Staying Afloat

by Xiola

Notes: This is the Vinfic written in honour of Jackie's birthday which was on March 15th. Just a little late in arriving, and I want to thank her for her patience. Another big "Thank you" to Jill and Susie - if not for them, there probably wouldn't have been a story at all.

Disclaimer: The guys don't belong to me, which is a likely a good thing. Being the irresponsible sort I am, I no doubt would have mislaid them or starved them to death by now.


"This is the life!"

Buck drops his kit bag and spreads his arms wide, spinning to embrace the panorama of blue sky and glittering turquoise ocean.

"Sun, sea - no sand - but hey! We don't sweat the small stuff!"

I roll my eyes as I push past him. Leave it to Mr. 'Let-the-good-times-roll' Wilmington to actually look forward to being stuck on this tub for the next ten days.

"A little reminder, Buck, before you crack out the shades and the flowered shirts - we are here to work. And do you want to move it along, por favor, so we can all be ready to weigh anchor when the time comes?"

JD is hot on our heels, smiling from ear to ear, and lets loose an appreciative whistle when he gains the deck.

"Wow! This baby is something else!"

I shake my head. Buck's trainin' the boy up good.

"She's not a baby. She's a lady. A queen, to be precise. The pride of the Callahan fleet." Ezra's voice is coming from somewhere beneath an armload of Floto duffels and totes, and I have to listen hard to hear him. Not that I always want to hear what he has to say, but sometimes he surprises.

"The Queen Merryweather - the 'grande dame', if you will, of luxury ocean accommodation. One hundred and four spacious suites, each with its own balcony, gourmet dining, six star service..."

"We all got the brochures, Ezra, and we can read."

I believe I said sometimes I want to hear what he has to say, but it seems this is not going to be one of them. He's looking a little miffed at having his travelogue cut short, and is elbowed out of the way as Nathan catches up with us. Jackson dumps an assortment of suit bags and cases on the steel-plated flooring before turning to give Vin a hand.

"Who needs this much stuff?" Vin's grumbling, faltering to his knees as his burden shifts.

I think I'm safe in saying he's toting for someone other than himself.

"We ain't gonna be here that long, are we? Ez, ya got enough stuff t' git yerself shipwrecked and live like a king fer at least ten years."

"Mr. Tanner, one can never have too much 'stuff'. And indeed this is only a portion of the items necessary to sustain me over the course of the next week and a half. At least when I board in two hours time with the rest of the passengers I will be assured of a porter to help me with my goods - Mr. Jackson! That is an Armani jacket and - Mr. Tanner! Remove yourself immediately from that portmanteau! It is the finest Italian leather and definitely not intended to double as a repository for your recumbent form. Mr. Dunne? Might I prevail upon you to lend a hand in wrangling my valuables away from these Philistines and transporting them to their resting place in my cabin?"

JD ignores him and joins Buck at the rail. Ezra knows better than to ask me, so that leaves Josiah, and he turns on him with his best hang - dog look well in place.

"Mr. Sanchez? Surely you would not see a fellow passenger left to - "

"I would have thought by now, Brother Standish, you would have come to appreciate the virtues of traveling light. I think the physical demands of toting your own paraphernalia, as well as providing you with some much needed exercise, will help you to remember this in future. There is a lesson to be learned here, and if I were to assist you, I fear I would actually be doing you a disservice." Josiah draws himself up to his full height and takes in a deep draught of the tangy ocean air. "Ah, the smell of the briny deep.... 'I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky'...."

"If you are not going to help me," Ezra huffs, "I would appreciate it if you could keep your 'quaint old salt' routine to yourself."

"... 'And all I ask is a windy day, with the white clouds flying, And the flung spray, and the blown spume'-"

"What's 'blown spume'?" JD asks. "It sounds kinda gross."

Josiah gives the kid a shove with his shoulder and stares at him, hard.

"We don't talk about 'gross' things in front of 'you-know-who'."

"Who's 'you-know-who'?"

It's Ezra's turn to glare at our youngest, and he's shaking his head ever so slightly.

There's something going on here, some sort of 'silent communication' thing, and I think I'm the only one who has no clue. Suddenly I notice the others are casting odd looks Vin's way, and it's then I realize I'm not the only one being kept in the dark.

Except for his earlier observations on the breadth and scope of Ezra's luggage, he has gone eerily quiet. Not that this is unusual - Vin is a man of few words at the best of times - but this silence coupled with the expectant looks the rest of the guys are sending his way... I give him a careful once over too, and see that his eyes are glassy and his face is grey.

"Think I'm going to check out the lounge there."

Vin stands then, a bit unsteadily it seems to me, and makes his way toward the glass doors.

"Be right back."

Then it dawns on me.

"Please tell me you jackals haven't taken bets on how long it'll take him to get sick."

I feel an unnamed fear clenching in my chest.

"He told me he doesn't get seasick."

"And you believed him? Chris, the boy can't even spin around in the chair at his desk without throwin' up."

"Now, Buck, that's an exaggeration and you know it. He was fine when we went to the Stampede and you took him and JD on those rides. If I remember correctly, you were the one who had to be helped off the Tower of Doom and spent the rest of the night in a stall in the men's room."

Buck turns his head to one side and regards me thoughtfully.

"Yeah, you got me there. Can't figure that one out. Musta been a fluke. I lost big money on him that night."

"You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. JD - go find out where he is and bring him back. We've got to get ourselves settled and check in with the captain for a final briefing. You fellows hold up here and I'll go find someone who can give us a hand."

I turn just in time to find a young man in a crisp white shirt and navy pants come clattering down the steps from the deck above us.

"Mr. Larabee? Jason Bremner at your service. Captain Rawding told me you'd arrived and he asked me to help you find your quarters. He would like to meet with you before things get too busy. Do you need a hand getting anything else aboard?"

I don't dare look at Ezra.

"No, thanks, I think we're set. Just waiting for two of my men to - "

As if on cue, JD reappears.

"Houston, we have a problem."

Here we go. I clench my teeth and nod.


"Ummmm - Vin's not looking too good. I think he's 'blowin' spume'."

Buck lets out an ear-shattering whoop and proceeds to do a victory dance around the luggage.

Not hard to guess where his money lay.

"Take me to him. Bremner? We'll be right back. Sorry to make you wait."

I follow JD through the doors and across the elegant lounge to the washroom. We push through the ornate outer door, only to be greeted by the unsettling sound of torturous retching reverberating around the mirror and glass encrusted walls. It's just a bathroom after all, but somehow it seems like a violation to sully the lavish surroundings with the expulsion of... oh, god, I don't even want to go there. I head for the only occupied cubicle and push the door open, or as open as I can, considering there's a body obstructing my path. Unfortunately that body seems to be in the throes of heaving out all of its internal organs.

I think it is safe to say our sharpshooter is not a well person.

"God, Vin."

I'm trying very hard not to sound exasperated, but I know it isn't working.

"You told me you never got seasick."

A moment of gagging delays Tanner's response, and when it comes, I have to lean close to hear it.

"I ain't never got seasick. Never really had the chance... I...ah... ain't never bin on a boat b'fore."

"You ain't never bin - you've never been on a boat before? How is it you neglected to share this with me?"

"You ain't never asked."

It's a good thing I consider this man a friend.

I grit my teeth and run a hand through my hair. We've put too much time and effort into this operation to see it scrapped now. And to complicate matters even more, we've been handpicked to see it through. Assistant Director Travis agreed to handle the matter as a favour to an old college buddy, and he has more than just a professional interest in seeing the affair to a satisfactory conclusion.

It seems his good friend, Charlie Bradley, made himself a fortune as the sole owner of Callahan Luxury Yachts, but found himself two years ago caught in a financial bind that meant he had to take on a business partner. Travis called me into his office about a month ago, and it was then that I was apprised of the situation that led us here to Team Seven Family Vacation. Bradley assured us he'd thoroughly investigated his new investor when he was recommended as a potential backer. A businessman with a perfectly adequate reputation, James Williston had however made it a condition of the partnership agreement that his own accounting firm was to be employed to handle the money.

Everything seemed to be on the up and up, but over time, Bradley came to suspect that Williston was hiding something. He attempted to investigate matters on his own, but when the answers to his discreet enquiries seemed to point in the direction of illegal activities and money laundering, Bradley knew he was in over his head.

Fast forward to the deck of the good ship Merryweather, or more precisely, the sumptuous toilet facilities of the good ship Merryweather, where we now stand, watching our sharpshooter as he is buffeted by the miseries of seasickness on a vessel that has yet to leave the dock.

I find myself sighing, loudly. It's definitely too late for a 'change of plans'. We have our orders and there's no way they can be altered this late in the game. Williston is booked on this particular cruise and suspicions are running high that something is going down.

Not to mention that Travis and I worked hard to ensure that Team Seven was well represented on all levels of the ship. Ezra is, of course, wallowing in the lap of luxury as a wealthy exporter. Nathan is doing duty in the sick bay, Josiah is splitting his time between the chaplain's office and giving Nate a hand, and Buck is going to have a seat at the captain's table as one of the junior officers. JD and I are to be waiting tables, and Vin has ended up in the kitchen as a prep chef. In retrospect, this is looking to be a fortuitous choice of cover for our not-so-seasoned traveler. If Vin is indeed to be incapacitated by sea sickness, his status as replaceable kitchen help will mean that things can still go forward in the event that he does end up lashed to his bunk.

Which is starting to look like a distinct possibility. Hell, we aren't even moving and already Vin's 'indisposed', as Ezra would say.

I lean in and try to pry my friend's fingers from their death grip on the rim of the porcelain bowl.

"C'mon Vin, let's go to the sink and wash up. I'm sure that'll help you feel better."

Vin's grunt of compliance seems to be tinged with skepticism, but he allows me to help him to his feet and over to the bank of mirrors that line the vanity. I'm assisting him with the 'spit and rinse' routine when the doors swing open behind us and the faces of the rest of the team appear in the reflection over my shoulder.

"Just checking, son. How are you feeling?"

"I'm OK Josiah." Vin gives the profiler a wan smile. "Must 'a bin somethin' I ate."

Josiah's boom of laughter rattles the chandelier.

"You'll be fine, Vin, once you get your sea legs."

"You can buy them at the purser's," Buck adds, blue eyes twinkling.

"Ha, ha."

Vin straightens slowly, but I don't let go.

"Mr. Tanner, your colour is" Ezra clears his throat before continuing.

"Might I be so bold as to express my reservations about the state of our young friend's health over the course of the next week?"

"There must be something you can give him, Nate. Maybe you could just take him along with you to sick bay for now and JD and I can help settle him into our room later."

"Ummm..." Nathan exchanges a meaningful look with Vin. "I already gave him something, Chris. He wasn't feeling great on the plane... he had a shot of Dramamine about an hour ago."

"And it's obviously workin' real well." Buck's still twisting the knife. "Ya know, Junior, I've never seen anyone turn green before. I'm countin' on you not to disappoint."

"Yeah, whatever Bucklin. I'll see what I can do." Vin moans and leans once more over the sink. "Don't ya'll have better things t' do than stand around and watch a feller puke?"

"Well, I believe it was Mark Twain who said "We all like to see people seasick when we are not ourselves."

"Shut up, J'siah."

"Ah, yes, 'The Innocents Abroad.' " Ezra straightens his cuffs and regards Vin sympathetically. "Mr. Tanner, much as it pains me to say this, you might as well resign yourself to this manner of insensitive treatment for as long as your malady persists. Some people have no qualms about amusing themselves by ridiculing the misfortune of others. On a lighter note, however, you may be interested to know that the word 'nausea' is derived from the Greek word 'naus', meaning 'ship' and..."

"Ez, yer makin' m' head hurt."

I've been waving at Nathan behind Vin's back and finally manage to catch his eye. I motion at him to step to the side, and I slide along the line of sinks to join him for a hushed conversation.

"What do you think, Nate? Will he be all right? You know there's nothing simple where Vin's concerned, and I don't want to get out there somewhere on the open ocean only to have to arrange to have him airlifted back to terra firma. That would be a major pain."

"I don't know, Chris. There's no predictin' with somethin' like this. I'm a little worried that the Dramamine isn't helping him - I gave it to him by needle just in case he couldn't keep it down. I don't know of anyone who ever died from bein' seasick, and Vin ain't one to let a little thing like bein' deathly ill keep him from doin' his job."

I can feel someone at my back and turn just as the subject of our conversation moves into my line of sight.

"I'll be OK Chris. It ain't like we're crossin' the Atlantic or nothin'. We'll be puttin' inta port every coupla days and iffen it's all too much fer me I kin git off somewheres."

I'm still waffling over the pros and cons of the whole situation. I always feel better whenever an op is going down to have Vin close at hand. He's a great agent and an asset in any situation, but more than anything, I like to have Vin where I can keep an eye on him. I take a lot of flak for the way I fret over Vin - most of it from Vin himself - but I can't help it. And what's more, I can't even explain it, this affection I have for him. Perhaps it's because he's the most selfless person I've ever met. He puts the rest of the world before himself in all things. No question, he's stubborn and independent to a fault, but there's something in him that brings out my protective streak with a vengeance. He's like the younger brother I never had, and he awakens in me all those strong familial instincts I thought were lost forever with the death of Sarah and Adam three years ago. He makes me more patient, more tolerant, more attuned to those around me - all those things I'm pretty sure Buck would have bet money I was never going to be again.

"All right then - but you can't blame me for worrying about you. You should have said something when you started to feel sick on the way down here. This is why I don't trust your judgment when it comes to your health."

I'm rewarded with that familiar infuriating grin and Buck leans in to whisper loudly in Vin's ear.

"C'mon Junior, I think it's time to get this show on the road. I can't wait to see Chris in that little red jacket, bowin' and scrapin' to the guests."

"What do you mean by that?" I can feel myself bristling. "You don't think I know how to wait tables? I've done it before."

"Well, Chris, don't take this the wrong way, but I don't think you'll ever make it as poster boy for the hospitality industry. Ya do know ya won't be packin' heat - there'll be no shootin' holes in the dude who don't like the way his steak's been cooked. But on the bright side, I'm bettin' there's gonna be a big drop in the number 'a complaints and meals bein' sent back to the kitchen."

I snort dismissively, but deep down I have to admit Buck might have a point. Truth be told, I'm not sure I can live up to the maxim 'the customer is always right' without my trusty .45 at my disposal.

Time will tell.

For now, I can only square my shoulders and hope for the best as we make our way outside and onto the deck to collect our things.


This is not goin' t' be pretty.

I can't imagine how I was ever so stupid as to think I wasn't goin' t' get seasick. Hell, Bucklin was right - even ridin' the damn elevator in the federal building makes me feel like pukin'. At least my first shift in the kitchen isn't until mornin' - I'll set the alarm and make sure I got enough time to drop in on Nathan for another dose of... whatever the hell that was - before I start m' day. Even thought the shots haven't really worked so far, Nathan's hopin' 'the cumulative effect of regular exposure t' anti-emetics' will kick in at some point. All I can say is it's a good thing that my prep-chefin' duties aren't rocket science. As long as I can manage t' keep m'self upright and m' stomach where it belongs, I'll be finest kind.

All I really want t' do right now is fall asleep. I can't afford to be tired and feelin' like crap both at the same time - that'll interfere for sure with whether or not I can do my job. M' real job that is - keepin' an eye out for anything unusual or suspicious and backin' up the guys.

It would help a lot if m' stomach would just stop twistin' and rollin' all over the place. I got m' arms wrapped around my middle about as tight as I can stand - hopin' that might ease things up inside, but it doesn't seem t' be doin' much good. I'm thankin' m' lucky stars that Chris and JD're on the same shift, and that they're workin' opposite m' own. We'll all be sleepin' at the same time, but when I'm not in the kitchen, I'll have at least eight hours alone every day t' give myself completely over t' feelin' like somethin' the cat dragged in. The only thing worse than actually bein' under the weather is havin' t' put up with well-meanin' and sympathetic folks hangin' all over ya. I'd rather just be left on m' own - havin' someone else care about me's not somethin' I'm used to, and for sure isn't somethin' I like. But I'm good at hidin' things.

One thing I learned from m' years spent under the 'care' of Child Protection Services?

Don't let 'em see your weaknesses, no matter if it kills you.


I'm fakin' sleep when Chris and JD come in at midnight, after their shift. I hear 'em commiseratin' over the bad manners of the fabulously wealthy, and it sounds t' me like life at the behest of the indolent ain't somethin' Chris is goin' to take to without some difficulty. He seems particularly upset over folks callin' him "Hey you", and near as I can figure, got real worked up when this father took t' talkin' about him real loud while he was eatin' dinner. Guess he was usin' Chris as an example t' show his kid just where he might end up at age forty if he don't get himself a good education.

"If one more person looks at me and tells me they can't possibly be expected to eat what's been set in front of them," Chris growls, "well - I don't think I can be held responsible for my actions."

"You're not going to spend the rest of your life waiting tables, Chris."

Whoa! I really must be sick! It sounds like JD is tryin' t' talk some sense into the stubborn cuss!

Not only has m' stomach been turned on its head, but the world as I know it has t' be careenin' wildly outta control if JD's the voice of reason and givin' Chris Larabee advice he'd do well t' take.

I must've dozed off right in the middle of thinkin' it was goin' t' be a long ten days, 'cause the next thing I know, the alarm clock is beepin' and flashin' and bein' all round annoyin'. Four fifty-seven. I get up quiet as I can and sneak inta the shower. I come wide awake then - the water's poundin' down on me just like a pack of stingin' bees, and I find m'self feelin' right sorry for Josiah when I try t' maneuver m' way around in that tiny space. And if there was ever a time I cursed m' hair - I'm cursin' it now. There's no way I can lift both arms at the same time t' rinse out the shampoo, and I crack m' elbow on the taps more'n once just tryin' t' get m'self soap free. By the time I get out of that little torture chamber I'm played right out and all I really want t' do is go back to bed. I give in t' the misery for a minute, just kinda slump on the mattress before I make m'self get up and get inta m' clothes. By the time I get out inta the hall it hits me that I got no idea how t' get m'self t' the kitchen, let alone the sick bay. I think about wakin' Chris t' ask directions.... But no, that probably isn't a good idea.

How hard can it be? I figure all I got t' do is keep goin' up, so I do that for awhile. I swear I've climbed so far I'm soon gonna need oxygen, but I've still got no clue where I am. About forty-five minutes goes by like this and then it occurs t' me that unless I find m' way to the kitchen in the next minute and thirty-seven seconds, I'm goin' to be late for m' first day of work. There's another set of doors in front of me, and I'm heavin' a big sigh of relief when I push m' way through and find out I've got lucky and managed t' locate the galley. I got just enough time t' introduce m'self to the mornin' crew when I get m'self assigned to egg-scramblin' detail. It's OK, as long as I don't think about the runny yolks, and the stringy whites and the look of 'em bleedin' together... so I just grit m' teeth and make it through breakfast none the worse for wear.

Lunch? Well that's provin' t' be a whole different kettle of fish. Except it ain't fish - it's chicken. Mountains of it, for the stir fries, and I got t' dice it all. And it's takin' all the willpower I got t' keep from gaggin' at the sight of it glistenin' all slimy-like like in those stainless steel bowls. I'm keepin' it together though - only twenty minutes left... damn! I'm not gonna make it, and I end up runnin' t' the bathroom t' retch - unproductively I might add - over the toilet bowl til m' time's up.

The rest of the crew is goin' t' the staff quarters for a social hour before the evenin' meal, but it's an invite I gotta take a pass on. I grab m'self a bottle of water and a box of crackers and stumble back t' the safety of the cabin.

Chris and JD are still there, gettin' ready for their shift in the dining room, when I lurch through the door and collapse on the bed.

"Hey, Vin, how was your day?"

"Wasn't so bad. Only puked once."

"I guess that means you're winning the Battle of the Bilge!" JD chuckles. "That was a good one, if I do say so myself."

Funny guy.

I show my appreciation by flingin' m' pillow in the direction of his head.

"I feel bad enough without listenin' t' yer feeble attempts t' be amusin'."

"So you made it through all right?"

"Yeah. I think J'siah might be right - I am gettin' used t' this. Don't think I feel near so bad as I did yesterday. And that's without chemical intervention, as Ez would say. I couldn't find Nate this mornin' t' git my shot."

"That does sound encouraging." Chris is straightenin' his tie and smoothin' out his jacket. "C'mon JD, you and I best be off. We'll check in with you when we get back, if you're still awake."

"Yeah, OK. Later."

I planned t' have a shower before fallin' asleep, but the next thing I know I'm wakin' up feelin' sticky, hot and nauseous, and it's gone dark. M' crackers've managed t' end up beneath me, and when I rip 'em open I find out they been crushed so bad they're nothin' but crumbs. I eat them anyway - figure I'll feel better if I've got somethin' on m' stomach, and when they're gone, I lean back against the headboard and drink some water. I'm givin' m' supper time t' settle, but I think I've got to accept the fact I really don't feel any better at all, and m' stomach feels like its on the verge of hostin' its very own tsunami. I fall asleep waitin' for the first wave t' hit, and I don't even wake when Chris and JD get back from their shift. I just get m'self up the next morning and stagger through another day, have crackers for supper again, fall asleep feelin' sick, and wake up feelin' sicker.

I manage t' make it through three whole days just like this, but I swear, once this job is finished, I'm never goin' t' sea again.


I can't believe how good it feels to get off that ship. And if I'm feeling this way, I just can't imagine what Vin must be thinking at this very moment. I look over at Tanner, fully expecting to see my best friend's knees hit the ground, followed shortly thereafter by his lips, but Vin's behaviour is surprisingly restrained.

God knows we needed some time off. I forgot how much I dislike dealing with the public at large. I've got no patience for whining and complaining and bad manners at the best of times. And these are by no means the best of times. Not to mention the fact that I've been subjected daily to well-meaning suggestions and tips from my co-workers on the finer points of how to be a productive part of the food delivery team. And then there's JD and that sunny disposition of his... it's definitely grating on my last remaining nerve. I don't think I've had an intelligent conversation in days - Vin's shift runs opposite to ours, and I'm lucky to see Vin each day long enough to say "Good morning" or "Good night". I wonder how he's holding up. He claims he's got things under control - that he's not nearly as seasick as he was and able to function at least. I'm not sure I trust Vin to tell the truth on any topic that involves his well-being, and when I look at him close up, he seems just a bit too pale and thin for my liking. I can't help but wish that Nathan had been given a day's reprieve as well, but I guess I'll just have to content myself with Vin, JD and Josiah as my companions while on shore leave. I can see the ex-preacher is giving Vin the once over as well, and I catch the big man's eye briefly over the top of JD's head as we make our way along the narrow cobbled streets.

"I told Casey I'd bring her back a present. What do you thing she'd like?"

"Good cigars are cheap."

Vin gives me a quick grin from under the brim of his baseball cap.

"No, seriously. What are you going to get for Nettie?"

"I ain't sure JD - but I'd venture t' guess that they ain't gonna be wantin' the same things."

I leave our two youngest discussing souvenirs, and walk ahead a few paces.

Santo Domingo

Other than the ungodly heat and the suffocating humidity, the crushing crowds and the grinding poverty, it is a beautiful city.

I find myself squinting in the brilliant sunlight as the street broadens out into a large piazza dotted with several gnarled trees. There's a magnificent church at one end and the benches in the shade are crammed with people - old men smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and women with plastic shopping bags clustered at their feet. A group of boys are kicking a ragged ball against a crumbled half wall, and several of them break away from the crowd when they see us. They come running up, hands outstretched, chattering in rapid-fire Spanish, and Vin digs into his pocket and tosses a handful of coins into the air. He rattles something back to them in a staccato of words, and the group moves off in a flash of white teeth and a swell of laughing voices.

We head to a spot in the sun and lean against the wall, watching after the boys until they disappear. My attention is caught now by a tiny dark-eyed girl in a pale blue dress toddling in our direction. She is followed by a thin, grey-haired woman who has to be her grandmother, and I find myself puzzled by the interest Vin is showing in the pair. Tanner is reaching into his pocket once more, and he catches my eye as his hand emerges clutching a fist full of bills.

"She's usin' the baby to beg. And ya cain't blame her. What tourist is gonna look at that little one's face and not want t' make sure she's got somethin' in her belly when she goes t' bed t'night?"

The chubby tot has reached us now and I notice that Josiah has some coins in his hand as well. The grandmother gives us a toothless smile as she accepts our offerings and hurries off after her busy charge.

"Guys?" I clear my throat and gain their attention. "Let's get our little parley over with so we can get out of this blasted furnace and find ourselves a nice cold drink."

I am looking particularly at JD's face, already red with sweat and the effects of too many UV rays.

"Sounds like a plan."

"I wish we could have all managed to get together to touch base, but for now, we'll have to make do. JD and I haven't seen or heard anything out of the ordinary - although I have to say that when I looked over the itinerary this morning I noticed this stop wasn't scheduled. Have you heard anything about why the change in plans?"

I look at Josiah expectantly.

"Nathan saw Buck for a couple of minutes last night. It seems our junior captain got his thumb caught in one of the hot tub jets - don't even ask - and he told Nathan the crew was only informed about the stop-over just before his unfortunate accident. But other than that, Buck hasn't seen anything that looks suspicious. He managed to corral Ezra the other night after dinner for a word, and there's nothing to report from his end either. Other than the fact that he's having the time of his life and told Buck this trip has made up for every crappy undercover assignment he's ever been given."

"Ezra said 'crappy'?"

JD cringes in mock horror.

"Well, those weren't exactly his words - but you get the drift."

"Speaking of drifting, why don't we head on over to the restaurant?"

I shove myself away from the wall and start across the square, looking back to see Josiah and Vin trailing behind.

"Where are we going for lunch? Remember - don't get ice cubes in your drinks, and only drink the water if it comes out of a bottle you open yourself..."

I'm looking over the rim of my sunglasses at JD bouncing along beside me.

"What? That's what Nathan said. We don't want to get Montezuma's revenge, do we?"

I just shake my head and keep on walking.


"And don't order the shellfish either - Nathan says it's not always safe."

We finally found our way to the 'tour approved' eating establishment, and after ordering a round of beer, we're busy examining the menu.

It's still hot, but it feels good to get away from the glare of the sun. I can feel myself relaxing, listening as JD continues to give Josiah more unsolicited dining advice, and watching Vin peruse the day's offerings.

"So, Vin, how are you doing? The truth."

Vin picks up his glass and takes a long swallow.

"Feels good t' get off that damn boat." He flashes me a quick grin. "I reckon there's a reason I was born as far away from the water as ya could possibly git and still be in Texas."

I roll my eyes at that, even though it's probably true, and tap at the list of foods to bring his attention back to the matter at hand.

"Have you eaten anything at all since we left Miami? You're looking a little peaked."

It's Vin's turn to roll his eyes, and he gives me that look - the one that only he can get away with.

"I'm OK, but I'll pick somethin' b'sides crackers if it'll make ya happy."


We finish lunch and spend the rest of the afternoon visiting the cathedral and the Alcazar, and before we know it, the day is gone. We make our way back to the dock and part company with Josiah as soon as we go aboard.

"I guess we'd better get ready for work." JD looks at his watch. "We've got an hour. Is it OK with you if I shower first?"

"Yeah, go ahead."

I sink into a chair on the far side of the room and watch Vin as he leans up against the wall, staring though the porthole.

"It's cloudin' up out there. I hope it don't get rough again."

"Again? Vin - it hasn't been rough at all."

"Maybe not fer you fellows with cast-iron stomachs." Vin straightens and rubs at his middle. "I still think it's a right cruel name for a boat. "The Merryweather". Whose sick 'n twisted mind came up with that?"

He turns and lowers himself gingerly onto his bed.

"You going to be all right while we're at work? One of us can stay with you if you want."

"Nah. Thanks. I'll be fine. I'll just be glad when this is over and I can quit spending all my time tryin' t' keep my stomach where it belongs. And it'll be nice t' be able t' take more'n five steps without bumpin' inta someone. Leastways I don't have t' work first thing tomorrow. Maybe all I need is some extra sleep - it usually works whenever I'm feelin' under the weather."

"Are you hungry? I can go up early and get you something before the starving hordes descend."

I no sooner finish speaking when I feel the thrum of engines under my feet and the gentle pitch and sway as the boat pulls away from the dock.

Vin moans and lies back on his mattress, eyes closed.

"How's that for timin'? Please - just don't say the 'f-word' OK?"

"The f-word? Since when did you get so sensitive?"

JD's just come out of the bathroom, towel around his waist, shaking strings of damp hair out of his eyes.

"I think he means the 'f-o-o-d' word, JD."

"Food? That's the f-word? I wonder if Buck knows that."

"I kin hear ya JD and if ya don't shut up, I'm gonna puke in yer bed while yer gone."

It's my turn to sigh and I gather up my towel, happy to take my turn under the spray and tune out the squabbling. I'm beginning to agree with Vin. Things are just a little too claustrophobic here - not to mention hot, and humid, and demeaning. I find myself longing for the privacy of the ranch, and the cool of morning before the sun edges its way over the mountains, the calm of dusk as it settles on the slopes. I miss the lazy roll of time on the weekends, Vin and I on Pony and Peso, riding the high trails in the hills.

Yes, I just can't wait until this op is over and done with.

Only six more days...less than a week....

As long as no one calls me 'boy' - I just might make it.


OK - what I said before?

There's a coda: 'As long as no one calls me 'boy', and I don't have to put in another shift like the one I'm finishing now, I just might make it.'

I swear this has been the most miserable eight hours of my entire life. My guess is everyone was sunburned and overheated from their day onshore, and all that translated into an overabundance of complaints and whining and general all round crankiness. And I had the misfortune to be transferred halfway through the evening to wait on the Captain's table.

And the patrons seated there were even more demanding than the usual run of the clientele.

And then, there was Buck.

Assistant Junior Captain-in-training First Mate Mr. Wilmington.

His Royal Highness.

Now don't get me wrong - Buck and I've been good friends a lot of years, but that friendship definitely took a kick to the head tonight.

He was insufferable.

First there was the smirk - the 'I never thought I'd live to see the day' look plastered on his face every time he asked to have his water glass refilled.

Then there was the steak.

Had he asked for rare?

He'd meant 'medium rare', and would I 'please take it back to the kitchen, my good man, and bring me another?'

I swear if Buck had called me his 'fine fellow' one more time, heads were going to roll.

Yes, Buck was enjoying himself altogether too much, his pleasure seeming to increase in proportion to the escalating level of my irritation.

All I can say is he was lucky there were no cream pies on the menu - I don't think I would have been be able to resist the magnetic attraction of a whipped coconut pastry and Buck's smug face.


"I'm going to kill him."

I'm tugging at my tie as JD and I make our way down the metal stair case to our quarters. I'm using more force than is necessary, thinking how much I would like to be at this very moment winding the narrow piece of fabric around Buck's neck.

"You shouldn't let him get to you like that. He's worse if he knows he's driving you crazy. You gotta work on that 'bulging vein' thing. It's like waving a red flag in front of a bull..."

I can't hold back the snort that erupts.

"Buck should know better by now. He's going to pay. And pay. And pay."

We've reached our door and I put a finger to my lips and quietly turn the knob.

"I hope Vin's been able to get some sleep. He was looking kind of ragged when we got back from our little jaunt into the city."

"Why do you think Vin gets sick so much? Nathan figures it's because he didn't eat right when he was a kid. I mean, it's not his fault, but it hardly seems fair that he should be paying the price now because he didn't have anyone to look out for him."

JD is at my elbow, whispering. He falls silent when we go into the room and I cross to Vin's bunk and look at him carefully. He stirs, rolls to his side with a muffled groan, but doesn't wake. The light's on in the bathroom, and I think he's looking a little flushed, but there's no way I'm going to risk laying my hand on that forehead to see if the ornery Texan has a fever. Been there, done that, and almost lost a hand for my trouble. Vin isn't comfortable with being touched at the best of times, and certainly not when he's being awakened out of a sound sleep.

"He seems to be all right."

I lie back on my bed and close my eyes.

"You go ahead, JD. I'll wash up when you're finished."

Only a moment later I think I hear the squeak of a mattress and JD's whispered "Good night", and that's all I know til morning.


I'm hot, and sweaty, and still tired. There's a bright light shining on my face and I roll my head to the side in an effort to escape the glare. It doesn't seem to work, and I prise one eye open to see the sun's slanting in through the porthole and striking me square on. When I try to turn away, I find myself sliding toward the floor, and it's then I realize I'm still dressed. Half of me is lying on the bunk and the rest of me is sprawled out across the floor. Both my legs are asleep and my back aches when I try to haul myself fully onto the bed again. I peer at the clock on the side table and see that it's just past eight thirty. JD's snoring happily off to my right, and when I look across to Vin's bunk I see that it's empty. I have a moment when I think foggily to myself that he's probably at work in the kitchen, but then I remember that Vin wasn't on the early shift, and doesn't have to report for KP duty til noon. Just then the door to the bathroom swings open and the subject of my musings wends an unsteady path back to his bed.

"You OK Pard?"

Vin looks anything but 'OK'. He's whiter than I've ever seen any living person, and his forehead is beaded with sweat. He sinks onto his mattress with a smothered moan.


JD's awake now, rising up on an elbow to regard Vin thoughtfully.

"You know, I never believed Buck when he said people turned green when they were sick, but you're looking close."

"He's right, Pard. You look pretty bad."

Vin grunts and curls over on his side.

"I gotta admit I ain't feelin' the best."

As if on cue, Vin swallows convulsively, rolls out of his bunk and rushes once again to the bathroom.

"I don't think life at sea agrees with him," JD says thoughtfully.

"You don't say."

I wonder if that sounds as sarcastic as I meant it to.

"He's lost some weight, hasn't he? I know Vin's not a big guy, but he's really looking... skinny."

I grit my teeth and tell myself it's not Vin's fault that anything that can go wrong does go wrong where he's concerned, but the man truly is the walking, talking personification of Murphy's Law.

Several minutes pass before Vin emerges with his arm wrapped around his stomach as he lurches to his bed.

"Vin, you've got to have something else going on besides just being seasick. Do you have a headache? Do you think you've got a fever?"

"I don't know... Right now, all I know for sure is my stomach's killin' me."

"You shouldn't have had the fish. Nathan says..."

"JD, you're not helping. In case you hadn't noticed, he hardly ate a thing at lunch yesterday. Get over here and give me a hand."

I kneel beside Vin's bunk and lower my voice.

"I think we better get you to Nathan, Pard. Can you stand? Here let me..."

"I'm OK - I kin...."

I get my arm around Vin's waist just in time to keep him from collapsing. I jerk my head at JD to help me, and together we manage to get Vin out the door and into the narrow corridor. There's barely enough room for three people to even walk single file, and what we're trying to do is just about impossible. JD's doing his best to keep his shoulder under Vin's, but I can see him biting his lower lip with a concentration that tells volumes about the degree of discomfort he's in.

"Once we get up to the next floor we can head into the passengers' quarters and catch the elevator."

"You're probably not going to make it to your shift, are you?" JD asks. "I can tell the kitchen when we report in that you're sick - well, maybe I shouldn't tell them you're sick til we know something - I mean it's probably not good for business - and maybe it is just 'mal de mer' after all..."

JD has no idea how lucky he is, for I've just decided I'm going to call a time out to strangle him with my bare hands when Vin doubles over retching at that very moment. All my annoyance melts away when I look at our two youngest kneeling on the carpet before me, where JD's rubbing Vin's back as he heaves. I can see the concern in his dark eyes as he looks at me over the top of Vin's head and I realize JD's incessant chatter is purely that - chatter to cover the worry. I know that JD can feel everyone of Vin's ribs beneath his tee shirt and it's plain to see his pants hang lower on his hips. I can't hold back the guilt surging through me when I think that Vin's been losing weight these last few weeks and I haven't really noticed. And it had to have been glaringly obvious - I can't remember the last time I saw him eat anything.

"I'll get someone down to clean that up, Vin. Not to worry. We're almost there - you'll probably have the place to yourself - Buck said there was no one there when he went in to have his thumb stitched. Never did finish telling me how he got it stuck - I'm sure there's animal magnetism involved somehow."

I think I hear Vin give a chuff of what could have been laughter, but it's lost as we help him back onto his feet to continue our trek. We finally pass through the thick double doors that are meant to protect the glitterati from contact with the working classes.

I can hear the whispered comments of disgruntled patrons as we make our way across the small opulent lobby and I feel my temper building.

"Drunk, most likely. It's a disgrace."

"I think a complaint to the captain is in order. Tonight at dinner. Don't they realize this is 'Guests Only'?"

"Oh for the love of God! It's clear the young man is ill. Allow me to assist you."

I have to bite back a smile when Ezra's well-manicured hand enters my range of vision on its way to the panel of buttons by the elevator.

"I take it you are on your way to the sick bay?"

"Yes, thank you sir."

JD hitches a faltering Vin further onto his shoulder and after what seems like an eternity, the elevator finally arrives. We wrangle our way into the small space and as soon as the doors slide shut, Ezra rounds on Vin..

"Mr. Tanner? What on earth is wrong with you now?"


What on earth is wrong with me now?

Well, Ez, that's the sixty four dollar question.

I really gotta wonder as I'm lyin' here on this skinny little bed whether Chris has ever had second thoughts about hirin' me. He says all the time that I'm more trouble than I'm worth, and, hell - I always thought he was kiddin'.

But now I'm not so sure.

Nathan's little hole in the wall's got two built in tables with curtains runnin' all the way around them - for privacy I guess. They aren't real private - Nathan's there on the other side talkin' t' someone - a woman I think, and maybe a kid, too. I'm sure if I were t' reach out, I could touch the person in that other bed and I gotta wonder how in God's green earth Josiah can ever be helpin' Nathan with the doctorin'. There's not even room enough to swing a cat, and I'm havin' trouble picturin' Team Seven's two biggest guys navigatin' about in this itty bitty space.

I know Nathan was right ready t' run on over as soon as he saw me, but I told him t' finish up where he was - that I was OK for now. I'm thinkin' that maybe I'm feelin' a little better, now that I'm lyin' down again. M' stomach's still hurtin', but it's more a dull ache, not that cripplin', screamin' agony that laid me out earlier. I'll just close m' eyes and wait, try t' relax, listen t' Nathan's voice dronin' on and on...

Guess I musta drifted off. The curtain's rattlin' along the track as Nathan and Chris and the others all squeeze in here with me t'gether. JD's perchin' on the end of the bed and has t' draw his feet right off the floor so Ezra can squirm in too.

"Mr.Tanner. How can I help you?"

Sounds like the start of a chicken convention as both Chris and JD set t' squawkin' at the same time, and finally Nate holds up his hand.

"Perhaps it would make sense to let the patient tell me what the problem is?" He picks a clipboard offa the night table and pulls a pen from behind his ear. "First, I need your name, address and date of birth."

I know Nathan's tryin' t' let on he don't know us - at least not all our personal details - for the benefit of our 'neighbours', so I answer all he's got t' ask. Finally he puts down the chart and folds his arms.

"So, you've been having stomach pain and it seems to be getting worse. When did you first notice the discomfort?"

I can feel m'self frownin'. I don't pay that much attention t' such things - long as I can get out of bed and go t' work - I figure I'm doin' all right.

"I'm not real sure. I was in a..." I stop for a minute then - thinkin' about the youngster's voice I heard earlier. "I, um, had a disagreement with a feller... and I got punched."

I kinda whisper this last part - don't think the kid next door and his Mama should have t' listen t' all the gory details of m' life style.

I can see the wheels turnin' in m' friends' heads, and I know they're thinkin' back t' the Parsons case. It was about a month ago that we caught up t' that crew - brothers they were - bad news - and they'd gone down swingin'. Ez ended up with a black eye, Josiah a broken nose, and well, I'd been knocked t' the floor and was well on m' way t' havin' m' ribs kicked in before the rest of the team came to the rescue.

"Just a bit of a dust up. The doc at the hospital gave me a clean bill of health - none of m' ribs was broken - just a few bruises outta the deal. I gotta admit, though, I ain't felt right since, and I know the doc told me t' come back if I had any problems... but I guess I didn't figure it weren't nothin' I couldn't handle. It's just been lately that m' stomach's been more sore than usual. But I've only had the real bad indigestion this last week or two, and it ain't been all that long since I ain't been able t' eat... it kinda feels like there's pressure buildin' in m' belly and now that I think on it, it's kinda been gettin' worse with each day that goes by."

Nathan's glarin' at me.

"I have limited resources to work with, but I'll try to make a diagnosis. If nothing else, I can give you something to control the pain if it gets too bad."

Nathan steps closer t' the bed and lifts up m' tee shirt. He's got his fingers pressin' all over m' ribcage, but when he starts jabbin' at m' stomach, I near go through the roof. I try t' push his hands away, and I feel kinda bad about that because I know he ain't intendin' t' cause me pain.

"Geez, Nate! Ya could warn a fella!"

"Just hold still, Vin. I don't want to hurt you."

I feel like tellin' him that ship has sailed, but I grit m' teeth and clamp m' mouth shut tight. It feels like there's a basketball stuck in m' middle, and every prod and poke is pushin' it against all the other stuff in m' gut and it feels a mite uncomfortable.

Finally Nate finishes tormentin' me, and I guess m' eyes has teared up some, because when I can finally see his face clear like, he's lookin' more than just a little worried.

"It feels like there's something obstructing your bowel. Have you experienced any nausea or vomiting?"

I'm blinkin' at that one - Nate knows I have.

Why's he even askin'... Oh, yeah - the audience.

"It got as bad as it's been last night."

Nathan pulls m' shirt down, finally, and steps back.

"So, Vin," Chris is givin' me 'the look', "You've been feeling under the weather this past month and haven't bothered to tell anyone?"

"Well, it aint' been that bad til this last goin' off."

I'm just thankin' m' lucky stars right now that woman and her kid are there behind the curtain, because they're all that's standin' between me and one of them infamous Larabee lectures.

But I'm still not safe from the disapprovin' looks Nathan's throwin' m' way.

"You're dehydrated. I'm going to start an IV."

Nathan's busies himself at the metal table by the door.

"It feels to me as if there's something obstructing your bowel, and you're going to have to be closely monitored. If your bowel ruptures, peritonitis is likely. It's nasty and I'm not equipped to deal with anything like that here. I'll speak to the captain about turning the ship around and returning to shore."

At first I think Nate's kiddin'. I'm not feelin' that bad, but one look at all them other serious faces hoverin' over me goes a long way t' convincin' me there's nothin' funny goin' on here.

"You haven't entered the 'emergency' stage yet, but I think conservative management is in order. We have probably forty-eight hours at most before you become critical. I'm going to use that time to 'resuscitate' you. That means I'm going to take steps to raise your fluid levels so you'll be in the best possible shape to go under the knife."

Chris, Ezra and JD just stand there.

I think they might be more surprised than I am.

"He's going to need surgery?"

Chris has finally found his voice.

"Well, there have been cases where problems of this nature have resolved themselves, but it's unusual. I really don't have many options available to me. I'm assuming it's going to take some time to return to shore, so I'm going to see whether I might be able to arrange to have him airlifted if I need to. I don't know at this point, seeing as this is my first tour as a ship's doctor."

"But Nath - "

Nathan raises his eyebrows and jerks his head in the direction of the curtain.

"Dr. Jackson - "

"I know you're worried, but I'll do everything I can for him. Once I get the IV hooked up I'm going to give him some Demerol - there's no need for him to lie here in agony."

I know there's no use in my sayin' anything, so I snap m' fingers t' get Chris's attention.

"Maybe you could let the kitchen know I won't be showin' up fer my shift. And stop lookn' like that - I'll be fine."

I'm doin' my damndest t' sound reassurin'.

I grin at Nathan.

"They're m' roommates, Doc. Not bad fellers, but it'll be good t' get a night's shuteye without havin' t' listen t' the pair of 'em sawin' logs."

Chris sighs and shakes his head.

"Are you sure there's nothing we can do?"

"I'll handle it. My assistant, Mr. Sanchez, is up having breakfast and due back any minute. I'll go and find the captain as soon as he returns."

"Well, if you're sure there's nothing..." Chris turns t' me then and reaches across the bed to grip m' arm. "You do what the Doc tells you. We'll be back later to check on you."

I try t' smile and tighten m' fingers around Chris's forearm. I know Chris don't want t' leave me here, but he knows I'm in good hands. He has no idea how much it means t' me, the mere fact that I know he'd do anything t' make things better if he could. Besides, we've still got the Williston job on our plates. Chris gives m' arm a shake and he follows JD and Ezra out the door.

Then it's just me and Nathan.

"I'm sure you've had an IV before."

Nathan's got this kind of nasty look on his face, and he seems t' be swabbin' at the back of m' hand a lot harder than's absolutely necessary.

"This is going to hurt just a bit - there we go. I don't want you to have anything by mouth. I'm going to start you off with 25 milligrams of Demerol, but if it isn't enough, just say the word and I'll top up the dose. I hope you understand, Mr. Tanner, just how ill you are," Nathan's glarin' now, "and I trust you will cooperate with me in my efforts to care for you."

"Well, Doc - I think you'll find I'm about the most cooperative patient you've ever had. You might be surprised t' know this - but I've been in the hospital a time or two before - "

Nathan snorts loud at that, but I just ignore him.

"- and all the doctors and nurses are amazed at jist how easy I am t' take care of."

Nathan rolls his eyes and says nothin', and injects somethin' in the port of the IV tubing. I can feel the drug threadin' in m' veins right away, and the pain starts movin' off some.

"I'll be right out there." Nathan nods at the tiny office that's no more'n two feet away. "You take it easy."

"Mmm...Doc...'preciate it."

I think Nate pats m' leg before he disappears around the edge of the curtain. I can hear his voice in this long low rumble as I feel m'self driftin' inta the fog."

"So, Jeremy. How are you feeling now? Any better?"

I hear the muffled whisper of a child's voice and a woman speaking.

"Are you sure he's going to be all right Dr. Jackson? His last attack wasn't as severe as this one. Do you think this means his asthma's getting worse?"

"Not necessarily. It could have to do with the climate. The stress of being away from home."

"We thought he'd be all right to bring on this trip. He hasn't had a bad attack since last fall..."

"He's going to be all right. You did the right thing by bringing him down as quickly as you did. I'm going to keep him on the oxygen for the rest of the day - keep the IV in - the Prednisone is doing its job. You should go and get some rest - he's had a rough night and he's probably about ready for some sleep himself. Right, Jeremy?"

I hear a soft murmur of assent just as my own eyes start slidin' shut. I can see, as if in slow motion that Nate and the mother have moved t' the end of the boy's bed and I know they're still speakin', but my addled brain can't make no sense of the words.

I've got no idea how long I lay there, but the boy's mother disappeared and came back and disappeared again. Perhaps I'm dreamin' now - but she looks softer somehow as she wavers in and out. Her hair's longer, lighter and I see her bendin' over the boy's bed, kissin' him on the forehead. Then she turns t' me and smiles, and it's a mother's smile all soft and light. A breeze is whisperin' as the curtains billow and sway, and the air is filled with the hum of words that mean nothin' at all... Then the words are comin' faster, and louder, and I can feel m'self frownin', because I can't understand 'em, and maybe if I could only concentrate ...

"- and we went to New Mexico one time and I saw a cactus and I went on a pony ride but it was just a little pony and the man said when I came back if I was bigger I could ride the big horse the one with the spots that I liked - I think it was called a.. apple... apple - lose - ya and it was really pretty and have you ever seen a horse like that - I guess you would if you're a cowboy. Are you one? You know - a cowboy?"

There's two earnest brown eyes starin' at me from the next bed and for a minute I coulda sworn I was lookin' at a miniature JD.

"A cowboy?"

I think that was me croakin'.

Where the hell am I? ...sick bay?...oh yeah - the roommate... Jeremy. It's all comin' back to me now.

"Why d'ya think I'm a cowboy?"

"You talk funny."

Jeremy lifts the plastic mask away from his face while he speaks and settles it back over his nose and mouth when he's done.

"I'm from Texas. We all talk like this."

It's as good an excuse as any.

"Do you have a horse? Did you ever go in the rodeo? Did you ever ride a bull?"

I can't help but laugh.

I'm wide awake now.

"Well, as a matter of fact, I did work on a ranch fer awhile. Ain't never worked the rodeo, but there was this fair down around El Paso one year and a bunch of us decided we should sign ourselves up fer a couple of events."

"Really? Did you win?"

"Nope - didn't win no prizes - " I lower m' voice so other ears can't hear, "I kinda fell offa the bronc and landed in the dirt and busted m' arm first time out. Don't like t' tell folks that, though. Don't want no one thinkin' I'm accident prone."

I hear a loud snort from the outer office.

"Did you put those marks on the cows? With them big iron things?"

"No, but I went on a cattle drive once. It was hot and dusty work but it was a lotta fun too. That is until I got m'self squashed up b'tween two beeves and...well - never mind."

"No, tell me! What happened?"

"Well, they done squeezed me so tight I couldn't breathe and they broke two 'a m' ribs."

"Did it hurt?"

"Nah, not really. Had a little trouble gittin' on and offa m' horse, sorta hurt t' pull m' boots on - weren't real comfortable sleepin' on the ground neither. I actually weren't much help at all t' no one after that - Boss kinda got riled when I tried t' rope a steer and as soon as I let the lariat loose, I seized up. Rope got all twisted and by the time someone finally come t' help me I had m'self tied up with the rope around the horns 'a these two steers that weren't real fond 'a one another. Weren't hardly m' fault that - "

I can hear Nathan's muffled chuckles gettin' louder and louder until he breaks right inta full-out guffawin'.

"What are you laughin' at Doc? You should be more sensitive t' the... the misfortunes of others, seein' as how you're a healer and all."

It takes Nathan a minute t' get himself back under control, and he no sooner does than Josiah shows up. He pokes his head in through the door, raisin' his eyebrows in surprise when he sees me.

"Well, well, we have a new inmate. So, what seems to be your problem young fellow?"

"Josiah, this is Vin. He's going to be our guest for the next little while - let's just step outside for a minute and I'll fill you in."

Nathan looks at Jeremy as he goes out the door.

"I'm depending on you to keep an eye on him."

It's quiet for a minute. The kid's wrestlin' with a big yawn over there, and it finally wins out.

"Why don't you get some shut eye kiddo? Don't worry about me - I'll behave. B'sides - there's two big guys out there in the hall and even if I did want t' run away I wouldn't git far."

Jeremy smiles sleepily at me.

"I am kind of tired...."

And just like that he's out.

I lean back and stare up at the ceilin', listenin' t' the soft whistle of Jeremy's breathin' and the low buzz of Nate and Josiah's voices in the hall.

This is definitely not a position I'm goin't' be stayin' in for long. That awful ache is gnawin' through m' stomach again, and it don't feel much better when I try t' rub it away. I just get m'self rolled over onto m' side when Josiah comes through to stand beside m' bed.

"Nathan's gone to speak to the captain." He lowers his voice. "Is our young friend asleep?"

"Yes, at least I reckon so. Seems like a cute kid."

"Yes, that he is Brother Tanner. Did Nathan tell you just whose 'kid' he is?"

I shake m' head and bite m' lip - I don't want Josiah t' know that I'm hurtin' bad.

"That's James Williston's youngster."

"Ohh... is that a problem?"

"I don't expect it will be - although we have to watch what we say and remember to be on the lookout in case his father decides to pop in for a visit."

"Has he been in yet?"

"No, just the mother. I guess we must have read things wrong as far as this op was concerned - I don't think there's anything out of the ordinary going on here - not this trip it would seem."

Josiah lowers himself onto the edge of m' bed.

"I guess it's all for the best. I know Nathan's worried about you, and he's pretty sure he won't have any problem convincing the captain to turn around and head back to shore. The Dominican's closest - but I imagine Nate'll want you to get on over to the US of A for any surgery you might need."

I squeeze m' eyes shut tight, and I can't stop m' breath from catchin' in m' throat.

"Do you want me to go get Nate?"

"He's comin' right back ain't he?"

I can feel Josiah's hand on m' leg, and he rubs it back and forth over m' shin.

"You should have said something, after that business with the Parsons clan. You push yourself too hard, son. You aren't as strong as you think you are."

Now along with hurtin' big time, I'm feelin' a mite embarrassed. I know he means well, but...

"If you won't look after yourself for you, do it for us. You know how we worry about you."

"Hell, J'siah, ya don't..." M' gut decides t' cramp right in the middle of that thought, and I try one of those breathin' exercises I learned in the Rangers t' help take m' mind offa the pain. It's not workin' at all, and just when I think things can't get any worse, I hear Chris's voice out in the hall.

I really don't want Chris t' see me like this. I hate bein' sick, and weak, and vulnerable and all those other things that make folks feel sorry for ya. I been takin' care of m'self all m' life, and there's no way I want m' friends t' think I can't keep on doin' so. I feel someone squeezin' m' hand and open m' eyes t' see Larabee's hazel eyes bearin' down on me.

"Josiah's gone to find Nathan. Here," he reaches to the nightstand for a cloth, and runs it across m' face with his free hand.

"I'm OK... just gimme a minute..."

I'm tyrin' m' best t' get m' breathin' back under control. Chris says nothin' - just keeps ahold of m' hand and mops m' forehead without loosenin' his grip.

I gotta laugh at the two of us.

"Better watch out. Folks might git the wrong idea."

"Now there's something that keeps me awake at night."

"Ah, ow...don't make me laugh...."

"You started it."

His fingers tighten around mine and several minutes go by while I just squeeze m' eyes shut tight and pray for it t' stop. I'm just startin' t' breathe a little easier when Nathan appears and shoulders his way inside.

"OK Chris, just move a bit so I can get to him. I guess it's time for another shot of Demerol - I'm going to up the dose since this one didn't hold you as long as it should have."

It's almost funny t' watch Chris and Nathan try t' swap places. It doesn't help that Josiah's fillin' up the doorway, and it's no surprise when I hear Jeremy call out from the other side of the partition.

"Vin? Are you OK?"

"Yeah, everything's finest kind. Just got too many cooks in the kitchen here."

Nathan finally pushes Chris outta the way and waves at me t' pull up m' shirt. He's got the stethoscope out now, and he's listenin' hard while he goes through the whole pokin' and proddin' routine again.

"I don't think there's been any change as far as I can tell."

He straightens up after a minute, takes the thermometer out of his pocket and jams it under m' tongue.

"I spoke to the captain, and he said he'd speak to Williston, but he was pretty sure it would be no problem to head back. We'll get you to Santo Domingo and then we can get a flight to Miami. At least, that's the plan."

The thing beeps and he takes it outta m' mouth.

"You're runnin' a temperature. Nothing too serious yet, but we'll have to keep an eye on that too."

Jeremy's pullin' at the curtain now, and I can see his face peerin' at me.


"Vin's OK, Bud. How're things with you? You feelin' all right?"

"Can I take this mask thing off? I don't like it."

I'm thinkin' m' roommate's voice is soundin' breathier than it did, and the poor kid's got rings around his eyes so dark they're almost black. I raise m' eyebrows at Nathan when he comes back and injects the painkiller into m' IV.

"Well, I'll have a look at you in just a minute - as soon as I finish with Vin here."

Nathan's done with me, unwinds the stethoscope from around his neck again and helps the boy sit straighter in his bed.

I'm no doctor, but I wish I could do somethin' for the little guy. It don't seem fair t' think of anybody that small havin' health problems as serious as what Jeremy's seem t' be. I reach for his hand and try t' give him a grin, but m' eyes is slippin' shut and there's this dreamy kind of darkness crowdin' in at the edges of what I can see. I feel somethin' swirlin' in m' veins and circlin' in m' head, and it's warm and spreadin' around me, and I let it come and take me in as it spreads its wings and carries me away.