Into the Woods

by skaia7

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Part Three
"I shall lift mine eyes unto the hills

From whence cometh my help…"

The big man shifted restlessly in the chair, trying not to stare at the mangled body of the sleeping man in front of him. They’d had Vin back four days, and it was still hard to look at him without Josiah’s heart wrenching in his chest. Like every other member of Team 7, he had wracked his brain until it nearly exploded with ‘if only’s. If only they’d known about the letters, if only they’d insisted on keeping an eye on him, if only they’d thought to check into that one case six months ago when they’d busted a dealer who’d warned Vin several times to look the other way. He hadn’t. Of course he hadn’t. This was Vin Tanner, after all.

"How’s he doin’, Josiah?" Nathan slipped into the quiet room, crossing to the bed and laying his large hand on Vin’s forehead.

"Been sleepin’ all day." The ex-preacher unfolded himself from the uncomfortable chair and tried to work the kinks out of his back.

"He needs it. Fever’s still pretty bad. Buck told me he promised Chris we’d call ‘im when we changed shifts, so why don’t you go do that while I look him over?"

Josiah nodded once, and then went out to use the payphone. Nathan pulled the chair up close to the bed, and gently laid his hand on Vin’s shoulder.

"Vin? Come on pard… I need you to wake up for me okay?" No response. He shook the bony shoulder gently. "Hey… you in there?" A grin broke out when he found himself regarded by two thin blue slits. "Welcome back."

"Na… thunn…" the hoarse voice barely reached past the bed.

"Hang on," the big man poured a cup of water and lifted it to the pale lips. Vin drank it greedily, stopping only when the healer pulled it away, admonishing, "Now, not too much. I’ll give ya more in a minute. First, I wanna take a look at all them stitches, alright?" He pushed the button to raise the bed, wincing in sympathy when Vin’s face twisted into a grimace of pain. "I’m sorry, Vin. I know it hurts pretty bad." Sitting as gingerly on the bed as he could, he drew the sheets down and gently pushed Vin’s gown to the side. "You know, I was in there while they was workin’ on ya." Red-rimmed blue eyes flicked up to regard his brown ones. "Yup," he clipped the bandages off, brow furrowing when he saw the red, swollen flesh.

"Uhn." the water had helped some, but the faint voice was still painfully hoarse.

"You know," the healer’s hands started cleaning the inflamed flesh as gently as he could. "Just… didn’t want ya to have ta… " He stopped when a weak, bandaged hand closed around his wrist. Looking up, he met those bright, piercing eyes. The bandaged hand squeezed feebly.

"Thanks… Nate." Tanner managed an exhausted smile.

It was the best thing Nathan had seen in a long time.

Two soft knocks brought Josiah to the door. "Chris is gonna get some gas and then he’ll be here. He said maybe an hour."

Nathan nodded, knowing Chris would have been there already if he didn’t have the long drive from his ranch. Maybe he should talk to Josiah about Chris staying with him until Vin got out of the hospital. Looking at the weak man in front of him, the slender body sagging against the pillows, injuries and fever leaving the usually virile tracker completely drained, the healer knew Chris was going to need to be closer by.

Suddenly, harsh coughs erupted from his patient. Nathan put his hand on Vin’s shoulder as the fit tore through him, tears squeezing from his eyes and his hands clutching the sheets in white-knuckled fists. "Ride it out, Vin. Just ride it out. Don’t fight it. You gotta get all that congestion out." It seemed to last forever, deep wet coughs wrenched painfully from his clogged lungs. Still, though, he didn’t manage to bring any of it up. The EMT shook his head. When they finally tapered off, leaving the thin man flushed and out of breath, Nathan gave him some water to soothe his raw throat.

"Nate?" The cracked, high-pitched sound barely even sounded human.

Turning back from disposing of the water cup, the brown eyes met a watery blue, tortured gaze. "Yeah Vin?"

The younger man struggled, and after a couple of hitching breaths, he mumbled a soft, croaking, "It hurts so bad."

Both men flinched. "I know, Vin. I’m gonna go get the nurse and have her give you somethin’ okay?" Holding back the tears that threatened to spill down his cheeks, the tracker managed to nod weakly. "Josiah, stay with him, I’m gonna go down and talk to the nurse."

The profiler stepped to take Nathan’s place on the bed. "Don’t worry, son," his deep voice rumbled soothingly. Placing a hand on the shivering young man, he tried to rub some warmth. "Chris’ll be here soon."

"Why didn’t you call me sooner?" the angry green glare met the calm brown gaze.

"Now, Chris, we called ya just as soon as he woke up. Weren’t no reason to call you sooner."

The man in black stepped up to the edge of the bed, his eyes sweeping anxiously over the restless sleeper. Vin tossed fitfully, and Chris layed a callused hand gently on the heated brow. "Still no change, huh?"

Nathan let out a weary sigh. "No. Doctor’s have tried three different antibiotics, but nothin’s workin’. He just can’t seem to shake that chest cold. And he’s still got that infection in his side. It just ain’t clearin’ up. His fever’s stayed pretty much around 102 all day. They’re tryin’ somethin’ diff’rent, see if it helps at all."

Sitting gingerly on the bed by the sharpshooter, the leader of Team 7 took over bathing Tanner’s face and neck, trying to bring his fever down.

As he dipped the cloth in the bowl of water, Chris felt the bed shift slightly. Looking at Vin, he grinned. Vin's eyes were open. Regarding Chris with fever glazed eyes, he smiled tiredly. "Hey, cowboy, ya look like shit," Chris said gently as he brushed Vin's hair back.

Vin licked his lips and winced as he swallowed. "Feel like it," he softly slurred as his eyes drifted shut again.

Larabee ran his fingers lightly through the tangled brown hair, working slowly through the kinks. He was rewarded with a barely audible sigh from Vin, who started to look peaceful for the first time since Nathan had come in.

"You know, in not even five minutes he perks up for you when the rest of us have been tryin’ all day to get a spark o’ life outa him," the healer noted quietly.

Chris’ mouth twitched in what might have almost been a smile, but he made no other response. He just sat patiently working all the tangles out of Vin’s long hair, his chest tightening when he came to the shaved side. For his part, the sharpshooter seemed to melt into the pillows, breathing a sigh of contentment at the comforting gesture. In no time, he fell back to sleep.

Easing off the bed, Chris settled into a chair for the duration. "So," he began softly. "What’re they givin’ him now?"

Nathan leaned against the wall and crossed his arms. "Don’t remember the name ‘xactly. I didn’t recognize it, and was too tired to concentrate when his doctor was in here last." He gestured to the IV bag. "They’ve given him two doses, but it’s not written on his chart yet. I remember the doctor sayin’ somethin’ about it being brand new, and that he wasn’t sure how he’d react to it, but that he was runnin’ outa options."

"Not sure how he’d react?" Chris asked, leaning forward and putting his arms on his knees.

"Yeah," Nathan rubbed his face wearily. "Rattled off a list of side effects – headache, nausea, disorientation, loss of muscle control, shakes…"

"Nate… disorientation? shakes? "

"I know, I know. Believe me, I argued like hell. And he’s already been hit pretty hard with the nausea. If he wakes up while you’re here, get as much water down him as possible. He’ll probably toss it right back up, but keep trying. It’s either try this medication or let that fever eat him alive. One thing’s fer sure… we gotta lick that fever. It’s sappin’ all his strength. He’s not getting any better, Chris… Just look at him."

Both their gazes wandered to the pale figure on the bed. The faint wheezing breaths attested to the congestion still in his lungs. And the dark bruising, criss-cross stitches, and bandages swathed all over his body made him look more like a sick science project than a human being.

"He’ll make it, Nate," Chris whispered passionately. "He’s just got to."

Nate nodded, then sighed. "All right. Give me a call if anything happens. And I mean anything. His fever spikes, drops… he so much as coughs, I wanna know. Got it?" Chris’ eyes flicked to the EMT, sending a subtle acknowledgement. With that, Nate shook his head slightly and left.

For several long moments, Larabee just sat gazing at his best friend. Then, with a resigned release of breath, he settled back to read his book.

Three hours he sat reading while Vin slept. Finally, he stood, stretching his aching bones and yawning fiercely. Placing a hand on the tracker’s forehead, he frowned to feel the heat still burning through the injured man.

Glancing at his watch, he decided to grab a quick cup of coffee before settling in for the night.

"Don’t go anywhere, pard. I’ll be right back."

+ + + + + + +

It had to be over now... it had to be... he had to be insane by now, and there was peace in that madness, there had to be... if he were crazy, he wouldn't have to... have to...

You’ll have to eventually you know.

Vin desperately tried to ignore that voice, fighting for any sort of calm... but he could not seem to stop shaking... could not get his heart to slow down...

I'm fine... I'm fine... I'm fine... not... not…

...certifiably crazy... or... what, what was that thing? That thing, when the brain just shut down? When the mind couldn't take any more?

Nervous breakdown. It's called a nervous breakdown.

Oh yes, he realized, this most definitely had to be a nervous breakdown, because there was nothing funny, nothing at all amusing, and yet he could not stop laughing.

The next voice inside his head was most definitely his own, full of familiar anger, and complete disappointment on the most personal level.

You know you can do it, you know you can get right off this floor. This is just a reaction to the medication. The doctor warned you about this. Don’t let it get to you. Come on, get up.

That voice, that determined conscience had always been there in his mind, the drill sergeant to tell him what was sane and what was not, what he should be doing, even when he was confused, scared, hurting, the right thing to do, the smart thing. No matter how bad things got, a part of him could step outside himself, and have a logical viewpoint no matter what he was acting like, no matter what was going on.

... except that, as he listened, that voice wavered... vanishing inside his mind... he tried to reach out for it, but it vanished, as his thoughts shifted, slid out from underneath his concentration, his consciousness resting on alarmingly unsteady ground... He tried to stand, and his legs gave way. He lay on the floor for several moments, expecting someone to come barging through the door at the loud noise.

I don't care... I don't care... leave me alone...

Vin sighed, knowing the insane grin was still plastered to his face, dug the palms of his hands into aching, hot eyes, feeling the wetness sliding down his wrists... the cool of the floor against his burning skin... He made a face, turning his nose against the tile... it smelled like bleach and antiseptic, not a huge surprise given the location, but the smell wasn't bad enough to outride the feel of the freezing tile against his cheek... he wanted to wrap himself in that cold, let the floor swallow him whole... tired... so tired... can't do it... can't do anything... no more... please, God... please...

After a few more moments, the burning inside his chest growing, as if to consume him, Vin almost tore his gown off, pulling the sweat soaked material up, yanking the IV off his arm and throwing it away... where didn't matter... he had to get free from its weight... had to get away... escape... had to escape...

Tanner had no control... no choice over anything anymore, even what happened inside his own mind. Memory, reality and a cold, empty blankness flickered interchangeably when he closed his eyes, bad home-movie images of all he had done, every horrifying deed... and all he knew was he couldn't manage to pick himself off the floor... not just yet... not yet...

Eventually, Vin found himself curled up on his side, rocking slightly, repeating "I'm sorry" to the empty air in a wooden, mechanical whisper, his hands wrapped tightly around his chest.

He had pulled himself into a very dark place, back into that reality, and had no idea how long he had been there, at what point he had slipped into or out of the almost catatonic state. It was still night outside, the floor was bitterly cold, and none of the nurses had come by to discover him out of bed.

... better get up, dumbass, before someone comes in and finds you like this... The voice was back, but weak, and sounded like a bartender trying to talk sense into a drunk. Come on, come on... it'll all be better in the morning...

Vin reached out for the bed, realized a moment later it wasn't where he thought it should have been. As he hauled himself up onto his hands and knees, he saw the IV out of the corner of his eye, where it had ricocheted against the bed, into a thin beam of moonlight.

God... threw it harder than I thought... don't know my own strength...

He laughed again, that one was actually kind of funny... He couldn’t even stand up…

The laugh quickly turned to a series of jolting, painful coughs. Vin dug his toes into the floor beneath him, pressing until it hurt, trying to hold on as the seemingly endless spasms shook him. Even without his gown, he was still so hot... he hurt all over...

Wish one of the guys was here…

He had to hold on to that thought, if nothing else would stay. If he could just remember the good times... the smiles, the warm days, even the smallest of kindnesses... Ezra, JD... all he had to do was concentrate and sanity would return.


That word reverberated in his mind, louder each time, not an echo but some growing chorus of voices... he couldn't breathe, chest aching as if he were turning to stone. He’d trusted the dark, older man from the very beginning. For nearly three years he had struggled to fight needing anybody in his life, only to have his loneliness overwhelm him at the most unexpected times. When that happened, he took a few days off and went up into the mountains to be alone, to try and get back some measure of control. But just when he began to feel like he was finally part of a family, the flash of hope would be gone, and he would be reminded that he was alone. Yes, this was everything he didn't want to face, everything he thought he could hide from... he was nothing... he was alone... he deserved to be alone...

Vin pressed his face against the cold, hard floor and, too weak to even scream, moaned, slamming a hand over his mouth as he realized the scream was still burning inside his lungs, still scrambling to get out... The tracker breathed hard, gasping as he fought to hide that pain inside... unable to escape that need... that longing, always digging its way out of the past, out of his weariness... he could never escape that horrible feeling, and it all came back to the same thing, in the end, his entire life spiraling down to one futile, bitter heartbreak...

With the drugs coursing through him, and his fever robbing him of any measure of rational thought… his pain hammering him in sickening waves… All his sorrow ripped through him like the talons of some raging, sinister animal.

Chris... god, Chris, where are ya?…

He could no longer see, the tears filling his eyes, pouring over the trembling hand that was pressed tight against his mouth, clamped down so hard it hurt, but the pain couldn't do enough, anymore... nothing he could do would release the tearing, wailing thing inside of him. He was dying... he knew he was dying inside, and no matter how much it hurt inside, this nightmare would never, ever end...

... please... please...

Out of the darkness, out of nowhere, a strong, gentle hand touched him, careful fingers running lightly through his sweat-soaked hair.

Vin was most definitely not in control of the next few moments of his life, as he rolled backward into a low crouch, fingertips digging into the tile, hand curling into a fist so fast he didn't remember doing it, didn't remember anything... blindly grateful for the sweet, hot rush of adrenaline that filled him, taking all the pain away for a moment... and he looked up... ready to attack... to push off and strike and kill...

His eyes focused sharply on the profile in front of him, and Vin forced himself to blink, to remaining completely motionless, even as his nerves screamed at him to move, to attack, to fight...

He blinked again, took a very slow, deep breath, and exhaled, feeling the strength to stand leaving him as the panic drained away, but pulling himself up nonetheless, moving out of the low, defensive crouch with all the strength he had left.

"... Chris?"

The real world, the reminder of the physical beyond the furious chaos in his mind, jerked him almost violently back into true reality. Vin realized his friend was staring at him, and as he righted himself, uncurled his hand, the younger man realized that Larabee wasn't waiting to speak, that he was just staring, watching him closely with wide green eyes.

... act normal, act normal...

Vin froze, terror replacing the adrenaline that had been ebbing away, sending every nerve once again on edge.

"Sorry..." Vin murmured with an abashed shrug, "You look like hell."

He was amazed his voice didn't shake, hoping beyond hope to hear his friend's echoing refrain, the words more of a joke than anything to them. Vin winced as, after a few moments, he realized it wasn't coming. He looked up, still avoiding his friend's eyes. He knew what was coming… knew what Chris would ask…

"God, Vin..." Chris said softly, eyes wide with sorrow, confusion and disbelief. "What did...? What are you doing on the floor?"

The team leader stood looking down at the injured man crouched half against the wall. He had been passing the nurses’ station just as their alarms sounded, and with a choice glare or two convinced them to let him go first. He didn’t know what he’d be walking into, and didn’t want Vin any more upset than he already was. Two were waiting outside right now, and glancing over his shoulder, he waved them away. He could see blood staining the bandages, and knew that being out of bed had pulled some of the stitches. His catheter had come out, as had all his IV’s. But Vin’s eyes were crazed, and Chris’ stomach dropped to see the fear and desperation in those blue depths.


"I just… I couldn’t…" He heard his own voice crack in the air, but it didn't sound right, too soft, too weak, and Vin saw that his hand was shaking, realized he was shaking, all over, and couldn't stop...

Chris took a step forward, but Tanner just as quickly leapt back, and his friend stopped, one hand extended, that look of stunned, horrified disbelief never leaving his face... and Vin could see the concern, the compassion enter there... and that alone almost broke him. He could feel the tears in his eyes, his walls threatening to crumble and fall...

No... no no NO!

"So... uh… what... what do you want?" Vin turned away, cursing fate, that there was nothing to reach out and grab hold of, nothing to pretend to be interested in...

... nothing to hide the tremors that had suddenly taken hold of him... he was cold... so cold. He realized then, as he rubbed one arm against the other, that his gown was still off. He looked around for a moment, but couldn't see it.

*Stupid... you idiot... nice way to play it casual, to act normal...

"I just came to stay with you. You know, keep you company."

"Uhuh?" keep it light, keep it simple, don't panic, don't panic, don't panic... "Why?"

"Don't do this, Vin. You know why. You’re reactin’ real bad to that damn antibiotic they gave you. You shouldn’t be alone right now." Chris didn't want to sound angry, but his voice ground down on the last word despite his best efforts to keep his calm. He couldn't help it, he was so frightened, seeing Vin, really seeing him for the first time, alone, and it was easier now than ever to see how much abuse he had taken, what of his friend had survived to the end of the tour through hell... Vin looked awful, thin enough that Chris could see the outlines of all the bones not covered by muscle, his body as pale as death.

The younger man's face crumpled for a split second, and Chris chastised himself sharply for his words, the anger, knowing his friend would take it all on his own shoulders, would take any annoyance very personally.


The older man watched Vin struggle to bring himself back under control... but it wasn't working very well, not anymore... he could easily see the pain, the fear, all those emotions his friend had hidden, leaking out... Chris wanted nothing more than to just take Vin into his arms, hold him close, and never let anyone come near him again...

... but I can't even touch him now... he's shying away from me... just like he used to... back when he first joined the Team… he's so afraid...

Chris knew he would get what he wanted, that he would get Vin to open up to him... but he had to be careful, had to move slowly, or risk pushing Vin further than he could take, pushing the sharpshooter away completely...

Slowly... go slowly... Sharp instinct snapped back furiously at that cautionary tone. Fuck slowly! He's dead on his feet! For God's sake, Chris, look at him! Do something! Now!

"N-no, Chris... I don't..." Vin turned away slightly as his body was suddenly wracked by a fit of coughing.

Chris could see his muscles tensing sharply under the near-white skin, the pale face wincing with each new tremor that shook him, and the gunslinger had to use all his determination to keep himself still until the wet, rasping coughs subsided... Chris also knew that the problems weren't merely physical. He could easily see that Vin had been crying for a long time by the time he had arrived... God, seeing him on the floor like that, curled in misery, it was almost more than the older man could bear. He shouldn’t have left him alone… forget about the damned coffee… Take it slow, Larabee... take it slow, just be gentle, and this will all work out fine...

That other voice muttered that, no matter what he did now, it was very unlikely that things were going to be "fine".

Vin looked up again, staring past his friend's shoulder, at nothing, brilliant blue eyes now sparkling with nothing but anguish, terrible pain, all of it ice cold, and deep... so deep, as if there had never been even a moment of joy in his entire life.

"Chris? I… I just can’t… I try, but, it’s all so jumbled up in m’head… fucked up wirin’… I jest can’t think… m’sorry Chris… so sorry…"

"Vin?" Chris couldn't help but take a step forward, though the injured man didn't seem to notice. I'm losing him... God... I don't know how but I can feel it... I'm going to lose him...

He froze as the sharpshooter's gaze fixed on him, fever bright, the sorrow so strong it bordered on insanity, one tear falling straight from his eye to the ground in a perfect drop of light, like a falling star.

"Vin..." He was dangerously short on time now... he just knew it... and how in the hell had he let things ever go this far? It has to stop... right now... It has to stop. "Enough... that's enough..."

The leader moved forward swiftly, before Vin could realize what he was doing, and just threw his arms around the younger man, holding him tight. He noticed instantly how cold, how clammy his friend's skin was beneath his warm hands, and that the trembling he had been able to see felt a thousand times worse now that the tracker was shaking in his arms.

"Let go..." Tanner's voice was icy. He was anything but grateful for Chris's embrace.


"Let go, Chris..." A pause, and a desperate whisper, "please..."

The ice was melting, Chris could hear it, hear the sick man’s voice starting to crack. He knew those walls were breaking down, they would break down... and he held on. I won't lose you... I won't...

"Let me go... please, Chris..." Vin was struggling against him, but very weakly, the blonde barely had to strain to hold on to him...

He's so worn out... he's got nothing left to fight with...

"... I don't want to hurt you, Chris... I don't want..." Vin took a deep breath, as if even the slight exertion was too much, too fast, "Let me go, please... before I... don't you see..." He shut his eyes tight, barely able to get the words past his fear, "I don’t want to hurt no more!"

Chris looked down sharply, the glowing blue mirrors that looked back did so reluctantly, shining with a thousand unshed tears, a deep, nameless horror, utter dread...

"... I can't... I won't... you don't understand what... what I might do... I can't..."

What the fuck happened to him??... delirium, maybe...? God, he's really sick... Chris gently reached out, cupping his hand over Vin’s cheek, and moved it up to the wet, sweat-soaked forehead, eyes widening in alarm at the heat beneath his palm, the younger man's dazed, feverish eyes gazing up into his own. "Vin... you're burning up..."

The smaller man shook his head, still trying to pull away. "Nothing... it's nothing... Please let me go... please just let me go... please..."

The tears came then, fast and desperate, and Chris held on, one hand against Vin's back, the muscles so tight and strained that his own body ached in sympathy. He dropped his head low, doing his absolute best to shield his friend from the world.

"... let me go..."

"No," Chris murmured into the soft brown hair, "No, Vin... I won't leave you like this... You’re sick. You need help. I won't let you go through this alone..." Whatever happens, Vin... whatever happens, you'll never be alone again... I swear...

"Let go... please..."

The words were only whispers now, barely audible between the dry, choked sobs, and negated by how hard Tanner was now holding on to him, his head buried against the other man's chest, hands clenching the back of his shirt in a death grip.

"You don't have to hold on so tight... I promise, I won't let you go... I won't leave..." Chris spoke slowly, calmly, trying to provide some counterpoint to the other man's quick, uneven breathing, to give his friend an anchor back to the real world, something safe, "You don't have to hide... not from me, never from me... you don't have to be afraid... I'm here... I'm here..."

He could feel the moment his friend finally broke down, the sharpshooter's fragile defenses, held fast against constant attack for far too long, falling away to nothing as he was offered a true chance for release. Vin howled, all that pent-up grief and sorrow at what had been done to him bursting out in one explosive cry, choking on the sobs that followed, as if the tears could not come fast enough for the grief, release the total despair.

Larabee held him tight. He trusts me, maybe even whether he wants to or not, and he can't keep it in anymore... All that fear, the pain he went through while those animals tortured him… not when he knows I'll be here... that I know... that I care... The idea that his caring was such a rarity in his friend’s life had always scared Chris, but never more so than now.

Vin sobbed, long and hard, his head buried against Chris's chest, his entire body shaking, as if he would break apart into a million pieces at any moment. The older man stood fast, just held on, being the support, the anchor... murmuring comforting words, anything he could think of to try and ease the pain.

"I've got you, pard... I'm here... you're safe now... you're safe... I won't let go... I'll never let you go..."

It was too much. Too much, when he had told himself, had forced himself to believe that anything kind, anything comforting, or beautiful... pleasure, happiness... it could only be dangerous, was ephemeral and fickle and fragile, ultimately could not last, and therefore was to be avoided at all costs. It was too much, this feeling of safe haven, coming out of a month of constant torture and abuse, the unexpected promise of support and safety, of not having to push himself as hard as he could to stay alive... knowing that he would still fail, that they would get him no matter how hard he tried to escape...

Nothing safe... this isn't safe... you can't... can't give in now...

Vin knew it, knew that he had to keep fighting, that he couldn't let himself believe... but he could not let go, could not pull away even as the tension of Chris's arms around him lessened, when he knew the taller man could not have held onto him had he tried to run.

The sobs that tore out of him were sheer torture, each of them extracted with excruciating slowness, like shards of barbed iron, slivers of glass from a deep, painful wound... but there was also release in that pain, the glimpse of a true peace, for the first time in months, if not years... and he was too tired... to tired to try and pull away... Chris was here now, really here holding him, and everything was all right... it was going to be all right...

... but it's not safe... it's not all right... it never will be... never... never...

Larabee seemed to sense his distress, the conflicting emotions clashing with brutal force inside of him. "Don't think about it... you don't have to think about it now... just relax... please... just stop fighting and let yourself rest... I'm not going to hurt you... no one's going to hurt you now... I’m gonna take care of you… you're safe..."

Tanner's grip tightened, he felt a wave of new tears flood over him, washing away anything that had attempted to regain control, to give him back the mask of uncaring. Maybe he didn’t mean it.

Looking up into the older man’s eyes, though, left no room for doubt. Nobody had ever looked at him that way. The protective affection radiating from those deep green eyes was unmistakable.

The pain – both physical and emotional - smashing against him hit hard enough that he nearly doubled over, his knees buckling... except that Chris was there.. and he loved him…

Vin cried for a very, very long time... new tears coming in waves of sorrow, despair, and finally relief... and that promise, of peace, of safety, something he had thought was lost forever... the younger man thought, as the tears fell, that he was crying for that the hardest of all.

Finally, Vin forced himself to regain at least some control, to breathe slowly, find a calm center and pull himself together. He was still hidden in the darkness and protection of his friend's arms, felt the slight scratch of a rough shirt against his cheek from time to time, closed his eyes and rested against the hard, muscular chest, not moving away, not even a fraction of an inch, unwilling to lose what he had been given, to risk shattering the security that had placed itself so gently around him...

"Relax... it's all right... I'm here, Vin... I'm not going anywhere..."

Vin breathed in deeply, once, again, shivering in between spates of still falling tears, though the time between the pain of those horrified flashes of memory, the overwhelming bursts of guilt and sadness was getting longer... very slowly stretching out to nothingness.

He couldn't believe how much he had missed it, as he leaned into Chris's embrace, how simply being able to touch another human being meant so much, how wonderful it was to feel anyone's presence nearby, let alone that of someone who cared for him. Chris’s warmth, his scent, was a wonderful thing, so human, so close, when Vin had been alone for such a long time... warm and alive... sweet, and blessedly safe...

The injured man realized, belatedly, that the other man had been rocking him slightly, a gentle swaying motion, barely moving his feet, as if the two of them were trying out for the title of the world's worst dancers. He sighed, letting the gentle rocking slowly take everything else away, let all of his life come to exist within the circle of those warm, strong arms. Vin could still hear all his doubts, all his fears, knew they had not left, were hovering just outside his consciousness, trying to take hold... to dig in and force him back into the fight...

Nothing made sense anymore... nothing mattered... and maybe, that was all right... just to be here... for a little while... to not have to move or speak or think anymore, just to be warm... swaying gently... with those strong, sure arms wrapped tight around him...

He heard Chris give a slight, short murmur when, moving back just slightly, letting go for only a moment, the younger man swayed on his feet, dangerously out of balance, no longer able to stand on his own...

"God, you're all used up, aren't you...?" The older man's murmur filled Vin's world, and he smiled. He had always loved the sound of that voice.

"Jus’ tired... 's noth’n... don' matter..." The words were difficult to get out. More than once in the short sentence Vin actually considered just stopping, mid-syllable, completely exhausted.

As Chris stepped back, arms still on his to keep him steady, Vin could feel some of his old professionalism sweeping in, that authoritative voice nagging him, telling him it was not right to act like this, that his breakdown was not proper... that he had to... had to...

"Chris... I have to... I..." He could barely hear his own voice, felt the other man's arms tighten around his. Chris said something that came out as only a dull murmur, from very, very far away, and Vin looked up, saw the other man's surprise as he noticed the tracker's confusion.

"I said, let’s get you back into bed. You’ve still got a pretty high fever, and you’re shiverin’.

Chris took hold of his arms again, and stepped forward, towards the bed. Vin followed, barely able to keep one foot in front of the other, too tired to question, to do anything but follow the gunslinger’s lead. It was more and more difficult with each moment to even keep his eyes open... the world kept fading... fading... away...

His shoulder gently brushed up against the hard wall, and as soon as Vin was leaning against it, Chris's hands disappeared. Vin could feel that he was alone, the sudden coolness where the warm touch had been only moments before. The sharp change was surprisingly disorientating. He startled, attempting to pry his eyes open... when had they closed? He tried to see what was going on, to ease the totally irrational panic that had suddenly seized him...

... alone... alone... all alone...

He heard a distant, rustling noise, and then silence.


Vin took a step forward, flinched as he felt the wall slide past him much too fast, his legs buckling... he was falling...

A slight shout of surprise, and a pair of strong arms caught him, pulled him to his feet. More words, but he couldn't hear them, only the strong, soft murmur...

... the strength in those words... I need him so much...

He was being drawn forward, his feet sliding more than stepping across the tile, muscles unwilling to cooperate with weary orders his brain had almost stopped bothering to give. It was as if someone had pulled a plug, as if all his strength had disappeared with his tears...

... of course it did... which is why you couldn't break down... why it was so dangerous... you idiot.

He must have said something, though he didn't remember speaking, because Chris's hands tightened their careful hold on him.

"It's okay... don't worry. I've got you, I won't let anyone hurt you."

Those words went so deep, meant so much, and Vin wanted to believe... wanted to hide inside Chris's friendship, protected by the promise in those careful hands... He could hear the fear surging forward again, the force of those arguments, all those reasons why he had to ignore that friendship, that he could not reach back, take what was so freely offered, but before they could reach him, before he had to listen, Chris stopped moving, paused for a moment with a short sound of puzzled consideration.

Vin opened his eyes, looked blearily down, at the bed. Chris had rearranged all the sheets, put the tangled mess into smooth order. Before Tanner realized what his friend had done, it was over, and Larabee had gotten his gown back on him. Then, Chris settled them both into the bed, the tracker nestled snugly in his arms. Vin sighed. There was nothing more he wanted than to sit here, to rest, but the slight release of tears, Chris's presence, his confidence had given him just enough strength back to know he couldn't... to know he had already risked too much...

"Where do you think you're going?" A hand suddenly tightened around his waist. Vin gasped in surprise, before he realized he had already been moving, preparing to stand, his body acting without conscious direction.

"You can't stay here, Chris... You gotta..."

"I ain’t gotta do nothin’. ‘Cept take care of you." The hand adjusted its grip, but still held him firmly in place.

Vin almost started to cry again as those rough, callused fingertips ran through his hair, almost playfully, carefree, as if Chris had all the time in the world... as if they could both afford to relax for hours, days... forever...

Oh God... so nice... feels so good...

It could kill a person, he knew now, not to be touched, to live all alone for too long. He knew that now, knew about touch, and friendship... When he had been younger, it hadn't seemed important at all. Affection was not something he received much from the foster families, or from DHS, from anyone... but then he had met the Seven... and he learned that he could no longer pretend that he didn't need simple human contact, that it hurt when it was gone... a terrible, inescapable weakness... being human.

Vin shivered, and pushed back against him, curling up as tightly as he could. Chris put an arm around his shoulders, the other still wrapped around his waist. Chris grinned, as Vin leaned into his touch with a small, real smile, the first happy expression he had seen on his friend in a very long time.


"Yeah pard?"

"I waited for you to find me. In that cellar… I… I waited… and when you didn’t come… I…"

The last word was a choked sob, the tracker bend his head down, and Chris could feel new tears falling onto his knuckles, as his friend's body shook with old terror and new sorrow.

"I know, Vin. We tried. We never gave up. We never stopped looking for you. Never."

It took a long, long time for Tanner to calm down, and even then the peace was tenuous, threatened to break at any moment, as it had countless times before. Chris unfolded a blanket and tucked it snugly around Vin when he began to shiver again. The tracker curled more on his side as the night progressed, head still against Chris's chest, resting over his heart. Chris could see the exhaustion catching up with him by the minute, but always, at the end, held at bay by the sadness, by the fear... He winced as Vin bent forward, just slightly, and Chris could easily feel the ridge of the bones in his spine, pressing against his palm.

"Vin? You want some water?"

The sharpshooter averted his eyes for a moment, as if ashamed, "I can't keep anything down..."


"Uh huh," a ragged sigh, "I'll... I'll be all right."

"Vin..." He tightened his arms around the weaker man, rubbing his back through the blanket. Chris didn't want to push things.

Vin nodded mutely, breathing very hard, and ran a hand through his hair, clenching it into a fist over his temple, gritting his teeth as if in pain. "There's too much," he murmured, rocking just slightly inside Chris's embrace, "... I can't... I can't keep it straight in my head anymore... and I want... Oh God, Chris..."

Terrified bright blue met equally shocked deep green.

"Shh..." Chris cupped the side of Vin's hot face in one hand, stopped his relentless rocking, still not understanding anything, except that the younger man was fast approaching hysteria, that whatever was going on, it was well on its way to destroying everything he had managed to accomplish tonight, if not more than that, "... shh... it's all right, Vin... it's okay..."

"... I don't want to hurt , anymore Chris... I don't... I…"

"Shh... it's all right..." Chris soothed, holding that frantic gaze with his own, "It's going to be fine. No one's going to hurt you... I'm going to stay here for a long time... You’re okay..."

"... but... but..."


He knew Vin wanted to argue, could feel the angry tension in his friend's body, but the younger man was too exhausted to put up much of a struggle, and that exhaustion was starting to have some effect, breaking down that seemingly impossible barrier between the agent's frantic thoughts, between his iron grip on alertness, and the sleep his body so desperately needed.

"Just relax, Vin... I swear it's going to be all right…"

Vin didn't want to relax, didn't want to give up his anger, feared the dreams that would come in his sleep, what he would have to remember, to live through again if he gave up to the darkness...

He had his head against Chris's chest once more, too tired to think, his eyes closing of their own will, relaxing into that greater strength...

... and just like that, as sudden and final as a sword stroke, his entire life was suddenly forgotten.

All of it, everything, was suddenly gone, all his thoughts, his frantic concerns, everything just vanished against the new darkness that surrounded him. The strange thing was, it didn't feel all that bad, not to have to think, to remember, the temporary amnesia, dulling most of the pain, the guilt and fear, was almost a welcome friend...

He knew... he knew he should have been worried, should have been trying to reach them, to pull himself back into the pain, to focus... He couldn't rest, for some reason, some very important reason... there was no time... no time...

"There's tonight, and however long you need after. You don't have to worry anymore. Just relax, Vin, and sleep..."

He had been talking out loud. Damn.

Vin felt so heavy, laying in Chris's arms, the other man's heartbeat just underneath his ear, the strong, determined rhythm striking out against death, against the darkness, pushing it away from both of them... His head moved, just slightly, as the older man breathed, chest rising and falling at a slow, easy pace... inviting peace, and calm, and sleep...

"I'm sorry I wasn't there to protect you."

Vin looked up sharply, stunned by the sudden, completely unnecessary apology.

"How can you..." The tracker shook his head, "how... how could you… You didn't do anything wrong... do you think I want you to... that I...?"

"I should have kept an eye on you, shouldn’t have ignored those letters you were getting. I should have known… I'm sorry..."

"... don't..." Vin murmured with a sudden smile, letting his head drop back against Chris's arm, eyes closed, "... you were still there with me... You were always there when I needed you..."

The tracker smiled as a thumb gently traced the curve of his jaw, the kind, caring gesture. It didn't matter, Vin thought, nothing hurt... everything was so safe, and comfortable, and warm...

"Love you, Vin..."

Vin wanted to answer, to echo the voice that rumbled like thunder through his mind, but before he could, the warm darkness of sleep wrapped around him like a thick, soft blanket, and took everything away.

Chris shifted very carefully, easing some of the pressure of Vin's weight off of his left arm without waking his friend, letting the sharpshooter curl up closer, smiling as Vin snuggled against him with a contented sigh. It was surprisingly easy... his friend was actually a very light weight... too light...

Damn, how could he have let this happen??

Larabee's dark thoughts faded as Vin murmured in his sleep, face turning in a scowl, struggling just slightly in confusion or anger. The dark-clad man held him gently, knowing the importance of the slight difference between support and restraint in his touch, how thin the line was, before Vin would lash out in instinctive terror, fear... for every memory of being helpless, being unable to move, was a memory of abuse and pain from his past.

The sleeping man finally quieted, and Chris carefully put a hand against his brow, smiled slightly as he realized all his hopes hadn't been for nothing. The new antibiotic might be working… Vin's fever wasn't nearly as high as it had been, and hopefully would go down even a few more degrees in the night.

It hit him then, that there was a question he wanted to ask, one that had been bothering him, teasing at the back of his thoughts while he had comforted Vin, something that had always bothered him, but that he hadn't had the words for until now.

... that he has never asked me why. Simply, why? Why he had to hurt, why he had to suffer... what he did, to get involved in this...? He's never asked, he's just accepted it as his due... as if it's what he deserves, as if it's just the way things are...

Well, Chris frowned, he needed an answer to that question, even if Vin did not. He would not be content to believe that it was simply meant to be, that the innocent man in his arms, who had always tried to follow a good path, to do the right thing, that he deserved to suffer, that it was some sort of fate, or destiny...

Why? Why are things the way they are? Why can they be so beautiful, and yet so cruel? Why does this have to happen? Why?

He sighed, shaking his head, and held his friend to him even more tightly as he settled into sleep, knowing there would be no answer, save the one he found for himself.

Chris looked down just before he let his own eyes close, found his smile mirroring that of the sleeping man's, and felt relief fill him. He had feared that joy was gone, that it might have been lost forever.

... is this a second chance for me, then? Well, I promise I'll do it right this time. I'll protect you, Vin. I promise... even if God doesn't care... we still have each other... and I'll always be here for you... always.


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