Absolution 2

The morning after "Recovery."
Written for a WEC challenge, this is the story from Vin's point of view.

Vin reached out quickly to silence the alarm clock, then lay still for a moment longer. The room was dark, and there was not even a hint of daylight peeking in through the curtains. Not surprising, at this hour. He took a long breath, letting it out slowly. Now that he was awake, his body was making demands of its own, so he slipped out of bed, pausing only as Ezra grabbed his hand, and he held on in return.

"Gotta piss." He let go of Ezra's hand and made his way to the bathroom, taking care of that need, and then washed up for the day, brushing and pulling his hair back and tying it with a leather string decorated with small feathers.

When he was done, he came out to find the bed empty, and heard sounds from the kitchen. Ezra, starting coffee and breakfast. Quickly, Vin dressed for the day. Even in summer, the mountains would be cool, so he chose heavy jeans and a tee-shirt, covered with a long-sleeved flannel shirt. With his leather coat and gloves, that should be enough to keep him warm.

In the kitchen, Ezra had started the coffee brewing and pulled muffins and eggs out of the fridge. Beside the coffee pot was a bottle of aspirin and an empty water glass.

"I'll handle breakfast. Go get ready." Ezra was awake, but he looked a little rocky, and the aspirin on the counter only confirmed Vin's suspicions. Best thing he could do was get some food in him before they left, and make sure they had plenty of water to take up the mountain.

While Ezra washed up, Vin got out the small cooler and filled it with bottled water, tossing a few granola bars in at the last, then put it on the counter where they wouldn't forget to take it on the way out.

When the water stopped, and he heard drawers open and close in the bedroom, Vin put the muffins in the toaster and scrambled the eggs, moving them off the heat when they were done.

The coffee was brewed; he poured himself a cup, black, and one for Ezra, with milk and a shot of Irish whiskey, then picked them both up and went into the bedroom. Ezra was dressed, ready for the mountain, but sitting on the edge of the bed, pulling on his shoes. He looked up and took the mug Vin was holding for him, and sniffed it.

Vin shrugged at Ezra's raised eyebrow. "Saw the aspirin on the counter. Figured you could use more than just coffee." He sat next to Ezra, reaching up to rub the back of Ezra's neck.

"Likely we both could," Ezra said quietly, and Vin let himself be pulled in for a kiss. "We better get moving, though. They'll be waiting for us."

"Yeah." Vin got up and led the way back to the kitchen, where he plated their breakfast. They ate without talking, then gathered up what they needed for the mountain: the cooler and a blanket for warmth. Vin already had his small bundle of sage and the rolled parchment in his jacket pocket, ready for the ceremony.

Despite the chill, they took Vin's Jeep up the mountain, and as he drove, Vin glanced over at Ezra, huddled against the cold. He knew the canvas top wasn't much protection from the elements, but once the engine was warm, the heater more than made up for it.

As they left the city and got on the roads toward the mountains, the sky began lightening, and Vin felt as if he was in a place out of time. All he needed was a horse instead of a car and it could be time long past. But either way, it was starting out to be a beautiful day.

"The spirits are with us today," he said softly, doing his best to keep his eyes on the road and at the same time glancing to the east to see the sky as it turned pale blue, silhouetting the trees. By the time they got to the road to Chris's ranch, the sun was a blazing ball just above the horizon, casting its gold over the countryside.

Vin pulled up to the gate at the pasture, having noted the house lights on, but Buck's truck already gone. Ezra climbed out stiffly to open the gate, and as he did, Vin saw again how hard this week had been on his partner. He drove through and waited while Ezra shut the gate behind them and climbed back in, then repeated the process at the gate at the top of the pasture.

Now they were on federal land, and the fire road, if you could call two ruts a road, wound up the mountain to the clearing they'd found and had claimed as their private spot.

Every time he came up here, whether it was like this, for a ceremony, or simply to hike or ride, he was struck by the beauty of the spot; the valley below, owned by no-one, with the creek that meandered its way through, the mountains and trees in the distance, now fully lit by the sun and showing the majesty wrought by Nature herself. Vin didn't think of himself as a terribly religious man, but this place touched the spirit within him.

He pulled his 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." He smiled at Ezra's glance and roll of the eyes. Of course Chris and Buck got here first, they lived at the bottom of the mountain, but it lightened the moment to mention the obvious.

It was a short walk to the fire pit they'd constructed, and that was where Chris and Buck were, seated close to the welcome warmth of the campfire. Vin stepped up and sat on the large rock next to Chris, and Ezra sat down next to him.

Now it was up to him to know when to start the ceremony, and he waited, looking over the valley, wondering what the sign would be this time, but knowing it would make itself apparent when the time was right. After a while, it was there, the lone hawk riding the wind, looking for an updraft, waiting to see the small prey that would be its next meal. As the hawk made a long, sweeping turn, Vin started the prayer.

Comanche words, taught to him by his grandmother and elders on the reservation where they spent summers helping build fences and schools, and despite all her protestations, Vin secretly suspected were distant relatives. He had altered some of the words, fitting the prayer to fallen warriors to suit those who had fallen in defiance of the law, but no matter how good or evil, life had been taken, and it had to be acknowledged.

He finished the prayer and reached in his pocket for the parchment and small bundle of sage. The sage went on the fire first, representing his own spirit, and when it was fully ablaze, then the parchment with the name of the man he killed. "Mickey Ramirez." According to the elders, this would guide the dead man's spirit to its proper resting place.

When Vin's parchment was nothing but ash, Chris pulled out a bundle of pine and another parchment, and repeated the process, letting the pine catch fire before placing the parchment and speaking the name of the dead. "Ed Schmidt."

Two vicious dead men, and here they were, sending their spirits to rest. Vin let a smile tug at his mouth, knowing that Ezra was quite convinced that the spirits went straight to Hell. Vin wasn't always sure, wondering if some of them were more misguided than vicious. But whichever it was, Vin knew that for himself, to be able to look in the mirror every day, he had to do this, to accept his own role in the ending of a life.

They sat silently, watching the fire burn, breathing in the clear air touched by wood smoke, and Vin let his spirit, or maybe just his imagination, soar with the tendrils of smoke, with the hawk on the air, perhaps even the spirits of the dead on their way.

But his place was here, he knew, with these men, with the team that had become like family, and he leaned forward, elbows on his knees, looking at the glowing coals in the pit. Beside him, Chris did the same thing.

A moment later, Ezra stood up, unfolded the blanket and draped it across his and Chris's shoulders, and left them with a quick brush of his hand across Vin's back. Buck got up and left with Ezra, and it was only a matter of a few minutes before the sound of Buck's truck faded away.

"I'm not feeling it."

Vin looked at Chris, but didn't answer, waiting for him to finish his thought.

Chris looked up at Vin. "The other times we've done this, I felt the sympathy, understanding the loss I caused." He shook his head. "But not for these guys. These guys were like rabid dogs that needed to be put down."

Vin nodded. "I know." He stared at his hands. "But I need to be sure why I shot Ramirez. Was it a good shoot? Was he really an immediate danger, or was it just because he swung his weapon toward Ezra?"

"Don't matter. If you let him get off a shot, Ezra or any of the rest of us could be dead, too."

"Yeah." Vin rubbed his eyes. "Question is, was I watching out more for Ezra on account of knowing how these guys were getting to him?"

"Worse than most?" Chris sounded both angry and concerned.

Vin wanted to kick himself. He knew that Ezra didn't talk to anyone else about how he felt when an undercover got rough, and now he'd spilled it to Chris. "Yeah, these guys were totally whacked. Scared the shit out of Ezra." He could feel Chris's anger building.

"Why the hell wouldn't he, or you, come to me?"

Vin took a long breath before answering. "For him, it's part of the job. All the bad guys are scary to some degree. He figures it's something he has to manage, to lure them in and at the same time not let them know he's the law. It gets bad, he talks to me." He paused for a moment. "And when it's that bad, I watch out more for him."

Chris slid his hand onto Vin's shoulder. "It's what we should all do. We keep watch over each other, we know how the job is going and what it's doing to the team." Chris's grip tightened. "And if one of the team--"


"Ezra. If Ezra is wound tight, we know ... you know that he's not going to be as sharp, maybe, and you watch out for him." Chris shook Vin's shoulder. "But you don't usually question yourself like this. What's different this time?"

"Don't rightly know. Maybe I'm thinking on it too much."

"Maybe you are." Chris slipped his arm around Vin's shoulder, and it felt both comforting and supportive. "As long as you don't have doubts when you talk to the investigators."

Vin leaned into Chris's warmth. "Nah, it ain't that kind of doubt."

"Then what is it?"

That, Vin thought, was a very good question, one he'd been pondering for a while. Part of him regretted that he'd gotten to the position where Chris could ask that question, and another part of him felt relieved. Chris was his friend and his boss, and as both had a right to know what was nagging at Vin. At the same time, though, he wondered if it would be a violation of his unspoken vow of confidentiality with Ezra to discuss it with Chris. But then, that horse was already out of the barn. His concern both for Ezra and the whole team finally tipped the balance in favor of talking about it.

He thought for a long moment about how to say it, and finally simply went ahead. "It's not doubt so much as worry." He shrugged off Chris's arm and stood, moving far enough around the fire pit to be able to see Chris's face before sitting down again. "You know what else gets Ezra wound tight when he has to go under? That he's losing his own self in the covers." Chris nodded. "And you know what gets me wound tight? Knowing he's worried, and knowing he's there with them, and none of us are close enough to stop it if something goes sideways."

When Chris drew a breath to speak, Vin held up his hand, silencing him. "So now, the thing I keep worrying on is that I'm not always thinking straight when I'm watching over a take-down. That with Ezra and me being together, and knowing how he worries, that I'm not doing my job right. That I might be too quick to shoot sometimes."

Chris's soft chuckle would have brought him to his feet in anger if not for the look of understanding on his face. "Vin, you think you're the only one that happens to? How the hell do you think I feel when Buck's out there? We've all got somebody that makes us not think straight." Chris ran a hand through his hair, but as soon as he let go, it fell over his eyes again. "You don't think as the team leader that I don't worry every day about what lines we're crossing having you and Ezra and me and Buck having relationships on the team? And worrying if it puts the rest of the team at risk?"

Hearing it that way from Chris blew most of the worry out of Vin, and he grinned wide. "What you're saying is that we're a couple of fucked up sons of bitches."

Chris's grin matched his. "Yeah, that'd be about it." Chris stood up and held out his hand to Vin. "That, and as long as we're worried about not thinking straight, we're probably still okay."

Vin reached up, gripping Chris's arm above the wrist, and Chris gripped back, pulling him to his feet and into an embrace. "You're probably right. Won't stop me from worrying, though."

"Don't expect it to." Chris let go of Vin, moving toward what was left of the fire, scattering the coals and then covering them with loose dirt. When he was sure the fire was out, he looked at Vin. "Guess we best get down there and see what they're up to."

"Suppose so." Vin folded the blanket and picked up the cooler, then stood for a moment looking out over the valley and across to the mountains beyond. Whatever their reason for being on the mountain, it was a breathtaking view, now filled with bright sunshine reflecting off the creek below. And between the ceremony and the talk with Chris, he was feeling more comfortable about his reactions on the job.

He led the way to his Jeep, then sat for a moment as the engine warmed up. "What do you suppose they're up to down there?"

"If I know Buck, he'll have let the horses out. Then he'll get out the good whiskey for himself and Ezra. What they'll do after that is anybody's guess."

Vin grunted in answer, and put the Jeep in gear for the drive down the mountain.

"You never know, Vin. Our next case could be chasing down illicit brandy and Cuban cigars."

"Be a nice change, that's for sure." For himself, and especially for Ezra, he thought. And Chris was right. You never did know what was next.