by Ronnie

December 19, 1:00pm
"Hey Vin."

"Hi there, Vin."

"Vin...long time no see. What's it been...a week?"

Chuckling, Nathan reached for a month old Sports Illustrated and sat in a chair beside Vin. "Looks like everyone knows you around here."

Grunting, Vin slid down in his chair and closing his eyes, rested his head on his hand. Thumbing through the magazine, Nathan watched a parade of patients enter the office and take their seats. None of them received the greetings Vin had. Vin must be one of their regulars. Periodically, the door would open and an older woman would call out a name and usher its owner inside.


Nathan realized his mind had wandered when he didn't notice that Vin had moved and was slowly walking towards the door.

"Oh...what's wrong sugar? Feeling poorly?" The woman had placed her arm on Vin's shoulder and was starting to walk him down the hallway. Stopping abruptly, she turned and scowled at Nathan irritably. "And just where do you think you're going?" she demanded.

"Well...I...uh...came with him. Just want to make sure he's okay."

"Hmmph." Frowning, she placed her hands on her hips and shook her head. "And why wouldn't he be?" she demanded.

"It's okay Maggie. I don't mind."

"Well, okay long as it's okay with you."

What is it with Vin and old ladies?

"Here you go." Opening a door, she prodded Vin inside an exam room. "Now you just sit tight. The doctor will be with you shortly." Grunting as she pushed her way past Nathan, she grumbled that Vin never needed a baby-sitter before.

Leaning against the door, Nathan looked around the small room as Vin stripped down to his boxers and donned an exam gown. Humming softly to himself, Nathan passed the time quietly reading the diplomas and certificates adorning the walls while Vin sat on the exam table slowly swinging his tanned legs. He silenced and turned slowly as the door opened suddenly. Frowning, Nathan looked towards the doorway when he noticed the look of disdain on the younger man's face.

"Damn, this rate, you'll help me be the first in my class to pay off my student loans."

Nathan let out a soft chuckle as he shook his head.

Hearing the sound, the young woman stopped abruptly, and looking up from her clipboard, noticed Nathan for the first time, a smile frozen on her face. "Oh...hello...excuse me...I didn't know Vin wasn't alone." Extending her hand, she reached out to Nathan. "I'm Mary Sue Seaver...and you're?"
"Nathan Jackson. I work with Vin."

"Oh, I'm sorry...I know that must be difficult."

Unable to stop himself, Nathan found himself laughing at Vin's expense.

"He drove his other doctor to retirement, and lucky me...I inherited him," she said seriously with a smirk.

As he held the young woman's hand, Nathan was impressed by the grip of her handshake. Tall, blond and beautiful...never would have figured Vin would have a woman doctor.

Crossing his arms on his chest, Vin snorted and scowled at the woman. "Be real charmin' when she wants ta be," he muttered softly.

"Excuse me? Did I ask you to talk?"

Nathan's eyebrow's shot up in surprise.

"One more word out of you and I'm doing a rectal."

Nathan nervously cleared his throat and the doctor turned her attention back to him.

"As I was about to say...pleased to meet you." She smiled again before releasing his hand. Backing against the wall, Nathan almost felt sorry for Vin. It was clear there was no love lost between the two, no wonder Vin was always reluctant to visit his doctor. As Nathan briefly considered a way to remove Vin, Doctor Seaver walked over to her patient.

"Okay kiddo, what's wrong?" she asked, her tone suddenly gentle.

As Vin opened his mouth to speak, a thermometer was stuck in his mouth and a stethoscope was placed on his chest. Snorting softly, Nathan shook his head. She sure has an odd bedside manner.

Removing the thermometer from Vin's mouth, she frowned as she stared at it.

"Got a fever. So what's up this time?"

Opening his mouth to answer, Vin suddenly found a tongue blade thrust in, causing him to gag. Without a word, she removed it and turned to dispose it.

"Well?" she looked up irritably as she waited impatiently for an answer.

"M' ear hurts." Vin mumbled as he reached up and rubbed the side of his head.

"Umm...hmmm....yeah, can see that," she muttered as she held an otoscope to Vin's ear.

"You know Tanner, most guys I see in your age group come in for social diseases, not pediatric complaints."

"Thought you was on vacation," Vin scowled as she pulled on his ear lobe.

"Not soon enough." Sighing, she straightened up. "Well, you got yourself an ear infection. You're starting to look a little dehydrated too. Been vomiting a lot?" Cocking her head, she chewed her bottom lip as Vin slowly nodded his head and slowly eased himself to a standing position.

"Well," she sighed as she pushed a stray hair away from her eyes. "Why don't I give you something for that? Maybe if I can keep you from getting dehydrated, I can go a few days without having to see your sorry a...behind," she smiled as she looked at Nathan.

Frowning, she turned to Nathan as Vin suddenly gulped and started blinking rapidly.

" that cabinet...grab me an emesis basin," she ordered.

Clutching the table with one hand, Vin crouched on the floor as she thrust the basin under his chin just in time.

Squatting beside Vin, Dr. Seaver rubbed his back until the painful retching subsided. Sighing as she stood, she disposed of the basin and washed her hands. Opening the door, she leaned out in to the hall. "Connie...Connie?"


"Would you draw me up 200mg Tigan for Vin?"

"Sure Sue...I'll be right in to give it to him..."

"No...that's okay...Tanner's ass is mine." Turning she looked at Vin with a wicked grin.

Nathan put his hand up to cover his smile as Vin let out a defeated sigh.

Walking back toward Vin, she brandished a syringe, an eyebrow raised in amused contempt. "Okay, pretty boy...back up on the table and drop those drawers."

Disposing of the used syringe, she ignored Vin's muttered curses. With a frown, she squinted at Nathan critically. "He's gonna get sleepy...I hope you drove." When Nathan nodded, she smiled warmly.

Walking to the sink, she washed her hands and looked at Vin appraisingly as she dried them. "Why don't you get yourself dressed, while I try to find something you're not allergic to and write out a 'script' ?" As abruptly as she entered, Dr. Seaver left the room."

"Doctor?" Pulling the door closed, Nathan followed her out to the hall.

"Yes, Mr. Jackson?"

"Is that all? Just an ear infection?"

Cocking her head, she smiled as she laughed softly. "Well, in Tanner's case, nothing is ever 'just', but it is an ear infection and antibiotics will clear it up."

"Vin never mentioned you before," Nathan stated as he walked with the doctor.

"Well, I try not to mention him in polite company either." Passing Nathan a prescription, she reached out and again shook his hand.

"Is he okay to work? You know he's the team sharpshooter and we depend on him?"

"Relax Mr. Jackson. This isn't serious, kids get them all the time. As long as I've known him, he's been scrappy...he'll know when he's okay to work."

Nathan's brows creased as he suddenly noticed the faint drawl. "You're not from around here. Are you from Texas too?"

Without a word, the young woman smiled as she closed her office door and left Nathan standing in the hall.

December 19, 2:30pm

Dropping his pen with a sigh, Chris yawned and rubbed his eyes. He enjoyed the field work, but was convinced the paperwork associated with his position would eventually kill him. Today, he had the unpleasant task of trying to complete a performance evaluation. His men were all unique, good men to work with, Chris was proud to lead and work with each one of them. He absolutely hated to evaluate their job performance. Closing his eyes, he pinched the bridge of his nose as he tried to will away the dull headache that was starting to form behind his right eye. His eyes shot open at the shrill ring of the phone.


Closing his eyes again, he leaned his head on his hand and slowly rubbed his forehead as he listened.

"That's all? Just an ear infection? Yeah...okay...where are you now? alright...yeah...that sounds good...get the prescription filled and swing back can crash on my couch until we're ready to go...I'll give him a lift, Rain didn't call...okay...see you in a few..."

As he hung up, he scowled when he noticed Buck leaning against his door frame.


"You disappoint me, Buck. I'd a thought you would've just listened in on another line..."

Smiling, Buck put his hands to his chest. "You wound me, Chris," he said in mock sincerity.

"All he's got is a simple ear infection. Nate's on the way back with him now. One of us can give him a lift home and drop his jeep off. He should be feeling pretty good in a day or two."

"Don't forget we were going out to that new steakhouse tonight."

"Damn. I did. Well, let's play it by ear, and see how he's feeling."

Buck shook his head and smiled at Chris's unintentional pun as he headed back to his own desk.

+ + + + + + +

"Mr. Larabee, did you forget anything, or anyone?" Ezra smiled benignly as he reached for his car door.

"No." Chris frowned as he patted his chest and back pocket. "Nope. Got my wallet. got my keys."

Smiling, Ezra silently looked at Chris, quirking an eyebrow as he looked at Josiah, JD, and Buck.

"Damn." Chris let out a loud breath. "Damn it all to hell," he muttered as he stalked to the garage elevator. "I can't believe I walked out and forgot about Vin. How could I miss him? He's been drooling and snoring all over my couch all afternoon..."

Laughing, Buck jogged to catch up with the leader.

"How the hell could I miss him? The couch is right under the light switch." He angrily punched the button to the correct floor as the doors slid closed.

Buck walked quickly, keeping his strides even with Chris's as they approached the team's office.

"Come on, Chris... go easy on yourself...he was sound asleep all afternoon, and you've had alot on your mind. Vin..." Buck strode into Chris's office and flipped on the over headlight. Crouching down, he lightly shook the sharpshooter's shoulder.

"I'll get his jacket." Chris turned away from the door and went to Vin's desk.

"Hey, come on pard...time to rise and shine. Wake up Vin," Buck smiled. "That's it. Junior...wake up for ol' Buck."

Yawning, Vin scratched his head as he slowly sat up.

Dropping on to the couch beside Vin, Buck threw an arm across his shoulders. "You awake there?"

"Ummm...hmmm," Vin licked his lips slowly and yawned again.

"Look...before Chris gets back. He forgot all about you being asleep in here. What do you say? Flash those baby blues and make the old man feel so guilty he picks up the whole tab," Buck whispered.

Without a word, Vin smiled and winked at Buck.

"Hey Vin? You awake? Ready to go grab a bite to eat?" Chris asked as he walked in with Vin's jacket.

As Vin stood unsteadily, Buck smiled. It wasn't until Vin reached for the jacket that Chris held out and completely missed it, that Buck realized that Vin wasn't acting. He really was dizzy.

Oh well, was worth a try...woulda been a good joke...

"Where is everybody?" Vin asked as they walked through the outer office.

"They're downstairs waiting for us, Vin."

"Already? Sure got there fast..."

"Well...I...uh...damn it Vin...I'm sorry...I forgot you were asleep in my office..." Chris stared straight ahead, not looking at his younger friend.

"Forgot me?" Vin sighed. "You forgot me Chris?"

Buck nearly choked as he vainly held back his laughter as Vin poured on the guilt.

"Boy...I'm sure hungry..."

Turning his head slightly, Vin winked again at Buck as the elevator doors slid shut.

December 22, 7:30am

"Oh, man, Vin," JD panted, "I don't believe it. You been out sick for two days and I still can't beat ya." JD tossed the basketball behind him and smiled. Flinging himself down on the bench beside Vin, he leaned back against the wall and grabbed a towel. Breathing heavily, he mopped the perspiration from his face.

Smiling, Vin leaned against the wall, and drawing his knee up, put his foot on the bench. Exhaling loudly, Vin rested his elbow on his raised knee and took a long swallow of water. JD quietly watched a single bead of sweat as it traveled down Vin's tanned calf. Reaching to his side, he snagged another towel and tossed it to Vin.

"Thanks kid," Vin grinned as he caught it with his free hand. Taking a deep breath, Vin closed his eyes and let it out slowly as he silently offered the water bottle to JD.

Lifting the bottle to his mouth, JD thirstily gulped the water before handing it back to Vin.

"You know, when I was a kid," JD hiccoughed loudly and then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, "I used to pretend I was Larry Bird. Thought I'd grow up and play for the Celtics."

Opening one eye, Vin glanced at the younger man to his side, an easy smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

"Well, yeah, I was just a dream," JD explained. "Used to pretend I was Starsky too, and here I least I was close on that one."


"You know, Starsky and Hutch..."

Chuckling softly, Vin shook his head as he took another gulp of water.

"Hey, I bet you used to pretend to be that guy from SWAT... you turn your hat backwards like he did..." JD nodded as he smiled.

Looking to his side, Vin's brow furrowed as he stared at JD.

"Come on know...that guy that was the sniper on the show, SWAT." JD nodded and moved his hands as he tried to explain it to Vin. "What was his name?" JD snapped his fingers, "It's on the tip of my tongue."

"Nope. Don't know who you're talking 'bout...and I turn my hat around so the brim don't get in my way."

"How'd you get to be such a good shot? Did you do a lot of hunting when you were a kid, like Chris and Buck?"

"Naw, never touched a gun at all, 'til I went in the army."

"Never?" JD's voice rose in surprise.

"JD," Vin exhaled loudly in exasperation. "I was a state kid...and just 'cause of that...people used to think I was messed up. Now who in their right mind do ya think is gonna pass a kid like that a gun? When I went in the army, they said I was a natural...and 'fore I knew it, I was in the Rangers." Shaking his head, Vin snorted and looked away as he took another sip of water. "Natural born killer is about all I'm good at." Disconcerted, Vin crossed his arms and pointedly looked away as JD regarded him somberly.

"I'm sorry Vin."

Shaking his head, Vin let out a short grunt as he stood. Rubbing his sore shoulder, he moved his arm on a small circle. "Got nothing t'apologize for, JD," Vin sighed. "When I was a kid...I never imagined I wanted to be someone else...just wanted to belong someplace. Me an' my bag used ta get moved around all the time. Never felt like I belonged any place...some people just wanted me for what I could do for them..."

Seeing the confusion in JD's eyes, Vin continued as he sat down again. "You see JD...some people wanted a foster kid for chores, or to watch some younger kids, to replace their dead kid...some just plain wanted the money."

JD frowned as he took in the meaning of Vin's statement.

"All my life, so long as I'm useful...people want me...that's how I ended up in too...I shoot good, so here I am," Vin shrugged.

"Aw, come on Vin, you know that ain't true," JD insisted. "You do other things too."

"JD, what are most of my assignments? You're there. I don't get backgrounds and papers like the rest of you all. You hear what I'm told, ' just go up there and watch out for the bad guys'.'s okay." Vin raised his hand as JD started to protest."I didn't exactly graduate top of the class, like you. I know what Chris recruited me for...and I'm good at it, but someday, if I can't shoot...I'll be gone...they won't have me riding a desk." Vin smiled as he again stood up.

"Vin, you're probably the most important member of the team," JD offered, but stopped as Vin smiled down at him disbelievingly with raised eyebrows. You've saved all our butts more than once. "You mean you've never felt like you belonged any place?" Even with us?

"Nope." Frowning, Vin bit his lower lip. "Well, once I did," he added, "but I messed up and got sent away. Didn't even get ta take m' bag that time..."

Furrowing his brows, JD leaned forward, listening intently.

"Aw, hell, look at the time," Vin stated as he nodded at the clock on the gym wall."We best get moving if we're gonna take showers before we head upstairs." Smiling, Vin threw his arm across the younger man's shoulders as they headed for the locker room. "So..I need your advice about a Christmas present. Which do ya think ol' Buck would like better a CD by Slim Whitman...or one by Yanni?" he smiled, quickly putting the serious topic behind them.

December 22, 7:45am

"Listen up, conference"

Four pairs of eyes stared at Chris Larabee's back as he strode past. Arms laden with a briefcase, files, tapes, and juggling a cup of coffee, he hadn't noticed the missing pair. Stopping in mid-stride, he turned and frowned at the two empty desks, unable to disguise his annoyance in front of the others.

"Where are they?" he said tersely. His voice, though quiet, had an ominous quality. The team had been assigned to back-up team three on short notice. He didn't have time to brief his men, and retrieve and possibly repair the Disaster Duo.

Josiah, aware of Chris's annoyance, tried to coax him into a better mood. "Easy Chris, they're not late. It's not quite eight yet."

"Damn it Josiah, even Ezra's here already."

An arched eyebrow indicated Ezra's humorous surprise. Biting his lip, he stifled a grin and leaned over his keyboard, amused that Chris had used him as an example.

"Now Chris, don't forget it's Friday. You know they hit the gym every Friday morning. They've never been late. They'll be here in time."

"JUST in time," Buck added. Tipping his chair back, he put his feet up on his desk. "Now if you ask me, those two are just irresponsible...not like when we were their a...."

"Don't even go there Buck," Chris interrupted as his tight expression relaxed into a smile. "No matter how old you get, you'll never be as old as Vin, or even JD, for that matter."

Grimacing in good humor, Buck stood and followed the others into the conference room.

+ + + + + + +

"Why don't we try to raise them on the cell phone, tell them to speed it up and get up here now before Chris ruptures something?"

"Yeah, that's an idea, Josiah," Buck agreed as he pulled out a chair and sat, "only don't call JD's...I got his."

"Well, okay then...I'll just call Vin," Nathan shrugged as he started dialing the phone.

"There's no point in that, gentlemen," Ezra smiled as he took a sip of coffee and sat beside Buck.

Buck's eyebrows raised inquiringly as he glanced sideways at Ezra.

"Unless it's turned on, and actually in his hand, you won't get in touch with Mr. Tanner," Ezra explained.

"Okay, I'll just leave a voice mail then..."

"Before you do that," Ezra grinned mischievously, "has any one in this room ever received a return call from Mr. Tanner when you've left a message?"

"No, as a matter of fact, can't say as I have," Josiah admitted.

"Me either," Nathan agreed as he stroked his chin thoughtfully. "I wonder why?"

"Well, why is quite simple...he has no idea how to retrieve messages...and I know because I personally have left him quite a few that should have garnered a reaction," Ezra smiled.

Chuckling, Buck shook his head and leaned back in his chair. As Chris entered the room, the four agents quieted and took their seats.

+ + + + + + +

Seated around the conference table, studying the handouts Chris had distributed, the quiet arrival of the team's two youngest almost went unnoticed.

"Good, you're here. Come on, sit down." Chris reached across the table and passed a folder to JD. "Damn...thought I had enough." Chris shuffled through a stack of folders impatiently. "That's okay Vin. I can just show you where you'll be positioned."

JD looked up as Vin nodded at Chris without speaking, the tensing of his jaw betraying his deep frustration. Tipping his chair back, Vin's fingers drummed distractedly on the arm rest as he watched the other agents quietly reading their paperwork.

"Okay then," Vin put the chair down on four legs and stood up. "Guess you don't need me I'm gonna go sign out some ammunition."

+ + + + + + +

"What? Oh, yeah...sure...go ahead," Chris agreed without looking up.

"You guys are unbelievable!" JD glanced sharply round, his eyes blazing.

"What is it, JD?" Chris sighed.

"Vin was an Army Ranger. A friggin' Army Ranger. You guys have any idea how hard it even is to be one? He can probably run circles around all of us...and you guys treat him like some idiot who's good for nothing but shooting people."

"JD," closing his eyes, Chris took a deep breath and pinched the bridge of his nose before he answered. Since when does the kid think he has to defend Vin? "Vin is the team sniper. That is his position, just like you have your own to worry about." Chris responded in a tense, clipped voice that forbade any disagreement. "If he's got a problem with that, then he can come see me. That's his position, and he knows and I are not going to discuss it. Now, if you're through, finish up and let's get going...we have a meeting with team three."

Standing with his hands on his hips, Chris grimly watched the others as they perused the documents. What the hell was that all about?

December 22, 4:00pm

Opening the door, Chris jumped out of the van as soon as the vehicle stopped. The warehouse was still several blocks away, but this was the designated meeting area. Zipping his jacket, Chris looked up to see Paul Coates, the leader of team three, advancing towards him with an outstretched hand.

"Chris, thanks for backing us up on short notice."

"Glad we were free," Chris nodded as he released the other man's hand. Looking over his shoulder, he watched his fellow agents climbing from the rear of the van.

"Tanner up to par?" Coates eyed Vin with a critical squint. He was aware of Vin's recent concussion and bout of illness.

"No more dizzy than usual, Paul," Chris grinned. "Don't worry, he'll watch your back...and if he sees two of ya...he'll just close one eye."

"Watch out," the other man chuckled, "one of these days, I'm gonna persuade him to leave your merry band of misfits and transfer to my team."

Noting the slight grin on Paul's face as he looked over Chris's shoulder, Chris hesitated to turn around. He could only imagine what antics may have been going on behind his back. Taking a deep breath, he scowled and slowly turned around. Nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary. The 'merry band of misfits' was actually behaving itself. Nathan was checking his weapon and his first aid supplies. Vin had just finished zipping his vest and now Buck was helping him with his safety harness and lines. JD was preparing to do a radio check. Wincing, Chris touched his ear as a burst of static erupted. Smiling, he listened to the exchanges in his ear as the men each responded to JD's call.

"Houston, we have a problem."

"Gotchya, Gizmo..."


Chris pursed his lips in a grin as he noted the exasperation in JD's tone.

"I've told you, and told you...I'm Wiz, for computer wiz..."

"And I've told ya, I ain't from Houston..."

"Vin...I know that...but 'Texas, we have a problem' doesn't make sense..."

"No problem, Gizmo."


Chris silenced his radio as Josiah attempted to intervene. Looking up, he noticed Paul watching him with a smile.

"Boys bickering again?"

"No, no... they're fine."

Pointing to his own ear, Coates winked and smiled.

"My radio's still on Chris. You turned yours down too soon..."

"Yeah, well..."

"Listen, your men may be high spirited, but they're also high skilled. I specifically requested you as back-up, and not just so I could woo Tanner. Come on, let's look over those plans one more time."

+ + + + + + +

Standing behind a stack of crates, Chris watched his men taking their places. Looking up, he saw Vin perched on a catwalk, safety lines securely tied off. Grinning slightly, he listened as each of his men called in, including 'Houston' and 'Gizmo'. Poor JD had lost the squabble when each of the others adopted the name.

The bust passed in a blur of slow motion. Everything went as planned. No matter how long he was in this line of work, it never ceased to amaze Chris that men intelligent enough to set international arms deals were actually stupid enough to think they could shoot their way through two heavily armed teams of ATF agents. The alleged criminals were easily brought down. Vin covered everyone's back from his high perch in the rafters. Everything went as planned. Everything, until Vin broke cover.

"Larabee! Four o'clock!"

Chris spun around in time to see his attempted killer crumple to the ground, dead. He inclined his head toward Vin in a small gesture of thanks as a half smile crossed his face. The warehouse was silent as the agents slowly came from their hiding places and started to secure the area.

Chris's smile quickly vanished, wiped away by fear, as a single gunshot shattered the silence and Vin fell. Chris was vaguely aware of the rapid gunfire around him. His mouth went dry as he watched Vin fall backwards and start to plummet to the concrete floor. His rapid descent ended abruptly when he reached the end of the rope. Chris felt his heart hammering in his chest as Vin suddenly jerked and then hung limply.


December 22, 6:00pm


The air was thick with tension as Buck and Chris each moved toward the fallen sharpshooter. Chris was stunned as he followed Buck, silently thanking God that Vin had been wearing the harness.

"Now, hold on there. We'll get ya down." Buck called, his voice shakier than he would have liked.

Vin's head was down as he slowly swayed, Buck's words didn't register as he struggled back to wakefulness. There was a long brittle silence as Vin breathed in shallow, quick gasps.

"Vin, where do you hurt?" Chris asked with deceptive calm.

At the sound of his voice, Vin lifted his head and listened. Though he didn't answer, his face spoke for him. Unspoken pain was alive and glowing in his eyes as the color drained from his face.

" 'm fine," Vin answered, his voice fragile and shaking.

"Vin...the truth," Chris demanded in an uncompromising, yet oddly gentle tone.

"M' back hurts some," Vin admitted in a weak and tremulous whisper.

'hurts some'...great The tensing of his jaw betrayed his deep concern as Chris watched Buck gently lower Vin to Josiah's waiting arms.

+ + + + + + +

The team's assault on the Emergency Department was no less impressive than when it had earlier descended on the abandoned warehouse. The stubborn Texan had slowly shuffled in on his own two feet and now the six black clad men were anxiously awaiting news of his condition. The wait had been agonizingly long for the team as well as the hospital staff.

"This is ridiculous," Chris spat out as he stood at the window with his hands on his hips. "What is taking so long?" The hours waiting were taking their toll, and Chris's worry was spilling out as anger.

"Now easy there, Chris," Nathan answered with staid calmness. "You know he's not that serious. He's not their first priority."

Scowling at Nathan, Chris turned back to the window, muttering under his breath about hospitals, doctors, and bureaucracy.


"What?" Chris glared at Buck.

"Uhhm..." Buck cleared his throat and inclined his head slightly toward the doorway.

The young woman standing just inside the room instinctively took a step back as the six men advanced. Her eyebrows raised inquiringly as she managed a small, tentative smile. "Are you gentlemen all with Vin Tanner?"

"I want to see him, now," Chris demanded, his voice was firm, final.

"Well, actually, the doctor said you could come out back to keep him company...but not all of you." Smiling slightly, she started to leave, knowing that she would be followed.

As Chris followed her, he knew without looking that Buck was right behind him.

"So, how's he doing?" Turning his smile up a notch, Buck waited for an answer.

"Well, we gave him something, so he's not in any pain at the moment. Here you go..." Stopping, the young woman parted the curtain and allowed the two men to enter.

"Chris!" Lifting his hand slightly, Vin waved as one corner of his mouth was pulled in to a lopsided grin. Turning his head, his face lit up as his smile widened.

"Buck! Buck, Buck, bo, Buck, banana, fanna, fo, fu..."

Moving quickly, Chris dropped a hand over Vin's mouth and grimaced in good humor.

"Hey, buddy...did they give you something?" Chris smiled as he leaned forward, a trace of laughter in his voice.

"Yep." Smiling crookedly, Vin glanced at Chris and winked. "See, they shoved a needle right here in my a..."

Choking back a laugh, Buck quickly threw the sheet back over Vin's bare bottom as Chris clamped his hand over Vin's mouth again.

Frowning, Chris shifted as he stood at Vin's head, ready to silence him again if necessary. 'Keep him company' my ass...they drugged him up and want us to baby-sit him.

"So, your back hurtin' you any?"

"Nope. Wanna go home. Day-O, day-o, daylight come and me wanna go home..."

As Chris looked in to the glazed blue eyes, he knew that this was one time Tanner was being totally honest. As Buck stood on the other side of the stretcher, he couldn't keep the amused grin hidden.

After a few minutes, Vin's breathing slowed and his eyes slowly closed. Fatigue started to set in while Chris and Buck waited, listening to the slow, steady breathing of their friend.

"Oh...hello there."

Buck and Chris became instantly alert as a young man in blue scrubs entered, carrying Vin's chart. Reaching out his hand, introductions were made.

"Mr. Tanner? Mr. Tanner?" Shaking Vin's shoulder slightly, he waited while Vin slowly opened his eyes and blinked owlishly. "Hello there. I'm Dr. Curtain. I understand you hurt your back..."

"Mmm,hmmm," Vin nodded his head slightly as he licked his suddenly dry lips.

"And you were shot in the shoulder, but your protective vest prevented bullet penetration..."

Looking up, he put the chart down and pulled the top of Vin's johnny down. Touching the shoulder gently, he probed the bruised flesh. "Doesn't feel broken...but I want an x-ray. Can you tell me what happened?"

"Just doin' my job," Vin slurred and yawned.

"And that is?"

"Coverin' everyone's ass..."

Chris let out an audible sigh and shook his head. "I'm sorry doc, what he means is, he's an ATF know, he's usually not like this," Chris apologized.

"Mr. Larabee, don't worry," the doctor smiled. "How do you think we amuse ourselves? We drug them up and listen to them babble..." he chuckled softly.

Turning back to Vin, he carefully eased him on his side. "So, what happened today?"

"Well...I..." Vin's breathing quickened as he licked his parched lips. "I...I...felt like somethin'..." Vin gasped as the doctor probed his lower back.


"...felt...felt like somethin' burst in m' shoulder...and...and then..." Vin clutched the siderail. "...then...then I"

"I'm sorry...I know that hurt," Curtain placed a hand lightly on Vin's shoulder. Stepping back, he pulled up the sheet and carefully raised the siderail. "Okay, I want to send you for an MRI...want to be sure you didn't sustain a fracture. Ever had one?"


"Any problem with closed spaces...claustrophobia?"


In the corner of his eye, Dr. Curtain noticed Chris and Buck both nodding furiously. Raising an eyebrow inquiringly, he looked down and began writing orders in the chart. Looking up at Vin again, and the two self-appointed protectors, he made a decision.

"Well, just to be safe...I think I'll have Julie give you something to help you relax a bit. If everything looks okay, we should have you out of here in a few hours. Any questions?"

"Yeah...where's Sue?"

"Sue?" Looking briefly down at Vin's chart, he noticed the doctor's name on the facesheet. "Oh...Dr. Seaver...she's gone to visit her family in Texas for the holidays."

+ + + + + + +

"There's a yellow rose in Texas that I am gonna see...nobody else could miss her, not half as much as me..."

Moving to the doorway, Nathan, Josiah, JD, and Ezra smiled as the singing Texan was wheeled past on his return from the radiology department. Following close behind, a grimacing, embarrassed Chris and a smiling Buck stopped in the doorway to talk with the others while transport continued down the hall with Vin.

"She's the sweetest little rosebud that Texas ever knew..."

"Well that answers the question as to why we never hear Mr. Tanner singing," Ezra commented as Vin's loud off-key rendition was still heard.

"...But the Yellow Rose of Texas is the only girl for me..."

"See? I knew it! I bet you Vin's dating his doctor...she's from Texas," JD insisted.

"Shoot, JD...him singing that song don't prove nothin', " Buck argued. "Vin's so private...hell, he could be dating Chris for all we know." In spite of himself, he chuckled at the absurdity of the idea.

"That's not funny Buck," Chris ground out between his teeth, his words were as cool and clear as ice water.


Chris looked up when he heard the doctor's voice as the curtain parted and he entered.

Vin's eyes were closed, and he was thankfully quiet.

" looks like a muscle strain in his back...his shoulder is deeply bruised. I'm writing him a 'script' for a muscle relaxant and we can get you all on your way."

"Thanks, doc." Reaching out, Chris shook hands with the doctor before he left. "Okay, Buck," Chris smiled, "let's see if we can get the singing sharpshooter outta here."

+ + + + + + +

"Chris...I don't feel good." Vin gulped as he stood swaying with Chris's hand on his shoulder. Gasping for air, he put a hand to his head as he broke out in a sweat.

"Whoa...whoa...easy..." Buck grabbed Vin around the waist and eased him the ground as his knees buckled.

Breathing heavily, his nostrils flared while he looked around the spinning room. He lost the contents of his churning stomach as the emesis basin was thrust under his chin.

"Here. Rinse."

Reaching out a shaking hand, he accepted the cup of water. Cheeks flushed with humiliation, he was dimly aware that Buck was at his side, with a hand resting on his back.

" 'm sorry," he mumbled.

"'s okay pard...better here than Chris's truck...just the drugs caught up with ya. Now let's get you in this wheelchair."

Before Vin could protest, Buck had smoothly stood him up and seated him in the wheelchair Chris had commandeered.

Grasping Vin's shoulder as he pushed the chair, Chris squeezed it and gave it a slight pat. "You're coming back to the ranch with me. My hot tub will help that back of yours."


"Vin, there's no point in arguing. I can knock you on your ass if I have to. It's a done deal."

"No. I gotta take my's in my desk."

"What medicine? Oh, the antibiotics," Chris realized as he pushed the chair out the door. "Well, it's late...we're all beat...we've been here half the night waiting for you. It won't hurt you to miss it tonight. Buck will pick it up and bring it by tomorrow. Right Buck?" Chris smiled, giving Buck no chance to refuse.

"Yeah, sure pard," Buck frowned slightly at the sudden change in his plans.

"No," Vin insisted.

"Vin, it's too late to go all the way to the office. I mean won't hurt you to miss a dose..." Chris sighed as he firmly shut the truck door after helping Vin climb in. Turning to the others, he shook hands with Buck before climbing into the truck.

"Okay guys...I'm gonna stop at that 24 hour pharmacy up the street...Buck, I'll see you tomorrow, and don't forget to swing by and pick up those damn pills."

December 23, 8:00 am


Stretching, Chris yawned and slowly opened his eyes. Rubbing his eyes tiredly, he opened his eyes again and blinked. After a few seconds, his eyes started to adjust. There it is again. What the hell? What time is it anyway? Leaning forward, Chris pushed the recliner legs down and reached for his watch on the table at his side. Groaning involuntarily, he reached for his lower back. Standing slowly, he continued to rub his lower back as he stiffly shuffled to the door. Damn. I'm getting too old for this. Gotta stop falling asleep in the recliner.

"Buck," he sighed loudly as he swung the door open. Turning around, he slowly headed for the kitchen.

"Got donuts here. Brought ya some coffee too." Noting Chris's tousled hair and stiff gait, Buck quirked an eyebrow and looked around. "So...where's Junior? Still asleep?"

"Hmm?" Yawning as he stretched, Chris leaned back against the counter and sipped the coffee contentedly. "Yeah, I reckon so...haven't heard from him." Frowning over the selection of donuts, he finally selected one.

"Well, I'll have to take care of that." Buck grinned mischievously as he lounged casually against the door frame. Placing his cup on the counter, the tall man turned and headed for the guest room.

"Hey...Chris ...he's not in here. He sleep in your room?" Without waiting for an answer, Buck went to Chris's room with Chris close behind. "Hmm...not in here either," Buck shrugged.

"Son-of-a-bitch," Chris pushed his way past Buck and sat in a chair. "Better not be out in the barn," he muttered as he reached for his boots and angrily began to yank them on.


Ignoring Buck, Chris stood and began stalking toward the door.

"Chris...hold on...he's in here..."

"What?" Turning abruptly, Chris followed Buck in to the master bath.

Both men stood frozen in the doorway, speechless. Before them, asleep in cold water up to his chin, was Vin.

"Damn it...what the hell's he doing sleeping in the tub?"

"Shoot, saw how drugged up he was last night...he probably passed out..." Kneeling beside the tub, Buck stuck his hand down in to the water, and quickly pulled it out again and reached for a towel.

"Buck, get him on outta there."

"Hey...there ya go...come on Junior...time to rise and shine. That's those eyes for Buck." Gently tapping Vin's cheek, Buck smiled as two blue slits scowled at him. "How the hell did ya manage ta spend the night in a tub of cold water?" Buck softly muttered as he carefully helped a shivering Vin to his feet and out of the tub. Wrapping a towel around Vin, he began to dry him off as Chris adjusted the hot water in the shower.

With teeth chattering, Vin allowed himself to be pushed in to the shower stall and under the hot water.

Leaning against the wall, Buck put a hand on his hip and stared down into the now cold hot tub.

"I set the timer...he must have fallen asleep while the tub was still running...and I spent the night in the recliner." Chris opened his bureau drawers and searched through the folded clothes until he retrieved a pair of sweats and long sleeved jersey.

" ya doin' there Junior?"


Buck bit his lip to keep from smiling as he helped a shivering Vin with the dry clothes. "Can see that. How's your back feelin'?"


"Okay then...come on Vin. Why don't you try lying down and get some decent sleep in a bed?" Placing his hand on Vin's back, Chris gently prodded him from the room.

Each step shot spasms across Vin's pain-laced back as the trio slowly proceeded to the guest room. Lowering himself gingerly to the bed, Vin sighed with welcome relief.

"Here. Open up."

Without protest, Vin accepted the pill Chris pushed in his mouth and swallowed it with water from the cup placed in his hand. With a groan, he lay back and turned away on his side. Closing his eyes as he pulled his knees up, he curled into a ball, attempting to warm his chilled body.

As his mouth spread into a thin-lipped smile, Chris pulled a quilt up, and rested his hand on Vin's shoulder. "Okay get some rest..." Turning, he led Buck from the room and headed for the living room.


Ignoring Buck, Chris continued down the hall.


"What Buck? You want me to say it for you? I screwed up. I screwed up and made him come here 'cause I decided it would be best. But instead, I screwed up and let him freeze his ass off. Go ahead Buck...say it..."

"Hell...I don't need ta pard. You're already doing a good job beating yourself up. You did screw up...he did freeze his ass off. But you know what? Your pity party ain't gonna make him feel any better. Where are you goin'?" Buck frowned as he watched Chris reach for his jacket.

"Out to the barn. Need to see to the horses. Listen, there's a heating pad in the linen closet," Chris stopped and thrust his arm in a sleeve. "Why don't you take that in to him...see if it helps his back any. I'll be back in a little while."

Pushing the door open slightly, Buck quietly walked in to the room. Moving carefully, he gently lifted the blanket and placed the heating pad on Vin's lower back. Hearing Vin's sigh of relief as the warmth spread across his pain-laced back, Buck smiled.

"Hey there, Vin. Vin, Vin, bo bin, banana fanna, fo, fin...

"Ohhh..." Vin raised his hand and rubbed his temple. "Oh, man Buck...I thought," swallowing, Vin sighed before he continued. "I thought it was just a bad dream... I could hear myself, and I....I just...just couldn't shut m' mouth..."

Chuckling softly, Buck sat easily on the side of the bed. "Got yourself quite a repertoire there Tanner."

Flushing, Vin threw an arm across his eyes. "Oh, man..."

"You sorta makes ya feel sorry for Ezra," Buck smiled. "I mean, he suffers from that all the time. You know, everytime he opens his mouth, he just can't shut himself up.."

Smiling, Vin shook his head. "Hey, you got my pills?" Yawning, he rubbed his eyes.

"Chris already gave you one. Remember?"

"No, not those. M'ear pills."

"Aww...damn it Vin....I plumb forgot to grab them when I swung by the office. But you're feeling okay, right? Won't hurt ya to miss a dose or two."

Shaking his head as he frowned, Vin pulled the blanket up and again turned away on his side as he closed his eyes.

"No...I guess not..."


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