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Chris spun around in reaction to a noise coming from behind him. Shining his flashlight back towards the sound, he was surprised and relieved, and at the same time disappointed, when Vin and JD came into his line of sight.

"Am I ever glad to see you two!" he exclaimed, waiting for them to join him. "How did you know we were here?"

"Didn’t for sure," Vin replied. "But we were back up at the crash site and JD found where they tossed Buck out of the van. Since you hadn’t made it back to Denver yet, we were coming here to get you to help us look for ‘im."

"You know?" Chris asked. "How?"

"We heard you hollerin’ for Bucklin when we got here," Vin explained. "Then we found his clothes in the cabin."

"No," Chris said crossly. "How’d you know he wasn’t dead?"

"Oh – Cheryl at the Coroner’s office," Vin answered. "Found somethin’ that didn’t look right, so she did a rush fingerprint check and DNA on all three bodies. Told us this mornin’ it wasn’t Buck, so we came back up here to have a look around, backtracking from the crash site. We were fixin’ to call in the cavalry as soon as we checked in with you," Vin said.

"We’ve got Search and Rescue looking for him where they threw Buck out of the van," JD added, pulling his cell phone out of his jacket pocket. "We better get a hold of them and let them know he’s out here."

"Can’t get a signal out from here, JD," Chris explained. "And we just don’t have time to drive up to the main road to make the call. We’ve got find him ourselves. He couldn’t have gone that far."

"How did you find him, Chris?" JD asked.

"I didn’t. He found me," Chris replied, shaking his head. "Somehow, he managed to find his way to the cabin. God only knows how."

"Okay, so what’s he doin’ out here in the woods? What did you do?" JD demanded.

"I don’t know," Chris answered, running a hand through his hair. "He’s hurt pretty bad, JD. And on top of everything else, now he’s got a fever. That gunshot to his head, it’s playing hell with his memory. First time he woke up, it was like he didn’t even know who I was. The way he was fighting me, I had a hell of a time keeping him down. He finally passed out again. He woke up a little while later and thought Sarah and Adam were still alive."

"Then why did you leave him alone?" JD asked, trying not to let his fear or anger show, but not succeeding very well.

"I had to get him out of here and to the hospital," Chris explained, his tone defensive. That in itself was enough to show the other agents just how tired and worried their team leader really was. "I couldn’t take him with me, so I made him as comfortable as possible then went to work on moving that tree."

"We saw," Vin offered, reaching out and resting his hand lightly on Chris’s arm in support.

"I thought he was okay," Chris said. "I didn’t want to leave him, but I had to!"

"Okay, so where do you think he’s goin’?" Vin said, directing his lantern light toward the darkness.

"I don’t know," Chris replied with an exasperated sigh. "I don’t think he does either."

"Ain’t the river out this way?" Vin asked, trying to orient himself with the vague memory of the one time he’d been here before.

"Oh God," JD whispered, his eyes widening in concern.

"Come on, JD. We’ll find him," Vin assured him.

Vin took the lead, using the lantern light to follow the trail left by their missing friend. As they got closer, they could hear the roaring water ahead.

Chris suddenly came to a stop and looked back and forth. "I know where we are!" Chris declared, snapping his fingers. "I think I know where he’s going." Without waiting to see if the others were following, Chris veered off to the left and plunged headlong into the brush. "There’s this rock along the river," he explained without slowing down. "He used to take Adam there to fish whenever we came up here. Adam used to call it ‘Uncle Buck’s quiet place’."

"Chris, wait!" Vin called. "Slow down." He rushed ahead of JD and caught up with their determined leader. As he grabbed Chris’s arm, the blond tried to pull away angrily, but Vin wouldn’t release his hold. "Will you please slow down and listen to me for a minute?"

"What?!" Chris snapped back.

"What if he’s the way you said he was before?" Vin asked, trying to keep Chris’s attention. "You go runnin’ at him, he’s liable to rabbit again and maybe hurt himself worse."

"Vin’s right, Chris," JD agreed, coming up to stand beside him. "And you’re probably right, too. But we got to be careful."

Chris frowned, but finally relaxed in Vin’s grasp and nodded.

"Okay, where’s this spot?" Vin asked.

Chris pointed the way and Vin took the lead again. It didn’t take him long to find Buck’s trail. A few minutes later they made their way to the edge of the clearing. Vin stopped them there, watching Buck for any sign of movement.

JD breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of his ‘big brother’. He strained to see clearly in the dark. It was taking every ounce of self-control he possessed not to run head long straight into a Buck Wilmington hug. "Is he okay?" he finally asked quietly.

"I don’t know," Vin whispered back. "We’re gonna have to do this real careful." He was eyeing how close Buck was to the river below. One wrong move and they might all end up in the raging torrent.

Buck’s head snapped up and he looked around as though he’d heard them. As soon as he opened his eyes, he shut them again against the wave of pain starting at his head and coursing its way through his body. He struggled to his feet and took a tentative step back, falling heavily against the rock.

Instinct drove Chris out of hiding and toward his oldest friend.

"Chris!" Vin hissed.

But Buck had already seen him. The confused look was quickly replaced by a remnant of the hurt expression from the saloon. "Chris? What are you doin’ here?"

"We came to take you home, Buck," he said quietly, walking slowly toward the small outcropping.

Buck started to shake his head, but stopped when the movement only intensified the pain in his head. "NO! Go away."

Chris stopped dead in his tracks and looked at his friend. "Buck-" Chris started. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Vin moving to get in position behind their injured friend, staying in the brush and out of Buck’s line of sight.

"Stay back – I mean it." Buck took another step back and came close to falling when a wave of dizziness almost tipped him over. "It wasn’t my fault – Just leave me alone."

"What wasn’t--?" Chris began, then he remembered the scene in the saloon. "Buck, I am so sorry about the other night. I didn’t mean it. I know it wasn’t your fault."

"I thought you were done beatin’ on me on account of that night," the dark-haired man went on, as if he hadn’t heard Chris. "Thought we got past it."

Chris stood where he was, knowing he needed to find the right words to help his friend, but not knowing what to say to get through to him.

"I loved them too, Chris," Buck said sadly, turning away and staring down into the river below. "They were all the family I had."

"I know," Chris said in a whisper. He sighed and shook his head. Whether it was the head injury or the fever, he wasn’t sure what had Buck in the dark mood he was in. What he did know was that they had to get him off that rock and away from the river. "Come on, Buck. We need to get you to the hospital and get the doctors to fix you up. We’re going to need you back at work."

Buck’s head shot up and he looked straight at Chris. "Don’t work for you no more," he said, his voice thick with hurt and anger. "You fired me. Remember?"

"Dammit, Buck. I didn’t mean that." Chris motioned JD forward and the young agent came out and stood next to him. "Look – JD’s here, too." Chris put a hand on JD’s arm to keep him from going past him. But while Chris only meant to prevent him from maybe spooking the forlorn figure before them, in his confused state of mind Buck only saw JD standing shoulder to shoulder with his hero – taking Chris’s side just like always.

"Go home, kid," he said downheartedly. "Chris is right. Everything I do just gets screwed up. Everybody I love gets killed. Just go on home."

"Not without you," JD said, shaking his head emphatically.

"You don’t need me, kid," Buck said, looking up and offering JD a forced smile. "You got Casey. You got the rest of the guys. You’ll be just fine. Suppose it’s time for me to be movin’ on anyway."

"I DO need you, Buck. You can’t just leave," JD protested. "Denver’s your home."

"Won’t stay where I’m not wanted," Buck said, glancing over at Chris before hanging his head again.

"Fine," JD said, taking another step to put him in front of Chris, folding his arms across his chest. "Then if you go, I go."

"JD--" Buck began, then something to the side caught his attention. Whether it was a noise or a movement, he wasn’t sure, but suddenly his eyes narrowed and he spun around to face it. "Who’s there?" he called out into the dark. When no one answered, he began to back away, inching toward the edge.

To Chris, it looked as though he wasn’t even aware of the danger he was putting himself in.

"Buck! Don’t move!" JD cried out in alarm.

But Chris was already moving. Before either of the younger agents had a chance to reach the lanky agent, Chris raced across the small clearing and put himself in the narrow space between Buck and the drop to the river below. Chris wrapped his arms around Buck’s waist and rolled them both away from the edge. They fell to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. Chris scrambled to a sitting position before Buck could get his legs under him again, ready to hold him down if necessary. But the bigger man was spent. He didn’t fight when Chris wrapped his arms around his shoulders and gently laid him down on the ground. Vin rushed out of the brush and joined Chris and JD as they knelt at Buck’s side.

"Dammit," Chris swore under his breath, as he watched Buck struggle to take a breath. "I think I just busted one of his ribs. We try to haul him out of here and we could puncture a lung or something."

"How are we supposed to get him out of here without hurting him any worse?" JD asked.

"How ‘bout I run back to the cabin and get a blanket?" Vin suggested. "We could put him on it and carry him out to the truck on it like a stretcher."

Chris nodded in agreement, then turned his attention back to his friend lying so still on the ground. "I don’t think we’ve got time to wait for you to run back to the truck and drive up to the main road to call for an ambulance. I’ll wait here with him."

"I’m staying with him, too," JD insisted.

Vin slapped him quickly on the back and then took off in the direction of the cabin, taking Chris’s flashlight with him and leaving the lanterns behind.

"He looks awful," JD whispered, taking in the bruised face, the red bullet crease and the way Buck was curling in on himself. He sat heavily on the ground next to the man he considered his best friend, taking off his jacket and covering Buck with it. He reached up and brushed a twig out of the dark hair, then bit his lip as he gauged the fever by placing the back of his hand on Buck’s forehead.

For Chris, time seemed to have slowed to an agonizing crawl. He knew Vin would get to the cabin and back just as fast as he possibly could, but it just wasn’t fast enough. He had taken a squatting position on the side opposite of JD, rocking back and forth on his heels. He couldn’t help but notice the ragged breaths Buck was struggling to take, the little moans escaping from his unconscious friend, letting him know just how much pain he was in. Watching JD reach out and gently minister to his friend was almost more than Chris could bear.

Keeping a tight rein on his emotions had always been his way of dealing with things, but this was almost more than he could bear and he felt his control slipping away. He shook his head in despair and looked down at Buck, taking in the visible assortment of cuts and bruises. He leaned in close to his friend’s ear and said softly, "You know what, Big Dog? With a friend like me, you sure as hell don’t need any enemies."

"It’s not your fault, Chris," JD said quietly.

"Well whose fault is it? You tell me that, JD," Chris demanded, then softened his tone when he realized JD’s voice was without hostility. "It was me Cruz was after – It’s my fault Buck was in the truck instead of me, and it’s my fault he was there without a gun or backup. If I hadn’t gotten drunk again…"

"You couldn’t have known, Chris," JD reasoned, his anger dissipating with the reality sinking in that Buck was alive and he needed their help. "In his heart, Buck knows that. He’ll tell you himself just as soon as he’s feeling better."

"I don’t know about that," Chris answered back, having trouble finding his voice over the lump in his throat. He couldn’t help thinking that Buck had done a good job with the kid. "Serve me right if he never spoke to me again. But honestly, I can’t even imagine my life without him in it."

JD offered his boss a small smile. "You and me both, Chris."

* * * * * * *

With the heavy blanket in his arms, Vin came running back to where Chris and JD were watching over Buck. Laying it on the ground next to the injured man, they carefully rolled him onto it. Vin and Chris each took a corner by his head and JD took up both corners at his feet, where he could keep a close eye on his ‘big brother’ as they traveled.

The moon had finally risen and made it possible to see without the lanterns. They began a slow and steady walk back to Buck’s truck, keeping him as still and level as possible, taking as much care as they could not to jostle him any more than necessary. After what seemed like an eternity, they were finally at the truck.

"How do you want to do this?" Vin asked.

"I’ll take Buck in the back," Chris replied, his tone of voice leaving no room for argument. "Vin, you drive. JD, I want you to get on the cell phone and keep trying ‘til you can get 911 on the line. Tell them where we are and what we’re in. Tell them we’ll be taking the highway into Fort Collins and have the ambulance meet us. I’m not waiting here for them."

Vin and JD helped Chris get Buck settled in the bed of the truck. When they laid him out flat, his breathing became labored and erratic, so Chris got situated against the back of the cab and they leaned Buck back against him. Then Chris wrapped his arms around his friend and held him securely against his chest.

Vin and JD jumped in the truck and started to back down the road. As much as Vin wanted to just tear down the dirt road, he knew that wouldn’t help Buck, so he drove slowly and carefully. Once he made it to the main road, he picked up his speed. At the same time, JD was dialing the cell phone over and over until he finally got through to 911. The operator told him where the ambulance would meet them. Then he made three more calls, waking his fellow agents up and updating them on the recent events. Then he got in touch with the Highway Patrol and let them know to call off the search.

Chris sat in the back with his oldest friend. The cold wind was blowing around them as the truck made its way down the mountain. Even as Chris pulled the blanket up tighter, he could feel the fever radiating from Buck. Every muffled groan was like a lance into Chris’s heart. He hoped the physical contact was a comfort to the unconscious man.

Finally they could see the red and blue lights from the ambulance just ahead. Vin brought the truck to a stop just in front of it. When Chris called out and waved to them, the paramedics jumped into the back of the truck. Chris carefully moved out from under Buck and gently laid him down, backing away to give them room to work. Vin and JD stood behind Chris on the ground, watching every move the medics made.

As one of the medics adjusted the oxygen mask over Buck’s face, his eyes opened slowly. He tried to grab onto the mask and take it off, but one of the medics grabbed his hand and moved it away. That only caused Buck to try harder and the medic held his hand down tighter. He began to get agitated and started thrashing about.

"Buck, knock it off," Chris said softly, leaning into the other’s line of sight. "Let them do their job."

Buck settled down immediately and looked over, trying to focus on his old friend for a moment. Chris could tell by his expression he was trying to say something, but Chris couldn’t make out the words through the mask so he leaned in closer.

"I’m… sorry, Chris," Buck managed to get out in between raspy breaths.

"Sorry? Would you please stop saying that!" Chris growled, the last two days of grief and worry coming out in a burst of temper. "You’ve got nothing to be sorry for. If I wasn’t such a sorry excuse…"

"Sir, we really need to get going," one of the paramedics interrupted. "We’ve got room for one to go with him." With that, he and his partner grabbed onto the stretcher and lifted it into the ambulance.

"JD," Chris called, turning to find the younger man. "Go with him. He’ll feel better if you’re there when he wakes up."

"Are you sure?" JD asked. He was already moving toward the open door, afraid Chris would change his mind in the next half a second.

"Yeah, I’m sure," Chris nodded. "Tell him I’ll see him in a little while."

As soon as they were aboard, the driver secured the door the made his way to the front and climbed in. In a matter of seconds, the ambulance was on its way and then out of sight.

Vin watched in silence as Chris stood on the shoulder of the roadway, staring down the highway where the ambulance had disappeared. He gave Chris a little time to gather himself before he approached him and laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Ready to go?" Vin finally asked.

Chris turned to his friend and nodded. He took one last look down the road before climbing into Buck’s truck.

* * * * * * *

It was just turning from night to day when they finally found Fort Collins Trauma Center. Vin parked Buck’s truck at the Emergency Room entrance. He and Chris climbed out and went inside. They looked around for JD, and when they couldn’t find him, they went straight to the Information Desk.

"We’re here to see Buck Wilmington. Where is he?" Chris asked, getting straight to the point.

"Room three," she replied, nodding her head down the hall to the trauma exam rooms. "Doctor Scott should be out to talk to you shortly. The other members of your team are waiting in the Lounge," she went on with a nod down the other hall.

Vin sighed when he looked over at the team leader. He knew they were all tired, but Chris looked like he was running on auto pilot. Vin finally took his elbow and led him over to the Lounge. Their other three friends were already there, waiting for news on Buck.

"Hey guys," Vin called out.

Josiah and Nathan looked up from whatever reading material they were using as a distraction, while Ezra yawned and waved in greeting.

"Sorry we had to drag you outta bed, Ezra," Vin teased.

"Nonsense," Ezra replied. "It’s not like JD called us in the middle of the night or anything."

"Have y’all heard anything yet?" Vin asked.

"No," Nathan replied with a frown. "They were just bringing him in when we got here. From what I could see, he was still unconscious."

"They took him right into the exam room," Josiah added.

"And they let JD stay with him?" Chris asked in surprise after looking around and not finding their youngest agent.

Ezra nodded in reply. "According to the EMT’s that brought him in, as soon as the ER personnel tried to separate him from his ‘big brother’, he pulled rank and insisted that Mister Wilmington was still in mortal danger as long as Roberto Cruz remained at large. Apparently, he was quite persuasive," he finished with a small smile.

Vin watched as the blond sat down heavily onto one of the padded plastic chairs, putting his head down and holding it between his hands, his elbows resting on his knees. He wanted to help his leader and friend, but was at a loss as to what to do. Finally he went to the coffee maker and poured two steaming cups, bringing them with him to stand in front of Chris. "Here," he said quietly, handing one to the seated man.

Chris slowly looked up and took the cup from Vin, nodding his thanks. He took a long sip, feeling Vin’s eyes on him. Finally he shook his head and let out a long sigh. "God Vin," he whispered. "I never meant for any of this to happen. I never wanted him to get hurt, especially not like this."

"I know that," Vin replied, taking a seat next to him.

"I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up hating me this time," Chris said, sitting up and leaning back against the wall behind the chair he was sitting in. "He’s got every right, after what I said to him the other night…"

"Not Bucklin," Vin said. "It just ain’t in his nature to hate anybody."

"Don’t I know it," Chris said with a wry smile, then he glanced up at a movement in the doorway. He set the coffee cup down on the small table next to his chair.

Doctor Brian Scott came into the doorway and all five men rose to their feet. He looked over at their anxious faces and his expression must have reflected his concern because Nathan took a step closer.

"Doctor?" he asked anxiously.

"Gentlemen," he greeted, "I’ll be honest with you. Your friend’s a mess. But he’s still breathing, and that’s a good thing. Somebody want to tell me what happened?"

After looking at the others, Chris spoke up. "Well, some of it we know and some we’re guessing."

The doctor held up his hand. "You can give the whole story later. Just tell me what you know about his injuries."

"To start with, sometime Saturday morning he was shot," Chris started.

"That would be the head wound?" Doctor Scott asked.

Chris nodded before continuing, his expression grim. "Then he was hauled off and tied up in a van. Somebody in that van worked him over pretty good, then they tossed him out of the van and he ended up in the river. From there he made it a good twenty miles on foot, with no shoes, in the rain, to our cabin."

"Why didn’t you get him here sooner?" Doctor Scott quizzed, not being familiar with Team Seven leader’s reputation and not knowing he was taking his life in his hands.

Chris replied, his green eyes blazing darkly but his temper held in check. "Damn tree fell across the road and we were stuck there. And the cell phone wouldn’t work."

The doctor nodded apologetically. "Has he shown any signs of confusion or irrational behavior?"

"Yeah," Chris replied with a nod. "First time he woke up, he was acting wild and kept trying to get away from me. It was like he didn’t even know me. Then he woke up later and he seemed okay, except he didn’t seem to remember the last few years or so."

"That’s consistent with the head injury," the doctor said. He looked around and saw Nathan nod in understanding. "The bullet’s impact caused a severe swelling in his brain, what we call a subdural hematoma. The bleeding inside his skull would have caused the pressure to build up, inducing disorientation and even personality changes."

"So why was he so violent when he woke up one time and not the next?" Chris demanded.

"Brain injuries are tricky," Doctor Scott explained. "Could be after the first episode, while he was sleeping the pressure diminished and left him coherent but with the memory loss you mentioned. Then after he’d been up and moving around again, the pressure could’ve built up again or shifted and brought on the same results."

"So now what?" Nathan asked.

"The first thing we have to do is get him up to surgery and relieve the pressure," the doctor replied. "We have one of the best neurosurgeons in the state already on his way up from Denver to do the surgery. The medication we’ll be giving him to prevent any further swelling is also going to keep him pretty well sedated. Essentially we’ll be keeping him in a coma for the next forty-eight hours. After that, we’ll have to just have to wait and see. He also has several cracked ribs, which in turn contributed to a collapsed lung; that’s why he’s having such a hard time breathing. Once we’ve repaired the damage and re-inflated the lung, we’re going to keep him on a ventilator for a couple of days, just to be on the safe side, until we’re sure the lung is healing properly." He paused and looked around the room at the downhearted faces, and hurried to add. "I know it all sounds grim, but just the fact that he’s still alive shows what kind of fighter he is."

By this time, JD had slowly entered the room. He made his way around the doctor and joined his friends, standing beside Ezra. He was biting his lower lip, his expression grim. The Southerner reached out and gave his arm a comforting squeeze. "You have no idea just how tenacious he can be," Ezra said, with an exaggerated sigh, earning him a small smile from JD.

"To be honest, you might as well go home for now," the doctor continued. "Mister Wilmington won’t even be aware you’re here for at least the next two days."

"His name’s Buck, and we ain’t goin’ anywhere," Vin replied, bristling at the idea the doctor was trying to tell them to leave.

"What about moving him to Denver?" Nathan asked.

"I wouldn’t recommend it, at least not at this time," the doctor answered with a shake of his head. "He’s just not stable enough. Trust me, we have one of the best hospitals outside Denver."

The doctor looked around the room and saw the same determination in each of the other five faces before him. "Well, in that case, he’s on his way up to the OR now, and it’s going to be several hours before they take him to Recovery. After that he’ll be in ICU until he’s off the ventilator. I’m sorry, but you can’t all be in the room at once."

Chris nodded his understanding. ‘Lord knows we’ve all had more than our share of experience either as a patient or a visitor.’ he thought to himself. "We’ll work something out," Chris promised.

The doctor nodded and turned to leave. As he went into the hall, he found himself joined by the team’s gray-haired profiler.

"You’ll have to forgive us, doctor," he said gently. "We thought we’d lost Brother Buck earlier this week, and we’re just not ready to leave until we know for sure he’s going to be all right."

"We’ll do our best," the doctor assured.

The big man extended his hand, which the doctor grasped firmly. "I have no doubt."

Josiah waited for the rest of the team as they made their way out of the ER Lounge and looked around for the elevator. Like always, they’d all wait until their friend and teammate was out of danger before any of them left.

* * * * * * *

It was sometime just after noon when the surgeon came out and announced Buck had made it through the delicate surgery with flying colors. Finally some of the tension left the room. After a while, a nurse came and told them they were moving Buck to Recovery and the team should go down to the ICU area, where they all took up residence in still another waiting room.

By early evening, Doctor Scott came in to the waiting room. "They’re moving him in here right now. I’ve been in touch with your regular doctors in Denver." He couldn’t help but smile as he recalled his conversation with Doctor Lauren Murray at Four Corners. "Your team has quite a reputation. I’ve spoken to our nurses, and given your Law Enforcement status, you will be allowed to stay with him, but not more than two in the room at a time."

"How’s he doin?" Vin asked before anyone else could, sensing something the doctor was avoiding.

"We were hoping to avoid it, but with the damage to the lung, the exposure and the fever he had already developed…" the doctor paused with a sigh.

"Pneumonia?" Nathan supplied.

The doctor nodded his reply. But when he saw JD recoil involuntarily, he hurried to continue. "But we already have him on a strong antibiotic and putting him on the ventilator will help him breathe and give him time to gain his strength back. If you’re ready, I’ll take two of you back to see him."

Without a moment’s hesitation, the others moved back for JD and Chris to follow the doctor to their friend’s cubicle. Chris marched right in behind the curtain, while JD paused for a second to take a deep breath and steady himself for whatever lay ahead.

No amount of mentally steeling himself could ever completely prepare JD for the sight of the man he loved like a brother lying so close to death. He was surrounded by beeping and blinking machines, with wires and tubes running in and out from under the sheet lying loosely over his tall frame. His pale skin was in stark contrast against the dark mustache. JD’s eyes widened in surprise at the white bandage that wound it’s way around Buck’s entire skull and he realized he couldn’t see any hair peeking out from the edges. "Oh my God!" he whispered. ‘Did they shave Buck bald?’ he couldn’t help but wonder. ‘Oh boy, is he ever going to be pissed!’ He flinched at the sight of the ventilator’s tube protruding from the corner of Buck’s mouth, but as long as the steady rhythm of the machine let him know his brother was still alive, that was what mattered to him.

JD noticed Chris had already taken up a position on the near side of the bed, the team leader’s hand resting lightly on Buck’s shoulder, so he walked slowly over to the far side. The younger man found one of the ever-present padded stools there, so he hooked it with his foot and sat down heavily. He took Buck’s free hand in both of his, alarmed at how cold it was even though the temperature monitor showed how high his fever was. A sudden a wave of despair washed over him as he took in the seriousness of the handsome ladies man’s condition. He let his head droop forward until it came to rest on their clasped hands.

"He’ll be okay, JD," Chris whispered. "He’s made it this far – and you know better than anyone just how stubborn he is."

JD just nodded without looking up. He didn’t want Chris to see how hard he was fighting back the tears or how difficult it was to swallow past the lump in his throat. JD remained in his position, vaguely aware when Chris left and the others came in one at a time. Each offered soft words of encouragement to their unconscious friend, but no one even suggested they take JD’s place. They all knew if the situation were reversed, nothing they said would have persuaded Buck to leave JD’s side. JD never considered that he was returning the favor, he was just doing what his heart told him was the right thing to do. Sometime during the first hours, someone brought in a more comfortable chair for him to sit in and he finally let the exhaustion take him, leaning over and resting his head on the side of the bed, never letting go of his friend’s hand. Chris had managed to find an extra blanket and covered the younger agent with it as he slept.

* * * * * * *

They set up a schedule so everyone would have a chance to visit. Since they were only just over an hour away from home, it was decided the others would go back to work the next day and whenever one of them came in, Chris would give up his place and allow them to visit. Chris would then stay the night, helping JD keep vigil. JD could only be persuaded to take short breaks for food and to use the bathroom, but only if Chris was back in the room. He adamantly refused to leave the hospital, so Vin volunteered to go to his apartment to retrieve some clean clothes and other things JD might need.

The first couple of days in ICU, Buck remained unconscious just as Doctor Scott had warned them, the ventilator doing his breathing for him. Forty-eight hours later, they began to reduce the dosage of the medication he had been given to keep him in the induced coma. Almost immediately, he began to stir restlessly. JD and Chris were there, JD talking to him quietly in an effort to keep him calm, but also to give him something to concentrate on to help him wake up. Shortly before noon, Buck’s eyes flew open in panic and he began to gag on the ventilator’s tube, which triggered an alarm and sent a team of nurses into his cubicle. A flurry of activity quickly surrounded him, leaving Buck confused and uncooperative. Chris finally stepped in close and explained to the dark-haired man what was going on. Responding out of habit to Chris’s commanding presence, he calmed down and allowed the medical team to remove the offending object from his throat, replacing it with a standard issue nasal cannula. JD and Chris both sighed and relaxed as they watched Buck take the first few tentative breaths on his own. The medical team finally withdrew after they determined he was breathing normally. Shortly after that, Doctor Scott announced Buck’s fever was going down and they’d be moving him out of ICU first thing in the morning.

* * * * * * *

When Buck was finally moved into his own room, it was semi-private with a second bed. Doctor Scott assured them they were more than welcome to use it if they needed, and unless it was absolutely necessary, they wouldn’t put another patient in with the recovering ATF agent.

Chris went back to work himself, but allowed JD to remain off-duty for the remainder of the week. Once they had Buck settled in his own room, Vin was finally able to convince JD to go home and get some rest, but he was back a few hours later, armed with his laptop and what looked like enough junk food to last the winter.

* * * * * * *

Chris came into Buck’s room, looking better than he had the last couple of days. Since Saturday had rolled around again, the rest of the team was also there to visit their fallen comrade. It made the room a little crowded, but nobody seemed to mind. The mood in the room was as bright as the Colorado sun outside. Chris just stayed in the background for a while, enjoying the teasing and the laughter. It sounded good and signaled that things were almost back to normal.

Finally Chris moved to stand next to Buck’s bed. Once he had everybody’s attention, he looked around at the rest of the team. "Hey guys, can I have a couple of minutes with Buck alone?"

JD looked over at Buck, seeking an okay before he moved away from his brother’s bedside. At Buck’s nod, JD stood. "I’ll be right outside if you need me," he said as he made his way to the door. His words were meant for Buck, but he was looking directly at Chris as he disappeared out of the door. Once the danger of losing Buck had passed, JD had moments when he was still angry with Chris for causing Buck’s predicament in the first place. He tried to hide his feelings around Buck, but didn’t always succeed.

"You suppose he’s ever going to forgive me?" Chris said with a shake of his head.

"He’ll come around, Chris," Buck assured. "Just give him a little time."

"Maybe by the time you get out of here," Chris said, eyeing him skeptically. He took a moment to get a good look at his friend. The large bandage was off but a smaller one remained taped from above his left eye to right behind his ear. His hair was just growing back but it was still pretty short, making him look like a poster boy for the Marines. His color was much better, almost back to normal, but Chris was already planning a couple of weekends out at the ranch to get him back to his usual slightly tanned complexion. His temperature had remained down and he was breathing so much better that he was no longer required to keep the nasal cannula on all the time. The nurses did insist he wear it while sleeping or when he got winded.

"Speakin’ of which," Buck said with a real grin, "They’re talking about lettin’ me outta here the end of next week, as long as the CAT scan’s okay."

"Good. Buck, he’s got every right to be mad; so do you," Chris said. "Here, I wanted to be the one to give this back to you," he said, holding Buck’s badge out to him. "I never meant for you to think you’d been fired."

Buck sat completely still for a moment before slowly reaching out and taking what was offered from his friend’s hand. When their fingers met, Chris grasped his hand and held on for a long moment before releasing it. Buck’s eyes began to sting from unshed tears and he ducked his head quickly. "And I never meant to quit on you," he said quietly. "It’d been such a long time, I guess I was just out of practice dealin’ with you when you get that way."

"Look, I want to apologize…" Chris started.

"Hell, Chris, you don’t have t’ do this," Buck said, shifting uneasily in the bed.

"Yes I do," Chris said heavily. "What I did that night was just plain unforgivable, but I’m still going to ask for your forgiveness. What I said was from here." Chris pointed to his head. "And I know it’s not much of an excuse, but I swear it was only the damn whiskey talking. What I’m saying now is from here." His hand was on his heart, his hazel eyes clear. "You’ll always be my oldest friend, and nothing will ever change that. You’re one of the two best friends I have in this world. I depend on your strength and your courage, your honor, and even your laughter. But mostly I depend on that big heart of yours. It saved my life all those years ago, and I treated you like crap. Those couple of years you transferred to…"

"Chris, don’t," Buck protested. He knew how hard it was for Chris admit his emotions, much less express them. It made him down right uncomfortable to be the reason for it, and at the same time it was nice to know Chris still thought enough of him to say it out loud.

"Let me finish," Chris interrupted. "One night, not too long after you left back then, I had a dream – and it was so real. I felt like Sarah was ashamed me, of what I was doing with my life. When I woke up, I knew then and there it was up to me and me alone if I lived or died. I wanted to live, and I wanted her and Adam to be proud of me again! So when Travis offered me the job, I took it on one condition – that you’d say yes to working with me again. Otherwise, I didn’t want it."

Buck’s midnight blue eyes widened in surprise.

"I missed you, stud," Chris said with a sad smile. "I missed you being in my life every day. We made a good team back then; for all the noise we make, we tend to bring out the best in each other. So now here we are. I finally got everything I wanted, and I went and screwed it up again. So if you want to tell me to go to hell or transfer to another team, you got the right. I’ll understand."

This time Buck didn’t avert his eyes, keeping his gaze locked with Chris. "Well I’ll be damned," Buck whispered, fingering the badge in his hand.

"No, I think that’s my line," Chris said with a sigh. After a long moment, Buck’s eyes suddenly held a familiar twinkle and Chris could swear he could almost hear the gears turning in his old friend’s head. He just knew Buck was up to something.

"About that transfer, Pard?" the ladies man began with a grin.

Chris looked at him suspiciously. "Yeah?"

"I’ll take it – on one condition," Buck said with a wiggle of his eyebrows.

"And that is…?" Chris asked slowly.

"The kid ‘n’ Junior and Ez and Nate ‘n’ Josiah come with me," Buck said.

"Hell no!" Chris exclaimed. "You can’t take the whole team with you – they stay."

"Then I guess I’m stayin’, too," Buck said, offering Chris his hand. "And you’re stuck with the bunch of us."

Chris took it in both of his, the relief evident in his eyes. "Thanks, Buck."

"Just so you know, though," Buck said as he lay back down on the pillow, "Next time I’m kicking your ass."

"Deal," Chris agreed.


A long, six weeks later, Buck was finally cleared to go back at work. As he sat in Chris’s office, waiting for the team leader to return from a meeting to run an idea by him, the current story on CNN caught his eye. He took his feet off Chris’s desk and sat up straight.

While the news reporter was talking, the photo of a familiar face was being shown. "Small time drug lord and U.S. fugitive Roberto Cruz was shot and killed in the small Mexican village of Santa Marta. According to eyewitnesses, a man walked up to Cruz while he was dining with friends at a small seaside restaurant and shot him once in the back of the head. Cruz died instantly. Mexican authorities state they have a suspect in custody. They believe he was the intended target of a professional killer hired by Cruz several years ago. The intended target’s wife and young daughter were killed in Denver, Colorado by mistake. Earlier this year, Cruz was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison by a Colorado court for the murders, but he escaped shortly after his incarceration. Charges are pending against the suspected murderer."

"Hey, Ez," came Buck’s familiar drawl, "You know any good lawyers in Mexico?"


November 2003

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