Silent Night

by SueN.

Disclaimer: Not mine, dammit. They weren't in my stocking, or even my neighbors' stockings (and, boy, were those folks surprised to find me looking!)

Notes: This takes place during the Seven's first Christmas together. Yes, I know it's a bit late, but it was written for a friend on another list, and I had to wait for it to clear there before putting it anywhere else. And no Vins were hurt during the writing of this fic.

Feedback: Please

Vin Tanner tacked his horse with sure, easy movements, growling at the animal to settle when he grew fractious, slapping away the mouth that kept trying to bite him, giving him a knee to the belly when he inflated his lungs to interfere with the tightening of the cinch. Twice the gelding managed to slip the bit from his mouth, and the second time Vin reached up and grabbed one black ear, twisting it sharply until he had Peso's attention and glaring into startled dark eyes.

"You listen ta me, mule," he snarled. "I ain't got the time 'r the patience fer this! I don't aim ta spend all evenin' wrasslin' with ya, 'n if'n you don't mend yer ways, I'll skin ya like a goddamn buff 'n jerk yer meat. You hear me?"

Peso's free ear worked back and forth as he considered the harsh words, and his fat pink tongue came out to slide back and forth over his lips. Finally convinced of his rider's dominance, he settled once more and whickered softly.

Tanner smiled slightly and released the ear, then scratched behind it. "Goddamn mule," he murmured with rough affection. "Y'ain't worth the peso I paid for ya."

He put the bit once more between the gelding's teeth, skillfully avoiding the habitual attempt to bite him, then checked all the cinches and straps one last time, assuring himself he would not be dumped on the freezing desert floor. He secured his bedroll and swung his saddlebags into place, then slid his rifle into its boot. And though he gave no sign of it, he listened intently to the opening and closing of the livery door, and to the muted sounds of footsteps falling against the hay.

"Damn," he sighed softly, "why cain't they jist leave me be?"

"Kinda cold for a ride, ain't it?" asked a warm, deep rumble of a voice.

Vin sighed again and rested his head momentarily against the saddle. He'd more than half expected one of the others to come after him, had only wondered which one it would be. He'd felt sure it wouldn't be Chris, was certain the gunfighter understood as few others could his need to get away for the night. But that left five others, and, damn 'em all, they'd sent the most persuasive.

"I've known colder," he answered at last, lifting his head and making one last search of his saddlebags to make sure he had everything he might need.

Josiah Sanchez leaned against a post and crossed his arms against his chest, watching through kind, concerned blue eyes as the young man before him made preparations to leave. He couldn't say he was surprised. He'd seen as clearly as anyone else how the crowds of people thronging the streets, boardwalks and businesses in town had rubbed against the solitary tracker until his nerves were frayed to the point of snapping, and more than once he'd watched Tanner all but run out of the saloon, hardware store or mercantile, unable to breathe and almost sick from the press of people and walls about him.

He'd hoped, however, that Vin would be able to overcome his dislike of crowds and close spaces enough to share this, the seven's first Christmas Eve together, in this town, with the men who had become his friends. His family.

"Yeah, I reckon you have," the preacher sighed sadly, seeing the tight set of Tanner's shoulders beneath his coat and the watchfulness of the blue eyes that were never still. "I reckon you've known a lot of cold nights and a lot of unpleasantness in your life. I was kinda hopin', though, that you'd see that don't necessarily have ta be the case no more. Got a warm place for ya here, Vin," he said gently. "Got friends who'll miss spendin' this night in your company. I was kinda hopin' you'd choose that over another cold night alone."

Vin's hands faltered as he fastened his saddlebag, and he bowed his head, dropping his arms to his sides. "Chris send ya?" he asked softly.

Josiah chuckled quietly and shook his head, amused by the tracker's suspicion that the gunfighter wasn't quite as unconcerned as he seemed. "Nope. Fact is, Brother Chris suggested we leave you alone. Said he'd hate for Nate ta have ta spend Christmas Eve patchin' up whichever one of us you shot." He arched two heavy graying brows. "You gonna shoot me, Vin?"

Tanner sighed heavily and turned slowly to face the big man. "Only if'n you gimme a reason to," he rasped softly. "Y'ain't gonna try draggin' me outta here, are ya?"

Josiah threw back his head and laughed aloud at the notion. "And get myself mauled by a Texas wildcat?" He laughed again and raised big hands in surrender. "No, thanks. Folks're expectin' me ta preach tonight, and I'd hate ta disappoint 'em."

Vin nodded tersely. "Then I reckon I won't shoot ya." He narrowed his eyes and hitched his thumbs into his gunbelt, scowling at Sanchez. "Why're you here, then?" he demanded in a low, gravelly voice, still deeply suspicious. "If'n y'ain't set on draggin' me out, I mean?"

Josiah exhaled slowly, his mirth fading, and shoved his hands into his pockets, staring sadly at the defensive young man before him. The blue eyes were cold and wary, his face set hard, his lean, taut frame radiating tension. Sanchez shook his head slowly, knowing no power on earth could keep Tanner in town when his hackles were so high.

"I'm sorry, son," he breathed sorrowfully. "I guess I didn't realize just how hard all this has been on you." He tilted his gray head slightly to one side, his expression thoughtful. "Ain't easy, is it?" he mused. "After so many years alone, suddenly to find yourself in the midst of people, to be surrounded by walls when all you've known is the freedom of wide open spaces... It's gotta be hard on you. I'm sorry I didn't see that before."

Josiah's understanding touched oddly on Vin's raw nerves, tore a soft gasp from him and sent his defenses crumbling. With a weary sigh, he sank to the hay-strewn floor and sat cross-legged upon it, bowing his head and resting his forearms on his thighs. His shoulders slumped, the tension gone from them, and his hands dangled loosely between his legs.

Josiah moved slowly forward and sat down nearby, careful not to crowd the young man too closely. With infinite patience, he remained silent, waiting for the tracker to talk.

Vin reached down and plucked a straw of hay from the floor, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger and staring fixedly at it. As ever, the big man's presence acted as a balm upon his troubled soul, smoothing the edges of his nerves, settling the churning of his stomach.

"It's jist... there's so many of 'em," he said at last, his voice soft, his words halting. He stared at the piece of straw turning between his fingers, but could see only the crowds that had been pressing against him for days. "Ever'where I go, there's more of 'em, talkin' loud, rushin' about... Ain't never seen so many of 'em at once," he breathed. "'N they's all bumpin' aginst me... Been shoved inta the wall I don't know how many times, 'n damn near run over by more wagons than I kin count. No matter where I go, what I do, I cain't git away from 'em, cain't breathe..." He absently pressed his hand to his aching chest, where for days a painful pressure had been building. "Cain't breathe!" he said again.

Josiah frowned slightly, thinking. "It's to be expected, Vin," he said quietly. "Tomorrow's Christmas. Folks're rushin' about, tryin' ta get everything ready... It's a busy time. And it's a jolly time. Folks are a little louder than usual. They laugh more, holler out greetings, slap backs, grab arms, give hugs." He shrugged his broad shoulders easily. "Folks just feel happier, feel a lightness in their spirits they don't often have. And they just wanta share that with others."

"Bin grabbed 'n touched so many times, I cain't stand it," Vin whispered, cringing at the very thought. "Feller grabbed my shoulder today... I damn near shot him. Took him fer a bounty hunter sneakin' up on me... Folks oughtn't do that!" he protested hoarsely, raising wide, troubled eyes to Josiah. "Oughtn't jist reach out 'n grab ya fer no reason... C'd git 'em kilt, 'n I sure as hell don't wanta kill nobody on Christmas Eve!"

"People don't mean no harm, Vin," Josiah said gently. "Could be they just wanta share some'a what they feel with you. Y'know, you got a lotta folks here in town who like you. They respect you. They just wanta share somethin' of what this season means to them with you." He peered closely at the tracker. "You do understand what this season means ta folks, don'tcha, Vin?"

Tanner's head came up sharply at that and his eyes flashed. "'Course, I do!" he snarled. "I ain't stupid!"

"Whoa, easy," Josiah soothed, raising his hands. "I didn't mean nothin' by that, and I've never thought you were stupid. Maybe a little lackin' in some experiences, but certainly not stupid. And I'm truly sorry if I offended you."

Vin sighed sharply and ducked his head again, his anger fading. "It's all right. I know ya didn't mean nothin'. I jist... I'm sorry," he muttered miserably.

Josiah took a chance and scooted closer, then reached out and laid a big, gentle hand on one slumped shoulder. To his relief, Vin did not try to move away. "You've got nothin' ta be sorry for, brother," he said quietly, his deep voice low and soothing. He searched the down-turned face intently. "You say you know what Christmas means to others," he said softly. "Why don't you tell me what it means to you?"

Vin winced. "Cain't really say," he breathed. "Ain't had Christmas in so long... Reckon I done fergot it."

Josiah frowned deeply at the younger man. "Forgot it? How can you forget Christmas?"

Vin shrugged and raised his head, meeting Josiah's startled gaze. "Didn't see no point in rememberin' it when I didn't have it," he said matter-of-factly. "Ain't no sense thinkin' on presents y'ain't gonna git, food y'ain't gonna eat, folks y'ain't gonna see... Mebbe it meant somethin' differ'nt when I's a kid, but it ain't been nothin' since then 'cept one more cold day spent tryin' ta keep warm, tryin' ta find somethin' ta eat, tryin' not ta git caught by no bounty hunters."

Josiah felt a sharp stab of pain for the young man, hurt to think that Tanner, who had such true goodness in him, should have been deprived for so long of the season where goodness was so warmly celebrated.

"Now I done made ya feel bad," Vin sighed sadly, seeing the hurt in the older man's eyes. "I didn't want that, Josiah, honest. I know what Christmas must mean to ya, you bein' a preacher 'n all, 'n I know Buck 'n JD are fit ta bust with what Bucklin calls 'the Christmas spirit,' 'n I know Nathan takes Christmas real serious. Hell, I cain't blame him, either. I mean, I once heard a preacherman say that Jesus come ta set us all free, ta break all the chains that hold us, 'n I reckon Nathan understands what that means better'n the rest of us ever will."

"But it's not only chains like the ones that held Nathan that Jesus came to break," Josiah said quietly, his gaze holding Vin's. "It's all the chains. The chains of sin, of sorrow, of despair and hopelessness. And loneliness. And I figure you understand those kinds of chains all too well."

Vin frowned in confusion. "But I ain't lonely, Josiah. Hell, mebbe I'se lonely when I's a kid, after my ma 'n grandpa'd died, but..." He shrugged again. "After a while, I jist got used ta havin' nobody. Sorta fergot what it's like havin' folks around. So I reckon I weren't really lonely. 'N I sure as hell ain't lonely now." A slight, crooked grin lifted one corner of his mouth and lit his blue eyes. "Shit, I got six fellers around me I couldn't beat off with a stick, 'n there's Nettie, 'n you know how she kin be. 'N there's Mary, Inez, Casey, Miz Potter, the Judge... Shit, y'all're a regular crowd!" He shook his head slowly, still smiling. "Hard ta feel lonely when ya cain't sneeze without somebody runnin' over 'n stickin' their hand on yer forehead, askin' if'n yer all right."

Josiah gave a wry chuckle. "I guess we are a somewhat overpowerin' bunch at times, aren't we? But you know," he gazed evenly at Vin, "we don't mean no harm. You're one of us, and we just tend to worry about you. The same as we do anyone else we care about. Maybe sometimes we do crowd," he admitted, "but I think it's just because we forget that you've led a more solitary life than the rest of us, and that you crave solitude when the rest of us try so hard to avoid it."

Vin regarded the preacher soberly. "Reckon mebbe I do need it more'n some," he allowed. "But it's easier fer me ta sort through things in my own mind when there ain't nobody else around. Easier fer me ta hear things."

"Hear what things?"

Vin shrugged and stared past the preacher. "Jist... things. My thoughts, the Spirits..." Sudden color flooded his face, and he bowed his head again. "Reckon I shouldn'ta told you that," he muttered softly, "you bein' a preacher 'n all. Likely you're gonna think I'm a heathen, too."

Sanchez frowned deeply, a spark of anger kindling in his eyes. "Who thinks you're a heathen, Vin?"

Vin smiled slightly at that low, menacing tone. "Don't worry, ain't nobody who matters. It's jist, y'know, after all that business with Chanu, some folks around here think I'm more Indian than white." He shrugged. "But it don't matter none. I bin called a heathen before, don't rightly reckon it means nothin'. 'Less'n you think so, too," he added softly, worriedly.

Josiah smiled reassuringly. "Son, I long ago lost the right to judge anybody for their beliefs. And until I can define God for myself, then I really can't define who He is or what He should be to anyone else, can I? Besides, some of the finest men I've known have been so-called 'heathens,' while some of the vilest acts on this earth have been committed by so-called 'Christians.' And many of those acts have been committed in the name of God, which I can only think makes the Almighty hang His head in shame and sorrow." He winked and slapped Vin's thigh lightly. "So you go on listenin' ta your Spirits. Because as far as I can see, they're leadin' you down a righteous path."

Vin squinted up at the big man. "You think so?"

"Well," Josiah's heavy gray brows knit together, and he scratched his whiskered jaw, "if you don't believe me, I reckon you could ask Nathan; you didn't have ta shoot him down from that tree, y'know. Or ask Nettie. Hell, ask nearly anybody in this town! You got serious business of your own that needs tendin', but you've put it aside to help these good people find some kinda peace, build a place where they and their families can be safe. If that ain't a righteous path, brother, then I'll be damned if I know what one is."

Vin frowned thoughtfully, turning over the big man's words in his mind. He'd never really given a damn before about what anyone thought of him, but lately had been struggling with the realization that what these six men, what the folks of this town, thought did matter, and mattered a great deal. And it frightened him to think that he, who had so little experience with and understanding of people, might somehow disappoint those who'd come to mean so much to him.

"You know we're havin' services tonight at the church," Josiah said quietly, watching the tracker, able to see the struggle taking place behind the blue eyes. "Gonna have caroling, readings from Scripture, a children's pageant, and I'm gonna preach a bit." He smiled suddenly, his blue eyes twinkling. "And Brother Ezra has volunteered to read 'A Visit from St. Nick.'"

Vin looked up at that. "Volunteered?" he asked, a slight smile tugging at his mouth. "Y'mean since Inez is closin' the saloon early 'n he won't be able ta gamble, he ain't got nothin' else ta do."

"Well," Josiah's smile broadened, "you could put it that way, I suppose. But I prefer to think he was unexpectedly moved by the spirit of the season." He gazed fondly at Vin. "And you know there's always a place for you in my church," he said softly. "Even if it's a dark and quiet place in the back. You don't have to be alone, Vin, and you don't have to be cold. Our Lord came this night to draw people such as you, people who've been alone and cold for far too long, into the light and warmth of His presence."

"Ain't got no church clothes," Vin muttered, again hanging his head.

Josiah reached out and slipped a big, gentle hand under Tanner's chin, lifting his face until their eyes met. "He doesn't expect you ta dress up for Him, son," he said softly. "Remember, He came to us in a stable, born of poor folk who had little more than you. He spent His life in the company of beggars, prostitutes and outcasts, and scorned the wealth and finery of earthly princes. He simply wants you to come to Him as you are, with an open heart and a willing soul. All He wants, Vin, is for you to come out of the cold and the dark, and find a place for yourself in His light."

Vin stared into the deep, compelling blue eyes, and felt something in them -- what? faith? but in what? in him? -- tugging at his soul. Yet still uncertainty gripped him. These past few days, all he'd wanted was to get away, to escape the crush and the noise, to get away to the quiet so he could hear...


A memory stirred within him. Warm hands holding his, hands bigger than his own, protecting, guiding, loving. He recalled the sharp cold of a Texas night nipping at his nose and cheeks, remembered blankets heaped about him as his grandpa drove the wagon over deeply rutted roads to the small church that awaited them. And though he could no longer see the church in his mind, he could feel its warmth, first from the stove that glowed in the corner, then from the heat of bodies that filled it, and could smell the candles and the rich, fragrant greenery that adorned the simple whitewashed walls. And there was the sound of music, of singing, of his grandpa's deep, rumbling voice like thunder rolling down from the hills, of his mother's light, sweet voice, rising to heaven in a prayer...

That was what he wanted to hear. Those voices, reminding him of who he was, what he believed, what he wanted to believe. Voices he couldn't hear so much of the time, because of all the other voices and noises about him, voices he had to go out into the dark and the cold and the silence to hear...

Didn't he?

"I'll think on it some," he said softly, rising slowly to his feet and gazing down at Josiah, the shadows of half- remembered things darkening his eyes. "Cain't make no promises, though."

Josiah sighed and nodded, knowing that to push any more would be to push Vin away entirely. "I won't ask you to, son," he said quietly. "You be careful out there, you hear?"

Vin smiled slightly at the concern -- and understanding -- in that deep voice, in those wise, sad eyes, and nodded. "I will."

Josiah watched as Vin turned and went to Peso, as he took the reins and led the big gelding out of the livery, and disappeared into the darkening streets. When the tracker had gone, Sanchez lifted his gaze heavenward, staring past the rafters to the One who, like Vin, could not be confined within walls.

"Lord, watch over that boy," he murmured softly, sadly. "He's spent so much of his life runnin', he don't rightly know how ta stop. Been alone so long he don't rightly know how ta seek out others. Been cold so long, he don't rightly remember what it's like ta be warm. But You came this night to show a cold and lonely, fearful world these very things. Show them now to Vin, Lord. Take him in Your arms and gather him to Your heart. Bring our young brother out of the cold, Lord. Bring our young brother home. Amen."

He rose to his feet and left the livery with heavy steps and heavy heart, making his way to the church to finish preparations for this evening's services.

+ + + + + + +

Vin pulled the blanket more tightly about himself and clutched it closed with gloved hands, still cold despite it, his coat, the layers of clothes he wore beneath it and the blazing fire before him. Cold as he was, though, he could still breathe easier than he'd been able to in days, and the only voices he heard were those of the earth and the creatures of the night.

He exhaled slowly, releasing all his tension upon that breath, and lifted his eyes to the glittering heavens, fixing his gaze upon the stars he knew so well. Through so many nights in his life, those stars had been his only friends, steady and constant, the only companions never to die on him or turn on him. He'd learned to rely on them when his life had shown he could rely on no one else. Those stars were the only permanence he'd ever known.

Until he'd met up with six men who seemed to outshine even those stars, and whose steadiness and unwavering constancy even now amazed him.

Unbidden, thoughts of the six rose in his mind, lending him a warmth no fire ever could. He had not intended to think on his friends, had come out here to seek and listen to his Spirits. Tonight, though, the Spirits came to him in the guises of these men, and the trick appealed to Vin Tanner's wry and sometimes strange sense of humor.

He'd come out here to get away from those six, but, stubborn as they were, they'd found a way to follow.

He could see Buck Wilmington smiling broadly in appreciation of the joke, blue eyes gleaming mischievously, dark brows wagging up and down, his whole face alight with wicked pleasure. His tall, lanky frame exuded warmth and strength, and his long arms opened for one of the long, fierce hugs for which he was so famous. Now and again he even managed to catch Vin in one, and though the first time the tracker had fought like a wildcat caught in a trap, he was slowly learning to accept them, perhaps, in some part of himself, even to like them. Buck seemed able to shelter the whole world in those arms, against that broad chest, and Vin was gradually coming to understand just how precious such shelter could be.

Shelter of another kind could be found in Josiah Sanchez, with that great, ground-shaking voice, those knowing eyes, and the strength that could cripple a man or carry him. The preacher had known saints, but seemed to prefer the company of sinners, maybe because he knew what it was like to be bent and broken on the rocks of life, seemed to know what it was like to reach for the light and come up with only handfuls of more darkness. But like the battered, run-down church he'd made his own, Josiah offered sanctuary to every weary soul in need, and Vin had never known the doors of that great, scarred heart to close against anyone seeking refuge from the storm.

And should the storm prove particularly violent and hurtful, healing could always be found in the big hands of Nathan Jackson. For all his size and strength, the man was astonishingly gentle, and the soul that still bore the scars of cruel slavery was a bottomless well of compassion. The man had every reason to be bitter, to lash out at the world that had lashed him, but somehow he'd risen above what had been done to him and had chosen healing over hatred. So many times, Vin had felt those wondrous hands on him, soothing his fever, easing his hurts, and had rested easier simply knowing he lay in the shelter of the dark man's care.

Not all the six, however, took their strength from their size or the experience of age. JD Dunne was the smallest and youngest of them, but in courage and greatness of heart, Vin reckoned him the equal of any of the more physically imposing and older men. The boy was all raw nerve and sheer grit, sometimes far more heart than head, a David willing to take on any Goliath when someone he loved or something he knew to be right was at stake. He had a faith that couldn't be broken no matter how hard it was shaken, had a soul that refused to admit defeat, and a heart bigger than any mountain range Vin had ever seen. JD might age, but he'd never be old, and he was an endless marvel to Vin Tanner, who found it hard to remember ever having been that young.

Another marvel was Ezra Standish, the smooth-talking, fancy-dressing gambler whose molasses-thick Southern drawl concealed a wit as sharp and fast as a rattler's strike. He gazed at the world through jaded green eyes, always alert for any angle, searching for a weakness to exploit for his own ends. But lately, to his own horror and his friends' amusement, Ezra had discovered he had a heart, a conscience, and that he cared far more for his six companions and the town they protected than he could bear to admit. He, like Vin, was learning painful lessons in how to trust and be trusted, was slowly overcoming the habits of wariness and distance honed through a hard and hurtful life and struggling to let others inside walls so carefully constructed over the years. Standish could still take refuge behind fifty-dollar words and fancy suits, but more and more the real man beneath the glib grifter was beginning to slip through, and Vin found himself not only understanding, but actually liking Ezra, though just talking to him could make the tracker's head hurt something fierce.

Yet over them all towered a long black shadow, a figure of seething, deadly menace whose soul was as familiar to Vin as his own. From the moment their gazes had locked across a dusty street, Vin had known Chris Larabee as he'd never known anyone else, had recognized the lean, hard gunfighter as another part of himself. Until he'd met Chris, Vin had never understood friendship, had never wanted it, had never imagined it existed. All at once, though, it had come to him with all the force of a spring flood, as unstoppable as the turning of the earth and as necessary for his survival as the air he breathed. Chris was the hand that reached out and drew him from the familiar comfort of his shadows to the warmth and light of the fire, was the firm presence that held him steady when he would have spooked and run. In a life marked by abandonment and betrayal, Chris Larabee was the first man ever to stand at his side, to back him no matter the reason or the odds, to show him that not every burden had to be shouldered alone. For the first time since his childhood, when the winds howled and the storms raged, Vin Tanner had someone he could hold on to, someone who would anchor him and pull him to safety and stay with him until all was calm again.

All is calm, all is bright...

He tensed and cocked his head, listening as the cold wind carried the words to him from across the years. His mother's light voice, lifted in song during a Christmas service long ago, joined now by his grandpa's deeper one, the two of them flanking a small boy who felt their warmth like a living blanket about him. He closed his eyes and listened harder, trying to remember the words of the song, trying again to see the two people who'd once meant home to him.

But while their faces remained vague and their voices distant, six other faces and voices, and the faces and voices of an entire town with them, flooded his mind with such strength and clarity that he gasped and reeled from the impact. Buck beaming, Josiah knowing, Nathan comforting, JD shining, Ezra challenging, and Chris beckoning, green eyes inviting as he held out a hand once more toward a friend who clung to the shadows...

Without thinking, Vin raised his hand to Chris, instinctively seeking the strong forearm clasp that was theirs alone. But his fingers encountered only air and the vision vanished, leaving him awash in a sea of loss. And all at once the night was too dark and the world too silent, and he was colder than he'd ever been. He looked up at the stars, but they were distant, frigid, lacking the warmth and light he'd once thought they held. And the loneliness of this place was more than he could bear.

You don't have to be alone, Vin, and you don't have to be cold. Our Lord came this night to draw people such as you, people who've been alone and cold for far too long, into the light and warmth of His presence.

Josiah's words brought him to his feet without a second thought. He wiped a gloved hand across his eyes and nose, then began gathering up his gear, knowing this was not where he belonged. All that he'd tried to escape had simply come after him, sent by his Spirits to show him that his days of running were over.

You say you know what Christmas means to others. Why don't you tell me what it means to you?

"Home," he whispered unsteadily into the night. "I reckon it means it's time ta go home."

+ + + + + + +

"...And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them at the inn."

Josiah's deep, resonant voice rolled out in rich waves over the crowded, silent church, flowing against ears and pouring into hearts, bringing the words of Luke's Gospel to life. Before him on the lectern, his worn and ragged Bible was open to the passage, but he had no need to consult it, for the words of this night were etched indelibly upon his mind and soul.

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid." His deep, shining blue gaze swept over his gathered congregation, and, as it lingered upon the five stalwart men who were his friends, he knew much of how those shepherds had felt. These men were his flock, and he would watch over them no matter how long and dark the night.

"And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people...."

At that moment, Josiah's eye was caught by the slow opening of the door in the back, and by the figure that crept silently in. His heart rose sharply within him and tears stung eyes as he recognized the slouch hat, the hide coat, the lean frame, as he saw his sixth sheep, his lost sheep, returning to the fold.

"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord."

New strength filled his voice as he proclaimed the words from his heart. He spoke to everyone gathered before him, yet his eyes saw only one person, the young man hovering just at the edge of the shadows, torn between seeking refuge in the familiar darkness, or taking his place in the light. His gaze caught Vin's, held it, and, from then on, his words were meant only for the tracker.

"And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men...."

Vin swallowed hard as Josiah's words rolled over him in a warm, rich tide, as the great voice unlocked a flood of memories and brought tears sliding down his face. He let them fall, though, knowing it was safe to do so here. He could see his friends: Buck and Nathan towering above those about him, JD covertly holding Casey's hand, Ezra's red coat shining like a beacon, and Chris, even Chris was here, sitting in the back, Mary Travis on one side of him, an empty chair on the other. And as Vin watched, though the blond head never turned, though the man never gave any indication that he knew, a hand slid into the chair and patted it once in invitation, then returned to his lap.

And Vin Tanner removed his hat, wiped the tears from his face, and stepped silently out of the shadows, walking slowly but surely toward that chair, and toward all it represented.

He'd come home for Christmas.

The End

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