by SueN.


Chris stiffened and narrowed his eyes as a faint ripple of uncertainty ran through him. He tried to read Vin's tone, tried to decide whether this would be something he wanted to hear or not. The tracker was not a great one for opening up and pouring forth all the details of his life, but every now and then he'd let small bits slip out, and some of them tore like knives through Larabee's soul. And, right now, with the sunset painting the sky so beautifully, a light, sweet breeze blowing and Vin's head resting so easily on his thigh, Chris just wasn't sure he wanted any of the devils from Tanner's past rearing their heads and shattering the rare peace of this moment.

But it was clear that Vin, who rarely even wanted to talk, now needed to. And Chris, loving him as he did, could do nothing but listen.

"Told me he raised ya after your ma died," he said at last, still stroking Vin's hair, "and that he died when you were about nine or ten. But that's all."

If he expected that to unleash some torrent of words, he was disappointed. Vin merely nodded slightly, eyes still on the glowing horizon, and remained silent for long, long moments. And Chris, who knew Tanner better than he'd ever known anyone in his life, could almost feel the man gathering the words to himself, picking through them and making his peace with them before he let even one pass his lips.

Vin was nothing if not a long thinker. He could sit in a silence so deep that anyone next to him would swear he was asleep or dead. But a look in those blue eyes, eyes that gave away every feeling that passed through him and that flickered with every thought, would reveal a mind that worked far faster than his mouth ever would.

And that mind was working now, Chris could feel it. So he settled himself to wait, knowing Tanner could take all damn night to put together two sentences. He grinned slightly. Well, hell, no one had ever said he was a great conversationalist, either.

"He was my pa's pa," Vin finally said, his voice still soft, and as faraway as his gaze. "Never knew my pa." He frowned slightly. "I ever tell you that?"

Chris chuckled quietly. "No, you haven't. Face it, Vin, you ain't told me more about yourself than you have."

"Oh." He shifted slightly, and lifted his gaze to Chris's face, still frowning. "That bother ya?"

Chris looked down at the young man, saw the uncertainty in that beautiful face, the lost little boy in those deep blue eyes, and reached down to brush callused fingers lightly against Tanner's whiskered cheek. "No," he answered honestly. "Fact is, Vin, you could go the rest of your life without ever tellin' me a single thing about yourself, and it'd be all right. Because I already know all I need to know. I already know you."

Vin relaxed and smiled slightly, gratefully, at that, once more resting his head against that hard-muscled thigh, but still staring up into the strong, finely-sculpted face of his lover. The green eyes that held his showed none of the coldness, the hardness, the menace of which Chris Larabee was capable, but were soft and deep, shimmering with warmth and light and feeling, revealing to Vin every facet of the man beneath the fearsome reputation. Those eyes drew his own soul into them, offered him a place to rest, to hide, to heal.

Those green eyes brought him home.

"I ain't no bastard, though," he said, again breaking the silence suddenly, but softly. "Jus' wanted you ta know that."

Chris nodded. "All right. But it wouldn't matter to me if ya were. I just want you ta know that."

Vin smiled slightly. "Obliged to ya fer it. I know it matters an awful lot ta some folks, though I ain't ever understood why." He frowned and shook his head. "Cain't see blamin' nobody fer what ain't no fault'a their'n. 'Course," he sighed and shrugged, "I ain't real good at understandin' why folks do most'a what they do, anyway. I c'n purt' nigh tell ya what a feller's gonna do, but I'll be damned if'n I c'n tell ya why he's gonna do it." He shook his head again, his frown deepening. "Folks c'n be awful damn complicated, 'n awful damn peculiar."

Chris had to laugh at Vin Tanner calling others "peculiar." What was that saying about pots and kettles?

"Anyways," Vin went on, clearly determined to share this part of his life with Chris, "I never knew him. He died when I'se just a baby."

"How?" Chris asked when Vin paused. That he asked the question startled him; he had never been a man to pry into others' lives. But Vin seemed in the rare mood to talk, and Chris suddenly wanted to know as much about the man as he could.

Vin narrowed his eyes and licked his lips, thinking. "We lived in a little settlement in the Hill Country, down on the Pedernales River. It was pretty rough. 'Tween Indians, bandits up from Mexico 'n our own home-growed bandits, there's always somebody causin' mischief. Wasn't much law around there, so the menfolks pretty much banded together ta watch over things themselves." He shrugged. "Bandits was takin' stock from all the farms near'bouts, 'n the menfolk, my pa with 'em, took off after 'em. Found 'em, 'n there's a fight. My pa was killed." He nodded. "But they got the stock back, 'n hung what bandits they hadn't killed in the fight. So's I reckon he died doin' good. Ain't that so?"

Chris smiled and nodded. "Yeah, Vin, it is." Now he knew where Tanner got his tendency to put himself out for others...

"Anyways," Vin licked his lips again and continued, "we lived on my grandpa's farm. So when Pa was killed, it was jus' me, Ma 'n Grandpa. Grandma'd died a few years b'fore when cholera swept th' settlement, 'n Ma didn't have no family. So--"

"What were their names?" Chris interrupted. "Your Pa and Ma, I mean."

Vin smiled slightly, deeply gratified -- and strangely proud -- that Chris would be so interested in his past. He knew Larabee only took an interest in those things, and those people, who were important to him, and it warmed Vin to know he mattered enough to the man for him to ask questions. To want to know more.

"They's Jesse and Grace," he said. His smile grew wistful. "Wish't I'd known him," he murmured sadly. "I 'member Ma talkin' about him, tellin' me couldn't nobody have a better or handsomer pa... She said I look some like him... 'Cept I got her eyes, I know that... That harmonica I got? It was his. Ma give it ta me, said he used ta play on it 'til I went ta sleep at night. Said she knew he'd want me ta have it... Wish't I'da had 'em longer," he whispered, his gaze going once more to the fire-streaked sky. "I don't 'member him at all, 'n don't 'member much about her... I'se only five when she died." He sighed softly, his blue eyes wide and dark. "'N when she died, it was jus' me 'n Grandpa. We were all each other had in the world."

Chris had to look away as the pain and the longing -- and the love -- in that soft, raspy voice brought a hard lump to his throat. All at once he knew what had sent Vin running from Mrs. Potter's store this afternoon.

Caleb Walker and his grandson. A mirror image of Vin Tanner and his grandpa. And another reminder of one more thing Tanner had lost in a life filled with loss.

Jesus, why wasn't Vin crazy by now?

But Vin was smiling softly, his blue eyes filled with light. "He's the one taught me how ta shoot," he breathed. "Hell, he taught me nearly ever'thing I know! Taught me how ta hunt, how ta fish... He's the one give me my first lessons in trackin'. That man could find a game trail that was damn near invisible! 'N he never needed more'n one shot ta bring down whatever it was he hunted. Said if'n ya needed more, it was wasteful'a bullets 'n cruel to th' animal. 'N he said jus' 'cause we eat 'em fer food 'n use 'em for clothin' 'n goods, don't mean we gotta be cruel. He said we gotta be thankful fer what we take, 'n respectful when we take it. 'N I always remembered that." He nodded, pride showing in his blue eyes. "Even when I'se huntin' buffalo, I remembered. Got ta where I c'd take a buff down with one shot, ever' time. 'N ever' kill a clean, quick one. 'Cause I knew Grandpa'd be mighty pissed if'n I did it any other way."

Chris smiled slightly and returned to combing gentle fingers through the long, shaggy curls. "Sounds like a fine man," he mused.

Vin nodded. "Yeah, he was. Folks where we lived said there wasn't no finer, more decent man than Joshua Tanner." His gaze again drifted to the horizon, even as his mind drifted back through time. "I always thought he was the strongest, bravest, smartest man I ever knew," he said softly. "There didn't seem ta be nothin' he couldn't do, 'n nothin' he couldn't help me do. 'Cept read, I reckon. Somehow he never learnt that, so..." He let his words trail off, suddenly uncomfortable with where they might lead.

But Chris understood. Though Vin had never admitted it, Larabee had long suspected -- hell, was convinced -- he couldn't read. In all the time they'd been together, he'd never seen Vin pick up a newspaper, open a book, look at a telegram. When the former bounty hunter studied a wanted poster, it was the face he memorized, not the name. And on the few occasions when he'd consented to eat in a restaurant, Chris had noticed him glancing surreptitiously about, seeing what other patrons had and making his choice from that, without ever once consulting a menu.

Still, Chris was not about to say anything about it now. Vin Tanner was a proud man, and until he felt comfortable admitting his illiteracy, Chris would never take the risk of offending or hurting him by raising the subject.

"But I reckon he taught me things more important than readin'," Vin continued, smiling slightly as he remembered the man who'd once been his whole world. "He told me a man's only got two things in this world he can call his own -- his good word, 'n his good name. Said all the money in the bank ain't worth nothin' if'n y'ain't got them, 'n won't no amount'a money buy 'em." Pain flashed in his eyes and traveled over his face, tearing a hard, heavy breath from him. "I cain't help but wonder what he'd think'a this bounty on my head, what he'd say if'n he knew what I done to the Tanner name."

"Hey," Chris called firmly, leaning forward and reaching out to turn Vin's face toward his. "You didn't do anything to the Tanner name, you hear me? That bastard Eli Joe set you up. You're innocent--"

"Still got folks huntin' me," Vin said sadly. "Got a whole town wantin' ta hang me... Tanner name's ruint in Texas, 'cause'a me."

"And one day," Chris assured him earnestly, taking Vin's face between his hands, "we'll go back to Texas and clear it. The two of us, together. I promise you." He smiled gently. "We'll do it for your grandpa."

Vin nodded, then raised a hand to trace the outlines of Chris's face with slightly unsteady fingers. "You'da liked him," he whispered, knowing it with instinctive certainty. "Didn't have no fancy, flowery ways, didn't have no book learnin', but he was fair, 'n honest, 'n always good ta me." His gaze again took on that faraway look as his grandpa's image rose in his mind. "He was a strong man, taller'n you, hell, mebbe taller'n Buck. Had great big ol' hands that covered my whole head when he put one atop it, or that could swing a mean strap when he figgered I needed it." A shy grin broke slowly through. "I needed it some, too, I'll tell ya. I know you won't b'lieve this, but I'se a regular handful when I'se little."

Chris laughed aloud at that. "And just what in the hell makes you think I won't believe that, Tanner?" he teased. "Jesus, you're a regular handful now!"

Vin sat up and scowled at Chris, affronted. "Well, shit, Larabee, you ain't nobody's idea of a picnic yerself! You c'n piss off more people in five minutes than the rest of us all put together can in five days! Hell, I've seen chargin' buffaloes more sociable than you!"

Chris relaxed and grinned, glad to see that prickly temper rising. "I'm just complicated," he said.

"Complicated, my ass!" Vin spat. "Ya make my goddamn hair hurt! Sonuvabitchin' gunfighter 'n yer goddamn glare, stalkin' around town like ya got a fuckin' board up yer ass 'n scowlin' fit ta scare the dead--"

Chris abruptly silenced the tirade by leaning forward and planting a deep, slow kiss on the tracker's mouth. "You're awful purty when you're mad, Tanner," he teased against Vin's lips.

"Ain't... purty," Vin murmured weakly, closing his eyes and shivering as Chris's mouth moved against his, as the gunslinger's tongue swept lightly over his lips. "You... Aw, damn, that ain't fair!" he moaned as that mouth slid over his jawline, sending ripples of pleasure through him.

"Want me ta stop?" Chris whispered.

Vin opened his mouth and tried to say yes, but shivered again and groaned instead as teeth nibbled lightly at his ear.

Chris laughed softly, his breath fanning lightly over Vin's skin. "I'll take that as a 'no,'"

"Sonuvabitch!" Vin accused, trying not to feel the stirring of the heat Chris never failed to ignite in him, and failing utterly. "It'd serve ya right if'n I saddled Peso 'n rode outta here right now!"

Chris withdrew his mouth and sat back, staring archly down at Vin, who whimpered softly when that mouth left him. "Now who's makin' whose hair hurt, Tanner? Here I was, contemplatin' all the fun we could have out here, and you're gonna spoil it by makin' me shoot ya. Never known such an ornery, ungrateful cuss in my life."

"Sorry," Vin apologized at once, lifting and turning his head back to Larabee for more of that talented, teasing mouth. "I'll be good, Chris, I promise! Please?"

Chris had no doubt that Vin would be good. In fact, the very thought was making him hard as hell. "'Please' what?" he rasped harshly, clenching his jaws as his cock began straining painfully against his tight jeans.

Never really intending to, Vin laid his head back, right into Chris's crotch, and let it rest there, exposing still more of his throat to the gunfighter's gaze. But he was instantly aware of Larabee's hardness, felt an answering stab of heat sear through him, and groaned again, absently sliding a hand to his rising erection. Instinctively, he began to stroke himself, all the while remembering the feel of Chris's mouth moving against him.

"Please... I wanta be good!" he whispered in torment.

Fire erupted through Larabee at that, tearing a sharp gasp from him and sending a powerful shudder through him. Vin's head was moving against his swollen cock, the tracker's tongue was sliding slowly over his lips, and Chris could plainly see those long, nimble fingers playing at the hard bulge in the tan pants.

"Jesus, Tanner, what you do ta me!" he whispered hoarsely. "And, for God's sake, stop that!" he growled suddenly, reaching down to snatch Vin's hand from his crotch. Without warning, he slid from the chair to the porch, landing on his knees, and grabbed the startled tracker's coat, jerking him around and pulling him roughly to him, crushing his mouth to Vin's in a hard, possessive kiss. "Anybody touches you there, it's gonna be me!" he snarled against that mouth.

Vin locked his arms around Larabee's neck, holding tightly to him and thrusting himself close against him, seared to his soul by the heat and hardness of the gunslinger's body. Chris's mouth was moving ferociously against his, devouring it, punishing it, and the fury of it left him breathless and shaking. But he wanted it, needed it, craved it, and his lips parted eagerly under that assault, his tongue snaking forward to meet Chris's, to twine and dance with it, to sweep around and plunder the warm, wet cavern of Larabee's mouth. Low growls rose in his throat as the gunslinger aroused his passion to a fever pitch.

Chris thrust his hands beneath Vin's coat and raked them mercilessly down the slender, muscled back while his mouth savaged Tanner's. As he clutched the tracker ever more tightly to him, he could feel the man's erection thrusting against his own, and the heat of it sent hard tremors through him. With a harsh, wordless cry, he slid shaking hands around and slipped them between them their bodies, finding and fumbling with the buttons of the tracker's pants. Breathing hard and sweating from the heat of the passion exploding between them, he hurriedly unfastened the buttons, parted the pants and the underwear beneath, then reached in to free the beckoning bulge.

Vin cried out sharply and shuddered violently as Chris's hand closed about him, as those fingers sent rivers of molten fire shooting through his cock. Racked by the torment of his need, he bit down on Chris's lower lip, then tore his mouth loose and bowed his head, sinking his teeth into the gunfighter's throat.

"SHIT!" Chris yelped in mingled pain and pleasure as Tanner's mouth and hands wrought havoc with his senses. The tracker was tugging at the buttons of his black shirt, trying to unfasten them, then, with a growled curse of frustration, simply gripped the shirt in strong hands and ripped it open, sending buttons flying everywhere. Never hesitating, he gave the same treatment to Chris's longjohns, tearing them open and thrusting his hands inside, digging his fingers into his lover's smooth flesh and kneading the powerful muscles beneath.

Neither man now was capable of either gentleness or restraint. Instead, with all the ferocity of raging need, Chris pushed Vin roughly back against the porch, then bowed his head over the tracker's thick, twitching cock and took it whole into his mouth.

Vin bucked wildly and loosed a wordless howl as that hot mouth engulfed him, as Larabee's tongue swirled over the head and slid up and down its length, as the man sucked ravenously at him. Another cry tore from him as the gunslinger's fingers fondled his balls, then found and penetrated the tight, puckered opening behind them. Assaulted by the barrage of sensations, he thrust frantically into that greedy, all-consuming mouth, then drove his hands into Chris's hair and almost jerked off the porch as his release slammed through him.


Chris swallowed greedily as Vin's hot stream erupted into his mouth, devouring every bit of his lover's salty essence. As Vin writhed and bucked beneath wildly beneath him, he sucked at his cock and milked his balls for still more, wanting -- needing -- all of this man he could get. And when at last Tanner was empty, Larabee let his softening flesh slip from his mouth and slid his long, lean body along Vin's, gathering the shaking, gasping man into his arms and holding him close against him, even now stunned by the ferocity of the hunger Tanner inspired in him.

"Goddamn," he whispered, pulling Tanner closer still, "this is gonna be the death of us yet, cowboy!"

Vin could not speak, could not move, could not think, could do nothing but lay against Chris and clutch weakly at him, shaken to the depths of his soul by the intensity of their passion. But slowly, slowly, Chris's warmth seeped into him, the sound of the man's strong heartbeat filled him, and the sensations calmed him, soothed him, brought to him once again the wonderful feeling of belonging. Of being home.

"Reckon this is what Grandpa would'a wanted fer me," he murmured without thinking.

Chris raised his head at that and stared down at Vin in frank astonishment. "Then your Grandpa was certainly one hell of an understanding man!"

"No!" Vin said sharply, sitting up abruptly, his eyes wide. "I don't mean..." He waved a hand between himself and Chris. "I mean... Aw, hell!" he breathed in frustration, bowing his head as a hot blush rose in his face. "That ain't what I mean at all!"

Chris laughed quietly and sat up, reaching out to brush the hair from Vin's eyes. "Then what do you mean?"

Vin swallowed and frowned deeply. "I mean..." He slowly raised his head, meeting Chris's curious gaze and smiling slightly. "I guess mebbe I do mean this," he rasped softly, shyly. "Well, mebbe not what you just done, but... the way ya make me feel. What ya give me."

"And what's that?" Chris asked gently, his gaze traveling slowly over that beautiful face.

Vin reached out and touched fingers lightly to Chris's chest, above his heart. "This," he breathed. "A place ta come home to. 'N somebody always waitin' fer me ta git there." A soft light shone in his blue eyes. "I 'member once, I reckon I'se about nine, I'd gone out huntin'. Hadn't meant ta go far, but I reckon I jus' got lost in what I'se doin'."

"Imagine that," Chris said with a quiet chuckle, knowing exactly how intent the tracker could become on the job at hand.

Vin scowled at him, then went on, "Anyways, a storm blew up outta nowhere, like they do down there sometimes. It was a bad'un, too, and I'se scared as I c'd be. Didn't know what was worse -- the storm, 'r the fear'a what Grandpa was gonna do ta me when I got home. I wasn't s'posed ta be out so long, wasn't s'posed ta wander so far... 'N I didn't even have nothin' ta take back with me. That storm'd spooked all the game clean away."

He sighed and shook his head. "By the time I got back home it was dark, 'n I'se soaked to the skin, cold, hungry... 'N scared as hell. Shit, I'se cryin', I'se so scared. I just knew Grandpa was gonna lay inta me... But he didn't," he said softly, the wonder of it still with him after all these years. "He must'a been watchin' fer me, 'cause when I got ta th' yard, he threw open that door 'n come runnin' out to me. Not ta whup me, but ta take me up in his arms 'n carry me inside. Like I said, I'se soppin' wet, but he didn't care. He just took my clothes off, wrapped a big ol' quilt around me, then sat down in his rocker 'n just held me 'til I'd stopped cryin', 'til I wasn't cold nor scared no more. I told him I hadn't even kilt nothin', but he said that didn't matter. Said all that mattered was that I'se home, where I belonged, 'n that I'se safe."

He swallowed hard and shook his head, his eyes wide. "I ain't ever fergot that," he whispered, his voice shaking. "Even after all these years, I still 'member that feelin' of bein' held by him, bein' warm 'n dry, 'n knowin' I'se safe in his arms. Knowin' I'se home. But I lost that after he died, 'n thought I'd never have it agin. 'Til I met you. Then it all come back ta me. That's what I reckon he'd want fer me."

"Then he doesn't have ta worry," Chris rasped, reaching out to touch the tracker's cheek. "'Cause you've got that now. I'll wait through any storm for ya, Vin, and I'll be there ta hold ya and keep ya warm and take away your fear. And if ya don't come home to me, then I'll sure as hell come lookin' for ya. I swear it."

Vin gazed steadily at the man, his heart filled with feelings he couldn't begin to name. "I bin lost fer a long time," he whispered, "out in a storm I thought would never end. Been cold 'n almighty scared. But Grandpa was right -- none'a that matters now. All that matters is that I'm home, where I belong, 'n that I'm safe." He sighed and shook his head. "I jus' wish I c'd tell him I ain't alone no more."

"I'm sure he knows, Vin," Chris said quietly.

He bowed his head again and frowned, staring down at the porch. "I still miss him, y'know?" he murmured. "He was so good to me, 'n he taught me so much... Sometimes, when I ain't sure'a somethin', I try ta figger out what he'd do, or what he'd say..."

"How'd he die?" Chris asked softly, wishing he'd had the chance to meet the man who'd clearly been so important to Vin.

Tanner shrugged. "Heart give out, I reckon. One day, I'se workin' in the barn, he's out mendin' the fence... When I didn't hear nothin' fer a while, I went out..." His voice broke, and tears stung his eyes. "I found him," he whispered tightly. "He was layin' there, his face to the sun... He didn't look to've been in no pain, though, just... mebbe a li'l sad. Like mebbe he knew he's leavin' me... 'n didn't want to... Lord knows, I didn't want him to... I didn't even git ta tell him goodbye," he breathed in that broken voice. "Didn't git ta tell none of 'em goodbye. Not my pa, not Ma, not Grandpa..." He reached out suddenly and grabbed Chris's hand, his blue eyes staring almost desperately into Larabee's. "You won't never leave me without sayin' goodbye, will ya, Chris?" he begged.

Chris squeezed that hand tightly. "Never, cowboy. I promise." His words seemed to reassure Vin, yet still Chris held onto his hand, sensing that, just now, Tanner needed that contact. "That man who came into the store with his grandson today," he said softly, "he looked like your grandpa, didn't he?"

Vin nodded, intensely grateful for Chris's touch. "Yeah," he breathed. "They was lookin' at knives, 'n the way he was with the boy... jus' reminded me of... of how Grandpa was with me. 'N all at once, I remembered how much I miss him... Guess it was kinda stupid, huh? Runnin' outta there like that? But I jus' couldn't breathe... When I heard him talkin' to his boy... like Grandpa used ta talk ta me... It hurt somethin' fierce, 'n I jus' couldn't stay there."

"Wasn't stupid, Vin," Chris assured him quietly. "Hell, I've done it, too. Sometimes, I'll see a woman who looks like Sarah, or a little boy who looks or sounds like Adam... Believe me, I've run outta my share'a places, too. Only where you headed for the hills, I usually head for the saloon."

Tanner cocked his head slightly to one side and studied Chris intently. "Is it... gittin' any better fer ya?" he asked softly, hesitantly. "I mean, I know I cain't take their places in yer heart, but--"

"Hush," Chris said, laying a hand over the tracker's mouth to silence him. "Listen to me. Yeah, it's gettin' better. Slowly, but it's happenin'. And, no, you can't take their places. But you're not supposed to." He slid his hand around to the back of Vin's neck, cupping it tenderly. "Because you got your own place. You're not a replacement, Vin, and you're not a substitute. And you're sure as hell not just somethin' ta do until somethin' better comes along. Because there's not anything better. You're what I want, you're what I need, and what we have is what's meant to be. Don't you see, Vin," he said with a quiet intensity, his eyes boring into Tanner's, "I've been lost in that storm, too, and I've been cold and scared and tryin' ta get back home. And now I am home, because I'm with you. Neither of us has ta run from the pain anymore, Vin," he said softly, urgently. "Not unless we're runnin' to each other. You understand that?"

Vin nodded, then smiled slightly, shyly. "Like I said, I may be slow, but I am learnin'. Mebbe you c'd jus' be patient with me a while longer?"

Chris leaned forward and kissed him tenderly. "We got all our lives ta get this right, cowboy," he breathed.

Vin slipped his arms around Chris and pulled him close. "Then mebbe we'd best start now," he whispered, nuzzling hungrily at Larabee's jaw. "Grandpa always said a man learns best by doin'."

Chris shivered and gasped as that mouth, those hands, worked their familiar magic upon him. "I gotta say, Tanner," he breathed unsteadily, "your grandpa sounds like a real wise man!"

The End

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