by LT and Niteowl

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


True to his word, Jason was driving up the long driveway shortly before eight the next morning. He couldn't help but smile at the small crowd already there. There was no doubt in his mind that Buck Wilmington had his support system firmly in place. As he climbed out of his van, he noticed the only one not there was the big man Nathan had introduced as Josiah. Then he remembered his mother telling him one of his friends always spent the night with Buck at the hospital. He smiled and waved back at the two small boys who were waving to him from the porch. He reached into the van and pulled out a spiral notebook. Even as he approached the group, he couldn't help but admire the well-built home.

Chris was the first to take his hand in greeting, followed by the rest of the team gathered. Both boys took their turns solemnly. He squatted down to their level and addressed JD. "Aren't you two supposed to be in school?"

JD nodded, then looked up at his guardian, who nodded his okay. "Chris says we can be late so's we can talk to you first," he replied.

"Dad says you're gonna tell us how to fix the house for Buck and we want to help," Vin added.

"Well, I'm glad to hear it," Jason answered as he stood. "Never hurts to have all the help I can."

"We ought to get started," Chris said, motioning toward the front door. The small parade followed.

They took Jason room by room downstairs. As they showed him around, he was busy taking notes and asking questions and taking more notes. There wasn't any point in showing him upstairs, but the boys insisted he see Buck's room and their own bedroom. Looking around at the mementos in the big agent's room gave him a little insight into the man he would be working with.

When they finished, they all gathered around the dining room table.

Jason sat at the head of the table and spread his notebook out before him. "Okay, here's where we need to start," Jason began. "We need to build a ramp with a gradual slope from the driveway to the left side of the porch. That way it won't interfere with the stairs already there. The front door is fine; thirty-six inches wide is what we need. But the threshold will need to be level with the floor. Raised thresholds really play havoc with wheelchairs. I suggest you clear out the furniture in the living room and make that his room for now. He'll need a hospital bed for the time being; you should be able to rent one from any medical supply company. He'll need a comfortable chair at his level for when we start him sitting up, and enough room to park his wheelchair and some physical therapy equipment." He paused and looked at Chris. "I'll give you the list later, if you decide this is what you want to do."

Chris nodded in acknowledgment.

"You can put privacy screens in the doorways, if you think he wants it. It looks like he'll have access to the den and kitchen from the living room. That's good, it'll keep him from feeling so isolated. The furniture needs to rearranged so that his wheelchair can get through. Take a yardstick and hold it sideways. Anything it touches will be in the way of his wheelchair. Keep his pathways clear," he looked pointedly at the two boys but spoke in a gentle tone. "He won't be able to reach down and pick up your toys for awhile."

"Yes sir," both boys vowed solemnly.

"You'll need to install handicap safety rails in the downstairs bathroom," Jason continued. "But it'll be awhile before he's strong enough to go by himself. And he'll need to have some kind of signaling device he can operate when I'm not here, assuming you still want to bring him home and you still want to hire me." Jason paused, looking into the eyes of each one sitting at the table.

Chris was deep in thought, nodding distractedly and staring down at Jason's list, so Nathan spoke up.

"Do you happen to know anybody that could get the job done by Friday?" the medic asked.

Jason couldn't help the grin that escaped. "As a matter of fact, I do. A couple of Marine buddies of mine are starting their own construction company. Doing this job would be a great start for them, and I can guarantee they'll do it right and give a good deal, too."

Ezra looked over at the young man they were putting so much trust in. "Do you think they will mind if they are closely supervised? After all, we are each willing to assist with the labor to get the job done in time." He ignored the snort Nathan tried to conceal with a cough.

"They're ex-Marines," Jason replied. "They're used to having their every move scrutinized and analyzed. And with this much work, we'll need all the help we can get. I could have them out here after lunch to give you an estimate, if you want."

All eyes turned to Chris, as they waited for a decision.

"Give them a call," Chris said with a determined nod, pointing out the phone hanging on the kitchen wall.

Gloria pushed her chair back. "I don't know about the rest you, but I could sure use a cup of coffee."

"That would be wonderful, Mrs. Potter," Ezra said with a smile.

"Why don't you boys go on out and play for a little while?" Chris suggested, seeing JD fidgeting in his chair next to Vin. "Don't go too far," he called after them as they dashed toward the back door. "I need to get you both to school in a little while."

Jason was coming back into the room just as the screen door slammed. "Good," he said with a serious look in his eye. "Mike Lloyd and his partner, Ray Pennington, can be here around one-thirty. Is that okay?" He waited for Chris to nod his approval, then addressed the group. "I need to talk to you all, now that the boys aren't in the room." He waited while Gloria set the coffee down on the table and everyone poured themselves a cup. "I want you all to understand just how difficult the road ahead is going to be for Mr. Wilmington..." he began.

"Buck," Chris interrupted. "His name is Buck, and if you're going to help him, you better get used to calling him that."

"He hates being called 'Mister Wilmington'," Nathan explained, "Unless it's Ezra here." He turned and offered the undercover agent a grin, who returned a small salute.

Jason nodded. "And it's not going to be any easier for the rest of you either. He'll be ecstatic at first to be home, but it won't last long. If he's as smart as I think he is, he's going to catch on pretty soon that he's totally dependent on someone else for almost everything he does. He's used to that in a hospital, but it'll be different here. He'll be expecting too much too soon, and he's going to be in for a lot of disappointments. Most of it will just be little things to us, but they're going to seem huge to him. He can't walk, he can't talk and until his casts come off, he has only limited use of his arms. It's going to be rough, and I want you all to be prepared for it."

"We've already heard the same speech from Dr. Donaldson," Chris said. "He told us the signs to look for that Buck's getting depressed, how important it is that he takes his meds, the whole nine yards."

"And you're sure you want to do this?" Jason pressed.

"Yeah," Chris affirmed. "I want him home, where he belongs. Not in some damn nursing home - okay, adult care facility - where they don't know him, or what he likes and doesn't like... He can't even tell them if he needs something."

Chris suddenly found the lump in his throat too hard to swallow. He set his coffee cup down and wandered out onto the back patio. As he stood and looked out over the ranch, he heard Jason come up behind him. Without turning to the younger man, he said quietly, "I owe that man more than I can ever repay. So yeah, if I have to put up with a few bad days, so what? I want him here, the boys want him here, and I'll do just about anything to make that happen. So where do we start?"

"I did some research last night on his aphasia," Jason said. "There are some pretty expensive computer programs out there now for people with permanent speech loss. They operate on a laptop with a touch screen, so the person can take it with them wherever they go. The program uses pictures, numbers and letters to help the afflicted to communicate. They go from pretty simple to really sophisticated."

"Are they worth it?" Chris asked.

Unknown to either man, Vin was standing in the doorway right behind them. He knew he wasn't supposed to eavesdrop, but they were talking about helping Buck and he wanted to hear what they were saying. And after all, he had promised to help too.

"Yeah, for they're meant to do," Jason replied with a shrug. "But to be honest, all Buck needs is a pad and paper to write what he wants to say. The problem is..."

"...with both arms in casts, he can't write," Chris finished glumly.

"And until he can communicate, we won't know how severe the brain damage is, or if there even is any. It's a Catch-22 right now. I don't know if I'd recommend it for Buck just yet," Jason said. "My mother says the doctors still don't know what's causing the aphasia, and it could clear up any day. I'd sure hate to see you spend all that money and have him start talking a week later."

"I'm not worried about the money," Chris said, turning his attention back to the horizon.

As soon as he heard the end of the conversation, Vin turned silently and bolted up the stairs. He rummaged around under JD's bed, throwing one thing after another aside. "There it is!" he cried. With his prize in his arms, he hurried back out to his father. "Will this work?" Vin asked, thrusting it at the surprised man.

"What's this?" Chris asked, the rectangular object from Vin.

"It's JD's old alphabet board," the boy explained. "See, it still has all the letters and numbers and everything. I saw it on TV one time. Buck could move the letters to the middle to spell the word, and I could write it down for him on paper. JD could help, too."

Chris smiled, his heart overflowing at the kindness his son expressed so willingly. He put his other hand gently on the boy's shoulder. "Vin, it's a good idea," he began, trying to find a way to explain to his son that it wouldn't work. "But..."

"No, Chris," Jason broke in as he took the board from Chris's grasp. "It's a great idea! Forming the words themselves will let us know just how well Buck's cognitive skills are working, and moving the letters and numbers around the board will help improve his dexterity, even with the casts on. Good work, Vin. I never would have thought of that."

The boy beamed at the praise.

"That's it then," Chris said. He took Vin into a gentle hug and offered the other man his free hand. "You're hired. Have your friends get started on the house. We're bringing Buck home."

+ + + + + + +

The rest of the day went by in a flurry of activity. After Chris took the boys to school, the contractors arrived at the ranch. Chris and Jason took them around the house, then they all huddled around the hood of their truck and sketched out a rough set of plans. On Mike's recommendation, they changed the plans to build the ramp from the carport to the back deck instead of the front porch. The contractor pointed out that the threshold of the sliding glass door in the back was already flush with the floor and was wide enough to accommodate Buck's wheelchair. The contractors left, promising to fax Chris a list of supplies for his approval and they'd get started first thing in the morning. They only had two and a half days to accomplish the list of renovations.

Chris contacted Orrin, who agreed to give the rest of the Team the next few days off so they could help with the labor. He also told Chris that the other Teams had already volunteered if additional help was needed. Chris promised to let him know if they needed more help.

With Chris's okay, Ezra immediately contacted a company that specialized in setting up pre-fabricated portable buildings. Nathan took on the responsibility of going to the medical supply company to arrange for the items that Jason had suggested they get, including a hospital bed and the other necessary equipment. Josiah volunteered to go grocery shopping, making a list of Buck's favorite foods while he sat with the recuperating man, concentrating on what could and couldn't be eaten with his fingers.

Chris brought the boys to see Buck after dinner that night.

"Da!" JD exclaimed as he carefully crawled up onto his father's bed. "You should see what they're going to do to the house! Jason's friends are coming back tomorrow and they're making a ramp. Can we ride our bikes on it?"

"Breathe, JD," Chris called quietly, bringing a smile to his friend's troubled face. "Josiah, could you take the boys down to the cafeteria and get them an ice cream sandwich?"

"I'd be glad to," rumbled the profiler, taking Vin's hand, plucking JD from the bed.

Chris sat on the edge of the bed. "We're not sending you to some nursing home, and that's all there is to it," Chris stated firmly. "If we have to make a few temporary changes, then we will. It's nothing we can't handle. Besides, Dr. Donaldson says most of the stuff should be covered by our medical insurance. I guess that's one good thing about working for the government." Chris said with a smile, as Buck seemed to relax a fraction. Then he changed the subject to the boys' day at school and went on to give Buck a running tally of all the women that had called to wish him a speedy recovery. Too soon, Josiah brought the boys back and it was time to go.

+ + + + + + +

While Ezra spent the day at the hospital with the gentle rogue, the rest of the team worked along side the contractors. First thing in the morning, the portable building was being erected and work on the ramp had begun. By nightfall, both projects had been for the most part accomplished. A gentle sloping ramp led from the carport to the back deck. The deck itself had been rearranged so all the furniture was on the opposite side and away from the access Buck would need. The small barn-looking storage room would hold the furniture temporarily removed from the house.

Buck's mood got brighter with each visit from his friends. In an effort to improve his appetite, Ezra arranged a small surprise for his dinner, having Inez bring some of his favorite dishes from the saloon. For the first time, he didn't seem to mind someone feeding him, as long as that someone was the fiery dark-haired beauty.

Thursday was spent working inside the house, Buck's friends all pitching in and working hard to get the house ready for his homecoming. Buck knew something was up when one by one, the members of Team Eight took turns sitting with him. It frustrated him to no end when it seemed like even the hospital staff seemed to be in on the secret.

While the contractors worked on the bathroom, Chris and the rest were moving furniture. They took almost all of the furnishings out of the living room to the storage building, leaving only what Jason thought they would need later. They rearranged the den, the kitchen and the dining room, so nothing would be in the way of the wheelchair Buck would need for the time being. The hospital bed and other supplies were delivered that afternoon.

When the boys got home from school, they began exploring the changes at the house while they stayed out of the way of the workers. JD made a beeline for the storage building. All the breakable and smaller items had been placed in the back, leaving the bigger pieces of furniture just inside the doors.

"Look Vin! A clubhouse," he crowed as he hopped from one couch to the other.

"JD Dunne!" Chris called sternly, causing the small boy to sit down and stare at his feet contritely.

By the time Josiah left to relieve Ryan Kelly at the hospital, most of the work was done. There were a few minor details left for the next day, and one major detail: Bringing Buck home.

+ + + + + + +

It was Friday, D-day, and Chris drove the Ram into the hospital parking lot. Everybody else was out at the ranch, putting the final touches on the house. Jason was picking up the few extra things they hadn't been able to get the day before. Josiah and Nathan were putting the final touches on the ramp, and Ezra was directing Vin and JD in picking up and cleaning everything in the house. The boys had been lectured the night before on the importance of keeping their toys and other stuff off the floor and out of Buck's way. Now, all that mattered was getting Buck released and home.

Home! For the first time since the boys had come to live with them, that word was terrifying. How were they going to deal with Buck and all the complications his handicap would present? Chris loved Buck like a brother and he would do anything for the scoundrel, but he had never had to face this kind of disability. Almost everyone in his life had been blessed with good health, from his parents and his sister, on down to his wife and then his son. Even the men he worked with had good health. Broken bones and bullet wounds - Chris had learned to deal with them. You worried for a few days, they were off work for a few weeks, and then everything was back to business as usual.

But this, not knowing when - no, correction, if - Buck was going to improve, was so discouraging to him. Trying to keep Buck's spirits up was going to be the hardest part of taking the big man home. Chris knew from experience that Buck hid his feelings well, in fact, most of the time he was the only one aware that Buck was feeling blue or out of sorts. JD sometimes could pick up on Buck's feelings; Vin was very good at it. But to most adults, Buck Wilmington was always a happy-go-lucky guy that was unaffected by the world at large. Chris knew, however, just how deeply Buck was affected by disappointments and losses.

The leader of Team 7 made his way into the hospital. He ignored everyone as he stood and waited for the elevator. The ride up to the fifth floor seemed endless. Finally, the elevator came to a stop and the door opened, allowing Chris entry to the floor where his friend waited. He took a deep breath and made his way to Buck's room. The ladies man was dressed, sitting in his wheelchair by the window. He didn't turn when Chris


"You ready to go, pard?" Chris tried to be upbeat and positive. When the brunette did turn his head, Chris was surprised to see a big grin on the man's face. Buck nodded. "Okay, let me get the paperwork and we'll be on our way."

He went back out and found the paperwork all done and waiting at the nurse's station. Papers in hand, he went back into the hospital room. He and the boys had taken all the potted plants and stuffed animals Buck had received as get-well gifts home the day before. Dr. Donaldson had also given him the prescriptions for Buck's medication the day before so he could have them filled and waiting when Buck got home. Everything was ready.

"Let's get out of here." Chris settled Buck's new Denver Broncos cap on his head and then grabbed the handles of the wheelchair and pushed his best friend out the door and down the hall. A nurse's aide met them down in the lobby and stayed with Buck while Chris brought the Ram around and then helped him situate Buck in the front seat. Chris patted Buck's leg and put the truck into drive. Pulling out of the parking lot, he thought he noted a look of fear on Buck's face but it was quickly replaced with a smile.

Before they had gone a mile, Buck's eyes started to droop and he was soon dozing as Chris made his way out of the city and onto the county roads. He awoke as Chris slowed down and turned into the long driveway that led to their home. The blond stopped halfway up the drive and turned to the man beside him.

"You ready for this, Buck?" The concern was real in Chris's voice and Buck took a minute to respond.

He knew this wasn't going to be easy but he was looking forward to being back in his home, his recliner, his bed. He wanted to eat dinner at the kitchen table. He wanted to watch TV with JD draped over his lap. He wanted to sit on the back deck and laugh with Chris at the antics of the boys and their dogs. He wanted his life back. He was ready. Finally, he turned to his friend and nodded just once, a determined look on his face. As long as Chris and the boys were there, he would beat this affliction. He stared straight ahead as Chris drove the rest of the way up to the house and parked in front of the carport.

Cautiously, Buck turned his head and came face to face with a long angled ramp made of new lumber. As Chris reached for the door handle, Buck grabbed at his arm, the fingertips digging into his friend's forearm. The blue eyes were staring straight at the ramp, a look of denial and rage set deep inside them. His breathing grew ragged and he fought to draw in air.

Chris caught on immediately. He could see it in Buck's eyes that he was overwhelmed at all the work done and the expense involved on his behalf. He gripped Buck's chin, bringing his face around so Buck had to meet his eyes. "It's only for a little while, okay? You'll be up walking in no time and we'll take it down, I promise!" He tried to smile, showing confidence he didn't feel inside. "You're too heavy for me to be lifting, Big Dog. Just a few weeks, really." He saw Buck begin to relax, that was until the big man spotted the new shed in the backyard. His face registered the question without his voicing it. Chris followed his line of sight and then returned to meet Buck's gaze. "Ezra got it. We had to move some furniture and it's stored in there for now."

As Buck shook his head in protest, Chris patiently explained. "You remember how 'unhappy' he was last time he had to have the Jag stored? This was his idea. After we put the furniture back in the house, he's going to use it to put the Jag up when he's on extended assignments. Remember, temporary. Now, shall we get this party started or what?"

Buck mouthed the word 'party' and Chris smiled broadly. "You didn't think you could come home without all the guys and ladies fussing over you, now did'ya?"

Buck swallowed his fear and put on his best smile, covering up the apprehension and pain. His chest hurt, his right arm throbbed, and the sunlight was making his head pound with every beat of his heart. Truthfully, he just wanted to go to his room and get in his bed and sleep for a long, long time. But that was not to be. Cautiously, he nodded at Chris and removed his hand from his best friend's arm. Chris opened the door of the truck and moved around to the back, removing the wheelchair from the bed of the Ram.

At the sound of the door slamming, the back door of the house opened and people poured out and onto the deck. JD and Vin ran down the ramp and plowed into Chris. They were laughing and smiling and full of energy. Chris set down the chair and knelt to hug both boys. His heart felt the weight of his doubt lift and he felt good about things for the first time in almost four weeks.

Vin pushed the wheelchair to the passenger side of the truck and JD bounced up and down beside him, waiting for Chris to open the door. Chris reached over the two boys and the chair and pulled the door open to reveal a smiling, happy-go-lucky Buck Wilmington.

"DA, WELCOME HOME!!!!" screamed a joyous JD. He clapped his hands and spun in circles. His joy was evident to everyone present and it was contagious.

Soon, everyone was milling around the truck, wishing Buck well and welcoming him home. Josiah helped Chris ease Buck out of the front seat and lifted him down into the wheelchair. Of course, both boys wanted to push the chair but Chris carefully pushed them aside and shook his head no. Taking the handles himself, he pushed the chair and his best friend up the ramp and through the sliding glass door and into the brightly decorated den.

"Welcome home, Buck," Inez cooed in his ear. She gave him a small kiss on the cheek and he turned his radiant smile in her direction.

He had secretly longed for her for a long, long time and now that she was here and apparently interested, he... Shit he couldn't do anything!

"Buck, it's good to see you home again. You look good." Evie Travis smiled down at him and he grinned back at her. It was very nice of her and his boss to come out to the ranch. He appreciated it and wished he could tell them exactly how happy he was to see them.

Orrin Travis patted him on the arm and smiled. "Good to have you back with us, Buck." The ladies man nodded.

"Let's get this party started!" Josiah turned on some music and the ladies started bringing out the food. Jason went to help with some of the heavier dishes and was shooed away by Gloria. Everyone began filling their plates and laughter filled the air. JD and Vin were as happy as Buck had ever seen them and he found himself laughing silently with the other adults at some of their antics.

Inez brought a plate of food over to Buck and helped him eat. He finished the whole plateful and Chris, who had been watching, grinned at his friend. Things were going better than he had anticipated. Maybe all would be well after all. He didn't regret one dollar spent or one nail hammered. He was just glad that Buck was home.

JD bounced over to where his Buck sat with the pretty Mexican woman. Standing on tiptoes, he placed a big wet kiss on Buck's cheek. "I missed you, Da. Now we're a family again, right?"

Buck smiled the special smile that JD brought out in him and nodded. He hooked his right arm around the boy's back and pulled him in for a hug. He kissed the top of the little brunette's head and then let go, watching the boy dance away from him.

"You are lucky to have them, Buck. They are delightful." Inez put her arm around his shoulders as she settled herself on the arm of his chair.

He reveled in the warmth of her and all of those around him. For the time being, he was whole.

Several hours went by with dancing, laughing, and story telling being done by all but one. Buck was having a ball though, as he sat and listened to all the BS being thrown around. As the party began to wind down, the injured agent began to feel the fatigue set in. He closed his eyes for a few seconds and felt an immediate presence by his side. He looked up to see the ex-Marine looking down at him with warm, caring eyes.

"Let's get you to bed. I think you could probably use a little nap, right?" He immediately wheeled the chair into the living room.

Or what had been the living room. Now it looked like a hospital room, complete with a hospital bed and tray table. The others piled in behind him and Buck didn't have time to turn accusing eyes on his old pal.

Setting the brakes, Jason easily lifted Buck onto the bed. He took Buck's shoes off and gently turned him so he could lie back, which he did gratefully. Jason tapped the man's arms lightly, waiting until he had Buck's attention. "If you need anything, just ring," he said, pointing out the now-clean cowbell that had migrated from the barn to be tied to the rail above his head. "JD's idea," Jason added, seeing Buck's grateful nod.

"Enough partying, huh?" Chris stated as he watched from the doorway.

Jason turned towards the intimidating blond. "Well, enough for me. I guessed Buck had had enough for a while, too." Turning back to the man in the bed, he said, "I'll be back tomorrow to give Chris here some pointers and help you get settled. Then Monday, we'll get started on your therapy. Vin came up with a great way for you to tell us what's on your mind. It's a magnet board with letters and numbers. You can spell out your words. I know it'll be slow at first, but it's a start. See you tomorrow, Buck. It was a great party, everyone. I'll see myself out. Around ten all right tomorrow?"

"Just fine, Jason. And thanks," he said, offering the younger man his hand. "In case I didn't tell you made all this possible, you and your friends. Buck and the boys thank you, too."

"Glad that I could help. Be back in the morning." With that, Jason was out the door.

Chris moved over to the bed and saw that Buck was already snoozing. He pulled a light blanket over him and then went back out to the den, taking all the guests with him.

When Buck awoke several hours later, the only ones still left were Ezra and Josiah. The table had been cleaned up and everything put away. Josiah lifted Buck back into his chair and wheeled him to the downstairs bathroom. It was immaculate. A metal bar had been installed on the wall beside the toilet and a low towel rack was beside the sink. He could see the metal bar and small stool in the tub. There was not a toy to be seen in the small room. Buck sighed. It was too clean.

"Let me help you get settled and I'll leave you alone for a few minutes. If you need one of us, just ring the bell there on the sink, okay?"

Josiah had no idea how Buck felt at that very moment. He didn't have a clue how his undoing Buck's sweat pants and lifting him onto the toilet made Buck seethe inside. It was degrading and shameful to the big man, but he put a grateful smile on his face and took care of business. True to his word, Josiah returned and got Buck settled back in his wheelchair.

They joined Chris and Ezra in the den where JD and Vin were sitting on the couch watching TV. Buck shook his head. The boys almost always sprawled out on the floor when the family gathered to watch TV or videos. This just wasn't right!

"I would be willing to bet that you are ecstatic to be back in your own home with all your things about you, Mr. Wilmington. I know I am always ready to return to the comfort of my own abode when I have been imprisoned in a hospital for any length of time." Ezra saluted Buck with a bottle of Sam Adams. He smiled warmly at his good friend and got a small smile in return. "I think that I am about done in for the day. The past two days of manual labor has put a strain on my endurance. Mr. Sanchez, may I offer you a ride home, sir?" He downed the rest of his beer and stood.

"I would be grateful, Ezra. Buck, enjoy being home. Chris, I'll come by Sunday afternoon to help with the barn. Boys, behave now." Josiah shook hands with Chris and then turned to follow the undercover specialist out.

"G'night Unca Ezra, Unca J'siah. It was a great party," JD and Vin chorused, running to hug both men before they left. They were hugged in return.

Chris shut the door behind the two men, locking it before he returned to the den. JD had climbed onto Buck's lap.

"JD! What did I tell you about leaving Buck alone! Get down now!" Chris hollered at the young boy and JD quickly responded, almost jumping off Buck.

"I'm sorry, Da. Did I hurt you?" The dark brown eyes filled with tears.

Buck frowned and then shook his head. His son shouldn't be afraid of climbing in his lap and Chris shouldn't have to yell at the boy. It was all wrong. He glared up at Chris, then tapped his good knee in invitation. JD didn't have to be asked twice, but when he climbed back up into his father's lap, he did so slowly and carefully.

Chris sighed as he watched Buck's expression closely for any sign of discomfort. JD settled back into the crook of his father's good arm and turned his attention to the TV. Buck's eyes brimmed with unshed tears as he leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on the top of the soft brunette head.

After the video was over, Vin suddenly jumped up and ran into the living room.

"Vin? What are you doing in there?" Chris called.

"Is it okay if I show Buck now?" Vin asked, coming out of the room with the alphabet board.

Chris looked over at his friend to gauge how tired he was. When Buck smiled and nodded, Chris waved the small blond over, taking JD off Buck's lap and holding him in his own.

Vin carried the board to Buck, putting it gently across the man's legs. Then he went to the boys' small desk and brought back a pad and pencil. He settled onto the couch next to Buck, leaning over the arm to get close to him. "See, we even went to Toys-R-Us and got extra letters for the big words. You move the letters from the edge to the middle and I write the words down." The excited child looked into the man's eyes and beamed at the acceptance he found there.

Buck turned his attention to the board, reaching out slowly with his left hand. He huffed in frustration as his cast bumped the board and almost knocked it off.

Chris reached out quickly and caught it, settling it back on Buck's lap. He kept a hand on it to steady it. "No big deal," he said with a shrug. "We'll get some Velcro later."

Buck nodded then went back to work. He focused his concentration as he moved letters into a crooked row, then looked up at Vin in anticipation.

JD watched as his older brother carefully copied the letters onto the pad. "What's it say?" he demanded impatiently.

Vin grinned and held the note up for Chris and JD to see - I LOVE YOU

JD jumped off Chris's lap and wrapped his arms around Buck's neck. "I love you too, Da."

As soon as JD let go, Buck motioned Vin to him. Vin stood in front of the wheelchair and leaned in, letting Buck wrap his arm around him and pulling him close. Then Buck turned his attention back to the board, moving the letters around. JD and Vin both looked on and grinned up at Chris when Buck was finished. Chris stood and moved behind the group to read the message. HUNGRY.

"Me too!" JD agreed quickly.

Chris the magnet board and set it on the coffee table. "Well, we got a fridge full of leftovers," he said, taking hold of the handles on Buck's wheelchair. "Let's go see what we want." The boys followed as he led the way.

After dinner, Chris settled Buck back in the den with the TV remote as he rounded the boys up for baths. The scoundrel was barely paying attention to what was on as he listened to the sounds of laughter and splashing coming from upstairs. The longer he sat, the darker his expression got. Finally the two pajama-clad boys came to say goodnight. Buck shook off the gloom long enough to offer the boys a smile and a hug, then Chris went upstairs with the boys. As Buck sat there alone in the den, his heart dropped as he could hear Chris reading 'The Cat in the Hat' to the boys. 'That's my job', he thought as a spark of anger coursed through him. Anger at whoever did this to him, anger at himself for not being able to do anything for himself, anger at Chris for taking his place, anger at the boys for letting him. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew the anger was irrational, but it felt good!

But by the time Chris came back downstairs, Buck's angry expression was gone, replaced by a look of desperation that Chris could read from across the room. Chris quickly crossed to his immobile friend. "What's wrong, Buck?"

He waved quickly toward the bathroom door, his eyes begging Chris to understand.

"I'm so sorry," Chris said, wheeling the man across the room. He gently pulled the man upright and helped him get settled, then stood in the doorway and turned to face out, giving Buck at least a little privacy. "I didn't realize I was gone that long."

When he was sure Buck was ready, he helped him back up into the wheelchair and pushed him back into the den. "I guess we're gonna have to tie a bell to your wheelchair, too," Chris teased, but Buck's only response was to turn and scowl up at him. "Sorry, pard. I know it's gonna be hard at first, but it will get better. I promise." He waited until the other man let out a sigh and his expression softened. "Now, you want to watch more TV, or are you ready for bed?"

'Bed', Buck mouthed with a grimace, adjusting the right arm in the sling.

"Long day, huh?" Chris smiled at the quick nod he got in response. "Okay," he agreed.

Wheeling Buck back into the living room, he helped him stand and step out of his sweats. Buck never was one to sleep in more that a t-shirt and underwear, so he was quickly ready for bed. Sitting Buck on the side of the bed, Chris handed him his pills and made sure he took them. He took the lidded cup and filled it with water, making sure it was within the ladies man's reach. "You need anything, you let me know," Chris said, pointing to the bell. "Anything, you hear me?" he said, waiting for Buck to nod in agreement before he helped him lay down and settle in comfortably. "Good night, Buck," Chris called softly from the doorway. He smiled as he received a small wave followed by a long yawn.

Buck listened as Chris went around the house, turning off lights and locking doors. He heard Chris climb the stairs and close the door to his room. Finally he was alone.

This was not what he had in mind when Chris said he was coming home today. He stared up at the ceiling, his brows knitting in frustration. How in the world did he ever think coming home meant coming home to his house and his own room and his own bed and some semblance of his regular routine? Little things, like giving the boys their baths or reading to them at bedtime, things that meant the world to him were now impossible. His mind drifted back to earlier in the day.

How long would his friends put up with him, knowing they had to help him eat, or keep taking him to the bathroom? His face burned in shame as he remembered Josiah and Chris having to help him onto the toilet. How long before they quit coming around, tired of helping him with every little thing?

How long before Vin and JD got tired of being told to keep their things out of his way? He couldn't help them with their homework, couldn't take them to McDonald's. He looked down at his brightly cast-encased arms and frowned. Hell, he couldn't even give them a decent hug!

And Chris - How long before Chris got tired of shouldering all the responsibility for not only him but both boys as well? Chris was really on his own now, with school and work and the ranch, and all Buck could do is lay there and be another burden to his oldest friend. He didn't even want to think how much money Chris must have spent to have the house modified for him.

It wasn't fair! It wasn't fair to Chris or the boys or his friends. He hated being like this. Why couldn't the damn doctors at least give him an idea how long it was going to take before it would get better?! He turned onto his side, wishing he could move the curtains aside and see the night sky. 'I really am pathetic!' he couldn't help thinking to himself. 'Why on earth does anyone want me around? I can't move, I can't talk...'

Then he remembered the glimpse he got of himself in the bathroom mirror. The cut above his eye was healing, but the scar still looked awful. The hair on the back of his head was still growing back, but it was patchy to say the least. With both of his arms in casts and the brace on his knee, he was clumsy and unbalanced and an accident waiting to happen. He couldn't imagine anyone wanting to go out in public with him, and he certainly didn't want to go anywhere yet.

Finally the tears he had been holding back began to run unchecked down his cheeks, spilling onto the pillow beneath him. His last thought before he finally succumbed to the exhaustion pulling him into oblivion was maybe Dr. Haverston was right, maybe everybody would be better off if he was in that nursing home.

+ + + + + + +

The next day, everyone slept in. Vin and JD had been so energized by Buck's coming home they had run out of gas. Chris, though rare, had also found he needed more than the usual six hours of sleep. When he did awaken, he stretched languidly and slowly began getting ready for the day.

As he came out of the bathroom, he came face to face with the alarm clock on his night stand. 8:17 it warned. Suddenly, Chris remembered the reason he had been so wrung out the night before. Buck! "Ah, shit!" he cursed and all but ran down the stairs. Upon entering the living room, he knew he was too late. The tall rogue was sitting on the side of the bed, his head down, a large wet stain on his shorts and on the sheet. "God, Buck, I'm so sorry. I swear, it won't happen again."

The dark blue eyes lifted to look forlornly at him, a mixture of self-loathing and fear clearly present. Buck had wet the bed about an hour before and he was mortified. He had tried to get out of bed, but he couldn't make his injured knee work without intense pain, besides which he had been warned to stay off of it until his next appointment with the surgeon.

"I didn't hear the bell, Buck. I guess I was just worn out from all that we've been doing the last few days. Forgive me?" Chris looked into the blue eyes and expected to see a pardon coming from his compassionate friend. Instead, he saw dread and resentment. Guilt weighed heavy on Chris as he softly said, "Let's get you cleaned up and fed. Jason said he'd be here today and I expect that he'll be early. How about I run a bath for you? The doctor said you could get the knee wet, just not your arms."

Buck sagged noticeably but he nodded. Chris assisted him into his wheelchair and pushed him into the bathroom.

While the water was running, Chris went up to Buck's bedroom and got together his clean clothes for the day. He stopped to check on the two boys, smiling as he saw that Vin was just beginning to stir. He hurried down the stairs and got there in time to shut off the water. He dipped a finger in the bath water, just like he did with the boys' bath, and then turned to Buck. He was taken aback by the look of utter despair on Buck's face.

"What's wrong, Pard? You don't want to take a bath? Dammit, Buck, I don't understand! Make me understand! I'm sorry this happened to you but... I'll take care of you, I won't give up on you so don't you dare give up on yourself. You got that Buck?! We need you! I could care less if you can talk. Hell, it'll give me a chance to make myself heard for once. It won't be long before you can walk and you can use your arms, just a matter of weeks. Then things will get back to normal, you'll see. Just don't give up, okay?" By this time, Chris was on his knees in front of Buck, his hands on the arms of the chair.

"Dad, is Buck all right?" The voice was soft but both men heard the seven-year-old. They turned to the door to see Vin standing in the open doorway, an expression of deep concern on his face.

Chris stood up, patting Buck on the good knee as he did. He quickly pulled himself together and smiled at the youngster. "Buck had an accident this morning and I'm just helping him into the bath, Cowboy. Everything's just fine. Why don't you go see if you can rouse JD and get dressed? As soon as I take care of Buck, I'll fix you some breakfast, okay."

Vin studied his father's face, then realizing that both men were not angry, he nodded and left to go get his the younger boy up.

Chris turned back to his best friend and watched as Buck raised both arms. He smiled grimly as he pulled Buck's t-shirt over his head. Chris couldn't help but think that while Buck was enduring the physical scars from the attack, there was still more than just physical healing left to do as a result of his own temper that night. He lifted Buck up until he was leaning against him and then Chris tugged the sweat pants down. He swiveled Buck to the edge of the tub and got him balanced. He removed the wet pants and, with Buck resting his arms on Chris's shoulders, he lifted Buck's legs up and over to sink in the warm water.

Buck sighed as the warmth crept into his pores.

Chris lowered the man all the way into the tub, placing towels on both sides for his arms to rest on. "You want JD's rubber ducky?" Receiving a smile, Chris loosened up. "You soak while I change the bed. I'll be back in just a few minutes, okay?"

Buck lazily nodded and then leaned back into the soothing hot water.

After breakfast, which the boys helped Buck eat, the day was uneventful. Buck, exhausted by the activities and emotional upheaval of the day before, slept off and on for most of the day. When he did awaken, he managed to hit the cowbell that hung on his bed, alerting Chris that he needed assistance.

Jason came out, and when Buck awakened from one of his naps, he showed Chris the proper way to lift Buck. Chris was amazed at how much easier it was on both of them. Jason also showed Chris the non-verbal tip-offs that were warning signals for some of Buck's needs. After being told the signs, Chris had to admit that he had witnessed them in Buck, but he'd had no idea what they meant. When Jason left shortly after lunch, Chris felt better about Buck's welfare.

Chris left Vin and JD inside when he went out to do chores. He trusted Vin to take care of both JD and Buck. JD had been warned to stay away from Buck's bed and when he came back to the house after an hour's worth of work, he was relieved to find Buck still asleep and the boys coloring on the floor in the den. He made his way into the kitchen and began supper for the four of them.

That evening, after a supper of fried chicken and French fries, which Buck could handle on his own, Chris got the boys ready for bed and then settled them in front of the TV. He wheeled Buck into the den and helped him get comfortable on the couch, each boy picking a side and cuddling up against him. They all watched 'Finding Nemo' for what seemed like the hundredth time. Before the movie was half over, both JD and Buck were sound asleep.

Chris got the boys into bed easy enough, then turned his attention to his big friend. He toyed with the idea of leaving him where he was, but quickly realized that wasn't an option yet. He managed to get Buck moved from the couch back into the wheelchair, then rolled him into his temporary bedroom. He quickly got Buck ready for bed, then went into the kitchen and got Buck's medications and a glass of water. "Here you go, Big Dog," he urged gently, handing over the pills.

Buck threw them into his mouth and took the glass, downing it in a quick gulp. He looked up at Chris, his eyes still half-mast with fatigue. He mouthed out 'thanks," and let Chris lay him back onto the pillows.

By the time Chris went around and secured the house for the night, he could already hear the gentle snores from the living room. As he stood in the doorway watching Buck sleep, he leaned his head against the frame and sighed. Was this really a good idea? Was he strong enough to manage the boys, his job, the ranch and his best friend?

His heart told him yes, without hesitation. It reminded him how many times Buck had been there for him, not just the black days after Sarah and Adam's deaths, but all the years before and all the years since. But in the back of his mind was the niggling doubt, telling him he wasn't strong enough before, and it was just a matter of time before Chris couldn't take the pressure again and found his way back into a bottle.

Even as he stood in silent debate, Buck began to thrash about as the nightmares came again. Chris quickly crossed the room and laid a gentle hand on his chest. "Shhh, it's all right," he whispered. "Everything's fine. You're safe." He watched as the midnight blue eyes flickered open, not focusing on anything, then closed again. He listened to the shuddering breath Buck took before unconsciously taking hold of Chris's hand and squeezing as tight as his injured hand had strength.

Chris remained where he was until he heard Buck's breathing even out, and once he was sure the ladies man was asleep again, he slowly pulled his hand away. A scowl crossed Chris's countenance as he couldn't help but think this wasn't really his friend, it was just a shell that looked like Buck Wilmington. His friend was strong and sure and independent. Could Chris deal with the physically weak, emotionally fragile, totally dependent person sleeping in that bed?

Just as quickly as the thought came, he shook it off. What was it he had told Jason the other day? He owed Buck, but in his heart he knew it was more than that. No matter what or how long it took, he silently vowed, they were a family and they were going to make this work.

+ + + + + + +

Sunday was spent quietly at home. Josiah came over after church with an armload of pizza, Ezra and Nathan soon followed. It wasn't quite the rambunctious afternoon they had typically spent in the past, but wheeling Buck out onto the deck to watch the boys running around after Elvis and Ringo seemed to put him in a much better mood. Nathan stayed close to the injured man while Josiah helped Chris around the barn and 'Uncle Ezra' was elected to join the boys in their marathon game of tag.


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