Fighting Smoke
by Farad and Charlotte
A short C/B/V Skip Trace piece.

"He's whining." Vin said it with a look of complete disbelief, and a sort of horrible wonder, as if he'd just learned that Santa didn't exist.

Chris snorted, more at the younger man's reaction than the words. "He always whines when he feels bad. It's his least-attractive feature."

"But..." Vin paused, searching for words. "It's Buck. He don't get whiny. He gets even."

Chris shook his head and coughed into his own sleeve, before pulling open the pantry door and rifling though the shelves. "He hates wasting time in bed, and anytime in bed that isn't sex or sleeping is a waste. Don't worry, you'll hear it about twenty times in the next few hours - here we go." He pulled out a large can of soup, Campbell's Chicken Noodle, and started for the stove. "See if we've got saltines."

"Chicken noodle soup and saltines?" Vin asked, still in a tone of amazement.

"It's what Maggie has done for him since he was too little to think about it. And speaking of Maggie - " He held up one hand, ticking off three fingers. He was on 'four' when Buck yelled from the back of the house.

"Where's the damned phone? I need to call Ma - where's the phone?"

Ma? Vin thought. What the hell was Buck doing, reverting to infancy?

Chris nodded, grinning quickly at Vin who was even more wide-eyed, and said, "You wanna go hold his hand while he talks to his mother or do you want to heat the soup?"

"I'll heat the damned soup," Vin gruffed, annoyed and uncomfortable as hell. The way Chris was coughing, it seemed like he might feel as bad as Buck, but Chris seemed like he was in a good enough mood. "You two have done this before, huh?" he asked, and realized it was a pretty dumb question. As handsy as Buck was, if one of them got sick the other was sure to follow.

"What?" Chris asked him, reaching for Buck's cell phone where it lay on the counter. "Nurse each other?"

"Get sick at the same time," Vin clarified.

"Hell yeah," Chris said, and coughed again. "Sarah used to make him bunk with Adam when all of us came down with it and he didn't have a girlfriend around to coddle him. Said if two kids needed nursing they might as well be in the same room." He smiled, fond and a little tired-seeming. "We'd hunker down in our bedroom and pray that Buck would shut up or distract Adam, and take turns handling them."

Vin shook his head, wondering why he was surprised. It seemed so far that Chris, sick, was exactly like he'd imagined the man would be, ignoring it as best he could and continuing on with whatever needed doing. "Are you getting better? Or on your way to where he is now?"

"On my way," Chris admitted. "He got it first."

"You gonna start acting like he is?" Vin asked him, unaccountably annoyed at the idea. They were grown men, for pete's sake, he'd seen one of them weather a bullet wound better than this.

Chris looked surprised. "Haven't before," he said, then grinned. "Well, not unless Sarah wasn't sick. But don't worry, I'm not nearly as bad as he is."

Vin wondered about that, and decided he'd have to wait and see. "Go on, I'll bring the soup in. You want any?"

Chris's face wrinkled up in distaste. "No. I'll go out and get some burgers later, if my stomach don't go bad."

Vin snorted. It figured. "I can fetch 'em," he offered, and Chris nodded.

"Much obliged." He disappeared into the hall just as Buck started yelling again, and Vin dug in a drawer for the can opener.

When he got to the bedroom, Chris had bundled back under the covers as well, and Buck's phone sat on the bedspread between them; it seemed Buck had finally learned how to make the speaker function work. "But
I'm sick," Buck groused, and Vin swallowed a grin when he heard Maggie's laughter.

"I know, but you'll be better soon. Did Chris make you some soup?"

"I'm sick too, Maggie," Chris said, but he was grinning, and he raised his eyes to share the joke with Vin.

"So that's a yes?" she asked, the smile still in her voice."

"He was gonna," Buck said, and blew his nose loudly. "But Vin finally got his ass back home, so I reckon we'll both be able to rest up now."

Vin balked at the idea of playing nursemaid to these two, and would have said so if Maggie weren't listening.

"That's good for you both," she said. "Now as it happens, I was reading the paper. Want to hear the news from Idaho?"

Chris dropped down onto the mattress and covered his face with his arm, while Buck nodded vigorously. "Yeah," he said, sounding all of four years old.

Vin rolled his eyes. When he was sick he didn't like people bothering him, didn't like being asked how he was feeling or thinking about how he was feeling. Didn't like to be pestered at all. This was... well, it was different. Damned different.

"Maggie, you sure you ain't coddling him too much?" he asked, as he walked on into the room and pushed papers off the nightstand to put the soup down.

"Vin? That you, honey?"

"Yes'm. Howdy."

"It's good to hear your voice, Vin. Now you be good to our men. They deserve a little coddling, now and then. Sit down and join us if you like. I was just going to read the paper."

He'd heard. Casting an uneasy glance toward Chris, Vin dropped onto the floor and propped an arm on the edge of the bed, and Maggie was true to her word. Buck ate his soup, nodding his thanks so he wouldn't
interrupt his mother, then pulled the covers up to his chin and lazed, listening to her voice. More snow was expected. Tourists were trickling in already and would start pouring into town any day now. Vin heard the snuffling from Chris and the louder, congested snores from Buck before Maggie did, and reached out for the phone.

"They've both dropped off, Maggie," he said quietly.

"Well, good," she said. "Sleep's the best thing for them. You feeling all right yourself?"

"Yeah," he said, and turned off the speaker as he collected Buck's bowl and walked out of the room. "I was on the road, just got back in an hour or so ago. I don't get sick much anyway."

"That's good. This thing going around, it's not pretty."

He set the empty soup bowl into the sink, pondering. "What else do they like when they're sick?" he asked her. She'd know, after all, and he felt like he ought to.

"Depends on the sick, honey. Chris will eat his way through it, and the more meat the happier he is, if it doesn't turn into that stomach thing. If it does, give him potato chips and Pepsi. Buck'll have ginger ale and crackers. You can't keep enough in the house for him, so stock up."

"Got it," he said, and rubbed at his forehead. "Anything else?"

Her laugh was knowing, and he felt caught out. "Don't worry about it, darlin'. Ignore them if you need to. Chris gets grouchy but he'll be all right. And Buck just wants to be taken care of."

Put like that, coming from a woman instead of either of his usually tough, masculine lovers, Vin figured he could do that. "He always does," he grinned.

"He comes by it honestly," she said. "I've always babied him when he got sick. Was pretty much the only time when he was growing up that I stayed home with him no matter what. I suspect he thinks on it more as our special times. He always calls when he's sick, no matter how small it is."

Vin's smile faded, thinking on that. "Must have been rough on you, when he was small."

She was quiet then, and he worried that he had over-stepped. Maggie Wilmington was a lot like Buck, chatty and friendly and personal, so you thought she told you everything about yourself until you realized she hadn't told you much at all. Just as he was about to apologize, she said, "I suppose I liked having the excuse too, honey. Your mother didn't take care of you?"

He shifted, not liking the turn of the conversation. "I'll make sure he's taken care of," he said quickly, "ginger ale and crackers. And more chicken noodle soup?"

Maggie was a whole lot more polite than Buck, and let it drop. "Campbell's," she answered, "but I suspect you opened that can already so you know. Oh, and Chris won't ever tell you this, but his favorite hamburgers are Big Macs from McDonald's. If you ask him, he'll deny it, but when he's sick, that's what he wants."

"Thanks, Maggie," he said, leaning back on the counter. "I guess I better head to the store while they're both out."

"Vin? I'm glad you're there for them. You take care of yourself."

"Yes, ma'am," he answered, relieved when she hung up. He checked one more time as he was leaving, not surprised to find them wrapped around each other in the middle of the bed. It wouldn't last long; Chris was
already sweating, either from Buck's temperature or his own, Vin didn't know which. He left ibuprofen and a glass of water on the nightstand, then grabbed his keys and jacket.

"Goddammit, give me the remote!" Chris snarled. "We are not watching ER again!"

"I was sick first!" Buck shot back. "Go watch tv in the living room!"

Vin shook his head, then winced when he heard the crash of something ceramic hitting the hardwood floor and breaking. Buck had probably left his soup bowl on the bed again, dammit.

He hurried into the room, not really surprised to find the two of them fighting, literally, over the remote control for the television.

"Hey! Knock it off!" he yelled, side-stepping as a book hit the wall to one side of him. "Hey!"

"I don't want to watch any more hospital shows!" Chris yelled. "If I have to sit through any more blood, it's gonna be yours!"

"I'm sick of the news – I don't care about any congressional hearings of the powers of the FBI or CIA or – any other letter agency! I am not watching CNN or Fox or any of those damned news channels!" Buck slapped at Chris, the sound sharp despite their yelling and the sounds from the television – emergency vehicles and people shouting and reporters calling - it could have been ER or a news channel, Vin couldn't tell which.

Then something else hit the wall and broke, the pieces of it raining onto the floor in a random pattern of thuds and tinkles.

"That's enough!" he yelled and was surprised at the almost instant silence. Only the television continued and he shut that down too with a quick slap to the 'power' button, before turning to glare at the two men in the bed.

Men. Ha. They stared at him as if he'd grown another head, and maybe he had, he thought. His head was pounding like something wanted to get out of it.

"I've listened to you two fight and bitch and whine and yell for two days – two fucking days!" he went on, the pounding lessening just a little with his own yelling. "I've brought you drinks and drugs and special lotioned tissues, you prima donnas, picked up your snotty messes and your puke and your sweaty shorts – and all you two can do is break shit fighting over a fucking remote?"

Buck and Chris looked at each other, and under other circumstances, Vin would have found himself laughing at the expressions on their faces, like little kids who'd been caught by their parents watching the Playboy Channel.

But right now, he was at his wit's end, tired not just from taking care of the two of them, but also taking care of the ranch and the animals and the business as well; it had been Buck's turn to take night calls last night, and as it was a Thursday night, 'amateur night', as Josiah had termed it, the night most bars had ladies' nights and most men made asses of themselves and got locked up for felony aggravated assaults or drunk and disorderlies, Vin had had more than his fair share of bails to make. He'd barely gotten any sleep, and now this.

"I've had it!" he yelled, glaring at the two of them. "You two can take care of yourselves!"

He stormed out of the bedroom, ignoring the broken bowl on the floor and everything else, heading down the hall to grab his overnight bag and his jacket. He didn't know where he was going, but he was going away from all of this.

His cell phone rang before he reached the end of the drive, and for a crazy moment he considered turning it off, but he hit the on button instead. "What."

"We're sorry," Buck said, and sniffed. It sounded dramatic and wet and sullen.

"You're acting like a five year old kid, Buck," Vin snapped, way past it now.

"But I'm—"

"sick, yeah, I got that."

"Come home. Chris is mad that I ran you off."

Vin sighed, and stopped the truck at the edge of the road. "Don't let him pull that shit on you, Buck," he said. "You both ran me off. I'm going to JD's."

"Vin—" a sigh, followed by another hacking cough that didn't sound feigned. "Yeah," Buck said tiredly. "Okay. Can't say I blame you." Vin heard Chris's voice, so low and scratchy enough in the background that he couldn't make out the words, then Buck's, "He's goin' to JD's."

"Damn it." Vin heard that well enough.

It took a second for him to make the decision, but when he did he knew there wasn't any other he could have made. "If I come back, I want you two to act your ages. And I'm splitting you up. Buck, you c'n stay in your room, you're puking more than he is. Chris has to sleep in mine."

Another sigh. "Yeah, all right. Just… come home, Vin."

Vin hung up without answering, and turned his truck around. He was a damned fool, and that's all there was to it.

Still, once he got Chris settled in his bedroom and brought Buck more ginger ale and crackers—he should have bought stock in the company—they really did make nice. He figured the best thing he could have done was split them up, because now they each had their own TV. In the living room, equally distant from both bedrooms, it was hard to hear his own program with the competing noise in the background. He cocked an ear, listening intently, and shook his head. Damned if they both weren't watching ER, now that they didn't have to fight about it.

Vin didn't mind sleeping on the couch, didn't even mind when he heard pots clanging in the kitchen in the short hours before dawn, and the sound of something heavy falling. He pulled himself up and wandered in, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, to find Buck just staring down at the floor and a mess of chicken noodle soup. Damned if his eyes weren't shining with frustrated helplessness.

"Hey," he said from the door, and cleared his throat.

Buck looked up at him, truly pitiful in socks that had wet splatters on them and dirty pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt with sweat stains at neck and armpit. "I fucking hate being sick," he muttered, and tried to step around the spilled soup to fetch paper towels.

"I got it. No, I do," he said when Buck made to argue. "It's okay, Buck. You're not lookin' so good."

"Fever," Buck said tiredly. "Again."

"Maggie said this was bad," Vin reminded him, and started to step around him to clean up the mess. Buck reached out, tugging on Vin's tee shirt like a kid. "What?"

But Buck just stood there frowning, uncharacteristically quiet.

"Buck? Hey now." Buck was shaking a little, and while Vin knew it was from the fever, he also knew that this sickness or flu or whatever it was had beaten Buck down hard. He slipped his arms around Buck's waist and held on for a minute, trying to ignore the sick-smell of him. "I'll tell you what," he whispered. "If you'll go and drag out some clean clothes, I'll clean up this mess and run you a bath."

"I don't want a bath," Buck said, and weirdly, he didn't sound sullen or childlike. "I'm too damned tired."

"I'll help. It'll make you feel better. Get that layer of sweat off you." He tugged at Buck's shirt to emphasize his point; the guy was getting sticky by now, as many times as his fever had come up today.

"Okay, fine." Buck trudged toward the door, but turned back before he left the room. "Vin? Thanks."

"No problem." Hell, now that he'd separated the two of them, they were both behaving well enough that he felt sorry for them again.

Chris listened from the hallway, smiling softly at the exchange and damned glad that Vin had come back and settled down. He'd still be pissed if Vin had left because he and Buck couldn't control their tempers when they felt like shit. He almost hated to admit it though, because while he'd gotten caught up on his sleep and Vin had checked in on him from time to time, he missed Buck. He didn't like sleeping alone anymore, and damn it, he missed hearing Buck sniffle.

He wondered if this flu was killing off his brain cells.

Before Buck came out of the kitchen Chris ducked back up the hall, out of sight. He stood there until he heard water running in the big tub off their bedroom, and then padded on into the kitchen in underwear and bare feet. Vin was on his knees, cleaning up the spill Buck had made, and Chris paused in the doorway to watch him. "You think you're gonna catch this?" he asked.

"I hope to hell not," Vin grumbled without turning. "I'm s'posed to go back out on Saturday."

"Not much of a homecoming, this," he said, and stepped into the room.

"Nah Chris," Vin said, "it's what you do when you've got family, after—" Vin caught sight of him then, and glared. "What the hell are you doing?" he snapped.

Chris frowned. "What?"

"You're standin' there in your underwear and bare feet!" He climbed to his feet, throwing paper towels into the trash can before turning to stare accusingly at Chris.

"I was hot!"

"Fever, damn it. You're hot because you've got another fever." He wiped his hands off on a kitchen towel, throwing it over his shoulder with a little more force than necessary.

Chris shrugged it off; he didn't care overmuch, just knew he felt like shit and wasn't willing to broil himself under the covers anymore. "I'm still hot."

Vin shook his head and headed for the cabinet and a fresh can of chicken noodle soup. "I swear sometimes, you two deserve each other."

"We sure as hell don't deserve you," Chris said, meaning it. Vin just looked at him, eyes narrowed and face as still as a lake. "Nothing but trouble while you're home," he went on. "Him sick and whining, me sick and a bastard…."

"You got that part right at least," Vin muttered.

Chris thought he could guess what had Vin on edge, but he didn't say it. Didn't need to. Hell, they'd barely had him home from Wyoming a month, barely had him living out here again for three, and half that time he'd been on the road.

"What are you doing up, anyway?" Vin asked him. "It's still dark out."

"Bored," Chris admitted. "Heard the clatter in the kitchen." He shrugged. "Sick of being sick. I think I'm slept out."

Vin sighed and turned back to the can opener. "It won't be long now. You've both been down a couple of days, it's got to run its course."

Chris nodded unseen. "Thought maybe I'd go talk to Buck, keep him company," he said, to see which way Vin would jump.

"Good idea, as long as you two don't start fighting again," Vin said, practical. "I'll change the sheets, air out the beds a little."

"Just ours. I'm done being by myself."

Vin grinned at that. "I'd offer to sleep with you if I didn't think you'd make me sick. At least I wouldn't fight you for the remote control."

Chris nodded, thoughtful now. "I know you would sleep with me. We'd have dragged you into bed with us if we cared any less." Vin looked startled, and uncomfortable, and Chris just shook his head. When was the man going to get it? "Probably would have kept us from fighting, at least," he added.

At that, Vin grinned. "Doubt you had the energy for that," he said, thinking like Buck, of course.

Chris shook his head, a little annoyed. "I meant to hold on to, not to fuck."

The coarseness of the statement was as intentional as the attitude, and he saw Vin blush at it. Then Vin looked at him, and Chris saw him replaying the whole thing through his head again. He knew the first part had registered when Vin looked away, back to opening the can.

"You want something to eat?" Vin asked as he poured soup into a bowl. "How's your stomach holding up?"

Chris shook his head, started to answer the question, then stopped. This was why they'd made the trip to Wyoming, why they'd worked on getting Vin back. It didn't stop just because he'd agreed to come back, or even because he was here now, taking care of them.

The floor was cold under his feet, and sticky as he walked through the spot the soup had landed.

Vin was warm but tense as he slid his arms around him, and he nuzzled against the long neck, appreciating the coolness of Vin's hair as it drifted along his face. "Thanks for coming back."

Vin shrugged, but he leaned back just a little. "Thought you were gonna go check on Buck."

Chris nodded, but he didn't move, and neither did Vin.

A thump from the bedroom, followed by a curse of pain got them moving again. Chris pushed away with a sigh. "He forgot that the bottom drawer's still sticking. I'll get him and start the bath."

"Thanks," Vin sighed as well, moving to put the bowl in the microwave.

Buck was sitting on the bed cussing, his foot in the air, when Chris stopped in the doorway. The dresser drawer was on the floor, the contents spilled out around it much like the soup had been on the kitchen floor.

Part of him wanted to make a smart-ass comment about walking disasters, but Buck looked so forlorn that he couldn't. He really had missed the pain in the ass.

"You gonna live?" he asked instead, leaning on the door frame.

Buck looked at him, his blue eyes sadder than Chris had seen them since before they'd left for Wyoming. "I'm sick of being sick," the other man said, not as a whine or even in anger, but with a resignation that made Chris cringe.

"I know," he said, pushing off the door and ambling over to his partner. He sat on the bed next to him and put his arm around Buck's shoulders, glad for once that his nose was clogged up because he had an inkling of just how bad they both must smell, and rubbed his cheek across sweat-soaked shirt and skin. "Me too."

Buck leaned against him, accepting the support and the affection. "It hurts to move. It hurts to do anything."

"I know," Chris said against his sweaty forehead.

"And I miss you. And Vin. It ain't fair to have to spend this much time in bed alone and too hurtin' to do anything."

Chris smiled despite himself. "I know," he agreed, rubbing Buck's back.

"Am I whining?" Buck asked, trying to sit up. "I've been trying not to piss him off – "

"It's okay," Chris soothed, but he helped Buck find his balance. "He'd best get used to it sometime, and you make up for it plenty when you're not sick. Now, how about I check on that bath and we can see about getting this place cleaned up a little? Fresh sheets will make us both feel better."

Buck looked up at him, a little hope in his eyes as he asked, "You gonna stay with me?"

Chris smiled at him. "Yeah. Gettin' bored with my own company."

Vin appeared then, the tray in his hands. "Here, help him eat this while I make sure he didn't overflow the tub," he ordered, setting it on the floor while Chris settled Buck into the bed.

"I can get that," Chris said, but he wasn't surprised when Vin waved him away.

"Thanks, Vin," Buck called as Vin disappeared into the john. "We did the right thing, keeping him around," he said softly, looking at Chris.

"Yeah," Chris agreed. "Now, am I feeding you, or are you feeding yourself?"

"I'm not a kid," Buck groused, acting exactly like one. Chris figured if he hadn't asked, Buck would have let him. He watched Buck slurp down several big spoonfuls before a look crossed his face, not a good one, and he pushed the soup away. "Maybe that wasn't such a good idea…"

"Gonna be sick again?" Chris asked, easing back a little.

"I don't—gimme my ginger ale."

Chris reached for the bottle on the nightstand, trying and failing to restrain his sigh. Buck really was a pain in the ass when he was sick, and since Chris felt just as bad now, he didn't have much patience left for it. And both of them were trying not to drive Vin up the wall, but the man didn't seem to need their help to wind himself up. "What do you think's the matter with him?" he asked, low, so the running bathwater would keep Vin from hearing.

Buck shrugged. "I'm a bitch and you're an ass. He need another reason?"

"Yeah," Chris said, and coughed. He liked to think so.

Buck frowned, rubbing slow circles on his belly, exactly the same way Chris had seen his mother do a dozen times in the past. "I feel too much like shit to think about it," Buck admitted, and sipped carefully at his tepid ginger ale. He'd broken out into a sweat, skin going pale and clammy, and Chris knew Buck was working hard to keep his soup down.

Well, Chris felt like shit too. "Let's get you in the tub."

"You too," Buck said, sniffing pointedly at the air.

"Am I that rank?"

"Yes," Buck said flatly, "and if you're sleeping in the bed with me, I'm not gonna lie there and smell it all night."

"Fine, whatever." He was shivering again, so maybe it was a good idea. Not that he'd tell Vin or Buck that they were right.

The bath, when he settled into it, felt wonderful. They sat at opposite ends, Chris leaning between the faucet and the corner, Buck at the back end, their legs jumbled up in the middle. Vin stood there for a couple of minutes looking uncomfortable, before he headed for the door.

"Where're you goin'?" Buck asked him.

"Change the sheets. Air out the room, maybe. It's damned cold outside though," he said.

"Do it," Chris told him. "Crank up the heater and do it. I can't stand the smell of us anymore." He still couldn't smell worth a damn, but just imagining it turned his stomach over.

"Neither can I," Vin said under his breath, and high-tailed it out.

Buck eased a little lower in the tub, his knees poking up out of the water. "He's still scared," he said, his eyes closed on a sigh.

Chris nodded unseen. If he'd been in Vin's place, he would have been too.

Hell, that was a lie; he couldn't have been in Vin's place, wouldn't have tolerated it. He was too selfish to even consider the idea.

They were both lucky that Vin wasn't.

"Hey," he said, smiling toward Buck.

"Mmm?" Buck replied without opening his eyes.

Chris pulled his leg up and started to move his foot up the inside of Buck's thigh. Inched along quite happily. Buck sat up like he'd been bitten and shoved Chris's foot away.

"Get the fuck off a me!" he snapped, splashing water out of the tub and all over the floor.

"What?" Chris asked, chuckling.

"Just… I'm too sick to even think about it."

"Damn, let's get you to the emergency room."

"Shut up," Buck said, glaring at him. "Can't you just settle down and soak up some warmth for five minutes without being a pain in the ass?"

Apparently he couldn't. They hadn't even gotten back to sleeping in the same bed yet, so he'd better get a grip on himself or Vin would kill him and bury him in the pasture. "We ought to get a hot tub for the deck," he said after a minute and several more efforts to shift in the tub. It was big, no question about it, but it still wasn't big
nough. And with Vin here now….

"Yeah," Buck said dreamily. "Oh, yeah."

Chris sat up so Buck could dunk his head under water, and Vin came back in time to glare at the water on the floor. He didn't say anything though, just shook his head and dropped the bath mat over the puddles. "Bed's clean. Slider's open, so get dressed before you come out." He dropped clean sweat pants and bathrobes atop the vanity, and left again.

"Vin'd like a hot tub," Chris speculated idly. "Keep the mess outside."

"Yeah." Buck sounded a little easier, now that he was cleaner, his lungs a little clearer here in the steam. "Wish I could care right now about all the reasons a hot tub would be fun," he said moodily.

Chris snorted.

"He'll be all right, Chris. He's gentlin' down. He's just like a spooked horse, he's got to be sure for himself that we're not lying. Not offering something we're gonna take away.

"He's had months to figure that out," Chris said, moody again.

Buck just nodded, and sighed again. "Gonna take more than months. I reckon he'll get skittish off and on for years."

Chris frowned at the idea, but let it lie. There was nothing they could do about it before it came upon them. "Shift yourself so I can dunk, and we'll shower off before Vin has to come lookin' for us."

Buck folded his long legs up underneath himself and pushed off the tub's edge to stand, one hand against the wall. Chris eyed him carefully, watched the slow sway of his body; Buck looked as weak as an unweaned kitten. Yeah, this had been a good idea for them both—hell, maybe for all three of them if Vin gave himself a break and got his own bed back.

Standing alone in the bedroom, Vin listened to their low conversation and shivered. It wasn't a fever; he wasn't getting sick. He had washed his hands better and more often than a surgeon, to avoid that shit, and slept in a room they hadn't gone into more than once in the past few days. What had the goose bumps coming up on his skin was the fact that those two seemed to know him so well.

He blinked around the dim bedroom, watching the curtains flutter out the door in the blast from the heating vent, and felt that fear in his bones. He was tired and lonely and still glad to be here to take care of his partners, but even so, he was damned glad he'd be going back on the road soon. He badly needed some space to think.

"You get him yet?" Chris's voice was tinny, the connection not the best, but Vin was kinda thankful for that. He wasn't up to listening to more sniffling and snorting and throat-clearing. It had been a relief to leave the house, even if he was still dog-tired.

"Nah, but I know where he is," he answered, stretching out on the hotel room's one bed. It was smaller than what he had at home, and it wasn't as comfortable, but it was empty and clean, more or less, and quiet.

"Why don't you pick him up and get on back here?" Chris asked, and Vin barely managed to catch the laugh that rose instantly.

"He's got company," he answered instead, "and not of the distractable kind."

"Friends with guns?" Chris interpreted.

"Yep," Vin agreed. "Figure they'll all be passed out in the morning, I can grab him then and get him out the door before anyone wakes up firing."

"I don't like you going in alone. You sure you don't need – "

"I'm okay, Chris," he said around a yawn. "If they don't look to be out of it, I'll call for back up from the local boys – I know a couple of guys in town, and J'siah gave me the names of your associates here. I'll be fine."

There was talking in the background, Buck he knew, probably listening in even though Chris hadn't put it on speaker. That was why he called Chris; Vin didn't like his calls to be public the way Buck did, and Chris didn't automatically try to share.

He heard Chris sigh through the connection, before he said, "Buck wants to know if you're feeling okay."

"Better than you boys were when I left," he answered, grinning. "How are y'all feeling? Any better yet?"

"Yeah, lots, just tired mostly," he answered, and Vin figured it was true. Not once so far had Chris coughed, and he hadn't sneezed either. He'd been eating solid food before Vin left, recovering faster than Buck who was still eating soup and blowing his nose – and whining, even though he'd stopped being insufferable days earlier.

But Buck had been feeling well enough to slide his hand down Vin's ass before he left, so he was getting better.

Probably meant Chris had other reasons for being tired too.

That thought brought him up short, suddenly, leaving him flush with a sort of anger. Wasn't fair, he thought, here he'd been working himself to exhaustion taking care of the two of them, and they were probably back there now, fucking around while he was out here alone –

"Vin?" Buck's voice was a little hoarse and still a little congested, but filled with energy again, with the liveliness that Vin had come to depend on from the man. It was a welcome relief to hear it. "You there?"

"Yeah," he said, trying to get his head together. What did it matter if they were back there messing up the sheets? They'd been together a long time, and it wasn't any of his business anyway. "You sound better," he ventured, more of a peace effort for himself than for the other man, as Buck had no idea what his thoughts were.

But then again, it was Buck. "Hope so," he said, "Tired of spending all this time in bed and having no fun. Speaking of which, when you getting back?"

There was something in Buck's voice other than the thrum of want, something softer and sweeter, both warm and scary. Vin swallowed, answering gruffly, "Should pick up our client sometime tomorrow morning, be back late tomorrow night – what's today? Sunday? Then late Monday night."

"Good," Buck sighed, those same sounds winding through the single word. "Miss you."

"Can't see why," Vin shot back without thought. "You ain't all recovered yet. Seems Chris would be as much as you could handle."

There was a short pause before Buck answered, "I can't even handle him right now. Haven't tried yet, anyway." He chuckled, low. "If I had I wouldn't be so annoyed at being in bed, would I? Just miss having you around."

A small spiteful voice wanted to ask if Buck needed someone to pick up his dirty clothes or wash his dishes, but even as that thought flashed through his mind, he knew he was being mean himself.

The alternative, though, that Buck really did want him around, and why Buck really wanted him around, was a little harder to accept, the weight of it gnawing at his belly. All these little things that he hadn't been able to leave behind back at the house—his fear, the fact they knew him so well already, the fact that he was in this up to his neck and even leaving for good wouldn't make that any better—they weighed on him, maybe too heavily.

He was silent too long, because Buck picked up the thread again. "Vin? You all right?"

"Um, yeah," he answered. Then, again before he had time to think about it, he said, "I miss you, too."

"Well," and Buck chuckled, sounding a lot more like his old self, "usually we're hard to resist." Then more softly, "You mean that? After all we put you through?" He asked it very quietly, and Vin wondered if Chris was close to him.

"Yeah," he said with a sigh, because it was true. "Even after all that." Maybe because of all that. What had he said to Chris about family?

"Good, that's good to hear. I was right worried. Chris said you'd come around, but Chris ain't always right." He heard the grin in Buck's voice when the man added, "He just likes to think he is."

Even through the humor Vin heard it, a sort of anxiousness that scared him. Buck really was worried that Vin wouldn't come back one day, and Vin couldn't blame him. As good as he had it—maybe because he had it so good—there were days he worried the same thing. Those days were getting fewer and farther between though. They were all in it up to their necks, and struggling against it was like fighting smoke. He wasn't stupid, and never had been. "He's right this time, Buck," Vin said, and grinned. "Don't you worry about that."

Buck's voice dropped a little lower, and Vin had a hard time making out the words. "So tell me what you're doin' to entertain yourself out there."

Vin snorted. "You really are gettin' better."

"I sure am," Buck said, sighed happily, then sneezed.

Vin chortled in spite of himself. "Yeah, you can forget the phone sex right now. Wheezing ain't a turn-on for me."

"Spoilsport," Buck said. "Next time."

"Next time," Vin agreed easily. Buck was—it was actually pretty hot, the phone sex thing. Buck got all throaty-voiced with speculation, and graphic as hell. Better than porn, in fact, for a whole lot of reasons—not the least of which was that he knew he could count on an in-person replay when he got home.

"We got a surprise for you, when you get back," Buck said. "We been working real hard on it, Chris especially. I think you'll like it."

"What is it?" he asked, caught off guard. "If it's a can of chicken soup I swear I'll kick your ass, sick or not."

"You hush up now," Buck interrupted, his voice going back to a normal pitch that made Vin wince. "And have a little faith. You need to get your skinny ass back here as soon as you can, you hear me, boy?" But before Vin could answer, he rushed on, "Chris is back, he's—hey! That's my ear you're pulling there!"

Buck's voice faded as the phone was apparently pulled away and Chris's voice carried into the headset. "—better not be telling him—Vin? You there?"

"Yeah—what the hell are you two—"

"Don't you be worrying about us," Chris snapped, "you get Johnson and get on back here in one piece. He's worth enough that we can afford to pay back-up, so use it if you need it, you hear me?"

"I hear you," Vin answered, but he was smiling. "I'll call you when it's done."

"We'll be waiting."

As he hung up, he felt a pang of guilt. He probably could have taken Johnson this evening, before his buddies started showing up at the condo where he was crashing, but Vin had opted to have one more night on his own. He'd wanted the peace and quiet and uninterrupted sleep, but mostly, he knew, he'd wanted the space. He still wasn't certain this had been the best move, to come back to Atlanta, to come back to them. Still wasn't sure he wasn't being the biggest fool in the known world.

Chanu thought he was.

He rolled over onto his side, found himself staring at the cheap print on the motel room wall, one of the endless numbers of cheap prints he had seen in his years. Cheap art for cheap rooms for a cheap life. He didn't have art on the walls of his cabin, not like this, anyway. He had some of the woven blankets and things that had come to him when his grandfather passed, a dream catcher over his bed, but mostly he had the windows and the open sky.

Chris and Buck's house had stuff on the walls, too, better than the crap in the motels. Their house… he couldn't think it yet, even though the word was right there, just at the corner of his mind. And that was the problem, wasn't it? It was right there, in their words when they spoke to him, ready to jump right in. Just waiting for him to call it 'home'.

Home. It was for Chris and Buck, and he couldn't doubt that they wanted him to be a part of it. Idiots. They were sharing their lives with him, but they all knew it was still a gamble, this thing between them all.

But he did miss them. It'd be nice to curl up next to one of them right now—or even both of them. Sleeping.

Or… something. He grinned and closed his eyes.

Chris stretched his arm across the back of the couch, trying to encourage the other man to settle against him, and maybe to settle down.

"He should be here by now," Buck sighed, but he trudged across the floor, plopping down on the couch next to Chris.

"You need to stop worrying," Chris said, leaning in close. "He's doing enough of that for all of us. He sees you at it, and it's gonna make him more anxious. It's gonna be fine. He's just got to come to terms with it."

"You say that like it's easy, Chris," Buck groused, but he let himself relax against Chris's side. "You couldn't do what he's doing. Hell, I don't even know if I could."

"Bringing back skips from far away dumps?" Chris asked, even though he knew what Buck was really asking.

In a rare show of how serious he was, Buck looked at him, not taking the bait.

Chris sighed, pulling Buck back against him and kissing his forehead. "He'll be here soon."

They were halfway through some science fiction movie JD had left at the house, a spin-off of one of the tv shows that involved going through some magic gate to get to far off galaxies where mankind was suffering soul-sucking at the hands of vampire-looking things that Chris knew would give him nightmares for days, when Buck stirred, his eyes going to the window. Less than a second later, Chris heard it too: the tell-tale sound of Vin's truck tires on the gravel drive.

"He's home," Buck said unnecessarily, even as he took the remote from Chris's hand and stopped the movie.

"Yep," Chris agreed, taking the remote back and restarting it. "You're gonna give it away if things are too quiet when he comes in."

But Buck was already up, moving out into the hallway.

"You're gonna give it away if you're hovering when he comes in, too," Chris called, trying a different approach.

The truck stopped, parked, and the engine shut down. Seconds later, the door creaked as Vin opened it, and several seconds after that, it closed. Buck was pacing in the hall, his socked feet making sliding noises on the hardwood.

Chris sighed, knowing better than to try to pretend at this point. He stopped the movie and shut down the television, the room just going silent as he heard Vin test the doorknob, then turn it all the way when he realized it wasn't yet locked.

"Vin!" Buck yelled and Chris shook his head, imagining the instant surprise, then the wariness on Vin's face. He pushed himself off the couch, but grinned as he heard Vin answer.

"What's going on?"

Anything was cut off by the sound of one of Buck's full-body hugs, and Chris wasn't the least bit surprised to find, as he entered the hallway, Buck trying to pick up Vin, his long arms tight around Vin's body as he lifted and Vin tried to push away.

"Dammit, Buck," Vin groused, but there was amusement in his voice, and Chris relaxed a little. "Missed you too, now will you put me the hell down?" Chris leaned on the wall, watching them. Buck the big, overgrown kid with his new toy. Only the toy wasn't so new and Vin wasn't a toy, not anymore. Probably not ever, Chris thought, remembering his early attraction to Vin.

Well, they were in it now, the blaze going strong and hot.

"What the hell you two been up to?" Vin asked, pushing Buck's arm off of his shoulder as he shrugged out of his jacket. "Smells like bleach outside – you hose off the outside of the house too, to get rid of the germs?"

Buck's laughter rolled in then, whole and healthy and sorely missed. "Nope—got a surprise for you. And just so you know, you'd better not be tired or sore or any other shit, because we're gonna christen it."

Vin frowned and threw Chris a suspicious glance, but Chris just grinned and shook his head. "I couldn't stop him on this one, Vin," he said with a shrug. Then he figured, what the hell? And peeled of his sweatshirt. He tossed it toward their bedroom door as he passed, toeing off his socks and unbuttoning his jeans by the kitchen door. "You two comin'?" he called.

Vin and Buck had followed him partway, Buck lured by the trail of clothing and Vin dragged along, no doubt. But it was Vin who said, "No fucking way am I going outside naked. It's barely 40 degrees out there."

"Yeah, but it's gonna be really warm," Buck promised, and Chris had to admit, the man sounded convincing.

"Forty degrees, Buck," Vin growled, digging his heels in. Chris had stripped off his jeans and stood in the kitchen, naked by the time Buck gave up and started to strip down himself.

"Hot tub, Vin," Chris said, and grinned. "Big ol' warm hot tub, water ought to be a hundred and seven right now."

Vin's eyes got wide, and he looked from Chris to Buck and back.  Chris almost laughed, but Buck was already doing it even as he tossed his shirt toward a chair and reached for his jeans.

"You're gonna love it!  Big enough for all three of us, don't have to worry 'bout water on the floor or—hell, anything! We even reinforced the deck—you gonna stand there all night, or you gonna join us? We been waiting for you!"

Even has he pushed himself out of his jeans, Buck managed to reach out and catch the back of Vin's head, pulling him close and announcing, "We ain't sick no more," before pushing his tongue half-way down Vin's throat.

Whether it was the words or the kiss, Vin surrendered, pulling Buck closer and opening to him.  Chris's grin warmed into a smile, knowing that all the worry the other two carried was melting away, as it always did when they touched.  When any of them touched.

"Hey!" he called after a few seconds, when neither one of them looked like they were coming up for air.  "You two keep that up and I'll need to turn the hot tub down before we even get into it.  Get your asses out here!"

He didn't wait to see if they followed, walking out the door.

Vin heard the door slam, less aware of the sound of it than of the cold air blowing through the kitchen and Buck's groan as they broke apart.

"Missed you," Buck breathed, and it was relief to see the twinkle in his eyes and the wide, happy grin on his face.

"Yeah, me too," Vin agreed, feeling a little dazed as well.  "A hot tub?" he asked.

Buck's grin grew even larger.  "Chris thought you'd like it.  We been talking about it for a while but just never got around to it.  Now though, the three of us . . . "  He wagged his eyebrows and Vin couldn't stop the laugh.

"Go on, then, I'm coming," he said, moving to unbutton his flannel shirt.  "We need towels, or anything?"

"We got it all, just waitin' for you, darlin'," Buck said, moving toward the door even as his eyes tracked the movements of Vin's hands. "You're gonna miss out if you don't hurry your ass up."

The words were barely out of his mouth before they heard a splash from outside then Chris's growl of pleasure.

"Go on," Vin grinned, leaning over to pull off his boots.  "I'm coming."  As he set the first one aside, he looked up to see Buck watching, but also hesitating.  "Go on," he said more forcefully.  "You keep that up and we won't make it to the christening!"

Buck shook his head, but turned, opening the door again.  "We'll be waiting on you – but don't take too long."

Vin laughed, pulling off his other boot.  The door closed and he heard Buck bellow something just before there was another splash, this one louder and followed by Chris's indignant, "Dammit, Buck!  Don't waste the water!"

He moved over to the window, looking out to see the two men in a large hot tub, the cedar exterior shining in the soft light from the outdoor fixtures that bordered the deck.  He could see little more than their heads and necks, and every now and then, an arm as one of them shifted in the embrace they were in.  Steam rose from the water and from them, a cloud that blurred his view, softening the image but not obscuring it.

For a few seconds, the thought of leaving them alone tried to take hold of him, bringing with it all the thoughts he'd had in the motel room just last night.

But even as he watched, they broke apart; Buck laughed and Chris yelled, "Vin!" and he grinned, reaching for his belt. If they'd been dumb enough to wait for him, well, he wasn't going to disappoint them. Or himself. Just because a thing was good, that wasn't a reason to run from it. Buck would say it was a reason to run toward it, and maybe Buck was right. When he pulled the door open and got a blast of that forty-degree air on his bare balls, Vin ran.

The End

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