Dropping his pen, Chris let out a long sigh as he leaned his elbows on the desk and rested his face in his hands. It was only nine in the morning, and he felt achy and exhausted already. His back ached between his shoulder blades as weariness enveloped him while he tried to focus his concentration on the paperwork before him. Dragging his hands down his face, he looked up, the annoyance clearly evident as he watched Buck enter his office.
"Buck, what exactly about a closed door don't you understand?" he asked, spacing his words evenly.
Flopping onto the couch with a grateful sigh, Buck stretched his long legs out and closed his eyes as he leaned his head back.
"Not a thing, pard, not a thing," he grinned mischievously, "I usually just barge in 'cause I know it bugs ya."
"And this morning's reason?"
"Oh, shoot, almost forgot," Buck sat up straight, put his feet on the floor and rested his elbows on his knees. "Junior's here."
Chris was unable to hide his obvious pleasure as he stood up. Although he could never utter his feelings out loud, of all the members of his team, Vin was his favorite. He would never admit it to himself, let alone the young Texan, but he had missed him. Vin's return to work had been delayed by persistent dizziness. The three weeks since he and J.D. had been involved in an automobile accident had passed slowly. Vin's temporary replacement, Mark Donahue, was a good man. Vin was possibly a more accurate marksman, but Donahue's age and experience made him a valued agent. In fact, he had been with the agency far longer than Vin. He just had one fault. He wasn't Vin.
Standing beside Buck, Chris put his hands to his hips and tried to suppress a grin as they watched Vin vainly attempting to reach the door to the office. Their big, bad, tough ATF sharpshooter couldn't even cross twelve feet to the relative safety of the team's office. The secretaries in the outer office had missed him also. Every time it appeared he was going to make a successful escape, he was stopped again.
Shaking his head, Chris chuckled and slapped Buck's back.
"Looks like Vin's got some of your 'animal magnetism'. You got some competition pard."
"Reckon we should give him a hand?" Buck grinned as he nodded in agreement.
Vin's discomfort with the attention was obvious. His deeply tanned cheeks were flushed with embarrassment.
Starting to agree, Chris stopped and furrowed his brows as he frowned. Is that tan darker?
Pulling out Vin's desk chair, Chris sat and put his feet up on the desk. "Nope. Let him find his own way in," he grinned evilly.
When Vin finally made it to the door, he pushed through. Turning around, he shut the door and rested his head against the frame. Chris felt a pang of guilt when he saw Vin's anxiety over the attention, but only for a moment, and a brief one at that.
Vin cringed as his shoulder muscles tightened. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly as he turned around.
"Hey, J.D.," he answered softly, a smile frozen on his face. One only had to look at Vin to see what the term, 'deer caught in the headlights,' meant.
"Vin, man am I glad you're back...wasn't the same around here without ya...."
Taking a slight step back, Vin swallowed and pressed against the door as J.D. continued his chattering advancement. Vin's discomfort was obvious to everyone but the kid.
Damn, he's even uncomfortable with attention from us. Chris stood and looked at his fellow agents. It was time to move in, get J.D. out of his face and let Vin know they had managed quite nicely without him.
"Damn it, J.D.! Get outta Vin's 'personal space'....you're using up all his air with all that yammering," Buck bellowed.
"S'okay, kid," Vin smiled as he allowed J.D. to take the cookies, cupcakes, brownies, and other treats that had been forced upon him on his way in.
"Tanner, it's about time you hauled your sorry ass back to work," Chris growled as he reached out and locked forearms with Vin. Releasing his grip, he held out his hand. "Note."
Vin knew the drill, they'd been through this before. Smiling wordlessly, he reached in to his shirt pocket and retrieved the doctor's note that permitted his return to active duty.
Frowning as he read the medical release, Chris looked up at the younger man and grinned. "Tried calling you at Nettie's last week....nice tan ya got yourself there...."
"Yeah...well...uh...Nettie...she...you see..." Vin stammered. "Oh, oh dear..." Vin reached out. "Where's my chair...oh...no...feelin' dizzy..."
"Can it Tanner, Nettie told me she was taking you to Cancun for a few days....you had the time coming," Chris chuckled.
"Whoa...whoa...wait a minute...just one cotton pickin' minute...let me get this straight..." Buck stepped forward, raising his hands. "You," he pointed to Vin for emphasis, "busted MY windshield with your damn hard head and YOU get yourself a trip out of the deal?"
"Vin Tanner! " Nathan stepped forward and tugged on Vin's jacket sleeve. "You mean to tell me you ain't got anything warmer than this worn leather jacket...it's December...if you used half that brain you got stored in that empty cavern, you'd know enough to dress warmer." Reaching out, Nathan lightly swatted the side of Vin's head. "Don't even have the sense enough to cover your head properly," he scolded.
"Now Nate, I got a hat," Vin interrupted as he pulled the ball cap from his head.
"Oh, that's right...my mistake...how could I forget about the legendary warming properties of Nike?" Nathan rolled his eyes as he moved away muttering.
Stepping forward, Josiah arched his eyebrows and looked at Vin appraisingly.
"Last time we talked, I thought you said you were gonna get a haircut?"
"I did," Vin scowled as he pushed his hair back.
Frowning, Josiah walked a slow circle around Vin. "Which one?"
Snickering, Buck stepped to Chris's side and stretched his arm out for Chris to pour more coffee into his mug.
"Mr. Tanner! No...no...NO!" Ezra pushed himself between Vin and Vin's computer. "You've been away from it for so long. Let me log you on. You're liable to inadvertently call a nuclear missile strike on Denver..."
Taking a sip of coffee at the wrong moment, Chris nearly choked as he watched Vin's silent response. Chuckling softly, he walked back to his private office. Turning as he started to close the door, he smiled as he watched Vin at his desk. Things were back to normal, Vin was back where he belonged.
"Okay, boys and girls, recess is over...let's get back to work," he called out as he shut his door.
Vin let out an exasperated sigh. He was keenly aware of Buck's scrutiny, he could feel his eyes staring at him.
"What?" Looking over his shoulder, his eyes drew downward in a frown.
Buck's smile turned to a chuckle. Vin's irritation seemed to amuse him.
"Oh, nothing, nothing at all Junior," his mouth twitched with amusement. "I just can't get this image outta my head of you and Nettie in Cancun together. Her in a bikini, and you in a thong," he said in mock seriousness.
Looking up from his own paperwork, Ezra briefly stared at Vin before bursting out in laughter.
Vin flushed, but remained silent as he glared at Buck, his blue eyes blazing.
"Hey Vin," JD interrupted, "wanna go skiing tomorrow? I got some free coupons for lift tickets."
Glancing away from Buck, Vin's eyebrows drew down in a frown.
"Yeah. You're okay for that, right?"
"Uh...yeah...sure...sounds good, JD."
Vin had noticed that Chris had entered the office and was standing behind him with his arms crossed. Sensing the presence, Vin turned and looked up at Chris's scowling face.
"Skiing? Now Vin, do you think that's a smart thing to do?
Letting out a long sigh, Vin closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose briefly before standing up.
"You ain't my keeper Larabee. I know how ta ski. Don't need you to mother hen me."
Cocking his head, Chris raised his hand and grinned.
"Whoa. Easy there pard. Just wanted to be sure you didn't forget."
"Yeah...you...you said you'd help clean out the barn this weekend. But," Chris shrugged his shoulders and looked at Buck briefly. "if you forgot...that's okay. I can do it myself."
"No," Vin frowned and bit his lower lip. "I...I didn't forget. I'll come over early Sunday, first thing in the morning."
"Good....good....see you then," Chris nodded and turning, headed for his office with Buck close behind.
Closing the door, Buck leaned back and grinned, his eyes full of amusement.
"And you said I was wrong to take advantage of JD's memory lapse."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
"Know right well Junior never promised to clean that barn of yours out."
"Yeah, well, don't care what the doctor's say...think it's too soon for him to be throwing himself down the side of a mountain. I didn't want to clean the damn barn this weekend, but since you can't keep an eye on JD and his invitations, I'm stuck."
"So how long you reckon you can keep him doing chores to stay outta trouble before he catches on?" Chuckling as he opened the door, Buck turned and left.
+ + + + + + +
"Really, Mr. Tanner," Ezra spoke in a casual, jesting way, "did you clean out your piggy bank this morning?" His eyebrows arched mischievously as he watched Vin pulling change from his pocket.
"Look, I ain't drawn any pay in a couple weeks." Vin's tone held a note of impatience as he added his share to the lunch tab.
The air was thick with tension as each of the men silently considered a diplomatic way to offer the independent Texan a loan.
"Vin," Nathan leaned across the table and began to gather the money into a pile. "Tell you what, why don't you take all this cash, and put the tab on your credit card. This will give you some cash until pay day."
"No...can't," Vin shook his head and frowned.
"Vin, go ahead, I do it myself when I need the cash." Buck encouraged.
"Don't have a credit card."
Ezra's eyebrows rose in amazement.
"Vin, surely you jest. Do you mean to say you have resisted the great American tradition, and not gone into deep credit card debt? How have you managed to not get a credit card?"
"Can't," Vin mumbled softly.
Sitting back, Chris silently observed the exchange between his men.
"Mr. Tanner, without knowing your exact salary, I feel fairly certain that you more than qualify. Does reading the credit agreement intimidate you?"
"No, it's not that. They all wanna know my mother's maiden name."
"Ezra, I barely remember what she looked like, never mind her name."
Standing up, Vin reached for his jacket and walked out.
"Good move, Ez," Buck sadly stood, "ya just had ta push at him. Chris you ready?"
Chris sat chewing his lower lip, his brow wrinkled in thought.
"Huh? What?" Chris looked up and realized Buck had been speaking to him.
"You ready to go? You gave me and JD a lift here."
"Yeah," Chris cleared his throat, "sure, let's go."
"So, pard," Buck put his hand up to Chris's shoulder as they walked out side-by-side, "where'd ya go to there?"
A small grin lifted the corners of Chris's mouth.
"Texas. Shouldn't be too hard to make a few phone calls and find out a name or two."
Stopping, Buck turned to face Chris.
"Chris, I know you got a lot a pull, but his records must be sealed...else he'd know."
"Maybe. But he was never adopted, he just walked away. Doesn't hurt to at least try."
Chuckling, Buck slapped Chris on the back as they started to leave again.
"Hey, what if Junior's really a missing Texas oil tycoon?"
December 17 6:00am
Stretching, Chris yawned and opened his eyes slowly, blinking. It took several seconds for his eyes to adjust.
There it is again. What the hell? What time is it?
Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, Chris slumped and rested his elbows on his knees. Yawning, he slowly scratched his head. Glancing at the bedside clock, he became instantly alert. Frowning, he stood quickly. Throwing his bedroom door open, he stalked down the hall to the front door, muttering al the way.
"Son-of-a-bitch...it's six A.M. ....whoever the hell this is better have a good reason..."
Reaching for the door knob, Chris yanked the door open, ready to bestow his wrath.
"Buck," he sighed as he turned away from the door. Yawning, he shuffled towards the bathroom with the mustached agent following. "What the hell are you doing up and over here at this hour?"
"Well, pard...I ain't been down all night."
Hearing the soft chuckle over the sound of the flushing toilet, Buck knew Chris realized what he meant.
"So, I figured I'd bring ya some coffee."
As the door opened, a now wide awake Chris Larabee emerged and grabbed the offered cup without stopping.
"Figured ya might want to get an early start cleaning your barn."
Flopping on the recliner and raising the leg rest, Chris tested the coffee before taking a full sip.
"Vin probably forgot or killed himself skiing yesterday. I haven't heard from him."
Buck stretched out on the couch and pulled a pillow under his head. Reaching for the afghan on the back of the couch, he pulled it over him.
"By all means, make yourself at home, Buck."
"He didn't forget. He's down at the barn," Buck yawned.
Groaning, Chris threw his head back. Sighing, he slowly started to rise.
"Whoa...easy there pard. Throw me the clicker, would ya?" Aiming the remote control, Buck started surfing the channels. "Hmmm...wonder if Vin knows he's missing Scooby? Hey, JD's down there with him...let the 'young 'uns' do the hard work."
Thinking for a moment, Chris looked at Buck lounging comfortably on his couch. With a small nod, he pushed the recliner back again and crossed his legs.
"You said JD's there too?"
"Yup. Figure it won't take long for Junior to get the kid to help. Give them a few hours. They'll get it all done."
Shaking his head, Chris placed his cup on the table beside him.
"Buck, you sure JD's not on to you?"
"Nah...got him right where I want him. I'm making up for lost time. Always wanted a kid brother to take advantage of......"
+ + + + + + +
"Hey, Vin," JD stopped and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. True to Buck's word, Vin had quickly gotten JD to help him. "Vin, you do know you never promised to do this, don't you?"
Grunting, Vin lifted a bale of hay and stacked it with the others. As he sat down, he winced as he rubbed his right shoulder.
"Yeah, but gotta let the ol' guys think they're ahead of us once in a while...gets them ta let their guard down."
Grinning, JD sat down and gulped from a bottle of water before offering it to Vin.
" 'sides, " Vin hissed as he reached for the bottle, "Chris has done alot for me. Feel like I sorta owe him."
"That shoulder's really bothering you."
"Just a bit."
The previous day's ski trip had been uneventful. Despite their growing reputations for attracting trouble, the two youngest had enjoyed an injury free day. The day had been without mishap until they stopped at a convenience store for soda on the way home. Lifting the bottle of rootbeer to his mouth, Vin noticed the woman entering the store beside him start to falter on a patch of ice. Instinctively, he reached out to help her, but her flailing arms grabbed him. No match for her size, he fell to the ground with her.
"Man, that lady was HUGE...what you think she weighed? Two...three hundred pounds?"
"Three hundred at least," Vin sighed as he shook his head. He didn't want to admit it, but his shoulder had begun to throb.
JD snapped his fingers as something clicked in his mind. Walking to his jacket, he reached in to the pocket and pulled out a small bottle.
"Here, take some of these."
Frowning doubtfully, Vin reached for the bottle.
"What are they?"
"They're Casey's Aleve. She didn't want to take her pocketbook the other night, and she had her per...."
"I ain't got cramps JD!" Vin burst out, his voice cracking.
"Take it easy, Vin. They're not just for that. Haven't you ever taken it before for aches and pains?"
He received no answer as the sharpshooter glared at him.
"Here, the bottle says you can take two."
Placing the pills in his hand, he offered them to Vin.
"Come on...it's all right," he coaxed.
JD bit his lip to keep from smiling as Vin slowly picked up each pill and swallowed them one at a time.
Sighing, Vin brushed his hair back as he stood.
"Come on, let's finish up."
Working together, the two moved in silence. Finally, JD couldn't keep quiet any longer.
"Yes, JD," Vin smiled.
"Were you serious?"
" 'bout what?"
" You really don't know your mother's name?"
"For what?" Reaching for his flannel shirt, Vin put it on and slowly began to button it.
"It's just sad. Don't you remember anything?"
"Mmmm....I don't know...I mean, I was only five. Sometimes, I think I remember her singing."
"Mine used to sing too." Smiling, JD manipulated his fingers as he began singing. "The itsy, bitsy, spi..."
Flushing with embarrassment, he stopped when he noticed the Texan looking at him with a bemused expression.
"Awww, man...." he whispered softly.
"Hey, don't worry about it kid. Mine's worse. I think it's some old John Denver song."
Vin stopped and looked at JD. "I'm serious here JD. Don't look at me like that. You gotta swear not to tell Buck, but every time I hear 'Country Roads' it seems like I can remember someone singing it to me."
"John Denver songs?" JD grinned.
"I mean it JD. If Buck ever finds out, I'll never hear the end of it."
Before JD could respond, Buck noisily entered the barn.
"Hey, how are you two doing? About done? Chris is breaking eggs up at the house and wants to know how you two want them."
Walking side by side, Vin and JD exited the barn.
Vin stopped and froze in his tracks.
"You forgot your jacket."
Turning, Vin caught the jacket and continued toward the house as he started to put his arms in the sleeves. Sighing, he shook his head and looked over at JD as he heard the distinctive sounds of Buck whistling behind him. There was no mistaking the tune. Buck had overheard their conversation.
December 17, 4:00pm
"Look at them. Almost dark, and they're running around like a bunch of fools. Vin with no jacket on, again."
Nathan put his hands on his hips as he and Josiah slowly started to walk up the driveway. Buck and Vin were involved in a friendly game of touch football against Chris and JD. Glancing sideways, Josiah smiled at Nathan.
"I'm on Chris's side!" he burst out as he took off running up the incline.
"Hey,no fair! Buck probably has a hangover....."
The six men were involved in their game, and did not notice Ezra's arrival. Leaning against a tree, the southerner folded his arms across his chest and watched the game. Smiling, Ezra shook his head. The "touch" part frequently turned to tackle and grab whenever the older members of the team felt it benefited them.
"Hey, Ez," Vin turned and greeted him as he was about to throw a pass. Distracted, Vin did not see Chris barreling towards him.
Diving, Chris caught Vin's right arm and drove him to the ground.
Vin was kneeling on the ground clutching his right shoulder. Breathing heavily, he squeezed his eyes shut and rocked rhythmically.
Squatting beside the younger man, Chris placed his hand on Vin's back.
"Vin, I'm sorry...I didn't mean to hit you so hard...is it bad?"
Keeping his eyes closed, Vin swallowed and shook his head, his nostrils flaring as he gasped for breath.
"I'm right here Chris." Gently pulling Vin's left hand away, Nathan began to lightly probe Vin's shoulder.
"Where's it hurt Vin?"
Running up, JD skidded to a halt and knelt beside Vin.
"Is it the one you hurt yesterday?" he panted.
"Yesterday?" Chris glared at the pair. "You hurt yourself skiing and didn't say anything? I knew it..." he thundered.
JD looked over at his friend. Vin's head was down, and he was making no attempt to respond.
"Chris, it wasn't like that," JD defended. "We were on the way home, and some fat lady was starting to slip on some ice and Vin tried to help her."
"Oh well put JD," Buck frowned. "They teach you to talk about people like that at your fancy school in Boston?"
Looking up briefly, Vin noticed JD's embarrassment. "And I spilled my root beer all over the front of my pants," he interrupted in an attempt to get Buck's attention off JD.
Guiding Vin into the house, Chris glared at Buck as he heard the lady's man chuckling with Ezra.
"Guess those two don't call it a day 'til the fat lady falls..."
"Okay Vin, get that shirt off," Nathan ordered.
"Nate," Vin sighed, "I'm okay now, really."
"Yeah, he felt better this morning after I gave him some Aleve."
"Hold on, wait one cotton picking minute," Nathan raised his hand up. "Let me get this straight.You hurt your shoulder last night and didn't see fit to get medical advice from anyone more qualified than that idiot? And you medicated this fool?"
Both JD and Vin gulped and nodded their heads slowly.
"Uh, yeah....that'd be about right,"JD whispered.
Letting out a disgusted snort, Nathan shook his head as he began to examine Vin's shoulder. He felt a slight pang of guilt when he heard Vin softly hiss and realized he was a little rougher than necessary.
"Well," he stubbornly conceded, it looks okay, seems to be just muscle strain. The Aleve probably helped the pain a bit." Frowning he looked down at his watch. "You took some this morning? It's a little early, but you can probably take some more. Any around here?"
"I'll get it," JD offered.
Vin grudgingly accepted the pills from Nathan's open hand and slowly swallowed.
+ + + + + + +
"Buck, would you bring me another beer while you're in the kitchen?"
"What do you think I am? Your maid? You ain't got a broken leg Ezra."
"No," Ezra reached up behind him for the bottle. "But if you'll notice, I seem to have become Mr. Tanner's pillow, and I swear, if he starts drooling..."
"Awww....ain't that sweet, I didn't know you two were so close, Ez."
"I assure you, neither did I." Ezra rolled his eyes as he put the bottle to his lips. Looking down, he shook his head at the sharpshooter.
"Buck, could you pull that blanket off him? We're getting warm."
Leaning over the back of the couch, Buck removed the blanket. As his hand brushed across Vin's forehead, he stopped and frowned.
"Nathan, he's hot."
Reaching for a slice of pizza, Nathan grinned.
"Buck, quit fretting. You just had a cold beer bottle in your hand, and the blanket probably made him hot. He's fine."
December 18, 3:00pm
"Buck, are Vin and JD back from court yet?"
Pouring another cup of coffee, Chris leaned back against the counter and frowned.
"Who was driving?"
Chuckling, Josiah joined Chris.
"Relax, brother. The roads are clear, no need to worry about them."
"Not them I'm worried about, Josiah." Chris took a quick sip of coffee. "Between JD's road rage and Vin's lead foot...I don't know which is worse."
Smirking, Buck nodded his head in agreement. "I know, the kid looks at you with that innocent face, makes you think he's an altar boy on the way to serve Mass...then he opens his mouth and I swear, I think the "D" in his middle names stands for Damien."
"And Vin," Chris swallowed some coffee before continuing, "can't seem to understand what a speed limit is. Son-of-a-bitch seems to think a posted speed limit is a challenge to try to break."
"Oh lord, listen to us. When did we get this old?" Buck complained as he shook his head sadly, while Chris smiled in agreement.
All conversation was forgotten as Vin and JD noisily entered, followed by a grinning Ezra.
"What the hell's wrong with ya, Ezra? Quit staring at me." Throwing a suit jacket over the back of his chair, Vin sat down while loosening his tie.
"I'm sorry. I can't help myself, Mr. Tanner. You not only look presentable, you look good. When did Wal-Mart start selling such fine suits?" Ezra's eyes widened in surprise and he cleared his throat as he checked the label inside Vin's jacket.
"Vin, you okay?" Chris asked when he noticed the younger man rubbing an ear rather than responding with a one finger salute.
"How's your shoulder?"
"Court appearance go okay?"
Smiling, Josiah looked at Nathan and leaned back in his chair as he listened to the terse conversation.
"Well then, why don't you call it a day?"
Although he'd barely said four words, Chris could tell the sharpshooter wasn't feeling well, no matter what he said.
Sighing, Vin stood while gently rubbing his ear again. Blinking quickly, he swayed and grabbing the edge of his desk, sat down heavily.
Frowning, Vin swallowed as he again rubbed his ear. "M' ear hurts."
"Well then, why don't you go on home then? Don't forget we have a meeting with Travis in the morning."
"Yeah." Standing slowly, Vin reached for his jacket and quietly left the office with no argument.
December 19, 9:30am
"Where's Vin?" Chris demanded impatiently, both hands on his hips.
"Now, Chris, I'm sure Junior's around here someplace," Buck grinned.
"Damn it Buck. Don't cover for him," Chris responded in a tense, clipped voice. "Was I not clear? This morning's meetings are mandatory. Hell, even Ezra's here already."
Ezra's arched eyebrows indicated his humorous surprise. He opened his mouth to respond, but was silenced by Chris's dark, angry expression.
"JD, call him...track him down," Chris ordered as he turned and stalked to his office.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was miserable. Resting his cheek on the side of the tub, he closed his eyes and sighed. The cool porcelain was a welcome relief. He pressed both hands to his eyes as if they burned with weariness. Opening one eye, he checked his watch.
Awww, shit...after nine...been up all night...how the hell did I manage to oversleep?
Dragging himself to his feet, he slowly shuffled to the bedroom. Sitting on the floor, he pulled his knees up and leaned his head back on the bed. Closing his eyes, he frowned as he tiredly rubbed the side of his head. He couldn't remember ever having such a fierce headache. Reaching for the phone, he hesitated, blinking with bafflement as it started to ring.
"H..." Vin coughed and winced as he cleared his throat. " 'lo?"
"Yeah, I know JD...overslept...on the way...." Vin hoarsely drawled.
JD frowned as he listened to Vin. He was accustomed to the slight twang in his friend's speech, but the thick drawl coming from the receiver sounded more like Ezra than Vin.
"Naw..." Vin cleared his throat. "Yeah...jus' feel like crap...."
"JD, TELL TANNER TO HAUL HIS SORRY ASS IN HERE ON THE DOUBLE."
"Uh...Vin, Chris says...."
"S'okay JD, I heard...I'm on the way."
+ + + + + + +
Ducking his head and cupping his hand over the receiver, JD lowered his voice. "Vin, if you don't feel well, maybe you should stay home," he suggested softly.
"Nope, on the way."
Frowning, JD stared briefly at the receiver before replacing it on the cradle. He looked up irritably when a crumpled piece of paper hit the side of his head.
"What's wrong kid?"
"It's Vin. He's on the way in, but I'm not sure he should be driving. He sounds almost like he's drunk."
Walking by with a cup of coffee, Josiah stopped and listened.
"JD...it's not even ten in the morning," Buck reasoned.
"I know that Buck," JD hissed, "but I just talked to him. He sounds worse than Ezra."
Chuckling, Josiah shook his head as he took a sip of coffee and sat on the corner of JD's desk. Leaning back in his chair, Buck grinned and folded his fingers together.
"What's so funny?" JD's dark eyebrows slanted in a frown.
"JD," Buck sat up and leaned his forearms on his desk, "don't tell me you ain't ever noticed how careful Vin is when he talks. If he's tired or under the weather, you'd swear he's from the same plantation as Ezra."
Grinning in good humor, Ezra cocked his head and smiled. "Well, Mr. Wilmington...of course you know he does that to hide the lisp."
"Hey, you noticed it too? I thought I heard it, but I wasn't sure until we went to that funeral and I sat beside him in church..." Buck let out a low chuckle and shook his head at the memory.
Josiah looked up from beneath craggy eyebrows, stared briefly at Buck, then burst out laughing. His laugh was deep, warm, rich and infectious.
JD stared at the three men as their laughter subsided to giggles and they wiped tears from their eyes.
Sighing as he wiped his eyes, Josiah looked at Buck and immediately started to giggle again.
"What is with you guys?" JD scowled.
"The Lord's Prayer,son."
"JD... 'ath we forgive thoth who trethpath againth uth'...." Buck couldn't continue as he surrendered to laughter once again.
"I can't believe you guys. Making fun of Vin behind his back."
"JD, we think too much of him to say anything to him," Josiah explained.
"Besides, kid...my momma didn't raise no fool...I don't want Junior mad at me...you know he fights dirty...." Buck chuckled.
Chris's door opened and he silently looked out, the look of displeasure clearly evident. Without a word, the agents returned to their desks and their work.
Chris scowled as he closed the door and returned to his own desk. His men were all here, everyone but Vin.
December 19, 11:45am
Scowling, Chris stood at the window, hands on his hips. The lines of concentration deepened along his brows as he unconsciously bit his lower lip. He was well aware that Vin slept through at least half of the staff meetings he held, but the Texan performed his job so skillfully, he had no problem looking the other way. But today, today was the last straw. It was bad enough he fell asleep during a meeting with Travis. But damn it, did he have to start talking in his sleep? Son-of-a-bitch barely says three words an hour on a good day, but as soon as he falls asleep, he starts chattering like JD. There was no point in continuing the meeting after Vin tipped his chair over. How many times have I told him to leave the chair down on all four legs? One of these days, he's gonna break his damn neck. Clamping his jaw tightly, he let out a loud sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. Oh, Christ, when did I turn into my mother?
When it became obvious that Buck's laughter was contagious and showed no signs of ending, Travis cut the meeting short. Although he hadn't said why he ended the meeting, Chris suspected he thought the inmates were running the asylum. As he left the room, he smiled and whispered to Chris to remind him sometime to tell him about the first team he supervised.
Staring out the window, Chris absently began drumming his fingers on his hips. He knew the other six agents were cooling their heels out in the bull pen. Turning briefly, Chris saw the others talking and pretending to work. Shaking his head, a small grin lifted the corners of his mouth. Vin's head was bent over his keyboard, and unless he was memorizing the layout, he was probably asleep.
How am I gonna chew him out for disrupting the meeting? He's oblivious to the fact that I'm furious with him. Hell will probably freeze over before he's ever fazed by what I think.
Turning back to his desk, Chris stood before it, shuffling folders and papers while he tried to hide the fact he was watching the men. So, what should it be? Do I chew him out for falling asleep during a meeting, which he does all the time anyway? For disrupting the meeting, when it was Buck's carrying on that ended it? Or, should I let him have it for coming in to work sick, when I ordered his ass in here?
+ + + + + + +
"Hey Ezra, wanna wake Vin up before that droolin' shorts out his keyboard?" Buck smirked. "Chris is pretending not to be watching us. He should be done sulking any minute."
"Oww...damn it Ezra...so help me...you don't stop pokin' at me," Vin hoarsely drawled as he swatted Ezra's hand away. Sighing, he sat up straighter as he absently rubbed at his right temple.
"Mr. Tanner, you fell asleep while typing your report."
"Wasn't sleeping...was tryin' to figure out the right wordin' for somethin'," Vin stubbornly insisted.
"Now Vin," Buck grinned as he sat on the corner of Vin's desk. "You know I believe ya." Buck's brows furrowed as he patted his chest for emphasis. "Honestly, I do. But I ain't so sure about Chris... once he sees that paperclip indent on your forehead." His laughter ended as abruptly as it began when he noticed Vin scowling at him. "Hey Vin," his tone softened as he touched the younger man's arm. "You really are sick. Why the hell didn't ya just stay home?"
Vin's shoulders slumped as he sighed and leaned back in his chair. Resting an arm on the armrest, he leaned to the side and began rubbing his forehead. "Don't know Buck, maybe it was the 'tell Tanner to haul his sorry ass in here' part that convinced me to come in."
"Now look, Chris didn't know you were sick. He coulda easily called in a replacement to cover for you...if he knew."
"Comfortin' ta know I'm so easily replaced."
"Vin! You ain't repla..."
The room grew silent as Chris's door quietly opened. The men all stopped and stared between Chris and Vin.
"Vin. In here."
Standing quickly, Vin swayed slightly and grabbed the edge of his desk.
Nathan's smirk was replaced by a frown as he watched the younger man close his eyes and lower his head. Raising his right hand, he rubbed the right side of his head.
Slowly walking from behind his desk, he started for Chris's office. As he walked, he winced and massaged the side of his neck.
Probably got himself a stiff neck from that little nap at his desk.
Chris struggled to maintain a frown as he opened his door wider to allow Vin to enter ahead of him. Turning as he followed Vin, his eyes met Buck's and he winked and smiled before forcefully slamming his door shut.
December 19, 12:00pm
Ezra leaned back in his chair with his head cocked. The other four sat forward in their chairs straining to hear. They were all dying with curiosity, but all they could hear were the muffled sounds of raised voices.
"Boy, Chris sure sounds pissed," JD quietly stated.
"Not to worry JD, Chris is just concerned about Vin's welfare. It's obvious he's not well, he should have stayed home today," Josiah offered as he absently sorted through a pile of folders.
"Damn fool, running around with no hat or proper coat half the time. Gonna catch his death of cold one of these days," Nathan muttered as he worked at his computer.
"Nate," Buck chuckled, "listen to yourself. You sound like someone's grandmother. He's a grown man, he can take care of himself."
"Yeah, you're right," Nathan agreed. "But you, me...every one of us depends on him. He's saved all our butts more than once. He doesn't take care of himself and gets sick, we have to depend on someone else. Now, I don't know about the rest of you, but I always feel better knowing Vin's watching my back."
Unable to disagree, Buck nodded thoughtfully. Chris's raised, muffled voice broke the silence that had fallen as each of the men considered Nathan's statement.
"Hey, Ez...you're closest, can ya tell us what's goin' on?" Buck asked.
Resting his chin on his hand, a bemused smile came to his lips as Ezra cocked his eyebrows mischievously. "Well, where should I begin Mr. Wilmington? Before or after Vin told Mr. Larabee to, and I quote, 'piss up a rope'?"
Throwing his head back, Buck roared with laughter. Wiping tears from his eyes, Buck smiled. "Well, ya gotta admit, Junior's got a way with words like you, Ez."
"Oh, I beg to differ. I have never once suggested to Mr. Larabee possible locations for him to micturate," Ezra insisted, his mouth quirked with humor. "Shh...they're getting quiet." Ezra leaned farther back in his chair, his brows furrowed as he concentrated on listening.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris, I'm sorry," the younger man interrupted.
Chris looked at the obviously ill man seated before him. Sitting with his leg crossed, Vin was toying with a loose thread on the seam of his jeans.
"I'm sorry I wrecked your meeting."
"'Wrecked' my meeting? Damn it Vin! I know you sleep through half of them. When it's just me, it doesn't bother me much. You still somehow manage to do your job, but for God's sake Vin, did ya have to fall outta your chair in front of Travis?"
Chris realized how loudly he'd been yelling when he noticed Vin wince and lower his head as he rubbed his ear.
"Said I was sorry," Vin sighed as he slowly stood and shuffled to the door. "It's just that I don't fee..."
"You don' t feel good! That's right. YOU DON'T FEEL GOOD. SO WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE AT WORK?"
Vin's hand froze on the door knob and he slowly turned around. "Don't know. Maybe it was the, 'tell Tanner to haul his sorry ass in here' part that helped persuade me."
Chris's shoulders slumped as he let out a long breath. "Vin, if you're sick...you should've called in. I could have easily gotten a replacement for you."
"Yeah, I know. That's what everyone said...comfortin' to know I'm so easy to replace."
"Oh, come off it Vin!" Chris slammed his fist down on the desk. "You know what I mean. What's this all about? You know right well that you can't be replaced...as long as I lead this team, you'll have a place on it."
"I dunno..." Leaning against the door frame, Vin crossed his arms and looked down. "It's just that...I know I ain't been in ta work much lately."
"Vin," Chris chuckled as he moved towards the door. "I know better than anyone what your attendance record is, but the last thing we need around here is a dizzy sharpshooter."
Reaching out, he placed a hand on Vin's shoulder and quickly pulled his hand away from the soft flannel. "Christ, Vin, you're burning up," he exclaimed as he began angrily pacing.
" 'm cold."
"Don't even TRY to stand there and tell me you're fine."
"M' ear hurts."
"You can't go around ignoring it when you're sick, pretending you're okay."
"Feelin' dizzy and puky too..."
"I don't care what you have to say...don't want any of your excuses. You ARE going to a doctor."
"Got a doctor's appointment this afternoon."
Stopping abruptly, Chris turned and stared at Vin as what Vin had been saying finally registered. "You made an appointment? Are you feeling okay?"
Chuckling, Vin shook his head slightly. "No...that's why I'm goin' to the doctor. M' ear's been hurtin' somethin' fierce."
"Good...good...probably just an ear infection...no big deal...Adam used to get them. Once we get you on an antibiotic, you'll be feeling better in no time."
"Hmmm..." Vin nodded in agreement as he slowly turned to the door again. "Uh...ohhh..."
Closing his eyes, he gulped and leaned his forehead against the door frame as that slight movement brought on a wave of nausea and dizziness.
"Can see that. Wait...let me see if I can move some meetings around to give you a ride to the doctor." Chris sat down and began flipping through his calendar.
Dropping heavily on to the couch, Vin leaned his head back and sighed. "I ain't no invalid. Don't need ya to nursemaid or fret over me."
"Vin, you can barely walk outta this office without bumping into the door frame. I don't want you driving."
"Don't need your fussin'."
"Now look." Chris stood and leaned his hands on the desk top. "I've got a gray hair or two with your name on it. I think that earns me the right to fuss all I want."
Sighing tiredly, Vin leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees as he rubbed his eyes.
"Damn. I'm booked solid...Buck and JD have to go to the range...Josiah has a meeting with the DA...Ezra has a briefing...hold on..." Chris walked to the door and opened it. "Nathan," he called as he leaned out.
The other agents had heard the raised voices. Hearing Chris call Nathan, they all responded, figuring the two volatile men had hurt each other.
"Nathan," Chris stopped and frowned at the other four men crowding in also. "Vin needs to go to the doctor, I want you to give him a lift."
Looking quickly at Vin, Nathan shook his head. "Chris I just vacuumed my interior. I got a date with Rain tonight."
"So, drive his jeep."
"Hey. I'm sittin' right here. Don't talk like can't hear. I can drive myself."
"No, I'll drive."
"I can drive. I don't need you drivin' me around."
"Vin, you still nauseous?"
Frowning, Vin glared at Nathan.
"Yep. Thought so," Nathan smiled. Squatting down, Nathan tapped Vin's knee. "Look, can you work the clutch and roll your window down fast at the same time?"
Swallowing, Vin stared at Nathan.
"Now give me your keys."
"I told ya, I can dr..."
"Give me your keys Vin," Nathan interrupted. "I love you like a brother...but there ain't no way I'll sit in your passenger seat with you driving and feelin' sick to your stomach...this is a new jacket I've got on. Now for the last time, give me your keys and I'll let you roll the window down and hang your head out like a cocker spaniel."
Shaking his head, Vin smiled as he slowly pulled out his keys and passed them to Nathan.
"Alright then, it's all set." Chris stood before Vin with his hands on his hips. "You go to the doctor's with Nathan. Get yourself well, and back here where you belong."
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