Webmaster Note: This fic was previously hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in September 2006.
Disclaimer: I do not own, nor do I claim any rights to the Magnificent Seven. My purpose is only to keep the series alive as best we can, since it was abandoned and left to languish by people lacking good sense.
WARNING: While I consider this a genfic, there are hints and indications of violence and abuse to one of the seven. If this isn't your cuppa, please leave now.
Notes: Written for fanfic Christmas challenge 2005.
Characters: Vin and Ezra primarily
Summary: When Vin fails to show up at their rendezvous, Ezra goes searching, and finds much more than he bargained for.
It's so hard to look at him... to look into his eyes. Those haunted depths were once so full of life. Now, they seem to be staring at me through their own, personal hell.
But then, again, they are.
I wish... oh hell. I wish for so much, but there's nothing to be done for it. I wish I had found him earlier. I wish one of the others had been with me, so we could have rescued him sooner.
I wish he'd never had to go through... what he went through.
But wishes are only that... wishes. They come true, or don't, because of the whim of some sadistic cosmic being. It has nothing to do with the goodness of the person wishing, or the worth of the person they're wishing for. If it did, there's one thing for certain.
He'd be worthy of it, of anything anyone wished for him. Even me.
That simple call brought the gambler from his thoughts. He forced a smile on his face, looking at the man lying nearby. "What do you need, Vin?"
Standish grimaced at the request, voiced in that harsh, painful rasp. He remembered just how tight the leather band had been around Tanner's neck. He'd been forced to scrape the other man's flesh in cutting it off. Heaving a sigh, he apologized, "I'm sorry, Vin... it's all gone."
"Oh." That single syllable was filled with disappointment, sadness and despair.
"We've still got some water," Ezra held up the canteen.
Nodding, Tanner pushed himself up on trembling arms. He allowed the Southerner to feed him the chilled water before he dropped back to the ground with a moan. He managed the hint of a smile in thanks as his companion pulled the blankets up over his huddled form.
Ezra watched the other man tremble, not knowing if it came from the cold, or his injuries. He had done everything he could for Vin, but it wasn't enough. It would never be enough.
Everything had changed.
I wish I could stop replaying those awful hours in my mind. But they reappear every time I close my eyes. Hell, sometimes they're there when my eyes are wide open.
I see him as he was, the moment I crept over that rise. He was down below, in the small valley where his captors had been holding him for longer than I cared to contemplate. He had failed to show up at our rendezvous, leaving me wondering where he was and... yes, worrying. I was worried that something had happened.
How right I was.
There were four of them. They weren't bounty hunters. Their purpose - such that it was - involved harming Vin as much as they could, as badly as they were able. Both physically and psychologically. Sadistic, vicious bastards, all of them. Torturing him... toying with him... destroying him.
I sat looking down from my hiding place, witness to what they did. I kept searching for a way to get to him that wouldn't result in my death. That thought didn't stop me; I've found that I would easily lay down my life for my friends. But if I died, so would any chance of Vin escaping. I had to be careful for that fact alone.
When night fell on that awful day, it hid the valley from my eyes, but didn't hide the cries and laughter from my ears.
Vin Tanner... screaming... crying... it didn't seem real. How badly must he be hurting to cry out? He didn't beg for mercy, didn't cry out for release. They were raspy, harsh, inarticulate sounds. Anger, frustration, rage, indignity, those were the emotions that reached out to me, winding around my gut with icy tendrils.
And then, the next morning... they left.
I watched them saddle up and ride off, laughing as they looked behind themselves one last time. Vin lay huddled against the tree they had tied him to, like some recalcitrant cur. Naked, bloody and vulnerable, he watched as they rode away.
As soon as they'd left, I hurried down the side of the arroyo, rushing as quickly as I could to my friend's aid. They'd taken his horse with them, and I found myself oddly thankful that he hadn't been riding Peso. The cantankerous animal had injured himself a couple of weeks ago, leaving Vin to borrow one of Larabee's barely saddle broken mustangs.
That was what I had decided must have happened at first. I had suspected that the animal had thrown him, leaving him alone and injured. While I pride myself in being imaginative, nothing like this ever came to mind.
"Where are we?"
Standish looked down into the confused eyes that stared up at him. He wished there was something he could do to take the pain he saw there away. "We're still a couple of days outside town. We're taking it slow... remember?"
"Yeah... slow." Vin pulled himself into a ball beneath the blankets, trembling as the dull pain awoke with the movement. "Wish it'd be... slower. Wish it'd be... over."
Ezra watched as tears puddled beneath the faded blue eyes, a few escaping to roll down the battered face. Before he thought, he reached out and brushed them away. Then, catching himself, he pulled his hand away, looking down as his face flooded with color.
"S'okay... don't gotta t-touch... me."
Head snapping up, the Southerner protested, "That wasn't the reason I... I mean... I... Vin, I only wished to offer you... offer some... comfort. I'm... sorry."
Tanner watched the emotions crossing the handsome face beside him. "S'okay, Ezra. Reckon I could... use some... comfort 'bout now. Don't reckon I..."
Auburn brows knitting together, Standish studied his friend's words as they trailed off. They were so outside the norm, so far removed from what he would expect from the stoic sharpshooter.
But then these were not normal times.
"I wish..." He grimaced. There was that damnable word again. Heaving a sigh, he continued. "I wish I could take it away, my friend. I'd give anything if I could make the last few days... not happen." How pathetic did that sound?
"Thanks, Ezra. Kind'a wish ya could, too." He managed a smile, weak and tinged with an aching. Then he closed his eyes and seemed to collapse in on himself as the tenderness in his throat seemed to reawaken the other pain. He groaned softly as the last few days replayed themselves in his mind once more with a horrible clarity. Lord God he wanted it to go away.
And part of him wished he'd died before Ezra found him.
He could feel those rough, calloused hands as they battered him... toyed with him... did things to him that no man should ever have to live through. But he had lived through it. And now he just had to concentrate on living.
Not living had crossed his mind more than once. Ending his life remained an option, but one he didn't foresee himself taking. He was, after all, a Tanner, and there were certain things Tanners didn't do. Chief amongst them was giving up and, to his way of thinking, killing himself was the worst kind of giving up.
So, he'd just have to suck it up and go on with the rest of his life.
"Do we gotta go back ta town?"
"I don't understand. Where else - "
"Shack... Chris' shack. Can we go there? Don't think I can..."
Standish read the fear in those blue eyes now. Not the fear that those evil bastards would return. It was the fear of others finding out just what had happened to him.
He would do whatever he could to save the injured man the embarrassment of having his the attack become common knowledge. It would add some time to their trip, but he would take Vin out to the little shack Chris had built.
"Chris' cabin it is." Ezra promised firmly.
I kept us there the rest of the day, Vin arguing only a little. As the sun neared the western horizon, I built a fire to provide a bit of warmth against the coming night. I prepared dinner, although neither of us had an appetite. I coaxed Vin to sit up a bit, leaning against the saddle while he ate a little of the broth I'd prepared. It was obvious that even that was extremely difficult to swallow.
He settled back beneath the blankets, curling on his side once more. I prepared the camp for the night, and settled in near him, set to watch over my friend while he slept. Only he didn't sleep; not really. He laid there, eyes closed, but he was far too tense to truly be sleeping.
Reckon I could... use some... comfort 'bout now...
His words came back to me then, and I knew that I needed to do something more than sit and watch over him. Quietly I moved over to where he lay, and slipped down to lie beside him. A quick hiss of breath told me he felt me lying there. I reached out and squeezed his shoulder, murmuring softly to him, letting him know that he was safe. He sighed then, his body relaxing as I curled up against him. I draped an arm over him, hoping to make him feel even safer.
He slept soundly through the night.
Chris Larabee looked up at the sound of a single horse approaching. In the corral, both Pony and Peso - the latter finally well enough to be out of a stall - nickered a greeting at the approaching newcomer. Putting a hand up to shield his eyes, he saw Ezra walking toward the cabin, leading his horse. Larabee cursed as he registered the fact that Vin Tanner was slumped low in the Southerner's saddle.
Spurs jingling, he sprinted toward the approaching men. "Ezra, what happened?"
An exhausted Standish replied, "We ran into a bit of trouble during our journey. Might we get Vin settled before I give you the details?"
Larabee nodded, a dozen questions begging to be asked. Time enough for that later. One look at Tanner told him that they needed to get him inside and into bed as soon as possible. Turning, he led the way back toward his cabin. Reaching the corral, he moved to where Vin sat as Ezra slapped the horse's reins around the top fence rail. As he reached out to touch the huddled man, he jumped at the reaction. Tanner growled at him, moving away from his outstretched hand.
"Chris, be careful, he's not completely awake. He's been feverish since yesterday. I doubt that he's even certain as to who you are." The gambler moved between the confused gunman and his horse. Looking up into the battered face, he murmured softly, "Vin? It's Ezra. We're at Chris' place. Okay? Would you like to get down?"
Tanner blinked, the confusion shifting from his features slightly as he recognized the other man. "Ezra?"
"Chris... Chris' shack?"
The corner of the conman's twitched at the term. "Yes."
"Tired," Tanner announced wearily as he began to slide from the saddle, trusting Standish to catch him.
Chris found himself shocked at the explicit trust Vin put in Ezra; it wasn't normal for the typically self-contained young man. And then he found himself shocked at the fact that Vin was, for the most part, naked. He had been wrapped in blankets but now, as he tumbled off the horse and into Standish's arms, the blankets fell away. Other than stained and torn long johns, the slender young man was completely naked.
"Jesus... Vin... Ezra... what happened?" Larabee stammered.
Barely able to keep the battered man in his arms upright, Standish grunted, "Later, Chris... please."
Nodding mutely, the blond moved once more to touch his friend, only to have him shift away, leaning more heavily on the gambler. Seeing that Ezra had things under control, he moved ahead, leading the way into his small cabin.
The other two men came behind him more slowly, Vin limping and stumbling along, clinging to the smaller man. For his part Ezra carried as much of his weight as he could, guiding Tanner along with his strength as well as that honey-dipped voice of his.
"Ezra?" Vin sounded lost and confused.
"Just a few more steps, Vin."
"Yes, I know. We'll have you resting soon. All right?"
Chris couldn't quite wrap his mind around it. He had never considered Ezra Standish to be someone capable of caring for someone else. Not that he considered him cold, just focused on his own needs. But there he was, coaxing another step out of Vin... and another... all the time gently holding onto him.
They entered the dimly lit shack and Chris watched as Ezra settled Vin on the narrow cot that served as his bed. Tanner made a sound somewhere between sigh and whimper as he sank onto the blankets. Standish whispered something, then pulled the blanket from the foot of the bed up over the battered man. He hovered over the cot for a moment or two, while Tanner drifted off to sleep.
As the gambler moved away from the bed, Larabee stared at him, a thousand questions in his hazel-green eyes. But all that he said was, "What happened?"
Moving past the gunman, Ezra stepped back outside and dropped wearily into the chair sitting on the porch. Chris followed him, sitting in the other chair. He sat patiently, waiting for the other man to explain.
Ezra scrubbed a trembling hand over his whiskered chin, absently wishing he could have a bath and a shave before beginning this conversation. One never felt in control if one felt like a vagabond.
I looked at him, those sharp gunman's eyes letting me know that he was waiting with decreasing patience for me to speak.
Good Lord, how could I tell him? How could I tell anyone what had happened to Vin Tanner out there?
But then again... how could I not? What were my options? Allow him to suffer from the hidden injuries... those within his mind? Wait until he was stronger and allow him to tell Chris and the others?
No. I would spare him either of those fates. I had to.
"I realize that you're impatient to know what happened but, could I impose on your patience a bit longer. Vin is going to need Nathan's expertise, but I would prefer to relay this tale only once." Standish raised his eyes from where he had been staring at the ground and held Larabee's gaze.
Blowing out a harsh breath, Chris said quietly, "Only me and Nathan?"
Finding the ground extremely interesting once more, Ezra nodded as he whispered, "Yes."
Blanching at the thought of what that might mean as it mixed and mingled with the vision of his friend's battered body, the blond cursed and leapt to his feet, the chair falling backward. Without another word, he strode off, going to saddle his horse.
His stomach rolling, the gambler wanted to head for the trees and dispose of what little he had on his stomach. Instead, he rose and turned to re-enter the little shack.
He looks so small and fragile laying there on the bed, huddled beneath the coverings, his body tense even now. I couldn't help myself; I moved across the room and knelt beside the cot. Reaching out, I stroked the tangles of damp hair from his face with a trembling hand. Then I startled when he blinked open unfocused, blue eyes. Then I felt him relax beneath my touch and he loosed a soft sigh.
I continued to stroke his hair, watching as he settled once again.
Exhaustion began to set in and I dropped my head to the mattress. Even while my eyes began to close, I continued to soothe him. The last thing I remembered as I drifted off was my fingers becoming tangled in his chestnut locks.
Standish heard the somewhat shocked call as if from a great distance. He managed to peel open gritty eyes and lift his gaze toward the two figures standing nearby. In a rough voice, he managed, "Yes?"
He registered the mixture of shock and humor in the gunslinger's voice, and frowned as he tried to decide why. Then he registered the feel of a body beneath his hand and hair between his fingers. Shifting his vision, he saw Vin lying close by. With a startled gasp, he pulled back, slipping his hand free from the other man's tresses.
"My apologies for... falling asleep on the job," he said in a sleepy voice, wondering why he felt like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
The corner of his mouth lifting upward, Larabee said, "Reckon you've earned a rest."
"After you fill us in, okay?" Nathan instructed from behind the blond.
Nodding, suddenly wishing he could retreat into sleep once more, Standish pushed himself to his feet and moved past his friends toward the door. Without looking, he knew they were following.
The three men moved back out onto the porch, Ezra and Nathan taking the chairs, while Chris leaned against an upright. Standish felt the two pairs of eyes on him and found himself once more studying the ground.
"Ezra, I really need to know what happened to Vin if I'm going to treat him." Jackson said in a soft, gentle tone.
I managed to look at them, finally. Both of them looked at me with worry and concern. But all I could do for what seemed an eternity was to sit there, looking at them, trying to decide how best to begin.
"Just start at the beginning," Nathan coaxed, as if he'd read my mind.
So I did. I told them of our plan to rendezvous, and the fact that Vin hadn't shown up as planned. I told them about using my poor skills at tracking to search for him. I went into far greater detail than necessary and knew I was stalling. Focusing on the other two men, I knew they recognized it as well.
Taking a long, drawn out breath, I nodded and began to tell them what they needed to know. I told them of finding where Vin had been taken; seeing him trust up and being brutalized by the four men. As gently as I could, I described the lengths of their torture and the depths of their depravity.
I watched the sorrow fill Nathan's face and the rage color Chris'. I watched as the gunman's hands clenched, and knew that I had signed four death warrants with my words. I had no doubt that Chris Larabee would ride into hell itself to visit his revenge on each of those monsters. And I had no doubt that the others would follow him if they knew.
And I prayed that, for Vin's sake, they never did.
When my narrative was concluded, both of them looked as worn out as I felt. Finally Nathan pushed himself to his feet and moved back into the shack. Chris moved, without a word, toward the corral and was soon expending his energy currying the horses there.
I wanted nothing more than to ride out... to go to town, have a bath and a shave, then take a bottle of scotch to my room and drink until the memories faded.
As if they ever would.
Instead, I moved off across the yard and settled beneath the big tree that offered the most shade. Stretching my legs out before me, I pulled out my deck of cards and began to shuffle.
Part Two: The Ashes
For two weeks the three of us kept silent about the true reason Vin Tanner didn't appear in the little New Mexican town we had sworn to protect. There were questions of course. Buck tried to discover Vin's new paramour. Josiah queried as to his spiritual needs. JD worried that there were bounty hunters sniffing around. All of them were concerned that there was something physically wrong with their friend. And all of them had Vin's best interests at heart and wanted to be of help. But all of them respected our request to stay away.
Each of the three of us took turns staying at the cabin with our friend. As he grew stronger we gave him his space, knowing that his innate need for privacy would send him running if we hovered.
Ezra yawned broadly and looked sleepily up from his bedroll, surveying the interior of the little cabin. It took him a moment to realize that he was alone. With a hissed curse, he pulled himself to stocking feet and moved to the cabin door.
Looking out toward the corral, he realized quickly that Peso was nowhere to be found, just as his master was. With another curse, the southerner hurriedly dressed and was quickly out the door again. He saddled his mount as quickly as possible and climbed into the saddle. He wasn't certain just where the other man might go but, using his rudimentary tracking skills, he discerned fresh tracks and moved along the path.
It took several hours for him to get within sight of the Texan. Part of him understood that, if Vin didn't really want to be found, he wouldn't be. He was allowing himself to be found. He wasn't certain whether to be worried or grateful about that fact... and decided to be both.
The gambler was finally able to reunite with the sharpshooter atop a stone overlook. Vin was sitting cross-legged on the very edge, nothing but air beneath his knees. He forced himself to sit near by and then forced himself to sit silently. If anything was going to be said, Vin needed to be the first to speak.
For hours they sat like that, together in silence.
"Wish I could put it aside."
There was no need for clarification. There was only one thing that could be on his mind. One thing that he needed to 'put aside'. "I know."
Finally, for the first time since the other man had come to sit beside him, Tanner turned and looked at him. "Ain't never goin' away."
With a heavy sigh, he whispered, "I know. The Good Lord help me, I wish I could make it - "
Putting up a hand, blue eyes wet with unshed tears, Vin said, "S'okay... ya cain't. I know... I know..." he broke off with a sound between sigh and sob.
Reaching out, Ezra laid a gentle hand on the slumped shoulder of the man beside him. "Vin - "
Shaking his head the Texan stopped the man's words. "Ain't nothin' ta say, Ezra. Ain't nothin' ta make any 'a this right. So please... just don't."
Nodding, his own eyes stinging with denied tears, the gambler returned to the silence.
I know what's going through Ezra's mind. He wants to help; to make things right. But there's no way. No way he can make it right... or make it go away. Because it will never go away.
Looking out over the vista, I watch the clouds dance across the sky. Two birds dance on the air, wings outstretched. Then, without warning, the larger of the two attacks he smaller. I watch them battle, but know that the smaller one won't survive. I want to turn away, but can't.
Then, to my shock, the smaller bird does get away and, with a triumphant call, it speeds away. The larger one can't keep up with the little thing and finally gives up. Turning, it goes in search of other prey.
Suddenly, I can't keep from laughing. I catch Ezra's shocked stare, but I don't know if I can make him understand. Hell, maybe I should just let him think I'm stone crazy.
Maybe I am.
Then, of a sudden, all of the hurt comes back. Every blessed thing they did to me, every hurt they marked my body and soul with, the scars I can't hide, and the ones I have to... it all comes back.
I can't breathe...
I can't believe that he's laughing. He's sitting there, perched on the edge of... well, perhaps it's not only the edge of the overlook.
He sits there, for several minutes, simply laughing. Then, without warning, the laughter stops. The silence that follows is more frightening than the laughter had been. When I finally chance a look, he's staring not at the sky, but at me. I see the tears in those eyes... the ones that are the color of the sky themselves. I see the pain there, too, so naked and deep. I can see that pain and know that it has burrowed to the very center of his being.
It has wrapped itself around his soul.
I want to reassure him. I can't find the words. What can I say with words that will have any bearing on the situation? How can mere words take that away?
It can't. But I know something that might help just a little.
I lean a little closer and wrap my arm around his shoulders. I feel him trembling, his lean body shivering against me. Then, he turns into my hold, leaning against me. And I give him the only thing I can.
I give him comfort.