by Cmurph

+ + + + + + +

"What'd J.D. have to say?"

"Tell Vin they miss him. Can't wait to see him. Usual J.D. stuff. You talk to Travis? How much shit are we in?"

"I'll handle Travis."

"Damn that's ugly."

"I trust you'll exercise greater discretion in making observations of that caliber when Mr. Tanner regains consciousness."

"Sorry. That really safe? Leavin' it open like that? What about germs and stuff?"

"It's a standard practice. There's no danger from stuff."

"You want to sign that report for Dean this afternoon?"

"Yeah. I'm gonna pick up Nettie after and bring her back with me."


Four heads swiveled to face Vin Tanner as he struggled to open his eyes. The voices had drifted above him, sounding familiar, but he was unable to put the words in any context until he had heard the name of Nettie Wells.

"Hey, Vin," Chris said easily, shifting the chair he was sitting in to face the young man.

"Nettie okay?" he asked groggily.

"She's fine, Vin," Nathan answered. "I sat with her the whole time the guys were out looking for you. We dropped by after the paramedics took you away and filled her in. Now Buck will pick her up this afternoon and bring her to see you. She's fine," Nate repeated to reassure him.

"Pissed, though, huh?" Vin asked, closing his eyes again.

Chris smiled.

"I know the feeling," he said.

Vin lifted his head carefully, opening his eyes again and squinting through the haze of concussion.

"Hey," Vin said, smiling weakly at the others in the room. Buck and Ezra moved closer and Vin relaxed back into the pillow.

"Perhaps we should notify Dr. Paris?" Ezra asked as they approached Vin.

Tanner's hand tentatively brushed along his right thigh. He swallowed hard and looked at Chris.

Larabee took Vin's right hand without thinking, holding fast. There had been only defiance in Vin's face when Chris told him about the qualifying exam, when he saw Vin at the ledge facing Prichett, when he had crouched below the rim with Tanner facing possible death at the hands of a mad man. Now for the first time he saw fear in the young man's eyes, and wished for the strength to mask his own.

"The doc here wants to send you to a specialist back home," Chris said, knowing Vin needed to hear the facts as much as he would if their positions were reversed.

Vin felt a firm hand take his left and he turned to see Nathan Jackson standing beside him.

"The bullet is still in there, Vin. He doesn't have the skill to remove it," Nate explained.

"Oh shit," Vin swore, his chest tight, his breath coming in short gasps.

"Easy, easy," Chris said. "The doctor here has a lot of faith in Dr. Matthews in Denver. Says he's the best man for the job. You're going to fly there tomorrow and we'll be right behind you."

"You need something Vin? Should I call a nurse?" Nathan asked, concerned.

"No, no, I'm...shit," Vin said again, working to control the sudden panic that had threatened to overwhelm him.

"Now, Vin," Buck said, moving closer. "You ain't in this alone. You got us, you got Miss Nettie, you got a whole passel of doctors and nurses you haven't even met yet that are gonna be pullin' for you every step of the way."

"Indeed," Ezra added. "The dedication of those who know you, and those whose pleasure it will be to know you in the days ahead, is vast and unfailing."

"Even if I ain't on the team no more?" Vin asked, almost in a whisper.

"You'll always be a part of this team," Chris said firmly. "Whether that means you sit in a desk next to Ezra, or live in an apartment down the street, your place is with us." Chris looked down guiltily at his young friend. "I screwed up. I should've reminded you of that before. I should've made you understand that back in my office before this whole mess started. Your place with us goes beyond four walls in the federal building."

"Damn, Chris, you didn't screw up. I did. I forgot what Troy told me when we met six months ago. I had a good thing. And that was more than just a job."

"Awake, alert - was I talking to myself when I said I should be notified as soon as Mr. Tanner regained consciousness?" asked Dr. Paris as he entered the room.

"I believe I made such a recommendation..." Ezra began in his defense.

"Suck-up," Buck muttered as they made room for Dr. Paris to exam their friend. He took Vin's right hand and placed two fingers in his palm.

"I'm Dr. Paris, Mr. Tanner. Your attending physician here at Mercy General. Can you make a fist please," he said as Vin squeezed. Paris repeated the procedure with Vin's left hand. He moved to the foot of the bed and uncovered the left leg, running a stylus up the foot to watch for the reflex reaction. He nodded appreciatively.

"How's your eyesight, Mr. Tanner?" Paris asked as he jotted results on Vin's chart.

"Fuzzy," Vin answered.

"And usually?" Paris asked, shining a light into each retina.

"What've you got that's better than 20/20, doc?" Buck asked. "'Cause you can put old eagle eyes here at the top of the class."

Vin shrugged.

"Yeah, I usually got pretty sharp eyesight. That gonna change?"

"No reason to. Once the bruising of the brain heals from the concussion your eyesight should be back to normal. We'll want to take it easy for awhile, obviously."

"Well, I don't see me goin' anywhere fast," Vin said dejectedly as he glanced toward the white mound of dressings and linens that surrounded his right knee.

"Your friends explained we'll be flying you back to Denver to see Dr. Matthews?" Paris asked.

"Yeah. They said your guy here recommended him," Vin answered.

Paris nodded. He drew back the blanket and lifted Vin's gown to expose his side.

"No infection. You're very lucky. Just a few stitches," he said as he inspected the bullet graze on Vin's side. He put the gown and blankets back in place.

"Yes," Paris answered him finally. "We happen to count ourselves extremely lucky to have Dr. Richards on our staff. I have every confidence in his abilities. If he says Dr. Matthews is better qualified to handle your treatment he must be quite a surgeon."

"Thanks for everything you're doing for Vin, Dr. Paris. We appreciate it," said Chris as Paris finished up his examination.

"Nettie Wells is a good friend of mine," Paris said. "I don't imagine I have to explain to you the kind of pressure I'm under here. I'd appreciate it if you'd help Mr. Tanner maintain his current level of health until he's out of my jurisdiction."

"I hear ya, Doc," Buck said with a smile.

Vin smiled, but looked steadily back at Dr. Paris.

"Just what is my current level of health, Doc?"

Paris took the chair Chris vacated and offered to him. He pulled x- rays out of a manila jacket and held them up for Vin to see.

"There's part of the bullet," he said, pointing to the object with his pen. "See how it's imbedded in the bone? This is what remains of your kneecap. It's Dr. Richard's opinion that it will have to be replaced, but that's minor surgery. You wouldn't be the first person to return to his former lifestyle with a piece of plastic in him."

"So it's the bullet that he's backin' away from?" Vin asked.

"Yes. The bone cracked here and here when you fell," Paris said, indicating the fractures. "The bullet wedged partly into one of the fractures and shattered. There's another piece of it here. Removing them could deepen the fracture, split the bone, damage surrounding cartilage or nerves." Paris watched as Vin's face blanched at the complex nature of his injury.

"Dr. Matthews is a Vietnam War veteran. He's seen more than his share of shattered bones and fragmented bullets. He won't sugarcoat this and neither will I. We're sending you to the best because you'll need the best. But there's no reason to believe the best won't be good enough. Do you understand?"

"Yeah, yeah, sure," Vin said, nodding numbly.

"No, I can see that you don't," Paris said. He put the x-rays back in the jacket and looked at Vin.

"From what Dr. Richards tells me, Dr. Matthews should be right up your alley. He's tough, realistic, no-nonsense. But he'll be the first to tell you that approaching this with the right attitude will make as much difference to your recovery as anything he does in the operating room. It's not some medical soap-opera cliché. Attitude is everything. I've heard from Mr. Jackson here the details surrounding your injury. It doesn't sound as if you're the type to quit in the face of adversity. You need to extend that determination into your therapy."

"Yeah," Vin agreed, taking strength from the intensity with which Paris addressed him. "Yeah, I need to apply it to a few other things as well," Vin said, looking up at Chris.

"One hurdle at a time, Vin," Chris said.

"This'll give you some time to hit the books while you're sitting around," Buck suggested. "We can help you study while you're stuck in bed. By the time the doc gets you up and running you'll be ready to take that damn test, too."

"Sounds like you have your work cut out for you," Dr. Paris said, rising. "I'll leave you alone." He glanced at the haggard expressions of the men surrounding him, then back to his exhausted patient. "Naps all around, gentlemen?" He looked back at Vin. "For you it's not just a suggestion."

"We'll head out and give him some sack time, Dr. Paris," Chris promised. "Grab a little for ourselves, too. Especially you, Buck."

Buck nodded, realizing the drive to see Dean and pick up Nettie would take the good part of the afternoon and early evening.

The door closed behind Paris.

"We'll be back later, Vin, okay?" Nathan asked as he motioned the others towards the door as well.

"Nate, hold on," Vin said, as the men gathered back around his bed. "What you said, Chris, about going back. That offer come from you, or Travis?"

Chris smiled. "Déjà vu and all that," he said, remembering back to another hospital bed, another offer, but the same look of guarded hope on the young man's face.

"You pass the test, you're back in. You don't, we find a place for you in Denver where the brass thinks with its brain and not its butt. Either way, your place is with us."

Vin glanced at Ezra.

"It wasn't right, what I did," he said to Ezra. "Makin' you promise not to say anything. I'm sorry, Ez. That's not what a good friend does."

"There's no need for you to continue, Mr. Tanner. Our conversations have remained private. If you wish..." Ezra assured him.

Vin's brow furrowed.

"I know that, Ez," he said. "I know you ain't said nothin'."

Ezra swallowed at the look of pure faith Vin Tanner had in him, in his word, and was grateful for the gift.

"I don't read good," Vin said, taking a deep breath.

"Well hell, Vin," Buck said, "That ain't nothin'. Lot's a folks ain't got a high readin' level and they do just fine."

"Many of them read well and still have poor grammar," Nathan said, shaking his head at Wilmington.

"No. I mean, I can't read good," Vin said, frustrated. "It ain't in me to read good."

"Now a lot of folks feel that way, Vin, but we can help you..." Buck continued.

"Damn it, Mr. Wilmington, would you please listen to what Mr. Tanner is saying," Ezra exploded uncharacteristically.

"Ez, don't..." Vin pleaded. "It ain't his fault. I'm not sayin' it right," he turned to Chris. "I hate sayin' it," he said softly.

Suddenly it dawned on him. Chris thought if he were in a cartoon there would be a light bulb shining above him, and shook his head at the idea. All this time he was speculating that Vin may be illiterate. But the truth was...

"You're dyslexic," Chris said.

Vin let out a breath and looked away.

"That's that backwards shit, right?" Buck said.

"As always, Mr. Wilmington, your lack of vocabulary is surpassed only by your lack of candor," Ezra said wryly.

"Well, hell, Ez, all I mean is, it's not somethin' to be ashamed of," Buck said, irritated. "It ain't like he's stupid or anythin'."

"Buck, please," Chris said, not sure whether to laugh or cry at the situation. "Quit while you're behind, alright?"

"No, Chris, it's okay," Vin said. He was uncomfortable that they were feuding over him, over his problem. It was hard enough to admit the disability without having his friends come to blows about it.

"Buck's right," he said. "I act like it's somethin' to be ashamed of and all it does is cause trouble. If I just had the guts to face it like a man none of this would've happened. Gettin' Ezra to write my reports, makin' him take the heat for promisin' to keep it a secret," he glanced guiltily at Chris, "gettin' Drew Andrews to take the GED for me, hidin' that from Nettie," he shook his head.

Buck and Ezra looked at Chris for confirmation on Vin's confession. Chris nodded, at a loss for what to say to help his friend.

"Well at the risk of bein' candorless and all," Buck said, putting his hand on Vin's shoulder, "I can understand it. Hell, Vin, you face fear dead-on all the time 'cause you believe deep down you can lick anythin' out there. You've done it all your life. Physically, you've beat down your demons and won. This readin' thing, it ain't somethin' you can face down - it don't meet you head on, man to man. It sneaks up on ya, on applications, and reports, readin' a damn storybook to some kid, all of a sudden bang! there you are, feelin' helpless and exposed. Now I don't know nothin' more than what I said about dyslexia, so I don't know how I can help. But I'll do whatever it takes, Vin. And I know five other guys who'll back you up as well. If it takes gettin' a tutor, we'll get you the best. If it takes gettin' you one of them talking computers, we'll buy one for ya. If it takes goin' to that test and readin' off every question and typin' up every answer then we'll see to it that that's good enough for the brass. But hell, kid, don't you ever, ever think you're alone in this again, you hear? 'Cause I don't care if you pass that test with 100% or 40% or not at all - I got used to havin' you around and it hurt like hell thinkin' that was over. I ain't goin' through that again."

Vin watched the Texan's eyes as he drilled his devotion into Vin with every fiber of his being. They were honest words, and Vin treasured them.

"Well said, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said quietly.

Nate turned to Chris.


+ + + + + + +

That evening Vin was feeling better about himself than he had in a long time. Even with the looming specters of surgery and rehab and the exam hanging over his head, he felt prepared to face it. Better prepared than he had in a long time. Keeping the secret of his disability had been more of a burden than he had realized, and coming clean with Nettie about the GED had removed the last weight of deception he had struggled beneath for years.

"I would've helped you, you know," Nettie said to Vin as the men afforded them this time alone. "I helped you through all those other tests in school, all those nights workin' on sorting the letters out for you in your homework."

"I don't think the Captain would've understood you bein' in a sniper's nest with me in the Congo," Vin said with a smile.

"You could've waited to take it until after you left the service," she said, reprimanding him with a look.

"Then I couldn't have cheated," Vin explained.

Nettie shook her head in exasperation.

"That's the point, Vin, you wouldn't have had to."

"Ohhhh," Vin said, suddenly smiling as he saw Nettie realize her leg was being pulled. She shook her head again and glanced down at his knee.

"What about this then," she said nodding towards the exposed wound. "You worried?"

Vin thought about the question, took her hand up in his and gave it a squeeze.

"I know I should be, but I'm not," Vin said quietly. "I know tomorrow when that Doc in Denver tells me what he's going to do, what's going to happen, I'm going to remember that answer and wonder what the hell I was thinking, but right now I just feel, I don't know, kind of...hopeful."

Nettie smiled.

"I'd imagine getting all that nonsense off your chest, leanin' on those friends of yours has something to do with it."

"I expect," Vin said, returning the smile.

The door opened and Chris peeked around the corner.

"Sorry, Nettie, I didn't know you were still here," Chris said, excusing himself.

"No, Mr. Larabee, wait," Nettie said rising. "I'm goin' to head to the hotel. Nate was kind enough to offer a ride and I don't want to hold him up."

"How come he's Nate and I'm Mr. Larabee?" Chris asked, taking her hand.

"'Cause you're the boss," Nettie said.

"Could you say that sometime when the rest of them are in the room?" Chris asked. "They seem to have trouble remembering that."

"That's a good sign," Nettie said, patting his arm as she made her way to the door. "It means they trust you," she said as she left the room.

"No, I think they just like pissing me off," he muttered to the closed door.

"Hey, Chris," Vin said, bringing Larabee's attention back to the young man in the hospital bed.

"Vin. How's it going?" he asked, pulling up a chair.

Vin stretched back on the bed and put the arm unencumbered by an IV beneath his head.

"Better. How about you?" he asked, nodding towards Chris' arm.

"Just a scratch," Chris said. "All I need is a ride on the ranch and a cold beer and I'll be right as rain."

Vin looked wistfully at him, his thoughts on the beautiful land and horses Chris owned. His face clouded suddenly as he thought of Denver, of the ATF.

"You're gonna be in trouble because of all this, aren't you? Comin' up here, Prichett gettin' killed, flyin' in by helicopter - that had to've been Ezra," he thought suddenly.

"Travis sent us in. He authorized everything," Chris said.

"Yeeeaaahhh," Vin said slowly, "But I bet you were supposed to bring Prichett back alive quietly and without any mess."

"I'd rather deal with the mess than have lost you to him," Chris answered truthfully.

"But how does Travis justify sending you out after your own agent on my behalf? I didn't even work for him anymore."

"Technically, neither did Pritchett. He was still on the payroll, but he had tendered his resignation just before he left to take after you," Chris explained. "And as it turns out, your resignation never made it off of Orrin's desk."

"I wonder how that happened?" Vin asked with a shy smile.

Chris shrugged.

"I guess we both thought there might be some chance - maybe after you cleared your head a little."

"Thanks, Chris, I owe you," Vin said.

"Yeah, sure," Chris said, turning away from Vin, his eyes suddenly focused on the mangled knee.

"I mean it, Chris, I want to go back, try and take that test. If this doctor in Denver really is that good I could have another chance, right?" asked Vin.

Chris continued to avoid Vin's gaze, his eyes riveted unwillingly on the wound.

"You know something I don't?" Vin said, suddenly afraid.

"No, no, of course you'll get a chance," Chris said, realizing what Vin was reading into his reluctance to face him.

"What's wrong?" Vin asked, puzzled.

"Everything's been moving so fast up until now. Dealing with Prichett, getting you off that cliff, making the arrangements to get you to that doctor - I haven't had much time to think. Now I'm sitting here realizing for the first time you took a bullet for me up there. Prichett would've killed me if it wasn't for you. And now you're lying there..."

"Chris, please, don't do this to me," Vin pleaded.

"I should've covered your back in Denver, faced the brass about your academic record right from the start so none of this would've happened. Buck and I talked to them, but we left too much hanging. Ezra was right. I just figured they owed me. My name was enough to cover over a missing grade or two. Then my past with Prichett puts you in the crossfire of a mad man. And when it finally came time to pay the bill, you stepped in and took the hit on that, too."

Chris jumped as the water pitcher next to Vin's bed sailed through the room, crashing against the wall. The metal container bounced back and skittered across the floor to land at his feet.

"Don't you do this to me," Vin said again, seething. "Don't you ruin this for me. I almost blew it myself by walking out - letting my pride get in my way. Now I'm ready to go back and fight - fight to take their damn test, to get this leg working again - fight to get back my self-esteem. Don't you dare get in my way now."

Vin was sitting up, his fists clenched, and Chris bore the weight of his full anger as he raged on.

"I ain't got time or energy enough to be worryin' on you. I need you behind me all the way. I need your strength - your steel. You sit there feelin' sorry for me, sorry for what happened, and you're as useless as a rubber crutch. I aim to win a place back on your team, Chris. If I don't, I'll need you there to set me on a new track. If I do, I want to work for the same man I met in that conference room that wanted to kick my butt the minute he laid eyes on me. Either way, I ain't gonna make it if I've got to drag you and your bucket-load of guilt along with me."

Chris held Vin's angry gaze throughout, hearing every word the young man was saying. He felt overwhelmed with pride in the spirit Vin was showing, grateful for the gift of this man's friendship. Larabee was filled with a clarity of purpose he had never known before. Vin would walk. Vin would pass the test. Or they'd both die trying.

"I'll call Orrin in the morning. Tell him to start the paperwork to schedule your exam," Chris said finally.

"I'm gonna make this, Chris. You watch," Vin said with fierce determination.

"I'm gonna do more than watch Vin," Chris promised. "I'm gonna kick your butt every step of the way."

"I see Mr. Larabee has retained his solicitous bedside manner," Ezra said, walking in on Chris' last line to Vin.

Both men looked up relieved for the tension broken as Ezra and Buck entered the room.

"Everything's taken care of with Sheriff Dean, Chris," Buck said. "Nettie's headed back to the hotel with Nate, the papers are ready to be signed to transfer Junior here, and J.D. and Josiah will be waiting at the Denver Orthopedic Institute."

"Good," Chris said, giving up his seat so Buck and Ezra could move in closer to Vin. His eyesight was still not up to par and the men knew how frustrating it was for him to have to squint to see them.

"I still want to stop by and see Dean before we leave. Thank him in person. If that chopper..." Chris stopped suddenly, struck by a thought.

"Yeah," Buck said, shaking his head, "I was wondering when that was going to occur to you."

"How'd Dean know..." Chris began.

"Gee, I can't imagine. If the great Chris Larabee wasn't there to handle the situation who could possibly have thought to call Dean, give him coordinates, arrange for a medivac, pick up Nathan..." Buck ticked off the list.

"Thanks, Buck," Vin said smiling through a yawn.

Buck looked at Chris, waiting.

"What?" Chris asked.

"What? No good going Buck, quick thinking Wilmington, not even a stinking attaboy?" Buck complained.

"For what? For doing your job? You think I get a slap on the back from Travis everytime we have a successful bust? That's what being the leader is all about. You and Ezra are so all-fired up about taking command I'll let you talk to the brass when we get back," Chris shot back. "And next time Ezra turns in his expense sheet, or J.D. buys some $1200 computer program we've got to have, or some secretary down in Records starts crying 'cause she saw you with someone else, or..."

Vin laughed as Buck mimicked Chris, rolling his eyes at the familiar litany.

"Gentlemen," Ezra interrupted, "I recommend we postpone this discussion and allow our comrade a night's rest before he embarks on his journey home tomorrow."

"Good idea Ez," Buck said, as he watched Vin's eyes flutter in an attempt to stay awake. He leaned in closer and gave Vin a pat on the cheek.

"See ya tomorrow, Junior," he said.

Vin swatted his hand away weakly and smiled. He waved goodbye to Ezra as the two agents walked out the door. Chris watched them leave and turned back to Vin.

"Everything's taken care of, alright?" he told Vin. "We'll see you before you leave. And J.D. and Josiah will meet you back in Denver. You just do what they tell you and take it easy."

"Yes, Dad," Vin said, closing his eyes.

Chris shook his head and smiled, waiting a few minutes more to see that Vin was asleep before he left for the night. He thought suddenly of his conversation with Nettie Wells - had it only been yesterday?

"I'm not talkin' about bein' a father to the boy he was. I'm talking about bein' a friend to the man he is," she had said. He looked at Vin lying peacefully asleep at last.

"Well, Nettie, maybe once in a while, a guy could use a little bit of both."

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner's room was buzzing with activity when Chris arrived with Nettie the next morning. He'd sent Buck, Ezra and Nate home early, hoping to have as many forces in place as possible by the time Vin got there. Chris would see Vin off, take Nettie home, and then make a final stop to see Sheriff Dean before he left for home himself later that afternoon.

"I appreciate all this runnin' around you boys have been doin' for me, Mr. Larabee," Nettie said as Chris took her arm to guide her through the busy hallway outside of Vin's room.

"I'm glad we've had a chance to get to know you," Chris said. "Vin's been pretty tight-lipped about the people in his past. It was just by chance J.D. happened to remember a conversation he'd had with Vin that brought us out here after him."

"Smokey the Bear," Nettie said suddenly with a laugh.

Chris stared at her.

"How in the world would you have come up with that?" he asked, incredulous.

"Oh, Vin would complain about that all the time as a kid. I dragged him out to this God-forsaken place where Smokey the Bear was born. When he got older he'd tease me about it mercilessly."

"Well it saved his life this time," Chris told her. "There's a little ammo for you in the future."

They walked into Vin's room just as the orderlies were make adjustments for him on a special streamlined gurney. A metal casing had been fitted around Vin's entire leg to keep the knee as stable as possible and the casing itself was bolted onto the gurney. A fine sheen of sweat glistened on Vin's face and both hands were curled into white fists.

"You've been busy this morning," Chris said, covering a fist with his hand, his smile encouraging as he fought to control his concern for his friend.

"Hell yeah," Vin said, blowing out a breath and taking another deep one, trying to slow his racing heart.

"They gonna give you anything for the flight?" Chris asked.

"The Doc wants to wait so it doesn't wear off during the flight," Vin explained.

"He thinks it's going to be worse than that was?" Chris asked, nodding towards the contraption that encircled his leg.

"He's good, Chris, he knows what he's doing," Vin said, defending Dr. Richards.

Chris handed Vin a glass of water.

"Sure, it's not his knee that's spread out all over creation," Chris muttered, shuddering again at the thought.

"He's mad because they won't let anyone fly with you," Nettie explained, shouldering her way past Chris to give Vin a kiss on the cheek. She smoothed back his hair.

"I'm happy to see no one's made you cut it," she whispered to him with a smile.

"Over my dead body, Nettie," Vin promised her.

"He's going to sleep all the way. He doesn't need company," Dr. Richards said as he entered the room.

"Hey Doc," Vin said with a grin, the visitors helping to take his mind off the pain. "You met Mom and Dad here yet?"

"I've had the pleasure of both," Dr. Richards said, nodding to them. He opened Vin's chart and made a few more notes before signing it and snapping it into place on the gurney. He looked down at Vin.

"I just got off the phone with Dr. Matthews. He's ready and waiting for you. I've also just signed off on your transfer. Your flight is in half an hour. You want to say your good- byes here now, because once my nurse comes in with your medication you'll be out until Dr. Matthews welcomes you to Denver," Richards explained.

"I want to thank you and Dr. Paris and everyone here," Vin said. "You been real good to me. I appreciate your bein' honest with me and findin' someone to take this on," he said, nodding towards his knee.

"You tell Dr. Matthews I released you with the clear understanding that you'd be moving up in the world of medical care. If he falls down on the job, I'll be expecting a phone call," he said, shaking Vin's hand. "I'll send Carla in with your meds. Good luck and God speed, Mr. Tanner."

Vin waved goodbye to the doctor as he left, then turned towards Chris and Nettie.

"I'll be out to visit soon as I can," Nettie told him, taking his hand. "I'd come now, but I got..."

Vin held her hand in both of his.

"I'll be fine, Nettie. I got a lot of people to take care of me. I'll keep you posted, don't worry."

"Now that I know where to find the only person on this earth Vin will take an order from I'll be tattooing your phone number on my palm," Chris said with a smile.

Nettie kissed Vin again, but this time she held his face with her hand, her cheek pressed against his as she blinked away the tears. She took a deep breath then and stood, brushing angrily at the tears as she backed away to allow Chris to say goodbye.

"I'll be outside," she said. "Gettin' too stuffy in here. You have that handsome Texan give me a call when you get to Denver."

"He's nothing but trouble, Nettie," Chris warned of his friend Buck.

"I like 'em that way," Nettie said with a sly smile. She winked at Vin, patted Chris on the arm, and walked out the door as the nurse came in.

"Looks like dreamland's just around the corner," Chris said as the nurse prepared the shot.

"Yeah," Vin said, closing his eyes, "Can't wait to get there."

Chris smiled and patted Vin on the shoulder.

"Have a good trip, Vin," he said. "I'll see you back home."

+ + + + + + +

The Denver Orthopedic Institute was nestled in a valley just outside Denver. An impressive multi-building complex, it boasted some of the country's finest surgeons, as well as experts in prosthetics and rehabilitation.

J.D. and Josiah sat in a waiting room with plush, comfortable chairs. Twice a volunteer had been in to offer them coffee and Danish.

"I think I'm going to like visiting Vin here," J.D. said, taking a bite of his second Danish.

"It's impressive," Josiah agreed quietly.

J.D. shot him a glance.

"Hey, I know it's going to be hard on him, I was just joking," J.D. said sincerely.

"I know," Josiah acknowledged.

"It's neat he's gonna be able to get taken care of here, huh? That the doctor waived the fee and all," J.D. said earnestly.


"Alright, what's eating you Josiah? You've been quiet all morning. I'm worried about Vin, too, but he's got the best in the business here. That's good, right?" J.D. asked.

"The best in the business," Josiah repeated. He looked patiently at J.D. "Why do you think Dr. Matthews is waiving his fee, J.D.? Why do you think that doctor in New Mexico referred Vin here?"

"Because Matthews is the best," J.D. answered simply.

"And why would Vin need the best, J.D.? Why would a doctor who obviously demands a significant fee, waive it?" Josiah prodded.

J.D. swallowed, the implications finally registering.

"'Cause Vin's in a lot of trouble," he said finally.

Josiah nodded.

"We have a long road ahead of us, J.D.," Josiah said, clasping his hands between his knees as they continued to sit, and wait.

+ + + + + + +

Buck sat in his seat on the plane heading to Denver, a copy of the in- flight magazine lying unopened on his lap as he stared out the window. Nate sat in front of him, dozing. Ezra took a swallow from a glass of mineral water and looked over at Wilmington for the third time.

"If you need to talk..." Ezra offered.

"Huh?" Buck said, turning to look at Standish.

"Sorry, I merely offered..."

"Oh, yeah, sorry, Ez. Thanks," Buck answered, shaking his head. He looked back out the window and Ezra shrugged, about to reach for a magazine himself when Buck spoke softly.

"You ever seen anythin' like that Ez?" he asked, still facing the window.

Ezra sat back in the seat and looked at Buck.

"I presume you are referring to Mr. Tanner's wound," he said.

"I never seen anythin' like that," Buck said.

"Mr. Tanner will be under the care of a physician well acquainted with the sight. He is in good hands," Ezra assured him.

"Even the best can only do so much," Buck said, voicing the concern they all felt. He turned to Ezra, then, with a new thought.

"I didn't mean to make light of him havin' dyslexia," Buck said, feeling compelled to explain himself.

"I'm sure we all realized..."

"Sometimes I say things...I want the answer to be simple, so I just talk like it is. I know it ain't that easy to work around something like that. I don't mean for Vin to think..."

"Mr. Tanner appreciates your faith in him and understands your comments were meant to encourage his success, not minimize his disability - as do we all," Ezra assured him.

"He and Chris are pretty tight," Buck said, taking Ezra a bit by surprise.

"Yes, it would appear so," Ezra agreed, suddenly seeing the point. "Is that a problem?"

"You know, at first I thought it might be, but then..." Buck looked at Ezra and smiled. "He kinda brings out the big brother in a guy, you know?"

Ezra smiled back.

"I prefer to think of him as the prodigal son who has made his way home at last, for which there shall be much rejoicing."

+ + + + + + +

Josiah and J.D. stood, solemn and white-faced outside the door to Vin's room. They looked up in unison as Buck, Ezra and Nate walked quickly toward them along the corridor. They had taken time to stop at their homes, unpack, take a quick shower and then make the drive to the institute to meet the rest of their team.

"Buck!" J.D. said with relief, taking strength from his roommate in a bear hug that threatened to leave him breathless.

"How ya doin' kid?" he asked, releasing him and shaking Josiah's hand. Ezra and Nate greeted them, then peered past them into the room where Vin lay sleeping.

"How long has he been here?" Ezra asked.

"They brought him in here an hour ago," Josiah answered, joining Ezra and Nate at the door. "It took them some time to get him processed."

Buck put his arm across J.D.'s shoulders and the two of them stood behind Ezra and Josiah.

"Man, Buck," J.D. said, shaking his head as they looked in at Vin.

"Yeah, I know," Buck said. He turned to Josiah. "You seen this Dr. Matthews yet?"

"Briefly," Josiah answered. "He introduced himself, gave the orderlies and nurses some instructions and then he said he was going into surgery."

"When's he got Vin scheduled?" Buck asked.

"Tomorrow morning. Five a.m." said Josiah.

"He said he's scheduled Vin for another set of x-rays, then he'll do an examination of Vin's knee himself around 6 p.m. I guess," J.D. told them.

"That's about when Chris is due," Nate said.

"When do they anticipate Mr. Tanner regaining consciousness?" Ezra asked.

"Any time now, they told us," Josiah said. "Did he say anything in New Mexico? About staying with us?"

Ezra looked at Buck and Nate uneasily. Vin had told them all his secret in New Mexico, and they could easily assume there would be no reason to keep his dyslexia a secret from J.D. and Josiah, but should Vin be the one to tell them?

"He said he wants to take the test," Buck said truthfully. "But it isn't going to be easy. He'll have to pass a physical now, too."

"He's got a reading problem, doesn't he?" J.D. asked.

Ezra looked at him.

"You knew?" he asked.

"Well, gee, Ez, your desk is right by mine. You don't think I've heard you two talking over his reports?" J.D. answered.

"Well why didn't you say anything?" Buck asked.

"Not my business is it? I mean, as long as the reports were done and Chris was happy with Vin's work, why should I say anything? Besides, I didn't know if it was something Chris was aware of in the first place."

"He has dyslexia," Ezra told them. He glanced at Buck and received a nod from the agent to go ahead. "He told me about it as soon as he had to write his first report, but asked me to keep it a secret. In New Mexico he finally decided he wished to return, take the test, face his demons."

"He's got another one to face now, too," Nate said. "This is going to be..."

"Nate?" came a faint call from within the room.

Nathan and Ezra entered the room and crossed to Vin's bedside.

"You there Nate? I'm gonna be sick," Vin said, eyes still closed.

Ezra handed Nathan a receptacle as Vin turned his head to the side just in time.

"Nate?" Vin said again as Jackson took a wet washcloth and wiped Vin's face.

"I'm here, Vin," Nathan said.

"'m sorry," Vin apologized, his eyes still squinting shut.

"Don't worry, Vin. I'm right here to help."

"My leg is hurtin' bad, Nate. Can you call someone?"

"Josiah went to tell the nurse you're awake, Vin," J.D. said, as he and Buck joined them.

"J.D.?" Vin asked with a weak smile. "Damn, it's good to hear your voice."

"It's good to see you, Vin," J.D. said, taking Vin's hand. "I was hoping you'd come back - but I would've rather seen you in one piece."

"Yeah, me too," Vin agreed. His face drained of color and he turned to the side again as Nate directed him towards the basin.

"'m sorry," Vin said again.

"Please, Mr. Tanner, the inability to process the drugs they administered to you in New Mexico is hardly your own fault. Rest assured we are grateful to be here to assist you," Ezra reassured him.

Slowly Vin's eyes fluttered open. He blinked, unfocused, at the men surrounding him.

"They operate already?" he asked, trying to see his right knee.

"No, Vin, the doctor wants more x-rays. He'll operate tomorrow morning," Buck told him.

"And we'll get those x-rays now, Mr. Tanner," said Dr. Matthews as he entered the room with Josiah close behind. "I'm Dr. Matthews, Mr. Tanner. Welcome back to Denver."

"It's Vin. I figure we'll be seein' a lot of each other, Doc," Vin said, shaking his hand.

"Drugs giving you a problem, Vin?" he asked, as Ezra emerged from having cleaned out the basin in the bathroom.

"Always do," Vin told him as Dr. Matthews began a cursory exam.

"I've got something new I've been using with success on a number of my patients - Thorazinine Ventaculun-Primary," Matthews said as he wrote on Vin's chart. "TVP. We'll give it a try here in a minute. Can you rate your pain for me from one to ten?"

"Gotta be a high eight, Doc," Vin said.

Matthews looked around him as Vin's friends exchanged worried glances.

"I take it you've got a pretty high pain threshold," Matthews asked Vin, looking to the others for confirmation.

"Yeah, but this is a topper, Doc," Vin acknowledged.

Two technicians arrived with a portable x-ray machine.

"Gentlemen? I need the room for a bit. Would you mind waiting outside? I'll join you shortly."

The men filed out of the room to make way for the x-ray machine. Dr. Matthews arranged the machine and instructed the technicians as to what angles he was looking for.

"We're going to get some pictures here, Vin, and I'm going to have a nurse bring you a good dose of TVP. Later on I'll be back to do an exam of your knee. Your surgery is scheduled for 5 a.m. tomorrow. After the exam, I'll give you an idea of what we'll be doing tomorrow, and what you can expect in the days ahead," Matthews explained. "I'm leaving you in good hands for the time being."

"Thanks, Doc," Vin said. "Can the guys stick around for a while?"

"As long as you give yourself some time to sleep, Vin. We've got a lot of work ahead of us - you'll need your rest."

Vin nodded as Matthews clicked his pen closed and left the room.

+ + + + + + +

At 7 p.m. Chris sat with the rest of his team in a conference room just down the hall from Vin. Larabee had arrived just after Dr. Matthews had begun his examination of Vin's knee, and none of them had been allowed in the room.

"You like this doctor, Nate?" Chris asked the medic.

"I've only talked to him once for a very short time, Chris. But the clinic here is top notch. If Matthews is their best, he's what we want for Vin," Nathan answered.

"How'd things go with Dean?" Buck asked.

"He's a good man. I think between the two of us we came up with some good answers for his brass and ours. I've got a meeting with Orrin tomorrow afternoon," said Chris.

"What'd he have to say about all this?" Josiah asked.

"He's not happy about Prichett," Chris told them. "But he realizes it was the most probable outcome. He's more concerned with Vin. Wants to help in whatever way he can."

"Nice of him to jump on the bandwagon now," Buck said sarcastically. "His help a little earlier might've..."

Buck stopped as the door to the conference room opened and Dr. Matthews walked in. Chris introduced himself as the doctor placed a metal box on the table, then flicked on some light boxes on the wall and slipped several x-rays into place.

"Forgive me for moving along here, but I've got two more patients yet tonight and a long surgery with Mr. Tanner tomorrow," Matthews explained.

"Go to it, Doc," Buck urged him as they all turned their chairs to face the x-rays on the wall.

"Dr. Richards did a good job diagnosing this. He followed my instructions to the letter. You can thank him sometime for keeping up with the latest medical journals enough to know we're more capable of handling the case than he is."

Richards saw several of the men glance at each other.

"I'm not being brashly arrogant here, gentlemen, I'm trying to give you some assurance that your friend will receive the best possible care. And he's going to need it."

Matthews pointed to the x-rays behind him.

"You can see the bullet fragments here, here, here, and here," Matthews said.

"There were only two fragments visible on Richards' pictures," Nate said, admiring the camera work.

"That's the machinery we have here," Matthews told him. "It can get better angles than most other machines." He turned back to the pictures. "The knee cap has been shattered beyond repair."

"And the knee itself?" Chris asked.

Matthews turned back to face them.

"I've spoken with Mr. Tanner about this. There's no question I can repair the knee. There are a lot of fragments, bone chips, which will need to be removed. Several bones will need to be pinned and fused. There's damage to ligaments and some missing cartilage." Matthews stopped and took a deep breath. "As I said, I can repair that damage."

"But..." Nathan urged.

"But I think it may be in Mr. Tanner's best interests to have the knee replaced."


"Why? If you can..."

Chris put up his hand to stop the barrage.

"Let him finish," he said, his eyes intent upon the doctor.

"The knee is a highly complex joint that is called upon to withstand an extreme amount of pressure and flexibility. If Mr. Tanner worked a 9 to 5 job as an investment banker and went home to play a little one-on-one with his kids on Saturday, I'd say let's patch it up and send him home. But it's my understanding his job is a little more physically demanding than that."

"Hell, his recreation is more demanding than that," Buck said with a slight smile.

"Replacement surgery has come a long way in the past few years - especially here." Matthews opened the metal box before him.

"Holy cow! It looks like something out of science fiction," J.D. exclaimed as the doctor withdrew a synthetic knee.

Matthews passed it around the room.

"This is what you might call the "Cadillac" of knee replacements," Matthews explained. "It's only available in hospitals that have the surgeons who know how to install it properly and the rehab specialists who know how to work with the patient to bring it to use in its fullest capacity. This is what I showed Mr. Tanner."

"And this is what he's decided to go with," Chris said, watching the doctor's face.

"It is."

"Vin wouldn't want anything he couldn't depend on," Chris reasoned out loud. "He insists on the best rifle, the best vantage point - he demands the most from himself physically in order to perform his job. If he couldn't depend on his knee to handle the job 100% of the time, he'd want to replace it."

"You know him pretty well," Matthews said. "That's almost exactly what he said to me. Only I believe his exact words were 'they need to depend on me 100% of the time.'"

Chris smiled.

"How long does this surgery take? And what comes next?" Nathan asked.

"It's my only surgery tomorrow," Matthews said, letting the implication stand. "And then we'll be looking at four to six weeks of rehabilitation."

"How long is he here?" Josiah asked.

"Four to six weeks."

"It isn't outpatient therapy?" J.D. asked.

"No. It's very structured, highly specialized rehabilitation - in varying levels of intensity - that lasts throughout the day," Matthews explained.

"How the hell does anyone afford this if you don't waive the fee?" Buck wanted to know.

Matthews shifted uncomfortably.

"Not many can. That's why we do as many cases as we can on a pro-bono basis."

"Thanks for taking Vin on, Dr. Matthews. I can guarantee you he'll end up being a poster boy for the success of your surgery. He'll work harder than anyone you've seen yet to get back into shape," Chris promised.

"I've no doubt. And your support is going to be invaluable as well, I can see that."

Matthews placed the knee back in its case and took down the x-rays.

"As I said, I've got a few patients to see yet," he said, putting the x-rays in a folder. "But I don't want to rush you if you have more questions."

Chris looked around the room at his men. It dawned on him that in all the difficult situations they'd faced before on the job, he'd never seen them this solemn, this...scared.

"That'll do it for us, thanks, Dr. Matthews," Chris said, rising to shake his hand. "Thanks for all you're doing for Vin. I know he'll have the best with him tomorrow. We'll be waiting for you."

The team watched Matthews leave the room, sitting still in their chairs as the door closed softly behind him, each lost in his own thoughts of what the next day would bring.

+ + + + + + +

"You're back," Vin said as Chris was just ducking out of Tanner's room. Larabee stopped and moved back into the room, crossing to Vin's bed.

"I thought you were asleep already. I didn't want to wake you," Chris said, pulling a chair next to the bed.

"Just dozing. They gave me something to relax me - on top of what they're givin' me for the pain, so I figure I'll be out like a light pretty soon," Vin warned him.

"The boys went home, but Buck and Nate will be here tomorrow," Chris promised. "Josiah, Ezra and J.D. will hold down the fort, but you know they'll be pulling for you. I've got to meet with Travis tomorrow afternoon but I'll be here in the morning."

"Trouble?" Vin asked, concerned.

"No. Just procedure Vin. Stop worrying about it. Keep your mind focused here," Chris told him.

Vin glanced down at his knee.

"He tell you I said to replace it?" Vin asked.

Chris nodded.

"Seemed to make the most sense. I asked what he'd do and he said if it was his knee he'd replace it. I figure he was bein' honest with me, right?"

"He's got a great reputation Vin. I figure if he said it's the way to go, he was steering you right," Chris said.

"Long way to go though," Vin said. "Rehab, I mean."

"But afterwards you'll have the confidence in yourself you're going to need to test out for the ATF."

Vin eyed him.

"That still possible?"

"Of course it is. This doctor is saying you'll be as good as new. You'll have plenty of time to study while you're here. By the time you check out you'll be ready to ace that test," Chris promised.

Vin yawned and sighed.

"Gonna hurt like hell," he said, his eyes closing.

"You'll make it."

Vin peeled one eye open.

"Damn straight."

+ + + + + + +

Chris glanced at his watch. Quarter to 12. Buck had gone out to hustle up some lunch for the friends who sat in the plush waiting room at Denver Orthopedic Institute. Chris let out an exasperated breath. He knew the surgery was going to take a long time, but he had to meet with Travis at 1 p.m. Even if every light was with him, he'd have to leave no later than 12:15 to make it to the office and get the files together in time for the briefing. He didn't want to have to leave before he knew how things had gone with Vin.

"We'll give you a call as soon as he gets out," Nate told him as the team leader sighed heavily again.

Chris looked up at Nate, unaware he had been under such close scrutiny by the medic.

"We still talking about a reasonable amount of time here Nate?" Chris asked.

"I've heard these things can take up to 12 hours sometimes," Nate told him. "You don't want him to have to open Vin up again. We want to be sure he does everything right the first time."

"You'd think they could get word to us on how it's going."

"So far so good."

Chris and Nate turned as Buck entered with a bag of sub sandwiches.

"I checked with the nurse at the desk out there," he said jerking his head over. "She called up to the operating room for me. Doc says so far he hasn't had any surprises."

"He give you an estimate?" Chris asked.

Buck shook his head no and shrugged his apology as he handed out the sandwiches.

Chris unwrapped his sandwich and took a sip of his coffee.

"Are we kidding ourselves that Vin will be able to pass the physical after all this, Nate?" he asked, afraid to look up at the medic - afraid to see the answer in Nate's honest eyes.

"It's like anything, Chris," Nate said, chewing. He swallowed and took a drink. "It depends on the skill of the physician, the patient's physical condition, and their attitude, their drive. All those things considered, I think Vin has a great chance."

"Considering all Vin's been through already, I can't see him letting this stop him," Buck reasoned.

They ate in silence until Chris glanced at his watch again.

"Damn," he said quietly. He rose and threw the remainder of his sandwich away, drained the last of his coffee.

"We'll call, Chris," Buck said as he watched his friend walk dejectedly towards the door.

"Yeah, thanks," he said.

"We'll tell him you were here," Nate added. "Just take care of things with Travis."

"Yeah," Chris said again, opening the door of the waiting room. He paused and turned back.

"Tell him..." he began, looking to Buck.

Buck smiled, reassuring Chris in his loss for words.


+ + + + + + +

"So how'd it go?" Orrin Travis asked, shaking Chris' hand as he led him into his office.

"He's still in surgery. Buck'll give me a call when he's out," Chris told him, taking a seat.

"I'm sure everything will turn out well, Chris," Orrin said, shuffling papers on his desk. "The kid's strong. He'll do fine."

"Sure he will," Chris agreed. He watched Orrin pull together a file on his desk. "You get my report?"

"Yes. I went over it with Gaines and Arnold. Looks like all the bases are covered. You left things straight with this..." he looked through the file quickly, "Dean?"

"No problem. He's a good man. A good cop," Chris assured him.

"That's good. That's good," Orrin said nodding. "Quite an adventure you boys had out there. Wish I could've done more to help. Good thing you found Vin when you did. Sounds like a bad wound, there."

Chris felt suddenly uncomfortable. He shifted uneasily in his chair.

"Vin's getting the knee replaced," he offered, trying to be casual.

"That so?" Orrin asked. "How does that work, then? He have to wear a brace or something?"

"No," Chris said slowly, his eyes searching Orrin carefully. "No, it should be good as new the doctor says."

"Really? That's amazing. Just amazing what they can do now," Orrin said, shaking his head in awe.

"Alright, Orrin," Chris said finally. "We've known each other far too long to keep playing this game. I've got a very bad feeling about this little conversation. You want to tell me what you're trying so hard not to tell me?"

Travis rubbed a hand across his forehead and Chris' stomach fell. Then his anger rose.

"You son of a bitch -you're not going to let him test back in, are you?"

"Now Chris..."

"Don't play games with me, Orrin. You said all he had to do was prove to Gaines he could pass the academics. You said on the phone," he stood, leaning on Orrin's desk to face him down, "You swore to me on the phone if he passed the physical he was back in. Tell me you didn't lie about that Orrin. Tell me you didn't roll over on Vin in front of Gaines."

"Listen, Larabee, I haven't..." Orrin said, putting up his hands.

"Damn you!" Chris swore. "Damn you and this whole department. You gave him up, didn't you? Because of what? Because of the testing? Because of Prichett?" He looked at Orrin then and felt the air leave his lungs as if he'd been punched in the gut by Muhammad Ali in his prime.

"Because of me?" he whispered.

"Sit down, Chris," Orrin said quietly. "Sit down and let's talk it through. It's not what you think. This isn't over. Nothing is."

"Like hell it isn't, Orrin," Chris said, "He's hanging on in that hospital on the hopes of coming back here and facing all this down. You take that away from him and..."

Chris' cell phone beeped and he jumped to pull it from his jacket. He punched it on.

"Chris? Buck. He's out. He did great. Everything's fine. Just fine."

"Chris?" Buck said again. He looked over at Nate and a sleeping Vin. "You there?"

"Yeah," came a tired voice on the other end. "I'm with Travis. I'll call you back."

"Okay cowboy. Doc says he'll be out for a while. Make it back here when you can," answered Buck.

Wilmington turned off his phone and joined Nate beside Vin's bed. He cocked his head to the side, studying Vin's face as slept.

"How old you figure he is, Nate?" Buck asked.

"Oh, 26, 27," Nate answered.

"No shit? J.D. just turned 24 this year. You figure Vin's only a few years older?"

"I think that's what Chris said."

"I never would'a thought...hard livin' surely does put the years on you, doesn't it?" Buck pondered.

"He doesn't look so old now, does he?" Nate asked. "It's not the hard living that makes him seem older - it's the way he carries himself. For all his insecurities, he's got a confidence in his abilities that's born of many tests and trials."

"He's also got that 'don't care if I die' attitude - which scares the hell outta me sometimes," Buck confessed.

"Then it's up to us to give him something to live for, isn't it?" Nate asked him with a smile.

Buck nodded, then reached for his phone again.

"Forgot to call the rest of the boys." He saw Vin stir a bit, grimacing in his sleep. "I'll call outside so I don't wake him."

Nate watched Buck leave and turned back to Vin.

"Sleep while you can, Vin," he whispered, his face full of concern for his friend. "Now is when the real fun begins."

+ + + + + + +

"Everything's just fine," Chris said sarcastically as he turned back to Travis. "Except for the fact that I work for a bunch of gutless wonders..."

"Alright now, Larabee," Travis said hotly. "Just sit down and shut up before you get yourself in trouble. Hear me out and give me a few minutes to explain all this, alright?"

"Give me one good reason..."

"You want Vin back on your team and so do I. Good enough?" Travis challenged.

Chris eyed him back steadily and slowly sat down.


+ + + + + + +

"Mr. Tanner? Vin?"

"Vin? The doc is here to check you out. Can you wake up for him?"

One eye rolled open, then fell shut again.

"Come on, Vin, show us those baby blues," Buck urged. He took up Vin's hand in his own.

This time both eyes peeled open slowly. Vin squinted and blinked as the face above him came into a fuzzy focus.

"Hey there, Junior," Buck said with a smile.

"Vin? Everything went well," Dr. Matthews said. He began checking Vin's vitals.

Buck gave Vin a sip of water.

"Chris is on his way, Vin. He'll be here in a half-hour or so. He wants you to take it easy, okay?"

"Can't feel anythin'," Vin croaked, trying to ease himself up to look down at his knee.

"We've got you on some heavy pain medication right now, Vin. But we'll be weaning you off of it pretty soon. You can't exercise that knee if you can't feel it," Matthews told him.

"Yeah, okay," Vin said, his eyes closing again.

"Any nausea?" the doctor asked.

Vin opened his eyes, confused.

"No," he looked at Matthews.

"Hey, that's right!" Buck said smiling. "He almost always wakes up pukin'. What'd you give him?"

"It's a combination of TVP with the regular anesthesia."

"Well bottle up a bunch of that for the road, Doc," Buck said. "Next time this kid gets so much as a sliver we're dosin' him with that instead."

"Not everyone has it on hand," Matthews explained. "But we'll note it in his medical file in case you ever want to check back on it."

"File, hell. We're tattooing it on his arm," said Buck.

Vin smiled, his eyes closed, listening to his friend as he drifted back to sleep.

+ + + + + + +

When he woke again he was no longer in the gauzy embrace of the medication. This time it was pain that woke him and he groaned as he shifted his stiff body.

"Easy," came a familiar voice in the dim twilight.

Vin tried to focus on the clock in his room.

"'time is it?" he asked, breathing hard through a spasm of pain.

"Almost seven."

Finally Vin turned toward the voice beside him. Chris saw the sheen of sweat that blanketed Vin's face, watched him grimace from the pain.

"I'm gonna call the doctor. Let him know you're awake again," Chris told him.

"You okay?" Vin asked.

"Am I okay? Why wouldn't I be? You're the one sporting a foot-long scar down the middle of a knee the size of a regulation football," Chris reminded him.

"You look worried. What happened? Where's Buck? Are the guys okay?"

"The guys are fine. Buck and Nate went home. You had surgery. I'm worried about you," Chris said, shaking his head.

"Aw, hell, Chris I'm okay," Vin said, his hand gripping the sheet in a white-knuckled fist.

"Uh-huh," Chris said, "I can see that. You're so okay I could wring a bucket of water out of your pillow and sheets from all that sweating you're not doing."

Chris pushed the call button on the bed frame. A disembodied voice floated down from them almost immediately.

"Can I help you?"

"Vin Tanner's awake and in quite a bit of pain. Can he have something for that? Is Dr. Matthews around?" he called into the air above him.

"Dr. Matthews is still here on rounds. He asked to be contacted when Mr. Tanner woke again. I'll have him paged."

"Thanks," Chris said.

"What'd Travis say?" Vin asked without warning.

"Everything looks good," Chris answered, turning towards the nightstand. He poured Vin a glass of water and helped him to drink.

"When did he schedule the test for?"

"Let's take this one step at a time, alright?"

"There's a problem, isn't there?" Vin asked, his jaw set.

"Damn it, Vin, will you stop thinking the worst of everything all the time? Let's get the knee working and then let's worry about scheduling the test. Better yet, why don't we just try to make it through this first night? You're white as the sheets you're laying on, got a death grip on the rail here, let's just see if Dr. Matthews can give you something to help, alright?"

"I hear and I obey," Matthews said as he walked into the room, reading Vin's latest vital check from his chart. "Mr. Larabee? How's he doing?"

"He'd probably tell the doctor he's fine during his own autopsy," Chris said, shaking his head as he rose from his chair to shake Matthews' hand.

"I'm going to give you something to help you sleep tonight, Vin. Tomorrow we start working so we'll cut back the dose a bit."

"Tomorrow already?" Chris asked, stunned.

"He won't be doing wind sprints yet, Mr. Larabee, but we want him to start moving his foot, doing a very limited amount of flexing. I'll have a sit-down with you and Vin tomorrow morning, spell it all out for you," Matthews said.

"He's got work tomorrow morning," Vin said, eyeing Chris.

"I'll come in first thing, then..." Chris began.

"No, Chris. You and the guys get back to work. Let me get to work here. I don't need you all holding my hand through this. They got nurses and therapists and doctors who can take care of me just fine. You get things in order around there for when I come back," Vin said evenly.

"Can I come after work? Or is that off limits too?" Chris shot back.

"Only if you're bringing food," Vin countered.

"I'll leave you two to sort this out," Matthews said as he headed towards the door. "I'll send a nurse in with your medication. Then it'll be lights out, gentlemen."

Chris eased himself back into his chair. He looked hard at Vin.

"It won't be any trouble to arrange it for one of us to be here once in a while during the day," Chris told him.

"I'm not kiddin' myself, Chris. I know this ain't gonna be easy. Which is exactly why I don't want you guys hanging around. I can't be thinkin' about you or anyone else right now. I gotta concentrate."

Chris nodded his understanding. He had to admit, he'd feel the same way. Working through this injury was going to be painful. Vin didn't need his friends to see him like that. He was going to have to draw on whatever resources he had to see him through the weeks ahead. No man would want the people he cared about, the people who cared about him, to see his every reserve drained in the effort to recover.

"We'll be here at night with supper and a shot of support," Chris promised. "But that phone rings both ways. You need a reason to keep going sometime when we're not around, you give us a call."

"I'll put you on speed dial," Vin promised with a smile.