Chris made sure Vin's seatbelt was securely fastened and closed the door, then walked around the truck to the driver's side and got in. The rain had started again, adding dampness to the cutting cold of the air, and Chris wondered why the hell a doctor wouldn't have a covered loading area to protect his patients from the elements.

The man couldn't be that damn desperate for business...

He strapped himself in and glanced across the cab at Vin. The young man was getting steadily weaker, his fever still rising, the harsh, heavy coughs coming ever more frequently. And since they'd left the office some three hours ago, the only words he'd spoken had been short, croaking answers to the doctor's questions. When he'd bothered to answer at all.

Chris sighed and reached for his cell phone, punching in the number and knowing Nathan -- and the rest of the team with him -- would be hovering over the phone, waiting for a report. It was answered on the first ring.

"Jackson!" the medic barked.

A slight smile twisted at Chris's lips. "It's me," he said. "We just got outta the doctor's office."


"It's not `just a cold,'" he sighed. "He's got a bad sinus infection, a raging case of bronchitis, and his throat's inflamed as hell. He's got a prescription for an antibiotic -- somethin' called Augmentin -- and some cough medicine with codeine and vicodin. Rossi said it'd knock him out pretty good and help with the pain. He also pulled a muscle in his back from coughin'. We're gonna go to the pharmacy, get his meds, then head on out to the ranch."

"How is he?" Nathan asked softly, worriedly.

Chris glanced again at Vin, who seemed to be asleep. "Shit, Nathan, he's wiped out!" he said anxiously. "His breathing is worse... Rossi said he needs to be watched carefully, and told me to get him to the hospital if he shows the slightest sign of getting worse." He exhaled sharply and ran a hand through his hair. "Christ, I can't believe I let it get this far!"

A long pause followed, then Nathan said with a surprising gentleness, "What's done is done, Chris, ain't no use beatin' yourself up for somethin' that can't be changed. The important thing now is to take care of him, make sure he doesn't get any worse, start gettin' some strength back into him. Then, when he's better, you two can start makin' repairs, all right?"

"Yeah, I guess," Chris sighed, his guilt unallayed. "Thanks, Nate."

"Just take care of him, Chris. I'm here if you need me, you hear?"

"Yeah, I hear."

"I'll give you a call this evenin', see how he's doin'. Meanwhile, get some food and liquids in him. He don't need ta be any more dehydrated than he is right now. And `liquids' don't mean coke, beer or coffee, got that?" he added firmly, knowing those were Tanner's "liquids" of choice. "It means water and juice, maybe herbal tea for his throat."

Chris had to smile at the man's instructions and tone; Nathan knew his charges well. "Yes, doctor."

"I mean it!" Nathan snapped. "I know Vin; he'd rather drink them damn sodas and that sludge he calls coffee than anything else. But he don't need 'em. Water, juice, and lots of 'em. He don't need kidney problems on top of everything else."

"I'll make sure he gets what he needs."

"And, Chris," Nathan added quietly, "take care of yourself, too, y'hear? Remember, what's done is done. Whippin' yourself raw won't do no good, for either you or Vin."

Chris nodded, his throat tightening. "Yeah, Nate, I hear ya," he rasped. "Thanks. Oh, ask Buck and JD if they can drop the Jeep off at Vin's apartment." He grimaced. "Might as well keep the means of escape down to the bare minimum."

"I'll tell 'em. But he won't run out on you. Not like he would on any of us."

Chris grimaced and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Because he trusts me?" he asked bitterly.

"No," Nathan answered calmly, "because he knows you'd just hunt him down and drag him back."


Vin drifted in and out of sleep during the long, silent drive from the pharmacy to the ranch, unable to cope with conversation. Or with Chris.

No, especially with Chris.

Yet even in his dreams, the man tormented him, his fevered mind conjuring Chris with an agonizing vividness -- dark blond hair gleaming in the sun like ripening wheat; brilliant green eyes alight with humor or glittering with rage; wide, full mouth curving into a lazy smile or setting hard in a thin line of anger above that slightly cleft chin; strong fingers gripping a gun or grasping Vin's arm in a firm clasp that conveyed more feeling than words ever could; and the long, lean body taut with leashed emotion or relaxed, yet always radiating a power and warmth that never ceased to ignite an answering heat in Vin's...

Oh, God, God, what had he done? What terrible mistake had he made, what sin had he committed, to cause Chris to turn on him so? He'd never expected, never even dared hope, that Chris would love him as he loved Chris, had known that was one more thing in life he would never be allowed. But at least he'd had his friendship, that deep and intimate kinship between them that had been enough for Vin, that had by itself been so much more than he'd ever had and that he'd known would be all he was ever granted. And he'd taken it gladly, nourishing his soul upon it, letting it strengthen and warm and ground him, finding in it a place to belong and a reason finally to stop running. He'd clung to it and let it lead him back into a world that so often seemed to have no use or place for him...

Only to have it suddenly wrenched from him, leaving him more achingly alone than ever and facing once again the darkness and cold of a world intent upon crushing him and devouring him whole.

Lord God, what had he done? How had he managed to fuck up the best thing that had ever happened to him, drive away the best friend he'd ever had and the only man he'd ever--

Oh, shit. The answer hit him like a fist in the gut, driving the air from his lungs and all sleep from his mind. Chris knew. Somehow, despite all he'd done to hide it, Chris had found out how he felt about him, and was every bit as furious, as disgusted, as he'd feared he'd be. That was it; that had to be it. Chris had found out he loved him.

A hideous, searing pain ripped through his heart and into his soul, tearing a harsh, stricken cry from. He sat up and looked wildly about, suddenly realizing the truck had stopped, that they were at the ranch. Panic gripped him as his feverish, frightened mind raced through all the hard and hurtful things Chris could say to him, do to him, with no one here to interfere.

Jesus God, he shouldn't've come here!

Chris was badly startled as Vin cried out hoarsely and began fighting to unbuckle himself, as the sick man -- gasping for every wheezing breath and coughing horribly -- struggled desperately to free himself, like a wild animal caught in a trap. Larabee quickly killed the truck engine and turned to his friend, stunned -- and frightened -- by the terror in the glassy blue eyes.

"Vin. Vin!" he called, reaching out to grab Tanner's hands. "It's all right! You're safe--"

"No!" Vin shouted, clawing at Chris's hands and throwing an instinctive punch to the man's chin. "Leave me be!" He gave a harsh, wordless growl and finally got the seatbelt undone, then fumbled frantically with the door handle. Again Chris tried to grab him and again he knocked him away, then wrenched the handle and shoved the door open, stumbling out of the truck and into the rain.

"Jesus, Vin!" Chris shouted, terrified for his friend. He popped his own seatbelt, opened his door and launched himself out of the truck and after Tanner. "Goddamn it, Vin, stop!"

But Vin didn't, couldn't. Chris' shouts frightened him, convinced him of the enormity of his mistake in coming here, and he gave in to his instincts for self-preservation, never realizing how muddled those instincts were by his illness. He was racked by fever and unrelenting pain, was gasping for and choking upon every labored breath, his head pounding, his throat and lungs on fire, but still he would not stop. Three days of soaking rain had turned the ground beneath him to a sea of mud, and with each step he sank ankle deep into the stuff. Yet still he tried to run, all but blinded by rain and dizziness, and clutching at his burning chest as he coughed.

Chris swore harshly as Vin stumbled and staggered through the mud, away from the house and back toward the road, apparently determined to get away. "Oh, no, Nate, he won't run from me," he ground out through gritted teeth. "Goddamn stupid, mule-headed, sonuvabitch Texan!" Equally determined that Vin would not get away, he took off after him, trying to figure out how he could bring him down and bring him in without adding injury to illness. "Jesus God, why don'tcha just pass out?" he spat, certain that an unconscious Tanner would be much easier to deal with just now than a delirious one.

Vin was coughing constantly, painfully, and each one cut through his lungs like a heated knife. Soaked to the skin, he shivered violently, his chill back in full force and settling into the center of his bones. All at once, the wrenched muscle in his back went into agonizing spasms, and he cried out thickly and fell heavily to the ground.

"Vin!" Chris saw him fall, and anger immediately gave way to fear. "Oh, Jesus..." He raced forward. "Stay down, damn it!" he shouted as Tanner tried to rise and fell again. "Vin!" He threw himself to his knees at Vin's side, heedless of the mud, and reached out to pull Tanner up, then locked strong arms about the smaller man as he began to struggle wildly. "Goddamn it, stop!"

"Lemme go!" Vin gasped hoarsely, terrified by that iron grip, the voice that shouted furiously. He fought Chris with what little strength he possessed, desperate to get away. Cold rain pelted him and thick mud clung to him, and his whole body hurt unbearably, inside and out. Tears streamed down as his face as his heart tore itself to pieces in his chest. "Ain't gonna... letcha... hurt me no more!"

"Vin, stop it! STOP IT!" Chris shouted, tightening his hold on Tanner, amazed that the man could still fight. "I don't wanta hurt you--"

"Liar!" Vin croaked, his voice gone, his throat on fire. "'S all ya bin doin'..." He coughed painfully, his entire body shaken by the spasm. "Thought... you... was differ'nt!" Sobs of fear, frustration and pain mingled with the wrenching coughs. "But y'ain't! You're jist like... all th' others. Lied ta me... got me ta trust ya... jist so's you c'd hurt me--"

"Goddamn it, Vin, shut up!" Chris raged, shaking the sick man violently, his heart breaking at the anguished words. "I never wanted ta hurt you--"


"SHUT UP!" Chris screamed. Without thinking, he clutched Vin to him and crushed his mouth ruthlessly to the younger man's, silencing him with a savage, punishing, desperate kiss.

Vin fought for only a moment longer, then shuddered violently and closed weak, shaking arms about Chris, clinging to the man as his whole world spun and reeled crazily. Low moans broke from him as Chris's mouth claimed him, ravaged him, as he felt the long, hard body pressed so tightly against his own. Confusion rioted through him, and he whimpered, groaned and sobbed in desperation, fear and need beneath the brutal force of that kiss.

Oh, God, God, Chris was kissing him...

"NO!" he shrieked, tearing his mouth away and struggling to free himself from those imprisoning arms, shoving against Chris and pummeling him with weak blows. "Git away from me!" He ripped himself from Chris's arms and lurched to his feet, swaying dangerously and staring down through wide, unfocused eyes. "I ain't lettin' ya... do this ta me! Ain't nobody ever doin' this ta me agin!" He raised one shaking hand to his head and pressed the other to his chest, racked by pain, by sickness, by confusion. "I ain't like that!" he spat. "Thought you knew that! Thought I c'd trust ya! But you're jist like th' others! Bastard!"

Chris stared at Vin in shock. Jesus, what all had been done to him? "Please, cowboy, listen to me! I ain't--"

"No!" Vin screamed hoarsely, shaking violently. "Ya cain't... grind my heart ta dust... then kiss me... I ain't no fuckin' toy, 'n I ain't no fuckin' whore! I ain't jist anybody's fer the takin'! Jist 'cause I love ya don't mean you kin use me like you're doin'!"

Chris's heart lurched wildly in his chest. God... Vin loved him? Vin loved him? Then there had to be a way... "Vin, please, listen--"

"Git away!" Vin shrieked as Chris rose to his feet and started toward him. He backed away a step, and nearly fell as the world heaved crazily under his feet. "I ain't... I don't..."

"I love you, Vin," Chris said calmly, evenly, making no more moves toward Tanner. "I love you. I'm in love with you."

"NO!" Vin screamed, holding both hands to his hideously aching head and closing his eyes as the world began to spin. "Don't... don't lie ta me..."

"I'm not lyin'," Chris assured him firmly, keeping his voice low and soothing. "I love you. And I want to be with you. I want us to be together."

Vin took another step backward, staring at Chris through panicked eyes, refusing to believe, unable to believe, what he was hearing. He'd heard it before... enough to know what it really meant... "No," he moaned, shaking his head dazedly as Chris joined the ranks of all who had hurt him before. "No, don't... Not you, too..." The world fell away from beneath his feet and dissolved into a gray, grainy mist. "No," he whispered in torment as he fell into the darkness.

"Vin!" Chris leapt forward and caught him as he collapsed, cradling the wet, muddy body close against him. "Jesus, cowboy, what've I done?" he whispered harshly, haunted by the pain, and the betrayal, he'd seen in Vin's eyes before they'd closed. "What the hell have I done?"

He lifted the unconscious young man in his arms, aching for him. "I'm gonna make it right, cowboy," he vowed, carrying Vin toward the house. "I swear it. Somehow, I'm gonna make this right!"


He managed to get Vin to his bedroom, given strength by his love and concern for the sick man. Tanner was soaking wet, covered in mud and burning up with fever. Dr. Rossi had said he was at high risk of developing pneumonia, and Chris prayed the past fifteen minutes hadn't pushed him over the edge.

He carried Vin through the bedroom and into the bathroom, lowering him to the floor as he began to stir and holding him upright. Raising a foot, he kicked down the lid of the toilet and pushed Vin down onto it, holding his shoulders to keep him from pitching forward into the floor.

"Come on, cowboy," he called quietly, struggling to remove Tanner's sodden jacket. "I need you ta wake up and help me out here. We gotta get you outta these wet clothes, get you cleaned up, dried off and warm. And I can't do it all myself."

Vin moaned softly and shivered and gradually pulled himself into something approaching consciousness. A low, comforting voice murmured soothingly as gentle hands carefully stripped him of his wet, muddy clothes. He tried to remember where he was, who he was with, why flashes of fear kept intruding upon the feelings of safety and security that voice and those hands inspired in him. Some instinct in him warned him to run, to fight, to hide, while another urged him to stay and to let those wonderful hands ease the pain and sickness that gripped him. In the end, torn between the conflicting voices, he obeyed both, and neither -- too weak to run, he stayed; but too confused and uneasy to relax, he flinched from and struggled against those warm, strong hands.


Each time Vin moaned, flinched or fought him, Chris took his hands and held them gently, or stroked his back, speaking softly to him all the while. With a warm, wet washcloth he cleaned the mud from Tanner's body and hair, rubbed him dry with big, soft towels, then wrapped the towels about him, turned on the bathroom heater, and went to get clean clothes. Within moments he was back, bringing a long-sleeved T-shirt, a flannel shirt, a pair of sweatpants and two pairs of socks.

"All right, cowboy," he said quietly, "time ta get outta those towels and into some clean, dry clothes." He paused a moment, studied the hunched, half-conscious man, and asked softly, "You want some help, Vin, or can you do this?"

Vin frowned, not exactly sure what "this" was. He fixed glassy, unfocused eyes on the clothes held out before him, and knew somehow they were meant for them, but couldn't for the life of him figure out what to do with them.

"I need ta lay down," he croaked, closing his eyes and bowing his head.

Chris knelt before him, hurting for him. "I know," he said softly, laying a gentle hand against one burning cheek. "But we gotta get you dressed first, then you can go to bed, okay?" When Vin didn't argue, Chris took it as his cue to begin.

He started at Vin's feet, putting on the socks and smiling when he accidentally hit a ticklish spot on Tanner's arch. "Sorry, pard," he murmured, grabbing the foot Vin had jerked away and putting the socks on it. "But I'll have ta remember that."

When the socks were on, Chris gently removed the towel he'd wrapped around Vin's upper body and sucked in a hissing breath. He'd seen Vin without a shirt before, but the sight had never hit him as it did now.

God, he was beautiful! He was built like a cat, lithe and lean, with supple, sinewy muscles under surprisingly fair skin lightly dusted with freckles. Strong shoulders topped a slim chest that ran down to a taut, flat stomach and narrow hips; there was not an ounce of fat on the slender frame. Chris found himself wanting desperately to stroke the pale flesh, to trace the lines and curves of muscle and bone, to run his fingers through the fine brown hair on his chest, to count every freckle and catalogue every scar. His hands wanted so badly to play over that enticing body, to explore, to claim and caress, and his mouth wanted to follow his fingers, to test and taste and tease. Just the thought of all he wanted to do and know sent rivers of heat coursing through his blood and brought his cock to an aching fullness.

<<Jesus, Larabee, get a grip!>> he scolded himself. <<He's too sick for this!>>

Controlling his desire with an iron will, he put two shirts on Vin, then combed gentle fingers through the wet hair. Vin tried to pull away, but Chris murmured to him and tenderly stroked his fevered cheek. Tanner sighed and settled at that touch.

Chris smiled slightly. "That's right, Vin," he soothed, still stroking, "get used to this. I need you to know I'm not gonna hurt you. I need you to know I love you."

When Vin sighed and nestled his face into that hand, Chris leaned forward and placed a slow, soft kiss against his lips. Vin gasped and flinched, but a moment later groaned softly and relaxed, leaning forward and offering his mouth again to Chris.

And Chris took it as gently as he had before, kissing Vin not with passion, but with love. He wanted Vin to know this feeling as he'd never known anything before.

"I love you," he said again, clearly and firmly, wanting his words to penetrate Vin's fever. His fear. "I love you, and I'm gonna take care of you. And I'm gonna try my damnedest never to hurt you again." When Vin nodded, Chris smiled and kissed him again, then tugged gently on the towel covering his lower body. "Let's get the sweats on, then get you inta bed, okay?"

He braced himself, pulled off the towel, and felt another wave of heat go through him. Vin's legs were long and slender, his thighs and calves hard with muscles, and as beautiful as the rest of him. Between them, his pale, soft cock emerged from a thick thatch of golden brown curls.

"Jesus!" Chris whispered shakily, staring at that cock and absently licking his lips as his own flesh surged again to throbbing life. "My God, cowboy, what've you done ta me? I'm feelin' like a kid starin' through the windows of a candy store!"

Shaking his head to clear it, and willing his body to behave, he slipped the sweats over Vin's feet, up his legs and, managing to lift him slightly with minimal help from Tanner, over his firm, beautifully rounded ass and up to his waist. Flushed with heat, he knotted the drawstring and prayed Vin would soon -- very soon -- have the strength to dress himself.

When he had finished, he got Vin to his feet, helped him to the bed and eased him down into it, then covered him with a pile of comforters. He leaned over, brushed the still-damp hair back from Vin's face, and placed a tender kiss against his hot forehead.

"Be right back, cowboy," he murmured. "Gotta get your medicine, get some of it down you."

He kissed Vin again, then rose to his feet and left the room. Forgetting for now his own comfort, he went back out into the cold rain, to his truck, and retrieved Vin's medicines. Returning to Tanner, he roused him from sleep long enough to get both the antibiotic and cough medicine down him, and left him to sleep.

And only when he stepped into the shower did Chris realize just how exhausted he was.


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