Josiah was watching the sun set. Its beauty belied the ugly it shone on. His mind drifted to Chris and Buck, "Lord, please let them be alive. Let us get them out of there." It was then he felt the tickle, the reaching out from outside to the inside of his head. Trying to relax even more he opened his mind. //Vin, Jax, is that you?//
//Josiah? You heard us?//
//Yes. Loud and clear so to speak.//
//Have you heard anything about Chris and Buck? Is Nathan there?//
//Easy Vin. Nathan is in town looking for supplies - and no, I've heard nothing about our missing brothers. I'm sorry.//
//It's okay, Josiah. Jax needs to tell you our plan. We gotta hurry 'cause this is really hard to do.//
//Okay Vin. Go Jax.//
//The boys and I are going to come up the canyon until we get to the arroyo where you are. We'll be a hunting party who got lost if we're stopped, just Grandpa and the kids on a camping/hunting trip. Once we get there we'll tell you the rest. Look for us it shouldn't be more then a couple of days.//
//Got'cha. Be careful with our boys, Jax. They mean the world to us.//
//I will, Josiah. Take care of yourself. We'll need you too.//
Vin twitched in pain and curled away from Jax breaking the connection. //Can't no more hurts too much.//
Freeman clearly heard Vin and watched as the boy clinched his head as if pressing on it would make the pain stop. He rocked back and forth his mouth open panting.
"Vin?" Jax reached out but the boy flinched away from him. "Stay here. I'll get you something to take." He waited but Tanner acted as if he hadn't heard.
Jax went to the kitchen and got water and aspirin. He hoped they hadn't done any permanent damage to the boy. "Vin, I want you to take these. They'll help the pain."
The ten-year-old looked at the two white pills in Jax's hand. He reached out but his hand was shaking so badly he couldn't pick them up.
"Here, let me." The old man popped the pills into Vin's open mouth and held the water to the boy's mouth until he swallowed it. The tremors decreased slowly.
Ezra walked in just then.
"Ezra, come here I need you to hold Vin. If he gets worse call me."
Easing himself into place behind the boy Ezra asked. "What happened?"
"I'm not sure. We were 'taking' to Josiah and Vin suddenly broke the connection and became ill."
"I'll watch him," Ezra said simply as Vin turned and buried his face in Ezra's shoulder. "It's okay Vin. I'm here. I'll take care of you."
The trembling continued to decrease and finally Vin slept. Ezra continued to hold the boy throughout the night.
JD walked into the kitchen and grabbed some toast and bacon and watched Jax pack supplies. "Jax, what's wrong with Vin?"
"I don't know what you mean, JD. Vin's asleep."
"No, he's not. He's just sitting on the couch. He won't talk to me. I tried to get him to talk but he wouldn't. Is he mad at me?"
"No I'm sure he's not. Was Ezra there?"
"Uh huh, he's asleep on the couch by Vin."
"Okay, drink your milk. Won't have anything but canned milk once we get on the trail. I'll go check on Vin."
Freeman walked into the living room. Just as JD had said Vin was just sitting there staring at the wall. "Vin?" Jax called softly. When the boy didn't react Jax reached out laying his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Vin, are you all right?"
Little Tanner slowly looked up at Jax, his eyes filled with fear. He shook his head no.
The old man went over and sat beside the boy. The quiet was unsettling. It wasn't really quiet, Vin was always quiet, it was an emptiness that was there. A nothing where the tickle of Vin's mind touches had always been.
"Can you talk to me?" Jax asked.
Vin shook his head no.
"Have you tried?"
Vin raised a hand and rubbed his head and nodded.
Jax looked around and then got up and brought a small pad and pencil back to Vin.
The boy just looked at them and shook his head.
"Look kid, unless you start talking for real, you need a pad and pencil. You can't-- that is your telepathy seems to have shut down. So take the pad so you can answer more than 'yes' or 'no'."
Angrily Vin grabbed the pad and scribbled, "Can't spell."
Jax snorted, "Is that all. Hell Vin, neither can I. But you gotta try. Maybe when we get to Nathan he can help you. Now, does your head hurt?"
Vin screwed up his face.
"How much Vin?"
"A lot, okay. It hurts a lot."
"That's better. I'll get you something that will help. Are you going to be able to leave today?"
Vin nodded, and then wrote, "Chris?"
"Yes, to get Chris and the others."
Vin looked at the old man sadly. Shaking his head no, he wrote. "Can't hear Chris when he calls."
"No you can't. Not like you're used to. But there are other ways. Want to try?"
Vin shrugged, looking down. He finally nodded yes.
"Okay then. I want you to close your eyes and picture Chris in you head, think about how close you and Chris are. How you feel when he's close. Can you see him?"
Vin nodded and did as Jax said. He felt Chris was right there all he had to do was reach out almost //CHRIS!// Vin started to call and his head split open. His mouth opened in a silent scream and he curled into a fetal position wrapping his arms around his head.
"Damn it! Jax you stupid old fart." Freeman shook his head and reached for the boy. He placed his hands on Vin's head and concentrated. He first dulled the pain and then sent the boy to sleep. Shifting his hands slightly he then started looking for what was wrong. It didn't take more then a few seconds before he was finished.
Sitting back the old man pressed the heel of his hand to his own forehead. "Well, it's been a while since I've tried anything like that. Damn, I forgot how much it hurt."
Jax slowly stood and covered the sleeping boy up. Turning he saw Ezra standing in the doorway.
"What did you do to him?" The teen demanded.
"I'm no Nathan, but I tried to help him." Jax answered tiredly.
"What's wrong with him?"
"I'm not sure about everything but I think he overloaded himself when we talked to Josiah. It was too much for him."
"Will he get better?"
"I don't know. Have you and JD finished packing the gear?"
"Good. We'll load the jackass into the trailer and load the truck. Let Vin sleep as long as he can."
"We can get within ten miles or so of where I think they are. Then we'll camp out and the next morning take off walking. Have you been quizzing JD on our cover story?"
"Yes, but you needn't worry about him. He's very bright and will I said that before, didn't I? I'm afraid I'm the nervous one. I'm not one for the wilderness and camping."
"You'll do fine." Jax assured the teen.
Ezra nodded noting that Jax hadn't truly answered his questions about Vin. How he wished Nathan and the others were here. Especially Chris. The blond had supported him and Vin through so much. Vin would be better if only Chris were here. "Oh get a grip Ezra, you sound like a four year old." He told himself as he finished rolling the bedrolls.
Once the truck was loaded Jax sat the still sleeping Vin in Ezra's lap, making it all too obvious how thin and almost frail the ten-year-old was. JD sat in the middle and Jax drove away from his home.
The dogs barked as they started to drive off. At the gate Jax gestured toward the house. "You be good girls and watch about things. I'll be back in a few days." The girls lay down in the road as Jax shut the gate. They unhappily watched the old pickup drive away. Silver whined once laying her head on her paws.
JD turned on his knees and looked back. "Silver's sad. She wants to go."
"I know, but she can't. She knows her job is to watch about things while I'm gone. Now turn around, we've got a long drive and you'll be awfully tired looking back."
"Okay Jax. Are we going to find Buck now?" the little boy asked.
"Yes, but it won't be today or even tomorrow."
"Oh. When's Vin gonna wake up? I sure hope he's not mad anymore. I want him to talk to me." JD chattered as he turned and sat down.
"JD, Vin is not mad at you. I do not know if he will 'talk' when he wakes or not. He has an 'owie' from trying to talk, sort of like a sore throat. Remember when you got strep throat and it hurt to talk? Well that is what is wrong with Vin. It hurts him to talk," Ezra tried to explain, hoping he was explaining it so that the boy would understand.
The little boy thought for a minute. "Oh. Jax we gotta get Vin to Nathan, he'll make Vin all better like he did me."
"I sure hope so, JD," the old man said as he dodged a huge rock in the two-lane dirt trail. But he knew in his heart the true healing would only take place once they got Chris back.
As he drove Freeman opened his mind using the pathways Vin had forged. He knew he wasn't as strong as the boy but the connection between the boy and the reticent man shone like a golden thread he could follow. While he still couldn't communicate with Chris he had the reassurance that at least Chris was still alive.
The long bumpy drive was made in silence. JD sometimes slept leaning against Ezra who was lost in his own thoughts. Vin slept, not even waking when they stopped to take breaks and eat the sandwiches they'd brought for the first day.
As they started up again Jax glanced at Ezra. "I know you're worried about Vin. Sleep is the best thing for him right now. It lets him relax and heal."
"You pushed him too far," Ezra accused.
"Yes, I didn't mean to. My only excuse is when I tried to pull back, Vin refused and pushed harder."
"That sounds like Vin. He never knows when he should quit, especially if he's trying to help Chris."
//Look who's talking.// The faintest whisper touched his mind.
Startled Ezra looked down, "Vin?" He saw the blue eyes watching him from a still too pale face. "Hey, sleepy head. That hurt didn't it?"
Vin nodded yes. He looked out the windshield and down at the sleeping JD. Shaking his head and struggling to sit up, he looked at Ezra with a puzzled expression.
"We are going to get the others. If we run across other people 'Grandpa' is taking us hunting. Later when we are on foot we will claim we are lost. Jax thinks he knows where the others are. Once we have found them we will rescue Chris and Buck."
Vin gave Ezra a faint smile as his eyes dropped closed and he fell asleep again. The teen looked at the old man. "Well, he can still send but it hurts him."
"Yeah, it will. I'm glad to hear that though. Even if it does hurt, it's second nature to him now. He can't NOT use his gift."
It was close to sundown before they stopped and made camp. Taking Jack out of the horse trailer Jax picketed him and brought feed and water. JD and Ezra gathered firewood and set up camp with much grumbling from the teen. Once the bedrolls were laid out Ezra carried the still sleeping Vin and laid him on the pallet.
After the three had eaten Jax lowered himself beside Vin with a groan. "Damn, its hell getting old." He thought as he laid a gentle hand on the boy's shoulder. "Vin, come on son you need to wake up and eat something."
Vin moved slowly under the hand and his eyes fluttered open. He looked around and then up at Jax.
"Hey there. You think you can sit up and eat something? Even if you don't want to, you need to. Tomorrow we walk."
Vin looked down at the tin plate Jax held and nodding struggled to sit up. He tried the beans and wieners and managed to get most of it down plus the tin cup of milk that was offered. Then in discomfort he looked around.
Jax grinned slightly. "Over there behind that big tree. Take the little shovel. Do you need help?"
Tanner shot a disgusted look at Jax and managed to walk behind the tree. Even though he was pale when he came back and sat down, he looked proud he'd made it on his own.
"You going to be ready tomorrow?" Jax asked as Vin lay down.
The boy looked at Jax and nodded gently.
"Head still hurt?"
Vin held up his hand, first finger and thumb slightly apart.
Freeman leaned over, "I think more like this," he said as he pulled the two fingers much further apart.
Vin only sighed and closed his eyes. It hurt a lot less if he were lying down and his eyes were closed. It wasn't long before he was asleep again.
Vin was walking. He didn't know where or why he just found himself walking. The fog that surrounded him hid the details of where he was. It was so quiet he could hear the crunch of the sand beneath his bare feet. He kept walking for what seemed like a long time.
Suddenly Tanner stopped and looked around trying to see through the fog. It was gone in a split second and he stood in a house, maybe. He was in a long hall that wasn't straight and had many doors on both sides. He needed to look behind the doors. He knew he did, but was scared to look because one of the doors had something very evil on the other side. It was with this realization that the voice came, weak, hurt, breathless. "Vin."
The boy froze only his eyes moving as he tried to discover where the voice came from. "Chris?" He called his mouth moving out of sync with his voice like a badly dubbed foreign movie. "Chris, where are you?" Even as he called he began walking down the hall again. He reached out to the doorknob of the first door.
Holding it he leaned close trying to hear something on the other side. "Chris?" he called softly and opened the door.
The room was empty; curtains fluttering and a trash can in the center of the room. The boy gently closed the door.
"Vin, where are you? No! Stay back. They'll hurt you. Vin?"
The boy opened another door, another empty room. He tried again. This room had some sort of medical table in it, shelves and trays of scary and strange looking instruments. Vin's heart started racing and his breath was coming in tiny gasps. He quickly shut the door leaning against the wall trying to slow his heart rate and breathing.
"Vin? NO! Vin stay away! I'll never tell. Stay safe son, no matter what, stay safe."
Swallowing, Vin stood and walked down the hall again. This time when he reached for the doorknob his hand was shaking. But he reached out and turned the knob anyway.
Another door, nothing.
Another the knob was cold. Gritting his teeth he turned the knob and pushed the door open.
This time the room was dark. He could barely see inside but he could make out a darker lump in the middle of the room. The lump groaned and moved slightly. "Chris?"
"No, Vin, don't." The voice was rough with pain and fatigue.
Vin went inside to where Chris lay. The man was emaciated and covered with bruises. Tanner reached out and touched the swollen cheek. "Chris?"
A blazing hazel eye looked at him. "Vin? No, this is a dream. Son, stay away, they can't have you. I'll keep my promise; the Guild will never get you. I love you Vin son."
The boy started crying as the figure in front of him faded, as did the room. His sobs shook him as he reached out, losing what he'd been searching for.
Ezra, wakened by the trembling and the sound of the boy sobbing, rolled over and gathered the smaller boy in his arms. "Vin, wake up, it's just a dream."
Tanner grabbed at Ezra and clenched convulsively at him. Finally there were only a few hiccups and gulps.
Ezra pulled back enough to look into Vin's eyes. "Better? It was just a dream."
Vin nodded at the question but then shook his head, //not dream// he whispered.
"What?" Ezra gasped looking over to Jax for help and an explanation.
The soft mental whisper came again. //not dream, Chris remembered promise.//
This time Ezra looked confused toward Jax. But the older man shrugged.
JD sat up and looked between the two men. "Vin means the promise Chris made him when we first came to be with you.'
"Is that it?" Ezra asked.
Vin nodded, 'yes'.
"Can you go back to sleep now?"
Vin nodded again.
Once Ezra had Vin comfortable again he went to the fire and poured a cup of coffee. He stared at the contents of the cup more then he drank listening as the two little boys went back to sleep.
Once their breathing evened out Jax got up and poured himself a cup. "What promise?"
Ezra scrubbed his face. "When we first found the boys, Vin tried to run. Chris caught him but Vin agreed to stay only if Chris promised to kill him if it looked like the Guild would capture him again."
"Do you?" Ezra asked sarcastically.
Jax looked at the tired teen. He realized how hard Ezra worked keeping the little boys safe and happy while he was sick with worry. "Yes I do. I see how close Vin is to Chris and even with the damper on JD I see how much he loves and misses Buck. I also see how much you care for the boys as well as the missing men. I see how torn you are and how good you are at hiding it."
Ezra took a drink of his now cold coffee and then looked up at Jax. He didn't enjoy other people seeing him so clearly. "My Mother taught me well. She always demanded comportment. I must be slipping."
"Not really. Lets just say I see more then the average person. Rest easy Ezra I will do all I can to make sure that promise won't be fulfilled and the seven of you are reunited."
"Jax, my feet hurt and I'm tired," JD mumbled for the umpteenth time.
Freeman smiled and reminded himself it was so nice to hear the little boy act like a normal child, even if it was annoying. "We'll rest soon and then you can take your turn riding on Jack."
JD looked at the old man and then up at his cousin who was riding. "Is that alright, Vin?"
The silent boy nodded. The truth was the rocking motion of riding the burro eased the almost constant pain in his head, but he could tell how tired JD was. The younger boy didn't complain unless he was very tired. He was worried about JD's shield too. Buck and Ezra had taught them so much about shielding that now JD could touch most things without any feedback but your defenses slip when you're tired.
JD looked back at Vin again. "I'm okay, Vin. We'll get to see Buck soon an' I'll be better. Huh, Ezra? We'll see Buck soon."
Ezra looked at the youngest and sighed. They were getting close and all JD could talk about was seeing Buck. But it wasn't going to happen this time, not yet. "JD, we need to talk, kiddo."
Large leery eyes looked at the teen, "What about?"
"Buck isn't at the cave, JD, just Nathan and Josiah."
"Is he looking for Chris?"
"No JD. He's with Chris." Ezra mentally crossed his fingers hoping Buck was truly with Chris.
The little boy kicked at a rock in the path. "But but that means that if he's with Chris then the helmets have him, an' if the helmets have him he's not coming back."
Ezra stepped closer to the troubled boy. He placed a hand on JD's shoulder and squeezed. "Listen to me, JD. We are getting Chris and Buck back. This time it's different. We know where they are, and as soon as we get to Nathan and Josiah we will work on a plan and we will get them back."
JD wanted to believe Ezra. With his whole heart he wanted to believe, "Promise?" he asked.
"Promise!" Ezra answered, "God forgive me and please let me not be lying." The teen silently prayed to a God he wasn't sure of but his uncle was. Ezra glanced at JD and caught the sadness in the big brown eyes. But before he could say anything the boy turned and started walking again.
Jax was watching for a likely place to camp. There was only an hour left of day light and he was sure they were very close to a spring he'd noted on the map.
They'd been following an almost canyon-sized arroyo all day. The walls in most places were from seven to ten feet high which kept them out of sight of anyone scanning the area. Then as if out of nowhere green grass appeared. Making a left turn down a side arroyo they followed the green plants. There were a few trees and coming out of the rock wall was a small stream of water. It pooled for about three or four feet and then the moisture disappeared. It was an oasis in the dry Arizona ground and gave the weary hikers fresh water, grass for the burro and firewood.
"Okay boys, we stop here for the night. First thing is to unpack Jack and stake him out to graze, and then gather firewood. We want to cook before it gets entirely dark.
//This is a pretty place.// Vin sent. He was stronger and it showed.
"Yes it's very nice. I was here a long time ago. I hoped it would still be here and the same. My brother and I called this place Serenity."
Vin received a flash of two teens laughing and camping in this place. He smiled at the younger Jax and his brother.
Once the fire died down to glowing embers the sounds of the night critters sang a sweet song. Jax looked over at Vin. "Do you want me to block you against nightmares?"
The boy thought about it. //No, I'll risk the dreams in case Chris opens up.//
"It's likely the Guild has him drugged so he can't use his powers."
//I know. But Chris and me, it's something different. I have to try.//
"Just a little then. I don't have much for you if you do too much."
//I know. Can't do much. Head still hurts.// The boy admitted.
Jax winched. "Damn kid's been hiding it from me- us," he thought. Aloud he said, "Okay then, everyone to bed so we can get started early."
They'd been traveling for most of the morning when Jax called a halt. "Vin, don't over do, but try calling out to Josiah. See how close they are."
Vin nodded and closed his eyes against the bright noonday sunlight. //Josiah? Josiah we're near you. Can you see us?//
Vin waited for an answer but got none. He shook his head.
"It's okay Vin. We'll try again soon." Jax said as he began walking again.
They walked for another half an hour. The arroyo had become a true canyon with high sheer rock walls putting the travelers in constant shade. Jax looked up for landmarks and found the one he was looking for. Stopping once more he said, "Try again, Vin."
//Josiah?// The boy called silently.
//Vin? Where are you, boy?//
Vin sent an image of their location.
//Okay, its not far. Keep coming south and I will join you. Shouldn't be more than ten minutes.// the empath answered.
Vin smiled. //Go. Ten minutes.// he ordered Freeman.
The sentients walked with lighter steps in anticipation of finding at least part of their friends. It wasn't even a full ten minutes before the large man loomed before them.
"Uncle Josiah!" Ezra called with unaccustomed emotion.
JD and Vin ran to the empath and threw themselves at him. Sanchez bent down and gathered the boys into his arms. His own emotions boiled to the surface as he hugged the children in relief of having them near.
Ezra came closer and Josiah took his hand and pulled the teen into a bear hug. "Nephew, it's good to see you."
"I am relieved to see you also, Uncle" Standish said with his usual restraint.
As they walked JD's usual bubbling personality came out. "We been really busy an' Vin broke his head talking to you an' Jax fixed it an' I got to name all the kittens an' I got to ride Jack part of the time 'cause I got bi'sters on my foots yesterday an' I can't see Buck 'cause he's with Chris an we're gonna 'scue Chris an' " JD stopped and looked around. "I do'no what comes after that." He ended with a sigh.
"Well we'll go that far and figure the rest soon, okay?" Josiah said.
Every one went where Josiah led. There was a place to put Jack and after they'd taken the packs to carry they climbed to the cave entrance. Josiah limped ahead and pushed the tarp aside so the other could enter the cave.
Blinking at the dimness Vin looked around. The main room was about twenty feet by ten feet with a roof that hid in the shadows it was so high. The back of the cave seemed to have a passageway going further back. There were candles all around.
Nathan looked up and said, "Welcome home."
"This ain't home" JD said angrily.
"No it isn't but for right now it'll do for a home." Nathan looked at the other boy. "You alright, Vin? You sick?"
//I's fine.// Vin sent.
"No you ain't: I could barely hear you. Come over here by the light an' let me check you out."
A near panic washed over the ten year old.
"I gots bi'ster, Nathan. You fix them and stop the hurtin'," JD said holding his foot up for all to see.
Jackson, sensing Vin's distress turned to the younger boy. "Get your shoes and socks off. JD and I'll look at them. The healer grabbed a fat candle and set it on the floor of the cave and helped peel off the dirty socks. Holding them away from his nose he dropped them. "How long have you been wearing these socks, JD?" he asked.
"Since yesterday. We been walking a lot 'cause Jack could only carry one of us at a time."
"Yesterday?" Nathan asked throwing a glare at Ezra and Jax.
"It was not five star accommodations last night. He was supposed to wear fresh socks today," Ezra defended.
"Uh huh," Nathan looked over the heel blisters and found a quarter sized one on the ball of the foot. He glanced at the boy. "Josiah, hand me a water bottle and one of those gauze bandages. This is gonna sting some JD. And then it'll itch, but don't you dare scratch. If you stay off your feet tonight you should be fine tomorrow."
"In time to 'scue Chris and Buck?" The boy asked.
Nathan bit his lip. "Yes, in time to rescue them."
The others sat in tired silence as Nathan washed the little feet and then pressed hands over the injured tissue working his magic and willing it to heal.
JD twitched and tried to pull away a couple of times but would remember not to move in time.
Once Nathan finished JD smiled and said, "I'm hungry."
Everyone laughed and Josiah threw several packages at the boy. "Here you go JD. Snack on these. We have to wait until dusk to build a fire so the smoke won't be seen."
Ripping the clear wrapping JD sank his teeth into the sweet cake.
Ezra gasped. "Nathan, you allow the boy to eat that junk food?"
With injured dignity Nathan answered, "Beggars can't be choosers. I must take what I find. I'm grateful to the generous and brave soul that risks leaving food and water out for me to find."
Jax laughed, "Beggars can't be choosers, huh Nate?"
"No sir, we can't." Nathan said before he went to stand in front of Vin. "Now Vin, I need to look you over. I know you don't like it but I can tell that something is wrong. Don't fight me on this. You know Chris would want me to check you out." Nathan felt only a small prick of guilt bringing Chris in to this.
Vin tried to stare Nathan down but finally gave in ducking his head.
"Good. Now show me where it hurts."
Little Tanner raised a hand to the back top of his head.
"Okay, be real still while I look you over," 'look' being an odd word for what Nathan was going to do. He gently put his large hands on Vin's head covering the boy's scalp. Taking a stilling breath he began to explore inside the boy's skull following trails and pathways only he could see and sense.
Finally he found a blocked area and gently nudged it, working through the blockage telling the tissue and vessels what to do. Finishing, he opened his eyes and was immediately aware of the glazed look in Vin's eyes. His hand dropped to the boy's shoulders steadying him as he picked Vin up. The healer carried the boy to a pallet and laid him down.
"Close your eyes Vin and sleep. Let your body heal." His hand lingered on the thin cheek until the unfocused eyes closed. When they did Nathan sagged in weariness.
Josiah glanced at the healer. "Nathan?"
"Just tired, Josiah."
Nathan rubbed his hands together letting the friction warm them. They always got so cold after he healed someone. "Better than I thought after you told me about what happened when we talked. I think I found where his headaches were coming from. Hopefully they will stop and he'll get his full power back quickly."
"I hope so brother. We're going to need him to find Chris. Why don't you lay down with him and rest?" Josiah suggested.
Looking around the room Nathan nodded. "I will. Wake me if you need anything."
"Will do, brother. Now go lay down."
Which is exactly what Nathan did after checking on the sleeping JD.
Ezra, feeling a little left out went out side. Even in the heat of the afternoon the canyon was cool. Ezra found a protected spot and sank gratefully down.
"Mind if I join you?" Josiah asked always aware of the teen's need for privacy.
"Not at all, Uncle."
They sat in comfortable silence until Josiah asked, "How did your stay with Jax go?"
"Well, the boys' loved being on his what is it? Ranch? Farm? I'm not sure."
"I believe the realtors call it a 'ranchette'. Not enough land to do anything but enough to feel like you're in the country."
"Well, what ever, the boys loved it."
"What do you think of Jax?"
Although Josiah asked casually, Ezra got the impression it wasn't casual. "I'm not sure. He seems to have many talents, which he hides rather well. He also seems to care a lot about the boys and Buck. Yet they haven't seen each other for years. I was very startled to discover several days after we were there that he'd somehow 'blocked' the boys so they wouldn't worry or miss Chris and Buck so much. I only discovered it by accident."
Josiah nodded. "Interesting."
"Why do you ask?"
"Jax puzzles me also. He's got the strongest shields I've ever experienced. Which creates more questions about him." Josiah looked around and was startled to see the old man squatting on a large boulder where he could see for miles in several directions, especially toward the town and the camp.
Ezra looked in the same direction. "Josiah, do think he could be Buck's father?"
"Good Lord, Ezra where did that come from?"
"I'm not sure, just a weird feeling. I saw a picture of Jax as a young man with his brother. There was just something very 'Buck'-like in the young men's grins."
"Hmm," Josiah said thoughtfully. "I have no idea. If he is I'm pretty sure Buck doesn't know. We'd better keep that little speculation to ourselves.
"I have another question. What do you think of his plan? Any 'feelings' on our success?" the empath asked.
"Not yet. Josiah, you know they don't show me anything until the last minute."
"I know, son. But I keep hoping you'll expand your talents just a little. Give us a better margin of success."
The teen threw a small rock across the path. "I have a question for you. What will happen to 'Us', especially Vin, if we don't get Chris back alive?"
Josiah looked profoundly sad. "I don't know Ezra. Chris is our glue. Without his leadership to guide us as for Vin, I'm not sure the boy could survive losing Chris. The man has become his rock. Vin just might fade away and we'd lose him too. Why do you ask?"
Ezra picked up several more small stones and threw them before he answered. "I like to consider all the possibilities - especially the negative ones. To prepare myself for what may come. If something were to happen to Chris I have made plans to take care of Vin, JD too of course, if we were to lose Buck. I'm sorry, Uncle. But I do feel that if we fail all of you will die trying, so to speak. Which leaves me to take care of the boys. I of course intend to survive."
Josiah looked at his nephew with new respect. "It's good to think of all the possibilities, Ezra. But don't count us out too fast."
"Of course not, Uncle. We do have a remarkable ability to succeed."
Chris Larabee sat with his back against the barracks wall. There was little shade but being here was better then being inside with all those people. He glanced at his best friend. Buck sat beside him but only because Chris had pushed him down and then sat down beside him. He felt a familiar anger start to boil up inside him but as quickly as it started it left him with an unfamiliar lethargy. Sighing, he rubbed his fingers through his hair and over the small scar at the base of his skull. Somewhere deep down he knew what that bump was, knew why it was there. But if he tried to pick at it or think about it too hard he was filled with an all-consuming terror and pain that left him trembling and crying in his own vomit.
Shying away from that he turned his thoughts to Buck. It frightened him how much the jovial man had changed since their capture. Buck had become silent and unresponsive. He had to be told to do even the simplest things. "Buck sit, Buck eat." But it was the blank, staring blue eyes that scared him the most. He was losing what was before 'this' a little more every day. Even how they'd gotten to this hell.
They'd broken in to the guardhouse. Luckily it'd been one with all the electronic surveillance. Quickly scanning the systems. Buck had started shutting them down. What he couldn't shut down he'd sent fire into. Chris had Josiah on the loud speaker using his best Voice to send the prisoners running. It was working too. Chris 'moved' the heavy jeeps, twisting and slamming them into walls and doors blocking more guards from running outside. He was to the point where he felt they would succeed when the deafening alarm went off. The frequency and sound bent him over in a fit of nausea and disorientation. He could hear Josiah being sick over the intercom.
"Nathan!" He'd screamed with his voice and mind. "Nathan, grab Josiah and go don't wait for us. GO!" He felt Buck's hands pulling him up and had tried to stand.
"Come on stud, time to go." Wilmington said with a shaky voice.
He'd tried to stand and run but something hit him and he saw Buck fall. His last thought before the blackness was of Vin. "I'm sorry."
His next clear memory was of being strapped down in some sort of chair. Someone was asking questions. Forever asking questions he didn't understand, and the screaming. It took him a long time to realize it was him screaming. Then there was nothing.
The nothing retreated and became a stupor with him sitting on the ground with Buck slumped beside him. The sun was hot and there was nothing protecting them against it.
Larabee looked down at his body in a detached way. All he had on was some loose shorts, no shirt, no shoes. His neck hurt but every time he reached up to check it out pain erupted throughout his body. He learned quickly to ignore his neck and after time the hurt lessened and seemed to go away.
Every sundown 'helmets', where did that word come from, walked down the aisles and herded every one into the barracks. The doors were locked and a few minutes later the lights went off.
When the sun came back up the prisoners were again herded to a line, given a cup of something to drink and moved to stand in front of a block wall where fire hoses were turned on. The spray of water was so strong it was hard to stand. Many didn't and were left where they fell. Once the water was off, they were herded to the same compound and left alone. It was only men that Chris saw, never any children or women.
No one talked, no one looked at each other. Sometimes when the wind was just right he thought he heard children, laughing or crying. The sound brought names to him.
Vin. He dwelt on that name and was occasionally rewarded with a glimpse of a boy with long blond curls and sad eyes.
Outside of the mind numbing routine of his days the one thing he held on to was Buck. Buck, who was a life long friend who'd always been with him and who was now, shared this strange hell too.
Larabee thought he was dreaming when he heard a boy's voice calling him in his head. //Chris, answer me, please talk to me.//
A name came. //Vin?// Larabee asked in wonder.
The voice almost sobbed in relief. //Are you hurt? Is Buck with you?//
//Hurt?// Fleeting memories of pain ran through him too fast to catch. //Buck here.// He patted the sleeping man beside him. //Buck sleeping.//
Another voice sounded in his head on top of Vin's. //Larabee, we're coming to get you. Hold on for just awhile longer.//
//No! Dangerous! Keep Vin safe.// he tried to say almost panicking at the idea of Vin coming here. Vin being like this non-existence he was trapped in. //NO! Keep safe.// he shouted. Disturbed sleepers grumbled and rolled over.
Larabee blinked in the darkness. Had he said that last aloud? Would the helmets come now to punish him? His heart pounded with fear at that thought. But before another thought formed he was pushed into a dreamless sleep. The next morning he didn't remember anything of his nocturnal visit.
Time passed. Chris fought to remember who he was. "My name is Christopher Larabee. Sarah was my wife, Adam my son. Ezra, Vin, like sons. Buck is my best friend. His son is JD. We are sentients. We fight the helmets, the PCCA. I can move things with my mind."
He told himself this over and over but each day it became shorter until it was only, "I'm Chris Larabee. Buck is my friend" When no one was around he would whisper to the man beside him. Always this man was beside him. "You are Buck. My friend. I'm Chris."
Finally late one afternoon after repeating to Buck for seemingly hundreds of times dark blue eyes blinked and really looked at him.
The rogue slowly raised a hand and touched the bearded face. "Chris?" he asked with a voice that cracked from disuse.
"Yeah Buck, Chris."
Buck looked at his own hand turning it over. He tried several times to say something, finally he croaked, "What the hell happened?" He stared at his friend trying to understand then he looked at his hand and moved a finger. "JD?"
The shift changed at four. There were always those who were early and those who were late getting to work. It had been agreed to wait for the late ones hoping for a vehicle they could use. The boys were not good at waiting and sat fidgeting.
//JD, you remember what to do?//
" 'Course I do - I ain't a baby."
Jax patted the boys on the shoulders. "It's time boys. We need to stop a blue pickup, okay?"
Both boys nodded as they took off for the side of the road. It was just out of sight of the camp gates. Vin lay down on the side of the road and JD crouched down beside him. It wasn't long before the truck came in sight.
//Get ready, JD// Vin said as he felt the vibration through the ground.
When the truck got closer JD stood and started waving his arms. "HELP! HELP! My brother's hurt. HELP!"
The truck slowed to a stop and JD started to run to it.
//NO JD! Stay here. He has to come to us.//
The younger boy stopped before he'd moved more than a step or two. "HELP! Please help!"
Bill Rand stopped his old truck. He had strict orders not to stop, no matter what, but he couldn't help himself. Rand stepped out of his truck and shouted. "What's wrong, kid?"
"My brother is hurt. Please help" JD called back managing to squeeze out a few tears. He tried to look and sound even younger than he was.
Shrugging Bill walked closer to the boys. He never felt the blow that knocked him unconscious.
Josiah took the body and carried it over to the bushes to tie Rand up.
"You did good, JD" Jax said as he loaded the boys into the second truck.
Ezra slipped on the jacket and cap and got in the driver's seat while Josiah and Nathan lay in the back under the tarp. Jax followed in the second truck with the boys hiding on the floor of the passenger side.
Ezra glanced down at the ID badge looking carefully at the photo and repeating the name several times to himself. As he drove up to the gate his features blurred and changed until they looked vaguely like the photo ID. Driving up to the gate he stopped. The guard stepped out. "Bill."
Ezra smiled. "Evening John. How's it going?"
"Oh, same old same old" the guard said as Ezra signed the clipboard and handed it back.
John pressed a button and the gate opened. "You have a good one now."
"You too," Ezra said as he drove away.
"Good job, nephew" came the whispered comment as he drove up to the control building.
Ezra stepped out and waiting just a minute for the others, they entered the control building, taking out the two guards easily. Josiah went to the intercom while the others began smashing computers and destroying records.
Vin watched as each of the men went to their assigned place. He wondered where to go since he and JD were seemingly forgotten. Turning the corner of one of the outer buildings he saw it, the golden thread that led to Chris. Grasping JD's arm he sent, //Come on JD, we'll find Chris and Buck.//
No one seemed to notice the two small boys as they made their way down one roadway to another. The panicked men ignored everything except to get out.
The path was littered with discarded helmets while Josiah's voice filled the air. "Run, run for freedom. Find your families if you can. Run. This is your chance for freedom. Hurt no one but leave this place."
Vin gritted his teeth and shielded against the hypnotic voice. With determination he followed the thread to where it finally stopped, flowing into a barely recognizable man.
Chris Larabee crouched on all fours shaking his head from side to side. He was panting as if in pain each breath accenting how thin he'd become. Every bone stuck out in sharp relief.
//CHRIS!!!// Vin shouted through their bond and ran toward the man.
Falling, Larabee's hands came up to his head. Grabbing handfuls of hair he jerked on it moaning, "No, no."
JD dashed ahead of Vin falling on his knees in front of the still sitting Buck. "Buck? We found you, Buck. Don't you know me? It's JD." The boy unthinking placed his little hands on the grubby cheeks. The blank stare didn't change at the joy felt JD. "Buck?" he asked uncertainly.
Larabee groaned and rolled onto his back, his eyes closed. "No dream. Not real. Not real" he whispered over and over.
Little Tanner knelt beside the anguished man. //Chris! I'm real. We're here to get you out of this place. Open your eyes.// Vin placed a hand on each bare shoulder and leaned directly over the fallen man.
"No dream!" Larabee again whispered as he opened his eyes a little and then wider. The boy was still there. He raised a shaking hand and touched the tear-stained face. Wonder replaced anguish as he realized there really was someone there. "Vin? How?" he asked weakly.
//Don't matter now. Get up an' help us with Buck. We gotta go.//
"Go? I " The blond looked around. There were people running everywhere only he and Buck and the boys were still.
Vin pulled and pushed trying to roll the weak man over. //Get up! Get Buck up.// The boy tried to help the struggling Larabee to stand and pull Buck up.
//EZRA! Come here - we need help!// Vin literally screamed telepathically as he pulled at Larabee trying to get him to walk down the path.
JD held the dark man's hand, leading him: Buck stumbled along following the boy blindly.
It wasn't Ezra that showed up first but Jax. The old man stared at the dazed and half-starved men for a breath before he came forward and grabbed Buck's other arm. "We shut down just about everything. Got the Guild locked up in one of the barracks but we need to hurry. There was some sort of silent alarm."
They pulled and pushed the stumbling, unresisting men toward one of the trucks they'd come in. Jax lowered the tailgate and pushed the two men into the truck bed. "Climb in," he ordered the boys and as he closed the tailgate he added, "The others have gone in the other truck. Keep them down and out of sight."
The old man, moving faster than anyone thought he could, jumped into the cab and revved the engine. Even though every instinct shouted at him to 'go very fast' Jax went at a normal speed avoiding attention as he went through the town and down the highway.
Freeman glanced into the rear view mirror often having adjusted it so he could see into the truck bed. No one moved. The two men lay as if unconscious while each boy lay on the outside with arms wrapped around them. Jax 'listened' as Vin talked to the semi-comatose Larabee. He told himself it gave him a better idea of what shape the two were in.
//Chris, we're going to find Nathan. You remember Nathan? Try to remember. I know your head hurts. I'm Vin remember? You saved me an' JD from the helmets. You and Buck been taking care of us an' Ezra too. Remember? We fight the Guild an' the PCCA.//
Larabee lay with his eyes closed. He only caught a few of the words the boy - no, not boy - Vin, sent into his head. They rolled around and he knew he should understand them but there were just too many.
"Stop!" he whispered. "Stop too many words."
//I'm sorry, Chris.//
The blond frowned. "My name is Chris Larabee."
"My name is Chris Larabee and this is Buck " Sad hazel eyes opened and turning his head a little he looked at Tanner. "There's other names, but I don't know who they are you're Vin."
//Yes, I'm Vin.//
"It hurts to think of the names. It hurts my head my name is Chris " The voice slowed and the eyes closed.
Vin hugged the thin man tighter. I won't cry. He'll get better. He'll be fine. Nathan will fix him. The boy raised his head and looked at his cousin. JD didn't seem worried that Buck wasn't talking. He just lay beside him holding on.
//Jax? Did you do something to JD?//
//What would I do Vin?//
//Don't know. He ain't crying or frettin' 'cause Buck ain't acting right.//
//I quieted him, Vin. Right now he's just content that Buck is there beside him. When we have answers I'll loosen the shield.//
//Will they get better?//
The old man sighed. //I hope so, son. I hope so.//
It took almost an hour before they got to the off-road camping spot. It was secluded and had water. Jax parked under a tree for shade and he took out a box that looked like a battery charger.
"Vin, when I start this thing up it might make you feel a little funny. But it won't hurt and it'll block any snooping from the PCCA."
//Okay. It won't hurt Chris or Buck?//
"Shouldn't." Jax told him. But in the back of his head was the thought: They seem so far gone nothing will hurt them.
//Jax, you got any drinking water?//
"Sure do - you thirsty?"
//No, Chris is.//
Freeman got some water bottles out and climbed into the back of the truck. He started to scoot over to where he could help Chris drink but Tanner took the bottle. //I'll do it.//
Vin took off the cap and gently raised the blond head enough to drink. //Chris water drink.// The simple order was followed as Larabee let the water flow down his throat.
It hurt Jax to watch such a forceful personality seemingly reduced to nothing. He turned to Buck and this time it was Jax that fed the water. Buck seemed totally unaware of his surroundings or the people around him. He held the bottle steady until the water ran down Wilmington's chin and then he offered the rest to JD. "Want a drink, JD?"
The little boy reached for the bottle with one hand, not taking the other off the injured man. After he'd drunk the water he looked at Jax. "Buck don't feel good. The helmets hurt him bad. He don't want to be hurt no more. I told him it's okay, but he won't listen."
Jax patted the boy on the hand. "Maybe he'll feel better when the others are here."
JD looked at the old man doubtfully, then at Vin.
//He has to feel safe, JD, just like us.//
The little boy nodded and lay back down beside the man.
Tanner looked back at Larabee. He squeezed the man's arm. //It's okay. You're safe now, Chris.//
The hazel eyes opened and settled on the ten-year-old's face. "Vin" he said with conviction.
"I'm Chris Larabee."
"Vin," he sighed and looked around until he saw Buck. Larabee reached over and touched his friend, "Buck."
//Yes. Go to sleep, rest. Nathan will be here soon.//
Chris frowned at all the words but he closed his eyes and his breathing quickly slowed.
Tanner looked at Jax with lost eyes. He didn't say anything but then neither did Jax. There was nothing but empty promises to be spoken and Vin wouldn't believe them.
It was another hour before the truck and the fifth wheel drove up: Ezra was driving. He pulled up next to the parked truck and shutting down the engine got out. "Josiah and Nathan are in the trailer."
One look at Vin's face froze the teen's heart but he forced himself to look at the two men anyway. While they were both tan their hair was lank and too long the skin under the tan was an unhealthy gray. The men had lost weight, so much that their stomachs were sunken hollows and each rib stood out in relief. Their feet and hands were dry and cracked to the point of bleeding.
How could these men be the ones missing? How could they be those alive, vibrant men he knew?
Nathan was pushing his way over and he climbed into the pickup bed. "Oh, Good God!" he breathed out before he thought. Gathering himself together he said, "We need a fire and some hot water. Josiah, mix several bottles of that protein drink I brought. Cook something for the rest of us, too. It looks like they haven't eaten in a long time." Looking at the others he demanded, "Well, get moving. You too, Vin and JD, if I need ya I'll call."
The boys reluctantly climbed out of the truck and began helping with Nathan's orders, leaving the healer free to work on the two men.
Nathan turned to the two men lying so still. He rubbed his hands together and started. It seemed like a very long time before Nathan spoke. "Josiah, please bring me the needle nose pliers."
The empath came over. "Here you go."
"Now, climb up here and hold Chris up. You remember that thing we took from Vin's head? I think Chris has one and Buck too, I'm betting."
Nathan sat the blond up leaning him toward Josiah's strong arms. He brushed the blond hair out of the way and rubbed the familiar knot. At his touch Larabee moaned and tried to move. Nathan quickly reached out and pinched a nerve, then taking the pliers he nodded to Josiah. "Ready?"
"As I'll ever be," Sanchez answered tightening his grip just a little.
Once the skin was broken Nathan dug down and found the head. He held it tightly and began to pull with a slow even pressure. It seemed the filament would never end but finally it snapped out and twisted and twirled in the air.
"Bowl!" Nathan called and one appeared. He dropped the 'thing' into the bowl and taking his empty hand he placed his fingers around the weeping wound. "Burn it!" He snapped as he began to concentrate on healing the damaged pathway.
When he finished he nodded to Josiah and they carefully laid Larabee down. Wiping the sweat out of his eyes the healer turned to Buck and with a deep breath started all over on the rogue.
Josiah held up a hand. "Nathan, you need to rest."
"Can't not yet. When I'm done with Buck, I'll rest."
"But," Josiah started to protest but a quit when he saw the distress in Nathan's eyes. He watched as the healer started on Buck and when he came to the neck he repeated the procedure he'd performed before. Once finished the healer almost collapsed into Josiah's waiting arms. The big man led Nathan over to the fire and sat him down. Someone handed the healer a mug of something hot. Jackson took several sips before he looked up to the waiting faces.
Taking another drink as he collected his thoughts, he began. "You all can see they been starved. Don't know what they been fed but wasn't food. As far as I can tell it blocks the body from absorbing nutrition, even blocks the body from using stored fat so that the starvation is accelerated. I think it was laced with a drug mix I can't even identify. They're suffering from exposure, too. Hot desert sun, cool or cold nights. Them shorts aren't much protection. Found some healing bone fractures, some deep bruises that were almost gone. I'd say they took a few beatings at first."
Taking another sip Nathan continued. "I don't know if it's brain damage or just those things that were in their heads. Whichever it is, it'll be a slow recovery I just don't know. I need to study each of them as their bodies heal and it's their brain, damn it! You just don't go mucking about in that you have to be very, very careful. I do know we need to be someplace safe, someplace quiet where they can rest and recover." Nathan looked around the group listening to him. Silently he congratulated himself for not saying 'hopefully recover'. He'd keep that little doubt to himself.
"My place" Jax said instantly. "It's safe and quiet. I gotta hidey hole for them, for that matter all of you, to hide in. It's only about 10 miles as the crow flies to where my truck is. We ditch the one we stole and you can drive straight to my place with them riding in the trailer: it'll be easier on them. I'll get back before you. The boys already have a reason for being there. We'll work something out for the rest of you. I'll leave after the moon rises."
"You want company? I'll go with you." Josiah offered.
"I'll take the company. Ezra, that leaves you and Nathan to drive, I expect mostly you. Nathan will want to be with his patients" Jax answered.
With the warm water and Nathan's directions, Josiah and Jax washed the two unconscious men and then slathered them with a lotion Nathan had made. Ezra found soft sweats for them in the trailer and thick heavy socks. Once they were clean and shaved Josiah carried each into the fifth wheel and laid them on a bed.
Once Chris was down Vin crawled on the outside of the bed next to him.
"You need to eat Vin." Nathan said.
//Not hungry later.//
JD did the same as Vin when Buck was laid down and Nathan gave up.
"You too, brother," Josiah ordered the exhausted healer.
For once the healer didn't argue. As he lay down he said, "Get those drink bottles and put them beside the beds. Boys, if they wake get them to drink as much as they can." Nathan frowned, there was something else, but he fell asleep before he could think of it.
Jax stood in the doorway watching the four sentients sleep. There were no dreams - he'd made sure of that. The little boys did not need to be re-visited by the horrors of the day so each slept curled next to the man they adored.
As for the men, they still slept under the influence of what the PCCA's doctors had done not yet aware that they were free of the controlling influence of the device Nathan had removed. Freeman had broken one of his own long-standing rules and had tried to explore Buck's mind. He'd told himself he was only checking on the man, but the truth was he needed to know if the personality was still there. It had done no good. He'd come up against shields and walls so strong, so thick that they could not be breached. It did give him hope. If Buck erected and held those shields so strongly then somewhere behind them the man waited.
Freeman turned and went outside glancing up at the rising full moon. He saw Josiah waiting. "You ready?"
"As I'll ever be."
Nodding, Jax smiled. "I hope you can keep up with me, I ain't waiting for you. Gotta move fast."
"I think I can manage." Josiah said with confidence.
"We'll see" the older man snorted. Turning he set off at a blistering pace.