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By SueN.


NOTE: Italicized sections are flashbacks.

WARNING: This story deals in a way with the events of September 11, 2001, and includes memories of the images from that day. It is, I hope, an ultimately uplifting, life-affirming story, but if that day and all it evokes still upsets you, please don’t read any further. Thank you.

Memento Mori

The weak light of early morning had barely begun filtering into the bedroom through the blinds but Chris Larabee was already awake, had been since the first blush of dawn. He was in no hurry to leave the bed though, but was content to remain right where he was, sitting up, his back against the headboard and cushioned by pillows, his gaze fixed on the man who still slept beside him.

God, he could look at Vin forever.

Tanner lay on his side, facing him, long brown hair falling across his face and throat and spread over his pillow in a tousled wealth, and it was all Chris could do not to reach out and stroke the silken locks that drew his fingers like a magnet. But Vin looked so peaceful that Larabee didn’t have the heart to disturb him. His face was relaxed as it only was in sleep, devoid of the instinctive wariness he wore like a shield in his waking hours and untouched by the age that had nothing to do with years. Dark lashes lay like feathered crescents against skin softly flushed in sleep, his full lips were slightly parted, and one slim, bare shoulder peeked above the covers in a shyly enticing reminder of the lean, hard body that was hidden from view.

Last night he’d enjoyed the pleasures of that body to the fullest. Right now, though, what he felt for Vin had nothing at all to do with sex and everything to do with love. And as he let his eyes drink their fill of Vin’s unconscious beauty, he felt the full depth and force of that love rising through him in a hard, fierce wave, over-filling his heart and soul, robbing him of breath and bringing the sharp sting of tears to his eyes.

Oh, God, God, what would he do, what would he be, without this man in his life?

He finally drew a ragged breath and briefly closed his eyes, trying to banish the question from his mind. Because even as he asked it, he already knew the answer. He’d been down that dark and twisted path once before, had almost lost his soul to the searing agony of such a loss, and had no desire ever to journey into that hell again. Vin had been his salvation then. To lose Vin would be his final damnation.

He shook his head to clear it of such thoughts and opened his eyes, fixing them once more on his sleeping lover. Like a man lost in the desert for too long but suddenly stumbling upon a spring, he drank in Vin’s nearness greedily, quenching his soul’s thirst with life-giving water.

In this as in all things, Vin Tanner was his oasis.

Chris gave a small, wry smile at his uncharacteristic sentimentality and ran a hand through his unkempt blond hair. He’d been harboring such thoughts all weekend, had been startled by the intensity of emotions that seemed to overtake him from nowhere, and only now fully understood why.

It was the day, this day, Memorial Day. The day set aside to remember those who had fallen in service to their country, to commemorate their sacrifice and to take stock of what that sacrifice had won for those who remained behind. For a full month now, newscasters, experts and pundits had been predicting that the holiday would mean far more to Americans this year than simply the unofficial beginning of summer, would carry with it a profundity and weight that would surely strike a chord within an entire nation’s consciousness. And Chris had expected that, too.

What he hadn’t expected, and hadn’t prepared himself for, was for it to hit him like a falling mountain.

True, Memorial Day had always meant more to him than just another excuse to fire up the grill. His six years in the Navy SEALs after college and then his subsequent career in law enforcement had given him a deep appreciation of the singular meaning of this day. He’d watched too many comrades fall, had attended too many funerals with flag-draped caskets and the haunting refrain of Taps, had flinched from too many 21-gun salutes not to feel this day in the most visceral part of his being. But nothing he’d felt in previous years came anywhere near what was throbbing through him now.

And, like everyone else in the country, he could trace this feeling directly back to September 11th.

He scrubbed his hands over his face and then, realizing that these thoughts were not going to go away, pushed back the covers and got carefully out of bed, determined not to disturb Vin. He knew that if he stayed, the intensity of his feelings would somehow reach Vin even through sleep, like some kind of psychic overspill. He still didn’t quite understand it, but he’d seen it too often to doubt it. They’d become so intimately bound up in each other, were so acutely attuned to each other, that it seemed the thoughts and feelings of one belonged equally to the other.

He stared down at Tanner’s unlined, placid face a few moments more, then turned and padded silently out of the bedroom so his lover wouldn’t be caught in the avalanche when the mountain came crashing down.

It was one of those moments in life when everything literally stopped, when the heart stopped beating and the lungs refused to take in or let out air, when the world ceased spinning and the whole of human existence was reduced to a devastating blow to the gut and a searing pain in the soul. As one, a whole nation dropped to its knees in shocked disbelief and loosed a cry of shattering grief.

In his den, Chris Larabee did the same.

But he never felt his knees connecting with the hardwood floor, never heard the wordless cry torn from him. All he knew, all that existed for him, was the horrible image on his television of a jetliner slamming into one silver, shining tower while its already stricken twin burned.

Oh, God, God, Jesus God, it was no accident.

Unable to take in the enormity of what he was seeing, unable to comprehend the truth shrieked out by those mortally wounded towers, he simply knelt and stared, never feeling the tears running down his cheeks, numb to everything except the terrible ache building in his heart. Like so many others in an anguished nation, he watched and wept as flames and smoke rose to the heavens, carrying countless souls upon them.

It was too horrible even for him to feel sick.

Instinctively he reached out for the man who was his surest anchor when his world was torn from its moorings, only to remember belatedly that Vin wasn’t with him. Wasn’t even in Denver, and wouldn’t be until later today. He’d been at a conference in Boston since the previous Wednesday, attending and presenting seminars on the latest developments in weapons, tactics and training. It was an elite gathering of the best of the best in federal law enforcement, and Tanner had been picked to take part not by Chris, not even by AD Orin Travis, but by the top Bureau boys in Washington. Team Seven had damn near burst its collective buttons at the honor done their unassuming sharpshooter, while that sharpshooter himself had done all he could to slink out of the spotlight. And Chris more than anyone had beamed with pride even as he’d threatened to shoot Vin if he didn’t get his scrawny, complaining ass on that plane and show the folks back East how they did things out West.

But he felt no pride now, only the empty ache that came with knowing his anchor was gone.

He had no idea how long he knelt there, how long he bled from wounds he couldn’t see. When finally he was roused from his stupor, it wasn’t by the voices that seemed to be babbling nonsensically from the television, but by the shrill, insistent ringing of his phone.

God, please let it be someone calling to say it was all a very bad hoax!

Somehow he climbed to his feet, then stumbled to the phone. As his shaking hand pulled the receiver from its cradle and raised it to his ear, he heard Buck’s voice – thin, strained, broken – and knew it was all horribly real.

“Yeah,” he whispered shakily in answer to Wilmington’s equally unsteady question, “I’m watchin’ it now.”

Then came another blow, one he hadn’t seen coming and couldn’t possibly defend against. It hit him square in the heart, and even as he went to the floor again he wondered how he’d missed hearing it before.

Two of the four planes that had been turned into weapons that beautiful, shining morning had taken off from Logan Airport.

Logan was in Boston.

Vin was in Boston.

And Vin had told him just last night that he’d managed to get an early flight back.

Vin was supposed to be flying out of Logan this morning.

Chris settled himself in one of the chairs on the porch and gazed out into the distance, his long fingers curled about a steaming cup of coffee. He’d thought about that awful day so many times over the past eight months, and each time the pain grabbed his gut just as it had then. For the first few agonizing moments after Buck had spoken the word “Boston” into the phone, he’d sat on the floor, literally knocked on his ass, unable to see, to breathe, to think, unable to do anything except shake violently in mindless terror.

Reason should have told him that Vin wouldn’t be on either of those planes. But that had not exactly been a morning where reason held sway.

Sensing that, Buck had stayed on the line with Chris while directing JD to contact the others and send them to the ranch. They’d all gotten there in record time, even Ezra, deathly pale and deeply shaken to a man, yet each instinctively knowing that what little comfort could be found would only be found in the company of the others.

As it always did in times of trouble, sorrow or hurt, the wolf pack had closed in upon itself, and the whole had immediately found a strength lacking in its individual parts.

Except that one part had been noticeably missing.

Chris sipped at his coffee, no longer even attempting to stop the onslaught of memories. They were going to come whether he wanted them to or not. And maybe it was time he let them, time he tried to understand the message and meaning in them.

Wasn’t remembering, trying to reconcile life and death, gain and loss, what Memorial Day was all about?

He sat back, drank his coffee, and let the mountain fall.

An hour after the others arrived, the call came, and he found he could breathe again.

“Chris.” The voice was raspier than usual, betraying the strain of emotion, and held an uncharacteristic quaver. But it was blessedly familiar and blessedly real. “I’m all right, y’ hear me? I’m all right.” Vin hadn’t even given him a chance to answer, had just rushed on with much needed reassurances uttered in that beloved drawl. “I wasn’t on either ’a them planes, cowboy. I’m here at the airport ’n I’m in one piece ’n I swear, Chris, I swear ta God, I’m gonna git back ta you if I have ta crawl all the way ta Denver on my hands ’n knees!”

Again, Larabee never felt himself hit the floor, never felt or tasted his tears, never felt anything but the violent tide of relief crashing through him as he clung to the telephone like a lifeline. “Vin,” he finally uttered in a choking gasp, causing every other man in that room to sink into that same relief. “Oh, God, Vin! Jesus, please, tell me again that you’re all right!”

“I am, Chris, I promise. At least,” Chris could almost feel the shudder that racked the sharpshooter’s lean frame, “as all right as anybody can be right now. I saw… I’s gittin’ some coffee… ’n there was a tv… Lord God in heaven…” His voice broke and Larabee closed his eyes, his arms aching unbearably to hold the man who was so far away. “Chris, I wanta come home!”

A sob ripped from him at those whispered, tearful words and he took no pains to disguise it. He wasn’t sure just who on the team knew about his and Vin’s relationship and who didn’t, but he no longer cared. Everything had changed, everything, when those planes had hit, and that included his petty concern over who thought what about his feelings for another man.

Vin was alive. Anything else he would deal with later.

“And I want you home, pard,” he answered, leaning back against the bar and crossing his legs, closing his eyes and envisioning the long-haired, scruffy Texan who was the other half of his soul. “Want you here so bad it hurts. When I saw the plane hit, I reached for you… Wish I could reach all the way to Boston.”

“Y’ can,” Vin said, warmth easing the ache in his voice. “Y’ are. Don’t ya know that by now? There ain’t no place so far away that I cain’t feel ya with me.”

Chris smiled slightly at that and absently pressed a hand to his heart. “I know,” he whispered roughly, his tears still streaming. “Forgot it for a minute, but I won’t ever forget again, I promise.”

“See that ya don’t,” Vin growled, and Larabee could see the fierce scowl that crossed that unshaven face. “I’d hate fer kickin’ yer ass ta be the first thing I have ta do when I git back.”

“You just come back in one piece, Tanner, and you can kick my ass from here to hell.”

“Tell me it’s gonna be all right, Chris,” Vin pleaded suddenly, sounding as lost and frightened and alone as Larabee had ever heard him. “Jist tell me ever’thing’s gonna be all right ’n I’ll believe ya. I’ll believe anything ya tell me.”

He had no idea where or how, but Chris found the words and, to his surprise, found that he believed them. “It’s gonna be all right, Vin,” he said calmly. “We’re gonna be all right. I promise, pard, we’ll get through this like we’ve done every other damn thing – together.”

“Ain’t together now,” Vin reminded him in a plaintive voice.

Chris lifted his head and opened his eyes. “Are you alive?”


“Am I alive?”


“Well, then,” he smiled, “we’re together.”

“I love you, Chris.” New strength filled Vin’s voice and stilled its shaking. “Ain’t said it in a while. Too long, I reckon. I know the world ain’t endin’, mebbe jist changin’ directions, but, still, I want ya ta know that I love ya ’n that yer the finest damn thing I’ve ever had in my life.”

Chris knew full well that five pairs of eyes were watching him and that five pairs of ears were listening. And yesterday that would have mattered.

But yesterday was a lifetime ago and a whole different world. Right now, in this lifetime and in this world, the only thing that mattered was on the other end of the phone. Vin was alive and Chris’s whole soul rose sharply in rejoicing.

“And I love you,” he said plainly, needing Vin to hear and understand the words and little caring who else did in the process. “You come home to me, you hear? I don’t care how you do it. You just get back here where you belong so I can see for myself that you’re all right. I need you, and I won’t rest until I’ve got you back.”

“Well, hell,” Vin drawled, his voice warm and husky with the love Chris knew so well, “I reckon that’s the best offer I’ve had all day.”

“That better be the only offer you’ve had all day!”

“The only one that matters, cowboy,” Vin breathed.

Chris knew a silly, almost drunken smile was spreading across his face, but he wouldn’t have stopped it if he could. Maybe the world had changed. Certainly much in it had. But one thing at least – no, not “least” at all – remained blessedly the same.

He still had Vin.

He finished his coffee, thought briefly about going inside for more, but decided it could wait. There was still so much he had to sort through, to arrange into some semblance of sense, and he was afraid that if he put it off for even a moment, he might lose this chance for good.

One of the lessons learned from 9-11.

But, Jesus, had there ever been a steeper learning curve?

Certainly the cost of the lessons had been brutal. Some 3,000 dead, a city’s skyline forever altered, the Pentagon – the very nerve center of the country’s military might – ripped open, a nation’s confidence shaken, its vulnerabilities laid bare. A war that would go on until God knew when. And who would ever have guessed that postal workers would be on the front lines?

New threats and new warnings had become almost a daily occurrence. Anthrax, dirty nukes, suicide bombers. Airline pilots wanted guns, and passengers were encouraged to use any means necessary to take down potential hijackers.

In case of emergency, your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device, or as a weapon.

So much had changed.

Now the White House, Congress, the FBI and the CIA were all pointing fingers at each other.

And so much remained the same.

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, knowing that held true in his own life as well. So much had changed. Certainly the biggest change was that he and Vin no longer had to wrestle with hiding the true nature of their relationship from their teammates. Their friends. Clearly two of them had already guessed, or at least suspected, the truth – Josiah and Ezra had looked singularly unsurprised by his revelations that morning – but just as clearly the other three had been caught completely unaware. And each of those three had taken it in a different but completely characteristic manner.

Nathan had been guardedly accepting, though not wholly approving. No surprise there; he didn’t exactly approve of Buck’s lifestyle, either. And he’d seized immediately upon health concerns, taking the first chance he got to talk seriously with them both about the risk of injuries, STDs, AIDS. And they’d listened with far more patience than anyone would ever have expected from them because they’d understood that his words had been born of friendship rather than prejudice.

JD had been shocked beyond speech at first, a rarity for him. Once he’d had time to think, though, and had gotten past the point of gawking and sputtering, he’d accepted it with an ease that startled them all, revealing yet again the maturity that could surface at the damnedest times. Then, like the detectives he so loved to read about, he sorted carefully through every shred of evidence he’d overlooked before, retraced every clue he’d previously ignored, and decided he was an idiot for not having seen it for himself.

And Vin, no slouch at picking up a trail or covering his own, had gotten a sly enjoyment from their young genius’s frustration.

Buck, though… Chris winced and shook his head at the memory. Buck had struggled the hardest and longest with the radical change in his oldest friend’s life, partly out of hurt at not being told right away, and partly out of the love he still bore for Sarah. Chris had expected that, and had given the man the time, space and patience he’d needed to make peace with it. Buck had come perilously close to resenting Vin for exerting what he considered an unhealthy and unnatural influence on Larabee, and it had been hard on Vin to think that he’d caused a rift in such a deep and precious friendship.

In the end, though, it had been that friendship, and Buck’s own inability to turn his back on his friends, that had brought him around. When he’d finally allowed himself to see that Chris was truly happy and that it was Vin who made him so, then he’d finally allowed himself to accept their relationship. If he still had doubts or resentments, no one saw any trace of them. He was as physically expressive with Vin and Chris as he was with anyone else, was back to trapping them in his famous hugs, and could tease Chris about not letting the younger man wear him down.

Finally letting their friends in on their love had lifted a huge burden from the two men’s shoulders. Of all the changes wrought by September 11th, that surely had been the best one.

But so much else remained the same. While the military went after terrorists that threatened the country from without, Team 7 went after the criminals that threatened it from within. They attended pointless meetings, filed endless paperwork, spent countless hours on surveillance that led nowhere, and, now and then, shed their blood in taking down one vicious bastard or another.

Boredom, migraines, indigestion, frustration, adrenaline rushes and hospital bedside vigils – all just parts of the job. And sometimes, when one of the bastards got loose on a technicality or he leaned over the too still and too pale form of one of his men, he wondered if it was really worth it.

How could a job that never really got done be worth the blood of those he loved? And what if next time it was more than blood that was lost? What if it was a life?

And what if that life was Vin’s? What if the next funeral he attended, the next flag-draped coffin he saw, the next refrain of Taps he heard, the next 21-gun salute that thundered in his ears, were all for the man he loved?

How was he supposed to determine which gain was worth what loss?

He leaned forward and rubbed his hands over his eyes, suddenly deciding he needed more coffee now. Before he could get up, however, the door from the den opened and a soft footfall whispered against the planks of the porch. A flicker of movement caught the corner of his eye and he turned and raised his head, giving a slight smile as Vin approached with a thermal coffee carafe in one hand.

“You bring a straw, or are you just gonna guzzle straight from the pot?” he teased.

Tanner crossed behind Larabee’s back to the chair at his left and sank into it, setting the carafe on the small table between them. “Was thinkin’ I’d jist start mainlinin’ it,” he answered, his thick drawl and bleary-eyed face giving evidence that he had just awakened and hadn’t showered yet. “Then I ’membered how much I hate needles.” He reached over and set the large mug he’d carried in his left hand on the table next to the pot. “So I brung that instead.” He slumped back in his chair and closed his eyes. “Try not ta burn yerself pourin’ me a cup.”

Chris arched a blond brow at him. “Cranky in the mornin’, aren’t ya?”

Vin yawned widely. “Jist hate wakin’ up all alone in a big ol’ cold bed. I’s all set ta wrap m’self around ya, ’n got cozy with yer pilla instead.” He forced open one eye and turned it on Larabee. “’S a helluva disappointment.”

“Really?” Chris frowned. “I thought you liked those pillows.”

“Shut up ’n pour the coffee ’fore I have ta hurt ya.”

Chris snorted. “You’re not nearly awake enough to take me on, Tanner.” Nonetheless, he reached over, lifted the pot and poured coffee into the mug. “You want me to go fetch the sugar and stir it for you, too?”

Vin shot him a weak smirk. “Sugar’s already in there. Managed fine on my own, thanks.”

Chris held the carafe suspended over his own empty cup, but didn’t pour a drop. “Sugar’s in where?” he asked suspiciously, knowing just how much of the stuff it took to get Tanner jump-started in the morning.

“My cup,” Vin said tersely. “Don’t panic, I ain’t about ta lace yer pot. Though God knows you could use the sweetenin’.”

“I’ll remember that when all your teeth fall out and you weigh two hundred pounds,” Chris retorted, filling his cup and setting the pot on the table.

“I knew ya only love me fer m’ looks.”

“Yeah, well, you only love me for my horses, so I guess we’re even.”

“Reckon so,” Vin allowed, reaching for his mug. He cradled it in both hands, raised it to his lips and sipped from the strong, hot brew as if it were the very source of life.

For Chris, however, the source of life was not in his cup, but slumped in the chair across from him. He watched Vin intently, taking in the fall and curl of unruly earth-brown hair with its glints of red and honey-gold, studying the subtle curve of brown brows, the angular jut of high, hard cheekbones, the proud line of that long, straight nose and the chiseled beauty of that incredibly square jaw. He watched raptly the feathered strokes of those long lashes as Vin closed his eyes to drink, followed the sweep of a pink tip of tongue across full lips after each swallow, noted the length and strength of the slender fingers curling around the large stoneware mug.

From those hands, his gaze traveled slowly over the lean body clad in a Dallas Cowboys muscle shirt and dark blue sweatpants, and he smiled slightly at the sight. Gone from Vin was every trace of tension, of wary vigilance, replaced by the complete and perfect relaxation he so rarely displayed. The wide, sinewy shoulders were loose, his spine was curved into a comfortable, nearly boneless slouch, and long, slim legs were stretched out before him and crossed at the ankles. Each time he raised his cup to drink, Chris watched the supple ripple and flex of muscles beneath smooth, tanned skin, reminded of the lithe and latent power of a cat lazing in the sun. An air of calm, of peace, surrounded the man like a tranquil pool, and Larabee wanted nothing more than to dive into those deep, still waters and rest submerged in them forever.

God, how had he lived without this for so long? And what would he do if ever he were forced to live without it again?

“Ain’t gotta stare like that, y’know,” Vin said quietly, never turning to face his lover. “I ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

The words drew a startled gasp from Chris and he sat up straight, snatching his gaze away guiltily. “I wasn’t–”

“Yeah, ya were,” Vin contradicted easily. He did turn then and set his cup on the table, fixing deep and knowing blue eyes on his lover. “Been doin’ it all weekend now, never lettin’ me outta yer sight fer more’n a few minutes, like yer scared I’m gonna disappear.” He cocked his head slightly to one side, frowning at the sudden tight clench of Larabee’s jaw. “There somethin’ ya need ta talk about?”

Chris turned his face away, staring out toward the barn and trying to think of some words of denial. But even had they come, he knew, Vin would never believe them. The damned sharp-eyed Texan could see straight through him as if he were made of glass.

“When I said I ain’t goin’ anywhere,” Vin persisted, undaunted by Larabee’s silence, “I meant it. That includes right now. So ya might’s well tell me what’s stirrin’ around inside that head ’a yers, ’cause ain’t neither one of us leavin’ this porch until ya do.”

Chris jerked his gaze back to Tanner and scowled. “That a threat?” he growled.

Vin smiled slightly. “Hell, Chris, ya know me. I don’t make threats.” Blue eyes glinted with something between teasing and resolve. “I give warnin’s. If yer lucky. Now,” he sat back in his chair, folded his hands across his flat stomach and arched a brow at his lover, “ya wanta try this again?”

Chris tried to meet that stare, tried to subdue it, but couldn’t. Vin Tanner was stubborn. Vin Tanner with right on his side was absolutely immovable. He sighed in defeat and bowed his head, closing his eyes and rubbing them with a thumb and forefinger.

“It’s the day,” he breathed.

Vin nodded slowly. “Figgered as much,” he said softly. He let his gaze drift away from Larabee. “Been thinkin’ on it some m’self.”

Chris’s head snapped up and his eyes shot open, slashing across to Vin. “You?” he asked in sharp surprise.

Again, Vin arched a brow and returned his mild blue gaze to the older man’s face. “Yeah, me,” he answered evenly. “I think too, y’know.”

Chris had to chuckle at that. He knew Tanner thought, and a good deal more than most people gave him credit for doing. That mop of hair, lopsided grin and lazy drawl concealed a mind that was lightning-fast, razor-sharp and sometimes frighteningly inventive. The Texan was also about the most perceptive damn man on the face of the earth, with instincts and an intuition that were sometimes downright spooky.

“All right,” he said at last, still grinning, “tell me what you’ve been thinkin’.”

Vin shrugged lightly. “Same things I usually think about,” he rasped, watching Larabee intently and noting the subtle play of sunshine and shadow over the strong face of the man who was himself an amalgam of light and dark. “You, me, what we got between us, ’n what we got with the team.” He continued to gaze raptly at Chris, even now marveling that such a man could truly be his. “I swear ta God, Chris,” he breathed, everything he felt for Larabee rising through him in a hard, hot wave, “in all my life, I ain’t ever had anything near as fine as you. And I ain’t ever taken you or one minute between us fer granted. I cain’t, ’cause I know all too well that there jist ain’t a whole lotta men like you out there. And, b’lieve me, I seen enough ’a the kind that ain’t like you ta know.”

Chris winced at that, hating the thought of all the hurt Vin had known in his life, and much of it at the hands of men who’d claimed to love him. He wondered if any of those bastards had understood what a rare and precious gift they were so callously abusing and how they’d lived with themselves afterward.

“’N Lord knows I ain’t ever had nothin’ like what I’ve got with the boys,” Vin went on in that soft, raspy voice. “I don’t mean the job, though that’s part of it, but them. I’s on my own fer a long time, ’n figgered it’d always be that way.” He dropped his gaze to the table and shrugged one shoulder. “Didn’t have nobody tyin’ me down, but didn’t have nobody watchin’ my back, either. Didn’t have nobody who cared if I lived or died. When ya’ve gone as long as I did without havin’ that, then once ya get it, y’ don’t ever stop givin’ thanks. ’Specially,” he lifted his gaze again and locked it on Larabee’s, “when ya know ya could lose it again at any minute.”

Chris’s eyes widened and he sucked in a sharp breath as Vin’s soft words struck home. Damn sharpshooter had hit the target again.

Vin nodded at his lover’s reaction. “I reckoned that was it. You’ve had shadows in yer eyes fer three days now, ’n you been lookin’ at me like I’m another one ’a them ghosts that haunt ya.” He straightened in his chair and leaned across the table, taking one of Larabee’s hands in his and holding tightly to it. “But I ain’t dead, Chris. I’m alive ’n I’m right here ’n I ain’t ever gonna leave ya.”

“You can’t say that,” Chris protested hoarsely, his eyes filling as too familiar pain lanced through him. “Christ, look at what we do for a livin’! I’ve already come so damn close to losin’ you so many times…” His voice broke and the tears spilled down his cheeks. “One day a bullet’s gonna find its mark,” he whispered raggedly, clutching fiercely at Tanner’s hand. “And then what the hell am I supposed to do?”

Vin ignored the death-grip on his hand, ignored the pain shooting through his fingers, and concentrated solely on the pain in his lover’s eyes. “Yer s’posed ta do the same thing I am if it’s you that falls,” he said in a low but steady voice. “Hurt like hell, grieve fer all that’s gone, then get up and live yer life so’s ever’body’ll know I didn’t die in vain. And remember until the day you die that I loved you with ever’thing that was in me.”

Chris bowed his head and pressed Vin’s hand to his wet cheek. “I just don’t know,” he whispered, “if I have another goodbye left in me.”

“Well then,” Vin sighed, pulling his hand free and sitting back, “I reckon you shouldn’ta took up with me, ’cause I ain’t gonna live forever.”

Chris raised his head and stared at Vin in stark terror, his naked soul in his eyes. “You’re younger than me!” he said desperately. “You’ll outlive me–”

“I live in Purgatorio, cowboy,” Vin said calmly. “I take down scum on the job and face it again when I git home. I drive a motorcycle. Hell, I drive, period. I ride a horse that ain’t but half-broke on his good days, I go campin’ in places that ain’t on no maps… You want me ta list fer you all the possible ways I could die? Look at me, Chris,” he demanded when Larabee again turned away. “Damn it, Chris, look at me!” When Chris did, he reached out and again took the man’s hand, holding it in a vise-like grip of his own. Blue eyes bored into green as Tanner poured every ounce of his formidable will through their linked gazes. “Ain’t no guarantees in this life, cowboy,” he said firmly, refusing to let Larabee look away. “If ya don’t believe me, ask all them folks who was made widows and orphans on 9-11. Ask the folks in Oklahoma City. Hell, ask the parents of all them kids that was killed at Columbine! Life jist don’t come with guarantees, Chris! I wish ta God I could give ya one, but I ain’t ever lied ta you yet, ’n I ain’t about ta start now. Not even when I know ya want me to.”

“So what do we do?” Chris breathed, his fear like a thing alive within him.

Vin smiled gently. “What we’re doin’ right now, cowboy. Takin’ ever’ chance we can jist ta be together ’n holdin on ta each other fer all we’re worth. Lovin’ each other ’n livin’ the lives we got. ’Cause they’re the only ones we got, and they sure as hell beat any alternative I’ve ever seen.”

Chris stared down at the hand gripping his and let himself feel the strength and warmth, the life, in it. “I remember when Sarah and Adam died,” he murmured, idly running his free thumb over Vin’s knuckles. “When I buried them, I buried me. Or told myself I did. Told myself I’d never love anyone again, that it just wasn’t worth it. That life would be easier, less painful, without it.”

“Was it?” Vin asked softly, watching intently the play of emotions across the face he knew better than his own.

Chris shrugged. “I told myself it was.” He looked at Vin, and a small, wry smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. “Turns out I was lyin’ to myself. I used to be real good at that. Told myself I had everything I needed with the job and the ranch and that I didn’t need any more complications. Told myself that was the way it had to be.”

“What happened?”

Chris laughed softly. “Then one day when I was livin’ my dull, uncomplicated life, into it moseys this long-haired, scrawny-assed Texan with an insolent smile, a smart mouth and the goddamnedest drawl I’ve ever heard. And all of a sudden I’ve got more complications in my life than I know what to do with. See,” he frowned thoughtfully, still contemplating Tanner’s hand as if it were an infinite mystery, “everybody else I’ve ever met is scared to death of pissin’ me off. Not this cocky sonuvabitch, though. He delights in it, goes out of his way to do it, and doesn’t seem to understand that one day I’m gonna shoot his ass for doin’ it.”

“Mebbe he does understand,” Vin said with a sly grin. “Mebbe he jist don’t care.” He winked. “Mebbe he does it ’cause he thinks yer awful damn purty when yer spittin’ nails.”

Chris lifted his gaze from Vin’s hand to his face and arched a blond brow. “One of these days,” he warned, “one ’a them nails is gonna hit you.”

Tanner’s grin widened and turned wolfish, and an unholy light gleamed in his eyes. “Cain’t say gittin’ nailed by you is a bad thought at all,” he drawled.

Chris laughed aloud and shook his head, thrusting Tanner’s hand away. “How do you always do this to me?” he asked in happy wonder. “How is it that when all I can see is darkness, gloom and doom, you come along and make the sun rise all over again? How do you do that? Why do you do that?”

Vin rose to his feet and walked around the table to him, lowering himself onto Larabee’s lap and circling long arms about his neck. “I do it ’cause I love ya,” he said softly, seriously, blue eyes dark and eternities deep. “I do it ’cause I cain’t stand ta see ya lost in the dark, cain’t stand ta see ya hurtin’.” He lifted one hand and ran his fingers slowly through Chris’s golden hair. “Lord, Chris, don’t you know that I’d take away ever’ bit of hurt in yer life if I could?”

“You can,” Chris whispered, twining his arms about the Texan’s lean body. “You do. More than you’ll ever know.”

“We’re both gonna die one day, cowboy,” Vin said. “Ain’t no way around that. And unless we go out in a blaze ’a glory together, one of us is gonna git left behind. So mebbe we should jist concentrate on givin’ each other love enough and mem’ries enough ta git us through until we’re back together.”

“You really believe that, don’t you?” Chris asked, seeing the certainty in his lover’s eyes. “That we will get back together, I mean.”

“I don’t jist believe it, I know it.” He smiled and winked. “Made my way back to ya from Boston, didn’t I? Took me four days, sharin’ three rental cars, hitchin’ a ride on a semi ’n walkin’ them last few miles, but I did it. I’ll always do it. Long as I know yer waitin’, ain’t nothin’ gonna keep me from ya. Not even death.”

Chris exhaled hard and pulled Vin to him in a fierce embrace, clutching tightly at the younger man and burying his face in Tanner’s long hair, wetting it with his tears. “Let’s go inside,” he whispered tightly against the sharpshooter’s warm neck. “I need ya with me now.”

Vin nodded and pulled away just enough to smile at Chris through his own tears. He lifted a hand to Larabee’s cheek and stroked it tenderly, loving the man with his eyes and his touch. “Lord, cowboy,” he breathed, “I thought ya’d never ask.” He slid off Chris’s lap and rose to his feet, holding Larabee’s hand and pulling him up as well. “C’mon,” he said with a slow, sweet smile, “let’s see if we cain’t make the sun rise all over again.”

Holding tightly to Vin’s hand, Chris followed him into the house, refusing any longer to think of death while he still had a life with this man.

He was in the kitchen, washing the few dishes from his meager supper, when he noticed the message on the alarm system panel. The security light in the front yard, activated by motion, had been tripped.

Immediately on alert, he went to the cupboard, opened it and took down the pistol he kept on the top shelf. Checking to make sure it was loaded, he walked back through the dining room and into the rarely used living room. Going at once to the wide front window, he parted the blinds just enough to peer through them into the light-flooded yard. At first he saw nothing and instinctively tightened his grip on the pistol. Moments later, though, a figure emerged from the shadows of a tree, alone, on foot, trudging slowly but determinedly up the gravel drive. A large duffel bag was slung over one shoulder, a garment bag over the other, and a distinctive, expensive rifle case hung heavily from one hand. Long hair and jacket fringe fluttered on the cool night breeze.

Chris gasped hard, his heart hurling itself into his throat, and, before his mind could register what he was doing, he dropped the pistol onto a lamp table and raced to the front door, fighting the deadbolts with shaking hands and finally wrenching it open. Then he was through the storm door, over the porch and running across the yard. Tears streamed down his face, but, like all the others he’d shed over the past few days, he never felt them.

Couldn’t feel anything except near-delirious joy at seeing that beloved figure before him once more. Four days. Four days he’d existed on a knife’s edge of worry, fear, pain and loneliness, four days he’d tried desperately to hang on as the foundations of his world were rocked violently and damn near shattered. Four days he’d spent in a world where the sun refused to shine.

But now here, in the dark of night, he finally felt that light breaking over his soul.


He never heard his own cry, but Tanner did. Exhausted to the very marrow of his bones, hungry and plagued by brutally aching feet and back, he lifted his bowed head at the sound of that voice, saw the man racing toward him, and forgot every bit of his misery. Dropping the bags that weighed him down, he loosed a cry of his own and launched himself forward, all but blinded by tears but never needing eyes to see the man who was all he’d ever known of home.

They came together in the brightest heart of the light, Vin throwing himself into Chris’s arms, Chris catching him and holding him as if both their lives depended on it. Mouths met in hungry, desperate, tear-salted kisses and two hearts pounded as one in a single, frantic rhythm. Hands explored, caressed, clutched fiercely and, between deep kisses, two breathless, broken voices uttered words of love.

A full fifteen minutes or more they spent like that, never parting further than the space it took to breathe, neither ever releasing his hold on the other, two strong men clinging together and weeping unashamedly in sorrow for all that had been lost and in joy at what had finally been restored. Only when each was fully assured of the other’s health and wholeness did they ease apart and turn their thoughts and energies to the practical matter of getting themselves inside.

Yet even so, as they retrieved Vin’s bags and walked back to the house, they were hip-and-hip, the arm of one circled around the waist of the other, Vin’s head bent to Chris’s shoulder, Chris’s cheek against Vin’s hair. It was like that for the rest of the night as, finally reunited and still reeling from the magnitude of what had happened, they found it almost impossible to bear even the briefest separation. From the late supper Vin ate on the sofa in the den with his legs draped across Chris’s lap to the hot shower they took together, and then through a long night of alternately tender and intense lovemaking, they took every opportunity they could to give physical expression to their love.

As the first light of dawn crept slowly over the bed, Chris felt Vin’s warmth and weight pressed up against him and let the last bit of fear drain from his soul. He smiled and pulled his sleeping lover closer still, then surrendered to his own exhaustion, finally allowing himself to believe that somehow, someday, everything might just be all right again.

He drifted off to sleep at last, content with the knowledge that Vin was home and the sun was rising again.

The End




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