By Joy and Kim

It took Chris a few minutes to find Nathan. He slipped quietly into the ICU room. Buck looked terrible. Red splotches dotted his face and neck. The circles under his eyes were so dark, he looked like he'd lost a fight. "Nate?" Chris said softly, trying not to disturb Buck. "How's he doing?"

Buck opened his eyes. "He's fine," he answered.

"Yeah," Chris said, "that's why they've got you in ICU."

Buck took a deep breath, followed by several wispy coughs. "It's just in case," he said.

"What do you know?" Chris asked with a relieved smile. "I'd rather hear it from someone who actually knows what he's talking about." He turned to Nathan, who was reading Buck's chart. "Nathan?"

"What?" Nathan asked, with a puzzled expression on his face, as if he hadn't heard a word either of the other two had said.

"You know what!" Chris declared in an exasperated voice.

Nathan laughed. "He should be fine." He let the chart drop to dangle from the clip that attached it to the bottom of Buck's bed. "Turns out our brother is allergic to bees," he informed Chris.

"Figures," Chris mock-groused.

He gave Buck's arm a gentle pat, being careful to miss the bumps from the stings. "You always did like to be the center of attention," he said.

Buck laughed. "You're just jealous of the attention I get from the ladies."

Chris rolled his eyes. He turned to Nathan. "I did have a reason for coming up here. They called Vin in. He threw a fit until Ezra said he'd stay with him until you got there."

Nathan nodded. "I told him I'd be with him when they treated him." His eyes narrowed and he looked more closely at Chris.

"I'm fine," Chris said and took a step back. "Go babysit Vin."

"Uh huh," Nathan said. He grinned and his eyes took on a predatory expression. He stepped around the foot of the bed and carefully lifted Chris's right arm which he had tucked tightly to his stomach. "You need to get checked out," he said.

"Yeah, yeah," Chris said, fully intending to skip the ER.

"I mean it, Chris," Nathan said. "Looks like you might have a little mild frostbite from that fire extinguisher. Take a couple minutes with Buck, then get yourself downstairs. I'll tell them to start a chart. I better get down there and relieve Ezra. Vin's probably climbing the walls by now."

Chris scowled as Nathan left the room.

"What?" asked Buck.

Chris shook his head. "Nothing."

"That look wasn't for nothing," Buck said.

"Nothing for you to worry about," Chris said.

"Is everyone alright? JD? Vin?" Buck asked, his breath becoming more shallow with the concern. He pushed himself more upright in the bed.

"JD's alright," said Chris. "They want to keep him overnight."

"Just in case?" asked Buck.

Chris nodded.

"And Vin?" Buck pressed, and coughed that same wispy cough.

Chris grimaced. "He made a scene in the lobby. He's acting like a stubborn little kid refusing treatment."

"I don't see you rushing to get checked out," Buck commented.

"That's different. He got stung a hell of a lot worse than I did. He's been griping about how bad he's hurting since we got in the car. And, he won't even let the only people who can do anything for him examine him," Chris complained.

"Cut him some slack. He's tired and he's hurting," Buck said and closed his eyes. He wheezed and tried to take a deep breath, only to have it end up in a coughing fit.

"Do you want me to get the doctor?" Chris asked anxiously.

Buck opened his eyes and shook his head. "No. It's okay." He took a careful breath. "Probably talking too much," he said and coughed again.

"I'm going to get someone," Chris said, stepping toward the door.

"Chris, give him a break," Buck wheezed.

"Alright, alright," Chris said to appease him. He stepped into the hall. "Nurse? My brother seems to be having some trouble breathing."

Two nurses immediately went in to check on Buck, leaving Chris standing helplessly in the hallway. If only Vin hadn't been so ridiculous, Nathan would be here. He might have been able to head off Buck's reaction.

After what seemed like hours, but was in reality only a few moments, a doctor stepped out of Buck's room into the hallway. "Mr. Larabee?"

Chris looked up. "Yes?"

"I'm Dr. Walsh, your brother's treating physician. You can go back in for a couple of minutes," said the doctor, "but then we need to let Mr. Wilmington rest."

"Is he okay?" Chris asked.

"He got a little too excited," she said. "He needs to get some rest and rebuild his strength. His breathing is better. He just got a little winded. Take a minute to tell him you'll be back later."

"I will, and thank you," Chris said.

"I should have known your doctor was a woman," Chris said when he stepped back around the curtain.

Buck smiled wanly, the circles under his eyes even darker than before. "You know it, bro," he said, sounding as tired as he looked.

"They're kicking me out of here," Chris said. "They want you to get some rest."

Buck smiled again. "Chris, I'm a big boy. I've got a whole hospital full of nurses to look after me. And, they're a lot prettier than you are. Just go."

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

"Here we are, Mr. Tanner," Nancy said and drew back a curtain from the front of an examination cubicle. "Just get undressed and put that on," she said, pointing to a gown hanging on a hook.

"Why?" Vin asked warily, eying the gown suspiciously.

"You have to change," Ezra said, "so that when Nathan gets here, the doctor can examine you." He looked at Nancy. "We can manage."

She smiled at them both. "I'll be back when Dr. Jackson comes down," she said.

Vin took the gown off the hook and held it in front of him. "You wanna close that curtain?" he asked Ezra.

Ezra stepped inside the cubicle and began pulling the curtain closed.

"You mind?" Vin asked and motioned his head toward the hall.

"Not at all," Ezra said. "Just let me know when you're changed." He stepped into the hall and pulled the curtain shut the rest of the way.

Vin waited until Ezra disappeared and then sank down onto the chair, still clutching the gown, but making no move to change. It's just an examination, he thought. The sooner I get it over with, the sooner I can get the hell out of here. He dropped the gown onto the bed and bent to remove his boots.

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

"Hey, Josiah," JD said sleepily, as he awoke. "I fell asleep," he said, unaware that Josiah had been watching him sleep for the past half hour.

"Yes, you did," Josiah said with a smile.

JD stretched cautiously and then flexed his arms and legs experimentally. "Hey," he said, a surprised smile stealing across his face. "It doesn't hurt as much!"

"Probably has something to do with whatever is in there," Josiah said and pointed to the I.V. hanging on a pole above JD's head.

"Probably," JD agreed. "I'm just glad it's - BUCK! Josiah! Is Buck okay?"

"Yes." Nathan stuck his head inside the cubicle. "Buck's gonna be just fine. Right now, he's in ICU-"

"ICU? He didn't even get stung that bad," JD said. "I got stung way more than he did. Vin, too- Oh god! Is Vin okay?"

"He will be," Nathan soothed. "I'm headed down the hall to see him next. Buck wouldn't have had such a bad reaction, but he's allergic to bees. It doesn't look like any of the rest of us are."

"Tell Vin I hope he feels better," JD said around a yawn.

"Will do," Nathan said. "They'll be moving you to a room soon. You have to stay overnight, just to be sure you don't have a delayed reaction. Are you okay with that?"

"Sure," JD mumbled. "Why wouldn't I be?"

That is the question, Nathan thought, his mind back on Vin. "I'm going to go check on Vin," he said. "Get some rest."

"I'll stay with him," Josiah said. "I have a feeling this isn't where you're most needed right now."

"I have a feeling you're right," Nathan said softly. He gave JD's leg a pat. "Did you get checked out?" he asked Josiah.

Josiah's answer was a toothy grin.

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

"The sanctified dead have risen from the grave!" Ezra declared when Nathan rounded the corner. "It certainly took you long enough."

"Ezra," Nathan said in an irritated tone, "Buck's in ICU, JD's down the hall. Chris and Josiah both need someone to tell them to have their heads examined. And, Vin's got some kind of issue with hospitals. I'm not in -"

Ezra held a hand up to stop Nathan from continuing. "Forgive me," he said sincerely. "I know you're doing the best you can. It's just that Vin has been -" he hesitated, trying to find the right word.

Nathan put a hand on his shoulder. "I know," he said. "It's frustrating not knowing how to help someone you care about. How about I take over with Vin and you go get that neck looked at?"

"I'm fine," Ezra said automatically.

"Humor me," Nathan said. "Please. It doesn't look too bad, but you need to get it checked out, just to be on the safe side."

"As you wish," Ezra said. He started for the exit and then stopped and looked at the closed curtain where Vin still had not summoned him. "Something is very wrong here, Nathan," he said softly.

"I know that, too," Nathan said. "Go get checked out."

Ezra gave him a two-fingered salute and disappeared around the corner.

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

"Excuse me," Ezra said to the nurse behind ER admissions' desk, when she hung up the phone.

"How can I help you?" she asked with a smile.

"Dr. Jackson said I should have someone take a look at me," he said.

"Are you one of his brothers?" she asked rummaging through the charts until she found the ones she was looking for. "Chris Larabee?" she asked, holding up one chart. "Or Ezra Standish?" She held up the other chart.

"Standish," he answered.

She handed him his clipboard. "Fill this out and they'll call you back as soon as I can. It shouldn't be very long," she said.

"Thank you," Ezra replied with a tired smile. He sat down in a chair and began to fill out a duplicate of the form he'd filled out for Vin. He paused and gingerly touched the side of his neck. He'd been so busy taking care of Vin that he hadn't given himself a second thought. He hadn't even realized that he'd been stung until Nathan had told him to get checked out.

The realization that he had been stung brought with it the realization that it hurt. He gingerly touched his neck, until he found the bulge where he'd been stung. Good Lord! The bulge was enormous - and frightening. His neck was swollen almost from his jaw line to his collarbone. The more he thought about it, the harder it seemed to swallow.

"Mr. Standish?"

He looked up. It was Nancy, the nurse from Vin's room.

Holding out an ice pack, she said, "This should help with the swelling until you can be seen. It shouldn't be too long."

"Thank you," Ezra said, taking the pack and applying it to his neck. Nathan had assured him it was a moderate reaction, but he wasn't the one with a growth on his neck.

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

Nathan watched Vin closely. Vin had given them all a good scare by nearly hyperventilating when the doctor and nurse had first come into the room. They had all thought he was having a reaction to the bee stings. Dr. Morgan had immediately put him on oxygen and Nancy had drawn blood, which hadn't been easy to do considering the number of welts on Vin's arms. They'd all been surprised when Nancy had taken his vitals and found that his blood pressure was slightly elevated and his heart rate was rapid, the opposite of what should have happened during a severe reaction to bees.

After several tense minutes, Dr. Morgan had excused himself from the exam area, assuring them he would be right back. That had been fifteen minutes ago. Nathan frowned. 'What was keeping him?'

Nathan stepped closer to Vin and gently rubbed his shoulder. The simple comfort grounded Vin and he began to relax. After a few minutes his breathing was normal. It was then that Nathan noticed Dr. Morgan watching them from the end of the curtain.

"I'm going to go talk to the doctor," Nathan told Vin. He put a hand on Vin's chest, when Vin immediately tried to sit up. "Stay put," Nathan told him. Vin's body tensed under his hand, but he laid back against the pillow.

Nathan motioned to Dr. Morgan to step outside and followed him out of Vin's cubicle. They walked a short way down the hall until they were out of Vin's earshot. "My brother has an issue with hospitals," he told Dr. Morgan.

"Nancy told me- twice, and it's noted on his chart," the doctor replied. "Whatever caused his breathing problem is not related to the bee stings." He told Nathan. "But, I thought maybe he could do with a little space."

"I appreciate that, Doctor," Nathan said.

"I also thought that he might be more comfortable if you removed the stingers," Dr. Morgan suggested.

Nathan frowned. "What about treating a relative?" he asked.

"You're not diagnosing or prescribing treatment, you're simply assisting," Morgan said with a wink. "I think it's the best option for the patient."

"Thanks," Nathan said sincerely. "I owe you one."

"Call it professional courtesy," Dr. Morgan replied. "Let's go tell our patient," he said.

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

Chris was tired. He wasn't looking forward to being poked and prodded, but the pins and needles that indicated the numbness in his arm was fading was exceeded only by the realization that his arm was really starting to burn. He looked at his arm and then noticed Ezra sitting in a chair leaning his head against the wall, eyes closed, with an ice bag on his neck.

Chris sighed. What a mess. A brother in ICU, two in the ER, probably being admitted overnight. Josiah, wherever he was. Nathan trying not to be worried while he was forbidden to treat his brothers, Ezra not looking so good, and his own arm starting to hurt like hell. He hesitated. If Ezra was in the same kind of mood that he was in, it wouldn't take long before they were sniping at one another. But, Ezra was still his brother. It wouldn't be right to ignore him. He sighed. This wasn't exactly his idea of an ideal family bonding moment. Still, they were family.

"Ezra," he said, and slid into the chair next to his brother.

"Chris," Ezra answered without moving or opening his eyes.

"Buck's gonna be okay," Chris said.

"I'm glad," Ezra said.

"This is stupid," Chris complained.

"I agree," Ezra said. "I only agreed to placate Nathan."

"Me, too," Chris said. "He can be a pain in the ass."

"He cares about us," Ezra said softly. "All of us," he said, in a bemused tone. "God only knows why, but he does."

"Yes, he does," Chris agreed and took a deep breath. "What you did today, it took guts."

Ezra shifted in his chair, uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken. "I had a momentary lapse of good sense." He tried for a glib tone, but it fell flat.

Chris grinned at him. "Seems like Nathan isn't the only one who cares," he said quietly. "I'm not just talking about in the barn, either. In the lobby, earlier, if I had lost my temper, Vin might have taken off. He'd have holed up somewhere, hurting, and alone. You done good," he said.

Ezra thought about brushing Chris's words aside, but instead decided for sincerity. "I find myself unexpectedly and, I can assure you, most uncharacteristically concerned," he admitted.

"Family," Chris stated. "You're starting to think of us as family."

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

"Mr. Tanner," Dr. Morgan said as he and Nathan stepped back inside the curtained area. "We'll have to wait a few more minutes for your preliminary blood results to come back. Until then, I'm going to start an IV and give you a little something to ease the pain and the swelling."

Vin nodded. Anything to get rid of the pain and get this over with. He didn't think about the implications of starting an IV - an indicator that he would be staying awhile.

"We're pretty busy here, tonight, and I need to see some other patients as well, so I thought, if it's all right with you, Mr. Tanner, that Dr. Jackson here could assist by removing the stingers."

Vin nodded again. He knew he was going to have to let someone remove them. It would be a hell of a lot better to have Nathan than some stranger.

"Dr. Jackson," Dr. Morgan said. "Could I have another moment of your time?"

"I'll be right back," Nathan promised Vin, as he followed Dr. Morgan out of the cubicle.

Vin closed his eyes. He was too tired to argue with them anymore. Whatever they were going to do, he'd just have to let them.

Dr. Morgan and Nathan stepped into the hall, just as Nancy walked up.

"Hello, Nancy," Dr. Morgan said. "You can start that I.V. now, please."

"No problem," she said and disappeared behind the curtain.

Dr. Morgan waited until the curtain dropped back into place, then spoke. "I wasn't just humoring your brother," he said. "I really do have other patients to check on. I'll be back when I finish my rounds. If you need me before then, have Nancy page me," he said.

"Thanks, Doctor," Nathan said and shook his hand. "I'd better start getting those stingers out."

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

"Damn!" Chris said clenched his fist.

"What is it?" Ezra asked alarmed.

"My arm's not numb anymore and it hurts," Chris said.

Ezra swallowed. He'd been so focused on doing something to help them that he hadn't thought about what the fire extinguisher might do. "I'm sorry," he said softly.

"Sorry? For what?" Chris asked, frowning at him.

"Your arm. I wasn't thinking when I sprayed you with the extinguisher."

Chris's expression changed to one of surprise. "Look, I don't know how they do things where you come from, but out here, if a man is drowning and another man throws him a rope and pulls him out, he doesn't complain about the rope burn."

"Still, I do wish I had-"

"I don't," Chris interrupted. "Vin was caught and couldn't get up. JD was down on his ass. If you took the time to figure out something else, maybe they would have been stung a lot more. And, Buck, he had this reaction from a dozen stings. If you didn't use that extinguisher when you did, how you did, maybe he would have been stung fifty times. You could have frozen; you could have panicked and run." He put a hand on Ezra's shoulder. "You did good," Chris told his brother.

For once, Ezra had no response. In his world, when something, anything, went wrong, people looked for someone to blame. It didn't matter if no one was at fault. It didn't matter if there was nothing anyone could do. Someone had to take the fall.

Instead of being angry, Chris was- was it possible? Chris Larabee was proud of him? Ezra closed his eyes and leaned his head back. The only thing he was certain of at that moment was that hearing Chris tell him he'd done well meant more than the most effusive praise from most of his acquaintances.

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

"Fuck! Nathan, that hurts!" Vin cursed for at least the twentieth time in the past hour and a half, by Nathan's reckoning. He reminded himself that Vin was hurt, frustrated, and upset, and resolutely ignored the outburst.

Finally, he removed what he was nearly certain was the last stinger. Vin had flat out refused to let him or anyone else check his private parts. "Anybody tries to put a hand down there, ain't getting' it back," Vin said with no trace of humor in his voice.

Nathan had started to argue with him, but the cold certainty he saw in Vin's eyes and the stony expression on Vin's face silenced his argument.

Finally, the last of the stingers he could find was out. "That's it," he told Vin and both of them sighed in relief. "Dr. Morgan should be back, pretty soon," Nathan told him.

"Good!" Vin declared. "I just want to go home."

Nathan bit his lip. It wasn't likely that Dr. Morgan was going to let Vin go home tonight. But, he wasn't sure he should tell his brother until the doctor came back. "Why don't you try to get some rest?" he said instead. "You look about done in."

Vin did look about done in. His hair was lank and heavy with sweat. There were dark circles under his eyes. Dozens of red blotches and welts covered his face and arms.

Vin shook his head. "I can't sleep here," he said.

"Let me see if I can find the doctor," Nathan said. "I'll be right back."

Vin nodded wearily. The sooner the doctor got here, the sooner he could go home.

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

Chris and Ezra came around the corner. Nathan waved them over.

"How's Vin?" Chris asked.

"He should be fine," Nathan said. "What about you two?"

"We're fine," Chris said. "See." He lifted the printed instructions he and Ezra had received after treatment and waved them around.

Nathan caught his arm mid-wave and snatched the paper out of his hand. "Wonders never cease," he mocked as he read the instructions. "I tell you to see a doctor and you actually do."

"I'm going to check on Vin," Ezra said and slipped behind the curtain.

"Dr. Jackson," Dr. Morgan came up to the two men, carrying a file.

"This is my brother, Chris Larabee," Nathan introduced the two men. "Dr. Morgan." They shook hands and Nathan asked, "How is my brother?"

Dr. Morgan handed the file to Nathan, who opened it and scanned the first page, then flipped it up and scanned the second page.

"It's what I expected," Dr. Morgan said.

"Pretty much," Nathan agreed.

"Hello!" Chris declared, the scowl on his face matching the annoyance in his voice.

"Sorry," Dr. Morgan said. At that moment his beeper went off. He glanced down at it. "Dr. Jackson, I'll let you explain," he said. "If you'll excuse me," he said to Chris and headed down the hall.

"Well?" Chris asked.

"Relax, he's going to be fine," Nathan said. "As long as he doesn't have a delayed reaction, and there's no reason to think he will, he can go home tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Chris questioned.

"Yes, tomorrow," Nathan answered. "There's always a chance that he is going to have a delayed reaction. With that many stings, if he does have a reaction, he needs to be in the hospital."

"Vin won't stay," Chris said flatly.

"He has to stay," Nathan said worriedly. "If we take him home, and he has a reaction we might not be able to get him back here in time."

"You weren't in that car with him. You didn't see him in the waiting room," Chris said. "He told me he'd climb out the window if we tried to make him stay."

"He's definitely got some kind of problem with hospitals," Nathan agreed.

"Well, he's just going to have to suck it up. I never met anybody so damn stubborn," Chris said, glancing at the curtained off cubicle where Ezra was waiting with Vin.

"For an intelligent man, you are amazingly obtuse," Ezra said stepping from behind the curtain.

Chris's eyes narrowed. "Ezra," he started.

Ezra held a hand up. "Keep your voice down. He finally fell asleep."

"Best thing for him," Nathan said, glancing at the curtain.

"Why am I obtuse?" Chris asked in a softer voice. "Because I think it's stupid for a man to be so stubborn he won't take the help he needs?"

Ezra rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically. "No," he said. "You're obtuse because you don't see what's under your nose."

"Ezra, I'm too damned tired for games. What are you talking about?" Chris demanded, his voice getting a bit louder.

Ezra arched an eyebrow. "Chris," Nathan warned.

"Sorry," Chris said and looked at the curtain. Nathan peeked behind it.

"He's still sleeping," Nathan said in a hushed tone. "Remember where you are," he said, with a pointed look at Chris, who flushed and nodded. He turned to Ezra. "I'm too tired and worried for bullshit," he said. "Do you know why Vin's acting this way?"

"No," Ezra admitted. "But, I do know the difference between stubbornness and fear when I see it."

"Fear?" Chris questioned. "Vin's not afraid of anything that I can see."

"He's not afraid of you," Ezra corrected. "That's a far cry from not being afraid of anything."

"You're right," Nathan agreed. "I couldn't put my finger on it, when y'all first got here . . . when Vin didn't want to come in. He didn't want to let anyone else treat him. I couldn't figure out why at first. I get it now. Something about being in the hospital has him running scared."

"What are we going to do about it?" Chris asked, his anger chased away by concern.

"I don't know," Nathan admitted, "but I need to get back in there and tell Vin that he has to stay."

"No," said Ezra. "I'll do it."

Chris shook his head. "I'll talk to him," he said.

Nathan and Ezra exchanged uncertain glances. Both men looked as if they were about to argue the point.

"Trust me," Chris said softly. "It's about time for me to stop trying to make him be what I want him to be and start being his big brother."

Nathan did trust Chris. No one was more aware than he was, except maybe Buck, of how stubborn Chris could be. But, Chris was also a good man, and a damned good brother. "Yeah," he said. "I'm going to go check on Buck again."

Chris watched him go and then turned to Ezra. "Okay?" he asked.

"You don't need my permission," Ezra said. He found the whole situation damned unsettling. From caring more than he expected to - or thought he should; to his uncharacteristic rush into the cloud of bees, Ezra was more than a little off balance. Now, Chris was asking to be the one to talk to Vin instead of just doing it. That, more than anything else, made Ezra certain that Chris was the right person to talk to Vin.

"I think I'll go check on JD," Ezra said.

Chris nodded and moved toward the curtain, then thought better of it. He turned to face Ezra. "I won't let you down," he said quietly and then he stepped inside the curtained area to wait for Vin to wake up.

"I don't believe you will," Ezra said to the curtain and left to find his brother.

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

Ezra checked the admitting desk to find where they had moved JD to and then he took the elevator to the 3rd floor and exited. He took a moment to orient himself to the room numbers. Following the signs, he headed toward room 326. He stopped outside the door, leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. He was tired.

"Are you alright?"

Josiah's voice startled Ezra. He nodded and stood up straight. "I'm fine. I told Chris I'd check on JD," he said. He'd already had far too much concern from Chris and Nathan for comfort today. Combined with the unfamiliar emotions he himself was feeling, Ezra was overwhelmed.

"He's still sleeping," Josiah said, before taking a sip of the coffee he had just retrieved from the vending machine. "You want some?"

Ezra shook his head. His body was confused enough as it was. The epinephrine had him wired and the antihistamine and pain reliever were making him drowsy. He didn't want to add caffeine to the mix. He touched the side of his neck exploring the swelling, without being conscious of the movement.

"That looks uncomfortable," Josiah said.

Ezra was confused for a moment before he realized what Josiah meant. "It was rather surprising to see how much it swelled from a single sting. The doctor said I had a moderate reaction."

"With that much swelling, I'm surprised they didn't admit you," Josiah said.

Ezra grimaced. Were his brothers psychic? "It may have been suggested," he conceded. He glanced at Josiah's face. The man should be in Vegas. He had a poker face even the famous poker player Daniel Negreanu wouldn't be able to read. "I told them I would be here all night anyway. It wasn't necessary to waste the room. If anything happens I won't have far to go."

Josiah smiled and pushed open the door to JD's room. "Might as well get comfortable," he said. Ezra followed him in and sat in the chair next to JD's bed. Josiah set his coffee on the tray table, and pulled a chair over from the other side of the room. He got his coffee and sat down, watching his younger brothers. JD was sleeping soundly, his mouth slightly open, and snoring softly. Ezra looked stressed. He fidgeted uncharacteristically, as if he were debating something within himself.

"It's confusing, isn't it?" Josiah asked.

"Pardon me?" Ezra replied.

"You barely know these men. At times they annoy you, they irritate you, and yet you find yourself caring about them," Josiah said. "When they needed you, you jumped right in to help them. Your quick thinking saved us all from a lot more pain."

Ezra leaned his head back against the wall. "I don't know why I did that. I saw the extinguisher and just grabbed it. It wasn't like I had a grand rescue plan."

"You did a good thing, Ezra," Josiah said.

Ezra couldn't have been more surprised. Had Chris spoken to Josiah? He shook his head slightly but said nothing.

"You're accustomed to taking care of yourself and you do just fine on your own," Josiah continued. "The people you meet and associate with, aren't friends. You can't trust them. Suddenly, you find yourself dropped into a family and your world turns upside down. You find yourself trusting men you barely know, when everything you've ever learned tells you not to trust anyone."

Ezra had to fight to keep his mouth from dropping open. He'd never believed in the paranormal as anything but a way to part gullible fools from their money, but maybe Josiah really was psychic. "I don't understand any of this." His words were almost a whisper as he leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.

Josiah chuckled softly. "Families are confusing. They make you angry, and a minute later you find yourself fearing for them and protecting them. It's a perfectly normal reaction for a brother." He paused and looked at Ezra, uncertain of whether he had dozed off or not. "Like it or not, Ezra, that is what we are... brothers."

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

Chris shifted in the hard plastic chair and wondered idly if someone deliberately made them as uncomfortable as possible.

He looked up as the curtain moved and Nancy stepped inside. She glanced at Vin's sleeping form and then turned to Chris. "Poor guy's worn out," she said quietly.

Chris nodded. "It's been a tough day," he said.

"I just wanted you to know, they'll be moving him upstairs in about fifteen minutes," she told him.

"Movin' who?" came a raspy voice from the bed.

"Mr. Tanner, you're awake," Nancy said. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine," Vin said automatically, even though he felt anything but fine. He was sore, tired, and fuzzy-headed from whatever they'd put in his I.V. "Movin' who?" he repeated, although he was certain he already knew. They were going to try to make him stay.

"Mr. Tanner," Nancy began, only to have Chris interrupt her.

"Nancy, you've been great, but could I please talk to my brother for a few minutes?" he asked.

"Alright," she said. "I'll be back," she promised with a final glance at Vin before she left.

"I ain't stayin' in no hospital," Vin said, his voice rising in pitch with each word. "Chris, I told you I ain't stayin'. You can't make me."

"No one's going to make you," Chris said quietly, and pulled the chair closer to Vin's bed, so that he could meet Vin's eyes without standing over him. "I know you don't want to stay. But, you can't go home. It's too far from help if you have a reaction."

"I'll go to a hotel," Vin said, desperation in his voice. "I won't stay here."

Chris swallowed. How could he have not seen earlier what was so plainly obvious to him, now? Vin's reaction to the hospital was fear plain and simple. "I know you hate this place," Chris said. "But you're hurt and worn out and you need to be here to make sure that you're okay. So, I'm gonna stay, too," he said. "Whatever your reason is, for not wanting to be here, I'll stay with you and make sure nothing happens. Stay," he urged.

"I can't," Vin said, his voice nearly breaking. "Yes, you can," Chris said. "I don't know why you don't want to stay here." He deliberately avoided mentioning that he knew Vin was afraid for some reason. "But, I promise you, nothing bad is going to happen. I won't let it." "You can't stop it." Vin's words were almost too low for Chris to hear. "Yes, I can," Chris promised. "I only just found my brother. I'm not going to let anything happen to him before I get the chance to get to know him. Trust me," he urged.

Vin's eyes met his. Chris could see tears welling up in them. "I do," Vin said and turned his face away.

"Does that mean you'll stay?" Chris asked hopefully.

Vin turned to face him and Chris could see a lone tear shining on his cheek. He refrained from reaching out and brushing it away.

"Yes," Vin whispered.

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

Nathan yawned and stretched. He glanced at his watch. He'd been with Buck for nearly an hour, but Buck had slept through the entire visit. Dr. Walsh was pleased with his progress. He'd only had one brief incident of stress after Chris had gone downstairs, and no problems in the hours since. He was responding well to the treatment and seemed to be resting comfortably in spite of the welts from the bee stings.

"He's doing fine," the nurse on duty said, as she stepped into the room. She smiled at Buck, and then turned to Nathan, and said apologetically, "Dr. Jackson, I'm afraid, we're going to have to ask you to leave. We've already bent the rules."

"I appreciate that," Nathan told her sincerely. "Three brothers in the hospital on different floors are pretty tough to keep an eye on."

"I'm just glad only one of them ended up here," she said, as she moved around to the side of Buck's bed, so she could adjust the drip on his I.V.

"If he wakes up, would you let him know, all of his brothers are fine and I'll be up tomorrow?" Nathan requested.

"Sure," the nurse said with a smile. "Good night," she added.

"Good night," Nathan said. He left the ICU and made his way to the elevator and went down to the cafeteria. Breakfast had been too many hours ago and he was certain none of his brothers had eaten. The hot food counter was closed, but there were sandwiches in the cold case. He picked out several sandwiches and bottles of water, paid the cashier and made his way to JD's room.

He smiled when he entered the room and saw Josiah bending and stretching, and rubbing the small of his back.

"Hospital chairs will get you every time," he said quietly, so he didn't disturb his sleeping brothers. JD was still snoring softly and Ezra was slumped uncomfortably in a chair, his head tilted to the right as he, too, slept. "He's going to get a stiff neck," Nathan said.

Josiah grinned and accepted the sandwich Nathan was holding out to him. "He's already got one. That bee did a number on him."

"He's lucky he only got stung once and the reaction wasn't worse," Nathan said. "If he'd been stung more, he could have been in the same shape as Buck."

"Thank heaven for small miracles," Josiah said looking over at Ezra. "How is Buck?"

"He's gonna be okay. He's lucky. If he got stung a few more times-" Nathan blanched as the reality of Buck's close call caught up with him. He'd been so busy doing what needed to be done, that he hadn't had time to think about how close Buck had come-

"Hey," Josiah said softly, interrupting Nathan's frightening train of thought. "He's okay, you said so yourself."

Nathan closed his eyes and shook his head and chuckled tiredly. "I said gonna be," he pointed out. "The doctor's pleased with his progress," said Nathan. "They'll probably move him to a regular room tomorrow and keep him a day or two after that."

"Good to hear," Josiah said. "Why don't we let these two sleep and go to the lounge and enjoy this fine meal?"

"You have a strange idea of a fine meal," Nathan said and shook his head. "Lead the way."

They made their way to the lounge and Nathan sank down on one of the hard plastic chairs. He dropped his sandwich onto the table and stretched his arms over his head with a low groan.

"Long day," Josiah said and unwrapped his sandwich.

"The longest," Nathan said and unwrapped his. They ate their sandwiches without further comment.

"That was good," Josiah said, after he finished his sandwich. He took a swig from his bottle of water. "I'm surprised the staff didn't kick us out for the night," he said.

"They did," Nathan said with a rueful grin. "Out of ICU," he clarified. "I think they would have kicked us out of here, too, but they wanted to keep an eye on Ezra and Chris and it was easier to let them stay with JD and Vin than it would have been to fight with them about being admitted."

"How is Chris doing?" Josiah asked.

"He had very mild frostbite from the fire extinguisher. Frostnip in layman's terms," Nathan answered. "They warmed his arm and took care of the stingers. Gave him a tetanus shot." Nathan grinned, "The nurse told me he had some choice words about already being poked enough." The smile faded. "He's staying with Vin so that Vin will stay the night. That's another reason they let us stay," he said. "Vin wouldn't stay until Chris said he'd stay with him." He met Josiah's eyes. "He's scared," Nathan said quietly. "I've never seen him this way."

Josiah nodded. "We haven't known each other long," he said. "Bound to be things that none of us have seen before." He reached over and put a hand on Nathan's shoulder. "We don't have to know Vin's reason. We just need to be brothers."

Nathan nodded. "I'm going to go find where they moved Vin to, and check on both of them."

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

Chris shifted in the chair. Vin was sleeping, although it didn't look like he was sleeping soundly. He shifted in the bed constantly and his brow was furrowed. Every once in a while he mumbled something Chris couldn't understand. If it wasn't for whatever was in the I.V. Chris was certain he wouldn't be sleeping at all.

He yawned and shifted again. He stretched and got up and walked over to the window of the small room. He was glad Vin was in a private room. Being stuck in the hospital was bad enough. Being stuck in the hospital with a stranger would have been unbearable. Especially for someone like Vin. Chris heard Vin moan and turned to find his brother thrashing in the narrow bed.

"Hey," he said and rushed across the room. "Hey, ease up," he said and put a hand on Vin's shoulder.

"Get offa me!" Vin snarled as he bolted upright and slapped Chris's hand away. His eyes flew open and darted quickly around the room.

"Vin," Chris said quietly. "It's okay. It was just a dream."

Vin stared up at him without a trace of recognition. His fists were clenched and his body was rigid. Chris could see the pulse in his neck beating wildly and a tremor raced through his brother. Chris was becoming alarmed, when Vin blinked several times and the tension leeched out of his body.

"What time is it?" Vin asked, his voice rough with sleep.

"Almost ten," Chris said quietly. "You want some water?" he asked.

"Yeah," Vin said.

Chris poured some water from the pitcher beside Vin's bed into a styrofoam cup and handed it to him. Vin drank it and Chris took the cup. He set it down on the table beside the pitcher.

Vin shifted and looked down. "Thanks," he said softly.

"You're welcome," Chris said.

Vin shifted again. "Not for the water," he said, almost mumbling. "Not just for the water," he clarified.

Chris hesitated. They'd both had a hard day. It was late. Did he really want to start this now? Don't you think it's time to act like a brother? Chris could almost hear Nathan asking. He sighed and pulled the chair closer to the bed and eased himself down into it. "Remember that night in the barn?" he asked. "When you told me about the murder charge?"

Vin stiffened, suddenly wary. His eyes narrowed and his lips tightened. He nodded slowly, cautiously.

"Did it help at all?" Chris asked carefully.

Vin shrugged. He was tired and sore and he needed time to process Chris's question. Was there some hidden meaning? How should he answer? The drugs in the I.V. and exhaustion were making it hard to think.

"I know you're afraid of this place," Chris said softly.

"I'm not afraid," Vin said too quickly. He didn't want to have this conversation. Not now, not ever. He could feel his heart beating faster. He just had to get through the night and he could go home. His eyes darted around the room. Nothing was out of place. There were no hiding places. His hands shook. Chris was here. Nothing would happen. Panic was welling up in his chest. "Fuck!" he declared. "I have to get out of here," he said, grabbing at the I.V. in his arm.

"Hey," Chris said, squeezing his fingers gently to prevent him from tearing the tape off that was holding the needle in place. "Vin!" he said sharply.

Vin stopped trying to take the I.V. out and froze in place. "Please," he whispered. "I can't stay here."

"Yes, you can," Chris said. He took hold of Vin's hand, feeling it close around his own hand in a white-knuckled grip. "Look at me," he said in a calm voice that hid the alarm he was feeling. He waited until Vin's panicked face turned toward his. He hoped that Vin saw someone he could depend on. "You can stay, because I'm here," he said. "I'm not going anywhere. If you have to take a piss, I'll go with you. If they want to come in and do some kind of test, I'll stay right here. If they want to drag you down to some lab, I'll go with you. I'm not gonna leave you alone in this place."

Vin looked at him, trying desperately to quell the fear. If there was one thing he knew about Chris, it was that his word was gospel. If Chris promised something, he would do it. There weren't a whole lot of choices. He was too tired and drugged up to run. With a shaky sigh, he nodded and lay back against the pillow.

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

Chris had just dozed off when a nurse brought in Vin's breakfast. It had been a very long night. Vin had fallen asleep a few times, giving in to the demands of his body, but each time he'd awakened in a near panic. Chris had spoken quietly and calmly and managed to calm Vin down each time, but Chris couldn't wait for the doctor to release Vin so they could both go home and get some actual rest. He was still sleeping and Chris motioned the nurse to be quiet and pointed to the nightstand. She put the tray down and whispered. "I'm sorry, but I have to take his vitals."

"Can't it wait?" Chris whispered back. "He's only just fallen back to sleep."

"I'm awake," Vin spoke quietly. "Get on with it," he said and fumbled with the bed controls until he was comfortably reclined.

Chris waited for the nurse to finish. He thanked her and then pulled the over-bed table over and put Vin's breakfast tray on it. "Voila!" he said and pulled the cover off with a flourish. He spoke in a falsetto and did his best imitation of Julia Child, not that he was sure Vin knew who the famous chef Julia Child was, but he was pretty sure it would make Vin laugh. "We have a lovely bowl of delicious oatmeal," he mimicked. "And some delicious toast. Oh my, look at that plastic tub of applesauce-"

Vin's laughter interrupted him.

"What you don't like my Julia Child?" he asked feigning hurt.

"Who's Julia Child?" Vin asked when he stopped laughing. He pulled the tray closer. "Want to share?" he asked.

"Oh no," Chris said. "That's all yours. I'm gonna head down to the cafeteria when Nathan or Ezra comes back and find some real breakfast food, like bacon and sausage and eggs."

"You don't know what you're missing," Vin said and held a spoon of oatmeal up and watched it drop in clumps back into the bowl.

"Yum," Chris said with a sympathetic grimace.

Vin pushed the oatmeal to the side and picked up a piece of toast. He found the buttery spread and then the jelly. "They can't screw up toast," he told Chris.

"Glad of that," Chris said.

Vin laid the toast down when he was finished topping it. "Thanks," he said quietly.

Chris didn't pretend to misunderstand him. "You're welcome," he said. "It never mattered when Buck or Nathan were little why they were mad or upset or afraid of something. I was their big brother and I fixed it. Because that's what big brothers do. I figured it was about time I started acting like your big brother, too" he said.

"You're a good one," Vin said. "Even if you do think you know everything most of the time."

Chris grinned. He was tempted to stick his tongue out but refrained. "That's part of being a big brother, too," he said.

Vin laughed and took a bite of his toast. Chris took the opportunity to use the bathroom in Vin's room. He splashed water on his face and combed his hair. Knowing when not to push is part of being a big brother, too, he reminded himself. I will talk to Vin about his issue with hospitals, but not now. It will have to be on Vin's terms. He has to be the one to bring it up, he told himself before he went back into Vin's room.

Vin was still eating when he sat back in the chair.

A knock on the doorpost of the room caught his attention.

"Gentlemen?" said Ezra.

"Come on in," Chris invited. Vin just worked on eating his applesauce.

Ezra entered and sat down in the chair looking as debonair as day old clothes allowed. "I've just been to see Buck. He's being moved to a regular room in a couple of hours. They want to keep him another day or two. JD's going to be released as soon as the paperwork is completed."

Vin looked at him expectantly.

Ezra grinned. "And your doctor is about three doors down making rounds. Nathan assures me that if you've had an uneventful night, you'll be emancipated soon."

"Can't be soon enough," Vin said softly.

"Agreed," said Ezra. "I'm also here to make sure that Chris goes and gets some breakfast."

"Okay," Chris said. He glanced at Ezra. "If you'll stay here and," he turned to Vin, "if it's okay with you." He had made a promise and he would keep it. If that meant putting his own breakfast off until Vin was released he wouldn't starve.

"I'm quite comfortable here," Ezra said, adjusting in his chair, "and I have no plans of going anywhere soon."

Vin flicked his eyes from Ezra to Chris. "Go get somethin' to eat."

Chris looked him in the eyes. "You sure?"

Vin nodded.

Chris returned the nod and stretched. "I'll be back in a while."

Ezra crossed his legs, resting them on the lower railing of Vin's bed. He unfurled a newspaper and started to read, apparently ignoring Vin.

Vin smiled slightly as Chris left the room.

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

It was almost lunchtime before they'd freed JD and Vin from the hospital. Both of them wanted to see Buck so everyone stopped in to visit with Buck. He wasn't his normally cheerful self. There were dark circles under his eyes and he was pale. Buck was tired and sore and he offered little to the conversation.

However, no one wanted to suggest leaving. They were all too grateful that Buck was still with them. Then one of the nurses caught all six of them crowded into Buck's room and ordered them out. As tired as all of them were, they were still reluctant to leave Buck alone. After much discussion, Ezra volunteered to make the sacrifice and stay. "I'll simply get a hotel room and purchase what I need," he offered. "JD and Vin are looking rather peaked," he said. "You three need some rest and there are numerous chores around the ranch that can't wait. I am the logical person to stay here and look after Buck."

The others let Ezra run through his whole spiel, but in the end, they all agreed that what he said made sense. Vin and JD did look worn out. There were things that needed to be done at the ranch that couldn't wait. Ezra would stay in town and keep Buck company during visiting hours while the other five returned to the ranch.

"We'll be back tomorrow evening," Chris told Buck as they were leaving. "That was too close, big dog," he said using his private nickname for Buck ever since 16 year-old Buck had shot up six inches past him in height. He'd caught up a bit but the nickname had stuck.

Buck gave him a tired smile. "Hand grenades and horseshoes, stud," he replied.

"You suck at both of those things," Chris said. "Do me a favor, no more close ones for a while, okay?"

Buck nodded. "Keep an eye an them," he said looking at Vin and JD.

Chris smiled and squeezed his shoulder. Buck was amazing. He was lying in a hospital after almost dying and he was worried about his brothers. "You got it," he promised. "Let's hit the road," he called to the others.

Buck waited until everyone else had left. At some point, while the others were saying their goodbyes, Ezra had settled in a chair. He was dozing in what looked to be a ridiculously uncomfortable position. His head was flopped to one side and if he stayed that way much longer, Buck was sure he'd pay for it later. A large white bandage covered one side of Ezra's neck. "Hey, pard," he called softly. Ezra didn't move and Buck called louder. "Ezra." Still no response. Buck smiled a little. "Hey, JD," he said loudly. "Do you want to drive Ezra's car?"

"He most certainly does not!" Ezra declared sitting up straight. He looked around blinking confusedly when he realized that the other five were gone. "Very funny," he started to castigate Buck but the unrepentant grin on his brother's tired face and the fact that this brother had almost died tempered his response. If he was being fair, he supposed that he had to give Buck credit for knowing exactly how to get a response from him. "Ha ha," he said but there was no malice in the words and he was smiling.

"Go get some rest," Buck said.

"I'm fine," Ezra said. "I don't want to leave you alone here."

"Ezra, you look like crap," Buck said. "You're tired. It looks like you've got a mountain on the side of your neck. Go get some rest."

"I'm not going to let our brothers down," Ezra said and shook his head.

"They're not here," Buck said. "I am. I'm the one who almost died. I'm tired as hell. I feel as bad as you look. I want to get some sleep. I want you to get some sleep. So do me a favor and go, would you please?"

"I don't know." Ezra was torn. He was tired and sore. He would kill for a shower. But, Buck would be alone.

"I do," Buck responded. "I'm not going to be doing anything but sleeping anyway. You're staying in town, so if I need you, you're not more than a few minutes away."

"As you wish," Ezra reluctantly agreed. "But, I'll arrange for a phone for you, first. If you need anything at all, call me. I'll be here in a flash."

"I know you will," Buck said.

He has faith in me, Ezra was surprised to realize. In some ways, he thought, Buck was nearly as naïve as JD. He can count on me, Ezra vowed. They all can. I won't let them down.

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

JD was grateful when they turned onto the dirt road that led to the ranch. He didn't like leaving Buck alone - He's not alone. Ezra's there, he reminded himself. He was confident that Ezra would take care of Buck. Ezra didn't like doing the dirty chores around the ranch - A gentleman does not debase himself by engaging in menial labor, he remembered Ezra saying. But when it was really important, he was certain that they could count on Ezra.

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

Vin all but jumped out of the car when Chris put it in park. He didn't even wait for Chris to turn the key off before he was out. To everyone's surprise instead of going into the house, he sat on the swing on the front porch.

"Guys," Chris said. "Why don't you go into the house and let me have a minute with Vin?"

"JD needs to get some rest," Nathan said. "I'll see to him getting it."

"I'm not five," JD grumbled. "But, alright," he said with a long-suffering sounding sigh. "You can tuck me in."

"If you're good, I might even give you a cookie," Nathan said with a grin.

"Make it chocolate chip," JD said. "Is he okay?" he asked and pointed to Vin.

The others exchanged glances. "No," Chris said quietly. "But he will be."

7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7 ~ 7

Vin waved to his brothers as they went into the house. He wasn't surprised when Chris hung back. After last night, Chris was bound to have questions. Vin didn't have any answers for him - at least none he was willing to share just yet. He didn't know if he'd ever be ready to talk to Chris about that. He tensed as Chris came up and leaned against the railing in front of him.

"Hey," Chris said. "You should get some rest."

"I will," Vin agreed. "I just need some space for a while."

"Fair enough," Chris said. "I'm going to head inside. It's a little cool out here. Do you want me to get you a blanket?

Vin frowned in confusion. "Ain't you gonna ask me why I acted like a little kid last night?"

Chris shook his head. "I don't think you acted like a little kid. You acted like a man who had his reasons for not wanting to be someplace. If you want to tell me those reasons, I'll listen. If and when you're ready to talk, I'll be here."

Vin's tension eased. He relaxed against the seat. "Thanks," he said. "I meant what I said in the hospital. You are good at this big brother shit."

Chris smiled. "Thanks," he said. "I might not have told you this but I'm really glad you guys are my brothers."

"Even Ezra?" Vin asked with a smile.

"Yes," Chris answered simply. "He's a good man."

"Yeah," Vin said. "He is." He hesitated. "I think maybe we all are," he said.

"I think so, too," Chris said. "You ready to go inside now?"

"Yes. It's good to be home," he answered.

Chris met his eyes. "Home?" he asked.

"Yeah," Vin said with a shy smile. A hint of color stained his cheeks. I don't know when it happened but this place feels like home."

"I'm glad," Chris said. "Would you promise not to kick me in the nuts if I give my brother a hug?"

"Yeah, alright," Vin said and stood up. "But, that kissing the top of the head thing still stands."

"Right," Chris said with a laugh. "No kissing the top of your head." He pulled Vin into a hug which Vin returned. "Let's go home, little brother," he said.