by Hombre

AU - Sporting Seven

Notes: How this Universe came about is in the story New Ventures (That fic is primarily an Ezra story but all the guys are in it).

I know nothing about rock-climbing, which will probably become self- evident as you read on. I don't like heights and can only really manage a few steps up a ladder before wanting to come down! I used the following book by Peter Livesey for reference: Rock climbing. I didn't read it from cover to cover, though so may have misinterpreted things. Hope you can understand what I have written. There are some deliberate spelling mistakes, along with a few that probably aren't meant. Sorry!

"Mr. Larabee? Before you disappear on your adventure, could you just cast your beady eyes over this leaflet before I send the proof off to the printers? Can you spot any errors?" Ezra asked as he caught the blond in the lobby of the guest accommodation.

The slender man took the paper from Ezra's hand and saw that it was the introductory leaflet that listed all their names and responsibilities. Chris had thought that they should have something to give out to their guests, so that they knew who was in charge of what while staying at the ranch. He read down the list while moving his finger along each sentence in the hope that it would help him to spot any mistakes. The list was brief and just mentioned which sports each man was responsible for, as well as any other admin type roles they performed.

Chris Larabee: Center manager/Climbing instructor Ezra Standish: Guest liaison officer/Canoeing instructor Vin Tanner: Canoeing, trial riding and quad bike instructor Buck Wilmington: Skiing and shooting range instructor Josiah Sanchez: Team building exercise coordinator with the police/Climbing instructor Nathan Jackson: Qualified medic/Rappelling and skiing instructor John Dunne: Trial riding, quad bikes and rappelling instructor

Chris looked up with raised eyebrows. "What's trial riding? Do ya conduct a court case on horseback? Didn't think you were practicing law anymore, Ezra."

Ezra snatched the sheet from the blond's grasp and stared at it in alarm. "Oh, good God, such ineptitude defies belief. That damned secretary will have to go. He can't spell to save his life," Ezra grumbled as he strode toward the small office behind the reception desk. He poked his head inside and snapped irritably, "Mr. Wilmington? You're fired."

"You can't fire me. I'm a partner."

"Let me rephrase that. I'm relieving you of your duty as secretary. You are incompetent. Trial riding, I ask you! Just keep control of those fingers of yours while you're typing. I know your appendages tend to have a mind of their own when faced by a beautiful woman's body, but a common keyboard shouldn't get them that excited."

"You don't know what I was watching at the same time that I was typing, pard," Buck said with a huge grin. "There was this cute little lady sashaying across the lobby with her butt swinging temptingly from side to side," the man said while his eyes got a far away look in them.

"Oh, good Lord, give me strength," Ezra groaned as he threw his hands in the air in disgust.

Chris smiled and left the two bickering men to it. He wandered outside and met up with his best friend in the yard.

"Gotten everythin' ya need, Vin?" Chris asked as he threw his equipment in the back of the vehicle before bending down to re-tie his shoelace.

The younger man nodded and passed his backpack over for packing once Chris had straightened up again. "Yeah, I'm all set. Can't wait to get up there. Long time since we've done any climbing together."

"Sure is. Come on, then. Let's make the most of it."

Chris and Vin climbed into the old army Humvee that the ex- explosive expert had somehow gotten his hands on. The man had just turned up one day in it and wouldn't say where it had come from. Vin drove his pride and joy carefully toward the rock face that they were going to tackle and then parked as near as he could.

"It's a perfect day for climbing, cowboy. How far ya gonna go?" Vin asked as he climbed out and looked up to the top of the peak. He stretched his arms up above his head and arched his back while yawning loudly.

"Thought we'd work up here and then go over toward Madison Heights," Chris said as he pointed out the landmark concerned.

"Great. Should be challenging by the look of it. Ain't been there yet."

The two men checked their equipment once more and then put on their harnesses and safety gear. One piece of equipment that neither man ever wore while climbing on their own was a helmet. Today would see a change in that attitude, though.

They walked briskly to the place that Chris has picked out as their starting point. Vin leant back and shielded his eyes against the bright sun as he looked upward at the virtually flat surface of rock. He smiled and set up at the bottom of the climb and anchored himself to the ground for safety. The two men had decided to work in turn as leader and Chris was going to go first on this pitch seeing as he knew the area like the back of his hand. Chris waited until Vin signaled that he was ready and then started climbing. Vin played out the rope so that the other man could move easily without getting tangled. The black-clad man knocked in the pegs to attach the runners and ropes to so that Vin could follow when the blond had reached a suitable stopping place. The blond made his way slowly and steadily upward until he reached a wide ledge for a rest. He waved to Vin after anchoring himself to the rock face and then settled down to watch as the long-haired man begin his ascent. Chris reeled in the rope as Vin got closer to him and the smaller man finally pulled himself up to sit beside his friend. Both men sat with legs dangling over the edge as they surveyed the scenery below.

"Jeez, would ya look at that," Vin said in awe as he spread his arms to encompass the landscape. "How much of that do you own, Chris?"

The blond turned to his companion in exasperation. "We own, Vin. We're partners, remember?"

"I ain't yet. Still paying Ezra off for my share," the younger man objected as he swung his legs, his heels tapping one at a time against the rock face with each back swing.

"You're a partner, Vin. Don't matter whether you've paid all you owe or not. Ez gave you his second share, didn't he?"

Vin shrugged. "S'pose, but I still don't feel like I deserve it."

"Look, don't make me have to set Josiah on ya. You're one of us. Accept it, or I'll throw you off here, understand?" Chris said with a grin.

"Yeah, I understand." Vin replied as he playfully pretended to push Chris off instead. "We gonna carry on now that I've had the lecture? I've only just got warmed up."

"Sure, Vin. Let's head out to Montague's Leap and then on up to Madison."

The two men stood up and looked at the next section that they would have to negotiate.

"Can I go first this time?" Vin asked.

"Well, I reckoned on doing the whole of this section and then you can do the ascent from Montague's Leap to Madison Heights."

"Okay, cowboy, whatever you say. Age before beauty as the saying goes, so perhaps yer right," Vin said as he grinned and punched Chris's arm.

"Sassy, pup," Chris growled as he pinched Vin's upper arm lightly in retaliation before setting off again.

Vin shaded his eyes and kept a close eye on his friend's progress. Half an hour later, the blond waved again from his next perch and the younger man began his climb to catch up. He eventually joined the blond and the two of them looked along the thin ledge that was the next pitch to tackle. They would have to go along horizontally for a while and it looked a tricky section. Vin was suddenly apprehensive about going first.

"Ready?" the blond asked as he saw the worried look on Vin's face. "Are you sure you're happy to lead?"

"Yeah, cowboy. Looks treacherous though, don't it?"

"Yeah, well, be careful. Watch yer step and take yer time, okay? This section ain't too good for protection points so you'll have to make do with what you can find. There is a reason that this is called Montague's Leap, ya know."

"Gee, thanks, Chris. That sure fills me with confidence, cowboy," Vin said as he took a tentative look down.

Chris smiled and watched as Vin started across the expanse of rock with a confidence he'd obviously been hiding. The long- haired man knocked a peg in at the first suitable spot and clipped the rope onto the attached runner for safety but the quality of rock was not great, as Chris had said. He hoped the peg would hold until both men were safely across because he really didn't want to fall and find out just how high they'd climbed. He looked along the next section and couldn't really see anywhere suitable to put in the next peg safely. Carry on in the hope of finding a better patch, or put one in half way and hope that it holds? he asked himself as many climbers in the past had also asked themselves in similar situations. He decided to carry on and he thankfully saw a suitable section a bit further on. He found a tenuous foothold nearby and reached up to knock the peg in as he tried to keep his balance. He knocked the peg in and then reached down to collect the runner to add on to it. He shifted slightly on his perch as he tried to get the runner off the bandoleer that he had round his body. His foot slipped out from under him so he made a desperate grab for the runner in the hope of using that to stop him falling but his fingers missed it my mere millimeters.

Vin hit his chin as he tipped forwards suddenly and then felt himself fall as he heard Chris yell. The blond kept a good hold on his end of the rope after quickly reeling in the slight bit of slack that there had been. The rope snapped taut with the weight of the man hanging on the end of it and Chris tightened his grip, glad that he always wore gloves to protect his palms. Chris looked down and saw Vin swinging uncontrollably like a human pendulum beneath him and he heard the man cry out as he whacked his back hard against an outcrop.

"Vin! Hold on. I've got ya, bud," Chris yelled as he tightened his grip again on the man's lifeline and tied off the slack on the anchor point. "Are you hurt?"

The younger man shook his head to get rid of the blackness that was threatening to claim him. "Not too bad," Vin lied. His back was, in truth, very painful and he didn't know if he could make it back up to his friend.

"Okay, I'll try and pull you up a bit."

The slender blond began pulling Vin upward so that the man could hopefully find a suitable hand and foothold to settle himself again. As he did so though, Chris felt the rock beneath his own feet give way. He dropped downwards fast and hit his arm hard on a fragment of the ledge that had been left behind. He heard the limb snap and he looked down and cursed heartily. Luckily, he hadn't fallen too far because he'd anchored himself to the rock face, but he began wondering if that might give way too seeing as the whole rock face seemed exceedingly brittle. He'd been along the same stretch numerous times in the past and had never had any problems before. He certainly hadn't been complacent when tackling it this time because he knew its problems.

Vin plunged downward as the man above him fell and the younger man looked up anxiously at the blond. "Cowboy? You okay?"

"My arm's broke," the blond said as he looked down, feeling dizzy at the rotating landscape below. "What about you?"

"Hurt my back and leg. I can't climb up, Chris," the man replied, knowing there was not point in lying now.

"Shit! I can't pull you up neither. Got nowhere to pull you up to, even if I could, cowboy. There's only room for one of us on the bit of ledge that's left and that probably ain't safe anymore."

The rope holding both men suddenly dropped again and Chris looked up and saw that the pin was indeed becoming dislodged from its anchor point. Having the weight of two men dangling on both ends of the rope wasn't helping matters. If the anchor point gave out, Chris would be flung across the rock face to the one and only pin that Vin had put in to hold the rope further along and Vin would drop many more feet uncontrollably.

"Jeez! Vin? The anchor point's gonna give any minute," the blond yelled desperately as he looked down at his still-swinging colleague.

"Better relieve the pressure then, ain't I? It might hold one of us but not both."

Chris saw Vin pull a knife out of his pocket and his heart went cold, knowing what the man was going to do. "What the hell ya doin'?"

"Saving you," his friend replied in a matter-of-fact tone.

"Don't do it, Vin," the black-clad man pleaded.

"Sorry, Chris. You can't pull me up and you said there ain't nowhere for me to go if you could. No point in us both dying, is there? Seeing as I'm at the bottom and not anchored, it had better be me, ain't it? Tell Ez he can have my business share back."

"Don't you dare cut the rope, Vin!" Chris yelled desperately as he reached out his hand vainly. The fact that he was many feet from his friend, and couldn't possible reach him, didn't stop the blond from trying.

"Or what? You'll kill me? I'll save ya the trouble, cowboy. So long, Chris. It's been nice knowing ya," the younger man said as he saluted.

Vin then cut the rope as if he was doing no more than cutting a fingernail. The man fell soundlessly but Chris screamed loud enough for both of them.

"Bastard, Tanner! How could you do this to me?" the blond shouted forlornly as he swung round on the anchored half of the rope dizzily.

The slender man felt the rope give again so he looked up and reached out his one good arm and managed to grab the edge of the ledge with the very tips of his fingers. He scrambled about with his feet but couldn't find anywhere to step on to. He sobbed in frustration but just as he was about to let go of his handhold and give up, his foot found a small hole. He cried out in relief as he dug his toes into it and pulled himself upright with his arm and tried to regain his composure and breath. After a short while, he managed to somehow scramble back up onto the ledge. He knew there was no way he could have reached the ledge while holding Vin's weight as well, he'd only just managed himself. The blond couldn't help crying as he looked over the edge as he tried to spot Vin's body below. He pulled out his cell phone with a trembling hand, sincerely hoping that he wouldn't drop his only means of communication. He called the ranch and was exceedingly relieved when Ezra answered.

"Vin's dead. He fell," Chris sobbed incoherently when he heard the southern tones of the ex-attorney on the other end of the line.

"Mr. Larabee, is that you? Calm down. Can you repeat that? I couldn't understand what you said." The man had, in fact, heard perfectly well, but he couldn't believe what he was being told.

"Vin's dead, Ez. He's dead, dammit," Chris shouted as he lay his broken arm loosely in his lap.

Ezra felt his heart stop and his lungs didn't seem to want to inhale any air. "Where are you?" he finally spluttered.

"On Montague's Leap."

Ezra pulled himself together, knowing that this was no time to go to pieces. "Right, stay exactly where you are because we need to know where to look for Vin. Keep your cell turned on and I'll call again soon. Are you well?"

"No, Ez. I ain't."

"I'm sorry, Chris. That was a stupid question. We'll be with you as soon as possible. Please call me if you need us before then, I will have my cell with me all the time." The ex-attorney put down the phone and spotted Buck. He waved frantically to attract the man's attention. "Bucklin?"

The ladies' man took one look at the smaller man's face and ran over to him. "Ezra? What's up? You look upset, pard."

"Mr. Larabee has just called to inform me that Mr. Tanner is dead. I think you could say that I was upset to receive such news. Could you and Josiah go up to Montague's Leap? Chris is there, so can you make sure he gets down safely? He is inevitably very distressed. The rest of us will go to the bottom and search for Vin's body but we need to know Mr. Larabee's exact location so that we know where to look. Don't move Chris until you hear from me unless, of course, he needs urgent medical treatment," Ezra instructed as he tried to keep a lid on his emotions.

"Sure, pard. Do you know what happened?" Buck asked with a shell- shocked expression on his face as he patted Ezra's back in comfort. He knew how difficult it was to receive such a devastating call.

"No, I didn't want to upset Chris any more by asking for details. All he said was that Vin fell."

+ + + + + + +

The five men hastily grabbed as much equipment as they could carry and ran out to their vehicles. This was one time that they could've done with the Humvee but they would have to make do with what was available. While Buck and Josiah drove up into the mountains to get to Chris from above, Ezra and the others headed to the bottom of the mountain on the horrible quest of looking for their friend's body.

Buck and Josiah drove up as high as they could and then took half an hour to climb on foot up to the area where they hoped to find Chris. Josiah anchored himself at the top and lowered Buck down after spotting Chris on his small perch halfway along the rock face. Buck edged slowly down toward Chris and eventually ended up hanging beside him. If it had been any other time Buck would've taken time to view the magnificent scenery below: not today, though.

"Chris? How ya doin', pard?" the big man asked gently.

"He's dead, Bucklin."

"I know, pard. Are you hurt?" the mustached man asked as he studied the strained, pale man.

"Arm hurts. Think it's broke."

"What happened?" the ladies' man asked as he strapped the man's broken arm to his chest as best he could. He then tied his friend to him so that he couldn't fall again.

"He cut the rope to save me. He sacrificed himself, Bucklin. How could he do that?"

"You know Vin, pard. He'll always help a friend even if, in the process, it hurts him to do so. That's just the way he is, Chris." The ladies' man patted his friend's shoulder consolingly. "Right now I need to concentrate on getting us off this mountain, pard. Need to get your hurts seen to. Just sit tight and we'll get you outta here as soon as we can." Buck pulled out his radio and contacted his friend's below. "Guys? I've got Chris. Can I move him yet?"

"Yeah, we've seen where you are so we'll begin searching down here," JD said as he lowered his binoculars. "Thanks, Bucklin."

Buck then radioed up to Josiah and felt the big man begin hauling on the rope to help get the two men back up to safety.

+ + + + + + +

Down at the bottom, after seeing where their friends were hanging above, the three men spread out and began looking in the deep undergrowth. Their friend could be lying anywhere and it seemed an impossible task to find his body, but within a very short time Nathan did just that. He saw a flash of color in the bushes and headed toward it fast and found the sprawled bloody body of his young friend. He stopped in his tracks for the moment, not wanting to go and verify that the man was no longer alive.

Eventually he pulled out his radio. "Ez? Found him. I'm about fifty yards from the bottom of the mountain. There's an overhang and we're to the left of that," he said as he looked up to confirm his exact location.

"Understood. We'll be with you shortly," Ezra replied, not wanting to ask any questions yet. What question was there to ask anyway? Vin was dead. That's all they needed to know for now.

Nathan dropped to his knees and anxiously reached out a tentative finger to feel for a pulse. To his great surprise he found one, so he double-checked before leaning down to see if Vin was breathing. As he did so, his two friends came crashing through the bushes toward him and came to a sliding halt beside him.

"Well, I'll be damned. He's still alive, godammit!" The therapist looked up in amazement. "Those trees musta cushioned his fall. Get the chopper in, will ya? We need to get him outta here now."

Ezra did as he was told and then radioed up to Buck. The ex- attorney's stomach was doing somersaults and he suddenly felt sick. "Bucklin? Can I speak to Mr. Larabee?" he asked shakily.

"Ez? He ain't in no condition to talk," the ski instructor chastised, his usual good temperament gone.

"I have some news for him."

Chris snatched the radio from Buck's grasp. "Ez? You find him?"

"Indeed we have, and I can inform you that he is still of this Earth."

"What?" Chris asked breathlessly. "He's alive?"

"At the moment, yes."

Chris handed the radio back to Buck and cried unashamedly as the tall man held him gently. "He's alive, Bucklin. He's alive, the stubborn cuss," the blond said when he'd recovered.

"Come on, then. Vin's being cared for so let's get you down too. We'll meet up with them at the hospital," the tall man said, still not able to believe what Chris had said.

Buck and Josiah managed to get Chris back to their vehicle where Buck rechecked Chris's arm. He sat the man on the tailgate of the pickup and gently unstrapped the injured limb. He splinted and bandaged it more securely and then put it in a proper sling. The two men then settled Chris in the front of the vehicle and put his seatbelt on. They then set off to the hospital while wondering how Vin was faring.

Down at the bottom, Nathan sat next to Vin and began a detailed examination of his friend's battered body. His fingers traveled gently from head to toe, taking note of every injury. He finished and sat back on his heels while rummaging around in the first aid bag to find what he needed. He then got to work on the ex- explosives expert's broken right leg. He bandaged the limb where it was cut and then splinted it by tying it to the man's uninjured left leg. Finally, Nathan turned his attention to the numerous deep cuts and bruises that Vin had acquired all over his body.

Ezra had been carrying a fold-up stretcher with him and he set it out beside the unconscious man while Nathan worked. When the therapist signaled that he was ready, the two men carefully transferred Vin onto it.

"JD? Carry the equipment back while Ez and I deal with Vin, will ya? I think it'd be best if we head back to the truck. There's quite a good flat area for the chopper to land there," Nathan said as he checked Vin's condition once more before moving him.

"Sure," the youngster agreed as he ran round the area collecting Nathan's belongings together.

Ezra and the therapist then gently lifted Vin between them while JD took up position beside the injured man in case he should wake on the journey. The three rescuers heard the sound of an approaching helicopter as they neared the truck and JD ran on ahead to attract the aircraft's attention. The pilot spotted him and landed as close as he could just as Vin was carried into the open. Ezra and Nathan took him straight to the chopper and lifted him inside. Nathan climbed in with him and waved goodbye to his two friends as the aircraft took off.

"Come on, JD. Better check things back at the ranch and stay to see to our guests needs, I s'pose," Ezra said as he climbed in the driver's seat and headed back home quickly. This was one time when both men wished that they could forget their commitments. They only wanted to be in one place at the moment, and that was at the hospital with their friends.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was taken away for treatment as soon as he arrived at the medical facility. He had his arm set and had a few stitches put in the back of his head in a cut that he hadn't even realized he'd obtained. He was then taken back to the waiting room to join his friends.

"Nate? Have you heard anything about Vin yet?" the blond asked as soon as he set eyes on the therapist.

"He's in surgery, Chris," Nathan said as he helped the man sit down.

"What injuries did he have?"

"Broke his leg and had a load of bad cuts. Probably gotten internal injuries too, given how far he fell and the fact that he went into shock in the chopper."

"Jeez, I hope he's gonna be okay," Chris said as he sat back in his chair carefully.

Nathan couldn't really give any assurances, but the fact that Vin had survived the fall and the journey to the hospital was something in his favor.

Several hours passed in relative silence with no word from the medical staff about their friend, and the men were all beginning to get fidgety.

"Mr. Larabee? You can see Mr. Tanner now," a voice called from the doorway, startling the men out of their reverie.

The blond stood up with a groan and followed the doctor along slowly. "Vin? Jeez that was s'pose to be a good day out," Chris said as he sat down next the unconscious man as Buck joined him in the room too. "It all happened so quick, Bucklin. I was careless," the blond said as he flicked a look at his companion.

The tall man took up position beside his oldest friend. "No, pard, it was an accident. You know Montague's Leap is a real son-of- a-bitch to negotiate. You ain't the first to have an accident there and you won't be the last."

"I shouldn't have taken Vin along there."

Buck could tell that Chris was going to blame himself for the accident but the ladies' man was going to do his best to make his friend see sense. "You said the rocks gave way, pard. You couldn't have stopped that happening, nor could Vin. That's the hazard of rock climbing. That's why ya do it; the danger, ain't it?"

"Yeah, well, I shan't go along there ever again." The blond looked up at his friend and said, "I ain't never gonna go climbing without a helmet again either. I always wear one when I'm with clients but I like the feel of the wind in my hair when I climb on my own. Seems a damned stupid excuse for not wearing something that can save a life, don't it?"

"Well, this is a lesson to us all, pard. Hate that this had to happen for us to see sense, but that's sometimes the way it has to be."

The doctor came in and began checking Vin once more as the two men talked.

"How is he?" Chris asked, once the man had finished.

"He lost a lot of blood but we've managed to stop it and he should hopefully recover. His back is badly bruised and he broke some of the ribs there too. He hit his head too, not surprisingly, but he didn't receive life-threatening head injuries. He's very weak but he was lucky to survive in the first place."

Buck sighed in relief at the doctor's optimism. "How long 'til he wakes?"

"I really can't predict that. Several days, I should think."

"Come on, Chris. I think you oughta go home. You need yer rest too," Buck said when he saw the blond pale and shiver.

"Can rest here just as well as at home. I ain't leaving him after what he did for me," Chris objected obstinately.

Buck shook his head. "One hour, and then you're going home; kicking and screaming if need be. You ain't staying here morning, noon and night, pard."

Chris looked up and saw that, for once, his oldest friend wasn't going to back down. "Okay," he replied meekly with a grin. He sighed as he looked back at Vin and brushed the hair from his brow gently. "How did he survive, Bucklin? He musta fell a hell of a long way."

"The trees at the bottom cushioned his fall. He was real lucky, as the doc said."

The two men sat quietly, just taking comfort from the fact that Vin was alive. The blond sat and stared at Vin as he went back over what had happened. He'd hoped that the men's change of profession would have meant less injuries. During his time on the force with Buck they'd seen many horrors and suffered many wounds themselves. Vin's old profession hadn't been without risk either. Disarming bombs was no easy task. It seemed there were still dangers in their new way of life, though. Different hazards but same results. The blond shook his head sadly and then shifted uncomfortably in his seat while putting a hand to his face as he shivered again at the vision of Vin falling.

"You okay, Chris?" the mustached agent asked anxiously.

"All I can see is Vin falling. He didn't scream or nothin'," Chris sobbed.

Buck reached out a hand and rubbed Chris's back in comfort.

"Ow," the blond mumbled as he flinched in pain and pulled away from the man.

Buck quickly removed his hand and held it up apologetically. "Jeez, sorry, pard. Didn't mean to hurt ya."

The blond shifted slightly on the seat to get comfortable again. "It's okay. Discovering bruises I never knew I'd gained."

Buck narrowed his eyes and looked first at Vin and then at Chris. "Come on, Chris. I really think you need to go home. Vin ain't going nowhere."

"Sure hope yer right," the blond said as he stood up stiffly and shuffled toward the door with Buck hovering nearby for safety.

+ + + + + + +

The group of men met up in the waiting room and then went back to the ranch. Buck helped the blond inside the house and sat him next to Ezra in the living room.

"What news about our injured colleague?" Ezra asked anxiously.

"Still unconscious and he's lost a lot of blood but the doctor is hopeful that he'll recover fully." Chris looked over at the ex- attorney and smiled sadly. "Thanks for getting everything arranged so quickly, Ez."

Ezra had been eternally grateful to Chris for his help throughout his major health scare the previous year and the man wanted to pay his friend back. "You are welcome. Mr. Larabee. If you ever need to talk about what happened today, I hope you would consider confiding in me."

"Thanks, Ez," Chris whispered. "I just can't get over what Vin did."


Chris looked at Ezra in astonishment and asked himself, How can he ask such a question? He then voiced his disbelief. "He was willing to die for me, Ez. Die for me."

Ezra raised his eyebrows. "Why should you find that peculiar? Do you think yourself unworthy?"

The blond shrugged and winced when the movement upset his arm. He reached up his uninjured hand and rubbed the cast as if that would ease the pain. "I can't explain it. It's just that my wife and son died instead of me too. They were shot dead by someone out for revenge. When those bastards found that I wasn't at home they killed my family instead." Chris shrugged unhappily again. "I just couldn't have lived in the knowledge that Vin had now killed himself so that I survived. We shoulda both died or not at all. That's all I can say by way of explanation, Ez."

Ezra stared at the blond in horror, finally understanding why the man always had a haunted look about him. "I'm sorry. I never knew how your family was taken from you." He hated making the man relive his previous tragedy.

"It's not something I talk about, Ez. Too painful."

"I understand and I apologize again." The smaller man reached out a hand and patted Chris's knee in comfort.

Buck walked back into the room to check on his best friend. "Hey, pard. How ya feelin' now?"

"Like I've been inside a washing machine made of rock. Stone's pretty unforgiving when yer body comes into contact with it."

"Yeah, I know. Well, I reckon you need to catch up on some sleep. Yer pale and look real rough." The tall man moved to stand beside his friend and helped him to his feet, surprised that he hadn't received any complaints. The blond must be feeling bad if he was doing as he was told without question.

Ezra stood too and the two men escorted the battered blond to his room and settled him in bed for some much needed rest.

+ + + + + + +

JD slept in the ranch house that night to keep an eye on the blond. He heard movement in the early hours of the morning and finally tracked the sounds down to the kitchen.

"Chris?" the youngster said as wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand to wake himself up.

"Oh, hey, kid," the blond replied quietly as he kept his gaze averted from the youngster.

JD frowned and moved closer. "Somethin' wrong?"

"Can't sleep 'cause I just keep seeing Vin fallin'. It's the same dream over and over."

"Nate left you something to help you sleep, didn't he?" JD said as he moved even closer to the man.

"Yeah," the blond agreed as he ran his fingers through his hair in despair.

"Well, take some. It ain't no crime to need them," JD pointed out reasonably.

Chris looked up and smiled. "When did you get so all grown up, kid?" Since the beginning of the partnership, the older man had noticed a real change in JD's character. He'd matured no end and was now no longer afraid of speaking up and voicing his opinion when he felt the need.

"Well, have to be when I'm surrounded by a load of men like you lot, don't I?" JD grinned. "It's like living in a kindergarten."

The blond laughed, his dark mood lifting slightly.

"Well?" JD said as he stood with hands on hips expectantly while tapping his foot impatiently.

Chris frowned. "Well, what?"

"You taking yer pills or not?

"Jeez," Chris groaned as he stood up, moved to the cabinet and found his medication. JD handed him a glass of water and the blond swallowed the pills down in one go. "You'll make someone a good wife one day, son," Chris said with a grin as he patted his back.

"Yeah, yeah," JD replied with a sigh. He then pointed at the door. "Now back to bed or I'll go get Nathan."

"Yes, sir," Chris said as he ambled along to his bedroom with JD following anxiously behind.

The youngster made sure Chris did as he was told and then left the man to catch up on some sleep. Chris smiled in the dark at JD's behavior; he was definitely getting as bossy as Nathan.

+ + + + + + +

The following afternoon, Chris sat beside the long-haired man's bed. He'd brought a newspaper with him to keep himself occupied and he opened it awkwardly in his lap. He made a lot of noise as he turned over each page while trying to keep the reading material from slipping onto the floor because of his one- armed state. He cursed liberally and battled on. As he reached the sport section and began reading about the Super-bowl, he heard movement from the bed.

"Cowboy? Can you hear me?" The blond stood up and leaned over the bed.

Vin blinked twice and closed his eyes again without uttering a word. Chris felt immensely relieved that his friend had finally shown some signs of life. He had a feeling it would be a while before he saw those familiar blue eyes again, though, and so it proved. It took another five days before the long-haired man woke properly. Chris was there in his room whenever he could persuade one of his business partners to take him. The five men tried to make sure that the blond got enough rest of his own and didn't overexert himself. They could see that he felt guilty about what had happened and knew that he wouldn't rest properly while thinking of his best friend's sacrifice. All they could do was make sure that he didn't spend all his time at the hospital.

"Vin?" Chris said when the man opened his eyes widely on the sixth day.

The long-haired man turned his head slightly and stared at the blond anxiously. He saw the man's broken arm and then looked down the length of the bed at his own injuries. "What happened?" he asked with a frown as he shifted slightly and gasped at the resulting pain.

Chris reached out a worried hand and made the man lay still, before taking hold of his hand gently. "You fell while we were climbing. You've been in here just under a week. Do you remember?"

Vin was silent as he studied the ceiling and scratched a cut on his chin distractedly. He concentrated hard and finally a few images and memories from that day came back to him, making him shiver. "Yeah, I remember climbing and falling," he said quietly after Chris had pulled his hand gently away from the itching cut before too much damage could be done.

The blond held Vin's gaze. "Don't you ever do that to me again, Tanner. You scared the shit outta me."

Vin turned his gaze on the blond and smiled wryly. "Scared the shit outta myself too, cowboy. Try harder to talk me out of doin' any heroics in the future, will ya? I'm getting too old for bouncing around like that."

Chris laughed as he looked first at himself and then at Vin. "Ain't a very good advert for our business, are we? Any clients that see us like this will run a mile rather than come and stay at the activity center, won't they?"

"Either that, or our injuries will give Ezra ideas and he'll deliberately hurt himself just to get out of doing some work."

"He's stupid, but he ain't that stupid," Chris replied with a grin.

"Well, we can't always agree on everything, cowboy," Vin retorted and then laughed.

The End