Merry Little Christmas

by Limlaith

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5

Later that afternoon …

Nathan was extremely annoyed that Chris and Ezra returned to work drunk. Not falling on their faces drunk, but sufficiently intoxicated to earn them both a serious and lengthy lecture about driving under the influence, and another lecture that the Alcohol in ATF did not mean they were supposed to consume it on the job. They were fed copious amounts of coffee, which Vin made for them, much too happily. Coffee that could take sides in an argument.

Buck was relieved to see that Ezra had done his part to put their leader in a better frame of mind. Better being almost civil. Buck was informed of JD’s mission and ordered to join him after work. They could take shifts if they wanted, and whereas Buck was eager to help, he was equally eager to keep his best friend out of jail. Chris tended to develop tunnel-vision to the point of blindness when it came to hunting down a suspect or solving a case. He would lose sight of everything else. A focus so steadfastly resolute was valuable on the job – until he started tripping over his own feet. Or heart in this case. Buck had learned long ago the difficulty of questioning or advising Chris when he was in assault mode, but someone needed to explain to him that doing all of this behind Vin’s back was not a way to earn trust.

Whatever Larabee’s frame of mind, any such conversation was unavoidably postponed as the news of the scuffle in the gym reached AD Travis, and Chris, Vin and Josiah were all summoned. Immediately.

“Since the three of you know bloody well why you’re here,” Travis began impatiently, sitting behind his enormous desk, wielding his fountain pen, in turn, like a gavel and a weapon, “I want to hear what the hell went on and I want the truth.” The whole truth and nothing but was implicit. “If this was just your hare-brained Texas way of exercising your own brand of justice, Tanner, I want to know about it. And if the guys on Team 3 are responsible, then I’ll deal with them accordingly.”

“It was really all my fault, sir,” Vin interjected sheepishly.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that, brother. They are as equally culpable.”

Chris sat in silence while Josiah and Vin hashed out the details between them, wondering why he was included in the meeting at all, until Travis had heard enough and addressed him.

“Larabee, as team leader, I expect you to figure out a suitable reprimand for your subordinate. I’ll have a … conversation with Allen, Lewis and Jameson. Sanchez, thank you for your part in stepping in to prevent this from becoming a full-blown assault and battery case. None of you have yet told me what you’re doing about the business with the anonymous tapes, and I’m not quite sure I want to know. I have enough grief from you seven as it is.” A loud sigh sufficed for his decision to remain blithely ignorant. “You’re dismissed. And I mean go home. All of you. It’s a week til Christmas and I know you aren’t getting any work done down there. Tell Wilmington to quit leaving paper airplanes and spit wads, or whatever, for the cleaning staff. This is not a juvenile detention facility, even if half of you haven’t grown up yet. And I’m not mentioning which half,” he added dourly. “Dismissed.”

The three of them filed out, feeling they’d gotten off relatively easily. Travis could be tough as nails when he needed to be, but their success rate in the field earned Team 7 an exalted position within the agency, and they were Travis’ golden children, even if they frequently misbehaved.

“You gonna talk to him?” Buck was putting on his coat and shutting off his computer, making ready to leave, watching Chris dilute yet another cup of deadly coffee with extra cream and sugar.

“Bout what, Buck?”

“Oh, I dunno, pard. Maybe the fact that you’re running an unofficial and illegal investigation into something he’s done is best to keep us from knowing. And you’re doin’ it all behind his back.”

“Well, what exactly should I be doing, Buck?” He didn’t want to hear it, whatever it was. Whatever Buck was going to say.

“About Vin? Seems to me you’ve always known what to do about him. Just got poor timing is all.” Buck let his eyes flirt with a smile; he knew that wasn’t what Chris was asking. “I’m not tellin’ ya what to do or not. Lord knows y’always do what ya want anyway. But it seems to me that all you’ve been wantin’ is for him to let ya in. Ya might wanna think about returning the gesture. See ya tomorrow, pard.” Buck gave him a squeeze on the shoulder and then followed the rest of the team out the doors.

Chris watched him go, hating it that Buck was always more perceptive than he was, hating the way he casually dropped those perfectly brilliant gems of advice and then left it all up to Chris to deal with them. Leave it to Buck to ruin a perfectly good bad mood. Best friends are a pain in the ass that way.

Vin was hovering in Chris’ doorway as though awaiting his punishment. Chris dumped his coffee, crushed the styrofoam cup, and gave thought to what he was going to say. Vin obviously expected him to say something. Damnit. And he hew he needed to say something. Damnit.

Entering his office, he folded his arms and leaned against his desk, regarding Vin with patient scrutiny. “I was thinking I should make you finish all the paperwork I’ve got stacked in here, maybe Buck’s and JD’s too, since they put everything off until the last possible second. But then I heard that the worst punishment I can prescribe you is a lot of paperwork.” He perked his brows, challenging Vin to respond.

He took a while to do it, chewing on the inside of his lip and staring at his feet. “You’ve been talking to Ezra.” An accusation more than a statement of fact.

“I do that from time to time,” was Chris’ marginally sarcastic reply.

“Yeah, well he’s a loudmouth bastard.”

“No, he was looking out for you, something that, if you haven’t guessed by now, all of us do for one another. That includes you.”

“He wasn’t s’posed to tell you.”

“I did threaten to beat it out of him, and very well might have. In his defense, all that he offered was that he didn’t want me to assign you a mountain of paperwork as your punishment, which I was thinking of doing. So really, you should thank him.” And stop looking so damned ashamed! “Vin, it’s not like dyslexia is something to be embarrassed about, any more than being deaf or blind, or hell, tone deaf.” Vin didn’t look like he was buying it. “You ever heard me try to sing? There’s a reason for that. Stray cats cry out for mercy. Dogs howl. It’s really horrible. I’m also color blind. Why do you think I wear black all the time? And if you say cause it matches my personality, I’ll make you re-alphabetize all of Dead Files.”

“You could always ask Ez to help me,” Vin offered, half joking.

“Not on your life. He’d find some really sneaky way of paying me back.” Chris smiled, but Vin ducked his head and took a large breath.

“It’s just not something I wanted everyone to know. You’d have never hired me if you thought I was stupid.”

“Tanner, I wouldn’t have thought that. No,” he stressed as a reaction to Vin’s rolled eyes, “I don’t think it now and I wouldn’t have then. Or are you forgetting that I know your IQ? You could have come to me before; I would have understood. There’s ways to overcome it, you know, not that it ever seems to be much of a problem for you. And I’ll make sure it doesn’t become a problem, ok?”

“I don’t need you to try to fix me, Chris.” Vin crossed his own arms defensively, leaning stiffly against the door frame. “I don’t want to give you a reason to think you have to.”

Chris snorted, couldn’t help himself. “This isn’t about fixing. I’m talking about helping. It’s what friends do for one another.”

“That’s another thing,” Vin broke in, coming around to discussing what was really on his mind, “I might not be able to read good, but that don’t mean I can’t see what’s been going on here today.” Chris started a bit and opened his mouth to speak, but Vin held up a hand and took a couple steps toward him. “I don’t want you and the rest of the guys, planning something behind my back, trying to find out who’s behind the tapes without letting me in. It is my problem, after all.”

“Vin, if it’s your problem, then it automatically becomes mine.”

Vin took another couple steps closer. “No, Chris, you don’t need to …”

“Yes, yes I do. It is ok to need help, to ask for help from your family.”

“Damnit, Larabee, I’m not asking for help.”

Chris looked at Vin askance, “Another thing family is good for is knowing when you need help, whether you ask or not. And to be there for you even when you try to refuse it.” Buck certainly had been there for him, more times than Chris could even count, long after any normal person would have given up. “I know what happened to you in Dallas. I know what they did to you and I know who sent the tapes. Name Jack Hunter ring any bells?”

The mention of the name made Vin go pale. His nostrils flared and the muscles in his jaw flexed. But, true to form, he said nothing.

“Hunter’s here in Denver now,” Chris resumed, “and I bet it was his guy in the Blue Flamingo Friday night. We’ve all gone over the surveillance tape from the bar and …”

“God, you don’t have to do this. I don’t want you to go off half-cocked and do something you’ll regret. I don’t want you to lose your job because of me.”

“Do you honestly think that after learning what I’ve learned, I could just walk away from this?” Chris widened his sharp eyes beneath furrowed brows. Vin really didn’t get it. “I couldn’t do that any more than I could walk away from you.”

No response was readily available to that kind of statement, and Vin stood there looking irritated at his own lack of words. How could he explain to Chris that he had no frame of reference for that kind of loyalty or devotion?

A sneaky thought wormed its way into the back of Chris’ brain. “Besides, what I mostly have in mind concerning you might cost me my job anyway.” He grinned his little half grin, his expression softening and hardening at the same time.

It took a few seconds for Vin to understand him correctly, and his face flushed bright pink. “If ya mean gettin’ drunk an’ takin’ three hour lunches ever’ day, then I’d agree with ya.” Larabee shook his head, holding his eyes steadily on Vin’s. “Yeah, didn’t think so.” He ended on a whisper.

“You’re - not - alone Vin. You need to get used to that. What happens to you, happens to this team.” Intensely, solemnly, “What happens to you happens to me.”

Chris gently took one of Vin’s hands in his and held it, stroking his thumb over the back of it. He didn’t do anything more than that, more than holding his hand and looking in his eyes, but it was enough. Enough to say everything he needed to say, everything Vin needed to hear. Vin swallowed nervously and licked his lips. He withdrew his hand sooner than Chris wanted to let go, and walked back to standing in the doorway.

Slowly, Chris told himself, he needed to take this very slowly.

“Do me this, ok? Just tell me when you’re gonna do whatever it is you’re gonna do. I’ll be home, Chris.”

“Kay, Vin. I’m not gonna hurt him. Much.”

“That’s not what I’m worried ‘bout,” Vin said slyly, trying to regain footing on the slippery emotional soil, “I’m worried you’ll have all the fun without me.” They both grinned, but Vin lost his slowly and shifted on his feet. “I’m not like that, you know. Like what it sounds on the tape,” he inhaled a strained breath, “I don’t … stare at you … you know, when you’re …”

“I know, Vin.” Chris saved him from completing the awkward sentence, although he’d willingly let Vin stare at him all he wanted.

“And I’m not just looking to get laid.”

“Huh. If that were the case, Tanner, you could have any woman you wanted in this building, and probably most of the metropolitan area.” Probably most of the men too, damnit. “I’ve seen the way they look at you. Practically fall over themselves.”

Vin blushed again and made a small strangled noise. “Just don’t tell Buck that.”

Chris got an evil look in his eyes and got off the desk. “Oh, Buck knows.” He grabbed his coat and switched off the light, ushering Vin out of the bull pen. “Thought the weasel was gonna throw a parade when he learned you were batting for the other team.”

“That’s what I need most in life.” Vin held open the glass doors for his boss. “A parade.” He stood back as Chris walked to the stairwell, his head tilted to one side and an appreciative look on his face. Chris stopped and looked back over his shoulder.

“You do have a nice ass though, cowboy.”

Chris shrugged a little. “Why do you think I wear these tight jeans?” Vin licked his lips again, but said nothing in response. “C’mon. Let’s go.”

Chris wore a bemused grin all the way into the parking garage. They exchanged their unique forearm handshake, as normal, and drove to their separate homes, as usual. The only thing markedly different was the fact that neither of them wanted to go home alone.

Midnight …

Chris was stirred from a pleasantly sound sleep by the shrill refrain of Bad to the Bone. Pleasant because of the explicitly detailed erotic dream he had been enjoying. Not so pleasant when he realized the noise was coming from his cell phone. He really needed to find a way to lock Buck out of it. He knocked a glass off the bedside table as he blindly groped toward the offending noise, swearing as he answered the phone.

“Shit. Larabee.” His groggy mind registered the telltale laughter of one Buck Wilmington on the line. He’d have to beat him to death with the phone the next time he saw him. “This had better be good, Buck?” Chris adjusted his erection under his boxer briefs and tried to look at the clock beside him.

“You told me to call, stud. What, you not alone?”

“Buck.” There was an implied threat somewhere in that word, but Buck only giggled again. This time, JD could be heard in the background.

“It’s good, pard. Real good. Jack Hunter’s just left a house. Not his house. You know,” Buck sounded disgustingly pleased with himself, “you’d think that a man screwing around on his wife would have the good sense to close the blinds.”

It took just a minute for the words to process. “So Hunter is cheating on his wife. And you have pictures.”

“Yeah we got pictures.”

“We even have audio!” JD’s over-enthusiastic voice chimed in, “Ride me, big boy! Oh yes! Harder!” Lilting like a swooning woman.

“Oh Susan,” Buck imitated lewdly, “you’re so wet for me baby.”

“Buck, that’s disgusting. Between the two of you, I swear ...”

“Oh, it’s classic stuff, Chris. Priceless. Like those credit card commercials. So what do you want us to do now, captain, sir?” Chris could practically hear Buck saluting the phone.

“Nothing yet.” He rubbed some sleep out of one eye and yawned. “I promised Vin I’d tell him before I did anything.” He could finally make out the time on the bedside clock.

“Good. I was wonderin’ when you’d git some sense and tell the boy. You kiss him yet?”


“Kiss who?” JD was now much closer to the phone and there was the sound of a mild scuffle. “Kiss who!”

“Christ almighty, Buck. Travis was right. Couple of fucking teenagers.” He yawned again. “Take the van back to HQ. Then, go home. Take cold showers – separately – and see me first thing tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir! Right away, sir!” Buck hung up the phone and turned to JD. “Our work here’s done, kid.” He sounded like they’d just saved a village of women and orphans. “Let’s pack up and ride out.”

“What do you think Chris is gonna do?”

“Chris is a complicated man, JD, hard to predict. He has a temper like a shotgun blast. It’s loud and mighty dangerous to be anywhere near. Gets like a hound dog with a scent sometimes. Once his nose is on it, it’s impossible to distract him. But he ain’t stupid. And if anybody can calm him down, or ever tell him what to do, it’s Vin.”

“Are the two of them, you know, gonna get together?” JD always felt like he was the last person to know.

“I sure hope so, kid. Been far too long since I’ve seen Chris happy.”

Stowing his gear in haphazard fashion, JD pondered Buck’s statement for a moment. “It’s weird, you know? I mean, I never thought Chris … He just doesn’t seem the type?”

“And what type is that, kid?” Buck arched both his eyebrows impatiently. “The kind that would bend over willingly and take it up the ass?”

JD turned pink to the tips of his ears. “Jesus, Buck.”

“Well, what are you really asking, son? I know it seems mighty strange by traditional standards for anyone as super-masculine dominant as Chris Larabee to be interested in men …”

“He was married Buck. I didn’t think people could just changed their minds like that.”

“You don’t need to remind me he was married, JD.” Buck suddenly turned serious and stepped into JD’s personal space, taking his backpack from his hands. “But you ever say that to him and I won’t be able to pull him off of you. His wife and his little boy were his whole world and everything in it. I didn’t think I’d ever get him back after they died. And you should thank your lucky stars that he is back.” JD couldn’t know what kind of relentless, tour-de-force endeavor that had been, getting Chris back. “But Chris was pretty wild in his youth. We did a lot of shit together. The point being – he’s seen enough hate and violence and misery in his life to know that the body of the person ain’t important. It’s the heart. It’s the soul.” Buck poked JD several times in the chest to emphasize the statement. “And he may not even see it yet, but I do. Vin is just as strong and brave and beautiful as Sarah was. They’re a lot alike, though I’d be risking my life to mention it. So, no, I don’t care who Chris wants to fuck. I don’t care who he falls in love with. He’s not changing his mind about anything. You don’t fall in love in the head, JD.”

The kid nodded, a little intimidated, brown hair falling over his eyes.

“So, if you know what’s good for you,” Buck resumed, backing off and getting out his keys, “you’ll be happy for them – at a distance. It’ll take a while for them to get comfortable.”

“But you can tease him.”

A brief, sad smile crossed Buck’s face. “Yeah, JD. I can tease him cause I’ve known him twenty years. We made it through Seal training together, if that means anything to you. I can tease him cause I was his Best Man. I was there when Adam was baptized, I was there when they pulled his burnt body from the ashes, and I carried the tiny coffin of that little boy to his grave. I can tease Chris cause he knows I’d die for him. And then some,” suddenly choking up, “And then some.”

They didn’t say much else on the ride back. JD had a lot to think about.

+ + + + + + +

Chris couldn’t get back to sleep for a long time. Only soft night noises filtered into his room, its thick carpeting and wood paneled walls absorbing everything except the faint moan of the wind and an owl that kept reminding him he should be asleep. Moonlight and starlight painted slanted stripes of blue on his bedspread. He had been dreaming of curly brown hair and vivid cerulean eyes, a lazy smile, and a soft Texas drawl. Waking thoughts were no different, but his latently active libido mellowed some with the waking, and he discovered that his prevailing thoughts weren’t rowdily sexual at all. Sure, he wanted Tanner in his home, in his distinctly lonely king-sized sleigh bed, but Chris realized he would be overjoyed just to hold the man, to comfort him, to reassure him he was safe.

He wanted to do everything he possibly could to protect him from pain and grief and strife. It would be damn difficult, considering what they did for a living. His intense, profound need to protect him would get in the way of Vin’s ability to do his job. Everyone on the force knew Chris Larabee was ferociously defensive and possessive where his team was concerned, but this, this would be beyond that.

Maybe that’s why he never acted on his feelings before, knowing that if he did, he could never turn back. He didn’t fall in love easily, like Buck, or blindly, like Nathan and Rain, or even giddily, as JD had for Casey. He was too old and too jaded for that.

No small twinge of remorse accompanied the knowledge that he was as deeply in love with Vin as he had been with Sarah. And there were absolutely no guarantees that Vin wouldn’t be taken from him as quickly, as brutally. As suddenly.

Maybe the knowledge of what Vin had been through, of what he was being put through now, revved Chris’ protective instincts into overdrive. Maybe Sarah was telling him it was time. Time he moved on with his life. And Larabee knew beyond a shadow of doubt that his life had become worth living again because Vin was in it.

He rolled off the bed with a grunt and headed for the kitchen for some coffee. No sense trying to sleep now. He was half way down the hall when he heard Bad to the Bone again. Cursing Buck Wilmington to eternal damnation, he answered the phone.

“Buck, if you’re making another obscene phone call, I’m gonna shove my boot so far up your ass it’ll crack your skull.”

There was a very long silence. “Chris. It’s Vin. What’d Buck say to you?” He sounded seriously tense.

“Vin. Hi.” Shit. “Buck was just being an idiot.” He yawned wide and sat down on the edge of the bed. “You awake?” Obviously.

“Yeah. You?” Obviously.

“You want coffee?”


“It’ll be ready when you get here.”

“Chris,” Vin’s voice was still tense, urgent even, “If Buck’s giving you flack cause of me …”

“No more than he normally would anyone. I’ll explain when you get here.”

“Kay.” Vin still didn’t sound sure.

As they signed off, Chris felt a small rush of excitement that Vin couldn’t sleep either, and that he would be at the ranch within the hour. He put on a t-shirt and sweat pants, stopping to flex his muscles childishly in front of the mirror. He looked good for almost forty, and he liked the smiling man staring back at him, a smile he hadn’t worn in years. He’d have to remember to keep it wiped off his face at work or Buck would never let up. Sometimes having a friend who knows you that well is truly annoying.

Mushrooms, green onions, ham, and tomatoes were chopped, and eggs were whipped into a froth by the time Chris heard the knock on the door.

Vin’s hair was windblown and his face chapped by the winter cold. He was wearing his faded blue jeans, the ones with half a dozen tears in them, and probably half a dozen top layers of clothes beneath a worn leather jacket. His blue eyes sparkled like Christmas lights, and Chris had kissed him hello before he could think twice about doing so. Vin’s lips were cool and dry, but they warmed rapidly under Chris’ mouth and tongue, little plumes of steam rising between them as they parted. One of Chris’ hands was still in Vin’s hair.

“Chris, I didn’t really come over here to … I just wanted to talk.”

“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t assume that …” Chris dropped his hand and backed off a little. “You look really good, Vin.” His lips were still parted, still sang. He swallowed and wrestled his hormones into submission. “I’m making omelets. You wanna come in?” His sockless feet were cold on the wood floor as he left the doorway and walked back to the kitchen. He heard the front door close behind him. “I don’t do peppers. My ulcers won’t allow it. Coffee?”

He poured them both steaming cups of hazelnut coffee, a gift from Ezra, and Vin sat down at the table. Dark whorls of wood knots blinked up at him. “What did Buck say, Chris?” He looked uneasy as he held his coffee in his hands to warm them.

Chris heated a skillet on the stove and added a spoonful of butter. “He and JD have been staking out Jack Hunter. They have video and audio of him cheating on his wife. Buck called to give me a private replay of the encounter, complete with moans and sound effects. That’s all. I told him to take a cold shower.” He scooted the vegetables off the chopping block with a knife. Sizzling sounds and smells lifted into the air.

“What are you thinkin’ to do, Chris?”

“I haven’t made up my mind yet, Vin, but it seems to me that a little comeuppance is in order.” Ezra would be impressed with that word. “Mrs. Hunter might be interested in what we found out.”

“And you think that’ll fix things?”

“Fix?” Chris stirred the vegetables, lowering the fire under the burner. “Might make you feel better?”

“Me feel better? Or you? I don’t need you to fight this battle for me.”

“Doesn’t look to me like you are fighting, Tanner. What if this asshole doesn’t stop?” Chris dropped his spatula and turned his sharp eyes on his friend. “What if he finds out he hasn’t ruined your career, again, and that isn’t good enough for him? What if it gets worse? Like it was in Dallas.”

“You weren’t in Dallas. And you can’t undo what they did then by doing something just like it.” Vin put his coffee cup on the table and rested his elbows on either side of it, imploring Chris with his eyes.

“Maybe you’re right.” Chris didn’t sound convinced. “Maybe I am doing something just as bad, and maybe it will make me feel better, but I can’t stand the thought that he’s just gonna get away with it. Then or now. It isn’t right. And I’ll be damned before I let him hurt you. Him or anyone else.” In case he hadn’t made himself clear.

Blonde hair was bed-tousled and sweat pants hung loose at his narrow hips. He was barefoot in his kitchen at 1 in the morning cooking Vin an omelet. And Vin didn’t think it was possible to be more in love with the man, but it was.

“It doesn’t matter anymore, Chris.” His voice was powerful in its quietness. “They can’t hurt me now.”

“I’ll make damn sure they don’t.”

“Let it go, Chris.”

You let it go, Tanner.”

“I did, cowboy. The day I met you.”

Vin was looking at him with such tenderness that Chris was forgetting to breathe. Later in his life, he would look back at that early morning in his kitchen and remember it as one of the most sublimely perfect moments in his life. At the time, he wasn’t aware of anything other than the unswerving conviction that he would love Vin Tanner till the day he died. He was right.

“Your eggs are burning.” Not that eggs matter at a moment like that.

Chris swallowed the enormous lump that had formed in his throat and scooped the brown-toned omelet out of the pan. “I’ll eat this one,” he muttered distractedly. He dumped the remainder of the ingredients into the skillet and added a little more butter.

“This is good coffee, Chris.” Coffee was a much safer topic than how edible Chris looked in those pants.

“Ezra keeps me supplied with all sorts of fancy flavors. I have white chocolate mocha and French roast in the freezer.” He’d become secretly addicted to the stuff.

“What did you say that made him laugh so loud today?”

“Heh.” Chris grinned out the side of his mouth. “I told him I wasn’t above hitting a lady, meaning him.”

“That’s just wrong, Chris.” Vin shook his head as if to say Lord help us all.

“Yeah, but it was funny. If I wasn’t so interested in you, I’d say you two’d make a great couple.” Still grinning, self-pleased, he served the omelets, went back for silverware, and brought the coffee pot to the table. They ate for a little while, content to share the space, every now and then exchanging furtive glances, as if they didn’t want to be caught looking at one another. And it occurred to Chris that he really enjoyed watching Vin chew.

“So how long’d you date Steve Allen?” Vin reached out and stole some ham from Chris’ plate.

“Bout a year. And keep your fork on that side of the table.” He really liked watching Vin chew. “It wasn’t serious. He got promoted out. Became an officer. I heard from him for a little while after that. He got killed in Sarajevo about five years ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

Chris shook his head. “It’s ok. We weren’t that close. He was a good man though.” He sipped at his coffee and asked his next question through a mouthful of eggs. “Who did you kiss? Outside the bar in Dallas.”

Vin’s eyes darted up, and then he looked back at his plate. “Hunter’s cousin.”

Larabee rolled his eyes. “Well no wonder they were pissed.”

Shrugging one shoulder, Vin nonchalantly added, “He gave good head though.” Coffee was coughed up on the other side of the table; Vin tried not to grin.

“I did not need to know that.”

“I told Hunter. Guess he didn’t need to know that either.”

“Christ, Vin. Ya think?” Chris wiped his chin.

“I don’t really own a collection of gay porn, you know.” Vin had an unpracticed knack for flipping back and forth between teasing and serious. It kept everyone else as off balance as he was.

“Wonder if Ezra does,” Chris mused, rubbing his chin between thumb and forefinger, glancing up at the corner of the room in mock-thought. He was not going to let Vin brood over something that didn’t matter.

“Think he’d let you borrow it?” He was back to teasing, contemplating stealing more food from Chris’ plate.

“I might need to, you know.” Chris aimed a blond eyebrow Vin’s direction. “It’s been a while.”

Vin shrugged both his eyebrows and stabbed at an errant mushroom – on his own plate. “Not much has changed, I reckon. Just insert tab A into slot B.”

This time eggs and vegetables were choked on, Chris pounding his chest, eyes watering. “Remind me not to ever have a conversation with you while I’m eating, miserable Texan.”

Vin couldn’t help but laugh, “There’s a lot of toys on the market,” and kept right on going, “Might help if you’re having any difficulties. A lot of new drugs too. You old guys need all the help you can get.”

“Alright, that’s it. Meal. Is. Over.” Chris got up from the table muttering something about showing the scrawny sharpshooter just how old he was. Vin just lazed in his chair, looking victorious. “And if you’re done trying to choke me to death, you can bring your plate over here and help me wash up. Smart-ass Texan. Teach me to cook for you.” Vin set his plate next to the sink, while Chris kept bitching. “And here I am in the middle of the night trying to be nice to you, good-for-nothin’ ingrate …” His tirade was cut short by a pair of long arms wrapping around his waist from behind, and a hot mouth descending on the back of his neck.

“You always this cranky?” Vin smartly refrained from telling Chris he was seriously cute when cranky, all the while placing a line of languid kisses on the exposed skin at the nape of Chris’ neck, working his way slowly around to one corner of his jaw. Chris intertwined his fingers with Vin’s where they lay at his waistband, and leaned his head to one side, relishing the velvet of Vin’s lips and the warmth of his body. His solid, lean body pressed so tight against him. Chris was a strong man, but not that strong. Unlike Vin, Chris had paid attention to the younger man after their workouts. He had a very clear mental image of what Tanner looked like in the nude.

His voice was raw with desire as he spoke. “You’re welcome to stay the night, pard.”

The offer stood, but was tipped on its side as Vin unwound himself and backed off. Puzzled, Chris turned around. Vin was chewing on the inside of his lip and looking marginally skittish, so Larabee took a breath and changed the offer. “You can sleep on the couch if you like, or in a guest room. Your choice.” He turned back to the sink and began rinsing the plates and the skillet, completely baffled by Vin’s abrupt fluctuations of mood.

The water running almost drowned out Vin’s soft voice. “I don’t sleep around, Chris. I don’t jump into bed with just anyone.”

Still confused, Chris turned off the water and squinted his eyes at Vin. “Never thought you did, pard. You’re assuming I do?” He folded his arms across his chest in subconscious self-defense.

“No. That’s not what I meant.” Vin looked ready to run at any second. “It’s just … I’ve been burned before. I’m not real good at …”

At what? Chris couldn’t imagine anything that fit that statement.

“I’ve been badly burned, OK?”

“And you think I’m gonna do the same thing?”

“Are you?”

“Vin,” Chris sucked on his upper teeth a moment, holding his impatience in check, “What do you want from me? Cause I know what I want. And I wasn’t the one caught on tape telling a total stranger that I’m attracted to you.”

“Go to hell, Chris. That ain’t fair. Using my words against me.”

“How is that not fair? Since it seems to me I’m giving you a chance at what you want.” Vin worked his jaw a little, but said nothing. “Well, Tanner, when you figure it out, you let me know.” Chris was tired of this strange cat and mouse game. “And until then, the couch is there,” he walked out of the kitchen pointing to his left, “and the door is there,” he gestured to his right. “You know where the spare bedrooms are. I’m gonna be my bedroom. You can make up your mind.”

Vin cursed himself under his breath and remained standing in the kitchen, his feet unable to decide where they wanted to go. Being suddenly offered everything he thought he wanted at the drop of a hat was unsettling. His head told him to get the hell out before he made the situation worse. His heart had long ago decided that the bedroom was the only place he wanted to be.

Shutting off the lights in the kitchen and living room, he briefly paused by the front door, made his decision, and locked it. He knew he couldn’t leave with Chris angry. He could hear him moving around in the bedroom, and uncertainly headed that way. Chris had stripped off his sweat pants and his shirt, and had just finished brushing his teeth. Vin concentrated heavily on keeping his jaw from hanging open at the sight of the man, nearly naked, bending over by the side of the bed. He was cleaning up the broken glass.

“You still here?”

“You still an asshole?” Vin was acting like a child and he knew it, but it was somehow better to be defensive and rude than to drool uncontrollably at the spectacular vision before him.

“Always have been, Tanner. You wanna talk about what’s wrong?” He dumped the large shards of glass into the trash can with a clink and clatter, then standing to face his friend.


“You make up your mind yet?”

“Yes.” But he was still standing by the door.

“Extra toothbrush is in there.” Chris pretended to pay no more attention to Vin as he switched off the light and climbed into bed. He decided that if Vin recoiled every time he showed interest, then he would play the role of indifferent prick until the chary idiot decided to talk to him. It might take a long time, but he was a patient man – with a lifetime of practice at being an asshole.

Vin skipped brushing his teeth, settling for a swish of mouthwash with the lights off, and walked around to the far side of the bed. The springs hardly creaked as he sat down and began to pull off his boots. Layers of clothing followed, except for an undershirt, and he hesitated at his jeans.

“You got any shorts I can wear?”

“You can sleep in your underwear, Vin. I am.”

“I’m not wearing any.”

“Doesn’t that chafe?”

“Do you have shorts or not?”

Chris clambered off the mattress and rummaged in a drawer for a moment. Shorts hit Tanner in the chest and he murmured his thanks before creeping under the covers and lying down with a small grunt. His back was hurting him again, but he didn’t say anything. He was used to it.

“You gonna stay mad at me?”

“I’m not the one who’s angry, Vin. You?”

“I’m not mad.” I’m scared damnit. And now I’m workin’ on pouting.

“Then get over here and maybe we can both get some sleep.”

Some shuffling of the covers, and very slowly Vin maneuvered over to Chris’ side of the bed, Chris gathering him gently into his arms. They both felt tense with unspent emotions, but Chris stroked Vin’s cotton-covered back until he felt the younger man relax into against his chest. Vin breathed deeply the scent at his nose, a mixture of clean shower smells and sleepy bed linen smells, and he sighed soundlessly.

Chris took a gamble and spoke again, nuzzling at long tawny hair. “Vin, you can tell me anything you want, or nothing at all, whenever you want. You can stay or go, whenever you want. With me, you don’t have to try to be … anything more than you are. Cause I don’t want anything else. Ok? For now, for however long, just let me hold you. Think you can handle that?” He gave Vin a little shake.

“Yeah, okay,” but he didn’t want to talk about it right then. So Vin buried his face a little closer, let Chris hold him a little tighter, and allowed himself to trust a little further. If Chris wanted to hurt him, he could have done it long before now.

Chris kissed the top of Vin’s curly head and whispered low, “Goodnight stars, goodnight air. Goodnight noises everywhere.”

It had been Adam’s favorite bedtime story.

Wednesday, and a conversation

Morning came too soon. Outdoors it was crisp and still, weak blue sky attesting to a predicted drop in temperature. Vin snuggled closer into the arms wrapped around him before his dreamy mind questioned why he was in bed with anyone and who it was.

He tilted his head back, and smiled. Ah yes, now he remembered. He laid his head back down, where it had been contentedly squished into Larabee’s shoulder, and hummed. He was in no hurry to greet the cold day. He was very warm and very happy right where he was.

Last night his fears had gotten the better of him and he hadn’t followed through with what he started, and one of these days, he’d have to really talk to Chris. If they had even a chance of getting together and staying together, then he’d have to really trust him. Maybe trust himself. In the pale morning light, sleeping next to the man, it was easy to. Larabee was still breathing deep and even, sleep easing the lines of tension on his face. And he smelled damn good.

It wasn’t that he didn’t innately trust Chris, with his life even, and Chris was right: this was what he wanted. But this was too important to rush into.


He couldn’t even put mental words to the possibility of becoming Chris’ lover, a possibility now very much a probability. It was beyond exciting. It threw him so far off kilter he didn’t know which way was up. It was like winning the lottery, something too large to be able to sink in all at once. Something beyond his scope of measurement.

Something too important to fuck up.

He didn’t know what he expected of Chris, or what Chris expected of him, but, God, if they could remain happy doing this for a while … Chris murmured something in his sleep and his hand twitched. It turned into a sound like a low rumble and a full arm spasm.

“Sssshhhh, cowboy. Hush, now. You’re dreamin’.” Vin kept his voice low and smooth, rubbing a hand across Chris’ chest, enjoying the prickly fuzz of sparse hairs that lived in the groove of his breastbone. Chris let out a voiced breath of air and curled into him, wrapping a leg over him possessively. Vin continued to caress him with his hand, gently detailing all the warm expanse of hidden torso, not really trying to wake him. Not trying not to. Chris murmured something garbled, and cracked open an eye.

“Mornin’,” Vin purred, leaning up on one elbow.

“That it is.” Chris opened both eyes and caressed the side of Vin’s chiseled face with his hand. “God, you’re beautiful.” Not the thing a man normally says to another man, but nonetheless true.

Vin lay back down, mumbling, “I ain’t a woman, Chris.”

“Really?” He gasped with amused shock and false surprise, pushing Vin’s body a bit out at arm’s length. “I’d have never guessed.” His voice deepened, blood stirring deeper, as Vin looked intensely ornery, ready to pounce.

“Guess I’ll have to prove it then.”

+ + + + + + +

Vin lowered his face to Chris’ and brushed their lips together. Soft and tentative at first, and Chris let him lead. Gentle petition of lips soon became gentle open-mouthed surrender of souls. Vin wanted to memorize every minute detail of those lips, pulling one and then the other into his mouth, sucking lightly, nibbling experimentally in the corners. Rustling of fabric signaled Vin’s shift of position, his gaining better access; no other sound but the happy friction of wet mouths. They kissed long and slow and pretty damn hot.

Chris soon realized that taking things this slowly might kill him.

He kept his hands still, both lying on Vin’s lower back, afraid that if he moved them at all he would grab luscious handfuls of firm ass and dry hump the man. Apparently what he’d said the previous night had been the right thing, a veritable first for him. He should write it on the calendar, if he ever had the wit to write ever again. His brain was rapidly melting under Vin’s tender assault. He could not, however, prevent the inevitable, his cock waking up and wanting to participate in the action. Yes, definitely more kissing would be in order.

Vin first dipped his tongue into the wet haven of Chris’ mouth just in time for the alarm clock to blare on. Both men jumped; Chris nearly bit him.

“Fuck,” Larabee growled, leaning over and slamming his hand down on the defenseless clock.

Vin peeked down their bodies at their twin poking erections and arched an eyebrow naughtily. “My thoughts exactly.”

“You sound like Ezra.”

“You’ve been in bed with Ezra?”

Chris rolled his eyes, and rolled Vin aside. “Just like you to get interested now when we have to go to work.” He stood and stretched, arms extended, his back popping loudly.

Partially teasing, Vin rose from the bed and slithered up into Larabee’s arms. “Your shower big enough for two?” Chris cocked his head. “Fine, fine,” Vin backed away and feigned disappointment.

“That wasn’t a no.” Seriously. He stopped Vin with one hand, the other readjusting the sizeable bulge in his shorts.

“I know,” Vin ducked his head as though ashamed of his own brashness.

Chris regrouped, wondering when exactly he and Vin had gotten so far off the same page, lifted Vin’s chin, and placed a chaste kiss on his mouth. “It’ll still be here when you’re serious. So will I,” he added as he turned and walked to the bathroom. “And you can keep those shorts if you want ‘em.”

Vin hadn’t even thought about them, but he liked the idea of being able to keep them. He put on the rest of his clothes, eyeing the bathroom wistfully as he heard the shower water come on. It would be too easy to jump in there with him, but Vin knew he still had a few thoughts to work out in his own head before he went there. He shouted his goodbye to Chris, and left.

His thoughts could keep.

+ + + + + + +

At the office, after meeting with Chris, JD and Buck were somewhat disappointed that they weren’t going to get to use their surveillance tapes in some diabolical plot for revenge. More disappointed that they were no longer on stakeout detail with the promise of getting a free sex show. At least, that’s how Buck acted. He hoped Chris’ decision had something to do with having spoken to Vin, hoped that Chris had talked to Vin. Maybe even listened a little too. Ezra watched the action around him and said nothing, but smiled behind his vanilla cappuccino, glad to know that perhaps the senior agent had heeded his advice. Any advice.

Vin and Chris went about their day as if they hadn’t spent the night tangled in each other’s arms. Hadn’t kissed each other for who knows how long. Some events in life are best if left unto themselves.

It was good, really, the ease about which they resumed standard operating procedures. For Buck and JD, this included much trench warfare with wadded projectiles launched from behind desks and chairs, with Ezra telling them to cut it out. Travis wanted to know what penalty Larabee was enforcing on Vin, and showed him a letter of apology written by Jameson, Allen, and Lewis. Chris finally decided to punish Vin by making him re-qualify on the shooting range, which was tantamount to punishing a child with ice cream. Mary Travis showed up with Billy, inviting ‘Uncle’ Chris to lunch. He accepted, taking Mary’s arm, Vin watching them with brewing jealousy, itching to rip Mary’s arm away from Chris’, or maybe out of its socket.

For all his starts and stops, running hot and cold like he couldn’t make up his mind, Vin knew he’d eventually give in. It would be impossible not to.

He chewed a pencil to death considering that if he and Chris had gotten roaring drunk one night and ended up in bed, this would be a whole lot easier. He was used to that, or had been used to it at one point. But ever since those fucking tapes had been mailed, he’d been on the defensive, hadn’t been able to convince himself to trust Chris as he knew he should. He should rejoice that, against all reason and expectation, Chris wanted him too, but he just couldn’t seem to get past his past.

The past is a war you can’t win.

Where had he heard that before? Well, whoever said it – it was true. He did not want things between them to just be about sex, and yet it would be so much simpler if they were. So much easier. Then his heart could just stay hidden.

Since when have you ever done anything the easy way, Tanner?

Since about the time Chris returned from lunch and edged a hip onto the side of Vin’s desk and said he’d like to take him to dinner this evening. Somewhere new. Just the two of them.

Didn’t ask Vin if he’d like to go, but said he’d like to take him. Tiny choice of words. Significant. A softness there that Vin hadn’t really seen before; a wanting to give him everything he had given in to wanting. Total confidence that Vin would say yes and a total acceptance that if he didn’t, it wouldn’t change anything. Tomorrow he’d ask again, and the day after, until Vin was ready.

And he felt ready. Just like that. See, that was easy.

+ + + + + + +

There was a new steak house opened along the highway. A little noisy, a little soft lighting, and the two of them settled into a corner booth. Naturally. They were at right angles to one another and Chris let Vin be the one to keep his eyes on the door. The arrival of domestic beer and dinner salads allowed them to settle into a comfortable silence for a little while.

“Mary invited me to spend Christmas with them.” Chris was watching Vin move his salad around his plate, pushing anything he didn’t recognize off to one side. “I think she brought Billy along so I wouldn’t refuse. Woman knows how to play the angles.”

“She is a reporter. Be surprised if she didn’t have Billy do the askin’.”

“Yeah, well she does try to be more subtle than that.” Tries, but fails. Chris saw her coming a mile away. Vin, however, was far more difficult to track. “Ya know, vegetables won’t kill you, Tanner.”

“I prefer to eat the things that eat the vegetables. Figure they do the work for me.” Vin winked, and used a long finger to flick a cherry tomato across the tabletop. Chris stopped it with his fork and ate it. “So what’d you say?”

“I told her I’d only have Christmas dinner with her if she slept with me.”

Vin pretended to believe him, for a second or two. “She say yes?”

“She probably would have.” They shared a smile. “I told her I had other plans. She knew that already.”

“But it never hurts to ask, right?”

“Only hurts when the answer is no.”

Suddenly they were no longer talking about Mary Travis, but the waitress put their conversation on hold as she brought them fresh drinks and asked if they needed anything else. Vin wanted to ask her to be more specific than that. What he needed couldn’t be found on the menu. Chris shoved his salad plate aside and watched Vin stab at his for a minute.

“It’s already dead, Tanner. If you’re not gonna eat it, you should let it rest in peace.”

A flash of blue eyes told Chris that Vin was just making sure. Salad can be mighty tricky. Chris hid a smile of amusement and leaned back a hair, letting his right leg settle against Vin’s beneath the table, knees and calves touching, feet wondering if they shouldn’t be.

“You gonna come out to the ranch Friday?”

“Plannin’ to.”

“Planning to unless …?” Chris hooked his ankle behind Vin’s and Vin let him. Like gentling a skittish colt.

“Unless you want me there sooner.” Vin was playing with his silverware now, making what resembled a teepee; knife, fork, and spoon balanced against one another. He didn’t look over as he said it, his voice raspier than usual, quieter, as if he needed to ask.

“It’s up to you, Vin.”

“No it ain’t.”

Boggled, “And how is that exactly?” Chris stopped Vin’s fidgeting hands. The teepee now had a napkin as a buckskin arranged around the frame.

Vin directed his blue gaze at their joined hands. “Cause I need to know.”

“Need to know what?” Chris’ opinion on the subject seemed pretty obvious to him.

Their hands snapped away immediately as the waitress appeared with their food. Two steaks, medium-rare, loaded baked potatoes. Side of shoe-string fried onions. Vin dismantled his teepee, but appeared to have lost his appetite. Chris cut into his steak and took a bite, wishing he could chew through all the confusion that seemed to have landed at the table.

“I need to know … what you want from me.”

“Thought I made it clear. I want whatever you’re willing to give.” Chris recognized the derisive bark that escaped Vin’s throat. The last time he’d heard it was on tape in Travis’ office. So, they were back to that. Ok, then, “What do you want, Vin?”

“Ain’t so much a question of what I want, as what I don’t.” He straightened, took a breath. “You know, growin’ up I never had much. I never had anything that couldn’t be packed in a suit case. Sometimes a backpack. My mom did her best to provide for us after my dad died. I was too young to really remember him much. I started working to help out, ‘fore it was really legal for me to. House got repossessed and we moved, got evicted from our apartment, and we moved. We lived in a shelter for a while; I got used to living out of a suit case. Didn’t have any friends, really, no one I could trust. Seems like everyone I met was less trustworthy than the next. Got used to fighting for everything, like … nothing ever came easy, or without some catch. The people who promised to help my mom never did, or wouldn’t without wanting to take more from her than she would give.” He picked up his knife then and began slicing into his steak as though he held a solid grudge against it. “And sometimes she gave that too. She used to pray that prayer, the one about being able to change the things you can, accepting the things you can’t, and having the strength to know the difference. She took every day as it came, never complained, and never made me feel like it was my fault that she spent every damn cent she made just so I could have a home.”

Vin paused, and Chris didn’t move a muscle, fearing he might break the spell. This was more words than he had ever heard Vin speak at one time, more words than he usually spoke in a week. Then the wait staff began a rousing off-key chorus of Happy Birthday to some table across the way and he feared Vin wouldn’t continue.

He did, in spite of the noise. “She always worked holidays; I was always home alone. Can’t remember the past birthday party I had.” He nodded at the table across the room. “I joined the Army soon as I could. And that was alright, but not real fun when you’re queer, and I joined the Marshalls straight from there. That was great right up til the end. But then it was just like everything else – the people you thought you could trust, you can’t, and the stuff you thought you knew turns out to be a lie. Guess I reckon I didn’t know what it really meant to believe in people til I joined you guys, and it takes a lot of getting used to. It’s like … like the only constant in my life has been that nothing good ever lasts. Well, the bad shit doesn’t last either, but nothing lasts. I just try to take each day as it comes cause there’s nothin’ I can do about it anyway. I don’t have a lot of faith, but I’ve got more now than I thought I’d ever have, and I guess I owe that to you.”

A little squeeze from Chris and Vin angled his torso to look at him, leaning close. “But I’ll tell you what I don’t want. I don’t want you to take care of me. I’ve been doing that my whole life. I don’t want you to think you need to protect me or provide for me or fight my battles for me. I don’t want you to promise me anything and I don’t want you to give me anything. I don’t want you thinking that you need to tell me you love me or need to tell me you care. And I don’t want you to think that this is just something you just want to try out to see if it works. I don’t want someone else in my life who is interested just long enough to decide he isn’t interested anymore.”

“And you think that’s what I’m gonna do?” Chris interrupted him, exasperated, wondering where Vin came up with that one.

“You gonna let me finish?” Vin grabbed Chris’ hand then and squeezed it painfully. “Jeez, for a man who doesn’t talk much, you sure don’t know when to shut up.” He relaxed his grip and sighed. “You wanna know what I wanted most, the day I met you,” he gave the question appropriate pause, “That I didn’t want you to know I was gay. I wanted your respect so badly it was stupid. I didn’t know you, and there you were all in black like some fucking Horseman of the Apocalypse, and everyone obeying your every word, even people not on your team, and you saw me climb down from the tower and you walked right up to me and shook my hand. My palms were sweaty and I wiped ‘em on my jeans, and you got that sideways grin on your face and looked at your own hands, and they were smeared with blood. You hadn’t even noticed. And neither had I. That’s how lost I was already. You and your hair all messed up and your goddamn tight jeans. And you said …”

“Nice shot,” Chris provided, remembering that day like it was yesterday, “Think I need you on my team.”

“Yeah. Do you know how much hell I got for that comment from Hunter and Johannson? They were standing right there, and they joked about you not knowing which team I played for and how a man like you could never want a fag like me anywhere near you. So yeah, I’ve been a might skittish the past few days.” The sarcasm was rank. “But I don’t want you thinking that I’m taking this lightly. I don’t want you thinking I’m not in it for more than just the weekend.”

Monologue finished, reclaiming his hand, Vin began poking at his food again, attempting to eat, and Chris once again contemplated pistol whipping Jack Hunter to death. Their meat was cooling off, the beer warming up, the butter in the baked potato melted and running out the sides, and Chris thought about his own childhood. The security he had known, the home, family, trust, nurturing – seemingly everything Vin hadn’t ever had. He grabbed a handful of crispy onions and crunched on them as he spoke.

“Ok. I’ll tell you what I don’t want, cowboy. That is if you’re done.” At Chris’ artificial deference, Vin scowled at him, even if it ended up more of a restrained grin. “Holidays were always a huge deal in my family. Huge. Growing up my mother always made sure the entire family was gathered, and I’ll tell you, that’s a lot of people. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews. Total mayhem. Sarah and I would spend Christmas Eve with her family, and Christmas day with mine. We’d all go to church in the morning and unwrap presents as a group, the kids starting bow ribbon fights and making a sticky mess with mom’s endless supply of cinnamon rolls. I haven’t been back home for Christmas since they died, Sarah and Adam. I couldn’t deal with the people, with the happiness, with the attention. I wanted to crawl into a bottle and die, and Buck’s the only person who stopped me.”

Vin no longer even feigned interest in his food, Chris put down his silverware and captured Vin’s hand where it lay on his leg.

“I don’t want a house full of kids, Vin. I don’t want someone like Mary who will try to cater to my every whim and hang onto me like some prize at the fair. I don’t want a replacement for Sarah and a whole new group of people trying to make me feel part of a family. I am part of a family. And I don’t care if most people don’t comprehend that. I don’t want someone else trying to make my house a home. You already do that just by being there. You know that don’t you?”

His hold on Vin’s gaze was as steady and sincere as his voice, as their hands still clasped.

“I don’t want someone who makes a big deal of birthdays and greeting cards and superficial shit. I don’t want to buy you flowers on Valentine’s Day. I don’t want someone who cries at movies. Except E.T., that one always gets me. Well, and The Cowboys. I could just kill Bruce Dern.”

Vin had to chuckle at that; everybody hated Bruce Dern for that role. Chris smiled with him, thumbing small circles on the back of his hand, then continued.

“You know what I don’t want most of all? Anyone who isn’t you. I don’t want to live in the past anymore, Vin. And I don’t want to wake up to a day without you in it. Now you can do what you want with that, pard, but it isn’t going away, and neither am I. Does that clear it up any for you?” He cocked his eyebrows, asking if Vin had finally gotten that through his thick skull, and Vin nodded.

“I reckon.” Yeah, that was what he needed to know. Not that he was welcome to stay the weekend. He wanted the rest of Larabee’s weekends, and all the days in between.

Yet, for a long minute, the two of them remained in a face-off, Vin’s posture still defiant, Chris’ still assertive, as if they hadn’t just reached the exact same conclusion about the only thing that really mattered to either of them. They didn’t even know the waitress was there until she cleared her throat and looked at them as if they were deaf. They might as well have been. Rearranging their hands on the table, legs disentangled, they gauged that their food was inedibly cold at this point. To-go boxes were in order. And whiskey. And death by chocolate. If he ate nothing else, Vin always ate dessert.

“I don’t want you thinkin’ that I haven’t thought this through.” Chris always had to have the last word.

“I just don’t want you thinkin’ that this’ll be easy.”

“I didn’t ask you to move in with me, just spend the weekend.”

“I didn’t say I would move in with you.”

That was irritating. “You want to know what I thought that day we met?” He didn’t wait for Vin to respond, just plowed right on. “That I had never seen anyone with eyes as beautiful. That I’d never seen anyone carry himself with such self-assured ease. That not one in a million people could have made that shot and there you were looking as calm and centered as if you’d just taken a nap. You were the only person there who wasn’t afraid of me and I wanted you. And not just on my team.”

Face down, ass up, gripping the head board was more like it.

Interruption arrived then in the form of whiskey and chocolate doom, the waitress becoming a real annoyance at this point. Chris glared at her until she retreated with her tray, and Vin began to construct a small hut with the salt and pepper and stake sauce. The muted light hid the ruddy heat of Vin’s cheeks.

“I talked to Buck about it, that day, after you saved my life. He said he hadn’t seen me that dazed since I laid eyes on Sarah. I threatened to punch him. But he was right. So I don’t care if this isn’t easy. Nothing worth having ever is.” Vin was already sold, but Chris wasn’t done selling. “You think it’s easy keeping you guys in line? You think it was easy getting Ezra to relax around us. I had to threaten to fire him to get him to come have a drink with us. You don’t think I know what I’d be getting into with you?”

“I don’t need you to try to talk me into this, cowboy.” Vin stabbed his dessert and poked it into his mouth like an exclamation point. “I was the one on that tape, remember?”

“Well, I don’t want you trying to talk yourself out of it either.” Or maybe face up, shirt half on, hands tied to the head board. Yeah. A little shifting in his seat eased the pinching between his legs; tight jeans do have their draw backs. “Jesus H. Christ, I mean all I did was ask if you were plannin’ to come out on Saturday.”

“Shit, Chris, I was only wanting to know if I needed to pack a bag for the weekend. Sounded more like you were proposing marriage.” Vin tilted his head, batting his eye lashes, looking like he was taking obnoxious lessons from Buck. His grin was cocky as he took another bite of dessert.

“One of these days I am gonna have to smack you.”

“Take your best shot, old man.”

“Oh I plan to.” Chris used his fork to steal a slice of brownie fudge goodness and licked it into his mouth very slowly, eyes clamped on Vin’s, looking like he was thinking very seriously about licking something else. Which he was. “Don’t want you thinkin’ I’m all chivalry here,” he said low, tonguing purposefully smeared chocolate off his lips.

“I don’t want you thinkin’ that I can’t handle anything you got.”

“I don’t want you to go home tonight.” Come up with an answer to that, you cocky bastard.

He was giving Vin a look that would make a harlot blush.

Vin did, feeling his jeans grow tighter and wondering how Larabee’s eyes managed to have nerve endings that connected directly with his groin. “I don’t want you thinkin’ I’m that easy,” he retorted, hating and loving how off balance he was, “Shit, buy me dinner and you expect me to put out.”

Waiting until Vin took a sip of whiskey, “Nah, I was hopin’ you’d buy me dinner. I know I’ll put out.” Tanner sputtered like a broken faucet, and Chris stole another bite of dessert, smirking around his fork. “That was for last night,” he crowed, “So…,” persistently back to his original question, “You coming out Saturday?”

“I’ll sleep on it.” Arrogant bastard. “Fair enough?”

“Fair enough.” You little shit. “Though I can think of better things to sleep on.”

“So can I, cowboy.”

“Fair enough.”

Dinner ended with their legs re-entwined and a battle over whether or not Vin would pay for his half of the meal. They almost forgot to take home their take home boxes, and Chris drove Vin back to his jeep.

They rode in silence. Their comfortable silence. It was nice to finally be on the same page again.

A not so chaste kiss goodbye and a little idiotic grinning behind a pillar in the parking garage. No reiterated offer to stay the night. Vin knew it was there, and just the knowing kept him warm.