ATF Style

by Cheryl W.

ATF Universe

Follows Christmas Eve: ATF Style

Disclaimer: I don't own Magnificent Seven nor is any copyright infringement intended. I have the greatest respect and jealous for those who do own them. (Couldn't they just loan me Chris for awhile?!)

Comments: This is the first time I'm submitting fan fiction so please give me feedback but BE KIND! (Life is harsh enough without your hobbies being trashed!) Thanks for MOG for the ATF idea and thanks to all the great MAG7 fan fiction authors!

It was officially Christmas... but just barely. 12:30am to be exact. Vin and Buck had both been unable to sleep in the chairs by Chris's hospital bed. And as they both sat watching Chris sleep, their eyes had meet and Vin, with a jerk of his head, asked Buck to take a walk.

The coffee machine was a floor down from Chris's room and the two men took their cups to a lounge area off to the left. They sat there in silence and then met each other's eyes and smiled.

"Hell of an evening," Buck began.

"And then some," Vin tiredly replied. "You hear about the accident on your radio?"

"No we were just driving by and I thought..." Buck faltered a second but then continued, "I thought it looked like Chris's truck in the river."

"Driving by?! But this isn't how you'd come from your place?"

"I had some last minute Christmas shopping that I needed to do. How about you? You see it on the way to the restaurant?"

"Ezra did, yelled at me to pull over." Here Vin rubbed his hand over his face as the memory returned. "I told him it couldn't be Chris's truck because Chris had firmly refused my invitation to join us. And Josiah and Nathan?

"Doing the same last minute shopping I was and they were following us to eat," Buck supplied and then the men returned to their coffee.

When Vin spoke again his voice was barely audible and filled with pain, "I thought we were going to lose him tonight. We were all right there and he was still slipping right through our fingers and there was nothing I could do... any of us could do."

Buck swallowed hard, "When that truck went under water.." Buck broke off trying to get his emotions under control. "Josiah's right, we got a miracle tonight."

Vin could only nod.

His tone lighter, Buck questioned, "So what did you say to get Chris to forego his camping trip and have dinner with us?"

"Camping trip?" Vin looked to Buck in confusion. "What camping trip?"

Now it was Buck's turn to look confused, "You know, Chris's alternative to drinking himself into oblivion this year."

"You mean," Vin started in shock, "he wasn't ...I thought.... Aw hell!!"

"What?!" Buck asked half concerned and with half laughter at Vin's expression.

"I got on him about spending the night drinking and he never said anything about camping. He tore into me saying what he did tonight was none of my business!! Why didn't he just tell me he had no plans to drink... to end up like last year!?"

"You were telling him what to do, always gets his dander up." Buck explained and then looked hard at Vin. "Hard to watch him try and destroy himself, isn't it?"

Again Vin had no words only nodded. But inside his mind was replaying the scene he had walked into last Christmas. Christmas Eve Chris had refused to hang out with the team, no matter how hard Buck pressed the issue. And, as each hour passed, the more worried Vin became as he thought of Chris drinking alone. By 7am Christmas morning, Vin couldn't take the worry another second and found himself at Chris's house. Chris didn't answer the door and Vin found the door wasn't locked. Pulling his gun, he had entered the ranch and came up short at the sight that he found in the living room. Chris was passed out on the floor, whiskey bottle in hand, while every piece of artillery Chris owned was spread out on the table along with cleaning fluids and utensils. It was the fear that he felt then that had driven him to make his desperate effort last night to have Chris join them for dinner.

Vin's voice was rough with emotion as he met Buck's knowing eyes, "I just couldn't bear to think of him spending another Christmas Eve like that." But, as he continued, his words turned bitter "I thought he would have a good time with us, a safer time."

"Hey, you couldn't have predicted this! And what you did was a good thing, something I would have cut off an arm to be able to get him to do."

"How come so many good things go so wrong?!"

"So life ain't boring?!"

"Life is never boring around Larabee," Vin growled in annoyance but when his eyes met Buck's. They both broke into laughter.

Buck finished his coffee and stood, "Bet we lost our chairs."

"I'm not betting against that one." Vin replied as he stood also and they headed for the elevators. As the elevator arrived and they stepped in Vin turned to Buck, "Where did Ezra get underwater welding material? In Denver Colorado?!"

When Vin and Buck returned to the room, Ezra stood outside the door, engaged in conversation with two uniformed police officers. They picked up certain words as they approached.. welding, robbery and charges.

"Gentlemen. Gentleman" Ezra began. "I left my business card so you could find me, I only took the items because of the dire circumstances my friend was in. I have every intention of repaying every cent for not only the equipment, but the damage I inflicted on the store as well."

The older officer countered with "The owners are upset..."

But Ezra cut in with his defense "You tell them that their underwater equipment saved a man's life tonight. I assure you that, along with my credit card number, will placate them"

The two cops nodded and headed down the hallway.

Ezra spun around to face Vin & Buck as Buck spoke. "You broke in and stole the welding equipment?!"

"They were closed for the holiday and I knew they were the only store in the whole town with underwater gear," Ezra explained patiently.

Vin put another question to Ezra "How did you know they had underwater gear there?"

Sighing, Ezra answered, "I had a rare conversation with the proprietor's wife last time I was in the store."

Buck smiled, "Another piece of the miracle fits into place."

The three men re-entered the room quietly and Buck had predicted correctly. Nathan and JD had claimed Vin and Buck's seats. All three men gave a glance to Larabee, who slept peacefully, before Ezra claimed his chair and Vin and Buck took seats on the floor.

+ + + + + + +

Chris woke to sunlight hitting his face and for a moment he thought he was safely tucked away in his own bed. But then, he took in a deep breath, and with the pain came the memory of the night before. The night he had been sure was his last. A cough wracked through his chest, rousing the sleeping men who formed a protective wall around Chris.

Nathan's concerned face came into view, his voice gentle, "Easy Chris. Take a sip of this water." Chris obeyed and breathed easier.

Chris laid back and saw the anxious faces around him. "I thought waking up last Christmas and seeing Vin was scary, but this?!"

Smiles were found on each man's face. It was Ezra who provided a comeback. "I can sympathize with you, Chris. Seeing Vin on any day at any time is always a shock to my system." Vin threw a light punch into Ezra's arm.

Chris focused on Ezra and smiled wickedly, "If the hardware store owner presses charges, I'll get the best lawyer I know to defend you."

Ezra's shock was evident as he stammered, "How did you know about the charges?"

Chris smile deepened, "I have excellent hearing. So how did you get into the hardware store anyway?" Now all the men faced Ezra, some in total shock and some with curiosity.

Seeing his audience was waiting, Ezra smiled gamely, "Well I didn't have time to necessitate my usual finesse, so I thought to myself 'What would Chris do' and I had my plan of action."

"Yeah?!" Buck prompted.

"I shot the display window and hopped right into the store."

The men broke into laughter even as Chris tried to look mad.

The doctor walked in at that moment and came up short at the crowded room. "I didn't know visiting hours had been moved up," he began and all the men turned to see his approach.

Ezra approached the man, his ready smile in action. "Mr. Larabee is an ATF agent and required protection."

The doctor nodded his head but didn't look like he was buying Ezra's lie. "Well, I need to exam Mr. Larabee to see if I can release him today. I'm sure he would appreciate spending Christmas at a better location than here." He met Ezra's eyes and sallied, "Now I need you gentlemen to leave. And I promise I'm no threat to Mr. Larabee."

Giving a weak smile, Ezra nodded his head to Chris and left with JD, Josiah and Nathan on his heels. Vin and Buck approached Chris.

Buck leaned over Chris and mock whispered, "I'll be right outside the door, if the doctor turns deadly, give a yell and I'll come to your rescue."

Chris laughed and grimaced at the action, "Get going you big goof." And Buck ambled out the door with a big smile on his face.

Vin was shaking his head at Buck's antics then settled his look on Chris. "I'm going to send the other men home but I'll be outside with Buck."

"Alright, Vin."

Vin reluctantly headed for the door, giving the doctor a judging look that the doctor knew was no act. "I'll appreciate it if you came and talked to us after you're through here," his words a request but his tone an order.

The doctor responded immediately, "OK. I should only be a few minutes with Mr. Larabee." Vin then was out of the door.

The doctor finally faced his patient with relief. "Loyal friends you got there, Mr. Larabee."

Chris smiled, "Yeah. I'm a lucky man."

Starting the exam, the doctor agreed, "A damn lucky man in more than one way. Last night you escaped from an accident that could have been fatal with only minor injuries. You must pay your guardian angels well."

Chris smiled as he thought of the men who had saved his life the night before. "Not nearly well enough."

+ + + + + + +

Vin and Buck sprang from their chairs as the doctor left Chris's room. The doctor couldn't help letting a smile play on his face as he approached them. Larabee's guardian angels were an anxious bunch.

Buck beat Vin's question by two seconds, "So how is he?"

"Are you releasing him today?" Vin pressed anyway.

The doctor knew it was useless to try and control the conversation. "His leg shows no sign of infection, his ribs haven't shifted, there's no sign of a concussion and the medication seems to be preventing pneumonia from settling in. So yes, I'm going to sign for his release today."

Both men smiled and seemed to relax. Vin hooked unto the doctor's arm as he went to leave, "What kind of follow up care does he need?"

Stopping, the doctor looked at the two men in surprise. Mr. Larabee seemed capable of understanding and following any instructions he gave him regarding his care. Why did these two men want to concern themselves with the details? Was he missing something. "I already explained everything to Mr. Larabee." He replied in confusion.

Buck smiled and laughed, "Well, doc, Mr. Larabee has a bad habit of ignoring orders and good advice when it comes to his own well being. He needs a little 'tough love' to behave himself."

Understanding dawned in the doctor's expression. He could see that about his patient, "More protection duties?"

Vin smiled, "I do believe you're seeing the whole picture."

"Well," the doctor began, "I'm sending pain killers along which he can take every four hours or as needed and I'm also sending along 2 medications, one to prevent an infection and one to fight off the pneumonia. His leg should be re-wrapped every day and he should stay in bed as much as possible for the next two weeks. But I'm sure he's got plans today, so just make sure he stays sitting for most of the day. I'm also scheduling him to come back in here next week."

Buck let out a frustrated sigh and sarcastically replied, "You're not asking much are you?"

The doctor looked at Buck with a question but Vin cut him off, "Thanks again, Doctor." And the doctor took the escape Vin had afforded him. Vin's eyes met Buck's. "It's going to be a looooong two weeks trying to keep Chris in bed."

"You know it, brother, you know it. Well I guess I should head to Chris's for some clothing for him unless you think he wants to sport a hospital gown to Nettie's."

"Maybe he shouldn't go to Nettie's," Vin began, his worry evident in his voice.

Buck draped his arm over Vin's shoulders and steered him to Chris's room. "Now don't go turning into a 'bah hum bug', Vin. The company will do him wonders." And Buck pushed Vin into the room.

Chris was in the act of pulling out his IV and looked up guiltily.

Vin growled, "Chris!!" even as Chris finished his task and flung back the covers. But before he could sit up Vin was at his side and laid a restraining hand on his shoulder. "The doctor said he was releasing you, not curing you!" his voice angry with concern.

Chris opened his mouth to retort but Buck cut in, "Shut up Chris. The doctor gave us the low down on your recovering care so don't bother lying to us."

Glaring at the two men who hovered over him, Chris bit out, "He tell you what my diet should consist of too?!"

Buck looked confusedly at Vin, "Was it sprouts or broccoli, Vin?"

"Funny," snapped the injured man as Buck threw the covers back over Chris and he leaned in close.

"Now, unless you want to go to Nettie's in your birthday suit, I suggest you chill out until I get back with clothing for you," Buck informed his oldest friend with good humored steel in his voice. "You need anything else before heading to Nettie's?"

Chris's eyes narrowed at the treatment he was getting from Vin and Buck. "Don't treat me like a child, Buck!"

Vin gently grabbed Chris's chin and turned his head to meet his eyes, "Calm down, Chris. You're hurt and whether you like it or not, you need help. By the time you get sprung from here, we'll just make it to Nettie's for dinner." Here Vin paused and didn't meet Buck's gaze but concentrated on Chris'. "But if you're not up to going to Nettie's, I'll take you home, Chris."

Chris saw the concern in Vin's eyes, then looked to Buck and saw that same emotion there. They were concerned, not anger, not bossy, concerned. Concerned for him. He sighed and looked back to Vin. "I promised I'd be at Nettie's and I'm not gonna breaking my promise."

Vin look softened even more, "Look Chris, forget the promise. If you're not up to it, then you're not up to it."

But Chris smiled, "And go home and have a frozen dinner?! No, this is one promise I really don't mind keeping."

Vin nodded and Buck asked again, "Alright. Now that that is solved... What do you want to wear and do you need anything else from your house?"

"Well, Buck, unlike Ezra, I didn't plan out what my wardrobe was going to be today." At Buck's wicked grin, Chris clarified, "Oh no you don't! I can just image what you'd bring back if I'm not specific! Black jeans and a regular shirt will do."

Buck replied with mock hurt, "Are you saying you don't trust my fashion judgment?!"

With a smile, Chris replied back, "Not on your life!"

Shaking his head, Buck shot back, "And here I thought we were buds, Chris. Well I'm off to do your bidding then."

As Buck turned to go, Chris called out "Wait!" and both men looked down to him in alarm.

Vin demanded, "What is it?! Are you in pain?!"

Chris shook his head, "No, you've got to bring the presents Buck." Buck and Vin breathed a sigh of relief.

"You got them still in the shopping bags in the barn or what Chris?" Buck teased back.

"There are in my bedroom, in the closet, all wrapped," Chris proudly answered.

"Most impressive," Buck replied and headed out the door with Chris calling after him, "And don't open yours!"

Vin smiled and claimed the chair by Chris's bed. "You know he's going to open his present," he predicted with a mischievous smile.

Chris laughed and then grimaced in pain, "Stop making me laugh, Vin. It hurts!" he growled as Vin put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.


A silence fell on the room and Chris met Vin's protective gaze. "I can practically hear you thinking, Vin. Spit it out already."

Vin looked to Chris in surprise. Why'd I have to be so transparent to the man. I really didn't want to upset Chris right now. But by Chris's look, he wasn't' going to drop it. His voice low, striving to be curious and not condemning, he spit it out, "Why didn't you tell me you weren't going to drink Christmas Eve? That you were going camping instead?"

Chris sighed and looked to the ceiling before replying, "You were judging me, Vin, and I didn't like it." Then Chris turned his head and met Vin's saddened eyes.

"I wasn't judging you, Chris..." Vin began his voice uncertain "we each deal with things in our own way." Silence as the two men's eyes held. Vin knew Chris wanted the whole truth and slowly he gave it to him. "I was scared Chris!" and Vin stood and began pacing the room. "Last Christmas... coming to your house and finding you passed out, your guns everywhere... it scared me. Scared me enough to brave your anger this year by trying to convince you to keep away from your Christmas Eve 'tradition'." Here Vin shook his head in self loathing, "But look where that got you?!" and he indicated Chris and his hospital surroundings.

Chris reply was firm. "This isn't your fault Vin. Things happen that we don't control. You know that!"

Another silence fell as Vin stood rooted to his spot at the foot of the bed, watching Chris for things he wouldn't say. "So why'd you decide to join us last night?"

A smile slowly emerged on Chris's face and his eyes met Vin's "Guess I wanted to be around people who cared about me, people that I cared about in return. Seemed a better new tradition than spending time alone out in the middle of nowhere."

Vin smiled and reclaimed his seat and shot Chris a mischievous look that made Chris uncomfortable, "Looks like I'm going to be staying at your place for two weeks."

"What?! The doctor said to take it easy for two weeks, not enroll in a concentration camp! There is absolutely no need for you to stay with me!! I fully understand the doctor's instructions, the medication, the appointment in one week."

Vin laughed, "Give it up, Chris. You're not talking your way out of this one."

"Hey if I was in need of constant care, they wouldn't be releasing me today."

"Yeah, you wouldn't need constant care if you obeyed your doctor's orders," Vin countered good-naturedly.

Chris shot back without rancor, "Isn't this the pot calling the stove black?! Who threw out their medication last time?! Disobeyed every order the doctor and their boss gave them!?"

Vin laughed "Takes a stubborn fool to know one. Bet you didn't even listen to the doctor's orders, all you heard was 'I'm releasing you today, Mr. Larabee,' and the rest you tuned out."

"I heard every word!"

"Yeah," Vin challenged, "OK. How often do you have to put a cold compress on your leg?"

Chris struggled to remember what the doctor had exactly said. The truth was Vin had pegged him right. All Chris recalled was the doctor saying, stay in bed for two weeks, take some pills and come back in a week for a checkup. So he was left to guess at a response to Vin's challenge, "Two times a day."

Shaking his head, his smiling breaking into laughter, "Chris, the doctor never said anything about a cold compress!"

Chris pointed a menacing finger at his best friend, "You tricked me!" but the laughter was infectious. "Aw stop! I told you that hurts!" he gasped out between his laughter.

+ + + + + + +

An hour later Buck stuck his head into the room to see Chris sitting up in bed reading the newspaper with Vin no where in sight. "Guess I must have been a very good boy!" he called with a huge smile, "Cause my gift is awesome."

Chris looked up from the paper, "What?" his voice soft and confused.

Noticing the haunted look in his friend's eyes, Buck got serious real fast. "Chris, what's wrong?" as he quickly came to Chris's side.

Without a word, Chris handed a section of the paper to Buck. Right there, on the front page of the local section was an article about the accident, Chris's accident and a picture of his truck and the other cars involved. Buck swallowed down his own reaction and began to read the article.

"The other lady died Buck," Chris's voice was full of anguish, of uncertainty as Buck's eyes flew to his friend's. "Everyone involved in that accident died, everyone but me."

Chris's words, his guilty look, had Buck fighting tears. The picture in the paper made him feel ill, made him remember last night, realize how close he had come to losing Chris. And now Chris was feeling guilty for surviving, for having six men fight desperately to save his life and succeed. "Chris.." Buck began, his voice gentle.

But Chris threw the paper on the floor and swore, "I chase after death every day Buck! I'm prepared to face that!! But these people!" and he pointed to the paper Buck held, "They were prepared to celebrate Christmas!! Open gifts with their families! Hell, get drunk and feel sorry for themselves if they choose to! Why is it always someone else dying for me Buck and never me! I'm always spared!" he spat out the last word like a curse.

Without hesitation Buck replied with his heart in his throat, "Because God knows you're needed here, Chris."

Chris stared at Buck in utter surprise.

Buck continued, "I need you, Vin needs you, the whole team needs you, so does Mary and Billy, and Nettie and Casey and every single person whose life you've saved. They needed you. God doesn't make mistakes, Chris. Don't accuse him of making one this time."

Closing his eyes against the emotions ready to rip him apart, Chris sat in silence and Buck anxiously waited. When Chris refocused on Buck, some of the pain had lessened. "Thank you, Buck. You're always around when I need you."

Buck gave Chris's shoulder a squeeze, "And I always will be. Now how about you slip into something more presentable so we can get on with the Christmas celebration." And he dumped Chris's clothing onto Chris's lap. As Chris threw back the covers, Buck questioned, "Where's Vin?"

"Right here, Bucklin," Vin greeted as he entered the room. Buck swung around and caught a glimpse of an expression on Vin's face he couldn't read. But before he could study it any longer it was gone. "Chris, you're gonna need help dressing," Vin taunted as he approached the bed.

"No I won't," Chris shot back and ordered, "Close the curtain Buck." Buck and Vin stepped back outside the curtain and Buck closed it and gave a smile to Vin. "Hey, where's the jeans?" came through the curtain "And this shirt's old!"

Buck countered back with a smile, "It's comfort clothing Chris. I think everyone will forgive you at the dinner for not upstaging Ezra like you usually do."

"Funny, Funny!" came the grumbled reply.

Vin and Buck strained to hear every move Chris made behind the curtain, each tensed for the groan or collapse they feared. When nothing could be heard, a worried look passed between them and they both pushed aside the curtain. Chris sat on the bed, the sweat pants on, but all the rest of the clothing still laid on the bed as he braced his ribs with his arm.

Vin put on a smile as he and Buck approached, "Told you."

Chris was still in denial, "Just give me another minute and I'll be ready."

Buck picked up the shirt and gently began easing Chris's arm into it, "Ready for what? Intensive care?"

Vin bent down to put socks on Chris, "Just relax, Chris. We'll take good care of you."

Chris began, "I don't need.."

But Buck put his hand over Chris's mouth. "We all know you're strong, that you can handle a hell of a lot of pain and that you can survive just fine on your own. You've got nothing to prove to us. Just let us help you because we can."

Buck removed his hand and Chris simply nodded his head. Buck resumed buttoning up the shirt and Vin slipped Chris's shoes onto his feet. Vin stood and critically eyed Chris's hair. It seemed to stand up all over the place.

Chris noticed the look and demanded, "What?!"

Vin smiled, "For short hair it certainly is unruly." And he pulled a comb out of his pocket and began to style Chris's hair.

"Vin!?" Chris growled in irritation. But Vin finished his task and then he and Buck again eyed up his hair. "Well?!"

Buck smiled, "It'll do pretty boy, it'll do. Now I'll go retrieve your wheelchair," and before Chris could object Buck was out the door.

Vin picked up Chris's coat, "Here's the finishing touch for your outfit," and he gently helped Chris into the coat.

Chris met Vin's eyes, "You aren't staying at my house for two weeks Vin."

Vin only smiled and stood to wait. In thirty seconds, Buck had reappeared with a nurse pushing the wheelchair. "She wouldn't let me drive," Buck explained.

"I know I'm disappointed," Chris said sarcastically as the nurse parked the wheelchair beside him. As he stood to get in the wheelchair, three sets of hands grabbed onto him to aid him. He glared at his two friends but only the nurse released her hold as her patient was safely and gently deposited into the wheelchair.

The nurse headed out of the room and Vin and Buck trailed behind. Buck shot Vin a look and whispered, "Why'd you let Chris see the paper?"

With confusion, Vin whispered back, "I didn't. I told them NOT to give him a paper. Is that what had him upset?"

Buck looked to Vin and knew he had heard the end of Buck and Chris's conversation. "Yeah."

"What you told you said it...."Vin stumbled with the words with the sentiment, and finished with "You got it perfectly right. Thanks."

Buck simply nodded as they continued down the hallway.

Vin and Buck helped a very ungrateful Chris into Vin's truck. But when Buck made to put on Chris's seatbelt for him, he heeded the threat Chris's look promised.

"Fine! But let's get this show on the road already! I'm starving!" Buck countered.

Vin looked to Chris, "Josiah called Mary and Nettie last night and told them about the accident. They both wanted to come in to the hospital to see you but he told them you were fine and they'd see you today."

Chris only nodded and Buck jumped into the solemn moment, "Vin, I know what Chris got you for Christmas!"

"Do not!" Vin shot back.

"Do to!" Buck smugly insisted.

"Children! Settle!" Chris threw out.

Vin and Buck grumbled in unison "Yes, Dad." and the three friends broke into laughter.

+ + + + + + +

Vin rang Nettie's doorbell while Chris, with his crutches, stood behind him and Buck hovered over Chris's shoulder.

"Stop hovering, Buck," Chris warned

Buck smirked, "Sure you say that now but I may be the only thing between you and a close inspection of the macadam."

Chris countered back, "I've been on crutches before, Buck!"

Vin joined in with a reprimand, "Yeah, more than your share."

Before Chris could defend himself, the door was flung open and Billy stood there with a huge grin. "Chris!" he exclaimed and went to fly into the man's arms like he always did.

With lightening reflexes, Vin intercepted the tyke and swung him up into his arms instead, "Hold up there buddy! I never get to hold you. How 'bout you give me a shot at it today?"

The boy turned surprised eyes to Vin then to Chris. With Chris's smile, Billy turned back to Vin, "Ok Vin." With that said, Vin walked into the house holding the boy and turned to watch anxiously as Chris maneuvered over the steps and entered the house. Buck brought up the rear and closed the door.

The new arrivals crossed the entrance hallway and entered the living room where the rest of the guests already sat socializing. As Chris made it over the threshold, all eyes were on him and Ezra called out, "Were you released from your incarceration or are you AWOL, Chris?"

"Honorable Discharge," Chris proudly shot back.

Before Chris could take another step into the room, Mary was in front of him, her beautiful face full of joy and terror as she took in his every feature. "Chris," she breathed half a caress, half a sob and gently wrapped her arms around him, her head on his shoulder.

Chris tried to return the hug as best he could with crutches and broken ribs. He put his mouth next to her ear and quietly murmured, "I'm alright, Mary."

She took a deep steadying breath and raised her head to look him in the eye. Her voice was soft with unshed tears, "Josiah had called me last night but when I saw the morning paper..." She bite her lip to stop the sob that was working it's way up her throat.

Chris's voice was gentle but loud enough for the rest of the occupants of the room to hear, "My 'guardian angels' got me out of yet another mess," and his eyes fell warmly on the men in the room.

Nettie watched as all her guests looked like they were about to sprout tears, herself included. "Come on, children," she called out with a smile, "dinner's on the table."

With those words, she started a stampede. Luckily Chris was out of the herd's path. He had planned on bringing up the rear but Vin waved him ahead. With a smirk, Chris followed Mary and Billy and Vin followed him. Chris stopped at his designated chair and before he could even realize the need for help, Vin was pulling the chair out and taking the crutches as Chris sat down. Chris gave Vin a nod of thanks and Vin smiled back before claiming the chair to Chris's left.

Finally they were all seated at the table, their eyes glued to the food that sat temptingly on the table. "Josiah, will you say grace?" Nettie asked to which Josiah smiled and everyone bowed their heads.

"Lord, we meet here with our family to thank you for sending your Son to this earth to save mankind. Thank you for that love and sacrifice and thank you for our loved ones gathered here. Amen."

"Amen," was the chorus around the table. Again, all eyes seemed to fall on Chris.

Chris shook his head, "Let's eat. You can all look at me later."

The table erupted into joyous laughter as the food was passed. JD spoke in the quiet, "Hey I learned a new joke last week..."

A groan went up from the six men.

+ + + + + + +

They were on dessert and Vin was the first to have his laughter turn into a cough. All heads turned his way as he tried to suppress it, Buck tsked tsked, "Did little Johnny forget to take his medicine?"

Having soothed the cough, Vin shot back, "Yeah, I took mine as often as you took yours."

Ezra broke into laughter and then the dreaded cough seized him and the men turned to watch him. Suddenly they were all laughing so hard, tears were rolling down their cheeks, and when Buck's cough began, they were practically on the floor.

Chris was trying to brace his ribs with his arm, as his laughter was certainly not the best medicine for his health problems. "Stop, Stop," he gasped between his laughter, "You guys are killing me."

But this only made matters worse. Now even the women were joining in on the laughs and Billy was laughing because everyone else was laughing. The men were rolling out of their chairs, stooping over in laughter pains, stumbling from the table to try and ease the pain. There seemed to be no end to the pain.

But Chris's lungs now protested this further offence and he broke down into coughs. At Chris's first cough, the laughter left the room and a fear settled on everyone's features. Vin quickly put a glass of water in Chris's hand even as he laid a protective hand on Chris's shoulder. Chris took a sip of water but the wracking cough wasn't so quickly banished. The cough was now constricting his air and he coughed all the more violently.

All the people at the table winced at the sound, the misery it spoke of even as Chris's features became pain filled as his ribs were in agony. There was nothing they could do to help the injured man and that was as agonizing to them as Chris's injures were to him.

Finally, Chris drew in a shaky but unfettered breath and it seemed the occupants of the room did the same. Chris looked up sheepishly at the audience he had gathered, "As you were," he lightly said, but his voice was tinged with pain and raspy from the coughing.

Vin reluctantly pulled his worried eyes from his best friend and sought Nettie's eyes. "Can Chris crash on your spare bed, Nettie?"

Nettie smiled at Vin and Chris, "Already made up for him."

Chris was already protesting, "I'm fine."

But it was like he hadn't even spoken as the room burst into action. Chairs were cleared from the path Chris would make to the staircase and Vin stood beside the still seated Chris even as Buck appeared on Chris's right side. Vin and Buck spoke across him like he was invisible

Vin suggested, "I say we carry him up."

+ + + + + + +

"Yeah, chair position," Buck agreed.

Chris looked up to each speaker but his head protested that much activity so he looked down at the table and broke in, "I have crutches, I don't need to be carried!"

Both men spared a glance down at Chris's head then resumed their conversation, "Vin, you bring in his medication?"

Vin pulled 3 pill containers from his pockets and rattled them, "Right here. And speaking of pills.." and he opened the containers and put two pills of each kind on the table in front of Chris and ordered without looking at Chris, "Take those." Vin was still looking to Buck, "And the bandages?"

Buck response was immediate, "Brought them in with the presents. So how often do we change them?"

Chris was feeling like a neglected monkey in the middle and he couldn't even turn his face up to see them. "What are you guys?! Extras from the TV show "ER"?!" he growled loud enough to snag Vin and Buck's attention. Both men halted mid thought and looked down to the man they were so concerned about. From their vantage point, all they could see was Chris's blonde head.

Vin sank back into his chair and Buck leaned against the table to be able to see Chris's face. Neither man liked how pale Chris was or the pain they saw in his eyes. Vin moved Chris's water glass closer and gently reordered, "Take the pills Chris." When Chris faced him, Vin saw the argument and more sternly said, "Don't complain, just take them or else I'll get Nettie's horse pill gun."

Chris met Vin's stern look, "You would, wouldn't you?"

Vin only smiled mischievously. Seeing that Vin's threat didn't seem so exaggerated, Chris obediently took all the pills except the painkillers. "Them too." Vin prodded.

Chris again dared to met Vin's gaze, "The pain's not bad right now. I'll wait 'til its worse, 'sides they'll knock me out."

Buck smiled, "Don't worry Christopher, we won't open presents without you."

This earned him a mock glare from Chris but Vin cut off any retort Chris was going to make, "Let me be the judge of how bad the pain is, pard. Now take the pills and don't worry about getting drowsy, we aren't opening presents until tonight. Right Nettie?"

"That's right. Seven o'clock to be exact. Plenty of time for us all to recover from this feeding frenzy." Nettie firmly replied, her eyes resting on Chris.

With reluctance, Chris took the pain pills and as soon as he put the glass on the table, Vin and Buck were gently scooping him out of his chair and into the chair they were making with their arms. "I can walk!" Chris yelled out in annoyance but Buck and Vin were already on the move, out of the dining room and carefully carrying their precious, if ungrateful, cargo up Nettie's stairs to the spare bed.

They gently deposited Chris on the bed and Buck swung Chris's feet onto the bed as Vin was pushing Chris to lay back. Buck then removed Chris's shoes and Vin pulled the cover over Chris.

Chris's complaints throughout the procedure fell on deaf ears as the two men completed their tasks. "You guys are worse than a mother!" he growled as he found himself nestled under the covers of Nettie's spare bed.

Vin and Buck looked to one another, then turned back to Chris and in unison replied, "Thank you!"

+ + + + + + +

When Vin and Buck reappeared downstairs, the room fell silent. Buck smiled and announced, "He's safely tucked away in bed and his crutches aren't even upstairs." This brought smiles to their faces. "Now, how about watching the game."

Ezra immediately informed, "I have bets down already, gentlemen. Willing to wage some of your Christmas bonus?"

JD snorted, "I thought you actually wanted them to bet with money."

Buck shot back, "Hardy Har, JD. 'Least I got a Christmas bonus. Yours went to repairing Chris's office window."

"You threw the ball to me first."

Josiah raised his hands, "Boys, Boys! Do you want me to tell Chris you're still arguing over this!?"

Buck and JD replied in unison "NO!!"

Josiah smiled and the ATF agents took a seat around the TV joined by Casey and Billy.

"Chris would want to place a bet," Vin said and Ezra smiled at him.

"He already did that yesterday morning at the office." But Ezra's smile faded soon, yesterday morning seemed a lifetime ago. Last night's occurrences overshadowed everything. It was strange the thoughts that ran through his head during the crisis. Thoughts like "Chris can't die, he already laid down a bet for tomorrow." And "I got him the perfect Christmas gift and I have to see his expression when he opens it. No way is he gonna die and miss this" to "Save this man, Lord. He's family to me and I can't make it if he doesn't live."

Nathan touched Ezra, "Earth to Ezra. You in there?"

Ezra smiled "Just counting my winnings, already."

A groan went up from the men. Buck called out "Don't count your chickens before they're hatched."

JD grumbled, "Not another cliché"

Vin laughed at the two men's antics, "Yeah, JD. Buck's got hundreds of them and he's anxious to use 'em all on you."

"Lucky me," JD good-naturedly replied with a smile to Buck.

The game began and the cheers and boos shot around the room but never loud enough to disturb the injured man upstairs. They were having a great time but one man's opinion was missing and the six men felt it severely. They reassured themselves with the knowledge that Chris's absence wasn't permanent. He was alive and right upstairs.

+ + + + + + +

After one hour, Vin slipped from the room and checked on Chris. He was relieved to see Chris was sleeping peacefully. He smiled as he closed the door and rejoined the gang downstairs.

At the second hour's approach, Vin was preparing to do the check again but Buck beat him to it. Vin tried not to scowl as Buck smiled and gave Vin a light punch on the arm, "My turn." Buck poked his head into the bedroom. Chris was still asleep and Buck was relieved that there was no trace of pain on Chris's features. Buck came downstairs and met Mary there. "Still sleeping like a baby," he offered and she smiled and they both reclaimed their positions by the TV.

Forty five minutes later, Ezra ambled out of the room and tried to ignore Vin's watchful look. When Ezra headed up the stairs, he could almost sense Vin's frustration and he smiled. Gently opening the bedroom door, Ezra saw Chris tucked under the blankets, his eyes closed, and his hair ruffled. Ezra was surprised by the vulnerability he saw. In the hospital, Ezra had been prepared, steeled for Chris to look vulnerable but not here, not while he slept without any hospital apparatus marring the scene. It caught him off guard and he drew in a sharp breath at the fear it instilled in him. He practically jumped out of his skin when Chris spoke, without moving.

"You just gonna stare at me, Ezra?" and Chris opened his eyes and focused on Ezra, "Or can I come down and play with the other kids?"

A wide smile broke unto Ezra's face. "I think you've endured enough 'quiet time.' Let me go get someone to help me convey you downstairs." Leaving the door open, Ezra scampered down the stairs but before he reached the bottom, Vin was approaching with a look of concern.

"Sleeping beauty is awake and is waiting on a form of transportation," Ezra greeted.

Vin smiled, "Chris hears you call him sleeping beauty and you won't have that pretty face anymore," he warned as he and Ezra climbed up the stairs.

They entered the room to find Chris out of bed, standing by a bureau, checking the stitches in his forehead in the mirror.

Vin's voice was sharp as he quickly seized unto Chris's arm "You're not suppose to put weight on that leg, Chris!!"

But Chris had a complaint of his own as he faced Vin, "Please tell me my hair covered my stitches and looked better before I took this forced nap?! I look like a cross between Don King and Frankenstein!!"

Vin answered in anger, "Your hair!?! I'm talking about your health, Chris!"

Ezra intervened before Chris could respond, "Calm down, gentlemen, calm down!" He turned first to Vin, "Chris simply had a moment's lapse recalling the doctor's orders- I'm sure he won't do it again." Before Vin could respond, Ezra turned to Chris, "And Chris, though your appearance is a little rumpled presently, let me reassure you there was nothing out of place when you made your entrance into the joyous gathering today. In fact I believe you could adopt one of Mr. Wilmington's quotes," and here Ezra took on Buck's mannerisms and tone, "Don't even tell me I look terrible, 'cause that's impossible."

Vin and Chris laughed and Chris heartily patted Ezra on the back, "Just shut up and help me down the stairs."

"Certainly, but let me adjust your do,," and Ezra patted down Chris's hair into place and pulled back before he earned Chris's wrath. "There now, you are presentable." He looked to Vin, "Ready?"

Vin responded with a "Yup" and he and Ezra hoisted Chris into their arms, creating a chair position.

Chris objected, "What is with you guys!? You miss your football days!! When I said "help" I meant let me lean on someone's shoulder!"

Vin smiled at Chris, "You're leaning on someone's shoulders."

They made it down the stairs without incident and gently eased Chris to the floor. Vin didn't release his hold on Chris until Ezra had handed Chris his crutches and Chris was set up. Chris looked over to Vin in expectation, "Vin?!" Reluctantly Vin released Chris and watched Chris maneuver into the living room.

Ezra and Vin exchanged looks of abandonment then followed Chris into the room. Buck was apparently taking over their care in this room.

"Well you've arrived just in time to collect your dough," Buck tried to complain but a smile belied his emotions as he saw Chris. He quickly stood and indicated his chair, "Best seat in the house is for you, I was just keeping it warm."

"I'll take the empty chair over there," Chris refused as he headed to a wooden kitchen chair at the rear of the room. But Buck quickly headed Chris off at the pass and stood a foot in front of him.

Buck smiled, but his voice held a warning, "Chris....don't make a scene."

Chris looked around the room to see all eyes on him and he grimaced. These people were worse than the whole nursing staff at the hospital. "Fine," he gave in and headed back to the chair Buck had vacated. As he sat down, Buck snatched his crutches, "Hey don't go running off with them Buck!" he warned and yet Buck stalked across the room and leaned them against the wall.

He turned back to Chris with an evil smile, "There, in plain sight."

"Yeah, just totally out of reach," Chris growled back but no one seemed to worry about upsetting him today. Buck sat on the floor beside Chris and Ezra reclaimed his seat on the couch as Vin sat in his chair by Chris. "So what's this about collecting dough?" Chris taunted, trying for innocence, "Don't tell me my team won?"

Suddenly dollars were tossed at him from about the room with grumbles and boos. Chris smiled as he arranged the money and smiled to Ezra, "Good thing I made that bet early."

"Well, had you not, Vin was willing to lay down a bet for you," Ezra replied with a smile.

"Oh really!" and Chris turned accusing eyes on a squirming Vin, "I remember you saying once you wouldn't even lay a bet for my team even if I paid you. So how much of my money were you gonna bet on your team in my honor?!"

Vin smiled, "Just your Christmas bonus."

Chris smirked, "And here I thought I was going to lose money?!" A boo went up from the crowd even as JD said, "Hey I said something like that earlier, I did!"

+ + + + + + +

True to her word, at seven o'clock Nettie had everyone gathered around the Christmas tree and Billy was passing out the gifts from under the tree. As the gifts found homes, an assortment of groans, smiles, laughs and thanks yous filled the room. Ezra smiled as he watched Chris open his gift and immediately sought Ezra's eyes across the room. It was the saddle Chris had seen in a magazine and had drooled at before whistling loudly over the price.

Ezra came over and took a seat beside Chris, who seemed too stunned to speak.

"Ezra, this is too expensive a gift.." Chris began.

But Ezra held up his hand to stop the protest and smiled, "Maude happened to know the manufacturer of the saddle you so loved and charmed a fabulous price out of the poor sucker. Her charms do come in handy once in a great while." And his eyes met Chris's hoping the man he so respected would accept the gift he so wanted to give him.

Sensing Ezra's hope, Chris smiled broadly, "Thanks Ezra. You can be the first one to test it out."

This got a laugh out of Ezra, "Oh no! If I would get one smudge of dirt on that saddle, I'd get weekend duty for three months." Chris laughed at that and he gave Ezra's shoulder a squeeze.

All the gifts seemed to be opened and clean up began, when Vin stepped forward to present a box to Chris, with all 6 ATF agents watching intently. Chris smiled warily up to his best friend, "What's this, Vin?" his suspicion evident in his voice.

Vin only smiled back as Buck called out, "Open it and found out."

With hesitation, Chris opened the box and then laughed as he pulled out item after item. A bottle of whiskey, cleaning fluid for his weapons, rags to clean his weapons, a scuba mask and tank, a Denver map and a medical ID like bracelet that read "If found, return to ATF."

Vin explained, "Just getting you ready for next Christmas and this time we're joining you in whatever you do Christmas Eve."

Chris laughed and eyed the men around him, his family, "You guys are shameless."

Josiah replied, "True, but you're stuck with us."

"We need a toast, " Buck called out as he distributed drinks around the room. When everyone was equipped with a beverage, he held his glass up, "To family."

Everyone clanked glasses and repeated whole heartily, "To family."

Vin surprised everyone by offering a toast of his own, "And here's to keeping Chris out of trouble at least until the new year!"

"Hear, Hear!!" was shouted around the room, with Mary heartily joining in the chorus.

Chris smirked at the antics of his family. "Very Funny Guys! Very Funny!"


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