Author: Ruby J.

Rating: NC17 m/m sex. C/V

Disclaimer: They belong to the Alphabet Soup guys at MGM, CBS, Trilogy, etc. No financial or creative rights are claimed by the author. She is just grateful she gets to write about them.

Authors Note: The inspiration for this story came from the song Shameless, written by Billy Joel, and sung by Garth Brooks. I figure I'm in enough trouble with the Alphabet guys without adding Garth to the list, so if listen to the song, you'll understand why I thought of Chris and Vin when I heard it. Right, Sue? Also, this is the infamous "First Time," story y'all wanted me to write after I mentioned that event in "Making It All Go Away." It turned out to be longer and more involved than I anticipated, but then, I am incapable of a "quickie."

As always, a huge debt of gratitude to Sue N. for beta-reading, comma-wrangling, and encouragement. And this is all her fault anyway! Thanks, Sue. You are always an inspiration.

 

Shameless

Part One

 

There were things in this world that Chris Larabee did not understand. Snow, for instance. And why it always seemed to fall the heaviest at rush hour, on a freeway, between Denver and the airport. He'd been sitting in traffic for nearly an hour, after a delayed flight from Phoenix, where he'd been confined to a room with six other ATF chief agents, talking about training exercises.

Fucking waste of time. His team didn't need training exercises. Their daily routine was training enough -- hell, it would have been training enough if they were riding into a war tomorrow. The tires of his truck skidded on the road, and Chris pulled his steering wheel to counteract the drift, narrowly missing the fender of the car in front of him. Traffic slipped and slid to a halt.

He cursed and rested his head on the steering wheel. Five minutes. Ten minutes. And Chris' mind wandered down paths he wished it would not follow. And it seemed all those paths led in a direction he didn't want to go. Vin Tanner.

Times were that Chris thought for sure he was losing his mind. There had always been something between him and the Texan. Instant recognition, instant trust, from the moment their eyes had met. It was as if they had fought together before; stood at each other's side and held the evils of the world at bay. Having Vin at his side just seemed right.

Chris felt at peace with the long-haired sharpshooter. Or he had, until the day he'd been watching Vin ride Peso out at the ranch, and had been hit with a wave of desire that had set him reeling. Tanner was a beautiful rider; graceful, lithe, strong. And that day, as the sun had come out from the clouds, Vin had turned his face to it, his expression one of sheer joy, the wind lifting the golden-brown waves of his hair as he rose in the stirrups. Chris' body had hardened and the world had shuddered and shifted to a place he no longer recognized as being his.

He had tried to argue that response away. Tried to place the blame on some sort of delayed adolescent reaction to another man's body. Dear God, he had been married, he'd had a child! He'd dated and bedded some of the most desirable women in Denver, over the last two years. Yet the sight of Vin Tanner, free and filled with joy, had done something to him that no one else had since Sarah. It had made him ache with longing.

And it continued until Chris was certain that he was as transparent as glass to the other members of the team. Why Vin? Why at this time in his life? He didn't know. It didn't help that Tanner was just about as beautiful a man as Chris had ever seen. All he had to do was look at the Texan, or hear that raspy drawl of a voice that seemed to turn every word into a rough caress -- never mind that it delivered wicked humor, or anger, or insight that seemed at odds with what you expected from him -- and he was lost.

He had never been a man to spend passion lightly. He was not like Buck, flitting from woman to woman. In the years since losing Sarah and Adam, he had been through hell and back again, finally coming to some sort of accord with the world he'd been cruelly forced to occupy alone. He'd teetered on the brink of destroying his career with alcohol, anger, and reckless disregard for his own life. Hell, there were nights he'd spent staring down the barrel of his gun, eye to eye with death. Death had blinked. But it had been a near-run thing.

Sarah had always seemed to stay his hand, as if she were whispering to him that this was not what she wanted for him, that there was something good yet to come to his life. It was what made Chris get up in the morning, get dressed, and make what he could of the day.

Chris sighed. "Baby, I wish you'd tell me what that is, 'cause I'm getting weary of waiting for it."

Weary. And then there was Vin.

God.

He was fuckin' losing his mind!

The shrill chirp of his cell phone and the lurch of the car in front of him brought him out of his slump. He eased forward a few feet, and flipped his phone.

"Chris Larabee."

The phone crackled with static. Buck's voice faded in and out, and Chris had a hard time hearing him. "Chris? Where the hell are you?" Or at least that's what it sounded like.

"Long story. On the freeway, stuck in traffic which ain't movin'. And I can't hear you too well."

" ... raid. Big trouble ... Vin ... Mercy..." The phone cut out and Chris nearly hurled it through the windshield. Those five words were enough. Vin and Mercy could only mean one thing. Get to the hospital ASAP. God, what had happened? Why hadn't they paged him in Phoenix? What trouble had the Texan stirred up now? If he wasn't dead, Chris might just kill him. And if he was ... Chris might just kill himself.

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

Buck Wilmington paced the length of the ER waiting room. Five long strides back and forth. He must have worn a path by now. The other occupants of the black vinyl chairs were staring daggers at him, but after years of exposure to the infamous Larabee glare, he'd developed a hide as thick as Kevlar. The door to the treatment areas opened, and he whirled to face it. Rain Jackson was smiling at him, her dark eyes only slightly shadowed with worry.

He felt like the world had just been lifted from his shoulders. "You can come back, now," she said. She didn't have to repeat it.

Then as soon as the door closed behind them, she took his arm. "Let's step into the lounge for a minute."

Buck didn't move. "What's going on, Rain?" he asked. "Vin and JD are all right?"

"Yes. They were very lucky. JD's injuries are primarily cuts and bruises. Vin's are more serious."

"How serious?" Buck asked, concern showing through the enormous relief that JD was going to be all right.

"He tore some ligaments in his shoulder, possibly sustained a concussion, cracked a rib, and lost a lot of blood from that leg wound. He's in surgery right now to repair the damage."

Buck rubbed his eyes. "How long is he gonna be in there?"

Rain shrugged. She wished she could say. She knew Buck was carrying a lot of worry on his shoulders. "I'll call down and find out how things are going, okay? Meanwhile, there's someone looking for you." She took his arm and led him towards the treatment area.

JD was just coming out of one of the cubicles. He was pale, and Buck was willing to bet that that red mark on his cheebone was going to turn into a spectacular shiner overnight. But Lord, he was glad to see him in one piece! He'd looked so broken and bleeding when they'd brought him in. "Hey, kid. How are you feelin'?"

"Shitty." JD managed a grin. "Like someone took a baseball bat to me. Where's Vin?" The kid suddenly looked scared, and Buck reassured him.

"In surgery. Rain's calling down to see how he's doing."

JD blinked away the tears that were clouding his eyes. "He saved my life, Buck. I don't know how he knew that crate was booby trapped, but he did. He pushed me outta the way, threw himself over me. He's got to be okay."

"You know Vin. He's a mite scrawny, but he's tough, and stubborn as a Texas mule. He'll make it through just fine."

At that moment the double doors shot open as Chris launched himself through the entrance. "What's going on, Buck? Where's Vin?" Those two almost breathless questions first, then he noticed JD. He took in the bruises, the bandages. "You, too?"

JD nodded. "Yeah. But I'm fine, Chris. Really. Vin -- he saved my life."

"Where is he?" His gaze shot past Buck and went right to Rain as she was coming down the corridor. "Rain, where's Vin?"

"Right now, he's in surgery. It's going well, and they should be bringing him to Recovery shortly," she explained. "Why don't you take JD to get something to eat, Buck? And before you start arguing with me, JD, I'm telling you this as a doctor. Your body needs food to heal. I'll bet you haven't eaten since lunch."

He hadn't. He looked at Buck and the two of them set off towards the cafeteria. Rain took hold of Chris' arm. "Come on, let's go to the lounge. You look like you could use some coffee."

Chris couldn't deny it, though he felt like a man who could use some whiskey. But he let Rain pour him a cup before he asked again about Vin. She sighed. "He sustained a deep puncture wound to his thigh, and lost a lot of blood. Along with his other injuries --"

"What other injuries?" Chris asked tersely.

"Torn ligaments in his shoulder, a slight concussion, cracked ribs, cuts and bruises."

The catalog made Chris' knees go weak. He sat down and studied the linoleum floor. "He will be all right?" His heart was beating quick-time, and it was hard to breathe, to speak. He felt Rain's hand on his shoulder.

She crouched down to eye level. "He will be fine, Chris. We've stopped the bleeding, and he just needs some repair on the muscles. He will make a complete recovery -- as long as --"

"What?" Chris asked sharply. "As long as what?"

"As long as he takes care of himself. He isn't going to be able to climb stairs for at least a week, maybe two -- and he lives in that apartment where the elevator doesn't work most of the time --" she sighed and shook he head. "You know him, Chris."

Chris did. He also knew that Tanner didn't take the elevator unless he had to. He claimed the stairs were faster and more reliable, but Chris had seen his nerves hopping in elevators moving at nearly the speed of light, and in brand-new buildings. He'd watched the Texan get tense and still in crowded rooms, knew that he didn't endure close contact easily. Claustrophobia? Maybe -- though Chris sensed that there was more hidden than revealed by Tanner's reluctance to be in tight quarters.

Rain was watching him expectantly, and Chris didn't know what to say. He knew what he wanted to say; and he knew that he was holding back out of fear: he was afraid of spending time alone with Vin, and of his own body's restless urges. But he owed Vin, and the thought of him alone and hurting in that run-down apartment he called home was unbearable, for any reason.

"He could stay out at the ranch 'til he's healed. If he'll come."

Rain's beautiful smile lit her face. "I was hoping you would offer." Her pager went off and she left him to check her message. "Chris?" she beckoned to him. "He's in Recovery. Do you want to see him?"

With every bone in his body.

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

Recovery was a cold place, Chris thought. Too many bright lights, noisy machines, medicinal odors; the occasional yelp or moan as a patient started coming out of anaesthesia. He followed Rain to a curtained cubicle. Vin lay on a slightly raised bed. He was nearly as pale as the sheets, his chin stubbled, dark lashes closed and resting lightly on shadowed orbits. His left arm was in a sling supporting his damaged shoulder, his right hand lay palm up on the bed. He looked young, and hurt.

Rain took his hand and started chafing it. "He's like ice." She moved the curtain aside and called to a nurse. "Margaret, get a heated blanket. He doesn't have enough blood in him to keep his temperature up."

Chris' stomach lurched. "Rain, that doesn't sound too good."

"It's not unusual. That's why we keep blankets warmed." The nurse came and spread the blanket over Vin's slight body, tucking it close. Chris couldn't help noticing that she ran a gentle hand over Vin's hair. She realized that he had caught the gesture, and smiled at him as she returned to her duties.

"Vin? Vin, c'mon, wake up. Open your eyes." Rain continued to chafe his hands, and Vin moved his head restlessly on the pillows.

Chris stood over him. "Vin? Time to wake up. C'mon, cowboy."

Blue eyes fluttered open and Vin winced at the intrusion of the harsh light. Chris moved to block some of the glare. Vin smiled, tried to lift his hand, and failed. "Hey ..."

"Hey, partner."

Rain smoothed the hair from Vin's forehead. "How are you doing?"

"Thirsty."

She picked up the tumbler of water at his bedside, ready to hold it for him, when her pager went off. "Chris --" She handed him the water. "I've got to get this."

Vin tried to lift his head, got it about an inch off the pillows, and then fell back. He was weak as a newborn kitten. Chris hitched his hip alongside Vin's shoulder and slipped his arm beneath him, lifting him. He felt Tanner's sharp shoulder blades, the slight weight of him in his arms. His heart was beating against Vin's back, and he prayed Tanner wouldn't notice how rapid it was. God, why did he have feelings for this man?

He didn't know, but he could not let Vin suspect, not now when he was without defenses. Perhaps not ever ... He had the strength and Vin did not. So he would be the best damn friend the Texan ever had, because if he lost him, he might as well be dead.

When Vin had finished drinking, Larabee released him, helped him lay back down, and fixed him with a steady gaze. "You feel like telling me why you and JD look like refugees from a scratch and dent sale?"

Vin grinned at that, some of his ease restored by Larabee's manner. "Hell, I shoulda known it was a trap. Got this call from a snitch, claimed to have seen crates of automatic rifles being off-loaded from a freight train down at the terminal. So me, Buck, and JD thought we'd mosey on down there an' have a look-see."

Chris lifted a brow. "And?"

"Well, we found them crates, all right. But no guns. One of 'em was rigged t'explode." Vin's eyes darkened. "I had a feelin' about it, Chris. I tried to warn JD but the kid was already prying it open. All I could do was push him out of the way and cover up."

Chris' breath caught at the matter-of-fact tone that belied how close he had come to losing two members of his team. Two friends. "Seems like all you could do was enough, pard. Thank you."

If Vin had more blood in him, he would have blushed. As it was, his cheeks warmed slightly. "Ya don't hafta thank me, Chris. Was jist doin' my job."

"Buck and JD might argue with that," he smiled. "And so will I, when you're able to give me a good fight, Tanner. But for now, we'll let it ride." He set his hand on Vin's shoulder, saw the blue eyes widen for an instant, and the surprise at the kindness he saw there struck to his heart.

There were times, despite the bond that had been forged between himself and Tanner, that Chris was taken flat aback by the quiet Texan. Times like this, when his vulnerability shone in those blue eyes, that made Chris wonder what sort of life he had led, for such small gestures to touch him so deeply.

Rain came back then, with an orderly. "We'll take you to your room, now, okay, Vin?"

"If I gotta stay here," he tried to smile, but yawned instead. "When c'n I go home?"

Chris glanced at Rain. She shook her head. "We'll talk about that in the morning."

"Y'know I hate this place, Rain. Ain't no reflection on you 'r Nate."

"I know." She nodded to the orderly, and they took hold of the bed rails. "Chris, see you tomorrow?"

"I'll be here. Vin, you listen to Rain. That's an order."

Vin did manage to lift his hand to his brow in a mock salute. "Yes, sir."

When Rain came back, Chris was slumped against the wall, looking about as played out as she'd ever seen him. The flourescent lights emphasized his pallor and the hard hollows and shadows of his features. She crossed her arms and frowned at him. "Go home, Chris. You shouldn't be here this late. Security will throw you out."

"Hell, Rain. They don't scare me." Despite his exhaustion, his green eyes glinted sharply. "Just tell me how he is, really. And I'll leave, peaceable like."

Rain laughed. "He's sleeping. And you should be, too. Buck and JD have long since left, so there's no reason for you to be here. Come back tomorrow."

Chris took her advice. But the drive back to the ranch was more than he could manage, so he went to the office. The guard at the door looked at his ID, looked at his tired face, and let him pass. Chris didn't turn on the light in his office. The illumination from the outside was sufficient for him to see by. He'd slept there before, and he'd do it again, no doubt. He kept a blanket folded under the couch, and he pulled it out. He took off his boots, went into the washroom. When he came out, he lay down, covered himself, and fell into so sound a sleep that he didn't wake until Ezra roused him the next morning by waving a cup of coffee beneath his nose.

 

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

Vin hated hospitals. He hated that he hurt when he was there, that he was laid out flat, and that people he didn't know felt they had a right to set hands on him. He had to hold his rising panic down, and let them do what they needed to do, because it was what was expected. But Lord, he just wanted to go home.

At least Chris had been there.

Chris. Vin felt both a deep peace, and a deep despair at the thought of Larabee's comforting presence. Peace, because he knew as long as Chris with him, that he was safe. Didn't even have to be in the same room, sometimes he could *feel* Larabee's presence, in danger, in dark places, like a guardian angel. He'd never had anyone like Chris in his life. Someone to walk beside him, to watch his back. It frightened him sometimes, to have someone so close. But still not as close as he wanted or needed him to be.

Lord, he was in love with Chris Larabee.

Couldn't be. Not in this lifetime, anyway. About as close as he'd get was that moment when Chris had held him, giving him that drink of water. He'd felt Chris' heart beating against his back, the warmth of that hard chest and the strength of those arms, and for a time, everything had felt perfectly right. He'd have to make those few minutes last a lifetime, because to think there would be anything but friendship between them was impossible.

A nurse came in early to take his blood pressure, his temperature, and to check his IV. He asked if he could get out of bed, and she looked at his chart, frowning. "Not until Dr. Jackson agrees. Do you need to use a bedpan?"

Vin blushed furiously. He figured he could wait a bit, maybe get Rain to agree to let him out of bed. "No."

She left, and Vin sat waiting for the next indignity. After a while, he began to get truly uncomfortable. The bathroom beckoned, not six feet from his bed. Hell, he'd walked around with bullets in him, he could tackle those six feet, no problem. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, grabbed the IV pole, and stood up. Big mistake.

The pain in his leg made him gasp and nearly fall back. He clung to the pole, wavering, certain that he was going to tip over face-first and lie on the floor until someone came in and saw his bare ass hanging out of the skimpy hospital gown. Real dignified.

He took a halting step, hissed in pain, and moved his right leg forward. Oh, shit! This was harder than he'd thought. He felt sweat start up on his body, his knees started shaking, and he thought he'd add gut-wrenching nausea to his catalog of humiliations.

Then suddenly he heard a footstep, and Larabee was there. He caught him about the waist, carefully lowering him back to the bed. When Vin was safely down, breathing like he'd run a mile, Chris stood over him, a blond brow arched sardonically. "You going somewhere, pard?"

"I's gonna try t'git to the toilet b'fore I pissed all over the sheets."

"You ever think of asking for a bedpan?"

"Shit, Chris." His cheeks flamed. "I cain't --"

Chris didn't laugh. He pulled the curtain to screen the view from the doorway, and reached under the bed. "I've been in a few hospitals. These things feel like they keep 'em in a refrigerator." He set the urinal on the bed. "Think you c'n manage on your own?"

"Yeah."

Chris walked away, and looked out the window. He hated this. Hated that he was aching for a man in pain, that he was too conscious of that slim body beneath the thin hospital gown. How sick was that? He leaned his head against the cold glass and waited for Vin to call him back.

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

Rain came in eventually, scolded Vin when he admitted to trying to get out of bed, and studied his chart. She sighed. "Well, I hate to do this, but there's no reason to keep you here, Vin."

"Great. I'm outta here. Ya hear that, Chris?" He started to get out of bed, and was stopped mid-motion by her frown. "What?"

"Vin, you won't be able to go back to your place yet."

"Why?"

"Well, first of all because you can't be running up and down those steps for at least ten days. You just can't. Your leg won't stand it. Second, you've lost a lot of blood, and until your body can replenish it, you're going to be weak. Third, you need to watch out for any signs of infection, and that dressing on your leg will need to be changed. You can't do that yourself."

"Where'm I supposed t'go?" he asked. "Reserve a hotel room an' hire a maid?"

"You could stay out at the ranch with me, Vin," Chris said softly. "You'd be welcome." He watched Tanner's expressions chasing through blue eyes. To any other watcher, probably even to Rain, he seemed impassive, but Chris saw with clearer eyes, reading surprise, gratitude, a touch of apprehension, then finally acceptance.

"Long's I wouldn't be in the way, " Vin said slowly.

Chris grinned. "If ya get on my nerves, I'll just put you up with the horses, pard."

"Chris!" Rain scolded, half-afraid that Vin would consider that a viable alternative. And then shot them both an exasperated look at their expressions of masculine amusement.

"Seriously, this is important, Vin. The better care you take of yourself, the sooner you'll be back at home, and back on the job." She handed him an envelope. "Instructions, prescriptions, advice from your doctor. Obey them to the letter. Chris, you need to read them, too. I want to see you back here in three days, Vin."

"Yes, ma'am." He looked down at the detested hospital gown. "I ain't walkin' outta here in this rag."

"I'll stop by your place and pick up some things for you," Chris offered.

"Pretend there ain't dishes in the sink," Vin warned. "Haven't had much time for housekeepin' lately. Keys are in my jacket, wherever that is."

"I have your keys," Chris said. "I had Buck take your jacket to the forensics lab to see if they can piece together some information about the explosive device."

Vin looked wary, but he nodded. "Reckon that's all you need, then."

"You turn off the burglar alarm?" Chris asked, smiling.

"Any burglar who c'n find somethin' worth stealin' is welcome to it," Vin snorted. "It ain't exactly the Ritz." He lay back, suddenly tired, strength gone faster than he would have liked. "Don't take too long, Chris."

Larabee nodded, but he caught Rain silently voicing the words, "Take your time." He thought it wouldn't be a bad idea if he stopped at the office to make a few calls and check up on Buck and Ezra, and their pending cases. Give Vin a chance to rest, and himself a chance to firm up his own resolve at the prospect of spending ten days in close contact with Vin. It was going to kill him, for sure.

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

Vin's apartment was in Purgatorio, one of Denver's worst neighborhoods. Chris and the others couldn't figure out why Vin insisted on living in that place. It wasn't as if he wasn't making enough money to move to someplace nicer, someplace safer; but Vin preferred it and refused all their well-meaning attempts to dislodge him from the rat-trap of a building where he lived.

The evidence of gangs was all around; graffiti, groups of sullen youths on street corners, litter and discarded drug paraphernalia. It made Chris' skin crawl. Vin's building was a four story, red brick structure. The landlord made a cursory attempt to keep in repair, and the front of the building was clean and free of gang-related slogans. Chris knew that there were several elderly people living in the building, and wondered if Vin felt responsible for their safety; and that was the reason he refused to budge. It didn't occur to the sharpshooter that his own life was in peril. The team tried to keep a low profile, but that wasn't a guarantee of anonymity. The trap of the previous day was evidence of that.

Chris went up the four flights of stairs, thinking that Vin would never have been able to manage if he had insisted on going home. He opened the scarred door, went inside, and promptly locked it again behind him. Vin had added an array of hardware that would have put Fort Knox to shame. Chris shot the deadbolt.

The building was nearly a hundred years old, and Vin's apartment was a showcase of the best and the worst of the passage of time. The rooms were large and high-ceilinged, but being on the top floor meant the first place the roof leaked was in Vin's apartment. The plaster was marred with irregular rust-colored stains that spread like a fungus across the surface. The windows were long, but it would take more than the caulking Vin had applied to keep the winter winds from whistling through the panes. The kitchen was a nightmare of ancient appliances and outdated wiring that made Chris shudder. He looked in, wondering if Vin had been serious about the dishes in the sink; knowing that his own bachelor housekeeping was less than immaculate at times. There were dishes, but Vin had washed them and left them to drain. He hated the thought of "critters" and kept his place clean.

Chris opened the refrigerator, to see if anything was in danger of developing into toxic waste. A carton of milk, a pack of cheese, cans of cola. Fast food containers from Mexican and Chinese take-out. An apple that had seen better days. Nothing that even resembled a vegetable. Chris shook his head. Damn Texan would get scurvy if he didn't drink orange juice. Chris discarded everything that could spoil and put the trash at the door, to take down with him when he left.

He returned to the living room. He'd been there before, briefly. But not since that day his world had changed. Now, he looked around him with new eyes. Vin didn't have much; a small TV, a stereo he'd picked up from a second-hand shop and had refurbished, furniture that was plain and serviceable. The coffee table and end tables were cluttered, but the surfaces were clean. Chris had never noticed the books on Vin's shelves. They were mostly the kind bookstores featured at Christmas, photographic specialty books that wouldn't tax the reading skills of the dyslexic sharpshooter. Chris wandered over and fingered the spines. History, weapons, automobiles, airplanes, horses. More. All testifying to the quick intelligence that hid behind that damned drawl, and easy slouch.

God. Vin.

Chris sat down on the couch, thrust his fingers through his hair. God, how could this be happening?

His phone rang, and Chris nearly jumped out of his skin. He flipped it open with a shaking hand. "Larabee." His voice came roughly from a tight throat.

"Chris? You all right, pard? Something happen to Junior?"

"No. No, Vin's all right. He's being released later. I'm at his place now, picking up some clothes for him. I'm taking him to the ranch for a few days. Rain says no stairs, so he can't stay here."

"Good." Buck paused. "Are you all right?"

"Sure. Just tired. I'll stop in before I go back to the hospital."

"You tell Junior t'take it easy. See ya soon."

"Yeah." Chris closed the phone. He couldn't sit here agonizing over his fractured self-perception. He had a friend -- a friend -- who needed help, and by God, no one was going to say that Chris Larabee had let him down.

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

By the time Chris made it back to the hospital, Vin was ready to climb the walls. He sat on the bed, in the thin robe the hospital had so kindly provided, flipping through the channels of nothing on the TV, and all too conscious of the nagging pain in his leg. He was tired, and cold, and they kept coming to take his blood pressure, or his temperature, to give him medication and iron pills. He couldn't take it, not one more intrusion.

The tech who came in to draw blood bore the full brunt of his ire when he produced a needle and proceeded to grab at Vin's arm. "No!" Vin seized the man's wrist. "No! Git that damned needle away from me! Y'ain't stickin' me with it!"

"Vin!" Rain stood in the doorway, hands on her hips. "What is this?"

"Y'keep tellin' me I lost blood, an' then y'send someone to take some more," he said rebelliously. "I ain't gonna have any left." He was ashamed of his outburst, and he looked at the tech apologetically. "Sorry. Ya startled me, is all."

Rain dismissed the tech with an nod of her head. "That's all right. I think we have all the blood we'll need for a few days." She looked at Vin, her eyes dark with sympathy. She didn't know why it was so hard for him to be enclosed and to have strangers around him, but she could understand it. "I just spoke to Chris. He's on his way. I have your release papers here." She passed the forms and a pen to him.

"Thanks. I'm sorry, Rain. I jist couldn't."

She nodded. "I know. Vin, you're going to have to let Chris take care of you, you know that?"

The color still burned high on his cheekbones. "Yeah." There was something else in his voice besides reluctance, and Rain couldn't place it. Perhaps it was just exhaustion, she thought. "Okay, just remember that. Or else I'll have you back in here before you can blink those blue eyes at me, is that clear?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Readin' him the riot act, Rain?" Chris stood leaning against the door frame, and Vin's heart did a thump in his chest. The impact of Rain's words hit him hard. ...let Chris take care of you ... Chris would be touching him, close to him ...

He startled when Chris set a gym bag on the bed next to him. "Easy, partner. We'll get you out of here. You have the papers?"

Vin looked at the release forms in his hands; the print wavered illegibly in front of his eyes. Damn fucked up brain wasn't gonna cooperate. He frowned, saw a blank line and scribbled his signature on it, and the date on the smaller line next to it. "That it?" he asked.

Rain took the papers. "That's it. I'll walk you out when you're ready." She left them, and Chris opened up the gym bag.

He took out a pair of dark grey sweatpants and a fleece zip front jacket that Vin could slip on without lifting his arms over his head, a thick flannel shirt, heavy socks, and athletic shoes. "You need help?"

"Prob'ly." Vin gave him a crooked grin. "But I reckon I c'n manage th'basics."

"Holler when you're ready."

Vin ran out of strength after managing to put on boxers and sweatpants. He didn't want to call Chris, but he had little choice. "Larabee?"

Chris pulled back the curtain.

He should have been prepared. He should have known. He should have realized that seeing Vin half-dressed would make his throat go dry, his heart race, and his body rush to aching desire.

He thought of all that too late. Vin was beautiful; lean and graceful. His skin was pale from the winter months, blending to a darker gold at his throat and arms where the summer's tan still lingered, and it had satiny gleam where it stretched over the bones of his clavicle and ribcage. His torso tapered from the breadth of his shoulders and chest, to a flat, hard belly, and narrow hips.

For a moment, Chris thought he would have to beat a retreat, shamed by his response. Then he saw the huge bruise discoloring Vin's left shoulder, and the scars that were the proof of his young, brutal life. He found his strength to help Vin in the ache in his heart. He took a breath, "Need some help?"

Vin misread the reluctance in Larabee. "Chris ... ya don't have ta ..." His hand drifted towards the call button.

Chris, knowing how hard it was for Vin to accept any help, particularly from strangers, shook his head. "No. No problem. The sooner we can get out of here, the happier we'll both be. I hate hospitals. Did I ever tell you about the time ..." He continued talking in that quiet voice, his hands steady, and his heart pounding, as he helped Vin dress.

Despite his caution, some contact was inevitable, and Vin felt each touch acutely; the scrape of a fingernail, the warmth of a breath, the scent of Chris as he bent near. It made his nerves sing, left him lightheaded, and he was grateful that he had his injures as an excuse for his trembling and his quickened respiration. And it was partly true; by the time his shoes were tied, and the fleece jacket on, Vin's various hurts were wreaking havoc on his overtaxed system. He let Chris swing his legs back on the bed, and he lay against the pillows and closed his eyes.

Chris looked down at him. "Partner, you sure you're ready to get out of here?"

Vin's eyes shot open. "Hell, yes! Y'ain't putting me through this jist t'turn around and go back -- kill us both."

Chris laughed. "Yeah. It would." He picked up a small paper cup with two pills in it. Darvocet. "Take these, Vin. No arguments." He dropped them into Vin's open hand and poured him a glass of water. "I'll get Rain, and we're gone."

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

The pain pills put Vin out for most of the drive to Chris' ranch. He sat slumped in the seat, his head nestled into the angle of seatback and window. He'd folded a sweatshirt that Chris kept in the truck under his head for a pillow, and slept better than he had in the hospital.

Chris glanced over at Tanner occasionally, marveling that he could sleep wedged into such an uncomfortable position. But the sharpshooter's face was peaceful, and his body relaxed. Chris had managed to put his confused feelings aside for a while, but now they came flooding back as he watched Vin.

Whatever his feelings, they weren't going to vanish. They weren't misplaced hormones, or adolescent lust. He had never in his life wanted another man. Curiosity had played some part in his upbringing, as it did in every normal youth -- but once he had harnessed his sexuality, it had been focused on women -- and when he'd met Sarah, he had not wanted or needed anyone else.

Buck had been amused by his single-minded devotion. Even when he and Sarah were just dating, Chris had ignored the other women who'd been hanging around him, waiting for their relationship to founder. Buck had said it wasn't natural, the way Chris just didn't even notice those women. It hadn't stopped Buck from doing his damndest to console them.

God, what would Buck say if he knew about this longing fire that was consuming his friend?

Probably nothing. He'd be so dumbfounded that he wouldn't be able to say a word. Then there was the frightening possibility that he would reject Chris entirely, revolted by the idea that his best friend was turning into a fag. Chris winced at that crude term, knowing Buck, in his big-hearted way, didn't have an ounce of prejudice in him. But that didn't mean he'd understand what was happening. How could he, when Chris didn't understand it himself?

Vin moved in his sleep, a sigh coming from between slightly parted lips, and Chris felt his body stirring, like it was being called to some sort of home. He'd felt that way once before. Sarah.

No. It couldn't be like that. What he'd felt for Sarah had been sacred. What he was feeling for Vin had to be wrong -- but it didn't feel wrong, or ugly, or any of the other words they used for those feelings. But its not being wrong, didn't make it right, either. And he wasn't willing to risk losing what he already shared with Tanner. If he destroyed that, it would be like killing a part of himself.

His hands tightened on the steering wheel. The road in front of him stretched out into darkness, but he reckoned he knew the way home. He wished he could be as certain about his heart.

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

He woke Vin when they were about ten minutes away from the ranch. He reached over and realized that he couldn't grasp his shoulder, or jostle his arm. He gently ran the back of his knuckles down the sharpshooter's stubbled cheek, and Vin opened bleary eyes. "What?"

"Almost home."

"Oh." He yawned hugely. "Never could figger out why anybody would want t'take drugs. S'like wading through molasses."

"It takes away the pain."

Vin's brow arched. "Rather have the pain, and keep m'wits. Y'stay alive longer that way."

Chris wouldn't ask him how he knew that. It was a lesson that nobody as young as Vin should have to learn. Hell, it was one that Chris wasn't sure he had learned yet. His drug of choice had been a bottomless bottle of alcohol after Sarah and Adam had died. He didn't believe he would have been better off feeling all that pain. And he was still alive.

They pulled up the long drive. The porch light was on a timer, but the rest of the sprawling ranch-style house was dark. Chris brought the truck right up to the porch, got out and opened Vin's door. He reached into the back of the cab and pulled out the crutches that Rain had foisted on Vin, over his objections.

He eyed them uneasily. "Cain't use them, Chris. My shoulder's too sore."

Chris threw them back into the truck. "C'mon. Lean on me." He slipped beneath Vin's right arm, put his arm around Tanner's waist, and together they made it up the three steps to the porch. Chris turned his key and pushed the door open with his foot. He flipped the light switch, and the hall was bathed in a welcoming golden glow.

"We'll head on to the den. I haven't had time to set up the bedroom."

"Hell, Chris. Ya don't hafta go through so much trouble. Couch'll do me jist fine."

Chris snorted with laughter. "Trouble is what Rain will cause us both, pard, if she finds out I ain't been taking good care of you."

"I won't tell her."

"She'll know," Chris said darkly. "Women always know." He and Vin made their way to the den. Still supporting Tanner's weight, Chris turned on a lamp by the couch, and carefully lowered him to the cushions. He missed the feel of him as he let him down, but judging by the boneless way he settled, he was exhausted.

"I'll get the room set, and fix something for dinner. Chicken soup sound good?"

Vin managed a crooked grin. "Better 'n what they's trying to force feed me at the hospital." His mouth drew hard with pain. "I'd offer t'help, but I figger since I'm company an' all ..."

"Damn sorry-assed Texan."

"Yeah." He closed his eyes. "I'll jist rest here. Me an' my sorry ass."

Chris left, and Vin felt the silence drift around him like a comforting blanket. For being places where people went to get rest and heal, there sure wasn't much peace to be found in a hospital. Out here, a man could breathe again. And then there was Chris ...

It hurt knowing that Chris would never want him the way he was wanted. There were times the pain of longing was just about unbearable. But Vin had grown used to pain, figured there was no such thing as a life without it -- not one that he'd ever known, anyways. He was willing to bear that pain in exchange for Chris' friendship. He was willing to take those small kindnesses, the warmth of laughter, the knowing of Larabee's mind, in exchange for the physical relationship he craved. He would live with those moments, because he couldn't live without them.

He sighed, opened his eyes, and looked around the room he loved. It embodied everything he'd never had; comfort, security, beauty, peace. He knew that when the curtains were opened, and the wide doorway leading to the deck was revealed, there was a vista spread before him that made his soul feel free. He knew that when Chris came back, he would light a fire, and that glow would surround him with warmth. He knew that no matter what happened in his life, here he would be safe. Asking for more was just plain greedy, it seemed.

He was surrounded by things that Chris cherished. The painting over the fireplace that nearly mirrored the view of his ranch, a picture of a horse, drawn by childish hands and titled "Pony." God, looking at the picture every day must have been like a knife in Larabee's heart, but he kept it, and treasured it because it was all he had left of his little boy. A set of antique spurs hung at the side of the mantel, and a bone-handled revolver in a display frame, that Sarah had given to Chris for a wedding present.

Vin, with the certain perception that could startle Chris at times, realized that he was looking at Chris' hard-won humanity, each item a symbol of a battle fought and won against grief and despair.

If he had been physically able, he would have walked over to the bookcases along the walls, and looked at the titles. Or tried to -- though with the fucked up wiring in his brain, sometimes it took him as long to read a spine as it did for most folks to read a whole shelf.

Chris' books looked serious -- some of them leather-bound and old. Compared to his own collection of books picked up from the bargain tables at the mall, it was like being in a library. Maybe someday he'd ask Chris if he could borrow one, just to see if he could figure out why it was so important to him. Some people would wonder what on earth a man like Vin Tanner was doing thinking he could make something of those pages and pages of words when he could hardly find his way through the training manuals at work. But not Chris. He'd hold that book out, and smile, and tell Vin to take his time reading it, and not to worry. That was Chris, and that was why Vin loved him with all the unrequited devotion in his heart. It was why he would die for him, and live for him, and stand against Hell as long as Larabee was beside him.

Chris returned with the soup, served in mugs that Vin could handle even with one arm nearly useless, and slices of bread spread with butter. Glasses of orange juice and water, and an array of pills that Vin wasn't happy to see. He knew what they were: antibiotics, iron pills, pain pills. He took them under Chris' watchful eye, and then turned his attention to the food.

When he had finished, he set the mug down with a sigh. "That was good, Chris. Thanks." He lay his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes.

"You ready to turn in? You've had a hell of a day, pard."

Vin regarded him from half-closed lids. "Reckon so." He wondered if he had the strength to move.

Chris looked at him; pale, exhausted, obviously in pain. "You'd rather sleep here?" he asked.

"Yeah, I would. Don't think I c'n drag my sorry ass down that hallway, Chris."

"I'd hate to tell you how many nights I've spent here for just that reason," Chris said, smiling. "Be right back with blankets. I put your toothbrush and things in the lavatory."

The lavatory was just off the off the hall, a few paces away from the den. Vin managed to limp over to it without keeling over. He looked at his reflection in the mirror and groaned. Tanner, ya look like shit. Didn't feel much better, either. It was an effort just to take care of the basic demands of his body. When he had washed up and brushed his teeth, he made his way back to the den, leaning onto the wall for support.

Chris was spreading a blanket over the sheets covering the couch. Vin moved slowly away from the wall, lurched forward, and felt himself caught by Larabee's strong arms. He sat on the edge of the cushions. The pain pills he had taken, combined with fatigue, were nearly incapacitating. The room was starting to wheel around him, and he closed his eyes, hoping the vertigo would subside.

Chris took off Vin's shoes, unzipped the fleece jacket and slipped it as gently as he could down his arms. He figured the flannel shirt and sweatpants were as good as any pajamas, and twice as warm, which he knew the Texan craved. Thinnest blood he'd ever come across, even when it was at full supply. Vin tipped over on his right side, curled into a ball, and was out for the duration.

Chris stared down at him. He reached out a trembling hand, and carefully, so carefully, touched Vin's hair -- just the briefest of caresses, but the first he had allowed himself -- the first acknowledgement of emotions he had denied for too long. He sat in the armchair set at an angle to the couch and studied Vin's face.

Couldn't see much beneath that tumble of brown curls. He didn't have to see Vin's features to know them by heart; the strength and vulnerability in those fine bones, the square jaw and hard chin, the mouth that could twisted into a wry grin, or curved into a breathtaking smile. The blue eyes that saw so much, and gave away so little.

Chris scrubbed a hand over his forehead. Jesus, how long had he been looking at Vin with the eyes of a lover? Longer than he was willing to admit.

Well, he'd admit it now. He was in love with Vin, God help him. And he did not know what to do about it.

He stared into the fire for a long time, but the answers weren't written in the flames. His eyes burned with fatigue, and he gave up the fight, making sure that Vin was settled and warm enough before he went to bed.

 

Part 2