by KT

Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.

Authors note: This story is in response to the challenge to give one or more of the guys a physical change of some kind. It was going to be Vin's story but, me being me, Buck insisted on coming along as well. What can I say - I can't say no to the big guy. My thanks to Helen for proof reading it for me.

Warnings: None

It was dark where he was, just dark, no light of any kind, no sound, just nothing, and he hated it, it frightened him, it shouldn't be like this, there shouldn't be nothing at all. He tried to find a way out of the nothing, but he couldn't, there was no chink of light, no friendly call - not so much as a gentle breeze to guide him home.

Two days earlier, just out side Four Corners.

"Shit!" Buck Wilmington exclaimed, as a stick of lighted dynamite arched over the bluff toward the rock formation where Chris and JD were sheltering. Before he or Vin could issue a warning, a second was headed toward the stand of trees where Nathan, Josiah and Ezra were pinned down. Thick acrid smoke and dust blew over the two men. Their eyes stung and streamed, and they pulled their bandannas up over their noses to try to keep it out of their throats.

"Jist a band of renegades!" Vin Tanner exclaimed angrily. "Jist bar flies t' swat away. Wasn't that what good ol' Chris said about this lot?" he enquired.

"Yup, somethin' about a nice afternoon ride in the sun to, as I recall." Buck was desperately reloading his rifle as he spoke.

"When we git back remind be t' kill that cowboy will ya?"

"Me first," Wilmington ground out as another explosion rocked the ground, sending a shower of dirt and small stones down on them.

Suddenly their attackers seem to realise there were two other targets they could be attacking, targets whose only shelter was a fallen tree. First one, then two, then three, explosions came close to the log. It was all Buck and Vin could do to just to shelter form the fall out. Suddenly one stick fell right next to Buck, its fuse fizzing and crackling angrily as it burnt down, and without a second thought, he picked it up, stood and threw. The explosion occurred mid air, as the stick spun away from him. The huge orange and white light of the explosion lit the sky and Buck who, had been standing, staged back. He screamed out and raising his hands to his eyes stumbled and finally fell back behind the log writhing in agony.

"Buck!" Vin scrambled over to him. "Buck let me see." He tried to prise the bigger man’s hands away from his eyes. "Please Buck let me…"

Another explosion shook the ground.

+ + + + + + +

With the others pinned down until the renegades were able to get away in the confusion they created it was a good half-hour before help reached Buck and Vin. Vin was unconscious, lying over Buck, who, having succumbed to shock, had passed out under him, his hands still over his face and eyes.

Nathan dropped to his knees beside the two. First he checked their pulses. Vin's was a bit slow but steady, Buck's was very fast and thready. Nathan ran his practised hands over Vin, and finding no serious injuries, he asked Josiah to lift his slight frame off Buck. His bandanna was blackened and scorched but not burnt. Then he pried the big man’s hands away from his unprotected eyes.

+ + + + + + +

It took six hours to safely transport the two injured men back to Four Corners. Once in the clinic Vin was placed on the cot while Nathan had Josiah and Chris lay Buck on the big bed. Then as Chris, Ezra and JD waited outside, Nathan, assisted by Josiah, set about his task. An hour or more since Nathan had sent them out of the room, and all three men were getting very anxious. Chris was ready to barge in, when Nathan opened the door.

"Nathan?" Chris stepped up instantly.

Jackson stepped back so the others could step in. Vin had been relieved of most of his rather heavy and none too clean clothing, and seemed to be resting peacefully, mostly on his side under the blankets in the narrow bed, he looked for all the world like a teenager asleep. Buck lay still and pale in the bigger bed, a fresh, wide bandage over his eyes. Spreading out under the bandages, angry burns could be seen.

"Well?" Larabee asked, staring at his oldest friend.

"It's not as bad as it looks, he's got flash burns, seen it a lot in the war. Like any of us he closed his eyes to protect them, but the skin around them, even the eyelids were burnt, the whole area is blistered and swollen, he'll have to keep them covered, and for a while I'm gonna keep him on laudanum so he'll sleep. Burns are fearsome painful, it'll be torment for him for some time."

"But what about his eyes?" JD asked unable to tear his eyes from the man on the bed.

"If the burns don't get infected, once the swelling goes down his eyes should, hopefully, be fine, but he's gonna have t' be very careful. I'm gonna keep him here - if I can - until I'm sure there's no chance of infection."

"Good luck," Ezra commented, knowing how much Buck hated to be confined inside.

"Well between the laudanum and the pain I don't think I'll have much trouble," Nathan said with no satisfaction, knowing how tough the next few days would be on Wilmington.

"Will he be scared?" Chris asked.

"Hard to say, he don't have no eyebrows or lashes right now, but mostly they grow back, scarring goes with infection, if there's no infection then he shouldn't be permanently marked, at least not too bad."

Chris' eyes moved to Vin. Jackson didn't wait for him to ask the question.

"Apart from a bump on the head, here…" he tapped the right side of his own head to indicate where Tanner’s head injury was located. "… and some nasty bruising on his back, I can't find nothin' wrong with him, it's just a case of wait and see, no way to know how long for, though."

One and a half days later - Nathan's Clinic

When Buck had come around the first time, he was groggy from the drugs Nathan had gotten into him, but in enough pain and fear for it to need all of Nathan's skill and Josiah's strength to stop him pulling the bandages off his eyes then and there. That had been the night before. This time he was calmer.

"Nate?" he asked, trying to work out from the sounds in the room where the healer was.

"I'm here Buck, just lie still for me." Jackson quickly crossed to the big gunman, whose hands were already exploring the bandages. "Buck am I gonna have t' get Josiah back in here?" he asked. Sanchez wasn't actually in town, he - along with Ezra and JD - was tracking the gang responsible, but Buck wasn't to know that.

"No…no…" Buck said hesitantly, then more firmly. "No I'm alright, I can do this." He was speaking out loud but it was to himself. The fear and pain was evident in his voice. Somehow in Buck, who never let his pain show or seemed to be afraid, it was all the more evident.

Nathan sat down beside him on the bed, placing a strong but gentle hand on his friend’s arm. "It will get better, the pain, your eyes, you just have to be patient and strong for a while."

Buck nodded, a hiss of pain escaped, and he frowned in response, then winced as the furrowing of his brow aggravated the burns on his face.

"Here." Nathan handed Buck a measure of laudanum. Buck took one sip and his mouth creasing into a grimace.

"I know, I know, it tastes foul but you need it, so drink."

Once the medication was down he handed Buck a mug of water and guided his hands to it, as he drank greedily. The water was drained, he turned his bandaged and unseeing eyes to Nathan.

"Nate, how's Vin?"

"Sleeping," Jackson lied looking at the unconscious tracker.

"Yer a shitty liar Nathan Jackson," Buck commented as he lay back down against the pillows, the drug already taking affect. "He ain't come round yet has he?"

"No, not yet, but it's early yet, he'll come back to us when he's ready. You stop fightin' that medicine and get some more sleep." Buck didn't have the will or the strength to fight anyway, sleep offered relief from pain and the chance that the miserable days he was going to have to spend in the dark, would pass faster.

Once he was sure Buck was out again, Jackson crossed to Vin.

"Vin?" Nathan noticed for the first time some movement from the lean young man in the bed. Vin shifted under the fresh sheets. "Vin can you hear me? Come on Vin, open them eyes, Vin?" Tanner made no response to him, but his hand spread out on the sheet, moving back and froe, as if stroking the linen beneath him.

+ + + + + + +

The soft thing beneath him was pleasant, any sensation in the black nothing was good, as he continued to explore he became aware of something else; pain. His head hurt, the pain was blinding and unremitting it seemed to grow in intensity. It had started when he felt the softness, so he lifted his hand of the softness to see if that stopped the pain but it didn't. Needing the comfort to the softness he went back to stroking it.

"Vin, Vin come on now I know you can hear me, open your eyes," Nathan encouraged.

As Nathan watched Vin lifted his hand off the sheet for a moment and then replaced it, going back to gently stroking the sheet. Jackson reached out and lay his large hand over Vin’s as it moved.

"Vin?" The reaction was instantaneous. Vin pulled his hand back in fear, pushing his whole body away from Jackson as he curled up in to a ball under the bed covers.

Something was in the blackness with him, he couldn’t see it or hear it but it was there, he felt it. What? What was it and what did it want? Get away, that was the thing to do, run, hide, don’t let it hurt him. God, his head hurt, he hoped the thing would leave him alone, because all he wanted was to curl up and sleep until his head stopped hurting.

Nathan wasn’t that worried, Vin was still semi-conscious and disorientated, he wasn’t an outgoing, tactile man, like Buck, physical contact was something he might well shy away from.

Nevertheless the sooner Vin regained consciousness the better, so he reached out again.

"Vin it's just me Nathan, it's alright, you're safe." He gently placed a hand on Vin's shoulder, he just had time to register that the shoulder was trembling before Vin tried to get away from him. If the bed had not been up against the wall he would have fallen out, as it was Vin was now pressed up against the wall, his hands now over his head.

"Great, Jackson, just great; you successfully terrified your patient," he berated himself.

Backing off, and after quickly checking Buck was truly asleep, he exited the clinic in search of someone he could send to fetch Chris back. Larabee had hardly left the small room since his two friends were bought in, but eventually Nathan had persuaded him to get some sleep. Ezra, JD and Josiah were tracking the gang responsible. Now despite the fact that Larabee was doing all the peace keeping and fretting over Vin and to a lesser degree Buck, Nathan was going to interrupt the only sleep he had had in two days.

+ + + + + + +

"Mr Larabee sir?"

Chris turned to Blossom who had just pounded on his door to rouse him from a deep sleep, with the news that Mr Jackson needed him.

"Yes!" Chris was anxious to get going, worried something had gone wrong with one of his two friend's recoveries.

"Um…well…would you tell Buck that I…er we, all hope he gets better real soon, oh and Vin too of course," she added hastily.

Chris couldn't help but smile, they might all joke about Buck and his so called 'animal magnetism' but he did only rarely sleep alone, he never ever paid for company, and whatever he had to offer, it had working girls like Blossom coming to him for the night after their 'work' was done. Chris had to reluctantly admit, that had to say something about him as a lover. Now Blossom and the other girls were worried about him, he detected real affection for him in her request.

"I will don't worry." With that he ducked past her and was gone.

Nathan filled Chris in on both of his patients, before Chris went to Vin's side. As he watched, Tanner continued to hold his head with one hand while his other stroked the bed sheet. Chris had never seen Vin look so afraid or vulnerable.

"Hey pal, it's me, Chris." Chris spoke gently but he got no response. "Come on, open them blue eyes fer me pal. Come back to us, Vin."

Still there was no indication that Tanner was aware of his friend's presence, Chris like Nathan reached out his hand to touch Vin's arm. As before, Vin recoiled from the touch.

"It's like we're strangers or even hurting him," Chris stated, looking on as Vin cowered away from him.

"Or he thinks we're gonna hurt him?" Nathan ventured. "Wait there, " he instructed.

Quickly he drew the drapes and lit the lamp as Chris looked on curiously. Returning to the bed he placed the lamp close to Vin's face and turned up the wick as high as it would go, until even Chris had to turn away from the light. As the two men watched Vin's eyes closed more tightly, but his head turned, not away from the light however, but toward it.

There was light in the darkness, not bright, not real light but it was a light, an orange glow. He tried to go to the light, to escape the black nothing.

"That’s it Vin, come on, open them eyes for me," Chris coaxed.

Nathan moved the light away, satisfied Vin was close to regaining full consciousness.

NO! Don't let the light go, no not the darkness again.

As soon as the light was gone Vin curled up in a ball, one hand covering his head, one flat on the sheet and would not respond to either of them in any way.

"Nate, what the hell is wrong with him?" Chris asked in desperation.

"Can't say, he's got that bang on the head. Head wounds is dangerous, all kinds a stuff can go wrong and what I've read, mostly we don't know why and can't do nothin' about it. There is somethin' I can try, wait here…"

Jackson crossed quickly to the other side of the room and returned with a small vial. Once he was close to Vin he unstopped the tiny bottle. The pungent aroma of smelling salts made both men instinctively pull their heads away, as Nathan moved it under Vin's nose. Vin never stirred, he made no response to the stimulation. Nathan pulled the bottle back and corked it again.

"I ain't never seen no one not react t' smellin' salts, not ever," he commented with evident worry.

As they watched Vin went back to stroking the sheet.

"Well he can feel things, else why is he stroking the sheet all the time," Chris observed. "I got an idea; help me get him up."

"Up?" Nathan queried.

"Yeah up, I know he doesn't like being touched, but it's for his own good."

Vin struggled desperately when they pulled him from the bed. It took both of them the haul the slight man to his feet and ‘walk’ him to the window. There Chris pulled back the drapes and opened the window, allowing the warm summer breeze to waft into the room, a room now flooded with sunlight, sunlight that Vin was now facing. And in an instant Vin stopped struggling.

Light, warmth, air playing on his skin. Was he outside? Where did the light come from, it wasn’t real light just a warm glow, but it promised so much, like the light before the dawn. If only he could reach the dawn, find the real light. No one called him, he could remember this kind of light from before; when, he wasn’t sure but it had been before, and there had been a voice to call to him, to guide him back to the light, but not now. No soft, deep voice assured him he would be alright. No jokes to lighten his trip – telling him how young he looked, how much the ladies loved a wounded hero. No lazy southern drawl chiding him for staying in bed. No deep growling baritone praying for him. No eager eastern voice rattling on about everything and nothing at the same time, and no comforting, strong, familiar voice, the voice of his other half begging him to rejoin him, to make him whole again. When the hands had grabbed him he had fought just like before, but unlike before the hands hadn’t backed off once he had retreated. They held on no matter how hard he struggled, and he did struggle, but he was so weak and his head hurt so much, he just couldn’t fight for long. The hands had kept hold of him until he felt the light. They were trying to help! Somehow they wanted him to find the light. There was something familiar about the hand that held him so firmly, something right and safe. And as he relaxed into that safe hand, light exploded around him, through him, in him, bright, real light.

"Vin?" Chris looked at Tanner, slumped against him, only his and Nathan's grip keeping him upright.

+ + + + + + +

Confused, bleary, blue eyes, squinting in the sunlight, gazed out of the window. Slowly he looked around, it seemed to take him a while to recognise Chris. When he did he tried to turn to face him, only to find his legs refused to support him.

"Whoa there! Lets get you back to bed, come on." He turned Vin around and all but carried him back to the bed, Nathan supporting him on the other side.

Once in the bed he found his hand automatically spreading out on the sheet, but nothing could hide the pain etched on his face. Chris stepped back to let Nathan get to him. The first thing he did was offer Vin a drink of water.

"Now Vin, I need you to tell me where yer hurtin', I know yer head hurts, but what else?"

Vin didn't respond; he just lay there frowning at Nathan.

"Come on Vin, I know you don't like it here but I need you to talk to me so I can help you."

Still he got no response.

"Vin, you got to talk to Nathan, he's only trying to help," Chris encouraged from behind Jackson.

"It ain't funny," Vin finally ground out.

Chris and Nathan were about to ask what wasn't funny, when Vin started to turn an interesting shade of green.

"Aw hell," he moaned beginning to roll toward the edge of the bed.

Nathan had anticipated this and Vin found a bucket just where he needed it. Nathan squatted down in front of the vomiting man, placing a large hand on his back and holding back his hair with another.

"Just let it go Vin, you'll feel better without it," he counselled, as Vin's stomach rebelled on him.

When it was finally over, when even the dry heaves were over, Nathan rolled him back onto the bed, and Chris passed him a mug of water. He began to gulp it instantly.

"No Vin, you'll make yerself sick again, sip it," Jackson warned, but Vin didn't react, so Nathan was forced to pull the mug away.

"Hey!" he protested.

"I told you to sip," Nathan reminded him firmly.

Vin scowled at them, "M' head's killin' me Nate, please don't play games, jist stop foolin' around, 'taint fair." With that Vin closed his eyes and lay back down on the pillow.

Larabee and Jackson exchanged looks, neither knew what Vin was talking about. But one thing was clear, he was in pain, so Nathan poured out a measure of laudanum and handed it to Chris, since it was Nathan he seemed to think was playing some kind of joke on him. Chris called softly to Vin twice but got no response, finally he pulled Tanner's arm away form his eyes. The sudden touch, despite Chris speaking to him the whole time made Vin jump.

"Drink this," he instructed.

Vin took the cup, sniffed it, looked up at the two men and scowled, then drank the contents in one, a look of defiance on his face, as if he was expecting them to try and stop him. Finally he handed the mug back and lay back on the pillows. The pain in his head was excruciating, he had never felt anything like it. Normally he hated to be confined in Nathan's clinic, but right now he had no other place to be, because he knew he just couldn't function like this. A quiet room with a bed was the only place he wanted to be right now. He just didn't understand why his friends were being so mean to him, maybe they thought it was funny but he didn't. His head hurt so much, he would gladly have drunk Nathan's foul tasting medicine, if it would help. He was about to ask him about it, when he saw Chris and Nathan's heads snap around in the direction of the other bed.

Following their gaze he saw Buck for the first time, and the bandages around his eyes. In a rush, the memory of the explosion, Buck throwing the dynamite and falling down in agony flooded back.

"Oh Bucklin," he breathed as he watched Nathan and Chris take up positions on either side of the bed.

+ + + + + + +

The Reb soldiers were beating him about the head, shouting at him, asking him questions he couldn't possibly know the answers to. They kept at it, shouting, kicking, and hitting.

"I don't know! I told you I don't know, I'm only a Sergeant - please!" he had abandoned pride, all he wanted was for them to stop hurting him, just for a moment, even a second. "Please stop! I don't know what you want."

"We want you dead, blue belly." Came the chilling reply, followed by an explosion of pain as a boot impacted with his cheek.

"Stop…please stop…please….please…"Buck called out in the grip of his nightmare, his hands went instantly to his face and tried to claw at the bandages.

Chris and Nathan acted as one, each taking a hand and pulling it way from the damaged flesh and its protective wrappings.

"No Buck, you have to leave them," Chris instructed firmly.

"Fuckin' Rebs! I don’t know nothin' please…" The effort of speaking seemed too much and his voice trailed away but he continued to writhe against their hold.

"Oh no." Chris commented, now he understood what Buck was dreaming about.

He explained to Nate as they fought to keep Buck down, that he had met Buck Wilmington during the war.

"I was a Lieutenant, my troop had been decimated, not by battle, well mostly not by battle, but by fever." He shook his head. "Lost over half in one miserable wet spring. I needed a Sergeant, a good one, the oldest man in my troop was nineteen, that was all, and he was as thick as a brick. My major told me to check out the field hospitals, see if I could find someone who had no unit left."

"That where you met Buck?" Nathan asked.

"Yup, he was just being discharged. Seems he was in a raid, his horse got shot out from under him and Johnny Reb decided to have some fun with him, beat him near half to death and then left him on the road for his men to find, 'cept they didn't. His whole unit had been wiped out on the run home. Near as anyone could figure, he somehow got up and walked home himself. Even when I first met him he was a mess, but he got better."

"Nooo…." Buck mummered as his struggles against their hold weakened.

"Hush now Sergeant," Chris bent down so he could whisper in Buck's ear. "It's me Lieutenant Larabee, you're in the hospital, you're safe now, let the orderly help you." He looked up at Nathan.

"That's right Sergeant Wilmington sir, I'm here to help you, we're in the field hospital, you're quite safe now," Nathan played along. Unable to open his eyes and orientate himself, it was going to be hard to get Buck back to the here and now.

Vin seethed. It was bad enough that they were playing some joke on him, but to play the same joke on Buck was just cruel. He pushed himself up and swung his legs off the bed and onto the floor. His head pounded, but he had to admit it had eased off some. Holding on to the wall for support he pushed himself up right.

"Stop it!" he shouted. The room spun and he felt nauseated, but he was too worried about Buck to pay it much heed.

Chris looked up, Nathan looked over his shoulder. "Vin, sit down before you fall down," he instructed firmly.

"It ain't right," Vin protested. "…'s all right to play a joke on me an pretend 't speak an' not make any noise, but 's wrong t' do it t' Buck, he needs t' hear ya!"

"What?" Chris asked, looking at Nathan. "Nate?"

Jackson passed Buck's wrist to Chris. "Hold him," he warned, before crossing to Vin.

"Come on Vin, sit down." Nathan placed a hand on Vin's shoulder pressing down gently.

Vin complied reluctantly, he kept his eyes on the stricken Wilmington all the time, he could see Chris' lips moving but he was still not making any sound.

"Vin?" Tanner did not react to him, he continued to watch Buck. "Vin?" Nathan tried a little louder. Even as he spoke to Buck, Chris was looking up every now and again to see if Vin was reacting. "VIN!" Nathan bellowed at Vin.

"Hey! Quit blowing on me," Vin protested, swatting at his own cheek.

Very gently Nathan reached out his hand and cupped Vin's chin, turning it so Vin was facing him.

"Vin can you hear me?" He spoke very slowly and clearly.

"Quit foolin' Nate," Vin fumed.

"Vin do you hear yourself?"

"Do I what? This ain't funny no more."

Nathan held his hands out in front of Vin and then clapped.

"Do you hear that?"

Vin was staring at Nathan's hands. Very slowly he raised his own hands, and than clapped. He repeated the operation, clapping louder and louder. He felt the air move, he felt the sting as his hands impacted together, he felt the vibrations, but no sound. He had been so angry about Chris and Nathan playing some sick joke on both of them, he hadn't noticed he couldn't hear himself speak.

"Nathan?" Vin suddenly looked very scared. "I can't hear…"

"I know, it's most likely that bump on the head, you need to lie down now," Nathan tried to speak clearly and slowly.

"Nate I can't hear you! What's going on, what did you say?" Despite the fact that he was now very agitated and distressed, the laudanum was kicking in and his eyes lids were getting heavy. He blinked several times. "What's wrong with me Nate?" he asked in desperation.

"I don't know," Nathan shook his head. "Sleep now." Nathan placed his hands together and mimicked laying his head on them and closed his eyes briefly. "Sleep," he said again clearly.

"Sleep?" Vin asked, seeking conformation.

Nathan nodded. "Sleep." He pulled back the covers as Vin, now feeling the effects of the laudanum more fully, reluctantly lay down to sleep.

Chris was still struggling to stop Buck, in his confusion, tearing at his bandages. Nathan gave one quick look at Vin, lying on the small bed, losing the battle against the drug in his system. Then he quickly retrieved two thick white bandages and returned to Buck. He took back the wrist he had given Chris and quicky and efficiently wrapped one end of the bandage around it, once secured he tied the other to the bedstead, lose enough to allow some movement, but too tight to let the hand reach the face. He looked up at Chris. He knew tying Buck down would go against his every instinct, it was anathema to Chris, who prized freedom and knew Buck so well, knew that in his own way the big gunman was as free a spirit as Tanner.

"His only chance is if he doesn't get an infection, he has to leave them alone, we can't hold him down indefinitely, and it would only take a second for the damage to be done."

"I know Nate, but tying him…I mean Buck…I just…"

"Think about it Chris, a Buck - blind and scared - would he thank you, is freedom now worth that?"

Chris silently held out his hand for the bandage and set about the task, suppressing the rising bile in his gut, as he did what he though he would never have to do. Once done he looked up at Nathan and then over at Vin.

"Why can't he hear?" he asked.

"I don't rightly know, I heard of people being hit on the head and waking up blind, not deaf…but I guess it could happen, and I'm worried that he didn't react to the smelling salts."

"You mean maybe he can't smell either?"

"Like I said I ain't never known anyone not react t' smelling salts. Oh, I don't know." Nathan rubbed his neck, he was in the dark here with both patients, his care of Buck was based on theory and instinct as much as experience, and as for Vin, he hadn't a clue, other then keeping him quiet. "Chris, go back to bed, they'll both be down for a while. I get the feeling you and me are in for a long haul."

"You sure?"

"Yeah, I'll rest tonight, let you take the night shift." He let a small smile escape.

+ + + + + + +

The next few hours were peaceful; Buck struggled against the bonds for a while but then quietened down enough for Nathan to feel he could stop talking for him. He sat back and despite the tiredness picked up his big textbook and tried to find some reference to deafness that fitted Vin's case. But there was nothing. He kept checking on Vin, the only thing he had discovered was that people with head injuries sometimes seemed to get better and then got worse, often dying suddenly. Despite his intentions, Nathan eventually nodded off in the chair, only waking when the large book crashed to the ground.

Instinctively he looked up at Vin, worried the loud noise had woken him, then stopped himself; no book crashing down was going to wake Vin. He got up and crossed to Buck, his deep rhythmic breathing indicating he was still asleep, he had mumbled a little earlier but was now quiet.

"I brought you some food." Nathan spun around to find Inez standing in the doorway.

"Thanks, I…" He trailed of as he saw her eyes drifted over to Buck.

"Madre de Dios!" As her hand went instinctively to her mouth in shock, she almost dropped the tray of food. "Buck," she breathed.

Jackson advanced on the shocked young woman and took the tray, explaining as quickly as he could that it really wasn't as bad as it looked. I hope. He silently prayed. She asked after Vin, and was assured none too convincingly that he too would be fine. Buck had been right, Nathan was a poor liar.

"Inez, could I ask you to keep this quiet? I don't think Buck would like it widely known, not until he's less dependent, you understand?" he requested.

"I will say nothing." Inez understood all to well. For all his love of company, for all he liked to have a woman look after him when he was hurt, it was only when he was all but recovered, when despite the limp or the sling or the sore ribs he could still leap to her defence, if needs be. Like this, weak, defenceless, he wouldn't want any of the town's women to see him, to know how maimed and helpless he was. Buck was a proud man, though he would willingly make a fool of himself, place himself in situations were he would be publicly rebuked or rebuffed - mostly by her - that was on his terms, his choice, his decision. He would never let himself become an object of pity.

She looked past Nathan and then walked quietly over to stand beside Buck, her hero, even if it would be a whole year of Sundays before she ever told him that. She hated to see him tied down, but Nathan had explained why it was necessary and she accepted that. Very gently she let her hands trail up the side of the bed and come to rest gently on the side of the bandages, then moved them to softly brush against his stubbled cheek.

"He was doing something brave…wasn't he? Saving others?" she asked without looking up.

"Vin and himself," Nathan confirmed.

She nodded. It was his way, he would never change and she didn't want him to, not ever.

+ + + + + + +

By early evening both men were starving. Chris had returned and brought supper, in the form of sandwiches, for all of them. Vin's eyes opened, he blinked, unseen by Chris and Nathan. He watched them as they spoke together at the end of Buck's bed. He watched their mouths move and tried to work out why he couldn't hear them. Hell! The memory came back in a rush, he was deaf. The explosion, the bang on the head, Buck! He looked over at the big man in the other bed, horrified to see him restrained. Once again he tried to stand up, and before the other two men could stop him he was on his feet. The room pitched wildly, the floor beneath his bare feet seemed to buck and yaw in all directions, making him feel nauseated. He took one staggering step toward his friend, before Chris caught him.

"Hey pal, where you going?" Chris asked.

Vin just pulled angrily away. "Let me be Larabee, I ain't sick, I c'n walk, ya gotta untie Buck, ain't right t' tie him down, not Buck." He managed to wriggle his way out of Chris’ grasp and take another step toward the bed.

Nathan now stepped in front of the angry man, he placed his hands on Vin's shoulders and waited for Vin to look up at him.

"IT IS FOR HIS OWN GOOD," he spoke very slowly and clearly, hoping Vin could lip-read that much.

"Good?" Vin asked. "How c'n it be good!" He lunged forward in a desperate but futile effort to get to Buck.

"Christ Nate, how do we explain it to him?" Chris asked.

"I don't know." Nathan looked back at the struggling young man he held firm. "VIN, YOU NEED TO SIT DOWN NOW, TRUST ME."

"What?" Vin pulled away again. "Leave me alone!" He staggered two more steps before grabbing the end of the big bedstead for support.

"I got an idea," Jackson announced and moved quickly to the big dresser where he made up his medicines. From the drawer he retrieved a note pad and pencil. Quickly he scrawled a note.

Vin, Buck had some bad dreams and tried
to pull the bandages off. This was the
gentlest way to stop him.

He showed it to Vin. The Texan just shook his head as he looked at the incomprehensible scribbling. Then turned away from them.

"Try printing it, Nate," Chris suggested.

Nathan took more time to print the message clearly. This time Vin looked longer and harder, but even though he recognised a few letters he could make no sense of the words. In anger and frustration he knocked the pad away, sending it flying across the room. The room was pitching wildly and he closed his eyes in an attempt to stop it. This worked somewhat and he opened them again to find Chris standing in front of him with the note pad. Chris had printed.


Vin locked eyes with Chris, willing him to understand without him having to explain, but for once their unspoken communication wasn't working. He still felt as if the room was moving but logically he knew it wasn't, so he tried to ignore it and walk confidently to the window. Chris followed him, desperate to find some way to communicate. He placed a hand on Vin's shoulder, and once more he offered a written message.


"Leave me alone, damn it, just untie Buck an' leave me alone!" Frustration and pain were eating away at him, destroying his reserve and tolerance, it wasn't fair, that was all there was to it. Hadn't he suffered enough? Wasn't watching your mom slowly suffocate to death when you were five, bad enough? Wasn't being placed in the orphanage from hell, bad enough? Wasn't being ripped from the only father you had ever had, just because you had blue eyes and he was a Comanche bad enough? Wasn't being wanted for a murder you didn't do, bad enough? No he had to be deafened as well, lose his balance by the feel of things too. And the one avenue of communication open to him was closed, because he couldn't read. He didn't want to tell them. He didn't want them to know he was dumb, that he couldn't do what Billy could do. That even though he had gone to school for four years at the orphanage he had learnt nothing, except how to duck.

"Jist fuckin' leave me alone!" he shouted.

"You heard him, leave him alone." Chris and Nathan suddenly spun around to look at Buck.

"How long you been awake?" Jackson asked.

"Long enough. Did it occur to you two geniuses that maybe Vin can't read?"

"Of course he can read, he wrote that poem," Chris explained what to him, was pure logic.

"Hell Chris, you don't have to be able to read to make up a poem and tell it to someone - do you? Think about it, he lived most of his childhood with Indians, where was he gonna go to school?"

There was a long silence in the room, finally Buck spoke again, the anger gone from his voice. "He's embarrassed."

"Oh God," Chris sighed.

"Why am I tied to the bed by the way?" Buck asked.

Nathan came to his side. "Sorry, you had a nightmare, tried to rip the bandages off, we couldn't hold you down all the time."

"Damn, sorry."

"What for, you can't help having nightmares. Here…" he reached out to untie Buck.

"No, let him see, and next time you have to do it, make sure he's watchin', either I'll be co-operating or raving, either way he'll understand."

Nathan exchanged a look with Chris. Both felt humbled by Buck's selfless attitude, he had to be as angry and frustrated as Vin, but as ever, he put others first.

Chris moved to stand next to Vin, in his eye line but doing nothing, he resisted the urge to touch him to gain his attention. Vin just gazed at the street below. Eventually he looked at Chris, who smiled and pointed behind Tanner at Buck. Vin turned and watched as Nathan untied a smiling Wilmington. As Vin watched, Buck sat up, rubbed his wrists and still smiling asked it there was any food. At least that was what Vin assumed he said because in response Nathan nodded and brought him a plate of sandwiches.

"You alright Bucklin?" Vin asked.

Buck looked up, smiled in the direction of Vin's voice, and gave him a thumbs up. Vin watched the big man chowing down on a beef sandwich, and his stomach grumbled in response as he looked longingly at the food. Chris didn't try to ask if he was hungry, he just crossed the room, collected a plate full of food and brought it back to Vin.

"Thanks pal," he said, quietly taking a sandwich.

It looked like beef, it even had mustard oozing out from the side, but it didn't taste like beef; it didn't taste of anything at all. It wasn't that it was a boring sandwich, it just had no taste. He could feel the texture of what he was eating, but he couldn't taste it, not even the hot mustard. He put the food back down in disgust.

"What?" Chris asked, making a universally recognised gesture of enquiry.

"It don't taste of nothin'." Vin turned away back to the silent tableau below the window.


Feedback would be most welcome to: