Author: Ruby J.

AU: ATF

Rating: Slash. C/V NC17 for m/m expressions of affection, and angst.

Disclaimer: They don't belong to me, not even at Christmas. Sob!

Note: This story deals with Vin's recollections of past Christmases. There are traumatic experiences involved, and while they are not explicit, they are an essential part of the story. The warm, fuzzies are for Mel. And a special thanks to the best Beta around, Sue N.

Merry Christmas to All!

 

 

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

 

Chris Larabee drifted up from a deep, easy slumber. For a moment he lay in his bed, trying to isolate the reason he had waked. The silence struck him first; that insulated, velvety absence of sound that came with a heavy snowfall. Then, when he opened his eyes, he realized he was alone in the big bed. Vin was gone.

He turned his head towards the window; the panes seemed to glow with the pale, cold illumination of a bleak winter's night. After a few minutes of waiting to see if Vin had merely gone to use the bathroom, Chris muttered under his breath and reached for the robe at the foot of the bed. He thrust his arms through the sleeves and closed it over his naked body. He didn't like waking in the middle of the night without Vin tucked against him. It usually meant the sharpshooter had been having nightmares again. Chris sighed. Hell, he had plenty of his own, but they had slowly faded from horror to sadness, leaving him aching for what he had lost, but no longer in despair. Not since Vin had come into his life, into his bed, into his heart. He wished his presence could banish Vin's painful memories and dreams in the same way, and at times it seemed it had, but then he would have a night like this, and Chris would wake to find himself alone.

He padded down the chilly hallway and looked into the den. The lights on the Christmas tree they had decorated earlier that day shed a soft glow into the room. Vin was huddled into the corner of the couch, wrapped in the quilt Nettie Wells had made for him. His dark blue eyes reflected points of color from the illuminated Christmas tree. The lights played over his profile, touched his chestnut hair with reddish glints, gilded his finely cut lips and chiseled jaw. He looked young, vulnerable, and so beautiful that Chris's breath caught in his throat. There were times when his love nearly overcame him -- when his soul ached right along with his body and he wanted nothing more than to lose himself in his lover's embrace -- times like this. He curbed the temptation to swoop down on the sharpshooter, knowing that Tanner's reflexive defenses could be lethal. Instead he coughed softly and stood just inside the doorway. "Vin, you all right?" he asked quietly.

A slim shoulder lifted in a shrug. "Reckon so."

"Mind if I join you?"

A dip of his head. "Reckon not."

Chris came around to the front of the couch. "Scoot down." He did, and Chris sat sidewise on the couch, legs spread so Vin could lay back against his chest. He took that weight gladly, wrapped his arms around Tanner's body and held him close. He could feel the tension still vibrating though his frame. "Something's got you tied up in knots." He placed his hands on Vin's shoulders and began a slow, deep, massage.

Vin sighed. His head dropped forward, and he let Chris work his tense muscles. He had hoped that his nightmares wouldn't wake Chris, had tried to be quiet and slip from the bed in silence. He should have known better. As close-tuned as he and Larabee were, that was impossible, and it ran both ways; he could *feel* Chris's every thought, every hurt. Times had been when that closeness to another human being would have sent him running for cover like a wounded wolf afraid to show its weakness to the pack. He'd done enough running in his life, and it was still an amazement to him that his last dash for escape had led him right to Team Seven and Chris Larabee. From the moment those green eyes had met his, Vin knew that his running days were numbered.

He had friends, a job that was his dream. A home. Most incredibly, here he was, in the strong arms of the man he loved, and the damn nightmares were still haunting his sleep.

"You wanna talk about it?" Chris asked.

"Told ya, Chris. I don't remember always. Sometimes it's jist a feelin' that wakes me up shakin'. It's stupid."

Chris kissed the soft hair beneath his chin. "It's not stupid. Just human. Ask Josiah. He'll tell you we all've got fears and bad memories. I do."

Vin shifted in his arms so he could see Chris's face. "Y'ain't the one who cain't sleep on Christmas Eve. Hell, I wanted this t'be perfect. Didn't need my ghosts comin' out t'haunt me, like that movie 'bout Scrooge."

Chris raised a surprised eyebrow. "Never took you for the holiday movie type, Vin." He said it lightly, and was startled when Vin suddenly pulled away from him and rose abruptly from the sofa, Nettie's quilt trailing off his shoulders.

"Yeah, I seen 'em all. Ev'ry damned one ever made up to the time I's fifteen. Ya wanna know what torture is? What the worse thing is you c'n do to a kid? It ain't beatin' the shit outta him, r' lockin' him in a dark room fer hours. It's givin' him a look at what other folks got that he'll never, ever have. Like a Christmas. All those holiday lights, n' presents. Families and kin sittin' 'round a big ol' holiday table, singin' carols and holdin' hands --" Vin's voice cracked down to a hoarse whisper. "They'd set us down at the home, Chris. Showed us what we was s'posed t'have, but didn't, 'cause we was flawed, 'r too old, r' jist not what folks was lookin' fer in a kid. Didn't smile enough, couldn't read a fuckin' --"

At that, Chris was off the couch like a shot. His hard, strong, infinitely loving hands closed over Vin's shoulders and turned him. "Jesus, Vin ..." And there he stopped because he didn't know what he could say. I'm sorry, just didn't cut it. Vin trembled in his hold, warring against pain and memories, trying to keep the lonely, frightened youth inside of him from breaking free of his grown man's restraint. Chris could feel that battle, and couldn't bear that Vin should fight it alone. "Tell me," he whispered, his breath warm and gentle on Vin's cheek. "Let it go, partner."

"I cain't," he said with quiet despair. "You don't wanta know. Believe me." There was such hurt and bewilderment in those blue eyes, the eyes of a child deprived of love, of warmth, of security. They reflected those bright lights strung on the tree, and Chris thought of Adam at Christmas, his wide eyes lit with multi-colored stars, filled with wonder and innocent joy. That was what Christmas should bring to a child, not pain.

"You afraid I can't take it?" Chris asked, his mouth touched with a grim smile.

Vin blinked. "Ya shouldn't hafta take it, Chris. No reason you should."

"I can think of a damn good reason." He lifted Vin's face to his, stroked his thumb across the plane of Vin's cheekbone, slid the pad of it gently across Vin's lips, then bent his head. "I love you," he whispered just before he set his lips on Vin's. He let the kiss give testament to his words. He gathered the smaller man close, held him in his arms. "Tell me, Vin. Let me take some of that burden for you, please."

Chris's strength flowed into Vin, the warmth of his body was the most comforting security he had ever felt. He wondered what it would be like to tell someone, to let some of the pain leak out. He didn't know. No one else had ever asked. Vin sighed and took his lips from Larabee's. "I'll tell ya, but it ain't pretty, Chris. And I ain't lookin' fer pity, so jist put that away. I lived this long without it, and I sure as hell don't want it now." The steel was back, the strength. But those eyes were still a child's.

Chris held up his hands. "No pity. But no glossing over things you think I don't want to hear. Let me get one thing first, though, 'cause I think we're both gonna need it before the night is over." He left the den, and Vin sank down on the couch. He thrust his fingers through his hair and wondered why he had agreed to strip his soul.

Chris came back with a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. He set them on the table, but didn't pour. He sat on the couch, leaving Vin the decision to join him, or stay away. Part of Vin, the part that was Larabee's lover, wanted to fly to his side. The other, the man who would have to speak, chose to keep his distance.

"Don't know where to begin," Vin rasped.

"At the beginning."

********************

The boy hid behind the bedroom door, listening to the adult voices coming from the next room. They weren't angry, just pitched low and hard because they were talking about serious matters. Hiram and Addy Latham were talking about his future. His name was Vin Tanner, he was eleven years old, and that morning, they had laid his grandfather in his grave.

"Addy, we can't keep the boy! Wouldn't be fair t' him. Look at us, in our sixties, and not gittin' any younger."

"Hiram, I hate to see him go to that place," Addy said. "He's such a skinny thing, all big blue eyes and that mop of hair. And so shy."

"He's got problems. His grandpa said he's got somethin' wrong with his brain. Makes it hard for him to read and do his mathematics. I don't know how to deal with that, do you?"

"N-no."

"Maybe the folks at the home do! They can help him, Addy. He'll be with other boys, not stuck out here with two old fogeys. And maybe somebody'll take him on, give him the kind of home we can't. You ever think of that?"

"N-no, b-but --"

"But what?" Exasperation roughened Hiram Latham's voice. "Addy, hon. I know you like the boy. He's a fetchin' little feller, real quiet. Too quiet sometimes. But we cain't keep him. I'm sorry. We cain't. We're doin' what his grandaddy would want. We're givin' him the best chance in life we can. He'll be all right. He's a Tanner, like that tough ol' geezer what raised him. You'll see."

The muffled sounds of sobs went on for a few minutes, then silence. Vin heard Hiram's stolid, heavy footsteps in the hall. "Vin! C'mon, son. It's time," he called. "Let's go."

Vin picked up his suitcase. He took a final look around the room that had been his home for the last week. He'd hoped that the Lathams would let him stay. He had tried to be quiet and obedient, had tried to be helpful, and not to get in the way, but they didn't want him. Well, maybe Addy Latham had just a little, but not enough to put her foot down, the way she had when she wanted a new stove. He saw his reflection in the dresser mirror. Who'd want him? A skinny, stupid kid on the verge of being big trouble. Wasn't even much to look at. All eyes and elbows and tousled brown hair. His jaw was too wide, his cheeks too thin. Ugly.

"Vin!"

He startled at the sharp edge in Latham's voice. "Yes, sir. I'm comin'."

Addy Latham had given him a quick arms-length hug, as if she was afraid of holding him too tight, and a paper sack of homemade cookies for the trip. Vin didn't say much during the ride to the Wellesville Children's Home. Neither did Hiram. They parked in front of a three-story red brick house. Vin got out of the car and followed Hiram up the front steps. Latham rang the bell, and the door was opened by a man wearing dark slacks and a sweatshirt with the logo of the Children's home embroidered on the breast. He frowned at Vin, gave Latham a cold look. "This is the boy?"

"Yeah. Got his birth certificate and school records in this envelope, got his doctors records, too. His grandpa was real careful to make sure his immunizations were up to date."

Vin thought it sounded like he was a dog being handed over to new owners. Yep, he had his papers and his shots. Do what you want with him, he's yours now. He blinked away the sheen of tears. His heart was pounding hard enough to shake his thin body. For a moment, a hopeful, impossible moment, he thought Hiram might change his mind. Please God, Vin prayed. Take me back. I'll be good. I'll work hard, I'll learn to read. Jist take me home.

"Well, that's it, then." Hiram stood in front of Vin. "It's for the best, son."

Resentfully, Vin thought that if he were Hiram's son, he wouldn't hand him over to this cold-eyed stranger. "Yes, sir." He shook Latham's hand politely, like his mama and his grandpa had raised him to do. Then Latham was gone, and he was alone.

********************

"That was two days b'fore Christmas," Vin said. He turned back to face the room. He'd been staring out the window, seeing the past unspooling in his mind like a reel of grainy film. "The Lathams couldn't even keep me till after the holiday, Hiram was in such a rush to git me out. Cain't blame him. The longer I's there, the more attached Addy would've gotten. Might even have convinced Hiram t'let me stay on."

Chris didn't know what to say. He tried to imagine the pain of an eleven year-old boy being abandoned, and couldn't. "Is that what you wanted?" he asked.

"I wanted my grandpa back. I wanted my life t'be different, but it wasn't ever gonna be like that. So I figgered I'd be all right. I was a Tanner. I was tough. Like my pa. Like my mama said I was. Like grandpa."

"Were you all right?" Chris asked, not wanting to hear the answer.

"No. I wasn't." He sat down in the armchair across from Chris. "I'll tell ya 'bout the Wellesville Children's Home. It was owned and run by a church. A real Bible-thumpin', God-fearin' group of folks -- there ain't nuthin' wrong with that -- folks'r entitled t'believe what they want. But the man in charge, Oldin Thacker, he b'lieved that sayin' about sparing the rod and spoilin' the child. So if ya didn't live up t'what his standards were, you paid fer it. Me an' Oldin, we saw a lot more of each other n'either of us wanted. He said I was stupid and lazy. And I learned a lot a words that got me into trouble. Couldn't read 'em or write 'em, but I sure knew how to say'em." There was a wild, hurt glint in his eyes. "He was the first man I ever wanted t'kill."

************************

Oldin Thacker considered his choice of weapons. There was the old wooden paddle he'd found in a closet when he took over the home. A switch cut from the birch tree out back, a hard leather belt. His hand poised over the belt. His cold eyes surveyed the boy standing in front of him. Tanner. He'd been in the home a year, and had been nothing but trouble from the first day he'd set foot in Wellesville. Couldn't learn, disobeyed, fought with the other boys, had a mouth so foul that lye soap couldn't clean it out. He looked harmless. Small-boned, skinny, wild-haired. But those wide blue eyes had all the guile of Satan.

"You are a thief, Tanner. A thief, a liar, and, a sneak."

"I ain't a thief." Defiant as Lucifer.

"I caught you in my office, rifling though my desk. Maybe you were looking for this?" He opened his hand and threw a small harmonica on the desk. Vin reached out for it, but Thacker was faster. He snatched up the switch and brought it down hard over Tanner's hand. A red welt appeared instantly.

"It's mine!" Vin gasped. "Y'ain't got no right t'take it from me." He rubbed at the welt. It felt like he had stuck his hand in an open flame, hurt so much he wanted to cry, but he wouldn't give Thacker the satisfaction.

"The church and the state give me the right!" Oldin thundered. "Take down your pants."

"No." Wild-eyed, breathless, cradling his wounded hand. The room was small, but he would run if he had to. His eyes flicked to the harmonica. It was the last gift he had from his grandpa. Thacker had taken it from him after he'd been caught fighting in the schoolyard with another boy who had been mocking him. "I won't fight no more. Jist let me have my harmonica, Mr. Thacker. I'm sorry."

Thacker still held the switch in his hand. He walked around the desk, towards Vin. "You won't fight any more?"

"No, sir."

"On the Bible?"

"Yes, sir." Vin's eyes widened, hopeful that maybe he'd said the right thing for a change.

Thacker rested a hand on his shoulder. "I'm right glad to hear you say that, boy." Suddenly, he twisted his hand in Vin's collar, nearly choking him. "I'm gonna make sure sure you mean it." He thrust his arm out hard. Vin fell, striking his cheek against the arm of a chair on the way down, stunning him. He lay on his stomach, panting. Thacker looked at the switch in his hand, set it aside, and picked up the belt. He wanted to make this punishment memorable. He wanted to make it stick in Tanner's mind. That was the way to control the little bastard. He wound the leather around his fist, leaving the buckle end swinging free.

Vin screamed when the first lash struck across his shoulder blades. The thin cotton shirt he wore was no protection from the heavy, stiff leather and brass buckle. He heard his own high, keening wail and was ashamed that he wasn't taking his punishment like a man. The second lash wrung a sharp gasp from him, the third, a whimper. The fourth and fifth brought no sound at all, just the taste of blood from his hard-bitten cheek. Tears spilled down his face. Blood and spittle ran from his mouth, but he didn't cry.

Thacker looked down at the thin, beaten boy at his feet. Scarlet beads of blood spotted his shirt where the buckle had broken his skin. For a moment, Thacker thought that maybe he had gone too far with this one. The leather belt dropped from his hands. "Reckon you learned your lesson, boy?" he hissed as he bent lower. Tanner's lips moved soundlessly. "What did you say?"

Dull blue eyes peered through the curtain of tangled hair. "Fuck you." Scarcely a whisper, but distinct and venomous. Enraged, Thacker turned him over roughly. He wrapped his big hands around the boy's throat and squeezed.

********************

"I figgered if I's gonna die, at least it would be on my own terms," Vin whispered. "I didn't die, though. Jist ended up with this voice and a few scars t'remember him by."

Chris felt sick. "My God, Vin. I hope that bastard's dead."

"I don't know what happened t'him. I c'n tell ya that he wasn't at the home much longer. I got sick at school the next day, wound up at the hospital. I told 'em 'bout Thacker. By the time I's out of the hospital, he was gone. Seems I wasn't the only kid he beat. I's the only one that beat him, though." Vin's teeth glinted in a smile. "Got my harmonica back, too."

"Were things better after?"

"Didn't get beat again, so I reckon that was better. Thacker was at least somethin' to fight against. After him, it was jist an endless round of bein' put on parade every week, hopin' that somebody'd see somethin' they liked in ya. By then I was too old, had a bad reputation. The social workers pinned a label on me that said 'special-needs.'" Vin gave a soft, derisive snort. "Might as well have called me a murderer. The other kids shoulda been grateful. After seein' me, they looked pretty damn good to some a' those folks. Got a lot of them adopted"

Chris couldn't bear to hear another word of that painful litany. He got up from the couch, put his hands on Vin's shoulders and raised him up. "They were wrong, blind, and stupid, Vin." He laid his hand alongside the Texan's cheek. "If they weren't, they would have seen what you are. They would have seen you like I do."

Vin turned his lips to Chris's palm and kissed it. "I was different then."

"I would have known you."

Vin shook his head and stepped away. "I wouldn't have let you get that close."

***************

It was a cold night, starting to snow. Vin stood on the edge of the highway, one hand stuck in the pocket of his thin denim jacket, the other ready to thumb down a ride when the next set of headlights swooped down the highway.There wasn't as much traffic as he had hoped. It was three days before Christmas, and he was in a hurry to get out of town.

That morning, he had stuffed all his belongings in his backpack. Instead of getting on the bus back to the Wellesville Children's Home after school, he'd told a lie to the bus driver, said he had detention. They didn't question that. Seemed he had a lot of detentions; for incomplete schoolwork, for inattention in class, for fighting. Wasn't like he started the fights. Mostly it was self-defense. At fifteen, he was taller, but not much heavier. He hated his fine-boned features, the soft rasp of a voice that Thacker's assault had left him with. The older, bigger boys had made him a target for their petty tortures. They called him stupid, a freak. For all he knew, they could be right.

He tried to keep up in class by memorizing things the teachers said, but had a real hard time putting those words back on paper. He'd had a couple of teachers who let him take oral exams. They said he had a condition called dyslexia, wanted to give him special tests. The folks at the home refused their offers of help. That was their right. He was their ward and they could do what they saw fit to him. It wasn't like he was smart enough to make something of himself, they said. He was good with his hands, had real sharp sight. He might make a good handyman, maybe a school or church custodian. That was the future they had mapped out for him, and he hated it.

So he ran. And now he waited.

The cold beams of a set of headlights pierced the falling snow. Vin started waving. If this person didn't stop, it would be a long cold walk to the next town. "Hey!" he shouted, nearly jumping out into the path of the vehicle. Miraculously, it slowed, slid to an unsteady stop.

It was a battered pick-up truck that didn't look like it would make it to the next town. The window was rolled down, and a dark head looked out. "You need a ride?"

"Yeah, wherever yer goin'."

"Get in."

Vin pulled himself up into the high seat. "Thanks. Thought for a while there I'd end up sleepin' in a ditch." He wiped the snow off his eyelashes and looked at the driver. He wasn't much more than a kid himself, but bigger than Vin, with a broad face and black, brush-cut hair. "Name's Vin Tanner."

"Tom Begay."

"Where ya headed?"

"Someplace west. Someplace far from this asshole town."

"Yeah. Me too."

"I know a guy in Denver. Thought I'd start there." Begay reached under the seat and pulled out a bottle of beer and a bag of chips. "You hungry?"

He was. He took a pull of the beer. It had a fizz like soda, without the sweetness. It was cold, but it left a bit of heat in his gullet when he swallowed. He liked it. The chips were slightly stale, salty. Vin ate and drank, then sat watching the wipers make steady, sloppy streaks across the window. "You mind if I sleep?" he asked Begay.

"Nope. You know how t'drive?" he asked.

Vin considered. "Driven a tractor."

"This is easier."

"Don't got a license."

"That's okay. I know where you can get one."

They reached Denver the day before Christmas Eve. As they drove through the city, Vin was fascinated by the Christmas lights. Every store was decorated, every window was filled with merchandise, and the streets were thronged with shoppers. He'd never seen so many folks in his life. He tried to look disinterested, like this was something he'd seen every day. He gave Tom Begay a sidewise look, but the older boy was too busy dodging traffic to pay any attention to his passenger's naivete.

Eventually, they left the business district behind them. The fancy stores and offices gave way to tenements and abandoned houses with graffiti-scarred walls. But even here, there were Christmas lights in the windows. Vin wondered what the people who lived here had to celebrate. Maybe just making it through one more day alive.

Begay pulled up in front of a run-down building. "This is it."

"Think your friend will mind my bein' here?"

Begay shrugged. "Don't think so."

Vin shouldered his pack. He was worried that they'd throw him out since he didn't have more than twenty bucks to his name. He'd earned the money by doing odd jobs for one of his teachers after school. He knew she'd wanted him to buy some new clothes, but he'd saved it, planning on running away as soon as possible.

He followed Begay up a flight of rickety stairs. The halls were filthy; crammed with garbage, smelling of urine. He was sure he'd seen rats moving among the piles of trash. It wasn't much warmer inside than outside, and he shivered. They stopped in front of a battered door, numbers missing, only patches of pale wood showing where they had been. Tom knocked.

"Yeah?" A tense, suspicious voice.

"It's me. Begay. I got a friend with me."

A friend. Vin blinked. No one had ever called him friend. He wasn't stupid enough to think the word meant anything to guys like Begay, but he liked the sound of it.

The door was opened by a young man with close-cropped blond hair. He was big, taller than Tom, and heavier. "Hey, Chief. Been a while."

"Yeah. Diesel, Vin Tanner. Vin, Diesel Marcuse. Vin needs a place to stay for a while."

"C'mon in."

The room was lit by a single bare bulb screwed into the ceiling. No furniture, just old mattresses on the floor. The air was stale with smoke, beer, and greasy food. An overflowing trash bag sat in the corner. Tom walked in, set his backpack down and sat cross-legged on a mattress. "Man, I'm fried."

Vin tentatively settled next to Begay. He didn't know what to say. Diesel handed Tom a beer. He looked at Vin. "Want one?"

"Yeah. Sure." Diesel didn't look like a guy who required please and thank you. Vin took the beer and drank it. He hadn't eaten since last night, and his stomach was empty. After half a bottle of beer, he started feeling light-headed.

Diesel lit a roach, inhaled, and passed it to Tom. "I scored some good stuff last night."

Tom grinned, took a hit. "Thanks for sharing. Vin?"

Vin shook his head. "Don't smoke."

"C'mon, this ain't smokin. Make ya feel good. Forget how tired you are."

Vin took the joint in his fingers. He'd seen it smoked, never tried it himself. But he didn't know what else to do. He drew in the smoke, imitating Tom and Diesel. Took a second hit. Felt dizzy. He passed it back. "Thanks," he rasped.

They sat around on the old mattresses drinking beer, eating cold, greasy fries, smoking pot. Vin felt sick and curled up on the mattress. He listened to Tom and Diesel talking; couldn't make much sense of it. Drifted off for a while ...

"Hey, kid. Wake up." Diesel was shaking him.

"What?" Vin mumbled. He sat up, trying to ignore the spinning room. It was morning, and he felt like shit. Tom was gone. It was just him and Diesel in the apartment. "Where's Tom?"

"Went out. He says you need some ID."

"Yeah."

"How old are you?"

"Sixteen," Vin lied. He was fifteen for six more months. "I gotta git a job."

"Let's go."

"I need t'clean up."

Diesel laughed. "Not here. Bathroom's at MacDonald's. Ya gotta piss, there's a bucket in the hall."

"Oh." He felt lost, disoriented. Like he had the first few days at the home. He'd had to learn the ropes there, too. He'd get used to this. He had to. This was the life he had chosen. He had no where else to go.

Diesel grinned. "You ain't from a city, are you?"

"Wellesville."

"Ya know what they call this place?" Vin shook his head. "Purgatorio. Just one step up from Hell. We gotta get going."

Vin washed up in the bathroom at MacDonald's. He and Diesel got breakfast burritos, then went to fix Vin up with his fake ID. Diesel took him to a drug store with a photo booth where Vin got his picture taken. They went to a second-hand shop in a row of storefronts. Diesel pushed the door open. "In here."

A buzzer sounded, and a guy came out of the back room. He wasn't old, maybe early twenties. He had a sharp, clever face, dark hair and eyes. Medium build. He wore a dirty white T-shirt and jeans. "Whaddya want, Diesel?"

"Pete, this here is Vin Tanner. Needs an ID. Got his picture took." He slid the sheet of photos over the counter.

Pete looked at the photos, looked at Vin. "Geez, you're not asking too much, are you? How old are you, kid?"

"Sixteen."

"How old do you wanna be?"

"Eighteen. I gotta git a job."

"Okay. Eighteen'll work. Twenty-one would be hard. I'll have it for you tonight. You stayin' at Diesel's?"

"Yeah. How much is this gonna cost?" Vin asked.

"Twenty."

Vin swallowed. "Ain't got twenty."

Pete leaned over the counter. His dark eyes ran Vin's length. "We can work something out."

*******************

"Pete came to the apartment that night with the ID. He brought some tequila with him. We drank it, smoked a few joints. Diesel and Tom went out to get some food." Vin looked at Chris, daring him to make a judgment on how stupid he'd been, how completely raw in his innocence. Chris didn't say a word. "I was lyin' down, and Pete came over and lay down next t'me. He got real close, started touchin'me, and I-I was real confused and drunk, half-asleep ... Shit, Chris. I didn't know what to do."

"Did he hurt you?" Chris asked.

Vin looked away, not wanting Chris to see that scars of that memory. "Don't think he meant to. He was the first ... an' I didn't know better. All I could think as he was doin' it was that no one had touched me in a long time, and if it meant I could git that ID, then maybe I could stand it. By the time Diesel and Tom got back, it was over. I had my ID, and Pete was gone." Vin wrapped his arms tight around his middle. "Diesel jist looked at me like he knew what had happened. He gave me a bottle of beer and a sandwich and wished me Merry Christmas. I'd forgotten what day it was. Some holiday, huh?"

Chris poured a shot of whisky and drank it down. When he was fifteen, he'd been engaged in a running battle with his father over beer and cigarettes. He'd been shooting baskets in the gym, studying just enough to pass at the end of the year. He'd been chasing girls and listening to rock n'roll. He'd bitched and whined and generally been an all-American, pain-in-the-ass teenager. But at night, his mom would come into his room and give him a kiss. Or his dad would see him make a good shot in a game, and afterwards would shake his hand, tell him how proud he was. He slept in a warm, soft bed. He ate home-cooked meals, and had a job at a gas station to earn spending money -- not money he needed to live, for Christ's sake!

"Told ya it was ugly, Chris." Vin's soft words cut to his heart.

"I'm sorry."

Vin straightened. "I don't want pity. I can take a lot, Chris, but not that. Not from you."

"It ain't pity." Vin looked as if he didn't believe him, and Chris struggled to find the words that explained his feelings right now. "It's ..." Chris ran his fingers through his hair. "Jesus, I feel sorry for what happened to you, not sorry for you." Vin was quiet, looking out the window. Chris wanted to go to him, to touch him, but he stayed back. "You've overcome a lot of odds, Vin," he whispered. "It's pretty damn impossible to feel sorry for you."

"Thanks, Chris." A smile touched his lips, but his eyes remained shadowed. "Reckon I heaped enough miz'ry on ya tonight."

"I want to hear it all. I'll listen 'til you run out of words, right on to sunrise, if that's what it takes, partner."

*********************

Two cops were walking the streets of Purgatorio. Their dark uniforms were powdered with lightly falling snow. Despite the quiet streets, they were cautious. It was no place to be reckless, to ignore the signs of danger. The police were the enemy in this part of town; even though Abel Nunez had grown up on these streets, he didn't intend to die there. A few of the houses and storefronts they passed were decorated for Christmas, and from one of the buildings, a radio was blaring out "Feliz Navidad." Incongruous, in that place.

Nunez's partner, Graciella Ortiz, caught his arm as they passed an alley between two stores. "Nunez, you hear something?"

"Nah. Probably just a cat."

"No. No, it came from there. Sounded like a person." She pulled out her flashlight, and before her partner could stop her, she stepped further into the darkness. She heard the sound again, a soft whimper of pain that seemed to be coming from a pile of rags. She came closer. "Aw shit! Abel, call an ambulance!" She knelt down. It wasn't a bundle of rags, it was a kid. She gently brushed back the long hair. Beneath the bruises and the blood he looked too young, too fragile. "Somebody worked you over good, hijo."

He whimpered again, shrank from her touch, and then cried out sharply. His left leg was bent at a unnatural angle and his jeans were soaked with blood. He was shivering and sweating; breathing in short, hitching sobs. Graciella took off her jacket and laid it over him. "It's all right, hijo. You'll be all right," she soothed. As she tried to comfort him and keep him warm, she wondered what the hell kind of monster would beat up a kid and leave him to die on the streets of Purgatorio?

****************

Vin woke up in the hospital with his leg strung up in some sort of complicated rigging that looked like a miniature crane. For a while he was too sick to care what they did to him as long as they kept pumping him full of morphine. He lay there in a drug-induced haze, knowing that strangers were touching him; enduring the humiliation of a tube stuck in his cock to drain his piss, struggling not to scream with the pain in his leg when they moved him to change his bedding. Every time somebody came in the room, his heart rate zoomed, he fought for breath, and black spots swam in front of his eyes. They added sedatives to the morphine to calm him down, which left him lethargic and feeling like his brain was stuffed with cotton balls.

After a few days he calmed enough to be weaned off the sedatives, and the pain in his leg faded to a bearable level. He forced himself to ignore the shame of using urinals and bedpans, the invasion of his body with needles, and the necessity of being touched. He was in a hospital, and if he wanted to get out, he'd have to play by their rules. Meanwhile, he had a bed to sleep in, a warm room, and three meals a day. That much, he could handle.

The nurses were kind. The doctors, brusque. He didn't mind that. They sent a social worker to visit him, and he was polite to her even though he didn't trust her. There wasn't much she could do: according to his identification, he was over eighteen. An adult. He answered her questions cautiously. Yes, he'd dropped out of school. No, his parents weren't alive. Yes, he'd had a job until the gas station he worked at had closed. Didn't matter, he'd find another. Yes, he had a place to live.

He'd answered enough questions. He closed his eyes and pretended to sleep. The social worker sighed, stood, and left his room with a sharp clicking of heels on linoleum. Lord, he was tired.

He heard the door open again, and hoped whoever it was would leave him alone. "Hey there," a quiet voice spoke to him. He turned his head, curious. She didn't sound official.

"Yeah?"

A petite young woman entered the room. She was wearing the uniform of a beat cop and held her hat in her hands. "Hi. You don't remember me. I'm Patrolman Ortiz. My partner and I found you the other night." She came into the light. Vin thought she was too pretty to be a policeman.

"Thank you," he said politely.

"It's my job," she smiled. "I brought you something. I guess it's pretty boring here." She pulled something from behind her hat. A package wrapped in red and green paper, and tied with a gold ribbon. His eyes widened. "Fer me?"

"Is there somebody else in here?" she asked, teasing.

He blushed, stammered. "I-I cain't."

"You got so many Christmas presents that you don't have room for one more?" She still smiled, but her heart was breaking. Cleaned up, and with the bruises fading, he looked even more vulnerable. Thin wrists, fine-features, and Dios, those big blue eyes. He was lucky he'd only been beaten up -- and then her heart constricted. She didn't *know* that worse hadn't happened. Likely it had. "Go on," she insisted softly. "Open it."

He fumbled with the ties, his fingers eager and shaking. The ribbons parted, then the paper. A book. He handled it respectfully. Looked at the cover. Tried to make his eyes and his brain work in concert. Failed. "Thank you," he said again, his color still high.

"You've probably read it. Most kids read Huckleberry Finn in high school."

He shook his head. "I ain't read it yet. Didn't finish high school."

"You could take the GED," she suggested. "They teach classes at the community center. You should think about it." He shook his head. "Why not?" Graciella insisted.

"Why should I?"

Graciella couldn't resist. She laid her hand against his cheek, and when that compassionate touch made him flinch, she knew her worst fears had been realized. She uttered a swift, silent prayer before she answered. "Because, hijo, I have seen too many young men in jail, or dead. Abel Nunez, my partner, teaches karate at the center. If you don't take the GED classes, at least take self-defense. Okay?"

Vin couldn't resist her smile. "Okay."

She squeezed his hand. "Feliz Navidad, Vin."

"Feliz Navidad, Senorita Ortiz." Her dark brows flew up, and he knew he had surprised her. Spanish was one class he had enjoyed, independent of the excruciating grammar. Her delight made him feel that he had done something worthwhile. He wasn't sure about the GED, but the karate classes sounded like a good idea. He'd decided it was time to fight back, and win.

***********************

"Things was never so dark after that," Vin said. "Soon as I could, I started the karate classes, went all the way 'til Abel Nunez couldn't teach me more. He knew I had trouble readin' and he fixed me up with a friend of his who tutored kids with dyslexia, like me. I passed the GED six months later. Abel thought I ought'ta join the Army. Tom Begay had enlisted a year after I met him, and I figgered I might as well follow him in. Never did serve anywhere t'gether, but I heard he went career. Seems like a long time ago."

Chris had been so mesmerized by Vin's story, that he hadn't realized that the Texan had moved back to the couch and was sitting on the floor. His head rested against Chris's leg, and he was gazing at the Christmas tree. He still seemed lost in the past. Chris stroked his soft hair, and Vin tipped his head back to look at him. "Sorry ya asked?"

"No." He reached down, caressed Vin's face, kissed him. "Don't you know that everything in your past, is in here?" He laid his palm over Vin's beating heart. "If I love you, and God knows I'll love you 'til the day I die, then nothing in your heart, light or dark, is gonna change that."

Vin sighed, folded his hand over Chris's. "Been more dark than light."

"Not anymore," Chris vowed. "Never again. It's time to lay those ghosts to rest."

It couldn't be easy for him, either, Vin realized. He must have his own ghosts; Sarah and Adam, and the unborn child who had died with them. But maybe they were gentle ghosts, like his mama and grandpa. He'd never asked. "Chris?"

"What?"

"You thinkin' of Sarah and Adam tonight?"

"Yeah." He gently pulled Vin up to sit on the couch. "They're here. My ghosts." He stretched out, settled Vin against his body once again. "Can you feel them?"

Vin nodded. He could; sweet, peaceful, loving. "You know what I'm thinkin'?" He turned towards Chris. "I'm thinkin' that maybe my mama and grandpa are with 'em tonight, lookin' after us. I reckon they gave us to each other, fer Christmas an' always."

"Reckon so." Chris bent his head and captured Vin's lips in a deep, searching kiss.

That faith, that assurance made Vin sigh like all the sadness and pain was leaving his heart. He rested his cheek on Chris's strong shoulder. Nettie's quilt was covering them both, keeping off the chill of the winter night. Outside, the snow drifted down like a veil of lace. Vin gazed at the lights on the Christmas tree, all clear and bright, reflected in the ornaments. He had hung those ornaments that afternoon. Some of them were new. Some were so old and worn that most folks would've thrown 'em out. Some had been fashioned by childish hands, and the sight of them must've hurt Chris fiercely. They were like memories, he figured. Bitter and sweet. But they drew your eye to the star on top of the tree that glittered like hope.

He looked up at Chris, beautiful in that soft light, and in those green eyes that could strip away defenses and reveal his soul, he saw only tenderness and love.

"Merry Christmas, cowboy," he whispered, his lips against Chris's throat.

Chris shifted his shoulder to support Vin's drowsy head. He smoothed the brown curls, brushing them gently back from his lover's face. "Merry Christmas, Vin. Today and always."

The End