AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a bit of an experiment. Two years ago I wrote a little OW Christmas story called "Upon the Midnight Clear," which evolved from a single phrase that had popped into my head: "It was Christmas Eve, and Chris Larabee hated God." I thought it might be fun to take the basic events of that fic and see how they played out in the present day ATF universe. This story is the result.
O Holy Night
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees,
O hear the angel voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born.
--O Holy Night by Adolphe Adam
It was a beautiful night. Crisp and cold, a full moon peeked through the clouds, spilling its pale light across glittering, snow-dusted rooftops and turning the thickly falling flakes into a sparkling white veil. Below, the streets were oddly quiet, neon lights darkened and businesses closed in honor of this holiest of nights.
It was Christmas Eve, and Chris Larabee hated God.
Chris pressed his forehead against window, his breath frosting the cool glass, and wished for a smoke. Or a drink. Anything to distract him from the ragged breathing and delirious ramblings of the man in the bed behind him.
Vin Tanner was dying. And it was all because the stubborn fool had more heart than head.
Vin had been going toe to toe with Los Lobos, Purgatorio's toughest street gang, since the day he moved into his apartment. Determined to loosen their iron grip on the neighborhood, he'd begun encouraging kids and their families to use the safety of the community center, or even his own apartment, as alternatives to the false "protection" offered by the gang. Five days ago he'd impulsively put himself between several gang members and 14-year-old Ricky, their newest recruit. When things had quickly turned ugly Vin, fresh from a shift volunteering at the community center, didn't have a gun.
The gang bangers did.
Gutshot, Vin had dragged himself back to his apartment before collapsing on the front steps. Thanks to his landlord's 911 call, paramedics arrived in time to prevent him from bleeding out.
The kid he'd tried so hard to protect wasn't as lucky. The police found Ricky's body crumpled next to a pool of Vin's blood. They were still hunting for the two shooters, who seemed to have vanished into thin air.
Sheets rustled and Vin's mumbling grew louder, decipherable words breaking through the gibberish. "No . . . I can't . . . stop . . ."
Striding to the bed, Chris leaned over the rail, pressing his palm to the hot, dry forehead. "Shh. Easy, pard. Whatever it is, it's over. You're safe."
He continued to murmur reassurances until Vin quieted, limbs stilling as the heart monitor backed down to a more acceptable level. Pushing aside lank, tangled curls, Chris winced inwardly at the sharp cheekbones and shadowed eyes. Five days--how had his friend lost so much ground so quickly?
"Everything okay in here? I saw a spike on the monitor." Jill, the night nurse, stepped into the glassed cubicle, perusing readouts with a critical eye.
"Bad dream." Chris pulled back his hand but remained leaning on the rail.
Jill slipped an aural thermometer into Vin's ear, frowning at the result. "One hundred four point one," she told Chris. "No wonder he's having nightmares. Seems like fever stirs up all the bad stuff."
"Yeah, well . . . He's got plenty to stir up."
"I know." She eyed him as she jotted on Vin's chart. "I had to change his gown earlier. I saw the scars."
Not much he could, or would, say to that--Vin was his best friend, but getting him to admit anything about his childhood was like squeezing blood from a stone. He watched Jill record Vin's vitals; noted the deepening creases around her eyes and the tight set to her mouth.
"He's not getting better, is he," he said quietly. "Hell, if anything he's worse."
She froze, then resumed writing. "Dr. Lorenzo's got him on a new antibiotic. I know it's hard to be patient, but--"
"It's the third antibiotic in three days, and you and I both know it's not working any better than the previous two."
Flipping the chart closed, she slowly lifted her eyes, and Chris's gut churned at the barely veiled sorrow. "He's so weak, Chris. The surgery and blood loss tapped all his reserves, and now this damn infection . . ."
"How much longer?" he asked, working to keep his voice level.
Shaking her head, she moved to leave. "I'll call Dr. Lorenzo. When he gets here--"
Chris rounded the bed to intercept her. "Jill, please. Just . . . level with me." Though he wasn't a man to beg, he'd learned early on that in the ICU, orders got him nowhere.
Jill looked at him, and Chris could guess what she saw. A face in need of a razor and yesterday's rumpled clothes. Too little food and too much caffeine. Desperation. Despair.
She placed a cool hand on his arm, her voice soft with empathy. "You sent the others home?" At Chris's nod, she said, "I'd get them back. Soon."
"All right." His throat closed up and it was a moment before he could speak. "I don't want to leave him. Would you mind . . .?"
"Of course not." She smiled wryly, but there were tears in her dark eyes. "Might as well put that phone number Buck gave me to good use."
"You're welcome." She bit her lip. "I wish . . ."
"Yeah. Me too."
When she'd left, Chris pulled the single chair close to the bed and sank into it. Vin was mumbling again in that odd mixture of Spanish, English, and nonsense, long fingers twitching against the sheets.
Chris placed a calming hand on his friend's chest, grimacing at the heat and the too rapid flutter of a heartbeat. "Don't you give up on me," he said, the words as rough as sandpaper in his throat. "You hear me, Vin? Don't you lie down."
To his surprise Vin's lashes flickered, his eyelids cracking open to reveal a hint of blue. "Chris?"
"Hey." Chris leaned forward so that Vin could easily see his face. "'Bout time you decided to wake up.
A shiver raced through Vin, and he huddled beneath the thin blanket. "Cold."
"Yeah. Sorry, Cowboy, but I can't do anything about that. They've got a cooling blanket under you to bring down the fever."
Vin blinked and licked his lips. "Water?"
"Right here." Chris grabbed the plastic cup off the bed table.
Vin didn't even try to lift his head, passively allowing Chris to position the straw so he could drink. After only a few lethargic swallows, he pushed away the cup. In the time it took Chris to set it aside, his eyes were already starting to close.
Heart pounding, he gripped Vin's arm. "Hang on, pard. I was hoping we could talk for a bit."
Sick as he was, Vin picked up on the tremor in his voice. "You okay?"
Chris barked a laugh. "I'm not the one hooked up to all those tubes and wires."
"Still look like shit." Vin's normally smooth tenor was little more than a croak. "I'm the one dyin', remember?"
"Don't." Chris didn't realize how hard he'd tightened his fingers until he saw Vin flinch.
"We both know it's true. Pretendin' otherwise . . . won't change it." Vin panted, worn out by his own words.
"You can't just give up." Chris looked away from the softness in Vin's eyes, his throat working. "You stubborn bastard, you've never quit on anything in your life. Don't start now."
The weary, pain-filled confession drew Chris's gaze, and he was struck again by his friend's wraithlike appearance. Vin's collarbone stood out sharply above the thin gown; his normally sparkling eyes were dull and glassy.
For a moment, Chris couldn't breathe. "I know, kiddo."
"Been dreamin' 'bout my ma." Vin's lips curved. "Can feel her."
"Your ma wouldn't want this," Chris said sharply. "Tanners don't give up. She'd want you to keep fighting."
"She promised we'd be together again . . . someday."
"Well that day isn't today, damn it!" Chris swiped a hand over his burning eyes. "We need you here, Vin, watching our backs."
Vin turned his hand so that he was clasping Chris's forearm. "Sorry, Chris. Been fightin', but . . . so tired."
Pain, sharp and clean as a knife, pierced the defensive shield Chris had tried so hard to maintain. As he squeezed his eyes shut, the years melted away, and he was standing with Buck outside Sarah's hospital room.
"My son is dead, Buck. You expect me to just give up on my wife too? Go to hell!"
"She's got burns over 50 percent of her body. The docs say she's--don't you walk away from me, Chris--they say she's in agony. She should be dead already, but she's hanging on. For you. So what I expect is for you to pull your head outta your ass. You gotta tell her you'll be all right, pard. You gotta let her go."
"All right? She's my whole world. How am I supposed to do that?"
A hand on his neck, warm, comforting. "God, Chris, I don't know. But if you love her, you'll find a way."
Chris opened his eyes to Vin watching him, his heavy lids and restlessly shifting limbs betraying how hard he was struggling to stay awake. The ache in Chris's chest grew, and for one horrifying moment he was certain he'd break down.
"I don't know how to do this," he choked through clenched teeth. "God, Vin, how . . . How the hell am I supposed to just let you go?"
"Don't got . . . much choice." Vin coughed weakly, and even after the spasms passed, Chris could hear the uneven edge to his breathing.
"Never thought I'd say this to you, pard, but maybe you'd best not talk," Chris said, trying hard for humor but merely sounding desperate.
"Got somethin' needs sayin'."
God, Vin, don't do this to me. "It can wait." Chris tried to lean back, but froze when Vin's fingers scrabbled for purchase on his sleeve.
"Jus' . . . shut up 'n listen."
Under any other circumstances he'd have found it amusing--the fierceness of Vin's words delivered with no more force than a breath of air. Now it just fired the already spectacular ache in his chest. He swallowed hard, sliding his hand up until he'd returned Vin's clasp.
"Don't want you usin' me . . . 's another reason to hate God," Vin said, pinning him with his gaze. "Had a good run. Got no complaints."
Anger bubbled up in him, hot and strong, and Chris grabbed onto it with both hands. "How can you say that? Hell, Vin, if I believed in God--and I'm not saying I do--then I'd say He's done nothing but dump on you your whole life."
"Guess it depends how you look at it."
"I'd say it's pretty obvious." Chris turned Vin's arm, revealing the pale, jagged scar that ran from elbow to wrist. "You may not have told me everything, but I've figured out enough. Hell, Vin, what's God ever done for you?"
Rather than the anger Chris expected, Vin smiled. "Gave me a ma who loved me. Who taught me bein' a Tanner's somethin' special . . . an' made sure I never forgot it."
"All right, I hear you," Chris soothed, regretting his words. Vin was hanging on by a thread; the last thing he needed was Chris goading him. "You don't have to--"
"Ain't done," Vin panted, shivering even as sweat trickled down his temple. "Gave me mountains at sunrise--pink, purple, gold . . . Remember, Chris?"
Chris thought of early morning horseback rides to their spot on the ridge, cold stone against his back and Vin's face bright with wonder as they shared a thermos of hot coffee and watched nature's light show. "Yeah," he admitted, picking up a cloth and gently wiping Vin's sweaty face. "I remember."
With a sigh, Vin leaned into the coolness. Just when Chris was certain he'd slip into sleep, he murmured, "Know what else, Chris? God's even better 'n Santa."
Hit with a confusing mixture of amusement, affection, and sadness, Chris's ragged chuckle sounded more like a sob. "Is that so?" he asked, certain the fever was talking.
"When I's a little . . . wanted a brother for Christmas."
"Yeah? I wanted a puppy."
"Santa never delivered," Vin slurred. "But God? He brung me six." One corner of his mouth turned up as his eyes fluttered closed. "Way I see it, makes up for the other shit."
When the fingers around Chris's wrist went limp, he caught his breath, but the heart monitor continued its soft beeping. Curling forward, he rested his head on his folded arms and tried not to think about the box of Captain Crunch in his cupboard. The two tickets for next week's hockey game in his desk. The damn mule in his barn that somehow managed to look disappointed every time Chris walked through the door alone.
Life without his best friend.
A soft shuffling sound and a whisper of cool air jerked Chris from a doze. He sat up, blinking sleep-blurred eyes and groaning softly at the crick in his neck.
On the other side of the bed, a nurse he didn't recognize adjusted Vin's blanket and smoothed a lock of hair from his brow. When she saw Chris watching, she smiled.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."
Chris ran a hand over his jaw, grimacing at the rough burn of stubble. "It's okay. I didn't mean to sleep." His gaze automatically swept the monitors. "How is he?"
She looked at Vin, her blue eyes filled with compassion. "As well as can be expected for someone caught on the cusp between this world and the next. That's a difficult place for any soul to be."
Chris frowned at the odd words delivered in a mild southern accent. "Who are you?" Hearing the harshness of his question, he explained, "I thought Jill was Vin's nurse."
"I'm covering for her while she's on break. My name is Maggie."
He accepted the small hand, smiling a little at the firm grip. "Chris." He looked at his watch. Two o'clock. Where the hell were the boys?
"Your friend Buck called," Maggie said as if reading his mind. "He said that with all the snow the roads are . . ." She blushed. "Well, not good. But he and the others will get here as soon as they can."
"Damn snow," Chris growled. "Weeks without a single flake and it's got to pick tonight to blizzard."
Vin muttered and tossed his head, his voice rising in distress. Though Chris quickly stood, Maggie got there first. She leaned in close, stroking her hand through his hair and whispering words of comfort. Almost immediately Vin stopped thrashing and settled.
"I can't believe it," Chris said, surprise and a kernel of resentment in his tone. "You actually managed to calm him down."
Maggie ducked her head. "Sorry if I overstepped my bounds."
"Don't be silly." He returned to the chair but continued to study her. "It's just . . . Vin doesn't like to be touched. Not by strangers, anyway."
She tucked a strand of wavy auburn hair behind her ear. "Maybe he sensed I was only trying to help." She looked at Vin, her eyes soft. "It's hard to see him in so much pain."
"'Specially when no one seems to be able to do a damn thing about it," Chris said. He forced a smile. "No offense."
"It's okay. I understand how hard this is."
Chris shook his head. "Sorry, ma'am, but hard doesn't even begin to cut it."
She circled to his side of the bed, propping one hip on the mattress. "Jill said you're ATF agents. That he was injured trying to save a young boy."
"Something like that."
Her blue eyes seemed to look straight into Chris. "He must be very brave."
Fatigue and grief loosened his tongue. "Or stupid."
"You're angry with him," Maggie said, but she didn't seem shocked.
"No, I'm angry at the two punks who shot him. And I'm angry at the idiot kid he was trying so damn hard to save, who should've known better than to . . ."
"What? Need help?" She tilted her head in a way he found vaguely familiar. "Don't you think we all need someone to take up for us now and then? I'll bet your friend's been through a rough patch or two himself."
"What's your point?" he asked sharply.
"No point," she said with a shrug. "Just . . . Having someone help you when you really need it is a special kind of gift. Makes you want to turn around and pass it on to someone else."
Her words hit too close to home. Vin had been a kid like Ricky once, caught up in a gang and living on the streets. Until Nettie Wells saw something more in him and offered a way out.
He gritted his teeth. "Can't pass it on if you're dead. Besides, it was all for nothing. The kid never even made it to the hospital. And the shooters? They're still walking around free."
Chris leaned forward, dropping his voice to a low growl. "Excuse me?"
Half the federal building knew to back off at that sound, but she only regarded him calmly. "A selfless act is never wasted. Even one good deed can shine in this dark world."
"You call this shining? He's going to die, and--" Chris's voice cracked and he drew in a deep breath. "And the bastards who killed him are probably going to get away with it."
"They might." She gazed at him with such sympathy he had to look away. "You must know better than most that justice isn't always served--at least not in this world. Sometimes you've got to leave that to more capable hands."
Every muscle in his body tensed, and he twisted his face into a sneer. "So I'm supposed to believe God will punish them? Pardon me, ma'am, but that's a load of horseshit."
"Maybe it is." She looked at him, and Chris had the uneasy feeling that she could read his deepest secrets. "But the alternative is to let grief and anger eat you alive. Do you really think that's better?"
Chris resisted the urge to squirm. Truth was, he'd been there, done that, and it hadn't worked out so well for him. "In my experience God doesn't give a crap what goes on down here."
She didn't even blink at his irreverence. "Well, when's the last time you tried talking to him, Chris?" When Chris glared daggers at her, she just raised an eyebrow. "Kind of hard to give someone what he needs if he refuses to ask for it."
"What if He doesn't give a damn about what I need?"
"You'll never know unless you try." She stood. "I've got to go. But it's been real nice talking with you, Chris." She looked at Vin, and a smile lit up her face. "I'm glad to know he's got a friend like you."
Chris watched her disappear down the hallway, wondering how the hell he'd ended up discussing justice and his views on the Almighty with a complete stranger. Except . . . she hadn't really felt like a stranger.
Vin mumbled something that sounded like a string of consonants and Chris's name, quieting with a touch and the sound of his voice. The trust implicit in the response tightened Chris's throat. He pressed his forehead to their joined hands, squeezing his eyes shut against the burn of tears.
Kind of hard to give someone what he needs if he refuses to ask for it.
Oh, hell. What could it hurt?
Are you listening, God?
Let's get one thing straight--I'm not saying I believe in you. And even if I do, I'm not ready to forgive you for Sarah and Adam. Far as I'm concerned, for someone who's supposed to be all about love, you've got a pretty piss poor way of showing it.
Anyway, I know I swore I'd never ask for anything, ever again. And if it were just me, I'd tell you to . . . But I'm not asking for me, God. I'm asking for him.
Vin seems to think the two of you are on speaking terms. If that's true, then you must know what a good man he is. Hell, he wouldn't even be in this mess if he wasn't so damn selfless. He doesn't deserve to die, not when he was only trying to help.
Way I see it, he makes this world a better place. And I know he makes me a better man. So if you're still harboring hopes to reform me, it'd be best you let him live.
Please, God. Let him live.
Chris awoke to hushed voices and the nagging sense that something was missing.
"Ow! Watch it, Buck! You're dripping snow down my back."
"Well, excuse me. If you'd been the one had to keep diggin' out the car, you'd be drippin' too."
"I suggest both of you cease this bickering before we're all removed from Mr. Tanner's bedside."
"It's not often I find myself agreeing with Ezra, but . . . Amen, brother."
"You see that? He's so exhausted he's asleep sittin' up. Damn fool's gonna make himself sick."
With a groan, Chris opened his eyes and straightened. Rolling his head until he neck gave a satisfying pop, he glared at the red-cheeked and slightly soggy men surrounding him. "'Bout time you showed up."
"Came as fast as we could," Buck said. He jerked a thumb at the window. "Case you hadn't noticed, there's one helluva storm going on out there."
"What time is it?" Chris asked, gaze instinctively drifting to Vin. "I must have . . . He trailed off, his heart hammering in his chest.
Vin was curled on his right side, one hand tucked under his chin. The first pale threads of dawn spilled through the window, lighting his face with an ethereal glow. Abruptly, Chris registered the stillness. No beeping monitor. No ragged breathing.
"Vin," he choked, rising on wobbly legs. "No."
Buck was at his side in an instant, big, warm hand on the back of his neck. "Easy, Chris."
He shut his eyes against his friend's sorrow as anger and grief twisted inside him. Vin was dead, and he'd never really had a chance to say goodbye. He'd slipped away while Chris was sleeping, oblivious.
Nathan's voice, and God, Chris didn't want to hear it. Didn't want Vin's death made any more real than it already was.
"Chris, damn it, look at me."
He opened his eyes, bewildered to see something that looked like joy on Nathan's face.
"He ain't dead, Chris. You hear me?"
Chris opened his mouth, wanting to argue because Nathan was wrong, he must be wrong. Vin was too quiet, too still, and the machines, the damn machines . . .
"Look at the heart monitor, Chris. See?" Nathan gestured at the regular spikes crawling across the lighted screen. "Seventy-two beats per minute--nice and steady. That's a lot better than it's been."
Relief flooded his body like a cool wave. "Then why the hell isn't it beeping?" he snapped.
"It appears someone turned down the volume," Ezra said, studying the machine. "Perhaps in deference to your slumber."
"He's so quiet," Chris said. "I thought . . ."
"Fever's down." Nathan's grin was contagious--suddenly they were all beaming like idiots. "He's just sleepin', Chris. Poor boy's done in."
"Well, would you look what Santa dragged in." Dr. Lorenzo breezed into the cubicle, a gaudy Christmas tree tie around his neck and red high tops on his feet. "For a minute there I was afraid there'd been a hostile takeover of the ICU."
"Somehow I forgot what a smart mouth he's got," Buck confided to J.D. as Lorenzo checked readouts and turned down the blankets to examine Vin's belly.
"What is your assessment our friend's condition, Doctor?" Ezra asked, doing his best to peer over Lorenzo's shoulder.
"Lucky as hell," Lorenzo said, scribbling a note onto Vin's chart in something that looked like hieroglyphics.
"That's official medical lingo," Josiah said, nodding sagely.
"Result of years of med school," Buck told J.D.
"Y'all mind keepin' it down? Some of us'd like to die in peace." Vin rolled onto his back with a wince and glared at them.
"Hey, Vin!" J.D. elbowed his way to the bed. "How do you feel?"
"Like shit. But it's good to see you, J.D." He looked around the room, and his mouth turned up in a lopsided smirk. "Good to see all of you. Even the doc."
Lorenzo snapped shut the chart and tucked it under his arm. "You never cease to amaze me, Vin. Three hours ago I'd have bet you'd seen your last Christmas. But I'm happy to say your temperature is dropping and there's already a marked decrease of inflammation at the wound site."
"Breathin' sounds better too," Nathan observed. "This antibiotic must be working."
"Seems like third time really is the charm," Lorenzo agreed.
"Are you saying what I think you're saying?" Chris asked, tightening his fingers to a white-knuckled grip on the bed rail. "He's going to be okay?"
Lorenzo must have seen how close he was to losing it; forgoing his usual flippancy, he met Chris's gaze with a smile. "He's got a long road ahead of him, but . . . yeah. Barring further complications, he should be just fine."
"He's right here, you know," Vin groused, but spoiled the effect by yawning.
"Looks like God delivered us a Christmas blessing, just as he did that long-ago night in Bethlehem," Josiah said, patting Vin's blanket-covered foot.
"Ain't no babe in a manger, 'siah," Vin said. "But thanks."
"That ain't the only blessing," J.D. said, nudging Josiah with his elbow. "Tell 'em, Josiah."
"Detective Henderson from the Denver PD called. It appears Vin's neighbors decided to take matters into their own hands," Josiah said. "A bunch of the kids from the center and their parents formed a kind of . . . neighborhood patrol. They hunted down those Los Lobos boys and hauled 'em into the station. They're spending Christmas in a jail cell, waiting to be arraigned for murder."
"Justice isn't always served--at least in this world. Sometimes you've got to leave that to more capable hands."
"I'll be damned." Chris looked at Vin. His friend's lips were parted in shock, his eyes bright.
"Well, there you go. I'd say we got plenty of reasons to celebrate!" Buck said.
Recovering, Vin rolled his eyes. "Not like you need a reason, Bucklin," he said, his voice still a little unsteady with emotion. "Reckon you'd use your own funeral as an excuse to throw a party."
"Indulge him, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said. "I must admit, I'm in the mood for a bit of revelry myself."
"Not here, you ain't," Nathan said. "Boy needs to rest--he's barely off death's doorstep."
"He's right," Lorenzo agreed, squelching Buck's protest. "As much as I enjoy watching this floor show, I'm afraid I've got to kick you all out. Come back later." He narrowed his eyes. "Preferably one at a time."
"Got a case of beer back and some munchies back at our place, Doc," Buck said as they each bid Vin goodbye and began filing out. "You're welcome to stop by later. And, hey! Any of those sweet young things at the nurses' desk gettin' off duty? I'd be happy to offer them a little Yuletide cheer."
"It's Christmas, Mr. Wilmington. You could at least attempt to display a shred of good taste."
"Okay, Ez, you can bring wine and some of that smelly cheese."
Ezra's sigh was longsuffering.
Josiah paused in the doorway. "You coming, Chris?"
He looked at Vin, reading the request in the lines around his friend's weary eyes. "You go on. I'm going to stay a bit longer."
"How's the pain?" Lorenzo asked when it was finally just the three of them, his gaze sharp and assessing.
"Not good," Chris answered, returning Vin's glare with one of his own. "Sorry, Cowboy, but you're busted."
"Damn pain meds mess up my head," Vin said, but there wasn't much heat behind the words; he was clearly exhausted and hurting.
"I'll have Jill give take care of it." Lorenzo added the note to Vin's chart.
Chris caught his arm as he turned to leave. "Hey, Doc, would you mind sending in Maggie when she has a minute? There's something I'd like to tell her."
Folding his arms around the chart, Lorenzo frowned. "Maggie?"
"The nurse who filled in for Jill while she was on break." When Lorenzo continued to look baffled, Chris added, "Long, wavy brown hair, blue eyes, looked about twenty-five . . .?"
Lorenzo shook his head. "I wish I could help you, Chris, but we don't have an ICU nurse named Maggie. As far as I know, there are no nurses named Maggie in this entire hospital."
Chris dropped his jaw. "But that's impossible! I saw her, she sat right there and I talked to her . . ." He caught himself, scrubbing a hand over his face. "Never mind."
Lorenzo gave his shoulder a gentle thump. "You'll be no help to him if you're running on fumes. Get some sleep." He pointed at Vin. "You too."
"Like I a got a choice." Vin grumbled. He watched Chris walk to the bed and reclaim his chair. "What was that all about?"
"Don't sound like nothin'." He cocked an eyebrow. "You takin' lessons from Bucklin now, sniffin' around my nurses?"
"Aren't you supposed to be sleeping?" Chris said with a scowl.
Vin just looked at him.
"Hell." Chris propped his elbows on his knees. "It wasn't like that. We talked, that's all. She said some things, got me thinking."
"What kind of things?" Vin persisted, wincing as he gingerly shifted to face Chris.
Chris blew out a long breath. "Well, if you must know, she seemed to share your opinions about God."
"Yeah?" Vin looked too damn amused for Chris's liking. "Knocked some sense into that thick skull of yours?"
"Shut up." But Chris smiled in spite of himself. "She told me God can't give me what I want if I don't ask for it."
Vin went abruptly still, his blue eyes huge in his pale face.
"What?" Chris asked, bolting upright. "Is something wrong? Your stomach--"
"I'm okay, sit down," Vin rasped. He licked dry lips. "What . . . What did you say her name was?"
"Maggie," Chris replied, mystified. "Why?"
"And she had reddish-brown hair with a little bit of curl to it--kinda like mine?"
"Yeah. What's your--"
"And blue eyes? And when she smiled, did she have a dimple, here, in her right cheek?" Vin gestured with a shaking finger.
"How did you know? And why do you look like you've just seen a ghost?"
Vin swallowed, and his throat made a dry click. "Get my wallet out of the bed table."
He wanted to refuse, to demand Vin tell him exactly why he suddenly looked sucker punched, but he shut up and rummaged through the drawer until he'd found the wallet.
Vin held it for a long moment, his thumbs caressing the worn leather. "Don't think I ever showed you a picture of my ma, did I, Chris?"
What the hell?
"No," he said, keeping his voice soft and even. "You never did."
Vin opened the wallet and pulled a photo from an inner pocket. He lifted his gaze, and Chris was stunned to see the glisten of tears. "My ma's name was Margaret. But everyone called her Maggie." He pressed the photo into Chris's palm.
Faded and smudged, its edges tattered and torn, Chris still recognized immediately the smiling face of the young woman--little more than a girl, really--holding a small boy. "Oh my God."
"She used to say prayers with me every night before bed," Vin said. "She'd tell me God couldn't give me the things I needed if I didn't ask. That He wasn't no genie in a bottle, waitin' to grant all our wishes, but He was up there, listenin'. And He'd do the best he could."
"It was you," Chris said. At Vin's questioning look, he explained. "Kept thinking that she reminded me of someone. Her eyes, her smile . . . the way she'd tip her head." He shook his head, his throat tight. "It was you, Vin."
Jill chose that moment to enter the cubicle. Gazes locked, they waited in silence as she added the pain medication to Vin's I.V. Perhaps sensing the somber mood, she marked Vin's chart and left without speaking.
"Wish I could've seen her," Vin murmured.
"You were delirious, but you quieted when she touched you, when you heard her voice," Chris said. "Guess you sensed it was her." He smiled. "She's still watching over you, Cowboy. I'm pretty sure she was checking me out."
Vin's lips curved. "Then I reckon she must've decided I's in good hands," he slurred, his eyelids heavy. "You know, Chris, seein' my ma ain't the only Christmas miracle around here."
"Oh yeah? How do you figure?" Chris settled back in his chair, kicking off his shoes to prop his feet on the end of the mattress.
"Got you talkin' to God, didn't she?" Vin's snicker turned into a cavernous yawn. "That ain't a miracle, don't know what is."
"Go to sleep," Chris growled, smiling.
For once, Vin did as he was told. Chris stared at the pale, peaceful face, an odd feeling bubbling up in his chest.
Damn if it wasn't joy.
You still there, God?
Not sure how I feel about you enlisting help just to get me talking. But if you had to send an angel, I suppose you picked the right one.
I still don't agree with the way you run things down here, but . . . Guess I owe you my thanks. As for giving you a second chance, well . . . Jury's still out on that one.
But I'm willing to give it some thought.
"Merry Christmas, Cowboy." Vin was three-quarters asleep, his voice little more than a whisper.
Chris tipped his head back and closed his eyes, welcoming the smile that curved his lips.
"Merry Christmas, Vin."