Second to None


by Lara Bee and Macx





Author's Voice of Warning (aka Author's Note): English is not my first language; it's German. This is the best I can do. Any mistakes you find in here, collect them and you might win a prize. The spell-checker said everything's okay, but you know how trustworthy those thingies are.....

Background: Chris and Ezra are shape shifters, and a bond forms between them. Ezra becomes the last member of Chris' team in law enforcement.

Link to the official Boarderlines site: http://home.arcor.de/larabee/mag7/m7slfic.html

Story Notes: Lyrics "The Rose" Amanda McBroom, performed by Bette Midler. Thanks to Dietmar Schubert, physician and a colleague of Lara Bee, who provided some medical advice, not to mention a wonderful idea...




Buck hesitantly knocked at the door to Vin's quarters. After the talk he had had with Ezra the other day, he had come to terms with his feelings toward his friend. It had hit him right between the eyes that somewhere along the line, somehow in between, he had fallen for Vin Tanner. After they had started a sexual relationship born out of his own curiosity and intended to leave it there with no restraints or obligations whatsoever, somehow feelings had sneaked up on him. And after Buck had realized that Vin didn't know how to express love, knew love only as sex, he had acted on this feelings. Unfortunately he had screwed up and had hurt the only person he loved. Ezra had opened his eyes and suggested that the only way to get it right was to talk to Vin. Tell him what he had had in mind, hope that his feelings would be returned - or break up. Either way it would end the tension.




Vin opened the door and looked at him with slight surprise, an unspoken question in his eyes. From the very sight of his lover Buck could tell that his words had really hit home. Hard. Vin looked as if he hadn't slept since they had been together the last time. Or as if he had tried to drink himself into sleep. Every night.

"Vin. I ahm, I've come to talk to you. Let me in. Please?" he asked.

Vin just looked at him for a whole ten seconds, then nodded once and stepped aside without a word. Buck wasn't so sure this was a good sign, but at least Vin hadn't shot him right away.

He sat down at the coffee table and folded his hands, unsure how to begin. Vin just wordlessly placed a bottle of beer in front of him and sat down in the opposite chair, waiting.

Buck rolled the bottle in his hands and avoided Vin's gaze that he felt resting on him. Then he took a swallow of the cold brew and put it on the table.

//No time like the present//

He inhaled deeply.

"Vin, I have a lot of things to say and if I don't get them out straight, I might as well never, so I'd appreciate it if you don't interrupt me, okay?"

A short glance toward Vin showed him that the man was listening silently.

"All right, here we go. First, I'm sorry for what I said a few days ago. Or at least for the way I said it. I know now how it must have sounded. But I said it because you're too precious to me and I don't want to see you ... become like Chloe. Geez, when I remember her eyes when I met her again a few years ago ... they used to glow with an inner fire and sparkle, just like yours, and they were dead. No light, no sparkle anymore. She had lost her very soul. It tore my heart apart to see her like that, and I never want to see you become her, all bitter and lost and disappointed with life itself and love in particular.

"I know when we started this we had agreed to no commitments, but the thing is ... and I hope you won't shoot me now ... I said those things because the very idea of you looking at me with eyes like that shred my heart to pieces. And I saw you were on your way downstairs, Vin, you're heading that way. I realized it the very moment back in the archive when you were for a plain and simple fuck. That's how Chloe experienced love all her life, and I know she's not the only one. I want to change that, at least with you.

"Vin, I want you to listen closely now, because I think I will only be able to get it out once, and I want to be sure you understand every single bit of it. I said those things, because I care too much about you to let it happen. Not just as a friend. I realized it the other day when I was thinking everything through over and over again."

Buck hesitated for a brief moment and then he looked up, straight into Vin's eyes, all honest and open.

"I fell for you, Vin. And in case you don't get it clear: I fell for you hard, like never in my life before. I love you, Vin Tanner."

Then he waited. The minutes stretched, and it was a most unpleasant time.

Vin didn't react.

He just held the beer in his hands, rolling the bottle and staring down at the floor.

He didn't look up once.

He didn't do anything.

He just stared at the floor.

His jaws clenched.

Rolling the bottle.

Clearly avoiding Buck's gaze.

Until Buck couldn't stand it no more.

"Vin? Please, say something. Throw me out, shoot me, kiss me, whatever, but do something!" he begged.

"I won't shoot you ... "

It came out as nothing more than a whisper, and Buck almost missed it.

"So you're gonna throw me out instead? Tell me this is it and just hit the road?" He fought the tremor in his voice, the pain his statement evoked.

"No..."

Now Vin did look up and suddenly Buck understood why he had been so silent, holding on to the bottle and gritting his teeth.

Vin had fought to keep his composure.

And not out of anger.

"Does that mean you agree to the kissing part?" Buck croaked at the sight.

"Yeah ... "

He didn't have to say that twice.




Vin Tanner woke with a start. He found himself sitting upright in the bed, heart pounding like a drum, panting heavily and drenched in sweat. The remnants of his nightmare were still running through his mind. He squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his fists, not wanting to think of it again, remember it again. Go there again. The sudden agony of the Bond screaming with the shock of a sudden break, the bottomless dark abyss that his soul was threatened to drown in afterwards, and the deep sorrow and grief, the feelings of loss and loneliness that had claimed him for a long time. Something touched him from behind.

A warm gentle hand was stroking his back in comforting circles, and Vin found himself all but lean into the calming, soothing, caring touch. Vin turned his head a little and stared into the concerned eyes of his lover. Buck didn't say a single word, just kept stroking his back and silently offering support. Vin could see the question in Buck's eyes but he also knew that he wouldn't push, wouldn't ask, would just give him time until he was ready to talk, and that was something he had come to deeply appreciate. Vin inhaled and something inside of him decided to take the offer, to allow himself to let go, maybe for the first time in years. He slid back into the waiting arms, into the welcoming embrace of his lover that provided ease for his weary soul and a silent promise.

He felt Buck's slow strokes on his back, and his own body and soul relaxed against the warm presence that was his lover as he finally allowed Chanu to go.




The bedroom was bathed in soft, indirect light. It smelled of wood and something else. Ezra gently kissed the lips opening under his feather-like touch, a tongue meeting his as he slowly let it dance around the warm cavern of his partner. Hands brushed over a lean, firm body, exploring, mapping, caressing. He trailed his lips over the sun-tanned face, nipped at the jaw, kissed closed eye-lids, listened to the soft sighs of content pleasure. He followed the sinewy trail of a slender neck, pausing at one shoulder, teething the skin. Strong hands glided over his back and he caught a soft moan as he turned his attention to the inviting dark nipples. The moans increased as he gave them his sole attention, very much aware how sensitive they would get under prolonged ministrations.

Hips bucked against his and the hands clenched into his hair. There was an inner battle between pushing him away from the ever-increasing sensitivity that developed in the hardening nubs and keeping him there. Finally Ezra left them alone, smiling as hooded, hazel eyes looked at him, and he just had to kiss his lover.

"Turn around," he whispered huskily and Chris complied.

Ezra straddled the slender man, resting his weight on the muscular thighs as he reached for the near-by table. The massage oil caressed his skin as he poured it into his hands, slickening them. He then continued to dribble it over the smooth back. As his hands began to gentle spread the oil, starting to knead hard muscles, he heard a soft groan of pleasure.

Chris began to relax under the expert manipulation of tight coils and knots, warmth flooding through his system, and Ezra smiled as he felt the echoes of complete and utter relaxation coming through their Bond. He took his time as he tried to relief his lover of the tension and stress of the past days, paying special attention to all the little aches and pains, hands never ceasing their rhythm.

So much had happened lately that had demanded Chris's attention, both had seen little of each other and Chris's tension had started to radiate through the Bond. When he then had to accompany his boss off-station, Ezra had resigned himself to the frustration over the Bond, doing his best to soothe his partner. Tonight was their night. He had promised Chris a bath and a massage, and they would see what else.

As he reached the lower back, scooting further back on Chris's legs, Ezra's eyes fell on the tantalizing cheeks and he couldn't help but plant a kiss on them. Chris twitched. The thief smiled and let one finger draw a glistening trail of scented oil on the left one.

<Ezra....> Chris breathed through the Bond.

<Ye-es?> He planted another kiss.

A sigh that turned into a moan.

<This isn't very relaxing!>

<No?>

Ezra gently kneaded the firm cheeks.

Chris had screwed his eyes shut, body tensing. <No!> he admitted raggedly.

"Then maybe I should stop?" he said out loud and took his hands away.

There was a hiss of denial and Chris twisted around, dislodging the smaller man. Ezra found himself grabbed and a possessive mouth slanted over his, kissing him deeply. He was only too happy to comply, but he wouldn't let Chris take over the show. He separated, leaving his lover panting, eyes heated. Ezra drew his oil-slick hands over the muscular chest, teasing the still hard nubs, smiling at the grimace of pleasure on the blonde's face. He continued south, over twitching stomach muscles and to the hardness that had pressed against him already.

<I thought you wanted to relax> he teased.

Chris moaned, pushing himself into his questing hands, eyes closing in pleasure.

<I am> he sighed, his breathing quickening.

Oiled hands massaged his arousal, drawing little sounds of approval as Ezra brushed over the erotic spots.

"Turn around," he murmured again.

Chris's dilated eyes met his and he licked his lips. Ezra smiled ferally. Time for the 'what else', he decided. He gazed at his prone lover, hunger rising inside him, pressing to the forefront, urging him to take him. Chris echoed the need and Ezra simply followed the request.




Vin snuggled back into Buck's arms, still panting, and closed his eyes in the aftermath of their lovemaking. He felt a little worn out but the pleasant kind, and he let out a deep breath, a sigh that showed Buck how content he felt. Buck wrapped his arms around him from behind and nuzzled a little at his neck.

God, he had missed this. Ever since Buck had suddenly reappeared in front of his doors a month ago, there hadn't been a night when he hadn't felt thankful.

"Me too," Buck murmured, and Vin entwined their fingers.

It was a gesture he had come to cherish. He had never done it before, had never felt the need to do it, but with Buck, it felt right.

"Hey, pard, what's wrong?" Buck muttered lazily, and Vin frowned, having no idea what his lover was referring to.

"Whatcha mean?"

"You're shivering. Cold?"

Vin blinked as he realized that he was indeed shivering, at least his hands were. "Just a little. Maybe it's you were too ardent with me?"

Vin felt Buck chuckle against his back. "Yeah. Right. Too ardent. Me. Tell me another one, Tanner."

And with that Buck placed a light kiss on Vin's shoulder and pulled the covers over them both. Soon deep and steady breaths indicated that Buck was fast asleep. Vin looked at his hands again, clenched and opened them.

They still shivered.

Damn.




The next morning the shivering had turned into trembling, and it had extended to Vin's arms as well, and his knees felt like jelly. Vin frowned as he noticed a weight on his chest, restraining his breath a bit. //Buck's right. Must've caught a cold//, he mused, but the uneasy feeling kept nagging at the back of his mind, and he coughed.

"Vin?"

Buck's voice was still sluggish with sleep, and Vin was thankful for that. Buck wasn't as bad as Nathan, but he could be one hell of a mother hen, especially when it came to his lover. Vin had noticed that when he had once come down with a little cold and a small fever. Buck had made a fuss over him. Well, actually he had done nothing but taking care of him, feeding him chicken broth, preparing tea and juices and stuff, but Vin was not exactly accustomed to something like that. Although he had to admit that being read to while tucked into warm blankets had made him feel secure and warm inside.

"It's nothing, Buck. You were right, seems I'm getting a cold here."

"Want me to order chicken soup again?"

"Naw, won't be necessary. Now, why don't you get up now and make breakfast while I take a shower? Duty calls."

"Tell duty I'll call back."

Vin grinned as he heard the pillow-muffled complaints of his lover as he headed toward the bathroom. Buck wasn't exactly an early bird ...




The day passed slowly. Vin managed to finish his report, sent off several mails that had sat in his outbox for two days now, and he actually did a little desk cleaning. By late afternoon, he felt shakier than ever and his head pounded. It grew worse as he left the office, following Buck to the elevators.

Vin couldn't hide it this time. His limbs were trembling viciously and uncontrollably, and he was no longer able to stand upright. He felt as if a metal band was wrapped around his chest and slowly but constantly drawn closer and closer as his heartbeat began to falter.

"Buck ... " he managed to get out.

The craving for air became crucial as Vin wanted to take a deep breath only to realize with growing panic he could not breathe at all. Somewhere someone called his name and he tried to cling to that voice through the sound of the rushing blood in his ears. A familiar face appeared in his decreasing vision Buck -- and he clung to his lover like the drowning man he felt like. He heard Buck call out for him over and over again as his body just gave in and the lack of oxygen sent him into darkness.




"Buck ..."

The hoarse, choked sound let Wilmington whirl around and what he saw made him gasp in utter horror. He saw his lover grow pale like death himself, trembling violently and sliding down the wall behind him.

"Vin! Goodness gracious ... "

Buck rushed to Vin's side and called out for him again, as he noticed the look of sheer panic in his blue eyes and, with growing panic of his own, that Vin obviously wasn't breathing. He punched the speed code into his com unit.

"Nathan! Emergency on deck 24, Chimera office! Code blue!"

Then all of a sudden Vin's eyes rolled back and he lost consciousness, while the trembling increased.

"VIN!! ... "




"Nathan, what's wrong with him?"

Buck sat at the hospital bed and watched the unconscious, deathly pale form of his lover. Vin had not started breathing on his own again, so he was attached to a ventilator doing it for him. Nathan had noted that Vin's heartbeat had not returned to its normal level and injected a small electronic device near the sinoatrial node, which would support the body's natural attempt to regain the healthy heart rate.

"Virus. MediBase has identified it as Thorne Virus."

Buck stared at him. "A virus?" he echoed. "What is it and how did he get it?"

"The Thorne virus is a rare, rather unknown type of infection. No one knows how the human body acquires it. It's something Vin could have gotten several years ago and which might have never broken out. The virus rests within the central nervous system, or CNS, and can remain there without breaking out for all your life. You see, neural impulses are transmitted by chemical means. The impulse causes the release of a neurotransmitter from the presynaptic membrane of the axon terminal. The neurotransmitter molecules diffuse across the synaptic cleft, bind with specific receptors on the postsynaptic membrane, causing depolarization or hyperpolarization of the postsynaptic cell."

At the blank look, Nathan smiled.

"That means, almost everything our body does, movement, reflexes, even digestion, is due to this simple chemical function. And this virus destroys the neurotransmitters responsible for muscle movement. It means Vin is unable to move a single muscle on his own or even breathe. The heart could work on its own, it is not necessarily depending on the impulses from the CNS, but because those impulses are erratic, it picks up that rhythm. Meaning without help it falls into fibrillation."

Buck's eyes had widened and there was plain fear in them. "Why is he unconscious?"

"I put him in an artificial coma, Buck. As I said, he can't move anything, has no reflexes whatsoever. But his brain can receive stimuli from the outside environment which means he could hurt like hell and not be able to say so. He can't speak either."

The other Agent swallowed heavily. "Oh my gawd," he breathed. "What are you going to do about it?" he demanded. Buck registered the short hesitation. "Nathan?"

Jackson gazed at his friend, expression as professional as possible.

"We have to fight the virus and replace the neurotransmitters. Then Vin should be able to breathe on his own again."

"Should?!"

Again Nathan hesitated. "Buck, this illness is quite rare. MediBase has only information about patients who ... well, there is no successful treatment reported."

Wilmington paled dramatically. "What?! Does that mean ... you don't... I mean ..." He stumbled to a halt.

Nathan nodded slowly. "Yes. I don't know what to do. Maybe if we can find out where or when he got it... or if he had an attack before."

"There is something else, right?"

Nathan hesitated again, then nodded.

"Tell me."

"The virus destroys the neurotransmitters in the synaptic cleft. But ... it does something else."

"What?"

"It ... the synaptic cleft is filled with a liquid, which, in very simple words, makes the neurotransmitters move. The virus ... well, in time the number of virus particles increases, and then it turns the liquid into jelly."

Buck shook his head, impatient. "Nathan, I don't speak medical! Meaning?"

"Meaning that the neurotransmitters can't move from the presynaptic membrane to the postsynaptic cell. It means that from that moment on there won't be any nerve function whatsoever."

"Are you telling me ...?" He broke off.

"I'm telling you, that ... Vin will die. To save him I would need a miracle."

Thoughts chased each other in Buck's mind as he tried to get a grip on what Nathan had just revealed. He had told him that Vin, the man he had just admitted he loved, the man who had obviously admitted to finding love himself, would actually die in front of his eyes. That he wouldn't be able to hold him any more, to touch him anymore, to tell him ...

"No... " he breathed.

It was merely a whisper, but Nathan heard it anyway. He looked into Buck's haunted eyes, saw the despair there that was way beyond a friend's sorrow, and understood.

"I'll do my best. If there is a way, I'll find it."

With that he left the two men alone.




Buck swallowed and looked at Vin's pale and lifeless figure in the hospital bed. God, how he hated hospitals!

"Don't leave me now, Vin," he whispered, tenderly caressing his lover's temple with one thumb. "I just found out, damnit. Don't you dare leaving me now ... "

He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to fight the tears from falling.

He wasn't successful.




The news about Vin's sudden illness shook everyone. Six men stared at the doctor as he carefully laid out the virus and its workings to them. "Is it infectious?" Chris asked matter-of-factly, neither his voice nor his face giving anything away.

"No. The Thorne virus cannot be transmitted, which is lucky because otherwise we would have had an epidemic before," Nathan answered. "I put Vin into Isolation nevertheless. All patients with a rare disease have to be. You can all visit, one at a time."

Judge Travis, who had sat quietly at the head of the table, turned an unreadable expression on the medic.

"What are the further proceedings, Dr. Jackson?"

"I'll try to find out where he contracted the virus," Nathan told him. "As I told you, MediBase can't help me in finding an antidote, but I believe that if we can find the place where Vin was infected, we may be able to find a way to cure him."

"And how much time would that take?"

"I don't know, sir," was the honest answer.

Travis leaned back, interlacing his fingers. "Long enough for Agent Tanner to live to see the cure?"

JD's face displayed a suddenly rising anger and Travis watched as Ezra placed a calming hand on the younger man's arm, catching the furious eyes and shaking his head.

"I ... hope so, sir."

The Judge let a thoughtful gaze linger on the five men in the briefing room. Wilmington was in Isolation with Tanner, watching over his colleague. Why Chris had let the Agent remain was anyone's guess, but he wouldn't inquire further.

"As long as I don't need the Chimera for an operation, I can grant you all the research time you need," he finally said. "But I expect you to be follow orders if a case needs you."

Chris nodded. "Understood, sir. We accept."

"Good. Dr. Jackson, I'll extend your clearance level to give you full access to any facilities you need."

"Thank you, sir."

"Gentlemen, don't get me wrong. Agent Tanner's health is in my interest.

I don't want to lose a good man to an invisible enemy without a fight, but I also want you to understand that it isn't the Agency's purpose to investigate medical cures. We are a law enforcement institution."

"We understand that, Judge," Chris agreed, daring any of his men to voice protest.

Travis met the team commander's eye and rose. When he had left, Chris turned to Nathan.

"How long can you sustain the life support?"

"As long as Vin's body doesn't give out completely," was the soft answer. "Chris, the virus might mutate, it might develop new strains.... I'm just not sure. Even if it doesn't we don't have that much time. We have to find the place he contracted it as fast as possible. I'll use Vin's file to locate places, and even then it won't be easy."

"Needle in a haystack," Josiah murmured and everyone could only agree.




Dr. Nathan Jackson sat in the cafeteria and slowly sipped at his coffee. He felt incredibly tired and empty. He had just come from Isolation where a good friend was still fighting for his life, but for how long? Vin was a very strong man, but even he couldn't survive against the Thorne virus if they didn't find a cure. Nobody had ever survived an infection with this virus, nobody. Nathan didn't have any illusions about the fact that most certainly by recognizing the true nature of Vin Tanner's illness he had signed his death sentence. Life support went only so far. He had spent hours pouring over MediBase data, discarding it all as there wasn't even an attempt to heal the deadly illness.

Buck had taken up residence in the Isolation room and no one tried to really remove him. The nurses didn't complain, since he followed their orders when they needed to check their patient. Buck had asked JD to bring him some of his stuff, toiletries and such, so he would be able to take care of Vin as much as possible. He helped with physiotherapy, and he was shaving or bathing him. Nathan had watched this, had closely observed his friend and had recognized the expression in Buck's eyes, his whole demeanor, as he silently supported the sick man who couldn't even hear him. He had realized that this wasn't his place to bring up the topic. Not now. Not when the chance that Buck might lose Vin was so real. So very real. Someone placed another cup on the table and Nathan looked up, smiling slightly. It was Ezra. The young man was looking tired as well, but much better than Nathan knew he must appear. Ezra had been a constant around Isolation as well, but mostly as a visitor, visually checking on Buck. Nothing more.

"Hi, Nathan," the thief said calmly. "Are you okay?"

Nathan grimaced. "Shouldn't you rather ask how Vin is?"

Ezra gave him a serious look. "I have a pretty good idea how Vin is, but I want to know how you are."

Since when had Ezra taken over counseling? Then again, he was pretty good with words; it had been and still was his job. With his latent empathic abilities, he also picked up on a lot of things others might miss. And Nathan found it easy to talk to. Ezra Standish himself might be skittish about revealing his own emotions, but always had an open ear.

"Tired and exhausted."

"That I know as well."

Nathan frowned. "What else do you want to know?"

Ezra met his eyes and said, "How are you coping with it?"

"I'm fine."

Ezra leaned forward. "Don't try that on the master, Dr. Jackson. You aren't."

Nathan ran a hand through his short hair. His eyes burned, his head throbbed, and he felt every muscle in his body. He felt so tired. And helpless. Especially helpless. Despite all the knowledge of MediBase at his disposal, all his experience and knowledge, there was nothing he could do. He wasn't even aware of uttering this out loud until he saw Ezra nod.

"But you will keep on looking," the younger man stated. "And that's all that counts."

Nathan nodded, but there was no real conviction in his eyes. Where else should he turn except the largest collection of medical data in the whole Joined Governments? The longer he waited, the more neurotransmitters might be affected, the more the numbers of the virus would increase, antiviral medication or not. That meant that this cruel little thing would work more havoc in Vin's body, would slowly start to alter the state of the liquid within the synaptic cleft. The virus might even mutate, change into something new, not that this would change anything. Maybe lessen Vin's time.

"JD said he's still going through Vin's files," Ezra went on. "I think he's ready to cross-check data with you."

"Yeah, he sent me a memo." Nathan twisted his nearly empty mug around on the worn Formica table top.

"Nathan?"

He looked up into two intense green eyes. "Yes?"

"No one's expecting more than you can give," Ezra said seriously.

"Except yourself."

"But when I lose Vin," Nathan argued softly, "we all will lose more than him. We'll also lose Buck."

And that added to the soul-deep fear of seeing their second-in-command die of such a rare disease.




Chris had watched Buck sitting at Vin's side without leaving him for almost a week now, except for the calls of nature, that was. He saw the dark circles under Buck's eyes, the haggard face, the slumped figure. There was something definitely wrong with this picture, but Chris couldn't really put a finger on it.

<Do you really have to wonder, Chris?> Ezra's soft remark came over the Bond. <Look at him. Real close, I mean>

<What? He's concerned about Vin. We all are.> Chris was puzzled.

What did Ezra talk about?

<Chris! Does he act like a friend who is concerned about a friend's well-being, or does he, ... well... act like you or me?>

Exasperation accompanied the words.

Chris blinked at that and his head flew around as he took in the picture that revealed itself right in front of his eyes. A picture that had been there for the past six months and that he hadn't been able to see. Or refused to see?

Buck sat at Vin's side, all right. But he held his hand like Chris would have held Ezra's, thumb slowly stroking the other man's skin. He was talking to Vin, yes, but Chris had heard the words he had said, and they were more like he would have talked to Ezra.

"Don't you dare leave me here, pard."

"I can't go on without you."

"Damnit, you fool. You trusted me with everything, but not enough to tell me you're sick?"

If that hadn't been enough to convince him, Chris saw Buck lean over the unconscious form in the bed, whispering something into Vin's ear and place a gentle kiss on the other man's forehead.

Buck and Vin?

Vin had been the man he had met in that bar?

Vin had been the man he had well?

Vin Tanner, his second-in-command, the man he had known for such a long time now? Or at least thought he knew.

Ezra drew Chris's attention from his studies. <So? Buck is your oldest friend, Chris. And look what he has done for you. Tolerance works both ways. Besides, shouldn't you be glad for them? They could do much worse, Chris, both of them. You know that>

Flustered, he shook his head. <I know. But I think I will need time to adjust>

Chris felt Ezra chuckle, and the picture of a furious Buck, fighting with teeth and nails in an attempt to protect him from a threat named Ezra Standish was sent over the Bond.

<I think we should deal with that later. First Vin has to get well>

Ezra was serious again. <Do you have a single clue what it would do to Buck should Vin...>

Chris felt the sharp reminder of a pain he himself had felt eight months ago when he had thought he had lost his Bonded, his lover, to a cruel drug that had wiped out every human part of Ezra, and had only left behind a terrified animal which hadn't trusted anybody but Buck.

The memory of what it had done to him, what he had almost done himself ...

<Shhh, it's over, love. I'm still here, and you are, too>

<Know that. Still hurts>

Chris inhaled deeply as he felt the warm presence of Ezra's essence surround him, 'felt' a small featherlike touch on his own temple and he knew that Ezra had just reached out for him over the Bond. He mused over the term of endearment, something that neither of them rarely if ever used. It was never necessary. The emotions spoke for themselves.

<They're not Bonded, but ... it's hard to know you're about to lose the one you love> Chris murmured.

<Let us be there for him. This time he needs you> Ezra agreed.

<And you>

A smile followed that statement. Chris knew he could count on Ezra to be there, for whoever needed his help, even if it was just to listen. And Ezra was damn good at listening.




"Okay, where do we want to start?"

Nathan sat down on the second chair next to the computer station and looked at the scribbled notes. He took a data carrier out of a transparent bag and handed it to the younger man.

"Here's a list of every place Vin went ever since he was born. Can you rig a search engine to cross-check on past Thorne virus outbreaks and those places?"

JD nodded. "Tall order but doable. Talking about which, you better order out for pizza because I'm going to be down here for a while." Nathan chuckled. "The usual?"

"Yep."

JD started to type in search keys and the computer went to work. When the results came up on the screen, Nathan sighed. He had expected this. There had to be over five thousand hits!

"Eeeep," Dunne mumbled.

"Well, we have to narrow it down and then see if any of the remaining files give us any answers."

JD set to work again. Yes, this would take a while and even when they were done with the first data sorting, their work had just begun. "I'll have to check on my patient. In case you need something, page me."

JD nodded at Nathan, completely engrossed in his work already. The medic left and he was alone.




"Buck?"

The quiet voice startled Buck out of his thoughts. "Nathan. What's wrong?"

Nathan cleared his throat and pointed at Buck's hands. "I think I should check you out."

The dark-haired Agent gazed at his hands, noting in dismay that they were trembling slightly. "Why? I'm just tired, is all."

"Nope, you're not."

Buck's eyes narrowed. "What are you implying?"

"I want to check you out for the Thorne virus," Nathan told him calmly.

"Me?"

"Yes. Once the virus is active it can be spread by body fluids."

"Nathan, what are you saying exactly?" Buck demanded.

"I think you might've caught it from Vin."

His eyes widened and his mouth hung open. "I ... oh shit!"

Buck looked at his trembling hands and swore heavily as the true meaning of Nathan's words sunk in. Jackson knew. Damn, anyone with a rudimentary idea of how the virus was transmitted could add one and one and see the truth!

"Nathan," he started.

Nathan hook his head, a small smile on his features. "Medical confidentiality. I won't tell anyone. And you don't have to explain anything."

"Thanks," was all he managed, swallowing heavily.

"So... what now?"

"I was unable to find a cure yet. We're currently running a full scan through Vin's personal file. Maybe it can tell us where he caught that thing."

Buck looked at his trembling hands and coughed a little. "How long?" he just asked.

Nathan gave him a thoughtful look.

"Within the next ten hours. Approximately."

Ah hell.




Eight hours later the trembling in Buck's hands had increased to a level where he wasn't able to hide or control it. Nathan had monitored him closely ever since he had brought him the bad news. Buck refused to go to sleep or rest. He didn't want to leave Vin's side, because, damnit, he had no idea if he would ever see him again! Buck felt a cough rise in his chest again, but somehow this time it felt strange, not like before. He tried to cough it out, but with no result. Nathan was at his side in no time and looked at him with deep worry, a syringe ready. Buck tried to regain his breath only to find there was nothing to regain and he suddenly understood. Nathan's strained whisper, "I'll get you back, both of you," was the last thing he heard before the medication sent him into darkness.




The briefing room was filled with heavy silence after Nathan had finished his report. Four men looked at each other, fear in their eyes.

"How?" JD finally broke the oppressive silence.

Nathan sighed. "Buck caught the virus from Vin," he said with professional calm, hoping their pilot wouldn't inquire more.

"But... how?" Dunne echoed his first question. "You said Vin couldn't transmit it! It's why we could see him, even in Isolation."

Nathan nodded, briefly glancing at Chris. His commander held a strange expression, one that told Nathan that except for JD and maybe Josiah, he had been one of the last who hadn't known about Vin and Buck.

"I know, JD. The virus can't be transmitted by air or touch. It can be transmitted by fluids."

JD was silent, looking thoughtful, then suddenly nodded, accepting the fact silently.

"None of us are in any danger," the medic added.

"So what do we do now?" Josiah posed the all-important question. "We continue looking for the most likeliest place Vin was infected," Nathan sighed.




Discarding another file, JD rubbed his burning eyes and stared at the list. It started to swim in front of his eyes. He blinked several times to get it into focus. His head had started to throb painfully some hours ago and he currently lived on painkillers. Someone placed a glass with a clear liquid in front of him, startling the pilot. He looked up and found it was Ezra.

"Hey," he greeted his team mate.

"Hey yourself. I was wondering where you had disappeared off to."

The thief sat down on the chair Nathan had vacated it must have been hours ago. "So... how's it going?"

"Rather well, actually. Nathan has some data he went to check and we are compiling the last list to go through. After that we should have a search grid."

Ezra nodded. "You might want to take a break then."

"After this is done, yeah."

"Sleep would help."

JD sighed.

"JD," Ezra said softly, "you won't help either Buck or Vin by falling asleep here, wearing yourself out. I know we are running against the clock, but you have to listen to your body's needs as well."

JD stared at the keyboard. "I know. I'll get some sleep when this search run is over."

"Okay." Ezra started to rise, but he was held back by a softly voiced, "Ez?"

"Yes?"

"Nathan said Buck caught the virus from Vin."

Standish nodded.

"But Vin couldn't have transmitted the virus by touching him... or being in the same room with him."

"Yes."

"How did he get it then?"

Ezra looked thoughtful.

"I mean," JD went on, "the only other transmitter could be... y'know, directly. But Vin wasn't hurt, so he didn't bleed. And neither was Buck."

He inhaled deeply. "Is it... a sexually transmittable disease?"

Ezra had to smile. Not because it was funny; far from it. JD showed more insight than he was usually given credit for. Buck liked to see him as a little naïve, but Standish had long since realized that JD's mind wasn't just solely focused on technological and mathematical problems. He was very quick on the uptake. He had drawn a conclusion out of the facts presented to him.

"JD, this is something very personal," Ezra said calmly. "And it's something you should discuss with Vin and Buck." He gave the younger man a smile.

JD watched him leave the room, deeply confused. Then he shoved the thought from his mind. He had a job to do and whatever else puzzled him, there was time for an answer later. And he definitely intended to get it.




Ezra walked into Isolation, watching the calm movements of the nurses as they checked the life support machines and the IVs. Nathan sat at his desk, scribbling down notes. He looked tired, exhausted, and he radiated an air of hopelessness. Ezra melted into the background, just observing. It was something he was good at. It was how he had pulled off so many thefts while still in the same room and right next to a person. His eyes wandered back to the isolation chambers as such. Lately, a thought had persisted, troubling his sleeping and waking mind, and he wondered if Nathan had even thought about it. Actually, it had been JD's comment about a sexually transmittable disease two days ago that had launched the gray mass he called a brain into thinking.

Damn. Neither of them needed that, but he had to ask.

"Nathan?"

Nathan startled out of his work, blinking at the Agent suddenly right next to him. "Ezra! I didn't see you come in." He scowled. "Neither did I hear you."

Ezra shrugged. "It's a knack."

"Obviously. So, anything I can help you with?"

The thief sighed softly. "I've been thinking, about Vin and the virus," he said slowly. "About how he might have caught it."

Nathan nodded, encouraging him to go on. Another sigh.

"I didn't like where this thinking took me and you might have been there already, but what if Vin wasn't the original host and caught it from someone else?"

Nathan's expression was stony for a moment, then he lowered his eyes, clenching his hands around the pen. "I thought about it as well," he said slowly. "Several times."

Ezra slid into the chair in front of the desk. "And?"

"And I'm trying not to think about it. If Vin caught it from someone else... we might never find either the planet of origin or a way to produce antibodies," Nathan confessed softly.

Ezra nodded. That was what he had been afraid of. Before Buck, Vin had had other men. He might even have slept with women. Anyone could have given him the virus, all the way back to high school.

"What I'm clinging to is a theory," the doctor went on. "Buck showed symptoms of the virus very closely after Vin came down with the Thorne virus. I'm not sure how long he and Vin have been together, but if it has been only recently, then maybe the original carrier's contact with a new host launches the virus into action. If Vin was infected early on, the hibernation period was years, maybe even a decade."

"A lot of ifs," Ezra told him softly.

"I know."

There was an unspoken question in Nathan's tone. How long were Buck and Vin together? Ezra knew it might be vital concerning their survival, and he realized that Nathan knew about the relationship and he apparently had no reservations. Still, he didn't like spilling secrets, even open ones. He briefly closed his eyes, then nodded to himself.

"Buck couldn't have been infected before the last six months," he explained. "Maybe only in the last weeks, due to precautions."

Nathan nodded. "I thought as much. So if the virus changes its status due to a new host environment, infecting the new carrier immediately, then Vin's original infection was somewhere else. I think he is a primary carrier. That's what I pray for anyhow. Because if he isn't..." Nathan stopped and gazed at the desk.

Ezra understood. If Vin wasn't a primary carrier, if the virus actually went into hibernation once more as it was transmitted after it had activated, if Vin had gotten it from somewhere else they would lose both of their team mates and friends.

"Which means we really just have to find the planet he might have been infected on," Ezra only said.

A tired smile answered the statement. "Yes, so simple."

Ezra chuckled. He knew it was far from simple, but at least it was something they could do.




It had taken four endless days. Chris was ready to go up walls and Ezra wondered just how much a mind shield could take before it crumbled into non-existence. Being physically around Chris was straining enough.

The 'commander' was in charge, not the man. Chris was the efficient, hard-as-nails, and sometimes rather gruff and cold Agent he was known as, and even Ezra felt the coldness now. Comments along the line of 'not now' were common and while they had hurt the first two times, he was by now simply ignoring them. Chris was handling the situation his way, and that was by working -- and pushing everything that was a distraction away. His whole posture expressed his 'don't mess with me or else' mood. While Ezra didn't see himself as a distraction, he left his lover the room he craved, though he didn't give in either. Ezra wouldn't idly sit by and watch Chris destroy himself as long as he could help it.

It all finally climaxed on day four, when Chris lost his temper. Ezra had simply stood there, taking the brunt of the explosion, until Chris had shakily stumbled away and fled into his quarters, slamming the connecting doors shut. But no walls had blocked the Bond and the thief had felt the raw pain, the sheer pressure of responsibility and hopelessness, and he had followed Chris, who hadn't locked the door. A clear sign that he wanted Ezra, but he didn't know how to ask.

He had held him, feeling the tremors shaking the lean frame, kissing his forehead, just being there. Chris wanted, needed, physical comfort, and Ezra had given it.

"What am I doing?" Chris murmured, sounding lost.

"The best you can."

"And it's not enough. First Vin, now Buck!"

Ezra sighed, disturbing the blond hair. "There's nothing more you can do, Chris. You're facing the fire."

"And it's burning me."

"Not if you let me help."

"I'm an asshole."

"I wouldn't go that far."

Chris twisted his head, looking into the mischievous eyes of his lover.

"Oh?"

"I was thinking more along the lines of 'moron'."

It earned him a rumble.

"Didn't know you could be such a moron," Ezra continued, one hand stroking over the blond hair.

Chris snorted.

"Then again," Ezra went on lightly, "there's BP-379."

"That was different," Chris argued.

"Oh?"

"I was a horse at the time. I wasn't myself. Gets to you."

"Now you're yourself and you're just the same asshole," Ezra remarked.

It earned him a dark look. "I thought I was a moron."

"Okay, not an asshole. How about 'idiot' then? Or neurotic? Imbecile? Lunatic?"

"Ezra!"

"Oddball? Couch case? Nut? Bat? Crackpot? Screwball?"

Chris gave a growl and Ezra laughed as his lover snarled at him over the Bond.

"Or how about... mine?" he added, voice softening. <You know I'm here for you> Ezra sent, still running his fingers through the strands.

<You don't have to fight this all by yourself. It's not a new version of 'Chris vs. The World'>

<Sorry> Larabee murmured.

A kiss was placed on his temple and Ezra smiled. <Apology accepted, Commander Larabee>

"Buck would have my ass if he knew I was falling back into old patterns," Chris sighed, running his hand over Ezra's side.

"He can't have it," came a rumble.

"Oh?"

"I'm a possessive sob when it comes to certain anatomical parts of you."

Chris pushed himself up on one elbow, looking into the green eyes.

"I see." He placed a kiss on Ezra's lips. "Then I'm in good company, hm? Those are mine," he claimed.

Ezra's smile lit up his face. He wrapped his arms around his lover, pulling him closer. "Ditto," he murmured into the kiss.




"This is the best JD and I came up with."

Nathan gestured at the single sheet of paper everyone had been given.

"It's a list of places where Vin might have contracted the Thorne virus. I know it's a shot in the dark and there's barely any scientific data on it, but I think he could only have been in contact with it on planets where he stayed for a rather long time. Since the virus can live inside its host for all the hosts lifespan and never break out, Vin could have had it in him ever since his childhood years. The longest time he stayed on a world, aside from his birth planet, was throughout his college study years. Myrrh, the moon around Ihj, where he lived with the Hija for months at a time, and to which he returned to year after year, is my best shot for now. I'd like to start there and then, if we can't find any traces of the Thorne virus, go to the next one."

Chris looked over the list. It was long, but not as long as the original one. Still, he had a sinking feeling. Travis had yet to give hem any kind of assignment, and Chris suspected the Judge was trying to keep them out of the loop as long as he could justify it, but there would be an end one day.

"Judge Travis has given us launch permission," he said calmly. "JD, Josiah, get the Chimera prepped and ready. Nathan, if there is anyone of the medical staff you need, Travis has cleared all personnel requests."

Jackson shook his head. "As hard as it sounds, Chris, but there is nothing more personnel can do for any of them. The machines breathe for them live for them. It's all we need."

Larabee nodded. "Launch is in four hours. Okay, people, let's go!"




As the others left the briefing room, Ezra remained, eyes on his commander. He knew Chris rarely accepted physical comfort while on duty, both of them using the Bond, but right now, unwritten rules be damned. He touched his lover's lower back briefly, requesting permission. Hard hazel eyes met his, softening slightly, and Ezra smiled encouragingly. Chris exhaled harshly, hands clenching into fists. Then he gave in to his need and wrapped his arms around the smaller man, hugging him tightly, receiving the same embrace in return.

<We'll see this through> Ezra only murmured.




It took the Chimera the best part of eighteen hours to reach their destination. JD was muttering about jump points and lack thereof in certain parts of space. He had driven the ship to the limit, using every jump point for trans space available. The system they were now in was not exactly backwater, but not far from it. It held no mercantile value, so trade routes had not been opened. Except for the occasional research vessels, no one came here, so trans space entry points would be a waste of money.

The moon around Ihj appeared barren and desolate, but it held a beauty best described as fascinating. The dry, rocky land stretched for thousands of miles, turning a motley green, for a few stretches, but all in all the moon was a rock floating in space, around a lifeless planet, with two suns and three rather small sister planets. Myrrh had a breathable atmosphere. Large canyons and deep chasms, high mountains and inaccessible valleys, as well as glaciers, deserts and storm-plagued plains turned the search for one individual into a lifetime's journey.

Chris sighed silently as he surveyed the landscape. Where should they start? The mountains? The canyons? The desert? Needle in a haystack and it was true this once.

Josiah, always interested in other cultures, had given them an idea of who the Hija were. Basically, they were nomadic, following the seasons. They had a basic technology and used it, but their life style had not changed since the first contact with space faring nations. A treaty had been made between the Joined Governments and the Hija, protecting Myrrh from settlers, giving them autonomy over their own affairs, and if they wanted, technological help. While the nomadic tribes accepted scientists in their midst for cultural studies, they had yet to forego their ancient traditions or settle down. Chris walked to the edge of the canyon and stared down to the bottom. A little river, the one river which had carved this canyon into the moon's surface, flowed slowly along it's bed. Dead trees clung to the ledges inside the canyon and small animals scurried over the barren rocks.

"I still say you shouldn't have come," Nathan could be heard as he walked around the equipment he had unloaded. "If he caught the virus here, we could all be infected!"

"Nathan, we discussed this," Chris interrupted the doctor's rant without turning around. "We either do this as quickly as possible, or we wait for you and a scientific team to turn every stone on this planet. Which would take.. how long?" He had turned at the last words, shooting Nathan a well-known look.

Jackson sighed. "I know, Chris, I know. But the scientist in me is not happy with the risk we are taking."

"Many researchers have come to this planet, Nathan," Josiah entered the discussion, just like before aboard the Chimera. "We checked them all. None have come down with the Thorne virus."

"Because it might be hibernating! They could have transmitted it, spreading the infection, and one of their victims could be in the data base listed under 'deceased'," Nathan argued.

"And we could stop wasting time," Chris ordered. "We have people to find!"

Finding one tribe, one specific tribe, though, would be a feat. JD had radioed ahead, trying to reach the hopefully manned scientific outpost. When they had finally reached someone, it hadn't been very helpful. The woman had told them that the dry season was about to start and that all tribes had started to move to the plains to hunt. Finding one particular tribe was quite difficult, but she would spread the word.

"So, where do we start?" Ezra asked, peering into the canyon. "Uh-uh," he made. "Hopefully not down there."

"Maybe they can help us," Josiah rumbled and Chris's head came up.

He cursed softly as he discovered five men standing not far away, their clothes almost cloaking them from their eyes. They had the same color as the dry earth.

"You are the Chimera?" one of the men asked, his voice holding a strong accent.

"We are. Who are you?"

"My name is Jon'ha-ye of the Kray Clan. Welcome to our world."




Nathan looked around the large, tent-like structure, marveling at the open, homey feel of the rather primitive dwelling. He smelled herbs and something else in the air and they relaxed his whole body, eased his mind. Different tools and bowls lay on a low table, there was a cabinet, a bed, a closed-off area at the other side, and a cooking place. In the middle of this natural set-up now rested two pallets, both surrounded by small, portable life-support units, the two lifeless seeming men a pale shadow in the warmth around them.

"Chanu Duna'he," the tall, slender man in the tan clothing murmured, running a calloused hand over Vin's forehead. "Chanu's bond brother."

He turned to Nathan. "How long has he been sick?"

"Four weeks."

"And he has slept since?"

"Yes, we kept him in an artificial coma."

A nod. "You are the Healer of the Chimera?"

Nathan smiled slightly. "I'm a doctor, yes."

The man's name was Onabi, the Kray Clan tribe's shaman and Healer. He had greeted them, had listened to their problem, and had asked Nathan to bring his two patients to the dwelling. He wouldn't treat either of them in the sterile environment of the ship.

"They have contracted a common illness," Onabi now said, sounding rather amused.

"Common?" Nathan echoed.

"Yes, every of our young contracts it sooner or later. Some don't and get it as adults, which is a bit more dangerous."

Nathan gaped. "You want to tell me it's a children's disease?" he exclaimed. Onabi smiled. "Yes."




Chris looked around the settlement, sharp eyes taking in everything, looking for a possible threat. The man who had welcomed them, Jon'ha-ye, sat not far away, a hunting spear across his lap, apparently completely at ease. From what Chris had understood, this was Chanu's older brother, next in line to become chief. They had been welcomed with almost open arms, but the Agent was still tense.

<They want to help us> Ezra chastised softly.

Larabee tried to relax, but he couldn't. The strain of the last days was showing. <I know> he murmured softly, then smiled as he watched his lover entertain some of the children. <They love you>

<I am loveable> Ezra declared with complete conviction, drawing silent laughter.

Nathan's approach interrupted them and while Ezra continued to play with the children, Chris turned to his medic. Jackson looked amazed and tired in one. He was accompanied by a broad-shouldered, tall man. The scarred, chiseled face was set into an eternal expression of amusement and lively brown eyes danced over the Agent's features.

"Chris, this is Onabi, this tribe's Healer," Nathan introduced the man.

Onabi bowed his head and Chris imitated the gesture. The Healer then gazed at him, a strange expression in his eyes, one that reminded Chris of...

<Kojay> Ezra supplied softly.

Yes, the old man on BP-379, the man who had declared they were Bonded.

<You think...?>

<I don't know> his lover answered distractedly. <Let's stick to the more important things>

Chris agreed. "How are Vin and Buck?" he asked.

"Your friends have come down with Iwana Fever," Onabi answered, the amusement clear. "A common illness among my people."

Nathan smiled at Chris's startled expression. "Apparently, the Thorne virus is the Hija's equivalent to the chicken pox or measles," he explained.

"What?" Chris exclaimed. "Vin would be dead if not for the life support!"

"Chanu Duna'he has contracted the Iwana Fever before," Onabi explained.

"We treated him, but unlike my kind, he didn't develop immunity. You see these children?"

He gestured at the flock around Ezra. Chris nodded.

"All of them have been sick and they were treated. They will no longer fall victim to the illness. Chanu's brother was among us long enough to fall ill, too. Chanu saw to his recovery. We didn't know he wouldn't develop the same immunity."

"Can you help him?"

"He has been sleeping for too long now. He cannot swallow the medicine."

"But I can rig up a serum," Nathan continued, seeing Chris's expression.

"All children have antibodies, as have the adults. It might take a day or two, but I think I can do it. Onabi has agreed to let me take blood samples."

Chris breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you."

Onabi regarded him with a smile, nodded, then rose. Larabee closed his eyes, allowing himself some hope. As he looked at Ezra again, he smiled at the ease with which his lover dealt with children.

<You'd make a real good father, Ezra> he remarked.

Instead of laughter, he received an almost stiff look. Chris felt slightly alarmed at the unexpectedly negative reaction.

<Father? Me? I don't think so> was the rather cool and bitter reply.

Chris bit his lower lip, realizing he had hit a very sore spot inside his lover, but he wouldn't press on. When Ezra was on the defensive, it would only get worse. Instead he went for a walk through the settlement, not the least surprised when Jon'ha-ye fell in step with him.




It was almost easy isolating the antibodies in the Hija children's blood and creating a serum, Nathan mused as he straightened from his work at the microscope. He had thought there would be more of a problem, but Onabi had agreed to render any help, even donating blood himself. Nathan had decided that the antibodies of the children were the best for his testing and after three days, he had a serum he thought would work.

The shaman had told him exactly what he was doing, showing him the herbs the children were given in form of teas or small, soft pills, leaving samples for him to study later. Nathan was in his element, able to learn new ways of treating patients. Few people, aside from Chris and Judge Travis, knew why he was no longer a doctor with his own practice; why he had been employed by the Agency. Nathan had lost his medical license because he had practiced what the Joined Governments called 'experimental medicine'. He had been first politely, then with vehemence reminded that doctors didn't practice holistic medicine, and neither did they experiment with natural healing. Nathan was supposed to stick to his area of expertise and not revert back to 'crystals and herbs'. It had been a long and loud discussion, especially since his unusual methods had healed a patient who had been declared too ill to survive the next year. All the modern medication had been unable to strengthen the immune system, but the herbal concoction Nathan had administered had helped over the time. And he had lost his job. Now, after such a long time, he didn't care. He had found a place with the Agency, with the Chimera team, and he was allowed to practice as long as he was in their employment. Nathan injected the newly-found serum into both his patients and monitored them. Buck was the first to show signs of recovery and Jackson immediately started with a neurotransmitter replacement treatment. Buck was off life support two days after the first injection.

One of the machines suddenly beeped softly. Nathan walked over to Buck's pallet and something inside of him cried out in joy as the Agent opened his eyes, blinking in confusion.

"Don't try to talk," Jackson advised. "You still have a tube in."

Buck blinked again.

Nathan started to check on his patient, aware of Onabi hovering close by. He was preparing another injection for Vin, who had been suffering from the sickness a lot longer and needed a more concentrated dosage. The Healer had been very quick on the uptake concerning modern treatment methods and had assisted Nathan in a lot of prep work andlater injections.

"I'm removing the tube now. Just relax, Buck," Jackson advised calmly.

Buck nodded slowly, looking tired. He fell asleep again almost immediately after Nathan had removed the tube and the medic smiled. All looked good and Buck would recover. His body hadn't been paralyzed by the virus as long as Vin's and his recovery would be speedy.

In the background, Onabi went through his medical cabinet, labeling small flasks, sorting herbs and potions, and counting the bandages. He was a calm presence, ready to assist Nathan if necessary.




The news about the remedy working so well had the whole crew breathe a sigh of combined relief. Nathan had already announced that he would give all of them an immunity shot, since he didn't want to risk another infection. No one knew what the carrier for Iwana Fever was, so he wanted to be on the safe side. The moment he was back home, Jackson had announced he would give this whole discovery a lot more time and closer study. Chris seemed like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders and he could finally partake in the life around him, something that had been severely limited by his worry. Ezra smiled at his lover and received a real smile in return.

One of the kids, a girl called Tiria, tugged at his shirt, reminding him that he had promised her a story. Ezra laughed at the impatient girl and settled her on his knee as more children gathered around him, ready to be drawn into his story.




Chris watched his lover, feeling easier and more alive than in days. Ezra's relaxed mind flowed around him, their shields mostly down. It had been a way of supporting each other in the last weeks as worry and fear had increased with every day. Even when they had come here. Even when Onabi had announced that he could help. Now that help had turned into reality. Buck was already awake, though mostly sleeping, and Vin was growing stronger. Jon'ha-ye had spent a lot of time with Chris, answering questions when he had any, asking about Vin in return.

"He is my brother's brother," the Kray Hija had answered when Chris had asked for the reason of the interest. "Chanu and he were Joined. He is Chanu Duna'he, his soul brother. Chanu's passing destroyed part of his Joined's soul."

So Chris had answered the questions as best as he could and how he saw fit. He omitted Buck's relationship with Vin. He had no idea how that was viewed in light of the bond with Chanu.

A presence behind him made the Agent turn and he was slightly surprised to find it was Onabi. The Healer bowed his head in greeting and Chris returned the gesture.

"Your friends are getting better," the Hija said conversationally.

"You can leave soon."

"Thank you."

Chris doubted it was the reason for the man to approach him. Nathan kept them very well informed and Onabi knew that. The shaman gazed over to where Ezra was gesturing, telling a vibrant story, the children hanging at his lips with wide eyes.

"He has a gift," Onabi remarked.

Chris nodded slowly.

"Not only with words. He ensnares and captures the young." Onabi looked at him. "Like he did your soul."

Larabee refused to give anything away, his expression neutral. "I'm afraid I can't follow you, Onabi."

The healer laughed, the crinkles around his eyes increasing. "Oh, but you do. We are no strangers to the Joining, the Union between two souls. You and he were born in different houses; both of you are powerful, independent spirits, strong and stubborn. But without the other, you cannot exist. Chanu Duna'he, Chanu's bond brother, Vin Tanner he was the same. He shared Union with Chanu."

Chris schooled his features as the words hit home. He felt Ezra's attention on him.

"But you are more, Chris Larabee. You and he... you are more than brothers." Chris felt a muscle twitch and Onabi gave him a disarming smile. "I do not judge, friend. Strength comes from the soul. Power comes from a Unified soul. Life and happiness, fulfillment and love, comes from the Union that is found naturally and that can endure. Your know your individual strength; you have discovered your powers when you found each other. Everything else will come to you because you are together."

<Makes me wonder if they are empathic> came Ezra's thoughtful remark.

<Or somehow able to pick up bonds...>

<I don't want to know!> Chris almost snapped, very much ill at ease with the fact that someone could look at him and detect the Bond.

<Chris, calm down>

Onabi's smile widened and Ezra's casual remark about the empathy made Larabee shiver.

"You can see the Bond?" he asked.

"Yes and no. It takes a trained mind to sense it. It shows in how you carry yourself, how you look at your other soul, how you talk." Onabi nodded at Ezra, who had untangled himself from the children, with the promise of another story later. "Don't fear words or deeds if you show your Union freely."

<Sounds like he's giving us permission to kiss and make out> Ezra sent, a chuckle accompanying the words.

Chris shot him a glare over the Bond. Onabi smiled once more, then walked back into the tent where Vin and Buck still lay.

"So how about it?" Ezra asked seductively.

"Ezra!" Chris growled.

"That is my name."

"Later."

"I hold you to that promise."

Chris answered the heated look with a feral one of his own. "And I intend to keep it."

Then he stepped into the tent as well. He wanted to check on his friends.




Vin opened his eyes and saw white. Focusing, he realized he was staring at a creamy white ceiling; a natural ceiling. Like a tent. Something smelled good as well. Then he heard a voice calling his name. It sounded familiar and his mind sluggishly tried to remember more. He felt as weak as a kitten and he had absolutely no idea why. Then memories crept slowly back and he remembered lying on the floor, trying desperately to breathe, and Buck... "Buck?" he croaked, shocked as he heard his own voice.

"I'm here."

Vin turned his head slightly into the direction of the voice and felt someone take his hand in a tender grip. He discovered Buck sitting by his side. Something seemed to be wrong with him and Vin blinked several times to get his vision straight. Then he realized what it was. Buck looked worn out and pale, and he had lost weight. Lots of weight.

"What happened ...?"

"You were sick. Caught a nasty little virus some time ago. It's okay now."

"How long...?"

Buck grimaced.

"Tell me ... truth, Buck."

"A month."

Vin moaned. A month? He had been sick for a whole goddamn month? He felt a soft caress at his temple as Buck tenderly cupped his face and placed a featherlike kiss on his lips.

"It's okay, Vin. You're back, safe and sound, that's all that counts to me. Rest now, love. "

"Buck ..."

"Rest. You have to recover."

Vin reached out and grabbed Buck's hand, at least he was trying to. Somehow his muscles seemed to refuse any attempt of control, and his hand was falling onto the blanket trembling. Buck took it and squeezed it reassuringly. "Sleep, Vin. I won't go nowhere. I'm right here when you wake up."




And he was. Every time Vin opened his eyes, for some minutes at first, Buck was at his side, no matter when or what, and Vin started to wonder if he ever found time to sleep himself. That was until his waking moments grew longer and he became aware of the fact that Buck had a bed in the same tent. And that Nathan didn't seem to mind.

Vin decided for the frontal approach.

"Buck?"

"Yep?"

"Did you tell Nathan?"

Buck smiled at him and there was real laughter in his eyes that chased away the worry and pain. "Nope."

"But?"

"Wasn't necessary. Man has eyes. He just saw it."

Vin didn't really feel shocked. If anything, he felt relieved. "Buck?"

"Hm?"

"Does that mean you can kiss me?"

Buck gave him a calculating look. "You think you're up for it?"

"Up for it? Up for it?! Hell, Wilmington, c'mon over here and kiss me, or I'll walk right out of here and go after Ezra," Vin threatened.

"You wouldn't."

"What? Go after Ezra?"

The crinkles around Buck's eyes deepened. "Walk out of here," he said softly.

Vin attempts to look offended were futile as Buck bent down and kissed him tenderly.




It was the first night without worries, without fear, without the quiet 'what ifs' that had been going through everyone's heads. JD and Josiah were aboard the Chimera, asleep in their quarters. Nathan was with his two patients, who were resting in Onabi's tent, all deep asleep. Chris had resisted the temptation to return to his ship. He sat outside the circle of fires the Hija stacked at night, their watchers nodding at him as he had passed into the darkness beyond. There were no prowlers out here, no predatory animals, but the watch was an honor and mostly the young men, not yet grown by Hija standards but too old to be called children, made up the guard.

Chris sat down, still in visual range of the merrily burning fires, his back against an old tree stump. He inhaled deeply, smelling the dry but pleasantly scented air, letting his body relax completely. Instincts rose as the scent woke the Kiowata, and he smiled. Wide open spaces, wild, untamed land, simply did that to him. It was way too rare that he could give in, change, and simply run. Here, it wasn't an option. Right now, he just wanted to sit and be himself as long as it lasted, until they had to go back. Vin and Buck were going to be fine and his world was healing. It was where Ezra found him. His soul partner approached quietly, a shadow in the darkness, moving gracefully. He settled down against the broken tree as well, pulling up his legs, gazing into the star-lit night. No words were needed. The Bond was open, their minds touching, reassuring, giving warmth.

Chris leaned into his lover and Ezra readily accepted the silent request for comfort, wrapping an arm around his shoulder. Chris closed his eyes with a sigh, feeling Ezra's lips against his temple, his forehead. They stayed like this for a long time, neither moving, neither speaking. Chris finally straightened and looked into his lover's face, the darkness obscuring colors and shapes. He ran a hand over the well-known features, then rose and held out a hand. Ezra grasped it and let himself be pulled up. They returned to the circle of fires, Chris leading him into the tent that had been assigned to them should they choose to stay with the tribe over night. Ezra followed only too readily, greeted by a hungry kiss and a wordless need.

He returned the kiss, promising what Chris asked of him, and they sank onto the primitive bed.




Vin wasn't very much surprised to see Jon'ha-ye enter the tent. He weakly nodded a welcome to the man he had last seen when Chanu had died so many years ago. Nine long years. The chasm inside his soul had only recently healed and now he was back to the place where it had all begun.

"Chanu Duna'he," Jon'ha-ye spoke, inclining his head. "Vin Tanner. It is good to see you again, my friend."

Vin smiled. "As it is good to see you. Onabi has told me you and Fari married, have children."

The Kray Hija smiled proudly. "Yes. Two sons, one daughter."

"A blessing."

Vin knew how much the Hija loved children. Children were their way of eternal life, their way of existing till the end of time. While they believed in higher powers, they didn't think that those powers granted them eternity after death. Children were their belief, the deities an explanation of nature's way.

Jon'ha-ye nodded. "I never thought to see you again so alive. After Chanu died, so much of you died, too."

One thing about these people, they were very straight-forward. It was something Vin had found helpful in his cultural studies, but it was also hurting when one wasn't used to it.

"I died the day he died," Vin confessed, sighing softly.

"You found life again."

A nod. "But not before a lot of time had passed. I found friends, but Chanu... it hurt, Jon'ha-ye. A lot. I wasn't prepared for this world of hurt. I wasn't prepared to be alone."

The other man regarded him thoughtfully. "You found a partner?"

"I healed," Vin murmured. "I let Chanu go. Finally."

Jon'ha-ye nodded. "He wouldn't want you to mourn forever, Chanu Duna'he. You are entitled to live."

Silence descended and Vin felt tired again. Simple tasks like talking wore him out and he more often than not fell asleep after only an hour of being awake.

"The one who guards you so fiercely, he is your new partner?"

The softly voiced question drew him out of his thoughts. Vin felt a smile grace his lips. "Yes."

"He is a strong man. Very protective." Jon'ha-ye smiled widely. "Very stubborn, too."

Vin chuckled. "Yeah."

The Hija wrapped a calloused hand around his lax one. "It was good to see you again, Chanu Duna'he. You will always be welcome here."

"Thank you." With that he slipped into sleep again, too tired to keep his eyes open any longer.

Jon'ha-ye left the shaman's tent again, dark eyes wandering over to where Vin's partner was leaning against the stones warmed by the midday sun, eyes closed, asleep as well. One of his friend was next to him, the healer. Where the others were, he couldn't see. Only the green-eyed man, who had such an effect on the children, sat in the shadows, playing with them again. Jon'ha-ye discovered his own children among them, and he smiled. Onabi had mentioned that he was Joined as well, to the man in black, Chris Larabee, a man he had spent a lot of time getting to know. An apparently strange combination, but Onabi had told him it made sense, then had left again to tend to the sick men.

Yes, a strange combination indeed, but the powers brought the Union.

They knew why.




The team left the following morning. Onabi smiled at the soul partners, inclining his head, then went to say his good-byes to a still rather dazed Vin. The Chimera lifted off three hours later.




"I'm going nuts in here! Give me that spoon and I'll tunnel out!"

Buck paced restlessly through the quarantine room. "Four days now! You'd think they would know by now."

Chris smiled. All were dressed in hospital pajamas and bathrobes, sharing a four-room quarantine area that allowed them to interact with each other, but not go outside. There was a small recreational area and that was where Buck was currently pacing. Vin was watching his lover from the couch where he spent most his waking time.

They all felt fine. They had felt fine since the day they had come back from Myrrh and had been placed under quarantine. Chris had spent hours talking to Travis over the com unit in the quarantine area. None had shown any sign of Thorne virus infection. Medical personnel checked them regularly and they'd be out of here by tomorrow if all held no signs of infection until then, and it wasn't a minute too soon.

Josiah looked up from his game of chess against Nathan, shaking his head with a sigh. "The man makes me want to get a single room," he remarked casually.

Buck glared at him and Vin hid a smile. Ezra, who was reading a book, looked up and shot Chris a grin.

"Stop talking about me!" Buck glowered at the two soul partners. "I know you are."

Ezra looked innocent.

"Won't work!" the Agent snarled and went back to pacing.

"Vin?" Ezra sighed.

"Hm?"

"Next time he passes by.... Stick out a leg."

"He might trip."

"Hit his head," Josiah remarked without looking up.

"On the chair," Nathan added.

"One can only hope," JD finished.

Chris didn't even try to swallow his laughter as Buck shot them all a glare, especially Vin. No one had said anything concerning Vin and Buck, the strange coincidence that only they had contracted the virus, and the only way it could have been transmitted yet.

One day the questions might come. Chris was prepared to back his two friends up, whatever happened.

They were released the next day.




"It's not a cure," Nathan summed up his report, looking at Travis. "It was a shot in the dark that worked. It immunized Agents Tanner and Wilmington, as well as the rest of the Chimera team, but unless I can study the plant the actual medicine is derived off, unless I can study the Kray Hija and other tribes, compare blood samples, unless I can see the actual infection in a child and an adult, I won't proclaim to have found a cure for the Thorne virus. The virus could originate from Myrrh, but also from some other place. The researchers coming there contracted and unknowingly spread it. It will take months, maybe even years, to track all the victims, and even then we might never know."

Travis regarded him calmly. He had read the first reports and according to the scientists already on the moon, the disease, the Thorne virus, was only deadly to humans. The Hija's different metabolism gave them an immunity to the more fatal effects of the infection. It was a subject for more studies. This would take more than a few years. It might very well be a life's work. "I understand. I have heard that Myrrh was placed under quarantine and the researchers are in Isolation by order of the Department of Infectious Diseases. You are aware that your position within the Agency doesn't actually permit prolonged research and study outside cases or operations?"

"Yes, sir."

"Are you considering a resignation?"

Nathan shook his head. "No, Judge, I don't, but I'd like to spend some time with the D.I.D. scientists who'll take over the main bulk of study and research."

Travis nodded, smiling slightly. "You can. Since the Chimera team will be unavailable for cases for a while, until Agents Tanner and Wilmington have been declared fit and had their re-evaluation, I'll delegate you to Section 2."

Nathan's eyes lit up with a smile. "Thank you, sir!"

The Judge inclined his head and Jackson left, feeling elated.




"Buck?"

"Hm?"

Vin sat on the bed, tired to the core, his muscles refusing to work properly every now and then, and Buck was taking care of him by carefully undressing and helping him to lay down. Nathan had ordered Vin to not overdo it, and they were both on sick leave for at least another week.

Vin had been treated with various injections and was in physical therapy, but he would need time to regain his strength.

Now he gazed at his lover and remembered how he had looked when he first had seen him, and he remembered something else, something from way back when he had been with the Hija. He knew Buck had not told him everything. At least he feared Buck hadn't and he had to know, had to ask, because it had been nagging at the back of his mind for a longer time now. "The virus..."

"What about it?"

"Back with the Hija, one child got it, every child got it. Sometimes the adults when they didn't go through it as children, and then the whole family had to be treated. It's contagious, Buck."

"So?"

Vin hesitated, biting his lower lip. "Did I... I mean ... you weren't ... were you?"

Buck who was undressing himself stopped and gave Vin a long look.

"It's not important," "Oh yes, it is," his lover argued heatedly. "Did I give it to you?"

Buck hesitated, then he nodded once.

"Did you ..."

Another nod.

"How long?"

"A week."

Vin couldn't help it, he felt dizzy all of a sudden. He let his head sink back into the pillows and closed his eyes. He must have made a sound, because the next thing he felt was the warm hard body of his lover at his side as Buck pulled him close. He felt the steady rise and fall of the chest with every breath, the regular beat of the heart that, he knew, had probably stopped due to the virus. Vin shuddered involuntarily and Buck drew him closer, wrapping his arms around the still frail form.

"What?" he murmured.

"Should've known ... could've killed you."

"No!" Buck carefully pulled Vin's head to his shoulder. "Don't go there, you hear me?"

"Buck, the virus is transmitted by fluids!" Vin argued angrily. "If we had used precautions..."

"We did."

"Not always."

Buck sighed. Yes, not always. There had been occasions, like a quick handjob, or, on even rarer occasions, a blowjob when a condom hadn't been in use. They had felt safe with the other, just like every monogamous couple did. No one had lost a thought to possible, rare viral infections from backwater moons.

"I know," he murmured. "We'll remember now. Always. We're here, both of us, together. We're alive. Both of us. And we will recover -- both of us. That's what counts to me. No guilt trips, okay? Had some of my own. Been there, done that. These things don't get you anywhere."

"Was just wondering."

"'Bout what?"

"How fragile life is."

"I know. But you know what?"

"What?"

"Let's make the best of it. Let's not waste time, okay? "

"Hmm, okay."

Vin felt his eyelids slide shut on their own volition as sleep slowly claimed him, and he wrapped his arm around Buck's waist, feeling the same need for close contact like his lover did. He was tired, his body demanded rest, rest and even more rest. But even though his body was tired, his mind was working overtime, trying to get something straight, something that was bubbling just beyond the surface. His mind was showing him images of Buck, lying in a hospital bed fighting for his life, and he shuddered again. Consciously he knew that he had been one damn lucky bastard himself. Thinking about everything that had happened to him the past six months, all of a sudden Vin knew. Life was precious, so you better not waste time. "Buck?"

"Hm?"

"I love you ..."

Then he fell asleep. He missed Buck's exhalation of breath as the true meaning of his words had penetrated his lover's sleep fogged mind.




Buck looked down at Vin, who was lying in his arms, safe and sound, sleeping, and he was wide awake at the three words he had just heard.

He had subconsciously waited for them, had hoped that one day Vin would be able to say them. Really say them. From out of the blue this old lyrics popped up into his mind.

When the night has been too lonely
And the road has been too long
And you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snow
Lies the seed that with the sun's love
In the spring becomes
The Rose.


"God, Vin," he whispered, "I love you."

It had been one awfully long road and a terribly long, bitter and cold night, for both of them. But now Buck knew it was over, the sun had risen in the east, and he made a silent promise to his lover.

"This is it for me, Vin Tanner. Forever."

END

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