ATF Universe

Chapter One

The shopping cart was filled with an odd conglomeration of things. Cardboard, plastic garbage bags, a ratty old tarp, newspapers, and empty bottles and cans. The bum huddled on the sidewalk next to the cart had obviously been on the street for years. He wore old, torn, baggy jeans that were a few sizes too big. The green army jacket worn over several shirts was tattered and threadbare. A black stocking cap topped a head of long, unkempt, matted hair. The drunk brushed a grimy hand across his beard stubbled face and looked around suspiciously. He clutched a paper sack covered bottle possessively, protecting it from an unseen enemy. Raising the bottle to his lips drunkenly, he took a swig of the precious liquid.

Buck Wilmington shook his head. "Hell, Chris. If I didn't know that was Vin under all that grime, I would never recognize him."

Chris nodded in acknowledgment of Buck's statement. Vin had been hesitant to go undercover disguised as a bum, but the ATF agent had reluctantly agreed, more than likely to keep any of the rest of the team from doing it. Looking at his friend now, Chris figured that maybe Vin knew a little too much about the role that he was portraying. He knew the Texan's life had been less than ideal. Vin was tight lipped about his past, but occasionally the sharpshooter would let something slip, or even offer a rare tidbit of information, like he did when they were planning the details of this case. It was likely that Vin had spent some time living on the streets after running away from foster care, but that was a time the Texan never spoke about.

He watched Vin take another swig from the bottle. He really looked drunk. If Chris didn't know better, he would have wondered what was really in that bottle. Chris knew that it was a sports drink laced with extra nutrients. That was Nathan's idea to help keep Vin hydrated and healthy through the operation. Chris smiled grimly as he recalled Vin's arguments with Nathan over the case, and the events that had brought them to this point.

+ + + + + + +

A firebug had been burning down warehouses around Denver. Ten people, all homeless, had died in the past 6 weeks. The local police & fire departments had not been able to come up with a strong suspect. Suspicions ranged from an insane homeless person to a fire fighter or police officer who had gone over the edge. After the latest fire had taken the lives of three more homeless people and a firefighter trying to save them, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had been called in, and the case had been assigned to Team 7.

The team sat in the bullpen batting around ideas for approaches to the case. Josiah disagreed with the police department's profile for the arsonist. They were looking for a street person, but Josiah felt there was more to the arson. At this point Josiah didn't have anything more solid than a hunch, so Chris played it as it had been laid out for them.

"All right, boys, this is how we're going to do it. Josiah, you'll volunteer at a mission." Josiah nodded. He knew exactly which mission. Fifth Street. He had volunteered at the mission two nights a week for nearly twelve years.

"Nathan, I want you to ride along as an EMT with the fire department."

"Right Chris, I'll get on it," said Nathan.

"JD, I want you monitoring communications for all of us. I'll need you on that computer of yours digging up all the information you can find on suspected arsonists."

"You got it, boss," replied JD eagerly.

Chris rolled his eyes at JD's enthusiasm. "Buck, you and I will be walkin' the beat."

Buck groaned. "Not in uniform?" Buck and Chris had been police officers in the Denver Police Department before joining the ATF.

"Yes. In full uniform."

"Hope yours still fits!" chirped JD, patting Buck's stomach, which started an impromptu wrestling match.

"And what, pray tell, will Mr. Tanner and I be doing?" asked Ezra, ignoring the antics of his teammates.

"You and Vin are going undercover as homeless people," said Chris. The room erupted in laughter.

"Why is that so entertaining?" asked Ezra defensively.

"Jeez, Ezra," said JD between giggles. "I can just see you pickin' through garbage in one of your Armani suits."

"Nobody would believe you're homeless," added Buck. "You're too clean and finicky."

Vin raised an eyebrow at the implication that he wasn't clean, but let it pass. Ezra did not. "I take umbrage at that remark, Mr. Wilmington. As a master undercover agent, I can easily handle any cover assigned to me."

JD snickered which made Josiah and Nathan grin. It was implausible to see Ezra as a homeless person. Vin sat quietly, watching the bantering. He wasn't thrilled about this cover. He had had enough living on the streets to last a lifetime. He had no desire to reintroduce the repulsive conditions into his life, and he certainly didn't want the rest of the team to know about his street time. But, it was his job and he would do it.

"So what's the plan?" Vin asked, drawing their attention back to the assignments.

"I want you to go under first Vin, since you have the most street knowledge from working with your neighborhood kids," said Chris. "We'll wait a few days and when it looks like you're in solid, we'll send Ezra in." Chris turned to Ezra with an evil grin. "That'll give us a few days to dirty Ezra up, and get him ready." He chuckled at the distasteful expression on the southerner's face. "In the meanwhile, Ezra, you can help JD collect information on arsonists and see if we can't pin this guy down a little more. I don't want anyone going into this totally blind. Not with fourteen people already dead."

"If we're supposed to get close to this guy, it'll have to be 24-7," said Vin reluctantly.

Chris nodded. "I don't like it, but you'll be on the streets twenty-four hours a day. You'll have only limited contact even when we get Ezra in there." Vin sighed, and Chris caught the first glimpse of unwillingness on the Texan's part. Vin was never vocal about his assignments. He had never protested any of them, so the simple act of sighing caught Chris's attention.

"Cool. I wish I was going undercover," JD pronounced with his youthful enthusiasm. Buck flicked the back of the kid's head as if he was shooting a marble. JD jerked away from him, giving him the ‘What did I do?’ look.

"Ain't nothing cool about it JD," growled Vin. The intensity from the naturally quiet man took them all by surprise. "You'd be livin' in filth. Dirt, garbage everywhere. No bathrooms, no way ta get clean. Ya might even find yerself eating out of a dumpster. It ain't pretty, and it ain't something you should have to do, even fer the job. No one should have to do it." Vin closed his eyes and grimaced, surprised at his own tirade. To explain further would take Vin places he didn't want to remember. He lifted his right hand and rubbed his temple trying to ease the headache that was starting to form.

Chris watched Vin struggling with himself. He could see that something about going undercover on the street was bothering the younger man. "You okay with this, Vin? We can change assignments."

"No! I mean, yes." Vin grimaced in frustration. "I mean, I'll do it, Chris." Vin looked up at the team leader but he couldn't maintain eye contact with the blonde. Chris could read him too easily and he just wasn’t ready to say anything more. He looked down at the table, letting his long hair spill forward partially obscuring his face. 'You idiot,' Vin thought to himself, 'You know what you're setting yourself up for. Larabee offered you an out. You should'a taken it.'

Chris could see that Vin was regretting the words as soon as he said them. He wanted to tell Vin, 'No, I won't let you do this', but they didn't have much time and, out of all of them, Vin had the most street smarts from dealing with the kids in his neighborhood.

"Perhaps I should go in first and allow Mr. Tanner more time to acclimate to the idea," suggested Ezra.

"No," interrupted Vin. "Street folks are their own community. They got their own rules. We ain't got much time before this creep strikes again. Ez, you still gotta learn the ins and outs. No one else is going ta die because of this bastard."

It wasn't often that the Texan spoke up, but when he did, you listened because he had something of value to say. From what he had said, it was clear that Vin had extensive knowledge of street life. Chris wrote off Vin's reluctance toward the assignment as a normal reaction. Who in their right mind, JD excluded, would want to go undercover as a bum? But there weren't many options here. Vin was right, there was no time to waste. The suspect had been striking once a week. If he kept to his present schedule, they had just three days to infiltrate the homeless community and flush out the suspect before he struck again.

"When do we start?" Vin's voice was so low Chris had to strain to hear him.

"There's no time to waste," said Chris.

Vin closed his eyes and rubbed absently at the ache that had spread to his forehead. 'I was afraid you were gonna say that, cowboy,' he thought. 'I'm not ready for this.'

"I want you on the street today," added Chris. "Can you be ready that quick?"

Vin nodded "yes" despite what his head was telling him, and headed for the "war room" to find something suitable for wearing on the streets. Just as Vin was putting his outfit together, his argument with Nathan had begun.

"Here, put these on," said Nathan, handing Vin a pair of long underwear.

Chris watched as Vin flat out refused Nathan’s suggestion. From where he stood nearby, he kept tabs on the two men’s discussion.

"Now Vin, it's getting cold at night," said Nathan. "You need something to keep you warm. You don't need to get sick."

"You make me wear those and I won't be gettin' sick. But I might be gettin' dead," said Vin.

"What are you talking about?" asked Nathan.

Chris stepped closer. He, too, wanted to know what Vin meant.

"Look, Nate. I wear somethin' like that and someone will try to roll me for it. I need to be focused on the case, not worrying 'bout bein' attacked fer my underwear."

"You'll freeze."

"Nathan," Chris intervened, "Let him be. He knows what he's doing."

+ + + + + + +

Chris shook himself from his reflection. 'He knows what he's doing.' He hoped he wouldn't regret those words. Fully outfitted in the standard Denver Police uniform, Chris took his nightstick and tapped it against the sole of Vin's ragged shoe. "Hey, you. Move it along. You can't stay here."

Vin looked up at Chris and Buck in their uniforms and choked back a laugh. "Gone back to the good ol' days, boys?" referring to the time that Chris and Buck spent as part of the Denver Police Department before joining the ATF.

"Shut up, you grimy bum," said Buck teasingly.

Chris took Vin's chin in his hand and turned the Texan's face toward him. He had a nasty bruise on his cheek and his eye was slightly swollen. "You all right?"

"That's a matter of opinion," mumbled Vin.

"What happened?" demanded Chris.

"Some guy decided he needed my blanket more 'n me." Vin answered as he absently wrapped his arms tighter around his chest in an effort to fend off the cold.

"Where is it?" asked Buck skeptically. With his martial arts skills, Buck knew that Vin could out fight most of the homeless guys.

"He took it," said Vin flatly.

"He took it?" Chris said in disbelief. It was as if his agent didn't care that his blanket was stolen from him.

Vin saw the incredulous look on Chris's face and snorted sarcastically. "Not exactly. I let him have it. He just thought he took it from me."

"You what!" exclaimed Buck. "You're freezing your butt off out here and there you go giving away your blanket?"

"Calm down, Buck. It was part of my plan," said Vin.

Buck continued to mumble to himself and occasionally some of the words were loud enough to be heard. "Fool Texan... freezing...ratty blanket...wouldn't hardly keep ya warm..."

Chris shook his head at Buck. He turned slowly to Vin. The younger man was showing absolutely no emotion. Nothing seemed to matter at all. "So tell us about this plan. Why'd you give up your blanket?"

"Ta get even." Vin smiled grimly. He had their attention now. "I waited 'til he got settled, then I set my blanket on fire."

"You what?" bellowed Chris taking a step back from his friend in total surprise. The Vin Tanner that he knew would never risk an innocent life.

"Don't worry. I wouldn't have let him burn." Vin smiled oddly, almost as if he had enjoyed it. "He shucked that blanket real quick like," he laughed.

"Why in the hell did you do that?" stormed Buck. "You could'a killed him!" Chris turned his back on Vin. He was too angry to say anything.

Vin stood up and moved away from the doorway. He stood toe to toe with Buck. "Two reasons, Buck." Vin almost spat his name. "It told everyone not to mess with me, and it put out the word that I like fire and I'm not afraid of burnin' someone."

Chris turned around to face his friend. "Hell, Vin, did you have to do something so drastic?" He hissed, clearly unhappy with Vin's actions.

"It worked," said Vin defensively. "Had a guy come lookin' for me last night."

"Our guy?" asked Chris.

"Could be," shrugged Vin. He pulled his threadbare jacket tighter as a chill shook his body.

Anger flamed in Chris's eyes again. "How long you been without that blanket?"

"I ain't no baby. I can take care of m'self."

"How long?" Chris insisted.

"A couple of nights."

"Since Tuesday?" Chris prodded.

"Yeah. I guess so. Why? What's the big deal?" asked Vin.

"Where did this blanket burning take place?" asked Chris, ignoring Vin's questions.

Vin looked at Chris. He had no idea where this conversation was going, or why it mattered how long he had been without a blanket. "It was in an alley, off Fifth Street between Front and Jefferson. Why?"

"Oh, damn!" said Buck.

"What?" pressed Vin.

"The Silvers Warehouse burned down Tuesday night killing two people who were probably homeless."

Vin's eyes grew larger. He knew that warehouse. It was the building that butted up against the alley he had just mentioned. Vin closed his eyes tightly trying to fight off the memory of the bum who had taken his blanket going into that warehouse after losing the blanket. Vin slumped, sitting hard on the cracked steps. Chris grabbed for him, fearing he was fainting.

"You all right?" he asked with concern.

Vin nodded. "The guy," he shook his head. "What did I do? He went in the warehouse."

"Damn," cursed Chris. He could see the guilt settling on the Texan. "You had no control over that Vin. It wasn't your fault."

"The hell it isn’t! Hell Chris, I was that close," said Vin, holding his thumb and index finger about an inch apart. His body was racked by another shudder from the cold.

"Buck, get a blanket from the car," said Chris.

"Hold off, Buck," ordered Vin. He locked eyes with Chris, challenging his boss. "I can't very well go traipsin' around with a police blanket, now can I? I'll steal one from the mission tomorrow."

Chris bit his lip. He hated this. He couldn't stay close enough to protect Vin. Josiah was nearby at the mission, but he couldn't protect Vin either. The Texan was a good agent, and could take care of himself, but even the best couldn't be on guard twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Vin needed someone to watch his back. Ezra wasn't ready to go under yet. It would be a couple more days before the southerner was fully ready. The young man sat before them shivering with cold, but refusing a blanket. Chris understood why, but he hated the hardness and disillusionment he saw in Vin's eyes. He was worried about Vin's actions, afraid his weariness and exposure to the harshness of street life would lead him to cross the line to catch the suspect.

"I'm going to pull you out," said Chris softly.

"No you're not, Larabee," said Vin quietly. The voice was low in volume, but determined and unwavering. "We're going to get this guy. I'm not going to let him kill anyone else." Vin softened when he saw the concern on Chris's face. He knew Chris was trying to watch out for him. To back him up, and that his Team leader was frustrated with the entire situation. "Y'all can run me in," suggested Vin as he shivered, "iffn ya want to."

A bit of an evil grin appeared on Larabee's face at Vin's compromise. He pulled the Texan to his feet, grabbed Vin's arm, twisted it behind him as he shoved him against the wall. With the side of his face squashed against the wall, Vin's words were a little muffled. "Ain't got ta be so realistic, Larabee."

Chris snapped the cuffs on. "Shut up and get in the car."

"Buck. The bottle?" asked Vin as Chris steered him toward the police car.

"You don't need it," said Buck.

"I don't want nobody findin' out what I been drinkin'," insisted Vin.

Buck grabbed up the bottle and two more from the rusty shopping cart before making his way to the police car. He climbed in the passenger seat and closed the door as Chris started the engine and they took off. Buck looked inside the bags. "Junior! You've been holding out on us. I thought you had Gatorade or somethin', and here ya got Ensure, V-8, and chicken soup!"

Vin rolled his eyes. "Nathan's been a *big* help," he said sarcastically. "Ya wanna undo these?" Vin asked, twisting his body sideways so his back was toward Buck, exposing the handcuffs.

"Nope," ordered Chris with a grin. "Got to make it look real." He watched in the rearview mirror as Vin sighed and leaned back on the hard plastic seat. 'Vin, what the hell is going on inside that head of yours?'

"Could ya at least crank up the heat?" complained the Texan.

Chris smiled, reached for a switch on the dashboard and turned up the heat full blast. He and Buck would roast, but he hoped it would take the chill off Vin. If only the warm air could warm Vin's soul as well. Chris could see that it had gone into the deep freeze somewhere and was more worried than he dared to let on. Looking in the rearview mirror, he watched Vin make himself as comfortable as he could before he turned his attention back to his driving. The next time he looked back, Vin was asleep. A few minutes later they pulled into the police station and parked.

"You aren't really going to put him in the drunk tank?" asked Buck.

Chris looked at Vin, sleeping peacefully in the back seat, his head leaning on the back of the hard plastic seat, the harsh lines of the past week were missing from his face. Chris realized this was probably the first time since Vin had been undercover that Team 7's sharpshooter had slept soundly. He had been on the defensive continuously while on the street. In the back of the police cruiser, he at least felt safe enough with his friends to let down his guard for a little while. "I probably should," said Chris with a grin that didn't go deeper than the muscles it took to form it. Buck saw the concern in Larabee's eyes. He knew Chris would not let Vin 'sleep it off' in the jail. Not this night.

"We could cruise by my place," offered Buck.

"Ezra's," said Chris with an evil grin.

"Ooo, Chris, you are evil," chuckled Buck, a bit relieved that Chris could joke. "Maude Standish's boy would have a fit if 'Mr. Tanner' showed up on his doorstep in his current condition." Buck shook his head at the thought. "Can't you just see Ezra's face at the trail of dirt Vin would leave. Hah! Like Pigpen in the Snoopy comics trailin' his dust around with him everywhere." Buck fell silent as he watched the concern deepen on Chris's face as Chris surveyed the young man in the back seat.

The back seat of a cruiser was not made for comfort. It was a hard plastic shell formed into a seat. It prevented prisoners from hiding weapons between the cushions of the seat, because it was all one piece. Vin coughed and shifted his body. The simple movement started an uncontrolled slide to the right. Both men winced when the side of Vin's head thudded on the hard plastic of the seat bench.

"Ow," complained the weary Texan, trying awkwardly to push himself to a seated position. With his hands cuffed behind him, he had no leverage.

Chris climbed out of the car and opened the backdoor. "You do anymore damage?" he asked Vin as he helped him sit up.

"Nah. I'm fine."

Chris nodded, knowing full well that Vin's statement was his standard response whether he was fine or not. "Give me your hands," he said gently. Vin turned his back toward Chris so his friend could uncuff him.

"Did ya crack the seat?" teased Buck.

"You ought'a try ridin' back here with Andretti here drivin'." Vin nodded toward Chris. "It's all I could do ta keep my butt on the seat, squealing around corners 'n all."

Chris smiled outwardly at Vin's attempted humor, but all he could see was Team 7's sharpshooter trying to distract him from the real issues. Chris moved to the rear of the car, opened the trunk and pulled out the emergency blankets. Vin was pulling an 'Ezra' on them. He was distancing himself from them with his words. He was as far away from Chris right now as the first day they met when Vin saved Nathan in that bust in the warehouse. Vin's tactic was not as obvious as Ezra's 'Mr. Larabee' or 'Mr. Wilmington', but the Texan wasn't using his nicknames. He always called Buck, 'Bucklin', and he always called Chris, 'Chris' or 'Cowboy'. And the normally quiet man was talking way too much. Chris walked back to the side of the car and handed the blankets to Vin. The chilled Texan took the bright yellow blankets gratefully and wrapped up in them.

"Better?" asked Chris. Vin gave a single nod. "If you can stand my driving, we'll go by Buck's. You can sleep there tonight." Again their eyes locked. Chris hoped for something from Vin's expression to give him a clue to what was going on, but it was clear Vin didn't want Chris's interference. Vin was shutting him out. Chris broke away from the eye contact, frustrated. He slammed the backdoor and climbed into the front seat of the police cruiser, starting the engine. He looked back at Vin in the rearview mirror, but the Texan had his eyes closed, effectively shutting Chris out. Chris slammed the car into gear and roared off toward Buck and JD's apartment.

Chapter Two

He was warm, oh so warm. Vin reveled in the toasty feeling. He knew this was just his recurring dream. He'd had the same dream every night for the past week, and many nights before in another lifetime. Other people dreamed of power, wealth, fame, or pretty girls. Vin Tanner dreamed of being warm.

Chris took a corner quickly. The movement of the car slid Vin towards the door and he bumped against it. 'Nope. Not a dream. I am warm.' He peeked to be sure. 'Yep. It's real.' Vin was lying on the backseat of the cruiser, wrapped in blankets. He smiled to himself as he heard Buck in the front seat complaining that the car was too hot. Vin kept his eyes closed. If they thought he was asleep they wouldn't ask questions. Questions Vin didn't want to answer.

Had it been so different when he was a kid? He remembered it being cold on the streets, but never the depth of cold he felt now. He was doing this for a good cause, but the assignment grated against his very soul. He had promised himself he would never live on the streets again. That he would never go back to the survival lifestyle, yet here he was. Vin felt as if every positive step he'd made in his life since he was seventeen years old counted for nothing. He hated what was happening to him. It had only been seven days, but he had slipped back into the street life far too easily. It was almost as if he had never left it or maybe it had never left him. Vin didn't like who he had been then and he certainly didn’t like who he was becoming again.

Vin had been a frightened kid, barely fifteen years old when he set out on his own. 'Set out on his own?' was a polite way of phrasing it. 'Running away from hell' would have been more appropriate. Six months with the Maxwells was two months too long. After being bounced through several foster homes, Vin had just turned an angry fifteen when he ended up in the house on Anchor Street. Sam Maxwell had a temper problem of his own and Vin knew how to light that fire. But their fights had always been verbal. They had argued for months, almost like a sick game between them, but something had pushed George over the brink. Vin remembered the shock he felt when George Maxwell slapped him the first time. George had been laid off from a job he had worked for eighteen years and began going on drinking binges to drown his sorrows.

After the shock and anger of that first slap, Vin stopped arguing, but George didn't stop swinging. Vin was knocked around nearly every day for almost two months, while his pleas for help fell on deaf ears. No one would take the word of a delinquent troublemaker over a well-established foster care provider, especially since his wife backed his testimony. Near the end of the sixth month, Vin called it quits. He had tried everything he knew to do. When George went out to get drunk, Vin quietly packed his meager things in his backpack and left. Figuring that he would get a job and find his own place to live, he set out to make his own future. He wasn't going to put up with this crap anymore.

Without a real plan, Vin found himself at the nearly deserted bus station, looking at schedules and comparing the fares listed on the board to the cash he had in his pocket. Staying in town was not an option. He knew that eventually the cops would come looking for him and make him go back. He ran his finger down the yellowed page as he tried to read the fares and destinations. Because it was so late and he was so tired, his dyslexia made it nearly impossible for him to make out the numbers. In sheer frustration, he walked up to the ticket counter.

"How far can I go on forty bucks?"

"Depends on where you want to go. It's enough to get you to Denver," answered the ticket agent.

Vin perked up. "Denver?" Colorado held good memories for him. He had spent happy summers there with his grandfather when he was in elementary school.

"Yeah. Big city. Colorado. Broncos. Nuggets," responded the ticket agent sarcastically.

"I got it," interrupted Vin. "Gimme a ticket to Denver."

The agent eyed him for a moment. He knew that the kid was probably a runaway, but a fare was a fare, and the kid had money.

Within thirty minutes, Vin was on a bus to Denver.

+ + + + + + +

His money ran out three days into the adventure. It had bought him a seedy motel room and a few fast food meals. He had quickly learned no one was going to hire any fifteen year old kid. Especially one without a Social Security card. It was with desperate fear that the teen left the motel when the manager threw him out. He had nowhere to go, and no money to get him there. He spent the day going door to door at businesses asking for odd jobs. He finally found a guy who paid him five bucks to move a bunch of crates and sweep up around the small store. But, by the time he finished, it was dark and he knew that the five bucks was not going to get him a room.

Vin Tanner had never been so frightened. He had been scared plenty of times in his life, but he had never been so totally alone without anyone or anything to fall back on. Vin walked along the dirty sidewalk dodging the bums and winos who were lining the darkened doorways, trying not to look frightened. Was he going to end up like them? How had they ended up here? Did they start out like him? Just ran out of money and had no place else to go?

"Hey pretty boy, where you goin'?"

Vin made the mistake of making eye contact with the leering stranger and felt his skin crawl. He could see that this guy wanted more than his money or clothes. Without really knowing he was moving, Vin started to run. He had to get away from that place. He ran block after block, street after street, until his legs wouldn't hold him up. Finally, when he couldn’t go any further, he squatted warily in the doorway of a print shop, trying to catch his breath while keeping an eye out for any trouble. He raised his hand to push his hair out of his eyes, but it was trembling so hard he could barely make it do the task. Wrapping his arms around his middle and pressing his hands tightly against himself, Vin tried to stop the shaking. He drew in an unsteady breath. It wasn't likely he could douse the fear. He had nowhere to run and he couldn't stay awake forever. But the young boy knew that he could and would stay awake that one night. Things might look better by the light of day. Hell, it couldn’t look any worse.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was jolted from his musing as Chris came to a quick stop, causing the Texan to slide off the seat onto the floor of the cruiser. He sat up and gave Chris an annoyed look only to see Chris grinning back at him.

"Honey, we're home!" chimed Buck as he climbed out of the cruiser and opened the back door for Vin.

"You sure ya want me to come in Buck. I'll be carrying a few cooties with me," said Vin as he followed Buck towards the apartment.

Buck looked back, trying to decide if Vin was joking or serious. "Well, I'm sure they'll fit right in, Junior. 'Sides, you can take a nice long shower and drown a few of 'em." Buck unlocked the front door and stepped inside, allowing Chris and Vin to follow him in before closing the door.

Hearing the door, JD popped out of his room. "Hey Buck. Hey Chris," he said. "Vin! Is that you?"

"Yeah kid, it's him," said Buck. Why don't you find him a towel and some clothes to change into? I'll order us some dinner. Pizza okay, Vin?" Vin nodded and headed for the bathroom.

A few minutes later, JD came back with Vin's filthy clothes. He held them by his fingertips, keeping the grungy items as far from his body as possible. "Ewww! These are gross. I'm not puttin' these in our washer. I'll take 'em to the laundry room." JD stepped out of the apartment and headed for the commons and the laundry room. He loaded the clothes in a washing machine, adding a little extra detergent just to be on the safe side. On the way back to the apartment, he ran into Nathan and Josiah. "Hey guys! What are you doing here?"

"Buck called. He decided since Vin was here, we'd make it a poker night," said Josiah. "I brought the batch of chili I was working on."

"Cool," said JD as he opened the door and led them in. He was surprised to see Ezra already inside. The pizza delivery boy closely followed their arrival. JD paid for the pizza and carried it to the dining room table. "Vin still in the shower?" asked JD, looking at his watch. "It's been thirty minutes."

"Yeah, but he had a lot of scum and critters to wash off," quipped Buck.

"Oh, that is appealing," complained Ezra as he set his forkful of Chinese food back down on his plate. He had stopped and picked up take-out, but now he had no appetite.

"Sorry 'bout that, Ez," laughed Buck as he slapped Ezra on the shoulder. "But Vin was certainly right about what living on the streets would be like. Ez, you'll be screaming for us to pull you off the assignment. If I hadn't known it was Vin out there, I would've thought he was some old wino."

"I'm sending you in tomorrow Ezra," said Chris. Ezra looked up, surprised. He wasn't supposed to go in for three more days. Seeing Chris's expression, he didn't ask questions. Chris was obviously worried about Vin.

Chris left the dining room quietly and headed for the bathroom. Despite the jokes, Vin had been in there a long time. He knocked on the door. "You about done, Pard? Dinner's here." He could hear the shower still running. After waiting a couple of minutes and not getting an answer, he turned the knob and announced, "Comin' in," as he opened the bathroom door. "Vin?"

"I'm fine," growled Vin, annoyed at the intrusion.

"Well, get out of there before you turn into a prune and shrivel up."

Vin slid open the shower curtain and grabbed the towel Chris held out to him. Chris couldn't help but notice how red Vin's skin was. It looked like he had practically rubbed himself raw trying to get clean.

"Do ya mind?" said Vin harshly, embarrassed by Chris's stare.

Chris shook himself. "Sorry. I'll let you get dressed. Dinner's waiting," said Chris as he backed out the door.

"Be there in a minute," responded Vin softly.

Chris walked back into the dining room. He glanced back towards the bathroom, concerned. "He's getting dressed," Chris said absently. Vin could say that he was fine, but too many things were off-kilter with the Texan right now. He knew that his friend wasn't fine.

"What's wrong?" asked Nathan.

"Hmm?" Chris turned back, not really hearing the question.

"What's wrong?" repeated Nathan.

Chris shook his head. "I don't know, Nathan. He says he's fine, but I," Chris stopped mid-sentence as Vin wandered out of the bathroom in sweatpants, a T-shirt and a pair of socks.

Vin stopped, surprised to see the entire team at the table. He started to make a comment about it, but decided better of it. He didn't need six babysitters, but it was nice to have six friends to pull him back into the reality of who he was. Everyone had stopped what they were doing, awaiting Vin's reaction. The Texan reached out, grabbed the piece of pizza out of Buck's hand, and began to eat it.

"Wow. Fresh. Doesn't taste the same as the stuff ya pick the garbage off," joked Vin. He was startled when no one laughed. "Guys, it was a joke."

Ezra broke the silence. "Yes, well, now I seem to have lost my appetite for pizza as well. Not that I really like it."

Vin smiled. "All the more for me, Ez." He grabbed another piece from the box and started to wolf it down. "We playing poker or what?" he prodded as he sat down in the empty chair.

With the ice finally broken, everyone started talking. Vin filled them in on the guy who had approached him, stating that he figured it would take a few more days before the suspect would trust him enough to let him get closer. Then the evening turned to fun. At one point JD scurried down to the laundry room to put Vin's clothes in the dryer, and then later to retrieve the laundered items. They played poker for awhile, but mostly talked. Vin wasn't much of a talker, but his friends had missed the wry observations he was known for over the past week.

Vin listened to the lively conversation in silence. He had started out enjoying himself, grateful that his friends surrounded him. Now every laugh seemed to drive him deeper into muteness. It wasn't unusual for the Texan to be quiet. He was shy by nature and usually content to watch from the fringes. But this was different. Friends, laughing, joking, and having a good time surrounded him. When JD started talking about some fool stunt he pulled as a Boy Scout, something began wrapping itself around Vin's chest, tightening with each phrase of JD's story, threatening to squeeze the air out of the Texan. Vin had never been in the scouts. Hell, he'd never done any of the normal kid stuff. He tried to shrug off the unwelcome feelings as he always did when they made themselves known. He knew his childhood had been far different from the others, but it had never really mattered to him. The past was past and now was now.

Vin had almost convinced himself again that it didn't matter, when the others jumped in and started telling their own tales. Even Ezra had his own contributions. The southerner had never been a scout, but he had plenty of humorous stories from his boarding school days. As he sat there, the band around his chest continued to tighten, making it almost impossible to breathe. 'Get a hold of yourself, Tanner,' Vin told himself harshly. This was stupid. He was acting like a little kid.

As Nathan started telling about a prank he and his brothers had pulled on their grouchy old neighbor, a sense of loss washed over the Texan. 'Brothers,' thought Vin sadly. Longing tugged at his heart. It would have been nice to have a real brother, not just the boys who cycled through the foster homes. Vin tried to push away the unpleasant thoughts but couldn’t. Where had this overwhelming sadness come from anyway? He had made it through his childhood. He had turned into a pretty decent man. Why was this bothering him now? It was living on the street. That had to be it.

When Josiah started into a story of his own, Vin shook his head as he realized that everyone was telling a story. His turn was coming soon but he couldn't think of one solitary funny thing about his childhood. He didn't want to be singled out, and he didn't want to draw attention to how different his childhood was from the others'. His breathing quickened. Just once, Vin wanted to be the same as everyone else. Feeling the room suddenly become far too small, Vin slipped quietly out the patio door into the darkness near the pool.

Funny thing about the darkness. It usually allowed Vin to hide, to blend in, to fade away. Not this night. The sound of the frivolity and laughter drifting from the apartment just made the darkness outside blacker. Lonelier. He could hear the rise and fall of Buck's jovial voice as he told some story that was punctuated by laughter from his friends. Vin's breathing quickened as the tightness in his chest threatened to squeeze him in half, causing his eyes to sting with tears. 'What the hell is wrong with you, Tanner!' Vin chided himself. Being in the wide-open spaces hadn't relieved the closed in feeling that was choking the Texan.


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