TITLE: Fade to Black


DISCLAIMER: Nope, not mine, no matter how much I beg, grovel or whine. They belong to folks like Trilogy,
Mirisch, MGM, CBS, who couldn't possibly love and appreciate them the way I do.

WARNINGS: Well, hm, not really. Language gets a mite dicey in places, there's some blood... but it's all tastefully
done, I assure you!

FEEDBACK: Oh, yes, please! I'm a sucker for a kind word. Send said kind words to Sue_Necessary@excite.com.
Send unkind words to the bill collector of your choice.

Fade to Black

Vin Tanner sat Indian-style on the floor, head and back pressed against the wall, his long, tapered fingers closed
lightly about the bag they held. His blue eyes were open, unblinking, unfocused, staring fixedly at nothing, and his
face was utterly devoid of expression. He never spoke, and his only movement was the subtle rise and fall of his
chest as he breathed. Outwardly, he appeared as calm, as cool as ever. Outwardly, he was the very picture of relaxed
serenity. Inwardly...

Shit. Inwardly, he was a mess.

The eyes that seemed to see nothing watched helplessly as the event played itself again and again in his mind like a
movie he could not stop, while his whole soul screamed in silent agony for the bloody show to end. His lungs
refused to expand fully, refused to accept more than shallow breaths, and his heart had long ago left its proper place
in his chest, alternating now between leaping into his throat or plunging into his stomach. And his stomach,
resenting the intrusion of the foreign organ, churned violently, threatening to send its contents, heart and all,
spewing into plain view.

No, he wasn't handling this well at all. But he was the only one who knew that.

Damn shame they didn't give Oscars to ATF agents.

And now the goddamn movie was starting again in his head...

Buck Wilmington paced about the waiting area with long, frantic strides, his powerful frame taut, his handsome face
a mask of fear. As he paced, he clasped his hands behind his back, shoved them in his pockets, or ran them through
his thick dark hair. He was all restless, edgy motion, unable to stand still, or keep any part of himself still. His
breath escaped him in harsh, heavy gusts, and every time his anxious gaze fell on Tanner he frowned and shook his
head sharply in utter bewilderment.

Goddamn it, how could he just sit there, silent and still as stone? That was Chris Larabee on the table in that
examination room. Hell, that was Chris Larabee's blood splashed all over Tanner's clothes! How the hell could he sit
there like that when it was his best friend the doctors were working so hard to save?

Did he have goddamned ice water in his veins? And what the hell was he staring at?

Nathan Jackson shifted uneasily in his chair, his worried gaze fixed upon Tanner. Beneath the blood that covered him
-- hell, he had it in his hair! -- he was so pale, seemed to be getting paler, and Nathan suspected some of that blood
might actually be his. But Vin had ignored every expression of concern, had refused every offer to look him over,
had even violently shoved away the EMT who had rather foolishly attempted to pry him loose from the badly
wounded man he cradled so fiercely to him. Nathan alone had heard the savage growl Vin had given when the
unfortunate medic had dared lay hands on him, and it was that growl that had driven Jackson to grab Vin's hand just
as he had reached for his gun.

But the medics had sure left Vin alone after that!

Now Nathan looked at Vin again, shifted in his chair again, and came to a decision. There was definitely a dark patch
on Vin's upper right arm that was larger than it had been a few minutes ago, that wasn't drying. But the way Vin had
his sleeves pushed up, it was impossible to tell if the fabric were ripped.

Nathan sighed. Nope, there was only one way to do this.

Josiah Sanchez reached out and grabbed Nathan's arm just as the black man started to rise. "Don't, brother," he
advised quietly. "Vin's wrapped a little tight right now."

"He's bleedin', Josiah," Nathan answered. "Got some kinda wound in his arm, and it needs tendin'. Besides," he
glanced again at Tanner, "he looks pretty calm to me. Surprisin', considerin' it's Chris in there with some doctor's
hand in his chest."

Josiah did not release his hold. "He may look calm, but it's the calm before the storm. And one little push--"

"He's hurt, Josiah," Nathan insisted. "Hell, he probably doesn't even know it himself, but he is. And I'm not about
to sit here and watch him bleed to death just because he don't wanta be touched. You can help me if you want, or
you can sit here and watch. But I'm goin' over there to help him."

Josiah smiled slightly and shook his graying head. "Always said you got a big heart, Nate," he chuckled quietly.
"Just sometimes it's bigger than your brain. All right, I'll help." He arched two grizzled brows at Jackson. "You
*did* get his guns, didn't you?"

Jackson snorted softly. "Yeah, I got 'em. That's th' only way they'd let him in that ambulance. But now he's got
Chris'. That's what's in the bag he's holdin'."

"Wonderful," Josiah groaned, rising to his feet as Nathan did the same. "Shot by my teammate with my boss' gun.
Helluva way ta go!"

"What're they gonna do ta Vin?" JD Dunne asked curiously, watching the two big men slowly approach the sitting

In the chair beside the young agent, Ezra Standish looked up from the cards he was effortlessly manipulating and
studied the scene for a moment. "Most likely check for a pulse to ascertain whether Mr. Tanner is still with us," he
drawled, returning his attention to the cards. "I don't believe he's moved since first he slid down that wall. Quite
unlike Mr. Wilmington, who I believe is currently pacing a groove into the floor."

"Buck's just worried," JD defended his roommate and friend. "I mean, that's Chris in there--"

"We are all aware of the identity of the patient," Ezra pointed out. "And we are all concerned." He almost laughed
aloud at the word. Concerned? he chided himself. Be honest, Ezra -- you're all scared shitless.

JD frowned, black brows knitting over puzzled hazel eyes as he stared at their sharpshooter. "Vin's actin' kinda
strange, isn't he, Ez?"

"'Strange' is rather a relative term where Mr. Tanner is concerned," Standish said, passing the cards through his
fingers without thinking consciously about it. "Could you be more specific?"

"Well..." JD frowned more deeply still. "I mean, he's just sittin' there. Didn't fight or nothin' when they told him he
couldn't go in, didn't say nothin' when they gave him Chris' badge and guns... Hell, he ain't said a word since we got

Ezra arched one elegant eyebrow. "And exactly how is that 'strange' for Mr. Tanner? The man could give lessons in
silence to a mute."

JD sighed and shook his head, frustrated. "I don't know, I can't explain it. It's just that... I don't know. This quiet is
different from his usual quiet. I mean, geez, Ezra, *look* at him! Does he look all right to you?"

Standish studied the sharpshooter, and had to admit that JD had a point. Overtly, Tanner looked fine -- well, except
for the blood that seemed to cover every inch of him -- but there was *something* in his eyes that Ezra wasn't
accustomed to seeing. It wasn't as much an emotion as it was the lack of one.

Vacancy, that was it. The blue eyes, usually so alert, so alive, so expressive, were utterly vacant, devoid even of the
hurt and fear Standish knew without doubt gnawed at his soul.

"Good Lord," Ezra drawled softly, the cards going still in his hands. "Elvis has left the building!"

Vin saw Nathan and Josiah approaching him, knew when they knelt on either side of him, but never acknowledged
their presence, not even by so much as the flicker of an eyelash. He simply continued to stare fixedly ahead, deciding
that if he ignored them they would go away. If he pretended they didn't exist, they wouldn't.

Maybe if he pretended *he* didn't exist, he wouldn't. If he refused to see them, maybe they wouldn't see him. Maybe
that was all it took to be invisible.

"Vin?" Nathan called softly.

Obviously, it took more than that.

"Vin, can you hear me?" Nathan asked, wishing Tanner would at least blink. "Vin, you gotta let me see your arm. I
think you're hurt. Can you tell me if you got hit?"

Vin didn't answer. *Couldn't* answer. Goddamn movie was starting again. He hated folks who talked during movies.
He hated this movie, too.

Nathan sighed heavily, then reached out and carefully pulled at Vin's black sleeve, feeling the wetness of blood
against his fingers as he straightened it. At one point, he felt the fabric pull loose from what had to be the wound
and stopped immediately, wincing in sympathy. But Vin never flinched, never made a sound. Deciding to make the
most of such unresponsiveness, Nathan found the hole he had been seeking, grasped its edges in his strong fingers
and ripped, exposing the wound someone's bullet had torn into Vin's upper arm.

"Damn, that's gotta hurt!" JD muttered, absently massaging his own arm.

"One would assume so," Ezra answered, watching Vin intently. "Yet I believe the pain of that wound pales in
comparison to the other."

"What other?" JD asked sharply. "Jesus, Vin's got another wound?"

Ezra lifted dark green eyes to the younger man. "Of course he does," he answered quietly. "It just happens to be
located in Mr. Larabee's chest."

He lay still and quiet on the bed, never moving, staring up at the ceiling. He hadn't raised a fuss when Nathan had
called for the nurse, hadn't resisted when they'd gotten him to his feet and brought him in here, hadn't fought when
Josiah had just picked him up and laid him on this bed. And now he let them do whatever they wanted to him, let
them cut away his sleeve, let them clean and examine the wound, let them stick their endless supply of needles and
IVs into him, let them do whatever the hell they wanted. Not once did he fight them.

Because he knew if he started fighting, he wouldn't stop. Until he killed somebody. And he was pretty sure Chris
wouldn't like that.


Sweet Jesus, time for another showing of the movie.

It opened as it always did: from his vantage up in the rafters, offering a panoramic view of the warehouse below.
Again and again the camera -- his eyes -- swept over the interior, showing the stacked crates that held the assault
rifles, flicking over the men gathered below to sell or buy. Then the camera zoomed in -- he looked through the
scope of his rifle -- and four men were brought into close focus: John Santos, the arms dealer they were here to take
down; Hughie Walton, Santos' bodyguard; Ezra Standish, playing the role of Ethan Starling, the deal's broker; and,
in the starring role, Chris Larabee as Jack Larson, hard-eyed head of a militant survivalist group that wanted more
guns with which to launch its war to take America, by God, back from the hands of the corporations and the

Yep, it was a damn shame they didn't give Oscars to ATF agents. Larabee would have walked with a handful.

Except that he hadn't walked away at all...

Vin peered through his scope and slowly swept his rifle over the interior, sighting briefly on every man he could
see, judging distance and calculating angles, determining what it would take to drop each one should the need arise.
When that was done, he returned his attention to the knot of four men in the center of the warehouse floor, and
settled himself to wait. As ever, he allowed himself to feel nothing, to think nothing. He was aware of nothing save
the men in his sights. They were his primary responsibility, his primary target. They were all that existed for him

He felt that peculiar stillness coming upon him that he always knew at these times, the cool calm that seeped
through every muscle, nerve and vein, the silence that filled his head. Yet, relaxed as he was, his senses were
heightened. He could hear with incredible clarity and precision, could see in sharp, minute detail, could almost smell
the packing oil on the guns in the crates. JD called it "the Vin zone"; Josiah had made some quip about "Zen and the
art of sharpshooting"; Buck called it "that spooky Vin-sense"; Ezra said nothing, but frequently found some means
of making money off it.

Vin just called it "the job," when he called it anything at all. Some things he just didn't feel right putting a name to.

So, doing "the job," he watched through his scope as the deal went down. As everything went to hell.

He knew the moment Santos got nervous. Something in the man's face, some twitch of a muscle that hadn't been
there before, gave it away, and Vin knew with that instinctive certainty that had never failed him that the buy -- the
bust -- had just gone south. Then he heard Chris snarling at Santos -- Jesus, the man took "surly" to a whole new
level! -- heard Ezra trying to salvage the deal, and saw "Baby Hughie," as they'd come to call Walton, sidling off to
get behind Chris. Standish, God love him, was still trying to patch things up, to smooth things over, to get them
out of there with their hides intact. But the two alpha-wolves, Larabee and Santos, were already too far into their
goddamn pissing match for anyone, even the honey-tongued Southerner, to salvage the situation.

Vin shook his head, swore at Chris, then got down to the business of picking his shots. Zen and the art of saving
your ornery boss' sorry ass.

And, as it always did at these moments, time slowed to a crawl, and the movie shifted into frame-by-frame advance.
Vin saw Baby Hughie's hand slip into his coat, saw the hand come out and the gun come around, the barrel aimed at
Chris, heard the sharp report of Ezra's sleeve-gun and saw the huge bodyguard stumble backward, a hole between his
eyes. All hell broke loose, but Vin ignored it, his whole attention now riveted to Santos, to Ezra, to Chris. Gunfire
erupted throughout the warehouse, accompanied by shouts, but he heard none of it. His whole world had narrowed to
the three men still at the center of the chaos.

Second by second, frame by frame, it all played out before him, in horribly detailed super slow motion, the movie
he could not stop. Chris was crouching, his gun out, and shouting orders at Ezra. Standish was trying to get to
Santos, who was snarling curses and shooting as his empire fell apart. Vin saw Santos shift his stance a hair, saw
the light flash off his gun, saw the barrel coming around. To Chris. Between one heartbeat and the next, never really
knowing when he did it, Vin sighted and settled his crosshairs on Santos, exhaling as he began squeezing the trigger.

Bastard wouldn't get Chris. If anybody shot Larabee for being a hard-assed, mind-bending son of a bitch, it was
going to be Vin Tanner. First, though, he'd have to get Santos.

Except that he couldn't. A split second before he fired, Ezra popped into his sights, ruining the shot. Vin could still
get Santos if he really wanted to -- and, God, how he wanted to! -- but he'd have to shoot through Ez to do it. He
swore savagely, shifted the angle...

And heard himself screaming as Santos' bullet slammed into Chris. The blond agent was knocked backward by the
impact and dropped to the floor, his gun slipping from useless fingers. Still screaming, his precious calm shattered,
Vin sighted and pumped two shots into Santos, missing Ezra by a hair's breadth but blowing the arms dealer's head
apart like a melon dropped onto the pavement.

And then Vin was down on the floor, sliding down his lifeline like Spiderman on a web, tossing aside his rifle and
grabbing his hand-helds, shooting anybody who crossed his path and still screaming for Chris. Bullets sang around
him like angry wasps, but he didn't care, wouldn't be stopped by anything less than a goddamn Stinger missile. He
emptied a clip, tossed the useless gun aside and reached for another. A shadow slid across him and he shot its owner,
refusing to be kept from Chris.

By the time he reached him, he'd emptied and tossed his third gun, had only the one at his ankle left. He dropped to
his knees at Larabee's side, reached out and roughly pulled the inert, bleeding figure into the shelter of his body, and
sent a hand snaking for that last gun. Chris' eyes were open and fixed upon him, the green depths glittering with a
pain that Vin could feel. Blood poured from his bullet-ravaged chest and flew in droplets from his mouth as he
gasped and coughed. Vin shoved a hand over the hole, trying to stop the hideous red flow, but the stuff only welled
between his fingers. He dropped his gun and reached into his pocket for the handkerchiefs he kept there for just such
a purpose, then shoved them into the wound. All the while he screamed at Chris and clutched the older man
frantically to him, begging him to live, cursing him for getting shot, promising anything -- ANYTHING! -- if he
just wouldn't fucking die.

He never heard the shooting stop, never heard Buck call the scene, never saw the five men who rushed to join him at
Chris' side. Nathan knelt across Chris' body from him, and the medic-agent grabbed Vin's hand and maneuvered it as
he needed it to aid his own in trying to stop, or at least slow, that horrible tide of bleeding. To Vin's horror, Chris'
body arched and his eyes rolled back in his head, and the taut body went limp in his arms. His own screams filled his
ears, a sound more animal than human. He felt hands grabbing him, felt hands trying to take Chris from him, felt
himself fighting wildly as they pried Chris out of his arms...

And the movie faded to black. But it would take only moments to rewind, he knew, and then would play itself again.
And again. And there was nothing he could do to stop it. So he waited, resigned to watching in helpless horror as
Ezra's head came between him and Santos...

And feeling again that dark and terrible urge to take the shot regardless, to sacrifice one friend to save another. To
sacrifice a friend to save his brother.

JD watched through wide, sorrowful eyes as Buck finally stopped pacing and dropped, exhausted, into the nearest
chair. The big man slumped forward and set his elbows on his knees, then dropped his head into his hands. The
young agent heard the low, anguished groan that escaped Wilmington, and rose to his feet at once, crossing the
small waiting area in quick strides and going to his friend's side.

"Hey, Buck?" he called softly, settling into the chair next to Wilmington's and leaning over, resting a hand on the
man's broad back. "How ya doin'? Can I getcha anything?"

"Can you get Chris through the surgery?" Buck whispered brokenly.

JD winced and bowed his head, his face going white. The bullet had torn through Chris' chest with a brutal force,
breaking a rib and driving it into his lung, then ricocheting off to nick his heart and one of the main arteries leading
to it. A team of doctors was working on him now, trying to put that heart back together, trying to keep a stupid
little piece of lead from doing what the deaths of his wife and son had not.

"He's strong, Buck, you know that," JD offered softly, knowing even as he said them how stupid, and inadequate,
the words were. "I mean, he's made it this far, when he should've bled to death on that warehouse floor... Jesus,
Buck," he murmured, "I've never seen so much blood in my life!"

It was a sight he knew he'd never forget, if he lived to be a thousand. Chris Larabee laying in Vin's arms, the both
of them bathed in Chris' blood, Nathan trying to get his hands inside Chris' chest to reach the artery, while Vin...

Jesus, Vin had screamed. The man who bore his own wounds with a stoic, stubborn silence had screamed like a
wounded animal, again and again, while his boss, his best friend, his brother, had nearly bled to death in his arms.
JD knew he'd hear that hideous sound again in his dreams for nights to come.

"I shoulda made him wear a vest," Buck muttered miserably. "We knew... we knew Santos was a vicious, unstable
bastard... Why didn't I make him wear a vest?"

JD swallowed hard, finding himself in the unfamiliar position of having to offer comfort and consolation to Buck,
who was usually an unfailing source of both for him. He swallowed again and licked his lips, wondering where the
older agents found the words they always seemed to have for him.

"Maybe because he's Chris Larabee," the young man began hesitantly, "and nobody can make Chris do what he
doesn't wanta do. Besides," he leaned closer still to Buck, circling an arm about the bowed shoulders, "Santos woulda
spotted a vest, you know that. It's why Ez won't wear 'em." His hazel eyes swept over the bowed form of his best
friend. His big brother. "It ain't your fault, Buck," he said softly, firmly. "It just... all went wrong. There's nothin'
you coulda done to stop it, nothin' anybody coulda done."

"If Vin had shot a second sooner..." Before he could stop them, the treacherous words were out of Buck's mouth, and
he couldn't call them back. Wasn't even sure he wanted to. "Why didn't he shoot sooner? As high up as he was, he
was bound to have seen what was goin' on... Jesus, why didn't Vin shoot sooner?"

JD couldn't answer, was stunned into horrified silence as blood-splattered combat boots with blood-stained black
fatigue pants tucked into them entered his line of vision and stopped. Feeling his heart drop into his stomach and his
stomach turn over, he swallowed against a sudden surge of nausea and slowly, slowly let his gaze travel up the
blood-stained pants, over the black ATF windbreaker, and up to the white face framed by long, blood-stiffened brown

Oh, shit. Vin.

Someone had cleaned the blood from his face, but apparently had wiped all signs of life from it as well. The blue
eyes were wide and dull, empty. The blood had also been washed from his throat and arms, and his own ruined shirt
had been replaced by the windbreaker. Josiah's, from the way it hung tent-like over his slender frame. The sleeves
had been pushed up over his elbows, and the white edge of a bandage peeked from beneath the right one.

JD shuddered at the sight of him. Vin stood absolutely still, his empty, unblinking blue gaze fixed on Buck, his face
a deathly shade of white that was edging into gray. There was no tension in his lean frame, and his arms hung
loosely at his side. Still, JD had not the slightest doubt that the sharpshooter had heard Buck's words.

<<Jesus, why didn't Vin shoot sooner?>>

Josiah and Ezra had heard, too, had seen Vin ghosting slowly toward them just as Buck had spoken, and had known
by the way his head had tilted ever so slightly to one side that the traitorous words had reached him. Both men
tensed, expecting some reaction, remembering Vin's near-insane wildness at the warehouse, and knowing with a
terrible certainty that, smaller than Buck though he was, Tanner could take Wilmington apart with his bare hands
and never break a sweat. Both had seen Vin fight too often *not* to know what he could do.

But there was no reaction. No angry outburst, no tensing of muscles before striking, not even the merest flicker of
expression across that blank face. Nothing. Nothing at all.

And that, the two men decided, was the most frightening reaction of all.

Buck, too, knew Vin had heard, and slowly lifted his deeply pained gaze to that ashen, vacant face. His eyes locked
with Vin's, and Tanner blinked, for the first time that anyone could remember seeing. Buck waited for Vin's answer,
for an explanation, a defense, an excuse, whatever. He prepared himself for a rebuff, a rebuke, a warning, a threat, for
whatever venom that raspy voice might spew.

But he waited and prepared in vain. Vin stared at him a moment more, expressionless as ever, then turned and made
his way slowly to the nearest bare patch of wall and slid down it to sit Indian-style upon the floor, as silent as still
as stone. To await the next showing of the movie.

"You shouldn'ta said that, Buck!" JD hissed, furious at the big man's thoughtlessness. "That was *Vin* you were
talkin' about! There ain't nobody better at what he does than him, you know that! You think he doesn't feel bad
enough that Chris was shot? You wanta heap a loada guilt on him, too? Shit, why don't you just go over and kick
him while you're at it. He's already down. That oughtta make it easier for you ta do!" He reached into his holster and
drew his gun. "Here, take this," he spat, thrusting it at the bigger man. "Maybe you can get him to shoot himself,
too. Would that make you feel better? I sure know it'll do a lot to help Chris!"

Buck stared at the gun the young agent held out to him, then raised his anguished eyes to JD's face. He had known
the words were wrong the moment he spoke them, knew they had come from a pain so deep and intense he could
hardly bear it, knew he was merely seeking a target on which to vent that pain. And Vin, God help him, had been
the first target he seized upon. But the words were out, and there was no calling them back.

"JD, son--"

"Don't 'son' me!" JD said harshly, his hazel eyes snapping. "And don't apologize to me. There's only one man here
who's got that comin'. Jesus, Buck, you're lucky he didn't take your goddamned head off!"

"Yeah," Buck said with a harsh laugh, "he's takin' all this real well, ain't he? I remember the last time we were all
here, waitin' for the doctors to sew Vin back together. Chris was all over the place, pacin' like a damn cat, grabbing
every doctor, nurse or orderly that went by and demandin' information. Had to be forcibly escorted out of the
examination room, had to be physically restrained from followin' Vin into surgery... You know, all the usual signs
of concern. Now, though, it's Chris on the table, with some surgeon's hands all over his heart, and here sits Vin,
quiet as you please, so calm you'd swear he's asleep... He ain't asked once, not once, about Chris, has he?"

JD was appalled at the flow of words, at the anger and resentment behind them. He knew Buck was frightened -- hell,
terrified -- for Chris, knew how close the two men were, or had been...

Oh, shit. How close they'd been until Vin showed up and slipped into the role of best friend. But Chris *needed*
Vin, needed his peace, his stability, that deep, abiding calm that seemed to belong to Vin alone. Buck himself had
said countless times how glad he was that Vin had come along, that the Texan in his quiet way had done more to
heal Larabee's ravaged soul than Buck had ever managed. And as Chris had found a measure of peace in Vin's
company, he and Buck had discovered a new aspect to their friendship, one made stronger by shared tragedy, and made
easier by the fact that Buck was now merely Chris' friend and no longer his keeper.

But now Buck was lashing out at Vin...

"Don't do this, please!" JD begged softly, clutching at Buck's arm. "He hears you, you know he does! And the
things you're sayin' can't be unsaid. He's hurtin', Buck, you know he is--"

"Do I?" Buck asked quietly. "How? I don't see any signs of it--"

"You heard him at the warehouse! Jesus, Buck, he was screamin'--"

"Yeah, well, I guess I expected a little more," Buck said tiredly, sinking back in his chair.

He had no idea why he was saying these things, knew he didn't believe them, could hear how cruel they sounded.
And he knew how close Vin and Chris were, had joked that if one caught cold, the other sneezed. He had seen Chris
nearly go insane with worry when Vin was hurt, had once watched Vin practically take apart a waiting room and two
orderlies when Chris was injured and no one would tell him how the man was doing. And that had been a relatively
minor wound. But now that Chris might actually be dying...

"Just seems to me a man could muster a little more concern for the 'brother' he might never see alive again," he said,
leaning his head back against the chair and letting his eyes close.

JD withdrew his hand from Buck's arm and let it fall into his own lap, his eyes wide and confused in his pale face.
He stared in shock at the man and shook his head slowly, unable to understand how Buck could say these things.
Buck, whose heart took in the whole world, whose compassion knew no bounds, whose tenderness had gotten JD
through so many terrible storms, who despised cruelty in others...

...was now being cruel himself. To a friend. No, to a brother...

Ezra, too, stared at Buck, though not in shock or confusion. Instead, he stared with anger, with outrage, in his green
eyes, on his face, in his heart, and clenched his manicured hands tightly in a fight against the urge to smash his fists
into the big man's face. He *knew* Vin could hear Wilmington's words, could see it in every line of that silent
body, of that white face, and wondered why no one else could. Vin's pain -- no, Vin's *agony* -- was so clear to
him, so obvious, that it nearly screamed aloud. And it was inconceivable to him that no one else should recognize

Maybe it was because no one else knew what it was to scream alone, to hurt and to fear and to rage and to cry
without having another living soul who heard or cared. Maybe it was because they had all gotten so used to having
their every tear wiped away, their every hurt soothed, their every terror eased, that they didn't understand why
someone who had *never* had that would learn to turn the screams and the tears and the terrors inside, because there
simply was no point in showing such things when no solace would ever be given. Why scream when no one hears?
Why cry when no hands wipe away the tears? Why show pain when there's no one to give comfort?

Why show the world you're bleeding inside, when no one gives a damn?

Ezra turned his gaze to Vin and felt the man's pain as if it were his own. Tanner *was* bleeding inside, was
screaming now just like he had been at the warehouse. Unfortunately the only man who'd ever heard his screams was
unconscious on an operating table.

And if that man died, so would Vin Tanner.

Nathan Jackson was pissed, and he stalked down the hospital corridor like an angry panther on the prowl. Goddamn
Vin Tanner's stubborn hide! The man was every medic, doctor and nurse's worst nightmare. Shit, he could be the
subject of an entire course at medical school -- "How to treat the patient from hell when what you really want to do
is shoot him." And Nathan should be the one to teach it.

He'd just walked out. Just gotten up off the damn table when no one was looking and slipped out of the room.
Didn't matter they were giving him blood; he'd just ripped the IV out. Done the same with the lines pushing fluids
and the antibiotic. Didn't have enough blood on him, no. He had to add a little more.

The doctor and nurses had been surprised by their patient's disappearing act. The man had a hole in his arm. The
bullet had torn through flesh and muscle, had damaged nerves and grazed the bone before tearing out the other side.
He needed surgery to repair the damage. He'd lost a good deal of blood. He shouldn't be able to sit up, much less rip
out needles, get off the table and leave the room without anybody hearing or seeing. At the very least, they should
have found him collapsed in an unconscious heap in the hallway!

Nathan wasn't surprised, though. He was pissed -- hell, he was furious -- but he wasn't surprised. Nothing surprised
him where Vin was concerned. If he didn't want to be in bed, it took ropes to keep him there. Nathan had seen him
fight to get up with a bullet in his chest. Goddamn bullet hole in the arm meant no more to Tanner than a simple
shaving cut. He had reserves none of them knew about or understood. It didn't pay to turn your back on Vin if he
was conscious and *not* where he wanted to be.

And Nathan knew where he wanted to be. The doctor had wanted to call security to find him, but Nathan told him
not to bother. He knew *exactly* where Vin had gone. The waiting area for surgery. The only reason he *wouldn't*
be there was because he'd managed to find a way into the operating room itself. And Nathan had already called there
to check.

Nope. Vin was in the waiting room. Nathan was going there, would find him there. And try not to beat the shit out
of him when he did.

Goddamn long-haired, mule-headed, sorry-assed, no-account, trouble-making, headache-causing, good-for-nothing--

Nathan's mental tirade died unfinished as he entered the waiting area, as his dark eyes took in the scene before him.
Buck was sprawled in a chair, his head back, his eyes closed, his hands balled into fists, while JD leaned over him
and delivered a soft-voiced tirade, occasionally jabbing a finger into the big man's chest. Ezra was standing at the
window, his whole body taut, his arms crossed tightly against his chest, his jade eyes staring holes into
Wilmington's hide, his face a pale mask of rage. Josiah was sitting on the floor, in front of and facing Vin, leaning
close and speaking softly in that deep, resonant voice of his, as if trying to engage the younger man in conversation.
But Vin...

Nathan's gaze rested on Tanner, and his anger at the man evaporated, replaced by a crushing sorrow, and a wrenching
anxiety. Vin's body was here, but the rest of him was gone. Was in an operating room somewhere...

"Shit," he breathed tiredly, running a hand over his face. "Can't turn my back on 'em for a minute. Least they ain't
shot each other yet."

He looked around for a moment more, trying to decide where to start. Choosing Ezra, he drew a deep breath, uttered a
silent prayer for strength, and walked over to the undercover gent. "Care to tell me what's goin' on?" he asked gently.

Standish tore his burning gaze from Buck and fixed it on Nathan. "Apparently, Mr. Wilmington finds Mr. Tanner's
reaction to Mr. Larabee's wounding unsatisfactory," he said in a hard, clipped voice, his drawl taking on an
uncharacteristic edge. "He has decided that Mr. Tanner is not exhibiting the proper depth of concern simply because
he is not indulging in a screaming fit of hysterics. And he has also laid the blame for Mr. Larabee's wounding on
Mr. Tanner's shoulders by second-guessing his actions. No doubt," he added bitingly, again shifting his merciless
stare to Buck, "because he feels that almost having Mr. Larabee die in his arms was not quite burden enough for

Buck flinched at the words and turned his head, knowing he deserved every verbal lash. Knew he deserved the harsh
scolding he'd gotten -- hell, was still getting -- from JD. But nothing the Southerner or the kid said could possibly
begin to match the silent beating he was giving himself.

He'd hurt Vin; he'd *meant* to hurt Vin. In his pain and fear, he'd lashed out when he knew -- he KNEW -- Tanner
wouldn't, couldn't, fight back. He knew because he'd seen it in Vin's eyes. Those empty, aching, hollow blue eyes
that revealed a soul bent almost to breaking. Vin's pain, he knew, was at least as great as his own, but, for whatever
reason, the Texan couldn't show it. He wasn't falling apart like Buck was. And Buck had wanted to punish him for

Knowing all the while that Vin was already being punished far more than he deserved. If Chris died, Buck would lose
a friend, a brother. But Vin would lose the other half of his soul.

<<Jesus, Wilmington, you're a bastard!>> he told himself contemptuously.

Nathan could see the regret in Buck's eyes, and knew the big man was bitterly sorry for what he'd said. Nonetheless,
out of concern for Vin, he was prepared to rub a little salt into the wound. "Vin isn't gonna get hysterical," he said
quietly, calmly, his voice carrying to all the agents. "Vin ain't got the strength for hysterics. Hell, it's a wonder he's
up here at all. That wound in his arm? It ain't no scratch. Bullet went through, tore the muscle, damaged some
nerves, grazed the bone. He's supposed to be gettin' ready for surgery right now. But he left."

"Left?" JD asked sharply. "What d'you mean he left?"

Nathan sighed with forced patience. "I mean," he said slowly, firmly, "he left. Got up off the table, pulled out his
IVs and left the room before anyone saw him. He's lost a lotta blood, and that arm is damn near useless. Doctors
need to operate to fix it." He stared hard at Buck. "But he left. Because he needed to be up here, near Chris, more
than he needed to be looked after himself. You wanta see him punished for what happened to Chris? Then how 'bout
this -- if he don't let *somebody* tend to that arm soon, the damage will get worse, might get so bad they won't be
able to fix it entirely. It's his shootin' arm, Buck. The one you're thinkin' he didn't use right today. Well, I got news
for you. If he don't let 'em fix it soon, he may not ever be able to use it right again. That punishment enough for

"Does he know this?" Ezra asked softly, his anger giving way to concern.

Nathan exhaled sharply. "Hell, who knows what Vin knows right now? The doctor explained it to him very
carefully; I was there. But Vin never said nothin'. Just lay there, starin' up at the ceilin'. I don't know what he's
hearin' right now, or if he can hear us at all." He looked around at the faces before him. "And I'm assumin' that since
we've started cannibalizin' each other there's still no word on Chris?"

"None," Josiah said, coming over to join them. "It's been four hours since they got him into surgery. I know it's
gonna be a long wait, but I was hopin' they'd at least call us now and then with updates."

Nathan nodded tersely. "I'll see what I can find out." He nailed each one of them with a direct, pointed stare. "You all
behave, y'hear me? Chris needs all of us, he needs us to be strong. He *don't* need us tearin' inta one another like
dogs over a bone."

"What about Mr. Tanner?" Ezra asked quietly. "If he requires medical attention, shouldn't we be trying to see that he
gets it?"

"Surgery requires his consent, Ez," Nathan said softly. "And so far he ain't givin' it." He smiled weakly. "Maybe
you can put that silver tongue o' yours ta use an' sweet-talk him inta signin'."

Standish smiled slightly and straightened his tie and jacket, then gave Nathan his familiar two-fingered salute. "Mr.
Jackson, I am on the case."

"Just remember, Ezra," Nathan growled, though his dark eyes gleamed, "talk him inta signin' for the surgery, not
signin' over his life savin's to you."

"Please," the Southerner snorted in mock offense, "Mr. Tanner's life savings wouldn't cover my cleaning bill for one
month. Such small pickings would hardly be worth my time."

"Then Yahweh is indeed a just and merciful God," Josiah deadpanned, laying a big hand over his heart.

Ezra was talking to him. Hell, they were all talking to him. Ez, Josiah, JD, Buck... But the one voice he needed to
hear wasn't there, might not ever be there again. Still, he tried to hear it, shut out all the other voices around him
and strained to hear even a whisper of that one. Only silence met his efforts, and his soul screamed again in terror.

<<Lord God, Chris, don't leave me now!>>

His arm hurt. He was vaguely aware of the pain, but didn't care. Not when the pain in his soul was so much worse.
He couldn't breathe, either. The others were too close, pressing in on him from every side, surrounding him, cutting
off his air, their voices hammering against his mind.

<<Why cain't they leave me be?>>

He wanted to tell them to go away, but was afraid to try. Because the screams were rising again, and he knew if he
so much as opened his mouth they'd tear from him, and he'd never be able to stop them. So he remained silent,
remained still, and stared through them as if they weren't there.

And watched as the movie played again.

Nathan returned twenty minutes later, his face grim. As his comrades gathered around him, he relayed his news, all
the while keeping an eye on Vin.

"Surgery's gonna take even longer than expected," he said quietly, easily able to feel the fear radiating off every man.
"Arterial damage was worse than they thought, gonna require a bigger graft. His heart... stopped once," he winced at
the tortured sounds that escaped his friends, "but they got it goin' again." He shook his head, looking slowly around
at all the faces. "They just don't know. Even if he makes it through the surgery, it's gonna be touchy for a while.
Bullet tore him up good, and he's lost an awful lot of blood. They're goin' through units left and right up there. Any
o' y'all feel like givin' blood, this is the time to do it."

"How long?" Josiah whispered, the only one who could find his voice.

Nathan shrugged. "Don't know. Could be another six or eight hours before they're through. *If* he makes it
through." He nodded slightly. "I did make 'em promise to get us regular updates, though. Nurse said she'd try to have
somebody call every hour or so."

Buck swallowed, and managed to find his voice, though it was little more than a croak. "I reckon we can go down
one at a time to give blood. Probably should eat, too. Looks like we're here for the long haul." He glanced at
Nathan. "Maybe you should call Travis, explain things to him. I know he'll wanta know."

"I will," Jackson said. "But first I wanta check on Vin, see how he's holdin' up." He turned around, and froze.

Tanner was gone.

He stumbled down the corridor, forcing his feet to keep moving over a floor that refused to lie steady and flat, and
colliding with walls that insisted on jumping out to stop him. His eyes refused to focus, and the world danced and
reeled drunkenly all about him, shifting from a painfully bright jumble of swirling colors and fractured images to a
much more bearable grainy screen of gray and white. His arm was throbbing mercilessly now, the knife-like pain
shooting from his shoulder to his fingertips in time to the rapid beating of his heart.

Merciful God, he couldn't breathe!

<<His heart stopped...>>

Nathan's words pounded through his brain in a driving, heavy rhythm, beating cruelly against his skull and
threatening to tear his head from his shoulders.

<<His heart stopped... His heart stopped... His heart stopped...>>

Oh, Jesus, Chris!

He collided again with the wall, and howled as the impact sent fresh torrents of white-hot agony coursing through
his arm. Unable to right himself, he sagged against the smooth surface, and felt it give way beneath him.

Not a wall. A door.

He fell through it and collapsed, crying out again as the fall jarred his arm. Never knowing where he was, knowing
only that he hurt unbearably, he forced himself to his knees and tried to crawl forward, driven like an animal to seek
refuge where he could hide and hurt in safety.

<<His heart stopped... His heart stopped... His heart stopped...>>


The cry tore from him as he fell again onto his arm, sending hideous jolts of pain through him. Racked by that pain
and tortured by Nathan's words, he turned onto his side and curled into himself, sobbing brokenly.

"How the hell does he DO this?" Nathan cried in frustration as they searched the hallways for Vin. "Hell, he oughtta
be unconscious by now, not runnin' through a goddamned hospital!"

"The boy's spent most of his life runnin' and in pain," Josiah said sadly. "I guess by now it's just instinct. Like a
wounded animal seekin' cover--"

"He ain't no animal, Josiah!" Nathan snapped. "He's a man. A man who needs help-- Jesus!" he exhaled sharply,
seeing a smear of blood on the wall.

Josiah saw it too, and turned. "Buck, JD, Ezra!" he shouted, ignoring the outraged glares of hospital staff. "This

The three others raced to join them. When all were together they resumed the search, gripped by a mounting fear. If
Vin was hitting walls with his wounded arm, God knew what damage he was doing.

Buck's fear was compounded by guilt. He could still hear the accusations he had flung at Vin, could see the younger
man just standing there, silently absorbing the hurt. Hurt on top of that of his wounded arm; hurt on top of that of
seeing his closet friend shot; hurt on top of that of almost having that friend die in his arms...

Jesus God, how much hurt could one man absorb before he came apart?

"Stairwell!" JD cried, seeing the door up ahead. "It's the only place he could've gone!"

It had to be. They had gone through every other door, had searched every room. And not even a desperate and hurting
Vin Tanner could disappear into thin air.

"Now, hold on!" Nathan cried, stopping them short before they could launch their mad dash. "We can't just go
bargin' in there like a herd o' wild horses. We do, an' we'll scare him ta death. He ain't thinkin' right, an' y'all know
how skittery he gets when he's like this. We don't need to go pushin' him down no damn stairs!"

Four men nodded gravely, knowing he was right. They had all seen a pain- or fever-crazed Tanner before, and knew
when he was in such a state, fight or flight were his only two responses. And, right now, he wasn't up to either.

"All right," Nathan said, seeing their agreement. "Josiah and I'll go first. I wanta look at that arm, and I may need
Josiah to hold him. God knows what he's gonna be like--"


The cry stopped him in mid-sentence, and froze the blood in all their veins. The sheer agony of it was unbearable.


In a flash, Buck was past Nathan and Josiah and through the door, followed closely by Ezra. Inside, however, both
men stopped in their tracks, horrified to find Vin curled on his side and rocking, his injured arm cradled bloody and
useless against him, his whole body convulsed by the force of his wrenching sobs.

"Well, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra sniped harshly, "is this hysterical enough for you?"

Nathan, Josiah and JD entered the stairwell, then stopped as had the first two. JD's heart splintered into fragments at
the sight of Vin, whom he considered as strong and indomitable as the mountains Tanner so loved, lying before
him, broken, bleeding and crying. With a groan torn from his very soul, the young agent pushed past his elders and
went forward, dropping to his knees at Vin's side and taking his head into his lap, then circling protective arms
about him.

"Ssh, it's all right, Vin," he murmured, leaning close and stroking Tanner's long blood- and sweat-tangled hair. "It's
all right. I gotcha, Vin, I'm right here. You go on and cry, get it all out. Ain't nobody gonna hurtcha while I'm

The four older agents stared in shock at their two youngest, one shattered beyond belief, the other stronger than
expected. JD held and soothed Vin with a mother's tenderness, with a friend's compassion, with a brother's love. And
Vin let himself relax into that sheltering embrace, releasing everything he had been fighting so long and so hard to
keep locked inside.

"I tried," he sobbed brokenly, clutching at JD with his good hand. "God help me, I tried! I c'd see Santos' gun, c'd
see him aimin' it at Chris... I had him in my sights... had th' shot lined up... But Ezra... got in th' way! An' I
couldn't... I couldn't shoot Santos... without hittin' Ez... But Santos had Chris... I c'd see it, Jesus I c'd see it, but I
couldn't take th' shot!"

Ezra turned away with a groan and buried his face in shaking hands, silently cursing himself. Josiah reached out and
laid a big, strong hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently, his deep voice murmuring in Standish's ear.

"Not your fault, brother," the big man soothed. "You didn't know, couldn't have known. You were down in the
middle of it, and that's the hardest place to be."

"Except when you're up in the rafters," Ezra whispered, "seeing it all and having to watch as your best friend is

"It's all right, Vin," JD assured him gently, his own face streaked with tears. "It's all right. It's not your fault.
Nobody blames you--"

"Buck does," Tanner gasped between sobs. "An' he's right. I fucked up! I shoulda been able ta take th' shot, shoulda
found a way... But I couldn't! Ez was there... Oh, Jesus, Jesus God, there was a minute, a terrible minute... I
almost... I almost done it... Figgered mebbe I'd jus' wound Ez... get Santos... save Chris... But if I was wrong... I
didn't take th' shot, 'n now Buck hates me," he whispered, his strength spent. "But I almost did, an' now Ezra's
gonna hate me. 'N if Chris dies... Oh, God, if Chris dies... I'm s'posed ta protect y'all... Yer guardian angel, ain't
that whatcha call me? 'Cept I couldn't protect Chris... If he dies, it'll be all my fault, 'cause I didn't take th' shot!"

"Ez," Buck called quietly, his gaze never leaving Vin, "go grab a doctor, any doctor, tell him what we've got here.
Nathan, you go with him. Explain things. Y'all get whoever ya need, bring 'em at gunpoint if you have to. JD, son,
you're doin' real good, an' I'm proud as I can be of you. But I'm gonna take him now, all right?" At the younger
man's questioning look, Buck smiled. "I got some explainin' ta do ta Junior."

JD smiled broadly, his whole body relaxing in relief. That was the first time Buck had called Vin "Junior" since
they'd gotten to the hospital, and hearing it now meant everything would be all right.

Buck slowly approached Vin, then knelt before him, catching the confused, unfocused blue eyes with his own.
Absently, he reached out to brush back a lock of hair that had fallen across Vin's face, and winced when the younger
man flinched into JD.

"I guess I deserved that, didn't I?" Buck sighed. "But, son, I swear ta God, I ain't gonna hurt ya. I've done more than
enough of that already, and I'm sorrier than I can say. But I've gotta give it a try, for both our sakes. I'd like to swap
places with JD, if that's all right with you. I'd feel better if I could hold ya, know you're all right, let you know how
bad I feel. That be okay with you?"

Vin tried to focus his eyes, then gave up the battle and let them close. "S'pose so," he breathed weakly.

As carefully as they could, Buck and JD made the switch. Settling himself against the stairwell wall, Wilmington
cradled the smaller man tenderly in his strong arms, holding Vin against his broad chest as he would a child, mindful
of his wounded arm.

"You been neglectin' that arm," he murmured, "treatin' it awful rough. Reckon it ain't feelin' too good just now."

Vin swallowed and licked his lips, relaxing into Buck's embrace and the security it offered. "Hurts some," he allowed
in a raspy whisper.

Buck chuckled. "Yeah, I reckon it does. God, Vin, I'm so sorry!" he said suddenly, fervently, his eyes filling with
tears. "I been such a bastard! Hurtin' you when I had no call to, sayin' things I knew were wrong... Hell, I don't
know what possessed me ta say those things ta you!"

"You's scared," Vin slurred. "Scared o' losin' Chris. Figgered if'n I'da done my job, he wouldn'ta got hurt--"

"You did your job, Vin," Buck told him. "You got Santos. Hell, you shot his head off his damn shoulders! And I
got no call questionin' how you do your job, 'cause I know you're th' best there is. I should know that if you don't
take the shot, it's because it can't be done. Hell, Junior, I wouldn't have your job for the world! Too much pressure
for me. And I sure as hell got no call addin' to your hurt by heapin' my own onto ya. I'm so sorry, Vin. I know that
ain't much--"

"It's more'n you know," Vin breathed. "Ain't had many folks say it to me b'fore. Means a lot, comin' from you." He
sighed heavily, exhausted and in pain. "Wish it'd stop," he murmured.

Buck frowned. "Wish what would stop, Junior?"

"Th' movie."

Buck's frown deepened. "What movie?" Where the hell were Ezra and Nathan with a doctor?

"Th' one plays in my mind. It won't stop, Buck. Over an' over again I see it, see Santos pull his gun, line up the
shot, see Ez, see Chris get hit..." He licked his dry lips and rested his aching head against Wilmington's strong
shoulder. "'S'all I see! It won't stop. If Chris dies, it won't never stop!"

"Ssh, hush, son, hush," Buck soothed, tightening his hold on the younger man. "You're tired, you're hurt, and
you're scared. Chris is gonna live, you'll see. Damn fool's too stubborn ta die. Santos wasn't man enough ta kill
Chris Larabee, you know that as well as I do."

"I jus'... I been so scared, Buck," Vin murmured. "In th' warehouse, when I'se holdin' him... all that blood... I'se so
scared I couldn't stop screamin' at him. When we got here, they wouldn't let me see him... Figgered my las' mem'ry
of him was gonna be on that warehouse floor, with his blood all over us both..." He reached for Buck's hand and
held tightly to it. "B'fore, when you said... I wasn't concerned enough... I *couldn't* say nothin'. Knew if I opened
my mouth I'd start screamin' again... 'Cause all's I c'd see was his blood, an' that goddamn movie in my head!"

"Jesus, Vin!" Buck groaned, holding the younger man tightly to his chest. "God, son, I'm sorry! I'm sorry, Vin. I
never shoulda said that. I know how you feel about Chris... Jesus, Junior, can you ever forgive me?"

"Y'ain't mad at me no more?" Vin whispered.

Buck laughed quietly and rested a cheek against Tanner's head. "No, son, I ain't mad at you no more. Pissed as hell at
myself, though! Nearly losin' one friend don't seem enough for me. Gotta see if I can't make it two." He lifted his
head and carefully sat Vin up so he could see into those bleary eyes. "You listen to me," he said firmly, "I don't
believe a word of any of that shit I said, and I'm sorry as hell I said it. *None* of this was your fault, all right? You
did all you could, and that's all any of us can ask. You didn't do anything wrong. Only one here's got any call to feel
sorry is me. And I do. Sorrier than you'll ever know. And if you wanta bust me in the chops for what I said, then I
reckon I owe you that much at least."

Vin blinked heavily and leaned against Buck. "Arm hurts too much," he breathed. "'M kinda tired, too. Walls won't
stop spinnin'." He sighed, slumping against the bigger man. "Mind if'n I lay down again? Jus' ain't feelin' too

Before Buck could answer, the door opened and Nathan stuck his head in. "Got a gurney for him, they're ready to take
him inta surgery."

Buck nodded, then turned to Tanner. "Wake up, Junior," he called, shaking the younger man slightly. "Come on,
son, got somethin' I need ya ta do for me."

"Wanta sleep," Vin mumbled. "Arm hurts."

"Yeah, well, the doctors are gonna take care of that, but you gotta give 'em your consent."

"Ain't got none."

Buck chuckled. "Come on, Junior, wake up for ol' Buck. You gotta slap your scrawl on some papers."

"Cain't hold th' pen. Arm don't work."

"You got another one just like it on the other side. Writin' with your left hand can't be any worse than it is with
your right. Chicken-scratch is chicken-scratch."

"Go t' hell," Vin grumbled.

Buck smiled brightly. "*There's* the Tanner I know! Now sit up so's you can sign your goddamn name and get that
arm fixed. Hurts me just lookin' at it. And you're bleedin' all over my clothes."

Vin sighed and forced open his eyes, but couldn't sit up. "Gonna have ta bring them papers here," he said with a
drunken laugh. "I've fallen an' I cain't git up!"

JD joined Vin's loopy giggle with one of his own, and Buck rolled his eyes at the two youngest. "Young'uns!" he
groaned. "All right, Nathan," he called, "gimme them papers. Sleepin' Beauty here ain't stirrin'!"

Nathan came forward and knelt before Vin, holding the papers steady so he could sign. Buck pressed the pen into his
left hand and held his wrist as he wrote, and winced to see how many of the letters the dyslexic agent got backwards
or in the wrong order.

"I'll explain it," Nathan said softly. "Shouldn't make a difference." He rose to his feet and stared down at Tanner.
"Come on, Vin," he called, "let's get that arm tended to. Ain't much call these days for a one-armed sharpshooter."

"Wanta see Chris 'fore I go under," Vin demanded.

"Can't," Buck told him, rising to his feet and lifting Vin easily as he did so. "He ain't out yet, and you gotta go
now. But I reckon you'll be out before him, so you can see him after. Deal?"

"Deal. Put me down. I ain't no baby."

"Nope." Buck carried him through the door and laid him gently on the gurney. "You behave," he ordered, leaning
over Tanner. "I ain't chasin' your sorry ass through this hospital again." He straightened, and was startled to feel Vin
grab him tightly with his good hand. "Hey, Junior," he soothed, leaning over again and gazing into terrified eyes,
"I'm right here. You're all right. Ain't nobody gonna hurt you."

But Vin only clung tighter. "What... what if Chris d... what if he... dies... while they're fixin' me? Buck--"

"Ssh, you hush now," Buck murmured, holding Vin's gaze and hand with his own. "Chris ain't gonna die. You gotta
believe that. You hear me?"

Vin nodded slightly, and Buck smiled. "All right, then. You want me to go with you, or one of the others?"

"You," Vin sighed, his eyes closing. "Feel better... knowin' you're there."

Buck's smile trembled at that, and he squeezed Vin's hand tightly. "Then let's go, Junior," he whispered. "Let's see if
we can't take away some of your pain."

Vin sat in the quiet, darkened room and stared intently down at the man lying so still and silent in the bed before
him. He listened to the steady beat of the heart monitor, the soft hum and whoosh of the ventilator, and took
comfort in the sounds. Sounds that told him Chris was alive.

He moved the chair closer and reached out, taking one pale, cool hand in his good one and holding tightly to it. He
searched Chris' face intently for any sign of consciousness, and found none.

"Guess it's still too early, huh?" he asked softly. "Y'ain't been outta surgery more'n twenty-eight hours or so. An' I
reckon after what you've been through, you need all th' sleep you c'n get." He yawned widely, then laughed. "Hell,
guess I'm a little tired myself. Been a rough coupla days, cowboy."

Suddenly he leaned forward, gripping Chris' hand more tightly still. "You scared the shit outta me, Larabee!" he
rasped. "What th' hell d'ya think you were doin', pullin' a damn fool stunt like that? Pullin' your gun an' standin'
there like some goddamn Ol' West gunfighter insteada huntin' cover? Y'ain't made of steel, y'know. Hell, you
weren't even wearin' a vest! Goddamn you!" he snarled, his eyes filling with hot tears. "Goddamn you for what ya
put me through! Had yer fuckin' blood in my hair, you sonuvabitch! I'se drenched in th' stuff! Hell, I still ain't got it
all out from under my fingernails!" He swallowed hard. "You died on me in th' ambulance, you died on 'em in that
operatin' room... You die on me agin, 'n I'll hunt ya all th' way ta hell, you understand me, Larabee? I cain't go
through this shit agin!"

He released Chris' hand and sat back, absently rubbing his injured arm with his good hand. "Guess you'll be glad ta
know Nathan's nearly as pissed at me as I am at you," he drawled. "Hell, I reckon *you* ain't gonna be none too
happy with me when ya hear. But I might's well tell ya now, when I know ya won't be growlin' at me. Got shot in
that damn warehouse. Don't know when or how, don't even remember it happenin'. Some dumb bastard plugged me
in my shootin' arm."

He squirmed slightly in the chair, then glanced again at the figure on the bed, as if to make certain that Chris was
really out and wouldn't tear into him. "Wouldn't let the docs look at it fer a while," he said softly, still not entirely
convinced that Chris wouldn't hear. "Then when they decided I needed surgery, I sorta... well, hell, I ran out on 'em!
Figgered knowin' how you were was more important... Then I went 'n banged it up some more... Nathan reckons it
was nearly six hours 'tween the time I got shot an' the time the docs finally got me under the knife. You shoulda
heard th' lecture I got when I come out from under! You'da been right proud of ol' Nate. Never knew he could cuss
like that! They fixed it, though. Took out some bone chips, cleaned it all up real nice, fixed the muscle and the
nerves... Gonna have ta do physical therapy again, though," he said with a frown. "Prob'ly be squeezin' one o' them
damn rubber balls again. Lord, I hate that! But they won't clear me for duty 'less'n I c'n do that stuff, so I guess I got
no choice."

He sighed and leaned forward once more, reclaiming Chris' hand. "Wish I c'd make ya understand how scared I was,"
he murmured, staring into that unconscious face. "All's I c'd think of was that you were gonna die, 'n I'd be all alone
agin." He winced and bowed his head. "I don't wanta go back ta bein' alone, Chris. Got too used ta havin' you an' th'
others around. Got too used ta bein' part o' somethin'. Somethin' I don't wanta lose. So ya cain't die on me, y'hear?"
He licked his lips. "I'll make ya a deal, all right? You wake up soon, let me know you're gonna be all right, an' I'll
letcha chew on me real good about bein' stupid with my arm, okay? Letcha glare at me an' everything, 'n won't even
laugh. Deal?"

He yawned again, then pulled the chair closer to the bed and laid his head down on it, still gripping Chris' hand.
"Jus' gonna rest my eyes a bit," he murmured as weariness washed through him. "Th' stuff they gimme for pain
keeps me kinda dopey." His eyes fell closed, and he gradually relaxed. "Ain't been sleepin' too good, either," he said
with another yawn. "Had this goddamn movie stuck in my head, cain't make it go away. Reckon mebbe if'n I knew
you was gonna be all right, then I wouldn't see it no more. So that's another reason fer you ta get better, cowboy,"
he slurred. "Gotta make the movie stop. I'm tired o' watchin' that bastard shoot ya."

Sleep stole over him, and he was powerless to stop his drugged body from sinking into it. Sure enough, as soon as
it claimed him, the hated movie started again.

But somewhere, somewhere between the horrible, blood-drenched frames, a hand tightened about his, squeezing ever
so slightly, and the brutal images faded to a peaceful black.

The End