Mistletoe '04: Benediction


The first Christmas... after... was the hardest thing Chris had ever done, and every jingling bell and Christmas commercial had weighted him deeper and deeper into his depression. Buck stayed with him, unusually quiet in the week that led up to the 25th. They'd volunteered for two long shifts and left the precinct together at 8:00 p.m. Christmas day. Out at the ranch, he and Buck sat alone on the deck in back, shivering in their sheepskin coats and drinking bourbon out of the bottle with only one goal in mind.

"Promise me something," Buck said, before he started slurring too much. "Promise me that if you're still conscious after I am, you'll get us inside. I couldn't bear the thought of being found dead of exposure six damned feet from the kitchen door."

Death didn't seem like such a bad thing, to Chris, but he nodded anyway, thinking if he changed his mind, neither of them would be around to care. But Buck had passed out first, and while Chris was willing to play fast and loose with his own life, he couldn't, with Buck's. Pissed off, wanting nothing more than to just lie back on the deck and wait for the snow to cover him up, he jostled Buck half-awake, levered him up, got him inside and face-down on the guest bed, before looking back out the dining room window. It was tempting... damned tempting. He glanced back down the hallway, resenting Buck like he never had before, knowing Buck would carry the guilt of him going back out and dying.

He stumbled off to his own empty bed.


The second Christmas, he volunteered them again for duty, but found Buck's name crossed off the form when it was returned to him.

"You want to explain this?" he asked his partner, just barely reining in his temper.

"I've got it off," Buck said evenly. "And that grad student I'm seeing, Susanne--"

"The big-titted teenager?"

Buck rolled right on over him. "--loves to ski. We're going skiing. And she's 23, be nice."

The woman was ridiculously susceptible to Buck's easy compliments and high voltage smiles, and Chris hated her in that moment. He needed Buck around, but he'd be god damned if he'd say that; he was sick of thinking it, sick of feeling it, and sick of Buck for hovering--he didn't know what he wanted, and hadn't for months.

On Christmas day, Chris left the station house after rush hour to get shit-faced drunk in a strange bar, and woke up hung over in the back seat of his truck the next morning, deathly afraid he was going to puke in the foot well and ruin the flooring. It was all he could do to drag himself half-way up, and somehow work the door handle, letting the blast of icy air sweep in and blow away the stench of alcohol sweat and despair.

Half-bent over, he stared at the carpet and concentrated on not throwing up. It still looked new, had held up extremely well given how he treated the interior; the dog rode in this seat when it was raining, and he kept a box half-full of tools behind the seat. But it still looked new, no mud or manure or bloodstains marring its steel gray color, or diluting the new-truck smells.

He didn't want it to be his puke that ruined it. Crawling out slowly, finding his feet carefully, he got his bearings. He couldn't read the name of the bar, and he wasn't sure if the problem was his vision, or how bad the sign was banged up, but the windows were dark anyway; he set off, found coffee and bagels and a hint of alertness before he climbed behind the wheel and made his slow way home to the ranch.

There was evidence of Buck in almost every room. A scrawny tree, three feet high in a little clay pot, had been decorated with ornaments he'd never seen; the boxes in the trash touted the name of a drug store near Buck's condo. Several presents dwarfed it, some from Buck, a couple obviously collected by Buck, acting as some giant Santa's elf, from friends at the precinct office. Mistletoe hung from the kitchen doorframe, rum-laced eggnog chilled in the refrigerator and on his bathroom sink faucet Buck had taped a Christmas card with a note:

Life goes on, Chris. I know it sucks, I sat around here for a while and listened to the quiet and couldn't shake that feeling, of how fucking much it sucks, but life goes on, too. I love you, brother, and I'll be around when you're ready to be alive again. Hell, I'll be around in the meantime. Off to get laid, B-- P.S. Fed and watered the horses and threw two steaks out to the dogs, you're damned lucky the ASPCA isn't after your ass.

Chris's anger at Buck for leaving turned a one-eighty to relief, that Buck had disappeared to Aspen with the woman, because he wasn't sure what he'd have said or done to retaliate for that pap Buck had written on the cheery little Christmas card.

At least Buck had used a card and a pen, instead of the mirror and toothpaste. Solely because Buck knew it bugged the shit out of him, Buck had adopted a habit years before, of leaving him notes in toothpaste on his bathroom mirror.

He stared at himself in the mirror. "Asshole," he said, not sure if he was talking to himself or to Buck.

Because life didn't go on.

Sarah's life didn't. Adam's didn't.

But his did, and he didn't have the balls to do what it took to change that.

He threw away the Christmas card and grabbed up a whiskey bottle and started where he'd left off at the bar, and got drunk again. He stayed drunk for three days, like he hadn't done in over a year.

The Long Road

The Christmas Eve that followed that one, Chris left the federal building and his new office nearer five o'clock, stopping only for supper to let the holiday traffic thin out a little. The tree in his empty house was bigger, and the ornaments were familiar this time, dragged out from boxes in the basement. The pile of presents was bigger too, and included a gift from each member of his new team; he flushed a little as he fingered each package, wondering if Buck had twisted the guys' arms or coached them on how to behave, because they had given him a lot of room this past week--even Vin, who Chris had felt good about right from the first.

He thought back, wondering if he'd been enough of an asshole that Buck had decided to run interference. He'd tried to keep his melancholy to himself, but it was a big thing to hide, the elephant in the room. Still, he'd managed to choke out a "merry Christmas" for each man today, and a smile for Vin's quiet squeeze to his shoulder.

Yeah, Buck had done something, or said something, because they'd all treated him with kid gloves. And Vin knew, had to know, how hard this time of year was for a man who'd lost his child. Buck had probably told the whole story; much as Chris hated it, he couldn't ever get the man to shut up, and had almost given up trying.

Chris had saved his office moodiness for Buck, because he didn't know the other guys well enough to let loose, and because he knew Buck could take it.

He found more eggnog in the fridge, and on the bathroom vanity, a condom wrapped in Christmas foil with a tiny red and white Santa hat taped to one corner. Funny, if misguided; Chris dropped it into the drawer.

He could still smell Buck on the air, in the aroma of nutmeg in the kitchen and the woodsy scent of cologne in the afghan on the sofa. Chris suspected Buck had left in the last hour, and poured himself a single glass of whiskey, sipping and staring at the Wallace Silversmiths annual Christmas sleigh bells adorning the tree. Sarah had bought one each of their five years, and would have ordered one in from France if she'd had to, so determined was she to build memories, to have a tangible symbol for each of the decade's worth of Christmases they'd planned to spend together. He couldn't believe Buck had dared touch them, or how damned much it hurt, watching them reflect firelight.

He found himself on the sofa, wrapped up in the afghan and the lingering smell of Buck's cologne, watching the lights twinkle.

Christmas morning was a little weird; he spent a couple of hours with King's Lafayra, wondering again if he should break down and sell the stud. He was fine horseflesh, with a lineage that would fetch upwards of fifty thousand, and Chris hadn't even offered him for stud in nearly three years. Uncut males caused trouble, sniffed at his mares and Buck's gelding, as indiscriminate as Chris had once claimed Buck was.

But he couldn't see selling the black. Hell, maybe it was time to advertise him again.

The presents for the guys were mostly silly: cards, a gorilla mask from Buck for those days when he wanted to improve his image, the note said; dinner for two at a swanky restaurant from Ezra that Chris would bet a fortune the guy couldn't afford; Ezra was still trying to impress people, still trying to consume conspicuously, and Chris would be damned glad when he quit it. Vin's was the best and most useful, a promise to feed, water and work the horses for four weekends of Chris's choice between now and April. Vin was up here enough anyway that it wouldn't be a huge burden, and Chris was beginning to feel squirrelly, like he needed to get away.

He wondered how Vin had guessed that, or if Buck knew it, and had told him.

When he took the tree down, he found a new ornament marked with this year's date, and sobbed like a battered kid, that Sarah wasn't here. And after the tears dried up, he remembered all over again that missing them wouldn't bring them back, and that Buck was as determined as Sarah had been to make memories Chris could live with. He had a whole new gang of friends now, good men. He had a lot to live for.

He packed up the bell Buck had bought with the others, took the tree out back and planted it near its sister on the far side of the riding ring.


This whole year had been different--really different, as if the last Christmas had purged something inside him. His ersatz family had grown, and not only had the team bonded, but he and Buck had gained ground Chris hadn't realized they'd lost. He had Vin to thank for that, for waking him up and reminding him what friendship felt like and, later, for making one innocuous comment last summer: Buck sure does put up with a lot of shit from you, Chris. Not judging, not even really criticizing, Vin had said it maybe because he was curious about a past he would never pry into, and maybe about why Buck did put up with it... or why Chris dished it out.

Yeah, he'd answered, before he thought about it. He honestly hadn't thought about it until Vin said what he did.

He watched himself after, though, and sure enough Buck was the easiest target, the one he knew would tolerate his bad moods--hell, who generally seemed not to care or even notice Chris's bad temper. Chris knew better, when he stopped to think, and he knew what his tantrums at Buck hid, but he hadn't had the guts to do anything about it.

How could you expect somebody to love you who hadn't loved you before? Especially when somebody else you loved was dead?

He'd been able to move on in a lot of ways, to climb out of the bottle and back into his career, to take opportunities and build a team of dedicated maniacs, all of whom had become good friends over the last year and a half. But he hadn't been able to move on in love, because there was only one person he cared about like that, only one person left he wanted to care about like that.

It seemed like a betrayal not just of his love for Sarah, but of Adam, of everything his marriage had stood for. But then, Chris wasn't the one with the problem, and never had been. That had been Buck's department, Buck the stud, Buck the ladies' man, who couldn't recognize himself unless he was chasing pussy.

Chris couldn't blame him; they'd had conservative jobs, and both of them wanted good careers. Hiding behind Buck's skirt chasing had been easy enough, much as he resented the women--and he had, he always had. Then Sarah had come along, and Buck had seemed genuinely happy, maybe even a little relieved--which left Chris as fucked now as he'd been nine years ago, before Sarah, before Adam, before losing them both.

Now there was no going forward, not to another woman, another family; right or wrong, good or bad, the idea sickened him. And there was no going back, not to what he and Buck had had when they were young, and wild, and thought they were partners, pals, best friends, fuck buddies--whatever words they'd used to call it, back then.

So he'd stood in this limbo while grief and regret washed over him, and after, as the guilt faded and the grief didn't clutch quite so hard at his chest, he'd stayed in this limbo because he felt like he was betraying his dead family.

He'd never cared overmuch about betraying Buck... if Buck even thought of it that way. Probably, Buck didn't; probably, Buck had been relieved when Sarah came along, giving them both the room to be straight guys in a straight world, best friends, brothers.


Chris had thrown it away once, because Buck hadn't wanted any more than they had. But Buck hadn't left, like Chris had thought he would. And Buck hadn't left after the fire, when Chris wanted him to. Buck didn't deserve another chance. He'd thrown it away, and he didn't deserve another chance. But Chris wanted to give him one.

* * *

Two days before Christmas, Chris was driving with Vin in the passenger seat and a Christmas tree tied down in the truck bed. The sky spat little flurries of new snow, unsure yet whether it really wanted to let loose and bury the old snow in a fresh blanket of white. Two more days, he thought, as he and Vin turned off onto Bear Tooth Drive. Vin was unreasonably amused by all of this, so much so that Chris began to wonder if inviting him along today was such a good idea.

"Sure is a pretty tree, Chris," Vin said again, turned halfway around in the seat to look at it.

"Yeah," he mumbled.

"Come on, you had the Christmas spirit for almost ten minutes straight when we picked out the thing," Vin joked. "Don't lose it now. Gotta build up that holiday stamina, Larabee."

"How about I just shove you in your busted jeep and let you go spread Christmas cheer someplace else?" But he said it with a smile, and the words didn't dampen Vin's spirits one whit.

This was damned different from years past when Buck in absentia pushed this on him, compelling him to find and hold dear the best memories of the past but demanding that he find in himself some hope for the future too, and all without having to be there and tolerate him. Chris smiled at the thought, wondering how Buck would tolerate this Christmas, wondering if he'd even show up this year. Chris hoped he would, but he'd made no specific plans.

Buck had refused to give up their friendship after Sarah, and refused to give up Chris after the fire. He'd refused to let Chris sink so deep that he couldn't find his way back out, and stayed when he should have taken off, and for all of that, Chris wasn't going to give up on Buck now.

"You ever hear the story about the guy in a hole?" he asked, glancing Vin's way. "So there's this guy walking down the street and he falls into a hole. 'Help, I'm in a hole!' he hollers, and plenty of people walk on by. Then a friend walks up and says 'Hey, Bob, that you down there in that hole?' Bob yells up 'Yeah! Get me out!' But the friend, he jumps down in the hole with him, and now they're both stuck down there. 'What are you doing?' Bob yells at him. 'Now we're both in the hole.' 'Yeah,' his friend says, 'but I've been here before and I know the way out.'" He watched while Vin pondered the meaning, and grinned when Vin looked at him.

"Hey, that hole joke, that's deep," he said with a straight face.

Chris cracked up, letting the next wave of sincere good mood crash over him. He thought about telling Vin more of his past than he'd ever told anybody, but there was no real reason to. Wasn't like information would make them know each other any better, and Vin already knew who Buck was. Buck didn't need any cheerleading in Vin's department.

This was different, and nice, Vin's quiet companionship making easy what would have been hard to do alone. They dragged the tree in, made microwave popcorn and opened beers, and Vin asked no questions as they unpacked the ornaments, just listened and nodded when some particular item caught Chris's attention and his memory, and smiled when nostalgia forced Chris to tell the story behind this trinket or that. Vin even shared a holiday memory or two of his own, surprising Chris not with the details of his past, but with the joy in them. Vin could squeeze a lot of love out of a tiny offering, Chris knew.

When he pulled out the Wallace Silversmiths sleigh bell, dated last year, he held it in his hands for so long that Vin finally spoke.


Solicitous, not pressing, Vin just sat there holding his beer and being the friend he was.

Holding the bell up and watching the light glint off it, Chris began, "Sarah..." he cleared his throat, his eyes naturally moving toward the fireplace mantle, and his wedding photos, the pictures of Adam and Sarah, of the whole family together... "Sarah started the tradition the year we got married, where we'd go to the mall and buy this annual Christmas ornament. One year, Macy's was out--we went to every department store in every mall from here to east Denver," he said fondly. "She'd have driven to California to get one. She was determined to make memories...." he swallowed, then smiled, stroking his fingers over the year on the bell.

Vin nodded, then said for the first time since they'd met, "I wish I'd got the chance to know her, Chris. You were a lucky man."

Chris met his eyes, acknowledging all those words Vin hadn't said, about support and friendship and shared sorrow, but that they both understood. "Yeah. I was." Chris handed the ornament over and Vin looked at it more closely. Frowned.

"This is from last year," he said slowly, a question in his eyes.

"Buck bought it last year," Chris admitted. "He's been sneaking up here the past three years, trimming a tree, leaving me presents and moral support, Christmas cards... The asshole left me a rubber last Christmas, with a tiny little one of those Santa's Elves hats taped to the corner."

Vin burst out laughing, and Chris grimaced. "It wasn't that funny," he groused.

Vin wiped at his eyes and settled down after a minute. "Nah, it ain't," he agreed, still chuckling, "but it makes some other stuff make a whole lot more sense."

Chris didn't ask; he didn't want to know.

"You're taking away his surprise."

"Nah," Chris demurred. "If he shows up at all, he'll be glad I woke up."

"He's gonna like it," Vin said after a moment.

"No guarantee he's even gonna see it."

"Come on, Chris. Who do you think you're decorating this tree for?"

Chris flushed a little, remembering. He'd gotten drunk one night and said too much, but Vin had been sober, and remembered it all the next day. "Christmas?" he mumbled.

Into the longer, more sober silence, Vin continued, "You know you ain't got nothin' to worry about from me, Chris. I'm happy for you. For both of you, if it works out how you want it."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Chris muttered, self-conscious.

Vin let out a short bark of laughter, then shook his head. "Shit," he smiled. "I'll tell you, cowboy, if you plan on trying to keep this a secret he'll make your life a living hell at work, just to wind you up." He chuckled a little. "Mark my words."

Chris stared at the Christmas ornament Vin still tumbled over and over in his hands, weighing his thoughts, wondering if he wanted to talk anymore about this. There wasn't anybody else he'd talk to, that was for sure... "Ain't like that," he finally said, lifting his eyes to meet his friend's. "I can't say it'll ever be like that, Vin."

"I'd lay bets on it," Vin said with uncanny certainty. "Ever since you stopped treating him bad half the time, he's warmed up to you like a dog sidling up to a warm hearth. Practically rolls onto his back to let you scratch his belly these days." Vin grinned. "Sheeit, you two are like high school sweethearts, and neither one of you just coming out and saying it."

Chris frowned. "It's not what you think, Vin..."

"I know what I'm seeing."

"Then you know why you're wrong," Chris almost growled, taken aback by how blunt Vin was being.

Vin's smile never wavered. "I'd have thought so too, maybe even as recent as a few months ago. Watching Buck swing back and forth between being your shadow and brushing you off, chasing skirts all the time... you seen him chasing skirts lately?"

He hadn't. It was probably the biggest reason he thought Vin might be right, and... and he wanted Vin to be right. The idea that Buck might've gotten over his youthful fears, that Buck might've experienced enough, or lived enough, or whatever enough to finally want to settle down... Chris didn't trust himself to read Buck right because he wanted it so badly, now. Again. Maybe always. "No..." he said slowly. "But hell, Vin, he could be off his feed. It's happened before."

"He ain't off his feed," Vin asserted, and Chris realized then that Vin knew just how uncertain he was, that Vin was as uncomfortable as any other guy talking about relationships and love and all that stuff--maybe more uncomfortable because he was a straight guy talking about two men, men who were his friends--but Vin was Chris's friend, his most valued one since he'd lost his family and made the break from so many other people, and Vin would put himself through this discomfort if that was what Chris needed.

Chris looked up, grateful.

Vin held his eyes for a moment, nodded, then, crude as hell added, "Bet you a hundred bucks you and him are walkin' bow-legged before New Years."

Chris flushed again, embarrassed and horny this time. "You been talkin' to him?" he demanded.

"Now, pard," Vin joked, finally moving to hang the sleigh bell on the tree, "that'd be tellin'."

Half pleased, half horrified, Chris leapt, toppling Vin over and getting him in a good enough hold to start goosing him in the ribs. "Tellin' my ass. What are you, Miss Matchmaker?"

Vin, fighting back, laughing, released a garbled, "Maybe I missed my true calling."

* * *

Christmas Eve was a white one, and the barn was damned cold this morning. Chris took off his work gloves and blew on his hands, trying to get some circulation back into them, thinking that next Christmas, somebody else was going to get stuck with barn duty. Four more horses had joined Chris's stud, Buck's two geldings and the mares since this time last year. Don Juan continued to be Buck's beloved favorite, and Whistler's Pride, the five-year-old Buck hadn't been able to resist but had absolutely no use for, Buck had passed on to JD for a decent profit but a fair price. As it happened, Whistler was the perfect horse for a young kid from Boston who'd never straddled anything more lively than a motorcycle, and JD thought he had the best horse of all of them.

Chris petted Whistler's nose, holding his icy palm up and flat to tempt the horse, then grinning when it shied away from his chilled fingers. "You don't know how lucky you've got it, you spoiled brat," he told it, then put his gloves back on as he stepped into the aisle and glanced up and down the barn. They had stacked hay in the loft evenly across the floor so it held a little heat in, and Ezra had gone soft on them and helped Josiah add an insulation layer and new siding when summer started to turn. Chris had put his foot down at the suggestion of heaters out here, until and unless Ezra wanted to start picking up Chris's electric bill and nominated himself as the one to drag the animals outdoors every morning.

"They won't go," he'd told Ezra. "Hell, would you leave a warm house to spend the day out in the cold?"

Only logic--and a fair amount of teasing from Buck and Vin--had compelled Ezra to subside, but Chris had the feeling that next fall, the argument would start up again.

Ten horses, the dogs, and the barn cats whose job it was to eat, breed, and keep rats away, had it damned good.

Everybody had it damned good, Chris privately acknowledged, before he locked up the barn and stomped up the snow-drifted path to the house. It was cold though! He dragged off his snow boots, gloves and damp coat in the tiny back porch, and stomped into the house. Grinning, he stalked down the hallway and pushed open the door to the guest bedroom, where Vin's head barely stuck out from under the quilts. Easing quietly across the room, he bent and stuck his icy hand against the bare neck, and laughed his ass off when Vin squawked and jumped a mile, straight out of the bed to stand barefoot in his longjohns on the cold hardwood floor, hopping from foot to foot and cursing up a blue streak.

"Big help you were this morning," he ribbed. "I couldn't get your ass out of bed."

Vin frowned, chafing at his arms like it was really cold in here--and at 68, it sure as hell wasn't when compared to the outdoors--and looked around for the bedside clock. "I set the alarm..." he defended.

"Yeah." Chris grinned wider, and pointed to the corner. "Looks like you pushed it off the nightstand and it rolled into the corner. Good reflexes, Tanner."

Vin, waking up fast, just grinned. "What time is it? I was gonna run Miranda today."

"You've got time, but I'd keep her in the ring. We got more snow last night."

"Yeah, all right."

Chris turned from the guest bedroom with every intention of going to his own bedroom and getting ready for the work day--work, what a laugh. His team hadn't turned in a decent productive hour since Monday, and he had no expectation that it would change on this Christmas Eve half-day of Secret Santa exchanges, holiday office parties, and mistletoe challenges. He ended up in the living room, staring at the Christmas tree he'd bought. It was beautiful, and on impulse he flipped on the lights, watching them twinkle among the branches.

"Pretty, huh?" a voice breathed not six inches behind him. Chris jumped, then grinned, figuring turnabout was fair play after his wakeup call a few minutes earlier.

"Thanks for the help."

"Any time, pard. We get much new snow?"

"Six or eight inches--your jeep's gonna be full of it."

Vin nodded, good-natured about the fact that somebody had taken a knife to his canvas cover and, rather than just cutting a hole big enough to stick their hand through and unlock the door, carved the whole thing up like a Christmas turkey. "Gonna take more than duct tape this time," Vin agreed affably. He waved a hand in the air, brushing it off. "I'll ride in with you today, if that's okay. Get Buck to give me a lift back here this afternoon, if the sun's shining, and get my jeep home then."

"Buck's coming out this afternoon?" he tried to sound casual, and knew he'd failed when Vin flashed all his teeth. "What's he got cooked up?" Chris sighed.

"Why are you askin' me?" Vin asked, slapping him on the back.

"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, but Vin was already trotting down the hall toward the john. "Hey! What's that supposed to mean?" he yelled.

To hell with it. It was obvious that Vin knew more than he was saying, and given that Vin was saying a lot, Chris was beginning to wonder if he should call in sick today. Inter-department Christmas parties and holiday gags had been escalating this week, and to this day Chris didn't know how Buck had avoided sexual harassment charges all his life, given how he threatened to cop feels off pretty much anybody who'd stand still for it. Today was supposed to be the team's gift exchange. Ezra had at least a half a dozen bets going, some of which Chris had cash riding on, and he wasn't going to miss it for the world.

He made breakfast while Vin worked his filly, and left extra eggs in the pan.

An hour later Chris pulled the truck past the guard and into the federal building's underground parking garage, where the radio reception went out and Vin stopped whistling along with the Christmas songs. Chris asked one careful question before they got out of the truck; "You sure you can get your jeep back today?"

Vin looked at him for a long moment, then chuckled a little. "Yeah, Chris, I'm covered."

That was all he needed to know, for now. Sometime soon--New Year's Eve, maybe--he was going to get Vin good and drunk and find out how Vin thought he knew what he did. Chris was pretty good at interrogating suspects...

When they got inside, Vin veered off at the locker rooms and came out two minutes later wearing a dark green Henley and one of those pointed fake fur Santa hats in red and white. Chris felt his cheeks heat a little, understanding now why the Santa hat on the condom had gotten such a laugh out of Vin. By ten-thirty and three of Ezra's Irish coffees, everybody was wearing them, and they actually looked pretty damned cute, like Santa's heavily armed little helpers... Chris corked the whiskey bottle then and there.

Vin spent an inordinate amount of time with Buck in the bullpen, their foreheads almost stuck together. That wasn't the kind of thing that boded well for Chris Larabee, and the idea that those two were conspiring against him--or even for him--made him unaccountably nervous. He ducked into his office, pretending to work. Mostly though, he kept peeking out the window to follow the team, where not a single one of them was doing anything that even vaguely resembled finishing their reports. Ezra actually had his feet up on his desk and leaned back in his chair, leafing through an Abercrombie and Finch catalog.

Around 11 o'clock, Ezra disappeared and wandered back a few minutes later with Starbucks coffee carriers. Chris threw down his pencil and stretched his back, watching more overtly now as smiles and laughter picked up out there. Ezra knocked on his door too and brought the last cup into his office.

"Even the boss deserves a decent cup of coffee during the holidays."

Chris wasn't so dumb as to thank him before tasting it; it was incredibly whiskey-laced. In the federal building. After he'd confiscated one bottle. He debated the wisdom of reprimanding Ezra at a moment when the man wouldn't give a shit and wouldn't be swayed, and finally just raised his eyebrows. "More booze, Ez?"

"What?" The innocent look firmly in place, Ezra shook his head. "I don't have any whiskey on the premises, Chris, and I'm surprised you'd ask for it at such a time. Stick to coffee."

With that he walked out, ignoring Chris's quiet laughter. The holiday cheer out there had become less subdued as the morning wore on, and Chris wondered how they'd hidden it so well last year. Buck and Vin, probably together, had steered everyone else clear of him.

Chris gave in and turned off his computer. "You guys gettin' any work done out here?" he asked, raising his Irish coffee in toast.

"Hell, no!" and assorted variations greeted him, and he smiled.

"Okay, okay. So why aren't you all trawling the office parties?"

JD--the only one who had been at his computer and looked like he was working this morning--passed over a print-out. It was a detailed matrix of the various office parties, with outlines and summaries of who had the best food, drinks, potential gifts, and music. "We were waiting for you," he said with a smile.

Buck slapped Chris on the back, then took him by the shoulders to steer him toward the door. Chris felt the heat of Buck's body all the way down his back. "You're the leader, Larabee. Shift your ass."

En masse, they tramped from floor to floor, sipping their coffees, archly refusing spiked drinks that anyone else tried to offer on the grounds that it was illegal and inappropriate, and laughing. There was a lot of laughter.

They got back to the office just before one, and Nathan and JD were the first to make goodbye noises. Nathan and Raine were driving out to her parents' place in northern Arizona, and had six good hours of driving ahead of them. JD was spending the holiday with Casey at an undisclosed location.

"All right. Drive safe, people. I've got to go see judge Travis for a little bit. Anybody gonna be here when I get back?"

Buck stood up first. "I'm giving Vin a ride to get his truck. I'll see you later though, all right?"

Just like that, out in the open, no shadows or sneaking around. Chris still couldn't assume they were speaking the same language, but it felt good anyway. "Yeah."

He took a quick glance around the room; it was obvious JD knew something, and equally obvious that neither Josiah, Nathan or Ezra cared if they did. Vin, on the other hand, was grinning like a self-satisfied lunatic; Vin Tanner was a quiet guy, but damn, he could have fun at his friends' expense. The man was almost as bad as Buck, about that.

"I'll still be here, Chris," Josiah said, affable; his cheeks were a little red from the booze, Chris guessed. "Thought I'd actually finish that report you wanted."

"Don't worry about it until Tuesday, Josiah. Merry Christmas, guys."

Amid choruses of "merry Christmas" and "see you in a couple days," Chris grabbed three file folders and headed toward the elevators.

The meeting was brief, and the drive home, easy. Everybody was in the shopping malls, buying last minute presents, and the traffic was light.

Chris pretty much expected the house to be warm when he got home, and the lights to be on. Christmas Eve, and tomorrow, Christmas Day, without Sarah's voice or the high-pitched laughter of a child. It was going to feel bad, but it was starting to feel good again, too; Buck had been right. Life went on. Somehow. And on the 26th, everyone but Nathan would be out for food and laughter. JD and possibly Ezra were bringing dates. Josiah had invited a woman he said he wasn't courting, but Chris wasn't so sure. She worked in the shelter Josiah volunteered at, and they looked good together.

He was a little surprised to see Buck's truck in the middle of the garage when he clicked the remote door opener. This was different, and welcome. Resigning himself to shoveling snow out of the truck bed in the morning, he parked in the driveway and ducked in through the garage. There was a big Christmas bow on the garage door that led into the house, and he ran his finger over the velvet. No decorations hung in the short hallway, though he could smell gingerbread, and couldn't believe Buck would have actually baked. But Buck had done it before, trying to set a good example for Adam: This is how you impress women, boy. You know your way around their world. Sarah had glared at Buck for that, and somehow Buck had turned her working mother feminist critique into a kiss beneath the mistletoe.

Buck had a knack for that sort of thing.

The cake squares, absent decoration or powdered sugar, sat on a plate on the kitchen counter. Garlands hung from under the cabinets, looping their way around the kitchen on all sides. A jingle bell wreath was stuck to the refrigerator door, and he winced at the clatter when he opened the fridge to retrieve the blender full of eggnog. Not full, he noted; Buck had been working on it.

The smell of rum hit hard and sweet when he removed the blender cap, and he picked up the clean tumbler with the Christmas tree on the side and poured it full. After only a second's hesitation, he retrieved another glass for Buck. Noise from the TV in the den echoed through, and he stood in the hall for a moment, trying to identify--

"You're watching It's a Wonderful Life?" he asked as he walked in, ratcheting down the smile that rose.

Buck, stretched out, long legs crossed at the ankle, heels resting on the arm of the sofa, looked over at him and offered a smile. He was dressed up, in black slacks and a dark blue sweater, his Bruno Maglis polished to a rich sheen, "I was watching porn on Showtime before, but it left a lot to be desired."

Chris's stomach tightened, and maybe something further south. It was good that they didn't have to talk to figure things out between them, because as much as Buck could go on and on about nothing important, this wasn't a conversation the guy was likely to have started.

Chris surveyed the den to give himself something to do. The tree was beautiful, dwarfing the television without overwhelming the room. "Where's your tree?"

"Vin saved me the trouble," Buck said, smug.

Vin seemed to be saving a lot of people trouble, and Chris wondered if the new boots he'd bought weren't a paltry present for the thank-you he owed his friend.

Wrapped packages from Buck and probably some of the others sat beneath the tree. Chris had wrapped his gift to Buck the day before, and it sat unopened amongst the others. The fireplace had logs laid atop too much kindling, awaiting the touch of a match.

"It's nice in here," he offered, taking another step into the room.

"Always was," Buck agreed.

Chris set the fresh eggnog beside Buck's empty glass on the coffee table and moved to sit in the recliner. He didn't need to be worried, and he wasn't, but he was in no hurry, either, so he split his attention between the movie he'd watched almost every year, and the length of his friend on the sofa. He didn't much like this film; it rang too true, reminded him of his helplessness, but Sarah had always liked the sappy ending, and Buck had always smiled, and made appreciative comments about the varying appeals of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed.

As the credits rolled, he went back to the kitchen, started a pot of coffee and retrieved the cake. "I forgot you knew how to cook, you know!" he called out.

"Some things, you never forget," Buck said from right behind him, and he stiffened, almost flipping the cake off the plate like an omelet from a pan.

"You want to eat this, or wear it?" he snapped, blood pumping faster than before.

"Hey stud, I'm cool with either one." The words were sober enough, and Chris cleared his throat, feeling the butterflies alongside something more, much more.

"Go on back into the den, I'll bring this stuff in."

He watched Buck walk away, taking in shiny dark hair, the breadth of shoulders and the long, tapered back, the neat ass in dark pants that he'd trained himself not to look at for a lot of years. It was enticing, comforting, to ride the anticipation--and he'd keep doing it, for as long as Buck needed.

Looked like, from the clothes and the house and the truck and the elves' hats at the office and everything Vin had implied, that Buck didn't need much more time at all.

The television was off when he returned, and they sat side by side on the couch, noisily sucking down too-hot coffee and squares of cake like they hadn't eaten in days.

"'S good," Chris complimented.

Buck mumbled thanks, swallowed. "It's her recipe, it ought to be."

"Yeah, but you didn't stick the little mint sprigs into the top, or sprinkle powdered sugar--"

"I am a guy, Chris," Buck chided, inviting him to share the joke.

Yeah, Buck was definitely that. That had been a problem before, for both of them, if in very different ways. Reaching out, Chris grasped Buck's hand and held it, let the long, strong fingers braid with his own. Their heat seeped into his knuckles and his palm. "I'm not rushing you."

Buck snorted and squeezed his hand. "You, rush me? Chris, we'd have grown old and died before you'd have gotten around to it."

Chris shook his head. That absolutely wasn't true, but he had good reasons for waiting. "I'm not a kid anymore, Buck," he warned carefully. "I don't want--" Buck turned his head, heart in his hands and eyes so blue, so open that Chris saw everything in them.

"What don't you want?" Buck asked, frowning a little.

It was still amazingly hard to say. He looked down at their joined hands and forced the words out. "I don't want a fuck buddy, Buck. I don't want to wonder who you're seeing next week. I want to be done--done mourning, done looking."

The smile that rose on Buck's face reached right into Chris's soul. "You'll never be done mourning, Chris," he said, the words not matching the face at all. Buck glanced briefly toward the mantle. "I never found a Sarah for me, and lord knows I looked everywhere. I don't see you trying the marriage thing again..."

"No." Buck's eyes darted around in that way that announced some deep revelation to come, and Chris braced himself.

"It hasn't been so long since I figured out why I couldn't find that in a woman. It's because it's here, Chris." Buck's hand tightened on his, emphasizing the point. "Right here."

He didn't deserve the depth of loyalty Buck gave him. They'd lived dangerous lives, lusted in secret in the distant past, and left each other's beds with unnatural ease. Chris hadn't wanted to look at that too closely, because the answer had always been obvious--that regardless of whether Buck had been able to face what sleeping with a guy said to the rest of the world about him, Buck had never really let him go at all, not in the ways that counted. He had never, until this year, taken those last steps closer either.

"So yeah, I reckon you can be done looking."

Chris exhaled in silence, chewing on that for a second, chewing on his bottom lip and trying to make it stop tingling. "You might want to think on that some," he warned. "Not worth making a mistake that's only gonna cause us more trouble."

"I did. I have."

"Were you really watching porn on Showtime?" he asked, to lighten the mood a little.

"Nah," Buck said. "Showtime porn sucks."

"Wouldn't that be a good thing?" he joked.

"Now, if you want good sucking in porn, there's this director, I swear..." Buck went on while Chris huffed out a laugh, listening to the lurid descriptions of some natural redhead whose eyes sparkled and who could, apparently, suck the chrome off a trailer hitch. Theirs wouldn't look much like hearts and flowers, he supposed, but that was only because they knew each other too well.

He couldn't even imagine the shit that would start showing up in his video cabinet. "Let me get a fire going," he said, as much to break up the monologue as to stop thinking about dicks being sucked, which was doing no good for his equilibrium at all.

"You sit tight," Buck said, letting go his hand. "I got it."

Chris watched long legs fold as Buck knelt to start the kindling, and indulged his desire to take the measure of shoulders, of skinny waist, of the firm ass as fabric stretched tight across it. Buck sat on his heels for a minute to make sure it caught and Chris pondered the dense muscle of his thighs. "Have you been running?"

"Huh?" Buck followed Chris's gaze down to his legs, then something between a smile and a leer stretched his mustache straight. "Yeah. The kid got into it, so I started going out again to keep him humble."

Chris just nodded, a heat unfurling like smoke in his chest. Buck's frame was big, his body lean, and Chris had appreciated its long lines even before he'd been sure why.

When the fire caught, Buck returned to the sofa, settling his feet on the coffee table and raising his arm, and as simply as that, it began. Chris leaned in, wedging his shoulder into Buck's armpit and sighing when fingers absently stroked his collarbone. Buck was naturally tactile, and touched almost without realizing it. Between the twinkling tree lights, the lick of fire on wood, the pressure against his whole right side and the warm density of thigh under his hand, Chris felt himself begin to look forward to what would happen tonight. They'd been good together back then, and he couldn't help but speculate on how much better they'd be now.

Buck's fingers traced steadily. Occasionally Buck would shift his leg, pressing it more firmly against Chris's, and Chris would drop his eyes for surreptitious looks. Buck's trousers tented just a little at the crotch, and Chris was worse off, but they just sat there, in a silence that built with tension, like electricity in the air.

Just turn, he told himself. Just scoot around so you can look at him, and then you can kiss him. But he couldn't. Some new inhibition kept him where he was, and he felt like just what Vin had called him, a kid in high school, sitting beside his date at the drive-in movie. This was different from anything that had come before, and precious.

Buck solved his problem for him. "This feels good," he said, his voice barely more than a whisper.

Chris sensed his lover's gaze, rolled the word around in his mind and acknowledged how right it sounded even as he felt the heat of breath at his temple, and closed his eyes. Lover. "Yeah."

"I want to kiss you so bad," Buck said then, in that same low voice, rich with desire.

Chris cleared his throat. "Me, too."

"Can I?"

Oh, god. "Yeah."

The breath warmed further as Buck's mouth approached him, and the tickle of mustache contrasted with the silk brush of lips on his temple. His breath stuttering out on a sigh, Chris ducked his head and turned, attacking from below and capturing the soft mouth before Buck could do anything to dissuade him. The simple touch ricocheted through them like a bullet fired inside an oil drum; he could feel it in Buck as clearly as he could in himself. Their first kiss in years, probably their most innocent by far, it touched off a spark in him, warming places long cold and dark.

He slid his hand across warm, flat belly as Buck's mouth opened against his, as Buck's sharply in-drawn breath tried to tug air from his lungs, created a suction that his tongue naturally slid in to fill. Buck groaned, and Chris felt thumbs brush his cheekbones, and Buck's restraint, like a vibration in his hands that transmitted to Chris's face. Statue-still, only their mouths mating, Chris had to wonder if Buck had spiked the cake, because these kisses had never felt like this, for them. Buck had never let them... and hell, maybe Chris hadn't either.

He lifted one hand to pry Buck's away, then pushed forward, overbalancing Buck back against the sofa cushions and following him down. Something was roaring up to him now, full steam ahead until Buck turned his head and broke the kiss. "Thought you weren't gonna rush me?" Buck said, half on a laugh.

"I changed my mind." He tried to move back in, to capture Buck's mouth again even as his hand wormed down Buck's side and headed for his dick, but a hand grabbed his wrist, stopping him short.


"Wha..." Buck stared at him, eyes hard and intent, and for the life of him Chris couldn't read what was there. "What?" he said again.

"Come on, Chris. Slow down." He still didn't get it, and no part of him wanted to try and put the brakes on, until Buck said, "It's Christmas Eve."

It was more than that; Buck wouldn't care if it was Christmas Eve or the fourth of July or a Thursday. It was--shit. He had to get some space between them, or they'd be dry humping on the couch in a minute, and Buck didn't want that. Chris hadn't either, a minute ago. "Promise me we can get back to this," he said, only half-joking, and Buck grinned.

"We can keep at it right now, if you want."

Jerking back a few inches, he turned his head toward the fire. Buck's hand caressed the back of his neck, while they both panted like they'd sprinted a mile. "You trying to tell me it isn't romantic to dry hump on the sofa?" he asked, wry.

"Aww, hell." Buck's mouth moved back then, and caught his, and they were kissing again with all of the heat and need that Chris had tried, five seconds ago, to bank down. He heard the fire crackle, saw Christmas tree lights out of the corner of his eye, and thought about the new snow that blanketed the fields outside.

Chris put a palm flat on Buck's chest and pushed, giving either or both of them one last chance. "You want to stop this, Buck, now's the time." Buck swiped at his mouth, and looked uncertain enough that Chris drew back a little further himself. "Buck?"

"Stop? Did you hit your head, or something?" He glanced around the room. "Slow down, maybe. Throw a quilt in front of the fire..."

Chris shook himself, trying to think through a haze of lust he hadn't let himself feel for a long, long time. "Yeah, okay." He eased off the couch and headed for the hall closet, dragging down two big quilts from the shelf. As he spread them out on the floor, he watched Buck leave, head down the hall and come back with something in his hand. Chris didn't look too closely, and didn't need to guess.

Then Buck knelt on the quilt beside him and slid his hands under Chris's sweater, cool and tickling against his bare skin. Buck chuckled, a pleased, hungry sound and somehow, those little tickling strokes up along his ribs took Chris's sweater along with them. He ducked his head obediently. Static electricity crackled as the green wool was drawn over his head and Buck released his hands, then. Buck leaned back slightly and watched him strip the sweater off his arms like a tiger watching a stag. He tossed it in the direction of the recliner.

When Chris reached out to touch Buck's cheek, a fat blue spark jumped and both of them flinched from the sharp tingle. "Sorry..."

Buck turned his head to press a kiss into Chris's palm and chuckled. "Hey, it's good to know there's electricity between us."

His palm tingled, and Chris felt like he could draw the exact outline of Buck's lips where they'd touched it. "I don't think we're gonna have any problems there," he assured, and slid his hand back into Buck's hair.

More kisses, soft and gentle and wet, the moist sounds of skin and breath increasing the ache that the touches inspired. His hands remembered, as he traced lines down the sides of Buck's neck and felt the little shiver of reaction, as he slid his splayed fingers down the broad back, muscles rippling beneath smooth, warm skin, and he shivered himself.

His nipples pressed against the lightly haired chest, flattened, firmed. Everything else was pretty firm too. As he leaned forward for more kisses, Buck did one of those moves of his where Chris felt the room shift and found himself rolled gently down to his back on the rug. Buck's broad bare chest spanned above him, painted a flickering bronze by the fire just like Chris had imagined, inviting his hands to explore, while straight arms penned him right where he wanted to be. Buck's eyes left his face and traveled down, interested, and a little smile touched his mouth. His weight shifted, and long fingers traced the side of Chris's pectoral, spiraling in until they bumped into his pebble-hard nipple.

"Little flatter than you're used to," he tried, but his mouth was dry and the words came out in a croak.

Buck's eyes flashed up even as his thumb and finger came together to pinch Chris's nipple. "You know I'm more of a leg man, Chris," he grinned before his eyes dropped back down to watch his fingers where they sent lightning through Chris's chest. "All works the same anyway," he added absently, then dropped his head to lick across the hardened nub, and Chris's reaction was so strong he nearly pulled a muscle. Oh...

Buck seemed delighted by the response he got, and met Chris's eyes again, grinning wide.

They stopped talking for a while then, and for a while Chris lost control of the situation. Somehow, he staved off climax even as experimental touches became expert, and Buck tried to send him right out of his mind.

The best defense was a strong offense, he realized, and acted accordingly. Soon enough there was only skin and sweat between them, and love, and promises, and tomorrows. Chris explored, touched and stroked and held, aching with the thrill of relearning a man's body in general and this man's in particular. What started as a sweet tussle became an all-out war of passion, and in the end, one of them had to win... well, both of them did, reaching the finish line noisily. Shockingly. Together.

After, shuddering, Chris wrapped himself around Buck, braiding arms and legs, sharing sloppy kisses, until he felt like he could breathe and think again. Then he rolled limply to his back and dragged Buck up alongside him.

Chris dozed, and he thought Buck probably did too. Half-wrapped up in the quilts and each other, he just listened to the hum as the central heat clicked on and off, and the pop and hiss of the fire. He could lie like this all day, and would if there weren't animals to feed, a voicemail to clear, and relatives to call with holiday wishes. "It's gonna get dark soon."

The arms wrapped around him just squeezed a little tighter. "Mmm."

"Gotta feed the horses."

"Oh. Little early, isn't it?"


It took a couple of minutes, but they got up and sorted out their clothes, and Chris said goodbye, however briefly, to all that naked skin.

"Beautiful!" Buck hollered as they hit the back steps, and it was; snow covered everything, just a few inches making it look pristine and perfect, like winter postcards.

"Cold as hell," Chris groused, blowing on his hands.

"Told you to get gloves," Buck said, superior, and Chris shook his head; Buck had stopped in the mud room to drag on outdoor gear, and by the time he'd pulled on work boots, a winter coat, gloves, a scarf, and an old baseball cap, Chris was laughing at him. But Buck was right, it was damned cold out here.

"Didn't look so bad from inside," he grumbled, bearing up under Buck's amusement.

The horses hovered near the pasture fence, either expecting dinner early or just wanting to get out of the cold, and Chris swung the gate open while Buck got the barn door, then both of them got out of the way while the animals sorted themselves out. Half of them knew where to go, and went, and the other half probably knew too, but milled around inside the barn hall or, in the case of JD's horse, stood with his ass half-in, half-out of the barn door.

"Get in there, boy," Chris urged, smacking it on the rump. It took a second for Whistler to clear the door, and Chris hustled inside where it was marginally warmer. Buck already had Don Juan by the neck and was tugging him away from a hay bale, and Chris herded his mares toward their big, shared stall in the back corner. By the time he and Buck had shut stall doors, Robie hustled in from wherever she'd been running, stopping inside the barn to shake snow off her thick winter coat. Half-huskie, she liked winter better than summer, and disappeared for hours at a time in the nearby hills.

"Hey, girl," Chris greeted her, kneeling down to let her half-knock him over. "You catch anything today?" She wasn't much of a hunter, but she defended this place and the animals on it like they were her own.

He watched Buck flake off hay, letting realization settle into his bones. Buck was back in his life, all the way back--back in his heart and his gut and his laughter. It felt a little strange, after being friends for so long, but it felt good too, and he turned back to his dog before Buck caught him grinning like a lunatic. "Pretty dog."

He went to the drums of sweet feed and scooped out coffee cans-full, heard, "Hey, Robie, girl! You found yourself a good wolf boyfriend out there?" from down the line of stalls, and laughed under his breath. Buck would spoil the hell out of that dog, if she'd ever deign to come inside the house.

He and Buck passed each other easily as they moved in and out of stalls, but Buck kept looking at him every time they got close, smiling, giving him a look that was different from any look he'd ever seen directed at him before; it was a look of incontrovertible love. He couldn't argue it. He could only suck in an erratic breath of shock, that it came from Buck and he could trust it. That it was for him.

A dozen years ago, early in their careers, as gay pride banners flew and law enforcement witch-hunts thrived, as AIDS scared the shit out of both the public and government health care providers, he and Buck had been selfish enough to keep a secret; he'd never even told Sarah, wanting her to like Buck and figuring she would run him off with a shotgun if she perceived him as a threat. But even back then, Buck hadn't looked at him like that, probably hadn't felt that. Buck had been too hungry for too much experience, and too many women, and hadn't been willing to feel what showed on his face today.

Chris wondered when that had changed. "How come you stayed this year?" he called, genuinely curious.

"Because your anniversary last August was on a Friday," Buck called back, "and you shuffled paperwork and went to the Saloon with all of us, and didn't drink yourself into a stupor." Buck was walking back toward him by now, and stopped a few feet away. "Because you invited me out that day, and we watched the home movies, and I fell asleep on the couch and when Vin and Ezra drove up on Saturday, you weren't a bastard to anybody." Buck sighed, long and quiet, and Chris waited for the rest of an answer that didn't come.

"That all?"

Buck grinned then. "Isn't it enough?"

Chris supposed it was--and that he'd get the rest of the story out of Buck in due time.

They finished at roughly the same time. Chris closed Lafayra's stall gate while Buck waited by the barn door, but when Chris walked up, Buck didn't give way. He just stood there, and Chris stared for a minute, taking him, and everything that had happened, and everything that was going to, in. It was gonna be different, and different always took getting used to, even when different was good.

Buck smiled softly, making him wonder what his own look revealed.

"What?" Buck asked, gaze roving over his face.

"Nothing." Blue eyes just stared, disbelieving and patient, but Chris really had nothing much to say. "You tell Vin you were coming up here tonight?" he tried.

"Yeah. JD too."


"Why'd I tell them? Or did I tell them why I was coming?"

Chris shrugged, shivering a little and wanting to get back up to the house, and the warm, and the banked-down fire. "Either. Both."

"I guess I've told Vin something about how hard Christmas has been for you, Chris," Buck said slowly. "He knows I've tried to make it a little easier. Couple days ago, he called and asked me if I was going with you two to pick out a tree. I told him no, and to make sure he cleared out on Christmas Eve, in case he had any plans to be here."

"You tell him why?"

"That I didn't want company up here."

Chris snorted at that. He didn't know why he'd expected Buck to say, "Because I think he's gonna try and do me and I've decided don't want him distracted." Then he wondered if that weren't exactly what Buck had said.... "When are you moving out here?" he asked then, urgent.

"When do you want me to?" Buck answered without any hesitation at all.

Desire surged. He stepped right up against his friend--partner, lover, family; his brain couldn't decide how to categorize Buck right now--sensed the ephemeral presence of Buck's heart beating less than a foot from his own, and Buck's groin even closer to his own, and drew in a careful breath. "Tomorrow."

"This weekend," Buck countered with a grin. His fingers, until now chastely parked at Chris's waist, edged down over his jeans-clad buttocks, and began to gently massage the upper curves of both cheeks. "I don't want to get dressed tomorrow except to come back out here and feed the horses. Not sure how I feel about the next day, but I guess that'd be the lazy way of letting the guys know what's up. Hey, maybe we can cancel the party."

"Shitty precedent to set," he said, trying to care.

"Well," Buck said reasonably, "you've got about a day and a half to talk me out of it."

No sense waiting. Chris kissed him again, and tugged Buck's coat up and out of the way so he could get his hands to bare skin. Buck flinched, and laughed against his mouth, but didn't draw away, and Chris happily pictured warming his feet on Buck's calves.

He broke away long enough to say, "Let's get inside," then hustled Buck back to the house as dusk settled. The moon hung low, but there was still too much light in the sky to witness the silvering of the snow. Chris laughed again in the mud room when it took Buck minutes to unwrap himself from everything.

"You want dinner?"

"I could eat."

Chris grinned, and dug in the fridge for steaks. Buck scrubbed four potatoes and threw them into the oven while Chris poked the meat with a fork and rummaged for cucumbers. He hadn't really planned on culinary prowess, just something simple: steak, baked potatoes, cut up tomatoes and salad dressing.

It would be awhile before the potatoes were ready. Chris looked around. "I'm gonna go grab a shower."

"Want help?" Buck asked, quick as he'd ever been with women.

"No," Chris laughed. He actually wanted to get clean and into more comfortable clothes and settle back in front of the fire, where they could take their time with each other. "We got plenty of time for whatever you want to do in the shower, later."

Buck looked disappointed, which made Chris laugh again. Yeah, he wouldn't be wanting for sexual attention, not until Buck settled down a bit at least. And the way his own libido was working overtime, he had no complaints about that.

In the shower, he stood under hot water and scrubbed himself until his skin turned pink, washed his hair, washed groin, armpits and ass a second time, while his mind remained thankfully blank about what would come later. What it meant was enough to keep his cock half-erect, his skin over-sensitive; mental pictures would have had him masturbating to take the edge off. But he didn't want the edge off. He liked the edge right where it was.

In the dark bedroom, he frowned in front of his closet door, oddly excited at the idea of putting on clothes for Buck to take back off. God only knew how many times he'd heard Buck harp about the value of details in romance, and while this was hardly a romance, this one time at least, he wanted to make a good impression. He still opted for casual and comfortable: boxers, gray wool slacks and a dark green sweater Buck had said made him look good, some time ago.

Shaved, deodorized, and now dressed, he ducked back into the bathroom for a swish of Scope and a look in the mirror.

He looked old. And vaguely anxious. "Larabee," he growled at his reflection, "You get to look old or anxious, but not both."

Dragging his fingers through his spiked hair, he wondered what the hell he was doing, and what the hell Buck wanted with him after all this time. It was hard to trust the man's words, if only because they'd been friends for so long without this. Chris wasn't the most reliable of lovers, either. He wasn't even sure he was particularly good at sex with men, though Buck had assured him way back when that he made up for in enthusiasm anything he lacked in practical skill.

Other than this afternoon on the floor, he hadn't even had sex in more than a year, and that last time had been an accident of sorts--the visiting hand-to-hand instructor had been smart enough not to come on too strong, and they were in bed before he'd known what hit him. Buck had demanded the blow-by-blow the next day, and sworn he'd seen that woman coming from a mile away.

He'd thought about all of this a hundred times in the last few months, and it irritated the hell out of him that he'd have a crisis of confidence now, when Buck was here and committed already.

Chris had damned little to offer a lover anymore, and sometimes less to offer a friend, and Buck knew all of that, intimately. So why was the man here on a Christmas, instead of off with some adoring woman who wanted nothing more than to let him shower her with compliments and give her spectacular orgasms?

"You get lost?"

The voice from the door startled him, and he caught Buck's eyes in the mirror. "Sorry."

Buck leaned against the door frame, eying him. "You look fantastic, Chris."

Buck, only three years younger than he was, didn't look old at all. Buck looked handsome, coy and secretive and sexually preoccupied. Buck looked exactly like he did three days out of five.

"Save it for the women," he deferred, embarrassed.

"No women anymore," Buck said bluntly. "And since I don't know how to turn it off, you get it all, stud."

He wasn't sure what to do with that. "If you start sending me flowers on my birthday--" he began.

"--you'll say 'thanks, they're perfect,'" Buck cut in. "And you know what?" Buck pushed off the doorframe and stepped forward, filling up the mirror, dark clothes and dark hair absorbing all the light. "You'll mean it."

Chris resisted the urge to duck his head and put his back to a wall. "You're not gonna get all crazy on me, are you?"

Another step, and Buck was in his space, strong hands settling lightly on his shoulders to start a gentle massage. The deep voice was quiet, and utterly sincere. "I'm already crazy on you, Chris. I reckon maybe I always have been, one way or another."

Self-consciousness made him cringe, but before he could snap off a sharp retort, Buck's lips pressed into the side of his neck and hands urged him to turn around. Chris was too old to be self-conscious, and too stubborn not to take what he wanted. He instigated the kiss this time, and all the sexual drive that had abandoned him five minutes ago returned with a vengeance. Buck groaned into his mouth, and something hard poked against his hip. Chris took an ape-like pride in both events: It seemed his enthusiasm was still working fine.

He slid a hand down, urgent, palm cupping around the shape of hard cock under soft linen. His hand remembered that shape, and his breath stuttered in his throat.

Buck's mouth slid across his cheek. A tongue flicked, wet and hot, at the lobe of his ear, and warm breath blew into the canal. "We could, if you want," Buck whispered urgently, pumping slowly against his hand. "Bathroom fuck. I could hold on to the towel rack."

Oh shit, Chris remembered that time. Buck had made so much noise he'd feared the police would be called, and he'd come so hard, he'd felt like his skin was sweating semen. Chris jerked his hand off Buck's cock and stepped away, trying to get some air.

The look on Buck's face would get the man imprisoned in some countries. His cheeks were flushed, his pupils dilated like he was on drugs, lips damp and slightly swollen, and again, Chris was struck by Buck's natural good looks. Nagging doubt was almost but not quite superseded by the rising of his dick; an automobile airbag didn't inflate so fast.

He swallowed hard. They'd readied themselves, shaved, cologned. There was a meal prepared. "How long have you been ready for this? Seriously," he asked.

Buck shrugged, offering his honesty as easily as he offered his heart. In a hushed tone, he said, "Last Christmas, maybe? I was out here, digging through shit in the basement, thinking about how much we missed her. I know I'll never miss her like you do, Chris, but I realized I'd thought 'we.' I hadn't thought about us like that since, well, since we cooled things off, a year or two before you met her. Then, well, August... I was sure, then."

Jesus. He wanted to ask why. Why waste your time on a half-broken, aging burn-out case with so little going for him, when you can get the college girls--and boys, probably--lining up to worship your dick? He wanted to ask what the hell Buck had been doing waiting around for the last year instead of doing something about it. He put his hand to his forehead; it felt hot.

"How about you?" Buck asked then, and a chill swept Chris, snapping at the edges of the heat.

"Let's just say I spent my fair share of time grieving," he said, "but when I was done, you were right there in front of me."

Buck's smile was gentle and bright. "You've got more patience than me, Larabee."

"That's only because you've got the patience of an infant." He grinned.

"True." Buck got himself back in line, Chris could tell by the look on his face. "You really do look great," Buck said sincerely.

Chris felt his face heat up and frowned. Old, old. "I look exactly like I look any other day," he mumbled, but Buck shook his head, determined.

"This isn't any other day. All week I've been thinking, fireplace, wine... slow."

"You're tryin' to kill me, aren't you?" He grumbled.

"Tell me how I did, after." Buck's smile flirted and promised, and Chris couldn't help but reply in kind. It wasn't like he needed to be seduced.

He considered a dozen replies, and went with the most honest. "I kept making myself forget what a good-looking guy you are; all the gay boys will be wondering how rich I am, to have a trophy like you on my arm."

Buck laughed softly, obviously pleased by the compliment, probably more pleased by the effort he knew it took Chris to offer it.

He turned away to adjust himself in his pants, and glanced briefly into the mirror. Old or not, broken or not, he wanted this again, wanted Buck now that Buck was ready to be had. He took a deep, steadying breath and left the john.

Dinner was a quiet affair, and other than the Christmas wishes Buck relayed from the guys, they stayed off the subject of work and friends entirely. Instead they talked about little things, reminiscing--the day they met, the day they partnered. The night they first touched each other with ulterior motives. The floodwaters continued to surge in him, filling some reservoir he'd abandoned long ago. With each passing smile, every knowing look or amused chuckle, he was surer this was right. No one could handle him like Buck could--his moods, his temper, his history. No one could give him a longer leash, could trust him as much. And no one could handle Buck like he could. Sonofabitch was moody and prone to mild depressions if you didn't watch him, though Buck rarely let people in on that fact. He'd cover all sorts of things with jokes, but Chris could see through it, keep him on track.

They cleared their plates and refilled their glasses; Chris volunteered for kitchen duty while Buck took their drinks back to the den. Chris joined him a few minutes later, found the fire stoked and blazing high, couch cushions on the floor, and Buck sitting with his back against the side of the recliner. Chris settled beside him, accepting his glass but not touching. In the silence after eating and before lovemaking, he relaxed into how comfortable Buck's silences were, and how rare. Buck talked to distract, to deflect, to teach, to entertain. Not many people saw this side of him.

He peered more closely at the tree, counted ornaments. Seven, now. Buck had bought one again this year. On impulse, he crawled over and poked at the presents under the tree: a box that weighed next to nothing from Vin, two from Josiah, one from JD, Buck and Nathan combined, and a slim envelope from Ezra.

"You want to open those now?" Buck asked from behind him.

He shook his head.

"Come here, then," Buck invited, and opened his legs to make room.

But Chris found his mood too fragile to shift gears so easily. He shook his head again, and crawled toward the fire, moving as close as the heat allowed. The invaluable quiet stretched on, and he watched the crackling flames as the silence transformed around him. Buck's silences were as expressive as his conversation, so Chris wasn't surprised when he heard movement, and felt the gentle hands grasp his shoulders.

Buck seemed inclined to honor his fickle mood, but Chris didn't want it honored. He wanted Buck. Leaning back against the solid, living wall of Buck's chest, he drew the touching hands down into a loose embrace. Buck held Chris just that fraction tighter, and shifted until his thighs pressed against the outsides of Chris's hips. Chris rested one hand on Buck's up-drawn knee, and with the other he stroked the back of the hand that pressed against his chest.

He couldn't decide which felt warmer, the crackling flames or the banked heat at his back. The two different fires met somewhere in the middle, and Chris found himself idly imagining Buck naked, stretched out and bronzed by the firelight. His meditative stroking changed, seemingly without much direction from his brain, and when he slid his fingers deep into the crease behind Buck's knee he was rewarded with a quick breath, a heated puff of air on his neck.

Memories flickered in and out of his mind's eye, sweet pictures of smiles and impassioned looks, not-so-sweet pictures of tense muscles and hard cocks, and his quiet pondering shifted toward a driven need.

The back of his skull rested against the hard ridge of a collarbone. Swiveling his head, he tucked his chin and licked his lips, then pressed them against the smooth column of throat. Buck's arms tightened reflexively and Chris smiled. His wet lips dragged along warm skin, building a sweet, sweet friction between them until he reached the lobe of an ear and set his teeth over it. The angle was wrong; he shifted around and up onto his knees in the circle of arms and legs, and breathed gently, dampening sensitive skin without wetting it overmuch. The tiny shivers that flowed down Buck's arms aroused him more than any overtly sexual touch could have.

He drew back to look, saw quiet contentment and the early signs of arousal in eyes made dark by the fire. "Hey," he said, smiling a little.

Buck's lips pursed as he tried and failed to resist a smile, and, delighted, Chris took advantage.

They hadn't kissed enough, back then.

He sank his fingers deep into the dark hair, liking being the taller one for a moment, liking how just a little pressure forced Buck to tighten his belly and reach an arm back to prop himself with. He moved carefully, aching to keep things slow and measured, not to let them get out of hand.

Grabbing a fresh lungful of air with almost a gasp, Chris pulled Buck even closer, changed the angle of the kiss. Buck’s fingers kneaded the back of his neck as he savored the mingling of wine and that rich addictive taste that he’d denied for so long he'd almost forgotten its flavor. He lost touch with time and place, focused solely on the slide of their tongues together and mouths, on the softness of Buck’s hair gliding through his fingers. Chris hadn’t realized he'd closed his eyes, narrowed his senses to touch and taste alone, until Buck drew slightly away, straightened from his backwards lean. Chris was left with no choice but to sit up straighter as Buck pushed him upright.

Buck tilted his head a little, intrigued and obviously aroused, and lifted his arms as Chris pulled the fabric up. Thick wool sweater and black cotton undershirt, he removed as one, and tangled Buck's wrists in the fabric while they were still raised above his head. He slid his hands down the lean forearms, over the bumps of elbows, traced the hard ovals and bulgy curves of relaxed biceps. When he reached the ridges where shoulders met torso, his thumbs dipped into the hollows beneath Buck's arms, smoothed the satiny dark hair.

Buck flinched, ticklish, and lowered his arms to defend himself. It took a few seconds of squirming and wriggling for Buck to ditch the sweater and slip his now-free hands under Chris's own clothes, brushing against his skin light as thought. Chris shivered. Just that bit of gossamer contact set his nerves singing like strummed wires.

He'd thought they might be awkward together. Hell, he thought he’d be as rusty as a chain left abandoned to the elements, frozen into worthless rigidity by lack of use. But making love with Buck was as easy as shifting gears; as exhilarating as the moment between high board and water, something that, once learned, his body remembered despite his mind’s decision to forget.

They weren't rusty at all, and this time Buck found the presence of mind to grab the stuff he'd brought in from the bathroom earlier, and they were a little more involved, a little more imaginative, a little less blindly needing and a lot more focused on love. It was easy to get there, to remember how they fit together so well, how they worked each other so well, until there was no memory, no thought, just eyes staring and mouths panting, and pleasure.

Later, lying back and blinking, Chris stared up at the ceiling, and felt his belly ripple with sudden, silent laughter. "You really think we needed that?" he asked, pointing up to the mistletoe that Buck had taped to the ceiling light fixture.

Buck wriggled that last inch closer, sweaty and heavy and welcome, and began to trace a circle along the indentation of Chris's hip. "Wait'll you see what I hung over the bed."


Post-Christmas dinner felt a lot like the party in the office two days before, except that alcohol flowed a lot more liberally and Chris wasn't trying to stop it. Far from it. Neither one of them said anything, but when Buck settled into the corner of the sofa, Chris sat right beside him in the crook of his upraised arm. Josiah eyed them, frowning a little, and Chris met his eyes straight on. After a second, Josiah smiled and nodded. The next silent exchange came from Ezra, and ended pretty much the same way.

Only JD had the nerve or the artlessness to just come out and say it, but he had the survival instinct to wait at least until Josiah and Ezra had taken their dates out to the barn to show off their horses. That left just Buck, Chris, Vin, and JD himself when he said, munching on poatato chips, "So, did you guys do it, or what?"

Chris felt heat rise on his neck while beside him, Buck snorted.

"JD," Buck tried to reprimand him, "haven't you learned any manners, boy? You don't go asking--"

"So didja?" he asked, undaunted.

"Shit JD," Vin scoffed mildly from his perch on the hearthstones, "you're a federal agent. If you can't tell by lookin' at 'em, you're in big trouble."

JD grinned at that, looking from Vin back to the two of them, and Chris met his eyes but said nothing. JD grinned. "Cool."

And that was that. No grand pronouncements, no careful strategizing, just "cool."

"Hey, It's A Wonderful Life is on TV," Vin said, his nose in the TV Guide.

It was a pretty wonderful life right here.

-the end-