"When the sun of compassion rises, darkness evaporates and the singing birds come from nowhere" ∼ Amit Ray
The dawn helicopters were really not a surprise.
Not at all, whatever Josiah and Nathan had or hadn’t said to the two journos in the DFAC. Out of anticipation and anxiety, Josiah hadn’t been sleeping anyway. Not properly.
He’d lain in his billet most of the night listening to the odd silence of the black night outside. It was a deep, impenetrable, waiting silence.
“Lord,” he’d said out loud at one point, “I don’t like it when you’re this quiet.”
Earlier, before retiring, he’d gone to bother Nathan, rattling around in the pharmacy.
“Get some sleep,” he’d said to him with meaningful emphasis and Nathan had been grumpy.
“What you getting bossy on me for, old man?”
“They’ll need you.” He didn’t really have to specify who or why.
Josiah didn’t experience premonitions as such – it was all greedy mynah birds here instead of those damned crows – but the absence of Captain Larabee and his men served as the same thing. Nathan knew it too, really, but he was very sensibly taking Larabee’s own advice not to buy trouble in advance.
“All right,” he’d said, holding up his hands in submission. “All right already.”
Josiah had returned to his billet intending to read and then sleep. He did neither.
And then with the clock at barely five he’d heard the distinct, cloud-borne rumble in the far distance. He’d risen, grabbed protection against cold and other enemies, tucked his smallest bible in the cargo pocket against his thigh, even though he figured it might be thrown right back at him if it was offered, and gone out into the freezing ghostly light.
Josiah was one of the first on the scene. As the two giant beasts came down upon the earth, he stood well back, shemagh wrapped tight but still having to blink hard against the kick-up of grit.
Through the gloom and hellish noise he counted the hostages out of the first helo.
Four taken, four rescued alive. Thank God.
Josiah didn’t count the special ops guys because they moved like spirits, he didn’t know how many there’d been in the first place and in some ways he didn’t want to know, didn’t need to take that burden. Whatever spiritual or psychological crutches they’d lean on, it probably wouldn’t be him, anyway. He waited for the second helo, stoic, an overwhelming need to count out the guys he did know. Chris, Buck, J.D., the others from B-Troop.
Relief sharp and clear as cold water washed over him when he saw Larabee jump to the ground some fifteen minutes later, Wilmington and Dunne not far behind, as ever.
The whole scene was a mass ruckus. Not for Josiah to push his way into. He saw Nathan accompany the hostages and their entourage into the medical block and that was enough.
But he had made himself available. It was what Josiah always did in these situations. He felt himself to be permanently so, by nature of his job, but sometimes people forgot. Yes indeed, sometimes C.O.’s forgot, and government people forgot. The reps from the non-profit organizations occasionally did more than forget. They’d just blink at him and what he offered like he was an alien.
About an hour after the second helo landed, Captain Larabee found him, on purpose rather than by accident. Josiah was in the office out back of the chapel, being briefed on next steps by a joint military and government team from the capital. And glazing over to be honest.
“Please excuse me,” he said when he saw Chris at the chapel main door. The man had wet hair, a mission-stress pallor and was out of battle dress, in khaki fatigues and heavy jacket, buttoned up against the cold.
Josiah, who was not in general a fan of army protocol but a huge advocate for close human contact in adversity, left the officials in the office. He strode to the door, and seized Chris in a one-armed hug. Extreme situations often invited extreme reactions.
“Easy, tiger,” Chris huffed when he was released.
“Good to have you back.” Josiah’s heart beat like a bass drum in his chest. It was not as if this hadn’t happened before, but nothing would lessen the impact. “How’d it go?”
“We’ll tell the tale another time, padre.” Chris was gruff-voiced, breathless from the hug, but secretly pleased at the welcome, Josiah thought.
“The boys are all good.”
“And the lead team?”
“In good shape.” Larabee’s mouth curved in its familiar humor, both sweet and sour. “Thanks to us.”
“The men you got out?”
“Being checked over, or will be when Nathan can get ‘em out from under the embassy teams. The Dutch contractors have their own support here, and so does the fixer. The US aid guy – now him I reckon you should see.”
“In a bad way?”
“No.” Chris frowned. “He didn’t travel with us, but from what I could see, calm.”
“Right. I asked Nathan to make sure he knew you were around when he got a chance.”
Josiah considered Chris’s clean but trashed appearance. “Time to re-hydrate, de-compress?”
“Fine, just wanted to touch base.”
“Go,” Josiah said.
He re-wound his shemagh against the chill. Said his goodbyes to the official types. While Larabee set off in one direction, as if he had other business on his mind, Josiah made for the medical center.
It was busy, but not with the usual daily buzz of the walk-in clinic. Like the whole base it was now vibrating with the strange rhythm of operations. A mix of control and unpredictability. For all Larabee’s assurances that everyone was in good shape, nobody got out of hit-and-run extractions from those particular hostiles without feeling it, and Josiah would make himself available to everyone, even if he got told to butt out.
“Josiah,” Nathan said, passing him. He was tense with the need to do a lot of things and see to a lot of things at speed, but not yet in the permanently wired, scrubbed-up state Josiah would find him later – once the revenge bomb explosion took out McGarrett’s convoy. Without stopping to talk he waved a hand behind him. “Curtain two.”
Josiah felt his little Bible bumping against the side of his thigh. He brushed off some of the dust the big beasts had thrown up, approached the cubicle where the curtains were drawn.
“Knock knock,” he said.
“Yo,” came back a low voice after a significant pause.
Josiah poked his head into the cubicle. The rescued US aid guy was sitting in a chair by the bed. He was alone.
“You can tell me to go away,” Josiah said, hand on the curtain ready to retreat if necessary. “My name is Josiah Sanchez. I’m attached to B-Troop – the men who came to get you out. Well, some of them.”
“Reckon I know who B-Troop are,” the guy said, voice raspy. He gave Josiah a study. Then shrugged and gestured him in with his head.
Josiah moved in and let the curtain fall behind him. He advanced carefully, perched on the end of the bed, leaving plenty of space and attempting to signal that his presence should in no way be seen as a threat.
“I know you’re Vin Tanner,” he said, hand extended. “I’ve come to say hello, see how you’re doing, see if there’s anything I can help with. Phone calls, messages, anything you need.”
Tanner seemed to gather his wits. He put out a rather beat-up paw. His grip was strong, instinctive. After a brief shake he dropped the hand in his lap, weary. He was still in his filthy clothes and covered in mountain debris, weeks of privation etched on his skin, hair and beard shaggy.
“They won’t let me hit the showers ‘til this has run through,” he said, lifting one arm so the IV tubing moved. He had a line on the back of the other hand, and a bottle of Gatorade at the ready. The cubicle smelled of a mixture of medical center and homeless shelter, two aromas Josiah knew very well.
“One of the things I can do is find you some clothes. In my experience the embassy team often forget details like that. And... do you need access to a cellphone?”
Tanner lifted his free hand again, rubbed at his face in slow motion, then shook his head. “Just takin’ things in. Reckon I’m good for now.”
On automatic pilot , of course. Josiah nodded. “You take a size nine shoe maybe?”
A little frown at the oddness of the question in these surroundings. “Ten and a half if you must know.”
Josiah suppressed a smile.
“Well I’ll see what I can do. Although of course I’m not actually here as your style guide. It might seem a little too soon for me to come at all, but you’ll probably be here on the base longer than you want and I figured you should know what’s on offer.”
“Well now listen,” Tanner said, flickering with spirit. He frowned and looked down at both hands, at the dirt ground into his fingernails and the tremors, slight but noteworthy. “No disrespect, padre. But you should know I didn’t come out here to do work for no God.”
Josiah was not unaccustomed to being told to stow his beliefs.
“Hmm, well I’m not always exactly sure I did either.”
Tanner’s eyes narrowed at him. “Huh,” he said although it might as well have been ‘good for you’.
“Be that as it may, and all my own confusions notwithstanding, those of any faith or none are welcome in the chapel, which is a strange pinky-colored structure you’ll find due north across the compound. That’s just a piece of information you may or may not find useful. It’s kind of in my job description to advertize it.”
“Job done then.”
There was silence then until a noise right outside the cubicle. Tanner looked up with an irritated flinch as a nurse’s head appeared through the curtain. “We all right in here?” The nurse looked at the IV bag. “Need to do your vitals again but I can come back.”
“I can go.” Josiah rose to his feet, but the IV pole clanked as Tanner jerked his hand off his lap in a staying motion.
“Nope,” he growled.
The nurse’s gaze flicked quickly back and forth between the two of them. “Like I said, I can come back.”
Josiah made a gesture to suggest that this might be a good idea. He sat slowly back on the bed as the nurse let the curtain fall.
“Sorry,” Tanner jerked out. “I’m not. It’s just.”
“Not a problem, Vin. You’re just taking things in. I get that.”
There was quiet again, and Vin licked his crusty lips. There were flecks of blood and silvery granite on them.
“You know,” Josiah said. “I know there are priorities with re-hyrdration and so on, but it can’t be too comfortable for you right now. I could bring you some water and soap? I’m guessing the nurses are a little stretched.”
Vin eyed him. He made a faintly compulsive scrubbing motion against his face, rough nails picking at his beard. “This? This don’t bother me.”
All Josiah could think at that point was that Vin Tanner was very far from being an Ezra Standish, a man who probably wouldn’t even agree to breathe until he was clean and groomed.
“Well you’ll be pleased to know the showers are hot. They’ll organize a bed for you – either here if they want to keep an eye on you, or else a spare billet.”
“Doc said he’d give me something to help me sleep so reckon that could be about anywhere and I wouldn’t notice. They already shot me up with something I didn’t ask for.”
“He’s good,” Josiah said. “A good, talented, respectful practitioner and a brave soldier. He won’t let you down.”
“Seen a lot of brave soldiers last few hours,” Tanner said, the bloodshot eyes wandering away a little to stare at nothing and then coming back to him. He glanced at the IV line, listless.
“Doing their jobs,” Josiah told him, almost knowing that Vin Tanner might just be the type to ignore risks to his own person, but feel like crap about others risking their lives for him.
“Still like to thank ‘em. Coming after us must’ve about ruined their Christmas.”
“Well, I do know Captain Larabee. And I can tell you that Christmas will have been the last thing on his mind.”
“Captain Larabee,” Vin repeated, a spark of life in his eyes. “Yeah, him. I’d like to thank him.”
“Later maybe. When you’re rested.” Josiah sent him a small smile. “And he’s keen to meet you too as it happens. A man who likes the whole picture is Captain Larabee.”
Vin leaned his head against the chair back. There was some kind of unspeakable exhaustion creeping up on him, Josiah could tell. Less to do with lack of rest and more with a mind that was hurting too much. But also, suddenly, he seemed to have a strange compulsion to talk. He would have been given something to dampen down the shock reaction, get a bead on the stress and anxiety, but he wasn’t giving in to it just yet.
“Don’t really know how I feel about any of it truth to tell.” He pulled his head up, brow scrunched in a look of puzzled entreaty that pressed hard on Josiah’s protective buttons. “One part of my head doesn’t even believe it happened. And the other part can’t stop thinking about it.”
“It’s very soon,” Josiah said, “to be unburdening yourself. That’s not really why I’m here. I figure you’re an intelligent man, will come find me or someone like me soon enough if you want to. Thought it polite to come say hello is all. I can leave now, or I can stay. We don’t need to talk.”
“Hell,” Vin said. “Reckon you’ve spoke to guys like me before. Reckon you’ve heard all about how it feels to have a knife held against your neck, know you can’t do one thing to stop them, and just end up hating yourself for being so damn weak, for wishin’ they’d stop fuckin’ around and just do it.”
Josiah’s chest hurt. “I have some experience.”
“You know.” Tanner took in a hitched breath then, a hitched, shuddering little breath that made Josiah shift closer, just in case. “That don’t seem too real right now, either. And it ain’t even what keeps going through my head.” Again the look of confused entreaty.
“I’m not sure there’s any rules about what should be going through your head right now.”
Vin looked at him as if he thought that was exactly what he’d expect a man like Josiah to say to him and he didn’t really want to hear it. “Right,” he said.
Not everybody responded to the softly-softly approach.
“Well so go on, what is?” Josiah said, deciding to be more direct. “Going through your head, I mean?”
Vin stared at him, taken aback. He hesitated, swallowed. Kept looking at Josiah, as if he was wondering if he could trust him.
“All right,” he said in the end. “Not about what happened while I was... there. Not about all those times. Or about the fucking firestorm at the end – I’ve been through shit like that before. Being taken – letting that happen – that’s the thing.”
Plenty of pain in that, in the concept of ‘letting it happen’. Josiah could hear it.
“You were delivering supplies,” he said, measured. “I know the story. You’d gone out as usual to some of the mountain communities.”
“Yeah, as fuckin’ usual. Too fuckin’ stubborn not to do it as fuckin’ usual.”
“Whoah, steady there,” Josiah said.
“Getting took let those people down.”
“Well I don’t see that. It wasn’t your fault.”
“You reckon?” Vin gave him a look of pure frustration. “See, if I hadn’t insisted on going that day when I’d damn well heard there were enemy patrols in the area, then it never would’ve happened. I got took, a friend of mine got shot in the head, the supplies got trashed, the people got told no more fuckin’ do-gooders were coming back.”
Josiah was careful. But also curious. He already knew Tanner didn’t want to be treated with kid gloves. “Why did you go that day?”
“Wanted to talk to the village elders. Tell ‘em how important the stuff was, the vitamins for the kids, the stuff for the pregnant women. It could have waited, but I wanted to go, straight away, know it was done. Maybe so I could feel extra good about myself, who knows.” Vin looked down at his hands, trembling just a little more now. His voice was sounding more wayward, narcotics bleeding through. “Never even fuckin’ got within a mile of the village. My driver was killed by a sniper, and I got took. The other guys got took somewhere else the same day.”
“You’re very honest, Vin. A little hard on yourself if you don’t mind me saying.”
Vin stared at him. “Don’t mind,” he said. “Think you’re plain wrong, though.” He licked his lips again, scrubbed at his face, uncoordinated, hand tensed. “Fuck, reckon the shot’s starting to work. Don’t reckon I’ll be makin’ sense for much longer.” He gave Josiah an owlish look. “Or listenin’ to you.”
Josiah smiled. He liked this young man. Liked him enough he didn’t want him to take on things that shouldn’t be taken on.
“The only takeaway you need from me,” he said, “is not to hurt yourself. There’s no betrayal, Vin. Just you trying to do some good and other folk trying to do the opposite.”
Vin’s eyes had gone to half mast, but he opened them enough to fix Josiah with a considering, blue stare.
“If you like,” he said.
They eyes drooped down to half-mast again, although Vin’s hand was still tense in his lap.
Well, it was sleep of some kind, Josiah supposed. Better than none at all, although the kind of contrast a body and mind probably wouldn’t take to – weeks of the spiky half-sleep of fear followed by the disorienting weight of chemically-induced unconsciousness.
Josiah patted his bible pocket and sighed. It was more of a talisman sometimes than of practical use. There really were times when finding a definition of faith was damned hard. He stood up stiffly, quietly, turned to slide out of the curtain. Go find somewhere else to go make a nuisance of himself.
“Hey, padre,” came from behind him, soft and mired in sludge.
“Right here, Vin.” Josiah turned, a frisson of guilt at his covert exit shivering through him.
“Reck’n you could mebbe come sit, when they park me?” There was a sluggish movement of the throat, but Vin’s eyes didn’t come any further open. “Don’ like sleeping with drugs. Jus’... don’ like it.” Another swallow and a rather feeble attempt to clear his throat. “‘Course, you may be busy.”
Josiah stepped round the bed so he could lean closer, so he could be quiet, but hopefully heard. His own need for human contact was overwhelming, but he was too long in the field not to be mindful. He squeezed the top of Vin’s shoulder, very gentle, because Lord only knew what punishment he’d suffered. “I may be,” he said, voice gruff with the emotion these kinds of days presented. “But then again, I may not be.”
He watched as the heavy lids finally sealed shut. The tension in Vin’s hand faded. Some shadow drifted across his face but his shoulders had relaxed against the chair.
Almost holding his own breath, Josiah eased his way out of the cubicle back into the corridor.
He rubbed his face, beginning to feel the night of no sleep. Nathan approached him from between machinery and staff.
“How’s he doing?”
“Sleeping. Kind of. You are going to make sure he can get himself cleaned up and properly rested?”
Nathan made a face of exagerrated incomprehension. “What do you take us for? Yes we’ll do all that, get him settled in a bed. We’re going to keep him close for today.” Then he gave Josiah a proper, keener look. “You taking him on?”
Josiah decided to use one of Vin’s phrases. “If you like,” he said, and Nathan nearly grinned.
“Can’t say I’m not pleased to hear it.”
“Anywhere else I can be of help?”
“Not so far.” Nathan’s grin became a little wider.
“Well in that case I’ll go find the clothes I promised this young man. Said I’d come back and sit with him.”
Nathan became serious again. “That would be a very good thing for you to do.”
Yes, they’d both trod this path before. Folk dragged from violent death had complex needs, both medical and spiritual. But then again, sometimes they just needed a friend.
Josiah went to get himself coffee and breakfast at the DFAC. He was no use to anyone with an empty belly and no caffeine. Back at the chapel he answered e-mails, juiced up his cellphone, took time to close his eyes and breathe some space into his mind. Then he struck out across the compound to the laundry and second-hand store behind the Exchange. Some ten minutes later he left with a pair of newish, faded denims, some thermalwear, a shirt, muffler, coat and some size ten and a half boots, kind of worn. The normality of the outfit lifted his heart somewhat. As did the fact that the day was brighter now, in full swing. The base was busy, one of the transport helicopters still in their midst, the compound alive with activity. Even the birds were swooping and scattering through the trees as usual.
As had been his plan, he paid a few visits scheduled in his mental date book, then made his way back to medical block. And sure enough, he’d left it long enough for something of a transformation to take place.
Vin Tanner was in a different cubicle for a start. Further back, in a quieter area. He was in a gown and under some white sheets, clean, although still bearded, his hair damp and curled across pillows. He looked pasty, under-nourished, face clear of grime but now clearly mapped in fading marks of brutality.
“More or less asleep,” a nurse commented as Josiah came in. “But restless.”
All the kit was in place. IV lines, pulse ox, automatic BP. And there was solid sustenance in the shape of a sandwich next to the bed. It was untouched. There was a little more space in this cubicle, although not much. Enough for a couple of fold-up chairs. Josiah set the clothes on one, set up camp for himself on the other.
Once, Vin stirred. His head cleared the pillow and he said a few scrappy unintelligible words that sounded like a question.
“All right,” Josiah said, wondering if his voice would have imprinted or if Vin could hear anyway.
An hour or so later, Vin disturbed again. This time it was his hand that came off the bed. Searching, blind, for who knew what. Josiah hoped there was no gunfire sounding in his head, no screams, no horror.
“I’m here,” he said, sliding forward to take the hand between both his own.
“Alrighty,” Vin murmured after a moment, although not necessarily, Josiah surmised, to him.
Anchored, Vin settled.
Josiah knew this leaning forward was going to play havoc with his spine, but he wouldn’t move.
This hand, like any reaching out in need, was precious. It was Josiah’s whole faith in four words.
He wouldn’t let go.