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A Birthday in the Present
ATF AU
By: mog (maria.mogavero@optiva.com)

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DISCLAIMER: Characters belong to Mirisch/Watson/Trilogy Prod/CBS-just
borrowing, not making money
RATING: PG-13 (bit o' bad language)
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Okay, here's my offering for Cassie's Chris B-day fic
challenge. Purely an h/c fix.
This would be considered an AR story, it takes place in our day & age.  And
though I only mention a couple of pieces about their pasts, assume their
histories are the same, (i.e. Chris losing Sarah & Adam, Josiah's dad was a
missionary, you know the stuff.)
No beta, 'scuse typos and tech inaccuracies.  If ya like it, be sure to
mention it to Shawna... I was supposed to write more for 'A Matter of
Coincidence' this weekend, maybe you can convince her this was a worthy
distraction.  I'm sure she's fixin' to kill me. ;-)

---------------

"Get him outta here!"

"Please, sir, we need you to wait in the other room."

"Vin."  Josiah's deep voice and strong hand came from behind to pull Tanner
from the trauma room.  The ex-bounty hunter had his arms wrapped tight
across his body and his eyes fixed on the still form surrounded by the chaos
of nurses and technicians.  He allowed Sanchez to guide him to the waiting
area of the ER but refused to take a seat, needing instead to stand at the
edge of the hall that led to the room where his best friend was.

It had all gone wrong so quickly.  Vin ran a hand through his long hair and
tried not to let the scene replay itself in his mind but the memory seemed
to have a will of its own and Vin recalled the events of the past hour.

Tanner and the five other member's of Larabee's team had been working toward
the sting for six months.  Six months of watching and recording, of
extensive undercover work, of gathering enough evidence against the Swedish
arms dealer to make sure the last half year of their lives wouldn't be for
nothing.

Ezra had been lucky enough to get himself in on the fringes of Kirkgaard
Hilsen's operation.  Close enough to the action to be a valuable source of
information to his team but not so close as to be really noticed by anyone
of importance.  Chris and Vin were the buyers; Buck, their go-between;
Nathan, Josiah and JD worked back-up and the surveillance vans.

And thanks to Standish, the ATF task force that Larabee headed up knew the
day and place of the buy less than two hours after it had been decided upon.
When the call finally came to them from Hilsen's camp the only new info was
the exact time.

Chris and Vin had established themselves as heavy players early on.  But it
took a deal of substantial weight to bring Hilsen out of hiding and willing
to make a guest appearance.  Even as Larabee stood face to face with the
non-descript Swede and discussed the latest pitching blunders of the
Diamondbacks he couldn't believe how perfectly everything was moving.

He also couldn't believe how suddenly it came to a grinding halt.  Ezra had
been able to let his teammates know which member of Hilsen's operation would
be present on the given morning.  The southerner had heard rumors of two
more, due in from Austria, but had been unable to get anything more
substantial.

But Larabee had worked with his handpicked team for nearly three years and
was confident that with the other three ATF groups that were backing them
up, The Seven would be able to handle any 'unexpecteds' that might arise.
But that was the problem with unexpecteds, you never knew just what to
expect.

The first hint that something wasn't right was shortly after Buck, how had
been busy inspecting the small trailer of automatic weapons and compact STA
rocket launchers with Vin, left Tanner to give their boss the okay.  Chris
had passed over the significant sums contained in the Lagerfeld leather
cases and glanced over his shoulder as Vin approached him from behind.  But
Larabee's stomach tightened as he saw the uncontrolled look of surprised
that flitted across his partner's face.

Larabee forced a nonchalant expression over his own countenance before he
turned back to Hilsen who was now suddenly involved in an intense
conversation with a tall redhead.  Chris hadn't been able to identify the
man when the two groups met that morning but he assumed he was one of the
mystery guests from Austria.

His assumption had been correct; what he couldn't have known, however, was
that the man was also someone who had been taken into custody by Vin three
and a half years earlier when Tanner still made his living as a bounty
hunter.

The redhead had already pulled his 9mm Glock from the holster he wore at the
small of his back and did not appear to be listening to the reason that
Hilsen was attempting to lull him into.

The Swede turned to the three men that stood before him and addressed Chris
by the name he had been introduced to him by.  "I must apologize, Mr.
Lawrence.  Steffan is rather adamant in confronting your partner.  He seems
to believe that Mr. Travers was once responsible for his arrest."

The redhead gripped his pistol tighter and shot a venomous look at the agent
behind Larabee.
"His name isn't Travers, it's Tanner."

Chris had seen Ezra, standing among Hilsen's men, cautiously pull one of his
own weapons but Lararbee knew he could rely on the southerner to remain
steady unless things truly go out of control.  He just hoped the other
members of his team in the nearby surveillance vans would react the same
way.  Larabee knew the play was Vin's, he'd just have to wait to see which
way his quiet partner would take it.

"Yeah, I brought him in, what of it?"

Chris decided to play along.  "What the hell are you saying, Vin?"  Who are
you, Travers or Tanner?"

Vin never took his eyes from the redhead as he responded to Chris's question
in his soft western drawl.  "I worked for awhile as a bounty hunter but," a
slight smile pulled at one corner of the agent's mouth, "it sure as hell
never paid as well as what I'm doin' now."

"I've made some people not too happy with me, so yeah, I've gone by a few
different names."  He switched his focus to Hilsen, "I suppose all your men
have matching birth certificates and driver's licenses?"

The Swede stared back at him with hard blue eyes.  "I don't care about
names, but I do care which way my men's loyalties lie."

Vin stepped forward, his arms spread wide.  "Pat me down, if ya'll are so
worried about it."  Then, grinning slyly at Steffan and winking, "only, not
too close, people might talk."

Tanner was pretty sure that the miniature wireless mic worked into the
collar of his tan suede jacket would be imperceptible by most anything other
than electronic detection or a thorough physical inspection.  He also hoped
that his willingness to admit to what the redhead was claiming and to a pat
down would make Hilsen believe the young man had nothing to hide.

The arms dealer turned to one of his men and rattled off something in
Swedish.  The man made his way to one of the SUV's that Hilsen's team had
driven into the warehouse and dug into the back as his boss spoke again to
Chris and Vin.

"Forgive my paranoia, gentlmen.  But I assure you, nothing as dramatic as a
physical search, we are nearly to the 21st century, after all."

Another bead of sweat ran down Larabee's back to join the others that had so
recently made an appearance under his black, silk shirt and he wondered if
the pounding of his heart was a obvious to everyone around him as he felt it
to be.  When Chris saw Hilsen's man approach Tanner with an electronic
hand-held device part of his brain began racing while another part cursed
the modern age he lived in.

And suddenly, the cavalry was there.

Josiah's booming voice and a flood of black clad, heavily armed heroes
swarmed in.

"Federal Agents!!  On the ground!!  Everyone, on the ground, now!"

But Steffan had other ideas.  As the room exploded with noise and the very
real threat of facing prison pressed in, his anger engulfed him.  He raised
his weapon and aimed at Vin.  Ezra and Chris had been watching the redhead
and saw him lift the Glock.  Standish's shot cracked first but even as his
own 9mm slug slammed into Steffan, the enraged man let loose a round.

Chris was already moving.  He spun sideways, throwing himself against Vin in
an attempt to knock them both to the floor.  But it wasn't until they
crashed to the cement and Tanner felt the too limp form of his partner
pressing against him that Vin realized it wasn't Chris's own momentum that
had thrown them down.

Larabee's head lolled over Vin's shoulder and as Tanner attempted to roll
from underneath him Buck appeared next to them.

"Shit. Chris?! Agent down!  We need an aid unit, NOW!  Agent down!

Buck lifted Larabee slightly, allowing Vin to slide away from their leader,
but as he did, a slight moan could be heard.  Wilmington eased Chris back
down just as four other agents materialized at his side.

Nathan knelt down and helped shift Larabee onto his side.  The bullet had
entered through the back, piercing the right edge of the right lung before
lodging next to a rib.  But Chris's team didn't know this yet, all they saw
was the man who had guided them through hell and back and kept them alive
for three years slowly leak his life force across the cold cement floor of a
warehouse on a clear summer morning.

"Where the hell is the aid unit?!"  Buck screamed, scanning the room around
him.  A gasp of pain brought his attention back to the floor.

Vin had Chris's upper body resting against his own.  Under Nathan's
guidance, they had positioned their leader so his wounded side faced down.
Jackson's time spent as a medic in the Army had earned him the occasional
nickname 'Doc' among his teammates.  It had also earned him the respect of
every one of them on the numerous times his skills had been needed.

Nathan had stripped off his own jacket and used it to staunch the flow of
blood.  He hadn't seen an exit would during his rapid inspection and
Larabee's increased labored breathing made the black man suspect the worst.

"Take it easy, pard.  We'll have ya outta here in a bit."  Vin's soft drawl
came in response to a shift from Chris and another slight moan.  The initial
shock of being hit had passed and Larabee was now fully aware of the
pressure building in his right side.  He gripped Tanner's hand tightly,
gasping against the pain. "That hurts. Oh yeah, that hurts."

JD, who had been one of the first through the door when Josiah made the
decision to move, stood next to Ezra at Chris's feet and fought to suppress
a wave of anxiety.

Dunne had been practically a rookie when Larabee had granted the young man a
position on his team three years earlier.  JD had been well aware of Chris's
exceptional reputation in the ATF and, while Dunne originally intended to
try to get stationed out of the Boston field office, the death of his mother
due to illness sent the young man westward in an effort to start a new life.

To say that Larabee had been resistant to JD's request to join the veteran's
team would have been an understatement. But Dunne had the determination and
belligerence of the young that eventually claimed him a spot beside the six
other men on a team that others in the ATF had nicknamed 'The Magnificent
Seven'.

Larabee had always been more partial to Kurosawa's original than to the
American remake, but he had to admit, it was a flattering title and it did
sound better than 'The Seven Samurai'.  Over the three years they had been
together, the team had received more honors, decorations, not to mention
wounds, than any other group in the history of the ATF.

JD believed that he had found a second family in the odd collection of men
that had taken up older-brother responsibilities over him.  But now, Fate
seemed to have decided that things were going too well for the young man and
all he could do was watch as the rug of security was pulled out from under
him.

Them men in the tight circle had been oblivious to the clean-up activity
that had been going on around them.  It wasn't until the paramedics pushed
their way through that the agents allowed anyone else to get close to their
leader.

It took both Josiah and Nathan to ease Vin away from Larabee so the aid crew
could assess the damage.  The paramedics moved with an efficient calm,
seemingly unfazed by the tension that radiated off the imposing figures
around them.  Once they had their patient IV'd and patched up enough to
control the bleeding they made the move to get him ready for transport.

Chris gasped as the shift to the backboard on the gurney jerked his lean
frame.

Buck brushed aside on of the medics and lay a steady hand on his friend's
shoulder. "Jeezus, take it easy!"

Though the breathing was labored and the plastic of the oxygen mask muffled
the volume, Larabee's words were clear, "Buck...leave 'em...leave 'em the
hell alone...an' let 'em do their job."

By the time the paramedics settled Chris in the back of the ambulance his
eyes were half-closed but his gaze remained steady on his hand, which Vin
again held tightly.  One of the medics briefly entertained the idea of
trying to get the younger agent to take a separate vehicle to the hospital.
But one look at the faces of the other five men around them and he
considered himself lucky that it would only be one he'd have to maneuver
around in the cramped quarters of the ambulance.

Vin still gripped his partner's cold hand as they entered one of the trauma
rooms at Four Corners Critical Care Center.  Though they had only spoken a
handful of words in the ambulance, the paramedic who monitored Larabee's
vitals sensed that the two men were communicating nonetheless.

A petite nurse with a strong voice finally broke the connection.

"Get him outta here!"

A young intern loosened Tanner's grip but was having difficulty moving the
agent from the spot beside his friend.  "Please, sir, we need you to wait in
the other room."

Vin heard his name and felt a pair of strong hands wrap around his
shoulders, guiding him to where the rest of Larabee's team had gathered.

But Tanner couldn't face them just yet, he knew their expressions would only
mirror his own and he wasn't sure he'd be able to keep it together if he had
to acknowledge how he was feeling at the moment.  He just couldn't shake the
image of how pale looked.

And there seemed to be so much blood.   Tanner glanced down and felt
slightly ill as he realized how much of that blood soaked into the linen
shirt he wore.  As if anticipating his thoughts, Ezra appeared at Vin's
side, a t-shirt and sweatshirt in his grasp.

The southerner's voice was soft, "Vin, Go change."  Tanner didn't look at
the man in the Armani suit, just accepted the clothes wordlessly and made
his way around the corner to the bathroom.  He returned a short time later,
the bloodstained shirt rolled into a tight ball and his thin suede coat
slung over one arm.

Ezra again predicted Tanner's needs and took the shirt, wrapping it in a red
plastic bag he had acquired from a nurse at the admissions desk.

Buck paced nervously in the corner of the large waiting area, crossing and
uncrossing his arms, occasionally running a hand over his mouth and tugging
unconsciously at the edges of his dark mustache.  JD sat on the back of one
of the plush chairs against the wall, his black Nike hightops pushing into
the rough fabric of the seat.  He rested his elbows on his knees and stared
at his folded hands, not bothering to brush away the black hair that hung in
his eyes.

Every so often he would meet the eye of Wilmington, hoping to find the
reassurance that always seemed to reside there when the young agent needed
it.  With a crooked smile, Buck did his best to offer JD the support that he
knew his best friend was looking for but he just wished it didn't feel so
false.

" 'Scuse me?"  An older Hispanic woman that had been helping man the front
desk approached the group with a clipboard clutched to her chest.  "We have
some admissions paperwork...are there any family members on the way?"

Nathan approached the woman, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his
black, nylon uniform windbreaker.  "He, uh...doesn't have any. Family, I
mean."

Ezra interrupted smoothly, "Except, of course, for his brother."  The
southerner gestured toward Vin who was still leaning against the wall
staring at the trauma room door.  Standish ignored the suspicious look that
Jackson shot at him and spoke again to the secretary.  "But perhaps I could
be of service with the more minor details."

The woman turned back to her station unaware of Nathan catching Ezra's arm
and whispering to his friend.  "What was that?"

Ezra gazed up at Jackson, his usually bright green eyes now tire and
serious.  "If there is anythin' that can only be told to or decided upon by
a member of the family, it would be most useful to have one around and avoid
any unnecessary delays that may ensue if we did not have one.  Any
misunderstandings could then be cleared up at a more agreeable time."

Nathan shook his head and followed the southerner to the admissions desk,
"Least you're a good liar, JD woulda said I was his brother."

The two agents began to offer what information they could for the hospital
record but paused after the third question.

"Date of birth?"

Nathan was silent for a second, as he recalled, "It's this month."

Ezra looked to his friend, "Should be soon."  He turned to the dark-haired
clerk, "What's the date today?"

But as she answered, two other voices responded as well.

"The thirty-first."

Buck and Vin, however, were giving the day of Chris's birth.

JD slumped back against the wall, "Oh, Jeezus."

For the past thirty-six hours the only thing on the minds of the seven men
had been the assignment they had nicknamed 'Operation: Swede'.  Josiah
rubbed his eyes as he recalled them all teasing Chris earlier in the week.

Buck had started in after they received word from Ezra as to what day the
final meeting was to be held.  "Well ain't that convenient? You plan that so
you could be sure to have a happy birthday, Chris?"

A wry smile crept across Larabee's face, "Well, I had to do something. Lord
knows I couldn't rely on any of you to get me anything decent."

Nathan sat on one corner of the conference table in the room that they had
operated out of for nearly half a year.  "That's 'cause he never lets us
outta here.  When are we supposed to go shoppin'?"

"I thought that's what the Internet was for," quipped JD, running a hand
through his dark hair and resettling the ever-present newspaper boy cap
backwards on his head.

Buck threw a wadded-up piece of paper in Dunne's direction with a wink,
"Shopping sites sure ain't the ones bookmarked on your computer, kid."

JD tossed the ball back at his partner, "Funny, Buck."

Josiah looked up from the photos he and Vin were studying, "Don't worry, JD.
Even if those sites were in your 'favorites' file, we all know that it would
have been Buck that showed 'em to you."

Sanchez was snapped back to reality as the trauma room door swung open and
the young intern that had spoken to Vin earlier again attempted to block
tackle between those caring for Larabee and those that cared for him.  The
six agents were halfway to the off-limits room the moment they heard the
door move.  And as the personnel behind her hustled their patient down the
hall towards the elevator, the intern did her best to placate the imposing
group.

Buck was on her first, "Where're they taking him?"

"How is he?" JD's question overlapped Wilmington's but Ezra bade them both
silent.

"Gentlemen, please. Allow the poor woman to speak."

She was a muscular brunette with large brown eyes and a demeanor that
wavered between trying to appear as professional as possible and also appear
as if she wasn't intimidated by the six intense men.  The latter would have
been easier if the southerner and the one with the mustache hadn't stripped
off their jackets earlier to reveal their holstered weapons.

"He's been stabilized and they're taking him up to surgery. The bullet
penetrated the upper lobe of his right lung and there was substantial
internal bleeding. X-rays showed the slug to be wedged against the fourth
rib," she indicated the spot on her own body.  "The main goal is to get the
bullet out and sew up the holes. Dr. Caulks will be performing the
procedure. She's one of the best trauma surgeons in the area."

" 'Bout how long will it take?"

The intern knew what the tall black man was really wanting to know. "We can
expect several hours. He'll be transferred to the ICU afterwards and you
should be able to see him tomorrow morning."

She couldn't help but notice the concern that weighed heavily on each man.
"There's a pretty decent deli about a block north, you can get something to
eat and they brew a good cup of coffee. And the couches in the surgery
waiting area are more comfortable than these."

Josiah offered a grateful smile, "Thank you, ma'am."

Vin stalked wordlessly to the elevator, with Buck and JD close behind.
Josiah noted the look in Ezra's eyes as the southerner watched the others
leave.  Sanchez patted the smaller man on the arm, "Why don't you head on
up. Nate and I can finish here."

Standish nodded silently and grabbed up his suit jacket before jogging to
catch the elevator.

Nathan picked up the plastic bag that held Vin's bloodstained shirt.  He
suspected that Ezra had consciously left it behind.  "Don' think I've ever
seen him take anythin' so hard before."

Sanchez turned to head to the admissions desk, "First quarter of the 'What
if...' game, my friend."
 

The few hours that passed after that couldn't have been longer if they had
been an eternity.  JD was finally able to get Buck to burn off a fraction of
his nervous energy with a trip to the deli.  Vin sat on the floor, back
against the wall, knees drawn up to his chest.  Saying nothing, just staring
at the door that separated the waiting room from the hall that led to where
half of his life lay in the hands of another.

Nathan tried to become interested in the medical journal he picked up from
the nurses' station but found himself reading the same page over and over
again.

Josiah watched Ezra as the southerner gathered up the cards from his
nineteenth game of Solitaire and reshuffled the deck.  But rather than deal
out another spread Standish suddenly slammed the deck against the hardwood
coffee table, cursing as he stalked to the bathroom.

"What is the fucking point?!"

Vin seemed oblivious to the outburst, lost in his own thoughts.  But Jackson
and Sanchez exchanged a look before Josiah rose and followed Standish.

Pushing open the door to the restroom, Josiah saw Ezra leaning over one of
the sinks, watching water from the faucet run into his cupped hands.  The
southerner didn't look up but splashed some of the cool liquid on his face
before cutting off the faucet.  He pulled several paper towels from the
dispenser and roughly rubbed the water from his face and hands.

It was only one in the afternoon but the younger agent looked as if he had
been up all night.  Sanchez couldn't help but notice his friend's red-rimmed
eyes right before they closed.  Standish leaned his back against the white
porcelain tiles of the wall and slid his way to the floor.

When he finally spoke his voice was soft and monotone.  "I should have fired
sooner."

Josiah rested his weight against the counter and watched the southerner,
waiting for him to continue.

"I knew two others were due in.  Someone said Hilsen was goin' to want them
at the meetin'.  I saw them this mornin' right before we left. I shoulda
called, shoulda gotten word to ya."

Sanchez replied in a gentle tone, "You had time to call?"

"Should have found it."

"And you would have been positive that you could have done it securely? That
there would have been absolutely no risk of you blowing cover?"

"There had to have been a way. I should have found a way...I should have
fired sooner."  His eyes opened and the salt-water moisture made them shine
a brilliant green. "A second sooner."

"And if you had fired a second later Chris would have had two more slugs in
him and probably wouldn't be alive.  You know better that to second-guess
your actions in a fire fight."

A pair of emerald orbs focused intently on the tall agent. "Damn it, Josiah!
Don't you get it? I'm not talkin' about my actions, I'm talkin' about the
consequences." Ezra looked away, suddenly embarrassed by the emotional
outburst.

He spoke again, but while it was soft, this time it was not monotone.
"Without him, there is no group. They need him. Vin. Buck. JD..."

"You."

Ezra closed his eyes at Josiah's addition to the list.

Sanchez crossed slowly to his friend and sat beside him, resting his back
also against the porcelain tiles.  The older agent waited, knowing that the
silence would prompt the usually reserved southerner to voice the fears that
had been building in him.

Standish offered a humorless laugh and focused on a cracked tile in the
middle of the floor.  "This is it, Josiah.  This is all I have."  He paused,
the tip of his tongue running across his lower lip.  "You know my track
record. Fittin' in has never exactly been me forte'."

"You seem to fit in fine here."

Ezra shook his head slightly. "I feel like an impostor sometimes. Like one
day Chris is goin' to wake up and say to himself, 'What the hell was I
thinkin'?' and just like that, I'll be back workin' vice in Atlanta."

"I do know your record. So does Chris. You're damn good at what you do, he
wouldn't have you on this team if it were otherwise."

"Ah, yes. Damn good at lyin, cheatin' and if you believe the rumors,
stealin'."

"That was over three years ago. And rumors were exactly what they were."

Standish turned a sharp eye on the man next to him, "You know that? You know
that for a fact?" You didn't even know me then."

Sanchez blinked once, slowly. "I know what I believe. I know what Chris
believes."

"Mr. Larabee is noble, he is not, however, always the best judge of
character."

"No, that's your and Vin's job."  At the mention of the quiet agent's name
Standish looked away, again fixating on the broken tile that had held his
interest earlier.  Josiah could almost hear his friend's thoughts.

"You didn't let them down, either of them."

"I think the reports may differ."  Ezra pushed himself up off the floor.
"Seven's savior? Or another stunnin' Standish fuck-up? News at eleven."

"Why are you so hard on yourself?"

A rueful laugh escaped the southerner's lips as he leaned against the
formica counter, "Don't see much of mother, someone's gotta go it."

"I'm serious."  Josiah stood also, crossing to face the smaller man.
"You're working awfully hard to keep blame away from Chris or Vin."

Ezra's attention jerked to Sanchez, a hard, questioning look in his eye; as
if he dared the older agent to continue with what he was implying.

"Not fair, is it?"  Josiah raised an eyebrow, knowing that Standish knew
what he meant.  He paused to let the meaning really sink in.  Ezra looked
away as his friend continued.

"Doesn't matter if it's Chris or Vin or Buck...or you. Once man shouldering
the responsibility for what cannot be predicted or controlled is nothing
more that a waste of time. And damned frustrating to the rest of us."

Shoulderin' responsibility is not my intention."  The southerner turned his
face toward Sanchez and for a moment Josiah perceived a much younger soul
than what he was accustomed to seeing. "I'm just not sure I could handle
losin' the best thing that ever happened to me."

Suddenly the door of the restroom swung open, revealing JD's wide hazel
eyes, "He's outta surgery. It went like it was supposed to and they're
taking him to the ICU."  And then he was gone.

Josiah and Ezra stared at each other for a moment before sharing a brief
tension-relieving laugh.  The tall agent pulled open the door but a soft,
serious voice made him pause.

"I was never on the take."

Sanchez turned to his friend, "You think I don't know that?"

The southerner gazed back, meeting the gray-blue eyes.  And realized that
there really, honestly had never been any doubt in the man's mind.

Standish nodded in understanding and appreciation and ducked slightly to
clear the arm that held the door open, adding as he left, "Took two hundred
dollars from a suspect's wallet once, though.  I figured the son of bitch
owed it, considerin' he shot a hole in my jacket while I was attemptin' to
arrest him."

Sanchez shrugged as he followed his friend out the door.  "I once punched a
twice-convicted child molester and knocked out two of his teeth, whaddya
gonna do?"  Then, after a pause, "Was it a nice jacket?"

"Kenneth Cole. From his Miami line."

"Shoot, you were well within your rights, you should have taken more."

"It was all he had."
---

Different waiting room, different furniture, but the vigil continued.
Though a nurse tried to convince them otherwise, not one of the six even
entertained the idea of going home.  Ezra, however, had finally succumbed to
sleep and was stretched out on a surprisingly comfortable couch in the ICU
waiting room.

JD and Buck slumped in a smaller sofa and half-heartedly watched whatever
ESPN had to offer.  Nathan and Josiah wandered to the deli more out of want
for something to preoccupy them that from need of sustenance.

And the moment the clerk at the ICU front desk left to get coffee, Vin
exchanged a glance with his companions and slipped into the room at the end
of the hall.

The window blinds had been pulled against the light of the late afternoon
sun, bathing the room in a candlelight-like glow.  Tanner stood for a
moment, his back to the door, observing the figure asleep in the stark
hospital room.

A vague memory of the surgeon talking to Larabee's team flitted through the
young agent's mind. "Serious condition...next twenty-four hours, most
important...have to wait and see."

'Wait and see'?? Practically the new millennium and the best that modern
medicine could offer him was 'have to wait and see'.

Vin pulled up a chair next to the bed and took up a hand untouched by the
ugliness of the IV.

'The thirty-first.'  Those had been the only words Tanner had spoken in
nearly five hours.  He swallowed once but his voice still sounded dry and a
little softer that usual.

"Hey, cowboy. Helluva way to spend your birthday."

The odd western nickname that the two men shared dated back to the first
case that Larabee had undertaken with his newly formed team.  An absurd
little snitch they ended up needing for the assignment had gotten it into
his head that Chris, with his tight, sardonic smile and intense blue eyes
was a dead ringer for 'The Man With No Name' character from Leone's
spaghetti westerns.

The first time the man had called Larabee 'cowboy', the agent favored him
with an incredulous stare and even asked the rest of his team if he had
really just heard what he though he heard.  The second time the snitch
called Larabee 'cowboy', Chris decked him.  Turned out to be a very
effective deterrent.  Except for Vin, who thought it was damned funny and
who continued to use it even after Larabee began tossing it right back at
him.

Vin's eyes drifted over his partner's pale features and he wondered why it
took something as traumatic as being shot to get this stubborn son of a
bitch to look so at peace.

"What the hell were ya thinkin'? Do you know how bad you'd cuss JD out if he
did somethin' that stupid?"

He reached with his free hand and rested it lightly on his friend's chest,
needing to feel the rise and fall, the tangible evidence that indicated
life.  A slight breath escaped him and he blinked to clear his vision as the
helplessness he felt made itself apparent.

"Aw, Chris, this ain't how it's suppose to be."  The young ATF agent
swallowed away the lump in his throat and ignored the slight tickle of a
tear as it rested at his jaw.

He unconsciously gripped the hand that he held a little tighter.  "Life
shouldn't be able to change like that...so quick...it ain't fair."

He sniffed an sighed heavily as he remembered the cold feeling that gripped
him as he sat on the floor of the warehouse, holding tightly to the
black-clad form.  "I can't remember the last time I been so scared.  All I
could think of was how I felt like I was five years old again and I was
losin' another part a' my life."

His voice was barely a whisper as the tears fell more freely, "I can't do
that again."

After a moment, the release of tension and stress ebbed and Vin took a deep
breath, letting his shoulders sag.

"I need ya, Chris."  A statement of fact, pure and simple. "Ya'll are my
family and I ain't about to let that go."  He wiped his eyes on the soft
shoulder of his borrowed sweatshirt, " 'Sides, you still owe me a fishin'
trip to the Gulf."

Vin brought both hands together to keep a reassuring grip on Chris's one.
Laying his head down on his arm, Tanner suddenly felt the same exhaustion
that had claimed Ezra an hour before.  The hum of the equipment that
monitored Larabee's vitals offered a sort of white noise and within moments
the only sound of life in the ICU room was the breathing of two brothers.
---

Chris opened his eyes slowly and stared at the pale blue ceiling.  He
swallowed and attempted to rid his mouth of the stale, metallic taste that
permeated it.  His first thought was how odd it was that his right hand
should be so cold while his left one was so warm.

Bringing his head up slightly, he saw the reason why.  He could only see the
back of Vin's head, long brown curls lying in disarray across his arm and
the white sheets of the hospital bed.  Chris knew Tanner too well and a
frown tugged at the corners of his mouth as he noted the awkward position
that the ex-bounty hunter had most likely slept in.

Chris turned his head toward the window and this time noticed Buck asleep in
a chair in the corner.  His head rested against the wall and a blanket was
pulled high up around his shoulders.

Larabee attempted a slight intake of air but the movement made his eyes
widen as a stab of pain shot through the right side of his chest. 'Note to
self: Don't breathe.'

The senior agent closed his eyes and tried to brush away the fog of sleep
and residual anesthesia.  He remembered seeing the tall redhead raise his
weapon and out of the corner of his eye Chris saw Ezra do the same.  Larabee
recalled how matter-of-fact his thought process had been.  'Ezra's got
Steffan' maybe I should move Vin, just in case.'

It felt like someone had just shoved him from behind.  Suddenly there was an
added force to the momentum of his own movement and when he opened his eyes
he felt strong hands turning him on his side.  Chris wasn't sure what had
happened as first, he couldn't figure out why Nathan looked so worried and
why Buck was shouting.

He realized he was on the floor, leaning against Vin's chest and his partner
had one arm wrapped around his body and the other pressed against Larabee's
side.  Then it his him.

He gasped against the lance of fire that shot through his ribcage and
pressed his head against Vin's shoulder.  Chris tried to catch his breath
but another sharp pain made him quickly reconsider the idea.  He reached for
Tanner's hand, squeezing it tightly, as if that would help channel the
pressure in his lungs out of his body.

Then someone pulled the reassuring warmth away and the paramedics were
there, asking him stupid questions. Was he taking any medications? Did he
have any allergies?  Chris remembered thinking that he was rapidly
developing an aversion to 9mm rounds but he wasn't sure if he said it out
loud or not.

The paramedics kept telling him what they were going to do, right before
they did it. 'Fine, get on with it. You'd be done by now it you didn't keep
explaining things.'

A jerk and a wave of pain and then Buck being his usual belligerent self.
"Buck, leave 'em the hell alone and let 'em do their job."  But it took so
much effort to speak those twelve little words so Chris decided silence
would be best for the time being.

And then a rough, familiar hand gripped his again and Larabee realized he
had no use for words anyway.  Anything important that needed to be
communicated could be done with just the look of an eye, a nod of the head.
Just the way it had been done since their first assignment.

Chris recalled moments of the ride in the ambulance and the fear in Vin's
eyes that seemed to go so deep.  Larabee wanted to tell his friend not to
worry, wanted to let him know that he want's planning on going anywhere
anytime soon but the pressure in his chest warned him against speaking.

So the blonde offered a hint of a smile instead and felt that his partner
believed him at least a little when the young agent returned a slight grin
of his own.
 

Chris felt Vin stir in his sleep.

He reached with his right hand, as far as the IV would allow, and lightly
touched the top of Tanner's head.  "Hey cowboy."  His voice cracked from
disuse so he swallowed and tried again, brushing hair away from where he
thought Vin's forehead was.

"Tanner?"

Vin jerked awake.  "Huh? Wha-?"

He turned to look at Chris but regretted it instantly.  Having slept sitting
up and leaning forward all night, Tanner woke to a very stiff neck.  He
pinched at the muscles of one shoulder and attempted to rotate his neck
slowly, all the while trying his best not to hamper the full smile that
spread across his face.

Chris mirrored the expression with a slightly weaker grin.  "You look like
hell."

Vin sat up in his chair and stretched, "Still look better than you. How ya
feelin'?"

"Fine. As long as I don't breathe."  He paused, staring at Vin's front.
"Nice sweatshirt."

Tanner looked down at the silk-screened design and winced. "Ezra gave it to
me ta change into, musta' gotten it from Buck's car."

When Standish had directed Vin to go change, the last thing that had been on
the young agent's mind was where the clothes had come from.  But as he
looked down at the graphics on the sweatshirt he sincerely hoped that no one
had noticed he was claiming to have run in the Ninth Annual Bare Buns
Charity 10k.

"Now that is what ya call a 'fun run', lemme tell ya."  Buck stretched his
long legs and finished off a wide yawn with a familiar cocky smile.  "Hey
pard, You look awful."  Wilmington pulled aside his blanket and rose to his
feet.

Chris raised an eyebrow at Vin, "You guys sure know how to make somebody
feel better."

Buck crossed the room, "But wait, there's more."  The tall agent pulled the
door open slightly and stuck his head out.  Ten seconds later there were
four other critics in the room telling Larabee how bad he looked.

"Aren't there rules about when you guys are allowed in here?"  Chris asked,
trying to put an edge in his voice but not really succeeding.

Nathan smiled, "Ya shoulda seen what we had ta go through ta get ta stay.
The nurse just about tossed us all out when she found out Vin snuck in here.
Ezra settled her down long enough for Buck to start tryin' ta charm her.
Ended up with JD getting' down on one knee an' beggin'."

Chris shot the youngest member of his team a surprised look.  Dunne just
shrugged, "It worked."

Larabee looked to the window, trying to gauge where the sun was by how much
light was coming through the still closed blinds. "What time is it?"

Josiah answered first, " 'Bout 5:30."  Then, anticipating his leader's
disorientation, added, "a.m.  The first."

Buck crossed his arms over his chest and tried to look serious.  "But don't
think for a minute this gets you outta your birthday, pard."

JD pushed his hair from his face and eyed Larabee sincerely, "We didn't
forget, Chris.  Things just go kinda...well...heck, you know, you were with
us.  But," he added, his voice rising slightly and making him sound like the
kid that Buck always teased him about being, "you just tell us what ya want,
it's yours."

Chris let his eyes scan the six men that stood around his bed and a hint of
a smile found its way to his face, "Oh, I think I got everything I need, JD.
'Cept for maybe a good bottle of whiskey."

Buck clapped Ezra on the back, "Sounds like you got yourself a mission,
friend."

The southerner spread his hands in a gesture of acceptance, "one which I
shall endeavor to undertake most seriously.  Taste testin's, samplin'
bottles, that sorta thing."

The door to Larabee's room swung open and an older, black nurse with a Texas
drawl eyed the men with a disapproving look.  "What are ya'll doin' in here?
This man ain't gonna get any better if you be hangin' around when you're not
supposed to.  I'll be back in half a minute and ya'll best be gone."

She sighed heavily and disappeared as quickly as she came.

Buck and JD tried to suppress giggles at the formidable woman's tirade as
Chris spoke up.  "Whoa, déjà vu."

Vin looked at his partner questioningly.  "Huh?"

Chris's expression was equally puzzled. "I...I think I had a dream, where we
were all like this..."

Ezra cut in, eyeing Buck and JD and nudging Vin last, "And you were there,
and you, and Toto too."

Vin elbowed his friend in the ribs as Chris continued, "No, really.  But it
was...it was, Nathan pushing you guys out. And, I think we were in the old
west...something like that."  His brow furrowed as he tried to recall the
dream.  "And JD had this...ridiculous hat, I don't remember what it looked
like."

"Can't be any goofier than that thing he wears now."  Quipped Buck,
referring to the newspaper boy cap that the young agent had a fondness for
wearing backwards.

"Hey, I've had that hat for ten years."

"Got it when you were born then, did ya?"

"Least they had hats when I was born.  When you were a kid, people were
still crawling out of their caves sticking big leaves on their heads to keep
the sun off."

Josiah pushed the two men toward the door, "Say good-bye, boys."

The friends answered in unison as they left, "Good-bye, boys."

Nathan followed Sanchez out and Ezra trailed behind him.  But Chris caught
the southerner before he got out the door, "Hey."

Standish turned and Chris noticed for the first time the dark circles under
the Ezra's eyes.  He wondered briefly what kind of dreams his best
undercover agent had had last night.  "Thanks."

The reason for the gratitude escaped the southerner and he cocked his head
slightly.

"Damn good shooting.  Another second later and you probably would have been
wearing one of those expensive suits of yours to my wake."

Ezra let a small smile show, "Purely selfish reasons, I assure you, Mr.
Larabee.  Black makes me look terribly pale."  He nodded once to Vin and
slipped out the door.

Chris eyed the one agent left in the room "You better get outta here, too.
I have a feeling that nurse is not someone you want to cross."

A slow grin spread across Tanner's face, he turned to go but paused at the
door.  "Happy Birthday, cowboy.  Glad ya decided to stick around for it."

Larabee returned the smile, "Wouldn't have missed it.  Besides, I still owe
you a fishing trip to the Gulf."

Vin nodded in agreement as he left, "That you do."

fin