Chris slid both hands through his hair and down the back of his head. He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his desk and bent his head so he could knead the tense muscles in the back of his neck. He needed sleep. He should have gone home hours ago but indecision had kept him from leaving. The decision as to where to go when he left still harried him. He should go home, but he wanted to go to Mary. He wanted to watch over her this night. He wanted to keep her safe. As hard as he had fought it he'd fallen in love with her. He hadn't wanted to but it had happened and now he'd put her in harm's way... just like Sarah, and he couldn't live through that again.
It had been a hellish long day.
They'd gone over and over the pictures again and again looking for little things, each of them trying to remember details from weeks and even months ago, anything that would help Josiah.
JD had run the credit cards and flight manifests of the murdered paparazzi in record time. Tavis McGregor had been in Hawaii and Montreal at the time of the Jacksons's honeymoon and the Montreal Film festival. Carlos Fragomeni was primarily an L.A. based photographer of the stars but had flown to Kansas City and then to Denver. He spent nearly a month in Denver before flying back to Kansas City where he was found dead. Again the dates coincided with the timeframes of the last four pictures.
The investigating officer on the Fragomeni murder could find no reason why the photographer would have left the L.A. area. He assumed it was work related but the officer could find no one that knew if Fragomeni had a contract or not. In both murder investigations, there were few clues and the cases were quickly growing cold.
Nathan had noticed that while the pictures of the other four men had centred on the women, JD and Vin's showed them full face equally with Casey and Mia; was that significant? Especially since they were the two who'd been kidnapped? Did it mean anything or nothing at all?
Considered in terms of location, was the picture of Vin and Mia still an inconsistency? One of those red herrings Weller had used before or did it have a meaning they did not yet understand?
Kody had stayed with Josiah and Del that weekend; was this Weller's backhanded way of pointing to Josiah again? The thought that this monster was using an 18-month-old child frightened them all and was terrifying to his young father who had retreated into silence.
It was then Ezra suggested an explanation for the medallion depicting the Archangel Raphael found in JD's pocket. Amoung Raphael's many patronages were those of the young and the blind. JD was their youngest and had been keep blindfolded by the duct tape during the beating. In Weller's twisted view of things, possibly he thought the medallion would protect JD during the beating.
While Buck questioned Ezra as to how he knew so much about the Patron Saint and Ezra replying it was merely some of the advantages of private school education. Chris watched Josiah's reaction to Ezra's theory. There was mixture of emotions there that Chris couldn't quite read.
Chris wondered how it was that Josiah managed to sort through all this conflicting information. How did he keep from seeing things that weren't there and still see the things that were?
Hours later, brains fried, tempers short, they had begun to argue amongst themselves. Chris and Buck had been especially combative. In separate instances both Nathan and Ezra had tried to intervene and head off another impending argument only to end up the recipient of one or both the senior agents' ire.
Josiah figured he had enough to worry about without having to act as mediator as well. Quite frankly he'd had enough of Buck and Chris and decided the elder children could settle their own differences for a change.
Josiah quizzed both JD and Vin again about the kidnapping. JD was visibly tiring and with fatigue he was obviously hurting again. He lacked his usual stamina due to his injuries. He was wilting under the stress of the questioning when he fired the nasty accusation at Vin; if Josiah wanted to know anything why not ask the guy who somehow managed to avoid a beating.
Vin said nothing. Between the guilt of JD's beating, his troubled marriage and, the threat to his family, it was one more thing Vin had to cope with and he didn't have the heart left to deal with any more. He flinched at the angry words and then ducked his head, retreating even further into himself but not before Josiah saw the pain that flare in the sky-blue depths.
From the expression on JD's face it was clear he regretted the words the moment they were spoken. The look on Vin's face hurt JD worse than any of the blows the Nicholls brothers had delivered. JD stammered out an apology before burying his head in his hands.
The little scene left the rest of the men in the room silent and Josiah with the firm realization they were falling apart as a team.
Then came the phone call from John Osipenko, a missing person. Another missing young woman, whose description matched victims favoured by Jonathan Becks Weller. They were on the trail of another victim. How soon could Josiah come to Kansas City?
There was no way Josiah was leaving Del and Rosie. Not with everything they had here in Denver indicating Weller was targeting Josiah's family.
This was not in line with the FBI's expectations and Chris sided with Josiah. The entire situation was threatening to blow up into a political fiasco until Ezra volunteered to go to Kansas City in Josiah's place. Ezra made the observation that all indications were that Weller was most likely in Denver or Kansas City, so his mother was likely to be in the least amount of danger.
It was Ezra who was on the next flight to Kansas City. He would be Josiah's eyes and ears and relay information and his observations back to Josiah in Denver.
The case was in Kansas City's backyard now and all they could do was wait.
Since this could take hours and there were people each of them wanted to be with, Chris wisely decided to send them home on the proviso that each of them agreed to personal FBI surveillance. None of them were happy with the FBI tails they had acquired but they recognized the necessity of it so there was little arguing the point, especially if it meant going home to those they cared about.
JD had been the first one out the door heading for Casey's and Nathan wasn't far behind. Buck had left shortly afterwards. He would go to the Saloon to wait for closing and then make sure Inez got home safely.
Checking in just before midnight, Ezra reported that he had landed and was en route to the FBI offices to meet with Osipenko and Bronwen Lind. He would keep them advised.
Josiah had closeted himself in the conference room going over the photos again, the information the men had given him, the facts of the kidnapping, and what little evidence there was from the murder of Nicholls brothers. He spoke briefly with Ezra, John Osipenko and Bronwen Lind at one a.m. They were following up on the disappearance as per standard procedure. There was little else they could do at this point. It was after that that Chris ordered him to go home.
Now that his troubled marriage was common knowledge Vin had opted to sleep on the couch in Chris' office rather than go home to an empty apartment full of memories. He lay across the room from Chris now. On his side with his back to his boss his steady regular breathing audible in the stillness of two a.m.
Chris had decided to go home to the ranch if for no other reason, than Tanner needed a decent bed to sleep in.
His hand shot out suddenly, an instinctive reaction to the shrill ring of the telephone as it jolted him out of his thoughts.
"Chris?" He blew out a long sigh of relief as he recognized the voice. It was Mary.
"Hi, Mary." It felt good to hear her voice, but at the same time guilt nagged at him knowing he was the reason she was under FBI surveillance right now.
"You're still there." He could hear the concern in her voice.
"Yeah I'm still here."
"I was worried..." Her voice trailed off.
"I was about to go home."
"Chris, come here. Come stay with me tonight."
He passed a hand through his hair, while he searched for an excuse not to go to her.
She sensed his reluctance, "I promise I won't ask about the case."
"It's not that, it's just... Mary, I don't think that's such a good idea..." He didn't want to have anything to do with putting her in more danger; he'd been down that road once before.
"Chris... please come."
He shut his eyes as he was inundated with the memories of that weekend. The smell of her perfume, the softness of her hair, the gentle rhythm of her breathing as she slept, how it felt to make love to her, how her gentle assault on his body awakened feelings and desires long forgotten... how alive it made him feel to be in love again. He could feel his resolve crumbling. Josiah was right, she was his strength and his weakness.
He opened his eyes and jerked back suddenly in his chair, startled to discover Tanner standing on the other side of his desk staring intently down at him.
"Just a sec, Mary." He hit the hold button.
"Whatta you want?"
Chris just blinked back at him wondering if Tanner knew what he was talking about; he thought he was asleep a moment ago.
"Go to her... that's where ya belong... that's where all of us belongs right now."
"I can't, Ezra might call."
"I'm here and I'm more'n capable of answerin' the damn phone."
Chris stared at him not knowing how to phrase the question. Vin answered it for him.
"I'd be holding Mia in my arms right now if I could... but I can't... so there's no reason for you...." Vin stopped and licked his lips self-consciously; he always did when he was treading on what he figured was hallowed ground around Chris. "I know what your thinkin'... about Sarah... but go anyway, Chris. Love her while ya can. Who knows what tomorrow will bring."
Vin stared down at Chris, imploring him not to let this chance go by.
Chris reached across and released the hold button
"Senor Buck! What are you doing sitting in the hall outside my apartment door? Go home, you foolish man."
"That's just not gonna happen, Inez." Even whispered his words seemed to boom down the silent hallway. "You're in this cause of me and I'm not leavin' you to face this alone."
He had helped her clean up and close after the day's business. Then he had badgered her into letting him drive her home. She had been too tired to fight him and had agreed. On the way home she had fallen asleep on his shoulder. After turning off the ignition he sat watching her sleep for a few minutes and berated himself again for putting her in danger.
He wondered what it was about her that had kept him coming back. The others had teased him that he couldn't accept the fact that there was one woman on this earth that he couldn't have his way with. But that wasn't it. It had been her fierce independence that had attracted him. He had known so many women just like her, without the advantages of either money or education who had worked and fought hard to make their way in life, his own mother included. Watching out for her just seemed the right thing for him to do.
Once she roused from her doze, he had escorted her up to her apartment and insisted on checking it out before letting her in. Once inside, he tried to talk her into letting him stay, platonically, just to keep watch, to make sure she was safe. His arguments were met with a resounding "NO" and he was shown the door. But there was no way he was leaving. He moved a few feet down the hall and sat down to nestle in the doorway to the stairwell -that way he would hear anyone coming up the stairs or see anyone coming off the elevator. A short time later after valiantly trying to stifle a tickle in his nose he had sneezed. A moment after that Inez opened the door to her apartment...
"Be quiet!" she hissed. "Do you want the neighbours to hear you? They will be thinking other things if you use words like that."
Only then did he realize the innuendo of what he had said. It gave him an idea. Louder, and with as much angst as he could muster, he said, "Inez, darlin', this is all my fault. What kind of man would I be if..."
They both heard the rattle of the security chain on the apartment next door as the occupant within slid it aside.
"Mi Dios," spat Inez. Grabbing Buck by the arm, she hauled him back into her apartment swiftly shutting the door.
"You think you are so smart!" Her dark eyes flashed with anger. He couldn't help but grin down at her, she was absolutely beautiful! "There, smart guy," she pointed to the couch, furniture no where near long enough for Buck to stretch out on. "You sleep there and tomorrow I make an official complaint to Senor Larabee!"
She whirled out of the room. He stood for a moment enjoying the last bit of scent from her perfume when he was struck suddenly in the head. The enveloping softness turned out to be a blanket. He lifted the blanket off his head and smiled to himself before tossing it carelessly on the couch. Then he moved over to the window. Peeking out between the curtains he identified first Inez's FBI tail and then his. He moved back into the room; slipping his jacket off, he tossed it on the couch. He removed his gun from the shoulder holster and sat down in the easy chair. Setting the gun in his lap he settled in for a long night.
JD rolled over and groaned. That bruise on his hip again. God wasn't it ever going to heal? He was tired and everything seemed to hurt more because he was tired. What was really hurting was the fact he'd barely had a chance to talk to Casey. After about an hour with her Nettie told him it was time he went home. Nettie had cornered him in the hallway when Casey had gone to get his coat. Not one to mince words Nettie had laid it on the line for him. "I don't want you to see her again until this is over and then only after we've had a little talk about what your job might mean for my niece."
Nettie was pretty upset him for putting Casey in danger, he couldn't blame her. She loved Casey and his job had potentially put her in serious danger. He wasn't happy about it either.
He was pissed at himself for the same thing and he was pretty sure the others felt the same. The way Buck was talking when he left he was pretty sure Buck wasn't coming home tonight. He was going to find a way to keep an eye on Inez himself. Nathan had muttered something about even with a baby on the way a change of career wasn't impossible. Chris and Vin had looked like it was tearing them up inside when they were talking about the photographs with Mary and Mia in them. Ezra had let on that Maude could take care of herself but JD knew he was pretty worried about her. Especially since Ezra didn't even seem to notice that he was drinking Vin's coffee again. And Josiah... how the heck did he handle it all? Weller wanted revenge and it made sense Weller would want to hurt Josiah rather than kill him and if no picture of Del and Rosie meant they were Weller's intended victims, how the hell did Josiah manage to keep his mind on the case?
JD turned over again. He'd only ever wondered if it was fair to get involved with Casey since he might lose his life in the line of duty. He'd never thought about her being in danger because of his job. But he supposed it had never occurred to Chris either and he had lost his wife and son to payback...
JD rolled over again this time punching his pillow as he lamented to himself, "How come none of the answers are ever easy!"
Nathan gathered Rain in close as she snuggled in against him. She slept soundly as they spooned together in the big bed. One of his big gentle hands was spread wide over her abdomen. At their last pre-natal visit the doctor had said that soon he would be able to feel butterfly like movements of the child within her.
He was so looking forward to this child. This child would change them from a couple to a family. This child would fulfill the last of his really important dreams. Forget all the social status that achievements in education and career had brought him. What was really important in this life was one's completeness as a person. Where Rain made him complete as a husband and a lover, this child would complete him as a father.
There it was! He held his breath and waited ... there it was again! A rhythmic fluttering against his index finger, so light he could easily have missed it. He smiled in spite of his dark mood. He knew his ever practical wife would dismiss what he had felt as the abdominal rumblings of her intestines as they shifted to make room for the growing life within her but he knew better. In his heart he knew better.
Then he was reminded of the threat that had been laid before him. How could he be so irresponsible as to put them in danger like this?
Tomorrow he would talk to Rain about a change of career.
Ezra knocked back the pep pills and then had to swallow "up hill" as he bent over the drinking fountain to sip water to wash them up and then down with. Barbiturates, the unspoken of tools of his trade, he loathed to resort to them but resort to them he did when caffeine no longer did the trick for him. Caffeine... that vile concoction Vin Tanner called coffee had given him the runs to add an extra degree of misery to his already miserable state.
He had left in such a rush he had forgotten his overnight bag in the trunk of the Jag. There had been no time to purchase a shaving kit at the airport. Now in the early hours of the morning he was unshaven, and wished dearly he had a clean shirt and change of underwear. These were the little things that helped Ezra Standish cope in times of stress.
Down went the Imodium... almost. It caught in his throat and began to dissolve. He drank thirstily at the fountain in an attempt to sweep the vile tasting remnants from his mouth before they hit his taste buds. He wasn't completely successful. For once he wished he carried coin instead of plastic, a soda from the vending machine would be eminently more palatable right now than more hours-old coffee from the break room.
He had been impressed by John Osipenko and Bronwen Lind.
Osipenko was methodical, logical and quick and mentally one of the most agile people Ezra had ever met, and growing up with Maude he had met more than a few. Even so, Weller, with all those superfluous clues, had had this man running in circles.
Outwardly, John Osipenko was lacking when it came to bona fide human emotion. He was nicknamed the "ice-man" by those outside the profession of profiling, not just for his style as a profiler but his physical appearance as well. Unusually grey tinged skin covered a gaunt frame, and a large hooked nose supported heavy auto-shading glasses that seemed to be perpetually dark, like the cynicism that coloured every aspect of his personality. There was an aura of coldness about him. Ezra swore he could feel a chill just standing beside him.
Bronwen was the polar opposite to John Osipenko. She seemed to function solely on instinct and intuition, yet her conclusions were not that dissimilar to Osipenko's. Ezra could understand why she had retired though. Her style brought the case too close to her, she internalized too much of it. After looking over some of the case file photos from some of the previous victims in this case, Ezra had to wonder why she hadn't gone completely mad.
Osipenko and Lind, both such tortured souls, how was it Josiah had avoided the same fate? Possibly it was the lack of someone else to provide stability in one's life, the lack of someone to love that made the difference.
His thoughts turned once again to his mother. He had finally spoken to her on his cell on the way to the airport in Denver. She had been somewhat upset with him. Given Interpol's sudden interest in her, Sergei had summarily dispatched her out into the street. Ezra preferred not to dwell on what that meant about Sergei. Maude had seemed fine otherwise. She actually listened when he explained the situation. At the end she complained bitterly but decided she would go visit Gergely in Hungary, commenting that she hadn't seen him in quite some time. Ezra had to smile at Maude's decision; Maude had sounded very off-handed about it, but Ezra knew the "Colonel" had one of the best security systems in Europe. Mother would be fine.
Ezra took another drink from the fountain and then walked down the hallway back to the Operations Centre.
Vin sat in his chair staring at the three folding frame pictures of Mia, Kody and Aiyana cradled in his hands.
Miakoda, her name meant power of the moon. Mia had a power alright. She had bewitched him the first moment he'd laid eyes on her.
Vin had hoped his time with the Rangers gave him all the credits he would need to complete his degree. For two years he argued that his military service was sufficient to satisfy the degree requirements. The University disagreed. He needed one course, one measly course to satisfy the University and in turn the ATF. He opted for Native American Cultural studies because the brief history that the foster agency had provided him indicated his maternal grandfather had been Native American, Kiowa to be exact.
He sat in the back of the first class unhappily waiting for the instructor to arrive and wondering how he was going to make it through this course. Even with Ezra's help the final written project, worth 50% of the grade, was going to be a challenge. Then Miakoda walked through the door and that was the last thought he ever gave to passing the course.
Her long black hair shimmered with the slightest movement. Her dark brown eyes were full of life and laughter. She wore no make up but seemed to glow all on her own.
They settled quickly into the course of study. All her students were important to her but it was soon obvious the instructor was attracted to the quiet man with eyes the colour of the sky.
It was in both their natures to take relationships slowly. The course curriculum had the class going to Mia's home and living on the reservation in the traditional style for a four-day weekend. Long after the end of the course one student still spent weekends with the teacher in the traditional style.
They had been careful but even so, Mia had become pregnant. Mia did not put any claims on Vin but he would not have his child grow up without a father as he had, so he insisted they move in together. Vin, with unspoken fears, had dutifully gone to pre-natal classes and read up on babies.
Then Kody was born. Takoda, Sioux for "friend to everyone". Kody Tanner was the centre of his father's universe. Vin Tanner's confidence as a father grew as fast as his son. Mia and Kody had brought more love and light to Vin's life than he could ever have believed possible.
A year later, one Sunday morning in early June, in the meadow out behind Chris's place, Vin and a pregnant Mia stood side by side. While 14 month old Kody slumbered on Vin's shoulder, they held hands and before close friends and family, they pledged to love each other and raise their children together for all their days remaining on this earth. It was a commitment ceremony, though not legally recognized by the laws of men; it bound them to each other with their hearts.
Eight weeks later Aiyana was born.
Aiyana... his sight became obscured by his tears. Aiyana, whose name meant eternal blossom.
Aiyana had been born pink and healthy and with a set of lungs that would do her Uncle Buck proud. A pound heavier than her brother had been, with her Mother's deep brown eyes and her father's fair hair. They brought her home and settled into family life with the confidence of second time parents. He figured all they had to worry about were a few sleepless nights and diaper rash.
Then came that awful Tuesday morning. He'd stepped out the shower just after six a.m. Mia was just crawling out of bed wondering why Aiyana hadn't awoken them for her two a.m. nursing. Vin had told her to stay where she was he would bring the baby to her. He had leaned over the crib and he knew immediately something was wrong. He moved to stroke her cheek to awaken her and found it cold to his touch...
SIDS they had told them. It tended to be more common in bigger babies and more commonly affected boys than girls. The reasons why didn't matter, his daughter, his eternal blossom would flower no more, and Mia, the love of his life, the woman who had brought so much light to his existence, withdrew from life. She withdrew from him, from Kody, from everyone.
Depression they called it, it would take time but she would eventually be herself again. Vin wasn't so convinced. Mia wandered through her days oblivious to what was going on around her. She couldn't teach. She barely spoke to him and when she did there was no life in her voice. The psychologist didn't seem to be helping and the weekend away together hadn't changed anything. He had lied when he had told the others they were better. The first sign of interest in anything was to announce that she wanted to go home. She wanted some space, some time to think and she needed her people and her culture around her. Those words had sent a chill into his heart. He had tried to be supportive agreeing that it might be a good idea. Then she had said she was taking Kody with her and that she didn't want to hear from him. She would call him when she was ready.
He was in shock. It took him two days to pull it together enough to go back to work, his excuse for being off work, the flu. Given his pallor when he did return to work no one questioned the excuse. He didn't try to hide the fact Mia and Kody were gone, but simply explained it as a short visit with family. Then came the inevitable teasing that it wasn't the flu but the eating his own cooking that had made him sick. He was relieved, the team themselves had provided him with a cover story. Only Chris had suspected something else was up and had invited him out to the ranch for steaks the following Sunday.
The Saturday before was the day he had been abducted.
Now with the threat of those photographs he had gone back to that dark place where he'd grown up. That place in his soul where he knew only hate and anger. That time in his life when he felt victimized and raged against a world where he lacked the love of family and friends. And he hated Weller for threatening the person he held most precious in this life, his wife, his Miakoda.
He imagined tearing that man's throat out with his bare hands and how good it would make him feel to do so.
Forget the law, he'd been pushed around a lot lately, his daughter, his wife, being kidnapped, JD's beatings... he'd had enough! Someone was going to pay and Weller was as good as anyone.
She watched from behind the drapes as Chris made his way up the front walk. Though she couldn't see them from where she stood, she had no doubt both his and her surveillance officers were nearby. She hurried to the front door to open it before he could ring the bell and awaken Billy. Chris squinted against the sudden bright light that greeted him when she opened the door.
She reached across the threshold and took his hand in hers and without words drew him into her home. Looking up at him she noted how terribly tired he looked. She could also see he still had doubts about coming here. She stepped close to him tentatively asking, and he replied by putting his hands on her shoulders and then slowly drawing her into his body. His arms slide down around her and she slid her hands up his back to rest on his shoulder blades. He settled his cheek against the softness of her hair. She bowed and turned her head so she could lay her ear against his chest and listen to the comforting sounds of his heartbeat through his shirt. They stood for a moment, taking comfort in each other's arms.
She listened as his breathing slowed and noticed how he seemed to become heavier in her arms. He was falling asleep. She eased away from him and looked up at him again. He looked exhausted. He gazed none to happily back at her. "I'm not very good company, I should go home."
"No," she replied urgently. "You're here now. I just wanted to see you. I wanted to make sure you were alright."
"I'm fine, just a little tired." He smiled wanly.
"Are you hungry?"
"No, but I've got one helluva headache, have you got anything for it?"
She led him into the kitchen. He settled slowly into a chair while she disappeared down the hallway to the bathroom returning with a container of Tylenol. She ran the tap water while she shook two tablets into her palm. Filling a glass she brought both the water and the pills over him and sat down as she watched him toss the pills to the back of his throat and then drink them down.
She smiled, a little sadly at him, he looked so tired. The weight of the world seemed to be on his shoulders. "Come to bed."
It was his turn to smile sadly. "I won't be much good to you tonight..."
"That's not what I want," she said quietly. "I just want to be with you."
The sad little smiled disappeared. "Okay if I shower first? I'm not too pleasant."
She lay in bed listening to the steady rhythm of the water as she waited for him. She wondered if what she had done had been wise after all. He had looked so tired when he arrived. The worry of not just the team this time but their wives and girlfriends as well was taking its toll. She really only wanted to make sure that he did get some sleep tonight and didn't work through the night again.
The shower ceased and after a minute she heard the click of the light switch. The door from the bathroom to her bedroom opened. His lean form was outlined by the muted glow of the nightlight in the bathroom. Barefoot and clad only in a towel he made his way soundlessly across the carpeting to her bedside. She lifted the covers by way of invitation. He tossed the towel aside and rolled into bed beside her.
In the dark she smiled to herself; he smelled of her Dove soap and Billy's strawberry dinosaur shampoo.
She snuggled up behind him wrapping her arm around his ribs resting her hand on his chest near his heart. His skin was still a little damp from the shower. She had expected as tired as he was that he would fall asleep almost right away. She could feel him breathing and knew he wasn't settling into a relaxed rhythm for sleeping. Moments later he turned over to face her. He caressed her cheek with the tips of his fingers and then kissed her gently on the mouth. His breath was strongly scented with her mint toothpaste. He drew away and even in the darkly shadowed room she could see the desire that burned in his eyes. He kissed her again, long and lovingly and then again and again with quick little dancing kisses, that asked without words if she wanted to make love. She reached up and took the caressing hand from her cheek and guided it down to her breast in reply.
Josiah had just stacked his keys and badge and ID on top of the wall unit when he heard his name. Rosie stood in her New York Yankees slippers, her Denver Broncos blanket wrapped around her shoulders. After Josiah brought the slippers back from New York, Del had felt equal time was necessary and had purchased the Broncos blanket for Rosie's bed. Josiah wondered if it wasn't the profile of the horse patterned on the blanket that attracted Rosie more than the team. All he knew for sure was he thought the colours of it were god-awful.
"Hey there, Rosie gal, it's the middle of the night what are you still doin' up?" he asked softly. He squatted down and held out his arms. She was in them in a second.
It felt good to be lifted high up in warmth and the strength of her daddy's arms and know he was home and safe. "I was waiting up for you Daddy. I wanted to make sure you were okay."
He looked into the familiar blue eyes and smiled, warmed by his daughter's concern. "I'm just fine, even better now that I'm holding one of my two best girls."
His own eyes stared back at him with her mother's expression. She was waiting for the rest of his answer.
"So are your uncles."
"Every last one?" she turned her head a touch to the side still looking at him steadily.
"Every last one," he replied firmly.
"He's still pretty sore but he's feeling better every day."
He could see her dissatisfaction with his answer play across her face. He knew that any report other than all six of her uncles were perfectly well would not suit her.
"I was going to get a drink and then head to bed. How about you, would you like something to drink too?"
"Let me get it for you, Daddy." Rosie wiggled to get down and they walked together into the kitchen. Josiah picked up the forgotten blanket and dropped it over the back of his daughter's chair before obediently sitting down in his chair at the table.
Using both hands she tugged the refrigerator door open and then peered inside. "What would you like, Daddy?"
"Apple juice, please."
Rosie squatted down ducking her head this way and that until she spied the blue juice boxes she was seeking. She reached well back into bottom shelf, coming up with one and then a second juice box.
A box in each hand she held them tightly to herself as she laid her bottom against the outside of the refrigerator door and backed up with a half a dozen quick steps until the door was firmly shut. Then she made her way over to the kitchen table and set the juice boxes on the table before climbing onto her chair.
Josiah watched with chin in hand, elbow on the table marveling at his daughter's self sufficiency.
She worked away at stripping the cellophane off the straws with her teeth and then, her mouth set with concentration; she pierced the foil hole with the pointed end of the plastic straw.
"Thank you," he said, taking the offered juice box.
They both took their first sips in silence.
"How was your day?"
"Boring," she replied squeezing the sides of the juice box between her thumb and fingers several times watching the pale yellow juice bounce up and down in the clear plastic straw.
"Yeah, can I go back to school tomorrow?"
"I'm afraid not, Rosie."
"Is it because of the purple-trader?"
Josiah felt his heart stop. What did she know? "Who told you about the purple trader?" he asked casually, he had to work hard to hide his alarm.
"Nobody," she replied lightly.
"I heard Mommy talking to you on the phone this afternoon. We were doing a puzzle and Mommy was taking a long time to come back so I went to find her. She was still talking to you on the phone. Uncle Ezra says its impo... impo..."
"Yeah. Impo...lite to interrupt people when they're talking on the phone, so I waited and after mommy hung up she had her worried look on." Using her index finger, Rosie dabbed at the spot above the bridge of her nose where Del's "worry wrinkle" always appeared.
"I see," he said thoughtfully, the exercising of good manners had led to his little girl hearing things she was far better off not knowing.
"The worried look went away pretty quick though."
"Did you catch him?"
"No not yet."
"You will," she said with the confidence of a child's faith that her daddy could do anything.
"Daddy... is he the same man who hurt JD and Uncle Vin?"
"We're not sure, honey."
"Is that why I can't go to school?"
Oh Lord, what was he going to tell her? He sipped slowly at the juice to give himself time to consider his answer. He'd never lied to her before he wasn't about to start now, "Yes it is."
"Oh." She replied simply before going back to sip thoughtfully at her own juice. Josiah prayed she wouldn't ask any more questions. He didn't want to lie to her but at four years and eight months of age, she already knew far more than she should.
Suddenly she stopped sipping at her juice and looked up at her father. "Daddy, I have an idea," she said seriously.
"Yes, I think because I can't go to school and both Mommy and I are getting sick..."
"You and Mommy are getting sick?"
"Mommy says we both have a cabin fever."
"Oh, I see." Josiah nodded, relieved that along with everything else right now, there was no true illness to be concerned with.
"And since Uncle JD is still not all better yet, even though Uncle Buck has been taking care of him, I think he might need someone who's better at looking after hurt people and Mommy and I are very good at looking after hurt people. We do it a lot."
It was all he could do to return the serious gaze with one of his own. "That is true," he agreed.
"I think Uncle JD should come here tomorrow so we can look after him. What do you think?"
Josiah rubbed his chin thoughtfully as if giving his daughter's suggestion serious consideration, which in fact he realized he was. Though the FBI had increased their surveillance of Del and Rosie based on his conclusions from early today and even though the homestead was crawling with dogs. He'd feel a helluva lot better if someone else were here in the house with them. He wished he could be here with them but if Weller was going to be caught, he had to be in the office. No doubt JD would be unhappy at missing out on what he perceived as the action at the office, but his absence would remove the constant reminders for Buck and Vin that had been the cause of so much disharmony. No doubt Nathan would be happier that JD was taking it easier for a change.
"Rosie gal, I think that is a very good idea," She recognized the honest enthusiasm for her proposal in his voice and smiled as she straightened suddenly in her chair. "Chris is the boss though and I'll have to ask him first if it's okay."
"Tell him it was my idea then he'll say yes," she said with absolute certainty.
"I'll do that."
Now that she was assured her daddy was home safe and that her uncles were fine and being taken care of appropriately, her business for the day was done. She suddenly began to feel tired, yawning she reached back for the throw blanket. Josiah stretch forward and helped her gather it around her shoulders and then lifted her up and set her back down on one knee.
She snuggled into the heat of his body and was asleep by the time he slurped at the last of his juice.
He cradled her in his arms and took a moment to sit and watch her sleep.
"Hey there, big guy."
He looked up to find Del leaning on the side of the refrigerator a hint of a smile graced her lips. He wasn't too surprised despite the limp she could move more quietly than any one he knew.
He smiled. "Hey there, Del."
She walked over and leaned down to kiss him.
"How long have you been there?"
"Since the purple-trader."
"I didn't think she'd heard me."
"She's learned to move as quietly as her mother but I think it's okay though."
"You want me to take her?"
"No, I want to do it."
He shifted the precious weight onto his shoulder and rose from his chair. Del caught the throw blanket as it began to fall. He made the short trip through the living room around the corner and down the hallway past their bedroom into Rosie's room. He laid her gently in bed, removing the Yankees slippers before tugging the covers up under her chin. He then leaned over and kissed her on her forehead. Del laid the blanket at the base of her bed and watched from the doorway as Josiah gently brushed the soft brown curls on her head.
He moved to stand beside his wife.
"She's a marvel," whispered Del. She leaned back into her husband as his arm encircled her waist.
When Del didn't receive a reply she turned to look up at him. Forty-four hours without sleep, the resurrected threat of that madman and now that the trappings of office were absent, professionalism fled, Josiah could no longer hide his torment. She could see the fear and the worry in his eyes.
"Hey, big guy." The words were soft, the tone full of concern. She reached up and took his face in both her hands, like she had once before. Her eyes searched the storms that raged in the blue depths. "This isn't your fault."
"The hell it isn't, I should have quit when we got married."
"I knew what I was signing on for. If you'll remember, I was one of those people up in those mountains hunting Zachariah Tombs with you. It was one helluva courtship!"
"Rosie didn't have a choice though. I'm such a fool to be risking the two of you because of my job."
Del looked up at him and for a moment he thought she was going to argue with him. Then she seemed to decide otherwise and she did what she always did. She let him know he was loved and slid her arms around him and held him close. His arms wound around her, and he rested his cheek against her loose curls as he watched his daughter sleep. "The lord protects fools, let hope he protects the fools' family as well. God help me, how am I going to find this bastard?"