ATF Universe

Chapter Eleven

Vin finally began to wake up late in the day. He looked over at the clock by the bed and saw that it read seven fifteen. 'Uh-oh. I'll be late for work,' Vin thought as he crawled out of bed. As soon as he put his feet on the ground, he felt a little light-headed. 'Great. I don't need to get sick now.' He showered quickly, then dressed. When he exited the bedroom, the sight outside the hall window stopped him cold. It wasn't morning. Damn it, it was nighttime. The sun had already set and it was getting dark.

"Mr. Taylor?"

Vin dragged his gaze away from the window and looked at the butler who was standing a few feet away.

"Would you like something to eat?"

Vin nodded and followed the butler to the empty dining room. "Where's Doug?"

"Mr. Randall had business to attend to. He said that he would like for you to join him later. The driver will take you after you have had something to eat. Please, have a seat. I'll bring you your dinner."

"Wait," Vin stopped him before he entered the kitchen. "What's your name?"

"George Waters, sir."

"George, do you mind if I just eat in the kitchen. No need to mess up this fancy dining room just for me."

George looked at Vin and smiled. "Certainly, Mr. Taylor. Whatever you desire."

Vin followed him into the kitchen and sat down at the small table near the stove. As he had his small meal, he talked with George and his wife, Jennifer who was the estate's cook. After his dinner, he found that he had a couple of hours yet to kill before he was supposed to go meet Doug so Vin began to explore the house. About twenty minutes into his exploration, he found himself alone in Doug's private study. There was a cabinet along the south wall, with doors latched tightly. Vin used a letter opener from the desk to release the latch. He opened the doors and groaned when he saw what was inside.

The cabinet was lined with photos and newspaper articles about the arson fires, the killings, and one very old one with a photo of Doug and two people that Vin assumed were his parents. In addition to the photos and papers, there was also an odd collection of things that looked to be mementos from each of the fires.

Vin gingerly picked up a worn Bible that had the mission's name stamped on its cover. Sadness washed over him again as he thought about Josiah. Pushing aside his personal grief, he reached back in and poked through more of the items, sighing as he picked up the police radio, wondering where Doug had obtained it. It was the shoulder model that all officers wore to keep in contact with the stationhouse. Vin tested the radio and found that it was in working order. An idea came to him and he pocketed the radio before closing up the cabinet and relocking it. Vin then moved over to the desk and picked up the phone.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra's fingers were flying furiously on the computer keyboard. He wished JD were with him. Ezra was no slouch with the computer, but JD was the team's genius when it came to these infernal machines. He could come up with answers in half the time it took the southerner to find them. As he dug deeper into the archives, the printer whined as it printed out lists of Randall's holdings. He finally hit the print button one last time and leaned back to stretch out his back, waiting for the printer to complete its work. As the white paper flew out of the printer, Ezra picked up his phone and dialed.

"Larabee," answered Chris.

"Mr. Larabee, I believe we've had a break," said Ezra.

"Spill it," demanded Chris. He didn't have time for Ezra to pussyfoot around and play with his big words and long sentences.

"Josiah recognized a picture of Vin's bum. It's Douglas Randall."

"Randall Enterprises?"

"That's right, Chris.

"Oh, boy," mumbled Chris. Power, money, and expensive lawyers. "We need to find out where he would take Vin. Can you get a list…"

"Printing as we speak," interrupted Ezra. "Unfortunately, his holdings are extensive."

"Limit it to his home, office, and anything he owns in the warehouse district. Buck and I are headed back to the office." Chris ended the conversation abruptly and told Buck to change course for the office. Trying to find the whiskey bottle in the rubble at the mission was a lost cause anyway. Now, with a positive ID, they didn't need it.

Ezra got busy on the computer again and narrowed the scope of his search. Even by limiting it to the warehouse district, there were six holdings to choose from. As the information printed, he called Josiah to let him know what was going on. He quickly informed the injured agent of what he had found and asked if Josiah would have JD catch a cab and join them at the office. Ezra was surprised, but not really shocked, to find out that JD wasn't there. If he had to hazard a guess as to where the newest missing member of their team was, he would guess that he would be found digging around at the mission. He knew that JD felt a responsibility for the lost evidence and his missing teammate. It didn't take a genius to figure out where he would have gone to try and help in his own way.

Buck and Chris were almost back to the office when Chris's cell phone rang again. "Larabee."

"Chris?" The southern accent and the use of his first name made Chris sit up straighter, a sense of dread trickling down his spine.

"What is it, Ezra?" He asked, afraid to hear the answer. Afraid to hear that something had happened to Vin.

"Chris, JD is missing from the hospital," Ezra informed him.

"What!" roared Chris.

"He went to have his dressing changed and never returned to Mr. Sanchez's room. I think he may have gone to try to help Mr. Tanner."

Buck pulled the car over as Chris spat curse words into the phone.

Ezra sat in the deserted office, holding the phone away from his ear as he waited for the tirade to die down.

Chris finally ran out of steam and the line grew silent. Everything in this case had gone wrong from the start. Vin had been extremely disturbed by his assignment. Ezra had injured himself before even going undercover. Josiah and JD had both been hurt, and now both Vin and JD were missing. Where the hell would JD go?

"Buck, drive us back to the mission," ordered Chris. "Ezra," Chris said into the phone, "Get hold of Nathan. Have him pick you up and then meet us at the Mission. Bring everything you've got on Randall with you."

"We'll be there," assured Ezra.

Chris hung up the phone and looked over at Buck who was waiting patiently for information. How in the world was he going to tell Buck that JD was missing too? He had a hunch that the kid had gone back to the mission to find that stupid empty bottle but he wasn't positive. Most likely, the bottle was a pile of ash.

+ + + + + + +

"Mr. Taylor?" Vin dropped the phone gently back into the cradle, hoping that George hadn't seen him. "Mr. Randall doesn't allow anyone in his private office," said George with a small frown.

"I'm sorry," said Vin, following George out of the office. "I didn't know." He really was sorry - sorry that he hadn't been able to make his phone call.

"The car is waiting, sir. Mr. Randall would like you to join him now."

"Thank you, George," said Vin as he followed the butler to the front door. George opened the door for him and Vin walked to the car waiting for him in the driveway. He felt a little relief, thinking that Doug wouldn't take a limo to the warehouse district. Maybe he had something else in mind for tonight. Vin still needed to find a way to make contact with the team. As they left the driveway, a plan quickly began to take shape in his mind. Vin began to play with the various electronic buttons in the limo. As the glass between the front and back seat lowered, he could see the driver grin at him. "Always wanted to do that," said Vin.

"Yes, sir," said the driver.

"Hey, could you turn that up?" asked Vin, hearing the radio softly in the background. The driver nodded, turning up the volume. "Louder!" said Vin with a grin as he picked up the car phone playfully. "Operator, I'd like to call London."

The driver chuckled at his passenger's antics and cranked the radio until it was blaring. He liked this kid. He watched the kid pretending to make a call, enjoying what must be his very first ride in a limousine.

The driver had no idea, but Vin wasn't pretending. He stealthily dialed a number as he continued to fiddle with the buttons near him.

"Hello?" The southern accent was a welcome relief to Vin.

"Hey. Chris's pizza?" said Vin.

"Yes? What can I do for you?" Ezra was so excited to hear Vin's voice that it was difficult to keep on task. He knew that he had to be careful since extra ears could be listening to the quiet agent.

"I'd like an RF7 with everything on it," said Vin.

'RF7?' thought Ezra. "And where would you like it delivered?" He could hear Vin yelling over the loud radio in the background.

"Hey, driver? Where are we meeting Mr. Randall? I want to have a pizza delivered."

Ezra heard the driver laughing.

"Oh I'm sure he'd like that," the driver answered.

Vin feigned hanging up the phone. "No, seriously. Where are we going?"

The driver turned down the radio. "Mr. Randall told me to drop you off at Tenth and Market. He'll meet you there."

"Do you know what we're doing tonight?" prompted Vin.

"No sir. I was only instructed to drop you off."

Ezra heard the phone line go dead and sprang into action gathering the tape of the conversation, his print outs and his cell phone.

"Ezra? You ready?" Nathan called out to him as he stepped off the elevator.

"Could you give me a hand, Mr. Jackson?" Nathan took the file folder and the tape recorder while Ezra pocketed his phone and grabbed his crutches.

"What's this?" asked Nathan, holding up the recorder as they walked to the elevator.

"Mr. Tanner requesting a life line."

Chapter Twelve

When Buck and Chris arrived at the burnt mission, Buck was practically out of the cruiser before he had it in park. "JD!" he called rushing across the street to the mission. "JD!" There was no response and he couldn't see any movement inside the darkened building.

"Buck!" called Chris. Buck looked over to see him pointing to the alley.

Buck followed Chris's line of vision and his heart sank. It was his truck. "JD!" he yelled frantically. He climbed into the half-collapsed building and began to frantically hunt for his friend. Momentarily, Chris was by his side, handing him a flashlight. After a few minutes of searching, Buck found a shovel with a broken handle. It was his shovel. He meant to replace that handle, but hadn't done it yet. He held up the shovel. "He was here, Chris," he voiced in a harsh whisper.

Chris's phone rang shrilly. "Larabee." Chris listened to the words with a little more hope than he had felt in days. "All right. We'll meet you outside." He hung up the phone and turned back to his distraught friend. Buck was still digging through rubble looking for some sign that might tell them where JD had gone. Chris took hold of his arm, stopping him from continuing his futile search. "Buck. Ezra got word from Vin. They'll meet us outside in a couple minutes." Buck looked around the pile of rubble. He knew JD wasn't here anymore. They finally had a lead to Vin. Maybe it would lead to JD. He followed Chris as he picked his way through the rubble back to the safety of the street.

Within three minutes, Ezra and Nathan were at the scene. One look at Buck's face told them all they needed to know about JD. Ezra played the tape back for them. Chris found a little comfort in hearing Vin's voice. At least he was alive. The message was cryptic but the location was clear. But what was 'RF7'? The men climbed into their cars and headed for Tenth and Market, puzzling over what Vin was trying to tell them with 'RF7'.

+ + + + + + +

Vin stood on the street corner and looked around as the limousine departed. He couldn't see any sign of the Team. All he could do was hope that his message had gotten through.

"Vin. Over here," called Doug. Vin walked slowly over to where Doug stood in the shadows. "Did you sleep well?"

"Man, what was in that stuff?" asked Vin, yawning.

"It was just Valium. You must have been worn out. The street can do that to a man," said Doug. "Are you ready?"

"For what?" asked Vin.

"To help me with our mission, of course," said Doug.

Vin swallowed. When had it become "our" mission instead of Doug's mission?

"Come, Vin. I have a surprise for you," said Doug eagerly.

Vin prayed that Ezra had deciphered his message as he followed Doug. As they began to walk down the street, he asked, "Where are we going?"

"To finish what we started," answered Doug.

"What do you mean?" prodded Vin. He needed specifics if the team was going to be able to help him.

"You'll see."

+ + + + + + +

"Good boy, Vin," said Chris. "Keep him talking." Chris's stomach was tied in knots and adrenaline pumped through his body. They had a link to Vin and, whatever it was, it was going down now. Parked at the corner of Ninth and Fremont, they waited patiently for more direction.

As they were driving towards Tenth Street, a call had come over the police radio and Buck had changed the frequency to stop the annoying noise. Suddenly it dawned on him what Vin had been trying to tell them. "No way, Junior!"

"What?" Chris had asked.

"'RF7', Chris. Radio frequency," Buck had responded, "He wants us on channel 7."

Buck had dialed over to channel seven and smiled as Vin's voice came through the signal.

"Yes!" shouted Chris. "Finally, a break!" They had made their way to the scene and parked a block away, waiting for more clues.

Chris drummed his fingers anxiously on the dashboard. "Come on, Vin. Give me more. Where are you going?"

The radio crackled. "This isn't the way to the mission," said Vin.

"Come on. Come on. Where are you?" pleaded Chris as he listened to the radio.

"We're not going to the mission," replied Douglas. "We have bigger plans."

The men waiting in the cars stiffened when they heard Vin's sharp intake of breath. "No," he whispered.

"Isn't it perfect? Purify them now and they won't litter the streets," said Doug.

"Y.S." murmured Vin, barely loud enough for the radio to pick up. He sounded stunned.

"YS?" said Buck. "What the hell is YS?"

"Shh!" warned Chris.

In the second vehicle, where Nathan and Ezra were also tuned to the police band, the reaction was the same. Neither of them had any idea what "YS" meant. Ezra quickly dialed the hospital, connecting with Josiah's room.

"Hello?" said Josiah, sleepily.

"Josiah, what is YS?" asked Ezra abruptly.

"What?" Josiah was a bit foggy minded.

"YS. Vin is saying something about YS," urged Ezra.

"Oh. YS is the Youth Shelter. It's on Fifth and Market."

"Thank you, Josiah," said Ezra, snapping the phone shut and bouncing out of the car. Crutches forgotten, he hobbled over to the cruiser and tapped on the passenger window. Chris opened the window but held up his hand so Ezra wouldn't talk. Nathan was right behind the southerner.

"They're just kids," gasped Vin when he could finally say something.

"Who will grow into trash and plague society just like their elders," said Doug.

"Chris," Ezra said, "Josiah says the YS is the Youth Shelter on Fifth and Market."

"You can't!" came Vin's cry from the radio. The next sound the men could hear was the sound of scuffling.

"Get in!" yelled Chris. Nathan and Ezra piled roughly into the back seat of the cruiser and Buck threw the car into gear.

"Hang on, Junior," said Buck. "We're coming."

The radio sputtered and the voices came through broken. They were losing the signal. "Now stop that!" ordered Doug. "This is know it. I even got that pesky kid...the pantry, so you...of them all at once."

"JD!" Vin's long, drawn out wail, chilled them all. There was more rustling noise and then nothing but static.

+ + + + + + +

Vin fought off Doug's hold. He was trying to keep Vin from going into the burning building where the fire was spreading quickly.

"JD!" he yelled frantically. It was all too much to handle. The fires. Josiah's death. Burning the Youth Shelter where he had spent so much time as a kid. He couldn't lose JD too. Vin was no longer an ATF agent trying to make a law enforcement decision. He was a terrified man trying to save what was left of himself. He shoved Doug to the ground and ran inside the burning building.

"No, son! No! You'll be burned!" Doug called after him.

+ + + + + + +

As the cruiser rounded the corner and skidded to a stop, they could see a man run into the building.

"Call the fire department, Ezra!" ordered Chris as he ran toward the building with Buck and Nathan on his heels.

Panic stricken teens began to stream out of the building. "Nathan, stay out here and get these kids to safety," yelled Chris. He turned toward the inferno and froze. Buck raced past him with one thing on his mind – saving JD.

Ezra placed the 911 call and turned to see what else he could do to help. As he turned toward the burning building, he caught sight of Chris just standing and staring at the building. He knew exactly what was going on in the team leader's mind. Chris had lost his wife and son in a fire. Any man in his right mind would be stopped cold by the memory. "Chris!" he called. The man didn't move. Ezra limped over to him. "Chris!" He boldly grabbed the team leader's shoulders and shook the motionless man. "Chris. Vin and JD need you!" Chris tore his eyes away from the fire and looked at the southerner. "Go!" Chris hesitated only momentarily, then raced to help his friends.

The immediate desire was to rush through the building looking for Vin and JD, but Buck knew he could miss someone if he hurried too fast. He smiled grimly when Chris materialized at his side. "You take the left, Chris. I'll take the right." The men moved methodically down the hall checking every room, and fighting back the fear that was rising with every passing moment. They directed six terrified teens out of the building as they went. They called out to their missing friends over and over as they searched. "Vin! JD!" Sirens wailed in the distance.

"JD!" Buck shouted in relief as he spotted the young man stumbling towards them. The kid held one hand to his head as if he was in pain and, with the other, he was dragging a reluctant girl behind him.

"Get 'em out Buck," yelled Chris. Buck put an arm around JD's waist in support and asked, "Where's Vin, JD?"

JD shook his head and his knees buckled. Buck caught his weight, keeping the younger man from falling. "I don't know…Doug," JD coughed, pointing to a room to the left.

Chris ordered Buck to get the two of them out of there and headed toward the area JD pointed out. He entered the smoke filled room, struggling to see.

"Come with me. We have to leave now!" shouted Doug.

Chris followed the voice and found Vin struggling to get a kid free from under a bookcase, which had fallen and trapped his legs. Doug was pulling at Vin as Vin tried to help the teen. Vin shrugged Doug off him again, and Doug grabbed his arm. When Vin looked up at the crazy man, he caught sight of Chris standing over Doug's shoulder. "Get him off me!" he yelled, turning his attention back to the teen.

Chris grabbed Doug and yanked him off Vin, throwing him to the floor. He cuffed him and turned back to help Vin. "Pull him out, Chris!" Vin struggled to hold the weight of the bookcase as Chris grabbed the kid's legs. When Chris pulled the boy free, Vin let the case crash to the floor.

"Chris!" called Buck as he made his way into the area.

"Over here, Buck!" Chris shouted. "Get him out of here," he ordered, nodding to the handcuffed figure on the floor.

Buck stooped and angrily yanked Randall to his feet and steered him out of the building. Chris scooped up the teen and nodded towards the doorway. "Come on, Vin."

As soon as he had seen Chris grab the injured youth, Vin had begun futilely beating at the flames with a blanket trying in vain to save a piece of his past. Firefighters burst into the room and Chris handed off the kid to one of them. Chris grabbed hold of Vin who was single-mindedly pounding at the flames. "Vin! Vin. We've got to go," coughed Chris. "Come on!"

Vin pushed him away, moving to another corner and started beating at the flames that were eating their way up the wall.

"Vin!" called Chris. Realizing Vin wasn't really with him, he grabbed Vin from behind, wrapping his arms around him, pinning the Texan's arms to his sides.

Vin struggled against the arms trapping him. He had to save the shelter. He'd lost everything else. He couldn't lose any more. "No! Lemme go!" Vin sucked in a breath and began to cough heavily. It gave Chris the opening he needed. He dragged Vin through the building and out onto the street. Overcome with smoke as well, Chris dropped to the sidewalk with Vin. Coughing violently, he let go of Vin thinking it was safe. As soon as he felt himself free, Vin pushed himself to his feet and turned back toward the building.

"No!" shouted Chris. He scrambled after Vin, catching the Texan in a tackle on the concrete steps. Vin landed hard, and Chris knew it had to hurt. He climbed off the younger man, kneeling beside him.

Vin rolled to his side, sat up and pushed feebly at Chris's arm. "I have to stop it. I have to stop it," Vin chanted over and over. Tears began to roll down the Texan's sooty face as the futility of the situation overwhelmed him.

Chris choked back his own tears at the utter hopelessness of the young man in front of him. He gently cupped the back of Vin's head and pulled his friend against his chest. Tears trickled down Chris's cheeks, as Vin sobbed, no longer able to contain the emotions that had wracked him for the past twelve days. Chris rested his chin on the top of Vin's head, holding him in a firm grip, trying to convey to the younger man that he was not alone. When Nathan came over to check on them, Chris waved him away. Vin was not ready to deal with anyone.

Chris held Vin tightly as the world continued around them. Firefighters racing past them fought to do their job and subdue the blaze. Police officers worked the crowd. Kids from the shelter wandered aimlessly trying to console each other. It was several minutes before Vin's sobbing finally subsided.

"You okay, Cowboy?" Chris asked gently.

"I can't do this anymore," whispered Vin.

Chris caught his breath at the Texan's admission. He hoped it was the stress of the moment and not anything more permanent that his sharpshooter was referring to. "It's okay, Cowboy. It's okay." Chris let go with one hand and brushed away his own tears. Vin needed him to be strong right now. "Hey, what do you say we get out of here, huh?"

Vin pulled back from Chris, looking at him with haunted eyes leaving Chris with the desperate need to get Vin back as he was before this whole mess had started. The young man had been run through the wringer. Vin stood up, swaying dangerously. Chris stood next to him, grabbed his elbow, and supported him. "You okay?"

Vin nodded.

"Let's go check on JD, okay?" suggested Chris.

With a light push from Chris, Vin stepped forward and began to walk toward the ambulance. He saw JD being loaded into the ambulance and flashed back to the fire at the mission. 'Josiah.' His heart seemed to stop as he recalled Josiah's lifeless body being carried from the burning building. Vin's breathing quickened, his body began to shake, and everything got fuzzy.

Chris felt Vin trembling and could see him go pale as he started to hyperventilate. Then, the Texan simply passed out on him. Chris caught Vin before he hit the pavement, but the Texan's boneless weight brought Chris down with him. "Nathan!" yelled Chris.

Nathan touched the paramedic beside him on the shoulder, catching his attention, and the two headed towards the fallen men.

Chapter Thirteen

JD winced as the ambulance hit another pothole. He was on his way to the hospital for the second time in two days, or was it three? Last time, Josiah had been unconscious next to him. This time it was Vin. JD took a deep breath and coughed. He could certainly handle never seeing another fire again. When he had awakened in the dark pantry, he had panicked when he smelled smoke and heard people screaming. Feeling his way in the darkness, he had found the door, but it was locked. As the tiny room began to fill with smoke, he had pounded on the door with all his strength, throwing his shoulder against it repeatedly. JD closed his eyes, remembering the terror he felt when the door wouldn't give. He could think of nothing worse than burning to death.

JD glanced over at Vin who was strapped on the next gurney over. In the midst of his panic in the locked pantry, he remembered hearing the lock click before the door was flung open. There stood a sight he had given up ever seeing. Vin stood there in the doorway, staring at him in disbelief. JD had never felt such relief in his life. Now, that relief was quelled by concern for Vin. Buck had told him Vin had passed out, but that was all he knew. He hoped Vin was okay. He owed him an apology for letting him down with the bottle thing, more importantly, he owed him thanks for saving his life once more.

The ambulance rolled to a final stop in front of the emergency room and the flurry of activity began. His gurney was rolled toward the ER doors and then Buck was leaning over him running alongside. "You okay, Kid?" he asked. JD nodded and was wheeled into a room, leaving Buck standing in the hall.

The routine was familiar to JD, the only difference this time was that he got stitches in his head. Yes, he'd have to spend the night again. No, they didn't know how Vin was doing. After the nurse cleaned him up, he was wheeled up to his room for the night. When he was settled, Buck appeared in his doorway with that gregarious grin.

"Hey Kid. How ya doing?" asked the ladies man.

"Fine, Buck. How's Vin? No one will tell me," said JD anxiously.

"Whoa, Kid. Junior is fine. Doc says he's dehydrated, and he's exhausted. They're giving him an IV, and a little O2," said Buck, adjusting JD's nasal canula. "He's sleeping. And the rest of the guys are in there just watching him sleep," Buck laughed.

JD smiled. "Did we get Doug?"

"Yup. All locked up nice and tight in the City Jail." Buck watched JD's eyes blink heavily. "Why don't you get some shut eye. I'll keep an eye on things."

" 'Kay," mumbled JD as he started to drift off.

+ + + + + + +

Vin slept through the night and most of the next day. It was nearly six in the evening when the Texan peeled open his eyes and saw Chris Larabee watching him with concern. Chris smiled into his bleary eyes and Vin gave him a short half-grin before his eyelids drifted shut again.

Chris watched Vin closely. He had known Vin was going to wake up soon when he became more restless in his sleep, as if he was dreaming. When he first opened his eyes, they were clear of the haunted look that they had held last night and he seemed comfortable to find Chris at his side. But, when his eyes opened the second time, there was a sadness Chris didn't understand. Vin dropped his gaze as if he were ashamed of something.

"How are you feeling, Cowboy?" asked Chris with concern. Vin mumbled a response that Chris couldn't hear. "Vin?"

The Texan couldn't bring himself to meet Chris's eyes. His guilt from not helping Josiah was too great. It was his fault Josiah had died. He had failed Josiah. He had failed the whole team. "I'm sorry about Josiah," he said a bit louder while still staring at the blankets.

Chris looked over Vin's head at Josiah with a questioning look. He wasn't sure he had heard the Texan correctly.

Josiah moved closer to the bed, placing his hand on Vin's shoulder. "What's there to be sorry about, Vin?" asked Josiah quietly.

Vin's eyes widened and his breath quickened. "You're alive?" he gasped. He stared at the man in front of him, not certain that it wasn't a ghost.

"Quite alive, brother. A bit of a headache and a sore back, but I'm fine," said Josiah curiously.

"But, but the news said," Vin pressed his head back in the pillow, trying to grasp what he was seeing. "But I saw JD drag you out of the mission. You weren't movin' or anything. They said..." The Texan dropped out mid-sentence simply staring at Josiah.

"Vin?" prompted Chris. The young man was obviously confused, startled by Josiah's presence.

"The news said one died, one remained hospitalized," whispered Vin.

Josiah laid his hand on Vin's shoulder. "I'm alive, brother, and so is JD. Steven Davis, one of the mission workers, was the one who died."

Vin laid his hand over his eyes trying to get a grasp on the sudden turn of events. He had been torturing himself relentlessly with the last time he saw his friend's lifeless body laying on the cold concrete. He had been so sure that Josiah had been killed in that fire. But Josiah was here. He was alive. Vin moved his hand from his eyes and took hold of Josiah's hand, which still rested on his shoulder. He held it tightly as he drifted off to sleep, the grip gradually relaxing until it slipped back onto the bed.

Chris watched as Vin's breathing took on the steady rise and fall of sleep. The Texan started to mumble something about a box, a kid, Josiah, and the mission but none of it made any sense to Chris.

"Josiah, do you know what's going on with Vin?" asked Chris softly.

Josiah nodded. "A little. But it's up to Vin to share." Josiah shifted his hand from Vin's now relaxed shoulder and settled his own weary frame into the chair beside the bed. He reached over and took hold of Vin's hand again, sensing that Vin needed a little physical contact right now to ground him in reality.

Chris nodded, knowing Josiah was right. It was up to Vin to share or not share what was troubling him. But Chris would not let this go. Vin was struggling with something far deeper than Chris understood, but he refused to let the Texan deal with it alone. He would respect Vin's privacy, but he cared too much about the younger man to let him wall himself away from his friends.

+ + + + + + +

When Vin woke again, he was ready to get out of the hospital. He just wanted to go home and forget everything that had happened. When Chris asked how he was, he told him that he was fine and smiled even though he felt rotten. He felt so tired. His wrist ached. Looking at his sore hand, Vin realized his wrist was bandaged. He didn't remember hurting it.

"My fault." Chris supplied the answer as Vin examined his wrist. "When I tackled you at the fire, you skidded on the concrete a bit." Chris shrugged. "Road rash."

Vin nodded. That would explain why his knees felt stiff. They were probably scraped as well. Vin sighed as unwelcome memories started crowding his mind.

"You all right, Cowboy?"

Vin nodded and smiled again. He didn't want anyone doting on him. Didn't want anyone pressing him about the things that were bothering him. Vin stuffed his turmoil back into its corner, put on his calm, cool, and collected face. Looking at Chris, he knew the blonde wasn't buying it, but he couldn't give him any more. If he let even one piece go, everything would come flooding out and his fragile control would be gone.

"Let's get you home," said Chris, picking up Vin's shoes and handing them to the sharpshooter.

Vin cautiously accepted the loafers and shivered involuntarily. They were an unwanted reminder to him from Doug's wardrobe. He shook off the uneasiness, and then looked Chris in the eye. "I'm going to my place."

Chris grimaced. Vin was closing him out. "You'll stay with me a couple days, then you can go to your place."

Vin stood up. "I going to my place."

"Vin," said Chris.

"I need some time alone."

"You can have time alone at my place," countered Chris. Seeing Vin's glare, he tried a change of tactic. "Maybe I just need to be assured that you're all right."

"You scared I'm going to off myself?" asked Vin coldly.

Chris's mouth fell open. He took a moment to formulate a response. "Vin, that never even occurred to me until you said it." He hesitated. "Are you considering it?"

"Hell no. If I was going to kill myself, I would have done it years ago."

The callousness of the response troubled Chris. He couldn't force Vin to come to the ranch. He wasn't sick enough to stay in the hospital. He needed to talk to someone about what was happening in his head. "Talk to me, Vin," said Chris softly.

"Ain't nothing to talk about, Chris." Vin shrugged. "I'm fine. I want to get out of here." Vin looked at Chris. He really didn't want to fight with the blonde, but there was no way he was going out to the ranch. He'd have far too much time to think. "Maybe we should go by the office so I can do my reports."

"The reports can wait awhile."

Vin growled. "Damn it, Chris. Stop pushing me. I just want to get the hell out of here, get the stinkin' report done and sleep forever. Can we just go?"

Chris let the Texan's anger roll past him, knowing that Vin's anger wasn't really directed at him. "Come on," he responded, heading toward the door. Vin climbed into the wheelchair and the orderly followed Chris, pushing the chair.

It wasn't finished. Chris would take Vin to the office and let him work for awhile. Maybe he could get him to soften a little as the day wore on and after they were finished there, they would head out to the ranch.

Chapter Fourteen

Ezra watched Vin across their adjoining desks. Vin and Chris were the only ones beside the southerner in the office. Buck was tending to JD at home, and Nathan was caring for Josiah. Vin had been staring at the computer for more than an hour without typing more than a few keystrokes. He fidgeted constantly, emotions running rampant across the normally passive face. "Mr. Tanner, is your wrist bothering you?" asked Ezra, hoping that he could help Vin start to address what was troubling him.


"Your injury. Could you use some assistance on your report? You could dictate. I'd be happy to transcribe for you," said Ezra.

"Ezra, you've been undercover lots, right?" said Vin pensively.

"Yes, Mr. Tanner, a large number of times," answered Ezra carefully. He wasn't sure where Vin was headed, but he hoped the Texan would open up to him. At least Vin had initiated a discussion.

"Did ya ever ferget who ya were?" Vin taped a pencil nervously on his desk, then leaned back in his chair as he waited for Ezra's answer.

"On several occasions I have had difficulty recalling which alias I was using." Ezra knew that this was not what Vin was asking but he needed to buy himself a little more time to come up with the answer that would help ease his friend's mind.

"No. I mean," Vin paused, realizing Ezra would know he wasn't speaking hypothetically. "I mean, did ya ever ferget who the real Ezra Standish is?"

Ezra placed his hands together as if praying, touching his index fingers to his lips as he decided how to phrase his answer. Lowering his hands, he spoke. "I've had a couple of occasions, Vin, where the length of time undercover, or the circumstances of the situation has confused me for awhile."

"How did ya…" Vin stopped. He didn't know how to ask.

"How did I find myself again?"

Vin nodded. He dropped his head and stared at the floor.

"I didn't," said Ezra.

Vin's head popped up and he stared at the undercover agent. Fear was written on his face.

"At least not by myself. The first couple times I was still with the FBI in Atlanta. I couldn't go to my friends because, frankly, I didn't have any. I went to a psychologist."

"A shrink?"

"A professional counselor, Vin," corrected Ezra. "The last time it happened was here. A certain long-haired Texan refused to leave me alone. He hounded me day and night insisting that I rely on the support of my friends. He is the most honest, loyal, dedicated man I know. I am proud to be considered his friend."

Vin sighed. "I don't know if I can do this, Ez."

Ezra stood and limped over to Vin's side of the desk, propping his hip on the corner of the wooden structure. "You can, Vin. You just take it one step at a time. One moment at a time."

"Hell, Ezra. I can't even write this report. Every time I start, all the crap just..." Vin stopped himself. He wasn't going to tell anyone what was going on in his head. He couldn't tell Ezra that every time he started thinking about the case, unbidden memories from his past would overwhelm him.

"Move over," said Ezra, waving Vin out of his chair. The southerner took over Vin's seat and Vin sat on his desk. "I'll type. You tell me what happened. Just the basic facts."

Ezra smiled inwardly as Vin began to lay out the case for him piece by piece. He gave the basic facts, places, dates, and names. When his mind appeared to wander, Ezra quickly directed him back with a fundamental question to prod him along. Three hours later, Vin's report was complete.

It was time to go home but Vin didn't want to. He didn't want to be alone with his thoughts and he sure didn't want to go to Chris's. He didn't want to chance breaking down and losing it in front of the man he respected most. He had already bawled on his shoulder once. "Ez, would you mind givin' this report to Chris. I need to use the bathroom."

Ezra nodded and picked up the report from the printer as Vin headed for the restroom. Vin watched Ezra go into Chris's office before changing his course. The Texan bypassed the restrooms and headed straight for the elevators. Chris would be angry, but Vin needed to sort things out. He quickly hailed a cab, vanishing into the Denver streets.

+ + + + + + +

The insistent pounding on the apartment door made Vin wish that for once he had actually kept it locked. Despite the danger of his neighborhood, Vin kept his door unlocked for his neighbor kids so that they would have a safe haven. He knew Chris was standing outside that door and would stay there until Vin opened the door. He smiled to himself grimly. Even Chris's knuckles communicated the infamous Larabee glare with their tenacity.

Vin had not considered going anywhere but to his apartment when he left the office. He had the cabby stop by an ATM to pick up some cash, and stopped at a neighborhood market to get some food. Then he had returned to the only piece of his past that he had left, his apartment, and his neighbor and surrogate grandmother, Carlita Perez.

Vin nursed his bottle of beer, refusing to get up and answer the door. Chris knew it was unlocked. If he insisted on being here, he could damn well let himself in.

After several long minutes, the door creaked open. Vin shook his head and sighed.

"Vin?" called Chris. The Texan was sitting in the old overstuffed chair, feet propped on the beat up coffee table, apparently fine. Chris tried to control his anger and give the sharpshooter a little leeway. "You ready to go?"

"I'm not going anywhere," stated Vin flatly.

"I didn't come all the way down here to leave empty-handed."

"No one asked you to come." Vin stood and walked toward Chris who was still standing just inside the door to the apartment. "I don't need you hovering over me like some old woman."

Chris cursed inwardly. This was not what he pictured happening. Josiah had called it right. Vin needed to do this in his own time and his own way. "I'm not hovering, Vin. I'm concerned." Chris took a step back as Vin kept approaching. Vin wasn't threatening him, but by merely continuing to step forward, he had forced Chris to step back.

"I'm fine," stated Vin.

Physically, Vin was okay. Emotionally was a whole other matter. "I just want you to know I'm here for you if you want to talk."

"Fine. See ya tomorrow." Vin took hold of the door and began to push it closed, forcing Chris to step even further back into the hall.


"Tomorrow," said the Texan, closing the door quietly, yet firmly, in Chris's face. Closing Chris out of his misery.

Chris stared at the door for a few silent moments after hearing Vin lock the door. "I hope you're right about this, Josiah," he whispered. Chris reluctantly turned away from the door and headed for home.


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