SHADOWLINE

By AJB

EPILOGUE - Lightness of Being

Chris Larabee stood stiff-backed and straight, arms crossed in front, staring down at the still figure in the hospital bed. Standing so close that his hip touched the hard, plastic side railing, Chris fought the urge to reach over and touch his friend to confirm that he was real.

The steady bouncing line on the heart monitor said Vin was not only real, but strong. The corner of Chris' mouth twitched at the thought. Strong didn't begin to describe the man before him; the trials of his life put him well above that inadequate descriptor. Not only did his friend come home, he returned to them with the hard evidence needed to clear his name - something none of them could do these past months. Chris knew Vin would scoff the prick of guilt he felt about that. MacMillan was a master of lies and deceit. Only a man like Vin Tanner could bring him down and bring him down in such a spectacular manner. Chris knew he shouldn't be surprised. He just wished it happened sooner.

Once at the hospital and quickly examined, Vin went straight to surgery and still wasn't entirely cleaned up. Thick layers of bright white bandages encased his shoulder and torso, and were the cleanest thing on him. A rich crop of stubble surrounded the ridiculous Van Dyke style beard Vin sported, hiding his strong and striking jaw line. Scar tissue from the wound Tiger's Eye gave him in San Diego obliterated the tattoo Chris had seen on his bicep those many months ago. Chris chuffed at that; it was freakish wound of coincidence.

This whole year had been weird and right now, the single thing that would set everything back on course for Chris was to see those pale, thin eyelids slide open and feel that lost connection once again.

It had been a long night of waiting. Chris sighed and released the tense hold of his arms, allowing them to hang and loosen his shoulders. He rolled his head and felt his neck crack.

"That must have felt good."

Chris stepped one leg back and opened his stance, turning to face Nathan as he entered the small room. Ezra followed on his heels. Chris realized Nathan was right; the unintentional adjustment eased the headache dogging him.

"Yeah, it actually did." Chris rubbed his neck and raised a brow at Ezra. "What's happening?"

"Good morning to you, too, Mr. Larabee." Ezra stopped at the foot of the bed and gave Vin a head-to-toe scan before meeting Chris' tired glare. "The item in the vial was, as we suspected, a spent bullet. Agent Givens and I witnessed its collection and transport, and maintained a presence when they removed the bullet from the vial and swabbed for blood. Our names ensure an unbroken chain of evidence on this side but we still need a witness from Mexico. Specifically, someone that can attest to where Mr. Tanner collected the item."

"Did they find any?" Chris asked. "Blood, I mean, on the bullet?"

"Yes, it tested positive for blood. They are running the DNA now against samples from Marko Munos."

"Is there a witness?"

Ezra tipped his head and his features softened - a rare tell his teammates could read. I meant he was pleased. "I believe so. Deputy Givens has already arranged an interview through C.I.A. He saw a woman with Mr. Tanner in Juarez and apparently, she has been calling him with annoying regularity from a burner phone the C.I.A. gave to Mr. Tanner."

Chris smiled slightly and wearily scrubbed his face. "If she confirms where Vin got the bullet, then he can re-join the A.T.F. again? That was part of your secret deal with the C.I.A., right?"

"Like a multitude of things connected with our Mr. Tanner, the procedure is unusual but not complicated. His re-hiring can be classified as a lateral transfer, not unlike his move from the U.S. Marshal's office to the A.T.F." Ezra, satisfied with what he saw in Vin's still form, walked to the single chair in the room and sat down, stretching his legs out with a weary sigh. "We are very fortunate to have Deputy Givens as our middle man. It removes any question of evidence tampering or impropriety on our part, especially now." Ezra laced his fingers together on his abdomen. "After the confirmation of the source of the evidence, all that remains is for Mr. Tanner to accept the offer."

"Why wouldn't he?" Chris snapped. His frame tightened once again and the headache spiked.

Nathan picked up the question. "He's been through a lot, Chris." Nathan wrapped one arm around his waist and then supported the elbow of his other arm as he rested his chin in the V of his thumb and forefinger, and studied the unconscious sharpshooter thoughtfully. "We don't really know what he did down there. There may be things he won't be able to reconcile with."

"Are you talking about some kind of post-traumatic stress?"

"Exactly. He may need some time. If he does, we need to be prepared to give it."

"Not a problem," Chris stated with a hard edge. He turned back to Vin and crossed his arms again. "He'll get whatever he needs."

The hallway was quiet, save for the shuffling sound of nurse's feet as they passed the doorway. It was the middle of the night and Chris finally felt the first signs of exhaustion - his eyelids suddenly seemed entirely too heavy.

"I'll check back in the morning," Nathan said after a few minutes. A large yawn followed the statement and Chris smirked. "We've worked out a schedule already. Ezra's supposed to bring breakfast."

The two men looked over to the man in question. Ezra was sound asleep in the chair. Nathan snorted.

"He's gonna feel that in his neck when he wakes up." Nathan said. "I'll adjust the schedule and bring breakfast. See you later." He clapped Chris' shoulder and headed to the door, pausing in the frame. "I'll get another chair in here."

"Thanks." Chris nodded. He turned back to Vin and yawned.

An inhospitable hospital chair sounded pretty good right now.


Vin's rise to consciousness was painful and slow, taking most of the day to achieve in a worrying up-and-down cycle of confusion and catatonia. He was addled far beyond any state Chris had ever seen before and as a result, the team leader clocked over 24 hours at his friend's side.

The fever finally abated in the early evening and with its ebbing, Vin's eyes lost confusion and his understanding of English reappeared. Panting, his eyes narrowed while studying Chris' face leaning over late in the afternoon.

"Chris?" he croaked, a little perplexed and perhaps a bit suspicious.

"Yeah, it's me." Larabee dabbed a line of sweat shining at Vin's hairline with a wadded cloth. "You with us now?"

"I 'spect." Vin's eyes rolled to take in his surroundings, and then his neck slowly twisted on the pillow until it pulled his wound. He hissed in pain.

"Hate to tell ya, pard, but you gotta stay down awhile," Chris said softly. A worry furrow v'd Vin's forehead. "You're home. We have your back. Rest. You deserve it."

Vin blinked and the fear and suspicion haunting his eyes all this time drained away leaving the calm, wide, blues Chris remembered. The long missed tingle of their odd bond awoke and Chris felt anxiety drain away. He grinned down at his friend.

"'kay." The lines aging Vin's face smoothed as he dropped off into real, restful sleep, taking away the years until he again looked younger than his years.

Relief flooded through him and Chris scanned Vin's relaxed features. With the over-riding worry and fear gone, Chris could now look at him through clear, untroubled eyes and his mouth quirked at what he saw. That hairy mess on Vin's face had to go.

Two days later, a Federal helicopter transported him to Denver with Chris at his side. Vin slept the entire way trip. Instead of a hospital, Vin moved into a rehabilitation center. Instead of industrial food, his six team mates supplied meals. Someone always stayed by his side - mostly Chris. Between the daily therapy and edible food, Vin soon looked like his old self.

Once convinced that Vin was on his way to being discharged, Chris relaxed his vigil and allowed the rest of the team to stand their watch without him. Somehow, between the ranch, the office and field work, Chris managed to be at Vin's side at every physical therapy session and run interference with the alphabet soup of agencies requesting interviews. During those first two weeks Chris never pushed, never asked, never questioned. He knew Vin would tell him everything somewhere along the line. Chris had already pieced a lot of the action together just listening in on the interviews.

Finally, one day after a third D.E.A. agent left his bedside, Vin got word of his release from the hospital.

"Tomorrow, huh?" Chris said from his seat. Vin sat up in the bed looking decidedly pale. The release news brightened his features.

"Looks like it." Vin squirmed and shifted, dropping his legs over the side of the bed. "Shoes?"

Chris stood and grabbed the tennis shoes under the bed. "Going somewhere?"

"Outside."

Knowing not to push, Chris helped him with his shoes and off the bed, and then kept Vin's slow pace down the hall and out to a broad balcony with scattered chairs. A nurse sat far to one side chatting on a phone and smoking. Chris wrinkled his nose.

Vin carefully lowered himself onto a chair, careful not to bump his bandages. His right arm was still wrapped firmly to his chest, immobilizing the shoulder area. Once seated, he blew out a breath and glanced at the nurse. "Think she'd know better, huh?"

"You'd think." Chris stretched out his legs and crossed them at the ankles, and watched Vin peripherally as he struggled with his thoughts. Finally, he spoke.

"I need to tell you all of it, Chris." He shifted his injured side. "When I was a Ranger, so much of what I did was 'need to know' shit. You know what I mean."

"Sadly, I do, but Buck was usually on my team so we both had a chance to talk. Didn't you have a spotter?"

"Usually." Vin paused and a faraway look crossed his eyes. "I came back alone more than once. All that put me in a bad place - the keeping it quiet. Secrets. It kinda rots you from the inside if you let it."

"True."

Vin glanced out to the distant mountains and started talking about the loneliness, the mission state of mind, the running, the inability to trust and how Ronnie crossed that line. He spoke of the fear and rage, the feeling of betrayal regarding MacMillan, the sorrow at the loss of innocents. Vin didn't stop until it was all out in the light and his voice was rough and worn. The sun set and the pale moon showed itself in the darkening sky when he finally stopped.

They sat in silence then, both enjoying the lightness of being when the truth was told. Then, Chris leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, then tipped his head aside and caught Vin's gaze.

"You know what I find good in all this, and why I think you're gonna be just fine, is that others did your C.I.A. contract work for you."

Vin frowned.

"You were sent there to kill Arturo Carnicero. To do that, you hired out to kill three other Carniceros. Then, you somehow managed to arrange it so they all pretty much killed themselves. Mac was pure self-defense. You should be proud of yourself, Vin, because your hands are clean. You followed Army orders without question when you were a Ranger. This time, you followed your own orders. You're a good, decent man, Vin Tanner, and if you don't know that by now then we're gonna have words."

The two men regarded each other as the dark fingers of night wrapped around them. Eventually, Vin sat back and pursed his lips in thought as he weighed the idea in his head. "Huh," he finally uttered.

Chris leaned back, smiling. "I knew it. You used all your intelligent words in one blitz. You've been savin' 'em up for so long they finally exploded."

"Fuck you, Larabee," Vin chuckled.

Chris laughed. "See? Nothin' intelligent left. Now let's get you inside so your brain can rest."

One Month Later

"Well, look what the cat dragged in!" Buck's desk rolled sideways as he stood, bumping into JD as he walked while reading a file, resulting in a surprised squawk.

"Watch it, Buck! Jeeze!" Then he turned to the office doorway. "Vin! Hey, you're back!"

Their missing member sauntered into the room with a pleased smile, Josiah close behind. The thick layer of bandages was gone, replaced with a light sling.

"How's therapy?" Nathan asked, stepping forward to be the first to shake Vin's hand.

"Hurts like hell, but no pain, no gain, right?" Vin said brightly.

Nathan stepped back, allowing Buck to ruffle the sniper's unkempt hair. "You're still lookin' a mite scruffy there, Junior." He tugged at the beard on Vin's chin. "Ya ain't ever gonna top my moustache, so you might as well give up on this disaster."

Vin grinned and stroked the line of hair from under his nose down both sides of his mouth. "Don't tell Chris, but this thing drives me nuts."

Buck chuckled and leaned down, whispering, "You're just sportin' it to irritate 'im, aren't ya?" He grabbed Vin's good shoulder and gave it a shake as he straightened. "Don't worry, your secret's safe with me!"

"What secret?"

Buck turned on his heel and headed to his desk. "Just givin' Junior the secret of my success, 'sall."

"Right." Chris walked up to Vin and stopped. "Josiah bein' a good chauffeur?"

"Yeah but I can't wait to drive the Jeep again. Doc says I can handle a stick shift in a week or so."

Chris raised a brow. "He doesn't know about your Jeep, does he?"

Ezra's entrance saved Vin from a reply. The gambler's usually unreadable face brightened. "Why, Mr. Tanner! It's good to see you back with our motley crew." He shook Vin's hand and tipped his head as he looked him over. "It has only been one week since I last saw you and I can see a vast improvement. You look well." He stepped back to allow JD in to shake Vin's hand.

"I feel great. I start back here in two weeks. Light duty, a course."

Chris crossed his arms over his chest. "Thank Ezra and Travis for that. I don't think the A.T.F. has ever hired someone this unfit for duty."

Vin glanced to Ezra and gave him a knowing nod of thanks. "I'm just glad things worked out." He turned to Chris. "Just lettin' ya know we're headin' out now. I'll be back in time for my next therapy session, so don't worry, okay?"

"Can't help but worry when you're involved. Trouble always seems to find you. Josiah? Keep a constant eye out?"

"Sure thing, boss. A little road trip to San Diego will do us both some good."

JD chuffed. "Too bad the Mexican government's got you on their 'no entry' list. You did 'em a favor." He hopped up and landed on the edge of his desk.

"That will be lifted when he's gainfully employed again," Chris said. Then they looked pointedly at Vin. "You be careful. Show Ronnie a good time in San Diego."

"I'll see you soon, then."

Chris headed to his office as Vin and Josiah turned to go.

"Vin?"

Tanner paused at the door and looked back to find Chris glaring at him. "What?"

"Step into this office again with that fuzz on your face and you will know pain. Clear?"

Vin's smile - open, real and confident - locked the seven back into the brotherhood. "As crystal, Cowboy."

He ducked out the doorway before Chris could respond.

THE END

A/N: Thanks you so much for staying with me on this ride. I have some editing to do before posting it elsewhere, so please let me know if you have any beta-like helpful words! The feedback has been wonderful. Thanks again. - AJB