PHOENIX
Michael Biehn Archive


Choose skin:

RSS

The characters belong to various production/film/TV companies. No profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended.
- Text Size +
Story Notes:
NOTE FROM ARCHIVIST:
I received a request that this story be taken down as in violation of the wishes of the originator of the Little Britches universe.

Having spoken with the author, and seen evidence that I shall retain, this story was NOT in violation of the wishes of the originator AT THE TIME THAT THIS STORY WAS WRITTEN AND POSTED.
The original request was for NO ADULT fiction. THIS STORY IS NOT ADULT RATED.
The originators amended their request at a later date requesting NO ADULT or SLASH fiction. As this addition contradicts regulation 4 of the UK Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 by discriminating against same-gender partners, I can only follow the wishes of the originator in disallowing ADULT-rated stories.
As per the disclaimers on this archive, please heed all warnings before reading a story.

Tarlan
Author's Chapter Notes:
FEEDBACK: Always welcome, on list or off, good, bad or indifferent.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: This was, in many ways, a story by committee. Many thanks to the guilty parties (who shall remain nameless and hopefully blameless); you know who you are.
DISCLAIMER: Thanks to Mog for creating the ATF AU. Needless to say, the characters and situations of The Magnificent Seven are not mine.
WARNINGS: Breaking my own rule here to reassure the faint of heart: no one dies in this one.

"London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down..." Too loud, and off-key, JD Dunne's voice sliced through the chatter and bustle of the terminal at Denver International Airport.

"JD!"

Vin's hissed whisper had no effect.

"My fair lady." And with barely a breath, he started up again. "London Bridge is--mpfh."

Buck stifled the never-ending chorus with a large hand over JD's mouth, and held on even as the palm was liberally licked by the overenthusiastic boy.

"Now, c'mon, son," Buck lifted and turned JD to face him, careful to retain his hold. "Take pity on these folks around here." Buck nodded at the busy crowd of business travelers. "I think they've all heard that song a few times before." JD opened his mouth, and Buck only pressed a little harder with his hand. "Enough. Why don't you color with Vin?"

They'd purposely arrived plenty early, what with the new TSA regulations, and the fact that it was both boys' first airplane travel. Not to mention that Buck was flying solo on this trip.

Though they'd had the boys over a year now, the adoptions hadn't gone final until last month. A family vacation had seemed like a good way to celebrate, and it would be, once Chris caught up with them. In the mean time, Buck was left to ride herd on active boys of six and eight, who were tanked up on adrenaline and too much sugared cereal. He sighed; it was going to a long two-hour flight.

When they'd first arrived at the gate, the area was deserted so Buck and the boys had commandeered a large, empty corner with plenty of room for the games, books and toys Mrs. Potter had thoughtfully packed in their backpacks. But they'd been here an hour now, and the terminal was starting to fill up as departure time approached.

The boys were getting restless, and JD hadn't shut up about the London Bridge since he'd seen a movie about it in school. Buck remembered the tiny pebble that had started this landslide...

"Hey, Da! Did you know the London Bridge ain't in London no more?" JD bounced through the door and into his lap without drawing a breath or, seemingly, touching the floor.

"Isn't in London any more," Ezra put in from his desk across the bullpen. JD just shook his head, and bounced a little harder on Buck's knees.

"Did ya?"

"Well, yeah, son. Actually, I did."

"Miz Anna says it's out in Ar-zona, in the middle of the desert. Except they got water there, just specially for the bridge, I guess."

"Well, Little Bit, they had water out there quite a while before they had a bridge. It's called Lake Havasu. Didn't I ever tell you I used to go there in the summer when I was about your age?"

JD's eyes got wider, if possible. "You been there? To the London Bridge?" It was clear that this was some sort of heroic quest in JD's mind.

"Yup." Buck bounced JD, and then set him down on the floor. "'Course, when I first went there, they didn't even have the bridge. That didn't come until later. I've been there, might even have a picture of my mom & me on the bridge, if I could find it." Buck thought of the dozens of boxes in Chris's garage, left over from his abrupt move to Chris's ranch at the advent of the boys. Somehow, they'd just never quite gotten those things unpacked.

"Now, where'd you leave Vin?"

From that day, JD had been on the sort of tireless campaign only a small child can wage to get the entire family to visit the London Bridge. In the privacy of their own bedroom, Chris had been adamant that the idea was a stupid waste of their vacation time. And even though he'd kept that opinion to himself in front of the boys, Buck was sure Vin had picked up on the undertones; he was obviously torn between JD's enthusiasm and his dad's opposition. It had come down to another late-night discussion, when Buck had ended up reminiscing about the good times he'd had there as a kid with his mom and his Uncle Andy, before Chris finally caved.

Both boys had been ecstatic at the news, looking forward not only to the bridge, but to Buck's promised fishing trip, and an expedition to see some Native American ruins in the area. Chris kept quiet about his doubts, except to nix Buck's idea of renting a houseboat as he and his mom used to do.

"If this is going to be a vacation, I want a door I can close between those hellions and us." And when Chris had dropped a kiss on Buck's lips, Buck had been convinced that Chris's was the better plan. .

But then, just as they'd been walking out the door of the office, Chris handing off tasks to the three remaining team members' inboxes, his office phone had rung. Buck waited for Chris to tell Travis he'd have to find someone else for whatever he needed, and instead watched through the glass as Chris shook his head, looked up at Buck and quickly away, and then sat back down behind his desk to scratch notes on a yellow legal pad.

"Don't do it, Chris," he warned aloud, knowing the effort was useless. Not only would Chris never hear him, but Buck could see a glint of anger in Chris's eye. Travis had him on the defensive already. Chris stood then, and paced, tangling and untangling himself from the phone cord, but obviously unable to escape Travis's web. "Damn it all," Buck muttered. "He couldn't have waited five minutes?" Buck leaned back against Josiah's desk, fiddling absently with the cup full of pens and pencils, noting how many were chewed almost to disintegration. He'd never noticed that about Josiah.

Five minutes wouldn't have mattered. Travis would call Chris at home, on the cell. Hell, he'd probably call him in Arizona if Buck didn't sabotage the cell phone, which was starting to sound like a good idea...

When Chris finally emerged ten minutes later, Buck's absent interest had moved on to the desk drawer, where Josiah kept an assortment of herbs and essential oils. He opened a few, but the scent was overwhelming, and he was starting a throbbing headache. Then again, maybe it wasn't the aromas after all. Chris's expression was apologetic, but before he could start in, Buck just shook his head and held the door. "C'mon, let's get out of here."

Chris looked like he might argue, but then preceded Buck to the elevator, and they rode down in silence. Crossing the near-empty garage, they shared a questioning glance.

"I got it," Buck offered, pulling out his own keys and triggering the remote locks on the Ram. Chris just nodded, and dumped his briefcase in the backseat before climbing in the passenger side and slamming the door harder than necessary. Buck waited until they were on the freeway headed west before asking, "What is it?"

Chris huffed out a frustrated breath. "Damn interagency task force. Haven't done a damn thing in the last six weeks, now they want to pull together the report by Monday."

It was Wednesday night. They had plane reservations out of DIA tomorrow just before noon. Buck kept his mouth shut. Chris knew all that. And he knew what this trip meant to the boys. To Buck. To all of them, he'd thought.

"I can't believe they're pulling this crap." Chris hated the bureaucratic nonsense that came with being the SAIC. But he was good at it, and Travis knew it. And he'd played on Chris's frustration with the system, luring him with promises of being part of the solution. Buck wondered when Chris was going to wake up and smell the coffee.

"You could have said 'no'," he pointed out. Could still, he thought.

Chris cursed again, and slammed his open palm against the dash hard enough that Buck was sure it hurt. "No," he said. "I couldn't."

Buck turned his eyes from the highway to look at him, but all he could see was Chris's stubborn profile. Okay-- "So how long is it going to take?" Maybe they could postpone the trip. Even as he thought it, he knew it was unlikely. It had been hard enough to schedule time when they could both get away, and almost ten days had seemed like a luxury. They wouldn't make it work this quarter. Maybe not this year. Buck sighed.

"Shouldn't be long," Chris said. "If they're really going to get it out on Monday, that is."

"Well, if it's only a day or two, we could change the reservations." The boys would be disappointed, of course. They'd been marking off the days on their calendar since school let out.

"Aww, hell," Chris muttered. "It's not right for you guys to miss vacation because I was too stupid to duck out of this damn task force."

Buck shook his head, and dropped a hand onto Chris's thigh. "Ain't much of a vacation without you, stud." It wouldn't be. Buck could handle the boys, even a disappointed Vin, if necessary. But it wouldn't be the celebration they'd planned.

"I want you to go," Chris insisted. "I'll only feel worse if you're all at home waiting for me. Besides," he paused, scrubbing a hand through his hair, "if you're gone, I can pull an all-nighter if I have to, and catch you up by Friday."

Buck squeezed Chris's thigh, and then put his hand back on the wheel to make their exit. "I don't think the boys are going to go for it." He meant Vin, of course. Both boys would miss Chris, but Vin's sense of security tended to be directly related to Chris's proximity. It was improving over time, as the boys settled in to their new lives. But the few times they'd been separated had been harder on Vin than either man liked to think about. And to spring it on him without warning...

"Well," Chris smiled at him, "I guess it will be up to you to keep them distracted."

Distracted. It had sounded easier in the truck yesterday than it did now. He glanced around at the chaos of their little corner, then smiled wanly at the irritated glare of a woman in a business suit. Vin looked anxious, and JD was getting that shiny look to his eyes--so far Buck hadn't done such a great job of it.

~ ~ ~


"Come ON, Buck!" God, could he really love a creature with that whining, wheedling voice? "Get UP!" JD's small body bounced rhythmically on the bed beside him, 'til Buck's only defense was to grab him around the waist and drag him into a bear hug. Even so, one hand was still free to tickle JD's ribs, drawing a screeching giggle and bringing Vin's head around the connecting door between their rooms.

"You plannin' to get up before lunchtime?" Vin asked, with enough dry humor to rival Chris.

"Lunchtime? Why it ain't hardly sunup yet," Buck insisted, though he could see through the blackout drapes that he had overslept. JD deserved a medal for waiting until--Buck checked the clock--8:30 to wake him. In all truth, Vin was almost certainly the one who deserved the medal for keeping JD occupied and quiet for as long as he had. "I think we should get us some pancakes, and then catch us some fish. What do you boys say?"

"YAY!" they chorused, and JD scrambled free to start pulling off his pajamas on the spot. Vin was a little more discreet, withdrawing into the boys' room.

Buck eased into the bathroom without company for once, and completed his morning piss in peace. He'd showered with JD last night, and sworn he wasn't going to shave until he set foot back in Denver, so the rest of his morning routine was quick. He emerged to find Vin fully dressed and waiting. JD was half under his bed, his little backside stuck in the air like a dog's, and he was still talking up a storm, though his voice was so muffled Buck couldn't make out any words. He raised an eyebrow at Vin.

"He lost his shoe."

"What? Already?" Buck looked into the closet where, sure enough, JD's sneakers were missing. One was already on and velcroed to his left foot, and a quick glance around the room didn't reveal the other. Vin just shrugged, and turned off the TV, which had been playing some Animal Planet sort of thing.

"C'mon out of there, Little Bit." Buck grabbed both ankles and pulled gently, extracting one little boy, but no extra shoe. He held JD, suspended upside down, and raised him up until their eyes met. "How did you lose your shoe already?"

"I dunno. If I knew that, it wouldn't be lost." This logic was too much for Buck before coffee.

"Okay, why don't you just wear sandals then?"

"All right!" JD twisted for freedom, and Buck dropped him easily onto the bed. He slithered to the floor, and kicked off his sneaker in favor of the brand new Tevas. Ezra had bought a pair for each boy, stating that they were necessary boating apparel. JD loved the idea of shoes that were meant for wearing in the water, and had wanted to try them out at home, but had been convinced--barely--to save them for the trip.

"Me, too!" Vin insisted, and it seemed only fair to indulge him. Once shoes had been swapped, they left for the hotel restaurant, where they'd already been told tales of the fantastic strawberry pancakes.

~ ~ ~


Sampson's Boat and Bait billed itself as a one-stop shop, and seemed to have everything they'd need for a day on the lake. The boat was an old Ranger with an underpowered outboard; it came stocked with rods and a cooler. Based on old Tommy Sampson's advice they went with a few crankbaits. It turned out to be a good choice, since JD's immediate response to the live bait had been to try to set them all free. Buck had barely diverted catastrophe, and distracted him with choosing what color lures they should buy. Finally, they stocked the cooler with soda & snacks, and spread on liberal doses of SPF 1000 before heading out.

It was a gorgeous day in the desert, with a sky so blue it almost hurt to look at, and not a cloud from one horizon to the other. The temperature was climbing steadily, but the breeze across the water kept Havasu significantly cooler than Phoenix or Vegas. The lake was spotted with boats and watercraft of all sizes and shapes, but not so crowded that they'd have a hard time finding a place of their own. Tommy had suggested they check out some of the coves down south of the town proper.

Buck powered down the outboard and dropped the anchor overboard, and the boat coasted to a slow stop. Vin and JD, who'd spent the entire trip out glued to the rail at the bow, bounced up on the spot.

"When can we fish?" Vin wanted to know.

"Me first! Me first!" JD jumped up and down, hanging on Buck's arm.

"Now, hold it!" Buck rarely raised his voice to the kids, but sometimes there was no other way to get their attention. JD sputtered to a stop, and Vin just looked up at him, waiting.

"What's the first rule of boating safety?" They'd been over this a dozen times, but with an attention span like JD's you couldn't repeat yourself too often.

"Always wear your life jacket," the boys chorused. He knew they were set, he'd checked them himself. But it couldn't hurt to keep after them. He wore his, too, as an example.

"What's the second rule? And who just broke it?" Vin's head dropped as he processed that, but JD opened his mouth to argue.

"We didn't--" Vin elbowed him, not too discreetly.

"Sorry, Buck," Vin muttered. "We're not supposed to move fast in the boat. Always be slow and careful."

"Don't be sorry, Vin. Just be careful, okay?" He waited for each of them to nod.

"And rule number three is?"

"Look 'round before casting!" JD, completely unfazed by the rebuke, shouted out the answer.

"That's right. You guys think you can keep them in mind? 'Cause otherwise we can do something else today."

"No!" Vin cried.

"Fishing!" JD shouted at the same time, and Buck had to chuckle.

"Okay, okay. Vin, did you pick a pole?"

"Yeah, mine's the red one." He pointed to the child-sized pole propped in the stern.

"Why don't you get it...carefully!"

Neither Vin nor JD's weight was enough to rock the boat, so it was just the gentle motion of the water that kept the deck swaying. Vin retrieved his pole and presented it to Buck to have his lure tied on.

"Now you remember how we practiced?" He put the pole in Vin's hands, and positioned his grip. "You look around. All around. Never point your rod at a person. You push and hold the button before you cast. And then you cast straight overhead and out in the water and let it go. Just like we practiced."

Chris wasn't much of a fisherman. He didn't have the temperament for it. But he'd cheered as the boys had practiced casting at targets on the back deck. JD couldn't hit much of anything, but that didn't dim his enthusiasm at all. Vin was slowly improving, and had more patience than Buck would have expected, trying again and again until he'd hit his goal.

Now, Vin just nodded seriously, looked carefully over both shoulders, and made his first cast. Or tried. The lure hit the water about three feet away, and sank quickly. He looked crestfallen.

"Aw, Vin!" JD's disappointment didn't help the situation.

"That's all right, son. Gotta let go of that button a little sooner, that's all. Let's try again. Can you reel it in?"

Vin nodded, and carefully cranked the reel until he'd retrieved his lure. He looked up to Buck for reassurance, but he just nodded. Vin could handle this. It would just take a time or two. Vin was meticulously careful, checking behind him again, carefully pressing the button, and casting out, his timing more accurate this time.

"Wow!" JD said, as the lure splashed in a good thirty feet out.

"Good job, Vin! Now reel it in." But Vin was already on top of it, drawing the line in at a measured pace, the crankbait imitating a colorful, swimming fish. The tip of the pole dipped a couple off times, indicating nibbles, but finally Vin drew the hook all the way in without a bite. It didn't seem to bother him, as his face was flushed with accomplishment and pride. "I think you've got it!" Buck clapped him on the back. "You want to keep that up, and I'll take JD up to the other end of the boat, and get him started?"

Vin nodded, already starting the process again. Looking. Pushing the button. Casting. Not quite so far this time, but still a very good effort. "Way to go, Vin. C'mon JD."

The honest truth was, JD just didn't have the coordination or the concentration to cast well. He'd get distracted midway, and Buck had pulled lures--sans hook, thank goodness--out of Vin's hair, out of the bushes in the yard, and more than once out of JD's own clothing. It was all he could do not to burst out laughing the time JD had damn near strangled Chris.

But with a little help, he could get the line out there, and with any luck at all, they'd catch something today. "You ready?"

JD just gave him an impatient look and offered his pole to Buck. It was green, and maybe a smidge shorter than Vin's, but it did sport the same kid-friendly spin-caster. When the lure was tied on, he ran JD through the checks again. "Look." JD's little neck craned around. "Push the button." Click. "Arms back, and cast."

Or not. The lure banged against the side of the boat.

"Bu-uck." JD's disappointment was comical, but Buck stifled his amusement.

"You gotta let the button go once you're pointed out there, Little Bit. 'Til you let the button go, the line can't run out."

JD nodded, sucking at his bottom lip, and tried again. This time he managed to release the line, but too late. The lure plunked in the water about three feet out.

"How about if I give you a hand? Just 'til you get the hang of things, okay?""

JD looked disappointed, but finally nodded his acceptance.

It was amazing what could make a man feel like God had smiled on him. Wrapping his arms around JD, fitting his hands over JD's small ones on the rod, like his Uncle Andy had for him all those years ago. It just didn't get any better than this.

"Why don't you run the checklist this time."

JD nodded eagerly, and they both looked around, Buck making sure to spot Vin and that he was well out of danger from their efforts. "Look. Press." Under his hands, JD's arms cranked back. "Cast!" JD shouted it, and started a violent motion.

Buck, by dint of his greater strength, smoothed the cast, and whispered, "Now," to prompt JD to release the line.

"Yay!" JD exclaimed as the line flew out about fifteen feet. "I did it!"

"You sure did!" Buck enthused. "Now just reel it in slowly." JD did, and if it wasn't as smooth as Vin's, it still got the job done.

When it finally came up out of the water, trailing a patch of grass but no fish, JD looked disappointed. "Where's the fish?" He leaned over the bow rail, staring down in the water, until Buck had to grab him by the back of the life vest before he fell in.

"They're out there. You just gotta give them a chance. Right, Vin?"

Vin looked up from his careful reeling, and nodded. "Yup." A chuckle rumbled in Buck's chest. Vin was predictable, and adorable.

"I c'n do it," JD insisted. "Let me!"

"Okay, okay!" Buck held up his hands and backed off a bit, staying close enough to intervene if he was needed.

JD managed a decent cast, about 10 feet, and began carefully reeling, when all of a sudden the tip of his pole dipped. Buck watched carefully, and it dipped again.

"Careful now, JD, I think you've got a bite." JD, all excited, turned an ecstatic smile on Buck. "No! Keep your eye on it, son! Keep reeling him in slow."

Vin set his pole aside, and came over to watch JD's efforts.

"Is it okay if I give you a hand?" Buck asked, almost as excited as the boys at their first catch. JD just nodded, and kept slowly cranking the reel.

Buck laid his hands above and below JD's allowing him his own grip on the pole, and the honor of dragging the fish in. As he got close in, they could see the fish--all of about six inches--wriggling desperately to escape the hook.

"Look, JD!" Vin pointed excitedly. "It's your fish!"

It took a little more effort to haul the fish up, and it still flopped wildly on the end of JD's short pole.

"Vin, get the camera!" Buck prompted. Vin scrambled back to their bag, and came up holding the Polaroid camera. "Now, you let me handle this, JD. You know we talked about it." Buck carefully steadied the fish, not wanting it to injure itself, or for the boys to end up getting sliced by a stray fin.

"But it's my fish!" The whine started in.

"Sure it is. I'm just going to hold it for you." With his other hand, he turned JD toward the camera. "Now smile big for Chris!"

Vin pointed the camera and pressed the button, and it spat out the picture. Yeah, they weren't the quality of Ezra's high-end digital camera, or even some of the disposables you could buy. But there just wasn't any substitute for watching the picture develop right in front of you. And the boys loved it.

"Okay, now we're going to let him go."

"Aww, Buck! Can't we keep him?"

"What as a pet?"

"No," Vin piped up, still holding the camera in one hand and the rapidly developing picture in the other. "We should eat him for dinner."

Buck doubted that this little guy was legal for keeping, much less large enough to feed even one of them. But he wasn't going to rain on the boys' parade; he got busy extracting the hook, which was firmly set in the fish's right cheek. "We've got to let him go home to his family, and make more little fish for us to catch next time. Remember?"

The boys nodded, resigned. "But can I name him?" JD wanted to know.

"Sure, but make it quick." Buck held the fish out, letting both Vin and JD run a finger along the scales before moving to the back of the boat to release it. "JD?" he prompted, ready to let the fish go.

"Let's call him Simon."

"Okay, Simon," Buck leaned down, carefully setting the fish into the water, letting it get used to the feel again. "Go on home to your family." He released the fish, and it hung there, as if confused, before twitching its tail and swimming off into the depths.

"Bye-bye, Simon!" JD called. He and Vin both leaned over the rail to watch him go.

Buck retrieved the camera and the picture from Vin before they could follow Simon to the bottom of the lake, and watched as the last details of the photo came clear.

"Hey! This is great. Take a look, boys." For once, Vin actually had them framed really well--there were more than his fair share of headless Buck pictures in their album--and JD had a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon on his face. The fish--poor little Simon--was well displayed, along with enough of Lake Havasu in the background to make quite a nice picture. "Chris is going to love this." And he was. It was too damn bad the man had a sense of responsibility that just wouldn't quit, or he'd be here with them right now.

"Simon is the best fish ever," JD declared adamantly.

"Nuh-uh," Vin countered. "I bet I can catch a better one!"

"Can not!"

"Can, too!"

"Boys!" They fell silent, though he caught a couple of tongues stuck out when they thought he wasn't looking. "Boys?" he warned again. "Are we done fishing?"

"No," JD muttered. Vin just shook his head silently.

"Okay, then. Let's have a drink to celebrate, and we can try again." He offered them each a bottle of water, and took one of his own, sorely wishing he'd stashed some beer in the cooler. But he was driving, and it was amazing what having a couple of kids could do to even Buck's once happy-go-lucky lifestyle.

The boys went back to fishing, and Buck supervised. It wasn't long before Vin caught his first fish. Buck helped him land it, and let him hold it long enough to take the photo. Then, after she was named Madeline, he returned her to the bounteous lake.

He didn't know how long they'd keep at it. The sun was pretty hot, and JD got bored when his casting didn't produce more results. Buck offered to help, but JD just shook his head, and instead started dragging his lure through the water at the front of the boat, watching it flicker and spin. He went from that to opening up the storage units at the bow, and exploring their contents. After a while, Buck leaned back, keeping a weather eye on both boys, but relaxing in the midday heat.

"Hey, Buck, look! I'm driving the boat!"

JD was standing in the driver's seat, spinning the wheel harmlessly while they drifted at anchor.

"You're doing great, JD! Keep her steady so we can catch some more fish."

Vin smiled, then looked back to his pole with concentration. Buck just lay back on the gunwale, enjoying the sunlight, and the easy sway of the boat. Oh yeah, Chris was gonna love this.

JD's next distraction was to honk the tiny boat horn, as if he were a cab driver in New York traffic.

"Jaaay-deee!" Vin's exasperation was apparent. "You're gonna scare the fish."

"But--"

"C'mon, Little Bit. Why don't you come back here and keep ole Buck company?"

"No, Buck!" He honked again madly. "Watch out!"

Buck pushed upright, ready to retrieve JD physically, if necessary. But when he turned to the front of the boat--

In a split second he took in the size and speed of the incoming boat, and the fact that the driver seemed not to have seen their little Ranger at all. Vin had turned too, and stood frozen, his eyes and mouth gaping.

"Shit!" Buck cursed, diving toward the wheel and JD, fumbling for the key, and all the while knowing he was far too late. He barely reached the driver's seat, and only just got a hand onto JD when he felt the impact. JD's small arm flew from his grasp. The boat arched up to slam him in the face. Stars flashed across his vision, and in the moment before darkness overwhelmed him, he thought, sadly, "I'm sorry, Chris."

JD's keening screams faded with the light.

~ ~ ~


Flying never agreed with Chris, and the only upside of this trip was that he hadn't had the boys along. Well, that and the fact that he was headed toward a long vacation with his family. Last night's phone recital--from both boys--of the joy of modern airline flight was enough to make him consider driving his rental car back to Denver, and letting Buck shepherd the boys home. But once he had his feet on terra firma again, he found his way to the rental desk and, armed with a map, struck out for points northwest. He'd fought the idea at first but, truthfully, he was looking forward to having time away from the demands of the job to focus on Buck and the boys.

Driving through the desert was nearly hypnotic. There was variation to the terrain, color and vegetation, but within a fairly narrow range, unlike the vivid wilds of the Rockies. The road was dead straight and flat for the most part, and Chris put the car on cruise and zoned out. Once he turned off the interstate, it got more interesting, but he was glad when he finally pulled into view of Havasu City. It was as kitschy as he'd expected, with British themed restaurants and hotels, and signs everywhere for the London Bridge. He winced, but good memories from Buck's childhood were few and far between, and JD's unbounded excitement had been nearly a force of nature.

He really had hated to send Buck on with the boys. Vin had been counting on their time together, and somehow made up that if Chris didn't leave with them then he wasn't coming at all. They had both explained the situation carefully to Vin, and promised that Chris would follow just as soon as he possibly could. In the end, Vin had steeled himself for the separation, and Chris had felt like a jerk as he dropped them at the airport.

He'd hardly slept since then, what with working as long and late as he could, and not bothering to go home to the empty house. He'd finally gotten the okay from Travis at 10:30 this morning, and left a message on Buck's cell that he'd arrive in time for supper. He was making better time than he'd expected, and would probably be in before they were even done with their day of fishing on the lake. Hell, if he caught a nap, he might even be able to keep up with Buck tonight.

Chris had to drive through town and right by the damn bridge to get to the Best Western, and admitted it was pretty amazing to see the thing sitting out here in the middle of the desert. The hotel was less than a mile away, and he pulled up to the front desk to pick up a room key. He wasn't at all surprised to find the connecting rooms empty of his family, but showing plenty of evidence that they'd been there earlier. He showered quickly, and pulled the drapes before dropping almost instantly to sleep.

~ ~ ~


Nausea brought Buck conscious in a flash, though the stabbing pain that struck when he opened his eyes was nearly enough to send him out again. He scrabbled on the rolling table for a basin, and gagged and spat what little bile his stomach produced. It was awful.

When it seemed like his gut might be done spasming, he dropped back against the pillows gasping like a landed fish. And that quickly, it all came back to him.

Fishing. The trip. The boat. The boys.

The boys!

"Oh, Lord God, please let them be okay," Buck prayed aloud. He tried like hell to remember anything, everything. He thought he might have drifted in and out of consciousness a few times. He had a vague memory of JD wailing like an air raid siren.

And then nothing. Buck closed his eyes, and tried to picture them floating safely in their life jackets, maybe the rescue squad fishing them out. Nothing.

He'd been conscious before, here in the hospital; he was pretty sure of that, remembered looking up into the kind eyes of a nurse. Had she told him about the boys? Had he forgotten? Or was the news bad, and they didn't want to upset him? Please, God, no. Don't let anything have happened to the boys. Don't let me have to call Chris with bad news. He didn't think either one of them could face that sort of loss again.

Buck fumbled for the nurses' call button, punching it desperately, and then, not waiting for a response, went to work on the bedside rails. He had enough practice to make short work of them. Swinging his legs over the side and sitting up made stomach erupt again, and he grabbed for the basin. He supposed he ought to be grateful that he had nothing left to puke, but damn it was painful. And it kept setting off explosions in his skull that sent the world spinning around him.

But someone, somewhere knew where the boys were. And he was going to find them, damn it. Hanging on to the rails, Buck pushed upright and shuffled to the end of the bed. He clenched his eyes shut against the nauseating view, and felt for the wall. His whole body rocked, his head as heavy as lead, and he leaned heavily against the plaster, the slick paint cooling his cheek. Hanging there, he had to work to remember where the door was, where he was going. The boys. He was going to find the boys.

He took one shuffling step along the wall, and then another. And then the floor came up and slapped him in the face.

~ ~ ~


Hunger roused Chris from a sleep much deeper than he'd expected to find himself in a strange bed. A glance at the clock showed it was past eight, and yet there was no sign of Buck and the boys. Pushing upright, and rubbing some of the tiredness from his face, Chris fumbled for his cellphone on the bedside table. He punched the speed-dial for Buck, and it clicked over to voicemail immediately. Chris shook his head. Did you forget to turn it on this time, Buck? Or just forget to plug it in? He tried the in-house phone next, to see if they'd left a message for him at the desk, but there was nothing.

Chris sighed heavily, and opened up the drapes to catch the sunset reflecting off the lake. It was beautiful, even if he'd never admit it to Buck. But the boys would be hungry by now, and he should have heard from them. He tried the voice-mail on his cell next, and finally, in confusion, the answering machine back at the ranch. It seemed unlikely, but if for some reason Buck couldn't reach him on the cell, he'd try there.

Chris keyed in the remote access code, and the electronic voice of the machine reported that there were three messages. The first was a telemarketer, and Chris punched delete before he could even figure out what the guy was trying to sell. The second was from their neighbor Tricia, warning that she had workers coming to lay pipe on Monday, and that the access road might be blocked at times. That wouldn't be a problem, since they wouldn't be home for another week. The last one was so dry and emotionless it sucked the air out of Chris's lungs and the strength from his body, so that he had to lean against the wall to keep upright.

"Hello. This is Sergeant James of the Havasu City Police Department. Could you please call back at 602-555-9142 as soon as possible?" The machine chattered on, offering Chris options about deleting, or saving, or... He fumbled for the pad and pen at the bedside, and with shaking hands felt his way through the key combination to replay the message and retrieve the number. And then he dropped the phone into the cradle, and sat heavily on the bed.

"No." It was barely a whisper, almost lost in the hiss of the air conditioning in the too-silent room. He looked around, at all the little signs of the people he loved most. One of JD's shoes was wedged into the desk chair, between the seat and the back, with no sign of how it could have gotten there. Buck's watch and ring--things he wouldn't want to lose if he took an unexpected dunk in the lake--sparkled on the bureau. And, barely visible from this angle, through the connecting doors, Vin's stuffed cat lay tucked neatly under the covers of the bed.

"Oh, God. Not again."

Chris scanned the room again, not sure whether to be happy or not that there was no mini-bar, and with careful precision he picked up his cell and dialed the police department number.

"Havasu Police. May I help you?"

"Yes, this is Chris Larabee, returning a call from Sergeant James. Is he available?"

"Would you mind holding?" It wasn't really a question, in tone or practice, because before Chris could shout "no" he was listening to a recorded greeting describing the joint police-citizens action committee, that invited him to get involved. He sat there in paralyzed anticipation, wondering if it were a blessing or a curse. If they were going to give him bad news--and when did the police ever call with good news, especially when your family was hours overdue--maybe it was better not to know.

But the twisting in his gut like he'd swallowed barbed wire made that a lie.

Chris ran a shaking hand through his hair, pushing it back from his eyes, and groaned as the recorded message played again, this time in Spanish.

Just when he thought he couldn't take it another second, the line clicked and hummed, and then a soft female voice came on the line.

"I'm sorry to keep you waiting, Mrs. Larabee," she started, sounding far too businesslike. "I'm Officer Martinez, and..."

Chris had only a moment to process the depth and breadth of her misunderstanding. "That's Special Agent ChrisTOPHER Larabee," he growled. "What can you tell me about Buck Wilmington, Vin Tanner and JD Dunne?" He waited, heard some papers shuffling, and couldn't believe this local yokel wasn't prepared with whatever she needed to tell him. "Ma'am, you people called me!"

"There was a boating accident this afternoon." Of course. Even though he'd been waiting for it, Chris felt his heart sinking. The boys weren't strong swimmers. Disaster had struck, and Chris hadn't been there, once again. How many times was he going to have to go through this before he learned his lesson? Priorities, Larabee. When are you going to get your damn priorities in order? Too late now...

"Are you still there, sir?"

"Huh?" He'd long forgotten that there was someone on the phone, almost didn't recognize her as the same officer, with her voice all soft and concerned.

"I asked if you'd like me to give you the phone number to the hospital. I don't have any update on their condition since this afternoon."

Hospital. Not dead. Not yet, anyway. Chris dragged what felt like his first full breath since he'd pulled the message from the cops. It wasn't enough, didn't settle him, but it did give him enough higher brain function to pull himself back to the present, to lay hands again on the pen and pad that hadn't moved since he'd last used them, and to take down the number. He read it back carefully, and then hung up and dialed again without a pause.

"Havasu Regional Medical Center. How may I help you?"

"This is Chris Larabee. I need to speak with Buck Wilmington. He's a patient there."

"I'm sorry, sir. But it's after nine, and we can't put calls through to patient rooms at this time. Would you care to call back in the morning after eight?"

Every ounce of terror he'd felt transformed into an anger so hot, Chris thought he might just melt the phone lines between himself and the idiot switchboard operator.

"No! I don't care to call back! I just got word from the Havasu Police that my family is in your hospital, and I want to know how they are. Let me talk to Buck Wilmington, someone who can tell me about his condition, or your supervisor right now!" He didn't realize he was up and pacing, until he came up against the sliding door, and the now-shadowed view of the lake in the distance. He glared at it, envisioning it dry and empty.

"Nursing Station, Two East--"

Chris cut in sharply. "This is Chris Larabee. I need to speak with Buck Wilmington."

"Hmmm," this time Chris could hear papers shuffling, and a low conversation in the background. He couldn't make out the words, though. "I'm sorry, Mr. Larabee. Mr. Wilmington is asleep right now, can I take a message?"

"How is he? The police didn't have any information. I heard there was an accident. I need--" Chris finally clamped his mouth shut to stop the babbling, and to give the nurse a chance to respond.

"I really shouldn't..."

"Please." God, was he really begging? Oh, yeah. And he'd do it again, and as abjectly as he needed to. "Please."

"Hold on. I'll check."

Her sigh through the phone was enough to turn him from the window, toward his shoes, his keys, the door. Cell clamped to his ear, he was halfway out before he turned back. He grabbed Buck's watch and ring, sliding them into the pocket of his jacket, and stepped through to the boys' room for their own tokens of security. For Vin it was the stuffed cat that was the first gift Chris had ever given him, almost an afterthought from yet another hospital visit. For JD it varied from week to week, but his current obsession was a foot-tall plastic Buzz Lightyear action figure. Chris tucked both under his arm, and was in the car before the nurse came back on the line.

He sat there, engine running, phone to his ear, in a hotel parking lot with no idea where he was going, waiting--

"Mr. Larabee?"

"Yes, I'm still here."

"Mr. Wilmington is in good condition. He's suffered a concussion, and lacerations to his face and head. If he doesn't show any signs of complications, he should be released tomorrow."

Chris sagged back against the seat, feeling like every bone in his body had turned to liquid. "Thank God..." he whispered. "Oh, thank you, Lord." Buck would be okay. "The boys? Can you tell me about Vin and JD?"

Please. Oh, please. Not the same. Chris squelched the voice before it could lead him any further down that path.

"Mr. Wilmington hasn't stopped asking about them, every time he wakes up." He could hear the smile in her voice, and the concern, too. "JD is fine. Well, not unhurt. He's got a broken leg, but he will be fine. And from all I heard, he's got a fine set of lungs on him, too." Oh, yeah, that was JD. But...

"And Vin?" Please.

Her tiny hesitation said everything he never wanted to hear. "It's serious. He's suffered a skull fracture, and was drowned. He's listed in critical condition in the ICU. I'm sorry."

He felt his body go light as the joy he'd felt burned up inside him and turned to ash. Drowned. Vin was drowned. Fire. Water.

One loud sob burst from his chest, before it seemed to seize, not letting any more air in or out.

"Mr. Larabee?"

"I need to see him."

"I'm sorry, but he's in the ICU. You probably won't be able to visit until tomorrow, and then the time will be very restricted."

"No. I need to see Buck."

The engine was still running, and Chris shifted into reverse, tires squealing as he pulled out of the parking lot and turned toward the town. "Tell me how to get there."

"But--"

"Tell me--" Chris hissed, "--how to get to your hospital. I'm coming from the Best Western."

She sounded confused, maybe concerned. "Turn left at the second light..." She stayed on the phone with him, until he'd pulled into the well-lit parking lot of the hospital.

"You'll have to come in through the ER." Chris left the rental in the red zone, unlocked and uncaring.

"I'm there, now."

"Tell Joe, he's the security guard, to call up and clear it with me. Take the stairs to the second floor, and turn right. Look for the nurses' station."

The ER was almost empty, and the lone security guard was reading the Enquirer. He looked up as Chris came in, eyeing him up and down for his emergency.

Joe was kind enough, looking over Chris's ID and badge, and calling Carolyn to clear his way. And then Chris was pounding up the stairs two at a time, swinging around the corner and out into the wide hallway, and almost skidding to a stop at the nurses' station.

Carolyn was an older woman, heavy-set with bottle-blonde hair pulled back from her face. She flashed him a wide smile that didn't quite reach her dark eyes, and pointed him toward the end of the hall. "He's in two thirty-four."

Chris slowed down to a walk, focusing hard to read the numbered signs at each door without taking in any of the sick and injured people inside.

He came up on 234, and paused in the doorway, taking a moment to settle himself, and to check the situation before barging in.

It was a semi-private room, but the bed nearest the door was empty. The bed by the wide picture window was cranked partway up, and the overbed light on low, casting a small circle of light on the occupant.

Buck looked awful.

That's damn near impossible, his memory teased in Buck's low, sensual voice. And Chris couldn't even summon up a smile.

One whole side of Buck's face was swollen and bruised. Stitches--dark and vivid through clear tape--started at his hairline and inched down frighteningly close to his left eye, which was swollen shut. His breathing seemed easy enough, and he wasn't hooked to any monitors. He seemed to be sleeping easily.

Rounding the bed to Buck's uninjured side, Chris set the toys down, lowered the rail and hiked his hip onto the mattress. Buck's breathing shifted to a low, familiar grating snore. Chris felt his heart--more bruised and battered than it had felt in years--ease just a bit. He knew he shouldn't, should let Buck rest, but he couldn't not touch, just to make sure. He rested one hand on Buck's jaw, letting a finger slide down to test the strong carotid pulse, brushing his thumb through the bristly growth of dark beard.

Oh, I love you.

He didn't speak aloud, didn't say anything, but Buck slowly stirred, his one good eye blinking open in confusion, and then slowly focusing on Chris's face. He watched slow realization dawn, then memory and fear washed through that well-loved countenance.

"Oh, God, Chris--" Buck's voice was hoarse, desolate, and Chris couldn't stop himself from bending down, gathering Buck up, pulling him into his chest and holding him close. Quiet sobs shook the big body, and Chris patted his back, stroking one hand through his hair, savoring the warmth and life of him, when he'd feared it was gone forever. They clung that way for minutes, and Chris would have stayed for hours if Buck hadn't pulled back, just far enough to meet his eyes. "Have you seen the boys yet?"

Joy, fear and sorrow--and love--all jumbled together kept Chris silent a moment longer than Buck could wait.

"They won't let me see them, Chris!" Buck looked ashamed, now, pointlessly, wrongly. Chris knew to his soul that Buck would have done all he could to keep them safe. "I can't even see my boys."

Chris couldn't imagine anything other than full restraints keeping Buck from Vin and JD, and felt a tiny grin quirk his lips.

"Yeah," Buck admitted. "I tried. Ended up passed out on the floor." Chris ached at the picture. If he'd been here... "Please, Chris. They say they're alive, but I gotta know."

Chris had a sudden flash of Buck's fear, so different from his own, and yet the same. Buck had known the boys were hurt--for hours, at least--and couldn't check on them, constrained by his own injuries.

"Hush," Chris soothed. "I'll go in just a sec, okay?" Buck opened his mouth to protest. "Just want to make sure you're okay, and then I'll go."

Buck looked a little confused, as if concern for him was misplaced. Didn't he have any clue? Chris smiled, and brushed a finger along Buck's jaw line, lifting it to trace just above the livid bruising.

"I'm fine," Buck protested. "You shouldn't worry..." But he had. And to have the living, breathing proof of Buck's life in front of him was almost too much for him to take in. "The boys--" Buck trailed away, and terror shone again in his eyes. "Chris?" Buck's voice shook. "Do you know something you ain't telling me?"

"No!" Chris burst out. "No," he continued again, more softly. "They tell me JD's fine. Well, except for a broken leg--" Buck nodded anxiously, urging him on. "Vin--" Chris's voice cracked and, for the first time, tears burned in his eyes. "They say he's--" He swallowed hard, trying to clear the massive lump from his throat. "He's in the ICU. They say...critical." Buck sagged back onto the pillows, and Chris let him go.

"Please, Chris," and Buck's voice sounded as tired and as desperate as Chris had ever heard it. "Go see. I need to know."

Chris leaned in, pressing a chaste kiss to Buck's lips, and then stood. "I'll be back soon," he promised, patting Buck's shoulder and then collecting the toys again. He stopped in the doorway and looked back one more time, before steeling himself for his next ordeal.

Carolyn directed him to the opposite wing for pediatrics, and told him she'd call ahead to let them know he was coming. He made a mental note to buy her some flowers; she'd gone far above the call of duty.

The door into the pediatric wing was locked, but they buzzed him in. The walls were painted bright, happy colors here, with designs of circus animals and toys stenciled at kid-height along the corridors. A young black woman in purple scrubs waved him onward, and carefully checked his ID before escorting him to JD.

It was an open ward, with half a dozen smaller beds, only two of which were occupied. Chris was across the room before he knew it, bending over JD's bed to look carefully into his face, to hear the comforting hiss and snuffle of breath, to smell the warm child-smell, even amidst the acrid antiseptic hospital scents. Oh, Lord, he was beautiful. JD lay unnaturally flat and still, with one leg propped up, and a hint of neon green cast peeked out from the edge of the blanket.

Chris carefully tugged the hem, till JD's toes were covered and no sign of his injury showed. He lifted the tiny arm, tucking Buzz in next to him, and watched JD's arm reflexively tighten.

"Mr. Larabee?" the nurse called softly from the door. Chris reached out, brushing a feather touch over JD's tousled hair, and then stepped outside into the hallway.

"How is he?" Chris asked.

"He's fine." She smiled confidently. "He's a strong little boy and he's going to be just fine."

"Thank you." Chris offered his hand, and she took it in a firm, warm shake.

"Are you going to stay? I know he'd love to see you when he wakes up. He was pretty distressed earlier." She shook her head a little apologetically. "They finally had to sedate him to cast his leg."

Chris could only imagine, and the fist in his chest clenched tighter. He needed to be here for JD; he ached for it. But...

"I need to check on his brother," Chris said. "And let Buck know he's okay. I'll be back..."

She nodded, and scribbled something on a pad. "Here's the code for the door. I'll be looking for you later."

Chris shoved the paper in the pocket of his jacket, brushing against Buck's jewelry. He turned sharply, and was almost out the doors before he realized, "Nurse?"

She turned back. "Tyra," she supplied.

"Tyra." He nodded his thanks. "I need to find the ICU."

She gave him directions, and escorted him out this time, the doors hissing softly shut behind him.

Chris drummed his fingernails against the metal paneling of the elevator, waiting out its slow climb to the fifth floor. The doors chimed softly, and opened on a broad lobby that had more of a sense of urgency than he'd seen since the ER. The lights were brighter, the ICU rules bolted to the wall beside the closed doors. As he watched a pair of doctors came out, brushing by him and taking the elevator car down. An older woman napped on a sofa in the corner, the table in front of her strewn with vending machine coffee cups. Chris felt a pang of familiar dread.

The windows into the ICU were set high in the door, and he couldn't make out anything but a row of glass cubicles, and the central nurses' station. Not the same, he insisted, gathering his courage to ring the bell.

Instead of buzzing him in, a nurse came to the door, and once again checked his ID before letting him in. She escorted him down the hallway, to the cube directly across from her station. She spoke quietly, in clear, short sentences, and Chris was grateful for that. She told him what they'd done, what they planned, and what they hoped for Vin's recovery. He automatically catalogued every word, knowing that Buck needed to hear it, that he'd need to think them through again, later. Now, all he could do was stare mutely through the window at the small body in the bed.

It was fully adult-sized, making Vin look small, lost in the expanse of sheets. He was connected to IVs and monitors with computer screens that looked complex enough to land the space shuttle. Vin lay utterly still, his normally tan skin pallid, almost green under the fluorescent lights. Someone who didn't know him might say he looked like he was sleeping.

Chris's treacherous brain overlaid this living hell with nightmares past, 'til he was almost seeing double. Not the same, he chanted silently, trying to dispel the images. It's different this time. Vin looked almost untouched. Adam had been burned so terribly. Had cried and screamed silently, his throat seared and swollen. Vin didn't even look like he was hurting.

"Is he in any pain? " Chris pressed a hand to the glass separating them.

"No," the nurse said softly. "He's in a coma. It's the best thing for him right now, really. Given the nature of his injuries..."

Drowning. Not burning. Water, not fire.

Head trauma. No nerves in the brain...

Chris felt like throwing up.

"You can go in for a minute," the nurse offered, professional compassion firmly in place. She gestured to the door, but Chris stumbled back a step, not forward. He looked from her sad, kind face, through the window again, and finally down at the cat he'd been unconsciously crushing so tightly it was amazing it hadn't burst a seam.

Chris opened his mouth. "I-- I can't," he said. "I'm sorry," he said to Vin, as if he could hear through the glass. "I have to-- I promised--"

He bolted for the door then, anything to get away from this place of agony, of waiting for death. He ran through the lobby, and right past the elevators, into the stairwell and pounding down. His heart hammered in his chest, his steps echoed too loud, and only the six-foot-high number two painted on the wall halted him before he reached the basement.

He paused there, and some tiny sliver of sanity opened up. He'd never panicked like that before in his life: not in the Navy, not on his wedding day, the day of Adam's birth, Sarah's death... He had to pull himself together, for Buck. Buck, who always took care of him, of all of them, needed Chris this time. Needed to know their boys were alive, needed to believe they'd be well. Leaning forward, bracing his arm on the wall, pressing his forehead into the cool cement, Chris breathed deeply, working to quiet his breathing, calm his pounding heart.

When he was finally under control, he shouldered through the door and into the too-quiet hallway. Carolyn nodded as he passed, and Chris waved absently. He paused again in the doorway, but this time Buck felt his eyes, and looked up anxiously.

"JD's fine," he assured, the first words out of his mouth when he walked through the door. "Sleeping like a baby. I tucked Buzz under his arm and he was strangling that damned doll before I even left."

Buck's relief was palpable, if guarded. "And Vin?" Buck's eyes opened wide in alarm. "Didn't they let you see him?"

Chris dropped his eyes to the cat, now held gently between his hands, and recounted everything he'd been told.

"He's in a coma. They say it's a good thing, giving his body a chance to heal, to begin recovering." Buck sucked in a breath, but Chris couldn't look up. Couldn't look at him and say these things. Couldn't bear to see his own pain reflected in Buck's too-expressive eyes.

"They did surgery on his brain." Chris sucked in a breath, and charged on. "He has a skull fracture. A--" He searched for the term. "An epidural hematoma. They shaved his head." Still not willing to look up, he took one hand from the cat and dropped it on Buck's foot, massaging gently.

"He's not in any pain, they say. Not suffering at all." Not like Adam. Not the same. "They don't know yet..." This was the hardest part. "He was under the water--" He had to get the words out. "They don't know about brain damage. Don't know when--if--he'll wake up."

"They wouldn't let you in to see him?" Buck asked again.

Chris just stared at the cat, thinking of Vin's head and how small and pale it looked without hair, how Vin would pitch a fit when he figured out they'd shaved him... If he figured it out, if he woke up...

He blinked, watched two dark dots appear on the cat's felt skin, watched the tears spread on the fabric. He couldn't tell Buck, couldn't--

"Aww Chris," Buck sighed. "Come here."

Buck didn't think he could stand one more second of Chris standing so far away, hurting so much. Chris raised his head finally, met his eyes, and the agony there was everything Buck had expected, feared. Remembered.

Chris took an uncertain step forward, then another, and he was close enough for Buck to reach out, to pull him in close. The pounding in his head rose up as he sat straighter, the better to hold Chris, pulling Chris's face in to his shoulder, feeling his own tears break out again at the hot dampness on his neck.

Chris sobbed silently, and Buck could only hold him and rock, and whisper comfort that they both knew for hope rather than surety. It had to be better, Buck thought, for Chris to be doing this, to be able to do this, and let himself be held and comforted. Before-- Buck clenched his eyes shut, but didn't succeed in banishing the vision of younger Chris's cold, hard control, his spine strung so tight he'd looked like he might snap at the slightest touch, or the smallest bit of comfort.

Buck had ached for him and with him every minute of the two and a half days Adam had lingered. And when the doctors had finally come out, shaking their heads and offering platitudes, Buck had hauled him home, gotten him drunk, tucked him into Buck's bed and watched over him all the long night. Oh, Lord, Buck prayed. Please don't put him through that again.

He groaned...at some combination of the memory and the vicious throbbing in his skull. Chris sat up, all his concern focused now on Buck.

"Pard?" Chris's voice was thick with tears and stress.

"I'm okay," Buck said, closing his eyes against the wavering of the world.

Chris's hands, gentle and warm, framed his face, and Chris placed a soft kiss on his lips. Any other time, Buck might have strained for more, even in such a public place. Not today.

"You think you could get some sleep?" Chris asked, pulling the covers up to Buck's chin, smoothing them gently.

The idea felt foreign. Chris needed him. The boys needed him.

"Go on," Chris urged. "I'm gonna go sit with JD. You try to get some rest. They said they might spring you tomorrow."

That was better news than Buck had had expected. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. So you settle down, and I'll see you in the morning. Okay?" Chris stood then, though Buck wasn't quite ready to let go of his hand.

"Okay." Buck sighed, and squeezed Chris's hand one more time before releasing it. Chris turned to go, his hands shoved deep in his jacket pockets, then turned back with a small smile on his face.

"Got your things," he said. Buck shook his head in confusion until Chris's hand came out, holding Buck's watch and the plain gold band that was a twin to the one Chris wore. Gently, with all the care he'd used the first time he placed it there, Chris slid the ring on Buck's finger. Equally tenderly, he fastened the watchband. Buck cupped his cheek. The watchband, its silver battered from years of wear, stood out against Chris's jaw. Sarah had given it to Buck, the year Adam was born, the year he became a godfather. Buck had always treasured it, a symbol of his place in their family. Chris turned his head, placing a light kiss in Buck's palm, then pulled away slowly.

"Sleep well, pard."

"Hasta manana," Buck countered, watching until he was gone, then relaxing back against the pillows. It was only after Chris had gone that he noticed Vin's cat, still tear-damp, lying next to him on the bed.

~ ~ ~


Chris settled into the chair by JD's bed, more comfortable by far than its counterparts in Denver. Tyra had offered him coffee, but he didn't figure he needed to add to the tension already singing in his muscles. Sleep wasn't on the agenda for him tonight.

JD slept on peacefully though, with Buzz Lightyear tucked up under his chin now. Dark hair and darker lashes stood out against round cheeks. His lips, normally either smiling widely or running a mile a minute, were soft now and slightly parted. Chris reached out, resting a hand lightly on JD's chest, just soaking in the regular rise and fall.

"I saw Vin," Chris spoke softly, not wanting to wake the other child in the room. "He's hanging on." Chris closed his eyes, seeing again the terrible vulnerability of the ICU. "Buck's gonna be fine. I saw him tonight." Even after all this time, Chris was still amazed at the way Buck had stepped in to take responsibility for the boys. He shouldn't have been surprised, after the kind of uncle and godfather he'd been to Adam. But there was a long way from weekend uncle to full-time dad, and Buck had traveled that journey seemingly overnight.

JD and Vin were lucky, compared to so many kids lost to the streets. But Chris counted himself luckiest of all, to have a new family where he'd thought he'd have none.

"Did I ever tell you the story of the first time I saw Buck?" Chris looked away from JD for a moment, into the distant past. "There I was, standing in the door of an airplane. Thought I was gonna die..."

Chris talked some, hummed a little, and spent a long time quietly with his thoughts as night faded through to pre-dawn. JD started to twitch, a tiny frown drawing his face taut. Chris pressed the call button, then put his hand to JD's forehead, brushing back the dark fringe, and feeling the warm skin underneath. Not too warm, he thought.

Tyra came in quietly, and ran a quick check of JD's vitals. Her gentle manner and upbeat smile eased Chris's worry immensely. "I think the pain meds are wearing off," she whispered. "I'll be back in a minute." She was gone as quietly as she'd come, but it took her far longer than a minute. JD drifted closer to consciousness, and to obvious pain. His head rocked back and forth, and a whimper escaped his lips.

"Hey, JD," Chris said softly. "It's gonna be okay."

JD's eyes opened a crack, then snapped wide. "Chris!" he shouted, trying to leap from the bed and into Chris's arms. He cried out in pain, both hands going to the top of his broken leg. "Hurts!" Sobs took him then, and as he'd done with the father, Chris lowered the bedrail, and lifted JD into his arms, rocking him gently, speaking soft, nonsense words of comfort. The child across the room was awake now, too, thanks to JD, and looked like he might start wailing at any minute.

Tyra's counterpart, a male nurse Chris had seen briefly, but hadn't met yet, went to soothe and quiet the boy. And then Tyra was there, with a syringe that looked far too large for such a small child.

"Good morning, JD." She smiled at both of them, and made no move to separate them, for which Chris was grateful. "Is it okay for me to give you this shot?"

She held up the needle, which Chris could have told her was a bad move strategically. JD clung to him tighter. "No shot!" He buried his face in Chris's chest.

"What if I told you this shot would make your leg feel better, and that when we're done, I'll give you a treat?"

That at least got JD's head up, and he looked around, hoping to spot his potential treat.

"Nope," Tyra shook her head. "It's a secret. But I promise it's something good."

JD looked uncertainly up at Chris, who nodded his encouragement. Finally, JD offered one arm.

"Well, thanks, JD. But I'm actually planning to put this one in your tush. It won't hurt so bad down there." She pulled down the blankets, and had JD swabbed and stabbed practically before they knew it. JD stiffened when the needle went in, but when there wasn't any more pain, he relaxed. "Now that will take about twenty minutes to work. In the mean time, how about I see about those treats."

JD nodded, apparently not sure about the nurse just yet. But when she returned with a pink bakery box full of donuts, his reservations were swept away.

Tyra offered the box to Chris, as well, but he didn't think he could face food just yet. JD took a chocolate one with multi-colored sprinkles. He waved it at the boy across the room, but it seemed like the kid was already drifting again.

Once they had the room to themselves, and JD had started on his RDA of processed sugar, it seemed like his circuit breaker was switched on.

"Hey, Chris! When did you come? Did you know our boat sank? My leg's broke, the doctor said. It hurted a lot. I cried and cried." He looked like he might start again now. "Buck hurted his head." JD's voice started to rise in pitch. "And there was blood all on his face. And he wouldn't wake up. And Vin was under the water!" Sobs started then, and all Chris could do was hold him, and rock him, and pray it would all be over soon.

JD's sobs faded as the drugs kicked in, and he slowly went limp in Chris's arms. When he seemed deeply asleep, Chris laid him back on the bed, checked that his leg was still propped safely, and tucked the covers up around him and the Buzz Lightyear doll.

Tyra came by with a cup of black coffee, and he took her up on it this time, hoping it would clear some of the cobwebs from his brain.

He was still sitting there when she came back around fifteen minutes later.

"You want to duck out and get some breakfast?" she offered.

"Nah--" He couldn't imagine keeping solid food down.

"He's going to be out for at least a couple hours. I can call you when he wakes up."

Chris arched his back, popping more vertebrae than he thought he had, and considered his options. He glanced at his watch. It was almost six. He could stop by Buck's room, and let him know that JD was fine. He'd get a laugh out of Tyra's quick mind and quicker hands. Maybe Chris could take JD up to visit later on.

"How's he going to get around? Is that a walking cast?"

Tyra shook her head. "We'll get him started on crutches as soon as he's ready to move around. The young ones catch on pretty quick. I'd be surprised if he's not roaming the halls by noon. Go on."

Chris nodded, rubbing hard at the tendons in his neck, and thanked her on his way out.

Chris climbed the stairs to the second floor, every step feeling like it was a mile high, and him dragging a lead weight behind him. He finally came out in the hallway, which was bustling with more activity than when he'd been here last night. It seemed odd that no one took notice of him, but he was grateful.

Buck's room at the end of the hall was bright; the sun glinting off the metal fittings stabbed at Chris's eyes, exacerbating his throbbing headache. He squinted, and then edged around the foot of the bed to put his back to that too-bright window.

The bed showed evidence of Buck's normal, restless sleep. The sheets were pulled out from the mattress, and wrapped tightly around his legs. At some point he'd pushed them down, exposing the hospital gown that, as far as Chris knew, was his only garment. They might have his clothes somewhere. Maybe he should ask. Then again, he could just go back to the hotel and grab something. It would take him only a few minutes. Maybe he'd go later.

Buck's soft snores soothed Chris's abraded nerves like nothing else. A soft snorted inhale, an easy sigh exhaled. The rhythm was slow and easy. Normal.

Not the same.

Chris leaned down to ghost a kiss across Buck's cheek, and left him sleeping. He stepped into the bathroom there in the room, to drain the coffee and splash some cold water on his face. It didn't much help his looks or his mental acuity. Running wet fingers through his hair, trying to smooth some order to it, all he could really see was how very old he looked, so old and so tired he could barely recognize himself. Sighing heavily, he turned away.

His roving journey took him next to the ICU, and the hall outside Vin's cube. The nurses had changed, but everything else looked exactly the same. Chris ached just looking at him, so small and vulnerable. He sniffed, hard, and felt through his pockets but couldn't find a handkerchief. A disembodied hand pressed tissues into his palm, and he swiped his eyes, blew his nose, and shoved the crumpled mess into his pocket.

As he watched, a nurse entered the cube, logging the readings from the monitors and tucking the covers more firmly under Vin's chin. As if he might have shifted them while sleeping. Chris's eyes burned again. He watched as she left, carrying the metal file of Vin's chart.

Some time later, a hand dropped on his shoulder, and Chris lurched upright, startled.

"Mr. Larabee?" The man was older, with a shock of white hair and broad, blunt hands covered with liver spots. Chris managed to nod, and swiped at his eyes again with the back of his hand. "I'm Doctor Jones. I'm Vin's neurosurgeon. We should talk about his condition." There was no question to it, and the doctor's outstretched arm guided Chris toward ICU doors. He looked again, briefly, through the window at Vin, then led the way out.

There was a small conference room, just large enough for a table and a few comfortable chairs, which opened off the waiting area. The doctor nodded Chris toward the chair and hitched his hip on the table; flipping open Vin's chart, his eyes scanned the page.

"I'm sorry to have to meet you under these conditions." The words sounded practiced, rote, and Chris discarded them, waiting for something with more meaning.

"As I think you know, now, Vin, JD Dunne, and Buck Wilmington were in a boating accident yesterday. Vin was brought to the ER at 1:30 pm. He was unconscious and bleeding from the head. He'd also been drowned, but the paramedics performed CPR during transit, and by the time he got here he had both pulse and normal respiration." Chris sucked in a gasp at the mental image of Vin, as wet and scrawny as a drowned rat. Was there anything the world wasn't going to dump on Vin? Hadn't he been through enough already?

"Mr. Larabee?" The doctor caught his attention. "I was saying that his head wound was quite serious, but I believe we got to it in time. The fracture was depressed, putting pressure on the brain, and surgery was our only option to save Vin's life. Do you understand?"

Oh yeah, he understood. Too well. Chris nodded and blew out a breath in frustration.

"Vin actually came through the surgery quite well, with strong vital signs and good nerve reflexes."

"They why--?" Chris finally found his voice. "Why is he in a coma?"

The doctor tapped his pen against the clipboard, the sound echoing loud in the small room. "Well..." It was the first time the doctor had hesitated, and Chris sat up straighter. He stared directly into the doctor's grey eyes, wanting to read any evasion or falsehood there.

"We can't be exactly sure right now. I can run down the possibilities, but only time will tell." He began ticking points off on his fingers. "Best case: Vin's coma is due to his brain swelling as a result of the injury, and as the swelling goes down, he'll wake up relatively soon, and have little or no neurological damage." Vin would be okay. Chris felt himself starting to relax. But then the doctor went on to the next finger.

"Or, if the severity of the swelling has actually cut off circulation to some portions of Vin's brain, he may wake up, but not be the same little boy. He could be paralyzed, he could have trouble speaking. He could have other neurological deficits that we just can't predict right now. But, with rehabilitation, he could lead a relatively normal life."

Chris felt his stomach drop at the idea of a Vin who wasn't Vin anymore. His hands started to shake, and he shoved them in the pockets of his jeans to keep them still.

"And there is a chance, though we don't expect it at this point, that he might not wake up at all. If that happens, then you'll have other decisions to face--"

"No!" Chris spat it out, surging up out of the chair and into the doctor's face. The older man didn't flinch in the face of Chris's outburst. "No! I don't want to hear you say that about him! What's wrong with you? He's just eight years old! Have you done everything you could?" The doctor nodded curtly, oddly calm in a situation that was patently insane. "EVERYTHING?"

"I assure you, Mr. Larabee--"

"What about a bigger hospital? A better hospital? Should I take him to Phoenix? Back to Denver?"

The doctor shook his head and reached out, as if to reassure him. Chris stepped away. The doctor's hand dropped.

"You are, of course, welcome to take Vin wherever you think he would get the best care, Mr. Larabee. But I assure you that this hospital is well qualified to handle injuries of this type, and that his care has been and will continue to be impeccable." The doctor fished in his jacket and came up with a business card; he flipped it over and wrote on the back of it before handing over. "Here is my card; my pager number's on the back. Please don't hesitate to call me at any time, or to have your own physician or specialist call me to consult on Vin's condition." Chris nodded, grudgingly accepting the offer. "Do you have a cell number that I can put in Vin's chart, so that we can reach you if we need?"

"I'm not going anywhere," Chris countered. "You can't make me leave."


"I wouldn't dream of it. However, you might need to sleep, or eat. Or you might be down in pediatrics, visiting the other boy. We'd just like to make sure."

Chris rattled off his cell number, and took a moment to make sure he had sufficient charge. The idea of them trying to reach him, not being able to. But then, that had already happened. Never again.

"I want-- I need you to do everything you can for my son." He was somewhere between demanding and begging. "Everything."

"Of course, Mr. Larabee." The doctor nodded and made scratching notes in the chart. " As I said, Vin is receiving the very highest standard of care. If you have any other questions..." He let it trail off.

No. Chris shook his head. He'd had all the answers he could take right now. He listened as the door clicked shut behind the doctor, and then sat with the near-silent breeze of the air conditioning, reviewing the doctor's words, trying and failing to find a productive course of action. He jumped a foot when the cell rang, and fumbled with shaking hands to extract it from his pocket.

"Larabee," he said, breathless. Please, don't let it be bad news already.

"Mornin', darlin'." Buck's warm, low voice was like heaven, like an island of comfort in a vast, storm-tossed sea. Chris held the phone closer, savoring the steady sound of his breath. "Chris?" Buck's voice shaded over to concern. "You okay?"

"Yeah." He heard the sharp creak in his own voice, took a deep breath and tried again, "Yeah, I'm fine. How about you?"

Buck snorted, letting Chris know what he thought of 'fine.' "I'd be better with a morning kiss, a report on the boys, and a change of clothes. You know anyone who could help me out with those?"

"Might could," Chris answered, starting for the door, but keeping Buck on the line. "You're sounding pretty good for a man with a concussion." The elevator was waiting, for once, and Chris stepped in and pushed "two."

Buck's answer was interrupted with static as the doors closed, and then they lost the connection altogether. Chris tapped the wall impatiently as the elevator dropped.

Buck was sitting up when Chris walked in, the remains of breakfast littering the table over the bed. He smiled broadly, with a hint of promise that made Chris think to push the door shut behind him.

Buck still looked terrible. If anything the swelling was more pronounced and the bruising a darker black and purple. And it didn't matter a bit. It was Buck: larger than life, eyes brimming with love, and deep-rooted faith in the world that had been burned out of Chris five years ago.

"You look awful," Chris finally said, just to set up Buck's favorite line. And he even managed a small chuckle in response. But it was hard, even in Buck's presence, to think about anything besides the hell of waiting, of not knowing, of helplessness.

"Hey," Buck patted the bed next to him, and Chris sat, feeling as stiff and sore as an old man. "Where's my morning kiss?" he prompted.

Chris leaned in, licking his dry lips, and then Buck's before pressing them together, letting the warmth and love wash over him. Oh, yeah, he needed this. He rested there for a time, and then, reluctantly sat back.

"Morning," he said, watching as Buck slowly migrated from physical and emotional sensation back to the present.

"Oh, yeah. That's the way to start a day." Buck's broad grin was like the sun, and Chris felt his heart ease just a bit. There wasn't any better cure for what ailed you than having Buck Wilmington look at you with love in those sparking blue eyes. Warmth curled through him.

It was easy enough to start with the good news, to brag on JD, to tell of Tyra and her speedy needle, of how sweet and brave the kid was being, that he might be up and around on crutches by lunch time. Buck needed to hear it, to know that JD was going to be fine, that there was nothing to worry about on that front. Then Chris slowly wound down to silence.

Warmth. He looked down, surprised to see his hands held in Buck's larger ones, the thumbs rubbing a gentle massage across the tendons, easing tension he hadn't even noticed there.

"Chris?" Buck's voice was soft, still, but shading over into concern. "What aren't you telling me?"

"I-- I talked to Vin's neurosurgeon." The word sounded like a curse to him. Buck's hands stilled, clutching tighter so that Chris could see the knuckles shade white. "He said--" Chris choked, feeling like his throat was seizing, like he couldn't draw a full breath.

"Tell me, Chris," Buck urged. "I need to know." Chris looked up, saw his own pain and fear reflected in Buck's gaze, and knew that he had to get through this, somehow.

"They don't know anything." He heard his voice rising sharply. "How can they not know anything? In this day and age, with all their damn computers and monitors! How can they not know?" He pulled at his hands, wanting to draw away, to pace, or flee, but Buck held him fast.

"Tell me," Buck repeated, low and clear.

"They hope--" He heard his own contempt for that useless word. "--maybe he'll wake up and be fine." It was a dream, a fantasy. Chris could wish for it, but not ever put his trust there. It hurt too much to be betrayed. "Or he could wake up and not be fine." He couldn't bear to go into detail, and he saw from the sudden sorrow in Buck's eyes that he didn't have to. "Or he might not wake up at all."

He tugged again, desperate to release some of the fear and anger in movement, however futile. But Buck held him firmly.

"What did I do?" he felt like screaming, but it came out as a desperate whisper. He looked up, where he'd been taught heaven was, but had no reason to believe it any more. "What could I have ever done to deserve this again?" He felt the tears well and fall, burning down his cheeks. "And you can't tell me that Adam deserved--" Buck's arm stiffened in shock. "--that Vin ever deserved anything like this! I will never believe it. It's wrong--"

Buck's hands released him then, but only for a moment. They closed like vises around his arms, shaking him until his head rocked, until he snapped his mouth shut on the hysterical litany, until Buck had his undivided attention.

"Don't you ever--" Buck punctuated it with another shake, "--ever give up on that boy!" Buck's eyes burned fierce and angry, as Chris rarely saw them except when someone vulnerable was being hurt. "What Vin doesn't deserve--" Another, harder shake. "--is for his father to be burying him before his time."

The accusation hit home like a well-aimed bullet, and Chris gasped hard at the impact. He had, hadn't he? Hell, Vin had been in the ICU for 18 hours now, and he hadn't had a visitor yet, because Chris was too damn scared to set foot inside, to face another loss. And Vin was the victim here, not Chris. "I need a drink," he sighed, collapsing forward, letting Buck take his weight, and the burden of his sorrow and fear.

An eternity later he sat up, and relaxed under Buck's hands as he brushed away Chris's tears and cupped his face. "So--?" Buck prompted.

"So, I think it's time to go visit my son." It felt right to say it, though his stomach still felt queasy at the thought. He drew himself upright, forcing his shoulders back and shaking his hair back out of his eyes.

"Damn straight." Buck nodded and smiled at him. "I'll see you later, stud."

Chris forced himself out the door without looking back, and retraced his steps to the ICU. He nodded to the nurse on duty, and refused to even pause in Vin's doorway. He was three steps inside the cube before he looked up from his feet to take in the machines, the wires, the tubes. And Vin.

He looked the same: still and small and helpless. Chris averted his eyes from the bandage on his skull.

"Hey, buddy," he whispered, then again, louder, "hey, cowboy." He looked anxiously for a response, though the doctor and nurse had both warned him that their best case would be a couple of days, and the worst-- "I'm here. You're safe. Everything's going to be all right, okay?"

Vin didn't move, of course, didn't respond at all. His chest rose and fell steadily, and the flashing lights and zigzag lines traced across the monitors. Chris reached out finally, wrapping his broad hand around Vin's fingers, squeezing gently. And then, suddenly, words began to flow like a babbling brook. Like Buck. Chris smiled slightly. "We're all here. JD's down in the pediatric wing, but you don't have to worry. He's doing great, they say he'll be hopping around on crutches by the end of the day." He leaned forward, brushing his other hand up along Vin's jaw, finally daring to stroke back to the newly bald area, where he would have carded Vin's hair. He dropped that hand back in his lap, still holding Vin's hand tightly.

"And you know Buck's gonna be fine, too. He'll be up later, as soon as he gets the pretty nurses to let him go. He told me to remind you how much we love you." Hot tears flooded his eyes again, and Chris tilted his head back to try and keep them from falling.

"Did I tell you I saw JD? He's got a cast on his leg that's bright green. And everyone in the hospital has heard him screaming his head off." Chris felt his mouth twitch in a small grin at that. "I guess he was pretty scared." Chris cleared the lump from his throat. "I've been pretty scared, too. But there's no reason for you to be scared, 'cause we're all here for you...."

Chris talked on and on, anything to fill the silence, to mask the dreadful emptiness of the room. Pausing for a drink of water, he wondered absently if Vin would remember any of this when he woke up. If he did, things might get pretty embarrassing. Chris smiled a little ruefully. Who was he kidding? It would be worth every minute to see Vin's eyes open and twinkling at him.

A nurse came in to re-hang Vin's IV and check all the monitors and leads. She smiled pleasantly at Chris, and gently stroked and patted Vin as she worked.

When she was done she laid a hand on Chris's shoulder, squeezing gently. "Can I talk to you outside for a minute?"

Chris looked up, frightened, but couldn't read anything but support in her eyes. He nodded, then turned back to Vin. "I'll be back soon, cowboy. You just hang on, okay?" It took everything he had to release his grip on Vin's hand, and follow her into the hallway.

"I'm Sandra. I'll be Vin's primary care nurse this week." She looked the part, small but strong, with bright eyes and a firm handshake. Chris had a sudden sense of safety in her presence.

"Chris Larabee. I'm Vin's dad."

"I know. I've read his chart. I'm glad to see that Vin has someone who loves him so much."

There wasn't really anything to say to that.

"Vin's going to be with us for a few days." She looked him in the eye. "I know you want to be there for him every step of the way." Of course he did, he would. "So what I need you to do right now is take a break."

"But--"

"You've been here, talking non-stop, for two hours." Two hours? "You ought to get outside, even if it's just for a few minutes. Take a walk, get some fresh air, eat something." Chris's stomach lurched at the thought. "I know it sounds hard, but taking care of yourself will, in the long run, take care of Vin. And that's what we both want, right?"

Chris couldn't help but nod at that.

"So go on, now," Sandra nodded toward the exit. "I'll take good care of him until you get back."

The logic was sound. Chris ought to know, he'd used it often enough himself. But it still hurt like hell to walk away, each step seeming harder than the last. I'll be back soon, he promised silently, slamming the ICU door open with all his strength. But it was pneumatic, and resisted his sudden anger, opening at its own measured pace.

He was beginning to feel like he could find his way back to Buck's room with his eyes shut, but pushing through the door to find a nubile young nurse giving him a sponge-bath stopped him in his tracks. He stood, paralyzed, watching her small, manicured hands moving over the skin of his lover. Why hadn't it occurred to him that Buck might be hurt beyond what he'd seen? Just because the man hadn't said anything? He'd been run over by a someone's damn lake-bound yacht after all. There were scrapes and dark bruises down his left side almost to his knee, though nothing so spectacular as the shiner and swelling on his face. Chris felt his breath catch.

Normally nothing would distract Buck Wilmington from a sensual flirtation with a lovely young woman, but something did. Buck wasn't sure if it were the subtle click of the door closing, the shift in atmospheric pressure, or Chris's heated glare from just inside the room, but he'd take bets on door number three.

"Hey, Chris!" he called, glad to see the man back enough on form to be angry.

Nurse Missy looked up, flustered, and started to close the curtains between the beds. "I'm sorry, sir. Could you step outside for just a minute?"

Chris leaving was about the last thing Buck wanted. "Aw, no, honey! He can stay." Chris flipped him off silently from behind Missy's back, but settled easily on the empty bed, watching like a hawk.

Missy was nervous, now, her hands more tentative as her sponge worked lower. All business, she focused her attention on keeping him covered except for whatever part she happened to be washing. But the game for Buck had shifted, from playing with her to teasing Chris, all speaking looks and quiet noises, especially as her hands delved into territory that was exclusively Larabee's. He almost got a rise out of the man, watched soft eyes narrow sharply before Chris regained control, and counted himself a success.

Buck looked away long enough to thank Missy sincerely, and let her escape the charged atmosphere of the room. Chris watched her leave--and shut the door behind herself--before turning back to Buck with something darn close to a smile.

"Hedonist," Chris accused, moving over to perch on the bed next to Buck.

"You say that as if it's a bad thing," Buck countered.

"You never change." This was old familiar territory.

"That's why you love me." The smile finally broke across Chris's face then, and Buck felt as if the sun had come out after a long, hard winter.

"Oh, yeah." Chris leaned in, kissing him gently and then pulling back. "Why didn't you tell me about the rest?" He gestured toward Buck's battered left side.

Buck ducked his head, feeling a blush creep up. He never could hide from the man. Didn't know why he ever tried. "Wasn't important at the time." And it hadn't been. What was a little pain compared to the sheer terror of their kids in the hospital, of not knowing what would happen? And watching Chris relive the agony of Adam's final battle... Hell, it was just a few bruises.

Chris brushed a hand lightly down his side, probably able to feel the warmth of inflammation even through the hospital gown. "Everything about you is important to me." And he meant it. Sometimes it just staggered Buck that Chris really did mean it, even in the course of his mood swings and sometimes-hostile verbal style. He relaxed back, taking in the utter exhaustion of the man. Chris was wound tight, but no longer vibrating with tension that seemed like it might break out into violence at the slightest provocation.

"You saw Vin?" It seemed the likeliest answer.

"Yeah." Chris let out a long sigh. "Yeah."

"And?"

"He looks awful, Buck." Chris looked away, out the window.

"Aw, hell. I need to get up there and see him." Buck pushed up, grunting slightly as his side twinged. And Chris pushed him back.

"You need to wait 'til they let you up. Remember your nosedive on the tiles?"

Buck felt the blush rise again, and went for a diversion. "You gonna go get me some clothes, so that when they do let me out, I'm not flashing half the state of Arizona?"

He raised another grin out of Chris, and relished it.

"Yeah, okay," Chris agreed more easily than Buck expected. And then he challenged, "What?"

"Just never expected you to go all reasonable on me."

Now it was Chris's turn to avoid his eyes in discomfort. "What?" Buck mimicked.

"They kicked me out." Not for good, or for long, Buck was sure, or Chris's mood would be far different.

"Well, good for them. And good for me. Good for you, too. You need to eat something." If he knew Chris, he'd been mainlining black coffee and nothing else since he'd gotten the call.

Chris stood, reaching into his pocket for the keys.

"Chris?" Buck prompted.

"I can't."

"You're not going to be any good to anybody if you don't take care of yourself."

"Yeah, now you sound like the nurse."

"Well, that's because we're both right."

"I know," Chris ran a hand through his already tousled hair, leaving it standing up in spikes. "But--"

"Promise me." Chris wouldn't break a promise to Buck, but he might weasel out of anything less. "Chris?"

"All right, all right!" Chris huffed out a heavy sigh. "I promise I'll eat something. Jeez!"

He jingled the rental car key, and looked one more time into Buck's eyes, his gaze uncertain, and ducked out of the room.

Buck watched him go, watched the door swing slowly shut, and checked his watch. He'd be back in less than an hour. Buck would have put money on it, if only he had someone to take the bet.

Chris growled, pushing through the doors to the stairwell, trudging down and out to the harsh desert daylight. The rental was still there, and that was a small blessing. He pulled a parking ticket from under the wiper, crumpled it and threw it on the ground, and slid behind the wheel. It wasn't until his third try getting the key in the ignition that he really looked at his trembling hands. Jeez. He was a mess; his eyes squinted near shut against the bright noontime glare. He felt through his pockets and checked the glove compartment, but didn't have any sunglasses. It had been dark when he'd left the hotel last night.

Taking a deep breath, willing his fingers still and his mind more alert than it had been in eighteen hours, Chris slid in the key by touch alone. The car started right up, and Chris--hyper-cautious now--pulled carefully and slowly into traffic. The streets were unfamiliar in the light of day, and he almost missed the turn back to the hotel. It seemed like years since he'd been there.

The room looked untouched, not even cleaned, as if they'd all left only seconds ago. He sat a moment on the bed, looking at the room as he'd seen it yesterday, filled with all the small signs of family life, imprinting it --

"Oh, Lord, Vin--" It was more tortured groan than prayer, and suddenly, he couldn't bear to be here alone. He had to get back. Chris quickly gathered a change of clothes for Buck and the boys, stuffing it hurriedly into the hotel's plastic laundry bag and leaving the door to swing shut behind him.

He was turning into the hospital lot when he remembered his promise to Buck. Eating was just about the last thing he wanted to do right now, but he could recognize the logic of Buck's argument. Food was fuel, and if he planned to keep moving he'd have to eat something. Sighing, he pulled back out into the lunchtime traffic, slowly trolling for something he thought he'd be able to keep down.

He passed up several fast-food franchises, sure he wouldn't be able to stomach any of the greasy, fried food, and finally pulled in to a Circle-K convenience store. The sounds, and the smells of sugar and junk food, overwhelmed him, almost driving him back outside. There was an end-cap display of sandwich supplies right at hand though, and Chris grabbed a loaf of Wonder bread and a jar of peanut butter. He threw a $20 at the surprised teenager behind the counter and ducked back out again, breathing heavily through his mouth to control his nausea.

He drove back to the hospital with excruciating care, and pulled into a legal spot this time. Sitting there, in the shadlowless lot, he stared at his prospective lunch. Carbs, protein and fat, balanced enough to keep body and soul together for another day... C'mon, Larabee, he urged himself. If you can make a child eat, you can do it. He smiled sadly, remembering some of the dinner-table battles they'd had with Vin over what constituted a serving of vegetables. If he had it to do over again... Chris sighed. He wouldn't do anything different.

Feeling hoist by his own petard, Chris dug out his pocketknife, and slapped together a sandwich. The bread was virtually odorless, and close enough to tasteless for him to get it into his mouth. He wasn't sure he'd make it, trying to chew and swallow the first bite, but he choked it down. And the next, and then next. When he'd finished, he searched the floorboard for the bottle of water he'd abandoned yesterday. It was hot and flat, but served to clear the last of the sticky taste from his teeth.

He wiped his knife clean on a slice of bread, and dumped the remains of the food into the trash outside the front door, on his way inside.

When he didn't find Buck in his room, Chris felt a stab of apprehension, which he squelched almost immediately. He checked the bathroom--empty--and the hallway--likewise. Buck might be anywhere: visiting one of the boys, getting some tests done... Chris stalked back up to the nurses' station, which was disturbingly vacant, and then buttonholed a young man in scrubs as he exited a nearby room.

"I'm looking for Buck Wilmington?"

The guy--nurse? orderly? how could you tell?--nodded for Chris to follow him back to the nurses' station. Chris waited quietly, if not patiently, while a computer was consulted.

The young man looked up with a plastic smile and said, "He's down getting a follow-up CT, in preparation for discharge. He should be back in his room within the hour, and out before dinner."

Tension slid out of Chris's chest in a great big sigh. "Thank you," he muttered, but his informant had already moved on to other tasks. He stood there a moment, puzzling what to do next, and it seemed far harder than it should have been. He finally went back to Buck's room to drop the clothes, and then down to pediatrics to check on JD.

"Chris!" JD's voice echoed the length of the bright hallway. Hop-swing-hop, swing-hop-swing, the kid was moving nearly as fast on crutches as he did on two feet. Chris knelt down to absorb the impact, and then stood, holding his son close. JD wrapped his arms around Chris's neck, and pressed a slobbery kiss against his jaw. "Yuck! Whiskers!"

Chris brushed his bristly chin along JD's face, drawing gales of laughter.

"Watch me, watch me!" JD struggled to get down, and Chris let him, then dutifully watched as JD demonstrated his new skill. He was wearing some standard-issue pajamas, too long in the leg and showing wear at both knees, and Chris was glad he'd thought to bring some of JD's own things.

"That's fantastic, kiddo!" he praised. JD glowed. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm fine." JD spun on one crutch and headed back toward Chris. "Vin's never had crutches. I get to be first!"

It was only a matter of time before JD demanded to see Vin. Chris closed his eyes, trying to picture what the right answer would be. Yes, and risk traumatizing JD? No, and run the risk of JD missing his last opportunity to see his brother? Was there even a right answer?

There was an older woman at the nurses' station now, and she smiled at JD as he bounced past before looking up to greet Chris.

"Good afternoon, Mr.--"

"Larabee. Chris Larabee. I'm JD's dad." An odd squint flitted across her face.

"Mmm-hmm. My name is Donna." Chris waited for her to say something more, to offer an update on JD's condition or something. But she seemed distracted.

"Thank you for taking care of him." Chris was truly grateful. "He can be a handful. Do you know when you'll discharge him?"

She leafed through a binder of notes, paging forward and back. "The orthopedic surgeon has been tied up all morning, so she hasn't been by to examine JD yet today. I'd think that it might be tomorrow before we finally release him."

"I brought him some clothes..."

Her phone rang, and she answered it mechanically, then pointed at JD's room and mouthed "cabinet."

Chris wandered down the hall, looking for his son. There was a playroom, filled with toys and games, and sure enough, JD was in the center of things. They were building something with Legos, and JD was talking a mile a minute. Chris settled in the doorway, content to just watch something so perfectly normal go on in the midst of everything else.

His phone rang from his pocket, and he seized it, thumbing it on and barking, "Larabee!"

"Hey, stud!" Buck's voice was warm and amused, and as normal as JD's playful laughter. "Where are you?"

"Hey, pard. I've got someone here who'd love to talk with you--"

Chris waved the phone at JD, and then watched as he pushed upright and hopped on one foot across the room. He had apparently lost the crutches already, but seemed to be doing fine as he was.

"Buck?!" JD cried. Chris handed off the phone, and then lifted JD to his hip. The kid was talking a mile a minute before Chris got two steps out into the hallway. "Hi, Buck! Where are you?" Chris didn't think even Buck could have gotten an word in edgewise as JD continued, "My leg is broke and they gave me a cast. It's really neat! It's green. Got crutches, and I'm really good at it. Everyone says so, even Chris. Right, Chris?" Chris nodded, and JD went on. "But I miss you, and I miss Vin, and I want to go see the London Bridge, and visit Simon and Madeline." JD paused, and seemed to listen. "Yeah. Uh-huh. Nu-unh. Okay. Love you, Buck!" JD offered the phone back to Chris.

"Did you get all that?" he teased.

Buck laughed quietly. "Oh yeah. Who would have thought I'd miss that motor-mouth?"

"Yeah, I know." JD was squirming to get down again, now that he didn't have the phone as a distraction, and Chris looked around to spot his crutches abandoned in a corner. "You up for a visit?"

"There is nothing I'd like more." Buck sighed a little. "They keep telling me they're gonna discharge me, but I haven't seen the doctor yet."

And Chris had been foolish enough to leave him street clothes. What had he been thinking? He eased JD down by the crutches, and lowered his voice, just in case he might be listening. "You wait for that doctor, okay? Promise me." Those damn promises could cut both ways.

"Yeah, yeah, I'll be good... When can you come up?"

Chris smiled at his eagerness. "Let me get JD changed, and make sure they'll give us a hall pass, and then we'll be up. Maybe fifteen minutes?"

"I'll be waiting."

"Yeah. I know." He hung up then, only to find that JD had disappeared again. "JD?" Chris called into the playroom. He wasn't there, and the other kids only shrugged. He checked JD's room next, and found him on the floor under the bed, relating an animated story to Buzz Lightyear. Something about airplanes and horses, and living under the London Bridge. The kid had an imagination that just wouldn't quit.

"Hey, kiddo. You wanna change clothes?"

JD looked up from the floor, confused. "Why?"

"'Cause I got some of your own things here. What about your Speed Racer shirt?"

"All right!" JD crawled out from under the bed on both hands and one knee, pushing the damn doll ahead of him. He held his arms up to Chris, who lifted him up on the bed and helped him out of the unfamiliar pajamas. Chris had brought JD's favorite Spiderman briefs, as well as a pair of loose-fitting shorts to slide over the cast. JD grabbed the t-shirt, and dragged it over his head, only getting a little tangled trying to maneuver Buzz through the armhole. Chris eased the underwear and the shorts over the cast, and then let JD pull them up into place.

"Can you wait here for a minute, kiddo? I'll be right back." JD looked a little unsure, but Chris didn't want to broach the idea of visiting Buck in front of him when there was a chance they'd be denied. He didn't see the nurse Donna, but there was another parent there who showed him the sign-out form and procedure. Chris wrote in the details, gave them his cell phone again, and went back to collect JD.

"You ready to go visit Buck?"

A smile as broad as the state of Texas split JD's face. "Yay! Can I take my crutches? And Buzz?"

"Yes to the crutches, but why don't we leave Buzz here? It's awfully hard to hold things and use crutches at the same time." Chris made a mental note to bring JD's backpack from the hotel the next time he was there.

"Okay!" JD slid down of the bed faster than Chris could catch, but he landed easily on one leg, holding his cast behind him. Chris looked on, amazed. JD grabbed the crutches and set off hop-swing-hop for the exit.

Buck was upbeat during the visit, admiring JD's cast and asking for a demonstration of his new crutches. But the true miracle had been to watch the pain fade from Buck's eyes at JD's antics, to see him relax back against the pillows with his son tucked under his arm, one hand stroking down the small back, easing JD into sleep. It hadn't been all easy, though. JD had asked about Vin: where was he, why hadn't he been down to see JD, when were they going to see the London Bridge? Typical, simple child questions without simple answers. By the time JD's eyes began to droop, Chris felt like he'd been pounded with a meat tenderizer. Once JD was out, Chris broached the subject of visiting.

"He's going to want to see Vin. It's only a matter of time."

Buck nodded, bringing his free hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "I know, I know. I'm not sure it's a good idea..."

"Me, neither."

They ran it down like an operation: pros, cons and contingencies, and still couldn't find an answer they both liked. They'd never lied to the boys, and now seemed like a really bad time to start. But--

The doctor came in then, and they shared a long, silent look.

"We don't have to decide right now," Chris offered.

"Yeah, but if we're not prepared, it's gonna get ugly. And you know how I hate ugly."

"Yeah."

JD didn't stir when Chris lifted him, though Buck looked like he might protest.

"Let it go, Buck. I'll put him back to bed and get him settled, then catch up to you in ICU."

Missy was at the door with a pile of forms that might eventually lead to his discharge, and the promise of freedom was almost enough to compensate for the temporary loss.

~ ~ ~


Buck thanked his doctor with a handshake, and Nurse Missy of the gentle hands with a kiss to the cheek, and left the ward on his own two feet rather than in a wheelchair. He got a strange look or two, to be walking the halls with a stuffed animal, but he had a delivery to make that wouldn't wait another minute.

He rang the bell outside the ICU, and a nurse--an older Asian woman--nodded and mimed that she'd be right there. He craned his head, trying to glimpse Vin in the long row of glassed-in cubes, but he couldn't make anything out. As he watched, the nurse came closer, opening the door but not inviting him in. "Can I help you?"

Buck put on his best smile, "I'm here to see Vin Tanner."

"And you are?" She bent her head, flipping through the sheets on her clipboard.

"Buck Wilmington, ma'am. I'm his father." He watched her brows draw together in confusion, and had a sinking feeling in his gut. His other father.

"I'm sorry, Mr.--"

"Wilmington. Buck Wilmington."

She looked up from the board, but her eyes held suspicion rather than apology. "His father has already been in. Due to his fragile condition, only immediate family members are permitted to visit." She started to turn away, and Buck reached out to grab her arm. When she stiffened, he dropped it quickly.

"Trust me. I'm his father, too. I need to see him." Alarm flashed in her eyes as his voice went quiet and hard, and he put a rein on it quickly. "C'mon, darlin'. Isn't there something we can do?"

She edged backwards, pulling the door closed in front of him. He had a brief fantasy of pushing his way in, of demanding to see Vin. It wasn't right for them to keep him away. Vin needed him, damn it! Some portion of his thoughts must have been clear; her voice shook in reaction. "Please don't make me call security, Mr. Wilmington."

He never meant to scare her, never meant to cause a problem. He just needed to see his boy. Wasn't there anyone who understood that?

Hell yeah, there was someone who did. And he was downstairs now, with their other son. Buck almost didn't want to tell him, didn't want Chris--who took this sort of bull so much more personally than Buck ever had--to have to deal with this bigoted crap. But Chris had been in to see Vin, and Chris was probably the only way, other than brute force, that Buck was going to get inside that ICU. And he was going to get inside that ICU.

He stepped back from the door, giving her a retreat, and picked up the house phone to call Chris.

Of course, it wasn't that easy. The hospital phone wasn't enabled for long distance, which Chris's cell was. The pediatric nurses' station wasn't answering their phone. And Buck's cell was most likely buried in the sandy bottom of Lake Havasu.

He went searching.

Pediatrics was in the other wing, with another locked door, but he slipped in as a young mother was leaving, with a too-thin toddler in her arms. He wondered, briefly, what was wrong with the child, and thanked God that his kids were fine. Would be fine.

He looked into each room as he passed, seeing a mixture of empty and occupied beds, and an assortment of balloons, toys, and evidence of youngsters who ought to be outside playing instead of stuck in here.

There was no missing Chris, his slim frame and broad shoulders bent as if under a heavy weight. He had both arms braced on the side of the bed, but seemed to be staring into space rather than down at the occupant. Buck came in slowly, dropping one hand to Chris's shoulder to rub at the tension there, and laying the other on JD's out flung hand. He was curled up on his side, practically lying on top of the hard plastic Buzz Lightyear doll, and snoring quietly.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey." Chris dropped his cheek to the back of Buck's hand, rubbing gently.

"God, he's beautiful."

"Yep."

"Need to talk with you for a minute." Chris's eyes darted up to his, and Buck shook his head. "No news. Just-- Not here."

Chris nodded, and pushed up to standing. He leaned down to brush a kiss on JD's cheek, and moved aside to let Buck do the same.

They walked out side by side. Buck led the way out of the ward and looked around, finally jerking his head toward the main doors and outside. Chris followed, keeping silent until they were around the corner, out of the view of the entrance.

"What's up?" he asked as Buck leaned back into the shade of the building.

Buck had been trying to frame the situation in his head, to find some way to sort things out that wouldn't trigger Chris going postal on half the hospital administration. He hadn't a clue.

"I need some backup." It was the truth, and in language they both understood.

"You got it," Chris's response was quick and sure. "What do you need?"

~ ~ ~


Their re-entry to ICU was more Ezra's style than the Sherman-through-Atlanta approach that had been Chris's first plan. Chris buzzed in, and Buck followed in his shadow, or as much in his shadow as someone three inches taller could really get. The same tiny Asian nurse was there, and she looked flustered as Chris walked right up to her desk with Buck at his shoulder.

"I need to see your supervisor." Chris's voice was quiet enough to raise alarms, if only she'd known. Instead she merely nodded, and picked up the phone. While her attention was diverted, Chris nodded toward the nearest cube. Buck took a long step backward.

"Uh, sir?" The nurse looked up and sent an annoyed look Buck's way.

"I think you need to be talking to me," Chris said, stepping sideways to center himself in her line of sight. "How long will we have to wait--"

Buck ducked inside Vin's cube and closed the door, cutting off what was sure to be a vigorous discussion of hospital policies and nondiscrimination lawsuits.

When he turned from the hallway and toward the bed, he froze. It took him a minute, just to run his eyes from the top of Vin's naked head to the tips of his toes where they poked up under the blankets. Nothing could have prepared him for this. There was no preparing.

He dropped into the chair by Vin's bedside a little more forcefully than he'd expected. Damn, son! You don't do anything half-way, do you? He hadn't really pictured the full horror of it, even with Chris's description and the cold hospital vocabulary. And once he'd seen JD was all right, he'd just-- "Aw, hell." Buck brushed at the moisture on his face, and leaned forward to place the forgotten cat under the covers at Vin's left side.

"Aw, hell, son." He spoke softly, one hand stroking lightly down Vin's arm, taking his limp hand in a gentle grip. "You need to c'mon back to us, Vin." There was no response, no sign that Vin heard him, and only the monitors and the steady rise and fall of his chest to show he lived at all. "You got no idea how much--" Buck choked, struggling to keep his voice even, to reach Vin somehow. "We need you Vin. We all do. JD needs his brother. And God knows, Chris needs you more than he needs air to breathe." They said that God never gave a man more than he could handle, but Buck couldn't see Chris surviving the loss of another son. It was too much to ask. Too much to ask of any of them.

"We all done lost a lot in this world, Vin. You as much as any of us. We need to hang on to what we've got as tight as we possibly can." Buck squeezed Vin's fingers. "And that's me holding on to you right now. We all are. They won't let us all in, but you need to know Vin, we're all here for you. And we need you to hang on to us, too."

The nurse tapped at the glass and gestured for him to leave, but Chris was right there, subtly crowding her back toward the desk. The reprieve couldn't last long.

"They're making me go now, Vin." It was hard to let go of that tiny hand, but he placed it carefully on the cat, hoping that somehow Vin would feel it, would know they'd been there, know they were as close as they could be. "We're all here. Chris is here. Everything's gonna be just fine. Trust ole Buck."

The nurse was back again, and looked like she might just barge right in. They didn't need to have this fight in front of Vin, and Buck already had what he'd really wanted: an opportunity to see Vin, to talk to him. He stood up to forestall her entry.

"Okay, okay, I'm comin'." Buck looked back at Vin, storing up every second he could, to hold him over 'til the next time they'd let him in. And there damn well would be a next time, and soon. "Now don't you worry 'bout that hair, Vin. It'll grow back before you know it. And in the mean time, ole Buck'll get you the finest Stetson in town. You'll be the coolest cowboy on the block. Don't you doubt it."

He stepped out, and she backed off, rounding the desk and glaring at him from her position of authority. Chris stood nearby, arguing in strident whispers with a man whose very essence screamed "flak catcher." As he stepped closer, he could hear the strain in Chris's voice.

"--I don't think you do understand. If you understood we wouldn't be having this conversation. If you can't agree that I should decide who can visit Vin, then I think I need to be talking to someone--"

The poor man cleared his throat, and tried another reasonable tack: "We only have Vin's best interests in mind..."

Chris stiffened at that, and Buck stepped up close, just in case--

"I hope you're not implying that I have anything other than my son's best interests in mind?"

He laid a hand on Chris's shoulder, pretty sure he wouldn't actually rip the guy's throat out, but playing it safe. It might be entertaining to watch, but wouldn't do a lot for their visiting rights in the ICU.

Mr. Administrator opened his mouth to answer, and stopped, agape. Buck watched as the realization dawned. The man's eyes tracked from Chris's face to Buck's hand, to Buck's face, and down to the gold band that stood out against his skin and Chris's dark shirt. It was comical, really, to see the puzzle pieces suddenly rearranged.

"Oh." The flak catcher put up a hand, smiling and making little placating gestures. "There may be a misunderstanding."

Chris, not even seeing what was happening, started in on the nurse, too, and how she deserved a reprimand.

Buck squeezed, halting Chris's diatribe. "Chris, just let the man do his job." He nodded, encouraging the other man to continue.

"I think, Mr. Larabee, that in your case we can make an exception." He turned away then, and instructed the nurse. "Mr. Wilmington is to be given complete access. He's a family member."

Chris's confusion was comical, and Buck took a moment of bitter pleasure at the nurse's comeuppance.

"Thank you." Buck offered his hand for a limp shake, and Chris did too, mechanically. He gave his partner a soft shove toward the door, and they made it as far as the waiting area before Chris seemed to run out of gas. Buck steered him to a couch and sat beside him. "You okay?"

Chris nodded, and rubbed a hand up and down his face as if he could force alertness in through his skin. "How come that got so easy so fast?" he asked, truly puzzled.

Buck chuckled, and shook his head. "You get a little tightly focused sometimes, partner."

"Huh?"

"I think that the next time you have this argument--" Chris opened his mouth to protest. "--if there is a next time--that you might want to lead with the fact that we're partners."

"I did!" Chris insisted.

"You did not!" Buck countered.

"How would you know? You weren't even there!"

"Trust me, Chris. I know."

They were still sitting there, silence stretching between them, when a young woman approached and cleared her throat gently.

"Are you Buck Wilmington?" He started to rise but she waved him back, and perched on the chair opposite. "Mr. Larabee?" Chris nodded, grudging. "I'm Teresa Sandoval. I'm a licensed clinical social worker on staff here at the hospital."

He felt Chris stiffen next to him. "Nice to meet you, Teresa," he smiled and felt the bruises on his face pull. He'd have to trust to pity to win her over rather than his normal charms. "What can we do for you?" Maybe they could fill out a form or sign something off, and get her out of their hair. The last thing they needed right now was another layer of hospital bureaucracy between them and the boys.

"I have a couple of things I'd like to talk with you about. Would you care to step into the conference room?"

"Sure--"

"No!" Chris countered, startling Buck and the young woman.

"But, sir--"

"No. Do it here, or get away. I've had it up to my neck with you people..."

She looked at Buck a little helplessly, but he'd back Chris and hope to learn the reason later. "We can do it here."

"Okay, if you insist." She visibly gathered herself, and then jumped right in at the deep end. "Part of my job is to provide support and assistance for families of patients who may be here quite a while." If possible, Chris stiffened even more. "Now, the doctors don't know Vin's prognosis just yet, but it's my job to help you out in any way I can."

Chris snorted. "Ma'am," Buck cut in, "you may or may not know that we just had a bit of a disagreement with the ICU staff about visitation." She shook her head negatively. "Well, I think we've got it sorted out now, but--"

"I understand. I'll check in, and make sure you don't have any more problems, all right?" She seemed eager to help, and Buck would take assistance from any corner at this point.

She looked down into her oversized day-timer, and pulled out two cards. "This is mine; call me anytime. I'll be checking back with you later. This one is from Sergeant James of the LHPD. He was by earlier, but you were down having tests run. He asked if you could call at your convenience." Buck took both cards and nodded. "I think it's something to do with reports or paperwork."

What else? "Thank you, Teresa." He did stand, this time, signaling her it was time to leave, and she took the hint.

"Call me anytime," she offered again, smiling coyly. She even looked back over he shoulder before getting in the elevator.

"Animal magnetism," he commented, dropping back down next to Chris. Chris just grunted. "Let me have your cell, and I'll get the cops handled, okay?"

~ ~ ~


Pushing upright from his chair by JD's bed, Chris groaned silently as his knees cracked and his muscles protested. He didn't know he could be in so much pain just from exhaustion and stress. He checked his watch. Buck had been gone over an hour; surely the cops couldn't keep him much longer. JD was still snoring lightly with Buzz clenched tightly under his arm, and Chris thought he'd duck up for a quick visit to Vin.

As he stepped away, JD sat up sharply, reaching out. "No!"

Chris leaned over the bed, brushing back JD's unruly bangs. "I'm just going up to visit Vin for a minute, JD. I'll be right back, and then Buck will be here, too. How does that sound?"

JD seized his arm in both hands, the doll apparently forgotten. "I wanna see Vin!"

Chris closed his eyes to block out JD's wishful face. Damn, I didn't want to do this. Chris had--cowardly as it was--hoped Buck would be the one to deal with it.

They'd been as honest and straightforward about Vin's condition as they could with JD, introducing words like "coma" that had nearly choked Chris. Chris, though he hadn't had the heart to speak it aloud, also thought that if things went wrong, if Vin died-- He didn't want to be the one who'd stopped JD from visiting his big brother one last time.

But Chris had secretly hoped that it wouldn't come up, that Vin would be awake by now, or that JD would turn demanding on Buck's watch.

"You sure?" he asked, still hoping for reprieve. JD just nodded, and held up his hands to be lifted.

They took the long walk and the elevator ride in unusual silence, JD resting his chin on Chris's shoulder and relaxing easily in his arms.

He nodded at the now-familiar faces in the ICU, people he recognized but whose names he refused to learn. He wasn't going to be here that long. He reserved a glare for the Asian nurse who'd caused so much trouble, but she was nowhere in sight.

JD craned his head right and left, looking with wide eyes at the high-tech equipment and the very ill people, and clutched a little tighter to Chris. Chris patted him soothingly, and increased his hold in turn as they entered Vin's cube. He eased down in the chair at the bedside, and slowly turned JD in his lap until they were both facing Vin.

JD went stiff, flinching back from the bed and against Chris's chest, gripping tightly at Chris's arms where they encircled him. Chris prepared himself for a full-volume meltdown that never came; seconds passed, and JD's tension drained away slowly.

"It's okay to talk, JD," Chris reminded him, and then set an example. "Hey, Vin. JD's been asking to see you, so I brought him along--"

Now that the shock had faded, JD seemed more curious than anything, carefully examining the colored lights of the heart monitor and the EEG, and tracing the path of the IV to its bandage site on the back of Vin's hand. Most of all, he kept coming back to stare at Vin's head, though Chris couldn't tell if he was mesmerized by the bare and bandaged scalp, or Vin's placid face.

"Is he sleeping?" JD whispered.

"Yeah," Chris said, swallowing hard, "he's sleeping."

"When is he gonna wake up?" For once it was just a question, not a whining demand.

"Soon," he said, praying it was true. "The doctors say he should wake up soon."

"Buck was asleep in the water," JD said, his eyes wide and somber, his voice still barely a breath of sound.

"Well, you know that didn't last long," Chris replied, trying to smile. "C'mon, we're gonna go now, all right? They don't like people in here bothering him."

"He needs his rest. Buck said he needs his rest." Chris closed his eyes on the tears that threatened.

"That's right," he choked out. "C'mon, let's go find Buck."

JD wriggled half-out of Chris' arms and reached toward Vin, and Chris settled him on the bed, just for a minute. "When you wake up, Vin," JD said seriously, "we're gonna go see the bridge. Okay?"

JD waited, and Chris ached for the silence. But JD just nodded, as if things were certain, agreed, and then held his hands up to Chris for a lift. All the way back to the pediatrics ward, he was his usual, talkative self, and Chris just squeezed him tighter in gratitude, unable to find words. JD didn't care if Chris was quiet--he never had--and when they got back to the ward, they settled into the playroom to wait for Buck.

~ ~ ~


Armed with directions, permission from the hospital staff, and an angry glare from Chris to keep him warm, Buck set out for the police station. Chris had offered to handle it, hadn't wanted him driving so soon after a head injury. But he'd stopped short of fighting over it, and Buck wasn't sure whether that was a good thing or not. He hadn't wanted to force Chris away from the hospital, when he so clearly needed to be there, whether he could do anything or not. And, truthfully, he needed a little time to get his own head together, too.

Things could change so quickly. He should have remembered. He'd learned the lesson young and well, from his mother. Seize the joy while you got it, there ain't no promises for tomorrow. But time--and Chris and his family--had lulled him into a sense of security. Losing Sarah had been hell on earth. Watching Adam slowly fade away was a horror too terrible for words. And seeing Chris in that kind of agony again... Buck clenched his eyes shut, rubbing hard to eradicate the vision of Chris's eyes so empty and devastated.

No. It wouldn't happen again. It couldn't.

He shoved the car into drive and pulled out into traffic.

The police station was low and stuccoed. It looked no different from a dozen other office plazas he'd passed along the way. But it was marked by a tall flagpole, with the stars and stripes and the Arizona state flag hanging limply in the still air, and a half-dozen black-and-whites in the lot. Buck turned in.

He was a little surprised at how quickly James made time for him. Then again, in a town driven by tourism, handling something like this well could be a matter of economic life and death. God knew, if there had been any negligence, Chris wouldn't have a shred of mercy for the local yokels. And Buck would be right behind him.

"Mr. Wilmington? I'm glad to see you looking better." James was large and black, with a handshake that was firm and dry. "If you could come this way...?" Buck followed to the hard plastic chair by James's desk. "Is there any news on the little boys?"

He looked genuinely concerned, and Buck felt himself warming to the guy a bit. "JD's fine, and Vin's holding on."

"I'm glad." James nodded absently, then went on. "You won't remember, but I was first on the scene of the accident yesterday. I need you to answer a few questions so I can complete my report."

Buck tried to settle back into the chair, but it was too small and the arm was just the right height to press on his bruises. He shifted again, and then the next question put an end to any chance of relaxation.

"What is your relationship to the boys?"

They're my sons. An easy answer, and yet--as they'd just seen--not quite so easy to explain to the uninitiated. "I'm JD's father. Adopted," he added, before James could question the names. "Vin is my partner's adopted boy."

He watched James think on that, spin all the possible connotations of the word "partner" and screech to a halt at the right one.

"Oh."

Buck refused to look away, just held those dark eyes. Not challenging. Not yet. Just not willing to back down an inch.

"Oh," James said again. "O-kay. So none of you are really related?"

Buck wished, for a moment, to be magically transported back to the world that knew and accepted--if not welcomed--his not-so-common family. But it wasn't going to happen today; they were stuck here for a while, and he'd better nip this crap in the bud.

"I guess that depends on what you mean by 'related'," Buck forced a chuckle. "Listen," he went on. "I guess the things that are most important to this conversation are that Chris and I are both federal agents. You'd know that already if my badge wasn't in the bottom of the lake. ATF Special Operations out of Denver. And yeah, we live together too, are registered as domestic partners, and we've raised these kids together for over a year. So call it what you want, but let's just do our jobs here."

James cleared his throat, looked down and away, and then finally up at the computer screen in front of him. Anywhere but in Buck's eyes.

The questions were pretty routine, and Buck's memories not very useful in recreating the events. He hadn't seen the boat until just before impact. No, he hadn't seen the driver. And after the crash, he hadn't seen anything at all.

"We've got the results of blood tests." James shuffled through a stack of papers and handed one across. Buck glanced down at it, but the type was tiny, and he didn't need to add to his headache. "Alcohol and drugs don't appear to have been a factor on either side," James read off.

Either side? Damn straight he hadn't been drinking. Not with the boys along.

James hit a key, and a printer started chattering across the room. "I'll need you to read and sign this. I also need to know if you've thought about pressing charges. We do have reckless operation of a watercraft laws in this state. You do have a case, but the ADA has seen the video, and isn't inclined to prosecute...."

Video? Buck felt suddenly ill. There was video? What kind of sick-- "Video?" he finally croaked.

James nodded, and reached into a desk drawer. "Yeah, the ten-year-old boy was shooting--just normal vacation stuff--and then, when the crash happened, he just kept it rolling. I can show you, if you want."

Oh God. Could he stand it? "Yeah," he said. "I better see it."

"If you're sure--" James gestured him up, and led the way to a small conference room with a mini-DV cam and a TV on a rolling stand in the corner. Buck stopped at the water cooler for a fortifying drink, and then followed him in. There was an assortment of ratty, government-issue chairs, but Buck couldn't imagine sitting down, sitting still. He paced impatiently as James messed with the camera, then had to check the wiring before the TV blared to life with static and snow.

"Damn it," James stuck his head behind, and fiddled some more, then hit a button on the remote that seemed to sort things out.

It was a normal vacation video. That was what struck Buck, freezing him in his tracks. They had dozens just like it at home. A shaky, kid's-eye-view of the world, where the auto-focus wasn't good enough to keep the water-skier clearly defined. James fast-forwarded through a shot of someone sunbathing, and a teenage girl flipping off the camera. Suddenly Buck caught a flash of what could only be their little boat, and--

"Hang on," James muttered. "Oh, damn." He backed it up, then slowed the tape to normal speed.

"Mommy, smile!" The woman, in her mid thirties, wore a sensible suit and a large, floppy hat. She raised her head and waved to the camera, then buried her nose back in her book. The camera held steady for just a moment, then the entire picture jerked sideways. The sound of the impact was loud even on tape, and then people were screaming and shouting. The camera ran on, apparently unheeded, bodies jostled for the best view of the action.

Mom was there, leaning over the stern, pointing wildly and shouting at the top of her voice.

"Stu! Oh my God, Stu! Call 911! Hurry! Turn around! You have to go back!"

The boat drifted on a moment, and a sound that Buck only slowly identified as JD's high-pitched wail faded into the distance. He leaned in closer, bracing both hands on the table.

Buck felt tears burning in his eyes, but he blinked them back, straining to keep his eyesight clear.

The larger boat turned slowly, and the camera with it, back toward the wreckage of their little Ranger. The picture jerked, sliding in and out of focus, until it paused on JD. He was bobbing furiously in the churned up wake, gasping as a wave slapped his beet-red face and then launching his next hysterical scream. His neon orange life vest was the most valuable piece of boating equipment Buck had ever seen, standing out brightly against the lake water, drawing everyone's attention. His little arms churned desperately, either trying to swim or just expressing his frantic terror. Buck's heart ached in his chest.

"Get him! Get the baby!" Mom was shouting again, reaching for a boat hook and dashing to the ski platform at the stern. The camera turned again, recording mom's efforts, and the eventual extraction of JD from the lake. Even knowing the outcome, Buck sighed in relief. JD's screams faded to hiccoughing sobs as she pulled him in, hugging him gently. "It's gonna be okay, honey! You're gonna be okay." His leg break would be obvious to anyone who looked, but these people had other things on their minds. At least she held him safely and, as he watched, continued to soothe and comfort him.

The teenaged girl stepped into the frame and retrieved the boat hook. She called directions to the driver, maneuvering the boat until Buck's unconscious form came into view.

Oddly, he had no reaction. He catalogued what he could see of his injuries: the blood coating his face from the deep cut at his forehead, the red contusions that would darken into the painful bruises he now wore. He'd seen worse. Hell, he'd had worse more than once. Get Vin he urged silently. Where's Vin?

"Can you reach him, Jenny?" Mom sounded anxious, somewhere off to one side.

The kid leaned out precariously, managed to hook Buck's life jacket, and dragged him to the back of the boat. Hauling his dead weight out of the lake took some help from her dad, and the camera lingered on Buck's unconscious body. Where's Vin? he kept thinking. You need to get Vin!

The boy with the camera seemed almost dazed; the view wandered from his mother's anguished face to point at the sky, and finally back to the sinking boat. To Vin. He was trapped in the wreckage, life jacket bright yellow amid the flotsam of seat cushions, cooler, and the oddments that had been their vacation. So close! Vin's body hung just below the surface, snagged on some piece of hardware that negated his vest's buoyancy, with his hair drifting loose, obscuring his face. Blood, not quite mixing with the water, trailed from Vin's head.

Buck felt bile churning in his gut.

"Oh, God. Is she dead?"

Buck gasped. James paused the tape--frozen on that horrific scene. "I know this is hard to watch. We can take a break if you want." Buck shook his head, not sure if he stopped he'd be able to start again. James looked back at the still-frame picture. "I'm sorry about that. We didn't even know he was a boy until they got him into the ambulance. What with all that hair..."

Buck took a quick breath just to stop himself grabbing the man by his collar and pounding him against the wall. Did he imagine something like that mattered when Buck was watching this? He just shook his head and signaled for James to start the tape again.

Buck watched in strained silence, breath held in his chest, as the girl dived in to try to free Vin. "Be careful!" someone shouted. It was all too slow, too long, and Buck's vision blurred with tears. He dashed them away, and gasped harshly at Vin's too-limp body as it finally floated free.

The formerly vociferous family fell silent as Vin was gently lifted out, and laid next to Buck on the platform. The girl was suddenly mid-frame, leaning down, checking for pulse and breath. She looked up, scared, and then bent to press her mouth over Vin's. Buck finally dragged his eyes away, pressing his hand to his mouth to stop whatever sound was clawing its way up through his chest.

"You had enough?" James asked, not unkindly.

Buck nodded blindly, and pushed out of the room, out through the bullpen, and into the desert heat to take what felt like his first deep breath in hours. It's over, he chanted silently. All over now. Chris would be waiting for him, wondering where he'd gone...

"Are you okay, Mr. Wilmington?" Jeezus, it was James again. Didn't the man ever quit?

"Yeah," Buck grunted, patently lying. "How long was he underwater?"

"Huh?"

"The tape was running. How long was Vin underwater?"

"Oh." James glanced at the spinning numbers on the counter. "The whole incident from crash to Vin's retrieval was just under five minutes. So that's the longest possible time. What with the Ranger sinking. I'd say more like three..."

Buck's mind spun. Three minutes. Not irretrievable. After all, they said that kids recovered better from hypoxia than adults.

James cleared his throat, and tapped his clipboard against the table. "I need to know if you want to press--"

"No charges."

James looked both relieved and confused. "Are you sure?"

The only thing worse than watching that tape, seeing what was recorded on it, would be for Chris to have to see it. And that was never going to happen if Buck had any say in the matter. "I want it destroyed."

"What?"

"I said," Buck loomed closer, forcing James a step back, "I want that tape destroyed." Another step, and his voice dropped lower. "Is that the original?" James nodded. "And there aren't any copies?" He shook his head. Buck had a sudden flash of Chris or the boys stumbling across the footage on the local newscast, or of a still-shot making the front page. "There better not be, Sergeant James. Not one for the kid who shot it. Not for his family. Not for your evidence files. Not to ever see the light of day in a courtroom." He drove his finger into James' chest to make each point. "Because I'm leaving with that tape, and if I ever see a whisper of it show up anywhere, you can trust that I'll be pressing charges not just against that nice family, but against you, your department, the city, and anyone else I can think of."

James wasn't backing off anymore, maybe because he'd come up against the door, or maybe because he'd found some backbone and he looked like he might come out fighting. Buck loomed a little closer. "And I'll bring a federal badge, a federal judge, and a passel of friends to back me up. So don't you think for a moment I can't do everything I say."

What fight James might have had faded at the thought of bankrupting the entire city in lawsuits, and he nodded in concession. "Yes, sir, Mr. Wilmington."

Buck took no pleasure from the victory, only followed James back inside to get the tape. He stopped at the front desk to sign the statement and a receipt for the tape. James had disappeared, and Buck was just as glad, until he came back. He offered a small plastic bag. Buck hefted its slight weight and looked his question.

"Just a few possessions recovered from the scene. I hope that Vin gets better soon."

"Yeah. Me, too," he growled. "Thanks."

And with that dash of interagency cooperation, he pushed through the glass doors again, and out into the hot desert twilight.

He sat a moment, in the quiet privacy of the rental car, staring at the tiny cartridge that had the power to do so much damage. He dropped it in the ashtray finally, and instead ripped open the plastic bag James had handed him at the very end. There wasn't much there: the baseball cap Vin had abandoned in the excitement of catching his first fish, Buck's own sunglasses case, attached to a floating key ring--he'd been wearing the glasses and they were long gone--and the pictures. It defied reason that the Polaroid photos had survived the crash, but there they were: a little warped and waterlogged, but the images were still clear. Vin's wide, joyous smile sparkled in spite of its condition. And Buck thought he'd never seen a happier kid--

Frustrated, helpless anger welled up again, and he threw the car into drive, pulling out into traffic, driving and turning aimlessly. The streets and intersections had changed in twenty years, but eventually he found himself in front of the corner store by the little stand of houseboats. They'd bought all their food here in the old days, what they hadn't caught from the lake.

Old lady Martinez wasn't there anymore; the young woman behind the counter might be her daughter or granddaughter, but Buck was so strung out he couldn't drag up a smile, much less a conversation. He picked through the crack lighters--that's what the kids called them anyway, looking like mini-acetylene torches and burning sharp, focused flame. Buck threw one on the counter with a bottle of water and paid mechanically.

Sitting on the curb, he looked down the dock at the row of houseboats. They were mostly newer now, the old ones like they'd used long gone.

He pulled the little cassette from his pocket, and fingered it, feeling the weight. There was almost nothing to it; he could crush it under his heel. But that wasn't enough. He twisted, breaking the outer shell, and opening the tape to the air. He pulled it out, foot by foot, until it made a respectable pile on the concrete. One side was reflective, almost sparkling, the other matte and grey. Buck flipped the lighter and touched it to the mountain of tape.

The flames were bright, and the burnt plastic stench filled his nostrils. No one seemed to notice, or care, and that was all right, too. Perfect, actually. He waited, bottle of water at the ready, until the last of the tape was melted away. Then, hands not quite as steady as he'd like, he turned the car back to the hospital.

~ ~ ~


It was only when the nurse came through to announce dinner that Chris noticed just how long Buck had been gone. It was coming up on two hours, and if they were hassling him down there, Chris was going to kick some Havasu PD butt. He'd pressed the cell into Buck's hand as he left, just in case he needed to call, or if Chris needed to reach him quickly. Heaven forbid.

"Hey, kiddo," Chris called to JD. "You're gonna get some dinner now. It okay with you if I go for a walk?" JD nodded absently, not looking up from the skyscraper he was building out of Lincoln logs. Chris leaned down to kiss the crown of his head, and then checked out with the nurses' station.

"No problem, Mr. Larabee. We'll give you a call if anything comes up."

"I don't have my phone right now..." Chris didn't bother to explain, and it didn't seem to matter.

"No problem," she reached into a drawer and came up with a beeper. She jotted down the number and handed it across. "We'll be sure to call if there's any need. Take your time." Her smile was so kind and caring that Chris almost managed to smile back.

"Thanks."

He pushed his way out of pediatrics, and then out through the main doors, into the twilight. The heat of the day was fading, but not enough to really call it cool. Anxious energy burning through him, Chris paced along the wall, making the turn at the end of the building, and keeping right on going, walking a perimeter.

He stumbled and then caught himself, one hand to the rough brick wall, when he came across Buck under the overhang outside the ER. He was leaning back against a failed planter, but there was no ease to his stance. One knee jerked rhythmically, and his fisted hands stood out clearly in the pockets of his jeans. Chris froze.

"What's up?" he asked, uncertain. Buck might have been here a minute or an hour, there was no way to tell. Chris had just come from JD-- "Vin?" Chris heard his voice rising.

"No, no," Buck brought both hands up, making calming gestures, and then negating them by fisting his hair and pulling hard. "There's no news."

"Buck," Chris stepped closer, feeling his gut clench and not knowing why. "What's up?"

"I couldn't--" Buck blinked hard, and rubbed at his eyes. "I just needed some air."

Likely story. Chris knew Buck better than that. There had to be something else going on. And if it wasn't one of the boys-- Chris slid a hand up Buck's back, offering what comfort he could.

"Buck..." He waited for Buck to raise his head, to meet his gaze. "Tell me." Emotions chased across Buck's face: pain, fear, anger. And, if he weren't mistaken, Buck was hiding something.

"There was video." Buck's voice was so flat and emotionless that at first, Chris couldn't figure out what he'd said.

"Video?" he echoed.

"Yeah. A kid with a camcorder caught everything. Every detail."

Chris felt numb. There just wasn't anything left to feel. Not and keep his veneer of sanity for JD-- "Oh." It was barely a breath. "Where is it?"

Buck cut his eyes away, just long enough to give Chris warning, then came up with a firm stare. "I destroyed it."

Oh. Buck's hard, flat statement said so much. That he'd seen it. That it had been awful. That he'd made a decision to protect Chris, and the kids, from that horror. And as close to the edge as he felt right now, Chris couldn't imagine a greater gift.

Finally, and to hell with anyone who might be looking, Chris drew Buck into the hug he longed to give him, offering what comfort he could, and drawing more than his own share of strength from the embrace. "Thank you," he whispered, feeling it filter through Buck's body, easing some of the rock-hard tension there. They stood there uncounted minutes, before Buck finally snuffled his nose on Chris's collar, and pulled away.

"Should you be out here? Who's with JD?"

Chris fished the pager from his belt and waved it. "Better than Outback." It was lame as jokes went, but then they were both strung out hard on tension and lack of sleep. They laughed until Chris thought he might puke, and when he stopped, Buck laughed on alone. It was relief, Wilmington-style.

~ ~ ~


Hours of endless waiting stretched interminably through the night and into the early morning. The kindly staff suggested that they could go out, get something to eat, go back to the hotel for a nap. But Buck knew that Chris couldn't leave. If it was just him, he probably wouldn't be able to leave either, but with Chris, there wasn't any question. They were here for the duration. And the hard truth was, the longer they were here, the better their chances. That would remain true for a while, and then the trend would reverse.

Buck shook his head to banish that thought. As they made the trek from pediatrics back up to the ICU waiting area, he wished for Josiah's steady presence. And that made him wonder-- "How's everyone holding up?"

Confusion clouded Chris's eyes. "Huh? We just saw JD--"

"No, Chris, how are the guys holding up?" Chris really was out of it.

"How would I know?" Confusion shaded over to frustration as Chris punched the "door close" button repeatedly.

"I'd have thought they'd all be out here as soon as you told them--" Realization dawned. "You didn't call them?" No answer. "Chris, that ain't right..."

The doors finally closed, and the elevator began its pinging climb toward the ICU.

"What were you thinking?" Probably hadn't been thinking at all, Buck realized.

"What would I say?" Chris said, soft and low. "What could I tell them, and keep them from jumping on an airplane to get here?" The doors opened, and Chris stepped in to the empty lobby. "I can't-- I don't want-- I couldn't handle them being here. I can barely handle being here myself."

"Aw, hell." Chris was just bound and determined to tie himself in every knot possible over this. "They got a right to know."

"I know that," Chris snapped. "Don't you think I know that?" He paced stiffly across the room, pausing to stare into the unit. "Oh, Lord, Buck. What are we gonna do?"

"C'mere." Buck eased himself down to the large vinyl sofa. "Come here," he ordered sternly, when Chris didn't move.

Chris shuffled over, and dropped heavily next to him on the couch.

"We're gonna stick together. All of us are gonna stick together. And we'll be fine."

Chris shook his head helplessly.

"Yes. Now, I'll call Josiah, and let him tell the others what's happened. I can tell them not to come, but I don't know how long we can keep them away. Or how long we should keep them away. They're family too, you know?"

If things went badly--they weren't going to, but if they did--it wouldn't be right for Vin's uncles to not have the chance to see him one last time. To say goodbye.

"Aw, hell," he muttered again. "Give me your cell again." Chris dug it out and handed it over, and Buck dialed.

Chris stood, pacing anxiously, and then jerked his head toward the doors. Buck nodded his acceptance, watching Chris disappear through the ICU doors as Josiah answered the phone.

~ ~ ~


"Okay. Yeah. Thanks, man. Me, too. Yes! I'll call! As soon as we know anything. I promise!" Buck had to almost hang up on him to get Josiah off the phone.

He'd just managed it, though, when Chris came back through the doors, shoulders slumped under the weight of fatigue and worry. He dropped heavily onto the couch at Buck's side, not looking up, not meeting his eyes. The tension and brutal terror of the last thirty-six hours were giving way to debilitating exhaustion. Chris leaned forward, forearms propped on his knees, head hanging so heavy it looked to drag him to the floor.

No words were necessary. None would serve.

Chris huffed a breath that might have been a sob, and Buck couldn't hold back any longer. Though he ached to gather Chris up, to hold him tight and kiss him deeply, to anchor him in this storm, he dared not. He rested one outstretched hand in the center of Chris's bent back, feeling the subtle reaction to his touch, the near imperceptible shudder that ran under his hand. Slowly, gently, after checking the area for witnesses and because he couldn't resist his desperate need to comfort this man, he slid his hand up, over Chris's collar and under his hair--unwashed these last two days--gathering it, gripping it, pulling Chris in to a hug that offered what he could, and promised more.

Chris collapsed into him, pressing his face into Buck's neck, his hot breath and hotter tears safe from public view.

"Shh," Buck whispered, though Chris was still silent. "Hush." Words of comfort where there was no comfort to be had. He ached to promise that everything would be all right. He couldn't.

Finally Chris sat back, his red-rimmed eyes the only color in his grey face. Buck dug around in his jacket and came up with the empty wrapper from a travel-pack of tissue. He tried to keep them handy now. The boys were forever getting into things, spilling things, ending up coated with substances Buck couldn't even identify. When they weren't dirty, they were climbing up or falling down, scraping knees and elbows, 'til JD didn't have a pair of jeans that Gloria Potter hadn't patched.

He caught his breath. They'd have to call Gloria, too.

Chris stiffened at the sudden interruption of Buck's breathing, trying to pull back. The warm comfort of Buck's hand in his hair calmed him, Buck's solid strength holding Chris up when he didn't think he could survive another second. God, he loved this man. After a time, Buck released him, and Chris watched, bemused, as Buck searched his pockets for tissue or handkerchief. He came up empty, though, and Chris just rubbed the dampness away, pressing hard against his burning eyes.

"Why don't you try to catch a nap?" Buck's words, normal in content and tone, sounded almost like a foreign language. Nap? He could barely remember the last time he'd slept, and when he had, he'd woken to this nightmare...

Chris opened his mouth to protest, but Buck cut him off with such gentle reason that Chris found himself unable to argue. "I know you don't think you can. Don't think you should. But I'll be right here, and the boys are in good hands. Go on." Buck patted the sofa, and took off his own jacket to fold in a pillow for Chris's head.

The couch was too short, alternately lumpy and soft, and the steady light of the ICU waiting room wasn't conducive to rest. Chris lay there, trying to still the racing fears in his mind and the trembling tension in his limbs, sleep a distant fantasy. Buck relaxed opposite, upright in spite of his concussion and other injuries. His shiner was fading from black to purple, and some of the swelling along his jaw was fading. If the stitches healed well, there'd be no sign of his injuries in a few weeks.

Musing on the lines Buck could spin to explain the injuries and charm the ladies, exhaustion like a dark wave crashed over him, carrying him into unconsciousness.

Jerking awake, the room spinning and lurching around him, Chris grabbed desperately for something to steady himself. A warm grip for his searching hand, a steady press at his shoulder guiding him back, Chris fell back against the sofa, gasping hard.

"It's okay, pard." Buck. Buck was there. Chris blinked hard to clear his vision, and saw Buck's battered, lovely face leaning above him, comforting him. "You're okay. Everything's under control." Chris clenched tighter at Buck's hand for a moment, then consciously released it.

"Vin?" he asked. "JD?" If he'd been sleeping and something happened...

"Everyone's the same," Buck said. "Why don't you go back to sleep?"

It seemed so amazing that he'd slept at all. The sofa wasn't feeling so bad now, and the jacket-pillow smelled subtly of Buck. Chris closed his eyes, and let the lassitude carry him away again.

He drifted toward consciousness more gently the next time, blinking his eyes open enough to confirm "hospital" and "Buck," then sank back under the surface.

When he woke next, it was sudden but not unpleasant, just an abrupt awareness that he was no longer sleeping. He paused, eyes closed, trying to catch what he thought might have been dreams, but they slid away like mist. He opened his eyes then, and oriented himself to the world. The constant light in the ICU waiting room gave him no clue as to how much time had passed, and passing his watch in front of his face, he wondered if it were 4 am or pm.

"Buck?" He noticed that Buck's posture had changed from when he'd last seen it, now bent and tense rather than loose and relaxed.

"Hey, sleepyhead," Buck teased, but his voice was thin and sharp.

"Buck?" Chris sat up quickly, prompting a head-rush. He breathed deep, waiting for it to pass, and then looked more carefully at his partner. "What's up? Is it Vin?"

"Huh?" Buck looked up, confused. "No! Nothing." He rubbed hard at his temples, and only then did Chris notice the glazed look in his eyes and the pale cast to his skin. He didn't look well and, Chris remembered, he had every right not to be. He was less than two days recovered from a head injury. By all rights he shouldn't be up at all. He needed to be monitored for all the signs of secondary brain injury.

"Head hurt?" he asked gently, reaching up to rub the tendons at the base of Buck's skull.

"Oh, yeah," Buck groaned, maybe in answer, maybe just in relief.

"Blurred vision?"

Buck wasn't that far out of it; he drew back from Chris's comforting touch, and met his eyes squarely. "I'm fine, Chris. It's just a headache."

"Don't be an idiot, Buck." He put his hand back and continued the massage. Buck resisted for a minute, then relaxed into the touch. "There's no such thing as 'just a headache' with the kind of concussion you have." Even as he said it, he was hoping for Buck to be right, for there to be nothing wrong. Nothing else wrong. "I want you to see the doctor."

Buck's silence spoke clearly what he thought of that.

"Please, Buck." He wasn't above begging now. "For me."

Buck sighed heavily, and nodded. "I'll call."

~ ~ ~


The north wing's waiting room was about as drab and colorless as the rest of the hospital, save pediatrics, but at least it was different. Chris and JD nearly had the place to themselves this late on a Sunday.

Even Buck's doctor had said there was probably nothing to worry about, but he'd scheduled Buck for a battery of tests that would--hopefully--reassure everyone. But it was late, and the weekend, and it had taken a while to get everything scheduled. Buck had groused good naturedly, but not fought too hard, maybe sensing a bit of Chris's unreasoning fear.

Then, to top it off, pediatrics had called to say JD needed "a little attention"; apparently that was their code phrase for "he's completely lost it, come get him now." Buck had managed to calm him, almost got him down for a nap, and then he'd popped right back up. So here they were, Chris staring blindly out at long evening shadows in the parking lot, and JD paging through an aged Highlights magazine.

Sudden, violent movement caught Chris's eye, and he saw the magazine flutter to the floor halfway across the room. The nurse behind the front desk made a disapproving noise in her throat, and the young woman who shared the waiting room looked up curiously before burying her nose back in her book.

"JD..." Chris warned.

"Aw, but Chris--" God, he hated that whining tone.

"Come here, JD."

JD looked stubborn, but slowly pushed up and hopped on one foot over to where Chris sat. Chris looked around in confusion, and saw the small crutches abandoned over by the bookshelf.

Chris lifted JD into a chair and went to collect them. "Why did you go off and leave them? You know you need them." He waited for a response, and didn't get one. "JD?"

JD's head stayed stubbornly bent, and Chris felt his last nerve tightening in his neck.

"JD?"

"Sorry, Chris." He still didn't look up, but maybe that was okay. At least he was still and quiet for the moment. Chris went back to his careful concentration on nothing at all.

Thump. The row of chairs vibrated. Thump-thump-thump. "JD--" Chris warned, prompting a put-upon sigh, and a moment of silence.

And then: thump-thump-thump-thump.

"Would you stop that!" Chris whipped around and caught JD's leg before he could bang it against the chair leg again.

"I'm bored," JD complained, tugging his cast out of Chris's hand. "Bored, bored, bored."

Oh, Lord, Chris thought.

"I want Buck!" JD's voice started rising, and Chris's temper with it. Couldn't he just shut up for one damn minute? "I want Vin!" He was screaming now, and the nurse was looking at Chris again. The other waiting woman had gone somewhere--somewhere quiet probably--and then JD shaded over in to screeching. "Bu-uck! Bu-uck!" Little fists pounded furiously on Chris's thigh, not really hurting, but enough--

Chris grabbed them firmly, holding them away from him, and growled right in JD's face, "Shut UP!"

The change was instantaneous. JD's mouth fell open, but absolutely silent. And his eyes went wide and terrified. Chris felt like he'd been punched in the gut as big fat tears rolled silently down JD's round cheeks.

"Oh, God, JD. I'm sorry!" He pulled his hands away, but it was too late. JD sat frozen in terror, afraid of him.

It was too much. Too damn much for any of them to put up with. And here he was, taking his fear and frustration out on a six-year-old boy, who'd already put up with more pain in his life than anyone had a right to. It wasn't fair. It wasn't right. How could God or the universe or whatever sick mind was ruling their fates ask them to put up with one more thing?

Buck heard JD's wail echo down the tiled hallway, and burst through the doors at a dead run. The waiting room was empty except for a nurse who was studiously ignoring the tense situation on the other side of the room.

He wasn't really sure what he'd expected to find, but it certainly wasn't Chris bent over staring fixedly at his clenched hands, looking like the muscles might burst right out of his shoulders, and JD cowering away, with silent tears streaming down his face. It was a tough choice, but he went to JD first, lifting him up, turning him away to the nearest corner for a smidge of privacy.

JD wrapped his arms and legs tight around Buck, burying his face in tight, and finally letting the sobs go. Buck held him close, stroking over his head and down his back, murmuring softly, "Shhh. You're okay. Shhh." He looked across, hoping to catch Chris's eye and get a clue what had caused this meltdown, but Chris didn't even seem to know he was there.

JD's crying slowly eased to hiccoughs, and he pulled his face away to look up at Buck. God, he never wanted to see that kind of despair in his son's eyes ever again. Buck propped him on one hip, and felt through his pocket for a tissues, but he was still out. Carefully, gently, he wiped away the tear tracks with the pad of his thumb.

"You better now?" he asked, hiking him up a little higher.

JD shook his head mutely.

"What's wrong?"

"Don't-- Don't want Vin dreaming with angels! Make him wake up!"

Oh, Lord, help them. The phrase Vin had coined for why JD's mother would never wake was terribly close to the coma state Vin lay in. Buck kicked himself for not seeing the child-sense of it. Hell, he'd been so worried about Vin--and about Chris--that checking out what fears were running through JD's active little mind had just fallen by the wayside.

"None of us wants that, Little Bit." He bit his tongue before he could promise everything would be all right. "We're all waiting for him to wake up, and you can bet that Vin is trying just as hard as he can to come back to us, all right?"

JD looked uncertain, and in the absence of tissue wiped his dripping nose on Buck's shoulder. "Chris--" he whispered, craning his head to see him.

Yeah, Buck could see how having hard-as-nails Chris Larabee going near-catatonic might give JD the wrong idea. If only he'd been here. "Chris is scared, too, JD. Grownups get scared sometimes, just like you." JD looked up at him in confusion. "None of us knows when Vin will wake up, but the doctors say he's got a real good chance. Real good. So we all have to be strong for him, all right?" JD nodded. "And we have to be strong for each other, too."

"Are you scared, too, Buck?"

"Oh, yeah," Buck admitted. "Sometimes. But I know that everyone's doing their very best, and I know that Vin will come back to us just as soon as he can."

JD nodded, seeming to mull that over for a minute.

Then more quietly, Buck said, "You remember, we talked about Chris's son Adam, and how he and his momma went to dream with the angels?" JD nodded. They'd introduced the boys to pictures of Adam and Sarah, and the family Chris had had before. "Well, remembering that's got him as upset as anything happening here," Buck soothed. "None of us has given up on Vin, and we won't. It's just that Chris loves you both so much he can't stand the thought of losing either one of you, like he did Adam. It's eating at him."

Buck brought a hand up to JD's chin, tilting his face up so he could look him in the eye. "So you need to be as strong as you can now. I know your leg's hurtin', and I know you're scared too, but Chris and Vin both need us right now, all right?"

He watched JD take that in, and nod very seriously.

"Mr. Wilmington?" the nurse called, and Buck silently cursed her timing. One thing he didn't need was JD worrying over him, too. "I'll be right back, okay?" JD nodded, and Buck put him down on the nearest bench.

Nurse Stevens--no first name on her badge, and old enough to be Buck's mother, with none of her charm or sweetness--ran down his results. The scans were clear, and unless he noticed neurological problems: slurred speech, dizziness or blackouts, he could just treat the headaches with painkillers. She handed him some samples and a prescription for more if he needed, and he swallowed two dry. About what he'd expected, but Chris had been so insistent--

Aw, damn. Chris. He turned back to the room, and was more surprised than he should have been to see JD snuggled up in Chris's lap. Instead of leaning over, Chris's head was rocked back against the wall now, but now he had a hand over his face, hiding his eyes.

Buck walked over, and carefully eased himself down in the next chair. He had to lean closer to hear what JD was saying, but when he did he didn't think he'd ever been prouder.

"It's okay, Chris," JD whispered, wrapping his arms around Chris's neck. "It's okay."

Slowly, Chris dropped his hand away, looking down at the top of JD's head and then across at Buck. There weren't words for the depth of gratitude and love there. Buck reached out, gathering Chris in, with JD between them, and they sat there, drawing strength from their union, until JD squirmed for freedom.

Chris laughed--actually laughed--and the air in the room felt suddenly lighter. Buck loosened his grip, and watched as Chris gently held JD away, until he could look into his eyes.

"Thank you, JD," he said seriously. JD beamed, as if having Chris back to normal righted the world for him. And maybe it did. "And I'm sorry I scared you. I didn't mean to, and I'll try never to do it again."

JD nodded, accepting the apology and the promise easily. "S'okay, Chris. I understand." And then he looked up to meet Buck's eyes with pride, and Buck thought his heart might just burst right there. What an amazing boy they had. What amazing boys. They were truly blessed. And then, as quick as a flash, JD bounced off to collect his crutches. "C'mon!" he urged. "Nurse Suzi promised me macaroni and cheese for dinner!"

They followed him downstairs, Buck watching each step with his heart in his mouth, but JD insisted he could make it and he did. The pediatrics ward was starting to feel like home, with kids and parents whose names he knew, and nurses to nod and flirt with. The staff was already talking about when Vin came down, sharing Buck's determination that it was only a matter of time, and he loved them for that.

"Hey, stranger," Suzi knelt down to greet JD. "Where you been?"

"Buck had a doctor appointment. But he's all right now. Right, Buck?" JD looked up for reassurance.

"I'm fine, son." Someone around here needed to be.

Suzi looked, too, with the probing gaze of a healthcare worker, but he just nodded.

"I thought," he shamelessly used food as a distraction, "that someone was going to eat macaroni and mushrooms for dinner."

JD made a face and stuck out his tongue. "Noo! Yucky! Macaroni and CHEESE! Right, Nurse Suzi?"

"It's ready and waiting for you!" Suzi patted JD on the head, then turned him toward his bed where the dinner sat waiting under a warming cover.

"Yay!" JD scrambled up into the bed by dint of arms and his uninjured leg, like he was part chimp. He dug into the mac and cheese with a gusto normally reserved for ice cream and pizza. When Suzi nagged at Chris, he was able to say truthfully that he'd eaten a late lunch. Not by choice, but once he'd started eating, he'd put the food away with as much grace and dignity as JD. Well, he hadn't quite gotten anything stuck in his hair...

Buck smiled. He'd ordered from a local place recommended by Joe, the night security guard. They'd delivered fresh grilled chicken, with the traditional sides of beans, rice and tortillas. Chris had put on a pout worthy of JD faced with fungus, claiming that he'd only be sick if he tried eating it.

Buck had had all he could take. "Damn it, Larabee. You're going to eat something if I have to shove it down your throat," Buck threatened, half meaning it. Even after a few hours of sleep, Chris was still sickly pale and prone to the shakes.

"You never make the kids eat things they don't want," Chris accused, almost pouting.

"That's because they have more sense than to argue with me about it. C'mon, Chris. Just give it a try."

The food smelled fantastic, all spicy and warm, and Buck was salivating already. But he waited for Chris, who gingerly picked up a flour tortilla and nibbled a bit at the edge. He watched as Chris paused, seemingly testing the results of his experiment, and then took another bite. Without a word, Buck slid the chicken under Chris's hand, and watched him pick up a piece almost absently, bringing it to his mouth and biting, juice running down his chin and onto his shirt. Buck held his peace.

From that point, Chris devoured the food. Buck rolled up some chicken and beans in a tortilla for himself, and then passed one over. Chris downed it in two bites. He went after the rice with a plastic spoon, scraping the container when he reached the bottom. Buck didn't bother to hide his smile, just kept sliding more food into Chris's path, and giving his own fork a workout.

Less than fifteen minutes later, the entire meal for four was gone. Empty containers and wrappers littered the waiting room coffee table, and bits of rice and chicken skin scattered the ratty carpet. Chris seemed to come back to himself once the food was gone, staring about in wonder, then up at Buck. "Guess you think you got me, eh?" He spoiled it a bit by ending with a belch.

"No think about it, pard. I got you six ways from Sunday."

Chris only nodded, and leaned his head back against the wall, hands rubbing gently at his gut.

JD's macaroni-fest was interrupted by the ring of Chris's cell, and he excused himself into the hall. Buck nodded, and stayed with JD to keep him occupied. He hadn't been gone long before he appeared back in the doorway, silent, but with a broad smile and tears running down his face. Buck felt his heart kick into a higher gear. News. It had to be.

"Now, you think you can manage this on your own, Little Bit? I need to go talk to Chris for a minute." JD nodded, not even looking up from his dinner.

Chris stepped back into the hallway as Buck approached, then dragged him out of JD's line-of-sight.

"What did they say?" Buck prompted, not even waiting for Chris to start.

"He's--" Chris gasped in a breath, dashed the tears from his eyes, and then tried again. "They say he's waking up."

Thank you, Lord, Buck prayed silently, relaxing as Chris pulled him into a tight hug. "Thank God," he muttered into Chris's ear.

"I can't--" Chris was often silent but rarely speechless. "We have to get up there!" Chris pulled out of the hug, starting toward the doorway, almost dragging Buck by the collar.

Buck set his weight backward, stopping Chris short. "Now, hold on a minute." Chris looked comically confused. He pulled one more time, but Buck stood firm. "I need to go tell JD where we're going, and you need to get a hold of yourself before we go barging in on Vin."

"But--"

"I'll be right back, okay?" He waited for Chris to nod, and watched that he seemed likely to actually wait before returning to JD's bedside. The macaroni was long gone, and JD was working his way through some frightening-looking green jello.

"Hey, Little Bit. How can you eat that?" He settled one hip on the bed, and picked up a napkin to wipe some of the mess from JD's face. "Did you actually eat that, or just smear it all over?"

"Ate it all!" JD bragged. "It was yummy."

"If it's okay with you, Chris and I are gonna stop up and see Vin for a while." JD looked concerned, and based on the earlier scene with Chris, Buck wasn't surprised. "The doctors think he might wake up soon, and we don't want him to be scared or alone. Someone should be there, don't you think?"

JD nodded seriously. "I can come!" He pushed the table away and started to climb out of bed.

"Now, hold on, JD." Buck put a large hand in the middle of JD's chest to restrain him. "I need you to stay here, and get some rest--"

"Not tired!" It was a reliable lie; JD was never tired, he'd just drop in his tracks when he ran out of gas. "Wanna see Vin!"

"C'mon, JD." He should have seen this coming. Of course JD would want to be there for Vin. "I need your help on this one, okay?" That was enough to catch his interest and forestall a meltdown, at least for a while.

"What I need from you, Little Bit, is some backup, okay?" The kids were familiar with the sorts of terms the team used in conversation, and asking for backup was a responsible and important thing. JD stiffened, but didn't protest. "Chris and I are real tired. We're going to sit with Vin now. But later, we're going to need your help to keep Vin company, and to make sure he feels safe here. So I need you to rest now, so that you'll be ready later, when we need you. Okay?"

JD scowled, as if suspecting a trap, but he didn't protest again.

"Okay, I'll see you later, and then we'll take you up to visit Vin, all right?"

"All right." JD's reply was grudging, and he turned away as Buck stood up.

"Hey." JD looked back, in spite of himself. "I love you, JD Dunne. And I'm real proud of you, okay?"

JD's smile was bright enough to power half of Denver. "Love you more, Buck!" He held his hands up for a hug, and then let Buck kiss him goodnight and tuck him in, with Buzz tightly grasped in one arm.

"Sleep tight!"

When Buck emerged, Chris was pacing anxiously, a tense circuit of steps, bounded by the door at the end of the hall and avoiding crossing into JD's line of sight. Coward, he thought gently. "Hey," he challenged, pushing Chris toward the doors. "What are we waiting for?"

Their ride up the elevator was charged with a very different energy than the ones past. Chris was bouncing on the balls of his feet, and it was all Buck could do not to drag him into a very inappropriate kiss. Vin was waking up. Vin was waking up!

Their headlong rush out of the elevator was halted at the locked ICU door by Sandra's nighttime relief, Andrew. He stepped out, closing the door firmly when Chris would have pushed his way in.

"I need to talk to you before you go in."

Chris seemed to almost wilt, and Buck felt his own fears, so recently retired, rising again.

"What?" Buck croaked. "They said he was better..."

"And he is," Andrew made a calming gesture, but it was wasted on them. "I just want to let you know what to expect now, and in the next twenty-four hours. So you won't be surprised, and because your attitude can have a strong affect on Vin and his recovery."

"Tell me--" Chris's voice was low and hard. "What could be worse than what we've already seen?"

"Not worse," Andrew said. "Just different. Vin is waking up. That doesn't mean he is awake yet. His eyes are open, but he's not responding to voices yet. He's not unconscious, he responds to stimuli, but we don't really know how aware he is."

"I want to see him," Chris insisted.

"And you can. That's why we called you. It's good for him to have familiar voices and faces around him. But you need to be careful. As we said earlier, it's possible he can see and hear things, but just can't respond. Take care with your words, your expressions, even your thoughts. He may sense them. And, most of all, reassure him that he's safe, and that it's safe to wake up."

"Anything else?" Buck asked, when Chris remained silent. It didn't seem that unreasonable, and not that different from what they'd been doing before. Except that now they knew Vin was waking up.

"Just that we don't know yet if there's going to be any permanent effects. Please don't mention them around Vin, but keep an eye out for any signs like--"

"We know what to look for," Chris cut in. "Can we see him now?"

"Please," Buck added, with a grin to soften Chris's attitude.

"Sure. And I hope we'll be seeing Vin up and out of here real soon." Andy badged them through the door.

"As do we all, man," Buck patted him on the back as they went through. "As do we all."

It was good to have a warning. He entered Vin's cube on Chris's heels, pausing at the end of the bed, looking only at Vin. He lay unmoving, much the same as when they'd last visited, but with one small change. His eyes were open. Staring, fixed, but open. Most of the machines were gone, now, too.

"Hey, cowboy," Chris's voice was low, shaky. "Nice to see those big blue eyes of yours." He trailed to silence, gathering up Vin's hand, bringing it to his mouth for a kiss.

"Hey, li'l pard," Buck tweaked Vin's toes. "We're all here pulling for you. JD can't wait to come up again and visit. He's been missing you." Vin didn't move, or even twitch, but he breathed steadily, and so they talked.

"When we get out of here, JD still can't wait to see the London Bridge. It might be a little hard for him, what with the crutches and all, but he's determined." Buck's laugh rumbled through the room. "Guess you know all about that, huh?"

Chris gasped. "I think he moved! Did you see?"

Buck moved around the bed to take Vin's other hand, but he didn't move again for the next hour. Two. And still they talked and held and petted him.

A slight shudder under Buck's hands was electrifying. "Vin?" he prompted. "Did you feel that?" he asked Chris. Chris nodded, and leaned in closer. Yes, Buck heard the shift, too. Vin's slow, steady breaths were speeding up, almost anxious.

"Hey, buddy," Buck soothed, stroking Vin's cheek gently. "You're okay. We're here. Everything's gonna be okay."

Vin's head rocked back and forth, and then his eyes clenched shut tight, his whole face crinkling up with the effort.

"Take your time, cowboy," Chris said, never taking his eyes from Vin's face. "We're not going anywhere." Buck wondered, for a second, if he should call the nurse, if there was anything to be concerned about, if anything medical needed to happen. He looked at the one remaining monitor that showed Vin's heart racing along faster than they'd seen yet.

"Mmmm-rph." The sound was unintelligible, but clearly Vin, and Buck's own heart beat in time with Vin's. "Ahh--Chris?" Still weak, barely audible, and so very perfect. Chris's face shone with transcendent joy. Buck felt his own heart swell into his throat.

"Yeah, pard, it's me." Vin blinked his eyes open again, blurry but seeing this time. "Welcome back."

"Back?" Vin looked confused, and seemed to explore the room with his gaze. He seemed to stumble across Buck in his exploration, and paused. "Buck?"

"Hey, pard," Buck smiled, and Vin smiled back. There was a God, somewhere. And then, finally, Buck couldn't resist any more, he moved from the chair to the bed, and gathered Vin up into his arms. Vin's arms came around his neck a little slowly, but there. And then the bed shifted, and Chris was holding them both, terribly gently, as if too firm a grip might break them. Buck laid his cheek against Vin's head, feeling the harsh division between shaved skin and bandage, and the wonderful living warmth of him.

"Love you, squirt," he muttered, and heard Vin giggle, and whisper, "Love you more!" It was an old game, and in other times Buck would have mussed his hair in response. His fingers almost itched, wondering when they'd again be tangled in Vin's curls.

"I'm thirsty," Vin complained, pulling back a bit. Buck loosened his grip, and felt Chris's arms fall away. Vin still didn't seem quite steady, though, and Buck held him in the circle of his arms while Chris cranked up the bed. Then Chris was there with a cup of water and a straw, and Buck settled Vin back against the pillows to drink.

He watched, feeling as proud as a banty rooster just to have Vin back with them. "Looking good, there, son," he said, and Chris nodded, silent and agreeing.

"Hospital?" Vin's voice was sounding better with each word.

"Yeah," Buck said. "But you're doing great. Gonna be out of here before you know it. And you know JD is waiting to see that damn bridge of his."

Vin looked puzzled, and scanned the room again, more intently this time. "JD?"

"He's downstairs, asleep," Chris reassured. "But he'll be up to visit tomorrow. He's been up to visit while you were sleeping. Do you remember?" Vin scowled, as if trying hard to remember. "Don't worry about it. Everything's gonna be okay."

"I can't remember..." Vin sounded scared, lost, and Buck wished that Chris hadn't even brought it up.

"Nothing to worry about, squirt," he tried to infuse enough confidence to buoy Vin up. "Everything's fine."

Vin yawned then, so wide his jaw cracked, and it was so normal that Buck felt laughter rumbling up in his chest.

"Don't laugh," Vin protested. "'m tired."

Chris started to straighten the covers, tucking the cat up under Vin's hand as they had so many times. But this time he grasped it, gathering it up tight like JD with his damn Buzz Lightyear doll.

"Pardon me," Andrew's voice from the doorway was a shock, and Vin looked up puzzled.

"Hey there, Vin." Buck felt Vin's grip tighten. "My name is Andrew and I need to ask you a few questions. Okay?"

Vin turned frightened eyes up to Chris, who nodded reassuringly. Buck stepped back, reluctantly releasing Vin's hand, and made way for Andrew.

The tests were standard, checking his pupils, his nerve responses, his memory. There seemed to be a bit of short-term amnesia, but Buck had had enough concussions to know that wasn't anything to worry over. Andrew certainly seemed cheerful enough, and not concerned that Vin seemed ready to drop back to sleep.

"Okay, Vin. I probably won't be here when you wake up, but Sandra will be, and you'll like her a lot, I promise." Vin looked uncertain, but exhaustion was clearly dragging him down fast.

"Night, Vin," Buck moved back to drop a kiss on Vin's cheek. Chris repeated the action on the other cheek.

"Night," Vin muttered, eyes already drooping. "Stay?"

"I'm not going anywhere," Chris promised.

The vow didn't fit with Buck's plan to strong-arm Chris into a halfway decent night's sleep in the waiting room, but this was a special occasion. Besides, if they moved Vin out of ICU in the morning, maybe he could actually get Chris back to the hotel for a nap. Well, except for the tiny problem of an energetic JD... Hell, they'd work something out. It might be worth getting the guys out here, just to have the extra hands to watch the boys.

The guys-- he should call. Buck glanced down at his watch. It was going on midnight, later in Denver. Maybe he should wait for the morning. No, if he were the one waiting for news, he wouldn't thank anyone for keeping him waiting.

He waited for Vin to drop off, flicking his eyes to the monitor to confirm it was a natural sleep. Chris sat still, his hand resting gently on Vin's chest, as if to reassure them both of that Vin was okay, back with them. Buck stood, as silently as he could manage, and waved the cell-phone at Chris before he stepped out into the corridor. Andrew clapped him on the shoulder in congratulation.

"He's recovering beautifully," he said, and Buck read real joy in his eyes. "Sometimes the kids just amaze you, y'know?"

"He's an amazing kid," Buck agreed. If Andrew knew the half of it... "Gonna go give a few friends the good word." Buck gestured with the cell phone toward the lobby, and Andrew nodded, looking back at Vin's cube with a grin nearly as wide as Buck's.

"Amazing," Buck heard in the background on his way out.

He punched the speed dial as he pushed through the door.

"Yeah," Josiah's voice was scratchy and rough. "What?"

"Hey, old man, it's me." Buck heard the joy and excitement in his voice, and trusted that it carried down the line.

"Buck?" Josiah's voice rose in question. "How is he?" The care and concern in that deep voice opened his heart wide.

"He woke up, Josiah," and now, now that things were done, and he was away from Vin and in the company of friends, however distant, the tears came. "He's gonna be okay," he rushed it out, not wanting Josiah to worry, because now he was sobbing aloud. "He woke up. He talked. He moved. He's gonna be fine."

"Thank the Lord," Josiah prayed. "Thank the Lord." Buck nodded, agreeing wholeheartedly. "Have you called Ezra and Nathan?" Josiah asked. Buck shook his head.

"Buck?" Josiah prompted. "You there?"

He gasped a moment, choking back the thick emotion of relief, finding his voice. "Yeah, I'm here. No, I haven't called anyone else."

"Do you want me to handle it?"

"Nah, that's okay." It would be a relief to call with good news with the people who loved Vin the most. "I'll handle it."

"Any one of us can still hop a plane out there at any time," Josiah offered.

"I don't--" He couldn't quite figure out how to say Chris didn't want help, hadn't anyway. Maybe that would change now. "I'll let you know, okay?"

"Okay. Thanks for calling, Buck. And take care of yourself, too, all right?"

"Yeah, thanks." He lingered a minute, just listening to Josiah's breathing over the phone. "Okay, I'll talk to you later."

"I'll look forward to it."

Finally, thankfully, Josiah hung up. Buck wasn't sure he could have done it himself. Then, almost in the next second, he was dialing Nathan.

Sharing the joy of Vin's recovery took something out of him though. By the time he'd finished with Nathan and Ezra, and then Gloria Potter, the couch was looking pretty good to him. Damn good.

He buzzed back into the ICU, just to reassure himself that Vin was fine, and paused there a few minutes to rub Chris's shoulders and luxuriate in the new optimism. Chris dropped his cheek to brush the back of Buck's hand, a gentle caress with Chris's beard growth grown almost to softness. Buck leaned down to whisper in his ear.

"I'm gonna take a nap in the lobby. You call me if you need anything all right?" Chris nodded, looking away from Vin long enough to lock gazes, to share the joy that seemed as endless as their fear had been so recently.

"Love you," Chris whispered.

"Love you more," he countered.

He pulled away then, brushing his hands up through Chris's hair, watching a shiver run down his back. "Go," Chris whispered. "Get some sleep." Finally, Buck did.

~ ~ ~


Chris shifted his nearly numb butt in the chair, trying to find a position more comfortable than the dozens he'd tried before. There wasn't one, and finally he had to stand, stretching tall and then bending low, pulling hard at his ankles, trying to force some flexibility and feeling back into his stiff and weary body. With a low groan he shifted upright, pressing both hands to the base of his spine, rubbing at the bunched muscles there.

All night long, Andrew had ghosted in and out on the hour, checking Vin's monitors and smiling encouragement to Chris. Vin had slept through it all, gloriously normal sleep, punctuated by snores, shifts, and kicking off the blankets. There was no mistaking this sleep for coma, and Chris was infinitely grateful for that. Vin had twitched, and even muttered, but hadn't woken since before Buck had left. Chris was content to just wait--a happy, anticipatory state in contrast to past anxiety--savoring each and every breath Vin took.

Vin would be fine.

That thought alone was almost enough to make all the pain and exhaustion and fear disappear. Almost. The sky was just turning pink outside the window across the hall, and he could hear the subtle shift in the sounds of the ICU. He checked his watch to make sure; it was Monday morning. A new day. Week. Chance.

I'm so sorry. I should have been there. I made the wrong choice. Chris had been rehearsing apologies all night long. I love you. They were painful to think but, truthfully, the consequences were so much less than the worst they could have been. Chris had been through the worst, and clearly hadn't learned much from it. He was making the same mistakes again, putting the job ahead of everything, ahead of his family. "I'm sorry," he whispered, and then leaned down to brush a kiss on Vin's forehead.

Something metal clattered in the hallway just outside, enough to bring Chris spinning around in instinctive defense. A young woman in scrubs was frantically replacing the items she'd spilled, but without enough care. She stacked them unevenly, and as she reached for another load, paper-wrapped syringes cascaded back to the floor. As he watched, she gathered them back up again--

"Chris?" Vin's voice was scratchy, but beautiful, and Chris turned back to the bed. Vin was sitting up, the arm that still trailed an IV was wrapped around the cat, the other reaching for the bandage on the top of his head.

"Hey," Chris reached out to gently divert the hand. "Don't touch that."

"But it hurts!" What was it about that tone that could just set his teeth on edge?

"I know, but you have a bandage up there, and a whole lot of stitches. You need to be careful, okay?"

Vin looked down, and then up, as if he might catch a glimpse of the top of his head, then he pulled against Chris's restraining hand.

"Okay," Chris warned. "But gentle."

Vin's look said: It's my head, Chris. But he sent his fingers exploring slowly toward the wound. They froze in sudden realization.

"They had to cut your hair for the operation." That's what he should have spent the night rehearsing. How to tell your son he'd had his long curls shaved in order to cut a hole in his skull to save his life.

"Cut?" Vin brushed the skin. "CUT?"

"Okay, more like shaved," Chris conceded.

Vin went silent, both his hands now exploring his close-shaved head. Chris couldn't read the look on his face; his eyes were wide, but the open mouth could have been horror, wonder, or warming up for a blood-curdling scream.

"It's okay," Chris said. "It'll grow back."

Vin frowned. "I know that, Chris," he said, his voice dripping with disdain. "But until then, I'm bald!"

It wasn't the crisis Chris had expected. Not by a long shot. "Yep," he finally agreed.

"What does it look like?" Vin asked, dropping his hands to his lap, gathering the bedclothes into a tight grip. And then, as if it had just now processed it, he whispered, "Operation?"

Now that look, Chris knew well. Vin's eyes went big and frightened, and his mouth quivered as he fought to keep from crying.

"Hey," Chris sat on the bed and drew Vin up in a hug. "That's all done now, and you're getting better. Nothing to worry about." Vin's arms clutched tightly around him, and Chris thought he'd never felt anything so wonderful. "You're gonna be fine."

They were still sitting there, just holding on to each other, when Buck's cheerful voice cut in from the door. "Hey, can I get some of that action?"

"Buck!" Vin's voice was getting stronger. "You're here!"

"Of course I'm here, squirt! Where else do you think I'd be?" Buck, bless the man, was holding out a steaming cup of coffee, and Chris relinquished his place in exchange.

Buck had such an easy way with kids that sometimes Chris was jealous. Sometimes he was just in awe. Buck pointed to Vin's chest, drawing his attention down, and then chucked him under the chin, drawing a high giggle from him. "Bu-uck," Vin protested. Chris leaned back in the chair and took a sip of the hot, strong coffee.

"How you feeling this morning, son?"

Vin seemed to think on that one for a little longer than Chris liked, but finally he answered. "Okay. My head hurts." Vin waved vaguely at the wound. "They shaved all my hair!"

"Yeah, I noticed." Buck seemed almost as mystified as Chris. He would have taken bets on Vin going ballistic about the hair. "Nothing else hurts?"

"Well--" Vin paused, a flush starting up his cheeks.

"What hurts, Vin?" Buck prompted. If there was something else wrong, they needed to know it.

Vin fiddled with the blanket, pulling it back to look underneath. Chris's eyes went to the catheter tube, where it ended in a collection bag. Oh, yeah, those were no fun at all. Buck seemed to get there at the same time, and chuckled low.

"I think we can get that taken care of for you. Just push that little button over there."

Vin had to twist to reach the call button, and then they waited for someone to respond. It was Sandra instead of Andrew, and she greeted Vin with a wide smile.

"Hey, there, tiger. My name's Sandra and I've been wanting to meet you."

"Uh, hi." Vin looked a little uncertain about sharing his issue with a female nurse.

"Hey, Sandra," Buck stepped in. "Vin's feeling like he'd like to have that catheter out, if it's not a problem?"

Sandra patted Vin gently on the leg. "Oh, yeah. I think we can do something about that. And have you been drinking things since you woke up?" She looked to Chris for confirmation of Vin's nod. "Do you think you could manage some breakfast?"

Vin perked up at the idea of food. "Uh-huh."

"Fantastic! I'll be right back."

Vin squirmed a little during the removal of the catheter, but Sandra was quick and efficient, and then she brought Vin a bowl of cream of wheat. He looked less than thrilled, until she produced a few packets of brown sugar. "Thank you, ma'am," Vin answered without prompting this time.

"You just call me if you need anything. Okay, honey? You got the button right there."

Vin nodded absently; he was already busy stirring the sugar into his breakfast. It was so normal as to be nearly dreamlike. Not even twelve hours ago, Vin had been lying in a coma, now he was back. Right here, eating cream of wheat.

"Uh, I gotta-- I'll be right back--" Both Buck and Vin looked at him like he was nuts as he surged upright and nearly fell. He felt his way out the door and down the long hall, and finally emerged into the waiting area that had become their second home over the last few days. He'd slept on that couch, paced the length and breadth of the room, and seriously considered putting his hand through the drywall right there.

What the hell are you gonna do now, Larabee? Sighing, he leaned back against the wall, pounding a fist on his thigh. Vin's back, no thanks to you and your job. What had he been thinking, to let his family get on a plane without him? Anything could have happened. Hell, something did happen! Vin had almost died. All of them might have died. A smaller, more honest, more scared voice whispered, I could have been alone again. Chris dropped his head back, the solid thump vibrating through his body.

A strong hand gripped his shoulder, and Chris stiffened, moving to throw it off.

"Hey! It's me!" Buck didn't loosen his hold; instead he gripped Chris's other arm, shaking him a little. "What's up?"

Chris opened his mouth, but words didn't come.

"Chris?" Buck's concern was palpable. "What's wrong?"

Chris dragged in a breath, and finally managed to spit out the words that had been spinning in his brain all night long. "I should have been there! I was in Denver, for chrissakes, working on a damn taskforce. If' I'd been there--"

"If you'd been here," Buck cut in, his voice low and forceful, "you might have been killed. Did you think of that, Chris?"

"But--"

Buck shook him again. "Don't regret missing the accident, Chris." Buck released him, and fished a crumpled photo out of his pocket, waving it in Chris's face. "Regret missing JD catching his first fish." Chris caught the photo, smoothed it out on his leg, and brought it closer to stare at JD's elated smile, tracing over his face, and then up to Buck, whole and healthy. He sighed heavily.

"I know what you're thinking, Chris," Buck went on. "Don't think I don't." Chris heard the words, but he couldn't stop picking out the details: the sun glinting off the fish scales, the clear blues of the sky and the lake, JD's gap-toothed smile. "Quit if you want. I'll quit, too, if it makes you happy. But do it for the right reason, not because you're scared. Not because you're guilty. Our boys deserve a better example than that."

Chris looked up then, and Buck was offering him another picture. It was Vin, this time, holding his own small fish with a smile so wide he looked like his face might split right in two. And Chris had missed it, for a taskforce he'd never wanted to be on.

"I'm an ass," he admitted, and Buck smiled.

"Yeah, but your our ass, Larabee. And we wouldn't have it any other way."

~ ~ ~


Epilogue

"C'mon, Buck. Wake up!" The bed rocked under him, all out of proportion with the object doing the bouncing. "I've been up for hours!"

JD tugged impatiently at the pillow Buck had pulled over his head in defense against the ambient light and noise. Buck let it go suddenly, and rolled onto his back. He caught JD off guard with the abrupt move, and had to dart out a hand to keep him from tumbling backwards off the side of the bed.

"Hold on, Little Bit." JD just squealed in delight.

"Do it again, Buck! Do it again." Buck grinned, but just gently eased JD back onto the bed.

"Where's Chris and Vin?" On a normal vacation morning, the boys would have whiled away an hour at least on cartoons or Animal Planet. But Vin's vision wasn't up to TV or reading yet, it gave him pounding headaches. Blocks and toys were okay, and Chris had bought him a portable CD player and a selection of music and books on tape to keep him occupied.

"Outside. But Chris sent me in to wake you. Said it's time for breakfast." Buck sent a mental scowl Chris's way. "I'm hungry!"

"Well, far be it from me to stand between a starving boy and his pancakes. Why don't you get dressed, and we'll see if we can't fill that hollow leg of yours, all right?"

"Yay!" JD slid off the bed, and hopped eagerly into the other room.

"Crutches!" Buck shouted after him. The pediatric orthopedist was worried that if JD kept hopping around, he'd fall eventually, and try to catch himself on the broken leg. It hadn't happened yet, and no amount of nagging or threatening could make him keep on the crutches when adult backs were turned.

"And then we can go see the bridge!" JD's voice carried so well from the other room that Buck could only feel pity for whoever was unfortunate enough to be staying in the adjacent hotel rooms. Today was the day. If Vin felt well enough--and he'd probably lie if he didn't--they'd finally get to see the London Bridge. "London Bridge is falling down--" JD's voice faded only slightly as the bathroom door clicked shut.

Buck pushed upward, finally, stretching his muscles, squinting his eyes against the bright light from the sliding door. He could see the silhouette of Chris on the small patio, with Vin's head barely showing over one shoulder. They'd sit like that interminably, just soaking up each other's presence. And then--suddenly and without comment--Vin would hop down, and bounce back into the room to play with JD, or whine for ice cream, or any of the other normal things eight-year-old boys did. Buck shook his head in amazement.

The tiny coffee pot was still on, and Chris had graciously left him a cup and both artificial non-dairy creamers; the man really did love him. Buck grinned easily.

He dressed quickly, in shorts and a t-shirt he'd cut the sleeves off years ago; it was too hot for anything else. He'd tried to get Chris out of his Dockers and into something cooler, but it seemed that no matter how hot it got, he wouldn't give them up. Except for the pool...

They hadn't known quite how to bring up the topic of water and boats, fishing and swimming. Vin still had only the vaguest impressions of the ill-fated fishing trip, but JD had woken in frightened tears more than once. But nature's own heat had taken its course, and both boys demanded to be taken swimming in the hotel pool once the temperature passed 100. Vin had been shy about his shaved head and its prominent wound, unwilling to appear in public without his new Stetson. But his injury had an unintended side effect: if he wanted to swim, he needed a bathing cap to protect his surgical incision. He complained long and loud that it was a sissy thing, but once Chris pointed out that it completely hid his naked scalp, Vin only groused for effect. Boats, and the open water of the lake remained an undiscovered frontier, though. Hell, Buck wasn't too sure how he felt about taking another boating trip right off.

"Hey, sleepyhead," Chris stepped up behind him at the sink, wrapping his hands around Buck's waist, bringing him back to the present. "Thought you might sleep the day away." Chris planted a damp kiss at the base of his skull. Buck had kept to his "no shaving" resolution, but Chris was back to his clean-shaven self; the dark circles under his eyes and deep lines of stress were fading, too.

"Hey." Buck leaned back into Chris's chest. "You ready to see a bridge?"

"Oh, yeah," Chris infused his voice with disdain, but his eyes couldn't quite pull it off. Buck hadn't missed him reading the glossy brochures to both boys, pointing out the pictures, and making a plan of where they'd go first and what they'd see.

"C'mon," Buck challenged. "The truth."

Chris squeezed him tighter, then turned to catch JD by the collar as he went hopping by, still singing under his breath. "No place else I'd rather be!"

-the end-


Enter the security code shown below: