Written in answer to the December challenge of the Mag7 Challenge list:
The guys all have plans to meet for Christmas, but fate is conspiring against them. You can focus on one or all of the guys, but each of them must be included at some point, and each must have some kind of trouble getting to their Christmas celebration. It can be humorous or serious (or both!). Bonus points if you include fruitcake, eggnog, yule log, snowman, chestnuts, and sleigh bells.
And Tracey: thank you so very much for your beta work again!!!!
He felt the first tingle on his face and brought a hand up to wipe the small cold pinprick away, only to have it followed by a second, a third, a whole group. His mind seemed to waver and he felt confused for a moment. Then the delicate white crystals caught his attention again and he tried to capture some of them in his hand.
Snow, he used to love snow....
Looking up in the sky he smiled. More and more snowflakes were coming down, a curtain of white, changing the grey sky above him from something somber to something birthing beauty.
The cold felt good on his exposed skin, cooling his throbbing head a little. He had the nagging suspicion he'd better pay attention to the situation. There was something he had to remember, he knew there was.
Looking up again at the snow he decided it would come to him. Right now he enjoyed laying here and seeing it snow....
A liquor store in Denver downtown, 6.15 p.m.
"God damn it!" Buck hissed. It earned him a sharp elbow in his side and he gave the young man standing next to him an annoyed look.
"Damn it, JD...!"
"Stop it," JD hissed back at him. "It's Christmas Eve and you're standing there cursing! We're not alone here you know!"
"Yeah, I know, that's precisely the problem! A problem we wouldn't've had if you hadn't forgotten to buy the beer! I can't believe you forgot that!"
"You never mentioned that I should! We always have enough beer, always! And the one time we don't, you forget to put it on the grocery list!"
"'Cause I thought you would be aware of the amount of beer in the house!"
"Why? You're the one who's always drinking it!"
"Yeah, well, we're not all of us milk guzzling puppies, JD. Some of us are real men, with a man's need."
"Buck, you..., you.... I resent that!"
"And I resent standing here in line for who knows how much longer!"
With an angry look Buck took in the enormous line in the only store they had managed to find open. Apparently they weren't the only ones who'd forgotten something. The store might be open, but there was only one employee behind the counter and things were progressing at a snail-like pace that had Buck fuming for almost fifteen minutes now.
"At this rate we'll be the last ones at our Christmas dinner!" he roused against his young roommate. "And that would be a bit embarrassing, don't you think, since we're supposed to host it!"
"Why didn't you do as I said and ask the others to bring some along? Nathan would've had some, Josiah too, and Chris and Vin would've been able to stock us for life!"
"What? The one time we throw a party instead of having it at the ranch or with one of the others, we show we ain't capable of getting our act together? No way in hell, kid!"
"Chris wouldn't've ratted on us."
"I just didn't think it was a good idea to ask Chris right now," Buck said softly.
"Why? He wouldn't mind bringing beer.... Oh!" The youngest agent of ATF Team Seven suddenly looked a bit crestfallen. "Oh, hell, you're still not sure if he'll really come, are you? Buck, he promised he'd be there this time and not... not... you know!"
"Yeah kid, I know," Buck sighed. He knew better than anyone, except maybe Vin Tanner. It was Buck who had been taking care of Chris for years during Christmas and every other significant holiday, ever since the murder of his friend's family. He had been there time and again when his former Denver PD partner had drunk himself in a stupor and he had been the one who came over and made sure the man was safe and still alive after a holiday. Until last Christmas, half a year after Chris had asked him to be a part of a new ATF team he was forming. That Christmas morning he'd come up to the ranch to find the team's sharpshooter, Vin Tanner, already there, cradling their boss in his arms and holding him while Chris cried for his murdered family like only drunk people could cry.
Not that it didn't come any less out of Chris' heart because he needed to be drunk to let go.
Buck sighed. Chris had promised his worried friends he'd come this year, that he would celebrate this holiday with his team after he'd refused to spend any other significant holiday with them. They'd thought they'd made some headway and almost had him attend Thanksgiving dinner, only to have Chris balk at the last moment. In the end, the rest of the team, all six of them, had gone and celebrated at Josiah's instead of at Chris' ranch.
Yep, Buck thought, all six of them. Even Ezra showed up at their celebrations lately. He was the one who had held out the longest after Vin.
It was just that they weren't six, they were seven for crying out loud! A team of seven!
This time though, after days of endless badgering by all of them, lots of wounded looks thrown in his direction by Buck and Vin, and some artful sighing of JD at the right moments, Chris had actually caved in. It was a good thing he hadn't seen the triumph in his teammember's eyes the minute he'd turned his back on them afterwards, or things would have gone wrong again.
Buck fidgeted and ignored the annoyed look JD gave him. He just wanted to be home on time before anyone showed up at their condo. What if Chris came early and they weren't there? He'd turn around and leave, Buck was sure of it. Very sure. After all, it would mean Chris technically had kept his promise.
It hadn't escaped his notice Chris that was balking at his promise to come this evening from the moment he'd let it slip out, but he desperately wanted his long-time friend to be there this year, to celebrate Christmas with the rest of the team.
He just didn't dare hope too much. After all, he knew Chris.
"Buck, only two more before us and it's our turn!"
"Thank God," Buck mumbled, looking at his watch. Barely half an hour left and they still had to cross town back to their apartment! It was going to be tough, but they might make it yet.
Finally it was their turn. Relieved, he and JD dumped the four cases of beer on the counter. Buck gave the young man behind it, who looked rather haggard, an artificial grin. After all, it wasn't this kid's fault things had become so hectic with only him around.
"Four cases," the young man said, sounding exhausted. "That'll be ... Oh, oh no!"
'Oh no' was right, all the lights suddenly went out.
"Now what?" Buck yelled. He looked at the young store clerk in the suddenly very dim illumination coming from the street lights outside.
"Seems obvious to me Buck," JD quipped. "Power's down."
"Hahaha, JD, I'd never have guessed," Buck deadpanned. "Alright, can we pay? I wanna get the hell out of here!"
"I eh... Sir, you... you can't pay. It's an electric cash register, so I can't operate it anymore," the young man said nervously. Buck looming ominously over the counter clearly did not have a good effect on his self esteem, not to mention his sense of self preservation.
"So?" Buck asked, his voice growling. Behind him other people could be heard complaining as well.
"I... I can't help you when the cash register doesn't work," the young man squeaked. "I'm truly sorry, but I'm afraid we'll have to wait until the power is back on. I... I'll phone the store owner right away, it's probably a fuse or something."
"Not until I've paid and can get out of here with this beer. In case you haven't noticed, I've been here for over half an hour now! And I'm in a hurry!" The last was boomed through the entire store.
"Buck!" JD hissed, clearly ashamed as hell to be standing there with Wilmington. "He can't help it!"
"He can calculate, can't he? So all he's gotta do is calculate how much we own him, have us pay and put the damn money in a shoe box for all I care!"
"S... Sir, I can't do that! I have to scan the labels."
"Oh, for crying out loud!"
He heard JD sigh behind him, but he couldn't care less. He was tempted to just pilfer the beer. Damn, it could be a nuisance to be a law enforcer sometimes!
So he settled for glowering at the kid behind the counter and despite the bad light it reached the young man, who involuntarily took a step back.
"I'm sure we can work something out," he almost purred. The boy took another step back, swallowing hard.
+ + + + + + +
He opened his eyes and remembered. Snow, it had started to snow. The snowflakes seemed thicker now and came sailing down quietly, so very quietly.
Rain was never quiet. With rain came noise, all kind of noises, from a soft murmuring to the loud knocking on the barn roof.
That thought made him grin. Actually, he didn't understand where the thought came from.
Opening his mouth he tried to catch some of the snowflakes drifting down so slowly. Nice and soft.
Damn, he was cold! With a groan he tried to get up, only to realize he was stiff, very stiff. And that his head hurt, a lot.
He wasn't going to give up though, he was getting off this cold ground if it was the last thing he did. That made him grin, but only for a second. Moving was too painful.
It made him wonder how long he'd been lying on the cold ground.
Made him wonder how he'd gotten there in the first place.
Oh God, his head!
Finally he was sitting and staring around, trying to get his bearings. At first he could only look with trepidation at the filthy alley he was sitting in. Luckily when he looked out of the alley he saw something familiar right across the street. A bar. A bar he knew very well. A bar where he'd been on many occasions when he had wanted to get drunk fast and if possible in a fight.
Alright then, that explained a lot, he thought. Because he sure as hell couldn't remember anything.
Wouldn't be the first time though, that he'd left that particular place without remembering anything.
It was just that this time he knew there was something he had to remember, something important... something he had promised to do?
Wearily he pulled himself backwards until he could rest his back and head against the wall behind him. He looked at the snow again. It almost made the alley look beautiful.
Standish residence, 6.30 p.m.
"Ezra Standish speaking."
"Ez? That you? Listen, my jeep jist died on me, so I need a lift to Buck 'n JD."
"I beg your pardon? Is this Mister Tanner I am speaking with?"
A deep sigh could be heard on the other end of the phone line and then the unmistakable Texas drawl told Ezra that yes, it was Mister Tanner he had on the line. "And Vin 'll be jist fine, Ez!
"So would Ezra," ATF team seven's undercover agent told his team mate with a hard edge to his voice. "Or Mister Standish, that would do as well."
"Damn Ez, quit being a hard case. I really need that lift!"
"Oh, alright. It means I will have to leave a quarter of an hour sooner then anticipated and I'm already too late for that."
"What'd that mean?"
"It means we will be fashionably late for dinner."
"Oh. So yer comin'?"
Ezra rolled his eyes and stared at the ceiling. "Yes, Mister Tanner, I will come. I do hope you will be ready and waiting downstairs. I have no inclination whatsoever to leave my precious vehicle unsupervised for even one second in the wild environment you choose to live in."
"I'm already there, Ez, kickin' my jeep. Jist hurry up, will ya? It's started ta snow out here and I'm cold!"
"Mister Tanner, you are always cold."
Without bothering to wait for a reply, he hung up, and with a deep sigh grabbed his cashmere coat, his keys and the box of delicacies that would be his contribution to the Christmas celebration at Buck's and JD's apartment.
He shuddered just thinking about the last time he'd been there. Praying Wilmington and Dunne finally had cleaned their pigsty, he hurried out of the door of his tasteful and pristine home, situated in a very luxurious apartment building. A building beyond reproach thanks to very strict rules and regulations and, he was always happy to tell his co-workers, the very high standard of clientele living there.
So it really was no wonder that the lithe cat suddenly running through his legs came as a complete surprise to him, since one of the rules of the building he lived in was a very clear and nonnegotiable 'no pets allowed'.
Being caught completely off guard he couldn't help tripping and with his arms full he found himself unable to guide the way he fell. He ended with the big box of delicacies splattered against the wall and himself flat on his nose.
"Oh, oh, Mister Standish! I am so sorry! Please, let me help you!" A breathless Miss Duncan, the dignified elderly lady from across the hallway, was suddenly at his side in a rather unseemly manner he would never have associated with her, trying to help him up. "That naughty girl, that naughty, naughty girl! I am very sorry Mister Standish. I did try, but she left my apartment before I could stop her! She is actually my sister's and I am taking care of her while my sister is in the hospital. I couldn't just let the poor animal die, now, could I? Or have it put in some dreadful asylum? My, oh my, oh my, Mister Standish, how awful! Your beautiful nose!"
Ezra glared at the woman and the 'beautiful nose' comment only made the glare intensify. His nose hurt dreadfully and he felt something warm and sticky on his face. Gingerly he put a hand to it. Miss Duncan was already waving a very white handkerchief at his face and before he could stop her, she was holding it against his nose, making it only hurt more. She started to carefully dab it around and that was when Ezra saw the bright red on the stark white.
Oh bother, his nose was bleeding!
With horror Ezra saw how blood spatters were adorning his erstwhile immaculate shirt. His horror grew when he saw the sleek cat sit beside the carton box, eating daintily from the delicacies he had purchased for that night's festivities.
This whole affair meant he would have to change his shirt, while he was already late. It would also mean he would have to rely on the junk snacks Buck and JD would have purchased.
It was enough to make him glare again at the small woman beside him. With satisfaction he saw her blanch.
Luckily he still had some bottles of quality wine he could donate to the evening. It would at least assure he had something decent to drink. Sighing morosely, he helped himself to his feet and after having thanked Miss Duncan without any sincerity whatsoever he hastily retreated back into his apartment, to take care of his appearances and his nose.
At least his priceless cashmere coat had been spared.
+ + + + + + +
He blinked his eyes. Had he drifted off again? Looking at the snow flakes falling all around him, he suddenly understood that it wasn't the wisest thing to do, falling asleep out here in the cold.
And he was cold, damn cold! He was shivering.
Trying to keep his throbbing head on his shoulders, he managed to get himself up with the help of the wall behind him. When he was on his feet, he felt himself sway.
A drink might help. He looked at the seedy bar where he'd been so many nights after Sarah and Adam had died. Yep, a drink would be great.
He slipped a little in the fresh snow around his feet and again his attention drifted off to the white beauty around him.
Adam had loved the snow. He had loved making a snowman every time, dragging his father outside as early in the morning as was allowed. He always wanted a carrot for the nose and the same old broom in the snowman's hand.
Shit! A drink would be really, really great!
Hastily Chris dragged the sleeve of his coat over his eyes, wincing when the cold wet material touched him. The cold made him think again.
Drinking usually got him into a mess like this.
He'd better call Buck and ask him to get him, bring him back home. While patting his pockets for his cell phone, he idly wondered how he got here, of all places. He hadn't been to that bar for the longest time. So why was he here now?
Something with Buck... and Vin... and the whole damn team.
He brought a hand to his head and shuddered. God, his head hurt. What had he been doing? Without bothering to look he wiped the warm, sticky stuff he got on his hand off on his pants leg.
Focus! Buck, something with Buck! He'd promised Buck. And he'd promised Vin. Something.
Christmas Eve. That was it, it was Christmas Eve and he'd promised to be at the team's Christmas dinner this year.
Well, he had said he would come and now he understood why he was here. This was the road to Buck's when he came from the office. The only question now was, why wasn't he in his truck driving himself over there?
With a sigh he came to the conclusion his cell phone was nowhere to be found. Neither was his wallet to be honest. Maybe they were still in the Ram? He'd better find the damn thing because he didn't have any car keys on him either, which suggested he'd left the truck unlocked.
He just wished his head didn't hurt so much. Or he felt so sick.
He was not going to throw up!
Leaning his head back he stared up. Then slowly he slithered down the wall until he was sitting again.
Buck was going to be disappointed, he knew. Vin as well. Probably the whole fucking team would feel disappointed in him because he felt like he was far gone, very far gone and they wouldn't like that. He was going to get there though, to the team Christmas dinner. He had promised them.
He just needed to rest a bit first.
Rain Goines' apartment, 6.30 p.m.
"Oh Nathan, why is it so important for you to make a perfect yule log for the team's Christmas dinner?"
"I don't know. It's just... ever since Chris promised to come this time, I felt the urge to share some of my family's traditions with them. Josiah feels the same, that's why he insisted on bringing a real stuffed turkey." Nathan grinned at the beautiful woman beside him and took her in his arms. "Maybe he tries to get Christmas and Thanksgiving mixed, so it feels like a different holiday all together for Chris and it won't remind him of the days with his family so much. I just hope Chris will really come. Vin and Buck had to use every trick in the book to work him over. And we decided to celebrate at Christmas Eve in the hope he wouldn't already have started drinking."
"Are you going to give each other your presents now as well, Nate? I didn't see you bring them."
"Nah, we do that tomorrow morning. Actually, we're gonna spring it on Chris or we think he would balk. Buck and Vin'll make sure Chris stays at Buck's and JD's apartment tonight, so he won't be alone on Christmas morning. Vin's going to stay as well and tomorrow the rest of us come over again. I jist hope it'll all work out." The last sentence was added softly.
Rain smiled up at him and threw her arms around her big, black medic. "You are a tender sole, Nathan Jackson and I love you. Now, about this totally ruined yule log.... Why don't you accept your defeat and think about the reason you wanted to do this? Is that not what's most important? And you know what, I happen to have this really great fruit cake sitting in my cupboard."
"Rain! You was goin' to take that fruit cake with you to your family!"
Rain stood tiptoe and gave him a soft, lingering kiss. "I don't care. There's no one in my family who needs help in making new traditions. You take the fruit cake."
"If yer really sure...."
"Yes Nathan, I am sure!"
"I love you, lady. Very, very much." This time it was Nathan leaning down to take Rain's lips prisoner in a passionate kiss. "I better go then, it's getting' late."
"I'll get the fruit cake," Rain whispered.
Looking after her, Nathan Jackson knew he was a very, very lucky man. Rain didn't even start about the mess he'd made in the kitchen, because she knew how important this Christmas dinner was for him, for the whole team. It was the first break they had in getting Chris away from his solitary drinking through every holiday there was.
He took off the apron that had protected his clothes against his culinary aspirations and shook his head. Why had he ever thought he'd be good at making something as unhealthy as a chocolate yule log? He must have gone insane for a moment. He went into the kitchen to hang the apron back up. Surveying the mess he'd made, he knew he couldn't leave it all to his lover. There wasn't much time, but he could make a head start with the cleaning. After all, Rain had her own obligations tonight. She would be spending Christmas Eve with her family. As always, her evening would traditionally end with the Goines family going to the late Christmas Mass at the church of her parents. Last year he had accompanied her and he had loved the evening. But he had known where he wanted, needed, to be tonight and Rain had known it as well. She never even once complained about it, only smiled at him in full understanding.
Yes, he was extremely lucky!
He turned around when he heard Rain calling out for him, a smile blooming on his face in answer and he totally missed the wet spot on the kitchen floor. The next moment he was flailing wildly with his arms, trying to keep on his feet and failing miserably. The arms did manage to knock the bowl with chocolate frosting off the counter, the one that had been meant for his sadly failed baking aspirations. It ended right on top of him where he had crashed to the ground.
When he blinked his eyes open, an anxious looking Rain was hovering over him. "Ouch," he groaned, getting up and feeling gingerly at his head.
"Nathan, are you alright?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. No, really my love, I'm not lying, I'm completely alright!" That's when he saw the state of his clothing and started to curse fluently, ignoring Rain's indignant stare.
His clothes were everything but alright.
Finally Rain giggled and helped him up, taking precaution to keep her distance at the same time.
"Strip," she ordered sternly when he was up.
"Strip Nathan! You are dripping chocolate and I'm not going to let you leave a trail of the stuff all the way through my house!"
He groaned. "Now what do I do?"
"Strip," Rain told him again. "And then take a good shower, the stuff has splattered all over you, it's even in your hair! Luckily you keep some clothes here, or you would have looked mighty strange on the team's Christmas dinner in one of my dresses!"
"Hahaha, very funny. I'm going to be so late now!" Nathan sighed in resignation, while finally taking off his clothes.
"Not if you hurry. Come on, come on, you're a grown man! You can shower within five minutes, can't you? Just move it!"
He moved, but he still couldn't escape the pat on his behind Rain gave him when he hastened to the shower. Her appreciative whistles followed him all the way. The last thing he heard before stepping into the bathroom was the insistent ringing of the telephone.
+ + + + + + +
He needed to get up, he really needed to get up! He had promised!
Somehow that promise helped him to find the strength and get back on his feet again. Wearily he pushed himself away from the wall he had used for support and stood there for a moment, breathing hard.
Truck. Need to find the truck.
Chris never knew how he made it to the street with his pounding head and churning stomach. He managed though. It wasn't the first time he had felt this lousy and he'd survived it all. If only he could get to the Ram and find his phone.
Once he'd reached the pavement bordering the street, he cautiously looked up.
He managed to look left, then right.
Still no Ram.
No Ram, no phone, no wallet. With a sigh he wiped at whatever it was that was dripping from his forehead into his eyes and again wiped the sticky stuff on his pants leg.
Think, he had to think. God, if only his head didn't hurt so much!
Buck. He needed to get to Buck. He couldn't think very clearly right now, but he did know he needed to get there for the Christmas dinner.
With a sigh he placed one foot before the other, he did it again, and then again. He could do this, he knew. He could get to Buck. It wasn't far after all, he could walk it. If only his head didn't hurt so much, or his side. Shit, why would his side hurt? What had he been doing? Why didn't he remember?
He stumbled to the wall of the nearest building and put one hand against it to steady himself while he was violently ill.
Right, that should make him feel better, it always did.
Not now though.
Buck, get to Buck. Buck and JD live close by, get to Buck.
Pressing his left arm against his side and trying to keep his eyes focused, Chris started walking on unsteady feet.
Buck and JD's appartment, 7.00 p.m.
"See? Where there's a will, there's a way," Buck grinned, hurrying into the apartment building they lived in. "How late is it?"
"Three minutes before seven," JD sighed. Buck had been going on about the store, the power loss and the time all the way back home. They had been able to get out of the store relatively fast, after Buck had convinced with his glares and threatening posture that yes, they could leave the money and the labels on the cases for the clerk to scan later on. The young man had been too frightened to say no and JD had only rolled his eyes. He did notice Buck had put down way too much money before the frightened clerk.
At least they'd gotten out of there with the beer and with still a chance to get back home on time.
"I hope no one has arrived yet," Buck told him, hurrying over to the elevator. JD didn't care, he was glad he had made it home at all. A home he had feared at some moments in the last twenty minutes he would never see again. He still felt his heart bump in his throat from the wild ride. Buck must have broken every traffic rule in existence to get them back here in record time.
When they reached their apartment no one was waiting at the door yet. It seemed they were going to luck out and everything would be fine after all.
That was until Buck started searching for his keys. It took long, it took way too long. JD was getting a sinking feeling in his stomach.
"Eh, JD?" Buck finally asked. "Did you bring your keys?"
"No, I thought you brought yours."
"Seems I didn't."
"Buck, quit fooling around! You had your car keys!"
"My car keys, yeah! But you know I keep them separate from my other keys! I hate having a whole collection of keys hanging under my steering wheel!"
The two friends looked at each other morosely and then JD couldn't help himself. He started to giggle.
The giggle became a full bloom laugh and finally he had to sit down on one of the cases of beer. "We... we sure know how to throw an official dinner, don't we Buck?"
Buck scowled at him. "You can laugh all you want, JD. But now what? We ain't like Chris, we didn't give all the team members a key!"
"Yeah, 'cause you didn't want to! You were afraid they might try and sneak up on you and one of your lady friends! As if they'd ever need a key if they wanted to do that. All they have to do is get Ezra along."
Buck sighed and took place on one of the other cases. "I never forget my keys," he said morosely. "Never! It's just...."
It's just that you're so worried about Chris and if he will come, JD thought to himself. He didn't say anything though, he understood Buck's worry. Hell, he felt it himself.
"I'll call Ezra and ask him to hurry up," he told Buck. "Don't worry Buck, it'll be alright, you'll see. This year it'll be alright. He promised to come."
Purgatory, 7.00 p.m.
"Damn, Ez! It's about time you came! I'm freezin' out here!"
"Really, Mister Tanner? Eh, it is you, isn't it, under all those layers of clothing? Are those your eyes peeking out of that ski mask? My oh my, which bank should I better prepare for your coming?"
"Very funny, Ez. And if I go rob a bank, I'll take you with me. One look at yer nose and they'll be too frightened to resist. What have you been doin'?" A concerned look could be seen peeking out of the ski mask.
"Nothing, nothing. Merely a slight altercation with a small feline."
"That'll teach ya to pick a quarrel with a woman," Vin grinned, once he was sure Ezra really was alright except for the nose that seemed twice its original size. "Maybe we should go to the hospital first, see if it ain't broke."
"To the hospital? On Christmas Eve?" Ezra almost squeaked. "Mister Tanner, please! I am sure that if anything turns out to be amiss Mister Jackson will be able to handle it!"
"You really sure? Oh, alright then! Now, open up that good fer nothing trunk of yours and let's hurry, we're late. I think even that little trunk is big enough fer my stuff."
"Stuff? Vin, what on earth are you taking with you? The weekend bag I understand since you are putting your health in jeopardy by staying overnight in the Wilmington-Dunne pigsty, but what is it with the two boxes?"
"That's my Christmas presents to y' all, Ez. For putting under the Christmas tree."
"Ya did bring yours, didn't ya?"
"Eh... as a matter of fact, I eh.... Were we supposed to bring them now and not tomorrow?"
"We were puttin' 'm up already, jist ta give the room more of a Christmas feel, 'member?"
"Vaguely," Ezra murmured. "I do fear I left them at my own home, thinking to bring them over tomorrow morning. I had been under the impression we would surprise Mister Larabee with the exchanging of gifts tomorrow in the morning and keep it a secret."
Vin started to grin. It took a full second and then Ezra threw him a dirty look. "Hahaha, Mister Tanner. Your sense of humor never fails to surprise me."
"Why, thanks Ez!"
"It wasn't meant as a compliment, Vin."
Vin's grin only grew. "You finally gonna open that nuisance ya call a trunk?" he asked. "Damn, I hope Chris hasn't arrived yet, 'cause he shouldn't see this, it'll spoil the surprise fer tomorrow. Once we're there I better phone up to Buck to see if he's in."
"We will probably have no difficulties locating his black Ram in the parking lot."
"Oh, yeah, prob'ly not. Here, give me a hand, this one's heavy."
"Me? Give you a hand? That box has become soaked and filthy in this awful snow, Vin."
"In case you haven't noticed, this is a coat of genuine cashmere wool and you do not want to know how much it cost! Regardless, this coat is priceless and I will not risk damaging it in any way."
"What good's a coat if ya can't do anythin' while yer wearin' it?" Vin muttered. "So, take it off," he stated.
"Ah, I am just as reluctant to put the superior Armani suit I am wearing underneath it into any danger. Besides, the declining temperature really is not in favor of said action."
"Oh, stuff it then! I'll do it by myself or we'll never get to Buck 'n JD!"
While Vin grumbled putting the heavy second box into the trunk of Ezra's Jag, Ezra's phone rang. Frowning Ezra took it out and looked at the number display. JD? Why would JD be calling him now, this close to dinner? He wasn't worried about them just a few minutes past seven, was he? That would be stretching it a bit far.
"Ez? That you? Listen, are you already on your way here?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"In a what? What's that supposed to mean? Are you or not, 'cause we really need ya here soon, the sooner the better. See, we eh... we sort of locked ourselves out of the apartment."
"Sort of locked yourselves out? Mister Dunne, how did you manage to do that?"
"By placing the keys at one side of the door and me 'n Buck at the other side. How else? Damn Ezra, ya gotta get over here fast!"
"And be seduced to a breaking and entering? Mister Dunne, I am shocked!" Ezra smirked. Suddenly another voice boomed through the receiver. Buck, and he was not amused.
"Now ain't the time to get all smart mouthed Ez, just get over here now!"
"Mister Wilmington...." Ezra stared at the phone in annoyance. The lout had had the audacity to hang up on him! Even when Buck needed him, he displayed a total lack of tact that at times could rival their boss.
"So, what was that all about?"
"It seems we are wanted post haste at the horrible place Mister Wilmington and Mister Dunne call home. It seems the two have locked themselves out."
Vin choked. "They what?"
Ezra didn't bother to answer. With a deep sigh and the feeling he could be in for a long, long evening he hurried over to the driver's side of the Jag, waving Vin imperiously in the direction of the passenger seat door. Vin in the mean time lost the inner struggle and was holding his side laughing.
Yes, a very, very long evening.
+ + + + + + +
Sleigh bells? How the hell could he be hearing sleigh bells?
Putting his right hand at the nearest wall, Chris stood quietly for a moment, leaning on it. He held his left arm against his side and closed his eyes for a moment. His headache had gotten even worse and he felt sick with every step.
And every step was harder then the last one, it seemed.
Shit, shit, shit, why had he ever promised to come to that stupid dinner? He could've been on the ranch and half way to oblivion by now. Instead he was trying to find his way through the snow. Looking up at the sky he had to blink a few times to keep the snow flakes out of his eyes. When he looked around he knew for sure he was lost.
How could that happen? He knew exactly how to get from that bar to Buck's! It was just that the snow made it all look so... different. Beautiful and serene.
With Sarah he would have been standing before the big double windows in his den on this evening of evenings, gazing outside at the white world, waiting to be sure Adam was asleep so they could get out for a short walk in the white, moonlit world.
This time when he drew his sleeve over his eyes it wasn't to get rid of the sticky stuff that he just couldn't get wiped off. He staggered for a moment without the support of the wall.
No time for this, he had to find out where he was. Find a street sign or something.
There it was again, sleigh bells. Like they'd had for Max, Adam's small pony. Chris had made a sleigh for the sturdy little animal and his small boss, and Sarah had made sure the reins had sleigh bells. Adam had loved it. He would sit next to Sarah, beaming when he was allowed to hold the rein and Chris would ride along on Pony.
Shit! Hastily he drew his sleeve over his eyes again.
The sound came from the left, accompanied now by children's laughter and since he didn't know which way to turn, he decided to go and see if he'd gone completely insane. After traversing the street he came to a road bordering a park. A family was there, playing in the snow. On the grass of the park was enough snow for the father to pull a sleigh with two small children over it. A woman ran alongside, laughing with the children. Sleigh bells were attached to the front of the sleigh and the kids squealed with delight whenever they jingled.
Chris leaned back against yet another wall, looking on. Slowly he slithered down. The good news was that he now knew where he was, the bad news that he still had to walk more streets than he thought he was capable off right now.
He really needed to rest for a moment.
God, he could do with a drink, he thought, when he closed his eyes for the family fun in front of him and to keep the tears at bay. He tried to close his ears to the sounds as well and felt himself drifting off.
Sanchez mansion, 7.15 p.m.
"There, that better?"
Josiah Sanchez looked at his bandaged hand with a sheepish smile. "Much better," he assured his friend. "Much, much better." When he tried to flex the fingers, a grimace of pain could be seen on his face for a moment.
Nathan shook his head. The stubbornness of his friends when it came to medical treatment was bordering on the legendary and he'd had many sympathetic looks from colleagues, ATF agents and medics alike. From the hospital staff at Denver Memorial Hospital as well, come to think of it.
"We better hurry then. And I'll carry the turkey."
"No, I don't wanna hear it! I carry the damn thing! Did ya really need ta make it such a big one?"
"The boys all have a huge appetite."
"Some of them have," Nathan agreed with a sigh, thinking about Vin and JD. Others could use a better one, that was for sure. Well, one other anyway. He sighed again, thinking of Chris.
"Nathan, you alright?"
"Yeah, jist thinkin'. Right, seems we're all set to go then. I better call Buck and tell 'm we're late 'fore they think we're shot or kidnapped or somethin'." He whipped out his cell phone and soon had Buck on the line.
"Buck? Nate here. Guess y' already noticed J'siah and me are gonna be a bit late. Nah, nothin' too serious, jist that J'siah got into a fight with the oven and the oven won. Nope, it didn't damage the turkey, that's okay. Glad ta know you keep yer eyes on the important things here. But we're on our way now. Oh, alright."
He was frowning when he disconnected and put his cell away.
"Something wrong?" Josiah asked mildly.
"Nah, don't think so. Jist that Buck told us we could take our time, 'cause we couldn't get in until Ezra got there anyway and everyone was getting' late so 's it was no big deal."
"Yeah, but I heard JD yell somethin' 'bout it don't matter 'cause they had the beer."
Josiah chuckled. "It seems to me there is a tale waiting on us. Come on, let's go." He made a grab for the box holding the enormous stuffed turkey, all wrapped up in tin foil. Nathan was prepared for that though and beat him to it.
"Will you give that hand a rest? Damn it, J'siah, it's burned!"
"Don't blaspheme on Christmas Eve, brother."
Nathan smiled a bit ruefully. "I know, sorry J'siah. But you all would wear down the patience of a Saint with yer stubbornness!"
"I guess we do at that. So I'm sorry too. Now, let's go and see what is happening with Buck and JD."
Nathan snorted. He didn't believe for one minute Josiah was sorry. In fact he was pretty sure Josiah would be just as stubborn the next time he was hurt. Refraining from commenting he followed his friend outside. They had a dinner to get to.
Buck's and JD's apartment, 7.20 p.m.
"Wait 'fore we go up! I don't see the Ram, but I better be sure."
Ezra only shook his head while Vin speed dialed for Buck's number. "Hey Buck, Vin here. I'm at the parking lot and wanted to know if Chris was already there. Ya know, on account of the presents I got with me. No? Great, I'll bring them up fast. Yeah, I know you're locked out of the apartment, but don't worry, I'm bringing the answer to all yer problems with me as well."
Grinning he put his cell phone away and jumped out of the car.
"Open up, Ez and this time yer helpin', you got that?"
"Mister Tanner, I assure you...."
The smaller of the two boxes was already pushed into his outspread hands and the small weekend bag ended on top.
"Vin, stop this! I still have to lock the Jag as well!"
Vin took out the bigger, heavy box and put it in the snow, closed the trunk of the Jag with such a loud bang it made Ezra cringe and grabbed for the car key still dangling from Ezra's fingertips. After pushing the remote control button, he put the key in one of Ezra's pockets and lifted the box with a groan.
"Let's jist hurry. This ain't getting' any lighter ya know."
When they stepped out of the elevator the two ATF agents were greeted by a crude "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way," rendered by two mismatched voices. They looked at each other wearily and hastened towards Buck's and JD's apartment. As sure as it was snowing outside the singing got louder the closer they came, until they were greeted by the sight of their two team mates before their door, each sitting on a case of beer and waving a beer bottle through the air, while singing their heart out. A few empty beer bottles were rolling around.
"Aw hell, you two started the party without us!" Vin told them reproachfully.
"It was s'posed to start almost half an hour ago! Here, take a beer. It ain't cooled, but it's still beer."
"Gee, thanks Buck," Vin grumbled, putting down the heavy box. "But maybe we'd better take this indoors." He had noticed some angry faces peeking out of doors on his way over.
"Yeah. Hi Ez! Vin told me he'd brought the answer to our problem. You into carryin' now? And what's with the nose? It's all puffy and red. Hey JD, Ez has come as Rudolf the Reindeer!" He and JD both collapsed in helpless laughter, while Vin tried to keep a straight face. There were some delicate items in his box after all.
Scowling Ezra put down the box with bag and without any further comment stepped up to the apartment door, taking something out of his wallet. A moment later he had something stuck into the door lock.
"So where's everyone else?" Vin asked, accepting the beer and opening it with his teeth.
"Nathan called to say that he and Josiah are going to be a bit late. Seems Josiah had some kind of accident."
"Nah, Nate said he had fought with the oven," Buck said. JD grinned, taking another sip and making a face. He wasn't as much of a fan as the other team members and occasionally was teased with that mercilessly.
"Oven? So no turkey?"
"He said the turkey was fine," Buck assured him. He didn't look too happy though, Vin thought. He couldn't blame the man, things weren't getting off on a great start, that was for sure.
"So, what are you two doin' here? Looks like ya had ta dash fer some beer."
"Yeah, kid forgot to buy it."
"I forgot to buy it? You didn't put it on my list and you didn't bring it either!"
"You were handling the liquor, peanuts and that kind of stuff!"
"You made the grocery lists!"
"It's your fault!"
"No, it's not! 'Sides, I didn't forget my keys!"
"Really? So you've had them with you all this time?"
"You know what I mean! You were driving, so you're supposed to bring the keys!"
"Since when is that a law?"
Some doors started to open again, showing neighbors who this time added their voices to the yelling, mainly to tell Buck and JD to shut up. They clearly had had enough of the two ATF agents. To Vin's utter relief one of the doors that opened was the one right behind Buck and JD.
"Gentlemen, shall we take this inside?" Ezra asked almost mildly, while taking Vin's weekend bag before walking into the apartment, leaving the rest for the others to carry.
"Good idea," Vin agreed, giving his bottle back to Buck and getting the heavy box. "JD, I'll load this up in your room, alright?"
"Eh... yeah, sure Vin, that's alright." The young man looked a bit confused for a moment, pulled out of his argument with Buck all of a sudden. He glowered at Buck before taking up one of his cases of beer, Buck glared right back and both followed Ezra inside. Vin hurried up to JD's room and then back for his last box, worried that right at this moment Chris would get off the elevator and see it standing in the hall.
"Couldn't one of you guys have taken this first?" he asked a bit irritated. "The idea was to keep it a secret from Chris."
"Sure, sure, like Chris'll come," Buck muttered sourly, stowing beer bottles into the enormous fridge bought for just that purpose.
"He promised, Buck! He phoned or anything?"
"Nah, he just ain't here." Without looking up or offering any other comment Buck kept putting the beer away.
"He promised," Vin said again and with a glare he took his second box to JD's bedroom. Chris had promised, so he'd be here. It was as simple as that to him. He didn't care how much longer Buck had been in Larabee's life, he knew Chris.
+ + + + + + +
It was difficult to open his eyes. His head hurt like hell and he was shivering so hard his teeth chattered. He had to open them though, he had to get out of there. Even with his brain all scrambled up and gone to mush he knew that.
While he wrapped his arms around himself to try and get a bit warmer, he cautiously looked around, trying to determine where he was and why.
He saw a young couple walking up, but as soon as they spotted him they hastily crossed the street. They weren't the only ones and for some reason it hurt to see it.
All the more reason to get out of here, out of the cold. Why in heaven's name was he sitting here in the snow anyway?
Using the wall behind him for support he managed to get up. Moving brought him a whole new pain, he discovered. His left side was burning like hell, getting worse and worse until, when he was finally standing, he was so nauseas he couldn't keep the bile in and was violently ill.
"Stupid drunk," he heard someone say behind him. He didn't react, he was staring at the ground where he'd been sitting. The snow had melted there, soaking his pants, but what drew his attention was the reddish brown spot he was seeing.
And the tiny splashes of red dripping down on the snow from somewhere.
He couldn't get his mind around it, he couldn't get his mind around anything anymore, except that he was so cold it hurt almost as badly as his head and his side.
Only one thing was still clear to him. Buck, he needed to get to Buck, he was expected at Buck's and JD's home.
Looking around him he realized he needed to go two more blocks.
It seemed like a world away.
Buck's and JD's apartment, 7.40 p.m.
"Damn, that's one big turkey, Josiah! How ever do you expect us to get it warmed up again? That's never gonna fit in our oven!"
"We will find a way, brother," Josiah smiled at Buck. "I take it we're the last ones to arrive. I am very sorry for that, especially since we had the main course."
"Ya got hurt J'siah, no one's gonna hold that against ya. 'Sides, Chris ain't here yet either," Vin told him. "Now, are we gonna hear what you been doin' to that hand? What's with the battle with an oven?"
"I will gladly tell you, but first I had better see to warming up the turkey. Any reason why Chris isn't here yet?"
"Nah, he didn't call. I'm guessing the snow's a problem, so I'm gonna give him another fifteen minutes 'fore I call 'im."
Josiah saw Buck look away and march off to the kitchen area after Vin's words. It seemed the ladies man didn't have Vin's confidence in Chris making an appearance and he didn't look happy about it. Nathan was already on his way to the kitchen as well and he hurried after them. The turkey first, plenty of time to worry afterwards.
It hurt, but they had to decide to cut the turkey in two. While they ate the first half, the second half would warm up. Rewrapping the first part in tin foil to keep the stuffing in, it was soon resting in the oven. The three men looked at it with some satisfaction and then they joined the others in the sitting area, towing some more beer along.
There they were greeted with the sight of an undercover agent sporting a nose that seemed twice as big as usual and was definitely more red then normal.
"It seems I wasn't the only one hurt," Josiah said to Vin and JD, while Nathan immediately made a beeline for the hapless man, scolding all the way.
Some heartfelt Aaah's and ouch's from Standish and muttered curses from Jackson later, Ezra's nose had become even bigger, stuffed as the two holes were with some cotton. He didn't need the hospital though, since Nathan declared the nose not broken. The excitement over, beer in plenty on the coffee table around a single glass of red wine and Vin's cell phone back in his pocket, everyone had finally settled down to outwait the warming up of the first half of the turkey.
All eyes went expectantly to Josiah.
This opportunity was too good, he decided and stifling a grin he immediately launched in a boringly detailed description of how he'd made the turkey.
His friends groaned and rolled their eyes, until it was JD who yelled, "Come on, Josiah, stop it! Just tell us about what happened to your hand!"
Josiah grinned at the youngest member of their team and shook his head. "Oh, the impatience of youth! I'm coming there, JD, I'm coming there. Now, as I was saying, I had finally managed to get the stuffing into the turkey and was holding it all together while wrapping it with string, when I realized I had forgotten something very important. I hadn't put salt on the bird yet! So there was my dilemma, get the stuffing out and do it properly or leave it in, finish the wrapping up and then put salt on it..."
Pillows and some other not so nice things flew at him, impossible to duck them all. Everyone was yelling now and telling him to stuff it and get to the point. Hiding his grin he managed a very put on expression on his face and glared at them all.
"Do you want to hear this or not?"
"Alright, alright!" No way he could stay serious anymore. Laughing he told them. "It was when I had taken the turkey out and wanted to close the oven again. I slipped and put my hand out, very stupid. I grabbed for the oven. I can tell you, the yells could be heard through the entire street!"
"That sounds real painful!"
"Yeah, it was, but Nathan had some excellent stuff for it, luckily."
"I'm just glad you didn't burn it worse," Nathan said reproachfully. "You should never have slipped in the kitchen. Always keep a kitchen floor clean, so it's safe to work there! Kitchens are dangerous places to be if you are not careful and a lot of accidents happen in them."
"You're absolutely right, Nathan. So, why were you taking a shower when I called you and Rain picked up instead?"
Nathan suddenly seemed a bit flustered and hastily mumbled something about having to clean up a bit for the party. Everyone's attention immediately shifted from Josiah to the medic.
"Nathan?" Four very insistent men were clearly not going to leave this be, just as Josiah had counted on. Seeing everyone having fun made it worth to have Nathan a bit embarrassed, the profiler decided. Especially after that little lecture! Nope, he didn't have any regrets bringing it up. The murderous look his friend sent him only made him grin even more.
"Oh, alright," Nathan finally gritted out. "If you must know I slipped and when I tried to stop my fall I accidentally knocked over a bowl with chocolate frosting. It got all over me."
"A bowl of chocolate frosting?"
"Ouch, was that made by Rain? Wasn't she mad?"
"How come you slipped anyway?"
"Yer not gonna let it go, are ya?" Nathan asked accusingly. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I slipped in the kitchen! There, are you satisfied now, Josiah? And I made the frosting myself for a chocolate yule log, only it turned out as something completely unrecognizable. Now you know about my great adventures in the kitchen today. By the way, you can all thank Rain for the fruit cake."
"A chocolate yule log," JD said wistfully. "My mum used to make one too. That would've been great, Nathan."
"I remember yule logs as well," Buck said, standing up suddenly and walking over to the window. "I remember the real ones at the Larabee ranch at Christmas Eve. God, the surprise on Chris' face when Sarah mentioned them for the first time, when they were just married and were going to have their first Christmas together. We both weren't really familiar with the tradition of it, but it was a tradition Sarah loved and Chris was determined to go through with it for her. So about two weeks before Christmas, Chris hauled me into the woods to chop this enormous log and get it home. Damn, the thing was heavy! We hid it in the barn so it could dry and when it was Christmas Eve we brought it to the house. I could've told Chris it was way too big to fit in the fireplace, but you know Chris. Some things he just needs to see for himself. We ended with dragging it outside again and chopping it in half, and then it fit. It was hell to get it to burn, but we managed and when it was burning, Sarah was fairly glowing! She said its fire would protect the house in the coming year and we needed to keep the cinders to get the one from next year burning. That made us groan," he grinned. "And then we roasted chestnuts and drank eggnog. I hated the stuff before, but Sarah could make a damn mean eggnog! When Adam was born we still did it, every year, find us a big log, lit it with the cinders of the year before and roast chestnuts. Adam loved roasting chestnuts." A small, soft laugh escaped him. "The eggnog was banned though!"
The grin disappeared again and suddenly Buck was off to the kitchen, not looking at anyone.
Josiah sighed. He hoped Chris would come soon, the tension was back into the air and no one was laughing anymore. Like the others he was looking at Vin, who once again tried to call Chris.
"Still nothing?" he asked, worried when Vin shook his head.
"Nah, not on his cell and not at the ranch. I don't like it."
"Would something be wrong?"
"Yes, something is wrong," Buck said behind him. He had come back, holding a tray with turkey in his hands. "He's probably loaded and living in the past right now. He won't answer his phone Vin, you know that, don't you?"
"No, I don't," Vin said belligerently. "He promised...."
"Yeah, well, seems the past is stronger than a promise in the present." There was a look of pain in Buck's eyes and Josiah had to refrain from shaking his head. What Buck had told them had brought home to him how much Chris had lost. Secretly he agreed with Buck, it seemed Chris didn't want to let go of the past. But then, in a way neither did Buck. He knew that despite the man's show of fun and camaraderie, Buck still missed Chris' family almost as much as Chris did. It linked the men and sometimes Josiah wondered if that was a good thing.
Buck cleared his throat stopped his musings and brought himself back to the here and now. "This turkey is hot again and I've put the second part in, so let's eat before the whole dinner is a mess."
"Buck, shouldn't we wait until...."
"No, we don't wait JD. Go get the rest of the food. The time we set was seven and now it's almost eight! If he wanted to come, he'd be here by now."
They all looked at each other and had to agree. Only Vin had a stubborn look on his face. When they all stood up to go to the dining table Buck and JD had made ready before they went on their beer hunt, JD and Vin didn't follow. JD because he went to the kitchen area, Vin because he went to get his coat.
"Damn it Vin, you just gonna up and leave now?" Buck yelled angrily. "You think we didn't slave at getting this great meal on the table? And how about Josiah and all the work he put into this turkey? You don't think that deserves some merit?"
"I'm going to find Chris," Vin said softly, just as angry. "Something's wrong!"
"Yeah, there is and we all know what. He don't want you there, Vin. And I think that before you go and try and get him out of that damn bottle, you could do the rest of us who did come the courtesy to share this meal."
Vin's eyes lashed on Buck's and for a second Josiah was afraid the man would explode. But then Vin seemed to see the same thing Josiah saw in Buck's eyes. Pain. A deep, old hurt. The sharpshooter nodded and put his coat down.
"You're right, Buck. Let's eat first. Chris might still be stuck in the snow somewhere and be banging on yer door in no time."
Subdued they all took place at the table, while Nathan went to help JD with bringing in the last dishes. It was a rich meal that awaited them, but no one seemed very happy.
With a sigh Josiah stood up and looked around at his friends.
"Things will work out," he told them softly. "Come, let's say a prayer and let's especially think about our wayward brother while we do. May his soul one day find peace."
Everyone nodded and closed their eyes above folded hands. Only Vin gave him a rebellious look before bowing his head. A look that told Josiah as clearly as words that Vin wouldn't wait long before he'd leave to find Chris.
+ + + + + + +
One foot before the other, again and again and again.... And again....
He stumbled and fell down on hands and knees.
Again as well.
Only this time he didn't know if he would be able to get up. Damned if he wasn't going to try though.
Ever since he'd seen the bright red splatters falling on the snow there had been an urgency inside him to try and get to Buck's and JD's apartment as fast as he could. Not that it had been going very fast, damn, he felt like his legs were made of rubber or something. He was going to try again now, he had to. He had promised to be there tonight.
Clenching his teeth and closing his eyes against the dizziness he knew would await him he shoved himself up. Grabbing for the wall beside him - he'd soon found out he needed walls nearby to help keep him up - he managed to get one foot on the ground. His right foot, because it hurt too much to try and get up with his left.
It was enough to make him want to lay down and stay down.
Fuck, Larabee, you promised, so just do it!
When he was finally standing, leaning against the wall beside him, for the life of him he couldn't recall how he'd managed. It didn't matter, he was back on his feet for now, so he could get a little closer to his ultimate goal, his friends.
He had been giving himself little goals to get further and further. From this wall to that street lantern, from the lantern to that portal over there, from the portal to yet another street lantern....
Now his goal was a low brick fence. He could sit for a while on that brick fence. Yes, that would be nice.
Stumbling, his left arm pressed against his side again, his right hand fumbling with the buttons of his heavy coat, he managed to get there in what he felt was a nice speed.
Damn, those pesky buttons! Sitting down heavily he took his left arm from his side so he could open his coat with two hands. He couldn't believe he'd been cold earlier, man, he was hot now!
He lifted his head to the snowflakes that were still ghosting down, welcoming the cool feel of them on his face. Then he looked up to where he had to go.
At the other side of the street, behind a parking lot, he could just make out the entrance to the apartment building he needed to go to and he knew he was in trouble. He just knew he was at the end of his strength and unable to make it there.
He closed his eyes in despair, not knowing what to do. He had tried to stop someone for help earlier, but there had only been a few people he'd seen, some looking at him with disgust, others with fear before they took a wide berth around him. For a while now the streets had been quiet, eerily quiet and devoid of life, except for an occasional car he just didn't have the speed or strength to stop. It was Christmas Eve, people were inside or hurrying to the place where they wanted to be, to celebrate or maybe reflect.
It probably was dinner time as well, but he didn't know. His watch was gone too.
Didn't that mean he was mugged? Only he had the feeling that wasn't quite it. Perhaps later, but not... not at first. He didn't think it was why he'd ended up in the alley.
He kept seeing two very young, frightened faces. Teens, a black boy and a white girl. And dark silhouettes all around, menacing, frightening.
Oh hell, he just didn't know.
"Mister? Hey, Mister, please?"
It took an effort almost beyond his strength to open his eyes, but he did it at last. Beside him stood a young man, early twenties probably. He was shivering in a too thin coat and stamping his feet to try and get a little warmer. Why wasn't he inside?
"Mister, please, it's Christmas Eve, could you please spare me some money? I'm cold and I would really love to be indoors now. Please?"
Chris frowned. Why didn't the young man go home?
"Please, Mister? I got no place to stay and with some money I could go to a pub or something, anything that's open this night. It's just too cold to stay out here."
Something connected in Chris' head. He started to take off his heavy coat. The young man was already turning away, a look of hopelessness in his eyes that tore at Chris. Finally he got the damn thing off and managed to croak at the bent back in front of him "Here."
The kid turned, looked at him and then at the offered coat incredulously.
"Sir? Wouldn't you get cold yourself? Really, some money would be alright."
"Ain't... ain't got any. And ain't cold. Here."
The young man continued to stare in disbelief and Chris didn't have the patience or energy to wait. So he tossed the coat over the low fence he was sitting on and managed to struggle to his feet. Clamping his left arm against his side once more he started to limp towards his destination. He would be damned if he gave up while being so close. He preferred to collapse while trying.
He had managed to reach the edge of the pavement and was about to forget about cars and such and just go for it, when he heard footsteps coming up behind him.
Footsteps.... Behind.... And pain flaring through his head....
NO! Not again! Hastily he turned around, his right hand already up to try and stop an attack.
There were no attackers in front of him, only the startled face of the young man. He had put Chris' black coat on over his own thin one and seemed a bit lost in it. Chris sighed in relief and then he felt himself fall.
He never reached the hard pavement, hands were suddenly holding him.
"You're... you're hurt!" the kid called out, his arms around Chris. "O man, you need to go to the hospital, you're bleeding!" One arm stayed around his middle, the other grabbed his own right arm and pulled it around bony shoulders. Then the young man was trying to get him back towards the brick wall.
He managed to pull back a little and nod in the direction of the apartment building. "There," he whispered. "Need to go... there."
"You know someone there?"
"Alright. I better help you."
His arm was taken more forcefully over the bony shoulders, the grip around his middle tightened, eliciting a moan from deep within himself and vaguely Chris felt himself being dragged towards where he needed to go.
Soon all became hazy, but he knew he was going to do it, he was going to fulfill his promise after all. He was finally going to be with his friends.
It made his heart lighter and the pain a lot better to bear.
Buck's and JD's apartment, 8.30 p.m.
"Vin? Why don't you eat? Are you feelin' alright?" Nathan asked, worried. Vin looked up from his plate into the medic's kind, brown eyes and sighed.
"Yeah Vin, you ain't saying anything either," JD added.
Vin knew, but damn it, he wasn't hungry and he sure wasn't in the mood to keep a conversation going at all costs like the others were doing. Talking about anything they could think of because they were uncomfortable with silences. Stupid, all of it!
Chris never minded silences, he was the first person Vin had met who didn't fear them. Most people avoided silences like the plague, but not Chris.
Angrily he shoved his plate away and stood up. This charade had been going on long enough. He wasn't going to let Buck's anger and sadness and the disappointment of everyone else interfere for another minute with what he'd known he'd had to do half an hour ago, when he still couldn't reach Chris on the telephone. Something was wrong! Chris had promised to come and only disaster could have stopped him.
"What good do you think you can do, Vin?" Buck asked. "Hold his hand while he's passed out on the booze? By the time you get to the ranch he probably will be, you know. He can make pretty quick work of it on days like these."
Vin just shrugged and stalked away. He didn't care about what Buck thought he knew because of the past he shared with Chris. Vin knew Chris now. Yanking his coat from the hat-rack he went to the door and opened it. A hand grabbed his shoulder, stopping him from stepping outside.
"Damn it, Vin. Don't you realize this has got to stop?" Buck asked, an intense look on his face. "Don't you understand I've tried everything I could think off to get Chris to stop? I... I really thought that this year would be different, but you know what? It will never be different, 'cause I guess Chris don't want it to be different. I understand he still mourns because what they had, what he, Sarah and Adam had was...."
There were tears in Buck's eyes now, which made Vin feel very uncomfortable. Then Buck shook his head and said softly, "I can't do it anymore. If you think you can, you're welcome. But I'm warning you, on Christmas Eve itself you don't wanna mess with him."
"I ain't gonna mess with nothing, I'm jist gonna find him, find out what happened to him."
"We know what happened to him!"
"No Buck, you think you know but me, I ain't so sure." Pulling himself out of Buck's grip he turned and walked away towards the elevator. Soon he was hurrying, cursing the time he had lost by listening to others. He heard the elevator chime and he sprinted the last part, not wanting to miss it.
The door opened, but no one came out. It was already closing when Vin reached it. Cursing he grabbed the door before it could close completely, but before he could get in another hand grabbed the door as well. Looking back he saw the grim face of Buck.
"What ya doin' here?"
"Coming with you," Buck said. "Damn the man, but I can't leave him on his own, I just can't! JD'll take care of the others and I promised we'll call them."
"Good, two pairs of eyes see more then one," Vin told him, stepping inside the elevator car, glaring at Buck. Buck followed him, glaring back and stating, "Ain't much to see when someone's trying to drink himself to death!" Deciding that talking to Buck about this was pointless Vin turned away with a snort and then he froze.
In the far corner of the elevator a figure was sitting hunched over on the floor. A figure dressed all in black, with a tuft of golden blond hair above it.
"Chris?" he asked, incredulous.
The head rose up and dull, green eyes looked at him. Then they widened. "V... Vin? Am I th... there?"
"God, Chris!" Immediately he was at his best friend's side, putting his hand on a black clad shoulder. "Damn, you're all wet!"
"Wet? I... I know. Been walking th... through the snow. Truck's g... gone."
"Yer truck is gone? Chris, what happened?"
"D... don't know. Woke up in the alley c... cross Digger's Den."
" Oh fuck, Chris, don't tell me y' ended up at that bar! You always get into fights there!" Buck exclaimed angrily. "Is that where you got that head wound?" He was punching the elevator buttons to try and get them up again, but the stubborn thing first brought them all the way down before going up once more.
"W... wound?" Chris mumbled. He wiped at the blood on his forehead with his right hand. "Still sticky," he said softly. "C... can't get it off."
"Why didn't you call one of us, Cowboy?" Vin asked, still kneeling down beside Chris. He didn't like how his friend looked, didn't like it one bit. Something felt wrong.
"Gone," Chris muttered. "Phone... gone. Wallet too." Then he looked up with some clarity in his eyes. "Had to get to Buck. Pr... promised I would."
"Told ya, Buck. Told ya he promised."
"Yeah, well, I ain't thrilled he showed up drunk though. Come, we're back at my floor. We better have Nathan take a look at his head."
"Yeah. Chris, can ya get up?"
"No, c... can't anymore. Vin? Why's it so hot?"
Hot? God, this really was not good! Hastily Vin leaned forward and put his arms around the blond. "Here, I'll help you up. Buck too."
Buck nodded and went to the other side of Chris. Together they hauled him up, wringing a cry of pain from their friend. When Buck tucked Chris' left arm over his shoulders, Chris cried out again.
"That don't sound good," Buck said worried.
"Nah, it don't. Let's get him out 'fore the elevator starts going up or down again."
Hastily they got out and keeping Chris propped up between them they managed to get him to Buck's and JD's apartment. Buck unceremoniously started banging on the door until the moment he almost hit an outraged JD on the nose when he opened it. The young man's surprised yelp made Chris look up. When he saw JD he grinned, whispered "Made it" with infinite satisfaction and passed out.
Soon they had Chris on the couch, everyone talking at the same time. Vin didn't listen to all the voices wanting to know what was going on, or to Buck telling them they'd found Chris in the elevator like this, drunk and from the looks of it probably having been in a bar fight. He could only stare at his hand, the hand he'd had on Chris' left side to support him.
There was blood all over it.
Two days later, Denver Memorial Hospital
Opening his eyes was hell and he felt weak like a kitten. He wanted to see where he was though and nothing was going to stop him.
Hell no, not a hospital! Why was he there? Shouldn't he be somewhere else? Yes, he was pretty sure he needed to be somewhere else.
"Hi Cowboy," a soft Texan drawl greeted him. Chris frowned. Vin didn't look too good. When he tried to say something, he realized all he managed was a croak.
Damn, but that was embarrassing! He wasn't going to try that again.
So he simply glared at his friend, a glare that clearly stated he wanted some answers. The bastard only smiled though. Shoot, and were those tears? Nah, not tears, not on Vin! Now Buck, that was something else. The big guy always wore his heart on his sleeve and he didn't feel surprised when he saw tears there as well. But Vin?
He turned his head from Buck to his other friends, frowning when he realized they had tears in their eyes as well. It made him decidedly uneasy, so he looked back at Vin for some answers, again glaring.
"Y' almost died, you idiot," Vin said softly. "When ya finally got to Buck's and JD's place ya had lost so much blood it'd become dangerous and the wound was damn deep. Only an inch either way and... and.... Oh, hell! And the cold didn't do it any good either. They didn't think you'd make it." The longhaired Texan pulled a sleeve over his eyes to brush away the tears. "Knew you'd be too stubborn ta jist die," he said with a smile.
Chris nodded. He thought it was a nod, actually he wasn't sure if he'd really moved his head. What Vin told him at least explained all the tubes coming from his body and the soft bleeping noises behind and above him.
"Why'd you walk all that way from Digger's Den to my place, you stupid fool?" Buck asked, scowling through his tears. "Why didn't you get some help, somewhere?"
Chris frowned. He didn't really know how to respond to that, his memories were too vague. He still didn't know what had happened. For that matter, he had no idea how he'd ended up in the hospital either.
Didn't he vaguely remember seeing JD looking really pissed and shocked at the same time?
Further thoughts were rudely interrupted by a nurse who suddenly loomed over him as the wrath of God. Her eyes were flashing and she was going on about not being warned. Hastily he closed his eyes, her close presence making him dizzy. The next moment he felt a cool cloth wipe his face and something was held against his lips.
Hell yes, that was something he wanted!
The nurse was followed by a doctor who started talking to him, but Chris couldn't pay attention. He'd wait for Nate to give him the bottom line later on. All he knew was that he'd scared his team by almost dying and no matter how much he tried to remember, he didn't know how he'd managed to do it.
He did remember some faces. A very young boy and girl, both terrified. A young man looking hopeless and forlorn. And shadows, dark shadows all around, he thought he remembered them too.
But not why he remembered them or what had happened.
God, he hurt....
When he opened his eyes again all was silent. Only Vin was still there and by the very quiet way his friend was sitting as much as possible behind the bed, the curtain around it artfully slipped a bit forwards so he'd be even better concealed, he knew visiting time was probably long over.
"Vin?" he whispered.
Vin almost fell with chair and all, which wouldn't have been a first. After all, balancing precariously on only two of the four chair legs could get you anytime. Trying to mask a huge yawn Vin looked at him and grinned.
"Hi sleepy head," he whispered.
"Seems you were s... sleeping as well."
"Yeah, been a long two days, Chris. Here."
Gratefully Chris drank from the cool water. Soon he indicated he'd had enough and Vin gently put him back.
"Night?" he asked softly.
"Yep, past midnight."
"So w... why you're here?"
"Are you kidding me? Damn Chris, you nearly died!" Hastily Vin looked at the door and lowered his voice again. "That was one mean knife wound, Chris and ya lost way too many blood. The wound on yer head was no little thing either and then there were all them bruises all over yer body."
"I wondered w... why I was so sore. Damn, I wish I knew what happened."
"Ya still don't remember?"
Chris shook his head, carefully. When he looked into Vin's eyes he saw compassion there and he felt bad about it. After all he'd probably given his friends a big scare, let alone ruined their Christmas over some bar brawl.
"S... sorry," he mumbled.
"Sorry? Whatever for? Damn it Chris, ya saved the life of two kids! I'm a bit angry ya rushed in like that, but I guess time was of the essence and ya wouldn't risk havin' someone killed jist to make a phone call."
"S...saved?" Chris asked, confused.
"Yeah. After we got ya into an ambulance we called the police 'cause ya said ya lost yer truck, phone and wallet. Hell, y' even lost yer coat!"
"N... no, no I didn't."
"Lose my coat. Gave it away," Chris said softly, remembering a cold, gaunt young man. "Kid was cold and I wasn't. He... he didn't wanna come up to the apartment. I tried...."
A hand was placed on his shoulder and Vin squeezed softly. Chris read the understanding in the emotive blue eyes. The sharpshooter knew about the homeless, after all, he lived in the poorest neighborhood of Denver.
"That's a mighty warm coat, Cowboy," he murmured. "It'll make a big difference for him to survive."
"Hope so. He was the only one to try and help me." His eyes drooped.
"It'll be alright, Cowboy. I'll keep a look out for him, promise. Now, ya better go back t' sleep."
That made him open his eyes and stare at Vin. "No. You tell me 'bout those other k... kids."
It made Vin sigh, but he seemed to see the need in Chris to know, so he settled himself again and got back to the story. "We told the police ya came to in the alley across Digger's Den. The next day, Christmas, two police officers came 'round with a black boy, sixteen or something, to see if he could identify you. He and his girlfriend had been to the police on Christmas Eve after they'd escaped what sounded like a gang. Seemed those bastards got angry 'bout seeing a black boy kiss a white girl and they were on the verge of raping her when you barged in. Apparently the gang had just been dragging them into the alley when you rode up on the whole damn thing. The two kids were all confused and beat up and after you got them out, they didn't know what else to do but run straight to the nearest police station. He said there was no one on the street to ask for help, so they jist ran to the station screamin'. Aw hell, ya know that neighborhood! It ain't exactly a friendly one, so I guess it's understandable." Vin didn't look happy about it all. "It took the police a bit of time to get them coherent enough so 's they made sense. The boy was brought here to see if you were their savior, the girl was still too shook up. By the way, that enormous basket of fruit over there, it's from them. Their parents brought it, but ya were sleepin' so deep we didn't wanna wake ya."
Vin sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. "Kid said that ya came in kickin' and fightin' to get him and his girl out. Seems you managed to get them free and then you drew a gun on the gang and yelled at him and his girl to get the hell out of there." He grinned. "Seems ya scared those kids almost as much on yer own as the other dudes did all together. He still stared at ya as if he was glad ya weren't conscious."
"But they got me anyway."
"Seems like. Boy and his girl weren't there fer that though, so he didn't know. When they finally brought the police to the alley everyone was gone, you too. They did find blood on one of the walls and looked around fer more, but it was snowing by that time." Vin was silent for a moment and then shook his head ruefully. "Ya know, you were probably still damn close, but they thought that either ya'd let them go and had rode off in yer truck, or they'd gotten ya and had taken ya with them in yer truck. So they'd been on the look out fer it. The boy did remember yer black Ram, 'cause it was parked straight up the pavement with the door still open." Vin smiled sadly at him. "Seems ya really were in a hurry, Cowboy. But kids in trouble would do that to ya, I guess."
"They got my gun then," Chris whispered with a sinking feeling in his stomach. That was always bad.
"We'll get them!" The vehemence in Vin's voice made Chris look at his friend more closely. He saw the fatigue there, the compassion that was still in those immense blue eyes, but also something else, something close to... fear?"
"Vin?" he asked, uncertain all of a sudden.
"They left ya for dead, Chris. We'll find them." A hardness on Vin's face made it clear the sharpshooter wouldn't rest until retribution was meted out. It made Chris feel safe in a way he hadn't felt after his family had been killed. That surprised him.
Damn, but he was tired just thinking about it all. He closed his eyes wearily. He heard the small sounds Vin made resettling himself in his chair and he smiled. Yes, he was safe.
The next thing he knew he was trying to get out of the bed, gasping.
"Chris? Chris! Damn it, snap out of it! Chris!" He heard some alarm beeping and forced his eyes open to see what was going on. Vin was there, holding him, looking at him in concern while hollering for help. Running footsteps came from outside.
"From be... hind," he managed to croak out.
"Young man, what are you doing here? Lillian, call security, now! Step away from him and... Oh, Lillian, wait! It's one of his friends!" The nurse was at his side, trying to get Vin to let him go, but Chris grabbed on, holding onto Vin for dear life.
"I re... remembered that part now. Someone... from behind. I was try... trying to cover them all with my gun and then I heard a noise behind me. I turned and got hit by something on my head. When I woke up I... I was really screwed up, Vin. Didn't remember... But I just knew I had to go to Buck. Promised...."
"Yeah, you promised and you came. You made it, Cowboy."
"Please Mister Larabee! You have to calm down and let your friend go. You really need to rest. Lillian, we better sedate him!"
"Don't remember... knife."
"I guess they stabbed ya when you were down and thought they'd killed ya. Bastards left ya for dead and took yer stuff." Again the unforgiving hardness was there and Chris clung to it. He knew he wouldn't cling to Vin like this again, but for the moment it was something he needed too much to let go off.
"I think it would be prudent if we woke Mister Larabee up at this point in time."
"Ezra, let the man sleep! It's his first day out of the hospital and they weren't too keen to let 'im go neither," Nathan protested. "We shouldn't've left him here on the couch in the first place."
"Yeah, we should." Vin took matters in his own hand, like he was wont to do when it came to Chris and kneeled down beside the sleeping blond, carefully putting a hand on his shoulder and shaking him a bit.
"Hey Cowboy, wake up, it's time."
Buck's heart constricted when there was no response. The fear of losing his friend, their leader, hadn't left him yet, it had been too close. He saw that fear mirrored in the other members of the team as well from time to time. None had shaken off those horrible two days in the hospital yet.
He knew Chris was going to be alright, he knew it, they wouldn't have released him from the hospital otherwise.
They hadn't really wanted to release him....
So he tensed anyway, until a few more shakes from Vin made Chris open his eyes. "Wh... what?" he mumbled.
"It's getting onto midnight, Cowboy. Thought ya wanted to be awake to greet the New Year with us."
"Nearly midnight? What... how?" Still groggy, hair tousled in disarray over his forehead, a little pout on his face, their fearless leader looked around in confusion. The vulnerable and almost childlike look evaporated when the green eyes took in the state of his den.
"Damn!" he swore, suddenly a lot more awake. "Buck, JD, how come this place suddenly looks like the pigsty you two live in?" He tried to get up and immediately everyone moved in to either help him or stop him, depending on their view of what was best for him.
Yep, fear, Buck nodded to himself, staying to the back of the commotion.
"Shit, cut that out!" he heard Chris swear from behind the bodies of his team mates. "I can do it!"
"No, you can't," Vin smirked. "Gotta be yer age."
Chris was cursing now. "I'll give you age, Tanner!" he gritted out.
"Yeah, me too," Josiah agreed, turning on the sharpshooter with his arms crossed. Everyone shifted their position and now Buck could see that Vin ignored everyone while he helped Chris sit up. Nathan hastily propped up a lot of pillows behind the senior agent's back, muttering about stubborn idiots who didn't know how to stay put. It was all comfortingly familiar to Buck.
And still the fear was there in his gut. So close... they had come so close to losing one of their own this time....
In the meantime, Chris was grinned at the scowling profiler of the team.
"Seem you pissed someone else off, Tanner."
Vin looked at Josiah and smiled mockingly. "Jist another old man like you, Lar'bee. Don't scare me none."
"I'll be up 'fore you know it, Tanner and then I'll take you on any time."
The two friends smiled at each other. Suddenly a lot more serious, Vin said softly. "I'm jist damn glad you will, Chris, damn glad. At the hospital they said it was a miracle you stayed alive, that you wouldn't have if ya hadn't been in such good shape and so damn strong."
Yes, fear. Fear and, in his case, also guilt.
"It's true, pard," Buck added softly. "We almost lost you that Christmas night. All those years I always worried on Christmas morning about finding you alive, or if finally this would be the time... the time... I... I lost you. And you were always there. Drunk, impossible to be around, but there." He drew a hand over his eyes, while behind him on the TV the count down began.
"This is the first time I finally talk you into not drinking Christmas away and you nearly died on us! Damn, I should've shut up and left you in peace!" He wasn't even going to mention that he'd fully expected Chris was wallowing in self pity, while in reality he had saved two lives and was battling to save his own. It would be some time before he could leave that behind himself.
"No, Buck! Don't... don't say that. I'm fine, really I am! And I was going to be with y'all, that counts for something Buck. That counts for a lot."
There was a silence while the men gathered around the couch and their leader on it, sagging in a pile of pillows.
"Aw, yer jist too stubborn to die," Vin said softly, grasping his best friend in the armshake that was exclusively theirs. Chris grasped Vin's arm back in return and the two smiled at each other. Then Chris looked up and raised an eyebrow at Buck.
"What was it you once told me, Buck? You gonna wallow in self pity the rest of your life or try and see the good that's still in it?" He grinned. "If you're gonna wallow, that makes you worse than me pal, 'cause I didn't even die."
"Oh you!" Buck groused and suddenly a weight lifted from him. A weight that had started to shift with Chris' admission he would have spent Christmas with them instead of his memories and that finally dislocated when he saw that one of a kind grin on the blond's face. He felt a huge smile bloom on his own face in answer, while at the same time a clock could be heard banging on the television, accompanied by the noise of fireworks.
Twelve o'clock. And they were all there, all together.
For a second he felt overwhelmed by it and then he was just deliriously happy.
"Happy New Year, Chris!" Hastily he came forward to grab his long time friend's shoulder, squeezing slightly.
"Thanks, Buck, happy New Year."
The den filled with seven voices wishing each other all the best, while JD and Ezra brought out the Champagne. Even Nathan didn't argue about the small glass that was pushed into Chris' hand. Through the huge window of the den answering fireworks could be seen blooming in the sky. The seven men in the room didn't see or hear it, they only had eyes for the gaunt man on the couch and each other at that moment.
The New Year was there and they were still seven.
They were definitely seven.