Parts 1-6 | Parts 7-9 | Parts 10-13 | Parts 14-17
It took longer than any of them would have wanted to get Buck back to the bunker. Vin didn't say anything, but he was taking more and more of Buck's weight, and he could feel as much as hear how laboured Buck's breathing was.
"Almost there buddy, just a little longer," he assured softly.
Buck could hear Vin, but he just didn't have the strength to respond - all he knew was he wanted off the horse. He didn't think it was possible for him to want to get off a horse, but all he wanted was to be still, to be able to relax, to be warm. He'd been resting more and more on Vin and that annoyed him, but he just couldn't help himself. He no longer even had the strength to lift his head, all he could see was Beau's shoulder moving and the passing of the grey, weed strewn gravel of the track below them.
Almost were? he wondered. Where are we going? I was trying to do something - what?
But try as he might, he couldn't remember what his mission was, all he knew was that it was important. Time became irrelevant, all that remained was the steady rhythm of the horse and the cold and the pain. Eventually even Beau's steady rhythm faded and there was only the cold and the pain and the feeling that there was something he needed to do. He didn't even notice that Beau had stopped until his mother's face appeared in his eye line.
"Darling?" she asked anxiously, worried that although he appeared to be awake, he was unresponsive. "We're here. Nathan is going to get you down now - okay?"
Buck frowned, still unable to comprehend what was happening. Before he could think on it, Vin eased his hold on him and inevitably he began to slide sideways. He felt himself slipping, but couldn't stop it, but just as panic gripped him strong arms took hold of him and eased his descent.
Maggie came to stand beside him, and pulling one long arm over her petite shoulders she was able to take a good portion of his weight.
"Let's get him inside," Nathan urged.
Finally Buck looked up and stared at the big green doors with their peeling paint and patches of rust. Something looked familiar, as if it was some place he should remember. He was still staring at the door as they moved toward the small side door - it stood open, just as he left it.
"Josiah!" he spoke the thought even as he finally remembered what his mission was.
"It's okay Buck," Nathan tried to soothe. "We found him, he's here."
"Yes dear, inside," Maggie assured.
"No." Buck tied to pull away, though he had almost no strength left. "I I have to go "
"Go darling? Go where?" Maggie asked, even as Nathan was still manoeuvring Buck toward the open door.
"Help Get help, that's what I hav' t' do." He made another effort to turn away from the bunker.
"You did dear, we're here, we'll help, Dad's coming," Maggie tried to get him to understand.
But it was no good, Buck's mind could no longer process new information, getting help was all he could understand - all he could act on - and so he continued to struggle to get away from Nathan and now Vin who had joined them. His mind might have been focused on getting help but his weak and abused body betrayed him. Even as he struggled to get away his body went limp and he sagged in Nathan's arms.
"Buck?" Maggie's hand cupped his cheek worriedly.
"Best thing for now ma'am, lets get him inside." Without waiting for an answer or instructions, Vin bent down to pick up Buck's legs.
+ + + + + + +
They made Buck as comfortable and as possible inside. Maggie tried to get through the gap to Josiah but wasn't able. Chris did manage it, but like the others had to strip down to accomplish the task.
"Hey there kid," he greeted Ezra, still tugging his shirt down. "How are you doing?"
"I am fine," Ezra was cold, tired, hungry and scared, but that was of no importance. "Mr Sanchez remains unconscious and appears to have a high fever, I haven't been able to rouse him at all."
By now Chris was at his side. "Looks like you've done a good job keeping him warm and all."
"I have done my best."
Chris reached out and patted Ezra on the shoulder. "You've done great. We're all here now, even Buck, help's coming, it won't be much longer."
Chris settled himself on the other side of Josiah, and pulling out a bottle of fresh water tried to get Josiah to swallow.
"I have been doing that, but he stopped swallowing it some time ago," Ezra explained sadly.
The water ran undrunk down Josiah's chin.
"So I see. You want some?" Chris handed over the bottle.
"Thanks." As Ezra swallowed, Chris pulled a candy bar from his pocket.
"Here, 'give yourself a break'."
"Not as easy as it sounds."
"I hear ya." With that Chris unwrapped his own Kit-Kat. "Better than a poke in the eye though."
+ + + + + + +
Vin could have used a hand, but he understood that the others were where they needed to be. Chris was keeping Ezra company, Maggie and JD were watching over Buck and comforting each other. Nathan was doing his best to tend the open bloody blisters on Buck's feet, he'd tried to tend to his hands but the makeshift bandages were stuck to the wounds and he feared he would do more harm then good if he tried to pull or even soak them off. So Vin did what he could, he brought the horse in, tethered them at the back of the hanger then set off to gather firewood. Although it had rained a good deal, the dead wood under the larger trees was still dry. Using what was left of the shredded tent as a makeshift bag to collect the precious wood he quickly had enough for two fires.
The first one was lit in the hanger, as close to Buck as they dared. The second one wasn't even set. It was just a collection of brushwood and kindling gathered under a tree. With the bunker partly built into the hillside, it was possible for Vin to climb up on top of the roof by scrambling up the hillside. The first thing he discovered was the hole in the roof, it was to one side, just were the concrete roof met the natural rock.
"Hey down there!" he called, edging as close to the crumbling opening as he dared.
Chris stood up and walked around pool of water until he could see Vin.
"How's it going?"
"Looks okay t' me, so long as the rain doesnt get any heavier." The rain had arrived just as they had reached the bunker, but it had remained light, not much more than drizzle.
"I'd like to come up and help but "
"It's okay Chris, we'll be alright, assist Vin."
Chris wasn't looking forward to another stripped-off squeeze through the narrow opening, but he knew he was going to have to do it sooner or later.
"Well? If you're sure?"
+ + + + + + +
As dusk began to fall, Chris and Vin hauled the firewood up to the roof and began to build a fire, by the time it was dark they had it lit. There was a moment when it looked as if the rain was going to win, then the heart of the fire, made from the dry dead pin branches, caught and the fire literally sprung to life. The two of them then settled under a tree on the hillside to watch and wait and keep the signal fire burning.
"You reckon your dad's gonna be mad, when all this is sorted out?" Vin asked.
Chris shrugged, throwing a pine cone into the flames. "Don't know I guess but I'm not gonna take it."
"Meaning we did the right thing, and I'm not sorry and I'm not apologising."
"Right, I just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page."
Chris looked sideways at Vin, who was steadfastly staring into the flames. Shaking his head he too turned to look into the flames. Sometimes the way he and Vin though alike was almost spooky.
After a prolonged silence, Chris asked "I ever tell you about the first day I met Buck?"
So Chris went on to tell the story of his first day in high school and his encounter with one Buck Wilmington.
"I guess we were always destined to be best friends, then fate made us brothers. A lot of guys, if that had happened to them - his mom being what she was, then losing her like that - would have gone bad, but not him."
"Reckon you and yer mom and dad had a lot t' do with that."
Chris shrugged, tossing another pine cone on the fire. "Maybe, but Buck always had strong ideas about right and wrong, and protecting the weak, used to get him into trouble."
"Still does if you ask me."
Chris chuckled. "Yup, that and girls."
"Just how does he do that? How does he have three girls at the same time and they all know and they dont mind?" Vin shook his head in amazement. Girls liked Vin, the trouble was when he tried to talk to them he got all tongue-tied and embarrassed. For some reason that made the girls like him all the more, but much as he secretly liked this attention, one girl at a time was all he could manage.
"Don't know, and to be honest I don't want to. I've got Sarah, and that's all I want."
"I hear ya."
+ + + + + + +
Below them Ezra could hear most of their conversation over the crackle of the fire. He wanted to be part of this usual patchwork family. The balance he had now was just about perfect, he spent most weekends with the Larabees and many evenings until Josiah arrived to take him back home. Much as he enjoyed his time with the Larabees and the other boys - household chores not withstanding - he also enjoyed, and even needed, the quiet evenings at Sanchez's home. The big policeman lived in a small, old-fashioned wooden house, the first floor rooms nestling under steep pitched roofs with dormer windows. The floorboards were polished to a rich honey and the fireplaces open and working. Sanchez didn't seem to understand the concept of interior design, none of the furniture matched, it wasn't even in the same style, but somehow it all worked. It looked and was comfortable, homely and always safe. In the evening they would watch a little TV, discuss their day and read. Ezra just knew Maude would hate Josiah's home, but he loved it.
"Mr Sanchez? Josiah, I don't know if you can hear me, but I'm going to say this anyway. I really appreciate what you have done for me, and I wish it to continue. I like knowing someone is looking out for me and not just themselves, I like having someone to come home to, I love home-cooked food. I know some of this is courtesy of the Larabees, but without you, and your faith in me, I wouldn't have the chance to enjoy their generous hospitality. Please don't leave me, I need you."
Ezra backhanded the tears away, his hand in Josiah's. Then, imperceptibly, the big, fever-hot hand squeezed ever so gently.
"You heard me, you did!" Ezra was suddenly energised. "Help is coming, soon, very, very soon, hold on, please hold on," he begged.
Then, in answer to his plea, the distant thwack of rotor blades announced the arrival of the helicopter.
+ + + + + + +
Maggie was sitting in the damp hanger, leaning up against the wall, Buck's head and shoulders cradled in her lap, her arms wrapped around him. JD was on the other side, almost snuggled against her, his arm resting across Buck's chest. Having done the best he could for Buck, Nathan sat quietly on Maggie's other side, occasionally tossing another branch on the small fire they had built.
"Did you hear that?" JD suddenly asked, sitting up with a jolt.
"Hear what?" Maggie asked.
Now Nathan was jumping to his feet. "It's a helicopter!" With that he was running to the door.
+ + + + + + +
It took the airforce crew some time to free Josiah. The door as it stood was jammed fast, so they had to get the padlock off and then force the jammed bolt upwards before they could push the door in. It finally fell with a crash that echoed around the hanger like thunder. There was only room on the aircraft for one extra person, so once more Maggie Larabee found herself in a helicopter, speeding back to a Denver Hospital with Buck and this time Josiah, praying desperately that they'd make it on time. She watched with almost detached awe as the medic managed to get an IV line into both of them, despite the movement and confined space.
She'd hated leaving the others behind, but there was nothing for it. Ryan was on his way with Hank and the trailers; he'd bring the boys to the hospital as soon as he could. She kept telling herself that they had managed to look after themselves and find Buck and Josiah without help, they could look after themselves for another few hours. Yet all she kept seeing was the huddle of boys seeing her off get smaller and smaller, looking so alone in the vast expanse of empty forest.
Whatever way you cut it, hospitals were cold, un-welcoming and even scary places. They smelled - they smelled of antiseptic, sickness and fear. There had been a mad, seemingly chaotic rush after the helicopter landed on the roof of the hospital. With medics all around them, Buck and Josiah were rushed down to the ER and into adjoining treatment rooms. The door firmly shut on Maggie, who was forced to pace nervously outside. There was a window, but it was hard to see what was going on through the half-closed blinds. All she could see was that Buck seemed to be propped up and a lot of people were hovering around him. Once or twice someone came out. She tried to ask them what was going on, but all they said was they were working on him and she should ask the doctor when she was through.
Finally a petite, fair-haired woman who was even shorter than Maggie and about her age, came out.
"Mrs Wilmington?" she asked.
"It's Larabee, but please call me Maggie."
"I'm Doctor Collier, let me give you an update."
"Yes, please, how is he?"
Doctor Collier smiled reassuringly. She'd worked in ER for a long time, the reassuring smile was a skill she had long mastered, and she'd used it effectively delivering much worse news than she had for the mother of her current patient. It was always best to start with the truth in the broadest sense.
"Buck is very sick, but I think you knew that." Maggie nodded her understanding, so Doctor Collier began to move on to specifics. "He has bronchial pneumonia, affecting both lungs. Thats what we used to call 'double pneumonia'." Maggie nodded again, now clearly getting more distressed. Somehow, mothers and their sons were the always the hardest, or at least it seemed that way. "He's also suffering from dehydration and hypothermia. We're warming him up right now and when his body temperature reaches normal I expect him to spike a fever." Fresh fear flashed in Maggie's eyes, but the doctor was quick to calm it. "It's what we expect and we're ready for it. The pneumonia is the most serious condition and we have to address that as a priority. He does have some other problems and injuries, but nothing we can't treat."
"So he's going to be okay?"
"I was informed he'd been without food for nearly two weeks?"
"As far as we know, yes."
The doctor sighed. "That is a complication - his immune system will be depressed. He's physically weak." She put her hand on Maggie's shoulder. "I'm sorry, I didn't want to scare you so. Let me tell you what's going to happen now, then you can come in and see him briefly before he's moved upstairs."
It hadn't escaped Maggie's notice that the doctor hadn't answered her question.
+ + + + + + +
Ryan rode beside deputy sheriff in his Ford Explorer, willing the man to drive faster but knowing he couldnt. Kennedy was following the sheriff; a little way behind them was Mac Cleaver, of the sheriff's posse, the man who had loaned them horses to go after the boys. He was driving in his old Chevy truck and pulling his horse trailer. Hank was on his way to retrieve the long gooseneck trailer and bring it around to their location so he could collect the ranch horses. All this had taken time to organise, time Ryan just didn't have. He needed to be with the boys and then back in the city, with his family, back with son and his best friend. Logically he knew they were alive, he had been told so. He had seen the helicopter speed over them and then back, he had listened in when the pilot radioed the sheriff to confirm he had two casualties and was en route to Denver Memorial Hospital. But his heart still needed to see them and touch them, to accept the truth. More than anything he wanted to be beside Buck, tell him he was safe, tell him it was all over.
"Faster, faster," he muttered almost but not quite under his breath.
"We're going as fast as is safe, sir," Kennedy pointed out.
"What?" Ryan tore his eyes of the taillights ahead of them to look at the young man beside him. Tall, slim, thick dark hair, strong jaw. He looked a lot like Buck, a lot like Buck would look in a few years time, once he graduated from the police academy. "Oh yes, I know, sorry, I guess I just "
"It's okay, I understand, don't reckon it's too far now."
Ryan looked at the dark forms of the forest flashing past them, not sure how his young driver could tell where they were, but more than willing to believe him.
As it turned out, it was nearly an hour before they turned of the main track and, following the tent arrows laid out on the ground found their way to the bunker. It was raining harder now. The signal fire had finally been dowsed. All five boys, hearing the approach of the trucks, had gathered in the small doorway, flashlights in hand.
While they waited, knowing rescue was at hand, they'd feasted on the last of their supplies, nearly three day's worth of cookies, candy bars, jerky, trail mix and health bars. Despite this, they looked dirty, dishevelled and weary. Chris sported three days of stubble. Ryan didn't think it was possible, but with his long hair unbrushed and his face smudged with soot, Vin actually looked scruffier than normal. Ryan had never seen Ezra look so grimy - normally the fastidious teen look great care to always appear clean and tidy. Nathan and JD just looked exhausted and ready to drop.
Ryan Larabee was out of the car before it stopped, running to meet his son who was advancing through the rain to meet him.
"Hi Dad," he greeted simply.
Ryan didn't speak, he just pulled Chris into his arms. He didn't care that Chris was nearly eighteen. He didn't care that there were witnesses. He didn't care if Chris was embarrassed. He needed to hold his son, to feel and even smell him, to be sure he was okay.
"You okay?" he asked, his question muffled by the collar of Chris coat.
"I'm fine, just tired and dirty." Chris pulled back a little. "And wet."
Finally, Ryan seemed to notice it was raining. "Sorry."
"'S okay." With that Chris led his father back into the bunker, where their small fire still crackled and hissed.
Once inside and with the car headlights giving some illumination through the door, Ryan checked each boy, placing his hands on either side of their shoulders and examining them, asking if they were okay.
JD was last. "Honestly Mr. Larabee sir, I'm okay. Have you heard from Mrs. Larabee? Is Buck okay?"
Ryan hated to disappoint him, but he wasn't going to lie. "I know they landed alright. I haven't heard from them since," he reported, not just to JD, but all of them. "Get your things together boys, we're leaving now."
"What about the horses?" Vin asked.
"Mr Cleaver's just coming. He'll say with them until Hank gets here with the trailer."
While the boys gathered their things, Ryan joined the sheriff, who was standing by the armory door, swinging his powerful flashlight around to illuminate the room.
"This were they held them?" Ryan asked.
"According to the Air Force guys."
"Shit," Ryan swore tersely as he took in the squalid, barren room, not much more then a cave really. In his heart he knew that even had the assassins lived, they never had any intention of freeing their prisoners. "If that guy had lived I'd have gone to the hospital, pulled the bastard outta bed and beat them t' death with my bare hands"
"Can't say as I'd have blamed you. Look at that padlock." He pointed to the fallen door. "Looks like no one's been near it for years. Makes you wonder how they got in and how your son managed to get these hinges out and move that door."
"Hinges?" Ryan still didn't know how the boys had found Buck and Josiah, he was just thankful they had.
"Here, look." The flashlight illuminated the crumbling holes were the hinges had been anchored.
"Oh dear God, how in the world did they mange that?"
"Probably with this." The sheriff stepped into the room and picked up an object from the floor.
As he held it in the light beam Ryan recognised it at Buck's penknife. The handle was stained with blood, the screwdriver blade extended and worn away to almost nothing.
+ + + + + + +
Maggie was still speaking to the doctor when they were interrupted by the arrival of a large machine, which orderlies were pushing into Josiah's room.
"What's that? What's going on?" she demanded.
"Portable x-ray machine, we need to x-ray Mr. Sanchez's hands. I really should get back."
Maggie was suddenly over come with guilt. She'd hardly thought about Josiah. "How is he, Josiah Mr Sanchez?"
"He's holding his own." With that the doctor disappeared back into the treatment room.
Maggie stood there, alone, barred entry, separated from her boy. She'd almost given up on him, almost convinced herself he was dead, began to work on how to live her life without him. How to live without that smile, without the laugh, without the twinkling blue eyes, without the ready hug and uncanny empathy. She had even begun to work out how to handle telling JD there was no hope left, convincing him to stop, and deciding to leave Ryan to handle Chris. But he wasn't dead; he was alive, sick, hurt and alone in some anonymous hospital room with total strangers.
"God damn it!" With that she pushed open the doors and strode into the treatment room.
"Ma'am." A large African American nurse in yellow scrubs stepped in front of her. "You can't be in here just now. Please wait outside, we'll let know what's happening."
"I'm his mother and I need to be with him. He's still only seventeen, you know?" With that she tried to shoulder past the nurse, desperate to catch a glimpse of Buck.
"Please, Mrs Wilmington, let us work, it won't be much longer."
Maggie fixed the nurse with a glare that would have melted steel at a hundred paces. "I'm not going to stop you, all I'm going to do is be with my son. My very sick boy needs him mom - got it?" With that she succeeded in dodging the large woman. The rest of the team looked at her and then at the doctor, not Dr. Collier, who was next door with Josiah, but a younger doctor, a Latino man, who, in the face of determined motherhood capitulated in an instant.
She tried not to look too closely at the wires, tubes and monitors, as she moved to the point were the doctor told her she could safely sit, telling a nurse to place a stool. Settling down just to the left of his head, she placed her hand against his still cool cheek.
"Hello darling, it's Mom. I'm here and everything is gonna be okay now. You're safe and so is Josiah," she whispered.
She continued to talk to him, softly, reassuringly, while studiously avoiding looking at the oxygen mask and whatever it was the doctor was doing. Time stopped, the voices in the room faded away and all she could hear was her son's breathing. It was wheezy and noisy, but it was there and he was alive.
+ + + + + + +
"Dad? Where are you going? The car's this way?" Chris asked angrily.
Now they had been driven back to the motel, Chris expected them to head directly to the hospital. Ryan, who had been striding toward their cabin, turned back to face his son.
"We all need to wash and change our clothes, we all need to eat some hot food and pack our stuff. If we get on with this, it should take less than an hour, but it needs to be done."
Chris was about to argue, but stopped, JD was standing just beside him. The boy was grimy, smelly - and if JD smelled, he was fairly sure he stank - and looked so tired he didn't know which way was up.
"Yeah, okay," he capitulated.
Ryan nodded and turned back for the cabin, the boys heading to their respective cabins. Less than thirty minutes later they were all headed for the local dinner. To save time they all ordered burgers, fries and Coke and were on the road twenty-five minutes later. Chris sat up front beside his father, Nathan, Ezra and Vin shared the back seat, while JD took the low rear facing seat at the back. He was the first to fall asleep, with a double seat to stretch out on he was asleep with in half and hour, but one by one the others succumbed. Chris was the last to fall asleep. He had intended to stay awake and do some of the driving, but that wasn't to be. Ryan didn't mind. It was so clear that they were all physically and emotionally drained. They weren't alone, but this was his job. He hadn't been the one to find their lost lambs, but he could bring them all back together.
+ + + + + + +
Not quite three hours after they started out, Ryan pulled the station wagon into a parking space at the hospital. All the boys were awake, and began to exit the car before the engine was even switched off. A brief enquiry at reception told them that Buck and Josiah were both in the intensive care unit. They were already on their way, before the receptionist could point out that patients in ICU were only allowed one visitor and definitely not children.
Maggie, now dressed in blue scrubs, greeted them as they exited the elevator on the fourth floor. There was a brief period of embracing and greeting, then she led them to the family waiting room.
"There are both alive," she assured everyone. "Both are suffering the effects of starvation and dehydration. Both have fevers. Josiah suffered multiple fractures to his hands and fingers " she stopped briefly, casing a glance at all of them; her husband and the older boys clearly understood the implications and looked angry. Ryan in particular looked ready to hit someone. JD looked worried, while Ezra looked angry, worried and distressed all at the same time. "He got an infection in the bone of one finger."
"He's got blood poisoning?" Ryan asked, worriedly.
"Shit!" Ryan knew the both the danger and possible consequences.
"What about Buck?" JD asked tremulously.
Maggie explained about the pneumonia. "They've put in a chest drain," she informed them, having no intention of telling them what it was like to watch the doctor introduce the tube into Buck's chest. Despite the local anaesthetic, Buck had groaned and flinched - the only reactions he'd shown. Nor was she going to explain about the failed attempt to introduce a nasogastric feeding tube, which had been unpleasant, distressing and messy as Buck had a reflux reaction to the tube.
"Can we see him?" Ryan asked.
Maggie nodded. "Only one at a time though and, I'm sorry boys, they don't allow children."
"But that's not fair!" JD protested. "I he needs me."
"I know sweety, believe me I know, but those are the rules, hopefully he won't be here long."
"What about me?" Chris asked.
"Just tell them you're eighteen, if they ask."
+ + + + + + +
Ryan stood at the window of the room looking on as the nurse worked on Buck, Maggie stood beside him.
"What's wrong with his knee?" he asked, seeing that one knee was raised up with what looked like an ice pack on it.
"They think it's some kind of tendon injury. There's no broken bones. He may need surgery on it later." Ryan nodded, still hesitating. "Go on in, he needs to know you're here."
Ryan pushed the door open, Maggie had explained why Buck was lying on a sheepskin like blanket, about how starvation made the skin was so delicate, about the blisters on his hands and feet, the half healed laceration to his scalp, but it didn't help. Knowing the facts didn't take away the sick feeling in his gut as he watched his adoptive son struggle to breathe, despite the oxygen mask.
"Hello son. It's kinda cool in here isn't it? Sorry about that." Two fans blew cool air over Buck, helping to keep his fever down. Ryan sat down on the hard plastic chair beside the bed and suddenly had an absurd thought that Buck looked like a mummy, with his hands and feed swaddled in white bandages. "Bet you're feeling uncomfortable, yeah sore and cranky. You always get cranky when you're sick. Of course, that's how we know you're sick, because you never tell us do you? Why is that? Well never mind, that can wait, wait until you're better. Soon son, you'll be your old self very soon, I have faith in you, I always will."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra watched the others. He watched Nathan trying to explain what was going on, as best he could, to Vin. He watched Chris waiting at the window with his mother, waiting for his turn to visit with his brother. He watched JD, fidgeting, getting up looking out of the window, wandering to the vending machine, unable to settle. No one was watching him, no one saw him leave, no one saw him sneaking into Josiah's room.
+ + + + + + +
"Hello. What are you doing in here?" Ryan Larabee asked as he moved into Josiah's room.
Ezra's head shot up. "I errr, well everyone was worrying about Buck and no one was, I mean Mr San Josiah, he was there too, he was beaten and locked up with no food in that horrid place as well, but no one seemed to care, so I "
"Ezra, calm down, it's okay, I understand. You were right, we weren't paying Josiah enough attention. That's why I'm here."
Ezra took a calming breath. "I am sorry, Mr. Larabee, I didn't mean to imply that you were being negligent. I fully appreciate that Buck must be your first concern, he's your son and "
"Ezra, I'm not angry, but you really can't be in here."
Ezra looked back down at his guardian. Josiah lay on the same kind of soft fleece pad as Buck, drips and tubes seemed to be every where. His hands were resting on two pillows, each one held in a brace, all but one finger splinted. The ring finger on his left hand was too swollen to splint; it resembled an angry red balloon.
"They did that - didn't they? The ones who took them."
"Yes, it does look that way."
"And now he's got an infection."
Ezra sighed. "Will he be alright?"
"Josiah is strong, we have to have faith."
Ezra suddenly shot Ryan a withering glare. "We always did."
Chris had waited patiently for his turn to visit with Buck, he'd watched through the window while first his mother, then his father spent time with him, he was now only too familiar with the room and its equipment.
"Hey bro," he greeted as breezily as he could manage. "The others, Vin, Nate, JD and Ez, they wanted to come and say hi, but the hospital won't let them. I ain't really meant to be here, but Dad said to just lie about my age if they asked, but we're all here for you. I need you." Chris found he needed to back hand tears away. "Don't reckon I ever told you how much. I don't want to be an only child. Yeah I know about the others, Vin and me well it's kinda like what you and JD have, then there's Nate and Ezra. They're coming in to the family little by little, kind of like cousins I guess. But you, you're my brother, and you always will be. I,"
His one way conversation was interrupted when the nurse came in. "Do I have to go?" he asked, already half out of his seat.
"No, not unless you want to." She smiled reassuringly. "You're his brother - right?" Chris nodded. "Well all I'm going to do is give Buck some steam therapy and while he has that, rub some cream into his skin."
Chris watched as she connected Buck's oxygen mask to a nebuliser. Then as he breathed in the steam, she pulled on some gloves and placed a large tub of white cream on the table beside the bed. She chatted away as she worked, telling Buck what she was doing, making jokes.
"Tell you what, why don't we get this lazy brother of yours to help out?"
Chris almost missed that he was being talked about. "Me?" he all but squeaked.
"Sure dear, you can do his arm and elbow, while you're sat there."
"But I don't know what to do, I might hurt him."
"No, you'd never do that."
Brooking no further discussion she handed him a pair of gloves and showed him how to apply the cream using the tips of his fingers in gentle circular motions to work the cream into the skin. Chris was hesitant at first, but he gained in confidence and as he worked the cream into his brothers skin, finding the process comforting.
+ + + + + + +
The effects of starvation hadn't been as pronounced in Josiah as it had been in Buck. He had a much greater body mass to begin with and he hadn't been anywere near as active as Buck, plus he had tolerated the feeding tube. With intravenous antibiotics and steroids his fever had dropped rapidly. Some nine hours after he was admitted to the hospital, Josiah began to wake up. The hospital, having discovered Ezra had insisted he leave, assuring all of them that if Mr Sanchez continued to respond as he was, he would be in his own room with twenty four hours. So it was Ryan Larabee he discovered beside him, when he was finally able to focus his eyes.
"Hello old friend," Ryan greeted softly.
"H'lo." Josiah's voice was a harsh, rasping whisper.
As soon as Josiah had shown signs of coming around, the nurse had placed a dish of ice chips beside the bed. Now Ryan carefully spooned some into his friend's mouth. Josiah sucked on them as if it were ambrosia.
"Want some more?"
"In a sec, where's Buck?"
Ryan chided himself for not reassuring his partner earlier. "He's next door, Maggie's with him."
Josiah turned his head, instinctively searching for proof his young friend and saviour was alive. "How is he?"
"He's doing just fine," Ryan lied.
"Don't lie to me."
Ryan shook his head; Josiah seemed to see through all lies, as Ezra had discovered. "He's real sick, pneumonia."
"Ah hell, I'm sorry, I tried to send him back so they wouldn't get him. I knew he was sick, I should never have agreed t' give him a lift. I'm so sorry " Josiah had lifted his head a little, but now, it fell back, his eyes fluttering as he tried to remain awake.
"None of this was your fault," Ryan assured, "I never thought that, believe me. Rest old buddy, we can talk when you wake up again."
Josiah was asleep before he finished speaking, before the nurse he had summoned with the call button reached the bed.
"He woke up?" the nurse asked.
Ryan nodded at the rather earnest looking young man. "Briefly."
"Was he lucid, did he remember what happened?" By now the nurse, who according to his name tag was called Sam, was checking all readouts on the monitors Josiah was connected to and making notes on his chart.
"He remembered, believe me he remembered," Ryan assured sadly.
+ + + + + + +
With Ryan, Maggie and Chris keeping watch over Buck and Josiah, the others had nothing to do but sit around, get bored and worry. Especially now that the nurses were keeping an eye on Ezra. After Josiah woke up Ryan decided it was time for them to go home, they were all shattered, JD could hardly keep his eyes open as it was.
"Come on boys, please," Ryan pleased in response to the very vocal protests. "You want to help, don't you?"
Vin seemed to have assumed the role of leader. "Well sure we do, but here."
"I'm not saying you can't come back. Just please go home, make sure the place is okay, God knows what must be growing in the fridge by now. Wash, change your clothes, eat real food, get a proper nights sleep in a real bed. Go to school tomorrow, come back here after school." Ryan could see the boys wavering. "We need you four to be our link with the outside world." He pulled out some slips of paper from his back pocket. "Maggie wrote down a list of things you need to bring back with you." He handed one slip of paper to Vin. "And these are notes for your schools to explain were you've been and what's going on. An officer will take you home."
Vin looked down at the lists and notes in his hand. It was suddenly clear to him that Ryan Larabee, of his own free will, had taken him in and given him his first real home since his mother died. A home where he felt valued and wanted. He glanced back at the others. Nathan looked more than willing to comply with what ever was asked of him, JD was too tiered to think straight, only Ezra looked ready to argue.
"Yes Mr Larabee?"
"I promise to keep an eye on Josiah, only one of us is able to be with Buck, so one of us will always be with Josiah. The doctors think he'll be in a regular room by tomorrow where you can all visit."
When Ezra didn't offer any further argument, Ryan turned back to Vin. "This is my ATM card, I wrote the number on the back of Maggie's list." Vin quickly turned the list over to see the number. "I'm trusting you Vincent, you're in charge."
Finally Vin nodded. "I won't let you down Sir."
"I know that." He looked up at the others. "I'm proud of all of you and I'm trusting all of you."
+ + + + + + +
Vin dropped his things in the hallway. It felt as if the weight of the world fell to the ground with them. Worried as he was, as much as he wanted to be at the hospital, it was good to be home. Ryan had put him in charge, trusted him with his family, his home and his money and he wasn't going to let him down.
"Yeah?" JD responded.
"Leave your things here, then go upstairs, take a shower, drop what you're wearing down the stairs. Nate an' me 'll get some washing done and clean up."
Ezra nodded and started up the stairs, while JD started taking off his clothes where he was, only heading upstairs when he was down to his boxers. Nathan brought the other bags in from the front step, where the policeman had left them.
"You boys sure you're okay?" he asked from the front door.
Nathan looked back down the hall, Vin was already gathering up laundry. "We're fine officer, thanks."
"Well okay then. This is the private number for the captain at the station house, he asked me to give it to you and said that you can call him if you need anything." He handed Nathan a card.
With a nod Nathan closed the door and headed down the hallway to help Vin. Methodically, and in silence, the two teens separated the washing and put a dark load on to wash. Then Vin cleared out the mouldy bread, green furry cheese, rancid milk, curled bacon and liquid cucumber from the fridge, while Nathan opened some windows, cold as it was, it was better than the stale air in the house.
"That's better," he commented as Vin returned from putting out the trash.
The two of them were still sitting at the kitchen table, the cool wind blowing around them, when Ezra came into the room.
"Bathroom's free," he announced.
"Where's JD?" Vin asked.
"Crashed out on Buck's bed."
"I'm surprised he got as far as the bed," Nathan commented.
In the end they all slept for a good part of the day, then sent out for pizza. There was enough left over for breakfast, which was good since there was nothing else to eat. In the morning, Nathan, Ezra and JD reluctantly left for school, while Vin kept himself occupied shopping for groceries and doing laundry and housework, when Maggie came home he wanted the place to be perfect. In the afternoon he meticulously packed small wash bags and a change of clothes for Maggie, Ryan and Chris. He hesitated a fraction as he opened Maggie's underwear draw, treating her things with a care that was almost reverential. By the time the others returned there was a patrol car waiting to pick them up and take them to the hospital.
+ + + + + + +
While Josiah made steady progress, the combined effect of starvation, hypothermia, the infections in his various wounds and the pneumonia seemed to be more that Buck could overcome. His breathing was improving, thanks mainly to the chest drain, but his fever refused to drop, he'd had several febrile convulsions and the doctors were beginning to worry about brain damage and the strain on his heart.
On the third evening since they arrived at the hospital, Maggie sat beside him, she worked cream into his arm, the skin was still dry and felt furnace hot. She knew the doctors were debating the possibility of using some fairly drastic cooling measures to break the fever. It was a risky option, he had open wounds, his heart was already under a lot of strain.
"Come on darling, I know you can do this, one last effort, please, we need you," she pleaded as she worked the cream in.
Buck was in his own world of pain and blackness and confusion. Sometimes he could hear voices, some familiar, some strange. At other times there was nothing, no voices, just a pulsing rushing sound. He wanted out, he wanted it over, he just didn't have the strength to do it. He could feel something on his arm, something cool, something soothing, it felt good, the voice that went with it was faint and distant yet familiar.
Suddenly the voice and the soft cooling stopped. He didn't like that; he wanted it to continue.
"Buck?" Maggie looked back at the arm she had just moisturised.
"What is it?" the duty nurse asked.
"He moved, I swear he moved his arm, not a convulsion, he moved it." She laid her hand over his arm. "Buck honey it's Mom, come on darling do it again, I know you can."
Buck knew the voice was familiar, but he didn't know who it was, just that they were there and that was better than the nothing. The cooling thing on his arm was now hot and heavy; he tried to get rid of it.
"There, see, he moved his arm." Maggie all but begged the nurse to see the slight movement she could feel.
"I believe you, hold on." The nurse checked Buck's temperature and smiled. "It's down a half a degree."
"I knew you could do it." With that Maggie kissed Buck on the forehead.
+ + + + + + +
Reluctant as she was to do it, Maggie left Buck so that she could tell the others waiting outside the good news, before returning. They were all there in the hospital, somewhere. JD was sitting on the floor using the low table to do his homework, always a good student he had forced himself to concentrate on his schoolwork to keep his mind from wondering in to black places he didn't want to consider. Nathan was sitting on a chair close to him, textbook in one hand, notebook on his lap, pen tapping absentmindedly on his knee. Chris was, as ever, pacing. Vin was at the window, gazing out over the night time city.
"Can I see him?" Chris demanded instantly, advancing on his mother.
"Soon darling, can one of you go and tell the others?" With that she ducked back into the room.
"I'll go," Nathan announced, already heading for the door.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah was now in his own room, the hospital had him almost eating normally, albeit a rather bland but calorie packed diet. His fever was all but gone and he was no longer on oxygen. Ryan was sitting beside him discussing the case, while Ezra sat on the other side at the far end, using Josiah's bed to rest his books on while he did his schoolwork.
"We've established that one of them, King, was in the airforce, seems his last posting was as part of the crew that locked that place up, he must have made a copy of the keys."
"Chilling to think he must already have been planning to use it, have you turned anything else up?"
Ryan nodded silently, indicating Ezra with his eyes. Josiah got the message loud and clear, what ever they found, bodies most likely, was too gruesome to discuss in front of the boy with his nose in a book, at the foot of the bed.
"So," Ryan changed the subject. "what's the verdict on the finger?"
"Well I'm not gonna lose it, but the joint is all but gone, so " Josiah looked at Ezra. "Why dont you tell him?"
Ezra looked up and grinned. "He is to receive an artificial one."
"Robo finger!" Josiah laughed.
"I don't see what's so funny?" Ryan commented.
"Oh come on pard, it's not that bad, so I get a little plastic finger joint. Considering what could have happened " His voice failed him. He was going to be fine, when all the surgery was done no-one would ever even know, the weight had had lost he could afford to lose, his life was no longer in danger - Buck was still fighting for his. "I'm sorry, I didn't think."
"He'll be fine, he will, I just know he will " Now it was Ryan who couldn't go on. Through out the whole ordeal, Ryan Larabee hadn't let his true feelings show to anyone save Maggie, until now.
"Ezra?" Josiah called softly.
It was all he had to say, Ezra knew what was being asked, he quickly and quietly closed his books and rising, carried them out of the room. All this time Ryan had buried his head in his arms, his shoulders heaving as he let his fear and tension out in tears.
"Cry pal, cry it out, I'd hug you if I could." Josiah place his hand on his friends back as best he could. "Cry, you earned it."
+ + + + + + +
Nathan exited the elevator and made his way to Josiah's room, where he found Ezra sitting on the polished floor outside.
"You can't go in," he informed Nathan as he approached.
"Mr Larabee became " Ezra searched for the right word. "emotional."
"Well I've got news for him!" And with a grin and no other explanation he pushed the heavy door open.
Inside Josiah was about to voice his own protest at the intrusion but Nathan didn't give him the option.
"Buck's fever broke!" he announced intently.
"What?" Ryan pulled himself up off the bed, using the heel of his hand to wipe the tears away.
"It's true, it's down a whole degree, Mrs Larabee's with him."
Ryan looked back at Josiah. "I'm sorry pal, I have to "
"Go, go man, now!"
And stopping only to hug Nathan in gratitude, Ryan bolted for the door, all but knocking Ezra over in the process.
"Is it true?" Josiah asked as he watched Ryan hare down the corridor.
Nathan nodded, still grinning.
"How does it feel?" Nathan turned to face him, puzzled. "How does it feel to give him that news? To put that smile on his face?"
"It feels it feels amazing."
"You'll make a fine doctor Nathan Jackson, mark my words."
Ryan practically burst into the ICU and directly into the arms of his wife.
"He's gonna be okay, I know it, I just know it!" she gushed as they embraced, tears running unchecked down her cheeks.
Much as he wanted to hug his wife, he needed to see Buck, to feel his brow, only then could he be sure it was true. Maggie knew this, knew he'd only believe it if he saw and felt for himself.
"Chris is with him, go on in, he'll understand."
Ryan let himself in quietly. "Hello," he greeted both sons.
"Hi dad." Chris looked up and smiled before he turned back to Buck. "See, I told you Dad was coming down to see you, why dont you show him you wanna say hi?"
In the short time that Nathan had been away Buck's level of consciousness had risen noticeably. He was clearly responding to their voices.
"Hey there son, I hear you're ready to come back and say hello. You know you're not gonna believe the number of pretty nurses around here." Ryan came to the other side of the bed, taking Buck's hand in one of his and stroked his son's stubbled cheek with the back of his hand. "Please come back to us, we need you, I need you."
The long dark eyelashes fluttered then slowly rose to reveal bleary, unfocused blue eyes.
"Buck?" Chris all but breathed.
In response to his name, Buck's eyes moved toward Chris, as he tried to make sense of the world around him. A frown, no more than a line, creased his brow.
"Chris?" Ryan called softly. Chris didn't respond. "Son?" Ryan tried again, this time Chris looked up. "Get your mother."
Reluctantly Chris ceded his place to his mother, who flew to her son's bedside as soon as he exited.
"Oh my darling boy." Like Ryan before her she stroked his cheek. "Hello."
"M'm?" It was no more than a horse croak, but to his parents it was a symphony.
"Yes darling, I'm here, we're all here, everything's going to be okay my darling, you just rest."
Buck frowned at her, trying desperately to assimilate the information. One vision kept coming to him.
"'Siah, 'ind, got' 't " With that his eyes closed and he was out again.
"It's alright, we found him, you rest." Ryan looked up to see the nurse at the foot of the bed; she'd been taking readings of the monitors.
"It's fine Mr Larabee, his temperature is down another half degree, he just needs to rest. I'll tell the doctors he woke up and he seemed to be orientated."
+ + + + + + +
Once Chris passed his mother in the doorway he strode across the waiting room to the big windows over looking the city, resolutely keeping his back to the others. JD was desperate to know what was going on.
"Chris?" He forced himself to tear his eyes from Buck's room to the older boy standing at the window, he took one or two steps toward Chris before Nathan's hand came to rest on his shoulder.
"Just leave him for a moment kid," Jackson warned softly.
JD looked up at the tall African-American boy beside him, seeing the look of serious concern in his eyes he nodded his acceptance of the advice and went back to watching Buck through the glass wall. After some time, Vin approached Chris, standing silently at his side. Silent tears rolled down Chris' cheeks as he gazed out at the at a world he had been no part of for days.
"He's gonna make it," he finally whispered, not taking his eyes from the windows.
"You always knew he would," Vin reminded.
"I thought I did, but until now I don't think I really believed it, until just now. I'm not gonna lose him." Finally he looked around at Vin. "I can't lose him."
"I know, and you won't, Buck's one tough cowboy."
Chris let a small smile escape. "Thought I was the cowboy?"
"Ya both are, in Texas they call cowboys a 'hard breed', reckon thats you two alright."
Chris pulled a hand over his face and did his best to wipe away the tears that refused to stop flowing.
"Take yer time." With that Vin patted him on the shoulder and joined him in gazing out of the window.
+ + + + + + +
JD watched the Larabees talking to the doctor. There was meant to be only one visitor with Buck, but they were both still in there, he couldn't decide if that was good thing or not. He desperately wanted to be with Buck, just to hold his hand once, just to feel the life within him. Ezra had managed to get into see Josiah while he was in the next room. The trouble was Ezra was - in JD's eyes - naturally sneaky, a theory born out by the fact that whenever he tried to see Buck he was caught and turned back. As he watched, Maggie came out, leaving Ryan sitting by the bedside.
"Is he?" JD asked, running up to Maggie.
"He woke up for a few seconds and his fever is dropping, the doctor is very hopeful that he's on the mend," she explained with a reassuring smile.
She gave him a gently hug. "Honest, Buck's strong, he's going to be fine."
"Can I see him now, please?" JD begged,
"I'm sorry sweetie, they're really strict about that rule, besides he's asleep. The doctor say he'll sleep for hours."
JD's shoulders slumped. "Oh," he sighed, "okay, I guess."
Maggie sympathised. "I think you boys should go home, get some proper sleep." She looked around. "Where's Ezra?"
"He's with Josiah, I'll go tell him." With that Nathan headed back up to Josiah's room.
"Ma'am?" Vin turned away from Chris. "With respect ma'am, I think you and Mr Larabee and Chris need to go home, you've been here days. Buck's getting better, let me stay, you get some sleep, real sleep, hot bath, proper food."
"No!" Chris wheeled around.
Maggie looked up at him; she really looked, for the first time since they had found Buck. Chris was a mess; he looked haggard, more like 47 than 17, at least two days of stubble, dark rings under his slightly bloodshot eyes. Her first instinct was the same as his, stay, but as she looked at Chris she knew Vin was right. If he looks that bad, how do I look?
"I'll talk to Ryan, but I think you're right." Chris opened his mouth to protest. "No darling, Vin's right, we need to gets some real sleep, Buck's going to be here a while, we can't stay here the whole time, we'll make ourselves ill."
"I'll take good care of him, I promise." Vin turned back to face Chris. "Trust me?"
Chris looked Vin in the eye for a long time. "I do, but he's my brother."
"And he doesnt want you to get sick. I swear, I'll call you if anything changes."
"Whatever your father says, you and I are going back home tonight," Maggie stated in her don't mess with mom voice.
+ + + + + + +
Ryan had reluctantly agreed to go home, he didn't what to, but he wasn't up to arguing with his wife, besides it was clearly in Chris' best interests. After delivering the good news to Josiah and Ezra, Nathan had volunteered to stay with Vin for the night.
Maggie stepped into her home for the first time in more days than she cared to remember and was pleasantly surprised. It was clean, tidy and smelled fresh. There was no laundry waiting to be done, no washing up waiting to be removed from the dishwasher and food, some of it relatively healthy, in the fridge.
"Did you boys do all this?" she asked Ezra and JD.
"Vin was in charge, he made us keep it nice for you," JD explained.
"Not that we didn't want to help, you understand, but Vin organised everyone." Ezra turned to Ryan. "He kept all the receipts sir. They're on the fridge door."
"I never doubted it," Ryan assured. "Come on we all need to get to bed."
"I'm gonna take a shower," Chris announced. "I'll see you in the morning."
Maggie watched him as he all but pulled his weary body up the stairs.
"It's okay ma'am, you go on up, we'll be fine," JD assured.
She looked down at her newest and youngest charge and was suddenly overcome by guilt. So desperate was she to be with Buck, to help him come back to them, that she'd all but ignored the others. JD, so young to have lost his mother, so dependent on Buck. He had been as terrified as she had been that he was going to lose Buck, and she had done all but nothing to reassure or comfort him. Now here he was, telling her to rest, taking care of her, which wasn't how it was meant to be. Ezra was already pushing the bolts home on the front door before Ryan had even registered what he was doing.
"Come on love, looks like these boys have it all in hand," he encouraged softly.
Too tired to resist, despite her guilt, Maggie let herself be led upstairs. She showered first, and while Ryan took his turn, pulled on her softest, most comfortable pyjamas, there was no way she was interested in looking alluring tonight! Then, she checked on the boys. Chris was asleep, crashed out on his bed, hair still damp, towel still wrapped around his slip hips. Pulling Vin's comforter over him and went in search of the youngsters. JD was in bed, he looked up and smiled as she walked in and sat on the side of the bed.
"I am so sorry JD, I haven't been looking after you these last few days, I know how scared you must have been."
"That's okay Mrs Larabee, you had Buck and Josiah to worry about, I understand," he assured.
She reached out and ruffled his hair. "Still, I feel bad that I neglected you."
"Buck's gonna be fine, everyone is, so it's okay." He saw the uncertainty in her eyes. "Really ma'am, it gonna be okay. It's like Josiah says, we gotta have faith. He had faith that Buck would get out and bring help and he did. Buck had faith he could get that door open and he did, Chris had faith that he could find them, and he did." JD sat up. "I didn't have faith that my mom would get better," he admitted softly.
"Oh no, JD, don't say that, it wasn't "
"Oh no!" JD's head shot up. "I know it wasn't my fault she died, it wasn't my lack of faith that killed her. But I kind of always knew she wasn't gonna beat it, the cancer, even before I overheard her say it, deep down I knew. But not Buck, I never had that feeling, that deep down scary feeling, I kind of knew it was gonna be okay, somehow. I'm not saying I wasn't scared, I was, but " Words failed him as he tried to explain how he had been feeling, tears welled up as he gazed at Maggie, silhouetted in the dim light that spilled in to the darkened room from the open door. Maggie didn't fail him this time, no words were needed as she pulled him in to a fierce hug, a hug to rival a famous Wilmington bear hug.
That was how Ezra found them as he came in from the bathroom. For a moment he wished it was him Maggie was hugging so tightly, but the feeling was fleeting. He had Josiah back already, the anxious wait for him was already over. Not that he didn't care about Buck, he did, very much, but he knew he wasn't part of this little group, not in the same way JD and Vin were.
As Ezra slipped silently into Buck's bed, to keep JD company, as he had every night since Buck disappeared, Maggie finally pulled away from JD, wiping her own tears away as she did.
"JD sweetie, do you think that maybe its time to call me something other than Ma'am or Mrs Larabee?"
JD looked vexed.
"I don't mean you should call me 'mom', perhaps you could call me Maggie?"
"I don't know ma'am? I've never really called a grownup by their first name. What did Buck used to call you, when he first came here?"
"Well, that was different, Buck had been coming to this house for months before his mother before she went away "
"Before she was convicted," JD prompted.
"Well yes, Buck and Chris were the best of friends and with his mom working evenings and the like "
"As a hooker," JD supplied.
"No, well yes, how did you know?"
"Buck told me, we don't have no secrets, I'm thirteen you know, even if I don't look it, I'm not a baby."
"Yes of course, I know you are, I hope we don't treat you like one, a baby that is?"
"Not too often," JD joked.
"Good. Well, Buck was always over here for supper and sleepovers and most weekends, so much so that he started to call me 'mom'. He always called his mother "
"'Ma', yeah I know, he told me."
"So I guess it didn't bother him to call me 'Mom' since his mother was 'Ma', we fill two different places in his heart - that's what he told me."
"Can I think on it?"
"Of course you can, and if ma'am or Mrs Larabee is what you're comfortable with, then that's fine too." With that, JD dropped back down onto the pillow. Maggie stood, bent down and planted a soft kiss to his forehead. "It'll be okay, everything will be okay," she assured.
Ezra had lain still and listened. He's never called Maude anything but 'mother' or 'ma'am'. Hugs and kisses from her were rare and only for effect, when a public display of maternal love was called for. There had never been any physical affection just because he needed it, if he was scared he was told Standishs weren't afraid. If he was injured he was told to be brave, if he was sick he was told not to wallow in self-pity and get on with life. When he was hurt or disappointed or distressed he was told to pull himself together. How many times had he wanted to just cry and be held and told everything was going to be okay, his mother would make it all better? Wasn't that what she was meant to do? That was what all mothers were meant to do, all mothers except his. Deep down he knew there were plenty of mothers who didn't and plenty of children far worse off and more harshly treated than him, but right there, in another boy's bed, in someone else's house, he didn't care about their suffering and deprivation, only his own. So that she wouldn't see his weakness, he managed to hold back the tears and feign sleep until Maggie was out of the room, then he let them fall silently, and fall they did, until he finally fell asleep on tear drenched pillow.
+ + + + + + +
Vin and Nathan took it in turns to sit and watch Buck sleep. Nathan read, desperate for something to do, Vin would borrow his book and do his best to read it, beside him he had a sheet of paper and a pen, and whenever he came to a work he didn't understand he'd copy it out and ask Nathan, when he woke up, what it meant. If the staff had noticed that the boys were underage, they said nothing, for once ICU was having a quiet night and they were all fond of Buck and his desperately loyal and worried family.
Not long after seven, while Vin was copying out a word, he noticed Buck's head tossing on the pillow.
"Hey there Bucklin."
Buck heard the voice, and focused on it, using it to claw his way out of darkness.
"Yup it's me." Vin grinned as Buck tried to focus on him.
"Hi yerself. The nurse says you can have some ice chips, what some?"
Buck nodded slowly.
Before he want in search of ice chips, Vin, as he had been instructed to, had pressed the call button as soon as Buck woke. The nurse who answered the call was just in time to stop him, as he used one bandaged hand to try and dislodge the nasal cannula.
"Oh no you don't young man," she chided, gently pushing his hand down.
"D't like," Buck protested.
"I know, no one does, but you need it, so leave it alone." Buck frowned but didn't try and lift his hand again. "That's better, now relax, here comes your brother with the ice. You keep that down and I'll being you some water in little while, then we'll see about something for breakfast."
Vin had to laugh, sick and weak as he was, Buck's eyes definitely brightened at the mention of food. Then as soon as it was there, the brightness was gone.
"What's wrong?" Vin put the chips down and came to Buck's side in an instant.
"'Siah?" Buck crocked.
"He's fine, he's in another part of the hospital," Vin assured.
"N' find him, gotta find, 'scape," Buck was having trouble getting the words out, but the plea was real enough.
"I swear, we found him, he's doing fine, please believe me."
But it was no good, all Buck could remember of Josiah was a vision of him slumped and unresponsive in a dark, concrete prison. His head tossed as he shook it in frustration.
"Ma'am, can you stay with him a moment?" Vin looked up pleadingly at the nurse.
Vin darted out into the waiting room, to shake Nathan awake.
"W'at?" Nathan asked as he pulled himself awake. "What's happened."
"He woke up, we need Josiah, he's never gonna believe he's okay unless he sees him," Vin explained as fast as he could.
"I'm on it!" Nathan was already on his way to the door. "I'll call home as well!"
+ + + + + + +
Nathan decided, as he rode the elevator up to Josiah's floor, that instead of waiting for the hospital to organise anything, he'd just do what need doing himself. So it was that, as he exited the car he scanned the corridor, grabbed the nearest wheelchair and headed for Josiah's room. It didn't take long to wake him or explain what was needed. Josiah protested that he could walk but Nathan convinced him it wasn't worth the risk. In all it took less than ten minutes to get Josiah down to Buck's bedside.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah hadn't seen Buck since he had finally lost his battle to remain conscious in the bunker, and in truth he didn't remember much of that. He was shocked how bad his young friend looked. Propped up in the bed, he lay cocooned in the soft fleece, his mummified hands resting on pillows, pale, gaunt features pinched, even in repose.
"What's going on?" the nurse demanded.
"Please ma'am, Buck needs to see Josiah, then he'll believe he's okay," Vin explained.
It was against all the rules, but she could see the necessity. "Very well, just not too long, alright?"
Josiah's own hands were encased in fibreglass and metal casts and splints, so it was Vin's hand that reached out and squeezed Buck's shoulder. Buck had only been dozing, so came awake almost instantly.
"Buck?" Josiah called, pulling the younger man's eyes to him. "Hey there you."
"Yeah, it's me, safe and sound."
Buck frowned, one battered hand reached out slowly to him, coming to rest on Josiah's arm. "'K?"
"Yes, I'm okay, so you can rest now, alight?"
"I promise, I'm fine. Live long and prosper - remember?"
Finally Buck seemed to believe, a slight smile appeared and he visibly relaxed as he drifted back to sleep.
+ + + + + + +
From then on Buck made steady progress, he managed to stay awake long enough to drink a whole glass of water, while Maggie, who, with everyone else - since it was Saturday - had arrived in response to Nathan's call, held it. By the afternoon he'd managed not only to keep down some beef broth, but protest that he needed proper food. It wasn't all plain sailing, while he was unconscious he hadn't really registered the pain and discomfort, especially when the nurses turned him to prevent pressure sores, which caused the chest drain tube to move. The hospital would have liked to get him up, but his feet were still blistered and raw and his knee still swollen, besides which he wasn't strong enough to stand on his own yet. Despite this the next day, Sunday, he was finally moved to a regular room, albeit one for high dependency patients. And that meant that JD could finally get to visit him.
"Hi," JD greeted a little hesitantly.
Seeing that he wasn't needed Ryan slipped from the room.
"You okay?" Buck asked
"Yup, missed you.
"Missed you too."
There the conversation faltered, there was so much they wanted to say, yet neither one was able to find the words.
"Got some good news today," Buck finally said, mainly to break the uneasy silence.
"Doc reckons I don't need surgery on my knee, just rest and some drugs an' it'll heal itself. He even said I might be playing football again by the New Year."
"That's great. Coach told your dad he didn't have no one to replace you without Chris he dont think the team's got much chance this afternoon."
Alarm flashed in Buck's eyes "Without Chris? Why isn't he playing?" he demanded. "What's the matter with Chris?"
JD frowned. "Nothing, 'cept he's tired. But he can't play and be here at the same time - can he?"
"Damn fool!" Buck swore indignantly. "Dont he know what's important, get him in here, I'll tell him to go play."
"Buck, it's nearly seven the game's long over. He couldn't have played anyway." Buck was still frowning. "Don't you understand? Chris hasn't been in school since you disappeared, well 'cept for that one day, and that didn't last." Buck's expression was one of incomprehension. "After we found you, he's been right here in the hospital, last night was the first time he left. Nate's been bringing him assignments, but I don't think he's done any of them. He's going to school tomorrow mind you, I heard your mom say so."
Finally the ice was broken, JD chatted happily away about school and being at home with just Vin in charge, until Buck drifted back to sleep.
+ + + + + + +
Maggie had taken the others home, leaving Ryan with just Chris and JD. Chris had taken a trip to the hospital shop to collect some Cadburys chocolate for Buck. The doctors were keen to build him up, but after so long without food they had to take it carefully and introduce food gradually. Nevertheless Buck was tolerating the high calorie chocolate shakes the dietician had prescribed very well and had said that the next day he could have a small portion of real chocolate so long as he let it melt in his mouth before swallowing.
"JD in there?" he asked his father as he approached, tilting his head toward the door.
"Yes, I'm just giving them a moment. Son, we we need to talk."
"I ain't apologising, I'm not gonna promise not to do it again, and I'm not sorry I took the others," Chris began, launching into his defence. He's always knew he and his dad were going to have this conversation, now he was going makes sure he had his say. "I'm not a child, I can take care of myself and others too, if it comes to it. You heard what the doc said, if we'd have found them even a few hours later Josiah'd be dead and Buck so weak an' sick he might never have recovered!"
"Chris!" Ryan's commanding tone cut through Chris' righteous fury.
"I have no beef with what you did, or how you did it. I don't know what I was thinking, all I could think of was all the other searches I've been involved with, all those relatives desperately hanging on when there was no hope left. I just didn't want you, all of you to go through that. I "
The fire had gone out of Chris as he watched his father, the rock on which the family was founded, searching for the words to express his own, failure - as he saw it.
"Its okay Dad, we all know that you were only trying to protect us."
Ryan smiled at his son, unable to fully express how proud he was but determined to try. "Maybe I wouldn't have taken JD, but it was your call. I don't deny you did a good job. You were well equipped and supplied. You had a plan and you did your best to keep in contact. I guess the trouble is, I still find it hard to see the young man before me now and not the little tow haired boy, who used to ride on my shoulders and trip over his laces." Chris smiled even as he blushed slightly. "What I was going say was how proud I was, of you, of what you did."
"I wasn't alone and compared to what Buck did, it wasn't much."
"I know, believe me, and when Buck is able to stay awake for more than ten minutes at time, I'm gonna tell him. But right now, I want to tell my boy, that he's a man anyone would be proud to called son."
Chris suppressed the lump that had formed in his throat. "Thanks Dad," was all he could get out.
Ryan, equally choked and unable to speak, reached out and cupping his hand behind his son's' neck, pulling him in close. The two of them hugged for longer than they had in the last ten years.
+ + + + + + +
JD had continued to talk, even when he knew Buck was asleep, finally he fell into silence, happy to just be there, happy that Buck was there, happy they were still brothers. Eventually the door opened gently and Ryan's head appeared. He looked at Buck, noted that he was asleep and then called softly to JD that it was time to go home. Now that Buck was out of danger they no longer stayed with him all night.
"Night brother," he whispered.
As JD left, Chris slipped in, intent on saying his own goodnight.
"Just wanted to come say goodnight," he said softly.
"Chris?" Buck's eye's opened slowly.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."
"'S okay, all I do is sleep."
"I was just saying goodnight, and dropping off the chocolate for tomorrow; but I can stay if you want?"
Buck shook his head. "Go, sleep in a real bed, I'll still be here in the morning." Chris ducked his head in response to the assurance, looking back in time to see Buck frowning at him. "Did I hear you and Dad arguing, or did I dream it?" he asked.
"No you didn't dream it, but we weren't really arguing, I jumped to the wrong conclusion, didn't give him a chance to explain," Chris admitted.
"See that's why you two need me." Buck yawned. "T' keep the peace."
"We all need you." Even as he spoke he knew Buck was asleep again. "Don't know what would happen to us if we lost you. Lose ourselves I expect. Night bro. See you tomorrow."