Disclaimers: Don't own 'em, etc.
Comments: Not sure what this is . . . but I think it could be interpreted in a few different ways. Take it as you will. Thanks to Angela and Rhian for proofreading and to Laramee for the pic.
The fire was dying; the orange glow from charred scraps of timber setting off a spark here and there, but no longer radiating much heat. Chris wondered for a moment why he'd let it burn low like that, where his mind had been, as he shook off a chill. He tossed a couple of small logs to the center of the burning rubble, scrabbling back a bit when a few hot ashes caught the draft and landed on his coat. Vin raised an eyebrow, but didn't say much.
Didn't say anything, in fact, as had been his way most of the night. Their fourth Christmas Eve together, and both knew how it went. A campfire, coffee laced with whiskey, more silence than conversation; simple, honest company on a night complicated by far too many memories, far too much commotion, and far too much sentiment for either one of them to rein in. Come morning, they'd do what they had to . . . go to town and have Christmas dinner with their friends. Gifts would be exchanged --with Vin squirming uncomfortably--and later on, Josiah would preach about blessings--with Chris squirming uncomfortably. They'd get through the day; put it aside until next year.
Vin held out the pot, his face gleaming like pure gold in the light of the newly revitalized fire. Chris met his eyes; saw in them what he always did . . . put it aside, like he always did.
Too much sentiment . . . too much emotion to rein in on a night like tonight, especially tonight.
He responded by holding his cup up, and Vin poured, filling it to the brim, before settling the pot on the warm grate. Chris added the whiskey, pouring a capful in Tanner's cup, too, before slipping it back in his saddle bag. Not enough to get drunk on, but enough to take the edge off . . . warm them up a bit from the inside, where the cold was the hardest to shake.
The first year, Vin had taken off by himself, or tried to. They were gathered in the saloon, JD strung up tight like a six year old, and going on about how great their first Christmas together was going to be. Vin hadn't said a single word until he stood up, pulled his hat on his head, and mumbled he was taking patrol.
JD took exception, of course, "But . . . but it's Christmas Eve, Vin. You don't need t' be leaving tonight!"
Vin had looked down at the floor, shuffled his feet his feet a bit, thinking it over . . . how best to get out of it, Chris reckoned. A minute later, he looked at Dunne and said quietly, "Shit still happens, JD. Got a job t' do and I aim t' do it."
JD sputtered, "But . . . it's Christmas . . ."
Buck put a stop to it; put his hand on the kid's arm and said without argument, "Let him go."
No one said a word when Chris got up to follow him.
It hit him hard that year--that moment--that he'd rather be with Vin. Rather be with Vin than anyone, when it came down to it; the feelings between them coming up so strong and so sudden that he still hadn't worked it out in his mind. So he put it aside.
Vin didn't question it when Chris came up beside him, both men saddling their horses in silence. They rode out of town a ways before Tanner pulled up suddenly and announced, "Looks like a good spot."
And it was. Quiet, secluded, a good tree line to hold off the wind and soft ground to rest their backs on, and Chris wasn't surprised when they came back the next year and the year after that. In spite of the fact that he and Vin camped out together often, they only came to this place on Christmas Eve. Vin never said why and Chris never asked. It just was.
Like a lot of things just were.
It was unseasonably warm that first year, Vin stretching out on the ground without even a blanket or bedroll to separate him from the barren earth. Chris had offered to take first watch, knowing Tanner had been on patrol the previous night, as well. Vin had nodded and fallen asleep quickly, with Chris watching his back; trust between them immediate and unshakable and beyond anything he could understand or give reason to.
They put their faith in each other to the test that following year, though; Charlotte and Ella straining the bond but never fully breaking it. When Vin rode out that second Christmas, he wasn't sure Chris would follow, though the invitation was clear in his eyes. That would have been the time to put a stop to it, and Larabee thought he probably should have.
But he didn't want to.
So he didn't.
He watched Vin sleep that second Christmas. He thought about how close he'd come to throwing it all away for Ella, and how Tanner was so desperate for a normal life, that he'd almost run off with a married woman. He wondered if Vin had come to the same conclusion that he had . . . that a normal life just wasn't in the cards for him.
And when Vin woke up a few hours later, offering a crooked grin and a sparse comment, "You got it all figured out yet, Larabee?" . . . Chris decided he didn't much care for a normal life anyway.
That third Christmas, it snowed. He'd almost turned around and headed back for town, but Vin had stubbornly forged ahead, so he went along, too, kicking himself the entire way. What was it about Tanner that made him give up all reason and follow blindly along behind? Chris knew he was considered the leader of their tight-knit group, but in reality, it was more often him trailing Vin than the other way around.
In front of him, beside him, behind him . . . didn't much matter, so long as Vin was close by. That scared him sometimes; needing another man like that. He couldn't get a handle on it, couldn't figure it, so he put it aside.
Vin felt the cold more than most, but it didn't stop him from taking pleasure in a deep, fresh snowfall. He'd thrown out his bedroll that Christmas Eve and hunkered down with what Chris could only describe as an impish grin.
"What the hell are you smilin' at, Tanner?" he'd asked. "You're gonna be buried under a foot of snow come morning."
"Nope," Vin said, pulling the covers over his head. Chris just barely made out the rest of his muffled reply from within his cocoon . . . "You won't let that happen."
So once again, Vin slept and Chris kept watch. He wasn't sure why he let Tanner get away with that again, but he supposed it was because he didn't mind all that much and Vin knew it.
He missed watching Vin sleep that year. He could see a wisp of stray, curly hair and the long fingers of one hand poking out from under the blankets, but that was all. It stirred something in him, something deep and far too dangerous to hold onto, so he let it slide. It was the time of year. Made him think too seriously . . . too much sentiment and emotion, and it would all go away with the holiday trimmings.
Christmas passed, like it always did; spring and summer came and went. And in the fall, Vin met up with a bounty hunter while he was out on patrol alone. He'd taken care of him, but not before taking a bullet in the side. By the time he'd made it back to town, he was half dead.
Gut-shot . . . the only words to describe how Chris felt when he saw Vin slumped over in the saddle as his black ambled into town. He couldn't breathe right, couldn't stop his hands from shaking . . . couldn't figure it or reason it . . . some things just were.
Put it aside, put it aside, put it aside . . .
Vin developed an infection and Nathan wasn't sure he could save him, and he'd looked at Chris like he was giving him the death sentence in place of Tanner. And Chris wondered when it became apparent that Vin dying and him dying were one and the same.
But Vin didn't die. He recovered and come Christmas Eve, he pulled his hat on his head and saddled his horse and rode out with Chris following along behind.
Tanner was looking at him now, gauging his thinking from across the fire, and Chris met his eyes only briefly before looking away. Too late, no doubt; Vin had to have seen and known, but he knew how to put it aside, too.
Nathan had urged him to talk to Vin, that long night when it looked like the tracker might not see morning. "Tell him, Chris. Now's the time to let him know how you feel," Jackson had said.
But he couldn't. And Nathan must have known, because he put his hand on the gunslinger's shoulder and spoke softly in his ear, "Never mind. He already knows."
Vin sighed, shifting a bit closer to the fire. Shadows still stubbornly marred his eyes; his skin still a shade too pale, and Chris knew he'd be keeping watch again tonight.
He didn't mind.
It was only when Tanner shivered that he remembered he'd packed an extra blanket in his saddle bag. Vin silently watched him as he pulled it out, still not speaking when Chris moved behind him and dropped the blanket around his shoulders.
His hand lingered on Vin's shoulder; a feeling of complete and utter relief gripping him at the sureness of it. Too close this time, and his friend would never ride patrol alone again.
Vin lifted his hand, and Chris thought it was to pull the blanket tighter around him. But instead, he placed his hand over Larabee's and held firm. The fire popped and ashes burnt his skin where Vin held fast. Or so it seemed, though in his head Chris knew the heat had little to do with the fire and everything to do with feelings he couldn't put a name to.
And he never would.
Vin let go as suddenly as he'd latched on, and Chris sat back down.
Their eyes met across the fire; no words were spoken.
It was the time of year . . . emotions and sentiments running rampant, exaggerated by the near loss. Too close this time . . . and they'd have to work harder to rein it in.
Vin swallowed, cleared his throat . . . "Put it aside, Chris."
Turning his eyes to the fire, Chris whispered his response. "Merry Christmas, Pard."
Vin nodded, leaned back, and closed his eyes to sleep.
And Chris kept watch.