by Deirdre

ATF Universe

Part 21

After a ten-day stay, Vin was given the okay to leave for home. Chris remained in New Mexico with Vin. The others had departed for home several days prior, to get back to work. Chris glanced in the rear view mirror of the rented van. He'd folded the two rows of back seats down and Vin was sleeping on several layers of blankets. He was, of course, in a sour mood. Unhappy with his station and frustrated by his weakness. His voice was cracking as laryngitis was setting in, which only added to Vin's misery.

The ride was relatively quiet most of the time. Vin would sit up front for few hours, then start to fade, crawling back into his nest. The radio kept the blond company. He'd steal glances every now and again. He grinned, spotting a hand appear out of the mountain of blankets and retrieve a cold quart of soda, anchored nearby. Every movement the recovering man made, was accented by the rustling of cupcake and candy wrappers. Chris wasn't sure yet how Vin had come by the bag of goodies, but was sure that Vin's blue eyes had lured some unsuspecting nurse into doing his dirtywork.

Chris maneuvered the van off the interstate and proceeded down the familiar turnoff to the ranch. He glanced at the digital clock on the console. Four-thirty, he'd timed it right, just beating the rush hour traffic. He heard Sam barking, and spotted the retriever's dark head over the rails of the side porch. He eased the car into park and unclipped his belt. Sliding out, he unlocked the back door of the van, and shook a quilted body part. A low growl proceeded a shaggy head emerging.

"We're home, Vin," he waited until the body emerged, shivering in the cold afternoon, "Keep that blanket on you, until you get inside."Vin nodded, silently creeping up the few steps onto the porch. He fumbled at the door, still half-asleep. He winced as Sam's jubilation found his pounding head. He returned the dog's greeting as he opened the door.

"Hey Sam, missed ya buddy."

Sam threw himself on the familiar body, sending the unsteady man backwards and onto the floor.

"Sorry Vin," Nathan apologized, grabbing Sam's collar.

"S'okay, Nate," Vin mumbled, rolling on all fours and trying to find his legs.

"What happened," an irate voice demanded, shoving the discarded wrappers in a trashcan,"Why is Vin on the floor?"

"Take it easy, Chris," Buck patted his friends back, "Sam was just saying hello," he bent over the sprawled body.

Vin felt himself hauled up and grabbed for the flannel-encased arms, steadying himself. He struggled in vain against the strong arms.

"I see you brought Goofy," a high-pitched voice sounded in his ear, nodding at Chris, "Where's Minnie and Donald?" it continued, imitating Vin's voice, which resembled the world famous mouse.

"Y'all is low bunch," Vin squeaked, hearing the laughter, "Pickin' on a invalid."

"Aw, Gosh Mickey, I'm sorry," the high-pitched voice replied, tickling him, "You're just so dang cute when you get riled up."

"Cut it out, Buck," Vin growled, trying to squirm out of the larger man's embrace, "Ain't ya got some unlucky woman to play with."

"It's a little early in the day, even for Mr. Wilmington," Ezra added, nodding at Vin, "Welcome back, Mr. Tanner."

"It's never to early for the Stud Master," Buck crowed, propelling Vin towards the kitchen.

"I ain't a cripple," Vin pushed off, throwing himself in a chair at the kitchen table, "quit crowdin' me, Buck."

"I'm gonna get a shower," Chris said placing two pills in front of Vin, "You take these after you eat," he spotted the Vin's eyes shift and counteracted the thought, "Don't piss me off Vin, It's been a long day."

"He'll take them," Buck spoke, dishing out a bowl of beef stew.

Vin played with the blue pills, and studied Buck moving around the kitchen. He stared beyond the tall agent's shoulder, out the window. He'd been remembering images the last few days. Flashes of his past, the dark days he thought he buried. Muddled impressions of a terrified child, struggling in the grasp of a killer. Then Chris's face would appear, the green eyes chased the demons away. Fighting a losing battle with the river, and having a strong set of arms pull him to safety. The policeman's face shifted in time and Buck's appeared. Buck placed the bowl of savory stew and a bottle of ice tea in front of the silent sharpshooter. He waved a hand in front of the large, unseeing blue eyes, lost in thought. He whistled, and grinned as Vin jumped.

"Sorry, Pard," he chuckled, "You were a million miles away."

Vin nodded, and began eating. Buck was lining up bowls and spoons for the rest of the crew. He took two large loaves of garlic bread out of the oven. He saw Vin look up, eyes full of emotion. He ambled over, taking some steaming, crusty bread with him.

"You okay?" He asked, sitting down next to Vin.

"Been recallin' some stuff, bit and pieces, ya know," Vin swallowed, trying to save his squeaky voice, "All running as a kid from Hill and Delgado...but you and Chris are always there, helping me." Vin paused, taking a long sip of ice tea, "There was a cop, real nice feller, who pulled me outta the river. I remember him always bein' by the bed," he turned, meeting Buck's eye, "I wanna say...ya got no idea..." he paused, frustrated by his inability to convey his thanks and saw Buck's big grin, "Y'all ain't gonna help me out here, are ya?"

"No way," Buck chuckled, watching Vin squirm.

Vin sighed and studied the remains of his stew. Making swirls in the bowl with his spoon, he finally spoke.

"It made all the difference," the scratchy voice was full, "Thanks, Bucklin."

Buck swallowed hard and stood, placing both his hands on the younger man's shoulders. He let the strong massage speak first. He enjoyed the minute, letting Vin's warm appeal sink in, then a smile crept on his lips.

"Aw hell, Junior," he boomed, "that's what big brothers are for. Besides," Buck ruffled the long wavy hair, "Them wet curls of yours were just irresistible. I couldn't tear myself away."

"Get the hell away from me, ya pervert," Vin pushed at the arm, "Y'all is crazy."

"Chow's on," Buck hollered, winking at Vin as he skirted the table.

The rest of the group piled into the room. Grabbing a bowl, each man filled his dish and found a seat at Chris's large table. Vin finished his stew and sat back, smiling. He didn't realize how much the warm voices, teasing banter and bawdy humor, meant to him. He felt a hand on his back and knew the glare was there, without looking.

"Turn them headlights down, Larabee," he complained, picking up the pills, placing them on his tongue and finishing his ice tea, "Now sit down and quit buggin' me. Y'all is workin' on my last nerve."

"Your last nerve!," Chris retorted, flanking Vin in a chair, "You're not exactly Mr. Congeniality especially when you're sick. I think I deserve a medal," Chris tapped the younger man's shoulder, "Open up..."

"No! I ain't a child," Vin squeaked, batting Chris's hand away, "I swallowed 'em. Leave me be."

Josiah caught Ezra's fleeting smile as the two friends sparred. He met Ezra's eye and commented.

"I hear you, Brother. It's nice to have the family back together."

It wasn't quite dawn, when Chris made his way into the house. He washed his face and made his way upstairs. He peeked in Vin's room and saw a lump, curled to one side. Vin had surprised him by following the doctor's orders to the letter. The last five days, he'd eaten well, rested and taken his medicine. The weight he'd lost during his ordeal, was starting to come back. He'd be going home today. His strength and stamina had returned to the point where he could recover on his own. He pulled the blanket off in the dark and bent down.

"You awake, Vin?"

"Huh?" the voice answered, from the other side.

Chris looked down and discovered he'd been talking to a red wooly foot. Shaking his head, he made his way where a dark head was moving. He pulled the blanket off and grinned as the sleepy body retracted, seeking the warmth of the quilt.

"Come on now, get up." Chris ordered, slapping Vin's back.

" on fire?" Vin croaked, peeling one eye half-open.

"No," Chris chuckled, "Got something important for you to see."

"Get her phone number and tell her I call later," Vin mumbled, groping blindly for his lost blankets.

"Come on, Vin, you gotta get up." Chris physically pulled the struggling body upright, and wrapped a blanket around him.

"What the hell for? It ain't even light out."

Chris didn't reply, and pushed the complaining figure forward. He guided the sleepy body down the stairs and outside, taking a burst of verbal abuse. Vin squinted as the light in the barn hit his eyes.

"Chris, what the hell...."

"Shhh!" Chris pulled Vin over and sat him on a hay bale.

Vin's disgruntled face followed Chris over to the other side of the room and back. Chris handed him a hot mug of coffee and a large doughnut. Vin eyed the cake, eye's narrowing.

"What's wrong with it?" the voice croaked, full of suspicion.

"Nothing's wrong with it," Chris retorted, watching Vin turn it over and study it, "Oh for crying out loud, Vin, just eat it."

Satisfied that the unusual gift was not tainted, he did just that. Vin the boy, had been on Chris's mind since the kidnapping. Upon reading about the murder Vin witnessed and the aftermath, Chris thought on Tanner's lost childhood. A tug on his sleeve, broke his thoughts.

"Chris, why am I sittin' here freezin' my ass off in the middle of the night?"

"Look," Chris said softly, pointing to a large stall a few feet away.

"Liberty's foalin'?" Vin's eyes grew wide, "Are you sure it's okay if we watch? She don't mind? I don't want to upset her."

"It's not just everybody she'd let watch," Chris stated, "I put in a word for ya." Vin smiled and watched transfixed as over time, a new life made it's way forth. Chris's eyes left the mare's stall, long enough to observe the man beside him. The early rays of dawn reached in, casting a rosy hue on Vin's expressive face. The combination of innocence and awe, made Vin seem much younger.

"Would ya look at that?" Vin whispered, eyes full of wonder, "He's standin' already."Chris shook his head and grinned, watching Vin's blue-eyed amazement. It was a picture he'd file away, storing it very carefully. The red-coated colt took a few wobbly steps and collapsed, raising his head as his mother nuzzled him. Chris saw Vin wiping his eyes and watch the blanket fall away as he stood. Trotting over, he stroked the mare's neck, and talked softly to her. Finally he made his way back, and stood next to his best friend.

"Helluva goin' away present," he drawled, conveying a deeper message with his glance, "Won't ever forget this, Chris."

"Me either, Cowboy," Chris said quietly, "Come on, let's get some breakfast."

Later, Chris was loading Vin's bags into his truck, when he spotted the departing guest, by the corral. He made his way over and flanked him. Vin finally turned, and Chris saw an almost painful, wistfullness in the deep blue eyes.

"What?" He asked, leaning against the post.

"Ya promise not to laugh?" Vin looked up and Chris's stoic face gave him the answer, "Been thinkin'," he paused, making circles with his boot in the dirt. "I had a whole lotta dark years 'afore Jack got a hold of me," Vin laughed, "That man had the patience of a saint. For months, all I done was push him away, cuss 'im, bust every rule," his smiled faded, "But he wouldn't let go, Chris, he never gave up on me."

"Helluva guy," Chris noted.

"That he was, Pard," Vin's voice was lost in time. "Next to you, no finer man wearin' boots," Vin sighed. "Was rememberin' all that time, when I's just a little rascal, and I got to thinkin. " Vin struggled, his voice dropped and Chris had to lean in to hear him, "Sure would have made a difference, if y'all had been there."

Chris's jaw clenched and his put his hands on his hips. He felt Vin's pain, still wavering after all these years. He placed a hand on his friend's shoulder.

"We would have kicked some serious ass."

Vin grinned and drank in the unusual sight of a broad Larabee grin. They made their way to the car. It was a quiet ride, neither felt the need for words. Vin felt a cold, part of his past disappear and enjoyed the feeling of warmth in its place. Chris saw a defiant nine-year old, a scrawny warrior, battling all comers.

"Ya ever notice how good it smells, after the rain," Vin broke the silence, not waiting for a response, he continued, "and everythin's all clean and new? That's how I feel, Chris," he paused, catching the blond nod, "Like a black, old storm cloud busted open...and now it's after the rain. Ya know?"

Chris nodded thoughtfully, understanding the analogy. He watched Vin climb out of the truck and grab his bag from the back. Crossing in front of the black truck, he slapped the hood and gave Chris a grin and the thumbs up sign. Chris rolled down the window.

"Hey Vin?"

"Yeah?" Vin turned, trotting over.

"Next time it looks like rain, give me a call, okay?"

Vin cocked his head and shifted the heavy duffel bag. Throwing a half grin, he nodded.

"I'll do that, Pard."


Vin's first week back at work had been a busy one. He was still underweight and tired easily, but it was good to be active again. He wasn't in the door a minute, when Buck pounced, reminding Vin that he 'looked like shit'. Then Vin knew he was home.

Thursday morning Chris was at a division meeting and the other six were doing their monthly expense reports. Buck, of course, was in charge of the 'Ezra pool', which clocked how much time would elapse, before Chris would bellow for Standish to provide an explanation. He saw J.D. approaching, seemingly lost in a daze.

"Hey Kid, you get Vin's ante?" He asked, palm out.

"Buck, I think something's wrong with Vin."

"J.D., it's gonna be awhile yet before he's up to snuff. He's tired, underweight, and them pills knock him out. Don't you worry about Junior, he's coming along."

"He's been staring at the same screen on his computer for over an hour. He didn't even take off his coat or sunglasses. I put his coffee on his desk, that's when I noticed it."

"Noticed what?"

"His trash can is empty!"

"Damn, that ain't good," Buck frowned, pulling his legs off his desk.

"And what, pray tell, is the significance of the state of Mr. Tanner's trash receptacle?" Ezra asked, arriving for the day.

"Mornin' Ez..." Buck nodded, "Boy's been in over an hour, he's usually knee deep in twinkies, cakes and cookies by now."

"Nary a caramel-colored, carbonated beverage container?" Ezra asked, knowing Vin's preference for Coke in the early morning.

"Not a one..." J.D.'s eye's widened.

"It would appear, trouble is afoot." Ezra confirmed, "Mr. Larabee asked me to collect the expense reports. I shall retrieve Mr. Tanner's and speak with him."Buck and J.D. stood a few feet away, as Ezra approached the partition surrounding Vin's cubicle. Vin's desk was always neat and organized, with very few personal items. Those that did grace the area, were all Native American designs. Ezra leaned to one side and peered at the slim man's profile. Vin's eyes were shut behind the sunglasses. Not wishing to disturb him, Ezra turned to leave. He bumped against a stack of files, sending several onto the desk, and knocking over a small picture of Billy. Vin jumped startled, and his glasses dropped off.

"I didn't mean to disturb you, Mr. Tanner. I need your expense report. I'll take it whenever you're done."Vin didn't respond right away. Ezra saw a flicker of shame in the blue eyes, which quickly turned away. Vin's hands were trembling as he fumbled around his desk.

"It's here somewhere. I got it.hold on..."

"That's okay," Ezra turned to leave, and saw Vin steal another guilty look, not wanting to meet Ezra's eyes.

Ezra, like Vin, was an observer. Reading people came easy to him. Vin was avoiding him, almost afraid or ashamed of himself. Ezra tapped his shoulder softly, not wishing to upset him further. Vin turned slightly, but still didn't look at him.

"Mr. Tanner, are you not feeling well?"

"I'm okay...just a little tired."

"Is there something I've done to..."

"Ezra, Chris is looking for you," Nathan stood behind the Gambler, "He's in a hurry..."

"Coming," Ezra said, looking again at Vin's hunched back.

Ezra watched the others depart for lunch, stalling on the phone. Vin was sleeping at his desk. Ezra went into the Cantina and got his lunch out of the refrigerator. He tossed the Chef's Salad with some oil and vinegar, grabbed his spring water and sat down to eat. About ten minutes later, he heard shuffling footsteps. Vin appeared in the doorway, rubbing his eyes. Ezra contained a grin, Vin's clothes were still a little loose and his body language resembled a small child, awakened from a nap.

"Would you care to join me for lunch, Mr. Tanner?"

Vin nodded and opened the refrigerator, taking out a container of Won Ton Soup. He pushed the buttons on the microwave and grabbed his cold soda. When he finally sat down, he ate half the soup and paused.

"I'm real sorry Ezra," Vin said quietly, "I didn't mean to hurt ya."

Ezra's furrowed his brows and scowled, his face a puzzle. He saw the hurt in Vin's very readable eyes and realized he was in pain.

"Mr...Vin," Ezra started, "You have me at a loss. You have not wronged me in any way."

"Yeah, I have," Vin assessed, drinking the hot broth, "I don't recall's real fuzzy. But I know I hurt yer feelin's," Vin's voice died, "and it's been weighin' on me."

"Vin, I assure you, you've done nothing," Ezra patted the extended forearm, "Is that why you were slumbering this morning. Have you been losing sleep, worrying about this unfounded matter?"

Vin nodded, finally meeting Ezra's uncharacteristic concerned green gaze.

"Last couple of nights, I had a dream...a bad one," Vin paused, taking a gulp of soda, "It's like in slow motion...and kinda fuzzy. But I'm screaming at ya and yer face is...all twisted in pain. I don't know exactly what I done, Ezra, but I know I hurt ya."

Ezra sat silent for a moment as all the missing pieces fell into place. As if Vin didn't have enough problems, he was carrying unnecessary guilt.

"Vin, I think I can explain," Ezra said softly, waiting for Vin to look at him, "In your delirium, at the hospital, you mistook me for the monster who tortured you as a child. That agony you remember was very real. No child should have to bear the cross that you were given, Vin. It hurt me grievously to think of what that subhuman creature inflicted upon you. That, my friend, is what you saw. You have nothing to apologize for Vin. The valor that you carried then and now, so nobly and with such grace, is something to admire. It's my honor to be in your acquaintance."

Vin swallowed hard, as Ezra's words drifted inside of him. He took the hand that Ezra offered

and shook it firmly. That mischievous grin was back, as was the twinkle in the tired, blue eyes.

"Damn, Ez, these long talks of ours is wearin' on a body. Think I'll catch a nap, 'fore Chris starts hollerin' about my backlog."

Part 22
A Month Later

"You sure he don't suspect anything?" J.D. quizzed, juggling two bags of groceries.

"Hell no," Vin replied confidently, taking the remaining two bags from Buck's car, "He's gonna jump right outta his boots."The six were throwing Chris Larabee a surprise birthday party at the ranch. Buck was taking Chris to a Nuggets-Pacers game. The Saturday afternoon matinee was at 2 p.m.. Chris was expected home by six p.m. The other five had arrived at he ranch at two, and were decorating and getting the food started. Mary, Nettie, Casey, Rain and Claire, Ezra's girlfriend, rounded out the work crew.

A pile of gifts stood in the corner of the den, where a fire blazed. It was a cold, damp afternoon and the guest had started to arrive, spilling into the living and dining rooms. Vin was filling a drink order in the kitchen, when he spotted Billy's head pop around the door.

"Hey, Pard," he greeted, expecting the usual cheerful response, "Billy, ya all right?"

He set the two glasses of wine and a diet soda on a tray and wiped his hands. Walking around the corner, he spotted the dejected little blond.

"Why the long face?" He asked, lifting the small chin with his finger.

"I busted Chris's present," his voice wavered, eyes threatening to spill.

Vin grimaced and squatted down, lifting the six-year old up into his arms. He motioned for Ezra to take the tray of drinks to the den and carried Billy into the small utility room, which was deserted. Setting the boy on the washer, he wiped the tears away.

"Ya wanna talk about it?"

"I was trying to wrap it," Billy said of the picture frame he'd made for Chris, "and it dropped. The glass busted and a corner broke off and the horses fell off and ...and..." Billy's hiccups and tears ended his sentence.

Vin pulled him close, feeling his chest ache. Billy had worked hard to decorate the picture frame with small horses in each corner. He'd painted Chris's name on the top and put a picture of the two of them on Charger inside. Vin spotted a small wooden chest in the corner on a high shelf.

"Hold on, Slugger," he said leaving the boy.

He pulled the box down and examined it closer. He blew the dust off the hinged box, which was a little larger than a shoebox. An idea sprung into his head and he wheeled and smiled. Ruffling the boy's blond hair, and thinking of Chris's workbench in the next room, he pulled the boy down.

"I got an idea Billy," he squatted down, "We got some time yet, before Chris gets home. Go and get yer backpack, with your art kit and the extra wooden horses we didn't use."

"Okay," his eyes were alive again., "What are we gonna do Vin?"

"We're gonna make some memories, Kid," Vin answered, "Go on now, I'm gonna clean this box up. Y'all come right back."

+ + + + + + +

Chris froze in the doorway when the multitude of voices assaulted him. Buck clapped his back and propelled the shocked man forward.

"Fooled you good, Pard!" He boomed, cheering with the rest of the crowd.

"Tanner, you're a dead man!" Chris glared, recovering.

"Why ya signalin' me out?" Vin chuckled, getting elbowed by J.D.

"Because this has your signature all over it!"

"Might cranky since ya left another year behind," Tanner responded, "Must be all them gray hairs yer sproutin'"

"You're cruisin' for a bruisin', Vin..." Chris squinted, mouth curled up.

+ + + + + + +

Chris paused on the upstairs landing and watched the scene below. He felt good tonight, and had truly enjoyed himself. He hadn't been so relaxed in...well since before Sarah and Adam died. The party was great, with music, food and laughter filling the night. The crowd had thinned out and only his family remained. Josiah pointed to the remaining gifts and Chris nodded. Taking the back stairs, he arrived in the kitchen. He cast a suspicious ear to Buck's rambling story of a beauty queen he'd charmed in Atlantic City.

"Don't believe him, Rain," he quipped, grabbing a beer, "That 'beauty queen' loses another year and another five pounds every time he tells the story. Buck was so drunk , she could have been Miss America 1960 and he wouldn't have noticed."

Rain giggled and patted Buck's cheek and she left to find Nathan. Buck filled a bowl with Chips and one with pretzels. He picked them up and stood at Chris's side, watching the warm smile. Vin and J.D were playing hockey on the floor of the den, each at one end of the room. They were the goalies, shooting a stale sandwich roll, across the floor. Sam jumped into the melee, snatching the 'puck' and gobbling it on the run."Hey, you can't do that," J.D. hollered, "Get him Vin..."The two jumped the large dog and proceeded to wrestle him to the ground. Billy jumped on Vin's back and attacked him, sending them all to the floor in a pile of giggles. Buck hadn't seen Chris so relaxed and free of tension in years. He watched the normally impassive face, break into a grin. Vin was now the object of J.D.'s and Billy's revenge. Both piled onto the Texan and began to tickle him. Vin's laughter wafted across the room and his eye's locked with Chris's.

"Chris, there killin' me over here," he gasped, "How 'bout lendin' a hand?"

Chris just shook his head and continued to smile.

"The Boy done good..." Buck elbowed Chris.

"That he did, Buck..." Chris said quietly, watching Vin's head disappear under J.D. and Billy.

"This is from the Team," J.D. said, helping Ezra set a large box on the floor in front of their boss.

Chris cast a suspicious eye to his men and leaned down, placing his ear on the box.

"What are you doing, Chris?" Billy asked, tugging on Chris's sleeve.

"Seeing if it's ticking..." He said with a straight face, before opening the lid.

"That's beautiful," Mary complimented, spotting the handsome iron sculpture.

"It's called 'Keeping the Code'" J.D. explained, "Read the inscription."

Chris eyed the handsome piece of art, touching the figures depicted, reverently. It was about a foot and a half long and high. It showed a group of seven gunslingers, some sitting or squatting around a campfire and one standing. He eyed every member of his team, his friends...brothers, conveying a heartfelt message with his eyes.

"Thanks guys," he brushed a hand through his hair, leaning forward to inspect the details on the piece, "It's perfect...let's see what the inscription says:

Stand by the code, and it will never fail you. Stamp it in your heart.
Ask no more and give no less than your brother. Honesty, Courage,
Loyalty, Generosity and Fairness shall be your weapons.

The silence that followed seemed deafening. Vin was behind his best friend and saw Chris struggling. The guard was cracking, the shield that he built so well to keep the real Larabee hidden, was slipping. Vin felt the waver, and clamped a hand on Chris's shoulder, causing a slight jump.

"Lookee there," he drawled, pointing to the lone figure standing, "Y'all recognize that bossy feller, kinda cranky like..." Vin's eye's twinkled, "Iffen ya look real close, ya can see 'the glare'."

"Shut up, Vin," Chris pulled the smaller man sideways over the arm of the sofa in a headlock.

Billy's small face leaned in and looked at the figure that Vin indicated.

"He looks mean...kinda scary," Billy agreed.

"Same face we got to put up with every morning, Billy," Vin grunted, laughing and trying to free himself from Chris's deathlock on his throat, "See, even Billy recognizes ya, Cowboy."

"Here Chris," Billy carefully carried over a red gift bag, "Happy Birthday!"

Chris drew out the wooden chest, with a small horse glued to either side. Glued to the top, inside a velvet frame, was small picture of Chris and Billy on Charger. Chris bit his bottom lip as he traced a finger along a glob of glue, dried beside on of the horses. How many nights had he and Adam...He left that image and glanced over at Billy, who was anxious and hopping impatiently. He opened the lid and squinted at a few items inside. A blue feather, an arrowhead and a folded drawing.

Chris pulled Billy into his lap and hugged him tight.

"It's a...a...," Billy paused, frowning.

Chris saw the small face look to Vin, who bent over and whispered in the small boy's ear. Billy nodded and turned back to Chris.

"It's a treasure chest for your memories. So they can always be safe. I made it myself, Vin helped me," he said proudly, "Do you like it, Chris?"

Chris studied the solemn face and brushed his lips across the boy's head.

"I sure do, Billy," Chris's voice was tight, "and you know why? Because it came from your heart, and that's the best gift you can give. This will always be special to me."

"What are these?" J.D. asked, nodding to the items inside.

"This," Billy pointed to the feather, "I found when me and Chris were riding one time. 'member this, Chris," he picked up the arrowhead.

"Yup. Found it when we were camping. Thanks Billy, I don't have one of those," Chris replaced the Indian relic.

"You gotta open this one," Billy handed Chris the paper, "It's a new memory."

Chris opened the paper to reveal a drawing. On the top of the page, seemingly floating were a figure of a woman and a child. On the bottom were several figures, men, a woman, a child, a dog, horses, a motor cycle and a house.

"Wow! That's awesome..."J.D. gushed, causing Billy to beam, "Do you draw that by yourself?"

"Uh-huh," Billy nodded proudly, "That's Sarah and Adam in heaven. That's the Team and me and Mom," he pointed, "and that's Charger, Sam and Vin's bike." He settled back against Chris, yawning.

"How about we take this upstairs and I tell you a story, Pard?" Chris lifted the boy and headed upstairs.

Vin watched the pair leave and felt an arm slip into his own. This was followed by kiss to his cheek, by a grateful mother.

"I don't know how you did it," Mary said, "but I thank you. He was heartbroken. How on earth did you think of such a wonderful idea?"

"Well," he said, his eyes distant, "the one I made for my Ma was only a cardboard box with crayon scratchin's...didn't have nuthin' to put in it, so I made a heart and colored it. She cried so hard I thought she didn't like it." Vin smiled, blinking back a tear, "That was the last present..." He stopped, sighing deeply, and took a minute to recover, "'scuse me Mary, I think I'll get some fresh air."

Mary hugged him briefly and clutched his hand, "She'd be so proud, Vin."

She reached the room upstairs to find Chris finishing a story and Billy already asleep. Chris slid from beside the small boy and covered him up. He reached the door and held Mary close, noticing the tears.

"You all right?" He asked, stroking her cheek, "What's the matter?"

"Nothing," she smiled, wiping her eyes, looking heavenward, "Somebody up there sure has good taste in guardian angels."

He followed her gaze to where Vin stood, alone on the deck, bundled against the night air. His eyes went from Vin's slumped shoulders and downcast head, back to Mary's emotional gaze. She took his arm, speaking softly, as they descended the stairs.

Later, save Mary, only Team Seven was left. Buck sent J.D. and Vin outside, each armed with several full bags of trash. He turned to place the clean crockpot on the shelf in the utility room and spotted a long velvet box, with a card bearing Chris's name.

Chris was finishing a Hot Roast Beef Sandwich, when a movement interrupted him. Chris wiped his hands on a napkin and took the long velvet box that was thrust at him.

"Looks like you forgot one, Chris," Buck boomed, "Found it in the back room, while I was cleaning up. Hey everybody," Buck bellowed, "Chris has one more gift to open."

The rest of the group had been in the kitchen playing poker. They converged into the den to spot the Birthday Boy, staring curiously at a long blue velvet box.

"Who's it from?" Mary asked, from behind Chris, "Here, read the card."

Chris opened the card and scanned the brief note. His face was a puzzle, and he re-read the note.

"Well?" Ezra inquired.

"It's a poem," Chris replied, "Called 'Soldier',

An armor forged of Faith and Will
Protects the valiant heart
Weary limbs and a bloodied soul endure
While fallen comrades with unseeing eyes
For a greater glory, silently depart.

"Extraordinary," Ezra praised, "I don't believe I know that one, Josiah?" He quizzed, knowing the ex-preacher was a fan of poetry.

"New to me," Josiah nodded, "Wish I did know the author."

"Aw shit," Vin hissed, from the doorway, as Chris lifted the lid.

Chris had radar when it came to the sharpshooter and heard the soft swear. He looked up at Vin shifting from foot to foot, as nervous as a new bride. Vin shook his head, indicating he didn't want Chris to open the box. Before Chris could inquire why Vin was so upset, the others started to goad him into opening the box. Chris kept his eyes on Vin, who nodded uncomfortably, realizing the box was already half open. Chris carefully continued and lost his breath upon the sight that met his eyes. He was afraid to move, or even touch it. Mary gasped outwardly, stunned.

"Holy Shit!, Is that real?" Buck admired, peering over Chris's shoulder, "Well go on Pard, pick it up."

Chris was too stunned to speak. The beautiful twenty-nine inch sword that was displayed before him blinded his eyes. The top mount and hilt were gold, with U.S. cut in and a gold eagle. The grip was sharkskin. Chris lifted the heirloom from the box and withdrew it from the scabbard. It was in pristine condition, with only a few nicks in the blade.

"My Lord," Ezra gasped, "That's a beauty. Is there a Certificate of Authenticity with it?"

"Uh...I don't..." Chris stammered, still in shock.

He'd been collecting Civil War Memorabilia since High School and recognized the style of the sword. He'd seen some at trade shows and in museums. But the one that rested in his hands, was the finest he'd ever laid eyes on. He knew, from his research, that the cost of the antique was high, well over three thousand dollars. Vin didn't have that kind of money. What the hell was he thinking? Chris's face darkened.

"Vin, I can't accept this..." He blurted the words in his head harshly and shoved the box away, not realizing until too late, they were airborne.

Buck and Ezra were in front of the anguished gift-giver and saw the crestfallen man face dissolve into hurt. He turned into the kitchen and Buck went after him. By the time he caught Vin, the hurt had evolved into anger.

"Fuckin' selfish, self-centered son-of-a-bitch. Hope he chokes on that damn pride of his..." Vin said, grabbing his coat.

"Wait a minute, Vin," Buck blocked him, "He got hit right between the eyes. Don't go flying off the handle. He'll come around..."

Vin threw Buck off and fled out into the dark, rainy night. Buck caught him and grabbed his keys.

"Oh no, you don't. You not riding that damn bike with a hot head in this storm. You go to barn and be pissed off."

Vin glared at him, then took the steps two at a time, heading for the barn.

J.D. was at the door when Buck returned. He was almost at angry at Vin.

"Buck, you better talk to him. It'll break Vin's heart if Chris don't take it. You don't know what he went through to get that. What's Chris's problem?"

"Chris would cut his arm off before he'd hurt Vin," Buck watched the head disappear into the barn, "Maybe he just needs someone to remind him of his manners."


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