Magnificent Seven ATF Universeblankspace
Song for David

by Deirdre

Summary: When Josiah, haunted by his past, attacks Vin in a drunken rage, will the team survive? A story of faith, hope and brotherly love set at Christmas time.

This story was formerly hosted at another website, and was moved to blackraptor in May 2016.

Part One

Friday afternoon
ATF Offices in Denver, Colorado

The second hand swept past the twelve again and the tired ATF agent ran a weary hand through his long hair. It was only three o'clock. How could that be possible? He jerked the top drawer of his desk open and pulled out a bottle of aspirin. He popped two of them, hoping the 'extra-strength' moniker lived up to its reputation. Gulping down the last half of his coke, he shoved back his chair and stood up. He grimaced and rubbed the small of his back. A bang, a crash, a curse and loud voices from the front of the spacious Team Seven office caused his anger to resurface. As if his pounding head weren't enough, he had to put up with the

"Buck, I can't believe you fell for that!" J.D. howled, laughing hard and pounding both palms on his desk like a heavy metal drummer.

"Laugh it up, J.D.," Buck rebuffed loudly, rubbing his elbow. He was lying on the floor having fallen over a trash can. He'd jumped up from his desk, armed with his stapler, chasing what he thought was a rat. "I could have broken my neck."

"As long as it wasn't anything important." the youth winked.

"GODDAMMIT!" a deep voice thundered.

"Uh-oh!" J.D. moaned, wincing as a file cabinet slammed shut with such velocity that it rattled every pane of glass in the office.

"Shit!" Buck dismayed, gingerly rising off the floor.

"Aw, hell!" Vin hissed, dropping his soda can in the recycle bin and striding to the front of the room. His hurried strides weren't fast enough to intercept the Wrath. He arrived just as the ex-preacher's large hand slammed a very realistic looking rat onto Buck's desk.

"Listen, Josiah," Buck started weakly only to be cut off.

"LISTEN!" Josiah roared, face red and eyes flaring. J.D. shrank down in his desk. He'd never seen the large man so irate. Vin stood silently behind Sanchez, smart enough to keep out of it, for now.

"That's all I've been doing all day, waiting for you and Tweedle Dee to get your damn job done. Orrin, Bob Carlin, Alex Freeman and Marcia Dailey are waiting for me," he ranted of the ATF, FBI, DEA and DOJ directorate heads. "I was due there five minutes ago and I have shit to present." He paused and raised his beefy hand, slamming it down on Buck's desk and causing the other man to back up. "This will really nail the case..." he said of the motorized rat.

For several long seconds, no one moved. Then the acting team leader turned his steely eyes to the silent sharpshooter. "You got anything to say or are you gonna skulk around like you usually do?"

Vin squared his shoulders and took a step forward, meeting the other's gaze. His face was impassive, but his heart was hammering. With Chris, Ezra and Nathan in Seattle testifying against an arms dealer extradited and on trial for murder, Sanchez had been left in charge. The raid came down a week early leaving Team Seven short on personnel. That hit hard, especially when it came to the paperwork. Each agency was presenting the case before the joint panel. Teams Three and Seven were presenting the ATF report. As the stand-in supervisor of Team Seven, Sanchez was responsible and late for his presentation.

"Since you think you're in kindergarten, maybe I should get crayons and that would help you get your job done on time."

"What are ya still waitin' on?" Vin asked quietly, taking his flinty eyes from the red-faced Sanchez and eyeing the flustered Dunne.

"...some of the evidence hasn't..."

"Demonstrative, Testimonial, Physical..." Josiah boomed.

"Wait a minute!" J.D. snapped back, making a fist.

"Demonstrative?" Vin moved between the two and turned to the youth.

"Photographs, drawings and maps... check," J.D. said quietly, eyeing the folder in front of him.

"Testimonials?" the Texan proceeded.

"Witness statements, interviews and both confessions," Buck nodded, grateful for Vin's intercession.

"Physical?" Vin turned to J.D. who shook his head.

"Fingerprints haven't been nailed down and the casting of the tire tracks was inconclusive. Max was still working on it," he said of the forensic artist. "...and the fiber samples were still being analyzed."

"What else?" Josiah hissed, hands on his hips.

"I haven't heard from Atlanta," J.D. flinched. "They owe us a profile on Gilbert," he noted of the arsonist/murderer that the team had trapped and arrested the night before. "And the witness statements, photos and fire analysis reports from the bombings last summer that Gilbert was linked to."

"Is that all?" Josiah clenched, leaning in towards Dunne only to meet Tanner's slight frame.

"Why don't ya go over and talk t'Max?" The sky eyes matched the determination in his voice. "I'll meet ya and bring the file."

"You do that," Josiah sneered, then grabbed his coat from the rack by the wall and stormed out the door.

"What the hell is his problem?" Buck pitched, taking out his anger on an innocent trash can.

"Let's go over what we got." Vin opened the file Josiah left. "From the top, Summary..."

"I'll give you a summary," Buck raged, hauling his six foot two-inch frame in front of the icy-eyed Texan. "How can you stand there and let him talk to you like that? He's been ridin' you harder than any of us all week. Tossing insults, barking at you..."

"This ain't the place, Buck," Vin rasped, rubbing his eyes. "M'head's about t'fall the hell off. Can we just get this done? Summary?"

"It's here," J.D. added wearily. "From the time we rolled out until the body bags were zipped up. Date and time catalogued." He turned the multiple-paged documents over and looked up.

"Good," Vin sighed. "Scene?" he asked of the narrative description of the crime scene.

"It's good," Buck said, "with photo and video backup. Processing reports are solid," he noted of their own personal notes and input on what each one did.

"Okay, that leaves Evidence Collection and Pending," Vin quizzed. "I'll try t'get the guys in the Lab t'put a wiggle on it," he said of the missing evidence. "Buck, ya nail down the pending actions and go over the whole file with a fine tooth comb. J.D., get on the horn t'Atlanta again, make a pest o'yerself. If ya don't get anythin' by four o'clock, call Ezra. He's got a connection down there. Holler and bitch if ya hafta, but get that stuff faxed t'us today. Late as it is, if we're lucky, they'll only get through the Summary and Scene sections. Y'all better clean up yer end by Sunday," he warned, knowing Larabee would return and be furious.

"Vin, we know what our jobs are!" Buck defended himself and J.D. "He's been chewing our asses all week. We've been in this office, doing this fuckin' paperwork since seven this morning. Something's eating at him and he's gonna explode. I don't think it has anything to do with this case."

"Bottom line, Buck," Vin shucked his leather jacket on. "It's his name that goes on that report. If Gilbert goes free because we put in a second rate effort, he could lose his job. That murderin' bastard's been escapin' the noose fer years," he said of the elusive arsonist. "It ends here..." he warned, then paused in the doorway when he heard a snicker. He wheeled and in a flash, gripped Dunne's collar and shoved him against the back of his chair. "Somethin' funny, J.D.?"

"Back off..." J.D. huffed. "My nerves are shot too... I have a nervous laugh."

"This should settle 'em right down," Vin seethed, taking the phone and shoving it into J.D.'s hand. "Get them fingers dialin'... now!"

Buck flinched when the door slammed and gave a squeeze to J.D.'s shoulder. He saw the youth's face flush red and sighed. "Vin's nerves are frazzled. He didn't mean to jump on you. Josiah's been riding him too hard. You get started and I'll go through this and give you a hand."

It was ten after five when Vin silently reappeared. Buck paled when he saw the tension-lined pain in the sky eyes. The sharpshooter looked rough. God only knew what kind of hell Josiah put him through for two hours. He went by them without saying a word and disappeared into the cantina, a kitchen-like room at the end of the office. Buck heard the familiar sound of a pop-top and several minutes later a loud belch. Vin reappeared, holding the icy cold cola can to the side of his face. He paused beside J.D.'s desk and held his palm out. J.D. eyed Buck and made no move to hand over the file.

"What?" Vin frowned, eyeing the pair.

"We got a problem," Buck supplied and saw Vin clench his eyes shut. The single free hand of the Texan fisted, rose and trembled in suppressed rage before he let out a long breath of air. "We didn't get anything from Atlanta..."

"Goddammit, Buck!" Vin snapped and slammed the soda down. His head was throbbing and Josiah had been growling at him for two hours. He was tired and wanted to go home.

"What do you want from me!" Wilmington hollered, tired and frustrated too. Who the hell was Tanner to ride him?

"I want ya t'do yer fuckin' job!" The blue eyes were on fire and every vein in the sharpshooter's neck was standing out. "Ya had all damn day. I've been done with m'share since three o'clock and spent the last two hours gettin' my ass chewed off 'cause yer half was incomplete."

"Your half?" Buck chortled, nearly choking. He gripped the blue denim collar encasing Tanner's neck and growled, "Your ass was squatting in a loft. We were on the ground getting shot to hell and dodging explosions. You got the short end of the..."

"Ya better watch that fuckin' big mouth o'yers..." Vin warned, raising a fist.

"Back off, Vin, before I lose my temper." Buck shoved the agent hard. "You ain't wearing black pants."

"Ya know, Buck," Tanner seethed, eyes narrowing. "Them balls o'yers get twice as big when he's outta town," he said of Wilmington's veiled reference to Chris Larabee. "If he'd been here, ya would'a had that report done hours ago."

The two were about to come to blows when J.D. intervened. "Enough!" he shouted, pushing Vin backwards and against Ezra's vacant desk. "It wasn't our fault, Vin. They had a power failure at the Federal Building in Atlanta and sent everyone home. I got a hold of Ezra and he's gonna call a friend down there. He said he should be able to get us what we need by morning or sooner. I'm sorry, Vin..."

Vin slumped and sat down hard in Ezra's chair. He dropped his head onto his folded arms and didn't move. He knew something was wrong with Josiah Sanchez. While Josiah grilled Max for the evidence, the younger man slipped away to an empty lab down the hall. He'd called Nathan and gotten lucky, catching him as he left for dinner. The EMT knew the eldest longer than any of them. Nathan only said that this week was the first of two that Sanchez usually took off. He'd never disclosed to his closest friend where he went. Jackson said that upon returning, Sanchez would be withdrawn and sullen for awhile and gradually return to his usual jovial self. Whatever was haunting him remained locked inside the great man's heart.

J.D. looked at Buck and shrugged, at a loss for what to do about the situation. Buck was still pissed off but seeing Vin nearly melt into the chair unnerved him. He crossed the few feet that separated them and stood behind the Texan. He gently massaged the back of the slumped neck and winced at the iron-like tension Vin housed. The younger man jumped slightly and Buck reassured him.

"I'm sorry, Slick," he offered sincerely. "You okay?"

"...m'sorry too, Bucklin," the muffled reply came from the still buried head. "S'jest m'head's about t'fall the hell off..."

"Can I have your bike?" J.D. joked and Buck chuckled. They both were relieved when the shaggy head rose and a small smile was on the tired, pale face.

"Ya ain't man enough t'ride m'Hog, Kid." Vin's eyes crinkled and he shook Buck's extended hand. He allowed the tall agent to pull him up. He sighed and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. "Okay, we got enough t'get us t'seven o'clock. That's when they're callin' it a night. But they're pickin' it up at nine a.m. tomorrow. We're gonna need the complete report by then."

"You stick with Josiah," Buck said, resting a hand on Vin's neck, "and we'll take care of the report. Ezra'll come through. I'll call him tonight and make sure we get that fax by seven a.m. at the latest." He shoved the other agent playfully towards the door. He thought on a way to take some of that pain that radiated from the blue eyes away. "You look like shit, Vin."

"Fuck yer sorry ass t'hell and back, Buck!" Vin grinned crookedly from the doorway. "Hey, Kid? If I don't survive, m'spare keys are in m'desk."

Just over two hours later
Denver Federal Building Department of Justice Offices

The room was finally empty and the lone figure slumped back in the tall leather chair. Too tired to move, he rested his eyes and contemplated the ride home. He didn't hear the door open or the soft tread of footsteps in the conference room.

"You did an excellent job, son."

Vin peeled an eye open and took the can of cold soda from ATF Division Director Orrin Travis. He managed a weak smile and took a long sip. Orrin was a good man, as honest and fair as he'd ever met. He didn't spew compliments freely and it meant something to the quiet Texan that he offered those words.


Orrin smiled at the confusion on the tired face. He sat down and opened his own soda. After several minutes, he eyed the young man carefully. Chris Larabee was the best Team Leader he'd ever worked with. His men would ride through Hell and back for him and look forward to the trip. He also had a keen eye for soldiers and this young warrior was no exception.

Vin was much more than the team sharpshooter and weapons expert. He and Larabee had formed a unique bond that was obvious to all who knew them well. He had quietly become the unofficial second-in-command, someone to whom the others turned to when Larabee wasn't around. Today was a perfect example.

Although Josiah Sanchez, through seniority, was the acting team leader on paper, it was Tanner who got the job done. His presence during the Team Seven presentation kept the unnerved Sanchez in check. The high-ranking government officials also recognized Tanner's talented script in the report. He had a unique style and was very perceptive. He managed to create a precise synopsis of what was required. His fine eye and keen mind collected details like a video. All that was reflected in the report that Travis suspected was collated and prepared by Tanner himself.

"How'd ya know?" Vin asked, seeing the dark eyes scrutinizing him.

"You're as eloquent a speaker with your reports as you are with that rifle. You don't waste any ammunition. You scout the perimeter, take in every detail and hone in on the target. If all my agents were as thorough as you, my job would be a hell of a lot easier." He saw the flush rise on the uncomfortable man's face and smiled. "What's wrong with Josiah?"

"I don't rightly know," Vin shrugged, draining his soda. "Nate said he usually takes off around this time o'year. Seems he's cartin' somethin' around inside." Vin yawned. "'Scuse me..."

"You earned it," Travis chuckled. "Have you gotten any sleep since Chris left on Monday?"

"I'm okay."

"You're worried about Josiah..." He paused and saw the weary head nod. The eyes were darting and the brow furrowed. "He's in one of those moods. In the past, he had a tendency to lose himself in a bottle. You better hope he's sober in the morning. We need to go before the Judge at noon. If Gilbert walks..."

"That sack-of-shit ain't gonna see the light of day." Vin shoved the chair back and stood. "Ya got m'word."

"I've known that since the day I met you, Vin." Travis rose and rested a hand on the sharpshooter's soft blue shirt. Tanner was the last member of the legendary team and had been with them less than a year. He didn't have a history with the ex-preacher. "But I've known Josiah almost fifteen years. His mood swings are legendary and he's been suspended several times for his irrational behavior. If that should interfere with tomorrow's proceedings..."

"It won't," Vin promised. "Goodnight." He slid out the door and stole into the darkness.

Several hours later
Denver Federal Bldg ATF Offices


"Huh?" Vin blinked and sat up, eyeing the blue coveralls in front of him.

"I gotta buff the floors in here, you need to leave."

"Okay, sorry!" Vin noted to the man who worked for the janitorial crew.

He flicked a weary glance to the digital numbers on the small radio on his desk. It was almost eleven p.m. As he gathered up his notes, he thought back on the last few hours. He'd tried to call Chris but couldn't get through. Then, he picked up a pizza and headed back here. On his desk was a note from Buck. Ezra had called. Most of the information had been forwarded. The rest would follow by six a.m. Vin had eaten half the pizza and then decided to rest his eyes a moment. Josiah had left the case study with him, and Vin wanted to update him. He must have dozed off.

He rose and grabbed the valuable information forwarded by the Atlanta agent. He made copies and noticed the new sheets of paper in the fax machine. The data he'd been waiting on came early. He trotted into Chris's office and dialed the extension on the bottom of the page, thanking the F.B.I agent who sent it. He copied them and left one on Buck's desk with the rest of the material and a note. He paused at the door and thought for a moment. What if Buck checked his voicemail messages from home?

He returned to Larabee's desk and paused, eyeing the two lone pictures on the immaculate desktop. One was of Sarah Larabee and Adam who was wearing a little league outfit. The other was of himself with Chris about a month ago in the mountains. The seven had gone skiing for the weekend and were relaxing in the lodge when the photo was taken.

He'd been teasing Chris relentlessly and the blond mock-strangled him from behind. Ezra had captured the moment with his camera perfectly. One of Chris's arms was locked around his neck; the other rested on Vin's shoulder. Both men were wearing nearly identical boyish grins. He picked the photo up and stared at it hard, unconsciously wearing the same grin as he set the photo down. Then he lifted the phone, punched in Buck's extension, left a message and then departed for the preacher's cabin.

The cold night air bit right through him as he rode his motorcycle to Sanchez's. It was almost midnight when he got to Josiah's rustic log cabin just outside the city. Tucked away in the mountains, it was well hidden and off the beaten path. As he took his helmet off, he noticed how brightly lit up the interior was. He secured his motorcycle and headed for the door. As he got closer, a shiver of apprehension raced up his spine. He tapped on the door which opened with a soft creak.

"'Siah?" he called out. "Ya here?"

His inner alarm went off immediately. The normally immaculate cottage looked like a war zone. He pulled his gun and entered with extreme caution. Old yellowed newspapers were scattered around the floor. Photo albums were strewn all over and protest music from the sixties was blaring on the radio. The kitchen was a mess. Smashed jars of condiments were all over the floor. The contents of the cabinets littered the area as well. Flour, sugar, cereal and pasta made a culinary masterpiece on the walls. Two frying pans were scorched black and ruined. Vin quickly turned the burner off and put them in the cluttered sink. The sizzle of the water hitting the pans released steam in his face. He crept into the narrow hallway and saw several empty beer bottles. He followed the odd trail of 'dead soldiers' outside towards the shed where he found even more.

"Shit..." he hissed, treading carefully.

Josiah Sanchez was fighting a horrific battle, the same one that he'd been fighting for over twenty-five years. Time only made the pain worse, much worse. He'd tried to escape by serving his country, hiding behind a rifle. He'd tried to find solace in The Word, but still the ghosts returned, a ghoulish band of horrid specters that followed him everywhere. Most of the time, he kept them at bay, but not today... not this week.

They rose up and surrounded him, their red eyes glowing and their razor-like teeth consuming him. They plagued his days and terrorized his nights. He gripped his head and clenched his teeth trying to shut them out. The pain was unbearable, turning his blurred field of vision into a fiery red wall. They moved closer, their shrill voices slicing his frazzled brain to pieces. He looked at the body in his lap and his last defense dissolved. The blood wouldn't go away... the agony was beyond enduring... the stark images of broken glass... and the body... and the screaming... the screaming... the screaming.

Vin let his breath out when he saw Josiah from behind. He holstered his weapon and entered. He was sitting quietly on a stool in his small workshop. Vin took his jacket off, exposing the large envelope with the new evidence. He laid the envelope on a shelf by the door. The smell of sawdust caused him to recall the beautiful pieces Josiah carved. The expert carpenter had a fine hand and was a true artist. Vin remained several feet away and called out. Josiah never moved, so he moved closer, calling out again when he was just behind the graying agent.


The lost soul stiffened as the voice harshly penetrated his inner ear. His tension increased as the fire scorched his brain. His fevered mind saw the horrific demons lurking and laughing, their bony fingers pointing at him... blaming him... laughing at him... mocking him. He turned so quickly, the demon didn't stand a chance. Josiah swung his mighty fist and staggered the intruder. A second blow sent the demon to its knees. Josiah roared, picked up a board and swung his arm high above his head. The demon quivered and the preacher felt his power soar. Tonight, he vowed to purge the evil spirit for good.

"No!" Vin screamed, throwing his arm up as the wooden club came at him. He was dazed and reeling from the powerful blows to his face. Too late, he saw the empty bottle of whiskey lying in front of Josiah. He stumbled on the scattering of nuts and bolts on the floor just as the first blow smashed into his face.

There was a sickening crack and white hot pain as the board broke his arm. He tried to turn away, but the powerful man was too strong. The next blow sent a sharp pain through his chest and his head crashing into a sawhorse, opening a gash over one eye. He tried to swim through the thick waves of pain; a river of blood ran down his face. Pulling his injured arm to his chest, he used his left arm to crawl away. That was when the third blow came, sending him into oblivion.

Josiah hurried down the path in the small, picturesque country village. The charming cottages and quaint, curving, cobble-stoned lane were a blur as he froze and screamed. He dropped to his knees and cradled the body. He clutched it to his chest, the dead blue eyes splitting his mind in half. He closed his eyes, warding off the vision. He sighed deeply as the icy air hit him. Opening his eyes, he saw the silver moon overhead and got up from the dirt.

The pretty country lane was gone, and he was in the dense jungles of Vietnam. He heard the screams of the enemy behind him and his mind told him to run... run away... run away from the pain. He saw the dead bodies of the men whom he'd eaten breakfast with, fought beside, brothers in arms now broken bodies with unseeing eyes.

So he ran... and tried to stop the pain from shearing his brain. The dead unseeing eyes followed him and he pushed forward, forcing his legs to carry him away.

It was too dark and he was scared. Maybe he was dead? Was that it? Was this dark, cold place all there was? No... he hurt... a blinding agony that went well beyond the realms of pain. There was no pain after death. So where was he? Voices were near... loud and angry... his mind drew a picture. He was running with... with... who...? He squinted in the darkness and his confused brain called up an image. It was a fireball that sent bodies flying. A body near his... a dark face, silent... too silent. The inky blackness seemed to smother him, consuming him in smoke.

Vin screamed as the events were replayed. He now knew where he was and whose body was next to him. A gentle man. No, a friend, a good friend, someone whose gentle touch had soothed him when he was hurt. The soft brown eyes were lost to him forever. The image burst forth in color, shattering his dark world. He was running from the elevator towards the open bay area. The blast sent him airborne, slammed him into a wall. He slid down it and saw the body fall a few feet away.

"Dead... Oh, God... Nate... I'm sorry... Nate..."

The black curtain fell over him, silencing his heartache. The hand he'd extended to his fallen comrade went limp. The slim fingers uncurled while wrapped in cold air and bathed in a crimson pool. The air was still once more; the innocent victim lie uaware as the ghoulish spectors danced over him in the crisp December air.

Part Two

She melted into his arms, tingling in anticipation as the strong body wrapped around her. The kiss was deep and sinfully delicious. She moaned as the warm hand slid beneath the sheet and over the curve of her hip. His lips moved, nibbling her neck and the hand moved too, capturing the soft folds of her flesh. His mouth captured hers again and she surrendered, teasing his thigh with her expert fingers.

"I thought you had jet lag?" Buck hissed painfully, tugging at the wave of auburn blanketing his chest. He had been seeing Heather for about two months. She was a graphic artist for a leading advertising agency and had been in Hawaii on business. The red-eye flight got her into Denver in the wee hours of the morning. He rolled over, trying to get his tingling limbs off the bed.

"I did..." She pressed into his back, biting the soft flesh between his shoulder and neck. "...until that famous tongue of yours got busy."

"The price I pay for fame..." Buck moaned, turning and capturing her bruised lips again. She was tall and fit against him perfectly. "Damn..." he complained as her tongue teased his chest. The dark flame-colored hair held a scent of jasmine and it was all he could do to maintain control. "I need a drink..."

"Gettin' too hot for you, stud?" she teased, lifting her head and licking her lips, her green eyes dancing wickedly. "I'm gonna slip into the shower..." She winked and headed for his bathroom.

"You're gonna kill me, Red..." he moaned, staggering into the kitchen. He drained the last half of the old orange juice and burped before pulling the new one out. He shook it liberally and filled an empty carafe he had chilling in the refrigerator. He took out the rose that was on the bottom shelf, trimmed it and placed it in the carafe. He was on his way to the bedroom, eyeing the glasses in the sideboard, when he spotted the clock.

It was just after four-thirty a.m. He thought for a moment and dialed his phone at work. He'd gone to bed early, by nine o'clock, due to the exhaustive pace of three consecutive twenty-hour days and Heather's anticipated arrival during the night. He punched his code in and listened as two new messages were revealed. One was from Ezra, requesting an update as soon as they got any news on the outcome of the morning meeting. Nathan and Chris were renting a car and driving to Mount St. Helens to look at the ruins left from the volcano eruption. He was going to sleep in and then visit the art museum and browse in some book stores.

"Damn, Ez..." Buck chuckled of the rambling southerner's itinerary. The second message began and took the smile from his face.

"Buck, I'm headin' out to Josiah's t'give him the complete report. It's almost eleven." There was a slight pause before the worn-out drawl concluded, "I'll call ya when I get back... aw, hell! Heather's comin' in... sorry about that... never mind." Buck stood wearing a frown for several minutes, letting the condensation on the carafe chill his hand. Something about the hesitation in Vin's voice worried him. He set the carafe back down and hissed.

"Jesus, I'm as bad as Chris," he berated himself. But there he was dialing the phone. Vin didn't answer his home phone or his cell phone. An unexpected chill gripped him. Vin was an early riser. Eight hours sleep or two hours, he was up at five a.m., ready for his morning jog at five-thirty sharp.

"I'm getting lonely..." a voice beckoned from the bedroom.

"Damn..." he sighed. "Hold on, darlin'..." he called back, pacing in the gourmet kitchen. He bit his lip and rubbed his jaw. He took the phone again and punched out Josiah's number.

It was the screaming that woke him up, his own screaming. The nightmare had been much worse, so real he could still taste the blood and smell the burning carnage. The ringing in his ears intensified and he struck out at the source. His hand struck the hard ground repeatedly, and his burning eyes tried to focus. It was dark and he was lying on a soft bed of dirt. He crawled forward and probed the small area with his hands until he found a rock. He pulled himself up and the world began to spin around.

"O Lord, my God, in thee do I put my trust: save me from all they that persecute me, and deliver me," he quoted a psalm from the Bible. "Guide me, Lord... from this pain... these demons that haunt me. I am weak... but I have slain the beast, yet the scent of blood still clings to me..."

The demons returned, shrieking at him in the darkness. The image slashed into him, the broken glass, the broken body and the screaming. The dead blue eyes that once looked at him with such trust... gone forever. He dropped to his knees and clutched his middle as a horrid pain ripped through him. He crawled away, only dimly aware of his own movements. He vomited until nothing was left and then crawled away, melting back into the darkness that he welcomed, silencing the pain.

"Jesus..." Buck hissed, raking his hand through his hair. Icicles clung to his insides and he felt a tremor within his gut. It wasn't like him to get so rattled. Hell, Vin was exhausted, could be he left his cordless phone off in the bedroom.

"Hey, Baby, where are you?" Heather was cloaked in an emerald silk teddy and matching wrap, a sight that normally would have left the tall agent weak-kneed, but his face was a mask of puzzled concern. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing...I hope," he sighed and began to dial again. Josiah either took the phone off the hook or it was out of order. Buck then dialed J.D. The kid was only ten minutes from Vin's. Maybe he was worried for nothing. Maybe Vin fell asleep and didn't hear the phone. Maybe...


"Sorry to wake you..."

"Buck? No... you okay?"

"I'm fine, but I'm worried about Vin."

"Vin?" J.D. sat up, gently pulling his body from the arms that held him. He tiptoed out of the bedroom so as not to disturb Casey. The pretty law student was his roommate and the love of his life. He resumed his conversation when he got to the living room. "Talk to me, Buck."

"I woke up early and dialed my number at work. I had a message from Vin at about eleven last night. He was leaving the office for Josiah's."

"Of all the stupid..." J.D. smacked the wall. "The mood Josiah was in... God only knows what trouble that is... and that place is in the middle of nowhere."

"I can't get Vin on the phone," Buck interrupted. "And I called Josiah's but there's a funny signal. Hell, Vin might be home and asleep... but..."

"No problem." J.D. heard the silent request. "I can be at Vin's in fifteen minutes, I'll call you back."

Buck paced the kitchen, silently berating himself for leaving the Texan alone. "I should have gone back after dinner. I should have called him or..."

"Stop it, Buck." She moved in front on him, her eyes serious. "Don't go there. For all you know, Vin is fine and Josiah's just tied on a good one. Let's wait for J.D."

Buck sighed and leaned back against the stove. He glanced sadly at the rose standing in the carafe. He plucked the red blossom and touched her lips with it.

"Perfect, just like you."

She pressed her curves against him, kissing him and caressing the back of his neck. He jumped a bit when the phone rang. She pulled back and watched his handsome face crease in worry.


"His mail's still out front and so is yesterday's paper. His bike's not here." J.D. was clearly out of breath. "Buck, he never came home..."

"Pick me up, J.D. I'll be out front."

"Should we call the cops?" the youth asked.

"Not yet..." Buck decided, running for the bedroom. "We'll see what we find out there. Could be Vin was too tired to ride that bike home and stayed over. I'll see you in a few..." Buck clicked off the cordless and kissed his pretty date while pulling clothes on. "I'm sorry, Heather, I wanted it to be special this morning. Damn, I missed you..."

"You make it special every time I look in those eyes, Handsome." She kissed him again, rubbing the soft petals of the rose against his cheek. "Go on... I'll keep trying Vin's."

Josiah's cabin was off a deserted road and deep in the woods. The team's eldest loved the solitude of the area and had only wildlife for neighbors. It was quiet and the sky was filled with new light when they pulled up. The morning sun cast an eerie light on Vin Tanner's motorcycle. The sight of the Texan's prize machine caused both of the agent's stomachs to drop.

"Fuck!" Buck slammed the dashboard and jumped out of the car. "I got the house..."

"I'll take the shop." J.D. ran forward, pausing briefly by Vin's bike.

The senior agent made his way past the cozy porch and through the open door. The dim light from the kitchen cast a yellow aura on the ransacked house. Buck licked his lips and stepped over a pile of broken record albums and winced at the smashed furniture.

"Vin... you here?" He tread carefully through the living room and eyed the kitchen. "Josiah?" He was about to proceed into the back when J.D.'s scream split the cold air and sent him flying for the door.

J.D. pushed the door to the workshop open and peered inside. He had to think for a moment, then flicked on the light by the door. The room was a mess. Nuts, bolts and tools were all over the floor. A broken lamp was lying near the upturned bench where the ex-preacher normally worked his craft. The large shelving unit by the wall had been overturned. The room was empty and J.D. started to turn away when he saw something pink sticking out from under the toppled six foot shelving unit.

"Oh, God..."

His heart was pounding as he forced his legs to move. The pink object was flesh and four curled up fingers. The inside of the hand was marked in dark crimson. He peered closer and saw blood splattering the wooden remnants covering the body.

Body? He moved closer, knelt down, and then he saw it. The shock took him back to his feet and back several steps, hitting the wall.

The sight of the lone unblinking blue eye, stark against a mask of blood, sent the word screaming forth.



Buck ran into the destroyed room just as the young man turned. J.D.'s hazel eyes stood out wide and shocked against his now pale skin. His lip was quivering but not one word passed. Buck opened his mouth to speak when he saw the open palm of a hand smeared with blood. Then he looked closer and saw tangled locks of brown hair and the hint of blue shirt.

"Aw, Jesus... Vin..." He dropped down and froze, seeing the same fixed stare. His mouth went dry and his stomach dropped so quickly it made him dizzy.

"Buck, I think he's dead..."


The word didn't slam into the rogue as much as it turned his blood cold.

"He can't be..." Buck's voice was now uncomfortably small and uncertain as sheer will alone forced his hand lower, past the bloody tangle of hair and towards the Texan's throat. Just before he touched the red flesh, the eye blinked.

"Jesus!" Wilmington's hand jerked back and he sighed so loudly that it hurt his chest. "He blinked... he's alive!" He and J.D. both scrambled, pulling the large unit off the fallen man.

"Vin..." J.D.'s voice died in his throat when he saw the awful damage to his friend. "What happened?"

"That son-of-a-bitch damn near beat him to death," Buck growled, eyeing Vin's bloody jacket nearby. "Call it in!" the tall agent ordered and sent the kid's fingers working on his cell phone. He eyed the room and spotted a roll of paper towels and motioned with his hand. J.D. nodded and moved while talking to the 9-1-1 operator. He dampened some of them in the small sink at the back of the room and then handed a wad to Buck.

"Vin, you with me?" Buck's voice was shaking as the lone eye that would open was fixed again. He moved to wipe some of the blood from Vin's face and determine how badly he was injured. "You're gonna be fine, slick," he soothed the shivering young man. "He's in shock... see if you can find a blanket or something," he called to J.D. without breaking his pained gaze on Vin Tanner.

Why was it so dark? Everything was blurry and shadowed. He was cold and his head hurt... his chest hurt and his arm was an agonizing wall of white hot flames. His mind raced, trying to remember what could have happened. He thought and thought... pain... so much pain... a hard cold floor. How long had he been here? Was someone nearby or was it his imagination again? He felt a soothing hand wipe his face and pried his blood-caked lips open.


It was a weak rasp and barely airborne, but it lanced the mustached agent hard. "Aw, hell..." he froze, thinking on Josiah's weapons. "J.D., check his legs..."

"I don't see anything, Buck..." J.D. unbuttoned Vin's shirt and saw the purple and blue chest. "Oh, my God...!"

Buck gently began to wipe Vin's face. He was especially concerned with the blood caked over the smaller man's nose and mouth, blocking his airway. He paused in his ministrations long enough to run his hand lightly over the dazed man's chest. "Busted... at least two, maybe three. I hope to hell he ain't bleedin' inside. Arm's broke... and he's got a sticky lump on the back of his head." Buck winced as his tender examination caused Vin to cry out.

"Sorry, Vin... I won't hurt you no more." Buck rested his hand against Vin's face and felt a tug inside again as Vin pressed weakly against the flesh, seeking human contact... comfort. "Jesus... he must have been layin' here all night." Buck stared in disbelief at the side of Vin's swollen and discolored face. One eye was sealed under a mound of purple, blue and scarlet, a decent-sized gash over the eyebrow.

J.D. lifted his gaze and saw Buck's eyes full of such sorrow it hurt to look at him. He directed his attention to the Texan who was shivering, pale and clammy. He pulled the thin blanket up and saw the anguish in the dark blue eyes change to a smoldering rage.

"I'm gonna fuckin' teach that bastard a lesson he'll never forget," Buck growled, clenching the wet scarlet cloth in his hand, sending a small river of crimson spilling onto his shirt.

"Buck, we don't have proof that Josiah did this," J.D. tried to convince himself as he took Vin's limp hand, sensing like Buck, that the dazed man needed reassurance through touch. "How could he?"

"Proof?" Buck roared, causing Vin's slight frame to jerk and the eye to shoot wide open. "That proof enough for you?" He jerked his head towards the empty bottle of liquor. "No? How about that...whose fuckin' bloody handprint do you think that is?" Buck pointed to the wooden club bearing a large image.

"I just can't believe he'd do this." J.D.'s youth now seemed suddenly apparent.

Buck was seething, his whole frame trembling in anger and rage. Visions of the slender sharpshooter being battered by an out-of-control Sanchez sent him into the red zone. He stroked Vin's face gently, wincing as the bruised flesh was uncovered. With every stroke, he felt Vin's breathing ease and the shivering slow down. He bent lower and talked in low hushed tones, reassuring Vin of his safety.

"It's Buck, Vin. You're gonna be fine. Me and the Kid are right here."

God, he was cold and the fear that gripped him made his blood turn to ice. The shadowy figures were back; they blended into the near darkness like phantoms. They hovered over him; their warm breath danced against his neck. He'd read about Purgatory when he was a kid in school. He never believed it. It was Heaven or Hell, no way station.

"...up or down... no middle ground."

"What?" J.D. leaned over Vin when the lips began to move.

"Damn... " Buck shook his head sadly as Vin's good eye began to dart again and his breathing became rapid. "Easy, son... you're safe now... Buck's on the job."

The voice sent a warm blanket over his cold place. He sighed and settled back into the murky gloom. The pain in his head and chest were almost too much to bear. Then he thought of his dead friend and his own pain was quickly forgotten. He should have pushed Nathan out the door first. He should have turned back and grabbed for him. Now it was too late.

"Nate! Oh, God... m'sorry... dead... gone... can't tell ya..."

"Whoa!" Buck gripped the anxious face gently as the blue eye began to dart frantically, keeping time with the bobbing Adam's apple. "Vin, Nate's fine... you gotta calm down... Where the hell is that ambulance?"

"We're pretty far out, Buck," J.D. reminded him. "It's gonna take a few minutes."

"No... blowed up... I didn't warn... Nate... dead..." Vin whispered frantically, chin trembling.

"Aw, hell, he's all mixed up..." Buck hissed, mentally tearing Josiah limb from limb. "He thinks he's in the garage of that warehouse."

"That was three months ago, but Nate was okay."

"He was out cold and Vin was three feet away trapped behind that dumpster... Damn..." He bent over, seeing the frantic eye keeping time with the horrid breathing. "Vin, Nate's with Chris and Ez in Seattle, remember?"

"Huh?" Vin licked his lips and tasted that metallic residue of blood. Seattle? Why was everything so dark? Whose voice was that? Where was he? What the hell happened? Why was it so cold?

"Vin..." J.D. squeezed the limp hand and tried to offer some comfort. "It's gonna be okay." J.D. handed Buck another towel and noticed Vin didn't blink. His heart dropped. "Buck... he can't see us..." he whispered, stomach churning.

"What?" Buck yelped, then drew his gaze to the floor. He moved his hand right in front of Vin's eye and the injured man never blinked. "Oh, Jesus..." He slumped back, hearing the distant wailing of an ambulance. He raked a hand through his dark hair and flinched.

"I'll flag 'em down," J.D. stammered, still shocked. "Here." He guided Vin's limp hand to Buck and made his way outside. He sucked in great gulps of air, grateful for the cold crisp morning.

Why was it so quiet? Where did the voice go? He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. That was a mistake. It felt like a great white shark clamped its razor-like jaws on his chest. He screamed and bucked trying to end the pain. The sudden movement caused his rocky stomach to spill.

"Shit!" Buck's frustration was building to a dangerous level. Vin curled into him, gasping and crying out. He held a group of towels under Vin's mouth as the bile erupted. Finally, after the last painful heave, he tossed the towels aside and got clean ones. He wiped the salty streaks that left a trail through the dried blood on Vin's face. He gripped the hand and bent lower, trying to soothe the confused soul.

"Vin, it's Buck. I gotcha. You're safe now... the ambulance is here. You're gonna go to the hospital." Buck sat up and winced at the death grip Vin had on his hand. He didn't know if the younger man understood one word he said, but he knew that the grip had become his lifeline. Try as he might, he couldn't tear his eyes away from the bloody club. "I'm gonna fuckin' kill 'im..." he vowed with a snarl as Vin's clenched cries and lost eyes cut his insides to pieces.

Buck? Is that what the voice said? Buck? He felt the grip on his cold hand and the now welcomed warmth of breath on his neck as the words came. A gentle hand stroked his face. Safe, the voice said, and he felt it more than the blanket that covered him. Buck was here. He wasn't alone... he wasn't lost.

"What happened here?"

"Huh?" Buck blinked and saw the medic kneeling on Vin's other side. "Not sure... we found him under that shelf. Someone beat him... with that I'd guess." Buck kept his voice calm and tried to move, giving the two medics room to work. He winced as the claw-like grasp on his hand was pried away. He saw the results immediately. Vin's eye widened and began to dart and his Adam's apple was bobbing in a wicked fury.

The blanket was gone; his hand was cold again. He blinked and saw shadows lurking and bending. He felt the sting in his arm and hands probing him. Something cold touched his skin and he flinched. Then hands began to probe him, sending him into a fearful frenzy, especially when his right arm exploded painfully. Buck? This wasn't Buck. It wasn't the same touch.

"Buck... Bucklin... Buck...?" Vin gasped, pushing weakly at the stranger.

"Aw, shit..." Buck winced, the frightened blue eye and soft call hitting him like a hail of bullets. "Easy, Vin..." He bent over and gripped the hand again, eyeing the medics. "There's something wrong with his vision. He's in shock... he don't know where he is. I can keep him calm."

"Okay, but stay out of the way."

"You with me, slick?" Buck forced a false joviality into his worried voice and felt Vin's breath on his face as the audible sigh of relief went airborne.

"...don't go..."

"Hell, Miss Nude America couldn't pry me loose," Buck teased and saw Vin frown.


"Never mind," Buck soothed, eyeing the gurney that was being rolled in.

"Hurts... Buck... happened?" Vin murmured, his eyes heavy. ""

"Yeah, Vin." Buck leaned over the gurney as they gently but efficiently placed the wounded man on it and pulled the sheet up. "But you're gonna be fine. You got my word."

"...good as... as... as... da..da...done..." Vin whispered, causing Buck to smile.

"Damn straight!" he whispered, following the gurney and its precious cargo outside before climbing into the ambulance beside them. "J.D., I'll see you over there!"


"Right here, Vin." The youth bent over, patting Vin's leg. "Don't talk Buck's ear off..."

"...kay... D?... hurt...?"

"No, Vin, I'm fine... you're the only one hurt," he reassured the troubled face.

Vin felt a rumbling under his body and a motor lurch. Strange voices surrounded him and the hands were touching him again. He swallowed hard and tried to peer into the murky world above him. Something was covering his nose and mouth and he began to panic. Where was Buck? He couldn't hear his voice. Did he dream that too? It was getting harder to stay awake and the tension in his grip was slipping. He opened his eye wide again and then he realized he couldn't see.

"Buck?... can't see nothin'... Buck?... why can't... see?"

"Shit..." Buck whispered, running his free hand through his hair. He bent lower, placing his lips next to Vin's ear, hoping to calm the fear he heard. He rested his free hand against Vin's cheek and spoke in a low tone.

"You just rest now, Vin. The doctors at the hospital will take care of you. You hurt your head some..."

"...Buck?... there?"

The mumbled voice under the oxygen mask only made him hurt worse. He continued to stroke Vin's face and felt the grip weakening. "Right here..." Buck spoke directly into Vin's ear and saw the head bob just as the single eye slid shut. He slumped back against the wall of the emergency vehicle, watching the highway markers pass by. He looked into the lessening night sky and wondered where the hell Josiah Sanchez was. It wasn't bad enough he beat his friend, but he left him to die. Buck couldn't think of anything so unforgivable. His anger resurfaced and a pair of green eyes broke his train of thought.

"Fuck," he mumbled, wondering how to break the news to Chris Larabee.

Part Three

The blue sky peered through the tall pines, gazing in disdain at the body below. Josiah Sanchez stared right back, not hiding his confusion. He rolled over and his blurry vision saw the trees and rocks at a crazy angle. He sighed and pried his tongue from the roof of his sour mouth as the birds above called to him. Trees... dirt... logs... rock... dense woods... his mind went blank. He laid back and tried to recall... anything. A distant gurgling told him water wasn't far and he forced his limbs upwards. That's when he saw it and his heart clenched so hard, he thought he'd suffered a heart attack.

He turned his large hands over, frowning at the maroon stains covering them. His red-rimmed, bleary eyes then discovered the large maroon stains on the front of his heavy gray fleece shirt. He stared hard at the marks and ran his hands over his head and face but found not one wound.

He ran then, terrified at the thoughts that invaded his fevered brain. He ran hard and collapsed, gasping for breath at the edge of the river. He scrubbed his hands and face and frantically gulped water. Rivulets of the ice cold liquid ran down his face and dripped onto the stained shirt. His worst nightmare had finally come true. Blood, lots of blood, not his own... whose then? He raised his tortured eyes heavenward, seeking out the Master's hand.

"My God... What have I done?"

For twenty-five years, he'd relived the nightmare. A quarter of a century's worth of the ghoulish parade of demons who tortured him, their spears and knives ripping his guts apart and driving him to the brink of oblivion. He'd had blackouts before during this hellish fortnight, losing two or three days some times. He'd been in the woods before too; sometimes it took him all day to get back home. He read books about it and even called the toll-free phone number once, but the voice on the other end only sent his heart hammering again. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder they called it. He couldn't even face himself and talk about it. How could he ever speak to another and find the words?

He sat on a log near the river and eyed the maroon marks scoring his shirt. He ran a shaky hand over the horrid mess and took a deep breath. He'd gone too far this time. He'd lied to himself for years, promising that 'next year it'll be different' or 'as soon as I get some free time, I'll get help'. But like so many other lost dreams and broken promises, Josiah Sanchez failed again. This time, however, the price was too high. Had he taken an innocent life? Whose blood was he wearing as his horrible coat of armor? He dropped to his knees and raised his head heavenwards, hoping that God would hear his call and be merciful.

"Please let the lamb be alive... Lord... punish me if you will, call me home. But..." He paused and his hands rested on the blood... so much blood. He tried to recall the day before. He'd been having flashbacks all week, and by the time the meeting with Orrin came, his nerves were frazzled and raw. Vin took over, his quiet demeanor and steadfast voice easily guiding the meeting. They were satisfied and the ATF Director's nod to Vin at the conclusion of the sharpshooter's near perfect delivery gave him relief. He'd flown from the room and down the stairs into the garage. Then what? Josiah glanced at the river again, then the sun above. He barely remembered driving home... then ... then... nothing. He licked his lips and eyed the sky again, hoping for a miracle.

"...I'm sorry... Oh, God! How sorry I am..." He looked at his hands, cold and chilled from the water, and saw the blood reappear. He wiped them frantically against his chest. "Blood of the lamb... Lord, I need Your help. Please... don't take the innocent lamb... I'll do as You bid... guide me, Lord. My soul is shattered..."

He prayed for some time, canting the verses he knew by heart. Then he felt a warmth surround him and closed his eyes. The invisible touch drew him to his feet and he felt the sustaining embrace. He took a deep breath and nodded, casting his eyes to the sky.

"I promise..." he vowed of the silent quest that was twenty-five years overdue. He took a small step, the first step in a long road, and headed home.

Hawthorne Suites Hotel
Downtown Seattle, 7 a.m.

"We all set?" Nathan asked the stylish Southerner as he set a full plate of steaming hot pancakes, sausage, hash browns and bacon for himself on the table. He picked up the rose linen napkin and waited for a reply. "Ezra?" Nathan frowned at the concerned expression on the face of the man across the table in the large hotel restaurant. "Something wrong?" he asked, following the pale jade eyes across the room.

"It would appear so," Standish replied, reading the scowl on their team leader's face. Chris had left the table to check on their flight. He was approaching the table and clearly not happy. "Has the flight been delayed?"

"No," Chris replied curtly, taking his seat and a long sip of black coffee. Ezra didn't miss the fact that most of the female heads in the room were trained on the blond. The designer gray suit and shirt and the face above would have set easily on the cover of GQ.

"Well then, to what do we owe your charming disposition?" Ezra plied, spooning raspberry jam on a croissant. He'd already eaten a selection of melons, a container of yogurt and a bowl of granola.

"Nobody's in the office," Chris complained, stabbing at an unfortunate end of a western omelet. He wore the harsh look as the egg creation disappeared. Taking a large gulp of orange juice, he eyed his two companions. "I can't figure it out. Where the hell are they?"

"You tried all their numbers?" Nate frowned, wiping the maple syrup from his lips.

"Yeah," Chris sighed. "I don't get it. Vin said last night they were meeting early to go over everything. I can't get anyone in the office or anyone at home. They better not fuck this up. Our asses are on the line," he growled, tossing down his napkin.

"Perhaps Orrin requested they meet at his office?" Ezra tried, pushing his cluster of plates away.

"I left a message on his machine too." Chris blew out a long breath of frustration.

"Look, Chris, it's still early," Nate pacified. "Could be Buck's picking up Vin and J.D. and they stopped for breakfast. We'll call from the airport."

"Yeah, maybe..." Chris brooded, shaking his handsome head. "But I got a bad feeling... "

"Wonderful..." Ezra muttered, getting a chill. More often than not, one of Larabee's 'bad feelings' ended up with all of them pacing the ER waiting area.

"Finish up," Chris dictated, rising and tossing his napkin aside. "We're checked out. The porter's got our luggage. I'll have him get us a cab."

8:15 a.m.

"Buck!" J.D. raced up the tile floor leading to the ante room outside the ER. "How is he?" His voice elapsed into a squeak when he saw the pale shocked face before him.

"Hell if I know!" Buck spat, rubbing the back of his neck. "They won't tell me a fuckin' thing. He's been in there for over an hour. Christ, J.D., if he don't make it... I gotta pick Chris up at the airport at one o'clock. Jesus...!" He kicked a chair and resumed his pacing.

J.D.'s face moved in a variety of expressions, trying to figure out how to reach Buck. "Vin won't die..."

"He damn near died on the way in..." Buck leaned against the wall, resting his head. "They shoved a tube down his throat and stuck some bag on him and had to pump air into him. Then when we pulled up, the paramedic jumped on top of the gurney, pumping that bag... screaming about his blood pressure dropping and fluid in his chest. I followed them right into the ER."

Buck tried to control his shaking hands without avail. He then turned to the quiet younger man and his voice dropped. "His lung collapsed... he couldn't breathe... fluid was building up in his chest... they said something like he was drowning in his own blood. They ripped his shirt off and stuck a tube in him... Jesus Christ, J.D., you should have seen the blood shoot out!" Buck's voice wavered and he closed his eyes for a minute. "I never seen so much blood... it's a wonder he didn't die right then and there... "

"Mr. Wilmington?"

"How is he?" Buck spun around, his long strides sliding up to a blood-spattered resident. The young man moved back and put both hands up defensively.

"I'm Dr. Traynor and he's holding his own. He's in critical condition. His right arm is broken and will require surgical repair. His right lung collapsed and we put a chest tube in..."

"What about his eyes?" J.D. blurted. "He couldn't see us..."

"That is a concern but the x-rays ruled out a fracture of his skull. However, we'll need to take him up for a CT scan to rule out a cerebral contusion."

"Aw, shit..." Buck rocked back on his heels. "What does that mean?"

"Well, if he has sustained an injury to his brain, depending on the area involved, both his vision and his balance might be affected as well as his ability to reason or even speak. He's likely to be very confused and disoriented. He's also lost quite a bit of blood for which we are transfusing him. Orthopedics is on their way down to splint his arm and from there he'll go to the scanner. Afterwards, depending on what we find, he'll be taken to the second floor ICU. I'm sorry. I wish I had better news. He's still in shock at the moment and we are doing everything we can to treat that."

"Can we see him?" Buck asked, stomach dropping through the floor.

"Later, when he's settled into the unit, two visitors at a time," the doctor advised. "But that won't be for a few hours yet."

"Thanks..." J.D. shook the doctor's hand as his beeper went off and he went back into the ER.

For a stunned gathering of minutes, neither spoke. Then J.D. saw the clock on the wall quickly approaching eight-thirty.

"Buck, you gotta go. It's getting late."

"Go?" Buck rasped, lost in thought. His mind's eye still saw Vin's lost expression, blank and unseeing, that wavering hand that clutched his. "Go where?" he blinked in confusion.

"The meeting at nine..."

"Hell, J.D., how can you think of that at a time like this?" Buck lashed out.

J.D. didn't blink or flinch; the hard words came from worry. He waited until Buck paced twice more and grabbed his shoulder.

"You have to," he said, handing Buck the large folder he'd taken from Josiah's. "It's important, especially to Vin. He put his blood and sweat into this..." His voice broke off as he realized the harsh truth to his words. Vin's dried blood graced the cover of the folder. "Go on. I'll wait here. I'll call you..."

"Yeah," Buck sighed, taking the large report with trembling hands. He paused and extended a hand, gripping the other's firmly. "Thanks, kid," he said quietly, gaining strength from those hazel eyes that looked at him with admiration.

Seattle-Tacoma Airport in Washington
Eight-thirty a.m.

"Nothing yet?" Nathan asked as Chris flipped closed his phone.

"No, something's wrong. I don't like it," Larabee replied, running to their gate.

"Hurry!" Ezra waved to them from the gate. He was the last one waiting; their flight had been moved up and he'd run ahead to hold the plane.

"Sorry!" Nathan gasped, handing his ticket and photo ID to the airline clerk who nodded and motioned for them to enter.

Several minutes later, the flight took off and the three agents were headed for home. Nathan and Ezra were two rows behind the silent blond. The only thing visible from their perspective behind him was the right hand gripping the arm of the seat and the rigid set of the clenched jaw.

"You a bettin' man, Ezra?" Nathan asked and turned to see a single brow arch back at him. "My money's on Chris's gut. That bad feeling he's got is travelin' right down the aisle."

"Normally, I do not put much faith in such unsubstantiated sensations..."

"But," Nathan added.

"But I would have to agree. Something's very wrong," he puzzled. "What's odd is that no one was on active duty yesterday. They were in the office."

"Accident?" Nathan wondered.

"Perhaps, but why wouldn't someone have called?" He paused then as his insides turned to ice. Slowly, he turned and met Nathan's ashen face. "Unless..."

"Cut that out, Ezra, nobody died," Nathan snapped, shoving his seat back and closing his eyes. He half wondered if the words he spoke were to reassure himself as well.

Denver's Federal Building
Eight-fifty a.m.

Four heads turned toward the door when it opened. The harried young man whose flushed face met their eyes seemed shaken. He nodded to each of them before approaching the man who sat at the head of the table in the conference room. As he handed the file over, his eyes darted to each of them again.

"I'm sorry for being late..."

"It's okay, Wilmington," Alex Freeman, the head of the Denver Division of the Drug Enforcement Agency noted. "Orrin told us that Vin Tanner was involved in an accident earlier this morning."

"Yeah." Buck's eyes went to Travis's momentarily.

"How is he?" Marcia Dailey of the city's Department of Justice inquired.

"Not good." Buck's voice was shaky as he eyed the coffee in the corner of the room. Bob Carlin of the F.B.I. was near it and jumped up to pour him a mug. "Thanks..." He paused when his eyes caught sight of the blood on his hands. "Oh, shit... I didn't clean up... I'm sorry."

"Look, we can do this later..." Carlin offered but the ATF agent shook his head.

"No, this was important to Vin," he asserted, eyeing the maroon stains on the folder in front of Travis. "Hell, he signed it in his blood..."

"Buck," Orrin warned, seeing the dark blue eyes flashing dangerously. "Leave the investigation to the Police Department. How's Vin?"

"Critical... busted up all to hell." Buck sat down hard, took a mouthful of coffee and dropped his head. He rubbed his tired eyes and swallowed hard, still recalling the harrowing ambulance ride. "He damn near died on the way over..."

"God..." Marcia sat back hard. Tanner was one of the good guys who rode a white horse.

"His, uh... lung... collapsed... his arm's broke... and he's got a head... thing..."

"Buck, why don't you take ten minutes to clean up? We can wait," Alex suggested.

"Yeah, okay."

Buck felt numb all over and couldn't get the grisly image of Tanner's nearly lifeless body out of his mind. He felt a hand on his back and saw Orrin standing next to him. The dark eyes motioned towards the door. It was only after washing his hands and face that he finally took a breath. As he dried his face, he met those questioning eyes in the mirror.

"I know you're angry, Buck," Orrin noted, "and believe me, if Josiah is responsible, he'll pay the consequence."

"IF!" Buck roared, tossing the towel in the trash. "I was there! You weren't! You didn't see Vin's broken body. You didn't hear his voice, he was scared to death. He's blind, Orrin. That son-of-a-bitch damn near killed him. There ain't no 'if'..." He paced in the small men's room, then turned as Travis approached. "You better hope that the cops find him first. 'Cause I'll put him in a bed next to Vin..."

"No, you won't," Travis warned, grabbing the irate agent's arm. "You listen to me, Buck. I've known you for over ten years. You're a fine agent and a good friend. You have a stellar record in the department. I won't have you throwing it all away to satisfy a blood lust. Vin wouldn't want that either."

"Do they know?" Buck deflected without addressing his raging internal battle.

"No, until Josiah is apprehended and we get his side," he paused and saw the younger man white knuckle the door handle. "I just told them that Vin was badly injured in an accident and you went with him to the hospital. I told them Josiah wouldn't be available for the meeting today and you're the acting divisional. Are you ready to proceed now?"

"Yeah, sooner we get this done the better. It's all there," Buck noted of the file. "Vin put his heart into that report. That bastard's gonna do time, we got him this time."

"Let's go." Orrin gave the slumped shoulder a tug and led the way back to the room.

Denver Airport Arrivals Terminal

Buck was just heading for the doors when they slid open and Chris, Ezra and Nathan appeared, each toting a bag. He didn't even glance at the two others; his gaze was fixed on the dark glasses the blond leader wore. He stopped in his tracks, his mind spinning wildly, trying to come up with the right words. Vaguely, he heard Nathan call out to him just as Chris's arm shot out and ripped off his expensive sunglasses.

"Buck? You forget how to answer your messages? I left a half-dozen on your phone," Chris demanded, not hiding his anger. "What the fuck happened? Did Gilbert get held over?"

"Yeah, the... uh... D.A... she thinks it's solid. The uh... thing... is on Monday..." Buck managed, dropping his head to clear it a bit.

"Arraignment?" Ezra filled in, exchanging a worried glance with Nathan. There was no mistaking the uncertainty in that voice. Buck Wilmington was clearly shaken and something was very wrong.

"I want an answer, Buck," Larabee snapped. "Did you four all of a sudden get amnesia? I left you, Josiah and J.D. messages. Vin needs to get that damn machine of his fixed. I couldn't get..." The words died in his throat then when his oldest friend's head came up slowly. It was then he saw the pain in the dark blue eyes. Not just any pain, a rippling agony that was painted in sky blue.

So that was it.


Buck winced at that small voice, one he'd not heard Larabee use in many years. He nodded once and the other man dropped his bag and turned away, raking his hand through his short blond hair. The short puffs of white coming from his shallow breaths were painful to watch.

"What's wrong with Vin?" Ezra asked.

"Buck, what happened? Was he in an accident?" Nathan moved closer and touched the other man's shoulder.

"An accident?" Buck snapped back to life, whipped around and unleashed his rage on Josiah's best friend. "No, it wasn't a fuckin' accident!" He flicked his smoldering gaze to the Southerner then. "You wanna know what's wrong with Vin? Well, I'll tell you. Josiah damn near beat him to death."


Ignoring Chris and Ezra's dual screeches of shock, Wilmington zoned in on the dumbstruck Jackson.

"That ain't funny, Buck," Nathan seethed.

"Funny? You think I'm joking? Do I look like I'm joking?" Buck hissed, jabbing his finger into Nathan's jacket. "How funny do you think it was to walk into that bastard's workshop and find Vin Tanner lying busted up and bleedin' all to hell under a bookshelf? Yeah, it was a real laugh fest..."

"Buck, get hold of yourself." Ezra tried to intervene only to have his arm shoved off.

"Buck, you're not making any sense!" Chris stepped in front of the irate agent and physically moved him back a few feet. "What happened to Vin?" He gripped the irate man's arms hard, his fingers pressing into the flesh under Buck's heavy sweater.

"I told you, Josiah used his fists and a fuckin' board to beat the shit out of him. He's lyin' in ICU now... tubes runnin' out of him... a fuckin' ventilator breathin' for him... his... his... arm's busted... ribs caved his lung in..."

"Oh, my God!" Ezra whispered, shaking his head in disbelief. "How can you be certain that Josiah..."

"I was there!" Buck roared, glancing over Chris's shoulder at Ezra. His dark blues eyes rippled with accusation. "Didn't you hear me?"

"Stop it!" Larabee ordered, gripping the trembling arm. Buck was so livid he was shaking. "It's freezing out here. Where's your car?"

"There, with the blinkers on..." Wilmington nodded to his car across the way.

"Keys!" Chris demanded and took them from the upset man. He tossed them to Ezra. "Drive."

Once the quartet was strapped in and the engine started, Chris turned to Buck who was next to him in the back seat.

"Okay, Buck, from the top."

"He's been out of control all week. Barking at us, snapping all the time, lashing out, in a real black mood. Yesterday was a bitch of a day. We spent all day ironing out the details and gathering up all the stuff we needed for that meeting."

"Yeah, Vin told me. I got a message from him about eleven or so..." Larabee prompted, needing to get to the guts of the story.

"I told him to go home," Buck turned, casting his eyes at the others. "When he left the office, he looked awful. I told him to go home... damn him."

"He went out to Josiah's instead?" Ezra guessed, flicking a gaze into the rearview and seeing the dark head bob.

"Yeah, near as we can figure, he left the office about eleven p.m. I got up a little after four to get a drink of juice. I got to thinking about not hearing from him so I punched up my messages... I couldn't get him at home. I sent J.D. over... Vin never made it home. So we went up there." He sighed heavily, rubbed his throbbing eyes and shook his head. "It was like a hurricane ripped through the place. The house was trashed. There was empty beer bottles lyin' all over. I heard J.D. scream and ran into the workshop. Vin... " His voice cracked then and he paused to control himself. Swallowing hard he continued, "... we saw his hand first... one eye just staring... under that big shelving unit... Chris... for a moment... we... I... thought he was..."

"Christ!" Chris sat back, numb.

It hadn't sunk in yet. Maybe when he actually saw Vin Tanner, the gravity of the situation would take hold of him. But for now, it was surreal. He heard Buck's words and he knew Vin was fighting for his life but he didn't feel it. Maybe he wasn't strong enough to feel it. The thought of Vin Tanner dying was something too horrific to grasp. It was a cold, dark place to unimaginable to fathom. No, he wouldn't allow that. He shook his head a bit as Buck's wavering voice continued.

"But he blinked... God, he was freezing. Laid there all night, bleedin' all over."

"Did Vin say anything?" Chris inquired in a tight voice.

"Nothing that made sense. He was shaking so bad, confused, scared..." Buck licked his lips. "He thought he was back in that warehouse, that Nathan was dead."

Nathan frowned and turned his face halfway towards the backseat.

"What did Josiah say? Is he okay?"

"He wasn't there. After he damn near broke Vin in half, he left. Just left him there bleedin' the hell all over the floor buried under that rubble. Worse than an animal..."

"You judge and jury now, Buck?" Jackson defended. "You don't know what happened out there. Maybe somebody busted up Josiah's place. Maybe Gilbert had men..."

"Fuckin' listen to me!" Buck raged, raising both fisted hands in frustration. "I SAW HIS FUCKIN' HANDPRINT ON THE CLUB HE USED TO BEAT VIN'S HEAD IN..."

"Buck, that's enough!" Chris intervened, throwing a restraining arm over the other's man's chest. "Where is he?"

"He better be in Hell," Buck warned, shoving the arm off. "...'cause if he's not, I'll put him there."

They rode in an uncomfortable silence for a few blocks until Ezra spoke.

"Have the police been notified?"

"Yeah, the kid took care of it, they got an APB out on...." He paused, fighting hard to get the name out. "...him... !" he spat in contempt. "Orrin knows, that's all. Nobody else."

"Okay, Ezra, you drop us off and head over to the police station. Who's got it, Buck?"

"Uh... county, I guess, the sheriff's department. It was on their turf. I guess Mark Danko? I'm not sure."

"It's a start," Standish accepted, pulling into the Federal Building Parking Lot. It was where they'd met the day they left and their cars were there. He flicked the blinkers on and waited.

"Yeah, okay," Buck managed, easing his body from the backseat.

"Nathan, you head over to Josiah's. You know the area, see if you can find him. You keep your guard up. I don't need you next to Vin."

"He won't hurt me!" Nathan's voice was full of hurt. He didn't know what to believe. He knew Buck wouldn't lie but the idea that Josiah could beat Vin nearly to death turned his insides icy.

"Like he couldn't hurt Vin?" Buck spat out.

"We don't know what frame of mind he's in, Nathan," Chris replied. "If he was drunk last night, he's probably not out of control anymore. Just hung over. If you find him, Nathan, you have to call it in!"

"Don't tell me my job!" Jackson rebelled. "I ain't a Goddamn rookie!"

"See that you remember that," Larabee shot back. "Aiding and Abetting..." He stopped when Jackson's hand came up. He eyed his watch. "We'll meet at the hospital at..."

"ICU is 1 to 3 and 5 to 7," Buck's monotone voice answered the question.

"Four-thirty in the coffee shop in the lobby," Chris addressed, taking the keys from Standish.

Buck stood there, not sure how to tell them. Ezra and Nathan were silently taking their bags from his trunk. He watched until they placed the luggage into their own vehicles. Chris was waiting by the driver's side of the car. He met the icy green eyes and his jaw worked, but no words would come out.

"Buck?" Chris's voice was slow and cautious. He knew the pain radiating from the dark blue eyes was shielding something. Whatever it was, it was paralyzing his oldest friend's vocal cords. What could be that bad? "Out with it!"

Buck flinched at the sharp tone and the words shot out before he could rope them in and settle them down.


"My God!" Ezra rocked back on his heels.

Nathan remained silent, his dark eyes widened briefly in shock. What had Josiah done? How was it possible that this man whom he loved like a brother could render another human being into such a state? And not just anyone, but a good friend...a brother. To use his hands with such force that it nearly killed him?

Buck was vaguely aware of the other two but it was the sight of all the color leaving Chris Larabee's face that finally moved his legs. He walked over to the car and caught Chris's elbow when the blond's knees buckled. He kept his hand there, squeezing the strong arm.

"I'm sorry, Chris." He saw the leader's right fist curl up and the icy green eyes turn momentarily into a deadly shade of black. He shivered then, well aware of just how dangerous a man Chris Larabee was.

Chris never moved. He felt Buck's hand and remained like a statue. He heard the two motors spring to life as Jackson and Standish pulled away. He put Buck's words together and saw Vin lying alone and bleeding in the dark. He saw those emotional blue eyes sightless and unblinking. Then he saw Josiah's face and his blood boiled. The cold air around him dissolved and he fought every internal cry for justice screaming inside of him.

He fought for control.

The primal instincts inside of him were crying out for justice. The early man that remained buried deep inside wanted to hunt down the wanted man. That ancestral urge pleaded with him to issue vengeance, an 'eye for an eye'. But he walked upright and possessed modern reasoning ability. Taking that pound of flesh wouldn't get Vin out of the ICU or restore his sight. Logic commanded it would be one step at a time.

When Sanchez was found, he'd have to pay—legally. He pushed that blond ancestor whose hands were covered in Tanner's blood back into the cave. He righted himself, stood tall and took a deep breath.

"Let's go."

Part Four



"Tanner... Tanner..." the staff member nodded. "Twenty-one... it's just to the left of the nurse's station. I believe he has two visitors already... if you'll wait here..."

"Yes, ma'am..." Buck nodded, rubbing his tired eyes. He looked up to see the clerk motioning for them to approach the ICU cubicle.

J.D. was putting his jacket on and Orrin was next to the bed when Buck entered the room.


Orrin winced at Buck's small voice but totally understood the trembling tone. He had been taken aback himself when he first saw the broken body in the bed. Coupled with the many tubes, monitors, IV lines and the hiss of the ventilator, it was very unnerving.

"Does everybody know?" J.D. asked, giving Buck's arm a pat.

"Huh?" Buck swallowed hard and turned his eyes away from the distorted, misshapen and discolored version of who Vin Tanner really was. "Yeah... I... at the airport... they all know."

"I talked to Heather and Rain. A deputy named Everett from county called. They've got men searching up in the hills but so far, nothing. They've also got a guy waiting at the cabin at least until three when his shift ends. Go on..." he encouraged. "The nurse said to talk to him. It's good for him to know we're here. Hold his hand too..." J.D. pushed the reluctant man forward a bit and wondered where Chris was. The clerk had mentioned two visitors; he assumed Chris would be with Buck.

Chris heard the phones ringing and the medical jargon being spoken by the ICU nurses. The unmistakable scent of the very ill that only appears in the Intensive Care Unit made an unwelcome appearance. He saw Buck duck inside the curtained glass box and tried to follow, but the floor seemed to be made of mud instead of tile. Sounds around him magnified and his body seemed to move in slow motion. Sweat beaded on his forehead and also ran down the center of his back. Finally, his legs pushed through the muck and got his numb body to the door.

On the way up in the elevator, he'd steeled himself.He'd run down the mental checklist of what to expect. He'd been in the law enforcement business for over fifteen years and had seen his share of broken bodies. He'd stood over corpses more times than he could count. Burned, shot, stabbed and mutilated, he'd seen all kinds of gore. Yet even as he almost gagged while going past the bucket of cleaning solution outside the men's room, he felt his senses spinning. By the time they reached the door of the ICU, he was numb and his heart was pounding.He didn't want to go in. He wanted to wake up and pretend this whole thing was a dream.When did the room temperature go up? It felt like it was over a hundred degrees in the ICU.

He saw Orrin's face first, dark eyes rimmed with worry. He saw the kid's profile, that young hand guiding the older Wilmington towards the bed. His heart was hammering and the buzzing in his ears intensified. The inner voice that nagged him was shrieking at him now in an annoying shrill tone.

"Look... look... look...!"

Both fists balled into twin protests of rage. The air died and all the noises of the busy unit died with it. The only sound was his own sharp inhalation of air. The monstrous sight before him was so vile, it rocked him back on his heels. The invisible sandbag hit his chest hard, causing his trembling legs to nearly buckle.

"No fuckin' way!"

That was what he told himself. Somebody had to have made a mistake. The poor bastard lying in that bed wearing a cervical collar, with tubes running into and out of every orifice and a machine breathing for him wasn't Vin Tanner. That grotesque face, swollen and painted in dark garish shades of purple, blue and crimson with mere slits in the swells for eyes wasn't the Texan. That pale left arm with dual IV's running into it wasn't the one he'd gripped only a week before at the airport.

"Watch yer back, cowboy."

"That's what I'm paying you for, Tanner!"

He couldn't tear his eyes from those slim fingers, so very pale and unnaturally still. Usually those fingers were in constant motion, drumming a desktop, eating junk food, cleaning his prized rifle or writing poetry. More often than not, one finger usually gave an irreverent reply to Buck's good-natured teasing. Now, one was attached to the cardiac and oxygen monitor by the bed while the rest remained deathly still.

They were the strongest hands he knew, so skilled as a marksman that watching him work with that rifle was a thing of beauty and simply took his breath away. They were the solid grip that locked onto his arm that first day they'd met and cemented something that went far beyond the limits he'd known prior. They were the hands that skillfully and effortlessly cradled his soul. Now, the lifeline that had become such an integral part of him was torn. It was as if a jagged-edged razor had ripped his chest open.


J.D. and Buck weren't facing the door when the whispered, choked reply was uttered. They didn't see the color drain from Larabee's face. But Orrin Travis did. For a split second, the younger man he so admired, whose leadership qualities and integrity couldn't be readily defined, looked all of about sixteen years old. Gone with his skin tone was that cocky, confident edge that always surrounded him, the aura that drew men and women alike to study the six-foot, brooding male wherever he went. In it's place was a pale uncertain human, shaken to core by the loss of a brother.


Buck turned then, hearing the catch in Orrin's voice. He caught only a brief glimpse of something in the lost green eyes he'd never seen before. Not in all the dozen years he'd been partnered with Chris Larabee.


"No, Buck, I'll go," Orrin answered the mustached man's inquisitive expression. "J.D., you might as well stay until Chris returns."

"Okay." Dunne sat down, watching as Buck lifted Vin's hand. He saw the older man frown when the limp hand didn't move far. A wrist restraint had been applied and it was loosely tied to the side rail. "That's just so he won't hurt himself or pull on anything. The nurse said they'll take it off once he wakes up."

"Christ, he's so cold..." Buck murmured, then found a half smile. Vin hated the winter. Ezra swore he was half reptile. Tanner loved the summer and baking himself under the strong rays. He bent closer to the side of Vin's face and took a steadying breath. With his free hand, he touched the distorted cheek and moved his lips near the unconscious man's ear. "Hey, slick... Buck's here. You're gonna be fine. Me and the kid are right here.You're not alone." He saw the marred eyelids twitch and the brows furrow a bit.

"Hey, he heard you!" J.D. nodded.

"You're in the hospital, Vin, you got hurt." He paused, giving the limp hand an extra tug. "You rest easy, Buck's on the job. I got your back, okay?"

While his best friend was being cradled by loving hands, Chris Larabee took flight. The walls seemed to close inward, nearly touching his shoulders. He swept past the beeping monitors, through the doors and past that damned bucket. The noxious scent of ammonia followed him to the elevator where he banged relentlessly on the button.

"Fuck it," he hissed, turning to the red 'EXIT' letters over the stairwell.

He hit those steps and kept going, shoving his body through the doors, taking his long legs past the cluster of nurses smoking in the designated zone. He gulped in great lungfuls of cold air, trying to squash the bile rising. He gripped the edges of a wire-rimmed trash can and gagged twice, repelling the dry heaves. Even with his eyes closed, that ghoulish figure in the ICU haunted him. He felt a hand on his back and threw it off, twisting his body away. He studied the traffic moving on the highway, the blue sky and finally met the dark eyes that studied him.

"I know it's hard, Chris..."

"Hard?" His voice rose a full pitch. "It's fuckin' unreal, Orrin. That's not Vin." He snuck a quick glance to the windows on the second floor."That's... not... it can't be... he's all broken... like one of Adam's toys..."

"I know." Orrin kept his distance and saw the fist ball up again. "Josiah will answer for his actions."

"If I wasn't wearing this badge..." Chris turned away, sucking in air between his tense lips.

For a few pregnant moments, neither man spoke. Orrin watched the younger man carefully, seeing the raw, uncensored rage blistering everything those stormy green eyes touched. Then just as quickly, it was gone and sanity returned.

"You're no rookie, Chris, you've done this before," he noted, moving a little closer. "He's got a very rough road ahead of him. He's going to need his friends... brothers," he corrected. "But I think we both know whose voice he needs to hear. Especially now, when he's confused and lost. You could be the difference."

Chris turned a bit, weighing the words and trying to get his legs of jelly to return to flesh and bone. He knew Orrin was right, that somewhere Vin was lost, fighting his way through a maelstrom of darkness and unending pain. He was struggling through the storm without a compass. Chris examined his hand then and saw the compass point spinning wildly.

"He needs you, son, more than he has ever needed anyone in his life. It's your voice he's waiting for..."

He met the dark eyes, nodded once and kept his mind blank as he headed back toward the doors. He felt the wind in the storm kicking up and heard a distant drawl. With every step closer to the end zone, he heard that soft call. When he entered the ICU, the words sailed through the wind and hit him hard.

"Where are ya, cowboy?"

J.D. nudged Buck and slipped out the door when Chris rocketed inside. He watched the black leather jacket hit the spare chair. He turned at the doorway just as Chris found a place beside the bed.

Buck gently and with great reverence turned the now warm hand over to the guardian. He gave Chris's damp shoulder a tug and moved to the other side of the bed. He'd seen Chris through good times and bad. He'd been there when the star-struck blond found the woman of his dreams, when a tiny eight pound bundle of life gave those green eyes a glow the likes of which was unparalleled and again when that light was extinguished over a pair of twin graves. But the arrival of Vin Tanner had not only completed their team, it had brought the sun back into Chris Larabee's darkness. He watched the stone-like edifice on Chris's face crack when that limp hand was pressed into it. The lips trembled once and both eyes filled but dared not spill. So Buck squared his shoulders, preparing himself to forge yet again through another Larabee storm of uncertainty.

Chris swallowed hard and gripped the stilled hand. The swollen, marred flesh that met his eyes burned them so hard, tears formed. He couldn't understand how Josiah Sanchez could do this much damage to another human being, let alone a friend. Twice, he attempted to speak to Vin, to reassure the lost soul that he was near. But the words wouldn't come.He sighed deeply, blinked away the rage and pain and took a long breath. He bent over so his mouth was close to Vin's ear. He moved his free hand to the underside of Vin's fine jaw, stroking it reassuringly.

"Hey, cowboy..."

The ship was lost and being tossed about in a relentless black current. The churning waters wouldn't leave him alone. He couldn't see anything and his injuries prevented him from escaping what he knew was a doomed fate. The broken vessel was sinking and water was rushing too fast. He couldn't breathe; pain radiated through every fiber of his being. Too weak to move, he waited for the Grim Reaper to appear. Just when the scythe was looming overhead, warmth coursed through his cold shivering body.A hand touched him; a voice split the darkness. The storm broke, the waves evened out and calm was restored.

He didn't know where he was or why he was broken, seemingly unable to move. He didn't understand the pain or the troubling darkness. But he wasn't afraid anymore. He wasn't alone anymore. Someone was near, holding his broken body, sheltering him from the storm. Not just anyone...



He wasn't aware of how far he'd gone. The path through the woods to him was akin to climbing the hill at Calvary. He felt a strange sense of lightness as he made the journey, as if after these many long years, he finally would find peace. He prayed for that with every step. That the light he found at dawn on the mountain would remain to guide him through the turbulent times that he knew were certain.

The blood of the lamb.

Although he'd washed his face and hands in the stream, the cloying scent still tortured him. The maroon marks sprayed on his shirt went well beyond the skin, scoring his soul as well. Who was the innocent victim that shed blood on his behalf? Had he taken an innocent life? He stumbled and went to his knees, blinking and looking around for the first time in hours. He knew these trees; he knew every rock and leaf of this place.


By definition, it was that place where you rest at night. The four walls that shelter you from life's storms. Ahead was his home, built by his own hands. He examined them again and they began to tremble. These same hands that had turned logs and stone into a home had torn flesh and bone. Sighing heavily, he lifted his spent body and trudged onward.

"Mister Jackson?"

"Yeah?" Nathan moved from the living room outside to the porch. It was just after three p.m.

"My shift's done, sir. We'll have the patrol pass by all night, keeping check."

"Okay, Davis," Nathan nodded to the departing deputy. "You tell the sheriff to make sure Chris Larabee is kept up to date, understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

Nathan watched the Jeep disappear down the rocky path and eyed his watch. He'd have to leave soon. He was to meet with Chris and the team at the hospital. He rubbed the tension between his eyes and wondered how things could get any worse. He'd tried to find Josiah, spent over an hour combing the woods. There were a few tracks but the woods were so dense and covered with muddy piles of snow and fallen trees that even Vin Tanner would have had trouble.


He needed to see him. Like Thomas, he still couldn't believe what he'd been told. He moved from the porch to the workshop, wincing again at the blood painting the walls and floor. Had Vin gone into the house first? If so, why didn't he realize that Josiah was out of control? Why would he have come into the shop, into the lion's den alone? Weren't those empty bottles all over the place warning enough?


He left the shambles, heading back to the house to get his jacket. He'd cleaned up as best he could, putting the broken furniture aside and tossing the trash out.He pulled his coat on and zipped it, then reached for the phone.

Josiah heard a motor and froze, eyes widening when the sheriff's vehicle rumbled past below him. He skirted the hill, half sliding until he came to the side of his workshop. From his viewpoint, he only saw half of the front yard.

And he wished he hadn't.

There it was. Shining in the late afternoon sun. A motorcycle. Not just any motorcycle. Vin Tanner's prized Harley.His head shook in denial as his leaden legs carried him to the shed. He peered in the window and was nearly blinded by the grisly sight that met his eyes.The brownish smears of blood were painted like penance lines on a field of judgment. And there in the middle of the bloodied boards was a leather jacket, blood marking it like a vulgar badge of battle.

Vin Tanner's jacket.

"No... no... God, no...!" he whispered and backpedaled, heading for the back door of his house. He didn't want to see it anymore. He didn't want the faceless phantom he'd defeated the night before to become a blue-eyed brother, the gentle soul whose spirit was as old as time.It was far worse than he could have ever dreamt. He needed to shower, to wash away the filth of the deed. He was by the window when he heard Nathan's voice.

"Hey, baby, it's me..."

"Nathan? Where are you? Did you find Josiah?" Rain answered, spooning cereal into her cherubic toddler's mouth.

"No... he's not here. I'm scared, Rain. I can't find his service revolver..."

"Oh, my God, Nathan... " She sat back hard. "He wouldn't do that..."

"Wouldn't he? If this were yesterday, I'd have banked on it. I thought I knew the man." His shoulders slumped. "What if he sobered up this morning and remembered? What if he knows he damn near beat Vin Tanner to death? That Vin can't see... What if... that was too much for him?" His voice broke. "Rain, I was afraid out there, that I would find his body..."

"Come home, honey..."

"Later.I gotta meet Chris and the guys at the hospital.I want to hit the ICU and see Vin."

"I'll make dinner when you get home." She paused. "He's not dead, Nathan. He's lost and he needs you now. The others don't know him like you do. Heather said Buck's really angry..."

"At the airport, when Buck told us, he was... well, I've never seen him so worked up. But after seeing the workshop, all that blood, I can't imagine how I'd feel if I found Vin..."

"Hold on," she said, holding out the phone. "You wanna talk to Daddy?"

"Da ... da... Da... da..."

"Hey, sugar!" Nathan found his first smile of the day. The greatest gift they'd been blessed with was a drooling, chubby two-year-old named Jasmine. They'd been her foster parents since she was born and had formally adopted her just a few months ago. His joy was bittersweet. His precious child's beloved godfather who simply adored her, was now fighting for his life in a hospital bed. "I love you..."

"Aw..." Rain took the phone back. "She made kisses for you on the phone. We love you, baby. See you later."

"Okay." Nathan hung the phone up, wrote a fast note to Josiah and headed out into the departing day.

Josiah never moved. The pain that engulfed him was paralyzing. It was as if roots from Hell twisted up through the ground and wrapped around his legs.Those demonic vines sucked the life and spirit right out of him.He was cold, so very cold and so utterly alone.Then through the golden light that danced through the trees, he saw a vision.

The phantom he'd so proudly defeated the night before rose up again. It was faceless no more. There were twin blue eyes, large and full of shock and fear, locked in a handsome warrior's face. The scream he heard as he fell to his knees changed from the younger man's cry to his own.

"My God, what have I done?"

And he wept.

ICU Waiting room
Saturday 4:45 p.m.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen."

Doctor Marissa Vahedi nodded to each of the men who murmured an acknowledgement. She took the extended hand of the oldest of the half dozen men in the conference room and shook it.

"Thank you for taking the time to speak with us, Doctor. I'm Orrin Travis, regional Deputy Director of the ATF. I spoke with you on the phone."

"Yes." She nodded and saw a handsome blond man step forward.

"This is Chris Larabee, he's one of my team leaders and these men are a part of his team. Vin Tanner, the young man in the ICU, is one of them as well."

"Thanks for coming, Doctor," Chris shook her hand. "How's Vin?"

"Well," she nodded, sipping her lukewarm coffee, "he's very lucky to be alive. I'm Doctor Marissa Vahedi, the Critical Care Specialist here at Denver Memorial. Mr. Tanner was admitted to my service this morning and is currently in serious but stable condition. One of my anesthesiology colleagues, Doctor Kenneth Tamburino, will be here in a few minutes to join us as well. There is a special procedure we'd like to perform and Dr. Tamburino is going to talk with you about that."

She moved further into the room and held up her right arm. Careful not to spill her coffee, she pointed to the mid-portion of her forearm and began to explain the injuries the young patient had received.

"Mister Tanner has a mid-shaft fracture of his radius and ulna but the break was clean and easily reduced. Orthopedics has placed him in a splint until the swelling resolves, after which, he will be in a cast for at least six weeks. We don't anticipate there being any permanent damage."

"Good," J.D. sighed hard, his hand nervously shoving his hair back.

"His face looks pretty bad right now, but once the swelling there goes down as well, he should be just fine. X-rays and CT scans revealed no evidence of any facial fractures. He also has two major lacerations here," she pointed to her right eyebrow, "...and here." She then pointed to the hairline just above it. "They've been cleaned and sutured and any scarring should be minimal."

She drained the remainder of the coffee and tossed the cup away.

"As a precaution, we've left him in a cervical collar until radiology can officially clear his C-spines. That's just standard procedure in all cases of head and facial trauma. His preliminary X-rays didn't reveal any problems though. He also has some broken ribs on the right side of his chest, probably due to either a direct blow or possibly from a fall. The right lung was punctured and subsequently collapsed. There was a fair amount of bleeding inside the pleural cavity but the chest tube that was inserted in the ER was successful in treating this injury."

"Don't remind me, I was there..." Buck whispered, shaking his head.

"It's a very scary thing to have to see," she acknowledged. "My biggest concern, however, is that he did sustain a cerebral contusion, or a concussion if you will in layman's term. A CT scan of his head revealed a frontal lobe contusion as well as what we call a 'contre-coup' injury."

"A what?" Chris asked, his brows creased.

"Basically, the human brain is housed inside a hard protective shell, what we call the skull. Nature designed it that way for a very good reason and usually it works pretty well. The problem comes, however, in that there is only a certain amount of space inside the skull for the brain and the fluid that surrounds and cushions it. Sometimes, when the head is struck hard enough, the brain recoils from the blow but has nowhere to go except against the opposite side of the skull. Basically, it gets banged back and forth inside its protective casing with enough force to cause injuries at both points of contact."

"Can you explain the ramifications of an injury of that nature?" Ezra prompted.

"It's a problem in that it causes bruising to the brain at the point of impact as well as at the opposite, or contre-coup, point. We tend to see generalized swelling of the brain tissues and possible increases in the intracranial pressure, sometimes even intra-parenchymal hemorrhages. Fortunately, the preliminary scans for Mr. Tanner revealed only a mild degree of swelling which we are treating conservatively at this point."

"What will that mean for Vin?" Chris asked.

"The most common things we see in injuries of this type are headaches, nausea, altered levels of consciousness, confusion and disorientation, difficulties with balance or gait, possibly even memory loss or problems with the patient's speech or vision. In most cases, we can pursue a conservative course of therapy with a reasonable amount of success. Given the nature of Mr. Tanner's injury, I'm optimistic that he has a good chance for recovery."

"Is this 'contre-coup' thing why he can't see?" J.D. asked. "Because when we found him, he couldn't see us."

"That's certainly one possibility but I'm going to have Ophthalmology take a look at him just to be sure we aren't dealing with retinal detachment or damage to the optic nerves."

"Is it permanent?" Chris asked of the slim, middle-aged Amer-asian physician.

"I'm afraid until he wakes up and we can do a more thorough examination that we won't know the answers just yet. Depending on the cause, in some cases, the sight is restored completely. Sometimes only partially and sometimes not at all."

"What are his chances?" Ezra inquired.

"It varies by case and by the cause," she hedged. "I can tell you that it's rare that the sight remains lost completely. We really need to wait and see what the further testing shows."

"You mentioned a procedure?" Chris pressed.

"Yes, I did. We'd like to perform what's called a thoracic epidural for Mister Tanner. It will help to treat the pain from his rib fractures and hopefully allow us to get him off the ventilator fairly quickly. I'll let Doctor Tamburino explain it to you in more detail." She ducked back into the hall and waved to her colleague. "Ken, these are Mister Tanner's co-workers and friends. I've brought them up to date on the extent of his injuries. If you could tell them about the epidural?"

"Sure. Doctor Vahedi has consulted me about placing what's called a thoracic epidural. It's a procedure we've had a lot of success with in treating patients with chest trauma and allows us to get them extubated and back breathing on their own much quicker. The benefits are tremendous and I feel like your friend is an excellent candidate for it."

"Is this like they give to pregnant women?" Nathan asked.

"Almost exactly but the insertion point is higher up on the back. It's a technique that works quite well in women in labor and we've adapted it now for use in our trauma patients."

"Why do you think Vin needs it?" J.D. asked.

"Well, for patients with rib fractures and damage to the underlying lung, ideally, we'd like to avoid intubating them and putting them on a ventilator. There are several reasons why, the most obvious of which has to do with avoiding instrumentation of a patient's airway and the possibility of introducing bacteria and other foreign objects into the lungs. Sometimes, however, we don't have a choice. Either the lung is too badly damaged or the pain from the fractures is too great and these patients, for a combination of reasons, cannot breathe adequately. But even if we do end up intubating these patients, we do everything we can to get them extubated again as soon as possible. This is where a thoracic epidural comes in," he paused and tapped J.D. who was standing by the water cooler. "May I?"

"Sure." Dunne turned around.

"We insert a catheter about the size of a small fishing line into the epidural space at about this level," he pointed to the indicated area on the youth's back. "We then infuse a combination of local anesthetic and a low dose of narcotic to bathe the nerve roots that supply sensation to the injured area of the chest and ribs. This technique has proven to be excellent at blocking the pain sensation to the damaged areas thereby allowing patients to breathe much easier and more effectively on their own. As a result, we can usually get them extubated and off ventilatory support in a more timely fashion and the requirement for any supplemental IV or IM medications is greatly reduced.

"Is it really all that effective?" Chris inquired almost disbelievingly.

"Yes, it can be. And because of the types of catheters and medications and techniques that we use, we can leave the infusion running for several days and provide continuous pain relief, sometimes even without the need for any additional drugs at all. Depending, of course, upon other related injuries and a patient's individual tolerance to pain."

"How soon can you do it?" Chris directed. "If you need something signed... I've got his medical power of attorney."

"I'll need you to sign a consent form and I have everything set up to do it as soon as you give me the go ahead."

"Let's do it then," Chris agreed, walking over to where the two doctors stood. "Can I see him first?"

"Sure, follow me." Tamburino led the anxious blond man down the hall.

Chris waited at the nurse's station while the doctor explained the procedure in greater detail before handing him several forms. He signed them all, provided a copy of the medical power of attorney and then approached Vin's room.

"I'll give you about ten minutes," the doctor noted and watched the blond man approach the bed.

"Hey, Vin." Chris's voice was raspy and he sighed hard.

It was still surreal to him, that this broken body was Vin Tanner. He lifted the limp hand and held onto it, frowning at the cold skin. Then the arm jerked and Chris's head shot up. Vin's left eye, the one that wasn't swollen and bruised, was now open. The blue that was usually bright and full of fire was now dull and lifeless. The doctor's words came back to haunt him. That a brain injury of any kind is serious.

He could have sworn he heard Chris. He wished he could wake up and lose this strange dream. He'd never had such a nightmare. It was too vivid. He could feel the cold and pain, heard voices and knew something had been shoved down his throat. He'd been trying to wake up, but each time it was the same, just eerie inky blackness. The voice was back; it sounded just like Chris but the words didn't quite register. They drifted around, adding to his confusion. He wasn't 'okay' and it had to 'get better'. Once he woke up and lost this darkness, it would be better.

Unless. . .?


"Easy, Vin!" Chris felt the change before he saw it. Vin's hand tensed up and the broken body went rigid with fear. The lone eye began to dart around frantically. "Uh... you need to calm down. You had an accident..."

"Calm? Don't preach that shit to me. I can't see... What the fuck happened...?"

"You're all busted up, your arm and your ribs are broken and your lung collapsed," Chris dictated but wasn't sure if Vin understood. The hand pulled free of his and tried to get at the tube. "No, leave that alone, it's helping you breathe..." he ordered in a harsh voice that did penetrate. He touched the side of the bruised face and winced when the younger man flinched. "Listen to me, Vin. You have a head injury, a bruised brain. That's why you can't see. It has to heal." He saw the panic rise again; that eye was wide and wild.

"...blind... I'm blind... I can't be blind, I'm a sharpshooter... blind...?"

He tried to fit the pieces together but they wouldn't go. Accident. Chris said he'd had an accident. He thought hard but could remember nothing. What kind of accident? A car accident? Was he alone? Were the others okay? Chris didn't say shooting; he said accident. A fall? He tried clawing at the tube again; it felt like he was choking on it.

"We'll get through this together, Vin," Chris vowed in a quiet voice, holding that frantic orb with his own. He moved his hand to grip the side of Vin's neck. When the confused man leaned into it, seeking warmth and contact, it nearly did him in. "I know you're hurtin', cowboy, I'd take it from you if I could."

He would too.

Vin knew that without question. Chris would take the fire for him. Just feeling that warm hand on his skin in this awful cold and dark place was a healing force. He flopped his hand around and tapped searchingly, hitting a rail and then an arm. He latched onto that strong forearm, relieved that it would ride out the storm with him. He was just starting to relax when a new voice intruded—a stranger's voice.

"It's okay, Vin, it's just the doctor. He's going to put a catheter in your back. It'll help take away the pain. I'm right here, okay? You remember that. All the guys are here for you. You're not alone, remember that."

He hoped that Vin understood that message. He needed to know that the lost soul realized he wasn't swimming alone. The slight tremor in the grip on his arm told him just how unsteady Vin was. Hell, who wouldn't be? To wake up hurting worse than any living thing should have to suffer with a tube shoved down your throat? And blind to boot?

"Mister Tanner?" Tamburino saw the panic rising and the monitors reflected that. He pulled out a syringe and filled it. "I'm going to give you a mild sedative to help you relax. Once the epidural catheter is in place, you'll get some relief. It's very effective. Then tomorrow morning, we'll see if we can't get you off that ventilator." He watched the single eye searching above and saw the vise-like hold the young man had on Larabee's arm. "Your friend, Chris, will be right outside. As soon as I'm done, he can come back in."

"I know it's hard, Vin, but try to relax. That will make this easier." Chris eased the painful grip from his arm and gently placed the reluctant hand back onto the bed. He tried not to see that slim hand snake through the rails searching for him. "I'll be right back, okay? You understand me? Vin?" He saw the head dip once in a small nod, then left the room.

Buck looked up when Chris approached. He saw the distress in the green eyes and paused in front of him. He watched a shaky hand rise and rake through the short blond hair.

"Did he do it?" J.D. asked, moving next to Buck.

"He, uh... woke up..." Chris managed in a very tight voice. "I think... maybe... he didn't realize he was awake until he heard me. Then... he... uh... knew... he realized he couldn't see... he freaked..."

"Hell, who wouldn't?" Buck sighed. "What did you tell him?"

"Only that he had an accident," Chris relayed and then let his eyes meet every one on the team gathered. "And for now, that's all we tell him. He's too busted up to handle hearing that Josiah damn near beat him to death. Just concentrate on telling him he's not alone." He eyed his hand, still tingling from Vin's grip. "That's what's got him scared. He's lost... confused... he needs reassurance," he paused, taking a long breath, "... a lot of reassurance."

"Can we see him?" J.D. asked.

"They're doing the epidural now," Chris replied. "They had to give him a sedative. That doctor told Vin tomorrow they're gonna try to take the tube out."

"No wonder he's anxious," Ezra sympathized. "Waking up in virtual darkness with a tube in your throat."

"And no idea how you got there," Buck added.

"Chris?" Nathan finally spoke. "I'd like to see him. I know we can only go in two at a time but..."

"Okay, when the doctor's done, we'll go back," he agreed. "Anything on Josiah?"

"No," Ezra noted. "I checked with the sheriff's office and they're bogged down with two rather nasty accidents. But they assured me, they will patrol that area."

"I'll find him," Nate vowed, shifting uneasily. He wouldn't say it aloud; Buck would flip out, but he still couldn't believe Josiah was responsible for putting Vin in the ICU. "Vin's not the only one confused and alone..."

"Buck!" Chris put his hand on the tall man's shoulder, seeing the lava shooting up in Buck's eyes. "Take it easy..."

"Come on, kid." Buck shrugged off the hand and ignored Nathan. "Let's get something to eat. We'll be back when..."

"When I leave?" Nathan didn't hide his disdain. "Just say it, Buck."

" six..." Buck managed, fisting both hands. But he did catch the EMT's eyes and didn't hide his anger. "And don't you make the mistake of comparing what Vin's suffering to that bastard..."

"That isn't helping anything." Ezra moved in, steering Buck towards the elevator. "Some fresh air will help clear that head of yours."

Chris sighed hard and went to the fountain on the wall to get a drink. He watched Nathan from the corner of his eye and felt the same rage that Buck so easily exposed. But Chris kept his anger buried. He couldn't afford to let this rip the team apart. He vowed to talk to Buck later about his emotional issues. Meanwhile, Ezra's cool demeanor was a valuable asset. He knew how much the Southerner cared for Vin and that he had to be just as torn up. But Standish wouldn't crack; he was too cool under pressure. And what about Dunne? The jury was still out. So far, he hadn't shown any animosity towards Josiah but neither had he sympathized with his plight. Until Josiah was apprehended or turned himself in, they would be fragmented parts.

"You ain't that invisible," Nathan accused, sensing the unseen anger.

"This isn't the time or place, Nate." Chris walked away, heading for the window by the elevators.

"All I'm asking is to hear his side... just..."

"His side?" Chris hissed, spinning around, eyes incredulous. "I've seen his side. It's lying down the hall busted all to hell with a fuckin' machine breathing for him."

"We don't know what happened." Nathan walked closer. "Only Vin and Josiah can answer that. We have a few pieces of the puzzle but not all of them yet. I want all the pieces first."

Before Chris could reply, Doctor Tamburino appeared.

"It's done, no problems. You'll see the difference as soon as the sedative wears off. In the meantime, if you need anything, just have the nurses page me."

"Thanks, Doc!" Chris shook his hand and headed down the hall.

Vin was raised up in the bed where he would be more comfortable. Chris was just reaching the rail when he heard Nathan's sharp gasp. The team leader turned just in time to see the color drain from the shocked agent's face.

"You give me one damn reason to justify that...!" he accused, green eyes flashing. "No missing piece can fix that."

Nathan was stunned. For several moments, he remained in the doorway, unable to move towards the bed. He'd heard Buck and J.D.'s description but nothing could have prepared him for the ghastly sight that greeted him. The young Texan's face was swollen and mottled in shades of black, blue and purple. The beeping of the monitor added an eerie soundtrack to the awful movie that was being played out. Finally, he forced his leaden legs to move. By the time he got to Vin Tanner's side, his throat was tight and dry.

"I can't believe it... I just can't... My God...!" The EMT sighed hard. His hand trembled slightly as he gripped the chrome of the rail. Despite the horrific sight before him, he couldn't tear his eyes away.

"I know your first instinct is to protect him, to defend him," Chris saw the wheels spinning behind the somber brown eyes on the other side of the bed, "but he went too far this time."

"I got eyes!" Nathan tossed back hotly, leaving the bed and walking a few feet away. Between the smell in the ICU and the beeping sounds, it was giving his already pounding head more unneeded fuel.

Chris tugged the blanket up over the shivering man sleeping in the bed and then moved to stand beside Nathan. He felt bad for the other man; truly, he did. He knew how much Nathan cared for Josiah and how hard this was hitting him.

"You know how much Vin means to me," Jackson's mind went to that day in church when the proud Texan stood beaming as he held his new goddaughter, " Jasmine." He turned and faced the blond man. "But trash talkin' Josiah when he's not here to defend himself isn't right and I won't stand for it. Buck better keep his mouth shut..."

"Look, I know we're all on edge right now," the leader chose his words carefully, "and it's very possible that this team won't ever be the same again. Vin could be blind and if Josiah. . .if he's guilty, then Josiah's gonna do some time for this. His career could be done, you know that..."

"Yeah..." Nathan rasped painfully. "I can't help thinkin'... I should have... done..."

"Don't go there, Nathan," Chris dictated, seeing unwarranted guilt rising in the deep brown eyes. "He's not a child. Hell, he's old enough to be Vin's father. He knows right from wrong. Whatever shit is buried inside... for God knows how long, should have been taken care of before it got to this..."

"Well, look who's preachin' to the choir!" Nathan shot back, then saw the green eyes nearly glow in silent rage.

"You're out of line!" Chris finally managed through clenched teeth, using his index finger bluntly against the taller man's chest to emphasize the point. "And for the record, I eyed the man in the mirror and took care of it. There isn't a day that goes by when I don't feel that loss eatin' a hole in me. But I pulled myself up by the bootstraps and got my life back together. I got therapy, talked to a pro."

"I'm sorry, Chris, I didn't mean it that way..."

"What do you know about this anyways? Do you have any idea what causes it?"

"No," Nathan admitted. "He won't talk about it. I've tried... hell, I lost count of how many times. Last time, it caused a bad fight. We didn't speak for awhile. That was just before when you and Orrin were putting the team together."

"Well, he's got a military record before the Federal Service, maybe it's tied to the war," Chris thought aloud of Josiah's time in Viet Nam. "Some demons are harder to kill than others..."

"Until last night..." Nathan noted. "I'll find him, Chris. I'll go back and comb them hills until..."

"You go home, get some dinner and hug that baby," Chris suggested. "You get a good night's sleep. It's dark now, but the sun will come up again..."

"Will it?" Nathan walked back to the bed and swallowed hard, every swollen discolored Tanner feature ripping him apart. "...for him? Ever again?"

Part Five

The solitary figure paused at the edge of the well hidden old shack and eyed the sky. It was a brilliant celebration of colors. Scarlet ribbons and rosy splashes fell down from God's hand and mixed with luscious lavenders on a canvas of deep rich and awe-inspiring blue-Tanner blue.

Josiah sighed and blessed himself before dropping to his knees. After a deep breath, he kissed the cross that hung upon his neck. Then he bowed his heavy head, ran his shaking fingers over the old rosary beads and began to pray.

For an hour, he prayed hard. Every word came from deep within and shook with the internal rage he was battling. His voice sifted through the leaves and skimmed over the pines until they danced in the fading sunset. He remained on his knees long after that beautiful sky, that warm Tanner-esque vision bled out into a cold, stark starless black hole. Finally, when his soul was as chilled as the air surrounding it, he lifted his weary body and went inside.

He'd taken little time at his cabin. He'd washed, changed into black jeans and a black turtleneck and packed his backpack with some food and water. Then, arming himself only with his father's bible and cross, he'd sought refuge deep within the mountain where he truly felt God's hand. A place that no one save himself had seen in many years.

He heated some soup and thought on his path. As he ate, he thought on his future. There would be charges brought against him, and even as a first time offender, jail time would have to be served. His hands trembled as he thought on Nathan's words. He examined his hands and heard that decree, that he'd beaten a good friend and left him near death and blinded.

"Why?" he asked his Creator aloud. What message was written in the blood of the innocent? What lesson to be learned? He climbed into his sleeping bag and sought answers. The demons had come before, but their wicked dance only left one victim—himself. Now, the blood on his hands couldn't be washed away. It mixed and blended with those crimson scars left long ago. Suddenly, he felt a pain in his chest, as strong and intense as it had been the day the deed was done so many years before.

"Is that it?"

Smoky eyes sought a reply and he waited. Was Vin the innocent victim used to finally bring him to justice? Was his penance, long overdue, finally going to be paid? Tears burned and he glared through the beaten ceiling.

"Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God," he quoted of Matthew 5:8. "Your words," he accused. "I'm ready to face Your judgment and I'll take whatever punishment is decreed. But don't use Vin Tanner's blood to write out my sentence."

He thought on the valiant young man who had enriched the lives of all he touched, a man of meager beginnings who lived a solitary life. Vin lived simply, spoke from the heart and gifted all that knew him by his unconquerable spirit. He loved life, took a huge bite out of it daily and savored every moment with gusto. He possessed a soul that was as old as time and the beautiful music it sang through his poems was eternal proof of that.

Vin's tanned and smiling face disappeared and another took its place. Josiah's features darkened as the two images merged and blended and the echo of their dual voices broke his own heart.

He wept.

For the loss that had taken his soul so many years gone by and the one that had touched it again. He was ready to finally confess to his crime long ago but only under one condition. He swept the salty drops of incrimination away and raised his bleary eyes.

"Don't take him too..." He paused, feeling a tinge of warmth in the room. "I understand about Vin's soul, it touched me... I've not seen the like of it since..." He inhaled sharply and bit the words off. "I understand... I do... but don't make him suffer. Hold him in Your strong hands and heal him..."

Exhaustion fell over the room and the body within it succumbed quickly.

But in the quiet of the still night, they came. Although a man walking on two feet could never find this place, those that lived within the slumbering soul's tormented mind were already there. So they surrounded him, honing their fiery pitchforks, and then they played their bitter song.

Eight p.m. ICU

Chris looked up when the nurse appeared again. He sighed hard and nodded once. She'd been in to warn him twice to leave. He stood up and got his jacket on, then leaned over the bed. He touched the limp hand lightly and the younger man's body jerked slightly.

"Sorry, Vin."


Vin blinked and eyed the inky darkness. Why was there no light? Where was he? Lord, he hurt. His head felt like a house fell on it. Something was in his mouth. He was choking on it. He moved his hand and another snagged it.

"Shit!" Chris cursed. He swore for the situation that had caused this and for the hospital rules that were forcing him out the door. He swore for the poor confused soul in the bed who went through this horror every time he woke up. It was a painful episode to watch over and over. Vin would wake up, lost and confused. Someone would tell him why he couldn't see and his heart would break all over again.

"It's me, cowboy," he supported quietly, holding the hand and preventing it from grabbing the tube. "You're in the hospital, remember? You had an accident, got all banged up. You hit your head pretty good and that's why you can't see."

There it was again and Chris flinched. The only eye visible went wild in fear, darting to and fro. The weak hand grasped frantically, desperately needing someone to hold onto in the river of darkness his tortured body was lost in.

"Blind... fuck, I'm blind... shit... shit..."

"Calm down, that won't help!" Chris hissed of the wild fear that was causing the reaction below him. He leaned over and cupped Vin's chin, wincing at the inhalation of hope when his skin met the warm patient's flesh. "I'm sorry about this, Vin, but I gotta go. It's late and you know how hospitals are about rules. I'll be back tomorrow, okay? They're gonna take that tube out and you'll feel better. The nurses here are great, Vin, they'll take real good care of you."

He was rambling now out of loss. He had no idea what words to say or how to make his best friend understand that he was not alone. That this painful dark world he was lost in was not forever. He leaned lower, tapped Vin's chest and sought to dispell the fear he saw in that lost eye.

"I'm right here, Vin," he whispered, watching the frantic Adam's apple slow down. "We'll get through this together. You're not alone. If you fall... I'll catch you... carry you. Understand?"


Yes, he did. It wasn't the words but the voice and emotion between them. He caught every bit of that and stored it deep inside. It took the cold way, slashed the fear to ribbons and dispelled the doubt. Warmth now flowed through him and he gripped the hand harder, signaling back. He turned his face to where the invisible sun was now shining on him. He felt Chris's hand over his troubled heart. His breathing slowed down, the tremors left, and he relaxed, moving his face into that warmth.

Chris saw the change and bit his lip in frustration. That tiny movement, when that battered face with no sight or voice moved into his hand, was too much. He sighed hard, his wavering breath filling the stillness of the room. He dropped his head down, cursing inwardly again.

Vin didn't need eyes to understand the change. He knew the other man that well. That one sound, from the air of desperation, spoke volumes. He didn't know all the answers as to why he was so badly hurt or how he got here but he knew Larabee. And he knew that man would carry him through Hell and back. He didn't want Chris to worry that much; he had too much weight already.

The long day crashed down, sending Larabee's already jagged emotions into overdrive. Another shuddering breath escaped before Chris could prevent it. Then a small touch met his cheek. He lifted his face and gasped a bit as Vin's fingers caressed his cheek. The hue of that blue changed.

Worry replaced fear.

He sighed softly at that, swallowed hard and felt his eyes burn. That despite the Hell he was lost in, Vin Tanner was worried about him. He took that hand and held it, gripping it good.


"Ferever." Vin replied silently, tugging on that hand.

It was a beautiful day on the mountain. Spring had arrived, wearing her best blue dress and a brilliant smile. The air was sweet and the wildlife was singing boldly. He stood on the mountain, inhaling deeply and basked in the warmth of the day. He took his Bible out and placed it on the rock by the river. He knelt and began to pray with Nature's bounty as his altar.

Then the air chilled, the beautiful music created by the creatures of the wilderness died out, their voices stilled by the disturbance. Josiah pulled his eyes open and inhaled sharply. The sky above darkened, turning an angry gray. Black clouds rolled in on a wave of thunder followed by lightning and gusty winds.

It rained.

He blinked in horror at the drops on his upturned face and hands.


It rained down fast and hard, filling his world with a penitent river of crimson.

He went to push off the rock and noticed that the hard surface was not pliant. Gone was the granite edifice and in its place was a limp body.

"No... no.." he denied, falling back in horror.

There on a crude altar was the bloody body of Vin Tanner. Broken and helpless, the limbs lying unnaturally still. The place where his brilliant blue eyes should have been was nothing but black hollow sockets.

"Vin... I'm sorry... Lord, don't do this!" he begged, then saw the head turn. "Vin?"

He backed away then as the battered face turned towards him, and from those black, empty holes where the eyes should be, tears ran freely.

Crimson tears.

He gathered up as many pieces of his shattered soul as he could find and lifted the lamb. Holding him close, he made his way through the storm, beginning a long journey on a path to a destination unknown.

The Saloon 9 p.m.

Like any other Saturday night, the Mexican-themed cantina was busy. The mixed voices of a dozen conversations around the popular bar and the basketball game on the television blended easily. Nearly every table was taken, full of young people hoisting colorful margaritas and cold coronas.

The owner scanned the crowd and, catching the eye of his pretty manager, saw the worry there. He made his way to his office, hung up his cashmere coat and played the messages on his voicemail. Then he returned one call and re-entered the dining room. He made his way over to the bar as the dark-haired bartender met him.

"He's been here about a half hour. He looks haunted..." Inez relayed of Chris Larabee.

"He's entitled," Ezra Standish noted. "Jamison's and two glasses, keep the strays away."

"You got it."

Ezra nodded once and made his way over to the far end of the room. It was a table that the patrons of the popular establishment knew to avoid. It wasn't just any table; it was 'their' table. He'd lost count of how many nights they'd gathered here. Sometimes in celebration, sometimes to watch a playoff game on television, but more often than not, holding the vigil for an injured brother.

He set down the bottle of Irish whiskey and two glasses. He filled one and slid it over, pausing with the bottle in hand as the glass was quickly emptied. He filled it again, filled his own and sat down. He watched the other man's features transform in a matter of moments. Sadness, helplessness and fear were quickly displaced by rage.

He sipped the whiskey slowly; his tablemate tossed his back with precise movements.

The glass was refilled again and he waited. He didn't preach or dictate; he was far too smart for that. He gave his tormented friend room and offered quiet solace. He knew, eventually, the words would come. Bitter and clipped, they'd be dipped in frustration and enhanced by the perfume of the liquor—they needed to be born.

Ezra admired Chris Larabee very much. It wasn't just anyone he'd put down roots for. His prior employment with various law enforcement agencies had been short and spread over many cities. He didn't form attachments or make friends. He'd kept his 'acquaintances' professional and at arm's length—until Chris Larabee came calling.

It wasn't supposed to be permanent; it was just a temporary transfer to catch an elusive arms dealer. But six months later, when the job was done, he'd found far more than he'd bargained for. The six rather unorthodox men whom he'd been assigned to work with had somehow become family. He didn't know when or where or even how, but he needed them.

And it had all started with the man before him, a man whose respect was earned the hard way and given to few. He considered himself lucky to call Chris Larabee friend.

"Fuckin' hospital rules..."

"Heartless vermin," Ezra agreed, understanding the helplessness all too well.

Hard as he tried, he couldn't dispel the ghastly image of Vin Tanner's broken body from his head. He'd seen the confusion firsthand when Vin woke up during their visit and then the unbelievable power of Chris Larabee's voice. It broke through the storm and brought the sun to the injured man, just those few words and that touch of his hand. They had all seen how well cared for Vin was in the ICU. The nurses and medical staff were very caring and attentive. But leaving the disoriented man behind in dark word full of confusion was too hard to bear, even for a Larabee.

"Orrin called several times, he was worried about you. I just spoke with him."

Chris raised his eyes from the wood swirls on the table for a moment. He shoveled some salsa on the hot nachos and shoved them in his mouth. Orrin? He'd meant to call a few hours ago and somehow the time had disappeared. His eyes shifted across the table to the jade ones regarding him above the collar of a very expensive shirt. Maybe the Director had news.

He arched a single brow and inquired, "Sanchez?"

"No, nothing yet. He wants to meet with us in the morning to discuss..."


Ezra sighed, sipped his whiskey and waited. The hand reached past his for the bottle again and poured a shot. It went down hard this time. A shaky hand swiped at the excess that ran past the bitter lips.

"He was rather insistent..."

"So am I," Chris dispelled without a waver. "Tomorrow, Vin needs me. They're taking the tube out. You saw how confused he gets when he wakes up. He's gonna have questions." Chris paused a moment as a darker thought crossed his mind. "That doctor mentioned his speech might be affected..."

Ezra opened his mouth to reply about the same time as the dragon appeared. He saw the fiery beast clearly in the sharp green pools across from him. Red fire shot out, flames that would incinerate anything in its path. His gaze darted quickly to the fist wrapped around the glass. White knuckles nearly crushed the helpless item. It started as a tiny tremor that caused the glass to shake. It then spilled up the arm, through the tense muscles and bulging veins. It was like waiting for the inevitable earthquake.

Here it came.


The force of that curse coupled with that fisted glass hitting the table caused the dishes and bottle to jump. He steadied the bottle and snagged that wild arm. It was like trying to stop a caged panther from pouncing.

"He's fuckin' blind, Ezra. What if he can't talk? Christ...!" He pulled his arm away and rubbed the tension between his eyes. "Why?"

"I wish I had the answers you seek. Or the power to take that pain away..."

"How do you do it?" Chris asked of the seemingly unflappable body before him. He knew how much the Southerner thought of Vin.

"That you cannot see the thorns does not mean that I do not bleed, Chris."

Larabee thought for a moment and tapped Standish's glass with his own. He eyed the snow falling outside and cringed at the strands of garland and red bows hanging from the streetlights. Three weeks until Christmas. Vin hadn't shut up about it since Thanksgiving had passed. The younger man loved the almost electric charge in the air. He didn't mind the long lines at the stores or the corny music that the radio played. Every afternoon, he bopped past Chris's office door, his cheeks flushed from the cold and those damned eyes lit up. He'd be toting a bag from the mall. Vin was worse than a kid, needing to show off his prize.

"Ya'll wanna see what I got?"


"Aw, hell, yer nuthin' but a bunch a orn'ry old grinches."




"If I wasn't wearing this badge..."

"You'd resort to that level?" Standish questioned. "Take the proverbial 'pound of flesh'?"

"You think I wouldn't?" Chris shot back, hearing the tinge of distaste.

"For what gain? How would becoming Josiah's cellmate help Vin?" Ezra reasoned. "In another place, in a time when this country was young and wild, perhaps. Still, I fail to see how that sort of action would balance the scales."

The only reply he got was a derisive snort as the whiskey disappeared again. Funny thing was, he understood that dark side of Chris Larabee and a part of him envied Vin Tanner for possessing that intangible element that unleashed such an intense fire. His gaze stole over the tense leader's shoulder to the window. He eyed the snow falling and shuddered at the wind howling in protest. He felt the chilling breath go right through him and wondered how they would fight their way through the storm that now held them captive.

Saturday Evening 10 p.m.

"Babe? You up?"

At the sound of his voice, she turned her head. Casey Wells took her glasses off, put her highlighter down and left her homework behind. She padded through the cozy apartment and found him in the kitchen. "Hey..." she whispered, slipping up to him from behind and hugging him.

"Want one?" J.D. asked from where he stood peering into the fridge. He held out a beer.

"No." She accepted the kiss as he turned and brushed a lock of hair from his face. "You look beat. How's Vin?"

"I don't know, Case..." J.D. leaned back against the sink and took a swig. "I never thought of Vin as helpless. He knows so damned much. Hell, I can't think of much he can't do. Now... he's... so... lost..."

"He's a fighter. If anybody can get through this and land on his feet, it's Vin." She bent down and picked up the soft gray furry body that brushed against her leg. "Cleo... you already ate..." she scolded, knowing the feline's moves well.

"Damn thing's name should be Cujo," J.D. frowned and backed up when the green-eyed cat hissed and bared her teeth at him.

"She's just a little territorial," Casey defended, stroking the pretty cat. "After all, she had me for eight years before you came along."

"Thanks!" Dunne made a face and attempted to pet the cat only to be clawed. "Dammit! That hurts."

"Cleo, that's not nice, we love J.D..." she crooned, but the gray animal hissed again and attempted to take a swipe at the offensive male in her domain. "Well, I love you, honey," she comforted, letting the cat jump back down to the floor. She kissed him and snuggled into the flannel-covered chest. "I'm gonna take a shower..." She reluctantly pulled out of his embrace. "Then we'll talk about what's bothering you."

He finished his beer and stripped his clothes off, entering the steamy bathroom just after she exited. As he washed and brushed his teeth, his thoughts went over the last few days. By the time he climbed into bed, he was exhausted. But his troubled mind wouldn't allow him to rest. He lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling, when a soft body snuggled close.

"Talk to me, Boston." Casey tipped the troubled chin towards her.

"Everything's different," he whispered, moving his arm behind her and stroking the soft skin on her lower back just above the long pajama top she wore. "I thought... we... the team... were invincible sort of. Not in body, but in spirit, you know? I never thought..." He shook his head as the unwelcome vision of Vin's battered body rose up. "Chris is holding too much inside... he's trying to be cool but he's seething. Nathan... well, Josiah's his best friend, he's protective but that's making Buck pissed off. God, Casey, I've never seen him so worked up. He scares me... I mean I'm afraid he's gonna explode."

"He's a passionate man," the wise law student relayed. "When he loves, he loves hard. It's not just finding Vin like that... but knowing that it was by the hands of someone he trusted. I think your concern is warranted. Even if Josiah throws himself at the altar so to speak, I don't know if Buck will truly forgive him totally."

"He has to, Casey... we can't survive... I mean, you need that trust in the field. Without that assurance that someone is watching your back..." He sighed, closed his eyes and felt her hands rubbing his chest. "Ezra's not showing his cards," he noted of the gambler in the group. "But he's tight with Vin. He's gotta be pissed inside..."

"...and what about John Daniel Dunne?" She propped herself up on her elbows and leaned over him. His eyes opened slowly and she saw the doubt flickering.

"I don't know what to feel," he admitted. "Vin... he's the big brother I never had. He's taught me so much."

"My two weekend warriors!" she teased, tapping his cheek.

"Yeah," he smiled. "He's the best athlete I've ever seen. He's fearless... and the ultimate competitor."

"But..." she prodded.

"I've never told anyone this, Case..." He took a steadying breath. "Before Vin came, just a few weeks after I joined the team, there was a situation."

"What kind of 'situation'?"

"The worst kind," he admitted, rubbing his tired eyes. "The rookie-screws-up-royally kind. We were investigating an importer suspected of smuggling liquor over the border. Josiah knew this guy inside and out, he'd profiled him. He got on the inside, got the guy's confidence. It was all set..."

"What happened?" She studied his face closely.

"I blew it... I went in early. I was supposed to stay in the van and record. Chris and Nathan weren't due for an hour when the other players were arriving. But the more I heard them talking, the more I began to sweat. I was so damn eager to play hero. The computer geek who finally got the badge..." He paused, still seeing the stunned faces in the warehouse when he ran in early. "Guy Prescott, the guy we were trying to nail started to talk funny, like he suspected Josiah was holding back. Looking back, it was pretty normal, they all do that."

"But you didn't... couldn't know, it was your first case," she defended, brushing his hair with her fingers.

"And almost my last." He shook his head. "I still don't know how Josiah reacted so quickly. There I was like Custer charging ahead, gung-ho... I froze... I just stood there. I couldn't even get my gun out. Prescott had me dead to rights... Josiah jumped him just as he fired." His voice wavered and he locked onto her eyes. "Casey, the bullet hit the wall beside my head... Jesus... "

"Ouch," she acknowledged of his divided loyalty.

"I owe him my life... I can't turn my back on him," he rasped painfully.

"But if you defend him in front of the others... in front of Buck?" She knew how close the two were.

"I'll lose him," J.D. predicted. "Chris... I can't look him in the eye and..."

"Chris Larabee picked you for a reason and for more than your keyboard skills. As for Buck, no way he'd ever desert you."

"What about Vin?" he asked. "He's gonna need me now. I want to be there for him... I can't lie to him. How's he gonna feel if he finds out I'm standing by Josiah? That's gonna hurt him... I can't hurt him..." He turned to her, wet eyes full. "What am I gonna do, Casey?" He closed his eyes and buried his sorrow in her embrace.

Sunday Morning 2 a.m.

"In the still of the night...."

Buck Wilmington thought how well suited that verse truly was to the image behind the lyrics. The night was painted in a deathly shade of despair. He sat on the couch, nursing a warm beer and a broken heart. Try as he might, he couldn't get Vin's face from his mind. The waver in the usually confident voice asking for help haunted him. That face full of confusion caused a cold knife to run through his guts, when Vin was told he was blind.

The rage was consuming him and he couldn't seem to stop it. A part of him admired Nathan for sticking up for Josiah but he couldn't justify it. He knew Chris had to keep it under wraps; he was a team leader. But he also knew the part of Larabee that few, if any, ever saw. That unnerving coldness that lurked beyond the surface. When it did come out, often reflected in an icy stare, it was nearly lethal. He wondered just how Chris would react when he saw Josiah Sanchez. It was no secret that when Vin got cut, Chris bled. And what of their wildcard? Ezra? He could kill just as easy with an icy stare and he didn't doubt for a moment that Standish would be in Vin's corner.

"...dammit, kid..."

He couldn't understand J.D.'s fence sitting. They had left the hospital to get some Mexican food and killed a half dozen Coronas. The kid had let him ramble and rage, listening quietly and trying to reason with him. Not once had he shown anger. Buck even felt he'd sensed sympathy in those hazel eyes.


He looked up and saw Heather heading for the sofa, tying a robe around her magnificent body.

"Hey, Red..." He accepted the kiss and the tug on his hand. "Did I wake you?"

"No, I was waiting for you. I was worried." She held his hand and made the mistake of looking into those dark blue eyes. Her heart ached for him. "You have to be exhausted, honey. Come to bed..."

"I can't... breathe..." Buck hissed, rising and crossing the room. He paced the length of the living room in the well-appointed condo and fisted his hands several times. The fifth time around, he met a wall of resistance.

"Stop it!" She caught him and held his face in both hands. "Get it out... now... all of it. You can't let this eat you alive. I won't let you. This isn't just about Vin is it?"

"How can he defend him?" Buck ranted.

"Honey, you know Nathan and Josiah are close..."

"No... not Nate. That I understand. I don't agree with it, but I understand. J.D... I've been with him since we found Vin. Even then, in the middle of that carnage ... he didn't... wouldn't accept it. He tried to defend him. All day... he's been hedging it. He's turnin' into Switzerland..."

"Maybe you're scaring him. Have you thought of that?"

"He'd never be scared of me!"

"Not of disappointing you? Of course he would. He looks up to you. He's a good kid, Buck. He must have a good reason for his stance." She stroked the side of his face and let her eyes linger there. "All he's seen since it happened is your anger and rage. Josiah's his friend too... he's young, Buck, barely out of college. He doesn't have what fifteen years of experience has given you. He's probably never been in this position before. Maybe he just doesn't know how to feel?" She hugged him then, pulling his head onto her shoulder. "Come on, let's go to bed, you're exhausted."

He was exhausted. As his numb limbs found the bed and the soft comfort only her arms brought, he finally let the fatigue that was hounding him win. He fell into an uneasy sleep, his dreams dark and full of shadows. Where once seven men had stood side by side, now five remained scattered and uneasy.

Sunday Morning 6 a.m.


Rain groaned and burrowed herself under the thick quilt. Maybe she was asleep and had imagined it. Her shift at the hospital didn't start until eleven and she had at least a few more hours of sleep.

"Wet! Mama..."

Nathan heard the tired sigh and kissed his wife's cheek. He pushed the struggling body back down and tucked her in.

"You stay, I'll get her. I'm heading out in a couple hours anyway." He saw the question in her eyes and sat on the edge of the bed. "I have to go, Rain. You know I do. He's out there somewhere, alone. He needs me..."

"And you need to hear him say it?"

"Yeah... I still can't believe he did that... Vin..." He bit his lip and turned away. "What if he can't remember? What are we going to tell him? What can I say to him? I don't want to lose his respect, Rain."

"I think you all are underestimating Vin. I've met a lot of people in my life, Nathan. People who've been beaten down and used. He's had a tough life, had more than his share of sorrow and bad luck. But he's got a resilience inside... a shining spirit... a slow fire that keeps him warm and restores his hope. It's gonna hurt like hell, but he'll survive this. He's strong. God doesn't waste his gifts on just anybody, you know?"

"Yeah," he nodded, kissing her cheek. "I thank Him everyday for my gifts, you and Jasmine..."


"Speaking of which," the sleepy mother smiled, "you're up, 'Daddy'..."

By the time Nathan reached the baby's room, she had one foot on the top of the crib. Two chocolate eyes flared at him.

"Hey, sugar..."


"I know." He sniffed the urine-tinged air. "You drink like your uncles, you know that?"

"Mama?" She looked behind him into the doorway.

"Shhh!" He put his finger to his lips, sat her down and tugged off the soggy pink pajamas. "Mommy's asleep. How 'bout you and Daddy have some juice and cereal, okay?"


"No." He tossed the soggy diaper away and reached for a clean one.

"Yes!" she countered, sticking her feet into clean socks and then sweatpants.

"Who you gettin' loud with?" he asked, hoisting her over the crib top.

"Peez..." She nestled into his neck. "...wuv Dada..."

"I love you too, sugar, but you can't have cookies before breakfast," he chuckled.

He put on the Cartoon network and gave her juice in her Sippee cup and some Cheerios in a dish on the table. He got himself some coffee, brought the Sunday paper inside and turned the radio on. The main highways were clear but secondary roads were icy. He'd have to be careful; the roads in the mountains were tricky even in good weather.

Distracted, the toddler wobbled across the room, chugging her apple juice. She paused by the end of the table, cocking her head at a photo. Her dark eyes lit up and a smile broke onto her small face. One chubby finger pointed and she turned to her father, exclaiming her joy.

"Bin... Bin...!"

"Aw, hell," Nathan whispered, eyeing the five by seven photo of Vin and Jasmine taken just a few weeks ago at Thanksgiving.

"Bin... Da Da?" She walked to the door and pointed. Vin was a regular for breakfast most Sundays. He loved watching cartoons with Jasmine and wrestling with her on the floor. He'd take her for walks and patiently explain every animal, bird and plant. He'd feed her, change her and sing to her. There was no denying the love the generous Texan had for his goddaughter.

", baby...not today...."

"Bin!" she demanded, screwing her face in protest.

"Shhh! Mommy's sleeping. Come on, let's snuggle. Look, Elmo's coming on..." He changed the channel.

For a few moments, he thought it worked. He stretched out on the sofa with her lying on his chest. He wrapped the afghan over them and the small thumb went in her mouth. His eyes drifted from the bright red character on the television to the window and to his journey. What if he found Josiah? What would his reaction be? Did Josiah even know what he'd done? He sighed and swallowed hard, then a small hand touched his cheek.

"Boo Boo?" she whispered, noticing the sad look in his eyes.

"Yeah, baby..." he nodded and felt his throat tighten when she kissed his cheek. Two small hands held his face and studied him.

"...all gone...?"

That was a question he had no answer to.

Sunday Morning 8 a.m.

He woke up with a start and sat up too fast. Something in an ungodly shade of green was flying around the room. He tried to peel the cement from his eyes without any success. His hands fumbled badly but managed to find his neck, reassuring himself that his head was still attached. So that driving pain that pounded without mercy meant that he was still alive. It just felt like he was dead.

The lurch of his stomach and the pressure in his bladder forced his rubbery legs to move. He staggered a few feet, tried to focus again and resumed his stumbling steps. He found the door, opened it and relieved his bladder.

"What the fuck?"

"Charming," Ezra supplied, wincing at the ghastly sight before him. The usually well-groomed man he knew had been replaced by a caveman. The blond hair stood up at ten different angles and two slits of color were barely visible through swollen lids. The smell in the room was enough to raise the dead.

"Who put a fuckin' closet here?" Chris grunted, perplexed at his bearings. He knew where his bathroom was and it should be right here.

"An oversight on the part of the architect," Standish replied, eyeing the large ceramic pot that had been delivered from South America. The handmade pottery was for his rubber tree plant. "Fortunately, it would appear that our sharpshooter's talented aim has rubbed off on you."


"The bathroom is across the hall..." he suggested, not daring to physically move the bleary-eyed man. A hung over Larabee was more dangerous than a sober one. "Perhaps a hot shower will rouse you from the dead."

"What the hell's going on? Where are my clothes? Who painted that shit on my wall?"

"Actually, it's 'Spring Jubilee' and since possession is nine-tenths of the law, I'm keeping it."

"Puke green," Chris decided, staggering past his host.

"I guess I should count my blessings that it's only urine," Ezra muttered, taking the expensive ceramic piece from the floor of the closet. He was moving past the guest bathroom where the gagging sounds resounded. He'd just emptied the pot into the toilet in the master bathroom and flushed when a froggy voice sailed down the hall.

"Who moved the toilet?"

Cursing inwardly and gently placing the pot on the floor, he raced up the hall with towels in hand. Prepared to meet a mess all over his Italian tile, he instead encountered a cocky if not bold grin.

"Gotcha!" Chris croaked, flushing the toilet.

"Your humor leaves a lot to be desired."

"Your face was as green as them awful walls," Chris rasped. "Where's my clothes?"

"I took the liberty of washing them." He moved to the large closet in the guest bathroom and took out the folded items.

"You'll make somebody a good wife someday, Ezra," Chris acknowledged. "Scare up some coffee."

"You'll find a kit in the middle drawer containing the necessary toiletries," he managed to convey before the door was firmly shut. "You're welcome."

By the time he had a plate of fresh bagels and hot coffee on the table, the somewhat recovered guest appeared in his dining room fresh from the shower.

"Anything get busted up?" Chris asked, sitting down gingerly and taking the aspirin and orange juice offered. He had no memories past the long night at the end of the table in the Saloon.

"Are you referring to humans?"

"Just pour," Chris grunted, looking for a phone.

"Actually, you were quite cooperative." Ezra poured them each a cup of coffee. "You only threatened to kill me twice."

"I wake up again in that puke green room I just might," Chris groused, sipping the coffee.

As he punched the numbers on the phone, he drained the orange juice Ezra handed him and eyed the gray sky outside. Somewhere in the distance, a radio weatherman was predicting several more inches of snow. He blinked and turned when a voice answered on the fifth ring.

"Good morning, I'm Chris Larabee and I'd like to speak with the Nursing Supervisor, please?"

Ezra used his cell phone to call Orrin and fill him in. Travis was understanding to a point but pressed the fact they needed to meet for a lot of reasons. Buck and J.D. were already at the office going over their information for the arraignment in the morning. Orrin suggested a brief lunch meeting at the hospital.

"I'll suggest it," Ezra nodded. "I'll be in touch. Any word from the Sheriff's office?"

"No," Orrin relayed. "They had a rough night, lots of accidents. Nathan is on his way back up there. I hope in the light of day, Josiah comes to his senses and turns himself in."

"If he's realized what he's done, I'm sure he'll approach the proper authorities. It serves no purpose to hide out any further. He is an educated man and once sobriety settles in, he'll realize the consequences of his actions."

"I hope he does," Orrin rose to cross his large study, "before Buck runs into him." He heard the silence and understood all too well. Although they disagreed amongst themselves, they held their circle tightly. "I'll talk to you later, Ezra."

"How fares our fallen comrade, Chris?"

"The nurse said he had a good night, that is, he slept well. Somebody was with him, talked to him when he woke up confused. His vitals picked up a little and they're about ready to take that tube out."

"You need to eat." Ezra tossed some of the spread he'd laid out on a plate and crossed the room. "Orrin suggested a meeting at midday at the hospital, perhaps that diner down the street? He also said the sheriff hasn't anything new and that Nathan is already on the way back up there."

"Okay," Chris nodded. "I'll give Orrin a call after I see Vin. You get a hold of Buck and the kid."

"I spoke with Heather earlier this morning. She's quite concerned. She awoke during the night to find him in a state of turmoil."

"Who isn't?" Chris returned, accepting the offered plate filled with fruit, a toasted bagel and some expensive herbed cream cheese. "Thanks, Ezra."

The southerner sipped his coffee and regarded the other man with keen eyes. He knew how troubled Chris was and what a difficult task was ahead. A mental image of their leader standing over the many shattered pieces of their team formed. It would be something akin to putting Humpty Dumpty back together.

Chris gingerly picked at the fruit, realizing he'd need the nourishment for the day ahead. He sipped at the coffee and his eyes lingered on the antique silver sugar dish. He thought on the dented silvery container at work that held sugar. Buck had nicknamed it 'Vin's tin' since the sharpshooter usually consumed most of the contents. More often than not, when he entered the cozy room in the morning to get his own coffee, a yawning Vin Tanner would be pouring an ungodly amount of sugar into a mug. He sighed hard, rubbed his tired eyes and thought the gray overcast sky outside was a mirror of his own troubled state.

"Stupid... so fuckin' stupid..." he hissed, tossing a curled up napkin across the table.

"It's done and you dwelling in a dark mood won't help. I'll put the coffee in a thermal mug and wrap up the bagel. You need to calm down," Ezra advised. "Vin's not as blind as you think. He doesn't need to be upset any further."

"Yeah," Chris nodded, knowing how easily Vin sensed his moods. He spotted his jacket across the room and put it on. Somehow, by the time he was at the door, Ezra was there, handing him a bag and a mug. "Listen, I'm sorry about all of this. Fine thing, you get the drunk home and he pisses and pukes all over the place."

"Southern hospitality at its finest!" Ezra charmed with a sly grin. Then his smile faded and he took in the worried gaze. "He'll pull through this, Chris; he's got more inside than most."

"Yeah," the blond agreed and found a small smile. "He's a Tanner."

ICU Nine a.m.

He sighed and wondered just how long the night would be. It seemed that the darkness never ended. His head hurt and his stomach was upset. He coughed, trying to quell a gag and his shoulders jerked. The nausea was constant as was the dizziness. He wanted to throw up or die, one or the other.

He was uncomfortable; his right arm was secured and unmovable. The left fumbled badly, hitting something solid and round. Bars? He heard a voice on a speaker in the hall calling for a doctor. Hospital? Why was he in the hospital? Why was it so dark?

Someone was near. He heard footsteps and then heard a click and the bars went away. He felt a touch to his shoulder and backed up, gasping. Unable to see or defend himself, he shuddered a bit. Then it happened and his whole body lost its tension. Before the voice came, he knew. He inhaled and took in the scent of wet leather, tobacco and soap. A soft call of his name brought a weak smile. He knew who was beside the bed and tried to call out that name, needing that reply, but his throat hurt.


"Right here, Vin." Chris paused, watching the signs of confusion rising again. That Vin knew him, called out to him, meant that at least he could speak and think. "Don't talk. Your throat is still pretty raw from the tube."

Mistake, he thought, seeing more panic and the wobbly hand dancing frantically on the sheet. He grabbed it and held on. "You're in the hospital, Vin. It's Sunday morning and you were in an accident Friday night. You busted up your arm, ribs and head. You have a concussion, that's why you can't see." Chris moved and got a spoonful of ice from the cup nearby. "Here, I got some ice..."

Vin took the ice and tried to sort through the words. Sunday... Friday... two days. Busted up... broken bones. Friday night. Friday night. He thought long and hard, taking more ice and sucking on it. Nothing came back, no memory at all.

"...bus...ted... head... riss..." he croaked.

"Yeah, good thing you didn't bust anything important, huh?" he teased.

"...ya okay... hurt?"

"I'm fine, Vin. You're the only one who's hurt."

"...nuthin'... comin'... can't... see... picture..."

"That's okay, Vin. It's not important. The doctor said you're gonna be fine."

"...they ain't... lyin'... here..." Vin noted, still puzzled by what had happened. " how... come... here...?"

Chris sighed hard and rubbed his throbbing eyes. The aspirin at Ezra's didn't help. His head was pounding like Ali and Frazier in round fifteen. He was trying to put something together that was a scaled down version of reality when Fate intervened. The slim body in the bed began to gag and twitch.

"Let it out, Vin," he coached, slipping the kidney basin under his mouth. It wasn't bad enough the painful heaving produced a tiny mouthful of fluid. The effort left him weak and shaking. Chris put the dish down, wiped Vin's mouth and held on. He kept one hand on Vin's shoulder, rubbing lightly while the other was caught in a death grip.

"...God... hate... this... "

"I know, I know," Chris whispered, his fingers moving lightly over Vin's upper back. "We'll ride it out together, cowboy, okay? I'm right here. You're not alone." The lips moved to speak again but the eye winced in pain. "Don't talk, just rest," he coached.

The effort and pain that came with it did push him over the edge. He tried hard to stay awake. He wanted to talk to Chris. He needed to know the answers to the puzzle. What had happened to him on Friday night? What kind of accident? Something inside grew very cold and his gut tried to warn him. Something was very wrong. He had to know what Chris wasn't saying. He tried to ask but couldn't seem to open his mouth. He drifted off to sleep again.

"Jesus," Chris sighed, prying his hand loose when Vin's body went limp. He pulled the blanket up, shook his head and took a seat. He sipped on his coffee and spotted a broken object in the trash can. He eyed the scattered pieces and wondered about his own fragmented team. Suddenly, the weight of being a team leader seemed overwhelming. Did he have what it took to provide the necessary glue? Could he fit those pieces together again? If Vin didn't regain his sight, would that void cause the fragile group to shatter?

Part Six

Monday Morning Eight a.m.
Federal Building

Orrin entered the conference room that was adjacent to his large office. Pausing long enough to get a cup of coffee, he took his place at the end of the table. His eyes flickered to the two empty seats and it caused a bit of pain as he sat down.

"Good morning, gentlemen," Travis nodded, accepting the ashen faces and quiet replies. The bodies were in chairs to his left and right, but the minds were elsewhere. Not one set of eyes among the five were clear. Rather, collectively, they were clouded with uncertainty. Something he thought he'd never see... not in their eyes. They were the best team he'd ever assembled.

"...were..." he mused aloud, realizing that indeed was the case now.

"Orrin?" Ezra frowned, eyeing the older man.

"I spoke with the hospital just before I left my office. Mister Tanner is doing much better. He's being moved out of ICU later this morning." Travis paused and saw just how weary each of them seemed.

"I'm sorry about yesterday, Orrin," Nathan spoke up about the aborted midday meeting. He'd been unable to attend, so they'd moved it back to this morning.

"That's alright, Nathan, we're all here now."

"Almost..." J.D. sighed, eyeing the two empty chairs. "I hate the number five."

"Well, get used to it," Buck spat bitterly, shoving his half-eaten donut away. "Thanks to that animal... it's all we got now..."

"Buck!" Nathan warned, standing before being restrained by Ezra.

"This is one of the reasons I wanted you all here. Air out your feelings, put everything on the table." He paused to eye each of them, lingering on Buck. "Because like it or not, you have a job to do... together... Do I make myself clear? Warren Davis left a message for me. There's a new lead in the Forrester case. Ezra, you and Nathan will be heading to Grand Junction this morning. The police arrested Mike Fisher for armed robbery last night."

"Fisher?" J.D. cocked his head. "Wasn't that the name of that guy who worked in the warehouse?" he asked of the nearly year old arson case, still unsolved.

"Yes..." Travis nodded. "Apparently, he's in the mood to talk."

"How coincidental!" Buck snorted. "He gives up Salvadore and they drop the charges."

"Nicholas Salvadore is on the F.B.I's most wanted list. Arson, murder, drugs... he's got dirty hands all over. This might be our best chance to nail him. Chris, I want you to fly to..."

"No," Chris returned without looking up.

"It's not an option. Buck and J.D. are with the DA today, Gilbert is being arraigned. Like it or not, you're being paid to a job for the ATF."

"So send some flunkie from Ryan's group, they were our backup..." Larabee groused.

"I'll tell Carole Clark that, I'm sure she'll find it reassuring," he drilled of the policeman's widow. The ten-year veteran had been gunned down in the warehouse during the firefight.

"Thanks, Orrin." Chris's voice was tinged with sarcasm.

"You're the team leader of the primary, you go," he concluded, closing the door on any rebuttal.

There was a brief span of silence, then...

"Look, I know how torn up all of you are about Vin and this situation," Travis dictated, taking in the somber bodies before him. "Vin's being taken good care of in a well staffed hospital. There's nothing more you can do for him now. The F.B.I and sheriff's office are looking for Sanchez. That's their job... not ours and we're wasting time."

"Where?" Chris finally looked up.

"Phoenix, the U.S. Marshall's office has a lead on him. As soon as Ezra gets Fisher's statement, you go with them to arrest Salvadore. Don't let him out of your sight. With any luck, he'll be here in lockdown tonight. Your flight leaves at ten, you can go right from here." Orrin turned towards Buck Wilmington. "Get rid of that hostility, Buck, it serves no purpose. I know how you feel but..."

"No, you don't!" Buck hissed. "You weren't there."

"I've been 'there' for over forty years. I've buried friends... partners... held their guts in while they choked on their own blood." He rose, walked over and towered above the now silent rogue. "Don't you dare tell me I don't know how it feels. You're wearing a badge for a reason and this isn't Dodge City. Locking up trash like Salvadore and Gilbert and throwing the key away is the very reason you do wear that badge."

"Alright, you made your point..." Buck admitted.

"You're not the only one who's hurting, Buck," Chris said, "but Orrin's right. We have to get focused again."

"And that means working as a team," Ezra input. "If Vin's place among us means anything to you, you'll honor him by wearing that badge well."

"He'd hate it if he knew we were falling apart. He'd feel guilty..." J.D. saw the odd looks. "Well, he would, you know how he is. But if he knows we're out there catching the bad guys..."

"How are you, son?" Orrin pressed, sensing the odd detachment that Dunne seemed to present.

"I'm okay, sir. Just kinda numb, you know." J.D. thought on the long talk Casey had with him the day before and his visit with Vin as well. "It's hard... they're both my friends."

Ezra's eyes darted to Buck who snorted in disgust, then made a face and fisted his hand but didn't level an outburst. Perhaps Orrin's speech had had an effect on him.

"Yeah," Nate spoke, directing a gaze at Wilmington. "They're mine, too. Buck, I know you're fired up at me, but if J.D. was the one who'd gotten..."

"What the hell..." Buck started only to have Ezra grab his arm.

"Let him finish," Standish suggested.

"Would you have turned your back on him? Tossed him aside ... thrown all the good away..." He moved from his chair, went around the table and stood next to Buck. He pulled out a recent photo of his daughter. "Take a good look. That's my baby girl... Vin's goddaughter. You think I ain't torn up about this? Hell, like my gut's not ripped to pieces? I bleed too, Buck, okay? But I learned a long time ago that hate only makes you hard and bitter. It kills all the good inside... the stuff that makes us human. Okay?" He paused, palm out. "Partner?"

Buck hesitated and studied that photo hard. He remembered that day and many more when they gathered as a family to celebrate. Family. That's what they all were, including the sweet two-year-old who had such a proud godfather. One thing was true; Vin would be upset if he knew they were squabbling. So he'd bury his anger... for now. He turned and took the hand, nodding and handing back the photo. "Okay..."

Denver Hospital
Nine-thirty a.m.

Vin drained the cold mug of water that had been handed to him and laid back. He felt the bed being raised a bit and someone putting the bars up. He jumped a bit when the hand touched his arm.

"I'm sorry, Mister Tanner, I didn't mean to startle you."

"That's okay," Vin whispered, resting his head on the fresh pillow. "...ain't yer fault. What time is it?"

"Nine-thirty," the nurse answered. "The tray is right in front of you. There's another large capped mug of water in the center and some tissues." She saw him fingering the call button. "If you need anything, you just press that and me or Connie will come right away, okay?"

"Thanks, uh... uh... Mary?"

"Yes, that's great. See? You didn't forget."

"Naw," Vin smiled. "Ya smell way too good to ferget."

"Thank you, Mister Tanner."

"Mister?" Vin wrinkled his nose. "Hell, ya ain't sixteen 'er nuthin' are ya?"

"Not since Jimmy Carter was president."

"Then it's Vin." He paused. "Can ya put the phone where I can get at it? I need t'call the fellas... they'll be worried. They'll get to ICU and when I ain't there..."

"Sure." She moved it beside his free hand. "Here, I'm going to clip the call button to your robe, then you can't lose it. I'll put the phone here." She moved his hand and let him feel it. "If you need to call, just pick it up... can you find the zero?"

"Uh..." Vin's finger moved to the bottom row, then center.

"Good! Just push that and the hospital operator will dial for you. You tell her you can't see and give her the number."

"Okay," he nodded, hearing her steps retreating. "Mary... ye'll come back, won't ya?"

"Sure," she smiled, already a victim of the soft drawl and emotive young man. "I might even bring a chocolate milk shake."

"Hell, I might hafta marry ya!" Vin returned, his hand trembling a bit. He didn't like it when he was alone. The constant field of blackness was unnerving. He heard the footsteps returning and felt a hand on his chin.

"Hey, it's okay to be scared. You've been through quite a trauma. I'm just outside the door. The nurse's station is right across the way."

"Sorry..." Vin rasped, then sighed hard. "It's... weird... I can't... seem... t'git m'balance."

"I know," she comforted, taking his hand. "One of the reasons I became a nurse was this one." She rubbed the cold fingers. "We're all human, Vin, that makes us all connected. Comforting a friend is part of the best things in life. Being paid to do it is a bonus."

"It's a callin'... sorta like bein' angels on earth... tendin' to the sick and such."

"That's a lovely thought, Vin, thank you," she smiled. "By the time you leave, you'll be tired of me fussing. I love to fuss over my family."

"No, I won't." Vin gave the hand a squeeze. "Thanks, I'm okay now."

"No, you're not, your head hurts." She read the pain in the blue eyes.

"Mebbe a little..." he admitted. "Least m'breakfast stayed put. That's somethin'."

"I'll be back, you get some rest." She gave his hand a pat and turned to leave.

"Mary?" He waited, hearing her footsteps pause. "I'm glad God saw fit t'pin wings on ya..."

"I am too, Vin," she returned softly, "and thank you."

Buck was walking towards the District Attorney's office when his phone rang.

"Wilmington," he muttered, shoving the glass door open.


"Vin!" he boomed, much to the annoyance of the people in the office. "Hey, slick, it's good to hear your voice. How's the head?"

"Still attached." Vin settled back, enjoying the warm voice on the phone. "I wanted t'let ya know I got sprung from ICU."

"Hey, that's great! Where are you?"

"Huh? I'm ... aw, hell... damn head ain't good fer nuthin'. Can't remember squat." He frowned, thinking hard. "I think it's got a four in it..."

"Thanks, Vin," Buck grinned. "That'll narrow it down to a few dozen. Don't you worry, we'll find you. Me and the kid will be over this afternoon, after the Gilbert thing."

"Gilbert?" Vin's voice trailed off. He couldn't remember the case.

Buck didn't like the silence he heard and shifted uneasily. He saw the DA waving to him and J.D. appeared next to her. He waved back and shifted the phone to the other ear.

"Hey, we'll bring some grub... I gotta go, Vin, the DA is here."

"Yeah... okay... Buck, where's Chris? I called twice."

"Chris is on his way to Phoenix to pick up Nick Salvadore. Ezra and Nathan are out of town too..." He nodded to the DA who was clearly unhappy with the delay. "We'll fill you in later, slick."

"What about Josiah?"

Buck froze, his eyes shifting. He put the phone against his chest and let out a long breath. J.D. moved over.

"Buck, who is it? We're gonna be late. Let's go!"

"It's Vin... he's asking about Josiah..."

"Tell him he's not here yet, that's not a lie."

"Yeah..." Buck got back on the phone.

"...are ya? Hell... is the fuckin' phone... Dammit..."

"Shit!" Buck hissed, hearing Vin fumbling. "Vin... I gotta go... Vin?"

"Buck? I dropped the damn thing."

"We're late for court, Vin. We'll talk later."

"Yeah, okay, tell the kid..." Vin heard the dial tone and hung the phone up.

He yawned and settled back, turning his face to where the heat was coming in. He assumed a window was over there. He heard the wind howling and wondered if it was snowing. He dozed off, thinking on Buck's conversation and wondering about Josiah. Everything was fuzzy to him. He knew his friends well enough to know they'd come, but he couldn't seem to recall Josiah. As he fell asleep, a disturbing image flickered of the ex-minister wearing an enraged face. He cried out weakly in his sleep as the strange dream caused his head to throb.

High above Denver
6 p.m.

Chris declined the 'snack' offered by the flight attendant and kept his eyes on the window. In two hours, the plane would touch down and Nick Salvadore would be turned over to the Denver F.B.I. One of their agents, Tom Mitchell, had traveled with him to Phoenix. When Ezra's fax came through to the Phoenix U.S. Marshall's office, they'd acted quickly. It went down without a hitch. Salvadore was in the shower when they'd arrived and arrested him. Now, the fifty-five year old criminal was finally going to stand trial for a long list of felonies.

He'd phoned Ezra and Nathan to meet him at the airport. They'd stop by the hospital to see Vin on the way into the city. He'd spoken to the injured agent mid-afternoon and didn't mistake the painful voice but at least he was out of ICU. Chris rested his eyes for a moment, hoping the Tylenol he took earlier would kick in and kill the nagging headache

Outside Denver
Seven p.m.

He paused in front of the mirror and took a good hard look. It had been years since his hair was this short and he didn't have his mustache. The black overcoat coupled with the black turtleneck and pants with that large silver cross gave him a shiver.

"Some holy man," he noted bitterly of his 'priest-like' appearance. Actually, the short hair, a military style buzz cut courtesy of Jeb Walker, also took him back to his early days in the army. The old recluse lived high in the hills and Josiah often took him food and made sure he wasn't ill. He was borrowing the old man's truck to go into Denver. His mission was clear; the Lord had spoken to him about his path. In order to get to the heart of his problem, he'd cut the hair away to reflect the image that he wore all those years ago.

Tucking the Bible under his arm, he gave one last look at the stranger in the glass and exited the bathroom.

"Leavin', Josiah?"

"Yes, brother, I'm afraid it's time to go. I have a mission... an important one. I'll see to it that one of my friends..." he paused, wondering if he still earned that right, "...coworkers return your truck." He tugged on the old man's hand and found a smile. "Be well, Brother Jeb."

"Lord keep you, Josiah," the old man replied with a shiver. Something inside told him he wouldn't see his friend again for some time.

Denver Hospital
7:45 p.m.

J.D. gave Buck the high-sign and nodded toward the door. Vin was tired and fighting to stay awake for their benefit. The tall man agreed, stood up and stretched, then leaned over the railing.

"It's gettin' late, Vin. Me and the kid have to get going. You need anything? We can come for lunch tomorrow."

"Nah..." Vin managed, wishing he could sleep. His head hurt and his stomach was upset. Maybe he shouldn't have eaten the soup they'd brought from the Chinese restaurant.

The two visitors exchanged a concerned look. They'd arrived after work bringing food for the ailing man. Initially, he was happy to have the company and they told him about how well the Gilbert date in court went. But the last hour or so, he was too quiet. Of course, they couldn't blame him, given what he was enduring.


"Yeah, Vin?" He paused while zipping his jacket and frowned. "Somethin' wrong?"

"Ya said Ez and Nate's up Grand Junction... way... an'... an'... Chris... is comin' from... Arizona." The confused face puzzled up momentarily. "...he talked to me, didn't he?"

"Yeah, he told me he called you. He'll be stopping in later from the airport. Ez and Nate are going to bring him. Why? You miss that orn'ry old cuss?"

"Yeah..." Vin rasped, his voice giving him away. "But... where's Josiah? Did I ferget that part? It's awful t'wake up all mixed up. I can't tell day and night... where I am..." He huffed in annoyance. "He weren't at court?"

"Uh... no... Vin," J.D. managed. "He wasn't required. He wasn't here today." The youth shrugged, not sure what else to say.

"Hmmm... funny... ain't like 'im..." Vin yawned. "Thanks fer the candy. The nurse said she never seen a bunch of chocolate flowers."

"No wonder they're all in a good mood," Buck teased. "Nothing like chocolate roses to warm a lady's heart." He saw the hand coming up and grabbed it, giving it a good solid tug. He saw the fear shining in the unswollen eye and tried to ease that strain a bit. "Hey, you listen up to old Buck now. Whatever happens, you got us, Vin. We'll get through this together. That Doc said there's a good chance your sight will come back. In the meantime, I'll have to find you a seeing-eye coed." He winked at J.D. who saw the smile Vin found and tapped his shoulder.

"Yeah, you know a lot of Buck's old girlfriends have daughters in college."

"Ha-ha, very funny," Buck sent back before turning to leave.

"Hey..." Vin called out. "Thanks..."

"Sure thing, Vin," J.D. said, slipping out the door.

Buck paused a moment and watched the shadows crossing Vin's face. He saw the slim fingers pulling at the nubs on the blue blanket on the bed. Twice, a shuddering breath escaped before the lone eye began to fill. He swallowed hard and tried to control his emotions. He was doing fine until the broken drawl broke free.

"...please... don't take m'eyes..." Vin whispered, seeking a light in his darkness.

Denver Hospital
8 p.m.

Sharon Pasciski was running from the exit when she hit a solid chest. She found two hands steadying her and looked up. She saw the black clothing and cross and relaxed a little. It was dark and she should be more careful.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Father. I wasn't looking where I was going. I guess I should be more careful."

"That's alright," Josiah replied, eyeing the open exit. It was another sign from God. He'd worried about getting through the crowded ER without a security guard recognizing him. This open door into the back end of the building was a clear run up to the fourth floor. The stairwell was on the south side, right where Vin's room was located.

"Well, goodnight, Father," she nodded.

"God bless you, child," he noted, entering the stairwell.

He'd called from a seedy bar on the way down and gotten Vin's room number. He'd been inside this hospital enough to know his way around. He peeked into the corridor and saw the open door on the second room down. Making the sign of the cross and asking for strength, he began the longest short walk of his life.

"Doctor Tremaine?"


The doctor in question was forty-nine but looked fifteen years younger. She was a very attractive brunette whose firm figure showed the hours of exercise that were her creed. Lauren Tremaine was currently on staff at the University of Colorado. She taught there three days a week and the other two days she ran the Coping With Grief support group at the hospital. The gifted psychologist had taken on that task a few months earlier.

"You have a staff meeting tomorrow at nine," the aide called after her.

"Thanks Michelle," she noted, gathering up her notes and files.

She found working with the group very rewarding. Her own life had been touched by cancer and that spurred the need inside to reach out to others. Having lost her mate to cancer, she knew well the grieving process and how to walk on again. Although Michael was lost to her, his gift was ever present. Cara was a bright, beautiful twenty-year-old sophomore at the nearby university in Boulder. She'd done her first two years at Oxford where they had a home. Now, she was doing a year abroad and the choice was a good one. Colorado was a glorious state and the two were avid skiers and hikers. The blue-eyed girl was so much like her father, in both fair-haired looks and sunny temperament that it was like having him with her. Lauren made a mental note to call her daughter as she took a short cut through the fourth floor on her way to the elevator.

Josiah froze at the bedside. No words could possibly define the pain that radiated from every pore of his body. He swallowed hard; his eyes filled with tears as they took in the garish display in the bed. He stared at his hands, trembling now, and wondered how one man could have inflicted so much damage on another. Not just anyone, a brother, a friend—someone who looked up to him and trusted him.

"Vin, I'm sorry..." he choked, his wavering hand gently touching the side of the purplish cheek.

A soft gasp emerged and that warm breath touched his hand. His fingers jumped as if touching a flame. He blinked back his tears and moved his hand away, almost as if afraid to break the fragile soul. The face scrunched up and turned, brows furrowed and a tongue peeked out over the stitched lip.

"...somebody... there...?" Vin whispered.

Josiah's mouth opened and shut and his hand froze over Vin's face. So close... not even a butterfly's wing could separate his fingers from Vin's face. He wanted to touch him, to heal him, to take all the pain away.

"You're a coward!" he berated himself silently, withdrawing his hand.

He took a steadying breath, trying to quell the fires that raced inside his guts. He gripped the rail with both mighty hands and tried to find his courage. The stark white walls within the small room made his head pound. He sighed and eyed the semi-raised form lying before him. The face was puzzled and in pain. The twitches and grimaces told him that. The lacerations and bruises covering the fair man's face seemed to leer at him. What of his face wasn't discolored was paler than the sheet he was lying on. The blue gown slid down off his shoulder and Josiah pulled it back up as a reflex.

"...who...? who...? shit...!" Vin choked, feeling the queasy stomach explode.

The body jerked again and Sanchez moved, picking up a new basin. It was a motion he'd recognized from previous bedside vigils with this man and his other friends. He supported Vin with one arm and held the basin under his mouth. Two blue slits appeared through swollen eyes and blinked at him. He was so startled that he nearly dropped the basin. Guilt slammed into his chest and muted him. He fumbled and managed to get a paper cup and fill it with water. He got the confused younger man to rinse and got a full cup of water into him.

Vin's head really hurt; the nightmares made it scream. Unidentifiable images, dark and menacing, slashing at him and hacking away his flesh. Every inch of him was exploding in vibrant colors. Throwing up was making him dizzy. His face came in contact with the cast on his arm and he narrowed his aching eyes. What the hell happened? The last he remembered was... was... screaming at Buck in the office. He raised his face and saw nothing. Jet blackness surrounded him. What was going on? He felt someone brush against his left arm and he tugged at the reluctant body beside him and weakly called out.

"...who... there...?"

The frail voice and the pleading sky eyes undid the older man. He tried to shy away, but the voice was like a knife in his heart. He felt the weak tug on his sleeve and tried to pull away. Then that battered face looked up at him and shattered what was left of his fragile soul. The tears spilled over and he didn't brush them away. He wanted those salty drops of penance to burn a path on his face. Finally, he parted his lips.

"I'm sorry, Vin..."

"...siah?" Vin's face puzzled in confusion. He'd been worried about the older man. Every time he asked about him, he was given odd excuses for his absence. "...ya okay? I was worried. Chris... Buck and them... said I was in an accident. Can't recall... everythin's black."

This time it was a question. The boy couldn't remember; he didn't know. Josiah took a deep breath and tried to find a shard of courage. Something to cling to and get him through this darkest of nights.

"Ya there?" Vin questioned, not hearing anything. "...don't go... please..."

That did it. That was the final straw that broke his resolve. That broken voice seeking hope and a wavering hand reaching out in full trust. Trust he'd betrayed by his own two hands. He eyed his palms and wondered if he deserved to take that hand offered and all that went with it. The echoes of that last word were deafening and ripped his guts apart. At first, he turned away, seeking flight from this place. But instead, he took a deep breath, blessed himself and turned back, taking the offering of comfort. He leaned over and brushed the tangled hair off the pale forehead. He felt the change immediately. The intimate contact of skin on skin had given the ailing man some relief. Vin's breath of contentedness and the tiny motion of him pressing his face into the large hand wounded him deeply. He intensified the grip and saw the eyes open again.

"...what's goin' on... 'siah?"

"Shh! Don't talk... just rest..."

"" he stuttered, trying to swim through the darkness. What was wrong? Why couldn't he see? His head hurt so much; he was dizzy and felt sick. He searched his prison and the odd figures from the dream returned, a horrid hulking figure that had bloody talons and was hitting his defenseless body. He cried out and felt the strong arms lift him. He didn't have the strength to get the bile out and he felt himself passing out.

"Thank God... yer here..."

"No... no, Vin," he denied the gratitude, clearly not deserving it.

He raised his eyes to the ceiling, seeking out that hand that drove him here.

"Don't fail me now, I need you..." he beseeched.

The blue slits reappeared and the poor man gave back the little bit of water he'd ingested. Tears fell, wrought from the coughing and gagging. It broke Josiah's heart and his trembling hands wiped the salty drops away.

"I know it hurts, son..." he soothed, wiping the vomit from Vin's nose and mouth. He used a clean towel to wash his face and neck. The blue eyes were lifted towards him with such trust and the large hand had become a lifeline. Vin was clinging to him, lost in a world of pain, distress and confusion. He stroked the pale cheek and felt more tears slip from his own tortured eyes.

Lauren froze in the entrance to the room. She watched for several minutes as he tenderly administered to the handsome, albeit battered, young man. She saw the bright blue shining dully through the swollen, purplish eyes. They looked upward at the graying giant with total trust. She didn't miss the intense grip on the large hand. She gauged his age and smiled, nodding her head at the calculation. She looked at the older man and the smile broadened. My God!... after all this time... and a half a world away. She swallowed hard and entered the room, putting her valise down. She drew up next to him and saw the younger man startle, his nose twitching. Then she realized he couldn't see her. Finally, the older man turned and his blue eyes widened in shock.

"Hello, Preacher." She reached up and kissed his cheek. "It's been awhile."

"Oh, my God... Lauren?" he choked in shock.

"In the flesh, mate."

Vin heard the thick English accent and relaxed. It sounded almost musical. It seemed to be a friend of Josiah's. He felt Josiah pulling away and refused to give up his hold. Then that sweet voice met his ear when a soft hand touched his own.

"Sorry, Love... didn't mean to startle you. No harm done?"

"" Vin whispered.

"I can't believe it..." Josiah was still dumbstruck.

"Me either, Preach," she teased, touching his short gray hair. "You bloody aged, mate... and I'm not a day older!"

She laughed, eyes lingering on the intense grip the younger man's hand had on the large one. She recalled the deep feeling she'd heard when Josiah looked down at him and called him 'son'. She did that mental addition then and determined who the slim young man was.

"Is this David then? He's so handsome..." She saw the immediate reaction and frowned in concern. Josiah's face twisted in unbearable pain and he staggered, losing his grip on the patient. She managed to get him in the plastic chair.

"What's wrong?" Vin demanded. "Ya okay?"

"I'm fine..." Sanchez gasped.

"What is it? You looked like you've seen a ghost?" Lauren inquired of the other man's not quite ashen face. His hands trembled and then she saw the tears on his face. She touched the side of that face and saw such pain that it paralyzed her in place.

Vin shivered and let his eyes close. He fuzzily recalled a nurse coming after his meal and giving him something. Sleep. Help for sleep? Wasn't that what she said? Had they heard him cry out from the awful nightmare? Was this woman who knew Josiah another nurse? His eyes closed but he held on to their conversation. He wondered about Josiah's shocked reaction. He thought on the word that had caused it. David. She asked if he was 'David'. Who was David? Why did Josiah gasp and act like he was in shock? Something was wrong. He reached his left hand out and tried to find the strong one.


"Nothing, love..." She turned back and saw the concern that matched his voice. "He's just tired out, it's late."

"No... I... I..."

"Shh!" she hushed, stroking Vin's arm until he calmed down.

"He'll be okay," Josiah croaked, finally finding his voice. "He has to... heal. I won't be able to live if he doesn't," he proclaimed, rising and leaning over the bed.

"He's young and strong, like his Da... he'll be fine," she reassured, seeing the deep affection raining down from the smoky eyes onto the groggy patient.

"He's not mine, Lauren." Josiah sighed and took Vin's limp hand and gave a squeeze. He felt the injured man relax and felt the weak tug in return. "Nothing would honor me more had God chosen for me a gift so fine as he. He's far better than I deserve." He stroked the side of the battered face, then felt the shiver. He pulled the blanket up and made small circles on Vin's shoulder. "His name is Vin Tanner. He's a good friend and a co-worker. I'm with the Denver ATF."

"That's great...!" she boomed, then saw the naked pain shining in the large eyes as they looked upon the broken body on the bed. What caused such a raw emotive stare? "Are Tess and David with you here?"


He turned his face away sadly, eyes drawn to the window. He gazed at the darkness outside, his eyes harboring a mirrored bleakness. "David..." His voice broke and the eyes filled with tears. He realized now that he needed Vin's hand as much as the dazed man needed him. "...died about twenty-five years ago, last week."

"Oh God, Josiah!" she gasped, then hugged him. "I'm sorry. I didn't know. I wouldn't have said anything."

"No need for penance, Lauren, you committed no sin." He sighed and thought on the bright-eyed boy who had proudly called him 'Da'. A loving child whose unruly reddish curls were set over a set of sky blue eyes. That smile that had matched no other and had lit up his heart. His voice quivered then as he continued, needing to speak aloud the words so long buried. "He ran into the street... died instantly... just after he turned four."

"Oh, Josiah," she sobbed, swallowing hard. "...and Tess?"

"She never got over it. She wasn't strong, but then you knew that," he said sadly, recalling her face now covered with the cobwebs of time. "The drugs... the lure was too strong. She blamed herself... she overdosed about six months later. I buried her with him and left. I never went back."

"To England?" she questioned, recalling the tiny cottage they had shared by the sea. Lauren had been a good friend from her schoolgirl days. They went their separate ways when she started college, but she visited often, troubled by the other girls dependence on drugs. She had liked Josiah from the first time she'd met him. A tall, lanky Yank who had a heart of gold. She'd been sure he could save her troubled friend. They'd moved in together and David was born. A more loved child she'd never known. She'd left for America after she graduated from college and gone to Harvard Medical School. She'd met Michael and they'd traveled a lot. She'd lost touch with her old friends.

"No..." he sighed hard. "We left England when David was about two. We brought him here... to New York to see a specialist. We found a cheap place to live in Jersey, near the beach. You know how Tess loved the sea."

"Aye, she did," Lauren nodded sadly. "I'm so sorry, Josiah. I should have kept in touch..."

"We all move on, Lauren, it's not your fault."

"What happened?" she questioned. "I thought after he was born, she went clean."

"She tried, Lord bless her," he acknowledged. "But the older he got, the harder the guilt became. She went back on drugs. We had a fight... a bad one. He... David... wasn't... normal. He was what they now call 'mentally challenged'. She'd taken drugs while she carried him, I never knew..."

"Oh, God!" She took his free hand and gave a tug.

"He was a wonderful boy, so full of love. He didn't like loud sounds. That day... I came home from work," he reflected sadly, "I was working double shifts all week, I was exhausted. I found her strung out. David was filthy... crying... hungry. I lost my temper... lashed out... hollering at her. It scared him... he ran... outside... away..." Josiah took a deep breath and swallowed hard, the sickening squeal of brakes and that awful thud rammed into his skull. Sounds that never left him but rather got clearer over time. "The driver never saw...."

"Oh, Josiah," she choked, hugging him hard. "I'm so sorry... how tragic for both of you."

"It's my fault." Josiah now leaned over the bed. His words of guilt covering both of his sins, one past and one present. His sighed hard and tenderly stroked the side of Vin Tanner's battered face. Marks by his own hand now burning right through him. "I put him here... the demons were too strong this time." He touched Vin's face and saw the brows furrow. "I'm sorry, Vin. As God is my witness, I am heartily sorry for what I've done."

Vin's eyes darted behind closed lids. The impact of the news was too much for his fuzzy brain. Josiah had had a son, a boy who'd been stolen from him. And Fate not only took his only child, but the woman he loved as well. Twenty-five years ago. Something inside, unseen and unrecallable nagged at him. The demons rose again and the harder he tried to remember something tied to the accident, the more it hurt. He tried to remember what caused the pain. Why was Josiah here? What kind of accident had happened? Why did Josiah need his forgiveness? Had he been involved in the accident? His tongue seemed to swell and his throat was dry. He let the black curtain fall, secure with the strong hand gripping his and the one stroking his shoulder. He was safe.

8 00 p.m.


"What's wrong?" J.D. asked, not taking his eyes from the road.

"My wallet!" Buck tapped his faded brown leather bomber jacket pocket. "It's gone. It must have fallen out in Vin's room.

"When you threw it over the chair?" Dunne guessed. "Okay, we'll turn back."

Chris shifted impatiently in the seat as they pulled off the road. Traffic was light and Ezra had made good time, but he was anxious to see Vin. He was also exhausted and looking forward to a good night's sleep. He nodded mutely when Nathan suggested parking in the ER lot and going in the back way to avoid the 'hawk' that guarded the lobby via the front desk. Finally, the car was parked and he exited, seeking blue-eyed harmony.

"You're doing the right thing," Lauren reassured, having heard most of the tragic story between the room, hall and now the stairwell. "I'll wait with you at security until your friend arrives." She paused on the landing, taking his face in both hands. "Hey, Preach, I'm here for you. I'll get you through this. I'm good at mending broken souls." She saw him nod slightly. "Every journey starts with one step. This is the biggest one. It'll get easier."

"I hope so, Lauren, it's so awfully dark ahead," he noted, eyeing the stairwell. They were on the landing between the first floor and the basement. The lower level was where the security office was located.

"Isn't that Buck and J.D?" Nathan asked, pointing down the long corridor at the edge of the crowded ER.

"Yeah." Chris narrowed his eyes. "Buck's message said they'd left... were on their way to the Saloon," he noted of the voicemail on his cell phone. "Something happened to Vin!"

"Calm down, you're jumping to conclusions," Ezra tried, but the blond was already pushing ahead of them towards the stairway.

"Good thing I called the nurse's station," J.D. bragged, jogging to catch up to Buck. "You guys don't give me enough credit," he teased. He'd called ahead and the nurse was holding Buck's wallet at the nurse's station.

"Yeah, kid, you're more than just a pretty face," Buck agreed, pushing the door open.

Josiah had no time to prepare or even utter a word. As he turned to take the last flight down to where his destiny awaited, the door opened. His head jerked but not at the enraged face or scorching dark blue eyes. It was the animalistic cry of pure rage that split the lips of the six-foot-tall walking wall of fury that caused his heart to jolt.

"YOU SICK SON-OF-A-BITCH!" Buck screamed, launching himself at the cause of Vin Tanner's broken body. The impact sent both men tumbling down the flight of stairs.

Part Seven

"What the bloody hell do you think you're doing?"

"Buck!" J.D.'s cry of surprise came almost at the same time as the harsh words from the woman he was now helping up... Her dark eyes were flashing anger and aimed at Buck who was tangled at the bottom of the steps with his prey.

"Buck, I..." Josiah started to say when his shirt was grabbed and he was shoved hard against the wall of the stairwell...

"Do you have any idea what you've done?" the irate Wilmington hissed, ignoring the blood running down his face. "Do you?... You beat Vin and almost killed him... He's blind..." the out-of-control man vented, his eyes blazing. "You fuckin' bastard..."

"I'm sorry, Buck..." Josiah stammered, totally spent and unable to meet his eyes. He didn't want to see the anger... It only reminded him of the passion with which this man cared and bled for what was his... Something that he had once held but now had lost...

"SORRY!" Buck spat back in a voice drenched in incredulity. "You're pathetic. Hidin' in a bottle isn't bad enough? You need to pick up a fuckin' board and take Vin's head off?... He damn near died in my arms... drownin' in his own blood... thanks to that hole you put in his lung... you drunken lunatic!"

"BUCK!" J.D. called down the stairs while bending over to help a woman in a white lab coat to her feet... She didn't appear injured but he was concerned... "Are you okay?"

"I will be once that barbarian is arrested!"

"You don't understand..." J.D. started to call out again when the door opened and Chris Larabee brushed past him. "Chris!" He jumped, a bit startled, then saw the disbelief in the leader's green eyes turn to shock and finally rage... They flew from the bodies below back to him and then the woman who was next to him before glaring back at him again... "Josiah was here when we came back... I don't know how he got here..."

"BUCK!" Chris roared as his oldest friend delivered a solid right to Sanchez's gut... The irate agent's fist drew back again, seeking the staggered man's jaw... "That's enough!"

"He was visiting a friend, Vin Tanner... He's very upset," Lauren started to explain only to have a six-foot menacing body unfurl in front of her... The look of absolute disgust on his face caused her to back up.

"Friend?" Chris spat the undigestible word out like a rancid piece of meat... He pointed down to where Josiah was sitting on the floor... "Vin Tanner damn near died thanks to him... I can think of a few words to describe him but not in front of a lady and none of them is 'friend'"

"I'm getting security," she decided, very uncomfortable with the hostile situation.

"Tell them to contact Orrin Travis, they have his number," Chris dictated. "We'll bring Jos..." he paused, "...the suspect down to them."

"Go on, Lauren, I'm okay," Josiah nodded, seeing more concern in the dark eyes than he deserved.

"That can be fixed..." Buck growled, refusing to give up his hold...

"I'm Ezra Standish," the southerner intervened when Chris jogged down the stairs. "We're all members of Mister Larabee's team, ATF," he nodded to Chris's retreating back... "And you are?"

"Doctor Lauren Tremaine, I work here. I'm a friend of Josiah's from many years ago. He told me what happened."

"Everything?" Nathan asked, then introduced himself. "Nathan Jackson..."

"He can't remember what happened, but he knows what he's done... He overheard one of you on the phone at his cabin."... She saw the dark eyes shift and realized the name. "You're the one he heard?"


"Well... I want your word that he won't be harmed." She paused with her hand on the door.

"I'm gonna pretend I didn't hear that," Nathan replied testily... "You tell security we'll be right down."

Josiah drew several ragged breaths and regained some much needed air... He saw a pair of legs approach but didn't look up. He kept his eyes glued to the dark pants for a few moments... He heard the door shut and finally drew his eyes up. He saw Chris press a hanky to the cut over Buck's eye... The profile before him went well beyond the realm of anger... Then Larabee turned and Josiah felt the color drain from his face... Every muscle screamed with tension and the eyes were a shade past lethal... For a scary moment, Chris Larabee looked like a dark angel sent from Hell to haul a sinner to his just reward.

"Chris, I'm sorry..." he began only to be cut off by a set of green lasers. They penetrated his throat and paralyzed his vocal cords... His eyes shifted momentarily to the throbbing vein on the side of Larabee's forehead... It wasn't often he felt such brutally cold fear penetrate to his very bones, but at this moment, he was paralyzed with fear.

"Get up!" Chris ordered, his voice so full of rage it was choked.

He shoved Buck aside and grabbed the collar of the black wool coat, his face contorted in unbridled fury... As soon as the shaken man rose, Chris shoved him hard against the wall and fought for control. Every fiber of his being screamed for justice... His fingers itched to grip that throat and choke it... The war being waged caused his body to tremble like the ground during an earthquake... He sucked in an uneven breath through clenched teeth and forced his ancient ancestor to retreat back into the cave... Somehow, his brain took over and the words came. They were dripping in acid when they did scorch the air... They forced their way past the lips curled in disgust.

"I want to hear you say it."

"I think we all need to hear it," Ezra agreed, walking down to stand beside Chris. J.D. and Nathan followed him until they formed an uneven and very awkward circle...

"You okay?" Jackson broke the tension, bending over Buck who was sitting on the ground... He pulled the bloody cotton away and frowned. "It's nasty, you'll need stitches."

"I ain't movin'..." Buck turned back to the cause of his discomfort... Like an abscessed tooth, it pulsed and throbbed, not giving him any relief... He snaked an arm past Chris and jabbed the shaken eldest's chest... "...and don't you fuckin' go near Vin again or I'll finish what I started..."

"Buck!" Nathan took out a wad of napkins from his coat pocket... He pressed them against the cut and used his superior height to its best advantage. He physically forced the irate agent a few feet back, but it took all the strength he had.

"I don't know what... I was drunk... I blacked out... I woke up covered in blood... I didn't know who... what... happened until I stumbled home and heard Nathan on the phone," Josiah stuttered, forcing out every word... Seeing the disgust he felt inside for his actions reflected in their eyes was a pain far worse than he could bear... "As God is my witness, Chris, I don't know how I could have done that... The whole night is missing... a blackout." He paused, then reflected on his sorrow. " The soul that sins is the one that shall die... The Son shall not bear..."

"Cut the Bible bullshit," Chris cut off the words from Ezekiel, 18:20. "Does Vin know?"

"No... he was groggy... I needed to tell him I was sorry. I had to see him... touch him..."

"BUCK!" Ezra and Nathan cried out in unison and moved in when an unholy sound came from the bleeding man.

"I'm ready to face the executioner," Sanchez lamented of his fate. "There is no penance great enough for the sins I've committed... He trusted me... I broke his faith..."

"You broke his face too, you animal!" Buck staggered, dizzy now from the blow to the head resulting from his fall and by his rage...

"Nathan, get him down to the ER," Chris barked, then turned to the Southerner. "Ezra, check on Vin."

"No!" Buck snarled, surrendering to Ezra and Nathan and sitting on the bottom step... His eyes flicked briefly to Chris, then burned a hole in Sanchez... "Not until I hear him say it... I want to know why."

"We all do, Buck," Nathan replied. "But there's plenty of time later... You need to calm down now."

"Don't!" Wilmington warned. "You weren't there. You didn't have your heart damn near stop... you... you... didn't see that one damn unblinking eye under a pile of boards." He glared at Josiah. "I thought he was dead..." He paused, taking some very uneven breaths, his mind replaying the horrific scene yet again... He studied his hands then, his voice dropping to a shaken whisper. "He held on... I was his lifeline... couldn't see... didn't know where he was... he was so damned cold..." He turned to Chris then, needed to feel the power that only his oldest friend possessed. "He was scared... Vin Tanner..."

Josiah heard it as they all did, the echo of disbelief in Buck Wilmington's voice... Vin was fearless... He had... the heart of a lion and possessed an intensity matched only by Chris Larabee... Hearing Buck say it only made it hurt more... He'd not only beaten a man who trusted him to watch his back, he'd left him bleeding and blind all night...

"I can't ask for your forgiveness," Josiah whispered, raising his head briefly and wishing he hadn't... The venom in the eyes that looked back at him reflected what lay simmering inside each of them. He flinched at the combination of that poison and the image of the broken body lying in a bed... "I'd take his pain if I could..."

"Not good enough!" Chris roared, curling both hands against the heavy collar... "Why? What the hell chased you into that bottle so hard you used it to damn near kill him?"

Josiah couldn't reply... He didn't know how to answer... What words could he use?... What could he say that would turn that disgust into understanding?... He closed his eyes and tried to regroup. He looked deep into his soul and tried to find a shard of truth... What was the truth?... Was he capable of raking the ashes and collecting the broken pieces?... Could he find the light again?... He thought of Lauren's words then and decided to take that first step. It had to start here in this damp stairwell, surrounded by strangers with whom he'd once laid claim to the bonds of brotherhood... He sought out one set of eyes... He hoped in their brown depths, he would find the strength to begin.

"Same time again?" Nathan eyed his friend, his emotions tumbling. He wanted to help Josiah but the image of Vin's broken body and unseeing eyes was too hard to bear... "Why, Josiah? What's been ridin' you all these years?"

"Guilt." He finally exhaled the heavy burden... "Twenty-five years worth, putrid and festering... This time the demons won..."

The others exchanged a series of confused looks. Nathan searched his mind for any clues to Josiah's past, but they only took him to just after that mark... J.D. didn't know much about Josiah's past at all, only of his father's missionary work... Ezra didn't know much more, only that Sanchez had been a Marine at one time, prior to his civilian federal service... Chris's mind went over Josiah's records that he'd read prior to interviewing him for the team... He attributed the time in question to the lapse of service record Sanchez had charted... At seventeen, the boy had broken free of his father's powerful hold and rebelled, joining the U.S. Marines... The seven-year hitch and two tours of duty in Viet Nam had ended abruptly... Five years later, he'd re-enlisted, taking on the most dangerous jobs offered until he turned forty. That was when he joined the ATF, working for Orrin Travis as a profiler.

"What happened twenty-five years ago?" Nathan broke the strange silence.

Josiah took a long breath, then looked at each face closely... J.D. look confused; Ezra's usually well-guarded mask had a telling crack. Buck was disgusted. Chris was furious and Nathan, he was the hardest. The dark-skinned medic's face was painted in a terrible shade of disappointment. That hurt more than he was prepared for... He eyed the grainy walls in the stairwell and thought it was as good a place as any... After twenty-five years of hiding, the dark secret would emerge... So there in the bowels of a building deemed a healing place, he sought relief for his own lost soul...

In a raspy voice choked with emotion, he began. "A child died..."

Ezra slipped inside the room unnoticed and immediately went to the bed... He leaned over the rail slightly to observe his fallen friend. The marred lips were slightly parted and a raspy breath was slipping out... He tugged the blanket up a bit and then pulled the plastic chair closer. As he sat down, he thought on Josiah's broken words... A sad tale...a tragic accident that had for all intents and purposes, destroyed the poor man's soul.

How did he feel?... His jade eyes slid to Vin Tanner's broken body and closed eyes... Rage? No, although a part of him envied Buck Wilmington for that passion he displayed so proudly... Disgust? No, although the mental image of that deed made his stomach turn, disgust was not what he felt. Empathy? Not quite, though the guilt weighed heavily and it would be a burden that would wear on any man... Shock? No, strangely, he'd seen Josiah's rage flicker at times during confrontations and had guessed that deep within, a powerful force was hidden... The stilled body began to move and twitch and it broke his thoughts.

"Wake're dreaming... Vin...?" Ezra stood and laid one hand on the trembling shoulder... The body was twitching and the breathing harsh and labored. Sweat was beading on Vin's face and several moans slipped out... "Easy, old friend..." The body relaxed, the breathing evened out and for a moment, it was peaceful again... Ezra took his seat and pulled out the deck of cards from his inner pocket... He shuffled for a few moments before a distinct drawl split the night air.

"Aw, hell..." Vin coughed, realizing he was awake; the bitter blackness told him that...

When he slept, as troubling as the nightmares were, at least he could see again... The irony of that annoyed him to no end... He blinked and the rest of the cobwebs slipped away. He heard the chair scrapping the floor and froze; he wasn't alone... He felt pressure on the bars of the bed and the air was invaded. He sniffed and wrinkled his nose...

"Who's there? Ain't Chris... Ain't Bucklin... too fancy... Ain't the kid, he ain't got the sense to wear that good shit Casey give 'im..."

Ezra watched the sharpshooter honing in on the target... He remained in place as the wheels of the... injured man's mind continued to spin... The slim fingers were toying with the edges of the blanket and the brows knit yet closer... The head cocked and the one good eye narrowed suspiciously and traveled past him to the table...

Vin thought on the sound he'd heard when he first awakened... A distinct sound, one he'd endured on many stakeouts, plane rides and ironically, prior hospital visits... He relaxed then, his whole body melting into the bed... He laid his head back and licked his dry lips, reminding him his throat was on fire.

"Ezra, get yer cheatin' ass over here and git this bed up... .I'm drier than a buzzard's butt... Scare up some water."

"For a blind man, you see very well," the southerner noted, pouring a mug of water.

"Weren't that hard 'tween that perfume yer so fond of and them damn cards dancin' in yer hand."

"It's not perfume... It's very expensive cologne and custom made in France."

"It smells like a bunch o'flowers... Like somethin' a girl would douse 'er chest with."... Vin felt the bed moving briefly, then it stopped...

"Thank you." Ezra grinned at the cranky face he'd grown accustomed to... He moved the straw to where Vin's mouth was, but the younger man moved back.

"Don't be droppin' that shit on me..." Vin warned.

"The water isn't near the top..."

"Didn't mean the water..." Vin took the straw and sucked greedily until he hit air. "...don't... want ... that stink...rubbin' off on me... Jest got bathed..." He heard the soft chuckle nearby and cocked his head. "How come ya ain't at work?... It ain't Saturday, right? Is it mornin' already?"

"No, it's Monday evening... Chris, Nathan and I have just returned from the airport and..."

"Airport?" Vin laid back and thought... "That can't be right. Bucklin left... visitin' hours was done... t'late fer ya t'be in here." He turned towards where he heard Ezra pouring more water... "Nobody else is in here, are they?"

"No," Ezra dismissed the worried tone. "I just happened to be in the neighborhood."

"Yer full o'shit..." Vin tossed back and moved his hand, latching onto a sleeve... "Ya ain't in a rush are ya?"

"For the right price, Mister Tanner, my time is yours," the smooth conman offered, patting that frail hand... He saw the smile forming and it brought one of his own... ... "Would you like more water?"

"Yeah... lessen ya brung some beer?"

"Wine, women and song are the specialty of our resident rogue... You'll have to settle for water."

"Speakin' o'the skirtchaser, him and the kid was here..." Vin decided, then frowned. "I think he was... sometimes it's hard fer me t'tell. Mind ain't worth shit..."

"Just temporary," Ezra offered with the mug... "Don't spill it... Giving you a bath was not one of my planned activities this evening."

"Hah," Vin snorted. "I seen some o'them females that crawl outta yer crib with the mornin' paper... Ya could do a lot worse. That one with them long red nails and black eye paint was downright scary."

"Marissa?" Ezra's voice rose a bit. "How on earth...?"

"We was comin' back from the firin' range and I got a hankerin' fer them fancy chocolate cakes ya got hid in yer kitchen... We figgered we'd stop over at yer place and git some... That's when we seen her." Vin made a face and shook his head. "So me and Bucklin had us a bet. Bucklin figgered ya got toasted and she was one o'them high-priced gals from uptown. She weren't yer usual type... I got a real close look and told Buck she looked like she outta be runnin' a coven somewheres..."

"Never mind!" Standish interrupted. "Some things are best left unsaid." Then he saw the unsettledness descend and the weariness seemed evident... Distress was etched in the sad unblinking blue eye. "Troubling dreams?"

"...fucked up... shit... is this... can't see nuthin' when m'eyes is open... only when I'm sleepin'," Vin huffed, drawing his brows together... Then, as he sipped the cool water offered, his features softened... "When I'm dreamin', Ez... it's like it was b'fore, ya know?" he whispered, then swallowed hard... "Colors n'pictures bustin' the hell out all over. Ridin' with Chris in the mountains, shootin' pool with all o'ya at the Saloon, playin' hockey with the kid, sassin' Bucklin fer messin' m'hair... seein' m'sugarplum takin' her first steps..."

Then the face began to change, twice crumpling, and the eye grew moist... He didn't sob, although the amount of pain radiating from the tortured soul would have been cleansed by a spill of tears... Ezra took the empty mug and gripped the hand, silently offering his undying support... For several minutes the battle waged, and the southerner never wavered from the front line.

"I ain't never gonna see her lil' face again, Ez..." Vin managed as his voice broke. "Oh, God...!"

As his heart rose into his throat, Ezra held on tight. His eyes never moved from the solitary tear that snaked a crooked path down the discolored face... The coldness that enveloped Ezra at that moment gave him his answer... The fire that was easily found when cradling the broken wings of the Texan was boundless... But the chill that engulfed him when he thought on the cause was just as strong.


Josiah looked up from where he sat on a very lopsided folding chair. Finally, close to twenty minutes since theyÕd arrived, the uncomfortable silence was broken. It wasn't the word that Nathan used but rather the tone, the echoes of hurt that resounded and bounced off every wall. They were reflected by the pain that those soulful dark eyes were riddled with. Doubt, mistrust and hurt... so many things he saw there. What ripped through him like a flaming arrow was the loss of faith. Something he found so often reflected there, he'd come to take it for granted. A lesson revealed the hard way.

"Why couldn't you tell me?" Nathan crossed the small room in the Security Department and stood beside Sanchez.

"Until I woke up on that mountain on Saturday morning, Nathan, I couldn't even admit it to myself. The darkest time of my life. A place that would make Hell a welcomed resort."

"It was an accident, Josiah," Nathan pressed of the tragic event. "A horrible tragedy. I got a child of my own now. I know how you feel but..."

"No, you don't."

Josiah shoved the wobbly chair and stood. He closed his eyes, sighed hard and scrubbed his face wearily. Lord, he felt tired, as if he'd not slept in these last twenty-five years. His bones ached; his flesh was as cold as the grave where he'd buried his family... where heÕd left his heart. He thought on the faces heÕd seen in the stairwell. Those eyes that looked back at him after the story was done. HeÕd seen a lot there-disbelief, horror, shock and perhaps the most painful—pity. But what he hadnÕt seen, what he needed to see, wasn't there at all.

"Forgiveness..." he whispered, then drew up Mark 6:4. "Jesus said to them, Only in his own country and among his own kin, and in his own house is a prophet without honor."

"Josiah," Nathan moved behind the dispirited man and reached a hand out but then retracted it. He thought on the words offered and found some of his own. "Could be before you ask us to forgive you, you need to forgive yourself."

"I can't." Josiah turned and saw a flicker of sympathy. It wasn't much but he held onto it, saving it for those cold nights he knew were coming. "It wasn't an accident. I sent him in the path of that car. That ripple effect took Tess, too. By my hands... Nathan... they died... by my hands..."

"STOP!" Nathan grabbed both wrists and glared. "Look, it's done. Hell, it's been a quarter of a century. You need to purge that shit you got growin' inside. You gotta do whatever it takes."

"And what of Vin?" Josiah asked. "I couldn't tell him. I tried...b ut the words wouldn't come. He held my hand, Nathan." He examined that hand and watched it tremble. "Like a lost lamb... he let me cradle him. He trusted me... I couldn't tell him. Hell, I can't even remember. I woke up and saw that blood... Nathan, I thought IÕd killed someone."

"You damn near did," Nathan admitted. "First things first. You need to get some help. Grief counseling. That lady doctor can help. She does that here..."

"Lauren..." Josiah paused then and felt a warmth invade him. He puzzled for a moment, then nodded. "It could be she's God's messenger. I asked Him for guidance and He brought me to this place ... to Vin's side... just when she was passing."

Nathan didn't buy in to that but if Josiah did, that was all that mattered. If this doctor could help his friend find a healing place, then that was the first step. She was trained for it and Josiah trusted her, a critical factor. He had to lean on someone and purge the infection; if she could provide the healing balm, then it was a start. His hand moved by its own accord then, landing on the damp black clothed shoulder.

Josiah turned sharply as if a jolt of electricity shot through him. His red-rimmed smoky eyes met warm brown ones. His shoulders sagged in relief and he dropped his head. That hand was joined by another and they massaged his neck. He needed to feel that strength and the support that it brought. He needed it more than he'd needed anything in a long time.

"I'm sorry, brother, I should have trusted you. If I had, Vin wouldn't be..." He bit off that sentence and shook his head. "My God, Nathan, what have I done? Where do I go from here?" he beseeched and felt the fingers hold true.

"Up, brother," Nathan assured. "Only place left. It ain't gonna be easy, but you won't be alone."

"Thank you..." he choked, eyes damp.

An hour later
Security Denver Memorial

Chris looked up when the door to the small conference room adjacent to the hospital security office opened. He nodded to Ezra, who slipped inside and headed for the water cooler nearby. After downing two paper cups of cold water, the younger man slid into the vacant chair next to him.

"He okay?" Chris asked of Vin whom Ezra had gone to check on.

"He was sleeping when I arrived but his rest was troubled and broken. A nightmare of sorts. It was very unsettling. I remained until it passed. I spoke to the nurse at the station on my way here. She'll keep an eye on him."

"Thanks." Chris drained the rest of the lukewarm coke he was drinking and tossed the can away. He sat back, rubbed his eyes and sighed hard. "What a fuckin' nightmare."

"Indeed," Standish agreed. "What will you do, Chris?"

"Well, Orrin's in there now talking to a deputy from the sheriff's office. It's their call, it happened on their turf. That doctor friend of Josiah's called in some favors and got him a lawyer."

"It pays to have friends in high places," Standish agreed.

"This time it did. Joshua West is representing him." He heard the whistle and saw the jade green eyes widen in recognition. "Yeah... she's that connected. He must be a good friend. He was here before the sheriff's office arrived. He won't let anybody talk to Josiah." His voice changed to a hint of sarcasm. "I was asked to step out. I was 'disturbing' them."

"I can't imagine," Standish drolled. "Where is everyone?"

"Nathan dropped Buck at the ER and then went in to see Josiah. He left the kid down there. Buck's gettin' stitches. J.D. called, it's packed down there. They'll be awhile."

"You need to speak with Buck," Standish suggested.

"Yeah, I know," Chris admitted, raking a hand through his short blond hair. "What the hell am I supposed to say? 'Buck, stop giving a damn?' Josiah's lucky I wasn't the one who found Vin. Seein' him in that bed..." he paused, collecting himself. "If I had walked into that workshop and found Vin Tanner busted up to hell... no mountain would have been big enough to hide in."

"Hindsight notwithstanding, you wouldn't have hunted Josiah down. He's not an animal and you're not a cold blooded killer. The bigger problem is the future of this team."

"Bleak," Chris guessed, shaking his head. "The kid's right, I have the number five too..."

"And six?" Standish hedged.

"Depends..." Chris's head turned when the doorknob moved, "...on who the sixth man is."

"Oh." Ezra sat back, digesting the message. If Vin regained his sight, six would be the magic number.

ÒGentlemen," Orrin nodded. "Josiah is being transported to the county facility. He'll remain there and be arraigned in the morning."

"West is good." Standish thought on the high priced but very successful attorney. "Given the circumstances, lack of witnesses..."

"First time offender," Travis added. "I hear what you're saying and I hope for Josiah's sake that he's able to escape a prison sentence. His thirty plus years of government service will help. But that depends on who catches the case." He tapped Chris's shoulder. "You're exhausted, Chris. I wouldn't recommend driving back to the ranch tonight."

"No, I'm gonna drive Buck home and camp there," he replied, meeting the senior manÕs eyes.

"That's a good idea," Orrin replied, reading between the lines. "Does Buck have excess leave?"

"Yeah, we all do," Chris answered of the end of the year situation. If an agent had excess leave built up, he had to use it up or lose it. "That doctor told me Vin can't be alone, not with a concussion. And they want him in his own house, so he can get... get..."

"Acclimated easier to his surroundings?" Ezra guessed on the conversation Chris had with one of Vin's doctors.

"Yeah, something like that," Chris tossed back. "Anyhow, I'm gonna draw up a schedule, dividing our time up over the next month or so. We'll all take turns staying with him, but in shifts, that way we only lose one man during the day."

"It might be wise for Buck to take some sick leave, given his situation," Travis leveled wisely and the blond leader caught the hint.

"Yeah," Chris agreed of the potential powder keg. Until Buck got rid of the rage he held, there was no way he wanted the emotional man on duty. "I'll see you in the morning, Orrin."

"Nine a.m., we have a meeting with the F.B.I. and the Attorney General's office will want your statement about today's arrest."

"I know," Chris nodded and stood up, reaching for his coat.

"I'll tell J.D. you'll be down after you check on Vin," Ezra guessed and got a nod. He remained in the hall for a moment, watching the team leader stride towards the elevator. He could have sworn the heels of his boots left smoke in their wake.

It was the same dream. He was being attacked by a large animal. A fierce growl was followed by large claws with razor-like talons gouging his tender flesh. He was bleeding and unable to move when the yellow teeth of the beast ripped out his throat.

"Whoa!" Chris shot out of the chair and grabbed the sweat-soaked body now gasping for breath. He turned the light on and grimaced. Vin was drenched and the heart beneath his palm was racing. The trembling body was clearly shaken. "Vin?" He tapped the wet cheek and got no reply. "How 'bout some water?"

"Chris...?" Vin blinked, unnerved by the darkness. His hand moved and he felt warm flesh and a stubbled chin. "...need a shave... cowboy..."

"You callin' me a cowboy?" Chris teased gently, lifting a full cup of water towards the shaken body.

"Is it daytime yet?"

Chris flinched at the fragile voice and try as he might, couldn't tear his gaze from the slight tremble in the slim hand reaching upward.

"Uh... no, Vin, it's after eleven at night."

"Aw, hell... what the fuck's the sense in wakin' up? Can't tell day'r night... shit..."

"Incoming..." Chris warned and saw the pink tongue appear. "Got the straw?"

Vin nodded and drank slowly, not wishing to hurl it back. He finally stopped and inhaled in relief when a cold cloth washed over his hot sweaty face. As he relaxed under the gentle touch of his best friend, he wondered on the strange night. Had Josiah really been here? Was that real or a dream?


"Yeah? More water?" Larabee asked, tossing the cloth into the sink in the bathroom and walking back towards the bed.

"Huh?" Vin blinked and shook his head. "No... m'fine... thanks. It's awful hard wakin' up and not seein' nuthin'. I can't get m'bearin's at all. I couldda swore J'siah was here, he was all shook up. It was so real..."

"He was here, Vin, that wasn't a dream."

"There was a lady, too... some friend o'his from a long time ago," he thought aloud, brows furrowed in concentration.

"Doctor Lauren Tremaine," Chris replied. "She works here at the hospital and teaches in Boulder. She's a psychologist."

"Seemed nice... had a peculiar way o'talkin'..." Vin paused when he heard a soft chuckle floating above him. " Shut the hell up... Lar'bee... ain't nuthin' wrong with m'accent."

"I didn't say there was," Chris grinned at the annoyed body.

"The hell ya didn't," Vin touted. "I ain't that blind. Reckon I never will be," he decided and felt a hand grip his shoulder.

"I'm countin' on that," Chris lauded quietly of how easily this man could understand him.

Vin laid back and rested his eyes. Twice, he moved his hand to rub his temples. The headache was back and it seemed somebody was using a jackhammer to dig their way out. He sighed, shifted and rolled, trying to get relief. He curled on his side and shivered, then felt a blanket pulled up.

"Thanks..." he mumbled, feeling a bit drowsy. Another thought interrupted. "Chris? Did ya know J'siah had a little one? He lost the little feller a long... time... ago... Ain't sure... all... happened..." he yawned. "Can't figger it, he kept sayin' he's sorry fer what he done t'me. Why would he say that, Chris?" He heard the sharp inhalation and turned to where he thought Chris would be. His gut was tingling and his instincts were usually right. Something was very wrong. All this time, when he'd asked about Josiah, they'd given him excuses.

"I'm gonna ask him t'morrow. Can ya tell him to call?"

"He won't be coming to visit you for awhile, Vin." Chris shifted, choosing his words carefully.

"Why?" Vin demanded and didn't like the icy silence that slapped his face. "Quit hidin' from me. I'm the one layin' here without m'eyes. If this has somethin' t'do with me, I got the right t'know..."

"I'm not hiding, Vin." Chris leaned over the rail and saw the wheels turning in Vin's head.

"Was he in the car?" Vin pressed, his own mind blank of anything after the argument with Buck. "Was he drivin'? Is that it? Is that why yer chompin' on nails?"

"No... Vin... there was no car."

"No car?... but..." Vin frowned. "Ya said I was in an accident. If it weren't a car...?"

"Vin, you left the office on Friday night and went up to Josiah's to give him a copy of the final report for a case you were working. He was drunk... and angry... he didn't recognize you. He attacked you and left you there."

"He done this?" Vin's voice was so cracked, it sounded like sandpaper on gravel. "He took m'eyes? No... No... yer lyin'... get outta m'room. Sayin' shit like that..." he ranted, not willing to believe the words. "Yer full o'shit... spoutin' nonsense..."

"Vin, listen to me." Chris struggled to find a way to reach his best friend. He’d never felt so helpless. Vin looked like a man holding onto a fraying rope over a cliff. "I'm not making this up. Would I lie to you?"

He winced then when Vin sagged in defeat. One fist curled up, taking the bunched up sheet with it. The chest heaved in rage and the eye that wasn't buried in blue and purple swollen flesh was full of shock. He raised his own eyes to the ceiling and tried to find the right words to reach the stunned soul that trembled before him.

Josiah? Vin couldn't believe it. He thought long and hard but nothing came. The last frame of the movie that continued to play in his mind was that fight with Buck at the office. If Chris said he went up to see Josiah, then it was so. Larabee wouldn't lie, not to him. He knew Josiah drank and had a lethal temper. Combined, that could be a deadly force. He gasped then when that beast from his nightmares appeared, but this time it had a face... nd a pair of blue-gray eyes. He began to tremble in shock, so bad that his teeth chattered.

"Jesus...!" Chris hissed, pushing the call button for the nurse. He heard her voice then. "I need some help," he called out and reached out on impulse to pull Vin's blanket up.

"Don't fuckin' touch me!" Vin recoiled, curling up and rocking.

"I'm sorry, Vin. I wish there was an easier way to tell you but..."

"What's wrong?"

"Uh..." Chris moved from the bed to where the nurse stood in the doorway. "He found out about it... He knows how he got here. It really shook him up. He's cold, shaking all over, his teeth are rattling."

"I'll call the doctor. We can give him something to calm him down. Can you stay for awhile?"

"Sure," Chris sighed and went back to the bed. "Vin, I'm sorry..."

"Go away," Vin requested quietly and jerked when the hand touched him. "Leave me be... just go... away... leave me be..."

"Sorry, cowboy, can't do that." Chris kept his distance but remained nearby. It took a few moments, painful to watch. The body rocked and then the tears came. He itched to reach out and lay on the hands of comfort. But he waited... and waited... until...


Vin lifted his hand and felt something warm and strong latch on. He held on for all he was worth. It became his rock, the one thing he could cling to in the dark storm he was lost in. There were no words; they weren't needed. That rock sheltered him when the injection came and when the drugs washed him away. He slept without dreams; the rock kept the beasts away. So his body relaxed and found rest, secure in safe harbor. He didn't see the glimmer in the green eyes above.

Even rocks have cracks.

Part Eight

Two a.m.
Washington Park Denver, CO

The sound of the engine dying out lulled the silent man from his dozing state. One eye pried open and he recognized the driveway. He unclipped his seat beat and opened the door. Wincing visibly, he eased his tall frame from the car. He followed the driver up the path to his door.

"Keys?" Chris asked, holding his hand out. After a few moments, the ring with several keys hit his palm.

Upon entering, Chris flipped the lights on and stooped to pick up the mail that was lying on the floor by the front door. He carried it to the kitchen where he tossed it in a basket on the table. He headed for the refrigerator and pulled out two beers. He twisted the caps off and handed one to the very drawn Buck Wilmington.


"No," Buck answered, taking the beer and heading to his den.

He settled on the end of his brown leather sofa and took a long drink. He eased his aching body back and closed his eyes, holding the cold bottle against his throbbing face. The ER had been mobbed and the combination of hours of waiting and the trip down the stairs had left him very tired and housing a killer headache.

"Christ, what a day," he managed, without moving the bottle.

He felt the spot next to him depress and heard the sigh of frustration. He took a swig, turned his face sideways and saw every line of tension and anxiety outlining the face of his oldest friend. Seeing that wear and tear settling on the fair man's features just reinforced why he himself never put in for a promotion to team leader. Every time one came up and Chris notified him, he declined.


He thought on that for a moment. What exactly was a friend? Other words sauntered into the earth-tone colored room. Comrade, brother, loyal companion, trustworthy compatriot, sympathizer, chum, brethren. Someone who you could count on through thick or thin. So many things comprised what was a friend. He found himself nodding as the words swirled over the cinnamon, rust and beige rugs, bronzed western sculptures and pine furniture. Someone who kicked your ass when you needed it? Absolutely. Someone who you carried when they were lost or hurt. Without question. Someone who watched your back and deserved the same in return.

"Vin..." he whispered.

"We need to talk, Buck," Chris replied, reading the silence as easily as the word spoken.

"So talk," Buck replied tersely, taking another sip.

"You have a shitload of sick leave, use it. Until your head's on straight again, I don't want you on the street. You're a liability."

"Well, thank you, Special Agent Larabee," he spat back in contempt, gripping the bottle until he felt sure it would burst.

"Quit the fuckin' act, Buck, and talk to me!" Chris sat forward and stared at the angry set of features next to him.

"What do you want me to say?" He turned and stared hard right back, blue eyes blazing. "Am I sorry for sending that bastard down those steps? Hell No! If you hadn't been there to stop me, I would have..."

"Would have what? Put him in ICU?"

"Maybe... so what if I did? He deserves it!" Buck defended.

"Who are you really punishing, Buck? This goes beyond Josiah. You're a walking time bomb. Your fuse has been burning away since you found Vin," Chris interjected and saw the handsome man's features flinch at that last word. He paused, took a swig and thought for a moment.

Buck sighed hard, left the sofa and walked over to the fireplace. He rested his arms on the mantle and let his eyes linger on the picture at the far right end. He touched it reverently, recalling vividly the day it was taken. The various federal and local law enforcement agencies got together in September for a variety of challenges. The winners of the various sporting events got bragging rights for a whole year. The money raised by the spectators who filled the stadium went to the local chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation for terminally ill children. Not only had every member of Team Seven competed in the dozen events, they won just about every one. Rain Jackson had captured the moment in time that his fingers now traced.

It had been an exceptionally hot day and by the end of the first ten events, most of the participants were exhausted. Vin had been their entry in the marathon which was five miles running, five swimming and five more on a bike. The last part of the trip was the running event. He'd been battling a virus of sorts all day and by the end of the event, he was sapped. He didn't win; he didn't even place in the top three but he finished, despite all the others begging him to drop out and the taunts of his competitors as they sailed by him.

Buck was the only one not competing at the particular moment the rubber-legged, sweat-encased, wheezing Texan jogged into the stadium. Twice, Vin paused, went to his knees and seemed on the verge of collapse. Buck had been right beside him, urging him to get up and finish. Knowing that completing the job was important to the slim Texan, he'd used every harsh thing he could to rile him up. He knew Vin would be wounded if he quit, feeling the slings and arrows of the media, the competition and from himself. Vin was often his own worst critic. So Buck rode the younger man hard until the shaky legs got up and the exhausted body made it that last few hundred feet to cross the finish line. It was his strong arms that caught the exhausted runner. It was his hand that ruffled the wet head and his warm voice that was the first one the gasping warrior heard.

"You done good, son."

Thanks... Bucklin..."

Vin was thanking him for far more than the words and both men knew it. That exact moment when the sky blue eyes full of something much deeper than gratitude caught his own dark blues, when one shaky hand came up and gripped his neck, that was the moment Rain caught on film. The silent vow of faith and hope that all the members of the team shared. That special bond that couldn't be readily defined or put into words. It was something they felt deep inside. It was a powerful thing, something that both hurt and comforted.

He moved his hand to his abdomen and shivered then. He sighed hard, recalling the same hand coming up at him from under a pile of bloody boards. That frail voice calling in the darkness, needing to be guided to shore safely. The bond had been shattered, the shards cutting into each of them. He wondered if Chris Larabee had the right glue to fix it.

He'd broken the vow.

Chris watched the whole scene very intently. He didn't miss any of the emotions that Buck easily displayed. He saw the internal struggle and the score began to add up. He drank his beer and watched the gentle fingers touching the picture. Then he saw the shadow fall in place and he knew the 'what' but not the 'why'. He thought back on the pieces of the puzzle he had already. Something was missing and Buck had the key. He rose, walked to the fireplace and paused, then found a voice from a time long ago.

"Talk to me, Bucko."

Buck found a small smile at that. That nickname with the wistful tone Chris alone used was one that went back almost twelve years to their early days. Back when the wild blond was a devilish carouser, breaking hearts all over the city. By day, they fought crime and kicked ass, the best duo that the Feds could rely on. At night, they drown in wine and women, laughing and biting the hell out of life. Staggering home, supporting each other, knowing they'd always be there.

"I broke it... Chris..."

"Broke what?" Chris puzzled at the raspy whispered tone that was tinged in defeat.

"...the vow..." Buck replied, turning to face Chris Larabee. "It's my fault..."

"Your fault?" Chris's brows drew together. "How the hell is Vin landing in ICU your fault? Jesus, Buck, it's no secret you bleed for the world, but your way off base this time. You saved his life!"

"I put him there!"

"What? How?"

Buck turned away briefly, putting his eyes on the photo again.

"I was so proud of him that day. I don't know many men who have the guts he has. He's got such a fire inside. Could be he was born to it... maybe it comes from his dad," he noted of Captain Paul Tanner who had died when Vin was barely thirteen. "I swear, Chris, when he crossed that line and I caught him, I felt his soul."

"Yeah," Chris agreed, recalling the conversation Vin had shared with him later. "I heard you called him a few choice names." He saw Buck smile then and continued. "He felt it too, Buck. Said he felt like he was lost until an eagle caught hold of him, carried him through the storm. That your faith pulled him over that line."

"That's why it hurts so bad... I should have..."

"What? Spit it out!" Chris forced.

"Stopped him!" Buck vented, slamming the bottle down on the mantle. "Dammit to hell, Chris. He called me at eleven, BEFORE he left. I knew he was working late. I didn't even check on him. I knew Josiah had to see a final copy of the report. I fucked up!"

"He's not ten years old, Buck, he's grown. He was with you all week when Josiah was stewing and simmering. He's been there when Josiah drinks and that temper comes out. He's not a kid, Buck. He should have known better than to ride up that mountain alone."

"I should have known better!" Buck argued back. "I'm older. I've been on the job longer. I'm a senior agent, he's not. I should have called him and checked. If I'd gone with him..." He hissed, clenching a fist. " a partner should... he wouldn't be busted up..." He turned away, sinking onto the large leather ottoman in front of a chestnut leather wing chair.

Chris thought for a moment before continuing. He moved across and rested both hands on the downcast shoulders. He felt the blood from that noble heart seeping right through the sweater. He let it run through his fingers and into his own heart. He thought on another dark day when harsh words were spoken.

"I used to wonder about God and logic."

"Huh?" Buck's confusion rose with his head.

"That is wasn't logical for God to take the loves of my life," he noted of his wife and son. "That it wasn't logical that he let me live through the drunken mess afterwards and three car wrecks. That it wasn't logical that no matter how many times I fucked up there was someone there to clean up the mess. That is wasn't logical that no matter how hard I hit him... trying to push him away, he was always there."

"Chris, don't..." Buck tried, feeling very uncomfortable revisiting that darkest time of his friend's life.

"That is wasn't logical that every fuckin' demon I tried to find got killed off by a six foot wall of resistance with blue eyes."

"And?" Buck turned his face then, so he could see Chris's.

"And now I thank God for his logic and I'm humbled by his gift," Chris lauded softly, tapping Buck's face lightly. "The only man I trusted to safe keep my child's life."

"Shit..." Buck choked, swallowing hard and feeling a warmth rising on his face, coloring his features with a Vin-like blush. "Just what we need... another fuckin' poet on the team."

Chris laughed then and extended a hand, hauling the other man up. He accepted the embrace that followed and broke away, relieved to see the shadows running fast from the room.

"Okay?" he pressed.

"No, but better," Buck admitted. "Spare room's all set up. Heather's visiting her folks. She'll be gone a couple days.Ó He paused. "Listen, Chris, it's gonna take me a little time."

"Fair enough, but you need to heal, Buck. I need you on my team and in my life. You gotta let go of that anger or it will slowly kill you. Eat your insides out and cause a pain that burns your guts to ashes. I know. Somebody hauled me off the road to Hell three years ago or I'd be dead now."

"That was different."

"No, it wasn't." Chris paused by the spare room and waited until the fatigued face rose. He saw only a glimmer of guilt remaining and decided to purge it for good. "It's not your fault, say it out loud!"

"I can't..."

"I'm not moving..."

"I... it's... not... my fault..." Buck managed.

"Say it like you believe it... or don't you have the guts?"

"It's not my fault," Buck repeated and let out a long breath. He felt a weight lift and the ache that had been riding him day and night dissolved. "It's not my fault?"

"No, it isn't," Chris squashed that last bit of guilt. "It's late... we both need to sleep. But we still have to talk about Josiah."

"Don't push me, Chris."

"Don't make me, Buck. Just take some time off and think about it. You have to come to terms with it or it'll choke you. That won't do you, me, Vin or the team any good."

"How do you do it?" Buck asked, watching Chris pull the blanket down.

"It's not easy," Chris revealed, taking his boots off and unbuckling his belt. "You think I didn't want to separate Josiah's head from his shoulders? You think every time I look at him, I don't have to fight back every bit of frontier justice that's churnin' to bust free? You know what Vin means to me, Buck."

"Do I ever," Buck shook his head, noting that rare bond that the two men shared. He knew Chris was hurting internally for Vin.

"When it comes down to it, Buck, it's what separates us from them," he noted of the 'unsavory elements' as Ezra referred to them. "That scum that we put behind bars. I'd like to think I make a difference. That's what I'm here for... why you carry a badge. Carry it damn good..."

"Reckon I got some ponderin' to do," Buck smiled softly, doing his best Vin-like accent.

"Reckon you do at that, Bucko." Chris sat on the bed and watched the tall man leaving. "Buck?" He waited until the other man turned back. "Your shoulders aren't that broad. You're not Hercules. You get lost, you talk to me. Deal?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded, closing the door behind him.

He couldn't sleep. He tossed and turned and his growling stomach chased him to the kitchen. He made an omelet, sausage and some toast and watched the four a.m. early news. He didn't really hear the words and the images were a colored blur. He poured a mug of cold juice and jogged upstairs to his room, pausing to toss some Tylenol p.m. into his mouth. That would give him some sleep and take the body aches away. The trip down the stairs didn't break anything but he was still stiff and sore.

He paused at the guestroom and opened the door. He put the mug down on the chest and crossed the room. The blanket was askew and as he righted it, the moon interrupted and cast an ethereal silver glow on the sleeping man's face. He rocked back on his heels then as he felt it, as if being hit by a swinging weightbag in the gym.


It was there all the time, right before his eyes. It wasn't in a book or scripted by hand. It was a blond, six foot combination of guts and honor that was sleeping in his guestroom. He pulled the blanket up, paused a moment and raised his eyes skyward. He tapped his chest once, swallowed the lump and called on a higher source.

"How'd I get so fuckin' lucky?" he choked, swiping his eyes. "Thank you."

One week later
Clear Creek County Court House

Josiah tugged at the restrictive white collar of the shirt under the stiff new suit he wore. Joshua West, his attorney, had insisted on it. He felt as if the walls were shrinking and the ceiling was dropping down. Sweat beaded on his forehead and he dabbed at it, wishing he could pull the shirt off that was already clinging to his back. He felt a hand on his shoulder and knew without looking that it was Nathan. He'd been a constant source of strength this last week and it was appreciated.

"All rise," the clerk dictated. "The Honorable Justine Gardino will be presiding."

"Good morning," the judge nodded to each table and accepted the greetings returned. Turning to the defense table, she addressed the tall, handsome defense attorney who seemed out of place in the small county courthouse. Usually Joshua West was confined to Denver where his high price brought only the wealthy as clients.

"Mister West, I've read the briefs concerning this case and the circumstances surrounding it. I've read of Mister Sanchez's thirty years of service to this country, both in the military and civilian, and the many honors he's received. The details of his child's death which subsequently lead to the untimely death of the mother are noted. It is the feeling of this court that Mister Sanchez is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. That the large amount of alcohol he consumed on the night in question, coupled with the already present trauma, were the factors which led to the violent actions that resulted in the severe injury to Vincent Tanner."

At the mention of Vin's name, Josiah rocked back on his heels. He was glad the young man was doing better but troubled that he knew how he'd been injured. Nathan said Vin had withdrawn, was cold and distant. Perhaps when he left the hospital in a few days and was held within the bosom of his brothers, he'd begin to heal. The voice of the judge drew him back as she concluded the list of charges.

"The state has no witnesses and the defendant has no recollection of the incident. Mister Tanner has given a statement as well, but his head injury has erased all memory of that night. It is the decision of the court that Mister Sanchez be admitted to Aspen Arms Hospital for treatment of his condition. That until the professionals at the facility have determined that he is well and healed, he shall remain in custody there. Upon his release, he will serve no less than three hundred hours of community service. Mister Sanchez, do you understand this sentence?"

"Yes, your Honor, and thank you."

As the final statements were being read, the room seemed to fade away. Josiah gripped the attorney's hand and felt Nathan embrace him. It was so much more than he deserved but he was relieved it was over. He didn't want to go to jail and he knew enough about Aspen Arms to realize his mission would be hard. They didn't coddle their patients and the therapy was intense. But there was finally a light in his dark world. The demons were fleeing and he wasn't alone on the road any more.

As he turned to let the bailiff escort him to the van that would take him far into the mountains to the hospital, he saw a lone figure behind the crowd. A lean man with short blond hair and clear green eyes. The dark suit moved easily through the crowd. He held his breath and felt his heart hammering against his chest. His mouth was dry and sweat ran down his face. The leader's face was unreadable, a pale mask with a grim mouth.

As he approached Josiah, Chris felt a calm inside. It was that same feeling he got after a bad storm when he walked outside again. He hoped that this hospital would give Josiah the peace he'd been searching for. When Nathan told him that West put together a very compelling case on Josiah's behalf, he was glad. When it came right down to it, as angry as he was for what Josiah had done, he didn't want to see him serve time behind bars. The hospital stay would be for many months and the work grueling. He'd have to bare his soul and purge, then begin anew. He paused a few feet away and looked hard into those smoky eyes. He liked what he saw, a healing light. He extended his hand and saw the large man sag in shock, his face showing just how much he needed that hand.

Josiah took the hand and upon the firm shake, felt an almost electric charge shoot through him. Until he felt Chris Larabee take his hand and hold it firmly, he had no idea just how much he needed to feel it. More than that, the faith that came through the grip and those intense green eyes was something that would carry him through the dark months ahead. The blond head dipped once and the other hand came up, gripping his shoulder. He tried to speak but no words would come. His eyes filled and he sucked in an unsteady breath. He nodded once, reluctantly releasing the hand of the leader of the most elite team of federal agents in Denver. A band of men who meant more to him than words could define.

"Thanks, Chris," Nathan spoke as he came to stand next to his boss. They watched for a moment as Josiah was led from the courtroom.

"That could have been me," Chris said. "I had dark moments, violent episodes, and by the luck of God, I didn't kill anyone. I got the help I needed and I had a friend who carried me when I couldn't go it alone."

"Buck?" Nathan eyed the empty courtroom. "He seems better, less hostile."

"He had a good reason and he's working through it." Chris admitted that much but no more. "You going up with him?"

"Not allowed until the weekend. No visitors, only on Sundays. Vin said he's getting out tomorrow?"

"Yeah, he's meeting with the therapist this afternoon. I'm headed there now. J.D. and Ezra are in Boulder interviewing those victims and witnesses from that Baptist Church that burned down last night."


"Yeah, third one since August, same pattern."

"I guess I'll hold down the fort," Nathan noted of the now all too empty office. "Too damn quiet, you know?"

"Yeah," Chris nodded, holding the door. "I know."

While his friends were occupied in the working world outside, Vin Tanner pondered. He'd been washed and dressed and was sitting by his window. The breakfast tray sat untouched save the milk and juice which he'd drained. He knew where the food was; they'd lined it up special for him. Like the face of a clock, he had to remember that the food was in specific areas. Thicker foods, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese were at twelve o'clock. Cut up meat was at nine o'clock. Vegetables and other food more likely to drop so that it needed a spoon were at six o'clock, closer to his mouth. But he had no appetite, so the food was now cold and congealed.

He turned his face towards the area where the warmth was coming in. He reached out and touched the glass. It was cold but he knew the sun was out. He could feel the heat on his healing flesh. He thought on the doctor's words earlier that morning during his examination. They would be releasing him soon and he would be going home. He wouldn't be alone, not for awhile yet due to the seriousness of the concussion and the possible aftershock. Although the doctor hedged when he'd ask about his vision, Vin decided that the word 'possible' was the one worth holding onto. That was the single word he stole from the conversation.

"It ain't gonna be permanent," he decided, casting aside all logic. He laid his head back and let the sun bake his face, dispelling any thoughts of therapy and rearranging his house and his life to accommodate his temporary loss of sight.

Denver Hospital

Vin listened without any show of emotion. He gripped the arms of the chair outside the therapy room. He gripped them so hard he felt the skin stretching, but his face was void. He digested every bitter word Chris spoke and felt them churning in his stomach. It wasn't fair. Josiah got off too lightly. He was going to some mountain resort with all the help he needed. On the worst day, he could still see the blue sky, the snow falling and pine and aspen trees.

"It sucks."

Chris turned after what seemed to be an enormous amount of very uncomfortable silence and regarded his best friend. Since being told of the events that led to his injuries, Vin had changed. He seldom spoke, ate little and slept too much. He told them not to visit and when they did, he turned away, retreating within. He'd built a nice wall inside and was hiding behind it. For the last few days, he'd gone down to the therapy floor twice a day. He'd been working with the therapists to held him adjust to his condition. They would be sending a therapist to the house three times a week to work with him as well.

"I know it sucks, Vin. But you pissin' vinegar won't make it better. He made a mistake." Chris paused as the blue eyes rolled and a derisive snort met his statement. "A mistake, Vin. He got drunk and you got in the way. He's paying the price for that every day. It'll be a long time before he's able to live free again."

"M'heart's bleedin'," Vin snapped, attempting to stand. ". . .'scuse me fer not givin' a flyin' fuck. On his worst day, he can still see. His life ain't ruined."

"Oh, is that what it is now? Should I get a violin?" he returned of the self-pity before him.

"Get outta m'way..." Vin held onto the rail on the wall and tried to pass the solid body in his path. He fought and pushed but the wall didn't move. "Fuck off!

"Stop it!" Chris gripped the good shoulder of the ATF sweatshirt Vin wore. His injured right arm was in a cast, snuggling in a sling. The blue eyes were livid and darting, the face painted in several tones of anxiety. "It's done, Vin. The judge made the decision. Would you rather Josiah go to jail? End up dead with a shiv in his back? You know how many people we put behind bars?"

He felt some tension ease up and a bit of fire die in those stormy eyes. He'd hit a sore spot. The clock behind the wall told him they were late. The therapist was approaching and for now, they'd have to end the discussion.

"We'll talk later, Charlie's here," Chris noted of the young man approaching.

"Hey, Vin, all set?"

"Yeah," Vin muttered, turning away with a jerk and letting the therapist guide him.

Chris followed and watched as Vin went through the routines. He had to rise up as if waking, find his way across the room to the bathroom. He washed his face, scrubbed his teeth and counted the steps to the kitchen. He made coffee, cereal and poured juice. Each day was a different set of tasks but all geared towards easing him into a more independent role. Chris's brows drew together when he noticed it seemed Vin wasn't paying attention as much as he should. Whenever the therapist asked if there were any questions, the Texan shook his head 'no'.

"What game are you playing now, Vin?" he wondered, watching the end of the session.

They went back to the room and Vin sat in the chair by the window. The sun was strong and Chris watched as the younger man closed his eyes and let his face bask in the warmth. Within a few moments, he was dozing. Chris read the paper and ate a sandwich, waiting for the social worker to show up. She was going to go over Vin's schedule. A tap on the door and a voice brought both heads up.

"It's okay, Vin, it's Mary Carter," Chris noted as the social worker entered. "Hi, Mary."

"Chris, it's good to see you again. Hello,Vin," she greeted warmly and got a nod. "Well, you're all set." She crossed the room and handed Chris Larabee the paperwork.

As she went over the routine that would begin in a few days and extend for several weeks, Chris kept his eyes on the pensive patient. The younger man never asked a single question, just nodded and replied monotone, yes or no answers. Something was wrong. Chris thanked the social worker and took her card. When she left, he turned back as Vin was rising.

"What's going on, Vin?" he asked, guiding the tired man to the waiting bed.

"Whaddya mean?" Vin replied, wincing and easing his body down.

"You didn't ask a single question. Do you understand what she said? You're gonna have to learn to become totally independent. That's not easy. You never answered her when she asked about the bus line that runs by your place. You're gonna have to learn to use that, she wanted to set up a field trip for you to get around."

"Ain't no sense in fryin' m'brain learnin' a bunch o'stuff I ain't never gonna use."

"What?" Chris was perplexed, leaning closer just as Vin pulled the blanket up and closed his eyes. "Where did that come from? Vin, you're blind, we're only staying with you because of the concussion and the blackouts. Once that's done, you're gonna have to live on your own."

"That doctor said this concussion shit's gonna last a couple months. By that time, I'll be okay, won't need no fuckin' dog or red-tipped cane."

"Vin, you don't know that..." Chris warned but was cut off.

"It ain't permanent, I ain't gonna be blind, made m'mind up."

"Vin..." Chris touched the arm but was thrown off.

"M'tired... leave m'be. Don't need a babysitter. Go find another charity case t'spout nonsense at."

"Okay, Vin, but we're gonna talk about this." Chris picked up his jacket.

"Ain't nothin' t'talk about," Vin dismissed, pulling the blanket up and leaving his best friend at a loss.

December 16th

Lauren eyed the snow falling and recalled the first time her daughter noticed snow as a baby, the delight in those blue eyes as the chubby little hands reached out to touch the falling flakes. She and Michael had enjoyed the outdoors and Cara had inherited her father's athletic ability. An avid skier, snowboarder and mountain climber, Colorado had become a small piece of heaven to the very active college student.

A knock on the door drew her out of the mists of time. Michael and young Cara faded away and she turned back into her office.


"Doctor Tremaine? It's Chris Larabee."

"Come in," she sighed and moved forward. She nodded to the handsome blond man whose eyes were extremely guarded.

"If you're busy, I can come back. I guess I should have called. Vin's nurse said you visited with him today and I thought..."

"It's alright," she replied.

She didn't envy him; he was in a precarious position. Over the past ten days, since meeting Josiah again, she'd learned a lot about this odd group of men who had become his family. In conversing with them, she'd learned about their work and their shared interests. That's how she knew by looking at the clear green eyes before her that Chris Larabee had a tough job.

He bled for his men.

She'd sensed that in the stairwell when they had first met. Upon talking to Josiah and Nathan, and again with Vin Tanner over the last few days, she'd learned just how deep and well defined the word 'respect' could be. But beyond the intelligence and integrity she saw reflecting back at her was exhaustion.

"You look tired," she commented, waving her hand at some coffee. "Black?" she guessed and got a nod.

"Thanks." Chris paused on his way to the chair beside her desk to view the photos on the wall. They were images of a handsome man in varying ages from about thirty to fifty. Most of them featured a very attractive girl who resembled him. Both had wavy blond hair and piercing blue eyes.

"Michael and Cara," she updated, placing a mug for him on the desk and rounding it. "I lost him a few years ago to cancer."

"I'm sorry, that's tough," Chris noted.

"Thank you, but I guess I'm lucky. I wouldn't trade the years I was blessed to share his life for anything. And of course, I have Cara, so he lives on."

"Pretty girl," Chris complimented. "She looks like she's comfortable on those skis."

"She'd sleep on them if she could," Lauren teased. "You're concerned about Vin?"

"Yeah..." Chris took a seat and sipped the coffee. "He's being discharged today."

"And you don't think he's ready?" She read the question in his voice.

"I'm not sure," the blond admitted. "Physically, he's healing. The doctor said his concussion was bad and it might be awhile until he's over the headaches, dizziness and other stuff."

"You've drawn up a schedule of sorts? Vin mentioned it," she recalled.

"Yeah... end of the year, you know. We all have leave to use up. I'll be coming in the morning, getting him up, waiting until the therapist leaves. Then one of the guys comes by mid-afternoon, staying over that night. Which brings me to another problem, doctor."

"It's Lauren, Chris, and I think I know where you're headed. As you know, Doctor Ellison who's been charged with Vin's care called me in as a consult. I've spent some time with him over the last few days. He's quite an engaging young man. Very strong... I got that impression clearly. Very determined and just a bit stubborn."

"Just a bit," Chris smiled, sipped more coffee and nodded. "That's what bothers me. He's taking this too lightly."

"The therapy?" she replied and saw the fair head dip once. "Yes, he dismissed it quickly when I brought it up. I'd like you to read this. I've got copies for all your men. It's very important that all of you understand what he's going through and what he will be experiencing in the near future. It's vital you all understand this process if you are to help him heal fully."

"Coping with loss, the five stages of acceptance," Chris read on the cover of the slim volume. "You wrote this?"

"I did and there are many other periodicals like this. But this is a simple guidebook I use to help my patients and their families cope. If you flip to page five and read that part I've outlined, you might recognize a voice in there."

"Denial," Chris read aloud, skimming the text. "The first of the five steps is denial. The refusal to believe or accept what has happened."

"In most of my cases, it's the refusal to accept the spouse or loved one has died. Small things, repeating every day rituals. I've one patient who still makes her husband coffee in the morning. Another who lost her son in Iraq who still writes to him. She can't accept the fact he's never coming home."

"Vin's denying his blindness?" Chris guessed and saw her nod. "When I explained to him that I would be coming every morning about six or so to help him out until his therapy gives him the confidence to manage on his own, he cut me off. He claimed he wouldn't need it."

"Yes, he made that clear to me, too. You have to understand that's perfectly normal. That's why you and the others need to read that book and others like them, to help him. He will go through every stage and he'll change. Some parts of this journey will be difficult... very difficult."

"How long until he's done all these?" Chris asked, flipping through the chapter headings.

"No time clock, no two people go through it quite the same way, I'm afraid. Some take very short journeys through some areas and dwell longer in others."

"But?" Chris sensed the word before she said it.

"I don't know him as well as you do, but I sense he's a fighter. He's not one to give up or cry in his beer, if you will."

"No, he's not."

"Usually that means he won't dwell long in each phase. Does he have a temper?"

"Yeah... he does have a short fuse."

"Then anger might be the most vital part of his journey. He'll lash out at his blindness and anyone who gets in his way. But you mustn't force him to end that prematurely. He has to get through it at his own pace. Do you understand what I mean?"

"Yeah, I do." He finished his coffee. "I've been there, Lauren. My wife and son were murdered. I know about grief."

"I'm very sorry. Nathan mentioned you'd lost your family but I had no idea."

"Thanks," he acknowledged. "The reason I came was partially due to Vin's dismissing his need for therapy. I wanted to see how you felt. This will help a lot." He tapped the book and rose, taking the white plastic bag that held the copies. "I'll make sure the guys read this."

"You've not asked about Josiah? I know you're concerned. You're not as invisible as you think."

"I'm going to see him Sunday," Chris relayed. "Nathan talked to him this morning, he settled in pretty good. The hospital is top notch. I heard it was hard to get into."

"Well, that depends on who's on the board there," she noted of her place at Aspen Arms, a hospital in the mountains where people with psychiatric problems stemming from post traumatic stress were tested, studied and evaluated. Through intensive therapy and medication if necessary, they learned to face and conquer their fears. It was very expensive and hard to get into. "It's a very difficult course he's following and he knows it, but he's giving it all he has."

"I'm glad he won't be doing any prison time," Chris noted of the sentence that the judge had decided upon. "That friend of yours has quite a way with words."

"Joshua is a very talented lawyer. But Josiah's words were just as effective. His record in the service of his country is impeccable and the judge saw that. Putting him in prison would serve no purpose. At Aspen Arms, after the right amount of therapy, I feel confident he will heal fully."

"Sounds like you plan on being there every step of the way." Chris sensed more than a working interest in the attractive doctor's voice.

"He's a friend and he needs his family now. He needs just as much love and support as Vin Tanner does. His wounds are far more extensive and very deep. Nathan's been wonderfully supportive. I wonder though if he realizes just how much Josiah needs him... you... all of you."

"Don't push, okay? I got enough of a mess trying to deal with five different personalities who are handling this five different ways. A couple weeks from now when the holidays are done, we get back to business. I need them working in sync again. We have to depend on that in the field. I'm hoping to get them all together with Vin and talk it out. J.D.'s been supportive of Josiah and he's young. He's not as inflexible as the others. Ezra's a pro, he'll get over it. He respects Josiah but he's close to Vin. But he's also smart and he knows enough about PTSD and I think he'll give Josiah room to make amends. Nathan, well, I think you know how he stands."

"I see," she noted the one name that was absent. "What about Buck?"

"What about him?" Chris paused at the door.

"He needs to forgive Josiah as well. Hiding from him won't help matters. As a matter of fact, it will only make him worse. That anger he's housing is festering inside and will make him bitter. A man like Mister Wilmington..."

"You don't know a damn thing about Buck Wilmington!" Chris seethed, eyes flashing. He jerked his finger at her. "Don't you dare make the mistake of judging him. Just back off..."

"Alright." She sensed she'd struck a raw nerve and retreated. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. I'd like to meet with all of you to discuss Vin and his journey. Perhaps after he's home a few days?"

"Yeah... uh... okay. We're meeting at the Saloon for on Friday for dinner. Vin has a doctor's appointment that afternoon and Rain's taking him. She was going to meet us at the Saloon afterwards about five."

"I know that place," she nodded and skimmed her calendar. "Shall we say four then?"

"Fine," Chris nodded once and left.

Eight o'clock
Just outside Denver

The ringing phone jarred the dozing man to his senses. He stole a quick glance to the sofa, but the slim Texan's body never moved. He left the chair he was dozing in and pulled the thick afghan over Vin and proceeded to the kitchen. Rubbing his stiff back, he picked up the phone.


"How'd it go?" Buck asked, sitting on the side of his bed. "I called earlier..."

"Yeah. Sorry, Buck, I meant to call back. I got some food in him and we both fell asleep."

"How's he doing?"

"I'm not sure, Buck. He's tuned me out. According to Lauren, he's in denial. So far, everything I've read about these five stages of acceptance fits him to a tee from the first step."

"Lauren, huh?"

"It's her job, Buck, it's what she does for a living and she's good at it. I dropped off copies for you and the others at the office. You read it... we're meeting with her on Friday at the Saloon to talk about Vin."

Chris wasn't sure how to read the silence on the other end of the phone. He knew Buck was fighting hard and that was the first step. Vin's recovery from the trauma would involve all of them and he wanted to ensure they all gave him the support and help he needed. He'd read the book and believed in the outline it presented.

"I gotta go. Heather and me are going out for some dinner. I'll be over there about noon. He need anything? Food or anything?"

"No, looks like Ezra and J.D. did a good job. They came over a couple days ago and cleaned the place. Stocked it good, too. Just bring yourself, okay? You always make him laugh. God knows he needs that now."

"Okay, see you tomorrow." Buck hung up the phone and lay back on the bed. He had no reason to be tired; he'd slept in that morning.

"Hey? You better get dressed. I take you to Romano's like that and you'll get pneumonia," Heather teased of the body wet from the shower and sprawled on the bed. "You okay?"

"Would you mind very much if we just had a quiet dinner here? I got some shrimp in the freezer. We can toss it with pasta."

"Sure." She caressed his cheek. "Roll over. I'll give you a massage."

As Heather's fingers worked on the knots in his back and neck, Buck thought on his future. Chris's words still echoed in his head. The incident had changed them but they'd have to go on as a team. He'd have to get over his hostility, especially towards Nathan. A part of him was angry at the loyalty that the medic was showering on Sanchez. J.D. and Ezra had accepted it and Chris had come to terms with it. He drifted off to sleep, feeling a light kiss on his face and a comforter eased over his troubled body. His dreams were turbulent, full of dark and menacing images. The howling winds that accented the raging storm outside matched the furor that engulfed his slumbering body

Part Nine

Early Saturday Morning
Vin Tanner's House

Vin Tanner sat on the porch outside his front door and drank in the vista before him. A golden sun was peeking shyly from the brilliant blue sky. The snowcapped Rockies stood tall and handsome in their majesty. Wildflowers in a dozen colors were spread before him in a blanket that took his breath away. Just beyond that, by the small creek that ran through his property, several deer were drinking. He felt a peace here he thought he'd lost. With every breath he took, it was like drinking in a rainbow.

He smiled then, welcoming the drunkenness that this dazzling display always left him with. His smile faded though when dark, angry clouds covered the sky. The deer ran, the flowers hid and the sky opened with a deafening sound of thunder. A jagged line of punishing light appeared as if sent from above. He didn't duck fast enough and pain exploded in his face.

And the rain came down.

Drenched in sweat and gasping, the victim in the bed was jerked awake from the brutal nightmare. His hair was damp and plastered to his wet face. He was trembling all over and his heart was hammering in his chest. Breathing heavily and still unaware of where he was, the large blue eyes darted wildly.

"...hell... lights ... are..." he choked, coughed and then went limp when reality sank in.

There would be no light coming through the window this morning or the one after that. There would be no more sunsets or rainbows. Gone was the beautiful vision that was always just a few steps off his back porch. His own private piece of heaven. No more would he see the deer and the eagle rejoicing as the sun rose.





The shaky hand rubbed the burning sensation from those unseeing eyes. He huddled on his side as the gnawing inside began. He'd sleep around the clock if he could for it was here he got his colors and pictures back. He'd accept the awful pain the nightmares brought. As brutal as they were, they were far less anguish than the pain that came with opening his eyes to the darkness that was now his world.

Vin scowled and threw the covers back; his lean body was covered in sweat. He heard the noisy ice drops pelting the windows. The dropping temperature would soon cause that to turn into the silence of snow. He preferred that; it gave him the sense of isolation he sought in futility. He turned onto to his back and cursed again, unable to get comfortable.

He heard the door shut and the sound of an engine starting. That meant it was about 6 a.m. or so and Chris had arrived. J.D. would be leaving to go to work. He didn't remember much of the night before. Only that the youngest had become disturbed by his behavior.

"...t'hell with 'im..." he decided with a pout. "...t'hell with all o'em."


That place where people who were still useful went to produce and fill a day. They blended together giving the place in which they lived balance. They added to the cause; they were the wheels and pistons in the engine. They were needed.

His office came to mind. There was his desk, his beat up mug with a crack up the side, his dust covered keyboard and his stack of unread Sports Illustrateds waiting for him. Downstairs in the cafeteria, the guys from the other agencies were getting coffee and doughnuts. They'd spend a few minutes every day tossing around the latest on the Nuggets or the Broncos. Chris's pissed off face coming through the doors before any caffeine was in his system. Buck ogling every woman and Ezra groaning at the remarks but loving every minute. J.D. driving everybody nuts with his corny jokes. Nathan arriving with sleep-heavy eyes due to Jasmine. The tiny girl's face arrived unexpectedly and it brought a ripping pain into his gut.


His fist hit the flannel sheet when he thought on another long day. He wouldn't be at the firing range; he wouldn't be sizing up a warehouse to get the best angle with his rifle and he wouldn't be in the surveillance van with J.D. listening to gun runners planning a sale. No. He'd be here, wasting away again. Sitting around collecting dust like all the other unused items in the basement.

The face of his tormentor rose up like a demon fleeing Hell. Josiah haunted his days and nights; every waking moment lost in this misery was due to the brutal beating. His stomach began to churn, sending acid bubbling over like a witch's cauldron. The veins in his temple began to throb and he sat up. His hand shot out and reached for the recorder. It was top of the line and on a cord so he could loop it around his neck. Chris had brought it for him the first day home. At first, Vin thought it was to replace the worn leather journals he wrote in. But Chris said it was good therapy and he could vent all his feelings in private.

"Bullshit," he huffed, rising off the bed. "Hell's the use in spoutin' inta this thing. It ain't gonna bring m'eyes back."

But yet he pushed the button and laid out the now familiar path of his room. The first day of therapy, he'd had it memorized. The beast had awoken and was ravenous. The only fuel to sate the monster were those rabid morsels locked in his fevered brain. So he fed the animal as he paced the room.

"If only I wouldda come home that night... stupid fuckin' Boy Scout... serves ya right. Why the hell didn't I mind m'own business?"

He couldn't remember the incident; only what he'd been told. But it came down to him making the wrong choice. Like he always did. Seemed every time he got a little closer to heaven, there was that pitchfork pulling him back to reality.

"Weren't fer me, he'dda been up shit's creek without an oar." He thought on the ill-fated trip where he delivered the file. "I was tryinÕ ta save his ass... thanks I get... wouldda served him right t'have t'face Orrin and them with nuthin'. They'd hadda fried his nuts fer that... DAMMIT!"

The tidal wave of rage was building now and he kicked the trashcan in frustration, sending it skittering into the hall.

"Ya jest couldn't mind ye own business, could ya, Tanner? Yer a stupid fuckin' loser and ya always will be."

The wind howled outside, shrieking at him in a nasty voice. He heard the pelting of the freezing rain hitting the windows. In his mind, he saw that window with those icy tears hitting the pane.

"God's tears..." He moved to that window and pressed his hot face against the cold glass. He relished that sensation on his skin. He thought on his newfound status as a nobody. A lump of flesh and bone sitting around all day. A non-contributor to society. A cast out, a nobody, a loser. ÒLook's like old Iron Girdle was right," he rasped of his fifth grade teacher.

In his darkness, a light appeared as he pulled up a memory from a long ago place. A hot room in a small school in Texas. Thunder chased lightning outside and heavy angry drops fell hard. There was a restless young boy whose soulful eyes were always seeking escape. He didn't like being confined to a small room with walls and chalk. His arena was outside where Mother Nature could teach him what no mortal lesson slinger dared. He had been kept behind after class yet again for defiance and talking out of turn. In front of him was a blank piece of paper where the dreaded essay on the devil's use of idle hands should be.

"They're God's tears," his wistful voice recalled of the harsh words spoken to him that day, "cryin' fer all the souls what can't be saved. He'll be cryin' fer ya one day, Vin Tanner, mark my words." He sighed and thumped his head against the glass. "She never give me a chance. That tight-assed old bird hated me."

The wind kicked up and screamed at him again. The pane under his skin was pummeled by the frozen water bullets.

"Shut up!" he vented, pulling his face back. His unseeing eyes went skywards, seeking a higher source. The dragon's fire erupted and he voiced his protest to God. "Who the hell asked ya? I don't want yer tears!"

The tempest only got louder, as if trying to drown out his protest. He would have none of that. He felt along the window pane to the wall, then found the door that led to the porch outside.

"It weren't bad enough ya took my Ma when I was a little sprout... me and my Pa was doin' alright. But that didn't give ya enuf to shed yer tears at? No, ya hadda take him too," he screamed into the driving rain that was hitting his face and chest. "Ya shot m'heart full o'buckshot... jest when I was puttin' them pieces back... ya took Gray Eagle..." he choked of his beloved grandfather. "Hell, fer awhile, ye even took m'name," he spoke bitterly of the bounty that nearly cost him his life.

The wrath nearly overpowered him then and his blood seemed to be boiling. He breathed in heaving gulps and felt the tiny needles of ice hitting his skin.

"WHY?" he demanded. "What the fuck did I ever do t'piss ya off this bad? Ya damn near took everythin' I had in m'life. Now ya took m'eyes?" His fury was that great, he lost his breath. He ignored the driving pain in his head and the dizziness that was beginning to descend. "I thought I was home... finally. But..." he paused, his senses heightened and reeling. "T'HELL WITH YA... TAKE YER TEARS AND GIT! I DON'T NEED YA NO MORE. IF THIS WAS SOME KINDA TEST... I FLUNKED... I QUIT... SO GIT!"

While his best friend was outside having a colorful discussion with the Lord, Chris Larabee was busy. He was mixing pancake batter and watching the bacon frying in the large cast-iron pan. The local weather flunky was droning on and on about the expected snowfall and Warren Zevon was howling with the 'Werewolves of London' on the radio. His eyes drifted into the living room and he thought just how perfect this place was for his restless friend.

Vin Tanner was not a child of the city. The urban jungle with its skyscrapers, crowded lanes of traffic, pollution, crime and noise was where he went to earn his pay. But once that whistle blew, the cowboy took his iron pony and headed out of the steel and brick prison. Here was the place he found his peace. This small, one-story home with its two bedrooms, a decent sized kitchen and living area, was where Vin found his little piece of heaven. It's where he came to escape the dead bodies, crime, congested offices, computers and lowlifes. Where he could pour a cup of coffee and walk to the creek, sharing his breakfast while wildlife sought theirs.

It hadn't taken long for the restless Texan to turn the old ranch house into his own. HeÕd painted the walls a rich creamy color and accented them with sand paintings from New Mexico. The turquoise, coral, terracotta and sage in the guise of wall hangings, sculptures, a large Navajo blanket and accent pillows gave the house life. The floor was covered with a beautiful rug depicting those colors of the desert. It was here, with a beat up rocker on the porch with the Rockies spread before him, that Vin Tanner breathed.

"Tanner-fied!" Chris decided, turning the pans off and heading down the hall. He saw the trashcan in the hallway and frowned. Ducking his head around the doorway, he was hit by a blast of cold air. "VIN! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?"

"Ain't I the fool? I believed ya... again. I thought this place was it... I found m'heart again. Ya snatched that too. Ya greedy bastard. Who the hell asked ya t'interfere?" Vin screamed above the wind, unaware of his friend approaching. "Hell, why don't ya take these while yer at it!" he growled, grabbing his crotch. Void of the ability to work or contribute to society, he felt stripped of his manhood as well.

"Vin, get inside!" Chris grabbed for the irate figure. "Are you crazy?"

"Naw, I'm blind, remember?" He jerked the hand away. "Fuck off, it ain't yer ass He's wastin' His tears on.Ó

"What?" Chris blinked, finally easing the struggling body back into the room. "You’re soaked. Getting pneumonia won't bring your sight back."

"Leave me be," Vin hissed, fighting a losing battle against a much stronger opponent. "Mind yer own fuckin' business."

"You are my fucking business. Now get that ungrateful ass of yours on the bed. What the hell was that?"

"God's tears..." Vin panted, his adrenaline crashing and the effects of the concussion kicking in. He slumped on the bed, dimly aware of Chris lifting his sling to get his wet shirt off. "Weepin' fer the stupid bastards like me what can't be saved."

"Quit playing the violin, Vin. You have plenty of people who care about you and who are trying to help," Chris replied, retrieving a towel to dry Vin's hair, back and chest. Then he gently eased a clean flannel shirt on his friend and put the sling back in place. The body inside was clearly not happy. The fidgeting began and the jaws began to work once more.

"Who asked ya? Get the hell out then. What? Are ya scorin' extra points for helpin' the invalids and cripples? I'll give ya discount when I git m'pencil stand set up."

"Cut it out! Are you seven or twenty-seven?"

"I'm useless... that's what I am!" Vin vented, shoving Chris hard and getting a small degree of satisfaction when his elbow connected with something solid.

Chris backed off, rubbing his jaw and recalling the passages in the book that dealt with this. Fighting back was more harmful and what he had to do was give Vin all the room he needed. Don't add any more fuel to the fire. Give him enough space to put it out himself. He watched the fine features twist and recoil. The fist was clenched again and the blue eyes were livid, darting right and left.

"Breakfast is ready."

"GO T'HELL!" Vin screamed, so angry he was shaking.

"Fine," Chris replied, turning back towards the door. "Lunch is a long time away."

The green eyes caught sight of three old and very valuable pieces of pottery that were on Vin's chest of drawers. They were part of the legacy left by Vin's beloved grandfather when he died. They belonged to Gray Eagle's grandmother and dated back to the 1870's. Chris flashed forward to another tantrum and the priceless items being destroyed. When Vin finally got to the acceptance phase of this difficult journey, he'd never forgive himself if these were destroyed by his own hand. Chris carefully wrapped them in a clean sweatshirt and took them back to the living area. He spotted a large cedar trunk under the picture window and carefully stowed them inside on a pile of blankets.

"Looks like we're well into the anger phase." Chris went into the bathroom and eyed the bruise on his jaw. "I hope at least one of us survives."

He went back to Vin's room and saw the lean Texan was sprawled out on the bed, his feet still on the floor. He walked over and tapped Vin's face, but the jaw was slack. Vin had pushed too hard; the doctor had warned him about that and passing out as a result. Chris sighed, lifted the long legs onto the bed and pulled the quilt up. He paused, shaking his head at the distressed features. Even when Vin slept, his face was tense and painted in hues of turmoil. He left his hand on Vin's shoulder and gave a tug.

"Helluva ride, cowboy... but I'm hangin' on all the way."

Three forty-five p.m.
The Saloon

Chris paused in the doorway before making his way through the crowded drinkery. Inez was busy at the bar and he nodded to her as he passed. The next hour would see more people arriving after spilling from their offices. Ezra had slotted the private room in the back for their meeting with the doctor. Chris heard a couple of voices and entered the room, spotting two of his friends in a debate. J.D. and Buck were embroiled in a discussion about which photo of a live sports event was the best one.

"It's gotta be Gehrig at home plate givin' that speech," Buck decided, tossing a loaded nacho into his mouth.

"Oh, the 'luckiest man on the face of the earth'," the youth paused, frowning a bit. "I saw some old clip of that. I'll give you points for sentiment," J.D. relayed, taking a swig of beer, "but my money's on Jeter's catch and throw to home plate against the A's in the 2001 World Series."

"Lake Placid, 1980, Jim Craig draped in the American flag after that final buzzer went off, looking for his old man," Larabee commented without missing a beat.

"Damn!" Buck poured a beer for the newcomer. "I think he's got us, kid."

"Yeah," J.D. noted of the now infamous moment in American sports history when the 1980 American Ice Hockey team beat the Russian team to win the Olympic gold medal. The sight of the emotional USA goaltender seeking out his father in the audience was a sure goose bump raiser. He thought for a moment on Chris's timing as the lean leader took the glass. He elbowed Buck and nodded to the blond. "How's he do that?"

"He cheats," Buck grinned at his oldest friend, "but he's so smooth you'll never catch 'im."

"You wish." Chris took a sip and eyed the team's youngest member. "You keep eating your Wheaties, kid, and one day I might let you in on the secret."

"Ezra had to get a call in his office, Nate's just called, he's on his way," Buck answered the quizzical green eyes that scanned the room.

"How's Vin doing? He was really upset last night. No matter what I did or said..." Dunne recalled.

"Pissed off at the world." Chris took his black leather jacket off and pushed the sleeves of his dark burgundy sweater up. "It's okay, J.D., it's normal. Have you read that book?"

"Most of it," J.D. nodded, dumping sour cream and cheddar cheese onto a potato skin. "But seeing Vin go through it... it makes it easy and hard at the same time. You know?"

"Yeah," Chris sighed and took a swig of beer. "I know."

J.D.'s dark eyes clouded for a moment, recalling the long afternoon and evening. "It was like he wasn't comfortable in his own skin. He couldn't settle anywhere, sitting, standing, pacing. His face was all wrongÉeven when he fell asleep, he looked mad."

"Nasty as it is, the scab is a vital part of any healing wound."

"Hey, Doctor Tremaine!" J.D. stood as the attractive psychologist approached. "That's good... about the scab."

"I know it's frustrating when someone you care about is suffering through this, but he has to complete each phase himself. Your first instinct is to intervene, to help him get rid of those angry feelings," Lauren noted. "But forcing him before he's ready to let them go would be worse."

"My first instinct would have been to..."

"Finish it, Buck." The doctor took her coat off and hung it up before taking the end chair at the long table. "You all have to heal. This has affected each of you. If you're angry, Buck, get it out."

"Angry?" Buck scoffed, shaking his head. "I was past angry that first night."

"I understand how you feel but..."

"No, you don't!" Buck accused, eyes flashing. "You didn't hold a bleeding, broken body... yours wasn't that hand he grabbed."

"Nobody knows better than Josiah what transpired..."

"Transpired!" the mustached agent spat back.

"Buck, calm down!" J.D. went to grab him but an arm pulled him back.

"Let him go, J.D.," Ezra intervened, having witnessed the beginnings of the anger emerging from their fellow agent.

"How can he sleep at night? He damn near killed a good friend. He took a vital young man's life and shattered it all to hell."

"He knows that, Buck. He's suffering every waking minute because of it. You have to realize, Buck, where he was when that occurred. He wasn't just drunk. That was twenty-five years of Post Traumatic Stress building up."

"I'm sorry, Doc, I know it's your job and you're protecting him, but..."

"Go on..." she encouraged.

"Forget it," Buck denied, shoving the rest of the hot emotions back inside the box.

"Good afternoon." Ezra caught the mediator's eye. "It's nice to see you again. Can I get you a drink?"

"A pot of tea would be lovely. I'm chilled to the bone," she replied. "Earl Gray would be wonderful."

"Coming right up," the smooth southerner nodded. "Gentlemen?" he asked about any additional beverages.

"We're good, Ez," Chris replied.

"Sorry I'm late." Nathan almost hit Ezra exiting as he came in. "Doc..." he nodded, skirting past Buck to take the seat next to Chris. A hand reached out and grabbed his sleeve. He knew before any words came out by the concern in the green eyes.

"How'd it go?" Larabee asked. Vin had been sleeping when Nathan and Rain arrived. He left before the troubled sharpshooter woke up and was worried about his temper exploding.

"He's okay. A little tense... maybe... but..." the dark-skinned EMT shrugged.

"I was hoping he'd calm down a little for Rain's sake. He's been in the anger zone for a couple days now," the blond fretted.

"Nothin' I can't handle," Nathan replied. He was taking Vin home and staying overnight.

"As soon as Mister Standish returns, we'll get started," the slim doctor said. "While we're waiting, do you have any questions?"

"How long will it take?" J.D. asked. "I mean, I know you can't give a concrete answer, but you've been around Vin and other patients. Can you get a sense of him?"

"There's no way to predict that, J.D., but from what I've experienced, he's a restless spirit. That would suggest a short passage. He's very strong and I sense very resilient. He's a spiritual person and in time, that will be his greatest asset." She paused when Chris snorted and had to wipe beer from his chin. "Chris?"

"Oh, he's real spiritual, Lauren," Chris relayed and shook his head. "As a matter of fact, Vin had a very 'lively' discussion with God just this morning."

"He was fired up?" Nathan guessed and saw the blond head dip. "He didn't mince his words."

"No, he sure as hell didn't. He was as mad as I've seen him. Standing outside half-naked shouting at God."

"That's good... and a normal step during the anger phase," Tremaine continued. "Is he using the recorder?"

"Yeah," Buck replied. "I think that's helping him, but you'll never hear him say that."

"No, he curses it," J.D nodded. "But he takes it everywhere."

"Excellent..." the doctor nodded as Ezra entered, setting a tray down with a pot of tea, a mug and sugar and cream. "Thank you." She peeked inside the pot and decided it needed more steeping. "Good, now that we're all here, let's get started. I'd like each of you to interpret the word 'grief'."

"It's not a clichŽ," J.D. began, his dark eyes lost in time. "When my mom died, everybody said things like 'It'll get better in time' and 'You're young, you'll get over it'." He shook his head and scowled. "There is no ending point or beginning point. I won't ever get over losing her. You get better, you adjust... you go on. But you don't forget."

"No, you don't, and that's excellent, J.D.," she commended.

"A deep pain you can't touch or see, but it's real," Nathan assessed. "For me, it hurts worse seeing someone you care about grieving. I've lost loved ones and I grieved. But when Rain's sister died, seeing what it did to her, hurt worse than I ever did. Now, with Vin... I want to take those bruises from his eyes." He paused then, his dark eyes welling with emotion as they looked at the doctor. "You ain’t known him long. If you knew how very fine a human being he is..." He swallowed hard and dropped his head, sighing heavily. He felt a hand on his neck and nodded at Ezra. "That’s what hurts... all the promise that used to shine from those blue eyes... itÕs gone."

Ezra lifted his glass of brandy and spoke next. "Grief is the agony of an instant; the indulgence of grief the blunder of a life."

"Jesus, that's cold!" Buck eyed Standish.

"Disraeli." Chris caught Ezra's eye and the other man nodded in return. He kept that gaze and found a quote of his own, drawn from a lifetime of reading literature. "Well it has been said that there is no grief like the grief which does not speak."

"Longfellow," Lauren recognized the quote. "Is that how you see it as well?"

"Depends on the score and what team I'm on." Chris drained his beer and reached for a nacho. "When Sara and Adam died, I didn't know how to grieve for them. I denied it, buried it and lashed out at everyone who tried to help find it. I did get some professional help. But really it was Vin..." he paused, eyeing the storm outside, "without even trying, he allowed me to grieve for them... finally. HeÕs given me the best part of him... and with that gift... I was able to mourn them and also cherish them. I don't hide the pictures anymore or pretend they didn't exist. But this... with Vin... is hard..." He choked and took a steadying breath.

"Vin isn't the only one you need to grieve for. There's Josiah and also each one of you has lost something very close and dear," the psychologist noted. "I think I can say, as a team, you worked well together, often putting your lives on the line for each other. That's a bond like soldiers in combat share and don't ever truly forget. You talk to men who lost their best buddy in World War II and their grief today is every bit as real as the day the loss was first suffered."

Buck saw the fist gripping the beer glass and knew where the leader's mind was.

"It's an ache that won't go away," Buck found his voice. "An emptiness inside... a hollowness... a haunted heart..."

"I want you to embrace these feelings. That will help you cope and move on. We don't know what the future holds for Vin or Josiah or for each of you. Verbalizing these feelings, acting on them, is a vital part of that process. That's why Vin expressing himself so colorfully is a very healthy way of grieving. It's far worse to hold it inside," she said to the group but directed her eyes to Buck Wilmington.

"He's not a guy who dwells on stuff," J.D. appraised of his blind friend.

"No, he's a water-under-the-bridge type," Nathan agreed. "I don't think he'll stay angry for long."

"I hope you're right, Nate," Chris admitted, "'cause it's damn near killing me. I never felt so helpless..."

"You're wrong." Lauren reached over and touched his sleeve. "I've seen his eyes when he speaks about you. He knows no matter what hell he puts you through, you'll never abandon him. That is his anchor. You are his port in the storm. He'll rage and thrash about, but that's because he knows you're there to catch him." She smiled then, patting the concerned man's arm. "You are his rock."

Chris didn't speak at first but felt a flush of color rising to his face. He dropped his gaze a moment, studying the table. He felt the eyes of his friends on him and that made him a bit uncomfortable. Funny thing, he thought Vin was his anchor. He looked over at the doctor and gripped the hand that now rested on his sleeve. "Thank you... Lauren..."

"What can we expect in the next phases?" J.D. asked. "Bargaining... Depression...?"

"Depression," Nathan sighed. "That's the one I'm worried about. When that boy gets the blues..."

"Yeah, I hear that," Buck agreed. "Won't be a heart not left unbroken."

"That resilience you mentioned," Ezra leaned forward. "That, I feel, is what his greatest asset has always been. From what we know of his past, he seems to have been dealt the unlucky hand time and time again, yet he survives. This has given him a depth ... a grace that I've never encountered."

Lauren sat back then as they began to slowly share their stories about their sightless friend. They opened up; they grieved and joked and teased. They went through another pitcher of beer and Vin Tanner's assets came out. She marveled at how much they loved their friend and how bonded this band of brothers truly was. Had she worried about Vin recovering and going on before this meeting, she was no longer concerned. In time, she hoped they would meet with Josiah to open up their feelings with him. Good and bad, it would be necessary to pave the road of their future path. But first things first, Vin Tanner was in a precarious place in his healing and needed their attention.

Part Ten

Twice, Rain peered over at her very pensive passenger. The usually amicable features were a mask of displeasure. He was tense in the seat, every muscle on edge. The cast holding his arm was pulled close to his chest; the free hand was gripping the inside slot in the door. She felt like she was riding with a stranger.

"I'm sorry about the traffic," she broke the uncomfortable silence. "The uh..side roads are icy and..."

"s'fine," Vin managed, trying to contain the explosion inside.

But it wasn't.

He'd waited all week. From the time Chris asked Rain to take him to the doctor's, he'd been preparing himself. It was the one bright light he held on to during the very endless dark days. His anticipation caused his lunch to go right through him; his nerves were more than worked up.

He was in the bathroom when they arrived. He heard Chris talking to them and realized they were alone. His heart sank and his anger immediately kicked up a notch. The one thing he'd counted on all week had been taken away. He balled up a fist and sought out something to break. He raged silently, stalking the room and dispelling steam.

He heard Chris leave and waited five minutes before he appeared. He managed a terse greeting and never spoke again. He kept his head against the glass and his eyes closed during the short ride. Rain said they had to drop Nathan off on their way. He heard the tall man exit and say goodbye but never acknowledged it.

It wasn't fair.

What they did was wrong. How could they be so thoughtless? How could they hurt him like this? After all he'd suffered, they would do something this mean? Weren't they supposed to be his friends?

"...yeah... right..."

"Excuse me?" Rain heard the two words spat out and saw the livid features almost glowing. "What's wrong?"

"Nuthin'!" Vin sent back, changing his tone to a false, perky one. "Everythin's peachy, ain't ya noticed?"

"Oh, boy," Rain muttered, pulling the car into the lot and parking. She turned the engine off and noticed they still had a few moments. Once again, she turned and saw the handsome face she knew so well twisted in a mask of bitter revulsion. "Okay, Vin, out with it. What's got you so worked up?"

Vin didn't reply but his snorted contempt spoke volumes. How could she possibly understand? How could any of them? They weren't trapped in this hellhole.

"I'm not a stranger, Vin, I thought I was family."

"Family?" Vin turned, his hand still buried in the pocket attached to the door. "Ya got a fine way o'showin' it."

"What's that supposed to mean? We all care about you, Vin. You know that."

"Ferget it," Vin hissed, his face getting hot. He turned away from her voice, facing the glass instead. "Let's git this shit over with."

"No," Rain denied. "And don't you disrespect me, Vin Tanner. Don't you turn your back to me when I'm talking to you. I'm not glass, I won't break. You've been mad since we left."


"What?" Rain pleaded, seeing tears hesitating on the Texan's long lashes. Then she saw a flash of purple through the fingers buried in the side of the door and she understood. Her heart sank and she shook her head. She had no idea he'd be so torn up.

"Been goin' on three weeks since I seen m'sugarplum. I ain't never been separated from her this long. M'heart's jest about ready to fall the hell out. All week... I..." he paused, swallowed the lump in his throat and collected his wavering voice. His fingers drew out the item he'd been holding in that pocket on the car door for the entire ride.

Rain saw the purple Sippee cup in Vin's hand and couldn't recall when Jasmine misplaced it. She didn't miss the slight tremble in his hand which matched the one in his voice. She hadn't thought twice about leaving the toddler at home. She didn't realize the undertow would be so strong. Just as she was about to reach out to that trembling hand and offer comfort, the mask reappeared. The features went from sorrow to rage in a split second.

"Look, Vin, I'm sorry about Jasmine. It's just that Nathan and I talked about it and..."

"...ya didn't want 'er seein' the freak show? Poor Uncle Vin, he can't see no more. Shove 'im in the corner where he can't embarrass ya... 'specially whilst he's eatin'. He's likely to drool and drop his food worse than ya do."

"That's it!" Rain unsnapped the belt and unlocked the door. "You're out of line. That you would even think something so vile is offensive." She unlocked his seatbelt and pushed the button to unlock his door as well. "The doctor's waiting, let's go."

Vin jumped a bit when the driver's side door slammed. He shoved the cup in his coat pocket and fumbled for the door handle. He pulled his legs out and eased himself upright. He heard his cane unsnap and the edge touch his hand. No help was offered and the words were curt.

"She has a cold, that's one reason. She shouldn't be out in weather like this. But Nathan and I discussed it and the other reason is that until you come to terms with this, we don't want her exposed to your outbursts. She wouldn't understand and you'd hurt her."

"Yer crazy!" Vin denied, backing up slightly. "I'd cut m'heart out first. How could ya say somethin' like that?"

"Not intentionally, Vin, but that temper of yours is out of control." She wished she'd chosen better words and regretted them as soon as they came out. His face went red and the eyes were flashing again. "It's normal, Vin, what you're going through. We're all adults, we understand your pain. She's just a baby, she'd never understand. But she'd remember... Is that a risk you want to take? For her to run from you in fear?"

He didn't reply; he turned away and began to tap from right to left. He didn't want to hear any more. Not their pity or their excuses. He knew the real reason. They were ashamed of him. They didn't want him near his beloved goddaughter.


"Ferget it," he spat back. "Can't blame ya. Poor Uncle Vin might sprout horns and shoot fire from his mouth."

"Yeah, you're right, Vin. Does that make you happy?" Rain snapped. "Straight ahead, five feet, the door opens out."

She tried, but she couldn't fight this attitude. She knew eventually he'd pass through this phase, but until he did, it was unbearable. She guided him to the reception area and a seat. He shut her out, turning his face away and closing his eyes.

Who did she think she was fooling? Vin chuffed in annoyance and replayed her words. The truth was they didn't want their child exposed to him. They didn't want her to see him, to hug or kiss him. He felt a lump in his throat and his eyes began to burn. He never thought he'd ever have a child of his own. So when this precious gift entered his life, he'd embraced it with all he had. When he loved, he loved hard and that's why this hurt so much. He couldn't imagine his life without Jasmine. First God took his sight; now Rain and Nathan took his heart. A voice from his left drew him back.

"..ner... Mister Tanner, did you hear me?" The receptionist saw the handsome young man nod and stand. "The doctor will see you now."

The appointment went as expected. Rain took notes for Chris about Vin's progress. She was surprised that Vin was calm with the doctor, answering the questions carefully. The doctor warned about pushing too hard and the aftereffects of the concussion. Vin thanked the doctor and agreed to see him again in two weeks. The walk to the car was cloaked in a very uncomfortable silence. That wall grew taller and the temperature much colder as they rode to the Saloon.

"Hey, sugar." Nathan jumped up when his wife approached. She turned away from his kiss and he frowned, eyeing the empty space behind her. Chris Larabee asked before Nathan could get the words out.

"Where's Vin?"

"In the car," she replied. "If one of you would be so kind, I'd like to get home. My aunt is waiting with Jasmine."

"What happened?" Buck said, shoving Chris back down. "I'll go, Chris. I could use the air."

"Why did you leave him in the car?" Nathan asked, not liking the flash of anger in his wife's eyes.

"He's lucky I didn't leave him at the bus station," she vented. "He won't come inside."

"That bad?" Chris sighed, rubbing his neck. "I'm sorry, Rain. This was my idea and a bad one apparently."

"No, Chris. I should have more patience. I thought I was prepared but..." she shook her head. "He thought Jasmine was coming. In the car, his heart broke when she wasn't there."

"Damn," Jackson blew out a long breath. "She's got a cold, you told him right?"

"I told him the truth," Rain replied and caught her husband's arm as he turned away. "He didn't like it one bit." She saw the flicker of doubt appear in her husband's eyes. "It was the right thing to do, Nathan. He was out of control. Saying awful things. He'll get over it, Nathan. This is just a phase, we both know that."

"Yeah, but it still sucks," J.D. appraised.

Vin shifted in the seat; his headache was now in the red zone. He wanted to drown his sorrows in pain killers and beer. He wanted to be anywhere but here. He didn't want to shuffle into the Saloon and have the eyes of the crowd pitching pity at him. He wanted to hold his goddaughter and feel those chubby arms wrap around his neck. He inhaled sharply as the sensation of that chubby face pressed to his became all too real. That tiny face lit up in joy and those 'angel kisses' she gave him.

"Bin..." he croaked painfully. Who would have thought one word would become the world to him?

He wanted to see his cracked coffee mug, the broken chair that he and J.D. kept putting at Buck's desk and Chris's irate face coming out of the office when Buck fell, cursing and threatening to use his gun. A distant song floated through the glass, words speaking about joy and faith and hope.

"Christmas shit..." he decided, jerking the door open and easing his feet outside. He felt the solid ground and pulled himself upward.

Buck was almost to the car when he saw Vin stand up and move a few inches away from the door. There was such agony on his face that it stopped him dead in his tracks. A single tear was snaking down the red cheeks over a shallow gasp. As he watched, the agony turned to anger and rage simmered in the sky eyes. The lips parted into a sneer and a fist appeared. The unseeing eyes went skyward. The mouth opened but the voice didn't follow.

"Let it out, Vin," Buck offered, moving closer. "Don't swallow it."

"Get the hell away..." Vin jerked, moving his body away from where the strong voice sounded.

"Sorry, son, I can't do that." Buck eased an arm under the quaking shoulder and was surprised when the younger man didn't pull away. "Come on, spit out that shit before you choke on it. It's just me, slick." He used a gentle tone. "What's got you all riled up?"

"Ain't ya heard? Tis the season t'be jolly!" Vin spat back. "All that 'Holy Night' shit's givin' me a headache."

"Oh, so this is God's fault now?" Buck pressed, seeing the nerve appear, throbbing and red.

"He's the one in charge!" Vin vented. "I'm sick of turnin' the other cheek. Hell, I turned m'cheek so many times, it's a wonder I ain't spinnin' like a fuckin' top. My Ma, my Pa, Gray Eagle... now... here... home... finally..."

"Vin, He didn't..."

"Some God ya are..." Vin challenged, ignoring Buck's plea. "All them preachers spoutin' nonsense about 'All lovin' and such'. Ya got all of 'em fooled, but not me. Ain't I one o'yer children too? How could ya do this t'me?"

"He didn't do this to you, Vin!" Buck stood in front of the wrathful figure and gripped both shoulders. "You think those kids who die from cancer are His fault? You think that woman who gets hit by a drunk driver is His fault? Wars... plagues... earthquakes..." He pulled the struggling figure harder. "He gave you... all of us... the greatest gift of all, Vin. Choice. It's right here, Vin, it's always been here." He tapped the chest of the Texan. "You have a choice, Vin. Look inside and find it. If it's dark and you get lost..."

Vin didn't get a chance to reply; he was engulfed in a bear hug. He sagged, totally exhausted by the day, his temper and his raging emotions. He was vaguely aware of Buck mentioning his car being nearby and updating Chris and the others. Exhaustion claimed him and he slept all the way home. He was dimly aware of Buck getting him inside and into the bedroom. Pills were dispensed and he felt his large capped mug of coke in his hand. He took a long swallow and didn't move away from the hand on his neck.

Buck was about to leave when an unearthly belch erupted.

"Nice... I think that scared two numbers off your clock."

"s'cuse me," Vin offered with a smaller burp. "Bucklin?"


"Fer a skirt-chaser, yer pretty smart."

Buck laughed and ruffled the damp hair, giving a bigger laugh when the smaller man ducked and cursed at him. It wasn't the end of the war but he felt that the toughest battle was now behind them. He left the bedroom and heard Vin talking into his recorder. He decided maybe he'd have a word with the man upstairs too.

"Some young-uns are just plain hard on the nerves," Buck eyed the night sky. "But this one... he's worth the extra gray hair. If you can't carry him... you just say the word. I'm here... he's not that heavy."

Just then, a shooting star appeared in the night sky. The beauty of it left the solitary figure awed and humbled. He felt tingles race all over his body and his heart quickened. His eyes remained glued on the moving star until it finally disappeared. It was a very surreal experience, one he couldn't seem to shake. Eventually, he went inside and put some coffee on. He checked on Vin and was glad to see the fine features finally relaxed in sleep. He pulled the quilt up and let his hand rest for a moment on Vin's cheek. A warmth shot through him, exploding in his chest. A part of him he wasn't yet ready to reveal hoped that the answer he felt sure was for Vin had some hope for him as well.

Author's note- Over the next few parts, you'll see Josiah coping at the hospital and during his treatments. The information on his therapy, the hospital, staff, routine and what path he would follow are from Lynn and I want to thank her for all her help. So as you read those parts over the course of the final leg of our journey, tip you hat to her.

Saturday morning

Nathan looked up when his wife made her way down the stairs. The precious cargo in his arms never stirred. His quiet song and steady rhythm worked its usual magic. It was hard to believe that the gift he held had changed his whole life. He couldn't imagine a day without his beloved child. Jasmine was the sun, moon and stars to him. Just feeling her warm breath on his chest filled him with pride. He continued the rocking motion and paused when Rain bent to kiss him.

"She's cooler... her breathin's better. I think that mess in her chest is breaking up," he noted.

"You should have woken me up." Rain yawned, then kissed the baby.

"You needed the sleep," the tired father replied, "and besides, I don't mind. There's gonna come a day when she walks out that door for college." He paused, caressing his daughter's cheek with his finger, "and I won't have any quiet times like this. She's really beautiful..."

"She sure is." Rain gazed at the love pouring from her husband's eyes as he kissed their daughter's cheek. Her smile broadened when two cranky brown eyes opened and peered upwards.

"Damn," Nathan chuckled. "I'd know that face anywhere. She's startin' to look like Vin."

"Good morning, sleepy," Rain cooed as the toddler began to whine as soon as she saw her mother. She lifted her arms and wiggled to get up.

"Hey, how about me?" Nathan protested.

Jasmine paused a moment, carefully inspecting her parents. Then without losing her scowl, the tiny Tanner-like face turned back to her father.


"You know, that is scary," Rain chuckled. "She's startin' to sound like Vin too..."

"Come on, sugar," Nathan laughed and stood up. "How 'bout we get you cleaned up and then we'll fix some breakfast for Mommy?"

"Cookie?" Jasmine cocked her head and hoped.

"No... cereal..." Rain corrected and watched the small face screw up in protest. "If she says 'aw, hell' ...."

"She's thinkin' it!" Nathan laughed, eyeing the miniature scowl and the pout.

"Hey," Rain called out softly, then took his face in her hand. She kissed him slow and tender before pulling back and resting her hand on his cheek. "I love you..."

"Not half as much as I love you," he returned, kissing her hand.


"Guess the honeymoon's over," Rain laughed as her daughter's small hands pushed her away.

"Pretty much," Nathan laughed in return, tossing the cross tot over his shoulder and heading for her room.

Buck took a hot shower, got the coffee started and flipped the television on. He paused at the Sports Classic channel that was showing an NFC championship game from the early seventies. He pulled out some eggs, ham, peppers, onion and a hunk of cheddar cheese from the refrigerator. He had all he needed for a 'Buck Wilmington' special. He padded down the hall and tapped on Vin's door. It moved a little, parting enough for him to see inside.


He peeked inside and saw that the younger man was still asleep. He knew Vin had spent a restless night; he'd heard him pacing and the toilet flushing several times. Fearing a virus snuck up on him, he walked over to the bed and felt Vin's face. The eyes shot open and a hand came up defensively. He saw the eyes darting fearfully, still not completely awake.

"Sorry, slick," he winced. "You okay? You're usually up by now."

"Chris here?" Vin coughed and reached for the mug he usually had by the bed. "Aw, hell... drier than a buzzard's butt."

"You drained it," Buck said. "I'll get you some more. Stomach okay?"

"Huh?" Vin sat up, blinked several times and tried to get his bearings. Actually, Buck's assessment wasn't far from the truth. He really didn't feel too good. "Ain't feelin' s'hot today. Mebbe I better take it easy."

"Alright, you don't want to eat?"

"Naw, not jest yet. Mebbe some tea, doused good."

"Is there any other way?" Buck teased, knowing the Texan's notorious sweet tooth. He went into the bathroom and ran the water for a few seconds until it got cold. Then he filled Vin's mug, snapped the lid on and came back into the room.

"Thanks," Vin nodded, took a good drink and paused. "Sun up yet?"

"Yeah, been up. It's almost ten."

"Yer shittin' me!" Vin frowned. "Chris ain't here?"

"I think my feelings are hurt," Buck feigned, then saw some concern settling on the Texan's features. "He's okay, Vin. He's gettin' a couple days off. He's been burnin' the candle at both ends the last few weeks. Nate's comin' by this afternoon and Ezra'll come by in the morning."

Vin nodded mutely. For some reason, he heard unspoken words in Buck's message. Chris didn't come because he was tired of being his nursemaid. Wasn't that what Buck really meant? He was worn out because he was tired of babysitting a grown man. Fine. Let him sit on that damn ranch.

"Well... uh..." Buck hesitated. Vin was scowling and the free hand was now gripping the side of the bed hard. "You need anything? I'll get you that tea now..."

"...slow boil... I'm gettin' a shower first..." He rose and put a hand up when he felt Buck move closer. "..I don't need ya wipin' m'ass fer me. I know how t'run m'bathroom."

"You know how to run that mouth too," Buck snapped. "Seems when you lost your sight, your manners went with it. I'll be in the kitchen."

"Yeah... fine." Vin shoved the hand away and waited for the footsteps to recede. He moved his fingers over the table by his bed until he found the phone. Chris was the first number on speed dial and he quickly hit it. The machine came on after three rings.

"Stay the hell home... don't need no interferin', six-foot nursemaid gettin' in m'face. Don't worry on me, I'll stumble around jest fine," he snapped and didn't like the sick feeling creeping over him. "Oh... have a good weekend!"

He slammed the phone down and kicked the table leg in frustration. He was losing control and he didn't like it one bit. He got his bearings and carefully counted his steps until he was inside his bathroom.

Buck was right; he knew that and he didn't like that either. He covered his cast in the plastic case and tugged his sweats off. He ran the shower and when the temperature was just right, he climbed in. He tried to ignore Buck's words but they bounced off every tile in his shower. Why was he angry all the time? Why couldn't he control his raging emotions? Hell, most people would give anything to have friends as good as he had. As the hot water cascaded down his spent body, he rested his face against the tiles and let his shoulders sag a bit. The darkness that was everywhere was defeating him and he didn't like it.

Larabee Ranch
Eleven a.m.


The body sat up with a start and the owner shook his head clear. He blinked at the bright sunlight streaming in his window and his green eyes moved to the clock. For a moment, he blinked at the numbers and it didn't register. It had to be a mistake. Then a voice interrupted his stupor and he realized he was fully awake and staring at the correct time.



He jumped up, pulled some sweat pants on and jogged down the stairs towards the door. From the side window in the entryway, he saw Nathan Jackson's profile.

"What's wrong? Who got hurt?" he asked after he jerked the door open.

"Nobody got hurt, we're all fine. You look like hell." The tall man shook his dark head and followed the slightly disoriented blond into his home.

"Dammit, Nate, I overslept. I should have..." he turned and headed back for his stairs, "...been at Vin's hours ago."

"Hold it!" Nathan followed and grabbed the bare arm as he hit the railing. "You're off duty this weekend. You've been carryin' way too much, Chris. Stoppin' at Vin's in the mornin' and then goin' to work, it's too much. You need the rest. We got it covered for the weekend."

"Vin know?" Chris asked, his voice not hiding his relief. He was exhausted. He eyed the timer on the coffeemaker and was grateful for the fancy device that Ezra had gifted him with last Christmas. It ground up the fresh beans and made excellent coffee. He had his hand on the pot when the reply came. His eyes hit the phone just as the EMT spoke.

"I'm guessin' that blinkin' red light would be him." Nathan pulled two mugs from Larabee's cabinet.

"Pissed, huh?"

"Royally," Jackson replied. "I talked to Buck a few minutes ago. Vin's in his usual cranky mood but Buck said he's gettin' around good. Showered, shaved and dressed himself. Got himself some toast and went out for a walk."

"Yeah?" Chris's eyes widened. "That's good. He's done each one separately but never strung them together." He reached over and pressed the play button on his machine. He hissed and shook his head as the angry drawl slide out.

"He's fired up good," Nathan said, resting a hand on Chris's back. "Boy's about to drown in self-pity. Could be a good thing you're not there. I think you both need some time off. He's startin' to depend on you too much."

"Yeah," Chris agreed, deciding to wait until later to call Vin back. "You eat?"

"I'm good." Nathan held up his mug.

"So why else are you here?" Chris tugged out some milk, reached for the cereal and added some cantaloupe. "You could have told me that on the phone." He put the items on the counter to reach for the utensil drawer.

"This is why I'm here." Nathan put his mug down and directed the still groggy man's face towards the silver reflective surface of the breadbox on the counter. "You look awful. You're startin' to look like a raccoon."

"I'm fine," Chris snapped, pausing while picking up a spoon. He frowned a bit, wondering why every bone in his body seemed to ache today. He grabbed a fork and knife as well and turned to gather up his breakfast.

"I got it," Nathan said.

He picked up the bowl, Chris's mug and the other items the blond left behind. He made a second trip to get the coffee, his mug and the sugar. Finally, they settled at Chris's pine table and he studied the other man as he worked on the cantaloupe. He waited until the fruit was cut up and the cereal and milk were in the bowl. Finally, after three mouthfuls of food, the weary leader paused and his face came up slowly.

"I'm sorry, Nate, you didn't deserve that." Chris sighed hard, reached for the place where his juice should be. "Shit..."



"I'll get it." Nathan left briefly to pour the tired man some orange juice. "Drink it all, you need it."

"Truth be told, Nathan," Chris admitted, draining the juice with his vitamins, "I don't know when I've been this tired."

"Not sleepin' at night will do that," Jackson agreed. "Not to mention the load you've been carrying. You ain't that young anymore. You got too much ridin' on them shoulders. Hey..." He waited for Chris to look up at him. "How 'bout sharin' the load, okay? Sometimes talkin' does a lot to ease that weight."

Chris nodded, absorbed the words carefully and continued his meal. Nathan was right and he'd be doing the same thing if the shoe was on the other foot. Tossing and turning every night, worrying about Vin, the team and their future, was eating away at him. It was as if he had pieces of broken glass in front of him and needed the right glue for the repair. He finished his meal and took the dishes to the sink. He turned and nodded to Nathan.

"Maybe you're right. I'll get a shower. You saddle up a couple of horses. The sun's out strong today."

"You got it, boss!" Nathan nodded.

Aspen Arms , Rocky Mountains, Colorado
Saturday afternoon

Josiah Sanchez eyed the gray sweat suit he wore and sighed hard. Even the colors reminded him of prison. The starkness all around him seemed to be colored in gray as well. Everywhere he went, the same 'safe' aura existed. Someone telling you when to get up, what to wear and where to 'march'. Someone watching your every move; there was no privacy. He felt like a broken bird in a cage. Freedom was just beyond the perch.


He didn't mean that in the usual definition. This facility was one of the best in the world and he was lucky to have been placed here. He was grateful and he thanked God every day for that. It could have been so much worse. He could have done jail time instead of finally facing his problem. But although his room was not bound by bars, they still existed. He couldn't leave until the powers-that-be deemed him competent to live in society again. As he learned in his initial meeting with his therapist, that would be a hard road. Funny, as often as he'd visited places like this as a minister, he'd never realized how humbling they were. He felt stripped naked in front of God and that bothered him The first week had gone by swiftly. The first twenty-four hours he'd been under a suicide watch. He'd balked at first but Lauren told him that was fairly normal for a new admit with his trouble. So he'd been placed in a stark room with a single bed bolted to the floor and clad only in his boxers. They wouldn't leave anything to chance or leave him anyway to kill himself. He'd been under constant supervision with trained personal writing down his activities every few hours. Not that there was much to report. The only thing he did in the glass-walled room was sleep or pray.

But then after the first couple of days, he'd met the psychotherapist who would be in charge of him during his rehabilitation. His prayers were answered and he dropped to his knees that night and poured his heart out in thanks. Lauren Tremaine was not just one of the best in her field, she happened to be on staff at Aspen Arms. That she was an old friend who knew David and Tess would be, he hoped, a critical factor in his healing. The twenty-five years since they'd seen each other suddenly didn't matter as much. He trusted her with his broken heart and soul; she could help him find the light again.

His days were very full with both group therapy and support groups meetings. He ate with the others in a communal dining room. Last night, he'd even joined some of the other misguided souls in the community room. There was a movie playing on the television and a few others who were playing cards. One gentleman was looking for a partner at checkers. He nodded to the other man who appeared to be about thirty. His thinning hair and world-weary eyes made him seem much older. He'd found out the young man's name was Josh and he'd attempted to take his own life. He was a drug abuser whose father was a very wealthy real estate mogul. By the end of the second game, when the orderly came to get them for 'lights out', he'd made a new friend.

But as full as his days were, so were his nights empty. Despite the security and watchful eyes of the nurses and aides, they came into his room. They slipped in between the shadows, honing their pitchforks and just waiting for him to fall asleep. The first few nights, the hours between dusk and dawn had been brutal. His sweat-soaked dreams were vicious and in vivid color. The screeching tires seemed to be inside his head and that eternal scream of his only child was seared into his brain. It melded into another scream and he saw another pair of terrified blue eyes. Eyes that were screaming at him in shock, bewilderment and terror.

The details of that black night had never returned. But the damage was still real. Vin Tanner's broken body and unseeing eyes were real enough. They weren't an illusion or a delusion brought on by a raging drunk who'd buried his guilt for too many years. Because he was a coward, Vin Tanner was blind. A young man who had celebrated the rise of the sun each day like no one he'd ever met was now trapped in a world of darkness.

By his hand.

He eyed his hands and wondered about them. He used to think they were gifts given from God to help his brothers. That his strength was the machine those hands used to carry the suffering who could not walk, aid those who staggered under the pressures of the life they led and cradle those who were spiritually crippled.

Instead, he'd used them as tools of destruction. He'd turned on a young man he loved like a brother. He'd used these 'gifts' to mar and maim. When he'd broken those bones and ripped that flesh, he'd taken Vin Tanner's heart and soul as well.


He blinked as his group leader appeared. It was appropriate that this afternoon's session was for Anger Management. He noticed that the empty chairs that had been here just a few moments ago were filled. Six lost souls now occupied a circle. Ted Dorset was the group leader having survived this ordeal years ago successfully. His substance abuse had led to a hot-tempered rampage that left his home in ashes and his wife scarred. Now, he helped others through that mine field.

"Is there a problem with your hands?" Ted asked, taking his chair.

"Instead of being a cradle," he cupped his hands in a supportive mold, "they became clubs." He turned them over into fists.

"Did you hurt someone?"

Josiah turned to the young woman who'd asked him. He thought her name was Marci or Staci; he couldn't remember. He was in three such groups, the others being Grief and Loss and Substance Abuse. The faces seemed to blend together and he just couldn't recall this woman's name. Her spiky blond hair was dark at the roots and her nails were bitten way down. The scars on her arms and face were self-inflicted. She seemed far too troubled for one so young. Maybe this circle would be a healing arc; maybe they could hold each other's soul.

"Yes... someone who trusted me... looked up to me." He shifted in his chair and swallowed hard. He touched the palm of his one hand gingerly, still recalling the night Vin reached out to him in the dark. "...I saw... him... later... in the hospital. Horrible... all broken... his face... swollen... his eyes ... I took his eyes..."

"Go on, Josiah," Ted encouraged. "You're doing fine. Tell us about your friend."

"Vin... a fine young man, a gifted artist, skilled in the songs of the heart. I used to tease him that he was born too late, his place was at Camelot," he paused as they chuckled. "That night... he held my hand. He couldn't see... was afraid... confused. I was... he trusted..." He shook his head and tears filled his eyes. "Don't you see? He didn't know. That these... these... weapons..." he raged, shaking his hands, "took his eyes, broke his body... God forgive me, he didn't know and I didn't... couldn't tell him. I was his lifeline... he was lost..." He choked, dropped his head and sobbed. He felt a hand on his back and heard soothing words.

He recalled an older man on that side, Gus or Gil maybe? That touch he now felt from a father. Someone who knew pain, had taken and given it equally. He'd lost a child too, to the war and never forgave himself or his country. They each offered words of support and he grabbed each one and ate them like a starving child. The circle was endless, a universal symbol of eternal life. He couldn't help feel that power now as the circle became a part of him. He eyed his own hands and wondered when he would be strong enough to once again use his gift.

Part Eleven

Outskirts of Larabee Ranch
Early afternoon

The brisk ride was invigorating for both men, inhaling the cold, crisp air as they rode. Nathan wanted to talk to his friend about the stress he was under. He was glad that Chris had invited him along for this ride and was willing to wait for him to pick the moment to unwind. He knew just how hard the team leader pushed himself. He knew by the shadows lingering on his face that his friend was under a great deal of emotional strain. His experience as a medic told him just how serious that could be if that pressure wasn't released. Just then Chris raced ahead and he urged his own horse to follow. A small smile crept on his face when he saw where the blond had stopped. He should have known. It wasn't just a beautiful overlook, taking in the mountains, lakes and landscape for miles around.

"The broodin' place," he offered as he climbed down from his horse.

Nathan saw the handsome blond turn and adjust his sunglasses. The sun-kissed head dipped once, his lips turning up at Vin Tanner's name for the pretty spot. It was where Chris went to think, mourn or relieve his emotional burdens. Usually, he went alone; occasionally, he'd ask Vin to join him. Nathan had never been here in person, only heard of it through Vin. He felt almost honored that Chris was sharing this place and time with him here. He followed Chris down a short hill to where a series of flat rocks overlooked the icy river. He paused next to the silent man whose eyes roamed the area as if seeking someone else.

"A Vin day," Chris finally spoke, tossing some stones into the water. He tugged the collar of his Sherpa jacket up and eyed the unbelievable blue in the sky. "He would have been lost up here all day. He'd drag his sorry Tanner ass in the door after dark, half-frozen..." He paused and pulled out his 'Tanner' accent. "Damn, Lar'bee, git yer ass t'the stove, I'm likely t'starve t'death. Wrassle up some vittles..."

"Those days aren't done, Chris."

"Aren't they?" Chris shook his head, tossing another stone and watching carefully as Vin's ghost hovered nearby.

"You tell me. What do you see out there?"

"Appearances are deceiving," he replied of the 'clear' sky. "Right now, the only thing I see is a throbbing red cloud, from the time I wake up until I try to sleep. Nothing but shadows and pain."

"Okay." Nathan moved a few feet away and rested on a rock. "Let's talk about that. I know you've been thinking on the team's future. Orrin said yesterday he'd like to bring Marco Santorini in to replace Vin."

"That was my choice," Chris interrupted. "Next to Vin, Marco's the best shot in the state. He's got a cool head, keeps his mouth shut."

"...and he drives Buck nuts," the EMT joked of the other infamous 'womanizer' in the local law enforcement family. At four inches over six feet, the dark-haired, dark-eyed sniper from the city's SWAT team had a string of female admirers as long as Buck's. He sang, drove race cars as a hobby and his family owned a local Italian eatery. He was very well liked among the federal and local law enforcers alike.

"Yeah," Chris chuckled. "Remember that time last summer they were both dating that actress?"

"Do I?" Nathan laughed. "Buck damn near 'wooed' himself into the hospital he was so wore out."

"He's a good man. If worse gets to worse, Orrin'll okay the transfer. But for now, it's temporary. He'll be on call whenever we need him."

"Vin don't know yet?"

"No, I was gonna tell him today. I didn't want him to hear it from anybody else," he warned.

"And he won't. I'll update the others."

"I didn't think it would be this hard." Chris began sorting through the many measures weighing him down. "Somehow, I thought I would be able to... put the new pieces in the puzzle and the damn thing would still fit the same."

"Different fit, different picture, don't mean it's not a good one," Nathan tossed in. "You love your favorite boots, the ones you been wearin' for years. They're broke in right, comfortable and never fail you. But one day you have to get new ones. They're stiff at first, make you wince at times and cuss a bit. But given time and patience, they get broke in to."

"...or thrown out." Chris shook his head. That wasn't the right answer and he knew it. "Look, don't get me wrong, Marco's a helluva guy, I like him. And whatever profiler the department assigns to replace Josiah, I'm sure he'll be good too but..." He paused and glared at Tanner's ghost which was fading away too fast.

"When I selected all of you for this team... I can't explain it, but I felt something inside, Nathan. Something that went down to the core. Over time, that feeling became the hole inside that began to close. A hollow side of Hell I'd been living in... went away. I just don't know, Nate, if I can get that back. I'm afraid if Vin and Josiah leave..."

"If that situation happens," Nathan replied, his words leaving puffs in the cold mountain air, "Vin don't get his eyes back and Josiah doesn't return, then we go on as a team. We can still kick ass on the job, that won't change. New players won't change the man that's leadin' the charge." He moved closer and stood next to the troubled blond. "And Vin and Josiah will still be a part of our brotherhood. That won't change until one of us gets called up to play poker with Saint Peter."

Chris chuckled and turned to the other man. "That I'd pay to see, Ezra and Saint Peter playing poker."

"Mother wouldn't approve," Nathan mimicked of Ezra speaking on his mother, Maude Standish.

"Next month, after the New Year starts and the holidays are over, I'm going to have a group meeting. We need to talk, together, all of us putting it out there. Each man will be responsible for writing down his thoughts, his hates, angers, hopes. Then we'll go see Josiah, together, as a group." He took a breath and continued. "We air it out, then we go on. Josiah is still a part of us, you're right. I've been reading a lot about PTSD and as a father who lost a child, I know that dark place. I know he'd give his eyes to Vin if he could."

"Oh, yeah," Nathan agreed. "He's burnin' a line to the Lord prayin' on him." He studied the handsome profile then and wondered what else was trapped inside the pensive blond. "How are you, Chris?"

"Tired, Nathan," Chris rasped, sighing hard. "More tired than I've been since I lost Adam and Sara. Weary to the bone."

"Then rest, brother," Nathan suggested gently.

"How?" Chris shook his head. "Every time I close my eyes, I either see Vin lying in a pool of blood or Josiah standin' over him with an empty bottle of booze in one hand and a club in the other."

"Josiah had twenty-five years of guilt inside, not just that liquor," Nathan defended. "He's finally in a place where he will get help, he'll heal. Put yourself in his place, Chris. What if you and Sara had a fight and you got so loud it scared Adam out of the house? What if his scream was the last sound he made?"

"It couldn't hurt any worse than findin' what was left of them after that maniac incinerated them. I hear those screams in my sleep. The ones I wasn't here to answer in person. That my child cried out for me in his time of need." Chris jerked away and walked briskly towards the water. "This isn't about me. I got help."

"No, but it could have been. Didn't you ever wake up some mornin's after goin' to bed with Jack Daniels and Jim Beam and wonder? You sayin' ya never saw a swollen face in the mirror all cut to hell and didn't wonder about the other guy? Whether he was wakin' up or lyin' on a slab, a John Doe? You never lost days... blackouts in time..."

"Alright, Nathan, I get the point!" Chris snapped, turning back to face his tormenter. "I'm trying to forgive him. He's a friend, you think it's easy for me? It's hard enough wearing two hats," he noted of his dual role as supervisor and friend. "I have to find balance so I don't feel guilty when I look at Vin and forgive Josiah."

"You shouldn't. Once Vin gets through these stages, he'll see it that way. He has to if he wants to heal. Bitterness will drown him and for all the fightin' and cussin' he's doin' now, underneath it all, he's a winner, a champion. He's got too much light inside him to cross over to the dark."

"Vin? You want to talk about Vin? Jesus, Nate, I've never had to pull out such bullshit philosophy." His brows furrowed and he imitated his own lectures to the blind sharpshooter. "You'll do fine, Vin. You're smart, you'll go on. We'll all be here to help..."

"What's wrong with that?"

"Oh, come on, Nate," he glared, huffing in annoyance, eyeing the Tanner ghost that now faded completely from his vision. "That's bullshit. You know it, I know it and Vin sure as hell knows it. His life is his eyes. Not just his job, that goes without saying. This," he moved his gloved hand over the glorious landscape, "this is the only Mother Vin knows, this is the breast that fed him and comforted him. He spends hours up here, taking pictures, writing poems, climbing the Goddamn rocks. I just can't see him without it... it's such an integral part of him... his heart and soul..."

"His heart and soul is lookin' back at me," Nathan dictated of the unique bond the two men shared. "And if Vin doesn't regain his sight, then he'll find new horizons. He is everything you said, Chris, but he's also a survivor. Hell, he's battled obstacles his whole life and he's always triumphed."

"Not like this," Chris shook his head. "I'm running out of platitudes, Nathan. I'm losing him."

So that was it. Nathan heard and felt the power of that break in the last three words. He watched Chris swallow the lump in his throat and walk briskly away. Without uttering another word, the blond climbed on his horse and rode back towards the ranch. Nathan just hoped this visit to Larabee's sanctuary helped. He hoped that those shadows would ease up and his friend would regain his balance. He had to if the group of seven were to survive.

Chris looked up from the barn when Nathan finally rode in. He took the reins as the other man climbed down. He gave the jacketed shoulder a solid tug and nodded once. He did feel better and Nathan had given him a dose of medicine that maybe he'd needed.

"You got balls, Jackson," Chris grinned, shaking the hand extended.

"Wife ain't complainin'," Nathan teased.

"No, I don't imagine she would." He walked the tall man back to his car in the long driveway. "Thanks, Nate, I do feel better. You tell Josiah I'm thinking about him and as soon as the doctor agrees, I'll come see him."

"I will." He paused. "I got a half hour with him tomorrow; I'm takin' his Bible up. They okayed him to have it."

"That's great, I know how important that is to him, his Dad's?"

"Yeah," Nathan answered. "For what it's worth, Chris," he unlocked his door and turned, "I don't know anyone that could juggle all the shit that was thrown at you and still hold their head up. Just lookin' at you, I'm learnin' about real courage and why some men are truly born to lead."

"Some days, I wish I was 'born to run'," Chris teased.

"Or at least had the Boss's bank account," Nathan joked of Bruce Springsteen.

"...and the groupies..." Chris smiled, then gripped Nathan's forearm.

Nathan was startled by the gesture reserved only for Vin Tanner. But he accepted the compliment as it was given. "Man can't lend a hand to his brother, he ain't much of a man." "His handsome brother," Chris corrected.

"His older brother," Nathan laughed. "Much older..."

"You watch it, Jackson. I heard there was an opening in Juneau."

"Aye, aye, Captain," Nathan saluted and drove away.

Chris spent another couple of hours in the barn, tending to the horses and neglected chores. By the time he hit the house, he was bone weary, his head hurt and he'd developed a cough.

"Just my luck," he grumbled, taking his aching body up the stairs for a shower. "Damn Texan isn't even here and I caught a Tanner cold."

He stripped out of his clothes and was heading for the shower when the phone rang. He caught it on the third ring.


"Jest checkin' t'see if yer still alive. In case ya fergot, name's Tanner..."

Chris clenched his eyes shut and the waves of pain didn't pause. He jammed his fingers onto the bridge of his nose as the irate voice continued to berate him. He interrupted a steam of abuse colored with far too many f-bombs.

"Yeah, well, I would have called sooner, Vin, but what with the wild party I threw last night and all the hookers that had to shower and be driven home today...."

"Ya think this is funny?" Vin fumed. "Yer squattin' up there like fuckin' Midas. Got a Goddamn ranch, horses, sunrises every day. I got nuthin' but a fuckin' black wall."

"Funny? I think it's a real laugh riot, Vin. I'm only flesh and blood, not steel. For a week now, all I get between running from my house to my job is an earful of Tanner shit. I'm tired, Vin, and my head's about to fall the hell off. Right now I got a team shattered to pieces and I gotta find the right glue to fix it so we work again. Your fuckin' pity party isn't on the list!" he vented and slammed the phone down.

"GODDAMMIT!" He punched the doorframe, punishing it for his loss of temper.

He'd vowed he wouldn't let Vin push him over the edge no matter how hard it got. He simmered all through his shower, scrubbing his body and trying to wash the pain away. He dressed and padded back downstairs, now feeling the congestion coming on full force. He spotted the beef stew he'd defrosted and tossed the container in the microwave. He grabbed a roll and tossed it in the toaster oven to heat up. He tossed two Tylenol back with a bottle of iced tea and devoured his meal. By the time he found the couch, the worn comforter and an old movie, he was too exhausted to figure out how to fix all his problems and he slept.


Nathan paused in Vin's kitchen, hearing half of the argument the fired-up tracker had had with Chris Larabee. He waited while the slim body felt its way around the kitchen, pausing occasionally to curse, punch the counter and scowl. Finally, the blind man counted carefully, finding the table where he'd left his quart cup of coke. He felt the lid to ensure it was snapped on and then he made his way back to his room, counting every step.

"Proud of yourself?" Nathan asked when the Texan settled on his bed. "Leave me be..." Vin rasped, shaken by his latest battle. They were getting worse and he seemed to have no control over them. Worst of all, all the venom was directed at his best friend, the brother he had always yearned for and finally found.

"Sorry, Vin, not this time," Nathan directed, entering the room. He fished through Vin's bedside table and got out the box of tapes, the player and the headphones. He put the headphones on the squirming head and then plugged it into the machine on Vin's neck. "You're gonna keep your orn'ry hide in here and listen to every one of these tapes. They're in order left to right." He guided the resisting hand to the left end of the box. "You listen good - real good - to every word this stranger is spoutin'. Then maybe you can look in here," he tapped the flannel covered chest, "and find Vin Tanner. You bring him on home."

He left the now silent injured man and returned to the kitchen. He pulled out a beer and settled in the living room, watching a football game. Ezra would be here in a couple of hours and he was bringing Chinese food for dinner. He was counting the minutes until the southerner arrived and he could depart. It had been a long day and all he wanted was to go home to his wife and child. He wanted to watch his two-year-old make a mess of her dinner, laugh at the Winnie-the-Pooh tape she was addicted to and play in the tub. Then once she was asleep, he wanted to worship his wife's body and surrender to her rapture.

Vin didn't know how many hours had passed. He heard Ezra tap once and ask if he was hungry. He wasn't. He was far from hungry; he was sick. He'd listened to every painful word, every filthy slur and every heated insult. He didn't recognize the voice or the stranger on the tape, but it cut him to the core, taking what little he had left. The remnants of his pride were in shambles. He'd never been so ashamed of himself. He stumbled to the bathroom and threw up his coke. He sank to the floor, sitting between the toilet and sink. He rocked in silent agony, in the darkness that was his only world. He saw his Jasmine's face appear; she was laughing and reaching out for him. He heard the echoes of his friends' laughter in his head. He felt their strength, that unsurpassable feeling of invincibility when they were together.

"No..." he whispered, reaching out as they slipped away and he was alone again.

So he sat on the cold tile floor in the dark and put his headphones on again. He listened again to the monster that he'd created. The blisters lingered in his ears, festering and throbbing. His chest hurt, his head ached and his heart broke. For a moment, he swore he felt the one person in the room that he needed most. He reached a shaking hand up... hoping... praying...


The guiding hand of his best friend was not there to hold him, but he wasn't alone. He never had been. Why couldn't he have seen that?

"Please..." he begged, raising his shimmering eyes skyward, "...hear me. I'm so ashamed I got no idea where t'start. Can barely git m'head up t'face ya.. I'm sorry... fer every word... I know I got no call to ask... but iffen ya can fergive... me... Lord. Please..." he begged, the salty drops of penance hovered on long lashes. "I'll clean up m'act, I'll make it right with all o'em. I'll come t'church, I'll be a good 'zample fer the lil' one. I won't swear no more. I'll dress better... talk proper. I'll do whatever... ya want..." he bargained, unseeing eyes wet. "Jest don't take m'eyes. Please..."

And he wept.

As Sunday mornings go, this was a true winner. Although the temperature was cold and the air brisk, the mood couldn't be sunnier. There was a zest in the air that comes when Christmas is just around the corner. Somewhere in the house, Frank Sinatra was singing about 'snow and mistletoe'. Just a few miles away at the mall hundreds of shoppers were spilling into the stores, filling their Christmas lists and others were headed up the mountain to cut down that 'perfect tree'.

The colors of Christmas were many, far beyond the traditional Santa Clause red and Christmas tree green. Dazzling gold ribbons and trim, glittering silver lights and tinsel, the blue of Mary's cloak as she held her son, the rich burgundy of velvet bows and the Victorian rose and cream ornaments that graced the store windows.

But to the solitary figure on the hill, Christmas was white and always would be. The snow that fell on Christmas Eve so softly it always awed him. Then there were the linens on the dinner table, holding all the fine food for the gathered family to give grace for and share. There were the choir robes of the gifted souls who sang about the 'newborn king'. But mostly, there was that Star.

He'd heard the story of course, as had generations before him. A timeless tale about three wisemen who put their faith in God and followed that Star. It was born in a midnight blue sky at the same time the Lord sent his only son to Earth. It was magnificent, with a luster that had no equal, now or then. A shade of white just past perfection. A shining example of faith that the world had been awaiting for centuries.

The 'gift's that the Magi brought for Him had always represented faith, hope and love. Vin reflected on his own life. How many times had he been lost and in the dark? He'd searched hard for that star and it finally had led him home. He knew that now, he was home. No matter if he woke up tomorrow seeing that blue sky again or not. This place, the very special place that filled him with such peace he swore he was nestled in God's bosom. He pulled his collar up and inhaled the cold mountain air. The sweetest air; there was none quite like it anywhere. He cocked his head and listened as the creatures of the sky and forest began to sing. With their chorus in his ears, he thought on his troubles and what steps he needed to take to make amends for what he'd done.

Ezra tapped on Vin's door and frowned when a muffled reply or loud string of curses that would make a trucker proud didn't hit his ears. He was an early riser and had already read two papers, made coffee and put a French Toast recipe in the oven. It was one of Vin's favorites and he hoped it would lift the Texan's sagging spirits. He'd arrived late the previous evening and found a pale, listless body in the rocker by the fire. He'd come prepared to face spit and vinegar, but he'd found a broken soul. Vin hadn't uttered a single word, until he headed for bed. Ezra wished he hadn't. That raspy 'night Ez' had pierced his chest hard.


He pushed the door open and was surprised to find the bed empty. He checked the bathroom but it too was vacant. He went to the door and opened it, peeking outside. His thick Aran sweater was well suited for the cold morning. He walked onto Vin's patio and saw the Texan huddled on the crest of the hill, facing his beloved mountain.

"Wonderful idea, pneumonia..." he muttered, walking to the end of the patio. "It's much too cold for you to be outside!" He hollered.

"Yer outside, ain't ya?" Vin reasoned back a bit perturbed

"I'm not... well I am but..not..." he hissed in annoyance. How did Vin seem to twist his logic up every time? "Breakfast is nearly done. Do you have gloves on?"

"Yeah Ma!" Vin snapped, holding his hand up.

"Do you require assistance?" Ezra asked, wondering how Vin had gotten dressed and outside without his knowledge.

"Got here... reckon I can git back." Vin rolled and carefully pushed off his knees. "Ya stay put. Yer wearin' them fancy shoes ain't ya? Them girly ones that ain't good fer shit, ye'll go sailin' the hell off the mountain ."

"They're Armani and I'll have you know..." he began and saw Vin's uncasted hand come up.

"Save yer breath... all them zeros on the tag don't mean shit. Fussy and fancyÉgirl shoes..." Vin was panting by the time he felt his boot hit concrete. He didn't protest when Ezra steadied him. "Reckon somewhere ya got a rite nice dress hid what matches 'em."

"You're freezing!" Ezra frowned, eyeing the reddened features which made the Texan's eyes all the bluer. His guiding hand on Vin's elbow didn't miss the thin material of the coat. "You're overly attached to that unsightly garment..."

"It ain't fer sale!" Vin touted of his prized buckskin coat, which the Southerner took a special delight in making fun of. "Save yer breath."

"And I was reaching for my checkbook," Ezra replied, leading Vin towards the fire. He nearly fell into the younger men when Tanner stopped walking. "If this is some sort of..."


"Yes, coffee. I took the liberty of making Viennese. I know you like that." His brows knit when the slim man sat down in the rocker, his unseeing eyes fixed on something or someone far away. The poignant tone in the wispy voice coupled with that damned Adam's apple moving made him uncomfortable.

"Are you alright?"

"It puts m'Ma t'mind."

Vin's voice was barely a whisper and he fought to embrace that tattered memory. The soothing hand rubbing his back over a worn but true quilt. The gentle motion of the rocker, her soft voice singing a lullaby and snuggling into her close. Hearing her heart beat and inhaling the scent of cinnamon. He held onto it hard, clutching it tightly inside. It was his most prized possession.

"Here," Ezra held the mug out. "And before you inquire, it does have the required ungodly amount of sugar in it."

"Thanks!" Vin smiled and took a sip, relishing the flavor. "s'good. I think mebbe my Ma liked to bake. That smell, it's all I got left o'her. I's only five when she passed, don't recall nuthin' clear. But... I," his voice wavered and dropped down to a gentle hush. "I got a picture in m'box."

Ezra smiled at that, knowing that Vin Tanner's 'box' was buried deep in his chest and guarded like FortKnox. All his 'pictures' those images captured over the good and bad times in his life were stored inside. Every once and again, he'd open that box and take one out, sharing it with his family.

"I's a mite scrawny." he smiled, "weren't fer the hair, I wouldn't weighed nuthin'"

"And you speak of that in the past tense?"

"I can whup yer sorry Rebel ass," Vin declared, thrusting his chest out a bit.

"One wager I would have to pass upon".

"That picture fades a bit every year." Vin sighed hard and placed the mug on the table next to him. "That bothers me some. I can't recall her voice but..." he cocked his head and tenderly held his picture out. "Certain things bring 'er right back. Bein' wrapped up in a soft quilt, real tight t'her. She's rockin' me, singin' sweet and hearin' her heart. Everytime I smell cinnamon, 'specially at this time o'year, my picture gets t'glowin' real good. Kinda bittersweet ya know?

"I do, Vin," Ezra returned quietly and rose, giving the other man's shoulder a pat. "And thank you for showing me your picture."

He noted the change in the injured man's personality. Having read the book Chris gave them on the five stages of acceptance, he theorized that the Texan was beyond the anger phase. If he recalled correctly, the next one was bargaining. He wondered if Vin's trip outside and this one down memory lane weren't tied to that. He didn't look forward to the next stage, depression, and only hoped it didn't last long. There was nothing quite sadder than a broken-hearted Tanner.

"It's funny, you have such warm and vivid memories of your mother, despite that they're over twenty years past. I have few at all in over thirty."

"She done her best," Vin defended of Maude Standish, "Everybody ain't cut out fer bein' a Ma." He smiled then, recalling the last visit of the very colorful conwoman. "'sides, she took a shine t'me."

"I still haven't figured that out," Ezra pondered. When Maude did call him, after inquiring on his health, it was Vin she next asked about. His lips turned up as he heard her voice 'and how's that darlin' Texan?'. "Perhaps you have incriminating photos?"

"Naw," Vin rubbed his eyes and felt a headache giving birth the hard way. "Ya told me she's got a good eye. Reckon that'd do it. Ain't yer fault, we all can't be Tanners."

"Nor gifted with that Tanner ass," Ezra teased and saw Vin flush a bit.

"She ain't real shy with them hands o'hers," the sly Texan recalled of the pats to his backside.

"Mother prides herself on having a good eye." Ezra noted.

"Hell, could be I might be yer Pa one day," Vin chuckled and then that absurd thought turned into a laugh.

"Right after the day I elope with Mister Wilmington," Ezra drolled heading for the kitchen. "Are you hungry?"

"Naw," Vin yawned and thought of the sofa just a few feet away. The fire felt so good and that afghan on the sofa would be perfect. He stood and shuffled over, carefully counting the steps. "Feelin' a bit gray today, stow it fer me, mebbe later."

"Are you ill?" Ezra peered into the living room from the kitchen. He saw Vin sit on the sofa and then frown, lifting his booted feet. He put his spatula down and moved to the injured man's side. "Don't," he warned when Vin went to bend over. "Your ribs are still healing. How did you get hem on?"

"On's easy, jest slide m'feet inside. Off's another story" Vin said as the boots were removed. "Thanks."

"Good Lord, what died inside them?" Ezra choked.

"Sorry... fergot to warn ya, they're a bit ripe..." He wiggled his toes. "Socks'r about a week shy o'a bath."

"I'd forgo the bath and head for the cemetery." Ezra carried the offensive boots to the front door and placed them outside.

"Go on and eat, I'm gonna hunker down. Don't worry 'bout lunch. M'belly's got some orn'ry frogs matin' like hell inside."

Ezra wrinkled his nose at the analogy and observed the fine features now pinched in pain. He knew the concussion was severe and the bad headaches came without warning. Vin was struggling with his good arm to find the blanket. Ezra moved in and pulled the afghan over the yawning man. Fearing a virus was settling in, he had his hand paused over Vin's face when a sharp warning was issued.

"Yer hand gits any closer and them card sharks ya run with'll be callin' ya Four-finger Standish. M'fine... quit motherin' me."

"Your instincts haven't suffered," Ezra lauded, "Very well. Perhaps some soup and grilled cheese later?"

"Mebbe," Vin agreed, letting his eyes shut. "Don't be sneakin' that fucked up goat cheese inta m'sandwich."

"I'll keep that in mind," Ezra smiled and hoped that this Vin, the old one he knew so well would remain.

Sunday afternoon

Josiah felt lighter today and with every group or therapy session, he felt a peace growing inside. Here within these walls shared by troubled souls like himself, he found the right tools to conquer his demons. He didn't know why or how, but he knew this was the true path to salvation. He remained on his knees and bowed his head, seeking out the words to give him the strength to continue.

"The bricks have fallen down but we will build again with hewn stones; the sycamores are cut down but will change them into cedars," he quoted Isaiah 9:10.

His mind went to two blue-eyed victims. They never met and were separated by a quarter of a century but they were linked now, entwined by the fate that was rendered by his two hands.

David was the beautiful child that God gifted him with twenty five years past. Vin Tanner was a young man whose soul had touched him deeply, not unlike his own son. Now they shared this perilous journey with him, each walking in his shadow. Would he be able to find them on this path? Would God give Vin his sight back?

"Josiah, you have a visitor." Claire Shaw waited for the large man to turn. The look of hope on his face warmed her heart. "He's in the day room. You have a thirty minute visit approved.

"Thank you." Josiah nodded, heading for the large sunny room at the end of the hall

Nathan looked up when his best friend entered the room. He stood and walked closer, looking closely at every feature. He smiled then, warmed by the healing light showering him from the smoky eyes. No doubt his friend had a long way to go, but he was healing, that was clear by the full height he stood, the clarity in the eyes and the soft smile that met his own.

"Good to see you brother," Nathan said, embracing his friend.

"You have no idea, Nathan." Josiah's voice was tight as they pulled away. "Take a load off," he offered, leading them to a blue sofa that faced the large window. Snow decorated the trees outside which were touching a brilliant blue sky. "It's peaceful here."

"I can see that," Jacksonnoted, seeing that peace on the pensive profile next to him. He reached into his coat pocket and took a single item out. "Speakin' of easin' the load, thought you might like this."

"Nathan..." Josiah choked, his eyes melting in astonishment and his large, trembling hand reaching out for the worn, leather book. The edges were frayed and some of the pages stained from his labors many nights over time tried passages, but it was a most precious gift. He touched the cover reverently, his fingers tracing the two simple words.

"Not just any bible," Nate spoke as he watched the emotions crashing down on Josiah Sanchez.

"No... my father's... I can't tell you what this means to me," Josiah sighed hard and flipped through the pages. He found it easily and the words never meant more to him than now. "Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor." His voice was strong and profound as the words from Ecclesiastes sprang from his lips. He didn't need to read it, he knew it by heart. His eyes left the yellow pages and sought out the deep brown ones beside him. "For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falls for he has not another to help him up."

"You ain't alone." Nathan extended his hand and it was immediately engulfed by the other one. "And this is always open for you."

"Thank you Nate," Sanchez replied, "How's Vin?"

"Good... well better. He's been real angry... just like Doctor Tremaine said. But last night I think he hit rock bottom. I found him curled up in the bathroom, listenin' to his tapes."

"Tapes?" Josiah puzzled.

"These five stages Vin's goin' through, like folks who have suffered a loss of life, limb, you know... takes them awhile to adjust. One of them is anger... well Chris gave Vin a recorder and some tapes. He's been trash talkin' all of us, and he cussed Chris up good yesterday. He's been a bear... chompin' steel and spittin' out nails. So I told him to listen to the tapes. "

"So he heard the echo of his own pain?"

"Yeah... I got him to bed, he didn't say a word. He was shakin' all over. He threw twice in his bed."

"I wish I could..."

"You will Josiah," Nathan finished, knowing how troubled the older man was about that night. "Vin needs to heal too and a part of that has to do with forgivin' you. If he don't, that bitterness will choke him. He needs some time... so do you. How's the therapy goin'?"

"Good, Nathan."

"You sound surprised." Jacksoncocked his head and watched the smokey smoky eyes go to the mountains outside again.

"I am," Josiah admitted, "I can't explain it. But... these sessions... it's like the festering wound has been purged."

"Good, that bile needs to get out."

"Doctor Tremaine has a path outlined, very specific steps to take. But one of them, Nathan, the important one is to go back to that place and conquer the demons. I've been running in the wrong direction. Now I can see that."

"Take it one step at a time, you'll get there..." Nathan urged and listened as Josiah spoke about David. He saw a father's face now, not a troubled man hidden in the shadows. He was glad Josiah was sharing some of David with him. Then the subject changed suddenly.

"How's Buck?"

"Buck?" Nathan was a bit taken aback

"He's hurt, Nathan. I hurt him deeply. I took his trust away. It troubles me."

"You got enough troubles worryin' on you now. Buck'll be fine and he can't hide forever. He needs to face this too."

"Mister Jackson?"

Nathan and Josiah both turned as a petite woman approached. She smiled sympathetically and tapped her watch.


"I'm sorry, it's been thirty minutes."

"Okay." Nathan stood, took Josiah's hand in one of his and placed the other on his shoulder. "I'll be back next week. I'll tell everyone how good you're doing" "Thank you, Nathan, God keep you."

Josiah watched until his best friend disappeared through the doors. He kept his eyes on the spot until the coldness came back, making him feel alone again. Having Nathan here was like being home again. He'd get there one day, but would it be the same? Would his world ever be the same?

He opened his prized bible to Isaiah again, verse 41:13. He read the words in a question and hoped it would be answered.

"I the Lord your God will hold your right hand, saying to you, fear not I will help you."

Part Twelve


Monday morning brought the start of a new work week and the last week of holiday shopping before Christmas. The city was especially crowded and the usual rush hour snarl was complicated by an accident. J.D. Dunne eyed his watch and shook his head. He pulled out his cell phone and dialed Vin's house. Ezra answered on the first ring.

"Ez, you sitting on the phone?"

"Funny, I am peering out the window and you're not calling me from the driveway."

"You won't be seeing me for another hour. I'm on the interstate, three exits away and not moving. Tractor trailer gone wrong."

"Wonderful." Ezra eyed the clock. "Well, there's nothing to be done. I have a ten a.m. meeting with the F.B.I. but I suppose that can be rearranged."

"Don't call them yet, it's only eight. I'll be there by nine and you'll make it, no sweat," J.D. predicted, "How's Vin?"

"I'm not sure, he's definitely not angry anymore; there is a new resolve in his demeanor."

"That's a good sign."

"His therapist will be arriving later this morning. She's showing him how to ride the bus into town."

"Wow, that's great, he wouldn't even talk about that last week. We're moving Ezra, gotta go, see you soon." Dunne folded the phone, put it back in his pocket and got his Harley moving.

Vin heard Ezra hang up and went back to his room. He sat on the bed and pushed the button on his watch. The therapist brought it on her last visit; it spoke the time aloud when you pushed a button on the side. The voice on the new timepiece told him it was just after eight a.m.His hand moved to the phone but he couldn't pick it up. He huffed in annoyance, ran his hand through his tangled hair and collected his shaky thoughts. He took several deep breaths to steady his nerves. He couldn't avoid it any longer; this was something he had to do. Letting out a long breath, he lifted the phone and made the call.

Chris Larabee was miserable. It wasn't bad enough he had a Godzilla head cold but his throat hurt too. It felt like shards of glass were in his windpipe every time he swallowed. He was taking Tylenol to help with the fever but he knew he needed something stronger. He has a lot to do and couldn't afford wasting time being sick. He was on hold with the doctor's office waiting for the possibility of availablity.

"Mister Larabee?"


"I can squeeze you in at eleven."

"Fine... thanks."

He hung up and leaned against the wall. The dreaded words 'squeeze you in' still reverberated in his throbbing skull. That meant a three hour waste of time sitting in a small, warm waiting room with sick people. Then the false hope of being called called and led away from the other fools only to be put into an even smaller room for another endless wait. Finally the doctor comes in and gives you about ten minutes if you're lucky.

"Modern medicine sucks," he decided but needed the antibiotics so the brief trip to Hell was necessary. The phone rang and caused his throbbing skull to jump. Hissing in pain, he grabbed it.

"Hel..lo..." he winced and rubbed his tender throat.

Vin started to reply but his throat went dry. He couldn't get a word out. All he could hear above the silence on the phone was those cold, cruel words he'd spoken to his best friend.

"Look, I'm in no mood for games." Larabee warned whoever was on the other end of the silent line. "You got something to say? You got ten seconds."

"Sound like hell, cowboy," Vin blurted in a shaky voice. He took a solid breath and felt much better just hearing Chris's voice. "Another wild party?"

"Fuckin' Tanner cold," Chris whispered back, "Your ass wasn't even here and I caught one."

"Reckon yer jest lucky, it ain't jest everyone who m'germs take ta." Vin shifted the phone to his neck to get a drink of coffee from his thermal mug. "How bad?"

"Godzilla meets King Kong." Chris went into his den and settled into the large leather recliner.

"Listen about Saturday...." Vin paused painfully recalling his sharp words. "My guts all twisted the hell up. Feel like Lucifer and his kin's havin' a pitchfork party down there. Ain't no words ta tell ya how awful I feel. I tried callin' yesterday a half-dozen times. Got yella every time I picked the phone up." He paused and swallowed hard, hearing the other vicious things heÕd said on the tapes. "I'm sorry, Chris. Ya got no idea how ashamed I am of what I done t'ya."

"Apology accepted and you're not yellow Vin, not now not ever," Chris relayed. "You're just human and right now very vulnerable."

Coupled with what Ezra told him last night and hearing the change in his best friend's tone, he recognized that Vin was now out of the anger phase. Bargaining wouldn't be as hard to cope with and from what he'd read in the books provided by the therapist, a brief phase. It was the next one, depression, that he wasn't looking forward to.

"So how are you, Vin?"

"Be better if yer germ-totin' ass was here."

Chris sighed and shut his eyes, draping his free arm on his forehead. Of all the times for him to be this sick. He didn't want Vin catching what he had, not with him being laid up. When he was healthy he caught more colds and bugs than the rest of them. But he heard the need between the words spoken. If the drugs he hoped to get today did their job, he'd be feeling better in forty-eight hours.

"Tell you what, you give me a couple days to kill off my Tanner germ convention and Wednesday we'll spend the day together."

"Thanks, Chris."

The blond leader winced at the hope that lingered in the raspy voice. He had a feeling Vin was ready to talk about his blindness and the future. He wouldn't push the envelope, but this voice and tone was new to him. For the first time since the attack, Vin wasn't full of hostility or shutting him out. He hoped it would be a good day for Vin to renew his spirit and help that soul to heal. He hadn't had many since the incident that had sent him into the dark world that he now lived in. Vin's raspy drawl broke into his thoughts.

"Gotta go, Ezra's got his gut twisted up worse'n a constipated, cross-eyed chicken. The Kid's late."

"Okay, I have to get ready to go to the doctor's anyway." He found a weak smile as he headed for the cradle. "I need the good shit, it's not just anything that will kill Tanner germs."

"If the drugs don't work, let me know," Vin chased back with a grin, "I got a number tucked away, fer special occasions. She's got lips that'll kill anythin'... boys git fired up jest thinkin' on her."

"Sounds like you need a cold shower," Chris chuckled. "I'll call you later."

"Okay," Vin replied. "Hey, Chris, thanks fer... well... jest thanks."

Two p.m
Downtown Denver

Kelly Robertson found her self smiling again, watching the determined man complete his task. He disappeared into the bus and she found herself holding her breath hoping he'd be okay. He was smart as a whip and had learned quickly. The first several trips they'd taken she'd stayed with him, teaching him how to use the tools. They began across the street from his home where they got the bus that brought them downtown. Fortunately for him, the bus stopped at the corner by his office and other buildings he was familiar with.

As instructed, he was sitting by the front door and counting the stops. He'd instructed the driver what stop he needed when he got on and took his seat. She taught him how to listen for the motor, that it is far different that a car or truck. Once they reached their destination, they practiced learning to use his other senses to identify where he was. She spotted the Federal Building on their first trip and before she could tell him, he turned to her and grinned. He could smell the spicy sausage that the vendor sold out front. The old man also sang in Italian and knew him, calling out to him. They only entered and got as far as the elevator, he didn't want to go up to his office and she didn't press him.

They'd done the return trip and crossed the street, doing it all over. By the fourth time, she told him he'd be on his own. She was in the back of the bus, nearby if she were needed. He was nervous and she saw his slim fingers holding the cane in a death grip. She lost count of how many times his Adam's apple bobbed.

This time she was staying downtown, he was returning home and coming back all on his own. She knew there would be a good amount of time before he returned and eyed the diner on the corner. A cup of coffee would take the chill off and she could see the corner clearly.

Vin's heart was pounding so hard he felt sure everyone on the bus could hear it. This first taste of independence was bittersweet. He was alone in the civilized world for the first time since losing his sight. What if the bus was in a wreck? What if someone saw the cane and robbed him or beat him? What if he miscalculated and stepped in front of the bus? The sound in his ears was deafening. For a few seconds after the door closed and the bus lurched, his thought he'd left his stomach on the street corner. His throat was dry and he tried to control his erratic breathing. A part of him wished the cheerful therapist was sitting beside him, but another part overruled that. As terrified as he was of this first solo trip, it had to be done. He heard a street called out and froze. He'd lost track, he wasn't paying attention. Was that street six or seven? He had to get off at ten.

"Aw, hell..."

"You're okay, my man," the bus driver replied. The therapist introduced them on the first trip and he knew just how nervous this young man was. "We got five more stops left."

"Thanks," Vin rasped. "I gotta pay attention. I gotta git it right."

"Payin' attention's a good thing," the driver agreed. "But don't ever sit there if you're not sure. You always ask the driver, okay?"

"Yeah, thanks."

An hour later, Kelly was waiting on the corner, eyeing the highway. She saw the bus approaching and held her breath. She stepped back as it slowed and stopped. Her anxious eyes went to the door and sure enough, her star pupil exited. She moved away and watched his lips moving as he counted the steps. He tapped his cane and kept track.

"You get the gold medal!" she boomed, startling him and getting a broad grin in return. She hugged him and took his elbow. "You did great! I knew you'd be fine."

"Ya might wanna tell the frogs in m'belly that. There jumpin' around like their butts's on fire."

"I know just the thing to cure that." She led him to the coffee shop. "How about a hot chocolate and a piece of pie?"

"I ain't had nuthin' t'eat all day," he confessed. "I was t'nervous. I think grilled cheese and coke might go down easier."

Vin kept silent for a few moments after they settled into a booth. He heard the waitress approach and Kelly ordered coffee and some pumpkin pie. He ordered grilled cheese on rye, a bowl of soup and a large cherry coke. The beverages came right away and he was sipping on his coke when he heard her laugh. It was a nice laugh, light and almost musical.

"It ain't got spinach caught 'tween m'teeth," Vin said, "I don't eat nuthin' green."

"The frogs, I was thinking on those frogs. You have a wonderful sense of humor."

"Ya got a great laugh." Vin blushed a bit and had no idea why. He ducked his head and found his straw again. He wondered what she looked like. She'd been his therapist since he was in the hospital and he didn't know much about her. Just that she loved her job, had been a therapist about three years and was originally from San Diego. And of course, she was single.

"Thanks." She saw his eyes darting and his brow furrow. She knew that meant he was thinking on something. His head was cocked to the side; he did that when he was concentrating. "Spit it out, Vin, I won't bite."

"It's silly," he decided.

"Try me," she encouraged.

"I's wonderin' what ya looked like."

"Why don't you look?" she suggested and leaned across the narrow Formica table. The tiny diner was nearly deserted.

"Whaddya mean?" He frowned and felt her hand take his. He jerked back but she held firm.

"Remember what we talked about? That you have to start using your other senses? What do you know by what you've observed?"

"Well," Vin sat up and thought hard. "Yer a little shorter'n me. Yer strong but ya ain't totin' extra weight." He recalled when he was first learning to count and walk, grabbing her a few times when he became dizzy. He wouldn't tell he he'd felt that nice firm body and reacted to it. He thought hard on the snippets of information he had collected. "Ya like sports, 'specially skiin', music and cinnamon gum." He paused and lowered his voice. "and ya smell great... like a rainfall'r the ocean."

"Excellent!" She was amazed. "You've been paying attention. What do I look like?"

"How the hell would I know?" he snapped too fast and tried to pull his hand away.

"Then look," she replied, pulling it up until it touched her face.

"I ain't sure 'bout this," Vin rasped, but his trembling fingers traced her face and chin. He smiled and moved his fingers through her hair. " silk... long... wavy... red?"

"Sorry," she laughed. "Dark brown, almost black."

"It feels great. Ya got high cheekbones and yer face is open... reckon like yer heart."

"Thank you, Vin."

"Yer pretty," he announced quietly, ducking his head again. "That's what I 'see'. Blue eyes?"

"Green," she corrected, then sat back. "...and thank you, Vin."

The waitress appeared and put the food down. Vin concentrated on his meal, listening as she told him of her holiday shopping. He noted she didn't mention a boyfriend. He didn't know why he needed to know that. Finally, they rose to leave. He pulled his wallet out and felt the bills inside. The corners were folded down according to the bill size. He pulled out what he felt was a ten and held it out.

"Enough to cover?"

"That'll do Vin," Kelly took it, "I'll get the tip."

They walked to the bus stop and waited for the next one to arrive. Sitting on the bench, she noticed him several times putting his face up to the sky. She saw his eyes darting and he swallowed hard. She knew how hard he was trying, the last few days had seen him leave his anger behind. Maybe he was praying, seeking strength. It couldn't be easy. She knew how active his life was before the accident. She also knew just how lucky he was to have such a great support group. She wasn't allowed to become involved with patients, not while they were still learning. But that didn't mean she couldn't keep her options open for later. He was nearly done now, he was gaining his independence.


"Yeah?" He turned and waited.

"You're nearly done. There isn't much more for me to teach you. When you're ready, we can talk about introducing you to a guide dog. Your injuries won't allow for that now. Also, I wanted to say how well you've done. You're a terrific student and I really liked getting to know you."

"Me?" Vin shook his head. "Wasn't fer Chris and y'all, I'd be squattin' in m'room. Yer tough, ya never let me quit. Chris? He can git real orn'ry."

"You're lucky," she spoke of the blond man who was his best friend. "Friends like him are very rare. The others are terrific too."

"Yeah," Vin nodded. "I got a lotta makin' up t'do. I've been uh..."

"Actin' like a stubborn blue-eyed Texan mule?"

"I's thinkin' of a jackass with a wire brush up his butt," Vin replied and felt her hand cover his on the bench. She laughed again and he smiled, he sure loved the sound of that laugh.

"Doctor Tremaine talked to you about that, Vin. It's something most people in your situation go through. It's not easy, but your friends will be there for you, thick and thin. You can do this, I know you can."

"New friends is nice," he whispered. "Mebbe... sometime we can read again?"

"Read?" She smiled, eyeing the bus coming.

"Yeah," he rasped with a wicked smile. "I'd like t'pick up where I left off." He wiggled his fingers and she laughed.

"I think that can be arranged." She took his hand and gave it a gentle tug, smiled then stood and waited for him to join her. "Let's get you home."

Six a.m.


A voice penetrated his peaceful slumber. He ignored the voice and returned to the beautiful meadow. Amidst the blanket of flowers in every color laid before him under a brilliant blue sky was a beautiful woman. Her voice was intoxicating and he lost himself in her arms. The kiss was long and passionate and he moved his body over her to claim the ripe fruit offered. Then someone grabbed his shoulder and pulled him. He turned and the colors disappeared, leaving him in an all too familiar world of darkness, one shade beyond the blackest pitch.

"House on fire?" he rasped, blinking and shivering as the cold air hit him. His fingers hit the watch and the time was announced. Cursing softly, he fumbled with his good hand to find the blanket that had been pulled off.


"Git!" he replied, turning back to his pillow. "Was havin' me a nice dream. Yer interferin' Yankee ass weren't nowhere near. Me and the boys was havin' us some fun."

"Reckon she's a looker, your dream dates usually are. It's about the only action them damn boys of yours get."

"Course she is... " Vin declared. "...and leastwise m'boys ain't chokin' t'death," he trumped and then frowned.


In the foggy netherworld of half awakeness, an image appeared that matched the voiceprint his mind already made. A slim man with fair hair and piercing green eyes. Eyes that had looked right through him the first day they met and found his soul. Eyes he trusted like no other and thanked God every day for finding. Vin sat up again and blinked. He shook the sleep off and reached a hand out. His fingers hit the belt buckle and found the familiar shape of the antique spur. He pulled his hand back and moved his legs off the bed, getting his balance.

"Sun's almost up. I got coffee and doughnuts," Chris answered the silent, if not somewhat foggy-eyed question. His right hand hovered just under the blind man's elbow just in case he needed steadying.

"Gotta tap a kidney," he rasped. "Don't go nowheres."

"We'll be right outside. Your coat is here on the bottom of the bed. I dug out those fur lined deerskins for you," he stated of the soft but very warm boots that Nathan and Rain gave him for his birthday. Vin was already dressed in a sweatsuit; he slept in it.

"We?" Vin paused by the bathroom door. "Who's with ya?"

"Me and the boys," Chris replied and found an evil grin. "They're not up just yet, I guess they're wore out. They had a busy night."

"Yer full'o shit, Lar'bee," Vin snorted as he entered the bathroom. "Ain't a female that desperate, 'specially when yer totin' germs, even Tanner germs."

Chris took the mugs outside and pulled two chairs up. He plugged the small space heater on and warmth flooded the patio. He settled in and watched the dark blue beginning to peel back, shedding layers of beautiful color. He felt a pang of pain then, for this was one of his favorite things to share with Vin Tanner; sharing silent waves of serenity while the sun rose over Tanner's beloved mountain. He heard a shuffling of feet and the tapping cane. He turned and watched Vin silently walk over then settle into the other chair.

"Here," Chris handed him the mug. He waited until the blind man had a solid grip on it and then settled back. He saw Vin's nose move over the mug and wrinkle. He groaned rolled his eyes. "It's got plenty of sugar."

"Ezra makes me the fussy kind, with cinnamon."

"That's real nice, he'll make you a good wife someday."

"Shut up," Vin laughed, "How's the germ convention?"

"I got two prescriptions." Chris swallowed his coffee gingerly. "Doc says it'll be a week or so... gotta take it all. But it's the good shit, I do feel better."

"Ya didn't hafta come, "Vin said softly, putting his mug down. He felt guilt rising. Chris should be home, taking medicine and resting. Not sitting on a cold patio taking care of a blind sharpshooter.

"No, I didn't 'have' to," Larabee replied quietly, keeping his eyes on the rosy sun being born. "I wanted to. This is something I enjoy; a gift you gave me... the pleasure of a new dawn. I never appreciated them before."

"I miss..." Vin bit off the rest. It hurt too much, the loss of color and texture. He could see the old sunrises, the ones that he'd taken in for many years. But he loved the new ones, watching hope rising with those golden rays.

"You'll get them back, Vin," Chris answered the silent pain that matched the whispered voice.

"What's it look like?"

Chris flinched hard, that hurt. His quiet friend drew so much strength and resolve from the birth of each new day. It was such an integral part of him that living without it was hard to comprehend. It was the place Vin Tanner came to every morning; to nurse from the only breast he had ever known. Mother Nature raised her boy well and now her face was lost to him. Chris only hoped it was not forever. Maybe it was time Vin learned to create a new dawn from the gifts he had inside his heart.

"Why don't you tell me?" he requested.

"That supposed t'be a joke?" Vin scowled. "It ain't funny."

"Give me a Tanner sunrise," Chris requested with quiet confidence, then tapped the Texan's chest. "Here. What I'm looking at won't match what you can paint."

Vin sipped his coffee and enjoyed the flavor and the warmth that it brought him. He thought on the new day being born and on the man sitting beside him. He pondered on those two things for several moments, letting the beautiful images that each brought him merge to form a brilliant painting. He lifted his face towards that blushing dawn and parted his lips, letting his soul drift out.

"She bows before me, openin' her arms and showin' off her golden gown. It's shimmers in shades rose and blue and the threads holdin' it together are peace and tranquility. I breathe in her raptur'us scent and m'eyes is full of the wonder that only m'Mother of the Sky can bring. I'm awed before her and humbled by her magnificent beauty."

For a few moments, neither man spoke. The words easily penetrated Chris's chest and found their way inside. They nestled in that space just between his heart and soul. A place that he now he had come to treasure with a fierce possessiveness he never realized he possessed. It came to him then, that life without Vin Tanner would be very much like a day with no sun. Dark, cold and empty; that place where he lived for the years following his family's death. Nodding at the new gift, he absorbed Vin's beautiful ode and then turned to face the pensive man.

"I told you," he lauded quietly, "nobody paints a sunrise like you do, cowboy." But the blue eyes weren't reflecting on the pretty poem. They were full of loss, despair and woe. "What's wrong?"

""I listened t'm'tapes," Vin admitted, getting the weight off his chest.

Vin tried twice to get the words out and they wouldn't come. He bit his lip in frustration and felt his eyes burning in shame. The bitterness in his gut was churning and it caused him to flinch. Then he felt a hand on his arm and one single reaffirming tug. He nodded, took a steadying breath and let the words out.

"I got no words fer how 'shamed I am. I done things... terrible things. All o'ya stuck by me... every one of ya." He paused and bit his lower lip. "If I didn't know it wasn't rigged..." his voice trailed off again and he had to pause to collect his jagged emotions. "Chris, I can't tell ya how sorry I am fer what I said t'ya. Ya know I didn't mean... bringin' up Sara and Adam. I'd nev... er..."

"Don't Vin," Chris whispered when the voice cracked and the blue eyes burned with tears. He stood and moved behind Vin, resting both hands on his shoulders. He gave a single, gentle tug and heard a shaky rush of air leave the sharpshooter's lips. "I didn't take those words to heart, Vin. I knew just where you were and why that pain came out. Those things you said, you know it's because you were in the anger phase. Doctor Tremaine told you..."

"Yeah," Vin interrupted. "She told me 'bout them stages. But hearin' it... yer own voice sayin' things so vile. Not one o'ya tore m'ass up over it. Yer all here fer me, every day. I don't deserve..."

"Alright, Vin, that's enough," Chris moved and knelt in front of the shaken man. He rested his hand on the side of Vin's neck and saw such profound sorrow in the emotive face it put a terrible pain in his own chest. If this was any indication of the depression phase yet to come he wasn't sure if he could handle it.

"Some... day... it ain't gotta be... If ya... have... can... fergive..."

"Hey," Chris tipped the chin up and tapped the cheek lightly. "This is me, cowboy. I'm right here. I'm not angry Vin. A real friend stands by you in the worst storm, no matter what. I thank God for the day he brought your orn'ry, chocolate guzzlin', hockey playin', cussin' ass into my life. Okay?"

Vin nodded and didn't speak. He felt Chris move away back to his own chair and he allowed himself a few moments to recover. How did God come to put Chris in his life? Maybe so when the dark storm came, there would be someone to carry him. Maybe that's what fate truly meant. That you were sent to a certain place in time and space on a ship called Destiny. Did God intend for him to go blind so that he'd have a Chris there to fight with him? Someone whose strength had no equal and whoÕs heart he'd guard with his own life? Someone, maybe the only one, who could carry him when he fell under the burden?

"Is... that... it?" he whispered.


Chris winced as the shaky voice broke. He gave his best friend a few moments and kept his eyes on that horizon. Warmth spilled from the new day, casting his face in a golden aura. He drank it in, relishing that feeling. He saw the roses scattered around the golden halo and wondered how anyone seeing something this fine could doubt the existence of God. Finally, after almost twenty minutes of putting his shaken emotions in order, Vin spoke.

"After breakfast, I'm headin' t'town. I got a lot o'weight ridin on m'chest. Time t'shed it. Startin' with Rain. I only hope she'll see me. Wouldn't blame 'er if she won't have nuthin' t'do with me after what I done."

"Of couse she will," Chris dictated. "I'll drive you over. I need some things from my office anyhow and..."

"No, goin' alone. Kelly learned me how t'use the bus." He paused and felt a swell of pride rise. He knew how much he needed to get that first hard step of independence out of the way. Still beaming a bit, he continued. "We done it all day."

"Really?" Chris's voice rose with an evil echo.

"Ridin' the bus!" Vin snapped, slapping Larabee's leg. "Git yer mind outta the gutter. She's a real nice girl. Pretty too."

"She sure is," Chris agreed. "How did you know what she looks like?"

"She asked me tha read 'er face." Vin explained. "Anyhow, I can do it. I hafta start bein' more independent. I know where I'm goin'. After I talk t'Rain, I'm gonna meet the boys fer lunch. Ya git 'em over to Max's at noon'er so." He noted of the Irish bar that they frequented for lunch. "I left a message on the Kid's machine. But jest in case..."

"Alright," Chris agreed. Of course he would be on the bus too. Vin still had a concussion and he didn't want him passing out. But he wouldn't tell Vin that. "I'll let the boys know."

Chris studied the determination on the handsome features next to him and especially noted the clarity in the blue eyes. He wondered if Vin knew just how much strength he had and that inner resolve was something that he counted on. He never doubted Vin and never would. He couldn't explain the bond, nor did he try. He just thanked God for it.

"Somethin' I need t'say, Chris Lar'bee."

"Okay, Vin." Chris was puzzled by the use of his last name and change in Vin's tone.

"When I was jest a lil' feller, short on weight and long on hair," he smiled and closed his eyes, feeling his beloved grandfather's hand on his back. "Gray Wolf told me 'bout the aw‰'h•l•..."

"Uh... what?" Chris leaned closer, Vin's voice was very low. He usually had a hard time talking about his grandfather.

"Eagle," Vin translated. "It's revered, very powerful and majestic. It's a very spiritual and peaceful symbol. He told me that the eagle could soar into the heavens. They can fly higher than any other bird; they's considered by the People to be a messenger o'God, carrying the prayers and such to the Creator."

He smiled then, hearing his beloved and wise grandfather's voice near. He closed his eyes and saw the desert in New Mexico again through the wide-eyes of a seven year old boy. He felt that strong hand on his shoulder and was once again awed by that voice. Then he recalled the darkest day of his young life. A troubled teen who had run to the only arms of comfort he knew, when his father died. He didn't trust the army officers who brought the news . With his father gone, the only man he trusted were the arms that caught him whe he finally stopped running.

"Summer when my dad died, I run away from the base, clear t'New Mexico."

"Nothing wrong with that," Chris rationalized. "When you're hurt, you need your family. Man as special as Gray Wolf..."

"He sure was," Vin agreed. "I put that old man through hell that summer. Got inta' more scrapes and fights. He never lost his grip on me, Chris. He got me through m'pain and made me understand how t'handle the hate. One mornin' we was watchin' the sun come up. We seen an eagle that day, damn near stole m'air. It had gold feathers, shimnmerin' the hell all over. It swooped and soared, clear up inta the clouds. He told me that God knew what was in m'heart. That that eagle we seen took m'prayers clear up t'the Creator. He told me t'be patient, that my answer would come one day, but not fer many years." Vin swallowed hard then as he felt the ghost of the old man hovering nearby. He didn't want him to leave. "I'll tell ya what," his voice wavered. "I loved that old man somethin' fierce."

"He loved you too, Vin. He did one helluva job."

"Thanks," Vin acknowledged and swiped his eyes. "I never fergot that mornin' or his words. Last night..." he paused to collect his very ragged emotions. He turned then to where he knew Chris's face was. "I had... a... vision whilst I slept. I seen him again, that same eagle. I was on that same rise in the desert. He had a branch in his beak and I reached out fer it... it turned t'gold. The shimmerin' was somethin' like ya never seen. Chris, when I touched it, brought it t'mchest, it changed... me. I ain't scared n'more. I ain't cold n'more. I can't explain it."

"Maybe you shouldn't try, Vin," Chris theorized. "You believed that old man, tucked his faith inside. This is the same thing."

"It's more n'that," Vin choked, staring hard and feeling a warmth explode. "Don'tcha see? Yer the... all this time I wondered on my prayer. Why m'folks died, why I had so much darkness in m'life. I didn't wanta be alone. Then Gray Wolf got kilt. Everytime I got a little bit o'sun in m'life, it got snatched up..." Vin had to stop then and push his anger down. "I almost give up on m'answer. Thought there weren't gonna be no reply." He had to stop and catch his breath then, to get the words out. To make sure this man, his brother, knew just how important he was. " Yer m'eagle, Chris Lar'bee; them wings is the same ones I seen all them years ago. Yer the reason m'soul healed..."

"I guess," Chris replied when he finally found his voice. He stood and tapped Vin's shoulder and waited for the younger man to rise up. He gave his best friend a moment to collect his very scattered emotions, then when Vin's arm came out, he locked onto the forearm. "I got my answer too."

Vin nodded, not trusting his voice. He pulled his arm down and felt Chris's pat on his back. He walked a few steps away to regain his composure. He felt so good, as if that sun was rising just for him. He wasn't alone, he never would be. The calm that came with that realization was nearly overwhelming. Then a cool but decidedly cocky voice disturbed his tranquil wave.

"You done cryin' now? I'm starving."

"Shut the hell up, Lar'bee, I ain't cryin'" Vin sassed back, rubbing his eyes. "Jest washin' m'eyes is all. Ya best git them pans t'rattlin', I s'hungry I could even eat yer cookin'."

"I brought a new box of Grape nuts with me and..."

"Couldda saved yer money and got gravel off the road." Vin got his cane and began to tap his way back to the door. "I got a better idea. Wake up them moths in yer wallet. We'll eat at the diner. I got a hankerin' fer chocolate chip pancakes with fluff and lots of whipped cream.

"Jesus Vin," Chris complained and made a face at the thought of eating something that sweet this early. "I'm not sittin' in the same booth with you. You're embarrassing to be seen with." . "...some o' them fat sausages, a heap o'bacon and them bitty fried up taters..."

"Alka Seltzer," Chris added, shaking his head and smiling. He turned back for a moment and his smile faded. He blinked and put a hand over his eyes to shield the glare. His heart began pounding so hard it hurt his chest. His mouth went dry and his eyes widened in awe. No, it wasn't a mistake. There swooping before Vin's beloved mountains was a majestic Golden Eagle. Chris nearly lost his breath and watched as it disappeared into the clouds. "Thank you," he whispered. "I'll watch his back, Gray Wolf, sleep in peace."

Part Thirteen

Denver Memorial Hospital

"Excuse me... son... can you move?"

"Huh?" Vin managed in a strangulated voice. His heart was hammering so loudly it hurt his chest. He felt sweat trickling down his back into his briefs and he was shaking all over.

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize." Sam Wagner winced in sympathy. He couldn't imagine not being able to see. The young man seemed nervous and unsure; he couldn't help seeing how badly the cast free arm was trembling. "Do you need some help?"

"Help?" Vin squeaked.

His heart was hammering so loudly, he almost didn't hear the question. He'd done pretty well on the way over. His mouth was drier than the Sahara and his stomach was doing cartwheels but he had got here. The man was much taller than him, sounded elderly and was to his right.

"You're in the entry. Are you entering the lobby of the hospital? The doors won't open unless you get closer."

"Yeah... thanks... I guess I'm a little mixed up."

Mixed-up, who was he kidding? He was scared to death. He'd never been so scared in his life. Breakfast with Chris at the diner went well, they talked a lot. He'd felt confident when he left the house alone. He didn't start to panic until he lost count of the stops. If someone getting on hadn't asked about the route passing a local church, he wouldn't have known where he was. The driver told her it was three more stops. He knew that church, it was just up the street from the hospital. But when he got off the bus and those doors closed, it was if he exploded inside. He heard horns sounding and trucks passing; there were odd bits of conversations of passersby and vendors calling out their wares. He was so disoriented he almost tripped, but then he took a deep breath and regained control. He heard Chris Larabee's firm voice in his head willing him to proceed. The echo of the strong mantra got his compass righted. He knew the bus stopped right in front of the walkway, so he turned and began to walk. He'd paused a few feet from the door, cocking his head as the 'whoosh' of the doors sounded.

"I'll walk with you. I'm early anyway. My wife is a volunteer at the reception desk. I'm picking her up; her shift ends at two p.m."

"What time is it now?" Vin couldn't get to his watch, he was using his cane.

"It's just one thirty." The man stated and paused by a chair in the lobby of the hospital. "Here, it's right in front of you."

"Thanks." Vin sat down and let out a long sigh of relief. He put his cane down and dropped his face. His hand rested loosely on the cane. "Young man, are you ill?"

"No, sir, jest scared t'death. I ain't never done this b'fore. I'm shakin' s'bad it's a wonder I ain't slid offa the chair."

"I know the feeling; I was in the same position the day I proposed, just over fifty years ago."

"Hey, that's great. Fifty years... must be a special lady."

"She sure is, son." He paused to wave to his wife who had seen him come in. He waved to her to come over.

"Well, I see you made a new friend."

Vin looked up to where the soft, female voice came from. His mind drew up a picture of kind eyes, pink cheeks and white hair framing a soft smile.

"Millie, this is... uh... I don't believe I got your name. I'm Sam Wagner"

"Vin, Vin Tanner." He held his hand out and shook the woman's hand. "Yer husband was nice enough to help me inside. I'm meetin' a friend here and I ain't used t'... I only been blind fer a few weeks."

"Well you did just fine." Millie's heart went out to the young man. "Perhaps I can help. Does your friend work here?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Vin rasped, "she sure does. Her name's Doctor Rain Jackson. She works in the ER mostly."

"I know her well, a lovely young woman and she has such a pretty baby."

"Ain't she though?" Vin sat up and beamed, his eyes suddenly bright. "That's m'goddaughter. Shes' the finest lil' thing on two feet."

He felt better already. Maybe the world isn't always such a terrifying place when you're lost in the dark. Maybe there was sunshine out there along with the shadows. It could be he needed to think about that sunny side more, to chase the shadows away. To find his inner light and let that guide his way. He caught his breath and let loose some of the butterflies in his stomach; sitting back he caught his breath and waited for his heart to settle down.

"I'll tell you what," Millie suggested, sensing the nervousness still lingering. She didn't miss his Adam's apple bobbing or the slender fingers trembling as they shifted the cane. "There's a coffee shop just across the lobby. Why don't you wait in there and I'll have Doctor Jackson come down if she's free."

"She outta be," Vin answered. "She shudda got off duty at one. She usually does her notes fer awhile in that room fer the residents."

"Alright, I'll check there first. Sam, why don't you see Vin over to the cafe?"

"Ma'am?" Vin accepted the older man's assistance helping him up and turned to where the woman's voice came from, "Listen, thanks a lot. I didn't mean t'bust up yer shift. Yer awful nice. M'stomach's got a bunch o'or'nry butterflies doin' a wicked dance."

"I'm glad to help." She smiled at the handsome young man and wondered what had happened to his eyes. She gave his hand a pat and continued. "It's been my experience that a kind gesture is long remembered. We only have this one green planet to call home, so in a way, we're all her children. Family, you know?"

"Ma'am if there're more folks like you on this here planet, it would be a much sunnier place," Vin noted. "Oh and jest tell her it's a friend. I wanna surprise 'er."

Rain was on the phone with Nathan, making a shopping list up for the store on her way home and checking if he would be home for dinner. Her beeper went off and she eyed the number on the reader. "Hold on, honey, I have to call the front desk." She put the cell phone down and picked up the extension on the wall in the resident's room and dialed the front desk. The volunteer answered on the third ring.

"Hi, this is Doctor Jackson, I was paged."

"Yes, Doctor Jackson, there's a rather charming man waiting for you in the coffee shop, a good friend of yours."

"Hmmm... okay, thanks Millie. I'll be right down." She returned to the desk and picked up the cell phone. "I gotta go, Nathan. The desk says there's a friend waiting for me in the cafe."

"A friend?" Nathan sat up at his desk. "What friend?"

"I don't know, she didn't give his name, just that he very charming."

"He?" Jackson scowled, "You got a man waitin' on you?"

"Um... hmmm," she goaded, "Sounds very mysterious. Kinda romantic, don't you think?"

"I think I need to know who this man is," Nate chased back, throwing a pencil and J.D. and Ezra who were both chuckling at him. "I'll see you at five. Chill some red wine, okay?"

"Oh, should I get out the candles and that red, silky kimino you like?" she teased and blushed at his low and very hot reply. "I love you, see you later."

Rain's eyes went around the cheerful coffee shop twice before they caught a familiar face at the back. She was surprised and started over to meet him. Then another handsome man's arms came up and waved her off, while shaking his head at her. She paused, puzzled and her brows creased in frustration. Then she saw him pointing to a table a few feet away. Her eyes widened in shock and she backed up out into the lobby.

"I'm sorry, Rain," Chris wheezed when he caught up to the surprised doctor. He paused to catch his breath and cough. "He doesn't know I'm here and it has to stay that way. He came here on the bus, by himself."

"By himself?" She shook her head in astonishment. "How? Why?"

"How," Chris stated, "part of his therapy. Why? That's for him to tell. Something happened..." He hesitated, thinking on that pain in Vin's eyes. "He spilled his guts to me this morning. He's all torn up... but on the right road, I think. He was so determined to get here, to see you on his own. It was important to him; it's his first trip alone."

"You followed him?"

"Yeah, I walked to the next stop to get on before him. I wanted to make sure he was okay. He met some old guy outside. I think his wife works at the desk."

"Millie and Sam, they're an institution around here." She puzzled again when he made a confused face and tugged at his head. "Are you having a problem?"

"Do me a favor?" the frazzled man asked and turned around, patting the back of his short blond hair. "Is there a bald spot back there?"

She laughed and kissed his cheek. "You're a good man, Chris Larabee. You're not as pretty as my brown sugar, but you're okay."

"Thanks," Chris laughed and took her hand. "Favor?"

"Sure, if I can."

"He's just about worn out. Is there any way you could let him sleep a couple hours? He finds out I'm here and he'll have a fit. I don't think he's got enough left to get back to the bus and home. He's way overdue for his meds and he should rest. What time you outta here?"


"Good. Anyway, can he crash on the couch in the resident's room? He thinks I'm sleeping at his house. I called Buck, he's on his way over to pick me up. He updated the guys, they're gonna meet him at Max's around five. He wants to talk to them."

"Okay," she agreed, but her trained eye saw the red-rimmed eyes that matched the hoarse voice. "You sound awful. How are you?"

"To use a Vinism," Chris rasped, rubbing his sore throat, "like stir-fried shit. I'm gonna crash at Buck's for a few hours, he's close to here."

"Go," She patted his arm. "I'll take care of him."

"Okay, thanks Rain." Chris ducked his head back inside and had to smile. He watched Vin's slim fingers slowly shredding a napkin. He knew how much courage it took for his best friend to pull himself up and get back on the right path. He was so proud of Vin, this was a big accomplishment. "Good job, cowboy," he whispered and then left. . Vin looked up when a surprised call of his name sounded. He tried to stand up, bumped his arm, twisted his back and yelped. He dropped back, down, rocking in pain and annoyed that he was stumbling like an idiot.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, jest clumsy is all," Vin managed. Suddenly, his throat went dry and his nerves shot into overdrive. He couldn't produce a word and the well thought out dialogue in his head he'd rehearsed, evaporated. He didn't know what to say or how to act. He began to breathe irregularly and felt his brow dampen with sweat. He felt her move around him and bend down, he stiffened up and pulled away, terribly embarrassed by his actions. A part of him was now arguing how dumb this idea was.

"I won't bite you, Vin," she replied to the tense motions, resting a tentative hand on his shoulder. She felt him relax and bent down to kiss his cheek. "I can't believe you're here. How did you get here? Are you alone?"

"Yeah," Vin rasped, "Ya know that big thing that always falls on that coyote in the Road Runner cartoons?"

"Yes," she answered, her face puzzled.

"I feel like that damn things sittin' on m'chest. I gotta get rid of it. Could be spoutin' fer awhile, I'm drier than a buzzard's butt. Can ya scare up a soda?" The words spilled out in a rush, like mice from a trap. They ran all over the table and left him breathless. Then the hand gave his neck a gentle tug and his breathing began to calm down.

"Sure, I was going to have a grilled cheese sandwich. Would you like to have some lunch?"

"Okay," Vin sighed hard and let out a long draw of air. It felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from his heaving chest. "Thanks, Rain."

Chris had just drained a large container of orange-pineapple juice when he saw a familiar car pull up. He groaned when the mustached face broke into a broad grin. He knew those blue eyes were twinkling in mischief. Sighing, he tossed the container in the trash and made his way to the curb.

"Well, I never thought I'd see the day," Buck Wilmington goaded watching the ill man ease his body into the car. "Chris Larabee using public transportation like the commoners."

Chris glanced over and tried to glare at Buck but his head hurt too much. He sighed hard, shook his fair head and grimaced. He ran his hand over his face and rubbed his throbbing eyes. Buck was already chuckling and he knew there was more to come.

"If you say the words 'Mother Hen', I'll put Tanner germs in places you don't want to know about," Larabee warned, not healthy enough yet to issue a glare.

"Ouch!" Buck winced, pressing his hand to his chest. "You play dirty, Chris."

"That's why I get paid the big money," he replied, leaning his head back on the head rest and shutting his eyes. The sun was causing his brain to melt right inside his skull.

"So how'd it go?" Wilmington asked, pulling out into traffic.

"Good," Larabee replied, "I was more nervous than he was. I haven't been this anxious since Adam's first day at school."

"Well, I thought I noticed some new patches on your head," Buck noted of the 'fret' spots. He turned down the street that led to his condo. "Come on Mrs. Cleaver, now that the Beaver is safe, why don't you have a nice long nap."

"Jesus, Buck, I'm not that old, June and Ward were before my time," he gruffly replied about the old television classic.

"Now Wilma Flintstone, there was a woman!" Buck announced loudly, pulling into his driveway. "She sure was 'stacked' and that tight animal skin mini dress...." "Buck."

"...course Betty Rubble was easy on the eyes too, but she had that annoying voice. I'd have to muzzle her..."


"You know?" Buck turned the engine off and unlocked his door. "I always thought that setup on the Brady Brunch was a little weird. Ever wonder how Mr. Brady was supposed to be a world class architect and his house had all them kids shoved in two bedrooms and sharing a bathroom?"


"Hah," The tall agent climbed out and walked around to where the passenger was still sitting in the car. He opened the door. "...and don't think them roasts and all that meat they had every night didn't come from Alice playin' with Sam all night and I don't mean bowling."

"Buck!" Chris shouted, grabbed his tender throat, narrowed his eyes in pain and raised a fist. "Shut the hell up! I'll be having nightmares about June Cleaver and Mike Brady."

"I knew you had a thing for June," Buck teased and unlocked his front door. "Greeting Ward at the door just wearing them damn pearls."

"What twisted version of Leave it to Beaver did you watch?" Chris grimaced and entered Buck's condo. "Jesus, my life is sad..." he commiserated of the sorry state of conversation.

"Crash for a few hours," Buck updated from the doorway. "I'll be back to get you about 5 or so."

"Yeah, give Wilma my best," Chris yawned and dropped onto the bed in the guest room off the study. He pulled his boots off and eased his lean body back, pressing his throbbing skull into the cold pillow. A sound by his right ear caused him to peel a single eye open. Painfully, he looked up. "Thought you left?"

"Forgot a couple things," Buck answered, placing a large mug of herbal tea next to his guest along with a thermal cup of ice water. "The tea is some fancy shit of Ezra's but it works. There's juice and soup in the kitchen. You make sure you take your pills. Is that quilt warm enough? I could..." Buck was stopped when a hand snagged his wrist and the greens eyes made a plea.

"You're scaring me, Buck."

"Sorry," he chuckled. "Okay, stud, get some rest."


The word drifted into his mind and he mulled over just what that meant; a period of repose during which your body replenishes itself, relaxation, napping, snoozing and placidity. In the short term, that would be accomplished. He sat up, leaning on his elbow and took a sip of the tea. With the liquids, medicine and 'rest', his body would replenish. But on the horizon, the ramifications of the word were in doubt. In the weeks and possibly months to follow, would the pressure, strain and tension plaguing him finally leave? Would Vin's eyesight be restored and allow him to reclaim his place on the team? What of Josiah? How would that rift be mended? He took a long gulp of ice water before resting the container against his face. As the icy tendrils caressed his hot skin, he thought of the days and weeks ahead. He put the cup back and lay down, finally falling into an uneasy sleep.

Rain paused a few feet away from the table and studied Vin closely. Although his body was still, his eyes were wide and full of remorse and fear. She'd sorted out her feelings from the last few days but moved forward slowly. She was angry at how he'd treated her but on the other hand, she wasn't blind and had no idea how she'd react in the same situation. As if sensing he was being watched, his head turned towards her and his eyes narrowed a bit.

"I hope you're hungry," she said, putting the tray down. "Cream of chicken soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and oatmeal cookies. I put the soup in a cup, so you could drink it if you wish."

"Thanks," Vin offered, sitting back and trying to organize the butterflies seemingly in a frenzy in his gut. "Uh... I hope I ain't keepin' ya, I mean if yer busy, I can come back..."

"No, Vin," she reassured, covering his hand with her own. She felt the trembling and gave it a pat. "It's good to see you," she paused, placing the food in front of him. "Here, cherry coke, lots of ice."

Vin took two long draws through the straw and listened as Rain explained where the dishes were. He picked up a half of the sandwich and took a bite. If nothing else, it gave his mouth something to do; he couldn't recall ever being so nervous. For several moments, he alternated between the sandwich and sipping the hot soup. The war inside him continued to wage a good battle. It was like making a choice whether to dive into the ocean and accept the icy water at once, or slowly wade in and gradually absorb it. He took a deep breath and prepared for the onslaught of the waves.

"I'm sorry, Rain, fer everythin'. Nathan, he made me listen t'm'tapes, it was like lookin' in a mirror and seein' a monster in the glass." He shook his head and swallowed hard, biting his lip as the internal pain ebbed. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear it weren't me... honest t'God, Rain, I'd never hurt ya, I got no words t'tell ya how awful... all o'ya stood by me... even after I hurt..."

She sat down in the seat next to him in the booth and put her arm around his shoulder. He dropped his head and tried to hide the tears welling in his eyes. She rubbed his back and waited for him to recover. Nobody hurt like Vin Tanner, more than once she'd seen someone hurt his feelings and the telltale eyes speak volumes. "Take your time, Vin, it's not a race. I know how hard this is for you. Being family, loving someone, truly caring for them is accepting them with all their faults." She used her free hand to draw his face up and winced at the sorrow it held. The angry, young man she'd seen that day in the parking lot was long gone. "I still love you, Vin, that won't change."

"As God as m'witness, Rain, yer the last person I'd ever hurt," he whispered, lifting his face and turning towards her. "I'd sooner cut m'heart out. None o'that stuff I said about the lil' one, I didn't mean... I ain't never been so ashamed."

"Oh, honey, I know that," she soothed, hugging him and waiting a few moments. "Better?"

"Yeah," Vin pulled back and swiped his eyes. He sighed hard and took a long, steadying breath of air.

"Good, because I'm hungry." She rose and moved to the other side of the table. They ate in silence for a few moments and she was impressed with how well he was able to handle his lunch on his own. Suddenly, he paused and put his spoon down. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and looked up.

"How is she?"

The voice was so small and the whisper so full of hope it caused her to lose her breath. "She's fine Vin, much better."

"I sure do miss..." he bit off the rest, reaching for his soda instead.

He sipped it slowly, trying to keep his tongue occupied before more words came out. He didn't want to beg but he missed Jasmine so much his heart hurt. He knew Rain was right, his temper until now had been out of control and no child should be exposed to something as frightening as that. Now that he was through the worst of the storm, maybe there was sunshine on the horizon. Or maybe he had to convince her of that. "Yer right, them words ya said that night, I woudda scared 'er and losin' her would hurt worse than bein' gutshot. But I'm better now, and when ya feel it's the right time..."

"How about Sunday afternoon?" she suggested, "We're putting up the tree, all the guys will be there for the football game."

"Really?" Vin exclaimed, eyes bright with anticipation. He was clutching the edges of the table. "Ya got no idea how much this means t'me, Rain. Ya can't know how much I miss 'er."

"I think I do, Vin Tanner," she replied softly. "It's shining right from your heart."

Sunday? That was only a few more days, he'd get better. He'd pray and look to his grandfather for courage. He had to show Rain and Nathan that despite his eyes, he wanted still to be an active part of his goddaughter's life. He never knew it was possible to love someone as much as he did his beloved Jasmine. Just thinking about her bright little face and those big chocolate eyes made his heart melt. A handful of days, he could do that, it wasn't so long.

Five ten p.m

Buck made his way back to the large table near the side of the cozy Irish pub and frowned. He heard Chris chuckle behind him and they both watched amazed as the youngest member of their team continued to devour hot wings. The empty platter on the end of the table next to Nathan told them that Dunne had already been through a full platter of nachos.

"Hell, he had a huge sandwich for lunch..." Buck complained to Chris as they took their coats off. Nathan and Ezra looked up and nodded, just as J.D.'s belch greeted them. "Nice, kid, what time you pulling out in your Semi," he noted of the truck driver like emission of gas.

"Thanks for waiting," Chris noted wryly, taking the seat next to Dunne.

"We ordered some appetizers," Dunne replied confused. "They'll be out soon."

"And that was?" Larabee nodded to the now empty plate of wings which joined the empty Nacho dish.

"Just a teaser to hold me over," J.D. replied.

"The lad was famished," Ezra added, reaching for his beer, "It's been at least two hours since he filled up his gullet."

"Shut up, Ezra." J.D. tossed a peanut at the southerner and looked up as a familiar body appeared in the doorway. "Hey, there's Vin!"

Vin paused when he heard his name. He wasn't sure of the path and used his cane to meander carefully towards the table. He felt his shame rising when all his friends greeted him warmly. He knew the large hand that clapped his back and ruffled his hair was Buck's, long before the 'hey slick' met his ears. Like venomous fangs, the words he'd heard himself use on the tape came back, shredding his already tender gut. How could they still embrace him? Suddenly, the path to the table wasn't as difficult as the one back into this special fold of brotherhood.

"Sit down, Vin," J.D. greeted. "We got plenty of food. You want some beer, or maybe a coke? I could get the..."

"Thanks, kid," Vin interrupted, "I think I need t'chill for a moment. Ain't quite sure where t'start."

"Take a breath, Vin, slow and easy," Buck coached, massaging the sharpshooter's shoulders gently. He heard the rapid breathing and knew just how nervous the younger man was. "You're with family, no need for that."

"Family?" Vin repeated, his voice a harsh whisper. He shook his head and slipped his coat off.

"I got it," Nathan said, taking the worn leather jacket. "Seat's right next t'ya..."

"Thanks, Nate."

Vin sat down and moved his chair closer to the table. He took several deep breaths to quiet the jitters that were multiplying by the minute in his gut. He knew Buck was on his right and Nathan on his left. By where he'd heard Ezra's voice and the kid's, they were across from him to his left just a bit. That meant the missing voice, the one he needed, the spirit who completed his own was right across from him. He lifted his face and sought out the other half of his soul.

"Right here, cowboy," Chris answered the quest quietly and saw relief pour from the emotive eyes.

"I uh... wanna thank all o'ya fer comin'..." Vin stammered badly, his good hand flitting nervously on the table.

"Hell, son, you know we're only here for the half-priced appetizers," Buck teased, reaching for some napkins. "Here, happy now? We got plenty; you go on and make yourself a rite pretty nest."

Vin grinned and accepted the paper napkin, moving his hand to the left where his injured arm was in a sling. Between the two hands, the paper napkin was now easily able to be torn up. He waited a few moments, took a long sip of cold water and gathered himself up. He had no idea what to say, or how to make them understand just how deeply his intentions were. He could feel Chris's eye bearing on him and almost hear the quiet calm of that voice, urging him to purge.

"Nate?" He turned to face the tall healer.


"I know I pushed ya hard... t'hard... but them tapes ya made me hear... listenin' t'them... it ripped me in half." He paused when he heard the sharp intake of breath next to him. "Yer boots was jest the right size t'kick m'ass. I couldn't believe it, it was like some other person on them tapes, it weren't me. Them words I was spoutin' hit m'chest like nails. I... I... never been so shamed in all m'days. I can't... I... I..." Vin began to gasp then, as the gravity of the moment hit him hard. They were all here, listening and watching; waiting for him to finish. Finish? Finish what? Asking them for forgiveness? After all he'd done, how could he expect that? Was that even fair? All of a sudden the room was too small and he couldn't breathe. Sweat began to bead up and cover his face.

Chris started to rise, quickly seeing this was a mistake. Vin wasn't ready yet and his uneven breathing had the leader a little nervous. He needed to get Vin out of this place, before he passed out. But Buck shook his dark head, pointed to the seat, his dark blue eyes didn't hide the 'sit down' order. Then they regarded him a moment, with a 'trust me' sign. He nodded once, took a breath and sat down.

"Now, see?" Buck said, breaking the uncomfortable silence and draping an arm over Vin Tanner's trembling shoulders. The younger man jumped a bit, stiffened up and tried to pull away. "Didn't I tell you all about my 'animal magnetism'? Just being next to me has the boy broken out in a sweat."

Vin knew what Buck was trying to do and he was extremely grateful, it was far better than he deserved. He let out a deep breath, relaxed and welcomed that strong hand that was now massaging his neck lightly. He heard the others teasing Buck about his 'powers' and their bantering voices wrapped around him like a familiar quilt. He relaxed, letting the soothing tone calm him. He swiped at his damp face, wiping the sweat away and took more water. He felt Buck lean in and tilted his head, frowning at what the other man wanted.

"You want I should find us a cozier table, one with more privacy?"

"Shut the hell up, Buck!" Vin's voice returned automatically as he moved away a bit. "Git yer paws offa me, I ain't no damn dog t'be petted!"

"No, but you sure are cute when you get riled up!" Buck completed, winking at Chris as the mission was accomplished.

"To the power of Buck," Chris lauded in a silent toast and caught Buck's wink. His confidence back in place and with the security blanket nearby, Vin was ready to finish the job. He'd set out this morning to right his wrongs; it was the first step on the long road to his true healing.

"I rode a lotta years on m'own, I thought if ya didn't give yer heart away, ya couldn't git it broke." He paused, casting his unseeing eyes around the table. He didn't need his sight to 'see' his brothers; he could see and feel them so clearly now it gave him a chill. "I was wrong. Findin' all o'ya, findin' a home here, a family, m'first real family since m'grandfather died, well, it taught me somethin'. There's gonna be times when m'heart gits busted the hell up, when I can't go no more and a I fall. But now... I ain't alone anymore. I got me six brothers t'share the load, to pick up them busted up pieces and put 'em back t'gether. I learnt that bein' a friend, a brother, means takin' a hand and givin' one equally. This accident took m'eyes..." he paused again and swallowed hard, drawing from their warmth. It filled him and gave him the fuel to carry on this night and all the ones that would follow. "But, it made me see clearer than I ever could with 'em. I put y'all through hell, callin' ya names, actin' like an idiot. The harder I pushed , the harder ya held on. I got no words..." his voice broke then and he dropped his head, unable to finish.

"No words?" J.D. grinned. "Hell, Vin you said more in the last five minutes than you have since you came to Denver."

"The lad is correct, despite his gastric troubles," Ezra noted, frowning as the 'gas' being emitted silently thought not without its deadly power. "Your eloquence was never sounder."

"We all fall, Vin, ain't a time when one of us haven't counted on yuh and yuh always come through," Nate added, patting Vin's slumped back. "And it isn't just anybody I name my baby's godfather."

"Thanks, Nate," Vin whispered, feeling his chest tighten. He turned his face to where Chris was sitting and he felt that power engulf him.

"You done good, cowboy," Chris charmed, smiling as Vin sat up and regained his composure. He saw Buck's arm move around Vin's shoulders and the mustached face move closer to Vin's ear. His grin broadened just knowing Buck was up to something.

"Table's open in the back, a nice dark corner..."

"Buck, don't make me hurt ya," Vin warned, grinning like a fool. The laughter rained down then and it was a shower he welcomed, absorbing every wonderful sound and realizing he'd finally come home.

Part Fourteen

Nathan threw his keys on the table, leaving his coat on the chair next to it. He made his way through the dining room towards the living room. He stooped to pick up two dolls, two stuffed animals and several small animals that belonged in Noah's Ark. He deposited the items in the toy box in the corner and paused by the Ark. It had been a gift from Josiah on Jasmine's first birthday. He'd made the Ark and several pairs of animals, painting each and every one. It was beautiful and Jasmine loved it. He wondered how Josiah was going to recover from this trauma.

"Hello?" He inquired, following the squeals of delight that showered down on him from the stairs. He took his sweater off and tossed it on the railing, rolling his sleeves up as he entered the bathroom. He paused in the doorway and growled like a lion.

"Who's that?" Rain asked her happy and wet toddler, content in the tub surrounding by rubber fish, ducks and a boat.


"Hey, Sugar." Nathan knelt down and began to splash the water, moving a large yellow and green fish around until it collided with her belly.

Jasmine raised her soapy little arms and got a buzz on her neck from her father.

"How'd it go?" Rain asked, watching the weary face beside her. She knew he was worried about both Vin and Josiah and it was starting to tell on him.

"Good. I think he's through the worst of it. You have no idea how hard it was to make him listen to those tapes."

"It had to be done," she replied, tipping his face up and kissing him.

"What's that for?" Nathan asked, turning to face his wife.

"For showing me just how much love you have inside of you. I know how hard this has been on you. Trying to help both Vin and Josiah..."

"Sometimes," he sagged a bit, rubbing his happy child's back, it's so dark, it's like we're never gonna find the light again. But, I think Vin's on the right road. I sensed a change in him tonight, calmness and confidence. Maybe the therapy is helping... I dunno... maybe I'm just being hopeful."

"No," she disagreed, nodding to the Lilo and Stitch towels behind him. "Yeah," he answered, rising and reaching for one.=

"I felt it to; I saw it in his eyes, Nathan." She turned to the baby. "All done, baby, time to get out."


"Jasmine, don't raise your voice to me," Rain corrected the stubborn tot, "The water's cold and it's time for bed." She lifted the protesting child out and wrapped her in the towel. "I told Vin about Friday night, I invited him to come. I think seeing Jasmine again, doing something together, especially with Christmas coming up; well it might cheer him up."

"Okay," Nathan agreed, bending to kiss his daughter's chubby cheek. "I'll be right in for your story, okay Sugar?"

"Monkey cake?" she asked her chocolate eyes wide.

"We read that story yesterday," he argued, "and the night before..."

"And every night last week," Rain laughed, walking past her exasperated husband.

"It's not even a good story." Nathan sighed of the Curious George book about a misadventure with a cake.

By the time she had the two year old in her Winnie the Pooh fuzzy sleepers and with her favorite blanket, Nathan returned. Rain handed the baby to him and waited until he was settled in the rocker. Jasmine had her thumb in her mouth and laid her head against his chest. It was quiet moments like this, watching the father in him grow and shine that made her realize the depth of her love for him. She handed the book over, chuckling at his annoyed face.

"Monkey cake!" Jasmine muffled in delight, not surrendering her thumb.

"Yeah," Nathan grumbled. Can't yuh see how exicited I am?"

"I'm going to clean up and then take a shower." Rain paused in the doorway and caught his eye. She gave him that 'smile' and raised a single brow.

"Want some company?" Nate asked.

"Don't be long..." she replied, moving from the nursery.

The rest of the week seemed to be colored in wonderful shades that defied the very finest rainbow. Vin's world seem to be exploding in a shower of colors and music. He spent his days working hard with Kelly to fine tune all the training she'd shown him. He took the trains and buses across town, passing every test. He loved the sound of her voice and the lunches and quiet dinners they'd spend together. He'd stolen his first kiss with the pretty girl a few days before and since then had enjoyed several more and some sweet caresses. Finally it was Saturday night and the next day would bring him back to his beloved Jasmine. He couldn't wait to see her, his heart ached to hold her. He had just finished his lunch and was cleaning up the dishes when the door opened. He turned his head and sniffed, catching the distinctive scene of Polo.

"Bucklin? Ya ain't supposed t'be here."

"Thanks for the 'warm' welcome, Vin," Buck teased, "I was on my way to meet the kid at the mall, he's trying to finish up his Christmas shopping." He paused and eyed the empty house. "Where's Chris?"

"Feelin' poorly, I sent 'im home. Them germs he's totin' ain't going down without a fight. Ya hungry? I can fix ya some lunch if ya can eat real fast."

"No thanks, Vin." Buck moved into the room and was amazed at the change before him. Vin's confidence had grown by leaps and bounds. He watched as the dishes were put away and the slim Texan pushed the button on his watch announcing the time. He heard the hiss of annoyance and backed up a bit as the anxious man moved past him.

"Hell, son, where's the fire?" Buck chuckled, "It's only three o'clock. You got a hot date or something?" The body stopped and the face frowned, the telling sky eyes didn't lie.

"You're kidding me? That's it? You got a date tonight? Damn!"

"What the hell's s'funny about that? Lot's of girls be rite happy t'catch a ride with me," Vin sassed back, jutting his chin out a bit. "Now git, I got things t'do before she gits here at six."


"A girl, ya know, soft and smellin' nice, got curves and bumps in all the right places?" Vin tossed back and began to shove Buck towards the door.

"Who?" Buck pushed working arm down. "You know I'm not sure if you should be alone. What with your concussion and all. I think I need to stay and supervise your activities."

"I think ya need t'park yer ass back in yer car, yer late, Vin protested, trying to turn Buck to the door.

"Okay, I'm goin'," Buck grinned, "You sure you're okay? Three hours is a long time. I could stay until she arrives."

"Thanks, Buck," Vin replied, "I'm fine, really. No headaches, no dizziness, took me a long shower, got m'good threads on, got the Bucklin' CD's loaded up."

"My 'woo her and do her' collection? Damn, she must be fine. You sure you're ready for that? Ain't just everyone that can follow in the Master's steps."

"Yup," Vin grinned again, thinking of his date. "I'm readin' with Kelly t'night."

"Reading?" Buck frowned, recalling the name as the therapist Vin had been working with for the last couple of weeks. "Kelly? She's teaching you Braille? I didn't know she did that?"

"Hell, no, I ain't readin' no damn books." Vin leaned against the door jamb and grinned wickedly. "I got m'papers last night, she ain't m'therapist no more. Now that I'm graduated, we can git t'know each other better. She let me read 'er face a few times, I figgered I'd like t'pick up where I left off and read a few more chapters." "You blue-eyed devil!" Buck laughed and ruffled the long wavy hair. "Exploring huh? You must have Wilmington blood in your family line. Okay, I'm goin'. I'll be back at eleven," he noted of his overnight shift. Despite Vin's proclamations, the doctor's orders were strict, he was not to be alone overnight.

"Call first!" Vin warned, keeping his grin and the sound of Buck's laughter in his heart.

Denver Mall
Six p.m.

The mall was exceptionally crowded and hot. Buck tugged on the buttons of his flannel shirt and tugged his collar open. Between the annoying teenagers, crying kids and annoying mall music, he was anxious to find J.D. and get the hell out of the place. He eyed the department store and moved quickly. He'd finished his shopping and J.D. had one gift to get at the jewelry counter which was just inside the mall entrance. Sure enough, he saw the familiar dark head at the register. A sales clerk was giving him a package and a receipt.

"Thank God," Buck exclaimed as Dunne turned. "You done? Let's get the hell out of this place.

"I'm hungry," J.D. said, moving into the throngs in the mall.

"You're always hungry," Buck complained, trying to keep pace with the younger man's steps "Slow down, will ya? You get lost in here you're on your own."

"Look!" J.D. stopped and pointed to a large Italian eatery. "There's Rain and Nate."

The airy eatery resembled a small Italian village on the inside. Cobblestone streets with colorful mosaics of a town square were easy on the eye. The 'courtyard' in the middle of the cream, tan, olive and terracotta painting of the town and its citizens was where the tables were. In the center, was an open hearth, with several chefs grilling and preparing food. The wooden tables were full of hungry shoppers, feasting on large bowls of Caesar salad, hot herbed bread, pizza, Escarole soup and platters of pasta.

Buck followed the waitress who was in the process of taking an order from the Jackson family. Rain was already seated and saw her two friends approaching. She waved and pointed to the other half of the empty table. Nathan was trying to get his wiggling toddler into the high chair. The protests of 'no' and 'me do it' gave both men a smile.

"Two more, darlin'," Buck greeted the waitress who smiled and left four menus. "Him, I know. You, I thought had more sense," he said to Rain of the crowded mall, "out in this mess."

"There was a Christmas show at two in the main courtyard, dancing gingerbread men and Santa and his elves. They had hot chocolate, cookies and songs," Rain noted. "We haven't ordered yet, we got an appetizer while we decide. I had to take Jasmine to get changed. What are you guys doing here?"

"Losin' what's left of my mind," Buck replied as the Jackson's curious two year old daughter turned and peeked around her father's chest to see who her mother was talking to. Her tiny face lit up and she used both small arms to push her father away.


"Hello there darlin!" Buck boomed, taking Jasmine and lifting her high over his head.

"How come she says that clear as day and she can't say 'Daddy'?" Nathan grumbled as his daughter giggled while Buck tickled her. The large, gregarious man then pretended to eat her belly button which caused her to laugh even harder.

"Cause Daddy ain't got Uncle Buck's animal magnetism," the doting uncle proclaimed, kissing the enchanted toddler's chubby cheek. "All females love old Buck, big or little, age don't matter, ain't that right, darlin'?" he asked and got a wet kiss on the cheek as a reply. She snuggled contentedly into his chest and rested her cherubic face on his shoulder with a happy sigh. "See?"

"Oh brother," Rain shook her head. J.D rolled his eyes, snatching a potato skin dripping in cheese and bacon from Nathan's plate.

"I was eatin' that, J.D.!" Nate protested.

"It was gettin' cold and the cheese was starting to turn nasty. You gotta eat it while it's still hot," Dunne defended.

"J.D. your arteries are gonna turn into cheese," Nathan grumbled as the young man took a seat and picked up a menu. The annoyed father turned back to retrieve his daughter. "Come on now, Jas, yuh gotta sit in the highchair.

"No!" Buck!" Her head popped up and she glared at her father.

"Hey, that's almost as good as Chris's," Dunne laughed of the fired up brown eyes.

"She's okay, Nate, I don't mind." Buck sat down and turned the baby so she was on his lap facing the table.

"You won't be saying that when she dumps hot soup in your lap," Rain warned of the mischievous tot.

"You got a good point," Buck thought, "and the boys have plans tomorrow night, can't afford to be on the injured reserved list." He cocked his head as the little girl fed him a piece of potato. "Uhm... thank you, darlin'. How about you get in your chair for your dinner? Then when we get dessert, you and Uncle Buck will share some ice cream cake? Okay?" She wasn't happy but she agreed and let her father lift her and settle her into the chair. "She sure is pretty," Buck complimented. "You're gonna need a shotgun by the time she gets to their age." He nodded to the table of teenagers across the room. The girls had jeans too tight and too low and the boys were drooling.

"Why do you think I named the best sniper in the country as her godfather?" Nathan teased and they laughed. "Speakin' of which, where's... uh... he..." he chose his words wisely; one mention of the name of 'Vin' would cause his daughter to become upset. She asked for him constantly.

"Gettin' ready for his date," Buck replied, scanning the menu.

"Date?" J.D. repeated. "With who?"

"A lovely young thing and that's all you need to know. He's in good hands," Buck stated. "I've been checking in on him regular and I'll stop back later."

"Are you sure he's ready?" Rain wondered.

"She can handle him," Buck replied, "And I wouldn't have left him alone if I wasn't sure. He won't hurt her." "Might be good for him," Nathan added, "he needs to grow into this change and opening himself up to another person is a big step."

The waitress reappeared and took their orders. They enjoyed a fine dinner and discussed the party the next day. All of them felt that it was the right place and right time for Vin to reclaim his place with the group but secretly wondered if the festivities of the next afternoon would be the right medicine or spell disaster?

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes The Platters
[Music by Jerome Kern and Lyrics by Otto Harbach

Aspen Arms Hospital

God often walks on a path that is difficult to follow.

Josiah Sanchez pondered on that thought as he waited for his therapist. He'd been tested before but nothing compared to the pain that he felt now. Vin Tanner was on his mind constantly. He wasn't sure what he'd say when he did face the quiet Texan, but he prayed for courage every day. David's voice filled his dreams. His cherubic son's laughter had invaded his nights, waking him from a restless sleep. He'd even had some peculiar dreams about Vin and David. Vin and the cherubic child were walking side by side on a path not unlike those in the majestic Rocky Mountains. The smile on his son's face was breathtaking, but the look of disgust on Vin's was equally eye-opening. The closer he got to them, the further Vin moved the boy away from him. Yet, he would pause so the older man could see where they were going.

What did it mean?

Was the dream a positive one? That it had just begun to manifest itself in his night visions after he'd been through intensive therapy and group sessions could, perhaps, be a sign. Maybe his subconscious was releasing some of his long festering guilt. Maybe Vin and David were leading him to the place where he'd find true healing. He prayed that this was the message; for he needed to heal. He looked up when the door opened and Doctor Lauren Tremaine entered the room.

"Good Evening, Josiah," Lauren greeted her patient. "I'm sorry I'm late."

"That's alright, it gave me more time to ponder," he replied, folding his fingers together easily onto his lap. "I've been having some peculiar dreams, reoccurring ones."

"Peculiar how?" she asked, settling at her desk and picking up her notebook.

"For a long time, I never dreamt about David. Even during this time of year, near the anniversary of his death, I never 'saw' him in my dreams. The visions that came were frightening; demons from the depths of hell. But the last few days, I've had the same dream. Vin's in it too. It's in a wooded area, not unlike this place. Vin has David by the hand and they're on a path just ahead of me. But I can't get close, each time I try, they move further away. But when I lose sight of them, Vin pauses so I can catch up and follow."

"And what do you feel that means?"

"The path?" Sanchez frowned and brought the mental image up again. "I believe Vin and David are leading me on the path to freedom, to salvation. Vin's protecting David..."

"From you?" she prodded, watching the smoky eyes lost in concentration

"Perhaps, it's his nature, he's fiercely protective of those he cares about. He wants me to follow but not too fast. He wants me to be ready to... to..."

"To finally face those demons?"

"Yes," Josiah concluded. "I truly feel that is the mission at hand. The path to salvation lies in what I left behind. I won't be able to go forward with my life until I conquer that."

"I think you're right and in a couple weeks, we'll be ready to do just that. I've made arrangements to revisit that area of New Jersey with you."

Josiah nodded and closed his eyes, basking in the light of her words. Finally, after twenty five years of hiding from himself, from the truth, he was going home. David would be there and he would face his son and ask for forgiveness for what he'd done. Then with renewed strength and wearing a cloak of hope, he'd face Vin Tanner. He hoped the young man could forgive him; for without that a part of his world would remain dark.

Larabee Ranch
Eight p.m.

There's something about Nat King Cole's smooth as velvet voice crooning about 'chestnuts roasting on an open fire' that always moved him. He recalled his parents dancing to that song as a child and then later enjoying himself in the arms of his bride next to their first Christmas tree. He eyed the photo album lying before him and sighed hard.

He picked it up with great reverence, recalling just how hard Sara worked on it. The soft green velvet cover had a photo insert in the center. Each year they would put the new Christmas photo inside it. His fingers trembled slightly when they touched Adam's face. At six the boy was losing his baby fat and gaining a look all his own. The dark hair and blue eyes were Sara's but the features were all his. A wonderful child, a miracle sent from God on the wings of a dove. He took a sip of herbal tea and savored the mint flavor. Nathan mixed his own teas and they were worth their weight in gold. Then, hearing Vin's soft drawl in his mind, he opened the book.

It had been he who had gently suggested that by ignoring the book, he was insulting the one person he loved over all others, that Sara put her heart and soul into it, and by not treasuring it, he was hurting her. Of course the quiet Texan was right. It was bittersweet to him that Sara and Vin had never met; Sara would have loved him. They were a lot alike, each poets with old souls and wisdom far beyond their years. Vin taught him again how to balance his love for Sara and Adam, that to treasure them was to have their love for him live on. The 'fuckin' black rags' as Vin so aptly tagged them, were a slap in the face to his family and that Sara would have been ashamed of him brooding and lingering in the dark. Once again, Vin was right.

For an hour and a half, he slowly devoured every page. Each poem, drawing , picture and photo that his bride lovingly pasted into the Holiday Treasury. His eyes and cheeks were damp when the last page was turned, but his soul was free. He thought of his blind friend and how lucky and blessed he was to have Vin in his life.

"Thanks, Cowboy," he whispered, putting the book on the pine table before the fire. He stretched his legs out and flipped the television on. After surfing a few moments, a familiar set of features came on over a slim cheroot. He recognized the movie immediately, a favorite of his, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

"It don't get better than Clint," he decided, lying back on the leather couch and letting the warmth of the fire lull him into a gentle sleep.

The fire was going, the crackling sounds filling the living room with a relaxing tone, the soft music was drifting past and the candles, dusting the air with the scent of peppermint, completed the picture. He had no reason to be so nervous. Yet as he sat on the sofa next to the fireplace, Vin's stomach was churning. Dinner had been wonderful, he and Kelly had made chicken in wine sauce, wild rice and glazed carrots. She was making coffee and 'surprising' him with dessert. He wasn't sure what it was but he smelled chocolate, so it couldn't be that bad.

Kelly peeked into the living room and felt her heart catch. The amber glow of the fire played on his face, basking every fine feature in a golden light. He was so handsome he stole her breath. Every moment with him had her heart skipping a beat; she felt like a schoolgirl again. Despite the rough time he was going through, she felt he'd adjusted beautifully. She'd seen enough similar cases to know the difference. She knew beneath the scared exterior, was a warm, kind and very sensitive young man. A man she wanted to get to know more, a man she could easily fall in love with.

"All set?" she said, causing him to jump. His eyes widened and for a moment, he looked like a deer in the crosshairs. "Hey," she soothed, setting a tray down. It contained two mugs of hot coffee, a fondue full of melted chocolate and a plate with strawberries and frozen pound cake. "Easy, I won't bite."

"Sorry," Vin managed. "I got no cause t' be this jittery. Feel like a hunert frogs is matin' like hell in m'belly."

"Take a deep breath," she soothed, touching the side of his face. "In and out, slow and easy, the fire's going strong, the music is soft, you're safe here. Better?"

"Yeah," Vin whispered. His cheek was still burning from where she'd touched him. Why was he so skiddish? He'd been around plenty of women before. But there was something about the sound of her voice and her touch that set him on fire.

"Open up," she commanded and waited for his lips to part. She slipped in a strawberry dripping in chocolate and smiled at the moan that followed.

"My turn," Vin decided, sitting forward and letting his hand find the fork. He felt around until he heard her say 'that's it' and pierced a piece of cake. He ran the cake up the side of the pot and dipped it inside. He turned it a few times until she again told him it was 'okay' and then he moved it slowly and found her mouth.

After they shared a few more pieces of the decadent dessert, Vin left the fork alone and used his finger to pick up a large strawberry. He dipped it carefully and turned, slipping it into her mouth. The sensation of her sucking his fingers set a fire off. He waited for her to finish and then pulled her closer, kissing her deeply. They shared a few more moments exploring with fingers and tongues, before the CD changed.

"The Platters?" She sat up and chuckled. "They don't seem to be your style. She䴜d glanced at his CD Collection spotting everything from Billy Joel to AC/DC but this caught her off guard.

"Bucklin's doin'," Vin replied huskily, eager to nibble on her warm neck again. "It's mood music fer romancin' and such."

"Did I ever tell you how much I enjoy romancin'?" she inquired, running a finger down his cheek, across his lips and under his jaw, "and I love 'and such'." She frowned when he sat back and seemed to panic. "Hey, I won't break, Vin."

"It ain't that, well it is, well, hell I ain't never done this blind."

"I think maybe that's a compliment," she teased. "After all, some wise man did say 'love is blind'." She stood and took his hand, tugging up him until he stood. "Come on, Fred Astaire, let's dance."

As the sultry sounds of 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' drifted around them, the two young people seemed lost in each other's embrace. Vin was nervous at first but he relaxed, letting her guide his very awkward steps. He let his hand slip up the shapely curve of her backside and tugged the flannel shirt from her waist. He moved his hand underneath; letting his caress her warm skin. They kissed again and his hand moved around, cupping a soft curve. Her deep sigh caused him to pause and grin down at her.

"Reckon it's time fer me t'read ya again? Pick up where I left off..."

"Until the last chapter is done," she replied, easing him down onto the blanket in front of the fire.

They, said some day you'll find
All who love are blind
When you heart's on fire
You must realize
Smoke gets in your eyes .....
Now laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide
So I smile and say
When a lovely flame dies
Smoke gets in your eyes
Smoke gets in your eyes.

It was almost midnight when Buck arrived at Vin's. Heather had flown home unexpectedly and he'd lost track of the time. He left her back at his place and was now pausing at Vin's door. He'd gotten no answer when he called and went into a small panic. What if the date had failed? What if Vin had lost his temper? What if Kelly had left? All the 'what ifs' left him anxious. He had already prepared Vin's grocery order and it was in his truck, so he unlocked the door and lifted the bags, setting them on the counter. He turned the light on and heard a cry of shock. Spinning around he saw a beautiful young lady with long dark curly hair and bright green eyes a few feet away. Her tanned legs ran straight up into Vin Tanner's shirt.

"Oh God!"

"Aw, hell... I'm sorry. I didn't know... I mean I should have guessed maybe but... I thought when Vin didn't answer he got hurt or you got hurt or he hurt you and you left and he was hurt or... I'm sorry, Kelly right?" She nodded and moved behind the breakfast bar, putting her on the other side and hiding her semi-naked form. "I really am sorry, Miss, sometimes I got no sense at all. Everything okay, then?"

"Yes... he's asleep," she managed, and recalled the schedule. "Bucklin? Buck?"

"Yeah," Buck nodded. "Vin told me you were coming for dinner. He's not allowed to be alone overnight. I did call first but got no answer. I'd never have busted in like this, Kelly. Honest to God I..."

"It's okay, Buck," she answered. "I heard the door and jumped up. We both fell asleep and didn't hear the phone. I didn't mean to scare you."

"Scare," Buck eased with a small smile. "Hell, if I knew something as pretty as you was living here in Denver, I'd have gotten me some therapy a long time ago."

"I know about your kind of therapy," she answered with a warm smile. "Your mood music worked wonders."

"You just remember everything that boy knows he learned from me," Buck added with a wink. He stepped away from the counter and eyed the bags. "There's frozen stuff and milk and stuff..."

"I'll get it," she promised. "He's fine, Buck. Go on home."

"Well, if you're sure," Buck sighed hard, a part of him was still worried.

"He's lucky to have friends like you and Chris and the others. He's surrounded by love and that is why he's doing so well." The worry in Buck's eyes showed just how deeply he cared for Vin.

"Way I look at it," Buck noted, heading for the door, "I'm the lucky one. There's something about that boy that's special."

"Yeah," she answered, "I know. Goodnight, Buck."

"Goodnight, Kelly, that's my cell number." He pointed to the list on the refrigerator door. "You call anytime, if something's wrong. Anytime, you understand?"

"I got it," she promised, turning after the door closed. As she moved to put the perishables away, she inhaled the scent of Vin, which clung to his worn flannel shirt. She wrapped herself in that and tingled all over again.

Part Fifteen

After all the groceries were stored away, she was restless. She watched an old movie until three A.M and then made a cup of tea. She padded softy back to the bed, slipping in next to him. Sipping it slowly, she savored the spicy flavor and watched him sleep. He was a beautiful man, the moonlight played on his chest and face, bathing him in a silver light. The night had been magical and she yearned to keep that warm feeling flushing her body right now. He was more than special and she'd never felt like this before in her life. Her tea done, she put the mug down and snuggled close, pausing to kiss him as he slept. She backed up a bit when his eyes opened and he stiffened up.

Vin blinked and opened his eyes, startled by the invasion on his mouth. Then his fingers felt along a pair of warm limbs entwined with his own. A woman's limbs, a woman's body, a woman's very naked body was in the bed with him. Woman? What woman? Where was Chris? What the hell was this?

"I'm sorry, Vin, I shouldn't have disturbed you. But you have the sexiest mouth in the Rockies," she teased and then frowned in concern when his hand froze over her breast. He pulled away from her and banged his head hard on the wall. "Oh God... Vin? What's wrong?" She turned the light on and was stunned by the transformation. Gone was the confident man she'd shared the night with, in his place was a terrified stranger.

"Who the hell are ya?" Vin rasped, his heart pounding in fear. He backed up and fell off the bed, hitting his injured arm and crying out. He felt her touch his shoulder and screamed again.

"Vin just calm down, you'll hurt herself," she managed, her heart pounding as fast as his.

."Git away from me! Who the hell are ya? Where's Chris?" he demanded, wide eyes roaming the eternal darkness of the world he was forever lost in. "Chris! Buck! Chris! Git in here!"

"Oh my God." She jumped up and backed away, seeing the raw terror on his face. She didn't want him to hurt himself further and backed up until she was out in the hall. "It's okay Vin, I'm leaving. It's Kelly? Don't you remember me?"

Kelly? Vin rolled the name over and backed up further, pressing his body to the wall. His head was pounding and the intense pain caused his stomach to rebel. Kelly? A woman named Kelly in his bed? The driving pain in his skull didn't allow for any memories to invade. He stumbled to the bathroom and threw up until there was nothing left.

"Chris?" he whispered, rising and flushing the toilet. "Chris? Buck? " He gripped the sink and turned the water on, rinsing and spitting out the bitter taste. The pain was all consuming now and he automatically reached for the painkillers. "Anybody?" he gasped, his heart thumping wildly. "Somebody git in here... please..."

Buck was sound asleep when the cell phone rang. He grabbed it and left the bed, not wishing to disturb Heather.

"Buck? Something's wrong. I'm sorry; I shouldn't have sent you away. He woke up and he doesn't know me. I scared the hell out of him. He fell..."

"He fell?" Buck used the low light in the hall and shoved the phone between his neck and shoulder. He pulled his pants on and reached for his sweatshirt and shoes, then left the room.

"He get hurt? You okay?"

"No, he's not hurt, I'm okay, just scared. He didn't know me, he panicked. He began calling for you and Chris. He's terrified. "

"That's part of his brain bruise, he does that sometimes when he gets woken up from a deep sleep. He's done it to me and Chris; I know how scared you are I've been there." He sat down, then, putting his boots on before tugging the sweater on.

"What shall I do?"

"It'll pass in a little while. His brain ain't healed yet and he gets real confused when he's woken up like that. He ran off on me and Chris more than once in the dark outside on that damn mountain. Then he waits, his fear leaves, the panic goes away and the clouds lift. Where is he now?"

"In the bathroom, at least he was when I left the room. He threw up and kept calling for you and Chris. He sounded so lost..."

"I know; it breaks your heart." Buck was only about a half hour from Vin's. He scratched a note out for Heather and grabbed his jacket. "It usually takes about fifteen minutes and then it passes. It's getting shorter. When he first came home it would last all night, bad headache, throwin' up, cursing at us. Just keep a watch on him."

"Yeah, I'm sorry, Buck."

"Sorry, hell, darlin' you don't have to apologize, if anything I should be apologizing. I shouldn't have left you there. I guess I got lazy; he hasn't had an episode in over a week. I'll be there in a half-hour or so."

"No, Buck, that's okay, I mean now that you explained it. I ..." she paused and heard a small voice. She turned and saw him standing there, the normall fine features drawn in pain and eyes wet from tears. A face so full of anguish and eyes so bruised she longed to wrap him up and comfort him; hold him until the storm passed. "Vin?"

"Kelly?" he rasped, gripping the counter hard. "I thought I scared ya off.. Thank God yer here. I'm sorry... Did I hurt ya... I can't recall... I didn't hit ya did I?"

"No, Vin, God, no. I'm fine..." she turned back to the phone. "We're good Buck, he's okay now."

"You sure?" Buck replied, scratching his chin. "Okay, I'll be up about seven or so in the morning." He hung the phone up and waited at the garage, eyeing his car. He eyed the steps behind him which would take him back to his warm bed. Then he sighed, shivered and slipped inside of the cold car, his breath causing white puffs to appear. He could almost hear Chris Larabee's laughter in his head. "Shut up, Chris," he warned of the 'Mother Hen' cry.

Vin waited until she was next to him and tentatively put a hand on her face. He felt her wet cheeks and sighed hard, shaking his head. "I didn't mean t'put the worry on ya, darlin. God, I'm so sorry. Usually it's Bucklin and Chris I chase off. I'd never forgive m'self if I hurt ya."

"It's okay, I just wasn't prepared. I didn't realize that you still had lingering symptoms at night." She took his hand, then, after he swayed a little. She knew by the pain in his eyes his head was pounding and he was lightheaded. "Come on, I'll get the fire going. Sit down."

"I'm so sorry, Kelly," he rasped painfully. "Bringin' on yer tears...."

"It's okay, Vin, I'm not glass, I won't break. I'm here for the long haul, cowboy, you can't lose me that easy." She pulled the quilt over them, snuggled close and massaged his temples. "Sleep."

"Yeah," Vin yawned, the painkillers he'd taken in the bathroom were kicking in. He relaxed under her touch and let himself go.

When Buck arrived, morning had broken gloriously over the Rockies. He'd stopped long enough to get some coffee and a quick bagel. He jogged up the steps, pulling his jacket closer. It was colder than hell outside and snow was starting to fall. He slipped inside the door and put the key away, pausing and listening for a moment. Then he peeked into the living room and saw Kelly sleeping on the sofa under Vin's favorite quilt. He wondered on his friend and tiptoed past her, walking to the bedroom. He saw the lone Texan through the large window, outside with his face tipped towards the sun. Silently he approached, keeping his distance, not wishing to startle the young man or intrude on his beloved sunrise.

"Ya fixin' on gawkin' or joinin' me, Bucklin?" Vin asked and heard the soft curse. He'd heard the car and knew Buck by the sound of his steps. Each of his friends had a different approach. Chris was the hardest; he was very light on his feet and impossible to hear.

"How'd you know?" Buck asked, wondering why Vin wasn't cold. He was dressed but only wearing his buckskin coat. "How come you're not cold? I've got a coat on and my balls are freezing."

"Kelly said she called ya, figgered ya be back," Vin turned and gave his friend a sloppy, tell-all smile.

"Shut up, Vin, you're as bad as Chris."

"Yer gonna make somebody a rite fine mother one day, ya got all the right experience," Vin teased and then paused, holding his hand out. "Thanks, Buck, I'm grateful."

"Nice trade off, you're grateful and I'm getting pneumonia," Buck complained.

"Well then git yer shriveled up boys inside and rustle up some vittles. I'm damn near starved. Ya brung some grub didn't ya? It's Sunday, that means pancakes, sausages and them little fried up taters."

"I didn't have time Vin," Buck lied, "But there's some of that fussy organic cereal that Ezra left."

"Fuck that shit," Vin sassed, "Ya best git yer ass t'the store or find an ATM, the diner's got all ya can eat pancakes from four a.m. to seven."

"I'm only kidding, we're loaded, besides that diner has your mug and J.D.'s on the wall and they won't let you two in there until after seven. You two are downright embarrassing." Buck paused as Vin laughed. "You okay, Slick?"

"Yeah, she's something else, Buck. I scared her half to death and she stood by me, chased the dragons away."

"Well, then son, you best hold on to her," Buck predicted, gripping the back of Vin's neck. "And you'll have the best damn ride of your life."

"Amen t'that," Vin replied, basking on the warmth above in the sky and beside him in the glow of brotherhood.

Sunday Afternoon
Downtown Denver

Chris glanced twice in the rear view mirror at his very pensive passenger. Vin was nervous and had been very quiet all morning. He'd eaten little and snapped twice at both Chris and the other passenger, J.D.Dunne, over nothing. Dunne was staying over at Vin's tonight as part of their rotation. Chris had picked both up on the way to Nathan and Rain's Christmas get together. The silent Texan suddenly sat forward.

"You okay, Vin?" Larabee inquired of the blue eyes that were narrowed under a furrowed brow.

"We near a toy store?" Vin asked.

"Uh... uh... I don't know," Chris replied.

"There's a Toys R Us just a few blocks up," Dunne replied. "Why?"

"I ain't got nuthin' t'give the little one," Vin replied. "I won't be long, jest a little somethin' fer her."

"Okay, Vin," Chris answered, then spotted the large toy store.

While J.D. accompanied Vin into the store, the blond driver navigated the parking lot with great caution. It had been a few years since he'd been in a toy store at Christmas time and he'd forgotten just how mobbed the stores usually are. The parking lots are always a risk; people tend to lose their patience when their nerves are fried. Thankfully, he was creeping along, for right in front of him a small child wandered from the side of an overloaded cart. The peroxide head of the mother was barely visible. He noticed she had one hand on the cell phone and the other on lighting a cigarette. Her belly sagged over spandex pants which were crying out in mercy.

"Jesus!" Chris stopped and blew the horn. The woman never moved and he rolled the window down. "Christ, lady, how about puttin' way the Goddamn phone and grabbing your kid!"

"Fuck you!" she called back, grabbing the child roughly by the arm.

"Charming," he muttered, "Merry Fuckin' Christmas to you too. Some lucky bastard has to sleep next to that," he sighed and counted his blessings.

While their boss was navigating the crowded lot, the team's youngest was maneuvering the very crowded aisles. Sweat was rolling down his face, he'd worn a sweater and decided the store must have the heat cranked up good.

"It's like a damn furnace in here," Dunne commented, stopping in the center of the main aisle. He eyed the signs that identified where in the store to find specific toys. "Anything special Vin?"

"Something soft, cuddly," the Texan replied, "small enough so she can tote it with 'er. Purple's her favorite color and she likes horses."

"Gee, I wonder why?" Chris quipped as he joined the duo. He thought for a second, eyed the signs and made a call. "Aisle 6A, J.D."

"Stuffed animals," Dunne read and Vin's head perked up.

"Yeah, that's it, Kid."

Vin did his best to pick up and feel several plush animals that were within his reach. J.D. and Chris both got the high and low shelves, but nobody seemed to be having much luck. Vin had just put down what he assumed was an elephant, when Dunne tapped his arm.

"How about this, Vin? It's a tan pony."

Chris watched as his best friend took the small animal and began to examine it. His face screwed up in concentration as his nimble fingers slowly moved over every inch of the horse. Larabee smiled when a slip of pink tongue appeared in the corner of Vin's mouth. He didn't think the Texan was even aware he did that when he was thinking hard. The fingers froze at the horse's face.

"Naw, the eyes is all wrong," Vin decided, "they'll come off and she could choke. They need to be on the fabric, like a part of the material, ya know?"

"Gee, Vin, I never thought of that," J.D nodded in amazement and replaced the animal.

"Bingo," Chris called out, bending and rifling through a pile of large green stuffed frogs. Finding what he sought, he handed the small item to his anxious friend.

"It's the right size," Vin decided. "Eyes is okay... feels real soft... what's this?" He paused over the back of the animal when his fingers hit a patch of unevenness.

"It's a white pony with a light purple mane and tail, the eyes are purple too. That's velcro, it's got handles, so it's like a purse I guess. It's on sale, five dollars."

"Aw, hell, she'll love that!" Vin decided. "No zippers, nuthin' rough fer her little fingers... thanks Cowboy!"

"Anytime, pard," Chris announced, eyeing the lines. "The one on the far end is shortest, let's go."

J.D. was looking at the video games display at the end of the counter. He didn't notice right away that Vin had moved up and handed the pony to the cashier.

"Are you in line?"

"Huh?" J.D. turned to an older woman with several games in a cart. "Oh sorry..." he skirted past Vin as the cashier scanned the pony.

"Thank you, come again," she said handing him the bag.

"No, Miss," Vin said, "Ya owe me five. That was five and I give ya ten."

"No, you gave me a five," she lied, snapping her gum in annoyance.

"No, I give ya a ten," Vin insisted.

"Uh-uh," Chris warned when J.D. began to move back to where Vin was calmly discussing the matter. He kept his hand on the younger man's chest, preventing him from interfering. "Let him handle it, we're not always gonna be around to fight his battles."

"The ten is folded over a quarter of the way, the fives is folded in half." Vin paused, he knew what she was trying to pull and despite his anger at being used, he took the high road. "Yer busy, ya jest didn't notice. Ya made a mistake is all." He held his palm out.

The clerk eyed the two men standing at the end of the counter, both looked extremely pissed off. The old bag behind the blind guy looked annoyed as well. Huffing in annoyance, she pulled out a bill and handed it to him."

"I'll take five ones," Vin said, not trusting her.

"Good for you, cowboy," Chris lauded, seeing Vin take a huge step in confidence.

As they rode to the Jackson's house, Vin clutched the bag and sat up a bit straighter in the seat. He'd been shaking so badly inside it was a wonder he wasn't sick. But he held his ground in the store with the cheating clerk. He'd handled it all on his own. Riding the buses and trains wasn't nearly as scary anymore. He knew J.D. and Chris were nearby but they hadn't interfered like he was a kid. They treated him like an equal, regardless of his lack of vision. Maybe this world wasn't such a dark place after all.

The Jackson home was filled with the sounds and smells of the season. Christmas songs played on the stereo, the football game was alive and well in the den and the scent of gingerbread came from the kitchen. Nathan saw Chris's blond head appear in the glass near the top of the door and put his oven mitten down.

"Duty calls," he announced, deserting the gingerbread men. He opened the door and nodded to Chris, not missing the combined look of fear and anticipation painted on Vin Tanner's face. "Happy holidays to yuh."

"Thanks for the invite, Nate," Chris extended along with his hand. "Vin, the den is about twenty feet in front of you."

"Hey, Vin." Nate steadied the young man and waited while he took his leather jacket off.

"Nate." Vin nodded and turned his head towards the area where the kitchen should be. He'd been walking the route around the condo in his mind all morning. He unsnapped his cane and made short work of it, moving it from left to right until he hit the doorway. "Afternoon, Mrs. Jackson."

"Mrs. Jackson huh?" Rain put down the hot tray and moved across the room, then laughed. "You're standing under mistletoe, Mister Tanner."

"Pretty good for a blind guy, huh?" Vin grinned and accepted a kiss on the cheek. "Ya need any help?"

"No thanks, sugar, you get settled in the den, everyone's already there."

Although his face remained staid, inside the blind man was quaking badly. This was another big test for him, to manage outside his own home. He knew Chris was right behind him and that presence was, and always would be, his rock. He paused at the edge of the doorway and cocked his head. Buck was giving lurid details on an amorous encounter in his past at a college football game with a hot homecoming queen. Ezra was his unfortunate audience and judging by the comments he was less than enthralled.

"Hey y'all..."


"Mister Tanner, as usual your timing is well appreciated."

"You okay, slick?" Buck rose and made his way to the entry but was waved off.

"M'fine, Bucklin, the black chair still near the window?"

"Yeah, but it's moved over a little, here..." Chris got next to Vin and steadied him until they got to the chair and the younger man was settled. "Thirsty ?" "Root beer, thanks," Vin decided and let out a long breath, one he wasn't aware he'd been holding.

"So, how are things with your lovely paramour?" Ezra asked

Vin turned his annoyed face to where Buck was busy eating something very crunchy. The spicy scent coupled with the sound told him it was most likely nachos.

"What the hell ya been sayin' bout me?"

"Here's the bag, Vin." J.D. handed Vin the little pony and took a seat next to Buck on the couch.

"Me? Would I do that?" Buck feigned innocence as Vin just rolled his eyes.

By the time Chris and Nathan joined them, Vin was happily ensconced in the warmth and brevity of the room. The sounds of their laughter, the ribald comments and the bad jokes were something he'd missed badly. He could see Buck's animated expressions during the colorful comments on his past adventures under the bleachers. He could see Chris smiling as J.D. was again reminded by Nathan and Ezra that his youth and inexperience in affairs of the heart were showing. By the time halftime rolled around, he'd consumed a plate of food and felt much better. The last of the butterflies fled his stomach and he sighed in relief. Some of Rain's friends from work stopped in unexpectedly, bearing gifts. Introductions were made and the six newcomers settled into the den, chatting with the others.

Not familiar with these folks, Vin remained quiet. They said they were not staying long as they had dinner plans. Then a sound made him turn towards the door. He sat forward and cocked his head, as the distinct giggling of his precious goddaughter could be heard from the other room.

"Sounds like Jasmine's up from her nap," J.D. announced, watching Vin's eyes grow wide in anticipation.

"Look who's here, sugar." Nate jiggled his daughter in his arms as they stepped into the room. Her eyes lit up and she began to clap, as the others all greeted her. She turned back to her father and gave him a hug. "Look now... over there..." He pointed to the black chair and she reacted immediately. She stiffened in his arms, gasped in surprise and her eyes grew like large chocolate saucers. Immediately, she reached for him, calling out and wiggling to be free.

"Bin... Bin!"

At the call of her voice, his heart clenched, his throat tightened up and he swallowed hard. He swiped at his moist eyes. He ran his damp palms on the legs of his jeans and fisted his hands to stop the trembling. What if he missed her? What if she climbed in his lap and he dropped her? What if she picked up something dangerous and he couldn't see her? What if he lost his temper again? The voice of reason from just next to him broke through the disturbing sea of questions.

"You're gonna do fine, Vin," Chris said in support, easily reading the unsettled features. The head bobbed once and Chris nodded to Nathan who set the anxious child down.

"Aw... God..."

Vin wasn't able to produce another word, by the time the bundle of love had landed on his chest he was overcome with emotion. He held on fast and tight and she buried her little face in the crook of his neck, murmuring his name over and over. He could feel her small heart pounding hard against his own. She smelled great, she felt great and he didn't think it was possible for his heart to ache any more than it did at his moment. Holding onto her was like embracing the summer sun and he didn't want this feeling to end.

"Be careful young lady, Uncle Vin is still in need of repairs," Ezra warned of the death grip the child had on Vin Tanner.

Buck and J.D. laughed outright when the toddler turned to Standish and gave him a very cross look, her tiny face screwed up in annoyance.

"You'll get used to him, kid, we all have," Chris deadpanned while giving her a wink.

"Jasmine," Nathan stated, gently tapping her back. Once she turned up to him he continued. "Remember what we told you about Uncle Vin?"

She thought for a moment, furrowed her brows and then cast a forlorn expression at her godfather. '"Boo Boo, Bin?"

Vin nodded once and felt her move. She sat back and he sensed she was looking him over. Then a small hand touched the side of his face. 'Boo boo' was repeated and he nodded again. The small hand patted his cheek and she leaned in, kissing the spot. Nobody could ever have prepared him or found a word in any language that would be able to capture how full his heart became. The unabashed love the child showered him with was overwhelming.

"Wuv Bin... wuv Bin... boo boo... boo boo... all gone..." she announced with another kiss.

"Aw, hell," Vin choked, holding on fast to the treasure so contentedly snuggled against his chest. The resounding 'ahs' in the room told him his friends were as charmed by the two year as he was.

"Hey, Vin, she's pointing to her shirt. It's a purple sweater with a pink dancer on the front."

Vin smiled and reached down, pausing to tickle the belly under the sweater. The giggle danced into his ear and settled near his heart. "Angelina ballerina? That's Uncle Vin's favorite ain't it?"

She nodded and then saw the bag next to his leg. She saw purple and snaked her hand inside.

"Mine... mine..."

"Ya been a good girl?" Vin asked.

"Oh yeah," Chris replied as the solemn child nodded. "Look at that face, like butter would melt right in her mouth."

"Go on... it's from Uncle Vin," the doting godfather stated and heard the exclamation of joy.

"See, didn't I tell you?" Buck teased, elbowing J.D. "All woman love gifts, goes right to their heart. Look at that face..."

"She loves it, Vin," Nate said, "Thanks, yuh know just what she likes. What do yuh say, Jasmine?"

"Cookie?" she pleaded, and then grinned when all her uncles laughed.

"No..." Nathan tried hard not to laugh. "What do yuh say to Uncle Vin?"

"Tunk koo..."

"Yer welcome, sugarplum," Vin said, getting yet another kiss. "Hell, ain't had such a spell, gettin' s'many kisses from women."

Chris watched for a moment as Jasmine stared at Vin with one hand near her eye. Fearing she had something in it, he leaned over and tipped her small chin.

"You got something in your eye?" he asked but she shook her head and turned back to Vin, once again pointing to her eye.

"Hey, Vin, she's pointing to her eye," J.D. updated.

"Oh," Vin sat up and held her by the shoulders. "Where's yer little eye?"

Excited, she pointed to her eye and then waited.

"Where's yer little nose?" Vin asked and waited. "Where's yer little ears?" He heard the calls of 'great job' and the clapping of his friends and he continued. "Where's yer little angel kisser?"

"Aw, ain't that the cutest little thing?" Buck noted as Jasmine leaned up to kiss the star-struck Texan.

"Where's yer little heart?" Vin asked, surprised that he could get the words out.

Suddenly the ramifications of his blindness hit him hard, harder than he was prepared for. His chest constricted and it was as if he had no air at all. His lungs rebelled and he felt his meal returning with an acid rush. He couldn't see her face.... her beautiful little face was gone. There would be no more smiles just for him. Gone... lost... a pool of black left in its wake.

Chris saw it despite the calm in his friend's voice. Vin's Adam's apple was bobbing hard and he was fighting hard to remain in control. His eyes were wide but not in joy, rather they seemed to be drowning in waves of blue melancholy. Something was very wrong, and he chastised himself for not thinking that the first visit with Jasmine should have been a private one. This was clearly much harder for him that they'd planned on and he was on the verge of losing control in front of everyone. From the corner of his eye, Chris spotted Buck starting to rise up, the look on the rogue's face clearly showed that he too realized that Vin was losing control.

Vin felt the baby's shirt move, he knew she was lifting her sweater up. This was the way they always ended their game. He'd ask her the last question, growl like lion and wrestle her to the floor, tickling her and carrying on. But he couldn't do that, he felt the pain of the loss in his chest. It ran like a hot knife through butter, melting the very core of him. He'd never see her face again; never share in the joys of the things that the little girl loved. Simple things like flowers, animals and rainbows. He'd never see her on her prom night or the day she would marry.


"Uh... uh..." he began, not sure if he could continue, his voice was cracking under the strain. But she didn't know that, all she knew was that this was her favorite part of the game. He sucked in his breath and regained a bit of composure. "Uh... don't be liftin' yer shirt. Don't be showin' nobody yer button. Don't show that button... I'm warn... warn... warnin' ya. Ain't nobody here needs t'... t'see... t'...."

Suddenly he was gasping for air and his throat closed up. He felt tears of remorse and shame flooding his eyes. He didn't like losing control and he especially didn't like to do it in front of strangers. He was beginning to shake badly now and he felt somebody lift the protesting toddler from his lap. Her loud cry of protest slivered his guts like a jagged razor.

"Hey now, darlin, none of that," Buck said, reaching for her. "How about we get some hot chocolate, huh?"

"Go... on... plum..." Vin knew the baby wouldn't leave if he didn't say it was alright. He felt her small fingers on his damp cheeks and sighed hard.

" boo... go way..." she demanded, kissing his cheek.

"I love ya darlin, yer m' heart and soul..."

"...wuv Bin..." she declared and then allowed herself to be carried from the room.

"Get me the hell outta here," he hissed to Chris Larabee who was helping him up.

He heard the voices of Rain's friends as he exited the room. The words stung him badly; he felt every stranger's eyes burning into him. Rain's poor friend the blind guy, the guy from work who Nate said was blind. Oh they didn't say it, but he heard the thoughts in his mind. The same ones everyone didn't say around him. Poor Vin, poor, poor Vin, his whole life in front of him and now he's useless. It was too much to bear, even for a Tanner.

"Is there something we can do? Is he okay?"

"He's fine," Chris snapped, herding Vin past them.

He shoved Vin out the door and down the hall into the bathroom. He got Vin to the toilet just in time. The food and beverages came up, followed by the dry heaves. Finally, exhausted, Vin slumped back, like a puppet with broken strings. Chris cleaned him up and got him some water. Vin obediently rinsed the mess out and took some water as commanded. The small bathroom seemed stifling and Chris opened the door to get some much needed air inside.

"I thought I was ready," Vin rasped painfully.

"I'm sorry, Vin, it's my fault too," Chris admitted, sitting on the toilet facing Vin who was on the floor. "I should have known better. We should have done this without an audience. I know how much that kid means to you, I shouldn't have..." Chris paused when he saw Nathan and Rain in the hallway outside the bathroom door.

"Ya know they invited me t'stay over on Christmas Eve?" Vin recalled painfully, holding his arms across his aching chest and rocking back and forth. "So's I could g't'church services with 'em at midnight, hear the choir, see the manger and help put the tree up. Then... on... Christ... mas... mornin', I could see m'sugarplum's little face when she saw... saw... shit... shit... shit..." he pounded the floor and let the tears fall. "Why the fuck did it have t'be m'eyes?" For a brief second the unwelcomed face of the man responsible rose up in his mind. He felt surging tide of anger at Josiah Sanchez and forced the image away by lashing out at it.

"Don't, Vin!" Chris grabbed the flailing arms.

"Don't tell me not t'feel m'heart bustin' up and fallin' out!" he vented, eyes a shade of blue so hot it nearly melted the fixtures. "Ya got any idea what that meant t'me? They didn't ask their kin, jest me. Ya got no idea how much... I wanted... I needed. Chris, I ain't never gonna see her little face..."

Chris rose up and waved off Nathan who took a weeping Rain out of the hallway. He hauled Vin up, and grunted, the young man's legs seem to be like rubber. He held on for a moment, allowing Vin to collect himself. Finally the body straightened up and Vin pulled from his grasp, moving away and getting defensive.

"Get me the fuck outta here..."

"Okay, Vin, where to?" Chris asked, nodding to Buck who had their coats. "T'git so drunk I'll hurt fer a week," Vin whispered, mired in such a dark abyss of pain he couldn't begin to fathom a way out.

Part Sixteen

"If" by Rudyard Kipling

Denver Fed. Bldg
7 30 am

The morning sky was gray and bleak, a fitting companion to the mood he was in. The blond team leader sipped his coffee without tasting it. It was just one of the morning rituals he endured. He hated to leave Vin but he had a early meeting with Orrin and two supervisory special agents from the DEA and FBI. A suspect previously thought dead had emerged in New Mexico and he was to update the other agencies on all the information gathered on the gun running charges the team had investigated seven months ago. Since he was responsible for the deaths of two security guards at a warehouse during a shootout, he was wanted for murder. The DEA sources felt that Frank Reid, the killer in question, was in Denver or Golden planning an arms or drug sale. The others were exceptionally quiet this morning, each troubled by Vin's unnerving experience the night prior.

Vin hadn't gotten drunk of course. But inside the fiery anger was a wound that had been hidden. Guarded well and just waiting for release, it pulsated with vigor and exposed itself. To this point, Vin had not addressed Josiah in any shape or form. He'd ignored all the previous attempts to talk about that night and what his friend had done to him. But it was during the ride home that Vin began stirring up that previously untapped pot. It had been simmering all this time and now the pain of what transpired with his beloved goddaugther caused it to boil over. Two words came out, born of the unsettled issue burning inside the blinded man.

"fuckin' bastard"

Chris turned his gaze from the road just long enough to see a glimpse of the throbbing wound shining in Vin's angry eyes. When he prodded the emotive man further, even going so far as to mentioning Sanchez by name, he'd been met with a stormy wall of resolve. Twin eyes that were engulfed with fire and a fist of fury were the long signals that he'd guessed correctly. But the face turned away, the cold shoulder giving him his reply. But the dragon had been roused from its den. Vin needed to face and address his feelings about Josiah. Part of the healing process, as hard as it would be, was to forgive. Without that, Vin would turn into a bitter man, a recluse. And Larabee would be damned if that would happen.

All the anger he'd housed in the car, disapated into the winter air by the time they got closer to Vin's home. Chris drove around for awhile, to let the hot-headed Texan cool down a bit. When he finally got Vin home, the body beside him was a lost soul. Far beyond the point of exhaustion, the defeated man stumbled badly. It had taken Chris's full support to get him inside the house. It was as if some horrid creature had sucked the life right out of Vin Tanner.. He'd slipped into the bedroom and disappeared under a quilt. Chris checked on him twice and kept a vigil by the bed. The nightmares came, fast and furious. And every time the terrified man woke up, his hair damp and curling and his unseeing eyes wide with fright, it was his hand that latched on. The sigh of relief and the slim body sagging against him was something he'd not soon forget.

Exhaustion claimed him and he woken up to find the room empty and the bed made up. He bolted from the room, the shadows of the night still clinging to his haggard features. He smelled coffee and made his way to the kitchen. Vin was calmly seated by the table, looking younger and more vunerable than Larabee thought possible. As if sensing his worry, the blue eyes lifted and found his own. The words came so softly and with such calm it nearly frightened him.

"I'm alright, I'm sorry fer puttin' the worry on ya."

"Vin, we need to talk," Chris stated, pouring himself a mug of coffee.

"Been there, done that," Vin replied. Oddly, he was not upset today, he had no feeling inside whatsoever. He wasn't angry or sad or mad, he just existed. He was breathing and sitting upright, for now that was enough.

"You just weren't ready, it won't that hard the next time..."

"Ain't gonna be a next time," Vin replied, standing up. "I got some shit at the hospital this mornin', tests and stuff. We better leave iffen were gonna git there by eight. I'll be tied up most of the day, ya can pick me up about three or so."

"We need to talk about Josiah." Chris moved when the confused man turned away, but not before that fist formed again. He grabbed the slim shoulders and turned them. "Don't hide from me, not about this."

"What the hell do ya know?" Vin shot back.

How could Chris or anyone for that matter possibly understand how he felt. Someone he'd put his trust in, a man who he called friend had taken that trust and shattered it into a million pieces. The shards of that grotesque abuse of faith had embedded themselves in his eyes. Josiah Sanchez had stolen his sight, changed the course of his life.

"I know that if you don't face what he did and forgive him, you'll kill yourself. Is that what you want?"

"Fergive!" Vin hissed, shoving Chris away and pacing the small kitchen. He slammed his fist onto the counter and shot forth hot rage through his clenched teeth. "Fergive? When Hell freezes over..." "What Vin? An eye for an eye?" the blond prodded, "What are you going to do when you face hiim? Hit him back? Use a board or gun?" He saw Vin's eyes darting and the fist roaming to find something to hit. "What? What exactly do you want..."

"I want 'im t'pay!" Vin roared. "I want 'im t'hurt like I do!"

"You think he's not?" Chris retorted. "I've seen him, Vin. He's not the same man. You think he's not paid every day for the last twenty-five years? He blames himself for the death of his only child. You try living with that. He hasn't stop asking about you. It's broken him, Vin. What more do you want? His life's over, his career is shot..."

"Shut up!" Vin snapped, turning away. He didn't like the way that Larabee's harsh words were hurting him. He didn't want to think about Josiah's pain.

"Vin, don't turn your back on me." Chris saw an opening and took it, moving again to turn Vin to face him. He knew that Tanner didn't understand the pain inside and how to address it. He held the shoulders fast and didn't allow the squirming body to move. "Stop that, you're not a child. Don't throw a tantrum." The fist came up and caught him off guard, splitting his lip. A shoulder followed and foot came down hard on his instep. He grunted but held on, not allowing the troubled body to escape. Instead he spun Vin around and addressed him. "You want a free shot? Go ahead and take it, it won't solve anything. Come on tough guy, hit me, I'm right here."

Vin raised his hand and shoved hard, sending Chris back against the wall. He pressed his forearm into exposed throat. Who the hell was Larabee to hold a mirror to him in his own house? He still had his sight. He wasn't the one whose live was ruined. The words were ramming hard in his chest, bruising him badly. Why did this man affect him so very much?

"Ya don't know shit," Vin accused, eyes darting wildly. "Ya got yer eyes, yer life. Don't wear m'boots."

"I had a wife and child once," Chris replied, moving his face just inches from Tanner's. He saw the flicker of pain glint in the eyes and pressed hard. He used his index finger to drive the point home, ramming it into Vin's chest. "Some bastard burned them alive. I have to live with the nightmares of their screams, cries for help that I didn't hear when it happened. You want to know about pain? You think you're some kind of expert? You don't have a fuckin' clue, Vin." He released the younger man then, seeing that his words hit hard. "You look inside and think on what Josiah did and why. Then you'll find the key." He pa used as the body began to shuffle away. "And Vin?" The head turned slightly, exposing a bobbling Adam's Apple. "You're not my boot size either."

Vin turned away then, the sting of Chris's words like salt on his open wounds. It hurt, it hurt badly, more than he was prepared to accept yet. It wasn't the same, didn't Chris see that? Or was Larabee right and was it he that couldn't see it? Josiah had robbed him of his sight. What did Chris mean by the 'key'? Although he couldn't remember anything of that night, the police report and what Buck and JD filled in gave him all he needed. Why? Larabee said 'why'. Josiah's rage , an uncontrollable force, stemmed from drinking. That binge came annually during the annivasary of his son's death. He blamed himself for the boy's death and used that liquor to bury the pain. Vin thought on it some but it wasn't enough. He was still blind and his life was over. Face the source of the pain. Was that the answer? If he forced Josiah to see him suffering, stumbling blindly, no job, no future, his life's work done, would the pain it brought the gray-haired man be enough? He wanted justice; he wanted Josiah to hurt like he did.

Chris knew there was no use arguing with Vin now, he was stubborn as a mule when he set his mind to something. But they would talk about this, later when the wound wasn't so fresh and raw. As he showered, he wondered just what he would say to his troubled friend. What words would be the right salve for the festering wound? How do you mend a broken soul and shattered heart?

Chris left the troubling encounter of the night before behind and moved from the window. He went over to his desk where a single photo was framed in an antique silver oval. . He picked it up, his hungry eyes lingering on the face of the most beautiful woman God saw fit to bless his world with. Sara would have known what to say; she'd have found the right words to reach Vin Tanner. Why was it that he couldn't do that? Why couldn't he reach into that troubled body and cradle the bruised soul? Surely he could find a way to protect it, nourish it and keep it warm until it healed. Why was he unable to protect the one person who he felt closer to than any other living being?

"I don't know how to reach him, Sara..." he whispered, gently replacing the photo and slumping in his chair. He rested his face in his hands and tried to move the headache from his throbbing temples. He frowned, lifted his head and turned to the far wall. His feet took the lead and propelled him there, to a framed poem his father had given him the day he graduated from West Point. The inspirational work 'If' by Rudyard Kipling was a gift from the heart he treasured. He took several moments to scan the fine prose, before settling on a stanza near the end. He quietly spoke the lines aloud.

"If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'"

Hold on. Hold on.

He read the inspirational poem again and recalled his father reciting it by memory as they stood alone at sunset that night. He'd never forget the pride in his father's voice nor the tears that burned in his eyes. He never loved his father more than at that moment, when he'd told him how proud he was to call him son, to see the child grow into a man with such a strong moral compass, to see his own flesh and blood rising to the call.

Hold on.

He made his way back to the photo and drank in the sight of his bride again. Was that her message as well? Was he to 'hold on' a little longer? Was victory waiting there just beyond the darkest point of this endless horizon? Did he have the courage to steer this ship through the darkness and keep it on course? For Vin Tanner, he could until his fingers bled dry.

"Hold on," he repeated, finding conviction inside. Where it had been just a few moments ago was now warm. He eyed the photo again and found a soft smile. 'Thank you, sweet Sara."

The tranquil moment was interrupted by a very boisterous and brash voice that split the morning air. It brought a smile to his lips and he moved to the doorway, watching his team laughing, save one miserable body with a mask of misery wearing a mustache. It was just the right medicine for his ailing squad.

"When the moon hits her thighs and increases my size, that's amore..."

Somehow the version sung by Marco Santorini, the sharpshooter temporarily assigned to them to replace Vin, wasn't quite what Dean Martin had in mind when he crooned it. At four inches above six foot, with wide dark eyes and long curling dark hair and dimples that left every female in the state weak-kneed he was Buck's biggest competition in the department when it came to breaking hearts. His valor was without question and his sense of humor and athleticism made him a favorite. Buck had known the very likable thirty-year-old for over five years and had worked with him before. Next to Vin, there was no better shot in the state. He nodded at Marco, who winked and waded through the laughter to stand just behind Buck, who was feigning indifference and failing badly.

"When her tongue seems to slide down my chest towards my guys, that's amore..." He leaned over Buck Wilmington's shoulder and continued his parody.

"Good Lord, it's not even eight a.m." Ezra moaned, shaking his chestnut head. "Two of them surrounding me, it's not humanly possible. Why am I made to suffer so?"

"It's never too early for Marco," Santorini winked at the Southerner.

"I may require a transfer, Mister Larabee," Standish eyed his boss hoping for sympathy, "My delicate nerves will not survive two lotharios in such a short expanse of space."

Laying a hand on the chagrined man's shoulder, Santorini continued, "Where her chest makes me drool just like pasta fazool, that's amore. When my nuts do a dance and my hands take her pants, I'm in love... when we take a hot bath and I grab that sweet ass..." He paused as the laughter descended and ignored Buck trying to shrug free of his grip. "...dreaming signore... that's amore!"

"Get the hell away from me!" Buck ordered and narrowed his eyes at Chris Larabee who was grinning broadly from his office doorway. "Something you forgot to tell me?"

"Marco's joining our team this morning," Chris announced his eyes housing the light of amusement.

"Traitors, all of you!" Buck chuffed at Nathan, Ezra and J.D. "And you!" he leveled at the smirking blond, "You're supposed to be my oldest friend. How could you do this to me?"

"Marco keeps you honest," Chris replied. "Worried Buck?" he challenged with a half grin.

"Hell no!" Buck stood up and poked the grinning handsome Italian in the shoulder. "I got more notches than you could dream up."

"Nursing homes don't count, Amigo," Marco countered.

Chris noticed that Marco had set up at a vacant desk across the room. It was an area in a cross draft. He saw the others noticing too as the amiable Italian began to unpack his gear. He moved closer and waited for the young man to look up. He extended his hand and the grip was firm and true.

"You could have used Vin's desk, it's a lot closer," he shivered at the chilly spot, "and a lot warmer."

"Hey," Marco said, eyeing the others looking on. He tapped his shoes and shook his head. "These ain't Tanner's size, not by a long shot. I'm just keepin' his place warm until he gets back."

"Thanks Marco." Chris was very grateful and he wanted to make sure the Italian stallion knew just how much so.

"I smell lasagna," J.D. piped up, rising and sniffing the air.

"Jesus, J.D. it's early even for you," Nathan replied. "Who would eat lasagna for breakfast?"

"My Grandmother made this," Marco stated, pulling a large pan of the savory meal from a box on his desk. "It's soul food! You insultin' my Nona?"

"Damn, that looks good," J.D. made short work of the space and ogled the tray.

"Kid, you mind not drooling, it'll ruin the dish," Marco grinned, handing the tray over. "It's still warm, why don't you take it in the cantina. I'll be right in. I'll tell you about my night in heaven with Anna Maria Montenero."

"Nobody wants to hear about your conquests, Marco," Buck vented. "Especially the imaginary ones."

"Speak for yourself," Nate returned. "I do."

"Me too!" J.D. called over. "Is she that Miss Universe I heard you dated? The one with the big... uh..."

"Two pillows that a man could suffocate in and look forward to the trip," he recalled with a sigh.

"Oh, I'm gonna be sick," Buck moaned and thwacked J.D. on the head. "I thought you were my friend!"

"Manga!" Marco encouraged, handing the dish to Dunne. "It'll give you some hair on that chest, kid, you need it. Chicks dig that... I'll give you some tips."

"Hey, thanks Marco!" J.D. replied, before Buck moved in.

"You keep away from him, advice from you he don't need. I got that covered." Wilmington trumped.

"Yeah, yeah, okay," Santorini grinned and winked at J.D. "He ever tell you about Lisa and Laura Carter and a trip to Vegas?"

"Carter... twins?" J.D. guessed. "Those two showgirls you have your picture with that's on the refrigerator?" The amused youngest turned his face to Santorini, who was grinning like the cat that ate the fat canary. "Why? Did something happen in Vegas?"

"No, nothing happened kid, that was part of the problem," Marco noted with a sly grin. "The other part, well that's the painful part. You see-"

"He don't need to hear that," Buck stammered and his eyes narrowed, "How'd you know about that?"

"These lips are talented, my friend," Marco supplied, "I can pry the tightest, most well kept secrets with the right moves in the right places, if you catch my drift."

"Come on, J.D.," Nathan clapped the blushing Dunne's back. "Before you turn the same color as that sauce."

"Gravy!" Marco corrected as they retreated. "It's gravy..."

Chris sat on the edge of the large desk as the sniper got settled in. The others were in the cantina, cutting up the lasagna. What they didn't know was that Marco had cancelled a trip to Italy for a family wedding to take this assignment. That he'd spent the last two days and nights without sleep reading up on all their pending cases and getting familiar with the drop points of the places they were following up on. That's just a small part of why Larabee sought him out, that dedication and loyalty, things you cannot teach in any academy.

"Listen,Marco, I'm really grateful."

"Hey, that skinny assed, blue-eyed paisan means something to me, you know," he answered. "Besides, I'd be a fool to pass up this opportunity."

"Working with the legendary Team Seven?" Chris guessed and the dark head shook no.

"Gettin' the chance to bust Buck's balls on a daily basis," Marco answered, rising and clapping Chris's shoulder. "Listen, all kiddin' aside, Chris, I got your back. Any bastard who tries to take down one of the guys won't be costin' the state any money, except for cremation."

"I know that, Marco." Chris rose and nodded, thinking on the conversation he'd had with Vin before he left for work. He'd updated the quiet Texan on Marco joining the team. "So does Vin. He was relieved; you're probably the only person he trusts with the job. He takes it personally."

"So do I," Marco vowed and then began putting up a 4 x 6 'enhanced' photo of Buck and wizened up old crone with no teeth and sagging prunes for breasts in a hot tub. She had to be close to a hundred years old.

"Oh brother..." Chris groaned, "It's gonna be a long morning."

"But not boring," Marco chased back, taking one with him as he headed for the cantina. "Hey guys, you wanna see a picture from Buck's romantic getaway last Fourth of July?"

It was late. The darkness that shrouded his soul matched the night sky outside. Josiah's thoughts were on Joseph, another father with a special son. He wondered about Joseph and how before Jesus was born he'd put all his faith in the Lord. He followed the course despite the fact that it was a journey into darkness, a trip full of shadows and the unknown. He was fueled by faith, a special internal light that shone brightly in the darkness. He believed the Lord would save his family and on that alone, he guided Mary to safety.


He was on his knees in the darkness, the cold floor not good for his arthritis. In the still of night, with only shadows for company, Josiah Sanchez prayed. He clasped his hands and dropped his head, pouring his heart into his prayers. Sweat beaded on his brow and ran down his face. He thought of David and how his son's pure heart had no room for anything but love. How his temper had shattered that love for eternity. That in one horrific moment, the darkest moment of his life, his rage and hellfire bellow had sent his only child to an untimely death. Now twenty five years later, that same rage had nearly caused the death of another innocent soul.

"Please... please..." He cast his eyes toward the heavens, hoping God was listening. "Let this be the right path. Lord, I need this road to be the righteous one, the road to salvation. Vin... shouldn't pay for my sin. Show me the light, Lord, please, guide my path."

Exhausted, he finally collapsed onto the bed and as sandman left the shadows to sprinkle the dust of dreams upon his damp and troubled brow, the preacher thought on a passage in his trusty bible, one from the book of James. He thought on the words and then whispered them in the slightest hush, to reaffirm and hold on to the faith that he sought.

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him."

Golden, Colorado
Nine p.m.

Golden is a town just outside Denver, nestled in the mountains. Originally founded in 1859 during the Gold rush days, its current claim to fame is the home Coors Brewery. It close proximity to water made it an ideal hub for manufacturing during the last century. It was at one of those former large brick facades, a former flour mill that the highly decorated ATF team was waiting for Frank Reid. Their surveillance had netted vital information that could lead to his capture. He was arranging for a meet to sell arms and drugs to an undercover agent. The sale was to go down at midnight, and both the DEA and ATF had men positioned inside and outside of the large, drafty warehouse.

Chris shivered and made his way past the large crates and eyed the cavernous area. Buck and Nathan were down on the main level with him on the east side of the room. J.D. was in the van taping everything. Ezra was assuming his undercover role as Etienne Auberge and would be with the three undercover DEA men. The DEA had men on the west side of the warehouse and along with the FBI and local police, the outside as well. The pale green eyes went to the lofty second floor, where their sniper was scanning the area.

"Marco, you there?"

"Right here, boss," Santorini replied, rising from the nest he'd personally arranged. He had a perfect view of the area where the buy was to be undertaken.

"How's it look?"

"I'm good, Chris," he updated.

"Okay, everybody else okay?" He waited until all the replies came back and picked up his phone again. He dialed Vin's number and frowned, sighing so loud it brought Buck Wilmington out of his position.

"Problem?" Buck asked, noting the concern in the leader's eyes.

"I can't get Vin. When I left at six, he was fine. He'd eaten, everything was locked down and he was watching television."

"He's asleep, he can't hear the phone." Wilmington tried to appease the worried face but didn't like the scowl. He knew was what coming next, one of Larabee's 'feelings'. The scary part was that ninety-nine percent of the time, his instincts were right. "Don't go there Chris, he's fine. We need you here."

"Don't tell me my fuckin' job, Buck," Chris leveled harshly and eyed his watch. "Vin's only a half hour from here, I'll be back in plenty of time. Sullivan, Madison and Tyson are all on the premises," he noted of the DEA, FBI and State Police leaders.

"You gotta make a decision, Chris. You can't wipe his nose for him forever. You got a job and..."

The sentence was cut off and the large man was shoved effortlessly against the wall. A firm arm was pressed to his throat and the green eyes bearing on him were blazing fury. He knew he was the only person, save Tanner, who would defy Chris. He also knew as angry as Larabee was, it was something he needed to hear.

"You're out of line," Chris vented, "I'm still your superior and you watch that mouth of yours. I'll be back in an hour."

"Fine, go... we'll be fine. If Reid shows up early..." Buck sighed hard and shook his head as the pensive blond left the area. "Shit!" He kicked a crate and punched it as well.

While his friends were busy at work, Vin was dreaming. He was riding a magnificent horse through the familiar paths that led from Larabee's ranch. The sky was a glorious blue and the air was never so sweet. He rode fast and furious, the wind sending his hair flying in its wake. Whooping and hollering he let the brisk breeze kiss his wind burned face. Finally, he slowed the pace and pulled in to a stop. His friends were gathered around a fire, cooking steaks and laughing, enjoying the day. The hickory smoke rose from the flames and he coughed.

"...the hell..." Vin mumbled, blinking and seeing nothing but blackness. For a few seconds, his heart nearly stopped. The inky blackness before his eyes was alarming. His fingers felt the cloth beneath him and he knew he wasn't in bed. A television was playing an old Cagney movie, he recognized the gangster dialogue. He rolled over and fell onto the floor on his hands and knees. Groping to get leverage, his hand snaked underneath the sofa and caught something. The small item caused his brows to draw together. His fingers identified it as a small sneaker, a very small one that could only belong to one person.

"Jasmine?" He coughed and sat up, his heart gyrating so hard in his chest it hurt. The smoke was not in his dream, it was real. "Shit... shit..."

His rose too quickly and fell, tripping over the coffee table and clipping his mouth. His teeth ripped into his lip and blood filled his mouth. But the panic that was setting in was overwhelming. The smoke told him there was a fire. The small shoe told him his beloved goddaughter was nearby. Where was she?"

"JAS...MINE... JASMINE!" Vin screamed, crawling on the floor and groping blindly. Blindly? Why couldn't he see? Where was he? Was anyone else here? "CHRIS, NATE... JAS... OH GOD... OH GOD..."

With every passing mile, Chris Larabee's inner alarm sounded a little harder. By the time he pulled up at Vin's house, he was breathless and dry mouthed from anticipation. He vaulted from the car and spotted trouble right away. The kitchen lights were on and the shade was up, he could see smoke filling the room. His fingers fumbled and he dropped the keys, screaming for Vin as he bent to pick them up.


"Chris?" Vin's head came up, he knew the voice was real but in his panic he was disoriented. He didn't know which way to go. "Chris! I can't find ya... ya gotta hurry... she's lost its all m'fault ya gotta hurry where the hell are ya..."

Chris spotted Vin on the floor in the den, the first glance told him his friend was alright. He ran to the kitchen to find the source of the smoke.


"NO ! NO!" Vin pleaded, clutching the sneaker to his chest. Tears stung his eyes and the horrid picture of Jasmine's lifeless body loomed in his mind's eye. "CHRIS SHE'S DEAD... I kilt her... it's m'fault. YA GOTTA COME NOW..."

"Dead?" Chris repeated, throwing a smoldering pan into the snow outside the door.

He opened the windows as well, sending fresh air in the room. Vin had apparently put something on the stove and forgot about it. The smoke alarm didn't go off and that was something he'd address shortly. He thought he'd put fresh batteries in it when Vin came home from the hospital. He moved quickly to the den, dropping down in front of a frantic Tanner.

"Easy, Vin, you're alright. You left a pan on the stove. You can't do that, Vin, you know the rules. You have to stay right there with it, you fell asleep or ..."

"Shut up!" Vin grabbed frantically, clawing air, cloth and skin until two strong arms caught his flailing ones and hauled him up. "I can't find her, she's so little she couldda crawlt anywhere, the smoke... she's lyin' somewhere I can't remember... I can't find her..."

"Who, Vin?" Chris hauled the protesting body out onto the front porch and took his coat off, covering the shivering man. He was alarmed at the wild blue eyes and saw the bloody lip. The endless babble continued to pour from the bleeding mouth. Vin didn't hear him and was hysterical.

"Vin you were alone, I was here with you. There's nobody..."

"...s'little ya can't find her she's lyin' in there dyin' and yer standin' out here doin' shit..." Vin startled when a hand slapped his face.

"Listen to me!" Larabee grabbed both shoulders and shook hard. "You're hysterical. Calm down! You're losing your breath." He heard the hyperventilating starting and corrected in. "In through your nose and out through your mouth. Slow and easy... that's better. You were alone, Vin, nobody is in there."

"She's there... I found her little shoe, when I fell offa the sofa," Vin rasped painfully, his chest hurt badly from his broken heart. He held out the little shoe and hiccupped several times.

"Jesus, God, Tanner you're gonna put me in an early fuckin' grave, you know that?" Chris snapped, taking the shoe, looking at it and then wrapping Vin's fingers around it. "This is an infant's sneaker, Vin. Jasmine hasn't worn anything that small in over a year. You were sleeping on the sofa and when you fell off, your hand went underneath. It was probably under there."

"But... it was... so... real... I thought... I... I..." Vin stammered, slumping to the ground and shaking all over. "I'm sorry... I fucked up good."

"Yeah, you did. You damn near burned your house down, but the important thing is you're okay." Chris eyed his watch and cursed. He gripped Vin's shoulder and waited for the shaggy head to rise up. "You wait here, I'm gonna pack a few things for you and lock up. I can't stay Vin, I'm on duty tonight. The Reid deal is going down. I left Golden to come here and check on you when you didn't answer the phone."

"Aw, hell..." Vin managed, sinking lower in what felt like quicksand.

Being a burden was one thing he'd vowed he'd never become to Chris or any of his friends. That Chris left an important job to rescue him was something that hurt badly. He didn't hear the rest of what his best friend said. The waves of depression were all around him now. He felt worthless and helpless, a total and utter failure of a man and friend. He was vaguely aware of Chris putting a coat on him and shoving him in the car. He kept his face turned to the window until the car stopped. He didn't move when the door opened, he remained like the pile of refuse he felt he'd become.

"Come on, Vin, Orrin's right here."


"Travis's house is closer to you, I have no time to get you to Rain's. I have to get back. You can stay with them tonight, okay?"

"Come on, son," Orrin took the shell-shocked man's arm and eyed Chris warily. The frantic phone call had worried him. But seeing this pale, empty vessel where a thriving body should be was disarming.

"His pills are inside, the blue ones ought to knock him out for the night. Give him something to eat with it, or a milkshake, it's strong. There're clothes, and stuff in here and a list of what you might need. I'll check in whenever I can." He handed the bag over and waved to Orrin's wife. "Thanks Orrin."

"Please, Chris, that's not necessary, you boys are family, you know that. Go on now, and keep me posted on the mission, we'll be fine."

Vin was dimly aware of Orrin and his wife speaking to him. He nodded and accepted the pills and a thick milkshake. He was led to a bedroom and disappeared under a quilt. He heard them leaving and words of calling for help if needed. Help? Who was he fooling? He was a failure. He couldn't even take care of himself in his own home. The pain inside of his gut wasn't a consuming one; it was a slow, dull gnawing, the kind that would remain in place for sometime, gradually eating away at the little bit of his dignity that was left. It would be a daily and constant reminder of his inability to function as a normal human being. He was worthless and the sadness that engulfed him was immense. He shivered under the blanket, his eyes were dry. There were no more tears left; he'd spent his supply of the salty penitence. There was nothing left at all.

12:24 a.m.

Chris kept a careful watch on the buy that was transpiring. Reid and a half dozen of his men had been negotiating for ten minutes with Ezra and the DEA agents. The boxes had been opened and inspected; two of the guns were taken at random outside to be tested. The sample bag of cocaine was split open and tasted. Now it was a matter of money. Ezra was his usual smooth self, completely cool and unflappable. Larabee doubted if the man even had a sweat gland.

"Come on, Standish, get this thing done," he whispered, keeping his gun trained on the figures gathered around the table.

Ezra took his cue from the silver-haired DEA agent on his right .The head nodded once, indicating it was go time.

"Gentlemen, I believe this concludes our negotiations," Standish acknowledged, extending his hand. Once the handshake was done, Ezra moved back to allow Reid's men to nail the crate lids back on. He knew was what coming next and was prepared for it.

"DEA, get your hands in the air now!"

At the sound of the booming voice, all hell broke loose. Guns were drawn and fired and everyone on the floor scrambled for cover. Outside the men who had accompanied Reid were exchanging fire with the other Feds. Inside, Larabee and his crew were busy in the thick of the battle. Marco never moved from his nest, or gave away his position. He kept his scope trained on Reid, but was aware of the positions of each of the men on the team. Reid disappeared behind a large metal drum that had been used to house flour.

"Shit... shit... Standish where the fuck are you?" Marco muttered, when he couldn't see the Southerner. He saw Buck Wilmington moving towards the drum, and heard the tall man holler a warning to Ezra. Just then Reid appeared with Ezra in front of him, a knife pressed against Standish's throat.

"Back off, all of you or he gets it," Reid threatened.

"No fuckin' way," Larabee countered, "you're not leaving here breathing free air you maggot-infested dirtball."

"I'll slit his throat!" Reid warned.

Marco saw Ezra's eyes flicker briefly on where he was hiding and he found a grim smile. He turned his cap backwards and leaned his cheek against his prize weapon. "Easy, Amigo, have a little faith, Marco is on the job..."

"And I'll shoot your balls off," Buck warned, moving closer. "You're done, Reid. Dead or alive, you're choice. But you're not walking out of here."

Reid never had time to think upon Buck Wilmington's colorful suggestion. He never had the chance to even blink before two shots rang out in quick succession. The first shattered his wrist; sending the knife from harms' way. The second split his forehead, spraying his hostage with gray and pink brain matter.

"Jesus!" Buck jumped, startled as the felon was felled in rapid order. The first shot was beyond amazing, there was less than an inch of chance to make a shot that accurate.

Marco kept his scope moving, there were still two men of Reid's not accounted for. A shadow moved behind Buck Wilmington and the ATF sniper reacted without thinking. He had to move in order to get the shot off.

"BUCK, DOWN!" he roared, jumping up and firing.

Buck dove and rolled, taking Ezra with him. They scrambled for cover behind the large vat, each gasping for breath. They spent several moments returning fire until the man who'd been behind Buck fell dead. He eyed the bloody face of the southerner. "Any of that yours?"

"Thanks to our nimble fingered sharpshooter, no," Ezra replied, taking out a handkerchief and wiping his face.

Buck didn't miss the slight tremble of the Southerner's hands. His own heart was jumping so hard in his chest it was difficult to catch his breath. Marco had saved both their lives. "You know, I think we both owe that long-winded Italian a beer."

"To say the least," Ezra replied, kneeling up, peering around the vat and firing.

Finally, it was done and Larabee kicked the corpse of Reid while his hand moved to the microphone pinned to his collar. "Check in," he ordered and waited.

"We're good, Chris," Nathan noted of the DEA men he was with. He saw his two comrades standing over the dead men. "Ezra and Buck are okay."

"Marco?" Larabee spoke and eyed the loft. When no reply came, they all moved in unison. "Marco!" He hollered and eyed the loft, the silence was alarming. "I got a man down, roll a medic now!" he ordered.

"Shit!" Buck hissed, running ahead of the pack and deftly up the ladder. "Fuckin' answer you hard-headed son-of-a-bitch." Breathless from his quick ascent, the chest-heaving Wilmington froze in his tracks at the sight of Santorini sprawled on his back unmoving. His eyes flicked to the nest, well protected and the position of the body. Marco left cover to warn him and shoot, an action that saved his life. His legs seemed to change to rubber and he wobbled badly, dropping next to the unconscious man. "Get your fuckin' eyes open..." he pleaded, his shaking fingers seeking a pulse. A hand moved then, groping his chest blindly.

"Graziella? Rosita? Is that you?"

"I ought to shoot you myself," Buck answered, sinking down next to the blinking body. Shaking his dark head, he addressed the fallen Romeo. "You damn near scared ten years offa me." He left out a long breath and his shaking fingers unbuttoned the flack jacket before carefully doing the same to the navy blue cotton shirt. He winced at the large bruise on the left side of Marco's chest. His gentle probe caused the younger man to wince too. At least two ribs were broken. "You need some practice, that was a piss-poor feel job."

"...jeal...ous..." Marco grunted, hissing in pain. It was like breathing through red hot razors. His hand snagged onto Buck's and he held on fast, unable to catch his breath.

"The day won't dawn when a Wilmington would be jealous of some flea-infested, salami toted pretender," Buck chastised, then saw the alarm in the dark eyes darting frantically. "Easy... there's help comin'." He saw Chris and Nathan appear at the far end of the loft. "It hit the vest but he's busted up a few ribs. He can't breathe right."

"Could be he popped a lung," Nathan noted, "or bruised one."

'Medics are rolling, ETA is about five minutes." Chris knelt behind the fallen man. He'd taken off his jacket and gentle raised up Marco's head to cushion it. "Helluva shot, Marco," he complimented.

"Gracias, boss... Ezra... o...kay?"

"Yeah," Chris grinned, winking at the fallen man and Buck. "That second shot ruined his Armani though, brains flyin' the hell all over it."

"Damn, I hate when that happens," Buck laughed. "That'll hurt Ez worse than a bullet."

"If I don't make it, Buck," Marco coughed, still gripping his hand. "My black book is in my locker. Don't... let... Baker or... Don..o...van... get... it..." "What the hell would I want with your damn black book?" Buck tossed back.

"...has... over... a... hundreds of names... and... and..."

"You're full of shit, Marco," Buck denied, "You don't even know a hundred women." He tugged the hand harder and saw the dark eyes mirroring pain.

"...notes... about... you... Linda... Carley... Mariella... told... your... butt... tatoo..."

"Mariella Simone? No fuckin' way, she wouldn't kiss and tell..." Buck denied and heard the sorry laugh.


Buck chuckled then, sat down and kept his vigil. Chris left the two would be Romeo's comparing notes. Nathan was now kneeling on the other side of Santorini, giving him aid. The leader made his way down to the floor, waving for the paramedics who were now on scene. He directed them to the area, giving them a thumbnail sketch on the injury.

The medics started treatment on Santorini, before easing him down in a basket to the floor below. Once secured on a gurney, he was wheeled towards the waiting ambulance.

"I'm ridin' in with him, Chris," Buck stated, still shaken by how close they'd come.

"Close huh?" Chris read the eyes of his friend.

"Too close," Buck noted, watching Ezra pausing at the gurney to thank Marco. "You know, he's really good. Christ, that first shot, he had less than an inch. I don't know how him and Vin do that, takes balls..."

"Yup," Chris agreed, clapping Buck's back and watching him climb into the van after Marco.

He walked back into the warehouse where the police and feds were combing it, taking evidence and collecting bodies. He updated the other team leaders and then made his way to a crate. Wearily, he sat down and scrubbed a hand over his face. He eyed the loft again and saw the ghost of a shaggy-haired Texan grinning down at him, cocky as hell. He knew that the shell of Tanner he'd seen in the car was the final step in the journey and the hardest. Depression. He'd read about it, he knew what to expect and what the next phase would be like. He was prepared by the facts and figures. But no books, or records or words from gilded therapists prepared him for the shattering pain in his heart. Vin Tanner was a part of him that was inseparable. When Tanner hurt, he hurt. And the throbbing pain he felt now was indescribable. He hoped and prayed it would be short term, that Vin would find his way out of the darkness once and for all. A soft drawl drew his head up.

"Chris? Are you alright?" Ezra asked, not missing how pale Larabee was. The pain in the green eyes was hard to look upon. "Marco assures me he will live to conquest untold armies of female admirers for many years to come."

"Yeah," Chris agreed.

Ezra thought for a moment and recalled the blond leaving them for almost an hour and a half. One face came to mind, the only thing that would draw the dedicated team leader from a job.


He heard the agony in the shuddering sigh and felt every bit of helplessness in the sad eyes on the face that nodded once. Whatever had happened it was something Chris wasn't prepared to talk about yet. He knew the relationship between the two was something rare and he envied that bond. They almost seemed to share the same soul. So he gave a solid tug to the navy jacket, sat down next to his troubled friend and kept vigil, offering an unmoving wave of silent support. He prayed for Vin Tanner, for if Vin didn't survive this, he knew Larabee would be deeply affected as well.

Part Seventeen

The days that followed were the hardest Chris Larabee had endured since the deaths of his family. Vin Tanner had ceased to exist. In his place was an unkempt, unshaven, hopeless, broken man whose eyes were colored with shades of sadness so deep it was heartbreaking. He was relieved that Kelly was visiting family in San Francisco for a week over the holidays. He spoke with her and updated her about Vin's ordeal. Her first impulse was to cut short her visit and fly home. But Chris talked her out of it, by next week perhaps Vin would be better. Vin didn't eat much or sleep, he was restless and had difficulty concentrating on anything. He wouldn't make a decision on the simplest task, such as a meal or which clothes to wear. He had a poor memory, was very irritable and closed all of them out. He remained in a little box, his own private hell. Chris was living with Vin at his house, he didn't trust the Texan alone during this time.

"I'm having dinner," he announced flatly, trying to gag at the stench rising from the grimy body. The sweat pants and flannel shirt Vin wore were now in their fourth day. He hadn't gone near the shower and preferred it that way. Chris moved to the window and opened it, sending frigid air in the room. He saw the scruffy face curl in annoyance. "It stinks in here..."

The sense of loss ebbed and flowed inside Vin Tanner without abandon. Time had no meaning, one day followed the other in unending shades of gray. That it was Christmas only made it worse; every minute of his day was surrounded by people being happy. The Christmas songs were a constant reminder of what had once been and what his reality was now. Happy songs, songs of faith and promise, joy, peace, love, faith, hope and light were slamming into his ears until he couldn't stand it anymore. He refused to have the radio or television on; he wanted no reminders of how happy the normal people were.

He ignored Larabee's subtle hint about his body, shuffled through the house to the living room and flopped on the sofa. Scratching at his bearded face he ran a hand through his filthy, greasy hair. He didn't care about the smell; he didn't care much about anything. He only ate because it would stop Chris from nagging him. He didn't taste the food or care about it. He didn't care and he wished everyone would leave him alone. He heard Chris on the phone and frowned in annoyance. He could tell from the one side of the conversation that the guys wanted to come over. They'd been requesting it all week. He didn't care if they came or not so why should Chris? He rose and shuffled to the extension in the hallway, lifting it and hearing Larabee's voice.

"...because he's not ready yet, Buck, that's why."

"When the hell is he going to be ready, Chris? When you say so? Who the hell are you to deny us? He's our friend too; you can't shut out us..."

"You don't understand, Buck," Chris tried but realized they couldn't understand. They hadn't seen him since the transformation.

"Come on over," Vin stated, "It's my house... s'okay by me."

"Vin?" Buck said just as the click sounded.

"Fine," Larabee spat out, he was tired, weary to the bone. Sometimes his shoulders just weren't broad enough and today was one of those days. "Bring pizza and beer."

Vin had been napping when they arrived. He woke up and heard the television on, by the sound of the background it was a western of sorts. He shuffled to the bathroom and took a pee, not caring that he missed the toilet. He stumbled to the edge of the room and heard part of a conversation. From the words, he knew they were talking about Marco. He vaguely recalled Chris calling and visiting the hospital a few times during the week, something about Marco's lungs.

"You should have seen him," J.D. gushed. "There had to be four or five nurses around him."

"By the time his tall tale was completed," Ezra recalled with a grin, "the number of assailants in the warehouse had grown to a veritable army and he was armed with only a slingshot."

"I can't believe they fell for it, everyone one of them," Buck added but his grin followed. "Damn if he don't have a gift." He paused and eyed Chris. "By the way, Ezra and me put him in for a commendation. The papers are on your desk."

"I can't believe that shot yet," J.D. enthused. "I mean I saw the video and replayed it... it was less than an inch. How the hell is he that good?"

"You should have been on the other end," Ezra marveled, "The man's skill is astounding, apparently homogeneous to that trade."

"Hey, now," Buck disagreed, sitting forward and putting his beer down. "I may have my gripes with that guy, but he's a stud, no way he's gay."

"Good Lord, I'm surrounding by plebeians," Ezra moaned as Chris choked on his beer.

"What?" Buck was miffed at why Chris Larabee was laughing.

It was the first laugh he'd had in over a week, and it felt like a steam release. "It means of the same nature, alike."

"Oh," Buck thought for a moment, "Well, hell, Ezra why didn't just say that?"

"I believe I did, Mister Larabee understood me quite clearly." Ezra replied as Vin appeared in the doorway.

"Hell, let's erect a statue o'im in front of the buildin'," Vin snapped, "Saint Marco... bet all the female pigeons wouldn't shit on him huh?"

"Oh boy," Chris sighed hard and eyed the stunned looks on the faces of his friends.

Vin didn't care about the deafening silence. He only heard the words of praise for the sharpshooter now doing his job. His job. His job. Two words that now were low lost to him with everything else. He'd been guilty of the sin of pride in that respect, he was good, damn good. He knew he was the best with a rifle and now that talent, the one thing he'd always counted on to make a living with was gone. His friend's respect was gone as well. They had Marco, glorious Marco, talented Marco, Marco that could do no wrong. They didn't need him anymore.

"Now hold on a moment, Vin," Buck rose, shaking off the image conjured by his unbelieving eyes.

Chris's warning didn't do the Texan justice. He looked like a homeless person on a bad hair day. He'd not bathed in some time, had a beard mottled with food, long, greasy hair and a stench. The clothes were filthy as well. But the empty eyes were painful. There was nothing on the other side; his heart was gone.

"Leave it alone, Buck," Chris warned, moving in front of Wilmington.

"Fuck off, Chris, you're not his mama, no matter how hard you try." Buck shoved past and grabbed Vin, spinning him around. "There's nobody in this room that doesn't love you like a brother. We've all been in your corner, praying for you, takin' care of you. That includes Marco, who by the way, damned near died taking a bullet for me and Ezra. So you lose that fuckin' attitude right now."

Vin squirmed and dropped one shoulder, ramming Buck in the soft side of his abdomen. The grip was released and he made his way to the door, slamming it hard.

"I can't believe it," J.D. whispered, shaken by the incident. "We have to do something. We can't leave him like that."

"I'm out of answers," Buck sat down shaking his head. "I got no idea how to fix that. Hell, nobody's tried harder than we all have these last few weeks. But this..." He couldn't finish the thought, his heart hurt too much. To lose a man as special as Vin, a unique combination of skill, grace, charm and talent that he'd never encountered before was devastating.

"Sit," Chris warned when Ezra moved towards the door. "I warned all of you about him..."

"I am not a dog, sir," Ezra drolled, picking up Vin's coat. "And as Buck stated in the office earlier, you do not have sole possession of his friendship. I value him, more than I realized until this moment." He held the glare for a mment and then moved past the six foot wall of resistance.

Vin didn't need their pity, he didn't need anybody. He wanted to be left alone. He didn't feel the cold air on his skin, he wondered if he was beyond that capability. It would have been better if he'd been killed that night at Josiah's.

"What the fuck's the point?" he wondered aloud.

"Perhaps that is the point," Ezra replied, keeping his distance.

"Go spit the alphabet at somebody who gives a shit," Vin put extra acid in his tone and used it liberally.

"Well go ahead, what are you waiting for?" Ezra goaded. "Jump off that mountain, or perhaps the true coward's end, eat your gun."

Vin turned slowly, more than a bit unnerved that Ezra read him that easily. From Chris he expected it, the connection was strong. But he forgot how good Ezra was at reading people. Could he kill himself? Would that be less painful than this existence? He'd never understood cops that took that route. Like Ezra, he'd always considered that the coward's way out. Was he yellow? Did it matter? He couldn't cope with the full gravity of that possibility. He just couldn't see any further and didn't have the strength to try.

"Don't preach at me, ya ain't wearin' m'boots," Vin whispered, "Ya ain't the one without eyes, without a future, without..."

"Dignity," Standish added and saw Vin turn fully to face him, his eyes darting as he processed the idea. "The grievous accident took your sight but until now, not your pride. What I see before me is someone or rather something I do not nor would not care to recognize." He paused and saw a flicker of what he felt was hope in the saddest eyes he'd ever encountered. "Vin..." he softened his tone and walked closer, laying a hand on the filthy shirt. "I treasure your friendship above all others. To see this happen to you, this metamorphosis is more painful than I can bear. I wouldn't be much of a man or a friend if I didn't intervene."

"Knock yerself out," Vin spat back tersely. He didn't like the fact that Ezra's words were giving him a new pain. All the years he'd ridden alone, he never had a pain like this one. Or like the horrid anguish that came when he thought on Chris Larabee. "Intervene away..."

"You cannot continue like this, you've turned into something akin to a disgusting animal. Not unlike the vermin we put behind bars. They are without conscience, you are not. You house the deepest and most caring soul of anyone I've ever met. That's how I know this isn't you... not the real you."

Vin turned away again, shirking off the offered hand. He preferred the cold, the solace that came from being alone. He kept his heart housed in ice, not letting any of their words penetrate. You can't get it broken if you don't give it away. What did they know anyhow? They had their sight, their careers, and their full and active lives. They weren't tapping a cane and getting sympathetic clicks of the tongue from passersby.

"The key is within your grasp, Vincent," Ezra offered and saw Vin's head perk up. "Look deep within yourself, to the genesis of this problem. Once you accept what has happened, only then will the bitterness evaporate. That key is called forgiveness. Don't throw it away."

Forgiveness? He didn't want that, he wanted revenge. Justice... an eye for an eye. He chuckled under his breath at the irony of that. Forgiveness? What did that have to do with anything? Wasn't Josiah's pain what he wanted? Why did Ezra's words nag at him? Forgiveness, justice, revenge, which tool to choose? A key? Chris spoke of the 'key' as well. He thought he knew what he wanted.

Ezra waited a few moments and then went back in the house. Chris wasn't in the den, Buck and J.D had cleaned up and packed away the pizza. Buck has his coat on and Ezra nodded, perhaps the party was not the best idea. But he'd planted a seed of doubt in Vin's head and with any luck and a little divine intervention, that seed would take root.

"Where's Nathan?" J.D. asked as he and Ezra followed Buck out the front door.

"He's with Chris in the back of the house," Buck said, eyeing the forlorn figure who had nearly disappeared into the darkness several yards away. "Vin? Vin?" He waited but body never moved. "Come on, kid, let's get out of here."

Nathan didn't offer any words at first, rather just a beer and the silent support often given by men who work so closely together. He respected Chris Larabee more than most; the man was a born leader. He bled for his men and they'd follow him to hell and look forward to the trip. Seeing him so desolate and so lost was heartbreaking.

Chris sighed hard and took a long draw of beer. He ran the lip of the bottle between his finger and thumb and swirled the liquid inside. He wasn't sure how to proceed. He didn't understand what to do. All the training he'd had from West Point through Special Ops and now the Federal Government, along with the many leadership and mentoring courses didn't tell you how to mend your best friend's busted to hell life.

"I don't know how to find him, Nate."

Softer words were never spoken and that hurt the most. Nathan thought for a moment and cast his dark eyes on the starry sky above them. Vin's mountain, thats' what this place was. Oh, others would try to call it their own, but nobody owned it like Vin. He was truly a child of Mother Nature, weaned at her breast. This was his world, the one place he felt at home, his cathedral. And sitting square in the middle of it was the one person who could reach Vin.

"Maybe yuh need t'let him find yuh first." He saw the green eyes peer at him curiously. "Look, Chris, I'm worried about yuh. Yuh can't go on like this. Yuh'r losin' weight, yuh don't get enough sleep, yuh can't kick that respiratory bug that's still ailin' yuh. Could be yuhr too close to Vin. As bad as he is, somewhere underneath all the dirt and mess he knows yuh'll be there to pick him up."

"So he won't help himself or try to get over this with me here?" His voice rose in pitch and he shook his pale head. "I can't leave him like this, Nathan. Jesus, a few days ago he damn near burned his house down."

"All I'm sayin' is he's gotta find the road home. Yuh can't take him there. Yuh read the book, yuh know he's gotta accept what's happened in order to move on, to find his way. I know this is eatin' yuh up, Chris, seein' him like this. But it's a phase, he'll get through it."

"I won't," Chris rasped, his eyes burning with unspent tears born from the crack in his soul. "Dammit..."

Nathan winced when Larabee's voice broke. When the strongest man he knew slumped forward in utter and total defeat, it wounded him. When the blond head dropped down in untold agony, he moved behind him and put both hands on his shoulders, gently massaging the downcast neck.

"Lean on me then, brother," Nathan whispered.

After they were gone and the last dishes were done, the trash put out and the miserable patient finally was asleep, the weary caretaker settled by the fire with a drink. Chris tossed yet another book about coping with the five stages aside. The words remained in his head, swirling and churning until it made him dizzy. To deal with Vin's depression, he had to reconcile with his past. That meant dealing with Josiah and the devastating aftereffect of his brutal act. Chris knew Vin wasn't the only one that had to bury that pain. He had lingering resentment and Buck would nearly implode whenever someone mentioned Josiah's name. Vin had to create a self identity that was not rooted in what had been lost. He had to develop a new sense of self, one derived from this day forward.

"Shit," he vented, "It would be easier to cut my arm off."

He thought hard on Nathan's words on the back porch. He knew Nathan was right, he was overprotective of Vin. Had he become too much of a security blanket? Should he give Vin the freedom he'd been griping about all week? What if Vin only thought he was gone? Would that be a good compromise? He could stake out the house, maybe.

Sighing heavily and feeling about a hundred years old, he moved to the window, eyeing the lone star in the sky. He heard Sara's echo in his head, to 'hold on'. He was trying, trying with all he had to hold onto Vin. But he was sinking; the swirling whirlpool of the black sea he was lost in was gaining on him. The undertow was threatening to pull him under. The words came back again about rising and moving on based on the now. That meant facing Josiah. A part of him knew that was the first step. He'd call Lauren in the morning and arrange for a visit. That would give each of them some time to think. Vin was an adult and had to learn to stand on his own two feet. Somehow he knew as bad off as Vin was, he wouldn't hurt himself. He made his way to Vin's bedroom doorway and peered into the room. He wondered how the stench allowed Vin to sleep. He didn't recognize the bearded body in the bed.

"Come back to me, cowboy," he offered quietly, before turning to seek comfort in the darkness of his own bed.

'You Raise Me Up' by Josh Groban

Aspen Arms
Eleven a.m.

Lauren looked up from the nurse's station when an aide called out to her. "Doctor Tremaine, you have a visitor. He's waiting by the security desk."

"Thanks, Missy," she replied. She finished her notes, signing off on two sets of orders and making her way to the heavy double doors that separated the main floor of the hospital from the visitors entry. She punched in her code and the door beeped. She made her way through the doors and over to the security office, on seeing the familiar profile she couldn't help notice how drawn he looked. The dark circles under his eyes and the noticeable weight loss were part of the price he was paying for caring so deeply. She understood his pain and admired the depths to which he loved Vin Tanner. "Hello, Chris," she greeted, giving him a quick hug. "You look awful..."

"Thanks, doc." Chris found a small smile.

"It's okay, Dan," she updated the guard and waited for the security agent to give Chris a pass. "I wasn't expecting you, but I was going to call this afternoon."

"How's Josiah?" Chris asked, "Can I see him?"

"Yes, but not until we've talked. Coffee?"

"Please." Chris followed her up a flight of stairs and down a short hall. They entered a large and bright room that had many tables and an outstanding view of the mountains. It appeared to be a doctor's lounge of sorts. She motioned to a table by the window and he took a seat. She disappeared for a few moments and returned with a tray. Two large mugs of coffee and some blueberry muffins were offered.

"Thanks," Chris said, taking a mug and a muffin. "I was going to call but lost my nerve. I guess I didn't want you to have the chance to say no. I know you're busy and I really appreciate you taking the time for me."

"Vin?" she guessed and the troubled green eyes didn't lie. The pain housed there was difficult to look at. "I take it stage five has arrived."

"I had no idea... I've read about it, I even got those videos you recommended and watched them but... Jesus, he's a mess. He won't bathe or shave, he doesn't care about anything, he can't focus or concentrate on anything, he's irritable... he's just pathetic." He paused, took a tentative sip of the strong coffee and shook his head. "It's killing me, doc."

"I can see that," she replied, reaching over to pat his hand. "For what's it worth, he's damned lucky to have a rock like you. Neither of you can see it yet, but you've done wonders by him Chris. His recovery has been absolutely remarkable. I've seen patients with similar maladies linger for months." She winced when the blond head shot up and the eyes were startled.

"I'd be dead or bald," Chris said and found a sad half-smile, "or both. Months? Jesus I can't even survive a week."

"So tell me about your week," she prompted, seeing the need for him to purge a need she didn't realize he even knew he had.

She listened thoughtfully as the story painfully evolved. She heard very clearly between the lines as well, how much blood and sinew Chris Larabee was shedding daily. Finally he finished and she moved to get him more coffee.

"I know this is hard for you to understand or grasp fully, but he's behaving normally given the situation." She handed the coffee over and eyed her watch. "By what I've heard and your analysis, I'd say he's close to the end of this last and most difficult phase. Unfortunately, you cannot rush him; it has to be his choice."

"That's what Nathan said," Chris remarked, picking at the muffin. "He said I couldn't take Vin to the road, he had to find it. He said I was too close, mothering him too much."

"He's right," she agreed. "Vin's problems cannot be mitigated by simply telling him to 'cheer up' or 'get over it'. He has to face his past and totally accept it, before becoming healed. What you've done for him until this point is commendable, Chris and it is the reason he's doing so well. But it's time for you to let go. He has to finish this on his own, or he'll never get there. He'll do the right thing; my sessions with him have indicated that."

"Just leave him? Ouch." The small voice almost sounded like a lost boy's and the wide eyes were sorrowful. "I never leave for more than a couple hours... I mean he knows I'm coming back... but just leave him?"

"Do you trust him?" Chris thought for a moment and slowly nodded his head. Ultimately, he did trust Vin Tanner. He knew Vin wouldn't harm himself. The house was already dirty and urine covered, and filled with trash. He could make Vin enough sandwiches and safe foods to cover his meals. Since the fire, Vin hadn't gone near the stove. What few things he heated went into the microwave. "Alright then." She stood up and walked around the table, cupping his chin and raising the troubled head. "Know this; your love for him is the best medicine he's gotten. It's the light of his storm, he'll see that eventually. But he can and will do this on his own. Now you finish your coffee and those muffins and meet me in the common room in one hour. Josiah will be there."

"Okay," he answered and saw her gathering up her notes, a valise and a folder. She dropped the folder and the contents skittered around his feet. As he picked them up, a photo was lying before him. It was Lauren a long time ago with a small boy with red hair. He was wearing overalls and seemed quite happy. The eyes were a dead giveaway. "David?"

"Yes, that's him. I had my daughter go through all of my old photos. I knew I had one picture from his last birthday. I don't think Josiah has looked at him, really looked at him since his death. It's part of our final healing process."

"Final? Final how?" Chris studied the photo, seeing the strong resemblance and handed it back.

"Revisiting the scene of the incident, having Josiah face David and what happened that day.

"Stand down his demons?" Chris guessed. "How do you know it's time? I mean, all these years he's had such violent episodes. Hell, he damn near killed Vin. How can you be sure he won't attack you?"

"For one thing, there won't be any liquor. I don't have to tell you how drinking affects him. For another, I won't be alone, Nathan will be going. He's Josiah's closest friend and I feel a true ally. For a third, Josiah has been working hard all these weeks towards this end. He's done very well in his sessions and he's had a rather revealing dream lately, something he's been missing all these years."

"I hope you know what you're doing," Chris offered his hand. "Good luck."

"Thanks, we leave in a few days for New Jersey. We'll go to the house and the grave, give Josiah whatever time he needs."

"An hour?" Chris reminded her.

"Yes, I'm running late. One hour from now in the main visiting area." She was at the door when he called to her.

"Hey ,doc?" Chris called out and waited, before holding his mug up. "You're one classy act, thanks."

"You're quite welcome, my pleasure."

While his best friend was reconciling part of the problem, Vin was mired in misery. He didn't want food; he tossed the half eaten sandwich onto the floor and lay on the couch. He didn't have his watch on, but he knew Chris wasn't gone that long yet. He hadn't slept well the night before; Ezra's words haunting him. He forced himself to think on what Josiah had done and felt his anger resurface. The last thing he saw before his eyes were stolen was that brutal club. "Fuckin' animal..." he vented. Then he thought on the reason for the club. He took the last swig of cola and tossed the bottle across the room. Something happened a long time ago to David, Josiah's son. Lauren didn't divulge much, other than the boy died and Josiah blamed his temper for the death. He yawned and tugged a piece of old food from his beard. He flicked it against the wall and frowned as the images of Josiah continued. The soundtrack to the disturbing images was the words of Chris, Nathan and Ezra. Their notions about healing wouldn't leave him alone.

He rolled over on the couch and hit something hard. The stereo came on and he cursed softly, realizing he'd turned on the CD player. He fumbled and dropped it onto the floor.

"Shit..." He was stuck listening to the recording. He knew the voice, it was a CD of Josh Groban. It had to be Larabee's, it wasn't one of his. He didn't know how it got into his machine. The beautiful voice seemed to soothe the savage beast in him. As the words to 'You Raise Me Up' invaded his prison, he felt his eyes grow heavy. The angelic voice seemed to be leading him somewhere. He didn't resist, he followed, his heart heavy. "Please..." he whispered, hoping to find the key to unlock the door of his prison.

"When I am down and, oh my soul, so weary; When troubles come and my heart burdened be; Then, I am still and wait here in the silence, Until you come and sit awhile with me."

It was a beautiful place, unlike anything that Vin Tanner had ever experienced, so much like his beloved Rockies, where his heart was but not his eyes. The trees and streams were familiar but enhanced; their beauty magnified a thousands times. Everywhere he looked was painted in various shades of gold. The golden hues of light were varied and shimmering in splendorous majesty. The air was the sweetest he'd ever inhaled and music so moving he felt it going through him to the bone.

"You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains; You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas; I am strong, when I am on your shoulders; You raise me up: To more than I can be."

Was this place heaven? No, he wasn't dead. Yet he knew this was not a dream, not a normal place that you went to as you slept. This was a special place; he'd never been filled with such feelings in his life. Every single emotion he had inside of him from the very darkest to the very lightest exploded at once. The exhilaration was euphoric It was as if the golden light his body was bathed in was coursing right though him. It surged through his skin and bone, invading his blood stream. The ice that had been housed in him was melting. He was flooded with such majestic warmth that he fell to his knees and wept. He did not know where he was but he knew who was with him. He wasn't alone! He was humbled and honored to be in this holy place. He felt God's love around him and was overcome.

His tears fell for the pain he'd caused his friends, for his lost sight and for the loss of Josiah. To lose your child was not a pain he knew, but he'd seen that horror in Chris's eyes. Josiah not only lost his child but felt that it was due to his own hand. A sorrow of such immensity filled him that he was overcome with grief and sobbed hard. "Please... I got no words t'say how shamed I am. I hurt m'friends, m'brothers. I hurt 'em bad. I got another friend, Jo'siah, he's lost his little one a long time ago. He's grievin' all this time, he needs yer help, Lord," he rasped not daring to look up. "Please... fergive me. I need t'help him. I can't do that until I know I'm not... that ya fergive... all I done. I know it's askin' alot but..."

Vin paused when a tiny hand touched his face. He raised his head a little and saw a small boy of about five standing before him. He was wearing golden overalls and had a smile that would steal your heart. Smokey blue eyes were wide and warm under a head full of red curly hair. When the boy's hands met each of his cheeks, he rose to his knees, tears steaming unabashedly down his face. The smile was so open and honest and the touch on his face so wondrous that he lost his breath. A golden mist fell on them and was such a soothing force that Vin never wanted the feeling to end. A strong voice sounded one that seemed both nearby and faraway.

"Because you have opened your heart and revealed your true self; that you have put your own pain behind you to heal another, you have healed yourself. Go now and complete your mission. That is the only way you will find your way home." As the words ended, the boy hugged him then kissed his cheek. The smile the child gave him was filled with such total love that it paralyzed him. The wind kicked up and the golden mist grew stronger. He felt the boy's hand move and tap his heart. Vin covered the hand with his own and nodded. Words came from his own heart, he didn't understand them but yet he was answered by an unvoiced vow. He spoke the words over the beautiful chorus that surrounded them.

"I will... I will..."

"There is no life — no life without its hunger. Each restless heart beats so imperfectly;
but when you come and I am filled with wonder, Sometimes, I think I glimpse eternity.
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains; You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders; You raise me up: To more than I can be.
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains; You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders; You raise me up: To more than I can be. "

Aspen Arms

Josiah paused in the doorway, not sure of how to approach the blond man that was waiting for him. He studied the pale face and winced at the dark circles. Larabee looked awful; the pain that was clearly imprinted on him was due to his own two hands. He examined them, turning them over and still seeing Vin's broken body in the hospital bed. Chris and Vin were so connected, that he knew if Vin didn't heal, a part of Chris would die too. He took a deep breath, said a quick prayer and crossed the room.

"Hello, bo... uh... Chris."

"Josiah," Chris greeted, rising and eyeing Josiah's hand which was extended to him. "It's good to see you."

"You mean that."

The startled tone in the reply gave the team leader pause. "Yeah, I do." He thought for a moment on all Vin Tanner had suffered. All the agonizing tortured he'd endured due to the hand now posed before him. Then he thought for a moment and took the hand, gripping it solidly. "Forgiveness is the greatest gift you can give."

"That's a powerful statement," Josiah replied, releasing the other hand. "And I know how hard it was for you to offer. It means more than I can say, Chris."

"I learned that from Sara," he replied. Actually until he saw the large man and the words came from his mouth, he wasn't sure. But now, seeing Josiah he knew he'd made the right decision. The haunted look had left Sanchez's eyes and the therapy was apparently working. He'd been thinking on David since Lauren left him. The image of the smiling child was hard to forget. He couldn't imagine the unbearable agony if he'd lost his temper and his child died as a result. He couldn't think of how to overcome that pain.

"Sara's old man hated me. From the moment we got serious, he got nasty. When we got engaged, he warned her that if she married me, she'd lose him forever."

"Charming man."

"He was a real piece of work, alright," Chris recalled. "As angry as I was about what he'd done to her, putting her in that position, his own daughter, for Christ's sake..." Chris's voice trailed off as he regrouped, thinking on the pain in her eyes that day. "But she forgave him. She never forgot his birthday or any holiday. She called him once a week, he'd never answer, but she always called. She was so much stronger than I was. She had such faith and courage; she never let the bitterness he housed become a part of her."

"You were a lucky man, Chris."

"That I was," he agreed.

"How's Vin?" Josiah asked, taking a seat across from the lean figure.

"Uh... not good. Well, Lauren says it's normal for the process he's going through. The five stages?" He saw the gray head dip once and continued. "Well, Vin's in stage five, depression. I read about it, studied the videos, but..."

"It's different in person. I'm sorry, Chris, I need you to accept that there isn't a minute of the day that goes by that I don't think about Vin. He's been the center of every prayer..."

"He needs to see you..."

"I'd welcome that, I can't continue without his forgiveness. I know that may be bold on my part to presume that he'll forgive me."

"He has to," Chris interrupted, "If he's ever going to accept his life and move forward. Bitterness will choke him slowly until there's nothing left."

"Sounds like you're taking up a new profession," the ex preacher teased.

"Head-shrinker?" Chris shook his head. "I can barely keep my own shit straight. You look good, Josiah."

"Dr. Tremaine's sessions and the group therapy have lifted most of the weight. It's something I should have done years ago. But now, I have accepted the facts concerning David's death. Did Nathan tell you Dr Tremaine spoke to him about going to New Jersey for a few days to revisit that dark time in my life?"

"Nathan, no. But Dr. Tremaine said she wanted Nathan there." Chris eyed the other man and nodded. "I'm proud of you, Josiah. Until today, when I really thought about it, I don't think I fully understood just what you'd endured. Facing the demons that have been plaguing you all these years, it's a gutsy thing to do."

"Thanks, Chris, but it's not very courageous," he admitted, sighing hard. "If I had done this years ago..."

"You're doing it now," Chris interrupted.

"When I get back, I'd like to visit with Vin, if you'll ask him when the time is right. I think Dr. Tremaine wants to approach him but coming from you..."

"I think it's a good idea, Josiah, he needs that too. His wounds are raw... and won't heal until that happens. But I can't promise anything. Not in the state of mind he's in now."

"Fair enough."

"So what exactly are you going to do in New Jersey?"

"Well," Sanchez leaned forward, pursing his fingers together "Go to the house first. Talk about that day, really face what happened. I've been running from it for years. It needs to end. The house is deserted, but it's still standing. Then to the cemetery, I've not been since Tess was buried. Poor soul, she was so very troubled. I tried to save her..."

"You gave her a child, Josiah, a life for a few precious years, she had that. She had her own demons and hid that from you, or at least a part of it, right?"

"She was a drug addict, Chris, I knew that when I met her. But I thought she was clean, I never knew when she carried David she was using. He was mentally challenged and had some heart problems. I was so proud of myself for curing her... I was young and foolish, blinded I guess by what I thought was love."

"It wasn't?"

"No, I know that now, I think a part of me knew it then. She was a fragile thing, so very delicate. I wanted so much to fix her, to heal the wounds. When David was born, she admitted she was using but vowed to go clean. It worked for a little while, but I worked long hours and she began to resent it, that day I came home... David... he was filthy, starving, the house was a mess. I was tired and she was high. She didn't even know where he was. I blew my top. I don't even know what I said, just that I was screaming at her. I heard David scream, turned to see him with his hands over his ears." He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, rubbing them.

"Go on, finish it," Chris encouraged.

"He ran so fast, the loud voices, he was scared. By the time I got to the front door, I heard the screech of tires." He swallowed hard and it took several minutes to regain his control. "I still hear them..."

"I'm glad you shared that with me, Josiah." Chris saw the nurse approaching and realized the thirty minutes were up. He rose and waited for the distressed man to rise as well. "I won't see you before your trip. Best of luck, Josiah, you're doing the right thing. For what it's worth, I don't think David blames you. I had a boy; I know the pain of loss. I know there were times I lost my temper. Times he interrupted me when I had a deadline to meet and not enough sleep. I raised my voice too and frightened him. But you're still daddy; you're still the one man in his life he loves unconditionally. That didn't change, he loved you, Josiah."

Josiah couldn't speak; he felt the power of Chris's words. Not just from a friend, rather from a man who had lost a child. Adam was murdered and although the circumstances were different, it was still a grievous pain. He knew Chris blamed himself for his son's death and that they had in common.

"Chris?" He walked with the blond to the door. "You had therapy after your family died?"

"Eventually," Chris admitted, "Poor Buck paid the price in the meantime. For those first few months when I lashed out, losing myself in a bottle, he was always there. The day I woke up and found his blood all over was the day I saw the light."

"And now, you have peace? That therapy lifted your burden?"

"Peace?" Chris paused and nodded. "Yes, I have a peace of sorts. I love them and miss them every moment of my life. But the weight is gone, there is no bitterness or self hate. Sara would have hated me for that. She would have wanted me to live fully, enjoy my life, my friends. It's still her strength I turn to when I am troubled. I feel her... still. So yes, getting professional help, that was the key for me, for you too, I think."

"Thank you, Chris," Josiah offered and shook the offered hand. He watched the blond head until he couldn't see the figure through the glass anymore. He hoped with all of his heart that Larabee's words would come true.

Chris felt better driving home. The decision to visit Josiah had been a good one. It was part of the solution, to forgive and move forward. He had a team of men he was responsible for. He had a career in law enforcement and that meant having a cool head, a clear mind to make key and vital decisions. Although the larger problem of Vin loomed above, after speaking with Lauren, he felt that his best friend's dark days were numbered. By the time he reached his ranch, it was after two p.m. He was tired and hungry. He would take a quick lunch and finalize his report on the Reid transaction which was overdue to Orrin and the other Division heads. Then he'd head back to Vin's.

He finalized his report and ate a sandwich, sipping on a mug of soup. After sending the copies, he carried the mug to the kitchen and poured the rest of the Italian Wedding soup into the mug. He took a bottle of ice tea into the den and headed to the recliner to finish his lunch. He stretched out to release the tension he'd been housing and closed his eyes, enjoying the fire and the warmth.

"Huh?" Chris sat up and blinked, eyeing the darkness outside. For a few moments, he was totally blank, the fog in his brain not allowing him to comprehend where he was or what was going on. He sat forward, rubbed his eyes and blinked hard. He gazed at his watch and jumped up.

"Shit! Seven o'clock... shit... Vin!" He turned the fireplace off, got his coat and paused by the door. He dialed Vin's number and it didn't answer. He tried again and got no reply. He cursed his weakness, the fatigue was warranted but he should have gone directly to Vin's, despite what the doctor said. If anything had happened to his friend, he'd never forgive himself. Fortunately, the roads were clear and not crowded and he arrived at Tanner's in twenty minutes. The house was dark and he quickly made his way up the walk, turning the key. He quickly entered and wasn't prepared for the sight that met his eyes. He rocked back on his heels, stunned by what he found.


Part Eighteen

There weren't many times in his life that Chris Larabee was at a loss for words. Standing at the edge of chaos in the doorway of Vin's living room, he was paralyzed. There amidst the ankle deep piles of pizza boxes, soda cans, paper plates, fast food bags, empty cupcake boxes and other debris a chill ran over him. The music that filled the room was diametrically opposite the scene splayed before him. The beautiful lyrics and melody seemed to be almost angelic. He recognized the song but he hadn't quite heard it like this before. 'Your Raise Me Up' sung by Josh Groban normally sent chills through him. But this seemed to be multidimensional. He could feel the music inside him as well. "Vin?"

The whispered word broke him from his almost dazed state. He shook himself free and moved a bit closer. He spotted a single bare foot sticking out from the small space between the edge of the sofa and the wall. He didn't bother looking to see what he was walking on; the squishing, crunching and cracking sounds were a small distraction.


The name stuck in his throat. He squatted down and peered closer at the transfixed face before him. The dingy hair and filthy beard were unchanged, but the eyes had changed dramatically. He noted Vin's hand holding the remote control for the CD player. His face was turned at a slight angle, facing the window. A single star shone brightly, larger than the rest. It was as if his blind friend could see the magnificent orb in the sky. He studied those sky eyes closer and the word that came to mind was ethereal, truly celestial, as if the heavens themselves were displayed before him. Not wishing to startle his friend, whose unblinking gaze was trained on a place outside the room, he knelt down and waited. The pure love that was shining from Tanner's eyes was inspiring. He was somewhere far beyond the horizon, a place that reflected the very raw emotional state he was floating in. Vin's thumb moved and pushed the play button. The music began again and a deep sigh came from the parted lips. The shuddering state of the sound told Chris that Vin was totally enraptured. He wondered how long Vin had been sitting there and what had given him the peace and tranquility clearly displayed so openly.

"Vin, can you hear me?" he prodded gently, laying a soft touch on the filmy shirt. The lips parted and another sigh came out, but the face remained trained on that star, or seemed to be. He ran his hand in front of the blinking eyes, for it seemed so real that Vin could see the bright star. But they didn't blink. "What happened?"


The whispered call came from somewhere he couldn't see or fathom. He was to go towards the name; he was to seek him out. He didn't want to leave this place, he never felt such peace. The golden showers and gentle breeze were exhilarating. But, he knew it was time to go home. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, hoping to keep that sweet, healing air inside as long as possible. "Vin, are you okay?" Chris asked, worried that perhaps his friend was going to pass out. Vin's eyes closed and he swayed slightly. Then the eyes opened, the voice was full of wonder, nearly prayer like.

"Somethin' wonderful." Vin's voice trembled and he had to pause to control his wavering state. He felt as if every nerve in his being was splayed open and raw. His senses were throbbing and it was if he could feel the charge in the air around him. He turned his head and faced the place where he felt warmth. He reached a hand out, as if to touch whatever was bringing this special feeling to him.

Chris's head moved again and he felt tingling all over. Vin's hand reached out towards the window, right at the area where the star was. How could he know that? He couldn't see the star. What was going on that would cause a reaction like that?

"He... healed... me... he took me... t'a special place, Chris. So... beautiful... I can't find... words... ya wouldn't know..." He moved his hand to his chest and covered his heart. "He touched... me... I felt it... I got no words... m'soul, Chris, He held... it..."

The tears fell then, leaving the stunned eyes in a natural display of devotion. Whatever had happened in the hours that Chris had been gone had been miraculous. The change in his friend was proof positive that faith indeed can be a powerful salve. Vin began to tremble as if totally overcome by whatever had transcended time and space to reach out and cradle him. Had God indeed come into his friend's heart and taken away the pain, Chris wondered? Had that touch been the difference? He moved then, instinctively understanding where his place was to be; he sat down behind Vin and when the younger man fell back against his chest, he wrapped his arms around the quaking soul and held on.

Vin relaxed at the touch, it was the one thing he'd been waiting for. The one person who understood him without words and who trusted him without fail. The one person who he could expose his soul to and embrace the love that he felt in return. Silently, the strong support filled him with courage. He knew now why God had put him here. He had a mission; the most vital thing that had ever happened to him was an unseen road ahead. But he had no fear; he was full of energy and hope. He knew without seeing, exactly where he needed to go. He knew how to get there and who was to take him. He also knew that salvation, true salvation was at the other end.

The song played on, it became a part of him, coursing through his bloodstream and filled him with strength. It was more than words, more than a glorious melody; it was something he couldn't touch but he felt deeply. Time passed and he became more in control of his shaken state. He got his nerves together and put his emotional state back in check. He sat up and bent his knees, resting his arms on them and his chin on his arms.

Chris moved away then, giving Vin's neck a single tug. He now saw exhaustion on the pale face and wondered how many hours Vin had been lost in that state?

"Are you hungry? You look exhausted."

"Weary t'the bone, but it's a good feelin', ya know?"

"Do you want to talk about it?" Chris asked, noticing Vin push the stop button on the remote.

"Mebbe later," Vin admitted, feeling as if he'd not slept in months. "I can't hardly keep m'eyes open."

"Hold on, I'll give you a hand," Chris offered and saw a smile look back at him. It went clear to Vin's heart and the warmth of it reflected in the tired eyes.

"Ya always do, cowboy," Vin lauded softly, taking that hand. "It must be one o'yers," he noted of the CD, handing the remote to Chris. "I ain't got Groban."

"Neither do I," Chris said, hitting the eject button. "What the hell?"

"Somethin' wrong?" Vin asked, cocking his head towards the startled voice.

"It's empty," Chris managed, his body tingling again. His eyes went around the room, expecting to see what or who he didn't know. But he sensed a higher hand at play. This was a CD player, it had no radio. The music had to come from it, yet it was empty.

"Can't be," Vin argued, "Hell, I been playin' it over and over since ya left. How long ya been gone?"

"All day, it's nearly 8 p.m.," Chris replied, staring dumbfounded at the empty disc tray. He pushed it back in and hit play, nothing happened. The music was gone. "Where did the music come from?"

"It were His music, Chris, His way o'answerin' m'call, He held me, right in His arms," Vin replied calmly, accepting the miracle and moving towards his room.

He didn't want to be alone and knew without asking the blond would remain with him. He stumbled on something in the hallway and staggered. He felt the strong hands catch him as they always did. He used to wonder what lead him on the road to Denver. What force made him make that choice on the New Mexico border, but now he knew different. He nodded in appreciation and caught Chris's hand, taking it in his own and exploring it.

Chris didn't know what to make of Vin's odd behavior. But whatever it was, it was something he needed to do. He watched the emotions cross his bearded friend's face and heard the catch in his voice when he spoke. It went right through him, giving him a shiver.

"Yer hands, yer so strong," Vin choked, swallowing hard. Once again he thought on just how strong this man was, how much he'd endured these weeks and how many untold miles he'd been carried by these hands. "I never... fel... felt... the like. Ya carried this ungrateful... bas... bast... bastard... even when I pushed... ya... past where anybody else... wou...d... give... up..."

"Well, it's not like my social life is exactly full right now, turns out my dance card was empty," Chris teased and rested a light hand on Vin's back. Twice the lips parted to say more but no words could be produced. But then they didn't have to, a choir couldn't be any louder or more beautiful than the gaze now searching for him. "You're welcome, Vin Tanner. And if anyone's a lucky bastard, it's me. You gave me my soul back. Long-haired river rats are rare, I ain't lettin' you leave."

"Texas variety," Vin finished and headed for the bathroom.

Chris was glad to see the week old shirt finally leave his body. "Toss the pants out, I'll burn both of them, even the homeless aren't that desperate."

"Scare up a soda? I'm drier than a constipated buzzard's butt."

"You do have a way with words, Tanner," Chris chuckled as he heard the water in the shower go on.

He left a clean sweat suit on the bed and went to the kitchen. After putting a thermal quart container full of ice and Vin's beloved Mountain Dew on the nightstand, he went back to the living room. He spent the next half hour cleaning up. The room finally looked normal again; he even opened a window to let some fresh air inside. He went back to check on Vin and found the stranger was gone. The face was clean and shaven, the body scrubbed to a healthy pink. The clean, damp hair was curling perfectly.

"Damn, just when I was getting used to my cave boy," he teased, slapping Vin's leg. "Welcome back."

"Trip I couldda done without," Vin appraised, "Listen Chris..."

"If you say thank you again, Vin..." Chris warned and got a sunny smile.

Vin picked up his soda and took a long sip. He paused for a moment and formed his words. He needed to share this with Chris. He wanted him to try to understand the miracle that had occurred. It wasn't everyday you felt God's hand.

"It weren't a dream, Chris. I was sleepin' but I know it's real. I can't explain it, ain't gonna try. There's a hole in me, I needed it filled up. He showed me how, He forgave me, Chris. After all I done, all the names and filthy things... He held me, showered me with His love. I felt... it... so... so..."

"Easy, Vin," Chris whispered, watching the face begin to crumble again.

But Vin took a minute and composed himself. Not that Chris blamed him. After all, it wasn't everyday you experienced a miracle. He listened with unabashed awe as Vin's soft drawl filled the room. He had goose bumps when the slow voice painted a portrait so fine it nearly defied words. Finally, Vin got to the end, just in time. The eyes were falling and Chris knew this experience had drained his young friend to the core.

"Funny thing," Vin whispered, turning and reaching for a quilt. "I always thought angels is little blond babies, half nekkid with fluffly lil' wings totin' low slung diapers. This one were a lil' feller about four'r so, with crazy red curls and golden overalls." Vin heard the sharp intake of breath and felt the hand freeze near his hip. "Chris?"

"Sorry..." Chris recovered, handing the quilt over.

Chris nearly choked. It was too much to comprehend. Vin had never seen David, how could he possibly know what he looked liked? All the elements were jumbled in his head demanding to be counted. Perhaps it wasn't intended to be dissected, maybe it was just something he'd have to embrace for Vin's sake. Miracles after all come in all shapes and sizes, even five-year old angels with red curls and golden overalls. Not trusting his voice, he gave Vin's shoulder a pat and heard a muffled reply. The body that cried out for sleep finally surrendered.

Chris returned to the kitchen, for some reason not wanting to dwell in the place of Vin's transformation. He eyed the laptop he'd brought the day before to complete some work. He opened it and called up the lyrics to the song. He read every word and for the first time, truly felt their meaning. For it was not just Vin that he'd raised up, Chris felt his own fragile body and soul healing. God's hands had cradled both of them on this journey.

When I am down and, oh my soul, so weary;
When troubles come and my heart burdened be;
Then, I am still and wait here in the silence,
Until you come and sit awhile with me.
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up: To more than I can be.
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up: To more than I can be.
There is no life - no life without its hunger;
Each restless heart beats so imperfectly;
But when you come and I am filled with wonder,
Sometimes, I think I glimpse eternity.
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up: To more than I can be.
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains;
You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas;
I am strong, when I am on your shoulders;
You raise me up: To more than I can be.

New Jersey

Nathan eased his tall frame from behind the wheel of the rental car and stretched. He inhaled the salt air that along with the call of the gulls and the gentle crash of the waves provided a relaxing repose. He glanced at Lauren, who was speaking quietly to Josiah. The large man's face was surprisingly void of emotion. He had wondered during the flight and the drive over from Atlantic City Airport, what Josiah's reaction would be. This lack of emotion caught him off guard. He saw the smoky eyes flicker to the tall grasses. There amidst the swaying reeds was a path. At the crest of the short hill at the end of the path was a small cottage.

Josiah heard Lauren's voice but the words faded away. Time stood still and he was moved backwards through the mists of the ages to another winter day. The cottage wasn't covered by dirt, boarded windows or vines, it was clean and bright. The snow fell softly and the proud father held his boy up to the sky, giving the enchanting tot a giggle. David's last Christmas was a special one, one that now was preserved for all eternity.

The tree was a sad, spindly thing, something that even Charlie Brown would have overlooked. But with a few homemade ornaments and some from the local discount store and the tin foil star on top, it was homey. The hand carved Nativity was underneath it and the boy was playing with the wise men, marching their camels around the stable. A record player sent Bing Crosby's voice through the small room, reminding them of the 'Silent Night' that was dawning. There was no fine roast for dinner, rather it was pizza, but they shared it and some cheap wine. David had his favorite 'party punch', a homemade concoction of fruit juice and ginger ale. They sang, they celebrated, they prayed and they put their boy to bed, his eager eyes looking for Santa.


Nathan winced at the painful whisper that finally emerged from Josiah's almost gray lips. A single hand reached out, as if she were standing there. Nathan moved forward then, as the other man began to walk slowly up the path. He kept his distance, not wishing to disturb Josiah but he felt the need to be close. He briefly thought on what his own emotional state would be if a similar tragedy occurred and he lost his beloved Jasmine. He couldn't imagine a pain that deep. Josiah paused at the broken gate that surrounded the small cottage. Shutters that were now an undetermined shade hung haphazardly next to the boarded windows.

"We had a garden here... not much but David loved to water it, watch it grow..."

"Yeah, kids love that," Nathan replied.

"They were blue, sky blue, she loved blue," Josiah rambled, eyeing the battered shutters.

He moved to the door, pausing with his hand on the knob. He turned his face to the road behind them, a narrow asphalt single lane that ran to the main road. It was closed now, but back then it was a short cut. The screech of the brakes of the ghosted car echoed again in his mind. He inhaled sharply and gripped the knob as he watched himself in a younger man's clothes race through the door and drop down at the curb. He closed his eyes then, as the sight of the crushed body of his only child bled red again, the tendrils scorching his own soul.

"I'm sorry... son... I'm so ... sorry..."

"Easy, Josiah," Nathan soothed but Lauren pulled him back.

"Let him go, Nathan, he needs this."

"I don't like it," Nathan decided as the agonized father walked into the house.

Josiah slowly walked through the scattered rooms, wondering how they got so small. The tiny bedroom where David spent his short life had a window facing the sea. He recalled the chubby toddler standing at his crib, pressing his face against the bars and reaching out to catch the waves. During her brief period of being clean, Tess would spend hours rocking the restless baby and singing to him.

"She loved him, you know, she just wasn't strong enough," he whispered, laying a quivering hand on the faced animals that danced on the torn wallpaper. "He was a beautiful child, so very loving."

"Can you tell us about David?" Lauren suggested gently as Josiah swallowed hard.

Nathan watched the gray head dip and the body move to the outer room. There was an area by the kitchen with a large boarded window, larger that the rest. He watched as Sanchez struggled to control his emotions, laying both palms of his hands against the coarse boards. He began to tremble then, pounding the boards without mercy. This sudden outburst caught the medic off guard and he backed up, stunned.

"Why!" Josiah roared, raising his wet eyes to the cracked ceiling. "Why? He was an innocent child. He didn't deserve to die like that."

"Easy, Josiah," Nathan tried, not sure whether to lay a hand on the quaking shoulder or not. "It was an accident. God didn't do this to David... it just happened."

"Didn't he?" Sanchez turned to his best friend. "I lost my temper. The one thing I promised I'd never do. The day I first held David, just a few minutes old, I vowed I'd never lost my temper around him. I promised... I made a vow... I...." He moved then, towards the open door and the dreaded path still stained with blood. "He ran... he was terrified... he... the tires... the brakes... the blood..."

"Yuh human, Josiah, not a machine. Yuh bleed brother, we all do," Nathan suggested, moving in front of the agonized figure. "Yuh think I don't lose my cool at home? It ain't something' I'm proud of, but it happens."

"Let's go back Josiah, to before the accident. Can you tell us about David?" Lauren put in.

"He loved to laugh, he loved the beach. He could spend hours there and never tire of it. We'd play in the surf, build castles, sail his little boats," Josiah recalled, finding a sad smile. Then he spoke to them of his son and the wonderful days he gave to him. "He gave his love so unconditionally; he had such trust in me..."

"I know," Nathan replied, thinking on his own daughter. "And now, since Jasmine, I can understand yuh better. He loved yuh, Josiah, with all he had. Yuh gave him his life, this home, all the love a child could have. Some kids, they never get that at all."

"I killed him," Josiah said flatly, falling to his knees. His whole body shook with a molten combination of grief and rage. "My own... flesh... I..."

Nathan moved behind the grieving soul, massaging his neck in a show of support. At least he was using his grief to address the pain, not lashing out against the demons that hid inside. Something occurred to Nathan then, maybe something that Josiah had not thought on, not in all these twenty-five years.

"Let it out, brother, let it all out. Yuh need t'get it out. He loved yuh, yuh keep that inside. Don't lose that, Josiah. If you can't forgive yuhself, he won't rest. Yuh need t'give him his peace, too. Understand?"

Josiah turned then looking up at Nathan in a mix of relief and bewilderment. Was it that simple? By forgiving himself would he release David's soul as well? How come he'd not thought of that before? That the demons that poked and prodded him with acid dipped spears all these years were tormenting his son too? Was David still seeking peace? Could he provide that? Would he be able to give his only child that lasting gift?

"I never... saw... it... that way, Nathan." Josiah's voice broke and he sobbed, his great shoulders quaking. He felt Nathan drop down next to him and embrace him.

"Good for you, Nathan," Lauren whispered, watching the healing transformation.


It was his special place and even though he couldn't see it, it was forever painted in his mind. He knew every inch of the mountains, streams and sky here. It was here he came when he was troubled, to have Mother Nature soothe him at her breast. So it was here he came on this beautiful and warm morning to begin his work. He heard Chris moving next to him and turned his head.

"You're all set, Vin. I got my laptop and a shitload of work to go through. I'll be just inside if you need me," Chris updated.

"Thanks, Chris," Vin replied, sitting on the large handmade pine chair on the porch of the cabin he'd restored with Chris's approval. Although it was Larabee's property, from the moment he first laid eyes on it, it became 'his' place. Chris was glad to have the old shack brought back to life and they spent more than a few weekends fishing and camping here. But today he had a different purpose, a special mission.

The sun moved quickly in the morning sky, donning her noonday gown. Chris rose and stretched, rubbing his back. He moved to the kitchen, taking out hot dogs and hamburgers from the cooler. He quickly got the small grill going and tossed the meat on the heat. He moved his gaze to the doorway. He hadn't heard Vin for awhile now. When they first arrived, he heard the soft drawl as Vin spoke into the recorder. Curious, he moved to the doorway and opened it, peering outside. The pensive stare that was fixed on the mountains made him frown.

"I got lunch cooking," he announced and the head turned.

"Reckon I could eat," Vin decided.

"That's the understatement of the year," Larabee teased of the slim man's seemingly unending hunger. "You okay?"

"It ain't goin' like I figgered," Vin replied, rising and moving his hand along the wall to guide him.

"If you need any help..."

"Thanks, I gotta do this alone. Poems... usually they come as easy as breathin', but this one... well mebbe after I eat I'll take a nap."

"Headache?" Chris guessed at the pain housed in the blue eyes.


They ate quietly, Vin slipped away to the bed, burrowing himself under a quilt. Chris didn't disturb him; rather he made sure he made no noise and allowed the exhausted body to sleep. He finished his work, packed the car up and then made himself a mug of coffee. The rich scent of the brew drew a head up, two blue eyes blinking in confusion.

"We're at the cabin, you had a headache," he updated and got a nod. "You with me?"

"Yeah... it's late ain't it?" Vin shivered, "The sun's leavin'."

"Yeah, it's late, you ready to head out? I got the car packed."

"Gimme a minute t'tap a kidney," Vin replied.

Chris stole several glances at Vin during the short ride back to the ranch. He saw the slim fingers moving over the recorder and the thoughtful look on Tanner's face. Vin disappeared inside his room while Chris made dinner. As the spaghetti was served, the guest appeared in the doorway, his face shining with success.

"You found it?" Chris guessed.

"Yup, I sure did," Vin answered. His long nap and quiet time after had provided the needed answers to his special gift. He hoped with some fine tuning and assistance from a friend it would be much more than a gift, it would the hope that Josiah so desperately sought.

ATF Office

In the days that followed, Chris could hardly contain his pride in the change in Vin. The metamorphosis was something to behold. The confidence practically glowed from him. There was no doubt that the troubled vessel was now sailing on calm seas. Vin's sails were up and the wind was coursing strongly behind him. There was a sense of self in place that was missing before; he had assurance, resolve and purpose. He noticed that Vin was spending a lot of time with the tape recorder, which Chris felt was a very healthy sign. Chris moved through the office, glad that their busy week was nearly done and hoping it would be a quiet day.

"ATF, Team Seven, Agent Standish speaking."

"Hey, Ez!"

"Well, Mister Tanner," Ezra drawled and didn't hid his smile. "To what do I owe this honor?"

"I got a favor," Vin replied, "Thought we could wrassle it out over vittles."

"Dinner?" Ezra translated. "As it turns out I am free this evening. Is seven o'clock appropriate?"

"Seven's good," Vin answered. "Nothin' t'fancy, I don't wanna put ya out much."

"Put me out?" Ezra's smile grew. "Let me see if I understand this correctly. You have a favor to impose and are taking me out to dinner to discuss it, and I am footing the bill?" He ignored Buck's echo in his head of 'Vinlogic'. You don't try to comprehend it; you just accept it for the gift that it is.

"Yup, that about covers it." Vin finished his coffee. "I got a hankerin' fer some steak'n ribs, mebbe Flat Iron Jack's." Vin grinned at the groan that met his ear. "It ain't s'bad, yer jest a snob."

"The last time we squatted in that hole of pestilence, I acquired a family of fleas."

"Cute lil' critters ain't they?" Vin teased. "'sides, anythin' with more than two legs dies in yer doorway."

"Very well," Ezra conceded. "I'll bring a brown bag for the 'wine' and I use that term liberally."

"Thanks, Ez."

By the time seven rolled around, the Southerner was more than curious as to the reason for Tanner's odd request. The drive over to the bar was a quiet one and he knew by the flitting fingers and shifting body that the younger man was nervous. They ordered drinks and skimmed over the menu. Over his beer, Vin slid a tape across the table.

"What's this?" Ezra asked.

"That's the favor." Vin sat back and ran his hand through his hair. "Ya remember that night when ya told me t'find the key? That there tape is a part of the key. I need it t'heal up. It's a poem I wrote fer David, Josiah's son. I can't explain it right, ya wouldn't understand. I need t'give it t'Jo'siah. He needs to hear David's voice again. I got... had... made..." Vin chuffed in annoyance, it was so easy in his head. "Aw, hell, it's comin' out all ass backwards. Yer gonna think I'm some kinda nut."

"To the contrary, Vin," Ezra corrected and fingered the tape. "You know I admire your poetry. I've told you more than once you need to look into getting your works published. If by writing a poem about David, it has helped you breach that area that is festering, then I'll gladly help. Do you want me to have it printed out?"

"Naw, I want ya t'write it," Vin replied, "Yer scribin' is fussier than a girl's. Them fancy scratchin's on yer Christmas and birthday cards is real nice."

"Caligraphy, it's something I learned in college and made extra money by... nevermind." He tapped the tape again. He smiled at Vin's quaint use of words that aptly described his writing. "Thank you for the compliment, but I have to disagree. They are your words, Vin, you need to keep them that way. If I transcribe them, the vital part of the gift, your eloquence, is lost."

"Eloquence?" Vin retorted sharply. "Ya makin' fun o'me?"

"No, of course not! Your gift, what makes it so fine, so rare is that you use your words right from your heart. In order for that magic to grow in a luster all its own, they must be your words, not someone else's. It would tarnish the fine and golden voice you house so masterfully. You're a poet, Vin, a try master. If I sat for a week, I couldn't produce what you paint so easily and so movingly. Your words, they steal the air from anyone fortunate enough to partake of them."

"Yeah?" Vin rasped, feeling the warmth flood his cheeks.

"Very much so," Ezra concluded, laying a gentle hand on Vin's restless arm. "Your words move me, Vin."

"It ain't like I didn't try, I did." Vin replied, "They ain't comin' out right, I can't find them fussy words you can. You catch 'em easier than flies on shit." He heard the warm laughter across from him and furrowed his brow. "Ya think this is funny?"

"No, of course not," Ezra replied. That Vin didn't understand the power of his charm was just one of the many reasons he admired him. He'd never met a man so very comfortable in his own skin.

"Your poems, Vin, the words come from your heart. That is what makes them shine, my friend. If I or anyone else tried to polish them or 'fix' them, it would ruin them. Trust your heart, it won't fail you. "

"What if it ain't right? What if he don't hear it like I do? What if the words ain't right?"

"Would you like me to listen to it?" Ezra asked and saw the tangled head bob. "Very well, on one condition, we depart from this rats nest to a more fitting place for nourishment."

"Ya got any o'that veal and wine shit in yer freezer?"

'It's a rather delicate blend of just the right ingredients," Ezra corrected, assisting the relieved man to his feet.

"That's what I said," Vin chuffed, allowing Ezra to take his elbow. "weren't ya hearin' me?"

"I stand corrected," Ezra grinned, surrendering to the power of Vin.

Part Nineteen

Larabee Ranch
Four p.m


"Shit!" Chris swore as the Bronco's went down by seven. There was still five minutes left but he'd never hear the end of it if they lost. Buck would ride this all week.

"You best be dustin' off that wallet!" Buck ribbed Chris and heard Vin chuckle from the kitchen. He added in a quieter voice, "If I didn't see it, I wouldn't believe it. My God he's a new man."

"Yeah," Chris replied, watching as Vin and J.D. got the food out and onto Vin's kitchen table. He'd taken quite a ribbing about his short hair. He'd been surprised when Vin asked to go to the barber. But he realized by the actions, the shorn locks were Tanner's way of a new beginning. His 'they's all a tangled mess o'rat tails' wasn't far from the truth. The hair would grow back, and his new confidence with the wavy locks.

"Food's on," Vin announced, carefully unfolding a roll and putting a piece of cheese in it.

. Meatballs and sausages were simmering in one crock pot and hot roast beef with gravy in the other. A large basket of Cajun fries was dumped from the Frydaddy into a waiting basket

"Here, I got it, Vin. You get a seat. I'll bring you a plate," Dunne offered, taking the plate the Texan held.

"Thanks, Kid," Vin called back, counting his steps. "Get outta m'chair, Bucklin."

"Fine host you turned out to be," Buck grumbled rising and waiting for Vin to ease his lean body down. "Orderin' the guests around."

"Didn't swear did I?" Vin arched a brow and heard Buck chuckle. He waited until each of his friends had gotten a platter and settled down. Once there was a break in the action, he put the sandwich down and wiped his mouth. 'I uh... talked to Nathan and Lauren today, Jo'siah's doin' better. They think he's ready fer the cemetery."

"That's great," J.D. said and saw darkness settle on Buck's features. The food was shoved away and he fisted both hands. The younger man caught his eyes and made a face, nodding to Vin. He didn't want anything to upset Vin. Buck needed to get his temper in check.

"How much longer are they going to stay?" Chris asked, tossing a nasty glare at Buck.

"Lauren ain't sure, they don't wanna rush 'im." Vin paused, pushed his plate away and gathered up his resolve. Although his statement was to all his friends, it was Chris who he directed it to. "I'm flyin' inta' Jersey t'visit 'im"

"What?" Chris's voice rose a full octave and his blond head swiveled in Vin's direction.

From the jut of the chin and the daring 'defy me' look in the stormy blue eyes, the team leader knew he was in for a real battle. It wasn't that he would stand in the way of Vin and Josiah resolving their issues; he knew that was the last part of the healing process. But, until the doctor pronounced Josiah healed and sound again, Chris thought intervening would spell disaster.

"I'm not so sure that's a good idea, Vin," Chris argued. "That's too far from home and I don't think you're ready to undertake a trip like that. You need to wait until Josiah is ready too. We don't know how he'll react, if he's-"

"Yeah, well the last time I checked, I ain't 10 years old and I ain't yer child," Vin snapped, "I'm goin'!"

Vin moved awkwardly from the chair nearly falling in the process. He knew Larabee would object and he knew a part of the reason was for his own protection. But he had to do this; his inner voice told him that this was the right time, that this mission was a vital part of both of them healing. He wouldn't be denied his quest and he had to make Chris understand somehow that it had to be this way. He didn't know why but the power of the message was so clear, so real he could touch it.

Chris shook his head and followed the angry Texan. He watched the angry features morph and followed Vin back into the kitchen. The utensils jumped and danced twice as the drawer they were in was opened and slammed.

"You finished with your tantrum?" Chris prodded "First of all, I've never treated you as anything but equal and don't ever talk down to me like that again. Second, it's too soon-"

"Fer what?" Vin shot back, "He's in the last phase, Lauren said he's doin' good. David ain't comin' back with him."

"I think you both need a little time to adjust and heal before a confrontation," Chris suggested, moving closer to the tense body.

"Chris," Vin turned to where the voice was, "Ya gotta understand. This is important t'me, it's somethin' I gotta do. I can't explain it right." He paused to tap his chest. "It's callin' me s'strong, I feel it t'm'bones. This is the right time and that is the right place."

Chris gripped both of his best friend's shoulders and studied every feature. He allowed himself to relax and truly look deep into the telltale blue eyes. He saw Hope appear, flitting her wings and anxious for birth. He saw the unconquerable resolve and felt the power of the promise that lurked deep within Tanner. He sighed once and shook his fair head.

"Okay, Vin, I'll call Orrin in the morning and see if I can clear my schedule. Maybe Mike Ryan can cover for me or-"

"No call fer that," Vin interrupted, moving towards the living room. "Ya ain't gotta go."

"Look, Vin," Chris replied, following the pesky, blue-eyed terrier, "I know you've made great progress but you can't go to Jersey alone."

"Ain't gonna be alone," Vin answered, moving towards the end of the sofa. "Bucklin's goin' with me."

"What!" Buck yelped, shaking his dark head "Me? No, no way!"

Chris was as perplexed as Buck was. He noticed that Vin was totally calm, as if he was steadfast and sure and the bags were packed. There was no doubt in his eyes or his stance; he truly believed Buck would be traveling with him. Buck was arguing why he couldn't go and Vin was placidly nodding. The fine features were not upset; rather they seemed more at peace than ever. Was this 'mission' of Vin's the real deal? He couldn't argue scientifically with what had occurred in this very room when Josh Groban's song filled Vin's soul. Was the key right in front of them? Did Vin know something that they couldn't reach or feel?

"Look, Vin,' I'd do anything for you; hell I took a bullet for you, but this..." Buck stammered, "I just can't... I won't. That bastard... after what he did..."

Now Larabee understood. Now he realized where that tranquility in Vin's eyes was coming from. Whatever call Vin had to heal, included Buck. He was the one housing the most bitterness. He refused to talk about Josiah or that night, he wouldn't even call Sanchez by name. Vin was not only taking his own battered body on the flight of mercy, he was carrying a wounded Wilmington as well.

"I ain't jest doin' this fer me, Bucklin," Vin said softly, reaching his good hand out. "Yer full o'bitterness. Ya gotta lose it 'r it'll kill ya. It's like a poison inside ya, spreadin' all around. Part of 'ya, the best part is yer compassion. Ya gotta heart bigger'n Texas and right now it's bleedin'." Vin paused, moving his hand until it hit Buck's face. He rested it against Buck's neck, giving it a tug. "Yer pain... it's hurtin' me bad, pard. Please..."

"Shit," Buck whispered, unable to move or draw his gaze away from the piercing blue orbs seemingly burning a hole right through him. "I'll... uh... think about it, Vin."

"We're booked fer tomorrow afternoon, flight leaves at four. Best ya stay here, we can leave fer the airport by one'r so."

"Now, hold on, Vin, I didn't say I would go on this mission of yours."

"Buck," J.D. turned to the older man and tapped his arm. "He's right. You keep burying your rage inside. It's affecting your work, your life. You have to do this or you'll never be able to go on."

"Traitor!" Buck accused the wide hazel-eyed youth.

"Brother," J.D. corrected, his open hand waiting.

Buck reluctantly shook the hand and rose, excusing himself. He moved outside and shivered in the cold mountain air. Why couldn't he let it go? If Vin could do this, after what Josiah had done to him, why couldn't he? The anger was still raw and had not subsided in these past weeks. He still had a need inside, a raw throbbing pulsation to vent. He wanted justice... vengeance... a pound of flesh? Now he wasn't so sure. He moved a hand over his abdomen and thought on both J.D's and Vin's words. Were they right? Was the bitterness inside of him going to spread and intensify? A soft drawl caused him to turn.


"I'm sorry, Vin, I didn't mean to upset you. It's just hard for me. Jesus, I can't let it go."

"I know," Vin replied softly, moving closer to the voice. He reached a hand out and felt a thick sweater. He groped until his palm rested against Buck's bicep. "I got enough fer both of us, if it comes t'it."

"My God," Buck marveled, taking the 'brotherhood' grip and holding it solidly. He felt a lump form in his throat and wondered at the deep compassion in this man. And the fact that despite his own problems, Vin Tanner was reaching out with everything he had. "Okay, slick, let's do this."

"Now yer cookin' with fatback," Vin chimed, "Speakin' o'which, I'm starvin'."

"Don't make a damn bit of sense," Buck teased, rubbing a hand over Tanner's lean stomach. "You eat more shit than all of the rest of us and you still could use some meat."

"Upper end o'the gene pool," Vin boasted, slowly moving back inside. "It ain't yer fault, we can't all be Tanners."

"No, son, we sure as hell can't," Buck quipped, finding a warm smile.

Eternal Grace Cemetery
New Jersey

It was an old cemetery, dating back to before the Revolution. The oldest stones were barely standing, the lettering all but faded away. Josiah paused at the entry and bowed his head. He prayed for those sleeping here and then gingerly made his way through the iron gates. His eyes moved to the far end, where an old church stood. It was small and the sign out front on the gate stated it was built in 1790.

A chill ran up his spine and it wasn't the cold weather. The icy fingers were Fate strumming on his heart strings. He had not walked this path in twenty five years, not since he laid Tess to rest here. He paused next to the church, his smoky eyes flickering to the steeple above. With his heart hammering, he made his way around the small church and to the old oak tree beyond. He saw the small wooden angel and found a smile.

"After all these years..." he whispered, his fingers gracing the delicate features on the sculpture done by a friend.

His eyes found the letters first, they seemed strange to him. As if the names were those of strangers. He read them twice, then bent to trace each letter with his fingers. He felt the heat rising through the stone and it took his breath away. His chest hurt so badly that he found it difficult to force air through his lungs. Without a word to his waiting friends, he dropped to his knees and bowed his head. The snow fell in swirls around him, dusting his hair and coat in a solemn lacey cape.

"That's quite a picture," Nathan commented, eyeing the lone figure kneeling several yards ahead.

"Yes, it certainly is," Lauren replied, trying to keep her balance. The surface in the old cemetery was uneven and icy. The descending darkness didn't help matters. "He's done far better than I thought. I'm so very proud of..."

"Doctor Tremaine?" Nathan turned at the sharp cry and saw the woman on the ground. He saw her reach for her ankle and then saw blood on her scalp. ' Yuh hit yuhr head... hold still now."

"So careless, I should have been... more... careful," she answered and saw the medical training in him in his glance. "No, I'm not dizzy or faint nor do I feel ill, just stupid."

"Yuh need stiches..." Nathan carefully prodded the ankle. "I don't think it's broken. Stay put, I'll get Josiah."

"Nathan!" she pulled out a kerchief and pressed it to her bleeding scalp. "When we drove from the hotel to this cemetery, I spotted the 'Seaside Medical Center'. It's just up the road. You can drop me off and come back for Josiah. He needs to finish this I don't want to interrupt his progress." "Okay, doc, let me update him," Nathan agreed.

Joisah jumped when a hand hit his shoulder.

"Sorry, Josiah," Nathan apologized. "Lauren took a little spill; she hurt her ankle and cut her head a little."

"Is she okay?" He turned and started to rise to see where the injured woman was lying.

"Yeah, she sure is tough," Nathan complimented. "Strong-willed too. She wants me to take her up the road to the Medical Center. Then I'll come back for yuh. Yuh gonna be okay here?"

"Okay?" Josiah caught his best friend's eye "I haven't felt peace like this in years. I can't explain it, Nate. But ... something special is in the air here. Tonight... now... this time in space... one moment in eternity..."

"Yeah, okay," Nate cut off the rambling man and gently guided him back to his knees. "It's gettin' dark and startin' t'snow. Yuh head inta the church if it gets t'cold, understand?"

"Tell Lauren... tell her..." Josiah paused, eyeing his special friend who waved from across the dark stone garden.

"Oh, she knows." Nathan spoke in a quiet tone, clapping the older man's back. "She knows, brother."

Atlantic County
New Jersey

He didn't have to see to realize just how bad the weather had turned. The radio station interrupted its programming to announce some of the local roads being closed. The storm came up the coast faster than anticipated, leaving sheets of perilous freezing rain. Hitting the already cold roads had turned many into dangerous 'black ice'. Vin heard Buck hissing and sensed by the movement of the car, all was not well.

They'd landed at the Atlantic City Airport and picked up a rental car. The first part of the trip was okay, then the storm erupted. It seemed much longer than it should be taking to get to the hotel. Vin knew Buck was already upset; he'd said very little during the flight. He knew this was the right thing to do; he wouldn't be able to explain fully just the powerful feeling that was holding him inside. But Buck being upset during a storm behind the wheel spelled trouble.

"I'm sorry, Bucklin," he offered, breaking the uncomfortable silence.

"You didn't cook up this weather, Vin," Buck replied, peering through the frosted glass at the narrow road. "The main road is closed, a tractor trailer jackknifed. This road the state cops set up is one step up from a horse path. But the map shows it takes us back to the main road on the other side of the accident."

"I know yer nervous, I got hundreds o'butterflies dancin' in m'gut. But, somethin' strong inside me's tellin' me we need t'do this here'n'now."

"I'm not nervous," Buck lied. "We're here now, I just want it over."

He couldn't explain to Vin just how upset he was. He wasn't sure what he felt, nervous, anxious, upset, angry and something else. Deep inside, relief was gnawing at the door to gain freedom. He'd been losing sleep for weeks worrying about the tempest inside him. He couldn't control his waves of anger and he was becoming bitter. A part of him, a part he was reluctant to shake hands with, was relieved to be confronting the source of his turmoil.

Vin didn't like Buck's terse reply but he understood it. Buck was a man of great feelings. He knew from what the man had said and what the others told him, just how torn up Buck was after finding him at Josiah's. He put himself in Buck's place and wondered how he'd have reacted.

"Listen Vin, somethin' I gotta tell you." Buck sighed hard, feeling the knot tighten in his gut. "About that night, I should have been with you. I was the senior officer; you shouldn't have gone to his place alone. Hell, I knew he was in a bitch of a mood. Truth be told, I was relieved when you went to him that afternoon. I'm sorry, Vin, God, I'm sorry..."

Sorry? It took Vin several seconds to comprehend what Buck was saying. Guilt covered the slender Texan like an unwelcome cloak. Buck's unwarranted guilt settled over him without an invite. He shook his head for a moment and then flipped the shroud off. No way was it Buck's fault, he'd square that away now. The older man must have been carrying this inside all this time. No wonder he was on edge with his nerves shot to hell.

"No, yer wrong," Vin denied, turning to face the driver. "I ain't no green-earred rookie. I made the mistake, not you. Ya didn't know where I was goin., Yer right, ya were the senior officer and ya did gimme an order.Ya told me t'go home. I disobeyed ya, I shoudda waited until mornin' t'give him that file. Ya can't...."

"No! Jesus Christ!" Buck screamed as a large deer jumped in front of the car.

"What?" Vin screamed, "What's wrong?" He stiffened up hard against the seat as a hard thud and breaking glass sounded.

"A deer... we hit..." Buck answered as the car veered sharply, spinning out of control on the deadly ice. "We're goin' down, Vin!" he warned as the car jumped the road and skidded down a hill, not resting until it hit a tree.

Briefly, the horn sounded until it died, leaving only the deafening sound of deadly silence.

+ + + + + + +


He sighed in annoyance and swiped at the wetness hitting his face. Wet? He blinked and opened his eyes, seeing a wall of blackness. His face was pressed into something and it was difficult to breathe. An air bag. He fumbled with his hand and felt jagged glass over the door frame. Door frame. A car. An airbag. What happened? He had to calm his panic alarms, which were sounding loudly. He felt like he was being smothered. He needed air, he needed out of there, he felt trapped and began to panic again. He managed to get the buckle undone and shoved the door open. He was able to move his legs but his shoulder hurt just a little. He felt wetness again, hitting his leg. He turned his face and the pelting cold rain hit him like tiny needles. Then a face came into his mind and a scream.


Vin's boot went down hard in water. Water? They'd gone down a hill and the car was in water. Where was Buck? Was he alive? He turned back and reached over, his heart nearly stopped when something hard and sharp cut his hand. He drew back and moved it again, feeling fur and a hoof. The deer. Buck said they'd hit a deer. It must have become lodged in the windshield.

"Buck! Wake up. We're in water," he called loudly, threading his fingers through the space between Buck's body and the animals. His fingers found the skin of Buck's cheek and he moved to find a pulse. "Thank God... yer alive. Buck!" He shook the face but no reply was sounded.

Buck was hurt and trapped in a car which was sinking in water. He had to get help. He could call for help. A phone. Where was Buck's phone? He could only reach Buck's chest and the thick sweater had no pockets. He thought hard and recalled Buck kept his phone on his left hip, near the back. That meant he would not be able to reach it. He had to try. He moved his body, crying out as his right side protested from where he'd hit the door. As he leaned over to move an arm across Buck's lap, the whole car shifted and water ran in.

"No... no... no..." he ranted, remaining utterly still.

Any more movement would spell potential fatal danger for them both. He had to get out. He thought hard and moved to his right near the door. The car only moved a little. As he inched his way out, he kept calling to his friend, hoping he'd wake up. He had to warn Buck not to move. Finally, he stepped upright in the ankle deep water and hissed as the iciness seemed to go right through him. A moan caught his ear.

"Buck! Buck, wake the hell up..." he pleaded.

"" Buck coughed, crying out as his head and chest exploded. One eye was swollen shut and the liquid running down his face was blood, he could taste it as it landed near his mouth. He could see the ripped off hindquarters of the deer in front of him. He couldn't move and knew by the pain in his chest his ribs were broken.

"No!" Vin called out when the car moved. "DON'T MOVE! We landed in water and we're hangin' on by a thread. I'm goin' fer help. Ya can't move, understand? Ya could drown..."

"...good lookin' corpse..."

"It ain't funny!" Vin hollered, gripping the edge of the roof. "Where am I? How do I git started? I need yer eyes, Bucklin."

"Okay, Vin," Buck rasped, turning his head to peer through the glass. He gave his blind friend a quick once over. Vin appeared okay, he was standing, able to use his arms and legs and there was only a slight cut by his eye. He squinted and eyed the hill from where they'd come. "It's not a long climb up. Walk in front of the car, there's a group of rocks and a tree. Just hold on and take your time, it leads right up. Go right at the top, understand? That will take you to the main road. The state cops are there. Okay?"

"Got it..." Vin said and leaned in the car again. "Is m'face bleedin'? Is everythin' where it should be? I can't tell."

"Just a little cut near your eye, not bad." Buck didn't want to move too much, the car was sliding and he didn't want Vin to be pinned underneath it. "Move your arm and legs for me, slick. Good... good. I got a bad head injury Vin, the deer's back legs clipped my head. My chest, my ribs..."

"Yer legs?" Vin asked, worrying badly.

"I can't... tell... too cold... think they're okay, don't want to move."

"Okay, I'll git ya some help," Vin assured him. "Bucklin, keep yer damn eyes open!"

Buck heard the catch in the Texan's voice and smiled, "Hell, son, I'm not dyin', there'd be too many grievin' women at the funeral. Plane loads of 'em. I can't have that..." He paused and saw the too wide blue eyes, the trembling hand and the Adam's apple bobbing in fury. He looked so young, who'd have thought the shorter hair would have that effect. "I'm okay, Vin, quit frettin'... now get yer Tanner ass up that hill."

With a bob of his head, he was gone. Buck watched carefully, holding his breath until he saw the lean body at the top. He sighed hard and nodded in appreciation when Vin took off his red scarf and tied it to a tree limb at the top. Always the tracker, he'd made a marker to signal the way for the rescuers.

"Good boy, that was smart," he noted and felt the shivering start. He was well aware of the threat of hypothermia and hoped that Vin wouldn't be long. "Hurry, Vin."

It was a beautiful old church built on love and faith by a steadfast group of believers several hundred years ago. He could almost hear the sounds of the hammers and chisels and see the strength that those colonial worshipers had. They'd endured hardships that most people today couldn't imagine. The stained glass windows arched gracefully, only adding to the beauty of the church. His smoky eyes traveled around the room, taking in every wooden pew and padded kneeler. Funny, he couldn't recall being here before, but now he was tingling all over. As if Fate had guided him into the Lord's house, a rich and warm place. He felt so very much at peace here and with his eyes on the cross over the altar, he moved forward.

"The Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I shall want..."

He reached the altar and knelt, crossing his arms over his chest and pledging his loyalty and faith. Then he began to pray. The full force of his heart rang true with every word uttered. He prayed for David's forgiveness, for Vin's health and well being, for his friends and lastly for his own salvation. Exhausted, he sat down, lifted his face to the sorrowful one on the cross and something stirred inside of him. Music is the soothing balm often turned to in times of trouble or torment. So he kept his gaze on the son of God and with his own son's spirit close by, Josiah lifted his voice with all he had.

"Amazing Grace..."

Vin paused at the top of the hill and looked down, giving a single wave. He wouldn't fail Buck, he'd find help. He pressed his watch and took note of the time. He walked slower than normal, wary of falling. His arms went out on either side, doing a sweep in the middle. Twice he encountered rocks and fell, but the third time his groping hands found a stick. Not as good as his cane but it would do. His ears were keen for sounds of a motor, but none came. There were no cars on this side road. He picked up his pace and began to sweat, his throat dry and his heart pounding. What if Buck fell asleep? What if the water came in? What if he drowned?"

"Shit... shit..." he cursed when his quick steps caused him to fall again. He remained on his knees and cast his worried eyes to the sky. The sting of the frozen rain felt like needles on his exposed face. "Please... I know ya brung me here fer a reason. I ain't questionin' yer judgement, but..." he paused to catch his breath and swallow hard as the worst, unwelcome image rose. His Tanner temper rose then and he didn't hide it. "Ya can't have Bucklin, ya hear?" A wind rose up and kissed his face, he nodded once and rose. "Jest so we undestand each other, I ain't lettin' ya have him."

He began his trek again only to slip on the ice and sail forward, his limbs flailing. He hit something hard, clipping his head and face on wood. He went down in an uneven pile of wet and tangled limbs, slung over a fence. A fence? Coughing and cursing, he gripped the rail hard, his chest heaving in painful bursts of air. His head hurt, throbbed wildly, and he felt dizzy. He cradled his injured arm protectively and rocked back and forth in time to the pain.

" not now... I gotta... keep... goin'... I... I..." he blinked rapidly as a foggy light interrupted his darkness. It wasn't much; it resembled a halo or aura, a wide circle, almost like headlights in a deep fog. A sign? An answer? Was he to follow the light? "Alright then," he decided and kept his good arm on the fence letting it guide him. "What?"

He stopped and cocked his head, his eyes wide and heart hammering. He narrowed his eyes and listened hard, his ears extra keen to sound. No, he didn't imagine it, there was music ahead. The words were vague but he moved faster now, realizing someone was on the other end of the music's trail, someone who could rescue his injured friend. He kept his eyes on the odd fuzzy light, even though it hurt like hell. The sounds grew stronger and the song filled his eager ears. sweet the sound... I once was lost but now am found...

"...wuz... blind... but... now... I ... see..." he finished the line from Amazing Grace. He could see now that he'd not failed Buck. The voice was a man's, deep and rich and one he knew. "...can't be..." he argued, his throat tight with anticipation. Wet and freezing from the icy rain, his stamina nearly spent, he pushed onward.

The fence ended and he paused, stepping and tapping his leg on the ground. It was no longer uneven; a flat stone was under his foot. A walkway or sorts that he slowly followed, eager to find the singer. "..can't be..." his logic defied him but his heart knew better. "Ya got a twisted sense o'humor," he sassed.

His foot hit a step, he moved gingerly, his hand moving towards the empty space and thudding hard. A door. His fingers moved along the uneven wood and encountered a raised metal symbol.

"...cross...." he mumbled and his spirits rose. "A church!" He moved his frozen fingers until they found a knob, it turned easily and he shoved it forward.

"Amazing Grace how sweet the sound..."

Josiah's strong voice paused when he heard the door open. Curious he turned and squinted in the dim light. He rose and gasped in shock. His startled eyes would not believe what his mind was allowing him to see. He wanted to run, to rejoice, to heal, to guide... but his legs were paralyzed as if invisible roots had formed and were twisted around them.

"Is someone there?" Vin whispered, his body totally spent. He knew the voice, it had to be so, yet no one replied. But he heard a strangulated choke and felt the presence nearby. His strength was waning badly now and he had to get the message out. "Preacher? I need ya..." he offered, moving his arm out seeking the stronger one.

The frozen figure staggered badly, his face scarlet from the harsh weather. Fatigue was scored deeply on every feature, the teeth were chattering so badly they sounded like misguided castanets. Josiah's lips parted but no words would come. He wanted to shout his name, to reach out and comfort him. But he continued to stare in disbelief as the limping body staggered badly up the aisle. Then the man's legs buckled and the blue eyes started to close.


"'siah?" Vin rasped, strangely he was relieved not surprised or worried. When the strong arms caught him, he surrendered fully. "Thank God."

"Funny thing," Josiah marveled, easily lifting the injured and freezing young man. "I was just thinking that myself."

He carried Vin to the altar and gently set him down on the woolen carpet. He moved quickly, taking the altar cloth and the thick suede rug that had fur on the other side. He folded the small cloth and gently wiped the blood and water from the icy face. His skin was frozen, but he was breathing well. He used the second cloth as a pillow, gently easing Vin's head onto it. He looked so young, his short hair only added to the youthful face. His hand gently stroked the red cheek, the lump in his throat nearly choking him.

"Vin? Please son, open your eyes. I'm so sorry... as God as my witness... I'd..." He paused when a hand came up and fumbled, hitting his chest, groping until it reached his cheek.

" cause fer that..." Vin whispered, when his fingers found the wet cheek. He opened his eyes and blackness met them. He gripped the back of Josiah's neck and gave a tug. "He brung me here... t'find ya."

"Who?" Josiah asked, wondering how Vin ended up half frozen and injured in the middle of nowhere in the same church where he himself was renewing his soul. "Chris?"

"No... the Lord." Vin sat up and got dizzy, he fell against the strong chest and welcomed the arms that embraced him. "I know how busted up ya are... ya know this Jo'siah Sanchez... I got nothin' inside m'heart but hope. We need t'talk about what happened that night..."

"Vin, as God as my witness, if I could bring your sight back, take away the horror and brutality of what I've done. You've been on my mind every day, I pray for you, for your forgiveness," he choked and saw a smile born then, so beautiful it stole his breath. Vin moved and made a fist, tapping his chest and solidifying his brotherhood. To have that capacity of love and forgiveness inside, to have that noble a heart rendered him speechless. His tears fell; he'd never felt so humbled in his entire life.

"Bucklin brung me," Vin stated, his voice fretted with worry causing the words to come out too fast and furious. "We hit a deer and run off the road. He's trapped in the car in water. He's hurt and can't get out. The water's comin' in. I got here as fast as I could." He grabbed Josiah's collar, his voice filled with anxiety. "Ya gotta git 'im out... he needs ya..."

"Slow down, Vin," Josiah soothed. "Buck and you were alone in the car?" The wet head bobbed once. "How far, Vin?"

Vin moved and pushed his watch, waiting for the time to sound. "Twenty minutes, but I was walkin' bad and kept fallin'. I tied m'red scarf t'the tree, so's ye'll see it clear. He's hurt bad, the water was comin' in. I couldn't git 'im out, I tried."

"Shhh!" Josiah soothed, moving his hand through the short, wet brown hair. "It's alright, Vin, you did fine. You found help and marked your trail. I'll take care of the rest."

Buck, the name struck Josiah as he eased Vin back onto the blanketed altar and covered him with he fleecy blanket. He'd not thought of Buck much, not sure of how to handle the rage and anger that consumed his former friend. He understood Buck's hatred, caused by seeing a friend struck down by the hand of another. He perhaps understood it a little too well. Why would Buck come here? Was Buck ready to reach out as well? Had he brought Vin here? Or was it the younger man's wishes being fulfilled? A raspy call broke his stupor

"Ya still here? He ain't got that much time, 'siah, ya need t'go," Vin begged. "Please... he could die."

"No, Vin, I won't let him die," Josiah said automatically before he thought on it. "You keep still; you have a nasty bump over your eye. You rest and try to keep warm. I'll find Buck and get help, okay?"

"It's alright," Vin managed through his chattered teeth. "I brung Hope with me, she's been flitterin' her wings somethin' awful. She'll keep ya company." Vin noted and snagged the hand in his own. "Ya go with God, preacher. I'm right here, now and ferever."

"Oh, God," Josiah choked, unable to support the overwhelming faith and support he was being showered with. He nodded his gray head, tucked Vin's hand under the warm blanket and heard the deep sigh as the blue eyes shut. He raised his eyes to the cross then and the Lord's only son. "You hold him close, okay, he's very special." He thought a moment and then put both hands on Vin's damaged eyes. "By all that's holy and by all the love that you have shown to me, heal him. Take whatever you wish from me, my life, if that is what it warrants, but give him his sight back. Don't let this innocent lamb pay for my sin."

Nathan cursed soundly again as the traffic ceased to move. At least the police were understanding and had taken Lauren from the car. But he was stuck in the center of three lanes of traffic not moving. A tractor trailer had overturned somewhere ahead and all the lanes were shut down. He'd heard from Lauren when she reached the ER, she was worried about Josiah. Nathan was tempted to move the car to the shoulder, leave it and walk back. The phone ringing caused him to jump.


"Nathan?" Josiah said, "I don't have much time. Listen carefully."

"Josiah? What's wrong? Whaddya mean you got no time?" He panicked then, fearing that the shaken soul at the graves of his family was ready to join them. "Don't do anything stupid."

"What?" Josiah frowned then realized what Jackson meant. "No... no... brother, Buck's hurt and trapped in a car that went off the road. Vin found me and ..."

"Buck? Vin? What are you talking about?"

"Vin stumbled into the church, damn near frozen. He said Buck brought him here and they hit a deer. The car went off the road. I called 911. Nathan, I'm almost there. Vin tied a scarf to a tree. I don't know this road, it's the one that is south of the church, it's narrow. The car!" He paused and squinted down, seeing the headlights in the water. "It's in the water and won't last long. I can see Buck but he's not moving. You have to get help, Nathan. Even if I get him out, he'll be hypothermic."

"Alright, how far from the church?"

"A half mile or so," Josiah replied. "Vin's at the church. Hurry, brother." "You got it," Nathan answered, easing his car into the left lane and then to the shoulder. He got out and eyed the road ahead, spotting a state trooper. "Bingo!"

Josiah tucked his phone away and began the slow descent to the car. He kept calling Buck's name over and over, but got no reply. The car was teetering and as he touched it, near Buck's window, it moved. He knew that Nathan would find help but doubted if Buck could wait. The water was rushing in fast. He sucked in his breath and held on, letting it out slowly when the car halted. Buck's chest was rising and falling but the water was at his knees. Josiah knew he didn't have much time. He gingerly reached through the broken glass to unlock the door. The car shuddered but didn't move. He eased his hand down and unlatched the door first and then the seat belt. He let out a deep sigh of relief and heard a moan.

"Buck? Buck can you hear me?"

"Mmmm... hmmm...." Buck managed to reply. He was cold and hurt and couldn't think beyond that.

"Good. I'm going to open the door now." Josiah stated, keeping one hand on Buck's coat collar. "Stay with me, Buck."

"'s'cold..." Buck moaned.

"I know, brother, I know." Josiah tugged the door open in one motion and held onto the inert body. The car slid and he grit his teeth, holding onto the heavy, water-laden Wilmington. They all spilled into the water and Josiah shielded Buck as best he could. He swallowed too much water and coughed and sputtered, the coldness was unbearable.

The cold water caused Buck's dulled senses to snap back to life. In a span of a few moments, a whirl of motion and a rush of events happened. He saw the car moving in the water and someone was protecting him from the moving vehicle. Then he felt the arms guide him in one push towards the shore. The current was strong and up to his neck. He turned to see the face of his 'enemy' appear in the water. It happened so fast he didn't have time to react. Josiah was the one who pulled him from death's grip. He saw the car carried away and shuddered not from the cold but from what could have been. Then he felt Josiah let go and the cold slap of reality set in. The talons dug into his chest good and he moved then, latching his arm onto the one slipping away from him.

"No!" Buck roared over the churning water. "Damn you preacher, you ain't gonna drown on me. I got a score to settle with you. You hear me?"

"You can't, Buck," Josiah denied, hearing David calling him from the other side. He was still coughing up water and sluggish. It was a powerful lure. Was that the reason they were all brought to this space in time? Was his life to be given to save that of a man who despised him for his supreme cowardice? "Let go."

"Fuck you!" Buck denied, steeling himself to the pain that ripped through his injured chest.

"You're not... strong... enough..." Sanchez argued as the water carried them dangerously close to the perilous part of the deep. "I'm ready... to go."

"You ain't gonna die on me now. I got words to say to you, for what you did to Vin."

"Let go, Buck." Josiah struggled and was surprised at the fact Buck had such a good grip around his neck.

"No," Buck coughed and used his free hand to grope until he saw a low hanging tree limb approaching. "Hang on!"

"What?" Josiah said just as he heard Buck scream and then something hard hit his head and everything went black.

Vin opened his eyes slowly, his fingers roamed a woolen surface. He frowned and sat up, shivering slightly in damp clothes. He smelled mustiness and age in a place that was old, very old. It came back to him then, the accident and trip that Fate's guiding hands had wrought. Josiah had gone to get Buck. Vin pushed his watch and nodded, it had been a half hour, he would have found Buck by now.

"He'll be okay," he said aloud to reassure himself. A sound caught his ear and he cocked his head, turning it slowly. "Somebody there?"

It sounded again, the wonderful tinkling that comes when you hear a child laugh. It was a joyous sound, rich peals of laughter filled with love. It surrounded him, tickling his chin and beckoning him to follow. He knelt up and then stood, walking slowly using his arm to guide him. The sound got stronger and he bumped into the altar, skimming it to the left. He felt chairs and a wall and then his hands found a door. The laughter was on the other side.

"Who's there?" he called out as he opened the door.

There was a railing and steps, he took them slowly, the sound of the child's voice was a powerful lure. With each step he got closer, the rich voice filling him with warmth that was far beyond healing. Finally, he touched down and walked ahead, until his hands met a large crate with odd markings. He moved his fingers over then and frowned. The giggling seemed to be coming from inside.

"Ya in there? How'd ya git in there? Hey, I'm talkin' t'ya!" Vin warned, tugging the door of the crate open. The force of the contents exploded before him in a brilliant array of colors. Golden beams of light appeared and he fell to his knees. A choir began to sing somewhere faraway in a language he was not familiar with but it was so beautiful, he wept. Then from the dazzling golden light, a little boy stepped forth, the same angel that visited him a few days ago. The smile the child wore was so full of love it overwhelmed him. The child moved towards him, then enfolded himself in Vin's arms and at once Vin knew who he held and why he was so very special. He hugged the boy close, weeping and oddly his tears were burning. So much so he struggled to release his hands to wipe them. But before he could the twin hands of the small boy did it for him. He fell back, curled up and felt one small hand on each eye. The burning stopped and he blinked up in wonderment. The blackness that had colored his world for so long was gone. The enchanted child kissed him then and snuggled close.

"David?" Vin sighed, holding the miracle close.

Part Twenty

With a terrific shuddering gasp, his head broke through the cold water. The frigid air slapped his face hard, causing the groggy man to blink in confusion. For a few scattered seconds, he had no idea where he was or what had happened. Then a body surfaced near him and it all came back. Josiah was face down in the water and Buck moved on instinct. He snaked an arm out and snagged the coat collar, flipping the larger man over.

"Shit... shit..." he hissed, as his injured ribs screamed in protest.

His limbs were going numb and he had precious few minutes left before they'd both go under. So he used his free hand and moved towards the shoreline. Lucky for them it was only a few yards away. The numbing cold was brutal, his face was frozen and he felt dizzy. Grunting, coughing and wheezing, he finally felt his knees hit something hard. Unable to stand, he crawled until he felt the dirty snow under his hands. He dropped down, releasing his cargo. For a few seconds, it was all he could do not to panic and fought to find his breath. Finally, he turned his face and heard a cough. Sighing hard, he nodded, Josiah wasn't dead.


A curious reaction and one that totally surprised him. He'd carried the rage and bitterness for so long that it was almost consuming. But when faced with losing Josiah Sanchez, when the Grim Reaper appeared in the dark current, he'd fought hard to win. He didn't want Josiah to die. Yes, he was still very angry and that would have to be resolved. But the relief he now felt when the other man began to sputter and cough up water was genuine. That conflicted with what he thought was inside of him. Or did it? He was too hurt and cold to think on it anymore.


Josiah pushed his aching body to his knees and turned away, throwing up water and bile. He rubbed the knot on his head over his eye and winced. Finally, he wheezed and turned to where the younger man was quietly lying on the ground. His eyes were slits, but there was no hiding the disdain that spilled forth, angry and bottled rage that was held for him alone. He understood too well the depths of the heated emotion that was perhaps the very same fuel that drove Buck Wilmington to make the decision he had.

"I'm sorry, Buck, I know you hate me now for what..."

"Save... your... breath..." Buck whispered, "I... got... nothin'... to... say... to... you..."

"I think your actions spoke for you," Josiah replied, pulling out his cell phone. He was glad he'd taken the time to slip it back inside its leather case and zipper it. He dialed Nathan and waited.


"Josiah?" Jackson's voice flooded the phone in waves of relief. "Where are you? We found the hill and the deer, some glass..."

"North of you, not far, shine your flashlight," Josiah said, watching the bobbing light. "Keep comin' brother, follow the riverbank. Buck's hurt, we need an ambulance."

"You okay?"

"Yeah, thanks to Buck," Josiah replied, "He saved my life."

Nathan didn't answer; rather he looked at the phone and tucked it away. He kept his eyes trained ahead and kept flashing that light. Just as he saw movement ahead, the state trooper with him cried out.

"There they are!"


Buck's head moved and he blinked himself awake at the sound of a familiar voice. His fuzzy eyes told him he had to be hallucinating. How could Nathan Jackson be kneeling over him? His lips tried to form the name but he had no strength left.

"Easy, Buck," Nathan soothed, running his trained hands over Buck's legs. "I don't think you broke anything. How's your chest?" He watched Buck's bluish lips forming the letter 'r'. "Ribs?" He saw the wet head nod. "You got a nasty cut on your head, you keep still. Try t'stay awake."

"ETA is five minutes, hang on buddy, okay," the state trooper advised, pulling a blanket out from the black bag he'd brought from the trunk.

"Nathan, I'll wait here with Buck, you have to go to the church, Vin's all alone and he's hurt." Josiah moved closer to Buck and felt a sharp pain when the injured man tried to move away from him.

"Okay, I'll go find Vin." Nathan turned to the trooper. "You send a wagon t'the church, we got another man down."

"Will do," the trooper replied, tucking the warm blanket around Buck.

Nathan entered the old church cautiously, not wanting to startle Vin Tanner. Josiah mentioned Vin being hurt and coupled with the loss of sight, he wanted to be extremely careful. He flashed the light over the solemn walls and aged floors, adjusting his eyes to the dim light. His beam caught a blanket near the altar and he moved forward.

"Vin? It's Nathan... Vin?"

Puzzled by the lack of a body, he squatted down and felt around the blankets. The spot where his missing friend had been was wet. Maybe he'd heard someone? Was he confused and searching for Josiah? He wasn't outside, there was only one door and he'd not seen the slim Texan on his way inside. He moved the light to the altar and beyond and saw a set of muddy footprints.

"The hell did you go..." his voice trailed off as he set out to follow the tracks. "Vin!"

Vin sighed deeply, his eyes drinking in all they could of the shimmering gold surrounding him. The music was beautiful, the air was sweet and he was so happy here, he didn't want to leave. The pure and unadulterated bliss that filled him defied description. The child in his arms was so full of unconditional love that it was warming his own heart to full capacity. The reddish curls bobbed as the boy clapped and sang along with the choir of angels. Then his blues eyes grew bright and he looked beyond the golden horizon. Vin turned his attention there and found his lips moving; repeating the word he heard the boy whispering.

"Huh?" Nathan paused when he heard Vin's voice.

It was coming from behind a large crate with odd markings on it. He pulled the door open and spotted his young friend. There in the hay and straw of the huge container in front of the life-sized figures of Joseph and Mary was the unconscious Tanner. The former sharpshooter was curled up on his side at their feet; his casted arm cradled the infant Jesus. It was as if they were standing guard over him. The protective hold Vin had on the child caused Nathan to pause for a moment. The sculpture was beautiful and held tightly and reverently against Vin's heart. Then he put the flashlight on top of the framed crated door and saw Vin's face. The look of absolute peace and tranquility before him left him speechless. He squatted down and felt for a pulse, relieved to find it strong. Then he gently tapped Vin Tanner's face.

"Vin? Can you hear me?"

"Lu..da... Lu...da... Lu...da..."

"Huh?" Nathan moved closer trying to figure out what the odd words that were being mumbled were.

It was too drafty in the cellar for the cold, wet, injured man and Nathan didn't miss the lump and cut over Vin's eye. He wanted to move Tanner upstairs and gently tried to pry the baby from Vin's arms. That was met but a surprising show of strength. The light brown eyebrows screwed together and the face twisted in fear. The damp shorn locks shook with the head in denial.

"No! No!" Vin shielded David against an unseen force that was trying to separate them. The little boy fought as well, keeping his eyes on the horizon and repeating his mantra. Vin knew it wasn't time to go yet and fought back.

"Alright, Vin, calm down, I won't hurt you," Nathan soothed, still puzzled by the odd words. "Loo Dah?" He couldn't figure out what Vin was trying to say. Maybe his friend has suffered another concussion. Coupled with the severe brain bruise only weeks old, that could mean his speech has been altered. "Shit... shit..."

He rose and stood, pulling out his phone. He didn't want to take any unnecessary chances, especially if something inside Vin's head was damaged or bleeding. He called Josiah and asked about the ambulance.

"It's just arrived, they' loaded Buck inside. Did you find Vin? Is he alright? I spoke with him before I left, he was weak but..."

"He spoke to you? You understood him?"

"Yeah, why?" Josiah's gray brows drew together in confusion.

"He ain't makin' any sense, his words are garbled. I'm worried about his brain bruise."

"Lord... I never thought of that... I should have called 911 and gotten him help."

"You got room in that van? Have them swing by..." Nathan decided and heard the preacher speaking to the medics.

"We're on our way, Nate."

"We're down in the cellar," Jackson updated and knelt back down. "Vin? Come on now, open them eyes for me." He huffed in annoyance when Vin's face screwed up again and he recognized the defiant features. The body curled up tighter, his shoulder drawing even closer and the baby was now completed shielded. 'I ain't gonna take 'im from you, just open your eyes. I know you can hear me, Vin Tanner."

"Lu...dah... lu...da... lu...da..."

"I can't understand you, Vin," Nathan pleaded, tapping the rosy cheeks. He laid his hand against the warm flesh and worried on a fever. "Just your luck, you picked up a fever. Come on, Vin."

"Lu...da..." Vin insisted.

It was only a few moments later when Nathan heard a booming voice from upstairs. He called out to Josiah and heard the heavy footsteps just behind him. He stood and greeted his friend, who was just ahead of a paramedic.

"His vitals are all good but he's warm, I think he's got a fever coming on. He's not making any sense, he can hear me but he can't speak." Nathan knelt by the medic who was taking Vin's vital signs. He at temped unwisely to move the statue of the Infant and the rebellion erupted. It was then the prone body began to thrash, seeking to break free of the grip of the EMT.

"Hey!" the medic warned. "Calm down, buddy, I'm not going to hurt you."

"Vin? Can you hear me?" Josiah bent down over the medic's shoulders. At the sound of his voice, the slim Texan ceased movement. But his breathing became rapid, his eyes darted rapidly under closed lids and he began to gasp.

"Lu...da... lu..da... lu..da..."

"See, that's the only damn thing he'll say. I'm not sure if..."

"Jesus God in heaven!" Josiah gasped, nearly falling over. Had it not been for Nathan, his trembling knees would have given out. His face lost all color and his head began to spin. How was it possible? God had finally heard his prayer and the reply had been sent on the wings of another gentle soul with blue eyes.

"Josiah? You gonna pass out?" Nathan asked and the medic stood up to assist him.

"No... no... I... I... my God..." Josiah whispered, kneeling down and moving one badly shaking hand to Vin Tanner's cheek. He gently stroked the flushed cheek, swallowing the lump in his throat. "David?"


"You understand him?" Nathan asked, completely lost. "What's he sayin'?"

Josiah couldn't reply, his smoky eyes went to the immediate area surrounding the fallen man. He felt the change in the air; it was as if it crackled. Had it been a color it would have been brilliant blue, like his lost son's eyes. His wide gaze swept near and far, his heart so full he thought for sure it would explode in his chest. The soft drawl continued to speak the word, one he cherished above all others and one he'd not heard in twenty-five years. Not since that fatal day when his anger and wrath had sent his only son to Heaven's gate.

"I'm here, David, I'm right here," he choked, answering the call.

Only Tess knew what it meant, he'd never told another living soul. Yet here on the dusty pile of hay at the feet of the holiest of families, his spirit was reborn. He eased Vin up against his chest. With a fierce pride, he held onto Vin and the child, tears ran freely down his face. He rocked the unconscious man, grieving deeply. The mists of time parted and he was in the street again, cradling his dead son, so he repeated the words spoken on the fateful day. This time, unlike then, they were heard.

"I'm sorry, David, I'm so sorry. I love you, son. Know that I always loved you."

Vin moved then, the child had instinctively known it was time to go. He released the little boy who jumped joyously into his father's arms. The love that poured from father and son was a sight to behold. Josiah swept the boy into a deep embrace and spoke from his heart. Words buried far too long sprung forth. The key was in the lock, it turned and the healing rays exploded into a supernova. He sighed once and closed his eyes, his own heart full of pride at his completed mission.


"I love you too," Josiah answered the weak and final rasp. With that Vin went limp, finally relinquishing the death grip he had on the statue. Josiah tenderly replaced the infant by his mother and moved as the second medic arrived to transport Vin. "Would you look at that?"

"What?" Nathan asked of the newly arrived EMT's query.

"The baby, the statue, it looks like it's crying. Guess some of that river water on your friend must have hit it."

Nathan moved to where Josiah was now kneeling by the infant, his wide eyes watching the tears rolling down the statue's face. Something told him that moisture wasn't from Vin Tanner's clothes. Whatever happened in this small cellar in the aged house of God during the holiest time of the year was a miracle. He didn't want to disturb Josiah, but they had to go.


"I'm ready," Sanchez answered, blessing himself and taking the hand offered. "He was here, right here... right here..."

"I uh..." Nathan began eyeing Josiah's outstretched arms.

"David, Nathan, I felt him, I touched him, he was in my arms. Vin... found him... Vin... brought him... to... me. How do I thank... after what I did to..."

"Easy now," Nathan comforted the choked voice and watched the large man wipe his wet eyes, he was trembling badly. "You need t'get t'that hospital. You probably got a concussion, hypothermia..."

"Luda," Josiah whispered, walking slowly towards the stairs. He paused and faced his best friend, resting a hand on his shoulder. "That was how... David couldn't speak well... at night... when I'd pray with him... tuck him... in... he'd hug me... and... he'd say... Luda..."

"Luda?" Nathan repeated, every inch of his skin tingling and his hair standing on end.

"His way of saying 'I love you Da'," Josiah choked, shaking his head. "Nathan, I never told anyone that. Tess heard him say it a couple times but I don't think she knew..." He reached the top of the stairs and paused at the altar, eyeing the cross on the wall. "Don't you see Nathan?" He knew now that his dream of Vin and David together was indeed a prophecy. "Vin found David and led him home... he can rest now. He's been waiting too... all this time. In my selfish... I... never..." He turned away then as the medic appeared and ordered them to hustle.

"And a child shall lead them," Nathan quoted of the miracle he'd witnessed.

"Amen, brother, Amen," the humbled man agreed.



Chris's groggy voice was a duo of Excedrin P.M's narcotic and his annoyance at having been roused from a deep sleep. He glanced at the clock and frowned, sat up and picked up the phone. He fumbled it twice and finally got a good grip.

"Hello?" Nathan asked and heard a string of mumbled curses. "Chris? Are you there?"

"What's wrong?" Chris was now awake, the light was on and he blinked against the harsh invasion on his eyes.

"I'm at the Ocean Gate Medical Center, Buck and Vin were in an accident."

"They okay? What happened?"

"Sudden storm kicked up, icy roads, a deer jumped in front of the car, Buck hit it and they went down a hill into a river."


Chris was sitting up now, a hand snaking into his bedside table for a pen and notebook. He flipped the black book open and cradled the phone between his neck and shoulder. He listened as Nathan gave sketchy details and wrote down all he could. Something in the other man's voice gave him pause.

"You sure they're all okay? You're not leaving anything out?"

"Well... something odd happened in the church. I'll tell you about it tomorrow. I wanted you t'know now so you could check into an early flight."

"Okay." Chris was more than curious about the mystery but the important thing was the three men were expected to recover. "So, Buck's getting his chest x-rayed but they think his ribs are broken? Exposure and a concussion? Josiah's being kept overnight for observation, Lauren sprained her ankle and Vin might have re injured his head?"

"Well, they don't think so, the tests were negative but he's still not awake. They're a little worried. He's also got a fever and some congestion."

"Caught himself a damn Tanner cold," Chris groused. "Okay, thanks Nate. If there's any change, you call me, never mind the time. You call me back by 6 a.m if not sooner, okay? I'll know my plans by then."

"Will do," Nathan answered, then took a bag with sandwiches and coffee from the diner cashier and made his way back across the street to the hospital. He didn't know what the morning would bring but something told him when the dawn broke over the horizon, the sun would shine like it hadn't since Vin's trauma had occurred. Would the sun finally shine for his best friend again? Was Josiah finally healed?

With a slow and lazy yawn, he blinked himself awake. He coughed several times, his headache and wheezing telling him he'd acquired a cold. The sky was peeking through the window; its gown was a glorious shade of rose with golden sashes. It was framed nicely by the pale green walls of the room. Frowning, he moved his eyes around the unfamiliar place. There was a television suspended from a steel arm in the ceiling, a small chest of drawers and another bed. He moved his own bed upright, pressing the button by his fingertips. Only then did he see his roommate. Dark hair over a moustached pale face, an IV running into an arm coupled with a bruised and swollen cheek told him who it was.

"Bucklin?" he whispered then the full gravity of what was occurring hit him hard. "Bucklin... I can see 'im. Shit! shit!"

Vin fell back against the pillows and swallowed hard. His heart was hammering so hard he moved his good hand there to catch it as it drove through his chest wall. His throat went dry and it was hard to swallow. He closed his eyes, said a quick prayer and waited. Surely this wasn't a dream; he was awake. He knew the difference. He could smell coffee from somewhere through the doorway and he could hear the buzz of the nurses voices. Taking a very shaky breath, he opened his eyes again.

"God, it's real," he rasped.

His vision had been restored! The events of the prior night unfolded before him again, displaying themselves with the full grace with which they had originally been bestowed. It all came back to him, the flight from the accident and the hurried trip up a dark and unknowing road, stumbling badly into the church and being caught by Josiah and the trip down the stairs into the cellar and the encounter with David. Josiah's only son, the son of a carpenter turned preacher, had restored his sight. Oh, he knew the doctors would say different, using scientific measures but he knew he had been the recipient of a miracle born in the glow of the most Holy Family on the event of the holiest day of the year. He felt his eyes burning with tears and sighed hard, unable to control himself. He raised his wet eyes to the window and found a place just beyond the horizon. He could almost hear the musical laugh as the golden boy skipped among the clouds.

"Thank ya, David," he whispered, tapping his heart. "Yer Pa, I'll keep an eye on 'im, ya rest easy now."

He knew he should ring the buzzer for the nurse. They would want to summon a doctor and that meant tests. He wasn't ready for a lot of strangers poking at him just now. He glanced at his silent partner slumbering peacefully and he knew without question who would shortly be walking through that doorway; a brooding man with fair hair and stormy green eyes. That was who he had to share his miracle with first, for without Chris Larabee, he wouldn't have survived this terrible trek.

And he waited.

Atlantic County
New Jersey

It was just after eleven when Chris finally arrived. The predawn flight from Denver through Atlanta had landed in Philadelphia shortly before ten a.m. A commuter flight to Atlantic City had Nathan waiting for him. Chris saw the tall man easily, his six foot six frame hovering above the other visitors in the airport. Just as he tried to catch Nathan's eye, his cell phone rang.

"J.D.?" Chris spoke into the phone, while waving to Nathan to get his attention.

"Chris? How's Buck? How's Vin?"

"I don't know yet, I'm not at the hospital. I'm at the airport with Nathan, hold on..."

"Chris, you did great time wise, you got here fast," Nathan held out his hand.

"How are they? Anything new?"

"Josiah was released this morning. Lauren's got him at the Days Inn. She wanted to talk to him about what happened." Nathan paused to put Larabee's luggage in the rental car. "Buck, he's doing better. He's got a grade 2 concussion and two broken ribs. His whole chest is bruised and he's sore as hell. They hope to release him later today; they want to do a couple more tests."

"You listening, J.D.?" Chris asked, having held the phone out.

"Yeah, thanks, Chris. What about Vin?"

"Vin?" Chris relayed, sliding into the passenger seat. His hopes died a bit when Nathan's face turned and it was somber. "Nate?"

"I don't know, Chris. His vital signs are good, all the tests are negative, but he hasn't woken up yet. He's got a fever, a chest full of congestion, but they're a little concerned."


"Chris?" J.D. pressed. "Ezra and me are due in court this afternoon. We outta be done by four or so. Keep us posted, okay?"

"I'll call you tonight, then." Chris turned the phone off and sat back hard. Why wouldn't Vin wake up?

Chris paused in the doorway of the hospital room, his anxious eyes moving from one bed to the other. Despite the fact the nurse had updated him, advising him that both of his friends were fairing well, he felt better now seeing them. He moved to Vin's bed first, noting the fever flushed face and the wheezing. A croaking whisper drew his head to the other bed.


"You look like shit, stud," Larabee commented, leaving Vin to go to Buck Wilmington's bedside.

"Cruel turnaround... .me lookin' up at you for a change," Buck groaned, eyeing the weary face above him. "What time is it? When'd you get here?" he paused, eyeing the room with confused eyes, "for that matter, where the hell is here?"

"Ocean County Medical Center." Chris drew up the spare chair and sat down, pulling a large coffee from a bag. He offered it over but the dark head shook sideways. "You and Vin were in an accident last night."

"Vin?" Buck whispered, his head hurt and fire in his chest told him his ribs were injured. Gingerly, he turned to see the younger man sleeping. "He okay?"

"Yeah," Chris replied, eyeing Tanner briefly. "He hasn't woken up yet, they're not sure why. But all his tests were negative. You got yourself a concussion and some busted ribs."

"You ought to feel it from this end," Buck rasped, running his hand over his throat. He heard the chair move and then the sound of water. A straw nudged his lips and he parted them, nothing ever tasted finer. "Thanks," he rasped, his hand moving for the button to raise the bed more.

"I got it," Larabee spoke up, moving to press the button. He heard the painful sigh of relief and halted it. 'Better?" The head dipped once. "They're holding you for observation, but they seem confident you'll be released later. You remember anything?"

"Uh... uh..." Buck closed his eyes and covered them with his hand. Fleeting images appeared of a dark road and a deer. "A deer... never saw... it..."

"Its hoof clipped your head. You're lucky, I knew a guy that got killed almost the same way." He wondered if Buck remembered anything else, especially about saving Josiah's life. "Nathan's here..."

"Yeah, seems I recall him bending over me... on a... river... bank?" Buck guessed and then his eyes shot open. Something else came to mind and it upset him. "Josiah was there... in the water... he pulled me out of the car."

"You saved his life, that's how he told it to Nathan." He wondered if that changed the bitterness his oldest friend had been housing about Sanchez. "You want to talk about it?"


Buck's clipped reply didn't match the confusion Chris saw in the dark blue eyes. He knew the other man was struggling with what had transpired. As much as he harbored anger at Josiah for what he'd done to Vin, his actions in the river were unselfishly heroic. Eventually, he'd have to come to terms with that.

"Vin... he got help?" Buck guessed, vaguely recalling the Texan leaving the wreck.

"He sure did." Chris paused to sip his coffee and frowned. "I'm not a very religious person, but I think a Higher source was at play here." He waited until Buck's odd gaze fixed on his own. "Vin stumbled up a dark road to the only building within miles, an old church that's been closed for awhile. He found a single person inside, also seeking shelter from a different kind of storm."

"Josiah?" Buck guessed and saw the blond head dip once. "Helluva coincidence."

"I'm not so sure, Buck. Josiah was there because that's where David is buried. He was saying goodbye. Vin... he knew somehow, Buck. You remember how adamant he was about going. I wanted him to wait, he insisted. From what Nathan said, Vin was in a dream state of sorts when they found him. Josiah, he heard David calling him through Vin."

Buck grimaced, partially because he was in pain but a part of him also didn't want to hear about Josiah. He closed his eyes and breathed gingerly, coughed, gripped the rail and felt a hand on his shoulder. It was like breathing with razors in his chest. The images of the accident and the trauma in the water wouldn't die. They continued to nag at him. As if sensing where his distress came from, a calm voice broke through his storm.

"Spit it out, Buck," Chris advised, reading the guilty eyes, "before you choke on it."

"Look, Chris," Buck wheezed a wobbly warning just as a nurse and an orderly appeared.

"Mister Wilmington? You have a Cat Scan scheduled." The nurse saw the anxious blond man appraising the man in the bed. "He won't be long."

Chris just nodded and moved back, allowing Buck to be taken away. He'd hoped that Buck would allow himself to forgive and move on. It was clearly eating away at him and whatever it was he hoped would be gone when they left for home. While Buck was getting a new set of pictures done, he moved back to Vin's side.

Quietly, he opened his eyes, allowing them to roam around the room. It wasn't a dream! The miracle had truly been born in that old church. He recalled the child's face and the gentle touch on his eyes. Swallowing hard, he absorbed the full wave of the incredulous event. His eyes caught denim pants through the rail and he turned his head slowly. There, just a couple of feet away, was a very drawn face. The haggard features were complimented by dark circles under haunted green eyes. Beyond the unshaven pale face, he saw the weight loss and signs of illness. It hit him hard then, as if Ali had nailed him in round ten. He fell just as staggered by the force of a swift and sure invisible blow. For one human being to care that much, to sacrifice so very much of his heart and soul for another left him stunned. The extent to which Chris Larabee suffered for him was something he never wanted to forget. He carefully wrapped the image and tucked it inside his box. So he would always remember just how much this man meant to him.

Thank you.

Two simple words yet he felt they were dreadfully inadequate. What words would possibly come close to giving even a small portion of that feeling back? He continued to examine the worn profile, even noticing the usually well groomed Larabee needed a haircut and his shirt and sweater were wrinkled. But the eyes, they burned a hole so deep it had no bottom. It was then, in the quiet of the moment, he saw his own soul shimmering brightly at him in the center of those distressed pale eyes. He opened his mouth to say the name, the one name he'd been clinging to all this time. But his congested lungs had other plans.

A series of wet sneezes and coughs drew the pondering leader to his feet. He scrunched his face up in annoyance when Vin littered his shirt with airborne evidence of the infection. He found a grim smile when the familiar drawl sounded between sneezes.


" hell..."


" hell..."


" hell..."

"You caught yourself a damn Tanner cold," Chris updated the reddened, watery eyed soul in the bed.

Vin paused, hunched his shoulders and narrowed his wet eyes preparing for another onslaught. "Helluva way t'wake up, snots flyin' the hell all over," he complained just as another monster sneeze erupted.

"Dammit Vin, would you quit spraying me?" Chris grumbled, shoving a box of tissues into the hand of the runny-nosed Texan.

"Shut the hell up!" Vin snapped, grabbing the box and taking care of business. Once completed, he eyed the small trash can near Chris's boot and tossed the sodden tissues away. "Ya got balls sassin' me, yer face could haunt a house." He watched as Chris splashed water on his sweater to remove the offensive residue. "Nice hair, seen scarecrows with a better cut." He felt his throat tighten then, as the gravity of the miracle once again settled on his wheezing chest. His voice was shaking but he got it all out. "Ya look like shit, cowboy."

"Fuck you, Tanner!" Chris retorted and then froze. His stunned face went from the cocky one before him to the trashcan and back. The tissues landed squarely in the center a perfect shot. Then it hit him, Vin Tanner was looking at him! The sky eyes were following his every movement.

He could see!

"Jesus Christ!" Chris gasped and jumped back, startled.

"Naw, still Vin," he supplied with a very sloppy grin. "But I got me an in up there now. I'll put in a good word fer ya."

"You can see!" Chris managed, still reeling from the shock.

"Yeah," Vin rasped over a tight throat. "Even yer sorry-assed face looks good." His fingers were trembling a bit but he found the button to raise the bed. He'd just about gotten upright, when his arm shot out, seeking the brotherhood grip reserved for Larabee alone. He not only got that strong arm, but the rest of the chest. He found himself lost in a damp sweater that smelled a bit from the cedar chest where it had been housed.

"Sorry," Chris managed, releasing his hold.

"Fer what?" Vin answered, still worried by the changes he saw. "If anybody needs t'be apologizin' it's me. Look what I done t'ya."

"What you did," Chris replied, hearing the guilt clearly as well as seeing it in the telltale blue eyes. He moved his hand over his chest then, "was give me back something I didn't even know I'd lost."

"Yeah," Vin agreed, nodding his head. "Near as I can figure, it happened last night in the church. David, he put his hands on m'eyes. He healed me, Chris. I don't care what kind o'tests them fuzzlebutts cook up t'prove this, I'll always know the truth."

"A real Christmas miracle," Chris pronounced.

"He's been waitin' on this time fer Jo'siah t'find 'im again. Poor lil' feller ain't been able t'rest, he's been so worried about his pa." His intense gaze fixed on Larabee's then, "That's why I hadda come now, Chris, ya understand? I couldn't explain it, but I knew it had t'be last night." "Some things are beyond explanation, Vin," the blond agreed. "Does anyone else know?"

"No, course not," Vin returned automatically. "I been waitin' on ya."

Chris swallowed hard then, feeling his face flush a bit. Sometimes the pull the lanky Texan had on him was so overwhelming it took his breath away. He wondered about miracles then and if there was a higher hand working the strings of this grand play. Why on that fateful day Vin Tanner had chased a bounty into Denver and never left. Why from the time he locked eyes on the buckskin clad stranger he'd found home. Maybe it wasn't something to question the 'whys' and 'hows' of, maybe you just accepted it and thanked God for the gift.

"Hey Chris? Where's my stuff? Can ya check m'coat? The tape..."

"It's okay, Vin," Chris replied, walking to the closet. He heard the worry in the voice and knew how much sweat the younger man put into the prose. He snaked his hand inside Vin's jacket and pulled out a thick padded envelope. "It's fine, Nathan kept it safe until you got here."

"Thanks," Vin sighed in relief, "Where is he?"

"Nathan dropped me off and went to get some sleep; he was here most of the night. Ezra and the kid are in court, I'll call one of them and tell them the news."

"Don't say nuthin' t' the others jest yet," Vin requested, eyeing the empty spot where Buck's bed had been. "Where's Bucklin?"

"Getting a CAT scan, if everything looks good, I think they'll release him."

"I want t'tell him first, don't want him hearin' it from the kid or Ezra," he requested. "Josiah?"

"With Nathan and Lauren, he got released this morning. He'll be back later today, I guess. I'm gonna update the nurse and call your doctor in Denver. "

While Chris went to inform the medical personnel of his restored vision, Vin was lost in thought. He thought of all the things he'd lost that now were restored. His career was no longer in question and he thought on the overdue conversation with Mario. His beloved mountains restored in all their glories. The sunrises he'd longed for would once again be returned to him. Jasmine would no longer remain captured in time in his mind as a toddler. He longed to see her chubby chocolate face. Kelly would be the first person he sought out when the plane landed. He couldn't wait to see her again. This time he could truly ravish her with his eyes.

He jerked in the bed when a hand touched his arm, breaking him from his deep thoughts.

"Sorry, Mister Tanner. I'm Doctor Thomas, I would like to examine your eyes if I may."

Vin nodded and suffered through the examination and listened to the additional tests he'd have done. He waited patiently while the doctor eased him from the bed and watched him walk around the room. His balance was fine, his vision was fine and he had no dizziness or other lingering effects.

"I'll let you get some rest now, after your lunch we'll take you for some testing."

"Fine," Vin replied nodding to the trio of medical personnel. "Got sprung," he noted happily to Chris of the missing catheter.

"Thanks for sharing." Chris grinned and moved towards the bed. He couldn't help notice the soft folds of tranquility blanketing his best friend's face. "Feels great, huh?"

"You can't imagine," Vin replied. "So many things I wanna do, folks I wanna see. Kelly? Chris, is she back yet? I can't recall her sayin' when she's due in." "Tonight, I have her phone number if you want to call her."

"Yeah, I'd like that."

Chris's head turned as the squeaky wheel announced in advance that Buck was returning. He saw Vin shake his head indicating not to say anything just yet.

"Vin? You okay?" Buck asked, not able to see past Larabee's back. All he could hear was severe coughing and sneezing from the other bed.

"He's complaining and tossin' germs all over the room," Chris replied, turning towards them. He moved closer to the doorway and nodded to Buck, then turned to the nurse. "How'd it go?"

The radiologist said it looked fine, but we have to wait for the doctor to sign his orders. He'll be released most likely within a couple of hours."

"Thanks," Chris said, pausing by the door as the nurse and the orderly left.

"Make yerself useful," Vin prodded, "Scare me up a proper soda. A big guzzler, half coke, half cherry coke and half vanilla coke."

"Buck?" Chris turned to see if Wilmington wanted anything.

"I'm good, Chris."

Chris paused at the door and frowned, then turned back to face the feisty sharpshooter. "Half coke... half..." he counted and shook his head. "Vin that's three halves, that doesn't add up."

"Course it does," Vin piped up, "Bucklin and the kid ain't never got a problem with m'order."

"When the hell are you gonna learn 'Vinspeak', Chris?" Buck grinned, easing his throbbing head onto the pillow. "You fill the cup half way with coke, the other half is half vanilla coke and half cherry."

"Well why didn't you just say that Vin?" Larabee's ire rose.

"I did!" Vin tossed back. "Ya ain't worth shit when yer tired and cranky."

"Really?" Chris answered, arching a sandy brow. "You start now and your ungrateful ass might hit a convenience store in a hour or so. I'm sure they'll be able to understand your order."

"Don't ferget the ice," Vin calmly replied, shutting his eyes. "Git it in a separate cup, so's I don't get cheated out o'soda."

"Shut up, Buck," Chris retorted to the laughter causing the other man to quake.

"Dammit, Vin, you're gonna kill me," Buck moaned, cradling his ribs. The look on his oldest friend's face was priceless.

Chris hadn't been gone that long when Vin had the urge to relieve himself. He peeked over and found Buck dozing, but not quite asleep. An evil grin formed on his face and he eased the rail done. Buck stirred at the sound but didn't rouse. With his sky eyes trained on the other bed, Vin rose and slowly walked over to Buck. He maneuvered until he was near Buck's chest and he began.

"Damn... m'bladders about t'bust. Where the hell is the toilet?"

"What?" Buck's eyes shot open just as Vin's pony was about to come out of the barn, "WHOA! Vin, this ain't the toilet." The laughter came first and then the handsome face turned and looked at him. Then it hit him; Vin was looking at him, the eyes were gazing, not fixed unseeingly. "... the hell..." he bobbed his head and waved his hand, Vin slapped at the hand and winked at him. "You son of a bitch, you can see?"

"Good enough t'see yer busted up hide, ya no account skirt chaser."

"When? How?"

"Last night at the church," Vin recalled and hoped to pass some of the warmth he still retained from the miracle onto his troubled friend. "It was a miracle, Buck. I passed out... I went to a beautiful place, all golden and white, air so sweet it hurt to breathe. I seen David, he put his hands on m'eyes. Ya see Buck, that's why I had t'come now, something powerful happened t'me at m'house, showed me the way here."

Buck heard the words and tried to absorb the meaning of what was behind them. He'd been raised Catholic, he knew about miracles and saints. He prayed like everyone else, more often that not when a friend was injured. He'd prayed for Vin Tanner, too. But were those prayers answered or was his friend's restored sight due to natural restoration? Hadn't that doctor who diagnosed Vin stated it was most likely temporary? Was that it? Was it a coincidence? Or had Josiah's son truly cured his blind friend. He was so lost in thought he mistakenly took a deep breath. The results were instantaneous.

"Shit... shit..." Buck lay back, his heart hammering. Pain rained down fast and hard, angry ripples of red agony exploded in his chest. He tried to find a way to rid himself of it, but that only made it worse. The movement caused another wave of pain and he sucked air in through his teeth. He felt a hand snagged onto his own, holding fast.

"Ya ain't ridin' alone," Vin softly lauded, recalling all the endless days and nights this man had spent by his own bedside. He also recalled how much grief he'd put him through and how much hell he'd caused. "'It's about time I returned the favor. Buck, I ain't got the words t'tell ya... I'm awful grateful."

"That's okay... slick..." Buck rasped, gripping the hand until the pain began to fade. "...nothing says... I... care... like... crisp, new green... b...b...bills." He kept his eyes on that wonderful smile and noted that it went clear up through Vin Tanner's eyes. The light was back, he didn't realize how much he'd missed it until he saw it again. "You plannin' on headin' for second base?" he teased of the hand hold. Vin blushed and let go, but remained by the bed. "I'm fine, Vin, you can go back to bed."

"I know," Vin replied but remained in place.

"Do me a favor?" Buck rasped, his eyes slowly closing.


"Get a robe," Buck requested, making a sour face. "quickly."

"Yer jest jealous, yer boys ain't Texas growed," Vin bragged and Buck grinned wickedly.

"I'm sure the nurses and aides in the hall will appreciate that," Buck replied and laughed as Vin turned and eyed the now empty doorway.

"Was anybody there?"

"You'll never know." Buck settled in for a nap. "But I'll bet they'll be a short parade of volunteers in here soon offerin' to bath you. Well, damn, how about that, all your cheeks blush the same color."

"Aw, hell."

Buck kept the soft drawl and the wonderful smile he'd been gifted with long after Vin dozed off. He was unable to rest and was nagged by confused thoughts of the night before. He eyed his hand and recalled just how hard he'd fought to save Josiah. He didn't want the older man to die. Yet there was clearly anger still inside. He didn't know how to make it alright again.

The afternoon passed and he and Vin were released. Chris assisted him in getting dressed and he was curious as to why Vin was taking his time. The younger man had new clothes waiting on the chair by the bed but made no move to get cleaned up or dressed. Finally, the papers were signed and he was dressed. The phone rang and Chris picked it up.

"Yeah, okay Nathan, that's fine," Larabee agreed and handed the phone over to Buck Wilmington.


"Buck? Hey I'm glad to hear you're getting released. I know you hurt like hell but I got a big favor." He heard the hurried exhalation of breath which clearly resounded with disdain and annoyance. "It's time, Buck, you can't go on like this. You're only hurtin' yourself, you know that, right?"

"So what's the deal?" Buck's voice was flat. He hurt all over and wanted nothing more than to find a soft bed.

"I'm on my way to pick up Vin," Nathan stated, "Josiah's at the church now. He and Lauren spent all day talking and he wants to pray awhile. I'd like you to stop there on your way to the hotel. Talk to him, Buck. You both need to put this behind you."

"Talk to him..." Buck repeated and saw the green eyes before him change. But the color that met his own was filled with hope and he held onto that. Deep down inside he knew that they were both right, but did he have the courage to face his own fears? He sighed hard, raked a shaking hand through his dark hair and nodded grimly. "Okay, Nathan."

"Thanks, Buck," Nate replied, then spoke to Chris briefly before hanging up.

He'd turn the car over to Larabee who would take Buck to the church. Then after dropping Buck off at the hotel, he'd return to pick them up. As badly as Vin wanted to see Josiah, he knew Buck had to see him first. Once Vin had made his peace with the preacher, they'd all be able to travel home together. It had been Chris's initial suggestion that Lauren formed into a plan and he'd agreed to.

By the time Nathan pulled into the hospital parking lot, Chris and Buck were waiting by the entry. He slipped out of driver's side as Chris assisted Buck into the passenger's seat. He turned the keys over and went around the front of the car, pausing to give Buck a warm smile. He extended his hand and waited. He was glad for the grip he received in return.

Buck remained quiet in the car, his shallow breaths now relaying just how nervous he was. It wasn't long before they reached the small church. Chris helped him get out of the car and he winced, groaning loudly as every painful bruise screamed at once. He heard the sharp intake of air next to him and opened his eyes long enough to see a flicker of doubt.

"I'm fine," he reassured the worried blond. "I won't be long, get in the car; it's too cold to be outside."

"Buck," Chris spoke quietly as the tall man jerked the door knob. "I'm proud of you."

Buck just nodded and entered the darkened house of God. He walked slowly and gazed at the old crucifix suspended over an altar. There kneeling before it was Josiah Sanchez. His heart was hammering and his palms were sweating. He gripped both into fists and tried to calm his jangled nerves.

The entry of cold air into the room caused Josiah to pause and turn. He rose, walked slowly to where Buck had stopped just a few feet away. He looked awful, his face was bruised and one cheek swollen and discolored. He knew just how much he was hurting, he'd broken more than a few ribs. He'd been praying hard for this moment and hoped that his prayers were heard. Would Buck Wilmington find it in his heart to forgive him? He took a deep breath and extended his hand.

"Hello, Buck."

Nathan kept turning and looking at Vin, or rather the light shining from his friend's cerulean eyes. The restored sight was a beautiful thing to behold, and he was sure it was tied to the church and the odd event he'd witnessed. Had David restored Vin's missing sight? Or was the return due to the reduced swelling? Hadn't the first doctor mentioned that the sight would most likely come back? Hell, what difference did it make? Vin had not only got his eyesight back but a large dose of faith. That's something everyone can use.

"We got a few minutes, Vin, are you hungry?"

"Yeah, okay," Vin agreed and they pulled into a McDonalds to get some Egg McMuffins and pancakes.

He knew from what Nathan told him, that the church was in the woods just down the road. As he climbed out of the car, he kept his eyes trained on that spot, wondering how the meeting with Josiah and Buck was going.

Buck stared at the hand and couldn't bring himself to take it, it was withdrawn. He hobbled past Josiah and eyed the crucifix, thinking on the pain that the Lord went through that day. He knew Chris was right and the look in Vin's eyes from his bed haunted him. If that man, after all he suffered and nearly lost had the compassion to forgive Josiah, why couldn't he? Why is it he saw Josiah's bloody handprint on that club? As if sensing his dilemma, a gentle voice beckoned.

" Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart," Sanchez quoted the Bible, Proverbs 3:3.

"You have all the answers, do you?" Buck's voice rang with sarcasm and he turned, seeking a pew to take rest upon. His head was throbbing and just breathing caused a fire in his ribs. "Where the hell were those words when you lost yourself in that damn bottle? You damn near killed him."

"Buck, I can't take back what I did that day, nor can I erase the memory. You can't possibly know how long and hard I grieved for Vin." He paused, taking a seat in the pew in front of the troubled younger man. He turned to face the stormy features, "And you."

"Me?" Buck's head rose and he saw the anguish in the smoky blue eyes. A ripple of compassion fluttered in his gut and he quickly killed it.

"You," Josiah declared. "Buck, to see such hatred in your heart, to feel the bitterness it's spreading through you, that I caused that..." his voice trailed off.

"How could you?" Buck's words dripped in venom. "My God, he was your friend, hell, a brother. You beat him into a bloody pulp, left him alone." He recalled with a shiver, "I thought he was dead." He picked up his open palm and examined it. "When I touched him, he pressed his face here. Human touch, contact, he moaned, Josiah, that's how much he needed to feel."

Josiah realized then that this was what Buck needed most, to get out all the fear and doubt he had about that night; to purge his own soul and breathe clean air. So he sat and listened as Buck continued to speak about that awful day and those that followed. He heard such choking agony that it left him humbled. That Vin Tanner was that loved, was truly a gift. Finally, Buck finished and sat back, taking a long deep breath and letting it out. For a few minutes, the pain was too great and he closed his eyes, warding off tears. He kept his hand over the injured ribs and heard the other man speak.

"You have no guilt to purge, Buck, the love you showered upon him that day, the ones prior and after, coursed through him in a healing cleanse. I can see it in his face, when he speaks of you."

"I should have been there," Buck whispered, allowing a lone tear to escape quickly down his cheek.

"Oh, Buck," Josiah sighed, seeing again just how much this man bled for his own. "That's just not true. Vin's not a child, he's a grown man, carrying a badge and a gun. I don't have to tell you about his instincts. I was drunk, Buck, following the same misguided path I'd been on for twenty-five long years. I have no recollection of that night, but the memory of seeing him lying in that bed, broken and discolored, that will never leave. But you have no cause for that kind of guilt, it's just not warranted."

"I'm not so sure," Buck admitted, swiping his eyes. "When he looked at me today and saw me, I can't tell you how it made me feel. All this time, I've felt like a weight was on my back."

You saved his life, Buck, realize that and hold onto it," Josiah encouraged. "It wasn't until Vin reached out to me, in the shadow of this very church, that I realized what forgiveness truly is. His heart is pure, full of hope and love. That was a large part of him healing, before his sight was restored. That forgiveness brings peace and the grace that followed was shining from his eyes. It rained down on me, Buck." He paused and rested a hand on the troubled shoulder. He was surprised when it didn't move away. "Feel that rain, Buck, it's in the air still. Embrace it, allow it to heal you."

Could he do that? Use the grace with which Vin so easily carried about the horrid incident to wash through him. Would that healing rain, take the pain away? Twenty five years. That was a long time and he wondered how Josiah survived that long bearing it. How would he have felt if he'd done something that awful? How could you live with blaming yourself for the death of your only child? He thought on the awful days after Adam died and the loss of soul in Chris Larabee. Something he could see but not truly feel. He wondered about the child, whose death preceded all of these events.

"I'm sorry about David," he blurted out, not sure where it came from.

"Thank you, Buck," Josiah nodded, taking the offering humbly. "Would you like to hear about my son?"

So he talked about his child and Buck listened. He smiled at the funny parts and felt sorrow at the sad ones. There was no excuse for what Josiah had done but forgiving him and moving back into the light, leaving his dark troubled stormy skies behind was the right direction. Finally, he stood up, nodded and smiled, hobbling to the doorway. He needed a bed, he was worn out. "Buck, I know you lost faith in me and what friendship we once had is gone. But I'd like to think that Vin's light is shining on both of us, showing us a new path. My life, my journey has taken a new road. I'd like very much for you to be a part of it." Josiah stood by the doorway and waited.

Buck reflected on Josiah's words and thought about Vin Tanner. He thought for several minutes about the courage that his young friend held. He'd caught part of that, blazing from those blue eyes, just a shade past true and felt the same fire flicker inside. It was only a small flame but it was enough for now. It was a start and he took the hand offered.

"Okay, preacher," Buck agreed softly.

Chris looked up from the window of the car when Buck and Josiah appeared just out front of the church. He held his breath for a moment when Josiah's left hand went to Buck's shoulder and the right sought his own.

"Do it, Buck," he whispered and silently exalted when Wilmington's hand took Josiah's. He saw a half smile appear on Buck's face and held onto it. "It's a start."

"I feel better," Buck admitted to his oldest friend, watching Josiah disappear inside again. "I feel his pain, I couldn't before. I couldn't see past my own shame. But that's different now. I don't totally understand what he did and why, but I'm not wearing his boots."

"No, you're not, Buck," Chris replied thoughtfully, turning the engine on. "But you're wearing that Wilmington heart, something I'm damn glad for every day."

"Thanks, pard," Buck smiled, eased his aching head back and feeling lighter and better than he had in weeks.

Vin waited a few moments before making his way to David’s grave. Josiah was kneeling beside it. Vin stood several feet away and said a prayer. He would always have a special connection to David and felt humbled to be standing on holy ground. As if sensing he was not alone, Josiah's head turned slightly and he rose.

"Sorry, didn't mean t'disturb ya," Vin offered softly.

Josiah's face broke into a wide smile and he moved over to greet his young friend. He embraced Vin and felt his heart lurch. His prayers had been answered in a way he never would have thought possible. Vin was healed in body and soul; the spirit that was renewed was so exhilarating, it encompassed him as well. Perhaps David's healing powers were still working.

"It's good to see you, Vin."

"Ya stole m'words, preacher." Vin grinned and nodded to the grave. "Can I have a minute?"

"Sure." Josiah stepped back and waited. He watched Vin kneel and bow his head, staying silent for several moments. Then Vin rested both hands on the top of the stone and nodded his head once.

As he turned Josiah stepped forward, noticing the runny eyes and the cold air. "We should go inside, Vin, you have a cold."

"It'll keep fer a minute," Vin answered, pulling out the package from his coat.

"What's that?" Josiah asked, not missing his young friend's hands trembling slightly as if the cargo he held was that precious.

"It's..." he paused, raising his face with a blessed smile, "a gift fer ya, from me and David."

"David?" Josiah's brows drew together.

"Back a little bit, I had a visit with 'im, like nothin' I ever experienced, Josiah. It was a place so beautiful it stole m'air. It's when m'healin' began. He come t'me then, I heard his song right from his heart. I found m'own need t'heal, t'sing, t'give." He held out the package. "A Song fer David."

"A song?" Josiah' cradled the gift carefully, to him it was more valuable than gold.

"Ya told me once back in the time around Jesus, them bible writers called their letters, 'songs, like a way t'speak 'joy and love and such. So I got t'thinkin' about David and our visit and I wrote fer ya, fer him, this Song fer David. I woudda wrote it down but I didn't have m'eyes yet, so I used that fancy rig Ezra has on his PC and I spoke it. We printed up copies, I brung a couple." He nodded to the package. "There's one tucked in there fer David, thought you might like t'leave one here, so he could have his own."

"Vin, I don't know what to say," Josiah's voice broke gently, scattering the snow on the tomb before him. "I've never been so moved in all my life. Thank you..." He tucked the package inside his coat next to his heart.

"Ya ain't heard it yet," Vin teased and then laid a hand on Josiah's shoulder.

"I'd like to hear it now, Vin, very much so." He paused and knelt, placing both hands on the stone. "We both would."

"Alright then," Vin decided, tapping his heart, "I got it wrote down inside." He took a good breath, eyed the beautiful blue of the sky and began to speak. The words came slowly, floating softly on a quiet drawl full of a grace untold.

"His name is David.
He is the son of Jo'siah
This is m'song fer him
He was one of God's special children
Heaven sent on the wings of a dove
To just the right arms—and a heart full o'love
Ya filled his days with joy
Yer love rained down
Coverin' him in a golden mist
Yer strong hands guided him
Keepin' his lil' ones safe and sure
Yer strong voice was the song o'his heart
The music that played in his soul and kept him warm
Yer a man o'God, His love shined through ya
It's them words ya taught him about givin' and lovin'
Offerin' an open hand t'all yer brothers and sisters
Teachin' him t'filled with love and not hate
Ya give him a gift; made him inta' a child o'God
So hear me now, J'siah
Let m'voice become his
Heed his call, he's waitin' fer yer answer
Feel his breath on yer face with every new Dawn
Feel his embrace, his unaboundin' love fer ya when the sun kisses ya
Feel his hands guide ya in the storm, when yer weary and lost
Feel his fergiveness and let that color bring light and peace t'yer darkness.
Live Josiah, Celebrate yer life
Let his love live on in ya,
Keepin' ya warm as ya did fer him.
Let this be his gift fer ya
Live... Love... Triumph"

For a few moments, Josiah was too stunned to speak. Then he began to tremble all over and his body began to quake. Tears spilled from his eyes and he sobbed, dropping his head. He felt Vin's arms on his shoulders and accepted them along with the fine gift. He rose then and embraced his friend, not trusting his voice to find the words to thank him. What words could he possibly offer? How do you thank someone for giving you your soul back?

"Vin, I wish I you could feel my heart now... it's so full... you have no idea how much... I can't even look you in the eye. "

He pulled away then, eyeing the palms of his hands. Hands just a moment ago that accepted a gift so fine it was undeterminable, hands that were brutal clubs of wrath that drew blood and caused untold pain, the same hands, yet different hands. How could Vin Tanner offer his own hand in friendship to these same hands which were used as weapons of destruction.

"God forgive me, for what I did," he sobbed, dropping to his knees.

"He done that, Jo'siah," Vin replied quietly, resting one hand on the graying head before him. "And this heart o'mine's so full it's about to bust out. Okay?"

It was okay and there was a new sun in the sky today. A golden ray of hope, the same hope that was reflected in Vin Tanner's proud heart. He was so full of compassion for his very special young man, it was that strength pouring from the blue eyes that carried him now. He lifted his eyes and found the others, seeing such grace pouring from them that the warmth invaded his heart and he felt the healing power.

"Good," Vin replied to the silent beacon. "Ya have a good visit with yer boy, I'm gonna inside t'give m'thanks proper-like." He waited until Josiah was before the grave and then he slipped inside to leave the grieving father with his only child. He heard the Texan turn away and heard the crunch of snow under his boots. For a moment, he couldn't move then he raised his eyes to the church door where one hand was slowly turning the knob.

"Brother Tanner... Vin..." he began and saw the head turn. A beam of light broke through the trees then and played off his fine features. He looked almost angelic, that slight smile reached clear through his sky eyes. "I'm sorry... I can't begin to ask for your forgiveness, but I'd like to try to start over. To make a new path we can follow together."

"Every new dawn's a gift from God," Vin replied, "The light that breaks over the mornin' sun shines on all of us. I'd like to share that with ya, follow that path." "Thank you, Vin.

Jackson house

Rain was just touching up the paint on the guest room she and Nathan were redoing, when she heard the door. She frowned, eyed the clock on the radio on the floor and climbed off the ladder. Pausing with the paint brush in her hand, she walked to the bedroom doorway.

"Honey? You here?"

"Nathan?" She put the brush in the pan, careful to cover it with a damp cloth and quickly used a pop-up cloth to wash her hands.

"Hey, sugar!" Nathan embraced his wife and kissed her cheek.

"I wasn't expecting you this early," she replied, then saw the lean figure beyond her husband's shoulder.

His back was too her, he was facing the fireplace warming his hands. Somehow that tried and true, fringed buckskin jacket and worn jeans and boots seemed so very at home on him. The short hair was still foreign; she longed to see it curling over his collar again.


"Hello Mrs. Jackson," Vin said, turning slowly and smiling. He eyed the copper and brown stains on the painter's smock, one of Nathan's old shirts. "Ya look beautiful."

"Oh My God!" she proclaimed, covering her mouth with her hands. Her words were choked by tears raining down. "You can see? Oh Vin."

"Aw, hell," Vin chuffed, tucking her into his arms. "Ain't it jest like me t'bring out yer tears."

"When?" she managed, composing herself and pulling away.

"A couple days ago, after the car wreck in the church. I went up a dark road t'git help fer Bucklin and I found a light there. a healing light comin' straight from the heart of a lil' angel fella, name o'David." He looked past her to the empty rooms.

"She's upstairs, napping," Rain answered the silent call in the roaming eyes. She knew how badly he ached to see his beloved Jasmine. She gave his sleeve a squeeze and nodded to the stairs. "Why don't you have a quick peek. I was just going to break for lunch; I have a pot of soup simmering."

"Sounds great," Vin replied, "I'd like t'tell ya about m'miracle."

"Oh, Vin, I'd love to hear that," she replied to the raspy request.

He took the steps two at a time and paused in the doorway. He walked slowly to the crib then leaned over the rails, his full heart causing his eyes to water. She was on her belly, one silken cocoa cheek smeared with the residue of the wandering thumb. He chuckled softly at the chocolate on her sleeve, something that drove Nathan nuts. Like her godfather, she loved chocolate. He watched her soft breath leaving and was awed by the wonder of it. The tiny purple ribbons in her hair, the light purple and yellow sweat suit and the tiny socks all seemed glorious to him. He couldn't get enough of her and drank in every fine feature on her face.

"I love ya, sugarplum," he whispered, his voice catching. He swiped his eyes and swallowed hard, "every inch of ya." He ran his finger lightly across her cheek and felt his chest tighten. He turned slightly when a strong hand crossed his back to catch his shoulder. "Nathan, I never knew... not until now... seein' her little face again. My God... ya can't know how much I love her."

"That's one bet you'd lose ,Vin Tanner," Nathan complimented of the undying light pouring from the Texan onto his beloved child.

Kelly arrived at Vin's in the late afternoon. Chris's initial message said that Vin and Buck were in a car accident in New Jersey. She was alarmed until she heard his voice, that soft drawl that tickled her heart and could still make her breath catch. He was fine, just a 'little dented' and was returning home this afternoon. She heard the husky tone in his voice and a series of coughs and sneezes told her he was suffering from what his best friend called 'a damn Tanner cold. So she had a large pot of home made chicken soup simmering and a loaf of crusty bread in the oven. Also, there was a triple chocolate mousse in the refrigerator. She paced around the kitchen, straightening things that weren't out of place and fixing the towels that didn't need to be moved. Nervous energy wasn't always a good thing. She needed to hold him again, to feel those arms around her, kiss those full lips.

Chris pulled the car in front of Vin's house and saw the suffering soul's congested head turn to face his beloved mountains. He got out slowly, walking to the back of his house to where he could watch the sun play tag with the snowcaps on the peaks. Chris followed him, finding a wide smile at the pure joy radiating off Vin's face.

"Ain't it somethin', Chris," Vin rasped, eyeing the majesty spread before him. "Ya got no idea how... much..."

"Yeah, I do, Vin," Chris returned quietly, "I'm glad I was here to share this with you. I know how much you missed it."

"Missed a lot o'things," Vin answered, turning to face his best friend. He looked awful; the wear and tear of the ordeal was spelled out clearly on his face. "Like what I'm seein' now. Every line o'worry I put on yer face. Seein' the pain, the weight loss, that scarecrow hair." He paused at Chris's chuckle and got his breath back. "I want ya t'know Chris Lar'bee, I'm never gonna ferget them lines and circles I'm seein' now. It ain't everyday a man gits t'see care like that etched fine..." He dropped his head and swallowed hard. "Sorry..."

"I'm not," Chris lauded quietly, moving a bit closer. "You're worth every bit of it and more." For a moment they stood side by side, watching that mighty sun and those spectacular mountains. It felt so good so right, Chris didn't want the feeling to end. But he knew there was someone else that was waiting for Vin. "Well, I gotta go. You need anything?"

"Got all I need right here," Vin proclaimed, gripping the wool-coated arm in a strong grip of brotherhood reserved for Larabee alone. "Always will." He tapped his fist over his heart and smiled when the gesture was repeated.

"Sure you don't need me to stick around, you being weak and all," Chris teased, knowing who was waiting inside. "I make a helluva pinch hitter."

"Hell, no," Vin growled, "I'll give ya m'horse, m'gun and m'saddle, cowboy, but you can't have m'girl."

"Listen, you have a full day at the medical center tomorrow, they need to clear you. Also, you have to re-qualify at the firing range and..."

"Yer a damn nag, Lar'bee, git yer ass off m'porch. Hell, I ain't even got m'ass back in the house yet."

"Monday, morning, bright and early!" Chris warned, making his way to the car as a snowball thwacked him in the butt. "Your aim is off, you need some practice."

"Depends on the target," Vin shot back, laughing and ducking in the house.



She tapped the spoon on the side of the pot and turned to where his voice was coming from. She was expecting him to enter the front door, not off the porch. She heard the motor and saw Chris's mustang pull away. Then she turned and heard him catch his breath. He staggered backwards and shook his head as if to clear it.

"You okay? Chris said your fever broke. Do you feel dizzy?"

"My God!" Vin whispered, as she approached. She was wearing snug, blue, worn jeans tucked into equally worn leather boots. The loose flannel shirt was in shades of green that picked up the exact color of her eyes. Her black wavy hair fell easy off her shoulders. "Yer beautiful. Yer damn near stole all m'air. Kelly?"

"Vin, are you alright?"

"Alright? Hell no, I ain't never gonna be alright again. My heart's all locked up."

She moved closer and saw that he was not just looking at her, he saw her. He was following her every move; his eyes wide like blue saucers. Her hands went over her mouth and she shook her head and froze. "Oh my God, you can see!"

Vin folded her in his arms and held on tight. He inhaled the sweet fragrance that was hers alone, moving his hands down the soft flannel back. Then she pushed back a bit and he held her shoulders, studying every beautiful inch of her face. He kissed her forehead, each eyelid, nuzzled her neck and then claimed her lips. He groaned and felt his body catch fire, moving his hands down her back and pulling her close. They parted, each breathless and he laid his head on her shoulder, drawing lazy lines on the soft flannel.

"I'm afraid t'let ya go."

"I'm not going anywhere, Vin," she answered, moved by the break in his voice. "We have a whole lot of tomorrows to explore together."

"Ya might catch a Tanner cold 'r two along the way," he teased, allowing her to lead him to the quilt by the fire.

"Price I'm willing to pay," she replied, taking his hand and his heart along with it.

Larabee Ranch

Two weeks had passed since that miraculous day that changed them all forever. He'd spent those weeks doing a lot of praying, rejoicing and pouring his troubles and hopes onto the capable shoulders of his therapist. So many things had changed, like the warmth of the autumn whose golden, rust and bronze colors bled through Thanksgiving into the winter, leaving the trees naked and cold, cast against gray skies.

Now standing on Chris's porch, he captured every bit of the scene playing out before him. How many nights had he tossed and turned in his cot in Aspen Arms longing for this, to be back in the fold - warmly in the bosom of the brotherhood that was so much a part of his life. Through the glass he could see them cavorting in various areas of the large den. He saw Nathan's daughter sitting on the rug by the fire, clapping her hands. He heard Buck's and JD teasing each other, Nathan chastising Ezra who was complaining about the football games and the belching that the game food brought on. He heard Vin singing, only his jeans moving around visible through the window. He stole every sound and picture, stowing them in his memory box. A place inside where old memories stretched like a cat on a sunny window, to make room for the newcomers.

"It's too damn cold to be pondering on my porch, Josiah."

"Hello, Chris," he answered and turned, spotting the lean blond carrying an armload of logs. "I thought that's why we hired those younguns?"

"Vin and JD," Chris complained, "Once the food gets out, all bets are off."

"Give you a hand?" he offered.

"I'm good, get the door," Chris replied.

Josiah waited inside the foyer, taking his coat and placing it in Chris's closet. He cast an eye to the kitchen, where two crockpots held stew and chili, a large pan of lasagna was on the table along with a platter of fried chicken and a casserole of macaroni and cheese. He moved to the outskirts of the den, and his face split into a wide grin at the animated antics spilled out before him.

Vin was wearing dark glasses, large furry wolf paw gloves and Jasmine's brown fur hat. He was romping, in a half-strut, half dance fashion and singing a rap song woefully off key. The accompanying artist on the CD, 'Simply Mad About the Mouse' was from a collection of key songs from Disney movies sung by leading musical artists. Vin was attempting to duet with L.L. Cool J on "Whose Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf'. His entire fan club consisted of the starry-eyed toddler who sat captivated by his feet, her dark eyes shining up at him in total rapture.

Whose afraid o'the big, bad, wolf, the big bad wolf, the big bad wolf," Vin rapped badly. "Watch out, watch out." He strutted, turned and shook his butt, "Yeah, I'm the big, bad, wolf, don't be afraid. Number two he had a house o'sticks," Vin paused as the others clapped along to the rap beat, "built his house o'twigs. With a hey diddy diddle, he played his fiddle and danced all kinds o'jigs. Me, I got a house of stone, built m'house o'bricks. But I have no chance t'sing and dance for work and play don't mix."

As the song played out and the others moaned and teased their young friend, Josiah kept his eyes on Vin Tanner. The light was still there, still strong and he knew from the conversations they'd shared since that Vin was a changed man. He cherished every moment of his day and was much more tolerant of those with differences. He was living his life to the fullest, celebrating it truly. Finally the song ended and the slightly winded performer hooted loudly.

"Gan, Bin, gan!" Jasmine proclaimed to her hero, smiling and clapping her chubby hands in glee.

"Ya want Uncle Vin t'sing it again?" Vin knelt and buzzed her cheek with a kiss and began to tickle her.

"NO!" the others chorused.

"What do they know, huh?" Vin picked her up began to dance with her. "They's jest a bunch of old fuzzlebutts, they ain't cool like yer Uncle Vin."

"L.L. Cool Vin!" J.D. laughed, saluting his friend with his beer. Then he saw the visitor in the doorway. "Josiah! Hey you look great!"

"Josiah!" Nathan stood up and crossed the room. "When did you get in?"

"Mister Sanchez," Ezra added with a nod and smile.

"Hey, preacher,' Vin paused while his small charge wiggled to get down. He set her down and moved to the doorway. "Good t'see ya."

"Hello, Vin," he said, nodding to the others. "It's good to see you all again."

Chris was by the fire, nursing his beer and he reflected on that. It was the first time since before the accident that they had all been in one room. He studied every face carefully, needing to see what their expressions reflected. They'd talked at length the days following Vin's return. He'd needed to know that when the new year started, they were thinking and acting as a team again. He still felt that now, including the genuine look Buck held. He'd been worried still that there was resentment but he didn't feel that now.

"Coffee?" J.D. asked and got a nod, knowing that Josiah had given up alcohol.

"Thanks, son, that would be much appreciated."

"I was going to call but well, the meeting with Orrin went much better than I thought. So it being Sunday, I figured you would all be here." He took the coffee, took a sip and a seat by the fire.

"What meeting?" Ezra said. "I thought until you were discharged that your position here would be in question."

"Well, I called him, I wanted to speak with him. I uh..." he paused to take a much needed breath. "I'm glad and very lucky that he's such a fair man. He listened to all I had to say and is allowing me to retire without losing my benefits. Thirty years is a long time."

"Retire?" Vin's voice didn't hide the shock that he felt and saw on the others faces, save Chris. He held the blond's eyes for a moment and wondered how Chris knew this was coming. As if sensing that thought, Chris spoke.

"I can't say as I'm surprised, Josiah. You've been thinking on this for some time, haven't you?" the leader asked.

"About a year I guess, kept putting it off." He smiled and sighed, "I'm over 50 now, this is a young man's business. It's getting harder and harder to keep up in the field. Orrin couldn't have been more gracious. He gave me a fine letter of recommendation for the University."

"U of Colorado in Boulder?" Vin guessed and the graying head dipped.

"Philosophy and Religion if they'll have me. Lauren has a home there..." His voice trailed off as if he didn't want to spoil what he hoped the future might hold.

"Are you going to move in?" J.D. asked when the others fell silent. "What?" He scowled at Buck's elbow which planted itself in his side.

"That's a private matter, son," Ezra replied.

"It's alright, J.D." Josiah leaned forward, studying the expectant faces. "Right now, we're two friends, good friends from many years gone by that are getting reacquainted. For now, for me, that's enough. But I hope one day, to pursue a more intimate relationship. So no, J.D., I'm not moving in. I've rented a small place not far away."

Chris moved first, offering his hand and a warm smile. "Good luck, preacher, we'll miss you."

"Thanks Chris, what I've learned from you of leadership cannot be found in any book nor measured; I'll carry it with me always applying it." He rose to meet the other well wishers.

"Best of luck in your new sojourn, my friend," Ezra offered, with Nathan and J.D. behind him.

"You're gonna be sick of seeing me," Nathan teased, "Get them ski's waxed."

"Will do, brother," Josiah replied and took J.D.'s hand. "Thanks, John Daniel. If you ever decide to pursue that doctorate, my door is always open."

"Thanks Josiah."

Vin didn't speak, not sure of what he could offer. He waited and embraced the older man. Then he smiled and pulled back, giving his own offer. "Religion huh? Well iffen ya ever need a new pulpit t'preach from, m'church is open."

"Thank you, Vin," Josiah noted of Vin Tanner's beloved mountain, his own 'chapel' where he made his peace.

Buck had moved into the kitchen when the others rose and Josiah sensed he was uncomfortable. He saw the other man half-heartedly making a platter. "Excuse me," he updated the others. "I think I'll get some food."

Buck heard Josiah coming into the room and moved over to the other side, putting his plate on the counter. He watched the older man make a plate and juggle it to get utensils. Then he turned and their eyes met. Buck opened his mouth to speak and thought for a moment. He smiled then, putting on a Wilmington special and moved closer.

"Boulder huh? They got coeds there?"

"All shapes and sizes," Josiah answered.

"Well then I guess you'll be seeing me. All them lips just waiting to be tenderized is too much of a challenge to resist."

"And you do love a challenge, don't you Buck?"

Buck thought for a moment, using the question which didn't have to do with the fine women in the college town. He knew Josiah was offering him a door and he took it, gladly. Truth be told he felt a bit guilty, he was wondering how he'd feel working with Josiah again. Now he realized how foolish that was and how much he would miss him. But he felt this new path was the right one, and truly hoped his friend would find peace, and love, there.

"I do, Josiah, especially when I've got a lot of help from my friends," he offered with his hand. "All the best."

"Thanks, Buck." Josiah put his napkin and utensils in his breast pocket and shook the hand. "Now about this class that is on the summer schedule, if I get accepted, I'll be the course instructor. I can save you a spot."

"School?" Buck's voice rose. "Me and chalk don't get along. I'll pass." He picked up his plate and wondered where the mirth in the smoky eyes was coming from.

"Well that's a shame, I'm sure the other students will be mighty disappointed. All that extra curricular activity, long hours at night 'studying' with an older tutor, one well schooled and experienced."

"Just what sort of class is this?" Buck asked, shaking cheese on his lasagna.

"Women in Religon. Usually 80% females that take that course."

"Saturdays, huh?" Buck grinned, "You know I've been thinking about broadening my horizons, educationally that is."

"Do tell?" Josiah said with a wink, taking a seat next to Wilmington at the table. It felt damn good to have his brothers back.

The harsh cough of winter died into the soft breath of spring. Flowers of every shade, blossom and hue were born and dazzled the eyes. New life sprung up everywhere in the hills, air and stream. He paused on the overlook not far from Chris's ranch and took in the view that was only held from this spot. He drank in the sweet air and marveled at the wonder that only Mother Nature provided. He'd spent the morning riding and after returning his horse to Chris's stable, he had one more stop. He was two days early from his spring vacation and eager to see his friends again. He and Kelly had spent five glorious days in New Mexico, he had shown her the place where he'd learnt so much about being a man from his beloved grandfather. Then she went on to visit friends in southern Colorado and he spent a few days on another journey on this way home.

Two hours later, just as lunch was ending, he paused in the office doorway. It was just after 1 p.m. and lunch was being cleaned up in the cantina. Midweek meant the team was in full action, most likely working long days. He took in all the sounds that he would never take for granted again. The stupid radio station J.D. insisted on having on which had a shock jock, Ezra's classical music coming from the headphones he'd left on his desk, Nathan's soulful voice crooning a Motown classic from years gone by and Chris's voice warning them that 'you're all replaceable' and moaning about 'not getting the respect I deserve' when warning them that lunch was up. Buck, he found a wide smile then as he approached the door to the warm, sunny room they shared morning and midday meals in. Just the name brought the smile, but the warm voice so full of life and more than a little malarkey made his grin split wide. In this case, his gregarious friend was in the middle of a very hot tale of a sordid night.

"...and then she looked up at me and spoke those words that every man needs to hear..."

"Is it in yet?"

"Goddammit Vin!" Buck boomed over the riotous laughter that exploded.

"Welcome back, Mister Tanner," Ezra nodded, rose and tossed his debris in the trash. "As always, your timing is impeccable."

"Thanks, Ezra!" Buck groused. "Hey, slick, you're two days early. Everything okay in the land of love?"

"Couldn't be better," Vin proclaimed with a telling grin. "How ya'll doin'?"

"Busy as hell," Chris stated, "Three new cases of arson, two illegal arms to investigate and the Morgan trial to prepare for."

"So how was the trip?" J.D. asked.

"Me and Kelly had a great time, I showed her m'home, the place where I found m'path. M'grandfather's spirit was real strong, I got a sense that he came out t'meet her." He took a soda from Nathan and grabbed half of Larabee's sandwich before the blond had a chance to protest. "Ya ain't got any onions hid in here do ya?"

"As a matter of fact I do," Chris replied trying to get the sandwich back.

"I don't care fer 'em," Vin decided, flicking the offensive matter from the sandwich.

"Well I do!" Chris hollered, "Get your own damn sandwich you cheap bastard."

"Jo'siah says hello." Vin ignored the hand trying to snatch the sandwich back and bit into it.

"How's he doing, Vin?" Buck asked.

Vin heard the genuine concern in the voice and it matched the sincerity in the dark blue eyes. He was glad of that; he feared that Buck's lack of forgiveness would cripple him. But in the months that had passed, each man had become comfortable with the other. He swallowed his food and took a good drink.

"He's doin' good, Buck, real good. He's gonna be teachin' at the college startin' this summer. He's doin' some of the group stuff at the Aspen Arms. Lauren's the best thing that ever happened to him, they're real happy."

"I'm glad for him," Buck answered and gave Vin a slight nod, gaining a warm smile in return. "Now where was I?" The groans that met his ears brought a frown, each body filed from the room. "Hey, I wasn't done yet!"

Two weeks later

Chris looked up from the conference table where the rest of his team was reviewing files, folders and photos of the arson case they were investigating. They'd just wrapped up most of it and he noticed one shaggy head missing.

"Vin? Where's your report?"

"Comin'," Vin replied, handing it to the leader and eyeing the photos. "Damn, we got us a solid case. That bastard ain't gonna see the light o'day again."

"Vin?" Chris asked, eyeing the first and second pages of the report. "Your stigmata acting up again."

"M'what?" Vin puzzled, hearing the others snickering.

Chris scowled and held up the two sheets, causing J.D. to laugh loudly.

"Stigmata!" Dunne howled, "Now that's funny."

"Huh?" Vin perplexed, then saw the problem. "Aw, hell, that's the wrong copy, hold on."

He shuffled to his desk and got the right paperwork, quickly handing it over. "What?" he asked of the odd look Larabee gave him.

"Something you want to share, Vin?" Chris pressed tapping the two bloodstained sheets.

"Nope." He turned as Buck grabbed his hands. "Don't be pawin' me, Buck."

"His hands are okay," Buck updated, "Open your mouth."

"Open m'mouth?" Vin shot back, shoving Buck away. "I ain't no damn horse. What the hell is wrong with ya?"

"Have you taken up surgery on the side?" Ezra asked.

"No, why?"

"The blood, Vin, the blood!" Chris gritted through his teeth. "Why is it so hard to get a straight answer from you?"

"Ya ain't asked me anythin'," Vin declared and felt the glare coming. He squared his shoulders and glared right back, which caused a ripple of chuckles from the others.

"Cut that out!" Chris warned, "Where did this blood come from? Is that clear enough for you?" He said each word slowly as if talking to a foreigner.


"Huh?" Chris squinted as Vin limped to his seat and began to examine the photos. Ezra and Nathan were trying not to laugh, Buck was almost convulsive, his eyes wet from laughter.

"You wrote your report with your feet?" Nathan asked, a grin forming.

"Hey, I saw a chimp do that once on the Ed Sullivan show," Buck wheezed, drying his eyes.

"Who?" J.D. asked and got his head thwacked.

"No doubt a distant relative of our elusive sniper," Ezra said and got a sour face from Vin.

"The stapler," Vin replied, continuing his reading of the photo evidence. "These come out great, kid, you did a great job."

"Thanks, Vin."

"You were stapling your report with your feet?" Chris asked, staring at the Texan who was oblivious.

"Hell, no," Vin replied as if Chris were an alien.


"Yeah?" He looked up at Chris with such innocence it caused Nathan to choke on his coffee.

"How did you cut your fuckin' foot with the stapler?" Chris growled.

"Ya know yer veins bug out on the sides o'yer head when ya git riled up?" Vin quipped with a pair of mischievous eyes. "Ya need t'watch that, at yer age ya could end up with a stroke."

"Vin, I'm warning you!" Chris pressed, ignoring the laughing around the table he'd lost control of, a feat that was mastered by Tanner alone.

"I dropped the report whilst I was fixin' on staplin' it together. I dropped the stapler and it cut m'foot and it shot blood all over." Vin went back to the photos.

"Cut your foot?" Chris rubbed his throbbing temples. "How did it get through your boots?"

"Weren't wearin' any boots."

"Wonderful!" Ezra choked. "You strut your germ-infested feet around the office?"

"No! m'right foot was itchin', I was fixin' on scratchin' in when Chris got t'hollerin' fer the damn report. So I hurried up."

"Your boots were itching you?" Chris eyed the old boots.

"No, m'sock was tangled up and had some old grit in it," Vin answered.

"Thanks for sharing, Vin, " Buck chuckled, toasting the likeable tracker with his coffee mug.

"Jesus, why can't you just give me a straight answer!" Chris harped tossing the bloody papers at the guileless Tanner.

"I am answered!"

"Am answered?" Chris made a face at the flustered Tanner.

"Spoken like a true scholar," Ezra added.

"That's my boy," Nathan teased.

"Hell, yer growlin' got m'tongue all tangled up," Vin defended.

"Well we can't afford to have you injured," Chris answered, then arched his eyebrow. "I know a good therapist if you need to get that tongue fixed."

"No, thanks," Vin answered, his blue eyes bright, "Got m'own private therapist and she real good at wrasslin' m'tongue." He paused, sighed and leaned back, "and all m'movin' parts."

"Didn't I tell you bein' around me rubbed off on him," Buck boasted with a wink.

"Alright, that's it, let's get his done," Larabee regained control.

'Yeah, sooner we git finished, Chris can let them moths in his wallet out. There's a round o'beer with his name on it at the Saloon," Tanner decided.

"You're awfully generous with my money, Tanner," Chris tossed back.

"Somebody's gotta be, ya got yer first nickel, Bucklin told me." Vin ducked when Wilmington tossed a donut at him.

Chris just sighed and stood back, listening as they teased each other without mercy. Nothing was sacred and all was fair game. And he wouldn't have it any other way.

Life was good.


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