Vin groaned and shifted yet again, raising his hands to his chest and trying to push away the heavy weight that was pressing down upon it. Another round of harsh coughs tore from him, each one stabbing painfully through his burning lungs, and he curled onto his side as the spasm racked him, clutching at his chest and struggling just to breathe.

Chris sat close at his side and gently rubbed his back and shoulders, speaking softly, soothingly to him. Despite the evenness of his voice, however, worry lined his face and clouded his green eyes. In the half hour since Nathan had called, Vin's fever had risen another degree, and his breathing had gotten steadily worse, was now at the point where just taking in air seemed to require more strength than he possessed. He'd thrown up twice more, his system refusing to accept anything now but water.

"Come on, cowboy," Chris urged fearfully, "hang in there. Nathan's comin'." He continued to stroke Vin's back. "You gotta stay with me!"

Vin drew a gasping, wheezing breath, choked upon it, and went into another violent coughing fit. Chris immediately took him into his arms and sat him up, holding Vin close against him and cradling his head to his shoulder, growing increasingly frightened for him.

<<Jesus, Nathan, hurry!>> his mind screamed.

Even through his sickness, however, through the incessant pain and fever that racked him, Vin recognized the strong arms holding him, the body supporting his, the quiet voice murmuring at his ear. And though everything else in him hurt, his heart no longer did.

"," he croaked painfully, the sound only barely escaping his raw throat.

Chris tightened his arms around Vin and tenderly kissed the top of his head. "I'm right here, cowboy," he said quietly. "I gotcha."

"Ain't... a dream... is it?"

"No, Vin. It's no dream. I'm real, and I love you."

"Hard... hard... ta breathe," he wheezed. "Hurts."

"What hurts?" Chris asked with a forced calm, knowing Nathan would need to know.

"Ev... ev'rything," Vin gasped. "Head... throat... chest... Oh... Chris... I cain't breathe!" he whispered frantically.

Chris closed his eyes and thought, then was struck by a sudden memory. "Come on, cowboy," he urged, rising from the bed and easing Vin up with him. "We're gonna try somethin', see if it helps."

All but carrying Tanner, he went into the bathroom and closed the door, then carefully lowered the sick man to the floor and propped him against the wall. Hurrying to the shower, he turned on the hot water and left the stall door open, then went back to Vin. Seating himself on the floor, he maneuvered Vin between his legs and pulled the smaller man's back against his chest, wrapping his arms securely about him and resting a cheek against Vin's head.

"I want you to relax," he directed as steam began to fill the bathroom. "Just relax and try to breathe normally, okay? It's gonna get real hot in here real quick, but it should make breathin' easier."

"Wanta be hot," Vin moaned. "Bin cold too long."

Chris tightened his hold on him, pulling the fevered, shivering body as close against his as he could. "God, Vin, I'm so sorry about all this!" he whispered as guilt stabbed through him again.

"Ain't... yer... fault," Vin wheezed, resting contentedly in those arms, against that body, despite the illness that gripped him.

"Yes, it is. If I hadn't had my head stuck so far up my ass, I would've seen this comin' days ago, would've gotten you to a doctor sooner, would've started takin' care of you sooner. Now you're sufferin' because I was blind, scared and stupid!"

"'S all right," Vin breathed sleepily. "You're here now. That's what matters. Already got more'n... I ever thought I would. Got more'n... I thought I'se allowed."

Chris kissed his hot cheek tenderly. "You're allowed to love and be loved, Vin," he said softly. "Hell, everybody's allowed that much!"

"Not me. Ain't ever bin allowed it. 'Til now. So I reckon I kin take... bein' sick... if'n it means... I git ta have you."

Chris winced at that, hurt by the thought that Vin considered this a fair trade-off, that he found it perfectly acceptable to pay for happiness with his health. Goddamn it, just how fucked-up had his life been that he could say this was "all right"?

Vin relaxed against Chris as the steam gradually eased his breathing, as the heat finally began to chase away the chill that had gripped him for days. No longer having to fight for every breath, he drifted into exhausted sleep, secure in the shelter of Chris's arms.

And for his sake, Chris endured the discomfort of the wet heat, ignored the sweat that poured from his body and drenched his clothes, that plastered his hair to his head, ignored the heaviness of Vin's hot, inert body against him. One leg, trapped beneath Vin's, fell asleep, but he never considered moving it, or moving Vin. His back and tailbone protested the unyielding hardness of the wall and floor, but he ignored them, as well.

He'd sit here all damn night, bear whatever agony it caused, if it meant Vin breathed even the tiniest bit easier...


He heard Nathan's voice out in the hallway and gave fervent thanks. "In the bathroom! Come on in!" Vin started violently at the shout, but Chris quieted him with a quick kiss. "It's all right, cowboy," he soothed. "Nathan's here. We're gonna take care of you now."

The bathroom door opened, and Nathan stepped into the cloud of steam. Realizing immediately what was going on, he shut the door quickly and knelt beside the two men.

"Good thinkin'," he complimented, reaching into his kit and pulling out his stethoscope. "How'd you know to do this?"

Chris smiled wryly. "Adam had the croup once, and me, him and Sarah took a steam bath at three in the mornin'. It sorta stayed with me."

"Good thing it did." Nathan listened intently to Vin's congested lungs and grimaced at what he heard. "Damn, that sounds bad!"

"Sounds a whole helluva lot better than it did twenty minutes ago, trust me," Chris sighed tiredly.

Nathan replaced the stethoscope in the kit, then took out a tympanic thermometer. Pushing aside the long, wet hair, he inserted the thermometer into Vin's ear and took a reading. "Shit," he breathed worriedly, "103.2." He looked at Larabee. "You given him anything lately?"

Chris nodded. "The second dose of his antibiotic, just after you called. I was gonna give him some Tylenol, but," he glanced down at Vin, "once he fell asleep, I didn't wanta move him."

Nathan nodded and reached again into his kit, pulling out a plastic bottle. "Rouse him, give him two." He stood and went to the sink, pulling a small paper cup out of the dispenser and filling it with water. Returning to his friends, he knelt and held out the cup, watching as Chris tried to wake Vin.

"Come on, cowboy," Chris called, gently tapping Vin's cheek, "I need you ta take some medicine for me. Wake up, Vin," he said, tapping again. "I don't want you ta choke."

"Stop," Vin moaned, pushing weakly at the hand and turning his head. "Face... hurts."

"It's the sinus infection," Nathan said. "Once them passages are packed like his probably are, the least little touch is gonna hurt like hell."

"Come on, Vin, wake up and open your mouth," Chris urged. "Got some pills for ya."

"Go ta hell," Tanner slurred.

Nathan chuckled. "Well, at least his spirit's back." He suddenly noticed the bruise darkening Chris's chin and shook his head in disbelief. "Don't tell me he fought you in this condition!"

Larabee arched a blond brow at the medic. "You ever know a condition, short of coma, where Vin couldn't fight?"

Nathan sighed resignedly, well familiar with the Texan's troublesome nature when sick or hurt. "No, I guess not." He watched as Chris finally got Vin to take the pills and drink some water. He also noticed Larabee's tender, protective manner toward the sick man, and the way Vin relaxed against him, seemingly soothed by his mere presence. "I'm guessin' you two got it all worked out between you," he said quietly.

Chris gently brushed the wet hair back from Vin's face, then cradled the younger man to him. "Got a pretty good start," he murmured absently, his whole attention focused on Tanner. "Still got a few things ta talk about, but they can wait 'til he's better." His eyes softened as they rested on Vin's pale and pain-lined face. "Look at what I've done to him, though!" he whispered bitterly. "And the hell of it is, he considers me worth the price."

Nathan smiled gently as relief coursed through him. "Ain't many who know the worth of what they got. I guess Vin's one of the smart -- and lucky -- ones who does." He reached out and laid a strong hand on Chris' shoulder, squeezing firmly, his eyes holding Larabee's. "Trust him on this, Chris," he counseled softly. "Vin ain't often wrong about folks. If he considers you worth all this, could be he sees somethin' in you that you been missin'. Somethin' that does make this worthwhile. Just you make sure you don't disappoint him."

Chris gazed down at the young man sleeping in his arms, and a slight, tender smile curved about his wide mouth and lit his tired eyes. "Don't worry, Nathan," he said quietly, "I came near enough makin' that mistake already. I won't be makin' it again." He ran gentle fingers through Vin's wet, tangled hair. "If this is the price he's willin' to pay for me, then I'm gonna make goddamn sure he gets a helluva deal."


Nathan stayed at the ranch for several hours, helping Chris take care of Vin, and making sure Chris took care of himself. He knew Larabee was obsessive in his concern when any of his men were sick or hurt, and knew that obsessiveness only intensified when Vin was the one suffering. And now that deep, all-consuming concern was compounded by strong feelings of guilt.

"Go. Eat!" he sternly ordered the man leaning over the sleeping Texan. "I turned the burner on under that pot of soup, and it oughtta be warm by now. I want you to eat a big bowl, includin' some of the meat that's in there, and some bread." He fixed fierce eyes on his boss. "No coffee, no alcohol. Not even a beer. Water or juice. Orange juice would be best. You're runnin' on nervous energy as it is, and you for damned sure don't need any caffeine or liquor!"

Chris glared at Jackson. "Anything else?"

"Yeah," Nathan answered firmly, meeting that stare without flinching. "Get some rest, too. Vin needs you, but he needs you strong, clear-headed and steady. You won't be doin' him no good and will only be doin' him harm if you can't take care of him like he needs."


"I mean it, Chris," Jackson insisted. "I'd like ta keep Vin outta the hospital if at all possible. But I gotta tell ya, he ain't far from goin' there right now. Hell, if his fever hadn't dropped, I'd be takin' him in right now. Shape he's in, it won't take much at all to push him right over into pneumonia. And if you get yourself too exhausted or too sick ta take care of him, then he'll end up in the hospital sure as I'm sittin' here. You wanta do that to him, when we all know how he hates that place?"

Chris swallowed hard and dropped his gaze to Vin's face, stung by Nathan's words. "No," he murmured. "I told him I'd take care of him, and I can't afford ta let him down again. Not after all I've already done."

Nathan gazed steadily at Chris, studying the man intently, gauging him. "He needs you, Chris," he said quietly, wanting to make certain Larabee understood this. "More than any doctor, more than any medicine, hell, more than anything, he needs you." He dropped his gaze to Vin, who looked heartbreakingly frail and vulnerable. "I'm not sure any of us realized just how much he needs you until all this shit happened," he breathed. "I'da sworn he could survive anything, but now I'm not so sure. Losin' you, or thinkin' he'd lost you, damn near killed him." He suddenly lifted his gaze to Chris's face, saw plainly the tenderness -- the love -- mirrored there, and felt everything click into place in his mind. Knew what demon Larabee had been fighting for the past two weeks, and why Chris's behavior had sent Vin spiralling into despair. "Seems to me," he said quietly, "that when two people been given a gift this precious, they ought not fight it. They oughtta snatch it with both hands, hang onto it for dear life, and thank God they got it." He smiled slightly, sadly. "You've already lost so much, Chris," he said gently. "I damn sure don't wanta think about what losin' Vin would do ta you."

Chris stared at the medic, startled by his words, and by the understanding -- and acceptance -- he saw in the dark, kind eyes. And, strangely enough, despite all the fears he'd struggled with over the past two weeks, it didn't bother him a bit that Nathan knew. Determination flared in his tired eyes and flooded his lined face, giving his jaw the familiar stubborn set.

"I'm not gonna lose him," he growled, green eyes flashing. "I made him a promise, and I'm gonna keep it. So don't worry, I'll take care of myself. Shit, I'll do whatever it takes to get Vin better. I was stupid, Nathan, and damn near lost him because of it. But no more. Like you said, from now on, I'm hangin' onto him for dear life. Because I know the worth of what I've got."

Nathan smiled and nodded. "Then best you go eat, and get some rest. 'Cause I think you're in for a real long night."


It was, as Nathan predicted, a long night, indeed. Chris ate more than enough to satisfy Jackson, even surprising himself with his appetite, and managed to sleep a couple of hours while Nathan watched over Vin. While Larabee slept, Nathan called Buck to update him on Vin's condition and to let him know the rift between team leader and sharpshooter was well on its way to being healed.

"Well, thank God Almighty!" Wilmington bellowed with his usual exuberance. "That's about the best goddamn news I've heard all year, Nate! Hell, I reckon Junior'll be back on his feet in no time, now that he won't be pullin' any more of Chris's daggers outta his soul."

"Hold on, Buck," Nathan cautioned. "Vin's still real sick, could still end up with pneumonia. He's got a long way ta go toward gettin' better--"

"Yeah, but now he's got a reason ta hang in there and fight," Buck said more calmly. "We both know that if Chris hadn't come around, we'd've been buryin' that boy next week. And I figure we'd've been buryin' Chris the week after that, 'cause if one of us hadn't've killed him, he'd've killed himself. But as long as they're together, then, hell, there ain't nothin' they can't handle." He paused a moment, then asked worriedly, "You sure it's all right between 'em, Nate? You sure Chris's come to his senses?"

Nathan smiled slightly, remembering the light in Larabee's eyes, the deep tenderness in his expression and touch, the way his eyes and hands never strayed far from Vin. The medic also recalled the instinctive way Vin sought Chris, even in sleep, how the mere touch of Larabee's hand or the sound of his voice could soothe and quiet the sick man when nothing else could.

"Yeah, Buck," he said quietly, "I'm as sure of that as I've ever been of anything. Believe me, everything's just fine between them."

"Well, all right, then," Buck said softly, his deep relief evident. "I gotta tell ya, Nate, ol' Chris had me worried there. I don't know what was goin' on inside him, and I for damn sure don't expect him ta tell me, but, Jesus, I ain't seen him like that in a long time! And I never thought I'd see him act that way toward Vin."

Nathan understood then that the big man hadn't a clue about Chris and Vin's feelings for each other, and idly wondered if anyone else on the team even suspected. "Maybe," he said carefully, "he got spooked when he realized just how close he and Vin really are. You know," he forced himself to sound as casual as he could, "for a man like Chris, havin' somebody get that close to him, make him care that much again, hell, it's gotta be scary."

Buck laughed, but there was a note of sadness to it. "Yeah, I guess you're right. The ol' dog just don't wanta admit he's got a heart, and he sure as hell don't wanta admit somebody's gotten inta that heart. I just hated like hell ta see him tryin' ta push Vin away. That boy's the best thing that's happened to Chris since Sarah and Adam died. And I reckon Chris is about the best thing that's ever happened ta Junior. They need each other, and I'm just relieved as hell to hear that Larabee finally wised up ta that!"

Nathan had to smile. "Yeah, he wised up to a lotta things, Buck. Now I just gotta keep him from beatin' himself senseless over all that's happened. I swear, every time Vin coughs, Chris looks like he's been stabbed in the chest. That man wears guilt like Ezra does all them fine suits!"

"Good," Buck said firmly. "Maybe next time, he'll think before he does somethin' this stupid again."

"Buck, let it go," Nathan urged quietly. "Vin's forgiven him--"

"That boy would forgive Chris anything--"

"Maybe so, but if that's his choice, then we have to respect it," Nathan said. "If you keep holdin' this over Chris's head, then all you're gonna do is piss off Vin. Now," he smiled grimly, "is that somethin' you really wanta do?"

Buck gave a low chuckle. "Can't say that it is, Doc. All right," he sighed, "it's forgotten. Now," the familiar smile crept into his voice, "there anything else I should know before I hang up? I finally got a date with that lovely new assistant DA, and I sure don't wanta be late for that."

Nathan scowled into the phone. "I swear, Buck, it's a wonder you ain't the poster boy for STDs! I--"

"STD," Wilmington murmured thoughtfully. "Ain't they the flower people?"

Nathan almost choked. "That's FTD, Buck! I'm talkin' about STDs, sexually trans... Aw, hell, why do I even try?" he groaned at last. "All right, go out, have fun, do whatever it is that you do and that I don't wanta know about. Chris just wanted you to know that he's not comin' in tomorrow, that's all. He's gonna stay here with Vin, take care of him. Believe me, they both need that."

"Uh," Buck was suddenly hesitant, "he ain't leavin' me in charge again, is he? 'Cause, y'know, last time he did that, we had to replace the copy machine and two office chairs--"

"Yeah, but this time Vin won't be there to shoot the copier, and so long as JD doesn't try to re-enact the chariot race from 'Ben-Hur' again, the office furniture should be fine. But, don't worry," he said with a smile, "Chris said Josiah gets to be in charge this time. You're off the hook."

"Thank God!" Buck breathed in deep relief. "I swear, Nate, you got no idea how troublesome a bunch all you boys are until you try ramroddin' this outfit for a while. I just don't see why Chris ain't on some kinda medication--"

"What the hell do you mean I got no idea?" Jackson shouted into the phone. "Who the hell is it that's always gotta try and put y'all back together after some damn fool stunt or because you all refuse ta believe you ain't bullet-proof? Who's the one gets called in the middle of the night 'cause one of you's done everything some poor doctor told ya not to and ended up undoin' all that doctor's work on ya? Who the hell's gotta try and get y'all ta say somethin' besides 'I'm fine' when you're bleedin' all over the goddamn floor? Who the hell's gotta--"

"All right, all right, jeez, Nate, get a grip!" Buck urged, breaking into the medic's tirade. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean ta hit a nerve. Damn, we're touchy tonight!"

"Wonder why," Nathan grumbled.

"Bet I could tell ya." Buck's smirk was audible in his voice, and Nathan could just see those lively brows working up and down.

"Shut up, and go bother that lady DA!" he snapped. "If we're lucky, she'll arrest you for somethin'. It's just like Vin says; you all make my goddamn hair hurt! Now, go on, have fun, but be careful. Remember--"

"Yes, I know," Buck said in a sing-song voice. "'The condom is our friend.' Y'know, pard, you need ta loosen up, let your hair down. I bet Rain could make it stop hurtin'." And before Nathan could reply, he hung up.

Jackson slammed the receiver down onto its cradle, gritting his teeth so hard his jaws ached. Strange, he never used to grit his teeth. Not until he'd hooked up with this bunch...


Chris awoke after a couple of hours, and felt better than he had all day. When he walked into his bedroom to check on Vin, Nathan noted with deep relief the clarity in the green eyes and the sharp focus of the mind behind them. Even so, he could still see what the past two weeks had done to the man. Larabee had lost weight, had obviously been neither sleeping nor eating, and his face was haggard, drawn and deeply lined. Now, though, watching him sit at Vin's side and immediately take a pale, hot hand in his, and seeing the restless sharpshooter settle at once and seem to grow more comfortable with that hand around his and that low, soothing voice in his ear, Nathan knew Buck had been right. With their bond restored, there was almost nothing these two could not overcome.

He did wonder, though, what Buck would say if he ever discovered just how deep, and in what direction, that bond had grown...

Finally, a little after ten-thirty, Chris kicked Nathan out and ordered him back to Rain. They'd gotten more water, another dose of Tylenol and some soup broth down Vin, and the sick man was sleeping again, his temperature down to 101. With the aid of a humidifier Chris had dug out of a closet, Vin was breathing easier and actually seemed to be resting. So, with a promise to call at any hour should he need to, and after getting an earful and a carefully written list of instructions, Larabee sent Nathan home.

Once Jackson had gone, Chris changed into a T-shirt and sweatpants, turned the overhead light off and the lamp on, and stretched out on the bed next to Vin. Relaxing against a stack of pillows, remote in hand, he turned on the TV, turned the volume down, and idly flipped through the various news channels, scowling in disgust.

Campaign 2000. Jesus, he'd be glad to see November 8th, when the whole presidential election circus would be over...

He flipped to one of the movie channels, and his scowl deepened. Yeah, right, some dude saving the earth from asteroids. Next. He paused at another movie and grinned slightly, shaking his head. "Terminator." One of Vin's favorites. Then he sighed and resumed surfing. Watching it just wouldn't be the same without Tanner's usual smart-assed commentary. Finally, he settled on "Tombstone."

There was just something about Ringo he liked...

He jerked awake with a start, not knowing what had roused him, but certain something was wrong. He reached for Vin, but felt only empty space. Then he heard the sound again, and was on his feet in a flash, rushing to the bathroom and flinging open the door.

"Jesus, Vin!" he gasped, his heart slamming into his ribs.

Tanner was hunched over the toilet, trembling violently and retching convulsively. But apparently he'd long since emptied the contents of his stomach, and now was down to dry, painful heaves.

"My God!" Chris hurried to the younger man and dropped to his knees, circling a strong arm about the slender, shaking figure and holding the long hair back from Vin's face. "Jesus, cowboy, why didn't you wake me?"

When at last his stomach stopped heaving, Vin groaned thickly and collapsed exhaustedly against Chris, his eyes closed, his face gray. "Didn't... wanta... bother ya," he whispered weakly, shaking uncontrollably from an unrelenting chill.

Chris held him close, trying to infuse some of his own warmth into the shivering body. "Bother me, Vin, please!" he begged. "That's what I'm here for. How can I take care of you if you won't let me?"

Vin burrowed as deeply as he could into that embrace, more comforted by the feel of those arms about him, that body against him, than he had ever imagined was possible. "Sorry," he breathed. "Reckon... I jist... ain't used ta this."

Chris lightly kissed one hot temple. "Then get used to it," he ordered in a low, firm voice. "This is the way it's gonna be from now on."

"Damn," Vin sighed with a weak smile, "I'se kinda hopin'... ta stop throwin' up soon."

Chris chuckled and kissed him again. "All right, pard, that part we can live without. But the rest of it is non-negotiable." He slipped a hand under Tanner's chin and lifted his head until their eyes met. "I'm serious about this, Vin," he said in a firm, clear voice. "I love you, and I want to be with you. Not just through the good stuff, but through all the ugly stuff, as well." He gazed deeply into those sick, tired eyes and ached at the disbelief he saw mirrored in them. "God, you still don't get it, do you?" he whispered sadly, gently stroking Vin's fevered cheek. "It's all or nothin' with me, Tanner. I've never done anything half-way, and I for damn sure don't love half-way."

Vin frowned up at him, wanting more than anything to believe him, trying desperately to do so, yet unable to imagine such a love. "I jist... ain't ever had... nothin' like that b'fore," he whispered. "Ain't ever had... nobody want me... like that b'fore."

It was Chris's turn to frown as he gazed down into the face that, even drawn and lined with illness and now the color of cold ashes, was still beautiful to him. "God, Vin, how could somebody not want you?" he asked fervently. "How is it that you of all people could go this long without having ever been loved?"

Vin managed a weak shrug, then lay his head once more against Chris's chest and closed his eyes. "Had a few fellers say it," he breathed exhaustedly. "But... way they treated me... I don't reckon they really meant it. Not like you do, anyway. Jesus, Chris, I'm tired!" he moaned, shivering again.

"I know." He tenderly kissed the top of Vin's head. "Why don't we get you cleaned up, get you back to bed?"

Vin nodded weakly. "Keep holdin' me like this," he wheezed, "'n you kin do anything ya want to me."

"Well, then," Chris growled against his ear, "I guess I'd better get me a list of 'things to do' started, huh? Give us both somethin' ta think about while you're recuperatin'."

Vin shifted slightly and raised fever-bright eyes to the face above him, the face that had haunted his dreams for so long. Unable to resist its lure, he raised trembling fingers to that face, stroking it lightly, committing the feel of it to his memory. "I've wanted ya... fer so long now," he breathed hoarsely. "But it ain't... it ain't jist want. I love ya, Chris. Ain't ever come close ta feelin' this way 'bout nobody b'fore. Didn't even know I could feel this way. That's why... earlier..." He licked his lips, tired to his very soul, but wanting -- needing -- Chris to understand. "All them things I said... 'bout not lettin' ya use me... I couldn't take it, Chris, not from you." Tears filled his eyes, and he was too weak, too sick, to hold them back. "Mebbe if'n I didn't love ya so... it wouldn't matter--"

"Ssh, hush, Vin, hush," Chris whispered, laying a finger lightly against Tanner's mouth to silence him, his own eyes filling. "I want you ta listen to me, cowboy," he ordered gently. "First of all, it does matter. Nobody should ever be used like that. And the word love should never, ever be attached to what was done ta you." He ran trembling fingers through Vin's sweat-damp, tangled hair, unable to bear the thought of this young man ever having known such vile treatment. "Jesus, when I think about how you've suffered--" His voice broke and he bowed his head, closing his eyes tightly and clenching his jaws as he struggled for control.

Vin stared up at him in confusion and wonder, amazed that his pain could affect this strong, fierce, proud man so. "Chris?" he whispered, again brushing his fingers lightly against Larabee's face. "It's all right, Chris, really," he assured him. "It don't matter--"

"Goddamn it, Vin, it does matter!" Chris said harshly, raising his head and opening flashing, furious eyes. "You matter, you hear me? And you do not deserve to be treated as if you don't!" He saw the fear flooding the over-bright blue eyes and let his anger go, his demeanor softening at once. "Shit, now I've scared you again," he breathed. "I'm sorry, Vin, I'm not mad at you, I promise. The only ones I'm mad at -- hell, furious at -- are the bastards who've used you in the past and convinced you that's all there is, that's all you deserve. My God," he whispered fervently, laying a shaking hand to Tanner's hot, ashen cheek, "there is so much more, and you deserve all of it. And I want to show you." He smiled slightly, softly, his green eyes glowing. "I love you, Vin, and while I want you more than I've wanted anyone since Sarah, I need you to believe that I will never, ever hurt you, use you, like others have. I'd rather die. You hear me?"

Vin nodded slowly. He wanted to believe Chris, wanted to believe him more than anything in the world. But it was so hard... "I hear ya," he whispered, letting his head fall against Chris's chest and closing his eyes. "'N I love you, too... Ohhh," he groaned, stiffening slightly and clutching at Chris's chest, "I don't feel so good!"

Chris was instantly alarmed. "You gonna throw up again?"

Vin grimaced and swallowed hard. "Don't... see how. Ain't got... nothin' left... Oh, shit!" he rasped, swallowing again and trying to rise to his knees. "Shit, no!"

Chris helped him and over the toilet, held his hair and stroked his back as the hard spasms racked him. He brought up only a little bile before falling again into dry, painful heaves, and was sobbing brokenly when he finally finished. Chris held him close and rocked him in his arms for a long while, his own face streaked with tears. When Vin at last was quiet, Chris gently cleaned him up, and got him back into bed.

It continued that way through the night, with Vin tortured repeatedly by vicious bouts of nausea as illness played havoc with his weakened, overwrought system. Chris was with him through each episode, holding him, stroking him, comforting him, doing all he could to ease his suffering. Afterward, he cleaned Vin up with infinite tenderness and loving patience, got him back to bed and got what water into him he would take, then slipped into bed and held him close until they both fell asleep, until they were both awakened by the next round.

Through it all, Vin clutched at Chris, clung to him, leaned on him and rested against him, comforted in his suffering by the strength that never failed him, by the tenderness that never wavered, by the man who never left him. Chris's devotion was a revelation, and a wonder, to him; he'd never known, had never even imagined, anything like it. And as he gathered it to him, adding it to everything else Chris had told him and shown him, Vin felt his desire, his need, to believe in Chris, and in his love, beginning to overtake his fears and doubts.

Maybe, just maybe, it didn't have to be a lie, after all...


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