Chris stood at his office window and watched through a slit in the closed blinds as Vin weaved his way to the break room, followed a few moments later by Buck. He had seen Nathan go in there earlier, and hoped Vin was going to let the medic look him over. He could count on Nathan bullying Tanner into going home, where he belonged.

He turned sharply away from the window and began pacing, furious and disgusted with himself. Goddamn it, he was relying on Nathan to do what he as team leader should have done. What he as Vin's friend should have done...

He gave a harsh, choked laugh and went to his desk, sinking wearily into his chair and dropping his head into his hands. Vin's friend. Christ, now there was a joke!

He sat hunched over his desk, shoulders bowed, his soul writhing in agony. Jesus, what kind of man tortured another, tortured a "friend," for things that were not his fault? It wasn't Vin's fault that the legendary Larabee control was gone, that Chris could no longer rein in his unruly feelings. The man had committed no crime, no sin...

Except to make Chris Larabee fall in love with him.

A hoarse, wrenching groan of anguish rose from Chris' soul and tore from his lips at that, and he fell back in his chair. Oh, God, oh, merciful, fuckin' God, how could this be?

He flung himself from his chair and resumed his agitated pacing, his heart and soul in chaos. He'd been married for Christ's sake, to a woman! He'd had a son! Jesus, how the hell could he be in love with a man?

No, not just "a man." Not just any man. But Vin. The only man he'd ever longed for so desperately he could no longer sleep at night.

Jesus Christ Almighty fuckin' God, he was in love with his team's sharpshooter, a former bounty hunter, a former Army Ranger and sniper, a former street urchin, a former God-knew-what-all...

And none of the "what all" mattered a bit, because Chris Larabee loved him -- loved him -- as he'd only loved one other person in his life.

<<Oh, shit, please, somebody tell me I'm losin' my mind! Insanity would be a helluva lot easier to deal with than this!>>

He sighed heavily and raked shaking hands through his hair. He wasn't insane, he knew it. He was just in love with Vin.

He went with heavy steps back to his desk and dropped once more into his chair, turning around in it to stare blindly out the window to the city beyond. Vin. Images of the young man rose with agonizing clarity before him. Vin relaxed, at peace, happy, those impossibly deep and impossibly blue eyes shining, that beautiful mouth curving into that familiar lopsided grin, his lean body slouched easily in his chair, long denim-clad legs stretched out before him...

Vin serious, thoughtful, forehead furrowed beneath the curling fringe of hair, level brows drawn down over intent blue eyes, full lips pursed, beautifully square jaw set firmly...

Vin angry, lightning flashing in blazing eyes, mouth tightly compressed, teeth clenched hard, the slim body taut with a barely suppressed rage...

Oh, God, he knew them all -- every expression, every gesture, every mood, every emotion that flared in the bottomless blue pools of his eyes. Knew them all, treasured them all...

Loved them all. Just as he knew and loved the gravelly drawl of his voice, the silken sheen of his long hair, the scent of soap and leather and the fresh outdoors that hung on him like cologne. Just as he knew and loved the strength and warmth of the long-fingered hand that gripped his forearm in the only handshake they'd ever used...

Oh, God, he felt it again, the treacherous longing to have still more of Vin's warmth and strength against him, to know the heat of that lean, supple body pressing tightly to his, to know the taste of that sweet mouth as he knew its shape and every expression, to feel the silken strands of the long brown hair slipping through his fingers, to lose himself in Vin...

And find himself in Vin...

To make love to Vin.

He bowed his head and closed his eyes. Jesus Christ, when had it come to this?

<<It's always been like this.>>

He threw back his head and opened his eyes to stare up at the ceiling, hating the goddamn voice that had taken up residence in his head. Fuckin' voice was a goddamn nuisance...

Fuckin' voice was right.

He scrubbed a hand over his face, then ran it through his hair. For so long he'd told himself it was friendship, though from the first it had gone much deeper than that. The moment they'd locked with his, those incredible blue eyes had laid him bare, seen him for what he was and accepted it, welcomed it, had taken him in his entirety and assured him it was enough. In an instant, he'd been known through and through, and had been astounded by the perfect familiarity of it.

Because, in that same instant, he'd known Vin, and had known they'd always known each other this way. Had known they'd done this before and would do it again, because they were not meant to be apart. They were two halves of the same soul destined always to find each other, destined always to be together.

Except this time he'd fucked up destiny. But good.

He'd spent the past two weeks tearing strips from Vin's soul because he couldn't handle the fact that he was in love with him. That he wanted him. Because he was afraid of what that love, that want, made him. And because he was afraid of what would happen if Vin didn't share that love, that want.

He exhaled heavily and closed his eyes, his face lined with the same torment that churned in his soul. Vin's friendship -- constant, undemanding, unconditional, unequivocal -- had come to mean so much to him, had become the rock that anchored his life, his sanity. That friendship had saved him, had pulled him back into the world of the living and restored warmth and life to his shattered soul. And if he lost it, if Vin withdrew it out of anger or disgust at Chris's feelings...

<<Yeah, much better to make him hate you for treatin' him like shit than for lovin' him. Much braver this way, cowboy.>>

Jesus, he really hated that fuckin' voice.

He grimaced as self-loathing roiled through him. God, Vin deserved so much better! After all the shit he'd gone through in his life, after all the pain and neglect and abuse he'd suffered at countless hands already, he deserved so much more from the man who called himself his friend. He deserved...

Buck stormed into the office then, all but ripping the door off its hinges before him and slamming it savagely behind him. "Get up, damn you!" he snarled to the man in the chair, his big frame taut with a dangerous rage. "Get up so I can beat your fuckin' head in!"

Chris swiveled slowly to face him, his day now complete. "Mornin', Buck," he greeted quietly, tiredly. "That knockin'-before-enterin' thing is comin' along real well, I see."

"Shut up, Chris!" Buck hissed, advancing menacingly toward his boss, his friend. "Goddamn it, I thought you'd changed! I thought you'd finally grown a heart. But, hell," he spat contemptuously, fixing his glittering blue gaze upon Larabee, "I guess I was wrong! You're still the same heartless, inhuman son of a bitch you were a year ago... Shit, worse! At least a year ago you were only trying to destroy yourself. Now, for some reason, you've decided ta take Vin down with you. And that, old pard, is where I draw the line!" He stepped forward and leaned over Larabee's desk, setting big hands upon it and staring at the man before him. "I don't much care what you do to yourself anymore, Chris," he ground out through clenched teeth. "You're a big boy. You wanta live like this, fine. I'm through tryin' ta protect you from yourself. But when you start gougin' holes in Vin's soul, when you start usin' that boy's heart for target practice, then that's when we're gonna tangle! Right now, despite everything he's been through in his life, despite all the shit he's had ta swim through ta get ta where he is, he's one of the finest men you or I will ever know, and I'll be goddamned if I'll just stand by and do nothing while you break him into pieces!"

If he expected Chris to erupt into anger, to explode into the black rage for which he was known, he was to be surprised. Chris merely closed his eyes and bowed his head, his strong shoulders slumping as if a crushing weight had suddenly fallen upon them. All at once, he looked much older, felt much older, than his forty years.

"God, Buck," he groaned, his voice made rough by pain, "I've fucked up so bad! I've probably destroyed the best thing that's happened to me since Sarah and Adam died, and all because I'm afraid." He swallowed hard, his throat tight, his soul aching. "It'd serve me right if Vin came in here right now and beat the hell outta me or shot me. Hell, it'd serve me right if he hated me and never forgave me for what I've done!"

"But he won't, and we both know it," Buck said quietly, bitterly. "You could stick a knife in that boy's heart, and he'd forgive you with his dyin' breath. Hell, you've done that, and he's still defendin' you ta me! You don't deserve him," he spat contemptuously.

"No," Chris sighed, "I don't. But that don't stop me from wantin' him--" He broke off suddenly and bowed his head, groaning aloud in anguish. "God, Buck, what'm I gonna do?"

Buck straightened and stared at him in confusion, utterly bewildered by Chris's words, by his obvious torment. He frowned deeply and ran a hand over his mouth, smoothing his mustache, and tried to figure out just what the hell was going on.

"Help me out here, pard," he said at last. "I feel like I'm swimmin' in quicksand." He stared at Chris, frowning. "You wanta tell me what this is all about?"

Chris almost laughed aloud at that. <<Yeah, sure, Buck. I'm in love with Vin and I've gotta figure out a way ta tell him.>> Jesus, wouldn't that go over well? Would Mr. Smooth have an answer for that one? Would the ATF's own Don Juan understand what it was like to lie awake nights aching with need for a certain long-haired sharpshooter who did things for jeans Levi Strauss had never intended, with a want that was so deep, so all-consuming he could barely breathe because of it?

How could he tell Buck about the love that had first saved his life, and then rent it asunder? That nothing in his world had been right until Vin had come along, and would never be right again without him?

He did laugh then, a miserable, groaning laugh, and closed his eyes tightly and dropped his head into a hand. "I wish I could," he rasped at last.

More confused than ever, Buck stepped back, sought the chair with his foot and lowered himself into it, staring at Chris in bewildered compassion. He had seen the anguish in the green eyes, could see it in the lined, exhausted face and stooped, defeated posture. The man's weary hopelessness reminded him so much of what he'd just seen in Vin that he suddenly believed the two actually could feel each other's pain.


"What'm I gonna do, Buck?" Chris whispered again, raising his head to gaze in torment at his oldest friend. "I don't wanta lose him. I can't lose him! I just... got scared... Tell me how to fix this."

Buck stared at him in complete helplessness. Fix what? And how? Shit, if Chris, who knew Vin better than any man alive, didn't know how to repair whatever had gone wrong between them, then how could he, who didn't have a fuckin' clue to what was goin' on, hope to help?

But, Jesus, he had to do something! The pain -- no, the agony -- in Chris's eyes, the raw torment that poured from him and bowed his whole body, was too much for Buck to bear in silence. Two of the men he cared most about in this world were locked away inside prisons of unspeakable pain, dying a little more each moment. And Buck had seen too many friends die already to let these go as well.

"You gotta make it right with him, Chris," he said softly, gently. "Whatever it is that's got you runnin' scared, you have to get it out, you have ta tell him. You gotta be honest with him, pard. Junior deserves that. Hell, he needs that!" He stared intently at Chris. "You know as well as I do that Vin can take most anything, so long as he sees it comin'. He can take the worst you have to give, so long as you give it to him up front and straight out. It's just these nasty little surprises, these daggers in the back and ambushes from friends, that knock him off his feet and drain the life from his soul."

Chris caught the rebuke in Buck's last words; the big man could accept a lot of things, but cruelty had never been one of them. "You takin' on the job of his guardian angel now?" he asked.

Buck returned his gaze evenly, soberly. "Figure he needs one right about now," he said quietly. He crossed his arms against his chest and stretched his long legs out before him, crossing them at the ankles. "Just in case you been too busy sharpenin' your knives to pay attention to us peons, let me update you on how things stand. You got five of the best ATF agents in the country ready to get up and walk because you been treatin' us all like shit for two weeks solid, drivin' us like cattle ta market and rakin' us with that barbed spur you call a tongue. And you've damn near killed your sharpshooter. He's burnin' up with fever, he's coughin' like a goddamn consumptive and can barely breathe for all the shit cloggin' his lungs. He ain't eatin', and he for damn sure ain't sleepin'. And y'know why? Other than because his best friend's been whippin' his soul raw on a daily -- hell, hourly -- basis? Because the heat in that hellhole apartment building of his has been out since Tuesday. Tuesday, Chris! And he ain't said a word ta nobody. Just dragged his sick, sorry ass up here and sat down at his desk and tried ta do work he's got no business doin', and dyin' a little more each day because the one man on this earth he's put his whole trust in hasn't even had the basic, common decency to ask how he's feelin' or ta stop kickin' him when he's down. Damn straight, I'm his guardian angel, pard," he rapped out curtly. "And if you don't make this right between you two, or if you fuck it up any worse than you already have, then I'm comin' after you with all the wrath of heaven and hell combined. You got that?"

Chris swallowed hard and nodded, taken aback by Buck's words. "I'll try--"

"That ain't good enough," Buck interrupted coldly. "Can't be no `tryin',' Chris. You either do it, or don't. Junior needs you. But not if you're gonna be just one more bastard who breaks his heart and convinces him he ain't worth shit. He's right back where he was when he came to us, Chris -- he don't want us near him, he don't want us touchin' him, he won't talk to us or look at us, and he flinches every time somebody raises a hand around him. He's this far, this far," he raised a thumb and forefinger and held them almost together, "from slippin' outta here and runnin' as fast and as far from us as he can. And you're the only one who can stop him." He leaned forward in his chair, drilling Chris with a merciless stare. "You're gonna make this right," he said in a low, fierce voice. "You're gonna put the pieces of that boy's heart and soul back together, and you're gonna bring him back to us. And, let's face it, pard, after all he's done for you, after all he's taken from you, that's the very fuckin' least you can do for him."

"You think he'll let me?" Chris whispered hoarsely.

"Jesus fuckin' Christ!" Buck shouted, leaping to his feet. "Ain't you heard a goddamn word I've said?" He went to Larabee's desk and leaned on it with one hand, pointing with the other to the office outside. "Vin Tanner's out there dyin' because he thinks you don't give a shit!" he thundered, infuriated by Chris's blindness. "Let you? Fuck, Chris, he needs you! He will literally die if you don't do somethin' soon! He's survived a lotta hurt at way too many hands, but he'll never survive it at yours! But," he straightened, still impaling the obviously shaken Larabee with his glare, "it's not gonna be easy. You're gonna have ta fight for him. When you broke his heart, you broke his trust. And now you're gonna have to rebuild it. And we both know that buildin' trust in Vin ain't no easy thing." He narrowed his eyes. "You've just gotta decide whether you think he's worth the effort."

Chris sighed heavily and met Buck's stare without anger, without bitterness, without resentment. "He is," he said softly, simply, the truth of it in his eyes.

Buck saw it, and nodded. "Good. Then best you start now. We've been tryin' ta find someplace he can stay until his landlord decides ta fix that damn boiler, but Junior ain't bein' real cooperative. Won't agree to stay with any of us, won't go to Nettie's, won't even hear of a hotel. Says he just wants ta go home where he belongs. Says he's got a couple of space heaters--"

"Fuck that," Chris said quietly, rising from his chair. The familiar determination stiffened his spine, squared his shoulders and fired his eyes. "He's not goin' back there, and he's not goin' anywhere alone. He needs to be warm, he needs to eat, he needs to be taken care of. And he needs to be where I can take care of him." He lifted his chin and stared defiantly at Buck, daring the big man to argue. "I'll be takin' him to a doctor, then out to the ranch. We've got a lotta things to get settled between us, but first I've gotta get him well."


Nathan knelt before Vin and tried to get a glass of juice and two Tylenol tablets down him, to no avail. The sharpshooter wasn't fighting, he simply wasn't actively cooperating. He wasn't doing anything, except sitting cross-legged on the small couch, his head bowed, his hands in his lap. It was as if he hadn't the strength to do more than hold himself upright.

"Come on, Vin," Nathan urged gently, holding out the cup and pills. "I know it hurts to swallow, but you gotta take these. You got a fever and you're dehydrated. You need some fluids in you."

Vin just sat there in silence, unable to see why it mattered. Why anything mattered. Lord God, why couldn't they just leave him be? Didn't they know? Couldn't they see? For some reason, Chris had turned on him, no longer wanted him in his life and was doing all he could to make that perfectly, painfully clear. The sickness and pain he felt had nothing to do with his head, his throat, his chest. It was all in his heart, his soul. And there wasn't a goddamn pill in the world that could help that.

Nathan wanted to reach out to Vin, to offer the comfort of his touch, but he had no idea how Tanner would react. He had allowed Josiah to drape a blanket about him, but no more. Right now, he looked as if even the gentlest touch, an unexpected sound, would shatter him completely.

"Jesus, Vin, I wish I knew how to help you," the medic breathed, his heart aching for the man. "But all I got is words, and while I mean every damn one, I also know they don't have a bit of healin' in 'em. I wish I could do somethin', but we both know I can't."

"Don't matter none," Vin croaked softly, his broken voice as hollow as his eyes. "Shoulda known it was comin'. I jist fergot I ain't allowed some things."

Nathan's heart broke, and, without thinking, he set the juice down and laid his big, gentle hand on Vin's knee. Tanner stiffened beneath the touch, but didn't pull away, and Nathan let his hand rest where it lay. God, how could Vin say that? How could he believe he wasn't allowed friendship, happiness? And how could Chris Larabee live with himself for putting Vin through this?

"I'll be all right," Vin wheezed, closing his eyes and bowing his head lower. "I'm always all right."

Nathan sighed heavily and patted Vin's knee, then rose to his feet. Catching Josiah's deep sorrowful gaze with his own, he shook his head sadly and went to the counter, setting the cup and pills down upon it. Sanchez followed, though his gaze never left Vin.

"If he don't let us help him," Nathan said softly, worriedly, "he's gonna end up in the hospital. Although," he ran a hand over the back of his neck, "that might be the best place for him right now. At least there he'd get the care he needs."

"No, he wouldn't," Josiah contradicted quietly. "Not the care he really needs. Modern medicine's a wonderful thing, but you know as well as I that the best doctor in the world can't cure a broken soul."

"Then I still say we should call Nettie," Nathan insisted yet again. "If anybody can make him see reason, it'll be her. We could take him to her--"

"You honestly think he'd stay?" Josiah regarded the fretting medic sadly. "Even if we got him there without a fight -- which I'm just not sure we could -- do you honestly think she'd be able to keep him there against his will? As sick as he is, he'd still slip out the first chance he got, and then just slip away."

Jackson exhaled sharply and ran a hand over his face, frustration and anger mingling with his sorrow. "Damn it, Josiah, we gotta do somethin'! He's sick, he's sufferin', he needs help! And I can't in good conscience just stand here and do nothin'! And I ain't about ta let him go back ta that deep-freeze of an apartment. Hell, I might as well put a gun to his head and shoot him! He needs ta be warm, he needs ta eat, and he needs somebody with him. He ain't takin' care of himself, and he needs somebody with him who will."

Josiah nodded, knowing it was true. If Vin didn't have someone with him, he'd simply slip away. Or die. "Let me try again," he sighed. "My place is big enough that he won't feel crowded and quiet enough that he can rest. And you're close in case we need you."

When Nathan agreed, Josiah went back to Vin and sat beside him on the couch, careful not to touch him unexpectedly. The younger man never moved, never looked up. But Josiah could clearly see his exhaustion, could hear the rattle and wheeze of his breathing, and wondered why he didn't just lay down.

"Let me take you to my place, brother," he said softly, keeping his deep voice low and even. "You can rest, eat, get your strength back. It's quiet, and I won't crowd you, I promise. But I'll be around if you need me."

"Don't need nobody," Vin croaked weakly, his voice barely audible. "Don't want nobody. Jist wanta go home."

Josiah sighed and shook his head. "We've been through this, brother. You're sick. You need--"

"Don't need nobody," Vin said again. "I kin take care'a m'self. Bin doin' it near all my life--"

"But you ain't doin' it now, cowboy."

Nathan turned around sharply and Josiah rose to his feet as Chris came into the room with Buck. Only Vin didn't react.

Chris started toward the couch, only to have Jackson and Sanchez step between him and it, between him and Vin. He stopped, but said nothing, knowing he couldn't blame them for their actions.

"Don't you think you've done enough to him already?" Nathan spat, glaring at Larabee. "Half the reason he's in this shape is because of you--"

"No," Chris countered softly, sadly, "The only reason he's in this shape is because of me." He gazed steadily at the two big men protecting Vin, easily able to feel their anger and knowing he deserved it. "I could say I've been a gold-plated bastard toward Vin, but we all know that wouldn't even begin to cover what I've done."

"Indeed, it would not, Mr. Larabee," Ezra drawled coldly as he and JD joined the gathering. "In fact, I'm not at all certain there are words vile enough to describe your inexcusable behavior toward Vin." His green eyes glittered with contempt and fury. "All he has ever asked of you is friendship, yet he's given you so much more. My God, he's given you his whole trust, and we all know how rare and precious a gift that is." His mouth curled into a sneer. "And you've repaid him by shredding his soul. No, Mr. Larabee, `bastard' doesn't begin to describe you just now!"

Chris winced and bowed his head, shoving his hands into his pockets. "You're right," he agreed softly. "I've fucked up worse than I have in a long time." Pain filled him as he realized how badly he had let them all down. "I know it's not enough, but I'm sorrier than I can say."

"I figure Vin's the one you oughtta start with," JD said, his expressive eyes showing his deep disappointment in his hero. "He's the one you've hurt most of all."

"I know that, JD," Chris said quietly, raising his head and gazing about at all his men. "And, like I told Buck, I'm gonna do all I can to set things right between us. If," he said more loudly, trying to get Vin's attention, "you'll let me?"

Vin never moved, never spoke, merely closed his eyes. With everything that was in him he longed for Chris, and with everything that was in him he hated himself for that longing. In Chris's hands it had become a weapon to be turned on him, used against him. He loved Chris so, and knew that love made him weak. Out of that love, he'd let Chris do anything he wanted. Even down to letting the bastard hurt him again.

In that moment, as he watched Vin sink ever deeper into himself, as he saw -- felt -- the agony that had nothing to do with illness, Chris suddenly realized the full extent of the damage he'd done, the hurt he'd inflicted, and was flooded by profound shame. He'd been too wrapped up in his own turmoil to notice or even to care about Vin's suffering, had never once stopped to think about what he was doing to the younger man. He'd been blind, selfish and stupid, and now Vin was paying the price.

And if he were to make any of this right again, he knew he'd have to start now. His pride no longer mattered; not where Vin was concerned. Keeping his gaze on that slender, shattered figure, he started slowly toward the couch, conscious of the five pairs of eyes watching his every move, but concentrating only on Vin. He made his way toward him, having to push between Nathan and Josiah to do it, and sat down at his side. Vin never moved, never opened his eyes.

"Hey, cowboy," he called softly, his voice thick and rough with emotion. He reached out to brush the thick hair back from Vin's face, but winced and drew his hand back when Vin flinched violently away from his touch. "God, I'm so sorry!" he groaned, letting his hand fall to the couch. "I've been such a blind, stupid bastard. I've hurt you terribly, and there's no excuse for it. God knows, you never deserved it." The blue eyes opened, and the terrible pain and confusion in them, the betrayal, tore at Chris's heart. "Jesus, Vin, I'm sorry!" he whispered. Slowly, carefully, he reached out again, laying the backs of his fingers against Vin's hot cheek and holding them there even when the younger man cringed. "We got a lot ta talk about, cowboy," he breathed, "and I've got a lot of explainin' ta do. But first we gotta get you well." He glanced up at Nathan. "Call Dr. Rossi, tell him I'm bringin' Vin over, explain his symptoms." Nathan nodded and left, deeply relieved. Chris turned back to Vin. "I'm gonna take you to the doctor, then out to the ranch, where you can rest and I can take care of you. That all right?"

Every man in the room held his breath, expecting a fight. Instead, Vin merely closed his eyes again and let his head droop lower.

"Don't matter none," he breathed in weary defeat.


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