AUTHOR: SueN.,

PAIRING: C/V

UNIVERSE: ATF

DISCLAIMER: Santa has failed me yet again (and we even left him the Christian Brothers eggnog!); no sign of ’em in my stocking or under my tree. So I reckon they still belong to all them other folks. (sob!)

NOTE 1: Happy (belated) Birthday, KET! This is for you, with deepest gratitude for your generous medical help (including with this fic <g>), your super beta services and, especially, your friendship. Yer a true pard, and I’m right glad ta know ya. All blessings to ya, Doc!!

NOTE 2: This is a Christmas fic. Yes, I know, it’s late. But the strange thing about writing a holiday fic is that the holidays tend to intrude. However, Charles Dickens said we should keep Christmas in our hearts all year long, so I’m going with the literary genius. Any port (or excuse) in a storm, right?

NOTE 3: Thanks to Lynda, who also gave me some advice with this, and, as always, thanks to Ruby, whose beta services and gentle prodding (see? I did get that epilogue done! <g>) keep me on track, and whose friendship is valuable beyond measure.

 

 

Chris Larabee couldn’t help it. Despite still being out on the evening before Christmas Eve, despite having spent that evening being jostled by other fools like himself while shopping – shopping! – and despite now having to crawl his way out of Denver through one traffic jam after another, he was … he was …

Hell, he was happy! Which had to mean he was crazy.

He snorted, grinned and shook his head, then astounded himself by reaching over to turn up the stereo to better hear Joe Diffie’s "Leroy the Redneck Reindeer."

Oh, yeah, he was crazy. Crazy in love with a scrawny, long-haired, smart-assed, mind-bending Texas sharpshooter with the deepest blue eyes he’d ever seen and the goddamnedest drawl he’d ever heard. Vin Tanner had fixed himself in the center of his life, fixed those all-seeing eyes on him and then fixed him in his cross hairs, and Larabee had been lost. And found. Everything he thought he’d lost had been restored to him in the form of the most beautiful and most infuriating man he’d ever known, including his Christmas spirit. For three years he’d raged at, bitterly cursed and done all he could to hide from the holiday that brought back so many agonizing memories. Last year, thanks largely to the bizarre group of men he’d assembled into his team, his friends, his family, he’d made his peace with it and even found a measure of happiness in it.

This year though, thanks solely to the man who’d stolen his heart and frequently threatened to shatter his sanity, he’d found himself falling in love with Christmas all over again, taking a renewed delight in its joys and rediscovering its magic. He’d forgotten all the ways it could touch him, had forgotten the unique lightness to his spirit and spring to his step that it could bring. He’d forgotten the innocent faith of children who poured out their wishes to the Santa they just knew was real, the tender sweetness of young lovers seeking that perfect gift for their beloved, the generosity of tired and footsore shoppers pausing just long enough to slip money into the ever-present red kettles of the Salvation Army before lugging their bags to their cars.

And only in remembering all that had he realized just how much he’d missed it. How glad he was to have it back.

So now here he was, the baddest bad-ass of ’em all, the man who once would have sent the Grinch slinking away in fear and envy, listening to an endless stream of sappy Christmas carols on the radio, singing along with the ones he knew and tapping time with his thumbs against the steering wheel to those he didn’t. And grinning like an idiot every time he glanced across the cab of the truck to the large package strapped securely into the passenger side.

It was because of that package that he was still out among the throngs of other demented last-minute shoppers when any sane person would have been as far the hell away from downtown Denver as he could get. Sure, he’d already bought other gifts and even wrapped them – and wouldn’t Buck Wilmington damn near laugh himself sick over that? – but this one was it, the crowning glory, the one he’d been waiting for and damn near bitten his nails to the quick over for a month now. When Gayle had called him at the ranch Saturday and said it was ready, even though he’d known, he’d known, that he’d have to face the snarl of cars and crush of bodies in downtown Denver on Christmas Eve eve to pick it up, he’d started grinning. And he hadn’t stopped yet.

Nope, no two ways about it, he was definitely crazy.

And he wouldn’t be sane again for all the money in the world.

7~7~7~7

Vin Tanner grinned to himself and shook his head slightly as he looked around his small apartment. Lord, it looked like Christmas had exploded in his living room!

The small tabletop tree he’d bought in a moment of sheer sappy weakness was surrounded by the presents pressed on him by the ladies at the office and folks he’d helped out here around the building, and Christmas cards, more than he’d ever received in his life, adorned every flat surface he could find. He’d finally had to resort to taping some to the window behind the tree! And, thanks to Buck and JD, he even had Christmas decorations, though those decorations were, well, typical of Buck and JD.

Knowing of his sweet tooth – hell, who in Denver didn’t know of that by now? – the two irrepressible lunatics had gone on a mission. They must’ve cleaned out every candy aisle in town, but they’d been successful. As proof of their dedication, Vin now had what had to be every Santa Claus Pez dispenser ever made lined up across his TV and the shelves of his small bookcase, tucked between Christmas cards and hanging from the single string of lights he’d put up around his window.

But not satisfied with that, having discovered his secret fondness for the animated classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," the two had given him all the figures from that show. The toys, each wrapped individually in the most garish paper the two could find, had been their gifts to him last Christmas, and for the longest time he’d been too choked up to say anything. Buck had merely clapped a big hand to his shoulder, then gathered him into one of those all-enfolding Wilmington hugs and said he didn’t need words, that his face had said it all. Those so-called "toys" had become his most prized Christmas decorations and were now displayed proudly throughout his apartment.

This year, though, the two self-appointed "elves" had outdone themselves. They’d handed him a huge and blindingly-wrapped box just before they’d all left the office this evening and, beaming more brightly than that Star in the East possibly could have, had given him strict orders to open it as soon as he got home. It was a pre-Christmas present, they’d said, and Buck had assured him that he’d be calling in exactly one hour and that if Vin couldn’t tell him what was in the box he’d come over and kick his skinny ass.

As full of burning anticipation as a kid on Christmas morning, Vin had driven home as fast as traffic and traffic laws would allow – though he’d fudged a bit on some of those laws – with that package seeming to glow in the passenger seat of the Jeep. Once at his building, he’d jumped out of the Jeep, run inside, dashed up the four flights of stairs as if they were nothing, burst into his apartment and torn into the box. And then he’d damn near fallen to his knees and cried like a baby when he saw what they’d done.

It was the prize piece from this year’s release of figures from "his" show’s sequel, "The Island of Misfit Toys" – the full setup of Santa in his sleigh with the whole team of reindeer pulling it, led proudly by Rudolph and his glowing red nose. Staring at it in silent awe, tears streaming down his face, Vin had known then that his friends, his family understood. He, a misfit in his own right for so long, had finally found his team, his place, and would never be an outcast again.

Buck had called as promised, and Vin hadn’t been able to say a word. He’d tried, Lord God, how he’d tried, but he just couldn’t. That choked silence, though, had told Buck everything, and he’d just laughed in that soft, knowing way he had, breathed, "Merry Christmas, Rudolph," and then hung up.

Santa and his team now sat proudly on his small coffee table, and Vin knew he was gonna have a real hard time putting them away after Christmas.

He sat on his sofa and stared at the sleigh, at his tree with its small mound of gifts, at the cards and Pez dispensers scattered around his apartment, and grinned like a drunken fool, his blue eyes glistening bright with tears he didn’t even try to blink away. He’d never had this before, this warmth, this feeling of belonging, of being accepted, hell, of being loved. But he had it now, in spades, and it was better than he’d ever dared let himself dream it could be.

Then his gaze drifted to the figure Buck had given him just last week, privately, when they’d found themselves alone in the office.

"This is from just me," the big man had said quietly, his dark blue eyes soft and unusually serious. Then he’d handed Vin a surprisingly tastefully wrapped box and bidden him to open it with a nod.

Not quite knowing what to expect, Vin had carefully opened the package with trembling fingers, an uncomfortable uncertainty gnawing at his gut. But that uncertainty had fled the moment the paper had fallen away, replaced by a rush of almost painful warmth. He’d gasped aloud at the figure revealed, his knees threatening to buckle as the significance of the gift hit him.

It was King Moonracer, the winged lion who reigned over the Island of Misfit Toys, taking in and giving a home to the oddities and castoffs whom no one else wanted. The deluxe figure lovingly captured Moonracer’s noble beauty, his strength, his pride, and Vin’s eyes had misted yet again – damn, it was startin’ to get embarrassin’ – as he’d realized immediately who the figure represented.

Another proud and beautiful "lion" who watched over his own collection of misfits …

He’d looked up at Buck, eyes wide, dark and wet, and again words had failed him. And again the big – and big-hearted – man had smiled his understanding. Then he’d clasped his hand to the back of Vin’s neck and pulled until their foreheads touched, though he’d had to bend down considerably to do so.

"Just want you ta know," he’d breathed, his voice rough with emotion, "that I’m happy for ya, and grateful to ya. You an’ him … well, you belong together. Maybe I haven’t always understood that, but I do now. You brought him back, Vin," he’d rasped, tears sliding down his face. "Brought back the man I remember, and I just ain’t got the words ta tell ya what that means. An’ what he’s done for you … well … just does my heart good ta see you happy, really happy, at last. Merry Christmas, Junior."

Then, as only Buck Wilmington could, he’d lifted his head and pressed a tender kiss to Vin Tanner’s forehead, giving his blessing to the sharpshooter’s love for his oldest friend.

And when the big man had left the office, whistling brightly despite the wetness streaking his face, Vin had stumbled to his desk, dropped his head into a hand and, clutching his Moonracer to his heart, cried like a little kid.

Shit, if this kept up, he was gonna turn into Tanner the red-nosed sharpshooter …

He looked back down at his coffee table, at the winged lion he’d set upon a small wooden trinket box there so Moonracer could watch over Rudolph, the misfit who’d found his place at last. A slow, soft smile spread across his face and lit his eyes as perfect happiness lightened and lifted the heart in his chest.

Seemed like he was finally gonna have the kind of Christmas he’d never dared dream about.

7~7~7~7

Jack Connor blinked owlishly at the street and traffic lights blurring and dancing through the windshield of his car, trying to bring them into focus. He reached with one hand to turn the radio up further and with the other to roll down his window, certain the combined stimuli of loud noise and cold air would counteract the alcohol fogging his brain. The sharp and sudden blaring of a horn close by warned him that his car had veered again and he clamped both hands onto the steering wheel, holding it hard in an attempt to hold it steady and slurring a curse at the other driver.

Goddamn idiots shouldn’t even be out on the streets! They should be at home where they belonged, with their families …

At that thought, and even through the alcohol, a searing stab of pain drove through him, tearing an anguished sob from him. Family. He’d had one himself a year ago. A lifetime ago. Before the God who hated him and another driver who’d had no business being out on the road had taken it from him and destroyed his life. Now he had nothing, nothing, no family, not even a job as of today, when his boss had said he’d finally had it with Connor coming back drunk from lunch and fired him on the spot. Two days before Christmas. Two days before the day of love and hope and dreams.

Another car horn startled him and he cut sharply back into his own lane. He was pretty sure it was his lane. Hell, what did it matter?

Love and hope and dreams. Hell, what did any of it matter? Wasn’t like he had any of those things anymore. Wasn’t like he had anything anymore. For months he’d had nothing, and he had nothing still.

He took his eyes off the road and dropped them to the passenger seat, giving a sloppy grin as his hand slid from the steering wheel and reached for the bottle there. The car drifted again, but he never noticed, never heard the loud, frantic blast of yet another horn.

Nothing. Except this.

7~7~7~7

The cell phone beside him on the bench seat suddenly came to life, and Chris heaved a martyred sigh when he recognized the ring melody as "Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town." Damn it, didn’t Buck have anything better to do with his time?

Still, it beat the hell out of last week’s "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" …

He let the phone ring, allowing his voice-mail to catch it. Traffic was too unpredictable as it was and he didn’t need the added distraction of a phone conversation right now. But, unable to shrug off completely the responsibilities of the job, he took his eyes from the road just long enough to glance down at the phone’s glowing green panel and frowned when he saw "Travis Office" listed as the caller.

Hell, what did he want now? Didn’t the man ever go home?

Deciding he’d pull over and return the call once he got clear of this traffic, he shifted his gaze back to the road. And only then did he see the oncoming car that had crossed into his lane and was heading straight for him. Instincts honed by years of making split-second decisions kicked in and he jerked the wheel hard to his right, fighting to keep control of the Ram even as he tried desperately to avoid a head-on collision. He had no time to panic or to notice the attempts of other drivers to avoid him, knew only that the idiot bearing down on him hadn’t slowed down a bit and was still coming. He laid on his horn and gave the wheel another fierce turn that sent the truck over a curb and shooting onto the sidewalk. As the violent jolt shook him, a sudden moment of crystalline clarity dawned and his mind registered two things.

That bastard wasn’t gonna hit him after all.

But there was no way in hell he wasn’t gonna hit that tree at the edge of the walk.

7~7~7~7

Vin rummaged through his refrigerator and smiled when he finally found what he’d sought. Whistling tunelessly, he reached past the jug of chocolate milk and left-overs from Kentucky Fried Chicken to the foil-wrapped package in the rear. Maria Bueno’s homemade tamales. And next to them, a container of Josiah’s famous chili.

Just the thing on a cold Denver night …

He grabbed both and shouldered the refigerator door shut, still whistling as he turned and took the three steps to the counter where the microwave sat, then set his supper down. Mrs. Bueno kept him well-stocked with tamales as payment for the chores he did for her, and he’d long since learned it was no use insisting she didn’t have to do it. With her husband dead, one son away in the Marines and the other in jail, she had no one else to look after and had settled on him. And he figured that letting her cluck over and cook for him was just one more kindness he could do for someone who clearly needed to do it.

And Lord knew he could certainly understand that need to feel needed by somebody.

He put the chili in the microwave first, knowing it would take longer, and set it to nuke, then reached over and turned on the counter-top radio, smiling sheepishly and shaking his head at his desire to hear Christmas music. Strange how quickly this season had gotten under his skin …

Oh, it had been important to him once, back when he was a kid. He still had vague recollections of the few Christmases he’d known with his mama, usually brought to him in fleeting snatches: the light lilt of her voice in a half-heard carol, the feel of her fingers in his hair when the wind lifted it, the smell of cookies baking. Much clearer were the Christmases he’d known with his grandpa, never elaborate but always wonderful just because they’d been with him. He’d always gotten at least one new shirt, a new pair of jeans and new boots, but best of all had been the treasures that Grandpa had spent a year scrimping and saving and poring over catalogues to buy. So many of those had been lost or taken from him along the way, but he still had the ones that mattered most, those given to him their last Christmas together. And every time he handled that battered harmonica and scuffed spyglass, memories flooded him of the proud old man whose eyes had misted as he’d watched the awe with which a wonder-struck little boy had handled them.

Back then, Christmas had still had magic, and that magic yet clung to his most prized possessions.

But the magic had been tarnished and finally stripped by the following years spent in institutions, foster homes and on the streets, until Christmas had become nothing more than another day to survive. The Army hadn’t done much to restore it – it was hard to believe in the day of peace when you were hunkered down in a sniper’s nest – and Lord knew chasin’ bounties across country did precious little to revive his Christmas spirit.

The Christmases he’d spent with Nettie and Casey – when he was able to get back to them – came closest to the ones he’d known so long ago, simple yet filled with warmth and love. Nettie always gifted him with at least one hand-knitted sweater and Casey provided the bright-colored shirts he so loved, but both also managed to find small treasures that had absolutely no practical value except to make him happy. As if just being with them wasn’t enough to take care of that.

Even so, those happy holidays had been so few and far between that they hadn’t become the habit with him that they were with so many other folks. Christmas still hadn’t carried that visceral meaning of home and hearth, and "Merry Christmas" remained more a wish than a promise.

Until fate had pushed him into the path of Chris Larabee and the team he was building, until he’d been claimed by six men who’d taken so strong a hold on his heart that he knew nothing this side of death could break it. Until he’d fallen in love with a man he had absolutely no reason ever to expect to love him in return but who did, with that same depth and completeness and ferocity. And suddenly all the magic had come rushing back, filling every hole gouged into him by hard and hurtful holidays past and giving him a reason to make Christmas his own again. He had hearth and home in Chris’s ranch, in Chris’s heart, and in the other five men who’d become as much his family as his mama and grandpa had ever been. Now, finally, he could say "Merry Christmas" and know without a doubt that it would be.

Strange how quickly somethin’ like that could become a habit.

He laughed softly, shook his head again and turned up the radio a bit more as Garth Brooks launched into "Winter Wonderland." He wondered for a moment if Chris had a sleigh hidden away anywhere at the ranch, then banished the thought with a snort. Pony would be mortally offended at having to pull such a thing, and Peso … hell, Peso’d do it just to find some way to wreck the thing.

Damn contrary mule …

The microwave pinged and he pulled himself out of his wool-gathering to reach over and reset it. Chili needed a bit more heating yet. While it warmed, he removed the foil from the tamales and put them on a microwave plate, licking his lips in anticipation. He figured there was only one thing better than Mrs. Bueno’s tamales and Josiah’s chili for taking away the chill of a Denver winter, but since Larabee was out doing his last-minute shopping, there’d be none of that.

Damn contrary cowboy …

The microwave beeped again and he took out the chili, stirring and testing it, then set it aside and popped in the tamales. If nothing else, he was fixed for a good supper; Larabee was on his own.

Served the man right.

7~7~7~7

Dr. Elizabeth Stone stood like a rock amid the ordered chaos of the major trauma room and watched as the EMT crews brought in the accident victims, her dark eyes glittering and slender frame taut with a barely suppressed anger. Another drunk driver, the third one in a week. And this one had managed to take out three other cars before he’d finally plowed his own into a parked – and fortunately unoccupied – SUV.

God, she hated drunk drivers! The stupidity, the waste, the reckless indifference to other lives … Once, just once she’d like to see two drunks hit each other and leave everyone else out of their idiocy!

At least this time none of the EMTs had reported obviously life-threatening injuries, and for that she was deeply grateful. She always hated it when she had to shatter a family’s Christmas, when the gift she brought was news of grievous injury or death. So far, the season’s magic was holding and she hadn’t had to bring such harrowing tidings yet. But there was still the rest of tonight and tomorrow to get through …

As each patient was wheeled toward her, she consulted with the accompanying EMTs, listened closely to updated injury reports and the latest vitals and directed them to the assigned room where a trauma team awaited. At last, the sixth and final victim was wheeled in and she awaited his stretcher with narrowed eyes and a tightly compressed mouth, her mind working. This one should be the possible head injury and she would be taking him herself. She caught the eye of the lead EMT and waved her forward, then turned and started walking toward Trauma Room 4.

God, she hoped it was nothing serious!

"What’ve you got, Mady?" she asked in her clipped, no-nonsense tone as the medics caught up with her.

"Hey, Doc," the blonde EMT greeted. "We’ve got an adult male, early forties, with a possible head injury, chest and abdominal contusions and multiple abrasions. Might be a sprain of his left knee, too; it was jammed pretty good under the dash and there’s already some swelling. His was the first vehicle in the driver’s path. He avoided taking the hit, but only by jumping a curb and colliding with a tree. Airbag deployed and he was wearing his seatbelt. They probably saved him, but I figure they’re also responsible for those bruises on his chest. He was unconscious at the scene but regained consciousness in the ambulance, though he sort of drifts in and out. He’s responsive to pain, pupils are equal and reactive. There’s no sign of bleeding, except from the cuts, and his chest and internal sounds are good. Last set of vitals," she checked her notes, "BP was 132 over 74, pulse 84, respiratory rate at 20 and his O2 sat was 98 percent."

Dr. Stone listened intently as she walked, nodding tersely and sorting through the stats with a clinical detachment. Everything sounded promising; guardian angels had been out in force tonight. At Room 4, she stopped by the door to let the EMTs push the stretcher through first and dropped her gaze to the patient to begin her visual assessment. As her eyes fell upon the man strapped to the backboard, his neck encased in a cervical collar, recognition hit immediately despite his extensive facial bruising and a sharp, startled gasp tore from her.

"Oh, hell!"

Mady looked up at that and blinked in confusion; everything had sounded surprisingly good for a guy who’d gone one-on-one with a tree. "Somethin’ wrong, Doc?"

"Yeah," she sighed resignedly as she followed her patient into the room, "my night just got a lot less peaceful." She looked at Mady and gave a wry smile. "He’s an ATF agent named Chris Larabee, and he and his team are regulars around here. Though usually he’s out there taking apart the waiting room while I’m up to my elbows in one of his boys."

Mady whistled softly. "A federal agent, huh? That should make things interesting for the driver who caused all this."

"Believe me," Dr. Stone said with a laugh, "when those guys get here, things will get interesting for all of us! All right, Pamela," she said to a waiting nurse, "I want a full set of labs and let’s get him typed and cross-matched. I also want an ultrasound abdominal scan; I really hate surprises. Let’s get chest x-rays stat, and call down to CT and set up scans of his skull and spine ASAP."

"Yes, Doctor," Pamela answered, getting immediately to work.

"Lynda," the doctor continued, summoning another nurse, "Vin Tanner is listed as next of kin. His number’s on file; make sure he’s notified that Larabee is here. Then," she cracked a wry smile at the nurse, "make sure that they’re braced for impact out front."

Lynda nodded and started toward the door. "I’ll see about elevating our terror alert status," she deadpanned, well familiar with the men of the Denver ATF’s notorious Team 7 and their sometimes unnerving devotion to each other.

"All right, people," Dr. Stone called, gathering her troops about her, "let’s get this show on the road! We’re not getting paid by the hour here. Where the hell is x-ray? We are all aware of what ‘stat’ means, right? Jenny, I want an EKG, too. Kathy …"

While she issued her orders and directed her people with the ease and certainty that bespoke her full confidence in them and herself, Mady and her partner helped transfer Chris from the portable stretcher onto the bed prepared for him and assisted with the move of the monitors and various lines attached to him. Once that was done, additional personnel rushed forward to remove his shoes and socks and cut away the rest of his clothing, revealing the full extent of his injuries. Finally a sheet was spread over his naked body.

Dr. Stone looked again at the information the medics had provided and frowned thoughtfully. She wasn’t thrilled with the fact that he hadn’t regained full consciousness yet, but at least he was responsive … Maybe, maybe, if they were all very lucky, the Christmas magic would continue to hold.

She stepped to the bed and looked down at her patient, studying the assortment of ugly contusions darkening his face and the swelling that distorted his handsome features. "All right, Chris," she sighed, a shadow of worry in her dark eyes, "let’s hope that head of yours really is as hard as I’ve always thought."

7~7~7~7

Vin hit the front door of his building with a crash, shoved it open and erupted through in a single movement, never slowing down and startling the poor couple trudging up the walk. He shot past them without a word, without a glance, and raced toward his Jeep, his heart in his throat and threatening to choke off his hair, his stomach churning with sick fear.

Oh, God, God, Chris!

He threw himself into the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut, then tried to thrust the key into the lock with badly shaking hands. Shit, shit, where was the fuckin’ hole? At last he found it and rammed the key home, depressed the clutch and turned the key, praying the stupid thing would start. It did on the first try – there was a God! – and he pulled away from the curb, trying desperately to remember to breathe.

Car accident … Chris Larabee … Mercy General trauma unit … Chris …

Again and again the hideous words spoken to him over the phone tore into his mind and heart, driving cold shards of terror ever deeper into his soul. Oh, Jesus, Jesus … There’d been so little information; no one seemed to know anything except that Chris Larabee had been involved in a multiple-car accident, one of several victims, had been brought to the trauma unit at Mercy General and was alive. That was it. All very kindly said, but cruelly uninformative. Was he all right? How badly was he hurt? What the hell had happened?

I’m sorry, Mr. Tanner, but we don’t have that information at this time. If you’d care to come down …

If he’d care to? Jesus fuckin’ Christ, they had the other half of his heart down there and they wondered if he’d care to come down and see if that heart was still beating? Shit, the end of the world couldn’t keep him away!

He just prayed that the end of his world wasn’t what awaited him there …

The traffic, however, seemed to be conspiring to keep him from finding out, was slowed to a crawl when he most needed to fly. Intersections were hopelessly jammed by lines of unmoving cars, green lights meant nothing, turn lanes were impossible. Finally, snarling out a curse borne of frustration and fear, he took the first chance offered and spun the Jeep into a highly illegal U-turn, sped back two blocks and whipped across two lanes to tear onto a side street, cutting off another driver in the process and not giving a damn. He raced down every back street he knew toward the hospital, making illegal turns, rolling through stop signs, running lights that stayed red too long, caring nothing for the various laws he was breaking. All that mattered was getting to Chris before … before …

Oh, God, cowboy, just please, please don’t die!

At last he turned into the well-known emergency lot and began the familiar search for a parking space. He zipped into the first open one he saw, killed the engine and launched himself out of the Jeep, covering the distance to the automatic doors in a long-legged sprint. Never breaking stride, he raced through the sliding doors, across the waiting area and to the admissions desk. He slapped his hands hard against the desk to get the attention of the young woman working intently at her computer there.

"Chris Larabee!" he gasped breathlessly.

She looked up from her computer and turned toward the voice, her eyes widening in momentary alarm at the sight of the wild-eyed, ashen-faced, long-haired young man staring almost feverishly at her. "E … excuse me?" she asked nervously, wondering how long it would take security to get here.

He drew a ragged breath, swallowed hard and tried again. "Chris Larabee." God, why wouldn’t his voice quit shaking? "He was in a car wreck. They brought him here. I need ta know where he is. I need ta know if he’s all right!"

Some of her fear faded then as the reason for his distress became clear. "I’m sorry, sir," she said gently. "I can only release that information to a family member–"

"I’m down as his next of kin. Please!" he begged, now gripping the edge of the desk to keep from sinking to his knees. "I gotta see him! I gotta know he ain’t … ain’t …" The hideous word stuck in his throat and nearly choked him. "Please, miss," he pleaded, "jist tell me where he is!"

The fear in his eyes and his voice touched her and she nodded. "You’re listed in our files?"

He swallowed again and nodded once. "Vin Tanner. They called me, said there was several cars involved. Chris was hurt, others too …" He knew he was babbling, but couldn’t stop himself. All the while, his heart was trying to hammer a hole in his chest.

The clerk turned back to her computer and brought up the necessary file. "He’s in Trauma Room 4, and the doctors are still with him. No information yet on his condition. If you need someone to show you the way–"

"No, ma’am. I been there a time or two. Thank you!" And he was off again, running toward the waiting room he knew so well.

"I’ll just call and let them know you’re coming," the young woman sighed after his retreating figure, reaching for the phone.

7~7~7~7

Dr. Stone bent over her patient, intent upon her examination. His pupils were still equal and reactive to light and his ears were clear of any blood, always a good sign. Each time another needle was slipped into his flesh he moaned and tried to move away, and once or twice she’d seen his fingers flex or curl into loose fists.

"You listen to me, Larabee," she warned him as a hand clenched again, "you hit one of my people and I’ll sew up a few holes you’ll need later, got it?" His head turned toward her, his eyelids flickered and the hand relaxed. She arched a brow and leaned closer. "You with me here?"

A voice slowly registered through the hideous pounding in his head, though any words were obscured by each fresh pulse of agony. Light, sharp and painful, pricked his eyes and he tried to turn away from it, only to have that slight movement intensify the already vicious throbbing inside his skull.

"Sh … it," he moaned faintly.

She smiled at that. "Not on my exam table you don’t!"

He sighed then, finally recognizing that voice. "’S you," he slurred.

"Oh? And who am I?" she asked, testing his awareness.

He frowned groggily and opened one eye to a slit. "Don’t you know?"

She sighed heavily and hung her head; even half-conscious these men were a pain! "Of course, I know," she answered with a forced patience. "The trick is to see if you know."

He forced open his other eye and tried to stare up at her, but couldn’t bring her face into focus and let his eyelids fall again. "If I tell ya," he rasped, "will ya cut off my head … lemme die in peace?"

"Hurts, does it?"

"You c’d say that," he breathed.

"You know who you are?"

"Yeah."

She waited, then drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Care to tell me?" she prompted.

He squeezed his eyes tightly shut and swallowed weakly. He knew the drill, had been through it more times than he cared to think. But, damn, it hurt to concentrate!

"Lar’bee," he finally sighed. "Chris … Lar’bee."

She smiled and gave a tight nod as relief coursed through her. "Good. Got any idea where you are?"

He cracked open an eye again and forced a weak scowl up her, wishing she would just leave him alone. "In hell," he growled.

"Anybody ever told you that your people skills need work?"

He scowled more deeply despite the pain it caused his bruised face. "C’d say … the same … for you."

"Yeah, we’re a couple of real charmers," she quipped. "But at least I don’t need to get my head examined. So, do you know where you are?"

He sighed, realizing she wasn’t going to let up. "Hospital," he breathed. "Mercy. And b’fore you ask … I don’t have … the slightest idea … what day it is."

"Two out of three," she said, straightening and smiling down at him. "I can live with that." She studied him a moment longer, then asked, "Do you remember what happened?"

He tried, but nothing came to him. Nothing except the incessant pain pounding heavily in his head, his chest … hell, everywhere. "No," he whispered.

Her eyes softened and she reached down, gently patting his shoulder. "It’s all right," she soothed, "I didn’t really expect you to. Kinda hard to think right now, isn’t it?"

"Yeah."

"You were involved in a pretty impressive traffic accident apparently caused by a drunk driver. You managed to avoid him, but nailed a tree in doing it."

"Drunk …" He frowned and tried to remember, but the pounding in his head made it impossible. "Damn," he sighed.

"I know," she soothed. "But we’re gonna take care of you, so try not to worry." She saw the orderlies standing by and waved them over. "Okay, we’re gonna take you down for some scans, all right? See what’s goin’ on with your head, make sure it’s not messed up any more than usual. I’ll see you when you’re done–"

"Vin!" he rasped suddenly, wrenching open his eyes and reaching out abruptly to grab her wrist. "You c … you call … Vin?"

She smiled gently and laid her free hand over the one gripping her wrist. "We called him, and he’s here," she assured him. "Last I heard, he was prowling around the waiting room, scaring the other folks out there and snarling at my people like a rabid dog."

He relaxed at that, his eyes closing, a slight smile touching his bruised and bloodied mouth. "You tell him … I’m all right," he breathed. "Tell him … behave … or I’ll kick his scrawny ass."

"Well," she retorted, "as intimidating as I’m sure that would be to him, I think I’ll just try being nice." She carefully removed his hand from hers. "And if that doesn’t work, then I’ll kick his scrawny ass."

7~7~7~7

Vin scrubbed one hand through his hair and kept his other arm wrapped tightly around his body, as if trying to hold himself together. He paced restlessly, unable to stop for even a moment, his nerves fraying more with each moment that passed. His blue eyes, wide and wild in his ashen face, flew repeatedly to the door that separated him from Chris, and more than once he’d tried to push through that door, only to be pushed back by a very determined nurse.

But, God, didn’t they understand? Didn’t they know? Chris was back there, his Chris, and he had to see … had to find out …

Oh, God, Jesus God, why wouldn’t they tell him something?

He tore his gaze from the door and dragged it back to the two cops standing by the window. They’d come from the accident scene and were waiting to see if any of the victims could give statements. He’d overheard them talking and felt the shock and fury of what they’d said still twisting at and seething in his gut.

A drunk driver. A man so loaded up on liquor that he’d nearly hit Chris, had forced Chris into that tree and other drivers into God knew what … Sonuvabitch had reeked of alcohol when they’d finally cut him out of his car, and they’d found a broken whiskey bottle inside.

Vin had nearly been sick when he’d heard that. A drunk driver. Jesus. Some asshole getting a head start on his holiday celebrating. Hadn’t cared that he was aiming a deadly weapon down a busy street, hadn’t cared how many lives he was endangering, how many he might be ruining. Hadn’t cared about anything, except his own selfish pleasures …

The door he’d been watching for what seemed forever opened, reclaiming his attention, and a familiar figure strode purposefully through it, her dark eyes sweeping sharply around the waiting room. A number of people looked up expectantly, hope and fear mingling in their faces, but those eyes settled on him, her chin lifted slightly and one dark brow rose in silent summons. And suddenly he was too afraid to go forward and hear the news he’d been so anxiously awaiting. His mouth went dry, his breath caught in his constricting throat and his heart dropped into his stomach, which churned sickly against the intrusion. He tried to take a step forward, but couldn’t get his leaden feet to move. His knees turned to water and for long moments he thought he might actually fall.

Oh God. God, Chris!

Elizabeth Stone saw the terror glittering stark and raw in those wide, unblinking blue eyes, watched the color drain from that stricken face, and felt a wrench of compassion. Vin Tanner was a strong man, she knew that, a tough man, a dangerous and even deadly man. Hell, he was an ATF sharpshooter, and supposedly the very best at what he did. But she also knew that, just now, that was not the man she was facing.

The Vin Tanner staring so fearfully at her was a young man whose heart and soul were on the other side of that door and whose life rested on a knife’s edge, waiting for her to shatter or save it. She had no doubts or illusions about the true nature of the relationship between Tanner and Larabee, hadn’t had any since the first time she’d seen them together. And the more she watched them, the more certain she grew.

This was no ATF sharpshooter waiting for news of his boss and friend. This was a man waiting for news of his lover. Of his beloved.

And for the sake of that man, Dr. Elizabeth Stone smiled, slipped her hands into the pockets of her lab coat and went to him with a relaxed stride, knowing Tanner would put far more trust in what he saw than he ever would in what he heard. Hell, many a time when dealing with him she’d been half tempted to hold out her hand and let him sniff it before saying a word …

He watched her intently as she approached, poised perilously between fear and need, forgetting every other person in that waiting room and focusing solely on her. He studied her eyes and noted their subtle softness, took in her relaxed face, her unforced smile. Her arms and shoulders were loose, her stride easy. He’d seen her often enough when the situation was dire to know that such was not the case now. Relief swept through him in a hard, wrenching wave, tearing a soft, ragged moan from him and pitching him almost bonelessly into the nearest chair.

Chris wasn’t dead. He might not be exactly all right, but Chris wasn’t dead. The words beat like a mantra in his head and his heart. Dr. Stone was smiling. Chris wasn’t dead.

She seated herself in the chair next to him and turned to face him, keen dark eyes taking in his pallor and his trembling. Without a thought, she reached out and took one of his hands in hers, arching a slim brow at its coolness. "C’mon, Tanner, breathe," she instructed lightly, squeezing his hand. "The nurses have better things to do than fight over who gets to give you mouth-to-mouth."

Faint color flared in his cheeks at her gentle teasing and he ducked his head to hide it, instinctively pulling his hand from hers and clasping it with the other between his legs.

She laughed softly and shook her head. "Just what in the hell do they put in the water in Texas to grow ’em like you?" she asked, her eyes gleaming warmly. She saw him close his eyes and draw a breath, as if to strengthen himself, so leaned closer to him, set a hand on his knee and said quietly, "He said to tell you he’s all right."

Vin raised his head sharply at that and turned wide, dark blue eyes upon her, his whole hope written plainly in his face. "He s … he said …" Again he searched her face intently for any sign of deception and, to his great relief, saw none. "He knows I’m here?" he whispered unsteadily.

She patted his knee and nodded. "He does. And while he’s not exactly all right, he is much better than he has any right to be." She regarded him steadily. "You know what happened?"

His face and eyes went hard, cold, and he nodded tersely. "Know a drunk driver nearly hit him," he rasped in the low voice that held more venom and danger than any shout could have. "Sonuvabitch forced him off the road, into a tree. Took out a few others, too. Seems ta me if a feller wants ta kill himself, he oughtta jist take a gun to his head, leave innocent folks outta his mess."

She drew her hand away at his tone and the change in his manner. The stricken lover had vanished, replaced by a cold and dangerous man she didn’t know. The transformation sent a chill through her, and she made a mental note to instruct the floor nurses to keep a close eye on the driver’s room once he was settled in it.

"Vin, listen to me–"

"How’s Chris?" he interrupted, pushing his anger aside. For now. "Ya said he ain’t ‘exactly’ all right. What exactly does that mean?"

She sighed and nodded, recognizing that he’d reined himself in. For now. "It means he won’t be waltzing out of here tonight," she answered evenly, "but that, with any luck, he’ll be limping out sometime tomorrow."

Again his eyes widened as her words struck home, as he struggled to take in this unexpected mercy. "T … tomorrow?" he whispered, certain he had to have heard wrong.

But she smiled gently and nodded. "Tomorrow. Depending, of course, on what the head and spinal scans show. But all preliminary indications are that he has a concussion only, no fractures, no bleeding inside his skull, and no indications of spinal trauma. His motor functions are fine, reflexes are good, and he’s reactive to pain. Ultrasound scans for internal injuries were negative, and chest x-rays and EKGs show no sign of cardiac contusion."

"That means," he frowned thoughtfully, drawing upon the medical education he’d gotten since joining the team, "his heart ain’t bruised?"

"Right. There’s always a chance of that with airbags," she said, "and he does have extensive bruising across his chest and abdomen, thanks to the airbags and his seatbelt. But," she added quickly at his look of worry, "it beats the hell out of his having a steering wheel imbedded in his chest or going head-first through the windshield."

"Yeah, it does," he breathed weakly, closing his eyes and slumping forward as the weight of what could have been descended upon him. Jesus, for it to have come down to an airbag and a seatbelt …

She saw the small tremor shake him and again reached out, setting a hand on his bowed back. "It looks very good, Vin," she assured him in a low but firm voice, "better than it has any right to look. He’s going to have one helluva headache, and he’s not going to be his usual charming, witty self for a while." She heard his soft chuckle and was grateful for it. "And he’s going to be very sore for a good while, so he’ll have to take it easy. The bruising covers a lot of territory, and it’s deep. But nothing seems broken or even cracked; even his knee is only mildly sprained. I do want to keep him at least 24 hours for observation," she shrugged, "maybe longer depending on what the CT scans show, but at this point I don’t anticipate any problems. He knew who and where he was and who I was, and growled enough to give me a headache."

He sat back slowly and raised his head, a small crooked smile curving about his mouth and a soft light gleaming in his tired eyes. "Well," he drawled softly, joy and relief shining in his wan face, "if he’s makin’ yer hair hurt, then I reckon he’s all right."

She slid her hand to his shoulder and squeezed, smiling. "Yeah," she breathed, touched by the depth of the love mirrored in those expressive blue eyes, "I reckon he is."

7~7~7~7

Vin sat as close to Chris’s bedside as he could manage and leaned over, one hand holding his lover’s pale and limp but blessedly warm one, the other brushing feather-light through his hair, callused fingers lovingly caressing the silken gold strands. Dark blue eyes were fixed on Chris’s face, drinking in the bruised features he still considered more beautiful than any on earth. He’d called Buck while Chris was getting settled into his room and told him what had happened, and had spent more than a few minutes assuring the big man that he didn’t need to come down tonight, that Doc Stone had said Chris’s injuries were minor and that he’d be fine. Buck had finally agreed to wait until tomorrow and had volunteered to inform the others. He’d only hung up after assuring himself that Vin was all right, too.

Trouble was, Vin wasn’t. He still had a cold, hard knot the size of Texas in his gut that was threatening to become a permanent part of him.

"God, cowboy, ya scared me!" he whispered thickly, his eyes shimmering with tears. "I’s so sure I’d lost ya … Ya cain’t imagine what that did ta me." He considered his words for a moment, then winced and shook his head. "Sorry," he breathed, his thumb straying to Chris’s forehead and gently stroking. "I reckon ya can imagine, prob’ly better’n anybody else. ’S like my whole world jist went dark, cold, stopped turnin’ …" He swallowed hard and bowed his head, closing his eyes tightly against the fear that had yet to leave him completely. "I know … I know I could live without ya," he rasped, his hoarse voice shaking. "I jist … ain’t sure it’d be worth doin’. Wouldn’t be livin’. I’d jist be existin’, and I already done too much of that. Don’t ever wanta go back to it. Not after you showed me what really livin’ is like." He drew a ragged breath and opened his eyes, and tears slid down his face. "Please, cowboy," he begged, his soft voice breaking, "don’t ever make me go back ta that! It’d be worse than dyin’."

Chris moaned softly and his head moved weakly against his pillow. He didn’t awaken though, which did nothing to allay his lover’s fear. Dr. Stone had assured Vin that the scans had shown nothing more than a mild concussion. Chris had even come to on her last visit, though only when she’d roused him and only long enough to growl at her for her "lousy bedside manner." It had been a good sign, she’d insisted, but it wasn’t enough for Vin.

He wouldn’t be satisfied until the green eyes opened and Chris growled at him.

"C’mon, cowboy," he urged softly, squeezing Chris’s hand, "need ya ta wake up fer me now. Need ta know yer still here. Doc Stone says y’are and I reckon she’d know, but havin’ her know it ain’t the same as knowin’ it fer m’self. Ya know I ain’t ever been one ta put much stock in what other folks tell me. Reckon I am hard-headed some like you keep sayin’, but I cain’t help it. So ya need ta wake up now, hear? Gotta show me the doc knows what she’s talkin’ about."

He fell silent and waited expectantly, still holding Chris’s hand, his gaze never leaving Larabee’s face. Chris’s eyelids were flickering and, as Vin watched, golden brows pulled down slightly. His head moved again, more strongly this time, and a low groan escaped him.

"C’mon, Chris, please!" He clasped his other hand over Chris’s and gently rubbed Larabee’s fingers, then bowed his head and tenderly kissed them. "Come back ta me, cowboy," he breathed. "I need ya ta wake up now. I miss ya."

A voice filtered slowly through the heavy fog of pain and confusion that clouded his mind and he turned his head slowly toward it, trying to hear it more clearly. He knew that voice though he couldn’t immediately put a name to it. The soft rasp of it slid against his aching mind like nubby silk while the lazy drawl gently caressed his ears. He sighed and smiled and fell ever deeper into that voice, letting it soothe him, letting it wrap around him and lead him to where he belonged.

Vin.

"Chris?" Vin sat up abruptly as the soft sigh issued from his lover’s lips. He’d heard it, he knew he had! "Cowboy, ya with me?"

Chris swallowed weakly and slid the tip of his dry tongue against even dryer lips. His head throbbed mercilessly, his whole body ached hellishly and he wanted nothing more than to drop back into oblivion, where the pain couldn’t reach him.

No, wait. He did want one thing more, and that one thing awaited him out there, along with the pain. And his need for it, for him, was stronger even than his need to escape the pain.

"Vin," he whispered, smiling faintly and closing his fingers about the ones gripping them.

"Yeah, I’m here!" Vin assured him, fresh tears stinging his eyes even as a bright smile spread across his face. "I’m right here, cowboy!"

Chris slowly, slowly forced his eyes open, but winced deeply and closed them again immediately as too-bright light assaulted them. "God!" he gasped, clutching at Vin’s head as pain stabbed hard and heavy through his head and threatened to unleash the nausea churning in his gut.

"Ssh, it’s all right," Vin soothed. He released Chris’s hand and stood up, dimming the light above the bed, then turned to the tray table and retrieved the cool, damp cloth from the small basin there. He turned back to the bed and dropped into his chair, then carefully laid the wet cloth across Chris’s eyes. "That better?"

"Yeah," Chris sighed. "Thanks."

Vin reclaimed Chris’s hand and raised it to his lips, brushing tender kisses along the base of his knuckles. "Anything else ya need?" he breathed.

Chris smiled through his pain as those lips brushed feather-soft against his skin. "You’re doin’ just fine."

Vin closed his eyes and nuzzled his cheek against that hand. "Ya gimme a helluva scare, y’know that?" he rasped.

"Sorry," Chris whispered. He frowned. "What happened?"

Vin went very still. "Ya don’t know?"

Chris tried to think, but couldn’t pull anything from the pounding quagmire of his mind. "Gimme a hint?"

Vin licked his lips and thought, trying to decide just how aware Larabee was. "Y’ know where y’are?"

"Oh, hell!" Chris sighed in irritation. "Not you, too!" He turned his head and screwed his face into a scowl, glaring even through the cloth covering his eyes. "Have I been moved since I answered this for Dr. Stone?"

Vin laughed aloud as a huge bubble of relief rose through him. Chris remembered being "pestered," as he’d called it, before, and that was a very good sign. "Jist seein’ if you was payin’ attention is all," he said on something that sounded damn near a giggle.

Chris’s frown deepened at that sound. "You all right, Tanner?" he asked suspiciously. "You hurt your head, too?"

Vin laughed again and swooped forward out of his chair, pressing a joyous kiss against Chris’s lips. "Ain’t nothin’ wrong with my head, cowboy!"

"That’s your story," Chris muttered. He licked his lips again.

Vin saw that and suddenly came to his senses. "Oh, hell, I bet you’re drier’n a desert, ain’tcha? Somethin’ about concussions an’ hospitals always do that."

"You’d be the expert on both," Chris breathed.

Vin arched a brow at him. "Try bein’ nice ta some folks," he groused.

"Well, if you’re gonna try," Chris dragged an unsteady, leaden hand up to his face and removed the wet cloth, revealing his sadly unfocused glare, "do it before I die of thirst!"

Vin shook his head and turned, grabbing a cup of ice chips off the tray table. "They say head injuries make some folks irr’table," he drawled in disgust. "Though how anybody’d know the differ’nce with you is beyond me." He turned back around and dipped the spoon into the cup, then poised it over Larabee’s mouth. "Open up and say ‘ah.’"

"Gimme some before I hurt ya!"

Vin smirked. "And folks say you ain’t a talker." He spooned some of the chips into Chris’s mouth. "Cain’t give ya too much at once," he said. "Wouldn’t want ya ta get a brain freeze. ’N I sure as hell don’t want ya throwin’ up on me."

Chris closed his eyes and let the chips melt, savoring the cold wetness as it slid across his tongue and pooled at the back of his mouth, then glided down his throat. "Doc Stone know you’re in here tormentin’ one of her patients?"

Vin shrugged and spooned more ice chips into the waiting mouth. "Holidays got ’em stretched thin here. She cain’t be everywhere ta do all the tormentin’ herself, so she said I could help." He winked. "She says I got natural talent."

"And to think I woke up for this," Chris mumbled around the melting ice.

"Nope," Vin breathed, leaning over Chris, "you woke up fer this." And he pressed his mouth to Chris’s in a slow, tender kiss, mindful of his lover’s bruised and torn lips.

Chris groaned as that kiss sent a delicious warmth through him, taking his mind off his pain as only Vin could. He tried to lift his arm and slip it around his partner, but just couldn’t manage. Another groan escaped him as Vin broke the kiss and pulled away.

"Easy, cowboy," Vin breathed, sinking once more into his chair and taking Chris’s hand in his. "I ain’t goin’ nowhere, but I don’t wanta wear ya out, either. Hurt like y’are, y’ain’t exactly up ta more’n holdin’ hands."

"How bad?" Chris whispered, feeling the pain in every part of his body, including parts he hadn’t known he possessed. He now vaguely recalled Dr. Stone saying something about an accident, and wondered just how many cars had run over him.

Vin reached out with his other hand and slipped long fingers gently through Chris’s hair. "Mild concussion, a buncha really nasty bruises, mild sprain in yer left knee." Dark blue eyes roamed slowly over his lover’s bruised and swollen face. "Weren’t near as bad as it coulda been," he rasped, his drawl thickening with emotion. "I coulda lost ya–"

"But you didn’t," Chris assured him, forcing a wan smile and squeezing Tanner’s hand. "I’m here, you’re here, and that’s all that matters."

"I’s scared, Chris," Vin admitted in a husky whisper. "I’s s’ scared I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see straight. All’s I c’d do was think about what’d happen if I lost ya–"

Chris did raise his hand then and pressed it to Vin’s lips to silence him. "Hush," he breathed, green eyes soft and deep. "You didn’t lose me. I’m right here, Vin. I hurt like hell and I feel like my damn head’s gonna explode, but I’m alive and I’m right here with you. It’s all right, partner. I’m gonna be all right. We’re gonna be all right. I promise. Okay?"

Vin nodded slightly. "’Kay," he whispered.

Chris saw the vulnerability in Vin’s eyes, eyes that had never been able to hide a bit of this man from him, and smiled gently. "You gonna stay?" he asked, letting his arm fall back to the bed.

Vin nodded again. "Doc wrote an order fer a cot, said I could stay the night." He gave a weak, crooked smile. "Reckon she knew I wasn’t leavin’, might’s well jist lemme stay. Save us havin’ ta make an ugly scene in the hall."

Chris chuckled softly. He’d seen a few of Tanner’s "ugly scenes" and figured Dr. Stone had saved herself and her staff all kinds of trouble. The Rock of Gibraltar had nothing on Vin Tanner when he didn’t want to be budged.

"Well," he breathed, letting his eyes close as weariness and pain again overcame him, "I guess I wouldn’t mind the company. Just try not to talk too much."

Vin was tired too, the emotional drain of the past few hours finally catching up with him. Without a second thought, he leaned forward and laid his head down on the bed as close to Chris as he could manage, closing his eyes as he finally allowed himself to relax.

Already halfway to sleep, Chris smiled. With an instinct born of love, his hand found its way to Vin’s head, his fingers threaded through his lover’s long hair, and he let himself drift back into the darkness.

An hour or so later, when Joyce, one of the nurses on the floor, came in to check on her patient, she found them still that way, Chris’s hand in Vin’s hair, Vin’s arm stretched protectively over Chris’s chest. Their closeness was so natural, so intimate and so loving that she smiled and went about her tasks as quietly and as gently as possible, careful not to disturb either sleeping man.

7~7~7~7

"You enjoy this, don’tcha?" Chris growled as Dr. Stone again aimed that damned penlight into his eye.

"Oh, yeah," she answered calmly, noting the reaction of his pupil, "nothin’ I like better than baiting bears before breakfast." She clicked off the light and pocketed it. "How’s your vision? Any blurriness? Seeing double? Problems focusing?"

"You mean before or after you blinded me?" he asked, blinking against the after-effects of the light.

"And here I was thinking it was a good thing that you were awake," she sighed resignedly, secretly pleased by the return of the blond’s surly "charm."

Chris exhaled heavily and closed his eyes, absently raising a hand to rub at one throbbing temple. "Sorry, Doc," he breathed, sounding truly contrite. "I know you’re just doin’ your job–"

"But it’s irritating to have someone poking and prodding at you," she sympathized, "especially when everywhere I poke and prod hurts like hell." She smiled slightly. "No, Chris, I don’t enjoy this one bit."

"I know," he murmured. "And, no, I’m not havin’ any trouble with my vision. Swims a little if I move my head too fast, but that’s about it."

She nodded. "That’s good, better than I expected. The ‘swimming’ will stop soon. But your brain’s been sloshed around pretty good inside your skull, and it tends to resent that kind of treatment."

He opened his eyes and cracked a faint grin. "I’ll remember that the next time I try to take on a tree."

She arched two brows and cocked her head to one side. "You remember that?"

He sighed and frowned in concentration, his eyes narrowing. "I don’t know. Maybe some of it. I remember lights … headlights, I guess … comin’ toward me. And I remember knowin’ I had to get out of the way … I wasn’t scared, though," he added in a puzzled voice. "Or at least I don’t remember bein’ scared. I just … had to get outta the way."

She shrugged lightly, slipping her hands into the pockets of her lab coat. "You probably didn’t have time to be scared. It’s amazing what the brain can block out when it has to. Survival is the strongest basic human instinct, and your survival depended on you getting away in a hurry. There wasn’t any time to be scared, so your brain decided to save that for later. Good thing, too," she added. "Your instincts and reflexes saved your life. Panic probably would’ve gotten you killed."

He grinned wryly, his bruised face aching. "I’ve never been good at panic."

She returned his grin and winked. "I can believe that."

His smile faded and his eyes again narrowed thoughtfully. "Vin said the guy was drunk," he said softly. "That true?"

"Oh, yeah," she sighed. "His blood alcohol content was way above the legal limit. It’s a true wonder he didn’t kill somebody."

"How old is he?"

She snorted derisively. "Old enough to know better. He’s not some kid blinded by delusions of immortality or immunity to the effects of alcohol, if that’s what you’re afraid of. He’s a few years older than you, in fact. And from what I understand, this won’t be his first DUI."

He shifted on the bed, then grimaced deeply and slid a hand to his chest as his movement pulled at the bruised muscles there. "Damn," he whispered through clenched teeth.

She winced in sympathy. "I’ll get you something for the pain. Nothing heavy, not with that concussion, but at least enough to take the edge off."

"I’d appreciate it," he rasped, still trying to figure out just what he could move without hurting. So far it was down to the toes on his right foot.

"I’ll go write out the order for the meds," she said, turning to leave. "And I’ll send Tanner back in. He’s probably chewing the paint off the walls by now–"

"Wait," he groaned, stopping her in her tracks. "The driver … He hurt, too?"

She turned back to him and frowned, puzzled by his interest in the man who had done this to him. She could have understood his being angry, but was getting no sense of that from him. "Yeah," she finally answered. "In fact, he did more damage to himself than anyone else. Took on a Suburban with his Nissan. The Suburban won. He’ll live, but he’ll be a guest here for a while." She stepped closer to the bed and stared down at him. "Why all the questions?"

He shook his head slightly and instantly regretted it as the pain soared to a new level. Christ, he had to stop doin’ that! "I don’t know," he gasped. "I just …" His gaze drifted past her and he frowned. "It’s ironic, I guess," he breathed. "A couple of years ago … I drank. Too much. Told myself I needed it …" He winced and closed his eyes tightly against the memories of that dark time. He forced them back, reminding himself that they no longer held sway over him, then drew a slow, careful breath and released it, opening his eyes and returning his gaze to her. "I guess it’s just … funny … that of all people I should be the innocent party in a drunk driving accident."

"It’s not funny," she snapped coldly, her dark eyes flaring with anger. "I took in six patients last night all because one guy was out on the road, behind the wheel, when he had absolutely no business being there! Six people, Chris, including you! And the man responsible is taking up the time and resources of my staff and this facility because of his own irresponsibility! There’s nothing ‘funny’ about that at all!"

He winced and sucked in a hissing breath as her sharp voice seemed to hammer against his skull, but was suitably chastened. As hard as she fought to save lives, hell, of course it would gall her to see them treated with such reckless disregard!

"I’m sorry," he murmured again. "That was a poor choice of words."

She gave a small, brittle laugh. "It’s okay, I just … get on my high horse about certain things. I suppose I keep hoping that one day collective common sense will kick in and people will realize they really can’t drink and drive."

He stared at her as if she’d lost her mind. "Collective common sense? You dream big, don’t you?"

She shrugged and smiled ruefully. "Isn’t this the season of miracles?"

"I got news for ya, Doc, collective common sense wouldn’t be a miracle, it would be one of the signs of the Apocalypse."

She snorted softly and shook her head. "That’s what I like about you, Larabee. You’re such an optimist!"

7~7~7~7

She walked out of his room and closed the door behind her, then leaned against it and raised a hand to pinch the bridge of her nose. Why was it that she always needed something for a headache after dealing with any member of Larabee’s Flying Circus?

Raised voices down the hall snagged her attention and she lifted her head, turning it toward the nurses’ station. A soft, weary sigh escaped her as she recognized Vin Tanner apparently arguing with one of the floor nurses.

Good God, now what?

She cursed under her breath and pushed away from the door, a scowl darkening her face as she started toward the desk. She had a pretty good idea what Tanner wanted, had gotten a glimpse of it last night and had fully expected she’d see it again. And while she could understand his anger, she wasn’t about to let him vent it here. She might have little use for drunk drivers, but her personal feelings didn’t matter. The man was a patient in her unit, and he’d get the same care every other patient got.

There was no way in hell she’d feed him to the lion that was Vin Tanner.

"You wanta tell me just what the hell’s goin’ on here?" she demanded in a low, hard voice as she stepped into the argument.

The nurse, recently hired and not yet sure how to deal with the men of Team 7, shot the doctor a relieved and deeply grateful look. Tanner, however, turned and fixed steely blue eyes upon her, his jaw set, his face as hard as chiseled stone. There was no youth to him now, no trace of the fear and touching vulnerability she’d seen last night. He was cold rage and coiled vengeance and there was no mercy in him.

Before her stood a professional killer.

She lifted her chin and drew herself up to her full height, still coming barely to his chin but seeming neither to notice nor care. Flaming dark eyes clashed with icy blue in direct challenge, and the battle of wills was on.

"Jean, go check Mr. Larabee’s chart," she ordered the nurse without ever looking away from Vin. "I’ve written an order for pain medication on it, and I’d like to begin dosing immediately."

"Yes, Doctor," Jean gasped on a sharp exhale, nearly running away from the station.

"I’ll ask one more time before I call security," Dr. Stone told Vin when the nurse had gone. "I don’t really need an answer, but I’d like to hear one anyway. What the hell is going on?"

He narrowed his eyes slightly and stared down at her, rage seething through him. He still wasn’t sure exactly what he intended to do, but knew that he needed to do something. "Heard some of the nurses talkin’," he said at last in the soft, husky voice that to his teammates always signaled hell on a very short leash. "They’s goin’ on an’ on about ‘poor Mr. Connor’ – that’s the bastard’s name, ain’t it? – an’ ‘what a terrible burden he’s had ta carry.’ Seems he’s gettin’ an awful lotta sympathy around here. Meanwhile, Chris cain’t move without hurtin’, and I understand that there’s one young feller gonna spend his first Christmas as a married man in here." His lips pulled away from his teeth in a wolfish snarl. "I reckon I jist want ‘poor Mr. Connor’ ta know what all he’s got ta answer fer!"

She cocked her head and arched a slim dark brow. "Answer to whom, Tanner? You?" she snapped. "Isn’t vengeance a little beneath you boys in the white hats? What are you gonna do, rough him up a little? Trust me, the SUV did a better job of that than you can. Shoot him? Then what am I supposed to tell Chris? ‘Sorry, Vin won’t be visiting anymore today. He’s busy being booked on murder charges.’" She snorted sharply. "That’ll certainly aid his recovery, won’t it?"

"You don’t understand!" he spat, stepping closer to her and jabbing a finger at her. "That man–"

"I understand more than you think," she informed him coldly, never giving an inch. "I understand that you’re not out for blood because Connor injured your boss, and I understand that you weren’t almost literally sick with fear last night for a friend. You love him," she went on ruthlessly, ignoring the startled widening of his eyes as her words struck home, "you’re in love with him, and right now you’re torn up six ways from Sunday because you still can’t deal with the fact you came this close," she held her thumb and forefinger almost together before his gaze, "to losing your lover. I understand perfectly."

He gaped at her in shock, his anger draining from him, his heart racing in his chest. God … how …

Again she forced herself to ignore his expression, determined to deal with this now so that she’d never have to again. She wasn’t sure what rules or code these men lived by outside these walls, but they had to know that inside them they lived by hers.

"But now," she continued, stepping closer to him and jabbing a finger into his chest, "I want you to understand me. We’re not in the jungle, we’re not out on the streets, we’re not back in the Old West. We’re in my world, my trauma unit, and you will abide by my rules or I will have you thrown out of and banned from this hospital so fast that it will make your sweet Texas head spin, do you understand me? I don’t like drunk drivers, Vin," she admitted, her voice and eyes never yielding in their authority. "I’ve seen the damage they can do too many times, I’ve had to tell too many families that I couldn’t save their loved ones, I’ve had to try and put too many kids back together after a prom or graduation party goes horribly wrong. I don’t like them!" she spat through gritted teeth, her slim frame taut.

"But," she willed herself to relax, "there’s no law that says I have to like my patients. And, believe me, I’ve treated some people so contemptible they’d make even your teeth curl! But while nothing says I have to like them, every professional code I believe in tells me that I have to treat them to the best of my abilities. I’m here to heal, not play judge. And I’m sure as hell not about to let you play jury. You stay away from Connor, you hear me?" she demanded, her eyes boring into his. "You stay as far the hell away from him as you can, or I swear, Vin, I swear, I’ll call security, I’ll call the cops, and I’ll then call the ATF and lodge a formal, official complaint with them about harassment of one of my patients by an agent."

He opened his mouth to challenge her, but the words wouldn’t come. Looking at her, he knew she’d do it. Knew she’d go after him every way she could. And knew she’d be right to do it.

"Shit," he whispered, bowing his head as defeat – and shame – washed through him. He turned and walked away from her, going to the nearest wall and slumping against it, then sliding down it until he was sitting on the floor. He rested his head against the wall and closed his eyes, trying desperately to regain the reason that had deserted him so completely.

Jesus, he really had wanted to kill the bastard.

He folded his long legs Indian-style and set his elbows on his knees, then dropped his head into his hands. God, he felt sick.

She watched him for a few minutes, saw the realization of what he’d nearly done sink home, and let go of her anger. In some two years of treating these men, of having them hurt, weak and vulnerable under her care, she’d come not just to know them, but to understand them. Some of them far more than she liked. And Vin Tanner was one of those. She understood why, even half dead, he’d fight with all he had against sudden, unexpected touches, why if he ever required restraints he also required sedation, why he bore pain so well but could be completely undone by the smallest acts of tenderness. She understood, though that understanding sickened her at times and enraged her at others, that he knew more of cruelty than of kindness, and that whatever he knew of love had been taught to him almost exclusively by Chris Larabee. And understanding that, she could understand why so nearly losing Chris had sent him into what might literally have been a killing rage.

God, so much damage. So much collateral damage.

Well, she was a healer, wasn’t she? Maybe it was time she went back to work.

Without a word, she joined Vin at the wall and sat down at his side, folding her legs neatly under her and not caring a bit about the odd looks she attracted from passing hospital staff. She figured being chief here entitled her to a little craziness.

Vin felt her at his side, but couldn’t bring himself to look at her. Not with all that was dark and deadly inside him still so close to the surface. He’d come so near giving in to it and was appalled by that. Hell, he wasn’t on the streets anymore, hadn’t been for a long while now, and wasn’t hunting anymore, either. He didn’t have to live by those rules anymore. He thought he’d gotten past that.

Until some stupid, careless bastard had hurt Chris. And all he’d been able to think about was hurting that bastard back.

Jesus.

Dr. Stone heard his soft groan and from the corner of her eye saw him scrubbing his fingers through his long hair. "This love thing’s a real bitch, isn’t it?" she asked softly, casually.

He lifted his head sharply at that and shot a bewildered stare at her. "How long’ve ya known?" he rasped.

She smiled gently. "That you love him? Probably almost as long as you have. That he loves you?" She winked. "Certainly longer than he has!"

Again his eyes widened in startlement, then he shook his head and gave a soft chuckle. "He is kinda hard-headed, ain’t he?"

She arched a brow. "Pots and kettles, Tanner," she chided.

"Yeah," he breathed, his smile fading. A long sigh escaped him and he grimaced deeply. "Look, Doc, I’m sorry about what happened. I know … I know it was wrong. I was wrong ta want …" He winced again and bowed his head. "I ain’t felt like that in a long time. Didn’t even know I had it in me anymore. Thought I’d gotten over it."

"We are what we are, Vin," she said with a shrug. "Saints and sinners in one big, messy package. We can’t always get rid of the parts we don’t like. Sometimes all we can do is learn to control them. Your control slipped. Badly, I’ll grant you," she added pointedly, earning another grimace and a blush. "But it’s done. I just need to know that it won’t happen again."

"It won’t," he breathed. "I know I cain’t do anything to him. I know that. But I jist … fer those few minutes …" He sighed and let his head fall back against the wall, staring up at the ceiling. "This is all still so new ta me, y’know?" he murmured. "Havin’ what I got with Chris, bein’ happy … Couldn’t stand knowin’ how close I come ta losin’ it. It scared me, an’ I don’t like bein’ scared. Been that way too much of my life as it is. I jist wanted … I reckon I jist wanted that asshole ta pay fer makin’ me feel that way again." He turned his head and fixed shame-filled eyes upon her. "Yer gonna tell Chris, ain’tcha?"

"Nope." Once more his eyes widened and his mouth fell open, and she figured she should get some sort of prize for keeping this normally unflappable man so badly off balance. "I’ll leave that to you." She laughed aloud as he shook his head in denial. "Oh, c’mon, Tanner, don’t be an idiot! He’ll take one look into those big ol’ baby blues and you’ll crumble. I won’t ever have to say a word."

He scowled deeply. "Think ya know me, huh?"

"Yep," she said with a smirk, her dark eyes filled with teasing, "and I know Chris does. Face it, Tex, you and Larabee might be two of the most uncommunicative men ever born, but when you guys look at each other, you might as well be shouting."

He smiled slightly, shyly, that blush again darkening his cheeks. "Yer somethin’ else, Doc, y’know that?" He rose gracefully to his feet, then turned and extended a hand down to her. "Thanks."

She took his hand and let him help her to her feet. "You’re welcome. But you behave, you hear me?" she ordered sternly, though a fond light gleamed in her eyes. "I’m pretty sure the ATF wouldn’t want it getting out that their best sharpshooter got his butt kicked by a woman."

7~7~7~7

Vin paced slowly around the small room, not sure what to do with himself. Chris was sleeping again and this would be the perfect time to go down and get some coffee, except that he hated the thought of leaving Chris alone. He just wasn’t sure if he hated it more for Chris’s sake or his own.

He made his way back to the chair beside the bed and dropped into it with a soft, long sigh. Leaning forward, he reached instinctively for Chris’s hand, craving the reassurance of his lover’s warmth, but stopped himself just before he grasped it and held his own suspended above it, suddenly uncertain. Chris needed to rest and Vin didn’t want to risk disturbing him. He sat back in his chair with another sigh, running a hand through his long hair.

Lord, he hated this! He wasn’t good at it. He knew the others all thought he had unlimited patience, could sit for what seemed like hours without moving, without talking, without even seeming to think. But they were wrong. He didn’t have that kind of patience. Not when Chris was lying in a hospital bed, far too silent and still, bruised nearly from head to toe, with IVs stuck in him and that damned nasal canula perched under his nose. Hell, he wasn’t supposed to look like this! He was supposed to be the strong one, the invincible one, the one who took whatever life threw at him and spat it back, all the while wearing that goddamned cocky grin …

Vin closed his eyes and scrubbed his hands over his face. Lord, he really needed to see that grin just now!

He dropped his hands, sighed again and rose once more to his feet, thrusting his hands into the pockets of his worn jeans and resuming his restless pacing. He hated hospitals. Hated their antiseptic smell, their white fluorescent glare, the taste they left in the back of his mouth and the chill they left in the center of his bones. Most of all, he hated the feeling of utter helplessness they never failed to inspire in him. He was completely out of his element here, couldn’t control one thing around him, didn’t have a single skill that was useful here. There was nothing he could do in a hospital except wait.

He hated waiting. No matter what the others thought, he wasn’t good at it at all.

"Sit down," croaked a dry voice from the bed. "You’re makin’ my head swim."

Vin whirled around and stared at the slits of green fixed woozily on him. "Chris!" he gasped. "I thought you’s asleep!"

Larabee swallowed and licked his lips, trying to bring his lover’s slightly blurry form into focus. But his head hurt too much and he abandoned the effort with a weary sigh, letting his eyes close again. "Was," he rasped. "Then I started dreamin’ about a damn jack-in-the-box, poppin’ up and down. Kept wishin’ it’d stay in one place, but it just kept jumpin’ around."

"Aw, hell," Vin breathed guiltily, knowing he’d been the cause of that dream. "I’m sorry, cowboy. I shoulda left you alone after all."

"Don’t wanta be alone," Chris assured him. "Just want you ta be still." He lifted a hand from the bed and held it out to Vin. "C’mere."

Vin went at once, unable to resist that summons. He lowered the side rail and eased himself onto the edge of the bed, careful not to jostle Chris, then took his lover’s hand and held it securely between his two. "I’m sorry," he said again.

Chris smiled slightly, feeling better just for Vin’s touch and his nearness. "Guess if I want you ta be still I need ta give you a rifle ta hold," he teased.

"Rather hold onta you," Vin murmured, bowing his head and tightening his hold on Larabee’s hand.

Chris opened his eyes and frowned at the oddly vulnerable, even fearful, tone in the younger man’s voice, at the almost desperate grip Vin had on his hand. "Hey," he called softly, worriedly, "you all right?" Vin only nodded once, which did nothing to dispel Chris’s concern. "Vin, look at me," he ordered gently. "C’mon, partner, raise your head and look at me." Vin did, and Chris frowned more deeply still at the shadows lurking in the dark blue eyes. "You do know I’m not goin’ anywhere, right?" he asked. "You do know I’m all right?"

"Y’ain’t all right!" Vin countered harshly, anger surging through him anew. "Y’ain’t seen yerself, have ya, Larabee? Ain’t seen what that bastard did to ya–"

"I don’t have ta see it, Vin," Chris said calmly. "I can feel it. Every time I move, every time I breathe. I seriously doubt I look one bit worse than I feel. But at least I’m here ta feel it."

"Shouldn’t have ta be here at all," Vin growled. "Bastard had no right doin’ this ta you!"

Chris sighed; they were back to this. "Vin–"

"He’s here, y’know," Vin ground out softly, his eyes hard. "Somewhere. Name’s Jack Connor. He–"

"How do you know that?" Chris asked sharply, his eyes now focusing perfectly and zeroing in on his lover’s. He saw anger in them certainly, but something else as well; a shadow of … guilt? "What did you do?" he demanded, tearing his hand out of Vin’s and grabbing his lover’s wrist in an iron grip, green eyes boring ruthlessly into startled blue. "Tell me what you did, Tanner!"

Vin jerked out of Chris’s grasp and pushed off the bed, turning away from the gaze that could so easily strip him bare and folding his arms tightly, protectively, against his chest. Damn it, he did not want to talk about this now!

"Vin?" Chris prompted. He saw the slim back straighten, the shaggy head lift, and arched a golden brow. "You gonna tell me, or should I start askin’ around?"

"I didn’t do nothin’!" Vin spat, rounding on Chris and impaling him with a fiery gaze. "I wanted to. Lord God, how I wanted to! But Doc Stone damn near peeled my hide from my bones when she found out–"

"Found out what?" Chris persisted. He reached out and pressed the button to raise the head of the bed, wincing as the movement increased the pounding in his head. "Might as well tell me, Tanner," he rasped when he was better able to face his lover, "because I will find out."

"Fine!" Vin snapped. "I tried ta find out what room he’s in! Thought mebbe I’d have a talk with him. Find out what makes a man think it’s all right ta drink hisself stupid, then go out an’ aim his car at innocent folks! I wanted ta see him, all right? I wanted ta see the bastard that nearly killed you!"

"Just see him?" Chris asked very softly, knowing how fiercely – and how ruthlessly – Vin could protect those he considered "his."

Vin shifted uneasily and hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his jeans as that knowing gaze seemed to probe his very soul. "Mebbe," he said slowly. "What else would I have done?"

"I don’t know." Chris’s gaze never wavered from his lover’s face, from those wary eyes. Tanner looked like an animal on the verge of taking flight. Mindful of that, he kept his voice low, gentle. "You tell me. What else would you have done?"

And that gentleness was Vin’s undoing. He could defend himself against anger; had spent much of his life doing just that. But against the worry and love in Chris’s voice and eyes he had absolutely no defense at all and, just as Dr. Stone had predicted, felt himself crumbling now like a wall of sand undercut by the sea. His anger deserted him in a rush, tearing a soft groan from him, and he took a staggering step toward Chris, his blue eyes filled with raw shame.

"I don’t know," he rasped unsteadily. "I hope nothin’, but … I jist don’t know!" He shook his head slowly, his eyes pleading for understanding. And forgiveness. "I wasn’t thinkin’, all right? I’d heard some a’ the nurses talkin’ about him, callin’ him ‘that poor man,’ and all of a sudden I’s so mad I couldn’t see straight, couldn’t think straight. How the hell was he a poor man?" he shouted. "Shit, he caused all this!" He saw Chris flinch from the loudness of his voice and groaned again, bowing his head and dragging both hands through his hair. "Shit, I’m sorry!" he whispered. "I’m sorry! I know it was wrong, but I just couldn’t help myself. I had ta know, I had ta see … So I tried ta find out where he was from one a’ the nurses. Only she wouldn’t tell me nothin’. We started arguin’ about it, an’ that’s when the doc came up." He winced. "Shit, I’ll be pickin’ her teeth outta my hide fer a week!"

Chris raised a hand and rubbed his tired and aching eyes. "Jesus, Vin," he breathed, easily able to imagine just how pissed the trauma chief would have been. "You’re lucky she didn’t call security and have you thrown into the street!"

"She threatened to," he admitted in a low voice, again shoving his hands into his pockets. "Said if I ever tried ta get near Connor again she’d file an official complaint against me with the Bureau fer harassment."

"She’d do it, too," Chris said. "And be well within her rights." He dropped his hand and stared at his lover. "That was pretty goddamned stupid," he said quietly. "You know that, right?"

Vin hesitated a moment, then exhaled deeply and nodded. "Yeah, I know," he breathed. "I promised her I wouldn’t do it again. Even apologized to her." He looked at Chris, true contrition in his eyes. "I’m sorry, cowboy," he said softly. "I fucked up real good this time, didn’t I?"

"Yeah, you did. But you coulda fucked up a lot worse if Dr. Stone hadn’t shown up when she did. If you had gotten in his room–"

Vin winced and looked away. "I don’t even wanta think about that!"

"Maybe you should," Chris advised pointedly.

Vin looked back to him. "You mad?"

Chris thought for long moments. He should be, he knew that; what Vin had tried to do was inexcusable. It was, however, perfectly understandable. Hell, how many times had he wanted – and tried – to get his hands on someone who’d hurt one of his men? What would he have done if it were Vin in this bed and the man responsible for putting him here was close by?

"No," he answered at last, knowing he could never be less than honest with this man. "I’m not real happy, but I’m not mad." He sighed. "I just don’t want you gettin’ in trouble, okay? Promise me you’ll behave?"

Vin smiled and returned to the bed, once again seating himself at Chris’s side. "I promise," he said sincerely, again taking Chris’s hand and cradling it to his chest, "I’ll behave." He gazed deeply into those pained but still beautiful green eyes and held his other hand to Chris’s face, tenderly cupping one bruised cheek and lightly stroking Larabee’s mouth with his thumb. "I jist don’t like seein’ you hurt," he rasped thickly. "Gets me all twisted up inside. I love ya, y’know?"

Chris smiled, more deeply touched by that simple declaration than he would’ve been by any more flowery speech. "Yeah, I know," he murmured, setting his free hand on Vin’s thigh. "I love you, too."

Vin leaned forward and, as carefully as he could, set his head on Chris’s shoulder, closing his eyes and nestling his face into the crook of Chris’s neck, letting the man’s warmth seep into him. "I ain’t good at this, cowboy," he whispered shakily.

"Oh, I don’t know," Chris sighed, resting his aching head against Vin’s and closing his eyes, finding in his lover’s presence the best pain medicine he knew. "Seems to me you’re doin’ just fine."

7~7~7~7

"Heya, stud, how’s it hangin’?"

Chris opened his eyes and turned his head toward the subdued but still jovial voice, smiling warmly at the sight of Buck Wilmington’s head sticking sideways through the doorway. "You run outta nurses already?" he greeted.

Buck pushed the door open and stepped through, grinning broadly. "Hell, no! I just have ta ration myself." He winked. "Too much a’ me, and these sweet ladies won’t be any use at all t’ their patients. Could cause a crisis in health care, and I sure wouldn’t want that!"

Chris watched as the big man dropped into the chair at his bedside and stretched out his long legs. "You mean Dr. Stone was out there watchin’ you like a hawk," he translated with a grin.

Buck shuddered dramatically. "That woman ain’t human! And she’s too damn good with a knife fer my tastes."

Chris laughed aloud at that, then groaned and clutched at his chest. "God, Buck, don’t make me laugh!" he gasped in pain.

Buck leaned forward immediately and set a big but infinitely gentle hand on Chris’s tight shoulder, then rubbed slowly with long, strong fingers. "Easy, pard," he soothed. "Just relax and breathe carefully." He studied the lines of pain etched into Chris’s features. "Want me ta go get Junior?"

Chris closed his eyes and let himself relax under Buck’s skilled hand, trying to breathe without aggravating his bruised chest muscles. "Where … where is he?" he asked through gritted teeth.

Buck smiled mischievously. "Outside in the hall, caught between Nathan and Doc Stone, with both of ’em hammerin’ on him ta go get some food inside him. Hell, I thought Nathan was gonna blow a gasket when the doc ‘let it slip’ that Junior hadn’t eaten anything since you were brought in." He chuckled and shook his head. "She’s good!"

Chris exhaled slowly, grateful that someone was finally forcing Vin to take care of himself. He’d have to thank Dr. Stone later. "He’s takin’ all this kinda hard," he rasped.

Buck snorted. "I’ll say! I could barely understand him when he called last night, and he wasn’t a whole lot better this mornin’." He swept his deep blue gaze slowly over Chris’s face, taking in the damage. "We all talked at the office," he said quietly, "figured it’d be best ta stay away for a while, let Vin get used to the idea that he ain’t gonna lose ya."

Chris opened his eyes and turned to Buck, seeing only understanding, compassion and friendship written on his expressive face. "Thanks," he breathed, his eyes shining.

Buck nodded. "May take me a while sometimes," he said softly, "but I usually get there in the end. You two belong together. I may not always understand it, but I don’t really have to. He makes ya happy, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted for ya."

Chris nodded, his heart full, his throat tight. "He does," he managed to choke out.

Buck squeezed his shoulder gently, then let him go and sat back. "I called about your truck," he said, knowing it was time to change the subject. "It’s pretty well totaled."

"Shit," Chris breathed, closing his eyes.

"I told the guy at the garage I’d be down later ta get your stuff out. He said he’s not sure how, but that big package you had strapped inta the passenger seat survived intact. Airbag didn’t seem ta hurt it."

Chris opened his eyes and turned to frown at Buck. "Package?"

Buck leaned forward and folded his forearms on the bed, realizing that Chris still didn’t remember everything. "You left the office an hour early yesterday," he explained, "said ya had some errands to run. Told me that Gayle called Saturday, said Vin’s present was ready, and you were gonna–"

"Shit!" Chris barked, sitting up abruptly and then reeling forward as pain and dizziness assailed him. "Oh, God–"

"Easy, stud," Buck soothed, standing up to catch him and then lowering him gently back against the bed. "Might not wanta do that again."

Chris turned onto his side and curled into himself, closing his eyes tightly and clutching at his stomach and chest, trying desperately not to be sick. Or to scream.

"Ssh, it’s all right," Buck murmured, rubbing slow circles into Larabee’s tight back. "Don’t you worry, I’ll take care of everything. I’ll go get Vin’s gift, wrap it, take it out t’ the ranch, all right? But I don’t think it’s gonna mean nearly as much to him as just havin’ you there."

"He h … has ta have it," Chris gasped, raising a shaking hand and pressing it to his pounding head. "I w … I want him … ta see it–"

"And he will, I promise," Buck assured softly, now gently rubbing Chris’s shoulders. "I’ll see to it. As soon as I leave here. Trust me."

Chris slid his hand from his head and reached for Buck’s, gripping it firmly as soon as he felt it close about his. "Always have," he whispered. "Always will."

7~7~7~7

Vin stood at the window in Chris’s room and stared out, but saw nothing of the world beyond these walls. His whole attention was fixed inward, on the anger and disappointment he was trying so hard not to feel but couldn’t seem to control.

Once again, Christmas had been snatched from his grasp and dashed to pieces at his feet.

All the guys had come up earlier, after they’d helped Nathan browbeat him into eating, and it had been a good visit. They’d all kept their usually boisterous voices and antics down to a dull roar, easily able to see that Chris was in enough discomfort already without their adding to it. Still, nothing had been able to dampen their joy and relief at knowing that Chris really would be all right, and they’d celebrated that fact with their customary irrepressible spirit, bickering, making bad jokes and trading outrageous stories. For the first time since the accident, Vin had allowed himself to relax, let himself sink into the warm embrace of their unique camaraderie and felt the darkness that haunted his spirit receding.

Until JD had so innocently brought it all crashing back.

The young agent had asked a perfectly natural question – "What about tomorrow?" They’d all planned to gather at the ranch on Christmas Day to exchange gifts, eat, watch football and eat some more. But it was obvious just from looking at him now that, even if Dr. Stone released Chris this afternoon, he would be in no condition to enjoy, much less participate in, any festivities. And there was no way in hell these men would even consider having a team Christmas without their leader. So Josiah had quite logically suggested postponing their celebration until Saturday, by which time Chris should be feeling well enough to take at least some part, and they’d all readily agreed.

Except Vin, who couldn’t help feeling robbed. But when Chris had asked him if it was all right, he’d swallowed his disappointment – wasn’t like he wasn’t familiar with the taste of it by now – and put on his most stoic face, letting nothing of what he felt show. Giving his familiar easy shrug, he’d drawled, "’S fine. T’morra or Saturday – don’t matter none ta me."

They’d believed him, or at least pretended to, and had left soon after, Buck mentioning something about an errand and the others going back to the office to tie up loose ends there before beginning their Christmas holiday. Now it was just the two of them, still stuck in this tiny, sterile, suffocating hospital room until Dr. Stone made up her mind about whether Chris could go home today or not. Vin closed his eyes, let his head fall forward against the window and fought to keep from beating against the glass with his fists and screaming out his fury.

Damn it, damn it, he’d actually almost had it this time, and still it had been taken away!

Chris watched Vin in silence, his own disappointment as deep as his lover’s. Vin had said the postponement didn’t matter and Chris had immediately known that for the lie it was. It did matter to Vin, more than it ever had before. Just like it mattered to him. For the first time in three years his life was complete, and he was truly and utterly happy. He and Vin were together, they were in love, and they finally had the acceptance and support of all their friends for their relationship. He’d looked forward to a Christmas spent celebrating what he had rather than mourning what he’d lost, a Christmas filled with peace rather than pain.

Except that he seemed destined to spend Christmas hurting. And Vin seemed destined to spend Christmas pretending it was no different than any other day.

Shit.

"Vin–"

"Please don’t," Vin rasped, never turning to face him, never lifting his head, never opening his eyes. He was tired, so tired, and feared that just the slightest push would send him hurtling back into the unreasoning and dangerous rage that had gripped him earlier today. He’d promised both Chris and Dr. Stone that he’d behave, and right now he was terrified of how badly he wanted to break that promise.

Chris nodded and said nothing, understanding. He could see Vin’s anger, could feel it. Hell, he shared it! This wasn’t how he’d planned to spend Christmas Eve, so battered that he couldn’t make love to Vin, so stiff and sore that he couldn’t even hold him. This was supposed to have been a truly special night, their first Christmas Eve as lovers, and he’d wanted to celebrate that as the miracle it was. But now … He turned his head against the pillow and closed his eyes, clenching his jaws and knotting his hands into fists against the fury and frustration that rose through him in hard waves.

Jesus Christ, it was all just so goddamned wrong!

Vin turned away from the window then and saw Chris, and his heart twisted painfully in his chest at the sight of his lover’s suffering. A soft, short breath tore from him and he went slowly to the bed, sinking wearily into the chair at its side and reaching out to take one tight fist in his hands. He leaned forward and tenderly kissed that fist, and a single tear spilled onto Chris’s skin.

Chris felt the kiss, and the tear, and turned with a groan toward Vin, pulling the younger man to him. More tears were sliding down Vin’s cheeks and Chris wiped them away, ignoring those streaking his own face. He drew Vin into his arms, cradling him close and just holding him, never caring about the pain it caused.

"It’s gonna be all right," he whispered hoarsely, willing himself to believe that. "Here or at the ranch, we’ll be together and that’s what really matters."

Vin nodded wordlessly, his face buried in the warmth of Chris’s throat. It would be. It had to be. He had Chris, and that was all he really needed. He could live without Christmas.

Hell, he had for most of his life.

Next.....