by Xiola


Vin had no idea how long he had been asleep. At least, that was what he assumed he had been. He couldn’t be quite sure any more - there were times during the past week when he thought he had been sleeping only to be told that the fuzzy out of focus world that he was certain he had dreamt was indeed reality. The only thing that seemed to mark the boundary between awareness and oblivion was the prick of the needle in his arm, and without that point of reference to guide him, he was lost. He thought he was standing on that line right now, though, uncertain as to whether sleep lay before him or behind him.

He lay as still as he could, eyes closed, and bit by bit the pieces starting coming back. His ramble around Denver in the rain, the drive to the cabin, the dust - up with his camping equipment, the arrival of Chris….had Chris….was Chris here? He thought he remembered Chris….yes, and the whiskey - the whiskey he had consumed to ‘help him sleep’. Well, he had been right in one respect. He had managed to inebriate himself into unconsciousness for a brief time, but his aching stomach told him that he later paid for that escape several times over while on his knees on the porch. His head was pounding too, with an intensity that made his eyes water, and he moaned and rolled onto his side. It was this movement that brought him fully back again to the present, and he peered reluctantly through the haze to see Chris seated on the bunk across from his, watching him warily.

“You still alive?”

Vin bit back another moan.

“Ain’t sure. Iffen I am, I think I’s fixin’ t’ die soon.”

“You had a pretty rough night. I take it you aren’t feeling a whole lot better.”

All Vin could manage by way of a response was a brief shake of his head.

“I’ve been waiting for you to come around. I didn’t want to start breakfast and wake you any sooner than I had to. You feel up to eating?”

Vin shook his head again.

“It’s almost six thirty. I’ll make myself something quick and break camp and we’ll head out.”

To the ranch. Hadn’t he and Chris had this conversation earlier? Hadn’t he thanked Chris for his concern and asked that he drop him at his place in Purgatorio? There was no way he was going home with Chris. Perhaps he could persuade Chris to leave him here. Well, the only way he was going to be able to do that would be if he could prove that he was no longer sick. He closed his eyes and took a mental inventory.

It was no use. There was no way he could feign good health at the moment, even if his life depended on it. In a way, his life did depend on it, though - if he didn’t get himself away from Chris and his good intentions, the life he had worked so hard to have would be over.

End of story.

It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been expecting this day to come. If he really stopped to think about it, he was amazed that it had taken him this long to screw up the best thing he ever had. He knew he didn’t really belong on this team, with these friends, in this world where people looked up to him, respected him.

He was nothing.

He had managed to forget that fact for while, but in his heart he knew it was true. This life he had made for himself was like a fairy tale - he was Cinderella at the ball, and now the shoe was about to drop. Chris would know, and the guys would know, and the world would know, and that knowledge would gnaw away at him in every word and every look cast his way.

Until he was nothing once again.

A sudden cramp tore through him and took his breath away. He gritted his teeth against the pain and unfairness of it all and tried to hold back the groan that was trying to make its way past his lips. Vin let out a thankful sigh as the agony subsided, and relaxed momentarily into his bed. How was he ever going to hide his misery from Chris?

He had been so sure yesterday that he could get through this. He had done it once before, this was true, but then he’d had no choice. He had a choice now. He had a job, and money, he could get through….. things were different now. But the biggest difference of all was back then - he’d had nothing to lose. Now - he had everything. Maybe he could just fix himself up for the time being, deal with all of this later, when he was alone, and stronger….. he’d have no trouble getting what he wanted, he knew where to go. It would only be for a few weeks maybe, get himself back into shape, deal with the fallout later….


He peeled his eyes open to see Chris standing in front of him with a steaming mug of what he presumed was coffee, and a plate full of scrambled eggs.

“You should try to eat something. Then we’ll get on the road.”

Vin shuffled his way up until his back was resting against the wall and took the cup. He really didn’t think he could swallow anything at the moment, but the mug was warm in his hands, and he curled his fingers hungrily around it. Chris set the plate on his lap, and he let him, for that was warm too, and right now he felt just about frozen solid. Vin watched as Chris gathered up his sleeping bag and what was left of the food and made his way outside. It was then he noticed the cabin had been swept and the wood box stocked and that there was nothing left inside except for him, wrapped in a quilt and clutching his coffee. He had obviously managed to doze through Chris’s fit of early morning industry, and it seemed like no more than another moment had passed before Chris was shaking his arm and prising his stiffened fingers away from the chill of the cup. Chris slipped his hand under Vin’s elbow and helped him onto the porch, then steered him in the direction of the Ram. The chaos left from the previous evening’s tantrum had all been cleared away, his Jeep was packed and closed up tight, and when he finally got into his seat in Chris’s truck, he fairly melted in the heat. Chris disappeared into the cabin for a final check and crossed the yard and climbed into the driver’s side.

“You all right?”

Vin merely grunted an affirmation without looking at his friend. He didn’t trust himself not to let his misery show.

“I figured we’d leave your Jeep here and pick it up later this week. If you have to stop - you know - just give me a shout. Are you warm enough? I can get you another blanket.”

“I’m g-good Chris, but really-”

‘Here we go again,’ Vin thought as his teeth began to chatter. He willed himself to stop, but his body had a mind of its own right now, and was in full traitor mode. He clenched his jaw through the round of violent chills and tried to hold in the sounds that scrabbled in his throat. He was relieved when the minutes finally passed, and relaxed as the fit slowly ebbed away. He had another problem, though, now that he was starting to warm up. He could feel his skin tingling, and had to fight the urge to dig his nails into his arms and claw at them til they bled. He curled his hands into fists and sat on them, just to be sure they wouldn’t betray him, and took a deep breath.

“I want t’ go t’ my place. Please.”

Chris said nothing, just slanted his eyes at him over his sunglasses and gave him that ‘I’ve got no intention of doing what you’re asking but I don’t plan to get into it with you now’ look.

If he hadn’t felt so miserable it might have been funny.

Chris continued to ignore him and reached for the radio. Something tinny and loud came blaring through the speakers, and he tried his best to block it out. He couldn’t help but think it was a good thing he was wearing a seat belt because he was sure he otherwise would be hanging by his fingernails from the ceiling. Did Chris have no bass control on this sound box of his? Every beat seemed to pierce right through his head, and he began to wonder whether his brain had left the building. Every pulse was magnified and echoing in his skull, and he was certain that if indeed his brain was still in there, it would surely have absorbed some of the thundering racket. He snaked a hand toward the dial, and pushed the ‘Seek’ button. Nothing could be worse than this. But it was. Even though Vin was a loyal son of Texas, he had never managed to cultivate a taste for country music. It was George, he thought, twanging about Tammy, no doubt, and loving and drinking and driving. He gave the button another poke, and then decided he was too hot. He fiddled with the fan, the air blasted warm, then cold, then not at all. He reached again to regulate the flow, when Chris grabbed him by the wrist.

“Tanner, you touch anything - and I mean anything, on this truck one more time and you’ll go home minus a hand.”

“That mean yer takin’ me t’ m’ place?”

Chris just glared at him again and Vin let it drop. He’d give it an hour or so, and once they got closer to Denver, he’d exercise his powers of persuasion once more. He leaned the side of his head into the cool of the window and concentrated on not moving. It took every ounce of self - control that he possessed to keep still. But he managed, and after what he was sure was an eternity had passed, he dared to entertain the hope that Chris might think he was asleep. He could feel those hazel eyes flicking back and forth between him and the road, though, and it wasn’t long before Chris was addressing him.

“You never did tell me how your vacation was. What did you do all week?”

Vin sighed and answered without opening his eyes.

“Hung around, did some hiking.”

“So you were there all week, eh? No side trips, no company, nothing?”

“I’s down t’ Cammy’s fer some supplies a coupla times. So, yeah, you want t’ get technical about it, I guess I wasn’t there all week.”

Chris was quiet for a minute, and Vin couldn’t help thinking Chris was playing the cop with him. The thought made him vaguely nervous, and he couldn’t stop them when his fingers started plucking at the fringe of his coat.

“Got your voice message.”

“Good. Yeah. Sorry ’bout that - b-bein’ as it was short notice and all.”

“When’d you start getting sick? You didn’t say anything about it when you called.”

What had he said in that stupid phone call? Something about wanting more time off, and generic descriptions of weather and relaxing and the like. He couldn’t bring up any clear picture of the past seven days in his head no matter how hard he tried. He felt as if someone had taken out his brain, scrambled it up in a frying pan, and stuffed it, fluffy, yellow and flaccid, back into his head. It didn’t fit any more - it was too big for his skull, and what could no longer be squeezed in was leaking out, trickling down the back of his throat, choking him. He was gagging on it now, the yellow brain matter, slick and slimy and full of partially cooked chunks of cerebral cortex - he just had to stop watching the Discovery Channel - and why was he even thinking about his brain right now? Oh, right, because it hurt, and his stomach hurt and was rebelling at the mere thought of being invaded by excessive brain goop the consistency of runny eggs. He fumbled at the door handle, frantic as the truck slowed and Chris reached across to unfasten his seatbelt and sent him tumbling out into the snow. His heart quickened with the hope that perhaps Chris would just leave him there, would drive away and forget about him and if he could ever make himself stop throwing up he could just crawl out in front of an obliging eighteen wheeler and put himself out of his misery. But no such luck. Chris was there again at his side while he heaved up two swallows worth of coffee and half a forkful of rubbery egg.

And suddenly it struck him how much he needed Chris and admired and respected him, and that the realization was enough to make him cry.

And that - oh God - he was such a total basket case.


Chris was worried.

Well, he supposed that made a certain amount of sense. It wasn’t an every day occurrence for him to be kneeling in the wet on the side of the Colorado freeway in the whine and buzz of Saturday morning traffic while his best friend chucked his insides up all over the snow.

He had seen Vin sick and hurt, more than he cared to think in the relatively short time he had known him, but no matter the nature of his indisposition, he was still Vin. More stubborn, if it were possible, more stoic, crankier perhaps - if one simply didn’t have the sense to just leave him alone- but still Vin.

This Vin though, he wasn’t sure.

Vin could be evasive when it suited, for example, when endeavouring to escape the promised retribution for a cunning practical joke. But Vin would never lie. Chris had never thought him capable of it - neither morally nor physically.

But he was lying now, and badly.

And Vin was confused. He had the look of - well - Alice after her trip down the rabbit hole. Like he had wandered onstage in the middle of a dramatization of his life, but was several scenes behind the action and didn’t know his lines. Vin was generally the calmest, most centred and level - headed person Chris knew, but right at the moment, he was none of those things.

And this had him worried.

His train of thought was derailed by the realization that Vin’s body- racking heaves seemed to have dwindled away, and he stood slowly, got his hands under Vin’s arms and helped him to his feet. He was alarmed when he felt Vin sag against him, and when he looked down into the younger man’s face, he could have sworn he was close to tears. Chris tightened his hold on the Texan and was surprised to find himself whispering words of comfort and rocking the smaller man in his embrace. The spell was soon broken by the rude blare of car horns, and he broke away to help Vin over to the truck and ease him back inside. Before he could shut the door, his friend’s hand caught his wrist in a weak grip.

“Please, Chris, I cain’t do this. Jist leave me at my place. Please.”

He gently pried away the fingers and looked into the cloudy blue eyes.

“It’ll be OK.”

Chris rounded the front of his vehicle and climbed into his seat as well. He pulled away from the side of the road and continued to glance as unobtrusively as he could manage in his friend’s direction

Vin was quiet now, sitting hunched into himself, crowded as far against the passenger door as he could get and still be inside the truck. He was rocking slightly, back and forth, and whispering to himself - a chant, almost, and nothing Chris could make sense of. Vin’s eyes were closed and he looked terrible.

“Hey, Pard, I’m thinking maybe we should stop off at Mercy General on our way through town. I think you should have someone check you over.”

Vin’s eyes flew open at that and a look of panic crossed his face.

“No, no - it’s OK. I’ll go t’ the ranch iffen that’s what ya want. I’m all right, Chris. Let’s jist head on out t’ yer place…..I cain’t…..I can…..I’ll be OK….I want t’ go out t’ the ranch…..really….. I done thought about it and it’s good….please.”

The words were tumbling out of Vin’s mouth, too many and too fast, almost like he had no control over them, but there was no mistaking their intent.

Chris reached out to give Vin a reassuring pat on the arm and was surprised when he flinched away.

He cleared his throat.

“Is there something going on I should know about? I can’t do anything to help you unless you tell me what’s going on. I talked to Mrs. Martinez. I know you were at your place yesterday, but I can’t figure out why you don’t want me to know that. I also know that you haven’t been up to the cabin all week. I took a run up there yesterday after work, and there were no signs of anyone having been there in a long time. So, you going to tell me what’s going on, or am I going to have to keep guessing, and maybe come to all the wrong conclusions.”

Chris himself had absolutely no idea what those ‘wrong conclusions’ might be, but he crossed his fingers and hoped the veiled threat served its purpose.

Vin was silent for several long minutes, then leaned back against the headrest with a resigned sigh.

“I’ll tell ya the whole story, I promise Chris, but it’s gonna have t’ wait a bit. I cain’t git much of it straight in m’ own head jist yet. And I’m feelin’ about as bad as I ever felt in m’ whole life right now, and I don’t think I got the energy t’ do all the talkin’ that’s gotta be done. Sorry. Jist give me a day or two.”

He turned haunted eyes to gaze into Chris’s face, and it was Chris’s turn to sigh. He knew he would accede to Vin’s wishes - there was nothing he could do to make Vin fill him in until he was good and ready - but Vin’s illness was starting to really trouble him. How could he not be concerned when he looked over and saw that pale face, clammy with sweat, and heard the quickened breathing and muffled sounds of the discomfort Vin was trying so hard to hide from him?

There was an exit coming up ahead - he’d pull off and try to find a convenience store - see if he could pick up something to drink. Vin remained motionless as he angled onto the ramp and drove up the mostly deserted road. It wasn’t long before he found what he was looking for and turned into the parking lot, but Vin didn’t even bother to look to see where they were.

“Can I get you anything? Something to eat? Drink?”

Vin gave a barely perceptible shake of his head in answer to Chris’s queries. Chris got out, made his way inside the ‘Jiffystop’ and proceeded to the back of the store. He fished two bottles of Gatorade from the cooler, then paused to study the unappetizing array of sandwiches winking up him in shrink - wrapped splendor from behind the refrigerator’s glass panels. Roast chicken was probably the least offensive of the lot, and he plucked two from their air - chilled roost and made his way to the front with his purchases. He could see that Vin hadn’t moved when he returned to the Ram, and he reached across and nudged the bottle of sport drink into his hand.

“Try to get some of this down. I got you a sandwich too, if you feel up to it.”

He had started to release his own lunch from its Saran - clad prison, but halted when he saw Vin’s hand make its way to his mouth.

Chris dropped his sandwich onto the seat.

“You OK? You need me to help you to the bathroom?”

Vin swallowed several times before replying.

“Mebbe iffen ya’ll could put down the window? I cain’t even bear the smell ’a food right now. Sorry.”

“No problem. I didn’t even think about that.”

Chris started to re - wrap his lunch.

“S’OK - go ahead and eat - jist let me stick m’ head out the window first.”

Chris was encouraged to see the patented Tanner half - grin on his friend’s face. It was the first time since he had met up with Vin the previous night that he dared to think that just perhaps, things might be all right.

It didn’t last long.

That thought.

That things might be all right.

They had no sooner pulled back onto the highway and traveled five miles down the road when Chris noticed the flow of traffic had become more and more sluggish. Another mile along and it ground to a halt completely. Chris sat up straighter in the seat, trying to see beyond the vehicle - clogged horizon, but to no avail. There must have been an accident, and he stole a glance to where Vin was slumped to one side, held mostly in place by his seat belt. He started fuming in earnest when half an hour passed, and they were still stuck. He noticed that he was starting to run low on gas, and had to resort to turning off the engine, restarting it only when the chill in the truck became unbearable. He dug out the sleeping bags-Vin was awake now - and wrapped his friend in one and spread the other across the seat to cover their legs. He had no sooner gotten both of them comfortably situated when Vin began fumbling with his belt, lunged out the door, scrabbled through the brush on the side of the road and disappeared. It wasn’t the first time since they had left the mountain that Vin had been attacked by cramps and had to make a hasty exit into the shrubbery, but Chris found himself becoming concerned as the minutes ticked past with still no sign of Vin. He was just about ready to venture into the scrub in search of him when he caught sight of a bedraggled figure climbing out of the ditch and stumbling onto the gravel - lined shoulder. He reached across to swing the door open so Vin could climb in, and very nearly sent him tumbling back from whence he came. Vin managed to keep his balance by hanging off the rear view mirror, re - gained his equilibrium and maneuvered himself finally into the seat. He was soaked now, and Chris turned the keys to start the engine once again.

“Here, let me get this around you. Do you want to try to get out of those wet things?”

“Hell, yes, Larabee, that would look real good on the front page ’a the Denver Post. ‘ATF Boss Caught in Traffic Tryst with Naked Sharpshooter.’”

Vin gave him another one of those looks that let him know that his best friend was still alive somewhere inside that pathetic - looking shell.

“I’s feelin’ bad enough, thanks.”

Chris found himself grinning for the first time in over a week. Vin was one of the few people in the world who could make him smile. Ezra and Buck were generally considered to be the Team’s comedy duo, but Vin had a decidedly skewed take on the world and a wicked wit and sense of timing that he shared only with a chosen few. Chris and the rest of the Team had come to appreciate the young Texan more and more over the six months since they had come to know him. One thing was sure - Chris had never met anyone who had more reason to complain about the hand life had dealt him, and was less inclined to do so. Vin was still mostly a mystery to them, although Chris, as boss, knew more than the others. But right now, looking across at Vin, shivering under the layers of polyester and down, Chris realized there was a lot about the younger man that he didn’t know, and likely never would.


Chris had never been happier to see a day come to an end. He still failed to understand how what should have been a three hour drive - three and a half hours tops, if one was to consider the speed limit - had managed to turn into the longest, most frustrating, calamity - ridden day he had endured in a very long time. It was almost seven o’clock when he pulled the Ram off the pavement and started up the long gravel drive to his house. Chris had been stuck in some bad traffic jams in his life, but nothing to rival this day’s mess. By monitoring the local radio, he learned that a tanker truck had overturned and disgorged its contents over a substantial portion of the highway. When the vehicles were finally on the move once more, and it was his turn to pass the site of the disaster, he grudgingly admitted that he could then understand the reason for the delay. There were fire trucks, police cars and emergency vehicles, clean up crews and helicopters and a team from KCNC TV. The only good thing about the situation was that no one had been injured, and he kept telling himself that in the hope that it would keep his temper under some sort of control. As if that wasn’t enough, he had no sooner begun to roll merrily along when the Ram began to cough and sputter and he - yes - ran out of gas. He left Vin huddled once more under the bedding while he jacked up the hood and stood on the side of the road with his thumb outstretched. He had been there a good fifteen minutes when he looked up at the truck and saw Vin motioning to him through the open window. He hurried to the passenger side door, afraid that Vin’s condition was beginning to worsen.

“What is it?”

“I’s jist thinkin’, Larabee, that p’raps iffen ya lighten up on the glare, somebody might actually give ya a ride.”

“Go to hell, Tanner.”

Chris couldn’t help but smile as he walked away from the truck once more and turned to face the oncoming traffic. And damn if Vin wasn’t right - the next car past stopped and picked him up.

So he got to a garage and was driven back and got the truck going, then stopped and filled the tank. He hadn’t gotten another ten miles before he felt the Ram jerk and the familiar ‘whomp, whomp, whomp’ of a flat tire. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d had a puncture, and he cursed his way through the wrestling match with uncooperative lug nuts and unwieldy jacks, until he finally got the puny spare in place. They then limped along to the next exit where they went in search of another garage. They sat about for another hour while the hole was patched, and by then Chris was in the throes of so much pent - up irritation that he couldn’t even relax when they were finally on their way once more.

Vin had to be exhausted. Hell, he was exhausted and he wasn’t sick. To his credit, even though Vin had sweated and shook and vomited the day away and had to be feeling just about as awful as anyone possibly could feel, he hadn’t once complained. He had, however, suggested on more than one occasion that if Chris was truly his friend that he might consider putting him out of his misery.

But Chris knew he was only kidding.

Wasn’t he?

Vin had dropped into an uneasy doze about twenty miles back, and Chris was loath to wake him now that they were home. He figured he’d let him sleep while he unloaded the gear and stowed it away, and he’d make up the bed in Vin’s room so it would be ready to receive his friend when he finally did make it into the house. Vin had been spending a lot of his weekends with Chris at the ranch. He was a natural with the horses, and handy with a hammer. He helped Chris catch up on some of the projects that had been left undone after Sarah and Adam died, and where Chris had often dreaded the weekends after he’d been left on his own, Vin had definitely helped turn them back into something to be looked forward to. He checked on Vin while he took care of things - started some soup to heat and put on a pot of coffee. The first thing he would have to do once he got his friend in the door was steer him in the direction of the shower. He might not know where Vin had been this past week, but it was a fairly certain bet it had definitely been a locale far removed from the basic amenities. He got out some towels and laid them in the spare bath, and once all the preparations were finished, he went out to rouse his charge. It took several minutes for Vin to come around to the point where Chris was satisfied he knew where he was, and once he thought he was steady enough, he helped him from his seat.

“Vin? How be you take a shower, then we’ll see about getting some food into you?”

Vin grunted in response, but Chris didn’t know whether it was a grunt of concession or denial. The question was completely rhetorical anyway - Chris fully intended to make Vin shower and eat whether he agreed to it or not. Once inside, he helped Vin into the bathroom and sat him on the edge of the tub while he unlaced his sodden boots. Vin didn’t move while he tugged them off, then peeled away the filthy socks. It wasn’t until he went to unbutton his coat that Vin reacted, pulling away under Chris’s hands and clutching the jacket to him.

“I kin undress m’self.”

“OK, OK - just trying to help.”

As Chris backed away, he saw Vin’s face soften.

“Yeah, I know. Sorry.”

Chris stooped to gather the boots and socks from the floor.

“You go ahead then, if you’re all right. I’ll set out some sweats and another t shirt for you. Give me a shout if you need anything.”

He backed out of the room and closed the door behind him. He dug in the bureau drawers and found what he needed from among the barn clothes Vin had on hand for the weekends, listening all the while for the sound of the shower. He was about to go and knock - to be sure everything was all right - when he heard water gurgling in the pipes and the sound of spray hitting the walls. He had just gone out into the hall on the way to his own room when he heard a loud thump that sent him running back to stand outside the guest bath, ear to the door.


He rapped sharply against the wood, and getting no response, turned the knob and pushed the door open a crack.



Only the squeal of the ceiling fan and the drum of water on tile.

He went in then, and pushed the curtain aside to find Vin sprawled on the bottom of the tub. He reached in to turn off the faucets, grabbed the towels from the rack and shook his head when he got a good look at his friend. Vin wasn’t a big man, wiry and surprisingly strong nonetheless, but he didn’t carry an ounce of extra weight on his slender frame. Buck always swore the Texan lost weight if he so much as missed a meal, and it appeared that he had missed several. It was a good thing his teammates couldn’t see him now, for Vin looked positively skeletal. His stomach was sunken, flesh stretched tight across his ribs, his face drawn and pale under the veil of dripping hair. Vin didn’t move when Chris bent to grasp his wrists, hauled him out of the tub and stretched him out on the floor. Chris covered him with one towel and began to briskly rub his arms with the other. It was then that he noticed it, the bruised and reddened skin at the bend of Vin’s elbows, and it took him a moment to realize just what he was looking at.

He had seen them before, in raids on Denver’s better - known hit houses during his brief stint with the DEA.

Those tiny pinpricks.

The marks a needle would make, tracking up and down the arms of those hapless souls.




Whatever they chose to call themselves.


Vin had taken a trip all right.

But he’d never left the farm.


Chris rubbed a tired hand across his face and squinted at the clock.

Three fifteen.

The past two nights had been the longest of his entire life. A stirring on the mattress beside him reminded Chris he likely wasn’t the only person entertaining that thought at the moment.

Vin was being sick again.

For the seventeenth time.

Not that Chris was counting.

He reached over to ensure that the towel under his friend’s mouth was still in place. Vin had nothing but yellow bile left to expel, and when he was sure the Texan was finished, Chris replaced the soiled cloth with a clean one from the stack on the floor. He was stretched out on the far side of the queen - sized bed, and had managed a few brief snatches of sleep between Vin’s bouts of vomiting. Just because he now knew the cause of the younger man’s illness didn’t make it any easier to deal with, and he wondered if there was anything further he could do to ease Vin through this. Vin’s pulse was light and thready under his fingertips, and his hands were cold. His breathing was much too fast for Chris’s liking and it was becoming harder and harder to rouse him. He knew he couldn’t take Vin to the hospital - there would be too many questions to be answered, and he thought he at least owed Vin the opportunity to explain himself. His only option at this point was Nathan, but he couldn’t bring himself to call the good - hearted medic out in the middle of the night.

He figured that Vin must be seriously dehydrated, but he had given up trying to coax him to drink. All it did was trigger the vomiting, and Vin was doing quite enough of that without the added burden of water on his stomach.

He looked again at the clock, wishing he could speed the sweep of the hands across its face.

Three - thirty.

Vin’s body tensed and his stomach spasmed once more.

For the eighteenth time.

Not that Chris was counting.


“Hey, Nathan, it’s Chris.”


It was part question, part statement.

“Yeah, I know it’s early, but I really need a favour.”

“What can I do for you?”

Nathan was now sounding half - awake at least.

“I got Vin here with me - I went up to his camp night before last and, well, the thing is…. he’s really sick. I brought him out to the ranch yesterday and he isn’t up for a trip to town. I was wondering if you could come over and give him something. He’s been throwing up all night.”

“How long’s this been going on?”

“I don’t know for sure, but he’s not looking so good. I can’t hardly get him to wake up, and he fainted on me last night.”

“It sounds like he’s dehydrated.”

“ I’ve been trying to get him to drink, but he can’t keep anything down.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can. Just keep trying to get some liquids in him.”

“Thanks Nate. Appreciate it.”

Chris hung up the phone and scrubbed his hand through his hair. He supposed he’d better go in there and let Vin know that Nathan was on his way. The medic was going to have to know what was going on. Besides, all that Chris knew about coming down off drugs was what he had read in police enforcement manuals. He was pretty certain that as miserable as it was, going cold turkey wasn’t something folks died doing, but it worried him to see Vin so ill nonetheless.


Chris shook his friend’s shoulder and was rewarded with a muffled grunt.

“You hear me?”

Vin nodded without opening his eyes, and Chris continued.

“Nathan’s coming out in a bit. Going to give you something to help you feel better. OK? I’m going to grab a shower. You’ll be all right for a couple of minutes?”

Another nod.

Chris pulled the blanket up as Vin shivered, and gave his arm a pat.

“Don’t worry Pard,” Chris whispered. “We’ll get you through this.”


“Say it, Vin. ‘Mickey Wallace.’ Say it for me now. I want you to know who screwed things up for you. It’s only fair, don’t you think? You did it for me, now I’m just returning the favour. It can’t be any more than ten years - I know you remember me.”

Vin felt a touch on his hair and tried to move away.

Mickey Wallace.

He peered through gritty eyes but couldn’t see a face.

That voice, though, he remembered. At one point in his life, it had been louder in his head than his own. Telling him what to do and think and feel.

And those hands, bringing the sharp sweet sting of his escape to that place where nothing could touch him, and he was safe.

For awhile that was the entire scope of his universe - Mickey’s voice in his head and the needle in his arm. He would have done anything for Mickey back then, done anything for the blossoming rush that swept him away from his world, like a rocket speeding toward the sun. And every time it happened he prayed it would never end, that he could be swallowed up into that sun and melted in its crucible until all that was left of him was ash, white and pure. But he always came crashing back, only staying long enough to find the next flight out.

Until that last time.

That time when he came crashing back for good, when he finally realized it wasn’t just about him and his quest for deliverance from the pain and sorrow that was the sum of his existence.

Mickey had changed his life.

He would have likely died on those streets if not for Mickey.

Alone and empty.

If nothing else, he had to thank the man for that.


Someone was pulling at him once again…. it had to be Mickey….

‘I’ll say it for ya… I’ll say it….’


His voice grated in his ear like a door on a rusty hinge, but he’d done what had been asked of him. Maybe now Mickey’d leave him alone, let him go….but the hands were still on him, rolling him to his side, tugging at his clothes and he really couldn’t do this now while he was so sick…

“Jist leave me, please, please, leave me….”

There was another voice now, saying his name, a voice he knew and trusted and he relaxed into the lull of it.

“Vin, calm down. Let us take a look at you. It’ll be OK - we’re trying to help, just calm down.”

He knew then they were Chris’s words in his ear, and he peered up at him through the fog of his overwhelming misery. Then it dawned on him that Nathan was there as well, and he summoned up the eroding strength of his aching limbs and tried to pull away.

“No, I’s all right. Jist leave me be. Nate! Don’t touch….don’t touch me please…”

He wondered vaguely if he sounded as pathetic to his friends as he did to himself. He felt every muscle in his body contract at that moment, so tightly that he was sure his bones would break. He head was pounding again in a frenzied staccato, and he was sure that his traitorous stomach must have finally declared its independence from the rest of his body, for it was now in full fledged revolt.

Someone was holding him, resting a cool hand on his hot forehead, and when he was done those hands helped lay him gently back on the pillow. What little energy he’d possessed was completely spent, and he didn’t even flinch at the sting of the needle in his leg - just let himself collapse into the haze and drift in the sweet release.

He couldn’t say how long he’d been gone - he had floated off somewhere, out of his head, but was called back when he heard again the chop and clip of words, this time loud and terse.

“You should have told me what was going on.”

That was Nate’s voice, and Vin listened to hear who would reply.

“I swear Nathan, I didn’t know myself until last night. I didn’t want to say anything to you before I had the chance to let him know you were coming. I thought he understood when I told him, but I guess he wasn’t with me even then. I don’t care what the evidence says. I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt and I think he deserves the chance to explain himself before we go jumping to conclusions.”

“He’s in bad shape, Chris. He should be in the hospital.”

Vin could feel Nathan’s hands running over his head and along his limbs, and he winced when his eyes were pried open and a sharp light pierced the curtain of black and invaded his brain.

“He’s got a fair sized lump on his head. He could have a concussion on top of everything else.” Nathan’s tone was gentler now. “I could have brought something to help with the withdrawal. I can run back to town and pick up some Clonidine and Flexeril - they’ll help with the cramps and let him sleep. I’ll get some Fiornal too - has he complained about headache?”

“He hasn’t complained about anything.”

Vin felt the press of Nate’s fingers on the back of his hand.

“I’m going to have to put a subcutaneous line into his stomach. He’s so dehydrated I can’t find a vein to put this needle in.”

His hand was laid back on the bed then, and the voices receded.

The pain that tore at him now was keener and more devastating than any he had ever felt. He had known from the moment he had been assured of his place on the team that it might come to this, but he had allowed himself to be deluded these past nine months with the irrational belief that no one would find out.

That it would never actually come to this.

He had let them down. The only people in his life who had ever trusted him, believed in him, accepted him.

The only friends he had ever had.

And losing them - Buck and JD and Josiah and Ezra and Nathan - would be bad enough.

But worst of all would be losing Chris.

He had never met any one person who possessed all those qualities he admired most - intelligence, dedication, integrity and compassion.

And what was even more amazing, Chris saw those same things in him.

Chris believed in him and had faith in him, and his respect and approval meant more to Vin than anything.

And now all of that would be gone.

He was glad Chris and Nathan had left the room. For a long, searing moment he thought he was going to cry - for all that he would never have, and all that he was now going to lose.

But he wouldn’t allow himself cry.

He didn’t want to take the time to mourn.

Not yet.

He’d have the rest of his life to do that.