Disclaimer: The following is a work of fan fiction based on the CBS television series, The Magnificent Seven. It is in no way intended to infringe on the copyrights of CBS, MGM, The Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., or anyone else who may have legal rights to the characters, settings or song references. I don't own the characters. This story is strictly for entertainment. No monetary gain will be made from anything contained in this story.
Author Notes: The original characters, situations, fictional towns, histories, dialogue, etc. and all other unique components to the stories I've created herein, are mine. Please do not use them without permission.
Music and Lyrics "I Believe in Father Christmas" by Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
This story was formerly hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in July 2016.
They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on Earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the Virgin's birth....
Friday, December 21st, 9 p.m.
The unforgiving wind whipped around the corner, biting the back of the elderly woman. She tucked her head closer to her chest, as she was forced up the walkway at an unnatural speed. Twice, she peeked up through the snow squall and squinted at the building ahead. The steps were covered with several inches of fresh powder and it made the trip difficult. Finally, she made it to the top, holding her headpiece on and making her way to the large, ornate doors. Then she hit a patch of ice and would have fallen, if not for a pair of strong hands.
"Ya okay, Sister?" Vin Tanner shouted over the wind, while steadying the small figure.
"Yes, thanks to you young man," she paused and looked at the handsome features, bright red from the wind and the long hair, now covered by a white shadow. He had no gloves and only an old buckskin jacket. Frowning, she felt his frozen fingers on her write as they guided her towards the door. "You're freezing! Come inside..." She waited until the massive door was opened and the strong head guided her inside. The warmth of the church was embraced and welcomed by both figures. "There, that's much better. Thank you again."
"...s'okay, Sister," Vin's teeth were chattering, he'd debated outside the door far too long. As if reading his mind, he looked down and saw the brown eyes of the older woman studying him.
"How long were you out there?"
"Too long," Vin replied, trying to calm his jumping arms. "Can seem t'warm up..."
"Have you journeyed far?"
"I walked over from the hospital..."
She was about to reply but the combination of the pain in his voice and the emotion in the large blue eyes made her pause. Then, they were interrupted.
"Sister Michael Anne, we were worried!"
"Father McGuire you worry too much!" She retorted, "I perfectly capable of coming over from the convent. I'm not the rocking chair type..."
Vin grinned at that, seeing a spark in the dark eyes. He looked closer and saw the short gray hair peeking from under a hat. The large silver cross was a Native American design, and he noted her features seemed to convey that background.
"The choir is ready and Mrs. Chase is anxious to get started," the puffy-faced pastor noted of the high-strung organist. "Her husband is coming promptly at ten to pick her up and..."
"Yes, yes, yes," she waved him off, shaking her head. "I'll be right up..." She waited until he retreated and rolled her eyes. "A good man but a bit too old fashioned for me...Now where were we? Oh," she took his arm and led him inside and up the main aisle.
"Oh, hey, look Sister," he stopped and shook his head, "I wasn't gonna...I don't need...I mean..."
"Young man," she interrupted, "I've been following my instincts since I took my vows over fifty years ago. Whatever is causing that awful anguish in your heart, needs to be purged. I've someone you need to meet."
Vin found himself following the feisty nun to the side of the church where a manger was displayed. It was several feet high and well made. Beneath the wooden structure were the figures of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus. There were shepherds, sheep, Wise Men and a drummer boy. Several angels completed the Nativity. He moved past her, drawn to the very realistic infant. There was a light shining from him...and Vin couldn't tear himself away from the radiance in the small face. He sat down in the front pew, mesmerized by the scene.
Fortunately for him, the wicked cold spell outside and his long jaunt covered the real reason he was trembling. The quaking limbs didn't come close to the tremors riding inside him. He sighed heavily, his heart torn on what choice to make. He felt a soft touch and jumped a bit, then relaxed at the strong brown eyes.
"Here," she handed him a mug full of steaming liquid. "You look like the hot chocolate type. I'm usually a pretty good judge..." she waited and saw a brief smile and patted his shoulder. "Good...you take all the time you need. He's a good listener..."
"Thanks..." Vin offered, watching the elderly nun make her way up to the choir loft. He sipped the sweet mixture and let the mug warm his icy hands. As the harmonious voices filled the church, bearing words of a holy night long ago, he let his mind drift back in time. Just a little over twenty-four hours ago...before his world exploded.
+ + + + + + +
I remember one Christmas morning
A winter's light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas Tree smell
And their eyes full of tinsel and fir
Thursday, December 20th, 6 p.m.
"Hey, Chris, grab me a beer!" Nate Jackson hollered from where he and Ezra were wrapping a pile of toys to be donated to the Children's Hospital. Josiah and Buck finished their pile and were leaving them on the porch, where J.D. and Vin were packing them in the back of Chris's truck.
Buck paused in the doorway, the sharp call of the voices of the ATF team's youngest members calling from the large grounds below. He laughed as J.D. dodged, narrowly missing a snow missile launched by Denver's finest sniper, Vin Tanner. Josiah wore an easy smile too. Since Tanner joined the team several months before, a sense of balance reigned. After a dozen or more icy balls of snow were exchanged, Vin got his in the face and leaped down from the back of the truck.
"Yer dead, Kid!" he hollered, scampering after the laughing Bostonian.
"Give 'im hell, J.D.!" Buck hollered, shaking his head as Dunne slipped and Tanner dove on him. The two wrestled, rolling down a hill of snow. The tall rogue happened to glance into the kitchen and spotted the team's leader, Chris Larabee, gazing wistfully out the window. He eyes were trained on the nimble Texan, whose distinctive drawl was heard all over the property. Buck couldn't help smile at the grin Larabee wore. He came inside and poured a cup of coffee, then heard Vin's whooping war call of victory. Laughter spilled from the blond leader's lips and his eyes crinkled in mirth. Wilmington turned back and saw the lean Texan sitting on the struggling Easterner, both hands raised in victory. That relaxed stance Larabee now had, the peace he'd found, was due to the unassuming long-haired sharpshooter. He raised his coffee mug and toasted the handsome young man, who was trudging back toward the house.
"Thank you, Vin Tanner," he whispered, glad to have his oldest friend back.
"They could have used your skill and tactical expertise at the Alamo," Ezra saluted, as the first of the wet, frozen pair entered the house.
"Y'all saw that?" Vin whooped again, grinning from ear to ear. "I washed his face clear t'the bone."
"J.D., I gotta learn you better!" Buck smacked the wet coat and laughed at the snow in the youth's ears, nose and down his shirt. "Damn, that boy whomped you but good..."
"I fell..." J.D. tried, trying to make his frozen fingers work the zipper on his coat.
"Bullshit!" the jubilant victor challenged, tossing his coat to the grinning Southerner. "Hell, Larabee ain't ya got the vittles done? We've been doin' all the work. Leastwise ya could get the food ready."
"No!" Chris put both hands up at the sopping duo. "Get those wet things off. You troop that mess in the kitchen, it melts on the floor, somebody falls and we end up in the ER. Go change...food's almost ready."
The smells from the kitchen assaulted the soaking pair and they quickly departed for the utility room, changing into sweats while their clothes tumbled in the dryer. Because of the second entrance in the room off Chris's kitchen, they grabbed two plates and were loading them up with food when the rest entered.
"Jesus!" Buck complained. "When's the last time you two saw food?"
"Shut up, Buck," Dunne hollered back, before Vin stuffed a garlic stick in his mouth.
"Thank you for leaving a morsel or two for the rest of us," Ezra grumbled, picking up the lone stuffed shell that remained.
"I got more..." Chris grinned, eyeing the overloaded plates. "Vin, finish what you have before you take more, you're gonna get sick."
"Never happen," the smug Texan predicted with a wink to his best friend.
Buck watched the two youngest disappear into the den, settling down at the coffee table. He also saw that grin appear on Larabee's face again. Yes, Tanner not only complemented the team, he completed it as well. He restored a part of Larabee's soul, that Wilmington thought was lost forever. Gone up in the smoke that rose over the charred ruins of the fire that took the lives of Sara and Adam Larabee.
Later after coffee and many desserts were consumed, a hockey game played on the television and the group was sprawled around Chris's den. Buck was walking by the sofa, where Tanner's lean body was sprawled. The blue eyes were half-mast and a soft snore was sounding. The older man squinted and bent over, then grinned and pulled up the warm flannel shirt.
"Hey, Vin, look at that!" he marveled.
"Damn!" the shaggy head came up and a smile split the handsome Texan's face. He ran his fingers over the slight rise in his lean abdomen. "I got a belly...I ain't never had one before..."
"Shut the hell up Vin or I'll show you how a face is washed," Josiah Sanchez bellowed. The team's eldest was on a diet and the smug Texan with the lowest body fat in the Rockies only made his battle worse.
The laughter that exploded in the room was a welcome sound to the owner of the home. Too long it had been missing and it felt damn good. He leaned back into the soft folds of the leather recliner and sipped a brandy, feeling complete for the first time in years.
+ + + + + + +
Friday Morning, December 21st, 9 a.m.
"Problem, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra paused at the last desk in the large room. Since his arrival, Vin had claimed the vacant area, staking out his need. It gave him a good view of all the other desks and easy access to Chris's large office; the empty space separating him from the others gave the privacy he sought. It was, however, next to the cantina the team set up and therefore, every trip for coffee or food resulted in someone stopping by. The southerner saw the frown on the young man's face as he hovered over a newspaper.
"Crossword." Vin cocked his head and studied the lines before him.
J.D. and Nate were on their way to get coffee, Chris was passing by with a bagel and Buck and Josiah left their own desks to see what the others were doing.
"Hey, I'm good at them," J.D. offered. "What's the clue?"
"...got the answer...but it don't fit..." Vin complained, scrunching up his face.
"The clue?" Nate repeated, waiting.
"Buck's mate," the Texan replied.
"That's easy," Chris said.
"...thought so...don't fit...too many letters..."
"You spelled it wrong," Ezra suggested.
"No..." Vin sat up. "I spelled it right."
"What did you get?" J.D. asked, intrigued by the grin Vin was fighting to hold off.
"Miss Nude Basketballs."
For a few seconds nobody spoke, then Josiah's deep baritone was heard. "Did Vin just make a joke?"
"I do believe that was a feeble attempt to engage in humor," Ezra said seriously.
"I think you're right!" Nate replied just as somberly.
"For your information, wiseass," Buck swatted the back of Vin's long wavy brown hair, as he ducked and laughed . "It was Miss Nude Softballs and she took that job to get through school."
"Neurosurgery, wasn't it Ezra?" J.D. nudged the smiling conman.
"I was sure it was Aeronautical Engineering," he replied, hearing the snickering beginning among the group.
"She was a nice girl, she just got mixed up a little," Buck defended of the buxom redhead he dated briefly.
"Mixed up," Nate chortled, "she thought the city was named after John Denver."
"Anybody could make that mistake," Buck retorted, then grinned. "Well, almost anybody..."
Chris smiled, glad to see the change evolving in the quiet new member of the team. Over the last few weeks, he'd loosened up enough to join in the antics that the unique team shared. The laughter and bantering was interrupted by Vin's beeper going off. Buck and Chris's emitted the same shrill sounds. Larabee pushed his off, leaned over Tanner's shoulder and picked up the phone, quickly punching in the numbers. He raised one hand, instantly silencing the group.
"Larabee." He nodded, "Yeah, Deke...Shit...when?" He changed hands and quickly began to write.
Vin sat up and watched the cryptic message appearing. As soon as the words 'high school' and 'shooting' appeared, his heart sank as he stood up.
"Ten minutes..." Chris finished, "I know that school, I taught a self-defense class there. Behind the cafeteria in the lot...okay..." He hung up, sighed and shook his head.
"How bad," Buck asked.
"Don't get much worse, three kids dead already, two teachers and a half dozen others wounded. The gunman's holding about twenty people hostage in the cafeteria, mostly kids."
"Jesus!" Nate exclaimed. "You backup?"
"Yeah, SWAT wants me and Buck on the negotiating team. Vin," he turned, "you got the top of the mark," he noted of the most crucial spot required. The Texan's reputation for deadly accuracy and minimal usage of ammo had quickly spread around the law enforcement field in Denver. "That was Deke Slater, we're meeting Mike's team at the back of the school. We can change there...let's roll."
+ + + + + + +
Lieutenant Deacon "Deke" Slater had been a member of the SWAT team for over twenty years. At six-foot-five and two hundred and twenty pounds of muscle, the black man was a striking force. His hair was just starting to gray at the temples, but he felt as young as ever. Thousands of hours spent crouching in confined spaces and waiting; that was the hardest part, not the skill with the weapon. Keeping your focus, tuning the world out and concentrating on the prey, that took real skill. There were hours spent waiting for a break or for the right moment to take your shot. That was the last resort, but often the only choice. He shivered slightly despite the cold day and the icy winds whipping over the rooftop. He watched through high-intensity glasses as Nick Alessio led the team of negotiators closer to the cafeteria. Nick was good...if anybody could talk this large gunman into surrendering, it was his gregarious Italian-American boss. His eyes shifted to the man several feet to his right. He shook his head and eyed the living statue. The kid hadn't moved in two hours. Nick said that Tanner was the best sniper he'd ever worked with and Deke didn't take Nick's word lightly. Only the peak of his hat was visible, settling onto the top of his back.
"Alert, everybody sharp...we got movement..." he barked through his mouthpiece, warning the dozen men spread over the rooftops of this building and the others. The call came in after 8:30. A tall masked gunman, dressed in military gear and a flak jacket, bearing a high-powered rifle and a duffle bag, entered a high school and began firing. The school was split into two buildings, one two stories and the other three. Three students were dead, their bodies removed from the entry way and principal's office. Two administrators, the vice-principal and a janitor were wounded and already at local hospitals.
The gunman herded the other students into the cafeteria, where he now kept them under his gun. Twenty students, ranging in age from thirteen to eighteen, and five teachers were sitting on the floor while the frantic gunman paced relentlessly. He saw Nick and Chris Larabee who, although an ATF leader, spent five years as a negotiator before leaving the city for a federal job. He was Nick's right-hand man back then and someone he trusted. Buck Wilmington only worked for Nick for two years, but he was good and Larabee trusted him. Several police officers and F.B.I. agents also crept outside the door.
Deke listened intently as Nick turned down the gunman's offer. All they knew about him as that he was tall, well-built and using the name Dakota. He spoke through a synthesizer so they had no idea of his identity. He wanted them to leave, speaking of the 'evils wrought by society' and how he 'needed to cleanse the souls of the innocent before it was too late.' He was a headcase and they were the hardest; there were no bargaining chips.
Vin kept his scope trained on the back of the gunman. The masked man swung his rifle at the terrified group, spewing threats. One young girl flipped out and started screaming. Before her classmates could stop her, she became hysterical and ran for the door. He ducked behind the rows of unturned tables he'd created as a barricade, blocking them from view.
"SHIT!" Vin swore, raising his head and squinting as a myriad of voices penetrated the earpiece. Then the quick report of gunfire was heard and the words he dreaded ever hearing pierced his brain violently.
"Larabee's down...Larabee's down..."
"CHRIS!" Buck screamed. They'd both moved in unison when the terrified girl ran helter-skelter down the hallway. Her hands clutched her throat and her staggered gait suggested a serious problem. She went down on all fours. Chris grabbed the back of her shirt and shoved her at Buck, ordering him to get her out. He returned fire, and as Buck scooped up the unconscious teenager, he saw the blond fly backwards, his head covered in blood. Well over a dozen years of training took over and he ran back down the hall and turned, handing her to a SWAT member. Then he jerked the restraining hand off and went back to get Chris. The gunman was turned away and the tall agent crept on his hands and knees. Ten feet...eight...six...four...a shoe...a leg…a belt. He tugged Chris upright and into a fireman's hold over his shoulder. The large pool of blood on the floor where the crimson-matted head was lying turned his stomach. He didn't have time to check for a pulse. He stood and bolted, wincing as something bit into his left bicep. Suddenly two black-vested bodies appeared, returning fire and driving the villain back into the sanctuary he'd created.
The short series of gunshots and Buck's screaming for help left him hopeful, until Nick's voice entered the airway.
"Christ, it's a fuckin' head shot..."
He vaguely heard Buck's anguished cry before he caught a flash of the gunman disappearing behind the tables in the cafeteria. It was just a brief glimpse, but Tanner's eagle eyes never missed. While the right arm sent a series of shots around the room, his left hand fumbled with the area over his hip.
"He's wired..." Vin barked, causing a burst of static.
"Repeat?" Alessi's voice squawked.
"He's wired...and it's activated."
"Identify," the boss requested.
"Can't be sure, looked like C4...detonator is on his hip..." Vin paused, keeping his scope on the wooden walls the gunman set up. "Chris?"
"He was still alive when they took him away..."
He didn't have time to react when the stranger reappeared. He slid back inside, gaining control of his mind and body. All the feelings retreated, emotions were destroyed and the cold returned to his soul. It was this steely approach to his bounty hunting work that made him so successful. Don't get attached, keep away from their eyes. So he purged the green eyes from his mind and let the stranger take over. The scope kept steady, the blue eyes keen and alert. No more sweat trickled down his back. He'd returned to the zone that kept him alive...until he first encountered the burning green eyes of Chris Larabee. He pushed the world away, concentrating fully on his task.
+ + + + + + +
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
And they told me a fairy story
'Til I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked at the sky with excited eyes
'Til I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise
Nathan turned at the sound of J.D.'s raised voice. The two had been waiting in the large area outside the Emergency Room. The dark-skinned healer had been by the large window, watching the world outside. He eyed the bulky bandage under Buck's shirt and raised his eyes to the other man's.
"I'm okay, hardly made a dent," Wilmington replied, sitting down and taking the coffee the youth offered. "Thanks, Kid. Any word on Chris?"
"No." Nate slumped next to Buck. "They're doing x-rays and a CT scan. Josiah's trying to find Orrin."
"He's one lucky bastard," the mustached agent replied, rubbing his arm and wincing. "A half an inch difference and he'd be dead. It's a bad graze, from what the EMT in the ambulance said..." his voice trailed off as he recalled the harrowing ride to the hospital and all that Larabee blood.
"I'm worried about Vin..." Nate said quietly, dropping his elbows onto his knees. "God knows what he must be thinking. He don't even know if Chris is alive."
"They'll get that bastard soon," Buck vowed, eyeing the news coverage on the television. "J.D., turn that up."
The youngest pushed the volume up and stared at the screen with his friends, as the reporter described the mounting tensions with every hour that passed.
+ + + + + + +
As the morning departed and the afternoon set in, Vin Tanner continued his hawk-like stance. His eyes never left the view of the barricade. As the hours wore down, so did the gunman's resolve. He was starting to come unglued and it showed. His ranting and pacing increased; he began to strike out at the victims with his boot or threaten them with his weapon. He was less careful, exposing himself in brief snatches as he lingered in the doorway, shouting obscenities to the SWAT team. Then they got a break...his rage spilled over at a teacher who was trying to encourage him to surrender. He kicked the man and the table behind him, taking down several feet of the barricade. He raised the rifle, continued his rambling and prepared to shoot. Vin heard the others in his earpiece, screaming for him to shoot. Their high-pitched calls, laced with profanity, were blocked out. He only heard one voice, the one inside that guided him. Focus, concentrate, wait...wait...wait. He edged his head up and gently pressed his finger to the trigger.
"He's down...everybody in...Green light...green light..." Nick Alessi ordered as the hostages poured out into the hall. "Deke...get down here..."
"Roger, Boss," Slater replied, watching the men on the roof with him pausing by the shooter. He hadn't moved yet; he was still crouched over clutching the gun. He approached the young man and flinched at the wide-eyed, unblinking stare. The only visible movement was the bobbing of his Adam's apple. He rested a hand on the tense shoulder. The whole body jerked and moved away, blue eyes flashing. "Easy now...you're still wired. Come on, let's get out of here."
Vin didn't reply, he collected his shaking limbs and his gear. He gasped loudly and swayed, not shrugging off the arm that steadied him. Nodding, he then walked slowly to the door on the roof and followed the rest of the team.
+ + + + + + +
Buck stood in the waiting room when the reporter broke in, stating that a shot had been fired. He saw the army of blue-jacketed personnel pouring towards the building just as the hostages ran out.
"He got him!" J.D. boomed, "One-shot Tanner..."
Nate was dialing Ezra, who was waiting for Vin at the scene. It rang several times before the southerner's voice broke in.
"Ezra, talk to me," the healer stated, watching the coverage.
"There's Vin!" the dark-haired youth announced, as a solitary figure walked very slowly into the main building. "God, he looks awful..."
"Damn," Buck whispered, shaking his head.
"I'm going to find him now," Ezra replied. "The gunman was fatally wounded, from what we just heard. Nick Alessi reported it was, and I quote, 'one fucking shot in a million'. Apparently, any variance in degree on the angle of the shot would have triggered the bomb he was carrying and killed all those hostages."
"You stay with him, Ezra, no matter how much grief he gives you," Nate dictated, knowing how upset the sniper would be. "Tell him Chris was only grazed and we're waiting to hear more." He shut the phone off and listened as the Chief of Police was making a statement. He reemphasized Ezra's report, laying the credit at Vin Tanner's feet, praising him for an exceptional job.
+ + + + + + +
"What the hell were you waiting for? He was practically fuckin' dancin' for you."
"Gregson, back off!" Nick Alessi intercepted the hot-headed SWAT officer who didn't like Vin Tanner. He moved over to where the younger man stood transfixed, a few feet from where the body lay. The corpse's brown eyes were wide and unseeing, and a steam of blood ran from his gaping mouth.
"He's only...a...kid," Vin stammered, his guts twisting.
"One of the teachers ID'd him, Thomas Richmond. He's sixteen and lives with his grandfather outside town. He's a loner and he's been in trouble before," Alessi responded. "Look Vin...Vin?"
He turned in time to see the world class shooter, whose steady eye and skilled hand had saved them from disaster, drop over a trash can and begin to vomit.
"Hey Boss," Deke's voice penetrated his earpiece. "One of Tanner's team is here, a guy named Standish."
"Okay, we'll be right out," Nick responded as the forensics team arrived. He moved behind the pale, shaken sharpshooter and gently rubbed his back. Once the body stopped convulsing, he gripped the underside of the shaking left elbow. "Come on, son, let's get the hell out of here." He helped him rise and then backed off as the body stiffened beneath his fingers. In a zombie-like state, Tanner moved away, taking his numb limbs outside.
Sixteen. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't get that out of his head. How the hell are you so screwed up at sixteen? How is killing your classmates and strapping a bomb to your chest the way out? The razor-like talons continued to claw at his tender insides. He didn't look where he was going; he just kept walking until someone blocked his path. From a faraway distance, he heard his name being called. He blinked and squinted and saw a familiar face.
Ezra stood up in the detaining area. The sectioned-off makeshift operation headquarters was just off the principal's office. He wasn't surprised at the pale features on the body before him. He knew the lost blue eyes would be haunted for a while. They seemed unnaturally large and horridly vacant as Vin entered the room. He didn't seem to be aware of the bodies moving near him or talking to him.
"Vin?" He placed a hand on the slumped shoulder and paused. "Vin? I've received word from Nathan that our brave leader was only grazed." That got a response. The lost eyes blinked twice and focused on him intently.
"Ezra?" Vin croaked, waiting for the blurry image to sharpen.
"Sit down before you fall down," he commanded, guiding the distraught body to a chair. He left him briefly to get a bottle of water. "Here," he encouraged, twisting the cap off and handing him the bottle. "Did you hear me? Chris was only grazed." The blue eyes closed in relief as the pale lips left the bottle.
Vin swiped the excess fluid from his chin and took several steadying breaths. The walls were closing in and it was suddenly chilly. "The girl?" he choked, recalling the reason Chris got shot.
"An asthmatic," he replied. "She's expected to make a full recovery."
"...he's only sixteen, Ez..." Vin choked, eyes burning. He dropped his head between his legs as the room began to spin. He heard the southerner giving directions for deep breaths. He felt the hand on his back and tensed up, but didn't pull away.
"I'm sorry, Vin." the southerner replied, wincing at the frail tone in the voice. How ironic that someone so deadly with a rifle possessed such a heart. He knew Tanner was torn up, and felt the body tense up again. He moved him quickly to the bathroom, waiting outside until the pale face reappeared. The blues darted at every wall and Adam's apple bobbed with furious abandon.
"Shall we go?" he suggested, knowing the Texan must feel like a caged rat.
The shaggy head nodded once and he moved towards the door. He waited while Tanner was quietly stripping off his flak jacket and stowing his gear. Vin hadn't said a word, but his trembling limbs and wide-eyed shock attested to his churning feelings. They moved through the parking lot, just in time for a throng of reporters to descend. It was nearly sunset and the colors in the sky seemed too brilliant tonight.
"Aw, hell..." Vin rasped, backing up and hitting Ezra.
"Not to worry," Standish replied, placing himself in front of the exhausted agent. He moved deftly through the throng, ignoring their questions and blocking Vin from them. At last, they were in the car. Ezra turned the heat up but it didn't seem to be hitting his passenger. Vin continued to tremble all the way to the hospital. He pulled up in front of the Emergency entrance and released the lock.
"Buck and the others are inside." Ezra noted, "Once I update Josiah and Orrin, I'll be back."
Vin nodded but made no move to leave. No matter what he tried, the ghastly image of the broken sixteen-year-old boy with blood pouring from his mouth lingered. He kept seeing the dead eyes that seemed to be screaming at him only. He looked at the palms of his hands and felt his insides churning again.
"What the hell did I do, Ez?"
The driver winced inwardly at the question in the trembling, raspy voice. "You saved the lives of two dozen innocent victims, that is what you've done." He got no response and the lost soul slid from the car, disappearing through the double doors.
Vin paused in the entryway, eyeing the crowded waiting room. He scanned the faces but saw no familiar ones. He saw the admissions clerk and approached the desk, waiting in line for his turn. After gaining the room number, he quickly made toward the elevator. The doors slid open and he jumped back his name was shouted.
"VIN!" J.D. hollered, stepping off the elevator and attempting to grab his startled friend. Nathan pulled him back and put a hand of warning up. He moved in front of the youth, and caught the shocked sniper's eyes.
"...m'fine..." Vin mumbled, suddenly very uncomfortable. He dropped his head and stared at the floor.
"Then get your head up, you got no cause to hang it. You ain't a damn dog!" Nate ordered, watching the face rise slowly.
"No, I'm a child killer," Vin spat back, unleashing part of his pent-up fury.
J.D. frowned and remained mute, not sure of how to proceed. Vin was clearly out of his element, fighting to remain composed. If only Chris were here, he'd know what to say; he could always get through to Vin.
"I'm sorry Vin," Dunne offered, resting a hand on the wet tan jacket. Vin nodded once but kept his eyes averted.
"First of all, you have the courtesy to look me in the eyes when I'm talking to you." Jackson said coldly as the blue eyes finally met his own. "Now you listen to me, Vin Tanner, there's two sides to every story. Keeping the peace, we're on the right side. The poor boy was on the wrong side. Sixteen or sixty, wouldn't make a difference. You did what needed to be done to save the lives of all those people. He wasn't some innocent child that got caught in a takedown. The minute he strapped that bomb on his chest and picked up a rifle, all bets were off."
Vin stared deep into the brown eyes which, prior to this moment, he'd only seen filled with kindness and warmth. Now they were cold, and he felt the ice hitting him. It cut through some of the fog and his head felt a little clearer.
"We understand each other now?" the dark-skinned agent inquired and saw the shaggy head slowly nodding. "Good, 'cause I don't waste my five-dollar speeches on just anybody, only folks I care about. Chris is getting some tests done. Buck's up there waiting for him with Nick Alessi. Josiah called, Orrin wants us to meet them downtown. They found a couple of suspects in the Jensen Warehouse case," he noted of a case they were in the middle of investigating. "We'll be back later."
Vin saw the hand coming at him and waited a moment before taking it and releasing a deep breath at the strong grip. Nate's left hand squeezed the side of his neck and the shaken sharpshooter saw the compassion sizzling in the brown eyes. He nodded mutely, feeling the full support in the strong gaze.
"Thanks Nate." He smiled weakly and lifted one corner of his mouth. He felt a last tug on his neck and the pair departed, as he entered the elevator.
"What did you yell at him like that for?" J.D. asked.
" 'cause he needed it." Jackson replied, turning back as Vin entered the elevator. The shoulders were a little straighter and he was glad for that.
Vin followed the numbers until he came to Chris's room. He ducked inside and took the empty seat, just as Nick exited the bathroom. He nodded and fidgeted with the zipper on his jacket. Despite Nate's strong words, he still saw those empty brown eyes. Suddenly, the aroma of the strong floor cleaner seemed to choke him. He gagged twice and started to rise, only to be shoved back down.
"That's enough!" Alessi stated. "Take a deep breath and get your head clear." He waited a moment until some color returned to the pale face. "It's warm in here, you don't need that coat." He tapped the shoulder and got the heavy buckskin coat off and tossed it on the bed. He departed for a moment and returned with a cold can of soda, courtesy of the nurse's station. He popped the top and handed it to the upset young man. He pulled the extra chair over in front of Vin Tanner and sat down. He waited for the lost blue eyes to meet his and then spoke.
"You listen to me, kid," the veteran of wars like this morning's stated with conviction. "You did a helluva job out there today. That eye of yours, I wish I could clone it," he praised, seeing the other man swallowing uncomfortably. "Anybody else and that killer would have blown us all to kingdom come. You're that good, Tanner. I've got close to twenty-five years wearing this badge and I've never seen better."
Buck returned from the pay phone, having contacted Josiah and Ezra. Standish told him that Tanner was in the building. Buck headed back towards the room but paused, seeing Nick Alessi's dark head. He heard the strong words and smiled. Nick was good for what ailed Vin. He backed off and walked a few feet away, spotting an old friend.
"Hey, man, how's the skirts this week?" Deke teased the womanizer, offering his hand.
"Keepin' me busy," Buck grinned. "How are you, Deke?"
"Gettin' too old for this shit, Buck," the black man replied. "I'll tell you one thing, that kid is one helluva shot. His timing...I ain't seen the likes of it...a second's difference, either way, we'd have been history."
"Preachin' to the choir, my man," Buck praised of the nimble-fingered sharpshooter.
"You ever get tired of his Texan ass," Slater came back with a smile, "you give us a call."
"Thanks Deke," Wilmington nodded, hearing the admiration, "but I think we're gonna keep him. Hell, I finally got somebody for J.D. to burn off that damn energy of his with."
They both turned as a gurney with Chris Larabee passed by. Deke slapped Buck's back and turned.
"By the way, you run pretty good for an old white boy," Slater teased of the heroic effort Wilmington made to save his friend's life.
"Who the hell are you calling old?" Buck tossed back with a grin, as Nick Alessi appeared. "He okay?" Buck tossed his dark head to where Vin Tanner sat inside the room.
"No," the senior officer decided, "but he will be. You stop over later, I need a statement."
"Will do," Buck said, waiting for the orderly to lift Chris onto the bed. Vin took his jacket and placed it on the vacant chair. The patient was still unconscious and a large bandage covered his head. He'd already spoken with the doctor, who had talked to Chris briefly. The blond had been in and out of consciousness over the last couple hours. He moved slowly, watching Vin rise and stand by the bed.
"Chris..." Vin whispered, tapping the bare arm peeking from a blue hospital gown. He needed those eyes to look at him. He needed to 'hear' Chris as only Larabee could 'speak' silently. The eyes remained closed and he studied the rise and fall of the chest. Sighing, he dropped his head, saying a silent prayer of thanks.
"He's got more lives than a damn cat," Buck joked, joining Vin by the bed. Vin seemed startled and then the blue eyes lingered on the bulky bandage under his shirt. "I'm okay," he assured the worried stare. "It's only a flesh wound." He grinned, "I always wanted to say that." His smile faded when the blue eyes grew murky and seemed lost again. He ached for Vin, knowing how desperately he needed Chris now. The two shared a deep bond and he wasn't sure if the Texan would open up for anyone else. "I'm fine, Vin, but you're not..."
"He was only sixteen..." Vin rasped, gripping the sides of the bed. "I fuckin' blew away a kid...sixteen..." he choked, swallowing hard.
"So were close to twenty of the other kids in that cafeteria, Vin. You saved a lot of lives today. Thanks to you, those kids will go to the prom, to college, get jobs, get married and have a family. Those teachers you saved, they get to go home tonight and kiss their spouses, hug their kids. That's what you did, and that's one helluva job, son."
"...it don't feel so good..."
"No, I know it doesn't, Vin," Buck sighed, rubbed the back of his neck and took a breath, "You can't sit still long enough or walk far enough. It's too hot, then it's too cold; your chest is too tight and you can't breathe. What little food and drink you do get down, doesn't stay put, goes right through you." He paused as Vin's head came up and the eyes seemed to warm a little. Maybe just a small part of this was sinking in. "When you lose that feeling, it's time to toss in that badge you wear so well. After fifteen years in law enforcement, I still feel it, every time it happens. You always will too. You got more integrity shining through them damn blue eyes of yours than anyone I've ever known."
Vin swallowed hard as Buck's words hit him like bullets. He turned and looked hard at the handsome man's face, seeing a depth of compassion and admiration. He didn't move when Buck's strong hands rested on both his shoulders.
"...and I'm prouder than hell that I've got you watchin' my back," Buck attested, and then pulled the trembling younger man into a fast embrace. He felt the bones and muscles melt and smiled at the shuddering gasp.
"Thanks Bucklin..." Vin managed, feeling a warmth invade him, giving him strength.
Over Vin's shoulder, Buck saw that Larabee's eyes were open.
Through an intense pain in his head, Chris heard Buck Wilmington's words. He knew little of what happened. From the snatches of conversation he'd gained over the last few hours coupled with what he now heard, the shooter was a kid. A kid Vin had to kill to save the hostages. But knowing Vin, he wouldn't see it that way. Buck said it so well, the words he wanted to say but couldn't yet. The severe pain in his head prevented him from speaking. He spoke his thanks silently, hoping that oldest friend understood.
Buck saw the gratitude pouring from the green eyes and smiled. "You're welcome," he silently spoke to the gaze. "I'm gonna stretch my legs," he stated, knowing the two needed to be alone. He gave Vin's back a final pat and left.
Vin turned back and felt the eyes scrutinizing him. "Ya look like shit, Cowboy," he managed, gripping the hand that came up at him. He didn't miss the intense pain in the eyes, which were blinking rapidly. "Ya tryin' to pick me up? Yer wastin' all that winkin'...close yer damn eyes, I ain't goin' anywhere." He waited for the eyes to close and took a seat. "In case ya didn't hear yet, I killed a kid...blew 'im away..."
"...justifiable..." Chris barked, stronger than he intended.
"Ya don't even know what went down!" Vin protested at the strong conviction.
Vin didn't have a response to that. A part of him needed to hear those words, or rather, suck in the feeling behind them. So he inhaled greedily before sighing. "...he's only a kid..."
"...doesn't make...him...any less...deadly..." Chris tossed back, head pounding.
"I keep seein' his eyes...he's only sixteen..."
"He was carrying a fuckin' semi-automatic, Vin," Larabee seethed, "...and strapped with a bomb. What about the people that you saved? How come they're not as important?"
"Of course they're important!"
"You haven't mentioned them." Chris coughed and pressed his aching head into the pillow. He felt it lifted and a straw nudge his lips. He took the water and nodded, as his head was gently laid back down.
"Things sure look different from this side of the bed."
Chris heard the pain in the sharpshooter's voice, knowing exactly what he meant. In the few months since joining the team, this was the first time they'd had a close call. He knew how hard an adjustment it was for Vin, leaving the solitary life he'd lived to become part of a team. He now had a family, where there once was none. He now had a brother, someone who shared his pain and saw his promise. The bullet that struck his head this morning had wounded both of them.
"You mean I'm better looking?" Chris teased.
"...said 'different' not 'better'." Vin's smile faded when he remembered his own close call. "Ya remember when I was shot up? Ya told me, ya said, it was time t'come outta the shadows and into the light." He breathed harshly, gripping the rails intensely as he eyed the bulky bandage. So close...Chris had come so close to being taken from him. "Sometimes, Chris, the light, it's...too...damn...br...bright...it's fuckin' blindin'...me..." He forced the last few words out, feeling his eyes burning with pent-up tears. Tears of rage and frustration; tears for a sixteen-year-old boy with no soul and for a green-eyed savior who saved his soul and now lay broken in the bed before him.
"Would you give it up?" Chris addressed the pain and shuddering breaths, knowing Vin was barely holding on. "Give up on me?"
Chris smiled at the harsh sound of fear in the voice. Vin needed that fear. He had to be reminded of all that he'd gained, rather than dwelling on what he'd nearly lost. He brought his hand up and felt the other grip his forearm. "Then sit your whinin' ass down, will you?" He grinned, hearing a soft chuckle. He waited until the body was noisily planted in the chair and turned. "Start from the beginning, tell me how it went down." It came out slowly and haltingly, sometimes with great gaps of minutes between sentences. Chris's heavy eyes and burning head longed to rest, but he kept awake. Finally, it was done and a heavy silence draped the small room.
"I was right, it was a good shoot." Chris attested, "You know, Nick told me you're the best he's ever seen? He seemed surprised, I wasn't."
Vin smiled and stood, taking the arm extended. He saw the pain etched in the pale face and realized what Chris had suffered through, in order to cleanse his soul. Could he give this up? As if reading his brooding thoughts, Chris's hand retreated and he spoke.
"You headin' to that pile of wood in the hills?" he noted of the run-down shack Vin used before joining Team Seven.
"How'd ya know?" Vin grinned.
"Your damn pondering's giving me a headache." He grinned, knowing that by now, the sniper needed some fresh air. "I'm gonna rest my eyes. You be careful..."
"...been lookin' after m'self fer years, Larabee." He paused and saw that the deep concern still lingered. "I ain't gonna fall off the damn mountain," Vin chortled, grabbing his coat.
"You better not, Tanner," the blond warned, "I hate paperwork. Do me a favor?"
"Wait until morning. It's been snowing for days and the roads will be icy...too dicey to handle in the dark."
"Ya up early?"
"You have to ask?" Chris grumbled, "You lose your memory?"
"Oh," Vin grinned and wrinkled his nose, recalling all too well. "Cold hands on the catheter? Damn...helluva way to wake up."
"Don't come empty-handed." Chris warned, settling back in the thick pillows. "Bring danish, not them shitty cheap doughnuts you usually tote in to the office."
"Yes, yer highness..." Vin tossed back, turning to leave.
"Vin, see if you can find Buck? I need something from my desk and he has my keys."
"Okay," Vin replied, taking his body to the hall. The walls were closing in and he needed fresh air. He needed to think, to sift out all the broken pieces in his mind. He found Buck by the nurse's station and found his first smile in hours. The charmer was creating a tall tale, recounting his saving Larabee's life. He waved at the tall man, who broke free of the trio he'd been entertaining.
"Duty calls, ladies," Buck apologized, slipping the phone numbers in his pocket. "But I'll be just down the hall." He moved to where the smirking Texan was standing. "You leaving?"
"Yeah, I need air." Vin shifted his feet, "We had a talk..."
"Good!" Buck beamed, knowing Larabee worked his magic.
"He wants t'see ya..."
"Okay," Buck walked to the elevator with Vin. "Listen, when you get done 'walking', you give me a call. Nick had one of his men bring my car over. I'll come for you, don't matter what time it is...you got that?"
"I got it," Vin smiled. "Thanks..."
Buck waited until the younger man left and made his way to Chris Larabee's room. He took a sip of the coke Tanner left behind and belched, causing the green eyes to appear in pained slits.
"You didn't tell him, did you?" Buck asked quietly.
"No," he replied, closing unseeing green eyes. "He's got enough shit weighin' him down. He couldn't bear this too," he spoke of his blindness. "He's coming back in the morning. He's heading to the hills...to do some thinking."
"You gonna tell him?" Buck lifted a cup of water and guided it to Chris's lips.
"I'll tell him when the time is right," he replied. "I need you to go to the office tonight. I need something from my desk."
+ + + + + + +
"I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish, pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear**"
The snow had begun to fall again, sometime in the hours that lapsed between the dark moment and now. He shoved his hands in his pockets and tucked his chin to his chest, squinting through the wind and icy snow pelting his face. He paused at the front of a department store, watching a woman struggling with two squirming toddlers, several packages and a clueless husband, who walked ahead seemingly oblivious. The ring of the bell drew him to a stop. An elderly man proudly wearing the uniform of the Salvation Army shivered in the wind, next to a large red kettle. Vin fumbled, embarrassed that he only had two dollars. He shoved them in the slot and took the blessing the man offered.
His eyes caught the blurry visions of the store window as he passed by. A Victorian scene with a family caused him to stop. He stood transfixed, his heart aching. A pain engulfed him; a longing inside for something never lost but desperately needed. A time from long ago when life was simpler. When the word family seemed so much more noble. He eyed the lifelike mannequins, several small children helping their father decorate a large tree. The mother's face was nearly radiant; she held an infant close to her heart, rocking in a chair. A warm fire blazed in the hearth, a table stood loaded with cookies. Greenery and red bows completed the warm holiday scene. He swallowed hard and let his eyes linger, wishing for something he couldn't touch. The biting wind forced him to move and it was with bittersweet reluctance that he left the magical scene.
Somehow this time of year always brought a dull ache to his heart. But this year was going to be different. This year, for the first time since he was a child, he had a real family. People he cared about and who cared for him. The wind didn't seem to burn his face as much when he thought on Nate's speech in the lobby. J.D...hell, who couldn't not like him. The kid's zest for life and enthusiasm had given him so much. Josiah, there wasn't a time when he wasn't there with a strong word or sound advice. Ezra wasn't the mystery he painted himself to be; a fact that didn't bother the southerner as he let on it did. As a matter of fact, he understood the elusive conman a little too well.
He turned the corner and the force of the wind and onslaught of snow made it hard to walk. The white storm blinded him and the only thing he could see, clear and tall, was a large gold cross. It rose high above a steeple and he set his horizon on it. As he trudged along, his thoughts came to the two closest members of his new family, Buck and Chris. Buck&mdashjust his name brought a smile. Life-loving, generous to a fault, and a complete charmer. But also tougher-than-nails, braver than most anyone Vin knew, and loyal. He'd liked Buck from the start, and that large heart made his transition easier. That left Chris. There were no words to cover the depth to which this man had reached inside him. Brotherhood? Maybe, but something much deeper, almost intangible. Almost like he'd found a part of himself that had been missing most of his life.
He tripped and went down on all fours, his hands buried wrist-deep in snow. The ice bit into him and he rose, eyeing the deserted street. A phone...he needed a phone. Again the only thing visible that now seemed to be glowing at him was the cross. He stumbled onward, until he was on the top step, just a short walk from the door. He stood uncertain, wondering what drew him here. He didn't understand the reason his inner voice was telling him to go inside this building. As he pondered, a blur in navy blue caught his side vision. A tiny nun was being blown up the walk. He saw her foot hit an icy patch and bolted.
+ + + + + + +
Two hours later, in downtown Denver
"Where could he be?" the passenger raged. "Goddammit, I told him to call. Jesus, it's a fuckin' blizzard out there. He ain't home, he ain't at the hospital, none of the team has heard from him..."
"Buck, calm down!" J.D. hollered, "I can't concentrate with you carrying on like that. It's hard enough trying to navigate in this storm. The road is a sheet of ice..."
"It's not your fault," Dunne answered the guilt that Wilmington wore so easily.
"I shouldn't have left him go...he was upset."
"He's not a kid," the youth replied, "and he'd have sense enough not to be out in this. I'm telling you, he's safe somewhere."
"Then why hasn't he called?"
"Maybe he fell asleep."
"Yeah, maybe..." Buck sighed, peering through the dark glass. "I'm gonna try Nate again..."
"Maybe you better think twice about that, it's almost eleven p.m. and Rain had a double shift. She might be sleeping."
"Oh...yeah...I'll try Josiah..." he started to pull his phone out. "Hey, Kid, there's a diner up the block. Let's get some coffee."
"Okay," J.D. saw the sign and grinned, "Hey, I know this diner. They got awesome Nacho fries..."
"Lucky me..." Buck groaned of the vision he was about to be treated to.
+ + + + + + +
"It's nearly eleven, Sister, I have to lock the doors."
"Yes, I know, I'll get him..." she answered the young priest and made her way up the aisle. All during the choir practice, she'd watched him. He hadn't moved. He sat quietly, staring at the manger. What was troubling him so? She paused at the side of the pew and warmed at the sight of the handsome profile. She tapped his shoulder gently, but he didn't respond
"Young man...young man..."
So lost was Vin in his thoughts, that he never heard her approach. He'd been transported back in time, reliving his youth, his happy and sad times. His rough teenage years and the lonely years on the road hunting bounties. Then the most satisfying time in his life, the last few months here at home. Home, that is what Denver had become. A haven, someplace with the excitement, sports, culture and activity of a big city; yet nestled at the foot of the spectacular Rocky Mountains. How often had he spent weekends lost in their majesty? The peace he'd sought for so long, he thought he finally found. A mural of eyes were exposed. The soulful green ones of his best friend. , whose color had an infinite range from the warmth of emotion and humor, through the burning of anger and rage, through the steely rays of simmering injustice. He'd grown accustomed at gaining the answer by merely looking there. Then the cold brown ones of a lost child interrupted his path. The red blood that spilled from the youths pale lips...blood he'd driven out. A voice hovered nearby, and someone touched him, causing him to jump.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" she moved back, "I didn't mean to startle you so..."
"...s'okay, Sister..." Vin mumbled, eyeing the room, as if seeing it for the first time. "I musta got lost in time...I'm sorry, I didn't mean t'be a bother..."
"Did you get your answer?" She asked, sliding into the space next to him. "I hope whatever is causing that pain you're not hiding...well, I hope talking to Him helped. What do you see there?" She asked, studying the look of wonderment on his face, as he gazed at the infant Jesus. "First impression..." His lips moved and opened then closed again. She saw his eyes dart sideways and smiled. "No cheating allowed."
"Yer good..." Vin chuckled then sighed, sitting back in the pew.
"Very first thought...when you look at His face..." She guided, watching his large blue eyes move from his hands to study Mary's child. "In here..." she tapped his chest and got a smile.
"It ain't gonna come out right...it's gonna sound funny..."
"Warm...safe..." Vin sighed, cocking his head, "...like the feelin' ya get when yer Ma hugs ya real tight after a bad dream. He ducked his head and shook it, "...silly huh?"
"No, of course not," she leaned closer and took his arm, "Everyone should have a mother like that. What else?"
"Uh...tranquility...serenity...strength...and...and..." Vin paused and stared again at the tiny newborn's face, "a kinda peace...something I don't think I ever felt the likes of..." he studied his hands again and then the Holy Child. "By His hand we're blessed by unconditional love, heaven sent on the wings of a dove..."
"That's beautiful," she smiled and saw him blush, "and that's His gift to you. You take that...all those things you felt...you take that with you. They are your tools...they'll help you solve whatever it is that troubles you so..."
"I don't think it'll be enough, Sister..." he sighed and scrubbed his face.
"Is it someone in your family," she guessed, seeing the depths of despair in those luminous eyes, "in the hospital I mean..."
"Yeah..." he whispered painfully. "Chris is in there. He got shot today...at a school..."
"Oh my," she put one hand to her throat and blessed herself with the other. "I saw that on the television. Was he one of the teachers?
"No, ma'am...he's an ATF agent, like me." Vin paused, blowing a long burst of air slowly from his mouth, "He got shot savin' one of the hostages. She had an asthma attack...and the gunman flipped out. Chris got shot savin' her...shot in the head. I almost lost him..." he choked up, ending the sentence.
"He's expected to live?" She questioned, seeing the deep pain and fear.
"Yeah...it was a bad graze. Onry old cuss was ridin' Lady Luck..."
She heard the tremble in his voice and saw him swallow hard. Something was hiding inside and needed to come out. "You're close to him?"
"Yeah," Vin whispered harshly, "Ya see, Sister, most of m'life I been keepin' m'own company. I done alright, I got by, never let anyone get close, kept movin' on. I did a whole lot I'm not proud of...then I met Chris a few months ago. He looked right through me, clear down t'my soul...still gives me a shiver..." he paused for several seconds and opened his hand. "He give me this...and that's all he asked fer in return. From that, I got a family, a real one, we work together and we squabble and fight amongst ourselves, but nobody else better pick on one..." he smiled, thinking of how guarded his back now was. "Fer the first time in years, I got somethin' real...somethin' I can touch, hold onta...a good job, a good place t'live, a family..."
"That's more than some less fortunate souls gain in a lifetime," she added, "Your friend, he sounds like quite a man."
"...and then some, Sister," Vin replied.
"But if he's expected to survive, why is there such fear lingering in those beautiful eyes?"
"He ain't the only one in the hospital," his voice wavered and he looked away, almost ashamed. He studied his hands again, unfolding them and turning them over.
"Is there something wrong with your hands? Why do you keep looking at them?" she glanced from his hands to the pain in his face. "Are you injured?"
"No, ma'am...not so's ya can see it..." He paused. "In the morgue...there's a boy...he was only sixteen...I...I...put..." he left out a shuddering breath and stared at the ceiling, feeling his eyes burn. "...I...put...him...there...with these..." he clenched his fist shut.
"A boy?" she sat back, sliding her hand from his bicep to his hand and taking it. "The boy with the gun?" She added the clues and saw him nod slightly. "You're the man...the sharpshooter...the hero that saved all those people?"
"HERO!" Vin's voice rose and he pulled away, shaking his head. "Don't say that! I ain't no hero...God...I killed that boy...hero?" he spat in contempt.
"Do you know what a hero is?" She held up her hand when he started to reply. "Not like the trash they show in the movies. I mean a real hero." She waited, then continued. "Well, I'll tell you. It's someone whose courage allows them to overcome their fear and in your case, save lives. That is what I see in those fine eyes of yours, a nobility and grace that suits you so very well. He..." she nodded her head to the infant, "doesn't give that to just anyone...only those who have the right heart. I think He chose rather well."
For a moment Vin couldn't say a word, but he felt his face flaming. He dropped his head and continued to take heaving breaths of air. Something flickered inside and he looked at the infant's face again and felt the flame grow stronger.
"The lost lamb?" she blurted out and smiled, "that's what is bothering you? You cannot see the lambs you saved, because of the one you couldn't. That lost lamb is tormenting you?" She watched the emotive eyes shut and heard his shuddering gasp. "Oh my..." she choked, resting both tiny hands on either side of his face. "That is so very rare...and I'm so glad I got the chance to meet someone that special." She waited and watched the eyes open in wonderment.
"Rare?" Vin whispered, gazing at the tenderness in the warm brown eyes.
"As rare as that pretty blush you're wearing." She saw a smile and then heard a chuckle escape.
"The fellas don't think it's so pretty," Vin admitted, "They get t'teasin' me about it but good..."
"But you don't mind, do you?" She guessed and saw the smile widen.
"No...but I'd never tell them that." Vin stood, realizing the late hour and feeling the need to move on. He sighed, eyed the infant again and the tiny nun who wielded such power. "Would it be okay? I mean ya bein' a nun an' all...t'get a hug from a grateful stranger."
"No, it wouldn't," she replied and saw him stiffen and frown. "But I'd be proud to embrace a friend in thanks." She felt him trembling still as he hugged her, but there was a change. She hoped she'd been able to help a little. "Thank you..."
"Yer welcome, Sister and I reckon that's m'line...and it's Vin...Vin Tanner. I can't thank ya enough."
"Well, Vin Tanner," She held out his coat and waited for him to put it on. "How about you walking this tired old lady home and we'll call it even?"
"Don't think that's possible," Vin paused in the main aisle and saw her staring at him strangely. "I don't see no old lady here...just a new friend."
"Touché!" She laughed and let the strong arm steady her against the wind and storm. Finally, they were inside the convent.
"Would it be okay if I use yer phone? I need a ride."
"Certainly, there's one in the study..." she hung her coat up and walked through the hallway. He followed her, turning and going into a large room, where a group of women were watching television.
"This young man helped me to get home," she addressed the group. "He needs to use the phone...it's right this way Vin...Vin?" She saw him glance quickly at the group of nuns on the sofas and then turn away, his face puzzled. "What?"
"They's wearin' robes..." he blurted out.
"Well it does keep the chill off," she said with a straight face and waited.
"Aw, hell, I didn't mean..." Vin stammered and his eyes widened as her statement created another image, "Aw hell..." he stopped when he heard her laughing and felt his face burning. "Ya did that on purpose!" he accused.
"Guilty as charged!" she laughed. "I couldn't help myself, I needed to see that pretty blush again."
"Yer bad, ya know that!" Vin shook his head and eyed the phone. "Ain't ya got a regular phone?"
"Well, there is one in the kitchen," she paused, "it's right through the living room..."
"No, ma'am!" Vin denied, still seeing semi-clothed nuns, "This'll do just fine..." he dialed and waited for a reply, eyeing the voice box of the speaker phone.
"Ezra, is that you?" Buck raised his voice and held his ear, trying to hear over the clamor of the diner.
"Bucklin? I need a lift. I'm at..."
"GODDAMMIT VIN!" Buck roared, "Where the hell have you been? We've been looking all over for you. Why didn't you call sooner? You got J.D. scared to death that you're lyin' in a pile of snow somewhere froze to death."
"ME!" J.D. squealed. "You're the one who..."
"I'm fine!" Vin interrupted, smiling at how good Buck's voice felt. "I'm at a convent, it ain't far from the hospital. I can..."
"A convent?" Buck frowned then tried unsuccessfully to muffle his voice. "I think he's delirious...maybe he did take a fall. He thinks he's at a convent."
"What kind of convent?" J.D. asked loudly.
"What kind do ya think?" Vin shouted back, hearing the question.
"The kind with nuns?" Buck wondered out loud, frowning.
"No, Buck, a new kind, it's full o' retired Miss Nude Footballs..."
"Softballs and you leave her alone. A real convent? What are you doing there?"
"Getting some advice," Vin paused as Sister Michael appeared and placed a mug of hot cocoa with marshmallows on top in front of him, along with several homemade Christmas cookies. "...from a friend." He smiled and gripped the hand offered, not ducking this time. "Ya take yer time, we're havin' us a nice chat."
"You walked there from the hospital?" Buck asked.
"Yeah, it wasn't that far, it's next t'a church with a gold cross on the roof."
"I know where that is," J.D. told Buck, who nodded. "It's only a few blocks from here."
"Okay, Vin you sit tight, we'll be over..." Buck signed off.
"I didn't know Vin knew any nuns," J.D. mused, scooping up the last of the order of nacho fries. "Maybe I should get one to go, what do you think?"
"I think if you don't want to be cleaning throw-up off your car seat, you'll leave what's left of your stomach alone."
"Oh," J.D. cocked his head, "I guess it is a little late. Maybe I'll get a large Chocolate chip shake instead."
"Oh my God..." Buck groaned, tossed some bills on the table and left.
+ + + + + + +
Saturday morning, Dec. 22nd, 6 a.m.
Vin eased off his bike and took his helmet off. The world was so still and silent after a new fallen snow, it seemed to cover the troubles. But the shadows he wore and the circles under his eyes told a different story. Nightmares plagued his brief visit to the land of nocturnal and in simple English, he 'felt like shit'. He carefully unstrapped the plastic bag around the box of pastries. Walking through the ER, he saw only a few visitors in the waiting area. His mind flashed to the day before and the churning began again. This was the back road into the hospital. Visiting hours didn't begin until eleven a.m. He watched the numbers light up and then stepped off the elevator, anxious to see Chris. He felt a small comfort inside, knowing the astute team leader would bark at his unsettled state. He ducked in the room and placed the doughnuts on the bed stand, wheeling it over Chris. The blond was still asleep and Vin paused for a moment, studying the still features. He felt that tug again, a lurching fork twisting in his gut. He flipped the lid to the box several times, sending a wave of wonderful aroma in the room. He saw the head turn and then the eyes blink.
"Wake yer old ass up, Larabee," he tried to cover the uncertainty in his voice. He fumbled with the water cup, nearly tipping it over. "Here," he nudged the slack mouth and watched the lips open. After a good drink, he moved away, placing the cup on the bed stand. He unzipped his jacket and retreated in the shadows, pacing around the room.
"...bout fuckin' time, Tanner." Chris croaked, "...man could starve..." he paused, his ears picking up the boots clicking restlessly against the tiles. "Sit your ass down, will you?" He sniffed and missed a crucial morning fixture. "Where's the coffee?"
"Helluva offer," the blond quipped, "Man offers to bring you breakfast..."
"Shut yer ungrateful mouth," Vin snarled, eyeing the walls in the darkened room, his hand paused on the switch and then he remembered his own painful encounters with bright lights and a head injury. "I'll get some..."
"Grab some from the nurse's station, ask for...uh...Candy...she's still on duty."
Vin managed to find the nurse's station and waited for several minutes. Finally a middle-aged woman with tired eyes looked up. "You'll have to leave, Sir, visiting hours don't begin until..."
"It's okay Laura," another interrupted, "He's here for Larabee..."
"I ain't gonna make no noise," Vin attested as a young black girl approached him.
"I'm Candy, Chris told me you'd be by. How are you?"
"I ain't sure," he admitted, playing with the end of his zipper. "I brung danish fer him, if ye'd like some..."
"Thanks, but I'm ready to head home." She eyed his face and frowned. "You look awful, are you ill?"
"No ma'am...I fergot the coffee...Chris said ya might have some t'spare?"
"Sure...follow me. You can get some from the doctor's lounge." She handed him two large styrofoam cups and waved her hand at the pot, sugar and creamer. "Help yourself."
"Thanks." Vin nodded as she left, dousing his mug heavily with sugar. He took the handful of empty packets to the trashcan. He picked the cups up and prepared to leave, when voices approached. Three doctors entered, so he remained out of view. They were all young and wearing scrubs, residents most likely. The jargon being tossed around sounded like Greek to his ears. That was, until a familiar name entered the conversation.
"Man, am I beat," one yawned, "I covered for Davis yesterday and backed into my own shift..."
"Why don't you sack out?" another replied.
"I will...I'm waiting for MacInnis. He's overdue, roads must be pretty shitty..."
"MacInnis?" the third rummaged in a small refrigerator and pulled out a container of yogurt. "...the ophthalmologist from the Eye Institute?"
"Yeah, he was here yesterday for that cop...the one who got hit in the head at the school shooting."
"Larabee?" The second one nodded, biting into a donut. "Denise says he took it well. Gotta be a shock, waking up blind."
"Denise?" the first laughed, "Man you are out of your field, she's way above your class."
"Fuck you, Robinson..."
Vin remained frozen in place for several minutes after they left. The word struck him like an armor-piercing bullet. It slammed into his guts, shredding what little was left. Then his leaden limbs took him back down the hall. His heart was hammering so loudly, it made him wince. Blind. Chris was blind. His mouth dried up and his throat constricted. He thought of how effortlessly the words of comfort came yesterday. Chris must still have been in shock, he couldn't have known about his blindness that long. Yet, he pushed it aside to comfort him, reached out to try to heal the ravaged soul. He entered the room and saw the blond head pop up.
"Where the hell did you go for the coffee?"
"I...uh...it...sorry..." Vin choked, placing one down and spilling the other. "Shit!"
"You alright?" Chris frowned, hearing the bathroom door and water running. "Some steady hands you got...Vin? Vin?"
"Yeah...I burned m'self...just a little..." Vin stared at his image in the mirror and washed his face with cold water. Who was the man looking back at him? The edge he'd honed to perfection for years was gone. The eyes were a bit softer and the ripping pain in his gut wouldn't have been there before.
"Vin?" Chris called out, the silence hitting him hard. He hadn't missed the waver in the younger man's voice. "...talk to me..."
"Why didn't ya tell me?" Vin choked in a voice laced with sandpaper.
"Fuck!" Chris hissed, shoving the danish he held back in the box. "Listen Vin..." he paused and drew his brows tight. "Is your hand bad?"
"Nah...that ain't the reason I'm lingerin'..." Vin gripped the sink and waited for the pain to subside.
Chris waited for several minutes until the other man shuffled close. He didn't have to see the face, it was chiseled in his brain. The eyes would be large and lost, the face unshaven and pale. Dark circles would hover too close and the body would be unable to settle.
"I wouldn't lie to you, Vin." He finally stated, turning his face towards the soft wind of harsh breathing.
"I know..." Vin rasped, clutching the side rails. "They got some fancy doctor lookin' after ya. I heard them talkin'..."
"I'm sorry, Cowboy," Larabee offered sincerely with his hand, "I didn't want you to find out like that."
"...s'okay...' Tanner mumbled, taking the hand and gripping it soundly.
"They're not sure if it's permanent or not...there was a lot of hemorrhaging." He paused and waited, "Do me a favor, open that drawer."
Vin followed the hand pointing to the bed stand and pulled the drawer open. A small bundle wrapped in Xerox paper was waiting.
"Take it out," Chris answered the silence.
"What is it?"
"In America, we call them Christmas presents," Larabee retorted.
"It ain't Christmas..."
"Open it," Chris commanded gently and waited for the rustling to stop. He heard the sharp gasp and found a small smile. "It's for when the light gets to bright..."
Vin gasped and eyed the dark sunglasses in his palm. They were not just any glasses; they were Larabee's lucky shades. He was seldom without them, to the point where the rest of the team joked about it.
"I can't take these," he stammered, "they's yer lucky glasses..."
"Know why they're lucky?" He paused then said, "I bought them the day you saved my life on that rooftop...first time I wore 'em." He laid back, resting the aching head attached to his shoulders. "You saved my life in more than one way that day, Vin. Something happened inside, a healing, a...a...completeness."
"I know," Vin replied quietly, recalling the fateful moment, "I knew...the whole time I was runnin' up them stairs. I knew ya was up there...didn't even question...it was like I was supposed t'be there..."
"Divine intervention?" Chris supplied, pressing his fingers to his throbbing eyes. He cocked his head when he heard a soft laugh.
"Funny," Vin said in a shaky voice, slipping the glasses on. "I always figured the Lord would be a Ray-Bans guy." He relaxed a little when Chris laughed. "How they look?" It slipped out and the smile left his face. "Aw, hell...I'm sorry...I didn't mean..."
"Don't apologize, Vin, not now, not ever." He wielded his conviction well, cutting right through the younger man's apology. He turned his face towards where the labored breathing came from. "You're not quite a Larabee," he teased, "...but I guess you're passable in a good light." He reached out with his right hand.
"Fuck you, Larabee!" Vin whispered over the pain in his chest, latching onto the other's strong forearm.
"Now that that's over," Chris pulled back and opened the box.
"Ya ate the cheese danish?" Vin blurted out, recalling where he'd last seen it. "I was savin' it..."
"No sense wasting it," Chris tossed back with a grin, "It wasn't like it would have stayed put..."
"Smartass," Vin crowed, flinching as the burn on his hand continued to throb. He watched the strong profile in the bed and wondered again about the integrity. "Did ya know? Yesterday when I was here?"
"Yeah." He pushed the tray away, snaked a hand around the coffee and took a sip. His face screwed up and he spit it out. "Christ Almighty, Vin, how much fuckin' sugar did you dump in here?" Silence. He sighed and pushed his body up in the bed, turning to where the blue eyes where burning. "Look at me." He addressed the head he knew was falling.
"How did ya know..." Vin's voice trailed off and he stared hard at the green eyes burning into his own.
" 'cause I know you, Cowboy." He whispered painfully, feeling Vin's torment. "I didn't tell you yesterday because I didn't want the nurses to have to clean up busted parts of Tanner heart all over the floor." Still the wall of silence remained. "Look Vin, this doctor, MacInnis, he's good...one of the best in the state. He told me last night, this was more than likely temporary."
"Then I find a new line of work," Chris answered the wavering doubt. "I'm not a quitter, Vin. I'm not the 'curl-up-and-die type', so don't expect me to lie around and cower, cryin' in my beer about my bad luck." Still nothing and he began to worry. The icy roads would be hard enough to navigate, he had to know Vin's head was on right. "Say something, dammit!" There was brief pause, then the voice he knew returned, without waver or fear.
"Ya left floaters in m'coffee."
"Too damn bad!" Chris grinned, relief pouring through him. Vin still had some healing to do but at least he was on the road back. "Speaking of which..."
"Yeah...yeah..." Vin shoved away from the bed, carefully putting the glasses in his chest pocket. "Yer an onry old cuss without yer caffeine...I'll be right back." He managed to catch the nurse's eye and she approached.
"I spilled one..." he answered the question in her face.
"I can see that," she eyed his flamed, blistered hand. "Let me fix it..." As she worked, she saw his eyes darting constantly. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I just need a minute...can ya take Chris his coffee?"
"Sure, I have to check his vitals anyhow."
Vin's bandaged hand went into his pocket and fumbled, finding a blue sheet. He eyed the front, a group of scales and notes, dotted with words. The song title was another stroke of fate. He flipped it over and began to write.
Chris looked up when Vin finally returned. Vin saw the worry on his face and smiled. He placed the folded blue paper bearing his friend's name, under the edge of the phone. Buck would be here soon and see that he got the message.
"Yeah, I got a stop to make on the way," he noted. He put the glasses on and strode to the bed. "Listen Chris, I want ya t'know, yesterday, what ya said..." he paused and took a deep breath, "Ya hit all the right notes, Pard." He saw the smile crease Larabee's face and the hand come up again. "Hell, I ain't done s'much handshakin' in all my days. Feel like a Goddamn politician..." he gripped the forearm.
"An honest politician?" Chris quipped, "..never happen."
"I'll take good care..." Vin swallowed hard and felt the power of his new glasses, "...the glasses...I...uh...I'll...take...good...care...of..."
"You're welcome, Vin Tanner," Chris replied with a deep smile. "Now get your sorry ass outta here. Don't drive too fast, take the interstate, stay away from that stupid shortcut. I don't need a visit from a state trooper."
"I thought ya was a six-words-a-day man?" Vin laughed of the worried scowl and string of words.
"It's a holiday weekend, I got extra vowels saved up..." Chris grinned, "Get going..."
"I'll call ya..."
"You're damn right you will!" Chris felt the power of the other long after he left, finally drifting into a comfortable sleep. While he let his healing body rest, his best friend was visiting a healer of another power.
+ + + + + + +
The gray sky overhead matched his mood and threatened to spill more snow. He pulled his collar up and walked gingerly through the icy street. It wasn't long before he was in front of the church. He entered the side door and blushed as two nuns exiting the early Mass, nodded to him in recognition. He found the spot in front of the manger and once again, sought out the eyes of the Child.
His thoughts were varied and ran the full gamut of emotions. He thought of the dead boy's grandfather. Where did he find the strength today to get out of bed? How did he take the news about the boy's death? Were they close? How deep do you have to reach inside to bury a grandchild? What made the boy turn? He sighed and once again replayed the scene in his mind. Did he make the right decision? The stilled brown eyes and bleeding lips tormented him. He closed his eyes, dropped to his knees and poured his heart out to the tiny King.
More images interrupted his prayers. Unseeing green eyes now followed his every move. He knew without a doubt, whatever road he chose, those eyes would follow him. If he decided to return to the lone road, they would be in his every thought. What of the others? He saw the sign over Josiah's desk in his mind. There is no "i" in team. No there wasn't. In the scant scattering of a compilation of weeks, his whole world had changed. His early morning talks with Josiah, who got in at the same time. How much spirituality the older man had given him. Nathan's soulful eyes, always seeming to know when he needed a good word, Band-Aid or a kick in the ass. The look of shocked bemusement on Ezra's face when he encountered Vin at a local Art show. The talk over lunch when they discovered they shared a passion for photography, art and poetry. J.D., that name alone gave him a smile and left him exhausted. How many nights had he and the kid played hockey; the weekends shooting hoops and engaging in other sports. Buck. The smile broadened. There weren't enough words to fit how much he thought of the kind-hearted man. Buck was easy to talk to...and he envied the older man's ability to embrace and touch his friends. A team...his team...his family.
"Hey," Vin rose from the kneeler in front of the Nativity and greeted the tiny nun. "I needed t'talk some more..." he nodded to the infant.
"How's your friend?" She saw his face fall and his eyes widened in unabashed anguish. He sighed and moved to the first pew. He sat on the end of the wooden bench and dropped his elbows to his knees. He exhaled deeply, bit his lower lip and shook his head.
"Oh dear," she feared the worst and sat next to him, resting a hand on one of his. "Has his condition changed?"
"He's blind!" Vin blurted harsher than intended, then flinched, "I'm sorry, Sister, I didn't mean t'bark at ya. I just found out...I can't seem t'come t'grips with it."
"How is he taking it?"
"He's the strongest man I've ever met." Vin said with unflinching admiration, raising his face and swallowing hard. "He...knew...yesterday. I was so torn up over shootin' that kid. He was sufferin' himself and he never let on...he was worried about me..." His voice raised in silver esteem, he raised his head higher, "that's the kinda person he is..."
"He's sounds like a fine young man. It's no wonder you think so much of him."
"I don't know how t'help him." Vin admitted honestly, "He's the only real kin I got...I never had anyone that meant..." He voice threatened to break and he stopped.
"You open that wonderful heart of yours to him and use these," she gently unfolded his hands. "You're so troubled..." she saw the fear and confusion in his eyes.
"When I first dropped down on m'knees...I was thinkin' of that boy's grandpa. He's the only kin that kid had. How did he feel when they told him what I done...God..." he dropped his head again and felt his eyes filling up. He felt the tiny hand grip his and hold on, silently lending support. Finally, he took a deep breath and swiped his damp eyes. "I'm sorry..."
"Don't be," she turned the handsome face with her free hand. "The Lord wept for those who were in need and grieving. He was a fine man too..."
"I gotta go..." he eyed the population spilling in for the next Mass. "I got a shack up in the hills...it's real peaceful. I need t'find my place...what road I belong on."
"God go with you, Vin Tanner. May he hold you in his heart and protect you." She walked with him to the side door. "I'm staying for Mass..."
"Oh," Vin zipped his coat and reached down to hug the tiny elderly nun. To his surprise, he found a kiss planted on his cheek. "Thank you..."
"No, Son, thank you," she praised, squeezing his hand one last time and watching him leave.
+ + + + + + +
Buck frowned when he saw the box from the bakery. He flipped it open and plucked an apple danish, sat in the empty chair and glanced at the sleeping agent. It was nearly ten a.m. and he'd arrived alone. He wanted to talk with Chris. The chart nurse told him that he had a good night and if he continued to improve and depending on the condition of his eyes, he might be released on Christmas Eve. He popped the top of his coffee and took a sip, devouring the danish along as well. A nurse peeked in briefly and he sat up straight.
"Morning!" he beamed, flashing his killer smile. The return smile told him he'd done his job well.
"Hey," he stood and leaned over the rail, frowning at the still unblinking gaze. "You want to sit up?"
"Yeah," Chris grunted, wincing as the bed top rose, bringing him upright. "Head hurts like a bitch..."
"It don't look that great either," Buck teased, "You look much better without a red part in your hair."
"I'll try to remember that," Chris managed, tensing as a wave of pain hit his tender skull.
"That specialist been in?" Buck inquired, and saw the blond head dip once. "What'd he say?"
"A whole lotta gray words." Chris tossed back, annoyed. "I was damn near drowning in 'we'll see' and 'maybes'."
Buck saw a single fist clench the bed sheet. It was the first sign of frustration Chris had shown. Although he still rested his hopes on the word 'temporary', there was always that chance.
"You know, Chris, no matter how this turns out, it won't change us." He spoke quietly, watching the fist slowly uncurl. "Whatever it takes...you can count on me."
"...always have, Bucko," Chris said hoarsely, "...we've been down a rough road or two in our day..."
"You mean I've saved your sorry ass on more than a few occasions?" Buck teased, hoping to break the dour mood.
"In your dreams," Chris managed, feeling the strength Buck exuded so easily. "Where the hell were you in Tampa that time when my ass needed savin'?"
"Tampa?" Buck frowned, then burst into laughter. "Well now I thought about it, but you made such a cute couple. She wasn't that bad." He recalled of the incident that occurred while the two were on vacation in Florida ten years before.
"She had no teeth..."
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Wilmington mused, "I made the real sacrifice..."
"Yeah," Chris snorted, "Buck 'Chivalry' Wilmington. You spent the night with a pair of jello-wrestlers and I got Girlzilla..." The two got caught driving in a tropical storm that blew in and they sought refuge in a rundown hotel. The beer was cheap and free-flowing. The rest of the night was rather blurry. But waking up naked next to a glass with teeth in it and being nearly crushed by a mountain of flesh, left a lasting impression. "I don't think I ever ran so fast..."
"She was a very nice girl." Buck choked, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes.
"I hope she was a girl," Chris countered, sending waves of laughter into the other. Then Chris remembered another night and found a warm smile. "Remember closing Max's one rainy night in November?"
"Hell, yeah..." Buck's laugher died and he recalled the glow that emanated from a much younger Chris Larabee, the night his first son was born. "I'll tell you what, that was some boy..."
"Yeah..." Chris agreed, reaching his hand up, "...and he had a helluva Godfather..." They locked hands in brotherhood and so much more; for years full of triumph and tragedy and the years to come. Chris broke the strong moment and sniffed, "You bring two?"
"It's right here," Buck guided Chris's rising hand to the cup. "I got a straw in the lid, it's hot."
"Thanks," the blond head nodded, and took a small sip. "No sugar...that's heaven."
"Vin?" Buck guessed, noting the address on the bakery box.
"...got his coffee by mistake...damn near sent me into diabetic shock..." He heard Buck laugh and smiled, sipping again. "Speaking of shock, he knows..."
"How'd he take it?"
"He found out down the hall."
"That pretty much covers it," Chris sighed, before laying his aching head against the pillows, "I'm worried, Buck. I think he might ride out."
"It's his first time, it's always rough..." Buck thought aloud, "I don't know, Chris, I can't see him leavin' now. He's changed, he's...like the missing piece of the puzzle...the one you snap in and feel good about. It would hard for him to go back to ridin' solo."
"I hope you're right Buck."
"He left a note for you," Wilmington's hand held the blue paper, bearing Chris's name. "Do you want to hear it?"
"No," the reply came, "not right now...not yet."
Buck smiled at that, Chris let his mask drop and the fear was playing on the pale face. He was afraid of losing something that had become as much a part of him as breathing. He watched as the eyes drifted shut and the breathing became more even. He slid the note back inside his breast pocket. He lowered the bed, pulled the blanket up and took his seat.
+ + + + + + +
Time stood still here and for that he was grateful. He eased off his bike and walked into the old, rundown cabin. A smile was born easily, as the ghosts of many visits past lurked in every corner. He squatted over an old wooden box and flipped the lid up. He smiled and fingered the tools inside. How many nights had he peeled away the hours, carving small animals in wood? It was simple place; small, efficient and sparse. He tossed his stuff on the bunk in the corner and went about setting up. An hour later, a faint sheen of perspiration clung to him but the wood was stacked outside, the interior swept clean and the table and chair scrubbed. Provisions were next on his list. He washed his face at the pump outside and zipped his jacket up. Donning his helmet, he headed for the old trading post. Halfway to the fifty-year old store, he pulled over.
Jogging to an overlook, with the valley below and the mountains glistening snow, he paused for a moment. This was his church; the sky was his roof and those glorious pine trees were his windows. Beyond the dense copse of trees was the congregation, furred and feathered. He found a spot in the sunlight and raised his face warming it a bit. He prayed then, for the departed soul of the lost boy and to give Chris the strength he needed to survive whatever his path was to be. What of his own destiny? This pain that engulfed him and the concern it caused his friends. Riding solo, he never had to worry about people caring for him.
As his eyes again travelled along the expanse of God's Majesty, he saw a beautiful bird. It was just a few feet away, perched on a tree branch. A pure white dove, as pretty a sight as you'd ever see. It appeared out of nowhere, studied him for several minutes and then took off. While watching the glorious flight, he got his answer. A wave washed through him, taking away the pain and uncertainty and leaving in its place a sense of peace and fulfillment. He knew where home was and celebrated by giving a soul-felt thank you.
The snow began to fall again and he continued to the trading post. A faint tinkle of a bell rang and Vin grinned, eyeing the timeworn floors and offerings inside the humble post. He wondered in Dakota was still around, the old guy had to be close to eighty. A hoarse voice called out from behind an old, weathered rust colored curtain that separated the area behind the modest antique cash register and the back.
"...be right with you..."
"...s'okay Dakota, take yer time..." Vin hollered back, wandering among the shelves lined with Native American pottery, dreamcatchers, wedding vases and fur-lined soft moccasins. He found a pair in Chris's size in black and dropped them on the counter. He padded to the side of the store where the food was stored. He selected just a few items and deposited them with the moccasins. He spotted a small lava carving of a wolf and took that too. It was only about three inches high but its proud stance reminded him of Chris and he pictured it on the leader's desk.
"Afternoon, young fella."
"Hey, Dakota," Vin extended his hand, shaking the elderly man's. "Damn ya look great."
"I know you..." Dakota paused, squinting his dark eyes.
"It's been a few months since I been in..."
"The bounty hunter!" he announced. "Tanner!"
"Ya got a good memory. How ya been?"
"I'm still breathing. I get up every day and thank God when I see the sunset."
"Can't ask fer more than that. Ya got any coffee?"
"Only if you'll take a sandwich with it," the older man moved the curtain and Vin ducked under.
"Blue!" Vin exclaimed, dropping on his knees to greet the old mutt. The gray head rose and the nose sniffed the extended fist, then gave a lick in recognition. "How ya doin' boy?" He scrubbed his hand over the soft fur between the dog's ears and waited for the animal to resume his nap. He took a seat across from the old man, picking up half of the offered sandwich.
"What brings you up to my mountain?" He paused, looking at the young man's face. He'd known the bounty hunter for almost ten years and usually it was a problem that caused him to embrace this special place.
"I ain't huntin' no more," Vin swallowed the large bite and took a sip of coffee. "I got a job in Denver, workin' fer the ATF."
"You found more than a job," he concluded, sensing a peace than hadn't been there before. The restless spirit was gone.
"Yeah, a pack of brothers," the Texan smiled, taking another hearty bite. "There was a problem at a high school yesterday."
"Horrible, what a shame for the families of those poor students that were killed." He paused and bite into a pickle, studying the serious blue eyes across from him. "That was you? You were involved."
"I was the sniper."
"This is what troubles you? You saved many lives, I know it doesn't make up for the one you were forced to take..."
"No, it don't," Vin answered honestly, "and I worried about that fer awhile. But I got my answer a little while ago. Hey Dakota, you still got them odd pieces o'wood lyin' about?"
"Ah...you haven't lost your hobby for creating art?"
"Art?" Vin laughed, "them critters ain't hardly art! But I got somethin' I need t'make..."
"Help yourself," he waved his hand towards the window to a shed in the back, "You come back in the morning and varnish it..."
"Ya still make them kick-ass griddle cakes?"
"You be here at eight a.m. and you'll find out!"
"Thanks, Dakota!" Vin swallowed the last of the coffee, grabbed the other half sandwich and trotted outside to the shed. His step was lighter and he had a mission to complete. His keen eye quickly found what he needed and he felt his heart lighten.
+ + + + + + +
"J.D., get your feet off the bed!" Buck chastised the youth who was sprawled in the empty chair next to Chris. The blond was sleeping and in considerable pain, so the visit was quiet.
"Leave 'im alone, Buck," Chris whispered, "That pitcher full?"
"Yeah, hold on Chris," J.D. jumped up and filled the patient's cup. He guided the cup to Chris's hand and watched carefully as it was drained.
"Thanks," He handed it back and rested his head against the pillows.
"Yes," Chris squinted at where the voice came from.
J.D. and Buck both turned to a see a small body, the upper half of which was covered by a large basket. Two legs covered in dark stockings and a navy skirt were visible.
"Here, ma'am, let me get that for you," Buck moved over and took the large basket. "Wow, this is some basket!" He eyed the cookies, candy and gourmet coffee inside.
"She's a nun," J.D. hissed at Buck, who placed the basket in front of Chris.
"You got a good eye there, Kid," Buck teased, rolling his eyes.
"I didn't know Chris knew a nun," he continued, "Chris isn't the nun type..."
"J.D., you best quit while you're ahead..." Buck warned, kicking the black high-top sneaker. "Get up and offer her your seat!"
"Oh," J.D. gulped and stood, "Here, Sister, sit down."
"No thank you, young man," she denied, eyeing the trio. "My, you're handsome..."
"Thank you," Buck grinned.
"Who said she was talking to you, Buck?" Chris quipped.
"Yeah," Dunne elbowed him.
"Actually, you've all been gifted with fine features, and we met let night, I believe. I'm Sister Michael Anne."
"Oh," Buck chuckled, shaking the nun's hand. "You're Vin's nun."
"Vin's nun?" the patient frowned.
"Yeah," J.D. answered the question on the leader's face, "You see, Vin went to church last night and then rescued this...the...Sister Michael," he corrected, "then he went back to the convent, where we found him later."
"Vin went to church?" Chris turned up a lip, "that explains the snow..."
"He's a very spiritual young man," she defended of her new friend. "His poor heart was so full of woe...and those eyes."
"Yeah," Chris turned his face away, "I know about them. How was he?"
"Well, he was quite upset this morning. I met him again before Mass. He'd just learned of your misfortune." She took his hand in both of hers and saw the pain in his face. Despite his serious injury, she doubted the anguish there was for himself. "I'm confident his faith will show him the right path. I think you know that too..."
"I hope you're right, Sister," Chris dropped his voice and his hand reached for the basket. "You didn't have to come all the way over here. That was above and beyond..."
"No, I needed to meet you. Vin thinks so much of you...I can now see why. Here, let me help." She unwrapped the plastic, revealing a large assortment of goodies. "We get so much food and gifts from the parishioners and some of the local businesses, that we cannot possibly eat them all."
"Thank you," he answered, "for everything."
She smiled then, seeing very clearly the same look of longing in his eyes that she'd seen reflected in Vin Tanner's. She squeezed his hand, "I'll pray for you, Mr. Larabee. Good Luck to you..."
"Thanks again, and it's Chris."
"Would you like a blessing? Father Carson is just down the hall." she noted of the priest's visit to the sick.
"I've already been blessed," he whispered, retracting his hand. "...yes. Thanks, Sister."
"Okay, I'll send Father down." She saw the youngest of the group eyeing the food. "The chocolate chips are especially good," she winked and got a grin. "Good day."
"Goodbye, Sister, thanks for coming over." Buck watched her leave. "That little nun sure made a strong impression on Vin. He talked about her all the way home." He smiled, "I bet his 'ma'am's' and blushes had all them nuns eatin' out of his hand."
+ + + + + + +
Dinner was done and the fire gave the cabin a soft glow. He sat cross-legged in front of the fireplace. The golden light played off his features as he worked. The bandages on his hand and the burn under it made for slow going. He'd forgotten how much he enjoyed carving. Finally it was done. He winced and flexed his sore hand, gazing at the item. Satisfied, he cleaned up his mess and stretched his back. A noisy yawn accompanied him to the window. The murky sky was dark and brooding save for the brilliant silver moon. The intense light made him think of the face of the infant again. He fingered the small cross he'd made from a piece of leftover wood.
"Let him find peace too..." he prayed of his friend, "...please..." he whispered, eyeing that full moon again.
+ + + + + + +
"I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear"
Sunday, December 23rd, 9 a.m.
Chris yawned and rolled over on his side, grimacing as the pain roused with him. His soft grunt brought a heavy footfall. He felt the bed being elevated and the sound of the icy pitcher being tilted. He peeled an eye open and saw a blurry mustached-face hovering near. Buck'd been there late last night when he fell asleep. He doubted if the large man even rested himself, yet here he was again.
"Jesus, Buck, did you get evicted?" he grumbled half-asleep, then his face froze and he jerked his body upright in the bed, despite the wave of pain.
Buck stood frozen for a few seconds, the plastic mug wavering in his hand. He moved sideways and the muddled green eyes moved with him. There was no doubt about it-Chris Larabee had regained his sight.
"DAMN!" he whooped, gripping the blue-cotton shoulders hard.
"Don't!" Chris jerked, wincing as Buck's loud war call slammed into his throbbing skull. He breathed heavily for a few minutes and then peeled his eyes open again. Buck was still a little blurry, but he was there. "You look like shit Buck..."
"You wish you looked this good, you dog you...I can't believe it...I'm gonna go tell the nurse!" Buck beamed, slapping the bedrails again."Damn!..."
+ + + + + + +
Breakfast settled contentedly in his stomach, his precious gifts were stowed away and the sun kissed his face as he rode home. He spent the morning with Dakota, waiting for the varnish to dry. The old man needed some odd jobs done and Vin took care of that easily. Before long, the sun had slipped into the western sky and it was time to hit the road. Now as Denver's cityscape appeared, he felt his heart clenching. Twice he'd tried calling Chris's room from payphones, but there was no answer. He didn't know what to make of that. He sighed and pulled off at the correct exit, taking two turns, he found himself in front of the church. He eased off his bike, left the helmet and made his way to the door. Two short raps brought a stern looking, large nun, with a slight mustache.
"Afternoon, ma'am...I was wonderin' if Sister...uh...Sister..." Vin blanched, what was her name? "Uh...she's a bitty, little thing about this high," he indicated, "spunky eyes and real feisty-like..."
"Please wait," she offered, moving aside to let him into the foyer. She hid her smile until she entered the kitchen. "One of us has a visitor in the hall."
"Who?" Sister Eileen, the stout cook inquired, stirring a pot of soup.
"Well, if I'm not mistaken, I believe the young man is looking for Sister Michael." she smiled, "he inquired on a 'bitty, little thing with spunky eyes, real feisty-like..." She paused," he has long hair, handsome, a nice smile."
"Vin," the tiny nun said, leaving her carrots and making her way to the foyer. She greeted him warmly, hugging him and then standing back, studying his face. "You're better...yes...you're much better."
"That I am," he answered. "Them gifts ya talked about the other night...the ones ya said He gave me. I felt 'em up there...real strong. There's a spot on the mountain, it's just beautiful. I go there alot t'think on things. I was prayin' fer the boy and Chris...and wonderin' about my own road. Then I looked up and there was a dove, right in front o'me. It was beautiful...That's when I got my answer. "
"You looked inside and found what you needed," she praised.
"So I got t'thinkin', about it bein' Jesus's birthday. It ain't nothin' compared t'what He give me...but I made him somethin'. I was wonderin', if it'd be okay to put it near the manger...so's he can see it." He took it from beneath his jacket and carefully unwrapped it.
"You made that?" She exclaimed, gently examining it and appreciated the time, labor and love that went into the fine piece. "It's beautiful, Vin. I know just the place for it..."
"I need t'make a phone call first, if that's okay...I can't get ahold o'Chris and I'm worried..."
"You know where it is," she motioned to the study, "I'll get my coat. Can I hold onto this?" she cradled the pretty piece and saw him nod.
Vin made his way to the phone and quickly dialed the number again. After three rings, a groggy voice answered.
"Hel..lo.." Chris coughed and sat up, rubbing his eyes.
"Where the hell have ya been?" Vin hissed, then blushed slightly and turned the Blessed Mother statue that was looking at him the other way. "I couldn't get a hold o'ya...I thought..."
"Hi, Chris, How are you feeling?" the blond replied sarcastically, "Fine, Vin, thanks for asking."
"Don't be a wiseass..."
"I was having more tests and a bath." He heard the silence on the other end, the only sound being labored breathing, which was rapid at first, then settled down. He smiled then, feeling the relief oozing through the phone.
"Yer name Larabee?" the younger man recovered, sitting on the edge of the desk.
"Depends on whose asking," Chris grinned, enjoying the game.
"Heard tell ya was lookin' fer a sharpshooter."
"That right?" the smile broadened and the flickering flame inside sprung to life.
"Turns out, I'm fer hire, fer the right price," the Texan added cockily, with a sly grin.
"I got a guy, he's pretty good." Larabee felt giddy now and the smile hit his eyes.
"Reckon that's possible," Vin grinned evilly, "but he ain't no Tanner. I can knock the sweat off a gnat's balls at a thousand feet."
Chris covered the mouthpiece of the phone and laughed, took several steadying breaths to compose himself, then pulled the phone back. "Impressive," he choked, "so can my guy."
"While the gnat's takin' a piss?" Vin tossed back then grinned like a fool when he heard the explosive laughter from the other end of the phone.
"Consider yourself hired," the blond recovered, wiping the tears of mirth from his face. "So is everything copacetic?"
"Huh?" Vin frowned, then rested a hand on his abdomen that had been a churning, running disaster when they'd parted. "Oh...no...I don't care fer that stuff. I took Imodium, Nate said..." he heard more laughter and paused. "I say somethin' funny?"
"You slay me, Cowboy," Chris managed, his sides aching from the kind of medicine that money couldn't buy.
"So how are ya? Ya get yer walkin' papers? I'm off all week, I figure I plant m'self at the ranch and keep an eye out..." Vin flinched and bit off his thought. "I didn't mean it like that..."
"Quit apologizing, and I'm going home in the morning. Thanks for inviting yourself, saved me the trouble." Chris swallowed some water, "Where you at? You in the city?"
"Yeah, just got here, I had one stop t'make."
"You headed t'Josiah's for supper? He's havin' the team over, then they're comin' over here."
"I guess I'll swing by..."
"Stay away from the chili and don't drink anything Buck gives you, not matter what he says."
" 'preciate the advice," Vin quipped.
"Hey Vin?" Chris said seriously. "Welcome home."
"Thanks, guess I'll be seein' ya later."
Chris skimmed the blue letter that he'd read twice already. The first two paragraphs were personal and affected him deeply. He concentrated on the short poem at the end. The words, Vin's words, poured out on the lowest night of his life, truly touched him.
"I rode alone on a road long and cold. Until the day when you touched my soul. Through the power of your unwavering faith I was redeemed. That precious gift, I carry within, instilled with one glance of credence in eyes full of fire. You renewed my hope and nourished my empty heart. Now twin spirits soar, where one once dreamed reaching above. I thank you, brother, for the gift of the dove."
Vin was stunned for a moment, his body tingling. Then the realization of Chris's faltering voice hit him hard. He stood up, eyes like saucers and mouth like the desert. "Ya...r..r..read...it?" he croaked, grasping the hope.
"Every sweet word..." Chris replied, hearing Vin gasping and struggling to control himself. "Of course, some supervisors get a nice Hallmark card with a generous gift certificate inside. Me? I get a 'made in the USA of 100% recycled paper'. He paused and eyed the song sheet, "Did you steal this from the church?"
"No!" Vin chirped, "well...not really..."
"Did you notice the song?" Chris studied the words on the choral sheet.
"Yeah," Vin said huskily. "O Come All Ye Faithful...always like that song..."
"Me too..." Chris claimed, "but I like my Tanner better..."
"Nice try, Larabee," Vin swallowed hard, "but ya can't have the glasses back."
"Fuck you, Tanner," he laughed and then eyed his blue treasure again. "See you later?"
"Ya sure will!" Vin promised, hanging the phone up. He sat down on a chair nearby and contemplated the news. He was still lost in space, when a hand tapped his shoulder.
"Are you alright?" Sister Michael asked, "All the color left your face."
"He...can...see..." Vin replied, taking a steadying breath. "Chris...I talked t'him..."
"The Lord heard you!" She gripped his hand. "I'm so glad, Vin."
They made their way to the church and found themselves in from of the Nativity. Vin carefully made his way among the figures and reached high, hanging the wood crafted item above the manger door.
"Well?" he turned and saw the tears in her eyes. "I reckon ya like it?"
"I reckon I do!" she boasted, motioning for him to join her. They sat in the first pew for a moment, studying the piece, the gift of the dove. It hung proudly, its wings expanded and its chest full. In its beak was a tiny sprig of a branch...an offering of peace.
"I gotta get goin'' Vin broke the quiet moment and stood up. He found two small hands on either side of his face. The dark eyes brimmed with tears and the smile she wore was one he'd not soon forget.
"God bless you, Vin Tanner," she whispered and then smiled at the flush.
"He already has, Sister."
+ + + + + + +
He paused outside the door to Josiah's and chuckled, hearing Buck chastising J.D.
"Damn Kid, back up a little," Buck warned.
"How far?" J.D. asked.
"How about Cleveland?" Nathan suggested, getting a rousing laugh from the group.
Vin took the smile away and tapped on the door.
"Hey, Vin's back!" J.D. boomed, yanking the buckskinned body in the door.
"Damn, we got us a genuine movie star!" Buck winked, eyeing the prize Larabee glasses.
"Get by the fire, you look half froze!" Nate ordered. "I bet you haven't eaten all day..."
"I have just the remedy," Ezra moved past him, pausing to pat his shoulder. "A mocha-chino with caramel...and whipped cream," he winked.
Vin didn't move a muscle, letting his stoic face warm up a little. Chris was right, he was home. This is the place he belonged.
The rest of the group froze, eyeing the silent spectator. His mouth a grim line, his shoulders sagging a bit. The glasses covered up the prize eyes, which they all could read so well. What choice had he made? The journey wasn't an easy one and they all shifted uncomfortably, afraid of what his answer may be. Josiah moved first, placing his large body in front of Vin and resting a hand on each shoulder.
"Are you okay, son?"
"No." Vin said quietly, watching the faces of the other's grow ashen. He heard Buck's nearly silent curse and saw the pain in the dark blue eyes. J.D.'s hazel eyes went wide and Nate dropped his face. Ezra looked away, not wanting him to see the disappointment. Vin bit back a smile and turned his face to Sanchez. "Preacher!" he commanded with a swaggering bellow. "Ya best get them pots t'rattlin', 'cause I could eat a bear!" Noise exploded and he was surrounded. Somebody took his coat, several hands patted his back. Buck gave him a bear hug, which he didn't even try to fight at first. "Cut that out," he snarled as Wilmington's hand ruffled his head. "Ya got an unnatural attraction t'my hair."
"Shut up and sit down!" Buck ordered, "you damn near scared ten years off me."
Vin grinned and moved along the long table, until he found a spot next to Nathan. He dropped something onto the other's man plate and quietly picked up his napkin.
"You wanna pass the salt, Hollywood?" Buck teased of the glasses that remained on Tanner's face.
"Jealous?" Vin grinned, passing the salt and something else.
"What's this?" Nate picked up the small wooden animal and examined it. "Racoon?"
"Nope." Vin took a roll and buttered it, before stuffing half in his mouth.
"It ain't a fox..." he examined the small dark carving. He saw the shaggy head nod negatively again. "Hmmm..."
"...s'little black ass kicker..." Vin nodded proudly, raising an eyebrow. Nate's face split into a huge grin and the deep laugh followed. He elbowed Vin and sat the little creature next to his plate.
"Damn, he's got big feet," Josiah said with a wink, which only made the group laugh harder.
"Yeah, you know what that means..." J.D. goaded, picking up the small animal Vin carved for Wilmington. "Hey Buck, this guy's got tiny little feet..."
"Gimme that!" Buck grabbed the creature and glowered at the Texan. "I bet you thought that was funny? You got a warped sense of humor, Vin."
"It's hilarious," Vin shot back, "I heard about yer small feet and what ya can't do with 'em..."This comment drew a loud chorus of snickering and a few guffaws.
"From who?" The rogue demanded, glaring at the smug sniper.
"Well," Vin eyed the clock, "we got a hour 'afore we need t'leave. I reckon I could recall most of their names..." He scrambled as the large body approached, but not fast enough. "Cut that out!" He choked, as the older man grabbed him in a head lock and hauled him back to the table. "Ya got no sense of humor...must be them bitty, little feet..."
Buck let the laughter out then, depositing the gasping tracker in his place and thwacking his head once for good measure. The laugher died down and as the others were busy passing bowls and condiments, he caught the Texan's eye and gave him his best Wilmington smile. The blush that followed reminded him of how much they almost lost.
+ + + + + + +
Christmas Day, 6 p.m.
The kitchen table was laden with a large roast of beef, a tray of lasagna, an oversized pan of herb roasted winter vegetables, several kinds of hot rolls, stuffing, turkey and other offerings. The seven sat sated around Chris's large den, talking, eating and embracing the holiday. The tree looked beautiful and the Christmas music in the background created a rich aroma of nostalgia. In the background, a football game was on the silent television and J.D. and Buck were watching intently. Chris walked gingerly from the bathroom, pausing unseen at the entryway, drinking in all that was good and fine. How much these men cared for him still left him amazed and grateful. He slipped into his study and sat behind his desk. He picked up the small baseball glove and touched every inch of it tenderly. He glanced at the photo of Sara and Adam on his desk; his son was wearing the glove. He spent some time with his family, as he did every Christmas morning since they passed. Recalling how much they'd given him and how much he still loved them. Finally, he brushed his lips against the small glove and rested it against the photo, then slipped back into the present.
"You want some coffee, Chris?" Ezra asked, guiding his unsteady boss to the nearest vacant seat.
"Thanks Ez," the blond nodded, watching Vin's dozing body with a curious face. The Texan had spent most of the day before cleaning, shopping and decorating. Buck's whimsical smile when he picked him up from the hospital yesterday confirmed that. 'The boy's wearin' himself out makin' Merry'. Chris knew the exhaustion Vin had been lost in all day was from far more than cleaning. Emotional wear and tear had just about done him in. The last few days his friend and been through a hellish ordeal. Now, his spirit was renewed and he could finally rest. He was on the sofa, one hand tossed casually across an oversized blue flannel shirt. His lips were parted and he was breathing heavily through his mouth. Frowning, he rose and stood over the body.
"He's got a cold," Nate answered of the loud breathing of the sharpshooter.
Chris leaned over more and sniffed, then saw a gold box under Vin's free hand, stuffed down the cushion of the sofa. He gently lifted the box from the slack fingers and noticed it was empty. He sniffed again.
"Hey!" he thwacked Vin's face with the empty box. "Wake up you chocolate guzzling thief." His green eyes narrowed when the lips shut, a soft snore was ended and the younger man tried to settle deeper into the sofa. "Oh no you don't...you ate my truffles...you're a pig, Tanner, you know that? You ate every damn one of them." He watched as one blue eye opened, regarded him for a moment and then closed again. A croaky drawl then followed.
"...it was 'plied'..."
"It was not implied!" Chris answered the sleepy reply. "You got brass balls, Tanner."
"No need t'thank me," Vin yawned, sat up and scratched his belly.
"Thank you!" Chris stood up with the tired man, meeting him eye to eye. "For what?"
"Well, ya ain't fonda sweets t'begin with and yer a rookie. Ya don't know how get a whole bunch of 'em in without gettin' sick. Ya already got boxes at the office, some in yer study and more in the kitchen. These here was some kinda gourmet types. Ye'd have never been able t'handle 'em...most likely wouldda come back up. Then I'd hafta clean yer bathroom again. How's yer Ma's hip?"
Chris had his mouth half open, ready to sharply address the rambling Texan, but the last line caught him unaware. "My mother's hip? What?" he blinked at the body squirming past him. "Her hip's fine..." he answered in a confused tone.
"Ya oughtta count yer blessin's...lots of folks her age hafta get new ones..." This was punctuated by a sound round of coughing, as the body shuffled into the kitchen and got a new plate.
Larabee's whole face creased in confusion. The room was silent for a moment, then a slow scattering of smirking chortles began, half hidden behind coffee mugs. One witness wasn't so shy and laughed outright.
"Shut up, Buck!" the blond growled.
"You best give up," Wilmington observed. "You're never gonna catch that boy..." he said of the string of Vin-logic that the Texan used with such skill. It wasn't the first time his sly-crafted rambling explanation left the blond speechless and it wouldn't be the last.
Chris eyed the back of Vin's shaggy head in the kitchen as he filled his plate. He tossed the empty box aside and began to chuckle. He sat down and took the coffee Ezra handed him, sipping it thoughtfully. He noticed after a few minutes, Vin hadn't returned. Frowning, he made his way to the kitchen and saw the half full plate, sitting idle. His eyes wandered around the kitchen and then he ducked into the utility room. Vin wasn't facing him. He was leaning over the washer, staring out the window. Chris moved next to him, studying the painful expression.
"Yeah," Vin replied and sighed, "I got t'thinkin' about that boy's grandpa. I can't help wonderin' how he's doin'. What if he hates me?"
Chris flinched at that, he hadn't been expecting it. He thought on how quiet Vin had been all day and now worried about his state. There was something still brewing inside him and it needed to be brought out. He knew Vin wanted to talk, so he waited until the offer came.
"Don't do this to yourself, Vin. It won't bring that kid back. Nick told me this morning that kid had a file an inch thick. He was busted when he was eight and has been in and out of jail ever since. You can't save everybody, Cowboy." Still the blue eyes remained haunted. "Vin," he sighed, rested a hand on the other's shoulder and stared at the beautiful mountain. "You told me on the phone you found your answer out there."
"There's a special place up there, I'd like t'show ya sometime. Josiah told me once that a church is where ya feel closest t'the Lord. Well, I guess I got me a real good one..." he paused and cocked his head, sneezed several times and sniffed. "It was up there, at that place, I was prayin' fer ya...and the boy. I didn't know what road t'take...then...I seen a dove."
Chris's head snapped at the inflection in Vin's voice. He saw the emotion pouring from the blue eyes and realized how hard it was for him to share this. Whatever happened on that mountain had clearly moved his friend deeply.
"I seen other doves 'afore," he recalled wistfully. "...but not like this one. It was just...just...beautiful. It looked right at me...then it flew away. I mean it soared, Chris, right up t'the clouds..."
"You're lucky Vin," the leader noted with a little awe. "I wish I could have seen it too..."
"It's more than that," Vin pulled his gaze away and sat down on the large bench on the sidewall. "I have somethin' fer ya..."
"Vin, you already gave me a gift and I don't mean the box under the tree..." he said of the blue note, which was now in his study.
"I know," Vin nodded, "but somethin' happened in...that...church...I ain't never felt the likes of it...I can't stop thinkin' on it...why did He talk t'me? I heard him...the infant I mean, in the church." He addressed the confused stare. "Can I tell ya about it?"
"Do I have to lock up my chocolate?" Chris teased and saw a smile and a short burst of released tension.
"No!" Vin laughed, took a deep breath and began. "It was right after I left ya Friday night, I seen a winda at the store..."
Chris listened patiently as Vin's soft words cascaded around the room and slid easily into his chest. He felt every painful recollection, winced at Vin's deep-felt remorse and wondered how God had entrusted such a special person to him. Finally, it was done and Vin was trembling. Tears hovered but didn't spill. A shaky hand swiped them away.
"I'd say God's a pretty good sharpshooter too..." Chris reflected, "His aim is always true. He found his mark..."
"Yeah?" Vin's head rose as Chris's reply hit home.
"Yeah!" Chris reaffirmed. "You done bawlin' now? I'm hungry."
"I wasn't bawlin'!" Vin protested. "Here," he slid his hand over, giving Chris a small item.
"The dove?" Chris examined the tiny replica of the one Vin said he placed in the manger.
"Yeah...I learned up on that mountain. I learned what the gift of the dove is...it's what ya give me since we met. Unwaverin' faith. Ya got no idea how much ya mean t'me."
Chris bit his lip painfully as Vin stood and went to the window again. He saw the muscles in the Texan's back tensing and flexing as he tried to control his emotions. But Vin was wrong, he understood all about that dove's gift. He gave his friend a minute to compose himself and moved next to him. He let his eyes take in that same mountain in the distance.
"I do know, Vin," he said quietly. "You see, my dove, he's got blue eyes..." He heard the sharp intake of breath and rested his hand on the soft blue flannel back. "You gonna cry again?"
"I ain't crying!" Vin laughed, rubbing his eyes.
"I could make money off of this. Buck's got his camcorder... Hey Buck!" he called out, before a hand was clamped over his mouth. Their struggle sent them sideways onto a pile of wash on the floor.
"What the hell happened?" Buck asked, watching the tangled pile of limbs that were quaking in laughter.
"Well, you see Vin here..."
"Nothin' happened!" Vin answered, clamping a hand over the blond's mouth.
"If I didn't know better, I'd swear you two were drunk." Buck shook his head at the odd display. "You both better get off that cold floor before I sent Nathan in here," he warned and left.
"Get me up, Larabee, I got a plate waitin' on me..." Vin crowed, lifting an arm and letting the older man haul him upright. "Thanks..." he said seriously, of more than the hand.
"You're welcome," Chris smiled.
+ + + + + + +
Several days later
Chris yawned and poured himself a glass of orange juice. The gray, murky day was not long up and his head was pounding. The doctor told him the pain and dizziness would remain for some time. He'd already faced Tanner's ire, having pushed himself the day before and blacking out. The first thing he saw was the angry blue eyes flashing above him. Vin hadn't said a word the rest of the night. He was just settling at the kitchen table, when the younger man appeared. It wasn't so much his arrival, but his dress that made the leader take notice. He was wearing one of the suits he normally wore to work.
" 's'okay if I borrow this?" Vin asked quietly.
"Sure," Chris replied, then saw how pale Vin was and how bad his hands were trembling. "You okay?"
"The funeral's today."
"Funeral?" Chris repeated, then recalled a blurb on the news the night before. The sixteen-year-old killer was being buried this morning. "Vin, I don't think that's a good idea."
"I want yer word, ya won't fuck up like yesterday and end up on the floor." Tanner requested, still angry at how frightened he was when he found Chris unconscious.
"I'm not gonna pass out again," Chris shot back, then saw the blue eyes still flashing. "Okay..." With that, Vin pulled his coat on and headed for the door. "Vin...Vin...dammit!" Chris tossed a wadded up napkin and got to his feet. The kitchen spun around and he sat down again. "Stubborn...son-of-a-bitch..." he hissed and grabbed the phone.
+ + + + + + +
It was a small church on the edge of town. Vin kept the dark glasses on his face and slid inside the door. Very few people were there and the boy's coffin was at the head of the center aisle. He sat in the back, taking huge gulping breaths of air and trying to find his lost nerve. More people arrived, kids from school and some neighbors. He took a deep breath and stood up, taking his legs from the pew. Vin felt every eye on him as he made his way up the aisle. His heart was hammering so loud, it hurt his chest. His throat was sore and his legs shaking badly. He kept both hands clenched in fists at his side and finally arrived. He knelt down and said a few prayers, before leaving a small carved dove on the boy's folded hands. He prayed that the troubled youth found the peace in eternal sleep that eluded him in life. He took a deep breath and rose, turning to meet the elderly man.
"I'm Vin Tanner," he rasped painfully.
"I know who you are."
The words came rushed and forced, creating a hostile air. Vin was trembling so badly, he wondered how he was still upright. "I wanted t'tell ya, how sorry I am fer what yer goin' through..."
"That bullet you put in him," the old man stood up and looked at the anguished face before him. "It didn't kill him, son. He died a long time ago. The police report...it said you waited until the last possible minute. You gave him every chance. I want to thank you for that. I'm not angry or bitter at you, Mr. Tanner. I'm grieving for the small boy I lost years ago."
"Thank you," Vin let out his breath and shook the man's hand before struggling to get back down the aisle. He almost made it. Halfway down, the gravity of the situation combined with the whispering voices and the eyes trained on him caused his knees to buckle.
"Aw, hell..." he whispered, then felt a strong arm steady him. He staggered a few feet and was shoved in a pew. He looked over and was stunned at the pale face he saw. "CHRIS!"
"Take it easy, Vin," the other coached, seeing how terribly pale his friend was. "Sit back, close your eyes and take some deep breaths. You're as white as a sheet."
He did as ordered, trying to keep his jerking limbs from twitching and his breath from leaving his body in ragged, short bursts. He felt a hand on his back, another on his shoulder and two gripping his neck. His eyes shot open and he swallowed hard, gazing at his brothers. Josiah was next to him, standing taller than a redwood. Ezra was behind him, his short smile and wink taking some of the trembles away. J.D. gripped his shoulder, nodded and sat next to Ezra. The hand on his shoulder pressed again and a small carving with big feet appeared in his vision. He gave a short laugh through the tears that were building.
"I got my foot ready," Nate warned. "Don't you go passin' out and whackin' yer head on that pew."
The strong hands behind him kept massaging his neck, taking the tension away. He sighed and relaxed, letting those fingers work their magic. He cocked his head backwards and saw the mustache first, then the bold wink.
"Bucklin..." he choked, his emotions cresting. They came then, the tears that had been building up for over a week. They rained down for the boy who lay cold several feet away. They came for the brothers who surrounded him, enfolding him in the most powerful force he'd ever felt. He let them fall, he didn't have any reason not to. He was with family, he was home.
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