Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #16, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Seven Card Stud that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Patricia Grace and Erica Michaels were the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Art by Shiloh (firstname.lastname@example.org)
My God, but it was a beautiful day! A snow earlier in the week had scrubbed the smog from the air and a bright sun the past two days had melted that same snow, leaving the foothills clear and painted in rich autumn colors. Cottonwoods and aspens had gone gold, maples deep red, and other trees provided browns, oranges, and deep bronzes of varying hues. Of course the pines and firs remained green, a promise of the spring that would eventually come, but not before they had weathered the cold of winter.
Vin drew in a deep breath, enjoying the quiet beauty of the late afternoon. He could feel the sweat drying on his skin, a result of the work he'd just finished, on the long walk from the road back to Chris' house. But as he'd made his way down the driveway, he'd had a revelation.
Lord, but it was hard to believe that he had been with these men for almost a year now! He still wasn't sure what the team was going to do to celebrate their anniversary, but he knew it would be something special, something that expressed how much they enjoyed the work they were doing, and the people they were doing it with.
He was… happy, really and truly contented with his life, and everything in it. It was a feeling he'd never expected to feel, and it was a little overwhelming.
There was no way he could ever thank Chris and the others for taking him in, for making all this joy possible.
He glanced around, looking for his best friend and boss, and finally spotted him through the open doors of the barn. While Vin had been working on putting in a new mailbox at the road, Chris had been finishing up his nearly month-long project of cleaning and repairing the barn. It was the last of the major projects around the property he'd wanted to get finished before winter.
It was as if Chris had wanted to pour a little bit of himself back into every part of his life and his home. It had meant a lot of work, measured out over evenings, weekends, and vacations, but Vin knew Chris was feeling proud of all he'd accomplished. And Tanner had been there to help with a lot of it, as had the others.
Together they had helped Chris clean out the house, the barn, the storage sheds, and even the Ram. They had painted the inside and the outside of the house, and the exterior of the barn. They had repaired whatever needed fixing, all across the property, and Chris had replaced whatever they couldn't repair.
And the entire team had come together to put in new landscaping around the house, something they had accomplished over the summer. That included a small garden, something Vin hadn't touched since he had trailed along behind his mother, picking snap peas fresh off the vine and chomping them with relish while she watched him and smiled. Now, helping to tend Larabee's the small vegetable patch, he felt like he was sharing a little time with her again. It was a good feeling.
Yep, the place was looking good, if he did say so himself.
Hell, even the horses were all looking healthy and happy, including the two new brood mares Chris had managed to purchase after selling off some old tools and equipment he either replaced, or didn't need anymore.
Vin smiled. He just couldn't imagine life getting any better than this.
And he thought it had been good for Chris, too. The blond had thrived over the past year, dropping ten pounds, getting back into top shape, and cutting back on the smoking and the drinking. In fact, except for an occasional cigar to celebrate a major victory at work, Larabee had given up smoking, and he limited himself to a pair of beers when they made a night of it at the Saloon.
The others had all noticed the changes, too, and Vin had been thanked, privately, by each of them for the positive effect he was having on their friend. He wasn't convinced that it was him. Tanner figured that it was the team as a whole that had helped Chris.
Funny that no one seemed to have noticed that Vin had followed suit, taking better care of himself, too, but then he wasn't quite as transparent as Chris was.
Tanner sighed contentedly. He had never been this happy. Well, not since he'd been a tiny boy, living with his mother. He had nearly everything he'd ever imagined came with being happy – a wonderful place to live, a great job, and a circle of friends who cared about him, who were his family. He had a lot to be thankful for, more than he ever expected he'd have, and probably more than he really deserved, he decided.
Watching Chris continue to check over the newest of the mares he hoped to breed next year, Vin began to think that it might just be time he started giving back more. It had been a while since he had done work in his apartment building in Purgatory, so maybe he'd talk to Chris about coming over there next weekend.
They still had two weekends before the big Thanksgiving blast that was planned, and he was sure there was plenty of things around the building that needed to be done. Besides, he wanted to check in with the kids, see how they were doing, and make sure they were staying out of trouble.
It wasn't much, and not nearly enough for the rich blessings that had been bestowed upon him, but it was a good start.
Chris stopped and looked over at him. The blond smiled, but the expression faded into one that was half-curious, half-concerned. "Everything okay?" he called.
Vin nodded and walked into the barn to join Larabee. He reached out, running his hand over the pretty appaloosa's neck and withers. She turned her head, regarding him for a moment, then butted his shoulder with her nose and checked the pockets of his flannel shirt for any treats he might have hiding there.
Vin grinned at the horse and rubbed her face. "Ain't got anything for you, sweetheart," he scolded her softly.
"Something wrong?" Chris asked him, still watching him a little warily.
Vin shrugged. "Just thinkin' I should spend a weekend at my apartment building, see what's going on with the kids 'n' maybe make some repairs 'round the place…" He shot the older man a hopeful look. "Maybe next weekend?"
Chris grinned at him. "Sure, next weekend sounds good to me. It's not like I have anything left to do around here, except kick back and relax, and I know how much you hate doing that…"
Tanner scowled at the man and Chris chuckled softly. "I'm just giving you a hard time."
That brought a twinkle to Vin's eyes. "Y' are, huh? Right here in front of the mare?"
Chris snorted and shook his head. "In your dreams, Tanner. You finish putting in that new mail box already?"
"Yep," Vin replied. "You done?"
Larabee nodded, brushing off the mare's rump with the palm of his hand. He unhooked her lead rope and took her back to her stall, releasing her inside. They watched as she checked the space out, coming to a stop in front of the empty feed bucket. She nickered and nodded her head, clearly demanding that she be fed.
"Horse has a one-track mind," Larabee muttered, but he emptied a one-pound coffee can's worth of grain into her feed bucket. She was happily crunching the tasty meal as the two men headed back to the house.
As they entered through the back door and headed into the kitchen, Vin said, "Oh, yeah, when I was diggin' the hole for the new mailbox, I found this." He dug into his pocket and pulled out a four-inch-tall metal letter S that had been attached to a smaller arc of metal. He handed it to Chris, who looked surprised to see it. "Mean something t' ya?"
Larabee nodded. "I don't know if I ever told you, but half the property here already belonged to Sarah when we got married. I took every penny of my inheritance and bought whatever adjacent land I could get my hands on. When we started the horse ranch I named it the Rocking S, for her… That was the brand… It used to be on an old gate we had out at the end of the driveway…"
"How'd it end up where I found it?"
Chris' head dipped and his gaze fell to the floor. "About a month after she died… I was drunk… drove right through the gate, broke it all to hell. I never found this…" He turned the symbol over in his hands. "Never thought I'd see it again, either."
Vin nodded. "Well, we fixed the gate, ain't no reason we can't put that back where it belongs."
That brought the blond's head up. "I… I guess we can." He smiled. He set the metal brand onto the kitchen counter. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Tanner replied quietly.
Larabee nodded, then jerked his head in the direction of the door. "Let's go grab a shower and we'll drive over and get Mexican at Rosa's."
Vin grinned. He loved the chimmies at the family-run Mexican restaurant. "What're y' waitin' for?" He turned and headed for the spare bathroom, already deciding what he'd order.
Chris shook his head, sighed affectionately, and started to the master bedroom and bath.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The following weekend
Saturday passed swiftly, the seven men moving from one project to the next throughout Vin's old apartment building, helping the residents however they could. The property owner lived in Chicago, and the building manager had a difficult time getting the man to reimburse him for repairs, so they simply didn't get done.
How Chris had convinced the others to join them was a mystery to Vin, but he was grateful for the extra hands, and backs. Well, he'd known from the start that Josiah would come along if he'd asked him to. And it wasn't all that unusual for Nathan to drop by and help out, especially if Rain was away at a conference, or working over the weekend. Buck and JD, however, were a surprise.
Then again, Buck's Saturday date had been grounded in Houston by a strong storm front that had all the planes stuck on the ground, and Casey had gone with Nettie to visit her cousins in California, so they didn't really have anything better to do.
Buck was making himself as helpful as possible, too – to all the pretty women in the building – and JD was spending most of his time checking out the kids' videogame boxes and computers, but Vin figured it was good for them to have someone making a fuss over them, and Dunne could work miracles on most computer systems.
But it was Ezra who surprised Vin the most.
First of all, he hadn't expected the man show up. And, when he did, Vin didn't think he'd actually do any work, but he had.
In fact, Ezra had been working all day, just like him and Chris and Josiah and Nathan, and he knew it was confusing the others as much as it was confusing him.
But then, maybe that was why Ezra was doing it. It upset their expectations, threw them off balance, and Ezra definitely liked to keep everyone around him slightly off balance. It gave him an edge.
But this was their last project for the day – the elevator. The damn thing rarely worked and, when it did, it was… Well, Vin was convinced the blasted thing had a mind of its own, and that mind was more contrary than Peso's, and that was saying something.
The building manager had agreed to have a technician come out, so they had waited for the man, working on other things until he finally arrived. Now the tech was in the basement, working in the closet where the controls were housed while the rest of them, minus Buck and JD, worked to grease the cables, clean up the garbage in the shaft and repaint the cars.
Vin was inside the shaft, using a brush to smear some kind of oily stuff on the cables. He was secured in a harness, and hanging from a rope. Chris was working at the first floor elevator door. He had already cleaned it, and was in the process of installing a small plaque that had the number on it, along with a Braille representation of the floor number to help out three new residents who were blind.
"Hey, ya about done?" Vin called, grinning. "I'm ready t' trade with ya."
Chris glanced over at him as he tried to fit a long screw into the plate, and a matching O-ring set into the wall. "You are, are you?"
"Damn right I am. This shit stinks." Vin held up the brush, coated in the opaque, viscous, dark green substance.
Chris laughed and turned his attention back to what he was doing, finally getting the screw through both holes and using his screwdriver to secure it in place. When he finished, he leaned back against the opposite wall where the technician had been working earlier. And, as soon as he did, he yelped loudly and arched up off the wall, his seizing muscles twisting him sharply to the left. As he turned, he lost his balance and tumbled into the open elevator shaft.
Vin, having looked over at the blond as soon as he'd yelled, watched in horror as his friend fell ten feet to land sprawled at the bottom of the shaft.
Vin dropped the brush into the bucket and hooked the container to the safety rope as quickly as his shaking hands allowed him. Then he disregarded every safety rule he knew and released himself to slide down the rope, allowing gravity to pull him down to Chris as swiftly as it could.
He landed hard on his feet, the force of the impact shooting up his legs, but he didn't care. Fumbling with the rope and quick-connect buckles to get free of the body harness, he called, "Chris!" But the man, lying prone on the concrete floor, did not respond.
Freeing himself, Vin stepped out of the harness and hurried to Larabee's side. "Chris!" he yelled again, dropping down next to the man. He reached out to touch him, but stopped, knowing he might do more harm than good if he moved him after a fall.
Tilting his head back, Vin bellowed, "Nathan!"
Jackson had been working on the second floor a short while ago, and Vin hoped he was still there.
"Nathan!" he called again.
"I'm right here," Jackson said, climbing through the half-sized opening from the basement into the shaft. "I saw him fall. Don't move him," he cautioned, maneuvering over the unconscious man to the side opposite where Vin was crouched.
Larabee was already lying in something close to a recovery position, so Nathan ensured that the blond's airway was open, and that he was breathing. Then, being careful not to move Chris' head in the process, he checked to see if the man was bleeding.
"He's breathing, and his pulse is strong and regular," Nathan said, checking that at one wrist. He reached next for his cell phone, letting the speed dial make the 911 call. He reported the accident and requested an ambulance. As soon as that was done, he slipped the phone back into its case on his belt and looked at Vin, asking, "What happened?"
"I don't know," Tanner replied, looking a little pale and worried. "He leaned back against the wall, hollered, and fell into the shaft."
Nathan frowned and began checking Chris over for any obvious injuries.
Vin leaned over slightly, frowning and asking, "Nate, what do y' make of this?" He pointed to a scorch mark on Chris' shirt.
The former medic pulled out his pocketknife and slit Larabee's shirt to get a look at what was under the mark. What he found was a small patch of angry red skin about the size of a fifty-cent piece. He frowned. "Looks like he was burned…"
"Damn it," Vin hissed. "The freakin' electrical system in this building's just a disaster waitin' t' happen!"
"You think he was shocked?" Nathan asked him.
"I'd bet on it. Nothing else makes sense."
"Could explain why he fell," Jackson agreed, placing his hands on either side of Larabee's head to make sure he didn't move it, then called, "Chris. Chris, can you hear me?"
Larabee groaned softly, but his eyes remained closed.
"Chris, listen, I don't want you to move, okay? You fell. I want you to lie still until the paramedics get here. You understand me?"
Larabee moaned again, but he didn't try to move and his eyes remained closed.
"That's it," Nathan said. "Good. Don't move. You hurt anywhere?"
There was no response.
"Chris?" Vin called.
"Vin," Larabee mumbled, stirring slightly.
"No, stay still," Nathan told him. "Chris, you hear me? Don't move. You fell."
Larabee stopped shifting.
"Chris, you still with us?" Nathan asked, but the blond was out again.
"Here they come," Vin said, hearing the distant wail of the approaching ambulance. He caught Jackson's gaze and held it. "Is he gonna be okay?"
Nathan wanted nothing more than to assure Vin that Chris would be fine, but he simply didn't know. "I hope so," he replied.
"What's going on?" Ezra called from the second floor.
"Chris fell," Nathan yelled up at the man. "Get the others."
"I will do so," Standish replied and disappeared.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Summit Hospital and Trauma Center
The five agents sat scattered around the ER waiting room. Vin had stayed with Chris when the paramedics wheeled Larabee into a treatment room, and he hadn't yet joined them even though more than an hour had passed since they arrived.
Buck sighed heavily and pushed to his feet. "I'm gonna go see if I can find out anything," he said to the others.
"Buck, I'm sure—"
"Nate," Wilmington interrupted him, "I'm just gonna go ask." He left before someone could talk him out of it.
They had all spent time in this hospital before – visiting, or being treated – so the ladies' man knew where he was going. Entering the ER, he headed for the nurses' station, spotting a familiar face as he got closer.
"Hi, uh… Lindsay, right?" he asked when he reached the desk.
She looked up and smiled at him. "Yeah, hi… You're a friend of Vin's, right?"
Wilmington nodded. "How's Chris doing?"
She frowned slightly. "I don't know, but Vin's been in the stairwell for about…" She checked her watch. "…a half an hour now. I was going to go check on him, but I need to get this done…"
"Half an hour?" Buck asked, confused. He turned to look at the closed door that was marked "Stairs."
"He stepped in when they took Chris up to X-ray and he hasn't come out."
"I'll go see what's going on," Buck said, suspecting that the sniper had probably just climbed up to the third floor so he could stay with Chris.
But when he pulled the door open and stepped into the stairwell, he found Tanner sitting on the bottom step of the flight leading up to the second floor. The younger man was trembling all over.
Tanner looked up at him, clearly expecting bad news.
"It's okay, Junior, Chris is still up in X-ray," Buck said softly. "Are you okay?"
Vin nodded jerkily, then shook his head. He looked down, staring at his hands, which were shaking. He clasped them together, but they continued to jerk.
"Vin…" Buck said, not knowing what exactly was wrong, or what he ought to do. He moved closer, but hesitated, unsure if he ought to touch the man. Vin might be a few inches shorter than he was, and twenty pounds lighter, but Tanner could be a force to be reckoned with when he wanted to be. And when he was scared, he was definitely a force. "Hey, he's gonna be fine," he said finally.
"Y' don't know that," Vin said, his voice sounding too thin. "He didn't wake up."
"Come on, Junior, let's go back to the waiting room. The doc'll come and get us when they know something."
Vin shook his head. "I couldn't do nothin'. I saw 'im jerk 'n' he arched up 'n' I didn't know what the hell was happenin'. He just tumbled right int' the shaft. I couldn't do a goddamn thing." He looked up at the ladies' man, his expression distraught. "It's my fault, Buck."
Wilmington swung around and sat down on the step beside the younger man. "Vin, what're you talking about?"
"I asked him t' come help me at the buildin'."
"Vin, he's always helping you at that building. He likes it."
"It's my fault."
"The hell it is. It was an accident, that's all. Look, maybe we…" Vin shook his head, the ladies' man's words fading away.
Tanner sighed. How could he explain it to Buck and the others? He wasn't supposed to be happy, not really happy. A little bit was okay, but not like he was now. Everything wasn't supposed to be perfect for him. He'd let it get too good, and now he was being… what? Punished? Put back in his place?
And it was Chris who was paying the price for him being so damn happy.
It wasn't fair. Why hadn't he been the one? Why did it have to be Chris?
Why couldn't he be really happy, just this once?
"…Vin?" Buck said, a little louder than before since it seemed the man hadn't heard him the first time, or anything he'd just been saying, either.
"I said I thought we better get back to the waiting room. The doctor might be looking for us."
That put a startled look on the man's face. "He is? Why? What's wrong?"
The ladies' man held up his hands. "Whoa! Slow down, Junior, I didn't say he was looking for us, just that he will be, and he's going to go to the waiting room where the rest of the guys are. Don't you think we ought to be there, too?"
Vin nodded, rubbing his damp palms down his jean-covered thighs to try and dry them off. He pushed to his feet, but the sudden movement left him lightheaded and short of breath.
"Whoa! Easy, stud," Buck said, pushing to his feet and reaching out to steady Tanner as he swayed dangerously. The man was still shaking like the proverbial leaf. "Vin, I think we ought to let someone take a look at you."
That brought the sniper's head around, blue eyes flashing dangerously. "I'm fine. Ain't nothing wrong with me," he snapped.
Wilmington's hands came up in a gesture of surrender. "Whatever you say, but you get to shakin' any harder and you're gonna fall down."
"What?" Vin demanded sharply, finally noticing for the first time that he was shivering. But he didn't feel cold… did he? Well, maybe a little, but not enough to explain—
He felt the rush that surged through his body, but there was no way to stop it. "Shit," he whimpered just before his knees buckled.
Luckily, Buck had seen Vin's eyes begin to roll back and he lunged forward, wrapping his arms around Tanner and saying loudly, "Vin! Vin, stay with me, stud."
Tanner gulped for air, his eyes closed, but he managed a nod.
"Come on now, help me here, Vin," he encouraged, starting them for the door. When he reached it, he rested Vin against the wall and pulled it open with one hand, yelling, "Some help here!"
Moments later Lindsay and an orderly were there, helping Buck to guide the half-conscious man back into the hallway and into a wheelchair another nurse had grabbed. They pushed him into a treatment room just as Buck caught sight of Dr. Daniel Chandler headed for them. The ER physician frowned as he watched them taking Vin into one of the treatment rooms.
"What happened to him?" he asked Buck when he reached him.
The ladies' man shook his head. "I'm not sure, just a reaction to seeing Chris get hurt, I think."
Chandler nodded, knowing Tanner was in good hands. He reached out and rested his hand on Wilmington's shoulder, saying, "Come on, I'd rather say this just once…" He glanced back at the room where they had taken, Vin. "…well, twice, but I'm betting the rest of the crew is cluttering up my waiting room, right?"
Buck chuffed and nodded. "Damn straight they are. How is he?"
"Twice, remember?" Dan replied, using his hand to guide Buck back to where the others were indeed waiting.
The other men all came to their feet as they entered.
"Where's Vin?" Josiah asked, looking worried.
Buck wasn't sure how to answer that, and Chandler saved him having to try by saying, "He's being looked over. I'll go tell him what I'm going to tell you as soon as we're done here."
The men shifted over to the sofas and sat down. Dan smiled to let them know good news was coming and then said, "Okay, the good news is, Chris is going to be fine. He sustained a mild electrical shock, which left a small second degree burn on his back – about the size of a silver dollar. That shock caused him to fall. In the fall he sustained a hairline fracture to the jawbone and collarbone, and a mild concussion from the impact, but he's awake, and he's lucid. I'm thinking he's probably got a strained back as well, but he probably won't notice that until tomorrow. Nothing life-threatening, but we'll keep him overnight just to keep an eye on the electrical shock, make sure no side-effects slip up on us."
The there was a collective sigh of relief as the men dropped back against the cushions, relaxing for the first time since the accident. Chris would be fine. The injuries were minor.
"We're moving him to a room right now, but as soon as he's settled you guys can take over," Dan told them. He looked down at the file he was holding to check the room number. "It's 207… Same one as the last time, right?"
Buck grinned. "Yeah, I think it was, but it was Vin's room that time, not Chris'."
"Oh, yeah, now I remember. Well, give us about twenty minutes and then you head on up," Chandler said as he stood. "I'm going to go see how Vin's doing, give him the news and then, if they cut him loose, I'll send him up to join you, okay?"
"Sounds like a plan," Buck told him.
The others stood as well, waiting until the physician had left before heading for the elevators and riding up to the second floor. They stopped at the gift shop to pick up some items for Chris, and then headed for his room, their spirits high.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin, however, lay on an examination table, letting the doctor and nurses do their thing. He was fine, just rattled by what had happened to Chris. But it was still hard to breathe and he was still shaking.
They started an IV, and a nurse handed him a small pill and helped him sit up so he could take it with the water in a small paper cup. He wasn't sure what it was for. He thought they might have told him, but he couldn't remember.
The nurse, Lindsay, helped him to lie back down and someone unfolded a blanket over him. His eyes started getting heavy, but he fought against it; he wanted to know how Chris was doing.
But he couldn't win. The blackness rose like a flash flood, swirling up around his consciousness and sweeping him away before he could mount a defense against it.
The last thing he heard was Dr. Daniel Chandler's voice… "Damn, I didn't think he'd be out that fast!"
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin blinked, slowly coming awake. At first he wasn't sure where he was, but then he remembered – Chris, the fall, the hospital… Looking around, he spotted Larabee lying in a bed. So, they were still in the hospital. Damn.
A soft spoken voice; Josiah's voice, Tanner realized. He looked over at the older man. "Wha—?"
"You're in Chris' room. They just wanted you to get a few hours' sleep. Are you feeling better?"
Vin took a deep breath and sat up, realizing that they had put him on a small pull-out bed in Larabee's room. He could feel the thick veil of the drugs still clinging to his consciousness, but he did feel better, and he could breathe, and he wasn't shaking anymore.
"How is he?" Vin asked quietly, not wanting to wake Chris.
"Fine," Josiah said, passing along the news Dr. Chandler had given them.
"Thank God," Vin sighed when he had heard.
Josiah nodded. "He was worried about you."
Vin shook his head. "Ain't no reason. I'm fine."
"Which is why they needed to treat you?"
Vin scowled. "Didn't need 'em to."
"That's not what Dr. Delasorsky said," Josiah challenged.
Vin ignored the comment. "Where's everybody else?"
"Home," the profiler said.
"Why didn't you go home?"
"I thought I should stay, so I could tell you what Dan said when you woke up… And I wanted to be sure you were okay."
Vin's dipped his head, his cheeks coloring. "Appreciate it."
"Vin, what happened?"
Tanner sighed and scrubbed his fingers through his hair. "Don't really know. I just… I couldn't breathe, and I started shakin'…" He shook his head. "I don't know."
Josiah nodded. He hadn't really expected the man to understand it. "Buck said you were blaming yourself for what happened to Chris. You do know it was just an accident, right? It wasn't anybody's fault."
Vin sighed again, refusing to look up and meet the older man's eyes. He just didn't know how to explain it. It was like he was cursed or something. Get too happy and – bam! – something came along and took it all away. But now that meant Chris, the team, both things he loved more than anything in the world, more than his own life.
"Vin?" Josiah pressed. "This wasn't your fault."
"I asked him to come help me."
Josiah's eyes narrowed slightly. He could tell Tanner was trying to divert him. "So? We've all helped out in the building. It wasn't anything special."
Another huffed sigh, this one sounding more annoyed. "I can't explain it, J'siah," he grumbled, his Texas drawl getting a little deeper, a sure sign Vin was flustered.
"Try," the profiler replied.
A very annoyed sigh preceded Tanner's next words. "Yer gonna think 'm crazy."
"Already do, so go ahead."
Vin's head came up, his eyes rounded with surprise and ire.
Josiah smiled. "Vin, I'm just saying that our feelings aren't always rational. And that's perfectly normal. Just tell me why you think this is your fault."
Damn profilers anyway. Vin looked back down at the floor, drew a deep breath, held it for a moment, then said in a rush, "Every time I'm happy, something comes along to take it all away from me." His head came up and he fixed Josiah with a pained expression. "Ain't never been this happy, J'siah – never. What if it all gets taken away, like before? What if I get 'im killed, or one 'a you?"
Josiah stood and walked over to the small sofa that was also a bed. He sat down next to Vin, slipping his arm around the younger man's shoulders and saying, "Vin, I know it might feel like that's the case, but I don't think you have some kind of karmic bull's-eye painted on your back. God, or the Devil, or Mr. Murphy isn't out to get you."
"I know that," Vin half-growled, even if it did feel that way sometimes. "But it's like I ain't supposed t' be happy – really happy, anyway."
"Vin, that's exactly what we're supposed to be. Lord knows it's not easy to find happiness, and it's not always easy to hold onto it once we do, but that is what we're here to find. I truly believe that."
"Even me?" Vin asked, turning his head and looking up at the profiler. And, at that moment, he looked like nothing more than a lost, frightened boy who needed to be held and comforted.
"Yes, Vin, even you… especially you," Josiah said, pulling him closer.
"Why?" Vin asked, looking down, but allowing himself to be pulled tightly against the big man's side.
"Because those among us who suffer greatly, deserve great happiness, at least in my book."
Vin snorted softly. "Reckon y' got t' earn it, J'siah, 'n' I ain't done nothin' t' deserve what I got now."
"You're wrong, Vin, you have earned it, and you sure as hell deserve it."
"Chris does," Vin agreed. "He's suffered more 'n any man ever should."
"And you haven't?"
Tanner shrugged. "It ain't the same."
"Vin, I want you to listen to me. Every single one of us has suffered, some of us more than others, but we all get battered by life, and if we can find a little happiness, well then, we've earned it. And if you find that happiness, and you still take the time to give back a little of it to those who have less of it, then you sure as hell deserve it – more than most."
Vin sighed deeply, not at all sure if he believed his friend, even if he wanted to. He did try to live his life in a way that would make his mother proud of him, if she'd been there to see it.
"Vin, ever since I met you, you've tried to help the ones you could. You're a good friend, and a good man. What happiness you can find, you deserve. Trust me on this. And I sincerely believe God thinks so, too."
A small smile lifted the corner of Tanner's mouth. "Y' do, huh?"
"Yes, I do. What happened today was just an accident, son, nothing more. How many times have there been problems with the electricity in that building?"
"Too many," Tanner grumbled. "Damn building's possessed."
Josiah chuckled, hearing the real Vin coming back. "Maybe we ought to ask Father Tim to drop by, do an exorcism."
Vin snorted. "Naw, that'd probably just piss whatever the hell it is off, make things even more crazy 'n they already are. Poor Father Tim might end up cursed, or somethin' worse."
"You're probably right," Josiah agreed.
Vin looked up and over at Chris. "He really okay?"
"Yeah, he really is."
"Scared me bad, J'siah."
"I know… You don't think it scares the shit out of us whenever you get hurt?"
That put a smile on Vin's lips. "I don't get in half the trouble he does."
That prompted an incredulous snort from the man lying in the bed. "Fuck you, Tanner."
Vin's smile widened. "Nope, ain't gonna let y' do it… all the nurses'll want t' watch."
That prompted a snort from Josiah. "Tanner, you are an evil man."
Larabee's head rolled side to side. "Josiah, get him out of here, will ya? He's obviously in need of a good night's sleep."
"Ain't goin' nowhere, Cowboy," Vin replied, his tone making it perfectly clear he wouldn't be leaving, and nobody better try to move him, either.
"That's right, Vin's staying," Josiah agreed, standing. "Now, both of you, behave, and get some rest, okay?"
"Okay… Dad," Vin said, flopping back down on the little bed.
Josiah glared down at him. "Smartass."
"Only the ladies know fer sure," Vin replied, wagging his eyebrows in a good imitation of Buck.
The big profiler shook his head, hands coming up in a gesture of surrender. "Oh, too much information!"
"Way too much," Larabee agreed with a groan.
"Goodnight, brothers!" Josiah said, heading out the door.
When he was gone, Chris rolled his head to the side and looked over at Vin. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Tanner replied, looking back, drinking in the vision of the man apparently on the road to a full recovery. "You?"
"Will be… In no time, they tell me. Somebody go out to the ranch?"
The younger man nodded. "Buck and JD said they'd go and make sure all the animals were fed." Vin pushed himself up and walked over to the bed. He leaned against the low rails, staring down at Chris. "So, did y' get zapped?"
"A little," Chris admitted. "Doc says it wasn't the fall that did the damage…"
Tanner nodded, a small grin forming on his lips. "Yeah, it was that piss-poor landing that gotcha."
"Too true," Larabee agreed, a wry expression on his face. "The landing is the motherfucker."
"You're just lucky it didn't kill ya," Vin told him.
"Yeah, well, we seem to have luck on our side… thank God."
"Amen to that. They say when you can go home?"
"If Dan's telling me the truth, tomorrow afternoon."
Vin nodded. That gave him just enough time to do what he wanted to do before Chris got home. "Y' get some sleep," he said. "Me, I'm gonna go see if Teri's working tonight."
"Mmm," Chris said, closing his eyes. He wanted to stay awake, to talk to Vin about what he'd overheard, but he could already feel the pull that was going to sweep him away. "Josiah's right," he managed breathlessly, his eyes still closed, "this wasn't your fault… We're supposed to be happy, Vin… all of us."
Vin watched Chris slip off to sleep, then pulled the blanket up to make sure he stayed warm. "Ain't so sure about that," he replied softly, "but I hope you're right."
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The following morning
Chris woke to find Nathan sitting in his room. He frowned slightly. "Where's Vin?"
Nathan looked up from the book he was reading and smiled. "Good morning. Vin took off as soon as soon I got here. I told him I'm stay until Buck comes by. How're you feeling?"
"Better," Chris said, then admitted, "A little sore, though."
The former medic nodded. "That's gonna get worse before it gets better."
"Yeah, I remember," Larabee grumbled. "Hell, you'd think we'd get used to this…"
"Heaven forbid," Jackson replied, the expression on his face nothing less than horrified. "Hey, you mind if I go grab some coffee?"
Chris shook his head, saying, "Naw, go ahead."
Nathan stood and tossed his book onto the seat of his chair. "I saw the breakfast trays go by a minute ago, so you should be getting something soon, too."
"Thank God," was Larabee's heartfelt reply. As Nathan turned to leave, he called, "Hey, Nate, where was Vin going?"
Nathan swung back to look at him as he said, "I don't know. He just said he had something he needed to take care of. I assumed he was going to go pick up some groceries, and get some fresh clothes for you."
Chris nodded, but he doubted that was it. Alone in his room, he frowned, wondering what the hell had gotten into Vin's head. If he's still blaming himself for this…
Well, there was no telling what Vin might be up to. He would just have to wait and see.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin arrived back at the hospital just after lunch, staying until Chris was released later that afternoon. He didn't say anything about where he'd been, or what he'd been doing, but he had clothes for Chris, and he'd brought Ezra's Jag for the drive to the ranch, knowing it would be the most comfortable ride for the injured man. How he'd talked Ezra into letting him drive the Jag out to the ranch, Larabee would have paid good money to hear.
When they reached the freeway, Vin let it be known that the others were already at the ranch, fixing supper and stocking the refrigerator since Chris was going to be sore enough over the next few days that he wouldn't want to drive over and do any shopping.
Larabee had to admit, there were times he was damn glad he had these men in his life. They were more than his friends, they were his family, and family took care of each other.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
When Vin slowed and pulled off the road and onto the gravel driveway leading to the house, Chris saw it. So that's what he's been doing… The Rocking S was back in business. A small smile softened his expression. "It could've waited," he said.
Vin shook his head. "Nope, everything else is fixed, an' I wanted that t' get fixed before Thanksgiving, too."
"That all there is to it?" Chris asked him.
Vin slowed and stopped, letting the car idle. "No," he said quietly. "Guess I kind 'a felt like I'd let her down."
Chris' expression was puzzled. "How do you figure that?"
"Still feel like I got y' hurt…"
"I know, I know, and I'm workin' on it, but it's hard t' shake. Every other time I thought I was happy… it all got taken away from me. So, when y' fell…"
"You thought the team and I were being taken away, too?"
He nodded. "Felt like it was m' fault… 'Sides, I made Sarah a promise while I was fixin' up those photo albums in the spring. Told her I'd take care of ya the best I could."
That brought a smile to Larabee's face. "Yep, just what I need… babysitter."
Tanner sighed heavily. "Well, y' need one! Ain't never seen a man get himself in the kinds of situations you do. Y' need a keeper."
"And you think you're the man for the job," Chris replied.
"Job's too big fer a single man… It's gonna take the whole damn team."
Chris snorted. "And you think you're any better? Should I count off the number of times—"
Vin's hands came off the steering wheel. "I remember 'em just fine."
"Come on," Chris said with a grin, "we better not keep them waiting too long, or Ezra will be hiking out here to see what's wrong with his precious ride."
Vin chuckled and nodded, starting off again. Damn, but it was good to have Larabee home again.
Damn… How had he gotten to be so lucky?
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