Brothers by Heart

by Usako

Warning: This is a DEATHFIC! So please if you don't like 'em, DON'T READ it. I don't want to upset anyone. I didn't ever think I could write one, but when I did write this I had a lot of things and people on my mind. So, I guess this has more of a special meaning for me.

Author's Notes - Thank you, thank you, thank you to my two magnificent beta readers, Judy and Steph, for all of their help and support! You gals are wonderful!

Winter is cold and bitter
Chill us to the bone
Haven't seen the sun for weeks
Too long too far from home

I feel just like I'm sinking
And I claw for solid ground
I'm pulled down by the undertow
I never thought I could feel so low

Oh, darkness I feel like letting go
If all of the strength and
All of the courage
Come and lift me from this place
I know I can love you much better than this.

Full of Grace
- Sarah McLacklan

The preacher halted his journey to the area just below a tall tree in back of the church. His breath caught in his throat, as sad and tired eyes recognized the black-clad figure that knelt there. Pondering going to speak with the man, Josiah then thought better of it. The grieving man would not be open to any words of comfort as they would only fall on deaf ears. *God help our leader,* he prayed to the Lord. *God help us all.*

Josiah turned to let the gunslinger be. It was the first time in the past two days that Chris had returned to the site since that black and horrible day they buried one of their own. He knew the man would have to sort this out on his own and prayed their leader realized he was not alone.

Staring at the broken ground below him, Chris Larabee hadn't moved for hours since he'd fallen to his knees. He silently thanked the others for having the good sense to stay away while he grieved. They'd stayed away even when the storm rose to give reality to the man's raging mood. It wasn't easy for him to show his emotions, and it would have been near unbearable in front of the others. He didn't want to see their looks of sympathy. They were wrong. All of them were. The man that the earth had taken back to it's embrace was not his best friend but an impostor.

Yet as he dug his fingers into the newly turned soil, reality once again came crashing back to the gunslinger and made him face the horrible truth. Vin Tanner - sharpshooter, tracker, ex-bounty hunter, best friend - was dead. An anguished cry involuntarily broke from his lips, and the man raised his head to let salty tears mingle and melt with rain drops. The water falling from the heavens fell in sheets and hurt the gunslinger's face. Yet, Chris didn't care anymore. He was beyond physical pain. *God when will it end?*

Looking back to the tombstone, Chris could read the name as brilliant flashes of lightning illuminated the rock. It was so simple - a plain grave underneath a tall tree, full of life. Chris let a faint smile cross his face ever so slowly. *Vin would have liked that.* The smile vanished quickly when he felt himself sinking slightly into the earth. The torrential downpours were making the ground soft and muddy. *Hmmm, maybe the ground will swallow me as well. I think I'd welcome it.*

When Chris removed the knife from it's sheath, he let his lifeless eyes stare down at it. They weren't even filled with rage anymore. They were just hopeless voids that stared into the metal with no emotion at all. The gunslinger absently noted that the blood had long since been washed away, and it no longer bared the physical evidence confirming its part in the hateful deed. Yet the blood would always be there, never to be truly washed away.

Continuing to stare into it, Chris felt himself being pulled back into the past - a short time before his healing world was again cast a shattering blow.......

~~Two days earlier~~

A man that Vin had known years earlier during his bounty hunter days had come to Four Corners. Vin had ridden with him for a long time and counted him as a friend. Sadly though, Vin had been so very wrong. Even more tragic was that Chris had been too. Thinking back, Larabee couldn't help but question himself, *God, why did I let my guard down? ...... Vin believed him.......But he was a bounty hunter* Chris shook his head, *No. Vin was a bounty hunter. You can't judge the man solely on that.* He repeated the question to himself again and again, but the answer never came. The only answer that he could come up with was that he had failed. Again.

He'd failed when he left the two alone together and went up to the bar. It all happened so fast; Vin never knew what hit him. Chris turned around to see the 'friend' withdraw his knife from Vin's side, and the man was dead by cause of Chris' gun before he even hit the ground. No one ever questioned the black-clad man's actions and watched in horrified silence as he eased his friend slowly to the ground, desperately trying to staunch the blood that now flowed freely from the gaping wound. In the next few moments, the saloon was plunged into chaos as Chris cried out instinctively for Nathan and others came rushing to help. Nathan seemed to appear out of nowhere.

Moving quickly in an effort to stop the flow of Vin's life giving fluid, the healer worked valiently, yet so much of it already covered the floor. Chris numbly registered the arrival of Josiah and Buck as they moved to take hold of Vin, but the gunslinger clung tighter to the tracker and refused to let him go. Maybe if he held on tight enough, he could anchor his best friend's soul to its earthly body and the scarlet liquid covering the floor wouldn't matter. It was Nathan's gentle yet firm voice that penetrated the fog in his mind. "Chris we have to move him. We have to get him to my room." The older man released his friend as though he'd been stung, and let the others try to save him - all the while pleading with God to spare his friend.

Alas, it appeared his prayers were to go unanswered. In Nathan's room, Chris watched the skilled healer work harder than he ever had to save the precious life in front of him. The black-clad gunslinger never let his eyes travel from Vin's face as Nathan's hands worked frantically to close the wound. Those eyes hadn't opened since he'd fallen in the saloon, and that scared Chris to his very core.

When Nathan finally closed the wound but didn't smile, Chris's heart sank further. It then went cold as the healer called them all out into the hall. *No.*

Nathan seemed unable to meet the others' eyes. *No.* I was able to stop the bleeding."

JD's scared voice held a glimpse of hope when he asked softly, "So he's going to be alright. It's going to heal, right?" The teenager had grown up so much since the seven had been together, but now he seemed every bit the boy they had known not so long ago. Noting the paleness in his friend's face, Buck stepped up and gently squeezed JD's shoulder.


Josiah had seen all that Nathan had done and had seen the extent of Vin's injuries. No. Vin wasn't alright. He bowed his head in silent prayer and waited for the unwanted confirmation.


Ezra knew that luck for the seven may have finally run out when Nathan sorrowfully shook his head. He'd never seen the healer so tired, not physically but mentally. "No, JD. Vin has lost too much blood....maybe if the knife hadn't been removed it would have been different but........"


The healer's voice trailed off as though he couldn't bring himself to say the words. It was Chris who broke the silence and snarled through clenched teeth, "What are you saying, Nathan?"

The dark-skinned man flinched slightly as he felt the sting of the other man's words. He knew the anger was not directed at himself, but the pain in that voice had struck them all. One of their own was dying. They all knew it, and there was absolutely nothing any of them could do about it. "I'm sorry, Chris. I did all that I could."

The gunslinger's eyes seemed to burn two holes into the healer before he broke the connection and moved to enter the room where Vin lay. Nathan looked at the understanding faces around him, and Josiah walked up to place a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Chris doesn't blame you, Nathan. You have to believe that."

The healer nodded, "I know, but I'm a healer. I can't help Vin anymore. I just wish I knew how to help Chris - how to help all of us."

It was Ezra who quietly responded, "We all feel that way, Mr. Jackson. We all do."

Light poured into Nathan's room from an open window and vanquished all of the shadows. There were no darkened corners that Larabee could hide in and pretend that none of this was really happening. Instead he assumed the wooden chair at Vin's bedside and took the tracker's hand in his. His friend had already broken into a cold sweat, telling Chris that the inevitable would soon follow. The gunslinger found morbid surprise in the fact that the younger man's fingers were as cold as ice, and the light shone on his face only added greater contrast to the paleness of Vin's skin.

Looking out the window, Chris Larabee was angry. No, he was furious. What right did the sun have to shine so brightly? What right did the birds have to sing? What right did they have when Vin Tanner lay there dying? What right did they have while Chris' world shattered into a million pieces within the confines of this small room? Larabee sighed in frustration as he realized that he was angry, because they were reminders that life would go on. It would go on as it had when his family died. The sun would still rise every morning. The birds would still wake up singing. Life would go on as it always had. Only Chris wasn't sure that he wanted to go on with it.

Casting his gaze to Vin, Chris noted that the tracker hadn't once opened his eyes. The gunslinger was almost glad; he didn't want to see that Tanner stubbornness fade out and extinguish. It was at that moment that the others chose to slowly usher in, each silently giving their last respects to their fallen comrade while at the same time giving their leader the space he so needed.

Chris spared them a glance, and at that moment he saw the look of surprise and fleeting hope flash across their faces. Turning back to face the man lying in bed, Larabee's heart thawed a little at the sight of Vin Tanner's vibrant eyes staring back at him. Chris didn't see the glassy look he had feared. Those were the same eyes that he always saw through all of their silent conversations - through the time when they had first met. Pain did not thrive there as the man had seemed to move beyond it and instead let his gaze fall for a short time on each of the seven, silently thanking them for recent years of laughter, support, and camaraderie.

Finally, the wounded man's eyes came to rest on the leader of the seven. His raspy voice came so soft that Chris was forced to lean in to hear the whisper. "Goodbye my friend, my brother." Chris shook his head in anguished protest. "Don't worry, Chris......we'll all ride together again some day...... in heaven."

Chris smiled for Vin's sake in an attempt to choke back the dam of tears threatening to burst. "I thought you and I made a plan to ride through the fiery gates together."

Vin was able to manage a weak smile. "Naw, I changed my mind. Hell is a little too hot for me. .......... Besides, I don't want to spend eternity apart from you all............. Because believe it or not....friends like you will certainly be walkin' through the pearly gates." The tracker again looked at the other men before returning his gaze to the gunslinger beside him. Even in his state, Vin could still tell what the older man was thinking. "Not your.... time yet Chris. But I'll be there to take you home when it is." And with these parting words, Vin Tanner slowly closed his eyes for the last time.

*No. Please God no.* But it was true. As Chris looked at the tracker, he knew that the man had already left. Yet surprisingly, tears did not come to the gunslinger. He placed his head down on the tracker's chest and released a low sorrowful sound none of the others had ever heard before. Then sobs came - not loud sobs of tears, but silent, anguished gasps. The others, not knowing exactly how to respond or comfort the man, walked out to give him some privacy and to grieve for Vin Tanner in their own way.

And so here Chris sat on his best friend's grave burning holes in the instrument of death with his piercing eyes. Some how he didn't think Vin would mind him sitting there. God, what was he going to do now? *I can't stay here. How many more are going to die because of me?* Then Chris shook his head, *No. He didn't die because of me. But by God I should have been able to stop it!* Squeezing his eyes shut against the onslaught of tears that threatened to fall, the black-clad man asked himself what Vin would have wanted for him. Yet, the only answer he could come up with was to go on. *But not here. I just can't do it here.* His mind made up, Larabee decided he would go to his remaining friends one last time and then leave in the morning for good.

Years later when the rest of the seven had all moved on, Mary Travis stepped out on to the porch of her Clarion News office and looked at the bustling town around her. Sighing in nostalgia, she remembered how things had been with a growing town and seven magnificent men to protect it, but those days were long gone.

The judge had finally appointed real lawmen to take care of the town. Four Corners was no longer a quiet frontier town, but had grown to be big and prosperous. When the day came that the judge gave them the bad news, Ezra moved on to Boston and Nathan returned to the Seminole village when a real doctor had arrived. The only ones who had chosen to remain in Four Corners were Josiah who had finally finished his church, JD who settle down to marry Casey Wells, and Buck who didn't want to leave JD. The others weren't surprised when Chris went off to wander on his own.

Looking down the dusty street, the newspaper woman could see a figure off in the distance slowly making his way into town. Her breath caught in her chest when she recognized the man dressed all in black. "Chris," she whispered faintly. Although she had always hoped he'd come back, Mary had never actually thought that Larabee would ever return. But there he was slowly riding his black horse. She noted the tiredness in his step and the gray that tinted his once blond hair as he dismounted and walked towards her.

"Mary." The blond reporter didn't have the chance to respond before the man crumpled to the ground. "Chris!" she half screamed, but was to late to stop his fall. Holding him until his fits of coughing stopped, Mary pulled him close to discover that he'd fallen into darkness' quiet embrace.

Night had fallen and the shadows of five men and one women were cast on the walls from the dim lamp beside their leader. "Well Nathan, is he going to be alright?"

The healer raised sad eyes to look at the youngest of the group. My how that boy had grown, and not just physically, but mentally as well. Almost smiling, Nathan thought of the pride that was ever-present on Buck's face, the pride of an older brother. "JD, I'm sorry but Chris has consumption. The case is quite advance, and I don't know that he's gonna make it through the night."

Nathan's words hit the group as if it had been a blow. He knew that they were all playing visions of another of the seven dying in this very same room all those years ago. Now they would be forced to watch another brother, their leader, pass on to the next life. Then Buck snapped his head to the figure on the bed, *He came back here to die.*

It was at that moment that the old gunslinger decided to open his eyes to bid his family his final farewells. "I don't have...... much time.... Do I, Nathan?" Chris' sentences were broken, because often his lungs would force him to release a fit of coughs.

"What are you talkin' about Chris. I'm the healer here, and I say you're gonna be just fine." Nathan tried to reassure the man, not wanting to discourage his friend. However, he couldn't hide the slight crack in his voice. Allowing himself to smile, Larabee responded, "It's okay Nathan. I know ...... it's my time. Thank you for everything." Nathan looked to Chris and had to wipe the tears that were forming away from his eyes. "Thank you Chris. Thank you for always treating me as an equal. If you and Vin hadn't helped me when you did..... well for that I'll always be thankful."

Chris nodded and then turned his gaze on Ezra, "Well, Ezra, I know we had..... a rocky beginning, but I like to think that we developed a friendship over the years." The gambler and con-man looked at Larabee with deep respect. "That we did, Mr. Larabee. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to prove myself worthy of your trust."

Next the sick man looked to the preacher. "Josiah, looks like those crows have come callin'. Maybe you could put in a good word for me with the man upstairs?" Sanchez smiled, yet sadness still clouded his eyes, "I will, Brother Larabee. Although I don't think you're going to need much help gettin' in. You're a good man, and I'm proud to have stood beside you."

JD walked to Chris' bedside as the gunslinger called the youngest to him. "I know I may have given you a rough time sometimes, kid. But I'm proud to say you've grown into a fine man. I know you're destined for great things." For the first time in a long time, JD Dunne was speechless before his idle. All he could manage was an emotionally charged, "Thank you Chris."

Mary tried to hide a sob by turning quickly to the window. The woman's sharp movement was not lost on Chris and he noted the subtle shaking of her shoulders. "Mary look at me." When Miss Travis turned around, they could all see the red coloring her cheeks and brightness in her eyes from the tears starting to fall. Mustering her courage, she walked over to face the unwanted truth of Chris Larabee's impending death. Looking down, she saw the man she'd loved ever since that fateful she'd set eyes on him in the street as he went to help Nathan. Chris weekly took old of Mary's hand and brought it to his lips. "I love you, Mary. Thank you for everything." Closing her eyes she spoke softly, "I love you too, Chris. I always have." With that she knelt beside his bed and waited as the man looked to his oldest friend.

"Buck," Chris called as he reached for the other man's hand. "I just wanted to say thank you for sticking by me through everything. You've been my friend for as long...... as I can remember. I don't know what would have happened to me if you hadn't been there after Sarah and Adam..... and Vin. I know I didn't stay in Four Corners after that, but I felt your support nonetheless. Thank you. Thank all of you." The others could only nod in one final effort to give their leader strength now that he needed it. That being said, the brave, tired heart of Christopher Larabee pulsed its final beat, and his lungs took their final breath. "Goodbye, pard." Buck choked as he reached over to close his friends eyelids for the final time.

Chris Larabee stood waiting in absolute darkness. A soft golden glow encompassing him was the only light. All the pain in his lungs was gone, and all the aches had fled his back and joints. Once again, Chris felt like a young man. Then the light surrounding him grew to include every brilliant color of the rainbow. Chris watched in utter amazement as the colors grew more and more vibrant, combining and melting into one another until they became one pure, white light.

Staring into the light in front of him, Chris saw the figure of a man slightly shorter than he with a slight lean to his stance. Larabee recognized the figure instantly, and his heart warmed as it came up to great him face to face. "Hello Chris. It's been a long time."

"Yes, Vin. It has." Larabee looked into the younger man's eyes and knew this was his friend, his brother, from not too very long ago. "What is this place?"

"This is where I take you home," the tracker spoke softly and held out his hand. Looking beyond his friend, Chris saw the silhouettes of a woman and a child holding her hand. "It's time to go home." What was it that his mother had one told him? She believed that the last family member to die was the one who would guide you to the other side. Vin was a brother - a brother by heart. And for first time in years, Chris felt all of his burdens lift from his soul. Smiling, he took his brother's hand and stepped into the light.

We aren't brothers by birth
We knew from the start
God put us together
To be brothers by heart. - By Unknown

The End

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