It was like a scene from one of those bad independent films - the coffee-house crap that Ezra insisted was 'art'.
He was sure Vin understood him, until he breathed out something odd like, "okay thanks." Yes, Vin was a man of few words and fewer sentiments, but there was a distinct lack of emotion and relief there. Even Vin couldn't be that complacent.
Chris sat back in his chair and groaned. Vin still wasn't there. He may be with Vin, but it was clear Vin was no where near him.
Or was he? What was that he said? "You were there. You were all there."
"Chris? You alright?" Buck asked as he peeked through the door.
With a mumbled curse at being caught talking to himself, Chris looked up at the unexpected visitor.
"I'm fine. Why wouldn't I be fine? Everything is just . . . fine." He knew he sounded somewhere between cross and indignant but he didn't particularly care.
Buck crossed the room and sat in the chair next to his friend. "Okay," he spoke matter-of-factly, and it made the corner of Chris's lip turn up just a bit. God bless Buck, anyway.
"He comin' around?" Buck asked with a nod in Vin's direction, the casualness of the question belying genuine concern.
It was a hunting expedition, and fortunately Buck was a pro. He'd learned long ago how to pull information out of Larabee. Knew what his friend needed to hear, too.
"He knows, Chris. Somehow, deep down, he knows he's not alone. He knows you're here with him."
Chris raised a brow in surprise, wondering for a moment if Buck had heard Vin's words. "He said that . . . kind of."
Kind of. Sorta.
"Yeah? That what you were mumbling about when I came in?"
Chris nodded. "He said something like, 'You were there. You were all there.' What do you think he meant?"
Buck shrugged. "I think he meant what he said. I think we were there all along. In Vin's mind."
"What? Like he was crazy?" Chris asked defensively, his voice raising.
Holding up his hand, Buck responded calmly, "No. I didn't say that at all. I'm just saying, Vin did what he had to t' survive. And thank God he did."
Chris thought on that a moment before replying softly, "Whatever gets you through the night."
Vin did what he had to to survive. And why did that come as a surprise? Wasn't that Vin's way, always? If believing he wasn't alone did the trick, then Chris wouldn't question it. If it got Vin through this - brought him back to them intact and healthy and reasonably sane - then what did it matter?
In a way, it was comforting to think Vin felt his presence all along.
"Besides," Buck went on, "we really were with him in our hearts and minds."
"Yeah," Chris answered.
Maybe that was close enough.
Kind of. Sorta.
Still didn't feel like enough, though. Chris still needed to look in his friend's blue eyes and know that he was alright . . . that this hadn't been the final straw; that Vin had pulled one more miracle out of a God that seemed intent on testing them at every turn.
I'm so angry, Lord. I don't understand why this happened, I don't get the point. Show me. Show me how to face my demons so I can help Vin face his. Because I'm floundering here. I don't have a clue . . .
He never wanted to see the cellar again. If he'd had his druthers, he'd never even drive past the old water station, and realistically, he'd probably never have to.
But Josiah found himself there, anyway. He climbed out of his car numbly, on automatic pilot, and stumbled across the crumbling parking lot. He shuddered as he pulled open the heavy door that led to the stairway that led to the place where Vin had been held captive. He told himself it was from the cold.
He remembered JD getting sick when they'd finally hit the basement floor, and he very nearly lost his stomach contents himself as the smell hit his nostrils. A sewer smell; dank, putrid water . . . old, wet dirt . . . human sweat and excrement and blood. Or was that his imagination?
Swallowing hard, Josiah aimed his flashlight to the corner cell where they'd found Vin. His legs were lead weights, fighting his brain's command to move, but somehow he ended up there - in the same spot where Vin had lain. He sat down, his legs folded beneath him, and even through the heavy jeans and wool socks and leather boots, he could feel the cold, damp earth. He let his eyes drift along with the feeble rays of light to take in every horrible, minute detail of Vin's prison.
And then he turned the light off.
Cold, stark fear - so tangible he was sure he could reach inside himself and touch it.
And he wasn't even trapped. He could stand up and walk out.
But he didn't, and he wouldn't. Not until he found some understanding, some answers, some reason. Not until he felt what Vin felt and knew what Vin knew.
Bring it on, Lord. Throw me in the pit of despair where you left Vin.
How had Vin survived? What kept him breathing? He'd already been injured in the crash; he'd already been hurting, to be sure. How had Vin pushed past the pain and the dark and the overwhelming, consuming - oh God, so consuming - loneliness, and just kept on breathing?
Oh God, how? Why?
Josiah couldn't have done it. He knew it, as he sat there contemplating the worse than horrid conditions. He'd have lost his mind; beat his fists against the wall, cursed God, and given up.
He didn't have that kind of faith. No matter how hard he wished for it and searched for it and worked his fingers to the bone for it, he just didn't have it.
Did Vin? It seemed like he did. Vin always took what was thrown at him without question. Just accepted who he was and how he was and all that happened to him without wasting time asking why.
Had he accepted this, too? Had he held onto his faith? Had he swallowed his fear of close, tight spaces and kept his faith and waited patiently for rescue? If so, how? What secret did he possess that Josiah did not?
Had he gained anything at all - other than more scars - from the experience? They wouldn't really know until Vin came back to them . . . until he met their eyes. Vin couldn't hide anything in those eyes.
In fact, Josiah was suddenly sure that all the answers to his questions could be found right there - in Vin's eyes.
He turned the light back on and held his breath as he quickly moved up the old cement stairs.
Lord, my faith is shaky at best. And I'm tired of being angry. If you can't show me the way, then let Vin do it.
He was warm. For the first time in forever, he was warm. Not freezing, not burning up . . . just warm. He reveled in it, keeping his eyes closed so that maybe, just maybe it would last.
He could hear sounds, too: soft, whispered voices that melded with the steady hum of monitors. Sounds that made him believe he might be free, he might be out of the hole, out of hell . . . but he'd heard those same voices before.
He could open his eyes, but they weren't to be trusted, either. Feelings, sights, sounds, all the things that made the world familiar and real could no longer be trusted.
"Vin? Can you hear me?"
Chris's voice, close to his ear; soft and insistent, and he wanted to answer him. But if he did, if he opened his eyes and his ears and his mouth and it all went away . . .?
"Hey Buddy, We know you're in there, come on out of the . . ."
"Don't say it, Buck," Josiah said, his voice sounding tense and anxious.
They were worried about him, Vin realized. Whether or not he was here, wherever here was - or there, wherever there was - his friends would be worried. He'd never given up that knowledge or that hope. He should at least take the chance, make the leap . . . open his eyes.
Oh God! They look so real. Please . . .
"Hey," Chris said, so soft it was more like a breath or a sigh, but his eyes held firm and fast to Vin's.
"Hey," Vin replied even softer. He couldn't tear his gaze away from Chris, was absolutely terrified to for fear that his best friend would simply evaporate.
"You know where you are?" Larabee asked, and it could have been his imagination, but it felt like Chris was holding his breath - like the whole world depended on his answer.
What if he got it wrong?
Vin closed his eyes once again and took a breath. Although his chest still felt tight, the air was clean and clear, and he reveled in that, too. His heart hammered as he tried to grasp it all; as he waited for his mind to clear, for instinct and intellect to connect.
"Come on, Vin." Chris sounded desperate, pleading - and it threw him off. It wasn't like his friend to act that way, to sound that way. Yet he had, all those days and weeks and months he'd been locked in the dark, Chris had sounded just that way.
God, help me. I'm so confused . . .
He opened his eyes again and couldn't help the small gasp that escaped. Still there . . . still so real . . .
Chris and Josiah and Buck.
Chris leaned in close and repeated, "Do you know where you are, Vin?" And he looked so hopeful that Vin couldn't bear to disappoint him.
There weren't many choices when it came right down to it. Either he was in the hospital or he was still in the hole - and his mind had gotten really good at compensating.
"Hospital," he whispered, trying to avoid the little lilt at the end that implied he wasn't all that sure of his answer.
But apparently it was the right response, because Chris nodded and smiled a little, and then broke into a big, toothy, altogether goofy grin like Vin had never seen before. It almost made him rethink his answer. Buck leaned in then and his grin was nearly goofy, too, but that was pretty much par for the course.
Josiah stayed back, his face dark and anxious and expectant. Expecting what? He met Vin's eyes and he nodded, but it felt like he was waiting for something, looking for something.
He'd be waiting a long time. Vin was still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that he was warm and alive. That he was out.
Oh God! Am I really out?
"Welcome back, Pard," Chris said, and there were tears in his eyes as reached over the rail and gripped Vin's forearm.
Vin felt tears stinging his own eyes at the contact. He wanted to latch onto Chris and hold him in place for . . . forever.
He tried to reassure his friend by smiling in return, but he wasn't entirely successful. Chris didn't seem to mind, though; he just held onto Vin with his eyes and that strong, steady hand.
Would he mind if he knew the truth? If he knew that Vin wasn't half the man Chris thought he was? That he hadn't been able to stand it? That for however long he'd been gone, he'd completely lost his mind?
How long had he been gone? How long had he been here?
How long had he been . . . there?
Would they know he'd gone crazy if he asked? Was having absolutely no idea if a day, a week, or a month had passed a sign? He'd have to watch his words carefully or he could end up on an entirely different unit.
It hit him right then that he still had no idea what had happened to him. Why he'd been hurt and what he'd hurt and how he'd ended up wherever it was he'd ended up and why was that again?
Would he be able to cover up how completely confused he was? And was it necessary to do that anyway? He'd heard their voices for days now, so obviously they knew what he'd been through - even if he didn't. They were there, right? Some of the time? How much of the time?
Or maybe, he was never in a big, black hole to begin with. Maybe he'd cracked his head and only thought he was there and maybe it was all a misunderstanding, a nightmare, a delusion that never even happened at all.
Could that be it, God? A dream?
Or was this the dream?
A shiver ran through him from head to toe as his heart sped up and his breathing quickened. Turning wide eyes to Chris, he found it nearly impossible to speak, having no idea what to ask first or if there was a reason to ask anything at all.
"Chris?" he whispered, full blown panic expressed in the softly hissed sound of his best friend's name.
"Everybody out," Chris said quietly, without breaking eye contact with Vin.
Tell me what to say. Tell me how to handle this.
Chris dropped the rail and moved to sit on the edge of the bed. He placed both hands on Vin's shoulders and spoke in the most soothing tone he could drum up, "You're okay, Vin. It's over."
He held his friend with his gaze, until Vin suddenly startled when Buck and Josiah closed the door behind them.
"It's alright. It's just Buck and Josiah leaving."
Vin was just barely holding it together. And it made Chris so angry he wanted to spit nails - or at the very least, place a few well-aimed bullets in Eddy Gonzales' tattooed chest. But that wouldn't help the situation. He'd have to keep his cool if he expected to help Vin through this.
Vin nodded slightly, then let his eyes drift around the room before finally flitting across his own body. Chris watched as he gingerly tested his legs and arms, wincing at the pull of still healing cuts and bruises.
"You were in an accident," Chris supplied, and he was stunned at the overt relief he saw in Vin's eyes. Relieved to be alive? Or relieved to know what had happened?
He went with the latter and repeated, "You were in an accident. One of Eddy Gonzales' friends pushed your jeep over the cliff and then he . . . he hid you so you couldn't testify."
Vin swallowed and took a breath before asking in a low voice, "How long?"
"A little over three days," and it was Chris's turn to swallow and take a breath. "It took us that long to find you. It's been three days since then."
He watched Vin struggle to take it all in; watched as he pulled a shaky hand through his hair and fought back tears.
And then Vin said the strangest thing, "Don't tell me where. Don't ever tell me where."
Vin didn't want to know. He wouldn't be able to drive within fifty miles of the place; make that a hundred.
He didn't want to be in the same state, when it came down to it. He'd left Texas for less, hadn't he? No, he'd left Texas for pretty much the same kind of thing - people getting a thrill out of torturing him just enough to drive him nuts.
No, not nuts. He was not crazy. He hadn't imagined the hole and he wasn't imagining this. He was here, in the hospital, with Chris. And yes, he'd heard voices, but that wasn't such a big deal, really. No one would know.
This is between us, right God? You believe in that confidentiality stuff? I know you been talkin' t' Josiah for some time now, and JD seems to be catchin' on, too . . . but I'd appreciate just one more favor . . . if you could just keep quiet about this.
Pay attention. Get a grip. It's over.
"You said . . . you said we were there, with you." Not a question really, but still, Chris seemed to need an answer.
"Yeah?" He shifted his eyes, seeking the window and surprised when he actually found it. All this time - how many days had Chris said? - there had been a window. And he had missed it.
It would never happen again. He could be in a coma, but he'd still know exactly where the closest window was.
What was that Chris was talking about? Something he said?
Focus. Think. For God's sake, pay attention or he'll know. Chris always knows.
Chris frowned as he lightly brushed his hand across Vin's tense fingers. "Don't worry. It doesn't matter. You're here and you're going to be fine and that's all that matters."
That's right. That's good. Everything's fine.
Chris turned just a little, moving to get the cup of water on the bedside table he'd pushed against the wall.
And it all fell apart.
"Don't leave me!"
He couldn't catch his breath. He couldn't hold it together. He couldn't stand even the thought of being alone.
Dear God, I can't . . .
"I'm not going anywhere. Relax."
He felt Chris's strong hands massaging his shoulders, his neck, and he was embarrassed and ashamed. He was like acting like a little kid - a little kid afraid of the dark . . . of being alone.
Pull it together. You can do this. God, help me do this.
Nothing. Nothing but fear.
And of course, there would be. A man couldn't go through an experience like that and not come out afraid.
But Josiah had hoped for more. He hoped to see something in Vin's eyes that would explain it all.
He and Buck held up the wall just down the hall from Vin's room. They could have moved someplace more comfortable, the lounge only twenty feet or so from where they leaned, their casual stance belying the edgy tension that gripped them both.
"Well, at least he's awake," Buck said finally, his gaze on his feet.
Josiah nodded. It was the break they'd been hoping and waiting for. The fever had broken, the pneumonia was responding to the antibiotics; Vin was getting better.
And he knew where he was and who he was and who they were.
It should be a cause for celebration. Except that with one softly spoken name, they also knew he was terrified.
It was unnatural; unnatural for any of them. They couldn't be in their line of work, do what they did, without being courageous, daring even - and arguably a bit crazy. Fear rarely reared its ugly head in the heat of battle, choosing to lay dormant until the fight was over and the count was taken; until all were accounted for. It was, more often than not, about fear for the others, rather than fear for oneself. Being the one hurt often proved to be infinitely easier than being the one waiting.
And Vin took personal risk more nonchalantly than any of them. So to see him so afraid was just . . . unnatural.
And disappointing. Josiah would never express that in actual words, but he really had hoped, really had believed he'd find some kind of wisdom through Vin's eyes. Surely God had revealed something to him after three days in hell? If Vin had gained nothing from the traumatic experience, then what? What was it all for?
Was Nathan right? Were we really all just victims of random acts of fate? Was there truly no plan, no manifest destiny, no reason for any of this?
"He'll be alright, y' know. Just gonna take some time is all," Buck said, turning towards Sanchez.
Josiah thought, not for the first time, that it surely would be nice to see the world through Buck's rose colored glasses.
He nodded. There really wasn't much point in arguing, and besides, he wanted it to be that way. He wanted Buck to be right.
It might not be that simple, though.
When it came right down to it, he didn't at all like what he saw in Vin's eyes.
He was exhausted and he finally had to let one of the others take over. It was only with the strict understanding that Vin was never to be left alone, however.
Chris tossed and turned on the pull-out couch in Buck's apartment, his mind replaying the previous days without mercy. It had been two days since Vin's fever broke and he finally awoke, but the uncertainty in his friend's eyes remained. There seemed to be no assurance, no tangible evidence that could finally and completely remove the fear and doubt in his eyes.
Chris knew without a doubt - and without words - that Vin was struggling with what was real and what wasn't. He never again brought up Vin's mutterings that he hadn't been alone, though he longed to. He certainly wasn't searching for the enlightenment that Josiah seemed to think he could gain from Vin's nightmarish experience, but he would have liked something positive to hold onto in the ordeal. If Vin felt his presence, if he survived because of it, he might almost, almost be able to give up the guilt of not really having been there at all.
Crazy, really, that he believed everything bad that happened to someone he loved was all about him. That God was so interested in making Chris Larabee miserable that He picked on everyone around him. He didn't miss the irony of that thinking, either. On the one hand, God didn't give a crap about him, and on the other, He couldn't seem to leave him alone.
But at least Vin was alive and with them.
He hadn't gotten around to thanking God yet. He was still too mad about it all. He couldn't really look at Vin and not get angry. His best friend was bruised head to toe, alarmingly thin, wore out . . . and scared. It would take weeks for him to heal, and Nathan may be right that this time, he'd need professional help to deal with whatever was going on in his head.
Chris tried to understand; tried to put himself in Vin's shoes, Vin's head, but he couldn't do it. He admired Josiah for going back to the prison and making the effort to understand just that much better, but he couldn't go within miles of the place, let alone go back into that pit. There seemed to be a lot of things he couldn't do, now that he'd thought on it.
With a long sigh that turned into a groan, Chris sat up and turned on the light. Well, there was one thing he could do.
He dressed silently and slipped out the door without waking JD or Buck. He'd gotten used to sleeping in the old lounge chair at Vin's bedside, anyway.
It was deep into the night by the time he arrived. The security guards knew him by name and let him in with no problem, and the night shift nurses called out a greeting as he passed by. He vaguely wondered when and how he'd gotten so predictable.
It was Ezra's turn. Standish normally took the late shift since he preferred to sleep in anyway. He looked up, unsurprised, when Chris entered the room. Chris nodded at him, before turning to look at Vin. His eyes were closed, but the muscles in his face were tense, his breathing forced, and he knew Tanner wasn't asleep.
With a nod toward the door, Ezra rose and followed Chris out to the hall.
"It's not been a good night," Ezra relayed.
"He's restless . . . nervous." And they both knew how wrong it seemed to use that word where Vin was concerned. Cool, calm, and collected may be a cliché, but it suited Tanner to a tee. Not that he didn't get angry and occasionally fly off the handle, but nervous just didn't fit.
"He won't let them give him anything, either. And Lord knows, I've tried to persuade him."
Chris sighed as he looked back towards the room. "You mind if I take over?"
Ezra smiled as he shook his head. "I'd been anticipating your arrival, Chris." He started to walk off, but turned back to add, "Buck's due in at six."
Chris only nodded again before going back to Vin's side. He pulled the chair close to the bed and lowered the rail. Vin flinched, but kept his eyes closed. Chris gripped his hand and spoke softly.
"I know you're awake. I know you're hurt and scared, and maybe a little confused. But you're not alone. We're all here for you, Vin."
He'd said those same words over and over for days, but his injured friend reacted as though he'd never heard them in his life. Vin gulped and finally opened tear-filled eyes.
"God . . . Chris," he choked.
Chris was on the bed then, folding Vin's trembling body in his arms. Silent sobs coursed through the Tanner's body as he pushed his face deep into Chris's shoulder.
Chris felt woefully inadequate. He wasn't really cut out for this kind of thing. There was very little he could do or say, so he rubbed Vin's back and stroked his hair and ignored the growing wetness on his shirt.
When Vin finally pulled away and collapsed back onto the bed, he fixed his eyes on the window, obviously uncomfortable with the display of emotion.
There should be some way to make this easier, Chris thought. Some way to lend Vin his support and allow the man his dignity at the same time. Too bad he had no idea what that way was.
"You . . . wanna talk about it?" He'd make the offer, at least - even if he was half afraid that Vin would take him up on it and he wouldn't have the slightest notion what to say.
But Vin shook his head. "No . . . thanks."
Tanner took a deep, shuddering breath and finally turned back towards him, and Chris was convinced he was going to tell him to leave, to go home and get some rest. That was Vin's usual way, what he normally told him when he'd spent too many hours hovering over his sick or injured friend.
It was the truest indication of Vin's state of mind that what he said instead was, "Thanks for stayin' with me."
"No problem, Pard," Chris responded with a smile.
And of course, it wasn't a problem. There was only one problem - how long they could go on pretending. Pretending it was normal for Vin to need the light on at all times. Pretending it was okay that he fought sleep and almost always woke up shaking. Pretending he didn't mind being alone; that he wasn't terrified of it, in fact.
Yeah, they had only one problem - pretending Vin was just fine.
He was afraid to close his eyes almost as much as he was afraid to open them. The nightmares were always there, hovering. Sometimes he remembered, sometimes he didn't. But always he would half wake and wonder, which was real and which was the dream? Would he open his eyes to his room, or to the dark?
He was going to be discharged today. He would soon be at Chris's ranch, which may as well be dubbed Larabee Ranch and Rehab, as least where Vin was concerned. He always recovered there. It wouldn't be long this time, though. The pneumonia left him weak and drained, the concussion still caused him raging headaches, and his back and ribs made it difficult to get comfortable no matter what position he tried, but once he got his strength back, there would be no reason to stay with Chris.
He'd have to go home.
Chris wouldn't push him, he'd already made that clear, but Vin knew eventually his pride would override his fear and he'd go. Home. Alone.
The guys hadn't left him alone for five minutes. Normally, he chafed under such scrutiny, but this time, he didn't even try to act like he wanted them to leave. He couldn't bear the thought of it.
They never talked about what had happened. It was like the whole saga began and ended with his roll down the cliff. Chris never again asked about Vin's ramblings that they were "there" with him. Josiah always looked like he wanted Vin to say something more about something deep and meaningful, but Vin didn't have a clue what Sanchez was expecting or hoping for. He felt pretty much clueless about everything.
Nathan was really the only one that broached the subject of Vin's mental health at all, and that was merely to tell him that he had an appointment with the bureau's psychiatrist. Vin figured it was required in order for him to return to duty so he didn't say much about it. Nathan seemed almost disappointed by that, like he'd expected some verbal sparring over it, if nothing else.
All in all, he'd done a pretty fair job of hiding the fact that he'd lost his mind - except for that one meltdown with Chris. They hadn't spoken of that night again, and Vin knew his best friend well enough to believe that it would be kept between them.
So now all he had to do was get stronger and keep his mouth shut. Bury it and move past it. Carry on. Go home. Alone.
Help me, God. Maybe I'm askin' for too much. After all, you did save me from that . . . place, and I'm grateful for it. But I'm scared . . . scared t' be alone.
He'd figured out that it wasn't just the loneliness that threatened to suffocate him - it was the fear that it could happen again. He could lose his mind again. He wasn't all that sure he'd found it yet, when it came right down to it. He still had so many questions and confusing, cloudy thoughts - so many times when he wasn't sure what reality was.
And what if the voices came back? It was one thing to hear things when you were concussed and deprived of water and food and air - another entirely to hear things in the comfort of your own home.
"Hey. You ready to go?" Chris's voice startled him, though he tried not to show it. Chris already had his suspicions.
"Yeah." Of course he was. He could do this. He was a master at it.
Bury it. Move on. Keep his mouth shut. Everything would be fine. He'd already been given more than he deserved.
The rain held off, and if he was a praying man, Chris would have thanked God for it. They needed a nice day; a day full of sunshine and warm breezes, and they got it. Chris pulled seven steaks out of his freezer, pausing only to glance at Vin asleep on the couch. It took next to nothing to wear his friend out, and in a way, he was glad. Vin wouldn't even try to go home just yet.
Although, it was becoming increasingly apparent that he might not try at all.
He'd slept on the couch since he'd arrived almost ten days ago. The TV was always on, as was the light on the end table. The old leather was comfortable enough, but not really what Vin's battered body needed. Still, even Nathan didn't have the heart to push the matter.
Chris always stayed up until he fell asleep, and always woke when Vin did. It was as close as he could get without actually sleeping in the same room with his friend. He would have done that, too, but he figured they needed to keep at least some semblance of normality. At the very least, they could pretend that Vin wasn't terrified of being alone.
He'd just turned back towards the sink when he heard a low moan, followed by incoherent muttering. It was common, and Chris moved without urgency to Vin's side. It generally took nothing more than a hand on his arm and few soft words to nudge Vin away from the nightmare.
This one was different. Vin was moving about restlessly, tears streaming across his cheeks as he gasped for air. Chris couldn't make out many of the words, but the usuals were there: please, dark, cold . . . Chris . . . God.
He shook Vin's arm gently, keeping his head back in case Vin came up swinging. It hadn't happened yet, but it was obvious that this nightmare was more intense than the others so far. That might be a good thing, he decided - Vin's mind working through it all.
Vin sat up abruptly, chest heaving as he tried to pull in a breath. Chris sat on the edge of the sofa and gently massaged his friend's back. "Easy. You're alright," he soothed.
With wide eyes, Vin took in his surroundings before finally turning his face towards Chris. He shook his head then as he twisted his legs off the couch and settled his feet on the floor.
Chris shifted to sit on the coffee table in front of Vin, keeping one hand on his friend's knee. It was heartbreaking to watch Vin's struggle to pull himself together. Tanner's hands shook as he self-consciously wiped the tears from his face before resting his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.
"You wanna talk about it?" Chris offered, expecting Vin to refuse as usual.
But he didn't. Instead he turned his gaze to the window, and mumbled softly, "I . . . talked t' you."
So there it was. Finally out in the open. Chris didn't have to ask what Vin was referring to.
"Yeah?" Chris questioned, inwardly rolling his eyes at his awkward response. After all these weeks of waiting and wondering how Vin had managed it, how he'd lived through it, what he'd meant when he said he wasn't alone - this was the best reply he could come up with?
Vin nodded and finally turned to face Chris. "I heard you all."
This time Chris nodded, even as he silently wished Josiah could magically take his place. Or even JD. The kid seemed to have gained a rather astonishing maturity and insight lately.
"Heard you most, though," Vin said with a tight smile. "You're pretty damn bossy even when you're not really there."
Chris really needed to say something.
Uh, a little help here, God? I know we haven't been speaking lately, but . . .
"It's . . . okay, Vin. You were in a terrible situation. You did what you had to t' survive."
Vin cocked a brow. "Y' think so?"
"Yeah. I do." And he did. It wasn't really such a big deal, although if it were him, he'd be questioning his sanity at every turn.
So that's what was going on in Vin's head . . .
"I talked t' you a lot . . . you and God. One time, I thought . . . I thought He answered me. Told me I wasn't alone. Or it might have been you," Vin added, that intense blue gaze riveted to his best friend, waiting for his reaction to what he'd been told.
"Yeah, well, I can see how you might get the two of us confused." Chris hadn't meant to make a joke out of it, but damn if his sarcastic sense of humor didn't sneak up on him at the most inopportune moments.
To his relief, Vin laughed lightly. But he grew serious again when he asked, "You think I'm crazy?"
It would be easy to make another joke . . . "Hell, yes, Tanner, I thought we'd established that long ago" . . . but it wasn't what Vin needed to hear. And it wasn't true.
"No. No. I think . . . I think you prayed and God heard you. I think He gave you exactly what you needed so you could make it through." And that was true, too, Chris suddenly realized. He did believe that.
Doesn't mean I'm ready to be best friends just yet, God.
Vin swallowed and nodded. "I reckon so. But . . . I'm . . . scared, Chris. And it scares me that I'm scared. It's like I don't know myself, don't trust myself. I'm afraid I really will lose it one of these days." He added softly, "And I'm . . . I don't really want t' . . . t' go home."
At last, the opening he was waiting for. "Then don't. Let go of the apartment and stay here."
"What? Like move in?" Vin asked doubtfully.
"Yes. Or no. Just until you find a nicer place where you feel comfortable."
And that I approve of, Chris added silently.
Vin paused a moment - and Chris could see the internal battle clouding his blue eyes. Vin's natural independence and stubbornness waging war with relief. Finally, he answered thoughtfully, "Well, I reckon I could think on that some. If you're sure I won't be putting you out?"
"Stay as long as you like - as long as you need." Chris leaned in closer and squeezed his friend's neck as he added, "There's no shame in being afraid, Vin. And there's no shame in drawing strength from your friends. Keep talking, and keep that appointment with the psych guy."
Vin raised his brows. "Hell, you must be worried 'bout me if you're siding with Nathan on this. Guess you think I'm crazy after all," he added seriously, but Chris saw the glint in his eye.
"Nah. Although, your thinking me and God run in the same circles is a little disturbing."
Vin only had a moment to laugh softly, before Buck suddenly burst through the door with the others in tow. Their voices mixed and mingled; laughter filled the room. Chris watched as Vin leaned back and closed his eyes, a small smile playing across his features as he listened to the sounds of his friends.
It wouldn't be a quick fix this time. Chris knew Vin well enough to realize that his friend would dig a deep hole and bury it all, if left to his own devices. There was work to do, maybe more praying to be done, if Chris were honest about it.
But between the seven of them, they'd pulled off miracles in the past . . . with or without God's help. The verdict was still out on that, but it was possible his vote could be swayed . . .
Lord, it is a beautiful day! Can't ask for nothin' finer than this. The seven of us together this afternoon, a date with Cassandra tonight . . . it surely is a wonderful life.
Now Lord, I'm not backing out of our agreement. But after some contemplation, I've come to the conclusion that it would be most beneficial for all if I were to hire a more competent handyman to help out Josiah. After all, my skills with such types of labor are inept, at best. Agreed?
Thanks, God. Thanks for this awesome day and for Vin, especially. And thanks for leading me here, to my friends and to my job. I guess I'll never be able to repay you, but I'll start working on the others, if you want. Might need a hand with Nathan, though.
Don't think I can be persuaded with a little sunshine and the company of good friends . . . you've still got a lot of explaining to do before I'll change my mind.
Still don't have all the answers, do I, Lord? I'm not giving up, though. You and I go back too far to quit now. And I still think Vin knows more than he's letting on. Surely you revealed something to him during those three days? Well, Lord, I guess it's a good thing you made me tenacious...
I suppose we can agree to disagree.
And I suppose it's time I thanked you. For Vin . . . for the team. So maybe my life isn't so bad, after all . . . and maybe I could try a little harder, listen a little closer. Just don't expect me to see things your way all of the time. You gave me this hard head for a reason, after all.
I still ain't sure why you gave me another chance. You've been doin' that my whole life, now that I think on it. Been a lot of times when I probably should've been dead. JD says that means you're not through with me yet. Hope I can live up t' whatever it is you have in mind for me.
Hope I can make my peace with what happened . . . might need a little help with that. I never did ask much, but since I know now that you ARE listenin', I just might try askin' more often. Hope y' don't mind.
Hope y' don't mind if we talk now and then. I reckon if anything good came out of this, it's that me and the boys see you a little differently than before. Even Nathan, though I don't suppose he's let himself see it just yet.
I don't have any answers - even though Josiah wishes I did. But I'm thinkin' it's enough just t' know it's alright t' ask the questions. I'm thinkin' it's enough just t' know . . . I'm never alone.