The World
According to Garth

by SueN.

ATF Universe

Disclaimer: Ain't mine, and I'm really startin' to resent that! I don't own the songs, either. "Friends in Low Places" was written by Dewayne Blackwell and Earl Bud Lee, "Shameless" by Billy Joel, and "Standing Outside the Fire" by Garth Brooks and Jenny Yates.

Feedback: Shoot, I ain't shy; lemme know whatcha think.

Vin Tanner sat hunched over the table, his gaze locked on and his long fingers wrapped around a shot glass filled with tequila. The bottle sat only inches away, just where Inez had left it. In return for the bottle, though, the feisty barmaid had taken his keys. She knew a man who planned on getting good and drunk when she saw him, and she wasn't about to have one of her best – and favorite – customers end up a red spot on some highway.

Then, knowing this particular customer and his resourcefulness – and stubbornness – she'd slipped out the back, gone into the parking lot and removed the sparkplugs from his motorcycle. Inez Recillos could be ruthless in her concern.

But Vin knew none of this, and wouldn't have cared if he had known. At the moment, he didn't care about anything except the glass he'd already emptied three times and was about to empty a fourth. Well, that and the reason he was busily emptying that glass.

Chris Larabee.

Lord God, did everything in his world have to come back to that man?

He raised the glass to his mouth and slammed back the contents. Shit, yes. In the end, everything that mattered to Vin, that existed for him, inevitably came back to Chris.

What else in his world was there?

He swore under his breath and reached for the bottle, pouring himself a fifth shot. His hand was still steady, and he swore again.

Shit. It was gonna be one long fuckin' night.

He set the bottle down, then slid from the booth and rose to his feet. Digging in the pocket of his jeans, he fished out a handful of crumpled bills and crossed the hardwood floor to the jukebox. He glanced at the selection menu, but saw only a meaningless jumble of letters and numbers. Didn't matter. He didn't need to read it. He knew his favorites by heart, and knew Inez wouldn't change anything without telling him first.

Seemed she was always lookin' out for him.

He inserted several bills and punched in his selections. Only a few songs, each entered several times, and all by one singer.

It was a Garth Brooks kinda night.

He made his way back to his table, head bowed, shoulders slumped, hands jammed into his pockets, hurt written in every line of his body. From behind the bar, Inez watched him through sorrowful eyes and shook her dark head slowly, knowing the wounds of love when she saw them. When Vin slouched dejectedly back into his booth, she turned and stared at a picture of seven men on the wall behind her, glaring sharply at the tall blond in the middle.

"I'll give you one hour," she warned the man in the photo, shaking a slender forefinger at him. "If you're not here by then, I'll call Buck and have him drag you here!"


Unaware of Inez's anger, Vin hunched forward once more, elbows on the table, head in his hands, long hair falling forward to veil his face. Guitar strains filtered softly from the speakers as the song began, as Garth Brooks poured out Vin Tanner's pain.

Blame it all on my roots
I showed up in boots
And ruined your black-tie affair.
The last one to know,
The last one to show,
I was the last one
You thought you'd see there...

Vin cringed and closed his eyes tightly as pain and humiliation stabbed deep into him. Jesus, what had he been thinkin'? What in hell had made him go there when he'd known...

He had known, hadn't he? Hell, he had to have known! He'd seen the tux hanging on the door of Chris's closet, still in the cleaner's bag, had heard Chris tell him he was going to the Judge's for a dinner Travis was hosting for some high-ranking senator. It was a high-class affair, all money and politics and ten thousand forks per place setting, everything Tanner hated and feared, and he'd never been so glad he had to work late in all his life. Because Travis, proud as a daddy of his crack ATF team, had decreed as only he could that the leader of said team would be there to convince the senator of the good work the bureau's Western division was doing, and of the continual need for more support – preferably in the form of money – for that work from Washington.

Sure, Vin had heard all that. He'd known all that. He just hadn't thought about all that. Not until now, when it was all over.

All over but the cryin'.

He, JD and Ezra had stayed late at the office, poring over surveillance and intelligence reports, trying to find some crack, some way into the closely guarded Gerardi operation. Carl Gerardi was a particularly nasty piece of work, suspected of providing arms to paramilitary groups in Mexico and Central America in exchange for the heroin with which he was flooding U.S. streets. The case, which had already gone through the DEA and FBI without any success, had been handed to the ATF. And because Gerardi had extensive business holdings in Colorado, it had been forwarded to the Denver office. And because a miracle would be needed to get Gerardi, the Denver office had given the case to Team Seven, which worked miracles as a matter of routine.

Then a niece of Travis's had OD'd on the heroin supplied by Gerardi, and the team had been ordered to clear its caseload and make this a priority. The fierce old assistant director had given them virtual carte blanche, said whatever they needed was theirs, with only one condition. He was to be kept apprised of every detail, every development, every lead, every break. So when, after hours of study and brainstorming, a potential way in had been found, the decision to tell Travis had been a no-brainer.

And Vin had volunteered to be the one to tell him. JD was too intimidated by the man they all called "Judge" because of his ability to, as Buck said, "lay down the law" simply to show up on his doorstep during some important dinner. And Ezra wouldn't go unless he was given time to go home, shower and change into "the attire appropriate for such an auspicious gathering of the glitterati." That left Vin, who wasn't intimidated by anyone and didn't give a hoot in hell what he was wearing.

Which, at the moment, was a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt over a flannel shirt, faded jeans and badly scuffed boots. JD had regarded him with frank admiration, while Ezra had nearly wept in horror and despair. Vin had merely shrugged and given his standard answer.

"Don't matter none."

Then he'd gathered up the papers detailing the plan they'd concocted and shoved them into a manila folder, stuffed the folder into his battered backpack, donned his fringed buckskin jacket, grabbed his motorcycle helmet and sauntered out of the office. A long-haired, unshaven, scruffy figure headed for a house where the men were in tuxes and the women sparkled in diamonds and gowns.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. He downed another shot of tequila. How could I be so stupid?

Well I guess I was wrong
I just don't belong
But then I've been there before.
Everything's all right
I'll just say good night
And I'll show myself to the door...

He groaned and bowed his head, scrubbing his hands over his face as the bitter memory taunted him with unceasing cruelty. He should've known. He should've guessed. Why the hell hadn't he known?

He'd gone to the Judge's house, been left cooling his heels in the foyer by a clearly suspicious doorman, then been found by the ever-gracious Evie, who'd immediately dragged him into the formal living room. He'd felt every eye in that room fly to him, had heard the dramatic lull in the conversation, and had felt a sudden and intense kinship with the deer caught in the headlights. For a moment, the urge to run had been almost overpowering, and he'd literally had to dig his heels into the floor to hold himself in place. Then Evie had pressed a glass of champagne into his hand and he'd gulped it down desperately, noticing to his horror how badly his hand was shaking. The claustrophobia had hit him hard, and he'd known by the protective way she held and guarded him that Evie could hear him struggling to breathe.

But, Jesus, bad as that had been, it hadn't been the worst of it.

Travis had come over then, and, with him, Chris. Chris, groomed to perfection, sleek and golden and beautiful, splendid in the crisp white shirt and black expanse of jacket that had been tailored to fit and emphasize the broad span of his shoulders and sculpted length of his chest and back, and looking every bit as at ease in his glittering surroundings as Vin was out of place. Vin's mouth had gone dry at the sight of the man, his poet's soul had risen sharply in appreciation of the sheer magnificence before him, and his knees had all but buckled. And he didn't want to think about what had shown on his face.

But even that hadn't been the worst.

Acutely, aware of Chris's vivid green eyes upon him, painfully aware of the man's closeness and warmth – Jesus, he'd even smelled beautiful! – Vin had stumbled and stuttered through an explanation of what they'd come up with to Travis, who insisted upon prolonging his agony by asking questions. He'd managed somehow to answer, suddenly aware of his deep drawl and badly fractured grammar, of his own ragged appearance, and tried all the while to keep his eyes from straying to Chris, who was surely the finest sight Tanner had ever seen in all his years upon this earth. And as he'd clenched his hand into a fist and then shoved it into his pocket to keep it from straying to Chris's tempting shoulder, the worst had happened, and Vin had realized with a sickening lurch of his gut and a hideous wrench of his soul how wrong, how very wrong, he'd been about everything he'd ever believed about himself and Chris.

Mary Travis had glided up and taken her place at Chris' side, smiling warmly at Vin and standing so close to Chris that Vin would have sworn they were touching. He'd stopped trying to breathe, then, couldn't for life of him figure why breathing made any difference at all. Not when the man who was the air he breathed was no longer looking at him, but was smiling down at her. In that moment, all the light and warmth had gone out of Vin Tanner's world, and he'd realized how wrong he'd been – again – to believe that someone like him could ever have a place in the life of someone like Chris Larabee.

Not when Mary Travis stood there, hair like spun moonlight, dressed in a simple, close-fitting dress of white, diamonds at her ears and throat, and her shimmering eyes drinking in Chris like a flower did the rain. She fit him in every way, her head reaching just the right place on his shoulder, her curves blending into the hard planes of his body, her refined beauty a true match for his sleek power. She was also charming, cultured and fiercely intelligent, qualities Vin knew he could never claim. She was everything a man like Chris needed. And she was a woman. And all at once, Vin had realized how wrong, how stupid, and how pathetically deluded he'd been to think he could give Chris anything. Except the love that was all but choking him now.

"You'll stay for dinner, won't you, Vin?" Evie had asked. The concern in her eyes and voice had been obvious. He must've looked every bit as sick as he felt. "I know how you boys get when you work late–"

"No, ma'am," he'd managed to answer, though his voice had sounded tight and hoarse even to him. "I c... I cain't. I don't b'long here. I ain't fit comp'ny fer these folks..." He'd looked around, seen countless gazes still fixed upon him, and known more than a few of the whispers buzzing about concerned him. The knowledge had lent some strength to his failing spirit, and he'd lifted his head, returning a few of the stares pointedly and taking some satisfaction in watching as they were hastily redirected. "I jist came ta tell the Judge what we figgered out." He'd nodded once. "Reckon I'll be leavin' now. Don't wanta be puttin' nobody off their feed."

He'd turned and started back through the room then, noticing how a path miraculously cleared for him, with none of the beautiful people coming too close. And he'd wondered if the room felt as cold to anyone else as it did to him.

"Vin, wait."

The hand that had gripped his arm had been strong and warm and intensely familiar, had sent ripples of pain and longing through him and damn near brought tears to his eyes. He'd stopped, drawn what passed for a breath, and turned slowly to face Chris Larabee.

Green eyes had searched his face intently, and he'd shivered beneath their impact. "You don't look so good, pard," Chris had murmured, his forehead furrowed with worry. "You all right?"

He'd almost laughed at the sheer stupidity of the question. Instead, he'd shrugged. "'M fine," he muttered. "Or I will be, soon's I git shut'a this place." He'd forced his eyes to meet Chris's, choosing not to let himself feel how much that hurt. "You go on, cowboy, have a good time. I reckon you fit better in this crowd than me. 'Sides, I got somewhere's else ta be." He'd glanced down at the hand that still gripped him. "Might wanta let go'a me, Larabee. Folks'll talk."

Chris had stiffened as if he'd been hit. And immediately his hand had fallen away. "Vin–"

"I didn't mean ta interrupt nothin', didn't mean ta show ya up in front'a all these fine folks." He'd glanced past Chris, to Mary, and felt a painful clench at his heart. "You'd best git back now. Ain't p'lite ta keep a lady waitin'."

And with that he'd walked – hell, damn near run – out of that cold, glittering room and out of the house in which existed a world that had no place for the likes of him.

Hey I didn't mean
To cause a big scene
Just give me an hour and then
Well I'll be as high
As that ivory tower
That you're livin' in...

I got somewhere's else ta be.

He winced and knocked back another shot. Yeah, he had somewhere else to be, all right. A booth in a dark corner of a saloon, keeping company with a bottle that didn't begin to hold enough liquor to fill the gaping hole in his heart. But, hell, another few shots and he wouldn't feel that hole. And at least the tequila wouldn't throw him over for a good-lookin' woman in a tight white dress. And nobody here'd look down on him for what he was wearing, wouldn't look down on him for anything. Nobody here could look anywhere but up.

'Cause I got friends in low places
Where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases
My blues away. And I'll be okay.
Now I'm not big on social graces
Think I'll slip on down to the Oasis
Oh, I've got friends In low places...

A plate of food suddenly landed on the table before him, and he looked up in surprise, blinking in confusion at Inez. "I didn't order nothin'."

She stared down at him and planted her hands firmly on her hips. "And if I had waited for you to order anything not in a bottle, I would have waited all night. Eat," she ordered. "You look terrible."

He winced and bowed his head. "Thanks, Inez," he muttered. "I needed that. You kick stray dogs, too?"

She arched a dark brow. "You are not a stray dog. You're a grown man who should know better than this." She waved a hand toward the bottle. "This solves nothing."

He lifted his head and scowled up at her. "Ain't you in the business'a sellin' drinks? Seems you'd be glad ta see me drinkin' like this. Money in yer till 'n all."

"Pobrecito," she breathed, reaching out to stroke his hair. "You are not business, Vin, you are a friend." Her hand went to his cheek and lingered there as she searched his eyes and saw the pain in them. "He will be here," she assured him gently, "you will see. If he saw your hurt as I do, he will be here."

Her words sent a shock through him, and he stiffened, his eyes widening. "I... I don't know... what..."

She smiled softly. "You think I don't see? The way you look at him, the way he looks at you? You two touch without ever raising your hands, Vin. You are part of each other. Besides," again she waved at the bottle, "only love hurts this much." She stroked his cheek and smiled into his eyes. "He will be here."

"No, he won't," he murmured, again bowing his head. "He's got... someplace better. Somebody better." He shrugged dejectedly. "Somebody who kin give him... ever'thing I cain't. Hell, he prob'ly don't even know I'm gone, 'n wouldn't care if he did." He grimaced and closed his eyes. "I ain't what he needs, Inez. I ain't... what he wants... I'se jist foolin' myself, thinkin' otherwise."


"But the thang is, he is what I want, what I need. 'N I ain't ever been one fer needin' b'fore." He raised tortured blue eyes to her. "Reckon this is why," he breathed in a ragged voice. "Jist hurts too damn much when whatcha need gits yanked away."

She sighed softly, sadly, then leaned forward and tenderly kissed his cheek. "Eat, Vin," she whispered. "You'll want to be sober when he gets here."

He frowned in irritation, but dutifully picked up his fork and poked at the food before him. "Don't matter none," he told her. "He ain't comin'. Not when he's got her."

She straightened, and a smile curved about her mouth. "Trust me, Vin, whoever 'she' is, he doesn't want her. But," she winked, "I'll let him tell you that." She stroked his cheek again, then turned and walked away, still smiling.

Vin merely stared down at his plate, idly stabbing the unwanted enchiladas before him, and listened half-heartedly as Garth sang about his life.


Chris Larabee stood in the doorway and stared across the dimly lit interior, his whole attention claimed by the lone figure in the shadowed booth, his heart clenching painfully at the sight. Even from here, Vin's anguish was so clear he could feel it, and it hurt him beyond bearing to think he'd played any part in inflicting it.

God, what he had done? What would he have to do to fix it?

Shit, what wouldn't he do to fix it?

Well I'm shameless when it comes to loving you
I'll do anything you want me to
Anything at all.

And I'm standing here for all the world to see
Oh baby, that's what left of me
Don't have very far to fall...

He shoved his hands into the pockets of his black wool coat, his heart heavy in his chest. He remembered how that same heart had lifted when Vin had showed up in that crowded, stuffy room filled with self-important assholes and idiots, how he'd thought the shaggy-haired, unshaven, roughly dressed Texan was the most wonderful sight he'd seen all night, more beautiful in his unkempt wildness than all the carefully groomed and brightly glittering fashion plates surrounding him. Even Mary Travis, whose sharp humor and warm friendship had made the evening bearable, had faded into insignificance the moment Vin had arrived.

He'd suspected immediately why Vin had come, and had gone to join Tanner and the Judge. And he'd tried to concentrate on what Vin was saying, but had been too concerned over the younger man's obvious discomfort to focus on any of the details. Vin had looked like a wild animal, captured and caged, and terrified of his surroundings. Chris had seen the disapproving stares and heard the caustic whispers, and had felt his blood start to boil. Vin Tanner was better than any man in that room, and Chris knew for a fact that had the young man been cleaned up and dressed in "his shiny best," as Vin called it, the women currently looking down their noses at him would be throwing themselves at his feet.

He knew, because he'd seen it happen. Nobody cleaned up better than Vin Tanner.

Mary must have seen some sign of his mounting anger, because she'd hurried over to defuse the situation. To defuse him. And to help put Vin at ease. She'd smiled at him, tried to talk to him, tried to let him know she, at least, was glad to see him. Deeply grateful for her efforts, Chris had smiled his thanks at her.

And had watched in confusion and horror as Vin had gone whiter than ever, as his blue eyes had widened and flared with pain, as the younger man had looked like he'd just taken a shot to the gut. Or the heart.

He'd fled only moments after that. Vin Tanner, cool, unflappable, steady as a rock, had all but run out of that room. And Chris, little caring who saw or what they thought, went after him, shoving past several so-called "important" people to get to the one man who was the most important person in his life.

You know I'm not a man who's ever been
Insecure about the world I've been living in
I don't break easy, I have my pride
But if you need to be satisfied

I'm shameless, oh honey, I don't have a prayer
Every time I see you standin' there
I go down upon my knees

And I'm changing, swore I'd never compromise
Oh, but you convinced me otherwise
I'll do anything you please...

Chris would have gone with him in a heartbeat if he'd asked. But Vin, being Vin, hadn't asked. Instead, he'd pulled into himself, away from Chris, and fixed those damn blue eyes that swam with every emotion he felt on Larabee, tearing the man's heart to shreds without ever once meaning to or realizing he was doing it.

You go on, cowboy, have a good time. I reckon you fit better in this crowd than me. 'Sides, I got somewhere's else ta be.

Shit, how could he say that? Didn't he know that Chris didn't fit anywhere without him anymore? Didn't he know how utterly impossible it would ever be for Chris to have anything resembling a good time once he'd seen the hurt in those blue eyes? Didn't he understand that a room filled with people would be terribly, terribly empty once he left?

Christ, didn't he understand how little any of this, anything at all, meant if he wasn't there to share it?

You see in all my life I've never found
What I couldn't resist, what I couldn't turn down
I could walk away from anyone I ever knew
But I can't walk away from you...

He smiled slightly as he stared at Vin. He, Chris Larabee – strong, stern, unbending, unbreakable – had no pride left, had thrown it all away without a second thought or a single regret the moment he'd let himself love a slender, scruffy sharpshooter whose every smile was Chris's delight and whose smallest frown was his torment. Travis was grooming him for bigger and better things, was making sure he met all the "right" people, and he'd stalked out of there without a backward glance, knowing there was only one "right" person for him.

Career be damned. He had a heart to mend.

I have never let anything have this much control over me
I work too hard to call my life my own
And I've made myself a world and it's worked so perfectly
But it's your world now, I can't refuse
I've never had so much to lose
Oh, I'm shameless...

Behind the bar, Inez watched as Chris crossed the saloon to Vin's table, and smiled brilliantly, clasping her hands tightly together and giving silent, fervent thanks. Men could be proud, stubborn, blind fools, stiff-necked and stupid. But every now and then, they could get it together and get it right.

And Chris Larabee had definitely gotten this right.


"Hey, cowboy. Join ya?"

Vin looked up in shock at the low, warm voice, and very nearly drowned in the green eyes gazing down at him. His heart faltered in his chest, and his breath caught in his throat. His soul ached from the beauty of the man before him.

The blond hair was tousled, as if Chris had been running his hands through it, and the white shirt was open at his throat, the black tie undone and hanging loose about his neck. Worry lined his face, and tension tightened every line of his long, lean body.

He was absolutely the finest thing Vin Tanner had ever seen in his life.

"Ain't... ain'tcha... s'posed ta be... somewhere's else?" he managed to rasp, his whole being drinking in this man. "Somewhere's important?"

Chris shook his head slightly. "Can't think of anyplace more important than this, pard," he answered. "Wherever you are, that's where I'm supposed ta be. Thought you knew that."

Vin flinched and bowed his head as the pain from earlier renewed its assault upon him. "Thought I did, too," he breathed. "But now..."

"Now?" Chris asked softly, steadily. When Vin didn't answer, Chris slid into the booth across from him and rested his clasped hands upon the table. "Talk to me, Tanner," he urged gently. "What sent you runnin' from me like that?"

Vin swallowed hard and shook his head slightly, unable to meet Chris's gaze, barely able to think. He could still see Chris shining among that brilliant company, could still see how right he looked there. And how right Mary had looked with him.

And the pain of it almost killed him.

"Vin?" Chris heard the harsh, choked gasp that escaped Tanner, saw the shudder that racked the bowed, slender frame, and immediately reached to take one of Vin's hands in his own, holding tightly to it. "Talk to me, please!"

At that "please," Vin's heart constricted further. This man shouldn't have to beg him for anything. "I bin selfish," he said hoarsely, still not meeting Chris's gaze. "Bin hangin' onto ya, keepin' you fer m'self when... when you c'd do so much better'n me. I saw that tonight. I ain't whatcha need," he murmured. "'N it's only selfishness that's made me think otherwise."

Chris frowned deeply and stared intently at Vin, still holding tightly to his hand. "What are you talkin' about?" Worry roughened his voice. "Whatta you mean you ain't what I need? Shit, Vin, you're everything I need, you're all I need!" He reached out with his other hand and slipped it under Vin's chin, lifting Tanner's bowed head until their eyes finally met. "How could I possibly do any better than you when you're the best thing in my world?"

Tears shimmered in Vin's eyes. "How can you say that?" he whispered unsteadily. "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."

"First off," Chris said in a low, harsh voice, leaning forward and staring into Tanner's eyes, "you are not a 'stupid damn nobody,' you got that? You're Vin Tanner, the finest damn sharpshooter in the whole fuckin' Bureau, and one of the finest all-around agents I've ever seen. You've got instincts older, better-trained and better-educated agents would kill for, you hear me? But aside from that, you're the finest man I've ever known! You've been beat down and shit on so many times in your life that you have every right and every reason to be the craziest, meanest, most fucked-up sonuvabitch this world has ever seen. But you're not. You chose to overcome all that, to rise above it, and to make yourself into a man I'm proud to call 'friend' and even prouder to say I love. I don't know what my future is, Vin, but I do know this – none of it will be worth a solid damn if you're not there to share in it. My life won't be worth shit if you're not part of it."

"What about Mary?" Vin whispered, closing his eyes against the hurt those few words caused.

Chris stared at him in outright confusion. "Mary? Mary who?"

Vin's eyes flew open and irritation flared in them. "Mary Travis! How many Marys do you know?"

Chris shook his head, still frowning. "What about her? What's she got ta do with anything?"

"That's what I'm askin' you!" he snapped. "Goddamn it, you kin be thick!"

Chris exhaled slowly and willed patience upon himself, forcing himself to remember that Vin had been drinking. "Vin, please, for the sake of those of us who came late to this party, could you possibly, just once, speak in complete sentences? What does Mary Travis have to do with any of this?"

Vin jerked his hand out of Chris's and sat back, crossing his arms against his chest in an unconscious gesture of defense. "I saw y'all," he rasped, blue eyes again brimming with hurt. "Standin' t'gether, laughin' 'n talkin' like y'all's the onliest ones in that room. 'N when she come over t'us, she stood so close to ya y'all was near wearin' each other. 'N then..." His voice cracked and he had to bow his head to hide the tears. "You... smiled down at her... 'n all I c'd think," his voice broke into a shattered whisper, "was how right y'all looked t'gether, 'n how much she kin give ya that I cain't... 'N that's when I knew... how selfish I bin... keepin' you fer m'self... when you d'serve so much better."

Chris stared at him in shock and horror. Whatever he'd expected Vin to say, this wasn't it. His whole world slid to a stop and tilted to a sickening angle, and for long, long moments it was all he could do to breathe. He suddenly realized all he'd never told Vin about himself and Mary, all he'd never explained, all he'd never set right. He could say it was because Vin had never asked, could say it was because Vin had never seemed the jealous type, could say any damn thing he pleased.

But the simple truth was, he'd fucked up. And badly. And now he had to make it right, or lose the one thing, the one person, who made his life worth living.

You know it should be easy for a man who's strong
To say he's sorry or admit when he's wrong
I've never lost anything I've ever missed
But I've never been in love like this

It's out of my hands...


"It's all right," Vin whispered brokenly, wiping impatiently at a tear that slid down his face. "Y'ain't gotta say nothin'. You was bound ta realize... sooner or later... that I wasn't really what you wanted. Reckon mebbe... knowin' how I felt about ya... you jist felt obliged... But y'ain't. I'll love ya 'til I die, but I won't hold ya ta somethin' ya don't want." His voice cracked again and he had to wipe away another tear, his hand trembling badly. "I'd never do that ta you."

"Jesus, Vin, shut up, please!" Chris groaned, his heart tearing itself to pieces. "Shut up and let me explain."

"Y'ain't gotta–"

"The hell I don't!" Chris snapped loudly, his green eyes blazing. "Goddamn it, Tanner, I am not gonna sit here and let you do this to me! To us! Do you hear me? Now, just shut the fuck up so I can tell you how it really is!"

Vin swallowed hard, his eyes wide. "Chris," he whispered, "folks're gonna talk–"

"Let 'em!" Chris snarled. "If they ain't got anything better ta do, then just fuckin' let 'em. I'm past carin' what others think. We gotta set this right, and if I gotta do it with an audience, then so be it!"

Oh, I'm shameless, shameless as a man can be
You make a total fool of me I just wanted you to know

Oh, I'm shameless, I just wanted you to know
Oh, I'm shameless Oh, I'm down on my knees... shameless...

Vin stared at him in open-mouthed, wide-eyed shock. The haze of alcohol was beginning to lift, and he could see the pain – and the passion – in Larabee's brilliant green eyes. Passion he hadn't seen when the man had smiled down at Mary Travis.


"I said shut up, and I mean in," Chris growled. "I'm not gonna let you ruin this for us, Vin. I'm not gonna let you be noble and step aside so I can find whatever the hell you think it is I'm missin'. I've never thrown myself at anybody before, but I'll start here and now with you if I have to. I'll go down on my knees and I'll beg if I have to, but, goddamn it, you are not walkin' away from this. And you are not walkin' away from me. It's time you stopped runnin', Tanner. It's time you stood up and fought for what you want, instead of just lettin' somebody – in this case, you – take it away. Unless," he added bitingly, "you don't think I'm worth fightin' for."

Vin gasped and flinched, the color draining from his face. "You know I'd fight for ya," he protested. "Hell, Chris, I'd die for ya–"

"I don't want you ta die for me, Vin," Chris interrupted ruthlessly. "I want you ta live for me! I want you ta stop countin' all the reasons you ain't right for me and see only the reasons you are. You're everything to me, Tanner, you got that? You're the sun that rises in the mornin' and the moon that lights my night, and you are every fuckin' moment in between! You're the sound my heart makes when it beats, you're the warmth and life in my blood, and you are the only reason I draw breath!" He clenched his teeth and leaned forward, impaling Vin with his glittering gaze. "You... are... my... life!"

Vin blinked and slowly licked his lips, trying to understand, to believe. "But... but Mary..."

"Ah, Jesus fuckin' Christ!" Chris shouted, throwing up his hands in frustration. Once more he leaned across the table, but grabbed Vin's arms and yanked him forward as well, glaring into wide, startled eyes. "Listen to me, cowboy," he growled, "and listen good. 'Cause I ain't ever explainin' this again. Mary is a friend. Nothin' more, nothin' less. Yes, we dated a while. And, yes, she means a lot to me. But only as a friend. Even before I fell for you, Tanner, she and I realized that's all it would ever be between us. We helped each other through some bad times, and, yeah, we had some good times. But, in the end, we knew we weren't what each other really needed. Now she's seein' that Gerard guy, and things are lookin' pretty good between 'em. And, for her sake, I hope it works out. Because she's a good friend, and I'll always care about her. But I will never love her the way I love you. You got that?"

The ferocity of those words did for Vin what tender expressions never could. Chris was furious, his eyes ablaze, his long, strong fingers digging into Tanner's flesh. But the anger sprang from passion, from love, and Vin could feel that now as he'd never felt anything in his life, knew the truth of it as he'd never known anything before.

Sudden shame poured through him, and he bowed his head miserably. "Jesus," he whispered, closing his eyes. "I fucked up good, huh?"

Chris smiled slightly. "Yeah, you did. But it's okay. It'll always be okay, as long as you don't ever make the mistake of walkin' away from me. Because that'd kill me, Vin, and even I can't fix anything if I'm dead."

Vin opened his eyes and raised his head slowly, gazing sadly at Chris. "Reckon I made a big fool'a myself," he murmured, a flush spreading through his face. "Reckon Mary must be mighty pissed at me, ruinin' her night 'n all."

Chris chuckled softly and shook his head. "You just don't get it, do ya, Tanner? You didn't ruin anything. Mary was glad to see you. Hell, she hated that party as much as I did! When you came in, she wanted to ask you to stay. Said it would've been fun watchin' you deflate some of those windbags." He reached up and gently touched Vin's cheek. "She likes you, Vin. And she respects you. And Mary Travis doesn't respect just anybody. Hell, I oughtta know." He chuckled again. "She's knocked me down a peg or two often enough!"

Vin smirked at that. "Gotta like somebody who kin do that," he drawled. "Gits ta be a big job fer jist me." He frowned as another worry gripped him. "She didn't mind you leavin'?" he asked softly.

Chris grinned. "Who d'you think kicked my ass in gear? I was just standin' there, feelin' like I'd been punched in the gut and not knowin' what ta do next, when she came over, grabbed my arm and handed me my coat. 'Go after him,' she said. 'He needs you more than you need this. All this is just flash and glitter. He's what's real.' And she said if I didn't make it right, she'd kick my ass in the mornin'."

Vin smiled broadly. "Best we make up then," he teased. "Cain't have you gittin' yer ass kicked by no girl. That's my job."

"Don't want you ta kick my ass, Vin," Chris said softly, seriously. "I want you ta show me you believe everything I've told you here tonight." His green eyes roamed over the pale, unshaven, tear-streaked and utterly beautiful face before him. "I love you, Vin. With everything that's in me. I'll never find anyone better, because there's not anyone better. You're it for me, cowboy. You're everything I need. More important, you're everything I want. And you better get used to that, and accept it, because you're stuck with me. I ain't ever lettin' you go, Vin. Not while there's breath left in me."

Vin smiled slightly and nodded, and, to his horror, felt another tear sliding down. "Reckon I kin live with that," he rasped. "'Cause I sure as hell don't wanta live without it. Don't wanta live without you. Wouldn't be no life at all."

Chris rose to his feet and smiled down at him. "C'mon, let's go home. Let's see if we can't end this night better than we started it."

Vin stood, somewhat unsteadily, and glanced at the bar. "Reckon I'd better settle up with Inez. Git my keys back." He sighed and grimaced. "I reckon we'll have ta load my bike inta the truck, too."

"I'll get started. You go settle up." Chris smiled and squeezed his shoulder, then turned and walked away.

Vin watched him for a moment, loving him with his eyes, then made his way to the bar. Inez was waiting for him, smiling sweetly, and he blushed.

"Reckon you was right," he murmured. "He did come."

She reached out and cupped his cheek in a soft hand. "How could he not? Your pain is his pain, Vin. To heal himself, he has to heal you. It's called 'love.'"

His blush deepened and he bowed his head, then reached for his back pocket to fumble for his wallet. "Whatta I owe ya?"

"Nothing," she said, still smiling. When his head came up, she arched a brow. "I told you, Vin. You are a friend, not a customer."


"Don't argue with me." She winked. "I have connections in law enforcement, you know. Now, go, before I change my mind."

He smiled slightly and nodded. "Thanks. I'll make it up to ya, I promise."

"Just be happy," she said softly. "That will be payment enough." When his smile broadened, she reached under the bar and pulled something out. "Here. You'll need these."

He looked down as she pressed spark plugs into his hand. "What–"

"Insurance," she said tartly. "I want to make sure you live to be happy. Now, go away. I have a business to run. And you have someone waiting for you."

His smile turned shy, and his blue eyes shone. "I do, don't I?" He took her hand and kissed it, then blushed and hurried away.

And behind him, another of the songs he'd played poured from the speakers, making him pause at the door.

We call them strong
Those who can face this world alone
Who seem to get by on their own
Those who will never take the fall

We call them weak
Who are unable to resist
The slightest chance love might exist
And for that forsake it all

They're so hell-bent on giving ,walking a wire
Convinced it's not living if you stand outside the fire

Standing outside the fire
Standing outside the fire
Life is not tried, it is merely survived
If you're standing outside the fire...

Vin smiled and nodded once, then went out into the night, and to the man who was waiting for him.

The End

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