Disclaimer: Not mine, but then you know that. No infringement intended, no money made, but then you know that, too .
A holiday fic for those of you who, like me, have a sentimental soul which is beyond saving. If swimming through treacle isnt your thing read something else! If you don't like it, blame Mariah Carey and Brian McKnight for recording 'Whenever You Call'. Huge thanks to my stalwart sis, Margaret, for beta-ing this, and undying gratitude to Obi-Wan SueN, Oracle, LaraMee, Annie and all the others who got me reading, and now it seems even attempting to write, this stuff
Authors Notes: Ummm this is my first attempt at heck, I'm not even sure what this is more slush than slash, probably qualifies as h/c aww hell Ill leave the decision to you - okay?
In case you hadn't spotted it, I'm not at all sure what I'm doing here, so all feedback is welcome.
Vin Tanner pushed open the heavy glass door of the gift shop and emerged from the centrally heated store into the freezing Denver night. Frost glittered on the sidewalk and the air was so cold it almost hurt to breathe. He tucked the gift bag he was carrying safely inside the front of his battered leather jacket and hurriedly pulled up the zipper, before ramming his hands firmly into his pockets and hunkering himself down into the ancient garment to try and stave off the biting cold. He wore a scarf and several layers of clothing beneath the jacket, but still shivered. He had always felt the cold - which begged the question why had he settled in Denver rather than Miami? The answer to that was obvious, he thought with a swift smile. Chris wasn't in Miami.
His battered jeep was parked only a few yards from the entrance to the shop, a fact he was thankful for as he felt his booted feet slipping on the treacherous, icy street. Once safely inside the vehicle, he retrieved the bag and withdrew the contents, smiling happily. The bag contained a wooden photo frame, intricately decorated with Native American designs and enclosing a colour photograph of two horses, one with a bright white blaze and a defiant expression, the other with soulful brown eyes. Peso and Pony. Vin's difficult, cantankerous, aggravating, hell - infuriating - Peso, with his cocky expression and appalling manners, and Chris's gentle, even tempered, well-schooled Pony - a more unlikely pair of friends you would be hard pushed to find. Peso was a notorious biter, yet he never bit the mild-mannered and amiable Pony. A fidgety, difficult, ornery animal with a cussed streak a mile wide, yet he enjoyed the calming influence of the black with whom he shared his stable, his field, his apple treats, indeed his life. You wouldn't have put them together in a million years, yet they seemed to fill in the gaps in each other.
Just like Vin and Chris did. Like two broken halves, coming together and suddenly finding that their ragged edges fit together seamlessly, making a smooth, unblemished whole.
The young, guarded, vulnerable sharpshooter, who had seen more and done more to survive than anyone should have to and the older, emotionally scarred team leader, whose personal tragedy had overwhelmed him, sending him along a dark road that seemed to be leading straight to self destruction. Two damaged, scarred, pain-filled pieces of humanity that had come together and made one complete, replenished soul.
Vin smiled down at the photo. He had taken the picture one sunny fall afternoon, the fiery colours of the trees and the vivid blue sky perfectly setting off the two beautiful animals. Now all he had to do was get it into the ranch house without Chris seeing it, wrap it, and place it under the huge Christmas tree standing guard in one corner of the enormous den. It was the last of his gifts for Chris - the others were all safely hidden in various spots in the house, well out of the way of those all-seeing green eyes.
Digging into the inside pocket of his jacket, he retrieved a red envelope, with the words For Chris painstakingly written in Vins dyslexia-tortured hand on the front. The envelope contained a poem, which Vin intended to wrap with the photo. Ezra had helped him with the spelling, although all the words were Vins. Despite the astonishing vocabulary and legendary barbed wit of the undercover agent, he had spent many hours gently coaching and encouraging the sharpshooter, usually long after the other members of the team had left the office.
Ezras patience had gradually worn down Vins initial mistrust and suspicion, had encouraged him to ask for help rather than fume in frustration with his disability. A bond of gradual, but growing, trust had emerged between them, and had given Vin the ability to express himself much more easily with the written word than at any other time in his life. Ezras encouragement and discretion had been a gift given freely by someone Vin was now proud to call his friend.
Vin's smile widened as he turned the key and revved the cold engine into life, the radio happily chirping "Santa Claus is Comin To Town". Carefully slipping the red envelope into the bag with the photo, he put the package on the front seat beside him, and eased out into the slow-moving traffic.
Tomorrow would be Christmas Eve, and for the first time in as long as Vin could remember, he wouldnt be working. For years, he had always volunteered to work the holidays preferring the distraction of work to sitting in a tiny apartment with a serves one tv dinner. His workmates, usually guys with families, had been absurdly grateful, little realising that, in Tanners eyes at least, they were doing him the favour. No matter how he tried, Vin had never been able to feel part of the holiday season.
Like a kid staring in a toy-store window, he had always felt outside of it all. The toys in the store were enticing even fascinating, but as ever owning any of them was out of the question, it was kind of difficult to get excited about them. Vin hadnt been resentful, aggrieved or depressed by it, just not part of it. Holidays always seemed to be about families, about people who were special to you, and Vin had almost no memory of the first, and precious few of the latter.
Now he was part of it, and now he finally understood what was so wonderful, so special, so magical about it all. At first sight, the gift had been well disguised - a new job in the Denver ATF, working with as mis-matched a team of individuals as anyone ever threw together. Word had it they were a rough, unconventional, troublesome lot, led by a maverick agent with a death wish and the eyes of the devil himself.
Vin remembered that first morning clearly. He had been prepared for a fight. Guard high, walls as strong as he could make them, face a mask of indifference, he had strolled into that office ready to prove he could be the man they were looking for. He had looked up as the door to the Team Leader's office opened, and in the next four seconds, his life had changed forever. Clear, bright, diamond-hard green eyes had met his gaze head-on, and it was as if the world had stopped turning. Completely riveted by that glare, Vin Tanner had looked into Chris Larabee's eyes and seen, not the devil, but the other half of his spirit.
The one thing he had wanted all his life, and truly believed he had never deserved, had been given to him a family five men who were as close to him as brothers, who had given him not just the toys in the window, but the contents of the whole goddamn store loyalty, trust, faith, friendship, conviction, confidence, hope. The price tags on those gifts were out of reach of billionaires. And, most unexpected and most precious of all, he had Chris. The tall, blond, obstinate and impossibly beautiful Chris, whom Buck had once described as, "a grizzly crossed with a rattlesnake, cleverly disguised as a scorpion."
Not a bad description, Vin grinned, especially when faced with intolerance, prejudice, unprofessionalism or anything that offended his sense of honour or decency. But that irascibility was only one facet of the man Vin knew. The man Vin loved. The man whose capacity for emotion sometimes left Tanner reeling with the wonder of it, whose eyes could literally lift you into his soul, whose mere presence in a room could cause every head to turn in his direction. A man whose heart had been so callously wounded by fate as to almost be destroyed, yet who had still found the strength and courage to give that same, fragile heart to Vin a once in a lifetime gift, cherished by its recipient, to whom nothing was, or ever could be, more important.
The traffic on the main road was busy, but at least moving, and Vin found himself humming "I Believe In Father Christmas" along with Greg Lake. It was with more than a little relief he saw the turning up ahead, and pointed the jeep in the direction of the ranch.
The nearer he got to home, the more deserted the roads became, and the more anxious Vin was to get the journey over with. He was hungry, cold and wanted nothing more than to get home to a hot meal, a glass of wine and Chris. The prospect of being with Chris for four whole days without work intruding loomed like paradise. The other members of the team would be descending for Christmas lunch of course, but that was part of what Vin was looking forward to. The rest of the time well, the prospect of waking up in Chriss arms, of leisurely breakfasts in bed, of hours before the cavernous fireplace watching football, or old movies, or best of all, each other home for the holidays had taken on a whole new meaning.
The headlights of the jeep chased each other round the bends in the country road, each turn of the wheels bringing him closer to home and filling his heart with anticipation. He was really excited about this Christmas - more than he could ever remember being before, even as a child. At long last, it seemed, Vin Tanners guardian angels were smiling on him, and their smiles had given him more than he ever dreamed possible. All the things denied him as a child were now his to enjoy as an adult which somehow made them infinitely more precious.
Vin slowed down as a particularly severe left-handed bend approached one he knew intimately as being dangerous, even in daylight. He braked gently, turning the wheel steadily.
The ice on the road was completely invisible the jeeps tires fought for traction on the glass-smooth surface and failed. The vehicle spun, sliding gracefully through several 360 degree turns before slamming into the small raised bank at the roads edge, somersaulting in an almost perfect arc, ejecting Vin from the driver's seat with incredible force and throwing him through the air like a rag doll, then cartwheeling down the steep embankment at the side of the road. Vin had a brief, surreal flash of the vehicle twisting above him, headlights scything through the dark night, then everything descended into blackness.
+ + + + + + +
A log shifted on the fire, the sharp crack and rustle waking Chris instantly from his light doze. There was no slow coming around from sleep, no gentle passage from slumber to wakefulness Larabee felt as if someone had punched him. He shot upright in the recliner, adrenalin pounding through him, his heart beating furiously in his chest. Something was wrong. He knew it.
His eyes zeroed in on the clock, and the disquiet edging gently at his stomach suddenly turned into a cold, slithering mass inside him.
Vin was late. Normally that would not have bothered him unduly, but Chris knew how much Vin had been looking forward to getting home this evening. One of his favourite meals was in the oven, Larabees legendary chicken and dumplings, and tonight was to have been the start of the couples holiday together. There was no way Vin would have been late and not let Chris know.
Larabee reached for his cell phone, hoping against reason that he had slept through a call from Vin, but there was nothing. No stored message.
Willing his fingers to stop trembling, he pushed Vins speed dial number and held the phone to his ear. No answer. His eyes went back to the clock. He punched the end button on the phone. Something was wrong. He could feel it.
Chris never ignored his raw instincts, they had saved him far too many times in the past to be treated lightly. Right now, those same instincts were sending lightning strikes of fear through to his very soul. Think! he silently commanded himself. Mishandling fear causes failure on how many training sessions had he heard that phrase repeated? But right now, Chris Larabee was more afraid than he had been for a very long time.
Grabbing his jacket, keys and phone, and with dread churning in his gut, he almost ran from the house to the Ram parked on the driveway, the big vehicle sparkling with frost in the reflection of the security lights. He scrambled into the driver's seat, pushing the speed dial button on the cell phone for Buck, tucking the phone between his shoulder and his ear as his shaking fingers tried to fumble the key into the ignition.
Dammit! He didnt have enough hands! Goddamit Buck! Answer the fuckin phone!
He dropped the key on the floor as the security light went out.
"Fuck!" Chris banged the wheel with his clenched fist in frustration, then scrabbled frantically down between his feet for the key.
"CDC", Wilmingtons voice boomed in Chriss ear.
"Buck! you heard from Vin?"
"Junior? No pard he scooted outta work like a jack-rabbit with its tail afire said he was goin home .." Bucks voice suddenly dropped half an octave as a tinge of suspicion kicked in, " Chris? What is it?"
"He aint home yet "
Not for nothing was Buck Wilmington Chriss oldest friend. He could pick up on the slightest nuance in Chriss tone, and was an equal partner in what the rest of the team referred to, not as their sixth, but their "seventh" sense. Right now the needle on that seventh sense had just tripped full into the red.
"Me an JDll meet you out at the ranch "
"No! Im gonna go look for him theres only a few roads he coulda taken " Chriss voice was sharp-edged with panic.
Buck was not going to be dissuaded. "Well head out from here try his usual route ", his voice dropped again, "don worry pard you know Junior hes probably had a flat, or that heap ojunk jeep has finally let him down hes prolly freezin his nuts off at the side of the road somewhere waitin for a breakdown truck "
No! Chriss brain was screaming. If hed had a breakdown he woulda phoned!
"Sure", was what actually came out of his mouth.
"Later pard", Buck said and ended the call.
Shaking his head to clear the images of Vin that suddenly crowded his imagination blue eyes shining up at him, strong hands on his body, that throaty drawl in his ears Chris turned the key in the ignition. The engine of the Ram fired, and he slammed it into reverse, spewing up wide arcs of gravel from the wheels as he flung the vehicle around in a tight circle and accelerated down the long drive to the gate. He looked out through the windshield into a clear, starlit sky.
"Where are you Vin?" he said softly.
Where was he?
Vin tried to think, but it was like swimming in a fog his thoughts slipped away from him only half-formed, nebulous fragments he couldnt quite grasp before they were gone. He forced his eyes open and tried to focus.
Stars. He could see the sky.
Jesus, it was dark.
Cold. He felt cold, and his breath misted in front of his face.
Stars. He must be outside, then. Stars. They twinkled merrily down at him, like so many Christmas lights. They looked like diamonds studded into black velvet. Velvet. Soft. Like that fancy jacket of Chriss
Chris! The memories came back to him, awash in a torrent of adrenalin. Christ, ice! Brake! The jeep! Shit!
He tried to move but nothing happened.
He tried again. Nothing.
Then, very gradually, he became aware of the weight. Something was pressing down on him. Suddenly he could see it the mangled wreckage of the jeep, tangled with a mass of branches and undergrowth, lay across him, almost burying him. He couldnt see anything past his waist.
Then the fear came down on him a crushing, terrifying wall of blind dread, crashing over him like a huge wave his heart began to thump painfully and his breath rasped in his throat. In his thoughts, he was thrashing wildly, but in reality he knew he wasnt moving at all.
Stop! his mind screamed at him. Calm down! It took several moments before he could get his breathing under control, forcing the panic to the back of his mind, swallowing hard to quell the rising tide of nausea in his chest.
Right concentrate. Vin took a deep breath. The air was bitterly cold, it seared his throat, but it helped clear his head. He was laying flat on his back and he was breathing that much registered clearly.
He tried to move his head and found that he could twist it from side to side without a problem.
So far, so good.
Then he tried his arms, lifting the right one first. He could feel his muscles responding, the cold, sharp ground under his fingers. A jagged stab of pain shot through his left side when he tried to raise his left arm, but it was definitely moving.
Then he tried to move his legs. Nothing.
The panic began to creep back into his consciousness and he clenched his teeth together to stop it. Shit! I cant move my damn legs!
He concentrated as hard as he could telling himself it was just the weight on them that was preventing him moving. He willed himself to feel the muscles in his legs, trying to flex them, to reassure himself they were just imprisoned.
He couldnt do it.
There was no pain, no sensation, nothing at all. The panic came rushing back into his mind in a searing wave of white heat, crowding in on him from all sides, threatening to smother him in a claustrophobic shroud of terror.
"Oh God! Chris " A ragged breath, almost a sob, wrenched itself from his throat.
Chris steered the Ram with one hand, the other kept pushing the redial button on his phone every few minutes, the constant repetitive action an abortive attempt to calm his ragged nerves. Vin was not going to answer, Chris knew that as surely as he knew he couldnt stop punching that damn button. Somewhere out there, in that endless cold night, Vins phone was ringing Chris tried not to imagine what the reasons might be for Tanner not replying. He couldnt face any of them.
He drove slowly, his eyes scanning the road in broad sweeps, looking for anything different, anything slightly amiss that might give him a clue. Anything. His agonised thoughts tried desperately to remember things Vin had told him about tracking looking for signs, but his brain was fighting back fear and panic and concentration was difficult.
He hadnt passed a single vehicle since leaving the ranch.
Right, left, back, forward the green eyes resumed their restless sweeping of the road caught in the headlights. Anything. Tire tracks, broken branches, Vins jeep broken down on the verge please, please.
The cell phone in his hand rang sharply and he jumped, his heart leaping.
"Sme pard "
"Oh, Buck " Chris couldnt keep the bitter disappointment out of his voice.
"Chris Ive phoned everyone I could think of Denver PD, all the hospitals, everyone theres nothing no unidentified RTA victims, nothing . looks good, buddy "
Good? Chris wanted to scream at him. Good? Vins dropped off the face of the earth and it looks good?
Again the words metamorphosed into something else. "Okay pard", he said quietly.
"Were on our way Ive phoned the others", Bucks voice was warm, comforting. "Well find him Chris I promise "
Chris couldnt answer him. The words stuck in his throat. He just punched the end button and resumed his ceaseless sweep of the road. He knew Vin was out here, somewhere he could feel it. He didnt know what had happened, he only knew that something had, and it scared him beyond reason.
Dear God, what would he do if anything happened to Vin?
A horrible knot of pain formed in the centre of his chest and his vision blurred. When Sarah and Adam were taken from him, the light inside Chris had gone with them. His capacity to care, to feel, to love, had died along with them and he had believed he would never feel those things again. He had been wrong.
Larabee had been precariously balanced on the edge, only Bucks loyalty and tenacity saving him from plunging headlong into an abyss of self-loathing and ultimate self destruction; when a young Texan with a cocky grin and eyes bluer than anything Chris had ever seen had taken one look at him and shed a whole new light into the darkness inside him.
Half his heart had gone with his wife and son the other half now belonged completely to Vin Tanner. If that light went out as well, Chris Larabee would be left in darkness so total he was terrified of it.
His arms began to shake uncontrollably, and he had to pull the Ram to a halt. The last vestiges of composure deserted him, filling his heart with ice, forcing hot tears that filled his eyes, then overflowed, coursing down his face, the effort of trying to stem the flow making him gasp for breath.
His heart couldnt go through that much pain again.
"VIN!" he shouted in a furious, strangled groan to the night. The stars looked back at him, silently.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was fighting hard.
The cold was eating into him, gnawing painfully at his joints and numbing his skin he kept flexing his fingers, trying to shake his arms to keep the circulation going, twisting his head to keep himself awake.
He still couldnt feel his legs.
Several times he had heard his cell phone ringing, the strains of "All I Want For Christmas" could be heard somewhere in the tangle of wreckage around him. JD had downloaded the ring tone for him. He could hear it, but had no hope of reaching it.
Incredibly, the headlights on the jeep were still working, facing the wrong way out into woods beyond him, and they had definitely grown dimmer as the battery drained away but at least he could make out some detail.
He could also see the gift he had brought for Chris the bag lay about 2 feet from the limit of reach of his left hand he had tried several times to grab it but simply couldnt stretch far enough. Thatd be bout right, Tanner, he thought to himself, ycan see what ya want, but its always just outta reach.
His whole body seemed to be shaking with the cold, his teeth chattered together so hard his jaw ached, but he couldnt stop the shaking.
He was desperate not to pass out. Hed tried shouting over and over again yelling at the top of his voice, ignoring the jarring pain in his left side but no-one had heard him. He knew Chris would be looking but wherever Chris was - he was too far away to hear him.
The more rational part of Vins consciousness told him he was probably going into shock he had begun to feel unaccountably angry. The first Christmas he could ever remember looking forward to and it seemed that this one, too, was going to be denied him.
For so many years whilst he was growing up, Christmas had simply been a test of endurance, dragging himself through the days until January, when the world returned to something like normal.
Years of successive foster homes, some nice, others nightmarish.
The nice ones had tried to include him, made 'allowances', attempted some semblance of family, but he had always been the outsider, the shy, gawky, uncommunicative kid with the wild blue eyes and the stubborn streak, foisted on them when the previous foster home had given up or simply sent him back - like an unwanted gift. They either treated him like a stray pet or a charity case - both of which were ignominious and embarrassing. He had hated it.
Their transparent attempts at making him feel 'included' by wrapping up their own kids' unwanted toys or forcing their own children to play games with him. Board games were the worst. Vin hadn't been able to read or write, crippled with dyslexia and overpowering shyness, the other kids had soon given up trying to teach him and either teased or ignored him. The ignorance was preferable to the teasing.
The nightmarish ones had, in some ways, been easier. At least here no-one pretended to like him, just like no-one pretended Christmas was any different to any other time. As long as he kept quiet and kept out of the way, most of the time he would be ignored, like the holiday itself.
As a homeless teenager, Christmas had sometimes come and gone with him scarcely being aware of its passing - dealing with the constant problems of not having anywhere to sleep or anything to eat was enough to distract anyone from worrying too much about what day it actually was.
Why couldnt this have happened then? Vin thought savagely. When he truly hadnt given a damn about anything or anyone else.
Why now? Now, when he had so much a home and people who cared about him. Now when he had finally, totally, fallen in love. Now when he had Chris.
A sudden picture of Chris smiling at him flashed into his mind propped up on one elbow beside him in their huge double bed, sleepy green eyes sparkling, hair all mussed up and spiky, and Vins heart clenched in pain.
"WHY?" He screamed at the sky. "Why me? Why now? One fuckin Christmas! Thats all I wanted! You had my ma, youve had every other damn thing that ever meant anything to me, whyve you gotta take this from me as well!"
The futile rant had exhausted him, his chest heaved with the effort of breathing and ragged sobs broke noisily from his throat.
"Where are you Chris?" he asked the blackness all around him.
The stars looked back at him, silently.
+ + + + + + +
Chris climbed back into the cab for the fourth, fifth hell, he had lost count how many times he had screeched to halt, grabbed a flashlight, scrambled out and begun shouting Vins name.
He would run to the edge of the road, panning the light through the undergrowth, scanning frantically for any sign. He would shout, then wait
Just the frost, glittering on the branches, the tree trunks, the grass, reflecting tiny pinpoints of light back at him.
Dear God, Vin was gonna freeze to death out here.
No! No he would not let that happen. Fate had snatched his life away from him once, and he would be damned if he would allow that to happen again.
"Hang on Vin Im coming for you pard, just hang on."
Totally unbidden, a vivid image of Vin flashed into his mind, a mass of brown almost-curls tousled around his face, those incredible blue eyes full of lustrous reflections, that lopsided, heart-wrenching grin that could melt Larabees heart like butter on a burner.
Wherever Vin was, he would never be too far away for Chris to love him. Ever.
"I love you Vin just feel that and know that Ill find you", Chris spoke out loud, the words taking on physical form as his breath clouded in front of his face and misted the windshield, where they froze into a thousand tiny diamonds.
He pulled away again, trying to focus his mind on the road, to visualise Vin driving home.
Just up ahead was that vicious bend where hed nearly lost the Ram last winter. He slowed to almost a crawl as he turned the wheel. He had rounded the bend and the road had begun to straighten out when something tripped in his mind.
He thought hed seen a light way off in the trees.
He turned around.
+ + + + + + +
Vins teeth had stopped chattering quite some time ago, and he didnt feel anywhere near as cold.
He still couldnt feel his legs, but now he was so tired it didnt seem to matter quite as much as it had before. He kept dozing, floating away, feeling sleep pulling at his senses.
Once or twice he could have sworn he heard music. A Christmas song something to do with someone else JD was it? What was it called? His fuddled brain tried to remember the name of the tune. Vin tried to concentrate. Christmas. It was nearly Christmas. If he went to sleep, he was going to miss it.
Didnt matter, hed never cared much for Christmas, anyway.
He was so tired his eyelids felt as if they were being dragged down a hill.
Somewhere at the back of his mind, he fought for a memory. Something warm, safe, good - felt as if it was trying to reach out to him. He struggled to try and give it form substance. It wouldnt come just the feeling was there, gentleness, strength, security. He could feel that very clearly. The feeling formed into a word as his senses began to desert him. Chris. A misty image of green eyes made his heart miss a beat, then a grey fog enveloped him and carried him away.
+ + + + + + +
Chris left the door of the Ram wide open as he ran across the road. He almost lost his footing as he climbed the small raised bank at the side of the road and looked over to the steep incline beyond. It took several moments for his eyes to adjust. He could see twin beams of yellowish light shining through the trunks, but where were they coming from? Then, suddenly, terrifyingly, he could see it. The jeep, laying on its side, the headlights pointing away into the trees, tangled in a mass of branches. His heart stopped beating.
"VIIINN!" he shouted at the top of his lungs, scrabbling and sliding down the perilously steep and slippery bank, crashing through the snarled branches, beside himself with horror, nausea washing over him in a bilious wave.
Dear God, where was Vin?
He wrenched at the branches, unable to see anything clearly, tripping and clawing through the labyrinth of shattered trees and undergrowth like a man possessed.
"VIN!" His frantic gaze tried to focus, to concentrate, to see - oh dear God, where was Vin?
With a stab of complete and total terror, Chris suddenly saw the inert form of the sharpshooter under the tangled mass of wreckage, completely still.
"NOOOOO!" Larabee screamed, flinging himself downwards, stumbling finally to his knees beside that prone figure, black dread sinking icy claws into his breaking heart.
"Oh my God, Vin " Chris's shaking hands reached out for the still form - Jesus! His skin was ice cold! "No, no, no, no .", he whispered, studying Vin to try and detect any sign of life.
He couldn't tell how badly Vin was hurt, his cursory examination hadn't revealed any obvious broken bones, but he did know he had to get Vin warm or the cold was going to kill him. Covering Vin with his jacket wouldn't be anywhere near enough - the sharpshooter's body had lost so much heat he couldn't generate enough to warm himself.
Chris knew that moving Vin could potentially make any injuries worse, but he also knew that waiting was not an option. As gently as he could, he gathered as much of the slim body as he could move up into his arms, cradling Vins head into his neck, feeling the glacial coldness of his skin against his own.
He felt Vins neck for a pulse, pushing against the icy skin under his fingers with almost hysterical urgency.
"Please, please, please. God knows I dont deserve it, but he does oh God he does. Please "
It was there. Thready and fluttering, but Chris could feel it. The tiniest beat under his fingertips. He clutched Vin to him and sobbed with relief, the tears falling unheeded onto the still body in his arms.
Warm he had to get Vin warm. Without letting Tanner go, Chris twisted and shrugged himself out of his coat, wrapping it around Vin, hugging the young man as close against his own warm body as he could, rubbing at Vins arms, trying to restore some heat, some life, some reaction in those frozen limbs.
"Come on Vin come on Im here pard Im here cmon Vin Im sorry I took so long come on Vin I need you God knows I dont deserve you, but I need you Vin come on hear me Im here its okay Vin come on " the words tumbled out of Chris in a constant litany, trying to reach the soul of the young man in his arms, desperate for some reaction.
He was so cold. So still. "Feel it Vin Im here Im here pard please feel it come back to me, Vin please I love you so much "
Chris felt it. The slightest movement, little more than a muscle twitch, but he felt it. He looked down at Vins face, willing the young man to move with every shred of his very being, silently bargaining with God to save the other half of his soul. He saw Vins eyes move beneath his closed lids.
His brain racing, Chris fumbled for his phone and dialled 911, clutching Tanner to him all the time. He gave the dispatcher their location as near as he could, begging them to hurry. Now they had to wait.
Chris was cold. His body was trembling, his teeth were chattering, but he couldnt let Vin go. He spoke softly to the young Texan all the time, his words and the warmth of his arms trying to reach out to wherever Vin had gone and bring him back. "Dont you leave me Vin I cant do this without you please dont go without me Vin "
Body shaking with cold and emotion, Larabee buried his face in Vin's hair, wrapping his arms as tightly around him as he could, murmuring to him all the time.
Dont take this from me, please his thoughts raced, I know I dont deserve to feel this way about him hell, I was lucky to feel this once in a lifetime, never mind twice and I am grateful for that, more grateful than I could ever say but dont take him yet, please, please, dont take him yet he dont deserve this dont do this for me, do it for him
Flashlight beams speared the darkness from the top of the incline and a voice drifted across to him.
"Chris? Wheren the hell are ya buddy?"
Chris could never remember being more thankful to hear anyone. Buck! Oh thank God! "BUCK!" he shouted, "Down here! Hurry!"
Several bodies crashed through the undergrowth towards them. "We saw the Ram up on the road", Buck cried as they approached, and within moments Buck, JD and Josiah were standing before him, Wilmingtons face drained of every scrap of colour.
Chris looked up at them. "Hes alive " he rasped.
Those two words were all he could drag from his strangled voice. He knew he was crying, but his emotions were so raw he didnt care anymore. Their fearless, bad-ass, maverick team leader was reduced to this a desperate soul whose heart was so close to breaking he couldnt hide it. He didnt care what any of them thought. All he cared about was Vin everything and everyone else could go to hell.
All he saw reflected in his oldest friends eyes was compassion, sympathy and understanding.
The distant scream of sirens wailed out of the darkness Chris had never been so grateful for that God-awful noise in his life.
As they loaded Vin into the ambulance, JD was picking up what ever he could find of Vins personal belongings in the wreckage. He was just about to head back up to the road, when the beam of his flashlight caught the little bag, obviously flung out when the jeep rolled. He had almost missed it. He bent down to retrieve it. Vin would want it, whatever it was of that he was certain.
+ + + + + + +
It was like their second home, Buck thought as he stared around the all-too-familiar waiting area at Sunset Ridge Hospital. How many times had he been in here waiting. Always waiting.
He looked around at the other members of the team Ezra sat on the edge of the chair, riffling a pack of cards with long, practiced fingers shuffling them over and over again his own personal mantra.
JD sat cross-legged on the floor, viciously punching the buttons on his gameboy.
Josiah sat beside the window, gazing out, unseeing, at the panoramic view. Nathan was not here he would be pestering the doctors gently but persistently extracting information and he would also be there to watch over Chris.
Chris was with Vin. They seemed to have been gone a long time, but anxiety, Buck knew from bitter experience, could do strange things with time stretching it interminably.
The door opened and Nathan appeared around it. Four faces stared at him, their expressions all different facets of the same emotion, all asking the same unspoken question - well?
Nathan smiled and there was an audible sigh of relief in the room, dissipating the tension in what felt like one, long breath.
"Vin got an early Christmas present he was real lucky" Nathan said. "A coupla cracked ribs, some cuts and bruises, a sprained ankle and wrist, and a severely bruised spine sent his nerves into shock, which is why he cant use his legs. Its temporary, once the bruisin goes down a bit and his system aint so shocked, his nervesll start working again. He escaped hypothermia by a gnats whisker the doctors think when he fell outta the car, the undergrowth and branches broke his fall someone up there was watching out for our young sharpshooter, I reckon "
"'Bout time someone up there did " Buck responded in a whisper.
The hospital room was dim and quiet. Chris sat silently beside Vin's bed, his eyes never leaving the young Texan's face. Vin was swathed in a silver mylar wrap, and covered with a pile of blankets. A drip was suspended above him, and his left wrist was tightly bandaged where it rested on top of the covers.
The heart monitor he was hooked up to gave off a regular, steady beep, exactly in synch with Chris's own heartbeats.
Chris didnt turn around when Buck entered, carrying a cup of coffee. He put the cup down on the side table and placed a large hand on the blonds shoulder, giving it just the briefest squeeze. Chris nodded his thanks, his eyes never leaving Vins face. No words passed between them just that momentary physical contact, but they both knew exactly what was left unsaid.
Buck left the room as silently as hed entered. Chriss eyes never wavered. He would wait hell, hed wait for as long as it took and then some but he was going to be here, right here, when those blue eyes that never left his soul, opened again.
As Chris studied Vins face, he wondered for the millionth time just exactly what hes done to deserve this extraordinary young man. Life had not been kind to Vin hed suffered, right from when he was five years old life had dealt him one crap hand after another.
More than anyone else Chris had ever met, Vin had the right to be bitter and resentful, to close himself in and try to protect his abused heart, to be mistrustful and cynical of those around him, and yet he was the most steadfast, sensible, decent and forgiving person Chris knew. His sense of fun, his pure joy at the natural world around him, and the true nature of his spirit took Larabees breath away.
One look from those incredible eyes and Chris had been seared to his very core. God, those eyes! Chris had seen them in all their manifestations muted and soft with sleep, narrowed and spitting iced fire with anger, wide as the summer sky with wonder, dark and lustrous with passion eyes that could look as old as time, yet shine with almost child-like awe. Hed heard that eyes were mirrors of the soul, and Vins shone with the reflection of a soul that still left Chris totally humbled by its beauty. He loved Vin more than he would have believed was possible.
As if by some signal, a slight frown creased Vins forehead, the eyelids flickered, then very slowly, opened just a crack. Chris felt his heart take flight straight to heaven.
"C .Chris?" A throaty rasp, barely a whisper.
"Yeah, its me Vin . Take it slow, now youre gonna be okay "
The eyes opened a little further. "Ya .ya heard me, then? Heard me calling ya . I . I thought thought ywas too far away ."
Chris stood up and leaned over that wonderful face, placing a careful, loving hand on one cheek. "Ill never be too far away, Vin never "
+ + + + + + +
"I kin walk I tell ya! Jeez " , blue eyes flashed in annoyance as two pairs of strong arms and willing hands helped one very reluctant sharpshooter into the wheelchair positioned by the passenger door of the Ram.
"Now dont start in with that again Junior", Bucks voice was mock-serious. "Ya heard what that fine-lookin lady doctor said, didnt ya? Ya got a badly bruised spine and ya gotta give it chance ta heal hell, I had ta use the ol animal magnetism jus to get her ta let yout tonight! By rights you were sposed ta be there for another coupla days! Now show a little appreciation of mefforts if ya dont mind!"
Still scowling, Vin was lowered into the wheelchair. He had one wrist and one ankle strongly strapped, strapping around his chest to bind his ribs, and the finest collection of bruises this side of a prize fighter in an astonishing array on his back. But he was home. Home for Christmas.
Buck wasnt exaggerating it had taken all the skills in his not inconsiderable arsenal of seduction techniques to persuade the doctor to let Vin out of the hospital. Nathan grinned from the other side of Vins chair. He had heard Ezra talking - well perhaps intimidating might be a more accurate description the doctor, assuring her that if Vin wasnt released into their collective care, then Team 7 would simply have to bring Christmas to Vin complete with decorations, charades, wide-screen tv and Vins favourite chair all into the hospital.
The medic had taken one look at the southerners face and known he wasnt joking hell, these guys werent legends at Sunset Ridge for nothing more than one intern had been known to run screaming when one of the Magnificent Seven appeared. She eventually decided that Vin could probably recover just as easily in surroundings where he was most comfortable, but it was Nathan that finally swung the deal releasing Vin into the care of a qualified EMT eased her conscience enough to grant the young sharpshooter what he had been begging her for ever since he regained consciousness.
Buck tucked a thick blanket around Vins legs and wrapped another one around his shoulders.
"Hell Bucklin! Were only ten yards from the damn door! Will ya quit ya fussin? Save yer mother hennin fer JD. Im ."
"Fine!" Buck and Nathan chorused in perfect unison, as they pushed the chair at a speed no respectable hospital would ever allow, across the frost-tinged gravel towards the open front door.
Chris stood holding the door open, unable to hide the relief and joy he felt, a wide smile plastered across his face.
"Special delivery!" Buck shouted, "anyone here order a sorry-assed sharpshooter with a face like a bulldog chewin a wasp?"
Chris laughed, taking in Vins scowling face and Buck and Nathans huge grins. "That would be me " he said.
Buck and Nathan steered Vin inside, allowing Chris to take over once the door was closed. The scene in the den made Vins breath catch in his throat.
The huge Christmas tree was full of light, hundreds of tiny, winking bulbs alternating blue and green, reflecting off every surface in the room. A roaring fire burned in the cavernous fireplace, stretching fiery fingers out across the floor in welcome.
Ezra stood at one end of one of the huge sofas, carefully pouring wine into glasses on a tray. JD was ferrying dishes from the kitchen to one of the low tables, and Vins stomach growled as the aromas of chilli, salsa and fresh bread filled his nostrils.
The sound of crashing, followed swiftly by low oaths that should never pass the lips of a spiritual man, could be heard emanating from the direction of the kitchen.
Vin turned to look up at Chris, blue eyes wide, a huge, joyful grin eradicating all evidence of the scowl. "Jsiah cookin?" he asked hopefully.
"Judging by the curses originating from the cooking area, I would hazard a guess that your assumption is correct, Mr Tanner." Ezra walked forward, offering a generous glass of red wine with one hand, and squeezing Vins shoulder in a gesture of welcome with the other.
"Ezra " Nathan warned, "Vin aint supposed to be drinkin he may have ta take them painkillers."
Ezra waved aside the comment and winked broadly at Vin. "In my experience Mr Jackson, several glasses of good burgundy can more than measure up to Tylenol. That, combined with Mr Sanchezs remarkable volcanic chilli, should warm and soothe our young friend most effectively, I would have thought."
Nathan relented. It was Christmas Eve after all. Between them, they got Vin settled in his favourite recliner, a tv tray containing a huge bowl of Josiahs legendary chilli and a re-filled wine glass across his lap, cushions and pillows propping and supporting just about every joint and muscle, then they all sat down to eat.
JD, who had made sure he got himself positioned next to the sharpshooter, surreptitiously slid his hand down the edge of the sofa and retrieved the gift bag, which he slid under the blanket across Vins knees. Vins eyes widened momentarily as he realised what JD had handed him, then a brief smile and look of understanding passed between the two friends, and Vin nodded his head in thanks. No-one else noticed.
+ + + + + + +
"Tired?" Chris asked from his position stretched out along the arm of the recliner, his feet on a low table in front of the chair, but his arms securely around Vin, one hand gently rubbing the back of Vins neck under the long curls.
Silence reigned in the peaceful ranch house the other members of Team 7 had cleared up the dishes and left Chris and Vin to enjoy some time alone.
The fire was lower, and Chris had turned out all the lamps, leaving just the Christmas tree and the flames to illuminate the room. The effect was soothing and restful.
Vin shook his head against Chriss shoulder. "Nope..jus thinkin"
"Why sonly today that ever feels like this kinda special I mean, theres 365 of em to choose from each year, but nuthin ever feels quite like Christmas Eve, does it?"
Chris lightly kissed the top of Tanners head. "Does to me every mornin I wake up with you feels like Christmas "
Vin twisted round to look up into those green eyes he loved. "I didnt mean ."
Chris put a finger to Vins lips to silence him.
"I know what you meant . and youre right. Tonight is very special because, for a while there pard, I thought we werent gonna be able to share it ." He grimaced at the memory. "I dont know what Id do without you Tanner and when I saw you laying there "
With infinite tenderness, Vin stretched up and silenced Chris with a soft, gentle kiss, their lips moving in practised synchronisation with each other, expressing so many different emotions passion, hunger and need for one another, like always but more, so much more, than just that peace, gratitude, comfort, security. Love.
"Lets go to bed, Vin " Chris smiled lazily into Tanners eyes.
A swift look of real disappointment crossed Vins face. "Hell Cowboy, it aint that I dont want to .yknow that Im just not sure that "
Chris kissed him quickly to stop the words, then smiled. "For someone so smart, you sure dont hear so good! I said lets go to bed and thats what I meant! Youre tired, God knows Im tired, and its Christmas Eve "
His eyes met Vins. "I just wanna hold you next to me, keep reassurin myself youre still here watch you sleep and say thank you to whatever powers that be for lettin me keep the best present I ever had, Christmas or any other time "
Vin returned the smile. "Sounds like a real good idea to me, Cowboy ."
He glanced at the clock. It was ten past midnight. Christmas Day. He slipped his hand under the blanket on his lap and withdrew the crumpled gift bag.
"As its past midnight, ya may as well have this now Im sorry, I didnt get chance to wrap it... kinda got tangled up in other things "
Chris took the bag and pulled out the photo, a look of sheer pleasure lighting his eyes. Typical of his sharpshooter thoughtful, personal and beautiful "Oh Vin! Thats just beautiful howd dya get Peso to look reasonable for once?" he teased gently. Vin just grinned.
Then he slid out the envelope and looked at Vin quizzically. Vin blushed. Chris tore open the flap, withdrew the single folded sheet of white paper and unfolded it.
"Read it, Chris?"
Chris took a breath, then began to read aloud;"Two minds, two hearts, two halves one soul
Two spirits, two lives, two dreams one whole
Reflected in your eyes I see everything you are to me
Time and distance could never take you too far away for my heart to feel you."
His voice hitched.
"Merry Christmas, Cowboy " Vins eyes expressed everything he felt in his heart at that moment, more clearly than words ever could.
Chris looked into those eyes, at the other half of his soul. "Merry Christmas Vin."
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