The Call of the Wild

by Annie

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After that, the ride back to the cabin was mostly uneventful. And quiet. And fortunately, Erza thought, dry.

Apparently Vin and Chris really did fall asleep, Buck as well, as silence swept through the car. Ezra was fading as well, his mind numbing as he vaguely registered the shadowy scenery passing out the window, his eyes drooping heavily. He was completely exhausted.

Estelle pulled the car up to a small, dark cabin and Ezra realized this was the place--this was home, at least for the night. With a stifled groan, he maneuvered himself out the car door and stood and waited for the others to pry themselves from the backseat. Estelle was going on about somebody coming in the morning with Vin's Jeep and something about trucks and tires and classic car aficionados, but he didn't want to listen anymore. It was hard enough to get past she'd sneezed all over him, never mind the urinary problem, and he was pretty sure he didn't want to hear anything more she might choose to offer.

He just really wanted her to go away. Right now.

And then somehow, between Estelle and Buck, they managed to shuffle Vin and Chris inside, each of them seemingly only half-aware of what was happening and where it was they were being prodded. They collapsed heavily on the sofa and Ezra in the chair next to them.

He'd kill for a nightcap.

Estelle gave a once-over around the small room and snickered.

Ezra could have strangled her.

"I guess you all really must be good friends to share this tiny, little place," she commented as she stared at the sofa. She backed out the door, giving Ezra a long look as she made to leave, then paused for a moment and smiled at him. "Any time you need another sharp poke in the rear, hon, you just give ol' Estelle a call. 'Kay?"

And then she winked.

That was it! His eyes flew open and his fingers twitched to wrap around the considerable thickness of her neck. He was going to kill her... just as soon as he mustered up the energy. Any energy.

"I get the bed."


Estelle forgotten, Ezra did a double-take between Buck standing there in the middle of the room like so much unmovable force, and the one pull out sofabed in the place. He glared up at the tall man and crossed his one able arm and took a stand. Probably it would have helped his delivery if he could have taken up his stalwart position while standing, to be sure, but the thought of rising from the chair was a bit too daunting, but still...he was damned if he was going to up and let Buck roll over him. "I most certainly think not!"

Buck smiled--a wide, warm, winning spread of rosy lips surrounding gleaming white teeth.

Ezra scowled at that bright expanse and rolled his eyes. He'd seen this action before. "You are sadly mistaken if you think that thing will work on me. And you aren't getting that bed, at least not to yourself!"

Buck took a step closer and grinned. "Why, Mr. Standish, just what are you suggesting?"

Ezra wanted to kill him, too. He was in no mood for this. "Rachet that brow down a notch or two, Buck. I'm in no mood for your sophomoric humor. What I'm suggesting--no--what I am stating, is that there is obviously one bed in the place, and four, count 'em, four of us who want it." He glanced to the two slugs sitting on the sofa, both men appeared to be down, if not out, for the count. "I think you are remanded to the back of the bed heirarchy here."

Buck wheeled forth the metal framed cot. "Jeeze, Ez, you know I got a bad back and all," he pointed at the relic, "but look at this thing! An' look at me!"

Ezra nodded at the obvious discrepancy in lengths. He could hardly be sympathetic.

"You got any idea of how uncomfortable this thing's gotta be?"

Ezra just stared at him.

"You got any idea how uncomfortable this thing's gonna be for me?"

Ezra shook his head, then smiled. "Not half as much as I'm hoping it will be."

Buck scowled. "Oh, real nice, Ez. Listen, you 'n' I'll flip for the bed, okay? Loser takes the cot. It's fair. Chris can bunk down on a bed made outta the sofa cushions...and Vin can have the floor, he's used to that sorta thing--campin' out as much as he does."

"For heaven's sake, Buck, the man has a concussion!"

"I am not sleeping on sofa cushions on the floor!"

Buck and Ezra locked eyes for a moment as the deep growl at their backs hailed over them, then turned as one to face the sharp snarl that accompanied said growl. Chris stood stiffly behind them, slowly standing, his weight balanced on his good leg.

"Hey, Chris!"

"Ah, Mr. Larabee," Ezra began, "you're awake." Awake and snarling, it seemed to Ezra, though far be it for him to point that out. He'd just keep his distance.

Chris shifted with a grimace. He had a headache, his ankle was killing him, and these two were not helping it throb any less. "Hard not to be what with you 'n' Buck snapping at each other. Tell you what, I'm settling things right now--I'm taking the damn bed." He looked down at Vin and amended himself as he saw the tightened features on the younger man's face. Even at rest Vin was hurting. "We'll take the bed. Vin and I lost the most blood, so we get first priority."

Ezra nodded toward the cot in protest then gingerly raised his sling. "I cannot possibly be expected to sleep on that back-breaker in my delicate condition. And I did get us supplies for the morning, remember."

Buck gaped. "What has that got to do with anything?"

"Everything if it means I get to wake up in the morning in semi-comfort and not like an old man with arthritis."

Buck was indignant. "Well, I'm not sleeping on the floor!"

"Nor am I."

Chris shifted a bit more to one side. His ankle throbbed with every tight word spoken. "Listen, you 'n' Ezra can duke it out, but make it quick, would ya? I'm beat."

"Fine. I'll take the cot and Ezra can bunk on the floor."

Ezra was not having this. "Oh, I don't think so..."

"Okay...Fine. Ezra, you can have the floor and I'll bunk on the cot."

Ezra's eyes narrowed. What kind of an idiot did Buck think he was?

"Fine. How's this...I'll take the cot and you three share the bed. Knock yourselves out."

Ezra considered for a moment. Now that was an idea. Small as it might be, the bed might just work for the three of them if they could angle themselves just right, and after all, it was the most comfortable looking place to sleep in the cabin...even if he did have to share.

Chris frowned--at Buck, at Ezra's green eyes just staring at him. "You want to share my bed?"

"Damn," Buck grinned, "I wish I had that on tape."

Ezra watched Chris shaking his head and knew it was seconds before he was about to be ousted from a bed he had yet to even lie upon--so he played his trump. Cool, green eyes leveled a gaze at his boss. "While you were sleeping, I managed to acquire a few things, you know."

"Yeah, I know. Y' got toilet paper--what're you gonna do, hold it hostage if you don't sleep with me an' Vin?"

Buck was almost frantic with glee. "Listen, if I write this down will you both swear you said it?"

A shadow of a smile shaded Ezra's face. "Oh, toilet paper's not the half of it, my dear, fearless leader."

"Okay, so you got bread, eggs...I thank you. Really. What's that got to do with my bed?"

Ezra's smile widened. "Morning coffee."

"Grab a pillow, Ezra, we got a bed to make."

+ + + + + + +

Somebody was poking him and it was making him...well, definitely not happy. Not happy at all.

A hand grasped his arm and shook him and that just made him angry. He was tired and aching and sore and damn, there it was again...that poking.

Without opening his eyes he hissed. "What?"

"Open 'em up, Vin."

Buck. "Lay off, Buck, I'm sleepin' here."

"Well, that's just it, pard...need you to move a minute."

Vin peeled one eye open--Buck was looming over him--and he let his eye shut. He'd heard remnants of an argument over who got what bed and he wasn't at all interested in the outcome since there was no way in hell he was moving off the sofa. No way was he sleeping on that damned cot, either. "Fergit it. I ain't movin'."

Weight settled next to him on the cushion then, and he slowly peeled open his other eye. He couldn't help but wince when pain shot through his head and he ended up squinting at the blur of face before him.

"Hey Cowboy," Chris said softly, "how's the head?"

"You tell me," Vin replied, his hand snaking over his skull, fingers lightly brushing over the gauze covering the stitches above his eye, "still attached, ain't it?"

"As much as it ever was," Buck laughed.

Vin pushed himself up, Chris's hands helping him to sit, and he leaned his head back onto the cushions. "Real funny, Bucklin. Y' think a that one yer ownself?" He sat still for a moment, taking stock of just how he really did feel, happy to realize that the nausea, at least, had dissipated. But damn, his head hurt--was killing him, really. And he felt tired. So tired. Achy.

The others were standing over him, staring... "What? I win the lottery or something?"

"Yeah," Buck said, "you got a third of the bed, as much a prize as anything in this place. Well...'sides me, of course!" Vin was staring at him, squinting at him, looking not just a little confused. He smiled. "Luck of the draw this time, son." He turned to look for his suitcase. "Guess I'm gonna go clean up."

"Unh-unh, not before I," Ezra raced as best he could for the bathroom, Buck beating him by a hair and a smirk as the larger man wedged himself into the door. "Fine. You go." Ezra relinquished and stepped back. "By all means, Buck. Age before beauty."

"Beauty? Hell, I could show you beauty, damn straight. I'll just change out here," Buck offered with a wink and pulled a clean t-shirt out of his bag, "give you all the thrill of a lifetime."

"Aw hell, Bucklin, nobody needs to see that!"

Ezra scoffed. "Nothing he has to offer can be as horrifying as the time I saw my mother naked."


"Burned my eyes."

Buck laughed and closed the bathroom door.

Vin turned to Chris. "Luck of the draw? Third of the bed?"

"You want coffee in the morning?" Chris asked him and Vin nodded, not sure what the one had to do with the other.

"Then you sleep with Ezra."

Vin's eyebrows raised. "I do?"

"We both do."

Buck emerged dressed in sweats and a tee-shirt, grinning as he caught the tail end of the conversation. "Damn, never to happen again," he sighed, then clapped Ezra lightly on his good shoulder, nodded toward the now vacant bathroom, and handed him the stack of towels he'd brought in from the truck. "All yours, Ez."

Ezra slid into the small room after him, and then poked his head out again. "What...what happened to the shower?"

"Ain't one."

"I hadn't noticed when I was in here before," he said and closed the door.

A bathtub. He couldn't possibly be expected to take a bath in this hovel, though how otherwise he was going to thoroughly cleanse himself he wasn't sure. With a glance at the caked mud on his skin, and a heavy sigh, he turned on the water for the bath. At least it was hot.

Clean, though far from new linens were found and Buck divvied them out. He threw a fitted sheet, pillowcases and pillows toward Chris and Vin, sighing as he took in the state of the two men. "Guess I gotta make the cot and the bed, too, huh. Somehow this is just unfair."

"Well, Bucklin, you take a run in the dark through them woods to my Jeep and back, an' then I reckon we can talk unfair."

Buck held up his hands. "I get it. I get it. Fine. I'll make the bed. I wouldn't want to be accused of pickin' on no...invalids, or nothing."

An abrupt shriek pierced the relative quiet of the cabin.

Buck banged on the door to the bathroom. "Jesus, Ezra! You alright?"

Vin and Chris stopped their feeble attempts to sheet up the sofabed and stared at the still closed door.

The door opened and a rather pale Ezra surfaced, a line of soap suds trailing down his neck. He panted. "Very...large...arachnid."

"You just call Buck a name?"

"Yeah, Vin," Chris told him, "a big hairy thing with lots of arms."

Buck tilted his head. "Y' know? I think I take that as a compliment."

"You would." Ezra stepped further into the room and saw Buck's eyes widen. "What?"

"Guess what's in the bathroom ain't the only hairy thing 'round here."

"What?" Ezra looked down to see the towel he'd wrapped around himself hadn't exactly wrapped around all of him. He adjusted and sighed. "Of all the indignities. Will it never end?"

A hand pushed him toward the bathroom and he turned to find Buck propelling him toward the door. "I'm not going back in there with that thing on the loose."

Buck chuckled. "Whatsamatter, Miss Muffitt? Itty, bitty spider scare you?"

"Just get in there and dispose of the thing, will you? And watch out, it's"

Buck disappeared into the bathroom and moments later the sound of something heavy being thrown around was accompanied by several startled shouts, all this followed by the flush of the toilet. He emerged, sweating and panting. "Damned biggest thing I ever saw in my entire life."

"I told you, didn't I tell you?"

Buck nodded.

"And did you kill it?"

Buck nodded again. "Yeah, I got it. Almost got me first, though, but then I got the drop on 'm. Go ahead, Ez, it's safe now."

Ezra didn't budge. "Where's the body? I am not setting foot one in there until you show me that thing's shriveled carcass." He turned to scowl at Vin who couldn't seem to stop laughing, a part of him satisfied the man seemed to be in some pain as he did so. "Find this amusing, Mr. Tanner? That--creature-- nearly decapitated me I'll have you know."

The grin sweeping Vin's face was actually hurting, but he just couldn't seem to stop. "Real outdoorsman, ain't ya?"

Ezra sighed. "Let me put it to you in terms even you might understand, my dear Davey Crockett. Hotel: good. Cabin: bad."

Buck took a final scan around the inside of the bathroom and assured Ezra all spiders and the like had been removed. He pushed the door wide open. "Hop on in, Ez, it's safe."

"I don't hop."

"Nope, that'd be Chris," Vin added with another chuckle, much to his head's chagrin. He sat down on the now-made bed and gripped his head between his hands. It was pounding relentlessly. "God, someone get me a sledgehammer and put me out of my misery."

"And ours..." Ezra said, then hesitantly stepped back into the bathroom, peering into the corners, and finally let himself relax. The bath really wouldn't be too awful to finish as long as he didn't have any more unexpected encounters. He couldn't bear feeling so disgustingly grimy for too much longer.

Meanwhile Buck, after fighting with the difficulties of opening a decades old metal frame cot, finally managed to pry the thing apart, sheet it up, and stretch himself out on the thin mattress. The top of his head hung somewhat off one end, his feet dangled off the other, but at this point, as tired as he was feeling, he didn't much care. He plopped one of the grocery bags Estelle had brought in his lap and rummaged through its contents. "Hey, look! Pork rinds!"

By the time Chris hobbled into the bathroom to clean up, and hobbled out again, the others had unearthed a veritable feast of junk food. The entire room smelled of grease and was littered with various colorful wrappers.

Vin was sprawled in the very center of the bed, Ezra reclined next to him, having already staked claim to the side that left his wounded shoulder turned away and protected from the others should anyone bump into him during the night--and as small as the bed was turning out to be as each of the three men took their spot, someone was sure to be bumping someone.

The space left for Chris was small at best, but at this point, anything softer than the floor would suffice.

"Hey," Vin called out and held up a bag of something, "want some?"

"I guess you're feeling better, and tell me you're not eating crackers in my bed."

"Feel like shit, act'lly," Vin grinned, "an' they ain't crackers. Jalapeno chips." He held up a container. "An' dip!"

Chris just shook his head. "That can't be good for your head."

"Or stomach," Ezra added, having abstained from the 'feast'. He watched Vin rise slowly up from the bed and head toward the bathroom. Chris gently lowered himself to the mattress, his foot propped up on a firm cushion placed there for just that purpose. The two men exchanged knowing grimaces.

"This is going to be a mite...snug," Ezra commented, shifting a bit further to one side and biting back a yelp when his arm pinched in its socket.

Vin splashed water on his face, avoiding the mirror. He felt exhausted and had no interest in seeing it written all over his features. He eyed the tub with disgust, then turned back to giving himself a spit bath from the sink. Fortunately, those nurses had cleaned him up fairly well, though just thinking on it had him blushing. With a sigh, he finished and slowly emerged. Something was not quite right.

He moved to the window that Ezra had just shut, and pushed it wide open.

That was better.

"Excuse me," Ezra began, "it's a bit noisy for that, don't you think?" Because he certainly did think as the sounds of nature encroached the tiny room. Crickets, frogs, cicadas and other assorted creatures of the night Ezra felt best to not dwell on combined their night noises to make for a rather deafening cacophony of irritating sound. He climbed out of bed and headed back toward the window. At least the night had brought cool enough temperatures to not necessitate an evening breeze flow through the room. Besides, if it got too hot, the place, surprisingly, had a window unit air conditioner, though ancient it seemed.

Vin was incredulous. Noise? "What noise?" He couldn't hear a thing aside from Ezra's bitching.

Ezra shut the window.

Vin opened it again.

"What noise," Ezra muttered and moved to close it again, this time yelling out the window. "Cease and desist that infernal racket at once!" He paused for a moment, actually noticing a lapse in the sounds of nature, then shut the window and brushed off his hands as he returned to his side of the bed. "That's infinitely better." He turned to Vin. "If you absolutely need, we can turn on the air."

Vin was shocked. Ezra didn't like the crickets? He moved to reopen the window. "I don't like t' breathe canned air."

"Canned air?" Buck asked Chris who merely waved off any explanation. Vin had his own thinking on things, sometimes.

Vin had fingers pulling up the frame as Ezra hissed and grasped his wrist. "I don't believe there's too much demand for any one-handed sharpshooters. Do you, Mr. Larabee?"

"Coffee, Vin." Chris reminded him and Vin let go the window. Fine. He could leave it alone. For now.

+ + + + + + +

"Christ Almighty, get 'em off me!"

Three heads shot up in the dark to stare at the fourth in alarm. Chris's voice sounded pained, strained and downright in shock.

"What...what is it?" Ezra was almost choking as he asked, visions of all manner of creepy-crawly things filling his head with their long furry legs and skittering ways, antennae and searching feelers....

He shot out of bed, loosing a cry of pain as his shoulder jarred in its socket yet ignoring it as he attempted to pierce the dark of the room with his eyes, sure something was about to come slithering out after him. It was all he could do to remain still...all he could do to remain in his skin.

"What the hell you all doin' over there?" Buck wanted to know as bodies were bounding around on the small sofabed.

The sound of flesh striking flesh came as the only reply.

"Never mind," Buck hastily added and pulled his blanket up toward his neck, "don't think I wanna know."

"What t' hell you smackin' me for?" Vin's astonished voice bounced off the walls.

"'Cause I can't shoot you!" Chris's voice bellowed once again into the room. Neither Ezra nor Buck moved a muscle. "Shit, Tanner, what is it you do, stick those things in the deep freeze?"

Ezra frowned for a moment, then sighed as some measure of understanding dawned on him. And then he felt annoyed. He'd just been able to drift away to sleep and now this. Figured Vin would be in the middle of it all. "Tell me he's not eating in bed in the middle of the night."

"No, not food--it's feet. His feet. His ice cold feet and he just stuck 'em on me, almost gave me a heart attack. Somebody check the man's pulse because I'm pretty sure nothing that cold could possibly still be alive."

"I ain't dead," Vin protested feeling a bit off-put. Wasn't his fault his feet got a little chilled at night.

"You woke me from a sound sleep for this? Mr. Tanner's frozen appendages?"

"Jeeze, Ezra, you have t' say that? Kinda gives me the willies," Buck added, wrapping his blanket tightly around him and trying to get back to the one comfortable position he'd found on the aged cot.

"Oh, well, excuse me for offending your sensibilities. At least you don't have to share a bed with the thing."

"Thing?" Vin scowled.

"Listen up, Four Seasons," Buck began, sitting up and glaring toward Ezra while doing his best not to overtip the flimsy metal cot, "at least you got a whole bed over there--and I tried t' give you this little piece of luxury I got, if you remember--so no complaining about meager accommodations."

"I believe I am entitled to my share of complaints regarding this hovel, thank you very much, considering I was duped into thinking we each were to have our own private for me to expound on these less than ideal circumstances is totally within my rights as a beleaguered innocent."

"Innocent!" Buck roared. "That's gotta be the last word t' come to my mind when it comes to you. Look, just because Bigfoot over there doesn't know squat about comfort levels does not mean--"

"Bigfoot! Hell, more like Icefoot," Chris interjected.

"I do so know about comfort--wasn't born in a barn, y' know," Vin protested, sitting up straighter, his head really throbbing now but not about to take being insulted lying down, "and my feet ain't that cold." He glanced to the closed window. "And can't someone open the window? There's no air in this place."

Ezra gently slid back into bed and scoffed, "There's no air because Buck's sucking it all up that nose of his while he's snoring."

"I don't snore." Buck looked at the pale faces staring so blatantly back at him. "Well I don't."

+ + + + + + +

The near deafening sound of the freight train filled not only his ears, but his head, his nose, his brain. It sent piercing daggers through his damaged shoulder, its ear-splitting rumbling invading every free inch of space in the darkened room. It roared to astounding decibels, increasing in strength of sound, a rising crescendo of earth moving proportions, and just when he thought he couldn't possibly endure even one more micro-second...the sound snuffed out in all entirety.

A calm silence quickly pervaded in its wake and his eyes opened to the still of the dark, suddenly wondering with a vague awareness if the train's passing had really been nothing more than a dream. His groggy mind assured him all was well, and he happily drifted back to sleep, body relaxing into the warmth of the covers until....

Another roar of thunder woke him instantly, and he lay braced against the mattress, eyes wide open, body tensed with alarm as his senses once again came under attack.

Good God, the train was back!

No. Not a train, his mind registered through its medicine-laced haze, all the while another booming roar split his eardrums.

Not a train at all....

In the dark, his hand groped, quickly seeking and finding a weapon and, with no thought to threat of consequence, shot it through the dark.

He heard it strike the intended target, a faint grunt in the night the reward of the well-placed shot and he smiled with some satisfaction...certainly he could give Mr. Tanner a run for the money should the need ever arise.

For a moment he remained upright, eyes open and unseeing in the pitch black. He listened intently, pleased when no other sound issued forth, then relaxed back down onto the sheets.

A drop of sweat slipped down his back then, and he was suddenly acutely aware of just how hot it seemed in the small cabin.

Well, there was certainly no reason for that....

+ + + + + + +

The icicle that fell on his head roused him enough to realize just how cold it had become during the night. He rolled over in his sleep, knees drawing up and arms wrapping his own chest in an attempt to conserve body heat.

It was cold and he was freezing.

Camping was okay during the warmer months of the year, but this was insane. Not only that, his sleep hazed, half-frozen mind told him, but he was alone in his sleeping bag and that was never any fun.

As he tried to drift back toward sleep, a chill, a bone-gripping tremor of extreme cold shook his body and he curled himself even more tightly, sure that icicles would be forming on his mustache by the time night did end. Rising somewhat closer to wakefulness, he opened one eye and was greeted by nothing but the dark.

Campfire must've gone out, his half-asleep brain told him and he moved to wrap his sleeping bag even more closely around himself, tugging at the warm layer and burying further under the heavy covers and trying again, to find sleep.

+ + + + + + +

The low, gutteral moans of what had to be an animal in agony pierced his heart and he awakened slowly to its deep cries. Initially, he'd pulled his head low, hands covering his ears in an attempt to shut out the distressful sound, then, as he surfaced more towards awareness, he could stand it no longer.

Never could he ever leave an animal to its pain.

Finding and releasing the pitiful creature from its death throes was the only humane thing to be done, and he blindly groped in the dark, body half asleep yet a part of his mind acutely attuned to the anguished cries, searching for something to help aid in the death of the thing.

And then, the noise lessened. With relief, he listened to the faltering cries as they diminished, the animal obviously released from its pain by death, its snorts and snuffles suddenly stopping. He could only hope it had been quick.

The wind suddenly picked up then and he shivered under the covers with the cold as it awakened him further, propping himself up on one elbow and listening to the prolonged shrill whistle of gusts blowing through the cracks around the windows that filled his ears....

No wait....

Not the wind...not the wind at all.

He knew that sound--that supposed animal in distress mixed with whistling wind sound.

Aw hell.

Leaning on one elbow he peered with disgust into the dark room. How in the hell could one man's nose make such a godawful racket?

He frowned as he sat up on the bed, wholly awake now and shivering as he glared toward the noisemaker.

And who the hell'd turned on the damned air conditioner?

+ + + + + + +

Bumping him, nudging him, knocking him...hands in his face, elbows in his back, knees in his....

If Vin didn't stop squirming around on the bed, he was going to take that scrawny neck of his and throttle him until...until....


Wasn't it enough he had to suffer the pain of a broken ankle?

Wasn't it enough he had to share one room, one bed, for God's sake?

Wasn't it enough he had to put up with the tremendous racket Buck always managed while asleep? Leave it to that man to make his presence known even while dead to the world....

And goddammit, why couldn't Vin just be still!

"Tanner..." he hissed tightly as the man crawled over him in what appeared to be an attempt to slide out of bed.

"Shhh," Vin hissed back, "you'll wake ever'one up."

"You woke me up!"

An elbow in his ribs and a knee to his groin and then Vin's raspy voice right in his ear, "Not my fault you're a light sleeper." Chris felt his hands twitch with the intense urge to wrap them around Vin's neck.

"Jesus, Tanner," he barked as Vin somehow knocked his ankle, " you're like a tornado come to life. Just where the hell you think you're goin'?"

Even in the dark Chris could sense Vin wince from the volume of his words. He tried to ignore the knee hitting his ribs as Vin finally managed to slip free of the covers. He snagged Vin's arm. "Hey. Your head okay?"

Vin nodded...gently. No, it wasn't great, and the eye below the cut was starting to swell closed, but he knew Chris wasn't fairing much better.

"It's the middle of the night, Lar'bee, go back t' sleep," Vin whispered back, and for once, Chris decided to take the man's advice--it wasn't hard, he truly was exhausted.

He started to drift, vaguely registering Vin's not so smooth return to bed, pressure on his abdomen sharp and heavy as Tanner crawled atop, then over him, to finally settle down for what Chris hoped would be a long, perfectly still sleep...hoped, too, the man would keep his feet to himself.

A soft, heavy weight settled over him and he nestled down into the seemingly warmer covers, vaguely registering he wasn't as cold as he had been moments before, though that could be related to Vin's getting out of bed. Sleeping next to somebody was like having a personal bed warmer all night.

So now he could gladly get back to sleep if Vin would just remain still....

And Buck would roll onto his side and stop that roof-raising screech.

+ + + + + + +

The cold ground was seeping into his bones and he again tugged his sleeping bag tighter. Why the hell had he let Larabee talk him into joining Tanner for yet another trek in the great outdoors this time of year. It was too damned cold to be sleeping outside in winter and...and....


His eyes popped open as reality whacked him in the head. Or maybe it was another of those icicles...or maybe....

He wasn't camping! It wasn't winter!

Dammit, he wasn't even outside!

He sat up abruptly, fully awake, eyes wide in the dark and he shivered violently. Cabin. Cabin. He was in the cabin. And the cabin was....

The cabin was freezing.

A quick search found he had nothing but a thin sheet with which to ward against the frigid temperature, and he tugged it up, hoping to also bring up the blanket he'd started out with earlier.

After a searching grope around the bottom of the cot and finding nothing within his reach but more cold sheet, he realized with dismay that he must have somehow kicked off the blanket, it now most likely lying somewhere on the carpet.

For a second he sat there, so cold he didn't want to even attempt to rise up from beneath the inadequate cover, even if to find more protection from the cold, but then his mind reasoned he'd be much more comfortable with the blanket than without, and he reluctantly climbed out of the cot and walked blindly around its perimeter. No blanket, and him just in his boxers and a t-shirt and damn, why the hell was it so stinkin' cold, anyway?

The room was pitch-black, the cabin's thick canvas curtains allowing not even a sliver of a thread of moonlight to breach its dark. He glanced at the only visible thing, the glow of the digital clock, its green numbers showing the time to be three a.m.

Three fuckin' a.m. and he was freezing his nuts off all alone in a rusted, squeaking cot in a cabin in the middle of nowhere.

Why the hell was it so damn cold and where was his blanket?

With a soft hum, the air-conditioning unit in the window near his head started up and he was suddenly blasted by an icy breeze blowing into the room. He shivered hard under the onslaught and turned quickly toward the bathroom. A quick flip of the switch on the wall lit up the small room, his own eyes briefly closing against the suddenly bright intrusion. A crack of an eyelid assured him his vision adjusted and he turned back into the dark main room, it, too, now softly illuminated from the bathroom's light.

With a hard shiver, his body reminded him of the chilling temperature and he searched the wall for the thermostat, finding and reading the setting with astonishment.

An icy 58 degrees.

He quickly upped it to a balmy 72, flipping the heat switch to on, then turned off the window unit, vigorously rubbing his arms against goosebumps quickly forming there and trying not to let his teeth chatter. As he turned back toward his own meager little cot, his eye caught the lumps of the other occupants, the one in the center in particular drawing his attention.

That lump was completely hidden under not one, but two thick blankets.

His thick blanket, dammit.

Striding over to the cocoon, he ripped off the extra cover and wrapped it around his own shivering body. He leaned over the three sleeping men and peered for a moment into each face, not so amazed given the meds they'd been given that none of them had awakened.

He yawned then and cut off the light, stumbling back to his cot in the dark.

Crawling under the sheet with his newly reacquired blanket, he shivered momentarily from the cold of the smooth sheets, then stretched out his length as he warmed under the covers, frowning when something hard dug into this back. A quick search and he clutched at the intruder.

A boot. A goddamn leather cowboy boot in the middle of his bed.

With a frown, he rubbed at the sore spot on his head, suddenly having a flash of an icicle striking him in the dark as he sat camping beneath the frozen trees.

Some icicle. He was half-tempted to toss the footwear back to its owner, pr etty sure which of the three made the shot, and figuring that even in the dark it'd hit at least something vital on someone, anyway, and then decided against it, knowing some sort of retaliation would be imminent, and then it would be the three of them against the one of him. Not good odds, no matter how he looked at it...especially with a Larabee as one of that three.

Were he to miss the intended Tanner center-man strike and hit that man instead...he shuddered, then let the stray cowboy boot fall to the carpeted floor with a soft thud and the definite knowledge that rousting a sleeping Larabear would only end with ugly.

And Lord, he hated ugly.

Especially in the middle of the night.

With a shadow of smug contentment touching the smile on his face, this formed from his own feeling of mature self satisfaction that he'd let the boot/icicle incident pass by without seeking revenge on the sleeping Tanner other than grabbing back his blanket, he drifted back to sleep...and back to snoring.

+ + + + + + +

What was that smell? Was someone cooking?


His one good eye opened again to the dark…his nose sniffing the air, trying to detect the exact cause of what he was smelling....

The heat. The heat had been turned on. How nice. No wonder he felt so snugly warm.

Still, though...he much preferred moving air to stale, so once again he moved his body out of bed--this time really noticing the stiffening in his muscles from the fall, and trying hard not to notice the pounding inside his head--and slid open the window.

A gentle breeze played with his hair as it was drawn into the room.

With a smile he clambered back into bed, relieved not to have wakened Chris this time. He pulled up the blanket, tucking his not-quite-as-cold feet into Chris's legs for a bit of quick warmth, bracing for the awakening outcry...and then happily settling into his pillow with a tired sigh when there was none.

+ + + + + + +

Hot. Blistering. Burning. Scorching. Searing. Sizzling. Flaming. Fiery....


He was in the inferno that was Hell...and there were crickets chirping in its background.

Buck was still maintaining that hellish noise, Chris was mumbling what sounded like expletives in his sleep, and Vin had pretty much had his bony elbow pressed sharply into his spine for at least the better part of the past several hours...though Ezra figured he should be grateful it wasn't the man's feet....

And who in their right mind turned off the air conditioner, turned on the heat and opened a window!

As if he couldn't take a guess or Vin!

Lord, would this hellish night never cease?

+ + + + + + +

It was the pain in his head that finally woke him, that, and the diffused sun streaming in long beams into the small room like an early wake up call. He blinked, the light of the morning piercing his eyes with pinpricks that stung right up into his brain, though he only had himself to blame. Opening the window last night he'd forgotten to pull the curtains closed, not that he ever minded being awakened with the dawn....

Just, usually he wasn't suffering from a concussion.

He turned his head to the left and found himself staring at the back of Ezra. Unbelievable. Not a hair out of place even after a long night of sleep and the man still in the pretty much the same position as when he'd begun.

A turn to the right and he was face to face with Chris. He watched the man's eyelids twitch either from dreaming, the light, or the realization he was being watched. Vin looked away. Neither man was awake yet and as bad as his head was pounding, he wasn't looking for them to be anytime soon.

Quiet would do just fine.

He let loose a muted sigh, turning back to stare up at the wood rafters of the small place. Once his eyes were open no way would he get back to sleep, which was regretful now that he was becoming more aware of how much pain his body was really feeling. He moved again, muscles tight and protesting, and he groaned, not meaning to but hearing himself loud enough and then he winced behind the building pulse inside his head.

"You okay?"

His eyes met Chris's, hard not to with the man mere inches from him, and he nodded slightly, swallowing against the dry of his throat.

"Hurtin' bad?"

Vin closed his eyes--or the one that wasn't already half there, anyway. He was tired and aching. "Nah. No more 'n' the usual axe buried in the skull kinda pain." He sighed. "Ain't so bad, I guess."

Chris caught the weariness in Vin's voice, couldn't miss the bloodshot whites of the man's eyes before he'd closed them. He glanced at his watch. "Still early, Vin. Go back to sleep."

"Don't know I can."

A voice drifted over. "I beg of you, try."

"Mornin' Ezra."

A bleary green eye opened to the lightened room as it heard its name, then slowly closed again. "Yes. It does appear that way."

A voice called out from across the small room. "Everybody awake?"

"No." Ezra replied.

"Mornin', Buck," Vin answered, not moving, just counting the knots showing in the pine wood beams traversing the ceiling.

"Looks to be a gorgeous morning," Buck announced as he peered out the open window and stretched out his tall frame. "Birds are singing, sun is shining, not too hot yet. What say we go for an early morning hike?"

"Give me my crutch," Chris demanded sharply.

Buck handed it to him and peered with concern down at the man on the bed, ready to lend a helping hand. "You can use that thing okay by yourself?"

"I'll let you know after I beat you senseless with it," Chris told him.

"Aw hell, Chris. I was only tryin' to spread some early morning cheer."

"For God's sake, why?" Ezra asked from his position on the bed.

Buck grinned. "Guess I just like to greet the day with a smile."

"Well, stop it." Ezra rolled gingerly to his back. "Is there some reason you're all awake at this ungody hour? It's the middle of the night."

"It's morning, Ez."

"For some, maybe." Never was he awake at such an unheard of time of day. This was inhumane. He shifted where he lay, tried to rise, then shifted again. He sighed. "May I ask, would it be too much an imposition for one of you to perhaps give me a lift? I seem to be rather...stuck." He'd tried again to raise himself up, but somehow his damaged shoulder had swelled enough that every time he moved, pain, deep into the muscle underneath his shoulderblade pain, would flare up making it near to impossible for him to lift himself even an inch.

"Depends, Ezra," Chris told him.

Ezra had heard that tone before. Things weren't looking good here. "Depends on what?" he asked with not a small amount of trepidation.

"On just where 'tis you got that coffee stashed," Vin explained.

"Ahh, the coffee." His bed-bargaining chip and the one salvation. "Just get me vertical and I'll eagerly deliver the goods."

Buck watched the three men shuffle around the room. Ezra was bent one way, obviously the pull of the muscles around his damaged shoulder giving him a crooked view on the world.

Chris was like a bull in a china shop, not yet wanting to set pressure down on his broken ankle and not quite adept at managing the crutches. To get within a few feet of him would most likely result in getting a whack in the leg from the things. Funny thing was, his neck looked to be a bit stiff and so he was bent as well, only the opposite way of Ezra.

And Vin looked a mess. His one eye was almost completely swollen shut, the cut above it ugly with stitches and dried blood. His eyes, at least the one Buck could actually look into, were bloodshot and a bit glassy in their squint. And he also had a slight limp about which he said he always walked that way and leave him alone, and though it was true his back gave him fits from time to time, never had Buck seen him moving quite so much like an old man.

That's what the three of them looked like. Old men.

He shook his head as he bit into one of the doughnuts Estelle had picked out for them. Forget hiking, forget was going to be hell just to get everyone in a vehicle and buckled and relaxed enough to endure the long ride back to home.

That was assuming there would be vehicles with which to drive.

Another doughnut and he gathered up the prescriptions yet to be filled and folded them together. Didn't want to lose any of 'em. He then scanned the small pharmacy of sample pain-pill packets they'd amassed from the Boobie house last night. Scary thing his friends needing all these drugs. Scarier thing, he recognized the names of each and knew exactly what it was they did.

"Looks like a pharmacy," Chris commented, hobbling over to the table and perusing the pile of packages. With a deft hand, he grabbed one, the deep throb of his ankle encouraging him to seek relief. "Believe this one's got my name on it," he said, tearing open the packet and nodding thanks to Buck as he was handed a glass of water, sardonically grinning as he swallowed them down. "Breakfast of champions."

"Think I'll stick to doughnuts," Buck replied and helped himself to yet another, "though it'd probably be a good idea to get those other two t' take their pain meds before they start hurting so bad they--"

He stopped as his and Chris's attention was suddenly diverted to the commotion behind them...a sharp yelp from Ezra, this immediately partnered with a growl of pain from Vin, and Chris and Buck turned just in time to see the tail end of them colliding into one another in an apparent race to see who would get the bathroom first.

"There sedatives in any of those samples by any chance?" Chris asked.

"Don't I wish," answered Buck, not ready yet to face the thought of the long ride back to Denver. He sighed, brushing white powdered sugar from his shirt, then shook out a pill each from Ezra and Vin's medications. "It'll be a miracle we make it home without those two killing each other."

Chris nodded and took a bite of glazed doughnut as he watched Ezra and Vin shoving each other away from the bathroom door. "Or me killing them both."


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