by Xiola


Eight thirty seven.

‘It should be later,’ he thought.

He must have dozed off, waiting for Chris and Nathan to come back. Even though the curtains were still drawn, the room seemed brighter than he remembered, and the sun had poked long fingers through the slats of the blinds and sent the shadows skittering to the corners of the room. It wasn’t until Vin shifted slightly that he noticed the bag of IV fluid suspended from a metal pole next to the bed, and he followed the path of the tubing to see it disappear under the sheet that covered his chest. He lifted the corner of the blanket and traced the tube to a tape - covered port in his side. He still felt as weak as a day old kitten, but was heartened to find he could at least get his head off the pillow without feeling as if he was about to lapse immediately into insensibility. It was as if his nerve endings were swathed in layers of carded wool - the aches and pains were still there, but with all the sharp edges filed away, muffled somehow.

There was a noise at the door, and it swung open to reveal Chris, cup of coffee in one hand, newspaper in the other. He looked across at Vin and a smile quirked at the corner of his mouth.

“It’s alive.”

“Glad ya come along t’ straighten that out fer me Chris. I’s beginnin’ t’ wonder.”

Chris edged further into the room, his brimming mug slopping steaming liquid onto his hand and dripping to the floor.

“Damn, that’s hot.”

Chris rushed for the night table beside the bed, deposited both items and stood, shaking out his scalded fingers.

“Guess I better get that cleaned up.”

He jerked his head at the stain on the carpet and disappeared into the bathroom in search of a cloth.

When Vin turned his head to gaze longingly at Chris’s coffee, the newspaper caught his eye.


It couldn’t be Monday already….. what had happened to Saturday, and Sunday? Vin frowned as he tried to recall.

“Chris? Was Nate here?”

“Nathan?” Chris walked into the room carrying a dripping rag. “Yeah. Yesterday.”

Vin figured Chris must have seen the look of confusion on his face when he detoured past the spot on the rug and came to stand beside the bed.

“You’ve been pretty out of it these last couple of days, Vin. You were having a rough time and Nate came out and put in an IV and pumped you full of drugs…legal ones this time.”

Vin groaned. He had a vague recollection of yesterday, and the night before. He remembered being desperately sick - that unfortunately wasn’t the sort of thing one could easily forget - and he remembered Chris and Nathan discussing what should be done for him.

They had seen him ill and rambling and out of his head.

They had seen the marks on his arm.

They knew.

He tried to pull himself up further on the mattress and the movement set the IV pole swaying dangerously. Chris reached out to hold it steady, and Vin gasped as the motion pulled at the tender spot in his side.

But if it was Monday…

“How come y’ain’t at work?”

A sudden thought gripped him and he ignored his latest discomfort as he leaned around Chris to look at the clock.

“Butler! Chris! We gotta be in court in twenty minutes!”

“It’s been adjourned until April. I took the day off to keep an eye on you.” Chris pressed him back onto the bed and stood staring down at him. “How are you feeling by the way? You look better than you did, but you’d really have to work some to look much worse.”

Vin slumped back into the pillows.

“Guess you and me should have a talk.”

“Well, yeah, you’ve got that right, but get yourself back together some first. Nate’s fixed you up a nice cocktail there-” he nodded at the IV, “but he said you’ve probably still got a couple of rough days ahead. We’ve got lots of time to talk.”

Vin looked into his best friend’s eyes, searching for the condemnation and repulsion he knew Chris had to be feeling right now, and saw nothing but genuine concern and worry. He had to avert his gaze then - something suspiciously like tears were clouding his vision and his emotions were so raw and barely controlled that he was afraid they might betray him. He owed Chris so much. He was so used to being judged without ever having the opportunity to defend or explain himself. He had never asked to be an orphan, to be shunted around in foster care until he was old enough to light out on his own. He had never wanted to be homeless. He had never aspired to be uneducated, dyslexic and stupid. Chris was the only person who had ever looked beyond what he was to see the person he truly wanted to be. And Chris had accepted him as that person - the one who was trustworthy and loyal and dependable and capable- from the moment they first met.


He must have zoned out for a minute there, for he came around to Chris’s hand on his arm, shaking him gently.

“Nate said you should try to eat something.”

Vin’s stomach did a slow sickening roll at the thought of food - and here he’d been thinking that perhaps the worst was over.

Chris must have seen the look that crossed his face.

“We’ll start off with something easy. How about some soup, or cream of wheat? Nate figures last night should have been the worst of it - he said you should start feeling a bit better as the day goes on.”

“I cain’t remember the last time I ate.” Vin stopped and swallowed hard. “I jist ain’t sure I’s up to it yet.”

“It’s OK. I’ll make you some porridge and we’ll see how that goes down. I’m a fast draw with a bucket-” he tapped the waste basket on the floor with his foot. “I think I know when you’re going to chuck before you do.”

Chris was grinning at him now, and Vin had to smile back.

“OK Pard, yer so set on showin’ off yer puke - wrangling skills, go ahead and fill yer boots. Jist don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

Chris gathered up his cup and headed for the door.

“Back in a few. Don’t go anywhere.”

As if he could. Even this short bout of conversation with Chris had him worn right out. Maybe he’d just close his eyes til Chris came back. Let himself relax for a while in the numbing cocoon that insulated his brain from the rest of his body.

Just for a minute, no more, he’d relax….

The next thing he knew, Chris was sitting in an armchair that hadn’t been there earlier, laptop on his knees, engrossed in something frown - worthy. Must be work. Vin had just reached this conclusion, and hadn’t so much as stirred when Chris looked up and caught his eye.

“You going to stay awake for more than five minutes this time around? Or are you just trying to get out of eating my cooking.”

He nodded at he bowl sitting on the nightstand beside Vin’s head.

“It looks mighty good from where I’m sittin’,” Vin squinted at the white, lumpy mixture congealing in the dish at his side, “but I ain’t sure I’m up t’ eatin’ anything jist yet.”

Chris frowned.

“You should at least try, Vin. Nathan says that thing,” he tipped his head in the direction of the IV, “can’t come out til you’ve started to keep down solid food. He says you look like you haven’t eaten in days.”

Vin sighed and covered his eyes with his hand. He was so tired. He knew that whatever Nathan had given him was starting to wear off - his bones were aching and his head was pounding, and his stomach was once again reminding him that it wasn’t at all happy with him.

“What time is it Chris?”

“Around three I think. You’ve been asleep most of the day.”

“Ya said Nate’s comin’ back? When are ya expectin’ him?”

Vin hoped he wasn’t sounding as desperate as he felt.

“He’ll be out after work - probably six or so.”

Three hours. Now that the drugs Nate had given him were wearing off, his body’s hungry demands for more were becoming harder to ignore. He could feel that need building in him, rattling in his brain, screaming along his nerve endings. He wasn’t sure whether could hold on another hour, let alone three, without climbing the walls. At least now he didn’t have to pretend that everything was all right, but he still didn’t want to let Chris see how weak and pathetic he really was. But then on the other hand, he supposed it didn’t matter much. He was going to be quitting the team in any event, and there was no way his and Chris’s friendship would continue now that they no longer had the job to keep them together. Something heavy and heart - stopping clenched in his chest at the thought that once everything became known, he’d rarely, if ever, see Chris again.

It would be hard, but he would handle it. He had never had the luxury of allowing his weaknesses to show, and as tempted as he was just to let himself go and fall to pieces right in front of Chris’s eyes, he knew he wouldn’t do it. Not only did he not wish to humiliate himself in front of the best friend he had ever had, he wasn’t sure that when his collapse was complete that he would ever be able to pick himself up and put the pieces back together.

Vin could feel his muscles quivering now. He wasn’t sure whether it was because he had finally acknowledged the bleakness that was to be his future, or because his body was beginning once again to make those demands he could not satisfy. He gritted his teeth in an attempt to keep the trembling at bay, and was dismayed to find his thoughts were spinning out of control now too, hammering relentlessly in his brain. How was he ever going to lie back and ignore the ultimatums thrumming in every fibre of his being? If only he could just give in - let his weak - willed mind accede to the wishes of his treacherous body. He groaned and turned onto his side, shutting himself away from the rest of the world as best he could. He knew Chris was speaking to him, but his whole system was so overloaded with conflicting needs and desires that he couldn’t make out the words. So he simply pulled away inside himself, buried himself so deep even his own thoughts couldn’t find him, and waited for the time to pass.


Nathan had informed Chris that the worst of the withdrawal usually took place seventy - two hours or so after the last fix. He also expressed the opinion that it was highly unusual for a person to become addicted to a drug such as heroin after using it for only a week.

Unless, of course, that person had been previously addicted.

Which was not something Chris wanted to have to think about.

He was sitting in the chair by the bed, watching Vin twitch in his sleep. Every once in awhile his breathing would speed up, and he would begin to ramble, incomprehensible words and snatches of conversation that seemed to agitate him even further. Then he would lapse into a stupor once again, until the next bout of tremors jittered through him. Chris was surprised at how hard it was for him to sit by and do nothing while his best friend suffered. Vin was without question the most even - tempered and self-reliant soul he had ever known. Quiet, but acutely aware of everything going on around him, keen of eye and wit, but always with that cool and placid calm in place. Right now, though, Vin seemed to exist in either one of two states - highly agitated or dully unresponsive. Chris hadn’t yet decided which was worse, although he was coming to believe that awake or asleep, the muttering and incessant motion were the more unnerving, as they were most unlike the Vin he knew.

Vin had seemed better when he first woke up an hour ago. He was hurting now, curled in on himself in his misery, trying hard to keep it bottled up inside. Vin was a proud man, and strong, and had grown up in a world where admitting to any kind of weakness was not an option if one wished to survive. It had been a ‘dog eat dog’ existence, no question, and Chris supposed the habits of a lifetime were hard to break.

He was quite certain that Vin could hold on til Nathan arrived.

He only hoped that he could too.


Chris thought a lot of the men on his team. He and Buck had been friends a long time. He was the only person left from the days of Sarah and Adam who had stuck around. The rest of the people he had known back then had washed their hands of him - couldn’t bear to watch his slow, sad, slide into the self - destruction that consumed him after their deaths. Only Buck had refused to let him go, had dragged him kicking and screaming out of the hell of his self - pity and set him back on the road to the land of the living. But even Buck didn’t realize that although he was back at work, doing the job with amazing competence and skill, he had been merely going through the motions. He had never really pulled himself away from the edge of the abyss. Buck had no idea how close, or how often, he came to that dark place still in the two years since he had taken over as head of Team Seven. Buck didn’t know how many nights Chris had passed with only his whiskey and his gun for company. The pain never went away completely, but his job began to come as close as he thought anything ever would to taking the place of the family he had lost. Over time he found he could live with that. He spent a lot of time at the office, got together with the Team on Friday night for a beer, and all in all, managed to convince himself that this was enough.

It wasn’t until he met Vin Tanner that his life truly changed and he still found it hard to believe that he had known the man only a few short months. The first time he had locked eyes with Vin, across the desk during his interview for the sharpshooter’s position, Chris knew that clear blue gaze could see to the very bottom of his soul.

And, even more amazing, was the realization that it didn’t frighten him in the least.

Vin had become his rock, his compass, the axis around which his world revolved.

And he knew he was all that for Vin as well.

They never talked about it - never had the need to. They were brothers in every way except for blood, and that in Chris’s mind was the least important measure of all.

Right now, Vin’s sufferings were his sufferings. And that was why he found himself pacing restlessly, anxiously waiting for Nathan to arrive and help Vin lay some of his demons to rest, if only for a spell.

The crunch of tires on gravel sent him rushing to the door. He flung it open and hurried the medic inside.

“He having a bad day?”

Nathan was out of his coat and following Chris along the hall.

“He was actually pretty good up until a couple of hours ago. Then it started to hit him again. He looks better though - not so much like he’s about to breathe his last.”

That much was true, Chris thought, as he followed Nathan into the bedroom. Vin’s eyes flickered open at their approach, and Chris was relieved those slivers of blue seemed clearer and more focused.

Nathan sat on the edge of the bed and enveloped the fine bones of Vin’s wrist in his hand.

No one said a word while the medic counted out the rhythm of Vin’s pulse and untangled the stethoscope from around his neck to listen at his chest.

“You certainly look better than the last time I saw you.”

Nathan leaned back and regarded Vin appraisingly.

“How are you feeling?”

“Better.” Vin shrugged. “I guess.”

“You been able to eat anything today?”

“Chris made me some porridge. Had some ’a that. Earlier.”

Nathan picked up the barely touched bowl from the nightstand and wrinkled his nose.

“Looks good.”

“C-Chris is a mean hand in the kitchen.”

“This all you had today?”

“I wanted st - steak-k.”

Vin was shivering again, and Nathan reached out and took one pale hand in his. He turned the palm down and ran his fingers over the ugly purple bruise on the back.

“Do you remember what happened here?”

Vin shook his head.

Nathan must have seen the question in Chris’s look.

“Looks like somebody put a needle in there. Somebody without the Florence Nightingale touch.” He tucked Vin’s hand back under the blanket. “I was going to take the IV out Vin, if you’d been able to eat, but I think it’ll have to stay til tomorrow. I can stop by in the morning and see how things are going. Maybe I’ll come for breakfast. Has the stuff I gave you been working?”

“Yeah, Nate, it’s really helped a lot.”

Vin’s answer was a little too quick off the mark for Chris’s liking. The look in his eyes was hopeful, and more than a little desperate. Chris gave himself a mental kick - it was obvious that Vin was sick and in pain, and who was he to deprive his friend of any aid that could be given to ease those hurts? If Nathan shared any of his misgivings, he gave no indication, just rifled through his bag and withdrew a capped syringe and a bottle of alcohol.

“You gonna share with us any time soon - what this is all about?”

This very question had been on the tip of Chris’s tongue ever since he had decided something was awry. He had spent all of the last three days with Vin, and he knew the situation was weighing heavily on the younger man’s mind. However, he had been prepared to let him get his wits about him before he started pressing for details. Nathan, being the doctor, no doubt had a slightly different agenda in mind.

Vin, for his part, simply closed his eyes after Nathan gave him his shot, and lay there on the bed, shutting them out. Chris could tell he wasn’t ready - or able - to make that journey into the past just yet.


Chris went over, took his friend’s elbow and turned him toward the door.

“I don’t think Vin is up to this yet. He’s told me this last week is one big blur, and he’s made a point of thanking me for not pushing him to talk until he’s ready. I say we give him another day - he’ll be that much further along by tomorrow. Maybe once he’s up and around- you know - somewhere between ‘comatose’ and ‘madly off in all directions’, he’ll be able to make more sense of this whole thing himself.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I think part of the reason he’s having such a hard time is it hasn’t been that long since he was out with the flu. Not to mention he’s been whacked on the head. And it’s obvious wherever he has been, he hasn’t been taking care of himself and his system has just shut down on him.”

Chris took a last look at Vin, now a huddled lump under the blankets, and followed Nathan out into the kitchen.

“It’s not real busy in the office, Chris. Josiah’s got things well in hand. Since Butler got adjourned, it’s really freed the week up and if you think you can do it, perhaps you should try to be with Vin tomorrow. If I take the drip out in the morning, he can start to get mobile. It won’t hurt him to be up and around - it might actually help take his mind off some of his discomfort. He shouldn’t think about going back to work til next week at the earliest. Once we find out for sure what the story is, I can put him on Naltrexone to help reduce the cravings if he needs it. For now, let him sleep as much as he can, and try to get him to eat.”

“Will do. See you in the morning. And thanks, Nate, for everything.”

Nathan flashed a brilliant smile as he pulled on his boots and disappeared into the early evening darkness.

Chris sighed. He was feeling a lot less anxious than he had been this time last night. He was certain now that Vin was going to be all right - physically at least - and he was thankful for the relief that knowledge brought to him.

He made his way down the hall and back into the guestroom. Vin was sound asleep - still and silent except for the soft rasp of his breathing. His face looked relaxed and peaceful too - the high, fine angles of his cheekbones not quite so stark, the shadows around his eyes not nearly so ominous. Chris crossed over to the bathroom and turned on the light. He left that door, and the one into the hall, slightly ajar. That done he went into the kitchen to make himself some supper, which he later ate on a TV tray in the den. Two cups of strong coffee had no effect on him whatsoever, for he woke around midnight to the eerie blue glow of the television screen and stumbled off for a proper night’s sleep in his own bed. He knew nothing until he came to sprawled across his duvet, still in his jeans, with the sun in his eyes and the numbers on the clock flashing eight forty - seven. He scrambled guiltily to his feet and burst into Vin’s room to find the bed empty and the room deserted. A noise from the other end of the house sent him in the direction of the kitchen, and he followed the aroma of toast and coffee to find Nathan at the table, head buried in the newspaper. Vin was looking out the window above the sink, pale but upright, fingers drumming out an erratic beat on the counter. There was a piece of toast - missing a bite- on the plate beside his hand, and a mug next to that, but Vin seemed to be elsewhere, and jumped slightly when Chris came up and reached past him to the dishwasher for a cup.

“Make yourselves at home.”


Nathan jerked his head in the direction of the pot.

“There’s coffee. Toast too. I was going to scramble up some eggs, but Vin seems to have developed an aversion to them.”

“Yeah, well, I had a bad experience involvin’ eggs lately.”

Vin turned away from his view of Chris’s yard, picked up the toast and took another bite. Chris could tell by the slow deliberation of his chewing that he didn’t have the appetite for it, but he seemed to be putting forth his best effort.

“I see Nate’s freed you from the clutches of your friend.”

Chris had noticed the IV pole standing neglected in the bedroom.

“You must be feeling better.”

“Yeah, I am.”

Vin sighed and set his breakfast on the counter.

“But I think I might head back to bed for awhile. Thanks for comin’ out Nate. ’Preciate it.”

Vin left the room and Chris stared after him in silence for a moment, then turned to find Nathan’s eyes fixed on him.

“He say anything to you? About anything?” Chris filled his mug and pulled out a chair.

“Nope. I didn’t press him on it. You know the only one he’ll likely open up to is you. I think you’re right to just take it easy and give him some time. No question - he’s got a burden that needs sharing.”

Nathan stood and took his dishes to the sink.

“I’m going to the office. I’ll have Josiah call if anything important comes up. Don’t worry about anything - just take care of him. He needs you right now.”

“OK.” Chris ran a hand through his hair. “So what should I expect from him today?”

“I’m sure he’s past the worst of it, but he’ll probably sleep a lot, when he’s not busy pacin’ a hole in your carpet. Let him do whatever he feels like doing. Just make sure he takes the meds, and drinks lots of fluids, and eats-” Nathan held up the barely touched breakfast “and yeah, I know how he gets whenever he’s got something on his mind - but he can’t afford to lose any more weight.”

Chris rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, sure thing Doc. Piece of cake.”


He’d tried to sleep. Switched around in the bed for fifteen minutes to find the perfect spot. Stared at the ceiling for another fifteen. Stuffed his head under the pillow to shut out the noise.

Except there was no noise. Only the annoying drip of his thoughts, like a leaky faucet in his brain.

He was hiding. He knew what had to be done, and he didn’t want to do it. Didn’t want to face the truth.

To face Chris.

To face himself.

Vin had been many things in his life, but he had never been a coward. He took whatever came to him and dealt with it. He had never had anyone to rely on for guidance or advice, so he had developed his own rules, his own code of conduct and responsibility. He had always tried to do what he thought was right. But having grown up apart from the rest of the world, without its standards to live by, he had unwittingly created for himself a separate sphere of existence. A place where the set of morals he crafted for himself were ultimately stricter and far less forgiving than those governing the rest of human kind. In essence, he had imposed a judgement upon himself based on his need to atone for sins and shortcomings born of his long - held belief in his own inferiority.

He would make no excuses. He would lay his sordid little secret out for Chris, and would accept his punishment without complaint. He knew he would be dismissed, and hoped that by preparing himself for the inevitability of it all, that he would be able to hold himself together long enough to get back to Purgatorio. Where he could fall apart at his in the comfort of his own home.

And in his own good time.


Pony was happy. Chris could see it in the prick of his ears, hear it in the lilt of his step, feel it in the quiver of muscle beneath his hand.

It was a good thing somebody was happy, he snorted to himself. Peso certainly wasn’t. He knew the big black sidestepping along the trail in front of him was out of sorts. Just like his rider.

It wasn’t often that Chris saw Vin at odds with his horse. It was rare for Vin to be at odds with anything, as far as that went, so perhaps he should rephrase that thought. It wasn’t often that Chris saw Peso at odds with Vin.

Buying Peso had been a rare impulse in Chris’s relatively impulse - free life. The only way he could explain it was he must have seen something of a kindred spirit in the proud lift of that massive head and the mean set of those teeth snapping at anyone stupid enough to come too close. But once he got him home, he realized that much as he admired Peso’s fiery independence when he was someone else’s problem, it was a whole different ball game to have to deal with that stubborn piece of horse flesh on a daily basis. He’d had him three long, uncongenial months, and had just made up his mind to sell him right about the same time another thoroughly independent and self - reliant individual became part of his world.

Vin and Peso had become instant friends. Indeed, Chris thought Vin was the only human that Peso had even so much as tolerated in all his seven horse years, let alone actually liked.

But Peso could tell that today, there was something wrong. Chris figured the two of them had used up their day’s allotment of patience the very moment Vin set foot in the stall. Peso fought Vin at every step, twitching away under his hands, balking at the weight of the saddle on his back, refusing to take the bit. Even now they were still at war - Vin muttering his frustration into those laid back ears and Peso tossing his head and pulling at the reins in reply.

It was too bad the belligerent pair couldn’t bury the hatchet, if only for a short while. It was a beautiful day - crisp without being cold, quiet in the lull of the wind, bright in the glint of the sun where the mountains met the sky.

He had been surprised when Vin came to him shortly after lunch and suggested a ride up into the high country. Looking at that pale face, the shadows of pain around those eyes, the grim set of the mouth, he had been about to object that it was too much too soon. But then he had remembered Nathan’s pronouncement that Vin could do as much as he felt like doing, so Chris had merely nodded in agreement and here they were.

He could tell that Vin would have a whole different picture to paint of the glories the day had to offer. He was hunched in the saddle, a far cry from the easy seat that usually made him seem a mere extension of his horse. His battered cavalry hat was pulled low over his face, and Chris felt a momentary flare of worry when he thought of Nathan’s speculations that Vin might have sustained a concussion at some point during his wanderings. The medic opined that a lot of Vin’s confusion and nausea and disorientation could have been as a result of the blow to his head, and Vin didn’t know it yet, but a trip to the diagnostic imaging department of Mercy General was on the schedule for Friday. Chris could tell that Vin was trying to cringe away out of the sun, and he wished he had thought to force a pair of sunglasses on his friend. He was cold too, or so Chris thought, as he looked at the hands shaking in the gloves and the tight set of the shoulders and curl of the body huddled down into itself. Chris had packed a thermos of coffee and some bread and cheese. He figured they’d stop and have a bite before they made their way back, and wondered if it was too soon to suggest they take a break. Vin answered that question for him when he pulled Peso to the side of the trail and slid to stand wavering on the ground. He pressed his head into the firm warmth of the gelding’s neck, swallowed hard and lifted a hand to rub at the side of his head. Chris reined Pony to a halt, and waited for Vin to move.

“You all right?”

“Yeah - head’s kickin’ me some, but s’OK.”

“You bring your pills?”

“Nah. Figured I’d see how I got on without ’em. Guess it weren’t a good idea.”

Vin chuffed out a soft laugh at that, then staggered sideways to his knees and threw up in the scrabble of rock and crusted snow. Chris vaulted out of the saddle, but before he could get to Vin the younger man waved him away.

“I’m all right. It’s just m’ head.”

“Well, that’s good to hear. I was afraid it might be something serious.”

Vin heaved painfully once again, then wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and got shakily to his feet.

“Jist a bit of a headache. I’m OK now.”

Vin didn’t look anything like ‘OK’, but Chris said nothing and waited while his friend gathered the reins and climbed into the saddle once more.

Chris turned Pony’s head toward the incline that sloped away to the right.

“What do you say we go on up there between those rocks - have a cup of coffee, take it easy for a minute?”

“Sounds good.”

Vin clucked his tongue and Peso moved, picking his way along until they came to their destination - a broad flat stone laid out between a pair of eight foot high boulders. The ground rose steeply away behind the spot, leaving it sheltered from the wind but fully open to all the warmth the afternoon sun had to offer. They dismounted and dropped the reins and the horses began snuffling about in search of something to munch on. There was nothing, of course, but the search would keep them busy for awhile. Peso knew Vin had treats in his pocket - he was worse than a dog - and Chris figured it wouldn’t be long before the overgrown mutt would be making a nuisance of himself, nuzzling Vin and nibbling at his coat until he gave them up.

Vin was quiet as Chris unwrapped the bread and cut the cheese in hunks and laid the food out between them. He declined Chris’s offer of coffee and just sat for several long minutes, bread in hand, looking out at the breathtaking vista before them. Chris knew Vin wasn’t enjoying the view. His eyes were focused on something just past the range of his vision, somewhere out beyond the cluster of jagged peaks and thicket of clouds.

Chris sipped his coffee. Broke his bread. Savoured the cheese. And said nothing.

Just waited patiently for Vin’s story to unfold.


The sun was warm on the snow among the rocks - Chris could hear the tap of melting drops and the muted trickle of water threading through the stones.

“I’s fourteen when I met up with Mickey Wallace.”

Chris nodded his acknowledgement of this piece of information without looking at his friend. He could feel Vin shifting beside him - leaning forward to rest his elbows on his updrawn knees.

“I’s livin’ in Denver then - had a place in a buildin’ out on Seventy - Third.”

Another silent space unfolded itself between them. Chris heard the Texan take a long, deep breath, as if he wasn’t to draw another until the tale was finished, and waited for Vin to marshal together the thoughts and memories he was going to need to fill it up.

“Was an old apartment house. Got tore down a coupla years back - think it’s a parking lot there now. Anyway - back ten, twelve years ago - no one much cared ’bout folks squattin’ in them places. Weren’t in a real nice neighbourhood no how, and it was pretty much a mix ’a people in there. Older’n me, but I knew how t’ keep m’head down and they mostly didn’t pay me no mind. I’s tryin’ t’ go t’ school, had m’self a coupla part time jobs - mowin’ lawns and shovelin’ snow and sweepin’ up at a garage - used t’ be able t’ clean myself up some there - between that and the showers at gym class. I had enough t’ get by - knew where t’ get food on the cheap and things was OK til I got sick. Weren’t nothin’ but some kinda flu. I felt it comin’ and was able t’ git some stuff t’gether so’s I could git along while I was laid up. It hit me hard, though and it was goin’ on three weeks b’fore I started t’ come around at all, and even then I weren’t able t’ walk much farther than the school. I lost all m’ jobs ’cause ’a bein’ sick, but I figured I’d pick somethin’ else up once I’s on m’ feet again fer good.

Didn’t never really git the chance….

Most ’a the kids in the building knew Mickey. He was the ‘big man’, the ‘paper boy’ - you know - a dealer. He had a bunch of ’em workin’ fer him as gophers and jugglers - no shortage of kids willin’ t’ run some errands in return fer hits. But then some of ’em got busted and he still had merchandise t’ move, and that’s when he come t’ me. Told me there weren’t nothin’ to it - just some hand t’ hand - deliverin’ drugs and pickin’ up money - said I’d only have t’ deal with the ones he knew wouldn’t try t’ stiff him. I was dumb back then, but not that dumb, and there weren’t no way I wanted t’ git m’self tangled up with drugs. I said no, which were a real stupid thing t’ do, because that were one word Mickey weren’t used t’ hearin’. But ya know, Mickey could be right persuasive when he put his mind to it. He and his guys come around the next night - said they’s gonna have a party and show me a good time….hah…. Somebody had a good time but it weren’t me, leastways not til they held me down and stuck me with a needle. Said they’s gonna ‘give me m’ wings’, and they weren’t lyin’ either. Next thing I knew I’s flying so damn high I coulda gone t’ the moon. They kept me like that awhile- don’t know how long - pumped up with somethin’ else too, so’s I wouldn’t go runnin’ off on ’em. They had their fun with me then, but I’s so trashed I didn’t even care. Weren’t long til I was hooked but good - Mickey’s trained seal - would do whatever he wanted just t’ stay high. It was scary how much I liked it, ya know, even though deep down I knew it weren’t right, and it were aginst the law and all that. But it felt so good t’ jist let it all go, t’ be so wasted that nothin’ hurt anymore, t’ be so far gone that the pain fergot how t’ find ya….wish I could say that I finally come t’ m’ senses and knew it had t’ stop, but that weren’t a decision I come to on m’ own.

One day I was goin’ t’ see one ’a Mickey’s all stars- she lived over in the projects on the south side - she’s always strung out on somethin’ every time I seen her, but this day, she was real bad. The door weren’t locked or nothin’ so I went in, and she’s lyin’ on the couch, right out of it, and mumblin’ stuff that didn’t make no sense at all. There weren’t no money anywheres that I could find. I really wanted t’ git outta there fast - it smelled bad- but I heard somethin’ then, this kinda scratchin’ noise, so I figured I’d go and have a look. I went down the hall and a rat come skitterin’ outta one ’a the rooms. I knew I shouldn’t ’a gone in there- didn’t want to - but I couldn’t seem t’ stop m’self.

I never knew she had a baby. Didn’t know that’s what it was in the box at first, there by the bed, til I got up close and looked hard. It was dead - had bin awhile far as I could tell - face all grey and blue and swelled up, and the eyes kinda half open and starin’ right at me. I jist about passed out, it done scared me that much. I took off outta there runnin’ as fast as I could, and didn’t stop til I got back t’ m’ place, crawled in the window and stayed there - sittin’ and shakin’ fit t’ fall apart.

That’s when I decided….

About Mickey.

I done decided I’s gonna rat him out.

Went and called the cops.

Didn’t tell no one who I was - but seein’ that baby dead with no one t’ even care - that done somethin’ t’ me. I’s so caught up in m’self fer so long that I didn’t give no thought t’ the kinds ’a things someone like Mickey really brought on people. Cops surprised him - don’t think he thought anyone’d ever have the nerve t’ turn on him. Funny thing was, he knew it was me. Don’t think he ever trusted me that much - knew he had me under his thumb for the time bein’ and hoped I’d always be too weak and pathetic t’ git m’self out from under. He went away fer a good long time - ten to fifteen I think, and served seven or thereabouts. Got out five years ago, or so I heard.

I ain’t never thought much about him since - done moved on with m’ life and didn’t think I’d ever have to face up t’ all that agin. But I’s wrong. Mickey musta got wind ’a me, found out I’s workin’ fer the ATF and decided t’ git some of his own back. Leastways that’s what I think he was doin’. I ain’t never had a week disappear on me b’fore. I don’t have too much clue about nothin’ that went on. ’Ceptin’ I was charged up good, but I know it were Mickey’s voice sayin’ I made a fool outta him and now I’s goin’ t’ pay. Tellin’ me he’s fixin’ to’ ruin m’ life and make sure everyone knew I come from trash and I’s always gonna be trash. Think he gave me roofies t’ keep me quiet - don’t recall the hard stuff ever makin’ me nod out like that. But the bad thing is, even though I know it’s him, I’s so wasted this last week that I coulda been talkin’ t’ Santa Claus and there ain’t no way I could go t’ court and say it were Mickey.

I’m sorry Chris, about all this, and I’ll have m’ resignation on yer desk first thing Monday morning.”

Silence dropped between them then, dark and heavy as a stone.

Chris had no idea what to say. He had expected that Vin’s explanation would not be pretty, or easy to listen to. But he had not been expecting this dispassionate recounting of events, and the complete absence of excuses or pleas for leniency or understanding. It was obvious Vin felt he had done wrong and he had come to terms with whatever consequences might follow.

Chris cleared his throat.

“You don’t have a record, do you Vin?”

“No, ’a course I don’t. I coulda never got a job with the ATF iffen I did.”

“What about the section of the application on drug use? What did you say there?”

Vin rolled his uneaten bread into tiny balls of dough and tossed them one by one at a twig just beyond them in the snow. When he finally answered, his voice was a whisper.

“Was only a question or two. I left ’em blank. I didn’t lie, iffen that’s what yer askin’.”

“You could have told me about this you know.”

Vin sighed and shoved his hat back, revealing an acquaintance with loss and sadness that should never be seen in a face so young.

“I know that now, Chris. But I ain’t never known it before. That feelin’ that ya could tell someone everythin’ about yerself and they’d still like ya in spite of all the stupid wrong things ya ever did. I’m sorry I made ya ashamed of me. I’m sorry I put the team at risk - no-” Vin held up his hand when Chris made to interrupt. “I done compromised all of us when I didn’t come clean about this. And I understand what has to be done - that you have t’ tell Travis and that I’ve got to go. And I’m all right with that. I done wrong, and I’ve got to deal with the consequences.”

Vin’s gaze was steady, and not for the first time, Chris found himself amazed by the young man sitting beside him. He looked away then, across the expanse of scree and forest before him while several minutes passed.

“You ever wonder about the things that happen to ya Chris? I mean all the stuff - the good and the bad - that they happen fer a reason? And that ya got a choice - well not always about what happens - but about how ya choose t’ deal with things? Fer a long time, I hated Mickey - don’t git me wrong - he’s a nasty piece of work and he deserves t’ rot in jail - but sometimes I stop and think about what woulda become of me if we never met. If I never went that day t’ collect that money and found that baby. I thought I was the only one what had it hard. I thought I was the only one who had a life they didn’t want and no one t’ care whether they lived or died. But seein’ that little thing lyin’ there - it didn’t have no choices about nothin’. At least I had my Ma when I’s little, and when she went I’s old enough t’ look out fer m’self. And I had the knowin’ that she cared about me and it weren’t through no fault of her own that she had to leave. Iffen I hadn’t known Mickey and hadn’t seen what kinda hell his brand ’a livin’ brought, I might ’a never been so determined t’ haul m’ self outta there. And I might never have gone in the army. Or became a sharpshooter. And I might never have got a job on the Team and met you or the guys - all I’m sayin’ is, I guess even the snakes like Mickey serve some purpose in a person’s life.”

Chris took long swallow of cold coffee and cleared his throat.

“Well, Vin, you are right about one thing. I do have to tell Travis about this. But I’m thinking that there are extenuating circumstances and I’ll do everything I can to see that you stay on the team.”

“No, Chris, I ain’t expectin’ any preferential treatment here. I don’t want the fact that ya consider me a friend t’ make ya do anythin’ ya wouldn’t do fer anyone else in the same situation.”

“Vin, you know me better than that. You know that no matter how much I thought of you, I wouldn’t speak up for you - or anyone - unless I thought the circumstances dictated some kind of special consideration. I’ll have to recommend a psych evaluation, and AIDS testing, and drug screening for a certain period of time, but I’d do this for anyone - not just you. You’re a good agent. You’re organized, analytical, logical and sensible. You’ve got an exceptional work ethic, you’re dependable- you’re the best in the bureau at what you do. Your paperwork - well there’s room for improvement there…”

Vin looked up then and a grin flitted across his face.

“You’re a good person Vin,” Chris continued, lowering his voice. “You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, you’ve got a good heart… the others look up to you, you know? Even though you haven’t been with us all that long, they think of you as second in command. But don’t go thinking that entitles you to a pay raise…”

Chris paused then and shot the younger man a sidelong glance. Vin was gazing out across the treetops to the where the jagged line of the mountains sliced the sky.

He would never tell Vin how much his story had affected him. He would never let him know how his heart ached for all the loneliness and hardship the younger man had suffered in his short life. He would never put into words just how much Vin meant to him - there was no need. Vin was a part of him now - just as much as Sarah and Adam had ever been. Travis was a fair man, and while there was always the possibility that he wouldn’t agree with him on this, Chris wasn’t truly worried on this point. Vin really didn’t know what an exceptional person he was. He supposed that was one of the things about Vin that everyone who knew him admired most.

Vin hadn’t noticed, but all the while they had been talking, Peso had been edging closer and closer to their seat among the stones. He was standing off to Vin’s right, slightly behind him, his head angled over the top of the rock that served as Vin’s backrest. Chris knew that Peso wasn’t happy that his master had spent the afternoon ignoring him. He was like an impatient child - he knew there were treats to be had and since it seemed that Vin had forgotten about them, he was going to jog his memory. Chris’s smile widened when he saw the lips peel away and the long yellow teeth reach out to tug at the brim of Vin’s hat. As he slowly withdrew his head, the stampede string tightened around Vin’s neck and the younger man found himself being pulled off balance and rolling to his side. Chris couldn’t hold back the snorts of laughter that escaped when Vin raised his arms to swat away the four - legged menace, only to find Peso’s teeth in his coat, dragging at the pockets in search of the coveted prize. Vin was cursing now, in distinctive Tanner style, full of vitriol and venom, and that set Chris to crying tears of mirth that spilled down his face and clogged his nose and threatened to take his breath away.

And suddenly it came to him. Vin would be all right. And maybe there was some truth to his speculations on the puzzle that was life. Maybe bad things could lead to good conclusions.

Which meant that if Chris ever did have the pleasure of slapping the cuffs on Mickey Wallace, he would have to remember to thank the man before he threw away the key.


April 2005