Into the Woods

by skaia7

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The crunch of gravel caused everyone in the kitchen to lift their heads. Moving swiftly into the living room, they watched intently through the window as Larabee took one arm, holding steady while Tanner slid carefully down from the big black cab. Nathan stood close, one hand on the hospital-issued crutches, putting his hand reassuringly on Vin’s arm or back to steady him. Everything Ezra had said was true: he looked more skeleton than human – a mere shadow of the man they had known. The sharpshooter’s face was drawn, resigned. They’d never seen him looking so helpless, so… beaten.

He was almost like a stranger.

Both men flanked their friend, supporting him as he struggled to remain upright, and started up the walk. Vin grimaced with pain, his blue eyes tight with the effort. The other agents watched from the window, their stomachs knotted with anxiety.

Nobody felt much like yelling ‘surprise.’

J.D. opened the door, and in came Chris and Nathan, with Vin slung between them, one arm over each of their shoulders. The EMT dropped the crutches at the door, and the kid quickly scooped them up. The two agents were careful to guide the injured man’s casts around the furniture, but they could tell he was still in a lot of pain. He had gone several shades whiter in the short trip from the car to the house.

Jackson turned to his left. "Buck, can you go get his things from the truck?" The ladies’ man was gone in a flash.

Standish jumped to arrange pillows on the couch, his eyes anxious as the two men lowered Tanner onto it. "Can I… um… I mean, is there… ah… what…"

"Why Ez, I believe that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you tongue-tied," Chris joked softly. Sensing the con man’s distress, he added, "Why don’t you go fetch us some juice," and chuckled when the younger man strode off to the kitchen, a deep sense of purpose etched into his face.

"Ain’t the first time," a soft, raspy voice issued from the couch.

"What’s that, Vin?" Larabee asked, kneeling down and tucking a blanket around the sharpshooter. Two spots of color had appeared on the gaunt cheeks. The team leader and the EMT exchanged glances, and Nathan went to fetch the thermometer.

"Ain’t the first time you seen ‘im tongue-tied," Vin’s eyes were glazed, his entire body sunk into the couch with exhaustion. "’Member that time we was stayin’ in that fancy hotel on that case in Memphis, and Buck and J.D. loaded ‘is fancy bottle of body wash with dog shampoo, then complained all weekend about the smell?"

Both men dissolved in muted laughter.

"And he – he kept showering – tryin’ t’get it off!" Chris added.

"I’ll never forget the look on his face when Josiah told ‘im!" Vin wheezed, tears squeezing from his eyes.

Suddenly, Vin’s laughter turned to a racking cough. His hands grabbed at his chest as air was forced from his sore lungs, his face flushing with the effort.

"Nate!" Chris called, and the tall agent came striding in, carrying the thermometer and a glass of juice, Ezra trailing behind.

"It’s alright, Vin, ride it out," Jackson barked, his hand on the other man’s shoulder as he suffered through it. "What do you think you’re playin’ at," he turned on Chris, Vin’s coughs grating on all their ears. "Didn’t you hear Strickland say not to get him riled up?"

"Nate, leave it," Larabee warned, his green eyes fixed on his friend as he struggled to regain his breath.

"Here, Vin," Ezra picked the juice glass up from the coffee table and handed it to the winded sharpshooter. Vin grasped it in shaking hands, and took a long drink. His eyes closed as the cool liquid soothed his fiery throat, and he let out a shaky sigh of relief.

"Thanks, Ez," he rasped.

"Here, Vin," the EMT said, handing over a couple of pills. "One’s your antibiotic, and the other’s your painkiller. It’ll probably knock you out for a couple of hours. You wanna bunk down here, or go back to your room?"

The tracker spent a lot of time at the ranch, helping Larabee break his new horses, or going out hunting or fishing on the extensive property. Nobody called it the ‘guest room’ except Vin. Everyone called it ‘Vin’s room.’

The shaggy brown head tilted back to swallow the pills, finishing off the juice. "I’ll stay here," he replied, still out of breath, and handed the empty glass back to Chris. "If that’s okay," he looked to Chris, his face slightly apprehensive.

"’Course it’s okay, pard," the older man replied, reaching out to clasp the thin forearm in their own gesture of friendship. The grateful look in Vin’s eyes was worth a hundred Dr. Stricklands.

"We’re just gonna watch a bit of The Matrix," Buck added, flopping down on an overstuffed armchair in front of the big screen. "And then maybe some of ‘Puss in Boots.’" His eyes twinkled over his moustache.

"The Matrix, again?" Nathan groaned.

"’Puss in Boots?’" J.D. asked, flopping down on the thick carpet in front of the coffee table.

"No doubt some illicit piece featuring some finer specimens of the feminine persuasion engaged in questionable activities of a sexual nature," Standish cut in as he draped himself over a leather lounge chair near the fireplace. Josiah had mentioned before how the undercover agent always seemed to find the most expensive piece of furniture in the room to settle in.

"Huh?" Buck, J.D., and Vin all chorused.

"He said," Sanchez offered, coming out of the kitchen with a six-pack and a bag of pretzels. "That the video in question was probably pornographic in nature."

"Porn?" Buck exclaimed innocently, tossing a handful of pretzels into his mouth. "Why would I bring porn with the kid here?"

"Hey," J.D. protested.

"Aw, come on, Buck," Chris grabbed a bottle of beer and snapped the cap on the side of the coffee table. "Aren’t you the one that’s always sayin’ it’s your duty to ‘educate’ him?"

Dunne looked righteously offended. "I’ll have all of you know that I am over eighteen, and it is well within my legal right to look at some porn if I want to…"

Josiah and Ezra sat back and watched, smiling, as the three agents traded barbs over the finer points of the male nature. Nathan settled down on the floor next to the couch, the only one actually watching the movie amid all that racket.

As for Vin, his expression grew peaceful. Even though his body ached, his head swimming in a fever-haze, he felt right as rain sitting in this room… surrounded by more than just friends…

By family.

His eyelids grew heavy, and after a while he fell asleep, a smile still curved on his lips.

+ + + + + + +

"I still say Trinity coulda kicked his ass."

"Kid, where’d you pick up language like that?"

"Aw, let him be, Josiah. It’s not as if you haven’t been known to spout a few questionable epithets from time to time…"

"Why, Mister Wilmington, I find that I am highly amazed that you possess the capability to use a term such as ‘epithet’ in a sentence."

"Ezra, don’t even get me started on you…"

Chris and Nathan were gathering up all the debris of the day - empty beer bottles, salsa bowls, empty chip and pretzel bags - and carrying them into the kitchen. Halfway through the movie, the two agents had gone quiet, ignoring the lively banter and concentrating their attention on the condition of their sharpshooter. For the most part, the injured man had been quiet; only twice that afternoon had the team leader been drawn to the couch when Vin murmured softly and shifted in his sleep. Both times, Chris would lay a calloused hand on the thin chest, listening to the slight wheeze in the even breathing.

The lingering illness had weakened Vin’s lungs, and Dr. Strickland was worried about possible long-term side effects. He had prescribed a steroid inhaler to be used once a day, but Tanner had stubbornly resisted the medication. If Chris didn’t stand over him, it wouldn’t get taken. All the members of Team Seven were notoriously difficult when sick or injured… but when it came to pure stubbornness, Vin took the cake. Nathan could testify that even the almighty Chris Larabee was an easier patient than the mule-headed Texan.

So when the two men were alone in the kitchen, the man in black turned and said in a low voice, "What d’ya think?"

The healer turned and glanced into the living room where Buck and J.D. had launched into a wrestling match on the floor, with Ezra betting 3-1 odds with Josiah that they’d both end up bloody. Amid all the commotion, Vin was still sound asleep, snoring softly, his face even more pale in the blue glow of the TV.

"I think we mighta sprung ‘im too soon," he replied quietly, going to the sink for a glass of water.

"Yeah," Larabee admitted. "That’s kinda what I was thinkin’." The tired green eyes closed.

"I mean, I know how that place gets to ‘im," Jackson continued, taking a long drink and sighing heavily, thinking back to how he felt watching his friend’s spirit die a little more each day cooped up in that hospital room. "But I ain’t so sure he’s gonna get the peace and quiet he needs here…" There was a crash from the living room as a lamp met an untimely death. Neither of the men batted an eye. "Not with all of us crowdin’ around ‘im. At least at the hospital they had visiting hours."

"And big burly orderlies," Chris added with a smirk, thinking back to Buck and J.D.’s experiences with the white-clad wardens.

"Mister Larabee," Ezra’s voice floated through the doorway.

"What’s up, Ez?" Larabee called back.

"I think you’d better come in here... quick."

Dishes were forgotten as both men sprinted into the living room, and stopped short at the sight that greeted them. Vin was wide awake, covered with sweat, and shaking. Buck and Josiah were already at his side, Ezra picking up the pieces of the lamp and heading toward the kitchen to dispose of it.

Chris was across the room in three strides, kneeling next to the couch and reaching out his hand to push the soaked strands of hair from the flushed face. "What happened?" he asked no one in particular.

J.D. pushed his unruly hair back from his face. "We was just horsin’ around and knocked the lamp over. Next thing we know…"

"I’m alright," came a shaky rasp.

"Like hell you are," Nathan countered, resting the back of his hand against the sharpshooter’s forehead. "His temp’s up. I think it’s time we got ‘im back to a bed…"

"Get the hell away from me!" Tanner exploded, shoving all hands away and breathing hard. He looked like a wild horse about to bolt. Everyone took a step back.

After a few tense moments, he gave himself a small shake, trying to regain control. "Goddammit, I said I’m alright. I’s just… startled, is all. You fellas is worse’n a bunch o’ women! Swarmin’ all over a man… pack o’ vultures, is what y’all are…"

"Fuck you," Larabee fired back, standing up suddenly. "You heard him, boys. He’s fine. Let’s finish cleanin’ up," he ordered, nailing each of his agents with a look that would melt diamonds.

The men reluctantly filed into the kitchen, all but Ezra. He stood next to the couch, chewing on his lip. The older man continued to glare at him for a minute, waiting for him to follow. When the younger man didn’t move, he snarled, "Ezra, you comin’?"

Standish raised his eyes to gaze steadily at his boss, and then replied calmly, "Presently, Mister Larabee." Crossing to where J.D. had deposited Vin’s crutches near the fireplace, he gently took them and leaned them on the arm of the couch. Vin glanced at them, but made no further acknowledgement. Then, under the infamous Green Glare, the undercover agent marched into the kitchen.

The injured man sat stubbornly on the couch, listening as Chris barked orders, water running and dishes clanking in the background. He felt bad, lashing out like that. He knew the guys were only trying to help, but he was feeling so absolutely suffocated that it was physically hard for him to breathe.

Closing his eyes against the light, he rubbed his forehead, trying to relieve the pounding headache. Too many people. There were just too many goddamn people around. His initial relief at being safe, at being home, had worn off not even a week into his hospital stay. People buzzing around, taking blood, poking him, prodding him, bringing him movies, playing games, forcing him to eat… though he did appreciate the take-out food… Just people people people in and out and all around and so many walls… there were several times he had to repress a scream. He thought he was going to go completely crazy. If he’d had his say, he’d have walked out of that hospital and just disappeared for a couple of weeks. Up in the mountains, maybe… He knew a little hunting cabin that would be just perfect…

But the thought of a cabin made his palms begin to sweat. His vision clouded over, and his heart started hammering in his chest. A tiny cement and stone prison… bone deep cold… explosive, throbbing pain… and sickening, evil laughter…

He gave himself a violent shake, causing a throbbing pain to settle in his broken arm and leg. Maybe Chris was right; maybe he should head to bed.

Grabbing one crutch with his good hand, he struggled to haul himself upright. He glanced towards the kitchen, but nobody was paying attention to him. Part of him was relieved… and part of him was a little bit stung.

Just ‘cause I don’t want ya hoverin’ don’t mean I kin do this all by myself…

He pushed both of those feelings aside, and concentrated on making it down the long hall to the bathroom. Trying not to put weight on his broken leg was nearly impossible, and by the time he reached his goal his whole leg was on fire. Beads of sweat dripped down the back of his neck, causing his hair to stick to his skin. Maybe my temp IS up… sure is hot in here…

Gripping the edges of the marbled basin-top, he glanced at his reflection in the mirror with a groan. Wow. What Mary and Rain say about fluorescent lighting washing you out is actually true. And it didn’t help that one side of his head had been shaved down to the nub, while the other side still hung long and stringy. He looked like some weird punk kid, minus the black leather and piercings. He winced again as he brought a hand up to touch the bare place on his scalp. Get a grip, Tanner. It’s only hair…

He leaned over the faucet, cupping cold water in one hand to splash his face. After turning it off and reaching for a towel, he took a deep breath. You’re alright. You’re okay. See? Just Chris’ house. Everything’s gonna be fine…

A wave of pain coursed through him, and he shuddered, his knuckles whitening as his fingers tightened their hold on the counter to steady him. His body began to shiver, his head heavy. He felt nauseous, and dizzy. Everything hurt.

Letting out a ragged breath, he finally straightened, dizzily reaching for the door. Vin made his way out into the hallway, his cast-clad arm stretched out to his side to support himself against the wall as he wrestled the crutch with his good arm. He felt like a lead-weight, vaguely aware that with the release of anxiety came the loss of adrenaline and energy that had sustained him for the past few hours. His vision began to swim before him, a low ringing sensation filling his ears. It was at that moment he began to worry. It might be a good idea to call out for one of the guys…

Vin caught a glimpse of a startled green expression before the hallway pitched violently and his knees buckled beneath him, sending him weaving towards the floor…

Larabee kicked into instinct mode, leaping across the hallway in a few strides to embrace Vin's collapsing form just above the waist. He lowered his friend to the floor, resting on his knees as the shaggy brown head dropped back listlessly to the black-clad shoulder. For a moment Chris just stared down the dim hallway wide-eyed, his arms still wrapped around the thin back. He finally blinked, terrified to think of what had just happened.

"Nathan!" he roared, and listened as heavy footsteps ran across the house. Jackson reached the two quickly, kneeling down to assess the situation.

"He’s just passed out," was the quick analysis. "Okay," the healer muttered. "Let’s get ‘im to his room."

Tanner barely heard them. The corners of his vision were slowly creeping in, and he welcomed the blackness. Except, they were moving him, the pain in his body nearly screaming at him now, and forcing consciousness on him with a vengeance. All pretense vanishing, he moaned in pitiful protest as the ache in his body gnawed at him ferociously, his head spinning.

The team leader heard the soft moan, and tightened his hold on his friend. Bending close, he whispered in Vin’s ear, "It’s alright, pard. I gotcha," and ducked his shoulder from underneath the fallen tracker. He grasped Vin by the shoulders and, pushing him away a bit, got a look at the ashen face. The body in his arms was shivering, the blue eyes nearly closed and completely glazed over. He realized with dismay that Vin was only about half conscious, the rest of him fading quickly.

The other members of Team Seven crowded behind him, each pitching in to help – Josiah carefully cradling the broken leg, Buck bracing his back. J.D. jumped to open the door, and Ezra grabbed the fallen crutch.

With everyone’s help, Nathan and Chris managed to haul Vin’s limp body into the bedroom. They sat him on the edge of the bed, the injured man nearly unconscious as Chris steadied him while Nathan pulled down the covers. "Okay, lie down now," the EMT instructed. "Just take it easy."

Vin moaned involuntarily once they lowered him to the pillows. He squeezed his burning eyes closed as if to will the spinning of the room to stop, certain that he could not feel any worse. Jackson had disappeared momentarily, but he returned, a bowl of cool water and a washcloth in his hands. Sitting carefully on the edge of the bed, he set the items down on the bedside table. The gentle healer reached over the sick man, folding up the blanket and comforter on his bed, pulling them up around his shoulders. He dipped the white cloth in the water, wringing it just enough so that it wouldn't drip before tenderly folding and placing it across Vin's forehead.

The sharpshooter drew a shallow gasp of air as he felt it. The sudden change of temperature shocked his system, sending his body into convulsive shivers. "S’ c-cold..." he whispered, his eyes fluttering open.

Alarm flickered across Chris’ face at his statement. He leaned over his friend, placing a hand gently on the thin shoulder. He could feel Tanner trembling with chills. "Vin?… Vin?" Two clouded blue slits opened to regard the older man. "’You okay?" Lifting his head, he addressed the EMT. "Nate?"

Vin took stock. His throat was dry and stinging, his eyes feeling like he’d been staring into the sun for hours. His lungs were aching, and his right arm and leg throbbed beneath the sticky casts. Swallowing thickly, he rolled his eyes. "I feel awful," he managed.

"I know," the senior agent murmured, his mouth setting in a thin line. He reached out his hand to smooth the unruly hair back from the heated skin, not missing the slight moan that came from the figure huddled beneath the covers.

Ezra cleared his throat. "Mister Larabee?… Mister Jackson?" Both men turned to regard him, their faces grimly serious. "Would it be prudent to summon an ambulance, or find another speedy conveyance to the hospital?"

"Nah," Nathan replied, surprising them. He placed his hand on Vin’s neck, noting the slight flush to his cheeks. "It ain’t that bad. He’s just over-exerted ‘imself… Shoulda put ‘im to bed when we brought ‘im home." He hauled his long body up from the bed, stretching out his limbs until everyone heard his spine pop. "Too much excitement. We should just let him sleep. He’ll be out for a while."

Five other men stood there with their mouths hanging open.

"Nate, are you…?"

"You’re sure he’s…?"

"I think maybe we should…"

"Look everybody!" the medical expert warned. "The man’s been sick. He’s tired. His pupils are normal, his breathing sounds okay, and his fever’s down, believe it or not, so since I’m the one person in the room who might one day have an M.D. after his name, I think ya’ll should call it a night."

Buck took the hint, clasping his hand to J.D.’s shoulder and steering him into the hall. "Come on, kid. We got some laundry waitin’ back at the loft."

Josiah followed them, stopping in the doorway and said softly, "If y’need anything…"

"We’ll call," Chris replied.

"You get some sleep, too," Nathan directed at his boss, repeating the words he’d spoken at least a hundred times. "You been runnin’ yourself ragged the last few weeks. Won’t do ‘im no good if you get yourself sick."

"I’ll be fine," the older man replied, never taking his eyes from the bed as the tracker slipped into a light slumber.

"’Course you’ll be fine," Nathan muttered, going to the bathroom and filling a glass of water. "When are you not fine? When are any of you stubborn cusses not ‘fine’…"


They’d almost forgotten Ezra was still there.

"If you have no objection, I would be more than happy to sit with our fallen comrade while you both take a much needed respite from his care."

The two older men exchanged glances. Standish’s face was solemn, and neither missed the lines of worry that had etched themselves into his handsome features.

"It’s alright, Ez," Chris began. "I…"

"Please, Mister Larabee…" Standish interrupted, his eyes unnaturally bright. "I… ah…" he cleared his throat, shifting nervously.

"Chris is going t’bed," Nathan rescued him. "Aren’t ya, Chris?"

Larabee’s eyes flicked from one man to another. Finally, "Yeah," came the gruff reply. He gave one last gentle pass over Vin’s shaggy head, and then stood stiffly, his bones cracking audibly. "Us old codgers gotta get our rest." Crossing to the door, he put a reassuring hand on the Southerner’s shoulder. "Just holler if you need anythin’."

And both agents left, quietly closing the door behind them. Standish’s eyes traveled over Tanner’s still form buried under the blankets. He sank to a sitting position on the edge of the bed, resting his head in his hands.

"No, no..." Vin murmured incoherently. The Southerner’s head came up, and he turned his attention to his charge. Vin’s clothes were positively soaked with sweat, wrinkled and matted against his inert body. Ezra re-wet the washrag before his hands pressed the cool cloth to the heated forehead.

"Shhh... Vin," he crooned softly, running the washcloth across his brow, his cheek, and down his neck.

Tanner stirred in response, turning his head to the side with a small cough. With another groan, bleary blue eyes met clear green. He blinked agonizingly slow, his mouth parted with his labored breath. "E-Ez?" he whispered after a long struggle to make out the hazy figure in front of him.

"Yes, Mister Tan-… Vin," he amended softly, returning the washcloth to the bowl of cool water. "It is I. Now," he gently brushed a tendril of hair back from the sharpshooter’s face and commanded gently, "Sleep."

Not needing to be told twice, Vin breathed a final sigh and stilled, sinking further into the pillow. He looked utterly exhausted, his brow slightly creased with the effort of his feverish sleep, and so unsettlingly vulnerable. It was so strange to see him this way, helpless and in need.

Vin Tanner had never seemed to want or need anyone or anything, priding himself in the ability to survive completely independently, and resenting anyone who dared to offer him assistance. Deep down, however, Ezra knew how false that was. And despite how useless he had felt, the Southerner was glad that he could be the one to be there for Vin... finally.

Pulling a small novel from his pocket, Ezra settled back to keep watch over his friend.

+ + + + + + +

Vin blinked his eyes open, the bright sunlight that peeked through his blinds forcing him to squint painfully. His brow crinkled in confusion as he finally realized he was lying in bed, but couldn't for the life of him remember going to bed. He thought he had heard the soft murmur of voices and the sound of a door shutting in his sleep. He supposed that was what had rousted him. But, what was he doing sleeping at this obviously late hour? An early riser by nature, he rarely ever stayed in bed past 6:00. But he felt strangely woozy and clammy as he pushed feebly at the blankets, reprimanding himself for sleeping so late.

Bending his good arm to support his weight – intending to roll over – he stopped short as hammers smashed against the inside of his skull when he barely lifted his head from the pillow.

On second thought... He uttered a drawn out groan, his eyes squeezing shut and sinking back into the pillows. He felt absolutely awful. That minute amount of movement had sent the room spinning, and he felt what little ounce of strength he may have had ebb from his body. Despite how hot he was, he suddenly felt chills sweep over him, jarring every aching bone in his body.

His ears picked up the soft click of a door latch lifting, and turned his head gingerly toward the sound. He couldn’t seem to open his eyes, which felt glued shut with grainy sand. The bed sank on one side, and a large, cool hand brushed his forehead. He managed to pry his eyes open with some difficulty, and found himself looking straight into Josiah’s unflinching gaze.

"’Mornin’, son," the ex-preacher toned. "How y’feelin’?"

Licking his dry lips, he tried to force his thick tongue to work. "I ‘been better," his voice scraped his parched throat.

"I imagine so," the large man replied with a chuckle. "You up to some breakfast?"

The younger man thought about it, and decided his stomach might tolerate some food. Nodding gingerly, he was relieved when the hammers didn’t make a reappearance in his skull. The large man’s strong hands helped to heave the injured man upright, and steadied him when his vision went white. They held steady until his vision cleared, and then left to stack pillows behind his aching back. He settled back against the headboard with a sigh. Sometimes having people around wasn’t so bad…

"Where is everybody?" he asked, suddenly remembering there had been more people around last night.

"Buck and J.D. are holding down the fort at the office. Ezra’s probably just getting there… it’s nearly 10:30… and Nathan’s prolly stayin’ home today. He’s had some pretty late nights recently…" The profiler noticed Vin’s cheeks reddened slightly, the shaggy head dipping to his chest. "It ain’t your fault, son, so don’t you go blamin’ yourself. We ain’t throwin’ no pity parties today…"

That got Vin’s attention. It sounded like something he’d expect to come out of Buck’s mouth, not Josiah’s. Goes to show ya we been around each other waaaay too much, lately…

"You say somethin’ about breakfast?" the tracker licked his lips eagerly, suddenly aware of his hunger.

The big man just laughed. "At least I know you’re better. You’re startin’ t’get your appetite back." He patted Vin’s good leg. "Just sit tight. I’ll be right back."

When he was gone, it suddenly occurred to Vin that Josiah hadn’t mentioned where Chris was. He made a mental note to ask when the other man came back…

He closed his eyes, basking in the warmth of the blankets, the softness of the bed… but more than anything else, enjoying the feeling of peace that had settled in his heart. Something had happened during the night… something that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Maybe it was simply finally being out of that damned hospital bed, being at home, with the guys…

That was definitely part of it. But it seemed like there was something more…

"Here you are, Eggs a la Sanchez," Josiah boomed, carefully balancing a tray on his arm as he opened the door to the room.

"Aw, J’siah… I ain’t sure I’m up t’your eggs…" Vin teased, flashing a mock grimace.

"Very true, my fine young friend. These fried fowls fetuses are not for the faint of fortitude!" And he set down the wooden bed tray with a flourish. Indeed, on the plate was a runny mess of fried eggs mashed up with anchovies, cheese, relish, mustard, and salsa - the profiler’s own personal recipe. None of the other guys would touch it with a ten-foot pole, but from the very first bite it’d been one of Tanner’s favorites. Also on the tray was a glass of orange juice, a plate of toast with butter melting slowly over it, and two large pills.

"You been hangin’ around Ezra too long," Vin pretended not to notice the medication. "Usin’ all them big words. Mm, mm. This does look tasty," he crooned, lifting the fork to his mouth.

"Ahh, ahh, ahh," the ex-preacher waved his finger at the sharpshooter. "First thing’s first." Taking the fork away, he replaced it with the first of the two pills. "Down the hatch."

"Aw, J’siah!" came the juvenile whine. "Cain’t I eat jest a couple bites first?"

"No, Vin," Chris’ voice cut through as he came into the room. "You know you need to take that."

"Damned skunks," the Texan cussed, scowling at his fellow agents. "Both of ya. Squirmin’ flea infested aggravatin’ skunks." His eyes flashed defiance.

"I’m glad to hear you’re feelin’ better," the team leader replied. "Now take ‘em."

Still shooting daggers at both men, Tanner choked down his pills, grimacing as he swallowed. "There," he dropped the glass on the tray with a clink. "You happy now?"

"Almost," the man in black replied, bringing something out from behind his back. "Got one more to go." In his hand was Vin’s inhaler.

"No way." And they watched as the younger man mentally dug his heels in. "Hate that shit. Leaves a nasty taste in the back of m’throat."

"Too bad, Vin. Doctor said. Two puffs. Every mornin’." And Chris pulled out a look that was just for Vin – one that said, I know you don’t like it, but I ain’t in the mood t’argue with ya, so just go ahead and do it.

Vin tried to protest, also in that special unspoken language that was his and Larabee’s alone. I’m fine. I don’t need it.

Too bad.

And – in what had to be record time – he’d lost. He rolled his eyes and grabbed the instrument, administering the required two puffs and grimacing noticeably at the aftertaste. I sure hope I don’t have to get used to this…

"Don’t worry," the older man answered Vin’s silent remark. "Doctor said it was only temporary."

"’Don’t make me like it any better," the patient remarked acidly.

"Well, as much as I enjoy these warm moments together," Josiah said, slapping his legs. "I got some chores of m’own to take care of today." Rising, he crossed to the door, catching Chris’ eye before continuing with, "We’ll be by… later… then?"

Larabee glanced at Tanner before nodding to the profiler. When the large man was gone, the sharpshooter fixed the team leader with a stare. "What’s later?" he asked casually.

"Nuthin’," came the gruff reply. "Usual Friday night stuff with the boys. You actually gonna eat that?" he indicated the untouched tray.

"Hell yeah, I’m eatin’ it. I’m starvin’," and the younger man set to with a passion that would have made even Buck sit up and take notice.

Chris took a seat in the chair next to the bed and folded is arms across his chest. He couldn’t help feeling strangely content with himself and the world. For the moment, it was enough to watch his friend tucked in bed, eating, warm, and well on his way to healing.

"’Thinkin’ awful loud over there," Tanner said around a mouthful of eggs.

"What would you know about thinkin’?" he replied, unable to stop a small smile from creeping over his lips.

"Fuck you," the Texan bit back, also not suppressing a smile.

"Nettie’s comin’ by next week," the team leader said, not missing the light that came into his sharpshooter’s eyes.


The older woman had been to see Vin many times while he was hospitalized, but she had been having dizzy spells since before he was found, and her doctor finally told her she’d have to take it easy or she’d have to check into the hospital herself. Her diabetes had been under control for a number of years, but the stress of the last months was enough to cause her blood sugar levels to go haywire.

"Yep," Chris continued. "Mary’s bringin’ her. So you’d better finish all them eggs. You gotta fill out some. I don’t wanna be here when those women get a look at yer scrawny ass."

Though neither would have ever admitted it, Vin and Nettie each had a soft spot for the other. Both being creatures of fierce independence and strong loyalty, they had a history of looking out for each other.

In no time at all, the plate was emptied, the glass drained, and Vin’s eyes were drooping closed as he sagged against the headboard.

Chris leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and contemplated his agent. There was a peace that had settled on the younger man’s face, and the rigidity that had consumed his body since he woke up in the hospital slowly melting from his healing limbs.

"’Feel better?" the older man asked softly.

Vin let out a deep sigh. "Yeah."

Slowly, his eyes closed, his head slumping towards his shoulder. Chris was content to sit and watch as his friend fell asleep, the beams of sunlight dancing on the wrinkles of the bed.

After a few minutes, he stood slowly, and took the tray from the sharpshooter’s lap. Careful not to clank anything, he turned around to set it on the dresser. He’d take it to the kitchen later…


He turned back to the bed, expecting Vin to be mumbling in his sleep, and was surprised to find two watery blue eyes gazing up at him. Crossing the room, he took a seat on the edge of the multi-colored quilt. "Yeah, pard?"

Vin’s shoulders slouched, and his gaze dropped to his hands. "I don’t know if I kin do this," came the soft reply.

"Do what, Vin?" Chris noticed a slight flush creeping over Vin’s cheeks, and thought briefly about fetching the thermometer.

Tanner was still slouched against the headboard, and somehow his posture made him look an awful lot younger. "I keep seein’ ‘im," he confessed, his voice small, refusing to meet Chris’ eyes.

The senior agent started getting a sinking feeling in his stomach.

"Seein’ who, Vin?"

"Ever’ time I close my eyes, I hear his voice in my head. It makes me feel sick," he sagged even lower on the bed. "Like that time I ate all four a’ Nettie’s Thanksgivin’ pies."

"Yeah?" Chris was afraid to say too much… he could sense that there was something serious Vin needed to say, and he didn’t want to mess that up by talking.

"I mean," a piercing blue stare fixed the rugged green, the anguish in Vin’s eyes knifing through Chris’ heart. "I don’t know if I can go back to my place… Ever’ time I think about goin’ back I get all cold, and I feel like I cain’t breathe right…"

"That’s where it happened?" Larabee prompted gently. Tanner had a fierce love of his rat-trap apartment. Even though the neighborhood was the worst in town, the heat going out in the winter and air conditioning broken in summer, it was the first place he’d ever been able to call his own, the first place he felt safe. For him to lose that… it tore Chris’ heart to think about it.

"Yeah," the flush deepened on the pale cheeks. "I’s just back from work, thinkin’ I’d take a long hot shower and turn in early. I opened my front door, and felt somethin’ slam inta m’head." His hand came up shakily to the shaved patch above his ear before it dropped again to his lap. "Don’t remember much after that… not until… ‘till wakin’ up in that cellar…" Vin’s voice was choked, the words becoming harder and harder to speak.

"How’d you get outa there?" the leader asked, deeply wanting this conversation to be over. They’d all wondered exactly what happened out there in the woods, and if Vin was finally able to tell them, maybe they’d be on the road to getting him all the way back.

"There was three of ‘em… They had me tied up with m’ hands behind m’ back, and blindfolded, but I could hear their voices. The room I was in was just concrete… no furniture or nothin’. But there was a bucket of water they’d douse me with when… when I passed out…" Chris couldn’t remember having heard so many words out of Vin’s mouth at once… but they kept coming. It almost seemed like Vin couldn’t stop even if he wanted to, like something was inside him, fighting to come out. "They’d take the blindfold off when the big guy came around. I remember feelin’ like I shoulda known him…"

"Emilio Valdez," Chris supplied.

"Really?" Vin’s voice was flat. "His eyes were… they were cold. Dead. And he had this… this laugh…" Vin started twisting the sheets under his hands. "They beat me up good… didn’t give me hardly no food ‘r water… shocked me with somethin’… ‘Kept threatenin’ t’inject me with stuff… Then one day two of ‘em left t’ get food, and left just th’ one guy guardin’ me. So I managed t’ get th’ blindfold off, and when he crouched down t’ tie it back on, I kicked ‘im against the wall. Hurt like a bitch, too… my legs all cut up and froze… But he hit his head on th’ concrete and was out cold. I managed t’get up the stairs, and make a run for it."

There was a short silence, both agents contemplating the words that hung in the air.

"They said some girl picked me up?" Tanner asked. When Chris nodded, he furrowed his brow like he was concentrating hard. "I don’t remember much after making it into th’ woods." A shudder went through his body, and he closed his eyes tight against the memory. "I keep seein’ ‘im…"

Chris moved closer, and placed a reassuring hand on Vin’s arm. "It’s alright, Vin. You’re outa there now. We got the guys who did it to ya. You’re safe."

"’Don’t feel safe," he mumbled, ducking his head even further to his chest.

The older man didn’t say a word, just grabbed Tanner by the shoulders and clasped him roughly to his chest.

As for his part, Vin’s surprise was muffled in the soft flannel of Chris’ shirt. Once the initial shock had worn off, he couldn’t help but push his face into the older man’s chest, eyes tightly closed.

Chris felt Vin’s hands clutching the fabric on his back, and his heart nearly broke to feel the younger man’s shoulders hitch as he struggled to contain his emotions. He brought one calloused hand to the back of Vin’s neck, cupping gently it in their own private gesture of friendship and strength.

"We ain’t gonna let nothin’ happen to ya, Vin," Chris continued, right into Vin’s ear. "I promise. We’re gonna keep an eye out for ya. You aren’t by yourself no more. You got us to watch your back. That’s what friends are for."


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