The Greatest Gift

by SueN

Disclaimer: I'm a mite pissed at Santa. I left him milk and cookies, and he STILL didn't bring me the guys. Next year, it's crackers and water for you, dude...

Notes: This is the sequel to my gen story Silent Night which can be found at . It also references Vin's dream in "From the Ashes" (yes, Kerry, that dream; now, take off your makeup, or I won't be held responsible). Thanks, as always, to Ruby, who pointed out all the cough medicine-induced mistakes. Um, oh, yeah, it's OW.

He shifted in his chair as the makeshift choir gave joyous voice to familiar carols and let his mind wander. He was well aware of the stir his presence had caused, and smiled slightly at the memory of the countless stares and whispers that had greeted his appearance as he'd crossed the threshold. But he'd never let other people's expectations direct his actions before, and he wasn't about to start now. So let 'em stare.

Chris Larabee was here to celebrate Christmas.

He knew the townsfolk were shocked. Hell, he'd been surprised himself when he'd begun getting ready for church, and when he'd realized he was doing it without reluctance. He'd dressed carefully, donning good black trousers instead of his usual jeans, crisp white shirt and gray brocade vest, and, of all things, a string tie. He'd even knotted it himself, all the while remembering with a feeling of warmth rather than a stab of pain how Sarah used to do this for him.

But that was part of the reason he was here.

Somewhere during the past year, he'd started living again instead of simply surviving, had started feeling more than the soul-crushing pain that had defined his whole existence since Sarah and Adam's deaths. He'd wandered into this dusty, no-account town seeking only whiskey, food and a bed, and had found healing instead.

If that wasn't cause for a man to drag his carcass into church, what was?

And clearly he was not the only one to think so. As his gaze traveled about the crowded church, he caught sight of his fellow peacekeepers, and knew they were as aware of -- and as grateful for -- their own new lease on life as he was. Each of the seven had found something here he hadn't even known he'd been seeking, and they'd all been drawn here in recognition of that.

Well, almost all.

His smile died as his gaze dropped once more to the empty chair at his left, and a soft sigh escaped him. He'd known Vin was riding out, had watched for days as the solitary tracker had grown more and more panicked by the sheer number of people crowding into town and bustling about as they made their holiday preparations, and only hours ago had seen him pointing Peso toward the hills. And though he'd told himself he understood Tanner's reasons for leaving, the chair he'd saved for him pointed to another truth.

He wanted Vin with him, wanted to have at his side the man who'd put the pieces of his broken heart back together and who now held that heart in his keeping.

He sighed again and shifted once more in his seat, unable to keep his thoughts from fixing upon the scruffy, near-silent Texan who'd so quickly become the center of his existence. Even if he had ever pictured himself falling for a man, which he certainly never had, Vin Tanner had to be the last man for whom he'd consider falling. A former buffalo hunter, a former bounty hunter, rough, uneducated, illiterate, a sharpshooter who possessed an uncanny knack for pissing off others badly enough that they'd like to shoot him. Chris himself frequently wanted to shoot him.

When he didn't want to fuck the hell out of him.

He only barely suppressed another sigh at that thought. That was how he'd really hoped to spend Christmas Eve, holed up in his room with the tracker's lean, lithe body wrapped around his. Vin was the whole reason he could bear this day again, was the whole reason he could remember Sarah and Adam and past Christmases with them without wanting to die from the pain. Tanner had given him back his life, and, in return, he'd wanted to spend this night giving Tanner his love.

But the damn crowds had spooked him, and sent him running for the hills.

So now here he was, with Mary Travis on one side of him and an empty chair on the other. And though he couldn't fully appreciate this night's wondrous meaning with half his soul in hiding, still he was glad he'd come. He'd shared enough of this town's sorrows and troubles that he felt it only right to share its hope and gladness, too. Maybe he still didn't quite believe in the God this night celebrated, but he believed in the people who were celebrating, and, for now, that was good enough.

The choir finished singing, and the congregation rewarded it with a hearty round of applause, and, here and there, loud yells of praise from proud young men to their blushing sweethearts. Chris joined in the clapping and turned to Mary, who was beaming at Billy in the children's section. The young widow was lovely tonight, her golden hair gleaming with a soft burnished glow in the lamp- and candlelight, her delicate features for once completely free of the tension and worry that so often pinched them. Feisty editor had given way to doting mother, and Chris smiled fondly at the sight.

He and Mary had recognized that they didn't belong together, that neither held what the other was seeking, and with that understanding had come a new peace between them, and a depth of friendship he never would have expected. No longer having to try and force a relationship that simply wasn't there, they were more at ease in each other's company than ever before. They still fought, and likely always would, each being as headstrong as the other. Yet even in the fighting there was respect, and a certainty that both were only fighting for what they considered right.

And Chris was beginning to suspect that he wouldn't know what to do with a friend who didn't take some perverse delight in making him madder than hell.

Josiah stepped up to the lectern, and an expectant hush fell upon the congregation. Whispers ceased and shuffling stilled as the big preacher opened his Bible with wondrously reverent hands. Then the deep voice rumbled out from the cavernous chest, and Chris found himself leaning forward and listening closely to the words of Luke's Gospel.

"...And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them at the inn..."

Chris closed his eyes and bowed his head, transported back to the night Adam had been born. The joy and the wonder -- and the fear -- were with him again in all their depth and wealth as his hands curled of their own accord to take the remembered tiny weight that had been his son. Had it been like that for that couple in the stable, too? Had their fear been less than his, or had it been even greater, at the knowledge of what their child was?

Had Mary's face glowed with the same exhaustion and radiant serenity that had shown in Sarah's?

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid."

He thought about Vin then, abiding somewhere in his field, and ached at the thought of him sitting alone in the cold night. Tanner had spent so much, too much, of his life like that, a lonely shadow at the farthest edges of society, afraid to take part in what he did not always understand. Chris had hoped he could change that, that he could somehow make the younger man understand that he didn't have to hide anymore, that whenever he was worried or frightened he had a refuge waiting for him in Chris's arms. In Chris's heart.

Come on in, Tanner, he pleaded silently. Come out of the cold. Come home.

"And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people...."

Chris shivered as a chill burst of frigid air swept across his back, heralding a very late arrival to the service. Then he saw an expression of mingled surprise and joy chasing across Josiah's craggy face, heard a change in the timbre of the man's resonant voice, and knew with unshakable certainty his silent plea had been answered. The preacher's gaze was riveted to a spot in the shadows in the very back of the church, and, though they all heard them, Chris knew the man's words were now intended solely for the straggler.

"For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men...."

Chris's heart quickened in his breast, and new warmth kindled in his soul. He could feel the presence behind him, and had no need to look to know who stood there. Everything in him recognized Vin Tanner by the subtle change in the air around him, and he gave silent thanks for this most precious gift.

Still, he could well imagine how wary the tracker would be, how uncertain of the decision he'd made, and he had no desire to send the man running back out into the cold. The church was packed, and Tanner would feel the closeness of the bodies like a file against his raw nerves. So, wanting him to know he was welcome, yet wanting also to make clear the choice was his, Chris never turned his head, but simply slid his hand into the empty chair and patted it once in invitation, then returned his hand to his lap.

And all the while he held his breath.

Josiah's rich voice continued to fill the church, rising with all the beauty and majesty of the story he proclaimed. "And it came to pass, after the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another: Let us go over to Bethlehem and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath showed to us..."

The slow, soft footfalls were almost inaudible, yet Chris heard them as if they were thunder. Silent as a shadow, the tracker ghosted up the aisle and slid with a noiseless grace into the waiting chair. Chris turned his head to greet him, and, for a space that lasted no more than a moment yet held all of eternity in it, green eyes locked with blue, each man revealed to the other down to his soul through those portals. In Vin's eyes and on his face, Chris saw the evidence of tears and a peace so deep and true it damn near took away his breath. He didn't know what had brought the tracker home again, but he was more grateful than he could say that it had.

The two settled back and listened to the rest of the reading, their relaxed postures giving no sign of the intense awareness they had of each other's nearness. So in tune were they that they breathed as one, chests rising and falling in the same rhythm, hearts beating in perfect time. They never looked at each other, but had no need to. Blindfolded and in a dark room, each would have known that the other was there.

Josiah gave a short but powerful sermon, speaking in simple terms of the child who'd been born this very night to break all the chains that bound them, who'd come to set them free from the shackles of sin and sorrow. Vin smiled slightly as he listened, recognizing the words as the same ones Sanchez had spoken to him earlier.

But it's not only chains like the ones that held Nathan that Jesus came to break, Josiah had said in the livery. It's all the chains. The chains of sin, of sorrow, of despair and hopelessness. And loneliness. And I figure you understand those kinds of chains all too well.

His smile softened as he thought of the man sitting next to him. Maybe he did know those chains, and maybe they had once bound him. But they were gone now, broken by the man who'd both claimed him and set him free.

Lord, Lord, what had ever made him think he wanted to be away from this man?

When he'd said all he wanted to, Josiah gently closed his Bible and raised it to his lips, placing a reverent kiss to its worn cover. Even through his deep doubts about his fitness to preach this word, and with the weight of his own sins pressing heavily upon his soul, still he marveled at the awe such moments as these stirred in him. The same folks who looked to him to deliver them with his gun were now looking to him to deliver them with the Gospel. He prayed fervently that words of peace from a man of blood might somehow bear fruit.

With the service ended, a loud hubbub of talk soon filled the church, accompanied by the creak of pews and the scrape of chairs. Children laughed and capered in the frenzied anticipation of the impending visit from old St. Nick, and parents already harried by days of preparation were even more harried by the task of corralling their excited offspring. A swell of people surged forth to surround Josiah and congratulate him on his sermon, while here and there smaller knots formed as plans for visiting back and forth tomorrow were confirmed.

Chris stood firm and unmoving amid the constantly shifting streams of humanity, though, more than once, he had to suppress the urge to move closer to Vin, to place himself as a barrier between the tracker and the crowds that so unnerved him. What he did not do, however, others did, and a small, knowing smile tugged at his mouth as, slowly but surely, he was joined by Buck, Ezra, JD and Casey, Nathan, Mrs. Potter and Mary, all coming together without conscious thought to form a loose but protective circle about the man they knew would bolt without hesitation the moment the crowd pressed too close.

Nettie Wells, however, as was her way, showed not the slightest subtlety in her intent. She pushed through the crowd like a small steam clipper and planted herself firmly at Vin's side, latching on to his arm with the possessiveness of a she-grizzly and glaring away anyone who drew too close.

"It's about time you showed some sense and came out of the cold, Vin Tanner," she declared, staring sternly up into his face. "You put a powerful worry on me, young man, and I don't appreciate it one bit."

He winced and bowed his head, able to feel the flush creeping into his cheeks. He held his hat in his hands and worried its wide brim through his fingers, stung with guilt at his own foolishness.

"I'm sorry, Nettie," he rasped softly, his shoulders drooping. "I didn't mean ta worry ya. I jist... I jist needed ta git away. All these folks..." He raised his head and gazed down at her, his eyes wide and dark with remembered panic. "I jist couldn't take 'em all bein' so close no more. You know how it is."

Those eyes and that soft voice undid her, as they did every time. Her anger faded and she smiled warmly, placing her small, gnarled hand upon his larger, finely-boned one. "I know, son," she assured him, her eyes filled with all the affection he inspired in her. "I do. But just you remember, you got folks around ya now who worry about ya. Y'ain't alone no more, Vin Tanner, and there ain't no sense in you actin' like ya are."

A small, shy smile curved about his mouth, and it was all he could do not to look at Chris. "I know that now," he breathed. "Met me some Spirits up in the hills, 'n they told me that."

Nettie arched an iron-gray brow at that. She knew some of his history with various tribes, knew he still held to a number of their ways, and knew that, as a good Christian woman, she probably ought to disapprove of such "heathen" talk. But she also knew him, and doubted there were many regular church-going folk who could claim a soul as true as his.

"These Spirits the ones that sent ya home?" she asked cautiously. When he nodded, she did, too. "Good. At least they got some sense, then. Now, Casey and me have ta go. The Petersons are escortin' us home, and I can see old Hiram chompin' at the bit ta be gone." Again, that brow flicked upward and her eyes drilled into his. "You're comin' over tomorrow for Christmas dinner." It was a statement, not a question, and smiles broke out on various faces at the sight of the little old woman ordering the deadly marksman about.

But Vin warmed and smiled broadly at her tone, knowing he'd been claimed by her, as well, and finding only comfort in the thought. "Wild horses couldn't keep me away," he assured her.

She snorted and shook her head. "Ain't worried about wild horses, son. I'm worried about wild outlaws and some of the wild notions you get. And I'm tellin' you now, if you're not there before dark, I'm gonna have me a talk of my own with these Spirits' of yours, and we'll all come after you. And I'll be totin' my Spencer."

He laughed at that and squeezed her hand, his eyes bright with love. "I'll be there. My word as a Tanner."

Again she softened, and reached up to lay a hand against his whiskered cheek. "Well," she said with a loving smile, "a body can't ask for more than that." She searched his face with a mother's need to know he was well, then nodded, reassured. "You take care of yourself, y'hear? Stay warm." Never caring that he'd been looking after himself for most of his life, she wound his scarf about his neck, shaking her head at its ragged thinness, then tugged the edges of his coat together and buttoned it. "Y'ain't got enough meat on your bones ta keep out the cold, and we both know the frost is gonna be heavy tonight. I don't wanta be visitin' you up in Nathan's clinic because you don't know enough ta sleep under a roof instead of in that gol'darned wagon of yours." Unexpectedly, she turned to Chris and impaled him with her direct stare. "I'll expect you to see to it that he sleeps inside tonight, in a real bed, with real blankets. You do that for me?"

Larabee nearly choked, but managed to draw a breath and nod. "Yes, ma'am," he answered solemnly, if somewhat harshly, pointedly ignoring Tanner's smirk. "I'll do what I can."

"Hm," she grunted non-committally, her gaze still imprisoning his, "I'm sure you will."

+ + + + + + +

They finally left the church, deciding to make one last pass around town before heading to the boardinghouse. The night had grown colder still, the cutting chill slicing right through layers of clothing and even flesh, piercing straight to the bone. The wind was light, but held a dagger's edge that scraped painfully against exposed cheeks and ears. Both men pulled their hats lower, their scarves higher, hunkered down inside their coats and shoved gloved hands deeply into pockets.

"And you were gonna stay out in this tonight," Chris grumbled, slanting a disbelieving glare at his companion.

Vin ducked his head and shrugged. "Wasn't thinkin' straight," he admitted, his breath pluming in the frozen air. "Jist couldn't take it no more. All them folks, pushin' up against me..." He shuddered at the remembered feel of being so hemmed in. "I needed ta think, 'n I jist couldn't do it here."

They moved down the deserted boardwalk, relishing the uncharacteristic quiet of the town and the rare luxury of simply being together without fear of interruption. JD had joined the Petersons in escorting Nettie and Casey home, and Nathan had returned to his clinic for a good night's sleep. He was riding out early tomorrow morning to visit Rain, and had issued a stern warning that none of them were to spoil his holiday by getting sick or injured. Josiah had remained at the church, Ezra had disappeared to a Christmas party that they suspected was actually a poker game, and Buck, being Buck, had gleefully announced that he was off to a party of his own with the lovely and lonesome Violet.

"Gonna let her shake my tree, see what presents fall out," he declared with a broad, bright smile and a leering jiggle of his glossy black brows.

So now they were alone, and deeply content to be so. Despite the aching cold, the peace of the night wrapped itself around them and smoothed away all tension and thoughts of troubles, itself a gift to men who knew so little of its like. High above, a vast multitude of stars winked and glittered in the clear sky like diamond dust against black silk, and the silver moon shone clear and bright, its light another gift.

"Did ya?" Chris asked at last, jiggling the door of the bank to make sure it was locked. "Think, I mean."

Vin cast a slow, warm smile at him and nodded. "Yeah."

Chris faced him and waited for more, then exhaled a sharp plume of air. "And?" he prompted. And folks thought he hated to talk!

Vin nodded again, his smile spreading. "Reckon I got it all sorted out."

Chris sighed again and shook his head resignedly, knowing this would be a word-by-word tugging match. "You gonna share this new-found wisdom?"

Vin chuckled softly, enjoying the man's impatience. Too many folks stepped too lightly around Larabee, figured they'd get shot if they riled him. But Tanner reckoned he needed to be riled, needed to be teased; got his blood pumpin' and knocked him off that high horse he liked to ride. And if he got shot, well, so be it. At least he wouldn't die at the end of a rope.

"Might," he drawled.

Chris scowled and stepped closer to him. "So help me, Tanner--"

"Cain't shoot me," Vin reminded him. "Nathan'd be right pissed."

"If I kill ya," Chris growled, "Nathan won't have ta be bothered."

Vin cocked his head to one side and frowned. "There is that," he said thoughtfully. "'Course, Josiah'd be pissed at havin' ta preach a funeral at Christmas. 'N I jist ain't sure I'd want Josiah pissed at me."

"But you don't mind havin' me pissed at ya," Larabee gritted.

Vin lifted his head enough that Chris could see his eyes beneath the brim of his hat and winked. "Reckon I know how ta settle ya down," he said with a lazy smile.

Chris swallowed hard as those words and that smile sent a sliver of heat shooting through him. "Awful damn sure of yourself, aren'tcha, Tanner?" he rasped, his throat -- and pants -- tightening.

Again, Vin's head tilted gently to one side and he gazed at Chris through smiling eyes. "Always been told I'm a cocky bastard."

Chris gave a low growl at that, and a fierce, wolfish smile curved about his full mouth. He stepped closer still, his body just brushing Vin's. His eyes were shadowed beneath the brim of his hat, but Tanner could almost feel the heat pouring from them. "Well," he breathed in a low, throaty voice, "I reckon I'll just have ta see about that."

Vin shivered as the promise in that voice ignited a slow burn deep in his belly. His breath caught in his throat and he licked his lips, acutely aware of Larabee's nearness. "Y... ya reckon?" he whispered hoarsely.

"Oh, yeah." He reached out and lightly fingered the worn scarf at the younger man's throat. "Told Nettie I'd make sure you kept warm tonight," he murmured, his breath fanning hotly against Tanner's frozen cheek. "Make sure you sleep in a real bed." He dropped his hand, but did not step away. "I take such things real seriously," he breathed. "A man's gotta keep his word."

"Reckon he does," Vin drawled softly, gazing raptly at Larabee and feeling the man in every part of his being. "A man's word should be his bond."

Chris' smile grew as he heard the desire in that husky voice. "You must've gotten awful cold up in them hills. Could be you'll require a lotta warmin' up."

Vin licked his lips again as the heat in his belly sank further south. "Gettin' kinda warm now. Might be I need ta go somewhere's 'n shuck some'a these clothes."

Chris's eyes shone with enough heat to warm the whole town. "Well, then," he rasped, only barely suppressing the urge to grab Tanner and drag him down the street at a dead run, "let's see what we can do about that."

+ + + + + + +

They managed somehow not to run up the stairs to the second floor, managed not to clutch and claw at each other as they forced themselves to climb at a respectable pace. But when Vin lingered a few moments too long outside the door to Chris's room, instinctively looking around for any sign of danger, he felt strong hands clamp down upon his coat and yelped as he was hauled roughly inside.

"Goddamn it!" he snarled as Larabee kicked the door shut. "Give a body some warnin' next ti--" His words were swallowed up by the hard mouth that descended abruptly upon his, and he was suddenly grateful for the hands that still gripped his coat as the ferocity of that kiss caused his knees to buckle. "Oh, Lord!" he moaned, sinking into that kiss.

"Nope," Chris growled into Vin's mouth. "He's already had his celebration. This party's for you and me."

"'Kay," Vin breathed, twining his arms about the man and holding tightly to him. Chris's taste and scent went straight through him, filling his head and fueling the hungry ache at his crotch. A hot wind swept through him and his soul took wing upon it, soaring aloft in wild exhilaration.

Chris buried his mouth in Vin's with a thick groan, clutching the tracker to him and losing himself in the familiar scent of the man. His tongue swept the warm cavern of Tanner's mouth, then sought its mate, and the two twined and danced in an intricate ritual. With every breath, he drew Vin more deeply into himself, until he could no longer tell where he ended and the Texan began, until any distinction between them simply disappeared.

"Oh, God, I'm glad you came back!" he breathed shakily, withdrawing gently from the kiss to gaze into his lover's eyes. Smiling slightly, his own eyes shimmering with light and love, he cupped a hand to Vin's cold, whiskered face and tenderly brushed a callused thumb against the hard ridge of his cheekbone. "Wanta tell me why ya did?"

Vin closed his eyes and nestled his face into that caress, even now amazed that the hand so skilled at killing could touch him with such love. "Reckon this's the biggest part of it," he rasped, a slight tremor in his voice. "I thought I needed ta get away, but y'all jist followed me out there. Wouldn't let me be. Then I saw you, standin' over me, not sayin' a word, jist lookin' down at me 'n reachin' fer me. But when I reached back, you disappeared..." He lifted his head and opened his eyes, the blue depths dark with enormous loss. "I never felt so alone in all my life," he whispered, the pain of it searing through him anew. "I mean, I been alone before... Hell, I been alone one way 'r another nearly as long as I c'n recall. But it ain't ever hurt like it did then, 'n I ain't ever wanted so much not ta be alone no more."

Chris swallowed hard, feeling Vin's pain as if it were his own, and gently brushed away the single tear that slid down the tracker's cheek. Suddenly he realized that they'd all gotten so used to Vin's solitary ways that they simply forgot he was as vulnerable to loneliness as any of them were.

"I'm sorry," he breathed. "I shouldn't have let you go. I didn't want to; I wanted you to stay with me. But I thought you needed--"

"I did," Vin said softly, smiling weakly. "I got so lost in all the folks crowdin' around me that I couldn't see what I had right before me. Wasn't 'til I got out there, where there weren't nobody else, that I could see what the Spirits was tryin' ta show me."

"And what did they show you?" Chris asked softly, slowly stroking Tanner's beautifully square jaw.

Vin laughed quietly and leaned forward, pressing a light, quick kiss to Chris's mouth. "That I needed ta git my ass back home where it belonged."

Chris chuckled and shook his head. "I like these Spirits of yours!" He sobered then, and regarded Tanner steadily. "And are you? Home, I mean."

"You're here ain'tcha?" Vin breathed. "Home ain't this town, Chris. Home is you. That's what the Spirits was tellin' me when ya reached fer me. Jist like it'd been when I was little, when home was with my ma 'n grandpa."

"You see them, too?" he asked softly, envying Vin's ease with such things. He wasn't sure he believed in Tanner's "Spirits" any more than he believed in Josiah's God, but he couldn't help admiring the natural way both men accepted the presence of those unseen forces in their lives.

"Yeah," Vin answered with a soft smile. "I remembered when we'd go ta church on Christmas Eve. We'd all wrap up real tight 'n warm and ride in the wagon, 'n Grandpa'd tell me the Christmas story on the way. We'd get there in time ta eat before the service -- ever'body always brought somethin', even them who didn't have much, 'n it was always a real nice spread -- then the grown folk would sing whilst all us kids watched the preacher put the Baby Jesus in the manger. We was all dressed up like shepherds 'n angels -- us boys was the shepherds 'n the girls was angels -- and it was jist like bein' there when it really happened. Always made it mean more when the preacher read the story from the Bible."

"That sounds real nice," Chris said, smiling at the visions Vin's softly drawled words invoked. "Adam was a shepherd one year." He laughed and shook his head. "He thought that meant I was gonna get him a sheep. Told him I'd carve him one, but he wanted a real one. But Sarah drew the line at sheep."

"Reckon she was right," Vin said with a mischievous grin. "Be kinda hard ta take an ol' sheep farmer serious."

Larabee scowled and narrowed his eyes. "Hell, Tanner, you don't take me seriously now!"

"'At's where yer wrong, cowboy," Vin breathed, pressing himself close against Chris. "I take ya real serious. Else I wouldn'ta come back."

Chris shivered and licked his lips as Vin's warmth swept through him. "Thought you were gonna shuck some of them clothes?" he rasped.

Blue eyes wide and eternities deep snared the gunfighter's soul. "You gonna keep me warm like ya promised Nettie?" he whispered.

Chris swallowed hard and nodded, his blood turning to liquid fire. "I'm sure I can think of somethin'."

"Reckon ya can," Vin said with a wink. "Always said yer a real smart feller."

"Start strippin'!" Larabee ordered harshly, his eyes glittering as his pants constricted by at least a size. "If I know you, you're wearin' every shirt you got under that coat, and I don't wanta still be peelin' you when the sun comes up."

Vin sighed and shook his head, his expression sorrowful. "Some folks jist ain't got no patience at all," he lamented, stepping back and unbuttoning his coat. "Must be hell gittin' old 'n crotchety."

"You're quick losin' any chance of findin' out," Chris growled. "And I'm about ta be five hundred dollars richer."

"Hmph," Vin snorted, slipping out of his coat. "Knowin' you, you'd only spend it on more black clothes. Y'know, there are other colors out there."

"I wear other colors!" Larabee seethed through clenched teeth.

"Oh, yeah," Vin said, snapping his fingers. "Fergot about the gray shirt."

"You wanta sleep out in the cold after all?"

"You wanta tell Nettie why I died of pneumonia?"

"This is why they slapped that bounty on you, isn't it?" Chris asked in exasperation, setting his hands on his hips and glaring at Tanner. "Not for murder, but just for pissin' people off!"

"Well," Vin grinned slyly, "reckon I did get a few choice words in 'fore I lit out."

"I'll just bet you did," Chris chuckled. "C'mere, you."

Vin frowned warily, but went forward. "What?"

Chris stepped closer and kissed him, then began unbuttoning his shirt. "Nothin'. I just wanta unwrap my Christmas gift, is all."

Vin's frown deepened as confusion rose through him. "I ain't yer gift--"

"Yeah, ya are. Your Spirits brought ya to me on Christmas Eve, didn't they?" He smiled into bewildered blue eyes. "Reckon that makes you a Christmas present. 'Bout the best damn one I ever got, too."

The words, light and teasing as they were, reached deeply into Vin's soul and warmed it, chasing away the doubt and fear that lived there. He had so little experience with this, was still getting used to the feeling of being loved so completely, and even now the enormity of it could still overwhelm him.

He wondered if maybe that wasn't part of what had driven him into the hills tonight, too.

Chris saw the uncertainty, the vulnerability, that sprang suddenly into the tracker's eyes, and he immediately set aside all teasing, his eyes, voice and touch gentling at once. "Hey, pard," he called softly, "you all right?"

Vin swallowed and nodded. "Yeah," he breathed, bowing his head. "I jist..." He swallowed again, then raised his head with an effort and forced himself to give voice to his feelings. "I ain't ever had nobody like you before. I mean, there's been others, but..." He reached out and laid a hand over Larabee's heart. "Ain't anybody ever kep' me in here before," he whispered, staring into the green eyes that had become permanent fixtures in his dreams. "Ain't anybody ever said I's a gift."

Chris laid a hand over Vin's. "Well, I'm sayin' it," he insisted softly. "You are a gift, Vin, and I can't tell you how grateful I am for ya."

Vin heard the truth in Chris's words, saw it shining in his eyes, and wondered what he'd ever done to deserve the man standing before him. He knew all the wrongs he'd done, could pretty well name all the mistakes he'd made. What escaped him, though, was the one thing he'd done right enough to merit the love of a man like Chris Larabee.

"You just gonna stand there and stare at me?" Chris asked lightly, reaching out to push the hair back from Vin's face. "Ain't you got anything ta say?'

A slow smile spread over Vin's face and lit his eyes. "I'm awful glad I came back," he breathed.

Chris chuckled softly and lightly ran the backs of his fingers over Vin's jaw. "I am, too." He bowed his head and pressed his lips softly to Tanner's. "More than you'll ever know."

Vin moaned and shivered as that mouth worked its magic upon him, as Chris showered a series of slow, breathtakingly gentle kisses against his lips, down to his chin and along his jaw. Then it swept through his hair and found his ear, tongue dancing lightly around the delicate shell, teeth nipping at the tender lobe, and he loosed another moan, his breath quickening, his heart hammering fiercely against his ribs.

"Oh, God... Chris..." he hissed, clutching at Larabee for support as his knees turned to water.

From Vin's ear, Chris kissed, licked and nibbled his way down his long, inviting throat, scraping his teeth over the pulse throbbing beneath warm flesh, then sucking at Tanner's Adam's apple. All the while, he worked to undress the tracker, pushing the brown leather suspenders off his shoulders and down his arms, tugging the shirt from the waistband of his pants and unbuttoning it with nimble fingers, then slipping it from his body.

And, as he'd expected, he encountered another shirt beneath it.

"Don't say nothin'," Vin growled, pulling back his head and glaring fiercely to forestall the familiar complaint. "I git cold, 'n that's that. If it's too much work fer ya, I c'n always go back ta my room."

"Did I say anything?" Chris asked, lifting a blond brow.

"No, but you was gonna. You always do."

Chris grinned slyly at the ferocious face of his lover. "But this is Christmas, pard," he said in a low, silken voice, carefully unbuttoning the second shirt. "And everybody knows that half the fun of Christmas is unwrappin' your presents."

"Well," Vin drawled, unable to suppress the shiver that rippled through him as those long, sure fingers worked their way down his chest, "I reckon that's all right, then."

"Thought you'd see it my way," Chris said with a smirk, peeling the shirt from the Texan and surprised to see an undershirt beneath. "Only two?"

Vin narrowed his eyes, then lifted his chin defiantly. "Could be I got another undershirt on under this'un. You got a problem with that?"

"Nope." Chris swooped forward and kissed him again. "I like ta see ya keepin' warm. Don't wantcha gettin' sick."

"Oh," Vin breathed as another shiver ran through him. "Reckon I'll be plenty warm if you keep this up."

"Don't worry, pard," Chris assured him with a wicked smile, "I plan ta keep lotsa things up."

Vin dropped his gaze to the bulge straining against Larabee's black pants and absently licked his lips. "Looks like yer makin' a good start of it," he rasped, acutely aware of his own aching hardness. "Gettin' a mite close in there, though." He reached out and trailed long fingers slowly down the gunman's crotch. "Mebbe we should make some room."

Chris gasped and shuddered as those fingers tormented him, as their light touch sent currents of fire and pain shooting through him. Vin stroked him slowly through his trousers, and he closed his eyes and panted harshly in time to that agonizing caress.

Vin smiled wickedly at the mingled torment and delight on Larabee's face. As he unbuttoned the fly and slipped his hand within, Chris shuddered again and cried out hoarsely, and Vin chuckled triumphantly. "Payback is hell, ain't it, cowboy?"

"Not... hell," Chris gasped as those skillful fingers freed his throbbing erection and slid over its length. "Never... hell... with you."

Vin leaned forward and softly kissed him. "Good," he breathed. "I reckon we've both seen enough hell. Time fer us ta see heaven."

Chris ran trembling fingers through Vin's long hair, then slid his hand to the back of the tracker's neck and pulled him close once more. "Got you with me," he whispered, his mouth hungrily seeking Vin's. "Reckon I'm already there."

They came together with a hungry intensity born not of lust but of love, mouths meeting, arms twining, bodies surging with the heat of raging passion. With the ease of long practice they quickly stripped each other of guns and clothing, hands stroking, kneading, groping as they worked, the frantic caresses only adding fuel to the fire. Moans, shuddering gasps and growls of pleasure tore from them as they explored each other with a wild abandon, each taking deep delight in bringing the other into the full frenzy of arousal.

With his mouth still laying savage claim to Vin's, Chris gripped his lover by the arms and pushed him down onto the bed, covering the lean body with his own. Vin wrapped slim but iron-hard legs around his and raked strong fingers down his back, thrusting and writhing furiously against him. The friction of that body against his was almost more than Chris could bear, sent hard, hot waves of pain and pleasure crashing through him, awakened in him a wildness that was Tanner's gift to him. No one had ever so completely shattered his control, stripping away every last vestige of restraint and leaving him wholly at the mercy of his own desires. Only in Vin's arms had he discovered this part of himself, and he intended now to unleash upon the Texan the ravenous beast he'd created.

"Got my present unwrapped," he growled, imprisoning Tanner's wrists against the mattress and staring through glittering eyes into his lover's darkly flushed face. He ground his crotch into Vin's, his hard, thick cock sawing against the tracker's and tearing a thick, anguished cry from him. "Think it's time ta play with it now."

"So quit yer yappin' 'n do it!" Vin snarled, arching frantically against him. "Goddamn gunfighter... don't say three words a day... 'til he gets on top of me-- SHIT!" he yelped, nearly bucking Larabee off when the man slid a hand between their bodies and grasped his cock.

"Now look who won't shut up," Chris gasped through clenched teeth, working Vin's cock from root to head, tearing a series of wordless whimpers and groans from him. "And you're s'posed ta be the silent type."

"Goddamn it, Larabee!" Vin spat, his voice a broken, breathless rasp. "You don't fuck me now, the nex' sound you hear'll be my gun shootin' yer sorry ass!"

"You ol' sweet-talker, you. And here I thought Buck was the smooth one." He released Vin and sat up, reaching across the tracker to the nightstand and retrieving the tin of oil waiting there. As he pried off the lid, he saw Tanner's hand close about his own cock, and smacked it away. "That's mine," he warned. "Don't want nobody but me playin' with my presents."

"Then hurry the hell up 'fore I die of neglect!"

"You're such a poor thing." He popped off the lid and dragged two fingers through the oil. "Got such a hard damn life."

"Gettin' harder all the time," Vin smirked, rubbing his aching, swollen staff against Larabee's. "'N it seems I ain't the only one."

Chris loosed a hissing breath as Vin's cock slid slowly up and down his own, driving slivers of white hot pain into his flesh. "Fuckin' tease!"

"Yer the one doin' all the teasin' 'n precious little fuckin'! I-- JESUS!" he cried hoarsely as oiled fingers reclaimed his cock.

"Told ya," Chris panted, pumping Vin in time to his own ragged breathing, "he ain't here. This party's for me and you."

Vin tried to voice a retort, but managed only a broken whimper. He thrust desperately into Chris's hand, his every nerve on fire, his whole body screaming in agony. Tears streamed from his eyes and ran into his sweat-sodden hair, and his hands clawed frantically at the bedding beneath him.

"Easy, pard, easy," Chris soothed, positioning himself beneath Vin and oiling his own waiting, weeping cock. "Gonna make it all better soon. Just like you've made everything better for me." He slid his fingers down Vin's cock to his full balls, cupping and kneading them and drawing forth another sobbing moan, then dragging a finger to the dark, puckered hole behind them. "You know that's what you've done, don't you?" he breathed hoarsely, rimming the hole with his finger. "Made everything better for me? Made it so I can remember without wantin' ta die? You're healin' me, Vin, and now I'm gonna do the same for you."

Tanner gasped and arched as that finger entered him and played agonizingly inside him. It found and brushed against his gland, and he nearly came on the spot.

"Not yet," Chris gritted, inserting another finger and clamping his other hand against Vin's hip to still him. "Gotta wait for it, pard--"

"Don't wanta... wait," Vin moaned, thrusting down upon those fingers. "Wantcha... now... please!"

Chris steeled himself against that plea, and against his own urgent need. "Can't rush it," he rasped. "Don't wanta hurt ya."

"I don't care--"

"I do." He slid in a third finger, stroking and massaging until he felt the tight muscle ring relax beneath the pressure. "Don't ever wanta hurt ya," he whispered, withdrawing his fingers and positioning his cock at that beckoning entrance. "Only wanta love ya."

"Oh, God!" Vin sobbed as Larabee finally slid into him, as that wondrous heat and hardness filled him. The familiar pain came, but quickly fled, leaving only the pleasure that was Chris in its wake. "Please!" he begged. "Love me now!"

And Chris did. With all the care he could muster, he slid slowly into Vin, shuddering and crying out harshly as the hot, tight channel closed about him. Tanner's body accepted him, welcomed him, and lured him ever deeper. Without hesitation, he surrendered to its summons and pushed all the way inside, imbedding himself in his lover. A sea of molten heat engulfed him, tearing another cry from him, and he pulled out slowly, holding himself suspended for an agonizing moment, then plunging into it anew.

Vin clamped his legs hard about Chris and lifted himself to drive Chris more deeply still into him. He wanted this, needed this, feared he would die without it. Chris filled him, consumed him, stirred in him wants and desires more intense than he'd ever known. With Chris inside him, he was complete.

They loved with a shattering ferocity, coming together in an intimate union that was far more than physical. Each time Chris thrust, Vin rose to meet him, their bodies moving as one, their souls forged together in the heat of their joining. Everything else around them faded into oblivion. They were all that existed in the world.

Chris claimed Vin's cock and pumped it as he drove into Vin's body, working the man inside and out. Vin arched and thrust in mindless ecstasy, feeling Chris in every part of his being. Together they soared aloft on the burning winds of passion, and as one they burst into glorious release.

Chris erupted into Vin as Vin jetted over him, the pungent scent of their sex hanging heavily between them. Sweat- and seed-slick bodies surged powerfully together, and their cries mingled as they gave themselves over to the soul-searing pleasure of the moment. Time itself seemed to stop, and for a measureless span they floated, suspended in a state of blessed oneness. Vin lived in Chris, and Chris in Vin, joined in body, mind and soul, two hearts melding into a whole.

But even with them, such a time could not last, and, inevitably, physical reality reasserted itself. Exhausted, drained and spent, Chris eased his softened, empty flesh out of Vin and collapsed bonelessly onto the bed, panting and trembling, his limbs turned to jelly. He closed his eyes and slid a rubbery arm toward his lover, still craving contact with him.

Deprived of the feel of Chris's heat inside him, Vin sought solace in his warmth against him and curved himself as closely as he could into the shelter of Larabee's embrace. Their bodies fit perfectly together, his back to Chris's chest, his head pillowed against the man's shoulder, their arms and legs entwined. He sighed contentedly and closed his eyes, a soft, slight smile upon his face.


Comments to: