by LT and Niteowl

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


Wednesday, the members of ATF Team 7 gathered at the hospital. Tuesday night had passed without incident at the hospital or the Jackson residence. Buck slept peacefully, as did JD. When Raine had called Chris to let the boys talk to him before driving them to school, she told him the little boy was nightmare-free for the first time since the attack. Chris believed in his heart that having the boys come see Buck really was the best thing for both of them.

Now they awaited the neurosurgeon who, at the moment, was performing a complete and thorough examination of Buck Wilmington. On pins and needles, all four men paced, often running smack into one another.

"Excuse me, Mr. Sanchez, once again I find my mind distracted. Did I injure your foot?" Ezra sighed, his mind already returning to the doctor and the prognosis that he would provide once he appeared.

"No, son, I'm fine. Nathan, how long do these things take?" Josiah was beginning to lose his patience. The past five days had been a continuing nightmare and the doctor's proclamation could be the culmination. He looked over to where Chris sat, silent, brooding, afraid. The ex-preacher couldn't recall ever seeing Chris this despondent. And if Larabee was this heartsick, he couldn't imagine what Buck must be feeling.

Nathan stopped in front of Josiah and Ezra, glancing briefly over at Chris. He sadly shook his head and replied, "I don't know all they had planned for him. I know they were doing a new CT scan and some other neurological exams, but how long it will take, I have no idea."

Quickly standing, Chris made his way to the door of the conference room where they had been told to await Dr. Donaldson. His hand was on the doorknob when he felt the hand on his arm. He looked down at the hand, not up to facing the man who was stopping him. "I need to know," he growled.

"Believe me, Mr. Larabee, we all desire the information you seek. However, it would do no good to harass the doctor or the staff at this time. Please, come sit down." Ezra removed his hand but remained close to Chris's side. He felt the same way but he believed his words. There was nothing they could do but sit and wait.

Chris turned and made his way back to where he had been seated. He slumped bonelessly into the hard plastic chair, his mind totally absorbed with how they were going to deal with the aftermath of the vicious beating Buck had been dealt. He didn't react immediately to the door opening.

"Chris?" Dr. Ben Donaldson stood just inside the door. He waited until the blond looked up, ignoring the others for the moment. When the green eyes rose to meet his, he moved to sit beside Larabee. "We performed every test we thought Buck could endure, including an MRI. I've gone over everything with a fine tooth comb and I've consulted with Dr. Proctor, one of the leading authorities on aphasia." He waited briefly for the other three men to sit. "I'm sorry to say Buck is suffering from a hematoma on his brain, a blood clot pressing into the section of his brain that is responsible for speech. I told you he is suffering aphasia, but this form is called dysarthria. It means his brain can't lay the groundwork for the larynx to work. It also means that speech therapy will be almost useless at this point. There is also some weakness on his left side, similar to a stroke. We have introduced some heparin into his IV now that we are sure the bleeding in his chest is resolved. It should aid somewhat in keeping the clot from growing any larger." The doctor hesitated, taking a deep breath and searching the faces of the four friends of the injured man.

"Dr. Donaldson, is there nothing that can be done for Mr. Wilmington? I mean, the science of medicine has progressed by leaps and bounds the past twenty years, surely there has been some advance made in this area also." Ezra refused to believe that there was nothing that could be done for the lean man they all cared for.

"Surgery may be an option, but he's so weak at this point I wouldn't want to risk it. The damage is done, Mr. Standish. It is up to Buck and his brain to tell us just how much better he's going to get. A lot of people with dysarthria never fully recover. They make some progress but their speech is always affected. There are other patients who recover completely from this form of aphasia though. In Buck's case, there is a considerable amount of edema and inner cranial swelling still, and Dr. Proctor feels that this may be contributing to the problem. It could also be partially psychological, his loss of speech."

Chris's eyes blazed at the suggestion that Buck's inability to speak could all be in his mind. "Are you telling us that it's all in his mind? That he could speak if he wanted to? That's bullshit!"

"Now, Chris, that's not what I'm saying," Donaldson quickly replied. "I told you there is a blood clot affecting that region of his brain. However, he did suffer an extremely traumatic injury to his head and it could be part of the problem. Trauma can cause all sorts of problems, and believe me, the person has no control over most of them. I think right now, Buck needs peace and quiet and a lot of support."

All four men nodded. They would be there for him, no matter how long it took.

"I want you to all be aware that progress may seem rapid at first. I know he already has shown signs of his memory returning. He responds to stimuli, both visual and auditory. His body is starting to heal and the pain will recede. However, you must face the fact that this progress is usually short lived. New complications could appear over the next few weeks. I also need to warn you about depression. I don't mean just Buck but all of you too. Try to be there for each other, talk about how you are feeling, notice the small things. With Buck, of course, it will be severe. Watch for signs of his feeling worthless, that the prognosis is hopeless. He will want to do things he can't and he will refuse to do things he could do. Be aware of other signs as well, such as fatigue, loss of interest in things that he used to love to do, loss of appetite, and irritability. When he leaves the hospital, he will be given anti-depressants. Chris, make sure he takes them, it is extremely important for his recovery. I guess that's all for now. Do any of you have questions?"

Nathan had read up on aphasia as soon as Chris had mentioned it. He knew better than the others what a long and arduous road was ahead of both Chris and Buck. "Dr. Donaldson, the other injuries, are they going to be a problem or will they heal properly?"

"I've talked to Dr. Asrah and he is fairly certain that both arms will heal just fine. The knee needs further surgery but it's not critical. It can be done just before he's released from the hospital. The lung is doing just fine and should be healed well enough that it won't be an issue in about two weeks. His ribs will be sore, especially if he continues to have panic attacks where he tries to get out of bed. They will mend though. No, I don't think he'll have any lasting difficulties with the other injuries." He turned his attention strictly to the man in black. "Chris, I know this won't be easy on any of you. The boys will suffer as well as you, especially when he comes home. I want you to seek medical help for yourself and the boys, don't be a macho man who can handle anything, okay?"

Chris shook his head. "The boys have a psychiatrist already, Doc. I've seen the good he's done for them. Hell, Buck's even talked to him. I just..." He stopped, not knowing how to express himself. Buck had always been an outgoing optimist. He loved people, especially women. He lived to help people, and that was one of the attributes that made him such a good agent. How was he going to deal with being unable to communicate? It was going to literally kill him. "I don't know how to keep his spirits up. He's the biggest hearted, most fun loving man I've ever known. And now it's all gone, just like that."

The doctor nodded morosely. "I'm sorry. I wish I had the answers for all of my patients, but I don't. As far as keeping his spirits up, that's so individual... and I don't know Buck well enough. I don't know what to tell you, Chris, I truly don't. Call me whenever you need to and I'll try to help, but I don't have a magic formula for you. I wish I did."

"Does he know all of this? Have you told him?" Chris was suddenly worried about his friend who was lying in a hospital bed with none of his friends around.

"I'm sure he suspects that something is radically wrong with him," the doctor replied. "But I thought I would wait until you are with him to go into detail with him. I won't pull punches with him but I'm not going into the detail I just gave you. If you want to, you can share the diagnosis of depression with him. I believe that as long as you are aware of the signs and symptoms, he doesn't have to be worried about it too."

"I agree, Chris. He's got enough on his plate without worrying about the rest of us, especially JD and Vin. You've got to keep the creed 'one day at a time' in mind all the time. He will get better." Josiah reached out to try to center his friend. Chris needed to know they were there for him, as well as for Buck.

"Yeah, I guess you're right, Josiah. Okay Doc, let's get this over." Chris stood, his knees weak with the heaviness of spirit that threatened to paralyze him. He felt Ezra grab his arm, and he turned tear-filled eyes to the con man. "Thanks, Ezra. It's got to be done. He's not stupid, he knows it's bad. He needs to know just how bad." He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Gathering himself, he said, "Let's go, Doc."

Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah stood outside the room where Chris and Dr. Donaldson dropped the bomb on one of the best men any of them had ever known. Tears flowed freely from the eyes of all three as they watched Buck Wilmington shut down. Possibly never to be himself again.

+ + + + + + +

Once Donaldson had laid the cards on the table, everyone was able to make plans and arrangements for the immediate future. Raine took the boys to school, while Gloria picked them up and drove them back to the Jackson residence. Josiah had already taken it upon himself, since he lived the closest, to drive out to the ranch before coming to work and before going home, to feed and water the animals. He couldn't help but feel sympathetic toward the pups, who just didn't understand where every body else was. Ezra stopped by the hospital each evening, allowing Chris to leave and spend as much time as he could with the boys before they had to be in bed.

While Chris remained at the hospital, Josiah took over running things at the office. AD Travis had reassigned their new case to Team Eight while Buck's friends continued to search for his attacker. They also had to prepare for the trial of Joey Cuevas's associates. Knowing the toll that particular gang had taken on their teammate, the rest prepared the case with an almost manic zeal.

The next couple of days with Buck didn't present any new medical complications, for which Chris was grateful, but he was worried about his friend. Ever since Donaldson had explained his condition to the injured man, he had quit trying to communicate. Their years of friendship allowed Chris some insight into a few basic needs not anticipated by the hospital staff. Not that Buck wouldn't respond with a nod or a small smile when spoken to directly, but if left alone he would just turn away and stare at the wall. Not even the teasing from the pretty nurses that knew him seemed to be getting through. Only when Chris talked about the boys did Buck seem to really be paying attention.

Buck spent most of the time sleeping, and even when awake he still wasn't strong enough to sit up. The swelling around his eyes had gone down and the oxygen mask had been replaced with a standard nasal canula. Even the bulky white bandage had been removed from his skull, along with the drain tubes. Where they had shaved the back of his head to insert the drains was now visible under the smaller bandages covering the healing incisions and new stitches. Chris couldn't help but be thankful his handsome friend wasn't strong enough to look in a mirror just yet. He knew more than most how much pride Buck took in his good looks.

The door opened and Chris looked up from the book he was pretending to read. He nodded in greeting at his three friends. He quirked an eyebrow at Josiah as the bigger man walked up to him, took the book out of his hands and gently tugged on his elbow until he stood.

"Go home," rumbled the gentle baritone, guiding him away from the recliner and toward the door.

Chris glanced down at his sleeping friend. "I can't..." he started.

"You can and you must," Ezra interrupted. "Today is Friday, and it has been almost a week since you or the boys have been home. I am certain they would like to sleep in their own beds. If nothing else, you truly need a change of wardrobe. Seeing you day after day in Mister Jackson's leisure attire is most disconcerting."

Chris looked over at Nathan and realized he was outnumbered. "I take it you three have it all figured out?"

Nathan shrugged and nodded. "We've got it covered here, Chris. We've already talked to Donaldson, and he's explained the situation to the staff. As long as Cuevas is still out there, one of us has to be with Buck twenty-four/seven."

"Take the boys home for the night," Josiah added. "Let them play with their dogs, do their chores, be normal little boys for a little while. Then maybe you can bring them to see Buck tomorrow afternoon. It just might do him a world of good to see JD again." Josiah glanced down at the still form, then back up at Chris. They were all worried about keeping Buck from sliding into the type of depression Donaldson had warned them about.

Chris finally nodded, then took a step toward the bed. He gently laid a hand on Buck's forehead, lightly stroking his thumb above the man's eyebrows. "Buck," he said softly. "Come on, Big Dog. I need you to wake up for a minute." The dark head moved back and forth and the eyebrows drew together at being disturbed, but finally the blue eyes opened and looked up at Chris. The blond looked down and couldn't help but smile. "And you accuse me of being a bear to wake up."

Buck noticed the others in the room and nodded as they greeted their fallen friend, then turned back to Chris with a questioning look in his eyes.

"They said I have to go home and find something else to wear," Chris said jokingly. Buck looked him up and down and offered a small smile. "I'm going to go get the boys and take them home for the weekend. Think you'll be okay without me for a day or two?"

There was a split second of panic that flashed in the dark blue orbs before it passed and Buck swallowed and nodded again. He unconsciously buried his left hand in the blanket and started kneading it tightly.

Chris recognized Buck's only means of relieving his frustration. He squatted down so he was on the same level as the man in the bed. "If you want me to stay, I will," he offered quietly.

For the first time since JD's visit, there was a spark of light in the blue eyes, but this time it was a flash of anger. Buck shook his head back and forth, his chin jutting out determinedly. Chris smiled as he imagined he could hear Buck grinding his teeth in exasperation.

"We'll be fine, won't we, Brother Buck?" Josiah asked, stepping up into his line of vision.

Buck met the profiler's gaze and nodded emphatically. Then he looked from one to the other and made a small motion toward the door with his head.

"I think I'm being kicked out," Chris said with a crooked grin, standing up. He started to turn, then paused and looked down at Buck in surprise. "What?" he asked out of reflex. Then he smiled as he recognized the words Buck was slowly mouthing. "Yeah, see y' later. You behave for these guys, you hear me?"

Buck finally smiled and nodded, relaxing into his pillow. He yawned and his eyes drifted closed again. When Chris was sure he was sleeping again, he turned to the other three men. "That's the first time he's even tried to say anything," he said.

"Don't worry about it, Chris," Nathan offered, walking with him to the door. "He'll be back to normal soon enough, and you'll be telling him to shut up every time he starts singing those Gawd-awful Elvis Presley songs."

Chris laughed in agreement, but in his heart he would have given almost anything to hear his friend's rich voice right then and there.

"I'll be here to relieve you first thing in the morning," Ezra said to Josiah, as he followed the other two out.

Josiah nodded in acknowledgment and he settled into the recliner. He picked up the TV remote and began running the channels, settling on a basketball game with the sound turned down low. He pretended not to notice the other pair of eyes that cracked open and watched along with him.

+ + + + + + +

By the time they arrived at Nathan's, the boys had already packed their overnight bags and were ready to go. After giving Aunt Raine quick hugs, the boys were buckled into their car seats and Nathan drove them home. The dark medic only stayed long enough to get the boys settled before making his retreat, leaving the small family time to themselves. They stood on the porch and waved goodbye, watching the taillights disappear from sight.

"Can we go see Buck now?" JD asked as soon as Nathan's van was out of sight.

"Not tonight, JD," Chris answered patiently. He tried to conceal the smile as JD began to pout, his little chin sticking out just the way Buck's had earlier. "How about tomorrow?"

"Promise?" JD asked.

"I promise," Chris said, crossing his heart. "Now, we've got lots of work to do tonight. I want you to take your bags to the laundry room and unpack your dirty clothes in there. Now what do you guys want for supper?"

"McDonalds!" Vin exclaimed.

Chris ruffled his son's hair and shook his head. "We're already home, cowboy. How about Spaghetti O's?"

"Yeah," JD replied with a nod, walking toward the mud room.

"Can I help?" Vin asked.

"You bet," Chris replied. "As soon as we get the laundry started, okay?"

There was a sudden explosion of sound and motion as JD opened the back door and Elvis and Ringo came charging in, yelping and jumping up and down in circles around their young masters. Vin and JD collapsed onto the floor with the dogs, laughing and hugging them, and letting the dogs lick their faces. Chris chuckled and stepped over the tangle of children and animals, picking up the discarded bags as he made his way into the laundry room.

After starting a load of laundry, Chris let Vin help him heat up a can of the pasta, while JD set the table. Chris added some left over rolls, canned peaches and glasses of milk to complete the meal. The boys took turns talking as they ate, bringing Chris up to date with the goings on at school. When they were done, he cleared the table, then glanced out the window and frowned darkly at the sight of the barn. He turned back to the boys. "Who's got homework?" he asked.

Vin shook his head. "It's Friday, Dad. We don't get homework on Friday."

"You're right, I forgot," Chris replied with a nod, leading both boys into the den. "I want you guys to sit here for a little while and watch cartoons. I need to go feed the horses."

Vin stopped and turned to look up at his father. "I can help," he said.

Chris shook his head. "No, it's late and it's almost dark. I want you to stay in here with JD, okay? When I get back, you guys can help me feed the dogs." Vin looked down and nodded, but Chris didn't miss the disappointed look that crossed his son's face. "I'll be back in a little while." He settled JD on the couch and gave Vin the remote control. "Nick Jr or Disney," Chris said. "No 'Ed, Edd and Eddy', got it?"

Vin smiled and nodded at their regular argument. He was already pointing the control at the TV as Chris made his way to the back door.

Chris went to the barn and found the feed without ever turning the light on. He just wasn't ready yet to see the place where he'd almost lost his best friend. He went out to the corral and turned on the water spigot, filling the water troughs. He smiled and patted the horses as they came up to him and nuzzled him for attention. As quickly as he could, he finished and headed back up to the house.

The boys were still watching TV when Chris came in, and they helped him feed the dogs and put on another load of laundry. He let them play with the dogs for a little while before it was time for bed. Chris helped JD get his pajamas on while Vin dressed himself. Not long after the boys were asleep, Chris followed suit. He hadn't realized until that moment just how tired he really was.

Just after midnight, Chris was suddenly awake. He quietly got out of bed, trying to figure out what had brought him out of a sound sleep. He padded quietly to the boys' room, his heart catching in his throat as he found both beds empty. He spun in the hallway as a soft snore caught his attention. He tiptoed into Buck's room, stopping in the doorway and smiling sadly at the sight before him. There in the middle of the king-sized bed were the two boys, JD's tear-stained face barely visible from under one of Buck's favorite t-shirts the boy was clutching to him. Vin was lying behind his smaller brother, one arm slung over JD in an attempt to comfort him. Chris sighed and picked up the discarded comforter at the foot of Buck's bed, covering the boys lightly. He leaned over and tenderly kissed each boy before returning to his own room.

+ + + + + + +

The boys were up bright and early the next morning, dragging Chris out of bed impatiently. They both knew the sooner their chores were done, the sooner they could go to the hospital and see Buck. Elvis and Ringo followed on their heels everywhere they went. Breakfast was cereal and orange juice, then Chris had more laundry to do while the boys were sent to straighten up their room. Chris brought the clean clothes into the room and waited for the boys to put them up. Chris knew there was no avoiding the inevitable, so once the clothes were taken care of, he stood. "Who wants to help me feed the horses?"

"I do!" both boys cried.

"Well, let's get it done so we can go see Buck," he said, leading the way.

Once at the barn, Chris kept the boys out by sending them to make sure the corral gate was closed. He went in himself, bringing out the sacks of feed. He went back in and retrieved the rakes and wheelbarrow. The weekend routine was to muck out the horses' stalls before feeding.

"Why don't you boys call the horses out and I'll start with Pony's stall?" Chris suggested, handing each boy a couple of apples to feed the horses.

The boys approached the stalls carefully and called to the horses. The horses dutifully followed the boys out, nuzzling them in an attempt to find their treats.

By the time Chris had finished Pony's stall, he came out and found JD sitting on the edge of the water trough surrounded by horses and dogs. Buck's big gray had lowered his head, letting JD scratch between his ears. Vin was nowhere to be seen, until Chris made his way to Peso's stall. There the boy was, doing his best to rake the soiled hay to the doorway for Chris to load into the wheelbarrow. With them working together, they made quick work of the rest of the stalls. Chris wasn't sure which of them took more comfort in the work, him or Vin. Then JD helped them lay out the clean hay, taking delight as only a child could in tossing the straw high into air and watching the lighter pieces drift to the ground.

When they were done, it was back to the house for baths. Chris helped the boys pick out clean clothes and waited while they dressed themselves, helping JD with his shoes. They loaded into Chris's black Ram and headed to McDonalds for lunch on the way to the hospital.

They made their way quietly down the hall to the ICU area. Chris had once again explained to the boys about being on their best behavior, but as soon as the door to Buck's room opened JD pulled his hand out of Chris's.

"Uncle Ezra!" he squealed in delight, running into the startled man's arms.

"JD!" Vin admonished in a loud whisper. "Shhh, Buck's asleep." While Ezra held JD in one arm, he held the other out in invitation to Vin, who gladly accepted the offered hug. "Well, look who woke up," Ezra drawled, turning JD to face the bedridden Buck.

The blue eyes were blinking slowly as Buck was trying to pull himself out of the darkness in response to his son's voice. Finally they opened and focused on his family gathered around him.

"Da! You're awake." JD squirmed to get down, but Ezra had him in a firm but gentle hold. "Do you feel better? Can you come home today? Can I sign your cast now?"

Buck's face brightened and he gave his son a wink. Then he shifted his gaze to Vin and smiled.

Chris took JD out of Ezra's arm and carried him around to Buck's left side, not trusting the rambunctious boy too close to the traction set up and the remaining IV tubes.

JD looked down at Buck then back up at Chris quizzically. "How come Da won't talk to me?" JD whispered loudly. "Doesn't he hear me, Chris?"

Buck's eyes widened in frustration as he blew out a deep breath. Chris offered Buck a small shrug before turning to the boy to try and explain again.

"Of course he hears you," Vin said impatiently, moving closer to the bed. "Look at his eyes, he knows what to say but he can't make his voice work right, ain't right Buck?"

Buck's eyes lit up as he smiled and nodded. He moved his left arm to the very edge of the bed, making room beside him, using the tips of his fingers to tap the bed. Vin understood the invitation and clambered up, sitting with his feet hanging off the side. Then the light-haired child leaned into the crook of the man's arm, waiting calmly while Buck moved his cast-encased arm carefully to envelop him in a gentle hug.

"I want DA!" JD cried, renewing his efforts to squirm out of Chris's arms.

"Fine," Vin huffed, sitting up as soon as Buck moved his arm away. He scooted down toward the end of the bed, making room for JD close to Buck. JD settled himself in the same position he'd seen Vin take. He sighed in contentment as he felt the fingers of Buck's left hand rubbing up and down his back.

Chris was satisfied to watch the tender scene, not having the heart to intrude. But he took a quick step toward the bed when he saw Buck's eyes widen in sudden panic. He instantly understood and grabbed the heavy cast that Buck no longer had the strength to hold up before it dropped down on the small boy in his arm. Without disturbing the dark-headed child, he laid the arm back down on the bed, squeezing Buck's shoulder before moving away.

Ezra couldn't help but smile at the way Buck seemed to bask in the comfort of the physical contact with both boys.

Finally JD turned over and got comfortable, but didn't move away from Buck's side. Buck grimaced as he shifted his left leg to make more room for Vin. They stayed that way for the rest of the visit. The nurses that came in to check on Buck periodically smiled in understanding and worked around the boys.

By the time Nathan arrived to take his turn with their friend, the adults could all see how tired Buck was. And they also knew he was stubbornly staying awake to be with the boys. So despite the boys pleading and Buck shaking his head in denial, Chris announced it was time to go home. They left Buck in Nathan's capable hands, knowing he'd be asleep in a matter of minutes. Ezra walked Chris and the boys down to the parking lot, bidding them goodnight.

+ + + + + + +

Once they were assured Buck was out of danger, the eclectic family and their friends settled into a routine of sorts. Chris took the boys to see Buck again Sunday afternoon, then back to the ranch for good. He drove them to school on his way to the hospital, then went to the office just before lunch, when Nathan came in to visit. Gloria would be waiting for the boys when they got off the bus at home. He worked with the rest of the team, preparing the reports on upcoming cases and reviewing evidence on cases that were coming up for court. For the moment, Orrin had been deflecting any new investigations to the other teams. Chris would stop by and see Buck again on his way home, Gloria bringing the boys to him there on her way home. At first he protested, pointing out to her how out of the way she was going. She just smiled patiently and replied that it gave her a chance to see Buck every day, which is what she wanted to do anyway. Josiah and Ezra took turns spending the nights. Even though they could tell the recuperating man wasn't happy about it, Chris had explained it in no uncertain terms to Buck and the staff that as long as Cuevas was on the loose, someone would be there just in case.

At least once a day, one of the team members would check in with Detective Rompala to see if anyone had heard anything on the whereabouts of Johnny Cuevas. The man had gone to ground but good, and even the members of the gang that were cooperating in exchange for reduced sentences were unable to help Team Seven locate him. It had been three weeks already, and Chris was getting frustrated with the lack of progress the others were making on the apprehension of Cueves. Not a word had been heard from any of the snitches that Ezra and Josiah usually got information from.

He also was disheartened with the lack of progress that Buck was making. His best friend rarely ate more than a few bites at any meal. He still slept up to twenty hours a day and he hated to go to therapy. Buck had been in a regular room for just over a week now, ever since they'd done the surgery on his knee, but it didn't seem to change his mood. He was angry and down in the dumps and if he could talk, he would be constantly griping. Chris had no idea how to get him to change his attitude and it was driving him to the edge of his frustration level.

"Buck, I think you should be getting up now. How `bout a ride down to the garden? Some fresh air might do you some good. That sound good to you?" He himself needed to get out of the room; it was suffocating him.

Buck looked at him, his dark blue eyes his only source of communication. The eyes gave away his feelings. He too wanted to be out of this room, this institution.

"Good, let's get you up. Easy now, slow and steady, remember?"

Just as Buck got his feet hanging over the side of the bed, a knock on the door drew Chris's attention away. The door opened to reveal Dr. Donaldson and a stranger. "Good afternoon, Buck, Chris. This is Dr. Haverston, one of our hospital administrators. He has some information to pass along to both of you." The doctor didn't look too happy, and it lit `trouble ahead' signs for Chris.

The other man, a short balding paper-pusher, thrust out his hand to Chris. "I understand you are Mr. Wilmington's friend and you have the power of attorney for him, is that correct?"

Chris looked the man over and wasn't pleased with his first impression. "Yeah," he said suspiciously. "Buck's right here though, and he can make his own decisions."

"Well, yes, I see that, but Dr. Donaldson here says that Buck has suffered a traumatic brain injury and may not be able to make cognitive decisions for himself right now. He certainly has no way to communicate his desires. Is that true?" The man looked Larabee right in the eye. He wasn't squeamish, that was a plus for him.

"Chris, I know you think you can understand what he wants, but he can't tell us, so let's let you make the final decision here, all right?" Donaldson added.

"What kind of decision?"

Haverston continued. "Mr. Wilmington's insurance won't cover the hospital stay beyond Friday. He is scheduled to be transferred to our adult care facility on that day. If you have another place in mind, we will gladly make arrangements to have him transferred there."

"WHAT?!!" Chris took a step toward the administrator, but Donaldson stepped in between.

"Chris, there is nothing else we can do for Buck here. He had the surgery on his knee last week. The ribs and arms are mending and all the drains and IVs have been removed. What he needs now is round the clock care and therapy. You can't do it! They will take good care of him at the care center." Donaldson tried to be persuasive but it didn't come through his eyes. He was sorry that Buck had to be moved where he couldn't see him every day.

"He's not going to a nursing home! " Chris shouted.

"Now, Mr. Larabee, there is no cause to get loud," the little man said quickly. "We need to sit down and talk about this reasonably. Mr. Wilmington is severely disabled as of now and he needs the kind of care that our facility can provide."

"He's either staying here or he's going home - no ifs, ands, or buts about it. We will not abandon him to people who don't care!" Chris didn't care who heard or who he disturbed. This was ridiculous. Buck was not going to a nursing home, no matter what they called it.

"Can you provide care 24/7? Can you provide both physical and alternative communication therapy? He requires them, you know." Haverston stood smugly behind Dr. Donaldson. He knew that Chris wouldn't be able to take the patient home. And he didn't have time to find another place for the invalid. He would have to accept the space at their facility. He loved to crunch numbers and this was a good one. The insurance money from a federal agent would be a good amount.

Donaldson could see that both men were going to be stubborn and it certainly wouldn't benefit Buck for the two of them to fight in front of him. "Okay, okay, let's just take some time to think about this. Chris, we'll have to have your answer by the day after tomorrow. If you can come up with something definitive, I'll be more than happy to sign him out to you. He does need therapy and somebody with him all the time. With your job and the two boys - Well, you can't do it alone. When you think about it, you'll agree. Come on, Dr. Haverston, we'll leave it to Chris now." He took the administrator by the arm and started to lead him out of the room. He turned back to Chris just before the door closed. "I just want what's best for Buck, Chris, honest. I'll be back to check on him later."

Chris stood defeated. He knew Donaldson was right but he just couldn't put Buck in a place like that. He looked down at the man sitting on the side of the bed, his eyes on the floor below him. Chris turned and put his hand on the thin man's shoulder. "Let's get out of here, okay, pard?"

Misty blue eyes looked up at him and the head nodded.

Chris got Buck into his wheelchair and pushed him out into the hallway. Halfway to the elevator, Chris heard the sound of hurried footsteps behind him. He turned his head and saw Terri Bennett, the nurse from the ICU who had been so kind to all of them, rushing toward them. He stopped and noticed that Buck had also turned toward the petite brunette.

"Chris, has Dr. Haverston been to see you yet?" she asked, slightly out of breath. Chris's face darkened and the mature nurse knew immediately the administrator had already alienated the head of the ATF team. Maybe she could lighten his mood. "Look, I don't know if I'm overstepping my bounds but..." she hesitated slightly and then pushed forward. "My son, Jason, just returned to Denver from his stint in the Marines and he doesn't have a job yet. He was a corpsman, and he wants to get a job as a therapist now. He's a tall boy, man I guess I should say, and he's good with people. I was wondering if he might be able to help you and Buck out for a while. He could stay with Buck during the day while you're at work, give you your therapy," she smiled down at Buck, who smiled slightly back. "Since he's a licensed physical therapist, the insurance would probably help out. I would hate to see Buck go to the adult care facility like Dr. Haverston wants. It's not a bad place, but it's so impersonal. I overheard Haverston telling Dr. Donaldson there was nothing else you could do with our patient. I just wanted you to know there is an alternative."

"Terri, you are a life saver. Ask Jason how soon he can come in and see us, okay?" Chris felt like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

"He'll be here tonight around seven to pick me up from work. Will that be all right?" Terri smiled and it lit up her eyes. She had liked all the men of the ATF team, but she had really taken to the two small boys who came to visit the injured agent. They needed Buck to be home, not in some cold, uncaring, medical facility.

"Thank you Terri. Buck and the boys will be much better off with him being at home."

"That's what I thought. Buck, you behave yourself now, okay?" She bent down and gave Buck a kiss on the cheek. As she moved away, she called back over her shoulder, "He'll be here. Bye."

+ + + + + + +

Gloria brought Vin and JD to the hospital that evening. Normally she would just drop the boys off, but Chris had asked her to stay for dinner. Chris had told her that a young man was coming in that night for an "interview" of sorts, that he would possibly be the answer to Buck's coming home instead of going to an adult care facility. She had informed Chris that since she would be working side by side with the young man, she wanted a say in the hiring. He had actually laughed and readily agreed.

The boys had been told they were going to have dinner with Buck, but they weren't told that Buck would soon be leaving the hospital. Chris didn't want them to get their hopes up just in case their Buck didn't come home. They had taken turns feeding Buck, although in reality he could feed himself. It was difficult for him, but he worked hard to do it. Given the fact that he didn't eat much, he was usually finished about the same time as Chris or whoever was with him for his meals. Just as Chris was cleaning up, and Gloria was regaling Buck with a story about JD that his teacher had passed on, the door opened.

"Good evening, all. How is our favorite patient doing tonight?" Josiah made his way into the room, a milkshake in his hand. He often brought such treats for Buck. The man had always been lean, but now he was downright skinny. Buck smiled at him as he sat the drink down on the tray table that sat over the bed. He didn't reach for it however until Josiah pushed it until the cold cup was touching Buck's hand. Buck looked up into determined blue eyes and acquiesced. Grabbing it with the fingertips of his left hand, he guided the straw into his mouth and sipped the ice-cold shake. He quickly set it down when Josiah began talking with Chris.

"You usually have to work at the mission on Wednesday. What's up?" Chris sat down, Vin quickly climbing into his lap. JD had planted himself on the bed beside Buck. He smiled at his Da as Buck pushed the chocolate shake over to his son.

"Felt like a visit tonight, any harm in that?" Josiah replied casually. He perched on the end of the bed, ignoring the fact that the little brunette was slurping down the treat meant for Buck.

"No, no harm in that. I suppose the other two will show up sooner or later." It wasn't a question, merely a statement of fact. Chris automatically glanced at Buck, making sure that JD wasn't tiring the big man. They seemed fine and he turned his attention back to Josiah.

"Wouldn't be surprised. When was he supposed to be here?" Josiah looked at his watch, noting the time. Punctuality was important to the profiler.

"Not `til seven. And the boys aren't aware of anything, okay?" Chris was well aware that Vin's head turned, looking up at him with a questioning gaze. "Nothing to be worried about, Cowboy. I promise." The boy nodded and went back to watching TV.

Next to arrive was Nathan. He brought a bag of Buck's favorite cookies, which Vin and JD each had one of. Buck passed. Gloria chatted amiably with the black man while they waited.

Ezra showed up just before seven. He brought with him a bag of French fries from Buck's favorite deli. Buck managed four of them before putting them aside. By this time, even JD and Vin weren't interested in food. They were beginning to get antsy.

"Boys, why don't we go see if we can find a soda for Buck? We can go down to the cafeteria if you would like." Gloria knew that as soon as the two boys got a little restless, Buck started getting irritable. She never faulted Buck for it, he simply reacted to the noise and action around him. She dreaded his homecoming. It was going to be so hard on him! Both boys joined her at the door and waved good-bye as they headed toward the elevator.

"She's a God send," Josiah declared, watching the woman take both boys by the hand.

"You got that right. We'd never be able to adopt them if it wasn't for her, right Buck?" Chris moved to the side of the bed. He gripped the big man at the shoulder and Buck nodded, agreeing with his best friend.

"I take it, Mr. Larabee, that Mrs. Potter wanted to be in the mix if a new member of the household was going to be hired. I would hope that she returns from her mission to distract Masters Tanner and Dunne before the prospective employee leaves." Ezra was sitting in the recliner by the window. He, too, had wanted to make sure that the person hired to care for Buck was upstanding and trustworthy.

"She wouldn't trust Buck to anyone she hadn't met and felt good about. She mothers him just like she does the boys. And he loves it, at least most of the time."

A knock on the door had all five heads turning to see the candidate that could be the solution to their problem. A young man in his mid-twenties stuck his head in and smiled at the men who were obviously checking him out. He was bigger than Josiah with a short-cropped hair cut. He had a kind smile and a twinkle in his eye. "Mind if I come in, guys?"

"Come in." Chris stayed protectively by Buck's side while the others circled the wagons.

Nathan moved forward and shook hands with the young man. "I'm Nathan Jackson, the big man back there is Josiah Sanchez, the little fellow is Ezra Standish, and the man you have to impress is Chris Larabee." Each of the other members of Team 7 nodded as they were introduced.

The young man made eye contact with each man, but he moved straight to Buck's bedside. "Hi, I'm Jason Bennett. I take it you're Buck Wilmington." Jason held out his hand and waited for Buck to move his encased left arm to meet his hand. "I'm pleased to meet you. I hope that we can work together to get you functioning again. My mom has told me all about you and your friends. She said to look out for that one, though," He shifted his head towards Chris, who glared at the brash young man. Buck, however, smiled broadly.

"I need to ask you a few questions, Mr. Bennett. I understand you just got out of the Marines, fresh from Baghdad." Chris moved slightly so that he was directly across the bed from Jason.

"Yes, sir, I'm going to school next semester, pre-med, but for right now, I'm free as a bird. I was a corpsman with the 467th. Saw a lot of action over there, mainly civilian casualties. The children were the toughest. I understand you have two children, boys I believe." Jason was not about to be intimidated by the man in black. That was not the way to prove his worth.

"Vin and JD. They're in our care right now, but we're in the process of adopting them. You have no problem with kids?" Chris was softening. Buck seemed to like the muscle bound ex-Marine.

"No, sir, I kinda helped my ma raise my little brother and sister. My dad died when I was ten and the other two were four and two. They're both in high school now. It would be fun to have young ones around again. Can I ask a question?"

"Sure, son, what would you like to know?" Josiah took an instant liking to the poised young man.

"My ma says you need to get Buck here home by Friday. Is your home ready?" Jason asked seriously.

The door opened and in ran two little boys, cans of cola in their hands. "We got you some too, Chris," reported the larger of the two. He came to a sudden halt when he noticed Jason standing by Buck. "You a doctor?"

"No, just a friend, I hope. My name is Jason and I'm here to see if I can help Buck get back on his feet. And you are?" The big man held out his hand to the long-haired boy.

Vin glanced at Chris and then shook the stranger's hand. "I'm Vin and this is JD. Buck needs a lot of help. You really think you could help him get better?"

"I'd like to try." Jason looked over at the other little boy. "Hi there, JD."

"Hi. Da can't talk, he's got a fish saw. You can sign his cast if ya want to, he don't mind." The little brunette climbed up on the bed, making the injured man cringe with pain the sudden movement caused. The blond on the other side quickly lifted the child up into his arms. "Did I hurt you, Da?"

Buck slowly shook his head and then turned back to the new guy. He liked Jason, but he had no way of telling Chris that. He wanted to go home, to get his life back and this man could help.

Gloria stepped further into the room. "Vin, give your dad the Pepsi. My name is Gloria Potter. What kind of therapist are you?"

"Gloria," Jason acknowledged. "I'm a licensed physical therapist, and I've worked with patients that have multiple breaks or loss of limbs. I've worked with all sorts of people with physical handicaps. I'm not a speech therapist, but I understand some of the problems that people with aphasia go through. Right now though, I think Buck needs some occupational therapy. He needs to learn how to take care of his personal needs." Jason could feel that this woman didn't care for him at all. He hadn't heard of this woman and he didn't know what sort of pull she had in this eclectic mix.

"He needs someone around who cares for him, not some stranger who wants to get paid. He wants to come home, but he needs a nurse who can help him. I don't know if that is you or not. I know I will be there for him, to take care of him." Gloria turned on her heel and hurried out of the room.

"What was that about?" Josiah asked, stunned by the woman's attack on the stranger.

"I'll go find out," Chris said and moved to go out in the hallway to find his housekeeper.

"No, let me." Jason was out the door in an instant. He spotted Gloria by the nurse's station. "Gloria, ma'am, may I talk with you?"

Gloria turned. It was evident she had been crying. "I'm sorry, young man. It's just... he's special. This whole family has been through hell during the past three weeks. The boys are dealing with it just fine but the adults - they're angry and frustrated and scared, especially Buck. And there's nothing I can do about it. He needs to come home, Jason. He needs a lot of lovin'. Do you understand?"

"Yeah, I understand. Why don't I let you handle the love part and I'll handle the care part. We'll make a good team for him. What do you say, Gloria?" Jason laid his arm over her shoulder and led her back into Buck's room.

"I say, do you like peanut butter or chocolate chip cookies?" She smiled up at the muscular young man.

Jason winked at her and whispered, "Chocolate chip. Can't get enough of them."

The twosome made their way back to Buck's bedside. Buck smiled at them and then turned to Chris and JD.

"All right, Jason, you're hired. Now, what is this about the house being ready?" Chris set JD back on the bed and the boy carefully cuddled up next to his Da.

"Are you comin' home, Da?" The little brunette looked hopefully up at his dad. A nod of the head answered him and a smile covered the boy's face. "I love you, Da."

"That's so cool, Buck, we'll take real good care of ya. And I'll make sure JD behaves, okay?" Vin had moved to Buck's side. Buck smiled down at the little blond. It would be good to be home.

Jason smiled too. "Okay, we need to get some equipment and make sure the furniture is arranged so the wheelchair can move easily through the house. How long ago did they do the surgery on his knee?"

Just last Monday, why?" Nathan now was in his element. He was aware that the big ranch house wasn't ready for a handicapped man in a wheelchair.

"We can get him up and walking soon, but it'll take awhile before he's completely out of the chair." Jason turned to Chris. "How `bout I come out tomorrow and we'll get started on getting the house ready for Buck?"

Chris sighed. Maybe it really would work. "How about eight in the morning?"


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