by LT and Niteowl

PART 1 | PART 2| PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 | PART 7


The ride to the hospital was a quiet affair. Chris was lost in thought and Phil didn't have the heart to intrude. There was little he could say that would help the troubled man anyway. When Phil pulled up to the door to the ER, Chris shot him an angry glare. "Sorry, Chris. SOP. You've got a head injury and you need it looked at first. The sooner you get it done, the sooner you can check on Buck and the boys."

Chris reluctantly agreed with a short nod.

Phil walked with him inside and waited while he checked in at the desk. Once he saw that Chris wasn't fighting the exam, he held his hand out to the Team Seven leader. "I've got to get back to work," Phil offered. "Give Buck my best, tell him I'll be praying for him."

Chris took the man's hand and shook it firmly. All he could do is nod, afraid his voice would break if he tried to respond. He was still watching the other man walk out the door when he heard his name called.

"Mister Larabee? Would you come with me, please?" A pretty little blonde with the nametag 'Shannon' was holding a clipboard and standing at the hallway opening.

Chris followed her down the short hall to one of the curtained cubicles. She indicated for him to have a seat on the paper-covered bed. She looked down at the paper on the board then back up at the man sitting quietly in front of her. "The doctor will be with you shortly."

"Famous last words," Chris muttered under his breath as she turned to go. Even though he didn't think he'd said it loud enough, she heard him. But her only reaction was a small smile and a shake of her head as she pulled the curtain across the opening and continued down the hall. Much to his surprise, it was only a few minutes before the curtain was pulled aside and Shannon was back, along with another woman. This one was dark-haired, a little older and her name tag had the word 'Doctor' in front of the name.

The intern walked straight up to Chris and held out her hand. "Mr. Larabee? I'm Doctor Leos. How are you feeling?" Her words were spoken clearly and with a light Hispanic accent.

"You tell me, Doctor," Chris countered, a little of the impatience he was feeling bubbling to the surface.

Doctor Leos gave him a silent once over, taking in the slumped shoulders, the arms folded tightly across his chest, the bloody clothes and bright green eyes fairly blazing. "Well, I'd say you've been in a fight."

"Well then, you know more than I do," Chris growled. He caught himself when the woman took a step back and put her hands on her hips, frowning. He sighed and shrugged; it wasn't the doctor's fault. "I don't remember what happened," he said in a calmer tone. "I think someone clobbered me with a bat."

"Let me have a look," the Doctor said softly, stepping up next to Chris. He bent his head closer and hissed involuntarily when her gentle fingers probed around the knot on the back of his head. "That seems to be a pretty accurate diagnosis," the Doctor agreed, smoothly moving Chris back up to a sitting position. "Are you dizzy? What about nauseous? Are you experiencing black spots in your vision or ringing in your ears?" As Chris replied "no" to each of her questions or simply shook his head, she made notes on the chart Shannon handed her. "Well, you have a pretty good contusion there - it doesn't look like you'll need any stitches. I'd say it's a minor concussion, though it probably feels major enough to you. I don't think there's any fracture, but I'm going to send you to x-ray, just to be on the safe side." Seeing the protest about to issue forth, she held up her hand. "I know. You have a friend in surgery here in the hospital, and you want to see him as soon as possible. Well, you're not going to do him any good if you end up in a bed next to him. We'll get this done as quickly as we can. Shannon, will you take Mr. Larabee to Radiology?"

"Sir?" The nurse held the curtain open. "This way - Down the hall to the right..." she began.

"Yeah, I know the way," Chris groused, realizing just how much time he and his family had spent at this ER lately. Suddenly his blood ran cold as he looked around and wondered which of the cubicles had held his friend when the ambulance brought him in hours ago. "Miss?" he called to the nurse just ahead of him. "Could you find out how my friend Buck's doing?"

"Buck?" she asked, eyeing the man sympathetically.

Chris nodded. "Buck Wilmington. They brought him in earlier today. Last I heard, he was in surgery."

Shannon nodded, then slowed in front of the door marked Radiology. "I'll see what I can find out. Wait here, the x-ray technician will be with you shortly."

"Thanks," he replied, watching her walk back toward the ER.

A man named Brad appeared shortly and had him lie down on the cold, hard, metal table. He took several x-rays and then disappeared. Chris had sat up and was waiting impatiently when the door opened and Shannon stuck her head in.

"Mr. Larabee, your friend is still in surgery. That's all I could find out, I'm sorry." She smiled wanly and then she too disappeared.

Eventually, Brad came back and told Chris he was free to go. Chris bolted out of the room and straight to the elevator. He punched the button for the third floor and again thought how natural the movement had become. The doors opened on the third floor and he almost ran down the hall to the surgical waiting room. 'The torture room' was more like it. He hated that room with its cold green walls and hard cheap chairs and couches. He heard Josiah's voice just as he got to the door.

"Ezra, I'm telling you, there is no way he would have done such a thing! Chris and Buck may squabble, but this? No way!"

Nathan stepped in to add his two cents worth. The tension was getting to all three of them. "I called the Sheriff's Department. There was no one else there. They arrested Chris. You tell me what happened, Josiah? He was acting strange even for him yesterday and we never could get him to tell us what was wrong. I don't know why, but I figure maybe he did it!"

"Josiah, who could have gotten out to the ranch and past all of them, the pups included, to bludgeon Mr. Wilmington and then retreat without being spotted? Perhaps Mr. Larabee had been drinking, perhaps Mr. Wilmington said or did the wrong thing. I cannot fathom the reasoning behind this atrocious act, but Deputy Moran must have thought Mr. Larabee guilty or he wouldn't have arrested him. I know everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but the evidence speaks volumes." The team's undercover specialist and good friend to the whole family stopped his pacing in front of Josiah.

"Where in the hell is that doctor? Didn't they tell us an hour ago he would be right out?"

"Mr. Standish?" An elderly woman in a pink smock that had been manning the phones and clipboards stood patiently behind him.

Ezra turned expectantly. "Yes, have you heard something?" All three men's eyes bore holes into her, wanting to hear any news she had of their injured friend.

"Dr. Donaldson will be with you shortly. He's the neurosurgeon who operated on your friend. Mr. Wilmington is still in surgery however. I'm not sure why, but I'm sure the doctor will be able to tell you that." She smiled indulgently. "Just a few more minutes, gentlemen." She moved back to her chair behind the desk.

All three ATF agents were still on their feet when Chris made his presence known. He had heard what Nathan and Ezra said and he couldn't really blame them. He'd had doubts about himself, too. It was nice to know that Josiah was so certain he hadn't committed the unthinkable. He had also heard the "pink lady" say that the doctor would be in soon.

"How long has he been in surgery?" Chris didn't care what they thought of him at the moment, his only concern was for his best friend.

"What the Hell..."

"You're finally here!"

"How?? What?? They said you had been arrested!"

"I'm out on ROR - the deputies found evidence that someone had been in the barn all night, waiting for us. He must have hit me first when he saw Buck coming toward the barn. I was unconscious and still don't remember anything, but I know I didn't do it. Now, how's Buck?" Chris appeared drained, running totally on emotion and adrenaline. He was still covered with blood, dark brown stains all over his shirt and jeans. His eyes were red rimmed and bloodshot. His jaw was tightly clenched, holding everything in.

Josiah acted first. "Chris, sit. You'll fall down and then we'll have to worry about you all over again. Have you eaten anything today?"

Chris did sit, but he shot Josiah a patented Larabee glare. "I don't need a babysitter, Sanchez. I want to know how Buck is?!"

Ezra sat beside Chris and turned to face him. "They didn't even take him to the emergency room from what we could ascertain. They took him straight up to surgery. He wasn't breathing on his own when they arrived. We heard about three hours ago that the lung had collapsed, a shattered rib puncturing it. That was their first priority. What else is going on, we have not been briefed by any medical personnel. We are as much in the dark as you are."

Chris nodded. "His head, the blood was all over his face. It was already swelling. And his arm, it was at an odd angle. He was so still..." Tears clouded the green eyes and Josiah draped an arm over his shoulders, pulling him close.

"Buck is too stubborn to let someone kill him like that. He's going to make it through this, Chris. I know he is!" The voice was forceful, commanding all within earshot to agree with him. Josiah had arrived first, Phil Moran calling him. He had talked with the paramedics who were still there filling out paperwork. The older man, a Bill Walker, had told him that Buck's breathing had stopped and that his blood pressure was barely readable. He had implied that Buck wouldn't make it, although he couldn't come right and say that Buck was a dead man. Josiah had turned hard blue eyes on the man. 'You don't know Buck.' These men with him now knew the lovable ladies man though. They would agree with him, buoy his sense of resolve. He received a silent nod from each of them.

A short time later, a young man in surgical scrubs entered the room. Everyone in the room looked up expectantly. He talked to the lady at the desk who pointed in their direction. Rubbing a hand across his weary face, he approached four anxious men.

"My name is Dr. Donaldson, I operated on your friend. He has a massive head injury and we had to operate as soon as he was stable from the lung injury. We stopped the major bleeding and placed a drain tube in his skull. The extent of the trauma won't be known fully until he regains consciousness. He also has a compound fracture of the right arm, which they are working on now. I believe Dr. Asrah is placing screws and rods into the forearm. The left arm was also broken but doesn't require surgery. He has a broken kneecap and other damage to his right knee. The worst of the internal bleeding occurred in his lung area and was dealt with, but he still has some bleeding around his liver and right kidney. Hopefully, that will resolve itself."

"If it doesn't?" Nathan knew but he wanted the doctor to confirm it.

"Then he'll have to go into surgery again. We wanted to get out as soon as possible, his body was starting to fail, his heart rate was thready and his blood pressure dangerously low. He's receiving plasma and whole blood at this time." He paused, looking down at his soft white hands. Finally, he looked Chris Larabee straight in the eye. "Gentlemen, the next forty-eight hours will tell. The trauma he suffered would have been immediately fatal to most people. We've done all we can at this point. Can I answer anything else?" The red-haired thin man had gentle eyes and it helped ease some of the news that felt like a ton of bricks had fallen on each of them.

Chris simply turned away. He couldn't face the doom in the doctor's prognosis. Buck had to live! He couldn't make it without the big lovable man he had called best friend for almost twenty years. He was his anchor to life - that had been proven when Sarah and Adam died. Now, when they were finally family again, he needed him as much as ever. He simply couldn't die.

Ezra shook his head slowly. This could not be happening. He had finally found a home here with these men. If Buck died, that warm feeling he had found so comforting would disappear. He didn't know if he could deal with the outer cold again now that he knew just how good family could be.

Josiah sat with a thud. He didn't want to lose another friend. He had lost many in his life, both in Viet Nam and during his years with the police. He had become a profiler because he didn't want to face the despair of death again. When Chris had called and asked him to be on his team, he had hesitated for just this reason. He couldn't watch Buck die!

Nathan, with his medical background, had feared this moment. He hadn't shared his fears with the others while they waited. Now, those fears were reality. "Doctor, the head trauma? Is it contained?"

"There are probably small bleeders still in the area. That's what the drain is for. We'll know more when he wakes up. We did all we could for him."

"I don't doubt that, Dr. Donaldson. And believe me, we appreciate all you have done. We just can't accept your prognosis. You see, Buck Wilmington is a very special friend to us all. He's our foundation, whether he knows it or not. We will not lose him." Nathan stood tall, his shoulders back. He wanted the world to know they stood together in his proclamation. "Buck will beat this, just you watch and see."

The doctor smiled slightly. This man impressed him. "I'll keep a close eye on him. I'd love to see him beat the odds. Gentlemen, I need to go now. I will be around if you need anything."

Chris turned to face the doctor. "We need to be with him. It will give him the security he needs."

The doctor gave the four men an appraising look, his gaze lingering on the team leader. "On one condition," he started, then held his hand up to forestall the protest he could see coming. "You park yourself in ICU looking like that, and they're going to think you're a patient instead of a visitor. No offense, but go home. You need a shower and a change of clothes. Your friend is going to be in with the orthopedic surgeon a little longer, then they'll take him up to Recovery. He'll be there for a couple of hours before they move him to ICU. If you don't get in their way, it'll be okay if you stay with him. I'll make sure the staff knows." With that, the man left the room.

Chris watched him walk away, his tired eyes focusing on the swinging doors the doctor had gone through. His gaze was broken when Nathan moved to stand in front of him.

"Come on, Chris," he said softly, laying a hand on Chris's shoulder. "I'm sure I've got something that'll fit." When the other man looked up at him in confusion, he explained. "My place is closer, and it'll give you a chance to see the boys. Josiah and Ezra will keep an eye on things here, okay? We'll probably be back before Buck's out of Recovery."

Chris turned his attention to Josiah on one side and Ezra on his other. They nodded in agreement.

"I give you my word if there is even the slightest change, we will call you immediately," Ezra said solemnly.

Chris sighed deeply and gave them a short nod, then stood slowly. He shook off Nathan's arm at his elbow and stood straight. He hesitated a second, his gaze wandering back to the door where the doctor had disappeared. Then he let Nathan lead him out of the room toward the elevators.

Thanks to his Law Enforcement credentials, Nathan had been allowed to park close to the ER entrance. It only took a few minutes to locate his van and then they were on their way. The first few minutes were spent in an uncomfortable silence, neither man knowing how to say what was on his mind.

Finally Chris broke the silence. "I appreciate you and Raine taking the boys in," he said, staring straight ahead.

"No problem," Nathan replied. "As soon as Josiah called, we headed out to your place and Raine got on the phone with Mrs. Wells. She couldn't stand the idea the boys might be separated or sent to some stranger's house even for one night. Gloria was still helping the boys pack a bag when we got there. She was going to stay until the boys got settled in at our house."

"Thank God for Gloria," Chris said softly. "She's gone above and beyond more than once. I don't know what we'd do without her."

"You're lucky to have found her," Nathan agreed. "Both boys adore her."

"Yeah, they do," Chris agreed.

"Look, Chris, about what I said back at the hospital..." Nathan began.

"Don't worry about it, Nathan," Chris cut him off, staring at the road ahead.

"No, I won't just forget about it," Nathan replied. "I was wrong and I'm sorry. Deep down, I should've known better. We all should've. I know you wouldn't hurt Buck like that, but the way you were acting Friday..."

"Just like the old days?" Chris finished with a wry smile. "Like I used to act right before I'd go off on a bender? How many times did Buck and I get into a knock-down, drag-out because he was trying to knock some sense into my thick head?"

"Way too many," Nathan admitted, taking his eyes off the road for just a second to look over at the man beside him. "But that was a long time ago, and you never really hurt each other. I should have remembered that."

"I can't blame you," Chris said. "For awhile there, I wasn't even sure I hadn't done it," instinctively rubbing the back of his head.

"So who did?" Nathan asked. "What really happened?"

"I don't know yet," Chris replied grimly. "But I'm damned sure going to find out. When they let me go, Phil had just spoken to the Crime Scene guys. They found where a car had pulled off and parked a little ways from the house - and a pile of cigarette butts in the barn, like somebody had been in there all night. They're working on the bat right now, trying to pull off any fingerprints they can use. All I do know is I woke up with a knot on the back of my head and Buck bleeding to death on the floor of the barn. Then the boys came in..."

"They saw him like that?" Nathan asked, his voice low and laced with concern.

"Yeah," Chris replied curtly. He took a deep breath, then looked over at Nathan to gauge his answer. "How are the boys?"

Nathan looked over at Chris again quickly, then shrugged and shook his head. "I really don't know. They were both really quiet, even JD. Gloria carried him in and he started crying when she tried to put him down. When I left, he was still sitting on her lap in the rocking chair. Vin just climbed up on the couch with Raine and sat as close to JD as he could. Raine tried, but she couldn't get them to eat lunch."

Chris nodded and closed his eyes. He just couldn't shake the feeling that this was all his own fault; he had let his temper get the best of him. He leaned the side of his head against the window, trying to think of how to explain all this to his two scared, little boys.

Nathan pulled the van into the driveway. Before he had the engine off, Chris was already out and headed for the front door. He waited for Nathan to catch up and let him in the house. The living room was empty.

"Honey?" Nathan called. "Where are you guys?"

"In here," came Raine's voice from the dining room.

Without thinking, Chris walked right in. The two boys were sitting at the table with Raine between them. The remains of grilled cheese sandwiches were on the plates in front of them and JD was still working on a bowl of tomato soup. Vin was sitting with an empty bowl in from of him, patiently waiting for his younger brother to finish. He waited a moment for the boys to look up and see him. He offered a small smile and took a step toward them, reaching out to ruffle Vin's hair. His smile faded as his son ducked under his hand and climbed out of the chair, moving away from him. He turned toward the sound of a spoon landing with a crash in a bowl. His heart dropped as he saw the look of absolute terror in JD's eyes. Without turning his back to his father, Vin helped JD down and they practically ran out of the room. Chris remained frozen in place until the sound of the door slamming in the hall brought him out of his daze.

"What in heaven's name is wrong with you, Chris Larabee?" Raine's voice was thick with reproach.

Chris turned toward her; his eyes were twin pools of confusion and pain.

"Look at you!" she demanded, coming around the table to stand in front of him. "The least you could have done was get cleaned up first. I know how badly you wanted to see them, but you just scared those two half to death."

Chris looked down at his dark-stained clothes, then closed his eyes as he suddenly realized what he'd done. "I'm sorry, Raine. I didn't think..."

"Obviously," she interrupted. Then seeing the distress in his eyes, her voice softened. "Go on, use the shower in our room. Nathan had me get some of his sweats out for you. Leave those things outside the bathroom door and I'll take care of them."

"You can burn them for all I care," Chris said tiredly.

Raine reached out her hand and gently patted his arm. "It'll be okay," she offered.

"Will it?" Chris said, more to himself than to her. "I'm not so sure." He made his way down the hall, pausing uncertainly at the door to the guest bedroom where he knew his sons were hiding - hiding from him. That idea alone sent a tremor of despair right down to his bones.

The long, hot shower soothed his aching body, but not his troubled mind. As he stepped out of the bathroom and put on the loose-fitting outfit, his mind was running through all different ways to talk to the boys and explain what had happened. Finally he put his shoes on and walked back down the hall.

He stopped at the door and knocked gently. "Vin, JD? Can I come in?" When he didn't get an answer, he turned the knob slowly. The door wasn't locked, but something was keeping it from opening. Taking a step back, he could see a shadow along the bottom of the door. He swallowed the lump in his throat as he recognized a familiar tactic from the early days the boys had come to live with them - Vin and JD were sitting with their backs to the door, keeping him out. "Cowboy?" he tried again. "I really want to talk to you." He could hear whispering behind the door, but the small shadow never moved. He tried another tactic. "JD, can you please open the door?"

"No!" came a cry, followed by a sniffle. "You hurted my Da. I don't never want to talk to you again!"

"JD, I didn't hurt Buck," he replied through the closed door.

"The police said you did and they took you to jail," Vin finally spoke up. "And you yelled at Buck and told him to go away. I don't want Buck and JD to go away."

Chris could hear the anger in the youngster's voice. "I don't want Buck and JD to go away either," Chris said, leaning his forehead on the door. "And they're not going to. They can live with us as long as they want to. Vin, I really want you to open the door so I can to talk to you." Chris could feel small thumps on the door as he could picture Vin shaking his head back and forth.

"No," said Vin quietly. "We're not coming out until you bring Buck here."

Chris stood in stunned silence, remaining in the hallway for several minutes until Nathan finally joined him.

"Give them a little time," Nathan said quietly. "They'll come around."

Chris turned his tortured gaze to the other man. "How do I fix this?" he whispered. "They won't talk to me, they won't even let me hold them and tell them it'll be okay."

Nathan gave his boss and friend a sad smile, recognizing the longing in his voice. Chris needed to hold them as much as they needed to be held. "Come on, Chris," he said, gently pulling him away from the door. "Raine has some dinner ready for you."

"I'm not hungry," he protested, going down the hallway but looking back at the closed door.

"You need to eat something," the team medic chided. "And you don't want to hurt my wife's feelings, do you? Don't worry about the boys, we've got it covered. Gloria's coming back in the morning, and she and Raine can handle them."

It was almost dark by the time Chris had eaten the light dinner Raine had fixed for him. As anxious as he was to let Nathan take him back to the hospital, he made his way down the hall one more time, tapping on the still-closed door. "Vin, JD, I'm going back to the hospital now. I want you both to be good boys for Raine and Mrs. Potter." He waited a few moments, hoping the door would open. When it didn't, he added, "I just wanted to tell you both I love you before I go." Then he slowly walked away.

"I love you too, Dad," came the quiet reply just before Chris was out of earshot.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan let Chris out at the curb and drove off to park the van. Chris was still waiting at the information desk when Nathan came through the automatic doors.

"They're trying to find out where Buck is now," Chris offered tersely as Nathan joined him.

"Chris, Nathan," called a familiar voice. "They just moved him into ICU. Ezra's up there with him, second floor. I stayed down here to wait for you."

Chris steeled himself then looked Josiah in the eye. "How is he?"

"Not good," Josiah replied, meeting the other's gaze. "They got the one arm set, they're both in casts. He's got more tubes and wires in him than I thought was humanly possible, but he's not on a ventilator yet. Dr. Donaldson said if his breathing gets any worse, that'll be next. They're keeping a real close eye on the swelling in his skull and the collapsed lung. He's stable, but that's all they'd say."

Chris gave him a short nod, then followed him into the elevator. "Any word yet from Pete Rompala?" the team leader asked.

Josiah looked at Chris in surprise, wondering not for the first time if the man was psychic. "Yeah, as a matter of fact he called just a little while ago. Said besides Vin's fingerprints, there were two clear prints that didn't match yours or Buck's. They over-nighted them to the FBI, and they should have the results by tomorrow afternoon, Monday at the latest."

"Good," Chris said distractedly as the elevator doors opened. He let Josiah guide him past the nurses' desk to one of the glass-partitioned cubicles.

Josiah stopped and pulled the curtain aside, standing back to let Chris go in first.

Chris had tried to mentally prepare himself for this moment, but the sight of his best friend lying there, looking more dead than alive, still almost sent him reeling. A huge white bandage covered Buck's entire head, the small drain tubes the doctor had spoken of were situated on either side of his skull and running under the pillow. Where his eyes should have been was puffy and discolored. His nose seemed to be unbroken, but was covered by the oxygen mask that fogged up with each laborious breath the injured man took. The sheet was pulled up to his chest, covering the other bruises Chris was sure were there. It was fine with him if he didn't have to see them just yet. The right arm was encased in a bright blue cast and being held in place just above the bed by a traction set-up. The left arm was also in a cast and lying on top of the sheet. There were machines and monitors all around him, each emanating it's own light and sound.

Ezra sat up when he heard the other members of the team come in. At Chris's quizzical look and unspoken question, the undercover agent shook his head. "He hasn't regained consciousness yet." Then he stood and gave his seat to Chris. The hospital had been kind enough to provide a reasonably comfortable recliner tucked into the corner but close enough so they could reach over and make physical contact with the patient in the bed.

Chris swallowed hard before he could find his voice. "There's no point in all of you staying the night. I'll call you if anything changes." He spoke without taking his eyes off the rise and fall of the injured man's chest. "I know you want to be here too, Josiah, but tomorrow's Sunday and I know Buck wouldn't want you to break your commitment at the shelter. You could do me a favor and swing by the office as soon as you're done, check our voice mails - maybe somebody knows something and left one of us a message. Ezra, I want you to be my liaison with the Sheriff's Office; find Pete Rompala and camp on his doorstep until those fingerprint results come back. Nathan, can you call Judge Travis and let him know what happened?" He finally tore his eyes away from Buck's still form to take in the rest of his men in the room. "I really appreciate everything you've done - for him, for the boys and for me. Now go home and get some sleep, I'll be fine tonight. First thing tomorrow, we start looking for the bastard that did this to him!"

"Are you certain you don't want one of us to stay with you?" Ezra asked, seeing how exhausted Chris was.

Chris shook his head. "I doubt if he'll even wake up tonight, but I want to be here just in case."

"If you're sure..." Josiah offered. At Chris's nod, he turned to go. Then stopping at the end of the bed, he gently squeezed the covered left foot. "Be well, Brother Buck, and come back to us soon." He glanced back over at Chris. "If you need anything, don't hesitate to call." Chris nodded in answer and Josiah turned, making sure the other two were leaving with him.

"Nathan?" Chris said quietly, then hesitated.

"Don't worry," the other man replied. "We'll do our best. They'll be fine."

Chris nodded his thanks, then settled into the big chair as the others left the room. He snaked his hand through the tangle of wires and tubes to gently cover Buck's cold left hand in his own, needing the comfort of physical contact.

Once out of earshot, Josiah and Ezra both turned on Nathan.

"What was that all about?" the big profiler asked.

"The boys aren't taking it well at all," he replied. "They ran from Chris when he got home and barricaded themselves in our guest room. They wouldn't even open the door so he could talk to them. JD said he's never talking to Chris again and Vin won't talk to his father until he produces Buck."

"Oh boy," Josiah said with a deep sigh. He looked over at Ezra, who hadn't said anything but was looking as perturbed as they had ever seen him.

"I better get home," Nathan said, striding towards the elevator. "Maybe by morning we'll have some good news and they'll come around."

"Hopefully," Ezra agreed, glancing back down the hall before the elevator doors opened and he stepped inside with his two friends.

+ + + + + + +

Sunday came and went in a blur for Chris. He napped off and on in the recliner, plagued by nightmares of being helpless as an unseen assailant went after his family - Buck first, then the boys. He seemed to wake up every time a nurse came in to check the unconscious man's vitals. Dr. Donaldson had been in several times to see Buck, still holding off on putting Buck on a respirator. Chris seemed to be cognizant of even the slightest movement that came from his injured friend.

Several times during the day, he stretched his legs while the nurses changed Buck's bedding or other routine tasks. More than once he made his way outside, where he could use his cell phone to call Nathan's. He could hear Nathan or Raine trying to coax Vin to come to the phone and his son's adamant refusal. He would return to the room, crushed that Vin still refused to speak to him.

Josiah had been in earlier to report no messages concerning Buck's assault had been left at the office. Ezra reported that he had been in touch with the investigator, who didn't have any news yet on the fingerprints from the bat. They had both stayed several hours, watching over their friend and willing him to wake up. No amount of admonishing could convince Chris to leave Buck's side again.

+ + + + + + +

Monday dawned gray and cold. Josiah made his way through the streets of Denver toward Nathan's. He and Ezra were going to have breakfast with Nathan, Raine and the boys. Then they were headed to the hospital to check on their friends before they went to the office. As he pulled his beloved but beat-up Suburban into the driveway, he smiled as he noticed Ezra's Jaguar already there. Raine had breakfast on the table as soon as he walked in the door.

"Well, what's the plan for today?" Nathan asked, coming in ready for work. As he slung his jacket over the back of his chair, he planted a gentle kiss on his wife's cheek.

"We should have word from Pete about the fingerprints sometime today," Josiah replied. "He'll let Ezra know as soon as the results are in. It wouldn't hurt to talk to people in the building, see if anyone was hanging around Friday asking about Chris or Buck."

"I could go through some of our old cases, the ones where threats were made," Nathan offered. "Maybe someone from the past just got out of jail or something."

Josiah nodded around a mouthful of food.

"In the meantime," Ezra began, glancing down the hallway. "How are Masters Tanner and Dunne?"

Raine shook her head, frowning. "They're absolute angels, until you ask Vin if he wants to talk to Chris. Then he either clams up or runs back to the room. Poor JD doesn't know what to do. All he wants is to have Buck come home. He had a couple of nightmares and we ended up letting him sleep in bed with Vin."

"Gloria's coming over later to help with the boys," Nathan added. "We know they need to go back to school, but not today."

"With all due respect, Mister Sanchez," Ezra said seriously. "I think we have some unfinished business here before we leave."

"Do you have something in mind?" Josiah asked, eyeing their undercover agent curiously.

"Indeed I do," Ezra replied with a nod.

When Vin and JD came out of their room, yawning and rubbing their eyes as they entered the kitchen, two of their uncles were still sitting at the table drinking coffee.

"Hi Uncle 'siah, Uncle Ezra!" JD beamed.

"Good morning, young gentlemen," Ezra replied, holding out his arms to the dark-haired youngster. As JD climbed into his lap, he reached a hand out to lay it gently on Vin's shoulder as the other boy approached. Vin smiled back at his uncle, but Ezra could see the way he was unconsciously chewing on his bottom lip. "Why don't you sit down and eat your breakfast? Then your Uncle Josiah and I want to talk to you both."

"Where's Uncle Nathan?" Vin asked.

"He's already gone to work," Ezra replied, exchanging a glance with Josiah. The plan had been for Nathan not to be part of the upcoming discussion, just in case it didn't go as planned. That would leave at least one of the uncles the boys would feel comfortable around.

Vin looked up at Ezra. His eyes narrowed in suspicion, but then he obediently sat down when Raine brought the two boys their breakfast. They ate quickly, JD alternately chatting with Ezra and Josiah in between mouthfuls. Finally their plates were clean.

"Are we going to school today?" JD finally asked.

"Not today," replied Josiah. The big man took JD by the hand, leading him into the living room and helping him sit on the oversized sofa. Then he turned to Vin, who Ezra had guided into the room. Josiah moved the rocking chair close to the sofa where he could see both boys up close. Ezra patted the sofa next to JD and Vin took his seat. Ezra then sat on the other side of Vin.

"We need to have a talk," Josiah started.

"About what?" JD asked innocently.

"I understand you have yet to speak to your father since he went to the hospital two days ago," Ezra stated, his attention on Vin. "Even though he has called here more than once and asked to speak to you. Is there any particular reason you are being so petulant?"

Vin shrugged before he looked up quizzically. "What's petulant?" Usually he could understand what Uncle Ezra was talking about, but not this morning.

"Spoiled, unreasonable, narrow-minded," Ezra read off the list.

Vin frowned. He wasn't too sure about the last two, but knew he didn't like Uncle Ezra calling him spoiled. "I'm not..." he began.

Ezra held up a hand. "Then tell me why you won't speak to your father. JD?"

The younger of the two boys looked back and forth between his uncles, then looked to his older brother for the right answer.

After a moment of silence while he studied his bare feet and wiggled his toes, Vin finally replied softly. "'Cause he was mean to Buck and told Buck to go away. And now Buck's in the hospital and he can't come home."

"Have you ever been mean to JD? Told him to go away?" Josiah prodded gently.

"I didn't mean it," Vin protested. "Only when he's following me around when I want to be by myself."

"What about Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra continued. "Haven't you yourself at one time said you wanted him to go away?"

Vin started to shake his head in answer, then suddenly froze. He clamped his mouth shut and refused to answer.

"From what I remember, it was shortly after you came to live with Chris and Buck," Josiah supplied softly. "The first time JD took Buck's hand to cross the parking lot at McDonald's. You were so upset you didn't even eat your dinner. When you got home and your father asked you what was wrong, you said it was your job to take care of JD and you wanted Buck to go away. Do you remember now, Vin?"

Vin quickly cast his eyes down again, his face turning bright red as the memory surfaced. He did remember how angry he had been and how he had yelled out loud that Buck should go away. If he closed his eyes, he could still see the way Buck's face went from smiling to so sad. He remembered how Buck had a hard time telling Chris he was going out to the barn to feed the horses, and how he wouldn't let JD tag along either.

"Do you remember now?" Ezra repeated, moving closer to the boys. He reached over and brought the little chin up so he could see the blue eyes and the tears forming in them. "Do you remember what Mister Larabee said to you?"

Vin nodded, choking down the lump in his throat. "He said I would be awful lonely living at the ranch all by myself," he said softly. "'Cause if Buck went away, Chris would go away too. And JD would have to go with Buck 'cause Miss Nettie said JD has to live with Buck." Vin glanced over at his younger brother, who hadn't said a word but was absorbing everything that was being said.

"Did he say anything else?" Josiah asked.

Vin squeezed his eyes shut, holding back the tears before replying. "He said that I wasn't JD's boss anymore, and that Buck loved us both and would take real good care of JD and me, just like he took care of Adam when he was little." Vin's lip began trembling and the tears began spilling down his cheeks.

At the sight of Vin's tears, JD's bottom lip began to quiver and his own eyes filled with tears. Josiah reached over and took the boy into his lap, rocking him slowly.

Ezra reached out and gathered the older boy into his arms. "Do you remember why you were angry?"

Vin nodded. "I didn't like it that JD didn't do what I said. I was scared he was going to get hurt."

"Did it mean you didn't love JD anymore?" Ezra asked gently. "Did you want him to go away and never come back? Do you want something bad to happen to JD when you're angry at him?"

"NO!" Vin replied with a firm shake of his head, watching Josiah rocking the small boy to and fro.

"Then why do you think your father wanted something bad to happen to Mister Wilmington?" Ezra asked. "Just because he was angry, and just because he yelled, it does not mean he does not love Buck or he really wants Buck to go away," Ezra continued.

"But he was really mad," Vin whispered, wanting to believe what Ezra was telling him.

"And he said lots of bad words to Da," JD chimed in from under Josiah's chin.

Ezra sighed and caught the brown eyes of the younger boy. "When Vin thought he was your boss, and if you didn't do what he said, you might get hurt, right?" He waited for JD to nod, then turned back to Vin. "And when you were scared that JD wasn't listening to you and he was going to get hurt, did you yell at JD?" A nod came from Vin this time. "Well, Mister Larabee really is Mister Wilmington's boss. And the job we do, even if we do everything just right, sometimes we get hurt. Your father was angry because Mister Wilmington got hurt doing a very brave thing to keep your father safe when one of the bad guys was trying to get away. But he still got hurt and it made your father feel scared. And when your father gets scared, he yells, too."

Vin looked up into his uncle's emerald eyes. "Just like I do?" he asked.

"Just like you do," Ezra replied.

"Can I share a secret with you?" Josiah asked. After Vin nodded and JD was looking up at him, he went on. "Chris told me a long time ago that Buck was all he had left of his first family, and he was never going to make him go away again." When Vin looked at him in surprise, Josiah smiled. "Do you remember when you first came home from the hospital to live on the ranch, and you took JD and ran away?"

Vin nodded, ducking his head until it rested on Ezra's shoulder.

"Do you remember how glad you were when we found you and brought you home?" Josiah continued. "Well, after Mrs. Larabee and Adam died, your father spent a lot of time running away. And every time, Buck would go find him and bring him home. Sometimes, your father would be glad and sometimes he would be angry. But one time, he was so angry that he told Buck to go away and leave him alone, and Buck did. Your father spent the better part of a week tearing Denver apart trying to find him and bring him home. He made Buck a promise that no matter how angry he was or what he said, he never, ever wanted him to go away again."

After a moment of silence, Vin began playing with one of the buttons on Ezra's jacket. "Uncle Ezra, what happened in the barn?" he asked, keeping his head on his uncle's shoulder.

Ezra sighed before answering. "We are not really sure yet, but one thing I want you to know. Without a doubt, your father did not hurt Buck. It would appear a bad man was waiting for your father in the barn and hit him on the head and knocked him out. Then when Buck went out to the barn, the same bad man hurt him, too."

"Hey, Uncle Ezra, you called Da Buck!" JD said, sitting up.

"I suppose I did," Ezra admitted with a smile.

"Are you gonna catch him and put him in jail?" Vin asked, his voice suddenly harsh.

"Most assuredly," Ezra replied, giving his nephew a hug. "Now, let's go see about getting you guys dressed."

Vin sighed and looked over at JD, who was leaning comfortably against Josiah. "I sure hope he doesn't want to wear that stupid Sponge Bob Square Pants t-shirt again."

"Can we go see Da today?" JD asked.

Ezra looked over at Josiah, uncertainty in his eyes.

"Not yet, JD," Josiah answered quietly. "Your Da's hurt real bad and all he does is sleep right now. The doctor says he can only have grownups visiting right now."

It broke Ezra's heart to see JD's crestfallen look. "Do you remember when Vin was in the hospital and you couldn't go see him for a long time?" the Southerner added, waiting until the dark head nodded. "Well, the doctors and nurses are there to take good care of your Da. And Chris is there with him all the time, too."

"Is my dad going to come home today?" Vin asked hesitantly.

"I don't think so," Josiah replied. "He wants to stay with Buck until the doctor says Buck's getting better. He thinks it's because he was mad that Buck got hurt, and right now he's really sad."

JD suddenly buried his face in Josiah's shirt. "Hey now, what's the matter?" the big man asked tenderly.

"Is Chris gonna be mad we didn't talk to him?" JD asked, sniffling and wiping his sleeve across his nose.

Ezra rolled his eyes and held out his handkerchief to the small boy. "Of course not," he assured JD. "I'll tell you what?" he included Vin in his question. "Your Uncle Josiah and I have to go to work for a little while, and Mrs. Potter and your Aunt Raine are going to stay with you today. But how about if I pick you up later and take you to the hospital to see Chris?" Both boys nodded and JD jumped down off Josiah's lap, taking the big profiler's hand and leading toward the bedroom.


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