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A History of Falling

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Afghanistan
A while back…

The vantage point was both perfect and punishing. On a narrow ledge, fifteen feet up a jagged rock face, Vin Tanner nestled in and waited for the convoy to pass by below him. He’d been given a twenty hour window for the convoy’s movements, and this was the safest place to hit it.

The shot, when it came, wasn’t entirely unexpected of course, but he hadn’t planned on being halfway up a cliff at the time. The bullet caught him high on the left shoulder and spun him out of his hidey-hole, sending him skittering down the rock to land with a jarring thud on the hard-packed desert sand.

Adrenaline was his savior, and pain or not, he slithered into the shadows, looking for one of the ground-level caves he’d scoped out and rejected in trying to find the perfect place to get the job done.

God damn it. This was not how this one was supposed to go.

********

Denver, Colorado
Now, or close to…

“Sure you know what you’re doing there, Junior?” Buck Wilmington asked seriously, watching Vin shinny up a fifteen-foot-tall tree trunk like he was a five-year-old. Oh, to be young again.

Vin ignored the warning entirely, which was to be expected, and nestled himself in the V of a pair of branches another five feet above the main trunk, looking out at Nettie Welles’s ranch. “Can’t get the lay of the land down there,” the sniper complained mildly. “And you remember what I do for a living, right? Shoot things from high places?”

He raised his voice a little to be heard by the two woman standing by the spot they’d cleared of brush this morning. Casey Welles didn’t seem to be bothered by Vin’s climb, but her aunt Nettie had a frown between her eyes that meant the young Texan was going to get a talking to. “I don’t think that spot’s going to get much runoff, Miss Nettie!” Vin looked around the area carefully. “There’s that hillock just behind you—figure that’ll direct any rains down to the creek to the south.”

Buck sighed, looking up at Vin’s precarious perch. “Great. You’ve done your surveying, now get on down from there, all right? You’re giving me gray hairs.” It would be a hell of a fall if he took a wrong step coming down. “You bust your head open, Chris is going to have my ass.”

“You ain’t my babysitter, Buck,” Vin griped. “I can—”

Whatever Tanner could do was academic at that point. Buck had looked away for the briefest second and suddenly Vin was crashing through the branches above him, soundless until he hit the ground, when he let out a whimpering yelp that had Buck at his side in a second.

Buck didn’t try to get the fallen man’s attention right off, though Vin’s eyes were screwed shut and he was obviously conscious. He didn’t think he could drag Vin away from the misery he was likely in, and he wanted to get an idea of his injuries so they could relay them to the emergency operator. He felt Nettie and Casey come up behind him.

“How is he?” Nettie asked softly, moving to kneel on Vin’s other side.

Vin was a mess was what he was. He’d hit a lot of branches on the way down, and where his face wasn’t bleeding it was already swelling and purpled, especially along the left side of his jaw. His neck on that same side must have caught some snag, and a half-inch wide tear of skin ran from his ear lobe to his breast bone, bleeding enough to worry the hell out of Buck.

“Casey, can you get some towels?” he asked, as softly and calmly as he could. The blood wasn’t spurting. The tear didn’t look deep enough to have caught the artery… “Call 911 while you’re at it.”

“There are cellphones, Buck,” Nettie told him, as if he should have known. And he supposed he should have. “Run along now, Casey,” she said, sharply enough to shake the young lady from her shock. “I’ll get them on the line. Get us the towels and then head for the driveway to guide ‘em in.”

Buck listened to Nettie report the accident, hissing in sympathy as Vin blinked away a little of the pain-induced fog and moaned, the low sound ending on an abrupt shriek as he tried to wrap his arms around himself to hold it all in.

“Hang on, now, Junior,” Buck murmured to him, running his hands carefully along the sleeves of Vin’s leather jacket. He stopped when he felt a disturbing lump poking out on the right-hand side and Vin let out a garbled yell. “Yeah, it’s broken,” Buck confirmed, earning a glare from his patient. “Just lie still, Vin, okay?” he said, patting the poor guy on the hip. When even that caused a whimper and a glare, Buck growled in sympathy and annoyance. “You just had to climb the damn tree, didn’t you?” he asked without thinking.

Vin’s eyes closed for a second, and when he opened them, he opened his mouth, too, trying to speak, but emitted only another of those kicked-dog whines.

“It’s okay, son,” Nettie told him softly, angling the phone away from her mouth and running her free hand through Vin’s long hair. “Just rest now, and don’t listen to Buck because you know how a worried foot fits in a mouth more comfortably than a calm one.”

Buck smiled wryly at that, but was damn glad when Casey came running back with a pile of towels. He wrapped one carefully around Vin’s neck and tried to put some pressure on it without throttling the poor guy. Nettie’s calm and measured words as she relayed everything to emergency services were a balm and he used them to center himself.

“I’ll go wait for the ambulance,” Casey said, shaken. Buck tried to give her a reassuring grin, but he probably failed miserably.

“And I’ll keep my mouth shut,” he muttered, soaking up Nettie’s much more reassuring gaze. “Reckon my size 14 won’t fit so well that way.”

Vin looked like he wanted to smile, but Buck was praying he didn’t try. It was worrying enough that he wasn’t cursing a blue streak. Or even saying anything at all.

Hell, this was what they got for trying to spend the weekend building Nettie a new storage shed. Chris was going to kill them.

Buck looked at the blood soaking through the towel he had round Vin’s neck.

If the fall didn’t kill Vin first.

*******

He crawled into a small hole in the wall, rifle still at the ready, and gave himself a quick once-over. The shot that had brought him down had gone right through his left shoulder. Easy to patch over and not even all that dangerous, it was more damaging for the fall it had caused. He was pretty sure something in his left hand was broken, and his right one twitched in a way he didn’t like—his neck paining him enough that he’d probably damaged something going to that trigger finger. His hip and lower back were screaming, too, and he knew he wouldn’t be running away from this fight.

He patched himself up as best he could, shaking that right hand a few times to get the feeling back, and hoping he’d still be good to shoot. He heard the convoy approach, rumbling through the desert like a herd of elephants. Damn. He wasn’t going to get another chance at this. Injured or no, he had to try to take down Shahnawaz while he could.

Taking a deep breath, he stuck his head out of the cave and peeked around a chunk of cliff that had come down with him, looking toward the road. A spray of rock and quick-fire rifle shots met him and he pulled back, holding in a scream at the pain as he slammed his left shoulder into the wall of the cave. Another peek out toward the road, this time leading with his rifle muzzle, yielded the same result.

Whoever was out there, he was making sure one of the biggest poppy and gun dealers in the district would get away. Again. This wasn’t the first shot a US sniper had had at the man. Four soldiers had been found dead after four separate attempts at him. Vin put his right hand unconsciously to the small pocket in his vest where he’d stashed a set of dog tags.

“I ain’t catching up to you just yet, Jimmy,” he whispered. And apparently, he wasn’t taking down Shahnawaz.

Didn’t mean he couldn’t take down whoever was targeting the soldiers trying to eliminate the guy. Even if he wasn’t quite sure how to do that, in the shape he was in.

************

When Chris Larabee got the call from Nettie, she’d told him, all common sense and reassurance, that she was going to make Buck get cleaned up before they drove down after the ambulance that had just gone screaming out of her place. Which meant Chris was there before them, his place being closer to Four Corners Medical. He was pissed and brooding, and Nettie’s serious face coupled with Buck’s scared one did nothing for his state of mind.

“Want to tell me how he managed to almost get himself killed installing a damn shed!?” he grated angrily the moment they walked in the waiting room. The triage nurse, Janice, had come out and briefed him shortly after he came in, but all they knew at that point was that surgery would likely be required, at least for the fracture in his arm. They were waiting on films for the jaw to see if it would need surgery as well.

“It was an accident, Chris,” Nettie said reasonably, like she was schooling her son. “And don’t tell me you’ve never hurt yourself fixing up a building on your own property, because I seem to remember a cast on your leg not too many months ago.”

The scolding had the desired effect, and Chris relaxed a little and huffed out a sigh as he remembered falling from the hayloft of his barn while he was repairing the chute.

“I got it, Nettie,” he said quietly, shooting her a thankful look. “Shit happens.”

“They tell you how he is?” Buck wanted to know. Chris could see that the trip down here from the foothills had done nothing to calm the man. The blood dried and flaking on his clothes probably didn’t help much, either, but at least his hands were clean.

“The arm’ll need surgery,” Chris said with a shrug. “That’s all I know.”

Buck nodded, but Chris wasn’t really sure he’d heard him. “You call the others?”

Chris gestured for them both to sit down and then did the same. “Ezra’s in Grand Junction for that trial. Told him we didn't know anything yet, but he's trying to get the ADA to reschedule his testimony to later in the week so he can head back. Nathan and Josiah’ll be here soon. I left a message for J.D.” He was a little surprised that their youngest hadn’t called back yet.

“Paintball tournament,” Buck explained dully. “He probably won’t even see his phone until tonight.”

“Hopefully we’ll have something to tell him when he does,” Chris replied, leaning back and settling in to wait.

God, he hated waiting.

**********

The convoy was long gone before Vin tried to move again, glad not to be fired on the second he left his hidey hole. Every step drove a knife into his lower back and his left hip felt like he had sandpaper in the joint. But the asshole was following him. He couldn’t see him, but he knew it. The sniper wouldn’t want Vin to get away from him, and it seemed he liked playing games.

The foot of the large mesa gave Vin great cover, but it made moving slow. He grinned all of a sudden. “Maybe slow’s the answer,” he whispered to himself.

He started stumbling, just a bit, trying to make it look natural, until at last he saw a cave that would provide him a place to take care of business. He dropped his rifle the first time he fell (didn’t want the guy worrying that he was laying a trap for him), lay still for a long moment the second… Hell, by the time he slipped into the damn hole, even he believed he was crawling in to die.

Once he was there, half in, half out, so his cheek was to the cool sand inside the cave and his feet were still splayed out in the hot sand outside, he did what he was good at. What he actually liked, much as most people hated it.

He waited for the target to come to him.

************

“Mr. Larabee?”

Josiah looked up at Dr. Johnson’s uncharacteristically grim greeting. Damn.

“Been waiting a while, Doctor,” Chris said nervously, getting to his feet with the rest of them. Nathan was back from driving Nettie home about forty-five minutes ago. Ezra was stuck in traffic, but was expected soon. They still hadn’t heard from J.D., but it was only six-thirty.

Which made it seven-plus hours since Vin had fallen out of that damn tree.

“I’m sorry about that,” Johnson said. His mostly bald head was sweating. “We're still getting him sorted out.”

“How’s he doing?” Josiah asked into the resulting silence, because none of the others seemed to be able to. This was serious. Josiah prayed it wasn’t deadly so.

Johnson looked around the room, gazing almost casually at the few other people waiting for word of friends or loved ones. “I’ll brief you fully on his condition, but let's do it privately.”

At the strangely officious tone, so unlike the normally geeky doctor, Chris bristled. Josiah started to move toward him, but Buck’s hand was suddenly on their team leader’s shoulder, holding him back.

“Let’s just hear what he’s got to say,” Buck murmured, squeezing Chris’s joint hard until the shorter man visibly reined himself in.

Josiah prayed the news wasn’t the worst as Johnson led them to one of the private family meeting rooms down the hall.

“Vin is going to be fine,” Johnson said, the moment the door closed. His words tumbled over each other as he tried to update them as quickly as possible. “He’s got a broken jaw that we’ve had to wire shut, and the ortho team is in surgery with him now, setting his arm.” He grinned slightly. “Communicating will be Hell for him for a while, but he’ll recover fully.”

“So why all the gloom and doom?” Buck asked, an edge to his words that was rarely there.

“Because I was told this was a home improvement accident,” Johnson told him, making eye contact with each of them in turn. “But Mr. Tanner didn’t fall out of that tree. He was shot.”

“Excuse me?” Chris growled.

Johnson nodded, taking out his phone and pulling up a photo before handing the device to Chris. “The goring from that tree limb hid the exit wound pretty effectively, but I’ve seen enough entry wounds to know. It’s why I didn’t want to say anything out in the open.” He looked at Chris with more than slight embarrassment, and Josiah hid a smile. On some level, Johnson absolutely loved that his job brought him into contact with a bunch of real, live federal agents from time to time. “I didn’t know if the accident was just a cover story.”

Chris’s teeth ground together audibly as he scrutinized the picture, and Josiah wasn’t the only one to wince at the sound. “No,” he bit out, handing Josiah the phone. “It wasn’t.”

The photo showed too much blood and Josiah took a moment before he could look past that to see the small, perfect hole and puckered skin almost lost in the swelling and bruising around a long sewn-up tear. Damn it. He passed the phone to Nathan and watched Chris.

Their leader stood still a moment and then shook his head. “We haven’t even had a case worth worrying about for months,” he said finally. “It’s all been illegal cigarettes and hooch since at least March. Penny ante stuff.”

Buck nodded. “So whatever it was, it wasn’t recent.” He looked at Nathan, and Josiah was pretty sure they both had the same ugly thought at the same time. “Nate? Did you see anything out of the ordinary when you dropped off Nettie?”

Nathan shook his head, but he looked alarmed at the prospect that the two women might be in danger.

Buck’s phone rang right that second and broke the mood. “J.D.,” he muttered as he looked at the caller ID. “About damn time.” He opened the line. “Hey J.D.—” Buck grimaced at the flow of words pouring from the device. Josiah could only hear the concern, not the individual syllables. “Yeah, he’s— He’s going to be— Yeah— Jesus, J.D., would you just shut up a second?!”

Josiah chuckled as Buck hung his head and sighed. “Vin is going to be fine, but it wasn’t an accident. The doc says he was shot— shut up . Now, I want you to go out to Nettie and Casey and stay with them for now. No, Vin’s in surgery. No, we haven’t seen him either.” He grinned. “I will. Yes. Yeah, just keep your eyes open. Okay.” He disconnected the call and blew out a gusty breath. “Damn, that boy can talk.”

“Good idea to have him stay up at the ranch,” Chris praised him absently. He turned back to the doctor and Josiah could see the fire growing in his eyes. “Can you tell anything about the bullet?”

Johnson shook his head. “There’s too much damage around the path of it—I’m sure that wasn’t planned, but that part of his neck is just really ripped up.” He swallowed as he saw the effect his words had on them all. Josiah forcibly opened his clenched fists and reminded himself that Vin would be okay as Johnson continued. “It was small caliber. A neat hole with no residue, so—”

“Medium to long range,” Chris concluded quietly. He looked out the window, thinking. After a long moment, he turned to Buck. “Vin didn’t mention anything to you, did he? Anything that was bothering him?”

Buck shook his head. “I been thinking on that since we walked through the door. There was nothing. He was glad to be out of the city, as always. Said he’d spent a whole night this week moving one of his neighbors. Nothing about any problems, though.”

Chris nodded. “Okay.” He turned his gaze on Johnson. “How long before he’s out of surgery?”

Johnson thought about it. “The fracture is a relatively easy repair—maybe another hour. Two tops.” He shook his head. “But he won’t be awake for a while after that.”

“Okay,” Chris said, handing out assignments like they were back in the conference room at the office. “Josiah and Nathan, you two stay here and wait on Vin. Buck,” he said, his voice showing his apology even if his face didn’t. “We need a crime scene assessment up at Nettie’s—not just the bullet, but unfamiliar tire tracks, the usual. The Welles ranch isn’t exactly well travelled. Call Fillion—I want this to be discreet.”

Buck looked like he was going to argue, but sighed and nodded. “I’ll call and see if I can pick him up on my way up there. We’re going to need the big lights—place where he fell is a mess. Where are you going?” he asked, a little resentful. “And what do these two do with Ezra when he gets here?”

“I'll have Ezra meet me in Purgatorio,” Chris said, pulling out his phone. “He knows Vin’s neighbors better than most of us.” His grin was self-deprecating, if a little dangerous. “And they like him. Maybe someone’s seen something.”

************

Ezra parked his car at the office and took a cab to Vin’s apartment. His jag had had a hard week, driving to Grand Junction and back, over the Rockies, and there was no way he was capping that off by getting it keyed or worse in the neighborhood Vin lived in.

He stood leaning against the garden wall at Vin’s place and contemplated his friend. Someone shot him out of a tree. Which could have sounded funny, even farcical, in the right place and time, but now just worried Ezra. If someone had gone after Tanner once—and in such a remote and unlikely location—there was no reason they wouldn’t do so again.

“Mr. Standish!” hailed a tiny little old hispanic woman with a cane and a hump. “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you around for a while.”

“Senora Marquez,” he greeted her pleasantly. “Always a pleasure.” He sighed. “Sadly, duty has called elsewhere, and for far too long. How is your granddaughter? Vin told me she was expecting twins?” He ignored Chris’s SUV as it pulled into Vin’s spot and the blond stepped out, watching the conversation by the stoop.

“She had them,” Senora Marquez said, all smiles. “Oh, they are perfectos! Juanita and Javier.” She smiled indulgently. “I know, J and J. They’ll be teased by everyone.”

“Starting with you?” Ezra flirted.

“Si por supuesto,” she confirmed, giggling.

La Senora was a good woman to befriend. She knew everything that was going on in Purgatorio, it seemed. And with the right touch, you could get most of it from her.

“I’m actually here to pick up a few things from Vin’s apartment,” he told her, making eye contact with Chris as the older man walked up behind her. “He’s had a bit of an accident, and I’m afraid he’ll be in the hospital for a few days.”

“Oh no!” Senora Marquez exclaimed, her hand to her mouth. “Perhaps it is for the best, though. Not his accidente, but being away will give Luis time to cool down.”

“Luis?” Ezra asked, his tone bland and unconcerned. “Oh dear. Who has our Mr. Tanner managed to upset now?”

“Senor Vin’s upstairs neighbor.” La Senora spat on the ground. “Bah! Luis Huertas is a pig. I don’t care if he is a war hero. Poor Tiatana had every right to disappear from him.” She shook her head. “Oh, but he was not happy when he found out that Vin was the one to get her out.”

"Spent all night moving a neighbor,” Chris murmured inexplicably, effectively announcing his presence and causing La Senora to startle a bit. She looked up at him suspiciously, and Ezra held in a sigh. His teammates were ham-handed at best. The people on the block adored Vin, they at least liked Ezra himself, but they didn’t trust the rest of them as far as the nearest gangbanger.

“Lo siento, Senora,” Ezra said quickly. “Mr. Larabee was just doing me the favor of picking me up.”

Senora Marquez grinned at him, teasing. “Is that fancy car of yours in the shop again, Senor?” she asked. “Tell me, is it ever working?”

Chris snorted. “About as much as Ezra does,” he answered. “Come on. Let’s get Vin’s stuff and get back to the hospital.”

Ezra wasn’t terribly surprised that the idea of canvassing the area had been effectively scuttled. Perhaps Vin’s “accident” had nothing to do with the ATF at all. He was willing to bet Luis Huertas had had sniper training at some point.

“Tell Senor Vin to get well soon, yes?” La Senora said, moving on as the two men headed up the stairs to the front door of Vin’s building.

“I certainly will, Senora,” Ezra promised. “I hope to see pictures of those darling twins next time I visit!”

Chris snorted as they climbed to the fourth floor. “Making friends wherever you go, huh, Standish?” He slid Vin’s spare keys into the door’s multiple locks and opened the door.

Ezra walked in behind him. “In this case—as in many—it bore a tasty fruit,” he pointed out, closing the door silently. “Perhaps you should try it.”

“Someone’s been here,” Chris said, his voice suddenly cold and angry.

Ezra looked around and initially saw everything in its place, as always. Vin was as neat in his own way as Ezra was. And like him, Vin had almost no possessions, except…

“Do you know what was in the box?” he asked Chris, as the other man walked to the bookshelf and stared at, but didn’t touch, the spot where a cigar box always sat. Ezra had never asked what was in it, but it was battered and old and clearly meant a great deal to Vin.

“Yeah,” Chris breathed, not bothering to elaborate. Ezra huffed and Chris turned on him. “Not everything is your business, Standish,” he growled.

Ezra kept his voice bland and his face blank. “Vin getting shot is, though. I think you’ll agree it’s all of our business.” Chris didn’t respond, which meant he knew Ezra was right. The undercover agent looked at the room again, as a crime scene this time.

“Whoever it was, he knew exactly what he was looking for.” He looked at the dust-free shelf where the cigar box had been, then at the lightly dusty shelves above and below. “I doubt there will be fingerprints.”

Chris nodded. “We’ll get Fillion in here anyway, see if he can pick up any clues.” He looked out the window at the rundown neighborhood. “The old lady said Huertas was a war hero?”

“And Vin helped his wife disappear,” Ezra added. “Sounds predictably ominous.”

“Damn chivalry is going to get Vin killed one of these days,” Chris said quietly. A look came over his face and he fell silent.

“But not today. Correct?” Ezra asked pointedly. Chris had said almost nothing about Vin’s condition when he told Ezra to meet him here, just that he was doing okay and would be out of surgery soon. Chris didn’t answer. “ Correct ?”

Their team leader shook himself and looked Ezra in the eyes for the first time since they’d entered the apartment. “Yeah. He’ll be okay, but it’s going to take a while. Broken jaw, broken arm…”

Ezra felt his own anger rise that someone had done this to one of their own. If this Huertas was the culprit, however, it wouldn’t do to raise his suspicions.

“I suggest we return to the hospital and continue our investigation there,” he said briskly.

Unsurprisingly, Chris balked at the plan. “Huertas—”

“Has no idea we suspect anything. He’s not going to be held long on suspicion of attempted murder if we do not get more information,” Ezra reminded him.

Again, Chris seemed to ignore him, but the fact that he walked to Vin’s room and quickly came out with the sniper’s always-packed travel bag, then headed for the door, spoke of his agreement with Ezra’s words. Ezra fell in behind him and reminded himself that Chris Larabee was a contrary soul who would rather cut out his own tongue than admit that he was letting himself go off half-cocked.

Cut out his tongue…

“Did they do surgery on Vin’s jaw fracture?” he asked as they climbed into Chris’s SUV and drove toward Four Corners. That would cut a month off of the recovery, he knew from another friend’s experience, but it wasn’t a decision doctors made lightly. “Or did they just wire it shut?”

“Wired,” Chris confirmed, clearly knowing where Ezra was going with this. “And the broken arm is his right one.”

Ezra made a face. “Fabulous. He can’t speak, he can’t write...” He snorted suddenly. “I suppose we could play charades to find out if he saw anything in that tree.”

“You’ve seen Vin play charades, Ezra,” Chris said, his tone lighter already. “You really think that’s going to help?”

Ezra pretended to consider it. “I expect we’d come out of it looking for Porky Pig toting his duck-hunting rifle.” He waited for Chris’s stress-relieving chuckle before pulling out his phone. “I’ll call J.D. and have him start digging into our Mr. Huertas.” he paused with his thumb hovering over J.D.’s number and gave Chris a sidelong glance. “I do wonder what it has to do with Vin’s missing box.”

Chris’s hands gripped the steering wheel hard. Not like he was angry, but like he was trying to decide whether to betray a confidence. “Might be an army-related thing,” he allowed finally, without elaborating.

Ezra simply nodded. Vin’s history in the Army, both as a Ranger and in Black Ops, had never been a secret in Team Seven, but no one ever really brought it up, either. He was an insanely good sniper, which meant he’d had practice, and practice in sniping meant making some enemies.

“Damn it,” Ezra whispered suddenly as a thought came to him out of the blue.

“What’s wrong?” Chris asked tightly, eyes on the road.

“La Senora will talk. If Huertas didn’t know Vin was alive before, he will soon.”

Chris nodded. “I already thought of that. He wouldn’t have left the area until he’d confirmed his kill. He’ll know Vin survived and where he was taken.” He blew out a breath. “One of us in his room at all times—”

“He’ll love that,” Ezra put in wryly.

“—until he can be released or we get this bastard behind bars.”

“If it’s even Huertas,” Ezra said, not wanting to complicate matters, but knowing matters usually did that all on their own where this team was concerned.

“One step at a time,” Chris said steadily. “Go ahead and call J.D. Maybe Fillion’s dug up something at the crime scene, too.”

************

Boots scuffed along the ground outside the cave and Vin forced himself to stay perfectly still, lying flat out and facedown. Got to be damn difficult when the guy kicked his leg where it stuck out into the sunlight.

“Number five,” muttered a surprisingly American voice. “When will they learn?”

The sniper knelt down and Vin waited to hear the sound of his rifle being set aside. Once that was done, the man put a hand to Vin’s good shoulder.

Vin held his breath to keep from screaming and rolled over with the sniper’s help, service pistol in his hand and pointed at the man’s skull.

“Right about now,” he grated.

The sniper drove a fist toward Vin’s face, but he was ready for it, pushing it to the side with his left hand and smacking his pistol hard against the man’s face with his right. The sniper fell back a bit, and Vin used his left hand, broken and screaming, to shove him against the wall of the cave, his pistol now an inch from the asshole’s nose.

“Reckon maybe you should just stay still,” he growled low.

************

“Vin?” Josiah sounded worried. Vin’s right arm was killing him. Damn, had he broken something there, too? “Vin, can you hear me?”

“Give him some time, Josiah,” Nathan murmured reassuringly. “He probably isn’t real eager to wake up quite yet.”

And damn, wasn’t that the truth? Vin tried to make sense of the pain in his body, reconciling it to the memory of the desert and the presence of two non-combat friends in the room.

The memory of the desert…

Shit, what the hell was going on?

He tried to concentrate, to remember anything before waking up here. Buck… Nettie… climbing a tree for a better look… getting picked off by a sniper in the mountains east of Charikar—

“The hell is going on?” he tried to say, paralysed suddenly by the blinding pain of trying to move his mouth, his neck. Shit, even his tongue.

Something was beeping fast and suddenly there was a presence above him. Vin opened his eyes to see Nathan standing there, watching him closely.

“Calm down now, Vin,” Nathan told him softly. “Your jaw’s broke. Don’t try to talk.” Vin couldn’t nod his head without wanting to scream, so he blinked a couple of times, slowly, and tried to relax. The beeping relaxed with him. “Good. You remember what happened?” Nathan asked.

Shot… No. He couldn’t have been shot. He was helping Buck build a shed for Nettie. Fell out of a tree, right?

He blinked again a couple of times, hoping Nathan would take it as a sign that he did. They were going to have to get him a notepad or something to write with. Thinking about that made him flex his right hand and he felt a whimper escape him as his arm flared with pain.

“Don’t,” Nathan commanded him gently. “Don’t try to move that arm now, Vin.” He looked sort of amused, which pissed Vin off. “Your right arm’s broken pretty good. No pins, but they had to set it surgically, so it’ll be useless for a bit.”

Vin blinked a few times and tried to make a face before realizing that he really couldn’t move his jaw or even his lips and cheeks right at the moment. How the hell was he supposed to communicate?

The sound of a door swishing open caught his attention, but he couldn’t turn his head to see who was coming. Helpless. Flat on his back and totally fucking helpless…

“How long’s he been awake?” Chris’s voice was damn welcome, and Vin moved his eyes as far as he could toward the sound of it. Chris obliged him by walking up to the bed and standing over him, a painful grin on his face. “You look like crap,” he told him gently.

Vin made a low growl in his throat that didn’t seem to hurt too much.

“Let me tell you what we know and we’ll… figure out a way to get you talking.” The top of Ezra’s head went past the bottom of Vin’s field of vision. If they’d just put the head of the bed up, he could see better. He pointed at the ceiling with his left index finger a few times.

“It’s gonna hurt, Vin,” Nathan scolded him.

Vin flicked his fingers to sign (DON’T CARE). He hurt like hell all over, but at least he had full movement with that left hand.

“He doesn’t care,” Josiah translated somewhere in front of him. “Vin? How well do you know sign language?”

(CRAPPY), Vin replied sloppily, hoping Josiah got the gist. He’d learned sign fifteen years ago, but the most he used it for now was to talk to little Mari Hernandez down the street, and even the six-year-old made fun of him for its quality. But it was better than nothing. He gestured for Nathan to raise the head of the bed again.

The bed began moving, and Vin rethought the whole “up” thing. His neck was on fire, his upper back screaming with every inch of altitude he got. Another whimper let loose as he was finally sitting mostly upright and able to see Josiah and Ezra sitting in chairs by the window of the small single-bed hospital room.

“Do you need me to call the nurse for something to take the edge off?” Nathan asked. He was still hovering, but looked a little less worried. Chris was smirking, the bastard.

(FINE) he signed, though his hand barely moved in the gesture. Both Ezra and Josiah laughed at that.

“Guess what he said, Nathan,” Josiah suggested.

“You feel fine,” Nathan grumbled, moving away to sit in one of the chairs. “Damn bunch of liars, all of you.”

“Can we get back to this?” Chris replied, though he was smiling at Nathan’s disgust, too. He focused on Vin and all humor left him. “What do you remember about what happened?” he asked, like it was the most important question in the world.

(TREE, FELL OUT), he signed as well as he could backward and one-handed, nodding his fist when Josiah translated correctly. Chris still looked damned serious, so Vin tried to sign (WHY IMPORTANT) and came up against two big problems: It hurt like a mother to raise his hand to his head, and he needed two hands to sign (IMPORTANT).

“Why are we asking?” Ezra ventured, making Vin wonder where the hell the undercover man had learned ASL. Vin nodded his left fist again.

“Because you were shot out of that tree,” Chris said. Vin’s eyes widened. The fuck? Chris nodded. “The bullet hit you in the neck and you fell from there. Any idea who’d want you dead enough to go all the way up to Nettie’s to do it?”

(NO), he signed.

“Ezra and I went by your place,” Chris said, words careful again. “Your box is gone. Nothing else.”

Damn. Vin looked around, seeing the confusion on every face but Chris’s. Chris had been the only person in the ATF Vin had ever shown that box to. A box full of memories and pain and happy times in the middle of Hell. He thought about the dreams he’d been having when he woke up.

Weird—Jimmy’s dog tags had been in that box.

“We spoke to La Senora,” Ezra said quietly. “She said Luis Huertas was quite put out to find his wife gone in the middle of the night.”

Huertas? (NO), he signed. (ASSHOLE, NOT) Shit. He had no idea how to say killer.

“He’s an ass not a killer?” Josiah translated anyway.

They were going to have to figure another way to do this. There was no way Vin was going to be able to communicate like this. He was already exhausted and all this telephone tag was making it worse. He felt his eyelids starting to droop and fought it.

“We’ll check him out anyway,” Chris said sternly. “Right now he’s our best lead.”

What about his box, though? Vin signed (BOX)—or half of it anyway, but Josiah got the gist.

“I figure we’ll ask him when we bring him in for questioning,” Chris assured him.

(TELL THEM) he signed, adding (BOX) again to clarify. He didn’t need his dirty laundry aired, but there was no way around it now. If the shooter took it, it meant something.

“I’ll tell them what they need to know,” Chris promised. His jaw was grinding away, which led Vin to think about how much his own jaw hurt, which led him to think about how damn hungry he was. He’d skipped breakfast before they headed to Nettie’s and he hadn’t had but black coffee before the fall.

(FOOD), he signed, trying to convey with his eyes that damn it, he meant right now.

“Yeah, about that,” Nathan said quietly, interpreting the very obvious sign for himself. “When you fell, you broke your jaw.”

Oh, come on…

“The doctor said it’ll be wired shut for about six weeks, until they’re sure it’s healed.” Vin glared at him, and Nathan actually blinked. “I’ll talk to him and see what we can get for you.”

Vin wanted nothing less than a Sonic burger and fries whirled in a blender, but he was pretty sure he wasn’t getting that. He fought a yawn, whining in his throat as his tongue and jaw tried to make the motions and were stopped by pain and the damn wires holding his teeth together.

“Get some rest, Vin,” Chris said.  “We’ll figure this out.”

Against his will, Vin’s eyes closed again, and though he managed to blink them open a few more times, he was drifting away from the others at a furious rate.

Huertas wasn’t a killer, he knew it. At the very least he wouldn’t kill Vin for getting Tiatana away from him. And what the hell would Huertas know about that box? No one knew. Except Chris.

And Babcock, his mind reminded him as he slipped into the darkness. Babcock knew too damn much...

************

“You really think you’re gonna bring me in?” the sniper asked, as Vin tied his hands behind his back and shoved him into the cave wall again, face first this time. He tried to stand tall with more control and strength than he was feeling, but his back was worse than he’d thought it was, and that little tussle hadn’t done it any favors.

“You’ll face the courts, like you should,” Vin told him coldly. “The murders of four American servicemen should put you away for a long time. Or kill you. But I won’t.”

The sniper turned slightly so Vin could see his mocking smile. “Oh how very patriotic of you,” he sneered. “Justice will be served?” He looked Vin over from top to bottom. “How the hell are you gonna manage that?”

Vin swallowed the pain the movement caused as he pulled out the radio a sniper in the field had no right to carry, smirking when the sniper’s eyes widened in surprise. “‘Cause I ain’t stupid.”

Every ranger who’d come after Shahnawaz had gone by the book—slip out into the desert without a sign that you were US Army—plausible deniability, they called it. If you made it back, you made it back, if you didn’t, they’d find you eventually. Like they found Jimmy.

Luckily, Colonel Farrar was damn sick of losing men.

“Mama Bird, this is Rogue,” he called in, gun still trained on the man. “I have Viper in hand. Repeat, I have Viper in hand.” He rattled off their coordinates, trying not to show how bad his right hand was aching, too.

“Understood, Rogue,” Tac Central replied. “Daddy Bird is on his way. Rendezvous at LZ352.”

Vin tried to keep his game face on. Three-five-two was almost a mile away through too many twists and turns of canyons. This was going to hurt.

“Acknowledged, Mama,” he replied shortly. “Out.”

Shoving the guy before him into the sunlight, Vin just hoped he had the nerve to get there in one piece. He’d kill this guy if he had to, but he’d rather see his face when he was sentenced to life in federal prison—left to rot for killing four good men.

“Get moving,” he commanded, slipping the man’s rifle over his own shoulder. “It’s a long walk.”

***********

“Fillion come up with anything?” J.D. asked as Buck walked in Nettie’s front door. The young hacker was working his way through the information the Army had on Luis Huertas, which wasn’t much. At least not much that pointed at him shooting Vin out of a tree. Guy had a temper, but he’d never crossed the line that J.D. could find.

Buck shook his head, gazing out the window at the early night. “We’ll look for the bullet again come morning. So far it’s just a whole lot of kindling. Just got off the phone with Chris again. Fillion’s headed over to Vin’s place to see what he can find out about the box that disappeared.”

“What’s in the box?”

“Memories,” Buck said darkly. “He kept things to remember stuff by: a friend’s dog tags, a photograph of him with the local kids by his post in Afghanistan…”

Wow… Something that personal… “Whoever took it must have known what was in it,” J.D. replied after a minute. “I can’t see that Huertas and Vin ever crossed paths in the military—Huertas fought in Iraq. Never even went to Afghanistan.”

Buck nodded. “Doesn’t mean he wasn’t hired by someone who did cross paths with Vin,” he pointed out.

“True,” J.D. said, rolling his eyes because after all this time, Buck thought he could teach him how to suck information. “Good thing I have an algorithm running to cross-reference their careers and uncover any sort of connection.”

Buck snorted, all but admitting how patronizing he was being. “Now why didn’t I think of that?”

“Are you two coming to eat at some point, or is this meatloaf going to waste?” Nettie called from the kitchen. “Damn rude of you to invade my house and just ignore the food I cook for you.”

“Well now, we couldn’t do that, Miss Nettie,” Buck assured her, smiling and heading for the late dinner. “Come on, Kid,” he commanded good-naturedly. “Don’t want to keep the lady waiting.”

J.D. looked at the program he had running and nodded. If there was a connection there, they’d find it. No one was going to hurt a member of Team Seven and get away with it.

***********

“You got a name?” Vin asked, watching the sniper walk along ahead of him and trying to keep himself from falling down.

“I like yours,” the man said, too damn cocky for his own good. “Can I use Rogue? Sounds like a superhero!” His skin was dark black and powdery-looking, his buzz-cut hair a boring black. His eyes were muddy and nondescript. He was average height, average looks, average everything. He was a better specimen of sniper than Vin was.

“Guess I don’t much care,” Vin said, fighting the urge to shrug. Never show your weakness. Damn sure not when you’re traipsing along in the middle of a war zone with a man who’s already killed four people. “They can fingerprint you when we get back.”

The sniper laughed. “They can try it.” He trudged on ahead of Vin for another minute before speaking again. “You’ve got a really satisfied look about you, soldier.” he turned around to face Vin, freezing when the pistol was shoved in his face. “You’ve been looking for me, haven’t you?”

“Figured you might be around,” Vin offered. “You made it easier than I thought you would.”

The sniper sighed. “Yeah, maybe I’m getting slow in my old age. Still… I did bring down all your little friends, didn’t I?”

Vin grit his teeth. “Keep moving.”

“Why? You got a date?”

Vin spun the guy around and shoved him back into motion, gasping involuntarily at the pain that shot from his left hand through the bullet wound and into his neck. “Smart mouth, asshole,” he muttered. “Shahnawaz pay you extra for that?”

“Oh, Mr. Shahnawaz pays me more than you’ll make in a lifetime. Well, your friends’ lifetimes anyway.” He shrugged, cruel and bloodthirsty and Vin knew he was letting him get under his skin but he couldn’t help it. “I remember how it was. All the tree-climbers are pals, aren’t they? Did you know all of them, or just the one?”

Vin held in his anger. Only a quarter mile to go. A quarter mile... “So you’re ex-SF. Figures.” He looked the man up and down and tried to make it scathing. “Washed out?”

Damn. Hit a nerve. Vin didn’t smile when the other guy flinched.

“Those dog tags,” the sniper continued, causing Vin to bring his swollen left hand up to his chest to feel the dangling chain and tags, where they’d half slipped out of his pocket. “Was he a friend?” The sniper looked tragic. “Compadre? Soulmate?”

“He was a Ranger,” Vin said, damning himself for letting this guy get to him so easily. “And a better man than you’ll ever be.”

“I’m still better than you, soldier,” he said coldly, moseying along like he had all the time in the world. “Let me out of the zip tie, and I’ll show you.”

Vin grinned at his pathetic pride as he heard a helicopter on approach. Finally.

“Had enough of watching you fail for today,” he said. “Think I’ll watch you rot instead.”

“Rogue, this is Daddy.” the radio called out.

Vin reached up to key the thing on, and the sniper attacked, slamming him full force into the sand, his hands somehow free and grabbing for Vin’s throat. The gun went skittering away and the rifle dug painfully into his back as the man straddled him, a knife in his hand. God damn it, Vin’s knife in his hand.

“Now, I’d love to stay and take part in your little Law and Order play, but I really do have things to do.” He raised the knife, a bloodthirsty glint in his eye. “And the first one is this.”

************

Vin jerked in the bed and Ezra looked up from the book he’d been reading. It was nine o’clock in the morning, and Vin had slept a solid twelve hours, testament to his injuries. His eyes were wide, and Ezra stood up and walked to the bed, standing solidly in Vin’s line of sight.

“Vin?”

Vin blinked rapidly before focusing on him.

“Are you okay?” Ezra realized immediately the idiocy of asking that question, but Vin still brought his left hand up to his chest to weakly sign (FINE). “Do you need anything?”

(FOOD), Vin signed, but with a morose look in his eyes that said he was well aware how futile the wish was. (WATER), he signed more hopefully.

“That I can do,” Ezra said, reaching over to grab the cup of water that had been waiting for Vin to wake up again. He guided the straw to the small opening in the wire lattice that was holding the younger man’s jaw steady so it would heal.

Vin sucked on it, frustrated and clearly in pain from the attempt to take anything in. He managed a couple of ounces before he growled low in his throat, which Ezra took as a sign to take it away.

“If it’s any consolation—and I’m quite aware it’s not—the doctor says that using the straw will get easier as the swelling in your face goes down.”

Vin’s eyes clearly said what he thought of that. Then he shook the letter C at him, and Ezra nodded his understanding. “Where’s Chris? Fillion found a footprint at your apartment. We matched it to Luis Huertas’s shoe.” Ezra didn’t think too deeply about how sketchy that search warrant had been. “Chris is interrogating him now.”

(NO), Vin signed, adamant.

“I’m aware you don’t think Mr. Huertas is responsible, but he is the only lead we currently have,” Ezra had reviewed all that J.D. had come up with, including the fruitless search for a connection between the two former Army men. “Huertas was a sniper for the Army in Iraq. Highly decorated and highly accurate.”

Vin signed something that might have been (MISS) if he had the use of his right hand. He snorted suddenly, closing his eyes for a second before glaring. There had to be a better way for them to do this.

“This seems the perfect storm, doesn’t it?” Ezra said softly. Without his right hand, Vin could neither write nor sign properly—what few signs he seemed to know. And until his jaw was healed, he couldn’t talk either. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you can write with your left hand?”

Vin seemed to consider it, then raised and lowered that hand as if to say (MAYBE).

Ezra walked back to his chair and pulled a few pieces of paper out of his briefcase, placing them and a pen on the bedside tray and maneuvering it in front of his friend. Vin considered it for a long moment, and Ezra almost regretted suggesting this. Vin didn’t speak about his dyslexia, and honestly, none of them thought about it on an average or even extraordinary day, but Ezra had an idea this would be very frustrating. For both of them.

************

“I swear, I didn’t touch the guy.”

Luis Huertas was a lean, lethal-looking man in his late twenties. Chris had seen a lot of men who had been changed for the worse by their time overseas, men who had lost something vital in themselves. He saw that look in Huertas’s eyes.

“I’m not saying you did,” he replied coolly. “Where were you Saturday, between 11:00 and 1:00 in the afternoon?”

“Hunting,” Huertas said defensively. “On private land, up by Mount Galbraith. M&L Ranch. You can call them.”

Chris didn’t bother to write that down. J.D. and Buck were behind the glass in the viewing room and he knew the younger man would be checking that out. Huertas had been brought in by local law enforcement and had cooled his heels at the local precinct for a while before Chris got him into a room. He knew they were ATF and that they were investigating an “attack” on their fellow agent, but beyond that, Chris hadn’t elaborated.

“Agent Tanner helped your wife move recently, is that right?” Chris asked blandly.

Huertas’s face darkened. “You could say that.”

“You could also say he packed her up in the middle of the night and got her away from you before you could hit her again.” He looked at the police file before him. “You’ve had a couple of discussions with the police about that, haven’t you?”

Huertas stared at him a long moment, then shrugged. “What am I supposed to say?” he asked. “Didn’t give him the right to put his fucking nose where it didn’t belong.”

Chris tried to keep his anger under control at the man’s cavalier response. “You say you were hunting? What kind of game?”

“Elk, mostly,” Huertas said, unsure of where this was going.

“Mostly,” Chris repeated. “What kind of rifle do you use?”

“Modified Surgeon.”

“308 caliber?” Chris ventured.

Huertas started sweating. “300 Winchester,” he corrected.

“Funny. That’s about the right size to account for the hole in Agent Tanner’s neck.”

“Wait—somebody shot him ?” The look of shock and fear on the other man’s face looked pretty real and Chris had a moment of doubt.

“Pretty accurate, too.” Chris knew his knuckles were white where he was clenching his fists, but he figured Huertas was too distracted to notice. “See, that’s the problem. You have a beef with Agent Tanner, the right kind of rifle, and the training and skills to use it.” He dropped a photo on the desk: of the bootprint Fillion had found at Vin’s place. “And of course, there’s the proof that you’d already gone looking for him at his home.”

“What?” Huertas cried, staring at the photo. “Hey, no. No, man, I swear. I saw a guy leaving his place Saturday morning, around—like—7:30, maybe? Guy left the door open a little, and…” He took a deep breath and deflated on the exhale. “Look, I was gonna rough him up some. I mean, damn it, he had no right to get into this thing with my wife—”

“This thing where you beat her?” Chris interrupted.

“—But he wasn’t there, so I closed the door and I left. I swear!” He ran his hand over his shaved head. “I needed to blow off some steam, so I called my old army buddy and went up to his place to go kill something.” A look of horror came over his face. “I didn’t mean—”

“The man you claim you saw leaving Agent Tanner’s apartment.” Chris broke in. “Describe him.”

“Um… Black guy. Like, Nigerian black—really dark and dry, you know?” He shook his head. “He was… average. Average height. Buzz-cut. Looked military.” He leaned forward. “Look, I may not be the best husband, but I’m not a killer, okay? I was a soldier and that’s over, and aside from a few elk and deer, I don’t shoot at anything anymore.”

Chris closed the file before him, his mind working. He had to talk to Vin. “We’ll check out your alibi, Mr. Huertas,” he told the man. “One of the officers will show you back to holding.”

He left the room before Huertas could protest, ducking immediately into the viewing room on the other side of the two-way mirror.

“Alibi checks out if we believe the owner of the ranch and two of his friends,” J.D. said.

“But you already knew that, didn’t you, Chris?” Buck asked, watching through the mirror as Huertas was escorted out.

Chris waited until the door to holding closed and then turned to Buck. “Yeah. Vin’s right, he’s an asshole, but he’s not a killer.” He looked at Lieutenant Giles, who was supervising the proceedings for the DPD. “Let him loose, Tim. But let him know we’ll want to talk to him later about the man he saw.”

Giles nodded and walked out to begin the process of releasing their erstwhile suspect.

“He said the guy looked military,” J.D. said.

Buck nodded. “So we are talking about something from his Ranger days.”

“Maybe,” Chris allowed. “Let’s go see if this guy sounds familiar to him.”

*********

GEPAPD BACBOCK

Ezra looked at the words on the page and extrapolated, as he’d been doing ever since he gave Vin the paper and pen. Vin seemed to have more trouble making the correct letter choices with his left hand, and the fact that, with his left hand, he wrote in mirror image (but only most of the time) made it interesting to say the least.

“And who exactly is Gerard Babcock?” he asked, acutely aware that Chris was ready to explode beside him. He waited, feeling Chriss impatience grow, as Vin slowly wrote out a couple of sentences, then translated the backward language fluidly. “Hired assassin, Afghanistan. Killed four snipers. Almost you?”

Vin nodded his left hand.

“Why would he come back now?” Chris asked. “Afghanistan was five years ago.”

Ezra nodded as Vin wrote, speaking before the words were fully printed. “He’s been in federal prison.”

J.D.’s laptop appeared in the younger man’s hand, and he sat down on the window sill to start finding out what happened.

“Why steal the box?” Chris asked.

Vin wrote a single word, and Ezra shook his head.

“Trophy.”

The door opened, and all eyes turned instantly toward it. They were suddenly on edge with the revelation of an assassin coming back for Vin after five years. It spoke of a good deal more menace than a pissed-off husband with skills and a rifle.

“You all look more serious than I’d like,” Nettie Wells said quietly as she walked in and looked Vin up and down critically. “I’m assuming you came up with something to explain who shot this boy out of my tree?”

“It looks like someone he ran into in the Army is holding a grudge,” Chris said, his eyes on Vin. Ezra thought Vin looked a little stunned to see Mrs. Welles, which was odd. He could have told the younger man she’d be in as soon as she thought he’d need her particular form of support.

“Well, I expect you boys to take care of that,” she said, stepping up and taking Vin’s left hand. “How are you doing, son?”

(FINE), Vin replied.

“Fine,” Ezra translated out of habit.

“I don’t need you telling me what he said, Fancy Pants,” she managed to snap conversationally. The fact that she didn’t even turn to give him her patented scathing look somehow made the censure all the more powerful. Ezra ignored the smirks on Buck and Chris’s faces. At least the tension in the room had dropped to a manageable level.

“Figure you’re in here for a while yet?” she asked Vin. He blinked and she patted his hand. “Well, we’ll have to find something to feed you, then.” She smiled at whatever she saw in his eyes. “No, I wouldn’t let them starve you in here, and you’ll come on back to my place once they let you out—”

“Nettie, Vin’s still a target—” Chris began.

She did turn on him , giving him a glare even worse than the ones she was known to give Ezra himself. “Then find the man who did this.”

Ezra was sure he wasn’t the only one raising an eyebrow at her vehemence.

Chris swallowed and looked up from Vin to meet her eyes.

“Yes, ma’am.”

***********

The sniper used the knife blade to lift Jimmy’s dog tags from Vin’s pocket, his free hand coming down hard on Vin’s neck to stop him from interfering. He suspended the tags in front of his own face so he could read them, and Vin heard his words through an increasing buzz in his ears as his oxygen got scarce. His hands groped at his sides, his legs squirming.

“Hanratty, James D. Is this the Irish kid? Black hair and freckles?” he grinned, like he was remembering something fondly. “He was fun. Chased him a mile before I took him all the way down.” He sneered, leaning harder on Vin’s neck. “Think I’ll keep this, if you don’t mind. He was good about not having anything on him to identify him—you could learn from that. Anyway,” he pocketed the tags. “I like a little memento to remember things by.”

Vin didn’t even try to catch his breath as the man raised his knife again. He reacted on instinct, bringing a knee up and slamming it hard into the guy’s groin, then into his stomach when he reared off in reaction.

But Vin was half starved of oxygen and the sniper was a trained combatant who recovered quickly, slamming him back to the ground so hard he saw stars. The moment of freedom had given Vin what he was really after, though—the extra knife in his boot. He moved quickly, slicing the sniper’s arm as he brought the blade up.

The man growled in anger and Vin got the knife to his throat.

“I don’t want to slit your throat, but I will,” Vin growled, his voice rough and broken from the choking.

“I don’t think so, Rogue.” The sniper pushed back, knees shoving so hard into Vin’s stomach that Vin blacked out for a second as the pain raced up his spine.

A rifle shot brought him back to himself, and he saw the sniper on the ground beside him, bleeding from a worse shoulder wound than his own, while two soldiers ran up from the trail that led to the rendezvous. One covered the sniper and the other ran for Vin.

“How you doing, Rogue?” the soldier asked gently, keeping to call names in the face of an enemy in camp.

“Lucky,” Vin wheezed. He lay still a few moments, trying to catch his breath. The sniper was hauled to his feet, his bullet wound patched for now. Jimmy’s dog tags had ended up in the dust between them, and as the sniper glared at Vin with hatred, Vin reached over and picked them up.

“You ready to go, solider?” his savior asked, a hand firmly around Vin’s right bicep.

Vin steeled himself to rise. “Never more ready,” he replied.

*************

“I can’t even find official records that Gerard Babcock was ever incarcerated by the United States,” J.D. announced, once the whole of Team Seven was gathered back in Vin’s room. After Nettie left, Vin had dozed off, exhaustion and pain and medication making him drift in and out.

Josiah studied the pages of large, awkward print that Ezra had collected, interested despite the situation by this insight into the mechanisms that made up Vin’s brain.

“But the unofficial records?” Chris prompted. Josiah looked up at the sharp, impatient tone, and schooled himself to pay better attention.

J.D. didn’t even smirk as he usually did when showing off his digital prowess. He was worried, clearly—this was one of their own. “He was a hired gun for an Afghan warlord. Mahmoud Shahnawaz.” He looked at the computer screen, his hand scrolling the text down the page faster than most people could read. “Babcock was a SEAL washout,” he continued. “Good, but not great , sniper score. He was physically tough, but his psych profile raised a red flag.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Ezra muttered. “Why his fixation on our Mr. Tanner? Was he the one that got away?”

“Worse,” J.D. replied. “He was the one that got him caught.”

“Wonderful,” Buck murmured, turning from staring at Vin to staring out the window instead.

“Babcock nearly killed him,” J.D. continued. “He shot him off a cliff and Vin cracked a vertebra and the top of his hip, plus broke two bones in his left hand as a result of the fall. The extraction team shot Babcock off of him before he could slit his throat.”

Chris was silent a long minute. “Any idea why Babcock was released?”

J.D. shook his head, fingers back to flying across his keyboard. “I’m figuring he wasn’t. I mean, he killed four Army Rangers before Vin brought him in. You don’t get a slap on the wrist for that.”

“But since he was never officially caught, he can’t have officially escaped,” Chris grumbled. He looked down at the floor, pondering, then his head snapped up. “Buck, call your friend Matrice in CID. See if he has any information. J.D., you keep digging. And put out a BOLO for Babcock. Armed and dangerous—”

“—inform but do not approach,” J.D. cut in. “Gotcha.”

“Nathan, I want you to stay here and keep an eye on Vin—”

They all turned as Vin smacked his left hand against the bedframe with a frustrated clang. He shoved a paper at Chris, and Josiah realized that he must have woken up a while ago. They’d all been too busy listening to J.D.’s briefing to listen.

The paper had three words on it, written swiftly and in irritation, far more garbled than the other examples of Vin’s left-handed attempts: Dont ndee babgsittter.

“He’s not a babysitter, Junior,” Buck put in jovially before Chris could start a fight Vin had no ability to win right now. “He’s just here to pester you and annoy you and drive the doctors up the wall fretting over you.”

Vin glared at the tall man for a long minute before he sighed roughly through his wired jaws.

(FINE), he signed angrily, wincing at his own vehemence and locking his gaze on Chris’s implacable visage. A pair of one-handed half signs followed. (DON’T LIKE)

“You don’t have to like it, Vin,” Josiah replied. “But you do have to do it.” He looked at Nathan’s startled expression, then back at Vin. “Actually, I think I’d like to stay,” he said, meeting Chris’s eyes and glancing at the stack of papers in his hand. “I know for a fact Nathan doesn’t know a word in sign language.”

Nathan didn’t protest, and Josiah knew he’d read his friend’s nervousness correctly. “Besides, don’t you have a friend in Army Intelligence, Nathan?” he offered, giving everyone an out here. “Among you, Buck, and J.D., maybe we can come up with something.”

“Babcock had to have gotten the rifle from somewhere,” Ezra said, pushing to his feet. “I’ll visit a few gun shops and see what I can find out.”

“All right,” Chris said, still locked in a stare-down with his injured agent. “I need to head back to headquarters and see if Fillion’s come up with anything else. He’s still hoping to find the bullet in the branches you brought down when you fell.” His face softened slightly, and Josiah watched Vin’s anxiety step down a notch. “Only you could get shot in the neck and have that be the least of your injuries.”

Vin snorted, then whined in response to the pain that caused. His left hand came up and made the inverted “OK” of (ASSHOLE).

“Just concentrate on getting better,” Chris told him. “We’ll work on tracking down Babcock.”

Josiah waited as the others filed out, watching Vin stare after them, worrying about them. “We’ll find him, Vin,” he assured his friend, seeing his eyes starting to glaze over with pain. “How long’s it been since you got something to take the edge off?” he asked.

(DON’T KNOW), Vin signed tiredly.

“You okay?” Josiah asked inanely. Sometimes inane got you the truth, though.

Vin sighed almost mournfully. (HUNGRY) he added, though if his eyes could be translated, Josiah would have heard “so damned” before it. Nathan told him they’d started Vin on a liquid diet, but for a man like Vin, who seemed to eat everything in sight if given the chance, that was akin to feeding a tiger a bowl of carrots.

“I’ll bet,” Josiah said, patting his left arm sympathetically. “This, too, shall pass, my friend,” he reminded him. He pressed the call button and forced cheer into his voice. “Let’s get them to give you some of the good drugs and we can catch the end of the Rockies game, okay?”

Vin blinked gratefully at him, his lips twitching a little in an attempt to smile.

Lord, Josiah hoped they found Babcock soon. And he hoped someone left the sniper in a room alone with him for a while. He had things to say.

And possibly do, but he was trying not to think about that.

Instead, he settled into the chair next to Vin’s bed and turned on the television, waiting for the nurse.

*********

The trial was a closed affair and Vin was announced simply as “the Ranger involved in the altercation leading to the defendant’s apprehension.” He’d been told his name would never come into it, for his protection and the protection of his family. Which was dumb. That last part didn’t enter into it for an unattached orphan like him, and he didn’t mind much being exposed if it brought a killer down.

No, for Vin it was enough that his friend’s murderer had a name now. Gerard Babcock. A SEAL washout who had hired himself out to the highest bidder and had no problem killing American servicemen to make a buck. Just sitting in the same heavily guarded tent with the man made him sick.

The proceedings were quick, the evidence more than enough for the small tribunal of Afghan and US personnel. Babcock was sentenced to rot in an American federal prison for the rest of his life, and Vin limped painfully back to the field hospital to await transfer to the main medical facility in Kabul, and from there, back home. He’d probably be assigned a desk job stateside if they couldn’t rehab his damn neck, though the hip and hand’d heal with a couple of months hard rest.

Vin really hated hard rest.

He reached his tingling right hand under his cot and rummaged through his foot locker, ignoring the pain the maneuver cost him, so he could pull out a beat up cigar box that’d been new when he’d started his tour here nineteen months ago. It was full of crap, mostly. A cool matchbox he’d picked up in a bar in Tagab. The spent cartridge from his shot that picked off one of the terrorism Top 52. Shit that meant something at the time, because memories were fleeting and you had to grab them while you could.

He picked up a picture of him and Hal Juniman and a team full of happy ten-year-olds. Soccer was a universal language, and his troop had played with the kids of the village nearly everyday for the first five weeks he’d be in-country. There were days he really regretted transferring out of that assignment. Sure, he’d gotten to do some real good in his current post, but… Saghira had been a lot less bloody.

He dug Jimmy’s dog tags out of his pocket, letting them hang from his hand and twist in the nonexistent wind for a minute. He tried to banish the image of Babcock and his crazy eyes and the possessive way he’d looked at them.

 

”Hey, Vin!”

Jimmy had tossed something at him and Vin raised a hand automatically to catch it, surprised when his pal’s dog tags clanged into his palm. He looked up to see Jimmy dressed in Afghan  garb, his skin so tanned from the desert sun that, aside from the freckles and the blue eyes, he was nearly indistinguishable from any other local villager making his way in the world.

“Keep those safe for me, will you?” he asked.

Vin had smiled, stupidly thinking that Anderson’s death had been a fluke, or bad luck. Thinking he’d be seeing Jimmy again in a week or so. Mission accomplished, like always.

“Sure thing, Jimmy!” he’d said. “Good luck.”

“I don’t need luck, Tanner. You know that!”

And he was gone. The body found at the bottom of a ravine, gutted and staked out? That wasn’t Jimmy. Not to Vin.

“Hey Rogue!”

Vin shoved the dog tags into his box and shut the top before he looked up, anger flooding through him at the smiling face of a murderer. Babcock’s shoulder wound was being treated here as well, in a separate partition from the real soldiers, and it was just Vin’s bad luck that this was the one day he’d been here while they were moving Babcock through.

“Too bad they’re shipping me out soon,” Babcock continued. “I would have loved to talk some more.” His eyes got dark and crazy again as he looked at the box. “I see you’ve got one, too. Gosh, we’re not so different, are we?”

“Shut up, Babcock,” the MP in charge of transfer said, shoving him along toward the other end of the tent.

Vin watched him go, knowing— knowing— that the guy was full of shit. He opened the box again, and his eyes lit on that damn cartridge.

“I like a little memento to remember things by.”

Vin growled, and slammed the box shut. He wouldn’t open it again for two years. Not until he transferred to the ATF and met a man whose life had managed to be even more fucked up than his own.

************

Vin blinked himself awake, glad not to feel the fog that painkillers usually left him in. He felt surprisingly clear, actually. And in a hell of a lot of pain, but he wasn’t going to let on to anyone about that.

Not that there was anyone awake to let on to. Josiah was snoring away in the chair beside his bed, the television on some sitcom that had been cool fifteen years ago. The clock above the television said it was eleven, and Vin looked out into the night for a long moment, the scene through the closed window almost relaxing when you couldn’t hear the traffic.

God, he hurt. And he wanted to move . He was sure he’d feel better if he just got out of this damn bed. He fought one-handed with the gate on the left side of the bed, feeling proud of himself for getting it down without waking Josiah. He had a bad moment when the call button clattered to the ground, but Josiah just snorted in his sleep and sawed a few more logs.

It hurt to really move his left arm and shoulder, the motions pulling on the stitches in his neck, but he’d been through worse in his life and there was a comfy-looking recliner over in the corner. If he could just get there.

Rolling over in the bed made him want to scream, but he could barely swallow with his tongue and neck so swollen, so he just cursed in his head and tried to sit up, his body protesting every last inch. The IV pole he dragged next to him to make sure the EKG leads didn’t set off any alarms was a good crutch, and he figured he could give this a try, sliding down the edge of the bed to stand on his own two feet.

He’d made it about fifteen inches toward the chair when the door started to creep open. His lips actually made the word “fuck”, which was encouraging, as he tried to slide back onto the mattress like nothing happened. The silhouette in the doorway paused a moment, then closed the door, and Vin jerked in surprise at the sound of a silenced gunshot.

Josiah stopped snoring, falling silently to the ground hard enough to move the whole bed next to him, and Vin stared in shock and anger as the silhouette resolved into the figure of Gerard Babcock, his bright teeth a slash of white in his black face as he stepped forward, the streetlights from the window giving him faint definition.

Vin reached back to the bed, hunting for the call button for a second before he remembered that he’d dropped the damn thing.

“Hey, Rogue,” Babcock greeted him. “Or should I called you Agent Tanner?”

Vin lunged at him, mindless of his injuries, thinking only about the fact that Josiah had gone down hard and never moved. He managed to bowl Babcock over, slamming the assassin’s right hand into the floor, banging it three times before the asshole finally gave up the gun.

But, as it had been in Afghanistan five years ago, they were outmatched. One-handed, his mobility hampered by the sling on his right arm, the stitches in his neck, and the time in a bed that had let abused muscles stiffen to uselessness, Vin found himself again flat on his back and on the receiving end of Babcock’s mad glare—the pain was almost blinding, but he could still see that.

“Hmm,” Babcock muttered quietly. “Now why is this so familiar…?”

*********

Ezra Standish was, quite possibly, pathologically paranoid. And if he was (being paranoid, he would neither confirm nor deny), he put the blame squarely on his mother’s shoulders. Of course, the skills he’d learned at her hands allowed him to indulge his paranoia, so there was a symmetry there.

When he walked down East Colfax, looking for a certain snitch, he wasn’t Ezra Standish, federal agent, but Erv Stiles, a shady beat cop with a reputation for paying for more than just information. Stiles had been rumored to sell the occasional gun that might have fallen out of the bin at the precinct evidence lock-up, or come upon some drug or other when it was convenient.

Of course it was all rumor—built painstakingly with the local LEOs, who appreciated the help when a low-level gun dealer needed to be brought down every now and again—but it gave him the freedom that he wouldn’t have had had he, say, walked into the same neighborhood and announced, “Hello, I’m an agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. I do promise not to bring you down with your boss if you rat him out.” And of course, since one beat cop in uniform looked just like another, protecting his identity for further undercover work in the area was easy.

“Hey Henny,” he called quietly, watching the man start to rabbit before he realized that it was “just Stiles.” John Henderson was a two-bit thief, but he worked for one of the equally two-bit gun dealers in town who weren’t entirely convinced that background checks trumped cold, hard cash. This was the third such inquiry Ezra had made, and the day had gone on to night already.

“Hey, Stiles,” Henny hailed him, fading into a nearby alley so Ezra would follow him. “What are you looking for this time?”

Ezra looked out the alley entrance, like he was making sure he wasn’t being watched. “I got the captain breathing down my ass,” he admitted. “Looking for some black guy named Babcock. Might’ve been in to your boss’s place to buy a rifle?”

“Oh shit, yeah, that guy!” Henny said. “Scared the bejeezus out of Markham—hell, scared the bejeezus out of me . I don’t know if he even paid for the thing. Just leaned over the counter and whispered something in Markham’s ear, and the guy went white as a ghost.”

“Huh,” Ezra replied, sounding unconcerned, though his mind was racing. “He say anything else?”

“Not that time,” Henny said leadingly. He made the classic grabbing motion of a snitch who knows he’s got information you want and wants to know how much you’re willing to cough up for it.

Ezra sighed and produced a wad of bills from his pocket. He gave Henny a significant look that said he wanted to know what he was paying for first.

“Came back this morning—man, Markham nearly pissed himself. Paid for a Sig and a silencer and asked about any places he might be able to borrow around 135th and Garland,” Henny said off-handedly. “Weird, huh?” He sniffed, as if dismissing the crazy killer. “Said Markham could breathe easy. He’d be out of town once the job was done tonight.”

Ezra held in his shock and pulled a half dozen twenty-dollar bills out of his wallet. “Yeah. Weird. Thanks, Henny. Might hit you up for something again soon.” 135th and Garland was Four Corners Medical Center.

Henny shook his head and stuffed the bills in his pocket. “Long as your cash is real, Stiles.”

It took exactly one minute and fifteen seconds for Ezra to get back to the squad car he’d borrowed from the fourth precinct. He counted off every second.

He closed the door and pulled out his phone. He dialed Chris first, and his team leader picked up on the first ring. “What do you have Ezra?”

“I found the dealer who sold Babcock his rifle,” Ezra said, throwing the squad car into gear and turning on the sirens. “He came back for a pistol today.” He barreled toward the Four Corners area. “He’s headed for Vin.”

*********

“I had a hell of a time figuring out who you were,’ Babcock told him, with all the time in the world. He had Vin’s legs and left arm pinned, but Vin struggled anyway. “Luckily, not all my money was confiscated when you got me locked up —” The angry words were emphasized by pressure on his arms and torso that had him making a long, loud, grating moan that set the bruised and battered muscles of his neck and mouth on fire.

Babcock either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “And I still have some friends in law enforcement.” He glanced over at Josiah and grinned in a way that made Vin want to tear him apart, piece by fucking piece. “Looks like you don’t anymore. Bummer.”

He studied Vin like a bug. “You know, this is even better than the desert,” he murmured quietly, his knife held loose in his hand, while he considered what to do. “No evac coming. Backup eliminated....” The knife ran down the side of his face without drawing blood. “Just you and me.”

It probably would be for a while, too, Vin realized, head ringing and breath short from the pain and the weight of the killer on top of him. And him unable to say a fucking word.

And Babcock knew it, too. “You do a suck job of staying in your perch, Rogue,” he told him. “You haven’t learned a damn thing in five years, have you?” He leaned close, his breath thick and disgusting. “I, on the other hand, have learned a lot. You weren’t quite the Apple Pie Captain America you set yourself up to be, were you?”

I never set myself up to be anything, Vin answered silently.

“I think you've killed more people than I have, actually. And that box of yours? It isn’t so different from mine. I have the casing from my first kill, too.” He laughed as Vin growled louder than he’d been able to before. Anger lent him strength, and he bided his time, waiting for Babcock to get wrapped up in his own words.

“The kids were cute. Lots of pictures of kids, too.” He grinned so dark and sick that Vin almost made his move too early. “Got a thing for the young ones, huh?” Babcock murmured, getting in his face—and changing his center of gravity to something a little more unsteady. “You’re not the first one to sample the local produce, if you know what I mean.”

Vin took that moment to channel every ounce of energy he had left to bring his legs up, kneeing Babcock hard in the groin just like he had in Afghanistan, following it with the same kick to the stomach… But as Babcock started to recover, Vin knew with resignation that this wasn’t Afghanistan. He didn’t have the power left to roll to his feet and get the upper hand. Babcock still had the only knife.

And there was no evac coming.

*******

Chris slammed his SUV into park, hopping out but leaving the red and blue lights flashing. A police car came screaming in behind him, lights and sirens going, but he ignored it and ran for the door. If Ezra had called the local LEOs, they were just going to have to follow along after him.

He took the stairs to the fourth floor though he knew that the elevator would have gotten him there just as fast. He couldn’t stand to wait. He’d called Josiah and received no answer, and he had a very, very bad feeling about all of this.

God damn, why hadn’t they left more people here to cover Vin!? Hell, he hadn’t even bothered to ask for a police guard on the door, figuring Josiah’d be enough.

The desk was empty, and Chris was about to head right for Vin’s room when one of the nurses he’d met but whose name he couldn't remember walked out of another room nearby.

“Oh! Mr. Larabee!” she cried, probably taken aback by the angry look in his eyes. He hadn’t drawn his gun yet, obviously, but he knew he probably looked dangerous. “Um… Is something wrong?”

Another handful of people walked out of the same room she just had, moving in all directions, but Chris kept his focus on her. The door to the stairs banged open behind him.

“Has anyone gone into Agent Tanner’s room?” he asked. Ezra was suddenly beside him—dressed as a cop, which Chris cataloged but didn’t process—and listened for the answer.

“Not that I’ve seen,” she said cautiously. Her face fell in apology. “We had a patient with a reaction to his medications, though,” she admitted. “I’ve been away from the desk for about—”

There was a crash from down the hall—Vin’s room, Chris was sure—and an alarm started blaring at the desk. The nurse ran around to look at the monitors that relayed information on all the rooms on the floor. Ezra drew his gun at the same time Chris did, and started moving down the hall carefully.

“Oh God,” the nurse whispered, looking up at Chris in horror. “Agent Tanner’s monitors just…”

Chris didn’t wait for her to find the stomach to say that final word. Instead he ran to Vin’s door, aiming his gun before him as Ezra flanked him. He nodded to his agent, took a deep breath, and burst through the door.

“ATF!” he yelled, more out of habit than necessity. The light flicked on behind him, and he nodded his thanks to Ezra. He kept his gun out, though it seemed the danger had passed, and tried to take in the room at a glance.

Vin lay on the floor, curled away from him, his right arm pinned awkwardly beneath him, his left arm—and the silenced gun he held in his hand—pointing toward one of two other bodies in the room. The monitor by the bed squealed endlessly, half the chest leads hanging from it.

“I need a medical team in here,” Chris heard Ezra call sharply, his voice directed at the hall. “Right now.”

Gerard Babcock lay splayed out in the corner, dead from a bullet to the forehead. Josiah lay on the far side of the bed, blood on his face where it was turned toward the door, and Chris’s gut clenched. Ezra was headed toward Josiah, though, and Chris could hear running and carts being pushed down the hallway outside, so he holstered his gun and knelt beside Vin. The injured man’s eyes were squeezed shut, tears of pain leaking from the corners. The gauze on his neck was blotched in blood instead of dotted. Chris was almost afraid to touch him, so he called to him instead.

“Vin?” Vin opened his eyes and took a long moment to focus on Chris. “Hey,” Chris greeted him gently, a smile gracing his face. “You’re okay.” He glanced behind him to where a medical team was checking on Babcock’s body and moving on. “You got him. Babcock’s dead.”

Vin let go of the gun and closed his eyes a moment in clear relief. They popped back open with fear in them, and his left fist started moving frantically, the pinky out as he swung it back and forth, over and over, from the wrist.

“Ezra?” Chris called, but Ezra was suddenly beside him. He’d been across the room a second ago. Chris looked up at him. “What’s he trying to say?” And how pathetic was it that he was having to have someone translate Vin for him?

“It’s the letter J,” Ezra said, squatting down next to him and capturing Vin’s attention. “They’re working on Josiah now,” he told their friend simply, oozing comfort. It was exactly the wrong thing to do, because they all knew by now that Ezra only did that when things were bad.

“Chris?”

Buck’s voice broke into Chris’s bubble and he looked up to find the tall man standing in the doorway, Nathan behind him. J.D. was probably behind him. “He gonna be—”

“We need you out of the way, gentlemen,” a small, fiery-looking woman demanded, pushing past the men in the doorway. “I need that gurney in here and you are taking up too much room.”

It would have been funny, any other time, to see Nathan and Buck literally jump to the side to make way, but it wasn’t funny at all right this moment. Not as Chris watched the medical crew lift Josiah onto the gurney, the big man limp and silent.

“Hell…” Buck whispered, as the gurney moved past him. Chris turned back to Vin just in time to see his eyes close in pain.

“Let’s get Mr. Tanner off the floor,” said a young man Chris hadn’t seen before. His ID proclaimed him to be a resident. Dr. Yao. Chris grabbed Vin’s left arm and Yao took his injured right. “Mr. Tanner?” Yao called loudly, getting a tight nod and resulting whine in response. “We’re going to lift you back onto the bed, okay?”

Vin didn’t nod, but he did blink, so they pulled him carefully to standing—and he promptly passed out.

“Chris…?” Ezra’s slow, concerned drawl had Chris looking at him, and then at what he was looking at. Vin’s stomach was bleeding.

“I see it,” Dr. Yao said calmingly. “Let’s get him lying down and I’ll take a look.”

Laid out on the bed, Vin didn’t look much different than he’d looked the last time Chris’d seen him. Yao pulled up Vin’s hospital gown, exposing a shallow cut that eased Chris’s mind immediately.

“Hey Jen?” Yao called, causing one of the nurses cleaning up the medical debris to look up. “Can I get a suture kit?”

“They’re moving Josiah downstairs," Nathan announced, stepping back into the room. "He was damn lucky the shot went wide and hit him in the side."

“So why—?” J.D. asked.

Nathan’s voice dropped. “He hit his head… pretty hard. They’ll assess him and see.” He sighed, and his voice went hard. "Morgue’s on its way up for Babcock."

He walked over to the others, who were standing by the dead assassin figuring out what happened. “Josiah still had his gun holstered,” he continued, stumbling over his friend’s name. “That one must’ve been Babcock’s.”

“The knife, too,” Buck said, looking toward the bed. “Can I borrow one of these, honey?” he murmured to another of the nurses, this one cleaning up the medical cart. He took one of the blue safety gloves from a box there and used it to pick up a bloodied knife by the hilt.

Chris looked back down at Vin, watching Yao sew up the messy slice with calm efficiency. “How’d you know he was coming, Ezra?” he asked without looking over at the undercover agent.

“And why’re you dressed as a cop?” Buck asked, because Buck’d have to be damned distracted not to notice something that’d give him a chance to rib one of the others.

Ezra ignored him as only Ezra could. “Babcock asked the gun dealer about ‘safe’ places to stay around the medical center."

“Untraceable places,” Buck clarified.

"He was incarcerated in Wyoming," J.D. offered, bagging the gun for evidence, using a biohazard bag from that same medical cart. "One of those secret isolation centers. He killed three of his guards and just disappeared."

Buck snorted. "And no one thought to put out an APB."

J.D. shrugged. "Invisible prisoner in an invisible jail. What would they say?"

"The truth'd be a good start," Buck replied.

"Like Josiah says, 'Truth has no meaning in war.'" Nathan sighed after his proclamation, his worry thick in the room and shared by all of them. "I'm going to go...."

Chris nodded his approval as the other man left, knowing he’d stay with Josiah and let them all know what was happening. He looked at Yao's face as the young doctor finished suturing the belly wound. "How's he doing?"

"Exhausted, messed up, pulled the stitches, obviously. Probably reinjured that right arm." The assessment was blunt as he moved on unwrap Vin’s neck and repair the damage done there. "Transport is on its way up to take him down to imaging to make sure everything's where it's supposed to be."

"You don't pull any punches, do you, kid?" Buck asked, echoing Chris's thoughts.

"Just telling you what's going on," the young man countered. "I can also tell you that he'll be fine, barring any more crazy people shooting at him."

"Well that might prove a problem when it comes to our Mr. Tanner," Ezra joked, deadpan. Chris was thankful for the moment, but the lightness didn’t last long with two of their own down.

Luckily, soon they were too busy to dwell on it all. There was the matter of squaring things with the morgue and reporting the incident to local law enforcement, all of which took longer than it should. But all too soon, they were watching a still-unconscious Vin be rolled out toward the imaging suite.

"I'll go with him," Chris announced. Because somebody had to. Like Nathan's check on Josiah, there was no need for him to do it. The danger had passed. But no one did anything but nod their agreement when he started following the transport team out, because it had become an unspoken rule in the team that none of them went into this sort of thing alone if the others could help it.

Still, Chris smirked as he heard a question asked behind him. Even with Josiah and Vin down, his team would be all right. Somehow.

"So, Ezra," Buck asked. "Seriously. Why are you dressed like a cop? You know that's a felony in these parts."

***********

"He was a good friend, ma'am. I know that don't mean much without him, but he was. And he helped people. Saved people."

Vin studied the coffee cup in his hands instead of looking at the mother of Lieutenant First Class James Hanratty. The dogtags he’d brought home with him sat cold in his pocket.

He wasn't even sure why he'd come, except that he felt like she needed to know that the men Jimmy worked with—not the guys who knocked on a door and read a script about what an asset your dead son was to the Army, but the guys he saw every damn day while he went through hell—that they'd miss him now.

Maybe almost as much as you did.

“Jimmy talked about you,” Mrs. Hanratty said, and the sad quiet in her voice made Vin finally look at her. She was sixty-five—Jimmy had sent her flowers on her birthday two months before he died—but she looked younger. Black hair, fair skin, and freckles like her son’s. “He talked about all of you. Told me what good people you were.” She sputtered a laugh that was more to tears, and put a hand to her mouth. “He said I’d love you if I met you.”

“I’m sorry he didn’t get to introduce us, ma’am,” Vin replied. He knew his words were useless. He knew none of it mattered a damn bit. Jimmy was still dead. Vin put down the cup and took out Jimmy’s dog tags, staring at them for a long moment.

“Jimmy gave me these,” he said awkwardly. “To look after when he went on his last assignment.” He offered them up to her. “I think he’d want you to have them.”

“He didn’t ask me to look after them,” she said firmly. Vin’s head came up, and she was smiling that same cocky smile he’d seen on Jimmy’s face a hundred times. “If you want to keep them, I don’t think Jimmy would mind, do you?”

Vin remembered the look on Jimmy’s face that day. “Keep those safe for me, will you?”

It took him a long minute to find his voice. “Thank you ma’am,” he told her. “I… Thank you.”

“And thank you for coming, Lieutenant Tanner,” she said, leaning forward putting a hand on his arm. “It means a lot more than you seem to think it does.”

He nodded gratefully. “We caught the man who did it,” he told her, because that mattered to him. “He’s being punished.”

“Punishment doesn’t mean a thing, Lieutenant,” she said, using her own hand to close his over the dogtags. “Remember Jimmy . Don’t worry about the man that killed him—it just gives him more power.”

********

That’s something Josiah’d say, was the first thought in Vin’s mind as he woke. THe thought caused a worry to bloom full-grown in his mind and his eyes shot open, looking around for… something.

The room was different. He couldn’t turn his head much, the pain worse than it had been before that bastard Babcock walked in the door, but he could tell from the color of the upper walls, and the window was in a different place. And brighter. It was morning at least.

“Thank you for giving me a reason not to work on this report.”

Buck’s joking greeting was followed by the man himself showing up in Vin’s field of view. He looked tired, worried, and stressed, but less so than Vin figured he should. He gestured for Buck to raise the head of the bed, and Buck complied. And it hurt a whole hell of a lot.

“They got you one of these,” Buck said, putting a trigger in his hand. Vin felt his lips and cheeks obey him this time when he tried to smile in thanks as he pressed the button and waited for the patient-controlled analgesics to hit his system. Sometimes there was nothing better than a painkiller you could dose yourself.

He let Buck move the trigger away and bring a straw to his lips, and sucking it was, in fact, easier this time, though his tongue still ached.

That worry hit him again as he wondered where the others were, and he had a sudden memory of Josiah on the floor and Ezra being too damn comforting about the man’s condition. He started to sign the letter J, because he was almost certain he couldn’t fingerspell Josiah’s name even with his right hand much less his left, but then he realized Buck didn’t read sign language.

But apparently he read enough.

“Josiah’s in the ICU for now,” Buck answered. He didn’t look happy, but he didn’t look like he had when Chris’d been nearly killed by that explosion last year. “The bullet hit him in the shoulder, thank God, but…” Vin’s stomach clenched at Buck’s hesitation. “He smacked his head pretty hard. They were worried that he might have some bleeding in there, but it looks like that bullet, he actually dodged. They’re monitoring him upstairs for a while yet—Ezra and J.D. are up there now, I think—but you’ll have a roomie soon.”

Vin smiled again, ignoring the pain that was already less than it had been. He wanted to know what had happened, though. He remembered clearly the moment he’d thought Babcock had won. He’d slumped back, and his left hand had brushed over the silenced pistol. He’d never made a shot like that with his left hand. Ever.

“I figure you want the whole story, huh?” Buck asked him, settling in a chair far enough away from the bed that Vin could see him without moving his neck. “Babcock set up in an abandoned apartment across the street. Had a perfect view of the front of the hospital and just waited until he was sure all but one of us were gone.” Vin blinked his understanding and tried a nod. It worked. Kind of.

“He gave an overdose of painkillers to a patient down the hall to distract the staff—” He held up a hand as Vin’s heart rate picked up. Bad enough Josiah was hurt, but an innocent bystander? “Now relax, Junior, relax. He’s okay. I don’t know if he meant to kill him or not, but he cleared his own way to get in here. We don’t know anything else until Chris and Ezra burst through the door to find you and Josiah down and Babcock deader than hell, but I figure you’ll fill us in when you can.”

Vin nodded again and immediately thought better of it. He’d have to tell them what Babcock had said about friends in law enforcement, too. Might explain how he escaped from wherever he’d been.

“Anyway, we found his nest and the rifle we think shot you out of that tree. We owe Fillion a case of beer—he actually found the damn bullet, lodged in one of the branches that came down with you.” He slid the tray table forward so Vin could reach it. “We also found this.”

His box sat there, and for a long moment, only Babcock’s voice rang in his mind, spewing crap and evil. Remember Jimmy. Don’t worry about the man that killed him, rang a comforting voice in his mind . Vin opened the box and took Jimmy’s dogtags out. He’d look through the rest later, but the metal cards were cool in his hand and they were back where they belonged. He placed them back in the box and closed it again.

(THANKS), he signed, not knowing if Buck knew what he was saying, but feeling the need to say something anyway.

“You’re welcome,” Buck returned with a grin. “But now…” He tapped the fake wood next to the bottle Vin had seen and ignored on the tray table. He hated those damn shakes. He knew he had to have them, and he’d been threatened with IV nutrition the first time he’d resisted… But it hurt to try to drink and they tasted like crap and he was hungry , damn it!

“I know, they taste like shit,” Buck sympathized. “That’s why I brought you this.”

He placed a takeout mug beside the bottle of liquified crap and put on a shit-eating grin. “I went down to Tommy’s Soup Bowl and asked Lupita what your favorite was.”

Vin could feel himself salivating already.

“The easiest thing was the egg drop, of course,” Buck told him, conversational and clearly leading up to something. “But I figured, you know, the oxtail couldn’t be that hard to puree, right? And it’s got a ton of protein, so—” he broke off with a chuckle as Vin grabbed the damn mug and very, very carefully put it to his lips.

Oh God, it was Tommy’s oxtail soup! It was rich and it was warming and it was food! Vin hummed in his throat—which felt a hell of a lot better for having food go down it.

“I’ll take that as a thank you,” Buck said.

Vin nodded his tiny nod and sipped at the soup again. It had been thinned down some so it was easier to drink, but it didn’t make any difference.

The door opened and Chris and Nathan walked in.

“Don’t disturb him now,” Buck jumped on them. “He’s eating.” Buck looked up at Nathan and a grimace came over his face as he defended himself. From what, Vin had no idea, because Nathan had been in the process of nodding approvingly. “Don’t get your panties in a twist, Nathan, I cleared it with the doctors first. Long as he documents everything he eats and he gets enough protein and drinks every two hours and all that crap, he can have some damn food that don’t taste like chalk in a blender!”

Nathan was stunned silent and Chris put a hand on Buck’s shoulder. “It’s possible Buck is just reliving the time he busted his jaw playing hockey,” he explained. “I think he’d’ve pureed a steak by the end of it, if he could have.” He grinned at Vin. “How are you doing?” he asked.

Great. Got the good drugs, some real food. Josiah’s going to be okay and Babcock’s finally gone to Hell where he belongs. Which all came out as (FINE).

“You know, he doesn’t talk much more when his jaw’s not wired shut,” Buck joked. Vin signed (JERK) at him, glad to find it didn’t hurt as much today to lift his hand to his head. “Sorry, Vin, what was that?” Buck asked. “You’ll have to speak up.”

God damn, this was going to be a long month-and-a-half.

“Dr. Michaels says she wants to move Josiah down here this afternoon, now he’s started making sense again,” Nathan put in, more to stop a war than anything, Vin thought. “You’re all going to have to keep it down, though. He’s got one hell of a headache.”

“So you got J.D. looking after him?” Buck asked incredulously.

“Hell, no,” Nathan said. “Ezra might have mentioned that Josiah’d like a few movies or something to keep him and Vin occupied, once he was moved down here.” He grinned. “Which meant going all the way over to Josiah’s place to get his laptop. Should be gone for a while yet.”

Vin smiled as much as he could, since he couldn’t join in the laughter. Jimmy’s mom was right, those years ago. He took a deep breath, inhaling the smell of the soup a friend had gone to the trouble to bring him, and let Babcock go.

Concentrate on living, right?

“...a party, I think. A quiet one, of course,” Buck was saying. “They said a liquid diet. Well, hell, beer’s a liquid, ain’t it, Nathan?” he asked, giving Vin a wink.

And right now, living wasn’t too damn bad.

********
the end