When My Heart Finds Christmas

by Deirdre

ATF/OW crossover

Tuesday, December 19

With the passing of Thanksgiving, the Christmas season was in full gear. This meant several things were certain. Holiday sales bombarded the newspapers and television, bowl games were decided, Santa Claus made sure the elves gave his sleigh the once over and Chris Larabee would be miserable. As the twenty-fifth of the month drew closer and most citizens basked in the holiday spirit, the leader of Denver's super ATF team grew sullen and distant. Since the untimely deaths of his wife and son three years prior, he didn't find any joy or need for celebration. That was until the arrival of Elf Tanner.

Buck Wilmington glanced around the office the seven members of the ATF shared and smiled. Vin embraced the holidays with a euphoria usually only found in small children. But then there was a child in Vin, and that mischievous nature and wonderment in which he viewed the holidays was a large part of what made him special. He began his campaign the week after Thanksgiving, with subtle changes. Decorations began springing up. Small woodland animals with holiday dress graced each desk, peeked around the coffee pot and sat on the copier. The four-inch high hand-carved creatures were stained and every detail was precise. They were miniature works of art. Green garland and red bows arrived next, strung on each desk. A small tree, with red velvet bows made an appearance this week. Vin made sure it was loaded with foil covered chocolate balls, candy canes and cookies. The CD player he usually kept on the sports station, played Christmas music. In the cantina, which housed the coffeemaker, microwave and refrigerator, there was large box of Christmas cookies. Yes, Elf Tanner had made it his goal to surround them with Christmas Spirit.

He glanced at the Texan's bobbing head, as he crooned along with the Eagles' 'Please Come Home For Christmas'. He eyed the wide smiles on his teammates faces as Vin bopped down the aisle towards the copier. The Christmas sweatshirt he wore was just a sample of many holiday items, ties, red or green shirts and the like, that he adorned himself with. The exuberance with which he'd embraced the holiday had given them all a lift. This was perhaps his greatest gift - the selfless Tanner heart.

"That boy's gonna wear himself out before Christmas." Nathan chuckled watching Vin pluck a cookie from the Christmas tree.

"Or have a dental bill the size of Texas." Josiah noted, "How's he get by without actually eating?"

"Beats me...I thought J.D. was bad." Buck shook his dark head and laughed as Vin smacked a Santa hat on Ezra's head.

"Red is not my color, Mr. Tanner." Ezra feigned annoyance, "I do believe this would be better suited for young Mr. Dunne."

"S'okay, Ez...I got all o' y'all one." Vin chirped, pulling the hat down further on the Conman's expensive hair style. "See," he tapped the whitebanded forehead, "It's got yer name on it, in silver glitter."

"Oh joyous day..." Ezra drolled, yet he left the hat in place.

"That boy's got a real gift." Josiah noted, eyeing the smile Standish wore as his green eyes followed Vin back to his desk. "He made Ezra almost human."

Vin settled in at his desk and eyed his list. Only six days to Christmas and so much to do. He believed the best kind of gift was from the heart, so he was making his presents. He was looking forward to Christmas Eve. He was helping Josiah host a party at a Veteran's Nursing Home, then meeting the guys for dinner at Chris's ranch. He and Buck were staying over, the rest of the guys had plans. It was the first real Christmas he'd had in years. He couldn't remember too much about his early holidays, before his mother died. The foster homes that followed were years he chose to forget. He left out on his own when he was nine and fell in with a gang. That lasted until his early teens, when he decided to stay in school, which didn't sit well with the gang.

One habit he'd picked up at eighteen when he took up bounty hunting, was woodworking. Born out of endless hours in nameless hotels trailing suspects, it had turned into much more. Spending hours carving and creating with wood relaxed the quiet sharpshooter and he took great pride in his work. He'd made Billy Travis a small train set. It had taken countless hours and painstaking work. In addition to the locomotive and sidecars, he'd made a crew of the woodland animals he loved to carve so much and a train station.

He found out that Josiah was giving Nathan a set of antique surgical instruments, and he'd made a cabinet with glass doors to house them. He'd copied a style he saw in a nineteenth century photo he'd found researching on the internet. For Josiah, a gunrack to hold some of his growing collection of armory. J.D's was a large crate, scored with the many historic landmarks of Boston, done in Revoluntary style etching. When opened, it held slots for the youth's expanding CD collection. Ezra's was a wine rack.

That left Buck and Chris. They'd been the hardest. Buck had given so much to him this past nine months since he'd joined the team. The warm smile, contagious laughter, clap on the back, ruffling his hair, bawdy jokes...so much. But more than that, it was that heart of his...Buck was so generous. He never said so, but Vin knew it hurt Buck when Chris and he became so close. It wasn't anything either of them planned; but both embraced the strong bond. Buck had gallently bowed aside, happy that his oldest friend was living again. It was Buck who'd come in the middle of the night when his bike broke down on a cold stretch of highway, Buck whose warm, comforting voice he'd heard in the I.C.U. after he'd been shot six months ago. He'd racked his brain, thinking of what he could give back...how do you repay something so fine.

Then J.D. mentioned he was getting Buck's most prized possession, his grandfather's pocket watch, repaired as his gift and had purchased and antique fob to accompany it. J.D. went on to explain how close Buck was to the old man, who'd died when Buck was in High School. In addition to the watch, there was a ring, cigar clip, money clip, some cuff links and his medals from World War I, that the elder Wilmington had left his only grandchild. They currently sat in a nondescript metal box in Buck's bedroom. Vin decided to make Buck a small chest to house the prized items. Buck was proud of the awards for bravery that belonged to the late flying ace. So Vin etched a copy of a World War I plane on the front of the box and had glass covered slot in the corner, with a photo of the flying ace, who looked a lot like his grandson. He'd lined the box with dark blue velvet compartments, which lifted off to a larger cavity beneath. He written a short poem, about the old man and enclosed it. He couldn't wait to see Buck's face when he opened it.

Chris's had been the first and the hardest. He'd started last summer, while recovering from being shot. He'd been at Chris's and noticed the small study off the den on the first floor. It was loaded with boxes and had been turned into a storage area. It would make a perfect office and Vin decided to plant the seed. Chris was a lover of history and especially miliatry history. The Civil War was his favorite subject and he had a vast collection of artifacts. So Vin decided to make his best friend an antique desk; a rolltop modeled like those in the nineteenth century. It was his most challenging undertaking and he'd done most of the work in Buck's garage. More than one night, he'd fallen asleep, and felt the mustached agent's hand shaking him awake with a chuckle. He also remembered the look of awe on Buck's face when he'd finished it. Buck was bringing it up in his truck on Sunday, Christmas Eve, to Chris's ranch. Chris had cleaned out the small room, refinished the walls and put down carpeting. He had no idea of the gift he was about to recieve.

He had to do finishing coats of varnish on some of the guys' gifts. He pushed the list aside and rubbed his throat. The tickle that he woke up with this morning had yet to disappear. He winced as he swallowed the last remnant of the chocolate chip cookie. He rubbed his head, as the start of a headache was forming. He flipped open the paper, to check the scores on the sports page. An ad for a tree farm caught his eye.

Before he could think on it, Chris called a meeting. Ezra left his hat at his desk and followed Josiah and Buck down the aisle toward the conference room. J.D. smacked Vin's arm and the other man stood eyeing his desk drawer. Although Chris hadn't said anything about the decorations, Vin hadn't missed the cold look in his eye. He only made it as far as the doorway to Chris's office, garland in hand, when the voice warned him off. He complied and the Larabee office was still stark. He opened the drawer and pulled out a small package.

The meeting was mostly discussing the upcoming Division Holiday Party, the new copier, a new program being installed into the computer that would mean the system being offline for two days and some administration nonsense. Chris then reminded them of the upcoming NFL playoff games on television all weekend. They seven were coming up on Sunday for a football and food fest. They decided on a menu and divided up the food and liquor chores. Vin remained quiet, hoping that the headache and sore throat would go away. He drained two glasses of water, and saw Nathan studying him. He slid the package over towards Chris.

"What's this?" Chris asked, eyeing the box wrapped in Grinch paper.

"It's called a Christmas Gift. Nice touch on the paper, Junior." Buck grinned, enjoying Chris's squirming.

Chris opened the box and pulled out a carving similar to the ones that each of the team had received earlier. He squinted and screwed his face up, studying the small animal.

"What the hell is it?" Chris growled.

"Yella bellied Marmot." Vin supplied, "I seen its picture in a magazine...couldn't help notice the resemblence."

"Looks like a goddamn rat." The blond scowled, squinting, The animal was on its hindlegs, which were shredding a Christmas wreath. Parts of a dismembered Santa's hat were in its mouth and paws.

"Un-huh..." Vin grinned, despite the rest shifting nervously. "So y'all see it too...Sorry it's late...took me awhile to get the eyes right."

"You should have kept at it..." Chris grumbled, hiding a struggling smile behind his hand. "They're not right yet. He looks constipated."

"Yup." Vin nodded, hooking his hands in his belt and leaning back in his chair, smile a mile wide.

"I think our resident Elf has entered unchartered territory." Ezra whispered to Josiah, unsure of the potential consequences.

"Could be..." Josiah agreed. "Only Vin could do it..."

Buck rose and moved behind Chris, nodding at the small carving. "Damn Vin...you got the eyes just right."

"Mighty fine work, Son" Josiah agreed, following the rest behind Chris on their way out.

Chris eyed the clock, which was nearing ten-fifteen. "Get done by eleven and take an early lunch. I know the malls will be crowded. I got a meeting with Orin and the other division heads. I'll be back by two or so."

"Hey, Chris." Vin said, as the others stood. "There's a place near yer ranch called Hennigan's, a tree farm. Iffen we get up early enough..."

"No tree..." Chris cut the younger man to the quick, "Get your report finished and check with the Lab, see if they turned up anything on that chemical we found at the warehouse on Saturday."

Chris hadn't looked up from his paperwork, so he didn't see the hurt in Vin's eyes, but the others did. Vin just didn't understand...or maybe he understood too well. Josiah clapped an arm around his slumped shoulders and led him outside.

"You tried, Son." the ex-preacher offered sympathetically.

"It's not your fault, Vin." Buck said, taking his empty coffee cup and following Vin back to this desk. Vin's desk was at the end of the room, far past the rest. Far enough away that he wasn't closed in and close enough to be a member of the pack. The cantina was just behind him. Vin slumped in his chair and frowned.

"I just thought...." he sighed, reaching for his keyboard. His fingers lay still, but his eyes darted into the past. "I ain't never had a tree...leastwise can't recall one." He whispered wistfully, then the eyes hardened and the voice followed. "It was a stupid idea. Hell, I ain't no kid..."

"Look at me, Vin." Buck said softly, waiting for the solemn blue eyes to meet his. Sometimes Vin looked so young, especially when he was vunerable. "You've done more for him in the last nine months, than I've been able to do in three years. It's gonna take time. He's starting to enjoy life again, thanks to you. Don't beat yourself up over this...and don't force his hand. He'll come around. You okay?" He saw the head nod, but wasn't convinced. He rested his hand on the younger man's back and rubbed it. "It was a damn good idea, Vin. Don't you ever lose that kid inside, I happen to think alot of him." He finished, watching the small smile and seeing the head dip once. Satisified, he ruffled the curly head and continued on his way.

Buck was at the printer, ten minutes later, when he passed Chris's office. The blond's face was split into a wide smile, his green eyes twinkling. His profile was only visible, leaning back in his black leather chair. In his hand was Vin's carving, he was caressing it almost reverently.

"Well I'll be damned..." Buck marveled, waving silently and getting Vin's attention. He motioned with his head and Vin stood up, and his face softened, seeing the same sight Buck did. He swallowed and nodded gratefully at Buck. Maybe he was right, Chris was coming around slowly. He averted his gaze when Chris stood, grabbing his notes for the meeting.

It was just after eleven when J.D. collected the reports. "Vin, you done?" He called, eyeing the aisle at the end of which was Vin's heavily decorated desk. The dark-haired youth ambled foreward until he reached the edge of the partition. He was about to call again, when he spotted Vin's head down, laying on his folded arms. The Texan was fast asleep. Not wishing to disturb him, J.D. gently reached past him and pushed the print key. He logged Vin's workstation off and left his friend to his rest.

"Vin coming?" Josiah asked, watching J.D. zip his Bronco's jacket.

"Nah...he's asleep."

"About time you got some grownup clothes, J.D." Buck playfully slapped the youth's dark head. "You look like you're cutting English class in that thing."

"Yeah...guess that rules out Lazy Daisy's for lunch." Nathan joked of the topless bar.

"You're all just jealous of my youthfulness." J.D. crowed as the door shut behind them.

"Yeah...that's must be it. You keep telling yourself that, Kid." Buck chuckled.

Later that afternoon, 2 p.m

"I can't believe you lost the car, Buck." J.D. complained, entering the office. "Chris is likely to have a fit., we're an hour late."

"Them concrete boxes all look alike. Anybody could have made that mistake." Buck replied, taking his coat off and hanging on the rack by the door. "Don't get your drawers in a bunch, Chris isn't even back yet."

"Seems to me that curvy redhead in the mini-skirt had more to do with you forgetting what level you parked on," Nathan commented, "...than the architect did."

"I'll bring that up at lunch tomorrow." Buck smiled lewdly, arching his eyebrows.

"You dog..." Nathan laughed and smacked Wilmington's boot, which rested on the corner of his desk. "You got her number?"

"Work, Home and Cellphone." Buck sighed, patting his pocket. "When you it...you got it. I ought give classes."

"I think I'm gonna be sick." J.D. moaned, rolling his eyes at the bragging Romeo.

"Yeah...you're looking a mite green...must be that jealousy flu."

"Jealous of an old timer like you?" J.D. grabbed a handful of candy from the dish in front of the Christmas tree. "In your dreams. I prefer women who didn't vote for Nixon."

"Ouch!" Buck feigned being wounded, and scowled at the munching youth. "How the hell can you still be hungry? You ate nachos, pot stickers, French Onion Soup and a huge sandwich." Buck complained, getting sick just thinking of the gastronomic feat.

J.D. just shrugged and took his empty coffee mug to the cantina. He stopped dead in his tracks at Vin's desk and frowned. His friend was in the same position as when they'd left the office, over three hours ago. He put down the empty mug and rested a hand on the flushed face. He made his way back to Buck's desk and tapped the mustached agent's shoulder.

"Hold on a minute Darlin'..." Buck oozed and covered the mouthpiece of the phone. "J.D. I swear..."

"Something's wrong with Vin..." the youth interrupted.

"I got a situation here, Melody, I'll call you back." He hung up and waved to Nathan, who was across the room. He brushed past J.D. and quickly strode to the side of the slumbering sharpshooter. He laid the back of his hand against the flushed face and frowned.

"He's burnin' up..." He said to Nathan and moved aside to let the EMT get next to the Texan.

"Vin...Vin...wake up now..." Nathan prodded as he gently shook the dark red sweatshirt. The eyes blinked and furrowed as the shaggy head arose, with the distinct imprint of a group of paperclips on his cheek. "You hurtin' Vin?" He asked, his hand resting on the squirming man's face.

"Huh...I'm..." Vin winced and his hand inadvertantly grabbed his throat. "Damn...feels like a swallowed some razors."

"Open up..." Nathan ordered, flipping out a penlight from his breast pocket. "Damn..." He put the light down and felt the area behind Vin's ears and under his jaw.

"Ow..." Vin pulled pack, making a face. "Damn it, Nathan, quit pokin' at me, that hurt..."

"I ain't surprised. Your throat's covered in white spots..."

"Aw, hell..." Vin croaked, eyes widening. "Whaddya mean spots?"

"pus...from an infection...." Nathan began, only to be interrupted.

"Ughh!" J.D. groaned. "Pus...that's disgusting. What if you swallowed some?"

"You're a big help." Buck hissed, seeing Vin's hand cross his stomach and his shoulder's slump.

"J.D. make yourself useful." Nathan said crossly, "Get on the computer and fill out a dispensary form for Vin. Buck's got signature authority. He'll need one to get sick leave approval." Nathan then turned back to his patient. "Vin...you feel sick to your stomach?"

"Not 'til J.D. mentioned me eatin' pus..." Vin blanched.

"Don't pay no mind to J.D." Nathan eyed the cantina. "Come on...I want you to gargle with salt water. Then we'll get your doctor on the phone. I think you got strep throat. Buck, rustle up a soda and Tylenol."

"s'that bad?" Vin asked, following Buck into the cantina.

"Bad enough...if it goes untreated it has some nasty complications to your kidneys and heart. How long you been hurtin'?" the dark-skinned EMT inquired.

"Started this mornin'." Vin said, taking the glass of gray, murky water from Nathan and gargling. He made a face at the awful taste, but continued. "God that's awful..."

"But it works..." Nathan advised, as Vin sat down and took the painkillers Buck offered. "Here..." Nathan handed him the extenstion of the phone on the wall. "You get to the doctor today. He'll give you an antibiotic and some instructions for rest and fluids. This is serious Vin, you do exactly what he says."

Vin nodded and rested his aching head against the cool formica of the table as the phone rang. He managed to get an appointment for four p.m. He handed the phone back and remained with his face pressed to the table. "I can't get sick now..." He croaked, "I ain't never felt so miserable. I got too much to do...only got six days..."

"You're gonna take your medicine and stay in bed. You listen to me Vin...Strep throat ain't nothing to fool around with. Whatever you didn't get done, will wait."

"Here you go." J.D. handed the form to Buck, who signed it. "Come on, Vin. I'll go with you."

"Vin, did you drink out this coffee pot?" Nate asked and saw the shaggy head give a negative shake.

"Only ate cookies from the tree...brought a coke with me from home." The infirmed replied hoarsely as he got up and followed J.D. from the room.

"Good..." Nate said, crumpling the paper cup Vin gargled with and throwing it away.

+ + + + + + +

It was after four when Chris arrived back. His head was pounding and his stomach was sour. The meeting had been hot and heavy. All he wanted to do now was type up a summary, check on the lab report and go home. His green eyes surveyed the empty area, before he made his way to his office. He was reading his notes and didn't notice there was someone waiting for him. He tossed his coat on the leather sofa as he passed by and flipped his computer on.

"Lab reports were inconclusive. Louise said she's got one more test to run. She'll email you first thing." Buck relayed, his voice cold.

He noticed the tension in the blond's countenance and didn't feel like sparring now. He was too angry at Chris Larabee. There was Vin, who'd been the embodiment of the Christmas Spirit, sick as dog, and worried more about whose gifts he didn't finish, than about his health. Vin, who of all them, deserved a helluva Christmas, bogged down with a bad infection. Then there was Chris Larabee, who avoided the warmth and emotional tugs that the Holiday inevitably brought, like the plague. He chose to ride solo with Jack Daniels, rather than with his friends. It wasn't fair and it angered him. He looked hard at Chris and turned away, the harsh tone he'd used on Vin earlier, while dispelling the tree, still echoing in his head.

"Spit it out,Buck, before you choke on it." Chris leveled, watching the rage rise in his oldest friend like a barometer.

"I wouldn't waste my breath." Buck spat, gripping the doorframe. "And you can't possibly be that blind."

Chris met the stormy, dark blue eyes and never flinched. He knew why Buck was so upset, and it only made his head pound harder. "It's just a damn tree...get over it." He snarled.

"It's a whole lot more than a tree to him and you damn well know that." Buck challenged, crossing the room and flexing his hands into fists. "Jesus, you can be a fuckin' prick sometimes. After all he's given you...done for you..." Buck seethed, leaning over the desk. "All he wants is a real Christmas...most likely the first since his Ma died. He can't remember ever having a tree. How can that not bother you? It's eatin' a hole right through me. Maybe if you opened that ice block of a heart, you'd see what he's done around here...for you."

"Me?" Chris's head jerked back.

"Jesus...you are blind." Buck hissed, raking his hand through his hair. "You're not the only one who has painful memories. I loved Sarah and Adam too. You know damn right well, she'd kick your ass good for actin' like this."

"Shut up, Buck." Chris warned, walking away and over to the large window that overlooked the city. "Conversations over..."

"Alright, Chris, but you think on this. You had the whole Norman Rockwell Christmas scene for most of your life. Back in Indiana with your folks, then with Sarah. I know the last three years haven't been easy. He can barely remember his mother, and there isn't a whole lot to hold onto after that. He's got no Christmas memories. If anybody should be bitter, it should be him. But he's got the true meaning of Christmas inside him. He only knows how to give, he don't ever take. He didn't want the tree for himself, Chris. He wanted it for you. Can't you see that?"

Chris never moved, and Buck could only see his back. He shook his head in disgust and left the office. He didn't see the green eyes full of pain and the heart lanced. Chris stared at the skyline as the light faded and headlights of the traffic below created a haphazard pattern. He thought on Bucks words carefully. He sighed and turned, putting his coat on and locking the door. Buck was still at his desk studying the forensics report again.

"It's almost six..." He commented, eyeing the solemn face.

"J.D.'s got my Jimmy," He said of his white RV, "I'm waiting for him to call in."

"I'll give you a lift." He offered and saw the dark head nod. Buck had his coat on and was ready to leave, when his phone rang.

"Wilmington...Vin? What happened?" Buck's face screwed up in disgust and he silently cursed, causing Chris to make a motion to grab the phone, which Buck blocked. "You okay? You sure? No, that's okay, Vin. We'll be there in ten minutes."

"Is he alright? What's wrong?" Chris demanded, tugging at Buck's arm.

"He got in from the doctor's and his place was robbed. He's pretty shook up."

"Doctor's?" Chris puzzled.

"I'll explain on the way."


The closer they got to Vin's apartment, the angrier Chris got. Vin's meager abode was in one of the poorest and roughest parts of the city. Chris had been after him for months to move. Every time the news reported a shooting, which was all too frequent, his heart skipped a beat. Vin was just a statistic waiting to happen. They pulled up and both saw the broken windows and the police cruiser.

"Fuck!" Chris slammed the door. "Goddamn him...stubborn fool. I've been after him to move out for months. He's gonna listen to me this time. He's lucky they didn't shoot him."

"Hold on a minute." Buck grabbed him and stood in front of him. "He's real sick, Chris and more than a little upset. Don't go barging in there like a damn Stormtrooper. It ain't the right time."

"Time?" Chris spat. "It's long overdue. That's a damn rathole..."

"Yeah, but it's HIS damn rathole." Buck said quietly, "He's got his pride, Chris. It's the first place he's ever had to hang his hat. Don't push him too hard."

Chris let some of the anger go and nodded, as they approached the patrolmen and identified themselves.

"He didn't get hurt?" Chris asked.

"No, they were gone when he got here. They didn't take much...it didn't look like he had anything of value. I guess that ticked them off...they did a lot of damage. He can't stay here. My partner upstairs with him. He's pretty sick."

"Yeah, thanks." Buck nodded. "You got any leads?"

"In this neighborhood?" The cop scoffed, "Take your pick."

Chris and Buck stood in the doorway of Vin's apartment and paused at the sad picture. The small sofa was slashed to ribbons, the guts all over the floor. The lone table was broken and strewn all over the room. They entered and saw the mess in the kitchen. Most of what was in the refrigerator was all over the cabinets and floor. Dishes and glasses were broken. The microwave , toaster oven and radio were missing.

"Fuckin' hopheads..." Chris gritted of the drug addicts who'd done the damage. "VIN..." he called out and headed for Vin's small bedroom.

"Hey..." Vin croaked from where he sat forlornly on the mattress. The drawers of his chest were broken and his clothes torn up. The bed was the only thing unscathed. A burly policeman stood in front on him and motioned for them to follow him.

"You okay?" Chris said, tipping the chin upwards and wincing at the sick face. A single nod followed and he relaxed a little.

"We'll be right back, Junior." Buck said, squeezing the downcast shoulder.

"You his friends?" The fortyish cop inquired.

"Yeah..." Chris replied, his eyes burning at the distressed Texan's face. "He looks like shit."

"So would you if you were running a fever that high. One of you gonna be responsible for him?" The patrolman asked.

"Yeah, we got it covered. Thanks." Buck said, walking through the rubble to the door.

When Chris returned, Vin wasn't on the bed. He heard the coughing and followed the sound into the bathroom, which other than having the medicine cabinet contents tossed on the floor, remained untouched. He pulled back and allowed Vin to finish throwing up. He saw the hand wobbling for a towel and supplied one. He ran the water and eased Vin upright, waiting for the younger man to finish.

"You're having yourself a day, Cowboy." He sympathized, patting the slumped shoulders. He flicked his hand onto the flushed face and frowned. "You're burning up. What'd the doctor say?"

"Strep throat." Vin croaked, grabbing this throat. "Hurts like hell..."

"Yeah...I've been there. Don't talk." Chris led him back into the bedroom. He sat next to Vin on the bed and leaned foreward, resting his arms on his knees "You can't stay here Vin. It's not safe...or livable." He glanced sideways and noticed that although the Texan's feet were on the floor, his body was lying down, eyes closed. "I'll pack some things for you..."

"Vin?" Buck interrupted, squatting in front of his sick friend and wincing at the sorrowful face. "Sorry...I know you feel like shit. Did you get your prescription filled?"

"No...dropped it off." Vin whispered, eyes half mast, "They said to come back after five. I come home to get somethin' to eat...got a little dizzy. Walked into this..."

"Why didn't you tell the cops your television was taken?" Buck asked, having scanned the short list the cop provided.

"Ain't got one." Vin said, missing the glance Buck and Chris shared.

"Okay, listen up, Junior. You ain't in no shape for long car trips. My place is only twenty minutes from here. We'll get your prescription and ..."

"Popsicles..." Vin wheezed, eyes closed.

"Popsicles?" Buck quizzed and saw the head nod and a hand fish into his jeans. Chris took the note and scanned it.

"It's from the doctor. Penicillin, gargle with salt water, hot fluids, tea with lemon and honey, popsicles, no orange juice or citrus products, Tylenol and rest. Says to pick up a anesthetic spray with benzocaine." He handed the list to Buck and flipped Vin's legs onto the bed. "You rest a bit, we'll get your stuff."

"I'll check with the pharmacy, make sure it's ready." Buck said scanning the list " and see if they have the spray and some throat lozenges."

Chris found Vin's gym bag in the top of his closest and picked among the clothes scattered on the floor. He got some toiletries from the bathroom and took the bag inside and updated Buck.

"You get him to your place. I'll clean up here." He advised, as they walked back into the bedroom.

"Vin?" Buck said, spotting the empty bed. "Aw, hell..." He slumped, spotting the bleary eyed, flushed form sitting in the bottom of his closet. On his lap were the remnants of the beautiful train set he'd carved for Billy.

"I wanted it to be special..." Vin whispered, looking right through Chris with eyes so pained it caused the older man to flinch. "I never had one...I thought...look what them bastards done, Chris." He implored, blue eyes wide and sorrowful.

Chris knelt by his side and rested a hand on the slumped shoulder. He knew how hard Vin worked on the train set and the other pieces. Billy would have loved it. He saw Vin's trembling hands trying to piece the shards of wood back together. "I'm sorry, Vin...it was beautiful...You'll make another one. Billy will understand."

"What's the use?" Vin whispered, sagging against the wall of the closet, his voice and eyes totally and utterly defeated. That desolation tore at both men, Chris felt like he was gutshot. Buck was right...and seeing Vin's spirit melt away, cut him to the core.

Buck pounded the wall in frustration, wounded at the same sight that tore at Chris. He was trying to think of something to take the pain out of the soulful eyes, and get a glimmer of hope. Then he saw a man emerge who'd been missing for three years. He watched as Chris tipped the defeated chin up and studied the woeful eyes for several long seconds.

"What kind of sorry-assed Elf are you anyhow?" He scolded, "Get your ass in gear, Tanner. You got five days to get some of that crud out of your system."

"Five days?" Vin whispered, grimacing at the razor-like pain in his throat. His head was pounding and he was dizzy.

"Yeah...until Sunday. Can't have my best Elf down in the mouth when there's a tree to decorate."

Buck smiled at the change in the shivering body. The eyes got their shine back, the head came up, and the shoulders squared away. He saw 'the look'...that was what the others got to calling it. That unspoken volume of emotion that Vin and Chris shared.

"No shit..." Vin's pained voice was barely audible. "You ain't teasin'?"

"Aw, hell, Junior," Buck boomed, slapping Chris's black coat, "Chris ain't known for his humor. Come on, get off that floor."

"Anything else get busted up?" Chris asked, pulling Vin up and grabbing him when he swayed.

"Yeah...Ezra's wine cabinet." he jerked his head. "I just finished it last night. Etched his family crest into the back. I think I can fix it...it ain't busted too bad...I can come back tomorrow..."

"Vin, you can't come back here. It's not safe. You're lucky your fool head is still attached to your body. Next time, you'll end up in the morgue."

Buck elbowed Chris and gave him a dirty look. "Enough" He mouthed, angry that Chris was upsetting Vin.

"You just worry about getting well. I'll clean up here. Anything else I should know about?" Chris asked of other potentially missing or damaged gifts.

"No...got the rest of them stowed. I'm sorry about bustin' up y'alls night....whoa..." His knees buckled.

"Vin, did you eat today?" Buck grabbed at his other side.

"Naw...didn't have time..." He whispered as they headed for Vin's Jeep.

"We'll fix that. We'll pick up some Won Ton Soup and..."

"A big box of popsicles...the one's what look like red, white and blue rockets." Vin decided as Buck eased him into the passenger side.

"Anything else?" Buck chuckled, wrapping a blanket around Vin. He noticed how quiet Chris had become. "I'll send J.D. over to give you a hand. He'll be okay. Nate said after a couple days of medicine and rest, the worst passes. I'll get his bag." He said, patting the black arm and heading back inside.

"Chris?" Vin whispered, struggling to keep his eyes open.

"Right here, Vin." He leaned into the window.

"I'm sorry...didn't mean to ruffle yer feathers...about the tree. It's okay iffen ya don't wanna go...go through..." Vin sighed, worn out.

"No, Vin. I'm the one that's sorry." Chris said gently, "It's a good idea." he paused watching the blue eyes study him. Vin could penetrate him like noone else. He watched the half smile and knew that Vin understood. "Hey," He said, catching the last eye as is was sliding shut. "Thanks Cowboy. Yellow-bellied Marmot, huh?"

"Spittin' image..." Vin whispered, eyes shut. His hand shot out and found Chris's. "Sorry about the mess, Chris. Leave it be...I'll be better in a couple days...I'll get to it. I don't want..."

"Don't make me shoot you, Vin." Chris drilled, as Buck approached, "It's been a long day. Don't give Buck any trouble. You stay put and take your medicine." He ordered, tucking the blanket closer and feeling the flushed face.

"Quit nursemaidin' me..." the weary drawl was barely audible, but one eye shot open and Chris saw a small twinkle trying to emerge.

Later that night, after loading several trash bags into the dump outside and more with Vin's things into his truck, he headed home. He notified Vin's landlord that he wouldn't be returning. He took the box with the broken gifts into the house and carefully placed them on the floor of the den. He changed into jeans and a sweatshirt and began to work.


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