"Ezra...you awake?" Nathan asked, through his chattering teeth. The cold room had left both men chilled to the bone.
"As inviting as this environment is for slumber," Ezra shifting, hissing in pain, "Here I sit."
"Did you see that?" the dark-skinned healer asked.
"That light...there!" Nathan saw the flash again, just as the light flashed on them, blinding them.
"Shit!" Nate turned, his eyes not accustomed to light.
"It's not bad enough I'm forced to spend eternity in this Godforsaken place," Ezra pained, shielding his eyes. "I'm to be rendered blind as well."
"Ezra I do believe you'd give the devil a run for his money."
"Mr. Sanchez?" Ezra's voice rose a full octave and Josiah had to smile.
"In the flesh."
"What the hell took you so long?" The irate healer snapped.
"Good to see you too, Nate." Josiah replied. "Either of you hurt? Can you walk?" He asked, hoisting himself up through the hole and onto the floor.
"Ezra's got some cracked ribs. I'm okay." Nate replied, gripping Josiah's hand "You're a sight for sore eyes, Josiah."
"I echo Mr. Jackson's sentiments completely." Ezra said, allowing Josiah to help him up.
"Easy there," Josiah held onto Ezra, hearing the sharp intake of breath. "The first step is tricky." He led the injured man over to the ancient staircase.
"How'd you find us?" Nate asked, "For that matter, where the hell are we?"
"I don't know, Nate." Josiah answered honestly. "We were in the basement looking for you two, when I got thrown forward and the wall sealed behind me. I..." the man-of-the-cloth paused
as his flashlight picked up a small piles of bones in the corner. "You bastard..." He whispered...remembering Vin's pained testimony of the little girl who was lost. "You threw her away...My God..." He dropped down and saw the ballerina doll in the dirt next to the bones. He took his sweatshirt off, glad for the turtleneck and flannel shirt under it. He wrapped her remains and tied the bundle with the sleeves. He bowed his head and said a silent prayer for the little lost soul.
"Josiah?" Nate laid a hand on the broad shoulder. He'd seldom seen the ex-preacher so upset. "Who was that?"
"Her name was Grace. She was only about four. The old man murdered her and tossed her down here. Vin's been seein' her all night. She's lookin' for her Mama. She's lost...poor lamb. I'm not leaving her."
He handed the light to Nathan, who led the way up towards, what they hoped was freedom.
"Try again." Buck said from the fireplace. "This is the last tile." He stood bracing himself. They'd tried every conceivable spot on the hearth.
"Buck..." Chris paused, hand on the candelabra by the door. "When it gets close to twelve, I want you to either tie me up or lock me in the bathroom."
"That why you gave J.D. that gun?" Buck inquired, seeing the fear on Chris's face. "He won't be able to shoot you no more than you'd be able to hurt Vin."
"Promise me." Chris demanded.
"Look Chris, Vin snapped out of that spell in the kitchen when that thing possessed him. What makes you think you won't be able to fight it off too."
"I got a darkness in me, Buck." Chris eyed his oldest friend. "Vin don't. He's stronger than I am. Promise me."
"Alright." Buck nodded, eyeing his watch "Damn, it's after eleven thirty."
Chris threw the ancient light fixture sideways and Buck felt the floor disappear. He grabbed the edge and held on. "It worked. Bring the light over."
"Wait a second." Chris answered, "I'm going to tie this thing down, so that hole won't close up." He secured the bracket in place and took his flashlight over to where Buck's head was peeking through the floor. He flashed downwards, to a long, crude slide.
"NATE...EZRA...JOSIAH..." Buck screamed, hearing his voice echo. "I wish we had a rope. I hate flying without a net." He cast out, eyeing the seemingly bottomless pit.
"You're gettin' old, Stud." Chris teased.
"Yeah," Buck chuckled, "How about that?"
"Come on, I'll give you a hand up." Chris offered.
"Can't to it, Pard." Buck said. "I'm going down there."
"Buck you can't. You don't know where that goes. We don't even know if they're alive."
"I got no choice, Chris. What if they laying down there hurt? We're losing time."
"We know how it works." Chris said, eyeing his watch. "You can't go now. No tellin' what's going to happen at midnight. Vin's still out cold and J.D.'d be alone. We'll update them and then you lock me in. After it passes, we'll find them together."
"I don't like it," Buck hoisted himself up and climbed out. "But I guess we got no choice."
+ + + + + + +
"There's no door." Ezra sighed, eyeing the stone walls of Josiah's prison. "Where did you enter?"
"Well," Josiah eyed the bloodstain where his head hit the wall. He followed it across to the wall facing it. "Right about there. Nate, throw that light around and look for something out of place."
"A loose stone, maybe. There's a trigger in here that will spring us out." Josiah followed the light. He pressed the button on the side of his watch and the time illuminated. "Shit...it's eleven forty five. We only have fifteen minutes."
"I know I'll regret asking this." Ezra hissed, clutching his ribs, "What, pray tell, happens at midnight?"
"Old Angus is riding up from the bowels of hell on a blood mission." Josiah drilled, "and he's gunning for Vin Tanner."
+ + + + + + +
"Any change?" Chris said, entering the parlor and dropping at Vin's side. Vin looked awful, his color was terrible and the hand Chris gripped was like an ice cube.
"No, and he's not any warmer." J.D.'s voice matched the concern in his face. "He's needs a hospital."
"We found the opening." Buck said. "We came to check on you two younguns." He ruffled J.D.'s dark hair.
"Cut that out," the youth protested. "I won't let anything happen to him."
"I know that Kid," Buck answered seeing Chris nod. He watched the lost green eyes as they pulled the quilt up under Vin's chin and brushed the hair off his face.
Chris turned then and didn't look back. "Let's go Buck. He'll be back J.D."
"Chris, where you going? Chris?" J.D. called after the pair. He moved across the room and sat next to Vin.
"Lock it behind me." Chris ordered, entering the bathroom.
"Hey, Chris..." Buck said, as the lock turned. The thought was left hanging, but Chris heard the catch in Buck's voice and winced. He knew how it hurt Buck to have to lock him up.
"I hear ya, Pard." He said, "I'll buy the first round when we get outta here. Buck, no matter what happens, don't let Vin get hurt. Do whatever it takes. Promise me."
"Yeah..." Buck whispered, patting the door. He glanced as his watch. It was ten minutes to midnight.
+ + + + + + +
Chris watched the second hand sweep around as the last few seconds crept by. He was sitting on the edge of the tub. His hair stood on end as the temperature in the room plummeted. The fixtures rattled and a whirlwind blew through the area. He gasped in pain as an icy blast slammed into him. He rose, wearing a confident smile and approached the shelf by the door. Chris Larabee didn't know where the key was hidden, but Angus Stewart did. He wore an evil smile as he unlocked the door.
+ + + + + + +
J.D. shifted uneasily on the sofa as midnight was born. He was sitting with his back to Vin at the tracker's waist, facing the arched entryway to the room. His eyes were glued to the frame, where Buck stood guard.
"Aw, shit..." He heard Buck gasp and saw an unnatural fear on his friend's face.
"Buck...what is it?" He stood, his heart hammering.
"Stay back, J.D." He warned, "Where's the gun?"
"I put it down." J.D. looked around. "I can't find it."
"Damn it, J.D." Buck screamed, taking off towards the stairs, "Get the gun!"
"What the hell?" J.D.'s voice died as he came up to the doorway vacated by Buck. The tall agent was in the foyer as Chris Larabee's body came down the stairs. The smile he wore chilled both men to the bone.
"Chris..." Buck said, backing up. "Stay away."
The leader smiled at he foot of the stairs, and his eyes began to glow a brilliant red.
"Shit...Shit..Buck...Aw, Shit..." J.D. hissed, then he saw the knife in Chris's hand. "Buck, where'd he get that?"
"I don't know, J.D." Buck hissed, "Get the damn gun and get you ass over by Vin."
J.D. dropped to the floor and saw the gun, under a chair several feet away. He dashed across the room and grabbed for it. He just stuck his head up as the deep, ghoulish laughter started, cascading through the room. He watched Buck approach Chris.
"Chris, you got to fight him." Buck pleaded to something beyond the glowing red eyes, hoping somehow Chris Larabee could hear him. "Let him go, you bastard and go back to Hell where you belong." He shoved Chris hard, and watched the smile form and the evil laughter resume. "Aw, hell." He hissed as the blade slashed his ribcage, he darted and managed to grab the arm welding the blade. The entity picked him up as if he were a ragdoll and tossed him across the room. He smashed against the wall and landed with a thud, sliding down in a heap.
"Buck..." J.D.'s voice wavered, as the body fell and didn't move. "Oh God..." he backed up in front of the sofa where Vin was lying. He tripped over the table and lost the gun. "Please Chris...Don't do this....Chris come out of there." He dodged the first arc of the blade and winced at the cruel laughter echoing through the room. The red coalish eyes had him unnerved. "Vin...wake up...Vin...Vin..." He screamed, shaking the sofa hard and kicking at Chris. One powerful blow from the entity's hand send him into the fireplace. The force of the blow took the air of him and J.D. crumpled to the ground.
The demon felt Larabee fighting to resume control. His strength surprised the entity greatly and he fought hard to maintain control. He leaned over the pale figure of Vin Tanner and waved the knife in front of the closed eyes. He heard the boy on the floor scream in protest. He threw his head back and laughed. He traced the blade over Tanner's jaw and throat without causing a mark. He was enjoying the boy on the floor screaming. He snarled as Larabee nearly unseated his hold on the body. Enough playing. He stuck the knife in the waistband of the pants and pulled Tanner's inert body upright. The eyes fluttered and two confused blue orbs locked onto his face.
He saw the pale lips form Larabee's name and felt the lion inside the body he possessed, roaring in protest. He gripped Tanner's shirt tightly, furious at the power Larabee held.
J.D. watched in horror as Chris lifted Vin in the air and threw him across the room. The sharpshooter crashed into the piano and J.D. heard the snap of a bone as Vin's left arm made contact with the floor. The cry of pain that followed sounded like music to the dazed youth.
Buck watched the same horrific scene as J.D. He felt the blood running down his back from where the gash opened in the back of his head. He tried to sit up or even lift his arm, but was unable to function or focus. He blinked back the curtain that threatened to fall and watched Vin sit up, his blue-eyes like saucers. He blinked at Buck and swallowed hard. Buck saw Vin trying to crawl to him.
"Vin..." Buck gasped. "Vin...get out of here...go..."
"Buck?" Vin whispered, cradling his broken left arm against his chest and wondering why he felt so sick. His stomach was upset and he felt dizzy. He saw the blood on the wall behind Buck and noticed Buck blinking rapidly. "Yer hurt...What happened Buck?"
"NO!" Buck screamed.
Vin followed Buck's heart-wrenching scream. He turned to see Chris's back and the muscular arm slash J.D. with a knife. He saw the youth drop to all fours, clutching his side. He heard the demonic laughter and struggled to his feet. He staggered over to where Chris was standing over J.D's unprotected back. He saw the red eyes glowing as the knife raised high over J.D.'s neck began its decent.
"Leave him alone." Vin growled, "It's me ya want."
Chris turned and snarled, unleashing a string of ancient Indian dialect. He slashed at Vin who managed to grab the flying arm. But the entity had superhuman strength and eyed Vin's injured arm. He smiled and slammed his fist into it, sending the younger man screaming to floor, writhing in pain. He raised the knife at Vin's struggling body.
"Vin!" Buck cried out.
The tracker moved on instinct and the potential deathblow glanced off his collarbone. He hissed at the skin was penetrated and blood began to flow. He rolled away from Chris and spotted the gun.
J.D. saw Chris raise the knife and managed to get to his feet and throw himself at the possessed leader. Chris was caught off guard and dropped to his knees. Wheeling around he growled and unleashed more unrecognizable dialect and struck the boy hard in the jaw. J.D. dropped down and Vin saw Chris raise the knife over the youth's back.
"No!" Buck screamed as the shot rang out. His eyes went from J.D. to Chris's body flying backwards to Vin, who was totally shattered. The gun fell from his hand and Buck saw the shocked man trembling visibly and moving haltingly towards Chris.
"Vin...watch...it...," He warned, unable to see Chris's eyes.
"Chris..." Vin gasped, numb all over and reeling from the events of the few moments. His arm throbbed and he felt blood running down his chest. He was dizzy and felt sick. There lying in a heap on the floor, with a puddle of blood under him, was his best friend, whom he'd just shot. "Please don't be dead..." He whispered, dropping to Chris's side. He placed a tentative hand on the blond's shoulder. He realized his mistake too late.
Chris's hand plunged upwards and he grinned ferally as the blade buried in the shocked man's thigh. Vin never uttered a sound; his face was painted with shock and pain. He stared at the red eyes, only inches from his own. "Chris...I need ya...Chris..." he pleaded, feeling the other's hand reaching for the knife. He saw a slight hesitation in the stranger's face. It was as if a ghost image appeared.
"Noooo!" The unearthly cry came from the tormented blond's lips as he fought to free his body of the evil that possessed it. The entity battled back and hauled Vin upright, gripping his broken arm. Vin screamed and heard Chris's call break through again. The double image reappeared as the demon struggled to gain control. Vin eyed the French doors and made a decision.
"There..." Nate pointed the light and Josiah bent down. Sure enough, the mortar was softer and with a little prying, the stone in the corner under Nate's beam, moved and the door opened.
"Hallelujah!" Nate hollered, helping Ezra to the staircase.
The group was in the kitchen when Chris's first heart-wrenching call came. They ran into the foyer and froze in their tracks. The red-eyed demon growled at them from Chris's body, unleashing a string of obscenities. They watched in horror as he lifted Vin effortlessly and slammed his hand into the Texan's broken arm. It happened in a split second as Josiah and Nate sprung. Vin threw his weight hard, sending both of them through the French Doors.
Vin felt pain radiating from everyplace on his body. His glassy eyes saw the mist hovering above them. Chris was lying under him and blinking at him. Green eyes...Vin sighed, thinking they were the best sight he'd every seen. He saw the mist falling and panicked. He covered Chris's body with his own, his good arm shielding Chris's head. "Ya can't have him. Get back to Hell where y'all belong."
The frustrated demon hovered, wavering and flitting, darting close enough to strike Vin in the back. He cried out in pain as he felt his flesh burn. Josiah pulled the cross out from around his neck and shoved his hand into the middle of the mist, screaming a prayer in Latin. A high pitched shrill sounded and the form disappeared.
"Vin." Josiah dropped to his side and gently pulled Vin off of Chris. He saw Chris staring up at him in confusion. He tugged at the black sweater and peeked underneath, spotting the shoulder wound. "You'll live, Boss." He reassured, but the fearful green eyes shifted sideways.
"Vin..." Chris whispered, over the pain that shot through him. His bloody hand reached over, needing to touch Vin. He tapped the pale face and felt his heart break. The guilt ate away him, causing him more pain than the bullet wound. He remembered every cruel deed he'd done to J.D., Buck and Vin. His best friend had offered his life, shielding him from the demon. Vin lay broken and bleeding beside him. His heart trembled. "Josiah..." He whispered, hopefully.
"Nathan!" The holy man screamed, and heard footsteps as Ezra and Nate appeared.
"Ezra go sit down before you fall down. If you pop a lung..."
"I have no intention of puncturing my lung, Mr. Jackson." Ezra helped Chris up and into the parlor. He took a discarded tee shirt and pressed it hard against Chris's wound. He felt the pain oozing from the wounded man and sighed in sympathy, knowing there was no way to comfort Chris Larabee.
J.D was sitting in a wing chair, holding a shirt against his wound. Buck had a crude bandage on his head and was lying on the sofa, unconscious. Josiah and Nate carried Vin inside and laid him on the floor. Nathan's actions were precise and he found Chris's eyes first.
"This White Boy is one tough hombre." He sighed. "Got a busted arm, a couple busted ribs, a nasty laceration near his collarbone, superficial cuts, a nasty burn on his back and that." He pointed to the knife stuck in Vin's thigh. "His pulse is good, but his breathing's uneven...and I'd guess his BP is low."
"He was in shock." J.D. said painfully, trying not to move. "He only woke up when Chris threw him at the piano."
"Josiah, see if you can fix them drapes," He nodded to the broken window. "It's freezing in here. I'm gonna need your help. We have a lot of work to do."
Vin never stirred as Josiah and Nate worked on him. They managed to make a crude splint for his arm and tended to his other wounds, except the knife, which they left alone. They covered him and turned their attention to Chris. The leader hadn't uttered a word. His eyes were heavy and his breathing was uneven. His pained gaze flitted from Buck to J.D. He couldn't bring himself to face Vin. He felt Nathan's hands and hissed as the antibacterial wash stung the wound. He let the curtain fall, not wanting to fight it, and not caring. He'd nearly killed his best friend and that was a wound no doctor could heal.
It took two hours, but finally all five patients were bandaged and resting. Josiah and Nate were exhausted. Nate managed to find a couple sandwiches and a bottle of ice tea, which they shared. Neither spoke, the experience was still too raw. "Get some sleep," Josiah finally spoke. "I'll watch over the flock."
It was near dawn when Nate sat up. He saw Josiah dozing in a chair between Vin and Chris. He stood and stretched intent on checking on his patients. He heard a noise, and cocked his head. It was a humming that turned into a motor. He recognized it and raced towards the door. He ran through the snow and waved frantically.
"Can you land?" Orrin Travis asked, recognizing Nathan and wondering why he was alone and bordering on hysteria.
"Yes Sir," The pilot replied.
+ + + + + + +
Chris opened his eyes slowly; blinking at the harsh sunlight that streamed into the room. He winced and felt his shoulder and saw the I.V. pole. He smelled her before he saw her; he could recognize that perfume anywhere.
"Hey Lady..." He croaked, reaching his good hand up and taking hers. His other arm was in a sling.
"Welcome back, I was starting to worry. You've been out over ten hours." She eased, running her hand through the short blond hair. "They took a bullet from your shoulder. You're going to be fine." She pressed the bed rise and brought him upright slightly. She held the water to his lips and saw the liquid disappear. He sank back as the harsh images reappeared. "Vin?" He turned, his green eyes full of despair.
"It's about damn time." A grumpy and groggy reply came. "...been waitin' on yer sorry ass fer hours."
"Vin?" Chris turned his head and saw the Texan wave weakly from his bed. He eyed the pale face, with dark circles under the eyes. His left arm was casted and in a sling, cuts scored his face and arms. Chris winced, remembering the blow that created the bulky leg bandage. Vin's good arm was resting over the broken ribs. He heard the ragged, painful breaths and flinched. "You look like shit."
"Just fer that," Vin sassed, "Next time I shoot ya, I'm aimin' lower."
Vin let all the relief he'd been storing inside, pour out through his eyes. His nightmares had been brutal, as he'd been forced to relive the horrid night in the haunted house. He'd tossed fitfully in the bed, seeing the glowing red eyes in Chris's face...and hearing the shot that sent a bullet into the body of his best friend. The brief exchange exhausted him and he sank back, gritting past the pain of the broken ribs. He blinked drowsily, feeling the effects of the painkillers. He fought sleeping, afraid that the violent reaction to the nightmares would upset Mary.
Chris sank back in the pillows and Mary saw the distressed face. She leaned over and kissed Chris tenderly, stroking his face. "I'll be back later. Get rid of that face" She whispered, of the guilt washing over his handsome features. "He's been awfully worried about you."
"He's alright, isn't he?" Chris looked so vulnerable, it nearly melted her. She caressed his face and nodded.
"He will be, he's got a lot of healing to do."
"You don't know the half of it," Chris whispered.
"He's been having bad nightmares," She eyed the weary Texan with worry, "Tossing around and screaming outloud. He's been sick too, and he's dehydrated. That's why he has an I.V. He needs you Chris. Don't push him away." She instructed and kissed him again; she felt his fingers dancing on her neck, as he returned the kiss.
"Ain't ya gonna kiss me?" Vin rasped, blue eyes teasing.
"I'd give you my gun and my horse, Cowboy," Chris grunted, turning onto his side, "But I ain't sharing my girl, get your own."
Mary laughed and squeezed Chris's hand. She paused at the sharpshooter's side and kissed his cheek, before departing. The next few minutes were unbearably long. Vin kept trying to see Chris's face, but the blond wouldn't meet his eye.
"It weren't Chris Larabee what done this." Vin said softly, eyeing the back of the blond head carefully. "It's important that ya understand that." He paused, hopeful, yet the head didn't move. He scowled and rubbed a hand over his tired features. He sighed deeply, instantly regretting it. His hiss of pain and soft cry brought the blond head up momentarily. He saw a brief glint of the green eyes study him and then retreat again. He was trying to form a thought, to rouse Chris out of his depression, but his eyes had other ideas. He let go and allowed himself to sleep.
When he woke up, it was dark outside. His queasy stomach didn't miss the dinner tray. He hadn't been able to keep food down all day. He was awfully hot and thirsty. He peeled back the thermal blanket and winced as he hitched himself upright. He was leaning over to get the water cup from his bedside, when he noticed Chris's legs moving towards him.
"Yer gonna fall..." He started to warn, when his voice dissolved into a choked cry. Chris was only a foot away from him, his eyes glowing red. His voice box managed to recover and sent an airborne message.
"Vin...Vin...Quit screaming." Chris placed his good arm on Vin's face, gripping his chin and ducking the thrashing arm. Vin's squeaking bed rocking woke him up. He saw the body moving restlessly and heard the forced breaths. He nearly fell twice getting over to the bed; the whole room was spinning around him. He shook Vin's head hard, until the two blue eyes opened, and then widened in fear.
"Get the hell away from me!"
"It's me, Vin." He said calmly, "You were dreaming." He left go when he felt Vin relax. He saw Vin staring at him hard, before rubbing his aching eyes.
"Sorry...Y'all shouldn't have come trippin' over here." Vin rasped painfully, cradling his ribs, "Yer likely to fall and put a dent in that pretty face of yers."
"Pretty face?" Chris wrinkled his nose and scowled, catching the half mast blue eyes, "Them's fightin' words, Cowboy."
"Not tonight..." Vin yawned and his eyes slid shut.
"I am now." Vin murmured.
Chris started to shuffle away and felt a tug on his hospital gown.
"Thanks." the soft drawl called.
"Just happened to be passing by," Chris returned, keeping his stance bedside.
"Do me a favor?"
"If I can."
"Get a robe. Iffen yer gonna be shufflin' around, It'll make my eyes less pained."
"You're lucky I got a soft spot for invalids." Chris returned, watching Vin's eyes slide shut. "Besides, you got balls talking about my ass."
"She's only a baby... " Vin murmured, his voice small and in pain, "It weren't right her dyin' like that." His voice faded. "... lookin' fer her Ma... Oh God... "
Chris felt every emotion behind Vin's painful testimony. He put a hand on Vin's chest and felt his heart hammering. He shook his head as the raspy breathing slowed down. He felt a pain in his own chest as he stared at the pale face, suffering in his sleep. He thought of the beautiful sunrise they had shared just days before and how moved his way by the Renaissance man's lyrical poem.
"But I could have told you Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you... "
Chris's hand brushed the hair off of Vin's face as his soft voice mimicked Don McLean's line from the haunting ballad.
Vin smiled and slept soundly through the rest of the night. Maybe it was a coincidence, but having his best friend watching his back, chased the nightmares away.
Daylight was streaming in the windows when Chris awoke next. The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes, was the remainder of his breakfast disappearing off of the tray in front of him. He saw a bandaged leg inclined next to his own. He watched for a few seconds and frowned in annoyance when the painful, high-pitched voice of Olive Oil assaulted his ears. He eyed Vin's profile and allowed a half smile. The younger man was unaware he was being watched. The blue eyes were crinkled in mirth and the face relaxed. When the Texan allowed himself to relax, he looked much younger. Chris noticed the bruises on Vin's pale face and recalled the haunting image of Vin sailing into the piano. He watched the hospital identification bracelet on Vin's wrist merge with maple syrup as the last of the pancakes disappeared.
"Make yourself at home." Chris croaked, grabbing the Orange Juice before the thief did.
"No sense lettin' it get cold," Vin piped, eyeing the meager remnants, "Seein' as how y'all was fixin' on sleepin' through breakfast. I's hungry and it smelled good."
Chris moved his head and stared over at Vin's bedstand, bearing a tray with only a small bowl and cup. Vin saw his curious look. "Least ya got real food. All I got was broth, crackers and tea. Ughhh!" He made face and saw Chris's question. "Somethin' to do with me thowin' up."
"That's comforting." Chris said sarcastically.
"I ain't gonna hurl on ya..." Vin snapped, then cocked his head and raised an eyebrow, "Least I'll try not to. I'll aim low..." Vin cautioned as Olive Oil's voice pierced the air.
"How can you watch that shit?" Chris said disdainfully of the cartoon.
"Can't figure two of 'em fightin' over the likes of her." Vin shook his head. "She ain't pleasin' on the eye and flatter than a board."
"It's a cartoon, Vin," Chris grunted, "Get a grip. How'd you get loose?"
"It weren't easy." Vin admitted, shifting in the bedside chair. "What with the IV pole and all...I leaned on the bed stand, got to the window and hopped over. I ain't supposed to be puttin' weight on m'leg or aggravatin' m'ribs."
"Imagine that." Chris yawned, and eyed the empty plate "I can't believe you ate my breakfast."
Vin cast a mischievous smile and eyed the juice container. "Y'all plannin' on drinkin' the rest of that?"
"YES!" Chris defended, grabbing it, "Vulture."
"The vittles ain't the main reason fer me bein' here." Vin lowered the sound and turned to face Chris. "What ya done back at that...well, ya know. I'm grateful...Yer one tough cowboy." He didn't hide the admiration in his voice.
"Grateful?" Chris cocked his head, "Vin I almost killed you."
"No ya didn't." He shook his head. "You stopped that murderin' bastard from killin' me. Can't y'all see that? Ya fought that devil with all yer heart...fer me." His voice choked and he paused, "I seen it...I felt it...I ain't never gonna ferget what ya done." His voice dropped and Chris felt the catch in the tone. He saw Vin's Adam's apple bobbing and the emotion in his face.
"I guess I didn't see it that way, Vin." He said softly reaching his good arm out and clasping his best friend's. "Thanks, Cowboy. I needed to hear that."
"Anybody else hoverin' over J.D. with a knife, I would have blowed their head clean off without a second thought." Vin added, "I didn't even aim...I didn't know until I crawled over...Fer a minute I thought I killed y'all. It felt..." He stopped, dropping his head.
"You couldn't kill me, Vin." Chris stated, waiting for the shaggy head to rise, "I guess we saved each other. That's what brothers do." He said quietly, drinking in Vin's smile. He tried to control his expression, fighting a grin off, as Nathan and Josiah appeared behind Vin in the doorway.
"I can't believe it! Damn it to hell Vin..." Nathan's voice bellowed and Vin cringed.
"Hey Nate..." He tried, sounding weak and pathetic. "I'm feelin' awful poorly. I reckon it's best if y'all keep yer voice down. Shoutin's likely to upset me."
"You heave and you leave." Chris warned the pale Texan, noticing Vin truly didn't look well.
"Don't you 'Hey Nate' me, Vin Tanner." Nate scowled, assisting Josiah in getting Vin on his feet. They each placed one of Vin's arms around their shoulders. "Keep that leg off the ground! I've got a mind to have them put restraints on you."
"Or at least a cowbell." Josiah wryly suggested.
"Best aim me at the toilet, 'siah." Vin gasped, eyeing the graying agent, "Them pancakes is comin' back in a hurry."
"Pancakes make you sick and a peanut butter and hot dog omelet doesn't?" Chris quizzed as they disappeared into the bathroom.
"You had to mention that, didn't you?" Nate said supporting Vin and trying to stay out of the line of fire. He saw Chris smile, the first real smile since he'd been admitted. Maybe Vin's trip wasn't a bad idea after all.
"I got it, Nate." Josiah stated, and Nate nodded, knowing the oldest wanted to talk to Vin alone. He eased the bathroom door shut and made his way over to sit by Chris.
"You look a little better," He commented, "How you feeling?"
"I'm not sure." Chris eyed the concerned brown eyes. "The shoulder hurts like hell." He paused, "But not as much as the memory does. All I see is Buck bleeding, J.D. scared to death and Vin sailing through the air. Jesus, Nate..." He sighed, "How the hell am I supposed to forget? I can still feel that bastard inside me. At least I'm not having nightmares. Vin's been busy enough for both of us."
"I guess he would be." Nate nodded, "I think Josiah can help. By the way, the knife they pulled out of Vin's leg," Nate offered, "was the murder weapon. They found the bodies, including Stewart's, but no weapon. Where'd you get that knife?"
"I can't remember, Nate." He shrugged, "How's J.D. and Buck?"
"They're on they're way up. Both of them got dismissed this morning. Ezra went home yesterday. He stopped and sat with you awhile, but you were asleep."
They remained quiet for a moment, and Nate noticed the empty tray. "Did you get any of that?" Seeing the negative nod, he stood up. "I'll get you another one."
Josiah got Vin cleaned up and back into bed. He looked awful and Josiah felt sorry for him. Throwing up is bad enough, but doing so over broken ribs is beyond painful. It took Vin several moments to regain his strength and open his eyes.
"Listen, Vin, It's about Grace." Josiah kept his voice low, easing his arms on the bed rails. He saw Vin's eyes widen and winced at the agony locked in the blue pools. "I found her." Vin sudden and sharp intake of breath at the statement caused a wave of pain. Josiah grabbed his hand until the spasm passed.
+ + + + + + +
"She was down that hole." Vin nodded, "She showed me...I seen 'im kill her. It was like I was right there," He shuddered, "I keep seeing her..."
"Once the they release her remains, I'm going to bury her with her mother and say some prayers. I thought you'd like to come with me." He suggested, and watched for several minutes as Vin struggled, before nodding once.
"Thanks, 'siah." He whispered, "Think I'll rest a bit."
"You take all the time you need, Brother." He guided, "I'm not going anywhere."
Buck and J.D. arrived a short while later, with Ezra in tow. The six spoke in halting tones of the awful nightmare they'd suffered through. Even Ezra struggled to put more than a few words together; it was just too painful to speak about. But being together and discussing the fearful event, was the healing touch they all needed to get over the trauma.
"How you doing, Chris?" Buck took advantage of the others moving over to Vin's bed and shared a private moment with his oldest friend.
Chris took a long moment in pause, studying the concerned face of the strong man who he loved like a brother. He nodded slowly and sighed deeply, "I did some thinking last night, in between rounds of Vin's bad dreams." He paused, eyeing his best friend starting to stir. "To tell you the truth, Buck, I feel like one lucky son-of-a-bitch."
"Funny," Buck sighed, "I was feeling the same way, myself. I woke this morning and it felt surreal... like it was a dream, seeing you come down them stairs, eyes glowing red... " He expelled a long breath and gripped the bed rails.
"It was surreal." Chris agreed, "I was a prisoner in my own body. I could see and feel everything, but I couldn't get out. You got no idea... seeing your own hands strike a friend. I felt his evil, Buck."
"You are living proof of the power of good over evil, Pard." Buck smacked the knee over the blanket. "You fought the devil and won. Ain't a man alive that can brag that. That takes major balls."
"Hell, Buck, I knew that... " Chris smirked and welcomed the deep laughter.
"Looks like Sleepy Beauty is holding court," Buck observed, as Vin's fuzzy smile emerged. "Hey, Junior... " Buck's eye crinkled in mirth, "I got a question about your pajamas... "
"Buck!" a chorus of voices warned, as laughter ensued.
Vin woke up and was immediately surrounded by his friends. He basked in the warmth of their presence, needed them now as much as any of the medicine that flowed through him. His emotive eyes softened as Buck teased J.D. unmercifully, and Josiah and Nathan recounted Ezra's embarrassing encounter with a nurse. He never needed them more and was reassuring at the hands that touched him in comfort. Lastly, over the warm banter, his eyes sought Chris and he felt the wounds on his soul healing.
Four days later, outside Stewart Hall
"You gotta wait here, Vin." Josiah stated eyeing the icy path to the grave. "It's all ice and you don't even work those crutches good on dry land." He handed Vin a printout of the prayers. "You can read along."
Vin watched the tiny box until it disappeared into the ground. He saw Josiah's lips moving and read along with him. The prayers were beautiful and Vin wiped his eyes when he was done. Josiah picked him up at the hospital and brought him up here. He ached from both his injuries and his memories. As horrible as the ordeal was, it was worth every stitch and bruise. No more would that little child be calling 'Mama' at night. She was a little angel now and alone no more.
He rested his head against the back of the seat and closed his eyes. He felt the car move and Josiah ease himself behind the wheel. The engine started and the heat blew through the vents, lifting the edges of his hair. He felt goosebumps rise and shivered. He opened his eyes and saw her staring at him, but she wasn't sad. Her small face was content and they shared a smile, before she disappeared, holding her mother's hand.
"Yer welcome." He said softly.
"You okay, Vin?" Josiah asked, seeing Vin's wistful expression.
"I am now." Vin said, letting the heat blowing on him and the gentle motion of the car lull him to sleep.
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