Into the Woods

by skaia7

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Part Four
Chris held Vin all night long. Soon after the younger man had collapsed from exhaustion, one of the two nurses that had been waiting outside crept in to check his bandages. After first administering a sedative to ensure the injured man wouldn’t wake up suddenly, she cut away the blood-stained wrapping. The damage wasn’t too severe, but even the little blood Tanner had lost was too much. She started new IV lines and replaced the catheter.

Then she brought in another dose of antibiotic.

"You ain’t givin’ him any more of that stuff." Larabee growled.

"Mr. Larabee, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t give him any more either. But I’m under orders from Dr. Strickland."

"Then you’d better call him. Get him down here. I wanna talk to him."

"I can’t call him now… it’s nearly three o’clock…"

"I don’t care what time it is!" Chris roared, then quickly quieted when the sharpshooter stirred in his arms. "You get him here. And I mean now!" he hissed, his face a dark, murderous mask.

The poor nurse’s face blanched, and she hurried out.

Even though he was exhausted, nerves frayed beyond repair, Chris couldn’t fall asleep. His mind kept spinning with everything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours. His gut felt eaten away, and he knew his doctor would probably drill him a new one for all the ulcers he was sure he’d developed since this ordeal began.

Sighing heavily, he reached for the phone to call Nathan. He knew he would need backup to confront the doctor when he arrived.

"Nate?… Yeah. Can you… No… No, he’s okay now… Well, we had a little episode… That stuff they gave him… That’s putting it mildly. Disorientation doesn’t even begin to cover what we just went through… They tried to give him another dose, but I wouldn’t let ‘em… Nate… Nate, you didn’t see him just now… Nate! Listen to me for a minute! I ain’t never seen him like this. He was shakin’ and cryin. He was burnin’ up. If you ask me, that stuff isn’t helping at all! It… dammit, Nate, it scared the living shit outa me… Yeah, he’s a little cooler now…. No… No. I ain’t lettin’ them give him any more… Just… just come down here, okay? Take a good look at him and tell me what you think… Okay… Okay… I’ll be here." Click.

Unexpectedly, Vin stirred, seized by a fit of coughing. Pushing to one elbow, he bent forward still dazed with drugs and sleep, as the spasm shook his body. Turning over, he gripped the pillow and buried his face against the cool white fabric, muffling the torturous hacking.


The tracker felt Chris’ hand on his shoulder, but even the pressure of his friend's fingers couldn't mute the sharp knife of agony in his lungs. It felt as though a fire-heated blade gouged his chest sadistically plundering flesh and bone. Crying aloud, Vin tightened his grip on the pillow, as if that might somehow ease the punishing torment. Slowly the spasm lessened--the horrific hacking fading to a weak cough, then ceasing altogether. Gasping, he rolled onto his back.

As though coming to his senses, Chris smoothed a hand over the fevered brow. Snatching up a wad of tissues, his throat constricted when he realized there were tears on Vin's cheeks--glinting softly silver in the shadowy haze of the moonlight. The sight of the proud man reduced to this made Larabee want to lash out in anger and grief. "Try to relax," he urged. "I know it hurts, but the more you struggle--"

"I--" Gripping the black-clad arm, Vin drew a wheezing breath. "--feel like . . . can't breathe."

"Take slow breaths," Chris said as calmly as he could. The rise and fall of Tanner's chest had quickened dramatically, his breath coming in short, rattling bursts. Reassuringly, the team leader stroked the back of his fingers against the younger man's temple, ignoring the racing cadence of his own heart. "Calm down, Vin. I'm right here."

Struggling to silence his mounting concern, Chris held the wad of tissues to Vin's mouth while his tracker succumbed to another rigorous bout of coughing.

"That’s it, Vin, cough it up." Exhausted, barely able to support himself, the sharpshooter relied on his friend's bracing arm across his back to hold him upright as he finally started to force out some of that suffocating congestion.

Somewhere in the dizzying haze of his mind, he heard the soothing cadence of Chris’ voice.

Grappling for the security of that comforting sound, the younger man closed his eyes, feeling the burn of phlegm as it passed through his lacerated throat to be expelled harshly into the tissues, a staggering sear of fire in his lungs. Like a whirlwind it passed--intense torture for a brief time, followed by the concentrated ease of departure. With a sob of relief, Vin turned his head, burying his face against the older man’s chest.

He felt the reassuring stroke of firm fingers in the sweaty knot of his hair, the touch of cool lips against his temple. Chris’ arm tightened around his back.

"I've got you, pard," the gunslinger whispered near his ear. The sick man was afraid to move--unwilling to rekindle the violent seizure of coughing which had awakened him from a sound sleep. There was something intrinsically comforting about being held as though he were a small child.

It no longer mattered that illness stripped away his reserve and natural tendency for independence. He wanted to remain in the protective pocket of safety his best friend had created with both presence and voice--an enveloping warmth that allowed Vin the delusion of freedom from pain, even if only briefly. He felt Larabee’s fingers track over the sleeve of his gown, slipping beneath the cuff at his elbow. Warm flesh brushed his skin--fingers that were firm and whole, assuring with the sheer pressure of intrinsic strength. Slowly those fingers rubbed across his arm, causing a ghost shiver to trickle down his spine. The tracker moaned softly at the contact, burrowing closer to the larger man’s chest.

Chris bowed his head. "Vin, I promise, we'll beat this thing. You gotta try to fight this…" This demon, he wanted to spit. This infernal hellish nightmare, I'd strangle with my bare hands if I could. I'd fight a wild bear, armed with only a kitchen knife, rather then watch you suffer like this.

"Lie back," he coaxed, gently striving to disentangle himself, but Vin held tight refusing to release his hold.

"No," he croaked, in a broken voice. Trembling fingers curled into Larabee’s shirt, surprisingly strong, despite his exhaustive state. "Just let me stay like this for a while," he whispered, leaving the man in black slightly off kilter.

The older man opted for humor when Tanner's vulnerability would have brought tears to his eyes. He hugged him closer. "Can I tease you about this when you're better?" A moment's pause. "--in front of the guys?"

Vin gave a short snort of laughter. Shifting, he curled into his best friend, resting his head against the soft fabric of Chris’ worn black shirt. "I'll deny everything," he returned in a murmur. Then, with the drugs taking hold in his system, he drifted off to sleep.

Team Seven’s leader was more than a little relieved to see Nathan striding through the door.

"Nate, thank God." Chris’ face spoke volumes.

The large man gently pulled the sleeping form from Chris’ hands. "Come on, Chris, let go of ‘im. Let’s have a look." The man in black slid off the bed, allowing the EMT full access to their injured friend.

"One of the nurses cleaned him up after I found him on the floor," Chris’ voice was low, barely containing his emotions.

"Well, it doesn’t look too bad," the dark hands smoothed the sweat-soaked hair from Vin’s fevered brow. "His fever’s come down a little. I think if we keep with that antibiotic we might get it to break by day after tomorrow."

"Nate… Maybe you didn’t hear me. You ain’t givin’ him any more of that shit."

"Now, Chris…"

"No." Chris’ face darkened. "You weren’t here when he was shakin’ so bad I could hear his bones rattle. You weren’t here when he was pale enough that I could see the veins under his skin. You didn’t see how terrified he was. Dammit, Nate, he didn’t even KNOW me! It took me nearly half an hour to get him back into that bed, and another half an hour to calm him down! You are –NOT– giving him any –MORE– of that –SHIT–! Do you UNDERSTAND ME?!"

"Okay, Chris," the healer held up both his hands in surrender. "I understand that you’re real scared for him. You two are more like brothers than most of the blood related ones I’ve seen. But you need to understand what will happen if we take him off of this medication. First off, he’ll prolly relapse with that fever. It’ll spike up to 103, 104 even. And after a taste of this hard stuff, whatever crud he’s got inside him will have become resistant to any lesser antibiotic they could give him. He might last a week, maybe just 5 days, before he becomes so weak that they’ll have to put that tube back down his throat to help him breathe."

Putting his hands on the older man’s shoulders, he gently pushed Chris down into a chair and knelt in front of him. "Chris," he continued, his voice low and serious. "The lack of oxygen combined with the high fever could damage his brain. Even if they did eventually manage to find something else to clear out that infection in his lungs, he’d be stuck in here with at least another month of breathing treatments to get his lungs back in shape." Clasping his hands in front of him, he sighed. "You know how much he hates this place. If he stays on this antibiotic, and his fever breaks by day after tomorrow, we could get him outa here by the end of the week."

Larabee leaned back, running a tired hand over his face.

"Now, wouldn’t you rather have him out at the ranch where he can relax and get well with all of us lookin’ after ‘im, instead of cooped up in this place? Isn’t that what he would want?"

Exhausted, Chris couldn’t do anything but nod wearily. His head was spinning, and a fog had descended over his vision.

Expelling a harsh breath, Nathan rose to tower over the slumped figure of his leader. "Okay. I’m gonna go now and let that nurse come in and give him his third dose. I’ll talk to his doctor… see if we can get him on somethin’ to counteract the side effects. There’s gotta be somethin’." Crossing to the bed, he placed one large hand on the sleeping man’s shaggy head. "I’m gonna call Buck and Josiah, see if they can come down and take over for you. You’ve had a rough night, and you’re gonna go home for a while. I don’t wanna see you back here until after you’ve showered, shaved, eaten, and slept at least 6 hours." Before the older man could protest, Nathan raised his hand to stop him. "Don’t even try it. I know you need to be here just as much as he needs you, but the rest of us have a say, too. And you need to let us start helpin’ more. We need it, too, understand?"

Chris seemed to take this and think it over for a moment, before nodding slowly. The EMT’s relief was almost palpable. "Okay. Just sit tight and I’ll be right back."

When he’d gone, Larabee leaned forward, and put his head in his hands. Rubbing his aching head and stinging eyes, he repressed a shudder of exhaustion. "Good lord, cowboy," he whispered. "I swear, when you get out of this, I’m gonna shoot you myself. I aim to keep what hair I have… and grey isn’t my color." He tried to flash a grin at the sleeping sharpshooter, but it didn’t quite happen. Instead, it seemed to fill out as more of a pained expression… which matched his heart.

The elevator never seemed so small, and so crowded. JD swallowed with difficulty, wiping his sweaty palms on his jeans. Buck had shaken him out of a fitful sleep with a quiet, somber attitude that disturbed him more than the soft, urgent order, "Come on, we gotta get to the hospital."

JD’s stomach had dropped to his toes. "What is it, Buck? Is it Vin? What’s wrong? Something happened?"

"I don’t know, kid. Nate just called and said we gotta get down there. Get dressed, I’ll meet you downstairs."

Now he stood beside the moustached man inside the suffocating elevator, his insides turned to jelly, wondering what they would find in room 318.

"You okay, kid?" Buck murmured softly.

"Uh," the young man swallowed thickly. "Uh huh." He tried as hard as he could to stop his legs from shaking, but he wasn’t very successful.

The doors opened, and they started down the hall. Coming to the open door, he expected to see everyone else clustered around the bed, with Vin white and still as death.

Instead, he found Josiah sitting next to the tracker, supporting him as he coughed what could only be the entire contents of his rib cage into a large clump of tissues.

Buck jumped into action, pouring a cup of water and fetching a dampened washcloth. When the fit had passed, the ex-preacher disposed of the fluid-filled tissues while the ladies’ man wiped the sweat pouring off the fevered face and pushed the cup to the cracked lips. When the ministrations were finished, and Tanner settled back onto the bed, red-rimmed eyes were turned to JD for the first time.

"Hey," the rough, raspy greeting was barely a shadow of Vin’s normal voice.

It was enough. His stomach rebelled, and he bolted for the men’s room down the hall.

Josiah and Buck exchanged glances. "I’ll get him," Buck offered, giving Vin’s arm a final squeeze before following the vanished young man.

"He okay?" Tanner croaked to the profiler, his eyes full of worry.

The big man smiled. It was just like Vin to be worried about everybody else when he lay in the hospital injured and ill. "He’s fine, son. You know how he gets with body fluids." He smiled reassuringly at the younger man’s worried expression. "Don’t worry. I’m sure after he gets a little breather, he’ll be right as rain." Patting Tanner’s arm reassuringly, he continued, "Rest now."

Buck reappeared a few minutes later, alone.

"How fares our youngest disciple?" the profiler’s deep voice rumbled softly. His large hand rested lightly on Vin’s right wrist, still ensconced in its cast.

Buck lowered himself into a chair, careful not to disturb Vin’s light dozing. "He’ll be okay. Just still a little shaken, is all."

"As are we all, brother. As are we all."

They sat in a thick silence for a moment. Both men tried to avoid casting their eyes to the wan figure on the bed, the soft sound of Vin’s wheezy, labored breathing underscoring the lack of conversation.

"Well, I can perceive by your enthusiastic appearance that my tidings has reached your ever-attentive ears."

Two heads popped up to find Ezra lounging in the doorway, a gleam in his bright green eyes.

"Well, you’re lookin’ mighty pleased with yourself," Buck remarked, standing and crossing to where the con man leaned against the doorjamb. "What’d you do, sweet talk Bush’s into giving you their recipe for baked beans?"

A gold tooth flashed. "As remarkably fascinating as that might be… no." His languid strides quickly brought him to the left side of Vin’s bed. His green eyes were pained as he gently brushed a stray lock of hair from the pale face.

"You got somethin’ t’tell us?" the ladies’ man asked, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees.

"Ah, yes," Ezra shook himself out of his brief reverie. "If you were to saunter downtown, and happen to make your way to the 18th precinct, you might find down in a dirty cell wishing he’d never laid eyes on Denver one Emilio Valdez."

Both agents shot to their feet.

"You got--"

"How did--"

"THE Emilio Valdez??"

The undercover agent’s face was the epitome of smug. "Yes, indeed, gentlemen. You are looking at the most highly skilled, most brilliant, most…"

"Long winded!" Buck cut him off. "How the hell…??"

"It is a long and convoluted which I will be more than willing to recount over a smooth bottle of 20 year old scotch, but at the moment suffice it to say…" he trailed off, his eyes going to the prone body of their friend before him. "… that I had a lot of incentive."

"You don’t mean…" Buck whispered incredulously.

"Yes." Ezra’s eyes flashed a deadly gleam. "Emilio Valdez is the man responsible for abducting Vin."

There was dead silence in the room - a thick, torturous silence that was punctuated only by the soft whir of machines and slight rasping of their friends breathing. The three men looked at each other, then at Vin, and all three shared the same vicious glare.

"Unfortunately, gentlemen," Ezra continued in a tight voice. "The agency saw fit to post a double guard around him 24 hours a day. Not only to protect against any attempt by his own colleagues to liberate him, but also…"

"Because they know once Chris finds out, Valdez is a dead man." Josiah finished for him.


Part Five

Wandering through the dim halls of the hospital, Josiah nodded in greeting to the night nurse at her station. All seven men had become familiar specters in the after-hours scenery on the third floor.

But instead of turning toward room 318, where Vin and J.D. were engrossed in "Young Guns", he headed past the candy machines to the elevator.

Earlier that day, he had made some inquiries at the front desk, and when he discovered he was looking for, he made plans while everyone else was busy.

When the doors closed, he pressed the number 5 and felt the car begin its ascent. He picked nervously at the luscious red roses he carried, clearing his throat for no apparent reason.

When the doors opened, he found himself face-to-face with the last person he wanted to see…

"Why… er… Ms. Bickerstaff… How lovely to see you…" The thin, beady-eyed nurse regarded him icily from behind her wire-rimmed glasses.

"Mr. Sanchez."

"Ma’am?" He swallowed thickly.

This was not going to go well.

This woman had been the bane of everyone’s existence. From her very first encounter with the Seven, she had taken an immediate and intense dislike for the rowdy agents. She possessed a deep – one could almost say religious – conviction centered around the god of rules. And after nearly a month of putting up with the Seven… well, she was very near her breaking point.

She fixed him with an arctic stare. "You must be lost. I believe you and your fellow… agents… are confined to the third floor."

"Now, Ms. Bickerstaff, I know all about that, but…"

"I realize, Mr. Sanchez, that you and your cohorts are incapable of having any regard for the policies set forth by the hospital which allow you to remain here after hours. Policies which, I might add, were created expressly for your motley crew."

"I understand completely, ma’am. I just…"

"May I remind you that this is a place where the injured and ill come to recuperate, and if you think you can waltz around here like it’s the local bar…"


"Then every single one of you will find yourselves out on the sidewalk before you can say ‘yahoo’…"

"I’m coming to see the young lady who saved Vin’s life."

There was a breath of silence.

Her stern expression softened almost imperceptibly, and she blinked for what was probably the first time in her rigid life. Gesturing curtly, she replied, "Room 512. But I stress that you are to keep your visit brief."

"Yes ma’am. Thank you ma’am." The large man bowed, sidling carefully past the stiff figure. She continued down the other end of the hall, her white oxfords making ominous clicking noises as she strode purposefully about her business.

Pausing outside room 512, he pulled at his collar, once again fluffing the roses. Peeking through the window on the door, he saw the young woman lying still in the bed. Her face was pale, but not deathly so, her soft blonde hair spread like a golden fan across the white pillow. She appeared to be asleep.

And he was surprised to see Mary Travis sitting beside the bed.

"Josiah," she murmured as he entered shyly. "OH my…" she breathed as the gorgeous bouquet followed him. Rising, she crossed quickly to him, gently taking the large glass vase from his hands. "These are breathtaking…"

"Well," he rumbled, ducking his head. "I just figgered… um… well, that lil’ girl did so much… ain’t right for all a’ us just t’ forget about her."

"But you didn’t forget about her…" Mary protested, her brow furrowing in confusion.

"Uh… we didn’t?" the older man asked, also puzzled.

"No… isn’t this from you boys?" She gestured to another large, elegant bouquet on the dresser near the bathroom. Picking the small card from the lush bulbs, she extended it to Josiah, who took it in his large hands and squinted at the fine print –

‘To our valiant heroine… our deepest gratitude, and most sincere wishes for a swift return to health…’

"Well I’ll be damned…" he chuckled softly.

"What is it?" she asked, reading over his shoulder.

"Oh… nothin’."

+ + + + + + +

"You sure you got it okay?"

"Buck… I’m tellin’ you… for the last time…" J.D.’s reply was punctuated with grunts as he pushed against the brand new dirt bike in the back of the pickup. "If you ask me… that again… I’m dumpin’ this thing… UGH!… right on your – FAT - HEAD!"

Josiah grinned good naturedly from where he stood next to Buck, ready to catch the bike once J.D. had scooted it far enough down the bed. He glanced down the long drive leading up to Chris’ ranch. The ladies’ man and the kid had been at it all day. Compared to the choking tension of the last couple of months, it was a welcome sound.

"I’m just sayin’… you insisted you could do it by yourself… ‘wouldn’t want ya t’strain nothin’… or break Vin’s new bike…" Buck’s eyes twinkled with mischief. "You know how hernia’s are caused, right?"

All the guys had chipped in to get Vin the new dirt bike. He’d been pining for it for nearly six months… and even though it’d be at least another six before he’d be healed enough to ride it, the boys couldn’t wait to see the look on his face.

"… and a hernia can definitely affect a man’s… performance… if you know what I mean…"

"Buck… for the LAST – TIME…" the boy’s face was nearly purple. "I’VE - GOT …


And the bike slipped from the youth’s hands and out of the bed to crash on the ground, nearly missing the two older agents as they dived to get out of the way.

"J.D!!" Buck roared, throwing a handful of dirt at the pickup.

"I thought you had a hold of it!" the youth snapped. "Weren’t you two supposed to CATCH it?"

All three agents peered down at the fallen bike, a long deep scratch running across the Suzuki lettering.

Suddenly, deep booming laughter echoed across the yard. Buck and JD turned to see the ex-preacher’s head thrown back, his large chest shaking with mirth.

"I’m glad you find this so funny, Josiah," JD snapped. "They’re gonna be here any minute, and we gotta get this thing ‘round the back of the house."

"Don’t worry," the larger man said, going over and heaving the bike upright. "The first ride Vin takes on this thing he’ll put enough scratches on it that you won’t even notice this one." He dusted off the seat. "Chris and Nathan went to spring him, while Ezra went to get all the prescriptions filled, get some groceries, and pick up a couple of DVDs. They’ll be another hour at least."

"You think they’re okay?" Buck asked, his expression worried.

"EZRA’s doing the shopping?" the kid groaned. "Good lord, we ain’t gonna have nothin’ but champagne and that… that fish egg stuff…"

"Don’t worry," the ladies’ man grinned. "We can always order a pizza… peppers, extra cheese, extra ONIONS…" He licked his lips appreciatively.

"Extra heartburn," the kid muttered.

"Come on, boys," Josiah said. "Let’s get this thing around back, wrap it up all purty, then we can go inside and wait for the party to arrive."

They wheeled it around to the back deck, got it all fixed, and then went inside to wait.

They didn’t have to wait long. Fifteen minutes after they’d opened the first beer, they heard the crunch of wheels on the gravel, and the slamming of a car door. They all took up their hidden positions, and waited for Vin to come through the front door…



A startled Ezra had dropped the grocery bags he was carrying, and stood there with his Derringer trained on J.D. where he’d jumped out from behind the door.

"Aw, it’s only Ezra." Wilmington scoffed, coming out from behind a curtain.

"What’cha got, Ez?" J.D. asked, kneeling to rummage through the fallen bags. "More o’ that fish egg stuff?"

"Caviar? Gentlemen, do you honestly think I would waste good caviar on the likes of you?" The con man had recovered enough from his near heart-attack to snap his gun back into the spring-loaded harness around his wrist. "Get out of there," he chastised the boy at his feet. "This is for Vin." And, gathering up his bags, he carried them into the kitchen. Dumping them on the counter, he began putting things away – canned soup, milk, orange juice, bread…

All three men followed him. "You been downtown at all today?" Josiah asked.

"I have," the Southerner replied. "Valdez’s men sang like a canary… once we threatened to let our esteemed leader have an hour ALONE with them." He smiled wickedly. "We now have him in custody, and they are facing charges of attempted murder of a federal agent."

There was a thick silence. Then, J.D., in an uncharacteristic display of malice, hissed, "I hope they fry ‘em."

Everyone in the room was in complete agreement.

"How did everything go… you know… at the hospital?" Buck asked, his mouth tight with concern.

Ezra’s hand paused halfway between the bag and the cabinet. He took a deep, shaky breath before answering. "It was a little… harrowing… to say the least…" He continued to stack the canned soup, fastidiously turning the labels so they could all be easily read.

J.D. spoke up, his eyes wide and innocent, "What happened?"

+ + + + + + +

Chris shoved the socks into the gym bag with a curse. They were followed shortly by several rumpled T-shirts, a few torn pairs of jeans, and solid-colored boxers. When he’d stuffed everything in as tight as it could go, he roughly zipped it up, and then, without a word, hurled it across the room.

"Chris!" Nathan hissed, crossing quickly to where Vin lay dozing on the bed. "Don’t you think he’s had enough today without you throwin’ one a’ your tantrums?"

"I hate that doctor," the black-clad leader whispered, his voice deadly.

Vin stirred, and Chris came quickly to his side. Running a calloused hand over the sleeping man’s head, the older man winced slightly to feel the soft square where his hair was slowly growing back. After nearly six weeks in the hospital, it was only a little over an inch long.

"Easy…" he whispered, gently lulling the younger man back to sleep. Vin’s injuries were healing… slowly. His X-rays showed his fractures were coming along nicely: his ribs were healed, and his collarbone – while still stiff – was nearly recovered. Only his right arm and leg remained in casts, and those were due to come off in ten days. His stitches had come out the previous week. But even though his fever was no longer raging as it had been, it had stubbornly refused to be beaten.

It had broken the second week, after the aggressive antibiotic treatment. Then it returned in the middle of Vin's fourth week in the hospital. A different antibiotic had proven ineffective, and Chris stubbornly refused to let the doctors put him back on the first, despite numerous protests from Nathan. Consequently, Vin’s temperature would drop for a couple of days, and then climb 1-2 degrees without warning. No one was quite able to nail down a cause. The lab technician blamed it on his bruised kidneys. His radiologist believed it was due to the healing fractures. And Dr. Strickland guessed it might be the upper respiratory infection that had just recently cleared. Chris had gotten into several near-screaming matches with the doctor over the subject of Vin’s treatment, the most recent having ended just a few minutes ago.

The fever had left the Texan exhausted, draining all his reserves and slowing his recovery. At the moment, it was steady at a 100.2 – low enough to get Dr. Strickland to grudgingly agree to release him into Nathan’s care, with the stipulation that he was to be readmitted to the hospital if it got any worse. One thing was for sure: Vin had had enough poking and prodding over the last few weeks that his nerves were near shattered. For a man so unused to physical touch, and so loathe to remain long away from the sights and sounds of nature, the rest of the team was surprised the man hadn’t decked someone yet.

The old Vin Tanner would have taken out half the medical staff by now…

But something had happened to Vin out there in the woods. Something that had stripped him down to someone almost unrecognizable to his friends.

And there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.

When he was satisfied that Vin was peaceful again, Chris whispered tensely to the EMT, "Nate… how soon can we get him out of here?"

"They’re processing all the paperwork right now… we’ll get him out as fast as we can. Try to be patient."

"How am I supposed to be patient?" Larabee’s jaw was tense, a vein in his forehead jumping in time with his heartbeat. In spite of how much pressure he was holding in his body, his voice when he spoke next was amazingly gentle. Leaning in close to the figure on the bed, he continued to stroke the brown hair as he murmured, "I just want to get him home."

"Okay… are you boys about ready?" A slender, blonde nurse with bright green eyes came striding in, clipboard in hand. She walked up to Vin’s bedside opposite Chris, and spoke to the sleeping man in a soft voice. "I’ll bet you’d like to get home, huh sweetheart?" Smoothing back his scraggly brown hair, she handed the clipboard to the man in black without taking her eyes from Vin. "I just need you to sign at the bottom."

He scribbled his illegible mark, and handed it back to her. "We can take him now?" he clipped.

"Yup," she said, still gazing down at Tanner’s sleeping form. "G’bye handsome," she said in a voice meant just for him. "We’re sure gonna miss those beautiful eyes." All the nurses had taken quite a shine to the sharpshooter, always checking in on him and bringing him extra sweets with his meals. She gave herself a little shake. "Take good care of him boys," she called over her shoulder on the way out.

Both men waited until she had closed the door before turning back to the bed.

"Finally!" Chris’ voice was soft. He reached a hand and shook the thin shoulder carefully, knowing too well what could happen if this man were startled. "Vin? Come on, now. It’s time to go home."

The younger man’s eyes fluttered, then opened. Confused blue orbs met steady green ones. "Wha-?" he mumbled sleepily.

"Come on, pard," the blonde gently pulled his still groggy friend upright. "It’s time to take you home."

"H-home?" Vin asked, his eyes opening wide. "I’m… g-goin’ home?" Larabee saw in those deep blue depths a mixture of hope… and fear. Every time the subject of Vin’s release had been broached, this same expression would appear on his face. It was almost as though he didn’t want to go home… as though he was afraid to go home…

"Well," the man in black replied, swinging Vin’s legs off the bed and kneeling down to help him put on his boots. "Sort of. I thought I’d take you to the ranch, if that was okay with you."

The sharpshooter looked relieved. Immensely relieved. "I think that’d be alright," he replied quietly, not looking at his friend.

"Vin?" Nathan leaned down, looking intently into the younger man’s eyes. "You okay?"

"M’fine," the Texan replied sharply, shrugging off the healer’s large hands and yanking his feet away from Chris. "An’ I can put on my own damned boots, Chris!"

Larabee quickly scooted away to narrowly avoid Tanner’s boot as it went flying across the room. "Take it easy," Chris’ tone was even, but his voice held a warning as he went to fetch it. "We’re just tryin’ t’help."

Vin’s hands tightly gripping the edge of the bed to keep from falling. Both men could see his frame shaking slightly from nerves and exhaustion.

"I don’t need no help," came his quick reply.

"Except perhaps with respect to your grammar," a honeyed voice floated in from the doorway. They looked up to find Ezra leaning casually against the frame, his suit jacket slung nonchalantly over his shoulder. "I believe the last time I checked a double negative was still a faux pas."

"I didn’t use no double negative," Vin responded, still annoyed. It hadn’t escaped Nathan’s attention that whenever his patient seemed on the edge of an explosion, Ezra would be there. He always seemed to know just what to say and do to diffuse the situation without Vin being aware of what had happened. The healer had to admit that the Southerner had a patience with Vin that no one would have ever expected.

"Tsk, tsk," the undercover agent sauntered in and scooped up the gym bag from where Chris had hurled it against the wall. "Well?" he asked, looking at the three men. "Do you intend to remain here all day examining my illustrious person, or would you rather abandon this terribly charming locale in exchange for Mister Larabee’s coarse yet surprisingly more comfortable abode?"

Vin blinked owlishly at Ezra, his fever-glazed eyes bright and puzzled. "Huh?" he replied.

Ezra just laughed good-naturedly. "Eloquently put, my lexis-challenged friend. Now," he crossed to the bed and extended his hand. "Shall we?"

Speaking of patience, getting Vin into the wheelchair took a lot on everyone’s part. He didn’t want to use one, and Nathan explaining to him he had no choice only made him agitated. By the time they got him down the hall, into the elevator, and down three floors to Chris’ truck, he was pale and edgy, a fine sheen of sweat beading on his face.

"It’s alright, Mister Tanner," Ezra used his soft, smooth drawl to try and calm him down. "We are out of there now, and soon will be on our way home. I believe Mister Sanchez, Mister Wilmington, and Mister Dunne will be very happy to see you."

Chris knelt down next to Vin and put his hand on his shoulder, trying not to notice the fact that the Texan nearly jumped out of his clothes. Giving it a light squeeze, he lowered his voice to speak just to him, "You okay, pard?"

"Yeah," came the quick, raspy reply, though to look at him, ‘okay’ is the last thing anybody would have said about Vin Tanner. His hands were gripping the arms of the wheelchair so tightly the knuckles showed white. The sweat made his skin look even paler in the bright sun, and his eyes darted around nervously.

"Think you can get up in the truck?"

"I’ll manage."

"Okay," Larabee straightened up, turning to his fellow agents. Buck had a worried expression plastered to his face, and Nathan stood gazing pensively at the clouds, but Ezra… Ezra looked like he was about to be sick. Seeing their friend like this broke all their hearts, but the con man had taken it the hardest. He seemed to feel like Vin’s abduction had been because of something particular he had done… or hadn’t done. They all felt that way, to an extent. If they’d only been more vigilant, more observant, more… something. But the southerner had made it his own personal quest to put Vin’s kidnappers behind bars. And he had done it, to the admiration and amazement of the entire ATF. But he felt guilty having not been with his friend while he was in the hospital, and seeing him now twisted something inside him nearly to the point of breaking.

"Ezra, why don’t you go on and pick up supplies," Chris commanded quietly. "Here’s his prescriptions. Buck and me’ll get him loaded up and meet you back at the house."

"It… it’ll be my pleasure, Mister Larabee," Standish replied, keeping his eyes on the ground. The other men pretended not to notice when he turned his back to them, and swiped his eyes roughly with his hand.


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