What is Family For?

by skaia7

The wind whipped around the lone figure standing by the gravesite. Bundled up against the elements, only the slightest shiver gave any indication that the bitter cold was working its way beneath the wool coverings. Barely visible between the thick scarf and the hat pulled low, tears traced their way down to freeze on the smooth cheeks.

Three days earlier...

"Are you going to explain any of this, or do you just expect me..."

"I do not expect anything, Mr. Larabee. It is fully within your parameters as head of this motley little crew to deny my request."

Two sets of green eyes stared each other down.

"I take that as a no, then."

Ezra sighed with a weariness so deeply imbedded in his bones that it seemed to shake his entire frame. "You may take it however you please. All I need to know is whether or not to purchase my plane ticket."

Chris analyzed the agent across the desk from him. The con man's eyes were rimmed with red, and there were bags under them. They were also unnaturally bright, and the only other color to the gambler's face were two flushed spots on his cheeks.

In short, he looked like shit.

If his undercover agent had simply asked for a week off due to stress or exhaustion, the older man wouldn't have hesitated. Hell, he would have driven him home and put him to bed himself. It was the mention of an 'obligation,' and the reference to a plane ticket that had the team leader worried. From the look of things, the last thing Ezra needed was to be traipsing all over the country on another one of his secret trips.

"What if I agreed... but only if you let Nathan have a look at you first?"

The southerner's eyes grew hard, and cold. "I believe that would be overstepping the aforementioned parameters. I also believe I stressed that time is of the essence. I must make travel arrangements immediately."

Leaning back in his leather chair, Chris clasped his hands behind his head. "And if I don't agree?"

The younger man didn't bat an eye, didn't react at all. They both knew that if Larabee refused, Standish would go anyway. The younger man was merely acknowledging the standard procedure... a rarity for the rogue agent.

After the stare-down lingered for a few more tense moments, the man in black inclined his head. It was enough.

Ezra rose on shaky legs, and turned to go. The soft, "Ez?" made him stop, but he did not turn around. He knew he wouldn't get off so easily.

"Mr. Larabee?"

There was a pause, followed by a soft, "You okay?"

The Armani-clad shoulders slumped almost imperceptively. "I assure you, I am quite well," he replied, trying for conviction.

The older man’s eyebrow quirked, but he responded to the tense back, "Let me know if you need anything."

The con man straightened his shoulders, speaking with far more potency than he really felt. "That won't be necessary." With that, he left the leader's office, closing the door firmly behind him.

Once outside, he leaned heavily against the doorframe, and emitted a deep sigh. A wave of nausea swept through him, and he struggled to suppress the chill that raked across his body. Swallowing was hellfire, he raised a shaky hand to press against his throbbing head.

No doubt about it... he felt like shit.

He'd known he was coming down with something for a couple of days. Every time he got sick, it was accompanied by an intense throbbing just behind his eyes. The worse the illness, the more severe the headache. Right now, the aches in his joints, the sore throat, and the skull-splitting pain that threatened to cause a blackout told him he was probably in for a bad case of the flu.

To top it off, there had been a message on his machine when he'd come home yesterday - a voice he hadn't expected to hear saying urgently, "Get here as soon as you can." His stomach had dropped to his toes like a stone. Returning the call didn't make him feel any better. After nearly an hour on the phone, he'd dropped the handset to the cradle, and sat heavily on the edge of his bed, numb.

Needless to say, he hadn't gotten much sleep.

He'd known Chris would press him, but he didn't - couldn't - tell his boss what was going on. He had to ride on that feeling of urgency inside that pressed him forward, kept him moving. If he stopped to think... to feel... he knew he wouldn't move again.

Straightening up, he fixed in place that stone mask of control he'd chiseled for himself over the years, and went to gather his things. He had a long trip ahead of him.

Nathan watched a very pale man walk stiffly by his desk, and rose silently, heading for the back office. Knocking softly, he heard a barking, "Yeah," and entered.

Chris raised his head to greet him. "Nate."

The medic closed the door softly behind him, ensuring that they would not be overheard. "You get a good look at him?"

"I did."

"And you sent him home." It wasn't a question.

"He asked for time off. I gave it to him. Don't know how much good it'll do." The team leader rose and crossed to the window to peer at the undercover agent through the blinds.

"Why's that?" the healer's dark eyes bored into the other man.

"If he'd asked for sick leave, or even just a few days t'rest, I'd have no problem. But he wants a week to fly back east. He won't say why. Just says he'll be gone through Sunday."

"Hell, Chris, you cain't let him fly in that condition!" The healer had suspected the fellow agent was under the weather since this morning when he'd found him throwing up his breakfast in the men's room. Standish had insisted he was fine, and roughly shoved off any attempts Jackson had made to check him over. "That man looks like a walkin' add for the funeral parlor."

Larabee turned, his green eyes flashing. "What do you expect me to do?! I even thought about arresting him... but there was somethin' in his eyes when he asked me... somethin'... I don't know, Nate. This ain't one of his gamblin' sprees, or even a buying trip." Turning, he regarded the medical expert with a concerned gaze. "I get the feelin' that this time it's personal."

There was a pause as both men watched Standish double over with a fit of coughing. "You think one of us should go with him?" the EMT voiced quietly.

"I don't think he'd go for it." The older man sighed. "Dammit, Nate... what are we gonna do?"

Present Day

The snow continued to fall in feathery wisps. Josiah looked up at the white, cold sky and sighed heavily. Glancing at Vin, he noticed the sharpshooter didn't seem to be bothered by the cold. Dressed in his usual jeans and buckskin jacket, the Texan seemed unusually comfortable hunkered down behind a tree, watching the spot where Ezra had disappeared over the hill.

When the southerner had left the office three days ago, Chris had called a team meeting and apprised everyone of the situation. Vin had immediately volunteered to tail the con man, just to make sure he was okay. Chris had asked Josiah to come along, because he seemed to have gotten closer to the gambler than any of them. If Ezra needed anything, he'd be more likely to seek out the ex-preacher than any other member of Team Seven.

They'd tailed him all the way to Boston, keeping their distance as they watched him go into Massachusetts General. After a few hours, he emerged, looking even more pale and drawn. They then followed him to a non-descript suite hotel, completely out of keeping with their friend's usually extravagant style. That day, he'd also driven to a funeral home, and then to various private residences for the next two days, until finally the funeral today. They hadn't been able to discover much information as to the identity of the mysterious deceased, but it was obviously someone Ezra cared for dearly. They'd never seen him so... subdued. It was a testament to how out of it the con man was that he hadn't noticed them following him. They'd expected to have been discovered days ago.

"He's been out there a long time," Tanner commented quietly.

There was a pause. "Yep," Sanchez rumbled, still contemplating the sky.

"Think we should go after him?"

"Be patient, Vin. We'll know when the time is right."

Suddenly, an anguished howl rent the still air.

"And this would be it," the large man grunted as they both sprang into action.

Racing across the frozen ground, the came over the hill just in time to see the gambler curled up on the ground in front of a fresh grave. Vin reached him first, pulling him up and leaning the shaking form of his friend against his chest.

"Ez? Ez, what is it? What's wrong? Are you hurt?" Anxious blue eyes swept across the stricken man. No blood... but Ezra's face was pale, tears streaming down his cheeks as his shoulders rocked with repressed sobs. Every muscle was so tight in the southerner's back that the tracker's own body ached in sympathy.

Josiah drew up shortly, panting for breath. The tracker turned anxious eyes to the profiler. "He don't appear to be hurt," Vin stated with confusion in his voice.

"There I think you're wrong, son," the big man rumbled, putting his large hands on the smaller man's shoulders. "Ezra? Can you hear me, brother?"

Somewhere in the fog, he thought he heard a voice... a voice he knew... Struggling to control his frantic breathing, unaware that he was sobbing brokenly, he reached out with his hand, searching for something...

Grasping the arm that was offered, Josiah continued to try to break through to him. "Ezra? Come on now, look at me. Listen to my voice. You're all right. We're here with you, Vin and I both, and we want to help you, if you'll let us. Come on now... squeeze my hand if you can hear me."

There it was again... that voice like distant thunder...

"J-J…’siah?" the whisper was broken, barely heard over the wind.

"That's it, son."

Vin could feel the tremors that wracked the body in his arms. Bringing a hand up to the back of Ezra's neck, he felt the blistering sting of heat radiating there. "He's burnin' up," he said, keeping his voice low.

The wind chose that moment to blow a fierce gale through the headstones, and the southerner moaned softly and curled into the tracker's embrace with a violent shiver.

"Come on," Josiah said, gently extricating the fallen man from Vin and lifting him into his strong arms. "Let's get him out of here."

Tanner ran ahead, unlocking the car and getting the heat going full blast. He opened the back door to the rental so that the profiler could settle the nearly unconscious man into it, and then scooted in beside him. Sanchez took the wheel, and began driving them to the hotel.

Vin wrapped his arms around the smaller man. Standish was shivering uncontrollably, his breathing ragged. The sharpshooter could hear a faint wheezing, and felt his stomach lurch. There had been a bad flu going around the agency, and left untreated he knew it could lead to bronchitis, or even pneumonia. He laid a hand gently on Ezra’s forehead, and winced to feel the fever burning too, too hot.

"We’d better call Nathan," he said.

Josiah nodded, and reached for his cell.

+ + + + + + +

"How is he?" Vin asked, closing the door softly behind him.

Nathan sat at the edge of the hotel bed, one hand resting gently on the gambler’s sweat-soaked hair. By his severe expression, the tracker knew the answer to his question was not good.

"What’s wrong with ‘im?" Crossing to the bed, he sat on the other side and placed one hand on Ezra’s shoulder.

The healer sighed, eyes roving over the huddled form still shivering underneath the thick blankets. "He’s sick, Vin. He was sick before he left, and he ain’t been takin’ care o’ himself, so it’s just gotten worse. Fever’s up to 103, bad cough, sore throat, congestion, chills… It’s a good thing ya followed ‘im." Standing, he gathered up his medical instruments and began packing them away. "How’s everybody else holdin’ up?"

"They’re worried. Chris is pacin’ like a caged cat, Josiah and Buck are pretty calm, all things considerin’. JD’s bouncin’ off th’walls. You might wanna go in and let ‘em know what’s up. I’ll stay with ‘im."

"Thanks, Vin. If he wakes up, get as much of that water in ‘im as you can. That fever’s dried ‘im out pretty good."

Vin nodded, and Nathan crossed to the door.


One hand on the doorknob, the healer turned to regard the concerned blue orbs.

"He gonna be okay?"

"Don’t worry, Vin. I’m gonna call the pharmacy and get a prescription for some antibiotic, and once we get some of that into his system, he’s gonna be just fine." With that, he went out to update everyone as to the condition of their friend.

When they were alone, Vin moved around the bed until he could see the gambler’s face. Standish’s eyes were closed, his brow furrowed with the concentration of a fevered sleep. His face was now flushed with the rising heat, beads of perspiration standing out on his forehead.

Crossing to the small bathroom, Vin wet a washcloth with cold water. Wringing it out, he brought it back and started wiping Ezra’s face and neck. A soft moan escaped the cracked lips, and soon two emerald slits appeared.

"Hey, Ez," Tanner spoke softly, smiling. "How ya feelin’?"

"Mr…Tan…ner?" The hoarse croak barely reached past the bed.

"Here," Vin retrieved the cup, and lifted the damp head. Ezra’s parched throat rejoiced as the cool water flowed through it, and Vin sat patiently until he’d had his fill. "Better?"

The undercover agent sighed audibly, and gave a weary nod. "What’re you… doin’ here?" The question wasn’t an accusation, simply spoken out of confusion.

"We followed ya, Josiah and me. Hope you ain’t mad, but we was worried for ya, and wanted to make sure you was okay."

Ezra took a deep breath, as if about to speak again, but was suddenly wracked with coughing. The sharpshooter pulled him up quickly, leaning the weakened man against his shoulder and rubbing slow circles on his back as the deep, wet coughs wrenched themselves from the weakened frame. Ezra pressed one trembling hand to his aching chest, trying desperately to draw breath. After a few moments it subsided, leaving the con man gasping for air and shaking with exhaustion.

"S… sorry…" he rasped.

"You ain’t gotta apologize, Ez. You’re sick. Nathan’s here, he’s gonna get you some medicine that’ll get you well. So you just lie back and rest, okay? It’s gonna be just fine."

"Na-thunn?" the word was almost a groan, colored by relief.

"Yeah, we’re all here. Don’t you worry about nuthin’, we’ve got it covered, all right?"

Tanner felt a feeble nod against his shoulder, and after he stacked the pillows to help ease the gambler’s breathing, he helped to lower the smaller man back to the bed. Tucking the blankets around his charge, he heard a soft whisper.

"Thank… you."

"Aw, hell," he blushed, smoothing the damp curls back from Ezra’s flushed face. "T’weren’t nuthin’."

+ + + + + + +

Hot. And achy. That was all he was able to feel at the moment. Shifting restlessly, he felt a cool hand rest on his forehead, sighing softly at the welcome gesture of comfort. Some part of his fuzzy brain wondered who it could be… his grandmother? She was the only one who ever took care of him when he got sick. His mother couldn’t stand it, said it wasn’t couth to have a child who kept coughing and sneezing trailing along behind her. So he would be unceremoniously dumped on his grandmother’s doorstep, choking back his feelings as he watched his mother’s back through teary eyes. Growing up, his grandmother was the only one who ever cared about him… But it couldn’t be her… something… he remembered something…

God. She was dead.

His heart wrenched in his chest. It was all coming back to him… seeing her withered form in the hospital bed, sorrow crushing him in heavy waves… to know that he had been too late…. too late to say goodbye…

+ + + + + + +

Chris was roused from his book by Ezra shifting restlessly in his sleep. Setting the novel quietly on the nightstand, he moved from his chair to sit on the bed beside the younger man. Laying a callused hand on his burning forehead, he winced again to feel the stinging heat. Watching the southerner’s face intently, he noticed an expression of relief flicker briefly across the handsome features, before they shifted to confusion. In the next instant, they settled into what could only be described as infinite sadness. Concerned, the older man watched as tears squeezed their way out from underneath his closed eyes, sliding down the flushed cheeks.

"Ez?" he spoke softly, not wanting to startle the younger man. "Ezra?"

+ + + + + + +

He remembered the funeral home, making all the arrangements, walking around on automatic pilot. The visits to her priest, her ex-husband’s children, and her attorney had all been a blur. But the funeral, he remembered that clearly. The sight of her casket being lowered, the handful of people who had shown up lingering only to murmur a few clichés of apology, before leaving him alone in the bitter cold, watching as the attendants had covered over her grave. Within an hour, it had been hidden by the falling snow. After that, things got very hazy. He remembered being unable to stop the tears that fell, unable to erase the image of her skeletal form in the hospital from his mind… the crushing feeling of failure… that he hadn’t shown her how much he loved her… how much she’d meant to him…

+ + + + + + +

The older man watched as a shudder went through Standish’s body. Then another. And then, suddenly, a soft, strangled cry escaped the fevered man’s lips.

Chris knew that sound all too well.

Reacting quickly, he pulled the trembling man up into his arms. The southerner’s hands clenched into the front of his black shirt, and within a few moments he was sobbing uncontrollably.

The team leader gently stroked his back through the sweat-soaked shirt, murmuring soft reassurances close in his ear, and rocking him ever so slightly in his arms. A noise at the door caused him to look up, nodding briefly at Buck as he entered the room.

"Ya’ll okay? Thought I heard…Whoa! Hey," the ladies’ man whispered, crossing quickly to the bed and sitting behind the gambler. "What’s goin’ on?"

Looking into Wilmington’s anxious eyes over Standish’s head, Chris replied softly, "Just a bad dream, is all. He’ll be okay once he gets it outa his system."

"Um…" the sound of someone clearing their throat.

Both men looked toward the door as JD poked his head in.

"You need somethin’?" Larabee asked, knowing that the last thing Ezra would want is everyone crowding around witnessing his pain.

"Uh, no, I uh… Well, I was diggin’ around and found out who it was Ezra was comin’ here t’see… thought you might wanna know…"

"It’s okay, son," Buck replied glancing at Larabee’s stern face, once again positioning himself between their leader and the kid. "Come on in and close the door behind ya. We ain’t sellin’ tickets to this."

"Sorry," he mumbled, shutting the door quickly and crossing to sit next to the three men on the bed. "What’s wrong with him?"

"Just the fever," Larabee murmured, still stroking the damp hair. The con man’s cries were no longer as choked and frantic as they had been in the beginning. Now, it was simply the gentle waves of exhausted weeping. "What’ve you got, kid?"

"Well, apparently Ezra’s only living relative on his father’s side is his grandmother. I mean… was his grandmother."

"Was?" Buck asked softly.

"Yeah," JD kept his voice low, also not wishing to disturb Ezra. "Apparently, she was living here in Boston, in an assisted living arrangement that Ezra was paying for. Pretty nice place, too. Best one in the state," the youth commented, remembering the home’s shining reputation even when he was a child. "She died early Tuesday morning over at Mass General."

Buck turned to Chris. "Maybe that ain’t no bad dream, then, pard. I think that’s just grievin’."

The man in black gave no reply, merely glanced down at the younger agent still shaking in his arms, his breath coming in convulsive gasps between the wracking sobs. But the uneven breathing disturbed his lungs, and soon he was coughing roughly, pushing his face into the older man’s chest in an attempt to muffle the sound.

"JD, why don’t you go fetch Nathan. Buck, can you go get us some water, and then join the others. I don’t want anybody else in here for a while."

The two agents exchanged glances, then with a final reassuring squeeze to Standish’s arm, they departed. Buck returned with a glass of water, which Chris took from him and set on top of his book next to the bed. When the ladies’ man had left, he shifted the gambler slightly in his arms.

"Easy, easy," he said when the pale fingers tightened their grip, and he heard a soft moan. "I ain’t lettin’ ya go… just got some water for ya… that okay?"

He received no reply, but when he brushed the cup against the southerner’s lips, he was rewarded by the body in his arms relaxing, and a grateful sigh escaping the cracked lips.

"Come on… just a little more…" The cup was about half gone, but Chris knew Ezra needed all the fluids he could take. He managed to coax the rest down, smiling slightly when the younger man turned in his arms to burrow into his chest.

He placed the empty cup back on the nightstand. Not turning when he heard Nathan enter, he kept his attention entirely on the sick man.

"How’s he doin’?" the healer asked, laying the back of his hand on the fiery cheek, then pressing his fingers to the gambler’s neck. Standish moaned and tried to pull away. "Fever’s still up… glands still swollen. I got some of that medicine for him, if he’s awake enough to get it down."

"We’ll manage," The older man assured him, and indicated the empty cup. Nathan filled it, and between the two of them managed to get two pills down the smaller man’s throat. Ezra wasn’t fighting them… he just simply wasn’t cooperating. He lay in Chris’ arms, tears still sliding silently down his face.

The EMT’s dark eyes softened. "He really should have somethin’ to eat. Accordin’ t’ Vin and Josiah, he ain’t had anythin’ substantial for days."

"What’ve we got?" Chris asked, feeling Ezra sinking back to sleep in his arms.

"I could call down to the front desk, see if they’ve got some soup. Or I can run out to that diner by the airport…"

Looking at the undercover agent, both men could see the toll that grief and illness had taken. The tracks his tears had made cut furrows in his cheeks, eyelashes shining with dampness in the dim lamplight. He was extremely pale, with only two flushed spots of color on his cheeks that were evidence of the fever. Where he had been sweating before, he now radiated a dry heat that had the two men more worried than before.

"Go rustle up whatever you can," Larabee whispered. "I’ll stay with him until you get back."

+ + + + + + +

"I don’t understand it, Buck," JD said. "All he had to do was say somethin’, one of us woulda come with ‘im… hell, prolly all of us woulda taken off work to come to something important like this. He didn’t have to do it all alone."

"JD," Buck sighed. "Sometimes somethin’ happens to ya that’s just too hard to talk about. Sometimes you’d rather be alone until you can deal with it a little better." The moustached man was sprawled across the double bed, staring at the ceiling, his thoughts still occupied with what he’d witnessed in the room down the hall.

The younger man sat cross-legged on the cot that housekeeping had brought for him. He, Buck, and Vin were sharing a room, with Josiah and Nathan across the hall. Chris hadn’t bothered to get one, since he had insisted on staying with Ezra until his fever broke, and Nathan would spell him when he needed to rest. The medical expert had come by a few minutes before and taken Vin to go find food for everyone. Josiah was in the shower, planning on forcing Chris to eat and shower as soon as it looked like Ezra would stay asleep for a while.

"I just… it just don’t make sense, is all." The youngest agent’s dark eyes swam with emotion. "I mean, I’d tell you guys if somethin’ like that happened to me."

"Well, everbody’s diff’rent." Buck sighed, suddenly feeling very old and tired.

A hard knock brought a dripping Josiah to the door, dressed in only a tiny hotel towel clutched around his waist. His eyes shot daggers at the two younger men.

"Brothers, I suggest you confess your sins, and return to me that which you have stolen."

Buck and JD dissolved in a fit of laughter, building when the ex-preacher continued with, "It ain’t funny now. I want my clothes!"

+ + + + + + +

Standish’s fever continued to climb. When it hovered just under 104, Nathan wanted to pack him up and take him to the hospital, but Chris and Buck managed to talk him into waiting at least until morning. They told him about Ezra’s grandmother, and all three men thought about what might happen if his fevered mind realized he was back in the very building where his grandmother had died. None of them wanted to put him through that.

Instead, they forced more of the antibiotic down the gambler’s throat, bathed him with cold water, and prayed his fever would break soon.

+ + + + + + +

He felt himself rising up from the blessed depths of sleep. No… I don’t want to wake up… He felt awful, and sleep gave him a welcome respite. Fighting consciousness, he dimly felt something cool and damp float across his face. Lord, that felt good... like a cool breeze off the ocean. There was a soft sound of water dripping, and then it was back on his neck, even colder this time. He felt like he was buried under burning logs. Every breath seared fire in his lungs, every swallow sent razor blades down his throat. His mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton, his head pounding a sick rhythm in time with his racing heart.

Summoning what little strength he could, he tried to move his leaden arms. Somebody murmured something, and he felt a blanket pulled and tucked up under his chin, a large hand settle on his chest.

"…no… hot…"

He didn’t know he’d spoken aloud, once again feeling the cold washcloth pressed to his searing skin. Josiah’s face was peaceful, masking the worry that was gnawing at his stomach.

The southerner was quiet, infinitely soothed by the cool dampness against his face and neck. When the bowl was nearly empty, the ex-preacher rose and disappeared into the bathroom to refill it.

He’d slipped into a troubled sleep… haunted by wisps and shades of dreams. Voices floated in and out of his head, images flickering across his closed eyelids. His uncle’s towering, angry face just before the belt crashed down onto his seven-year-old back. His mother’s cold gaze, and her turning away as he was left yet again on someone’s doorstep. His grandmother’s face, skeletal and wizened. He watched as the flesh melted from the bones, and her gnarled hand reached out to pull him into the grave with her. Two men shoveled dirt down on top of him… slowly filling the hole… suffocating him…

Stepping carefully so as not to spill the cool water onto the floor, Sanchez had just emerged from the bathroom when he heard the choked sound. The bowl fell to the floor with a thud, the profiler leaping across the room to the bed.

Hauling Standish upright, he saw the younger man clawing desperately at his face and neck, his eyes wide, staring blankly ahead, his mouth open in a silent scream. He was drawing in choked, desperate gulps of air, but he wasn’t letting them back out.

"Ezra!" he shouted. "Come on, son, breathe! Breathe dammit!" Shaking the smaller man’s shoulders, he tried desperately to break through the nightmare.

The door burst open, and Vin was suddenly by his side. His blue eyes were filled with fear, but he sprang into action so fast all Josiah could do was move out of the way.

The first thing Tanner did was to pull Standish to him, shoving the grasping hands down and guiding the stricken face to his chest. He began to rock the smaller man in his arms, stringing a litany of assurances into his ear. Then, suddenly and without warning, he raised his hand and brought it crashing down onto Ezra’s back.

The force of the blow caused the gambler to expel the breath he’d been holding. Forced out too roughly, his weakened lungs seized and he began coughing thickly into the sharpshooter’s flannel shirt.

Vin and Josiah exchanged relieved looks over the top of Ezra’s damp head. His wet, vicious coughing grated on their ears, but it was a welcome sound. At least he was breathing.

The large man moved from the bed, and began cleaning up the water from the floor. After refilling the bowl with the cold liquid, he took the damp cloth and began wiping the back of the con man’s neck.

Just as the dirt began to fill his lungs and choke him, he’d felt two strong arms pull him out of the pit. The hard thump on his back pushed the clogging muck from his throat, and he started coughing painfully as his body tried to rid itself of it. He felt a strong heartbeat close in his ear, and realized dimly that he was being held upright in someone’s arms. Thank God, he thought. I don’t want to die alone…

A heated knife continued to plunge repeatedly into his chest as his lungs convulsed. His head pounded mercilessly, sending white spots dancing over his vision and threatening to render him unconscious. Every muscle throbbed in hot, aching waves. He’d never felt so bad in his life.

Ezra continued to cough, bringing up a thick discharge of mucus and saturating Vin’s shirt. The long-haired man didn’t notice, however, so intent was he on the well-being of his friend.

"Think we oughta get Nathan?" he whispered to Josiah as the smaller man continued to muffle the hacking coughs into his chest.

Sanchez nodded, and disappeared. Moments later, he returned with a bleary-eyed healer in tow, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. When the medic saw the scene on the bed before him, he ducked into the bathroom and returned with a tall glass of water.

"Here ya go," he said as he gently pulled the sagging con man upright. "Come on, drink up." He pushed the glass between the pale lips, and smiled to see the water sucked greedily between coughs. "His throat’s just a little raw. Get him to drink as much as possible… ‘help smooth it a little." When the glass was finished, he smoothed the sweat-soaked hair back from the Standish’s flushed face, and watched the glassy eyes slowly slide shut. "Let’s get some more antibiotic in ‘im, then you need to change your shirt, Vin."

The tracker looked down and swore. "Aw, hell. Ruint m’best shirt, too."

"Think we should go out and pick up some cough syrup for him?" Josiah rumbled.

Jackson looked at the ill man, his ear picking up the rough wheeze to the breathing, and shook his head. "No. As much as it’s gonna tire ‘im out, we gotta let ‘im keep coughin’ that shit outa his lungs. He’s finally started to push some of it up," he indicated Tanner’s soiled shirt. "If we just get a few boxes of tissues, we oughta be okay."

The ex-preacher nodded, and left to find said boxes. Vin helped lean Ezra back to the damp pillows, and covered him back up before standing. "How much longer, Nate?" he asked softly.

The healer sat down next to the gambler and took over sponging him with cool water. "I dunno, Vin. It looks like he’s got himself a good dose of that flu, but I’m just worried about all that congestion in his lungs. If he don’t shake this fever before tomorrow afternoon, I’m takin’ ‘im to the hospital."

The sharpshooter’s blue eyes darkened with worry. He gave himself a rough shake, then took the ice bucket to fill it up. They were going to need it.

+ + + + + + +

The morning dawned cold, but clear. Buck and JD lay sprawled across their beds, dotted with crumpled paper that were the evidence of the paper wad fight they’d had the night before. Vin had long ago abandoned his rowdy roommates, opting instead to sleep on the floor of Ezra’s room, just in case anything was needed. Nathan and Josiah slept across the hall, both exhausted from their late-night turns at the bedside. Chris sat in the chair next to the gambler, with his booted feet resting on the edge of the mattress, his chin on his chest. He’d dozed off about an hour ago, after nearly three hours of sponging Standish’s face, arms, and chest, trying to get his fever to break. It had been an exhausting night, and after threatening to fire him if he didn’t get some sleep, he’d managed to get Nathan to go to bed.

Something pulled him to semi-consciousness. Forcing one heavy eyelid to open, he saw a pale hand resting on his foot. His gaze traveled up, and both eyes popped open when he found himself being regarded by an exhausted, but clear, green stare.

"Hey, Ez," he said, putting his feet on the ground and leaning forward to rest a calloused hand on Standish’s forehead. A smile spread across his features when he felt the coolness of his skin. The fever had finally broken. "How ya feelin’?"

The southerner’s throat struggled to work, but after swallowing a few times, he managed to croak out, "…awful."

"I’ll buy that," Chris’ smile widened. "You been pretty sick. Here, you want somethin’ t’drink?"

Ezra nodded gratefully, and Chris managed to get half a glass of water into him before the younger man’s eyelids drooped. The man in black settled him back into the bed, and then turned to fetch Nathan. Then he felt a hand settle on his arm.

He turned back, and the hand on his arm squeezed ever-so-slightly.

"Th-thank you," the younger man rasped, a recognition in his eyes as well as his voice that told the team leader that Standish knew how much everyone cared about him, and was thankful for it. Nodding once, he watched as Ezra drifted into a peaceful, healing sleep.

Rising, he stretched the kinks out of his stiff muscles, grimacing when he heard several joints pop.

"Larabee, you sound like a bowl of Rice Krispies."

Chris turned towards the rough drawl, finding the sharpshooter looking up at him from his palette on the floor.

"Yeah, and you don’t even wanna know what you sound like," he returned.

Tanner yawned, stretching his lean body as long as it would go. Hauling himself to his feet, he crossed to the bed to peer at the sleeping man in the dim lamplight. "How’s he doin’?"

"Fever broke. I’m gonna go get Nathan, then we’ll clean ‘im up and all of us can get some decent rest. I figure he’ll sleep for a long time. He’s plumb wore out." Chris said, crossing to the door.

"Yeah," Vin answered. The team leader left, and the tracker stood there looking down at his friend. Sweat was pouring off the con man in rivers, dark circles under his eyes making him look like death warmed over. But he had heard the quiet exchange between the two men, and knew that at least some of the demons the undercover agent had been wrestling with had been laid to rest.

His blue eyes danced in the dim lamplight. Smiling, he whispered softly to the sleeping man, "After all, what’s family for?"


Comments to: skaia7@hotmail.com