JD knelt at the altar and tried to focus, but he was exhausted. It was after midnight, and he'd promised Buck he would go straight home and hit the bed. But he'd passed the church and he had to go in.
He didn't know what to say though, now that he was here, so he just looked. He let his eyes drift over the altar, the stained glass windows, the cross.
Casey had found this church and at first, he'd come for her. But now, he came because he wanted to. He hadn't said anything to the others - even Josiah. He didn't figure they'd razz him for it, but it seemed really personal . . . something he had to get a hold of himself before he'd share it with the others.
His mother had taken him to church, but it didn't mean much to him. This church didn't either, until one Sunday when the pastor had talked about meaning and purpose; how God chose you for certain work and how honorable it was to fulfill his plans for you. JD knew he was exactly where he was supposed to be, doing exactly what he was supposed to do. The thought that God had put him there just seemed . . . right.
Just like coming here tonight seemed right. There were search crews combing the area for Vin. They were looking in every abandoned home and warehouse within twenty square miles. JD wanted to be with them, but Buck had insisted he'd be no good to them tomorrow if he didn't finally get some sleep, and he was right. They were all going on their third night without any real rest, and they looked it.
It hit Chris the hardest, though, with Josiah a close second after what had gone down that afternoon. Both men were blaming themselves, and half way fighting over it, too - until Buck threatened to bang their heads together if they didn't let it go and get back to work.
JD knew it would be a long time before he'd forget the look on either man's face. That was partly what led him here, he guessed. And partly why he couldn't seem to get a handle on what he wanted to say. Sure, he wanted to pray for Vin and for the search teams, but it almost seemed like Chris and Josiah needed it just as bad. And then there was Nathan . . . he didn't believe at all. JD was pretty sure Buck and Ezra's view of God was pretty screwed up, when it came right down to it - so maybe he should throw in a good one for them, too.
It was no wonder he was all messed up in his thinking. After he prayed for Vin, he wasn't sure where to go next.
Am I making it too hard? I get so confused sometimes, God, but I guess you know that. I guess you know why I'm here, too. Guess you know and understand a lot more than I ever will. And I guess you have a plan - though it feels like a pretty crappy one, right now.
We really need Vin. He helps Buck and Ezra remember there's a whole lot more to life than women and money. He gives Nathan hope; reminds him that sometimes good things do come from bad situations. Vin's a living example of that. Josiah - he's feeling real bad, like he didn't handle things right today, even though it's not his fault. I imagine he'll need Vin to make him believe it, though. And Chris, I don't figure I have to even talk about him. You're the one who arranged that friendship. You already know all about that.
And well, I guess I'm selfish, but I need Vin, too. For lots of reasons. We're a team - a team YOU made, and I don't think I could go back to living without that.
So if you could help us out here . . .
Dear God, why? Why Vin? It should have been me. Given the choice, it should've been me.
He wanted to turn to the bottle. Josiah wanted to walk over to that bar and grab the first drink within reach and drown in it.
How could it have gone so badly? Chris should never have shot that kid. But then, Chris should never have been put in the position of having to choose between keeping his sorry hide alive - and finding Vin. He'd played it all wrong, and Vin would suffer the consequences.
Lord, it's not right . . . I'm not worthy. Don't you know that?
Josiah tried to be a good man, but his faults and weaknesses slapped him the face continually, no matter how he tried to run from them. He would never be good enough.
But Vin was. He didn't believe it - didn't buy it, but Josiah knew that there was something about Vin. Tanner wasn't a saint, to be sure, but he went out of his way to do right by people with no thought to his own safety. And he'd gotten past his demonic childhood, faced his ghosts, kept his sanity - and come out the better man for it. Josiah still had so much to learn from him.
Lord, why? Why?
There had to be a reason . . . a reason Vin was missing and they were all trudging through hell to find him.
Hell was the look in Chris's eyes when his bullet killed their only remaining link to Vin, and Josiah would never forget it. Just as he'd never forget the blinding pain that seared through his stomach. Lord, he wanted to douse himself in alcohol, and he was pretty sure Larabee did, too.
They'd both flat out lied to the others. They'd both promised they would get some rest and start out fresh in the morning. Chris had finally looked Josiah in the eye, for the first time since the shooting, and they both knew where they were really headed.
Chris was two buildings over from him, searching every nook and cranny with a by-now waning flashlight, stumbling in his exhaustion just as Josiah himself was. It was growing colder, it seemed, or maybe it was the chill of his empty soul that refused to be ignored.
Vin was lost to him. There had always been something between them, an understanding, though not as vital as the link between Chris and Vin. Still, Josiah had always been able to channel the younger man relatively well. But Vin was lost to him now. He couldn't feel his presence, and it felt like he was letting him down more than he already had. Like Vin was somehow drawing strength from the others, but not from him.
Lord, lead me to him. Let him know I'll never give up. Let him know we're on our way. Give him strength . . . faith . . .
Faith had always been an issue. Josiah had read and studied; researched and probed and debated. But he still wasn't sure. He still couldn't turn it all over to God and let it go. He still found himself asking "why?" on a regular basis. But he wasn't a quitter, either. He could no more give up on faith than he could on Vin.
Josiah crouched down to peer into the window of a basement in yet another abandoned building. The flashlight merely reflected off the dirty glass, revealing nothing of the inside. He'd have to go in to be sure, and he would. There would be no stone unturned before this was through.
A sudden shudder swept through him that had nothing to do with the cold, and he knew then, with certainty, that Vin was still waiting. And as long as Vin was alive, the devil himself wouldn't stop him. He may be weak in managing his alcohol and his anger and his faith - but the Lord had blessed him with an iron will, and once he latched on, he was not about to let go.
Is that what this is about? Faith? Are you reminding us who is really in charge? I'm not good at it - not good at letting you run things, I know. But don't use Vin to teach me where I'm wrong. Please . . . lead me to him.
I'm sorry I didn't do better. I'm sorry I wasn't everythin' you wanted me to be.
Vin thought he might be dead, but he could hear air wheezing in and out of his lungs, and he could feel his heart pounding in his head. That didn't seem to make sense, but now that he'd gone crazy, making sense wasn't an issue.
Now that he was dying, there were no issues.
"Not your time, Vin."
About time Sanchez showed up. "Late . . . Josiah. Could've used y' . . . days ago." Days, weeks, months . . .
"You know me, Vin - just waiting for the right moment."
"Well, yer timin' . . . sucks." Everything sucked, now that he'd mentioned it.
But then, that was probably the point of hell. What had he done to get here? Then again, what hadn't he done?
I'm sorry, God. Sorry for all the wrong things I've done. Sorry I wasn't good.
"It's not about goodness, Vin, it's about faith. You can't give in now. We're coming for you."
Faith? Oh, so that's what this was all about. Well, sorry. Too late to find that elusive faith Josiah was always searching for . . . too late to be a better man . . . too late for Chris to find him.
I'm sorry . . . God . . . Chris . . . too late.
"Have faith in me, Vin." Chris pleaded, which was, of course, another sign that he'd lost it completely. Larabee never begged.
He wanted to tell Chris he was sorry. He wanted to tell him that it was all okay, or would be soon. Soon he'd be dead and it would all be over.
And he wanted to ask God one last thing - to do right by Chris and the boys.
But he couldn't grab hold of his thoughts any longer as he slipped deeper into the darkness.
Alright . . . so apparently money is not of interest to you. Then it must be time? Talents? Since it is questionable that my talents, considerable though they are . . . could be put to a use that would please you, I am certainly willing to offer my time.
A weekend at Josiah's mission? Two? Alright - my entire two weeks vacation. Yours for the asking . . . or taking. Just please let this miscreant open his eyes and tell me where his misguided friend hid Vin.
Ezra had been at the hospital since four am and he was not leaving Ricky What-his-name's friend's side until he awoke and told him what he wanted to know. The kid knew something, he could tell by the panic in his eyes when they'd approached the pair at the bar. Ricky may have done the deed, but this kid knew how and where.
The doctors were optimistic, but it could be days until he awoke - days Vin surely did not have. It had now been 77 hours since Vin was overdue. And in spite of a massive search effort, there was no sign of him.
Buck had called a few hours earlier. He'd said he practically had to pull Chris off one of the commanding officers who suggested Vin was already dead, his body floating under a thin layer of ice in a local pond somewhere, or maybe lying in a shallow grave. Nathan hadn't helped much, either. When Chris overheard him talking about hypothermia and frost bite and dehydration with one of the paramedics, he'd nearly punched Jackson in the nose, telling him to take his negativity somewhere else.
Time was of the essence, however, no matter how one looked at it. This kid did not have the luxury of taking a few days to rest up and come around. Ezra was determined to mine the information from his measly little brain . . . now.
A little assistance would be helpful here, Lord. Please . . .
It was so unexpected, that Ezra nearly jumped out of his skin. The dark brown eyes opened, first in confusion, then mild panic, before settling on the determined agent standing at his bedside.
Well then, it looks like Josiah and I will be spending some quality time together. I always pay my debts in full. Oh, and Lord? Thank you.
God . . . please . . .
Chris took the call from Ezra with Buck at his side. His heart stopped - literally froze in his chest. He couldn't speak. He could not force a sound past his throat, so he handed the phone to Buck and shoved his hands in his pockets so Buck wouldn't see them shaking.
He later wouldn't remember heading to the car or driving to the old water station that sat just outside the city limits of Purgatorio. He wouldn't remember that somehow, all of the men managed to converge there at about the same time.
But he'd never forget going down the long, well-hidden flight of stairs to the deep, dank cellar below. He'd never forget the putrid smell and thick, black air that hung heavy in the cold, dismal space. He could hardly breathe.
Ezra gagged and JD just plain lost it, throwing up as soon as their flashlights merged onto the small closet-like cell where Vin lay.
"Oh God, not here all this time - not Vin. He couldn't . . . stand it," Buck spoke softly.
"No one could stand it," Ezra added grimly.
"Shut up," Chris mumbled. "Just . . . shut up." He couldn't bear it. Couldn't begin to think of Vin being trapped here for three days and nights.
It was a mistake.
Oh God, he couldn't have been here all this time. He hates small, dark places - surely you know that?
He had to get him out. He had to get him out now.
Nathan kept his light directly on Vin's still body - probably looking for signs of life. Chris couldn't do that just yet. He'd barely glanced in that direction, but he'd taken in enough to know. He saw the long hair and the threadbare jacket his best friend loved that couldn't have been warm enough - was never warm enough even under reasonable conditions.
His hands still shook, but he didn't care who saw as he reached for the iron rods that made the door. He would tear the bars down with his bare hands if he had to -Vin was not spending another minute in this hellhole.
Josiah moved to help him then, tears coursing over his three-day beard and dripping off his chin as he reached for the door along with Chris. The big man's hands were shaking nearly as badly as Larabee's, it was a wonder either of them managed to grip the cold metal at all.
It was exactly seventy-eight hours and nineteen minutes since Vin went missing, but it took only thirty seconds for the two of them to lift the makeshift door off its hinges and toss it to the floor. Vin remained curled up on the ground, unmoving and unaware. In the glare of the flashlights, Chris could see that his skin was pale, translucent even; his lips blue-tinged. It was impossible to tell if he was alive - it seemed impossible that he could be.
If Nathan checked for a pulse, Chris didn't see it. He just stood back as Jackson wrapped a blanket around Vin, then nodded for Josiah to scoop him up and carry him out.
It was like leaving a grave, and every single man breathed a sigh of relief when they were out.
It could have been Vin's grave, Vin's tomb - very nearly was.
But he was still alive; he had to be. He had to know that his friends had come for him and gotten him out. He did not die in that hole, alone.
He did not. Chris could immediately see by Nathan's desperate, frantic actions as they hit the parking lot that Vin still had some life in him.
He went to him then, desperate just to touch his friend, but the ambulance was right behind them, and so Chris had only a moment with Vin, only a few fleeting seconds to hold his icy hand and whisper a quick reassurance in his ear before they were off with him. Vin didn't hear him; didn't even know he was there.
Didn't know he was out. Didn't know he wasn't alone any longer in the dark.
He couldn't remember climbing in the truck or handing Buck his keys. He could only see Vin, blood stuck fast to his face and his hair, curled up, freezing, alone in the dark. Vin, the man who couldn't stand being alone in an elevator.
Dear God, why?
He didn't get an answer, but he didn't expect one. He was through talking with God anyway. Maybe later. Maybe once Vin was well, he'd talk to God about it. And maybe, just maybe, he'd listen up if God talked back.
But for now, God was as silent to him as he was to God.
Oh Lord, tell me this ain't as bad as it looks. And it looks . . . well, ugly don't even begin t' describe it. Tell me Vin wasn't really down in that hole all this time. Tell me he'll wake up and not be plumb crazy after this. Tell me what t' say t' Chris and JD . . .
Buck drove to the hospital with one eye on the lean blond next to him and the other peeled on the rear view mirror, trying to steal a glimpse of JD. The kid was still an odd shade of green when he'd climbed in the truck, and he hadn't said a single word.
Of course, no one had. There was nothing to say. They'd found Vin. Chris had already taken care of the stupid kid who'd done this to him. Case closed.
Buck was sure Vin was dead when he first saw him, and he still wasn't convinced the paramedics hadn't gone through the motions of IV's and monitors and other assorted paraphernalia just to avoid facing six ATF agents in total meltdown. Let the hospital staff deal with them, they were probably thinking - and who could blame them?
There wasn't a single member of the team that wasn't looking to put his fist through the nearest . . . something. Anything. Better to cart Vin off in an ambulance than deal with the consequences there.
He envied women at times like this. Women would scream and cry, maybe do a little fist-pounding . . . and then they'd deal with it. Buck was convinced long ago that women were stronger than men. He figured they had to be; God made them that way just so they could put up with men.
Men, on the other hand, stood around with their hands in their pockets and their faces grim and they maintained the stoic vigil because that was what was expected of them: to be strong.
Buck felt weak as a new born kitten right then, though. He wanted to cry so badly it was making his chest ache holding it in. But that was the last thing Chris and JD needed from him.
They were on the highway now, finally away from the depressing dirt and grime of the run-down area that Vin called home. Buck stole another glance at JD, noting that at least the younger man was breathing slower and had some color returning to his face. Dunne looked up then, caught Buck's eye in the mirror, and he nodded; his way of saying he was alright. He could handle it, he could deal with it.
Buck wanted to tell him to go ahead and cry it out, and he would have, if he thought Chris could take it.
But he was pretty sure Chris couldn't take it.
Chris was a like a stone in the seat next to him. Buck hadn't even seen him blink. No movement, no sound - hell, it was like he was frozen stiffer than Vin.
He'd expected as much from his old friend. Talk about stoic. Look up the word in the dictionary and you were likely to find a picture of Larabee. None of them would ever see how badly this shook him up, except maybe in the subtle ways . . . a few extra drinks, a few extra Tylenol.
But Lord, he needs your help near as much as Vin. Just don't be expectin' him to admit it anytime soon. I reckon we're all gonna need your help before this is all said and done . . . guess I'm on my knees again.
Nathan was angry; furious. He couldn't remember feeling so out of control. How could this happen? Why did this happen? Of all of them, Vin would be the least able to handle being imprisoned under such horrid conditions. He'd be lucky if he didn't suffer a total breakdown from this. He'd be lucky if he lived through it at all.
It wasn't right; wasn't fair. Vin had saved Nathan's life so many times he'd lost track, and he didn't deserve to live out his worst nightmare . . . to die alone in a dismal cellar because his friends were too damn late.
He climbed in the car and slammed the keys into the ignition, just barely refraining from pounding his fists into the steering wheel.
"Oh Lord," Josiah mumbled under his breath as he climbed in the front seat next to him.
Nathan scoffed. "Yeah, he's been real helpful so far."
Ezra pulled his shaking limbs into the back seat and spoke up, surprising even himself with his words, "Actually, His help as been invaluable in this situation."
Josiah twisted his head around and turned red-rimmed eyes towards the con man. "You got something you want to share here, Ezra?"
Standish pulled his brows together and thought for a moment before responding, "It's just that . . . well, I asked . . . and He answered."
So simply put, for Ezra, and it grated against every tightly strung nerve in Nathan's body.
"You call this an answer? Did you see Vin? Did you notice how damp and dark and cold his prison was? Did you notice the smell, Ezra? You think he'll just come out of this and be the same old Vin?" Nathan spoke up, his tone uncharacteristically harsh. But he added softly, "If he lives at all."
"Who are you so angry at, Nathan?" Josiah asked quietly.
As much as he loved his old friend, Sanchez had to be the most exasperating man on earth at times.
"Who the hell do you think I'm mad at, Josiah? I'm mad at the scum who put Vin in that hole. I'm mad at Vin for constantly putting himself in danger for people who just plain don't care. I'm mad at us for not finding him sooner."
"But mostly, you're mad at God. And I have to say that I'm having similar feelings," Josiah admitted.
"No. And we're not having this discussion." It always came down to this. Josiah had more doubts and questions about God than any man Nathan had ever known, but he always managed to work His name into a conversation.
Ezra cleared his throat and attempted to change the subject. "What do you believe Vin's chances are of surviving this, Nathan? Could you tell how badly he was injured?"
Nathan shook his head as pulled onto the highway behind Buck and the others. "I don't know. I wasn't all that sure he was alive . . . but it's like that when . . . when people get . . . cold."
Cold. Freezing. Stuck in a dam pit with no decent air or light or food or . . .
Shit. He was going to cry. Nathan swiped at the tears that rolled down his cheek with the back of his hand. It was all so unfair. If they had to lose Vin, it should have been with a quick bullet. Their friend didn't deserve to go out like this.
It was completely, totally, unconditionally unfair, like most of life was, and even after all this time and all he'd seen - it still made him mad.
Ezra's voice rose up softly from the back seat once more, "But he is alive, Nathan. There is still hope. And I, for one, will accept any help from any source at any cost - to see that hope realized."
"Amen, Brother," Josiah whispered.
Let them pray, Nathan thought, he had more important things to think about. He turned his mind to Vin's possible injuries and likely treatments. He'd best line up a good psychiatrist, too, because there was no doubt the younger man would need one if he recovered.
He'd tried to get Vin to counseling in the past, knowing there were likely a multitude of situations in Tanner's childhood that could cause deep-seated problems. Vin had laughed it off and said it was a little late in the game to get his head on straight. Chris didn't help when he added that Vin was screwed up enough - he didn't need professional help to twist him a little more. And besides, Chris had added, his best friend's claustrophobia was annoying at times, but not really a big deal. Even Josiah had refused to press the issue, saying Vin was more grounded than most men and to leave it alone.
He'd leave it alone alright. Leave them to their beliefs and their prayers. He didn't care what they thought or did; he was going to do what was best for Vin. It was the miracle of modern medicine that could save Vin now, and that was something Nathan knew and understood; something he could grab hold of.
He pushed down the gas pedal and sped faster towards the hospital. Ezra was right about one thing - Vin was still alive and there was still hope. There was work to do.
It was a long list.
Concussion. Hypothermia. Broken ribs. Dehydration. Pneumonia. Assorted bruises, lacerations, and abrasions consistent with rolling in a hunk of junk down a cliff.
Was there more? The trauma specialist had come out and rattled off the words, detached and clinical and cold.
Or maybe he was the one who was detached.
Chris sat in the waiting room and thought about the wallpaper. They'd redecorated since his last time here. Who was it that time? Oh yeah, Ezra. Ezra had been hit by a car, of all the stupid things. He'd been a guest here for three days, off work for two weeks, light duty for a month after.
He wondered vaguely how long Vin would be off. Tanner would hate desk duty; would gripe and complain and generally make sure they were all as miserable as he was.
The wallpaper was a dainty little mauve print back when Ezra was here, a throw-back to the late eighties. It really was time for a change, although he wasn't sure the bold blue-green combination of modern shapes was an improvement. Hardly relaxing, considering the purpose of the room.
JD liked it. He'd commented right away about it. "Hey, at least the wallpaper's better."
The others had looked at him like he had lost his mind, but Chris didn't. No one wanted to talk about Vin anyway. No one wanted to discuss how he'd spent his last three and a half days. No one wanted to remember that place. No one wanted to picture Vin, shivering, hurt, confused, alone . . .
He was going to change the wallpaper in his office. As soon as Vin was up to it, they'd do it together. Vin was the only one he could do home improvement type projects with. Josiah was too slow and methodical, as if it was some type of spiritual experience. Nathan was a perfectionist. JD and Buck were lucky if they finished anything without ten or twelve breaks and nearly as many pranks. Of course, Ezra and home improvement didn't even belong in the same sentence.
Travis would probably pay to have it done for him. But Chris would rather do it with Vin. He'd even let Vin help him pick it out - something in beiges and browns, the colors of the earth. No black though; Vin had had enough blackness, down in that cellar.
Did the doctor say he would live? Chris tried to sift through the words that had all jumbled together to find the answer. It shouldn't be that hard. You would think that would be the most important thing of all - the part that he would latch onto. But he couldn't for the life of him remember if the doctor had actually said one way or the other.
He could ask the others, "Oh, by the way, did that specialist happen to mention if Vin was going to pull through?" They'd give him the same look they'd given JD about the wallpaper.
He decided it didn't really matter what the guy had said anyway. Only God knew the answer. It surprised him for a minute that that thought popped in his head, until he remembered that believing God existed was never really a problem for him.
Believing God gave a shit was.
Why do bad things happen to good people? It was the classic question with no real answer. JD figured he could go to church every day for the rest of his life and study along side the Pope and still not know.
It wasn't ours to know. God had all the answers and we'd find out in His own good time. At least, that's what he'd heard. Of course, that could be an excuse - something religious people made up as a way out of admitting that there really was no answer at all.
Nathan would take this particular ball and run with it. He could hear the medic now, "There is no answer because there is no reason. There is no great cosmic force, no merciful and loving God, no grand master plan." Then Josiah would pipe up and say something about Free Will, as if that explained it all. That's usually where JD would get confused and start sprouting a headache, while Buck would make a bad joke and Ezra would roll his eyes. Vin would get up about then and move into Chris's office and they'd talk about whatever it was they talked about - usually without using actual words to do it.
It was really no wonder at all that JD was confused half the time.
He wanted to know the reason, though. He wanted to know why Vin was hooked up to warm IVs and oxygen and various, assorted, nasty things - looking battered and bruised and mostly dead. He wanted to know why Vin had to suffer like he had, stuck in that horrible place that not a one of them could even stand to think about.
Vin was pretty much at the top of his list of good people. It was hard to find fault with him, in fact. JD thought that might be because he was lying here like he was - easy to overlook anyone's bad points when you're worried sick about them. But no, even healthy, Vin was just an all around good guy.
And if Vin was the best guy he knew, well, Chris was the most heroic. JD couldn't ever put that sentiment into words; it would embarrass him and Chris both. It was just that Chris was larger than life and everything he could ever hope to be.
He didn't look it right then, though. Instead, their leader looked tired, worn, fragile . . . human.
He and Chris were the first ones in to see Vin, and JD felt distinctly uncomfortable as he glanced across the bed at Chris now. Larabee was nearly as ghostly pale as his best friend. His eyes were riveted to the long, line of bruises that marred the entire left side of Vin's face; his hand rested softly, gently over Vin's long, still fingers.
Vin would keep all of his fingers and toes, the doctor said. If he'd been out there now, he wouldn't though. The temperature had dropped again, and the doc said Vin most definitely would have suffered frostbite if he'd been there another day. Of course, he also said he'd be dead, so frostbite probably wouldn't have complicated matters much.
He could die still, but JD somehow knew he wouldn't. He may not understand why this happened to Vin of all people, but he had faith that Vin would be saved, and it was a good feeling. He wished he could share it with Chris; wished he could somehow infuse the man that stood on the opposite side of Vin's bed with the same confidence he felt . . . the same faith.
But it was still new to him, and he didn't want to sound stupid, or worse, shallow. Chris had so many demons inside, JD had no clue what words he could offer to make it easier on the man.
Hey God, it's me again. Thanks for giving Vin back to us. I wish I could understand, though - wish I could know why this had to happen. But if you can't tell me that, well, then maybe you could just tell me how to reach Chris . . . give me the right words. I'd really appreciate it.
Turning his gaze to Larabee once more, JD swallowed as he noted the tender way Chris took one strong finger and brushed it feather-light across Vin's cheek. The blond then leaned down; his arms draped loosely over the bed rails, and bowed his head only inches from Vin's.
Not a word was said, but as JD backed out of the room to give his mentor some space, he thought to himself that Chris may not know it - may not realize it or admit it - but he was praying more eloquently than JD ever could.
Why, Lord? What were we supposed to learn here? What good could possibly come from this?
"Well, I'm not sure if this qualifies as 'good', but I did pledge two full weeks of . . . labor . . . at your estimable mission."
Josiah stopped the nervous drumming of fingers on his desk and looked up at Ezra in surprise, unaware he'd spoken his prayer out loud and certainly not anticipating an answer.
And what was that Standish had said? He was coming to work at the mission?
He must have misunderstood. "What did you just say, Ezra?"
Standish looked away sheepishly. "I said that I, uh, promised to come . . . and to work . . . at that dilapidated stone structure where you so willingly and selflessly sacrifice your time and efforts to . . ."
"Yeah, okay. I get it," Josiah cut the younger agent off. "What I don't understand is why? What do you mean you promised?"
Ezra finally turned wide eyes and crimson cheeks towards Sanchez as he answered briskly, "God. I promised God, alright? I offered my time in exchange for information where Vin was being held. Obviously, he upheld his end of the bargain and I intend to uphold mine."
Josiah grinned widely as he shook his head. Leave it to Ezra to make a deal with God.
"I appreciate that, Ezra - and I'll be happy to take you up on it, but you do know that God doesn't make deals, right? You do know you can't buy him off?"
With raised brows, the undercover agent asked in mock seriousness, "Have you informed the millions of people who send their hard earned cash to the television evangelists of this?"
Josiah laughed aloud at that, but it didn't hide the warmth in his eyes when he thought on Ezra's sacrifice.
So maybe something good had come out of this - but it was still a far cry from making up for all that Vin had suffered. It was hard to believe anything could be worth that.
For all of his studying and contemplating and praying - Josiah still had no real answers. He was still ignorant, still clueless, still lost; Vin's trials drove that point home with a vengeance.
Once again, the image of his friend, rolled up as a fetus on the damp, dark earth seared through his mind, and he let loose a low growl. The techniques he'd learned in his anger management class just weren't cutting it. With an angry huff, the big man shoved his chair back and stalked to the elevator.
Why? Vin's one of your own - even if he doesn't quite believe it. Why put him through hell? And Chris, too. All of us. I don't get it, Lord. We're trying to do something good here - we're on YOUR side. I just don't get it and I guess I never will. I guess we'll always be worlds apart.
It was a difficult recovery. Vin just seemed to exchange one diagnosis for another. They'd warmed him up and filled his body with fluids, and managed to avoid complications with his heart - something Nathan had warned them about, but they were concerned there was more internal damage than they'd originally thought.
It turned out to be bruised kidneys, and Chris knew he was supposed to be relieved that it was nothing more - but it was just another painful obstacle for Vin to overcome. The drugs they gave him made him sick, and now that he was warmed up, they couldn't keep his fever down.
Nathan kept saying they were "cautiously optimistic", a phrase which Chris knew really meant nothing more than what he'd already decided - that Vin's fate was out of their hands. Buck, the true eternal optimist, reminded him on a regular basis that it could have been worse; that Vin had no broken bones, other than the ribs, to keep him laid up for months and that all in all, he was in surprisingly good shape, considering.
Chris just wanted to know that Vin knew he was out of the hole. He just wanted Vin to hear him and see him and know that he was not alone any longer. But the injured man lapsed in and out of consciousness, confused and restless and unaware of what was going on around him.
Chris was at his bedside and had been for most of the past two days. He yawned and stretched, trying to work the kinks out of his back before tackling another round with Vin. He could see it coming, knew the signs when his friend was starting to come around, if only to be sick.
Vin swallowed convulsively and moaned a little, so Chris grabbed the basin and pulled him onto his side. There was nothing left to come up, but the spasms continued, Vin red-faced, then nearly blue as he struggled to pull in a breath between the painful heaves. Chris pushed the call button, determined to rip the very first person who entered the room a new one if they didn't get the damn medication changed. Surely there was something they could do.
Nathan said not. He said Vin's lungs were the brunt of the problem; the chest injury and the damp cold and the poor air quality all combining to give him a nasty case of pneumonia. Nothing to mess with, this could kill him; where the nausea and vomiting would not, regardless of the fact that Vin appeared to have shrunk to about half his normal size.
Vin finally collapsed back to the pillow and groaned, "Oh, God . . . Chris."
He had no idea what he was saying. He had no idea where he was. But it was enough to keep Chris from allowing the others to take his place at Tanner's side - Vin called for him by name; pleaded for help from him . . . or from God.
It was ironic, Vin alternating his name and God's . . . as if they had equal power to change the situation.
Laughable and absurd, really, that Vin believed he had control over anything at all. He said he did, of course; pretended that he made his own way, fought his own battles, controlled his own destiny. But at the end of the day, it was all about whether or not you were dealt a willing hand - and whether or not you got to keep it. And Chris had no more control over that than Vin or anyone else in the world.
At first, he harbored the illusion that Vin did know where he was; that he called out for Chris because he sensed that he was there with him. But then the delirious ramblings would begin, "Please . . . don't leave me . . . dark . . . cold . . . Chris . . .", and Larabee knew that in Vin's mind, he'd never gotten out.
It frustrated him; infuriated him; grieved him to no end.
And if he was speaking to God, they would have had strong words about it.
Nathan wanted to believe. He wanted to take some comfort in something beyond the realities of the cold, harsh world they lived in, but he was long past the point of being able to do that.
He envied the assuredness that Buck, JD, and even Ezra seemed to have. They were worried about Vin, but all three of them seemed to know he'd be alright . . . as if they'd been let in on a great secret. JD surprised him most of all, though; the kid exuded a quiet confidence that Nathan had never seen in him before.
And Nathan wished he could have just a little of that. It felt like he was the only kid on the block who didn't believe in Santa or the tooth fairy . . . in miracles.
They'd talked about miracles, once. Or rather, argued vehemently about them. It was after a particularly stressful week, and tensions were still high as they nursed a round of beers at Inez' place. Buck started it out in fun, but really got into it once the ball got rolling. He always did see the brighter view of things, and in the World According to Buck, the sweet smile of a beautiful woman aimed his way counted - if not as a miracle, well then, at least as proof of a generous God.
JD chimed in surprisingly quickly, recounting every injury one of the seven had suffered since the inception of the team and declaring each and every recovery miraculous.
That was about the point where Nathan got a little hot. It was amazing to him how God got the credit for all the good things, but seemed to shoulder none of the blame for the bad.
"Man is the sinner, Nathan," Josiah had piped up. And they'd all gagged when he started talking about the choices man has made and how it was the gift of Free Will that man misused, which ultimately will lead to his demise.
"Okay, then what about earthquakes? Hurricanes? Cancer?" The list was endless, as far as Nathan could see, and just exactly where did man and sin and a merciful god fit in when a child was born with multiple birth defects, to name just one?
"Well actually, when you look at the odds, it is miraculous that events conspire as they do so that the vast majority of our children are born nearly perfect. There is your miracle, Nathan." Ezra must have been watching another PBS special on the growth and development of the human embryo.
The only two who had stayed out of it were Vin and Chris, which made perfect sense to Nathan, considering their life experiences. They'd both had enough heartache to quit believing in most of everything, and the men at the table were sensitive enough to refrain from asking their opinion.
Except for JD, of course, who still hadn't caught on that some things were better left alone. "What do you think, Vin?"
Oddly enough, Vin had looked at Chris, as if the answer was hidden in the sure set of his best friend's jaw or the softly raised brow; amused, yet knowing. Nathan remembered feeling a stab of something akin to envy when he realized that, for Vin, the answer truly was sitting across the table from him. Vin's life had taken on a whole new meaning when he'd crossed paths with Chris, and that was about as close to miraculous as he was likely to get.
Chris had offered a slight smile in return, but neither man came right out and answered the question.
Nathan wanted to believe in miracles, too, because even if Vin didn't exactly need a miracle - he needed something damn close. He was sure that no matter how Vin came out of this physically, he'd have to be scarred emotionally. Again.
He was nearly as concerned about Chris and Josiah. Both men seemed intent on knocking their heads against walls. Nathan could understand where Chris was coming from - the man obviously had residual feelings from his past losses that were still raw - but he really wanted to shake Josiah. He wanted to tell his big friend to quit looking for answers in the heavens and plant his feet on the ground; put all that brainpower and muscle into something constructive and solid.
It was a waste of time and energy for Chris and Josiah to aim their frustration at some unseen god. They'd be better off taking Nathan's track - just give up on it altogether. Give up on God.
JD looked up from the book he was reading just then, peering at Nathan from across the ICU lounge. The younger man smiled and then returned to his book.
Nathan sighed. Then again, if he could find the peace that JD had somehow latched onto, it might almost be worth rethinking the whole god idea.
Vin's body was a screwed up mess. He was shaking now; chills wracking his body even as the fever gripped him. Chris didn't have a clue about medicine, but he knew that Vin's internal thermostat was way off - freezing one minute and burning up the next. And somebody needed to fix it. What the hell were they paying these guys for?
It was dark, the sun having set hours ago. The nurse left the light on in the bathroom, but the room was still cloaked in dark shadows. It was enough for Chris to see, though; to take in every moment of misery his friend suffered through. Vin was in that twilight state of half consciousness, alert enough to know he was trembling and hurting, but with no idea of where or how or why.
As Chris adjusted the oxygen tubing that had slipped from Vin's nose, he brushed a strand of damp hair from his face and pulled the blanket up around his shoulders, talking all the while in deceptively soothing tones.
He really wanted to shoot someone, or at the very least, put a fist in their face. He wasn't real picky about who at this point, either. Buck said it was lack of sleep and Nathan blamed it on anxiety, but in reality he was just mad.
It wasn't the first time one of the guys had been hurt for little or no valid reason. Josiah seemed to think it was because it was Vin, in particular, that he felt so out of control, but that wasn't it, either. Yes, Vin and he were close, but Tanner had been hurt before. Just not like this. Not in such a deliberately cruel way.
Vin's personal nightmare come true . . . and Chris not there to stop it.
Vin was becoming more anxious as he gulped and coughed, groaning when the action only added to the crushing sensation in his chest. Chris could sense the panic setting in as Vin's limbs began to twitch and his eyes opened wide, the pupils nearly black and unseeing, though he turned his head towards Chris's voice.
"It's alright, Vin. It's alright." It was getting harder and harder to say the words and pretend to mean them. It wasn't alright at all, and even in Tanner's confused state, it was a sure bet he knew it.
"Cold," Vin muttered through dry, cracked lips, even the muscles in his face tense and trembling.
"I know. I know." Should he ask for another blanket, or would that make it worse?
Vin stifled what could have been a sob. "Dark."
Chris could have sworn Vin was looking at him, peering through the shadows directly at his face, so he reached over and pulled the string to the over-bed light. The stark white light was blinding and Vin squeezed his lids closed with a soft moan.
"I'm sorry," Chris offered quickly, "I'll turn it off."
"No!" Truly panicked now, Vin grabbed hold of his arm and met his eyes.
Holding his breath, Chris moved closer and peered into Vin's face, "Vin? Do you know where you are?"
Alright, God . . . I give in. I'm asking . . .
"Vin? Do you know where you are?"
No. No idea. Not a clue.
He knew what it looked like - he recognized the cold, stark walls and familiar sounds and smells of the ICU. But his mind had played tricks on him for so long that he didn't really know what was real.
Chris looked real, his face inches away; the green eyes intense and focused. He felt real, too, when Vin had reached up and grabbed his arm, determined to hold onto the light - real or imaginary.
Please, please let this be real.
"Chris?" Soft and tentative and hopeful; unaware that his voice held all the fear he'd tried and failed to stuff down inside for the days that he'd been trapped.
"Yeah, I'm here. I'm here, Vin. We got you out." Chris said the words in a rush, knowing Vin might check out on him on before he could wrap his mind around the reality of it.
And that was true. It seemed to take tremendous effort just to focus his eyes on those of his friend, let alone allow the words to penetrate.
We got you out.
He should be elated by that, right? But he was still so cold. What if it wasn't true? What if it wasn't real? How would he know?
Is it true, God? Are you giving me another chance?
He knew he should say something, but everything became distant and so hard to hang on to. He must still be crazy then.
He whispered his reply, "Okay. Thanks." It was a safe enough answer, whether Chris was really there or not; whether he was really out or not. Maybe Chris wouldn't catch on yet that he'd lost his mind.
Chris furrowed his brows; Vin clearly noted that, even as the light seemed to float out of his reach again. He heard his friend repeat in a tone close to desperation, "I'm here. You're not alone anymore, Vin."
He'd never been alone. Chris must have forgotten. "Not alone . . . you were there . . . you were all there," he mumbled before slipping away again.