by SueN

ATF Universe

Disclaimer: Only in my dreams are they mine. In reality, they belong to all those folks in suits.

Notes: This is the sequel to The World According to Garth, so, Ruth, you can put the cattle prod down now <g>. Also, it vaguely references my fic All That We're Allowed.

Feedback: Oh, yeah!

The long drive from Inez's saloon to the ranch was quiet, with only the soft country music from the stereo breaking the deep, comfortable silence between the two men. Now and then, though, Chris turned his eyes from the road ahead to glance at his companion.

In the muted green glow of the dashboard lights, Vin appeared to be asleep, his lean body slouched into the corner between the seat and passenger door, his head against the padded neck rest, his face turned toward Chris, his eyes closed. His right hand was in his lap, his left rested on the seat between him and Chris. In repose, he looked young, vulnerable, and, to Larabee's loving gaze, incredibly beautiful.

"Hey, cowboy," Chris called softly, returning his gaze to the road ahead, "you still with me?"

"Always," Vin sighed drowsily. Without ever opening his eyes, he slid his left hand toward Chris, instinctively seeking contact with the man.

Larabee smiled and released the wheel to take Vin's hand, glancing down as those long, slender fingers entwined with his own. As always, it both touched and humbled him that Vin, who naturally shied away from such intimate contact with others, seemed actually to crave it with him. He knew enough about his lover's haunted, painful past to understand that, from bitter experience, Vin had come to equate another's touch with betrayal or outright abuse, and marvelled at the incredible trust required for the young man just to reach out and take his hand.

In that one, simple act, Vin had let down a lifetime of carefully and deliberately constructed protective barriers.

But, despite the trust implicit in the gesture, Chris knew many of the old doubts, the old fears and insecurities, still plagued Vin. His anguished words back in the saloon had proven that.

<<Hell, Chris, you're so far above me... You bin important all yer life, bin somebody special since the day you was born. Captain'a this, king'a that, top jock 'n top student 'n now climbin' to the top'a the ATF heap. Fact is, you're the smartest man I ever known, the best man I ever known, 'n I cain't fer the life'a me see what the hell you'd want with a stupid damn nobody like me.>>

Larabee winced at the memory and gripped Vin's hand tighter, pained and puzzled by the younger man's demeaning description of himself.

<<A stupid damn nobody like me.>> Now where in the hell had -that- come from?

He automatically made the turn from the well-lit highway onto the darker road that would take him to the cut-off for the ranch, his conscious thought centered upon Vin and this newly-revealed crack in his self-esteem. Vin Tanner was one of the steadiest, most capable, most dependable men he'd ever met. He exuded a quiet strength and a deep calm that often made him seem much older than his actual years. And he always, -always- seemed so confident, so certain of and so comfortable with himself that it was sometimes difficult to remember the kind of obstacles he'd had to overcome to get where he was now.

To be the man he was now.

Chris sighed and shook his head slowly, then glanced again at Vin. "You know we're gonna have a talk when we get to the ranch, right?"

Vin's eyes fluttered open and a slow, sleepy grin lifted one corner of his mouth. "Wasn't thinkin' much on talkin'," he drawled, the amount of tequila he'd downed earlier still slurring his words. He freed his hand from Chris's and slid it up Larabee's arm, long fingers slowly kneading through the tuxedo sleeve. "Yer awful purty tonight. Hate ta waste it by talkin'."

Chris had to swallow hard against the warmth that touch ignited in him. He'd long since discovered that the hands that were so skilled with a rifle were just as adept with his body. More than once, those hands had distracted him from a talk he'd really wanted to have with the man who owned them.

But that wouldn't happen tonight. This was a talk that couldn't be put off, no matter how skillfully those fingers played against him.

"Ain't gonna work, cowboy," he warned, steeling himself against that touch. "We gotta talk about what happened tonight, and you're not gonna be in any shape ta do it tomorrow."

Vin sighed heavily and dropped his hand, turning his face away from Chris. "So y'are mad at me," he murmured, staring out into the darkness.

Before he could pull his hand back, before he could draw up into himself, Chris reclaimed his fingers and held tightly to them. "I'm not mad," he said gently. "I'm just... confused. And worried." He glanced across the cab at his lover, frowning when Vin still did not look at him. "It bothers me to know that you think so little of yourself, that you think I'm somehow too good for you. I need ta know where that's comin' from, and I need... -we- need... ta put a stop to it before it goes any further. You understand?"

Vin sighed again and shrugged heavily, fatigue and tequila combining to weigh down his body and soul.

"Hey, Tanner," Chris called softly, worriedly, "look at me." He got no response and squeezed Vin's fingers harder. "C'mon, look at me." Slowly Vin turned his face once more to him, and Chris smiled into the heavy-lidded eyes. "You know I love ya, don'tcha?"

Vin blinked sleepily and nodded. "Yeah," he breathed, "I know." His eyes slowly closed. "Jist fer the life'a me cain't figger out why." =======

Chris flipped on the lights and strode into the den, tossing his keys onto the coffee table and his coat into the nearby recliner. He turned and waited for Vin, who was moving slowly and rather unsteadily behind him, head bowed, shoulders slumping, hands crammed into the pockets of his buckskin jacket. Larabee grimaced and shook his head at the younger man's dejected appearance.

"Vin, I swear ta God, I'm not mad," he said quietly. "Hell, you look like you expect me ta hit ya!"

"Sorry," Vim mumbled, reaching the couch and sinking heavily down onto it. He started to lay down, but, before he could, two hands reached down, grabbed him by the jacket front and hauled him upright again.

"No, ya don't," Chris said in a firm, even voice, easily stripping the jacket from the unresisting man. "You lay down now, and you'll be asleep in two minutes." He tossed the jacket into the same chair where his coat lay. "And we -are- gonna talk."

"'M sleepy," Vin slurred, closing his eyes and letting his head fall against the back of the couch. "Maybe t'morra..."

Chris laughed shortly. "Yeah, right. Tomorrow you'll be nursin' a tequila hangover the size of Texas. Sorry, pard," he sighed, sitting down close to his lover, "I've seen ya when you're like that, and there's just no talkin' in ya. We're gonna get this taken care of tonight." He slipped an arm about Vin's shoulders and pulled him closer still. "How 'bout some coffee?"

And before he knew how it had happened, Vin was in his lap, straddling him, head bending down and that warm, wet mouth homing in on the tender flesh at the base of his throat. "Got somethin' else in mind," Vin breathed, flicking his tongue into the hollow there, then sucking on the corner of Chris's collarbone. His hands, meanwhile, slid inside Larabee's tuxedo jacket and managed to unbutton his vest, then began stroking the powerful chest through the crisp white shirt. "Don't wanta talk," he whispered against the pulse throbbing in his lover's throat. "Ain't good at talkin'." He nuzzled hungrily at that pulse. "Wanta do what I'm good at."

Chris groaned and shuddered as Vin's mouth and hands sent currents of heat shooting through him, and, instinctively, he tightened his arms about the lithe, lean frame, clutching Tanner to him. Then, with another groan, he grabbed Vin's arms and pushed him away, sliding him off his lap and planting him firmly back at his side. For long moments he said nothing, merely tried to get his breathing, and his hardening cock, under control.

"No, Vin," he rasped at last. He shifted on the couch and turned to face his lover, groaning yet again when he found himself gazing into two -very- hurt blue eyes. "Oh, Jesus, don't look at me like that!" he moaned, turning away and scrubbing his hands over his face.

"Ya said ya loved me," Vin said in a soft, unsteady voice, deeply shaken by Chris's apparent rejection of him.

"I do."

"But ya don't want me." His voice broke on the last word and he bowed his head to hide the tears that stung his eyes. His hands were shaking, and he slid them under his thighs to conceal them. All the while, he remembered the dazzling sight of Mary Travis sparkling in her diamonds and close-fitting white dress, and knew he could never compete with that. "Cain't say I blame ya," he whispered.

"Now, you stop right there!" Chris ordered harshly, turning back to Vin. Reaching out, he gripped Tanner's chin in a firm hand and lifted until the bowed head came up, and was struck to his soul by the single tear sliding down the tired, unshaven face. "Oh, Jesus, Vin!" he breathed, immediately gathering the younger man into his arms and cradling him close against him. "Don't do this, cowboy, please!" he begged hoarsely, resting a cheek against the top of Vin's head and aching deeply for him. "I do love you, and I do want you. But we need ta talk about what's goin' on inside ya." He tenderly stroked Vin's hair with one hand, his other arm holding tightly to the slender, shaking frame. "You gotta let me in, pard," he urged. "I can't help ya if I can't reach ya. And I don't ever, -ever- want not to be able ta reach you."

Vin clung tightly, desperately to Chris, terrified of losing the only man he'd ever loved, the only man who'd ever really loved him. Others had said the words, but then had hurt him cruelly. Only from Chris had the words come without pain, and with a wondrous healing power. And he knew if he lost Chris, he'd never survive it.

"Talk to me, Vin," Chris pleaded, feeling his lover's fear and desperation as if they were his own, and shaken by them. "Tell me where all this is comin' from!"

Vin nestled his head against Chris's chest, seeking refuge in the firm, steady beating of the man's heart, in the strength of the arms about him. "I don't know," he whispered. "Jist know that... when I saw ya tonight, with all them rich, important people, with... with -her-..." His voice broke again, and he burrowed deeper into Chris's arms, needing to reassure himself that the man was really here, with him, that this wasn't being taken from him like so much else in his life. "I jist got scared!"

"Of what?" Chris asked softly. He was so unused to seeing Vin like this -- almost childlike in his terror, clinging to him as if he feared he'd somehow be ripped away, racked by a doubt so deep it was splitting his soul in half.

Jesus God, where had this come from?

Vin drew a slow, deep, shuddering breath and pulled himself out of Chris's arms, wrapping his own arms tightly about himself and bowing his head until his long hair fell like a curtain between them. "Scared mebbe ya'd finally wake up 'n see... what I've known all along," he said in a small and broken voice.

"And what..." Chris's voice was rough with fear, and his green eyes brimmed with a soul-deep anguish for the young man next to him. "What have you known?"

Vin turned his bowed head away and shrugged. "That I ain't near good enough fer you."

Chris snapped. With a hiss of fury, he reached out and grabbed Vin's arms, shooting to his feet and yanking his startled lover up with him. Fury flooded his face with color, lent a hard glitter to his eyes, and he shook Vin hard, then jerked him up close, glaring into a white and frightened face.

"Do not... -ever-... say that again!" he spat through clenched teeth, his long, lean frame taut with the force of his rage. His fingers dug cruelly into Vin's arms, but, for once in his life, he couldn't have cared less about the pain he was inflicting on his lover. Not when Vin was so goddamned determined to tear himself down and expected -him- to let it happen. "You -are- good enough, do you hear me? You are the man I love, and I will not let you get away with talking about yourself that way, is that clear?" He shook Vin again, then thrust him away hard, sending him sprawling onto the couch. "IS THAT CLEAR?"

Vin stared up at Chris in wide-eyed shock and fear, completely sober now. His heart was hammering wildly against his ribs, and the unmistakable rage in Chris's face, in his whole being, sent an icy shiver through him. For the first time since meeting the man, he knew what it was to be frightened by the Larabee glare.

"I th... I thought ya said..." He swallowed hard. "I thought ya said... ya wasn't mad at me."

Chris scowled deeply, his teeth still clenched, and leaned over Vin, watching as the blue eyes went wider still. "I changed my mind!" he ground out. "Goddamn it, Vin, how -dare- you say that about yourself? How dare you say it to -me-? And how can you possibly think -I'd- ever think such a thing?"

As it had through all the long, hard years of his life, Vin's fear died quickly and was replaced by an angry defiance. With a curse of his own, he shot to his feet and stood mere inches from Chris. "Don't ever do that ta me again, Larabee," he warned in a low, hoarse voice, his blue eyes blazing. "Don't grab me, don't shake me, don't shove me. I done had all'a that I intend ta have in this life, 'n I sure as hell won't have it from you!"

Chris's anger drained from him in a rush as he realized to his own horror that he'd just joined the ranks of countless others who'd hurt Vin in the name of love. Made almost sick by the realization, he turned and sank onto the couch, leaning forward and burying his head in his hands, his elbows on his knees.

"Jesus, Vin, I'm sorry!" he groaned. "I'm so sorry..." He raised his head slowly and fixed sad, pained eyes on his lover. "Talk to me, please!" he begged yet again. "Talk to me before the two of us manage to fuck up the best thing either of us has ever had! What in the hell has got inta you that you'd think you're not good enough for me, or that I'm somehow so far above you?" He sat back and shook his head slowly, raising his hands in a gesture of complete and helpless confusion. "Help me out here, pard," he said hoarsely, staring desperately at his lover. "I don't understand -any- of this!"

Vin's anger faded, but his defensiveness remained, and he crossed his arms tightly against his chest. He did not sit down next to Chris, knew how just being near the man could cloud his thoughts, and so began to pace, careful to keep a safe distance between them.

"I ain't sure you know," he began at last in a tightly controlled voice, "what happens when you walk into a room. I mean, ya don't ever jist... slip in. When you come in," he frowned slightly and waved a hand, "ever'thing changes. The air changes. It's like... some kinda current shoots through it, 'n all at once ever'body knows -somebody's- come amongst 'em. 'N all eyes go ta you." He turned and looked at Larabee, who was staring at him as if he'd lost his mind, and gave a weak smile. "Don't look at me like that, Chris, I ain't crazy. I seen it happen too many times. I seen you walk in 'n take control without ever sayin' a word. Ya jist... got power inside ya, 'n ya don't even know it."

Chris wanted to interrupt, to tell Vin he was still drunk or delusional, but forced himself to stay quiet. He had asked for an explanation, and he knew he'd have to be patient and let Vin give it in his own time, in his own way. And this wasn't something the quiet Texan could handle with one of his usual two- or three-word answers. Chris could see this had been building inside Tanner for some time, had been ignored too long. But now the dam had been breached, and there was no holding back the flood.

Vin swallowed hard and ran a hand through his dishevelled hair, resuming his restless pacing. He shoved his hands into his pockets and hunched his shoulders, blue eyes going everywhere, except to Chris. "When I saw ya in that room, with all them people, it all jist hit me. You looked so... right, like ya b'longed there. All them others, all them rich, influential others, thought they was the most important, the most powerful, ones there, thought they was the reason fer that shindig. But they was wrong. They weren't but sheep, 'n all anybody had ta do was look at you ta see the lion amongst 'em. Travis knew that, 'n that's why you was there. You weren't there ta meet them, they was there ta meet you. Travis was lettin' all them folks know who they'd be dealin' with in the future."

Chris sighed tiredly and ran a hand over his face. "Look, Vin--"

"Please," he breathed, turning to face his lover, blue eyes wide and dark in his pale face, "lemme talk. I know I ain't makin' no sense, but... You asked, 'n I gotta try ta explain the best I can." He bowed his head and rubbed at his eyes, then ran his hand again through his hair. "It's jist... hard gittin' my thoughts in order..."

Chris watched him through anxious eyes, aching for him, but, as yet powerless to help. Vin looked utterly exhausted, wrung out in body and soul. This was a burden he had clearly been laboring under for some time.

"You looked so right there tonight," Vin went one softly, hating the sound of his own voice. Between his weariness and all the tequila he'd drunk, his drawl thicker, more pronounced, than ever, and what few language skills he possessed were gone. To his own ears, he sounded like some fresh-off-the-farm yokel, reinforcing every doubt he had about himself. "Looked like ya b'longed. All of a sudden, I realized how far you kin go, how far Travis is set on you goin', 'n I... I knew..." He swallowed hard, his throat and chest painfully tight, and bowed his head. "'N I knew... there's jist some places... I don't b'long. Never have, never will." His voice was harsh, and splintered with pain. "There's places you kin go that I cain't follow. 'N I don't... I don't wanta be... what holds ya back."

Chris stood up and crossed the room to him, taking him once more into his arms and holding him close, wrapping his strength and his love about the younger man. Vin tensed at first, then, with a soft groan, relaxed into that embrace and closed his arms about Chris, holding tightly to him.

"I love you so much!" he whispered shakily, resting his head on Chris' shoulder and nestling his face into the warm junction of that shoulder and neck. "'N I jist don't know what I'd do if I lost ya!"

Chris tightened his arms about Vin at those words and clutched the slender, beloved body fiercely to him. "You're not gonna lose me," he said in a low, firm voice. "I love you, Vin, and that's never gonna change. There is nothin' and nobody in this world more important to me than you. You believe that, don't you?"

"I'm tryin'," Vin whispered. "Lord God, I'm tryin'!"

"But?" Chris prompted gently.

Vin sighed heavily and pulled reluctantly out of those strong arms, already missing the feel of that lean, hard body against him. But he did not break contact entirely, taking Chris's hand and holding tightly to it.

"But," he began softly, his head bowed, his gaze fixed upon their joined hands, "I jist cain't help but wonder why. I mean," he raised his head then and stared imploringly at Chris, fear and confusion flashing in his eyes, "look at me! Hell, -listen- ta me! I ain't but a stupid, half-literate Texas hick who'll never amount ta nothin'--"

Chris's free hand snaked up and clamped hard over Vin's mouth. "Shut up," he said coldly, fierce green eyes boring into startled blue. "Do not -ever- call yourself 'stupid' in my hearing again, you got that? I won't have it. You're -not- stupid. If you were stupid, you wouldn't be where you are right now. Wouldn't be on my team. Wouldn't be in my house. And you for damn sure wouldn't be in my bed. You should know by now that I don't tolerate stupid, and I sure as shit wouldn't fall in love with it. You hear me?"

Vin blinked and gave a single nod.

"Good," Chris said in a clipped voice, never removing his hand. "As for the 'half-literate' crap, that's bullshit and you know it." His eyes bored ruthlessly into Vin's. "You have dyslexia. And, yeah, reading and writing are a real bitch for you. I wish I could change that -- God, how I wish I could! -- but I can't. We can work with it, but we can't change it. It's just somethin' we have ta deal with. And I want you ta notice, Tanner," he growled, stepping closer, still holding his hand to Vin's mouth, "that I said 'we' there. I said it, and I mean it. From now on, that's how it's gonna be. -We- are in this shit -together-. Your dyslexia, my black moods, the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it. You got that?"

Vin nodded again.

"All right." Chris finally lowered his hand, but never took his gaze from the man only inches from him. "I want you ta listen ta me," he said firmly. "You can't measure yourself against anybody else, and -certainly- not against the people in that room tonight. But -not- because they're so far above you. Hell," contempt flared in his voice and eyes, "most of 'em aren't fit ta shine your boots! They got power and money, yeah, and, sure, I guess they're what you'd call 'important.' But for all that they still ain't got half the sense you do, or one-third the soul. They define a man's worth by what he owns, how much he's got and who he knows. And, believe me, Vin, if they added up the total sum of -all- their money, toys, prestige and influence, it -still- wouldn't equal a fraction of what you're worth." His hand lifted again to Tanner's mouth, but this time his thumb slowly traced the outline of those firm, shapely lips, and warmth flared in his green eyes. "Not just as an agent, but as a man, as a friend, and as a lover. You're worth -everything- to me, and I need you ta believe that!"

"I'm tryin'," Vin said again.

Chris frowned slightly. "Then tell me what makes it so hard for you," he pleaded. "Tell me why it's easier for you ta believe in me than to believe in yourself."

Vin gazed into his lover's eyes for long, painful moments, then bowed his head and turned away. "Reckon I jist ain't ever had much practice," he murmured softly. "Reckon I been told so many times that I ain't but trash that somethin' in me figgers it's gotta be true."

Chris reached out and laid gentle hands on his lover's bowed shoulders, but did not turn Vin toward him. "By other men, you mean?" he asked in a low voice, fighting to hold his sudden anger under control. "By the sonsabitches who used and hurt you in the past?"

Vin nodded his head miserably. "Said... said it was all... trash like me could expect. Said I didn't deserve no better... 'N Lord knows it's all I ever had." He turned to face Chris. "'Til you came along." He reached up and laid a trembling hand against Larabee's chiseled jaw, his blue eyes searching green. "'S why I git so scared, Chris," he whispered. "You're so much better'n anybody I ever known, anybody I ever had, anybody I ever dreamed of havin'. Hell, I never even knew men like you existed! 'N sometimes, when we're together, I still hear them others laughin' at me, tellin' me how worthless I am... 'N I cain't help but wonder... what if they're right? What if one day you do wake up 'n see I ain't what ya want, what ya need..." His voice broke and he leaned forward, pressing his forehead to Chris's chest. "I jist don't think I could take that."

Again, Chris wrapped his arms about Vin and cradled the lean body close against his own, resting a cheek against Vin's head. "I want you ta listen to me," he said in a low, gentle voice. "Will ya do that for me?" When Vin nodded, Chris kissed his head and continued softly, "Do you know that I spent the whole first year Sarah and I were married tryin' to prove to her father that I was good enough for her?"

Vin pulled away, startled, and stared at Chris, frowning in disbelief. Chris smiled slightly and nodded. "It's true. Hank was convinced I just wasn't good enough for his little girl. He fought our marriage tooth and claw, didn't even come to the wedding. And I spent a whole year -- wasted a whole year -- trying to figure out what was lackin' in me and make it up. But ya know what?"

When Vin gave a little shake of his head, Chris reached out and cupped a hand to the back of his neck, pulling him forward until their foreheads met. "It wasn't me that was lackin', pard. It was Hank. He was so wrapped up in his own anger, his own resentment, his own fear of losin' his daughter that he missed out on one of the most important days of her life. Missed out on a lot of things. But I didn't. I didn't miss a thing. Because I had everything I wanted, everything I needed, with her. Just like I have now with you."

Chris pulled Vin's head to his shoulder and tenderly stroked his long hair. "All those men who said those hurtful, hateful things to you," he said softly, "were wrong. You weren't the trash, Vin, -they- were. All they were doin' was tryin' ta pull down someone finer than they could ever hope to be, tryin' ta pull you down into the dirt with them, tryin' ta ruin you like they'd ruined themselves. But it didn't work." He twined strong arms about the young man and held him close, burying his face in the wealth of Vin's hair. "I'm here ta tell ya, pard," he breathed, "it didn't work. You're the finest man I've ever known, and I thank God daily that you're mine."

Vin heard the break in Chris' soft voice and pulled away, and was stunned to see tears shimmering in the green eyes. "You mean that," he whispered in awe, "don'tcha?" He raised a shaking hand and laid it against Chris's cheek, his eyes searching the strong face and seeing the truth written plainly on it. Chris's love for him was so deep, so true, that he could feel it pouring from the man and into him, finding and filling every crack in his soul, healing every hurt ever done him in a lifetime filled with hurts, giving him new strength. Making him whole.

Chris saw the realization, the understanding, flooding the blue eyes and smiled. "I never say things I don't mean, cowboy," he rasped. "You oughtta know that by now."

"Reckon I oughtta," Vin murmured. "Reckon I been awful stu--"

Before he could say the word, Chris's hand again clamped firmly over his mouth, and green eyes bored into him with a laser-like intensity. "I told you, I don't ever wanta hear that word from you about you again. You got that?" Vin blinked and nodded meekly. "You gonna mend your ways?"

Vin started to nod, then a spark of mischief flared in him. He slipped his tongue between his lips and ran it lightly against the fingers over his mouth.

Chris gasped as that tongue slid slowly against his hand, as the blue eyes darkened with love and longing. Immediately, he felt the familiar warmth shoot through him, like a spear aimed at his groin, and pulled together a scowl for the beautiful young man before him. "Jesus God," he rasped as his whole body began to burn, "you're a handful, Tanner."

Vin reached up and took Chris's hand from his mouth, holding it as he gazed soberly up at the man before him. "'S what I'm hopin'," he drawled softly. And before Larabee could say a word, Vin took his forefinger into his mouth and sucked slowly at it.

Chris shuddered and groaned as fire pooled in his belly and ignited in his cock. One by one, Vin sucked at his fingers, then traced swirls with his tongue against his palm, until Chris was a trembling, gasping wreck.

"God, you're vile!" he panted as Vin sucked at the prominent bone on the outside of his wrist.

"Mm, but ya love me fer it," Vin purred. He lifted shimmering deep blue eyes to Chris and smiled teasingly. "Mebbe you c'd rehabilitate me?"

With a hoarse growl, Chris reached out and grabbed him, yanking him into his arms and crushing the slim body against his own, then bowing his head and burying his mouth in Vin's. Strong arms snaked about him, a hard thigh thrust between his, and he lost himself in the feel, scent and taste of Vin, plundering the warm, wet mouth ravenously, his strong hands feverishly, desperately exploring every part of the man he could reach.

Vin moaned breathlessly and reeled against Chris as the man's love and lust were unleashed against him in full force, as he was imprisoned against Larabee's body, claimed by that hard, demanding mouth and ravaged by those fierce hands. Every inch of him ached, burned, needed, and he clung to Chris for dear life. Then that mouth was taken from him, and he cried out in abandonment.

"Ssh," Chris whispered, cupping Vin's face in his hand and sliding a thumb over those swollen lips. "Gonna take care of ya, I promise. But not here. Come into the bedroom with me?"

Vin nodded dumbly. He would've gone with Chris to hell; the man had only to ask.

Chris gave a low chuckle and took Vin's hand, seeing the haze of desire in the blue eyes gone almost black and knowing his lover was past all argument now. It was high time Tanner learned what it meant to be well and truly loved.

He pulled the unresisting man after him, chuckling as Vin stumbled occasionally, wondering whether it was tequila or need that made him so clumsy. But he only clung tighter to Vin's hand, determined not to let him fall.

He'd never let Vin fall again.

He drew Vin into the bedroom and turned on the lamp by the bed, then turned to face his lover. Vin's eyes were wide and dark, his fine-boned face flushed with hunger and wreathed in the tangled wealth of his long brown hair. In that moment, he was so beautiful, a creature so wild and so free, that Chris's heart faltered at the wonder of it.

"Jesus, Vin, I love you!" he rasped helplessly, again clutching the young man to him.

Vin's heart raced and his spirit soared as Chris's mouth descended furiously upon his, as the man again claimed him for his own.

No. He rejected the notion as soon as it came. Other men had tried to claim him, to chain him, to break him, but Chris never would. Chris's love set him free, gave him wings and let him fly. And thus made sure he'd always fly home to Chris.

"Show me!" he pleaded against Larabee's fierce and frantic mouth. "Show me how much ya love me!"

It was the only invitation Chris required. With a hoarse, hungry growl, he set about stripping his lover, peeling sweatshirt, flannel shirt and the thermal shirt beneath that away until he'd found the bare skin beneath. Then he grabbed Vin and pushed him down against the bed, kneeling before him and making quick work of removing his boots.

"Thought I told ya don't shove me no more," Vin protested weakly as long fingers kneaded his bare feet.

"Shut up," Chris growled, bowing his head and showering a series of light kisses against one tender instep.

"'Kay," Vin gasped, shuddering and knotting his hands into the comforter as Chris's mouth made love to his feet.

Goddamn mouth oughtta be registered as a deadly weapon...

Chris licked and kissed the tops of Vin's feet and sucked at his ankles, drawing gasps and groans from the man writhing on the bed. Pushing up one leg of Vin's jeans, he swept his mouth up over the hard lines of Tanner's shin, frowning as his tongue encountered an indentation in the bone.

"What happened here?" he asked softly, lifting his head and rubbing a thumb lightly over the notch.

Vin swallowed and tried to think past his raging need. "B... broke it... chasin' a bounty. Bastard hit me with a pipe."

Chris sighed and shook his head. "Never do anything the easy way, do ya, Tanner?"

"Reckon not," Vin rasped. "Took up with you, didn't I?"

Chris's eyes narrowed and glittered hotly. "Smart-ass. Gonna have ta pay for that."

Vin sat up and smirked down at his lover. "Promise?"

Chris glared harder. "Glutton for pain, ain'tcha?"

Vin slowly licked his lips, watching in delight as the green eyes widened. "Took up with y--"

The rest was smothered as Chris struck, launching himself at his lover and covering the slim body with his own, silencing that insolent mouth with a hard, deep kiss. While his mouth ravaged Vin's, his hands kneaded the man's strong, sinewy shoulders and, when Vin's arms closed about him, slid around to his back and dug into the muscles there.

"God, you're beautiful!" he whispered against Vin's mouth.

"'N yer wearin' too goddamn many clothes!" Vin snarled. "Cain't git to ya..." He tried to find Chris beneath the layers of finery, clawing frantically and growling in frustration. "Goddamn it, I hate these things!"

Chris gave a low, throaty laugh as Vin fumbled clumsily with the tux. "Easy, pard," he soothed, gathering the younger man's hands in his and lightly kissing his mouth. "Lemme help." And he slid off Vin and rose to his feet.

But Tanner was up in a single motion. "No!" he growled, swatting Chris's hands aside. "I wanta do it. Bin wantin' ta git ya outta this monkey-suit all night." He grabbed the lapels of the fine jacket and pushed the garment back, sliding it down Larabee's long arms. "Sure looks purty on ya, though," he murmured, cradling the jacket lovingly to his chest and gazing shyly up at Chris. "You was the purtiest one in that room," he whispered, his voice made husky by the memory. "Finest sight I ever seen. All sleek 'n shiny..." One hand strayed to Chris's powerful chest, resting over the throbbing heart. "A lion amongst the sheep."

Chris couldn't speak, was struck to his soul by the love and wonder he saw shining in those brilliant blue eyes, by the rapt adoration in that soft, gravelly voice. Unable to do anything more, he bowed his head and pressed his lips to Vin's in a tender, loving kiss.

God, how could this man see the beauty in everything else, yet miss it in himself?

At that gentle touch of Chris's mouth against his, Vin let the jacket drop to the floor and twined his arms about his lover's neck. "Love ya, Larabee," he whispered, the simple words made infinitely profound by the feeling behind them.

"Love you, too, Tanner," Chris breathed. "More than you'll ever know."

Vin laughed softly, his breath fanning warmly over Chris's mouth, and his hands slid to the man's broad shoulders. "Let's git these clothes off ya, 'n mebbe you kin show me."

Chris submitted easily to his lover's will and let Vin undress him. And though he was fully capable of, and had a habit of, simply tearing the clothes from Chris, this time Vin restrained himself, forced a slowness and care upon himself that heightened the delicious eroticism of his every move.

Slowly, slowly, he opened the vest and pushed it back, over Chris's shoulders and down his arms, his hands never leaving his lover's body. When at last the vest was off, he raised it to his nose and closed his eyes, inhaling deeply the mingled scents of cologne, tobacco and sheer heady musk that was Chris Larabee alone. When he had breathed his lover into himself, he kissed the vest lightly and let it drop, turning his attention to the black silk tie that hung undone about Chris's neck.

Chris felt wave after searing wave of desire crash through him as Vin turned his undressing into a sacred ritual of love and worship. Each touch of those long, strong, slender fingers against him drove shards of white heat into him, sent bolts of electricity jolting through him, brought his hard cock into a twitching, throbbing frenzy. He could feel Vin's heat as if it were his own, and wanted nothing more than to feel that heat joining with his into one raging river of fire.

Sweet Jesus, what this man did to him!

Vin grasped both ends of the tie and tugged, pulling Chris to him. As his mouth captured Larabee's and moved slowly against it, he released one end of the tie and pulled it free, dropping it to join vest and jacket. The next piece to go was the black silk cummerbund, and he slid his hands through Chris's arms, raking his fingernails slowly down the lean, hard back, drawing a thick groan and a shudder.

"Like that, do ya?" he whispered, nuzzling lightly at one corner of Larabee's mouth. When he moaned and nodded, Vin raised his hands to the base of Chris's neck and raked his nails down again, digging into the hard muscles beneath the shirt.

"Oh, Jesus!" Chris groaned, dropping his head onto Vin's shoulder.

Tanner laughed lightly. "Nope, jist me." He pressed himself closer still against Chris and slipped his fingers to the cummerbund, unfastening it and pulling it free. "So many clothes," he whispered, dropping it onto the pile.

"You're one ta talk," Chris rasped, managing to raise his head. His face was darkly flushed, and his green eyes shimmered with heat. He raised a shaking hand to Vin's face and lightly stroked the incredibly square jaw. "But the package is always worth the unwrappin'."

The depth of love in that touch, that voice, those eyes, brought a hot blush to Vin's face and sudden tears to his eyes, and he bowed his head into that gently cupping hand. No one had ever touched him like Chris did, as if he were a treasure deserving careful handling, a delight worth caressing, a prize to be protected and never harmed. Even now it amazed him how much he needed that touch, how deeply healing the feel of that strong hand on him could be, when in the past strong hands had only meant pain.

Sensing the shift in Vin's emotions, Chris gently drew the young man to him and folded him in a close embrace. "Let me love you, Vin," he breathed. "Will you let me show you what you mean to me?"

Vin nodded, but held more tightly still to Chris, needing this simple moment of closeness between them. He cherished Larabee's gentleness, his warmth, took deep comfort from the heart that beat so firmly against him. Chris was here, he was real, he had come for him and brought him home, and, just now, Vin needed the security, the solidness, of this man more than he needed his passion.

"I didn't think... you'd come after me," he whispered, closing his eyes tightly against the sting of tears and clutching at Chris. "I told Inez... you wouldn't come... She said ya would."

Chris cradled Vin to him and rocked him slowly, tenderly stroking his hair and back. "I will -always- come after you, cowboy," he said, the soft words a solemn vow. "There's nowhere you can run that I won't follow, no place you can hide that I won't find you. I will always come after you, Vin, and I will always bring you home."

"Don't have ta bring me home," Vin breathed, feeling his insecurities melt away as always beneath Chris's touch. "Jist hold me, 'n I'm already there."

Chris, too, felt his lover's fears vanish, and pushed him gently away. His hands, though, lovingly cradled Vin's head, and he gazed intently into trusting blue eyes. "No more runnin' away?" he asked.

Vin smiled shyly. "No more. Ain't no point in runnin' when ya'd only find me." He reached up and twirled his fingers lightly in Larabee's dark golden hair. "'N ya did find me, Chris. I's lost a long time, but ya found me, 'n I ain't ever gonna be lost again." He slid his fingers down Chris's face. "I finally figgered that out."

Chris smiled warmly. "Told ya you were smart, Tanner. Now," he glanced down at his black pants, at Vin's jeans, then back up at Vin and winked, "seems like we still got a bit of undressin' ta do."

Vin laughed lightly and kissed Chris quickly. "Shouldn't be too hard fer a couple'a rocket scientists like us."

And it wasn't. With easy, practiced movements, they had each other stripped in moments, and Chris bore Vin gently back onto the bed. With hands and mouth, he worshipped reverently at the young man's body, choosing a slow, adoring tenderness over the ferocity of which he was so capable. He knew Vin needed to be loved tonight, truly loved, and not overpowered, knew the young man had to be shown his true worth in the way he was treated. Too many ghosts from Vin's ugly, hurtful past had raised their heads, casting their long, black shadows over his soul, and Chris knew only the fullest, deepest expression of his love could finally lay them to rest.

He kissed and caressed Vin, let his mouth and hands say what mere words never could, adored Vin with every part of his body. He swept slow, searing kisses over the fine lines of bones, stroked the smooth, fair skin, sucked gently at dark nipples and brushed feather-light fingers over Vin's thick, weeping cock. He rubbed Vin's shoulders and back, cupped and kneaded the firm cheeks of his beautiful ass, massaged his thighs and tenderly kissed that old break in his shin. From head to toe and back up again, he worshipped every inch of the man, and kissed away the tears that seeped from between closed lids.

Slowly, slowly, he intensified his attentions, feeding, feasting, tearing gasps and groans from the young man and bringing him to burning, urgent arousal. Vin clutched at the bedcovers and arched his back, writhing beneath Chris, against him, in a mounting frenzy, mind and body on fire, his tortured cock aching hideously in deep and desperate need.

"Easy, cowboy," Chris rasped as Vin uttered an anguished cry. "I'm gonna take care of ya now." His own body was trembling and bathed in sweat, shot through with the fire that Vin alone could ignite in him. The movements of his lover's beautiful body against his sent tongues of agony snaking through his cock, and it was all he could to restrain his urgent need to bury and release himself in Vin.

But, with a will of iron, he managed, rising onto his knees and leaning over Vin to retrieve the lube from the nightstand drawer. Vin was whimpering and moaning piteously, and Chris's hard cocked twitched and leaked at the sounds.

God, Tanner made it hard for a man to think!

Too desperate to think, Vin began rubbing his thigh against Chris's, that friction only heightening his pain. He arched his hips and reached for his cock, closing his fingers about his needy flesh and groaning thickly at the contact.

"No, ya don't," Chris said gently, unwrapping the hand and kissing it. "No more goin' it alone. We're a team, remember?"

"Hurry!" Vin gasped, pulling Chris's hand to his cock. "Oh, God, I need ya!"

With an effort, Chris pulled his hand away and hurriedly opened the lube. Breathing harshly, heavily, his heart pounding like the hooves of a runaway horse, he squeezed a generous amount into his palm and quickly tossed aside the tube.

"Ssh, easy, easy," he breathed, once more lowering himself over Vin and capturing Tanner's mouth with his own. "Gonna make it all better now."


"Ssh." He kissed Vin again, then rose to his knees, staring down at his lover in wonder. "God, Tanner, you're beautiful!" he whispered. "And I'm gonna love ya 'til I die."

"'N I'm gonna die if ya don't love me now!" Vin moaned, again reaching for his aching cock.

Chris pushed his hand away, then coated his own hands with the thick, fragrant gel. As Vin arched his hips again, desperately seeking -something- against which to thrust, Chris slipped a coated finger into the tight opening behind his heavy balls.

"JESUS!" Vin yelped, bucking violently as that finger moved inside him. "Chrisss..."

"Easy, cowboy, easy," Chris murmured, working the muscle ring carefully as he coated his own thick, weeping cock.

A second finger entered, and both Vin and Chris hissed at the sensation, the two men rushing nearer the edge together. A third finger entered, hit Vin's gland, and the young man screamed aloud. Chris removed his fingers, pulled Vin's legs up over him, and positioned his flesh at the opening, pushing himself inside.

Vin screamed again and bucked wildly, but Chris's hands clamped quickly down upon him, holding him in place. The familiar burning pain came, but quickly died, and he begged Chris to move.

Chris did, slowly at first, with careful strokes, easing in and pulling back, forcing caution upon himself. But Vin's pleas and increasingly desperate movements against him urged him on, until soon they were coming together in the fierce and frantic rhythm that was theirs alone. As he thrust through Vin with long, hard strokes, he wound a hand about his lover's cock and pumped him in a matching rhythm.

Voices mingled in harsh, wordless cries as they loved, as the two joined together in frenzied union. Heat swirled about them and lightning flashed, and all the world dropped away until only they were left. Higher, higher they took each other, harder and harder they rode each other, neither man knowing just where he stopped and the other began. It was always the same with them, this exquisite losing and finding of self in the body and soul in the other.

And when they came, it was with that same explosive, convulsive force, each crying out to the other as he emptied himself and took in his partner. Vin arched against Chris, and Chris strained into Vin, and, in pouring out himself, each was immediately filled by the other.

At last, sweating and shaking, Chris collapsed onto the bed at Vin's side and gathered his lover to him. In silence they clung to each other, breathing ragged, hearts racing, the two still joined by the union that physical separation could not break. Cradled in each other's arms, they gradually calmed, soothed by the love that flowed like a living current between them.

Chris ran gentle fingers through the sweat-damp mop of Vin's hair, treasuring the feel of this young man against him. He gazed down at the peaceful face nestled against his chest, and smiled as sleepy blue eyes shone up at him. "I love you," he murmured, tightening his arms about Tanner. "And I need you ta believe that."

Vin raised himself out of Chris's arms and leaned over him, smiling contentedly. "I do, cowboy," he breathed, bending forward to capture Chris's mouth with his. "With all my heart, I believe."


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