Into the Woods

by skaia7

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Part Two
"Okay, here we go," she helped the heavily bundled Vin get his legs inside the Jeep, and closed the door, hurrying to get in the driver’s side. She closed the door and pulled the seatbelt on, then looked over at him. "How’re you holding up?"

"I’m fine," he whispered, but she could see plainly that it was a lie. His face was pale, his body trembling from the energy lost getting him from the bedroom to the passenger seat. His body was taut with pain, sweat standing out on his face and neck.

"We’ll get you there as quickly as we can, I promise," she said, placing one hand on his arm and giving it a gentle squeeze. He closed his eyes and gave a slight smile before leaning his head against the cool glass of the passenger window. She glanced at the cabin once, running over in her mind to make sure she hadn’t left anything behind. She knew that once she got Vin to a hospital, she wouldn’t be coming back. If this storm didn’t make it impossible, her own thoughts about what – or who – was out there in the woods capable of doing to a man what had been done to Vin would keep her from coming back here for a very long time.

Shifting the Jeep into overdrive, she started down her driveway, creeping slowly towards the road. She could feel the car struggling to keep its wheels from being bogged down in the heavy snow, and she was praying to whatever god listening that she didn’t end up getting them stuck halfway between the cabin and town.

It took fifteen minutes to navigate the forty-foot drive. After another half an hour, they’d maybe gone four miles. At this rate, it would take another two to three hours to get to town. She glanced over at Vin, grateful that at least he was sleeping. Well, she was grateful for more than just that. She was grateful that the Jeep seemed to be moving easier – if still at a snail’s pace – on the road. She was also grateful that she had enough gas, that the heater was working, that the engine didn’t seem in danger of dying. It had stopped snowing soon after she left the cabin, and if everything hadn’t been blanketed in white, she was sure she’d be able to see pretty clearly.

She’d heard of ‘white-outs’ before: when the snow was so high and thick and the air so permeated with cold that everywhere you looked, there was only white. No distinction between earth and sky – just WHITE. Everywhere.

But she never dreamed she’d have to drive around in one.

So she tried to follow the barely-distinguishable contour of the road as best she could, also grateful that the possibility of other cars being out on the road was slim to none. She took her time, grateful also for the daylight, and the peace that came with the knowledge that finally she was doing something for the young man that would truly help.

A sudden movement at the edge of her vision caused her to turn and look at her passenger for the first time in nearly an hour. He was tossing his head, sweat pouring off of him in rivers, his cheeks flushed from the fever.

"Hang on, Vin," she begged. "I’ll get you there." Just a little further.

He moaned softly, several deep, wet coughs escaping through his dry, cracked lips. After those came several more… and still more… until he was swept away in another all-consuming fit that caused him to cry out and double over in pain, pressing one hand to his chest as it continued to force breath from his clogged lungs.

Not daring to pull over – indeed, not even knowing where the shoulder WAS – she stopped the car right there and reached over, pulling him a little more upright and bracing him as he struggled to breathe. "It’s okay," she rubbed his back, feeling his heart pounding and his desperate cries of pain and fear amidst the terrible, wrenching coughs that ripped their way out of his exhausted body. "Shh… Vin… It’s okay… We’re almost there…"

After a long time… Such a long time… My God how can he stand it?… he managed to stop coughing, and sat there stiffly, bracing himself against the tide of pain as he fought to regain control of his breathing. She managed to get another dose of Tylenol in him to try and get his fever down. His shaking hands could barely hold the bottled water she had brought, so she used a hand to steady his as he took long pulls. She watched as the liquid traveled down his smooth throat, and was struck for the first time - in spite of his wounds and illness - with how handsome he was.

When he’d finished off the water, looking at her expectantly for more, she opened a second bottle. After half of this was gone, she pulled it reluctantly from his lips.

"I’m sorry, Vin," she said when his eyes searched hers wordlessly. She pushed his damp hair back from his pale face, wincing when her fingers brushed his fiery skin. "I’m sorry. But we’ve only got so much of this, and we still have a long way to town. We need to save it in case something happens, okay?" He nodded weakly, closing his eyes with a small, disappointed sigh.

God, he hurt.

As if it wasn’t enough that fire raced up and down his body with every breath from the wounds to his shoulder and side, and his broken ribs ached unmercifully… As if it wasn’t enough that the burning numbness of his broken arm and the stinging of the numerous gashes all over his body made any attempt at sleep impossible...

He leaned back into the passenger seat, trying to relax. He was so tired… If only he could fall asleep… But no, it wasn’t enough for whoever was up there pushing the buttons for him to have been shot and broken, beaten to a bruised and bloody pulp. The Button-Pusher had to saddle him with this unmerciful cold… or flu… Whatever it was, it caused his own spit to send razor blades down his throat every time he swallowed. Each chill that raked its frigid claws through him sent fresh agony through his bruised and battered body. His lungs ached, his limbs ached, and his head throbbed unmercifully.

Tears pricked at his eyes. God, Chris… where are you??…

The drifts made it nearly impossible to navigate the roads, but by some miracle of heaven, nearly four hours after they’d started out from the cabin, they managed to pull into town. The snowplows had been out and done their best, she could see. They had tried to clear the streets, but they had not been extremely successful. At best, they had merely pushed the snow down until the street seemed to be paved with a sheet of packed ice. She felt the wheels of the Jeep scrambling to keep their hold on the treacherous surface. The town wasn’t as deserted as the forest road had been, with other cars crawling along. She was sure all the other drivers were clutching the wheel in prayer, just as she was.

Suddenly, she heard the screeching of tires. She turned her head just in time to see a blur of red out the passenger window as her Cherokee was hit. She felt a sharp pain as her head hit the steering wheel, her vision going white, then red, as she struggled to remain conscious. Both cars spun out of control, lurching violently and skidding off the road, coming to rest in some poor person’s front yard.

The first thing she noticed was the silence. Lifting her head brought a shooting pain that lanced from her forehead to her shoulders, and she slumped back against the driver’s seat as she waited for her vision to clear. She heard a shout, and managed to turn her head to look at her passenger.

Oh God.

There was blood everywhere. The young man looked so pale, so still, she knew he had to be dead. Closing her eyes, she fell gratefully into the dark as she lost consciousness.

+ + + + + + +


He was dragged from the quagmire of sleep by Mary’s near-shriek echoing through the house. Sunlight was streaming through the blinds, and he squinted as they hit his sleep-darkened eyes. Glancing at the clock, he cursed softly under his breath.


That woman had probably turned off the alarm and called him in sick today. Not that he didn’t feel it. His stomach had been turning constant sommer saults, like some sick roller-coaster ride he couldn’t get off of. The knot inside him kept getting tighter each day Vin was gone. It had gotten to the point where most of what he ate came back up on him. And he hadn’t slept a full night through since this whole nightmare began.

Mary burst in the bedroom door just as he had managed to get his legs off the side of the bed and his feet to the floor. Her face was pale, her eyes wide, and she clutched the cordless phone in her hand.

"Chris!" she breathed, and he could tell she had run from the kitchen at the other side of the house.

"Mary… What is it?" he growled, fear twisting the knot in his gut even tighter, his white knuckles clutching at the sheets. What if that’s 'the call'? His breath became shaky. Can I stand having to do it… to go down and identify the body?…

"They’ve found him," she spoke in a rush, still trying to catch her breath, her own heart pounding in her chest. She looked straight into his fear-filled blue eyes. "He’s alive!"

"BUCK!" The man in black came barreling into the ER, shouting at the top of his lungs. He flew at his oldest friend, grabbing his shoulders and hanging on for dear life. Everyone in the ER stopped what they were doing to watch the show. "Where is he?? I wanna see him…"

Buck grabbed Chris, too, pushing him over to the waiting area and trying to force him down into a rubber chair. "Not yet, ‘pard. Hold on a minute, Chris…" Chris shoved at Buck, trying desperately to break the grip the other man had on him, but three weeks of not eating and not sleeping had taken a toll on his body, and he just didn’t have the strength, even if he did have the desperation. "I SAID… HOLD ON!" Buck bellowed.

Chris glared as only he was capable, whispering in his famous deadly tone, "You’d better tell me why, Buck, and you’d better tell me quick."

Buck pushed his face close to Larabee’s, making sure that there was no way eye contact could be broken. "He’s in surgery. He’s been in there a while and he’s gonna be in there a lot longer. Now, if ya think ya can sit in this chair real quiet-like, I’ll tell ya what the doctor told us, alright?"

Chris nodded slowly and sat down, barely keeping control of his temper. Every nerve in his body screamed for him to get up and burst through the doors of the OR to get to Tanner, and it took every ounce of willpower he had to stay in that chair. Buck understood, squeezing his friend’s shoulders briefly before removing his hands. It was only after Wilmington moved back a couple of paces that Chris noticed the other members of Team 7 arranged in various positions around the waiting room. JD was seated in the far corner with his arms on his knees, his head hanging down so that his face was hidden behind a thick curtain of dark hair. Josiah sat near him, one hand resting quietly on the boy’s back. His eyes were closed, his face a mask of stone. Ezra was leaning up against the wall near the door to the OR with his eyes on his Italian leather shoes, his hands shoved deep in his pockets. The air was thick with tension, and Chris got a sinking feeling that told him he really didn’t want to hear what Buck was about to say.

"They found him way over near Leadville. Some grad student who was stayin’ at a cabin over winter break found him two days ago stumblin’ around out in the snow. That blizzard down there that they kept talkin’ about on the news? That’s what he was wanderin’ around in, dressed in nothin’ but torn jeans and a t-shirt. Not even any shoes. She got ‘im cleaned up as best she could, but couldn’t get ‘im to a hospital ‘cause the roads were so bad. As soon as she could, she loaded ‘im up in her car and drove him into town."

Buck paused here, and Chris could tell he was bracing himself for what was to come next. It hadn’t escaped the leader’s attention that no mention had yet been made of Vin’s physical condition.

"When she found ‘im… he’d been beat up pretty good. His arm was broke, his foot broke, along with a couple of ribs… he’d been shot… stabbed…" The ladies man could see Chris’s face darken with a murderous cloud. "He was real sick, too, burnin’ up with fever and coughin’ somethin’ fierce. But when they got into town…" Buck swallowed, trying to keep control in order to continue the story. "… they got broad-sided. Some fool driving a Suburban hit a patch of ice and went flyin’ into her car. This huge Suburban, older model, with some guy who had no business goin’ 60 miles an hour on ice like that… just slammed into her lil’ ol’ Cherokee." Buck kneeled in front of Chris and put a hand on his arm, his voice choked. "Hit the passenger side. Cops said they couldn’t believe anybody came out of that wreck alive." Buck could feel the arm under him trembling with tension, could see his friend grinding his teeth to bits in his mouth. "But he IS alive, Chris! They were both airlifted here. That lil’ girl that helped him so much is in surgery, too, some pretty bad hemorrhaging. But he’s alive! Nearly everythin’ on his right side is broke, some internal injuries, had glass all in him from where the window busted – one chunk barely missed his eye – but he’s alive . And, dammit, he’s going to stay that way, even if all six of us have to drag his sorry ass outa hell itself!" Buck growled the last, as if his words alone could make it so. "He’s got a long way to go before he’s back completely, but he’s alive, okay? You hear me? He’s alive."

Chris could hardly breathe. Good God… Vin… He leaned his elbows onto his knees and put his head in his hands.

Buck sat down next to him, and wrapped one arm about the dark-clad man’s shaking shoulders. "It’s gonna be alright, Chris. You gotta believe that, okay? He needs you to believe that."

Chris gave a slight nod, fighting the tears that threatened to tumble down his cheeks. He kept his head bowed, but the hoarse whisper managed to make its way to Buck’s ears. "Where’s Nathan?"

"Where do you think?" He rubbed Chris’s back absently, his eyes trained on the door to the OR. "Soon as he found out what was goin’ on, he insisted on bein’ in there. Had to fight pretty good to make them let ‘im stay. Don’t worry, Chris. Vin ain’t alone. Nathan wouldn’t let ‘im go through this alone."

Don’t worry…

The words echoed hollowly in his head. Those had been the last words Vin had said to him that day… He could still see the mischievous glint in the sharpshooter’s blue eyes as he’d tossed his coat in the back seat after work.

Don’t worry, Chris. It’d take more than a couple of phone calls and weird letters to scare me... And don’t you go turnin’ on that evil eye a’ yours. I seen scarier faces on old women.

And with a devilish wink, he’d swung up into the Jeep and driven away.

Chris hadn’t seen him since.

Nathan had kept a firm grip on Vin's limp hand until the interns had pushed him aside to start the IV's. Now, he leaned stiffly against the wall of the ER, watching as the doctors cut his friend open before his eyes. They were trying to sew up the hole in his right lung made during the crash when a broken rib punctured it, and it was taking such a long time. It had been nearly three hours since Vin had been brought in, and they estimated another four to five hours, at least, before they'd be through putting the man back together. After the lung came stitching the gunshot and stab wounds, setting all his broken bones, then taking all the glass out of his face…

There was so much blood…

All of a sudden, a shrill sound went off in the ER, and everyone was thrown into a blur of activity.

"He's coding. Get the cart in here, STAT!"

"Clamp… I gotta clamp this before they get here or he'll bleed to death… Goddammit, I said CLAMP! NOW!"

The cart crashed through the doors, and before they swung closed Nathan got a glimpse of his teammates' stricken faces.

"Sir… sir, you've got to leave now." He startled as a hand latched onto his arm, pulling him towards the door.

"No!" he pulled back. "I ain't leavin' him."

"Sir, you can't be in here anymore. I swear, I'll come right out and get you when they're through, okay? I swear… Now, just wait out here for a few minutes…"

And with that he was dumped unceremoniously into the hall, where the other members of Team 7 clustered silently around him, their faces open and asking the question to which he had no answer.

"Okay, charge to 200. Ready… NOW."

The body on the table jumped as electricity surged through it.

Everyone stood still, listening, waiting. Nothing.

"Okay, 250. Ready… NOW!"

Again the jump. And this time, everyone held their breath, listening to the deafening silence of the room.

The head surgeon expelled a harsh breath. "That’s it. We’re gonna call it."

A short nurse shook her curly red head, looking up at him with warning eyes. "Bill, I really think you want to keep trying."

"He's had it, Ruth. I mean, look at him!… Time of death is…"

"BILL… I sure hope the hospital's got enough money for a new building project, because I can guarantee you, if this guy doesn’t come out of this operating room still kicking those 6 men out there in that waiting room are going to give this entire wing one hell of a decorating job."

The head surgeon took one look at the anxious faces pressed to the glass. The cold glimmer in each of their eyes made him shudder. He licked his lips, a bead of sweat falling from his forehead to the floor.

"Charge to 300…"

The body jumped again, and the eyes over the sterile mask widened when the sound filled the room.

Beep… beep… beep…

Ruth went back out to the hall, and Nathan nearly ran her over getting back into the operating room.

"Just stand back, okay?" she warned him as she went back to the table to assist. And the task of reassembling Tanner’s broken body began again.

Afterward all the life-threatening injuries had been patched as best they could, all the broken bones set, they began preparing to stitch up the gashes on his head and face. Nathan’s eyes stung as they threatened to fill with tears. God, the boy's going to have more thread in him than one of Nettie's quilts…

Suddenly, a distinct buzzing sound reached his ears, and he felt his knees go weak.

Oh, not that. Please tell me they don't have to do that…

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat next to the still, pale figure on the bed, both hands gently cradling the hand without the IV. Tears were tracking their way unashamedly down his cheeks, his eyes boring into Tanner's face. One eye was swollen shut, the skin looking red and irritated around the stitches crossing his forehead and cheek. A breathing tube delivered both oxygen and Albuterol to help clear the congestion in his lungs. Two tubes went into the central line, one to replenish the blood he lost, and the other to deliver antibiotics and painkillers straight into his bloodstream. A catheter went out from under the sheets to a dark bloody bag hanging from the bed. But as bad as his friend looked, it had taken one final thing to push Larabee to tears…

His hair.

They had cut Vin's hair.

He'd taken so much glass on the right side of his head that they'd had to shave about 4'' square above his ear to see to get all of it out. Dark stitches stood out against the pale scalp that had probably never seen even a smidgen of sun.

Chris's eyes swept over the battered, broken body of his best friend. Both arms and his right leg were in a cast, his bare torso swathed in bandages that covered his stab wound and held his broken ribs in place. More bandages swathed his shoulder, his arms, his legs…The ventilator's soft whir and the heart monitor's steady beep were the only sounds that echoed through the thick air. But it was his face that the team leader couldn't take his eyes off of. The left side looked achingly normal, if slightly bruised, as if the former bounty hunter were merely sleeping. The right side, however, was ghastly, criss-crossed with sutures and bruises. It was almost, Chris decided, like some twisted Jekyll and Hyde.

Except that it was Vin on that bed…

He heard a noise, and flicked his eyes towards the door just in time to see Buck come through it with two cups of coffee.

"How’re you holdin' up, pard?" he said as he lowered himself into the chair next to the grief-stricken man.

Chris grunted in reply, roughly wiping the tears from his face and accepting the proffered cup. He took a long drink before his eyes returned to the bed. After a moment's stare, he bent at the waist, lowering his forehead into his hand. "God, Buck, he looks awful."

"Well, he's only been outa surgery about 18 hours. And considerin' all they had t’ do t'him, I reckon he looks damn good."

"Where is everybody?" came the reply muffled from the downcast head.

"Josiah’s taken Ezra and JD to his place. They was both shaken up real bad, and I think he needed to watch over ‘em just as much as they needed to be watched over." He took a swig of coffee, trying not to look at the bed. "And Rain finally dragged Nate home. I’m sure he’ll be back in the mornin’. Nettie wants to come tomorrow, too. I tol’ her she’d have to fight you for front row seats." His attempt at humor drew a deeper scowl from Larabee, but he decided to press his luck. "Mary wants to take you home too, Chris. Hell, look at yourself. You ain’t slept ‘r ate right in a long time. You’ve worried yourself sick, and I’m sure the first thing Junior ain’t gonna wanna see when he opens them purty eyes a’ his is you lookin’ like you been run over by a train."

"I ain’t leavin’ ‘im," was the growled reply.

"Chris," Buck tried, gently laying one hand on his boss’s tense shoulder. "He ain’t gonna wake up anytime soon. Even if he weren’t in such bad shape, Nate says they’ve got him so pumped full of drugs that it’s gonna be a few days at least before he’ll even be likely to be able to wake up. And if you jest can’t walk out this door without somebody bein’ here with ‘im, then rest assured that I ain’t movin’ my butt from this chair, ‘cept maybe to take over yours when you leave."

"I said I ain’t leavin’ ‘im."

Buck sighed, stretching his long legs out and leaning his head back to look at the ceiling. He hadn’t really expected the grouchy man to agree, but he tried. "Pard, I known you a long time. An’ I know what Junior means to ya. But you GOT to listen to me." He looked back at Chris, catching tired eyes with his and holding them with a stern look. "You are leavin’. Mary’s in the hall, and she’s gonna take you home. You’re gonna have a shower, eat somethin’, sleep a while, and then – when you don’t look like you walked outa World War III – you can come back here and grind your butt cheeks into that chair all you please."

Chris put his hands on his black jeans. "What if he…"

"Like I said, he ain’t gonna wake up." Buck winced as he saw Chris’s stricken expression. "Not soon, anyway. And when he does, I know you’re gonna wanna be here for ‘im. And that means you need to go home. Now."

They both looked up as Mary appeared in the doorway, her face tender. She, too, avoided looking at Vin. She knew she couldn’t. If she did, she’d burst into tears, and then she and Buck would lose the nearly-won battle of taking the man in black out of this hospital.

Chris looked at her, then closed his eyes and elicited a defeated sigh. Buck was right, he felt like shit. And he knew he looked it. The knot that had held his insides for the last two weeks hadn’t loosened even the slightest with Vin’s return. If anything, it had gotten worse. It was one thing to not know where Vin was… If he came back to them dead, as much as it would have ripped his soul to pieces, still Chris could have taken that easier than sitting in a chair and watching his best friend die in front of his eyes. He was exhausted, his hands shaking slightly with fatigue and malnourishment. And to top it all off, he had been fighting a pulsing headache for the last two hours. With one last look at the man on the bed, and one last squeeze of the pale hand, he stood and let Mary take him. But before leaving, he gave one menacing glare to Buck that said in no uncertain terms, You’d better call me if anything happens. And I mean it.

Buck returned, I know. I know. Get goin’.

When the two were gone, the ladies man let out the breath he’d been holding, his face sinking down to rest in his hands. He let himself gather strength for a moment, before raising his eyes to look at his injured friend for the first time. His heart broke, and he whispered so soft it wouldn’t have been heard over the hum of the machines.

"Holy hell, Vin… what’d they do to you?"


Two days later, an anxious ex-preacher knelt in prayer. "Lord, what’d he do? What could that boy possibly have done to deserve somethin’ like this? You and I, Lord, we go back a ways. You can tell me. What could he possibly have done?"

Josiah closed his eyes against the thick silence of his room, and pressed his clasped hands to his forehead.

Then, a quiet noise of someone clearing their throat.

The ex-preacher lifted his head, eyes fixed on the ceiling. "That ain’t exactly an answer, Lord." With a sigh, he heaved himself off the floor where he had knelt by his bed. "You need somethin’ Ezra?"

"Um… I… No…neva’mind." The southerner turned to flee, but not before Josiah noticed the tears shining in the smaller man’s eyes.


The southerner stopped in the door, waiting. What am I doing? This is foolish… "Do you need somethin’, Mista’ Sanchez?" he answered softly, not turning to face his questioner.

Josiah knew how hard it was for Ezra to show what he felt, and knew that the younger man had to be wrestling with something fierce to come to him. He also knew he had to tread lightly, or Ezra would bolt like a skittish colt. He rumbled softly, "JD asleep?"

"Yeah, poor kid jus’ collapsed. Cried himself t’sleep." The undercover agent turned his head slightly, but made no further answer.

Josiah grunted in reply. They’d all taken turns that day at the hospital, staring at each other with worried, fearful eyes. Two days they’d been waiting for Vin to wake up. Anxious hours spent listening to the beep and whir of the machines hooked up to their friend. After a moment, he walked up behind the other man, and kept his voice low and soothing.

"Come here, son." The ex-preacher put his big hands gently on the smaller shoulders, not missing that they were shaking slightly beneath his touch.

Under normal circumstances – if Ezra could remember such a time – he would have pulled roughly from the touch and walked away. But he couldn’t seem to get the image out of his mind… the image of a pale, corpse-like figure that bore only the slightest shadow of a resemblance to the man he once knew being wheeled out of the operating room and down into intensive care. The picture had burned itself on the inside of his eyelids, and every time he closed his eyes that was all he could see. It haunted him. He had just woken from a pathetic attempt at sleep shaking and in a cold sweat. He didn’t think he could stand it another moment.

So he allowed Josiah to pull him into a strong embrace, one hand around his still-trembling shoulders and the other gently cupping the back of his neck, carefully guiding his head to the bigger man’s chest. His eyes were blind with tears, and though part of his logical mind burned with the shame of needing any comfort, his shattered heart now controlled his body, and he curled his fingers in Josiah’s shirt and wept for his broken friend.

Cold. God, he was so cold… Cracking open the only eye that would respond, he struggled to focus his blurred and hazy vision in order to make out his surroundings.

White… he could see nothing but white.

Oh god! His thin frame began to shake violently. Something was on his face, and he swiped it off. The woods…and the cabin… god, not again!

His shivering became more pronounced as he broke out in a cold sweat, and he concentrated hard to make his limbs obey his commands. Gotta get outa here. They’re comin’… comin’ fer me… A dry mouth struggled to work up enough moisture to cry out. His arms felt like they were made of lead, but he half dragged himself off to his left, crying out sharply when his stiff fingers came in contact with the cold bars of the hospital bed. It was then that he felt something around his wrist… restraining him. Sweet Jesus! His entire body convulsed with terrified shudders. They tied me up again… Panicking, he started flailing around in the bed, wrenching desperately at the IV and other tubes that he thought were ropes.


The roared word exploded inside his head, and he froze, still shaking uncontrollably. They’re here! Oh god! Turning his nearly-useless vision towards the source of the sound, he threw his hands up to shield his face, expecting at any moment for blows to start raining down.

There was a long, agonizing pause, and all he could hear was the sound of his own ragged breathing. He stiffened, trying to will his body to stop its violent quaking. Any minute now… it’ll start all over again… they musta caught me runnin’ away… they’re gonna kill me… oh god, they’re gonna kill me! And he waited for the blows, for the angry voice and the evil laughter.

Instead, he was gathered ever-so-gently into warm, strong arms, and he heard a familiar voice whisper close in his ear, "Shh. It’s okay, cowboy. It’s okay. I’ve got ya."

His limbs turned to water. His trembling began anew, though this time he was shaking with relief.


He wasn’t even aware that he’d spoken aloud, releasing the word in one long, hitching breath. He pushed his face into Chris’ chest as hard as he could, as if he could burrow into the older man and find the warmth and safety he was desperate for. Inhaling as deeply as his broken ribs would allow, he breathed in the earthy, smoky scent that did more to calm him than any sedative in the world. Hot tears gathered in his eyes, but he refused to let them fall. His hands clutched feebly at the older man’s dark shirt, his breath catching in his throat as he struggled to control his chaotic emotions.

Again came the soothing voice that broke through his muddled thoughts, "Shh. Hey… hey… calm down, pard… it’s all right… I gotcha…" He leaned his aching head against his friend’s chest, suddenly conscious of how much he hurt, now that he was no longer consumed by fear. God, how he hurt. Every cell in his body screamed at him, sending a red haze sweeping over his vision.

He began coughing, breath being forced from him as his lungs contracted. A white hot throbbing pulsed behind his eyes, and a fiery burning swept throughout the entire left side of his body. His lungs ached as if he’d run ten miles in the cold, and he couldn’t seem to catch his breath. But more than anything else, he was acutely aware of the relief that swept like a tidal wave through his body. You’re here… you’re here…

"… y-you’re here… you’re here…"

Chris’ gut wrenched at the sound of Vin’s hoarse, broken whispering, punctuated by harsh, wet coughing. It was as if the sharpshooter couldn’t believe it was true and was trying to force it to be real by repeating it over and over again. He felt the weak hands grasping at his shirt, the frail body shaking in his arms. More coughing shook the younger man’s thin frame.

"Here…" Chris fetched the mask from where Vin had discarded it. "Let’s put this back on." Vin fought him a little, but he managed to coax it back around his nose and mouth. The chest tube had only been removed a few hours ago, and Vin’s raw throat still screamed its protest.

Even through his shirt Larabee could feel the heat radiating off the younger man’s body. God, Vin, you’re burnin’ up. He considered getting one of the nurses, but reconsidered when he thought about how having a stranger come in here now might push Vin back over the edge. He also considered going to get a damp cloth to try and cool Vin down, but then he pushed all those thoughts aside. Right now, Vin needed something a lot more that had nothing to do with physical healing.

Three days.

Vin had been unconscious three days while people swarmed around him… and he had woken up cold, scared, and alone. His gentle grip tightened, as if he could somehow protect his friend from every danger and hurt within the shelter of his arms.

Somewhere in his fevered mind, Vin struggled as hard as he could to retain control of his emotions. He would not break down. He refused. The oxygen mixture helped to clear his mind of some of the fog. Everything would be all right now. Chris was here. He was safe. Chris was here…

Chris could feel Vin holding back, pushing everything deep down inside. As close as Tanner had let himself get to the members of Team 7, Chris knew there was so much he kept hidden. He was still so guarded, so wary of their friendship.

And that knowledge made Larabee’s heart wrench even more.

The team leader held his sharpshooter for a long time. He held Vin, murmuring soft reassurances and rubbing his hand in slow circles over the trembling back, until the shaking ceased, and the frantic half-choked breaths turned to intermittent shuddering gasps, then finally into steady breathing. He kept holding him, until the body in his arms grew heavy with sleep. He started to pull the younger man away to lay him back down on the hospital bed, but a soft whimper stopped him. A crooked half-smile curved his lips, and he whispered, "That’s okay, pard. I didn’t really wanna let go anyway."

Holding Vin against him with his left arm, he reached over with his right for the controls that would raise the head of the bed up enough for him to lean against. Then he swung his legs up, careful to keep his booted feet off the sheets, and put the pillow between his back and the bed. Making sure the mask didn’t slip, he settled back with Tanner curled up against his chest, listening to make sure his friend’s breathing stayed deep and even. Hitching the sheets up to Vin’s shoulders, he gently rubbed the injured arm above the cast, and felt his friend’s body relax, sinking into a deep, healing sleep.

He stayed awake for some time after, watching the moon as it made its way across the hospital window. The night nurse peeked her head in at one point, and he could see it in her eyes as she debated with herself whether or not to enforce hospital policy and make Larabee leave. Or, try to make him leave. He’d shot a glare at her, and she’d left them alone without a single word. Sometime after that, he found himself nodding off, so he scrunched down to get more comfortable. Soon he, too, was asleep.


Buck stood looking down at his two friends. Chris’ head was tilted back, his mouth hanging open and a soft gurgling snore issuing forth from deep in his throat. Tanner was curled up, his even breathing making slight condensation on the mask, his head on the black-shirted chest. His broken arm rested on Larabee’s stomach, his fingers curved loosely around a wad of black shirt. Well, don’t that beat all. The two crotchetiest old biddies of the bunch cuddled up together like little kittens. For the first time in weeks, a huge grin broke across his face. His hand came out from behind his back, and in it was a disposable camera he’d bought from the hospital gift shop.

This was just too juicy to pass up.

He got three good shots before Chris stirred, giving a huge yawn. Slipping the camera into his back pocket, Buck quickly pulled up a chair and sat next to the bed, waiting for his boss to look around and take notice of him.

"What is it?" The sleep-deepened voice issued from the leader without him opening his eyes.

"Nothin’. Jus’ wanted to come down and see how Junior’s doin’. I’m guessin’ by the way you’re cradlin’ him that last night was a little rough."

"Yeah," Chris blinked sleepily, and gently pushed Vin off of him, guiding his head until it rested on the pillow. He eased out of the bed, still moving slowly so as not to wake the younger man from his desperately needed rest, and rearranged the tubes snaking around his friend. He tucked the covers back into place, then stood up, stretching the kinks out of his body, and dropped down into the chair beside Buck. "Walked in last night to find him tugging at those tubes going in and out him. ‘Was afraid he’d pull ‘em out. His fever’s high, and he didn’t know where he was… got spooked by something. So I talked him down and waited ‘till he fell asleep. Jus’ didn’t wanna leave him here by himself, not with his fever like that and all."

The ladies’ man leaned forward and laid the back of his hand on the sleeping man’s fiery cheek. "Damn, that’s bad. But I imagine it’s a helluva lot better than it was last night."

"Where is everybody?"


Buck saw his boss’s face as it registered that there was a world beyond the hospital bed… a thought that had not crossed his mind for days. His green eyes turned to the ladies’ man. "We got anything at all?"

"They’re checking. Ezra’s thrown himself undercover deeper than I’ve ever seen him go… we might not see him for a few days. He can be nearly as one-track minded as you, when he wants to be."

Chris nodded, his eyes sliding closed and his chin dropping to his chest as he started to nod off again. Buck cleared his throat, and said in a gentle tone, "Why don’t you go home and rest for a while. Get cleaned up. Josiah’s got the shift after me, and then Nathan. I’ll make sure he calls you so you can come down and sit later this afternoon."

Chris yawned again, considering. "Don’t worry," Buck continued. "He’s in good hands. I think the worst is over. ‘Nurse outside said she’s coming in a few minutes to give him another dose of antibiotics and painkillers, so he’ll probably be out the rest of the day anyway. You may as well take advantage of it, and sleep while he does."

The older man nodded tiredly, heaving himself up with a groan. "Buck, I’m gittin’ too old for this." Buck just grinned at the glare that was turned his way as Chris added, "You’d better call me if he wakes up. I mean it."

"Yes, sir," Buck replied, giving a mock-salute. Then Larabee turned and lumbered out the door, passing a nurse as she came in with a tray of syringes for Vin.

Buck’s eyes twinkled. "Why, hello Ruthie. You look ab-so-lutely lovely this morning. Say, would you mind if I took your picture? I’ve got this roll of film I wanna use up so I can drop if off this afternoon…"


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