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PAIRING: How íbout C/V? Thought Iíd try somethiní different.

UNIVERSE: ATF, follows the events in my gen story "Quicksand" (for those not familiar with that story, all you really need to know is this: Whilst undercover, Vin was captured by really nasty bad guys, who beat the bejeezus out of him over a period of several days. That experience unlocked memories of past traumas that heíd buried deep in his poor, tormented psyche. Basically, I gave the boy a walloping case of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the other six have closed ranks around him to help pull him out of his darkness. If youíre interested, you can find it at but be warned, itís a WIP. A very long WIP.)

DISCLAIMER: No, theyíre not mine, and I really think that bites. Instead, they belong to those people Ė Trilogy, Mirisch, MGM, CBS, TNN Ė none of whom deserve íem after the shoddy way theyíve treated íem. I just borrow íem so they can play with each other while we all watch.

RATING: NC-17 for explicit m/m sex. Again, I thought Iíd try something new ;-)

NOTES: First, thanks to Annie for the beta. I appreciate it, dear! This is a birthday present for my dear pard and astral twin Ruby, my friend in high places and low ;-) I racked my brain for the longest time trying to figure out what to write for you. It had to be special, yísee, because only special will do for you. I wanted it to sing about friendship and love, about the power of those two things to sustain us even in our deepest, darkest hours. I wanted it to speak of faith and hope and joyÖ And then it dawned on me that Iím already writing that story. Youíve dubbed it "a symphony to friendship," while I call it "Quicksand." Over the past six or so months, youíve inspired so many of the words and the feelings and the truths, both painful and profound, that Iíve written in that story that it seemed only fitting you should inspire something more. This. So for you, dear friend, here is a little coda to that symphony. Happy birthday. I love you.


Vin Tanner finished drying the water from his body and slung the towel over the shower stall to dry, then combed his fingers through the wet, curling wealth of his long hair, raking it back from his face. With unhurried movements, he retrieved the clean boxers atop the jeans folded over the back of the toilet and stepped into them, drawing them up over his long legs and narrow hips. He settled the elastic band about his waist and gave a disheartened sigh at the less than snug fit.

Lord, he was still scrawnier than a half-starved curÖ

But his lingering thinness, though irritating, wasnít by a long shot the worst of the remaining physical evidence of his ordeal. Heíd once hoped that over time it would disappear Ė all of it, everything, just fade away and be forgotten Ė and had done all he could to make that happen. But his efforts had all been in vain, and heíd finally, grudgingly, come to accept that for the rest of his life his own body would serve as a constant and stark reminder of what heíd suffered.

And he had to learn to live with that.

So now, clad only in his boxers, he prepared to engage again as he did every morning and night in the ritual that had become part of that learning. He drew a slow, deep, bracing breath, held it for long moments and then released it, willing himself to relax as he did. Then, consciously struggling to keep his hands from fisting at his sides, he swallowed hard and stepped in front of the full-length mirror hanging on the bathroom door. He lifted his chin almost defiantly and stared at his reflection, refusing to allow himself to flinch at the sight that met him.

A man should at least have the guts to look on his own scars.

But telling himself that didnít make it one bit easier. He still had to force his gaze to drop below the level of his chin, had to make an actual physical effort to drag it down to his chest and abdomen and then focus it on the vivid pink welts that puckered his flesh in so many places. He already knew them all by memory; they were etched as indelibly upon his mind as they were upon his body. He knew which ones had been brutally carved into him by Charlie Castroís thugs to torture him, and which had been carefully sliced into him by surgeons working to save him. He knew which ones the plastic surgeonís skill and care had ensured would diminish in time, and which would never be anything less than thick white seams in his flesh. But even knowing them as he did, he forced his eyes to trace each one as if it were new, forced himself to confront and acknowledge the same damage that anyone else who looked upon him would see.

That Chris would see.

His heart and gut clenched at that and it was all he could do not to close his eyes and turn away as a wave of something very close to nausea rose through him. Heíd been out of the hospital for almost a month now, and he still hadnít gotten up the nerve to let Chris see him without some kind of shirt. The first couple of weeks had been easy. He simply hadnít been strong enough for anything more than letting Chris just hold him, and that didnít require him to get undressed. But as his strength had returned, so had his desire for the fullness of their lovemaking. Theyíd taken it slow and easy at first, with Chris never pressing him for more than he was able or ready to do.

Including taking off his shirt.

He turned away from the mirror and went back to the toilet, lowering the lid and sinking dejectedly down upon it. Jesus, how hard could it really be? It wasnít like Larabee didnít already know what he was hiding. Hell, the man had seen the wounds when they were still open and bleeding! He knew, he knew, what all had been done to Vin, more than likely knew every single wound by heart himself. And it wasnít even like the physical wounds were the worst Chris had seen. Christ, heíd learned exactly how fucked up Vinís childhood had been, and he still hadnít walked away. So a few external scars shouldnít suddenly make the man start looking at him like he was damaged goods, right?


He sighed deeply and rose slowly to his feet, then reached for his jeans and drew them on, scowling when they, like his boxers, hung more loosely than he would have liked. Goddamn healthy diet Dr. Stone had him on might be doiní wonders for his blood chemistry and his bodyís healing, but it wasnít doiní shit about his weight. How the hell could he ever expect Chris just to want to bend him over, break him open and fuck the ever-liviní daylights out of him when he still looked like heíd snap in half under the slightest pressure?

He clenched his jaw tightly against a sudden rush of anger and resentment, blinked back sharp tears of shame and roughly grabbed the t-shirt that he knew wouldnít fit any better than the rest of his clothes.


Heíd take off the shirt and let Chris see his scars tomorrow.


Chris stood just outside the bathroom door, caught fast somewhere between worry and indecision. Heíd heard the shower cut off a good fifteen minutes ago Ė Tanner would have a fit if heíd known he was being timed Ė and had managed to wait a whole ten minutes before coming to listen at the door. He hated doing it, felt as if he were intruding upon Vinís privacy, but hadnít been able to talk himself into leaving. He was pretty sure he knew what his partner was doing in there, was even pretty sure he knew why. So many of Vinís problems after theyíd rescued him from Castroís clutches had sprung from his desperate attempts to push back into hiding truths already too long denied. Now, in his typically hard-headed determination to learn from past mistakes, he was forcing himself to face and to acknowledge the ugly, brutal truth of what had been done to him.

But, goddamn it, why the hell was the stubborn sonuvabitch so fuckiní convinced that he had to do it alone?

Chris exhaled sharply and forced aside the angry thought as soon as it arose. Of course Vin would think that! Hell, heíd had to do damn near everything else in his life alone. Why would he think this was any different?

Because heís not alone now, a small, hurt-sounding voice in his mind whispered. Because if heíd just open this goddamn door, heíd see that heís not alone now and never will be again.

But even as his hand moved toward the doorknob, he stopped it and let it fall to his side, then sighed again. There was the catch; Vin would have to be the one to open the door.

Oh, Chris knew he could do it. Just grab that knob, turn it and thrust open that door, thinking up some flimsy excuse for intruding as he did so. He could do it, catch Vin by surprise and force this whole thing out into the open. He could do itÖ

And he couldnít. Vin was in there right now staring at scars given him by others whoíd just decided they could force their will upon him, and heíd spent the past fifteen years ignoring other, deeper scars left by other, more brutal bastards whoíd decided they could force their will upon him, too. So much force, so many scars on one manís body and soul. Chris couldnít do it, couldnít add to them.

Not and truly say he loved the man who bore them.

He exhaled softly and bowed his head, then raised his hand and pressed it lightly, lovingly to the door. He held it there for long moments, then let it fall and turned, walking slowly away from the bathroom.

He could wait.

They had a whole lifetime together. He could wait, and let Vin show him his scars when he was ready.


Vin stepped into the den and looked around for Chris, finding him working at the huge antique roll top desk that housed his computer. He leaned against the door frame and watched in silence, appreciating how well suited man and desk were to each other. Both radiated a strength and solidness that Vin had so often lacked in his life, promised that they would endure long past the time when weaker men and materials had failed. He remembered Chris saying the desk had belonged to his great-grandfather, and envied the sense of belonging that must give.

Like haviní a piece of all those folks whoíd come before you right there under your fingertipsÖ

He shook off that thought, refusing to give in to the melancholy it evoked. It had taken him a while to find it, but he had that sense of belonging now, had a place and a family and a life that were all as solid and sure as that desk. As the man who sat at that desk. And he had them all under his fingertips.

But more importantly he had them all, had Chris, in his heart and soul.

He sighed softly and straightened from his lean, crossed the den to the couch and dropped down upon it without saying word, not wanting to disturb Chris. Not when Larabee looked so intent upon whatever he was doing, and certainly not when his own thoughts and feelings were so unsettled. Lord knew Chris had borne the brunt of their instability often enough lately; the man deserved a break whenever he could get it.

And he needed to relearn how to steady himself without always depending on someone else to do it for him.

He propped his legs up on the coffee table and crossed them at the ankles, then let his head fall back against the couch and ran a hand through his damp hair. Depression threatened like a thick, dark shadow falling just over the edge of his mind, and even as he struggled to hold it at bay, he grew angry that he should have to. Hell, it was stupid that after all this time he should still be fighting this battle! Werenít that goddamn Zoloft Dr. Stone had him on and the sessions with his therapist supposed to take care of this? What the hell good were those things if they didnít solve his problem?

He exhaled slowly, deeply, and closed his eyes, running both hands through his hair. No, he reminded himself. Like Lynn said, they werenít supposed to solve his problems, just give him the ability and the tools to deal with them.

Right now, though, solving sounded awful damn goodÖ

Easily able to feel the tension emanating from his lover, Chris swiveled in his chair and fixed worried eyes on the man who looked to be locked in silent battle with himself. Vinís whole body was tight, his back arched, his head thrust hard into the back of the sofa, his hands buried in his hair. His posture screamed of anger and anguish, but not a sound came from him. And that silence cut more deeply into Chris than any outcry could have.

Unable to keep his distance any longer, no longer caring what Vin thought he needed, Chris rose from his chair and went to the couch with a quick, firm stride. Seating himself at Vinís side, he reached out without hesitation and took Tanner into his arms, gathering the rigid body to him and cradling it close against his own.

"Iím here," he breathed against his loverís hair. "Iíve got you. Itís all right."

The hard tension drained from Vin all at once and he melted into Chris with a wrenching groan, twining his arms around the strong ones holding him and hanging on for dear life. "Ainít all right!" he whispered hoarsely. "íN I jist been fooliní myself thinkiní it was!"

Chris took a moment to make them both more comfortable, setting his own legs on the coffee table and gently pulling Vin astride them onto his lap, then settling the younger manís head against his shoulder. He brushed the fingers of one hand lightly through Vinís long hair and rubbed slow circles against his back with the other.

"Gotta give yourself time, pard," he soothed. "You havenít even been out of the hospital a month. Youíve only had two sessions with Lynn and one with the Bureau psychologist. You canít expect to be through with all this yet. Hell, youíve barely even started!"

"Thought Iís gettiní better," Vin whispered, closing his eyes tightly and knotting his hands in Larabeeís shirt, desperately needing the manís warmth and strength.

Chris smiled slightly, sadly, and turned his head, gently kissing Vinís temple. "You are," he said softly. "You can remember what happened now, or at least most of it, you can talk about it, youíre not denyiní it or hidiní from it anymore. But thatís just the beginning, and you know it. Now you have to figure out how to live with it, and thatís gonna take time."

"I hate this!" Vin rasped. "I hate feeliní like this! And I hate not knowiní when Iím not gonna feel like this anymore!"

"I know," Chris sighed, still stroking Vinís hair with one hand and settling his other arm about Tannerís waist. "Wish I could tell you when thatíll be. Wish I could tell you itíll be soon. But Iíve never lied to you before, and I sure as hell ainít gonna start now. We both know youíve got a long, hard road ahead of you. And the simple truth is, youíre probably gonna be dealing with this in one way or another for the rest of your life."

"Wish I could jist make it go away," Vin groaned.

Alarm flared through Chris at those words and his gut tightened in fear. "You canít," he said harshly. Fighting past his fear and forcing himself to be gentle, he gripped Vinís shoulders and carefully pushed him up, staring fixedly into startled blue eyes. "You tried that once before, remember? And it damn near destroyed you. So donít even think like that, you hear me?" he ordered firmly, his green eyes clear and compelling. "I havenít gone through all this shit to get you back just to lose you again!"

Vin stared at Chris for long moments in confusion, not quite understanding his loverís sudden anger, then shrugged out of Larabeeís grip and again nestled against his chest, instinctively seeking the safe haven of his body. His love. And as always when he needed them, Chrisís arms closed about him and held him tight, the surest shelter heíd ever known.

"I donít wanta lose you either!" he whispered unsteadily, the tears he so hated again stinging his eyes.

"Thatís not gonna happen," Chris vowed in a rough, thick voice, tightening his arms still further about the man resting against his heart. "Not while thereís a breath left in me!"

"Could get ta be too much work fer ya," he said hesitantly, remembering times in the past that had been true for others. "Could be mebbe youíll get ta wantiní somebody who ainít soÖ damaged."

A sharp, angry denial sprang immediately to Chrisís mind and he opened his mouth to give it voice, then immediately swallowed it. Heíd just told Vin heíd never lie to him, and the truth was the sharpshooter was damaged, in ways no one ever should be.

But, hell, Larabee knew that he wasnít exactly in mint condition himself.

"Canít say I like the idea of you calliní yourself Ďdamaged,í" he said at last, his voice low and gentle and tinged with sorrow. "But I guess Iíd be lyiní if I said it wasnít true. Between everything that happened to you as a kid and then what Castro and his animals didÖ Hell," he sighed, wincing and laying his head against Vinís, "Iím not even sure Ďdamagedí covers what allís been done ta you. But," he added when he felt his loverís slight body stiffen against him, "I just canít see me ever walkiní away from you because of it. Iíd like to think Iím a better man than that. And Iíd certainly like to think Iím a smarter man than that. Yeah, right now youíre a lotta work. But, trust me, youíre worth every bit of it. And more. And as damaged as you are right now, you are still the very best thing in my life."

Those words flowed into the reaches of Vinís tired and hurting soul and soothed the aching rawness of it, infused new strength into a spirit bruised and wearied from the fight it had been waging for so long. He wished he could stay here forever like this, wrapped securely in Chrisís arms, cradled against his strong body, bathed in the healing waters of this manís love. Surely the world could never reach him, could never hurt him, here.

Chris felt Vin relaxing against him and said nothing more, content simply to hold him for as long as he needed. As they both needed. He knew how close heíd come to losing this, the wondrous feel of this manís weight and warmth against him, and that knowledge still struck cold fear into the deepest parts of his being. For three long, agonizing days Vin had been lost to them, taken from them by that bastard Castro right under their noses. And even when theyíd found him heíd been so near death that the formidably skilled Dr. Elizabeth Stone and the crack surgical team sheíd assembled to put him back together had held out precious little hope for his survival.

And Chris had faced the very real possibility Ė hell, the probability Ė of once again burying half of his soul.

He tightened his arms instinctively about Vin and closed his eyes, breathing Tannerís scent deeply into himself. He had no idea how Vin had survived, but he figured the "how" didnít really matter. What did matter was that he still had the man he loved in his life, in his arms, and heíd be damned if heíd ever let him go again.

Vin tucked his face into the junction of Chrisís neck and shoulder and rested a hand on the manís other shoulder. "Why cainít it always be like this?" he asked softly, treasuring the feeling of peace stealing over him but knowing just how fragile that peace was. "Why cainít it always be this easy?"

Chris sighed and shook his head slightly. "Hell if I know, partner. Just doesnít seem ta work out that way for us, though."

Vin pulled away from Chris and sat up, cocking his head to one side and studying his loverís face intently. "All this ainít exactly been a walk in the park fer you either, has it?" he asked soberly. He reached out and brushed a shock of blond hair off Larabeeís forehead, then trailed the backs of long, slender fingers slowly down his cheek. "Wish you coulda been spared some of it."

"And let you suffer alone? I donít think so," Chris said firmly. He reached up and folded Vinís hand in his own, then pressed it to his heart. "Youíre part of me, Tanner. There is no spariní me when it comes to you. I thought you knew that."

Vin shrugged and gave a weak smile that never quite reached his eyes. "Reckon Iím a mite slow sometimes. Jist figgeredÖ ya might be tired of all this by now. Ya didnít bargain fer any of it when we took upĖ"

"I didnít bargain for anything," Chris interrupted gently. "I donít make bargains when people I love are involved. I donít pick and choose which parts of their lives Iíll jump into and which parts Iíll stay out of it. I donít draw lines or make distinctions. I canít." He lifted his free hand and curled it around the back of Vinís neck, his deep green eyes intent on his loverís face. "I thought I could, once upon a time, thought I could just stand apart and decide what Iíd let touch me and what I wouldnít. Then you planted yourself in my life, in my heart, and my days of pickiní and choosiní were over for good. All of a sudden it was all or nothiní, and I gotta tell ya, pard, you got it all. The minute you said you loved me, my bargaininí days were over."

"But you didnít know what you were gettiní intoĖ"

"No, I didnít," Chris agreed easily. "But thatís the thing. We never know. Hell, if we did, weíd never allow ourselves to love anybody! Weíd be too paralyzed with fear." He drew a deep breath, then said softly, "If Iíd known I was gonna lose Sarah, díyou think I ever wouldíve married her? And then what would I have missed?" He raised his hand to cup Vinís face tenderly, his eyes dark and deep. "So we donít know. When we love somebody, we just close our eyes and take a giant leap of faith. And if weíre real lucky, the person we love is worth that leap." His voice grew rough, thick, and his eyes misted. "Iíve been lucky," he rasped. "Iíve made that leap twice, and I havenít regretted either time."

Vin exhaled unsteadily at those words and a single tear slid down his cheek. Chrisís gentle touch seemed to go straight through him, reaching even to the hard knot of fear in his soul and slowly loosening it. Gazing into his loverís eyes, transfixed by the love that filled the shimmering green depths, he licked his lips and absently raised a shaking hand to his chest, pressing it to one of the worst of the scars hidden beneath his shirt.

Wasnít Chris worth that leap, too?

Chris knew what was beneath Vinís shirt, had suffered too many nightmares about the day theyíd found him bleeding his life away into the filthy carpet of that small room not to know every wound by heart. And heíd seen the scars themselves when heíd chased away the nightmares by watching Vin sleeping next to him. In his sleep, Tannerís movements had pulled up his shirt, revealing to Larabeeís tear-filled eyes the graphic evidence of his brutal ordeal. Yet as terrible as the scars were, they evoked neither horror nor disgust in Chris, but only a deep and fervent gratitude that his lover was still alive to bear them.

He prayed now that Vin would give him the chance to tell him that.

Vin bowed his head and stared down at his chest, visualizing every puckered seam that marred his flesh. And remembering how worshipfully Chrisís gaze had traveled over his body before heíd been carved up. Larabee had always told him how beautiful he was. Would he still say that now?

And if he did, would he mean it?

Chris saw the debate raging in the younger manís face, could almost hear the questions churning in his mind, and had to clench his jaw to keep from saying anything. Part of him wanted to put an end to Vinís doubt by admitting that heíd seen the scars, but the more rational part of him knew he couldnít. Castroís assault and the psychological trauma that had followed had left Vinís confidence and dignity in ruins, and heíd only just started to regain them. The last thing he needed now was to feel as if heíd somehow been violated again, especially by his loverís eyes.

As much as Larabee hated it, he knew that Tanner would have to make this leap on his own.

Vin twisted his fingers into the cotton fabric of his t-shirt, but made no move to pull it from the waistband of his jeans. He wanted to raise his head and look into Chrisís eyes, but was afraid of what heíd see reflected in them. He was by no means a vain man, and it wasnít as if his body had been completely unmarked before. Hell, it had always read like a roadmap of his life. But still Chris had always looked upon him as if he were a damn work of art, and heíd gotten used to the way that made him feel.

And he just wasnít at all sure what heíd do if he lost it.

"After we found you," Chris could no longer keep from speaking, but his voice was low and infinitely gentle, "I was the one who held you until the medics got to you, and they had to pry you out of my arms. Just before they took you to surgery, Doc Stone let me come in to see you. I thinkÖ" His voice broke and he had to try again. "I think it was her way of gÖ of giving me the chanceÖ to say goodbye." He swallowed hard and tears glinted like jewels on his golden lashes. "And after, Iíd watch while she checked or the nurses cleaned the incisions." He closed his hands gently over Vinís. "I know what they did to you," he breathed, watching Vinís downturned face intently and seeing the pain and the fear Ė and the shame Ė that chased across it. "Iíve seen it with my own eyes and in my nightmares. I havenít looked away in disgust yet, partner, and I canít imagine I ever will."

Vin closed his eyes tightly and dropped his head lower. "Some of íem," he said in a low whisper, "ainít ever gonna be betterín they are nowĖ"

"Then I guess weíll just have to get used to seeiní íem the way they are," Chris answered evenly. "Just like weíve had to get used to everything else about each other."

Vin raised his head sharply at that and opened flashing eyes. "This ainít Ďeveríthing elseí!" he hissed furiously, not really knowing at whom that fury was directed. "This ainít you snoriní at 3 a.m. or my cold feet jammed up against your legs or one of us pissiní and missiní the toilet! This is goddamn ruts cut inta my body by a fuckiní animal who really needed ta sharpen his knife!"

"I know," Chris said in a tight, hoarse voice, his face gone pale, his eyes glittering with remembered agony. "I was right there when the medics had ta pick what was left of your shirt outta those goddamn ruts. And it was everything I could do not ta go out and just gun down the vicious bastards whoíd done that ta you. I wanted their blood so much I could taste it!" He drew a calming breath and released it slowly, then lifted his hands to cradle Tannerís head gently between them and gazed deeply into the Texanís dark blue eyes. "But I needed to be with you more than I needed to kill them," he breathed. "You are the most important thing in my life, Vin. Youíre the first thought I have in the morning, and the last one I have at night. No, what they did ta you was no little thing, and, yes, weíre both gonna have ta get used to seeiní it for the rest of our lives. But, Jesus God!" he rasped fervently, again pulling Vin to him in a hard embrace. "At least weíve got the rest of our lives together to do that!"

As those arms closed so fiercely about him, Vin felt the last of his uncertainty fall away, freeing him of its crushing weight. Chrisís love swept over him, poured through him, in powerful torrents, washing him clean and setting him free. So long as Chris was here to hold him like this, he could learn to live with his scars.

So long as Chris was here to hold him like this, he could learn to live with anything.

"Mebbe one day Iíll be smart enough ta figger this stuff out on my own," he murmured, closing his eyes and resting contentedly against his lover.

Chris slid a hand up Vinís back to his neck and lightly stroked the warm flesh there. "Sorry, pard," he said softly, "your days of doiní anything on your own are over. Well," he amended with a small, wicked grin, "except maybe warminí your feet. Either keep íem on your side of the bed or start weariní socks. Iím tired of beiní shocked awake at 2 a.m. by those ice cubes you call toes."

Vin pulled out of Chrisís arms and sat up straight, staring pointedly at Larabee. "íAtís the best way I know ta stop that God-awful snoriní of yers," he retorted, folding his arms against his chest. "Hell, itís a wonder ya ainít sucked the damn drapes off the windows by now!"

Chris arched a brow at the glaring Texan. "If I do snore Ė which Iím not sayiní I do Ė I donít see how you could hear it the way you steal all the covers and then burrow down into íem like a damn caterpillar buildiní a cocoon! Hell, I donít see how you can breathe with all that wrapped around you!"

Vin tipped his head slightly to one side, his eyes darkening a shade, and he unfolded one arm to run a slim forefinger slowly down Larabeeís denim shirt-clad chest. "We-ell," he drawled, "mebbe if I had a long, tall cowboy wrapped around me instead, I wouldnít need all them covers." He shrugged and toyed idly with the shirt button just above the waistband of Larabeeís faded jeans. "A fellerís gotta do what a fellerís gotta do ta keep warm."

Chris exhaled unsteadily and shivered as that teasing finger, that husky voice and the look of intense concentration on Tannerís beautiful face worked their familiar magic upon him. "Donít start anything youíre not up ta finishiní," he warned in a shaky, breathless voice, as uncertain of his own restraint as he was of his still-healing loverís endurance.

Vin lifted his gaze to Chrisís and ran his tongue slowly over his lower lip, noting how the other manís eyes tracked its movement. "Who said Iím not up ta finishiní?" he rasped. "Joan down at physical therapy says Iím makiní real good progress. She always gives me a real good workout, ín I reckon itís startiní ta pay off."

Chris grabbed Vinís upper arms and pulled him abruptly forward, scowling darkly into his loverís startled face. "There somethiní you need ta tell me about your Ďphysical therapyí?" he growled.

Vinís eyes widened and went a shade darker still as Larabeeís roughness sent a hard, hot thrill shooting through him. "Yeah," he answered in a throaty whisper. "I reckon I could use some now."

Chrisís eyes narrowed to glittering slits. "Joanís not here," he snarled softly. "And I ainít calliní her."

Vinís breath caught in his throat and his blood drained to his groin. Heíd known he missed this fiercely possessive aspect of Chris, but he hadnít realized how much. "Well," he gasped, his voice a tight whisper, "reckon I could make do," he swallowed hard as a dangerous fire leapt into Larabeeís eyes, "with whoeverís handy."

"ĎMake do,í my ass!" Chris hissed, pulling Vin to him and capturing the younger manís mouth in a hard and hungry kiss. Reason warned him that he should go slow, be gentle, that Vin wasnít anywhere near his full strength yet.

Larabee promptly decided he wasnít a reasonable man.

Vin groaned and shuddered as Chris intensified his assault, as the manís mouth ravished his with a merciless savagery. Long fingers imprisoned his arm in a vise-like grip, while another set wound through and knotted in his hair. Then Chris was bending his knees and using his thighs to force Vin forward on his lap, and Tanner jumped and gasped as his crotch was thrust against Larabeeís.

Chris swept his tongue over Vinís lips, then caught the lower one between his teeth. "This handy enough for ya?" he growled around that lip.

Vin tried to nod, but between the hand in his hair and the teeth holding his lip, there was no way to manage it. Then a long arm snaked around his back, completing his imprisonment. He was held fast, all but helpless, and a hard tremor of anticipation ran through him.

Chris felt that tremor and misunderstood it. He knew too well the horrors Vin relived in his nightmares, could still so plainly see the gouges Tanner had dug in his wrists with his fingernails in a desperate attempt to free them from Castroís bonds. Vin had never taken well to being grabbed and held unexpectedly, and Chris knew it would be foolish to think those old fears wouldnít be reinforced by this latest ordeal.

And heíd be damned if heíd do anything to hurt his lover furtherÖ

He released Vinís lip and loosened his hold on his body and hair, then pulled back slightly. But what he saw in the younger manís face Ė the dark flush of hunger, eyes gone to smoky black, his expression one of almost feral pleasure Ė brought a confused frown to his own face.

"Vin?" he called softly, reaching up to brush the unruly hair back from Tannerís face. "I thoughtÖ Iíd scared you. I didnítĖ"

"I want ya, Chris," Vin breathed in his low, gravelly voice. He lifted a shaking hand and trailed the backs of long fingers along Larabeeís sculpted jaw. "Want ya so badÖ"

"And youíll have me, pard, I promise," Chris assured him gently. "But I donít wanta hurt you. And I sure as hell donít wanta scare you. We can take this slowĖ"

"No!" Frustration surged through Vin, wringing the sharp cry from him. "Damn it, we been takiní it slow! Aní mebbe I needed that. Mebbe Iíll need it again, I donít know. ButÖ" He exhaled sharply and shook his head, then slid off Chrisís lap to the couch. Turning to face Larabee, he folded his legs Indian-style and rested his forearms on his thighs, clasping his hands together to still their shaking. "Iíve hadÖ so much taken away from meÖ by all this," he said haltingly, his voice rough. "íN I reckon thereís some of it I might not ever get back. Hell, between what Castro ín his thugs done ta me aní then all the shit from my past they were kind enough ta bring back, thereís times I feel like an old patchwork quilt with moreín a few patches gone ín seams that ainít ever gonna be sewed up tight again. I reckon I cín live with that, though; reckon I pretty much have to. But what I cainít live with is thinkiní that all this is gonna change us." He gazed pleadingly at his lover, his blue eyes dark and filled with pain. "Donít let íem change it, cowboy, please!" he begged. "I can live with losiní anything but you!"

"You wonít lose me, Vin, I promise! I justÖ I wanta be sureÖ I donít wanta do anything to hurt you!"

"Goddamn it!" Vin spat. He unfolded his legs and shot from the couch to pace in furious agitation around the den. He shoved one hand into the front pocket of his jeans and raked the other through his hair, a dark scowl twisting his face. "Bastardís dead and heís still here, fuckiní up my life!" He whirled on Chris and speared him with a glittering gaze. "How díya think it makes me feel knowiní that everí time you wanta touch me, everí time ya wanta take me, ya have ta stop ín think about it first? Think about what yer gonna do ín how yer gonna do it soís ya donít trigger some goddamn memíry of Castro or that bastard from the home or any of the other assholes from my wonderful life whoíve left their mark on me? Yeah, I been bent six ways from Sunday, I been fucked in so many ways by so many folks that even I cainít tell the diffírence no more, and sometimes, God, sometimes when I think about it I donít know whether ta laugh or cry or jist put a goddamn bullet in my brain! But I do know this Ė Iím still here, even if sometimes only barely so, Iím still jist either laughiní or cryiní ín ainít reached fer that bullet yet, and I do not wanta go through the rest of my life watchiní you measure what you wanta do ta me against what some other bastard before yaís already done! Díya hear me?" he shouted, startling Larabee visibly. "I will not be anybodyís victim for the rest aí my life!"


"No!" he snarled, his lean frame trembling as he stalked toward Chris, his blue eyes burning with fury, frustration and not a little pain. "How the hell am I ever síposed ta get over this if you wonít let me? Ya keep sayiní Iíll be fine, then ya do everíthing but string up nets around me ta catch me when I fall! How the fuck am I síposed ta git up the nerve ta show ya my scars when I know, I know, that all youíll see in íem is more proof that Iím damaged goods ín gotta be handled with care soís I donít jist shatter inta a million pieces? Ya cainít have it both ways, Chris! Ya said weíll have ta learn ta live with what Castro ín all them othersíve done ta me. Fine! How íbout we start by not bringiní íem inta the goddamn room with us when we make love?!"

Chris was stunned by Vinís outburst, and not a little sickened by his words. God, had he been doing that? Had he been letting Castro dictate what they did and how they did it?

Vin saw his loverís horrified expression and deflated, his anger draining from him in a rush. He sighed deeply and ran his hand through his hair again, then let it fall limply to his side. "I know yer jist tryiní ta protect me, Chris," he said softly, tiredly. "And I ainít got the words ta say what that means ta me. Ainít had jist a whole lotta folks wanta do that before. Bílieve me, cowboy, thereís times when I donít want nothiní more than ta jist crawl inta yer arms ín let you keep out everí bad guy whoís ever darkened my doorstep. Aní I know yaíd do it. ButÖ that ainít all I want. It ainít all I need." He moved closer still to Larabee, his eyes, his whole face, filled with pleading. "Sometimes, I need ya ta reach inside me ín rip out everí bad memíry Iíve ever had, Chris. I need ya ta jist tear íem all out aní shove yerself so far down me that there wonít ever be room fer nothiní but you. Aní donít ever worry íbout hurtiní me, cowboy, ícause ya couldnít do it. Ya jist ainít got that in ya. Believe me, I seen enough of them that do ta know."

For long moments Chris simply sat in stunned silence, his mind trying to absorb Vinís words and make some sense of them. But, gradually, almost painfully, understanding dawned. Christ, all heíd wanted was to give Vin a way to forget about what all had been done to him. Instead, all heíd done was provide constant reminders of it.

"Jesus, Vin, Iím sorry," he breathed, rising slowly to his feet. "I never realizedÖ Shit, Iíve been such an idiot! I thoughtÖ" He went to Tanner and stood just before him, unconsciously reaching out and setting strong hands on the Texanís trim hips. "I thought if I went slow enough, was gentle enough, that I could ease all that from your mind. I never thought aboutÖ just tryiní to make you forgetÖ" He frowned and shook his head slowly, wondering how heíd missed this. "Hell, Iíve never thought about tryiní to make you do anything at all!"

Vin smiled slightly, softly, and twined his arms about Larabeeís waist. "I know," he said, stepping into his loverís body. "Thatís one aí the reasons I love ya. Had enough folks try ta force me this way aní thatÖ But, Lord, Chris," he whispered fervently, looking into his loverís face and struck to his soul by the manís beauty, "sometimes I need ya so bad I think Iíll die if I cainít have ya!"

"Well, we canít have that," Chris breathed, pulling Vin closer to him and bowing his head toward the younger manís neck. "The othersíd be real pissed if I let you die now after everything we all went through to save you."

Vin shivered and gasped as that warm, firm mouth went to work at his throat, kissing, nibbling, licking, bringing his flesh and his blood to throbbing life. "íS whatÖ I like about ya," he whispered thickly, closing his eyes and letting his head fall back to give Larabee greater access. "Always thinkiní aboutÖ other folksÖ"

"What other folks?" Chris growled, nuzzling hungrily at the racing pulse in Tannerís throat.

"Donít know," Vin gasped as sharp teeth scraped across his burning skin. "Cainít remember what weís talkiní about."

"Then what say we just quit talkiní?" Chris asked. He trailed his lips down to Tannerís collarbone, tongued the notch in its center, then sucked at one corner of the bone.

Vin decided that was a good idea, especially since heíd lost the power of speech. While that mouth played at his throat, Larabeeís hands were thrusting down into the waistband of his jeans, slipping easily inside the too-loose seat to caress his ass cheeks through his boxers. Then the hands forced him closer still and a sharp gasp escaped him as he felt Larabeeís hard body pressing against every line of his own.

"Oh, Lord!" he groaned, digging long, thin fingers into his partnerís back as his cock strained painfully against his jeans.

Chris raised his head and stared through glazed eyes at the Texan, his flushed face a naked mask of hunger. "Bedroom," he snarled. "Iím gonna fuck ya ítil ya pass out and I donít wanta have ta carry your skinny ass through the house when Iím done!"

Vinís knees buckled at that, and only the hands clutching at his ass and the hard thigh thrust suddenly between his two kept him from falling. "íKay," he whispered weakly.

Right now, Larabee couldíve offered to bend him over the tailgate of the Ram on the side of the highway and it wouldíve sounded goodÖ

Chris drew his hands out of Vinís jeans but pressed them to his back, pinning the sharpshooter to him and driving their crotches together. A wordless growl escaped him and he bowed his head, seizing upon Tannerís mouth with his in a hard, almost brutal kiss. He shoved his tongue past Vinís lips and teeth and swept it ferociously through the beckoning depths of the Texanís mouth, exploring, claiming, devouring with utter ruthlessness.

Vin shuddered and clutched desperately at Chris as the manís assault shattered his reason and stripped him of thought. Larabeeís mouth was moving over his with a mounting urgency and he surrendered willingly to its demands, feasting upon those punishing lips with an answering ferocity. His blood ignited in his veins and heavy coils of heat snaked through his belly, and everything in him ached unbearably for Chris.

At long last Chris tore his mouth from Vinís, ignoring the younger manís stricken sound of abandonment, then grabbed one arm between shoulder and elbow and held him up when it seemed that Tanner might fall. "Bedroom," he rasped again, his chest heaving, his flesh beaded with sweat. "Now!"

Vin said nothing, couldnít have spoken if heíd tried, merely swallowed and nodded weakly and let Chris lead him through the den and hallway to the master bedroom. Chris never released him and kept him close. Every few steps their bodies brushed together and, each time they did, Vin stumbled and nearly fell. He didnít watch where he was going, didnít watch anything but Larabee, and the fact that he never collided with furniture or walls was more a testament to Chrisís care than his own.

By the time they reached the bedroom, they were wrapped around each other once again, their bodies drawn together like magnet and iron. Wet mouths met in hard, deep kisses, hands clawed, stroked and kneaded, and two hearts raced in a single, frantic rhythm. Gasping breaths and thick, wordless groans of pain and pleasure were the only sounds in the room.

Burying his mouth in Vinís again and clutching the sharpshooter to him, Chris backed him across the room until the backs of his knees collided with the bed. The bed was immovable; Chris was unstoppable. Vin went down in a helpless sprawl. Before he could move, could even register the change in his position, Chris was bent over him, his knees clamped hard between Larabeeís hard thighs, the blondís hands set on the bed at either side of his shoulders. Green eyes filled with heat stared into his with a laser-sharp focus, and a beautiful face that was both angel and demon hovered only inches above his.

His whole soul shivered and rose sharply in wonder that such a man could be his.

"Shame you went through all that trouble dressiní after your shower, pard," Chris breathed hoarsely. "Only made more work for me."

Vin swallowed hard and licked his lips, trying to find his voice. "Iíll ímember that nexí time," he said in a cracked whisper. Chris bent closer still, and Vin closed his eyes and opened his mouth in expectation of a kiss.

Instead, Chris merely skimmed his lips lightly along his loverís square jaw, then scraped his teeth against Tannerís chin. He heard Vinís whimper and chuckled softly, his breath fanning warmly over the Texanís skin. "You want me ta kiss ya, pard?"

The low, sultry voice sent a spear of heat shooting straight to Vinís groin, tearing a strangled gasp from him. He tried to speak and couldnít, so merely nodded his head.

"Iíll take it under advisement," Larabee breathed. He brushed his lips over Vinís chin, across his forehead and down his nose, but never touched the younger manís mouth. Vin was squirming beneath him and straining against him but he only continued his teasing, never caring about his awkward and uncomfortable position.

Hell, he was used to being uncomfortable when Vin was nearÖ

"Chris, please!" Vin pleaded, the words escaping him in a breathless squeak.

Larabee chuckled and shook his head at the incongruity of that sound coming from the deadliest marksman heíd ever known. "Need a little oil there, pard?" he teased.

Vin scowled. "Best not be threateniní what yíainít prepared ta go through with," he warned.

Chrisís mouth stretched into a slow, evil grin. "Oh," he breathed, green eyes shimmering with a wicked light, "Iím sure we can find somethiní that needs oiliní." He winked. "Just have ta look real close."

Vin swallowed again and shivered as that low, husky voice rasped against his nerves like nubby silk and quickened the rush of blood to his groin. He opened his mouth to speak, but not even a squeak escaped him this time.

Chris leaned closer and teased his lips across Vinís, but again did not kiss him. Then he pulled away slightly and slid his hands down Tannerís body to the front of his jeans, brushing his thumbs against the hard ridge of his loverís cock.

"Think maybe itís time we did somethiní about this," he mused as Vin closed his eyes and sucked in air through gritted teeth. "A swelliní like this," his thumbs continued to stroke, "itís gotta be painful."

"Bastard!" Tanner hissed.

Chris sighed and shook his head slowly. "Now, Vin, havenít I showed you a copy of my parentsí marriage license?"

"All right then," Tanner amended harshly, fisting his hands in the comforter beneath him. "Asshole!"

Chris grinned and winked. "Iíll take that as an invitation."

"Take it any way ya want!" Vin gasped in a hoarse, shaking voice, arching helplessly against those tormenting hands. "Jist so longís ya take me, too!"

"Oh," Chris breathed, his eyes going a shade darker, "I think I can manage that." He slid a thumb up Tannerís jeans to the brass button at the waistband and slowly worked it through the hole. Then, with the same deliberate care, he concentrated on the zipper, easing it down at a tortuously unhurried pace.

"Oh, Lord!" Vin groaned thickly, shuddering hard as Larabeeís hands drove shards of fresh agony into his aching, needy cock. Lightning jolted and danced along his every nerve, his flesh burned and his blood boiled. He dug his fingers deeper into the comforter and thrust hungrily against Chrisís fingers, desperately needing to feel them claiming his throbbing shaft. "Please!" he begged brokenly.

But Chris still did not hurry; his slowness had a definite purpose. He intended to wring every ounce of feeling, of sensation, from Vin that he could, intended to drive the younger man beyond even the possibility of conscious thought, intended to shatter Tannerís awareness and knowledge of everything save him. In the surest way he knew, he intended to reach into Vin and tear out by the roots every last vestige of the pain, fear and humiliation that still haunted his lover, then plant himself in their place as a living barrier against their darkness.

He might not be able to banish the bastards whoíd hurt him from Vinís life, but he could sure as hell keep them out of their bedroom.

He finished unzipping the jeans, then urged Vin to lift his hips and slowly, slowly dragged the soft denim over Tannerís lean flanks and down his long legs, removing his cotton boxers as well. As the garments traveled downward, so did he, until he was on his knees and freeing his loverís feet from the jeans and boxers. Then he slid his hands up the bare shins to Vinís knees, parted them and slipped between Tannerís legs, stroking up his thighs to his narrow hips. Vin was trembling beneath his touch, his breath coming in ragged gasps, and his head thrashed wildly back and forth against the bed as small sounds of anguish tore from him. His cock rose thick and stiff and weeping with need from its nest of dark curls and Larabee leaned forward, his mouth drawn to the hard flesh like a childís to candy. He bowed his head, his own breath coming fast and shallow as the pungent scent of his loverís sex engulfed him, and pressed his tongue to the base of Vinís shaft, licking slowly, lightly up its length.

Vin cried out sharply and bucked wildly, his whole body convulsing as white heat exploded through him. Chrisís hands held him firmly in place, the manís tongue swirled and lapped at the head of his cock, and tears seeped from the corners of his tightly closed eyes as that tongue drove spikes of unbearable pain and pleasure through him.

"Oh, God!" he gasped harshly. "GodÖ ChrisÖ God!"

Chris heard the desperation in Vinís voice, could feel it pouring from the body jerking beneath him, and knew it was time to end his loverís torment. He laved his tongue once more around the darkly flushed head of Tannerís cock, licking greedily at the salty-sweet cum leaking from its slit, then dragged it back down the rigid shaft. He placed a tender kiss at the base and then pulled away, smiling at Tannerís stricken cry.

"Ssh, itís all right, pard," he murmured, rubbing slow, gentle circles against Vinís belly to quiet him. "Iím just gonna get undressed, then Iíll take care of you, I promise."

"Hurry!" Vin pleaded in a cracked whisper. "Want yaÖ Need yaÖ Hurts!"

Chris smiled slightly and rose to his feet, stepping just far enough away from Tanner to strip himself of his clothing. He unbuttoned only the first few buttons of his denim shirt and tore it off over his head, sending it flying across the room. Boots were quickly toed off and flung away, belt unbuckled, fly unbuttoned, and Leviís and briefs peeled hurriedly from his body. In record time he was done and climbed onto the bed beside Vin, who still lay exactly as heíd left him.

He smiled and shook his head. "Gonna need ya ta move, Tanner," he urged. "Canít get to ya with your legs hanginí over the edge."

"Cainít," Vin moaned, fighting the urge to reach for his cock and tend to his need himself. "If I move, Iíll die."

Chris laughed aloud. "No, you wonít. Now, címon, move up here. Besides," he hesitated a moment and then said gently, "youíve still gotta take off your shirt."

Vin stiffened briefly at that, then willed himself to relax. Staring up into Chrisís eyes, drawing on the strength and certainty mirrored in them, he asked softly, "Ya sure ya wanta see? They ainítÖ" He winced and looked away. "They ainít pretty."

Chris reached down and placed a hand under Tannerís chin, turning his loverís face back to him. "I told you, Vin," he said gently, "I already have seen. More times than you know. So, yeah, Iím sure. I donít want you hidiní from me anymore, partner," he breathed, his fingers lightly stroking Tannerís jaw. "That hurts me more than seeiní your scars ever could."

Vin stared at Chris a few moments longer, searching the green eyes intently for any sign of uncertainty. There was none. Bolstered by that, and praying he wasnít fooling himself, he sat up slowly and pulled his legs up onto the bed, turning to face Chris and reaching for the hem of his t-shirt, silently cursing himself for his cowardice.

This was Chris, for Christís sake!

He drew a deep breath, held it, and let it out slowly, then tightened his hold on the shirt and, giving himself no more time to think, pulled it off in a single quick motion. But there his courage ended. Still clutching the shirt in one hand, ready to put it back on at a momentís notice, he bowed his head and closed his eyes, steeling himself for Chrisís inevitable reaction.

But when that reaction came, it wasnít at all what he expected.

Already knowing what he would see, Chris felt no surprise when Vin finally removed his shirt. Instead, he felt only a surge of relief. Now, finally, he was able to do what heíd wanted to all those nights when Vin had inadvertently bared these same scars in his sleep. He was able, and more than ready.

He moved closer, reached out, and ran a long forefinger slowly over the thick, puckered track that curved under Vinís right pectoral, then skimmed the pad of his thumb over the longer, thinner scar that ran beneath it. One by one, giving each his complete attention, he traced the slashes marring the sharpshooterís body, caressing them. Loving them.

Because they were part of Vin.

That touch, and the feeling behind it, startled Vin. He raised his head sharply and opened his eyes, and was stunned by the tenderness mirrored in his loverís face. No horror, no revulsion; some sorrow, certainly. But mostlyÖ no, entirelyÖ


"Chris?" he whispered in confusion, not understanding this at all. Larabee was looking at him as he always had, as if he were the most beautiful sight the man had ever beheld. But that couldnít be true.

Could it?

Chris continued to stroke each scar with worshipful fingers, learning the feel of them as he already knew their look. Then he pushed Vin gently back against the bed and lay atop him, his mouth joining his hands in thorough exploration.

Vin gasped softly and closed his eyes, arching against Chris and burying his hands in the manís thick golden hair as Larabeeís lips and fingers made love to him. The slow kisses and ardent caresses wrung breathless moans and hot tears from him, rekindled in him the heat that had waned and resurrected his desire. Then Chrisís mouth and hands began wandering beyond the scars, tasting and teasing ever farther afield, stroking and stoking until fires again raged throughout the whole of his body. He clutched at Chris and pleaded with him, need pounding through him as if it had never abated.

Chris pushed himself up Vinís body and claimed the sharpshooterís mouth with his own, clutching at the younger man and trying to drown himself in him. Tanner was writhing beneath him, against him, and the frantic movements of his loverís body added to the heat rolling through his own. Pinned between them and driven together, their cocks filled, hardened and almost gave off sparks from the friction.

With no barrier remaining between them, each naked to the other in body and soul, they were again free to come together as they always had before, with neither restraint nor reservation, with no shadow of fear or shame. They kissed, clutched and clawed, mouths and hands raking and taking with equal abandon as their passion raged out of control. Gone from Vin was every last trace of hesitancy; gone from Chris was any thought of gentleness. They wanted; they needed.

And they were going to have.

Chris tore himself from Vin only long enough to rifle through the drawer of the bedside table for the lube, then wrenched open the lid and squeezed a generous amount into a shaking hand. Capping the tube and tossing it aside, he returned to his lover and slicked them both up, coating his thick and throbbing cock and softening Vinís tight hole. Then, positioning Vin roughly and near bursting with need, he grabbed Tannerís hips to hold him steady and shoved himself into the sharpshooterís body.

Vin arched wildly and cried out at the pain of that penetration and dug his fingernails into Chrisís wrists. Heíd gotten so used to the slow and careful pace of their recent lovemaking that heíd almost forgotten how to accommodate such ferocity. But when the shock finally abated and the pain receded, he was left with the exquisite sensation of Chrisís heat and hardness filling him and he remembered why heíd missed this so much.

But, God, he needed more!

"MoveÖ damn it!" he begged.

And Chris did. Slowly at first, to give Vinís still-healing body time to adjust, but then with a steadily building force. Vin was so tight, his wet, close heat a spur to Larabeeís need. With each sure thrust, that heat seemed to pull him deeper until he was burying himself to the root into his loverís body, unable any longer to control his own. Harder, faster he drove, his thick groans and harsh cries mingling with Vinís and the sounds of slapping flesh. Then he wound long, strong fingers about Tannerís hard cock and began to pump in time with his thrusts, working his lover inside and out.

They rocked together in a furious rhythm, their bodies moving in perfect synchronization, lost to everything but each other. Ever higher upon the searing tide they rose, buffeted by waves of intense, almost unbearable pain and pleasure, their need a living, driving force between them. Then, in a final, violent heave, the pounding waves crested about them and swept them both up into the hard, hot rush of mutual release. Vin cried out to Chris as his seed jetted forth and, in that same moment, Chris thrust furiously through Vin and erupted into him. The waves broke, the tide receded, and the two sank together beneath the now calm waters.

Chris carefully pulled free of Vin and sank exhaustedly onto the bed at his side, then reached out and drew Tannerís limp, unresisting body into his arms. Vinís eyes were closed, his face was slack, and Chris wondered if maybe Tanner hadnít been quite up to this after all.

"Hey, partner," he called softly, laying the back of one hand against Vinís sweat-slick cheek and stroking lightly as a twinge of worry bit through him. "You with me?"

To Chrisís immense relief, Vinís mouth closed and he swallowed, though his eyes didnít open. "After that," he whispered shakily, "ya still gotta ask?"

Chris chuckled softly and leaned over, tenderly kissing his loverís lips. "I meant are you awake?"

Vin sighed and swallowed again, but his eyes remained closed. "Hell, I ainít even sure Iím alive," he breathed, his words slurring from exhaustion. He struggled against the heavy lassitude weighing down his every muscle and finally opened his eyes to hazy slits. "Didnít know youís serious about fuckiní me ítil I passed out."

Chris arched a golden brow and gave a smug grin. "Donít I usually mean what I say ta you, pard?" he teased, still stroking Tannerís cheek.

"Hope not," Vin sighed, letting his eyes close once more and turning onto his side, curling into Larabee. "Else Doc Stoneís gonna be pulliní a powerful lotta bullets outta my hide."

Chris pulled Vin close and wrapped his arms around him, marveling at how perfectly their bodies fit together. "I might make a few exceptions here and there," he allowed. Without conscious thought, he found the thick scar slashing across Vinís hip and brushed feather-light fingers against it.

Vin couldnít help but notice where Chris was stroking, and wondered if there would ever be a time when he didnít. Wondered if there would ever be a time when those scars, and everything that lay behind them, would just fade away as all the rest had done.

Probably not. That would be more than heíd learned he could expect from life.

"Weíre gonna get through this, yíknow," Chris said softly, sensing which paths his loverís mind was following. "Might be sometimes we only do it by the skin of our teeth, but weíre gonna get through it. I promise."

"Ainít gonna be easy," Vin warned, pressing his face into the junction of Larabeeís shoulder and throat.

Chris rested a cheek against his loverís hair. "Things most worth haviní usually arenít," he sighed. He reached for Vinís hand and laced his fingers through the Texanís. "But that only makes haviní íem sweeter in the end. You appreciate íem more when youíve had to fight tooth and claw to keep íem."

Vin curled his fingers to lock Larabeeís in place, needing all he could get of this manís strength. "Iís scared, yíknow," he whispered. "Ta let ya see me."

"I know."

"Wasnít sure what yaíd do, howÖ how yaíd takeÖ seeiní me." He shivered and pulled Chrisís arm tighter about him. "Donít think I coulda taken it if yaíd looked away."

"I havenít looked away yet," Chris reminded him. "Not since all this happened, not in all the time Iíve known you."

Vin frowned and again turned in Chrisís arms onto his back, staring up at his lover in confusion. "Why?"

Chris raised up on an elbow and returned Tannerís gaze evenly. "Maybe because I know that if I do look away, when I finally look back youíll be gone. And I couldnít take that."

"Might be easier on ya."

Chris shook his head. "No it wouldnít. Trust me. I had a life without you once, and it wasnít easy at all. And I wouldnít go back to that for anything in the world."

Vin released Chrisís hand and sat up, folding his knees against his chest and resting his chin atop them, wrapping his arms around his legs. The big ceiling fan above the bed sent drafts of cool air brushing against his skin and he shivered from a sudden chill.

Chris sighed and sat up, then rose from the bed and went to the bathroom. He knew Vin was puzzling it all out in his mind, and also knew from long habit that Vinís puzzling couldnít be rushed. So he gave Tanner the time he needed, taking a piss and then rummaging through the towel cabinet for a clean washcloth. He found one, carried it to the sink and turned on the water, let the water get warm and wetted the cloth, then left the bathroom and returned to the bed.

"Here," he said, settling on his haunches next to Vin, "letís get you cleaned up and dressed before you catch a chill. You still donít have nearly enough meat on those bones, and if you get sick on my watch, Nettie, Nathan and Dr. Stone will be fighting for the rights to my head."

Vin unwrapped his arms and lowered his legs, reaching for the cloth. But Chris only arched a brow and shook his head, claiming the right for himself. Vin frowned but didnít argue, and, as Chrisís hand dragged the warm, wet cloth gently over his chest, belly, groin and thighs, he relaxed slowly and had to admit that there were far more unpleasant experiences in life than being washed clean by Chris Larabee.

But, God, hadnít the man been doing that in one way or another ever since theyíd met?

As Chris leaned close, intent upon his work, Vin took the chance to study him, taking in every aspect of the chiseled face, long, strong body and near-miraculous hands. Larabee could be the hardest, coldest sonuvabitch ever to draw government pay, and rivaled the most destructive forces of nature when he was well and truly pissed. But in all his life, Vin had never known a warmer, softer, sweeter place than this manís arms, had never felt more deeply loved than when those hands did nothing more than touch him.

Just as they were touching him nowÖ

Jesus, how could he have been so stupid?

Chris heard the slow exhale of disgust and knew Vin had finished his puzzling. But only when he had finished wiping away the remains of their lovemaking did he sit back and meet the Texanís eyes.

"You got it worked out yet?"

Vinís mouth twisted into a scowl and self-mockery darkened his eyes. "Yeah," he breathed. "Iím an idiot."

Chris arched two brows, then dropped the wet cloth onto the bed and sat back, leaning on one arm, draping the other negligently over one raised knee and staring at his lover in amused anticipation. "This I gotta hear."

Vin snorted sharply and raked a hand through his hair. "Shoulda known I didnít have ta hide from ya," he drawled. "Hell, I shoulda known I couldnít. Ainít ever been able to before, donít know why I thought I could now."

Chrisís smile and eyes turned gentle. "Youíve been twisted in a lotta ways here lately, pard. Had a lot of old hurts and fears resurrected." He shrugged lightly. "Itís hard ta think straight when your mindís been run through a grinder."

"Yeah," Vin muttered, wincing and dropping his gaze to the bed. "Castro did a real job on me." He sighed and closed his eyes, instinctively hugging his knees to his chest once more. "Hell, I reckon heís doiní it still. Him aní all them others who came along fer the ride."

"Gonna take time ta get it all sorted out and put back right," Chris said quietly. "Thereís bound ta be setbacks along the way."

"Sípose so." He swallowed hard and opened his eyes, raising them once more to the man just before him. "Still, I shoulda known better. Shoulda known I didnít have ta hide what they done ta me from you."

Chris smiled sadly and reached out, brushing gentle fingers through Vinís hair. "Weíve all got scars, partner. Some of íem are just more visible, thatís all."

"Reckon so," Vin breathed, acutely aware of his own less visible ones as well.

Chris slid his hand down to Vinís cheek and cupped it tenderly in his hand, gazing steadily into his loverís eyes. "I donít give a damn about your scars," he said in a low, fervent voice. "I hate like hell that you have íem, I hate like hell what those bastards did ta you, I hate like hell that you have to think of them every time you look in the mirror. But most of them are dead, and youíre alive." He dropped his hand to Vinís throat and stroked slowly with his thumb. "Youíre here with me, where I can see you and touch you and hold you, and thatís what really matters. In the end, itís all that matters. And Iíll take that any way I can get it."

Vin shivered again and lifted his chin, giving that caressing thumb greater access. "Iíll try ta remember that," he whispered.

Chris smiled and slipped his hand to the back of Vinís neck, then dropped his leg and slid his other arm around the manís waist. "Maybe a reminder would help," he suggested, pulling the sharpshooter onto his lap.

"Could be," Vin rasped, going willingly to his lover and wrapping arms and legs around him. "I been told Iím a real slow learner."

"Well," Chris breathed, pressing Vin close against him and bowing his head to claim that tempting mouth, "then maybe we should start the lessons nowÖ"