By Gil Hale - corbidae@yahoo.com

Part 6

The day had become another test of Chris’s endurance, a struggle, increasingly fierce, to keep everything together until he could escape the hospital. He’d handled the helicopter and the journey okay; as far as he could he’d kept his mind on things outside himself—Maria and the other ex-slaves; the old man’s letter; Vin bickering with Nathan about whether he really needed X-rays.

That argument had gone on long after they reached the hospital. Chris knew Vin didn’t want to agree to anything that might separate them. If he’d ever considered it, he’d dropped the idea after Chris had nearly lost it going into the ER.

Chris winced from the remembered feeling of humiliating panic. Maybe he’d done too well at keeping his thoughts away from himself and the recent past up till then. Ever since he’d scrambled over Alderways wall with Vin, he’d refused to think of the months there, the white-walled rooms, the drugs, the slow inarticulate struggle back to himself.

It had all rushed back in on him when he smelled that characteristic hospital smell and saw the nurses. He’d gripped Vin’s wrist so convulsively he must have bruised it.

“Ain’t the same,” Vin said softly, understanding what was behind the crushing hold. “I’m with you. Nate here’s only got t’ say the word and th’ rest of th’ team’ll be on their way. Yer out of Alderways and free. Y’ got t’ get used t’ being free again, same as those folk we just left. Y’ got rights, y’ got choices… and y’ got friends.”

Chris had managed to catch hold of the words, and slowly unclamped his fingers though he didn’t completely release Vin until Nathan managed to get them moved to wait in this quiet, almost private area. Nate was fighting for him, and that was another thing to hold onto. Chris had heard him telling the medical staff there was an ongoing investigation, that Chris was a security risk, that Nathan would be able to watch him just as well as a nurse.

News was filtering onto the bulletins about the major explosion and Federal investigation, and some of the security men who’d been arrested were on their way to be treated for minor injuries, so Nathan was able to point out the seriousness of the situation they’d come from. As far as he could follow, Chris thought Nathan was winning all the arguments except the one with Vin. Which meant it was time Chris pulled himself together and made the X-ray an order.

“Go,” he said, backing Nathan’s latest argument.

“They’re bruised is all,” Vin said. “Damn it, I oughta know. How many times have I had cracked ribs? And what’re they goin’ t’ do anyway?”

“I’ll ask them to treat you as a priority,” Nathan said. “They won’t want you with Chris while he’s having that cut stitched, anyway.”

In spite of his determination not to, Chris flinched. Vin’s hand closed warm on his arm. “I’ll stay,” he said.

Chris shook his head. It was another step on the way back, and if he didn’t take it, the next one would be harder. “Go… I’m… okay,” he said, not caring how unconvincing the lie was.

Vin looked at him for a moment, saw he needed to do this, and nodded. “Okay. But y’ don’t have t’ get everythin’ back in a day.”

Chris watched him go and forced aside the desire to call him back. Nathan was still here, and quick enough to interpret if Chris’s speech wouldn’t come. It was fading in and out again now; even his ability to interpret what was being said was slow, but he gritted his teeth and endured.

The worst part was when the cut on his cheekbone was being stitched. The combination of hospital, vulnerability, needles—he either had to lose it spectacularly or let his mind take him somewhere blank and distant. He kept just enough grip on reality to know when it stopped, and even then he was far from everything until Nathan was saying urgently, “Chris—don’t do this, not now. We’re nearly out of here. You only need to hold on for a little longer.”

Chris shuddered and forced himself painfully back to full awareness of his surroundings. His head was pounding, and Nathan’s relief and quiet reassurances were barely enough to help him keep some semblance of normality. He was beginning to think he couldn’t do this any longer at all when Vin came back in, brushing off an orderly.

“Nate, tell him I’m with you.”

“He’s ATF, security detail,” Nathan told the orderly, showing his ID yet again.

“Waste o’ time,” Vin grumbled, sitting down next to Chris and briefly dropping a warm hand over Chris’s cold one. “Nate, Chris needs food and coffee, not to sit here freezing his butt off.”

“Doing… his best,” Chris—well, he couldn’t say he leapt to the medic’s defence, but he stumbled there at least.

“We should be out soon,” Nathan said.

“Y’ called the guys and told them that a couple of hours ago,” Vin said.

“I told them later today,” Nathan said. “And it will be later today.” He sounded as if his own patience was wearing a little thin. Chris thought of something.

“You… called Rain?”

“Yeah, called her at the same time as I did the boys,” Nathan said, his face immediately losing the frown. “She’s doing fine—enjoying the rest. Says to give you her love.” He paused, then added, “Said she felt the baby kick, last night. That’s the first time.”

“Great,” Chris said. “… special.”

“You can feel ’em kick when they’re that small?” Vin asked, surprised.

Nathan’s explanation of the stages of a baby’s development was interrupted by another doctor wanting a prod and poke at Chris and to mutter unenthusiastically about all the things in his blood that shouldn’t be there, or the missing things that should or whatever. Chris didn’t even try to follow it. He just watched Nathan’s face. Still winning, but not getting out of here as fast as he’d hoped, he guessed. How much longer was he going to have to do this? Even with Vin at his side, he could feel himself close to disaster.

Then there was a commotion in the hallway, and a familiar voices rising above the rest. Nathan opened the door and the words became clear, though all Chris had needed was the sound to know rescue was coming.

“… a number of dangerous individuals unaccounted for…” That was Ezra.

“We need to remove the patient to a safe house immediately.” Buck.

“We want to avoid a security situation at the hospital.” JD sounding convincingly solemn and earnest—Ezra would be satisfied with him.

“Please make the medical arrangements as rapidly as possible so no other patients are at risk. We do have the PD at the entrance.” Ezra again. Yeah, this was definitely rescue.

“About… damn time,” Chris said, as they reached his door.

Buck grinned. “We thought we’d come pick you up rather than clear up the ranch. Josiah’s driving there now to do the basics, and he’s bringing food.”

They all squashed into the room, Nathan hurrying out to collect any last minute instructions from the doctors who had been effectively galvanized into releasing Chris more promptly. Chris struggled upright, but didn’t fight it when Buck helped him get his clothes and shoes on. Ezra was giving Vin a hand and, even more usefully, listening to Vin’s grumble about the X-ray and the ribs which he’d been right about all along.

“What about your arm?” Ezra asked quietly. Chris’s flickering grasp of words briefly sharpened. He’d noticed the stiffness, he should have remembered.

Vin looked around hastily for Nathan and huffed a sigh of relief when he saw the medic wasn’t back. “Getting’ the feelin’ back,” he muttered. “What we need is t’ be out of here and gettin’ some food and coffee.”

Chris made a mental note to watch Vin’s use of his arm over the next few hours, but it was hard to disagree. All he wanted, too, was to be out at the ranch with his team to watch his back. He made an effort to cooperate with the last formalities of leaving the hospital, and felt warded against the institutional hallways by Buck at his side and the rest crowded around him. Outside, he could suddenly catch a deeper breath, and even feel a touch of amusement that Ezra had annexed the Mercedes.

“We went past headquarters and picked up your car, too,” JD told Nathan. “Ezra picked your desk lock so we could get your spare keys.”

“Thanks… I think,” Nathan said.

“We thought you’d want to see Rain.”

“I do. But Chris…”

“Has survived the last couple of days in more adverse circumstances,” Ezra said.

Nathan hovered, so torn that Chris was absurdly touched.

“Go see your wife,” Chris ordered, summoning up the last dregs of authority from somewhere. His voice was clear and sharp enough to tilt the balance. Nathan went, completely unaware that he was almost bouncing to his car like JD. Chris and Buck shared a silent look that said a lot more than they’d ever put into words about love and loss and hope, and the last few months seemed meaningless, almost ephemeral compared to all they’d shared.

Unfortunately, Chris’s body wasn’t getting into the spirit of this. The aches and pains, the weakness and frustrating lack of speech all refused to be anything but solid and real. He sank into the back of Ezra’s Mercedes with a grunt, and Buck and Vin got in on either side. Something about the way they flanked him made Chris think they’d not settled their differences but he was too tired to care so long as they didn’t fight it out in the confines of the car. JD was talking enough for seven, and Ezra was practically purring like the engine as the car glided out of the parking lot. Chris listened vaguely, not caring if JD made as little sense as the sounds of the road, and fell into a sleep so deep that he didn’t even register arriving at the ranch—in fact the first he knew about being there was stirring comfortably on a soft bed and hearing JD, intelligible to his ears now, saying, “But he’s been asleep for ages. Don’t you think we ought to wake him up to check up on him or something.”

“He ain’t concussed.”

“Could be something’s out of balance…” That was Buck, sounding a bit out of balance himself. Maybe he should wake up.

“Nathan will be here in an hour or so.” A comfortable rumble from Josiah.

“I have never understood the propensity of this team to insist on waking people from well deserved slumber.”

They were all out there! Chris sighed. “I’m awake,” he yelled—at least that was the intention. It came out more of a rusty creak.

“Y’ woke ‘im up,” Vin said, simultaneously with Buck and Ezra. Whether they were all blaming JD or each other Chris didn’t know. He glared at them impartially as they came in, softening it only for Josiah, who appeared a minute later, having evidently had the sense to go along to the kitchen and pour a cup of coffee.

“You’re looking better,” Buck said. Chris didn’t know if that was because he looked less tired, pale or whatever, or just that Buck found the glare reassuring.

“Time?” he asked, after a mouthful of coffee had cleared his throat.

“It’s half past nine,” JD said. “Nathan said to let you sleep.”

Half past nine wasn’t so bad, surely, it must have been late afternoon before they left the hospital. Vin caught his eye and jerked his head at the window. Thin, cold sunlight… Shit. Half past nine in the morning. No wonder he felt empty…

“Out, all of you,” he said. “And the bathroom better be free.”

Vin and Ezra both moved slightly, a glance at each other, relieved surprise. Chris realised both sentences had come out almost unforced. The others wouldn’t realise how big an improvement that was, thank goodness. He drained the coffee. Not one of them had left.

He didn’t try for polysyllables, but it wasn’t too hard to manage a few more words. “I want to shower and eat before Nate’s here.”

He distinctly heard footsteps outside the bathroom door before he got into the shower—Buck’s he thought, though Vin and Ezra might also be there, just sneakier. He took a lot of care not to drop the soap or shampoo—he really didn’t want his bathroom door shouldering off its hinges by anyone in a moment of overprotective paranoia.

And the fact his mind could even shape a couple of words like that showed how far he’d come, or that he’d been spending too much time in Ezra’s company.

The long, hot, peaceful shower seemed to wash away more than grime. He ached a bit, his face smarted in the heat, he could tell he was thinner and had lost some muscle, but he felt more like himself than he had since he first surfaced to Alderways white walls. He remembered the feeling of looking at his hands and seeing the hands of a stranger. Even now it had the power to speed up his breathing and heart rate.

But it was over. Over more finally than he could ever have hoped for, thanks to the old man’s final, violent action. They’d damaged him, but they’d not broken him, not beyond mending.

He looked at the scar on his thumb, and remembered when he and some other kids had run their go-kart into a neighbours fence, demolishing both and running away limping and bloody before he could recognise them and call their parents. Trivial, but recalling it was part of taking back what he’d lost.

He’d found clean jeans and shirts, everything as he kept it even after all these months. His team had refused to move on; he saw signs of it all around the ranch. He dressed, combed his damp hair, and the familiar movement made him aware of another loss he hadn’t even thought of until now.

The bastards had taken his wedding ring.

The realisation would have sent a wave of shattering fury over him even a day earlier, but now he could accept, even control the pain and the anger. He stood there, fists clenched, fighting not to allow them even this small victory. The ring had been precious, but it was only a symbol. Back here at the ranch everything spoke to him of Sarah—her smile, the scent of her hair, her voice calling Adam in from the yard. They hadn’t been able to take from him the things which mattered most.

He waited until he was sure his face wouldn’t show anything of this before he left the bathroom. As he opened the door, he glimpsed Buck just disappearing around the corner of the hallway, warned not quite in time by the sound of the lock turning. He could hear JD there, too, asking in a misjudged whisper, “Is he okay?” Josiah, thankfully, seemed to have focused his concern more usefully, by cooking a large breakfast. Vin and Ezra came in from outside as Chris sat down to it, so they evidently hadn’t been part of the hallway surveillance team, but there was something just a little too casual and unconcerned in their manner.

The yard should be hard and dry after the cold weather, except under the bathroom window, where Chris had been planning to fix the leaky hose bib for years. He leaned over and looked pointedly at the traces of mud on their shoes. Ezra’s air of innocence notched up a level, to practically cherubic. Vin met Chris’s eyes with just a trace of defiance—’got a right t’ worry’ that look said.

Well, that went both ways. “Get Nate to look at your arm when he comes,” Chris said, still hitting almost normal speed when he spoke.

“Arm’s fine!” Vin said quickly, but too late.

“I thought you were having trouble lifting that tack,” Josiah said, looking at him.

“Is that what the Tylenol was for?” JD asked.

“Nate’s here all day; plenty of time to see him,” Buck said, but still with that trace of stiffness. Now that their first enthusiasm at seeing him had settled, Chris could see things remained not quite right with his team.

Ezra hastily brought Chris more coffee and encouraged Josiah to serve. It was lucky Chris was hungry; he felt like some new creature in a zoo, with all the keepers waiting to see if it would eat.

“Update me,” he said. If they were all going to sit there, they might as well be doing something useful.

Buck and Josiah had both spoken to Orrin Travis; JD had gleaned a few additional facts from email traffic he probably shouldn’t have been reading; Vin and Ezra were silent. Chris had half forgotten that he’d pried the information from them that they’d been suspended. Sorting that one out would have to wait, but he had every intention of making clear to Orrin that he probably wouldn’t be here if it hadn’t been for their actions.

He listened carefully to Buck and Josiah, following their words more easily than he’d hoped, and he began to realise what Hahn Reichert had intended to achieve. It wasn’t going to be hard to prove criminal activity had been taking place—but it was going to be very difficult indeed to link it to some international fascist grouping. Reichert had destroyed his own operation, but at the same time had made sure he didn’t betray any other one.

“He had them all there when he detonated the bomb,” Josiah said. “The director of Alderways, the CEO at Ackerman and the only other board members who really knew what was going on, other men we haven’t identified yet, but who presumably were overseas contacts. And there’s very little for forensics there—we’re relying mainly on the security guards’ account of who was in the room. One of the house servants says that all the files, paper records, documents whatever were in the basement directly under Reichert’s rooms—and it looks as if that’s where the explosion was set, so I think we can write those off.”

“Computers?” Chris asked.

“For a guy in his nineties, he seems to have been unusually aware of modern technology. It’s early days yet for our techs, but Orrin says the first informal assessment from their examination of the Ackerman ones is that they’ll be able to convict people on currency charges, import and export violations—but no leads to international fascist groups. The legal paperwork for Alderways has only just come through, but I imagine there’ll be similar results. We’ll probably get more from the people arrested—the Ackerman security men are all looking to bargain.”

“But they don’t know a lot,” Buck said. “Kidnapping, intimidation, sure, but not the big picture.”

“One of the techs at the house thinks Reichert was actually watching you on the security feed before he detonated the explosives,” JD said.

“Chris doesn’t need to know that,” Buck muttered, glancing at him.

“It’s okay,” Chris said, though the thought had briefly made him freeze. He remembered Reichert only through a haze of pain and defiance, mainly the cold intelligent eyes in the withered face, watching him with completely ruthless detachment. But Reichert and his works were gone, and Chris was taking his life back.

“We made sure Maria and the other workers were okay,” Buck went on quickly. “They’re being well looked after, treated like they’re victims as much as anyone else. They’ll get care and counselling. They should be free to stay if they want, or to go back if they’ve any homes to go back to. Some of them were born here, like Sammy.”

JD jumped up to look out of the window. “Nathan’s here. I thought I heard the car.”

Chris noticed that at some point in the last couple of minutes Vin had silently disappeared. He caught Ezra’s eye, saw Ezra realise at the same moment. As Nathan came in, Ezra slipped out. He’d bring Vin back if Vin was anywhere to be found.

Nathan looked Chris, and his empty plate, over with approval. “You look better. How are you feeling?”


“He slept for sixteen hours!” JD must have been counting.

“Best thing for him,” Nathan said. “Surprised you all managed to leave him in peace that long. Okay, Chris, I’d better take some blood and check your knee and so on.”

They went along to the den for some privacy, and for the first time Chris saw the huge pile of files pushed over to one side of the room. It took him a moment to realise it was all paperwork connected with the search for him.

“I must remember Travis wants those back,” Nathan said. “Vin and Ezra absconded with them when he suspended them.”

“Lucky they did.”

“I know. Josiah and I have been pointing that out to Orrin. A major point in their favour is that Rosa says if they hadn’t arrived when they did, Fischer—who we think now must really have been Otto Reichert, the old man’s son—might have had you moved, or had her replaced. He was coming that day.”

Chris had understood that in some distant way; now that the fog in his mind had lifted so much it was hard to remember the confused impressions he’d struggled with.

“I wouldn’t… have handled seeing him,” he said honestly, remembering the uncontrollable anger that had welled up in him when anything brought back a memory of the torture. “I’d have given away the… improvement. Bad for Rosa, bad for me.” He shook off the memories. “I’ll talk to Travis. Soon. Better think out the words first.”

“You’re talking a lot better already,” Nathan said. “I was wondering about speech therapy—Rain’s done some before—but at this rate by the time you’re healed you’ll hardly need it.”

“Like to see Rain anyway,” Chris said. “And Rosa.”

“Not today, but maybe tomorrow if you feel up to it. Apart from anything else, Rain’s got a check up and Rosa promised to take her son to the Zoo since that’s open all year.”


“Thought we should have a day for the team to be together. And I agree. It hasn’t been been an easy six months.”

Chris cooperated with unusual grace with every test Nathan wanted to do to keep him on this subject. Like the pile of files, like Vin and Ezra’s reluctant confession to suspension, like Buck’s explosive greeting of Ezra the day before, Nathan’s edited account told him a lot about how his absence had hit the team. He’d felt so damned alone in Alderways, and all the time there had been six of the best friends anyone could ask for refusing to give up on him, whatever it cost them. It was time for the team to start healing too.

Vin wasn’t really dodging Nathan; not because of his arm, anyway. It was just he hated the feeling of all being back together again and yet… not together. He’d felt it in the hospital the day before. When Nathan had every reason to lose his temper, he’d been too patient; when Buck arrived, there’d been that bit of extra tension. Okay, maybe it was little things, but Vin was used to letting those point him in the right direction. Nate had been… wary? Maybe that was too strong. Not like he blamed Vin, more like he felt something was a bit broken between them and hadn’t mended yet. JD was just too eager to be friendly and enthusiastic, wanting to show he wasn’t hurt or uncomfortable about having been shut out. And Buck… He’d made some kind of peace with Ezra; perhaps Vin ought to invite him to throw a punch. The only one Vin felt right with was Josiah, and that was surprising when he thought about it, because it was Josiah whose anger had reverberated down the phone the day they brought Chris out of Alderways.

Vin walked up to the hut where they’d briefly camped out. It gave him some space from them all and time to think, and anyway, the stuff needed to be brought back. He rolled up the sleeping bags and tied them with the twine he’d brought. They were damp, and the hut was freezing. Not much of a place to have brought Chris when he was sick…

A noise behind him on the trail made him look outside. Ezra strolled up to join him, and began to help pick up the scattered blankets.

“Chris continues to recover apace,” Ezra said tentatively after—for him—a lengthy silence.

Vin nodded.

“His fluency this morning was clearly improved.”

Vin slung a bundle over his good shoulder and acknowledged the remark with a slight tilt of his head.

“Have I ever mentioned how much I hate—loathe—detest these one-sided conversations?”


“We did the right thing.”

That got right under Vin’s guard. “Can’t know that,” he said.

“The evidence seems to me incontrovertible. The bad guys have been obliterated, none of us have suffered more than minor injuries, justice is being done at Alderways and Chris has made quite an extraordinary recovery from the condition he was in when he escaped from there. At first I thought…”

But Ezra uncharacteristically stopped mid sentence. Vin knew what he’d been going to say. “Thought so too when I saw him there. But we were wrong. He was still Chris. Just needed a bit of space to remember it.”

“Which we gave him,” Ezra said, recovering his thread and the argument. “It was the right choice. And insofar as Chris could indicate it to us, it was his choice too.”

“Ain’t that I’d do different,” Vin said. “But maybe we could’ve handled it better. Reckon it’s going t’ be a while before Team 7s back to being what it was before.”

“Team 7 was on the verge of being disbanded, with us suspended and the others scattered to different units. The damage was done when Chris was taken, not when we rescued him. We all handled it the best way we could, including in the last week. We have different strengths and weaknesses; it’s why we’re a good team.”

“You’ve been talking to Josiah.”

“I’m quite capable of formulating those ideas myself.” Ezra met his look and shrugged. “However, coincidentally, Josiah did express some similar thoughts to me yesterday evening.”

“How come Josiah’s managed t’ ferget how pissed off with us he was?”

“This he did not confide—although JD told me he was impressively enraged at Alderways, to the extent of hurling a desk across their reception area.”

“Got some of it out of his system, maybe, but that don’t explain why we’re back like we always were with him, no rough edges, no pretending.”

Ezra lifted an unusually large share of what had to be carried and turned to leave. “I suggest you ask him, not me,” he said. “Though I make no promise his answer will be comprehensible. Now I recommend we return before anyone else comes to look for us.”

Vin nodded, picked up a rucksack with his left arm and tried not to wince. A glance showed him it was too much to hope Ezra hadn’t noticed.

“I am refraining from comment,” Ezra said.

“Y’ain’t—that was a comment.”

“I am refraining from the much more forceful and provocative comment I’m strongly tempted to make. I will say, however, I believe it would be in the interests of the team for you to show Nathan the no doubt spectacular bruising you have on that side, and if he recommends any medication…”

“Suck it up?”

Ezra grinned. “Exactly. For once you’ve found the precise expression.”

He said little more as they went down the trail, but before they came out at the ranch he said seriously, ” Nathan feels guilty. He thinks he should have been less preoccupied with Rain and the baby, and then we might not have been suspended, or he might have been in a better position to help Chris.”

“He did everything he could,” Vin said. “Wouldn’t have wanted him to take the time from Rain, and the baby’s got a right t’ be centre of its daddy’s world.”

“He still feels guilty.”

“You think? Or Josiah does?”

“We agree,” Ezra said, having the last word as he went to get rid of his load.

Vin spread the sleeping bags over the back of the kitchen chairs. He’d seen Buck and JD were out with the horses, and he couldn’t help a twinge of relief at that. Josiah was in the study on the telephone, maybe talking to Travis. Something official, anyway. Vin found Chris and Nathan in the den, Nathan closing up his bag.

“We’re done,” he told Vin. “How are you feeling?”

“Ribs sore, arm’s stiff,” Vin said. He knew Nathan wouldn’t need more than that to pick up on. Sure enough, within a couple of minutes Nathan was gently examining the livid bruising that covered most of his left arm.

“You did this at the same time as the ribs?”

“Yeah. Took down a guy who was tougher than he looked. It was mostly numb till last night.”

He let Nathan finish and even swallowed the painkillers he was offered. He wasn’t sure from Nathan’s face that Ezra was right about this course of action though.

“What?” he asked.

“It’s just not normal—you and Chris so damn cooperative,” Nathan said. “Either you’re both feeling a lot worse than it seems like or…”

“I… needed it, he’s got orders,” Chris said, while Vin was still thinking of the things he was going to say to Ezra.

Nathan looked at Chris, uncertain but open.

Chris took a moment to marshal the words, then he said, “Those months… I had a lot of doctors, most of ’em not good. Need to get over it. You’re healing… more than the… physical stuff.”

Nathan swallowed and looked down hastily. “Hell, Chris, I’m not doing much.”

“You are.” There was the old strong certainty in Chris’s voice that Vin had heard coming back over the last couple of days. “You’re… a healer Nate. I’m going to need that a while.”

His speech was a little rough, uneven in its pauses, but Vin saw it lift the burden from Nathan’s shoulders, and Nathan’s embarrassed smile had none of the unease that had grated on Vin before.

Maybe he should stop struggling with what he couldn’t change, and leave the team to Chris.

It didn’t seem possible to Chris that he could still be tired after all the hours’ sleep he’d had, but by the time he’d eaten some lunch he was ready to agree to Nathan’s suggestion to lie down for an hour or two. He stretched out on the bed and although the room was so light it was only moments before he was asleep.

He dreamed of Alderways, half woke, lost the white walls of Alderways and found himself in some place with no light at all, where the darkness pressed towards him thick as slime, sticky like blood. With part of his mind he knew he was dreaming, but he was still filled with horror at the vileness of the place. The darkness swirled as if it burned blackly, full of pain and ugliness and everything inhuman. Chris thought it would suffocate him if he couldn’t wake up, but as he tried to wrench free of the dream he saw a man in the blackness. If the angry, tortured shadow was a man.

The darkness coalesced near the shadow, which screamed in violent rejection of it. With the odd certainty of dreams, Chris knew what he was here to do. “Take it, soldier,” he ordered. “Take the weight of what you’ve done.”

“No!” A howl of fury and despair.

“You’re no coward. Take it!”

There was a moment so long that it seemed to Chris they were outside time as he stood lending his will to the shadow’s choice. Then the man, flayed by the burning darkness, braced himself and bowed his head. The darkness massed, weighing him down, bringing him to his knees and then crushing him further, down through what seemed limitless darkness. Chris dropped beside him.

There, in the depths, he saw that the darkness which had seemed total, was broken. A thread of light, thinner than the finest wire, cut through its foulness, and the darkness shrivelled back from the minute glow.

But the shadow, a bent, crawling figure under his huge burden, struggled towards the light inch by painful inch. The black fire beat him back; it seemed to shear substance from what form he had.

“Don’t give up now!” Chris urged him. “You can make it! Listen to me, soldier. You can do this!”

With a final, lunging effort the man flung a shadowy hand forward and grasped the light, a thin shred of hope in a place where hope didn’t come. As soon as his fingers closed on it, the flailing fire withdrew a little. Chris knew something huge had happened, even though it was only the beginning of a long and painful journey. He tried to focus more clearly on the shadowy form, but instead he was flung back from the darkness to wake on his bed, shivering and sweating and eager to shake off this dream as soon as possible.

He stumbled to his feet and headed for the kitchen without bothering with shoes. Josiah was in there on his own. He took in Chris’s rumpled appearance and said, “I just made coffee.”

“Good.” Chris took it gratefully, scalded his mouth a little gulping at it.

“You okay?” Josiah asked.

“Yeah. Weird dream.”

The memory of it was fading now. Josiah didn’t ask any more questions, just went on chopping vegetables for what looked like a casserole, but his company helped Chris shake off the lingering sense of darkness. Along in the den he heard the TV on, and Vin and JD arguing the finer points of some game.

“Nate, Ezra, Buck?” he asked.

“Nate decided it wouldn’t spoil a team day if he took a couple of hours to go with rain to her check up—I told him that this morning, but you seem to have convinced him.”

“No reason… to feel guilty,” Chris said. He still hadn’t quite come to grips with the tensions in his team, and it irritated the hell out of him not having the fluency to ask the right questions. He’d seen the discomfort in Nathan, though, and this confirmed it had lifted a little. Chris looked at Josiah thoughtfully. The big man was his best chance for answers. “You know Buck… punched Ezra out? Him and Vin in the car… like they were going to fight a damn custody battle! JD, he’s trying too hard. You… give me a run down on the worst of it. You’re okay?”

Josiah was; Chris could feel it. There was a reassuring calm and strength there that right now Chris was glad to lean on. What he really wanted to know was why.

Josiah nodded, answering that first. “I wasn’t, but then I guess the Lord reminded me if the whole body was just an eye, how could it hear. And once I’d taken that on board the lesson was sweetened by the company of a lovely woman!”

Chris should have remembered that while he might get answers from Josiah that didn’t mean he’d understand them! And although the idea of Josiah and Rosa was distracting, he had the team to think of first.

“Buck, Vin, Ezra?” he said, hoping to get something clearer.

Josiah walked over, closed the kitchen door and gave him a short but detailed account of the months he’d been away. What Chris had pried out of Vin and Ezra had only been a tiny fraction of it, he realised. And damn, but he could see it all so clearly. He knew his team.

“Think what really finished Buck off though was them going it alone after they’d found you,” Josiah said, getting to the end of the depressing tale.

“My choice,” Chris said. There had been more to it than that, but when it came down to it he’d been the one to make the final decision. “I’ll… make it right.”

“He feels guilty too,” Josiah said. “We all did. They’d been out of control on this a long time but it seemed we’d stopped listening just when you needed us.”

“Crap. You… did right, they did right. No one… to blame except Reichert’s people. If you’d all done what Vin and Ezra did… there’d be no team now, right?”

“If they’d done what we did, you wouldn’t be here now.”

“Yeah. That’s why… we’re a team.”

“You’re preaching to the converted, brother,” Josiah said. “Go tell the rest.”

Priorities, Chris thought—or maybe he should think of it as triage; it certainly seemed like everyone had been hurting. Josiah was okay now though. Nate was getting there. JD’s problem was wanting to see his team back in tandem rather than his own feelings. Vin and Ezra had each other; he’d come back to them later. He found his boots and went out into the cold yard to look for Buck.

Buck was leaning on the rail of the corral. He managed a smile when Chris came and leaned beside him, but his heart wasn’t in it. They stood in silence a while, then Chris said, “Take a walk… with me.”

It came out a bit more like an order than he’d intended, but Buck nodded and straightened up. “Not too cold for you?”

“I like it,” Chris said. He’d never minded the weather; he liked to be out of doors, and at the moment, with months of being shut away behind him, being able to walk where he wanted was a pleasure in itself. Though where he wanted to go would bring as much pain as pleasure. He needed, now he was thinking clearly, to trek back up to the play cabin. His memories had been too confused when he was first there, and then the pace of things had been hectic. He just wanted to stand there a while and remember Adam, and he couldn’t think of anyone better to do it with.

He guessed Buck would understand that without words, and he was right. When Buck realised where they were going, he glanced over and probably recognised the expression on Chris’s face, except it didn’t have anger in with the pain. Quietly, testing the ground, Buck said, “Haven’t been up here in years.”

“Me neither,” Chris said. With an effort that was only partly to do with finding the words, he added, “I… forgot them. In Alderways. Didn’t really remember till I was back here.”

“Ah, heck, Chris…” Buck’s voice cracked. He reached out a hand, and Chris didn’t shrug it off.

They came out into the clearing and looked at the little cabin. Something came back to Chris that he’d guessed he hadn’t let himself remember even before Reichert’s machine did its stuff. “Cowboys… and Indians,” he said slowly.

Buck smiled, with the same mix of remembered happiness and present loss that Chris felt. “Me and him, we always had to be the Indians,” he said. “Damn, I remember the way you hunted us through these woods.”

“I… remember when you thought… it’d be a good idea to tie Sarah to a tree!”

It was the first time he’d really heard Buck laugh since he’d been back. “She gave us hell!” Buck said. “Adam, he’d seen some picture of it in a story, he was dead set on doing it—said she’d think it was fun. Once we’d got her tied up I was scared to let her loose!”

Chris could still see her that day, flushed and half-furious, half-laughing.

“Oh, God, I miss them,” he said. “But forgetting them, that was worse.”

They stood in silence a while, and Chris realised that in spite of the grief and the loss he’d found his way to a place where he could also feel a little of the happiness they’d had. Maybe it was one small gem to come from what had been done to him—a sense of how precious those memories really were. He didn’t realise he was standing there shivering until Buck said, “Nate’s going to kill us if you get hypothermia. Here—put my jacket on top of yours.”

The sun was low and it was time to go back. Chris accepted the warm weight around his shoulders and turned to the top of the track. “You know, something she always said… about you,” he told Buck. “You warmed life up. Fun when it was dull. Kind when it was hard. Me, Vin, Ezra—we find it easy… to walk in the dark. Wouldn’t want you to be any… any way but you are.”

His teeth were chattering a bit now, and the words weren’t coming too easily, but he saw Buck understood.

“My choice… after I got out,” Chris went on. “Wasn’t fair… to you and th’ others. But that’s the way I am.”

“We’ve been friends a heck of a long time, whatever way we both are,” Buck said.

“Yeah, good friends.”

“We didn’t give up on you, Chris, none of us. But it damn well felt like it when Vin and Ezra found you and we were nowhere.”

“You never gave… up on me before or now,” Chris said. “I know it… if you don’t. We good?”

He hoped so, because he was about talked out for now.

“Us? Hell, we’re better than good!” Buck said, and Chris thought how right Sarah had been. He’d never met anyone with a warmer heart than Buck.

They made it back inside just before Nathan pulled up, and a few minutes in the kitchen was enough to stop Chris shivering. Rain’s check-up had gone well, and she was glad to be back in her own home. “But she’s real excited about seeing you again tomorrow,” Nathan said. “And looking forward to meeting Rosa and the rest—if you’re sure you’re up to it.”

“Yep.” Chris said. He was tired—again—and not planning to waste words, but he wanted tomorrow’s visitors. He was fond of Rain and very glad he hadn’t missed this baby, and he was eager to have the chance to thank Rosa. The more he recovered the more he understood how much she’d done for him. He felt as if he’d be seeing an old friend and yet meeting her for the first time, so much had changed in the days since he escaped from Alderways. He’d never really had a conversation with her… And he still hadn’t gotten his head around the idea of her with Josiah—he wanted to see that for himself.

“They’re not all coming are they?” Buck asked. He turned to Chris to explain. “Rosa’s mother’s a bit of a tartar. Thought she was going to whack JD with one of his own sneakers at one point.”

“No, Rosa thought it’d be a bit much for Chris,” Josiah said. “And I think she wouldn’t mind a few hours away from her mother! Mrs Dubose and Mrs Jackson are going to enjoy themselves at an over-sixties rave up at the Baptists. I’ll be getting Lyndon and Sammy along with Rosa, but they’ll be no trouble; they’ll enjoy the ranch.”

One of the best parts of the long wait in the hospital the previous day—one of the few bearable parts—had been listening to Nathan’s account of how Sammy had found a home. To Chris he was a half-remembered victim, someone who had needed protection but he’d never had time to find out more than that about him. He was looking forward to getting to know the real person Sammy was.

Josiah opened the oven door to look at the casserole and hot rolls, then looked out into the hallway. “Dinner in five minutes!”

JD and Vin were there in one, Ezra in precisely five. Chris saw JD glance at Buck and the kid seemed to grow a couple of inches and gain some bounce when he saw the easy grin on Buck’s face. Vin? Well, Vin was harder to read, but Chris thought he lost some shadow of tension, and dinner was a more relaxed and noisy meal than lunch had been. Chris dipped some crust in the last of the gravy on his plate and was wondering how he could possibly feel sleepy already when a brief pause in the conversation let them all hear a car door shutting outside.

“Late for visitors,” Nathan said.

“It’s Orrin Travis,” JD called from the window.

Both Vin and Ezra shifted back from the table. Chris lifted a hand to stop them going any further.

“Don’t worry,” Buck said. “We’ve got your backs.”

Nathan and Josiah had already moved near the door, ready to head Travis off. Chris grinned. This was what his team needed—some threat to unite against. Orrin didn’t know he’d just volunteered, but his arrival came in very handy.

“I’m not here officially,” Orrin said hastily taking in the wary atmosphere in the room. “Just had to see Chris for myself. I’ve heard so many damn rumours I’d rather trust my own eyes. You look good to me, Chris!”

“He’s doing well,” Nathan said.

“He’s certainly added to the urban legends there already are about him. Even Sam Brigham was impressed by the scale of the destruction. And talking of destruction, it’s economic and legal annihilation for Alderways, not explosives, but it’s going to be just as final. They’ll go down on a whole heap of charges, not just what they did to Chris.”

He accepted the cup of coffee Josiah offered him and passed on messages from Evie and Mary. “Oh, and I’ve a picture from Billy. Wait a minute, yes, here. I think he must have seen the news when Mary was watching.”

Billy’s picture suggested that in spite of his mother’s ban on them, he was well acquainted with the world of comic books. A rather well drawn explosion had BANG in huge letters across a tumbling building that resembled Dracula’s castle. At the edge of the picture Chris was drawn holding a gun the size of his body, and saying, “Take that, suckers.” The other six were along the bottom, relegated to a back-up role, but Billy had carefully edged the whole thing with 7s.

Chris tacked it up on the fridge, and used the time to get his words ready. “Nice team picture,” he commented to Orrin. “Hope you got the idea.”

He knew this was hitting below the belt. Orrin hadn’t really had much choice in what he did. Chris wanted his team back together again though, and looking around the kitchen he saw the same determination in all their faces.

“If I didn’t, I’ve got it now,” Orrin said rather wryly. “I see all the female sympathy being lavished on you in my house is unnecessary, Chris. I’ve had several earnest doctors from Alderways—some of the few honest ones—telling me it would be months before you were fully recovered, if ever.”

“Fortunately, Chris’s deception of the medical authorities was made much easier by the collusion of his nurse,” Ezra said, deftly suggesting Chris had never been the complete wreck the doctors must have seen. “She will be in this area for a few more days. I suggest some sort of demonstration of the department’s gratitude might be appropriate.”

“He won’t be back at work for a while.” Nathan sounded a note of warning. “Got some minor injuries that need to heal and some weight to get back, to say nothing of building up fitness.”

“I’ll be ready when Vin and Ezra are off suspension,” Chris said. It had taken him a major effort to get that sentence ready to say clearly and at something like normal speed, and he wasn’t going to struggle even more to make it polite and subordinate.

Orrin met his eyes, and since there wasn’t any problem at all with Chris’s strength of will the message got across.

“It’s a good thing I’m so pleased to see you again,” Orrin said. “I’m reviewing their suspensions, and I’ll leave you to deal with any outstanding disciplinary matters—like taking Mike Senger’s ID from my desk and impersonating him!”

That was another of those things Vin and Ezra had forgotten to mention, but Chris managed not to blink. “Leave it … to me,” he said. In spite of himself, a slight hesitation was creeping in to his speech. He didn’t think Orrin had noticed it, but his team did, and all hastily broke into the conversation.

“Chris shouldn’t be talking so much till his face is healed,” Nathan said.

“Let me get you something to eat,” Josiah offered. “I’ve a few things I didn’t have time to tell you on the phone.”

“Maybe Billy’d like this,” Buck said. “Piece of carved stone from the house that was thrown quarter of a mile—I saw McGinty pick it up and took it off him, and just remembered it was in my pocket.”

“Vin and I have more information about Alderways to give to the investigation,” Ezra told Travis. “So far, we haven’t had the chance to liaise with anyone.”

“And I’ve some encrypted files I managed to mail myself from one of their computers,” JD said. “I forwarded them to the investigation, but I wanted to know if I could work on them myself as well.”

Orrin looked slightly overwhelmed. “You know, I just came out here to wish Chris all the best and say how pleased we were to have him back. I’d about given up hope myself, Chris. I won’t say I’m sorry about that, because we’d tried every line of investigation and taken them to the end and beyond, but I’m damn glad we were wrong.”

“Thanks,” Chris said.

After that, it was easier. Orrin was distracted by dessert and kept in conversation by Ezra and Josiah. Chris only had to eat and manage an occasional monosyllable. He leaned back in his chair and saw that the undercurrents of unease in the team were fast disappearing. Chris knew there were still a few obstacles to get around. He might take Rain up on the speech therapy, though he wasn’t known for saying much in meetings anyway. But there was the prospect, tacitly agreed by Orrin, that he would be back in charge and his team all together again in the foreseeable future, and that was enough for tonight.

They saw Orrin off, promising to sneak the lump of stone past Mary, who was unlikely to approve, and that left Chris with only one thing on his list before he headed for his bed. It was easier than he had thought it might be to get Vin and Ezra on their own. While the kitchen was being cleared and the others were arguing about what movie to watch, the two of them went to put away the aired sleeping bags and other camping gear.

Chris slipped out after them and helped stow the stuff. He had a whole lot of things he wanted to say to them—that he was going to do his damndest to get their careers back on track again; that he was just beginning to understand how desperately they’d gone on searching for him; that they’d probably saved his sanity over the last few days and had made it possible for him to gain back so much of what he’d lost. His mind was full of it all—and his words just wouldn’t come.

Instead, all he could do was wave a vague hand at the camping equipment, which maybe summed up a little of what they’d given him those nights when he was just out of Alderways, and say, “Thanks!”

Vin and Ezra looked at him and he saw that they understood, that the unspoken words didn’t need to be spoken. Vin and Ezra knew what they’d done, and would do it again in a heartbeat.

And neither of them could find the words to say so either.

In spite of the fact that he’d wanted—very seriously—to express just a little of what he owed them, Chris couldn’t help finding the humour in this. He caught the same amusement on Vin’s face, and the glint of it in Ezra’s eyes.

Who needed words anyway?

The three of them turned together, and he slung an arm around Vin on his left, Ezra on his right as they headed for the den. Josiah was dozing in the largest chair there, in spite of the fact Buck and JD were already louder than the TV; Nathan was standing holding the remote—had just rescued it by the look of things. Buck glanced towards them, grinned and heaved JD onto the floor to make more room on the couch, which Chris and Ezra promptly captured. JD fought Vin for the better cushion and lost, but without opening his eyes Josiah threw him one from the chair. On the screen, the first car chase had just started. It was warm and noisy and chaotic and made the white emptiness of Alderways seem to belong to another lifetime.

Chris leaned back comfortably. He gave himself maybe five minutes before he joined Josiah in dozing through the shoot-outs. Sitting there, drowsy, surrounded by friends, he was more aware than ever how much he had to be grateful for. He had his team back; he had his memories back; he had his life back. All that time when things had been at their worst, he’d been held in a lot of people’s hearts.

“Thank you,” Chris muttered aloud.

Never forgotten, and determined never to forget it, he was home at last.

~ End ~