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What was it again?

Sugarplums...visions of sugarplums dancing.

That was it.

‘Course, he had no idea just what a sugarplum was, but it sounded nice. Sounded like Christmas, and it was nearly...Lord, he'd almost run out of time.

Dancing sugarplums...and how did that thing go, anyway? He used to know, was sure he did years ago when he was a little boy. Could sort of remember his mom reading that poem...

The night before Christmas...

No.

It was the night before...

No.

‘Twas the night before Christmas...

That was it.

That was it. And it was the night before Christmas now, today, tonight, right now--Christmas Eve.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and sugarplums danced, and creatures didn't stir.

All was quiet. All was calm.

He looked around where he stood. Sure nothing was stirring at the moment--except maybe a rat or two here downtown, but no mice to speak of, not out in this cold weather.

And it was cold--really cold--cold and bitter and still. Gray.

He turned, letting his eyes sweep the empty streets.

Tall, dark buildings rose up around him like silent, looming ghosts, their uppermost floors vanishing into the deep of the night sky.

Every street he turned on looked the same. He could be anywhere, really--almost any city. Except he knew he wasn't. Knew the Rocky Mountains were out there still, their jagged peaks rising high above the view of the office buildings. If the hour had been earlier, he'd be able to see them.

But it was late. And dark.

And fortunately, not snowing anymore.

The streets were desolate, deserted, sidewalks empty, most of which had to do with the fact it was Christmas Eve, he figured, but probably also the fact it was slick as glass out.

Icy.

Very.

Patches of the stuff lay over the cement walk in nearly invisible layers, and the roads gleamed like perfect skating rinks recently coated with a fresh sheet. He'd already slid several times; cowboy boots not made for this kind of treacherous ground.

He wished for his hiking boots. Wished he'd worn thermal socks, anyway, at least his feet would be warmer.

Funny how leather could get so damned cold and then stay that way, rather like an insulated freezer keeping in the chill. He toes had gone nearly numb.

But who knew he'd be walking around town this time of hour--this night?

Christmas Eve and all was quiet. No mice stirring anywhere around here, nope.

He blew on his fingers, then clapped his hands, circulation from the movement giving some measure of warmth to those frozen digits. Should have put gloves on, too.

The storefronts lining the streets were closed, dark, their large plate glass windows now silently, eerily still. Only hours ago, they'd been brightly animated, angels and elves and robotic children all smiling and dancing to holiday carols while lines of people crowded in front of them to watch with genuine laughter and smiles. He'd watched for a while, too, he remembered. Watched before going in--he'd been going in to shop for one last thing, because he'd had time.

Time enough to do that before Christmas.

But now the stores were closed. Quiet. Still. Not even a mouse.

Christmas Eve. Shopping done, festivities begun.

He sighed. There was a longing there, he could feel it, something he'd forgotten to do yet couldn't put his finger on--

Something he was going to buy? But there was no time left. Everything was dark.

A lone taxi drove slowly down the icy street, the out of service light perched on the roof brightly lit, displaying its unavailability. Didn't matter, he wasn't looking for a ride. He watched as it passed, watched until the car's taillights turned a corner and disappeared from view--probably heading home. Christmas Eve and all. Probably.

He walked a bit further, gait almost a shuffle so as not to repeat the slip and fall from earlier, eyes glancing from time to time into the darkened windows.

Not a creature was stirring out anywhere...

He blew again onto his fingers. Damn, it was cold, even his breath held a frosty chill. His hand drifted down to cover a place on his side that ached horribly, though he couldn't remember exactly why that was...

The fall. He had fallen, remembered landing on something--he'd hit something--hard...

Couldn't quite remember what, though his side was sure trying to remind him. Hurt like hell. And his head hurt. Headache. Figured. He really had taken a fall...or...

Had something hit him?

Nah, that didn't seem right, not that he could remember, exactly. And really, it didn't much matter anyway, he knew who he was and where and what day--Christmas Eve--and that pretty much covered the basic questions they always asked him when this sort of thing happened.

Though he wasn't sure why...why he was out here.

What time was it?

Late, he figured. Late on Christmas Eve and here he was, head pounding to the tune of Deck the Halls. Damn that JD for getting that song stuck in his head earlier.

FaLaLaLaLaLaLa. La. La.

Yeah, his head was pounding something awful now.

He walked a while more, realizing he was shivering. Even inside two shirts, he was cold--and without his coat, he was freezing.

Idiot. No coat, no cell phone--stuck here wandering around in the frigid cold and no phone. No calling anyone to come get him.

He wondered what time it was.

He'd like to get warm. He could use some warmth, someplace warm, but he knew this part of town. Nothing around here, and even had there been, most likely it would be closed for the night.

Closed for Christmas Eve. Everyone was home with family, loved ones--and that thought sent a sharp twinge of pain through his heart.

He was missing something. Forgetting something.

Up ahead the lights of an all-night diner stood out brightly in the gloom of the evening. The glow of the red neon sign beckoned to him--open, it said.

Open--on Christmas Eve.

Where the hell had this place come from?

He shuffled toward it, the next second thinking who the hell cared--it said open.

The windows were frosted over, and he just knew inside would be warm. And coffee was warm.

Yeah, coffee sounded good.

He entered, the place empty save an old woman seated at one of the booths. Her dark, gnarled hands were wrapped around a cup of something steaming hot and he found his own fingers aching to do the same.

She smiled up at him, and he did so in return before heading to the counter lined with stools. He took a seat.

Faint music drifted in from somewhere. Christmas carols--Silent Night, he thought it was, though the sound was low enough he couldn't be sure. Didn't matter, anything was better than falala.

"Waitress is in the back," a gravelly voice announced and he turned toward the old woman.

"Okay, thanks," he said, trying to remember if he'd ever seen this place before. "I can wait. Ain't much in a hurry."

The old woman stared at him a long beat then turned to hunch back over her mug. Vin watched as long plumes of steam rose to waft against her aged skin.

He turned back, eyes perusing the menu tacked to the wall, not that he was hungry. Felt rather nauseous, actually, and wasn't all too thirsty, either, but he was cold and the place was open and heated and already warming him up, so maybe he'd get something to eat later.

And that did look like fresh made coffee there in the pot. Coffee would sit just fine.

Noises sounded in the back, someone working their way around the kitchen and he wondered if he should call out, then decided not to--he really wasn't in any hurry, and sitting here with the presence of others seemed somehow more fulfilling than sitting somewhere alone.

For the first time in a long time, he was uncomfortable with the idea of being all by himself--being left alone.

And he felt very alone.

He didn't know why, didn't understand why, really had no reason to feel this way, and something about that seemed a little frightening--

Feeling a little melancholy, maybe. He was being silly.

He spared another glance to the woman in the booth, the eerie feeling creeping into him that she could sense this self-perceived flaw in his character, this weakness, this fear, but while he surreptitiously looked at her, it seemed she really wasn't paying attention to him.

Then, as if sensing his thoughts, she did glance up. He smiled and she smiled back, giving him a slight nod, then buried her nose back into her steaming mug.

Brightly decorated cookies sat on a plate on the counter next to slices of cake piled high under a large dome. He let a finger trace down the smooth glass.

"Help yourself," a woman's voice said, and he looked up to find the waitress coming through the door of the kitchen, nodding to the plate full of cookies.

"No, thanks," he replied, still not hungry, not even for sweets—Chris and the others would never believe that one, he thought with an inward grin. He'd been feeling somewhat queasy, though, still was and besides, he had a feeling it would be wrong to break up the collection of Christmas trees, stars and snowflakes looking so done up atop the plate.

"Make ‘em every year for my daughter." The waitress laughed then, patting her stomach. "Sure I don't need to eat any."

He smiled back at her. "Bet you'd rather be home with her than here."

"Oh, she's with her father, now," she said softly, eyes softening. "And new mom."

Divorce, he figured.

"Letting her go was the hardest thing, but what can you do--it's all in the timing." With a sigh she turned, grabbing the pot full of steaming coffee. It smelled heavenly as she poured him a full mug without even asking if he wanted some.

His hands warmed instantly, fingers glued to the now hot mug. He sipped then added sugar and cream.

"Too strong?"

"Nah, it's great," he replied, and it was. The warmth of the liquid traveled down to his belly. Felt amazing.

She was just standing there looking at him, arms crossed with her back leaning against the far counter. "What else can I get you, sweetie?"

He still wasn't hungry and told her so. The look on her face told she understood.

She lit a cigarette, drawing on it deeply then blowing the smoke toward the ceiling. "This going to bother you?"

He shook his head. Somehow, the smell of burning tobacco was soothing. Like an assurance there was someone else there. Familiar.

Larabee.

"I promised to quit this every New Year's, but Lord knows--" She snuffed out the cigarette in an ashtray. "Well--somehow they don't taste like they used to. Years of habit like that's hard to break, though, even now."

Again he nodded, watching her hands play with the lighter before slipping it back into the pocket of her uniform. She probably wasn't all that old, he figured, but the lines in her face spoke of a hard life.

The coffee tasted good, and suddenly he thought having one of those decorated cookies might taste just right after all. He reached out to a green-iced tree.

"Go ahead, sweetie," she said with a smile. "You look like you can afford to eat them a lot more than I can."

She was rail thin, though, and he figured she probably smoked more than ate, but he nodded his thanks in return, anyway.

""Scuse me, would you like a cookie?" she called out past him, and they both turned to the old woman sitting quietly in the booth.

"No honey, I'm just fine. But thank you, all the same," the woman said with a smile.

Vin wondered if she was homeless.

"She's been in here every night this week," the waitress whispered to him, her pretty eyes cast toward the old woman. "Don't know she has anywhere else to go, and I figure what's a cup of coffee?" She wiped up a non-existent spill and leaned forward on the counter, nodding toward the woman. "Probably indigent, but who am I to judge? We all have our stories. There but for the grace of God and all..."

Yeah, he thought. There but for the grace of something...

"Anyway, says she's been waiting on someone who looked like they might not be showing up, running very late, but I told her you never know." She gave him a long look, then smiled. "Not everyone runs on the same time schedule--and there you are."

He nodded, thinking how late he usually ran--had been late this night. This week, really, putting off shopping until the very last minute. Rushing around.

Now it was Christmas Eve and here he was sitting in a diner instead of...

"What time is it?" he asked her, looking around but not finding a clock.

"Not sure," she replied. "Thing died with me, and I never really had no use to get another." With that and a smile, she refilled his cup. She put the coffee back on the burner, then returned behind the doors to the kitchen.

Vin sat and sipped his coffee, shifting some in his seat as the pain in his side pinched.

"You okay?"

He turned to the old woman, giving her a slight nod. "I'm fine, thanks." She continued to look at him, her eyes giving off as much warmth as the feel of the mug in his hands, and he found himself strangely drawn to her.

"Might feel better you come sit down on a seat." She gestured to the booth in which she sat. "Look a little peaked there, all hunched over on the stool like that."

He smiled again, and moved to sit across from her at the table. It did feel good to have something to rest against--lean on.

"Sure you can prob'ly find better comp'ny than a' old woman," she began with a smile as kind as her eyes, "but just the same, you look to be sittin' a might easier."

"Don't much mind the company," he told her, and felt that way. Sitting here with her seemed somehow...easy. There was something almost familiar about her, the way she looked at him. "Think I got a minute or so."

"You got friends."

She stated that so matter of fact, so knowingly, he wasn't sure how to respond, and so just nodded. Yeah, he had friends.

"You their friend?"

He nodded again, thinking the men he now worked with were more like family than just friends. And then there was Chris...

"Then you got somewheres to be."

And he did. At least, he thought he did. Had. Fragments of memories of the day flit through his head--he'd been heading out there, the ranch, to the ranch. Heading to Chris, but here he was still downtown instead, and where he was expected and when was somehow starting to float just out of reach.

But that was because his head was aching. Damned headache.

His side still ached, too.

And somehow, none of it seemed to matter all that much now. He felt almost too tired to care. "What time is it?"

"They're looking for you," she replied instead.

"What?"

"You need to find them."

What the hell? "I don't know--"

She cackled then, a laugh suddenly bursting forth. "Of course you do. You just have to want."

Okay, now he was sure his headache was making him hear things. Lord, maybe this whole conversation was just a figment in his addled brain. Just how hard had he hit during that fall, anyway?

No...something had hit him first...

He shifted, feeling uneasy and suddenly thinking maybe he ought to retake his seat at the counter, wishing the waitress would show. He should make a phone call. He glanced at the still closed doors.

"I'm not meanin' to make you uncomfortable."

"No," he said, assuring her, "you're not--"

"Or scared, honey. I don't mean to put the scare into you."

"I ain't--"

"You just been runnin' a little late, Vin, and now I got to catch up."

What? "How did--you just said my name--"

"Did I?" She sat back. "Well if I did--I don't remember." Leaning forward again, she cradled the cup in her hand. "You get to be my age, honey, you remember what all you had for breakfast you'll be happy!" Again she cackled that sharp laugh.

He was confused. Maybe he'd just imagined she'd called his name. His head hurt, was still throbbing. So was his side. Horribly.

He couldn't remember why.

A warm hand settled atop his, and he found himself looking right into her rich, warm, lined face. "You just need to get home, honey."

"Home?"

"It's where you belong." She glanced at her watch. "There's still time, if you try."

"I don't know what time it is." He didn't understand, what was she talking about? Lord, his head was hurting.

"You just have to want to go."

"I don't--I don't want to be alone," he admitted, surprised, scared, really, at the honest words tumbling like a shot from his mouth. Never in a million years would he have ever said them out loud, and yet he'd just blurted them...

"You're not alone," she said. "He loves you, you know."

Those words slapped him--he hadn't talked to God in years. Who was this woman? He slumped back against the booth, tired and confused and hurting and feeling just so damned drained. "God loves me. I know."

She laughed again, this time a soft, almost musical chuckle. "Oh, yeah. Him too. But He ain't the him I'm talkin' about, no sir."

None of this made any sense. She wasn't making any sense. His side gripped him, sharp pain lancing through to his core, radiating out through each of the nerves in his body and he looked at her, found her watching him closely and wishing he could just put his head down somewhere. "It hurts," he gasped, panting and finding it hard to breathe and it did hurt--he was in some amount of agony. His side, his head...

Something was wrong. "It hurts bad," he managed again.

"I know." She said gently, patting his hand again and offering a kind, little smile. "It will hurt--but Vin honey, you'll live. You got time."

She grabbed her purse, shoving the large, lime green bag onto the table and rummaging around inside until she obviously found what she was looking for. The cell phone was flipped open. "Lord, I ain't fond of these new-fangled things. Back in the day we just borrowed a dime."

"You're leaving?"

She nodded. "I've got work to get done."

"You have somewhere else to be," he stated between panting breaths, watching as she pushed numbers into the keypad. He was beginning to feel so tired.

She paused a moment, then smiled again. "So do you, honey."

"I don't know what you mean." He couldn't focus--he was hurting--

She reached a hand, gently cupping his cheek and he briefly closed his eyes and turned into the caring warmth.

"I know you don't, but you will. I'm only here to start you back ‘fore it gets too late. You've made me wait, Vin. But you still have time."

His head still hurt him, more now than before and he thought maybe he ought to get up and ask the waitress if she had any Tylenol. Maybe he'd take a few, more than a few, he thought as his hand moved to cover the area of pain so intense in his side. Kill two birds with one stone.

His eyes slipped shut, the beat in his head and increasing throb in his side advancing fast enough to obliterate just about everything else within his senses. He could tell the old woman was moving, sensed her standing, but the weight of his closed eyelids were too difficult to raise. He just wanted to sleep.

Sleep forever...

He let his head drop, could still hear the soft strains of the music--O Holy Night this time, he thought.

Someone was calling his name, keeping him from slumber--a woman's voice, and he opened his eyes to find her leaning over him with concern in her eyes. That waitress?

"I'm okay," he said, thought he'd said...

"He's waking up," she was saying to someone over her shoulder. "Just give him a few minutes and then..." Her voice was fading away, and he found it too tiring to even begin to follow along.

He didn't want to wake up, and so for a while he just floated...warm...and where was the old woman?

"Vin?" A soft voice asked. A voice he knew, absolutely knew...

He slid his eyes left, and he was there. Chris. And he looked awful--tense and haggard. What had happened to him?

A lift of his arm, he reached to touch him, touch Chris, make sure he was really there, but something was preventing him...

"Don't move," Chris told him, "you're attached."

Whatever that meant--though it was too much a headache on a headache to even begin to ponder. His arm fell to his side and he looked again to Chris, vaguely wondering how the man had found him here at the diner. "What are you doing here?"

Chris was shaking his head. "God, Vin."

"Am I late?" he asked, knowing there was something about somewhere he ought to have been headed…She'd said he had time. "I didn't know what time it was..."

"No," he heard Chris say softly. "You're not late, you're--"

"I'm okay," he murmured. "I just...I fell down." And will get up in a minute, he wanted to add, but didn't move in that direction--the idea of getting up at all, much less putting a time constraint on it, was just too unfathomable. He'd just stay here at bit more, wherever here was.

Where was that waitress?

He could hear Chris laughing, a soft, breathy, unexpected sound of sheer relief, and opened his eyes not realizing he'd even closed them, looking askance.

"Yeah, you might say you fell," Chris told him as if that explained it all. "Sideways, about twelve feet."

He didn't get it, what that was supposed to mean, but half nodded and said, "Oh," as if that answered it all.

Chris was leaning forward. "You remember anything?"

"Remember?"

"You got hit by a car, Vin."

If he weren't feeling so out of it, he'd be shocked. No, that hadn't happened, he'd know if that had happened. Not like he'd forget something like that, no.

He'd just slipped on the ice, is all. He'd been in that diner all this time. Getting warm.

"They called us, the hospital. We thought--God, Vin, we thought you were--they weren't sure you would--" Chris's hand again rested on top of his, and he could barely hear the hushed whisper. "They'd told me there might not be much time."

"Coffee," he mumbled.

An outright laugh, this coming from the other side of the room. He peered at the figure. Buck.

"Not quite yet, pard," Buck said, coming into view and nodding toward something Vin now noticed was hanging up over his head. IV. "More like a cocktail of a couple liters of fluids, painkillers and antibiotics first."

"What?" He shifted again, looking around. "The old lady? Where--"

"Old lady?" Buck asked lightly, his grin expanding. "You got an old lady? ‘Cause, y' know, I always kinda thought you an' Chris here--"

He was looking around, tuning Buck out, the fact he was in a bed and not the diner finally registering--and then he slumped back against the pillows, not quite sure what was going on anymore. He stared at Chris. "I got hit by a car?"

Chris was nodding. "You almost died, Vin."

And then he nodded, feeling past tired. Exhausted, really. Drained of all life force. He let his eyelids drop, sighing. "What time is it?"

The warmth of a hand squeezing his surprised him, Chris's voice whispering softly against his ear. "It's late, they're gonna be chasin' us out of here in a minute. You rest, we'll be back in the morning. I'll be back."

"Time," he said, "I still got time."

"Sure," Chris answered, clearly not understanding. "Christmas isn't ‘til tomorrow, it's only the night before. You'll be home before you know it--and then we'll really celebrate."

A hand moved to brush fingers against his cheek. Vin surprised at how good it felt. And then Chris leaned down and brushed his lips lightly over his. That felt perfect.

"The night before," he said, watching Chris follow Buck out the door. "Christmas Eve."

He closed his eyes, tired.

"I got time."

End.


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