Men Are From Mars

by JIN

Disclaimers: Chris and Vin do not belong to me, which I am sure is a great relief for them.

Comments: My first and probably last attempt at pre-slash. Nothing offensive here, other than some cursing. I know nothing about ATF procedures, but hopefully that doesn't detract from the story. This is dedicated to a very dear friend who doesn't believe in love (my rather insignificant attempt to convince her otherwise).

The rain fell harder, seemingly spurred on by each sigh that left Vin's lips. Chris stopped counting the tortured breaths and poured another drink. There was nothing to say, no words that could make it better, make a difference. And even though silence was their norm, their strength even, he wished he could find his voice. Wished he could make it go away, wished he could fix it.

Fix it . . . the curse of the modern male, or so he'd once heard. Women want empathy, understanding, and support. Men want to make it better, make it right, fix it.

The rain fell in sheets, slanting against the window pane with unleashed fury. Even in the shadows cast by the lamp in the adjacent room, Chris could see it; could almost feel it stinging his skin in anger. As if nature herself was rebelling against the unfolding tragedy.

It was all God's fault. He liked blaming God. It was easy, convenient - and as natural as breathing. Besides, what other choice did he have? He couldn't blame Vin. And someone was taking responsibility for this. Shit like this just didn't happen without a reason. There had to be some devious, evil mastermind controlling the plan; Chris conjuring up the ridiculous vision of a wicked, clownish puppeteer pulling strings. If he could just reach up and cut them . . . throw the entire production off track . . . just fix it.

"Oh God."

The sounds choked on a sob, as if invisible hands surrounded Vin's throat, strangling the words, the breath, the life from him.

"What am I gonna do?"

He sat curled in on himself, hunched over in Larabee's kitchen chair like an old man, his forehead pressed against the cold plate glass of the window. For a moment, Chris wasn't entirely sure his friend had spoken at all. Maybe he'd imagined it. Or maybe he'd finally slipped so deep inside Vin that he actually heard the thoughts in his head.

But no, no, Vin must have spoken, because he slowly turned his head just enough to meet his eyes; waiting for an answer because there had to be one. After all, Vin was a man, too, and listening and sharing and being there wasn't good enough. There had to be a way to make it bearable . . . a way to fix it.

But dear God, Chris didn't know the answer. He couldn't think of a single word to make it right or reasonable, so he simply put his hand on Tanner's shoulder and squeezed . . . a useless gesture, really, not even marginally capable of bringing real comfort to his friend.

He wanted to wrap his arms around Vin; surround him and swallow him whole until it all went away. But he couldn't do that. Men didn't do that. Well, Buck maybe, but he was an entirely different species anyway.

He and Vin . . . they walked too close to the line as it was.

He took a drink, his hands so numb that it was a wonder he could hold onto the glass. He'd poured it for Vin, but he couldn't get Tanner focused enough to actually drink it. Probably for the best, under the circumstances, and Chris needed it more. His head was throbbing where he'd cracked it on the window, and his nerves were shot.

How was Vin going to live with this?

Vin groaned, and Chris guiltily remembered he'd never answered his question. Before he could rectify that with some sort of superficial platitude, Vin turned back, pulling his legs up and lowering his head until he was a small, tight ball; disappearing inside himself.


Chris expected it, but not so soon. It had only been hours . . .

It was an accident, but it didn't feel that way; maybe didn't look that way, and Vin could add suspension to his problems. Not that he cared. From the look he gave Chris, Tanner would be hard pressed not to turn in his badge at first light.

Wind rattled the window and Chris thought he heard hail, but Vin didn't look up. The blond sat back down in the chair next to his friend, wondering for the tenth time why Tanner had chosen to hole up in his kitchen on the most uncomfortable furniture he owned. He'd brought Vin back to his place after it happened; protecting his partner his first priority. They'd had to act quickly, before the press got wind of it, got their hooks in Vin.

He worried about it all the time, Vin did. How many times had he asked Chris, "What happens when I shoot the wrong person? When I miss?" But he'd never once thought it would happen like this. None of them did.

It was so damn unfair. All the lives Vin had saved would be wiped out by the one life he took. The numbers would never add up in his head, never.

Chris pulled his hand through his hair and took another drink, surprised that his hands still shook. They'd been shaking when he'd reached through the shattered window of the car and checked for a pulse on the pretty young woman who sat behind the wheel. It was then that he saw the child, a girl, quiet and deathly still in her car seat. He was only vaguely aware of Vin dropping to his knees beside him, retching in the muddy road.

The phone rang, its shrill howl oddly out of place in the wind and the pounding of the incessant rain. Chris had to think for a minute what it was; force himself to stand up and reach for it.

"Chris? You there?"

"Yeah," he mumbled when it finally dawned on him that he'd yet to make a sound.

A heavy sigh greeted him from the other end before Josiah spoke, "She's holding her own. The father . . . husband . . . he's here. The doctors . . . they're . . . hopeful."

"God, Josiah, can't you give me something more than that? I mean, what the hell does that mean?"

"It means they're hopeful that the child will make it, Chris. That's the best I can do; the best anyone can do."

Lowering his voice, Chris asked, "How is he? The husband?"

"Distraught. Angry. Full of questions. Exactly how you would expect him to be."

"Yeah. Keep me posted."

"Wait, Chris . . . how's Vin?"

He turned to look at his friend, noting that he still hadn't moved or even raised his head. "Exactly how you would expect him to be."

+ + + + + + +

The bastard ran for it. Why? The scant amount of merchandise he'd unloaded wasn't likely to keep him behind bars for more than a few months at the most. It ticked Vin off. All that work and time for a bust that turned out to be a . . . bust, and then the idiot takes off. Vin hopped in his jeep without much thought; Chris right beside him.

He'd told him, hadn't he? Chris had said the guy wasn't worth the gas to chase him down, but a crime was a crime and if he got away with it, well, what would he go for the next time? And hell, it was their goddamn job and . . . oh God, why didn't he let him go?

Chris had told him something else, too, time and time again. That old jeep would leave him high and dry and he'd be sorry when that happened . . . but how could he have known? It was wet, slippery, and he couldn't quite make the curve, and would it have happened if they'd been in Larabee's truck? Would it?

Would she be dead?

His stomach hurt. It felt like a knife was sticking clear through from front to back, and he curled up tighter to ward off the pain.

She was a mother.

"Vin? Vin?" He heard Chris's voice, soft and full of concern but he couldn't pull his head up to look at him.

A sigh came next, followed by gentle hands on his shoulders as Chris leaned in close. He wanted to lean back; to fold himself up and slip inside Chris as deep and far as he could go until he didn't exist outside the other man anymore.

That was the only way . . . the only way he could conceive of going on.

"She's alive. The little girl . . . she's . . . going to make it." Larabee's breath was hot on his neck, and Vin want to believe in its warmth and assurance. But he didn't - the hesitation and the words Chris didn't say too noticeable to be ignored.

A child should have a mother. Vin should know . . . he'd been there . . . done that . . .

He couldn't get to the bathroom fast enough. On his knees again, the pain unbearable now as the heaves shook him mercilessly. It was nothing more than he deserved.

"Vin, maybe . . . maybe we should have you checked out?" Chris said, eye-to-eye now as he dropped to his knees, as well.

He was that kind of man; the kind who'd puke beside his partner if the situation called for it. The kind who'd pick his friend up out of the mud and tell him over and over and over that it wasn't his fault . . . it was an accident. Pretend his best friend was right, even when he was the worst kind of wrong.

"Vin?" Larabee was sounding desperate now, waiting for him to say something, but he couldn't remember the question.

"What?" Vin ground out, and it was like breaking through cement to force out even that small sound.

"Maybe we should have you checked out," Chris repeated.

What the hell was Chris talking about? Vin raised his eyebrow in question, though he couldn't feign interest in the answer.

"We hit the . . . we hit pretty hard. You wouldn't let them look at you at the scene. Maybe . . ."

Chris stopped mid-sentence when Vin raised his hand to lightly trace the bandaged laceration that marred the blond's forehead. When did that happen? How could he not have noticed before that Chris was hurt?

"I hurt you," Vin whispered brokenly.

"No. No, Vin," Chris replied firmly. "It was an accident."

Yes, it was an accident; an accident that happened because he'd been careless and stupid and stubborn. He killed an innocent woman. He injured a child. He could have killed Chris.

He could have killed Chris.

How could he live with this?

As the air was suddenly sucked from his lungs and he slid limply to the floor, the answer became clear: he couldn't.

+ + + + + + +

"I don't know, Nathan! He just . . . it's like he can't breathe right."

"Alright, calm down, Chris. It's natural, after what's happened. It's a panic attack. Just sit with him . . . keep him calm."

Keep him calm? How was he supposed to keep Vin calm when he couldn't keep his own heart from exploding out of his chest?

"Yeah . . . I guess," he stammered.

"I'm leaving the hospital now. I'll be there in an hour."

An hour may as well have been an eternity, the way Chris felt at that moment. He wished he'd brought Nathan with him to begin with, but at the time all agreed he needed to be at the hospital with Josiah. Buck and JD were following up on the suspect, while Ezra did damage control with Travis and the press. It would be all over the news by now . . . 'Young mother killed in high speed pursuit'.

It was no wonder Vin was hyperventilating, he probably felt like his life was over; probably wished his life was over . . . that it had been him instead of her that died. And that thought brought on a familiar jolt of desperation for Chris.

He'd let it get too far, this thing with him and Vin. He should have walked away years ago when they first met and he knew that there was something indefinable and unshakable between them. The emotional investment was too high; two men in their line of work couldn't afford the cost.

They should have ended it then. But they didn't, and now it was too late. Now they were inextricably woven together in a way that was frightening and foreign . . . and vital.

He stumbled back towards the bathroom, cursing the raging headache that refused to be diminished no matter how much Tylenol and whiskey he consumed - and stopped dead in his tracks when he saw his front door standing wide open.

It couldn't be. Only moments ago, Vin had been curled up on his bathroom floor, fighting to breathe. There was no way he'd made it outside; it had to have been the wind.

Later, Chris would berate himself for taking those extra few seconds to run back to his bathroom and check. He might have caught Vin before it was too late, before he'd gotten too far. The wind, the rain, the darkness, and Vin's inherent ability to make himself invisible, made it all but impossible to find him.

It didn't stop him from trying, though. For thirty minutes, he scoured his property, drenched in the cold rain, shivering as the temperature seemed to drop by double digits. Vin would be freezing without his coat, but Chris doubted his missing friend would even notice.

He should have known Vin would bolt; head for the outdoors the minute the walls closed in and he couldn't find air to breathe. Snow, sleet, hail . . . didn't matter as long as he was out in the open, and Chris would never find him until he was ready to be found. He went back inside and quickly changed into dry clothes, torn between calling in the cavalry and giving Vin some space to work it out on his own.

But who was he kidding? Vin couldn't work this out on his own because, hell, there was no working this out. It would stick with him for the rest of his life; he'd just have to find a way to live with it. And in the meantime, Tanner was likely to make piss poor decisions . . . and now that Chris thought on it, Vin was pale and shaky and there were no goddamn airbags in that jeep.

He reached for the phone. "Buck? I need you here. Now."

+ + + + + + +

Fight or flight? It wasn't a difficult choice, when it came down to it. Hell, there was no choice at all; the fight had drained out of him the second he realized what he'd done on that mountain road. But once he hit the bitterly cold, driving rain, he knew flight wasn't much of an option, either. There was nowhere to go; no escape.

It felt good when he first made it outdoors, like he could finally pull in a breath again, and the icy sting of the pelting rain reminded him that he was still alive.

Even though he wished he wasn't.

He staggered towards a cluster of bushes and rock, dropping to his knees and wrapping his arms around his chest and stomach. It hurt so bad . . . like he was slowly being crushed to death.

Is that how it felt for her? Chris said no; said she'd died instantly . . . she never knew what happened.

Small comfort . . . no comfort . . .

Chris would be looking for him. And the last thing Larabee needed was to be stumbling around out there in the rain, already hurt and probably half drunk, too. It was a selfish, stupid move, running out like he had, and if he could just steady his breath and make the horrible ache go away for a minute, he'd get back up and go inside. But that wasn't going to happen any time soon. At least, not in any future he could imagine. The image of her face would stay with him forever, sending a shard of pain through his body and stealing his breath every time.

He couldn't really remember the accident. His last clear memory was feeling the tires lose their grip in the pouring rain, trying in vain to control his jeep as they slid around the curve in the road. The next thing he knew, Chris was cursing up a blue streak, calling his name. They both stumbled out of the car, but Chris made it to the other vehicle first.

Vin saw the young woman inside, her face peaceful and unmarred and it never dawned on him that she was already dead. It was the child in the seat behind her--she was deathly still and he thought surely she was gone--and that was when he'd fallen to the ground, sick. He wasn't even strong enough to help; couldn't even think to call 911. He was useless. The little girl would probably be dead, too, if Chris hadn't been there.

Everything was a blur after that; police and ambulance workers trying to talk to him, but he couldn't understand their questions, let alone answer them. Josiah was there; Vin clearly recalled the big man's arm wrapped around him the entire time, his strong voice in his ear, but he didn't know what he'd said or what he wanted him to do.

And he didn't know why or how he'd ended up at Larabee's ranch. Shouldn't he be in jail? It had to be a crime: reckless endangerment, vehicular manslaughter, abject stupidity . . . plus a dozen other charges that fit the circumstances. He should be in jail.

He'd turn himself in. That's what he'd do. Just as soon as he picked himself up from the wet ground and made it back to Larabee's house. Chris would hate it. Chris would tell him it was an accident and he was just trying to do his job . . . no crime, no foul, or something like that.

He shouldn't have run from Chris. The man had never done anything but stick by him; pick him up time after time when he was sick or hurt, or even just sick at heart. He wished Larabee was there right then; wished he could mold himself into Chris's arms and let go . . . cross that line for just a little while.

Would it be so wrong?

The rain seemed to come down harder, or maybe he just now noticed, and he was so cold. He pushed himself a little deeper into the brush, just until he could find the strength to get up and walk back to the house. He couldn't have gone far, didn't think he had anyway. It was hard to remember, the rain making everything dark and foggy in his mind, like he was swimming underwater. Maybe he should get up now while he still could. He tried to stand, but a sharp pain sliced through his middle, dropping him to the ground like a stone in a pond, and he curled up once again. And for the first time, it occurred to him that there might be something physically wrong with him. Maybe he was dying after all, and he took a strange, bitter comfort in the possibility.

It wouldn't be fair to Chris, leaving him like that, but then again, it might be for the best. Free Larabee up from whatever it was that held the two of them together so tightly . . . give him a chance to find real happiness again. It had to be wearing on Chris, looking after him all the time, and it would even be worse after all that had happened. Vin shuddered and pulled his arms tighter around himself as he pictured the days ahead . . . investigations and reports . . . excuses for the inexcusable. A funeral . . . oh God. He'd be completely undone by it all, and it would be Chris left picking up the pieces, gluing him back together.

And for what? For what good reason? What did Larabee get out of their relationship anyway?

In a moment of stunning clarity, the answer came to him: Chris did what he did because he loved him . . . was maybe even in love with him. All this time, he'd tried to put a name to the bond that glued them together, tried to figure it out, rationalize it, explain it away, and he'd couldn't. Or maybe he didn't want to . . . was afraid to.

It just couldn't be that simple, but deep down he knew it was. Chris would never admit it, never act on it, but he also would never move on and make a real life if Vin was around.

He thought he heard voices calling his name; thought he should answer them, but the dark rain was pulling him under to some place far away. And really . . . considering . . . for all involved . . . it was for the best.

+ + + + + + +

"Really, Chris, I'm sure he's alright."

Had Nathan lost his mind?

"How in hell do you think he could possibly be alright? Do you have any idea what he's going through? For God's sake, Nathan, what is wrong with you?"

"He's just trying to stay positive, Chris. It won't help Vin if we all go off half-cocked," Josiah replied calmly.

Chris wanted to kick them both in the ass, but he didn't have time. "I'm going back out," he grumbled, picking his flashlight up off the table and storming towards the door.

Josiah stopped him with a hand on his arm. "You'll be a bigger help if you stay here and tell Nathan what you observed. If he's hurt like you think, he can't have gone far - Buck and JD will find him. And if he's not back in five minutes, we'll call for more help and we'll all go. Fair enough?"

Fair enough? Chris could think of a whole lot of words for the situation but 'fair' didn't even come close, although another four letter word starting with 'f' might. But he turned away from the door and met Nathan's eyes anyway.

"He's hurting . . . his stomach or maybe his chest. Been throwing up."

"That's not unusual, Chris, especially for Vin. The stress . . . the anxiety . . . besides, didn't he get checked out at the scene?"

Chris glared, so Josiah answered for him. "Not exactly. He was so upset . . . and you know Vin, he insisted he was fine . . . wouldn't let anyone touch him."

That wasn't technically true, Chris thought. Vin let Josiah touch him. Josiah was all over him, in fact. Chris was tied up with the paramedics and the police, trying to give them as much information as he could so Vin wouldn't have to, and every time he looked over at Tanner, Sanchez was with him. It was a good thing, he supposed, but it should have been him at his best friend's side . . . he wanted it to be him.

Vin didn't like to be touched, they all knew it. It was more than just a guy thing for him; more likely it was his dark past playing out in the way he held himself off from others. But he let Chris in, closer than anyone in his life . . . except apparently for Josiah.

Josiah was the hell all over him.

Nathan shook his head. "Y'all never learn, do y'?"

Finally Jackson was mad, finally he was getting it. Nathan only slipped into a drawl when he was irritated. Chris didn't much care, so long as the paramedic finally took him seriously.

"A woman was dead, Nathan . . . a little girl injured. Vin was in shock, and it was only a matter of time before cameras and reporters showed up. We didn't force him because there wasn't time," Josiah clarified.

"Yeah? Well, if he's bleeding inside, it could already be too late," Nathan barked.

Chris hadn't even had a chance to pick his stomach off the floor at that, when the door opened and Buck and JD entered. They carried Vin between them, Buck practically shouting as they moved towards the couch. "We found him! He was layin' behind a bush, probably went right on past him a dozen times or more. But he's not responding to us, Nathan. Not sure what's wrong . . ."

Nathan was already hunched over the couch by the time Chris managed to focus his eyes. Damn head was likely to explode any second.

"Josiah, Buck, wrap him in blankets and carry him to the car. JD, call for an ambulance and have them meet us on the way," Nathan ordered.

Chris couldn't take it all in. He felt like he was two sentences behind everyone else; somewhere back on, "We found him."

"Shouldn't we put something dry on him, Nathan?" JD asked, and Nathan looked at him like he was crazy.

"No time and why the hell aren't you on the phone?"

He blanked out or spaced out, lost time somehow, because the next thing he knew, Buck was gently tugging on his arm, leading him to the car. "Come on, Chris. It'll be alright. Just sit tight now and we'll take it from here."

Comforting him . . . Buck was comforting him. Like he knew Chris was about to unravel from the inside out. Did he know about him and Vin? How they were? How they weren't?

Buck slid into the driver's seat, while Nathan stayed in the back with Vin - as if he could possibly do something if Vin went from bad to worse. It might already be too late simply because Chris wasn't paying attention. It took him too long to figure out that it wasn't just emotional pain his partner was feeling; ironically their 'connection' failed them at the most crucial moment.

It was probably meant to be that way. Sooner or later, one way or another, it would have to end. One of them would die (how many times had he prayed it would be him?); one of them would move away (not likely); one of them would get married (well, Vin might anyway). He and Vin couldn't spend the rest of their lives totally entwined - it wasn't right or natural.

His head hurt, but it didn't stop him from wanting to bang it against the dash repeatedly. Nathan must have caught on, because a dark hand reached over the seat.

"Take these," Jackson instructed.

Chris had no idea what the pills were, but he took them gratefully, swallowing them dry. He never once looked back behind him - if he was going to have a last memory of Vin, it would be from that morning, before the rain came and the world fell apart. Tanner was laughing at some stupid joke JD made while he prepared for the ill-fated bust; his blue eyes dancing in the morning sun. Yeah, that was the moment he'd hold onto; wipe out all the others since.

But when they met the ambulance, he had other ideas. He suddenly didn't want Vin out of his sight, and he probably seemed like a lunatic--a drugged, half drunk lunatic--when he staggered after the paramedics. He was pretty sure he was begging to go with them, incoherently and completely out of control, judging by the sympathetic looks cast his way.

"Let them go, Stud. Let them do their job," Buck said softly in his ear, holding him back with both arms, though he could have managed it with one finger. Chris was sure his legs were going to give out any second and he could no more chase down an ambulance than fly to the moon.

It was still raining, forever raining, and as he stood there with Buck holding onto him, three small words left his lips . . . "I love him."

It came as a complete shock to him at that moment, but apparently not to Buck who simply responded, "Yeah. I know. Let's get to the hospital."

He wanted to laugh hysterically. He'd just admitted he loved Vin and Buck acted like it was no big deal, like he knew it all along.

Well, of course he did, or thought he did. Love was big and easy and organic for a man like Buck. He loved everybody. The word flowed from his lips like wine. But it wasn't the same for Chris. He'd only told three people in his life that he loved them, and he was pretty sure his mother and son didn't count.

But Sarah did. He waited for the usual sense of unfaithfulness and guilt to engulf him at just the idea of loving someone else, but it didn't come, didn't happen. For the first time in years, he believed what Buck had been telling him all along - that loving again was more of a testament to his marriage than a betrayal of it.

Of course, saying he loved Vin wasn't the same as saying he was in love with Vin. There was a difference, right? It had to do with skirting that line - balancing that tightrope they were constantly walking. It was enough for now to acknowledge that he loved Vin and that Vin more than likely loved him back. All this time he'd been trying to put a name to this incredible bond they shared--when he wasn't blatantly denying it existed that is--and it was really so simple.

Except that it wasn't. They were men, after all, and male bonding was one thing. He knew all about male bonding. Hell, someone could write entire novels about the guy-to-guy crap that went on between the seven of them. But he and Vin were entirely different; there wasn't any guide or manual or self-help book to figure this one out for him.

He loved Vin. Was that so wrong?

+ + + + + + +

The nurse hovered somewhere just outside his line of sight, and Vin tried to swallow his disappointment along with the bile that sat deep in his throat. He was alive, and he was so certain he'd done it this time . . . gone past the point of no return. He wasn't suicidal, or he didn't think so anyway. But if he hadn't woken up at all, it would have been fine. Coward's way out maybe, but he couldn't imagine how he was going to face the rest of his life.

He'd have to pay his respects, offer his apologies to the dead woman's family, look a little girl in the eye and admit he'd killed her mother.

He'd have to cut Chris loose, too, now that he understood the truth about them. It would have been so much easier to just not wake up.

There was a doctor speaking in short, clipped tones to him, something about internal bleeding . . . something about how lucky he was. Vin got the impression the man wanted to substitute the word "stupid" for "lucky", and he wanted to tell him to go right ahead. It was more accurate, anyway.

Finally moving into his line of sight, the nurse asked, "There are six men waiting outside, but the doctor will only allow one visitor for tonight."

She waited then, and Vin knew he was expected to choose. He ached to see Chris. The searing fire in his gut was nothing compared to the horrendous weight in his heart. He wanted Chris to hold his eyes--to hold him--and tell him it was okay that he wasn't dead; that they'd figure out a way to make it bearable, to fix it.

But if Chris was ever to have a chance at a normal life again, he had to let him go . . . cut him loose.

His throat like sandpaper, Vin mumbled his answer, "Josiah."

+ + + + + + +

"Josiah?!" Buck bellowed. "Forget that. You go, Chris."

He felt five pairs of eyes on him, burning through him as he pinned his gaze to the floor. Josiah? The first person Vin wanted to see after coming out of surgery was Josiah? Well, fine then.

"He made his choice," Chris hoarsely returned.

"He don't know what he's sayin' . . ." Buck tried to argue.

But Josiah stepped in, coming close to Chris and forcing him to make eye contact. "Chris? What do you want?"

What did he want? He wanted to begin the whole damn day over, for starters. He wanted an innocent woman to be home baking cookies with her little girl. He wanted to be kicking back, sharing a beer with Vin, without questioning why or how spending time with Tanner had become so essential in his life. He wanted to know why Vin didn't want to be near him . . . and why it was Josiah, of all of them, that he'd chosen. And he wanted to know why part of him--a damn big part of him--was relieved that maybe he didn't have to work this thing out with Vin after all.

Hell, let Josiah handle it.

"I'm tired," Chris finally replied, and that was answer enough. Wordlessly, he held out his hand to Buck for his car keys, and left without looking back after Wilmington reluctantly dropped them in his palm.

He didn't remember the drive home; didn't remember walking to his bedroom, taking off his boots, collapsing on his bed still fully dressed. He wasn't fully cognizant of anything until the dawning sun crept through his blinds and hit him square in the eyes. He sat up then with a groan, pinching his nose as the remnants of the everlasting headache reappeared.

It was a like a bad dream - like the day before had never happened. For a few select moments anyway, until the phone rang.

"What?" he mumbled; to hell with manners.

It was Josiah. "They're coming to get Vin's statement later on this morning, Chris," Sanchez said, wasting no time getting to the point. "You should be here," he added.

Yeah, he should. Personal feelings aside, he was Vin's supervisor. He was also there when it happened, the only witness.

Even though he'd prepared himself all the way to the hospital, Chris had to take several deep breaths to keep tears from filling his eyes when he got his first look at Vin. No time to get emotional; Vin needed his strength, not his sympathy or compassion at the moment.

If he needed him at all . . .

Josiah sat at the bedside, his hand resting intimately on Vin's arm. Wait a minute, intimately? That was ridiculous . . . obviously he hadn't had enough sleep. Still, Vin's eyes were plastered on Josiah, intent on whatever the big man was softly saying to him. In fact, neither man noticed when Chris entered the room.

A few more steps, and Vin finally looked up, holding his eye for a brief moment before self-consciously lowering his gaze. Something there--in Vin's eyes--but he couldn't read it, and after all that happened, that was the deepest cut of all. What could he be hiding? And why?

Chris didn't know, but it was starting to piss him off. Vin playing head games with him? Not likely; it wasn't his style. But Tanner had barely talked to him after the accident, and then he'd run off, and then he'd chosen Josiah . . .

Clearing his throat to gain Josiah's attention, he moved forward and stood awkwardly at the foot of the bed.

"Hey, Chris," Josiah greeted him. "Glad you're here. Vin and I were just going over his statement."

Chris turned his gaze to Vin, studying his face. He looked like shit; bleached out and used up . . . pretty much like a man who'd accidentally killed a woman and then spent hours in the freezing rain, bleeding to death on the inside, should look. And now Chris was really pissed off. It was so damn unnecessary.

But he replied coolly, "Alright."

Vin bit his lip and winced, though Chris wasn't sure if it was because of the sudden tension between them or real pain.

Josiah caught it, leaning forward and putting his hand on Vin's shoulder as he said, "You can take something, Vin. It will be a few hours yet. There's no reason for you to hurt."

Chris snorted. He couldn't help it. Tanner walks around for hours with internal injuries, never saying a single word--even taking a nature hike in a monsoon--and Josiah thinks he'll swallow his goddamn pride for a little post-op pain? Right.

Vin shook his head--surprise, surprise--and Josiah leaned in closer. Josiah leaned in closer and Chris wanted to tell him to just get the hell out of Vin's face already.

"Vin, don't be stubborn," Sanchez advised.

And Chris lost it as he exploded, "Why the hell should he change now? Why start being logical or reasonable or giving a damn about himself?"

Dead silence, with Vin biting his lip again and picking the white off his sheets, until finally Josiah calmly said, "Let's take this out in the hall, Chris."

He bucked up a little when Larabee didn't immediately move, though, and he growled, "We're talking in the hall now."

Fine, Chris thought, but he didn't say a word as he followed Josiah out the door. Wrong day to pick a fight with him, but if that was what Sanchez wanted . . .

"What's going on?" Josiah demanded.

With a huff, Chris answered, "How would I know? I haven't been here all night."

Josiah gave an irritating, annoying, knowing nod . . . like he had it all figured out, and Chris really, really wanted to hurt him. "Oh . . . so this isn't about Vin at all. It's about your hurt feelings," Sanchez informed him.

No. Yes. Maybe . . .

"It's just . . . Vin and I . . . why wouldn't he want me to . . ?" Chris stammered, wondering if he looked as much like a geeky teenager as he felt.

"Why wouldn't he want you here with him?" Josiah supplied. "Well, I hate to tell you this, but it's obvious, Chris. It's written all over your face."

What? Did everyone know he loved Vin? Buck was one thing, but if Josiah knew, then they all knew. Which meant . . . did Vin know? No. Of course not. He was being ridiculous. Chris hardly knew himself . . . wasn't sure at all what he felt or what it meant, so there was no way the others could know.

"You're worried sick, and the last thing Vin can handle right now is worrying about you worrying about him," Josiah explained.

With a sigh of relief, Chris readily agreed. "You're right. I'll do better hiding my feelings from him."

With a satisfied nod, Josiah waved Chris back towards the room. "Good. We just have to be strong for Vin right now, and we'll get him through this."

Right . . . hide his feelings . . . be strong for Vin . . . no sweat.

+ + + + + + +

Vin felt about a half a step away from the grave, but it really was irrelevant in the scheme of things. The only thing that mattered was that Chris was acting weird and well, hurt, and of course that could only be blamed on Vin acting weird and hurtful.

He didn't think he could go through with it. Maybe later, after he'd learned to deal with what he'd done . . . he could let go of Chris then. Lean on him one more time, and that was all. Just one more time. Would that be so terrible? So wrong?

He knew the answer, but he didn't want to think about it and with Josiah trying to get his attention, he could put it off a while longer. Sanchez was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at him earnestly. "Chris has gone to get us some coffee," he said slowly, like Vin might be having trouble focusing.

He wasn't. Forget that he'd had major surgery along with an assortment of drugs, he was clear headed and of sound mind. Unfortunately. Obviously there would be no small favors granted this time; he'd get precisely what he deserved.

Josiah was talking again, his voice low and gentle, and Vin tried to care about what he was telling him. Sanchez had been his anchor for two days now, even though Vin had paid no attention to what he was saying most of the time. The words weren't important; he felt safe with Josiah, he trusted him. He trusted them all, but when he needed guidance, the older man came to mind first. Probably some sort of psychobabble shit behind that . . . father figure, maybe.

Not much chance the profiler could guide him through this, though. He'd screwed up big time, and no one could change it.

"I know it's hard to believe right now, Vin, but eventually you'll see that it truly was an accident," Josiah was saying, his words finally penetrating with the word 'accident'.

"Accident?" Vin choked. His voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere several blocks outside of his body, but maybe that was because it was the first real word he'd spoken since he woke up - it was amazing what could be communicated with a nod or shake of the head.

But no, that wasn't right; he had said one other word - he'd chosen Josiah.

"Yes, Vin. An accident. You were trying to do your job under extremely difficult circumstances. The rain, the poor roads, being shot at . . ."

"What?" Had he missed that small detail? The guy fired at them?

Josiah sighed like he'd been over this a hundred times. Before he could elaborate, Chris came back, balancing three cups of coffee in his hands.

"He can't have coffee, Chris."

"When has that ever stopped him before? He's not supposed to do a lot of things, but he does 'em anyway," Larabee argued.

"I thought we talked about this . . ." Josiah started in.

But Vin interrupted, "He shot at us? I don't remember that."

"One time, and it was so far off the mark, it wasn't even a threat," Chris replied.

Sanchez glared at Larabee like he was wondering exactly whose side the blond was on.

"The driving conditions were horrendous, Vin. The officer at the scene said it could have happened no matter what the circumstances; he didn't even consider pressing charges," Josiah reminded him.

Well of course he didn't. Vin was ATF . . . a fellow member of the law enforcement brotherhood. Not only that, the infamous Chris Larabee was at his side, in the actual goddamn car. And if that wasn't enough, Josiah made an imposing guardian all by himself. Vin was still suspended pending the investigation, but if they all had their way, he'd be off scot-free.

"And Chris told them you weren't driving that fast," Sanchez added.

Okay, that was going too far. Protecting him was fine - irritating at times, but well meant. But no one lied for him . . . not even Chris . . . especially not Chris. "You told them that, Larabee?"

Chris didn't say a word; just looked out the window like he wasn't in the same room, let alone the same conversation.

"How fast was I driving, huh Chris? You got any idea?" His voice rising, his heart pounding, and he hurt everywhere . . . just everywhere.

Chris turned to him then, and this time Vin didn't look away. "Yeah, Vin, I got an idea."

Josiah cleared his throat. "Obviously you two have some things to work out. I'm going to check on the little girl."

Vin waited until Sanchez left the room before he spoke again. "You lied for me."

An accusation, more than a question, that was rife with disappointment. If Chris gave up his integrity for him, what would be next? He couldn't bear to find out . . . couldn't let it happen. He should have ended it long ago, years ago, before he and Chris had gotten so attached to each other that they couldn't see straight or think straight.

"I didn't say that I lied," Chris said, neither admitting nor denying as deep lines furrowed his brow. "But I would if I needed to. I'd say whatever I had to to keep you from losing your job and from spending the rest of your life mired in guilt."

"I don't want you to lie for me ever. I don't want you to compromise yourself for me, Chris."

But even as he said the words, he knew it was too late. Chris had compromised everything for him already . . . walked away from his chance for a decent life and gotten stuck in this screwed up relationship with him.

Larabee seemed to be drawn to the bedside without even realizing it. The blond moved close and traced a single finger along Vin's arm; hesitantly, almost reverently - as if Vin was some fragile treasure that might shatter with his touch. Chris didn't look at him; instead he fixed his gaze on that small point of contact, as his finger stopped its slow journey to rest lightly on Vin's hand.

"I'd do anything for you," Chris murmured so faintly that Vin could barely make out the words. "God help me, I know it's not right . . . and I don't understand it . . . but I would."

Vin closed his eyes at the soft admission and tried to ignore the fierce aching in his chest.

Too late . . . he'd waited too long to put a stop to this. All because being with Chris felt so right and so good, and he was too selfish to give that up. Love was a rare occurrence in Vin's life, but he wasn't so naïve that he didn't recognize the emotion for what it was. Still, for a long time he'd convinced himself that there was nothing wrong with the way he felt. Chris was his best friend, after all.

But somewhere along the way, they'd both lost perspective . . . crossed the line without even knowing it.

+ + + + + + +

Chris couldn't believe he'd said it. In a moment of weakness, he'd upset the delicate balance they maintained. And Vin knew. Tanner's eyes were moist when he closed them; the terrible despair visible in every line of his face.

Now wasn't the time; Vin had enough to sort through . . . enough unfixable issues to last him a lifetime without Chris adding one more. He knew it was wrong to say what he said when he said it, but he couldn't deny it, couldn't lie to Vin anymore.

A nurse entered the room, took a long look at her patient, and shooed Larabee out. He heard her softly admonishing his friend about the pain meds, but Tanner didn't respond. Chris thought he didn't even open his eyes, and that was his fault - he'd forced Vin into hiding once again.

Josiah found him in the hall a few minutes later, and he raised an eyebrow in question. Chris responded with a word, "Nurse," and Sanchez nodded.

"The little girl's doing better. She may even go home tomorrow," Josiah said then. Not much relief or happiness in his tone, though, so now Chris was looking at him in question.

"It's not a good situation. Vin could be in for a long road . . . the young woman's family won't let this go."

Shaking his head, Chris spouted, "Of course not. Would you?"

"No, I wouldn't," Josiah answered honestly. Looking Chris in the eye, he lowered his voice and asked, "How fast was he going, Chris?"

"Too fast for the conditions . . . but not nearly as fast as he thinks."

Josiah studied him for a minute before shrugging. "I guess it doesn't matter. What's done is done. I just wish there was a way to find some comfort, some peace for that family. And for Vin."

Peace for Vin? Not in the foreseeable future, unless . . .

It was amazing how easily it came to him. Chris envisioned taking Vin home with him, quitting their jobs, starting up that horse ranch he'd been fantasizing about. No more endless investigations with unsatisfying conclusions . . . no more mountains of meaningless paperwork . . . no more gut wrenching, mind-blowing, heart-stopping fear every time Vin wound up in the line of fire - which was pretty much anytime and every time a case heated up.

And that was where he'd really screwed up, because it should never have been about Vin. All of his men mattered, every single one, every single time.

But Vin mattered more.

He mattered a lot more, judging by the way Larabees's gut cramped up when the detectives finally came to interview him. The injured sniper had kept his eyes closed the entire morning, convincing Josiah that he was asleep, but Chris knew better. Vin had closed up and turned off; as effectively concealed as when he'd sought cover behind a bush on Larabee's property.

Even when the inquiry began, Vin gave up as little of himself as possible. One word answers were the status quo, and thank goodness Chris was there throughout the entire incident to add the details that Vin couldn't--or wouldn't--divulge. By the time they were finished, it was difficult to determine which kind of ache was causing Vin more misery - physical or emotional. And Chris could say the same about himself; the headache having returned with a vengeance to equal the burning in his stomach.

It turned out the scumbag they were chasing had good reason to run after all--being wanted on some hefty charges in two other states--which helped Vin's case, if not his state of mind or his recovery. As it was, Vin grew increasingly pale, a fine sheen of sweat coating his skin as he struggled to keep his composure. After three hours, the two detectives left looking more apologetic than stern.

Piece of cake, from the department's standpoint, anyway. Slap Tanner with a suspension to make it look good; play up Vin's record along with the criminal's, and it would all go away as another tragic mishap in the line of duty.

After it was over, Chris left the room to call Buck and let him know how it went. He told Wilmington to pass the word that Tanner wasn't up for visitors. Maybe tomorrow, he'd said . . . maybe not, he'd thought, remembering how Vin turtled in.

When he went back to the room, Josiah was sitting at the side of the bed, lightly stroking Vin's hair and murmuring softly to him. Chris felt his jaw stiffen, his fists clenched at his side . . . it was amazing how quickly Sanchez had moved in on Tanner. How the hell had he missed it? And why the hell did it matter so much?

Josiah turned to him, putting a finger to his lips and whispering, "I think he's finally out this time."

Chris glared, knowing every emotion he was feeling at that moment was right out there, in plain sight, for Josiah to see. But he didn't care. He was too angry and sad and weary and hopelessly confused to hide it another minute.

Josiah caught on immediately that something was wrong - he wasn't their profiler for nothing. Rising stiffly, he faced Chris with a raised brow. "Chris?"

He couldn't speak. A thousand emotions raged within him as he turned his head away from Josiah to gaze at Vin. Even in sleep, pain shadowed his friend's features, and he moaned lightly. Chris yearned to take Vin in his arms and make it all better, or at the very least to soothe him like Josiah had. But even that small gesture would be too much now . . . now that he knew how it really was between them.

He wasn't even aware that Josiah had stepped closer until he felt a gentle touch on his arm. "Chris?"

Water-filled eyes turned towards Josiah, but he still couldn't find his voice to respond.

"Does he know?" Josiah asked softly.

Lowering his gaze, Chris swallowed and said, "There's nothing to know."

"Chris . . ."

"Besides, you're the one who can't keep his hands off him . . . you're the one he's asking for."

Good God, his tongue was betraying him at every turn. For a man who only said precisely what he wanted to--which wasn't much--he couldn't seem to keep his damn mouth shut.

Josiah gripped his shoulder firmly this time, waiting until Chris met his eyes again before replying, "It's not like that with me and Vin. Never was and never will be. I love him . . . but not in the way you do."

And before Chris could even take in what he'd said, let alone deny it, Sanchez was out the door.

Vin groaned a little louder this time and tossed restlessly in the bed. It was natural to go to him--old habits die hard--and before he knew it, he was on the edge of the bed, holding Vin's hand as he murmured, "It's alright now. It's okay."

He wanted to lie down next to him; to cover every inch of his friend and shelter him from all the hurt and pain that lay in wait for him . . . blow that fine line between them to hell.

Would it be so wrong?

But he didn't. The nurse came back and he quickly broke contact, shifting to the chair at the bedside and immediately falling back into place. It was okay . . . nothing done that couldn't be undone . . . no lines crossed . . . yet.

+ + + + + + +

He was sick. Vin could feel the fever burning hot behind his eyes and beneath his skin. To add to his misery, the nurse was prodding him; making him breathe and turn and sit up, and he decided she'd aced the class, Torture 101, in nursing school.

His doctor was mad . . . madder. He didn't mince words this time, pretty much flat out saying Vin was an idiot for running around in the rain with internal injuries, and he wasn't going to have a choice about taking his pain meds.

It didn't matter. He just wanted to be left alone.

And apparently he'd gotten his message across, because he woke up in the middle of the night completely alone. He missed Chris so much at that moment that he couldn't catch his breath, and he had to bite his lip to hold back tears.

It was amazing how quickly he'd managed to create a gulf between him and Larabee. After years of being hopelessly attached, the line was severed in a matter of days. And Vin felt like a weepy teenage girl mourning her first love.

Which was exactly why it had to be this way. It had to be this way. What hope would they have otherwise? What kind of future? What kind of life?

Well, Vin knew the answer to that: he'd have more of a life than he could ever have imagined or hoped for. A better life than he'd ever dreamed of. The last three years were all the proof he needed of that.

But it wasn't the same for Chris. Chris had a normal life once--a good life--and he deserved to find that again.

For Vin, the old saying 'you can't miss what you never had' held true. He hadn't had a 'normal' life from the time he'd been born, and there wasn't much point in starting now. He could easily go on being Larabee's best friend and sidekick forever. He didn't need anything more.

Or did he? Maybe he was fooling himself. Ever since the accident, all he wanted was for Chris to wrap his arms around him, hold him, cover every single inch of him until they were one person. Was that so abnormal? So wrong?

Of course it was, especially because if he was totally honest, it was the intimacy that he craved most of all.

It was all so damn confusing; apparently he'd crossed so far over the line that he couldn't even remember where it was.

+ + + + + + +

Chris slipped into the room silently just past dawn. The night nurse said Vin had a rough night, but the antibiotics appeared to be working. The doctor might even release him in a few days, unless he chose to keep him longer out of spite for Tanner's poor judgment.

He wondered if Vin would choose to go home with Josiah.

The funeral would be held later that day. Josiah and Nathan, along with Travis, would represent them. Chris couldn't decide whether or not to fill Vin in or let it lie. Nothing Tanner could do from his hospital bed, but still he'd probably like to know.

He hadn't quite decided what he'd do when Vin moaned softly and Chris instinctively drew closer, leaning forward in the chair by the bed. Blue eyes opened slowly, unfocused at first until they were pulled to Larabee's green gaze as if by some magnetic force. It was all there: relief, regret . . . longing. Only moments passed before Vin swallowed and closed his eyes once more, but it was long enough for Chris to see and to know.

Vin loved him.

The only surprise was that he had been so blatantly blind and stupid for the last two days. He'd been jealous of Josiah . . . angry at Vin. He should have known better. Not only was Vin dealing with the consequences of the accident, he was trying to come to terms with feelings that he didn't understand any more than Chris did. He had to be as hopelessly confused and frightened as Chris was, maybe more so.

And knowing Tanner, there was more. Vin pulling away could only mean he'd come to the conclusion that this situation, this relationship, couldn't be right for Chris. Of course Vin would look at it that way; what Tanner wanted for himself wouldn't even enter his mind. It all came together then: the two of them struggling with their emotions, trying to reason it all away, afraid to touch each other but dying to do just that.

It was a recipe for disaster. Forget the fact that they were two men . . . they were best friends and worst of all, co-workers. Vin was his subordinate, for God's sake. Screw this up and they could lose everything that meant anything to both of them . . . their friendship, their jobs, their lives in a worst case scenario.

But get it right, and it could be the best thing that ever happened to them.

"Mr. Larabee? You have a call," a nurse said, interrupting his musings.

He figured it was Buck, and he was right. Wilmington was calling to say he and JD were stopping by on their way to the office. Chris took the call at the desk, lowering his voice a bit when he responded, "Don't come today, Buck."

"But Chris, we haven't even seen him since . . ."

"Not today, Buck. It's not a good time." He hoped Buck would buy that, but wasn't surprised when he didn't.

"What's wrong? Is he worse?"

"No. He's just got a lot to deal with and you know how he is . . . he needs . . . space."

"Uh-huh. Yeah. Well, that's shit and you know it. We haven't even gotten to tell him we support him - that we're here for him."

"You'll get your chance. This isn't going away any time soon."

"Chris . . ."

"We have some things to sort out between us, Buck," Chris said firmly, hoping his old friend could read between the lines.

"Oh. Well why didn't you say so? Alright, we'll wait. But only until tomorrow, Chris. You're not the only one who loves him."

Having no idea how to respond to that loaded statement, Chris mumbled, "Right," and hung up.

Vin was awake again by the time he got back to the room. He was obviously miserable, but he bucked up and tried to hide it the second he noted Larabee's presence.

"You don't have t' stay," he mumbled, his gaze flitting nervously from Chris to the door.

Chris wondered how they'd gotten to this point - dancing around each other like a couple of raw kids.

"I know," Chris returned. "But I'd like to stay, if you don't mind." Throwing the ball back in Tanner's court . . .

Vin studied him for a moment, then sighed and said, "Suit yourself."

Awkward silence ensued, until Chris finally cleared his throat and said softly, "Her funeral is today, Vin."

Decision made . . . and he was already regretting it when he saw the look of agony that shadowed Vin's features. What was he thinking? He could have saved this until Tanner was feeling better; maybe not brought it up at all. He was a master at avoidance, after all.

"I should be there," Vin whispered, brushing away the tears that had formed in record time.

"You would be if you could be," Chris replied gently. "Josiah and Nathan will go - they'll know what to say."

Vin shook his head. "What to say? What the hell is there to say? You think a few fancy words can make this right?"

"No. No, of course not, Vin. But I think . . ."

He never finished it. He couldn't even speak as he watched Vin literally crumble before him. Tanner gingerly curled up on his side, and Chris could hear him struggling to catch his breath as nearly silent sobs wracked his body.

And really, what could he have done but go to him? Might have been wrong . . . but more wrong not to.

He lay down on the bed next to Vin, spooning up behind him and wrapping his arms around his friend as tightly as he could without hurting him. Covering every inch, and it felt natural, miles away from wrong. Resting his head on Vin's, he murmured calmly in his ear, "Shhh . . . it's alright."

He felt Vin shudder beneath, heard him draw in a sharp breath as he choked, "What . . . what are we gonna do?"

Somehow Chris knew they were no longer speaking about the dead woman, but the answer was the same, "I don't know. But we'll figure it out together."

+ + + + + + +

He was heading for a meltdown. Vin felt it coming . . . creeping up from the inside and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't hold it back forever. Then Chris brought up the funeral and there was no turning back.

He didn't cry often, and it had nothing to do with him being a man. Buck had told him all about that 'women are from Venus and men are from Mars' shit and he didn't buy a word of it. He didn't like lumping people together in categories like that; everyone had their own way of dealing with life and it didn't much matter what sex they were.

And Vin's way of dealing was to not cry. Hell, he'd have spent most of his childhood blowing his nose if he let every little thing reduce him to tears.

But this . . . this was just too much.

The funeral played out in his mind like he was watching it on a motion picture screen; tears, sadness, the unbearable emptiness and aching loss of a life taken too soon for no good reason . . . a motherless child. And no matter how he tried to reason it--or how the others chose to color it--it was his fault, his responsibility.

The endless ache in his middle exploded as he tried to hold back the wrenching sobs that threatened to completely undo him. He folded up, out of pain and grief and his innate need to hide away and disappear.

When he first felt the strong arms wrap around him, completely enveloping him, he thought he was imagining it. He'd longed for it for so long that he thought it couldn't be real. But then he felt Chris breathe into his ear, soft words that he couldn't quite catch, and he knew it was true. Chris was holding him.

They'd crossed the line.

What were they going to do now?

He must have asked the question out loud, because Chris responded that they'd work it out together. And somehow Vin knew that Chris knew he wasn't talking about the poor woman he'd killed.

Vin didn't know how long they stayed that way, but it must have been long enough for someone to come in the room. He had his eyes closed, still trying to come to grips with the emotions eating him whole, when he heard Chris clearly say, "Not now," in what Vin affectionately referred to as his "gunslinger tone." Larabee was like that sometimes, like a relic from an old Clint Eastwood movie . . . the way he moved, the way he didn't talk.

Vin wondered what it meant that apparently Chris didn't care that he'd been caught lying in bed with his best friend.

But no, that wasn't so. He knew exactly what it meant.

And as he finally caught his breath and gradually relaxed into the arms that still held him, he wasn't surprised at all when Chris cleared his throat and said, "Might be good if we went away for awhile. Work some things out."

He paused a minute, and Vin guessed he was waiting for him to protest. When he didn't, Larabee continued, "We could go up to that cabin you like so much. Just . . . you know . . . get our bearings."

Vin shifted a little so he could turn his head and look Chris in the eye. "Might get lost up there, Chris. Might go down a road we got no way back from."

Go so far over that line that it would disappear forever . . .

Chris agreed. "Might. Might not want t' come back."

Might not, at that.

They were two screwed up men, alright. If men really were from Mars, he and Chris must be from Pluto. But maybe it didn't matter.

Josiah had said once that Vin and Chris were two halves of one soul. Larabee had called him a "sentimental old fool" at the time, but Vin had kind of liked the sound of it.

And if it was true what Josiah said, well then crossing the line might not be so wrong after all . . . it might be exactly what they were meant to do.

+ + + + + + +

Two weeks later and Vin was still moving slower than Chris liked. But he wasn't going to keep him from this much longer; they may as well get it over with. Besides, Vin wouldn't think of leaving town with this hanging over his head, and Chris couldn't blame him.

The walk up to the house was interminably long, so Chris kept his hand on Vin's arm the entire way. Touching was no longer an issue for them, although not touching could soon be. He banished that thought from his head; now wasn't the time.

Vin was having a difficult enough time accepting that something good could come out of the tragedy as it was (so maybe God did pull the right strings once in awhile). Tanner would manage to talk himself out of happiness yet, if Chris let him get away with it - which he wouldn't. Might take him awhile to get the lay of things, but once he did, they didn't call him stubborn for nothing.

Chris rang the doorbell, Vin having frozen solid at his side. A nice looking young man answered, but he didn't say hello or invite them in. He knew they were coming; had reluctantly agreed to giving Vin a few minutes to speak his peace.

A little girl played on the floor behind him, oblivious to the men at the door. She looked healthy, happy enough with the miniature tea set that held her attention. Chris noted that Vin was watching her, too - couldn't keep his eyes off her.

No one spoke, and it suddenly dawned on Chris that no one would, unless he started it off. "Mr. Matthews? I'm Chris Larabee and this is Vin Tanner. We've come to offer our condolences for the death of you wife. We are truly sorry for what happened."

Matthews nodded solemnly, but still said nothing, while Vin kept his eyes glued to the child. So alright, they may as well go . . . nothing more to be said. Chris gripped Vin's arm tighter and turned to leave, but Tanner stopped him.

"No, wait," he said, finally turning his gaze to the young father. "I have t' . . . I have t' tell you that I never . . . I never meant t' hurt no one. I wouldn't . . ." Vin paused, looked down and bit his lip; fighting back tears - Chris knew that move well.

After a moment, he shored up and continued, "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry for you and for your daughter. I wish I could make it right. I wish I could change it and fix it. I wish it had been me."

Chris saw the shell crack on the man in front of him; saw him holding back his own tears as he looked Vin in the eye and said, "I'm sure you do. And I have to be honest and say that I wish it had been you, too. But it wasn't you, and we both have to live with that."

The odd man out in the conversation, Chris couldn't help thinking, 'thank God it wasn't you'. He'd be completely devastated if it had been Vin . . . a mirror of the man that stood in front of them.

He thought it was over then, but just as Vin nodded and turned to leave, Matthews spoke up again. "Mr. Tanner? I've heard about you - what kind of man you are. I believe that you're sorry for what happened, and I don't believe it was intentional. I can't say that I'm ready to make peace with this yet, but I'm working on it."

That was the best they were going to get, and far better than Chris had hoped for. It wasn't over, not by a long shot, but the first step was the hardest.

Vin pretty much collapsed when they got back in the car. He butted up against the window and laid his head back with a deep sigh. Chris didn't say anything as he turned the key and started towards home.

They were halfway back to the ranch when Vin quietly rasped, "I reckon we could head on up t' that cabin any time now. That is, if you still wanna go," he added hesitantly.

Chris glanced over at him and smiled, "Bag's packed, Vin. We can leave tonight."

Tanner only nodded and remained silent.

But minutes later, Vin reached for his hand and gently caressed his knuckles with his thumb. It was a small gesture, yet sweetly intimate, and Chris had a hard time keeping his eyes on the road and his other hand on the wheel.

Yeah, they were definitely heading down a new road for both of them. It took a tragic accident for them to see that crossing the line wasn't so difficult after all. In fact, lines were just imaginary boundaries and rules made up by people to impose their own ideas and beliefs on others. Venus, Mars--no matter what planet a person hailed from--everyone was stuck here on earth and the only thing that mattered (as hopelessly corny as it sounded) was love.

He loved Vin. And Vin loved him back.

How could that be wrong?

The End


"So if we don't got a normal past . . . or a chance for a normal future . . . then, what have we got?"

"Each other. We got each other, Vin."