Chris stood on the overlook, staring out into the dark night in front of him. No moon graced the sky this night, and the only light came from the twinkle of distant stars. Out here they were crystal clear, radiant diamonds set in a sea of darkness.
He remembered something that Adam had said once. His son had loved gazing up at the stars and Chris had learned the stories behind the constellations to tell him as they lay together on the lawn. "I know what stars are, Daddy," Adam had told him once. "They're souls of good people, star people. Like mommy. And when a star falls, that's a soul coming down to earth to live for a little while, then when they die, they go back up to the sky to be stars again."
Behind him was the plaque that commemorated Vin's life and death, marking this as the place that he was 'buried'. That bright soul that had descended from heaven had once again become a star. Just like Sarah and Adam.
Chris closed his eyes against the tears that threatened to fall. He hadn't cried for Vin, wouldn't cry for him. Vin would kick his ass if he did. Or would have if he could. Vin would want him to go on with his life, just like he had showed Chris that Sarah and Adam would have wanted him to go on with his life without them. It was just hard.
It seemed like every time he tried to take a step away from the sharpshooter and the pain his memory caused, something would happen that would bring it all screaming back. Like today, they'd probably learned why Vin had died today, why he'd been killed.
A hit, a goddamned hit.
If only I'd been there, Chris mentally berated himself. If I'd been there, I could have stopped it somehow, if I'd been there, Vin would still be alive.
Or you'd be dead, too, Larabee, y' think I'd want that? Vin's voice echoed in his head.
No, Vin wouldn't have wanted that. Should have just told him he couldn't go.
Oh, good thinking, Larabee, he thought with a derisive snort. Then you would have lost him just as surely, only in a different way.
JD hadn't found anything else about the hit, and at this point it didn't seem likely that whoever had orchestrated Vin's death would be caught.
He never thought that Vin would have had to go through that alone, had always believed that if that day ever came, they would face it together.
"I'm sorry Vin," Chris whispered to the night wind, opening his eyes. "I - You shouldn't have been alone. I should have been there for you."
"Aw, Chris," Vin whispered. "Weren't your fault." He knew the blond wouldn't hear him, couldn't hear him, but he wished that he could talk to Chris, just for a second, make sure that he knew that it wasn't is fault. It hurt Vin that he was hurting Chris.
But hurting Chris was preferable to getting him killed, and Vin held that in the forefront of his mind. Still, the internal struggle to stay where he was was a fierce one.
He hadn't been able to sleep. Vin realized that he hadn't gotten a real, good night's sleep since before he had left. His travels had brought him to the overlook. He loved this place, he would come here when things got so hectic and crowded in the city that he couldn't think. It seemed that his friends had made this his final resting place in apparent death.
He hadn't been there fifteen minutes when Chris had shown up. Vin had been well concealed, so had no worries about being seen, but he was a little surprised that Chris had arrived.
By Vin's way of thinking, there wouldn't be another attempt on Chris's life after the hitman in the warehouse that day at the very least, and that night and the next day the team would be on alert for anything that seemed out of the ordinary. He had spent most of that time trying to find someone or something that might lead him to whoever it was that put the hit out on Chris. He had thought that tonight would be much the same as the previous one, but Chris showing up, alone, had dispelled that, perhaps self-deceiving, belief.
And Chris being up here alone opened up opportunities for ambitious thugs. Despite the quiet and the late hour, Vin knew that he had to be on his guard.
Faint sounds of people approaching drew Vin's attention away from Chris and back towards the road. His ears told him that there were three people coming. He drew further into the shadows. Given the care they were taking to move silently, Vin doubted that the three he heard coming were there for a good reason, but he resolved to stay out of it until he was needed, if he was needed. Chris knew how to take care of himself, and Vin knew that if Chris saw him, his cover would be blown. Right now, that was the last thing that either of them needed.
The three assailants, obviously street kids, fanned out to form a semi-circle at Chris's back. "You Larabee?" one of them called, making an effort to sound tough.
Chris turned. There was a dangerous glint in his eye and a faint smile of his lips as he sized up his opponents. "Why? You boys got some sorta business with me?" The words as much a challenge as a question.
Vin snorted softly to himself, some things never changed. Chris was still a cocky sonofabitch, and these three had just made it harder on themselves by informing him of their presence.
Unfortunately though, there were three of them and only one of Chris. He held his own for a while, managing to do considerable damage to at least one of the youths, but when he slipped up the three of them were on him in a heartbeat, taking advantage of his momentary weakness.
A low growl escaped Vin as he slowly advanced. Chris lay unconscious at the feet of the aggressors, and they drew back slightly. "What do we do now?" one of them asked uncertainly.
"Boss said he wanted him dead, didn't care how we did it," the callous tone set Vin's teeth on edge.
"Yeah, but - I mean - " This one would talk, Vin concluded. He was smaller than the others, hesitant and unsure. He didn't want to be part of a murder, even if the money was good. Chances were that he'd pulled his punches before with Chris, not wanting to cause more damage than necessary. Yes, this one was the weak link.
"I'll tell you what you do now," Vin purred from behind them. They whirled to face the new threat. "Now, you're going to go back to your boss and tell him that Larabee's mine."
"You think so, asshole?" The apparent leader brayed. "I think Larabee's ours. We worked for that money, and I intend to get it, so back off."
Vin's grin was feral. "I can't do that."
"George, I think we should go, I mean, we really don't - "
"Shut up, Jake." Jake obligingly did as he was told.
The larger two boys advanced on Vin. "I'm gonna give you one chance to get out of here," George warned, "then you're gonna end up like Larabee there."
Vin's grin broadened in a blatant challenge. The two boys rushed Vin, but Vin was ready for them.
It was a short fight, over quickly with the two larger thugs fleeing after being on the receiving end of a few good strikes, Vin proving more than they bargained for. The smallest one, Jake, had held back during the fight, obviously uncertain about what to do. At the sight of his two 'friends' leaving him, Jake panicked, and tried to follow. Unfortunately for him, Vin was standing between him and freedom.
Jake wasn't quite sure how he ended up on his back, staring up at the scariest face he'd ever seen. The other man's whole weight rested on the youth's body, crushing the breath out of him. The eyes staring at him were dark and cold, the grin on his face an unholy cross between a sneer and an insane grin. It was like a scene from Jake's worst nightmares, and he was sure that it would haunt him for the rest of his days. "Who hired you?" The apparition growled.
"I - I - it wasn't a lot of money - we just - " Jake babbled senselessly, wishing he'd for once had the good sense not to follow George on one of his stupid stunts.
"I don't care how much money it was," the voice was harsh and guttural, "I just want to know who was paying it."
"Mar - Marintez. George said L - Larabee k - killed his son."
"You know who he is?"
Jake shook his head vehemently. "I think the son was George's connection for drugs 'r guns, 'r somethin'." As the cold eyes bore into him, Jake broke down. "Oh man, I am so dead. I swear I didn't know what he was plannin' 'til it was too late. I was just - just stupid. I shoulda known better. Oh man."
Vin cut off the kid's ramblings by getting up off of him. "Get out of here, kid," he growled.
"You're - you're gonna let me go?"
"Even gonna let ya live. Now get."
Jake didn't need to be told again, and he was off and running in the next second like a rabbit that feared for it's life. That wild, angry face chiseled into his memory.
Vin watched the kid run off, feeling vaguely sorry for him. This 'Jake' wasn't a bad kid, he'd just fallen in with the wrong crowd. It wasn't hard to do on the streets, Vin knew that first-hand.
He turned and walked to where Chris still lay. Oh, Cowboy, he sighed, taking inventory of his friend's hurts.
Cautiously he reached out and retrieved Chris's cell phone. He dialed Buck's pager and left the message "911 Lookout", knowing Buck would be up this late and hoping that the ladies' man would understand.
He replaced the phone and reached out once more to gently touch Chris's face. "I want you to know, Chris," he whispered, "if you can hear me, none of this is your fault. You need to believe that. I'm so sorry, Cowboy." The Texan then drew back into the shadows to await the arrival of help for his best friend.
Buck paced anxiously in the hospital waiting room. What the hell happened?
Only Chris could tell him that. When he'd reached the lookout, Chris had been sprawled on the ground unconscious. Buck had taken one look at the battered body and rushed him to the hospital. Chris had been in and out of consciousness, but so far had managed to say nothing helpful.
"Mr Wilmington?" Buck turned to see a petit young woman standing by the nurses' station, dark hair pulled back in a loose braid, a medical chart in her hands.
"Hey, Doc," he greeted. "How's Chris?"
"Mr Larabee suffered a concussion in the beating he took, but there were no other injuries that were dangerous. He'll be feeling it for a few days, but he didn't even manage to bruise his ribs."
"So I can see him?"
"I'll do you one better than that," the doctor smiled, familiar with the ways of Team Seven, "you can take him home if you promise to stay with him and wake him up every two hours and make sure he's lucid."
"Thanks, Doc!" Buck beamed, smiling brilliantly at her. "What room's he in? I'll bet he's rarin' to go already."
"He's in three," the doctor informed him with a small grin. "Can you handle him, or should I send an orderly with a wheelchair to help you out?"
"I think I've got it, Doc. I know where the 'chairs are if we need one."
The doctor snorted and shook her head at that. "Good luck," she bid him as she turned to her other patients.
Buck grinned and headed down the hall. "Hey, Pard, how you feeling?" he asked, sticking his head into Chris's room. Chris glared balefully at the boisterous man from his position seated on the bed. "Right, sorry, stupid question." He moved into the room.
Chris began to get up, a tediously slow process. He groaned in pain when he stretched his not-bruised ribs.
Buck frowned, concerned. "The doc give you a prescription for anything?"
"Pain pills," Chris grunted, hand flicking towards the bedside table. "Prob'ly those damned horse ones, too."
Buck swooped in and snatched up the prescription, tucking it carefully in his pocket.
Chris's eyes narrowed. "I don't need a babysitter."
"Doctor's orders," Buck grinned broadly.
Chris grumbled incomprehensibly as he shuffled toward the door, ignoring the mustached man.
"You want me to get a wheelchair?" Chris turned and glared at his companion. "Fine," Buck laughed, "but you end up on your ass, don't come bitchin' to me."
Chris's only response was to growl.
"What happened out there, Chris?" Buck asked quietly, suddenly serious.
"Coupla kids," Chris sighed, making his way slowly but surely out of the hospital, determined to make it on his own.
"Wha'd they want?"
"Guess it's lucky you were conscious long enough to call me, then."
Chris paused, frowning. He didn't remember calling Buck, didn't remember much of anything after the first few punches.
"Must say though," Buck continued, oblivious, "confused me a little. I don't think I've ever heard you call that place 'the lookout'. It's always 'Vin's place', I think only Vin ever called it the lookout."
"Guess I wasn't thinking too clearly," Chris mumbled, starting forward again. He didn't remember much from that evening, but he did remember Vin's voice echoing in his head, remembered focusing on that, trying to hold on to that voice when the pain had been overwhelming.
I want you to know Chris, none of this is your fault. I need you to believe that. I'm sorry, Cowboy.
"Hey, Josiah, I need a favor."
"What is it, Brother Buck?"
Buck glanced at the blond sleeping in the den. They hadn't gotten out to the ranch 'til midmorning, the time at the hospital eating up the remaining night and a good portion of the morning, followed by a trip to the pharmacy and the long ride up here. Buck wasn't surprised that Chris had crashed after lunch, despite obviously struggling to stay awake.
"Chris was hurt last night," Buck spoke in to the phone, "I was wondering if you could come out to the ranch later and keep an eye on him."
"What happened? How bad is it? Should I call Nathan?"
"Slow down, Preacher," Buck laughed. "I don't know exactly what happened, just that it looks like a couple of kids took it upon themselves to beat the living shit out of Chris, but, aside from a concussion, he's more or less fine. I don't think we need to bother Nate, doesn't he have plans with Rain tonight?"
"Yeah, he was really excited about it. I think it's an anniversary of some sort."
"I thought so, and I don't think Chris is up to dealing with the kid or Ezra, so what do you say?"
There was a pause in which the ladies' man started to sweat. "Hot date tonight, Buck?" There was laughter in the older man's voice.
"Lydia," Buck sighed. "You've seen her Preacher, you oughta know."
"Isn't your friend more important than a woman?"
"Hell, Josiah, do you know how hard I had to work to get this date?"
"Does it not matter that your oldest friend needs you?" The teasing tone of the voice kept the words from being biting.
"Josiah, Lydia is a goddess, and she's agreed to go out with me tonight. I may never be so blessed again in my life!"
"What, pray tell, is this fair deity of yours the patron of?"
"All that is right and good in this world."
"Not to mention beautiful."
"Well, hell, Josiah, not even a blind man could miss that."
Josiah's deep-throated chuckle rumbled along the phone line.
"Seriously, Josiah, I need an answer."
"Well " Josiah drawled, drawing out the answer. "I suppose I could clear my schedule for tonight."
"I owe you one, Josiah."
"I'll keep that in mind. When do you need me out there?"
"How soon can you get here?" Buck's voice was laced with a desperate plea.
"Well, I suppose that depends on -"
"Not funny, Josiah!"
"Oh, I'm not so sure about that," the older man chuckled.
"So?" Buck asked anxiously.
"So what?" Josiah teased infuriatingly.
"So, when can you get here?" Impatience now colored Buck's voice.
"I'll be there in an hour," Josiah finally relented.
"Thanks Josiah, you're a godsend."
"You may not think that when I call this favor in," Josiah warned.
"Lydia is worth anything you come up with, Preacher," Buck sighed.
"I'll remind you you said that when I'm calling this one in," Josiah threatened.
"Whatever. Just get here."
"I'll be over shortly."
"See ya in a bit." Buck hung up the phone. A dreamy sigh escaped his lips as his mind wandered to Lydia.
Buck opened the door to the ranch before Josiah could knock. "Chris is still asleep," he explained in a mock sotto voce tone, leading the older man into the house.
"Or would be, if you could keep your damn voice down," a growl emanated from the direction of the couch.
"CHRIS!" Buck exclaimed. "You're awake!"
"Doesn't mean you can shout." The blond grizzly massaged his head with a grimace.
"Sorry," Buck said, much quieter this time, lips twisting in a repentant grin.
Chris snorted his disbelief. "Josiah," he greeted.
"Chris," the older man acknowledged his leader.
"Buck got a date or something?"
"Lydia," Josiah mimicked Buck's besotted sigh as the ladies' man made insulted choking sputters in the background.
"Shoulda known," Chris grumbled, pushing himself off the couch.
"Now, Chris," Buck protested. "It ain't like that!"
"Save it, Stud."
Buck stared at his friend's retreating back. He opened his mouth to defend himself, but Josiah interrupted him. "I wouldn't, Brother Buck," the older man cautioned, a twinkle in his eyes. "I'd say that Chris knows what it's like better than anybody."
Buck turned away grumbling under his breath. "I've got to get ready," he raised his voice to call over his shoulder as he made his way towards the bathroom and a shower. "You two boys play nice, now."
Josiah saw the affectionate smile that tugged on Larabee's lips as he watched the ladies' man walk away and couldn't help but grin himself. This was a unique and special group of men that he had quite suddenly found himself a part of.
"You want anything to eat or drink, Josiah?" Chris asked, heading to the kitchen, not looking at his guest.
Josiah briefly considered turning the offer down, but thought better of it. "I'll take some iced tea, if you have some."
"Sure, keep it around for you and Nathan mostly. Even have some of that sugary crap JD and Vin - that JD loves so much."
"Well, as far as I'm concerned, he can keep it. I happen to like my teeth where they are." Josiah said with an easy smile, glossing over the slip gracefully. He could tell from the pain he saw in Chris's eyes when he turned to hand him the bottle that this was not the time to address the subject. The wound was still raw, but Josiah wasn't sure there would ever be a time when Chris Larabee would be able to let go off the pain of losing half his soul.
"I know what you mean," Chris seized on the bone Josiah threw him gladly. "Kids these days." There was a glint of laughter in Chris's eyes, but his smile looked slightly forced.
Chris had grabbed a water bottle for himself and now made his way over to the counter by the sink, where Josiah could see an orange prescription bottle. Chris shook out two pills and swallowed them with a gulp of water, then he turned to face Josiah once more.
"You don't have to stay," he told the older man quietly.
"You throwing me out?" Josiah asked lightly.
Chris frowned a little. "No, but if you have better things to do, don't let me stop you. I can take care of myself." The words were quiet and dispassionate, yet Josiah was forcefully reminded of a young Texan who had often protested violently of his ability to take care of himself.
"Buck said you have a concussion. You know as well as I do that you shouldn't be left alone. Besides, what are friends for?"
"I just don't want you to be giving up your night if you have plans."
"It's Saturday night, where else would I be?"
"On a date," Chris suggested, Josiah's attempt at lightening the mood obviously not working.
Josiah decided that he didn't like this quiet, reflective new Larabee. Unfortunately the only thing that was sure to bring the spitfire Larabee that they all knew and loved back was gone from them forever. Vin always knew just what to say or do to bring Chris out of a funk like this, and conversely was the only one that with one word could reliably send him into a furious rage.
"I assure you, Chris, I had nothing going on this evening that you interrupted. Even if I had, even if we all had, one of us would have canceled our plans to be with you. Even Buck. And none of us would have held it against you."
"Ezra would," Chris countered, with the barest hint of a smile.
"Well," Josiah conceded, "perhaps Ezra would have said so, but," and Josiah leaned in and lowered his voice a notch, as if he was sharing some big secret, "really, he wouldn't have meant it. He has a reputation to maintain after all."
This brought a small smile to Chris's face, but it was a real smile, not the lifeless, half smiles that they had grown used to seeing in the months since Vin's death.
"So," Josiah bobbed his eyebrows in an outrageous imitation of Buck, "there any games on tonight?"
Chris and Josiah had passed the night in quiet companionship. They hadn't been able to find any games that they wanted to watch, but had found a western marathon that had held their attention. It hadn't been as lively as it would have been if the rest of the seven had been there, but they'd managed to keep a light-hearted running commentary up until the last one, when the Magnificent Seven had come on.
Chris had fallen quiet at the opening credits, and hadn't said a word the whole time. Josiah knew that Chris, like himself, was beset by memories of the seven of them watching the movie countless times. The first time that they'd watched it together was shortly after a newspaper had labeled them the "Magnificent Seven" after one of their early busts.
There were parallels that could be drawn from the characters in the movie to the members of Team Seven. It was the characters of Chris and Vin that had always struck Chris, though. Granted, Steve McQueen's Vin wasn't as quiet, or nearly as good a marksman as his Vin had been, but nevertheless, he was always struck by the similarities.
"Do you believe in ghosts, Preacher?" Chris asked quietly as the credits scrolled across the screen.
Josiah started a bit. He hadn't expected Chris to speak, and lost in his own memories, he was startled when Chris did. Of all things he might have expected though, this wasn't it. "I suppose it's possible," Josiah ventured carefully. "There are a lot of things that science and logic can't explain. I have seen a lot of things like that in my travels. In the absence of a 'reasonable' explanation, one sometimes must look to what our rational minds tell us is impossible. Why do you ask?"
"Last night - last night I went up to Vin's place." Chris's voice was quiet and contemplative, and his eyes remained fixed on the screen, though Josiah doubted he saw it anymore. Josiah surreptitiously muted the television. "I wanted to feel close to him, needed to talk to him. Sometimes going there helps, makes me feel as if, as long as I don't turn around he'll be there. I remember telling him how sorry I was, then those kids showed up, and all off a sudden, I'm on my back in the middle of the forest, the kids are gone, and I hear Vin telling me that it wasn't my fault what happened to him. A part of me keeps insisting that it was my subconscious, but it was so real."
"You and Vin shared a unique bond," Josiah responded slowly, "perhaps it even goes so far as to extend beyond death. Of course, it could have been your subconscious. Vin was, and is, a part of you, just like you were a part of him, it would not be such a stretch to believe that the part of you that is Vin was speaking what you know he would have felt. Or perhaps it was his spirit. You were in a place that is special to both of you. I wish I could give you a definite answer, but that's the best I can do."
Chris sighed, turning his head to look at the older man. "Thanks, Preacher. It's enough that you tried. Doubt I'll ever have a real answer."
"If it helps," Josiah offered, "I see Vin in everything nowadays. I see a particularly beautiful sunset, or that golden haze you get after a rain storm when the sun comes out again, but the rain's not gone from the trees and the grass, and I think, God, I wish Vin were here to see this. Those are the times when it's hardest to believe he's gone. It feels like he's right there with me, just out of reach, but there all the same."
Chris nodded, knowing exactly how that felt, and Josiah accepted that as the end of the conversation and turned the sound on the TV back on.
The only thing is, Chris thought as they both turned back to the movie already in progress, that I don't remember calling Buck. But Chris didn't say anything, knowing there were logical arguments for that, chief among them the giant knot on his head, and even if there sometimes was an irrational explanation, there were only so many of those that one man could accept, even someone like Josiah.
It turned out that "Marintez" was a gun dealer, a little bigger than small time, but not big enough for the feds to warrant him much attention. He had a reputation for being ruthless, and, from all Vin had heard, he was. His one weakness, they said, was his only son. A son that had died in a bust Chris had been in charge of a month ago.
Word had it that Marintez the younger had been dabbling in drug dealing, met up with a buyer in an unfortunate place and gotten caught in the crossfire. By hacking the ATF computer network, a skill JD had taught him, Vin had found out that it had actually been one of the gunrunner's bullets that caught the kid in the back, but his father didn't care. He was going to punish the man responsible, and, to Marintez in any case, it was Larabee's fault his son was dead.
"I remember when I actually had a life on Saturday nights," he mumbled to himself as he ducked down a dark alley that cut through to the next street over. He'd spent the day first roaming the streets looking for information, then later sitting at a public computer and putting the skills he had learned from JD to good use. Now it was late, and his eyes were blurred and heavy from the fatigue that comes with no substantial sleep in days.
"Well, well, well. Lookit what the cat dragged in," a harsh voice leered from in front of him, and Vin realized that he hadn't been paying enough attention to who, what and where. He immediately settled back into a fighting crouch, recognizing the voice knowing that there was no way he was getting out of a fight, the main street too far away to successfully make a break for it. Not that he'd ever give Marcus "Snake" Gilepski the satisfaction of seeing him run from him.
The man was foul. No one liked him, but he got by on brute strength and vicious cruelty. Vin had had run ins with him before, and had so far been able to come out of top, his cunning and speed giving him an advantage. Barely, though.
Six and a half feet of hulking muscle lumbered toward him. "I heard you were dead, Tanner," the man's voice was as intimidating as his appearance. "I also heard there was a price on your head that nobody collected. So here's what I figure, I can kill you, get the money, and no one will be able to do anything to me; can't be tried for killin' a dead man."
"Here's the thing, Butch," Vin drawled tauntingly knowing that it wasn't even worth his while to deny who he was, "ya can, because ya'd be guilty, no one's been tried for my murder, and double jeopardy don't work like that even if someone had. So, if ya're done tryin' ta act smart, I'll just be on m' way."
"Oh, I don't think you will be," the larger man leered, advancing on the Texan. Vin saw the glint of metal in Snake's right hand and his blood ran cold. They'd never employed weapons more dangerous than their fists before; Snake having a knife gave him an advantage, Vin would need to be on the top of his game to stay on top, and he was tired enough, and realistic enough, to know that that wasn't likely.
Not that that meant that Vin was just going to give up, either.
Snake lunged at him, knife held in front of him. Vin dodged, but he wasn't fast enough to get out of the way entirely and he felt the knife tear into his left side as he moved out of the way.
Adrenaline surged through Vin, and he barely felt the pain as his body took over. It seemed like no time at all before Snake was lying at his feet, knocked unconscious by the hilt of his own knife, which was now clutched in Vin's hand.
But Vin hadn't escaped unscathed either. Along with the wound to his side, he discovered another on his right leg when he went to walk away and fire raced up his leg, chasing away the euphoria left over after the fight.
Taking a deep breath, Vin took another stunted step towards the mouth of the alley, bracing himself for the pain he knew he was going to feel. Three steps later and the street still seemed to be miles away. Vin closed his eyes, took a deep breath - and despaired of ever getting back to the little apartment he was currently staying in.
"You okay?" a tentative voice asked from somewhere in front of him. He sounded young and unsure of himself, thankfully not like someone who posed a threat. Vin opened his eyes and found himself looking at a face he hadn't thought he'd ever see again.
The boy - for Vin could see that he was truly no more than that, fourteen maybe - took another step towards him and must have gotten into a position where he could see Vin's face, or enough of it so that he could recognize him.
Jake stumbled back with a gasp. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize. I'm really sorry to - " he was stumbling over his words as much as his feet as he scrambled backward to get away from his nightmare.
"Wait," Vin rasped. Under normal conditions, he never would have considered doing what he was now, but these weren't normal circumstances, and he'd never get to his apartment without help.
Jake stopped his backwards progress, but made no effort to move forward, and still looked ready to bolt.
"I need yer help," Vin entreated quietly, eyes locked on the youth's shadowed face. When he didn't say anything for a while Vin added, "I promise I won't hurt ya."
Jake's eyes flicked to the alley behind Vin. "What about him?" he asked quietly.
"He attacked me," Vin responded, knowing instinctively what he was being asked.
"You attacked us last night."
"Y'all were tryin' ta kill my best friend." Jake flinched a little at that. "I needed ta stop you and find out who put out the contract."
Jake nodded slowly. "And you give your word that you won't try to hurt me?"
"Unless you try ta hurt me or one of my friends," Vin replied seriously.
Jake considered for a while, but finally came forward to where Vin was standing and helping him sling an arm over his shoulder for support. "You'll have to tell me where to go," he said quietly.
Vin nodded, not having the energy to respond verbally.
It took what seemed like forever to get back to Vin's apartment, and by the time they got there, Vin was barely able to stay upright, even with the kid's help. Jake used the time to study the man he supported. He didn't appear to be a bad sort, not nearly the monster that had haunted his dreams the previous night. If he really had been protecting a friend Jake would give anything to have a friend like that.
He settled the man on the sofa in the living room, a little reluctant to venture further into the man's apartment. He stood back and edged towards the door, but he didn't get far. The man was bleeding. He'd lost a lot of blood already, by the looks of the stains spreading from his side and leg. His mother's training wouldn't let him leave him there untreated.
It wasn't much work to find the bathroom, the apartment was small, and the only other rooms were a small kitchen and a bedroom. The bathroom was surprisingly well stocked in first aid materials, and Jake found all the supplies he could ever hope to need.
Coming back to the living room laden with supplies, Jake decided to treat the side wound first, since that was the easiest to get at. He set the supplies down and reached out to pull the man's shirt up. The moment his hand touched the fabric, though, the man let out a low growl of warning. "You're hurt," Jake said quietly, "you need to let me at least clean and bind your wounds otherwise you're likely to bleed out." There was no indication that the other man heard him, but the next time he went to lift the shirt there was no protest, though Jake noticed that the man watched him through blue slits.
Vin studied the boy. His dark brown hair was longish and unkempt, blue eyes were fixed intently on what he was doing , and it looked like it had been a while since he'd had anything resembling a decent meal. He reminded Vin a lot of himself at that age, and as much as he'd liked to have thought that he wouldn't have gotten himself involved in a murder attempt, Vin knew that he had done stupid things when he was living on the streets too.
When he was finished, Jake couldn't help but think that his work was pretty fumble-fingered, but the man hadn't complained at all, and had made every effort to make his job easier. With a resigned sigh he shrugged and decided that it wasn't going to get any better, and trying to make it so would only hurt the man more.
Jake moved quietly to the door.
"Ya got a place ta crash tonight, kid?" The quiet question startled the boy, who had thought that his patient was asleep. Jake considered lying for a second, but hesitated for too long because the man continued before he could answer. "Why don't ya take the bed? I'm not gonna be movin' tonight. 'S the least I can do."
Jake considered turning him down, remembering the terror of being confronted by this man the night before, but it had been a while since he had slept in a real bed, and the temptation was to great to turn down.
"There's food in the fridge," the man on the couch told him. "You can help yerself. Lock the door 'fore ya go ta bed."
"Thanks," Jake said quietly, but he didn't think that the man heard him. He locked the door, then went into the kitchen. There wasn't much in the fridge, but he had said Jake took an apple and drifted towards the bedroom.
It was a Spartan room, like most of the apartment. The only visible ornamentation was a couple of photos on the nightstand. The first was of seven men, all looking relaxed and comfortable with each other. Both the man and Larabee were present. Jake's host looked a lot different with his hair long and brown like that, but he was recognizable if you knew what to look for. The next photo was of Larabee and the man riding horses. They looked almost as if they were two halves of a whole. "Guess they really are friends," Jake murmured. The third photo was of a man and a woman wrapped around each other and laughing. Jake inhaled sharply and sat down hard on the bed. "Papa," he whispered.
Despite his fatigue the night before and his injuries, Vin was up with the sun. He moved gingerly to the kitchen, careful not to aggravate his injuries more than necessary. He got started on a simple breakfast for the two of them, knowing that he should eat, and it wasn't likely that Jake would eat if he didn't force food on him. He was too much like Vin had been at that age not to.
That was why Vin had asked him to stay the night, more than anything else. He was grateful for what the kid had done for him, there was no questioning that, and would have tried to help him for that alone, but he wasn't usually so quick to offer lodging to someone who had tried to kill one of his friends.
But he had helped Vin when he had every right to run in the other direction, and Vin sensed in him a strength of spirit that reminded him of the not-so-innocent kid he'd been at fourteen. He'd been idealistic then, yes, but hadn't quite had the moral character he'd developed in later years under the tutelage of an understanding mentor. That old man had been everything to Vin, kind and forgiving, gently molding the boy into the man he knew he could become, and Vin shuddered to think where he would have ended up without that influence. Vin saw that potential in Jake that another had once seen in him, and he felt he almost owed it to the boy to give him the same kind of guidance.
When Jake stumbled into the kitchen some fifteen minutes later, Vin had a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and canned peaches waiting for him.
Jake stared at the scene in front of him through bleary eyes. The man he'd helped the previous night was sitting at the small table reading a newspaper, what looked like eggs were being kept warm on the stove, a plate of toast, a bowl of what looked like canned peaches, and a carton of orange juice, along with two place settings sat on the table. The man looked a lot better, though Jake knew that injuries like that, though not fatal if treated right, wouldn't heal overnight.
The man looked up as Jake entered. "Um. I - " Jake started.
"Sit down," the man, Jake knew he was going to have to learn his name if this kept up, ordered. He struggled to his feet, and Jake made to protest, but at the glare he received he slid quietly into a chair, the picture he'd taken from the bedroom clutched tightly in his hand, out of sight. He watched as the man made his way slowly around the kitchen.
Vin divvied up the eggs, spooning more onto one plate than the other. Returning to the table, he levered two slices of toast onto each plate, spooned out some peaches and set the plates down, putting the one with more food on it in front of Jake. "I - " Jake opened his mouth to protest.
"Eat," Vin commanded.
Jake picked up his fork and mechanically took raised some eggs to his lips, watching the man the whole time.
Vin took a few bites of his own meal, knowing the boy was taking his cues from him, before starting to talk. "Wanted ta thank ya, for what you did last night. Ya didn't have ta do anythin', so I appreciate that ya did."
"'S not a big deal," Jake shrugged Vin's gratitude off, embarrassed.
"Was ta me," Vin asserted. "I also wanted ta apologize for the night b'fore."
"You don't have to apologize for protecting a friend," Jake said softly, not meeting Vin's eyes.
"I'm not. I'm apologizing for scarin' the shit outta you. I needed the information, but I didn't have ta do that."
"You didn't 'scare the shit' outta me," Jake's pride flared up briefly.
"Metaphoric'ly speakin', then."
"Doesn't matter." Gone was the pride of seconds before.
"Matters ta me."
"Why?" Anger flared in Jake as he challenged the quiet statement. "We were trying to kill your friend. You should hate me!"
"Did you want to? Did you really want ta kill Chris?"
Jake deflated at the calm questioning. "No," he mumbled.
"I might hate you if you had."
"George told me to get in the car. I didn't know what he was going to do, but when George tells you to do something, if you know what's good for you, you do it." The quiet words tumbled out of the distressed boys mouth as he gave in to his need to purge himself of the memories. "I didn't know what we were going to do 'til we got up there. I didn't want to have anything to do with something like that, but - George scares me." Soulful blue eyes met steady, calming ones, and Vin knew that he'd been right about the boy. "After - I didn't know what to do, where to go. I didn't want to go back "
"Do you have a place to stay?" Jake shook his head. "You can stay here if ya want to," Vin offered.
Jake's head jerked up. "Why?" he blurted. "I mean - " he blushed, "I mean, I don't even know your name, I tried to kill your friend, why would you want me to stay here?"
"M' name's Vin," Vin said with a slight smile. "And I'm offerin' ya a place ta stay 'cause I think you could go places if somebody gives ya a chance. 'Cause you remind me a' me, when I was yer age."
Jake stared at the man seated across from him with wide eyes. No one had said anything like that about him since his mother had died, most people tended to think he was a failure and wouldn't amount to anything. "I - You don't - Thanks." Jake smiled brilliantly at Vin.
Vin returned the smile. "You're not eating," he pointed out.
"Neither are you," Jake shot back. "If you don't eat, you won't get better."
"You sound like Nathan," Vin mumbled.
"Friend of mine, he was an EMT before he joined the ATF." A shadow of sadness flickered over Vin's face briefly before disappearing as if it was never there, making Jake wonder if it was. "Now, I'll make you a deal; I'll eat, if you do too. Deal?"
"I don't want to be a bother," Jake mumbled.
"Jake," Vin said seriously, "while you're living with me, you're going ta eat. You can eat as much as you want, I won't stop you, but you will eat enough to stay healthy."
Jake studied Vin solemnly, and looking into his honest blue eyes Jake could see that the older man was completely serious. He nodded his understanding, and slowly started eating again. "How - how do you know my name?"
"That's what George called you."
"Oh, I forgot about that," Jake murmured.
"What was he to you?"
"They likely ta miss you?" Vin asked knowing that that could cause a real problem.
"No, just another runaway. Won't have to waste his time on the reject."
"I doubt that's how they thought of you." But Vin knew that even if it wasn't, it felt real enough to Jake to make it hurt.
Jake grunted non-committally.
Vin figured that it was better to change the subject. "You did a good job patchin' me up last night, where'd you pick that up?"
"My mom taught me," he admitted with a small smile. "She was a nurse." There was obviously love and pride when Jake spoke of his mother.
Vin raised an inquisitive eyebrow, but didn't push, knowing that it wouldn't be appreciated if Jake didn't want to talk about it.
"She died when I was eleven," Jake said quietly. "My dad split when I was seven, so I went into foster care until they could find him, except they never did." A part of him wondered why he was telling Vin all this, but most of him was just glad to be able to talk to someone who actually seemed to care.
Vin nodded. "M' ma died when I was five."
Jake fidgeted slightly. "Vin," he asked nervously, "who's he?" He took out the picture he'd taken from the bedroom.
Vin glanced at the photo. He'd known that Jake would have seen the pictures the previous night, but he hadn't expected him to fixate on that one, of any of them. "That's m' pa, why?"
""s just, he looks just like my dad." Jake shrugged and looked down, avoiding eye contact.
"Could be," Vin told him. "M' folks weren't married, they had a fight one night an' he walked out an' didn't come back."
"You think - you think - maybe?" Jake stared up at Vin, eyes pleading for a family that he had been denied for a long time.
"Reckon it's possible," Vin allowed, reluctant to crush the boy's hopes and acknowledging that it was, indeed, possible. Seeing Jake's crestfallen look, Vin realized that that wasn't the appropriate response. "You got a picture?"
Jake nodded and set down his fork to fumble in his pockets for his picture. He drew out the weathered photo and handed it to Vin, who took it and studied it for a while, considering it and the connotations of what he was seeing, before handing it back. "I always wanted a little brother," he said with a smile.
Jake smiled brilliantly back at him, and for the first time since he returned to Denver Vin didn't feel alone in the world.
Jake was a talker, Vin soon found out. He reminded the Texan a little of JD, boundless energy and a mouth that would give the energizer bunny a run for his money. It wasn't long before Vin knew the youth's entire history.
Jaekob Edward Tanner was fifteen and had been born and raised in Denver. His parents were married, but his father had left them when he was seven. His mother had told him that his father had left to find his other son, presumably Vin. That had made Vin angry, reasoning that he would have been seventeen and Jake would have needed his father more than he did, but Jake had just shrugged it off, saying that it didn't matter, even if it was a legitimate excuse.
Jake and his mother had done alright on their own and there had been a lot of love in their house. Unfortunately Vanessa Tanner had been killed when a dangerously psychotic patient at the hospital had gotten ahold of a scalpel and gone on a rampage. There had been no relatives that were able to take in her son, so Jake had gone to a foster home.
Vin knew from experience that teenaged males were hard to place, so he wasn't surprised to hear that Jake had bounced around for a while before ending up in the foster home he had been in when he encountered George. What followed had been even less pleasant than what preceded, and Jake had found himself unwillingly involved in quite a few unsavory acts, forced into doing things under fear of pain that he never would have considered otherwise.
Vin often let the boy talk, knowing what a relief that it was to be able to talk to someone who cared enough to listen instead of just shuffling him off to the side without a thought. Eventually though, Jake grew more confident with Vin and began questioning him about his own life, which caused some tension at first. Vin tended to give one-word answers in clipped tones.
When he realized that he was making the boy uncomfortable with his reticence, Vin made an effort to answer his questions, but still tended to be evasive in his responses.
Jake was a smart kid and it didn't take long for him to figure out that Vin wasn't very talkative, but he was touched that the man made the effort for him when it was obvious that he didn't want to talk much about his past. It was even more difficult to get Vin to talk about the present.
"What do you do?" Jake asked one day. They were sitting in the living room, on opposite ends of the couch. Jake had been flipping through channels on the small TV, Vin was working on the internet with a laptop he'd acquired.
Vin shrugged and mumbled something about being an ATF agent. When pushed he told Jake that the seven men in the photo he had seen on the bedside table that first night had been his team. The sadness in Vin's eyes spoke of a painful end to that part of Vin's life.
"What happened?" Jake asked tentatively, sensing he was on dangerous ground.
"I died," Vin said quietly.
"Um - how'd you manage that?" Jake asked, a little confused and disturbed.
"Was outta town helpin' out a friend, an' when I got back ever'body thought I was dead."
"Why didn't you do anything? Obviously you're not dead."
"'S better this way," Vin murmured.
"How?" Jake demanded. It was obvious that Vin hurt from the loss of those men that he'd obviously been close to.
"Got a price on m' head, kid. Pissed off the wrong people whilst I was away. I can't be a danger ta them if'n I'm not around."
"Larabee's got a price on his head, he didn't run off."
"Larabee don't even know about the contract that's out on him, and I'm workin' on fixin' that. Once I'm sure they're safe again I'm gone."
Jake snorted, it wasn't like the men had safe jobs, 'fixing' this one situation wasn't going to keep them safe forever. Knowing Vin wouldn't appreciate it if he pointed that or the double standard that he was holding about the contracts out, Jake focused on another part of Vin's answer. "Where'll you go?"
"Friend offered me a job, was thinkin' on takin' him up on it. Called him in DC, left a message. He oughta be gettin' back ta me soon."
"What'll happen ta me?" He was worried now, about loosing the one thing in his life that felt right since his mother died.
Vin studied Jake for a while. "You're welcome ta come along," he said slowly.
"What happened to it's too dangerous for anybody to be near you?" Jake demanded. He was determined to make his brother see reason. He belonged here, even without ever having met them Jake could see what a profound effect that they had on Vin's life. His brother belonged with these men that he was obviously reluctant and at the same time determined to walk away from. Jake had never experienced such a friendship as he saw mirrored in Vin's eyes, the closest being the growing love he felt for his brother, but he had seen enough of Vin, and to some extent Chris, to know that something like they shared was worth fighting for. He wasn't about to let Vin give that up without a fight. Vin was lucky that he had that, and Jake was going to make sure he knew full well what it was he was giving up if he was determined to sacrifice that part of his life.
"Reckon it is," Vin sighed. "Reckon ya don't have anyplace else ta go."
Jake looked away, embarrassed and slightly ashamed.
"Aw hell," Vin swore, "I didn' mean it like that."
"I know," Jake breathed. "But sometimes "
"I know," Vin sighed, sinking further back into the couch.
"Vin," Jake offered tentatively, "when this is all over, I think you should think about stayin'. What you've got - it's really special. Most people go their whole lives without findin' the kinda thing you've got. Spend their life lookin' for it. You shouldn't throw that away so quickly."
"Yer right," Vin said after a few seconds, and Jake felt a surge of elation on his brother's behalf, "what I had with the boys was special, but they've moved on, and I can't put them at that kinda risk so's I can feel better." Vin set the computer down, got up and headed to the kitchen.
"Why not?" Jake challenged quietly.
Vin paused in the doorway. "I'm not worth their lives," he said so quietly that Jake just barely heard him.
Jake felt his heart break at the dejected acceptance in Vin's voice. "You're worth it Vin," he whispered. "More than worth it."