He emerged slowly into something that passed for wakefulness, and lay for moments in a fog of groggy confusion, trying to remember why he was still in bed with sunlight flooding the room. Then he heard the wheezing of the man beside him, the harsh coughs that tore from him, and remembered with a sharp pang of worry.


Immediately he opened his eyes and turned his head, exhaling in relief to see that Tanner was still asleep, and not in the clutches of another bout of sickness. At that thought, he turned to look at his clock, and stared at it in shock. 9:20. Jesus, he was late...

No, wait. He closed his eyes and willed himself to relax. He'd told Nathan he wouldn't be in. Damn good thing, too. He'd been up until after four with Vin, trying to nurse him through the spells of vomiting, and snatching what little sleep he could between them. His head was as thick as the mud outside, and his eyes felt as if truckloads of gravel had been poured into each.

Even so, he knew he had to feel a hell of a lot better than Vin...

He turned onto his side and studied the young man sleeping beside him. God, Vin looked awful! Dark circles ringed his eyes, and his skin had paled to a ghastly shade of gray. His high cheekbones jutted out in sharp relief over the sunken hollows of his cheeks, and his lips were dry and cracked. Even his hair had lost its sheen, the once-shiny wealth of curls now falling about his face in dull, lank strands that gave further testimony to the totality of his illness.

"But don't worry, cowboy," he murmured, reaching out to tuck the covers more closely about Vin's neck and shoulders, "I'm gonna getcha through this. Whatever it takes, however long it takes, we're in this together."

"Chris," Vin murmured faintly, still asleep. Without waking, he freed one arm from the covers piled atop him and reached for Larabee, closing his hand about the one that rested atop his chest.

Chris smiled softly at that, his heart filling at that trusting touch. With an unsteady sigh, he reached out and pulled Vin to him, cradling the hot, slender body close against his and kissing the top of Vin's head.

"G'night, cowboy," he breathed, his own eyes closing. "I gotcha. And I ain't ever gonna letcha go."


Chris rubbed his forehead in frustration and exhaled sharply into the phone. "No, Buck, you cannot shoot Lymond Phelps... Because he's a goddamn federal agent, that's why!" he bellowed, shooting to his feet and pacing around the kitchen. "Yes," he ground out through gritted teeth, "I know he's only FBI, but interagency cooperation means we can't shoot 'em! What?" He stopped pacing, his whole face screwing itself into a deep frown. "How the hell should I know what kinda parents name their kid 'Lymond'?" he shouted. "Put Josiah on the phone now!" His lean frame tensed, and his glittering eyes narrowed. "Whatta ya mean he ain't back from lunch?" he growled. "It's three-o'-fuckin'-clock... Travis?" he whispered harshly. "And an FBI assistant director? Goddamn it, Buck, what've you done?" He tensed further, his temper nearing the boiling point. "Put Standish on now!"

There was a long pause, then a honeyed drawl poured smoothly into his ear. "Good afternoon, Mr. Larabee. I trust you are enjoyin' a pleasant respite away from the frenetic environs--"

"Buck says you slugged one of the Fibbies," he hissed through clenched teeth. "That true?"

Again there was that pause, then again there was that drawl. "Really, Mr. Larabee, 'slugged' is such an ugly, unsophisticated term--"

"Did... you... hit... an FBI... agent?" Chris growled.

"I suppose if one were to look at it only in such a crude, simplistic manner, without takin' into account the various extenuatin' circumstances--"

"Goddamn it, Ezra!"

"Then I suppose one could assert with some accuracy that I hit him," Standish finally admitted. Chris could almost see the man studying his beautifully manicured nails as he spoke.

Breathing hard, unable to unclench his teeth and all but blinded by fury, Chris groped his way back to the table and sank into his chair. He could actually feel the vein in his forehead throbbing. The vein he'd never even known was there until he'd become shepherd to a flock of six unruly black sheep.

"Please," he croaked, "just tell me no one is filing any official complaints!"

"Well," by now Standish would be playing with that damn deck of cards, "that would be rather inadvisable as the man in question initiated the entire altercation."

"Let me guess," Chris breathed, again rubbing his forehead, "he tripped and fell into your fist?"

"No." Again Standish paused, then said quietly, "Actually, he insulted Mr. Tanner."

Chris straightened at that, his rage at his men subsiding. His eyes, however, remained dangerously narrowed. "Oh?"

"Apparently," Ezra's drawl grew clipped, the smooth voice cool; Chris could almost see the disgust flaring in the dark green eyes, "the cretin currently testifyin' to the low hiring standards practiced by my former agency of employ has some familiarity with Mr. Tanner from the latter's days as a bounty hunter. No doubt our wily colleague managed to track down and apprehend an absconder while all the so highly educated and superbly trained morons of the Federal Bureau of Ineptitude were still searching for their asses with two hands and a mirror, to borrow one of our sharpshooter's colorful colloquialisms."

Chris massaged the bridge of his nose. "Ez," he put in softly, "could we shorten the sentences here? I don't have my secret decoder ring with me."

"What? Oh, yes, of course. Well, this so-called agent, one Phineas Weeks -- tell me, Mr. Larabee," he asked in a deeply pained tone, "why would any supervisor pair together agents named Lymond and Phineas? Has no one any regard for the delicate sensibilities--"


"Oh, very well," the Southerner sighed grudgingly. "Mr. Weeks spoke rather invidiously of Mr. Tanner's character, intelligence and abilities, and could not be persuaded to cease and desist spewing his noxious poison. We appealed to his partner, Lymond," on Standish's supple tongue, the name became something slimy and revolting, "but he, alas, was no help. In fact, he said he had always found Phineas," again the name was turned into something repugnant, "a most astute judge of character, and asserted that if Mr. Weeks had formed such an opinion of Mr. Tanner, then he was prepared to accept it."

"He said that, did he?" Chris asked softly. He'd never liked Lymond Phelps, considered him an ass and an insult to law enforcement. But he'd always -- well, almost always -- tolerated the man out of professional courtesy. That was going to change. "So exactly when did you hit Weeks?"

"I believe," the drawl took on an uncharacteristic hard edge, "it was just about the time he referred to Mr. Tanner as, and I quote, 'an ignorant Texas hick more qualified to shovel horse shit than to carry a badge.' Although it could have been his description of our sharpshooter as an 'illiterate, gun-toting redneck' that actually drove me over the brink." There was yet another pause, then he added flatly, "If you are expectin' an apology, I'm afraid I must disappoint you."

"I'm not askin' for one," Chris said in a low, hard voice. "Not from you, anyway. Hell, I'm glad you slugged him. Now it won't come as such a shock to him when I do it. So what's Josiah doin' with Travis and the FBI honcho?"

"Explainin' matters," Chris could hear the smile in the words, "in his own inimitable and unimpeachable manner. I fully expect Director Travis to return demanding Phineas's rather bruised head upon a very sharp pike. And the 'FBI honcho' is none other than Assistant Director John 'Black Jack' Hogan, so he may well get it. From what I hear, Director Hogan has a very low tolerance for stupidity and very high expectations of his agents. Expectations which imbeciles like Phelps and Weeks must surely violate by their very existence. But, then," he sighed, "what can one expect from neanderthals who cannot even manage to coordinate the tragically de rigueur Brooks Bothers suits? I despair, Mr. Larabee, I truly despair!"

"Yeah, well, Ez," Chris said with a grin, "not everybody's born with your natural flair and sophistication. Some of us are just doomed to buy off the rack. It's the cross we bear."

"My God!" Standish's shudder could be heard in his words.

"Life's a bitch, what can I say?" He sobered. "Thanks for takin' up for Vin," he said softly. "I appreciate it. And I know he would, too."

"It was a momentary lapse, I assure you," Ezra said boredly. "I cannot imagine what came over me. You know how I abhor physical violence. And the potential damage to my hand--"

"You're a fraud, Ez," Chris chuckled. "You know that, don'tcha?"

Standish's affronted sniff was clearly audible through the phone. "Mr. Larabee, I haven't the vaguest idea--"

"Yeah, right," Chris said with another chuckle. "Listen, you boys behave, all right? Play nice with all the other children, even the ones with different initials. Remember, we're all brothers and sisters under the great federal umbrella." He waited for an answer, and frowned when he got none. "Ezra?"

"Oh, all right," Standish sighed. "Hopefully, the IRS people they're sending over will be something at least approaching human!"

Chris groaned and sat back in his chair. "IRS people?" Jesus, how many agencies did it take to bring down one measly arms dealer?

"Apparently, in addition to his other nefarious misdeeds, Mr. Williams has been fudging on his taxes. And you know how our benevolent Uncle Sam hates that. We're expectin' two IRS investigators momentarily."

"Don't hurt them," Chris begged softly, "please? And, for God's sake, don't let Nathan go off on any of his 'taxes and the working poor' tirades or let JD pester them with questions about how they plan to collect taxes in the event of a nuclear holocaust, okay? And, you, no tax schemes!"

"Mr. Larabee, you insult me--"

"Better that than shootin' ya. Promise me."

Ezra sighed vexedly. "Oh, very well, Scout's honor--"

"You were never a Scout, Ez."

"Figure of speech," the Southerner returned easily.

"Figure you're dead if I hear you've slugged, conned or even mildly annoyed another agent," Chris warned. "Have Josiah call me when he gets back. And you boys behave. Believe me," he growled, "you don't wanta make me come down there." He clicked off the phone and hung his head.

Jesus, when had he joined a goddamned circus?

He heard a cough then, and the sound of slow footsteps, and looked up to see Vin shuffling into the kitchen, his lean frame hunched over as if every step hurt. Chris shot to his feet and went to him, circling a strong arm about him and guiding him carefully to the table, then eased him into a chair. As Vin groaned and leaned forward, cradling his aching head in his hands and resting his elbows on the table, Chris stood behind him and rubbed his shoulders and back.

"Mind tellin' me what you're doin' outta bed?" he asked quietly.

Vin swallowed and groaned again, feeling every deep ache that throbbed in his body. Through it all, though, he was acutely aware of the gentle pressure of those miraculous hands that massaged him so tenderly.

"Missed ya," he rasped at last, his hoarse voice utterly lacking in strength. "Got cold without ya. Figgered I'd feel better if'n I got up 'n moved about." He grimaced and groaned again. "I'se wrong."

Chris continued to rub his back. "Maybe we should try to get somethin' down you while you're up. You think your stomach could handle some of that soup if I watered it down?"

Vin remembered the ordeal of last night and this morning and shuddered. "Cain't make no promises," he whispered. "Am a mite thirsty, though."

Chris patted one hunched shoulder gently, then moved away to get water and soup for Vin.

"Ever'thing all right at th' office?" Vin asked tiredly, never lifting his head from his hands. "Thought I heard ya yellin' at Buck 'n Ez."

Chris chuckled quietly and brought a glass of water to the table, setting it before Vin and dropping a straw into it. "The FBI guys we've been expectin' showed up, and Ezra's already punched one of 'em out. Small sips, slowly," he cautioned as Vin began to drink. "Don't want a repeat of last night."

Vin winced and hunched lower, ashamed of what he'd put Chris through. "Sorry," he whispered miserably.

"Don't worry about it," Larabee said gently, lightly stroking Vin's cheek. "Feels like your fever's gone down." He moved away and put the bowl of weak soup into the microwave, closing the door and setting the timer. "You know a guy named Phineas Weeks?"

Vin almost gagged on the water. "Shit, yeah. Real asshole. Real stupid asshole." He raised his head with an effort and fixed bleary eyes on Larabee. "You ever read or hear about a walkin' piece'a shit named Arnold Hanes?"

Chris turned to Vin and frowned thoughtfully, setting his hands on his hips. "Hanes," he muttered. "It's familiar... Wait, yeah. Wanted for a string of violent bank robberies in Texas and New Mexico a few years ago, got nabbed, but skipped bail... Holy shit!" he said sharply, his green eyes widening. "You brought in Arnold Hanes?"

Vin nodded. "Yup. Tracked him all the way ta Montana. Weeks was on the case, but he couldn'ta found a hole in the ground if'n he'da fallen into it. Purty boys at the Bureau wanted Hanes bad, 'cause he kep' makin' 'em look like idiots." A slight, mischievous grin curved about his pale mouth and lent a faint light to his faded blue eyes. "They's a mite pissed when I brung him in. 'Specially Weeks. Figgered I somehow jumped his claim." He shrugged. "I never figgered it mattered much who took out the trash, so long's it got took out."

"Jesus," Chris marveled, staring at the sick young man before him and remembering all he'd read about the vicious and violent Hanes. "You were good, weren't you?"

Vin looked up, and his smile turned teasing. "Still am, cowboy," he breathed.

Chris scowled as that grin sent a flush of heat through him. "Don't start nothin' ya can't finish, Tanner," he growled. When Vin nodded contritely and returned to sipping his water, Chris said, "Weeks is one of the FBI agents workin' the Williams case with us. Apparently, he remembers you, too, spouted off once too many times, and Ez popped him for it."

Vin looked up at that, blinking in surprise. "He did?" When Chris nodded, he smiled slightly. "Be sure 'n give Ez my thanks."

"Already did, pard." He frowned worriedly. "You mind workin' with Weeks? If it's gonna be a problem, I can see about gettin' somebody else--"

"Don't fret none," Vin said hoarsely. "I kin handle him. 'Sides," the tired grin reappeared, "he won't come too near me. He made some crack to me once 'bout 'no-good, scum-suckin', vigilante bounty hunters,' 'n 'fore he knew what happened, he was kissin' carpet with my knee in his kidney. Seemed ta take him by surprise. Scared the shit outta him, too."

Chris grinned wolfishly. "I imagine it did." He'd seen Vin strike before, had watched in awe as the lithe, lean body had sprung from perfect and relaxed immobility one moment to furious attack the next, with never a wasted motion. The man was grace and savagery in action, beautiful to watch and lethal as hell.

Like a hawk on the hunt...

The microwave beeped, breaking into his thoughts, and he opened the door, taking out the soup and carrying it to the table. "Sorry it's so bland," he apologized, setting it down before Vin, "but I don't figure your body's ready for much more than colored water just now. But you get well," he reached out and cupped Vin's chin in his hand, raising the pale face and smiling into the tired blue eyes, "and I'll make us a big pot of venison chili. Still got some of that buck you shot just waitin' ta be used."

Vin closed his eyes and nestled his face into that strong hand, cherishing the feel of it against him. As Chris's thumb strayed to his mouth and lightly caressed his lips, he sighed contentedly and smiled slightly, finally allowing himself to believe the man he'd wanted for so long truly wanted him, too.

"Reckon I kin wait fer the chili," he murmured, opening his eyes to gaze contentedly up at Larabee. "Reckon I kin wait fer most anything, now I got what I've really bin wantin'."


Chris pulled a chair around with his foot and settled into it, sitting close by Vin and still stroking his mouth. Clear green eyes locked with exhausted blue ones, and a deep bond that had been immediately forged almost a year ago was instantly renewed and deepened. Now, though, where once that bond had been a mystery, both men knew exactly what it was.

"Yeah, you got me, cowboy," Chris said softly, firmly, his voice and eyes holding no doubt, no uncertainty, no fear whatsoever. "I know you've been hurt in the past, and you know what I've lost. But that's all over now; it's all behind us. Because we got each other, and I, for one, ain't ever lettin' go."


"Ssh, let me finish," he breathed, still stroking that beautiful mouth with his thumb. "When Sarah died, I just knew I'd never find anyone who could love me like she did, who'd know me like she did, who'd give me another chance at the life I lost when I lost her." He smiled slightly. "But damned if you didn't prove me wrong, cowboy. That second chance has been right in front of me all this time, just waitin' for me to see it, and take it. Only I nearly lost it because of my own stupidity. And if I'd lost you, there wouldn't be anything else. I would've thrown away the only real chance at love and happiness that I'd ever get again."

"Ya didn't lose me, though," Vin assured him softly, blue eyes intent on the man who'd become the beginning and end of his world. "I'm still here, 'n I'm gonna be here." He smiled tiredly. "I reckon it'll take more'n the Larabee glare ta git rid'a me."

Chris leaned over and pressed a slow, tender kiss to Vin's lips, thrilling to the sweetness, the rightness, of it. Vin's lips trembled and parted, and Chris accepted the invitation, sliding his tongue over those lips and then slipping it through them, gasping in delight as Vin's tongue met and joined with his, testing, teasing, exploring, giving Chris his first true taste of what he'd so very nearly thrown away.

"God, Vin, I love you!" he breathed unsteadily, pulling reluctantly away as he forced himself to remember how ill, how weak, the younger man was. "And I'm gonna spend the rest of my life convincin' you of that. I want that to be your first thought in the mornin', and your last one before goin' ta sleep." His eyes burned as they gazed into Vin's. "If you forget everything else in this life, I want to make sure you will always remember that I love you!"

Vin took Chris's hands in his and held tightly to them, lacing his fingers through Larabee's and gazing down at them as if fascinated by their joining. He could feel his own fragile, depleted strength waning, but knew Chris's would be there for him when his own failed. Without a doubt, he knew that if he fell right now, Chris would catch him, knew that if he so much as reached out, the man would be there for him in an instant. He'd never had that before in his life, and knew he somehow had to make Larabee understand why it meant so much to him now.

"I love you, too, Chris," he said softly, the words filled with a depth of meaning that belied their simplicity. Blue eyes stark and naked in their honesty were fixed on green, and every ounce of love he felt for this man poured from them. "Ain't ever really known what them words meant b'fore. Ain't ever really understood 'em... I've heard 'em b'fore, but..." Pain and shame swept through him in wrenching waves, and he winced and bowed his head, licking his lips slowly and staring again at his and Chris's entwined fingers as he struggled for the words he needed.

"Vin, don't," Chris said softly, gently, not certain Tanner had the strength for this and wanting to spare him any more suffering. "You don't have ta tell me anything. You don't owe me--"

"Yeah, I do," he breathed hoarsely. "I need ya ta know, ta understand why this means so much to me. Why you mean so much to me. 'N why it's bin so hard fer me ta believe... that you love me." He frowned and tightened his hold on Chris's hands, desperately needing the strength and warmth they offered. This was hard, harder than he'd imagined, and he knew he'd never get through it without holding on to those hands. "You ain't... I mean, I... I ain't no v-- virgin... Aw, hell," he breathed in frustration, feeling the hot flush creeping into his face. "I hate ta tell ya this, cowboy," he whispered at last, his voice barely audible, "but you ain't 'xactly my first."

Chris had the urge to chuckle, but fought it back, refusing even to smile. He could see, could feel, how important this was to Vin, how difficult it was for him, and would not do a single thing to belittle, or even to seem to belittle, the young man's efforts.

"Never thought I was, pard," he said softly, seriously. "And that's all right. You hear me, Vin? It's all right. The past is the past; what happened before us don't matter a lick ta me."

Vin lifted his head and fixed dark blue eyes shot through with pain on the older man's face. "Might not say that when ya hear it," he whispered, his voice trembling uncontrollably. "I ain't ever bin good with folks, Chris. Ain't ever understood 'em. 'N I reckon I... I wasn't always good at... at seein' through 'em." His mouth twisted into a sudden grimace as bitterness surged through him. "Reckon I learned, though," he croaked brokenly. "Shit, I reckon I had to!"

Chris cringed inwardly at those words, at that tone. He knew he didn't want to hear this, but he also knew he had to, if only because Vin thought it so important. And if Vin, who found it so difficult to share any part of himself, his past, with others, felt he had to do this, then Chris figured the very least he could do was listen. So he remained silent and held tightly to Vin's hands, infusing every bit of love and strength he had into that grip.

Vin's gaze drifted past Chris and settled on something in the distance, something only he could see. "Y'ain't the first... ta tell me you love me," he said softly, hoarsely, his broken voice filled with pain. "I heard it a couple'a times b'fore, when I'se younger. But I reckon... you're th' only one that meant it. Th' others," he bowed his head and shrugged, "jist said it ta git what they wanted from me. 'N I'se stupid enough ta b'lieve 'em, 'n give 'em what they wanted. 'N once they got it," he shrugged again, "they jist went back ta their 'real' lives, 'n didn't give no more thought ta me. I'se jist somebody ta scratch an itch for 'em. They said they loved me jist so's they c'd fuck me. 'N I'se stupid enough ta b'lieve 'em, 'n ta let 'em."

Chris's heart broke at those soft, anguished words, as he realized the depth of the betrayal Vin had known. And suddenly Vin's reaction to his declaration of love, and the words the young man had screamed at him in the rain, all made perfect -- and hideous -- sense.

<<Lied ta me... got me ta trust ya... jist so's you c'd hurt me... Ain't nobody never doin' this ta me agin... I ain't no fuckin' toy, and 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'...>>

<<Oh, Jesus, Vin!>>

He never felt the tears streaming down his face, never felt the tight, painful constriction of his throat that strangled all sound. Instead, he felt only his hideous, searing ache for Vin, heard only the soft, hoarse voice that poured forth still more of the unbearable pain.

"First one ta do it was the man in the last foster home I'se in," Vin went on, unable to stop, his wide, unblinking gaze fixed on the horrible images from his past. "They had horses... He let me work 'em, take care of 'em, 'n he'd watch while I done it... He said I'se beautiful, like some wild creature... He come inta my room one night... said he needed me... loved me..." His voice broke repeatedly and tears ran down his face, yet still he continued. "Last one who'd ever said they loved me was my mama... I knew what he meant was differ'nt, but he sounded like he meant it... God help me, Chris, I let him... Four, five differ'nt nights after that he came... He always said he loved me, 'n I b'lieved him, 'n I let him take me..."

He sniffed and wiped impatiently at his tears as a streak of anger shot through him. "Then one day, I asked him... asked him what it meant... what we was doin'..." His face twisted as rage and bitterness rose through him, and his soul still burned in pain. "He said it meant I'se his whenever he wanted me, but that if I ever mentioned it again he'd beat the shit outta me. Said he had a good fam'ly life, a good setup with the state, 'n he wasn't gonna let no orphan queer ruin that fer him, no matter how beautiful I was or how good in bed I was. Said he could git rid'a me 'n have another ta take my place in no time. That night, I heard him with one'a th' others, one'a the girls... I reckon he wanted me ta hear, so's I'd know my place... I packed up my stuff, took the money the state sent 'em fer keepin' me, 'n run away. Made it to the bus station, got a ticket fer the first bus headin' out, 'n I never looked back. 'At's how I landed in Denver." He shook his head slowly. "I'd jist turned fifteen."

"Oh, Jesus!" Chris gasped, feeling as if he'd been punched in the gut. In the heart.

Vin seemed not to hear. Instead, he frowned thoughtfully. "Seems it was always somebody in power over me, somebody in authority. Reckon that's how they knew they c'd git by with it. Even if'n I told, which they knew I wouldn't, it'd be my word against theirs, 'n theirs'd naturally carry more weight. Who'd b'lieve a nobody like me? In the Army, it was my platoon sergeant. Shit, who was I gonna tell there?" he asked bitterly. "We'da both been court martialled... So I jist decided not ta reenlist. Got out with an honorable discharge, a few decorations, 'n what was left'a my pride." His voice trembled and broke repeatedly as anger, pain and shame scoured his soul, and tears ran unheeded down his ashen cheeks. He clung tightly, desperately, to Chris's hands, but could no longer bring himself to look at the man, unable to bear the disgust and loathing he was certain he would see in those green eyes.

"Had mebbe one or two fellers after that was decent to me, but the minute they said the 'l' word, I'se outta there," he said softly, hoarsely, still avoiding Chris's eyes. "Wasn't nobody ever gonna do that ta me agin. Wasn't nobody ever gonna say he loved me jist so's he c'd fuck me. Swore I'd kill the first sonuvabitch who tried, or kill myself if'n I let it happen. Swore I'd never let nobody say that word ta me, swore I'd never say it ta nobody else, 'cause I knew it was jist a lie. Then you come along..." His voice caught as he remembered the flood of emotions - the knowing and the wanting and the needing -- that had engulfed him and all but drowned him the first time those green eyes had stared into his soul. "'N it was all I c'd do not ta scream it out at the top'a my lungs. Even if it was a lie, even if it didn't mean nothin' at all, all's I ever wanted was ta hear you say it ta me... Jesus," he sobbed brokenly, exhaustedly, bowing his head, "how pathetic does that make me?"

Chris moved closer still to Vin and pulled him into his arms, cradling the slender, shaking body tightly to him and resting his cheek against Vin's head. All at once, he wanted to hold Vin like this forever, to shelter him against the world that had treated him so cruelly, to protect him from the pain he'd done nothing to deserve, to show him that here, in these arms at least, he was safe, was loved in a way that would never, ever seek gratification at the cost of his soul.

"Not pathetic, cowboy," he whispered, holding fiercely to the young man in his arms. "Hell, I figure it makes you about the bravest man I've ever known. That you can even manage to say the word after what's been done ta you, much less feel it for me... God, Vin, I just don't have the words ta tell you what a gift you've just given me!"

"Some gift," Vin muttered hoarsely, closing his eyes and resting against Chris, taking refuge from illness, exhaustion and the pain of his past in those strong, loving arms. "More like used goods. Wouldn't blame ya if'n ya didn't want me no more. Hell, I ain't sure I'd want me."

"Then it's a damn good thing you ain't me," Chris said firmly. He tightened one arm about Vin, and gently ran his other hand through Tanner's lank, dirty hair. "Because I do want you, Vin. Goddamn it, I could cry for all that's been done ta you, I could rage and scream and curse for all the pain and betrayal that's been heaped on you, and God knows I could gladly kill the bastards who've used you in ways no one should ever know. But none of that changes the way I feel about you. God, yes, I want you, Vin, so much I'm chokin' on it! But more than that, cowboy, much more than that, I love you, and I want a chance ta show you what those words really mean. I don't wanta fuck you, Vin, and I don't want you ta fuck me. I wanta show you what Sarah showed me -- that there is a vast, deep, enormous difference between 'fucking' and 'making love.'"

Vin frowned slightly at that, confused. "Didn't know there was a differ'nce," he murmured.

Chris pressed a kiss to the top of his head. "Oh, yeah, cowboy, there's a huge difference. Fuckin' is just two bodies goin' at it. But makin' love... It takes more than your body, Vin. It takes your heart and your soul, as well. It takes everything you've got to offer, everything you want to give, everything you've ever been and felt and known. And that, cowboy, is what I want for us. It's what I want to give ta you."

Vin struggled to lift his head from Chris's chest and sat up slowly, smiling gratefully at the strong hand that clamped about his arm to steady him. He dropped his tired gaze to that hand, then laid his own atop it. "Back in that foster home, when I asked how he c'd say such things ta me after tellin' me he loved me, the bastard laughed at me." He swallowed against the pain that rose up hard and sharp within him at the memory. Hot tears scalded his eyes, and the laugh he tried to give ended on a hitching sob. "He said I had no right questionin' what I had or askin' for more, that a stupid little shit like me oughtta jist take what I c'd git 'n be grateful, 'cause I wasn't ever gonna be allowed no more. 'N all these years I b'lieved him. B'lieved ever'body was like him, b'lieved all 'love' meant was lettin' somebody use me..."

He raised his head and searched Chris's face intently, the deep, fierce gaze and the strong, chiseled features, and let the love pouring from the man wash through him, easing the aches that plagued his sick body and the weariness that burdened his soul. A soft sigh escaped him, and a truly contented smile lit his pale and haggard face.

"But I'se wrong," he breathed, letting the truth, this feeling, take root in his soul. "That ain't it at all. All them things he said 'n done, all the things them others said 'n done, they was wrong. That wasn't love at all." He reached out and laid a pale and shaking hand against Chris's chest, feeling the beating of his heart and knowing his own life was now and forever tied inextricably to it, and to the man in whose chest it beat. "This is love," he whispered. "This is the truth. I'm yours 'n you're mine. You're really 'n truly mine."

"Oh, yeah, cowboy," Chris murmured, his hands now all that held the exhausted young man upright, "I'm all yours. From now on. I can't imagine why you'd want me, but you sure as hell got me. Now," he dipped his head toward the bowl he'd set before Vin, "why don't you try ta eat some--"

Vin grimaced and shook his head slightly. "Ain't hungry. Ain't sure it'd stay down." He sighed, leaning still further into Chris's grip. "Mebbe later."

Chris nodded, not surprised. Hell, he wasn't sure he could eat after what Vin had just told him. "Later it is, then." Realizing how close Tanner was to sinking to the floor, Chris smiled slightly and slipped his arms about him. "Now," he said firmly, carefully easing him to his feet, "let's get you back to bed before you get pneumonia, as well."

"Don't want pneumonia," Vin slurred, lightheaded with exhaustion and almost giddy with realization that Chris was his. "Jist want you. Want you ta show me this makin' love thing you's talkin' about. Sounds right nice."

Chris laughed and shook his head as he all but carried Vin from the kitchen. "Not today, Tanner, sorry. You'd only pass out or die, and that'd take an awful lotta the fun out of it for me."

Vin nodded and let his eyes close, trusting that Chris would not let him fall. "Mebbe after I rest a bit, then," he agreed. "Don't wanta spoil yer fun."

Chris laughed again. "Don't worry, cowboy, we got a lotta fun ahead of us. And I plan ta get you well so you can enjoy every minute."

At last he got Vin back into bed and pulled the covers over him, then sat down at his side. Vin fell asleep almost immediately, but not before his hand found and closed around Chris's. And not even in sleep did he let go.

Nor did Chris let go of him.


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