Vin Tanner sat hunched at his desk with his head in his hands, no longer even trying to read through the meaningless jumble of letters on his computer screen. He knew he had to get the report done, knew there'd be hell to pay if he missed Larabee's deadline, but knew just as well it was no use.

Hell, how could he finish a report when he couldn't even read it?

A violent shiver ran through him, and a series of harsh, heavy coughs convulsed him. Lord God, he was cold! Pulling his jacket more tightly about him, he reached down and turned the small heater under his desk up a notch higher, sending hot air rushing over his booted feet and denim-clad legs. It didn't help, though. Another chill raked icy claws through him and he shivered harder than ever, fighting to keep his teeth from chattering.

Christ, he felt like shit.

The vicious cold that had been plaguing him all week was now flat-out torturing him, inflicting countless agonies upon him. His head ached mercilessly, and the whole right side of his face was throbbing; even the slightest movement of his head sent fresh hammer-strikes of cruel pain through every sinus passage he had. He was blowing his nose constantly, was already on his third big box of tissue this week, and cursed the tissue manufacturers bitterly each time he pressed a fresh sheet to his raw and burning nose, wondering when the hell they'd started putting sandpaper in their product.

Bastards should be shot...

He blew his nose again, and blew himself into another coughing fit. The hard spasms tore from him with a cruel force, shaking his whole body and sending fresh torrents of agony through his head, throat and chest. Between coughs, he gasped for wheezing breaths that never quite seemed to come, and pressed a shaking hand to his burning, aching chest as if that might somehow help his clogged lungs do their work.

Jesus, his back hurt.

He finished coughing at last, wiped his streaming eyes and blew his nose again, then folded his arms upon his desk and laid his aching, throbbing, splitting head atop them, the report forgotten. He didn't care about the preliminary details of the Williams case, didn't care about the case at all, didn't care about anything. He half-hoped Chris would come out and fire him so he could just go home and shoot himself.

Not that Larabee'd ever make it that easy...

A low, hoarse moan escaped him at that, as his soul contracted in pain. Chris. Unbidden, thoughts of the man sprang to his mind and brought tears to his eyes. Jesus, how he wanted to look up and see the long, lean frame towering over him, the brilliant green eyes sweeping anxiously over him, the strong, beautiful face creased with worry for him. He wanted to feel the powerful grip on his arm offering comfort and concern, wanted to hear that low, warm voice in his ear telling him the report could wait, ordering him home, offering to take him there...

Lord God, how he wanted! And all the things he wanted -- or the one man he wanted -- he knew he'd never have.

"God, Chris, where are ya?" he whispered miserably, his heart broken. "What've I done so wrong that ya cain't even bring yourself ta come near me no more?"

There was a time, he knew, when Chris would've been at his side at the first cough, at the first hint of illness, would long since have dragged him kicking and screaming to the nearest available doctor and threatened to shoot him if he stepped foot in the office before he was well. And though he would've fought it with everything that was in him, he would secretly have taken deep pleasure from the bullying, would have wrapped himself in the concern beneath the stern demeanor, would have felt infinitely better just for knowing that Chris cared enough to make him take care of himself.

But all that was gone now, and Vin hadn't the slightest idea why. Instead of concern, all he'd seen in Chris lately, all he'd gotten from him, was anger, hard and cold and cutting. He'd had his head bitten off more times than he could count, and for no reason that he could name. He'd been shouted at, snarled at, snubbed, his efforts to find out what he'd done thrown back cruelly in his face, his every gesture of peace savagely rebuffed, his friendship totally rejected. His whole world had been knocked off its axis, his soul thrown off balance and sent reeling. He couldn't understand how it had happened or why, but the very presence he'd come to need like the air he breathed had been torn from him, shattering him and leaving him more alone than ever he'd been in his life.

And now he was sick, desperately in need of Chris, and felt the loss of him more keenly than ever. Another shiver ran through him, another spasm of coughs tore from him, and he closed his eyes, wishing he could just go to sleep and stay that way forever.

Maybe then it wouldn't hurt so much...


Across the office, Nathan Jackson stared at Vin in deepening concern, his dark face lined with worry. Tanner had been sick for days, was rapidly getting worse, and had absolutely no business being in the office today. Hell, he couldn't even sit up anymore! Nathan could hear him coughing, had heard the rattle and wheeze that passed for his breathing and seen the fever in the glassy blue eyes, and feared what might happen if Vin didn't get help soon.

At the moment, pneumonia was the best outcome Nathan could envision.

With every protective instinct fully aroused, he shook his head and rose to his feet, determined to do what had to be done, no matter how difficult it got. Part of him, though, doubted Vin had the strength or the will left to fight him.

Those had already been sapped from him, and not by his illness.

"Goin' somewhere, brother?" Josiah Sanchez asked quietly, lifting his deep blue gaze from his computer screen to the tall black medic. He'd been watching Nathan watching Vin, and had known this moment would come. But he also knew what trouble any confrontation just now could cause, and hoped he could prevent -- or at least contain -- the catastrophe that seemed inevitable.

Nathan's eyes flashed and his jaw clenched as anger erupted through him. "I've sat here and done nothin' long enough!" he declared. "He's got no business bein' here, Josiah. He should be at home, in bed, not sittin' in front of that damn computer. He ain't far from havin' pneumonia!"

Josiah sighed heavily, his gaze shifting from Jackson to Tanner. "There's nothin' you can do for him, Nate," he said softly, sadly, studying the sick, dejected figure. "His isn't strictly an illness of the body, you know that. Hell," he murmured, hurting for the younger man, "this is only a symptom of what's really ailin' him."

Nathan scowled deeply as his anger rose another notch. "If Chris Larabee wants to be an asshole and a fool," he spat with a rare venom, "if he wants to destroy the best friendship a man could ever hope to have, there ain't nothin' I can do about that. But that man," he jabbed a finger in Vin's direction, "is sick and needs help. Hell, look at him! He looks half dead already! If we don't get him outta here soon, we're gonna be carryin' him out on a stretcher!"

Josiah hung his head and shook it slowly, crossing his arms against his broad chest. "He won't go and you know it," he said quietly. "He won't risk bringin' Chris's wrath down on him again, won't risk gettin' us in trouble for helpin' him. Besides," he raised sorrow-filled eyes to Jackson, "with Chris actin' like he is, I'm not sure Vin cares how sick he is, or how sick he's gonna get. Without Chris, I'm not sure Vin cares about anything."

Nathan exhaled sharply and stared past Josiah, past Vin, to the closed door of the team leader's office. His dark eyes burned with the same helpless anger that churned in his soul. "What the hell's wrong with that man?" he spat. "Why's he doin' this? For two weeks, now, he's been puttin' Vin through hell, and for what? Vin ain't done nothin' to deserve bein' treated like Chris has been doin', and now it's killin' him! You're right, Josiah," he said harshly, seething in fury and frustration, "there ain't a damn thing I can do, there ain't a damn doctor in the world that can help him. Ain't but one man who can do that, and the way it's lookin' now, Vin'll be dead by the time Chris pulls his head out of his ass and realizes what he's doin'!"

Nathan's bitter words carried easily to the other three agents making only half-hearted pretenses of working, and brought their unconvincing efforts to a halt. While JD Dunne and Buck Wilmington exchanged sad and anxious glances, Ezra Standish joined Nathan in staring at Larabee's closed door, his deep green eyes smoldering with a raw fury he took no pains to conceal. He possessed a piece of the puzzle his co-workers were missing, and, unlike them, knew exactly why the team leader's sudden and inexplicable cruelty was so devastating to the sharpshooter.

Vin Tanner was in love with Chris Larabee.

Standish had discerned the truth long ago, just after he'd first joined the team, when he was still gauging and judging the men about him. When he'd first recognized Vin's feelings for Chris, he'd regarded the discovery as little more than a curiosity, or as a potential asset, something that might come in handy should he ever need an ace in the hole. Over time, though, as he'd come first to respect Tanner and then to count him as a good friend, he'd kept the secret and guarded it carefully out of his deep regard for the man. Sometimes it seemed Vin realized he knew, but the Texan didn't seem overly concerned. And the fact that Tanner, who trusted so few others, trusted him only made Ezra all the more determined to keep that trust by keeping the secret.

Vin had protected his back, saved his life, on more than one occasion. Ezra considered it the least he could do to protect Vin's scarred and vulnerable heart.

Now, though, he was being forced to watch that heart breaking, and it was almost more than he could bear. His fury at Chris, and his frustration at his own helplessness, grew with each day that passed, until it was all he could do not to go screaming into Larabee's office and demand at gunpoint that the bastard cease his cruelty and make it right. And though he found the idea extremely tempting, he knew he would never be able to do it without letting the truth of Tanner's feelings slip, without giving Chris one more weapon to use against Vin. So he sat at his desk and did nothing, except curse Chris Larabee with almost every breath he took.

The man was throwing away more than most people ever had.

Buck might not have shared Ezra's understanding of the situation, but he fully shared the undercover agent's anger and concern. For two weeks now, he'd watched in deepening confusion and helplessness as a cold, black cloud had descended upon Larabee's soul, undoing an entire year of healing. The team leader had grown increasingly surly, and his formidable, foundation-shaking temper had taken on an all new explosiveness. From long and bitter experience, Buck knew his old friend was battling some demon, warring with some terrible pain, and the big agent felt again the fear and sorrow that had once haunted his every waking moment.

Chris had come through this darkness once before, had finally reclaimed his soul after a long and desperate fight with all the legions of hell. But Buck knew that much -- hell, most -- of the credit for that belonged to Vin. When the lanky young Texan had sauntered into Chris's life, the change in Larabee had been overwhelming, and almost immediate. From the first, the two men, with so many years and so many differences between them, had shared some invisible, intimate bond that joined them at the soul, that filled some gaping, aching emptiness in each and brought to both a healing and a wholeness long overdue. Tanner exerted a calming, steadying influence over the older man's ravaged soul, yet had also proved to be the one man who would stand up to Larabee, get in his face and go toe-to-toe with him, defying the infamous temper with an unflappable cool that was fast becoming a legend in its own right. And Chris had given the wary, distrustful young man a place to belong and a reason to stay, had offered Vin a warm and willing hand out of the isolation and loneliness that had defined his existence for so long.

Now, though, all that had been won seemed in danger of being lost again. Chris had reverted to the dark, humorless, brooding shadow he'd been for three long years, had in two weeks seemingly forgotten how to smile, how to relax, how to enjoy the company of the men who'd become his family. Worst of all, where once he would have turned to Vin, now he was turning on him, reserving the worst, most bitter displays of anger for him, lashing out viciously at the quiet young man who'd restored him to life, doing all he could to drive away or just destroy the friend who'd saved his sanity. His soul.

And it was killing Vin. Wilmington could see the agony in the expressive blue eyes each time he was pushed away, each time he drew a glare or a growl, each time Chris took another verbal shot at him or threw another barrier between them. Now, bleeding from more wounds in his soul than one man should bear, Vin was returning to what he'd been when he first joined the team. He no longer joked, no longer laughed, no longer smiled, but had withdrawn from them and fallen back into the wary silence and deep isolation from which they'd all worked so hard to draw him. He rarely made eye contact with anyone, and shied away from any physical contact as if he feared being struck. He kept himself in the background of any activity, on the outside of any conversation, and at lunchtime or the end of the workday would melt into the shadows and slip away, alone, before anyone could stop him. Once again, he reminded Buck of a wolf merely sniffing around the edges of civilization with hackles high, ready to run back into the wilds the moment anyone got too close.

But the wolf was sick, and Buck had no doubt that Chris's apparent rejection of his friendship -- of him -- was a major factor in that illness. One look at the sharpshooter showed he wasn't eating, wasn't sleeping, and had ceased caring about the job that had once given him such pride and pleasure. Chris' strange behavior toward him had clearly sent him reeling, and, stripped of the deep friendship he so needed in his life, denied the vital presence from which he drew such strength, he was losing -- had lost -- interest in everything, including taking care of himself.

And if someone didn't do something soon, Vin would die.

No sooner had the thought formed in his mind than Buck was uncoiling his big, powerful frame from his chair and rising to his feet, a look of determination on his handsome face. Fixing his concerned gaze upon the sick sharpshooter, he frowned tightly and shook his head, then drew himself up to his full, impressive height and squared his broad shoulders.

"I don't know about you boys, but I've stood all of this shit I'm goin' to," he declared in a low, angry voice, unable any longer to bear the younger man's suffering. "I'm gonna put a stop to this before we lose him altogether."

JD looked up and blinked, startled by the intensity of the fury he saw glittering in the deep blue eyes. Like everyone else in the office, he'd become haunted by the evidence of Vin's suffering, was thoroughly bewildered by the change in Chris's behavior, and worried about what it all meant for the team. Also like everyone else, though, he hadn't the vaguest idea what -- if anything -- could be done to make it all right again.

"What're you gonna do?" he asked softly, hoping Buck had a plan, but knowing full well that not having one wouldn't stop the big man once he'd decided to do something. Buck hated suffering of any kind, particularly hated it in one of his friends, and wouldn't hesitate to throw himself in harm's way if he thought it might help.

And, to JD, going against a surly, snarling Chris Larabee definitely counted as throwing yourself in harm's way.

Buck glanced at Nathan, and stroked his dark mustache in thought. "I'm gonna see if I can persuade Junior to let Nate have a look at him without raisin' a ruckus. Then I'm gonna take him home and throw his sorry ass in his bed. He's got no business bein' here. These prelims aren't that goddamned important."

JD winced and shook his head slowly, remembering how cuttingly clear Chris had been in his instructions to have the reports on his desk by Friday morning. "I don't know, Buck," he said quietly, worriedly. "I mean, I know Vin's sick, but Chris--"

"Fuck Chris!" Buck hissed savagely, slamming a large fist onto his desk so hard that JD jumped. "For some reason, he's decided to tear Vin's heart and soul inta shreds, to destroy the best friend he's ever known. There ain't a whole helluva lot I can do about that; I gave up tryin' ta ride herd on Larabee's demons years ago. If he wants ta be an asshole, trust me -- there's nothin' anybody can do ta stop him. But that man," he spat venomously, jabbing a long finger in Vin's direction, "has taken all the shit today I'm gonna let him take! He hasn't done a thing, not one goddamn thing, to deserve the treatment he's gettin' from Chris, and he sure as hell doesn't deserve ta sit at his desk and die of pneumonia because Chris-Almighty-God-Larabee has decided these shitty little reports are more important than his best friend's health!" He straightened and scowled bitterly as disgust coursed through him. "There's no excuse for what Chris is puttin' Vin through; it's nothin' but sheer cruelty. And I, for one, will not stand by another minute and let that son of a bitch treat that boy the way we couldn't treat a convicted felon!"

JD nodded slowly, soberly, and stared up at the seething Wilmington through approving eyes. He'd always idolized Chris Larabee, considered him the finest model he could emulate. Now, though, he felt only anger toward and deep disappointment in the man.

"You need any help, you just yell, okay?"

"By all means," Ezra drawled quietly, his voice dripping with contempt. "Particularly if it involves holding down and beating sense into our esteemed leader."

Buck smiled wolfishly at the two. "Well, now, pards, I figure I'd have ta hold an office-wide drawing for that honor!" With a smirk, he turned and crossed with long strides to where Nathan and Josiah were still holding their distant vigil over Vin.

"Mornin', brother," Josiah greeted quietly, perching on the edge of his desk and crossing his arms. He studied Wilmington closely, saw the anger and determination in the big agent's face, and smiled slightly. "You here to foment mutiny in the ranks?"

"Ain't here ta foment nothin', except maybe some common sense," Buck answered.

Nathan snorted bitterly. "Common sense? You're in the wrong damn place for that, Buck. Common sense ain't but a passin' visitor through these parts."

Buck set his hands on his lean hips and hung his head. "I know, Nathan," he sighed. "It's all gone ta hell, and none of us knows why. And the one man who does know ain't sayin'." He raised his head and gazed knowingly at the medic. "I guess you're wantin' ta have a look at Vin."

Jackson nodded, then frowned worriedly, his gaze slipping past Buck to Vin. "Yeah," he breathed sadly, "but I don't wanta spook him. He's hangin' on by his fingernails right now, had his whole world torn out from under him. I don't know how much more he can take, and I sure as hell don't wanta be the one that pushes him over the edge."

Buck reached out and laid a big hand on Nathan's broad shoulder, grateful for his understanding and concern. "I'll see if I can talk him into it. Why don't you go into the break room? Maybe if he knows you'll have some privacy he'll agree."

Nathan nodded. "Sounds good." He shook his head slowly, his dark eyes filled with sorrow. "I just wish I could do somethin' about what's really ailin' him." Anger ripped through him. "But I guess there ain't but one man who can do that," he growled.

"Yeah, well," Buck's eyes hardened, "I'm plannin' on havin' a little talk with him, too. First, though, we gotta get Vin outta here. I want him outta the line of fire."

"We'll take care of that," Josiah assured him. "We'll take him home, see he's taken care of. Then you can have a word of prayer with Brother Chris."

Buck nodded and watched the two head for the break room, then turned and started toward Vin. He uttered a silent, fervent prayer for strength, wishing all the while the marvels of modern medicine included a pill or a shot that could cure a broken heart.

Or that could restore warmth and feeling to one gone suddenly hard and cold.

Vin was still slumped over his desk, his head down on his folded arms, the unfinished report on his computer screen. The few entries he'd made were so garbled Buck couldn't read them, the words horribly misspelled, letters out of order, evidence that Vin was no longer able to manage his dyslexia. Buck chalked another offense up to Larabee, knowing how Tanner struggled with his disability and how ashamed he felt whenever it overcame him.

"Hey, Junior," he called quietly, kneeling at Vin's side and laying a strong but gentle hand upon his back. When the younger man tensed and tried to pull away from that touch, Buck removed his hand. "How ya doin', son?"

"Cain't do it, Buck," Vin rasped in a painfully hoarse voice. "I tried, but I jist cain't."

"Can't do what, son?" he asked in a calm, soothing voice.

Vin swallowed painfully and coughed harshly, tensing as the spasm pulled painfully at the sore muscles in his back. "The report," he croaked. "Cain't do it. Cain't read it. Reckon he'll have more reason ta be pissed at me now."

Buck's heart broke at the misery -- and not just from illness -- in that raw and ragged voice. Goddamn Larabee for this...

"Forget the report, Junior," he urged gently, pushing aside his anger at Chris for the moment. "I'm more concerned about you. And so's Nathan. He wants ta take a look at you, see if you need to go to a doctor, or just go home."

"'S jist a cold," Vin rasped, his drawl thicker than usual.

Buck laid the back of his hand against Vin's cheek, but quickly withdrew it when Tanner again pulled away. Even so, he'd plainly felt the heat of the young man's fever. "Don't think so, pard. You're hotter'n a griddle on Sunday mornin', got a cough a TB patient would envy, and you're wheezin' so bad your chest sounds like a damn accordion. We're all worried you're workin' on a case of pneumonia here, and we'd kinda like ta head it off at the pass, before you land in a hospital bed."

Vin shivered violently and coughed heavily. "'S jist a cold," he said again in that cracked whisper.

Buck sighed. "All right, maybe it is just a cold," he allowed, though he knew it wasn't. "You still need ta be in bed. Why don'tcha let Josiah take you home--"


The refusal startled Buck. "No? Why the hell not? Layin' in bed's gotta feel better than layin' on your damn desk!"

"Too cold," Vin croaked painfully, feeling as if Cuervo had taken to using his throat for a scratching post. "No heat at home. Boiler's busted."

"Oh, shit," Buck breathed, familiar with Tanner's rat-trap of a building. Heat failed in the winter, air conditioning went out in the summer, and the pipes could burst at any time. "How long's it been out this time?"

Vin shrugged. "Since Tuesday," he murmured as if it were nothing.

It was not nothing to Buck. "Tuesday?" he bellowed, shooting to his feet as outrage poured through him. "Goddamn it, Vin, this is Thursday! Why the hell didn't you say somethin', son?"

Vin only shrugged again. "Don't matter none," he said flatly. "I lived without heat b'fore, I kin live without it now. Landlord reckons it should be fixed by Monday."

"Shit, Junior, by Monday you'll be in intensive care!" Buck shouted. "Jesus Christ, I can't believe that bastard actually makes y'all pay ta live in that shithole!"

Vin lifted his aching head off his arms and stared up at Buck, a soul-deep pain filling his fever-bright blue eyes. "Ain't a shithole," he croaked, his voice unsteady. "'S my home. Now, git away 'n leave me be. I gotta try 'n git this report done 'fore Larabee comes out ta rake me with his spurs agin."

The words and the defeated tone of that ragged voice tore at Buck's heart and filled him with a wrenching sorrow. Once again, Chris Larabee had done the impossible; he'd managed to break a spirit Wilmington would have sworn could not be broken.

"God, I'm sorry, Junior!" he breathed, dropping once more to his knees at Vin's side. "I shouldn't've said that about your place. I know how much it means to ya. I'm sorry."

Vin shrugged his slumped shoulders and bowed his head, more tired than he'd ever been in his life. "Don't matter none," he breathed.

Buck longed to touch him, to comfort him as he would JD, but knew Vin would never accept it. And he refused to cause Vin any more distress than he was already feeling. "It does matter, son," he insisted softly. "You matter. That's why we're all worried about ya."

"No," Vin whispered, closing his eyes against the unbearably painful vision of the one man whose concern he needed most of all and didn't have. "Not all of ya."

Buck decided then and there that he wanted Chris Larabee's head mounted on his wall. "All of us that matter, then," he amended with a barely subdued anger. "Now, come on. Nathan wants ta have a look at you. He's in the break room, figured you could have some privacy there."

Vin was long past caring about such things. "Cain't. Gotta finish the report--"

"Fuck... the goddamned... report!" Buck spat through clenched teeth. "And fuck Chris Larabee! If he wants it so goddamn bad, let him do it himself. Hell, he can do all our reports! The man's decided bein' super-agent is more important than bein' a human being, let him do all our work! Then maybe he'll see we deserve more than ta be treated like somethin' disgustin' he's gotta clean off the bottom of his shoe!"

Vin raised his head as a feeble flash of anger went through him. "Ya got no right talkin' thataway about him, Bucklin," he scolded softly. "No matter how he's treatin' me, he's still your boss, 'n he's still the best agent you'll ever see. He's your oldest friend, Buck. He deserves better from ya."

Wilmington stared at him in shock, unable to believe Tanner could still defend Larabee after all the bastard had done to him. "And what about you?" he asked when he finally found his voice. "Don't you deserve better from him?"

Utter exhaustion and the weight of his illness swept through Vin in crushing waves, robbing him of the ability to feel anything but sick. "Don't matter none," he breathed in a flat, emotionless voice. "Reckon I've deserved a lotta things in my life. But I ain't ever got 'em b'fore, don't see why I should git 'em now." He struggled to his feet and stood shakily, the last vestiges of color draining from his face. "I'm gonna go see Nathan, then go home," he croaked. "I ain't feelin' so good." He walked away unsteadily, weaving noticeably as dizziness assailed him.

Behind him, Buck remained slumped on the floor, nearly weeping for the shattered young man.


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