Chris Larabee sat with his booted feet resting on his desk, his ankles crossed, his chair leaning back at a precarious angle. If it werent for the precise drumming of his steepled fingers and the way his green eyes kept glancing at the clock, no one would ever know anything was amiss.
But Ezra Standish had spent his life studying the tell-tale signs of body language. And to his trained eye, every nerve in Larabees body screamed that the man was on edge.
Nathan entered the office Ezra shared with Vin and sat down, blowing gingerly on his cup of hot coffee. Following the undercover agents gaze, he stared at their leader for a few moments before murmuring softly, "Vin still not back, is he?"
"No," Ezra replied, turning back to the file he was reviewing.
"I cant believe Chris hasnt checked on im," the medical expert commented.
Emerald eyes fixed on the dark healer. "Mister Jackson, I find it most remarkable that YOU havent checked on him," the younger man tossed back.
Nathan sighed, running a hand over his face. "I know. But Ive had both hands full with Rain the past few days."
"How is she doing?" Ezra asked, genuine concern in his smooth voice.
"Gettin bigger ever day. Doctor says she might be carryin twins. Ultrasound next week should let us know for sure."
"Well, I pray for their sake they take after their lovely mother."
Jackson grinned. "You know, thats just what Buck said."
Across the office, Josiah also contemplated the brooding man in black. He stirred the cream into his coffee, tossing the empty carton into the trash next to the coffee pot. Behind him, he could hear Buck and J.D. engaged in their usual good-natured banter.
"And then, in Tuscon, I met the purtiest lil thing God ever gave breath to. She was about "
"Buck," J.D. interrupted. "Do you have any stories that ARENT about women?"
"Well, sure I do, J.D.," Wilmingtons eyes twinkled. "But those arent nearly as interesting."
The kid leaned his elbows on the desk. "Humor me. Think of one." There was a silence. "Just one."
The profiler grinned as he imagined the ladies mans face screwed with concentration.
"Well uh just let me tell you about Tuscon "
"You cant even think of one, can you!" Dunne cried, his face wide open with derision. "Not even one! Jesus, Buck, that is just "
"The good Lord dont like it when you use His name in vain, son," Sanchez scolded, leaning against the doorframe.
The youngest agent blushed and ducked his head. "Msorry."
"No need to apologize to me," the large man rumbled. "I just find that in our line of work it doesnt do to call on Him without need. We go through plenty of real crises without crying wolf."
"Speaking of you heard from Vin?" Buck asked.
"Nope," Josiah answered. "And Chris looks like if you blew on im hed pop."
"He cant bring himself to admit it, but that kids gotten to im," Wilmington said, leaning back and lacing his fingers behind his head. "Ythink one of us should go check onim after work?"
"Who?" J.D. asked.
"Vin." Sanchez took a sip from his cup. "Though I cant say I miss his coffee."
"Well, Im meeting this cute waitress over at Sams," Buck flashed a gleaming smile. "It wouldnt do to be late."
Josiah turned to the computer whiz. "J.D.?"
"Oh, I gotta pick up Casey from class and take her out to Netties for dinner. I promised."
"What about you, Josiah?" Buck asked.
"Unfortunately, Mr. Wilmington," the older man suddenly looked smug. "I also have a rendevouz with a member of the fairer sex."
"What?!" Buck sat up like a shot.
"Josiah, you have a date??" J.D. exclaimed.
"Why, yes, gentlemen. The lovely Rosa down in Human Resources has graciously agreed to accompany me to dinner. We have reservations at La Petite Auberge at precisely 7 p.m."
Buck let out a low whistle.
"What about Nathan?" J.D. asked.
"Nah, hell be too busy with Rain," Wilmington replied, chuckling. "I swear, a man is never so jumpy as when the stork is circlin."
"And Rain hasnt had it easy," Josiah added. All three men nodded, knowing how many late nights Nathan had spent nursing his mate through her difficult pregnancy. The couple had been trying so hard to have a baby, and everyone on Team 7 had tried to pitch in and help the medic whenever possible.
"I overheard im makin plans with Inez," J.D. answered.
The moustached man nearly fell out of his chair. "Inez?" Buck whispered incredulously. "Ezras got plans with Inez?"
"Hell, Buck, it is Valentines Day!" J.D. snapped. "Even Ezra isnt so dim hed pass up a date with a woman whos crazy about him on Valentines Day!"
"Well, I guess that leaves good ole Chris," Buck concluded.
"He dont have plans with Mary?" Josiah asked.
"They went out last Friday. Shes got some journalism conference in Atlanta to go to this weekend, and Ill tell ya, they had no problems making dinner reservations then." Buck slapped his thighs. "Dont worry. Vins a big boy, and even though the flu is no fun, it aint gonna kill im. Hell be back in a few days and up to his old tricks." Standing with a groan, he tousled J.D.s hair. "Come on, kid. Lets finish all that filing so we can get out of here on time for once. I dont want to keep that beeeeyoootiful waitress waiting!"
Chris watched the seconds tick by, counting down the time until the end of the day. He kept waiting for the phone to ring, or for someone to come in and bring him word on how his sharpshooter was doing. But two days had gone by without so much as a peep from the sick man.
Yesterday morning Vin had called saying he wasnt coming in, that he was pretty sure he had a dose of that flu that was going around, and that hed just take a long weekend to get over it and be back on Monday.
But the team leader hadnt expected that to be the only communication he would receive. He thought someone would have checked up on the Texan by now but everyone had been so preoccupied with this god-damned ridiculous holiday that no one bothered to make sure Tanner was taking care of himself
His lips set in a thin line. Come on, Larabee, who are you kidding? He swung his feet down from his desk, barely glancing at the untouched paperwork strewn over the old oak top. Snatching up his black duster and hat, he paused only long enough to call out to Josiah, "Headin out early. Be sure and lock up," before heading for the elevator.
Four of the five men left in the office swore under their breath.
"Gentlemen," Ezra commanded with a brilliant smile. "I believe I called it right on the nose. As the saying goes cough it up."
Twenty minutes later, the big black Ram pulled up to a dilapidated, ramshackle apartment building on the other side of town. Looking around the neighborhood, the most polite thing one could say about the area was that it was "run down." Broken windows, broken down cars, broken bottles, and broken dreams.
Even the name seemed to imply the last stop on the short path to nowhere.
Chris locked the Ram, turning on the alarm and glancing around with a quick glare to the groups of teenagers hanging out on the corner and front steps of the 7-11. He pushed open the "security doors" to the complex, noting the missing glass and broken lock. Taking the stairs two at a time, he headed down the hall to apartment 5D.
A couple of months back Vin had given Chris a spare key when he was going to be out of town for a few days. Even though the Texan didnt have much to steal, that never mattered much to the people in Purgatory, and having Chris stop by the apartment once a day would at least send the message that someone was watching.
But now, taking out the key, Larabees hand hesitated near the lock. He didnt know how Vin would react to him just busting in, and he didnt want to disturb the younger man if he was asleep. But he knew from personal experience that the last thing Vin would want to do if he had the flu was get up to answer the door.
Entering the apartment as quietly as possible, he locked the door behind him and took a quick look around.
Vins apartment was shabby, but neat. His second hand furniture had all been bought a piece at a time, and was well cared for by the sharpshooter. Chris carefully made his way past the small kitchen, through the sparse living room, and into the narrow hall that led to the only bedroom.
Stepping into the dim room, the team leaders intense green eyes took in the figure huddled beneath the blankets. "Vin?" he called out softly, not wanting to startle the younger man. It was a testament both to the ease the sharpshooter felt in his apartment and how sick he must be that he hadnt come awake before now. Larabee crossed to the bed and sat down gingerly on the edge, trying to make out the sharpshooters face in the dark. Reaching over, he turned on a small lamp on the nightstand, and its warm glow illuminated a bare shoulder and a pale face barely visible from under the thick comforter. "Vin?" he tried again, placing his hand gently on Tanners shoulder.
The sick man stirred, pulling himself slowly into a groggy semi-consciousness. Christ, he felt like shit. His throat hurt, his head throbbed, and the rest of his body was a hot, tangled mass of aches. Hed finally managed to fall asleep after hours of rough coughing that left him weak and out of breath, and was loathe to leave the peaceful realm of sleep where his body could find some rest from the draining illness.
But there was a hand on his shoulder, and a gentle voice calling his name
"Chris?" he croaked, wincing as the word scraped over his swollen glands.
"Hey, pard," the older man replied. "How ya feelin?" Vin rolled over onto his back, not able to stop the wet coughs that tore through his chest. "I take it that means peachy keen," Chris joked softly as two blue slits appeared.
Vin looked awful his sky blue eyes bright with fever, his skin slick with sweat, and dark circles under his eyes. The green-eyed man placed his calloused hand on the former bounty hunters flushed cheek, and winced. "Youre burnin up," he said, his brow creased with worry. "You take anything?"
Vin nodded, gesturing to the nightstand where a blister pack of Tylenol Cold/Flu tablets sat, two missing. "Had that before I went to bed last night," he rasped, his voice nearly gone with coughing.
Chris patted his arm, and stood. "Be right back," he promised, and headed for the kitchen. Glancing in the fridge, he was relieved to see that Tanner had at least bought orange juice. The Texans favorite beverages mainly consisted of soda and coffee, so for there to be a carton of juice in his kitchen was nothing short of a miracle.
Larabee poured a big glass, and then headed back to the bedroom, where he found Vin struggling to sit up. He quickly set the juice on the dresser, before going to help his friend. "There ya go," he muttered as he piled two pillows behind the bare back, not missing the heat coming off his best friend in waves. "Lets get two more a these down ya." He retrieved the juice, and popped two more pills from the package. He didnt miss Tanners wince as the acidic juice hit his already sore throat. "I know it dont feel great, but drink all of it. You need vitamin C," he added gruffly.
Once the glass was empty, Chris went to the bathroom and refilled it with cold water. While he was in there, he searched the medicine cabinet for a thermometer, finding one half-buried behind a box of band-aids. He dug out the peroxide and rinsed it off a couple of times before running it under a lukewarm tap to wash off the taste. Armed with the glass of water, regular Tylenol, and the thermometer, he went back in the tiny bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed.
"Okay," Chris said softly. "Open up," and he slid the thermometer beneath Vins tongue.
Mercifully, he didnt ask Vin any more questions while they waited for the beep, and when it came, he slid the instrument out and held it under the light to read the digital screen.
"102.4. Not too good, pard," he commented quietly.
Vin sighed, settling back down into the pillows, his hair damp and clinging to his flushed skin. "Reckon Ive had worse and lived to tell," he replied wearily.
"If it gets much higher Im takin you to the doctor," Chris added. He knew how much the sharpshooter hated seeing doctors, but he didnt say it as a threat, merely a promise. And, as dirty of a look as Vin shot the older man, deep down he was grateful for the care and concern. "You had anything to eat?" the senior agent continued.
Tanner shook his damp head. "Been sleepin mostly," he replied in a hoarse rasp. "Got up yesterday morning feelin like somebodyd let Peso stomp all over me. I went tthe kitchen tcall ya, and then came back tbed."
Chris nodded, knowing how miserable the sharpshooter must be feeling to have stayed home. "You been able to keep anything down?"
"Some," Vin answered, grimacing. The truth was he hadnt bothered to eat at all the past few days. Nothing tasted good, and what few crackers he did eat yesterday hadnt stayed down long enough to count. He hated throwing up. He hated that nauseous sensation that felt like hed spent a week at sea in a hurricane, and then having to drag his aching body out of bed to stumble into the tiny bathroom. There wasnt enough room for him to kneel in front of the toilet without banging his head on the toilet paper rod. He closed his eyes, still feeling the stinging spot on his pounding head from repeated encounters with the metal fixture.
Chris just rubbed a warm hand on Vins arm. Somehow, the younger man never has to tell his friend those kinds of things. Somehow, Chris just seems to sense it.
"Well," Larabee said. "Finish that water while I make you some soup." When the shaggy head lifted to protest, Chris raised his hand. "I dont wanna hear it, Vin. You gotta eat. Finish that water, and Ill be back."
The muttered curses that followed caused a smile to form on the team leaders lips. He headed into the tiny kitchen and rifled through the cabinets for a bowl and a spoon. There wasnt much else on the shelves a bag of Doritos, a salt shaker, and a package of Twizzlers. Looking around the dilapidated kitchen made Larabee realize why the Texan ate so much fast food. It looked like it was once an old closet: the sink didnt look functional, there was no counter space, no microwave. A tiny coffee pot took up the only spot left on top of the fridge. And the gas stove was just downright scary.
But he turned on a burner, praying it wouldnt explode, and pulled out a tiny saucepan he found under the sink. Jesus, Tanner, at least dont let this thing be a biohazard Not finding any soap, he rinsed the saucepan in the rickety sink. Going to his coat, which hed thrown over the back of the couch, he pulled out a can of soup and a can opener, not having given Tanner the benefit of the doubt to own such a complex instrument. Leaving that on the stove a few minutes to heat, he once again looked around the run-down apartment, incredulous that anyone in their right mind would choose to stay there...
But then he remembered the quiet way Vin talked about his place, his unassuming voice filled with pride.
Once, out at the ranch when Vin was helping Chris unload a new mare, the older agent happened to ask the ex-bounty hunter how he had found his apartment.
"Well," the lean agent had responded slowly, resting his back against a rough wooden post. "Is just outa the army, lookin fer a place amy own, and there it was. I saw the sign, and I took it. I know it aint much I know I coulda stayed with Mz. Nettie until I found somethin better but a man needs his own place. I aint never had that." Vin had lowered his eyes, pushing at a rock on the ground with his boot. "Always pushed from place to place. Always somebody elses house " He had then raised his head and looked off into the setting sun. "A man should have his own place."
And that was that.
Chris took another look around the worn, but tidy apartment, seeing the small improvements Tanner had made in his spare time and suddenly it seemed to be made of gold.
The soup was hot, so he emptied in into the bowl and, grabbing a frayed hand-towel, he carried it back to the bedroom.
He entered to find Tanner doubled over, coughing. Carefully setting the bowl down on the nightstand, he sat on the edge of the bed as the sick man finished, flushed and gasping for breath.
"You all right?" he asked quietly.
Vin nodded, though his chest ached and his head felt like it was about to explode. "I hate this," he wheezed.
The sharpshooter looked so exhausted. His azure eyes, usually so keen and piercing, were starting to look frighteningly glassy. They possessed a wide, too-bright cast, set in ashy hollows as if they'd burned away all the smooth flesh around them, swollen and bruised with tiredness. His illness made him seem so fragile. Everything about him looked worn, stretched and strained.
"Eat some soup," Chris said. It wasnt a request.
The blue eyes shot a weak glare, but he picked up the bowl and took the spoon in his hand. "Caint make no promises," he mumbled, feeling his stomach give a slight lurch as the smell hit his stuffy nose.
The blond regarded the sharpshooter for a moment, and then laid a gentle hand on Vins leg. "Just do the best you can."
"Whats everyone else up to tonight?" the sick man asked as he blew on the steaming spoon.
"Ill give you three guesses," the man in black answered, smiling. Vin just gave him a blank stare. "They all got hot dates," he explained, thinking maybe the fever was making Tanners thought processes a bit sluggish.
But the Texans blue eyes widened in surprise. "All of em?" he asked, taking a careful swallow of soup.
"Well, sure," Chris returned, puzzled. "J.D.s got Casey, Ezra finally caved in to Inez, Josiahs been wooin that gal from Personnel, and you know Buck aint never lonely!"
"Right," Vin smiled weakly. "Still, all of yall out on a Friday night is one a them seven wonder things. Think hell mighta froze over."
Chris leaned his arms on his knees. "Its Valentines Day, Vin," he stated bluntly. "I know we aint the handsomest team in the Agency, but we aint "
Tanner looked like somebody had punched him in the gut. "I I didnt know that was today " he stammered, turning a pale, stricken face up to his friend.
Chris nodded. "Yeah, its hard to keep track of what day it is when youre sick."
But Vin let the spoon slip back into the half-empty bowl. "I reckon Im about through," he whispered, turning away.
The sharp green eyes took in the way Tanner was slumped dejectedly against the chipped headboard, his long fingers plucking idly at the faded comforter. "Wanna tell me whats wrong?"
Vin sighed. His flush had deepened, and Chris wondered if his fever was rising. "Im jest tired," he replied, his drawl made thicker by exhaustion. "Think Ill go back t sleep. My heads killin me."
"Okay," the blond replied, reaching out to take the bowl and setting it on the nightstand. "Here, take a couple Tylenol. Itll bring down your fever and help with that headache."
"Kay," Vin answered, meekly accepting the pills and swallowing them with a long drink of water.
Chris helped the younger man settle back down into the bed, then gathered up the dishes and took them back to the kitchen. Glancing at the clock, he was surprised to find that hed been there over two hours.
He debated whether he should head out. After all, Tanner was a grown man, more than capable of taking care of himself. Chris didnt need to stay.
But he found himself leaving his coat on the couch and heading back to the bedroom. Vin had turned on his side with his back to the door, the covers down at his waist revealing his muscled, tanned back with freckled shoulders. Chris pulled up the straight-backed chair that stood in the corner and settled down, stretching his long legs out in front and crossing his boots at the ankle.
"You dont gotta stay," Tanners weary, ragged voice drifted up from the bed.
There was a comfortable silence. Larabee sat there watching the slow rise and fall of Vins shoulders, still and silent even when the sharpshooter shifted restlessly under the sheets, trying to get comfortable. Finally, he quieted, and Chris thought hed drifted off to sleep. The senior agent watched the shadows lengthen on the wall, feeling his own limbs begin to grow heavy.
Then, in the shadowed silence, came a faint whisper, "I aint never believed in it."
Chris leaned forward, suddenly awake. He wasnt sure if Vin was, though, or if he was talking in his sleep. "Whats that, Vin?" he asked softly.
"Valentines Day," the quiet voice rasped. "I aint never believed in it."
Chris pulled his legs up, again resting his arms on his knees and cocking his head. "Whys that?"
Vin didnt answer, and the man in black let the silence reign.
The younger man slowly turned over, moving as if every inch of his body hurt. He lay there on his back, staring up at the ceiling. The lamps light cut deep shadows on his cheek, and highlighted the sweat beading on his face.
Finally, he took a slow breath. Chris stayed quiet, recognizing the way Vin was gathering his thoughts, like clouds before a storm.
"When I was four, my mom was diagnosed with cancer," Vin said softly. "I remember her bein sick fer a long time. I kep prayin shed get better, but she kep gettin worse."
Larabee looked down at his hands. Tanner had mentioned before that his mother had died when he was young, but had never heard how. And hed never dream of asking.
"It was snowin outside. And the neighbor came and got me from preschool and took me t the hospital... but shed died." Vins voice was small, like that of a five-year-old whod just had his heart broken. "They wouldnt let me touch her," he whispered, his voice thick. "But when the doctor wasnt lookin, I pulled the card Id made her out of my pocket, and put it in her hand." Vin shivered, pulling the blankets up over his arms. "I remember she was cold." Chris listened quietly, knowing how important this was to his friend. "There were red hearts all over the hospital," Vin continued in a hollow voice, a tear sliding down his cheek. "It was Valentines Day." The older man dipped his head, pretending he didnt see the emotion on his best friends face. "I jest never could bring myself to think of it as a day fer love."
"She loved you, Vin," Chris said softly.
"Then whyd she leave me?" Vin shot back, his eyes bright and feverish. He looked at Larabee as if he really expected an answer, as if his friend could explain away a five-year-olds confusion and fear that had been locked away for so many years.
But the older man had no answers. Instead, he rose and sat down gently on the edge of the bed. Vin turned away, curling on himself and coughing roughly. Chris rubbed the hot back with his hand, waiting for the fit to subside. It left the sharpshooter out-of-breath, still shivering with his chill. So, Chris pulled the blankets up higher, running a hand over Vins arm, and waited for Tanner to finish.
"I always take her flowers, though," Vin continued, his voice growing more hoarse. "A dozen roses every year. Even when Is in the army, I always found a way. Every year. On Valentines Day."
Chris just sat next to his friend, keeping a hand on his arm and lending his silent strength. He alone knew how the Texan felt. He took flowers to Sarah and Adam every year, too, on the day they died. His heart constricted as he thought of what would happen if he ever couldnt.
After a few minutes, Chris said softly, "Why dont you get some sleep, and first thing in the mornin well go take her some."
Vin nodded feebly, feeling tears slipping down his cheeks and dampening his pillow. Somewhere deep inside he knew he was acting foolish, but he couldnt seem to stop. Every muscle ached as if hed moved a house, his throat felt like hed swallowed a pitcher of glass, and his head pounded with such a fierceness that he was afraid he was going to lose that bowl of soup. "She used to make me chicken noodle, too," he breathed, feeling his eyelids beginning to slide shut as the Flu medicine started to take effect.
"Your mom?" Chris asked, running calloused fingers through Vins tangled hair, gently working through the knots. He wasnt sure, but he thought Vin felt a little cooler, and hoped his fever was beginning to come down.
The sick man nodded again, reveling in the feel of those fingers running over his scalp. "You promise well go tomorrow?" he mumbled sleepily.
Watching his friends eyes slide closed and feeling the younger man settle down to sleep under his hands, it never ceased to amaze him the depth of Vins heart. And, on those rare moments when the sharpshooter allowed his friend to glimpse the gold that lay there, Chris Larabee felt truly and deeply honored. He would take his friend in the morning, and together they would pay their respects to the most special woman Chris wished hed been privileged enough to know Rachel Tanner.
"Yes, Vin," Chris whispered, "I promise."
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