Vin moaned softly and plucked feebly at the comforters, his head moving restlessly against the pillow, as the dream started again. The vividness of it was both agony and ecstasy. He could taste the firm, full mouth moving with such hunger against his, the impatient tongue demanding entry, could feel the warmth of the long, lean body pressing so tightly, so urgently, against his own. Love and longing swept through him in wrenching, searing waves, and he writhed and moaned in pain and pleasure as he claimed and was claimed by his lover.
Oh, God, Chris...
He awoke with a start, Chris's name tearing from him in a hoarse cry. As ever after one of the beautiful dreams, the terrible pain of loss assailed him and he rolled over onto his side, uttering a soft, strangled sob. The dreams had become his only outlet for the love he knew was hopeless, for the passion he knew could never be released. In them, he could share freely with Chris all that he had to keep so carefully hidden in the light of day. But, Christ, how it hurt to wake from them and find himself alone again!
Slowly, slowly, he dragged a hand up and touched it to his mouth, remembering the press of another's lips to his. It had seemed so real... he could swear he still tasted it...
He ran his hand over his face, trying to clear his muddled thoughts. But the fever and incessant, unrelenting sickness made his mind sluggish, kept him confused, unable to distinguish between memory and dream.
Still, he was dimly aware that someone had changed his clothes. He vaguely remembered gentle hands holding him, stroking him, a soft voice soothing him...
<<I love you, and I'm gonna take care of you.>>
"No!" he groaned hoarsely, sitting up abruptly and burying his face in shaking hands. "God, no! I'm losin' my fuckin' mind!"
He'd wanted to hear those words for so long... but wanting didn't make it so... Chris couldn't love him, because he'd been married... because for some reason Chris hated him now...
<<I need you to know I'm not gonna hurt you. I need you to know I love you.>>
Chris's voice... Chris's words...
But Chris couldn't love him. And Chris had hurt him. More than anyone else ever had in a lifetime filled with people trying to pull his soul apart.
He raised his head slowly and looked about, his stomach giving a sick lurch as he recognized his surroundings. Chris's room. The ranch...
<<I love you, and I'm gonna take care of you.>>
But Chris had done everything he could to destroy him...
He remembered the panic that had hit him in the truck, the terrible fear of what Chris could -- would -- do to him, his frantic attempt to escape in the rain. He remembered Chris shouting at him, grabbing him, hurting him...
"No!" Oh, God, he'd finally gone crazy!
Unable to sort it out, to separate the real from the imagined, he pushed back the comforters and dropped his feet to the floor, then pushed himself shakily off the bed. His head throbbed mercilessly and dizziness assailed him, but he had no choice. He had to know for sure whether Chris loved him or hated him. He had to know if there was anything left of his life.
And to find out, he had to find Chris.
With lurching, unsteady steps, he made his way slowly out of the room, fighting pain, dizziness and the nausea that came with them. His eyes wouldn't focus and his hearing was off, and more than once he collided with a wall that was where it shouldn't have been. He tried not to cough, but failed every time, and felt each racking spasm not only in his head and burning, aching chest, but also in his back.
Lord God, and now he was lost!
He knew -- or had thought he did -- every inch of the sprawling ranch house, would have sworn he could find his way around in his sleep. But now he couldn't remember whether to turn right or left, couldn't even remember which room he was trying to find. He thought briefly about going back to bed, but didn't think he'd make it that far.
"Kitchen. Left," he murmured. And staggered to the right.
Two minutes later he stumbled into the den, confused as hell about how he'd gotten there. He should be in the kitchen! He'd gone left... hadn't he?
<<Stupid sonuvabitch! Cain't tell left from right no more!>>
He fell heavily against the door frame, wishing the world wouldn't spin quite so fast. Another cough tore from him.
Startled by the sound, Chris leapt off the sofa and whirled around, stunned to see Vin slumped in the doorway. "Goddamn it, Tanner!" he barked harshly, appalled by the younger man's deathly pallor. "What the hell are you doin' outta bed?"
The furious shout confused Vin, frightened him, tore through his fevered mind and filled him with panic. He fixed wide, bewildered eyes on Larabee, saw his anger, and flinched as if he'd been hit.
<<Jesus God, why cain't I stop makin' him mad at me?>>
He turned and tried to get away, but didn't know which way to go. He could no longer tell left from right, didn't remember where the bedroom was...
<<Goddamn it, why's the bastard gotta live in a fuckin' maze?>>
Chris hurried toward Tanner, frightened by his obvious disorientation. When Vin saw him coming, he looked wildly about, trying to find an escape. But it all proved too much. Overcome by dizziness, by weakness, he groaned softly and sank to his knees, clutching at his head and chest as more of the painful coughs tore from him.
"Oh, Jesus, Vin!" Chris raced to him, gripped with terror, and dropped to his knees at Tanner's side. He reached out and took the sick man into his arms, holding the hot, shaking body close against him. "God, you're burnin' up!" he breathed. "Lemme help you back--"
"No!" Vin gasped, trying to pull out of Chris's arms and failing. "Please, jist... jist leave me be!" Chris tightened his hold on him, and Vin grew desperate. "Goddamn it, Chris, I cain't take no more!"
The fear and the pain -- the hideous, soul-shattering pain -- in that tattered voice stabbed deep into Chris and racked him with guilt. "Jesus, Vin, what've I done to you?" Swallowing hard against his own feelings, his own desires, he released Vin and moved away from him, sitting back against the wall. "I won't hold you against your will, cowboy," he said quietly, watching as Vin struggled to sit up on his own. "I'm sorry for shouting. I didn't mean to scare you. It's just... when I saw you in the doorway... God, you scared me, Vin! You looked so sick!"
Vin finally managed to push himself back against the wall across the hallway from Chris, out of the man's reach, and stared at him dazedly through glassy, unfocused eyes. "Feel sick," he whispered hoarsely, holding a pale hand to his chest. "I'se tryin' ta find ya. Needed ta know... if'n I'm crazy..." He rested his aching head against the wall and closed his eyes, his harsh, labored breathing loud in the silence between the two men.
Chris watched him anxiously, fighting the urge to reach out and take him into his arms. God, he looked and sounded awful...
"Got lost," Vin went on when he could. "Couldn't remember... which way ta go. Thought I'se goin' to the kitchen, but I ended up here... Cain't tell left from right... Stupid fucked-up wirin'!" he rasped bitterly.
Chris winced at Vin's reference to his dyslexia, realizing the sharpshooter was too sick to manage it. God, how many more ways were there for him to hurt Vin?
Vin ran a shaking hand through his hair, catching his fingers in the tangles. "So confused," he breathed exhaustedly. "Cain't tell what's dreams 'n what's real. Know what I want ta be real, but I bin dreamin' fer so long... Jist cain't tell no more," he sighed.
Chris leaned forward and rested his arms on his crossed legs, listening intently to the disjointed flow of words and trying to make some sense of them. For once, Vin seemed inclined -- hell, seemed to need -- to talk, and Chris wasn't about to stop him.
"Bin wantin' you fer so long," Vin rasped, his whole body, his soul, exhausted and aching. "Knew I couldn't have ya... I jist ain't allowed some things. Usually don't want nothin'. Cain't be disappointed thataway. But I couldn't stop wantin' you. 'N in my dreams, you wanted me, too."
His voice broke on the last words, and Chris's heart broke with it. He saw a single tear sliding down Tanner's pale face, and had to clench his hands into fists to keep from wiping it away. But not for anything would he risk sending Vin running from him again.
"Only now..." Vin's voice was shaking, breaking, but he could not stop the words that tore from and through his heart. "Now I cain't tell... what's dreams 'n what's real. My head's so muddled..." He opened his eyes and turned them on Chris, the fevered blue depths oceans of pain. "You bin such a bastard ta me!" he rasped in torment, another tear sliding down. "Bin killin' me day by day, word by word. But that didn't stop the fuckin' dreams! Goddamn it, I wanted ta hate ya! But, goddamn me, I couldn't stop lovin' ya..."
A low, choked gasp broke from Chris at that, and he bowed his head, burying his face in his hands. Jesus, Jesus, what had he done?
Still, Vin's wounded, accusing blue eyes rested on Chris. "You brought me here," he said hoarsely. "I remember that. Why?"
Chris looked up at the question and blinked, confused. "What?" Those blue eyes stabbed into him, burying him in shame and remorse.
"Why?" Vin demanded again. "Why'd ya bring me here? I need ta know."
Chris licked his lips and forced himself to meet those eyes. "Why do you think?" he asked quietly.
Fury erupted through Vin in a sudden, searing wave, blazing in and giving life to the sick blue eyes. "Figgered ya wanted ta finish what ya started!" he snarled savagely. "Finish me off fer good! Like some goddamn animal ya'd wounded but hadn't killed yet!"
Chris flinched violently at that. He wanted to protest, to argue, but knew he couldn't. Because every cruel word was true.
"You bin killin' me," Vin said again, the venom gone from his voice, leaving it empty and hollow. "I thought you hated me, when all's I wanted was fer you ta love me. Like I bin lovin' you fer so long now," he sighed. "God, how I love you!"
Chris's heart and soul convulsed in pain at the words, at the soft, hopeless tone of that fractured voice. Unable any longer to keep his distance, he moved slowly across the floor to Vin, approaching him with the caution he'd show a wounded, wary animal. And every wound, he knew, had been inflicted by him. He fully expected Vin to start, to fight, to run, but the sharpshooter let him come, watching him intently, fearfully all the while. Chris could plainly see the tremors running through the slight, exhausted body.
When at last he was only inches from Vin, he raised a hand slowly, watching as the frightened, bewildered blue eyes tracked its every movement. He laid the hand against Vin's face, tenderly cupping the fevered cheek with rough, callused fingers. Vin tensed and held his breath at that touch, then, to Chris's immense relief, relaxed slightly and laid his cheek more fully into the hand, closing his eyes and exhaling unsteadily.
Chris relaxed himself, feeling as if the first battle in a major war had been won. At least, at the very least, Vin wasn't running from him.
"I want you to listen to me, Vin," he said softly, gently, his green eyes filled with love and pain. "I am so sorry, sorrier than you'll ever know, for the things I've done to you. I've hurt you terribly, and there's no excuse for it." He shook his head slowly, his throat tight. "I can't even ask you to forgive me," he rasped, "because what I've done is unforgivable. All I can do is ask -- beg -- you to believe that I'll try my hardest never to hurt you like that again."
<<I need you to know I'm not gonna hurt you. I need you to know I love you.>>
Had the words not been a dream after all?
"Why?" he croaked again, searching Chris's eyes with his own, trying to find some explanation in them for all that Larabee had done, was doing, to him. "Why'd ya bring me here?"
Chris sighed tiredly and settled himself as comfortably on the floor beside Vin as he could. Dropping every defense, opening himself up to this man as he could to no other, he said softly, "Because I needed to. Because I've hurt you, and I wanted -- needed -- to make it right between us. Because you're sick and need taking care of, and I need to be the one to do it. But most of all, Vin, most of all because I love you, and it's high time I admitted it, to myself and to you."
The quiet words hit Vin with the force of a blow, driving the air from his lungs and the strength from his limbs, sending his mind reeling and his heart tumbling. What little color he had drained from his face, leaving it the color of cold ashes, and he stared at Chris through wide, uncomprehending blue eyes.
It couldn't be. He had to be dreaming still, or delirious, or just plain crazy. Had to be hearing what he wanted to hear, and not what Chris was really saying...
It couldn't possibly be true.
"No," he murmured strickenly, his eyes still wide, unblinking. "No, you're... you're lyin'. I don't know why... Why're you doin' this ta me?" he pleaded in a sobbing whisper.
"It's true, Vin," Chris assured him gently, firmly, hurting for the distraught young man beside him. Vin had no strength left, he could see that, had nothing left. Except his pain. "I don't know how long I've loved you. Hell, maybe I've loved you all along. But I didn't know it, I didn't understand it... These last two weeks, I've... I've been wrestlin' with myself, tryin' to figure everything out, trying to accept it... But I can't fight it anymore, I can't deny it anymore. I love you, and I want to be with you."
Slowly, Vin's battered, broken spirit began to resurrect itself. A lifetime of protective instincts rose from the remnants of his soul, and the few shards he had left of his pride knitted themselves together. He pulled away from Chris, reached deep into himself for something resembling strength, and climbed unsteadily to his feet, bracing himself against the wall and staring down in pain and bitter anger at the startled Larabee.
"That why ya bin diggin' yer spurs inta me ever' chance ya got?" he demanded hoarsely, resentfully, two weeks -- a lifetime -- of hurt pouring from him. "Is it such a terrible crime ta love me that ya gotta punish me fer makin' ya do it?"
"Vin, no, that's not--"
"What'sa matter, Larabee?" he snarled, trembling violently but fighting to remain on his feet. "Ain't I worthy of ya? Ain't I good enough? Cain't the almighty Chris Larabee bring himself t'admit that he's in love with a long-haired, no-account nobody like me?" His mouth twisted into a bitter sneer as shame and pride battled within him. "Hell, I know I ain't much, I know I ain't got all them proper social graces, and I sure as hell ain't the smartest sonuvabitch ever ta wear boots. But you always made me believe them things didn't matter. Shit, I reckon I'm even stupider than I thought!" he spat.
Chris flinched at that, horrified and deeply shamed by the damage he'd wrought, all to save his goddamned stubborn pride.
"I've loved ya since I've known ya," Vin went on, unable to stop himself. "Loved ya so much I thought I'd die from the ache of it! But I never said nothin', 'cause I never thought you could love me back. Me bein' a man 'n all. Stupid me! Never dawned on me that ya did love me, but was jist too ashamed to admit it. Ain't sure which hurts more," he rasped brokenly as tears spilled down his cheeks, "thinkin' ya cain't love me, or knowin' you're jist ashamed to!"
"Please, stop!" Chris begged hoarsely, his heart and soul in pieces. "For the love of God, stop!" He rose to his feet and took a step toward Vin, then stopped himself with an effort when Tanner looked ready to bolt again. "Listen to me," he pleaded desperately, his face now almost as pale as Vin's. "Will you at least let me try to explain?"
Vin stared a moment longer, then shrugged. "Say whatcha want," he breathed exhaustedly, his whole body sagging. "Don't matter none."
"Goddamn it, will you stop saying that?" Chris shouted, grabbing Vin by the arms and shaking him roughly. "It does matter, do you hear me? Everything we'll say and do here matters!"
"Let go'a me!" Vin cried, tearing out of Larabee's grasp and falling to his knees as his strength deserted him. "Oh, Jesus," he moaned sickly, slumping forward onto his hands as pain and dizziness assailed him. "Sweet Jesus, help me!"
"God, Vin!" Chris squatted next to him, circling an arm about him. "Let me take you back to bed--"
"So that's why ya brought me out here," Vin whispered miserably, trying to shrug off that arm but failing. He felt something in him die as the answer dawned upon him. He'd wanted Chris, but never like this. "Figgered you'd nurse me back ta health, fuck me once 'r twice ta see what it's like, then go back ta livin' your `real' life one you'd got it outta yer system. Figgered you'd show me a little kindness, sweet talk me a bit, throw that `l' word at me, 'n that I'd be so grateful to ya I'd jist roll over 'n letcha have yer way with me." He raised his head with an effort and fixed fevered but determined blue eyes upon Larabee. "Well, it ain't gonna happen, cowboy," he spat contemptuously. "I ain't got much pride left, but I got jist enough ta tell ya that I'll fuckin' well shoot myself before I ever let another goddamn bastard do that ta me agin. Even if it's the goddamn bastard I love."
The words literally knocked Chris onto his ass. He fell back with a hoarse, strangled gasp, green eyes wide and flooding with horror, his soul going cold. "Jesus, Vin!" he croaked, almost sick. "You don't think... You couldn't possibly believe... Oh, shit!" he breathed in sudden, wrenching comprehension. "You've been used like that before?"
Vin pushed himself back against the wall, all anger, all bitterness, drained from him. All that remained was sickness and utter exhaustion. "I bin used all my fuckin' life," he wheezed tiredly. "One way or another, by one person or another, 'n by every system from the so-called Child Protective Services in Texas to the U.S. Army. Cain't see that the specifics make any difference. Fucked is fucked, 'n I bin fucked raw my whole life. But I've had enough. Like I said, I'll kill myself b'fore I let one more bastard have a shot at me. I'll love you 'til I die, Chris, but I'll die today b'fore I letcha hurt me like that. 'Cause I jist couldn't take it agin. 'Specially not from you."
"And, God help me, Vin," Chris whispered, "I'd rather see you die than ever do that to you! You have to believe me," he pleaded in a low, urgent voice, "I would never, ever use you like that. That is not what I want."
"Then what do you want?" Vin wailed desperately. "What the hell do you want from me?"
Chris got to his knees and went slowly toward Vin, his green eyes holding the fearful blue ones, his whole heart and soul revealed to Tanner. "This," he whispered, bowing his head toward Vin's and capturing the younger man's mouth with his in a tender, searching kiss. "I love you, Vin," he murmured. "And all I want from you is for you to let me love you, in the way you deserve to be loved. Not used, and not fucked, but truly and deeply loved." He gently wiped away with his thumbs the tears sliding down Tanner's face. "Will you let me do that?"
"I... I don't know... what that means," Vin whispered weakly, reaching for Chris with a badly shaking hand and clinging feebly to him, needing him despite his best and most desperate efforts not to. "Ain't ever... bin loved like that. Don't know nothin' about it."
Chris smiled slightly and tenderly stroked Vin's face, brushing the tangled hair back from it and wiping away the tears. "Then let me show you, cowboy," he urged softly. "I just wanta love you, Vin. It's taken me the longest time to realize that, and I'm sorry as hell I've hurt you in the process. You never should've had to go through this."
Vin rested his head against Chris' strong arm and closed his eyes as exhaustion washed through him. "'M used to it," he murmured. "Ever'time somebody says he loves me... I end up gittin' stomped. I reckon it's jist all part of it."
Chris winced at that and tenderly stroked Vin's hair. "No, it's not. Or it shouldn't be." He frowned worriedly as Vin leaned ever more heavily against him, coughing painfully. "Will you let me take you back to bed now, please?"
Vin swallowed and nodded faintly. "Reckon so," he breathed. "Lord knows, I ain't got the strength ta fight ya."
Chris frowned and pressed his hands to either side of Vin's face, lifting Tanner's chin with his thumbs and staring compellingly into those dazed, glassy eyes. "Listen to me, Vin," he said in a firm, clear voice. "You will not ever have to fight me, because I will not ever force myself on you. I don't do that. When I say I love you, I mean it. They aren't words I throw around ta get what I want. I know you don't believe that," he went on, his voice softening as sorrow filled him. "I know you don't understand it. But," he smiled slightly and stroked Vin's chin with his thumbs, "it's my job now to make you believe me, to teach you what those words mean. And I'm gonna start by takin' care of you." He drew Tanner's shivering body into his arms and cradled it close against him, tenderly kissing the top of Vin's head. "Believe me, cowboy, you're all that matters to me in this world. You are my world." He took Vin's arm and slipped it over his shoulder, then got his arms around Tanner. "Now, up you go," he directed, rising to his feet and bringing Vin with him. "Just lean on me and let me do all the work, okay?"
Vin couldn't have fought if he'd wanted to, and, with Chris's body so close against his own, with those strong arms holding so tightly to him, he certainly didn't want to. "'Kay," he breathed, sounding strangely content despite his illness.
Chris chuckled quietly and led Vin slowly down the hallway. Once in his room, he guided Vin to the bed and eased him down upon it, elevating his head and chest with pillows to ease his breathing, and piling comforters atop him to relieve his chill. Then he sat down at his side and reached out, tenderly stroking his hair and face.
"Need anything?" he asked softly.
Vin dragged a hand out from under the covers and closed it weakly about Chris's, searching his face intently. "Jist... need ta know... ya meant what ya said. That ya wanta be with me. That ya love me. 'N that ya ain't gonna hurt me," he wheezed.
Chris stared down at him for long moments in silence, wondering what all had been done to Vin that he should equate being loved with being hurt. But, hell, why shouldn't he? What else had he been doing to Vin for two weeks but hurting him?
"I want you ta listen to me," he said softly, urgently, holding tightly to Vin's hand. "I'm gonna try and explain... why I've been actin' like I have..."
"'S all right," Vin breathed, struggling to hold his eyes open. "Y'ain't gotta--"
"Yeah, cowboy, I do `gotta,'" Chris interrupted firmly. He'd never been a man for talking, but he knew Vin needed to hear these words. "I don't want you thinkin' you're beneath me, or not good enough for me, or that you deserve this, or whatever else you got runnin' through that thick head of yours. I was lashing out at you because of fear. Stupid, blind fear. I'd finally realized I was in love with you, and it scared the hell outta me. I've never felt this way about a man before, and I was afraid. Afraid of what it made me, afraid of what would happen to my career if anybody found out, afraid of what would happen if you found out--"
"Me?" Vin asked, startled.
"Yeah, you." He studied Vin's face intently, marveling again at how well he knew every aspect of it. "It never occurred to me that you felt the same way. And I was so afraid that if I told you how I felt, you'd walk away, that I'd lose the best damn friend I ever had... I need you, Vin," he admitted softly. "I don't think you have any idea what you do for me, how much you give me..." He gazed down at the pale, hot fingers entwined in his. "When Sarah died," he said hoarsely, forcing the words past the hard knot in his throat, "I died with her. Or I thought I did. I couldn't imagine ever loving anyone again, didn't want to love anyone again. I was never even tempted." A slight, soft smile curved about his mouth and lit his eyes. "Then this scrawny, long-haired, blue-eyed bounty hunter with the goddamnedest drawl I've ever heard moseyed into my life, and I ain't been the same since. I found out I'm not dead, and don't really wanta be. Found out my heart's still beatin', found out I can still love, found out I wanta love... But only if it's you. You're it for me, cowboy. You're all I want, you're all I need. And if you'll have me, then I'll spend the rest of my life tryin' ta give you what you want and need."
Vin stared up at him in wonder, then freed his hand from Chris's and raised it to brush trembling fingertips against the strong, sculpted face. He'd had others say such things to him before, but he'd never seen in their eyes what he now saw shining in this man's. It was that light in the green depths that gave him a reason to hope. A reason to believe.
"You mean it?" he whispered hoarsely. "This ain't jist fer now?"
Chris caught Vin's hand and kissed it. "I don't do `jist fer now,' Vin. I'm in this for the long haul. Now," he cradled the hand between his two, "you be quiet, get some rest, let me take care of you. I wanta keep you around for a real long time."
A faint, tired smile curved about Vin's pale mouth. "Reckon I'd like ta be around fer a long time. Lord God, Larabee," he whispered, his love for the man above him pouring from his soul through his eyes, "you're somethin' else! I still ain't sure..."
Chris squeezed Vin's hand gently, touched -- and saddened -- by the confusion in those fevered blue eyes. "Don't worry, cowboy," he murmured, "you'll get used to the idea. I'm gonna spend the rest of my life makin' sure of that."
Vin's eyes slowly closed as Chris's low, warm voice lapped soothingly against his tired mind, as Larabee's words flowed like balm over his battered heart. He was used to the pain that always seemed to accompany the word "love," but the promise he now heard in it was an entirely new and precious revelation to him. He'd never had anyone want him for "the long haul" before, and couldn't imagine what that must be like.
With this man, though, he was more than willing to find out.
Chris was intensely relieved when the phone rang. He knew at once who it was, and was more than a little surprised Nathan had waited so long. He'd just about decided to call the man himself.
"Larabee," he answered with his customary terseness.
Nathan was equally abrupt. "How is he?"
Chris had to smile; "protective" didn't begin to describe Jackson. "He's sleepin', finally." He shook his head, his smile fading. "It's been a real rough afternoon. And that cough medicine Rossi prescribed didn't help. Makes him sick. He just spent nearly twenty minutes throwin' up. I ain't givin' him any more."
Nathan's sigh was clearly audible through the phone. "Has he been able to keep anything down?"
"Mostly water and juice, maybe a cup of soup." He rubbed his forehead in worry and frustration. "He's just not hungry. And it hurts to swallow... Jesus, Nathan," he breathed anxiously, "he sounds terrible! It's hard for him to breathe, his cough's gettin' worse... I won't be comin' in tomorrow," he said quietly. "Just gonna stay here with him."
Nathan was silent for long moments, then asked softly, "He's that bad?"
Chris sighed and went to the kitchen table, sinking wearily into one of the chairs. "Yeah. We had... a little problem when we got here. He woke up, realized where he was, and panicked. Flew outta the truck and started runnin'..." He sighed again. "It was rainin' pretty hard. By the time I got him inside, he was soaked to the skin. It can't have done him any good. Hell, I don't think he's warmed up since!"
There was another long pause, then Nathan asked, "You want me to come out?"
Chris closed his eyes and bowed his head, thinking. It was almost an hour's drive to the ranch from Nathan's, and it was still raining. But Vin was sounding worse...
"I hate to ask it," he said finally.
"Then don't," Nathan said gently, a smile in his voice. "Let's say I'm volunteerin' and you couldn't stop me."
"Tell Rain I'm sorry--"
"What? For lookin' after Vin?" Nathan snorted. "Hell, Chris, she'd be pissed if you didn't ask. And even more pissed if I didn't offer. And we don't wanta piss off Rain, do we?"
Chris chuckled quietly, thinking of the feisty, strong-willed woman Jackson loved. "No way, Nate. Hell, she's almost as good with a knife as you!"
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Nathan, don't push it," Chris warned sternly. "It's rainin' like hell out here, the roads are gonna be like swamps. So you just take your time, drive carefully. We're not goin' anywhere."
It was Nathan's turn to chuckle. "Yes, Dad. I'll bring my cell phone -- battery's charged and everything -- and call if I have any trouble. If I'm not there in an hour and a half, you can call out the National Guard."
Chris scowled into the phone. "Y'know," he said softly, "I'm beginnin' ta wonder just why I picked so goddamn many mouthy bastards for this team!"
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