Disclaimer: Y' know, if life were fair, I would own them. We'd be on season... um... Sue, what number would it be???J Anyway, they'd still be on. But life ain't, I don't, and they ain't. Damn it.
Warnings: angst, language, angst. That about covers it.
Notes: written for Gayle for her birthday. She wanted a Chris, Vin, Ezra combination. This takes place in the ATF AU... thanks Mog.
They needed to find Chris Larabee.
But they didn't know where their team leader was.
The only one who knew where the blond had gone lay in a hospital bed, surrounded by tubes and IV's, pumps and monitors. Vin Tanner had only a slim chance of surviving the day... even slimmer that he would see the next sunrise. And an important part of Larabee would die as well if the younger man didn't survive.
And he couldn't even say good-bye if they didn't find him.
He couldn't give his best friend the strength and will to continue breathing.
Because he had no idea as to what had happened.
The only thing the other team members knew was that Chris had left three days ago, on personal business. Vin was staying out at the ranch until the blond returned, and knew where he was. But before the sharpshooter could share that information with the rest of them, he had been injured during a raid on a group of gunrunners.
He, Ezra and Josiah were only acting as back-up to another team, and hadn't expected to do more than help with clean-up afterwards. But then things had gotten complicated and Vin and the Southerner had ended up right in the middle of things. Then the complications sprouted complications, and Vin ended up with a bullet in his chest because he hadn't thought about the fact he was entering the fray without a Kevlar vest.
And now he lay in the hospital bed, tentatively holding onto life by a thread that was fraying quickly.
And the only one at his bedside was Ezra Standish.
Buck Wilmington had left the day before Chris, going on vacation accompanied with whatever woman he was romancing at the moment. Nathan Jackson was away at a conference in Florida, chaperoning JD Dunne and Casey Wells on the side, while they took in the sites of Disney World. Josiah Sanchez was at that moment tearing apart their suite of offices, trying to find some clue as to where Chris was.
So Ezra sat by the injured man's bedside, elbows resting on his knees, manicured hands clinched until the knuckles lost all color. His emerald green eyes never left the bloodless face, his mind consumed with a single thought... 'you have to live, Vin Tanner, for all of our sakes'.
Chris smiled wistfully as he looked out across the limitless water, in awe at the power of the wild blue ocean. He took a deep breath, enjoying the crisp air at the top of Mount Cadillac. The handsome man's eyes took on a distant stare, his mind drifting back to other times. He recalled the times he and Sarah, and later, Adam, visited here. He listened for a minute as he thought he heard the sound of his son's laughter, carried to him on the ocean breeze. Then his mind's eye took him back to the time he and Sarah, eight months pregnant with their son, visited. He felt her along the length of his body, the memory of pulling her to him so vivid. He had wrapped his arms around her, hands spayed lovingly along her heavy belly. And Adam had kicked.
Larabee's smile widened, then became melancholy as he returned to the present. His hand clenched into a fist, as if to hold onto the sensation of his unborn son's movement. The blonde's closed hand went to his chest, settling lovingly against his heart. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning, he nodded to the man standing just behind him.
The agent's companion joined him there at the edge of the mountain. He lifted a container, opening it and slowly releasing the contents. Both men watched as the fine ashes were whipped away by the wind. Chris turned to look at the other man, not surprised to see the tears flowing freely down the dark, weathered face. As the last of the container's contents disappeared, he wrapped the man in a hug. And both of them wept.
After several minutes, they moved apart, dropping to sit on the rocky ground. Larabee watched the other man for a few minutes more. His brother-in-law, Michael Thomas. He remembered the phone call four days ago, telling him that his sister, Katherine, had died suddenly. Mickey had barely been able to get the words out... hadn't been able to finally. The conversation had been taken up by Chris' niece, Mickey and Katie's daughter, Gayle. He had cried then, too, mourning the loss of his oldest sister. Then he had booked the first flight out, contacted Vin to take care of things in Denver for him, packed a bag and left.
He and Katie had weathered many of the childhood storms and emerged victoriously not only siblings, but friends. Chris felt a pang of guilt at the thought that the last time he had seen his sister was the day he had laid his wife and son to rest. In the interim he had lost himself in his work and the bottle, pulled back from the brink by friendship old and new, and the recognition that he really did want to live, after all.
"Chris, don't start kicking yourself. Katie understood why you hadn't been around the last few years." Mickey Thomas said quietly.
Larabee looked at him, frowning, wondering if he had spoken his thoughts without knowing it. But then, Mickey knew him as well as Katie, and Katie could read him only too well. "I kept thinking I'd make it out here, Mick, but there never seemed to be time, once... well, once I got back into the swing of things. There was always a case... always an assignment - "
"And you haven't taken a real vacation for three years," Thomas finished. "Buck told us."
"Buck?" Then he chuckled, "Buck. Should have figured the two of you'd keep track of me somehow."
Smiling, even though the tears had never quite stopped flowing, the older man said, "can't say that I was particularly happy that Katie started talking to him as often as she did, but I understood. She was worried about you, man, she had to know that you were okay."
Shaking his head, Larabee said, "but I wasn't... not for a long time. Couldn't see anything but the wreck, kept looking for them... expecting them to suddenly appear," he broke off, "sorry Mick, this sure as hell isn't the time for all this."
"When are you gonna stop kickin' yourself for everything that happens, Chris? You're not responsible for everything that happens. You couldn't know about what happened then... any more than I could know wh-what... what was going to happen th-the other day."
Wrapping an arm around his brother-in-law, the blond let him cry. When Thomas' grief quieted, he said softly, "she loved you man. You gave her thirty-two years of happiness. I don't think I ever saw her so happy as when she was up here, and married to you."
With a chuckle, the other man said, "don't think she was happy to see me come in from the boat, covered in oil and fish guts."
"Ah, she always was squeamish. I remember when I was five or six... she'd have been 10 or 11. I fell off the roof of the house and busted my arm good... bone was sticking out and everything... she threw up all over the front yard."
Michael laughed, appreciative of his brother-in-law's attempt to cheer him up. But he couldn't help but notice the tears swimming in the man's eyes as he spoke. He clapped a big hand on the man's broad shoulder. "Well, she got over that when Christopher Michael fell out of the tree in the backyard and did the same thing. Always knew we were cursing that kid for naming him after his uncle Chris."
With a mock sigh, Larabee said, "yeah, well too bad he looks more like you than me... that's his real curse... not enough of the 'handsome' gene."
Smacking the other man across the back of the head, Mickey said, "yeah, well better not enough handsome than too much of the smart ass gene he could have inherited from his uncle."
They fell quiet then, their minds drifting to other times, and the way their lives had been touched by Katherine Michelle Larabee Thomas. Clouds moved in, casting the day in a gray light that matched their moods. The breeze grew cooler, and the scent of rain warned them of an incoming storm. Without a word, both men scrubbed the tears from their faces, rose, and moved back from the side of the mountain. They looked up to see the knot of young people gathered a few yards away, each of them looking at the two men with a mixture of love and sadness. Katie and Mick had brought eight children into the world, strong, decent and loving.
Chris hung back a minute, letting Mickey move into that little group. His children, five boys and three girls, closed around him as if they could protect him from further pain. He watched as the oldest, Aaron, put an arm around his father as he stood to one side of him. Gayle, his oldest daughter, stood at his other side, her arm around his waist. 'Little' Chris, Ben, David, Annie, Miki-Kate and Sean gathered around their father, each wearing a mask of stoicism. He watched the family from where he stood, wishing that he was sharing the strength of the group, but not wanting to intrude. Then Miki-Kate, the youngest at seventeen, walked toward him. Without a word, she took his hand and led him back to join her siblings and father.
"Anything?" Ezra looked up through red-rimmed eyes when Josiah entered the tiny room.
"I found a notation on his calendar that turned out to be a flight number. He flew into Portland, Maine three days ago. They don't have any record of his renting a car or anything. I checked with the hotels nearby, but he isn't registered in any of them."
"He could be anywhere in the state, even out of state, by now," Standish's shoulders slumped, he dropped his head into his hands.
Sanchez watched the young man for a few minutes, read the emotions battering the agent. Stepping across the room to stand next to the man's chair, he laid a big hand on a stooped shoulder. "None of this was your fault, Ezra."
Shaking his head without moving his hands, Standish said, "wasn't it? He was covering me, Josiah, watching my back just as he always does."
"You didn't see the shooter coming up behind you... he did. Are you blaming yourself because you don't have eyes in the back of your head?"
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Then tell me why it's your fault."
"I... I should have been... I," the younger man stammered, then looked up at the other man with a frown.
Smiling, the big profiler stood back, crossing his arms across his big chest. "I thought as much. Look, Ezra, none of us wanted this to happen, but it did. Blaming ourselves for what's already happened isn't going to help anything. We need to concentrate on keeping Vin alive, and getting Chris back here as soon as possible."
Leaning back in the chair and running a hand over his face, Standish nodded. "All right then, what do we do next?"
"I'm going to stay here with Vin for awhile, you go get some rest - "
"No, I'll stay here. Perhaps you could go out to the ranch and look for clues?"
The big man studied his friend for a few minutes, then nodded. "All right," he said softly. Standing over the unconscious man they both worried about, he said a soft prayer. Reaching out to brush a strand of hair back from the pale forehead, he turned, nodded to Standish, and left the room.
Standish watched the older man leave the little room, then turned his attention back to the figure in the bed. He was surprised to see the man's eyes open, and leapt to his feet. Leaning over the narrow hospital bed, he watched as the blue orbs crossed, straightened, then searched for something to latch onto. Reaching out, he laid a hand along one square jaw, trying to catch the roaming eyes. "Vin? It's Ezra, can you hear me?"
Standish couldn't help but smile, though it didn't quite reach his eyes. It was only natural that the young sharpshooter would expect to find Chris Larabee at his bedside. The Southerner couldn't recall a time when that hadn't been the case. Before now. "No, my friend, it's only me. Ezra. Do you understand me?"
"Ez... I..." he moaned, brows furrowing as pain coursed through his body.
The undercover agent absently stroked his thumb along the stubbled jaw while he reached out with the other hand to deliver a dose of morphine from the machine nearby. "Take it easy Vin, I know it hurts. You were shot, do you remember?"
"Sh... sh... shot?"
"Yes. You're in the hospital - "
With a chuckle, the other man said, "yes, well that seemed to be the sentiment of the hospital staff. Do you remember what happened?"
Blue eyes drifted closed, and the tip of his tongue appeared to run along dry lips. His brow creased once more, as he tried to remember why he was in the hospital this time. "No," he said finally.
"Well, that's all right. We'll fill you in later." He took up a damp cloth and pressed it against the semi-conscious man's lips. He felt Vin suck on it a little, then sigh as the water eased his dry throat.
"Chris... he okay?"
Confused by the change of direction the discussion was taking, Standish said, "as far as we know, he's fine."
"He home... sl... sleepin'?"
"Sleeping?" Then he realized what was going through the young man's mind. "Vin, Chris isn't here. Do you know where he is? He left a few days ago, we found that he flew into Portland, Maine. Do you know why, or where he went?"
"Maine... I... Chris... sorry," he muttered as the medication kicked in and he drifted back into the comforting darkness the drug provided.
Head dropping, shoulders slumping, the agent heaved a heavy sigh. "Damn it," he muttered softly.
Chris sat in the recliner, shoved back into one corner of the big living room, watching the commotion all around him. The entire Thomas family was there, Mickey, his eight children, and their families as well. Both 'little' Chris and Gayle had three children each. Ben and his wife had a son and were expecting a second child. David, Annie, Miki-Kate and Sean were childless as yet. David had only gotten married four months ago, Annie and Sean were in college, and Miki-Kate was still in high school.
He watched as Gayle's two year old bounded around the room, chasing after his Uncle Sean. The little boy had a head filled with light brown curls, hazel eyes, and a cherubic face. That face belied a wild heart, as he tackled Sean by wrapping his arms around the young man's legs. Chris' nephew stumbled, barely catching himself before he was thrown into the sideboard. His niece, looking enough like her mother to make his heart ache, called after her little boy, "Adam Michael!"
Chris couldn't hide the stab of pain he felt at the sound of that name. Gayle had called and asked him if he would mind naming her third child after either his son or his wife when it was born. He knew she had only because he'd been told so often enough. He had no real memory of it, and Gayle had told him more than once that she would never have believed his acceptance if she had known how drunk he was at the time. He hid it well, though, at least over the phone. Seven month later, when he opened the birth announcement, it had - almost literally - knocked his legs out from under him. He remembered falling into a nearby chair, the announcement fluttering to the floor.
The sound of laughter, seeming so out of place, but so welcome at the same time, called Larabee from his musings. He looked up to see Miki-Kate watching him from across the room. His pretty young niece came over to perch on the arm of his chair. Reaching out a hand, she gently rubbed his shoulder. "You know, this is a family gathering, Uncle Chris. Why are you hiding out over here in Daddy's chair?"
Smiling, the blond looked up into the girl's brilliant blue eyes. "Just thought you'd like time alone - "
"Oh, hell," she growled, then blushed at her remark. "Sorry, Uncle Chris. Look, you're part of the family, and you're making us all uncomfortable sitting over here alone. So, pry your butt outta that chair and get over here!"
He laughed, hearing her mother's blunt style in Miki's words. Accepting her hand, he allowed her to pull him over to join the others.
Standish turned from where he had been watching out the hospital window, as he heard a soft sound. Returning to the injured man's bedside, he watched as Tanner seemed to be struggling to awake. Gently massaging the bare shoulder that peered above the blankets, he said softly, "you're all right, Vin."
Reaching up, he pressed the button that would deliver another dose of blessed relief. "There, that should help. Do you want a drink of water?"
"Mmm," was the only answer, which the Southerner took as an affirmative. He poured a little water in a Styrofoam cup, put the flexible straw in it, and pressed it to the semi-conscious man's lips.
"There, sip it slowly, Vin. The last thing you need to do is vomit right now." After a few sips, he pulled away, noting the frown that furrowed the chestnut brows. "I know, you want more. We'll give it a few moments to see how things go."
"Wh-where... I, oh, hos... pital."
"In the flesh."
"Ch... Chris... where?"
With another sigh, the undercover agent said, "we don't know Vin. do you remember where he went in Maine?"
"Yes, Vin," he was amazed at how far his patience was stretching, considering that at the moment he wanted to punch a hole in a convenient wall. "Where did Chris go? He flew to Portland, Maine."
"Chris... wanna see... where's Chris?" Again the team sharpshooter drifted off to sleep.
Groaning, Standish dropped back to the hard hospital chair, and put his head in his hands. "Where is he? Chris, where in the name of God are you?"
Chris sat up suddenly in the bed, gasping for air. It took several minutes for him to remember where he was, finally recognizing the guest room in Kate's big house. Leaning back against the headboard, he scrubbed a hand roughly over his face, trying to recall what had wakened him. Glancing over, he saw that the alarm clock read 3:48. The house was quiet, the Thomas clan having dispersed just after midnight. He and Mickey had stayed up for another hour talking, before they, too, gave in to exhaustion.
So what was wrong?
He started. He heard his name as clearly as if the speaker were standing right beside him. But that was impossible, the owner of that voice was across the country, in Colorado.
"Vin?" He whispered the name, afraid of breaking whatever spell had been cast.
"How's he doing?"
Standish looked up into the vibrant blue eyes of the team profiler. "He survived the night," he answered brusquely.
Sanchez took in the bloodshot eyes, rumpled clothing, and overall disheveled look of the usually impeccable younger agent and shrugged off the tone. "You get any sleep at all?"
"As much as that," he nodded toward the stiff chair at Tanner's bedside, "torture device would allow."
Smiling compassionately, the older man said, "why don't you go get some sleep? At least go down to the lounge - "
"No," Ezra cut him off.
Sighing, Josiah thought about continuing the argument, but knew it would do no good. The Southerner was bent on doing penance, and he'd be hard put to dissuade him from his course. Dropping heavily into the chair, he looked up at Standish. "Has he been awake at all?"
Waggling his hand, Ezra said, "sort of, in and out. He hasn't been coherent enough to tell me where Chris is. Did you have any luck?"
Shaking his head, Sanchez said, "nothing. There were empty hangers and clothes all over the master bedroom. He took dress clothes and jeans both I think, but there wasn't a thing to tell me what he went to Maine for."
Running his manicured hand over his weary face, the younger man said, "damn it! Did you check with Travis?"
Nodding, the gray-haired agent said, "Orrin hasn't a clue, so it must be personal. I left word on Buck's cell phone, but he hasn't called back as yet."
"Knowing 'Don Juan', he probably didn't even take it with him. Do you have any idea as to where Mr. Wilmington went?"
"Nope. I got hold of JD, but he didn't even tell the Kid where he was. He said the same thing, that Buck either didn't take the phone with him, or he won't check his messages."
A soft groan interrupted the two men, who looked to find Tanner's eyelids at half-mast. As they watched, he searched the room, then the eyes closed again.
Reaching over, Ezra pressed the button that would send yet another dose of pain medication coursing through the injured man's body. Vin muttered something before succumbing to the siren call of painless oblivion.
Frowning, Josiah said, "you know, it sounded to me like he just said 'no'."
He felt as if he were drowning in a black sea. Just as he began to surface into consciousness, he was dragged back down into oblivion. He kept hoping that he would wake to find Chris there, sitting beside him, but the blond had yet to appear. Chris understood. The blond would help him ride out the pain without sending him back into the darkness alone. The other man knew that he hated being there, even if the alternative was pain. Larabee would sit calmly while he gripped his hand hard enough to leave it bruised. He would be there, bathing the sweat from his face, talking softly to him to keep his mind focused away from the pain.
But Chris wasn't here, and the others didn't understand. They didn't know what Chris knew; that he feared being alone in that peaceful darkness far more than going through the ordeal of pain. They didn't know that he could survive the pain far easier than that darkness, because he had never told them. He hadn't really told Chris, but the man had sensed it, had understood and stood by him through those times.
He wanted to tell them, beg them to let him stay awake, despite the pain. But before he could form the words he was returned to the darkness.
Mickey stood in the doorway, watching his brother-in-law. Chris stood at the big bay window in their living room, staring out onto the landscape of evergreens and birch. The sun was only now making its presence known, casting the world in a pale gray light. He knew that the other man hadn't gotten any more sleep than he had, and lord knew that was little enough. He had heard him prowling around the house, his tread light to keep from waking anyone else.
"You want some breakfast?" Thomas asked as a way of announcing himself.
Lifting a coffee mug, the blond said, "got mine here, thanks."
"I can fix you some eggs or something."
Shaking his head, Larabee said, "I'm fine." Then, turning to face his brother-in-law, the agent said, "I'm heading home as soon as I can catch a flight."
"I thought you were going to stay on a couple more days."
"Was, but..." he broke off, frowning before he continued, knowing that it would sound strange. "Something's wrong, Mick. Don't know for sure what it is, but I need to get back."
The big man studied the man he had known since they were both little more than children. He had seen that look before, and knew that something was chewing at the other man. He also knew that Chris Larabee was not one to become worried for no reason. Finally he said, simply, "okay."
Sanchez and Standish stood outside the little cubicle of a room, waiting for the medical staff to finish inside. Their prognosis had improved now that Vin had survived the night. They kept telling the two agents that every hour Tanner survived brought with it an increase in his chances of survival. Looking at the still, pale figure lying listlessly in the narrow bed, however, made it difficult to believe.
Watching the young undercover man slump tiredly against the wall, scrubbing his hand across red-rimmed, sunken eyes, Josiah decided to try again. "Ezra, there's no reason for you to wear yourself out like this. You go on home and let me stay with him for a few hours."
Doing a fair imitation of their boss' infamous glare, the Southerner said, "I'm fine. I'll stay until Chris returns, or..."
"Or?" Sanchez watched pain fill the jade-colored eyes.
"Or things change here," Standish finished hurriedly. Neither man wanted to think about what those changes might be.
Just then, the doctor appeared in the doorway. Sanchez tried to gauge things from the man's expression, but it was non-committal. "What's the word, Doc?"
"Mr. Tanner's condition has been upgraded to serious but stable. I'm surprised that your 'ramrod' hasn't been here. Where is Larabee, anyway?"
"He's out of state, we're trying to locate him."
"Well, from what I've seen in the past, the quicker you get him here the better. I've seen Tanner rally from far worse than this after just a few minutes with your boss. At any rate, they're cleaning him up right now, then you can go back in. You've got time to go get a cup of coffee, I'd like to suggest that you take advantage of it. I'll be back to check on him later." The doctor nodded to the men before heading down the hallway.
"Come on, brother, I'll buy," Josiah put a hand on Ezra's slumped shoulder. He grimaced as he felt how tense the young man was.
Hesitating, staring toward the closed door, Standish finally nodded and allowed himself to be led away.
Both men were quiet as they rode the elevator to the basement and into the cafeteria. The big profiler managed to convince his companion to add a bagel and some fresh fruit to his order of coffee. Sanchez ordered scrambled eggs, bacon and toast to go along with his. They found a quiet table in the corner of the cafeteria, not speaking until they were half way through their meal.
"Ezra, I realize that I'm beating a dead horse here, but you need to understand that Vin's injury isn't your fault."
"Josiah, I appreciate your efforts, I really do. However, the long and short of it is that he was shot protecting me. If he hadn't felt some... obligation, I suppose, to do that, he would never have broken cover. He was safe until he did that, he would have come through it all without a scratch."
"And you would have been dead."
Shrugging, Ezra said, "perhaps, but perhaps not. There was always a chance that I could have heard the man behind me, turned - "
"And gotten shot in the face rather than the back of the head."
Huffing a sigh, the smaller man said, "it still remains that he is lying up there with a hole in his chest because of me."
"You always were full of yourself," Sanchez watched the chestnut head whip up and the deep green eyes glare with anger.
"You heard me. Would Vin have done any less if it had been me, Nathan, Buck or JD standing there in that man's sight?"
"Why no, of course not. Vin's sense of responsibility - "
"Extends to every one on the team. You're his teammate, Ezra, and he did nothing more... or less... than he would for any of us."
Slowly a smile appeared at the corners of the Southerner's mouth. "Touché, my friend."
"Dad said you're leaving us today," Chris looked up to see Gayle standing in the doorway and nodded. He had been standing on the deck for some time, trying to keep from climbing the walls. He couldn't get a flight out until mid-day, and he couldn't get in touch with anyone on the team. Only Vin, Josiah and Ezra would be in town, the others having been scheduled for some time off. He had started calling the ranch at sun-up, then each of the others' homes. None of the men carried their cell phones when off duty, so he wasn't really surprised when he got no answer on any of them. He knew he should call the hospital, if nothing more it would calm his fears, but didn't.
"I wish you'd stay. It's been a long time since we've seen you." She came to stand near him, her arms crossed before her. He was hit once more by how much she looked like her mother.
Turning to lean back against the railing, he dropped his head. "I know it has, Gayle. I haven't been a very good uncle, have I?"
Shaking her head, she said, "that's not what I'm talking about. You need to stop hiding, Uncle Chris."
Looking up with a frown, he said, "I'm not hiding from any of you."
"No, you're not. You're hiding from your memories, though."
"There's no place to hide from them, little girl. They're always there."
"True, but you can avoid them. That's what you've been doing, I think. If you don't come up here, you don't remember being here before, with Aunt Sarah and Adam."
"I don't mind remembering those times."
"But if you remember them, then you have to face the fact that you can't have those times back."
He felt the pain of her blunt words stab him in the heart. "Damn, girl, you do come to the point, don't you?"
With a shy smile, she said, "Mom always said I got that from the Larabee side of the family. I'm sorry, Uncle Chris, I don't mean to hurt you. Believe me, I'd give anything to have them back with us... all of them."
He looked into the young woman's face and saw the pain of loss still raw in her features. Reaching out, he pulled her to him and wrapped his arms around her. As he felt the young girl shiver, and hot tears begin to soak into his shirt, he tightened his hold. Then he felt his own grief well up, escaping as he began to cry as well. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. Here you're comforting me, and I should be comforting you. I'm sorry I wasn't here... sorry I never visited. I missed you all. Now I'm gonna miss Katie forever, and I'm most sorry for that."
"She understood," Gayle said when she could find her voice. "More than any of us, she understood. She always loved you, said you were her favorite brother."
"Yeah, well, considering her options, I'm not surprised," Larabee teased, hearing his niece giggle shortly. He felt her pull back and released his hold, wiping away the tears on his handsome face.
"Look, if you're going to be leaving us, then at least let me make you lunch before you go. I've got some pictures to show you, too, if you're interested."
"As long as they don't involve me and a bearskin rug, fine."
Josiah entered the ranch house, deciding that one last look around was in order. As he passed the phone in the den, he noticed the message light blinking. Hitting the play button, he heard the voice of the man they had been searching for.
"Vin? You there? Look, if you're there, pick up. Just wanted to... just checking on things. Damn it, Tanner, are you there?"
Sanchez could hear the worry in the blonde's voice and knew without a doubt that the bond between his two friends was at work. Picking up the phone, he activated the call-back option. After three rings, a voice said, "hello?"
"Uh, yes," he stumbled at the sound of a strange voice. "I'm looking for Chris Larabee - "
"Just a minute," the voice replied, then he heard it call out, "Uncle Chris, it's for you."
Uncle Chris? They knew Larabee had relatives, but no one, with the exception of Buck, had ever met them. He didn't even talk about his family. Josiah was roused from his thoughts when the man in question's voice came to him from the receiver.
"Chris, we've been looking for you everywhere."
"Josiah, what's happened?"
Shaking his head at the man's uncanny sense, he explained the situation. When he finished, the blond said, "I've got a flight out at three. Tell him I'm on my way."
The darkness began to withdraw, and he felt himself pulled forward into the pain of consciousness. He felt, too, a familiar presence. His own, cold, hand was wrapped in one that was warm and comforting. Peeling open his eyes, he looked up to find Chris standing over him. With a relieved smile, he said in a hoarse whisper, "'bout time."
With a chuckle, Larabee said, "good to see you, too. What the hell, Tanner, can't I leave you alone for a few days without you getting into trouble?"
Finally able to focus, Vin saw the weariness in his friend's face, and saw expressions of mourning lingering on the handsome face. Remembering the reason for his friend's absence, he said, "s-sorry."
Absently reaching out to brush back a loose, chestnut curl, Chris said, "wasn't your fault, pard. Ezra told me what happened."
"N-not his... fault, neither."
"I know," he smiled at the slight expression of concern on his friend's face. None of the others trusted him not to blame anything that happened on the undercover agent. "You were both doing your jobs, and more. You rest, now, okay? We'll talk later. I'm not going anywhere."
"'Kay," Vin mumbled, feeling himself drifting away. This time, though, there was the warmth of his best friend's touch, anchoring him so that he didn't return to oblivion. A smile quirked up one corner of his mouth, and he felt himself finally relax. Chris was here. It was going to be okay.
Chris strolled down the all too familiar hallway and entered the little room at the far end. He smiled at the sight of Vin Tanner stretched out on the hospital bed, all ready dressed. It had been a very long week, and he was only too glad to be taking his friend home. By the look on the younger man's pale face, he wasn't the only one.
"Hell yeah, I'm ready. What th' hell took y' so long? Been checked out fer twenty minutes now. Thought you's gonna be here at 10."
Looking at the clock and noting that it only read 10:05, he said, "sorry, traffic held me up."
With a disgusted shake of his head, the sharpshooter pushed himself up gingerly to sit on the side of the bed. He frowned as Chris put his shoes on for him, frustrated that he wasn't able to do it himself.
Larabee finished putting on Vin's shoes, and straightened up. Retrieving the papers from the bedside table, checking that the prescriptions were included, he reached out his hand. "You want to get your lazy ass up then? Let's go."
Glaring at his friend, Tanner held out a hand and let Chris pull him to his feet. Other than a soft grunt, he showed no signs that the movement was hard on him. Leaning on his friend's shoulder, he made his way from the room.
"Think we could stop by th' office on th' way home? I got some paperwork I need to finish."
"No, you're going home with me and I'm gonna put you to bed."
"But, it's such a nice day out. Could we stop by the saloon t' see Inez 'n have lunch?"
"You're not getting anything that spicy for a few weeks," Larabee argued.
"Ah, hell, it won't hurt nothin' if I just git a taco, I - "
"Tanner!" Chris growled the name. Hearing a chuckle, he looked over to see Vin smiling broadly. He'd been duped. "Damn, smart ass, long haired, good for nothing - " his comments continued as they walked slowly down the hall, leaving in their wake several smiling, relieved, hospital personnel.