by Ronnie

December 31, 9:30am
"...Jimmy died his sophomore year in college..."

"Wh...what?" Chris and Buck froze in a stunned tableau as they stared wordlessly at Mary Sue.

"Yeah," Mary Sue nodded at the men, her faint smile holding a touch of sadness as a round of painful memories surfaced.

"Aww....hell....we....I...I'm sorry....I didn't know," Chris stammered.

"'s okay," Mary Sue shook her head, "it was a long time ago. Jimmy..." Mary Sue sighed and looked down at Vin. "You know, I think Vin was the only real friend Jimmy ever had. For all the trouble the two of them managed to get into, I think Vin brought out the best in Jimmy. Vin never put up with any shit from was like they were brothers, they could be brawling with each other one minute, but God help the person who hurt one of them... You know what I mean?"

"Yeah, I've seen friends like that a time or two myself."

Without looking up, Chris could sense that Buck was staring at him as he answered Mary Sue.

"After Vin left, Jimmy was miserable. He kept to himself...pushed everyone else away. It was like, if he couldn't have Vin, then he didn't want anyone. Somehow, he managed to get through high school and got accepted to college. Mom and Dad hoped that when he went away to college, he'd find some friends. That he'd find again the friendship he shared with Vin." Reaching over the siderail, Mary Sue lightly touched Vin, gently fingering the dressing on his forehead.


Shrugging, she sighed and looked up at Chris and quickly glanced out the window as a hot tear rolled down her cheek.

"He made friends all right...and they were nothing like Vin. He went to Fort Lauderdale for spring break. Between the drugs and the booze, who knows what happened? The cops found him one morning face down on the beach, where his great buddies had left him. You know, Vin told me once that in Rangers, they are told that no one gets left behind....I think Jimmy would have been safer somewhere in the Mideast with Vin that March than he was here in the U.S. Oh well..." Mary Sue sniffed and smiled down at Vin. "You's kinda ironic. Jimmy had everything...and no matter what my parents did or gave him...look how he ended up...and then there's Vin, who had to fight for everything he has..."

"Doctor Seaver..." Buck cleared his throat and smiled down at Vin. "You never said...Vin stayed with that family he was with about five years...that's a long time for a kid in foster care...isn't it? What happened? Did the family move away? Did he go with them, and you lost contact with Vin?"

"No...well...yes...they did move...but..." Hesitating, Mary Sue chewed her bottom lip and frowned at Vin.

"He...I wish he had told you himself. You know he ran off and ended up here, in Denver, when he was about fifteen?"

"Well, yeah," Chris shrugged, "I know he was on his own, living on the streets. I didn't ask, and don't even want to know what he must have done to survive...that's all behind him now."

"He boxed."

"What?" Buck's eyebrows raised. "You mean...he wasn't...he didn't...uhh...really? Boxing?"

"Yes," Mary Sue smiled. "He was what's called a 'back room boxer.' You didn't did...didn't you?"

"Hey, we've both been cops long enough to know what runaway kids resort to in order to survive," Chris insisted.

"But without ever asking, you assumed the worst. So with all your experience, you categorize how people should kids of alcoholics are drunks...runaways sell themselves...the abused become abusers...right?"

"Look...I don't make people behave the way they do, but yes, alot of those things lead to the other..."

"And maybe, just maybe he was afraid he'd lose your respect because of something he couldn't change...something that he couldn't go back and fix." Sitting down, Mary Sue pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. "Damn it Tanner," she whispered softly.

"Buck you were right, the Leary's did move...but Vin was already gone then. What no one knew...well, no one that is, but Jimmy...all those years Vin was with them, Vin was abused. I don't know which one or if both hurt him...he doesn't talk about it..."

"Shit." Chris dropped Vin's hand and stalked away, hands on his hips. "You mean, in all that time...what? five years? No one...not one single person noticed he was being knocked around? You talk like your parents were so'd think Ward and June Cleaver would notice a little detail like that...wasn't your father a cop or something?"

Frowning, Mary Sue nodded her head in agreement.

"You're right. They should have noticed...should have seen something. Maybe they just didn't want to believe it...I don't know...I do know that there hasn't been a day since that they haven't questioned themselves why they didn't know and do something about it. Vin and Jimmy knew that if they said one word about it, Vin would be pulled from the house immediately. I think when it started, Vin just thought that was the way things were...and it wasn't so bad then that he couldn't take it. Vin and Jimmy did a damn good job of hiding it too. I can't tell you how many nights Vin slept over at our house. I asked Vin a few months back, why he put up with it...and you know what he said? He said that my family was the first place he ever felt like he belonged since his mother died. Do you know how sad that is? He was willing to endure what ever shit they gave him, just so he could stay around my warped little family. You's a trait he still hasn't outgrown....he still puts up with a lot so he can feel like he belongs...he thinks that if he speaks up, he can lose it like that," Mary Sue snapped her fingers and walked to the window.

"Uhhh..." Buck cleared his throat and massaged the back of his neck. "It sounds like Vin and Jimmy were pretty tight. How did they hide it for so long?"

"Oh," Mary Sue smiled sadly. "It seems every time Vin got a bump or a bruise that couldn't be hidden with clothes...Jimmy would give himself a matching one. My parents knew they didn't hurt Jimmy, so it didn't occur to them that someone would be hurting Vin to make him black and blue. The trouble those two were always in, there was always a legitimate bruise or two to keep suspicions down. Vin was always a scrappy little thing, he never let on to any one what was really going on. Then one day...I guess he just had all he could take. He ran out of the house, jumped the fence, and headed straight for our house. I don't think more than four or five cars came down our road a day..." Mary Sue shook her head and sadly glanced down at Vin. "He ran right in to the path of the car...the driver never had a chance of missing him. When I close my eyes," Mary Sue swallowed, "I can still hear the brakes screeching and the thud. First time I ever saw CPR being done, was on that dusty dirt road."

"Damn." Buck exclaimed and shook his head.

Turning to stare at Vin, the muscles in Chris's jaw tensed.

"The investigation brought out was going on...they pumped Jimmy with a lot of questions too. My parents tried to get the state to let them take Vin...but they kept hitting roadblocks. When they finally were cleared to take him, it had been a few years, and they were told that Vin was missing. After he was hurt, I snuck in to the ICU to see Vin one day, and all I could see was this little figure, surrounded by a ton of tubes and wires, with a nurse at his side, humming softly and stroking his head. That was the last I saw of him, until a few months ago..."

December 31, 10:00 am

"Hey Sue...Kathy beeped...said you wanted him extubated."

Buck and Chris took a step back as the friendly respiratory therapist entered and interrupted their intense conversation.

"I did mechanics earlier...he looked good..."

Chris and Buck quietly inched closer to the door.

"Mister Larabee..." Mary Sue smiled as her eyebrows raised. "You weren't leaving, were you?" I mean...really...Tanner could divulge classified information..."

" know...extubate...and...uhhh...." Chris stammered. Clearing his throat, he squared his shoulders and clapped Buck on the back. "We'll be just outside the door if you need us..."

Stifling a laugh, Kathy shook her head as she released the brake on Vin's bed and pulled it away from the wall. Lowering the siderail, she moved aside, giving Paul room to work.

"So Paul, any plans for tonight?"

"Oh yeah...big ones," he smiled as he pulled a syringe from his lab coat pocket and deflated the pilot balloon. "Same as every year...Chinese food and watching the ball drop from my lumpy coach."

"You're a wild one Paul," Kathy said with mock sincerity as she began to rhythmically squeeze the ambu bag after Paul disconnected the ventilator.

"Yeah...well...Karen and I both have to work tomorrow," he shrugged as he cut the twill tape. "Okay, here goes..."

"'s's okay Vin," Mary Sue soothed as Vin began to gag while Paul pulled the endotracheal tube from his throat.

His wrists strained at the restraints as he reflexively attempted to raise them.

"Here," Paul quickly disconnected the ambu bag from the end of the endo tube and attached it to a face mask. " him a few breaths."

"That's it...just relax...take some deep breaths."

Mary Sue looked up at the cardiac monitor. "Sinus tach with occasional PVCs...come on Vin...just relax...don't make me kick your ass...come on..." Mary Sue smoothed Vin's hair back. As she spoke softly to Vin, his rate slowed and his breathing evened out. Pulling her stethoscope off her neck, she placed the tips in her ears and placed the diaphragm against Vin's chest. Frowning as she listened intently, she sighed.

"Damn. He's got faint crackles bilaterally at the bases. Paul, you'd better start chest PT tid, and Kathy...I want a chest...PA and lateral. Titrate the O2 to keep his sats over 92," Mary Sue began writing orders. "I'm reordering the fluids, and let's get these restraints off." She looked up as Kathy started to protest. "No...take them off. If he pulls his foley out, it'll be a TURP he won't repeat..." Mary Sue smiled and winked at Kathy as Paul cleared his throat and squirmed slightly. "Oh...and we'd better let the gruesome twosome back in here before Larabee ruptures something," Mary Sue smiled as she washed her hands and walked to the doorway. Drying her hands, she leaned out the door, glanced to her left, and smiled. "Okay guys...come on in...he looks good...go's okay...stay with him awhile, but then I want you both to go grab some lunch...I mean it."

"Uhhh...." Buck frowned as he watched Kathy obtaining some vials of blood from Vin's arterial line. "He...he isn't awake yet?"

"No...give him time...he's breathing on his own right now, and that's good...but he's still pretty ill. Don't forget he also took a swan dive in to the filing cabinet...we're dealing with a concussion here too."

"Yeah," Chris nodded and scratched the back of his head. "But...but he IS gonna wake up...right?"

Lifting Vin's hand, Chris squeezed it slightly and waited hopefully for a response. Lightly touching the dressing on Vin's forehead, he frowned at the bruising peeking around the edges.

Owwww.....Chris? help me please....I don't feel good....

"Come on've been lying here long enough...time you woke up....please....I'm right here for ya..."

December 31, 2:00pm

"Hey, Vin..." Buck smiled as he squeezed the younger man's foot. "Just me. Chris'll be back in a little bit. Josiah made him go for the ride to pick up lunch."

Resting his forearms on the siderail, Buck looked down at Vin and sighed. Except for the absence of the tube protruding from his mouth, Vin looked no different to him. Reaching down, he slowly released the siderail and lowered it before sinking in to the chair at the bedside. Resting his elbow on the armrest, he tiredly rubbed his eyes.

"Awww hell......"

Dragging his hand through his hair, he reached for Vin's hand with the other. "Come on, can beat this...I know it," he whispered softly as he idly rubbed his thumb along the top of Vin's hand.

Time seemed to stall as he watched the gentle rise and fall of Vin's chest, the room silent except for the monotonous tone of the cardiac monitor. A slight movement caught his eye and he sat straighter in the chair as he studied Vin closely.


Grasping Vin's hand firmly, Buck stood and reached for Vin's forehead. Holding his breath, he stared silently as Vin swallowed and turned his head slightly before a barely audible sigh escaped his lips.

"Vin?" Smoothing Vin's hair back, he leaned closer to the sharpshooter's ear. "Now you listen here. I don't know what you can hear, or even how much you understand....but you WILL get better...I'll kick your scrawny Texas ass ta hell and back if I hafta...but this is where ya belong, and don't you even think anything don't you be makin' any plans ta be checkin' out..."

Straightening, Buck looked down at Vin hopefully, praying for a response. Getting none, he patted Vin's leg and raised the siderail.

" get some rest then..."

+ + + + + + +

"Hey Buck, perfect timing," JD smiled as Buck entered the waiting room. "Here ya wanted Italian with extra hots, right?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah...thanks JD." Buck nodded as he sat down and accepted the sandwich JD handed him.

"Y'okay Buck?" Josiah asked.

" don't know..." Buck sighed. "I guess I just hoped he'da woke up by now."

" have to remember he's still pretty sick. He's off the ventilator and breathing on his own, and that's a good sign, but he's still got a long haul ahead of him." Nathan insisted.

"What are you saying, Mr. Jackson?" Ezra asked quietly.

"What I'm saying is that I don't want you guys to get your hopes up too high. Meningitis has complications...he's still got a lot going on. His temperature was very's still up there...and forget how many seizures he had...and the meds they've been pumping in to him...who knows how he's gonna come out of this? We could be dealing with deafness...brain damage..."

"Enough. I don't want to hear any more."

"Chris, ignoring reality isn't going to help Vin any."

"I'm not ignoring anything, Nathan." Chris slammed his hand on the table and stood. "If...and I do mean IF Vin doesn't fully recover, we'll deal with that least I know I will."

"Yeah." Buck nodded in agreement and stood with his hands on his hips at Chris' side.

"Look...Chris...I'm sorry...I'm here for Vin too...we all are...I just want you all to realize Vin's still not outta the woods yet."

"He knows that Nathan, we all do," Josiah smiled and stepped between the men, "and I'm sure we all appreciate your knowledge...but right now, what we all need to have is a little faith."

"There it is."

Looking away from the others, Chris scowled as Mary Sue entered the room and retrieved the box she had left earlier. Carrying it to the table, she placed it down and frowned. Drumming her fingers on the lid, she chewed her bottom lip.

"Something wrong? Vin's okay, isn't he? I was just there..."

" mean, yeah, Vin's dad made this box..."

"And a lovely box it is." Ezra smiled and arched an eyebrow at Chris and shrugged.

"After Vin was taken to the hospital that day, the police stayed and questioned the Leary's before they followed the ambulance. They...the cops...thought they were headed to the hospital when they gave them the okay to the time investigators realized what the whole story was, the Leary's had taken off."


Mary Sue took a slight step back.

"Are you saying that those bastards....that...that they...they...shit..."

"Some people, social workers, I guess, came by while Vin was in the hospital and went into the house. They put some clothes and things of Vin's in a bag and left." Sighing, Mary Sue lifted the lid of the box. "Except for some clothes, these are things they left behind. My mom's had them all this time, hoping, but not really believing she'd ever get them back to Vin."

"Why didn't she just call the state people and tell them they'd forgotten some stuff?" JD asked innocently.

"She did, but she was told it would be best for Vin if he left the past behind." Mary Sue shrugged and sat down as she lifted a battered stuffed bear from under the lid.

Letting out a low whistle, Josiah chuckled as he lifted the bear and gently poked at the threadbare nose. "When he finds out we've seen this, he'll probably wish we'd forget."

Silence filled the room as the six men gathered around the box and watched as the contents were lifted out. Frowning, Chris silently watched as a battered ball cap was taken from the box, followed by an equally battered glove.

"Hey, look at that...Vin had a harmonica even then," JD grinned as he reached in and lifted the shiny object.

" that?"

Chris frowned at the small box Buck was indicating.

"Yeah," he said softly. "I think it is." Lifting it carefully, he opened the box to reveal a Purple Heart.

"Oh, man..." JD exclaimed and inched forward to get a closer look.

"What's that?" Buck's brows furrowed as he watched Chris carefully unfold a piece of paper and begin reading.

"It uhh..." Chris cleared his throat and sat down. Frowning, Chris glanced at the date on the page. "Damn."


"If I remember Vin's birthday right...might be off a day or two...according to this letter, his father was killed on a mission...the same day he was born."

A stunned silence hung heavily as they all stared at the paper in Chris's hand.

"What's this? A cassette?" JD asked as he lifted the rectangular object from the box.

"Yes, Mr. CD Generation smart know these things...they were the things beside those 8-track fossils you discovered in my closet. Hey, it says, 'songs for Vin'," Buck commented as he took it from JD.

"Let me go down to the nurses station." Mary Sue stood. "I think they have a tape recorder around they sometimes use for shift report."

The men were quiet as Chris reached again in to the box and removed some faded photographs.

"Okay...let's see if this thing still works..." Mary Sue placed the cassette in the player and pressed the play button as she sat down.

Glancing down at the side view of a toddler aged Vin as he held a harmonica up to a young woman facing him with a guitar, Chris smiled briefly. Flipping to the next photo in his hands, Chris took a quick breath of astonishment and handed the wedding photo of Kellie and Michael Tanner to Buck.

As Buck stared down at the photographs, his eyes widened. Looking up, his eyes met Chris's and both men felt the hairs on the backs of their necks rise and involuntarily shivered as the young woman on the tape began singing Country Roads.

December 31, 11:00pm

With a long exhausted sigh, Chris stood up, feeling achy and exhausted. Closing his eyes, he pinched the bridge of his nose and frowned as he listened to the distinct sounds of yet another nursing shift change.

"Hey, Mr. Larabee..."

Chris glanced at the young woman standing in the doorway.

"Just wanted to stop in before I went home. Thanks for all the Chinese guys didn't have to do that."

"''re welcome..." Chris stammered, "we just wanted to thank you all for everything you've done for Vin...for ALL of us..."

As the nurse smiled and stepped from the doorway, Chris noticed that the halls lights had dimmed, and the unit had grown quieter. Walking to the head of the bed, he lowered the volume on the radio that JD had insisted on placing there before he left for the night with the others.

"So...this station okay with you? Don't mind if I turn it down a bit, do you?" Arching his eyebrows, Chris glanced sideways at Vin. Getting no response, Chris shrugged his shoulders. "Oh? What's that? You got nothing to say? Well, I guess you won't mind if I just switch the station too...let's about some soft rock?" Sighing, Chris shook his head and stared down at Vin. "Damn it Vin...did you just hear me? I just said soft rock. I put soft rock on...soft rock Vin. Don't ya have anything ta say about that?"

"Chris? What are you doing?" Ginny chuckled as she entered the room. "Are you trying to torment that poor thing to consciousness? I swear, you must have taken the same bedside manner class as Seaver."

"No...well...uhhh..." Forgetting the radio, Chris grinned sheepishly and backed away from the bedside.

"Well, let me give Vin his meds, do a quick checkover and straighten him out a bit...and then you can sit here and listen to The Pina Colada Song and American Pie 'til your little heart's long as you promise not to start singing out loud," the older woman smiled.

Leaning against the wall, Chris watched patiently as Ginny recorded Vin's vital signs, checked his pupils, auscultated his breath and bowel sounds, measured his oxygen saturation, and adjusted the nasal cannula in what seemed like only a few moments.

Looking up, Ginny recognized Chris's need to feel useful as she hung an antibiotic and reset the infusion pump. "Chris? Think you could give me a hand?" She smiled as she asked for help she didn't need.

"Uhhh...yeah...sure...." Pulling his hands from his pockets, Chris stepped to the side of the bed.

Pulling Vin's hips slightly towards her, Ginny easily lifted the drawsheet and turned Vin to face Chris. "Just put your hand there on his shoulder," she instructed as she lowered the sheet in her hand back down to the bed. "And put this one here on his hip. leave it," she smiled as she took Chris's hand and placed it back on Vin's hip where she wanted it. As she gently rubbed lotion on to Vin's back and pulled the sheets taut, she glanced up at Chris and smiled. " blush like that just with your hand on his hip, I guess we better switch sides when we turn him this way...hate to see what happens if you get a peek at his bare backside," she winked.

"'s's not's just...just that...uhh...ohhh.....crap...." Chris stammered and flushed again as he looked down and realized that she had pulled Vin back and had indeed turned him to face her.

"Well, if you can stop staring at those two pretty little tight tanned cheeks long enough to pull the wrinkles out of the sheet, we'll be done."

"Uhhh...yeah...sure...there...there...done." Quickly backing away from the bed, Chris stumbled in to the chair behind him.

"Alright. Well, that's it. I'm finished. How are you doing?" Ginny asked as she finished tucking the sheet under the mattress and gathered the discarded linen.

"Pretty good. I think he's all set."

"I know how HE'S doing, I asked how are YOU doing? You've had a pretty rough couple days, you holding up okay?"

"Yeah. I'm fine. Really." Chris nodded absently.

" holler if you need anything. Don't forget that chair in the corner reclines, and there's blankets on the shelf." Reaching for the switch as she left the room, she dimmed the overhead lights, leaving Chris alone again with Vin.

Staring out the window, Chris gazed at the Denver skyline. Nearly midnight, the many white dots of light were a sharp contrast to the dark mountain peaks in the distance. Sensing that someone had entered the room, Chris smiled and turned, expecting to see Buck. Frowning, he shrugged and turned again to look outside when he realized he was still alone with Vin.

Lost in his thoughts, and only half listening to the radio as he gazed at the lights outside and reminisced about happier times spent with Vin, he almost didn't hear the DJ announce that he was about to play a special request in honor of John Denver's birthday.

What did he just say? Was that a special request from a Kellie?

Frowning, he stared sideways at the radio.
Almost heaven,West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains,
Shenandoah River.....
Life is old there....older than the trees,
Younger than the mountains, growin' like a breeze....
Country roads, take me home....
To the place I belong....

Feeling a sudden chill up his spine, Chris turned again, sensing that he wasn't alone. A soft gasp escaped and he felt his heart hammering in his chest when he saw the two glassy blue eyes staring at him.

"No Vin..."

Gently taking Vin's hand, he pulled it away as Vin reached to pull the oxygen off.

"Ch...Chris? I...I gotta..." Vin stammered, managing no more than a hoarse whisper.

" don't 'gotta' do anything," Chris shook his head as he gently pushed Vin back down on the bed, his voice uncompromising, but gentle.

Vin's eyes filled with tears of frustration and he lifted his hand again and covered his eyes.

"Hey." Reaching for Vin's hand, Chris pulled it away from his eyes and held it as Vin shuddered and a hot tear slipped from the corner of his eye and traced a wet path to his ear. "Hey, come on." Chris wiped the tear away with his thumb as he continued to hold Vin's hand and gave it a firm squeeze. "Come's's alright....just you and me here...just you and me," he sniffed. Smiling down at Vin, he suddenly realized his own eyesight was clouded. "Nothing ta be ashamed about...just you and me..." Wiping another lonely tear away from Vin's temple, he smiled broadly as Vin finally tightened his hand in his grasp.

"Don' feel good...sorry..."

"I know," Chris nodded sympathetically and winced at the hoarseness of Vin's voice. "I know ya don't. Hate ta break it to ya...but ya look like shit too. But it's gonna be're gonna be fine....Buck's around here someplace...we're all here for ya Vin...I'm right here with you...all the way..."

"Chris?" Vin swallowed and winced. "Chris.....sorry...don't like pina tequila...sorry..."

"Nothin' to be sorry for Vin...nothin' at all...." Chris smiled and nodded as he watched the younger man's eyes slowly close again.

"Happy New Year, Vin...happy new year..." Chris grinned as he reached for and pressed the nurse call button.

January 1, 1:00 am

" your page...he awake?" Buck smiled hopefully as he passed a styrofoam cup of coffee to Chris. "Well?" Buck's eyebrows raised inquiringly as he glanced at Chris over the rim of his own cup. "How's he doin'? Okay if I go in ta see him?"

Sighing, Chris leaned his head back against the wall. "I don't know...the nurses chased me on out...they're in with him now."

" is he? Seaver been around yet?" Buck pushed.

"Yeah," Chris cleared his throat as he tore open the plastic lid of his cup. "Curtain was with her. They both went in."

"So...what'd she say? He's gonna be okay, right?"

"I don't know." Chris closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I asked her, and all she'd say was she's 'cautiously optimistic'...whatever the hell that means."

"Well, how'd he seem ta you?"

Chris shrugged as he lifted his cup and took a tentative swallow. Sighing, he placed his free hand on the rail behind him and stared down at his cup.

"Buck, in all the time you've known ever seen him get rattled by anything? Anything at all?"

"Naw...can't say I have. Why?"

"He woke up Buck...and I..." hesitating, Chris sighed and massaged the back of his neck. "He...he was so upset...and...and I could see he was scared..." With a heavy sigh, Chris leaned his head against the wall. "I didn't know what to do...couldn't help him at all."

"You were there?"

Glancing sideways, Chris frowned at Buck.

"Maybe that's all he needed. Think it's been a long time since Vin's felt he had a place ta call his own, or thought he had a place in anyone's heart." Sighing, Buck paused and stared at the toe of his boot. "Maybe all you could do was be there...maybe all he needed was someone ta be there."

" friend I am... According to JD, I treat him like a moron."

"Now you know right well the kid didn't say it like that. He meant that maybe we sometimes don't appreciate Vin and give him enough credit for what he has ta offer. Hell," Buck smiled as he placed his cup on the railing and crossed his arms. " I know, I for one was surprised myself one time...who'd ever thought ol' Junior here could speak another language?"

Shaking his head, Chris smiled and let out a short snort. "Buck, being able to say 'fuck off' in that many languages hardly qualifies Vin as a UN interpreter."

Sighing, Chris frowned again and cleared his throat. "What I don't get, is I thought we were good friends. If I said or did something that hurt him, why didn't he tell me? WHY are you looking at me like that?"

"Chris," Buck smiled and put his arms across Chris' shoulder. "Hate ta break it to ya...but ain't never exactly been accused of being touchy, feely, 'Mr. Sensitive' Alan Alda yourself. You mean ta say you want Vin to sit around and discuss his feelings? It ain't gonna happen. He's managed all this time by survival of the fittest. He's not about to let his guard down, maybe not even with you."

"Well, then what kind of friends are we? I hurt him and never even noticed....but JD knew."

Shaking his head, Buck sighed and put his hand on his hip as he searched for appropriate words. "I don't know what ta tell ya Chris, but I'll tell ya one thing. Don't you ever doubt his friendship."

Sighing, Chris massaged the back of his neck. "Yeah, well..."

"No. Listen. My momma always said there were different kinds a' men friends...."

"Your mother? Your mother, the..." Chris interrupted.

"My mother, the saint," Buck finished.

Shaking his head, Chris vainly attempted not to smile.

"First, there's the kind who's like an acquaintance," Buck raised one finger, "the one ya see now and again, share a beer or two, play cards, chat about nothing."

Clearing his throat, Chris smiled and looked up at Buck. "Just 'chat'? Nothing else?"

Scowling, Buck shifted and took a deep breath before continuing. Lifting a second finger, Buck resumed. "Then there's another kind. The fellow that no matter what, no matter when, you know you can call and he'll be there for ya in two shakes. That's you and me." Using his fingers, Buck gestured at Chris and himself as Chris smiled at him. "But then there's another kind. Sure, you can ask him for help any time. But when you casually mention you'll be doing some work around your house some Saturday morning, he just 'happens' ta show up...without you ever asking. And not only does he show up, but he brings with him all the right tools you didn't even know you needed. Never says a word about the help he's givin' ya. Ya never hear a thing about what he coulda been doin' the end of the day, when ya still ain't finished, he says he'll see ya in the mornin' as he's leavin'." Pausing, Buck stared at Chris. "That's you and Vin."

Sighing, Chris nodded slightly as he agreed with Buck. "You and me...we go way back."

"Yep. That we do. Long before I started checking out the Grecian Formula aisles or you started paying attention to the Hair Club for Men ads," Buck smiled.

Shaking his head, Chris fought vainly to suppress a smile. "Well, I...I just wanted to say I'm sorry we haven't been as close as we used to...and...and thanks for being here now.

"Where would I be? Well yeah..." Buck paused and cleared his throat. "Inez finally did say yes, but I canceled a date with her tonight...but that was for Vin. I'm here if ya need me Chris, but right now, I'm here for Vin. Besides, no offense pal, but you are pretty high maintenance. I can't begin ta tell ya how glad I am you have Vin to be friends with. He don't seem ta have any problem with your moods or nothin'...yes, I just said you're know I'm right. With him around, I know I ain't gotta worry about ya."

"Shit, Buck...didn't know I was such a burden."

"Awww Chris, you're takin' it all wrong. You know I'll always be here. Vin bein' around don't change that...just eases some of the burden I put on myself."

Smiling slightly, Chris nodded his head.


Turning, the two men glanced at Ginny.

"You can come on back in now."

Nodding in agreement, they walked to the doorway and entered the dimly lit room. Taking deep breaths, they approached the bed and positioned themselves on either side.

"You know," Buck smiled down at Vin, "he looks kinda cute sleeping like this."

Smiling, Chris raised his eyebrows.

"I don't mean it like that," Buck's cheeks flushed. "But look at him Chris. He's so pale, all the little freckles on his nose are standing out...and the sweat is making his hair curl a bit at the edges. Looks like he could be lyin' there dreamin' about his date for the prom."

Glancing down at Vin, Chris smiled and squeezed the younger man's hand. "Yeah...he doesn't quite fit the stereotype for a sniper, does he?" Sighing wearily, Chris frowned as he took a seat.

"What is it?"

"It's nothing. It's just..." Chris clenched his hands, "when I think about what she said...I...I just want to..."

"Chris...ya can't change whatever happened and fix it for matter how much ya wanna." Buck rested his forearms on the siderail and looked across at Chris. "And you know he's not about ta let ya fight his battles."

Shaking his head, Chris leaned back in the chair and sighed. "You know," Chris cleared his throat, "I used to think I had it bad when I got grounded for breaking curfew...but help me...I can't remember my father or my mother ever raising a hand to me in anger. How in the hell did he come through it all okay? You've seen the same studies and reports I is he normal? To listen to him talk, you'd think the kids on Brady Bunch were deprived."

"Maybe he didn't see it as bad as we think it."

"Oh come heard what she said, God only knows what we don't know...something made him run and end up on the streets."

"Hell, know, happiness is a state of mind. It's just according to the way you look at things."

Rolling his eyes, Chris snorted. "Damn, been reading those Dove chocolate wrappers again?"

"Nope. That there's a quote from 'the man' himself...Mr. Walt Disney," Buck grinned.

"Must be my lucky day," Chris muttered. "I'm getting words of wisdom from Mickey Mouse, and a...."

"SAINT," Buck interrupted. "Hey, now there's an idea for when Junior's better...'Vin just woke from a coma...where are you goin' next?'" Raising his eyebrows, Buck nodded and began to hum.

"Oh great...thanks I'll have 'It's a Small World' in my head the rest of the night," Chris sighed with exasperation.

Stopping, Buck frowned and absently chewed his bottom lip. "Hey, d'you say if ya called the others?"

"No." Chris rested his elbow on the armrest of the chair. "Thought about it, but figured I'd wait 'til morning. They all just left. Didn't want them all turning around and coming back in with all the drunks out on the road tonight."

" got a point...and you know they would have come right back in...that and maybe by daylight, we can figure out a way ta get Ezra ta call on Nettie again, so you don't have ta."

"I'm not afraid of Nettie." Chris frowned.

"Didn't say ya was." Buck's eyebrows raised innocently. "But oh, hey aware how red your ears get when you're on the phone with her?"

Scowling at Buck, Chris stood. Stretching, he was unable to stifle a low groan. "Damn, I'm beat."

"Why don't ya go find a couch and stretch out?"

Nodding slightly, Chris thrust his hands in his pockets and stared down at Vin. "You find me if he needs me...anything...anything at all?"

"Go on," Buck prodded, "I'll stay with Junior...get some rest."

+ + + + + + +

Taking a deep breath, Chris arched his head back and stared up at the night sky as he slowly released it. Reaching in to his pocket, he retrieved his cell phone and opened it. Squinting, he stared down at the number pad as he scrolled down the frequently dialed numbers. Vin....Buck....Travis....finding the desired name, he pressed the dial button.


"Uhh..." pausing, Chris cleared his throat, "hi."

Chris? What is it? Is it Vin?

"It's okay...he woke up...he knew me..." Nodding, Chris closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.

Thank God. What is it Chris? What's wrong?

"I don't know...just tired I guess...I don't know...been a long few days."

Where are you now?

"In front of the hospital...Buck's with him...I'm supposed to be catching some sleep." Placing his hand in his pocket, Chris looked down at his feet as he absently shuffled them in the sand on the pavement. "Uh huh...yeah...I know...well okay...I won't keep ya...just wanted to let ya of the guys will call you in the morning. Don't say anything about me calling...okay? too...night Nettie."


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