A Lifetime Appointment

by K Hanna Korossy

Main character: Chris

Previously published in: Let’s Ride! 7 (Neon Rainbow Press, 2004)

"Hey, Nathan. How's he doin'?"

"Honestly? I'm worried 'bout him. He ain't gettin' better like he should be, Buck."

"Yeah, well, blow like that can really cut a man's legs out from under him. Just give him time."

"No word yet on Ella?"

"If I didn't know better, I'd swear she was some kind of haunt, Nate, with what she did and the way she disappeared after."

Chris screwed his eyes tighter shut as if that could block out the conversation on the landing outside. Nathan's door was easier to hear through than the healer thought, but Chris wouldn't be the one to tell him. On the very long list of things Chris Larabee didn't care about just then, that ranked near the bottom. Right near his life.

The door opened and shut, admitting someone into the clinic, but Chris didn't move. He'd been aware of the steady stream of visitors even in his earlier feverish haze, but now that his head was clearer he'd taken to playing possum just so he'd be left alone. Sometimes sleep would even creep up on him for real while he was feigning it, but that never lasted long. Memory, dreams - it didn't matter. Ella's face was always before him, spitting out the truth of his family's murder, and Chris would remember that until the day he died.

So what was the point of living then? To extend the show? Hadn't he tortured himself enough already? Even Nathan couldn't answer that question, all his herbs and teas doing nothing for Chris's real wound.

Chris gritted his jaw and tried not to think about screaming.

Footsteps had crossed to the side of his bed, and now a chair creaked next to him, followed by silence. And the heavy sigh of someone who was suffering.

He wasn't interested, didn't care, but his battered soul couldn't resist the hope of a distraction, something to ease his own pain even if for a moment. God help him, he wasn't even strong enough for that. And so Chris pried his eyes open and turned a heavy-lidded gaze on his visitor.

Buck didn't even seem to notice. He sat hunched in the chair by Chris's bed as if his strength had taken him thus far but would no farther, his hat dangling limply from one hand. And his eyes sad and wet.

Chris's heart constricted despite itself in empathy. For all he'd ignored Buck since the loss of Chris’s family when the weight of his own pain was too much to take on another's burden, these last two years had rekindled some sort of caring in him. He'd felt for Buck when JD had quit and left town briefly, and bought him a drink and listened when his old friend had struggled with Dunne's near death at the hand of a traitorous bounty hunter. That was, in fact, the last time he'd seen his usually cheerful friend so distraught, and it occurred to Chris that JD had been the only one of the Seven who hadn't been in regularly to see him since their return to town. Could it be the kid had been another of Ella's victims?

His voice was rusty and dry, but something still survived in Chris that compelled him to find out. "Buck?" he whispered.

Wilmington looked up, startled, and then smiled, real joy momentarily crowding out the sorrow in his eyes. "Chris. Never thought I'd be so happy to see that glare of yours again. How you feelin'?"

Definitely not what he wanted to talk about. "JD?"

Buck frowned, confused. "You wanna talk to JD? He's out at the Neuhaus farm - he's been spendin' a lot of time out there these days, helping with the harvest. I can send him up when he gets back, if you want."

That was good, at least, but only answered half his question. Chris rolled his head on the pillow. "No . . . what's eating you?"

Buck's eyes grew dark again, his gaze evasive. "You got enough bees buzzing around you right now, Larabee - you don't need me to be adding any."

"Buck. . ." He glared, frustrated for the first time with the weakness of his body that made the unspoken threat a bluff.

Buck's mouth twinged, as if he recognized the truth of that, too, and was amused by the effort, but the humor didn't last. His expression saddened again, and he ducked his head, turning his hat brim aimlessly in his hands. "All right, then. Uh. . ." An uncharacteristic hesitation and Buck grimaced. "The day of the shootout at Ella's? Hilda . . . died."

If the name should have meant something to him, it drew a blank. Chris frowned. "Who?"

Another mournfully amused look. "Guess you don't remember her, do you. She was probably used to that. When God gave out curves, he gave Hilda an extra few helpings - not 'xactly the kind of woman most men would look at twice if they had a choice. But under that ample bosom beat a heart of gold."

Memory provided a hazy image of a full-figured brunette at the ranch and Chris tried not to groan - this was all about a woman? Again? He would have turned away, uninterested in another of Buck's failed courtings, except . . . it was real grief in his friend's eyes, not the melodramatic woe he usually showed when a woman failed to return his interest. Chris stayed silent and kept listening.

"You know, a woman is a treasure to be cherished, protected. I've put more than one man in his place for not respecting that. But then what did I do? Looked at the outside and kept right on going, didn't see what was underneath until it was too late. Doesn't make me much better, does it?"

Cherished and protected. Like Chris had protected his family? Like Ella deserved to be cherished? The conversation had veered back into painful territory, but then, there was little that didn't hurt those days. Chris swallowed, and managed an almost normal, "What happened?"

Buck met his eyes squarely, like a man facing his punishment. "She stopped a bullet for me. After I'd spent the last week ignoring and avoiding her, she ran out an'. . ." His gaze fell back to his hands, his mustache twitching to keep emotion in check.

Buck's face never kept any secrets, though, at least not from him, and Chris finally understood. He paused for a moment. "You lead her on?" he asked quietly.

"No. I told her I liked her singing - she had the voice of an angel, Chris - but I took off in the other direction like a bear was after me whenever I saw her coming."

"I know you, Buck . . . you treated her nice. Probably more 'n any man had before - that's what she saw in you."

Buck shifted in his chair. "I'd better let you get some sleep 'fore Nathan has my head," he said quickly.

"Shut up an' listen, Buck." Chris tried to put authority into his voice, but it was weakening as his meager strength faded. "You made her happy. Not your fault she didn't do the same for you. Doesn't change why she wanted t' save you . . . or that she did it willingly. Don't take that away from her."

Buck's expression crumpled for a moment with sorrow, then he lifted his head and slowly nodded. Almost managed a smile even, and he patted Chris's arm once, gently. "You're a good man, Chris Larabee," he said quietly. He rose and strode to the door, shoulders still bowed but no longer seeming quite as alone. In the open doorway, he stopped, glanced back. "Don't let Ella Gaines take that away from you, either." He walked out before Chris could answer, if he'd known what to answer.

Chris stared after him a long moment, emotions too tangled and dark to sort out, until he succumbed to the sleep of exhaustion.

And Ella rode again through his dreams.

A soft crunch slowly penetrated his sleep, along with the inexorable ache in his side. Chris tried to turn away from it, back into the peace of darkness, but the crunching was just unusual enough to distract him from finding the way. Despite himself, Chris struggled the last bit to wakefulness.

An inadvertent shrug as he roused pulled on torn skin and stitches, and Chris groaned quietly. The strange sound immediately stopped, and there was movement nearby, then a cool hand on his arm.


The routine had been old from the very first time, but Chris answered grudgingly. "I'm okay, Nathan."

A soft snort. "Yeah, sure y' are. Your fever's gone up again. I'll get you something for that." Quiet steps away, then the crunching continued. Chris was too tired to look but he realized what it was without trying: Nathan's mortar and pestle - more of the healer's homemade drugs that had pulled them all through so many times in the past.

Resentment flared in him briefly, startlingly at the thought, but Chris squelched it just as fast. It wasn't Nathan's fault his patient had no interest in the gift the healer selflessly provided. Most actually appreciated the chance at life.

Most actually had something to live for. The cloud over his soul, briefly thinned by Buck's visit and sleep, roiled with darkness again, and Chris drifted with it, not fighting. He deserved no less, really.

A hesitant knock sounded at the door. Nathan went to open it, and there was another hushed conversation meant to be out of his earshot.

"Is Chris awake? I, uh, I just wanted to ask him something."

"Not now, JD. He's still feelin' pretty poorly, an'-"

"But I just need- "

Chris heaved a silent sigh. He'd never been able to say no to a determined JD Dunne. "It's okay, Nathan. Come on in, JD."

There was a clatter at the door - the kid never did things quietly, either - and a grumble from Nathan, then JD was easing himself into the chair Buck had sat in earlier, unusually hesitant. And more tired than Larabee could recall ever seeing him.

"Chris, uh . . . I'm sorry to bother you . . . I know this isn't the best time, but. . ."

Chris tried to push himself up a little higher, not liking to look up at anybody, but gave that up with a wince. Well, JD looked like he was too worn out to care, anyway. "What's on your mind, kid?"

"It's about Annie Neuhaus's family." His gaze dropped; JD never had completely gotten over accidentally shooting the young mother, even when the town eventually had. "Hiram's been needing some help with planting season, so I've been going over there the last few days - figured it was the least I could do, you know? But, uh, it's startin' to interfere with my patrols, an'. . ." He fell unhappily silent, probably afraid to ask what Chris knew he wanted.

"You know you don't owe them the rest of your life, JD," Chris said quietly.

The hazel eyes swung back up to meet his, fresh wisdom shining in them. "I know that, Chris. I do. Hiram's said the same thing. But sometimes he's got his hands too full and he just needs some help, and Annie's. . ." JD trailed off unhappily again.

Chris finally took pity on him. "You want some time off?"

A leap of hope in the kid's face. "Not a lot. I'm not trying to quit, Chris, and if you need me to ride, I'll be ready. But I was kinda hopin' . . . until Hiram's got the planting done. . ."

"How long?"

"Hiram says by the end of the week."

"Fine. You go do what you have to."

The gratitude on the young face was almost embarrassing. "I appreciate that. And I'll be happy to make up the patrols later, you just ask." JD was straightening as Chris watched, some of the careworn fatigue already lifting from his face.

"That won't be necessary. A man's got responsibilities he's gotta meet sometimes."

JD flushed. He'd grown up a lot those last two years, but the thought of being a man with all that implied still seemed to startle him. "Thanks, Chris."

Larabee nodded slightly. It was all he could seem to manage, anyway, his voice already thin as a blade of grass.

"I, uh, hope you get better soon. It ain't the same without you around," JD said as he rose and jammed his hat back on his head. "Ezra's already startin' to talk like he's in charge, Miz Travis keeps askin' about you, and Buck . . . uh. . ." JD fumbled with the doorknob.

"Buck'll be all right," Chris said softly.

The kid's face stretched into a slow smile. "Yeah. I'll see you later." He stumbled out, the door banging behind him.

Nathan muttered something again.

Chris huffed a weak laugh. Some things were as sure as that sunrise each morning in the east.

"You ready to have some of this tea now and get some more sleep?"

"You askin' if I'm ready for your tea?" Chris asked, surprised by a moment's pleasure at being ornery.

"Problem with y'all is you don't appreciate my talents," Nathan answered in kind, approaching with a mug cupped in his hand. He eased Chris's head up with a gentle touch and held the mug for him, waiting until Chris had drained the whole thing, then lay back with a weary sigh.

Nathan stood by the bed and watched him somberly.

"Your fever shoulda been gone by now. I don't like the way it keeps comin' back."

"I'll be fine," Chris said automatically. He was always fine. Even when he was dying inside, he would be fine. The Devil himself didn't want him.

"Chris. . ." There was an unusual hesitation in Nathan's voice that drew his attention back despite the fatigue and his desperately not wanting to care. The healer sank down on the edge of Chris's bed. "I ain't a doctor, you know. There could be somethin' else wrong with you I'm missin'. Maybe we should send for a real doctor. I heard they got one now over-"

"No," Chris said tersely.

Nathan's face clouded. "Chris," he started painfully.

They'd never had this conversation before, not when JD had hovered near death, not when Buck had been so sick. Why now? Unless . . . Chris took a deep breath, even that a costly effort. "This about that doctor at the ranch?" he whispered.

Nathan blinked. "The . . . huh. Guess you didn't hear. That wasn't no doctor - knew less than I do. When Hilda - one of the ladies - got hit, he froze like a frog in a lantern beam."

Chris had been a little too busy to notice, but pieces were falling together. "You were there when she died," he murmured.

Nathan shook his head in frustration. "Wasn't much I could do for her by then - bullet got her in the heart - just sat there with her, tried to keep her comfortable, awake long enough so Buck could talk to her. She was kinda sweet on him."

Chris looked up at him. "Sounds to me like you did a lot."

"Not enough." Nathan was still shaking his head.

"You never pretended to be something you're not." His side throbbed and his tongue felt thick. Matched his head. "No shame in . . . doing your best. . ." Lord, he was tired.

"My best's gonna get somebody killed someday. Maybe startin' with you. You gotta take it easy now, Chris, you're white as that sheet."

He was losing the fight to stay conscious, that was certain. But Chris held on determinedly while he fixed his gaze on Nathan and put all his will into his voice. "You can't save . . . someone who doesn't . . . want savin'." He wouldn't leave his own fate on Nathan's conscience at least.

But even that much had hurt, and Chris had had his fill of hurting. He stopped trying, let go to return to the welcome embrace of the dark.

Not before he heard the determined whisper, though.

"We'll just have t' see about that."

"Chris? Come on back, now, we need to talk to you for a bit."

Chris groaned, heaved back into pain and light unwillingly by the firm voice . . . and the feel of the small hand clutching his wrist. Adam? Adam had clung to him like that when he was afraid. But that was before. . .

His throat tightened. Ella.

"Chris, you've got someone here who wants to see you. Come on back to us now."

Another voice, thinner and higher and frightened. "Chris?"

He recognized this one immediately. Chris wallowed in the bitterness for a moment longer, then pushed it reluctantly away. This was worth the effort like little in his life was. Chris dragged his eyes open, stopping another groan before the piercing light pulled it out of him. His side was a banked fire, his head heavy and aching, but small, perceptive eyes were watching him.

"Billy," he whispered.

Joy leapt into the child's face with humbling intensity, and the little fingers squeezed hard enough to hurt. "Chris! Mama said you were sick. Were you shot?"

Way too perceptive. He shut his eyes again for a moment, gathering his strength, then looked back at the face hovering over him. "Yeah, I was shot."

Billy sat back on his heels from where he knelt on the edge of Chris's bed. "Are you gonna get better?" he asked mutedly.

Chris winced. Everyone wanted him better, back on his feet. Didn't they realize what they were asking of him, that it would mean having to face what Ella had done and carry that weight the rest of his life?

No, Billy had no idea. All he knew was he was in danger of losing someone else he cared about. It was why Chris hadn't wanted to get close to the boy in the first place, but he hadn't been able to resist. In time, he'd even stopped seeing Adam every time he looked at the small face.

But not now.

Chris glanced past the boy, into the patiently knowing face of Josiah Sanchez.

"His mother couldn't talk him out of comin' to see you any more, said it might ease some of his fears you were already gone. Think she was hoping it might ease some of her fears, too."

Mary. He never had seen Sarah when he looked at Mary. Whether that made it easier or harder, he still didn't know.

Billy slowly let go of his arm, his eyes filling with silent tears. He was old enough to know what no answer to his question meant, and too familiar with death and loss. An unfamiliar lump settled in Chris's throat. He understood the boy's pain completely. You drew back, grieving in silence, because any more exposure was just too painful. There was only so much any man could take.

Or maybe . . . maybe he was just a coward.

It was those sorrowful eyes that finally made up his mind. He could count the cost later, but for now, Chris set his jaw, then focused on moving his hand by painful degrees until it settled heavily on Billy's shoulder.

"I'll try," he promised quietly.

A wavering smile appeared, subdued joy this time, then suddenly there was a small arm around his shoulder in a fearful hug.

It hurt - God, it hurt - but he embraced the boy back, sliding his good arm up to hold him there for a long minute, and it felt good, too.

Josiah finally intervened, with the possible whispered prodding of Nathan, who had appeared in fuzzy silhouette behind the preacher, and the two of them eased Billy loose.

"I wanna stay with Chris."

"You can stay with him later. Chris needs his rest now. We want him to get better, right?" Josiah soothed from far away. Chris could barely hear him, or feel Nathan's hands as the healer fussed over him, checking his bandage, tucking him in.

"Yeah." A child’s unwavering certainty. Chris envied that clarity.

"Okay, then let's go find your ma. She'll want to know how Chris is doing, too."

All those people depending on him. . .

"You better keep that promise now," Nathan admonished softly in his ear.

He tried to scowl at the healer, but found his vision blurring. "Doctors . . . got nothin' on you, Nathan." He winced as Nathan's fingers poked at the stitches, then rolled him carefully onto his side, easing the pull on his injury.

The black man bent down into his shrinking range of vision and gave him a smile. "Just doin' my best, remember? Gotta use every medicine I got. Speaking of which, let me get some of this in you while you're awake."

The sweet, hot liquid was the last thing he remembered.

Chris glared at the cards, then up at the man sitting in front of him. "You sure this is therapy?"

Ezra gave him an innocent look. "You can ask Mr. Jackson yourself. He mentioned you require some sort of exercise to strengthen your arm and hand, and I merely suggested a possible remedy. Mr. Jackson heartily approved."

"Well, I don't know 'bout 'heartily,'" Nathan's voice drifted over from somewhere on the far side of the room, "but beats lyin' there lettin' those muscles get soft."

That thought didn't appeal to him, either, so Chris gritted his teeth and concentrated on holding the cards steady.

"Shall we switch hands now?" Ezra asked more quietly.

He didn't want to, but the tremors of strain were undeniable. The fever had only broken less than twelve hours before and he was still as weak as a newborn foal. With a frustrated sigh, Chris jerked his head in a yes, and tried not let his embarrassment show as Ezra carefully - and with care not to peek - pulled the fan of cards from his stiff fingers and transferred it to his good hand.

"Perhaps the next round," he offered pleasantly.

Chris just scowled, and nodded at the gambler to continue.

He managed to win the round somehow, doubtless Ezra's doing, although considering they were betting with the pieces of penny candy Mrs. Potter had sent as a get-well gift, it would be no great loss to the cardsharp. Still, Chris looked at the man seriously for the first time since Ezra had arrived for their "therapy session," and frowned now at what he saw.

"Something on your mind, Ezra?" he asked finally, reluctantly. Every man had a right to his secrets, but something told Chris this was no secret.

He got a bland look in return. "Unlike the majority of the denizens of our small town, I find many things to occupy my mind, Mr. Larabee. To which do you refer?" The cards slipped through his fingers with smooth grace even without Ezra's attention.

Chris almost smiled. He was a lot better at this game than at poker. "I hear you've been taking over for me while I'm laid up."

The green eyes flicked over to him, briefly startled. "Laid up? Is that all this is, then, Mr. Larabee, a brief interruption in the course of our relationship? I had understood you were intending to leave us for, shall we say, greener pastures?"

Chris's eyes grew hard. "Go back to the saloon, Ezra."

"Ah, yes, I see." Ezra stood, cards disappearing. "When I leave, it's 'you'd better not run out on us again, Ezra,' but when you decide to depart, we are to just accept it. You'll excuse me if I find that double standard a little hard to digest."

"Ezra-" Nathan started warningly from one side.

"It's okay, Nathan," Chris said softly, lethally. "Let him talk." The anger that coursed through him felt good, a strength he hadn't had since he'd been shot.

"Actually, I believe I've said all I need to." Ezra's expression smoothed out and he put his hat on, tipping its brim with two fingers. "Gentlemen."

"That doesn't explain you takin' the reins in the meantime," Chris said before he could walk out.

Ezra wheeled instantly, eyes flashing. "And just who do you suggest assume responsibility? Mr. Wilmington? An able choice, were he not still reeling from his own loss. Mr. Sanchez, perhaps? I think you'd find our preacher a little occupied with a grieving child and the search for the elusive Miss Gaines. Mr. Dunne has been busy paying guilt-ridden penance to Hiram Neuhaus, who is not above taking advantage of the situation, and the look in Mr. Tanner's eyes when faced with the possibility of being placed in charge bears more than a passing resemblance to that of a trapped wild animal. That only leaves Mr. Jackson, whom I'm sure you're well aware has been rather occupied of late with a patient who seems far less interested in his recovery than his friends are. Who else is there, Mr. Larabee, or do you have so little faith in me that you would perhaps prefer one of the townspeople to take on this mantle which, God knows, I have never aspired to!"

Chris stared at him with loose-jawed silence. Perhaps still waters ran deep, but he nevertheless made the mistake too often of thinking flash and chatter was a sign of superficiality. It wouldn't be the first time he'd misjudged Ezra, or, probably, the last.

But he wasn't so dull as to not recognize the fear that lurked in that impassioned speech.

Chris pushed himself a little higher in the bed with a hidden wince, wanting to look the man in the eye as an equal. His anger had faded as quickly as his strength. "You'd think after two years, I wouldn't be surprised by anything from you, Ezra. Seems we were both wrong," he said mildly.

Ezra froze, staring at him, visibly bewildered. "About what?"

"My not having faith in you."

The green eyes cleared, then shone, and Ezra finally dropped his head, the brim of his hat throwing his face into shadow. When he lifted it again several moments later, his eyes remained shaded but Chris could still feel their piercing gaze. "Well . . . until tomorrow morning, then? I demand a rematch to recover today's losses."

Which came to all of five pieces of peppermint. Chris grinned at him, oddly relieved. "You can try."

"Indeed." Another still-dazed look, then Ezra saluted again, this time respectfully.

Chris nodded solemnly back, and watched as the gambler slipped out the door, no doubt to try to sort out what had just happened.

Nathan finally broke the silence. "Just when I think I got him figured out. . ."

"You an' me both, Nathan," Chris said tiredly, trying to edge down flat again. The healer was quickly there helping him, then offering another of his infernal teas.

"Think we finally got this fever licked."

"I think you drowned it," Chris said sourly, but drank. And, as Nathan moved away, added a quiet, "Thanks."

He must have fallen asleep fast like his depleted body was still prone to do, because Chris didn't hear the response. Didn't have to.

And Ella stayed away this time.

The room was dark and silent when his eyes finally opened again. Completely silent . . . and yet there was a presence there, as comfortable as his own. Only one person that could be; no point in even asking. Chris stared up at the invisible ceiling for a long minute before having enough reason to break the easy quiet.


"Sent him off to bed 'while back. Figured I could lift a cup for you just as easy."

A long silence. Chris swallowed a yawn and asked drowsily, "How's the town?"

"Bucklin's makin' a fool of himself for the new gal down at Digger Dan's." Chris could hear the grin in his friend's voice. "JD found Hiram a hand to help him out at the ranch - seems they're both happier this way. Mary's been askin' about ya - Josiah took Billy fishin' yesterday an' she came up t' see you but you were sleepin'. An' last night Ezra cleaned out the whole bunch that came in on the afternoon stage."

Chris snorted. "Sounds like things are back to normal."

"Mostly. Table in back still seems empty without ya. Inez says liquor sales are down."

He made a face in the darkness, knowing Vin would sense it. But under the humor he heard an unspoken question loud and clear.

"You want a light?"

Vin wouldn't press, though. He never did. It was one of the things that had most appealed about him to Chris. "Nope."

"Didn't think so."

And what finally pushed him to break the silence. "I can apologize just as good in the dark."

"Nothin' to apologize fer."

"I shoulda listened to you."

"I ain't your mama."

"Nope. But you're a good friend. I let Ella distract me from that for a while."

"Happens to all of us, Chris." It had with Vin just a year before, with that woman from the wagon train. There had been no apology needed between them then, either. Chris was glad to have that off his chest, anyway, but the heaviest weight still remained on his heart. He shut his eyes tiredly.

"Any word yet?"

For the first time, Vin shifted in the darkness. "Nope. Me an' Josiah 're still tryin' every town in the Territory we can think of, but so far nobody's seen her."

He had expected as much. Ella was good at hiding in plain sight.

A creak of the chair as Vin leaned forward. "You want me to go after her?"

It was tempting. Tanner wouldn't stop until he found her, and find her he would. Nobody hid long from the tracker when he was determined.

But Ella would be waiting now, and Chris had seen what she was capable of. He'd lost enough people he cared about to her already without risking adding Vin to that balance. Besides, she was his. And there was yet another reason to stay alive, because someday, somewhere, they would meet again and settle the debt.

"No," he said quietly.

Another creak as Vin leaned back, as accepting as if he'd heard that whole internal argument. With how well the younger man knew him, maybe he had.

"You saw the attic?"


"She was the one behind it, Vin. She was the one who hired Fowler."

"I know. You did some talkin' while you had the fever. We kinda figured out the rest."

"She did it for me," Chris said bitterly.

Vin didn't say anything, just listened.

Chris rolled onto his good side, toward Vin, holding his breath until the flare of pain eased. "Everyone wants me to give 'em answers, fix things. I don't know what gave them the idea- I don't even have my own answers."

A pause. "Maybe they don't need answers. Maybe they just need somebody t' believe in."

"Never looked good in a white hat," Chris said, frustrated.

He got a quiet chuckle for that. "Y' don't have to wear it alone, Cowboy. You got a lot of people around here who're willin' to take a turn. They just need someone to show 'em how."

"I never asked for that job."

"Don't recall any of us askin'."

"You got an answer to everything, Tanner?" he snapped.

"Nope." Indomitably patient, and yet there was that silent question again.

Chris shook his head against the pillow. He couldn't get away from it, could he? Fine, if they wanted an answer, he'd give them one. It had been gnawing at him for days, anyway: was he giving up again, taking off and dying slow or fast? Or would he scrape together his courage and stay and keep trying?

Maybe - maybe - he'd decided somewhere along the way, he still had something to offer. The other six seemed to think so, and if nothing else, he knew he could always trust Vin's insight. Chris's soul wasn't as bleak and broken as it had been a week before; maybe it would bear the load again, with a little help.

"Y'ain't alone now, Larabee," came the quiet reminder from next to him that he wasn't making that decision for only himself.

A little help. Try six men's worth. And, if Chris was being honest with himself, maybe that little bit was the only thing that would make it all bearable.

It was a lot of maybes, the story of his life. But one thing Chris had become certain of from that whole mess with Ella. He wasn't brave - or blind - enough to turn away from the people around him on whom he depended as much as they ever had on him.

And there it was, his answer.

Chris took a deep breath, the first real fill of his lungs since Ella had returned into his life, and found the outline of his friend in the darkness. "You hang on to that table in the back," he said quietly.

Vin leaned forward to clap him, gently, on his good arm. Chris could almost see his smile.

And, finally, he was smiling, too.

The End