The morning after "Recovery."

"Hey." Ezra reached out and took hold of Vin's arm, stopping him as he got out of bed. It was still dark, and while he knew they had to get up early, he wasn't quite ready.

"Hey," Vin answered quietly, pulling away until their hands met, squeezing Ezra's hand. "Gotta piss."

He held on for a moment longer, then let go, letting his hand drop to the bed. It wasn't going to be an easy day. It never was. But it had to be done, if only for their own peace of mind and soul. Last night had been for him, today was for Vin.

Sweeping back the blankets, Ezra sat up and rubbed his eyes. The best thing he could do right now was get the coffee on and see about something for breakfast.

He had the coffee brewing and English muffins out on the counter ready to toast as soon as Vin came out. Now, the next thing Ezra wanted was aspirin. He didn't exactly have a hangover, but it wasn't one of his better mornings, either. So, aspirin chased down with a large glass of water, and hope that took care of it.

Vin came out, dressed for the mountain, just as he was putting the glass down on the counter. Denim and flannel, comfort and warmth. "I'll handle breakfast. Go get ready."

"Thanks." Faint kitchen sounds followed him as he went into the bathroom. Staring in the mirror, he briefly considered not shaving. He rubbed his hand over his chin, and knew that wasn't an option.

Before long, he was cleaned up and dressed and sitting on the edge of the bed pulling on his shoes. Looking up as Vin came in, Ezra reached for the mug of coffee being held out to him. A sip confirmed what the scent had hinted, the coffee was doctored with a generous slug of whiskey. He raised an eyebrow, then smiled when Vin shrugged.

"Saw the aspirin on the counter. Figured you could use more than just coffee." Vin sat next to him on the bed, one hand rubbing at the back of Ezra's neck.

"Likely we both could," Ezra said quietly, pulling Vin in for a kiss, then sitting for a moment, his forehead leaning against Vin's. "We better get moving, though. They'll be waiting for us."

They sat for a few seconds longer before getting up. Vin had scrambled eggs to go with the muffins, and they took the time to eat. Ezra's small cooler was packed with bottles of water and some energy bars, an acknowledgement to the long day ahead of them. Gloves and warm jackets, a blanket for the ground, and the most important of all, the small rolled parchment was secured carefully inside Vin's shirt.

In spite of the chill morning, they took Vin's Jeep for the drive up the mountain, and Ezra sat huddled in the passenger seat, waiting for the heater to cut through the cold. A few miles out he started to feel the warmth in his toes and relaxed a little. A few more miles up, and the darkness was starting to break, the eastern sky showing a pale blue as the sun rose.

"The spirits are with us today." Vin's words expressed Ezra's inner thoughts, thoughts he would deny having, of course, but the one fact was that every time they had to do this, if dawn broke pale and clear, the ceremony felt stronger.

By the time they got to the turnoff to Chris's ranch, the blazing ball of the sun was above the horizon and the sky was bright and the last of the stars had faded. It was going to be a beautiful day.

At the house, there were lights from the kitchen and on the porch, but Buck's truck was already gone. Not unexpected. Ezra jumped out and opened the gate to the upper pasture, then closed the gate behind them and climbed back in. Vin followed the fence line to the top of the pasture and the gate to the fire road. Once more, Ezra got out to take care of the gate, taking a moment to breathe in, savoring the fresh bite of the morning air.

The fire road was nothing more than a pair of ruts winding through the trees, and Vin followed it carefully and slowly to the clearing.

As often as they'd made this trek, the moment of arrival always took Ezra's breath away. The suddenly flat spot on the mountain, the view over the valley to the east, the early sun highlighting the green of the pine, the brown and gray of the rock, the blue ribbon of water that wound through the meadow below, it was all almost enough to convince him that there was a God. Almost.

Vin pulled the Jeep up next to Buck's well-worn pickup truck and killed the engine. "Don't matter how early we start, they always get here first."

Ezra didn't answer; Vin's comment was part of the routine for the day. Of course they got here first, they lived at the bottom of the mountain.

They got out of the Jeep and Ezra pulled his coat tightly around him. Summer or not, it was the mountains just after dawn, and it was chilly.

Following the short path away from the vehicles, they found Chris and Buck sitting on the rocks set around the fire pit, a small fire already burning. Vin moved forward and sat next to Chris. Ezra folded the blanket to make a cushion and then sat on the rock next to Vin.

They sat for long moments, staring at the fire and beyond it at the countryside below. When the time was right, Ezra knew, Vin would start the prayer. He asked once how Vin knew when it was time, and Vin only gave him an enigmatic shrug and told him he just knew.

Maybe it was the hawk circling in the morning air that signaled the time was right, maybe it was something else, but very softly, Vin began speaking in Comanche, the rhythmic syllables gradually becoming loud enough for them all to hear. Ezra had learned some of the words, knew that the whole prayer was to ask the Great Spirits to take the spirits of those they had killed and guide them to the place where they belonged. He privately suspected that most of the spirits were given a swift kick in the ass and sent to whatever equivalent to Hell that there was. Mostly, though, this wasn't for the dead as much as it was for whichever of them that had taken the life, acknowledging that they had killed, and working to move past it.

When the prayer ended, Vin unbuttoned his coat and pulled out two things, a small bundle of sage and the rolled parchment. He reached forward and lay the sage on the coals, waiting for it to catch fire and blaze brightly, then put the parchment on top of it. "Mickey Ramirez." Vin whispered the name of the man he'd shot, the name that was also written on the parchment.

Chris reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bundle of pine and another rolled parchment. When Vin's had burned completely, Chris reached out and put his pine on the fire, watching it catch and burn brightly, then placed the parchment on top. "Ed Schmidt." Chris said the name of his target.

No more words were spoken as they watched the parchments burn, the ash rising with the smoke, and if the prayer worked, the spirits of the dead men went, too, to be guided toward their final rest.

Now all that was left was finding peace for the two among them who had caused the deaths. Ezra was sore from sitting on the rock, his headache was back, but the one thing he had learned was that the correct time to leave would make itself known, and he had the patience to wait.

This time it didn't take long. Chris and Vin leaned forward, elbows on their knees, shoulders touching, staring at the embers of the fire. They needed their time alone, and Ezra was prepared to give that to them. Quietly, he stood and picked up the blanket, unfolding it and draping it over Chris and Vin's shoulders. A touch to Buck's shoulder and the man was rising to go with him.

They kept their own silence for the drive back down to the house, and Buck parked his pick-up close to the barn. "You go on in the house, Ezra. I'm just going to put the horses out."

He nodded and walked across the yard, the gravel crunching underfoot, stopping at the bottom of the porch steps and turning to watch. Buck had the gate to the upper pasture open and was just coming out of the barn. His gray and Chris's black were loose, no halters or leads, and when they saw the gate, they threw their heads up and took off through it, up the hill. Vin's horse was on a lead, and Buck had a challenge holding on to him, but a quick jerk on the lead and a word had him under control. Once he stood quietly, he got his reward; Buck unbuckled the halter and gave him a slap on the rump, sending him off running after the others.

Watching the sheer exuberance of the animals brought a smile to Ezra's lips. After the past few days, it was good to see some of the joy of being alive. He looked up at the sun, feeling the warmth on his face. Yes, they'd manage. They always did. And the aspirin he was going to scrounge from Chris's bathroom was going to help.

He went into the house and upstairs to the bathroom. The aspirin was front and center in the medicine cabinet, which amused him a little. Priorities, always priorities. As he tossed back the pills, it occurred to him how comfortable he was pillaging Chris's house, and how so much had changed since the first time he'd been here. Changed for the good, he thought. This was likely the best career move he'd made in his life.


He grinned and shook his head at Buck's bellow. "Up here, pilfering pain killers," he called down the stairs. On his way down, he shrugged out of his jacket, draped it over the back of the couch and continued on to the kitchen. "I don't suppose you made some coffee."

"Ready in a few minutes." Buck stopped Ezra before he could get to the kitchen table, leaning in and staring at his face. "But you look like you could use something a bit stronger." As quick as he'd stopped and stared, Buck was gone and rummaging in the liquor cabinet, returning with a bottle of bourbon.

"Why is it," Ezra asked, "that everybody thinks I need whiskey? Do I look as if I'm suffering that badly?"

Buck pulled two glasses out of the cupboard and put them on the table. "Nah, we just know what it took to get through this week. And what it takes to get over it." He poured the bourbon and then brought two mugs of coffee to go with it. "Sit down, relax, and give the aspirin a few minutes." He speared Ezra with a look. "You did only pilfer aspirin, right?"

Sliding into a chair, Ezra nodded. "Just aspirin. If I need harder stuff than that, I'll bring it from home." It was sad to realize that all of them kept a small supply of narcotics for emergency use.

"All right, then."

Ezra understood what Buck was saying. It wasn't suspicion that he was using or stealing narcotics. It was Buck wanting to know what state Ezra was really in, and it was something he appreciated. It was one of the things that helped him get past each of their assignments, knowing that every member of the team had his back.

As he sat sipping the bourbon, he was struck with the memory of the first time he'd sat at this table. So much had changed for him since then, and he chuffed out a soft laugh.

"Penny for your thoughts..."

He waved a hand. "Nothing, really. Remembering the first time I was here."

Buck laughed softly. "Yeah, that was a day, wasn't it?"

It had been indeed. And now he sat here, waiting, wondering what Vin and Chris were doing on the mountain. Amazing changes to his life in the past year, but still the insecurity lived on.

Ezra looked up at Buck. "Do you wonder what they're doing?"

Buck looked confused for a moment, obviously not having followed Ezra's thought process, but the moment he got it, his expression cleared. "I try not to think about it."

Not think about it. Just what Ezra didn't want to hear, the implication that there might be something to not think about. "Do you think they're..." He couldn't put it in words.

"Fucking?" Of course Buck could put it in words.

Ezra nodded.

"I don't know. Not sure I care. What I do know is that Chris and Vin need the time up there. And I know that at the end of the day, Chris comes back to me."

Ezra nodded again. He wasn't sure he could be as at ease with it as Buck appeared to be, but the truth was there. Whatever happened, Vin came back to him. At least, he had so far.

"And if they do," Buck continued, "it ain't about the sex. It's about the connection they have. I saw it the day they met, and I won't say it doesn't give me tiny jealous moments, but Chris needs it. And for that alone, I'll give them the time they need."

"A balance."

"You could call it that. Or you could call it not sweating what you can't control." Buck reached out and patted Ezra's hand, an unusual gesture for the man. "And letting yourself trust."

"Thanks." Ezra turned his hand over and gripped Buck's. "I do know these things, but putting them into practice isn't always easy."

"Never is." Buck pulled his hand free and picked up his bourbon. "To our wayward partners, may they always find their way home."

Ezra picked up his glass and touched it to Buck's. "And to us, noble souls patiently waiting." He grinned at Buck, wanting to lighten the moment.

"That we are." Buck drained his glass, then stood to refill his coffee cup. "I'm going out to the side porch and wait in the sunshine. That way I'll be warm and ready to bitch them out for staying up there so long."

Ezra watched the door close behind Buck, then looked at his bourbon, still unfinished, and realized he didn't want it. His own coffee was cold, so he refilled the mug and detoured to get his coat from the living room. If he was going to join Buck on the porch, he had no intention of being cold.

The sun had warmed the lounge chairs and was cheerily bright on the grass in the pasture. The three horses were grazing peacefully, and he knew their alertness would be the first sign of Vin and Chris returning. Until then, he'd enjoy the quiet of the country, the freshness of the air, and the companionship of his friend sitting next to him.