Into the Woods
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"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 drivers side. She closed the door and pulled the seatbelt on, then looked over at him. "Howre you holding up?"
"Im 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.
"Well 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 hadnt left anything behind. She knew that once she got Vin to a hospital, she wouldnt be coming back. If this storm didnt 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 didnt 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, theyd 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 snails pace on the road. She was also grateful that she had enough gas, that the heater was working, that the engine didnt seem in danger of dying. It had stopped snowing soon after she left the cabin, and if everything hadnt been blanketed in white, she was sure shed be able to see pretty clearly.
Shed 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 shed 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. "Ill 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. "Its 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 Its okay Were 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 hed 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.
"Im 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. "Im sorry. But weve 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 wasnt 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 wasnt 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 wasnt 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 theyd 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 wasnt 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 persons 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 drivers seat as she waited for her vision to clear. She heard a shout, and managed to turn her head to look at her passenger.
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 Marys 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 didnt feel it. His stomach had been turning constant sommer saults, like some sick roller-coaster ride he couldnt 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 hadnt 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 thats 'the call'? His breath became shaky. Can I stand having to do it to go down and identify the body?
"Theyve 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. "Hes 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 didnt 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, "Youd better tell me why, Buck, and youd better tell me quick."
Buck pushed his face close to Larabees, making sure that there was no way eye contact could be broken. "Hes in surgery. Hes been in there a while and hes gonna be in there a lot longer. Now, if ya think ya can sit in this chair real quiet-like, Ill 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 friends 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 boys 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 didnt 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? Thats 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 couldnt 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 hadnt escaped the leaders attention that no mention had yet been made of Vins physical condition.
"When she found im hed been beat up pretty good. His arm was broke, his foot broke, along with a couple of ribs hed been shot stabbed " The ladies man could see Chriss 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 couldnt 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 hes 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 hes alive . And, dammit, hes 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. "Hes got a long way to go before hes back completely, but hes alive, okay? You hear me? Hes 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 mans shaking shoulders. "Its 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 Bucks ears. "Wheres Nathan?"
"Where do you think?" He rubbed Chriss 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. Dont worry, Chris. Vin aint alone. Nathan wouldnt let im go through this alone."
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 sharpshooters blue eyes as hed tossed his coat in the back seat after work.
Dont worry, Chris. Itd take more than a couple of phone calls and weird letters to scare me... And dont you go turnin on that evil eye a yours. I seen scarier faces on old women.
And with a devilish wink, hed swung up into the Jeep and driven away.
Chris hadnt 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. "Thats it. Were 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 doesnt 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 Tanners 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. Nathans 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
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.
"Howre 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.
"Josiahs 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. Im sure hell be back in the mornin. Nettie wants to come tomorrow, too. I tol her shed 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 aint slept r ate right in a long time. Youve worried yourself sick, and Im sure the first thing Junior aint gonna wanna see when he opens them purty eyes a his is you lookin like you been run over by a train."
"I aint leavin im," was the growled reply.
"Chris," Buck tried, gently laying one hand on his bosss tense shoulder. "He aint gonna wake up anytime soon. Even if he werent in such bad shape, Nate says theyve got him so pumped full of drugs that its gonna be a few days at least before hell even be likely to be able to wake up. And if you jest cant walk out this door without somebody bein here with im, then rest assured that I aint movin my butt from this chair, cept maybe to take over yours when you leave."
"I said I aint leavin im."
Buck sighed, stretching his long legs out and leaning his head back to look at the ceiling. He hadnt 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. Marys in the hall, and shes gonna take you home. Youre gonna have a shower, eat somethin, sleep a while, and then when you dont 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 aint gonna wake up." Buck winced as he saw Chriss stricken expression. "Not soon, anyway. And when he does, I know youre 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 couldnt. If she did, shed 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 hadnt loosened even the slightest with Vins 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, Youd 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 hed 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 wouldnt have been heard over the hum of the machines.
"Holy hell, Vin whatd they do to you?"
Two days later, an anxious ex-preacher knelt in prayer. "Lord, whatd 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 aint 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 nevamind." The southerner turned to flee, but not before Josiah noticed the tears shining in the smaller mans 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 tsleep." The undercover agent turned his head slightly, but made no further answer.
Josiah grunted in reply. Theyd all taken turns that day at the hospital, staring at each other with worried, fearful eyes. Two days theyd 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 couldnt 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 didnt 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 mans 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 Josiahs 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. Theyre 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. Theyre 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 itll start all over again they musta caught me runnin away theyre gonna kill me oh god, theyre 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. Its okay, cowboy. Its okay. Ive got ya."
His limbs turned to water. His trembling began anew, though this time he was shaking with relief.
He wasnt even aware that hed 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 mans 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 its all right I gotcha " He leaned his aching head against his friends 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 hed run ten miles in the cold, and he couldnt 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. Youre here youre here
" y-youre here youre here "
Chris gut wrenched at the sound of Vins hoarse, broken whispering, punctuated by harsh, wet coughing. It was as if the sharpshooter couldnt 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 mans thin frame.
"Here " Chris fetched the mask from where Vin had discarded it. "Lets 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 Vins raw throat still screamed its protest.
Even through his shirt Larabee could feel the heat radiating off the younger mans body. God, Vin, youre 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.
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 Larabees 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, "Thats okay, pard. I didnt 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 didnt slip, he settled back with Tanner curled up against his chest, listening to make sure his friends breathing stayed deep and even. Hitching the sheets up to Vins shoulders, he gently rubbed the injured arm above the cast, and felt his friends 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. Hed shot a glare at her, and shed 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 Larabees stomach, his fingers curved loosely around a wad of black shirt. Well, dont 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 hed 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 Juniors doin. Im guessin by the way youre 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 hed pull em out. His fevers high, and he didnt know where he was got spooked by something. So I talked him down and waited till he fell asleep. Jus didnt 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 mans fiery cheek. "Damn, thats bad. But I imagine its a helluva lot better than it was last night."
"Where is everybody?"
Buck saw his bosss 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?"
"Theyre checking. Ezras thrown himself undercover deeper than Ive 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 dont you go home and rest for a while. Get cleaned up. Josiahs got the shift after me, and then Nathan. Ill make sure he calls you so you can come down and sit later this afternoon."
Chris yawned again, considering. "Dont worry," Buck continued. "Hes in good hands. I think the worst is over. Nurse outside said shes coming in a few minutes to give him another dose of antibiotics and painkillers, so hell 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, Im gittin too old for this." Buck just grinned at the glare that was turned his way as Chris added, "Youd 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.
Bucks eyes twinkled. "Why, hello Ruthie. You look ab-so-lutely lovely this morning. Say, would you mind if I took your picture? Ive got this roll of film I wanna use up so I can drop if off this afternoon "
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