The op was successful. They were preparing for it for over a month, using all their strength and capabilities. The guys from Team 7 had to grab dealers who supplied weapons in Denver and they did their job. Although those dealers didn't want to surrender peacefully and preferred to open fire after Chris' shout "ATF! Freeze!"
During the shooting, Vin saw JD face to face with one of the dealers. JD and the dealer aimed guns at each other. JD's hand trembled and his gun shook. With lightning speed, Vin leaned out of his sniper perch and shot. The dealer fell, the gun dropped from his hand.
"I killed… I killed…" Vin heard JD's panicked voice in his headset.
"No, Kid. That bullet was mine," he drawled.
"Buck, get JD the hell out here," Chris ordered abruptly. "The rest of you, surround these bastards. Time to finish it. Vin, watch our backs."
"As always, Cowboy."
After a few minutes it was all over. The dealers surrendered and when Chris got a confirmation that everything was clear, he allowed the others out of hiding. Vin paused a bit, watching from above to be certain that there were no surprises. He looked around the huge warehouse, which had become a battlefield, then his keen eyes stopped at Chris' lean figure. Chris wore black jeans, a black t-shirt tightly stretched across his biceps, Kevlar with bright letters "ATF" which protected his torso. Beads of sweat trickled down his face, paving paths in a layer of dust and gunpowder covering his skin. Chris gave orders, at the same time his hands automatically reloaded the 'Beretta'. Through the headset Vin heard his voice that had lost its usual softness and sounded sharp and commanding now.
"Vin?" Chris called.
"Everything clear. I'll come down."
Team 7 acted as an integrated machine. Nathan helped the paramedics to bandage the wounded – fortunately they were all bad guys. Josiah read rights to the arrested, Buck helped the officers from the DPD to load them into the police car, Ezra used a camera to shot the location of shooting and the crates with weapons. JD was sitting in the far corner alone. Vin went to him.
"How are you, Kid?"
"I didn't count on seeing their eyes."
"Well, if you can see their eyes then you're too close."
"Never was so close before. Shooting from a distance is much easier. Is it why you became a sniper, Vin?"
"It's a long story, Kid."
JD paused, then checked that his headset was off and said, "Chris will be mad that I couldn't pull the trigger."
"Chris understands, believe me."
JD believed. Vin always knew what Chris had in his mind.
Buck approached them. Vin left JD in the care of his mentor and went to Chris.
"How is he?" Chris asked.
"He'll handle it. He has friends who will help him."
Chris looked into Vin's bright blue eyes. Vin had never had such friends, he came through all shit in his life alone. And this shit didn't break him. Vin was the best person Chris had ever met.
The crime scene was cleared, and Team 7 returned to the Federal Building. They had to do the usual routine – analyzing evidence, viewing records, writing reports. Finally the work was done and Chris let everyone go home. Except Vin, whom he offered a trip to the ranch. Vin took the offer even though they were so tired that they would only be able to sleep in Chris' wide bed.
They rode in comfortable silence, only occasionally exchanging phrases about today's op. At the ranch, they immediately went to the bedroom to change their clothes. Vin took off his blue shirt, crumpled it, went to the bathroom and threw it in the trashcan. Chris watched him puzzled. Throwing away useful things wasn't Vin's habit. Chris went into the bathroom and pulled the shirt out of the trashcan.
"It has a hole," Vin drawled, watching Chris.
Chris straightened the shirt and looked at it. The fabric really was holed. Holed by a bullet. Chris estimated how the shirt fitted Vin. The hole was near Vin's hip, below the edge of Kevlar. The shooter had bad aim and didn't hit Vin's flesh because the shirt was much bigger than Vin. Chris's heart went cold. His hands clenched at the blue fabric so hard that it had spread under his fingers.
"He missed, Chris" Vin said.
Almost. Less than an inch to the right and Vin wouldn't be standing here right now. Wouldn't even be lying in a hospital. He would lie on a table in a morgue. A bullet fired from below would tear all his insides apart.
“Chris, it’s just a fucking hole in a fabric. Don’t make it into a drama.”
“Is that what you call it, Vin? I don’t want to be at your funeral.”
“Great. Don’t be. I'm not gonna die.”
“Then you should do your job better and don’t catch bullets with your body.”
Vin’s eyes sparkled dangerously. “Don’t tell me how to do my job, Larabee.”
He had broken cover and exposed himself when he was saving JD’s life but he would be damned if he was going to explain it to Chris.
“I’m your CO,” Chris growled, losing control of his temper.
“Not here. Not now.”
They looked at each other across the tension-filled room. Finally Chris threw Vin’s shirt into the trashcan and stormed out of the bedroom. Vin sat on the bed and dug his fingers into his hair. No one could make him mad as easily as Chris.
They often did the evening chores in silence but this time the silence hung heavily in the air. Vin calmed down but he didn't touch Chris and didn't start a conversation. Sometimes Chris should have been left alone to find his peace of mind. When night fell, they lay in bed and Vin’s hand habitually sought Chris’ waist. Chris didn’t move away but he didn’t lean into it either. Vin sighed and after a few minutes the fatigue of the day caught up with him and pulled him into heavy sleep.
Chris lay motionless, staring blankly into the darkness. He never thought he could live without Sarah and Adam. But he had managed to do it. He was living again, and he liked to be alive. He didn’t want to return to the gray nothingness where he had spent the last three years. But today death almost took Vin. Chris knew, knew with absolute certainty that if Vin died, he would be back in that gray nothingness for good. He would never admit it aloud but he knew that even Sarah didn’t mean as much to him as Vin. And it scared him. He had never been so scared.
Vin was sitting at his desk in the bullpen and even didn’t pretend that he was doing anything. He knew he should type his report before lunchtime, otherwise Chris would eat him alive, but he didn’t care. Chris could do what he pleased with him.
Vin shivered and pulled tightly at the flaps of his flannel shirt. Bright sunlight flooded the bullpen and even the air conditioning couldn’t cope with the summer heat but Vin was cold. He wrapped his arms around himself and returned to his thoughts.
Everything was falling apart after that damned shot. Chris hadn’t calmed down. Their relationship was getting worse with every day. Warmth, closeness, silent communication – everything was gone and was replaced by coldness, confusion, misunderstanding. Vin had no idea what he should do. He didn’t understand Chris anymore. He tried to talk with him but Chris spurned him, and Vin wasn’t sure he wanted to try again. Their relationship was bumpy before, Vin had seen many unpleasant things and had thought many heavy thoughts but he always felt Chris’ love. Now he felt nothing. And it was killing him.
“Damn it to hell,” he swore and got up. He couldn’t be here any longer, the bullpen's walls strangled him. He needed fresh air, and Chris and his report could go to hell.
“Tell Chris I've a meeting with a snitch,” he said to no one in particular and left the bullpen.
Buck watched him. Vin looked the embodiment of misery and Buck had a very clear idea who was responsible for this. Neither Vin nor Chris had ever talked about their relationship but Buck had eyes and could see. And he didn’t like what he had seen. Vin had quit joking, quit smiling, he distanced himself from Team 7 and kept to himself. Vin was constantly in the background, he didn’t take part in common chatter and tried to sneak away during lunch or after work before anyone could stop him. He looked like a wolf wandering on the outskirts of civilization, ready to escape back into the wilderness. And Chris was doing nothing to stop him.
“Chris is an even bigger fool than I thought,” he muttered.
Ezra gave him a glance but said nothing. Buck got up and headed to Chris’ office.
“May I?” he asked opening the door.
Chris nodded without looking up. He was busy with papers. Or pretended to be busy, Buck wasn’t sure. He came to the wide desk and sat in the chair before it.
“Junior has a meeting with a snitch,” he said.
Chris said nothing but Buck was in no hurry to leave. He was sitting and starring at Chris. Finally Chris gave up and asked, “What are you doing here?”
“For what? Yesterday's news?”
“Nop. For lunchtime.”
“Are you starving?”
“No. I want to talk.”
Chris looked at him, puzzled, then he glanced at his silver watch. A few minutes left before lunchtime. Chris shook his head and returned his attention to the papers.
“Now!” Buck proclaimed.
“What does all this shit mean?”
“It means that right now you're not my boss but my friend. And I want to talk with you as my friend.”
“What've you done with Junior?”
“I've done nothing.”
“The boy looks like a ghost and you're not to blame? Sorry, Chris, but I don’t believe you.”
“I told you, I've done nothing, and it’s none of your business anyway.”
“Hold on, you're wrong here. I love that boy and care about him and I don’t want to see him suffering. And because I've known you 12 years I have a strong suspicion that he is suffering because of you.”
Chris was silent. He got up and went to the window. His gaze turned toward the outline of the mountains and the blue sky above it. Blue as Vin’s eyes when Vin was happy. Chris sighed and ran his hand through his blond hair.
“Chris, Vin is the best thing to happen to you in the last three years,” Buck continued. “If you lose him…”
“I don’t want to lose him,” Chris interrupted Buck.
“That's good,” Buck nodded, pleased. “It means you still have your brains.”
“But I want the things between us to be simple. Easy. Uncomplicated.”
“It’s a bit late for that.”
They were silent for a while then Chris said quietly, "I can't see Sarah's face anymore, Buck. Can't hear Adam calling me Pa. They're fading away."
"Maybe it's time for that."
"No, I need to remember."
"Vin doesn't prevent you remembering them."
"He doesn't. But I can think only about him. I can't live without him but he shouldn't be so important to me."
Vin climbed into his jeep. A snitch had given him useful information, and Vin pondered how it could affect the case Team 7 was working on. His thoughts were interrupted by the familiar ‘Jaguar’ that stopped near his jeep. Vin looked as Ezra got out of the luxurious vehicle, came to his battered jeep and climbed into the passenger seat.
“What are you doing here?” Vin asked straight out.
“My dear Mr. Tanner, your lack of delicacy is ineradicable,” Ezra sighed ostentatiously.
“Look, Ezra, I've got a headache as big as Texas without your big words.”
“It’s why I’m here, where no one can overhear us. Do you need help?”
“Your Texas-stubborn head is spinning and splitting apart from trying to figure out the cause of your problems with Mr. Larabee. Perhaps you need to talk about it or ask for advice?”
Vin moaned and dropped his head into his hands.
“It's obvious, isn’t it?” he mumbled.
“You are a dreadful pretender, Mr. Tanner.”
"Reckon you're right. Ezra, I don't know what to do. I feel that Chris is slipping away."
Ezra could say lovers often converged and diverged and it wasn't the end of the world, many people would be more than happy to take Chris' place in Vin's life. But he knew that nobody could do it. It made Ezra a bit sad.
"Did you talk to him?" he asked.
"Yeah. Once. Can't say that was useful."
"Try again. You can ruminate the rest of your life but never find out what Mr. Larabee has in his ingenious head."
Ezra slapped Vin's shoulder and got out of the jeep. Vin started the engine and headed to the Federal Building. Ezra was right, he should stop thinking and do something.
Vin returned to the bullpen and quickly typed his report, then took the printed sheets and went to Chris' office. He opened the door without knocking, went to Chris, put his report on Chris' desk and said firmly, "We need to talk. Tonight at my place."
Without waiting for an answer, he turned around and left.
Vin wasn't sure Chris would come. He impatiently paced his small apartment and watched the clock. Chris was at work when Vin went home exactly at 5 p.m. He could stop at the 'Saloon' on the way to Vin's place. Or could ride straight at the ranch. Or could… Vin's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of footsteps approaching his front door. He knew it was Chris. Vin went to the door and opened it as Chris raised his hand to knock.
"C'mon," Vin invited and stepped aside.
Chris went into the shabby living room. Vin locked the door and followed him.
"What's going on between us?" Vin asked straight out.
Chris ran his hand through his hair and lowered his head. He avoided looking at Vin.
"Vin… You're the best friend I've ever had. And you're a great person…"
Vin didn't have a lot of experience and didn't know what usually followed these words but he instinctively didn't like them at all. His heart went cold.
"But… But we've gone too far, Vin. We need to take a step back in our relationship."
"What do you mean?"
"We have such great sex, such easy understanding. We don't need to spoil it with unwanted feelings."
The blow was crushing. When they first met, Vin gave his heart to Chris. Chris took it, shoved in his pocket and now he was throwing it as a trash.
"So you want to fuck me, to have a couple of beers with me but you don't want to have me digging into your soul, right?" Vin's drawl was more hoarse than ever.
"Something like that."
Vin turned away. The pain in his chest was unbearable. The blinding rage rose in his mind, killing the remains of self-control and common sense. He turned to Chris again and jerked off his shirt baring his torso. Throwing the shirt into a far corner of the room he put his hands on the waistband of jeans that sat low on his narrow hips and said, "Great. Let's start. Fuck me."
"It's what you want, isn't it? Sounds like a good plan for me."
Vin quickly undid his jeans and took them off along with the rest of his clothes.
"Vin, I don't want to do it like this."
"What's wrong, Larabee?"
Vin wanted Chris to lose control, to get mad, to show any feelings but not this fucking calmness. But Chris turned around and stormed out of the apartment slamming the door behind his back. When Chris' footsteps died away Vin fell on the couch and curled into a ball.
He didn't know for how long he lay here. His body was shaking but his mind slowly became clear. More clear than it had been since the day he met Chris. Now he knew exactly what he should do. He should get out of here. Away from this place, Denver, Chris Larabee. Either that or he would go crazy. He had already started to lose his mind. Chris was right, they had gone too far. And Chris was wrong, too, because they couldn't be just fuck buddies. Vin didn't want sex without love when he had had both, once. Okay, Chris never said he loved him but Vin knew it, saw it, felt it. They didn't need the words. Now they didn't need anything between them. He should go away for good. It would be best for both him and Chris.
Vin got up and headed to the bathroom. His reflection in the mirror scared him. Yeah, he should get out of here as soon as possible.
Vin stood under hot jets of water in the shower until the water grew cold, then he went to the bedroom and dumped the contents of a drawer on the floor. He picked up sweats and a t-shirt and pulled them on, then emptied other drawers and a wardrobe making a pile on the floor. After that he went to the living room and brought contents of shelves from there. Soon all his belongings were on the bedroom floor. Vin started to sort and pack them. Some items went into a suitcase, some he considered as trash and threw in another pile on the floor. He found Chris' photo and peered at the beautiful face. He knew he should throw it in a trash pile but his hand put it in the suitcase against all reason.
Vin finished packing after midnight. He climbed into bed and wrapped himself in the blanket but sleep didn't come to him. His mind was still working. Tomorrow he should inform Chris. And he needed to pick his belongings from the ranch. On the other hand, he could just leave them. The good thing was that his rifle was at the office. The bad thing was that he would miss Peso. Peso was his now, Chris gave him the gelding for his birthday. Well, Peso should wait until Vin settled somewhere else.
Where? Vin's thoughts took a new turn. Phoenix or Houston. The ATF had the field offices there and he could transfer there instead of quitting. But he was ready to quit and come back to godforsaken Tascosa if he needed. At least it was warm there. Not like chilly Colorado.
Finally exhaustion took him and Vin fell asleep. He woke a few hours later when sunlight lit the clear sky over Denver. He got up and quickly did his morning tasks. He wanted to be at work as soon as possible. The decision had been made, there was no need to delay the inevitable. He was dressed and ready to go when he heard footsteps behind the door and then a soft knock. His heart skipped a beat. He knew who was there. However he asked as he went to the door, "Who's there?"
Despite his decisions and intentions Vin felt intense desire to leave the door closed. But it was foolish and he had done enough fool things already. Also Chris could easily kick in the door. Vin unlocked the door and stepped back. Chris entered the apartment. He looked even worse than Vin. He was pale and haggard and at the same time, he was the most beautiful man that Vin had ever seen. Chris nervously licked his lips and said, "Vin, I want to apologize. I should find other words to explain you…"
"It means nothing now," Vin interrupted him.
"What do you mean?"
Chris' pale face became ashen. He was stunned. Finally he found his voice and rasped, "You can't do it."
"I quit," Vin repeated firmly. "Transfer to another office. If I can't do it then I'll just resign. I'll write the application to transfer today. I quit Team 7 and I quit you. We're through. Our relationship didn't work."
Chris' shock gave way to anger and he shouted, "Relationship? What do you know about a relationship, you've never had anyone…"
"But at least I'm living!" Vin lost his self-control and shouted back. "I've been through so much shit that you even can't imagine, but every morning I opened my eyes and lived on. I didn't let that shit stop me. But you're not afraid to die. You're afraid to live. To feel again."
The burst went off as quickly as came, leaving Vin exhausted and drained. He turned away and repeated blankly, "I quit."
Tense silence filled the room. Then Chris asked, "What about the team? Your friends?"
"I'll miss them. They are the best friends a man can have. But it would be better for Team 7 too. We can't separate our personal life and our job. Our relationship affects our work. It's dangerous. People can get hurt because we can't concentrate completely on the job."
"I'll not sign your application."
"Suit yourself. Travis will do it."
Vin made a decision and wouldn't change his mind. Chris had lost him forever.
Chris turned away and left the apartment.
The next part is "Mea Culpa"