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AN: The following was written for a lyric wheel, and was inspired by the song "Stranger", by ELO. I've never actually heard the song, but that's kinda the fun of a lyric wheel. The Sixth Sense and its characters belong to M. Night Shyamalan.
All in black, the stood around the new-dug grave like a murder of crows. They neither spoke nor moved, each absorbed in their own remembering. The early spring air carried an appropriate frostiness; cold, harsh, stinging.
And it did sting, all the way to their hearts, though some would have had trouble admitting it. That one of their comrades had been lost, not misplaced or injured, but irretrievably gone, was almost unimaginable. The men stood and watched, as inches, then feet, of soil gradually covered the last remains of their fallen friend.
"So what now?" JD Dunne stood at the foot of the grave, stolidly staring at the plot marker. He had expected to cry; had prepared himself to do so like a man. Nothing had come. He'd just drifted through the service and burial, like he had a thousand other boring ceremonies. He had experienced death before, but never so sudden. He felt as if his heart and his gut had yet to catch up with reality.
No one answered him. They were as bewildered as he. Chris Larabee drew his hand over his weary face, but made no move to leave. He had aged many years in the past few days. Now that the funeral was over, he had nothing else to do, nowhere else to go.
The newer part of the cemetery, where they stood, was bare and flat. The older section, with its ornate tombstones and rosebushes tended by faithful mourners, was hidden behind a stand of trees. As he looked around, Nathan Jackson couldn't help but be sorry for that. A few concrete monstrosities would have livened up the area no end. As it was, the rectangular plots, arranged in orderly rows and marked with simple brass plates, were too neat. They reminded him of post office boxes, or filing cabinets. I bet the sites are arranged in alphabetical order, he thought, irrelevantly, or, no, that would be too obvious. Maybe they have a dewy-decimal system.
Somewhat amused by the thought, Nathan turned to share it with Josiah Sanchez, who stood on his left. The look of complete emptiness on his friend's face, as the old agent gazed at the fresh-turned earth, brought him back to the solemnity of the occasion with a jolt. Huh, Nathan thought, whoever it is we buried must have really been something.
For the life of him, Jackson couldn't remember who they'd buried.
Vin Tanner sat down on the moist grass, along side the plot. He looked strange in black. Usually, he wore lighter colours, faded by the sun and overuse. The coat he now wore he had borrowed. His tanned face seemed peculiarly pale against the fabric. From certain angles, he looked like Chris.
Nathan scowled. He was ready to leave, but Tanner looked like he was making himself at home. Irritated, he opened his mouth to protest, but was distracted by a movement toward the foot of the plot. Buck Wilmington had removed his jacket and given it to JD, who had begun shivering against a particularly cold draft of air. Buck - there was another one who looked strange in black. Thinking better of his impatience, Nathan held his tongue.
At the edge of the trees, a small figure stood, watching. He shivered slightly, as he wondered how he should approach the men standing around the plot. It wouldn't be easy. No matter how many times he repeated this particular ritual, it was never easy. Seeking courage, he reached his hand into the large pocket of the grey duffel coat he wore and gripped the small toy cowboy resting inside.
Something tugging at the back of Nathan's mind told him they were being watched. He glanced around at his companions, but none of them seemed to have noticed this. Looking around, he noticed the boy in the trees. He frowned. He had seen the child before, more than once. It seemed he had been watching the ATF agents for days, now.
"Hey, look," Nathan murmured to Josiah, "there's that kid, again."
Josiah glanced up, but didn't respond. He had been doing that a lot of late, so Nathan paid it no mind. Instead, he broke away from the group and strode over toward the trees.
"Hey kid," Nathan called, as he came nearer the trees. The boy just watched him, obviously scared, but holding his ground. "What're you doing here?"
"I came to see you," the reply was so faint, Nathan had to strain to hear it.
"You came to see me?"
"At a funeral?"
In vain, Nathan tried to hide his annoyance at the boy's unsatisfactory answers.
"Don't be mad," the boy interjected, hurriedly. His small, pale face became even paler. He looked around for a way to change the subject. "Those are your friends?" He nodded toward the gravesite.
"Yeah," Nathan turned around to look at the dejected group of men.
"They seem very sad."
"Yeah," Nathan took a long, sad, breath, "they're taking the death hard."
"You worry about them," it was a statement, not a question.
Nathan snorted, a laugh almost escaping his lips. "That's kind of my job, I guess."
The boy looked up his companion. "Whose death?"
Nathan turned back toward the boy, his frustration burning in his eyes. Without thinking, the boy took a step back.
"Sorry," Nathan didn't understand why he was having so much trouble keeping his temper in check, "it's just so stupid. I really don't remember who died."
The boy didn't seem surprised. "Why don't you ask your friends?"
"They," Nathan wasn't sure how to finish that sentence, "they're too sad. I can't talk to them. Not yet."
"How long have you not been talking to them?"
Nathan frowned. It was hard to say exactly when it had begun. Three years? Three months? No, it had really begun with that god-awful bust. "Three days."
"So all you can do is worry. That must be hard."
"Yeah, it's like I'm disconnected from them."
"Looking through the eyes of a stranger."
"So," the boy took a deep breath, "what happened three days ago?"
Nathan didn't respond. What did happen? It has to be more than the bust. That's too small. As Nathan contemplated his answer, another of his ATF team mates noticed the boy standing by the trees.
"Cole Sear, aged twelve, of Philadelphia," the agent called out in greeting, as he approached.
"Hello, Agent Standish," was the calm reply. Cole didn't actually think he could tail a team of federal agents, without them looking into who he was.
Nathan glanced up at Ezra. Whoever it was must have been killed in the bust. Standish would know who it was. He had been in the thick of it. "Ezra?"
Standish ignored the question. "Listen, son, I'm baffled as to what you think you're doing, but stalking a group of law enforcement officers can be hazardous to your health. We're in the habit of being shot at," Ezra Standish was obviously trying to sound understanding, but failing.
Yes, Nathan thought, someone was shot. But only the seven of us were there. Just us and the bad guys.
"I'm sorry about your friend."
"Thank you," Ezra looked away quickly, not really wanting to acknowledge the boy's sympathy.
Clarity came to Nathan in a blinding wave. He remembered the bust, he remembered the gunfire. He remembered the fiery pain as the bullet entered his abdomen. It had been a lucky shot, but effective. "Oh God, I'm dead. I'm dead."
Cole and Ezra both pulled their coats closer about their shoulders. The child glanced at the distraught ghost, but didn't dare reach out to him. If Cole lost Ezra, now, Nathan might never get another chance to say what needed to be said.
"It's strangely cold here," Ezra muttered, almost to himself.
"Graveyards can be like that," Cole replied.
Standish merely nodded.
"I think," the boy began, nervously, "I think that, sometimes, they don't go away. Dead people, I mean. Sometimes they die before they're ready, so they stay."
Nathan looked up. Cole was right. He wasn't ready.
Cole could see Ezra preparing to return to his friends, so he made one last bid to get his attention. "I knew him."
"Who, Mr. Jackson?" the ATF agent seemed surprised.
Had it been too big a lie? Would Standish have expected to know Nathan's friends? "Only a little."
Standish remained silent, but seemed ready to accept this.
"He worried about you. All of you," Cole glanced toward the other men.
Ezra almost smiled. "Always wanting to save us from ourselves. And each other."
"What do you mean?"
Ezra looked away, again. This was too close to the bone. He didn't answer Cole's question.
Nathan, however, seemed to understand what he meant. "No, Ezra, don't take it like that. They didn't need saving from you. I didn't always know that, but..."
Cole just stood there, desperately wishing Nathan would just get on with it.
"You can be a real weasel sometimes and you really need to get over the whole mercenary thing, but you're a good agent. A good man. I should have said that before." Nathan could feel his eyes filling with tears, but something else was beginning to blur his vision. The scene around him began to fade to a brilliant, blinding white. "I'm sorry I didn't say that before..."
As the world faded to white, Nathan thought he heard Cole saying, "He wanted you to look after each other..."
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