Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #16, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Seven Card Stud that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Lorin Zane and Erica Michaels were the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Art by Shiloh (email@example.com)
It started out like a normal weekend day. Vin arrived early, helping Chris take care of the horses before coming back inside for breakfast.
They ate their omelets out on the deck, enjoying the unusually warm spring day. The sun was out, the sky cloud-free. The trees were in various shades of pale green, their leaves just having begun to return. Nearby, the peaks and foothills were still capped and white with snow.
"Makes y' glad t' be alive, don't it?" Vin asked, staring out at the beauty.
Chris nodded. But he could remember a time, not so long ago, when he wouldn't have even noticed it. But ever since Vin had joined Team Seven, things had changed. It was… mind boggling – in the best way possible.
"So, y' want t' go for a ride today?" the younger man asked.
"Nope," the blond replied matter-of-factly, forcing his attention back to his rapidly cooling breakfast.
"No?" Tanner's tone was disappointed and, added to his pout, made him look like he was about six-years-old.
Larabee shook his head, saying, "No. I have plans today."
Vin's expression brightened. "You do?"
"I'm going to do some spring cleaning," Chris announced.
"More cleaning?" Vin asked. He'd been a happy helper in a great deal of it so far, along with several of the others as well.
Larabee nodded. "I need to make room in the office so I can get another file cabinet in there. This job has too damn much paperwork."
"But, Chris, it's such a beautiful day!" Vin said, hoping to change the man's mind.
"And the sooner I get in there and get to work, the sooner I might be able to enjoy some part of it. But you go ahead. I'm sure Peso could use the exercise."
Tanner sighed heavily and rolled his eyes. It seemed that there was no use arguing with the man whenever he got into one of his "cleaning" moods. Unfortunately, it had been popping up every few weekends since spring had started. He didn't actually mind. In fact, he'd enjoyed most of it, so far, because it gave him opportunities to get to know his friend and boss better, but today was the first really nice day they'd had in nearly a week, and he'd wanted to take advantage of it, not spend the day inside, cleaning.
"Tell you what," Chris replied, "it's supposed to be even nicer tomorrow. So, I'll make you a deal. You help me today in the office, we'll grill some steaks tonight, you can crash in the spare room, and tomorrow we'll take the horses and ride up to that foothills restaurant."
Vin's mouth dropped open. "That foothills restaurant" was a four star eatery that served some of the best elk and deer steaks in the state, not to mention buffalo, snake, and other unusual game meats. It also required reservations, usually several weeks in advance, but Chris knew the owner – an old roommate from college – and had a standing invitation to "show up whenever he liked." They had all gone one evening when Team Seven was complete and all their paperwork had cleared the various agencies they had transferred from. The meal had been delicious – the best he'd ever had.
"For real?" he asked, excitement replacing disappointment.
Chris smiled. "Yeah, for real."
Tanner nodded. "All righty then, let's get busy!"
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Larabee's home office was one of the larger rooms in the spacious ranch house, and the two men progressed methodically, going through every drawer and stack, every filing cabinet and bookcase, until nothing was left to do except the large walk-in closet.
There were two bags full of old magazines to be recycled, and several bags and boxes of white and mixed paper, including mounds of shredded documents, stuffed into plastic trash bags. Larabee was ruthless, tossing anything he hadn't used in the past year, or needed to keep for work-related reasons.
And Vin found he was more than happy to help the man de-clutter his life. Less is better was his philosophy. If it didn't mean something, you didn't need it.
They took a break halfway through the room for a lunch of big deli sandwiches that they ate out on the deck, just like breakfast. The sandwiches were washed down with beers, and followed up with coffee and some of the brownies Nettie had made for Vin on Friday. The older secretary had taken a real shine to the young agent, and he had returned the compliment, doing some much-needed repairs at her home. As a thank you, Nettie had started bringing pastries of various sorts in on Fridays for him.
They broke again for dinner when the closet was the only thing left to do, carrying out all the recycling and tossing it into the back of Larabee's Ram so they could drive it in to a local Whole Foods, dropping it off in the single stream bin behind the store for recycling. And, since they were at the store, they decided to take advantage of the well-stocked hot food bar to grab their supper, sparing Chris the need to grill, and eating their selections right there in booths that lined the windows, and enjoying the sunset as they did.
Their bellies full once more, they returned to the ranch to finish off the last of the blond's "spring cleaning" left inside the house. Larabee wheeled the flat screen TV in from the master bedroom and turned on a basketball game while they set to work on the closet. A small step ladder allowed Vin to work on the upper shelves while Chris worked below him.
All went well, and when Larabee finished, he offered to go make them some coffee.
"Sounds good," Vin agreed, "but can y' help me with this heavy box first?" He had found it crammed into a corner of the rear shelf, and it was the last of the boxes to be gone through from the top shelves.
"Sure," Chris replied, "hand it down to me."
Vin pulled the heavy cardboard box over closer, intending to hand it down to the blond, who was waiting, his hands lifted to receive the box. But it was even heavier than Vin expected and he bobbled it as it slipped off the shelf.
Larabee lunged forward slightly, grabbing it before it could fall, but in the process he jammed his shoulder against the stepladder, lifting one leg off the carpet. He grabbed the box, but the ladder tipped over, spilling Vin to the closet floor. He landed, half on top of Chris, who was also carried to the floor, along with the box.
A sharp gasp from Tanner had Larabee scrambling around to check on the man, who sat, cradling his wrist against his chest. "You all right?" he demanded.
Vin shook his head. "Caught myself; think I sprained it pretty good."
"Let me see," Larabee said, scooting closer and reaching for the man's cradled wrist.
The younger man instinctively pulled away.
"Vin," Chris said softly, "I won't hurt you."
Tanner looked up, his shame coloring his cheeks a rosy pink. "I know that," he said. "Just can't help it sometimes." He held his hand out so Chris could take a look, sucking in a sharp breath when Larabee made sure his injured wrist wasn't broken.
The blond climbed to his feet, then helped Vin up. Turning an angry look on the heavy box, he kicked it, snarling, "Goddamn bunch 'a shit—" But that was as far as he got. His outburst caught the lid, knocking it away. Some of the contents spilled out, stealing away his voice, and he stood, frozen in place as he stared.
"Chris?" Vin called softly, leaning around the man and glancing down at the floor. He saw what had so arrested his friend's attention. "Ah hell," he whispered. "I'm so sorry, Chris. I didn't know—"
"I know you didn't," Larabee interrupted, his voice suddenly sounding tired and sad, more so than Vin could ever remember hearing it. "It's not your fault."
Tanner sank to his knees on the floor to begin picking up the scattered photographs that had fallen out of the box, as well as the spilled photo albums.
"No," Chris said, dropping down to sit next to him and taking the photos from him. He stared at them, memories rising up and overwhelming him. His vision blurred as tears welled in his eyes. Without even realizing it, he reached up, his fingertips running lightly over the surface of the photos as if he could reach in and touch the faces looking back at him, the smiling faces of his wife and his son.
Giving Chris some space to be with his reminiscences, Vin carefully righted the box. Curiosity overcame him, though, and he looked inside, finding a stack of photo albums, and lots and lots of loose pictures that looked like they might have been ripped off various pages of the same albums. And they were all of Chris and Sarah and Adam. He spotted Buck in a few as well, and guessed that the ladies' man had probably taken most of the pictures himself.
Vin smiled sadly, seeing the love that was so obvious in the captured images. He couldn't imagine a loss like that. He doubted he would ever see the same kind of open, unguarded passion that had been captured in the pictures he was looking at, but he hoped he might. He wanted his friend to find love and happiness again.
He looked down at one of the pictures. All four of the faces there were smiling out at him and he wished he could turn back the clock and give Chris back his family. He would do it, if he could, but that wasn't within his power.
"I'd forgotten these were still here," Larabee said softly, breaking Vin from his thoughts. "I got drunk one night… pulled the albums out of the bookcase in the living room where Sarah used to keep—" He stopped as his voice caught.
"What happened?" Vin asked softly, his wrist beginning to throb. He ignored the pain, knowing what Chris was feeling had to be a hundred times worse.
"Buck found me… I was sitting in front of the fireplace, burning the pictures. He took them away from me, I guess… put them in this box and stuck it up on the shelf in the closet…"
"So you'd have them when you were ready t' see 'em again," Vin finished. Yeah, he'd probably have done the same thing if he'd found Chris doing that.
"I thought I'd burned them all," Chris added, his voice thick with emotion. "I thought they were all gone."
Vin nodded, knowing then what he was going to do. He would go through the albums, repair any damage he could, return the photos to their correct pages, and put them back where they belonged.
Chris continued to lightly stroke the photo he was holding. "Not sure I'm ready to see them just yet."
Vin doubted that anyone who had lost what Larabee had lost would ever be truly ready for that, but it was time. He would do what needed to be done. "Seems t' me you've been livin' with the bad memories for a long time now… It's time y' went back an' remembered the good ones."
That brought a sad smile to the older man's face. "There were good ones, Vin… lots of them."
"Of course there was. Hell, anyone who sees these pictures would know you two were really in love… An' that y' both loved that baby more 'n anything… It's beautiful… Y' should let that beauty back into your life."
Chris nodded. "I want to, but…"
"It still hurts too much," Vin guessed.
Larabee managed a weak smile. "Yeah."
The blond looked back down at the loose photos that were scattered around the box. "It feels like that was another life… another lifetime ago… like it was all a dream…"
"You were happy," Vin said, "really happy then."
That brought Chris' head up. "I'm happy now, too, but…"
Tanner smiled sadly. "It's different."
The older man's head dipped. "Yeah, it is. After losing them… I don't think I could go through that again…" he said as Vin reached over to put the pictures he was holding back into the box. "Oh, damn, your wrist—"
"Just a sprain," Vin interrupted him. "No big deal."
"Come on," Larabee said, carefully laying the pictures he was holding in the open box as well. He reached out and picked up the lid, sliding it back on, then stood and helped Vin to his feet. "We need to go put some ice on that wrist. I'll give Nathan a call—"
"You will not," Vin told him. "It'll be fine."
"You're still putting some ice on it, and I'm going to find that ace bandage so you can wrap it."
"For cryin' out loud, Larabee, you're worse than a mother hen," Vin grumbled as he was led to the kitchen and given a baggie full of ice.
"Yeah, well, it comes with practice, and with you guys around, I get plenty of it."
The younger man shook his head. "We ain't no worse 'n any of the other teams."
"Right… more like all of 'em put together," Larabee mumbled as he headed for the bathroom to find the ace bandage.
Tanner fought the desire to stick his tongue out at the man as he passed, grinning slightly instead. The blond was back a moment latter.
"Fifteen minutes with the ice, then put this on," he instructed, setting the rolled elastic wrap on the counter.
"Damn, you're startin' t' sound just like Nathan."
"I'm sure he'll be glad to hear that." Chris glanced around, then frowned when he saw the time. "Guess we'd better call it a night."
"Hell, it ain't that late, old man. Why don't y' make us some coffee, and we'll finish off those brownies and the office at the same time."
"Vin, you go trying to lift anything with that wrist—"
"I'll supervise, let you do all the liftin'," Tanner was quick to offer.
Chris scowled at him, but the expression had no sting to it. "Now you're starting to sound like Ezra."
That brought a smile to Tanner's lips and he nodded. "Guess I'm just learnin' t' appreciate his approach t' manual labor a little better."
Shaking his head, Larabee set about making the coffee and distributing the last of the brownies onto a pair of paper towels. By the time Vin was done icing and wrapping his wrist, the coffee was ready and Chris carried their cups back to the office, while Vin brought along the brownies.
In less than an hour they had finished off the closet, and the food. Larabee carried the last of the recycling out to the Ram, tossing it into the bed so he could take it over and dump it Monday morning on the way to work. He paused, leaning against the side of the vehicle and looking up at the stars. It felt good to get the house cleaned out and put back in order. It was a pattern he had learned from Sarah, and it made her feel a little closer.
He shook his head. It was also a way for him to slowly let her go. Each year a little more of what they had accumulated together left the house, replaced by things he'd picked himself, now with the team in mind. There was, simply, much less stuff in the house now.
Before long the house would start to look like Vin's place, if he wasn't careful. All Vin had in the small one bedroom apartment were some clothes, a small box worth of knickknacks, his weapons, and a portable file box for important papers.
Not counting his clothes, Vin probably had more "stuff" at the office than he did in his apartment. Not much to define a lifetime, but Larabee could guess why Vin lived such a sparse existence. The younger man had had everything taken away from him too many times; he had learned not to get attached to things.
"Hey, Cowboy, y' okay?"
Larabee turned to him, a smile on his lips. "Yeah, I'm good."
"It's gettin' cold out here," Tanner replied.
Chris nodded and followed the man back inside. "How's the wrist?"
"Fine. Ain't even hurtin' anymore."
The blond nodded. "So, you think you'll be up for that ride tomorrow?"
Vin smiled. "Sure as hell will be."
Chris grinned back. "Yeah, well, we'll see. If it swells up, I'm calling Nathan to come take a look."
That prompted a groan. "Y, do that an' he'd gonna want me t' go get an X-ray."
"Nothing wrong with that, Tanner. You might've done more damage than you think."
"Did not," he grumbled, but he had to admit – at least to himself – that it was nice to know that somebody cared if he was hurting or not. "Y' worry enough, don't need Nathan hoverin'."
"Oh, I do, do I?" Chris countered. "If I do, it's only because you animals give me good cause."
Vin's eyes rounded. "Animals?" Tanner rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. "Takes one t' know one, Cowboy."
Larabee looked smug as he said, "Keep it up, Mister. Now, it's time for bed."
"Damn you're bossy," Vin grumbled as he led the way back into the house.
"Long as you listen," Chris growled at him.
Vin cleaned up the kitchen while locked up the house, then they each headed for their bedrooms.
"'Night, Chris," Vin said.
"Sleep well," the older man replied.
Vin smiled, but didn't reply as he withdrew into the spare bedroom. He always slept well at the ranch.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Three weeks later
The rain was falling steadily outside when Chris dashed from the barn to the house. He closed the door and pulled off his jacket, hanging it up on the coat rack by the door so it could dry. He wiped his feet on the rug, then pulled them off and set them along the wall to dry as well.
Vin's Jeep was parked in the driveway, so he knew Tanner was already there. He called the man's name.
"In here," was the reply from the living room.
Chris walked in to find Vin sliding the last of the photo albums onto the bookcase by the fireplace. He frowned slightly. "What're you doing?"
"Puttin' these back where they belong," Tanner replied. He smiled at the older man, adding, "I put all the pictures back where they belonged. Took me two weeks t' find a store that had the right replacement pages, but I did. They're as good as new."
Chris felt the tears well in his eyes. He shook his head, deciding that Sarah must have sent Vin and the rest of the team, her gift to him, to help him start living once more.
He stepped up to Vin and rested his hand on the man's shoulder. "Thank you," he said, "for everything."
Vin smiled and nodded, his own eyes looking suspiciously full as well. "Yeah, dinner's almost ready," he added.
Chris grinned. "It is, huh? Guess I was out in the barn longer than I thought."
"Naw, I just put on a pot of spaghetti. J'siah made some of his special sauce and brung jars for all of us. I got yours, since you were stuck in meetings all day."
"Mmm," Chris replied, his mouth watering in anticipation. Josiah made a mean chili and a heavenly spaghetti sauce. "Sounds great."
Vin caught the man's eyes and asked a little nervously, "So, y' ain't mad about the albums?"
"No," Chris said, shaking his head. "I… I think you're right about it being time… And I don't think I could've fixed them up myself…"
"Hell," Vin said, standing, "that's what y' got friends for, Chris."
"Yeah, I'm slowly figuring that out," Larabee replied, resting his hand on Vin's shoulder and steering him toward the kitchen. Before they got there they could both smell the bubbling sauce.
"Man, that smells better 'n bakin' bread… almost."
Chris smiled. "It does at that." He started pulling down plates for them, then paused. He looked over at Vin, who was slurping up a noodle to see if the pasta was ready. "Vin," he said.
Tanner met his eyes as the noodle disappeared into his mouth. "Yeah?"
"Thank you," Chris stated.
Vin smiled. "You're welcome, Cowboy." After all, that what friends were for.
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