Warnings: PG-13, some bad language

Characters: Vin and the Seven

Synopsis: Vin's under the weather and the rest are in mother hen mode.

Special Agent Vin Tanner, ATF was sick. And, after a long night of tossing, turning, coughing, and putting up with a throat that felt like he'd been sipping on kerosene, Tanner had finally managed to fall asleep around four in the morning.

His alarm went off at six.

The former bounty hunter turned federal agent knew that if he ignored the head-splitting summons and was late getting to work, his boss would come looking for him, wondering what was wrong. And the last thing he wanted to do was tell Larabee he had–

No. He wouldn't even think the name. Maybe, just maybe, if he totally ignored it, it wouldn't be true. It would turn out to be the result of a slightly feverish nightmare, or a figment of the Nyquil.

The more reasonable side of the agent's mind scoffed at that idea. Ignoring a problem did not make it go away.

He coughed and shook his head. There was nothing else he could do. This particular predicament was going to require finesse if he was going to hold on to any shred of his dignity.

There ought t' be a law against anyone in law enforcement gettin' sick, he decided – especially when they had to work with a bunch of guys like Team Seven. They had to be the worst bunch of mother hens to ever walk the earth, and there was something about Tanner being sick that seemed to set them off worse than usual.

With sheer determination and will-power, Vin forced his legs over the edge of the bed. The flu he had been fighting all last week, and over the weekend, had left his muscles sore and sluggish. Standing, he swayed for a moment, then shuffled off for the bathroom.

Maybe a hot shower would help his muscles, and–

Stop thinkin' about it! That's an order, Mister! he commanded himself, trying to sound like a couple of the drill instructors he'd had while still in the Army – the really mean ones.

After turning on the water, Tanner critically examined himself in the mirror while he waited for the spray to reach near scalding temperatures. He was slightly flushed, except around his mouth, where the skin looked vaguely blue. Dark smudges clung to the hollows under his eyes and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't ignite a spark in the blue depths to hide the lethargy that cohered to his soul like the fever sheen that coated his body.

It was bad… really bad… worse even than it had been on Friday, and far worse than he'd expected.

The others would be insufferable!

He sighed. Ever since the first signs of the illness had made themselves known, the other members of Team Seven had begun trotting out a seemingly endless string of "miracle cures" for him. Not a single one of them had worked, or even helped all that much, although Larabee's hot toddies at least made him forget he was sick for a while. The day-after headaches weren't worth the short respites, though.

An' now 'm defenseless, Tanner realized. His expression grew longer. 'M not gonna make it, he concluded wearily.

He sucked in a wheezy pant of air – what currently passed for a deep breath – and steeled himself. I'll jus' have t' go along with whatever they come up with an' keep tellin' myself I can't kill a fellow agent… Hope that's enough…

Stepping into the steaming water, Tanner let the heat work its magic on his aching muscles. His eyes fell shut and he groaned contentedly. The steam helped his chest too, breaking up some of the congestion and letting him cough it out.

When he finally exited the stall, he felt improved by half. Dressing quickly before he could catch a chill, Tanner willed himself to look healthy and headed out for the office. He stopped halfway to his Jeep and moaned. It was Monday, Team Seven's weekly "bring breakfast to work" day. He'd stop and pick up some donuts on the way. Or maybe some MacDonald's; protein might help… maybe… if he was really lucky.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The agents greeted each other as they arrived in the office. Tanner ignored them all, hiding behind his computer and working on a report that was already three days overdue while he forced down his two sausage McMuffins, hashbrowns, and extra-sweet coffee.

JD filled his paper plate with offerings left by the other men, then poured himself some coffee and walked over to his desk and sat down. He glanced over at Tanner. "Jeeze, Vin, you look terrible. Didn't you get any sleep over the weekend?"

Tanner's eyes narrowed, malice bubbling up from their depths. Y' can't kill 'im, he reminded himself. He's a brother agent, a friend… and it'll cost y' twenty years.

"Kid, leave the poor man alone," Buck countered. "At least he's gettin' a little color back… unless that's from a fever?"

"Least he's eatin' something. If you call that food," Nathan added, then directed, "Have some orange juice, Vin. The vitamin C will do you good."

Tanner flashed a thin smile at the men and nodded his supposed appreciation, then went back to his report. They all knew it was late, so maybe, just maybe, they would leave him alone to finish it in peace.

Nathan walked over to the table where the various contributions to the breakfast possibilities were set out and filled a paper cup with juice. He carried it over to Vin and handed it to him.

Tanner glanced up, meeting the man's eyes. Somewhere in the back of Vin's mind alarm bells went off. Ah damn, he sighed. Jackson looked like a freakin' blood hound on a fresh scent.

"You look like you should take it easy today," Nathan said, brow furrowing with worry.

Tanner nodded, accepting the juice and draining it. He fought hard to keep from grimacing as it burned its way down his already raw throat, but that pain was nothing compared to what it could be if they knew–

He stopped the thought, afraid one of them might somehow hear it, or pluck it out of his mind.

Nathan looked more than a little surprised. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were getting some common sense about this."

The cup contacted soundly with Tanner's desktop.

"Common sense? Vin?" Buck questioned Jackson, a grin on his lips. "I don't think those two things go together. Not when he's sick, anyway. Like that incident last week with the heating pad?" he offered. "I told you that would help," he continued, undaunted by the blue glare as Tanner dunked a donut into what was left of his coffee and took a bite. "I don't see why you had to wait 'til I'd left to use it."

The others watched, expecting Tanner to explode. But it didn't happen.

That wasn't normal and they all shifted their attention to the team sniper, worried that he might be sicker than they realized.

Vin wished he could just close his eyes and disappear.

Each member of Team Seven had his own particular way of being sick, and dealing with the sick. JD and Josiah refused to go to bed, puttering around at their computers at work, or watching television at home, asking for or getting whatever they needed themselves, and generally maintaining pleasant attitudes throughout the whole affair. As a result, they let the others have their space when they were feeling under the weather, something Tanner appreciated tremendously. They were mother hens he could live with, for a little while, at least.

Buck and Nathan, on the other hand, simply climbed into their beds and slept through the entire unpleasant affair. But when someone else was suffering, their mother hen instincts took over and, regardless of the victim, he was treated as if he was a small child in need of supervision, coddling and constant care, which explained Wilmington's next comment to Tanner.

"Vin, you should try some of that instant oatmeal, stud. It has lots of iron and stuff." He looked at Nathan, asking, "Iron should help him, right?"

Nathan nodded, still watching Vin carefully.

Tanner's eyes closed briefly, but he nodded. Buck headed over to the table, poured the stuff into a bowl, added some water and stuck it in the microwave, which beeped quicker than Vin expected.

Buck stuck a spoon in the oatmeal and carried the steaming bowl back and set it on Tanner's desk.

Tanner took one bite, then set his spoon down and poured the contents from a couple of sugar packets into the glop. He glanced over at Larabee's enclosed office. At least Chris was staying in his cave. God only knew what he'd come up with.

"A lot of sugar when you're already sick can lower your resistance even further," Nathan stated informatively.

Tanner ground his teeth together and shoveled another bite into his mouth. Can't kill 'im. Can't do it…. He paused. The stuff actually tasted pretty good. Amazing. Okay, so Buck had the occasional good idea. He must have learned the trick while making the recovery process bearable for one of those lady-friends of his. He'd thank him later, when he could catch him in private.

Finishing the oatmeal, Tanner glared at Ezra, who he knew was just waiting for an opening. The last member of Team Seven, Standish, was an unmitigated pain in the ass as far as Tanner was concerned. When the man was sick, he wandered around the office, harassing whoever he found, and when his energy was finally used up, he'd collapse into his chair and suffer in not-too-silent misery. But, try and offer any help to the man and Ezra's martyr complex would kick in and he'd decline – effusively. Turn the tables, though, and the man put an obsessive-paranoid mother hen to shame.

The vague notion that he and Standish shared some similar traits was quickly squelched.

"Well," JD said, slightly disappointed that Vin hadn't exploded on Buck and Nathan as he had – repeatedly – over the past week, "Josiah and I are off to get statements from Keagan's old girlfriend. Feel better, Vin."

Tanner gave the younger man a hopeful grin and nodded.

"Buck and I have to go see those FBI guys who interviewed Mahoney's accountant before he turned up dead," Nathan said, then drained the last of his coffee, set the cup down, and stood. With a light pat on Tanner's shoulder, he added. "Try to grab a nap today, okay? You do look tired."

Vin nodded.

Buck glanced over at Ezra, saying, "You keep an eye on him for us, all right?"

"Of course," Standish replied smoothly.

Tanner closed his eyes. He didn't like the sound of that, not one little bit. Maybe he should just slip into Larabee's office and tell him– No! some part of his mind yelped. Larabee was almost as bad as Ezra in some ways, worse in others. If Larabee found out the truth, he'd be grounded, sent home or, worse still, remanded to the ranch until he was well. Not that the latter didn't sound pretty good at the moment…

Ezra watched his four friends leave, and then glanced back at Vin. There was something happening that he couldn't quite figure out. But what was it? Continuing to work on his croissants, he kept watch as Tanner finished his donuts, and then refilled his coffee mug.

"You know," he said, "maybe you should go home and return to the comfort of your bed. It's obvious that you feel miserable – if your appearance is any gauge, that is."

A curt shake of the head was Tanner's only reply.

"Fine, if you think you need to sit here and suffer in silence, far be it for me to attempt to dissuade you." There was a pause as Vin sat back down at his desk and began to work on the report again. "I'll fix you some tea. There's a cold formula now that's supposed to cut the duration of the illness by half, or so they say."

Tanner almost told the man not to bother, but caught himself just in time. With a glare over his shoulder, he hunched down farther in his chair and kept on typing.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Tanner checked his watch. It was almost noon. Lunchtime. Maybe be could just stay in the office, and– No, if he stayed someone would drop in to see how he was feeling and he'd have to explain.

A heavy sigh escaped his lips. Why this? he asked. Ez'll be impossible if he finds out. Hell, he's impossible now! And he'll tell the others… God, 'm so screwed.

A soft knock on his desktop interrupted his train of thought. He glowered at the hand. If that was Standish with another cup of his tea he would not be responsible for his actions. Every hour, on the hour, the man had arrived at his desk with a cheery expression and a cup of the foul-tasting concoction. And Tanner had been forced to accept and drink each and every one of them without comment. Enough was enough! He was going to drown in the blasted stuff if the man persisted.

He glanced up. It was Larabee.

Chris smiled. "Anyone tell you you look like shit?"

Vin sighed and rolled his eyes.

"All right," Larabee replied, "you want to suffer through it here, fine. I just came out to see if you wanted to grab lunch across the street."

Tanner nodded, rising stiffly from his chair. He stretched, then grabbed his jacket and followed Chris to the door.

Exiting, he nearly collided with Ezra, who was carrying yet another cup of the dreaded tea.

"Hey, Ezra," Larabee greeted. "We were just headed over to get lunch. You want to come?"

"I'd be happy to join you. Just let me set this down first." He met Vin's eyes, adding, "You can reheat it in the microwave when we get back," before walking over to leave it on Tanner's desk.

Ezra had just rejoined them when Larabee's beeper sounded. He glanced down at the text message. "It's Buck… our guys are on the move."

Tanner sighed. The hiding was over. "I'll get m' gear," he said.

Chris and Ezra paused for a moment.

"I'm sure I saw his lips move, but I'd swear I didn't hear a thing," Ezra commented to his companion.

"I didn't hear anything either. No time now, let's–" The beeper went off again and Chris glanced down and frowned. "False alarm." He walked back into the office, picking up the first phone he got to and calling the number that had come up with Wilmington's message.

"Buck, what the hell's going on?" Chris asked the man when he picked up.

Ezra folded his arms across his chest and leaned against a desk to listen to one side of the conversation.

"First, go tell Junior we don't have an action on our hands."

Chris cupped his hand over the receiver and said to Standish, "Go get him."

Ezra nodded and left.

Chris turned his attention back to the phone. "All right, Ezra's gone after Vin. Now, why the false alarm?"

"Nathan and I got to talking about breakfast, and our suffering friend, and we realized Vin hadn't said a single word the entire time, even with all of us pestering him."

"Why the hell were you pestering him, Buck? He's sick and–"

"We weren't really pestering him," Wilmington defended himself. "He just thinks we were. We were just lookin' out for him."

"I see," Larabee replied dryly. They had been pestering him.

"Anyway, we started thinking, what could still our sniper's voice."

"And the answer?" Chris asked with a sigh.

"Laryngitis! But we knew he wouldn't want to admit it, so we thought if he had to say something we could check it out and not put any dings in his stubborn Texas pride."

Ezra and Vin returned, Standish straining to hear what Tanner was telling him.

"False alarm," Larabee said as they reached him. "Sorry about that," he added for Vin.

"Yes, we're sorry about that, but you were already out the door before we could tell you," Ezra explained with an accomplished air of innocence.

"Fine, then let's jus' go t' lunch," Tanner told him, his voice a broken, high, raspy squeak that reminded them of a certain chipmunk with the name of Alvin.

"What was that?" Standish asked, leaning forward. "I didn't quite hear–"

Tanner's eyebrows fell to a single point at the bridge of his nose. "Ain't nothin' wrong with yer ears," he creaked.

Larabee fought to stop the grin that tugged at his lips. Tanner sounded like he'd gotten into some helium.

Vin looked at Chris. "As fer you–" His voice caught, the remainder of the sentence inaudible. He tried to clear his throat, but it seized up and left him coughing instead.

"Lunch. I heard you just fine," Larabee said, grinning. "Maybe you should get the chicken soup. I hear that's supposed to help."

"Ah hell, not you too, Larabee," Tanner rasped. "I can't take no more mother hens."

"I don't know," Ezra tossed in, speaking to Larabee. "He really shouldn't be outside if he has laryngitis. The cold air might aggravate the inflammation." He placed an arm around Tanner's shoulders and guided the simmering agent back to his desk, Larabee watching. "And talking is out of the question for at least twenty-four hours," Standish continued, "maybe longer. We'll have to try some eucalyptus vapors, and–"

"Isn't that for sinuses?" Chris asked the man.

Ezra glanced over his shoulder and winked. "That's right, it is, but I'm quite sure there's something you breathe in like that to help with laryngitis. No doubt Mr. Jackson can supply the correct ingredient. Oh, and plenty of hot liquids, of course. The tea I've been bringing should have been helping already. We'll just increase the frequency."

Tanner dropped into his chair, looking utterly defeated.

Buck chuckled on the other end of the phone. "Think that'll drive him home and into his own bed?"

"I doubt it," Chris replied, shaking his head and grinning.

"Wish I could've seen the look on Junior's face," Buck added, then chuckled. "I know it's not funny, but–"

"I think it's time for me to take him out to the ranch so he can heal up in peace," Chris finished.

"Yes, mother," Buck replied, chuckling louder.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Six days later Tanner sat down at his desk and sipped on his coffee. Except for a slight cough the flu had finally run its course.

Nathan looked up from reading the paper. "Morning, Vin. Feeling better?"

"Fine, thanks."

Jackson dipped his head to hide a grin.

"Ah, did I hear our sniper's voice?" Ezra asked, strolling in to join them. "It sounds as if you're back to… what would you say, Mr. Jackson, eighty, ninety percent?"

"No thanks t' y' pack 'a motherin' hens."

JD frowned. "I don't think hens run in packs, Vin."

Tanner rolled his eyes. "This one does, kid."

"Where's Chris?" Buck asked the other men as he glanced around the office.

"I haven't seen him yet," Josiah replied, folding up his paper and handing it to Wilmington. "But then, I didn't see much of him Friday either, did you?"

"Come to think of it, he kept to his office most of the day," Ezra said thoughtfully.

"Here he is!" JD announced, seeing Chris trying to slip into his office unobserved.

"Mornin', stud!" Buck called. "You ready for a new week?"

Larabee stopped, staring at them and looking peevish. He walked over and collapsed into one of the empty chairs.

"Chris, you all right?" Nathan asked him, frowning.

Larabee nodded.

Buck and Ezra exchanged glances. "Are you sure?" Standish asked Larabee. "You look a little flushed. Do you have a fever?"

Cold green eyes regarded the agent for a moment, then shifted to Tanner. "You did this to me," a thin, squeaky voice accused.

Buck caught himself just in time to keep from spraying coffee across his desk, and stared in amazement at his boss. "Stud, you never get sick."

The glower shifted. "He did it to me," Larabee croaked, pointing at Tanner.

"Hell, Chris, it was you who took me out t' the ranch. You was the one followin' me 'round, makin' sure I drank that gawd-awful tea, and ate that blasted chicken noodle soup, so 'm sure y' know what t' do 'bout it," Vin said smugly. "There's all that tea y' need t' drink. Hell, 'm sure I c'n brew it up fer ya. And them vapors… Oh, an' the vitamins, the cream 'a wheat, and y' need t' stay inside where it's warm and dry – preferably in bed. An' I'll find that heatin' pad, 'cause yer goin' t' need it; the muscle aches hurt like a bitch. Maybe y' should go home and get int' bed now. Y' look like shit, Larabee. Didn't y' sleep at all last night?"

Larabee blinked. He was doomed. "Next time," he crackled, "you're on your own."

Tanner smiled. "Jus' what I wanted t' hear!"



Author's Note: This story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #4, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Michelle Fortado is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang ? Sierra Chaves, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, and Lorin & Mary Fallon Zane. Story last edited 6-20-2005. The art is by Shiloh