The Heart Has It's Reasons - Part 2

 

Vin finally pulled himself to his hands and knees, only barely biting back an outcry as fresh torrents of pain streaked through him. He couldn’t see the wound to judge how bad it might be, but he’d never known a knife wound to be good. Swallowing desperately against rising nausea, he crawled slowly the few feet that seemed more like miles to the back wall of Santiago’s store, cold, light-headed, and hurting like hell.

Oh, Lord, if he could just… breathe…

At long last he reached the wall and collapsed against it, groaning thickly as he took the impact on his injured side. Still, he managed to brace himself against the wall, was fairly certain he was sitting up, and closed his eyes, gasping for breath that never fully came.

Chris.

Like a beacon in the darkness, Larabee appeared before him now, blond hair gleaming like sun-ripened wheat, clear green eyes lit by the fire that burned in the core of the man, the strong and beautiful face now deeply lined with a worry that sprang from love. Vin opened his eyes and stared up at him, reached weakly for him, then let his hand fall with a soft cry as the apparition vanished.

Oh, God, cowboy, I need ya!

He closed his eyes again and slumped back against the wall, pressing one shaking hand to his chest as breathing grew steadily more difficult. He could feel warm blood soaking into his jeans, shirt and jacket, and knew that couldn’t be good. He needed help, had no desire to bleed his life away in the streets he’d fought so hard to escape, but, for the life of him, couldn’t summon either the strength or the will to climb to his feet and make his way inside the store. If he could just get his breath, he could call out…

Call out… call…

Oh, shit, his phone!

He wrenched open his eyes and stared down at his waist, then fumbled at his belt, feeling for his cell and praying it was there. It was, and he snatched it free, holding it in cold, unsteady hands and trying to order his thoughts. Help. He had to call for help. He was hurt, was bleeding, and couldn’t breathe. He had to call for help.

Instinctively, he punched in the speed-dial code for Chris’s cell.

"Ay, Dios mio!"

So intent was he on listening for the familiar voice he desperately needed to hear that he completely missed the shocked one crying out from the back door of the store. Hector Santiago stared from the doorway at the slumped figure half-sitting, half-lying against the wall of his building, recognized him and knew at once something was wrong, and rushed back inside, hurriedly crossing himself.

Oblivious to Hector’s appearance and disappearance, Vin clutched the phone to his ear and waited, trying not to think about the pain searing through his back. If he could ignore it, then it couldn’t be that bad…

"Larabee."

He very nearly cried out as Chris’s voice filled his ear, felt his whole soul lurch in recognition. He tried to speak, had to swallow against the terrible dryness of his mouth and throat, then tried again. "Chris…"

7~7~7~7

Nettie rose from her chair and went into the kitchen to take the brisket out of the oven, put in the rolls and get them coffee. When she had gone, Chris bowed his head and closed his eyes, exhaling slowly, deeply, his whole body sagging.

She didn’t believe him.

Oh, she wanted to, he knew that, knew she wanted to believe with everything that was in her that he wouldn’t be just one more man to tear Vin’s heart to shreds. Wanted to believe that someone would finally love her boy as he deserved to be loved and bring peace to his embattled soul. But, as she’d said, she wasn’t stupid, and she wasn’t naive, and she had every reason in the world to doubt Chris Larabee.

After all, he’d been married, had had a wife and child, had never even considered making a life with another man. Until Vin. Hell, how could he convince Nettie, when he still didn’t quite understand it himself?

He’d tried to reason it out, had tried to lay logic down alongside it and make it fit, but had never succeeded. Because it had nothing to do with reason, and everything to do with love. And he knew as well as anyone that love could inflict as many wounds as it was supposed to heal, and that those wounds were more crippling than any other. God knew, Vin was living proof of that.

No. Remembering what Vin had told him of his past, he couldn’t blame Nettie for doubting him. But he’d lay her doubts to rest, just as he’d done his own. He figured there were far worse ways to spend a life.

Nettie returned and set a large cup of hot coffee before him, then sat down. As he raised his head and turned his face to her, she could see the firm resolve written on it, and had to smile. "You hang onta that, son," she said. "You’re gonna need it. It’s a hard road you’ve chosen."

He lifted a blond brow, returning her probing gaze easily. "Vin’s worth it." He waited a few beats, then said evenly, "He needs to know that you know about us. That you know about him. It’ll make it a lot easier on him, knowin’ he doesn’t have to hide from you anymore."

She snorted sharply at the very notion. "Don’t know what ever made him think he could hide from me in the first place! Don’t know what made him think he had to. The fool notions that boy gets sometimes…" She raised a hand as Chris started to answer. "Oh, I know, he was afraid I’d be ashamed of him, or disappointed in him, or disgusted by him…" She sighed and shook her head sadly. "As if I could ever feel any of those things toward him…" She grimaced and exhaled sharply. "I can see I’m gonna have ta have a talk with that boy…"

Chris chuckled softly, wishing he could be there for that one. He’d seen Nettie lay into Vin a few times, and it was always a sight to behold, with the deadly marksman cowed by the little old woman as he was by no one else in the world. About the only time he ever saw true panic in Tanner’s eyes was when Nettie was backing him up against some wall, jabbing her finger into his chest and chewing him up one side and down the other.

Maybe he should warn Vin…

Nope. No way was he putting himself between those two. There wasn’t enough kevlar in the world for that!

His phone rang then, cutting into his thoughts, and a scowl twisted at his mouth. Buck had obviously gotten to the thing again, and programmed it to ring to the theme from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Last time, it had been the Darth Vader theme from "Star Wars."

Goddamn it, when had he started running a daycare center?

He unclipped the phone from his belt and thumbed "yes," then raised it to his ear. "Larabee," he answered in his customary clipped tone.

For long moments, only silence answered him. No, not silence, but breathing, harsh and labored. Sharp anxiety gripped him and he sat up straight in his chair, his every instinct going on alert. He started to speak, but, before he could, a voice finally came over the line, and his heart and gut clenched hard.

"Chris…"

Fear flooded Larabee at his lover’s weak, breathless voice, at the pain he could almost feel. He clenched his jaws and leaned forward, narrowing his eyes and tensing, concentrating fiercely on the man at the other end of the line.

"Vin, talk to me," he urged, forcing himself to remain calm and listening intently for any background sound that might tell him where Vin was, and what had happened to him. "Tell me what’s goin’ on."

"I’m hurt," Vin breathed at last, sending yet another stab of fear through him. "I h… I heard a scream… I thought I’d jist… thrown out my back…" The disjointed words alarmed Larabee, and his stomach went into a slow, queasy roll. He could feel Nettie’s frightened eyes digging into him, pleading for answers, but he ignored her for the moment and focused solely on Vin.

"C’d use ya now, cowboy," Tanner sighed, driving shards of pain into his heart. "’S awful cold out…"

Chris bowed his head and covered his eyes with an unsteady hand. Jesus, Vin was hurt, and he was outside…

"He w… he wanted… her money," the younger man said, his words slurring together. "He had… he had… a knife."

The words drove the breath from Chris in a painful rush, and sent his heart crashing into his ribs. His hand fell away from his face and he turned bleak eyes to Nettie, his face draining of all color. Feeling as if he might be sick at any moment, he swallowed hard, knowing he had to be strong for Vin’s sake. But, God…

"A knife?" he repeated hoarsely.

At his side, Nettie gasped harshly, her face going as white as his, and fell back in her chair as raw terror exploded through her.

7~7~7~7

"I’m sorry… cowboy," Vin whispered, the strain of talking almost more than he could bear. "Didn’t mean… ta worry you none…" He was shivering hard, each tremor driving fresh torrents of agony through his back, and a soft cry escaped him. "I reckon… this jist ain’t… been… my day."

"Please, Vin, tell me where you are!"

His eyes drifted closed and he swallowed weakly, concentrating now on breathing. "Don’t… tell Nettie," he rasped, suddenly remembering the reason he was out here. "She d… she don’t know… I couldn’t take it… Please, Chris, don’t tell her!"

"Vin!" Larabee shouted into the phone. "Goddamn it, Tanner, talk to me!"

Vin felt the phone being taken gently from his grasp, but he didn’t fight. He merely forced his eyes open once more and stared up in confusion at the man kneeling above him. Then, with a soft, thick groan, he slumped helplessly to the cold pavement.

"Hello?" Hector gazed worriedly down at the half-conscious young man, and absently placed a large, protective hand to his shoulder.

"Who is this?" a cold, hard voice demanded roughly.

"My name is Hector Santiago," he answered calmly. "I am the owner of a small store where Señor Tanner often stops for gas. He is here, behind my store, and he is hurt, bleeding… I have called 911, and they are sending an ambulance for him."

"What happened?"

Hector sighed and shook his head. "I cannot say for certain, Señor. Several people said they heard someone screaming, but," he shrugged apologetically, "screams here do not attract attention. Then, someone said they saw Adela Mendez running away. She was crying, and her dress was torn… I came out back to see what happened…" He sighed again and winced, hearing the harsh, labored breathing of the injured man. "I saw that Señor Tanner was hurt, so I went back inside and called for help."

"You say he’s bleeding?" the voice asked softly, very softly.

"Sí, Señor," Hector answered sadly. "He is bleeding very much." He looked around, and saw the knife laying only a few feet away, a trail of blood between it and Vin. "I think… he has been stabbed."

There was only silence on the phone after that.

7~7~7~7

Chris gasped and shuddered convulsively, his heart lurching in his chest. He wanted to speak, but no words would come. Right now, even breath wouldn’t come. He could do nothing but stare ahead, transfixed by the horrible vision of Vin lying in his own blood.

"Señor?" Hector called. "Señor, are you still there? Hello?"

Chris shook his head to clear it, then swallowed hard and licked his lips. "I… I’m here, Señor Santiago," he rasped. "I… My name’s Chris Larabee. Vin is… a good friend."

"Ah, Señor Larabee!" Chris could hear the relief in the man’s voice. "Yes, I remember you. You have come with him into my store before. You are his jefe, no?"

Chris had always thought that point debatable, at least in Vin’s mind, but knew this was not the time to discuss the sharpshooter’s nebulous grasp of the chain of command. "Yeah, I’m his boss." He rubbed the knuckle of his thumb over the deep furrow fear had scored between his brows. "How… how is he? Is he awake at all?" There was another long, maddening pause, and Chris gritted his teeth, rocking slowly back and forth in his chair as he wanted for Santiago to answer.

"I think he is conscious, somewhat," Hector answered at last. "There is much blood, and he is shivering. I have put my coat over him, but I do not think it helps. I think he was stabbed in his back."

Again Chris’s composure deserted him in a rush, leaving him weak, breathless, and very nearly sick. No…

Nettie stared in terror at Chris, her hands clasped tightly together at her breast, her heart hammering frantically against her ribs. He’d said Vin was bleeding… Dear Lord, her boy was hurt…

She had to get to him.

"Señor Santiago?"

She rose to her feet, unaware that she did so, knowing only that Vin was hurt and needed her. Even as she did, Chris’s voice again pulled at her, and she turned her whole attention on him.

Chris leaned forward in his chair, frowning as he sifted through the sounds coming through his phone. "What is that I hear?"

"It is a siren," Hector breathed, his own relief evident. "The ambulance is here. I should go show them where we are–"

"WAIT!" Chris barked into the phone, shooting to his feet. "Don’t hang up, do you hear me?" He poured every bit of command he possessed into his voice. "Do not hang up! I want to know everything that’s going on, and I want you to tell me. Is that clear?"

"Oh, sí, Señor," Hector answered, as quick to comply as most others who heard that particular tone. "I will tell you everything."

"Good," Chris said, his voice still cold and clipped. "The first thing I want you to ask is where they’ll be taking him, so I can meet him there." He looked at Nettie and nodded once, easily reading the question in her eyes and knowing that her need to be with Vin was every bit as great as his own. "And then," he turned his attention back to Santiago, "you tell Tanner I said for him to hold on, or I’ll kick his scrawny ass to hell and back!"

7~7~7~7

Hector jogged to the end of the alley and waved at the ambulance pulling into his drive. "They are here," he said into the phone, unable to disguise his relief. "He has help now. And, do not worry," he added before the man on the other end could bark again, "I will be sure to ask where they are taking him."

When he was sure the driver had seen him, he turned and went back up the alley, uttering silent prayers for the young man bleeding behind his store.

7~7~7~7

Still clutching the phone to his hear, Chris paced like a caged cougar around Nettie’s dining room, his every muscle clenched so tight it hurt, his free hand raking repeatedly through his hair. He could not stop thinking about Vin lying out in the cold evening air, bleeding from a knife wound in his back…

How long did it take a man of his size to bleed to death?

He banished that thought with an effort, refusing even to consider the possibility. The paramedics were on the scene. Vin would be fine. Vin had to be fine!

Nettie sat silent and still in her chair, pale, terrified, and praying silently. She had accepted that Vin’s job constantly exposed him to danger, and more than once she’d made a desperate trek to one hospital or another when Chris or one of the others had called with the news that he’d been hurt. But that was his job. This was something completely different.

This was just her boy getting stabbed in Purgatorio, still a victim of those hellish streets after all these years.

Chris continued to pace, by now knowing exactly how many strides it took to get from one end of the room to the other. He could hear Santiago talking to the paramedics, and assumed they had found Vin and were helping him. But, God, how he wanted to be there, too! He knew there was little he could do, knew the paramedics would only move him aside so they could work. But at least Vin would know he wasn’t alone…

And that was it. That was what hurt Chris so, now. Vin had already spent far too much of his life alone, had faced more than his share of pain with no one around to care whether he lived or died. But Chris had promised him, had sworn to him, that those days were over, that he now had someone in his life he could rely on to be there when he needed him.

Well, Vin needed him now, and he wasn’t there. Wasn’t anywhere near. Once again, Vin was hurt, and alone in the hands of strangers.

Nettie saw the fear, the pain, the sorrow and the anger that crossed Chris’s face in waves, saw the way he clutched that phone like a lifeline and poured his whole self into listening to every little sound. She saw it all, noted it all, and stored it all away in her heart.

And began to think it might just be possible that she’d underestimated Chris Larabee and his love for her boy.

7~7~7~7

Hector knelt beside Vin and watched the two EMTs – a ruddy-cheeked blond man and a woman with shoulder-length graying hair and wire-rimmed glasses – grab their equipment boxes from the ambulance and hurry forward. He’d gone back inside only long enough to turn on the security lights, and the area behind his store was now brightly illuminated.

"They are here," he said, not at all certain Vin could hear him, but wanting to offer some comfort, just in case. "They will take care of you, you will see, and in no time you will be back, buying up all of my candy bars and chips." He put a hand on Vin’s shoulder and squeezed gently, then rose to his feet and moved back to let the medics have room.

"Got a lotta blood here," the male paramedic observed as he and his partner opened their boxes. He looked up at the man hovering about two feet away. "You the one who called this in?"

Hector nodded. "Sí. I am Hector Santiago. I own this store."

"You know what happened?"

"I didn’t see it, no. I found him like this. And I haven’t moved him. I… I didn’t know if I should–"

"That’s all right," the medic said with a smile. "You didn’t complicate his injuries, then." He removed the jacket laying over the injured man and held it up, noticing that the older man was without one. "If this is yours, you might want to put it on. Don’t need an extra patient."

Santiago took the coat and slipped it on, heedless of the blood staining it. "I am fine," he said quietly, his dark gaze roaming worriedly over Vin’s slumped figure. "He is the one who needs help."

"Well, that’s what we’re here for. Okay," he nodded once at his partner, "let’s see what we’ve got."

While his partner went to work unzipping their patient’s jacket and cutting through his shirt – and the two undershirts beneath it – he leaned closer to the injured man and spoke clearly to him.

"Hey, buddy, can you hear me? You with me here?"

Vin vaguely heard the voice buzzing through his head, felt someone tugging at his clothes, and groaned, trying feebly to push the strange hands away. He hurt, he was cold, he was tired, he couldn’t breathe, and he just wanted to rest.

"Go ’way," he breathed hoarsely. "Go ’way… leave me be."

"Sorry, buddy, I can’t do that. My supervisor really hates it when we leave folks to bleed to death." As he talked, he clipped on the pulse-oximeter and strapped the blood pressure cuff around his patient’s arm, while his partner attached the heart monitor pads. "You wouldn’t believe what kind of paperwork that creates. Can you tell me your name?"

Again, Vin tried to push aside the bothersome hands, but let his own slip to the ground when his arm proved too heavy to move. "Vin," he sighed.

"Hey, Vin, nice to meet you. My name’s Archie, and this is my partner, Deb. We’re gonna help you, all right?" Still working as he talked, he affixed a nasal canula and two IVs, while Deb took Vin’s blood pressure. "Looks like you got into a bit of trouble here. Can you tell me what happened?"

Vin kept his eyes closed and tried not to move, and wished the medic would stop asking him questions. Talking required air, and getting air was was a struggle in itself. "Tried ta stop… a muggin’," he rasped. "Stopped… a knife… instead. Little shit… stabbed me… in the back."

"No honor among muggers these days, I guess," Archie quipped. "Okay, we’re gonna need to take a look at your back, see what’s what, so we’re gonna roll you onto your side, okay? Okay?" He frowned slightly at the silence that greeted his question and again leaned close. "Hey, Vin, you’re not cuttin’ out on me, are you? Can you tell me if you’re hurt anywhere else?"

Vin groaned softly; the guy had to be kin to JD with all that talkin’! "He kicked me… in the side. Hurt like hell… but I don’t think he hurt nothin’."

Archie glanced at Deb, who found the darkening contusion along their patient’s ribs and carefully palpitated it, eliciting another groan from Vin. "Nasty bruise," she said quietly, "but nothing seems to be broken. Anything else, Vin?" she asked in a low, soothing voice.

He grimaced deeply and swallowed, then licked his dry lips. "Hard… ta breathe," he whispered.

Archie and Deb exchanged glances, then she returned her attention to Vin. "Okay, we’ll see what that’s about. But first we have to look at your back, see if we can stop some of this bleeding. I wish I could say this won’t hurt–"

"Hell," he breathed tiredly, "why shouldn’t it? Ever’thing else has so far."

She winced in compassion, but looked back up at Archie and nodded. Working together, the two rolled Vin carefully onto his right side, tearing an anguished groan from him. What bothered the two paramedics, though, was the amount of blood on the ground and soaking into their patient’s clothing. Archie pulled his jacket and shirts away from the wound and examined it closely, but couldn’t tell whether anything vital had been hit.

"Okay," he sighed, "we need to pack this and put pressure on it. Deb, hand me some sterile ABD pads." Again, he studied the injured area. "I’m lookin’ at a stab wound about two centimeters long in the mid-back, around four centimeters left of the spine. Seems to be a fairly significant amount of bleeding going on. I don’t think it’s arterial, but there’s a lot of it, probably at least a unit. Sorry, Vin," he warned, "I’m gonna have to put pressure on this."

Vin stiffened and cried out sharply as a hand suddenly seemed to grind into the wound, driving hard, hot waves of pain through his back. He tried to move away, but other hands held him firmly in place, and another soft cry of torment escaped him.

"Sorry, Vin," Archie apologized sincerely, "but we have to take care of this bleeding."

Vin bit back another cry and clamped his jaws tight, squeezing his eyes shut and trying desperately to will himself away from this place, this pain. It was too much, it hurt too much, and he wanted to be anywhere but here.

No, not just anywhere. Chris.

A shudder racked him, and he longed fiercely for the strong arms and warm body that were the surest protection against the cold that he knew. Chris would hold him, would wrap himself around him, and, sheltered in those arms, in that love, even the memory of cold would disappear.

Oh, God, God, where was Chris?

"All right, Deb, let’s get him flat," Archie said. "And hand me those blankets."

Vin groaned again as he was rolled onto his back. Oh, God, Chris, where are ya?

The medics conducted a more thorough examination of their patient, listening to his heart and breath sounds and checking his pupil responses. Almost the whole time, Archie talked or asked him questions, seeming naturally suited to the task.

"Okay, we’re gonna cover you now to keep you from going into shock. You’ve got enough problems here without adding that to the list. You stay with me, you hear? I’ve got some questions I have to ask while we’re getting you ready to go. Deb, what’ve you got for vitals?"

She consulted her notations. "I’ve got a BP of 90 over 50 with a heart rate of one-fifteen. Respirations are twenty-six and shallow. Breath sounds are diminished on the left, but his oxygen saturation is good." She glanced up at her partner. "Might be some blood collecting in there."

He grimaced, but was careful to make no sound; that wasn’t what he wanted to hear. "All right. Vin? Hey, c’mon, buddy, you gotta stay with me, remember? I’ve got a whole list of questions here, and regulations say I have to ask ’em. You’re not gonna make me break regs, are you? My supervisor can be a real hard-nose about these things, you know?"

A breathless, nearly soundless laugh whispered from Vin. Oh, yeah, he knew all about hard-nosed supervisors!

And he wished to hell his were here right now…

Archie ran through his list of questions, and Vin did his best to answer. No, he wasn’t allergic to any medications that he knew of and wasn’t on any medications now; didn’t have any medical problems – except a fuckin’ hole in his back – and wasn’t under a doctor’s care. Yet. Yes, he had insurance; shit, yes, he lived around here! Why the hell else would he be in this neighborhood? Telephone number? Why? Wouldn’t nobody be there to answer if they called. Any family to be notified?

Family? Chris…

"What was that?" Archie asked, leaning closer. "Chris? Chris who?"

"Lar’bee," Vin sighed.

"He is here!" Hector said suddenly, stepping forward and holding out the phone. "Señor Larabee. I have been talking to him. He is waiting on the phone."

"Jeez, what are you guys, psychic?" Archie asked with a smile as he took the phone. "Mr. Larabee?"

"I’m here!" a strong voice barked, causing Archie’s eyes to widen. "You’re one of the paramedics? How is he? Where are you takin’ him? Come on, damn it, tell me how he is!"

Archie swallowed and fought the sudden urge to stand up straight. "First off, Mr. Larabee, he’s been stabbed, but I guess you know that already. He’s conscious, and we’re about ready to transport him. We’ll be taking him to the Mercy Trauma Center. You know where that is?"

"Oh, hell, yeah," the voice answered, infinitely softer now. "I could find it in my sleep. You tell him I’ll be there, all right?"

"I’ll tell him," Archie said firmly, hearing the concern in the voice.

"You need anything? Any information? Vin’s not real talkative."

"I noticed," the paramedic quipped, remembering the grunts, growls and single syllables that had answered his questions. "Yeah, if you can help me out here…" He rattled off still more questions – age, height, weight, blood type – and wrote down all the answers. "Thanks. I’m gonna give you back to Mr. Santiago now so I can get back to Vin."

"You tell him I’m comin’, all right?"

"Sure thing–"

"Tell him!" the voice growled.

Archie swallowed and nodded. "Yes, sir." Once more, he leaned close to Vin and, holding the cell so Larabee could hear, said very clearly, "Vin, Mr. Larabee said to tell you he’ll meet you at the hospital. You hear? Mr. Larabee said he’s comin’."

A faint smile touched Vin’s pale mouth, and a soft gasp of laughter wheezed from him. "Mr. Lar’bee?" He snorted weakly. "Hell, don’ let ’im… browbeat ya. His bark is… worse’n… his bite."

Archie looked warily down at the phone. Somehow, he didn’t believe that at all.

7~7~7~7

Chris’s heart lifted at the words he had to strain to hear, and a sharp exhale of relief burst from him. Goddamn mouthy Texan! Layin’ in his own blood with a hole in his back, and still he was doin’ all he could to piss him off.

Chris didn’t think he’d ever loved him more.

Moments later, Santiago came back on the line and reported that they were strapping Vin onto the backboard and preparing to get him onto the stretcher. He also said a police unit had arrived on the scene, and that one of the officers was questioning Vin and wanted to speak to him, as well.

"All right," Chris said, his voice still nowhere near as steady as he would have liked, "you go on and talk to ’em. Turn off the phone and give it back to Vin. And, Señor Santiago," he closed his eyes tightly against the powerful rush of emotion that swept through him, "thank you," he breathed roughly, fervently. "Thanks for getting help for Vin, and for staying with him. I appreciate it more than I can say, and I know he will, too."

There was a moment of silence, then Hector said quietly, "You are welcome. Señor Tanner is a good man. But, even if he were a stranger, I could not in good conscious have let him suffer alone. When you see him, you will tell him I wish him well, no?"

Chris smiled and nodded. "I will tell him, yes. Goodbye. And thanks again." He ended the connection and replaced the cell on his belt, then bowed his head and scrubbed his hands over his face, feeling as if he’d aged ten years in the last twenty minutes. Vin was hurt. Vin had been stabbed…

But Vin was alive. Thank God in high heaven, Vin was alive!

He raised his head and ran a hand through his hair, then turned around, and was startled to see Nettie standing just before him. She was holding his jacket out to him, and already had her coat on and her purse in hand.

"Well," he said dryly, taking the jacket from her, "I guess I don’t have to ask if you’re comin’ with me."

She lifted her chin and arched a gray brow. "I wouldn’t think you’d have to ask that anyway." She watched him slip on his jacket. "We’ll take your truck. Likely it’ll get us there faster than mine, and it’ll be a warmer ride." She nodded once, then turned and walked out of the dining room.

Chris watched her go and heaved a sigh, reaching into his pocket for his keys. "Well," he said to an empty room, "I guess we’re takin’ my truck."

7~7~7~7

The paramedics wheeled Vin through the emergency room doors and straight toward the major trauma room, which was filled with medical personnel. Mercy boasted one of the top trauma units in the region and every person there knew his or her job well, giving the chaos a bizarre but unmistakable order.

Archie looked up and saw the trauma surgeon bearing down on him like a small ship of war with all guns out and ready. Neat dark hair just brushed her collar, and dark eyes sparked with intensity. She was small, slender, but gave the impression of being much bigger. He absently straightened his posture and got his thoughts and notes carefully in order.

Dr. Elizabeth Stone would not tolerate inefficiency.

"What have you got?" she asked without preamble, her tone clipped and professional, but not unkind. She liked Archie. He was young, but one of the best at what he did. She’d made it her personal mission to get him into medical school, and she was a woman accustomed to getting her way.

"Hey, Doc," he greeted. "We’ve got an adult male, twenty-seven, with a single stab wound to the mid-back region, otherwise apparently healthy. The wound’s just to the left of the spine, and he’s been losin’ quite a bit of blood from it. We’ve managed to slow it down some with pressure dressings, and he’s gotten three liters of fluid to support his BP. Last set of vitals," he consulted his notes, "are 80 over 50, pulse 120. Respiratory rate’s crept up to thirty, still shallow with decreased breath sounds on the left. Neurologically intact. He’s awake and talking. If," he added with a wry grin, "you can call what he does ‘talking.’"

She frowned in confusion at that, but, as her gaze dropped to the patient, understanding hit her, along with recognition. "Tanner," she breathed, taking in the pale and pain-lined features.

Archie looked at her in surprise. "You know him, Doc?"

"Oh, yeah," she sighed, her eyes traveling over him as she made a visual assessment of his condition. "Might say he’s something of a regular here." She looked up at Archie and gave a wry smile. "I’ve left some of my finest handiwork in him. He seems determined to keep my fingers nimble." At the paramedic’s confused look, she explained, "He’s an ATF agent, with a strong Lone Ranger complex."

"Well, that would explain what happened," Archie said. "Apparently, he tried to break up a mugging, and got a knife in his back for the effort."

She sighed again and shook her head. "Yep, that’s my boy. Okay, let’s get him in to Trauma Room 3. Kathy," she called over her shoulder, "I want a full set of labs, and make sure that O-negative blood is here. Hang two units now, and let’s get him typed and crossmatched for at least six more ASAP. We need a chest x-ray stat. He’s probably got a lung down or it’s full of blood. Let’s get a chest tray up for Dr. Winston as soon as he gets here. Has anyone notified the OR we might have an emergency for them?"

She rapped out her orders and questions in a brisk, no-nonsense fashion, directing the swarm of people and activity about her with a natural ease. She was not just a trauma surgeon, but chief of trauma. This was her world, these were her people, and she knew with utter conviction that everyone here was the absolute best at what they did. She trusted them completely, down to the orderlies, and knew no single order or request would have to be repeated.

Archie and Deb helped transfer Vin from the portable stretcher onto the bed prepared for him, then assisted with moving the monitors and various lines. The moment he was settled, additional personnel swooped in, removing his boots and socks and cutting through the rest of his clothing until the remains were laying in a bloody mess beneath him and only a sheet covered his naked body.

While he was being prepped, Dr. Stone again looked over the information the paramedics had provided, and scowled deeply. Good God, pretty soon her stitching was going to be all that held Tanner together!

"Lynda, I want a Foley in him," she called, stepping to the bed and looking down at her patient. His eyes were closed, but his soft groans, the pained contortions of his face and his weak attempts to move away from the hands that worked on him showed her that he was at least partially conscious. "Vin, can you hear me?" Leaning over him, she began her own examination. "It’s Dr. Stone. Do you know where you are?"

The voice, and more slowly the words, filtered through the fog of pain and confusion that clouded his mind, and he struggled to make sense of them. "Back h… hurts," he whispered.

"Yeah, I bet it does," she sighed in sympathy. "Can you tell me what happened? And lie still," she ordered as he tried once more to move away. "You’re not going anywhere until I say so."

He knew that voice, that tone, and forced open his eyes, then closed them again with a groan. "Oh, shit…"

"Hello to you, too," she greeted, relieved that he was aware enough to recognize her. "You know, for somebody who makes such a fuss about the food here, you’re becoming quite the frequent diner. Can you tell me what happened?"

He swallowed and squeezed his eyes more tightly shut, trying not to think about the searing pain in his back, trying not to panic at how hard it was to breathe. "Kid… knifed me," he rasped. "He w… was tryin’… ta rob a girl. Hurt her." He swallowed again, terribly thirsty. "Figgered… I’d try ’n… stop him."

"With your back," she added wryly. She listened to his heart and chest, a frown twisting at her mouth. "You havin’ trouble breathing?"

"Oh, yeah," he whispered.

She raised her head and looked around, but saw no sign of the cardiothoracic surgeon as yet. "Okay, where’s x-ray? I want a portable chest film stat and an EKG. Page Dr. Winston again and let him know his patient is here. Kathy, bring me a chest tray with a 28 French chest tube just in case. Vin, are you still with me?" She returned her attention to her patient, her voice instantly losing its briskness and taking on a more soothing tone. "We need to get some lab work and run some tests to find out how badly you’ve been hurt. You’ve been through the drill, so you know how it works. And it’s possible we might have to take you to surgery to stop the bleeding, but I don’t want you to worry. You know we’ll take good care of you. Now, is there anyone we can call for you or should I just round up the usual suspects?"

"Chris," he breathed. "They s… said he’s… on his way."

"I’ll bet he is," she chuckled. "And I pity anyone who has to share the road with him. What about the other members of Larabee’s Flying Circus?"

A wan smile ghosted about his mouth at her words. Despite his pain and difficulty breathing, he felt himself relaxing, felt better just for being in her capable hands. "Don’t know. Chris might call ’em. Don’t know that… they’d bother comin’… on a weekend."

"Oh, yeah," she snorted, "you’re probably right. Those guys would never drop what they’re doing to sit another vigil in a waiting room. But I’ll have extra chairs set out, just in case. Okay, lemme see what we’ve got."

She took the EKG strip from the technician and stepped back to give the x-ray tech some room. She studied the strip, chewing her lower lip thoughtfully, then looked at the output from his catheter. Not much there yet, but at least it wasn’t bloody. Maybe they’d all gotten lucky and the knife had missed his kidney completely.

Dr. Marcus Winston came in then. "What’ve we got?" he asked as Dr. Stone joined him.

"Stabbing victim," she said. "His name’s Vin Tanner, twenty-seven, in good health overall. He’s got a single stab wound to the mid-back region, otherwise apparently healthy. The wound’s about four centimeters lateral to the thoracic spine. His respirations are at thirty and labored, with decreased breath sounds on the left."

"X-rays?" he asked.

She nodded. "We’re getting them now." She lifted her chin slightly and arched a dark brow. "I’ll put in a few words with Radiology to hurry them up."

He smiled at that, having a fair idea of what her "words" might be. Then he gazed past her at the patient, his smile turning into a frown of concentration as he watched the purposeful bustle of activity about him. "How’s he doin’?" he asked quietly.

"We’re stabilizing him. He’s losing a lot of blood, and I need to see where it’s coming from. But he’s awake and responsive." She held out a blue, plastic-covered binder to him. "These are his most recent labs and EKG."

He took the binder from her and flipped it open, studying it intently. "All this, and he’s still awake?" he asked in some surprise.

She snorted. "You don’t know Tanner. He’s tougher than old shoe leather and stubborn as a mule. It would take considerably more than a single knife wound to keep him down. He’s the original ‘last man standing.’"

"Sounds like a real scrapper," he mused, glad to know he had a patient with some fight in him.

"Oh, Marcus, you have no idea!" she laughed. "‘Scrapper’ doesn’t even begin to describe Tanner! He–"

"Excuse me, Doctor?" An admissions clerk appeared at her side. "There’s a Chris Larabee outside for Mr. Tanner. He asked me to tell you that he’s waiting."

Dr. Stone arched a brow at her in wry amusement. "Mr. Larabee ‘asked’ you to tell me that, did he?" The young woman blushed slightly, and the doctor laughed. "Yeah, I thought so. Okay." She turned back to Winston. "I’ll go face the Wrath of God while you tend to Dudley Do-Right. Just be careful. He may sound like he’s fresh off the farm, and he may seem weak as hell, but don’t let it fool you. He’ll be biting and kicking three days after he’s dead."

7~7~7~7

The ride to the hospital was made in a taut and desperate silence, neither Chris nor Nettie able to force a word past the chokehold of fear. Yet, though locked in separate prisons, they shared a single thought.

Vin.

Nettie prayed silently the whole way, pouring her whole soul into the unspoken words and throwing the whole weight of her faith behind them. She considered herself a God-fearing woman, but, when it came to someone she loved, she wasn’t above a little brow-beating, either.

Chris didn’t pray, not consciously, wasn’t sure he even remembered how. Yet still he sent fervent, frantic pleas somewhere, his mind, heart and soul screaming silently to Vin not to leave him. And all the while he drove, taking advantage of clear streets and sparse traffic to break every speed limit he encountered, prepared even to get the siren out of the glove compartment and use it if need be.

They made the twenty-minute drive in less than fifteen, and he wheeled the big black truck into the parking area he knew too goddamn well. Spotting an open space unbelievably near the door, he sped up and turned sharply into it, unfazed by the blaring horn and extended finger from the driver of the Toyota he’d cut off.

"I think he had his eye on this spot," Nettie remarked, her first words since getting in the truck.

Chris unfastened his seatbelt, unlocked and opened his door. "He’ll get over it," he said tersely as he all but threw himself out of the truck.

"I guess he will." Without waiting for him to help her, she opened her door and got out, meeting him near the tailgate. She noted the hard set of his jaw, the tension of his body, and, as they started toward the emergency room entrance, knew that her presence at his side was all that kept him from running.

Once inside, Chris made his way through the crowded waiting room to the admissions desk. "Vin Tanner," he ground out tersely to the young black woman typing on the computer with red nails that had to be at least three inches long.

"Excuse me?" she asked politely, looking up and stiffening momentarily at the sight of the burning green eyes boring into her.

"Vin Tanner," he repeated, stressing each syllable deliberately through gritted teeth. "Stabbing victim. They were bringing him here. I want to know where and how he is."

She recovered her composure quickly. "Are you a family member? I can only release–"

He fought the urge to vault over the desk and retrieve the information by force. "Chris Larabee," he hissed. "I’m listed as his next of kin. Check it. Then tell me where and how he is."

She did check it, and nodded once at the information on her screen. "Right. I have it noted here that you’d been notified. He was brought in just a few minutes ago. He’s in Trauma Room 3, and the doctors are with him now."

"How is he?"

"I don’t have that information–"

"Then get me someone who does," he growled.

She exhaled slowly, maintaining a tight control on her own temper. "I’ll send someone back and let Dr. Stone know you’re here–"

"Dr. Stone?" he asked sharply, seizing upon the name like a lifeline. "Dr. Elizabeth Stone?"

She blinked and frowned, then nodded. "Yes. She’s head of trauma–"

"I know who she is," he breathed, allowing himself to relax a bit. "Yeah, fine, send someone to let her know I’m here." With that, he turned away from the desk and led Nettie to a bank of chairs with a straight line of sight to the doors through which the doctor would have to come. She sat down; he did not. "You want anything?" he asked. "Coffee? Maybe a snack? There are machines–"

"I don’t want anything from a machine," she said quietly, sitting back in her chair. "What I want, no machine can give."

"Depends on the machine and what it’s givin’," he breathed, his gaze fixed on those doors, behind which, for all he knew, machines were giving Vin life.

She stared up at him, and was shocked to realize that she could see everything he felt reflected with agonizing clarity in his eyes. For once, nothing of him was hidden, was now all but pouring from him in raw torrents of fear and pain. And she had to wonder if Vin had any idea just how far past this man’s formidable defenses he’d gotten.

He raked a hand through his hair and began to pace, unable to keep still with his heart and stomach in a churning mess. He remembered all too vividly the sound of Vin’s voice on the phone – weak, pained, scared…

He flinched violently at that and closed his eyes tightly. God, Vin had been hurt and frightened, had needed him…

And he hadn’t been there.

He opened his eyes and resumed his pacing, clamping his jaws hard against the scream of frustration, fear and rage that pounded at his throat for release. He hadn’t been there! What if Vin had died? What if he were dying now? What if he died without ever knowing that he was here…

Oh, God, God, he’d promised Vin – he’d promised him! – that he’d never be alone again, that those days were all behind him. He hadn’t made many promises to Tanner for fear of not being able to keep them. But what if he broke the one that mattered most?

I’m here, Vin! he screamed silently. Please, please, don’t die!

Nettie’s thoughts were following much the same line. She couldn’t bear the thought of losing Vin, of never again hearing that lazy drawl, of never being able to look into those twinkling blue eyes, of not having his strength and his sweetness and, yes, his stubbornness as fixtures in her life anymore. It hurt beyond even her considerable tolerance to think of the deep, aching emptiness that losing him would leave in her heart. In her life.

Don’t you die on me, boy! she pleaded silently, her whole soul convulsing in pain. Don’t you make me watch while they lower you into the ground!

Chris turned to make another pass across the waiting room, and saw her. She was drawn up tight in her chair, arms clasped about her chest, knees locked together, her heels literally digging into the floor. Her face was pale, her eyes haunted. He stared at her in shock, and felt something in his world shift.

The indomitable Nettie Wells was terrified.

He went immediately to the empty chair beside her and eased himself into it, then, hardly aware he did so, slipped a strong arm about her shoulders and drew her to him. She resisted for several moments, her body remaining rigid, then, with something very like a sob, relaxed into his embrace.

"He’s gonna be all right," he said softly, soothingly, willing himself to believe that. "You know Vin. He’s tough, he’s strong, and he’s fought battles harder than this and won. It’s gonna take more than some punk kid with a knife to take him away from us."

She closed her eyes and let his words, and his strength, flow over her, about her, more grateful for his presence than she could have said. "Just don’t like the thought of him hurtin’," she murmured, reaching for his free hand and holding tightly to it. "Lord knows, he’s already done more than his share of that in this life. And bein’ stabbed and left ta bleed ta death… I wish he’d just move away from that awful place!"

"I do, too," he sighed. "But he won’t." He grimaced and shook his head slowly. "It’s like he’s bound to it in some way. He’s risen above it – hell, pulled himself above it – but it’s still a part of him. I think he thinks that givin’ up on Purgatorio would be like givin’ up on some part of himself."

"But he’ll never be safe there–"

"Nettie, I’m not sure Vin thinks he’ll ever be safe anywhere," he said sadly. "Sometimes, I’m not even sure he really knows what bein’ safe means!"

She pulled out of his arms, but kept her grip on his hand, and gazed steadily up at him. "Maybe not before," she said firmly. "But he’s learnin’ now. And you’re the one teachin’ him."

He frowned at her words, but, before he could ask the question they inspired, the doors he’d been watching opened and a familiar figure walked through. In a heartbeat, he was on his feet and striding toward her, Nettie following close.

Dr. Stone took one look at the hard, chiseled jaw, the flaring green eyes, and braced herself for the familiar impact. She peered behind him, expecting to see the rest of the crew tagging along, but saw only a small old woman with eyes as fierce as his.

Oh, God, she groaned silently, surely Larabee didn’t have a mother!

"How is he?" he demanded harshly, coming to a stop right before her.

"Good evening to you, too," she sighed. "You finally shoot the others?"

He frowned in confusion. "What– Oh, they’re not here."

"You’re kidding!" she gasped in true surprise. "Hell froze, and I missed it!"

He scowled at her, but, in a strange way, was calmed by her banter. She’d never stand here trading quips if Vin were dying… or dead…

She turned her gaze to the older woman, arching a brow inquisitively. "I’m Dr. Elizabeth Stone, chief of trauma. I’m treating Mr. Tanner. Are you a relative?"

Nettie inclined her head and met the doctor’s gaze levelly. "I’m Nettie Wells, and I figure I’m as close to family as that boy’s got. Except for Chris here. And whatever you’ve got ta say, I need ta hear. My boy’s layin’ in there with a hole in his back, and I wanta know how he’s doin’."

Dr. Stone smiled slightly, not missing the possessiveness, or the protectiveness, in the woman’s words and tone. "All right, here’s the bottom line. Apparently, he tried to stop a mugging and was rewarded with a stab wound to the left side of his back. He’s lost quite a bit of blood, but," she added quickly at two expressions of consternation, "for now, we’ve got it under control." She grimaced and shook her head in frustration. "I’m not sure just yet where the bleeding is coming from, but we’re running some tests and getting some x-rays to see what we can find. However," she gazed up at Chris and shrugged, "it may be necessary to take him to surgery and explore the wound if we can’t get it to stop."

Chris and Nettie exchanged sharp, worried glances, then Chris turned back to the surgeon. "Do you have any idea… what kind of damage…"

She shrugged again. "Until the x-rays and labs come back, I can only guess. In addition to the bleeding, he’s having difficulty breathing. Dr. Marcus Winston is the cardiothoracic surgeon on call tonight, and he’s with Vin now. It could be that he’s injured his lung, the diaphragm or maybe his left kidney. We just don’t know yet. But, right now, he’s holding his own and we’ve already started transfusing him for the blood loss. He’s young, he’s strong, and he’s in good health. Besides which," she smiled slightly, "he’s stubborn as hell. So he’s got a lot going for him."

"I want to see him–"

"You know that’s not possible, Chris," she said firmly. "We’re not nearly finished with him yet, and I can’t have you in there, getting in the way of my team."

"Doctor–"

"You will have to wait." She saw his face fall, his shoulders slump, and felt a deep twinge of compassion. More than once, she’d witnessed the uncanny bond between the two men, seen the relationship that defied explanation, and knew that what they shared had ceased being "just" friendship long ago. If, in fact, it had ever been just that at all. "Look, I’ll tell him you’re out here, and that Mrs. Wells is here, too," she said gently. "But we’ve got to figure out what’s going on, and we’ve got to get him stabilized. And we can’t do any of that with you under foot. All right?"

"No," he breathed, bowing his head and wincing. "It’s not all right. But there’s not a damn thing I can do about it."

"No, there’s not," she said quietly. "You run your team your way, and I’ll run mine my way. And, right now, my team’s got jurisdiction."

"How long?" he asked, raising his head. "Until you know what’s wrong and what you’ll have to do?"

She shrugged. "Like I said, I’m just waiting on the labs and the x-rays. Once I get them, then we’ll have a better idea of what we’re looking at. But if we do have to take him to surgery, I’ll let you know. And I’ll send someone to take you to the surgical waiting room. Although," her lips quirked in a smile, "you should be able to find it just by following the trail of crumbs your guys left their last time here."

"Doctor?"

She turned and saw a nurse hurrying toward her, folder in hand. "What’ve you got?"

"Blood work for Mr. Tanner." She handed the folder to the doctor. "And Radiology called to say the chest film is ready."

"Thanks, Lynda." She flipped open the folder and studied it carefully, chewing at her lower lip. "Hm, everything looks okay except for that low hematocrit. No surprise there. No blood in the urine, which is good news for his kidney. How many units of blood has he gotten so far?"

"Two."

She nodded, still studying the blood work, still chewing her lip. "Has the blood bank called to say they’ve got the units I ordered typed and cross-matched?" Lynda nodded, and she snapped the folder shut. "Send an orderly up to get them now. I’d rather use those than the O-negative if we can. Tell X-ray I'll be there in a minute."

"Yes, Doctor."

When Lynda had gone, Dr. Stone turned her attention back to Chris and Nettie. "Okay, hopefully the x-rays will tell us what we need to know." She gazed at the two, almost able to feel their worry. "Are there any other questions I can answer for you?"

"Yeah," Chris said quickly. "How is he? I mean…" He swallowed hard, his heart a solid knot in his chest. "How is he?"

She smiled slightly, her dark eyes softening. "Like I said, he’s holding his own. He’s awake, mostly, and responsive. Or," she added, her smile turning wry, "as responsive as he ever is. But he’s snappin’ and snarlin’ and trying to get us to, in his own words, ‘lemme the hell alone,’ so my guess is he’s doin’ okay."

"That boy," Nettie said sharply. "Hasn’t got the sense God gave a junebug! He’s got good folks tryin’ ta help him, and he’s tryin’ ta fight ’em off. He’s just mule-headed!"

Dr. Stone laughed and turned gleaming eyes on the older woman. "I can see you’ve known him a while."

Nettie lifted her head and scowled. "I have, indeed. And you tell that boy that if he doesn’t behave, I’ll come in there and snap the starch right out of him. That should settle him down."

"You know," the doctor mused, studying the woman appraisingly, "I’ll just bet it will."

7~7~7~7

Dr. Stone got to Radiology and found Dr. Winston already there, waiting. They studied the x-rays together and found their worst fears confirmed.

"The left lung’s whited out," she said. "He’s probably got a chest full of blood. Damn, Tanner," she sighed, shaking her head, "Can’t you ever do anything the easy way?" She looked up at her colleague. "Looks like you’ll be putting in a chest tube."

"It’s my third one today." He grinned and winked. "I think I’m startin’ to get the hang of it. As they say, see one, do one, teach one!"

"Yeah, well," she arched a dark brow at him, "If you have any questions, just ask Vin. He could probably put one in himself by now."

7~7~7~7

"Vin? Vin, can you hear me?"

Drifting somewhere just beyond the edge of consciousness, he vaguely heard the voice summoning him back and fought against it. He didn’t want to go back, knew only pain awaited him there, and was tired of it. Hell, he was just plain tired, and wanted nothing more than to keep drifting.

"Come on, Vin, wake up. I need to talk to you."

The voice was insistent, relentless, and would not leave him be. Too weak and too tired to fight it, he simply surrendered to it, and let it pull him back into his world of hurt.

"Go ’way," he breathed thickly.

"Can’t do that," Dr. Stone said firmly. "I need to tell you what’s going on, and I need you to sign something for me."

"Aw, h… hell," he sighed, his leaden eyes peeling open. "Ain’t I outta here yet?"

She laughed quietly. "Nope, sorry. Looks like you’re gonna be with us a little while." She leaned closer, trying to catch his glassy, unfocused gaze. "Come on, Vin, I need you to listen to me."

"What?" he whispered, his face and voice showing the painful strain of breathing.

"We got your chest x-rays, and it looks like the knife did some damage to your lung. That’s why you’re having trouble breathing." She spoke clearly, deliberately, needing him to hear and to understand as much as he could. "You’ve got blood inside your left chest, and it’s collapsed your lung. We’re going to have to insert a chest tube to drain it and re-expand the lung, okay? Okay?"

"Ches’ tube," he slurred. "Shit…"

"Yeah, I know," she said sympathetically. "But Dr. Winston from Cardiothoracic Surgery is here, and he’s gonna do it. He’s very good, Vin. He’ll take good care of you."

He fixed his uncooperative eyes on her and tried to focus. "You t… you trust ’m?"

 

She smiled, touched that he should place so much faith in her judgment. "Yeah, I do, or else I wouldn’t let him anywhere near my patients."

He swallowed and licked his dry lips, then nodded. "’Kay."

"Now, it looks like we’re also going to have to take you to surgery to see what else that knife did to you," she said, speaking with that same clear, patient tone. "You’re bleeding from somewhere, and I have to find out where, or neither one of us is gonna get much sleep tonight. So, I need you to sign a consent form for the chest tube and the exploratory surgery, all right? Can you do that?"

"I g… I gotta… write somethin’?" he gasped in alarm. "Hell, Doc… cain’t I jist… tell ya… ’s okay?"

She suddenly remembered his dyslexia, and could have kicked herself for not thinking of it sooner. "Ssh, Vin, it’s all right," she soothed, laying a hand on his shoulder and stroking slowly to calm him. "It’s all right. Listen to me," she urged as he grew more agitated. "You have to sign. The hospital needs this on record. All you have to do is sign your name."

"Where’s Chris?" he asked suddenly, certain Larabee would be able to find a way around this. "I n… I need t’ see… Chris!"

"No," she said firmly, now holding both shoulders. "Vin, listen to me, listen to me! Chris is outside, along with Nettie Wells. They’re here, but they can’t come in. You can see them after the surgery–"

"Nettie?" he whispered, his struggles stilling, his eyes widening and filling with an almost childlike longing. "She… she’s here?"

In that moment, Dr. Stone saw just how much the old woman meant to Tanner, and thanked God she was here. "Yes, Nettie," she said gently. "She’s right outside with Chris. They both told me to tell you to behave, and that they’ll see you as soon as they can. But we have to get this done first, all right?"

He relaxed with a breathless groan and nodded, sliding a shaking hand to his chest as he labored to take in air that just wouldn’t come.

She waved the secretary forward with the consent form, then pressed the pen into his hand and showed him where to sign. He missed the line completely, and printed his name in a messy, downward scrawl. She winced to see how many of the letters were backwards or out of place, but figured it would do.

"That’s good, Vin," she said softly, taking the pen from his hand and smiling down at him. "Now, we can start fixing what that little jerk tore up, okay?"

He nodded and closed his eyes, trying to relax. "’N mebbe," he breathed weakly, "y’all c’d… make it stop… hurtin’."

"Oh, yeah," she sighed, watching as the nurse administered the morphine she’d ordered, "we’re certainly gonna do our best."

7~7~7~7

Chris sat hunched over in his chair, his elbows on his thighs, his head in his hands, his broad shoulders slumped. Dr. Stone’s words had at least taken the desperate edge from his worry, but that worry was still very much with him, gnawing at his soul and reducing his stomach to a churning mess.

Damaged lung… surgery…

God, how had this day gone so wrong?

At his side, Nettie sat up straight in her chair but closed her eyes, drawing once again upon the deep wellspring of faith that had gotten her through so much else in her life. If she could not be with her boy and comfort him with her hands, then she would place him into the hands of the Almighty, and trust that He would deal as gently with Vin as would she. When her prayer was done and her mind and heart more at ease, she turned her attention to the man whose suffering she could at least attempt to soothe.

She reached out and laid a gnarled, gentle hand on his bowed back, feeling the tension running like currents through his body. As she would with Vin, she began to rub slowly, little caring that this was the fearsome Chris Larabee, knowing only that he was a soul in pain.

He stiffened at first beneath her touch, startled by it, then gradually let himself relax, grateful for her presence. He wasn’t sure she believed in his love for Vin any more now than she had before, but, at the moment, that didn’t matter. She would believe or not believe as she wanted, and there was little he could do to change that. He’d learned that with Hank. All he could do was continue to love Vin, and hope that, in time, she’d come to accept the truth.

With a soft, tired sigh, he straightened in his chair, then reached for her hand and clasped it securely between his two. She cast him a quick, surprised look, then smiled softly and relaxed, leaving her hand where it rested.

And Chris felt another knot inside him loosen and disappear.

7~7~7~7

Once the local anesthesia injected into Vin’s chest wall had taken effect, Dr. Marcus Winston went to work with his usual skill and efficiency, directing the team about him with a quiet calm. Making a small incision between two lower ribs on the left side and slightly toward Tanner’s back, he inserted the metal trocar through the chest wall muscles, not missing his half-conscious patient’s sharply in-drawn gasp.

"Easy, Vin," he soothed in his even voice, "It’ll all be over soon."

Even through the heavy haze of morphine, and despite the anesthesia, Vin still felt the unmistakable pain of the procedure, and groaned sickly as a heavy wave of nausea hit him. The NG tube caught and drained the bile erupting from his stomach, but nothing stopped the tears streaming from his eyes.

Mercifully, though, it was over as quickly as Winston had promised. Secured in place by stitches, the flexible tube was attached to a drain, which was set up to a suction kit. Immediately, dark blood filled the reservoir, easing the pressure in Vin’s chest.

Dr. Winston watched in satisfaction as the tube did its work, draining about 800 cc’s of blood. "Respirations?" he asked.

Kathy checked the monitor. "Slowing down," she reported. "Twenty-eight… twenty-four…"

"Good," Winston said. "All right, let’s get another chest film to see if that lung’s up yet. Keep me advised of his respiratory status. He’s been working hard to breathe for quite a while now. He’s gotta be pretty worn out." He checked the incision once more for any sign of bleeding and was pleased to find it clean. Then, pulling out his stethoscope, he listened to Tanner’s chest and breath sounds, satisfied with those as well. "Yep, like I said," he quipped, throwing a quick wink at the closely watching Dr. Stone, "I think I’m gettin’ the hang of this."

"Took you long enough," she retorted. "Glad you’ve finally figured out where the lung is."

"Well," he stepped back to give the x-ray technologist room to work. "It seemed like a good thing for a CT guy to know." He studied their patient, noting his improving color and easier resting. "Kathy?"

She waited a beat, then smiled and nodded. "Respirations are twenty and unlabored."

"Bounces back quickly, doesn’t he?" Winston asked.

"Oh, yeah," Dr. Stone sighed, her sharp, dark gaze never leaving Tanner. "He’s our very own Superball."

7~7~7~7

Chris now had an all new floor plan to memorize as he paced. He and Nettie had been brought up to the surgical waiting room almost an hour ago, and he hadn’t so much as looked at the chairs since. Didn’t see the point when he knew he wouldn’t be using them.

Vin was in surgery.

He exhaled unsteadily and ran a hand over his eyes, down his face and around to the back of his neck. Vin was bleeding, and they couldn’t get it stopped. They’d put a chest tube in him, so at least he was able to breathe, but he was still bleeding, and they didn’t know from where.

So Vin was in surgery.

He clenched his jaw hard, swallowed even harder, and resumed his tight, agitated pacing. God, he hated this! Hated the helplessness, the complete lack of control, the fact that Vin’s life was in the balance and there was absolutely nothing he could do.

Hell, he hadn’t even been allowed to see Vin yet…

He stopped pacing and hung his head, his heart clenching painfully. God, how he wanted to see him! Needed to see him! He had sounded so weak on the phone, and in so much pain…

C’d use ya now, cowboy. ’S awful cold out…

A wrenching groan rose from his soul and tore from his lips as Vin’s words came back to him, and he buried his face in shaking hands. If he’d just been able to see him, touch him…

Jesus, didn’t anyone understand?

One person was beginning to. Watching him throughout this whole ordeal, Nettie felt as if eyes that had been closed for too long were only now opening. She’d seen more of Chris Larabee this night than she had in the whole year or so she’d known him, and now realized how badly she’d misjudged him. He was racked by pain and terror, and not for "just" a friend.

He was afraid for the man he loved.

She could see it written plainly in his lined and worried face, in the haunted green eyes that never wandered far from the doors through which the doctor would come. Mostly, though, she could see it in the way his face softened when he spoke of Vin, could hear it every time he said Vin’s name. This man loved her boy with a depth that anyone, man or woman, would be truly blessed to know.

Yet, though so clear to her now, that love was still a puzzle. She knew only as much about him as Vin had told her, and Lord knew that boy had never been born to gossip, but even that little bit was enough to confuse her. He’d had a wife and a son, and had been devastated when he’d lost them. And there for a while, she remembered, Vin had been convinced that Chris was in love with Mary Travis. So how was it that a man like that had fallen for her boy?

Well, Nettie Wells had only ever known one way to get what she wanted.

She set her purse aside and rose to her feet, then crossed the waiting room to where Larabee paced. Before he could so much as speak, she reached out, took his arm firmly, and led him back to where she’d been sitting. She took her chair, and, still holding his arm, pulled him down into the one next to it.

"You’re makin’ my hair hurt, son," she said calmly. "Just sit for a spell, and give that floor a rest."

He exhaled sharply, impatiently, but couldn’t get up to resume his pacing without actually prying her hand from his arm. And arm wrestling Nettie Wells just didn’t strike him as a good idea. So he sat back in his chair and willed himself to relax, crossing his arms against his chest and letting his head fall forward.

She patted his arm and smiled at him. "He’s lucky to have you," she said softly.

His head shot up at that and he turned his face sharply to her, his eyes wide and filled with confusion, his mouth falling open. He must have heard her wrong!

She lifted her chin and met his gaze proudly. "I won’t apologize for doubtin’ you," she declared firmly. "And I won’t apologize for stickin’ my nose in where you may well feel it doesn’t belong. Like I said before, I love that boy as if he were my very own, and I had to know for myself whether he was settin’ himself up to have his heart broken again. He’s smart, smarter than most folks will ever give him credit for, but when it comes to love, he can be as blind and foolish as the next person. And he loves you like I’ve never known him to love anybody before."

"But," he prompted softly, still staring at her, wanting – needing – to know what was going on in her mind.

She shrugged and smiled slightly. "But, Mr. Larabee, I wasn’t at all sure you could love him the way he needs to be loved. The way he deserves to be loved." She straightened in her chair and laid her hands in her lap, lacing her fingers together. "Let me tell you about my boy," she said, her eyes soft with love and tears, her voice losing some of its steadiness. "He’s as strong as any man I’ve ever known; had to be, with the life he’s had. He can be as rough as a corncob and as tough as old leather, and the good Lord knows there’s a ruthless side to him that chills me when I see it. Sometimes, I think it was just God’s sweet grace and Vin’s own stubborn goodness that kept him from coming off those streets an animal. But that doesn’t mean," she added with deep sorrow, "that an awful lot of him didn’t get lost or broken along the way."

"I know," he breathed, his gaze drifting past her to rest on something only he could see. "I can see it in the way he doesn’t trust, the way he watches people and plots their every move even before they’ve made it, the way he’s always on guard for another blow. Or another betrayal. I can see it in the way he doesn’t like to have anyone come up on him from behind, the way he doesn’t like to be touched–" He closed his eyes and bowed his head, grimacing deeply. "And, God," he rasped, "when I think about why he doesn’t like those things–"

"You know?" she whispered, watching him intently.

He swallowed hard and nodded tightly, then pressed his fingers to his eyes to stop the threatening fall of tears. "Some," he answered hoarsely. "He… he told me some of his past when… when we started… when we got… together. But there’s even more he hasn’t told me, I know that, too. Some of it comes out in nightmares… And some of it only comes out in those damn blue eyes of his, when I can look at him and see something in him so close to breaking open that it scares him to death. And sometimes, God help me, sometimes I want him to break, want him to shatter into a million pieces just so he can finally get it all out, and just so I can hold him and help him put it all back together. Because I would." He dropped his hand from his face and turned eyes dark and full of feeling back upon her. "But I’m not sure he believes that. I think there’s still some part of him that expects me to see him shatter, and then just turn around and walk away like all the other bastards who’ve ever used him in his life have done. And there just aren’t words to describe how much that hurts. Not that he expects it of me, but that he has reason to expect it of anyone at all."

"You do love him," she said softly, no longer doubting it at all.

"God," he sighed, lifting his gaze to the ceiling, "‘love’ doesn’t even begin to cover it, Nettie! But I’m not sure any word really does. When Sarah died, something – hell, everything – in me died with her. Or I thought it did. I couldn’t… I couldn’t feel anymore! On the brightest, warmest days, the world was cold and dark, and I was numb inside. Then one day, on a street in Purgatorio, this long-haired, scrawny, scruffy Texan with the damnedest blue eyes I’ve ever seen moseyed into my life, parked himself right in the middle of my soul, and refused to be budged. Didn’t say a word, didn’t have to. Just looked right at me, right into me, and I haven’t been numb since. Cocky sonuvabitch can bend my mind and make me madder than hell with just one grin, but he can also heal every hurt I’ve ever known with just one touch. If I’da known what I was gettin’ into that day we met, I probably would’ve just turned around and walked away. And now I thank God I didn’t know, because I can’t imagine how I’d live without him."

"Is he the only man you’ve ever loved before?"

He stiffened, startled by her directness and made suddenly uncomfortable. "Nettie–"

"Please," she said softly, reaching out to lay a hand upon his arm, searching his eyes with hers, "Believe me, son, I’m not tryin’ to pry. I just… I’m tryin’ to understand. Men are all Vin’s ever known, all he’s ever wanted. It’s the way he is. But you… you never have, have you?"

He exhaled slowly, and tried not to resent her for her question, tried to understand why she felt the need to ask it. "No," he said finally, "he’s the first one. The only one. And," he sighed again and winced, "I can’t tell you how hard it was for me finally to understand and accept what I felt for him. I fought it tooth and nail because he is a man. And because I was a damned fool for thinkin’ that mattered."

She was silent for several moments, turning over her thoughts and trying to find some way to ask what had to be asked without offending him. But, as ever, she only knew of one way to get what she wanted.

"Forgive me, son," she said quietly, firmly, again raising her chin and staring straight into his eyes, "if what I’m about to ask hurts you in any way. But I have to ask it, for Vin’s sake. You’ve never wanted a man before. You were married to a woman, had a child with her. And I can’t imagine that gettin’ any other woman would be too hard for a man like you. I’m willin’ to bet we could get a line formin’ pretty quick."

Chris fought the urge to squirm, having a pretty good idea where she was going, and knowing he couldn’t stop her. Like Vin, once she was set on something, nothing less than a bullet between the eyes would bring her down.

She clasped her hands together once more in her lap. She wanted to be discreet, wanted to be diplomatic, but blunt had ever been her nature, and she had to go with it. "Now," she began quietly, "I’ve heard of men about your age who decide they want somethin’ different in their lives. Maybe because of a loss, maybe they just get bored, or, shoot, maybe just because they’re men and, Lord love you, there’s never been a more contrary bunch than you all." She leaned forward suddenly, again searching his eyes. "But you’re not like that," she said softly. "So I have to ask why. Why would a man who had a wife and a son, who was happy with that life, make this kind of change? What in the world would make you fall in love with Vin?"

He sighed and sat back in his chair, going over the question he’d asked himself a thousand times. Why a man? Because that man was Vin. But why Vin?

Because he was Vin.

He raised his gaze back to her, a thoughtful look upon his face. "A long time ago," he said quietly, "I read a quote by a French philosopher. Pascal, I think his name was. And it always stuck with me. ‘The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.’ That’s pretty much it." He shrugged easily and smiled slightly, his eyes filling with peace. "My heart has its own reason, Nettie, and that reason, the only reason it knows, is Vin."

She could think of no answer to that, but knew she didn’t need one. He didn’t need one. Looking into his eyes, she saw that he’d already found the only answer he’d ever need.

So, with not another word, she reached out, took his hand in hers and held tightly to it. And, together, they waited for some word on the man they both loved.

 

7~7~7~7

Chris bowed his head and pressed the cell phone closer to his ear, easily able to make out the sounds of a busy restaurant in the background. He’d called JD about ten minutes ago – Nettie worried about Casey should she return to an empty house and start to worry – and the young man had immediately taken it upon himself to notify the others. Since then, one after another, Chris had been fielding calls and questions from the other members of Team Seven, updating them on the latest disaster to have befallen their sharpshooter, their friend, and having to all but order them not to sacrifice their night just to sit another hospital vigil.

All of them had taken some convincing. This last one, however, might require a restraining order.

"I can be there in less than half an hour, pard," Buck insisted. "Just lemme take Kerry here back by her place–"

"No, Buck, it’s all right," he broke in, deeply grateful for the offer even as he turned it down. "There’s no sense you ruinin’ your night, too. You stay where you are. I’ll call and let you know when I hear somethin’."

"Chris," the big man’s voice was soft and uncharacteristically serious, "if you need me, just say the word. I can always make it up to Kerry later. But if anything happens to Vin and I’m not there–"

"I really hope," Chris breathed fervently, "that everything’s already happened to Vin that’s going to. The last report we got said everything’s goin’ fine and that he should be out soon. So just… try not to worry, okay?"

Buck’s laugh filled the phone. "That’s pretty good comin’ from you, stud!" he teased. "I’m thinkin’ those lovely nurses they got there are primin’ the tranquilizer gun as we speak."

"Buck…"

"C’mon, Larabee, I can hear you pacin’ from here!" His heavy sigh was audible, and, when he spoke next, his voice was gentle. "Chris, you don’t need to be there by yourself–"

"I’m not," he said. "Nettie’s here, too."

"Nettie?" Buck repeated in sharp surprise. "Oh, Lord, she wasn’t with Vin when he–"

"No, she was with me," Chris answered without thinking.

There was a long pause as Buck tried to process that bit of information. "Nettie was with you," he repeated quietly. "Okay…"

Chris exhaled slowly, irritated with himself for rousing the big man’s curiosity and knowing he’d have to appease it quickly. "She was cookin’ dinner for Vin and invited me along, as well. Y’know, to thank me for gettin’ him through that seminar in one piece." He grabbed desperately onto the reason Vin had suggested, praying it would suffice. Buck had known – hell, they’d all known – how panicked Vin had been. Maybe, just maybe, he’d believe that Nettie would want to show her gratitude to Larabee for helping his "friend" through the ordeal.

He closed his eyes and held his breath, then released it when Buck chuckled. "Mama hen’s at it again, is she?" Wilmington laughed. "Well, I guess with her there you don’t really need me. Unless it’s to disarm her if them folks don’t treat ‘her boy’ like she thinks they should."

Chris grinned at the image Buck’s words created. "I think Vin may be the one in trouble," he said with a chuckle. "Nettie and Dr. Stone have met, and they seem to have hit it off."

"Jesus!" Buck nearly choked. "Hell, if that’s the case, you couldn’t pay me ta come down there! I’m sorry, pard, but you are on your own for this one. Ain’t no way in hell I’m gettin’ in the crossfire between Vin, Nettie and Dr. Stone. Uh-uh, no, not me!"

"Well, hell," Chris growled, though his eyes gleamed with warmth, "it’s nice to know I can always count on you for back-up. You’re a damn coward, Buck."

"Where those two women are concerned?" Buck barked. "You’re damn right I am! I ain’t lived this long by bein’ stupid!" He paused once more, then said with complete seriousness, "I’m here if you need me, Chris. You know that, right?"

A slow, fond smile spread over Larabee’s face and he nodded. "Buck, I’ve doubted a lotta things in my life, but never that. You stay with Kerry, show her that old Wilmington magic. I’ll call later with an update."

"You do that. Just," in a flash the irrepressible Buck was back, and Larabee could plainly envision his broad wink, "try not ta interrupt that magic when you do."

"Buck, you’re a hound."

"Yeah, I know," the big man sighed happily. "It’s a beautiful thing, ain’t it?"

"G’night, Buck."

"G’night, Dad." And the line clicked off.

Chris thumbed the button to break his end of the connection and returned his phone to his belt with a smile and a shake of his head. If he lived to be a hundred, Buck would never change.

And thank God for that.

"Chris."

He looked up sharply at Nettie’s quiet call and immediately saw a tall man in scrubs coming through the doors from the surgical suite. Even before the doctor called for him, he was moving forward, with Nettie close at his side.

Marcus Winston saw the tall blond with the grimly determined face striding toward him and knew at once he must be Dr. Stone’s "Wrath of God." He stopped only a few steps into the waiting area and instinctively braced himself for impact.

"You’re Mr. Larabee?" he asked needlessly when the man was close enough to hear.

Chris came closer still, then stopped, his green gaze boring into the surgeon. "How is he?" he asked without preamble.

Dr. Winston sighed, now wishing he’d let Elizabeth come out here instead. He was coming off a twelve-hour shift and was too tired to bark. In her twelfth hour, though, she was just getting warmed up.

"I’m Dr. Marcus Winston," he introduced himself, his deep voice and gray eyes weary, but steady. "I’m the cardiothoracic surgeon. Dr. Stone told you I’d be operating?" He saw Larabee’s tight nod, read the worry in the man’s eyes and in the face of the white-haired woman holding tightly to his arm, and gave a comforting smile. "He came through very well. The knife entered his back between the ninth and tenth ribs, through the muscle and directly into his chest. That’s how it nicked the lung. But there was no damage to his kidney or diaphragm, which eliminates possible major complications."

"The bleeding?" Chris asked through stiff lips, his stare never wavering from the surgeon’s face.

Dr. Winston sighed and nodded. "A venous bleeder." At two puzzled looks, he explained, "The knife cut a vein within the muscle layers. But we got it controlled without too much difficulty. He’s being transfused to replace blood he lost and has responded to it well."

"How… how is he?" Nettie asked, her voice rough with worry.

He smiled down at her. "He’s fine. He’s got a few stitches in his back, and he’ll have a chest tube for a couple of days, but, barring any unforeseen complications, he should make a rapid recovery." A gleam of humor kindled in his eyes. "Almost as soon as the anesthesiologist woke him, Dr. Stone started raking him over the coals for showing up on her doorstep yet again. And he, if I understood him right, muttered something about ‘damn pushy doctors with the bedside manner of a pit bull.’"

"Oh, yeah," Chris breathed as a hot, hard wave of relief swept through him, "he’s gonna be just fine!"

"That boy and his mouth!" Nettie scolded, though her eyes swam with tears and a tremulous smile lit her lined face. "Somebody oughtta take a bar of soap to it–"

"Well," Dr. Winston grinned and winked, "our illustrious chief of trauma threatened to stitch his lips together, so I decided it was time I came out here."

"When can we see him?" Chris asked.

The surgeon frowned thoughtfully. "They’ll be taking him to recovery in a few minutes. He should be there about an hour– And, no, you can’t go in," he answered even before the question was asked, as Dr. Stone had warned him it would be. "After that, he’ll be taken to his room. I’ll have someone notify you as soon as a room is assigned, and you can wait for him there."

Chris nodded, too relieved to press the issue. Vin was alive; he was going to be fine. For now, that was all that mattered.

"Now, if you’ll excuse me, I want to get back–"

"Doctor, wait, please." Nettie reached out and laid a restraining hand on the surgeon’s arm as he started to go. He turned back to face her, and she smiled warmly up at him through her tears, patting his arm tenderly. "Thank you," she said in a low, hoarse voice, "for helpin’ my boy. He’s a stubborn cuss, I know, but…" She swallowed hard. "He’s special. And I… I just wanted you ta know… how grateful I am…"

He smiled gently and covered her hand with his. "You’re more than welcome," he said softly, sincerely. "I’m just glad I was able to help. You know, I learned a long time ago that you can’t save everyone. You win some; you lose some. But the ones I win… Well, it’s nice ending my day seeing a smile like the one you’re wearing right now. And as for his stubbornness…" He winked again. "It might just have saved his life."

"Oh, Lord," she groaned, "don’t tell him that. There’ll be no livin’ with the durned fool, then!"

Dr. Winston laughed and started once more to leave, but was stopped by the strong hand that was suddenly held out before him. He glanced down at the hand, then raised his eyes to the clear green ones before him.

"Thank you," Chris said quietly, more grateful to the man than mere words could express.

Dr. Winston smiled and took Larabee’s hand, shaking it firmly. "You’re welcome. You folks have a good night."

"Yeah," Chris breathed, releasing the surgeon’s hand and feeling the cold grip of terror that had held him all night letting go, as well. "I’m finally startin’ to think we will."

7~7~7~7

Chris stood before the window in the room assigned to Vin and stared out into the night. From what he could tell, Vin should at least have a decent view. And it was bound to be better than the last room, which had given him a view only of the orthopedic center across the street. He groaned at that and let his head drop forward to the glass.

Christ, he knew there’d been too many hospital stays when he could name all the different views!

Nettie looked around the room and could see only its smallness. She hated the thought of Vin being confined in this tiny space, knew how acutely he would feel the nearness of the walls, how he’d hate the stark sterility of the place. And the chill. She shivered and unconsciously rubbed her hands up and down her arms, then got up from her chair and crossed the highly polished tile floor to the closet, opening the door and searching first the top shelf, then the two drawers in the bottom.

Chris turned and watched her with a frown. "What are you lookin’ for?" he asked at last.

"Blankets," she answered tersely. "This room’s too cold for him. I swear, that boy’s got water where his blood oughtta be."

He smiled and crossed his arms against his chest, hitching a shoulder against the wall. "We can always ask the nurse."

She found two blankets in the second drawer and fingered them appraisingly. "Well, they’re a mite thin," she judged, not at all pleased, "but I suppose they’ll have to do."

Chris’s smile grew broader, warmer, and he shook his head slowly, easily able to imagine her taking hospital administration to task on their poor choice of blankets. He couldn’t wait to see what happened once Vin started complaining about the food.

All at once, the door opened, and he and Nettie both stiffened as a bed, surrounded by an orderly and two nurses, was rolled into the room, accompanied by a bewildering array of tubes, poles and other paraphernalia. But the sight that grabbed them both, the only sight that mattered, was that of the young man on the bed, pale, unmoving, but, God, alive.

Chris’s heart rose sharply, almost painfully, and for long, long moments, there simply wasn’t enough air in the small room to breathe. Vin…

He had no idea he’d started forward until he felt Nettie’s hand closing hard about his arm, pulling him back and holding him in place. "You stay here, son," she urged, her voice as gentle as her hand was firm, her gaze riveted to Vin. "These folks don’t need us under foot while they’re gettin’ him settled." Yet even as she said that, as one of the nurses inadvertently jostled the tube leading into Vin’s chest and wrung a soft groan from him, she had to catch herself from going forward.

Chris slipped a strong arm about her shoulders and pulled her close. Clinging together, they watched intently as the professionals, working with an astonishing mix of skill and care, got Vin settled and all the lines snaking into and around him sorted out and straightened.

While the others worked, one nurse separated herself from the activity and went to the man and woman huddled together in the far corner. Shoulder-length blond hair framed her face, and clear blue eyes met theirs. She smiled warmly.

"You must be Mr. Larabee and Mrs. Wells," she said in a light voice. "My name’s Annie, and I’m Vin’s nurse. I just came on shift, so I’ll be here a while." She studied them with practiced eyes, seeing the lines and shadows of weariness on their faces. "Is there something I can get you? Coffee, maybe? We just made a fresh pot."

"Thank you, child," Nettie breathed with a smile of her own. "That would be nice."

"I’ll get it," Annie said. She stuck her hands into the pockets of her floral-patterned jacket. "Dr. Stone will be here in a little while to look in on Vin and talk to you. She also said we’re to bring in a cot and extra bedding." She lifted one brow slightly as she looked back and forth between the two. "I presume one of you will be staying?"

"That would be me," Chris said quickly. He and Nettie had already discussed this – well, maybe "discussed" wasn’t quite the word – and he’d finally persuaded her that she should go home tonight and come back tomorrow. JD and Casey would be by shortly to get her.

Annie nodded, still smiling. She was fairly new here, but had been thoroughly informed about the men of the infamous Team Seven by the veterans of the floor. Julie had told her that the hard part was not in getting one man to stay, but in persuading five others not to. And Jacquie had assured her she’d almost certainly be meeting those other five tomorrow.

"Why don’t the two of you go get something to eat–"

"We’re not leavin’," Chris and Nettie responded in perfect, and firm, unison.

She laughed lightly and nodded. "I kinda figured you’d say that," she admitted, "but I had to ask." She glanced over her shoulder at her patient, then turned back to the two before her. "He should be coming around pretty soon. They woke him after the surgery, but he sort of drifts in and out. He’ll be very groggy for a while, and probably a bit confused. We’re going to give him something for pain –he’ll be pretty sore for a while, and the tube will cause him some discomfort – and he’ll also have a PCA pump so that he can give himself morphine should he need it." She gazed steadily up at Chris. "Encourage him to use it," she urged. "I understand he’s not always good at that."

Larabee smirked slightly. "He doesn’t like being out of it," he said. "But, don’t worry," a hint of steel crept into his voice, "he’ll use it."

Annie didn’t doubt that at all. "All right. I have to get back to him. I’ll have coffee brought to you in a few minutes." She smiled again, then turned and went back to Vin.

"I like her," Nettie pronounced, nodding firmly.

Chris said nothing, simply continued to watch the people around the bed, and the man in it, through eyes that missed nothing. And though he knew they were caring for Vin, still he wanted nothing more than for all of them to clear out so he could take his proper place, at his injured lover’s side.

"Vin?" Annie bent low over her patient and called to him. "Can you hear me? My name’s Annie, and I’m your nurse." His head moved weakly against the pillow, his face contorted into a mask of pain and a soft moan escaped him, but he did not awaken. "Okay, I’m just gonna check you over one more time, then I’ll leave you alone for a while."

She donned her stethoscope and listened to his chest, checked his oxygenation level and respirations, his blood pressure, and noted them all on his chart. With that done, she made one last check of his IV lines and chest tube, then smiled down at him. "Okay, you rest now. Mr. Larabee and Mrs. Wells are here, and I’m gonna leave you in their hands. I’ll be back in a little while." She smoothed the bedcovers over his chest, brushed a stray lock of hair off his forehead, then straightened, turned, and started toward the door. "I’ll have your coffee in just a minute," she said over her shoulder as she walked out the door.

When at last the room was cleared, Chris hurried to the bed, pulled a chair up close and sat down, immediately taking Vin’s pale, cool hand between his two and holding tightly to it. "Jesus, Tanner," he whispered unsteadily, gazing fixedly into his lover’s unconscious face, "you scared the hell outta me!" He loosened one hand from Vin’s and reached up, running his fingers gently through the man’s long, tangled hair. "C’mon, pard," he urged softly, his dark green eyes intently searching his lover’s pale, lined face, "come back to me. Lemme see those blue eyes. I need you ta look at me, Vin, I need you ta talk ta me. I need ta know you’re all right."

Nettie pulled a chair to the other side of the bed, careful of the tube leading into his chest, and took Vin’s free hand in hers. Then, leaning over, she placed a tender kiss against his forehead, a tear falling from her eyes onto his skin. "Lord, boy," she whispered unsteadily, clutching his hand to her heart, "I was so scared I’d lost you! You gotta stop doin’ this ta me, son," she pleaded. "I can’t afford all these years you keep takin’ off me!" She kissed him again, then sank tiredly into her chair, still holding tightly to his hand.

Chris continued to hold Vin’s hand and stroke his hair, knowing Nettie was watching and not caring one bit. He’d bared his soul to her where Vin was concerned; he figured he had nothing left to hide. And he had to admit that it was an unexpected relief for once not to have to conceal his feelings for the man. He could let himself relax, and simply give the comfort that Vin needed. That he needed to give.

From Vin’s hair, he let his hand travel slowly down his face, lightly tracing the curve of one brow, the beautifully straight nose, the high, hard ridge of a cheekbone, the impossibly square jaw. All the while, his eyes took in the lines of pain carved into the fine-boned features, the bloodless skin so pale that he could see the network of tiny blue veins beneath Vin’s eyes, and his heart clenched yet again.

God, he looked so fragile!

"I’m here, Vin," he breathed, sliding a thumb down Tanner’s slim throat to let it rest on the strong, steady pulse there. "It’s all right, you can come back now. You don’t have to be afraid. You’re not alone, I promise. I’m right here with you, and I’m not gonna leave."

Nettie said nothing, merely watched Vin and listened to Chris, easily able to hear the love and the longing in the low, soothing voice. Then Vin began to stir slightly, his breathing quickened and grew shallower, and she knew that, even unconscious, he was somehow aware of Larabee, too.

"That’s it, pard," Chris urged, rising to his feet and leaning closer still. He lightly stroked Vin’s throat with his thumb, his eyes never leaving his partner’s face. Tanner’s eyelids flickered, his brows drew down and the furrows of pain between them deepened, and Chris tightened his fingers about Vin’s. "I’ve got you," he assured him. "I’m right here, Vin, and I’ve got you. Come back to me now, pard. Please, let me see your eyes."

Vin drifted through the darkness, feeling awareness tugging at the edges of his mind and fighting its pull. He feared the torments it held, feared the pain that waited to dig its claws once more into him, and wanted no more of it. He’d had too much already. He was tired, worn out from the struggle with his own body just to keep breathing, and wanted only to rest. And here he could. Here in this darkness he was safe, beyond the reach of all that would hurt him. Beyond the reach of everything…

Except him.

Lord God, why couldn’t he leave him be?

But Chris had always been as stubborn as he was himself, and refused, as always, to let him keep to the darkness and shadows where he felt safest. Larabee’s voice reached him even across the distance he’d fled for his own peace of mind, just as his strength was pulling him out of the blessed abyss in which he’d taken refuge.

Oh, Lord, Chris…

And then he felt it, the warm, strong hand on his that was always among his first memories when waking to the world of hurt. That hand steadied him, guided him through the darkness, and he locked his own about it, clinging to it for all he was worth. Then a second hand curved about the back of his neck and stroked his throat with a callused thumb in an infinitely loving gesture. He gave himself into those hands, let them hold and comfort him while he struggled to find his way through the confusion, while he waited for the voice that would lead him.

And it, too, was there.

"Easy, Vin, easy," Chris soothed, bending low to let Tanner know he was near. "It’s all right now, partner, I’ve gotcha. You’re gonna be all right. Just gotta get ya through the shock of wakin’ up."

Vin huddled in those hands and clung to them with a frail strength as confusion battered at his mind. Vague thoughts and half-formed memories slipped and slithered through his addled brain, but each time he tried to grasp at one, it simply dissolved into mist.

"Chris?" he whispered hoarsely, seizing desperately upon the one true certainty that did not desert him, that shone like a beacon in the darkness. "Need… need ya…"

"I’m here, Vin," Chris breathed, bowing his head and laying a cheek against Vin’s forehead, "I’m right here. I gotcha, and I ain’t ever lettin’ go."

"Cold," he rasped thickly as a fine tremor ran through his body. "So c… cold!"

Nettie was on her feet in an instant, hurrying to the closet and taking out the two blankets. Just as quickly, she returned to the bed and spread them over Vin, positioning them carefully around the chest tube and various IVs. "There you go, son," she said, tucking the blankets close about him and tenderly rubbing his shoulder.

He frowned in confusion and slowly turned his head, forcing his eyes open and trying to focus them on the face and form above him. Then the face came closer, slid slowly into focus, and, as recognition dawned upon him, so did the realization of just how he and Chris were holding each other. Terror slammed through him and he tore himself out of Larabee’s arms with a strangled cry, then cried out again as the suddenness of his movement drove torrents of hot pain stabbing hard into his back and chest. He tried to turn away from the pain, but only succeeded in making it worse, and curled into himself with another anguished sound.

"God, Vin!" Without a second thought, Chris let down the rail on his side and eased himself onto the bed, sliding next to Vin and circling strong arms carefully about his tight, shuddering body, holding him as close as he dared. "Ssh, easy, Vin, easy," he murmured, resting a cheek against Vin’s and closing his eyes, wincing as his lover’s shaking hands clutched weakly at him. "It’s all right, pard," he whispered, not wanting to move, frightened of jostling something and causing Tanner any more pain. "Relax, Vin, you’ve gotta relax. You’ve just had surgery and you’ve got a tube in your chest, and the last thing we need is for you to tear somethin’ open. Just relax, okay? It’ll stop hurtin’ if you relax."

"Nettie!" he gasped strickenly. "She s… she saw…"

"Listen to me, son," the old woman said softly, bending close above him and running gentle hands through his hair. "It’s all right, you hear me? It’s all right, Vin." Tears stung her eyes and slid down her cheeks at the fear she saw in him, at the agonizing knowledge that it was fear of her. "Merciful God, Vin, don’t you know there’s nothing you could do that could ever turn me away from you? Don’t you know by now how much I love you? You don’t honestly think I could ever stop lovin’ you, do you?"

Pain and confusion rioted through him, and he tried to lie as still as he could, like a scared animal caught out by a predator. Maybe… maybe she just wouldn’t see…

But she did, and the sight broke her heart. She leaned closer still, pressing her face into the wealth of his hair and letting her tears join with his. "My poor, poor boy," she whispered brokenly. "What has this world done ta you that you’d fear me so?" She reached over, pried one of his hands loose from Chris, and held tightly to it, cradling it to her heart. "You’re mine, son," she told him. "You have been from the first time I saw ya. And there just isn’t anything in you that could ever change that."

"Listen to her, Vin," Chris urged quietly. "She knows. She knows, pard, and she’s still here. I think you need ta listen to her."

"Jist don’t… wanta see her… turn away," he whispered tightly. "I couldn’t bear that! C’d take it from others, but not from her!"

Nettie sighed and straightened slowly, her eyes filled with sorrow. "Chris," she said quietly, "could you leave us alone for a few minutes? Vin and I need to talk–"

"No!" he cried wildly, clutching again at Chris. "Don’t–"

"Ssh." Chris gently disentangled himself from Vin and pulled away, steeling himself against his partner’s stricken cry. "It’s all right," he said unsteadily, getting carefully off the bed. "I’ll be right outside. But she’s right." He reached down and brushed his knuckles lightly down Vin’s ashen, tear-streaked face. "You two do need to talk."

"Please, stay!" Vin whispered, reaching for and raising panicked eyes to Chris.

Chris took his hand, squeezed it once, then forced himself to let it go. Then, mustering every bit of resolve he possessed, he turned and walked out of the room, painfully aware of the frantic blue gaze that followed him.

Nettie sighed softly, sadly, and reached out to turn Vin’s face toward her. She gasped sharply and paled when he flinched violently. Made almost sick by that sight, she sank weakly into her chair, her heart a dull knot of pain in her chest.

Merciful Jesus, just what all had been done to him in the past?

She swallowed hard and raised her head, drawing a deep, unsteady breath and letting it out slowly. When she felt more in control of herself, she reached out and took his hand once more, sighing sadly when she felt his whole body go rigid. Yet still she held his hand, infusing all the warmth and love she could into that grip.

"I want you ta look at me, son," she said quietly, amazed that her voice sounded so steady. "Please."

He’d never been able to deny her a thing, and this was no different. Despite the terror churning in him, he tore his gaze from the door through which Chris had disappeared and turned it slowly to her, steeling himself for yet another rejection. Yet, rather than the anger and disgust he expected to see in her eyes, he saw only deep sorrow and a deeper love.

And both, he knew, were for him.

"Nettie–"

"Hush, son," she broke in quietly. "I want you ta listen ta me." Still holding his hand in one of hers, she leaned forward and reached out with the other, brushing his cheek with her fingertips and smiling softly when, this time, he didn’t flinch from her. "I will never turn away from you, Vin, and I will never turn you away. Don’t you know that by now?"

He stared at her, his eyes wide and dark. "I want to," he whispered at last, "but…"

"But," she said when his voice trailed off into silence, "like Chris said, you’ve been hurt so many times that you’ve just come to expect it." She frowned and searched his eyes with her own. "Is that why you’ve never told me that you like men?"

His eyes went wider still, and what little color his recent transfusions had given him drained completely. His heart launched itself into a heavy, painful rhythm in his chest, and a wave of nausea swept through him.

It was coming…

She sighed and shook her head, still stroking his cheek, still holding his hand. "Don’t look at me like that, Vin," she breathed. "I’m not goin’ anywhere. You’re as much mine now as you’ve ever been, gay or straight. That’s never mattered ta me before, and it doesn’t matter now."

His sluggish mind suddenly caught the undercurrent of meaning in her words, and he stared at her in both dawning realization and deepening confusion. "Y’… y’ knew?" he whispered. "Before… before y’ saw… But… Y’ knew?"

She laughed softly and squeezed his hand. "Lord, son, I’ve known almost as long as I’ve known you! Back when you were takin’ those GED classes, I’d catch you lookin’ at one or two of the young men in the community center. And later, when I’d ask you if you were seein’ anybody, you were always real careful never to give any names. But you also never said ‘she.’" She winked at him. "I’m an old school teacher, Vin. When I put two and two together, I almost always come up with four."

A trace of color did return to his face then, staining his cheekbones in a blush, and he dropped his gaze to the bed. "Thought I’d covered m’ tracks better’n that," he breathed. "You never said nothin’."

"Son," she sighed, frowning at him, "when are you gonna learn you can’t hide from me? And when are you gonna learn you don’t have to? No, I never said anything, because I kept hopin’ you’d say somethin’ to me. Why didn’t you?"

He swallowed hard and turned his face away, too tired to hold back the tears that stung his eyes, but not wanting her to see them. "Didn’t wanta lose ya," he rasped, clenching his free hand into a tight fist. "I couldn’t stand the thought of you lookin’ at me like all them others done, like there’s somethin’ wrong with me, like I ain’t fit ta be near decent folk–"

She grabbed his chin at that and abruptly turned his face to her, staring at him through blazing eyes. "Don’t you ever say that again!" she snapped, fury spilling from her in waves. "You are ‘decent folk,’ Vin Tanner, do you hear me? And I don’t appreciate you thinkin’ so little of me as to think I’d believe otherwise! D’you think I’d stop lovin’ Casey if she was attracted ta some girl instead of JD?"

"’Course not!" he answered, frowning. "She’s yer kin–"

"Boy," Nettie sighed with a badly strained patience, "Casey’s father was my husband’s brother. She’s no more blood kin ta me than you are. But, you are both the children of my heart, and I could no more turn on one of you than I could stop that heart from beatin’! Good Lord, son, some of the fool notions you get just make my hair hurt!"

"Ain’t a fool notion," he defended with mingled hurt and anger, his blue eyes darkening with painful memories. "Ya think I ain’t seen it? Why the hell do ya think I ran away from the foster system in Texas?" he demanded in a hoarse, shaking voice. "Got tired of all them so-called ‘lovin’ foster parents’ sendin’ me back ’cause they didn’t want a goddamn queer livin’ in their house, contaminatin’ their own kids! Sent me back ’cause I’s damaged goods–"

"You watch your language around me, young man," she warned in a low voice, her eyes boring fiercely into his. "You know how I feel about such things. And I know you’ve been hurt, and hurt more than one person ever should have been, but you are not ‘damaged goods.’ I’ve never for one moment thought you were, and I’ll wager that man out there hasn’t either. Or I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t love you like he does!"

Again, her words knocked him completely off balance, driving the anger – and the breath – from him. "Chris?" he croaked weakly.

"Yes, Chris," she said firmly. Seeing his confusion, and knowing he was in no condition to deal with it, she relented and said gently, "I realized yesterday, when you were talkin’ to me about him, that you were in love with him. I just can’t imagine why I never saw it before. I must be slippin’ in my old age."

"Y’ain’t old," he protested softly.

She squeezed his hand and smiled tenderly at him. "Thank you for that, son," she breathed. "At any rate, I did see it yesterday, and it worried me. I know you’ve been hurt before, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of you bein’ hurt again. So," she braced herself for his expected anger at her meddling and confessed, "that’s why I invited him ta supper. I wanted ta see for myself what kind of man he is. And," she lifted her chin defiantly, "to see how he felt about you. I wanted to know exactly what he intended toward you, whether he loved you like you loved him, or whether he was just settin’ you up for another fall."

Rather than anger, he felt only a deep, almost numbing shock, and he stared at her without blinking, his face a mask of stunned disbelief. "You…" Words failed him – hell, thought failed him – and he licked his lips and had to try again. "You asked Chris…" He tried to imagine it, and couldn’t. He didn’t know if it was exhaustion, or the pain medication, or what, but he just could not get his mind around that scenario.

Nettie Wells… interrogating Chris Larabee…

"Then how come I’m the one in the hospital?" he finally asked in complete bewilderment.

She laughed at that, and leaned over and kissed him. "Because you’re a damn fool who can’t help rushin’ in where angels fear ta tread," she answered fondly. "I’m sorry, Vin, I know I shouldn’t have interfered–"

"No, I… I don’t mind. I don’t think," he added weakly. "I jist… I cain’t imagine… Did you ask him? How he feels, I mean?"

She arched a brow. "I most certainly did."

He swallowed. "And… and did he… answer?"

She smiled slightly. "He did."

He frowned deeply in puzzlement, then raised a pale and shaking hand to rub at one temple, blinking heavily as he tried to kick-start his sluggish mind. "Why?" he finally managed to ask. "I mean… Why?"

She sighed and smiled softly, then began brushing gentle fingers through his hair. "Because we love you, son," she said quietly, hoping he would sleep. "I love you enough to have asked, and he loves you enough to have answered. It couldn’t have been easy for him, openin’ up to me like he did, answerin’ questions I had no business askin’, but he did it. For you. He’s a good man, Vin. I’ve seen that tonight. And I’ve seen the way he feels about you. I’m not worried anymore, son. All I’ve ever wanted for you is a good life filled with the happiness and the love you deserve. And I truly believe you’ve got that now. Or you will, if Mr. Larabee has anything to say about it."

Beneath the slow, soothing movements of her fingers through his hair, his eyes closed and he relaxed, his exhausted, hurting body giving in to its need for sleep. Her voice warmed him, and her words gave him the peace he so craved. A crooked, drowsy smile curved about his pale mouth, and a soft sigh escaped him.

"He’s somethin’ else, ain’t he?" he breathed, drifting back into the darkness.

"Yes, son, he is," she answered, watching through loving eyes as sleep claimed him. "But he still can’t hold a candle ta you."

7~7~7~7

Dr. Stone arched a dark brow and stared sharply down at her patient. He was blushing under her scrutiny and plucking at his blankets with long, restless fingers, but she was determined not to be swayed by such endearing signs of nervousness. "What I’d really like to know," she said in a clipped tone, "is why you’re so drawn to my trauma room. As soon as you get over one injury, you’re back here with a new one. What’s wrong, Tanner? Falling behind on your rent payments?"

He swallowed hard and lifted wide blue eyes to her, then turned them beseechingly on Chris, who stood safely at the foot of his bed.

"Oh, no," Larabee laughed, raising his hands defensively and backing away, "you’re on your own here, pard. I’m not gettin’ between you and her!"

"Coward," Vin accused with a deep scowl.

Chris smirked. "Let’s just say I have a well-developed survival instinct."

"Oughtta be ashamed of yerself, Larabee," he said in disgust. "Scared of a woman half yer size!"

"Ain’t the size of the cat, Tanner," Chris retorted with a wink. "It’s what she can do with her teeth and claws."

"Charming," Dr. Stone grunted, rolling her eyes. "‘The Wit and Wisdom of Buck Wilmington,’ I presume?" When Larabee laughed again, she shook her head slowly. "You men are all in need of serious help. And you," she turned back to Vin, and again that dark brow shot up, "are on my list! Just what in the hell did you think you were doing?"

Anger rose hotly to the fore, and he stared defiantly up at her. "Thought I’s stoppin’ a muggin’!" he declared in his raspy drawl. "Thought I’s stoppin’ a girl from gettin’ hurt ’r killed! Ya didn’t see that punk, Doc. He was all strung out ’n crazy with need. He woulda kilt that girl sure as yer standin’ here, and I wasn’t about ta let that happen!"

Try as she might, she couldn’t stop the smile that tugged at her mouth and warmed her eyes. "Mr. Standish is right," she said fondly. "You are Robin Hood."

His blush returned, and he dropped his gaze to the bed, shrugging slightly. "Jist doin’ what anybody else woulda done," he muttered.

Her eyes and smile softened; she knew he truly believed that. "No, Vin," she said quietly, "anybody else wouldn’t have done that. In fact, damn few would’ve." She saw his blush darken, and cocked her head slightly to one side. She knew what he did for a living, and had no doubts about his capabilities. Yet she found it hard to reconcile the tough ATF marksman with the bashful young man before her. "They grow a lot of ’em like you down in Texas?"

He scowled, wanting to sink into the bed and wishing she’d stop teasing him. "’M I gonna live ’r not?" he growled.

Knowing better than to push him past his limit, Dr. Stone relented. "You’ll live," she said. "You were very lucky this time, Vin. It could’ve been much worse. That knife could’ve done major damage–"

"Coulda kilt that girl, too," he insisted stubbornly. "I jist couldn’t let that happen. ’Sides," he shrugged easily, "ain’t like I never been stabbed before."

The casualness of his words left her without any of her own. She’d seen his scars, more times than she cared to remember, and couldn’t imagine what kind of life he’d led to accumulate such a vast collection. Didn’t want to imagine it. Many of them were old, and, given his age now, she knew he’d been very young – too young – when he’d suffered the wounds. And it hurt her to think of this young man knowing that kind of pain so early and so often in his life.

"Well," she said finally, managing a smile, "just remember, stab wounds aren’t like viruses. You don’t build up immunities to them. But," she shrugged, "the incision looks good, your chest sounds good… Your temp is higher than I’d like, but that’s not really surprising. I’m ordering a round of antibiotics; that should take care of it."

"What about this chest tube?" he asked, hating the thing. While it was more uncomfortable than truly painful, still he was acutely aware of it every time he breathed, and certainly every time he moved, and he just wanted the damn thing gone.

She read the pleading in his eyes and gave him a sympathetic smile. "Sorry, Tanner, not for a couple of days yet. Not until your chest is clear–"

"You said it sounds good–"

"Well, yeah," she retorted sharply, "compared to what it sounded like last night! You don’t quit, do you?"

He cocked his head to one side and gave her his familiar boyish grin. "’S part of my charm."

"If that’s what you call it," she snorted. "Mrs. Wells had you pegged right – mule-headed." She stared hard at him. "The tube stays until I say, comprende?"

"Yer no fun," he sulked.

"I’m a trauma surgeon," she said with a smirk. "I don’t have to be fun. I just have to be good."

"Lord," he breathed, letting his head sink into his pillow and closing his eyes, "it’s a good thing Bucklin ain’t here, else you’d never live that one down!"

She frowned slightly at the breathlessness in his voice and studied him, letting their verbal sniping go. The head of his bed had been elevated slightly, and he was now sagging back against it, all color washed out of his face, lines of weariness etched deeply into his features. Vin Tanner was a strong man, she knew, but even he had his limits, and he’d just crashed into them.

"Vin, listen to me," she urged quietly, her stern demeanor gone as if it had never existed. "I know I said it could’ve been worse, but it was still bad enough. You’ve got a hole in your lung and you lost an awful lot of blood. And not even you can bounce back from those things overnight." She reached out and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder, smiling as tired blue eyes opened and gazed blearily up at her. "Give yourself time to heal, okay?" she entreated. "Believe me, you do not want to make Dr. Winston have to go back in there. He really hates it when a patient undoes his hard work."

Vin’s eyelids seemed made of lead, and he let them close again, unable to hold them open. "Cain’t be no touchier about that than you, Doc," he murmured. "Hell, you’ve got Larabee cowerin’ in a corner over there, ’n Lord knows it ain’t jist anybody who c’n do that."

"I’m not cowering!" Chris defended himself sharply, stepping self-consciously out of the corner and glaring at his lover. "I’m just tryin’ ta stay out of the way–"

"’S a sad, sad sight, cowboy," Vin sighed mournfully, knowing Chris was glaring even without opening his eyes. "Lo, how the mighty have fallen."

Chris stepped up to the bed and set his hands on his trim hips, scowling down at Tanner. But he, too, could see the younger man’s exhaustion, and had to bite back a twinge of worry. "This is the thanks I get for not goin’ into the office today so I could sit with a sick friend. You’re a damn ingrate, Tanner. And don’t," he warned before Vin could speak, "say it’s part of your charm!"

Vin again forced his eyes open and turned them up to Dr. Stone. "Ain’tcha gonna stop him from pickin’ on the hurt ’n helpless?" he asked hoarsely.

She snorted. "You? Helpless? Please!" But she could see he was fading fast, and could hear the exhaustion and discomfort in his voice. Shaking her head at his stubbornness, she reached across him, retrieved the button for the morphine pump from the bed and hit it once. "Say goodnight, Gracie."

"’S a damn plot," he breathed thickly, his eyelids dropping.

"Hey, you guys work for the government, not me. Now, go to sleep, or I’ll get the really big needle I keep for troublesome patients." She waited for the retort, and smiled in triumph when none came. "Let’s talk outside," she said to Chris, "and let Sleeping Beauty here rest."

He nodded at her, then reached down and patted Vin’s leg once. "I’ll be right back, pard."

"’Kay," Vin sighed, already sinking into sleep.

Once outside the room, Chris turned to the doctor. "He really all right?"

She smiled reassuringly. "He’s fine. Well," she amended, "as fine as anybody who’s been stabbed in the back can be. But, like I said, he lost a lot of blood, and his left lung is still trying to recover from the damage." She shrugged. "Those things are gonna take a toll on his strength. And it doesn’t help that he pushes himself past his limits. I know," she said, holding up a hand to silence his coming protest, "he can’t help it. Hell, I’m not even sure he knows he does it; by now, it’s just instinct." She frowned slightly, her eyes darkening with sorrow. "I’m not blind, Chris. The kind of life he’s led is written all over his body and notched into his bones. But," she lifted her gaze to the deep green one of the man before her, seeing much more there than either of them would admit, "I’m pretty sure you can help him see it’s not that way anymore. He needs to know it’s okay to let go and rest. It’s the only way he’s gonna get better."

He swallowed uneasily, again wishing this woman weren’t quite so perceptive. Then again, he told himself, it was precisely that insightfulness that enabled her to deal with Vin in a way few other doctors could. And he figured he could deal with a bit of unease if it meant Tanner had one more person he could trust.

"I’ll see what I can do," he said at last.

She had to smile at the uncertainty in his voice. "Don’t be so hard on yourself," she laughed, reaching out to pat his arm. "From what I’ve seen, you can do a helluva lot more with him than anyone else. Sometimes, he almost seems to listen to you!"

7~7~7~7

Chris was standing at the window and staring idly through it, arms crossed loosely against his chest, his lean frame relaxed. Sunlight streamed in through the open blinds, bathing him in its warm glow and glinting off his bright hair, creating a halo effect. The rays caressed his face like a lover’s fingers, emphasizing the strong planes and beautifully sculpted angles, softening his features and smoothing away lines and years.

"Damn, that’s a purty sight," marveled a soft, raspy drawl.

Larabee tensed and spun around at the unexpected voice, then smiled helplessly into the dark blue eyes fixed upon him. "Well, hello to you, too," he greeted, going with long strides to the bed.

As Chris approached, Vin held up a hand to him, then smiled and curled his fingers about the ones that closed about his. "You still here?"

"Where else would I be?" Chris released Vin’s hand only long enough to lower the rail, then recaptured it as he sat carefully on the edge of the bed. "How you doin’?" he asked, reaching out to run the knuckles of his other hand lightly down Tanner’s whisker-rough cheek.

Vin sighed contentedly beneath that touch. "Better now," he breathed, gazing raptly up at his lover. "Always better when you’re here. But I think I c’d be better still."

Chris frowned slightly. "You need somethin’?"

"Yeah," Vin whispered, reaching with his free hand for Larabee and knotting his long fingers in the man’s shirt. "This." And he pulled Chris down to him.

Larabee went willingly, unable to resist his need for the younger man. A soft groan escaped him as Vin’s lips – warm, firm, supple – met his, as Tanner’s sweet, talented mouth claimed his, drawing him ever deeper and gently yet insistently inviting a response. Another groan escaped him and he gave his response eagerly, pressing his mouth hungrily to Vin’s and opening it, his tongue sliding slowly over Tanner’s lips and then slipping through them in search of its mate.

Vin shuddered and slipped his arm around Chris’s neck, pulling him closer, immersing himself in the taste, scent and feel of the man. Chris’s tongue swept through his mouth and he caught it lightly between his teeth, closing his lips about it and sucking, then swirling his own tongue against it. As the kiss intensified, as he clutched Chris closer to him and buried his mouth in his, he felt long fingers threading through his hair, and growled deep in his throat when they tried to pull him back.

"Ain’t lettin’ ya go," he warned. "Ain’t ever lettin’ ya go."

But Chris managed, albeit reluctantly, to free his mouth from Vin’s and pulled away slightly. "Just wanta be sure you’re up ta this," he breathed, his face flushed, his green eyes bright. "Dr. Stone said you need ta rest–"

"Then she shoulda banned ya from my room," he rasped, blue eyes dark with desire. "’Sides, I did rest. Slept fer a good long while. I ain’t fool enough ta think I’m up fer the full ride, cowboy, but I c’n damn sure kiss ya."

"Oh, yeah," Chris laughed softly, "you damn sure can!" And he bowed his head once more, reclaiming Vin’s mouth with his own and losing himself in its sweet magic.

"And here I always thought Casey and JD would be the ones I had ta watch," came a stern voice from the doorway, rudely shattering the spell.

Chris tore himself away from Vin and leapt off the bed as if he’d been scalded, cursing harshly and whirling around. His startled gaze flew to the woman now standing halfway between the bed and the door, and his heart threatened to leap out of his throat.

Vin stared at her in wide-eyed horror, pale and shaking, his heart and stomach colliding somewhere in the middle of his chest. "Nettie!" he gasped, the word escaping him as a breathless squeak.

She strode to the foot of the bed and fixed gimlet eyes upon him, her mouth drawing down into a tight frown. "Boy," she said coldly, watching unmoved as he tried to push himself through his mattress to get away from her, "you wanta tell me just what in the name of all that’s holy you were doin’?"

His mouth opened, moved, but no words came from it. Panic raced through him, all but choking him. His flesh went whiter still, his eyes went wider still, and he had to fight just to breathe.

Realizing she’d get no answer from him, she rounded on Chris, raising her head and staring up at him through flashing eyes. "And you," she said bitingly, planting her fists on her hips, "I surely wouldn’t’ve expected this from you! Just what in tarnation were you thinkin’?"

Anger and defensiveness ignited in him at her words, her tone, and he glared down at her, his face going hard. "I was thinkin’ that I love him, just like I told you yesterday!" he snarled, refusing to be intimidated or shamed by her. "I thought you understood that! And I thought you understood what goes with that! Now, if you can’t stomach seein’ that love, then I suggest you just turn around and leave–"

"Hogwash," she barked, meeting his seething gaze without flinching. "I’m no fool, and I’m no hypocrite. When you said you loved him, I kinda figured there was more to it than just sittin’ around holdin’ hands. I don’t know all that goes on and I don’t want to, but that’s more because it’s none of my business than because I’m ready ta say it’s right or wrong. No, sir. What’s got my dander up is that Vin’s in a hospital bed, not twenty-four hours from havin’ a hole punched into his lung, he’s still attached to that infernal tube, and I walk in and find you two in a clinch that any teen-ager would envy! Land sakes!" she shouted. "Ain’t either one of you got any sense?"

Chris’s mouth dropped open as her words stripped him of his righteous indignation and left him scrabbling for coherent thought. Vin’s sickly pallor, meanwhile, had given way to a flaming blush, and he dropped his head into his hands with a sick groan.

She stared back and forth between the two of them, taking in their stricken expressions, and sighed heavily. Her anger faded, leaving only mild vexation in its wake. "Men," she snorted quietly. "Always thinkin’ below the belt. You gonna throw up, boy?" she asked Vin, who had gone back to an unnatural pallor.

"Might," he whispered thickly, huddling miserably against the raised head of his bed.

"Lord," she breathed. Brushing past Chris, she went to the right side of the bed and sat down upon it, immediately taking Vin into her arms and holding him close. "It’s all right, son," she soothed, resting a cheek against the top of his bowed head and tenderly stroking his back. "You just relax, and breathe slow." She felt his arms close slowly, almost hesitantly about her, and smiled sadly. "You’re not afraid of me, are ya, Vin?"

He raised his head enough to look into her face, his own still deathly white. "Jist afraid… you’s disgusted…" He licked his lips slowly, searching her eyes desperately with his own. "I love him, Nettie," he rasped. "I love him so much! But I love him with all of me, and… and I ain’t gonna stop… couldn’t stop… Not even fer you. But I love you, too, and…" He lifted a shaking hand to her face and laid it against her cheek. "I jist couldn’t take knowin’ that lovin’ one of ya caused me ta lose th’ other."

She took his hand in hers and placed a kiss into its palm, then carried it to her heart. "I told you, son," she breathed, "you’re not gonna lose me. And I would never ask you ta stop lovin’ him." She smiled softly and ran gentle fingers through his hair, her eyes alight. "I know what it is ta love someone, Vin," she said, her voice full of feeling. "I loved my husband with everything that was in me. And that’s the kind of love I’ve always wished for you. Body and soul, son. That’s the way it has to be, or it’s not complete. But," she arched two iron-gray brows and tapped his chin lightly, "I do expect you ta use some common sense. First of all, your body’s been through a trauma. You need ta rest, need ta let it heal. I don’t think Mr. Larabee wants you passin’ out in his arms, no matter what it would do for his ego."

Chris made a made a thick, strangled sound and turned away abruptly, and Vin gave her a shy grin, which she was deeply relieved to see. "Second," she continued, holding his chin between her thumb and forefinger and gazing intently into his eyes, "you’re in a hospital, Vin. People come in and out of your room all the time, and they don’t always knock. You might wanta think about that one." She eyed him knowingly. "Might wanta consider whether this is how you want the others to find out."

He winced and swallowed hard, bowing his head once more. "Jist wish we didn’t have ta hide it at all," he sighed tiredly. "Seems like I spent all my life tryin’ ta hide what others get ta show…" He lifted his head with an effort and looked into her eyes. "It jist wears on a body, y’know?"

"I know. And I’m sorry." She brushed his hair out of his face, then eased him back against the bed. Taking his hand once more in hers and holding firmly to it, she looked around and beckoned Chris to her. When he was standing with her and Vin, she reached out and took his hand, as well. "For what it’s worth," she said solemnly, gazing from one to the other, "you two have my blessing. Be happy, and make each other happy. I’ve lived long enough ta know there’s not much else that matters. And I want you both ta know that I’ll do all I can ta protect what you’ve got, and ta keep what I know to myself. This is yours ta reveal when and how you want to, and I’ll trust your judgment. But," again her eyes went to Vin, "I do have ta tell you that Casey knows about you, at least. She’s a smart girl," she said at his startled gasp. "She’s known for a long time that you’re gay. And it hasn’t made a lick of difference in the way she feels about you." She squeezed his hand. "You might think about that one, too."

"Has… has she told… JD?" he asked fearfully.

Nettie smiled wryly. "Well, as she said ta me, they don’t spend much time talkin’ about your love life when they’re together." The smile turned into a frown. "Sounds like I might need ta have a talk with her, too. And with him."

Chris smiled down at her and squeezed her hand. "You might try inviting him for supper." He winked. "Seems ta be a successful tactic."

"Lord," she sighed, shaking her head, "I don’t know if there’s enough food in the house for him!"

"You’re a fraud, Nettie Wells," Chris said softly, his eyes gleaming. "You know that, don’t you? You’ve got food in your house and room in your heart for every stray that comes along." He leaned over suddenly and kissed her cheek. "But we’ll keep your secret, too," he whispered.

Tears stung her eyes, but she lifted her chin and scowled at him. "I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about," she insisted, though warmth stole the intended sternness from her voice. "I don’t keep strays." He gaze went to Vin, and her whole face softened. "There’s nobody in my house or my heart who doesn’t belong there."

7~7~7~7

EPILOGUE:

Chris finished rinsing the last of the dinner dishes and left them in the sink, deciding he’d load the dishwasher later. He had far more important matters to attend to first. He dried his hands on the small towel hanging from the hook on the cabinet to his right, then turned and went to the refrigerator. Opening it, he drew out two beers, twisted off the caps, and went back to the den, where the most important of those "matters" awaited him.

Vin.

He’d been released from the hospital Thursday morning, and had been at the ranch since, recuperating. He was supposed to be taking it easy, but Chris knew better. The kitchen and bathroom floors had been mopped, the linens on his big bed laundered and changed, and Pony and Peso were both looking very well groomed.

So much for taking it easy.

He walked into the den, and stopped short at the sight that never failed to send tendrils of warmth curling through him. Vin lay on his side on the long couch, clad in green wool Army socks, worn and faded jeans, and God knew how many shirts. His head rested on the stack of small couch pillows, his hair framing his face in a tumble of gleaming earth-brown curls, and his blue eyes, wide and dark, gazed raptly into the fire blazing in the hearth. And now and then, as Chris watched, one arm snaked over to the coffee table, a hand reached into a gold, star-shaped tin, and long fingers drew out a piece of chocolate and popped it into the waiting mouth.

"Jesus, Tanner," he sighed, walking forward and stopping by the younger man’s head, "why don’t you weigh two hundred pounds?"

Vin shifted his gaze from the fire to the long, lean legs just before him and let it travel slowly upward, taking in the hard-muscled thighs encased in dark blue denim, the narrow hips, trim waist, broad chest and powerful shoulders. Then his eyes went to Larabee’s face, traced the strong, proud features he knew by heart, and finally settled on two deep, clear pools of green. As his gaze locked with Chris’s, he raised his forefinger to his lips and licked at a dab of melted chocolate there.

"Don’t know," he drawled lazily in his silk-on-sandpaper voice. "Must be my work-out program." And he lapped at another smear of chocolate on his thumb.

"Shit!" Chris rasped, his eyes widening, his knees almost buckling. Those eyes, deeper than any ocean and, God, so blue, ensnared his soul and held it fast while that tantalizing tongue sent frissons of heat shooting along his every nerve. Then Vin found more chocolate on his middle finger, wiped it over his bottom lip and slowly licked it away, and Chris had to take a quick step forward to keep from falling to the floor.

"Scoot over!" he ordered harshly as he felt the all too familiar tightening at his crotch. "With your luck, I’ll fall and hit you in the head with one of these bottles. And I am not spendin’ Saturday night in the emergency room while you get stitched up again."

"Well, ain’t you Mr. Love and Devotion," Vin groused, taking the beers from the blond and setting them on the table. Nonetheless, he sat up and moved forward, leaving room for Chris to get behind him. Once Larabee had stretched out on his side, Vin lay down and fitted himself up close against him, his head nestled against Chris’s shoulder, his back pressed to the man’s warm, solid chest, his legs entwining with his lover’s. It always amazed him how perfect a fit they were.

Chris lowered his head and nuzzled his cheek against Vin’s. "So, where’d you get this batch of chocolate?" he asked softly, his breath fanning warmly against Tanner’s skin. "The nurses? The ladies in Personnel at the office? Or was it Ruby down in Research? I think she’s got her eye on you."

"Nope, weren’t none ’a them," he breathed, reveling in the feel of this man against him. "’N poor Miss Ruby’s jist outta luck. Ain’t but one person I want havin’ his eye, ’n whatever else he can think of, on me."

Chris leaned closer still against Vin, reached across him, and lifted the lid of the tin from the coffee table. "‘Mrs. Fields Decadent Chocolates,’" he read aloud. "Oh, God, that’s just what you need! All right," he dropped the lid to the table with a clang, "’fess up. Who will I need to thank for the sugar high?"

"The paramedic. And as long as you’re already reachin’ thataway, whyn’tcha hand me another? That big round one in the middle," he directed. "It’s chocolate chip cookie dough."

"You’ve already got ’em memorized?" Chris asked in disbelief.

Vin turned onto his back and stared up at him through guileless eyes. "Had ta do somethin’ while I’s layin’ here all by myself." He lifted a slender forefinger and slid it slowly through the slight cleft in Chris’s chin and down the long column of his throat. "Us invalids gotta keep our minds occupied somehow."

Chris swallowed hard and clenched his jaw as that forefinger traced slow circles around his Adam’s apple. "You’re no invalid," he whispered hoarsely. "You’re a goddamn tease!"

"Yeah," Vin said unrepentantly, adding his middle finger and running them both along Larabee’s strong jaw. "But ya love me for it."

Chris abruptly grabbed that hand and held it hard in his own, staring down at Vin through glittering eyes. "And one of these days," he growled, "I just might kill you for it."

Vin shivered at the ferocity in that voice and those eyes, at the tightly coiled power in the body pressing close against his own. He loved shattering Larabee’s legendary calm, loved stripping the man of every bit of control and reducing him to his most primal self. One day it just might get him killed, but it’d be a helluva way to go!

"Now," Chris ordered, staring into the dark blue oceans that held his soul, "tell me about this paramedic and why he’d bring you chocolates."

Vin blinked rapidly at that and frowned in confusion. "Him?" he asked in bewilderment. "Weren’t no him, it was a her. Her name’s Deb. She’s one of the ones that worked on me when I got stabbed. She came up ta see me jist before I’s released. Said she thought it was somethin’ special of me ta take that knife tryin’ ta protect that girl, ’n she jist wanted me ta know how much she admired me fer doin’ that." He cocked his head slightly to one side and stared at Chris, his brows drawing down over his eyes. "Which paramedic did ya think brought ’em?"

Chris swallowed uneasily and looked away. He didn’t remember any female paramedic, only the pleasant and very male voice he’d heard on his phone. "I… I don’t know," he answered weakly, studiously avoiding Vin’s gaze. "I just… I mean, I… I wasn’t thinkin’… not really…"

"Oh, shit!" Vin sat up abruptly and stared down at Chris, his eyes alight, a wide smile spreading over his face. "You thought it was that other one, didn’t ya? That real talky guy? And…" He saw Larabee’s blush and laughed. "You were jealous!" he crowed in delight, poking Chris in the ribs. "Weren’t ya?"

"I was not! And stop that!" he snapped as Vin laughed again. "I just… I didn’t know there was a woman there…"

"And ya got jealous ’cause ya thought some other guy gave me chocolate!" His laughter faded, but his smile didn’t. It only softened, as did the light in his eyes. He reached out and brushed long fingers through Chris’s hair, loving him all the more. "Ain’t ever had anybody get jealous over me before," he said softly. "I mean that much ta you?"

"God, Vin!" Chris sighed, sitting up and pulling Tanner between his legs and back against his chest, wrapping his arms about the younger man and burying his face in his hair. "You mean everything to me! You are everything to me, and if I ever lost you…"

Agile as a cat, Vin twisted around until he was sitting on Chris’s lap, straddling the man’s hips with his thighs and facing him. "Y’ain’t gonna lose me, cowboy," he said in his low, raspy drawl, circling his arms about Larabee’s neck and gazing intently into his eyes. "Ya might as well try and stop the earth from turnin’ as ta try and get rid of me. I ain’t goin’ nowhere that you cain’t follow."

Chris studied the beautiful man in his arms, felt the warmth and strength, the life, in that lithe, lean body, and knew his fears were groundless. But he also remembered the sound of Vin’s weak voice on the phone that night, remembered how frail he’d looked after his surgery, and felt that fear swelling through him again.

"But I was so afraid you already had," he whispered unsteadily, remembering only too well the endless, aching terror that had held him fast. "When I heard you on my cell… when I knew you were hurt, and out in the cold… alone… God…"

"Ssh, don’t," Vin whispered, cradling Chris’s head gently between his hands, then leaning forward to capture the man’s lips in a slow, soft kiss of deepest tenderness. "’S all right, cowboy," he whispered, moving his mouth gently over Chris’s. "I’m all right. I’m right here." He grazed lightly at the corner of Larabee’s lips, then at the dip in the bottom one. "Don’t you know, Chris? I cain’t leave ya. I’m part of ya. Y’ain’t ever gonna be without me."

Chris felt his tears falling as Vin’s voice, mouth and hands ministered to him, as Tanner bared every one of his hurts and then proceeded to heal them. Vin’s fingers brushed through his hair, his words brushed through his mind, and then his lips were brushing against his cheeks, capturing his tears with them.

"Oh, God, I love you!" he groaned, tightening his arms about his lover and pulling him to him. He sought Vin’s warm mouth with his own and seized upon it, a man dying of thirst diving into life-giving waters. He wanted to lose himself in Vin, wanted to drown in him, wanted to die and be reborn in him. Here was his only redemption, his only salvation. His life, his world, began and ended with and in Vin Tanner.

Vin could feel the urgency of Chris’s need, the desperation, and recognized the fear that lay behind that. He was determined to allay that fear, to assure Chris that he was here, that he was safe. That they were both safe, for as long as they were together.

And he intended that to be a very long time, indeed.

He buried his mouth in Larabee’s and kissed him with a devastating intensity, his lips moving demandingly against Chris’s. His tongue stroked those lips and then thrust past them to plunge into the dark, wet cavern of his lover’s mouth, sweeping against his teeth and hard palate, then twirling about and twining with Larabee’s tongue in an intricate, intimate dance. Meanwhile, he drove his hands deeply into Chris’s thick hair, running them worshipfully through the silken gold strands and rubbing slow circles against Larabee’s scalp.

Chris moaned hoarsely and clutched Vin to him, desperate to take the Texan into every part of himself. He crushed his mouth to Tanner’s with a ravenous force, his lips, teeth and tongue claiming all they could, his need like a living thing within him. Vin’s ass was moving slowly, teasingly against his crotch, and he thrust upward to grind himself hard against it, biting down sharply on Tanner’s bottom lip and digging his fingers into his lover’s slender back as a blistering heat erupted in his swollen cock.

"Jesus!" he gasped, releasing Vin’s lip and letting his head fall back against the couch behind him, his body still arching and straining toward Tanner’s.

Vin pulled away slightly and stared down at him through smoldering blue-black eyes, a predatory look upon his face. Chris’s features were darkly flushed and beaded with sweat, his breathing fast and heavy, the cords of his neck standing out as he thrust his hips upward again and again. Loosing a low hiss of appreciation, his mouth twisting into a feral smile, he suddenly leaned forward and sank his teeth into that exposed neck, tearing another sharp cry from his lover. He worked his teeth against the warm and slightly salty flesh, then sucked hungrily at the bite, hearing Chris gasping and moaning beneath him. He slid his hands down Larabee’s chest and sides, long, strong fingers raking, kneading, pinching, and all the while his mouth moved with a shattering thoroughness over the man’s throat, biting, sucking, licking, kissing, imprinting his lover’s taste upon his deepest memory.

Chris was in agony, in ecstasy, his mind and body being driven ever closer to the precipice by the man seemingly seeking to bite and claw the flesh from his bones. Wave after wave of heat pounded through him, fire shot along his every nerve, and his cruelly imprisoned cock throbbed unbearably for release. For relief.

"Vin," he gasped in torment, shuddering uncontrollably as Tanner ground his ass mercilessly into his tortured cock. "Vin!" Realizing the younger man was past hearing him, knowing he had reached that savage state where only raw desire existed, Chris grabbed his arms and pushed him forcibly away, ignoring the angry growl that escaped his lover. "Listen to me," he ordered hoarsely, his long fingers digging into Vin’s flesh to keep him at bay.

Wild, unfocused eyes gone almost completely black gazed back at him. A layer of sweat bathed Vin’s flushed face in a glistening sheen and soaked into his hair. His slim chest heaved with the deep, gusting rhythm of his breathing. He was as beautiful as Chris had ever seen him. "We ain’t gonna do this here, pard," he said in a tight, shaking voice.

He released one of Vin’s arms and raised his hand to the younger man’s face, brushing the long, damp hair back from it, then cradling his palm gently against one cheek. "You with me, Tanner?" he asked. "Let’s take this down to the floor. Spread some blankets in front of the fire. I’m not eighteen anymore, and I for damn sure ain’t as agile as I used to be. Besides," he smiled slightly, stroking Vin’s cheek tenderly, "a quick fuck on the couch isn’t what I had in mind."

"Want ya," Vin growled. "Don’t care where ’r how–"

"But I care, and we’re gonna do it my way. You hear?"

Vin scowled darkly, but nodded once. Hell, he’d take Chris anywhere and any way he could get him!

Chris read that in the dark, molten pools that were Vin’s eyes, and chuckled quietly. "You are somethin’ else," he murmured. "Now, get up, and let’s do this properly."

Vin stared at him for a long moment, seeming not to hear. Then, with another low growl deep in his throat, he swooped forward and caught Chris’s mouth in a deep, hard kiss, stealing Larabee’s breath. Just when it seemed he’d decided to stay where he was, and just before Chris worried he might pass out, he bit sharply at Larabee’s lower lip and pulled away, his teeth scraping across sensitive flesh. With a graceful twist of his lithe body, he was off Chris’s lap and sitting cross-legged beside him, that hungry, predatory look still on his face.

"Thought I’d give ya somethin’ ta look forward to," he breathed.

Chris only sat there and stared at him, not at all certain he could move. But he knew that, if he didn’t, Vin would jump him again in a heartbeat.

Jesus, he’d fallen in love with a goddamn wolf!

With an effort, he shoved himself off the couch and prayed his weakened knees would hold. Acutely aware of those hungry eyes upon him, and shuddering as Vin slowly licked his lips, he turned and went as quickly as he could to the coat closet by the door, opening it and taking out the comforters stored there just for nights such as this. While Chris got the blankets, Vin rose and went to the small table between Larabee’s two leather recliners and opened the drawer, pulling out the lube they’d learned to keep handy.

When he had it, Vin returned to the couch and retrieved his beer from the coffee table, raising it to his lips and taking a deep swig. He knew he should settle down, knew nothing good could come of rushing this, of overstepping the bounds of caution and sense. But no one had ever affected him like Chris, had ever made his blood sing through his veins or his heart. Sent his mind, flesh and soul rising as one in so fierce and complete a need. He’d had other lovers, but none of them had ever reached this place inside him where all thought ceased, leaving behind only a raw, desperate, driven desire. Where his mind simply shut down and relinquished all control to his body’s demands. Only Chris had ever brought him to this and, once here, he was not anxious to leave.

Though he’d rather leave than risk hurting Chris by staying…

He took another drink of his beer, and watched as Larabee spread the comforters before the blazing hearth. His eyes drank in the virile beauty of the man, the power and grace of even his slightest movement, his complete command of whatever space he occupied, and his body responded as it always did. He licked his lips and shifted uncomfortably as his jeans seemed to shrink another size. Absently, he dropped a hand to his crotch, unbuttoning the waistband and carefully tugging down the zipper. Again he licked his lips and reached into his fly, easing his aching erection free and exhaling unsteadily in relief.

Chris heard that sharp breath and turned to Vin, arching a blond brow and smiling slightly as he saw his partner stroking himself. "Startin’ without me, Tanner?"

Vin scowled, but obligingly removed his hand. "Mebbe I’m jist tired of waitin’ on ya. I seen some slow folks in my time, Larabee, but you take the cake."

Chris’s smile widened and grew wicked, and he set his hands on his hips, cocking his head to one side and sending a shock of blond hair tumbling across his forehead. "Well, if I’m too slow, why don’t you just go on and finish by yourself? No sense waitin’ on me when you’re all ready, is there?"

Vin’s scowl deepened. "Cocky bastard, ain’t ya?" he growled.

"You’re one to talk," Chris quipped, his gaze dipping down to Tanner’s thickened flesh, then lifting back to his eyes. He watched the blush creep up through his lover’s face and laughed quietly, holding out a hand. "C’mere, you," he invited in a low, husky voice. "That’s my job, and you know it."

Vin set his beer back on the table and at once rose to his feet, going to Larabee with his quiet, catlike tread. His eyes never left the man, and, as soon as he was close enough, he reached out and took Chris’s hand in his own. "Never was much of a self-starter," he breathed. "Always needed some kinda motivation."

"Well, then," Chris rasped, pulling him close, "let me motivate ya." He wrapped Vin in a tight embrace, then bowed his head and claimed Tanner’s lips with his.

Vin moaned and pressed close against him, twining his arms tightly about his lover as that kiss swept through him like a desert wind. Larabee’s warmth engulfed him and ignited an answering heat inside him, setting his flesh to throbbing at every point of contact between their two bodies and sending electric currents racing through his blood. He groaned harshly and pressed closer still, needing to be fully one with this man.

Chris felt that same need, ached throughout his body with it, and thrilled to it. For so long after Sarah’s death he’d lived without it, had done all he could to forget it, had told himself there was no use needing what he could never have again. But damned if this blue-eyed stubborn Texan hadn’t made the world’s biggest liar out of him!

Caught up in the rising tide of passion, they stripped each other hurriedly, kissing and caressing the whole time. Vin struggled with Chris’s tight button fly before finally releasing it, while Chris waded through Vin’s three shirts to find the bare flesh beneath. Jeans and briefs were taken down as one and kicked aside. Then the two came together again, mouths meeting in deep, demanding kisses, arms and legs entwined, naked bodies gleaming a rosy gold in the firelight.

Chris bore Vin carefully down onto the blankets, mindful of the still-healing wound in his back, and covered the younger man’s body with his own, determined to explore every inch of him. He showered a series of slow, intimate kisses over Tanner’s temples, forehead, eyelids, cheekbones, lips and jaw, laved his tongued around the delicate shells of his ears and sucked at the lobes. His hands roamed freely over Vin’s body, skimming the long sweep of muscle and stroking the hard jut of bone, pinching and rolling Tanner’s nipples into hardness, dancing lightly through the dark hair between his pectorals and at his groin.

Vin arched himself against Chris and groaned harshly as the man wrought havoc upon his senses. Larabee’s mouth and hands were everywhere, voracious, thorough and masterful, bringing every nerve in his body to screaming life. But he gave as good as he got, callused hands scraping over Larabee’s long, lean body, mouth biting and sucking at the man’s throat, collarbone, shoulder and nipples. He raked his fingers through Larabee’s hair and down his back, dug his nails into the warm, smooth flesh at his narrow waist, and thrust his own hips upward to drive his aching hardness into Chris’s. He slid one hand around the taut, firm mound of Chris’s ass, his fingers breaching the crevice between the tight cheeks and following it down to the puckered hole. He rimmed the tight opening with a gently pressing finger, then slipped the digit inside.

Chris jerked and gasped as if he’d been shot, and was hard-pressed not to cum on the spot as Vin arched his hips and sawed his cock against him while still thrusting one long finger in and out of his hole. His breath tore from him in harsh, heavy gasps, his whole body trembled uncontrollably, and every drop of blood he possessed rushed straight to his groin. All but blinded by his lust, all but choking on his need, he dropped his hands and knees to the floor on either side of Vin and lifted his shaking body upon them, staring through glittering eyes into his lover’s face.

"Fuck… you!" he snarled.

Vin’s lips pulled back from his teeth in a feral smile. "That an insult ’r an invitation?"

"You… do not… play… fair!"

"Yeah, I know," Vin sighed dramatically, pulling his finger from Chris’s body. "Jist ain’t ever been my style." And he arched his hips again, driving his cock once more against Larabee’s.

"Shit!" Chris yelped as fire ripped through him.

"Lord, I hope not," Vin rasped tightly, his own body under a hair-trigger control. "That’d ruin our plans right quick."

Chris couldn’t help himself. He wanted to kill his partner, wanted to fuck him senseless and then strangle him, though not necessarily in that order. Instead, he collapsed at Tanner’s side, laughing. "Jesus, Vin," he gasped, "one of these days…"

"Yeah, I know. One ’a these days yer gonna kill me. But," he turned and slithered over Chris’s body, "not tonight, cowboy. Tonight’s fer other things." He winked and slid slowly down his lover.

"SHIT!" Chris howled, bucking violently as a hot, wet mouth engulfed his cock. He arched and twisted wildly on the blankets as Tanner sucked him into a writhing frenzy. Then, somehow, he managed to get a leg under Vin’s body and nudge him away, ignoring the Texan’s snarl of protest. "Not that way," he gasped, calming himself with an effort. He sat up slowly and leaned forward, reaching out to brush the tangle of sweat-damp hair back from Vin’s flushed, bewildered face. "I wanta be inside ya," Chris breathed, brushing a thumb lightly over Tanner’s mouth. "I want… I need… ta feel you around me."

Vin’s scowl gave way to a brilliant smile. "Well, hell, cowboy," he breathed, "why didn’t ya jist say so?"

Chris’s thumb traveled down from Tanner’s mouth to his long, slim throat and stroked lovingly. "Maybe because I always find it hard ta think, much less talk, when you play your games with me."

"Ain’t games, Chris," Vin said softly, suddenly serious. "Ain’t ever games with you. ’N I fer damn sure ain’t jist playin’."

"I know." He slipped an arm about Vin and drew him to him, gazing deeply into those bottomless eyes. "And I’m not playin’, either. Hell," he breathed, "I’ve never known anything more real in my life."

"Then show me," Vin whispered, pulling out of Chris’s arms and lying back against the blankets.

That was all the invitation Larabee needed. Swallowing hard, he reached for the lube Vin had placed nearby and thumbed open the top, squirting a generous amount into his palm. Never taking his eyes from Vin, he closed the tube, tossed it aside, then slowly coated his cock, shuddering hard as Tanner licked his lips in hungry anticipation.

Vin stared up in rapt fascination at the man kneeling above him, still awed that all this was his. As if to reassure himself, he lifted a shaking hand toward his lover, and smiled when Chris’s fingers threaded through his and held tight. "Damn, cowboy," was all he could say.

Chris released Vin’s hand and settled himself between his long legs, then pulled Tanner’s thighs over his own and slid a thick pillow under his back to elevate and cushion him. When that was done, he smiled slightly and reached for the younger man’s cock, closing his fingers about the warm, hard flesh and pumping slowly.

Vin sucked in a hissing breath and arched his back, closing his eyes and clutching at the blankets on either side of him. Chris’s firm, sure strokes drove shards of pain into his every nerve and ignited his blood. Then a finger slipped into him, and he damned near came on the spot.

Chris pressed deep into Vin, stroking, swirling, but careful to avoid his gland, knowing just how near the edge he was. His own cock weeping and throbbing, his own need almost more than he could bear, he slipped in a second finger, massaging and stretching the tight ring of muscle.

"Easy, pard," he whispered hoarsely, releasing Vin’s cock and pressing that hand to the younger man’s hip to hold him as he bucked again. "Easy. Gonna be soon… I promise…" He slid in a third finger, scissoring, stretching, careful not to rush this.

Vin, however, was not so patient. With short, sharp growls and groans, he thrust down frantically against those fingers, needing to drive them deeper still. He was close, so close, and desperate for release. Then the fingers were gone, and he loosed a cry of frustration.

"Easy," Chris said again, withdrawing his hand and positioning his cock at that beckoning entrance. Having to hold Vin still with both hands now, he drew a breath and pushed inside, then released a harsh, shuddering gasp as his lover’s warmth engulfed him. "God!"

Vin stiffened and groaned thickly as the familiar pain seized upon him, but Chris’s firm hands at his hips held him in place until he rode it out. Within moments it was gone, his body accepting, even welcoming, Chris’s fullness. "Please!" he gasped. "Move!"

Chris did, with the care and deliberateness both had come to crave, rushing nothing. Slowly, slowly Larabee pushed further in, wringing a series of short, sharp moans from the younger man. The exquisite hardness sank still deeper into Vin as he wrapped his legs around Chris and pulled himself higher on the lean thighs, opening himself further, desperately needing all of the man he could get.

Soon Chris was completely sheathed in his lover’s willing body, his heat fully immersed in Vin’s, and he leaned forward with a wrenching groan, straining to hold himself in check as he savored this moment of perfect union. Vin’s life force surrounded him, the rushing of his blood and the pulsing of his heart, and Chris took those sensations into himself, making them part of his very soul. But he could only hold out for so long.

Vin was moving impatiently, insistently against him, and his own body screamed for release. Closing his eyes tightly and biting his lower lip, Chris pulled out just as slowly as he’d pushed in, until only his tip remained inside. Tanner gave a soft cry of abandonment and thrust pleadingly against him, and, unable to resist the lure of that body, Larabee pushed back in, burying himself to the root inside the Texan. In and out he slid, moving with long, sure strokes, reaching into Vin as deeply as he could and withdrawing as far as he dared, holding them both suspended over a razor’s edge of pain and pleasure.

Vin wanted to cry out to Chris, to beg him to hurry, but was beyond the power of speech. Larabee’s slow, measured movements were sweet torture, his thick flesh seeming to stroke every nerve ending Vin possessed. Then Chris’s hand closed about his cock, pumping in that same deliberate rhythm, and Tanner loosed a ragged, wordless cry, thrusting desperately into the hand gripping him and against the hardness impaling him, his senses on overload.

Vin’s frantic movements were like a spur against Chris, urging him to quicken his pace. Panting harshly, heavily, his own need too urgent to ignore, he began driving harder, faster into Vin, his hands and cock working the writhing sharpshooter with a steadily mounting speed and force, until the sounds of flesh slapping against flesh mingled with the grunts and groans torn from the lovers. Two bodies rose and fell in perfect unison, naked skin slick with sweat glistened in the firelight, and soon neither man could tell where he ended and the other began. They were as much one as it was humanly possible for them to be.

Chris pumped Vin’s cock faster, thrust harder still into him, and raked across his gland. Sparks shot through Tanner and he arched wildly, then cried out sharply as Chris hit that sweet spot again and again. The tide rose hard and hot within him, slamming through him with a shattering force. He drove himself furiously against Chris and erupted, his seed jetting over their joined bodies in a long, hot stream.

The pungent smell of Vin’s sex, the slick feel of it coating his hand, and the tight clenching of Tanner’s body around him in orgasm sent Chris spiralling over the edge. He felt the familiar tingling in his thighs, the boiling at the base of his spine and in his balls, and, with a heavy, convulsive shudder, he shot himself into his lover’s body. He strained furiously into Vin until he was empty, then groaned thickly and collapsed against the Texan, spent, his whole body shaking from the force of his explosion.

"Jesus!" Chris gasped, unable to manage more than that.

"Yeah," Vin whispered brokenly. "I reckon so."

When at last he could move, Chris carefully eased his softened flesh from Vin’s body and rolled over onto his back, then gathered Vin into his arms and cradled him close against him. For long, long moments neither man spoke, but no words were needed between them. All they needed was this time of closeness, of shared warmth, of shared breath. Each was deeply aware of the other’s nearness, could feel the other against him, within him, and that was always enough.

Soon, however, even through the torpor infusing his own body, Chris felt Vin’s stillness against him, his heaviness, heard the deep, even rhythm of his breathing, and knew he had fallen asleep. Smiling softly, understanding the complete trust implicit in that seemingly simple act, he leaned forward and tenderly kissed Vin’s forehead, then carefully untangled himself from his lover and rose silently to his feet. Still less than entirely steady, he gazed down at Tanner a moment longer, then quietly left the den.

When he returned, he carried a warm, wet cloth, a towel, and clothes – sweatpants for both of them, a t-shirt for himself, a long-sleeved t-shirt and a sweatshirt for Vin.

"Hey," he called softly, kneeling beside Vin and laying a hand on his shoulder, "Sleeping Beauty, time ta wake up." Vin only curled into himself, and sought covers to burrow into. "Well," Chris sighed, dropping forward to his hands and leaning over Tanner, "let’s see if it works like it did in the story." He bowed his head and pressed a gentle kiss to Vin’s lips.

Tanner moaned softly and stirred, and turned his face more fully into that kiss. One arm snaked about Larabee’s neck, and lips parted to give the man access to his mouth.

Chris chuckled softly, swept his tongue lightly against Vin’s lips and pulled away. Two blue eyes opened and stared up at him with sleepy displeasure.

"Ain’t ya even gonna finish what ya started?" Vin rasped softly.

Chris laughed again and sat cross-legged beside him. "Thought I did that a few minutes ago," he said. "Your memory goin’?"

Vin trailed a hand along Chris’s thigh. "Mebbe you could refresh it."

"Sorry, pard," he said firmly, laying his hand over Vin’s to still it, "I haven’t got anything else left. It’s gonna take a couple of hours at least for my toes to uncurl."

Tanner grinned smugly. "Was purty good, wasn’t it?"

Chris arched a blond brow. "If it was any better, we’d both be dead. Here," he rolled Vin onto his back, "lemme clean you up."

Vin closed his eyes and sighed contentedly as Chris ran the wet cloth over his chest, stomach and thighs, cherishing the tenderness so few others ever saw. He’d had so little of this in his life, yet it had come to define so much of his life with Chris. And it had come to define what it meant to be loved.

"Ain’t thanked ya yet," he murmured drowsily.

Finished washing Vin, Chris handed him the towel, then turned the cloth on his own body. "For what?"

Vin sat up and dried off, then wrapped the towel around himself for warmth. He lifted soft, dark blue eyes to Larabee and said quietly, "Nettie told me about y’all’s talk. What she asked, ’n what you said. Ain’t like you ta open up like that." He frowned quizzically and cocked his head slightly to one side. "Why’d ya do it?"

Chris handed Vin the clothes he’d brought for him and took back the towel. "I don’t really know," he admitted. "Maybe because it was Nettie askin’. Maybe because of the reason she was askin’." His gaze sought and held Tanner’s. "She loves you, Vin," he said softly. "And she just wanted to be sure that I do, too."

Vin bowed his head and absently fingered one sleeve of the sweatshirt in his lap. "Didn’t know I’d let so much slip. ’M’sorry."

"Don’t be." He reached out and placed a hand under Vin’s chin, lifting his head until their eyes met. "You’re the one said you got tired of havin’ ta hide this," he said softly. "Maybe you were just more tired than you knew. Maybe you were tired of hiding from the one person you’ve never wanted or needed to hide from before. Maybe some part of you needed to share this with Nettie, like you’ve shared so much else with her. She’s important to you, Vin," he said gently. "She’s an important part of your life, of your heart. Don’t kick yourself for sharin’ more of that heart with her."

"Jist… ain’t ever seen the good of sharin’," Vin breathed, again bowing his head. "Seems like all I ever got in the past fer tryin’ was a kick in the teeth. Folks takin’ parts of me ’n twistin’ ’em all up, or usin’ ’em against me–"

"Nettie would never do that, Vin, and you know it. She wouldn’t do it anymore than I would."

He looked up at that, met those deep green eyes, and knew without a doubt it was true. On both counts. "Reckon I still got some learnin’ ta do, don’t I?" he asked, his mouth twisting into a wry grin.

"We all do, pard," Chris assured him, dropping his hand to his shoulder and squeezing lightly. "But at least none of us are learnin’ on our own anymore."

Vin nodded once and stood up to pull on the sweats. "Gotta say, though," he drawled, turning slightly away from Chris to get his right leg in, "I’m kinda glad she knows. It’s a relief, y’know?"

"Yeah." As Vin turned, Chris again caught sight of the wound in his back and reached up absently to stroke the stitches. "Just wish it hadn’t taken this to make it happen."

Vin pulled up the sweats, then turned to face Chris, who was still kneeling. Smiling tenderly, he reached down and ran his hands through Larabee’s blond hair, his eyes intent on Chris’s face. "Told ya, cowboy," he said softly, "I’m all right. I’ve been hurt worse–"

"I don’t like seein’ you hurt at all," Chris whispered. "God, Vin, when I think–"

"Then don’t," he interrupted, smoothing the lines of worry from Larabee’s forehead with his thumbs. "Told ya before, all that thinkin’s jist gonna give ya a headache–"

"And that’s your job," Chris finished for him.

He shrugged and smiled. "We all got our talents."

Chris sighed and rose to his feet, shaking his head as he slipped on his sweats. "And you’re a damn genius at that!" he growled. He watched Vin pull on the two shirts he’d brought, then bent down and picked up a roll of socks from the floor. "Here," he said, holding it out, "put these on. If I know you, your feet are already like ice, and I don’t want you shovin’ ’em against me in the middle of the night. And sit down to do it," he ordered as Vin balanced on one foot and raised the other. "I don’t wanta have to explain to Dr. Stone why you fell over and busted open your stitches."

Vin scowled, but went obediently to the nearest recliner and dropped into it, donning the thick, warm socks. "Still cain’t believe you’re scared of her. I’m pretty sure you could take her in a fight."

Chris exhaled slowly and hung his head. "For the last time, Tanner, I am not scared of her. I just have a deep and abiding respect for her."

"Oh, yeah!" Vin snorted. "That same ‘deep and abidin’ respect’ I see in a perp’s eyes when I point a gun at his head. Y’know," he nodded sagely, "them doctors can smell fear."

"Hell!" Chris breathed sharply. He pulled his shirt on, then stalked to Vin’s chair and leaned over, placing a hand on each arm and trapping the sharpshooter where he sat. "Listen to me," he seethed between gritted teeth, "and listen good. For the last time, I am not afraid of Dr. Stone!"

"Yes, sir," Vin breathed solemnly, wide blue eyes dancing wickedly. "Whatever you say, sir."

Chris scowled deeply. "You really do need shootin’," he growled. "You know that, don’t ya?"

"You won’t do it, though," Vin smirked, raising one brown brow. "’Cause then ya’d have ta face Nettie, and I know you’re scared of her!"

Chris sighed deeply and dropped his head in defeat. "I can’t win," he moaned. "I try and I try…"

"Yeah, I know," Vin breathed sympathetically. He lifted Chris’s head in his hands and grinned. "But sometimes," he said, leaning forward to kiss him softly, "losin’ has its own rewards." Chris chuckled at that, and Vin kissed him again, then pushed him far enough back to gaze into his eyes. "Tell me somethin’," he said suddenly. "When Nettie asked ya why ya loved me, what’d you tell her?"

Chris stared at the young man before him, took in his beautiful face, his mischievous smile and eyes; thought about how strong he was, how vulnerable he could be; recalled the scars on his body and on his soul; pictured him in all his guises – lover, friend, free spirit, deadly marksman; and knew the answer lay in all of those, and in none of them.

"I told her," he said at last, "that my heart has its own reasons. And sometimes," he breathed, reaching out to draw Vin to him for another kiss, "I’ll be damned if I know what they are."

 

~THE END~