didn't warn you.
Disclaimer: Not mine, never have been, no money.
That was all that was left now, ashes. And soon those would be gone too.
Chris Larabee watched as the wind took the remains of his best friend and scattered them over the mountain he had held so dear. Where Vin Tanner had once gone to seek peace and freedom away from the violent confines of the city, his friends, his family, set him free one final time.
Watching as the grey powder hung like a fine veil in the slight breeze Chris couldn't help but think that everything in his life ended this way, with ashes.
Sarah. Adam. And now Vin. Nothing left but ashes.
It had been no more than a month and a half ago that he had last seen and talked to Vin. Six weeks since Vin had announced that he was taking a leave of absence. Six weeks, and it still seemed like yesterday.
It had been a hard bust for the team, but especially for Vin and Ezra, who had spent a long time undercover to get close to the mark. Add to that the stress of the Texan's cabin fever that generally set in towards the close of winter, and no one, least of all Chris, was surprised when Vin said he needed some time off.
"I just need some time to get my head screwed on straight," Vin had told him.
"Watch your back, Cowboy," Chris had cautioned, worried about his friend, but understanding why he had to leave.
"I will," Vin assured him. "Don't worry, I'll be back."
It was a promise that Vin had been unable to keep.
A little more than a month - five weeks - after Vin had left Chris had gotten a phone call informing them of Vin's death. A body had turned up in a little nowhere town that had been identified as the sharpshooter.
A week, a desperate unreturned phone call, and an urn full of ashes later and Chris was beginning to realize that this was really happening and he needed to accept it. Yet watching as the wind swept the ashes away, Chris still found it a slightly surreal experience.
He hadn't gone to see his friend's body before they cremated him, and a part of him regretted that lost opportunity, but he had been unable to take that step in saying goodbye and letting go at that point. Ezra had been the only one of them to actually go see the body and he had been quiet and withdrawn when he returned. No one had the heart to question him about it, or the will to.
"You gonna be okay, Stud?" Buck asked, following Chris into his ranch.
Chris stopped a few steps into the living room. He stood fixed, not answering.
"Chris?" Buck called, concerned. He took a few more steps so that he was almost even with the blond man.
Chris sighed and shook his head. "It seems so unreal, Buck."
"I know, Pard."
"You want a beer?" Chris offered, headed to the kitchen.
"Sure," Buck accepted tentatively. In the days since they'd received the news of Vin's death Chris had given no indication of turning toward the bottle, but the funeral had been today, and Buck wasn't sure what to expect.
Chris returned carrying two open bottles. He handed one to Buck then sank onto the couch with the other. Buck sat in one of the chairs adjacent to the sofa.
They sat in silence for a while, Chris studying the bottle in his hands, Buck studying Chris. It was Chris who finally broke the silence. "I called his cell phone that day. First thing I did after getting the call. He said he'd have it with him, so that if I needed to get in touch with him I could. I was certain that there'd been some sort of mistake and he'd pick up and laugh when I told him why I was calling."
"He didn't answer."
"No," Chris shook his head. "Not that time, not the million times I called after. The last time I left a message, begging him to call me back, to tell me he wasn't dead. He never did, but sometimes the phone will ring and just for a second before I pick up I think, it's Vin, he got my message, now he's gonna tell me I'm bein' stupid and I'm interuptin' his vacation. Then I pick up the phone and it's never him.
"I keep praying that this is all a dream, that I'll wake up and everything'll be better again and Vin will be alive "
"Except every morning you wake up to find your nightmares are true. I know Pard, that's where we are too," Buck commiserated.
"Now what Buck?" Chris asked emotionlessly.
"I guess we just go on as best we can," Buck shrugged. "I need you to make me a promise though," he said after a few seconds of silence. Chris looked over at him but didn't say anything. Buck took a deep breath and plunged onward. "Promise me that you won't go back to where you were after Sarah and Adam died. I - I don't think I have the strength to go through that again, and we're going to need you, Pard, just like you're going to need us."
"I don't think I could go back there even if I wanted to," Chris confided. "Vin - you and Vin, you kept me alive, after, and Vin showed me that life was still worth living. He made me see what you were trying to show me the whole time - that Sarah would have wanted me to keep living, to be happy, and to do anything else would be to shame her memory. To do that now would be to disrespect all three of them. I couldn't knowingly do that."
"Good to hear that, Pard."
"Still don't know where to go from here."
"You take it one day at a time, one minute at a time when you have to, and you keep on living. That's all we can do."
"Casualties?" Chris asked.
"Just the one," Josiah replied tossing a folder on the conference in front of the team leader.
"Juan Marintez," Ezra picked up the thread, "formerly of Cuba."
"Anyone likely to miss him?"
Ezra shook his head no. "Small time drug dealer, it isn't likely anyone will care."
Chris nodded, flipping quickly through the proffered file before closing it and dismissing the team. The other men left the room to go back to their desks and finish their reports. This was their first case back, and they wanted to assure their superiors and themselves that they could still do their jobs. Overall the bust had gone well, the one fatality being an unfortunate drug dealer who'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Things were vastly different without Vin. The team was quieter, slightly less efficient but more task oriented. Things were getting back towards normal, but they all knew that even their "normal" wouldn't ever be achieved again with Vin gone. They kept going; that was the best that Chris could say. It was all they could do, so they kept going
"I'm so sorry, son," the man whispered. Kneeling in the cemetery there was no one to witness his pain. "I should have listened to you." Tears ran down his face. "He'll pay son, I promise, he'll pay." With that the distraught father rose to his feet, wiped his eyes and walked away.
"Be careful out there, Grif, okay?" Mike O'Malley said seriously to the lean, blond man standing in front of him. The stocky, black-haired man had to look up a little to look the blond in the eye, and his friend could read real concern in the dark eyes.
"Aren't I always?" was the younger man's flippant reply, but he was deeply touched by the concern displayed. He was leaning against his beat-up black jeep in the deserted parking lot.
"This time's different," Mike told him. "Everything went to hell, and you know Joe doesn't like you. Word is there's already a price on your head and I don't want to have to waste time training another sharpshooter," he teased, although the subject matter was still serious.
"I'll be careful," was the promise. "Wouldn't want to inconvenience ya any." He offered his hand to the other man.
Mike grasped his friend's hand. "Seriously, Griffin, thanks. Couldn't have done it without you."
"Anytime Mike, you know that."
"Take care of yourself, Grif. I'll see what I can do about Joe, okay?"
"Thanks man, I'd appreciate it."
"Who says I'm doing it for you?" Mike shot back. "It's bad for business to have associates taken out by angry felons."
"You're so full of crap, Mike," the blond laughed, getting into his car.
"I have a reputation to maintain," the shorter man laughed.
"Yeah, whatever," was the snorted response. "You ever need me, you know how to reach me." He started his jeep.
"Same here," Mike replied, stepping away from the vehicle. "And if you change your mind about the job, the offer still stands."
"Sorry to disappoint, Mike, but I'm happy where I am."
Mike sighed. "Well, if that ever changes See ya 'round Grif."
"The question is, will I see you?"
Mike laughed. "You know, I doubt I could hide from you if I wanted to."
"I have a reputation to maintain," the blond shot back before pulling away from the curb, leaving his friend laughing in the street.
The sign read "Denver 20 miles", but he interpreted it as "Home". It had been too long. Two months had passed since he last set foot in Colorado, let alone the Denver area, and he was glad to be getting back.
He'd have to find some way of dealing with the price on his head, but right now that wasn't what he was thinking about. He wanted to see his friends again, then he'd deal with the bounty and the ramifications thereof.
He reached for his cell phone and flipped it open. Absently he checked the voice mail he hadn't thought about in his two-month absence. There was only one message.
"Hey, Vin," it was Chris's voice, but the tone was all wrong. He sounded distraught and - well, just not - Chris. "It's Chris. I need you to call me, Cowboy. They - they're telling me you're dead, Vin. I need to know you're not dead, Cowboy. Call me, okay? Please Vin - I just - I need to know you're all right."
Vin was dialing as soon as the message was over. His fingers got to the end of the number, but never pushed send. He stopped himself before he could.
"What're you doing, Tanner?" he muttered.
He wasn't thinking. He never even should have considered going back. He had a price on his head. When the hitmen came, and they would come, anyone who got in their way would be expendable, and Vin knew that he couldn't expose his friends to that kind of danger, because they would get in the way. He couldn't - he wouldn't put his friend through that. Vin couldn't be responsible for the deaths of one or more of his friends, couldn't bear the weight of their lives on his soul.
On the other hand, he also knew that he couldn't have just left without a word. In a way, this offered him a way out. He didn't have to worry about explaining to them why he couldn't stay, or find reasons to refute their arguments to stay.
This was for the best, he decided with a heavy heart. He could leave, keeping the others safe, without a fuss, and it would work well for him, being dead, who would try to execute a hit on a dead man?
Vin sighed, no longer as enthusiastic about going home as he had been, because if he wasn't going back to his team, then he wasn't really going home.
*******Vin Tanner died on Monday of this week. He died of unknown causes and, as per his request, will be cremated, his ashes to be scattered over Sunrise Mountain. There will be a memorial service on Friday, the funeral will be held Sunday morning. In lieu of flowers, his family asks that donations be made to St Teresa's Orphanage.
Vin leaned back in the chair, closed his eyes and fought off the pain. In a mostly deserted library, Vin had gone searching for confirmation of Chris's words. A part of him hadn't wanted to believe what he'd heard, he couldn't be dead - he obviously wasn't dead.
But he'd found his death announcement, along with a small photo, in the paper, several in fact, and while he wasn't dead, the guys must have thought he was, because no one else, besides Nettie, would have published a death announcement, or known that he'd prefer donations to flowers. And neither party would have allowed the other to do that without their knowledge at the very least.
'His family', those words had given him pause. His family and he was going to hurt them by walking away and letting them think he was dead. How would you feel if it was Chris doing this? He asked himself, then countered with. And what if you go back and one of the boys dies, how will you feel then?
Vin opened his eyes and scanned the obituary again. He couldn't just leave, not without making sure they were okay. He wouldn't have to be seen, but he could do the seeing, assure himself that the guys were surviving. He owed them that much.
They'd moved on, a two-week vigil had told him that. A one-week vigil had told him that, but Vin hadn't been able to make himself leave. At first it was just his own reluctance to leave his friends, even if he had no interaction with them, but then he'd discovered a real reason to stay.
It was in the second week that Vin had learned of the hit out on Chris, and aware of the danger to his friend's life, he couldn't just leave.
So he'd stayed in the shadows and watched. So far, no one tried to kill Chris, and even though the money being offered wasn't a substantial amount, Vin knew that it was only a matter of time before someone did, for the prestige of taking out the legendary Larabee if nothing else.
Though it was a danger for him to stay in Denver where he was known and known to reside, he wasn't overly worried about anyone recognizing him. People didn't see what they didn't expect to see, it was a fact of human nature. The boys thought he was dead, and wouldn't expect to see him, so they wouldn't see him.
Vin had gone farther, though, he'd taken precautions that even if they saw him, no one would make the connection, or even think 'hey, that guy looks like Vin'. Hair bleached blond and cut short, Vin hardly recognized himself when he looked in the mirror.
Team Seven wouldn't recognize him; neither would anyone else who might be looking. Vin Tanner had died for most of the world a month ago.
And as soon as the man who had been Vin Tanner finished up his business in Denver and made sure that Chris Larabee stayed alive, he would move on too.
Chris pushed the plans away, leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and sighed. Working late and coming in early had run together and resulted in Larabee spending the few hours of sleep that he allowed himself to get on the couch in his office. Now, working early morning in the conference room checking and double-checking the plans for the bust later that afternoon, Chris felt the lack of sleep catching up with him.
He'd been working late and coming in early all week, going over the plans, checking contingencies, ironing out the details and making minute changes as needed. Everything had to be right.
Chris knew that the continued leniency that the team had received from Travis about getting a new sharpshooter was because of their exemplary record. So far they'd gotten away with using temporary sharpshooters for their busts because Travis was taking in to consideration their record and giving them as much time to adjust to Vin's death as he could.
Chris snorted scornfully, who was he kidding, they weren't adjusting, not really. Chris rose to his feet and walked to the door of the conference room where he could survey the deserted main office. Vin's desk still stood in the corner, exactly as he had left it, their own personal shrine to their missing member.
Chris knew that soon he'd have to give in and hire a new sharpshooter, but he wasn't ready for that yet. He couldn't quite make himself replace Vin, it felt like too much of a betrayal of his best friend. As much of a betrayal as getting yourself or one of the guys killed because you were too stubborn to let him go would be? A cynical voice in the back of his head asked.
None of them were really ready to replace Vin, but Chris knew that it would only be a matter of time before he started getting pressured, by both his team and Orrin. And sooner or later, Chris would agree, because the lives of his men had to come before the memory of a dead friend. But until then, Chris would hold on, because he wasn't ready to let go, and that meant that everything had to be perfect for their busts.
He'd heard that Team Seven was good, the best, in fact, and he'd kept that in mind in his planning. Team Seven might be good, but he was better.
The money wasn't very good, given the difficulty of the job, it wasn't bad, per say, but it certainly wasn't the amount that he was used to receiving for a job.
But it wasn't the money that he worked for. True, he was good, and well paid because of that fact, but the monetary aspect was really just an added perk. The challenge, the thrill was what attracted him.
So as he settled in the rafters of the warehouse he had staked out for Team Seven's upcoming bust, he wasn't thinking about the money, but about the challenge, thrill and prestige of taking out the infamous Chris Larabee.
He hadn't wanted to be right, but as Vin watched the man dressed all in black settle easily onto a beam and set up a high power rifle, Vin realized that he had been right, and that he was in for a long wait.
It had just been a precaution that had him hidden in the rafters, really. Part of it had been the rumblings on the street that someone had taken the hit on Chris, and part of it had been a need to be there for the guys like he always had been, just in case they needed him.
His head reasoned that the team would have gotten a new sharpshooter in the time that he'd been "dead", and that they'd have to be good to get on the team. Even so, they were still his guys, his responsibility, and his heart wouldn't let him allow any harm to come to them. If it was necessary, he would step in to save one of the boys' lives before the time came to take out the other sniper, even if it meant endangering himself.
Looking through the sight of the rifle to study the other man, Vin settled in for a wait.
"All clear here, Chris," Josiah's voice rang in Chris's ear.
"All right, check in," Chris ordered his team, looking around and mentally taking a head count as each of his agents checked in. Buck and Ezra were both in the warehouse with him and blessedly unharmed, JD was still in the surveillance van, Josiah and Nathan were checking the perimeter of the warehouse, and the sub sharpshooter was packing up his equipment in the rafters.
The shot that rang out caught them all off guard. Chris, Buck, Ezra and the other agents involved in arresting the arms dealers ducked for cover behind whatever was convenient. JD's voice came over the headset, demanding to know what was happening, and Josiah and Nathan hastily, but carefully made their way in to the warehouse to check on their teammates.
Though the source of the shot didn't become apparent, the target did immediately. A black, man-shaped object tumbled from high in the rafters, landing with a sickening crunch on the cement floor.
"Grant, what the hell happened?" Chris demanded of the sharpshooter from his position behind a crate full of guns.
"How the hell should I know?" the sniper shot back, sounding annoyed.
Chris gritted his teeth, and ground out, "Well, who was that, and why did you shoot him?"
"I didn't," Grant sounded put upon, "I didn't even know he was there."
"Well, that's comforting," Buck muttered from his position near Chris.
"You wouldn't happen to know who did shoot him, would you?" Chris returned caustically.
"I'm not God, you know," was the sarcastic response.
"No, you're the sharpshooter," Buck growled, "the one who's supposed to be watching our backs, making sure things like this DON'T happen."
"Buck," Chris gritted out, "I want the bastard alive."
Buck grunted his grudging acknowledgement.
"Vin, would know what happened," JD's muttered comment echoed in their ears.
None of the team responded to the comment, knowing that JD probably hadn't meant to say it aloud.
Ezra had been searching the rafters for any sign of a sniper, and had been unable to find any. Seeing the need for a change of subject, he offered, "I would surmise that our anonymous companion has, in all likelihood, distanced himself from our location. It is probable that we may resume our forsaken tasks without fearing for our well-being."
"And if he hasn't?" JD asked nervously, worried for his friends and teammates.
"Well, then it would be advisable to be prepared to for any contingency."
"I know for a fact that you weren't a boy scout, Ezra," Buck teased.
"I am not at all amused, Mr Wilmington. And I have it on good authority that you were never among their elite ranks either, however - "
Chris held up a hand for silence and the two agents fell silent in deference to their leader's command. "Nathan, I want you to check on the fallen man over there, but be careful," Chris issued his instructions. "Josiah, cover him. Buck, see if you can find anything in the rafters. Ezra, I want an ID on the fallen man. JD, see if you can find anything in the tapes to indicate anyone else in the warehouse."
The members of Team Seven immediately set about on their assigned tasks, mercifully unimpeded by sniper's bullets.
"What about me?" Grant's petulant whine came over the earpiece.
"You," Chris growled, "will come down, without disturbing anything, and go back to the office. You can wait for me in the conference room. I'll deal with you when I'm done here."
Grant continued his grousing as he climbed down, but Team Seven ignored him.
"Chris," Nathan called from by the motionless man, "you should come see this."
Chris immediately strode over to where the healer was crouched. "Well?"
"He's dead," was the quiet announcement, "but that's not the good part. Look at this," Nathan gestured to something beside the dead man.
Chris took another step and saw the gun lying beside the corpse. It was obviously a sniper's weapon. He looked up at Nathan and Josiah, who'd joined the pair. "Is it his, or the one that killed him?"
"I don't think snipers usually drop their weapons, but " Nathan shrugged, as perplexed as his boss.
"I'll have it checked," Josiah took responsibility. "Probably would be a good idea to check him for GSW too."
Chris nodded, then turned back to the medic as Josiah left. "What can you tell me, Nate?"
"He probably would have died in the fall," Chris glanced up towards the ceiling, it was a long fall, "if he hadn't been killed first by a bullet between his eyes."
"Is the bullet retrievable?"
"Should be," Nathan told him, pausing before adding, "doubt it'll do any good though. Probably a professional job, seeing as there was no indication anybody else was here; likely there won't be a match."
Chris nodded. "I know," he sighed. "Thanks Nate." He moved away, calling for Buck.
"Hey, Stud," Wilmington's boisterous voice called over the earpiece. "Look up."
Chris scanned the ceiling, quickly finding the good natured ladies' man. "Jesus Christ, Buck," Chris hissed, "I hope to hell you're secured."
Chris heard Ezra mutter something about inferior brain capacities as Buck assured him that he wasn't stupid.
"You find anything?" Chris questioned his agent.
"Not much," Buck informed him, "and it all looks like it comes from your dead guy. There's no sign anybody else was up here. Whoever it was must be good, 'cause I'm pretty sure that guy didn't shoot himself."
"Well, come on back down here," Larabee instructed. "You boys get the rest of this mess cleaned up, I've got an appointment to keep."
His statement was met with grim satisfaction from his men, and not even Ezra so much as complained about Chris leaving them with the clean up.
Vin had watched with grim satisfaction as the black clad body had tumbled lifelessly from the rafters. There was never any question in his mind that the assassin was dead, but his eyes tracked the body until it hit the ground nevertheless.
The sharpshooter smirked in amusement at the confusion his actions had caused on the ground.
Vin left the warehouse, leaving no trace of his presence, before anyone even realized that he had been there. Vin had things to do; he had to see a man about a hit, the tricky part would be finding him.
In Team Seven's Office
Grant entered the office, threw his bag down with unprofessional and childish disregard a scowl and stalked to the conference room door, turned around and paced back, cursing Larabee the whole time. "Who the hell does Larabee think he is? Making himself out to be bigger than God "
His angry pacing eventually took him to the desk of Vin Tanner, standing like a shrine to the missing sharpshooter in the corner of the room. Grant hadn't known the man, but he'd heard stories and for the last few weeks he'd been living in the Texan's shadow. It hadn't been hard for Grant to hate him.
"Stupid bastards won't accept that you're dead," he sneered at the desk. "Newsflash: you're not coming back, and nobody's going to be able to live up to the legend they made you into; bet not even you could do that."
Grant picked up the brass spur resting in a place of prominence on the desk; he'd seen the matching one on Larabee's desk. "Bastard probably couldn't even shoot," he snorted scornfully, tossing the star hard against the wall. He turned away, muttering, "Larabee's bitch."
A few seconds later Grant found himself shoved roughly up against a wall, Larabee snarling in his face, green eyes afire with his murderous intent. "I want to make one thing perfectly clear," the blond ATF captain snarled, "I don't like you. You're a contemptuous, arrogant son of a bitch, and in my opinion, the world would have been infinitely better off if you'd never been born. But, for the record, that's not why I'm firing you. I need someone who I can trust to protect my team to be my sharpshooter, and you've made it abundantly clear that you can't or won't. So, get out." The last was hissed, low and dangerous.
Grant felt his bowels weaken in fear, and as soon as Larabee released him he hastily made his way out of the office, pausing in his stumbling gate only to collect his bag from by the door.
Larabee's hard stare followed him all the way out, but the hatred and loathing on his face melted as his gaze was drawn to the Vin's desk, being replaced by longing, sorrow, and pain. "I'm sorry, Cowboy," Chris whispered as he knelt down to pick up the discarded spur, caressing it fondly. "I'm so sorry."
Chris was already at work filling out reports when the remainder of Team Seven returned to the office. Their leader was ensconced in his office, and there was no sign of the arrogant sharpshooter.
The five exchanged looks, knowing that something must have happened before they arrived. Buck sighed, knowing that, of all of them, he was the best one to venture into the lion's den. "I'll ask," he announced wearily.
"We appreciate your noble sacrifice, Mr Wilmington," Ezra drawled.
Buck rolled his eyes at the undercover agent. "Keep it up, Ez, I'll give ya somethin' to appreciate." Standish grinned impudently at him.
Buck walked towards Chris's office, shaking his head at the younger man's antics.
The remaining agents settled at their desks to start their reports, four sets of worried eyes lingering on the ladies' man's retreating back.
"Chris?" Buck didn't knock before he entered the office, but he closed the door after him.
Chris was seated behind his desk, head bent over something. He barely acknowledged the presence of his oldest friend, eyes flickering up for a fraction of a second before turning back to whatever captivated him so.
Buck didn't say anything, just sat down in one of the chairs in front of the desk, crossed his legs and waited. He knew that Chris would get to what was bothering him when he was ready.
"He won't be back," Chris stated emotionlessly. He sat back, empty green eyes focusing on nothing.
"Grant?" Buck asked. Chris nodded. "Can't say as he'll be missed."
"I miss him, Buck," Chris exhaled, running a hand through his short blond locks. Buck knew instinctively that they were no longer talking about Grant. They had moved on to the subject of one Vin Tanner, who Chris hadn't so much as mentioned since just after the funeral. "It still hurts, so much sometimes. I don't want to believe that he's really gone."
"In a way, he's not," Buck offered quietly.
"If you're going to start on the 'he's still alive in your heart' crap, you can leave now," Chris snapped, turning hostile in the blink of an eye.
"What would you prefer I say?" Buck shot back, angry now. "That he's dead, gone forever and nothing binds any part of him to us? That he had no effect on our lives and in time we'll forget him entirely?" There was scorn in the normally gregarious man's voice. "That may be good enough for you Chris, but he meant something to the rest of us."
"I didn't mean - " Chris began, a stricken _expression on his face. "It's just - hard." The blond admitted with a resigned sigh.
"I know, Chris. We're all hurtin'." All the venom in Buck's demeanor was gone.
"After Sarah - I didn't think I could survive that again, Buck." The quiet confession didn't surprise Buck. He wouldn't have thought that Chris was capable of it either. "So I decided that if I didn't let anyone get that close, I wouldn't have to face that pain again." Buck nodded silently, he knew this too. "That damned Texan," amusement and affection belied the curse.
"He does have that effect on people," Buck laughed.
"Somehow he got under my skin, brought down my walls, and suddenly not only do I have to worry about him, but the rest of you sorry lot, too." The twinkle in Chris's eyes took the sting out of his words. "And then he's gone, and I don't know what to do. I keep asking myself 'what now?', and I can't come up with an answer." Desolate green eyes locked on to sad blues, beseeching an answer.
"You do the only thing you can do," Buck advised, "you keep living your life. Vin wouldn't want you to do anything less. But you can't go on denying him and what he meant to you, Chris, it's not fair to either of you."
"You don't have to let go, Chris. No one's going to ask you to."
"I know," the blond repeated.
"Chris - "
"But what happens when holding on to him puts you or one of the boys in danger?" Chris's tone was harder now. "How am I going to justify that?"
"Chris, I want you to listen to me, okay?" Buck asserted quietly. "We all know what you're going through; we're all basically in the same place. Getting a new sharpshooter won't always be a betrayal of Vin, but until it's not, no one's going to pressure you into it, and no one's going to hold it against you. At least no one who matters."
Chris sat in silence, contemplating Buck's words, knowing that the big man was right. Buck usually was in matters like this.
"It's okay to grieve, Chris. No one's gonna think less of you for it."
Chris nodded slowly. "Thanks, Buck," Chris said the heartfelt words quietly.
"Anytime, Chris, you know that. Know that when you are ready to let him go, we'll all be here for you, and until then, well, we'll be here for you for that too."
"Guess it's about time that I was there for all of you."
"We understand, Chris - "
"That doesn't make it alright."
Buck sat quietly for a while, thinking. "I think Ezra's having a hard time of it."
"He was the only one to see the body."
"Yeah, but it's more than that too. You know how Ezra is with his emotions, and he and Vin were really close."
Chris nodded, making a mental note to make sure that Ezra was all right, as well as the rest of his team.
He frowned at the man sitting slouched across from him. "Don't you have work to do?" he mock growled.
Buck's brow scrunched up in a frown. "Work? What's that?"
"Out," Chris growled, pointing at the door.
"Aw, Chris," Buck whined.
"You're no Tanner. Now, out."
Buck laughed as he complied, Chris following him into the outer office, stopping just outside his door. This was his family, he thought, surveying the other five men. They had survived pain and loss and still they managed to pull through together and go on, not as if nothing had happened, but as if they had endured a tremendous loss and wouldn't let anything destroy them, even death.
"Ezra," Chris barked at the undercover agent. "I want to know who the dead man was, and why he was in that warehouse."
"Ah, it just so happens that I anticipated your wishes, and took it upon myself to ascertain who the miscreant was and his purpose for being on the premises. It was immediately apparent that he was not on the payroll of the felon that we recently apprehended, so we must assume that he had other business in the area, though, as yet, I have been unable to discover his motives. I am fairly certain that the man was not of heavenly descent."
This elicited a "Huh?" from JD.
"He doesn't think that that man was up to any good," Josiah explained.
"I know," JD frowned, "but why does he think that?"
"Besides the fact that he's dressed all in black, was hiding in the ceiling and was carrying a high power assault rifle?" Buck asked incredulously.
JD looked down, face burning. "Yeah, I guess I see what you mean."
"I still want to know who he was and why he was there," Chris cautioned.
"Well," Ezra drawled, "as to the former, the decedent was one Timothy Herald, and regarding the latter, I have a theory about that."
"Planning to share?"
"I see no need to be so rude, Mr Larabee, it doesn't become you."
"There wouldn't be a need if you'd just get to the point."
"The point, Mr Larabee, is that Mr Herald was an assassin, it is likely that he was there to execute a contract."
"Don't know that 'execute' is the best word there, Ez," Buck drawled at the same time that Nathan asked, "On who?"
"On the contrary, Mr Wilmington," Standish countered, "I feel that 'execute' is probably the best word to use under the circumstances. And as far as the contract is concerned, as yet, I have been unable to find any information on it, so it remains to be seen."
"Probably one of the dealers," JD proclaimed.
"I doubt it," Nathan murmured, lost in thought. "None of the bullets in any of the perps matched from his gun, and it looked like it hadn't been fired. Most likely, he was waiting on one of us. Wait 'til we were lured into a false sense of security by the bust being over, then strike and disappear."
"Now there's a scary thought," Josiah commented quietly. The others nodded mutely.
Chris came to a decision then. "Based on this new speculation, I don't want anyone alone tonight. Buck, you and JD will stay together tonight, no dates. Josiah and Nathan, figure something out. Ezra, you'll stay with me at the ranch."
The team nodded their ascent. "You know Mr Larabee," Ezra offered. "There probably won't be another attempt today, even if he was working for someone."
"It pays to be careful," Chris said shortly. "No one is to be alone tonight." He turned and headed to his office.
"So who shot Herald?" JD asked tentatively. "I mean, he was there to kill one of us, who killed him?"
"It would seem that we have a guardian angel, brother JD," Josiah said quietly as the others pondered the ramifications of JD's statement.
Ezra pursed his lips and pondered that for a moment. Hmm, perhaps someone wanted to be sure that they stayed alive. Interesting.
It was different this time, being alone. Vin wondered briefly if he'd be able to survive the solitude. Before it had been easy, he hadn't known what it was that he'd been missing, but now that he'd tasted that brotherhood, he wasn't sure that he'd be able to go back to what had once been comfortable and comforting solitude.
It had been a long day, on top of a long week, and several long months. Vin's eyes were heavy with fatigue as he rested his body on a dilapidated couch in a rundown apartment. It wasn't home, or even the apartment that he had lived in before leaving Denver. That had never really been home. Home wasn't a place, home had become a group of men, his friends, his family, his brothers. One bad tempered, black clad, glaring Cowboy. Home was the one place that he couldn't go back to for fear of the consequences that might befall his family.
Vin knew that he couldn't expose the boys to that kind of danger, it wasn't worth it. He wasn't worth their lives.
At the moment there wasn't a lot of chance that he would be recognized. Here, in Denver, his own death was working in his favor; word had gotten around that he was dead, and a bounty couldn't be collected on a man that was already dead. On top of that, his shorn bleach blond hair served as a disguise for those that knew him and any who might come looking for him.
But at the moment, his own plight was not at the forefront of his mind.
Despite his body's fatigue, Vin's mind couldn't sleep, and he kept running through the events of the day. And every time he came to it, he cursed himself for not keeping the hitman alive long enough to question. He had killed the only link he had to the hit on Chris.
On the flip side of that coin, if he hadn't taken that shot, Chris would most likely be dead now. That wouldn't, of course, help if someone managed to kill the ATF team leader in the time that it took for Vin to get the information that the man might have had.
He wouldn't let that happen. The only way that anyone would get to Chris would be over his dead body. The next time, and Vin was certain there would be a next time, he'd just have to leave one of the assailants breathing long enough to answer a few questions
"I sincerely believe that this is an exercise in futility," Ezra complained, "it is highly unlikely that another attempt will be made today."
"I don't care what you think, Ez," Chris growled, only mildly annoyed at the Southerners continuous griping, "this isn't optional."
They were now safely ensconced at Chris's ranch, but Ezra hadn't stopped complaining about the inconvenience since they had arrived. The normalcy of it was comforting, but Chris was at the point that he more or less tuned him out, every once in a while growling a gruff comment, for effect more than anything else.
Ezra had also been on the move almost continuously since they had arrived, pacing the floor, going to the kitchen, the study, the bedroom, to get one thing or another. Chris looked up from the book he was reading to study the restive Southerner as he moved from chair to chair in a seemingly futile effort to get comfortable. The behavior was uncharacteristic of the normally sedate agent, and Chris was beginning to wonder if he should worry. "You alright, Standish?"
"I assure you Mr Larabee, I am perfectly fine," Ezra drawled. "What is it that prompts your inquiry?"
"Other than the fact you've been pacing like a caged lion? Not much. This have something to do with the sniper this afternoon? Or is it Vin?" Ezra shot a startled look at Chris before composing himself. "You haven't mourned in a way that any of us saw, Ez," Chris said softly, forestalling Ezra's forthcoming protest.
Ezra studied Chris for an eternity of a second, entirely still for the first time since reaching the ranch. Chris felt himself being weighed and measured by emerald eyes that pierced his very soul. When Ezra began to speak, Chris was gratified by the honesty he could read in those eyes. "Though I still miss him immensely, I have mourned Vin in my own way, Mr Larabee. I am unsettled by the fact that someone has set an assassin upon us. I have no wish to lose another friend. I have too few of them as it is."
Chris nodded, believing the southerner's words, and understanding the sentiment they sprang from.
"What about you, Mr Larabee?" Ezra's question caught Chris by surprise. "You have engaged in no discernable practice of mourning, how are you holding up, as the saying goes?"
Chris opened his mouth to say that he was fine, but realized that his undercover agent had been completely honest and uncharacteristically forthright with him and deserved nothing less. "Sometimes it feels so real, too real," Chris said quietly," but then half the time it doesn't even seem real, it feels like I could turn around and he'd be right there. What really hurts is when I turn and there's no one there." Ezra nodded empathetically, he knew that feeling, they all did. But Chris wasn't done. "Is it crazy that sometimes it feels like he's watching out for me?" He asked it like a man who thought he was grasping at straws that not just weren't there, but never had been.
If Ezra was at all phased by the question, he didn't show it. "I imagine," he drawled, "that when he is not wreaking havoc among the divine host, there is little else that Vin would be doing. It is likely that we have our own guardian angel." Ezra frowned slightly, as if something had occurred to him. Chris didn't seem to notice his companion's distraction.
"That's assuming he went up."
Chris's statement drew Ezra's full attention. "I'll have you know that Mr Tanner possessed one of the purest hearts that I have ever had the privilege of encountering." There was a tone of warning in the Southerner's voice.
"Yeah," Chris agreed, and this time the humor in his eyes and voice was clearly evident, "but you know what they say, you go to heaven for the weather, hell for the company. You know how Vin gets about the cold. He's from Texas, reckon hell's a spring day in comparison. And Vin did love to cause trouble."
Ezra laughed, letting Chris's earlier comment go in the manner that it had been intended. He absently noted the mixed tenses and knowing that Chris probably didn't even realize what he was doing. Ezra knew that he himself had to keep a strict watch on the tenses that he used. "You could well be correct in your estimation. I would put money on Vin running the establishment in inside of a week."
Chris smiled, the first real smile that had graced his features since Vin died. His eyes sparkled with silent laughter. "Reckon you're right, at that."
"Wherever he is," Ezra said seriously, "I haven't the least doubt that he is looking out for us."
JD grimaced at the squawking warble that came from the living area of the condo he shared with Buck.
The ladies' man had been incorrigible this evening, obviously suffering from a severe case of cabin fever. He'd begun the night by informing JD that since he wasn't allowed to go out on the town, they'd just have to make the town come to him.
JD had, for once, wanted no part in it. He'd settled himself at the computer, and as a result had had to endure the mustached man's incessant pestering. It hadn't taken long for JD to give up and move into his room with his laptop.
For his part, Buck had turned on the radio and was now screeching along with an old Jimmy Buffet song, while he banged pots together in the kitchen.
JD hunched lower over the computer and tried to ignore the racket emanating from his roommate. He wasn't sure exactly what he was looking for, but maybe if he could find some clue as to why Harold had been in the warehouse. Ezra's theory was that he had been after one of them. Maybe there was something on the net to find.
JD clicked on an icon and waited while the page loaded. "Oh, shit," he breathed.
JD was buzzing around the office nervously when Chris and Ezra came in the next morning. "Chris," he exclaimed when he saw the bond.
"JD," Chris hedged, immediately suspicious of the young man's behavior.
"I was on-line last night, ya know," the youth began, going a mile a minute, hands fluttering nervously. "Buck was being real annoying, you know how he gets, 'specially when he has to cancel a date, or has nothing to do. Anyways, I was on-line, and, well, I wasn't really looking for anything in particular. I mean, I was just a little bored so I was surfing. I guess I thought maybe I could - "
"The point, JD?" Chris's growl interrupted the flustered youth.
"Oh." JD made a visible effort to get himself together. "I think I may have found why Harold was in the warehouse," he said quietly.
Josiah and Nathan entered the office, but not in time to hear JD's statement. They took one look at their coworkers though, and knew that something important was going on.
"Do you care to share this epiphany with us?" Ezra inquired.
Chris's attention flicked to Buck momentarily. The man looked haggard and sad; whatever JD's news was, it had had a profound and sobering impact on the man.
"Um, yeah," JD stammered. "I - well, I found - there's a hit out on Vin."
The statement was met with silence.
"Vin's already dead," Nathan said quietly, hesitant to point out the painfully obvious.
"Perhaps the person who placed the hit didn't know that," Josiah offered. "Maybe he didn't believe the proof whoever killed Vin presented him with."
"Or it is possible that the miscreant is waiting a certain amount of time for confirmation before making it official," this theory from Ezra.
"Don't matter now," Buck said quietly. "Would explain why Harold was there, but didn't fire any shots."
"What it doesn't explain was who killed Harold, though," Chris put in, finally contributing to the conversation.
"Maybe it was a bounty hunter," JD suggested. "It coulda been. He was wanted in a coupla states for jumping bail. I checked."
"But no one came forward to claim the reward," Josiah pointed out.
"Maybe they didn't mean to kill him and just got scared or something," JD suggested, still slightly agitated.
"Or maybe there was a contract out on him too," Nathan presented another theory. "In his line of work, it wouldn't be hard to make powerful enemies if you took out the wrong person."
"Or didn't take out the right one," Josiah added.
"Guess, we got lucky they didn't have a grudge against us, too," Buck murmured.
"Lord knows we've pissed enough people off," Nathan said with a small smile.
"So - we think Harold was there because if the hit out on Vin, and someone with a grudge against him took him out," JD summarized. "Now what?"
The six men stood in silence for a minute, then Chris shook himself out of his reverie. "We finish the reports from yesterday," he said, "find out who killed Harold, and keep our eyes open in the future."
The men nodded and began to move off towards their respective desks.
"JD," Chris called the youngest back. "When you're done with that, I want you to find out who put the hit out on Vin."
"I'll try, Chris," JD promised sincerely, not telling the blond that all his attempts so far hadn't been successful.
Chris nodded once and turned to his own office. JD watched him go sadly, then went back to his own work.
Vin collapsed on his couch with a sigh. He'd have to go back out before too long. It would be nice to think that Chris wouldn't do anything that would attract trouble for a while, but that wasn't realistic.
Vin's eyes drifted to the phone sitting on one of the side tables. Mike had told him that is he ever needed a job all he had to do was call. Right now he didn't need a job, but eventually he would have this taken care of, and then he'd need something to do, he couldn't stay here. Why not? a voice in his head asked. What do you gain from leaving besides pain and heartache?
But Vin knew the answer to that question: Peace of mind. If he wasn't here, he couldn't get one of his friends killed.
Vin reached over and picked up the phone.