by LT and Niteowl

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


Six AM Monday, Chris was up and headed downstairs, getting Buck up and into the bathroom. Jason had told Chris that he would take care of Buck's bath when he got there, so Chris didn't bother filling the tub. At Buck's questioning glare, he explained that Jason would take care of bathing him. The blond wasn't sure how Buck was going to react to that news but he seemed to accept it graciously. Finishing in the bathroom, Chris got Buck settled in the kitchen and went to wake the boys.

They ate breakfast quietly for a change and Chris could tell that something was bothering both JD and Vin. He stacked the dishes in the sink for Gloria and told Buck he was going to get the boys dressed.

Once inside the room the two boys shared, Chris sat down on the bottom bunk and patted the bed on both sides. Vin sat down on Chris's right side and JD clamored up to sit on his left. "What's up, guys?"

Both boys took time to study their shoes before Vin quietly imparted, "We don't think we should go to school today."

"Oh. And why would that be?" Chris asked.

"Cause Buck might need us. He don't know Jason. What if Jason drops him or leaves him alone too long, what's Da gonna do then, huh, Chris?" JD replied solemnly.

Chris suppressed a grin, knowing that the two boys only had Buck's best interest at heart. "Well, I guess we'll have to rely on Mrs. Potter to take care of Buck and make sure that Jason does what he's supposed to do. You trust Mrs. Potter, don't you?"

"Yeah, we do but..." Vin started but stopped, not wanting to criticize one of his favorite adults.

"But what, Cowboy?" Chris was interested in what the hold up was with Gloria. He knew how much both Vin and JD loved the housekeeper.

"She's a woman!" JD supplied.

At that, Chris had to smile. "Well, JD, I have to agree with you on that. What's her being a woman got to do with you not trusting her?"

"Dad, she's old and not very strong! She can't lift Buck up if he falls!" Vin stated firmly and JD nodded his affirmation.

Chris took a deep breath and bit his bottom lip so he didn't make fun of the boys' concern. "Well, you two have a point there, but let me ask you something. Could you lift Buck if he fell?"

The two looked at each other around Chris, and together they shook their heads no.

"Believe me, boys, Mrs. Potter will keep a real close eye on Buck and Jason. She'll make sure that Jason does his job just like she makes sure that you two do your homework. She loves Buck almost as much as she loves the two of you. And I promise to call and check on things throughout the day, okay?" He watched as the two of them considered what he had to say and then they both smiled and hugged Chris.

"Okay, Dad. We'll go to school," Vin finally conceded.

"Yeah, Chris, but that Jason better behave if he knows what's good for him," JD chirped. "She can be pretty intimating."

"Intimating?" Chris repeated, not quite able to cover his confusion.

"Yeah, Dad, like Unca Ezra says you are," Vin answered. "He says it means scary and mean!"

Chris lost it and he laughed as the boys joined in. They all felt much better as they gathered together their things for school and work. They made their way down to the kitchen to find Jason already in the house, doing the dishes while telling Buck all they would be doing that day.

"Good timing, Jason. Boys, I think I hear the bus. Give Buck a kiss and be on your way."

JD walked up to the man he loved most in the world and put his arms around Buck's arm, as he couldn't reach his neck. Buck leaned over despite his still sore ribs and kissed the little boy on his cheek. "Have a good day, Da, I love you."

Buck beamed a smile at his son in return.

Vin placed a hand on Buck's arm. "You need anything before we go?" Buck tapped his cheek with his left hand and Vin smiled. He leaned in and kissed the man on his cheek. "Love ya, Buck."

Chris watched out the front door until he saw both boys safely board the bus. "Well, I guess I'll head on upstairs and get ready for work. You need anything first?" Chris directed at Jason.

The young ex-Marine moved over to stand next to Buck, resting his hand gently on Buck's shoulder. "Nope, we should be just fine. Anything I need, Buck can help me find it. Right?"

Buck looked up at Jason in confusion until he realized he was being included in the conversation like a normal person and not a helpless invalid. Then his expression changed to determination as he realized this was where he started back on the road to normal. He took a deep breath, then nodded. He looked back at Chris and pointed toward the stairs.

"What? You worried about me being late?" Chris teased. "That's okay, I have it on good authority the boss won't be in just yet."

Buck smiled back as Chris left the room.

By the time Chris had showered and dressed, Jason had Buck in the tub and had been gathering equipment and laying out the things he was going to need. As Chris tried to suppress a worried frown, Jason shook his head.

"Don't worry, Chris," he said. "All we're going to do today is get used to each other, and I'll give him kind of an idea of what's to come. Nothing too strenuous at first."

"That's fine," Chris agreed with a nod as he stepped into the bathroom doorway, glad to see the expression of contentment on his friend's face. "I'll see you tonight, pard. Don't be too rough on the boy his first day, okay?"

Buck opened his eyes long enough to wave at Chris.

"Gloria will be here around noon. If you need anything before then, the numbers are all by the kitchen phone," Chris said as he made his way to the door, gathering his jacket and holster. "The boys come home on the bus around four-thirty. I should be home around six."

"See you then," Jason said, shaking Chris's hand. "We'll be fine."

And so the family settled into a new routine. Monday through Friday, Chris got the boys up and ready for school. Jason came in before they left and helped Buck with his bath. First thing every morning, Jason had Buck working with the alphabet board. He would ask Buck how he was feeling or what he did the night before, then patiently wait while he spelled out the answer. He was also asking questions about Buck himself, what he liked and disliked, things that helped Jason get to know him. It didn't take Jason long to learn Buck's mental faculties were just fine, with the exception of the memories around the time of the attack.

They started working on the physical therapy, which was slow going at first. With both his arms in casts and one knee in a brace, there was only a limited amount he could do. But Jason came up with a routine that incorporated strengthening his manual dexterity and keeping his legs from getting weak.

By the time Gloria came in at noon and fixed lunch, Buck was ready for a nap. Yet as often as Jason told him it was normal to need the extra sleep to get his strength back, Buck still felt slightly self-conscious that he needed a nap like his five year-old son.

Afternoons were spent with more physical therapy, including as much time outside as the weather would permit. Buck insisted that Jason help him learn how to maneuver his wheelchair. Then a muscle-relaxing massage before the boys came home from school. Jason included them in Buck's 'therapy' by teaming himself and Vin against Buck and JD in a different game every afternoon. Then Chris would come home in the early evening and Jason would head home.

Even while Jason wasn't there, Chris would catch Buck working on his exercises. Several times he had to practically order Buck to take a break and stop trying so hard before he hurt himself, even though he could understand only too well why Buck was pushing himself so hard. It almost broke Chris's heart every time he could see the frustration on Buck's face when he would try to speak out of habit, only to realize nothing was coming out.

Weekends were spent at the ranch with family and friends. Even the mention of leaving the ranch except for his doctor's appointments sent Buck in one of two directions: sheer panic or deep depression. The boys insisted that they didn't mind, that they'd rather be home with their Buck. But the gentle rogue knew it wasn't fair to them and had even tried to convince the boys to go town with one or the other of their uncles, but so far they had been just as stubborn as Buck himself.

As Buck continued to improve and get stronger, there were good days and bad along the way. As soon as Jason started working on improving the strength in his hands, Buck began practicing writing with markers and a pad. It didn't take very long before he could write legibly enough left-handed for the adults to read. But with the boys, he continued to use the magnetic board, enjoying the smiles of satisfaction when Chris or one of their uncles was able to read the words the boys had written for Buck.

With Jason's approval, Gloria also began teaching him how to use sign language, something she had learned when one of her nieces was born deaf. Starting with just the basic alphabet until the casts came off, even little JD got in on the lessons. And Gloria enjoyed the quiet one-on-one time it afforded her with Buck, giving her time to evaluate his moods without seeming to be worrying.

Once the adults got used to the new 'quiet' Buck, he often found himself left out of their discussions. Not that they meant to ignore him or hurt his feelings, it just became habit. It was one thing when he wasn't in the room, but it really bothered him if he was sitting right there. His good foot would begin tapping in irritation as he sat there in silence until somebody, usually Chris, would notice and grin sheepishly or shrug in apology and include him in the conversations with questions or comments he could answer with a nod or a shake of his head.

One of the first days Buck wasn't so tired after lunch and didn't take a nap, he had stayed in the kitchen with Gloria, watching her work. Jason had gotten into the habit of taking a walk while Buck slept. While Gloria cleaned up the kitchen, the young ex-Marine bid the housekeeper good bye and took off out the door. Gloria finished wiping down the counters and turned to go take care of the laundry. She moved away from Buck, her mind on stripping the beds.

As she left the room, Buck found himself alone. Frustrated and just plain pissed off, Buck sat impatiently waiting for one of his "guardians" to return. The longer he sat and stewed, the worse the frustration grew. 'Well damn them both,' he thought and he began to make his way slowly toward the den. If they didn't want to talk to him, he would find someone who would. Jason showed him where they had modified the desk so that he could reach the computer and get on the Internet to send messages back and forth with the guys at the office. He didn't like to bother them at work, but today he wanted someone to acknowledge that he was still alive and kicking.

Both arms were still encased, the strength in his once well muscled forearms almost gone, and so the going was slow and exasperating. Buck dug down deep and kept going, bound and determined to prove to both Jason and Gloria that he didn't need them.

At long last, he made it to the den. Feeling triumphant, he began to wheel the chair up to the desk. However, the wheelchair and his casted arms didn't fit up against the desk. No matter how he tried, he couldn't get the chair situated where he could turn on the blasted machine. 'Okay, just get yourself into the desk chair,' he declared to himself. He managed to secure the wheel locks and began to push himself up. His arms ached fiercely as he put all of his weight on them. At last, he got his good leg to take some of the strain off of his arms and he breathed a sigh of relief. Ever so slowly, he moved the bad leg out of the footrest and onto the floor. Taking a deep breath, he stood.

Elated, he began to take the step that would place him in front of the desk chair. It was the shifting of his body to sit down that became his downfall. His bad knee still wasn't strong enough to support him and as soon as he put a little of his weight on it to pivot into the chair, it collapsed on him. He crashed hard to the tiled floor, his arms and legs tangled in the wheels of the office chair plus the wheelchair. He couldn't get back up, although he struggled to do so for a good ten minutes. Ultimately, he lost it. Fumbling, he reached up and found the glass paperweight within reach. Grasping it the best he could with his left hand, he threw it against the wall. The glass shattered and rained flesh-cutting shards all over the desk and floor, cutting Buck's face and leg.

Gloria, having just put her last load of laundry into the machine, came into the kitchen just in time to hear the glass breaking. She gasped, her hand moving to her mouth, as she realized that Buck was no longer in the kitchen where she had left him, only then realizing it had been twenty minutes ago. As quick as her legs could carry her, she ran to the den where the noise had emanated from. She stopped dead in her tracks at the pitiful sight that greeted her. Moving quickly, she ran to the sliding door, threw it open and shouted for Jason. Then she returned and knelt beside Buck, reaching over him to pick up several of the larger pieces of the paperweight. As she patted his good knee, she noticed the dark scowl on Buck's face. "I am so sorry, Buck. Jason will be here in just a second."

As if on cue, the younger man came running into the room. "Are you okay?" he asked breathlessly, taking in the room in a glance. Buck's angry glower and tightly pressed lips were all the answer he was going to get.

"It's my fault," Gloria said, her face reddening in guilt. "I got busy doing my regular chores and I was gone longer than I meant to be." Her eyes began filling with tears and her lip was trembling as she fought to maintain her composure. "I'll be right back," she said, as she hurried out of the room.

"Come on," Jason said, "let's get you up." As he carefully moved the furniture away from the fallen man, he couldn't help but shake his head with a small smile. "Chris warned me you had a temper. But good grief..." Jason lifted him upright and then got him back up into his chair. "You're putting on some weight," Jason teased, huffing in exaggeration. "Must be all that good food Mrs. Potter fixes," he said with a gentle admonishing tone.

Buck's expression began to soften as he turned his attention to the doorway Gloria had disappeared into. Finally the kind woman returned, a clean washcloth and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide in her hands. Her eyes were red-rimmed and her hand was a little shaky as she bent down to dab at the cuts on his face. "I'm sorry, Buck. I didn't mean to..." Before she could finish her sentence, a hand took hold of hers and squeezed gently.

Buck caught her gaze with his own and brought their hands up to her face, placing a finger on her lips in a shushing gesture. He smiled brightly and pulled her close until her face was close enough to his to plant a gentle kiss on her cheek. Then he gently released her hand with a wink, pointing to the small trails of blood on his good leg. Gloria smiled back as she cleaned up the small cuts.

"Better get this cleaned up before the boys get home," Jason announced, heading for the kitchen.

By the time he came back with the broom and dustpan, Gloria had just about finished her ministrations. "Here, let me do that," she said, taking the broom from Jason's hand. "Why don't you take Buck outside and show him where you go every afternoon," she suggested. "It's too nice a day to be cooped up inside."

As Jason took hold of the handles, Buck turned to Gloria and signed 'O-K'. She gave him a nod and a smile. Once they were outside, she sighed and turned her attention to the glass on the floor.

A few days later the knee brace was finally taken off. But even though his strength was improving, the doctors wanted to make sure both arms were completely healed before they removed the casts. The orthopedic surgeon did promise to look at taking the cast off his left arm at his next regular visit in two weeks, giving Buck something to look forward to.

Once the brace was off, Jason really began working with Buck to get the strength back in his legs. By Friday, he was ready to show the boys his surprise. The boys were watching cartoons when Jason rolled him into the den and moved back, staying close enough in case he was needed. Swatting Chris's helping hands aside, Buck stood on wobbly legs and made his way from the wheelchair to the couch. The boys held their breath until he was settled safely on the couch, then they both jumped up, clapping and shouting. JD danced around before he climbed back up on the couch next to his father and planted a kiss on his cheek. Gloria came out of the kitchen to see what all the noise was about and ran over to give Buck a hug.

Buck looked sheepishly up at Chris, not realizing he was going to cause so much commotion. He felt as if he was being celebrated like a baby taking his first steps. As elated as he was, he was just as frustrated that the healing was taking so long.

Seeing the look Buck was trying to disguise behind the smile, it was Chris's turn to use the notepad. 'It will get better, I promise,' he quickly wrote, holding it up behind the boys for Buck to see.

"When?" Buck mouthed.

"Soon," Chris replied silently with a firm nod.

+ + + + + + +

Jason was working harder than ever with Buck to get him back on his feet. Until his strength was rebuilt, the ladies man was still confined to the wheelchair most of the time. His afternoon naps became shorter in duration, and more often than not Buck was allowed to nap on the couch in the den, where he was closer to his family and friends.

While the boys went to school everyday, trusting Buck's care to Mrs. Potter and Jason, they were reluctant to leave him on the weekends, doing their best to 'help' him and entertain him. Chris watched for the point when their attention was overwhelming his best friend and he would find some chore or activity that he needed the boys' help with outside. He would meet Buck's grateful smile with a nod and whisk them out of the room.

On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, while Chris took the boys out for a short ride, Buck got comfortable on the couch to watch the NASCAR race on TV. Somewhere about halfway through the race, he dozed off. He was startled awake by the ringing of the phone that Chris had left sitting on the end table next to the couch. Still half-asleep, Buck reached for the phone out of habit and hit the 'talk' button.

"Mister Larabee?" came Ezra's voice from the receiver.

Buck's mouth opened to reply, but nothing came out. He worked his jaw back and forth in frustration.

"Mister Larabee, are you there?" Ezra asked. Buck could hear the concern mounting in the team's undercover agent's voice. "Chris? What's going on?"

Buck looked down at the phone in exasperation, his face suddenly clouding over. He hurled the phone across the room with as much force as he could muster. He smiled in grim satisfaction as it shattered, plastic and electrical components flying everywhere.

A few minutes later, Chris came running in the back door. "Buck!" he called out. "Are you okay?" He slowed as he came into the den, seeing the angry look on the other man's face. When Buck refused to look up from the TV, Chris stood in front of him, blocking Buck's view. Finally the dark-haired man looked up. "Are you all right?" Chris repeated.

Buck sighed, finally nodding. He held his hand up to Chris and signed, "How?"

"Ezra called my cell," Chris explained. "Said the last thing he heard was a loud crash before the phone went dead." He followed Buck's guilty gaze to the pieces of the phone. Chris tried his best to hide the smile that was trying to find it's way onto his lips as he sat next to his dejected friend. "Do you have any idea how many times I've wanted to do that? Especially when Ezra's on the other end of the line?"

Buck grinned back at Chris, shaking his head sheepishly.

Chris put a gentle hand on Buck's shoulder. "We all have bad days, Buck. You're allowed, too," he said quietly before standing. "I better go get the boys before they think I'm going to leave them outside all night."

+ + + + + + +

As the days progressed and Buck's strength returned, he was able to maneuver his wheelchair on his own around the house and even outside in the yard. The casts on both arms made him feel clumsy and slow, but he was learning to work with them. The boys loved having him close to them, so Chris started to find ways to include him in chores and activities, giving Buck a sense of accomplishment and contributing.

Jason then began working with Buck to learn how to use a walker around the house. It was slow going at first, but it was less of a production for Buck to get around the house with the walker as opposed to the wheelchair. And anything Jason could do to get his patient up and mobile helped boost Buck's strength and confidence.

The days were growing longer as spring moved toward summer. It wasn't that he minded taking on the lion's share of the workload, but there were days when Chris thought he'd never get caught up. After a quiet talk with Josiah about the difference between gratitude and foolish pride, he began to graciously accept the help offered by the rest of his own team, along with some of the other ATF team members.

While things ran smoothly from Monday through Friday, their weekend adventures began to take their toll on Chris, making him wonder if he had done the right thing keeping Buck home. While he knew the boys would never agree to let Buck stay anywhere else but home now, what worried Chris every time he let his guard down that it would end up with Buck in trouble.

The small creek that ran through his property on the far side of the meadow had been clogged by debris after several severe thunderstorms. One of their neighbors had called during the week to let Chris know the water wasn't reaching the neighbor's property, putting the watering hole on the neighbor's property in danger of drying up. Chris had promised the man he would take care of it. So on a bright Saturday after lunch, Chris took the boys and headed down to the creek.

Buck woke up from his nap to find the house strangely quiet. After getting himself up from the recliner, he used the walker to make his way to the bathroom and splashed some water on his face. He wandered around the house from room to room, stopping in the kitchen just long enough to get a quick drink, looking for some clue to his family's whereabouts. Finally coming back to where he started, he found the note on the end table next to the recliner. 'Gone to clean out the creek. - Took the boys with me. - Be back before dark.'

Buck's eyes brightened as an idea formed. Using the walker, he limped his way into his room and changed his clothes as quickly as he could. Settling into his wheelchair, he headed for the back door. He made his way down the ramp and began working his way across the meadow. The farther Buck got from the house, the bigger the grin on his face was.

But then as he came to the end of the meadow and got closer to the creek, the ground suddenly got rockier. The grin slowly faded as Buck remembered just how uneven the terrain was farther away from the house. But he stubbornly refused to turn around and go back. The strain on his arms quickly became almost unbearable as he used what strength he had to control his speed and direction. He was beginning to think he was going to make it when his luck ran out.

Before he could stop himself, he was suddenly heading downhill faster than he could control his wheelchair. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally came to a jarring stop, pitched face first onto the ground. With the casts keeping him off balance, Buck couldn't control his downward tumble. He continued to roll downhill, finally coming to a stop. He used his elbows to lever himself up into a sitting position. He sat swaying as a wave of dizziness hit him before falling back and lying motionless at the bottom of the hill.

Chris was walking back with the boys, carefully carrying the ax he had been using on the brush that had been clogging the creek's natural flow. He was happy with the progress he'd made and the water was once again flowing freely. Vin and JD were walking quietly in front of him, their usual endless energy almost spent having run circles around him while he worked.

When JD began tossing pebbles down the hillside, Vin slowed down to walk next to his father. JD was tossing the small rocks down the hill and watching as they rolled to a stop before picking up another stone. As the boy threw another pebble, Chris could hear the distinctive sound of rock hitting metal. Chris quickened his steps to reach JD just as something at the bottom of the hill caught the smaller boy's attention.

"DA!" JD suddenly shrieked.

Chris reached out just in time to grab the small boy and keep him from careening down the hill. He followed JD's desperately pointing finger to see the overturned wheelchair, and Buck's still form beyond it. He took a gentle but firm hold of JD's chin as he knelt down in front of the boys. "Stay here with Vin," Chris said, looking over at the older boy and meeting his worried gaze. "Vin, take care of JD."

Vin nodded and moved closer to his younger brother, putting an arm over his shoulder and gently moving him into a sitting position.

Chris gingerly picked his way down the hillside, trying not to lose his balance. He came to a sliding stop next to his best friend, releasing a quick sigh of relief at the sight of Buck's chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm. He reached out a hand and gently tapped Buck's still face. "Buck," he called quietly. "Hey, wake up." He frowned at the lack of response.

"Dad?" Vin called from above. "Is Buck okay?"

"He's okay," Chris quickly replied, glancing up at the boys. "I need you guys to wait for me up there." While he took his cell phone out of his jacket pocket and dialed 9-1-1, he kept gently admonishing the unconscious man. "Come on, Big Dog. I need you to wake up now." After giving the Dispatcher their location and situation, he then placed a call to Josiah.

While he waited, Chris gave Buck a quick once over. With the arms in casts, he was pretty sure they were okay. Neither one of his legs seemed to be broken, even the still-healing knee wasn't showing any signs of swelling or further injury. He wasn't so sure about the ribs, though. Not wanting to move him and take the chance on injuring him further, Chris moved around to the other side of his dark-haired friend. "It's a good thing you're so hard-headed," Chris whispered, shaking his head in exasperation as he found blood trickling at Buck's hairline. "Vin, do you still have my bandanna?" he called up the hill.

Vin pulled the brightly colored cloth out of his back pocket and held it up. "Yes sir," he shouted back.

"Okay, I need you to bring it down here," Chris said. "You and JD come on down, and be careful." He watched the boys make their way down the hillside to join him.

"Da," JD whispered, reaching out his small hand.

"JD," Chris said, pulling JD into his lap. "Your Da's got a bump on his head and he's still asleep. I need you to sit right here and hold his hand until the ambulance gets here, okay?"

The dark-haired child looked into Chris's eyes and nodded, his little chin quivering as he tried his best not to cry. Chris sat JD down next to Buck and moved the casted arm to rest across JD's lap. He took the bandanna from Vin's outstretched hand and pressed it against the shallow cut.

"Can I help, Dad?" Vin asked.

Chris took a deep breath before he replied. "I do need you to do something. Can you be really brave?"

"Yes sir," Vin answered with a nod.

"I need you to go back up to the top of the hill and run back to the house. Wait there for Uncle Josiah," Chris said. "When the ambulance gets here, I need you to show them where we are."

"Does Da have to go back to the hospital?" JD asked fearfully.

"I think so, JD," Chris replied, patting the boy's shoulder. "But it's okay. They'll help him get all better again."

JD frowned, but if he had anything to say he was keeping it to himself as he bowed his head and intertwined his fingers with Buck's tightly.

Chris reached out and rubbed the older boy's arm. "Can you do that for me, Vin?"

Vin met his father's gaze and stood. "Yes sir."

"Good boy," Chris said, glad to see the determined look in Vin's eyes. "Get going." Chris watched with pride as Vin scrambled to the top of the hillside and disappeared from sight.

Even while Vin was dashing across the meadow, Josiah was pulling into the driveway. He came through the house and out to the back deck in time to see Vin as a small dark spot in the distance, growing larger as he got closer. By the time the panting boy was climbing through the corral slats, Josiah could hear the wail of the siren as the ambulance pulled into the drive.

"Vin!" Josiah boomed. "Stay where you are, we'll be right there!" He saw the boy look up and nod, using his arm to brace himself on the corral as he tried to catch his breath. The gray-haired man then went back into the house and met the paramedics as they climbed onto the front porch and were about to knock on the door.

The group made their way to the corral and the waiting Vin. After a quick conversation, the medics ran back to the bus to get the stretcher. They quickly piled their gear onto it and rolled it along behind Josiah, who was carrying the blond child as he pointed the way.

Once the small cut on his head had stopped bleeding, Chris left Buck and JD just long enough to dip the bandanna in the cool water of the creek. He rinsed the blood out and made his way quickly back to his friend's side. As he used the bandanna to wipe some of the dirt off Buck's face, the unconscious man began to stir.

"Da?" JD whispered, bending close to his father's ear.

Chris watched while Buck's eyelids fluttered and finally opened. Chris met Buck's confused frown with a relieved smile. "Hey," Chris said quietly. "What are you doing out here?"

Buck raised his head up and looked around before a wave of lightheadedness had him closing his eyes and lying back down on the ground.

"Da, are you okay?" JD asked tentatively.

Buck opened his eyes again and turned toward the child, offering him a reassuring smile before giving JD's hand a gentle squeeze. Then he looked up at Chris and offered an embarrassed shrug. He used his free hand to slowly sign to Chris.

"You wanted to help?" Chris repeated, rolling his eyes and letting out a relieved sigh. Then he looked down with as stern an expression as he could muster. "When we get back from the hospital, you and I are going to have to have a long talk..."

Before Chris could finish, Buck was struggling to sit up, shaking his head frantically. 'NO HOSPITAL' he signed emphatically. He pulled his other hand from JD's grasp and knocked Chris's hand away as he placed it on Buck's chest in gentle restraint, fighting to get into a sitting position.

"Buck, knock it off," Chris said sharply. "You're scaring JD."

Buck turned quickly to his dark-haired child, seeing the boy's frightened expression, wide eyes and trembling chin. He stopped straining and let Chris ease him back down to the ground, then he opened his arms in invitation and JD quickly scrambled into his father's embrace. Buck nestled his chin on top of JD's head, then lowered his head and placed a quick kiss on top of the child's head. JD responded by looking up into his father's eyes and beaming. 'Love you, Little Bit,' Buck mouthed silently.

"I love you too, Da," he replied quietly.

Even as Chris relaxed and watched the exchange, he suddenly looked up the hill in reaction to sound of his name being called.

"Chris!" he heard the echo of Vin and Josiah's voices.

"Down here!" he called back.

In a matter of seconds, the small group became visible at the crest of the hill. The foursome carefully made their way down to the bottom of the slope. Chris gently picked JD up and handed him to Josiah, who held him on his hip even as Vin went to stand close to Chris, his bright blue eyes glued to the activity surrounding Buck.

Even as the paramedics worked on Buck, he was responding to their questions with a short shake or nod of his head. Despite his best effort, as soon as one of the medics touched his torso he just couldn't help but react in pain as the man brushed a hand against his ribcage. The older of the two medics looked at Buck then up at Chris. "Those ribs are probably bruised pretty good, but I don't think anything's broke. We really ought to take him in for x-rays to be sure."

Buck started to shake his head in protest until his gaze met JD's worried hazel eyes, tears silently running down his cheeks. He nodded reluctantly, letting the paramedics move him onto the stretcher.

JD cried out in alarm when the younger of the medics started to put the cervical collar on Buck.

The paramedic paused long enough to smile up at the child. "It's okay," he said reassuringly. "Everybody that rides in the ambulance has to wear one. You want to help?"

JD looked at Josiah first, who nodded with a smile. When JD nodded back, Josiah quickly set the squirming child down. He approached Buck and the medics slowly, moving in close when the younger medic guided JD to Buck's side.

"See this strap?" the medic asked, holding the end of one of the Velcro strips. "Can you pull it over to that side and make it stick real good? But not too tight, okay?"

JD looked down at Buck, who gave him a wink of encouragement, before he very carefully leaned over and laid the strap across the collar to where it stuck immediately.

"Good job, kid," the medic said seriously, patting JD on the back. Buck reached up and gently ran a thumb across JD's cheek, wiping a stray tear away. Then each of the men took a corner of the stretcher and they made their way slowly up the hill. Vin and JD followed closely behind, JD gripping Vin's hand tightly. Once they were on reasonably flat ground, the medics put the wheels down and tried pushing the stretcher. But even with the big wheels and modern design, it was still too rough a ride and they went back to carrying Buck across the meadow. Buck just closed his eyes and stoically endured the jostling ride, an occasional hiss of pain escaping his tightly closed lips. Finally they reached the house, where Buck was quickly loaded into the ambulance. Chris was allowed to ride with them, while Josiah agreed to bring the boys.

All the way to the hospital, Chris frowned as Buck kept his face turned to the wall and away from him. When he couldn't stand it any longer, he gently shook Buck's shoulder. "Hey Buck, what's wrong?" At first he thought Buck was going to pretend to be asleep and ignore him, but the injured man finally turned to his friend. Buck's expression was more troubled than anything else, and Chris could tell something was really bothering him. "What's up?" he asked.

'Sorry' Buck signed with the hand that wasn't attached to the IV.

"Sorry for what?" Chris asked, his eyebrows knit in confusion.

Buck sighed in frustration, then waved both arms in an all-encompassing circle. But before Chris could offer any words of reassurance, they arrived at the ER and once again began the now-familiar routine of hurry up and wait.

By the time Josiah arrived with the boys, Nathan and Raine were already there. Josiah had called Nathan on his way to the hospital. He also called Ezra, but had to leave a message on his answering machine when the Southerner didn't answer. When Josiah walked through the big double doors with a boy clinging to each hand, Raine hurried to meet them and assure the boys that Buck was just fine. She offered to take the boys to the cafeteria for a cup of hot chocolate while Josiah went in with the others. They reluctantly traded Josiah's big callused hands for Raine's dainty ones as she let the boys lead her to the elevator.

Buck had already been looked over by the ER doctor and sent to radiology, where x-rays had been taken. Now they were waiting for the doctor to come back and give his assessment of Buck's condition. When Josiah pulled aside the curtain, Chris and Nathan both made shushing signs to let him know Buck had fallen asleep. He was curled up on his side, his friends gathering behind him in an attempt to allow him to rest peacefully.

Josiah joined the other two, watching the steady 'blip' of the Pulse-Ox monitor, the only device Buck was hooked up to this time. Josiah smiled at the idea that he wasn't hurt so bad that he needed anything more intensive. "How is he?" Josiah asked quietly.

"Doctor said he should be fine in a couple of days," Nathan replied. "The head injury is a simple laceration and they closed it with liquid skin and a butterfly bandage. He wants Buck to go easy on the therapy for about a week and give the ribs a chance to heal."

"Yeah right," Chris muttered under his breath.

"Chris?" Josiah asked, not really hearing what the other man had said. But one good look and Josiah suddenly noticed a subtle change. All these weeks since Buck's return home, Chris had been the model of patience and perseverance. Tonight the frayed edges were beginning to show.

"How are the boys?" Chris countered, trying to deflect the ex-preacher's concern.

"Really shook up," Josiah replied honestly. "Vin didn't say two words all the way in to town, and JD cried the whole time I was talking to Nathan."

"Me?" Nathan asked in surprise. "Why?"

"Well, he's got it in his head that they're going to keep Buck for a long time again," Josiah replied. "All he kept saying was he doesn't want Buck to go away and he doesn't want to live with Uncle Nathan again. No offense intended."

"None taken," Nathan assured the kind ex-preacher. "Poor little guy's been through so much lately. I'll be surprised if he ever wants to come back to our house again."

Josiah couldn't help a sad smile as he remembered the sight earlier of the boys leading Raine around. "Boys that young shouldn't be so familiar with a place like a hospital. Vin knows it like the back of his hand."

"It's just not fair," Nathan agreed.

"Nobody said life was fair," Chris finally spoke up, his voice a little sharper than he meant it to be. "We just love them and do the best we can for them, under whatever circumstances come along."

"How about you, Chris?" Josiah finally pinned his friend with an unwavering gaze. "How are you doing?"

"Oh, just fine," Chris shot back, cutting himself off when he realized he'd raised his voice. Then he lowered voice but met Josiah's eyes evenly. "What am I doing wrong here, Josiah? He's working so hard to get back on his feet and put his life back together, and just about the time I start to think it's going to be okay, he goes and pulls a stunt like this! I don't know how much more of this I can handle. And if I can't take it anymore, how can I expect those two little boys?"

"Chris?" Nathan responded in surprise. "You're not really reconsidering having him at the ranch, are you?"

"No," Chris replied quickly. "Of course not, he belongs right where he's at. But I can't watch him twenty-four hours a day." Chris took a quick breath and exhaled slowly. "Hell, I have to figure something out before he ends up being the death of me."

Josiah offered him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. "Why don't you go see the boys for a minute?"

Chris nodded and moved past the big man. "Sounds like a good idea."

"If you don't mind, I'll go see what's keeping the doctor," Nathan said, moving toward the door with Chris.

"Go ahead," Josiah with a nod of his head. "I'll stay here with Buck and have you paged when the doctor comes back."

Chris turned in the doorway and said, "Thanks, Josiah, for everything you did today."

"Anytime, boss," Josiah replied as he balanced on the stool and picked up a magazine discarded by an earlier occupant of the cubicle. As he turned his attention to the words and pictures on the pages, he didn't notice the shoulders shaking slightly under the sheet as silent tears ran down onto Buck's pillow.

Less than half an hour later Nathan came back with the doctor, almost the same time Chris made his way back to the ER. After rousing the 'sleeping' Buck, the doctor confirmed what Nathan had said earlier. The x-rays showed no broken ribs and no skull fracture from Buck's spill. He was given a mild painkiller for the soreness, along with strict instructions to go easy on physical activity for a few days.

Chris watched with concern as Buck nodded at all the right places, but he could tell the rogue wasn't really listening, just going through the motions. When the release papers finally came, Nathan went down to the cafeteria to gather Raine and the boys, while Josiah helped Chris get Buck into the Ram once the orderly wheeled him out.

"You ready to go home?" Chris asked, as he clicked the seat belt into place.

Buck nodded distractedly, closing his eyes to avoid meeting Chris' concerned look.

"I guess I'm going to have to buy you a helmet!" Chris said teasingly, brushing a strand of hair away from the bandage on Buck's head.

Buck's eyes widened and Chris could see the hurt in his friend's eyes before he brushed Chris's hand away and signed, 'I'm not a baby' before he bowed his head away from the penetrating green eyes he knew so well. He didn't want Chris to know he'd heard every word they'd said in the ER. He needed time to think, time to come up with a plan of his own before he lost everything he held dear.

"It was just a joke, Buck," Chris said quickly. "I'm sorry, okay?" Before he could get Buck to acknowledge his apology, the doors opened and the boys spilled out, running toward the truck. They stopped dutifully at the curb and waited for Nathan and Raine to walk them across the driveway. While Vin ran to Chris and waited for his father to open the back door, JD climbed into the open front door and stood on the floorboard in front of his own father.

"Are you all better, Da?" JD asked, staring up into his father's cloudy blue eyes. "What's the matter? Does you hurt?"

Buck did his best to put on a brave smile as he shook his head and ruffled the boy's hair gently. 'Tired' he signed.

"Me too," JD nodded, stifling a yawn. He yelped as he was suddenly grabbed and whisked outside.

Josiah swung him high in the air and then placed him in his car seat, buckling him in. After JD was secured, Josiah paused at the open door. "Good night, Brother Buck. You listen to the doctor and take it easy for a couple of days, okay?"

Buck steeled himself to meet Josiah's eyes and nodded.

"Call us if you need anything," Raine offered.

Then Chris started the engine and put the truck in gear, taking his family home for the night. Long before Chris pulled off the highway and onto the long driveway leading to the ranch, he was the only occupant in the Ram still awake. It was testimony to just how exhausted everyone was that no one woke up when he brought the truck to a gentle stop in the carport.

First making sure Buck hadn't stirred, Chris got out and gently lifted Vin out of his booster seat, carrying him upstairs to the boys' bedroom. Then he went back for JD, laying the dark-haired child in bed with Vin. Finally Chris made his way back to the truck and approached the passenger side door. He quietly opened the door and unbuckled the seat belt. Reaching around Buck, he carefully maneuvered the big man's legs to the open door. "Buck," he called softly. "I need a little help here."

Buck's eyes opened slowly, groggily focusing on Chris's face.

"We're home," Chris explained. "I need to get you inside."

Buck nodded and compliantly shifted his weight around toward his friend.

Chris slipped an arm around the other man and helped him climb out of the truck. "We're going to have to do this the old-fashioned way," Chris said, grunting as he took the other man's weight, remembering the wheelchair had been forgotten and left out beyond the meadow. "It's been a long time since one of us had to help the other get home," Chris said with a smile. "Seems to me, most of the time we did this it was the other way around."

Buck looked over at Chris and nodded, a tired smile playing on his lips.

Slowly, Chris managed to get them both up the ramp and into the house. He got Buck settled into a sitting position on the bed, handing him his pajamas before he went to take care of the boys. It took a few minutes to get both boys undressed and into their pajamas, then tucked gently into their own beds. By the time he came back downstairs, Chris could hear Buck's gentle snoring coming from his room. Chris couldn't help but smile at the sight when he walked in and found Buck sprawled out on his back where he fell, t-shirt still in his hand. Chris gently swung the sleeping man's legs onto the bed, carefully removed his shoes and got him into a more comfortable position before pulling the light blanket over his friend. He blew a long breath out as he turned off the lights and headed up to his own room.

The next morning dawned gray and dreary, matching the mood inside the house. Not even JD could coax Buck into coming out of his room. Every time someone tried, Buck was either sleeping, pretending to be asleep whenever Chris went in or he signed he was tired. Finally Chris took the boys with him when he went to retrieve Buck's forgotten wheelchair. And if things weren't bad enough, in the middle of the afternoon Chris received a cryptic phone call from Jason, saying the young man needed to come out and see them right away.

By the time Jason arrived, Chris was pacing, Buck was still hiding in his room and both boys were fretting, subconsciously picking up on the tension from the grownups.

"Chris," Jason greeted when Larabee came to the door and let him in. "I need to talk to you."

"Come on in," Chris replied, ushering him inside.

"Is there somewhere we could talk in private?" Jason asked, seeing the boys looking at him over the top of the couch.

"How about the kitchen?" Chris suggested, ruffling both boys' hair as he walked past. They both frowned as they turned back around and plopped down on the couch cushions.

Once the door had swung shut, Jason turned to Chris with a worried expression. "I'm really sorry about what happened to Buck yesterday. How's he doing?"

"Doctors want him to take it easy for a week or so," Chris explained with a shrug. "But he'll be fine. Didn't break anything new; he's been resting up all day."

Jason took a breath and blew it out in a long sigh. "Do you remember back when I first came to work here? I told you that I was really hoping to go back to school, maybe get a job at a Veteran's Hospital."

"I remember," Chris said with a reluctant nod; he could almost guess what was coming next.

"Part of the deal for the Marines to pick up the tab for me to go to a pre-med school was that I stayed active in the Naval Reserves," Jason explained. "Well, they called up my Reserve Unit. I have to report to San Diego in seventy-two hours."

"Seventy-two hours?" Chris sighed. "That's not much notice, is it?"

"No, it's not," Jason admitted, then he met Chris's eyes with a proud gaze. "Don't get me wrong - if they need me, I don't mind going back. But I hate leaving you guys in a fix."

"Don't even worry about it," Chris assured him. "We'll be fine. Buck's two hundred per cent better since you started working with him. Just give me an idea of where you were going next with him, and we'll manage."

"Actually," Jason said with a smile. Up until then, Chris really hadn't been paying attention to the folder Jason had been carrying. Now the young medic held it out to Chris, who took it and opened it. "This is a copy of my notes on what we've done so far, the exercises he really needs to keep up with, and an outline of what I wanted to get him started on." He watched Chris glance over the contents. "I've already spoken to Gloria, she wanted to help until you can find another therapist. And Chris, it's time you thought seriously about trying to find a communications specialist. His aphasia just isn't getting any better, and he's going to have to find a way to learn to work with it."

Chris looked up at Jason, nodding in reluctant agreement.

Jason offered his hand to Chris. "I really need to get going. I've got way too much to do and not even close to enough time to get it all done. I need to say goodbye to Buck, and the boys, too."

"We'll all miss you, Jason. I can't even begin to tell you how much we appreciate everything you did," Chris said, taking the man's hand in a warm handshake. "You be careful over there."

While Jason stopped in front of the couch to give each of the boys a hug, Chris crossed over to the door to Buck's room. He opened it quietly and frowned, finding the room dark and Buck lying with his face to the wall. "Buck?" he called softly, but the big man didn't stir.

"If he's asleep, don't wake him," Jason said quickly, coming to Chris's side. "They probably gave him something to help him sleep."

"Yeah," Chris said. "I guess."

"Tell him I'll write him as soon as I get settled," Jason offered. "That goes for you guys, too. I want lots of letters from both of you, okay?"

Vin nodded and JD tried to stifle the sniffle that came with his short nod. "Thanks for everything, Chris. It was a real pleasure being part of your family. I'll never forget you guys."

"Same here," Chris replied, opening the front door. "And you're welcome here anytime." Chris chewed on his bottom lip as he watched Jason get into his car and drive away. With a deep sigh, he turned around and walked back into the house. He sat down on the couch and pulled Vin close to him on one side and JD on the other, putting an arm around each boy as they sat in silence for a long time.


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