The Greatest Gift

by SueN

Larabee pulled the covers up over them, wanting to stave off the growing chill. He knew they needed to clean up, but, for now, he simply wanted to savor this precious closeness.

"Glad ya came back," he breathed, resting a cheek against the tracker's long hair. "A man shouldn't spend Christmas Eve alone when he's got somewhere better ta be, and somebody there waitin' for him."

"Guess I jist wasn't thinkin'," Vin admitted. "Reckon I still ain't used ta knowin' I got all that."

"You better get used to it," Chris warned solemnly, "because this is how it's gonna be from now on. You try ta run out on me in the future, and I'll track you down and drag you back."

Vin turned onto his back and gazed up at Chris, frowning thoughtfully. "You see me there?" he asked softly. "In yer future, I mean."

Chris ran a gentle forefinger over Vin's face, tracing the line of his nose, his mouth, his chin and jaw. "You gotta be there, pard," he said soberly. "'Cause I don't have a future without you. I don't have anything without you."

Vin smiled at that. "'N I ain't got nothin' without you. Finally figgered that out up in them hills."

Chris laughed. "Well, I always said you're not the fastest on the draw, but give you time and you'll hit the target."

"Uppity damn bastard, ain'tcha?" Vin growled.

Chris winked. "So I been told."


Larabee arched a golden brow. "You start sulkin' and you won't get your present."

Vin's scowl disappeared into an expression of wide-eyed disbelief. "I got a present?"

"It's Christmas, isn't it?" Chris asked. "Don't you usually get a present on Christmas?"

Vin shrugged lightly. "Not since I's a kid."

Chris blinked at that, nonplussed by the tracker's calm statement. It still jarred him to realize that the emptiness he'd known for three years had marked most of the younger man's life.

"'S all right, Chris," Vin said quickly, stung by the dismay that spread over his lover's face. "It ain't been so bad--"

"It's not all right," Chris interrupted harshly, pain darkening his eyes. "When I think about the life you've had, or haven't had... God, Vin, you deserve so much more--"

"And I got it now," Tanner said quietly. "Got more now than I ever dreamed of. Got more than I knew a body could have." He reached up and ran loving fingers through Chris's bright hair, smiling into those deep green eyes. "The past is the past 'n cain't be changed," he said softly. "Don't do no good frettin' over what's been. And the future," he shrugged, "it ain't no more'n smoke on the wind. It's right now that matters, 'cause it's here and it's real. Ain't no point in lookin' back or ahead when I got all I could ever want in the here 'n now."

Chris bowed his head and kissed him tenderly. "You're a goddamn marvel, you know that? And you're gonna make me a happy man in spite of myself."

"Hell, somebody's gotta do it," Vin grumbled. "'N it ain't like folks is exactly linin' up fer the job."

Chris narrowed his eyes and scowled darkly. "Now who's the uppity damn bastard?"

Vin winked. "Been learnin' from the best."

"Shit," Chris snorted, "you don't need ta learn that. You got natural talent."

Vin arched a brow. "You gonna spend all night insultin' me, or ya gonna gimme my present?"

Chris tried to glare, but the sparkle of anticipation in those blue eyes was too much to resist. Tanner rarely showed his youth, but, when he did, it took away Larabee's breath, and he knew he'd do anything in his power to make that expression linger.

"Yeah," he said with a soft smile. "Let's get cleaned up and dressed, then I'll give you your present."

Vin was out of the bed like a shot, and Larabee had to laugh at the sight of the deadliest man he'd ever known displaying such boyish excitement. He was suddenly reminded of Adam, of the way he'd raced to the tree on Christmas morning and all but dived into his presents. The memory was one he treasured, yet still it hurt him to think that while Adam's childhood had been cut short by death, Vin's had been cut short by life.

But he was gonna do his damnedest to make sure that life was kinder to his tracker in the future.

They cleaned up hurriedly, Vin flicking water on Chris in his excitement and laughing gleefully at the scowl darkening the gunman's face. And though he tried not to show it, that laugh, so clear and full, set Larabee's spirit soaring. For this little while, the darkness of Vin's past receded, the shadow of the bounty and the hangman's noose disappeared, and Chris saw him as the wild, free creature he'd been meant to be.

And he fell in love all over again.

"All right," he said at last, "you go sit down on the bed and try ta behave, and I'll get your presents."

Vin's eyes widened as surprise flickered over his face. "Presents?" he repeated softly. "Ya got me more'n one?"

"There some law says you only get one?"

"Well, no. But... but I..." He sighed and bowed his head, frowning down at the floor. "I only got you one," he murmured guiltily.

"Hey." Chris reached out and tapped Vin's cheek with a finger until he raised his head. Smiling gently into the disappointed blue eyes, he said softly, "This ain't a contest. If it comes from the heart, I don't care how many or how few I get. Hell, you didn't even have ta get me anything. I got you, and that's enough ta last me a lifetime."

Vin blinked in confusion. "Me? But I ain't--"

"Yeah, you are," Chris said firmly, gazing raptly at Tanner through green eyes dark with feeling. "Every day, you give me a little more of my life back, a little more of my heart back. When Sarah died, I swore I'd never love anyone like that again. Hell, never love anyone at all. But here you are, makin' the world's biggest liar outta me. That ain't just a gift, Vin. That's the greatest gift,and you give it to me every day."

Tanner had no answer for that, couldn't have spoken if he'd tried. But he had no need for words. Everything he felt shone plainly in his eyes.

"Now, go sit down, and I'll bring 'em to ya."

Vin nodded silently and turned away, going toward the bed. First, though, he stopped at his coat and rummaged through its folds, pulling out a long package wrapped in bright-colored paper. Holding it in his hand, he stared at it appraisingly for several moments, considering. Then, satisfied, he nodded once and went to the bed, sitting cross-legged upon it and waiting with his usual patience.

Chris went to the wardrobe and opened it, pulling out two packages. Smiling to himself in anticipation of Vin's reaction, he turned and crossed the room, joining his lover on the bed. He held out the gifts, one wrapped in red tinfoil, the other in plain brown paper and tied neatly with a string.

"Had ta send off for this one," he said, lifting the one in brown paper. "Just got it yesterday, and didn't have time to wrap it prettier. Sorry about that."

Vin stared at him in wonder. "You... you sent off fer somethin'?" he breathed in disbelief. "Fer me?"

"Had to," Chris said with a shrug. "I couldn't find it here, and I really wanted you ta have it." He held it out further. "Open it."

Vin thought a moment, then reached for the other. "This'un first," he said, surprising Chris. "Wanta save that one fer last. Ain't ever had a sent-for gift before, 'n I wanta make it last."

Chris swallowed hard and simply nodded, unable to speak. The tracker's ability to find extraordinary beauty in the simplest things always amazed him; tonight, it moved him.

Vin untied the green ribbon adorning the package and carefully opened the paper, not wanting to tear it. A soft laugh escaped him as he found green wrapping beneath it.

"I couldn't decide which I liked better," Chris explained with a wry grin.

Vin chuckled again and shook his head, then opened the green paper, finally revealing the box within. Opening the box, he gasped softly when he saw a hand-knitted neck scarf, soft and long and thick, and as blue as his eyes. He stared down at it for long moments, then pulled it out carefully and held it in one hand, lightly stroking it with the other and knowing with instinctive certainty where Chris had gotten it.

"Nettie made it," Larabee told him needlessly. "I couldn't stand seein' you in that old one of yours any longer. It was past its prime long ago, and I figured it was time you had a new one. So I asked her if she'd make it, and picked out the color. Wanted ta make sure you kept warm, and," he smirked, "I wanted you ta see I do know there are more colors in this world than black."

Vin raised the scarf to his face and nestled a cheek against it, smiling at its softness. Chris had picked it, and Nettie had made it. He'd wear the damn thing until it fell off him in tatters.

Chris watched him silence, his eyes and heart full. He hadn't expected such a reaction from Vin. It was just a scarf, something the man badly needed, a practical and ordinary, utilitarian item. Yet Tanner handled it as if it were the most precious gift he'd ever gotten.

"I, um," he cleared his throat and swallowed hard against the unexpected knot there, "I just wanted to make sure that you, y'know, that you stay warm," he said again, mesmerized by the loving movement of the tracker's long fingers over the soft wool.

Vin lifted his eyes to Chris's face, love and gratitude shimmering in their sapphire depths. "You picked the color yerself?" he asked softly, hoarsely.

Chris nodded and laced his fingers together in his lap. "I know how much you like bright colors." He smiled slightly. "I musta gone through Miz Potter's entire stock before I found what I wanted. But it had ta be just right. Because it was for you, and... and I..." He cleared his throat again and nodded once, startled by the sudden stinging of his eyes. "It just had ta be right," he repeated.

Vin smiled slightly, softly, his whole face alight with love. "It's from you," he rasped, his voice much huskier than usual. "You picked the color, Nettie made it. Couldn't be no righter than that." He unfolded the scarf and wrapped it around his neck, smiling more broadly still at the feel of its wondrous softness and warmth. "'S perfect!"

Chris smiled warmly, entranced by the happiness shining in the tracker's face. "Think it's you that's perfect, pard," he said softly. "Now," he held out the second gift, "open it."

Vin stared at the slender package for several moments, then reached out slowly and took it as carefully as if it were crystal. He still couldn't believe Chris had actually sent away for something. He knew folks did that, but he'd never imagined anyone would take the time or trouble to do it for him.

"Open it, Vin," Chris said again, his voice and eyes gentle. "It's not gonna bite ya."

Vin swallowed and nodded, licking his lips. He studied the knots in the strings, then began working them loose with long, nimble fingers. Across from him, Chris clenched his jaw impatiently, wondering why Tanner didn't just cut the damn things.

Goddamn Texan could drive a saint to murder!

At last, the strings fell to the bed, and Vin began unwrapping the stiff brown paper with that same care. As he pushed aside the last fold and saw what lay beneath, he went absolutely still, his eyes widening, a soft gasp escaping him.

A book. A truly beautiful book, with a hand-tooled leather cover and gold-edged pages. He stared at it for long, long moments in wonder and disbelief, unable even to think, much less speak. Chris had sent away for a book. For him.

Chris watched him in deepening anxiety, for once not able to read what he was thinking. Vin seemed absolutely stunned, and that worried Larabee. Had he judged wrong in this?

When he could, Vin tore his gaze from the book and lifted it slowly to the man across from him, his eyes deep and dark and still unreadable. "It... it's beautiful," he breathed, a hint of sorrow in his voice. "'Bout the most beautiful thing I ever seen. I ain't..." He swallowed. "I ain't ever had its like before."

Chris remained silent, knowing there was more to come, and content to wait for it. He thought he knew what Tanner would say, what he felt he needed to say, and he would give the man his chance.

Vin swallowed again, reached inside himself for his courage, then admitted the bitter truth he'd only shared with one other person. "But I cain't take it, Chris," he said in a soft, shaking voice, his eyes filling with pain. "I cain't... I cain't... read."

Larabee let out a slow, deep breath as the words he'd expected finally came. He saw the shame in Vin's eyes, heard it in his voice, and reached out, taking one of the tracker's strong hands in his own. "I know," he said quietly, his voice wondrously gentle. "I've known it all along. But I also know that Mary's helpin' you with that. That's why I got you this," he said, nodding toward the book. "I wanted you ta know how proud I am of you, first for admittin' it, then for gettin' help. I know it can't be easy; I'm not sure I could do it. But you did, and I admire the hell outta you for it."

Vin blinked, astonishment flooding him. "Ya... ya do?" he whispered unsteadily. "But..." He frowned deeply and cocked his head, not understanding this at all. "I figgered... you'd be disappointed... I mean, you're always readin'... Hell, even Nathan c'n read, 'n he was a slave... I's scared it'd make me somethin' less in yer eyes."

"Why?" Chris asked, arching a golden brow. "Because you haven't always had the same chances in life some of us have? Because you've had to be more concerned about just surviving than getting an education? That's the only difference between us, Vin. I'm not smarter than you, I'm just more educated. But you're takin' care of that now, and I got you this book because I wanted you to know that I know how much courage that takes, and how proud I am of you for doin' it." He nodded down at the book. "And one day, you'll be able to read that to me. I got all the faith in the world in you."

Tears filled Vin's eyes at that expression of faith in him, and at the love behind it. Chris believed in him, and that was a gift infinitely more precious than the beautiful book he held. Chris Larabee, who believed in so very little, believed in him.

"What... what is it?" he whispered, his voice shaking uncontrollably. A single tear slid down his cheek and he let it fall, knowing it was all right.

Chris smiled softly and reached out, gently wiping away that tear. "It's a book of poems by a man named William Shakespeare. You heard of him?"

Vin thought, then nodded. "Seems I seen a play of his once, 'bout some king in Scotland--"

"Macbeth," Chris said, nodding. "Yeah, he wrote a lot of plays. That's probably what he's most famous for. But he wrote beautiful poetry, too. And I thought..." He had to clear his throat again as it tightened suddenly. "I thought you might like to read another poet's work. Read somebody who shares your gift."

"Hell, Chris, I ain't got a gift--"

"Yeah, ya do," Larabee breathed. "God, Vin, when I read your poem in the paper... Maybe I shoulda told you then, but I just couldn't find the words. Still not sure I can. I just know it was the most beautiful damn thing I'd ever read." He smiled slightly. "I kept it, did you know that? And I take it out ever' now and then to read. I still can't get over it."

Vin stared at him in amazement. "You... you kept it? Why?"

"Because it was beautiful," Chris said again. "And because it was yours. Because it showed me a part of you I never knew was there. I mean, I've always known there was more ta you than you let on, but, hell, Tanner," he smiled warmly and shook his head, "I never woulda guessed you wrote poetry!"

"Don't write nothin'," Vin grumbled, not entirely sure Chris wasn't making fun of him. "Cain't write. Jist... sometimes... words come inta my head..." He shrugged and bowed his head, scowling slightly. "Ain't no big deal."

"Yeah, pard, it is." Chris reached out and slipped a hand under Tanner's chin, lifting his head until he could see the tracker's eyes. "I've been ta school, Vin. I can read and write. But I never get words in my head like that. Because they don't come from the head; they come from the soul. You've got somethin' in your soul most of us don't, and it's called poetry. And it's a big damn deal, because it makes you who you are. That's why I kept it, Vin. Because it's part of your soul, and I don't ever wanta lose even the smallest part of that."

Vin studied Larabee for long, long moments, searching the strong and beautiful face, the eyes that led him to the soul he knew better than his own, and saw no teasing, but only truth. And love. The realization shocked him to his core, and filled him with a warmth he would never have imagined he'd know in this life.

"Mary said... I should write 'em down," he said softly, hesitantly, then winced. "Once I learn ta write good, that is. Still cain't do much more'n my own name. And," a soft flush crept into his cheeks, "yers."

Chris sat up straight, his eyes widening. "You can write my name?"

Vin's blush deepened at the surprise in his lover's voice. "Yeah," he breathed more softly still. "Told Mary I... I wanted ta learn y'all's names, too, startin' with yers..." He swallowed hard and lifted his chin, gazing almost defiantly at Larabee. "Jist seems a man oughtta be able ta read 'n write the names of them that means somethin' to him!"

A slow smile curved about Chris's mouth, and his green eyes softened. "I'm honored, Vin. Means a lot, knowin' we're... I'm that important to ya."

"Aw, hell, Chris, yer part'a me," he said with ease. He shrugged. "There ain't no me without you. Thought you knew that."

Chris chuckled softly, more deeply touched than he would ever admit by the simple but heartfelt words. "Guess I can be a bit slow on the draw, too," he said wryly.

Vin smirked, his blue eyes filling with mischief. "Hell, cowboy, sometimes yer jist downright thick," he drawled. "Shit, you could give lessons in hard-headedness ta Peso!"

"Now, that hurts!" Larabee protested, glaring playfully. "That damn cougar-in-horsehide's got a rock where his brain should be, and you know it!"

Two brown brows lifted, and the tracker's smirk deepened. "Reckon I've heard the same about you a time 'r two. Hell," he snorted, "reckon I've said it a time 'r two!"

Green eyes narrowed to slits, though they still gleamed warmly. "Mouthy bastard, aren't ya, Tanner? There some reason you're so all-fired sure I won't shoot ya for it?"

Vin slowly licked his lips and winked. "Mebbe 'cause I know you'd hate ta have ta explain how come I died in yer bed."

"Could take ya out back and do it."

"Promised Nettie ya'd keep me warm, remember? Y'ain't goin' back on yer word ta Nettie, are ya?"

"Smug son of a bitch," Larabee growled.

Vin grinned and nodded. "Yep, reckon I am." He winked again. "Comes from knowin' ya so well."

Chris arched a brow and stared at him. "Oh, you think ya know me, do ya?"

Vin smiled softly, set down the book and rocked forward onto his hands and knees. Still smiling, he moved closer to Chris, brushed his lips lightly against the gunman's, and breathed, "Oh, yeah, cowboy. Know ya inside 'n out."

Chris shivered and closed his eyes as that mouth teased him. "Goddamn your sorry ass ta hell!" he whispered.

Vin laughed, then kissed Larabee again. "'N here all this time I thought ya liked my ass."

Chris groaned and reached for him, grabbing him and pulling him closer. "You know I am gonna kill you one day," he murmured, twining his arms about that lithe, lean body and capturing Tanner's mouth with his. "Just not tonight."

"Mmm," Vin breathed, savoring the taste of the man. "I'm real scared."

"You talk too damn much!" Chris snarled, twisting a hand into Tanner's long hair and burying his mouth in the tracker's.

Vin moaned and clutched at Larabee as that kiss swept through him with all the heat and force of a firestorm, scouring against his soul and burning away all that had ever bound it, freeing it to soar and dance with its mate. Chris was a part of him, as he'd said, and he now felt the man in every part of his flesh, blood and bone. Chris was in his every breath, was his every breath, was his whole reason for breathing. He'd lived for years without Chris, but only since joining his life to Larabee's had he understood what it meant to be truly alive.

Chris had had this once before, but had lost it, and had thought, had known, he'd never have it again. Had sworn all he'd ever known and would have of love had died in the same fire that had killed his wife and son. He'd buried his heart with them, and had never expected to have it resurrected and returned to him.

Until Vin Tanner had breathed life back into it and given it back to him, whole. Healed.

"God, Vin," he breathed when the kiss ended, as the tracker dropped his head onto Chris' shoulder, "I could use some of your poetry now, so I could tell you what you've done for me. What you've given me. 'Cause I gotta tell ya, pard, I just don't have any words for this."

"Don't need 'em," Vin said softly. "I can feel 'em here." He lightly tapped Chris's chest, over his heart. "And here." He then tapped his own chest. "Words would only make it less."

"I certainly don't wanta do that," Chris murmured, treasuring the feel of Vin's warmth and weight against him. "Don't ever wanta make this less. Not when it means so much." He rested a cheek against Tanner's hair. "Glad ya like your presents."

Vin raised his head and smiled, his eyes alight. "Oh, I do, Chris. More'n you'll ever know. Now," he dropped a quick kiss onto Larabee's mouth, then slid off his lap and reached for the long, brightly-wrapped package he'd retrieved from his coat earlier, "it's time ta open yers." He held it out to Chris. "Merry Christmas, cowboy."

Chris took the package, feeling a hard box of some type beneath the layers of paper. "What is it?"

Vin arched a brow. "B'lieve it's called a present," he quipped.

Larabee scowled. "Awful damn funny, ain'tcha?" He turned it over and over in his hands. "Nice job of wrappin'. You do it yourself?"

"Hell, yeah, I did it!" Vin snapped. "Now, open it 'fore we both die of old age!"

Chris snorted and shook his head. "And you say I got no patience. All right, all right!" he said quickly, seeing another outburst coming. "Jesus, keep him up past his bedtime, and he gets crankier than a stepped-on rattler." He began working at the red and green ribbons, enjoying the spectacle of Vin fidgeting nervously before him. "You all right there, pard?"

"Jist shut up 'n open it!"

"Yeah, that's the Christmas spirit," Chris teased, finally untying the ribbons and starting on the paper. "You always this much fun at holidays?"

Vin's scowl turned to a smirk. "Seem ta recall I was lotsa fun a while ago." He licked his lips. "Might be fun again, if you ever get done with that."

Chris abruptly ripped away the paper. "Since you put it that way..." His words trailed off as he beheld the box beneath the paper. Hand-crafted and beautifully fashioned, it had been sanded to a smooth, glowing finish and fitted with two small hinges at the back and a latch at the front. An eagle in flight with great wings spread wide had been burned into the top. He traced the image lovingly with a trembling finger, then slowly raised his eyes to Vin. "You do this?" he whispered.

Tanner nodded and swallowed hard at the awe in Chris's eyes. "Took me a while, but I wanted it ta be special." He nodded again. "Open it, 'n you'll see why."

Chris frowned, then opened the latch and lifted the lid. His eyes widened and a sharp gasp escaped him, then he reached inside and drew out what rested within, holding it reverently. "Jesus, Vin!" he whispered, sensing the magic of the gift.

This had not come, he knew, from any store, but from Tanner's own hands and heart. One part was an eagle-bone whistle, which he seemed to recall had sacred import to the various tribes among which Vin had lived. From the whistle dangled a beaded and braided length of twined horsehair, buckskin and a single black ribbon, with lighter strands of what looked to be hair glinting here and there. And bound into the braided cord were two feathers, one from a hawk, and one from an eagle.

"There's a story behind it," Vin said softly, watching through wide, dark eyes as Chris stared in awe at the gift. "The whistle's used ta call the Spirits, ta get their attention when ya wanta talk to 'em. Or," he smiled slightly, "you can use it ta call one Spirit in particular." Chris lifted soft green eyes to him, and he went on. "Saw a man once, long time ago down in San Antone. He had this hawk that he'd trained ta hunt fer him. He'd let the hawk go, then blow on this whistle when he wanted him back. 'N the hawk came to him ever' time. Seems no matter how far away he flew, that bird'd hear that whistle 'n always come back home." He swallowed and nodded. "That's what that whistle's fer," he breathed. "No matter how far from you I wander, you jist blow on that 'n I'll fly right back to ya ever' time."

"And these?" Chris asked hoarsely, lightly fingering the feathers. "They're you and me, aren't they?"

Again, Vin nodded. "'Member that dream I told ya 'bout? The one where I's the hawk 'n you's the eagle 'n we was flyin' together? Well, I had it again, when I's tryin' ta figger out what ta get ya fer Christmas. I's up at Eagle Butte, been there a couple'a days, tryin' ta clear my head and think. 'N I had the dream. Next day, I's lookin' around, 'n I found that hawk feather. Wasn't no bird around, jist the feather. Knew it was a gift, so I picked it up. A little ways on, I come across this eagle. He was hurt, one wing was crippled. Looked like somebody'd shot him." His eyes darkened, and sorrow softened his voice. "He was beautiful, Chris, but he wasn't never gonna fly again. I knew it, 'n he knew it. He'd starve ta death, or get caught by some other animal... I apologized fer the hurt done to him, then told him I'd set him free. Then I killed him. I didn't have no choice, Chris--"

"I know," Larabee soothed, reaching out to lay a strong had on Tanner's knee. "Like you said, he would have died anyway. You ended his suffering, and his shame, and released his spirit. Who knows? Maybe that's why you were there. Maybe that's what you were supposed ta do."

Vin nodded once. "That's what I thought. Then I remembered my dream, and that feller in San Antone... I made the proper offerin' ta the Eagle Spirit, 'n took that feather and the bone fer that whistle. Heard another eagle cry from up above me, 'n knew I'd done right. Spent the next day carvin' that whistle, then came back home 'n gathered all the other things I needed."

Chris straightened the braided length across his palm and studied it carefully. "This is us, too, isn't it?"

Vin smiled brightly at his understanding. "Yeah. Pieces of us joined together inta one. Got some hairs from Pony and Peso's tails -- don't worry, I asked 'em first," he added quickly as Chris frowned. "Told 'em what I needed 'n why, 'n they was real understandin'. Well," he amended after a beat, "Pony was. Took it real good. Peso..." He snorted and shook his head. "Damn mule ain't got no manners at all. I said please,' 'n he still damn near stomped my toes flat. Ain't like I hurt him, neither. He's jist bein' ornery!"

"Imagine that," Chris said wryly.

"Still, I got it, though. Gave Pony a bit of molasses candy 'n made Peso watch while he ate it. Taught him a lesson."

"Not likely," Chris scoffed, knowing Tanner's troublesome black all too well. "And don't be gettin' my horse started on those damn sweets like you've got yours. He's got a big enough taste for 'em as it is."

"Jist wanted ta show I's grateful fer his help," Vin grumbled. "A little treat now 'n again never hurts."

"All right, you got the horsehair," Chris said, stopping the argument before it started. "What else?"

Vin leaned forward and pointed to the black ribbon. "That's a piece from one'a yer shirts." He smiled at Larabee's look of surprise. "Found an old one at yer shack. Didn't think you'd miss it, so I took it 'n cut a strip from it. Then I cut one'a the fringes from my coat. I also collected pieces of yer hair 'n mine, found some beads in my wagon, 'n put 'em all together. Thought about you and me as I worked, remembered times together, things we said and done. Tied all them memories in there, too. So now, when ya blow that whistle, yer spirit'll carry the sound ta mine, and bring me flyin' back."

Chris didn't know what to say. Everything that Vin believed was woven into the gift, making it a talisman of their love and giving it a power he could feel. Larabee had no words to express what the gift meant to him, or touched in him.

But Vin saw in those deep green eyes what the man couldn't say, and felt a strong surge of relief. "I wasn't sure I should give ya such a thing on Christmas," he admitted softly. "I mean, this is all about Jesus, but some of the things I believe..." He winced and shook his head. "Reckon mebbe I am a heathen like some folks say, holdin' more Indian beliefs than Christian ones, but I remember the things my mama 'n grandpa taught me, and I don't see nothin' in what I believe that goes against them." He shrugged. "Reckon I've just added some things to 'em. If that makes me a heathen--"

"It doesn't," Chris said softly, fixing eyes shimmering with love on the tracker. "Hell, Vin, you're a better man than most so-called Christian folk' I've ever met, and I don't see a thing in the world wrong with you givin' me this on Christmas. In fact, I can't think of a better time. Never thought I'd need anything ta show me what we got together, ta show me what we are to each other, but I can't imagine getting a more beautiful gift. I just wish I had the words ta tell ya what it means to me--"

"Ssh." Vin leaned forward and laid a hand over Larabee's mouth to silence him, his gaze fixed on Chris's. "Don't need words 'tween us, cowboy. We never have. I know what you're feelin', 'cause I'm feelin' it, too. I feel everything you feel. 'S why I bound all them things up together. We're bound up just like that, you 'n me, 'n won't never be separate again. Long after we're dead and our bodies are gone ta dust, our spirits'll still be flyin' together. Jist like in my dream."

Chris pressed a tender kiss to Vin's fingers, then moved them away from his mouth. "I like the sound of that," he said softly. "Like the thought of you always bein' with me. Thank you."

"Yer welcome," Vin rasped. "Jist wanted you ta know how I feel about ya. Wanted ta make sure you understand."

"Oh, I do," Chris breathed. He placed the gift reverently back in its box, still awed by its beauty, and by its meaning. Then, closing the box carefully, he turned back to Vin and reached for him. "C'mere," he invited softly, pulling the younger man to him. "Got somethin' I want ta make you understand, too."

Vin went without hesitation, every instinct he possessed leading him straight to this man. As the strong arms closed about him, as that warm mouth claimed him, he knew he'd finally found the place he belonged.

Chris showered tender kisses and caresses over Vin's face and body, expressing with his mouth and hands what he never could with mere words, wanting the tracker to know and to feel what was in his heart. He'd been blessed to find love once with Sarah; to have found it again, with Vin, was nothing short of a miracle.

"Wanta thank ya," Vin whispered hoarsely as Chris's mouth made love to his throat, "fer savin' that place fer me at church. Didn't think you's expectin' me ta show."

"Wasn't," Chris admitted. He raised his head and gazed deeply into blue eyes gone dark with desire. "I was hopin', though. Even prayin'. You belong at my side, Vin, in my life. And I'll always have a place saved there for ya. All you have ta do is take it."

Vin ran gentle fingers through Chris's hair, lightly stroking the silken strands and marveling anew at the beauty this man had brought into his life. "In the livery, when he was tryin' ta talk me inta stayin'," he said softly, "Josiah asked what Christmas meant ta me." He shrugged lightly. "Didn't have an answer fer him then, 'cause I didn't know."

"But now?" Chris prompted.

Vin smiled slowly, his whole face alight. "Reckon it means this right here," he rasped, leaning into the strong arms that held him fast. "Means knowin' yer with me even when I can't see ya, means knowin' yer waitin' on me when I ain't there, means knowin' all I have ta do is listen and I'll hear ya callin' me home. And I do hear it, Chris. Heard it tonight, loud 'n clear as could be. That's why I come back."

"I'm so glad ya did," Chris whispered, pulling the younger man to him. "You just might make me start believin' in Christmas again."

The End

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