by LT and Niteowl

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


Chris had been at Buck's bedside for three days, constantly thinking about the two small boys who had stolen his and Buck's hearts. It had absolutely crushed him when the boys wouldn't even come out of the bedroom to speak to him. He wondered yet again, for perhaps the hundredth time today, would they ever want to come back home?

He looked up at the pale face of his closest friend and whispered, "We really screwed it up, big guy. How are we ever going to make it up to them? Maybe we just weren't cut out to be dads again." He couldn't hold Buck's hand due to the cast on the left and the brace and pins in the right but he could hold on near the shoulder. He felt a slight tremor and lifted his eyes to Buck's face. The eyelashes were flickering. "That's it, Buck, come on, prove those damn doctors wrong! Come on, you can do it, Buck. Open your eyes!" Chris rose from his chair and stood, his face directly over Buck's. There, in the middle of all the bruising, two midnight blue eyes looked up at him. "Thank God, oh thank God."

The eyes blinked briefly as if trying to focus. They were dull, the spark in them gone, but they were open. Buck stared silently at Chris. He knew this man. He was a friend, a good friend, but everything else was foreign, beyond his comprehension. He looked around the room but nothing made sense. His eyes settled back on the one thing he knew.

Chris quickly pushed the call button on the bed, calling the nurse's station. He watched Buck search the room and then gaze blankly back up at him. "You were beaten with a bat. You have a severe head injury as well as two broken arms and broken ribs. Try not to move, I've called the nurse. I knew you'd make it, you old dog, I knew you wouldn't give up." The emptiness in the eyes disturbed him, but he was so glad to see Buck awake, he didn't dwell on it.

"Yes, can I help you?" The kind voice of Terri Bennett came from the speaker in the bed rail.

"He's awake! Call Dr. Donaldson." Chris squeezed Buck's shoulder, smiling from ear to ear. All else was forgotten for the moment. Buck had beaten the Grim Reaper one more time.

Three nurses came barreling into the small room, Terri pushing Chris back away from the bed. "Chris, stand back for a few minutes, okay. We need to check on him before he loses consciousness again."

Chris knew it was important that they do their thing, but he was reluctant to leave Buck alone. It had seemed to him that his presence was the only thing that Buck had recognized. He hovered outside the door, waiting impatiently. Rushing footsteps drew his attention from down the hall and he saw Donaldson hurrying towards him.

"He woke up?" the doctor asked as he pushed open the door.

Chris barely had time to say, "Yes," before the doctor disappeared inside.

It seemed an eternity before any of the medical staff reappeared. It had probably only been ten minutes or so. Two nurses came out first, followed by Dr. Donaldson. The man's face was impassive but his eyes bore sadness. "Let's go sit down, Chris. Right this way."

Chris wanted to scream, "No!" to the man, but he followed silently. Fear once again bubbled to the surface; it was fast becoming an old friend.

They entered a consultation room and sat facing each other. The doctor looked at his fingernails for a few seconds before looking up and into the intense green eyes. "I warned you there would probably be some brain damage, Chris, so it's not a surprise. He's not catatonic but he's certainly suffered a TBI, traumatic brain injury, and he's suffering post-traumatic amnesia. He's confused, anxious, and has aphasia, loss of speech. I can't give you a timeline on recovery but..." He held up his hand to avert the question Chris was about to ask. "These types of injury generally improve with time and therapy. However, it could be days, weeks, months, possibly even years, we just don't know. The damage to the rest of his body didn't help any. I can tell you this. He's probably going to be weak, irritable, despondent, and possibly have weakness on his left side. I'm sorry I can't be more certain of a full recovery. But with head injuries, we just can't predict." Dr. Donaldson stopped, letting his words sink in.

Chris nodded numbly. He tried to hold onto the words the doctor had said, 'These things usually improve', but the fear was still there that Buck would never fully recover. Of course, Buck would remain with him for as long as he needed to, but would Mrs. Wells let Vin and JD stay with them when Buck was so ill? Would the adoption go through if it were only Chris to watch after them? Would the two orphans ever forgive Chris for the despicable way he had treated Buck after the shooting? He didn't think either one of them would understand that it was fear that had caused him to strike out at his best friend. Hell, he didn't even understand.

"Do you have any questions, Chris?" Dr. Donaldson was looking deep into the troubled green eyes.

"None you got an answer for," Chris replied with a deep sigh. Then he looked over at the physician. "Uh, one thing, Doc, he looked confused when he woke up, like nothing was making any sense. Is that normal?"

"Every head injury is different but there are a few consistent symptoms," Donaldson replied. "He'll be confused. He'll have a killer headache until the pressure from the swelling is reconciled. He'll be depressed when he realizes that he can't communicate his thoughts and desires. With the injuries to the rest of his body, mainly the two broken arms, he'll be dependent on others to assist him with everything, including personal hygiene. It's degrading and demoralizing and many patients become frustrated and disheartened. In short, they give up. However, if they make it through this phase, then the healing can begin. It's a long road he's facing but he has a lot going for him."

Chris gave him a questioning stare. At this point, Chris couldn't see any up side to anything the doctor had said. "I best get back there. Doc, thank you for what you've done for him. You kept him alive, now I guess its up to him and the rest of us to see him through this." Chris reached out and shook the hand of the doctor that had given Buck a chance to live.

"Just don't lose hope, Chris. It might take a while but he should get better. I've got other patients to see; I'll check back on Buck before I go home." The doctor got up and left Chris alone to gather his strength for the road ahead of them.

Several minutes later, Chris emerged from the conference room and turned to go back to ICU. He stopped dead in his tracks as he recognized the Armani suit and the man who wore it coming toward him. Holding on tightly to "Uncle" Ezra's hands were the two little boys who meant the world to Chris and Buck. The four of them stood rooted to their spots on the tiled floor, facing each other as if a gunfight were about to take place. Suddenly, the larger of the two boys dropped his uncle's hand and ran to the blond. The two collided in a fierce hug, neither wanting to separate. With Vin's arms still around his neck, Chris stood up, a tired smile plastered to his face.

Vin snuggled into his father's neck. "I love you, Dad. I'm so sorry we thought you hurt Buck. Uncle Ezra and Uncle J'siah explained it all to us, how it was really a bad man that beat up Buck. I know you wouldn't ever do that but..."

"Hey, cowboy, it was my fault for fighting with Buck like that. I'm sorry for scaring you two the way I did. I wasn't mad at Buck, it's just that what he did, getting shot like that, well, it... oh I don't know, Vin, it..."

"You were afraid of losing him, right, Dad?" Vin whispered into his ear so only the two of them knew what had been said.

Chris turned grateful eyes to his son. "Yeah, I don't know what I would do without you or JD, or Buck. I guess I love all of you so much, I get scared when one of you gets hurt. You know, Buck is the bravest man I know and he's reckless and that is a dangerous combination sometimes. I don't want him endangering himself because of me. Can you understand that, son?"

"Yeah, I think so. Uncle J'siah said that you two are all each other's got from the old days and that you would be lost without Buck. Did he really save your life before - after - you know, when Adam died?" Vin's light blue eyes stared deeply into his father's green eyes.

"Yeah, seems he's always there when I need him, Vin. So we have to be there for him now, okay? He woke up a little while ago, the doctor says he's going to be sick for a long time, but he's going to get better. We just have to take good care of him 'til then." He smiled when the youngster grinned at him.

"We will, me and JD, we'll take good care of him," the child vowed. "Can we see him now?"

"I don't think that would be a good idea now. How about tomorrow? He's still real tired today." They had moved toward where Ezra still held JD's hand. They now stood directly before the twosome.

"Did ya hear that, JD? Buck's gonna be okay! We have ta take real good care of him for awhile, but he's comin' home soon." Vin still had both arms around his father's neck, needing the security that had been missing for almost a week now.

"For real, Chris?" The voice was cautious, subdued, not at all like the exuberant boy they all knew and loved.

Chris knelt down in front of the dark-haired little boy. "He's gonna be just fine soon, Little Bit, but it might take a little while. I'm sorry I scared you, JD. I didn't mean to."

"It's all right, Chris. Can I see Da now?" The eyes regained some of their light as Chris wrapped his strong arm about the boy's waist, pulling him in for a hug.

"Soon, son, soon. Why don't you go with Ezra and get something to eat? I'll join you as soon as I check on Buck, okay?"

Both boys enthusiastically replied, "Okay!"

Chris smiled up at Ezra. "Thanks. I needed that so much."

"My pleasure, Chris, but it was really Josiah who got through to them. We will await your arrival down in the cafeteria. Come along, boys, let's see what repast they have prepared today."

"Huh?" JD took his uncle's hand, looking up with a puzzled look on his face.

"Let's see what's cooking, okay?" Ezra led the pair away and Chris, his heart eased by the presence of the small urchins, went back into Buck's room.

When he got back to the room, two of the nurses followed him in, carrying bedding with them. "He's sleeping again," Terri said quietly. "Why don't you take a break for a couple of minutes? We can have you paged if he wakes up again."

Chris hesitated, looking down at the slumbering form. Finally he looked up and nodded. "I'll be in the cafeteria. Ezra brought the boys to see me."

"That's great," Terri replied with a smile. "We'll be done in here in a few minutes."

Chris rode the elevator down and found Ezra and the boys still in line. JD was having trouble deciding what he wanted from the selection of desserts.

"Do you boys want some company?"

Vin nodded and smiled. He waited for his father while Ezra took JD and found a table big enough for the four of them. Chris and the small blond joined the other two. They spent almost half an hour talking about what the boys had been doing with Aunt Raine and Mrs. Potter all day.

"Uncle Nathan!" JD cried, seeing the tall dark-skinned man standing in the doorway looking around. "Over here."

Nathan waved and walked toward them.

"Hungry?" Chris asked.

"Nah," Nathan replied. "Raine and I grabbed Subway on the way over. We've already been in to see Buck. We were wondering if the boys needed a ride home?"

Chris didn't miss the look that passed between the medic and the undercover agent.

"Already?" Vin sighed.

Chris nodded. "It's getting late and you both need to be in bed."

"Are we going to school tomorrow?" JD piped in.

Chris looked over at Nathan with a chagrined look.

"Not tomorrow, JD," Nathan replied, giving Chris a reassuring wink. "Your Aunt Raine already spoke with your teachers and they're expecting you the day after tomorrow. She'll drive you guys to school, okay?"

"Cool!" JD exclaimed, hopping down. He moved toward Nathan, then turned back and went to stand in front of Chris. "Tell Da I love him and I miss him and I want him to come home soon," he said quietly.

"I will, Little Bit," Chris promised, tweaking JD's nose before he picked the child up and wrapped his arms around him in a tight hug. He released the child, who took his waiting uncle's hand. "Vin?" he said quietly, holding his arms out to the other boy.

When the older boy stepped into the embrace, he leaned in and spoke into his father's ear. "Tell Buck to remember he promised everything would be okay," Vin said solemnly. "Tell him he has to come home or it won't be ever be okay."

Chris nodded, swallowing the lump in his throat. He gave Vin's hair a gentle ruffle, then gently guided him toward Nathan. He watched the boys walk away, smiling and waving back when JD turned and waved goodbye before they rounded the corner.

Once they were out of sight, Chris turned to Ezra. "Okay, what's going on?"

"How is Mister Wilmington really doing?" Ezra countered, clearly stalling.

Chris gave half a shrug, then met the other's eyes. "We're in for the long haul," he replied earnestly. "He did wake up, even though the doctor wasn't sure he ever would. But he was confused, never said a word. Just kept staring at me like he didn't really know me, but coming back to me like I was all he had. Doctor says he's probably got amnesia from the head injury - and he said something about Buck having something called aphasia, I think. It has something to do with his speech."

"When do they expect it to clear up?" Ezra asked, not familiar with the condition.

Chris blew out a frustrated breath before he replied. "They can't even guarantee it ever will. But right now, I'm just happy he's alive."

"Amen to that," Ezra said, raising his cup in a salute. "And as for the doctor's dim view of Mister Wilmington's prognosis for a full recovery - all I can say is that they don't know our resident rogue very well. I cannot even imagine a world without that infectious laugh of his."

"You and me both, Ezra," Chris agreed. Then he turned other man and drilled him with a no-nonsense gaze. "Now, tell me what's going on?"

"We had a rather productive day," Ezra replied with a sigh. "I myself spent most of the morning with Detective Rompala."

"And?" Chris demanded impatiently as Ezra took a sip from his coffee cup.

"The fingerprints lifted from the bat came back," Ezra answered, keeping his voice neutral. "They belong to Johnny Cuevas, as in brother to the late Joey Cuevas."

"Damn," Chris whispered, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples. He opened his eyes and looked over at the man sitting across from him. "How did he know where we live?" He frowned at the Southerner's hesitation. "Ezra?" he prompted.

"Once we knew the identity of and motive behind your assailant, that was our first question," Ezra finally replied. "Mister Jackson had Security pull the surveillance tapes from the parking garage. Apparently, Mister Cuevas was parked just outside. The tape shows a car matching the description of Cuevas' pulling into traffic just behind your truck."

"And I was so pissed off at Buck that I didn't even notice someone was following me!" Chris hissed, as once more the ramifications of his own actions came back to haunt him.

"You couldn't have known," Ezra offered gently, seeing the look of self-condemnation in his team leader's eyes. "Chris, it's not your fault you had other things on your mind."

"BULL!" Larabee cried, almost knocking his chair over as he stood. When he noticed the other customers staring at him, he dropped the volume but not the intensity of his voice. "I've been in law enforcement how many years? I know better - you're supposed to pay attention all the time!"

"Blaming yourself is not going to help Mister Wilmington or the boys," Ezra admonished carefully. "Your energy is obviously going to be needed elsewhere."

Chris stared long and hard at Ezra before he finally took a deep breath and nodded. "So where is the son of a bitch now?" Chris asked, sitting back down in the chair.

Ezra shook his head before meeting Chris's expectant gaze. "We don't know," he finally replied. "Detective Rompala and I went to his apartment; he wasn't there and none of his neighbors has seen him in several days. He hasn't been at his place of employment since the day of the shooting. Mister Jackson and Mister Sanchez were busy all afternoon, running down his so-called friends and associates. No luck there, either. Detective Rompala has the apartment staked out and an APB out on the car, but it appears the miscreant has gone to ground for now."

"So he could be anywhere?" Chris said. "If he finds out Buck's still alive... We need to get a photo of Cuevas to hospital security, just in case."

"What about a police guard?" Ezra suggested.

"No," Chris replied. "We've got no proof he might still be after Buck. And with one of us always with him, Cuevas won't even get close." Looking down at his watch, Chris stood slowly. "I better get back up there."

"Do you mind company for a little while?" Ezra asked, standing as well.

"Come on," Chris replied, tilting his head toward the door. They walked to the elevators in silence. Once they entered the car and the doors closed, Chris turned to his friend. "I appreciate all you're doing, Ezra. Tell Nathan and Josiah thanks as well. I owe you all more than I can ever repay."

"I know I speak for the others as well," Ezra responded. "We want to apprehend the cretin responsible for almost killing Mister Wilmington as badly as you do. And as far as the boys go, the pleasure is all ours. If there is anything we can do to ease their concerns, it will be done."

"Thanks, Uncle Ezra," Chris said with a teasing smile. The elevator doors opened and Chris took a fortifying breath before he went back inside his friend's cubicle. He approached Buck's bedside quietly, using a gentle hand to move an errant lock of hair back in place. At his touch, the blue eyes opened slowly. "Hey Stud," Chris said quietly.

Ezra quickly stepped up next to Chris to be in Buck's line of sight. "Mister Wilmington, it is so good to see you awake," he drawled softly.

Buck's gaze drifted from Chris to Ezra, but there was no sign of recognition before he sought Chris's face again. Then the eyes slowly closed.

"I think I better be going," Ezra said to Chris, trying to keep his poker face intact, but his voice betraying his dismay.

"Ezra, it's not..." Chris began, but the other man held up a hand to cut him off.

"Really, it's all right," he assured the blond. "I do understand. I'll be back tomorrow. If he wakes up again, tell him our thoughts are with him."

"Thanks again, Ezra," Chris said, offering the Southerner his hand.

Ezra nodded in reply as he took Chris's hand before turning to leave.

"JD and Vin were here a little while ago," Chris said to the unconscious man, as he took his place next to the bed. "They sure do miss you, Buck. We all do."

+ + + + + + +

Early the next morning, Chris dozed fitfully next to Buck's bed. He had been awakened several times during the night by the sensitive alarms that went off whenever Buck's heart rate changed. Each time, Buck's eyes had searched for Chris, and upon finding him, the ladies man seemed to relax slightly. He never stayed awake too long; exhaustion constantly pulled him back to the black oblivion of sleep.

Nightmares invaded Chris's sleep, blood-covered hands reaching for him as he frantically searched the ranch for his lost family. He heard them calling for him, voices from the past and the present. He made his way to the one place he had yet to search, the barn. He slowly opened the doors, ignoring the heat emanating from the handles. Inside, crying out for help, were Sarah, Adam, Vin and JD. They were all kneeling beside the dead body of Buck Wilmington. "NOOO!!" he cried out as he jerked forward and into the waking world. Dragging in shaky breaths, he ran a hand over his sweaty face and turned to see if he had disturbed the man in the bed.

Buck's eyes were still shut but his head was twisting back and forth as if he too were in the throes of a nightmare. 'Probably dreaming of being beaten,' Chris thought despondently and reached to awaken the still critical man. After a couple of gentle shakes, the midnight blue eyes popped open, searching desperately for his anchor.

"Calm down, it was only a nightmare. Shhhhh. It was a nightmare, you're fine," he said, not knowing if he was trying to calm Buck or himself. A minute later, his heart was finally beating normally and he noticed Buck's heart rate was back to normal. However, he didn't move his hand from Buck's chest. The blue eyes tried to communicate something to Chris, but the blond had no idea what it could be. "I'm sorry, pard, I wish you could tell me what you need, but..." What could he say? This was the way Buck was now and he couldn't change it, no matter how much he wanted to. "I'll keep trying, Buck. Just be patient."

Nurse Bennett stuck her head into Buck's cubicle and asked, "Is everything alright? I saw his heart rate went up again."

"He had a nightmare, but he's okay now. Can he have some water or food?" Chris figured he must be thirsty, if not hungry.

"I'll check, but I don't think a sip or two of water would hurt," Terri replied. She paused to adjust Buck's IV. "He hasn't had anything since he woke up yesterday, right? I'll get you some."

"Thanks," Chris said. A moment later, the door opened again and Chris turned, expecting to find the nurse with the water. Instead, he saw Nathan Jackson. Nathan had been in the night before but Buck had been asleep throughout his visit. Chris was surprised to see him again so early. "Hi, Nathan," Chris greeted. "How are the boys?"

"They are the reason I'm here," Nathan replied. "They would like to have you join them for pancakes this morning. Go on, Chris, my place is only about fifteen minutes away and Raine is a real good cook. She makes to-die-for blueberry pancakes. Besides, those two little boys need at least one of their dads to be there with them." Nathan began to move toward the bed. His mind shifted to the two little boys who missed "their Buck" desperately. "They want to see him, make sure that the adults aren't lying to them, ya know? I think you need to make that call. The way he is now, it might be worse for them to see him with all the wires and tubes." Nathan now stood on the opposite side from Chris, looking down at the bruised, bandaged body of his friend. "It's a miracle he survived. He's got a long recovery ahead of him."

"Yeah, he does," Chris admitted with a sigh. "It's really difficult when he can't make any of his desires or needs known. Do you know of anything that would help?"

"There are some computer programs that might help but they're really expensive," the other man replied. "I'd wait for a month or so. Sometimes these things improve when the swelling goes down and, with the brain that can take a while. About all you can do now is try to anticipate what he might need. Mostly, he needs somebody who cares."

"Well, he's got that," Chris vowed. "Ya know, Nathan, that invitation for breakfast sounds pretty good and I would love to see the boys. Have they been good for you and Raine?" Chris reached out and pulled the blankets up around Buck's chest. The tall man had shifted them during his restlessness.

Nathan smiled at the move but he didn't let Chris see. "They've been angels. No problem at all. I'm here, Chris, so go. Here, I brought some clothes. Take a quick shower and then go have some breakfast. I'll be here with him until you get back."

Letting out a sigh, Chris nodded. "Guess I will. Stay close; he doesn't recognize anything yet. He hears it all though, I'm convinced of that."

"Got it," Nathan nodded. "Now, go. The kids are waiting."

Chris took the bag out of Nathan's hand and went into the small handicap furbished bathroom and took a quick shower. It refreshed him and he felt better about leaving Buck, especially if it meant seeing Vin and JD. He ran a comb through his hair and then threw on the clothes that Nathan had brought for him. He was even whistling as he came out of the bathroom. He waved to Nathan who was already ensconced in the recliner beside the bed. He hurried down the hall to the elevator and then out the front doors only to realize that he didn't have a vehicle. As he came to a sudden halt, he noticed a familiar car sitting at the curb.

The door to the Jaguar opened and a smiling Ezra Standish stepped out. "Thought you might need a chauffeur. Hop in."

"Thanks, Ez. For everything."

"Thank me when we find Johnny Cueves. He seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth right now but, I promise you this, Chris, WE WILL FIND HIM." As Chris buckled the seat belt, Ezra turned over the smooth-running engine and pulled away from the curb. "Cueves will pay for what he did to our fallen comrade. Justice will be served. Nathan, Josiah and I will guarantee it."

"I know you will, Ezra," Chris said soberly. "I have every confidence in the three of you."

+ + + + + + +

Nathan looked up when the door opened. A nurse and an orderly walked in. The nurse carried an IV bag and the orderly had a stack of clean linen.

The black nurse smiled at the handsome black man who rose to his feet. "We need to do some housekeeping." She said, almost apologetically. "You might want to go get some coffee or something. We have to bathe him and change the bedding. Don't want him getting bed sores now, do we?"

"He doesn't like strangers standing over him. I think I should stay." Worried, Nathan didn't want to leave his friend. Buck hadn't been awake since Nathan had gotten there but that didn't mean he wouldn't wake up once they started moving him around.

The nurse turned to the orderly. "None of them trust us, do they Glenn?"

She looked amused. Facing Nathan, she said, "We do this everyday to every patient. He'll be fine until you get back. We are quite proficient at our jobs, sir. We won't hurt him, I swear."

Nathan knew he would be in the way. "I'll be back as soon as I find some coffee, okay?"

"And we'll probably be done before you get back," added the orderly. "Go, find caffeine."

Nathan left and the two hospital staff members got to work.

Glenn Tarek had the sheets out and was moving around the bed when he noticed the name of the patient on the chart at the end of the bed. "Wilmington, huh? This must be the ATF agent I read about, beaten with a bat by his boss."

The blue eyes of the patient in the bed opened, but neither the nurse or the orderly noticed. He felt Carol Dawson grab him gently and roll him to his left side while Glenn spread the sheet and tucked it in. He folded the sheet down the middle and Carol lowered the patient's body.

"His boss beat him with a bat? I thought it was his boss that's been sitting with him for the past three days?" She had seen the lean blond man in the room yesterday when she came in to clean. He had glared at her and they had worked around him, leery of him the whole time.

"That's what I read. Said the Sheriff's Department arrested him for attempted murder. I think the name was Larabee. Happened out at his ranch," Glenn exchanged places with Carol. "God, he's a mess. Looks like he's been in a car wreck with a semi."

"No, I heard it was a beating with a bat, I just didn't know it was his boss. I thought the guy was a little whacko. Wonder why they left him alone with this guy and why he's out of jail?" She hadn't heard the door open but she heard the growl behind her. She turned, almost dropping Buck's body back onto the bed.

"Because he didn't do anything to hurt his best friend. I would suggest you shut up and get your work done, then get out!" The eyes that had been soft and worried before now steamed.

Both Carol and Glenn nodded and finished their work in record time. They never said another word.

As soon as he could, Nathan was at Buck's side. He watched the face for signs of awareness and he saw the eyes blink open. Tears were in the blue eyes as they peered up at the black man. "He didn't do it, Buck, he would never do something that evil and you know it," he pleaded for the man to understand and believe. Somehow, he didn't think he's gotten through. The blue eyes closed again, refusing to open when Nathan implored him to. Eventually, Nathan sat down, feeling guilty and defeated. He waited for his boss and friend to return.

+ + + + + + +

Chris sat the breakfast table with Ezra and his two sons, a smile on his face. He was relaxed for the first time in days and he wanted this meal to last for a long time. Unfortunately, the food was all gone and it was almost time to get up and return to the hospital. He laughed at a joke that JD was telling. It was perhaps the worst joke he had ever heard, but JD was laughing and his giggle was contagious. Vin was rolling his eyes, but a smile was plastered to his face as well.

"Come on, JD, let's go get our clothes on," Vin directed the younger boy.

The little brunette grabbed his glass of juice and downed it, then jumped down from his chair and ran after Vin to the guest room where they had been staying for the past three nights.

"I can't decide whether or not to take them to see Buck," Chris sighed as he lifted his cup and sipped the hot dark-roasted coffee. "Help me out with this, Ezra. It won't be easy no matter what I decide."

"I don't have an answer for you, Mr. Larabee," the Southerner offered. "It could be worse for them to see the reality of the situation. I have to admit that every time I walk into Mr. Wilmington's room I get a knot in my stomach. On the other hand, I don't believe that Masters Tanner and Dunne truly believe that Mr. Wilmington is getting better. They need to see that he is alive, Chris. The sight of him in the barn was a severe shock for both of them. I know you told them that he is getting better but I personally heard Vin telling JD that adults don't always tell the whole truth. That doesn't assist you very much in your decision making, does it?"

Chris smiled tiredly at his trusted friend. "No, it doesn't. Dammit, Ez, every time I walk into that room and hear all those machines working to keep him alive, I get that same knot in my stomach. I watch him struggle to breathe, his face swollen and bruised, and I relive that moment when I woke up and found him all bloody and nearly dead. What he must have gone through with that monster beating him over and over with my son's bat! I don't want the boys to relive that moment."

He paused, looking down at the delicate tablecloth that covered his friends' table. All he saw was blood and a broken body. How could he subject his two little boys to that again? He knew how badly they wanted to see Buck, he had felt the same way before seeing him for the first time. He knew how horrible the big ladies man looked now, though. It would tear the heart out of both of the boys to see their beloved Buck like that. No, he wouldn't take them in to see him like that. He wouldn't subject them to a silent, hurting Buck Wilmington. They would just have to wait until he was off the machines and looking more like his old self. "I don't think it would be a good thing for them to see him right now." Ezra nodded his approval.

The sound of two boys running down the hallway drew the attention of both men. They turned to see both Vin and JD come bursting into the room.

"We're ready to go, Dad!"

Chris looked at the two boys with surprise, which quickly turned to suspicion. "Go where?"

"To the hopsital!" JD replied with glee. "Do we look okay?"

Both Vin and JD were dressed as well as their meager clothing supplies would allow. Vin had on a school shirt and corduroy pants, while JD had on a dress shirt and slacks that Ezra had bought for him. They stood expectantly, waiting for the two adults to tell them they were presentable enough to go see Buck.

"You both look very handsome. Why don't you come sit down for a moment?" Ezra could tell that Chris was beyond speaking at the moment. He had just made his decision, which had been hard enough, but telling the boys they couldn't go see Buck was another thing entirely.

Both Vin and JD trudged slowly to the dining table and sat down. Vin folded his hands on top of the table and gave his father a patented 'Larabee' glare. "We are going, aren't we?"

"Vin, I..." Chris took a deep breath. He looked at Vin and then JD, seeing the brightness fade from both sets of eyes. "JD, son, I don't think..."

Before he could finish, JD burst into tears. "You said we could see Da today. You said we could!" He hid his face in his arms and sobbed, his thin shoulders shaking. Ezra reached out and rubbed his hand over the distraught boy's back.

"JD, I know I said we could go see him today," Chris tried. "But I was just with him before I came here and he's still sleeping so much, he wouldn't even know you were there. He needs a lot of quiet time, JD, and I just don't think it would be best for him to have you visit right now."

JD looked up at the blond man, hope just behind the tears. "I can be real quiet, Chris, I can. I won't bother him. 'Sides, he don't ever mind me wakin' him up, he told me so."

Chris looked away and shook his head. "No, JD, it just wouldn't be a good idea."

"See, I told ya, JD, they ain't tellin' us the whole truth. They wouldn't let me see my ma before she died either. He's gonna go sleep with the angels, ain't he, Dad?" Vin turned his gaze back to his father, daring him to lie once again.

"No, Vin, he's not going to die! I told you the truth yesterday. He's getting better each day but I also told you he was very sick, didn't I?" Chris was determined that the two orphans not believe that he had lied to them. The older of the two studied his dad's face and then nodded slowly. Chris relaxed a bit and then continued, "Remember when you broke your arm, Vin, and you had to wear a cast? It hurt a lot for a few days, didn't it?"

"Yeah, I guess."

Chris smiled slightly at the boy's reluctance to admit pain. "Well, Buck has two broken arms and some other broken bones. He's got casts on both arms and his knee and his ribs are wrapped up real tight. He's got a lot of bandages on his head too. The doctor gave him something for the pain but it makes him real sleepy. He just wants to sleep right now, not visit with anyone. Can you understand that?"

"But you get to visits with him, Chris, why can't we?" JD whined. He wanted so bad to see his Da. He just knew that if he saw Buck that Buck would feel better. He could help, he was sure of it.

Chris was stumped. He looked to Ezra for support.

The Southerner blew out a big breath and pulled JD close to his side. "JD, your dad was hurt very grievously by the bad man. I will not lie to you - he did almost die. The doctors worked very hard on him and he is going to be fine with a lot of time and rest. But right now he is attached to several machines and bags of medicine. It is very disturbing for Chris and me to see him this way. We believe it would be very unpleasant for the two of you to see Buck this way. Believe me, JD, we are not lying to you about your Da. I am positive that he would want to see you if he were feeling even a scosh bit better, but he's hurting so bad right now he doesn't even want to see Nathan or Josiah or myself. All he wants right now is Chris, and that's because he knows Chris will make sure the doctors and the nurses take the very best care of him. Do you understand, JD?"

"He always says that I take away the bad things in his life. I could help him!" JD was adamant. He was certain that he would make a difference with the big man he loved with all his heart.

"JD, son..." Chris could see how much the small brunette wanted to see his savior. He knew JD wanted to touch his Da, feel for himself that Buck was still alive. "Okay. We'll go to the hospital but if the doctor says no, then that's it. Agreed?"

Both boys nodded enthusiastically. Ezra looked skeptical. Chris looked defeated, but he knew JD and Vin both needed to see the man that lit up their lives.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan sat by Buck's bedside, watching the severely injured man toss his head back and forth. 'God, that's got to hurt!' he thought as the gyrations grew more pronounced. 'He must be lost in a horrible nightmare.'

Suddenly, Buck sat straight up, pulling tubes and wires with him. His mouth was open in a silent scream, his eyes as wide as the swollen flesh around them would allow. Breathing stopped as Buck was enveloped in a swirl of red and purple agony mixed with terror. Alarms sounded as wires fell away from the big man's arms and chest as he struggled to escape the danger he perceived was all around him. He pulled violently at the cable that held his right arm in the traction and the encased arm came loose from the contraption.

Nathan, after the initial shock Buck's movement caused, was up and by his side, his hands seeking purchase on the injured body. Two nurses came barreling into the room, ready to apply life saving measures. Between the three of them, they got Buck's limbs pinned, but they couldn't lay him back down. His body was rigid with fright, his mind lost in the fight for his life, his best friend swinging the bat over and over at his broken body.

"Buck! Wake up, Buck!" Nathan screamed, trying his best to get his friend to awaken and escape the nightmare that held him tight in its grasp.

A desperate gasping came from the distraught man and finally, the eyes started to focus and the fight went out of the shattered body. Buck's face contorted with the physical pain that racked his body and he fought for each breath of oxygen. One of the nurses grabbed the discarded oxygen mask and slipped it back over Buck's head, covering his mouth and nose, allowing the gas to aid the man's starved lungs. Buck slumped in Nathan's arms and the black man eased him back toward the bed but continued to hold him. It was somewhat unnerving to Nathan that there was no sound coming from the man. No moan or whimper, absolute silence was all and Nathan knew that Buck had to be in severe pain.

And in pain he was. It engulfed him, mind and body. He wanted the blackness of unconsciousness to overtake him, but it was not to be. The remnants of his nightmare clung on like leeches to his mind. Waves of excruciating agony continually swept over him while the thought of his best friend doing this to him ravaged his mind. Tremors set in, his body shaking in Nathan's arms. 'Chris, where are you? Did you do this? No, no, you couldn't do this to me, could you? Oh God, make it stop hurting, make it stop. Chris, make them do something!' Buck's body arched back, his mouth open in a soundless scream. Suddenly he recognized the man next to him. 'NATHAN! DO SOMETHING!'

"Get him something for the pain!" Nathan barked, his voice rough with emotion. His friend was suffering and he wanted it stopped. The dark-haired nurse, he thought her name was Andrea, almost ran out the door. The large nurse stood beside Nathan, the IV tubing in her hand. She needed to get it re-inserted into the patient's arm but at the moment, he needed to be held by his friend. "Buck, try to take deep breaths, it'll help. Breathe, Buck, please." Nathan pulled the tall man closer and rocked slightly, hoping the movement wouldn't cause more pain.

It seemed like an hour but it was only three minutes before Andrea returned. She efficiently pulled the cap off of the syringe and, after tapping the plastic tube, she inserted the needle into Buck's thigh and released the pain killer into his system. Not soon enough for Nathan, but eventually Buck's body began to relax. His breathing was still ragged, but he wasn't struggling quite so hard to pull oxygen into his lungs. Buck's dark blue eyes opened and he looked into Nathan's warm brown eyes. Nathan ran his free hand lightly down the side of Buck's face. He smiled comfortingly at his good friend. There was still terror in the midnight blue eyes. "It'll be better soon, Buck. Just breathe as deep as you can. Relax." He laid Buck back down on the bed and Gina went to work putting the IV back into her patient's arm.

"What's going on, Nathan?"

The black man turned and found his boss standing just inside the door. "We have a problem."

"No shit. What happened?" Chris moved to Buck's side and ran his hand down Buck's cheek, much as Nathan had done just moments before. "Is he all right?"

"He had a nightmare, a real doozy, and he tried to get out of bed. He pulled the IV out and really caused himself a lot of pain." Nathan stepped back and watched the blond speak soothing words to his best friend. Buck seemed to react negatively and Chris removed his hand. "That's the problem, Chris. He found out you were arrested for his battery."

"WHAT? How the hell did that happen?" Chris turned his attention to Nathan, wanting answers in a hurry.

"The two employees that were in here to change the bedding and wash him up were discussing the case as it was reported in the newspaper. He heard every word. He wouldn't listen to me when I tried to explain. I'm so sorry, Chris."

"Forget it, Nate." He turned back to the man who shared his home and his sons. "Buck, come on, pard, look at me. I know you're not sleeping. Let me explain, please." He was rewarded with two midnight blue eyes staring accusingly up at him. "I didn't do it, buddy. You remember last week? You remember that punk Cuevas? His brother followed me home, hid in the barn, knocked me out and waited for you. I did NOT do this to you, you hear me?" There was no reaction to his pleading. "Buck, I know I hurt you in the past, after Sarah and Adam, but I was drunk and out of my mind back then. Everything has changed now. We talked it all out Friday night, remember? We were gonna talk to JD and Vin Saturday morning. I wasn't mad at you, just frustrated and worried. I could never do something like this to you, Buck. You've got to believe me!" The eyes penetrated his soul and he flinched slightly until he saw the subtle change, and then the nod that was barely perceptible.

He smiled warmly at his best friend. "I know you've had a really bad day and its only eleven AM, but I've got somebody with me that would love to come in and see you. You think you could stay awake for another five minutes?"

Buck slowly moved his head back and forth, indicating no. A nurse appeared at his side and was injecting a syringe full of sedative into his IV tube.

"Okay, Buck, I'll tell JD that we have to come back tomorrow. I doubt he'll understand, but if you don't want to see him..." Larabee knew that would get to the lanky ladies man.

The eyes narrowed and then he nodded his consent.

"He just wants to see that you are still alive. So does Vin. I promise they'll be gone quick, okay?" Another nod answered him. He moved to the door and noticed Nathan take a position on the right side where the two nurses were adjusting Buck's right arm back into the traction bracing.

He moved out to the waiting room and motioned for Ezra to bring the boys inside the Intensive Care Unit. "Now, remember, you have to be real quiet. JD, do you want Vin to go in with you?"

Suddenly, the little brunette was apprehensive and he grabbed his brother's hand. Tears in his eyes, he nodded.

"Why don't I hold you and Ezra will hold Vin, okay? That way you'll be able to see your Da and Buck can see you." Chris held out his arms and JD slowly moved into the blond's embrace. Chris hugged him tight and moved to Buck's room. He stopped outside and let JD look through the window. The sight that met the little boy's eyes started him crying. "If you don't want to go in, we don't have to."

JD stared at his Da in the hospital bed and then he turned his head slightly and whispered, "I have to. He needs me."

Chris smiled at the little waif and opened the door. Buck's head moved slightly and his eyes followed his friend and the orphan that had stolen his heart. Chris moved to Buck's left side and held JD while the boy leaned over and tenderly kissed his Da's cheek.

"I love you, Da. I want you to get better soon, okay? I miss you. Please come home soon." Tears dripped from the little brunette's eyes and fell in small plops onto his father, not in blood but in his heart. The big man, along with Chris, had saved him and his brother, and they owed everything to the two men who had given them both love and a home. "Please, don't die, Da." Once again he kissed the swollen cheek and then looked into the dark blue eyes. A tiny smile turned up the corners of Buck's mouth. JD choked back his tears and smiled weakly back at his Da. "I love you." Buck nodded and then Chris carried the small boy away from the bed and back out to the corridor.

Ezra held Vin so he too could lean over and kiss the tall man who he loved only second to Chris Larabee. Buck was the one who made the boy laugh, the one who meant comfort and the one with whom he shared the most important thing in his life, JD. "I love you Buck. Come home soon, okay. We'll take real good care of ya when ya get there. I promise to keep JD quiet so you can rest. We need ya, all of us, especially Chris. He loves ya too, Buck." He noticed the slight nod from the big man and he smiled down into the blue eyes that shone up at him. He reached out and touched Buck's cheek.

Then Ezra carried him out of the room and set him down. Vin immediately wrapped his arms around Chris's legs. The blond man still held JD tight, both staring through the window. Tears streamed down both of their faces.

"I love you, Da. I love you." JD whispered, his breath steaming up the window.

"And he loves you, JD." Ezra felt tears running down his cheeks and quickly swiped them away. He would do anything to bring this man back to his son and he would do anything to bring the animal that did this to justice.

Chris turned some minutes later and the four made their way back to the waiting room. They sat huddled together, all lost in their own thoughts.

"He's gonna be just fine, just fine, once we get him home. Right Dad?" Vin was the first to speak and Chris pulled him even tighter to his side.

"Yeah, he'll be just fine. JD, son, are you all right?" Chris tilted his head so he could see the youngster's face. The boy's thumb was stuck in his mouth. Chris smiled when the waif smiled and nodded.


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