by Deirdre

ATF Universe

Part 18

Vin shifted restlessly, and coughed weakly. Chris continued to cool his face and chest, grateful for each ragged breath that crossed his neck. He watched the dark, desert terrain slip by and wondered how Vin had gotten this sick. Holding his best friend a little closer, he wiped the flushed face and whispered words of encouragement.

"Don't you die on me, Cowboy."

Vin struggled against the strong undercurrent of the dark, tumultuous river. It's strong arms pulled the pair of boys, tossing them around like ragdolls. Vin spotted a tangled mass of tree limbs and latched on. He lost his grip on Nicky, and watched helplessly as the raging water carried the small boy away. He screamed, fighting to tear loose from the tangled tree limbs.

"Easy, Vin, I got ya," Chris soothed, wincing as Vin relived another nightmare.

Vin felt strong arms gripping him and heard a comforting voice. He couldn't see, there was blackness all around him. He was freezing. He felt the arms wrap around him closer and felt safe. Then the painful scene of Nicky being torn from him returned.

"Nicky...sorry...No..."Chris saw the blue slits staring at an unseen picture. He managed to coax some water into Vin, whose eyes slid shut again. Chris saw the approaching rescue vehicle slow up and pull to the side of the road. He expelled a sigh of relief and saw J.D.'s head stir.

"You okay, J.D.?" He stuck his hand across the seat and squeezed the boy's shoulder.

"Chris? Where are we?" J.D. gasped.

"Almost in Carlsbad, ambulance just pulled up."

With that, the door opened and Chris saw an EMT stick her head in the back."How's he doing?" She asked, pulling Vin's legs toward her.

"He's still breathing," Chris muttered, "How far to the hospital?"

"Fifteen minutes or so," she replied, "You got him, Ed?"

"Yeah," her partner replied, easing Vin on the gurney, "I'll put him on 02 get an IV line going," he assessed, easing Vin into the back of the ambulance, "You check on the kid."

Chris stood at the EMT's shoulder and watched her talk to J.D. Her easygoing nature and pleasant smile, disarmed the tired youth and he relaxed under her gentle touch. "You broke a couple ribs," she eased his shirt back down, "I can put you in the back, next to your friend..."

"No, Chris you go...Vin might wake up. He'll be looking for you."

"Are you sure, J.D.?" Chris gave the youngest a cautious stare.

"I really don't want to move around too much," J.D. winced, "Ten minutes isn't very long, I'll be fine."

"I got a portable 02 unit, it should help you breath easier, I'll be right back."

J.D. knew Chris was mad at both of them, probably had a half-dozen broken rules ready to throw at the two of them. He saw the vein throbbing on the blond leader's temple and pulled on his sleeve.


"Yeah, Kid," Chris leaned in the car, looking at J.D.'s owlish stare.

"You ain't gonna shoot us, are you?"

Chris bit back a grin, "Not this week, J.D.," ruffling the dark hair, he turned to leave, "But we're gonna talk about it."

The ride to the hospital was filled with constant movement. Vin seemed to disappear in a tangle of tubes, lines and the 02 mask. The EMT's were tossing jargon back and forth as they assessed the victim's condition.

"How is he?" Chris managed, taking Vin's limp hand.

"By my eye, the 104 temp, congestion and chills, say it's the Flu. I recognize your friend's name. The evening news ran a piece on your two missing men. There's a Flu epidemic up north, I'd say he's got a good dose. The doctors in the ER will take good care of him."

Vin heard voices, which seem to drill right through his pounding head. He felt like he was sinking in a pool of hot mud. It was choking him, covering his nose and mouth. He reached for his face, gasping.

"Leave that alone," a familiar voice hollered, "That's helping you breathe."

He fought weakly against the hands that fought him. The voice was loud and he turned towards it.

Chris saw Vin's face screw up and leaned in as the head turned. He saw Vin swipe the mask off again and his lips move.

"...quit yellin'..."

"I wouldn't have to if you'd behave," Chris admonished, grabbing the flighty hand, "Come on Cowboy, work with me."

Vin paused, wheezing heavily and turned toward the voice. He managed to peel his eyes open a crack. A blurry blond face was leaning over him, wiping his head. The voice and the fuzzy face merged with the word 'cowboy'. Vin's muddled mind conjured up a name. He didn't know why, but he felt safe. The name found a place on his lips.

Chris smiled and squeezed the weak hand, spotting the silent passage of his name on Vin's lips. He leaned in, ensuring the delirious man would hear him.

"I'm right here, go on and rest."

+ + + + + + +

"How's J.D.?" Nathan asked, spotting Buck enter the small waiting room.

"They just took him to x-ray, they figured he's broken a couple of them bruised ribs. He's a little dehydrated, and damn lucky that fool head of his is still attached to his body, " Buck theorized, then spotted Chris's back, across the room, "You get kicked out, Pard?"

He started over to the tense frame, when Josiah intercepted him.

"Not a good idea, he's pissed."

"They separated him from Mr. Tanner upon arrival," Ezra whispered, as Buck sat between the Gambler and Nathan.

"Pulled his hand right out of Vin's," Nathan added, "Vin was really upset. We heard him calling Chris all the way to the ER."

"What the hell's the matter with this two-bit hospital?" Buck roared, "Shouldn't their first priority be to keep the patient calm? Who's in charge?"

Before a reply could be sought, the door opened. The nurse stepped back as she was assaulted by all corners, with a slew of questions. She put both hands up and whistled, silencing the room.

"He's holding his own. His temperature is just over 105 and we've confirmed he's been hit hard with a new strain of the Flu. As soon as they clean up his back, which has some minor lacerations, they'll take him to I.C.U. Is one of you named Chris?" She saw a man across the room, turn and nod, "Can you come with me? He's become highly agitated and we need you."

"You folks didn't use to work as NASA by any chance..." Buck leered, giving Nathan and Josiah a chuckle, Ezra laughed outright. "Buck..." Chris admonished, leaving the room.

+ + + + + + +

Chris picked up his pace, when he spotted Vin's contorted face. The body was racked in pain, leaning to one side. Vin was choking, his blue eyes full of fear and tearing. Chris moved the nurse out of the way and grabbed the hot face, locking eyes.

"Calm down, you're only making it worse. These people are trying to help you. Deep breaths, Buddy, in and out..." Chris saw Vin gag again and realized what he was doing

"...damn stubborn fool," he swore, gripping Vin's chin, "Let it out, quit swallowing. Cough it up...come on..."

He moved to let the nurse in and supported his head, while she held the basin. By the time he was done, he was wheezing heavily, his face lined with tears. Chris wiped the sweaty face and slipped the straw in his mouth.

"Water...slow and easy...that's it, Vin."

Vin heard the voice and relaxed, the tension leaving his body. Everything hurt...especially his head and chest. He gripped the hand of the blond man, holding on for all it was worth. He heard the voice in his ear again.

"It's okay, I'm not leaving you again," Chris felt the deathgrip and saw the fear written in the muddled eyes.


"Where you hurting, Vin?"

"...head...chest...throat...bones...dying?" The blues eyes blinked.

"Not for another sixty years of so," Chris teased, wiping the fevered brow, "You're a Tanner, you're gotta fight, Vin."

" trying...Mister...Chris..." Vin cried out, gripping Chris's hand hard as the antiseptic hit his back.

Chris then realized what the confusion and fear in his best friend's eyes was. Vin was trapped in a twilight zone, between a tortured childhood and reality. He recognized what 'Chris' represented, but not who he was. He spotted the blue eyes fighting to stay awake, looking for him.

"You rest now, Vin. I won't leave you again. You're safe, Son."

Finally the body relaxed and Vin slept. They eased him onto his back and Chris placed the limp hand under a sheet. The doctor nodded to an orderly, who wheeled Vin towards an elevator.

"He'll be in ICU until he's stablized. It's usually not as severe in a young, active man such as Mr. Tanner. But his recent misfortune, left him vulnerable. His system was already weakened and ripe for a strong virus, like this new Flu strain, to attack."

"You're sure it's the Flu," Chris asked, "He's been tested all week for some kind of Rat Fever..."

"I spoke with his attending physician, all the blood work remains negative. We'll confirm that with our own test. He was hit hard, much like the elderly and the very young. He's just too weak to fight. He seems to rally with you near him. You can stay as long as you like. I'll have a cot sent up. I'm afraid you're friends will have to return tomorrow. We have a strict policy for ICU Two hours, twice a day, two visitors at a time."

"You might have a mutiny, Doc," Chris sighed, extending his hand, "Thanks..."

"ICU is directly above us, the stairwell is to your left. I'll be up shortly."

Part 19

Buck finished shaving and rinsed the excess lather off his face. Rummaging through the blue and white plastic bag, he found a sweatshirt and ripped the tags off of it. Leave it to Ezra to think of going to a store and getting provisions. He winced as he stretched his back, all hospital chairs had a universal built in back torturing device.

"Leave him alone...No...Vin...."

Buck groaned and moved quickly from the bathroom in J.D.'s room. He nearly ran into Josiah, who'd just entered, setting a box on the chest of drawers.

"Morning, Brother," Sanchez boomed.

"I'm gettin' too old for this Josiah," the weariness in Buck's voice was evident.

"The pains of parenthood," Josiah said seriously, giving Buck a pat on the shoulder.

Both men flanked the disturbed youth and called out to him. Buck gently shook the cotton-clad shoulder, until the hazel eyes blinked up at him. He watched J.D.'s face scrunch up as the pain in his chest greeted him.

"Sorry..." he gasped, letting Buck pull him upright.

Josiah found a spare pillow and placed it behind J.D., giving him a brief respite. He sympathized with the young man plagued by nightmares.

"Demons again?"

"Yeah...Jeez, Buck, did I do that?" J.D. winced, spotting Buck's bruised cheek.

Buck nodded and grinned, "You got a good left hook, even when you're not awake."

"I thought morning would never come," J.D. fretted, remembering the awful nightmares. "How's Vin?"

"No change," Josiah said, "I checked on my way up. Can't get in until ten a.m. Buck, why don't you get some breakfast? There's a coffee shop on the corner."

"Go on Buck, and hand me them doughnuts on your way out!"

"Now that hurts, Kid," Buck winced, placing the box on the stand in front of the hungry boy, "Being replaced by dozen doughnuts."

"I'll save you one," J.D. replied, biting into a creme doughnut.

"You're all heart," Buck muttered, leaving the room.

Riding down in the elevator, he got an idea. He spotted a convenience store on the corner and got two large coffees, two breakfast bagel sandwiches and two large orange juices. Trotting back to the hospital, he went in through the ER entrance and followed the path he recalled from the night before. Spotting the elevators off the ER, he punched the button for the second floor. He peeked cautiously out of the open doors at the quiet ICU unit. It was just after seven a.m. and the two nurses on duty, had their backs to him. The rooms were in a square, surrounding the nurse's station. He tiptoed to his right and peered in three empty rooms, before he found the right one.

He saw the unused cot, still folded where the maintenance workers left it the night before. He wasn't surprised. He sat the bag down on the stand by Vin's bed. He swallowed hard at the flushed face, and wiped the damp tendrils of hair off the young man's forehead. He looked so young and frail. Buck eyed the two I.V's that fed fluid and antibiotics into his system. The gurgling of the 02 unit, providing oxygen was the only noise in the still room.

He made his way around the bed and allowed himself a half-smile. Chris was asleep, his head resting on his arms, which were folded by Vin's hip. He rubbed the slumbering man's back gently and instantly the head shot up."Vin? What's wrong..." The sleepy voice stuttered.

"Shhh!" Buck warned, "You'll give me up."

"Buck?" Chris blinked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, "How did you get in here? They got the doors locked."

"I took the elevator off the ER. Same one I rode in last night with J.D. I remembered this stop. Here..."

Buck handed the cold juice container to his weary friend. He pulled up a chair and flanked Larabee, who'd already drained half the juice. He unpacked the coffee and sandwiches, and was surprised that Chris devoured the bagel.

"Ezra went to store and got you some clothes and such. They're in the closet in J.D.'s room, in a red bag. There's a hot shower in the bathroom, if you wanna get cleaned up. Ezra and Nate got some rooms at the Best Western, up the road apiece."

"I not going anywhere," Chris sipped the coffee, eyeing his infirmed friend.

"Figured as much," Buck rubbed Chris's hunched shoulder, "He come around at all?"

"Not really and when he does, he's incoherent," Chris rubbed his face, stood and stretched, "How's J.D.?"

"Boxing in his sleep," Buck replied, "spent what little sleep he did get, reliving what happened. Josiah's sitting with him. You really ought to get a hot shower, Pard. You'll feel better."

Chris was wiping Vin's face, when the eyelids fluttered. The unfocused eyes squinted up at him, and a weak hand snaked up his shirt.

"Hey Buck, Gimme a hand here," Chris lifted Vin forward, "Get some water in him."

Buck slipped around Chris and picked up the water cup. "Here ya go, Vin," Buck lifted the oxygen mask and brushed the straw against Vin's lips. The response was immediate, "Slow down, Pard, we got plenty where that came from."

Vin turned and stared at up at him, frowning. His constant blinking told the tall agent, his eyes weren't working. Buck turned the pillows, so the damp side would be towards the bed. Chuckling, he eased the mask back. By the time Chris lowered him back onto the pillow, he was out again.

"Poor Boy's got no idea where's he at or what's going on," Buck tossed the paper bag away and stood by Chris, "J.D.'s in 419, upstairs. Go on, Chris."

"I won't be long..."

Buck was right, the hot shower, shave and clean clothes made a big difference. He made a mental note to thank Ezra. He stepped out into the room and J.D. looked up. Josiah had gone to the lobby, seeking a newspaper.

"How you feeling, J.D.?"

"Sore...tired. Tired of being sore."

"It has been a bad couple weeks for you," Chris studied the boy's face, "Buck said you had a rough night."

"It was bad enough living through that once. I kept dreaming about it. How's Vin?"

"Still not out of the woods, but he's fighting. His temp went down a little." Chris staggered slightly, and J.D. grabbed his arm.

"Chris? You better sit down." J.D.'s voice rose and he saw the stitches at the leader's hairline, "You could have a concussion."

"You've been hanging around Nathan too long," Chris replied, easing his body into Josiah's chair.

"Could do a whole lot worse," Jackson added, entering the room with Ezra.

"Mr. Dunne, I see you are on the road to recovery," Ezra noted the powered sugar on J.D.'s face.

"Chris, you need to get some sleep," Nathan frowned at Larabee's pale face and drawn features. "The other bed's empty. Why don't you lie down?"

"A capital idea," Ezra handed Chris two Tylenol's and a cup of water.

"Thanks," Chris downed the painkillers. He did feel awful, "Wake me in an hour or you're all fired."

"Is that a promise?" Ezra inquired.

Buck was watching the news, with the sound turned down. The muffled voice had him on his feet in an instant. Vin's eyes widened, when Buck bent over him. He watched the delirious man back away. His blue eyes darted around the room. He knew he was looking for Chris.

"Chris went to get some breakfast. He'll be right back. You thirsty?"

Vin nodded. Buck supported him and withdrew the straw at intervals, so Vin wouldn't drink too fast. He was pleased when the cup was drained. He eased the body back down and praised him.

"You done good, Pard," he paused seeing Vin's confusion, "It's Buck, you remember me don't you Vin?"

Vin stared at the dark-haired man who's voice was so reassuring. He thought hard and remembered the man helping him someplace. A variety of images flashed through his confused mind. Running from Tony...falling in the river...strong hands pulling him out. A policeman, that's who the kind stranger was. Maybe he knew Chris.

"...Chris friend?" He whispered, blinking unfocused eyes at Buck.

"You bet. Me and Chris go way back," Buck had to lean in to hear the weak voice. He grabbed the damp cloth and soaked it, wiping Vin's face and chest.

"Thanks...Mister..." Vin managed, " saved me from the're the policeman."

Buck took the weak hand and gripped it hard. He smiled down at the trusting blue eyes, staring at him across fifteen years of buried memories.

"I'm your friend, Vin. You're safe now. We took care of them bad guys. You get some rest, now."

"...kay..." Vin's eyes fluttered, then slid open, "...stay Mister?"

"Right by your side," Buck reassured him, "That's what partners do. Old Buck's on the job, you shut them eyes."

"" the voice faded as the eyes drifted off.

+ + + + + + +

Vin's condition remained much the same for two days. He was wary of Josiah and Nathan, and they kept their visits short, not wishing to upset him. He rallied around Chris and Buck. But Ezra frightened him. He'd awakened the second day to find Ezra at his bedside, panicked and started screaming at shocked man. Gasping for breath and choking, he backed up against Chris in fear. Poor Ezra fled the room, nearly undone by the terror in Vin's eyes. Chris was puzzled by the severe reaction, which Vin wouldn't discuss. The mystery was solved on the morning of the third day. Ezra and Josiah were just outside Vin's room. Buck had come up to relieve Chris, who was going to lunch with the two waiting.

The door opened, just as Vin woke up. Directly in his line of vision, was Ezra's profile. Vin sat upright in bed, eye's wide with fear. Chris and Buck both leaned in, trying to reassure him.

"Is it Sunday?" He demanded, staring at Chris.

"Sunday?" Chris's frowned, "What happens on Sunday?" Ignoring Chris, he turned to Buck, "Ya promised me. Make him go away. It's too small in that room. I don't want to go. Don't let him take me away. He's gonna be mad. The Sunday folks don't want a worthless bastard boy. He's gonna punish me. It's too small...please Buck...please."Chris backed off, enraged at his inability to control the situation. He crossed the room and pounded the wall, furious at the invisible demons who were winning the battle. Buck's heart broke at Vin's delirious form, clawing at his shirt. He could feel Vin's heart racing against his chest. He did the only thing he could think of. He wrapped his arms around the trembling body and took a strong hold. He stroked Vin's back and shushed him. Finally, he pulled back and took Vin's chin, staring at him hard.

"You listen up, Pard. You're safe here. Nobody is ever gonna hurt you again. Chris and me won't let that happen. You got my word."Vin's breathing slowed and his frantic gaze crossed the room to where Chris stood. His wide eyes went back to Buck.

"He's mad at me, Buck."

"No he ain't. He's mad at the bad men who hurt you," Buck eased Vin back down, "Chris..." He hissed until the blond snapped out of his daze.

By the time Chris got to Vin, he was once again sleeping. Buck eased his hand out of the tight grasp. He met Chris's stormy face.

"You gotta be more careful. He's lost back in time. He don't about the 'Larabee glare' yet. You scared him."

"I can't help it, Buck," Chris seethed, "I want to kill that son-of-a-bitch with my bare hands."

"Little late for that, Chris, he's already dead."

"Not him..." Chris's steely eyes locked onto Buck's, "The animal who ran that home, who abused Vin. I'd like to find him and..."

"Poor Ezra," Buck still saw the pain in the Southerner's eyes, during the outburst the day before, "He must look something like that devil."

"Think J.D. would know about that guy?" Chris asked.

"He might. You can ask him on your way back from lunch."

Part 20

The strong hands of the churning river had the boy in a death grip. He battled onward, fighting back with everything he had. He tossed and thrashed, struggling against the arms that pulled at him. Faces appeared, Hill and Delgado taunting and cruel, Buck and Chris strong and true. He felt himself losing his grip and the water rushed over his head. Gasping and coughing, he screamed as the angry tide crushed him.

"Calm down, Vin," Buck grabbed the flailing arms, "Easy Junior, I got ya."

"Junior?" the confused voice croaked. Buck smiled at two disgruntled blue eyes looked up him, trying to focus. Vin was still coughing and Buck waited him out. The confused stare went around the room, eyeing the faces looking back. Finally, they came back to the arms that eased him back down onto the pillow.

"Junior?" Vin repeated, and then his face softened, and a small smile broke free, "Buck?"

"In the flesh," Buck felt the cool forehead and whooped, "Fever broke."

"Buck...under water?" Vin blinked at the blurry face bearing a mustache.

"Hell no, I ain't under water," Buck laughed, "But you sure look like you've been swimming," he noted the wet body and hospital gown.

"Welcome back," a weary voice greeted, leaning against the bedrails.

"Hey, Cowboy," it was a weak voice, but the smile and the restored peace in the blue eyes, were a relief to the team leader.

Vin studied the faces that surrounded the bed. Weary, ragged, unshaven, grubby and a sight that made his chest tighten. His mind sent flashes and crude images of the nightmarish incident. He cast a quick glance around and relaxed, spotting J.D. waving at him. He heard Chris's voice and felt himself lifted forward.

"How about a drink?"

"Beer?" Vin croaked, and heard chuckles, as he felt a hand rubbing his damp hair.

"Sorry Cowboy, bar's closed. How about some cold juice?"

"Reckon, it'll do..."

Vin eased himself against Buck's arm and let Chris steady his shaking arm. He slowly drained the juice and kept an eye on the faces grinning at him. The five men were speaking , he could only catch parts of the conversation. Five men? He took stock on the faces. Ezra was missing.

He hadn't quite swallowed the last of the orange juice, when he choked out the gambler's name, accented by a coughing fit.

Chris saw the fear in Vin's eye and nodded at the door. Josiah's head disappeared. By the time Vin's breathing resumed and he'd wiped his teary eyes, a familiar face shadowed the back wall. All were safe, Vin relaxed. He once again studied the motley looking group.

"Ya been here all night?" His voice rose in surprise.

"Uh...Vin," Chris leaned in catching the amazed face, "It's been five days. You were pretty sick with the Flu. You had a high fever."

"Five days..." Vin fell back against the bank of pillows, "...and y'all stayed?"

Vin's voice was just above a whisper. He suddenly felt very shy. His face flushed and he averted the amused eyes around the bed. He looked up as the thick southern accent sauntered across his damp sheets.

"My dear infirmed comrade, it is with heavy hearts that we have reconciled ourselves to the incontestable realization that we are forevermore burdened with a drawling, blue-eyed albatross."

The face that greeted Ezra wore no expression, housing a wide-eyed blank stare. Then the brows furrowed, the eyes narrowed and the head cocked. Chris bit back a smile, knowing the familiar disgruntled face was about to emerge. Sure enough, as if on cue, Vin scowled, glaring at Ezra.

"Aw hell, Ezra, I can barely keep up with ya when I ain't fevered."

The laughter cascaded down, a welcomed refrain, after five days of anxious hours. Josiah squeezed Vin's leg, to get his eye.

"Translation," he boomed, "Afraid your stuck with us, Brother."

Vin settled back, grinning broadly, "Reckon I could get used to that."

"Thanks Josiah," J.D. whispered, tugging the large man's shirt, "I didn't know what Ezra said, either."

Although he was out of the woods, the strength of the new strain of the virus, left him weak and sore. Every bone and joint in his beaten body ached and his head throbbed constantly. The doctor had the unhappy task of trying to convince the petulant sharpshooter that it would be several weeks before he was fully recovered. He didn't pull punches, and warned Vin that if he pushed himself to hard, and didn't follow orders, he'd be hit twice as hard in a relapse. Chris's glare and no-nonsense tone told the doctor that Vin would comply.

Ezra spotted Chris arriving back at the hotel late. Vin was on the road to recovery and the rest were returning to Colorado, after visiting Vin, in the morning.

"Mr. Larabee is here, shall we go?," Ezra suggested, holding the door.

One of Vin's nurses recommended a good Italian restaurant, about five miles away. As they walked towards the cars, Chris paused.

"I'll ride with Ezra, we'll follow you."

Ezra buckled his safety belt and cast a suspicious green-eyed gaze at this boss. The 'we need to talk' mask was clearly illustrated on Larabee's face. They were a couple blocks away, stopped at a red light, when Ezra turned to Chris."Mr. Larabee, how long are you going to make me wait?"

Chris's lips turned up slightly, "You gettin' as good as Vin," he bespoke of the latter's ability to read his thoughts, "It's about Vin and his reaction to you when his fever was high."

"I assure you, Mr. Larabee, Vin will never know about that incident," Ezra's voice was strangely hollow.

Chris laughed outright, poor Ezra thought he was going get a threat.

"Did I miss something?" Ezra puzzled, not used to Chris showing emotion.

"I wasn't gonna strong-arm you. I know you'd never mention it to Vin, " Chris caught the Southerner's eye, "You can't hide from Vin, he's sees people to well. I think he understands you better than the rest of us. You'd never hurt Vin, I know that."

"But...why the cloak and dagger?" Ezra wondered as they parked in the lot of La Villa Roma.

Chris waved the others inside and pulled out a sheet of paper. Handing it to Ezra, he flipped on the overhead light. He saw Ezra pale slightly and flinch.

"Would this be the miscreant who abused Mr. Tanner as a child?" Ezra asked of the copy of an old newspaper clipping. It revealed a fair-haired man, with pale eyes.

"It's Hill, after Delgado was arrested," Chris paused, gazing out into the night, "I'm sure Vin's got a lot more demons hiding inside him. I just wanted you to know, I know how upset you were, it wasn't your fault. Vin was delirious, he didn't know what he was seeing."

"I wouldn't harbor any bad feeling towards Vin," Ezra's voice was unnaturally naked.

"I know that Ezra," Chris laid a hand on the Gambler's shoulder, "But it hurt, all the same. I saw your eyes. I wanted to talk to sooner, but..." Chris paused, exiting the car and glancing over the roof at the shaken man, "I wanted you to know, I thought you handled it well. It couldn't have been easy."

"What became of this loathsome creature?" Ezra asked, holding the door.

"Took the coward's way out," Chris spat, "Hung himself about 10 years ago, after a child was found dead," Chris ground his nails into his palms, "In that damn box he locked Vin in."

They walked inside in silence, and spotted the group across the room. Chris didn't toss out compliments easily and this one hit home. Tugging Chris's sleeve, he held the older man's gaze."Thank you, Mr. Larabee," he said quietly.

Since Vin was to be transferred out of ICU, to another room, following a chest x-ray, the team slept in the next morning. After checking with the information desk, the five headed up to Room 215. Josiah was in the lead and stopped when he saw J.D. sitting in a chair outside the door.

"You get discharged?"

"This morning," the dark head nodded, "...thought I'd visit with Vin."

There was something unsettling about J.D.'s face and voice. Josiah was about to ask the boy what the problem was, when the rest of the group joined him.

"Hey, Kid," Buck boomed, "Looks like you been sprung. Vin sleeping?"

"No," J.D. stated, without looking up.

"Well maybe it's time we have that talk," Chris said, approaching the door, "You and Vin need to..."

"No," The low, determined voice came, as the boy's arm shot across the door, "Leave him be."

"J.D.," Buck leaned in, "What's going on?"

J.D. didn't reply fast enough, and Chris went to open the door. J.D. stood and pushed Chris back.

"I said," the youth gritted, eyeing Larabee, "Leave him alone."

"All right J.D., that's enough," Buck's angry voice matched Chris's cold stare.

"I mean it, Chris," J.D.'s voice was strong, determined and unwavering, "You leave that supervisory, reprimand-studded speech out here," his eyes blazed into the leaders, "He don't need that or any of your 'Papa Chris' bullshit now."

"Papa Chris bullshit?" Buck mouthed silently, exchanging a raised eyebrow with Ezra.

"That's enough," Chris seethed, moving to within an inch of Dunne, who didn't budge.

"No it's not," Dunne shoved Chris back, "What he needs is his best friend...his brother," J.D.'s emotional eyes sent a heartfelt plea to Chris, "He needs you to be there for him. No speeches, don't even say a word...just let him know how much you care."

Josiah stepped between the two and turned to face Dunne, "I think you better explain yourself, Son."

J.D. eyed the five confused faces and nodded. Brushing a hand through his hair, he returned to his chair by the door. "I came up here, after they discharged me. I figured I keep Vin company until you guys got here. About five minutes after he got here, two F.B.I agents came to get his statement. The hospital let them know he was out of ICU"

"Well they sure move fast when the want to..." Buck snorted in disgust.

"They..." J.D. expelled a long breath and paused."They what?" Chris demanded."They told him about the two civilians Delgado killed. Vin took it real hard."

"Dammit..." Chris walked away, slapping the wall.

"Vultures," Ezra commented, shaking his head.

"We should have told him," J.D. thought outloud.

"We didn't get a chance," Nathan defended, his anger rising, "He wasn't conscious until yesterday. What the hell was their hurry?"

"Chris?" J.D. stood and faced the angry team leader, "After those guys left, me and Vin had a long talk. We made a mistake, a horrible mistake. We should have told you on Monday when Vin remembered about Delgado."

"MONDAY!" Chris seethed, his raging eyes, causing J.D. to backpedal, "You knew on Monday? He didn't make his move until Friday. We could have caught the bastard."

"Yes...No...Well sort of. Vin remembered about Nicky on Monday and Delgado being with them and the murder. He didn't connect Adams to Delgado until Thursday."

"That's what he's was working on when he passed out in the office," Buck muttered, "Why the hell didn't one of you two say something?"

"I know you think we were hot-doggin' it, but that's not what we intended." J.D tried to defend."Two unarmed, injured fools, running around in the dark chasing an armed killer?" Buck hollered, "What the hell do you call it, J.D? You didn't think...either of you. We were right behind you. The F.B.I and State Cops had a tight net up. You didn't have to play Batman and Robin."

"Shut up...all of ya!" A tired, raspy voice said from the doorway.

"Vin, get back in that bed," Nathan stormed forward, grabbing the weak man, "You ain't happy unless you're in I.C.U?"

"I'd be happy if y'all left me be...Go away." He croaked, turning in the bed, facing the wall.

For a few minutes nobody moved. Then a solitary figure in black jeans pushed his way over to the bed. Buck nodded to the rest and they left Chris and Vin alone. Chris pulled a chair up and sat beside the bed, arms folded, staring at Vin's back. The open hospital gown revealed the scarlet stripes that graced Tanner's back. Chris averted his gaze. The silence remained, so much so, that Chris thought Vin fell asleep.

"Somethin' about the words 'respecting a man's privacy' ya don't understand?" the half-muffled rasp broke the stillness.

"You should have said something, Vin. Chasing that lunatic on your own wasn't your best move."

"Don't you think I know that?" Vin turned, eyes full of hurt and anger, "I might as well pulled the trigger myself," Vin declared, before convulsing into a coughing fit.

Chris stood and grabbed a paper towel. He held Vin's struggling body forward and ordered him to expel the phlegm. The fit left the flu-ridden body, red-faced and tearing. Chris handed Vin a damp towel and eased him back down. Finally the breathing slowed and the tired eyes opened. Chris saw the guilt, right through those blue mirrors, down to Vin's soul.

"That's not going to bring them back. You and J.D. made some big mistakes," Chris squinted, staring at Vin hard, "And learned a good lesson. There no 'i' in the word 'team', Vin."

"I didn't see it as team business at first," Vin eye's softened, "But I swear, Chris, on Friday morning I made up my mind to tell y'all. I been riding solo for a long time, it's the way I know best. It was just bad timing. Ya believe me, don't you?"

Chris didn't have to dwell on the response. He saw the sincerity in those blue mirrors. He put his arm out and grasped Vin's forearm, nodding. He returned to his seat, watching the drooping eyes finally close. He leaned over, inspecting the grayish face, and made his move.

"You gonna tell me about 'Papa Chris bullshit'?"

The corners of his mouth turned up slightly as he watched Vin struggle. The grin started to form twice, as Vin fought an unsuccessful battle. One eye peeled open and saw Chris's mock-ired face. The chuckle turned into laughter, so much so the coughing started. Vin sat up, choking and spitting into his towel. Glaring, he smacked away Chris's hands.

"Ya did that on purpose..." Vin wheezed, tearing eyes accusing.

"Payback's a bitch, ain't it?" Larabee grinned, heading for the door.


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