ATF Alternate Universe
Minutes stretched into hours. Buck had stationed himself next to Chris continually talking to him and trying to get a response. Josiah was sitting with JD occasionally offering words of encouragement, but for the most part, just keeping the young man company. Nathan was once again off somewhere trying to get word on Vin. Ezra had joined them about forty five minutes ago.
Josiah looked across the room at the undercover agent, the shock still registering on the southerner's normally unreadable face. Ezra had had no idea Vin was even sick, so the news had been startling to the young man. Josiah smiled sadly as he thought of Ezra's entrance to the waiting room. He had managed to get a response out of Chris, although it wasn't the type of reaction that they desired.
Ezra had practically run in to the waiting room and breathlessly called out, "Who's been shot?" As the southerner had scanned the downtrodden, guilty faces, he had quickly determined that Vin was the missing team member. "What happened to Mr. Tanner?" he had asked anxiously. "I thought that we didn't have a breaking case right now. That you all were doing paperwork?"
"Yes," Josiah had answered quietly. "Ezra..."
"Well then, would someone kindly tell me how Mr. Tanner ended up being admitted into this establishment? What happened? Was he shot?"
"Ezra, Vin has the Chicken Pox..." Josiah said calmly.
"The Chicken Pox? The Chicken Pox?" said Ezra, totally flustered. "You made me worry and rush down here over a simple children's disease? I was in the middle of a case. I probably blew my cover because Mr. Tanner has a few spots?"
That had done it. Chris had risen angrily from his chair and stormed toward the southerner. Buck had grabbed Chris and held him back, diverting his attention from Ezra. After Josiah finally had cornered Ezra's attention, he had explained what had happened to Vin and the seriousness of the situation. The undercover agent had been shocked into silence and hadn't spoken since.
Nathan came back into the waiting area and was immediately mobbed by concerned friends. "Hold on! I couldn't get much. He regained consciousness, but he's still not responsive. They're going to do a LP and a CT scan to determine what's going on."
"An LP? What's that?" asked JD.
"A Lumbar Puncture," replied the doctor who had followed Nathan. The paramedic sheepishly stepped aside and let the doctor talk. "We're going to check his CSF." The doctor stopped. It was obvious she had already lost them. She wasn't certain how much information to give them, but it was obvious these men cared deeply about their friend. "A lumbar puncture or spinal tap is a fluid withdrawal of cerebrospinal fluid or CSF through a hollow needle. The needle is inserted in the lower back, usually between the third and fourth lumbar vertebrae, into the subarachnoid space of the spinal cord where the CSF is located." The faces again told her she was losing them. "Viral cultures of CSF will confirm the diagnosis of meningitis or encephalitis, which is what we suspect."
"As Mr. Jackson said, Mr. Tanner is conscious, but he is uncooperative and somewhat combative. He is highly agitated. We started him on Phenytoin to control the seizures. I can't give him a sedative to calm him until we determine the cause of his problems. Could one of you come in and try to calm him?"
Five men turned as one to face Chris Larabee who was still seated in the corner. They knew that he was listening, but he was still buried in his guilt.
Ezra swallowed the lump in his throat. He knew what he was about to do would anger Chris, but it needed to be done. "Well, doctor, I find needles and sick people abhorrent, but for Mr. Tanner's sake I would be willing to try. Especially since the man who could help calm him is so wrapped up in himself right now that he can't see his way clear to help anyone."
Buck sucked in his breath and watched Chris rise from his seat. 'What were you thinking, Ez?' thought Buck. He returned his gaze to the southerner as Chris moved toward him. Ezra's eyes begged Buck not to interfere, and suddenly Wilmington understood. The undercover agent was intentionally angering Larabee to spur him into action. The other four men unconsciously took a step away from Ezra as their angry leader approached.
"You'll do no such thing," said Larabee in his low growl, as he stood toe-to-toe with Ezra. The southerner's eyes widened and he tried to swallow the lump of fear in his throat as Larabee leaned in threateningly and hesitated with his mouth by Ezra's ear. The undercover agent felt the cold sweat forming on his forehead as Larabee's slowly released breath rustled past his ear.
"Thanks, Ezra," he whispered, and then he brushed by the stunned agent. Chris followed the doctor into the treatment area. Ezra stared after him.
"Risky move, Ezra," said Buck admiringly. "But nice." He slapped the undercover agent on the shoulder and steered him back to the chairs to wait with them.
Chris felt out of place in the room, but the discomfort was quickly forgotten when he saw the fear written on Vin's face. "Hey pard, you doin' okay?" Vin turned toward Chris at the sound of his voice. "Doc here says you're givin' them a hard time. You gotta do what they say Vin."
Vin's lips moved and he struggled to say something. He was growing more agitated.
Chris smiled briefly. He could see the large needle on the tray and knew Vin's dislike of needles. They scared him too. "You won't even feel it, cowboy. They got ya numbed up. You just need to relax and let them work. Okay?" Chris waited for some kind of response from Vin, but he seemed just to get more agitated. He reached for Vin's hand but the Texan awkwardly pulled away from him. His muscle coordination seemed to be worsening. Chris reached again for the hand. Vin swatted at his hand and grunted.
"What? What is it pard?" Chris was confused. It was almost as if Vin was pushing him away. He watched in agony as Vin labored to speak.
"Go," gasped Vin.
"Mr. Larabee, this isn't working. I think you need to leave," said the doctor.
"But..." He couldn't finish the thought as Vin's thrashing upended a tray.
"Get out, Mr. Larabee. Now!" ordered the doctor.
Chris found himself outside the room, stunned. He didn't blame Vin for throwing him out. He had failed the young man. He watched for a few minutes through the tiny window in the door. His heart dropped when Vin suddenly stopped thrashing. "God, no..." he gasped. He expected more doctors with a crash cart to come running, but there was no call for CPR, no code blue. 'Vin must have lost consciousness,' thought Chris with a bit of relief.
The nurses inside the room worked calmly maneuvering Vin into position for the procedure. They positioned Vin on his left side, curling him into the fetal position and held him there. Chris's breathing quickened as he anticipated the procedure watching through the small window. He felt a little light headed as he saw the needle inserted and the fluid being withdrawn. He looked away, suddenly feeling the need for fresh air.
Four men waited impatiently. It had been nearly seven hours since Vin had been taken to the hospital. Almost 2:00 a.m. Only JD slept, and that was only because the young man could not physically stay awake. Chris had not returned and everyone assumed he was still with Vin. Nathan looked up as Doctor Davis came into the waiting area. He started to get up, but she motioned for him to stay put. She walked over and sat down in an empty chair. It was clear that she was weary too.
"The tests have confirmed our suspicions," Doctor Davis informed the anxious men. "Mr. Tanner is suffering from encephalitis as a result of the Varicella virus." She sighed.
"But you can treat that, right?" asked Buck.
"We can treat the symptoms, Mr. Wilmington. We've started him on intravenous Acyclovir to try to stop the virus. We're treating him with a corticosteroid to help reduce the brain swelling and inflammation. And we've sedated him so he will rest. But supportive care is all we can do now. It's up to Mr. Tanner now."
Ezra didn't like the ominous sound of those words. "What exactly is encephalitis, Doctor?"
"Simply stated, Mr. Standish, encephalitis is an infection, or an inflammation, of the brain."
"What..." Buck choked on the words, but the doctor seemed to know what he was asking.
"Mr. Wilmington, at this point we don't know the prognosis. The outcome varies. Some cases are mild, short, and relatively benign with full recovery. Others are severe, and permanent impairment or death is possible."
Buck gasped at the words. Vin could be permanently disabled or die, all because of a stupid kid's disease. Doctor Davis laid her hand gently on his shoulder. "You all should go home and rest. Hoping for the best, we will be here for the long haul. The acute phase could last a couple weeks."
"How's Chris holding up?" asked Josiah.
Doctor Davis looked surprised. She glanced around and realized Chris was not there. "After I asked him to leave, I assumed Mr. Larabee came back to wait with you."
"You asked him to leave and he did?"
"Yes. Mr. Tanner became extremely combative when Mr. Larabee tried to calm him. He pushed him away and told him to go. So I had to ask him to leave so we could calm Mr. Tanner down."
Buck dropped his face into his hands as he rested his elbows on his knees. Could this get any worse? Chris was already blaming himself, and then to have Vin push him away?
Buck looked up. The kid looked beat. JD's long hair hung in his too pale face. The red marks served as a reminder of his illness. "You all right, JD?"
JD nodded. "You gotta go find Chris."
Buck smiled gently as the younger man offered his opinion.
"Ezra will take me home."
Ezra nodded. "Most certainly, Mr. Dunne. Come on, let's get you home and to bed. We will return in the morning."
Ezra took JD home as promised and made sure he was tucked safely into his bed before the southerner made himself as comfortable as possible in the recliner. It took awhile for sleep to come, but he finally dozed off.
Nathan, Buck and Josiah began the search for Larabee. They all searched the hospital without luck, then divided up the other options. Josiah headed for Vin's apartment in Purgatorio while Nathan checked the office and Inez's. Buck checked a couple other bars that Chris was known to frequent, then headed for Larabee's ranch. At 3:30 a.m. Buck called Josiah and Nathan and they agreed to get some sleep and meet up at the hospital after breakfast. Buck stayed at Chris's place hoping that the team leader would return home.
Buck woke to an empty house. Chris had not come home. He hastily made breakfast and ate it without really tasting it. Knowing Chris was distracted, Buck went into his friend's bedroom and packed a couple changes of clothes for him. As he absently packed clothes into the duffel bag, he tried to think of places Chris might go. A photograph on the top of the dresser caught his eye. It was a photo of Vin with a hawk perched on his gloved hand. "The Aviary!" exclaimed Buck. It was one of the only places inside the city that Vin found sanctuary. Chris had gone to the Denver Zoo many times in search of the missing Texan.
Buck flipped open his cell phone as he headed for the door. "Josiah? Yeah, this is Buck. I'm gonna make a stop on the way in. I got an idea where Chris might be... Yeah, I'll be there as soon as I can. Bye." Closing the phone, Buck locked Larabee's front door and climbed into his truck, heading for the Denver Zoo.
Buck parked in the zoo parking lot next to Larabee's black Dodge Ram. He had found where Chris had gone, but faced a new problem. The zoo was not open yet so Buck found the employees' entrance and knocked on the door.
"We're not open," said the worker who opened the door.
"I know." Buck held out his ATF badge. "I'm looking for a friend of mine. His truck is right there in the parking lot," said Buck, pointing to the truck. "His name is Chris Larabee. He might have come here really late last night."
"Just a minute," said the worker, closing the door with Buck waiting outside.
Two minutes later the door opened again and an attractive older woman appeared.
"I'm Doctor Marcus. How can I help you?"
"Ma'am, my name is Buck Wilmington." He showed her his badge. "I'm looking for Chris Larabee. He probably came here last night. Blonde hair, green eyes."
"I know Chris. He's come here quite a few times with Vin Tanner."
"Is he here now?"
She nodded. "Come with me, Mr. Wilmington. He seems very upset. He said Vin is sick?"
Buck nodded. "He's very sick, Doc. He's got encephalitis."
"I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "Vin is a wonderful young man. He comes here and helps with the birds of prey at least once a week. He seems particularly fascinated by the eagles."
"It must cost him a fortune for tickets."
"Oh no. He's considered volunteer staff. He even has his own key. He's very good with the birds." She stopped. "You'll find Chris about 50 feet up this path."
"You're welcome, Mr. Wilmington. I hope you can reach him," she said with concern.
Buck nodded to her in appreciation before turning and following the path. The pavement wound through some trees and stopped at a park bench. Buck smiled grimly at the sight of Larabee. He was slouched, defeated, on the bench staring at nothing. His hair stood on end in places where he had anxiously run his hands through it.
"Chris?" he said softly. Chris looked up with dread in his eyes. "No, no! He's still with us," assured Buck, trying to soothe the blonde's fear. Buck sank down onto the bench next to Chris. "What'ya doin' cowboy?"
"Watching George and Gracie," answered the drained man.
Chris pointed to the pair of eagles perched high up on the rock outcrop. "Vin calls 'em George and Gracie. Gracie's got a couple eggs in the nest." Chris shook his head in admiration, "He's worked with 'em enough that Gracie will come and take food from him." Chris placed his hands over his eyes and rubbed his face tiredly. "He's dying, isn't he?"
"No!" protested Buck. "He ain't! And damn it, you aren't going to give up on him."
"I'm not giving up on him, Buck. He doesn't want me there. I let him down. He threw me out and I don't blame him."
"Chris," Buck sighed, "it ain't like that and you know it. Hell, Nate said Vin probably threw ya out so you wouldn't embarrass yourself in front of them pretty nurses by fainting at the sight of the needle." Buck paused, waiting to see if Chris was really hearing him. "Chris, Vin's got something called encephalitis. His brain is inflamed. Nate said he probably doesn't know what's happening at all. It's what was making him so strange the past couple a days. You know, being mean then being clingy. Stumblin' around. The headaches. The seizures..." Buck paused as the memory of Vin writhing on the floor sent a chill through his body. "Those are all caused by the encephalitis. The doc can't say for sure what will happen. She says all we can do is wait, but I can tell you one thing..." He waited again. This time Chris looked up and met his gaze. "Junior needs you Chris."
Chris sighed. "I can't do it again Buck." Buck was silent. He knew exactly what Chris meant. He couldn't go through the incredible grief he had experienced in the loss of his beloved wife and son. "I can't lose him..." Chris's voice trailed off. His hands once again rubbed his tired eyes, perhaps fighting off a few tears as well as the weariness.
Buck watched his oldest friend carefully. "A wise man once asked me, 'Cause you lost 'em, are you sorry you ever had 'em?'"
Chris looked up and smiled bitterly. He had indeed said those words to Buck. "When d'you get so smart?"
"I'm gifted," said Buck, brushing his hand through his hair with an elaborate flair like a beauty queen. Chris snorted.
Buck was suddenly serious. "Chris, I know ya been blaming yourself. But we all missed it. None of us knew Junior was in trouble. We can't change that now. All we can do is be there for him." Buck stood up and faced Chris who remained seated on the bench. "Look Chris, I tell ya what. I brought a couple changes of clothes from your ranch. Why don't you follow me over to the apartment? You can shower there, freshen up a bit before going back to the hospital. I wanna check on JD anyway. Then I'll head over to the office and talk to Travis."
Chris nodded and rose stiffly from the park bench. Both men walked back down the path toward the exit.
"How the hell did you get in here anyway?" asked Buck.
Chris would never get used to seeing a friend in a hospital bed. It had happened a number of times. Team 7 seemed to attract trouble along with their excellent record of solving crimes. He sat beside Vin's bed in the ICU trying to contain the fear racing through him. An IV flowed into Vin's left arm. A nasal cannula delivered oxygen to the Texan. A NG tube delivered his nutrition. Chris shook his head. He really shouldn't know the names of all of these things. A Foley? Vin would hate that. The incredibly shy sharpshooter would be highly embarrassed at having a catheter.
Vin was so pale and still, but his breathing was steady. "Hey, cowboy," Chris said softly. "Doc says you might be able to hear me, so I'm counting on that." He stopped, suddenly uncomfortable. What should he say? He had waited quite awhile before he was alone with Vin. It seemed there was always a nurse in the room checking something. Unaccustomed to being uncomfortable with Vin, Chris struggled for something to say. "I saw George and Gracie this morning. Doctor Marcus says it'll only be a couple more days until those eggs hatch. You gotta be up and around for that." He paused again. 'Jeez, Larabee, Vin's lying here in a hospital bed and you're talking about eagle eggs.' He wanted to put into words how horrible he felt about missing Vin's symptoms, but the words just wouldn't come. "I'm sorry, Vin." Larabee brushed at a tear. "I'll be back later, and I'll be expecting you to be awake."
Chris left the room and one by one each member of Team 7 visited Vin and talked with the unconscious man. They could visit one at a time and only for ten minutes each hour. JD was the last to enter the room. He sat in silence for a long time watching Vin's chest rise and fall with each breath. Thinking back over the past week, barring the last two days of 'evil' Vin, JD recognized that Vin had made a big effort to make things easier for him. The jokes and teasing were a great distraction. And what had he done? He had left Vin alone when he needed help the most. JD closed his eyes trying to shut out the remorse. "Vin," said JD softly. His comment cut off abruptly as a bout of coughing choked JD. Despite the fact that his spots were dried up and healing, he still felt lousy. When JD looked up again, Buck was standing in the doorway. The tall dark haired man crooked his index finger, beckoning JD to come. No word was spoken, but JD knew not to ignore Buck's call.
JD was not happy. Everyone had overheard the coughing and Nathan had insisted that JD be examined by a doctor. JD thought they were overreacting because of Vin's illness, but he really didn't have a choice. It was five against one. He had spent the night in the hospital under observation. Now, he had been grounded to the apartment. At least he felt like he had been grounded. He had the start of an upper respiratory infection and everyone was afraid it would turn into viral pneumonia from the Chicken Pox. He was ordered to stay in bed. He was bummed. He couldn't work and he couldn't even visit Vin.
The entire Team was concerned about the upcoming bust. Not that the bust would be a problem, rather that they could not be with Vin and he would be left alone. The Texan was being weaned off the sedative and the seizure medication, but he had not yet shown any signs of regaining consciousness.
Team 7 had been assigned to back up Ezra and Team 8 in the bust set for tomorrow. Today would require meetings with Team 8 coordinating the planning of the actual bust. Tomorrow, with any luck, the arrests would be made and reports completed, freeing the team for a long weekend.
The healthy members of Team 7 were at the hospital visiting Vin. With about three hours to go before the meeting with Team 8 was to start, they met with Vin's doctors again. One of the suggestions for Vin was to bring in a radio or tape player so he could listen to music. Vin had been using his Walkman quite a bit while he was confined to the apartment with JD. Ezra volunteered to go and retrieve the item and to check up on JD as well.
Chris looked at his watch. They would have to leave in fifteen minutes in order to make it to the office in time for the meeting. Ezra had still not returned. A call to JD informed them that Ezra had left the apartment more than an hour ago. Chris growled as the elevator doors opened and the southerner approached Vin's room. Only Ezra could turn a twenty-minute trip into a two-hour fiasco. "Where the hell have you been?" he snarled.
Ezra sighed but didn't take the bait. He was not going to fight with Chris. "Are you aware that Mr. Tanner has been listening to music on a cassette player that barely works? The batteries were expended, the sound is horrid, and the rewind doesn't even work. The tape he was listening to was so old that it was actually warped and stretched. I thought it would be considerate to bring him equipment that actually works."
Ezra opened the shopping bag and pulled out the finest Portable CD player available. He had spared no expense. Buck took the box, opening it and loading the batteries while Ezra reached back in the bag and pulled out a new CD of the tape Vin had been listening to at the apartment. "I replaced Mr. Tanner's tape, although I really can't picture this being Mr. Tanner's style."
Chris looked at the CD and smiled. Ezra moved into Vin's room and placed the CD player on the bed stand. He opened the CD case, placing the CD in the player and putting the player on 'repeat all' so the music would continue repeatedly.
Chris listened to the early strains of the first song and thought back to the first time Vin had heard that music. 'Pie Jesu.' That was the piece. He remembered having dragged Vin to the concert. The Judge and his wife, Evie had tickets and Chris had been invited to attend with Mary. Her son, Billy, had gotten sick and Mary had decided not to go. Vin had volunteered to baby-sit the sick Billy, but Mary had refused, and Chris had dragged the Texan to the concert. At intermission, the sharpshooter had stolen away, presumably to the restroom. Chris had worried that Vin had sneaked out. But, Vin had returned to the auditorium minutes later with a plastic bag sticking partially out of his suit jacket. He had claimed it was a snack for later, but Chris knew better. He knew the Texan had purchased a tape of the young Welsh singer. It had surprised him. He didn't think Vin would appreciate classical music, but he had watched Vin throughout the entire concert. It had reminded him of the scene in the movie "Pretty Woman" when Richard Gere had taken Julia Roberts to the opera. Within ten minutes Vin had stopped fidgeting and was totally captivated. Vin loved beautiful things, and this young woman's voice certainly was beautiful whether you appreciated the style or not.
"Chris? We gotta go or we'll be late," said Buck, laying his hand on Larabee's shoulder.
Chris shook himself from his contemplation. He glanced one more time at the unconscious Texan, took a deep breath and sighed. "Let's do it, boys."
The bust planning seemed to take longer than normal, and it probably had. The members of Team 7 were finding it difficult to focus because their hearts were not in it. Team 8 was the primaries, but they needed to know Team 7 would back them.
When it came time for the actual bust, Team 7's distraction was no longer a question. They were professionals and each man put aside his personal feelings to do his job. As always, Ezra was sharp, completely baffling the drug dealers. They had no clue what was coming until they heard, "ATF. Freeze!" Oddly, there was very little gunplay. A couple of shots were fired, but for the most part, they had to physically subdue the suspects.
Chris was almost happy when his suspect took a swing at him. He barely noticed the blow to his jaw, making quick work of subduing the criminal. The physical activity was a quick salve to his pent up frustrations, his guilt, and his fear. He was slightly disappointed that his man gave up so easily. He wouldn't have minded a real tussle. He cuffed the whining suspect and turned to check on his team.
A feral smile came to his face when he saw that not a one of them needed help. Even the southerner was holding his own against his suspect who was twice his size. Chris had a feeling the physical release was therapy for all of them. Soon all the suspects were subdued and taken to the police bus.
The nice thing about being backup? Team 8 had to do the reports. After checking to make sure no one was really hurt, Chris headed back to the hospital.
Vin was unaware of the hard work going on around him. The nursing staff gathered an assessment database that included his mental status, cranial nerve checks, motor and sensory findings, obtaining an accurate history from his friends, and precautions to prevent seizures and cardiorespiratory arrest. They recorded episodes of twitching, increased restlessness, and irritability. They watched for seizure activity, but since his arrival at the hospital, he hadn't had any recurrences.
Chris had been correct in his assessment that there was always a nurse in the room. Vin's neurological assessments were done initially every 15 minutes and then hourly as his condition stabilized. Within 24 hours, neurological checks were being done every 2 hours instead of every 15 minutes. After 48 hours, the checks were done every four hours. Vin's fluid intake and urinary output were closely monitored to avoid overhydration. The head of his bed was elevated 45° to help lessen the potential effects of cerebral edema, a further complication.
Vin gradually began to regain consciousness. As he became aware of things around him, he was confused. He didn't know where he was or why he was here. Something pulled at his left arm. He moved his right arm and tried to push the thing off his left arm. Someone was there saying something and moving his hand away. Something was in his nose. He reached up and pulled at it. Again the voice spoke to him and pulled his hand away. He growled in frustration and tried again, growing more agitated. After a few more tries and the voice becoming decidedly louder, he felt his arms held down and something encased his wrists. He tugged at the straps and began to panic when he found he couldn't move. The voice spoke soothingly but Vin was frightened. He didn't understand what was happening. Slowly a sound penetrated his foggy mind and he began to calm. He didn't know what it was, but it seemed familiar. In a few minutes he had drifted back to sleep.
Nurse Renton sighed with relief as she saw Vin beginning to relax. The music was helping. She didn't want to use the restraints, but the young man had already pulled his IV out twice. She had tried to help him understand where he was and what was happening to him, but it was evident that he was confused. She hoped that his mind would be clearer the next time he awakened, but with encephalitis and the severe symptoms he had shown prior to admittance, she knew that was not likely.
Vin had never been so frightened. Nothing seemed to work right. He opened his eyes but the light hurt. He squinted. A woman in all blue was standing next to him. Her mouth was moving but nothing made sense. Slowly it clicked that she was a nurse. He was in a hospital. He tried to say something but he couldn't make his mouth work. She held up a cup with a straw. Vin hesitated as his mind slowly wrapped around the objects and their purpose. The woman kept speaking to him softly as he sipped on the straw. She patted him gently on the shoulder and went out the door.
Terror filled him. He was alone. He didn't want to be alone. Where did she go? Vin pulled desperately at the restraints that held his wrists. His heart was pounding, his pulse racing. It was hard to breathe.
Suddenly there were two women coming into the room. The lady in blue and another one in a white lab coat. The lady in blue was saying something in that soothing voice and touching his shoulder. Vin felt his heart slowing down and his breathing relax. He watched her turn, still keeping her hand on his shoulder, and she pushed a button on the radio thing. Vin sighed. He knew that sound. He liked that sound. It made him feel calm.
The lady in white shone a light in Vin's eye. He didn't like that. The light made his head hurt. He turned his face away from her. The blue lady was doing something to a clear plastic bag that had a tube coming out of it. Vin's eyes tracked down the line of the tube and saw that it connected to his arm. He wiggled his arm and the blue lady smiled at him. The coat lady was talking again. He turned towards her voice, but he was getting really sleepy. He didn't want to go to sleep. He wanted to figure out what was going on. His eyelids seemed too heavy to keep open. Forcing them open one more time, he could see the coat lady smiling. His eyelids drooped closed and darkness wrapped itself around him again.
Vin had woken up several times during the day. Each time it seemed to take a little less effort to realize where he was. He was still afraid. He didn't know what had happened or why he was in a hospital. He didn't know why he didn't recognize these people or why his friends weren't here. Other people came into his room but the blue lady made him feel safe. She always made the music go. That was what it was! That radio thingy was a CD player and the CD was one of his favorites. He listened to the song. It reminded him of Josiah. 'Josiah,' he thought. Suddenly everyone around him was excited. Blue lady was talking to him and she looked concerned. The pink lady tried to lift up the sheet covering Vin's legs, but Vin grasped it with his fingertips desperately. He blushed in embarrassment. Pink lady took hold of his hand and pulled it toward the restraint. Vin felt the panic surfacing again. He didn't want to be tied up. "No!" he croaked, pulling his hand away from pink lady. They were all excited again. It was so confusing.
"It's all right, Mr. Tanner," said blue lady.
Vin looked at her, startled. He knew what she said.
She smiled. "You understood me, didn't you?"
Vin gave a slight nod, closing his eyes as his headache increased.
"My name is Veronica. Try not to move your head. I'm sure it hurts. Does your thigh hurt?"
Vin was confused. Why did she think his thigh hurt? He struggled to form the word and couldn't do it. But his body language gave her the answer. He gripped the sheet tightly. He wasn't about to let any of them under that sheet.
When the team arrived after the bust, they found the nurses were excited.
"What's going on?" asked Nathan.
"Mr. Tanner spoke the last time he was awake. It was only two words, but he seemed to know what I was saying," said Veronica.
"What did Mr. Tanner say?" asked Ezra, curiously.
"He said 'thigh' and 'no'. The 'no' came through loud and clear."
"Somebody must have gone for the catheter," joked Buck.
The nurse smiled. "As a matter of fact, when he said 'thigh', we thought he was complaining about his thigh hurting. Claire tried to check."
Buck chuckled. "Ya gotta understand. Vin is just about the shyest guy on earth."
"So I gathered," said Veronica.
"Can I see him?" asked Chris. She nodded and Chris went quickly into the room.
Chris couldn't tell if Vin was awake or asleep. His eyes were closed, but he seemed restless. He stood briefly by the bed, laying his hand on Vin's shoulder gently. "I'm back Cowboy. Any time you want to wake up again would be just fine with me." Vin shifted slightly, but didn't wake. Chris sighed. The next song on the CD began. Vin mumbled something. It sounded like thigh. How weird. Maybe his leg was bothering him. Maybe he had a cramp or something. Vin mumbled it repeatedly. Chris leaned in close to Vin's mouth to hear what he was saying. A big grin spread across his face as it clicked what the Texan was really saying.
Chris took the few short steps to the hallway. "C'mere," he called to the others.
"You can't all go in," protested the nurse.
"They have to hear this. He isn't saying 'thigh'," insisted Chris. Josiah, Buck, Ezra and Nathan followed Chris into the room, with the nurse close behind. Vin was still mumbling. Chris got everyone as close to the bed as they could. "Listen," he whispered.
Everyone heard 'thigh' the first time he spoke, but listening closely, they began to hear a grunt of air before the 'thigh' and an 'uh' following it. Josiah slowly looked up at Chris, meeting his eyes.
"I think he's asking for you, Josiah," said Chris.
As suddenly as he had started mumbling, Vin stopped.
"I'm here, Vin," said Josiah in his deep, rumbling voice. He fought to keep from being disappointed when Vin made no response.
Ezra rubbed his finger across his lower lip in concentration. He looked up and moved quickly to the CD player, turning off the song.
"What are you doing Ezra? He likes the music," said Chris.
"I'm aware of that, Mr. Larabee. Bear with me a moment." Ezra scrolled through to the song that had just played. He started it over and Vin began mumbling again. "It's the song," he said softly. The strains of "The Lord's Prayer" wafted through the room.
Josiah took hold of Vin's hand and began to quote The Lord's Prayer as the woman's voice sang. He felt Vin grip his hand tighter. Vin opened his eyes and for a brief moment there was a flash of fear in those eyes and Vin's breath quickened.
"It's all right, Vin," said Josiah gently.
Vin's eyes tracked away from the group surrounding him to Josiah's face. He knew this man. "Thigh-uh," he muttered.
"Yes, Vin. It's me. And Chris. And Buck, Nathan and Ezra," Josiah nodded toward the others.
Chris watched as Vin's eyes slowly surveyed the group, coming to rest on him. Those eyes were filled with fear.
The nurse pushed through the men. "I think it's time Mr. Tanner rested. Facing all of you at once is a bit overwhelming."
Vin turned to the voice. It was blue lady. He was safe.
Chris saw Vin's eyes latch onto the nurse. He could see relief in Vin's face, but it surprised him when Vin dropped Josiah's hand and latched onto hers. Veronica pulled her hand free and gently laid Vin's hand back on the bed. "Mr. Tanner is going to rest now," she said without turning from him. The men got the message and filed out of the room. Chris was the last one to leave.
Doctor Davis met with Chris to update him on Vin's progress. She started out by asking if Chris had any questions. Larabee nodded as he searched for a way to phrase his question.
"Vin seems... frightened?"
Doctor Davis nodded. "Step into his shoes for a moment. You wake up in a strange place with people you don't know, and your body won't work the way it is supposed to. That would be pretty frightening."
"But it's as if he is scared of me." Chris's eyes searched her face for the non-verbal answers.
Doctor Davis leaned back in her chair. She seemed to be trying to think of a way to explain it. "Mr. Larabee, have you ever played "Connect the Dots"?" Chris nodded. "Well that is basically what Mr. Tanner has to do. When you see someone, you almost instantaneously go through a series of conclusions. Mr. Tanner has to process those thoughts one at a time right now. He opens his eyes. Someone is with him. And he thinks 'who is this person?' and he is afraid because he doesn't know immediately. So he has to find the dot that says 'I know this person.' Then he has to find the dot that tells him who the person is and how he knows him. So it has taken him three or four processes just to figure out you are Chris Larabee and you are his friend. And that scares him because he doesn't know why you are his friend. Thus he continues the process of connecting the dots. The problem with encephalitis is that it affects people differently. Mr. Tanner's responses are very sluggish, but he seems to connect if you give him enough time."
"Will that change?" Chris had to know if he would ever have his friend back as he had been.
"It already is changing. He has made quite a bit of progress over the last 24 hours." She paused. "But, Mr. Larabee, I can not say for certain how far he will progress or how quickly." She could see his disappointment. "I know it's not what you want to hear, but the next two weeks should give us a good idea of his permanent prognosis."
"What should I do?" asked the blonde man.
"Be very patient with him. He will have times when the dots don't connect at all. He will be confused, likely over very simple things. His short-term memory will be spotty. He will have trouble with things such as remembering my name or his nurses' names. He may not remember what happened in the past few days or weeks. Just be patient with him and try to reinforce things without making him feel stupid."
Chris nodded. He would do anything possible to help the Texan.
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