Michael Biehn Archive

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The characters belong to various production/film/TV companies. No profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended.
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Author's Chapter Notes:
Here's hoping everyone had a very Happy Holiday Season. A HUGE thank you to my cyber-sis Deb for all the late night ponderin' sessions. ;) Your encouragement, suggestions, laughter and especially your friendship are appreciated more than you know. Love ya, pard!

He couldn't tear his eyes away from it. It wasn't so much the tree itself, but what it represented that held him spellbound. While it wouldn't be the first Christmas they'd shared as friends, it was to be their first as lovers and housemates. He thought back to the previous Christmas and couldn't help a small smile. The entire team had been together at the ranch for dinner, along with Nettie and Casey Wells and Nathan's wife, Raine. It had been a magical time, filled with all the warmth that inevitably came from having good friends and loved ones close. He'd treasured that time, capturing the strong sense of family to hold in his heart no matter what the future held.

And it had proved to hold more than he'd ever dared hope for.

He was, once again, on the sofa in the den where they'd enjoyed the previous year's festivities, but now it was home - not just in the sense that he was always welcome there - but his actual, permanent residence, shared with the man he loved more than life itself.

He just couldn't picture anything more perfect.

"Some heavy thinking going on there, pard," a voice murmured in his ear.

He sighed and snuggled even closer to the warm body at his back, slowly stroking the strong arms that held him. "Don't get any better than this, Chris," he replied softly, contentment colouring every word. "Being here with you, our first Christmas together, our very own tree." He paused as emotion welled within him. "Just feel like the luckiest guy in the world right now," he finally finished in a voice made raspier by the extent of his feelings.

A soft kiss landed on his cheek and his lover tightened his embrace somewhat. "Sorry, cowboy," Chris whispered, nuzzling the soft skin at the back of Vin's neck. "I've already claimed that distinction for myself."

Vin turned to look into the smokey green eyes, his own sparkling with happiness. "Have I told you lately how much I love you?" he asked, stroking one finger along Chris's jaw.

The blond chuckled. "Not unless you count Jesus, Larabee, hold the fuckin' thing steady, will ya? as a way of saying you love me," he teased.

It had been a struggle getting the huge fir through the front door and firmly secured into the corner of the room they'd decided on. Tempers had flared occasionally but in the end, they were both pleased with the result and had collapsed on the sofa to admire their prize, undecorated as it was.

Vin smiled, his blue eyes twinkling mischievously. "As a matter of fact, I do," he replied. "Ain't just anybody I'd go through that for, ya know."

"You're the one who insisted on the biggest tree we could find," Chris countered.

"Got a lotta Christmases to make up for," the Texan responded, nipping at the inviting lower lip so close to his own.

Chris pulled the lithe body more firmly against him. "We've got a lot of years to make up for every single one of them," he stated sincerely. "Don't have to pack 'em all into one tree, you know."

Vin smiled, allowing the commitment in those words to warm his heart as the body against him warmed his flesh. "You want we should take it back out and get a smaller one?"

"Hell, no," Chris replied in mock horror. "Think I want to go through that again? Once a year is plenty, thank you very much."

Vin turned again, still within the comfort of his lover's arms, and gazed up at the tree. "Was worth it though, wasn't it?" he murmured happily.

"You're worth it," Chris corrected softly, kissing his neck while allowing his hands to begin caressing the body in his arms. "And anything that puts that light in your eyes is worth whatever it takes."

Vin swallowed hard and closed his eyes as both the words and the tenderness of his lover's hands enveloped him. "Don't take much," he said softly. "Just knowin' I belong here with you."

"You do," the blond replied. "Right now, and every second to come for the rest of our lives, this is where you belong."

Vin turned again to meet his lover's lips in a slow, lingering kiss, giving a physical outlet to the love flowing so strongly between them.

A barely audible moan escaped the Texan as Chris's hands continued their seductive path up and down his back, hesitating only to pull the shirts from his waistband, exposing the warm flesh beneath to the questing fingers.

"God, I love you," Chris gasped as their lips parted for a much needed breath.

Vin shuddered slightly at the feel of his lover's hands stroking his back beneath the layers of clothing. "Love you too, Chris," he replied in a breathless whisper. "Need ya."

The larger man angled himself up a little, shifting their positions until Vin lay beneath him, the blue eyes looking up at him with a mixture of love and desire.

After taking a moment to drink in the handsome features of his lover, Chris lowered his head to claim another kiss, one deeper and more intense than the last, and Vin melted into it, relinquishing all that he was to the safe keeping of the man who loved him.

Two sets of hands explored familiar territory, gently stroking and caressing every inch of exposed flesh as they slowly undressed one another. Lips melded together, parting only when necessary to accomplish the removal of shirts and jeans before coming together again in a sensual dance of heightening arousal.

Vin couldn't help a contented sigh as his lover's nude body settled upon his own, blanketing him with its warmth. The scent of fresh pine tickled their senses and added a new element to the familiar coupling.

Chris moaned deep in his throat as his lover's hands played over his nipples, bringing them to peak hardness in seconds. His lips moved from the swollen mouth of his partner to trail along the strong jaw and down to the more sensitive skin at his neck, nibbling and kissing as they went.

Tanner writhed beneath the onslaught, his body trembling with barely controlled need. "Ya feel so good," he breathed, his hands cupping the blond's firm ass cheeks. "Want ta feel ya inside me."

Without allowing his lips to leave the tender skin, Chris reached out to the small table beside the sofa, opening the draw to extract the tube they kept there to ward off winter's drying effects on their skin. Or, at least, that's what they'd claim if it were ever discovered. The truth was, they often found themselves far from the bedroom when moments of uncontrollable desire overtook them and had learned to keep things handy to save breaking the moment.

Having retrieved the tube, Chris flipped the top open before finally raising his head and sitting back on his heels between his lover's long legs. Squeezing out a generous amount, he warmed the cool gel in his hands, his eyes never leaving the dark pools of blue that drew him so. When he was satisfied that it wouldn't be a shock to the Texan's flushed skin, he began gently stroking the strong thighs with slicked hands, eliciting a whimper of desire from the lithe body as the legs twitched with barely checked need.

"Shhhh," Chris soothed, his hands moving to stroke the sensitive flesh at the inner thigh. "Soon, pard. Just enjoy."

Vin was powerless to do anything else, biting back a groan as his lover's talented fingers found their way to his heavy balls and began gently kneading the hardened globes.

Chris watched the blue eyes close, licking his lips as the Texan's body arched, head back, long neck exposed to his lingering gaze. With a growl, he lowered his head and swiftly engulfed his lover's engorged erection in one smooth motion. His hands quickly moved to steady the other man's hips as the pliant body bucked wildly beneath him. He let his tongue roam freely, licking up one side and down the other while his lips coaxed the first drops of precious fluid from the hardened shaft.

"Chris," Vin panted. "I'm... I'm..."

Hearing the warning in those words, Chris intensified his efforts, taking his lover's shaft deep in his throat and moving one searching finger to the puckered entrance behind the taut ballsac. Just as he felt the body beneath him tense, he pushed the long digit inside, past the ring of muscle to stroke the gland hidden there.

The effect was immediate. Tanner's body arched up, Chris's name spilling from his lips on a raspy cry as thick streams of cum shot deep into the blond's throat.

Chris milked the twitching balls to ensure he got every drop, then moved his hand to coat his own aching length. Withdrawing his finger from his lover's depths, he positioned the weeping head of his cock at the opening. He knew he could take Tanner hard and fast, would probably come even before the lean Texan was fully recovered from his own orgasm.

But Chris wanted more. He wanted - needed - to give the man he loved even more pleasure.

And he knew just how to do it.

"Look at me, Vin," he commanded, the tone soft despite clenching his teeth to fight off his own release as he pushed into the tight channel. It took a moment for the words to register, but when they did, he was rewarded with the appearance of two heavily lidded slivers of blue.

Their gazes locked and Chris had to still his slow strokes for a minute to retain what little control he had. "I want to see your eyes when I fill you," the blond continued, resuming the tortuously slow, deep thrusts, his words breathy and sensual. "I want to be looking deep into your soul when I make you come."

The words had the desired effect. Tanner's eyes opened wider, his softening cock already beginning to harden once again. A tremor ran through him and he wrapped his arms around the blond's back, pulling the larger man closer to him, their gazes locked together as much as their bodies.

Chris quickened the pace a little, adjusting the angle so he went deep into the welcoming channel with each thrust and rubbed against the sensitive prostate with every withdrawal. Long fingers closed around the throbbing dick of his lover and he began to stroke his hand in time with his hips. He could feel the other man's body reacting to his ministrations and allowed a small, wolfish smile. "That's it, cowboy," he breathed. "Come for me."

It was like throwing a switch. The barely voiced command, combined with the internal and external stroking, sent a current of white-hot heat coursing through the younger man and he struggled to maintain eye contact as his body obeyed his lover's words, his release coating his belly and the blond's hand.

Chris groaned low in his throat as he felt his partner's warm seed erupting and allowed himself to be drawn even further into the deep blue eyes even as his body sank further into the one beneath him. Within seconds, he found his own release, grasping Tanner's hips and thrusting deep as he filled his young lover with all he had to offer.

Once spent, he lowered himself to the sofa beside the still panting Texan and took the trembling body in his arms. "You're something else," he murmured, kissing one flushed cheek.

"What can I say?" Tanner chuckled softly. "You bring out the best in me."

Chris returned the laugh and pulled his lover closer, pressing the length of their bodies together. "We do that for each other," he replied softly.

Vin snuggled into the warm embrace, both his mind and his body sated for the moment. "Gonna keep on doin' it, too," he whispered sleepily. "Right now and every second to come for the rest of our lives."

The blond smiled as he heard his own words handed back to him. "That's right," he murmured, planting a gentle kiss on his lover's forehead. "But at this particular second, we'd best get cleaned up. The guys'll be here soon."

Vin raised his head slightly to meet the green gaze. "Sure that's today?" he asked with regret that was only partly feigned. At the moment, all he wanted was to remain wrapped in the strong arms that held him.

"The decorating party was your idea," Chris reminded him with a smile. "Personally, I like the tree the way it is." He nuzzled at the soft skin of his lover's throat. "It inspires me."

Vin laughed, rolled off the sofa and came to his feet in one fluid motion. "That figures," he smirked. "Wouldn't have anythin' ta do with the fact that it's the same colour as those eyes'a yours, would it?"

"Maybe I just appreciate things in their more natural state," the blond leered, making a grab for the nude body standing so close.

Tanner sidestepped the movement easily and began picking up hastily discarded clothing. "Weren't you the one sayin' we had ta get cleaned up 'fore the guys get here?" he teased on a chuckle.

Chris heaved a resigned sigh and got to his feet. As Vin turned toward the hall, he grabbed him and pulled him close. "Fine. But once they leave, I won't be responsible for my actions." He drew the younger man in for a deep, passionate kiss before turning and heading for the bathroom.

Vin stood breathless, his mind still reeling from the sheer excitement his lover could incite with just one kiss. "Damn," he breathed with a slight shake of his head. The sound of the shower running brought him more fully to his senses and he hurried to follow the path the blond had taken.

To his credit, Buck at least rang the bell when he arrived, even if he didn't wait for it to be answered. Chris was approaching the door when it opened, allowing access to his oldest friend and the team's youngest member. "Boys," Larabee nodded with a smile.

Buck immediately took in the still wet hair and grinned. "Little late in the day to be showerin' ain't it Chris? Or maybe a little early," he added, waggling his eyebrows.

"Since when are my showering habits any of your business?" Chris asked with a raised eyebrow. The teasing twinkle in his green eyes took any sting out of the words.

"Hey, Chris," JD greeted his boss and friend with a smile. "Don't mind Buck. Since Bobby-Jo stood him up, he's taken to living vicariously through the rest of us."

"She didn't stand me up," Buck argued good-naturedly, his smile still in place. "She had to go out of town, but she promised to make it up to me. And boy, does that sweet thing know a thing or two about makin' it up to a man."

Vin chose that moment to appear from the direction of the master bedroom. "Hey, Buck, JD," he greeted their guests.

The Texan's damp locks garnered an even bigger grin from Buck. Taking a few strides, he looked into the den. "Yep, thought so," he chuckled.

"Thought so what?" Vin asked, eyes narrowing slightly.

"Tree's up," Buck replied with a snicker. "That explains it."

Vin was about to question the comments further when the phone rang. He went to the den to answer it and the others joined him there. Once he'd hung up, he turned to Chris. "That was Josiah. He's gonna be tied up for another hour or so at the church. Said we should go ahead without him."

Chris's lips twitched slightly in a knowing smile. "And you said?"

Vin grinned. "Told him we'd wait. Ain't a party less'n the whole gang's here."

Larabee's smile widened. The Texan's enthusiasm was not only contagious, it filled Chris with a warmth he'd thought long gone from his holiday seasons. He wanted this Christmas to be perfect for Vin and if that meant postponing the decorating for an hour or a week, he'd do it without question. "Then I guess we'll need some drinks while we wait," he suggested.

"Whatcha got there?" Vin asked JD as he noted the small box tucked under one arm.

"Uh uh," JD grinned with a shake of his head. "It's a surprise. You'll find out when we decorate the tree."

Vin's eyes sparkled at the idea of a surprise. "Aw, come on, kid. Just a hint. I won't tell Chris, I promise."

"I believe you," JD laughed. "But this surprise isn't just for Chris, so you're going to have to wait."

The words weren't meant to have any real significance, but they seemed to strike a chord in Vin's heart. The surprise wasn't just for Chris - it was for both of them - for their tree, in their home. He had to swallow the lump that suddenly formed in his throat.

Chris watched the exchange, still marveling at how quickly his lover could go from boyish excitement to being choked up with emotion by the simplest of words or gestures. "Want to help me with the drinks, pard?" he asked.

Once alone in the kitchen, Chris slipped his arms around Vin's waist and pulled him close for a brief kiss. "You okay?" he asked gently.

"Better'n okay," Vin smiled, snaking his arms around the blond in a loose embrace. "This is going to be the best Christmas ever."

"It already is," Chris returned with a smile of his own. "I've already got the best present I could ask for."

As Vin reached up to brush his lips lightly over Chris', Buck entered the kitchen. "Don't you two ever take a break?" he teased on a chuckle.

Vin stepped away quickly, shooting Buck an embarrassed look as he felt the colour rise in his cheeks. "Don't you ever knock?" he countered.

"Not usually when I enter a kitchen," Buck answered with a grin. "But knowing Chris, maybe I'd best start."

Vin's face flushed an even deeper shade of red and he turned away toward the fridge. Retrieving enough cold beers for the four of them, he hoped the subject would just drop.

Thankfully, the sound of the doorbell caught the attention of all three men. "Sounds like the others are here," Vin said, thrusting the bottles into Chris's hands as he headed to answer the door.

Once they'd all gathered in the den and had drinks in hand, Nathan suggested they pass the time by sharing some of their favourite Christmas traditions and memories.

Vin smiled as JD reminisced about holidays spent with his mother. He was glad that the younger man had such nice memories to hold on to and he hoped that time wouldn't diminish the feelings they invoked.

Ezra's stories didn't prove to be as warm as JD's but they involved exotic places and the southerner's voice had Vin engrossed from the first word.

When it was his turn, Nathan shared even more tales of happy family gatherings and the others felt themselves being drawn into the warmth of those memories.

"Every Christmas Eve," the dark man reminisced with a wistful smile, "Daddy would gather us 'round the tree and we'd each make a Christmas wish. Couldn't be for toys or nothin'," he added, shaking his head. "Had ta be for something meaningful, Daddy'd say, things that money couldn't buy."

Vin liked that idea and realized, as he looked around the room, that anything he could possibly wish for was already his. Smiling contentedly, he was somehow sure Nathan's daddy wouldn't mind if he saved his wish for a time when he really needed it.

Chris shared only a few memories, all centering around Adam and his excitement over the holidays. Vin watched the blond's eyes light up when he spoke of his son's first time on Santa's lap and couldn't contain a small smile. He'd forever be grateful that his lover had happy memories to offset the tragic ones.

"At first, he was scared to death," Chris reminisced, "But all the way home he couldn't talk about anything else. He wanted a picture of Pony on Santa's lap." He chuckled. "Took us nearly the whole drive to convince him that it just wasn't possible."

"How'd ya do that?" Vin asked, smiling.

"Finally told him horses just weren't allowed in the mall," Chris replied. "Seemed to buy it... at the time."

"But ol' Adam had his daddy's knack for solving problems," Buck chortled.

Chris shook his head with an amused smile. "Next day, he came up to me with the keys to the truck. Said I'd best hurry and go pick up Santa. Pony was ready for his picture."

They all laughed.

"So what did you say to that?" Nathan asked.

"Hell, Buck was ready to go and haul Santa's ass back here for that picture," Chris replied, shooting his old friend a look of feigned exasperation.

"Those big eyes just melted me," Buck smiled. "Didn't have it in me to break his heart."

"Surely you didn't, to use your own crude terms, haul Santa's ass back here for that photo, Mr. Larabee," Ezra declared. The expression he wore was an attempt at incredulity, but there was a twinkle of mirth in the green eyes.

"Naw," Chris answered, shaking his head slightly. "Reminded him that we were gonna have a whole ranch full of horses one day and asked how he thought they'd feel if Pony had a Santa picture and they didn't."

"And that worked?" Nathan asked in surprise.

"Adam had a real feeling for what's fair," Buck chuckled. "Decided he didn't want all the other horses ta feel bad, so he told Chris they could wait until they were all there and could get in on the picture."

The group of men chuckled quietly at the image. Then, the room fell silent as they each commiserated with their leader about the plans that never had a chance for fruition.

Vin caught Chris's eye and gave him a warm smile, hoping the memories weren't too painful. When Chris sent a smile and a nod back, he felt somewhat reassured.

"What about you, Buck?" Tanner prodded. "Ya got 'nuff a those stories a'yours any other time."

Not surprisingly, each of Buck's stories involved a woman. And considering how long he and Chris had been friends, it came as no surprise that the woman was often Sarah Larabee. He chuckled as he told them how Sarah had always insisted he be there for the decorating of the tree, even after Adam was born. He was family, she'd insisted, and family should be together at Christmas.

The more he talked, the more Vin began to draw parallels between the Christmases of Chris's past and the one that was to become their first. He'd cited the same reasons for inviting the guys out for the tree-trimming party. The team was family and they should be included in their holiday plans.

"And Adam always had to have the biggest tree he could find," Buck was saying, shaking his head in amusement as he brought the memories forth. "Sometimes me and Chris had a helluva time getting it into the house, but we always managed."

Vin looked at Chris and thought back to the blond's words earlier in the day.

You're the one who insisted on the biggest tree we could find.

Did his enthusiasm for the holidays ever remind Chris of his son? Was there anything about the whole holiday that didn't remind him of either Sarah or Adam?

"Of course," Buck was continuing. "There was one year I didn't make it out in time to help get the tree in. By the time I got here, it was already standing proudly in the corner just waitin' to be decorated." He cast a sly grin in Chris's direction. "And there were those two, just snuggled up on the couch starin' at it like it was already the prettiest damned thing they'd ever seen."

Vin had no trouble picturing the scene--Hell, he'd lived it just that morning. The room suddenly felt like it was starting to close in on him and he hurriedly got to his feet. "Who needs another beer?" he asked over his shoulder as he headed for the kitchen. Merely nodding in reply to the responses, he headed straight for the fridge and retrieved the cool bottles. After placing them on the kitchen table, he braced his arms on the maple top and closed his eyes tightly, taking a deep breath.

He was startled only slightly by a hand on his shoulder. "Vin?"

"Yeah," Vin replied, pulling himself together to begin opening the beer bottles.

"I'm sorry," Chris said softly, running his hands in a slow pattern up and down the Texan's back.

Vin finally turned to look at him. "For what?"

"All the Christmas talk, I guess," Chris replied with a shrug. "Don't imagine it was easy hearing about everyone else's happy times when you didn't have many of your own."

"I enjoyed it, Chris," Vin hurried to assure him. "Listenin' to them stories made me feel like I's a part'a them."

Chris slipped his arms around the younger man. "And you'll be a part of every one of mine from here on," he promised with a gentle kiss. "The biggest part."

The words warmed Vin's heart and he reached up to stroke his lover's face tenderly. "Maybe I can make my own memories now," he said softly. "Thanks ta you."

"Least I could do after you gave Christmas back to me," the blond replied sincerely. "Never thought it could mean this much again."

The last word stoked the small flicker of misplaced emotion that had been struggling to take hold for the past few hours.

The slight tensing of the smaller man's frame didn't go unnoticed by the blond agent. "What is it, Vin?" he asked quietly, studying the deep blue eyes.

He was saved from answering by the sound of the doorbell. "Josiah's here," he said. "Time ta get the party started." He hurried from the room, leaving Chris to stare after him, the concerned frown deepening.

Vin was surprised to discover it wasn't Josiah standing on the other side of the door, but Orrin Travis and Paul Richards, the leader of ATF Team Three. "Hi," was all he could think to say, trying to keep the surprise out of his voice.

"Vin," Orrin nodded. "I'm sorry to bother you guys on a weekend, but I need to talk to Chris."

"Sure, Judge," Vin nodded, using the older man's nickname as he opened the door to allow the newcomers entrance.

"Orrin," Chris greeted, "Paul." He shook both hands, his expression carefully guarded. "What brings the two of you out here on a Saturday?"

Travis looked hesitant for only a second. He offered the others each a nod of acknowledgement. "Are we interrupting a celebration?"

"Decorating party," Chris explained with a half smile. "As soon as Josiah gets here, that is. You're welcome to join us, but something tells me that's not why you're here."

"No, it's not," Orrin confirmed with a wry smile. "I wish it was, Chris."

"What is it?" Larabee asked, his tone even, his eyes narrowing slightly.

Travis seemed relieved when the arrival of Josiah stalled his answer. Once he was inside with the others, however, he had no choice but to explain.

"Lawrence Reynolds," he breathed on a sigh. "They've arranged another bail hearing."

The name brought an immediate frown to Chris's face and he quickly looked around to see the expression mirrored on that of his team. Lawrence C. Reynolds was a big name both in Washington and Denver. He'd moved up the political ladder with the aid of his smooth style and quick, confident smile. Of course, his money hadn't hurt either. That is, until it was discovered that most of that money came from a gun-running operation working out of a gay bar on Denver's South side.

The bust had been a joint effort, the ATF's two best teams, despite being sorely outnumbered, easily taking down Reynolds and his accomplices and confiscating a huge shipment of illegal weaponry in the process.

"Another bail hearing?" Chris repeated.

"His lawyer managed to appeal the original," Travis clarified.

Chris's jaw clenched. "When?"

Orrin hesitated again. "Monday," he replied after a brief pause. "As the arresting officer, you'll need to be there."

Of course, there couldn't mean Denver. That would be too damned easy. Reynolds had practically admitted his part in the death of two unfortunate buyers in the nation's capital and he'd been transferred there to face the more serious charges. Chris had not only been the one to slap the cuffs on, but he'd been the one to overhear the man's incriminating remarks.

"Monday?" Chris repeated Travis' answer again. "Less than a week before Christmas?" His anger was evident. "Who was the fucking magician who worked that one out?"

"He claimed special dispensation," Richards explained with a scoff. "Claimed that innocent until proven guilty granted him a right to be home with his kid at Christmas."

Larabee looked from Richards to Travis. "So why do they need me?"

"Once you give your statement, we're hoping they'll retain their original decision to keep him behind bars until the trial."

"I've already given a statement," Chris pointed out. "My report was thorough, Orrin, you know that."

"I know," Travis concurred with a nod. "But the judge wants to speak to you face to face before he makes a decision."

Chris's eyes moved to Vin and he immediately noticed the hard set to the man's mouth. "How long?" he asked, turning his attention back to Travis.

"You attend the hearing on Monday and we'll get you the first flight home afterward, I promise."

Chris noticed the assurance didn't do anything to allay his lover's concern and felt renewed anger at that. "Tell me his political connections didn't have anything to do with this change in schedule," he growled. "This is bullshit, Travis."

The AD winced inwardly at the use of his surname. Only when Chris was truly pissed did he use it.

"I wish I could," he sighed. "His wife had a baby a few months back. He's anxious to be there for the kid's first Christmas."

Richards scoffed again. "More like those faggots he's anxious to get back to," he sneered. "Missing out on all that Christmas cheer and all."

Chris glared at Richards while six other sets of eyes flitted briefly, but uncomfortably in Vin's direction. The Texan didn't miss the looks, but kept his steely gaze riveted on Richards. He'd never liked the man; that was no secret. The whole time they'd been staking out the gay bar, he'd heard the derogatory comments and had tried to ignore them, knowing they weren't directed at him personally. Hell, if Richards even suspected Chris and Vin were together, he was pretty sure the man's own narrow-mindedness would have escalated to the point where Team Three would be needing a new leader before the year was out.

Not that that would necessarily be a bad thing.

"His personal business is none of yours," Travis reminded the other man flatly. "Stick to the job you were hired for." He turned his attention back to Chris. "While you're gone, Paul will coordinate details on this end."

"Like Hell he will," Wilmington fumed, unable to hold his temper in check any longer.

"This isn't a suggestion," Travis stated, locking eyes with the blue-eyed ladies' man. "It comes straight from the Director in Washington. Given Reynolds' reputation, they want every I dotted and every T crossed. They've insisted that the two teams work together to go over the reports with a fine-tooth comb. As SAC, Richards will be overseeing that effort. Do I make myself clear?"

Buck's glare rivaled Chris's as he stared heatedly at the smirking leader of Team Three. "Crystal," he finally ground out between clenched teeth.

Orrin sighed again, rubbing a hand wearily through his thinning hair. "My hands are tied on this one, gentlemen. The sooner we get it over with, the sooner things can go back to normal." At least he hoped that would be the case. The animosity between Richards and the members of Team Seven certainly hadn't gone unnoticed. Team three's leader was homophobia personified. But despite that flaw, he was a damned good agent and Travis could no more transfer him for his feelings as he could Tanner and Larabee for theirs.

The difference was, he liked both Vin and Chris on a personal level, while he despised Richards and his narrow-minded beliefs. Seems they all had their prejudices.

"Agent Tanner," he continued, trying to diffuse the situation as best he could. "I'm sending you over to surveillance for the next day or so. We need to scour our copies of those tapes closely and I need a man with a good eye. We don't want Reynolds' people springing any surprises on us."

"Fine," Vin agreed, his tone devoid of emotion.

Travis nodded. "The rest of you will meet with Team Three in their conference room Monday morning and go over every word on those reports."

Chris stole a glance at Vin, hoping to see the same relief he was feeling. Though he didn't doubt for a second that Vin's sharp eye was needed for reviewing the tapes, he knew that Travis had intentionally planned to keep the sharpshooter out of Richards' way for the next few days and he appreciated the effort.

He suspected it was more for the preservation of the older agent than that of the young Texan, but it would be best all around and he was hoping for a sign that his lover recognized that fact.

When Vin avoided returning his look, the blond's frown deepened. "When's my flight?" he asked Travis, hoping to have at least the rest of the weekend with his lover to work through whatever was going on under that long hair.

"I'm afraid you have to leave this afternoon," Travis answered reluctantly. "With holiday traffic being what it is, it's the only flight we could get that would get you to the courthouse on time." He took an envelope from his pocket and handed it to Chris.

Larabee studied the ticket and sighed in frustration. He'd barely have time to pack if he wanted to make it through the seasonal traffic to the airport. "Fuck," he breathed.

Ezra noticed the look on his boss's face upon seeing the departure time and suspected it was sooner than he would have liked. "In light of the circumstances, might I suggest we postpone the plans to embellish your charming abode until such a time as you can be present for the festivities?"

"No sense in ruining everyone's weekend," Chris replied to Ezra's words though his gaze was directed at Vin. "I'm sure you guys can handle it without me."

"We'll wait," Tanner stated firmly. "No big deal. Saturday, Tuesday. It'll still be done in time for Christmas."

Chris smiled inwardly. He really hadn't wanted to miss decorating their first tree, but he didn't want to disappoint Vin either. Knowing that the greater disappointment would be his absence sent a warmth through him, despite the Texan's cool gaze.

"Then wait we'll do," Buck declared with a nod. "We'll get outta your hair and let you get packed, Chris." He picked up the box JD had carried in. "We'll do all this when you get back."

"The team that plays together stays together, huh, Wilmington?" Richards sneered.

Rather than be angered by the goading, Buck sent him a wicked smile. "I'm sure your team's doing something together for Christmas too, Richards. More than likely you just ain't been invited."

JD and Nathan chuckled quietly while Ezra and Josiah both allowed an amused grin upon seeing Richards' eyes narrow.

"We've done what we came to do," Travis stated, sending his own glare Paul's way. "I think it's time we left and let these men to the rest of their day."

Once the two men were gone, Vin stormed from the room toward the bedroom. Buck's raised eyebrows at Chris only garnered him a small shake of the blond head.

"Need a ride to the airport?" Josiah offered. "No sense in Vin having to drive in when we're all going that way."

"I'll let you know in a minute," Chris replied on a sigh. Without another word, he followed the route his best friend had taken.

He closed the door upon entering the bedroom. Noticing his suitcase open on the bed, he glanced around until he spied Vin coming out of the master bathroom with Chris's shaving kit.

"I'm sorry," he offered. "I know this wasn't planned, but it's only for a couple of days. I'll be back before Christmas."

"Yeah, I know," Vin replied, not looking at him as he placed the toiletries in the suitcase.

Chris watched the angry movements for a moment. "This isn't just about me having to leave, is it?" he asked. "Richards?"

Vin whirled to face him. "I don't give a rat's ass what Richards thinks," he fumed. "What bothers me is what my friends think--our friends, Chris."

Chris frowned in utter confusion. "What?"

"In case you haven't noticed, I ain't the only one in this relationship, Larabee," the Texan continued, his ire growing as he took a step toward the taller man and poked a finger into the hard chest. "And I'm damned sick and tired of folks actin' like I am."

"Vin, no one's acting like..."

"The Hell they ain't!" Vin practically shouted. "When Richards was spoutin' off his bullshit, not one eye turned to you, Chris. They all looked at me, even Travis. Doesn't matter that I've slept with as many women as I have men, not that either is a very long list, mind you. As far as they're concerned, I'll always be a gay man and you'll always be a straight guy in a gay relationship. How the Hell does that work exactly?"

His lover's anger came as a complete shock and Chris had no words ready to diffuse it. He hadn't noticed any looks leveled at Vin, but if they'd been there, he suspected they'd been out of concern for the quiet Texan's desire to keep his private life just that.

"Vin, I..."

Once again he was cut off by the younger man's angry words. "And Travis ain't no better. Think he'd be sendin' ya off this close ta Christmas if you were still married? If this was your first Christmas with Sarah? Or Adam? Maybe if he'd tried it then, you would have at least put up more of a protest!"

He saw the look of shock in the green eyes turn briefly to pain and then anger. As soon as the words had left his lips, he'd regretted them, but his own emotions were too close to the surface to voice that regret.

"What the Hell's the matter with you?" Chris demanded "This has nothing to do with Sarah or Adam and what I would or would not do if they were here. They're not."

God, he'd made such a mess of this. Chris was right; it had nothing to do with Sarah or Adam, not really. And it didn't have anything to do with whether their friends thought of either one of them as gay. His anger left him almost immediately and was replaced with a deep shame for his words and actions. "Jesus, I'm sorry, Chris," he sighed, raking a hand through his hair and sinking down to sit on the edge of the bed.

After a brief hesitation to get his own feelings under control, Chris sat beside him. "You want to tell me what this is all about?" he asked quietly.

He knew the man deserved an explanation, but he had no words to express what he was feeling. Hell, he wasn't sure how to explain it to himself let alone to Chris.

"Just don't want you to go," he finally stated. It might not be all that was bothering him, but it certainly was true.

"And I don't want to," Chris replied, putting an arm around the strong, though slumped shoulders of the other man. "But if it was your testimony that could keep Reynolds behind bars, you'd be going in a heartbeat and we both know it."

Vin couldn't deny it. As much as he hated it sometimes, part of what made their relationship so good was the fact that they both understood the demands the job could put on their personal lives. With a small sigh and a nod, he turned to look into the worried green eyes. "Then I guess we'd better finish getting ya packed."

Vin insisted on driving Chris to the airport himself. The nearly three hour round trip didn't really matter when there wasn't anyone to rush home to. The silence between them was not exactly strained, but neither was it of the comfortable variety they so often shared. Small talk about upcoming plans and ongoing cases was pretty much it for conversation.

Knowing they'd have no privacy once they reached the crowded airport, Vin reached over to take Chris's hand just before they arrived. "I really am sorry, Chris," he said quietly. "I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you too," the blond smiled, squeezing the Texan's hand affectionately. "But I'll be back before you know it and Christmas will be everything we planned it to be, okay?"

Vin held no illusions that it would be everything he had planned it to be - everything he'd hoped it would be - but Chris didn't need to be worrying about that on top of everything else. "Okay," he replied, returning the smile. He saw the lingering worry in Chris's eyes and did his best to dispel it. "Me and the tree will be waitin' for ya."

Chris leaned over to brush his lips against Vin's once the truck was stopped. "I'll be counting the minutes," he practically purred.

Vin swallowed hard at the tone. "Don't be startin' somethin' ya can't finish, Larabee."

"Oh, I'll finish it," the blond leered with a wink. "First night I'm home, under that very tree. I promise."

The seductive voice went straight to Vin's groin. "Keep that up and it'll be right here in the white zone."

Chris's smile faltered only slightly as he gazed into the blue eyes he knew so well. Something was wrong and, once again, he was hit with the feeling that it was more than just him having to leave. "You gonna be okay while I'm gone?" he asked, hoping Vin would give him a clue as to what was bothering him.

"Don't sweat it, Cowboy," Vin replied. He knew Chris could read him like a book and found himself breaking eye contact for a few seconds to veil the disturbing feelings he still had. When he looked back, the green eyes were narrowed slightly, studying him. "I'm fine, Chris."

He didn't entirely believe it, but he knew from experience that Vin wouldn't tell him until he was ready, and he obviously wasn't at the moment. "Think you'll be ready to tell me about it when I get back?" he asked quietly.

A wry smile accompanied the slow shaking of Vin's head at his partner's tenacity. "Yer gonna miss your plane, Larabee."

The tone in which the words were delivered, as well as the stubborn glint in the blue eyes told Chris that the subject was closed. "Okay," he said with a small nod as he reached for the door handle. "I'll call you when I get to Washington."

Vin nodded and watched the blond retrieve his suitcase. Before entering the terminal, Chris leaned toward the passenger window and waited while Vin hit the switch to lower the glass. "I love you," he said gently.

"Love you too, Chris," Vin replied with a soft smile. "Hurry home, okay?"

"Count on it," Chris responded with a wink and a smile. With that, he turned and entered the bustling building through the large glass doors.

Vin watched until he disappeared into the crowd and then put the truck in gear and headed for the exit. The further he got from the airport, the lower his spirits dropped.

He was surprised to find Buck's truck parked in the drive when he returned to the ranch since Buck had left with JD just before Vin had left to drive Chris to the airport.

When he entered the house, he went straight to the den, raising an eyebrow speculatively at the lanky frame sitting on the sofa. "Buck?" he said simply.

Buck used the remote to turn off the program he'd been watching before turning to Vin. "Thought maybe you'd like to talk for a bit," he said softly.

"About what?" Vin asked, his expression giving nothing away.

Buck shrugged and leaned back against the couch. "Maybe about whatever's got you so tied up in knots," he suggested. He paused for a moment. "I couldn't help hearing some of what ya said to Chris."

It shouldn't have come as a surprise; they hadn't exactly been whispering. Still, he'd been unprepared for the direct statement and tensed slightly. "What's said 'tween me 'n Chris stays 'tween me 'n Chris," he said quietly. There was no anger or judgement in his voice, only a small hint of warning.

Buck nodded slowly. "Most of the time I'd agree with ya, Vin. But not when I hear what I did today." He studied the younger man's uncomfortable stance. "You feelin' like we treat ya different than we do Chris?" he asked gently.

"You sayin' it ain't true?" Vin countered, his eyes flashing with a hint of defiance.

Buck allowed a small smile and shook his head. "No, I guess it is. But maybe not for the reasons you think."

"You take ta mind readin' now, Buck?" Vin asked, his tone bordering on angry.

Wilmington chuckled then. "Hell, if I had, I woulda seen this coming long before now."

The words intrigued Vin just enough to make him take a seat on the opposite end of the sofa from Buck. "Seen what comin'?" he asked, eyes narrowed.

Buck took a deep breath as though measuring his words. "I know now how it must seem to you," he said. "But I wanna tell you how it is, Vin. If we treat ya different than Chris, it's because the two of you are different. Chris don't give a damn what anybody thinks."

"And ya think I do?" Vin countered, angry again. He didn't need anyone to tell him what he thought or felt. "Think I give a shit what people like Richards think of me?"

"Maybe not," Buck replied, holding Vin's angry gaze with a calm one of his own. "But I know for a fact you give a shit what people think of Chris, and I've seen what you're capable of when it comes to protecting your own."

"Chris don't need my protection," Vin groused, his eyes leaving Buck's to study the floor at his feet.

"But would that have stopped you from taking Richards' head off if he'd been directing his comments at Chris?" Buck asked quietly.

Vin didn't have an answer for that. At least not one he was willing to share at the moment. If Richards had been talking about Chris, he wasn't exactly sure what he would have done.

"None of us think you are any more affected by that shit than Chris is," Buck continued, "but sometimes we might expect you to react differently, that's all. We don't wanna see you do something you may end up regretting down the road."

"I ain't stupid, Buck," Vin growled, getting to his feet and glaring down at his friend. "Wouldn't risk Chris's career over a piece of shit like Paul Richards."

"I didn't think you would," Buck concurred, also rising. "Not for a second." He gave the younger man a compassionate smile and squeezed one tense shoulder gently. "But you can't fault your friends for not wanting to see you risk yours either." He took a moment to study Vin's expression, seeing the myriad of emotions so close to the surface. "We good?" he asked quietly.

Tanner didn't answer immediately. The comments Buck had overheard had been made in anger. As much as he appreciated Buck's attempts to reassure him, it was such a small, insignificant part of what was really bothering him that it was almost comical. But while he might not want to get into the real reasons for his current state of mind, neither did he want Buck or the others to think it was their fault. "Yeah, we're good," he finally replied. "'M sorry, Buck."

"Hell, ain't nothing to be sorry about, Junior," Buck smiled in relief. "Just remember, as far as the rest of us are concerned, you and Chris are just two guys in a committed relationship. Don't matter none what came before. All that matters is you're happy together and we're happy for you, okay?"

But Vin knew what came before did matter - it mattered a lot. The thought had plagued him all the way home from the airport.

He realized Buck was looking at him with no small measure of concern and felt a need to put the man's fears to rest. "Okay," he nodded, dredging up a ghost of a smile. "Thanks."

"What're friends for?" Buck shrugged with a relieved smile. "You wanna get some dinner or something?"

Vin shook his head slightly. "Don't reckon I'd be much company tonight," he stated truthfully. "Thanks for comin' out, though, Buck. Ya didn't have ta drive all the way out here ta say all that, but I 'preciate it."

The words struck a chord in Buck's heart. Sometimes it was obvious that Vin was still overwhelmed by the fact that he had friends who cared. Friends who'd walk into Hell for him, let alone drive a few miles. In response, he captured the startled young man in one of his customary bear hugs. "Anytime, Junior, anytime." With that, he left the ranch's lone occupant to his solitude.

By the time Chris called, Vin had eaten a meager dinner and taken care of the stock for the night.

"Hey, Cowboy," he drawled into the phone upon hearing the blond's voice. "How's things in Washington?"

"Cold," Chris complained miserably. "In more ways than one."

Vin couldn't help a small smile. "Well, the quicker ya take care of business there, the quicker you can come home and I can warm ya up."

"Can't wait," Chris sighed. "God, I hate this."

"Yeah, me too," Vin said quietly.

The bleak tone set Chris's senses on alert, but he knew his lover well enough to know that if he wouldn't talk about it in person, he wasn't likely to discuss it over the phone. "You sure you're okay?" he asked anyway, already knowing the answer he'd receive..

Vin didn't disappoint him. "I'm fine." After a brief silence, he added, "Reckon I'm kinda tired."

They'd been up early to search for the perfect tree. Then, with the exertion of chopping it down, getting it into the house, and the activities they'd indulged in afterward, not to mention the drive to the airport and back, it seemed like a convincing enough answer.

Convincing, that is, unless you were as in tune with Vin's moods as Chris was. As much as he wished he knew what was bothering his lover, he also knew that it would be pointless to press him to divulge anything. Thinking it best to follow Vin's lead, he breathed a small sigh into the phone. "Yeah, me too. Guess maybe we should both get some sleep. I'll call you tomorrow."

"Yeah," Vin murmured. "Sounds good, Cowboy."

"Love you," the blond said softly.

"Love you, too," Vin replied, unable to resist a small smile. "G'night."


Vin hung up the phone but let his hand linger on the receiver for a minute. After a glance at the undecorated tree, he picked up the phone again and dialed Josiah's number. He was never so glad to get an answering machine in his life.

"Hey, 'Siah," he drawled reluctantly. "About that thing we was talkin' about. I've...uh... I've changed my mind, okay? Just cancel the whole thing and whatever ya do, don't mention any of it ta Chris. Talk ta ya later."

He hung up once again and breathed a small sigh of relief and sadness. Had Josiah been home to take the call, he knew he would have had to offer some sort of explanation. He probably still would, but at least he'd been granted a reprieve for the time being.

But now he had another problem. He needed to get a gift for Chris - one that wouldn't remind him of something he'd once had and lost.

Sunday's phone call wasn't much better than the one the night before, both men acutely aware that there was something hanging between them and both trying to pretend it didn't exist.

"Any plans for the day?" Chris asked after an uncustomarily tense silence.

"Got some things ta do in town," Vin replied casually. "Not sure how long I'll be gone. How about you?"

"I'll probably spend most of the day going over these files," Chris sighed. "Hearing's in the morning. Want to make sure everything's fresh in my mind."

"Got your flight booked?" Vin asked.

"Travis got me one for 3:00. I'll be home sometime tomorrow, depending on how badly the holiday traffic screws up the schedules." His tone dropped to a seductive level as he continued. "We can have a little reunion all to ourselves, then have the guys out on Tuesday after work for that decorating party."

Vin was silent for a moment. He'd been trying to push all thoughts of Christmas from his mind. He knew he wouldn't be able to get away with ignoring it altogether though. The best he could hope for was that he'd be able to convince his lover - and himself - that he didn't need all the trimmings that came with the holiday.

"Reunion sounds good," he finally said. "Party don't matter, though. We can do the decoratin' ourselves. Maybe I'll get bored and have it done 'fore ya get here."

The words only served to add to Chris's confusion where Vin's mood was concerned. "What happened to ain't a party less'n the whole gang's here?"

"Don't need a party, Chris," Vin said quietly. "The important thing is that we're together, right? All that other shit don't mean nothin'."

Larabee didn't even have a response for that one. He knew how much the Christmas preparations had meant to Vin. He'd been planning some of them a good month in advance. While the two of them being together was the most important thing, he knew that the other things were important too. How many times had Vin mentioned how nice it would be to have Christmas memories of his own? Now it seemed as though he was throwing it all away and Chris couldn't figure out why.

"It means something to me," he finally said evenly. Because I know it means something to you, regardless of what you say.

"I'll wait then," Vin acquiesced, "if'n that's what ya want."

"What do you want, Vin?" Chris asked, trying to keep the desperation out of his voice. He'd give anything to see what was going on in those big blue eyes at the moment.

"Just want ya home," the Texan answered. "That's enough. Nothin' else matters."

At any other time, those words would have warmed Chris's heart, but now they gripped his soul with icy fingers. "Talk to me, pard," he practically pleaded. "I hate not knowing what's bothering you."

Vin took a deep breath. "Ain't nothin' botherin' me, Chris," he lied for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. "Just take care'a business there and come home, okay?"

"Okay," Chris breathed after a brief silence. "I'll call you later."

After they'd said their goodbyes, Vin hung up the phone with a feeling resembling relief.

"Get a grip, Tanner," he hissed to himself. "It's gonna be a lot harder to pull off in person if ya don't."

"That's usually the case," came a voice from the doorway.

Vin whirled to see Buck standing there, a six-pack in his hand. "Glad ta see that knockin' thing's workin' out for ya," he snapped caustically.

Buck shrugged. "Didn't see any harm since Chris was outta town," he replied. "You never seemed to have a problem with it before."

"Well things change," Vin retorted. "Try the bell next time, will ya?"

Buck held up one hand in a gesture of surrender. "Okay, I'm sorry, I'll use the bell from now on." He held up the beer he'd brought. "Just thought maybe you could help me out with these."

Vin knew the man was only trying to be a good friend, but he wasn't in the mood for an afternoon of companionship. Besides, he had things to do.

"Sorry, Buck, I was just on my way out." He knew he was being rude, and quickly offered an explanation. "I've still got some shopping to do."

"For Chris?" Buck asked.

Vin lowered his head uncomfortably. "Yeah."

"Anything to do with whatever it is you'll have trouble trying to pull off in person?" Wilmington asked with a mischievous smile. "I could help, you know. I'm pretty good at pulling off all kinds'a things."

Vin rolled his eyes at the double entendre. "Thanks, but this is something I hafta do myself."

"In that case, you mind if I hang around a while? Was looking forward to a peaceful afternoon and I ain't gonna get that in town with JD and Casey there wrapping and carrying on."

"Suit yourself," Vin shrugged as he grabbed his coat. "Ain't for sure how long I'll be, but you're welcome to whatever ya want."

Buck plopped himself down on the sofa and opened one of the beers he'd brought in. "Good luck," he said, raising the can in a toast before taking a long drink. "Can't say as I would have guessed you to be a last-minute shopper though, the way you hate crowds and all."

Vin nearly shuddered at the images Buck's words brought forth. He did hate crowds, which is why he made it a point to do all of his shopping early. But now that he'd changed his mind about Chris's major gift, he really didn't have much choice. "Guess I'll just hafta take my chances," he grumbled miserably. "Ya might wanna save me one'a those," he added, nodding at the six-pack.

"I'll put one on ice with your name on it," Buck replied with a grin.

Tanner nodded and headed for the front door with a feeling of dread. This wasn't going to be anything like the afternoon he'd originally had planned.

Then again, changing his original plans just might be the best gift he could give Chris.

He was slightly annoyed to find Buck still there when he returned hours later. He'd been unable to find anything suitable for Chris's gift and was already feeling more than a little frustrated. Now he most likely had more questions and friendly advice to look forward too.

He wasn't in the mood for either.

He was surprised to find his own irritation mirrored in Buck's eyes when he entered the den where the tall man was waiting.

"Find anything?" Buck asked, a slight edge to his voice.

Vin was taken aback only briefly before he answered in the same tone. "Not yet, but I will. Don't worry none."

"Seems I've got cause to worry, Junior," Buck continued. "Josiah called while you were out."

Vin visibly tensed at that. "What did he say?" he asked.

"Said he wanted to talk to you," Buck replied, watching Vin through narrowed eyes. "Said you called and put a stop to what you had planned for Chris."

"Changed my mind s'all," Vin shrugged. "Weren't no big deal anyway."

"Think Chris will see it that way?" Buck asked, still watching Vin carefully.

The Texan looked up to meet Buck's gaze. "Chris won't ever know," he said quietly but with a hint of warning.

Buck's eyes flashed with anger.

"Josiah told you," Vin surmised.

"Hell yeah, he told me," Buck retorted. "Wanted to know what happened that changed your mind. I'd kinda like to know the answer to that one myself."

"Ain't none of your business, Buck."

"The Hell it ain't," the ladies' man countered, getting to his feet. "He's my friend too, Vin."

"I know that!" Vin snapped. "You've been friends for a long time! You were here when Sarah and Chris decorated their tree every year, and when Adam opened his gifts. I get it!"

Buck's expression of anger turned to one of confusion. "What?"

Vin took a deep breath. He hadn't meant to reveal that much. "Never mind," he sighed wearily. "Maybe you should just go, Buck."

"Maybe I should, but I ain't going anywhere. Not until you tell me what this is all about."

"I don't owe you any explanations," Vin said stubbornly. Then, his tone softening somewhat, he added, "Just don't say nothin' ta Chris, okay?"

Buck could see the pain and sadness in the other man's eyes and was even more confused than he had been. "Josiah told me why you wanted to do it," he said softly. "I know what it would have meant to Chris. You sure you wanna change your mind?" he asked softly.

"It's for the best," Vin replied, his eyes pleading for understanding. "Can ya just trust me on that?"

The words had the desired effect.

"All right," the bigger man sighed, running a hand through his dark hair. "I think you're making a mistake, though. Chris would have loved it."

"Just can't do that to 'im," Vin practically whispered. "Not now."

"I don't understand," Buck said with a shake of his head.

"You don't hafta understand it, Buck. Just promise me ya won't say anything."

He couldn't resist the silent plea still emanating from those expressive blue eyes. He didn't know exactly what was going on between his friends, but if Vin was doing what he thought was right for Chris, he had to respect that. "I promise," he finally said, his tone indicating that it was a promise he hadn't wanted to make.

"Thanks," Vin breathed on a sigh of relief.

"Guess I'll be getting back to town," Buck announced quietly. "Things should be a little calmer there by now."

Vin nodded, unable to trust his voice.

Buck reached the door and then turned as though he wanted to say something further. After a moment, he merely shook his head sadly and issued a soft, "Good night."

"Night," Vin responded, not moving toward the door himself. Once the other man had left, he went and collapsed on the sofa.

Had he done the right thing?

He thought about all his reasons and was convinced that he'd made the right choice. "Merry Christmas, Chris," he whispered as the first tears escaped from under his lashes.

When the phone rang, he knew instinctively who was on the other end of the line. It was a warm smile that transformed his features when he heard his lover's voice.

"Hey, pard," Chris said.

Vin could almost see a smile matching his own on the handsome face. He might have changed his mind about a few things, but Chris wasn't one of them - would never be one of them. He only had to make sure their conversation stayed away from the upcoming holiday.

"Hey, yourself, Cowboy," Vin drawled, leaning back into the corner of the sofa. "How was your day?"

"Boring. The only thing worse than writing out those reports is having to read them over and over again."

"Well, seems I got outta that p'ticular duty this time," Vin reminded him. "'Course, I might just go cross-eyed starin' at them tapes for the next day or so, but I reckon it's all part of the job."

"Just take it easy with those eyes," Chris admonished in a teasing voice. "I happen to like them just the way they are."

Vin's smile broadened. This topic he could handle. "'S'at all ya like, Cowboy?" he teased, his tone dropping to a seductive level.

"Well, if I try real hard, I might be able to come up with a couple more things," Chris played along.

"Maybe ya just need a reminder or two," Vin chuckled softly. "Close yer eyes and concentrate real hard." He paused a moment. "Got 'em closed?"

Chris loved it when Vin was in this particular mood. "Yeah," he breathed.

Vin leaned back. "Now let's see... where should we start?"

"At the top," Chris replied. "Your hair."

Vin ran his hand obligingly through his shoulder length hair. "Used that shampoo ya like this morning."

He could hear Chris inhale over the phone.

"The one that smells like a mountain morning," the blond breathed.

Vin chuckled again. "Don't 'xactly say that on the bottle, but whatever works for ya, cowboy."

"Oh, it works for me, all right," Chris replied. "How's it feel?"

Vin rubbed a strand between his fingers. "Kinda soft, I guess. I reckon it's a mite tangled just now. Ain't for sure how that happened."

Chris could help a small chuff of laughter. Vin's hair seemed to tangle if you looked at it the wrong way - and he wouldn't change a strand. "Wish I could work those tangles out for you, pard," he said wistfully.

"I'm sure I'll be able to come up with a way ta tangle it all over again once yer home," Vin said with a wicked smile.

"What else?" Chris asked.

"Well, reckon we done discussed the eyes already," the Texan mused. He ran one hand over his square jaw. "Didn't shave this mornin'."

"Mmmm," the blond breathed. He could practically feel the stubble beneath his hand as he imagined stroking his lover's face.

Vin's hand moved to his chest. "Reckon I got kinda chilled comin' in from the barn. Could cut glass with these nipples, Chris."

"Jesus, Tanner," Chris gasped. "You're killing me here."

"Ain't at all what I'm tryin' for," Vin chuckled. His tone turned from teasing to seductive in a heartbeat. "Touch yerself, Chris. 'Magine it's my hands on ya. Can ya feel it?"

"Yeah," the blond sighed. "Tell me more, Vin."

Vin was getting into it as much as Chris by that point, his breathing slightly more ragged as he tried to think of new ways to seduce his lover over the phone. "I can feel your hands on my skin, Chris. Tracin' nice and slow over my chest, rollin' my nipples 'tween your fingers."

"Yes," Chris responded with a hitch in his voice. Vin knew that the blond was putting action to the words, stroking his own chest and imagining Vin's hands there.

Tanner's hand slid down his body to begin unfastening the button at his fly. "You're undoin' my jeans," he murmured seductively. "Ya just can't wait ta get them long fingers wrapped around my dick."

A soft moan escaped his lips as his hard shaft bobbed free of it's denim prison. The sound was matched by an arousingly similar one coming from the phone in his hand. "Feel it, Chris? Feel my hands touchin' ya?"

"I feel it," Chris gasped into the receiver. "God, Vin, you're so hard."

"That I am, cowboy," Vin groaned, closing his eyes against the sensations building within him. He circled his cock with his fingers and began to stroke slowly. "Yer touch does that ta me every time."

"Want to taste you, Vin," Chris rasped. "What do you taste like?"

Vin shuddered slightly at the words and collected a drop of pre-cum on his fingers, raising them to his lips to taste himself. "Sweet," he murmured. "Kinda salty."

"Oh yeah," Chris whispered, his breathing ragged. "Can you feel it, Vin? Can you feel my mouth on you? My lips, my tongue... my teeth."

Vin wet his fingers and returned them to his twitching cock, his mind conjuring up the memories of what the blond could do with his mouth. He swirled his fingers around the weeping head, his nails raking gently in a pale imitation of the strong, even teeth of his lover. "Jesus, Chris," he hissed.

Chris took that as his cue to take over. He was already teetering on the brink from Vin's teasing game and knew it wouldn't take much to bring his lover to the point where they could soar over the edge together. "Stroke it, cowboy," he murmured with a groan. "Like you're deep inside me. I can feel you, Vin, harder, deeper, faster."

Vin circled his throbbing cock with his hand, imagining it was the blond's tight ass enveloping him as he quickened his strokes. "Chriissss," he whimpered.

"That's it," Chris gasped. "Let go, Vin. Lemme hear you come."

That did it. Vin shuddered and came in his hand with a long, deep moan.

The sound, as well as the mental image of his lover bringing himself off, was all it took to trigger Chris's own release. "Oh, God, Vin," he groaned as his seed pumped into his palm.

Vin fell limply back against the sofa, still panting into the phone as he struggled to regain his composure enough to speak. When he did, it was with a raspy drawl. "Damn, Cowboy," he breathed. "Over a thousand miles away and you can still push all the right buttons."

"Works both ways, pard," Chris chuckled breathlessly into the phone. "Guess we've both got some cleaning up to do."

"Yeah," Vin drawled wistfully. "Wish we's doing it together."

"Me too," Chris replied softly. "Soon, though, I promise." While he still didn't know exactly what was going on with Vin, he was at least mildly reassured to learn that it apparently had nothing to do with his feelings for Chris.

As though on cue, Vin's voice reaffirmed his thoughts. "Love you, Chris."

"Love you too," he responded. "I'll call you at the office the minute I get out of the courtroom."

"I'll be up in surveillance, remember?" Vin said with a mischievous grin. "Goin' all cross-eyed over them tapes."

Chris chuckled. "Don't start that again, Tanner. Don't think I'm up for another round just yet."

"No stamina," Vin clucked, shaking his shaggy head sadly. "That's yer problem, Larabee."

"My problem is a mouthy, smart-assed Texan who never knows when to quit," Chris quipped. His tone softening, he added, "And that's one problem I never want to solve."

"Ain't no solvin' a problem like that," Vin teased. "Some things ya just gotta live with."

"Looking forward to it," Chris murmured. "Every second."

"For the rest of our lives," Vin finished the thought with a gentle smile. "Sounds good, Cowboy."

"It is good," Chris assured him. "It'll always be good as long as we're together."

The words sent a warmth through Vin that rivaled that of the fireplace in front of him. "And I plan on us bein' together a good long while," he replied. "Soon as you get your ass back here where it belongs."

Chris had to smile at that. He knew that sometimes the depth of their feelings for one another could still overwhelm his younger lover and at those moments Vin usually tried to add some levity to the conversation.

"Then I'd best get this ass off to bed so I can get this job done tomorrow."

"Night, Chris," Vin drawled into the handset. "See ya tomorrow."

"Night," the blond returned. "Love you."

"Love you, too."

Vin pushed the button to end the connection and placed the cordless phone on the table beside the sofa. The dull ache of disappointment that had been plaguing him since the previous day was all but gone from his mind.

It didn't matter that he wouldn't have the exact Christmas he'd been looking forward to.

He had Chris and that was infinitely more important.

When Chris called the office the next day, Vin was still upstairs looking at surveillance tapes.

"How'd it go?" Buck asked his boss.

"Seemed like the judge wanted to let him out, but after hearing all the facts he finally decided to keep him where he is until the trial," Chris answered.

"That's good," Buck smiled. "At least the trip wasn't a waste."

"All the facts were in my written report," Chris scowled across the miles. "Seems Judge Clayton T. Penbridge prefers to look into a witness's eyes when they're testifying."

Buck heard the bitterness in his friend's voice and frowned slightly. Chris should be glad Reynolds wasn't getting out, especially if his testimony was one of the reasons. "Anything else goin' on we should know about?" he asked.

Chris exhaled loudly into the phone. "Storm came in overnight," he said dismally. After a brief pause, he added, "They closed the airport two hours ago."

"Shit," Buck breathed, involuntarily glancing at the office doors as though expecting to discover that Vin had overheard. "Junior ain't gonna be too happy 'bout that."

"He's not the only one," Chris fumed. "I promised him I'd be home today."

"He'll understand, Chris," Buck said, knowing full well that their young friend might, indeed, understand, but that wouldn't make it any easier having to tell him. "Want me to tell him when he gets back?"

"I wanted to talk to him myself," Chris sighed. "They're calling for the storm to let up sometime this afternoon, but..."

"But by the time they catch up on delayed flights," Buck finished for him. "And with it being the holidays and all."

"I know," Chris replied. "May not get out of here until tomorrow, if then."

"First thing he's gonna ask when he gets here is whether you called," Buck pointed out needlessly. "What should I tell him?"

Chris thought about it for a moment. He wouldn't lie to Vin himself, and he'd be damned if he'd ask Buck to. "Unless he asks specifically about the flight, just tell him about Reynolds and that I'll try to call him from the airport," he finally answered. "I'm gonna head over there and see if I can get on an earlier flight once things start moving."

Buck knew how unlikely that was. With flights being delayed or cancelled, everybody would be scrambling to make other arrangements once the airport was back in business.

"Good luck with that," Buck said sincerely, though he had his doubts. "I'll try to keep Vin on an even keel until you call."

"I'd appreciate that," Chris replied gratefully. "He's not himself right now, Buck. Hard to say what could set him off."

"You being stuck in Washington over Christmas would set him off at the best of times," Buck pointed out. "But I know what you mean. Something's gnawin' at him."

"He say anything to you?" Chris asked, hoping for a clue as to what was going on in his lover's head.

"Nothin' that can't wait until you're home," Buck said, not wanting his friend to worry any more than he already was. "Whatever it is, he'll work it out."

"Yeah," Chris sighed. "That's what I'm afraid of."

"Don't worry, stud," Buck tried to reassure the other man. "Once you're home, he'll be more like his old self."

Chris tried to draw comfort from those words, but he knew it wasn't as simple as that. While he didn't doubt his lover wanted him home, it was obvious there was more going on under that tousled brown hair. "I hope you're right," he said quietly.

"He should be down around three," Buck informed him.

"Tell him I'll call him later," Chris repeated his earlier words.

Buck hung up the phone and breathed a heavy sigh.

Suddenly a Merry Christmas depended on a certain blond team leader getting home in time for the holidays.

When Vin entered the team's office suite shortly after 3:00, his gaze went immediately to Buck. With the rest of the team downstairs going over reports with Team Three, the mustached agent was the only one in the bullpen. "Chris call?" he asked, trying to sound casual.

"Yeah, a couple'a hours ago," Wilmington responded. "Said he'd call you back from the airport."

"Storm interferin' any with the flights?" the sharpshooter pressed.

Buck took a deep breath. It didn't surprise him that Vin had been keeping track of the weather in Washington. "Yeah," he admitted. He might not have volunteered the information, but given a direct question, he wasn't going to lie. "They had to close the airport this morning."

"Damn," Vin cursed quietly.

"Once the flights are moving again, he's going to try to get one of the first ones out," Buck offered in an attempt to reassure.

Vin flopped down in his desk chair and ran a hand through his hair. "Yeah," he muttered sarcastically. "I'm sure nobody else'll think of that."

"But nobody else has that Larabee glare workin' for them," Buck replied, trying to lighten the younger agent's mood. "Hell, they'll give him a seat on the first flight out just ta get rid of him."

Vin couldn't help a small smile at that. He'd never personally felt intimidated by the look, but he'd seen first hand the effect it had on others. "Reckon ya could be right there."

Buck was glad to see the smile, but didn't miss the unhappy look in those emotive blue eyes. "He'll be back in time for Christmas," he said softly.

The small smile Vin had been able to manage faded slowly. "Ain't concerned none 'bout the date, Bucklin. Just want 'im home."

Buck's eyes flitted to the calendar on Vin's desk, the one the sharpshooter had decorated with glittering Christmas stickers. The 25th was circled in red marker and had a happy Santa face sticker adorning it. For someone unconcerned with the date, the Texan sure had seemed to be looking forward to it.

Vin tracked his friend's gaze and upon seeing where it was fixed, proceeded to pick up the calendar and toss it into the wastebasket by his desk.

Buck was about to comment when the phone on Vin's desk rang.

"Tanner," he snapped as he picked it up.

"Hey, pard."

"Chris," Vin responded. "How's the flight situation?"

Larabee sighed. "Storm's stopped, for now at least. They're hoping to resume flights within the hour."

"Any idea how long they'll be backlogged?"

"Hard to tell," he answered. "But it may not matter. I've got a line on a private flight going to DIA as soon as it gets clearance."

"Private flight?" Vin repeated the words with a small frown.

"Got to talking to this guy in the restaurant here," Chris explained. "He's got a small plane headed to Denver and I managed to talk him into taking on a passenger."

"Talked 'im inta it, huh?" Vin said with a grin. "No glare needed, I s'pose."

Chris chuckled. "Nope. Just told him I had to be home with my family for Christmas. Beats the Hell outta me, but it seems people really are nicer this time of the year."

"Yeah, well, just as long as you get home in one piece, that's all the matters," Vin replied in a more serious tone. "Don't worry none 'bout Christmas."

"It's not Christmas I'm worried about," Chris told him truthfully.

Tanner had to swallow at that. "When will ya know for sure 'bout this flight?" he asked, effectively changing the subject.

"I'm keeping my original ticket," Chris answered. "I'll take whichever gets me home sooner. The smaller plane will need to make stops but the commercial's direct."

"When you've got a better idea when you'll be getting in, let me know," Vin said. "I'll be there ta pick ya up."

"I'll call as soon as I know for sure," Chris promised. "Love you."

"Me too," Vin replied, soft colour rising in his cheeks. "See ya later."

He hung up the phone and swiveled his chair to face Buck. "He's got a line on a private flight to Denver," he informed the mustached agent. "He'll take that or the commercial, dependin' on which gets clearance first."

"Well, all right then," Buck responded with a grin. "What'd I tell ya, Junior? He'd be here for Christmas if he had ta crawl on his hands and knees."

Vin smiled a little but didn't reply.

"So I guess the decoratin' party can still go on tomorrow," Buck announced happily.

"No party, Buck," Vin said in a quiet but firm voice.

"Aw, Hell, Junior," the tall man teased with a grin. "We promise ta give ya enough time to get reacquainted first."

Vin felt the colour rise in his cheeks but wasn't sure if it was embarrassment or anger. "I said no party."

Buck's teasing smile disappeared as he studied the Texan's expression. "What's going on, Vin?" he asked finally. "Somethin' not right with you and Chris?"

"We're fine," Vin replied. "Just changed m'mind 'bout all the Christmas shit, that's all. Ain't none of it important."

"And why's that all of a sudden?" Buck pressed. "You and JD've been bouncing off the walls for weeks. You expect me to believe you don't care now?"

"Believe what the Hell ya want," Vin snapped, unwilling to explain his reasoning to Buck. "All I'm sayin' is there ain't gonna be no party, got it?"

Buck was getting angry. "Fine. Care to fill me in on any other plans that might've changed? Chris's gift, the party. We still getting together at the ranch Christmas Day? Or is that just a bunch'a shit too?"

Vin knew the other man thought he was being a total jerk, but he knew what was best for Chris. "We want ya all at the ranch for Christmas, Buck," he said, his tone softer. "Ain't nothin' changed 'bout that." He paused for a moment. "Less'n ya don't wanna come now."

Buck ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "Of course we want to come," he sighed. "Damn, son, I'm like a blind man tryin' to feel his way around here. Help me out a bit, will ya?"

Vin considered his options. He didn't want Christmas Day strained because of any harsh feelings between himself and Buck. Chris and Wilmington went back a long way and had spent many happy holidays together.

On the other hand, there was no way he could explain to Buck what he was feeling.

"We want ya ta come," Vin reiterated sincerely. "Ain't that all that matters?"

It was an evasive answer at best and Buck's frustration level hit new heights. But as he looked into the pained expression in those wide blue eyes, he knew he wasn't going to be getting answers anytime soon.

"We'll be there," he finally said, mustering up as much of a smile as he could.

"Thanks, Bucklin," Vin said with a nod and a smile of relief. "That'll mean a lot ta both of us." He could still see concern and frustration in the blue eyes that looked back at him and he felt a stab of guilt, knowing he'd put it there. "Don't worry," he said softly. "I know what I'm doing."

Buck nodded and got to his feet. "Okay, Junior," he sighed. "I'll trust that you do."

Even as he was thinking that the younger man looked worn out, Vin stifled a yawn. "Rough night?" he asked.

"Didn't sleep too well, but ain't nothin' ta worry about," Vin replied.

"Go home, have a shower and grab a bite to eat," Buck suggested. "Chris said he'd call when he knew more about the flight. That'll still give you plenty of time to get to the airport."

"Sounds like a plan," said Vin, getting to his feet. "I'll talk to ya tomorrow." After retrieving his jacket and putting it on, he paused in front of the taller man. "Thanks, Buck," he said, ducking his head slightly. "I know ya's just worried about Chris..."

"I worry about you too, Vin," Buck interrupted softly.

"Yeah, reckon I know that too," he replied with a shy smile.

It was more personal than they usually got and Buck knew Vin was generally uncomfortable with such declarations. "But if I thought you were gonna hurt him, you know I'd have to shoot you, right?" he teased.

Vin grinned but there was a glint of gratitude in his eyes for the words. "Hell, Bucklin," he said with a sly wink. "I'd give ya my own gun ta do it."

And in that one teasing sentence, Buck knew that his oldest friend's heart was in good hands.

"Think Chris knows how lucky he really is?" he asked, only half teasing.

"I dunno," Vin replied with a blush, though the sly grin was still there. "But I can have him call ya whenever I think he might need a little remindin'."

Buck laughed and threw an arm around the younger man's shoulders as they headed for the door. "You just do that, Junior."

As Vin stepped out of the shower, he was glad he'd taken Buck's advice. The kink in his neck he'd acquired from hours of watching surveillance tapes was gone and he'd be able to welcome his lover home in a way befitting his much improved mood.

And he owed that newly improved frame of mind to Buck. In his own way, the ladies' man loved Chris, too. And just knowing that was a great source of comfort to Vin.

He'd just finished a meal of chili and toast when he heard a car in the driveway. Looking out the window, he was surprised to see not just one, but four. The fact that he recognized them all did little to curb his curiosity and he had the door open before Buck had a chance to try out the bell he'd promised to use.

The look on Wilmington's face, and the ashen features of JD at his side made his blood run cold.

"What?" he asked, his voice barely above a whisper.

"Has Chris called?" Buck asked softly.

Vin could only shake his head as the rest of the team joined them at the door.

"Mind if we come in?" Nathan asked as though talking to a skittish child.

Still unable to speak, Vin stood aside and allowed them entrance, taking note of the grim expressions they each wore. Finally, he could take no more. "What?" he asked again. "Tell me."

The other five men glanced uncomfortably at one another for a moment. "We ain't sure there's anything to tell yet, Junior," Buck hurried to reassure him. "But..."

No, no buts. He didn't want to hear buts.

"Bucklin?" he rasped, looking for something other than the shock and disbelief he saw in the tall agent's eyes.

Josiah took a few steps to stand before Vin. "Buck said Chris was trying to get on a private flight from Washington," he ventured gently.

Again, Vin could only nod.

Josiah hesitated only a moment before continuing. "A small plane went down this afternoon shortly after takeoff from Dulles." He had to swallow the disbelief his own words caused. "It was destined for Denver."

Vin merely looked at him, his face betraying nothing for what seemed like hours. "No," he finally managed, the words accompanied by a fervent shake of his head. "It weren't Chris."

"I hope you're right, son," Josiah soothed, trying to place a hand on the man's shoulder only to have it shrugged off quickly. "We just thought we should come out and keep you company until we have more information."

"Don't need no more information," Vin grated, his eyes narrowed in barely controlled anger. "I'm tellin' ya, it weren't Chris."

"Vin," Buck began, taking a step toward the trembling man.

"Fuck off, Buck!" Vin shouted as the ladies' man reached out to touch him. "Get the Hell outta here, all'a you!" Without another word, he stormed toward the master bedroom, leaving the other five to flinch as the door was slammed loudly.