Alder '06: Forging Copper (part I)

He stopped dead in the doorway, staring. Unable to tear his eyes away. Unable to breathe.

They stared back, two sets of green eyes, different in depth and clarity and even shade of color, but no different in wideness and surprise and fear.

"Vin," Chris gasped, and the stillness was shattered as he jerked away - out - of the other man, frantically pulling at his clothes. "What - why are you - "

He answered, his words seeming to come from very far away, not out of his mouth. "There's a fire at the Holbrook place - spreading into the tree-line. Buck said you were here . . . "

Chris was off the bed, Ezra also rising, wrapped in a sheet as white as he was -

And Vin ran. He heard Chris calling after him, the hard stamps as Chris pulled on his boots, harder stamps as he rushed after, still yelling for him.

Then JD's voice on the boardwalk as he rushed past the sheriff, "Vin? The others are at the livery - you find Chris? Vin?"

Peso merely grunted as he pulled himself into the saddle, then, ever aware, moved quickly into the full gallop that took them out of town, well ahead of everyone else.


He paced restlessly, unable to stop, not wanting to think. The fire was not out, but they had contained it, digging firebreaks and carting as much water as they could find to keep it trapped. The barn had been lost as had a good number of trees, but they had kept it away from the house and from the line of vegetation that would have fed it directly back to town. Now, as night fell, the blaze that had raged almost like a living creature was subsiding, turning on itself as nothing else was left to feed it.

"Vin?" Buck was close, handing him a canteen.

He took it with a nod, not meeting the other man's eyes. He wondered if Buck had known, if he had sent him there intentionally.

"You okay?" The question was soft, and Vin knew his concern wasn't because of the fire.

He nodded again, taking a long drink. "Where the others?"

Buck stepped closer, so that his voice was a little clearer over the thrum of the fire. "Chris sent Ezra and Josiah back to town with Nathan and the wounded. JD's gone to help Casey and Ms. Nettie and Inez with getting some supplies out here for the night. Chris is organizing some watches. He sent me to find you, see what you think - "

"He's in charge," Vin said. "Ain't got nothing to add." He handed the canteen back to Buck then reached down to pick up the axe he had put on the ground. The movement primed the muscles in his back and despite himself, he groaned.

"Hey, you okay?" Buck crouched beside him, picking up the axe when Vin's fingers wouldn't wrap around the handle. "Lemme see - "

"Ain't nothing," Vin muttered, trying not to let the pain show on his face and knowing he was failing. "Probably pulled something with all the digging." He tried to pull himself upright, but his back locked and he gasped.

"Vin?" Buck's voice was tighter now. "Take it easy, just relax for a minute - might make it loosen up." He edged closer, kneeling directly in front of Vin and looking up into his eyes. He let the axe drop back to the ground, then raised both hands, placing them on Vin's shoulders. "Rest on me for a minute or two - "

"I'm fine." Vin snarled, but he couldn't manage to pull away, his back shooting flares as he tried to move.

"Vin," Buck said in that soft voice that Vin hated, "you're not fine. You been working like there's a demon on your ass all day - hell, you did about half the digging yourself. Kept thinking you were gonna wear yourself out but you just kept goin' - "

"Had to be done," Vin said shortly, but he relented a little, drawing a deep breath. It took a few seconds, his lungs not giving any more than his back.

But it started doing the trick. The heat in his back started to ebb and he felt the first vibrations of motion start.

Buck's gaze flickered for just a second, the only warning Vin had before another set of hands touched him, sliding around his waist and taking some of his weight.

His body knew that it was Chris, giving in instinctively to the familiarity and desire only the other man could provoke so easily in him.

But his mind remembered, the image from that moment this morning scalded into his brain. It leapt at him now in razor-sharp clarity, half-clad bodies frozen in the act of passion, shocked faces staring at him, his world shattering into a million different glass-like pieces, each one cutting deep and quick.

He willed himself to pull away, and surprisingly, his body cooperated - insofar as it could. He lurched, stumbling clear of both men before falling to one side. He was breathing heavily, but he still managed to hiss, "Get away from me," before either man could touch him again.

"Vin," Chris stepped closer, leaning down. Vin didn't look at him, couldn't look at him, but he felt the nearness of that body, and knew when one of those hands reached toward him.

He pulled farther away, lashing out with a fury he hadn't felt in years. "Git away!" he yelled, or tried to. It came out raspy, his voice exhausted from the smoke and the heat.

But Chris caught the anger. He pulled back, even stepped back. But he didn't leave. Instead, he turned slightly toward Buck. "There's some liniment in his saddle bags - silver tin on the side with the rifle."

Buck nodded even as Vin snarled a protest, and was gone.

Leaving him alone with Chris.

He closed his eyes, focusing on the pain - on the physical. It was easier to deal with.

"I'm sorry," Chris said softly. "I never wanted to hurt you, God, Vin, I don't know why - "

"Seemed pretty clear," the voice that sounded like his said. Then more words came, from a part of him he knew well, the part that kept him alive. "You and Ez have been building to this for months now - y'all been grating at each other since that thing with the money. Seems to me ya figgered it out."

He kept his eyes closed, unable to look at the other man. Unable to look at the remnants of his world.

"It's not what you think," Chris whispered, an agony in his voice that made Vin wince.

He laughed though. "I know you think I'm some sorta innocent, but I can't see how what I saw can be anything other than what it was. You, him, your bed - " The same bed he had left mere hours before. The thought took his breath, which spurred his back to flare.

"That's not - that's not what I meant," Chris mumbled. "It's got nothing to do with how I feel about you, I swear - "

He found himself staring at the other man before he could get control of the impulse. It hurt, worse than the pain in his back, worse than that long ago bullet to his belly and the months of trying to survive it. Fortunately, that other part that seemed to be in control managed to ask, "Maybe I didn't hear right when you said there was nobody else but me - did I hear that wrong, Chris? Did you say there was nobody but me and Ezra and I just missed it? Or did ya say that there was nobody but me unless - "

"No," Chris snapped, his anger cold - and gone as soon as it had come. His face seemed to age, and his voice was rough as he continued, "I said there was nobody but you, and I meant it. I still . . . . I still mean it." He looked away, turning his head. His skin was streaked with soot and ash and dirt, and here and there Vin could see meandering trails of blood and the pock marks of burns. "I'm sorry, Vin, I swear to you, I never meant for it to happen and it won't happen again - please." He looked back, his eyes bright, his lips trembling slightly.

Vin turned away this time, his throat closing. He took several deep breaths, trying to get some control over the conflicting emotions, before he was able to say, "Gettin' caught make that promise worth more now than it was this mornin'?"

Chris said nothing, and Vin could feel the weight of his gaze. The sound of approaching footsteps finally spurred a hurried answer, "Yeah, it does. I never wanna see that look on your face again."

Buck was moving forward, the tin of ointment clasped in one hand. "Think I got it - but we might wanna hurry this up. Ez's back with a wagon and more barrels of water. Wind's picking up back toward town and probably headin' this way. We need to wet down as much as we can, then cover the rest with as much dirt as we can dig up."

He handed the tin to Chris, who nodded, turning to Vin. Before he could speak, Vin said, "Y'all get on it." He held out his hand, the demand clear.

Chris stared at him, defiant. For a second. Then, with a slight nod, he extended his hand.

Vin jerked the tin away, careful not to touch any part of Chris. He worked on getting the top off, hoping that Nathan's concoction would work better this time than it had the last few times he had tried.

Knowing they were still there, he said, "Go on, I can take care of this." He heard Buck start away, but felt Chris hovering. Unexpectedly, even to himself, he blurted, "Best not to keep Ez waitin'. He ain't as trustin' as some of us fools."

"Vin," Chris's voice was a whisper. "Don't - "

"Go on," Vin hissed. "Ya done enough."

He heard Chris finally turn and go away, and wondered how long those sounds would haunt his sleep.


"Vin?" Josiah ambled toward him, shovel balanced on his shoulder. "Been three days - think we've done all we can."

Vin stood up from where he was putting more dirt on a smouldering mound. The pain in his back had been constant, just another obstacle to work around. Easier than the sharp spike that drilled through him every time he saw Chris.

"Ya leavin'?" Vin asked, unconsciously sliding into a lean, one hip jutting out to the side.

"Don't think we can do much more, and I'd like to take a bath, maybe eat some food that's on a plate. Maybe have a beer and wash away some of this smoke." The larger man smiled. "Seems you and Chris are the only two who haven't made it back to town since this started - and I think even Buck's managed to get Chris pointed toward his saddle. Why don't you come on? Mr. Holbrooks promised to watch it close - him and his boys. They'll let us know if it gets started up again."

Vin was tempted. He had barely slept since this started, unable to lay down without images of that bedroom flashing before his eyes. It'd be nice to sit, though, maybe have some of Mrs. Hudson's chicken or -

Horses approached, but he didn't have to look to recognize the sound of Pony.

Or, damn them, the sound of Peso.

Anger was welling before Chris called, "Vin? Time to head back to town, get some rest - "

"I was just telling him the same thing," Josiah chimed up. He turned as the horses drew close, reaching out to caress Peso's muzzle. "Personally, I'm looking forward to a beer."

"Don't let me keep ya," Vin said, still staring into the desolation of the fire. "Wouldn't want ta keep ya from your funnin'."

It was rude, to Josiah anyway, and he regretted it almost as soon as he said it.

Regretted it even more when Josiah said, puzzled "Don't you think we can have a little now, Vin? At least a little rest?"

He shook his head, ignoring the dizziness that came with the exhaustion. "Sorry," he muttered, and he turned just enough to meet Josiah's eyes. "Rest might be nice." He reached out, catching Peso's bridle and moving around Josiah to stand beside his horse. He wasn't really surprised to find the reins leading away. He knew without looking that they were in Chris' hands, probably tied around the pommel of his saddle.

He sighed, wishing they would all just leave him alone. Wishing Chris would leave him alone. He was too tired for this.

"Let me take that," Josiah offered, his big hands closing around the shovel Vin was still holding. "I'm walking back to the house, I'll make sure they get back to the wagon of supplies going back to town."

"Thanks," Vin mumbled. With effort, he put his boot in the stirrup - he hated mounting from the right side, but he'd be damned if he'd get any closer to Chris than he had to. Not until he was better able to deal with it. Maybe never.

Peso actually allowed the mount, mostly because Josiah was still stroking his muzzle and probably, knowing Josiah, feeding him candy. He sat for a second, letting his back adjust to the position, which was only slightly more painful than standing, before sighing yet again.

He held out one hand, not looking at Chris. He wasn't really surprised when nothing happened.

"Could I have my reins please?" He worked to keep his tone even, the words polite.

"You coming back to town?" Chris countered, his voice quiet.

Vin didn't drop his hand, but he turned his gaze back to the ruins. He saw Josiah glance at him, then at Chris, then back. He wasn't surprised when the big man frowned, but stepped away from Peso and said, "I'll see you boys back in town. Tell Inez to have a beer ready for me."

He started away, hefting both shovels easily onto his shoulder, whistling softly.

Once more, Vin was alone with Chris.

"Vin?" Chris prompted after a while. "You coming back to town?"

Vin shrugged. "'Spect I'll be there at some point. My wagon's there."

Chris sighed and Vin felt a certain vindication in knowing that he was getting under Chris' skin. "We need to talk." The words were slow. Chris was working hard to rein his frustration.

Vin shook his head, once. "I ain't much of a talker, you know that. I said more than I shoulda already." He paused. "Seems like you found someone who likes to talk. And he talks real fine, I reckon."

"Goddamit," Chris spat. "Stop it, Vin, it's not like that - Christ, you know that. You know I - "

"No," Vin turned, glaring. "I don't seem to know nothin'. Now gimme my damned reins and stop worryin' 'bout your damned guilt. You want Ezra - fine, take him. Ain't none of my business."

Chris sat rigid, his hands in tight fists, his thumbs rubbing over the exposed index fingers. "Don't do this to me," he growled. "I'm sorry, I swear it won't happen again, I'll do anything I can to make it up to you - "

"Then tell me why it happened at all," Vin said coldly. "Tell me what made ya want him so bad ya forgot me."

Chris looked away, his fists opening and falling to his thighs. After a while, he sighed. "I . . . I don't know, Vin," he said simply.

"Then ya can't really promise it won't happen again, can ya." It was that voice again, the one that sounded like him but that he wasn't aware of using. Right now, all he was really aware of was that one last little vestige of hope dying away.

Something tickled at his cheek, but he ignored it. "Gimme my reins," he said, or tried to. The words caught in his throat, tripped over his tongue.

"I can promise, Vin, I do promise. I won't let it happen again. I need you. Please." He was begging, something Vin had never expected to see. Never wanted to see.

The tickling on his cheek grew faster and his vision was blurry. "Don't make promises you can't keep," he choked out, looking away but not seeing anything.

"God, Vin, please." It was agony to hear, not just begging but Chris was laying himself open, more vulnerable than Vin had ever known.

He shuddered, tried to stop and couldn't. He felt Pony edge closer, wanted to move away, but couldn't. Couldn't move as a hand found his shoulder, then moved slowly up to cup his cheek.

"Don't leave me," Chris whispered, leaning in so close that his words blew across Vin's nose. "I'm sorry."

The kiss wasn't his undoing - that had happened at the first touch. As he had known it would. But the kiss, soft and quivering on his cheek, was the sign of his own betrayal to himself.

The kiss that followed, the urgent, delving kiss against his lips, coated in the tears of his pain, was his own Judas kiss.


They rode mostly in silence, Chris occasionally asking him a simple, easy question - 'water?' or 'you okay?', or stating something equally as simple - 'I worried about you out there,' or 'you did more than anyone else, Vin, you deserve a long rest,' - gentle, concerned, scared.

Vin didn't care. He knew he had messed up, knew he should never have given in. But he was tired, so tired, and he so wanted. Wanted to wrap himself in Chris and find that it had all been a bad dream, one of the nightmares that haunted him from time to time. Wanted to wake up and find that everything was the way it should be - his faith in Chris untarnished, his world more right than he had ever hoped it could be.

It was early evening when they plodded back into town, the streets a little more lively than usual as people milled about, gossiping about the fire and the disruption it had caused. Chris nodded to many, Vin ignored and was ignored by most. Didn't matter. All he wanted was to get Peso taken care of and find his wagon and, hopefully, sleep for a day or so.


But as they arrived at the livery, Tiny greeted them with questions; for the price of Chris' answers, and as reward for all their work, he took Pony and Peso and promised to give them the best of care. It was only as they were leaving that he mentioned the message for Chris - "Mr. Standish said he needed to see you at the Saloon," the large man smiled. "Said there was some unfinished business he needed to settle with you."

Vin felt his precarious hold weaken, but apparently so did Chris.

"It's not what you think," Chris said quickly and with the barest trace of panic in his voice. "Before the fire, before - well, when - well, - "

"Don't matter," Vin snapped. "I'm going to try to get some shut-eye." He started away, debating about bathing before sleep. But he worried that all that effort would wake him up just enough to start his mind to working again, and right now, he thought he might have been able to sleep even if Chris and Ezra were fucking on the floor of the wagon under him.

'Course, he might have been able to shoot them then, and wouldn't that have put his mind to rest?

Chris caught him by the wrist and he realized that he had made it a pretty good way before being stopped.

"Come to my - " But the words died on his tongue, as they should have. As they both remembered being in that room the last time.

Vin smiled, but there was nothing nice in it. "Think I like my wagon better. I never have to worry 'bout who's there."

Chris looked away, but he still held Vin's wrist. "Wanna be with you," he said softly, so that only Vin could hear.

Vin studied him long and hard, then, with a shrug, he said, "You know where the wagon is. But I ain't waitin'." He pulled his hand free and started away, but after a step or two, he turned around, not surprised to find Chris still standing there. "I mean that, too - I ain't waitin', never again."

Chris nodded. He understood.

Vin didn't watch him walk away. He was too busy getting himself to his own wagon, then, gracelessly, inside. It was hot, but he hardly noticed. The best he managed was getting his boots off and putting his gun close before collapsing into the small area that served as a bed. Exhaustion claimed him, pulling him into a sleep so deep that he almost shot Chris when the shift of the wagon prompted his instincts before his brain caught up.

"It's me," Chris said, one leg in, the other on the street, his eyes wider than Vin had ever seen them, the whites bright in the darkness of the night.

For an awful instant, Vin's finger tightened anyway - his body had its own anger as well.

Chris must've seen it, or sensed it, as his eyes got even wider, and it was only as Vin finally uncocked the Winchester, his hands shaking from the surprise, that Chris drew a breath.

"Tireder than I knew," Vin said by way of apology, setting the gun back down.

Chris slowly came the rest of the way into the wagon, moving back to sit next to Vin.

"Should be - nearly killed yourself out there." He reached out, touching Vin's hair. "How's your back?"

Vin made a spare movement, sort of a shrug. "Been better." He tried not to move under Chris' touch, but his anger met the equal force of his rare pleasure. Chris' gentleness was a gift Vin had never known, and he could no more stop the sweetness of these caresses than he could shoot a child.

"Let me put some of Nathan's brew on it - working those muscles might do more than anything to help it."

"Ain't got no more," Vin forced himself to say. "Used it all. I'll get more tomorrow."

"I'll still rub it for you," Chris whispered right against Vin's ear.

Some part of him realized that he had shifted, that he was now leaning on Chris' chest, the other man holding him tight, two hands combing through his hair and down his back.

He wasn't sure he ever answered.

When he awoke, he was alone and dawn was breaking through the little gaps between the canvass and the wood.

His back ached - all of him ached, his muscles unforgiving in the aftermath of disuse. He forced himself up, barely managing to control the groans as he pulled on his boots and clambered out of his wagon.

And almost tripped over Chris who was sitting in a chair nearby, sipping on a cup of coffee.

"Whoa," Chris smiled, catching Vin's arm and helping him to regain his balance. "Stiff?"

"Yeah," Vin said, his voice rusty from sleep. "Thanks." He drew himself up and tried to pull away, momentarily surprised when Chris' hand tightened on his elbow.

"Didn't wanna leave ya," Chris said softly, looking deep into Vin's eyes. "Thought it might not be a good idea to be in the wagon once it got light."

Vin nodded, then caught himself as the memory of all that had happened lightninged through his mind. It was a physical jolt, burning through his chest and abdomen.

Chris saw it, his eyes looking away, cast in a grief that dulled some of the shock.

Vin shook his head, then pushed at the hair that had fallen into his face. "You got more coffee?"

Chris looked back at him, the hope in his eyes as bright at the sun shining through dew. "Mrs. Hudson is up - I'll get ya some. Biscuit, too? She's making a fresh batch."

Vin nodded, scratching at his belly. "Thanks," he mumbled. "Be back." It took him several steps to get his body coordinated, but by the time he made it to the outhouse, he was able to piss without getting it on himself.

He was more awake, more coordinated, and more reserved by the time he made it back to his wagon. Chris was waiting, a second cup of coffee and a napkin of biscuits resting on the box just inside the wagon's opening. He smiled at Vin, the expression a little shy, and a little worried.

Despite himself, Vin smiled back.

He reached for his coffee and a biscuit, suddenly ravenous. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten or what it had been, but he knew it hadn't been a warm biscuit just out of the oven.

He felt Chris watching him as ate; normally it made him shy, the way Chris could stare at him. Now though, it made him feel . . . hurt. Embarrassed. All those times Chris had stared at him before, he thought it had been love.

Maybe it was just amusement. Maybe Chris was laughing at him, watching him so he could go tell Ezra all about how 'uncivilized' he was, how dirty and -

"I don't know why I did it, Vin," Chris said softly. "I spent all night trying to find a way to understand it - not just for you, but for myself."

Vin took a sip of coffee, but it didn't help; the biscuit was suddenly like dirt in his mouth.

"I can't understand it, but I swear to you, it won't happen again. If I have to move to the other side of the world, I'll do it - if you'll come with me."

Vin looked at Chris, then looked away. He couldn't stand the desperation on that face, in those eyes. He'd been drawn to Chris for his strength, his independence. He'd fallen in love with him for those same qualities.

To see him reduced to this. . . .

"No need for that," he said gruffly. He started to bite on the biscuit again, but the thought of it turning to sand in his mouth made him toss it away. "I need to think on it, Chris," he said as quietly as Chris had been. "I don't . . . I don't know what to think. Don't know what I'm doing. I never . . . "

He was no good with words, never had been. The only time he could remember even feeling a little like this was when his ma had died and that had been so long ago that it was barely a memory.

It was all new, this kinda of pain - which only made sense; the love had been new too. He'd never felt about anyone the way he felt about Chris, never known it was possible to feel this . . . this good. This alive. Only made sense that it was possible to feel this bad.

"You ain't lost me, Vin. I know I've hurt you, hell, I've hurt myself. The thought of losing you - of losing you and knowing it was my own damned fault . . . " He took a deep breath, but his voice still cracked a little when he continued. "I did that once, screwed up and lost everyone important to me because of something I did. I can't . . . you're the only thing that's made me be able to forgive myself, Vin, and if I lose you for the same damned reason . . . "

"Ain't the same," Vin said. "Ella Gaines was crazy. You had no way a knowin' that when you was with her."

Chris rubbed at his face. "Maybe I'm as crazy as she is. I let something happen that could destroy the only good thing in my life. And I don't even know why."

That wasn't what Vin had meant - hell, he couldn't begin to compare the destruction that Ella Gaines had brought on Chris to what - what - well, what? Surely him leaving Chris - hell, that wasn't it at all. Chris had left him - hadn't he?

His confusion was getting worse, he didn't know what he was doing, what he was feeling.

"Fuck," he hissed. He almost threw his cup down, then remembered at the last second that it was Mrs. Hudson's, and he didn't want to damage anything of hers. "Fuck all," he swore instead.

"I don't know what happened," Chris continued, and his voice sounded like a whimper. "You know how I feel about Ezra - oh hell, maybe I am crazy, or he finally drove me there. He made me so angry, all I wanted to do was shoot him, then suddenly - " His words cut off, and it was only then that Vin realized it was because he was leaning over the other man, his hands locked in Chris' hair, pulling him to his feet.

"Shut up, damn you ta hell, shut the fuck up." He was babbling, rambling, saying anything to drive Chris' words, Chris' pain, his own pain, away. "You ain't crazy, anybody'd wanna shoot Ez, he don't never shut up - oh, fuck all, Chris, don't do this!"

He pulled Chris against him, wrapping his arms tight around the shaking shoulders, cradling Chris' head against his neck.

"Hush now," he murmured against Chris' ear, "jist hush. Ain't goin' nowhere, not if ya don't want me to." He knew it was true, even though he couldn't say why. Like Chris taking Ez. Some things, apparently, just were.

He held Chris close, stroking his back as the shaking slowly ebbed. Before it was done though, he felt more than heard someone approach.


He winced. Mrs. Hudson of course - no one else was up this time of the morning. He felt Chris stiffen against him, and try to pull away, but he held tight. He'd learned long ago that pretending something wasn't happening was worse than admitting to it, but explaining it another way.

"Smoke fever," he said softly over his shoulder to her. "Chris got too much smoke in his eyes and his lungs. Happens sometimes after a fire. His eyes are watering something fierce, and itching - I been trying to stop him from scratching."

Catching on, Chris coughed weakly against Vin's chest.

"Is he all right?" Mrs. Hudson asked. "Can I do anything?"

Vin tried not to smile as he answered, "No, M'am, I'm gonna get him back to his room, let him rest a while. That usually takes care of it." Adjusting his grip so that he had an arm around Chris' back, he guided the other man away from Mrs. Hudson.

"Well, you boys let me know if there's anything I can do. Oh, and Vin? I'm making fried chicken for lunch, with the seasonings you boys like. For all the work you did saving the town from the fire."

Vin looked over his shoulder at her, sincere in his appreciation. "Thank you, Mrs. Hudson. I'll be sure the others know. You know how much we all like your chicken."

She smiled at him, but her eyes were worried as she looked to Chris. "Should I get Nathan?"

"No, M'am, ain't no need in waking Nate just yet. Chris just needs some rest. I'll see to him and if it gets worse, I'll get Nate myself. I 'spect he'll be by later anyway. Mornin', M'am." With his arms around Chris, he couldn't touch his hat - which kept him from embarrassing himself when he remembered that he didn't have it on, either.

By the time they reached the boardwalk in front of the boarding house, Chris was under his own power. But he still leaned on Vin, and Vin didn't have the courage to pull away. Mrs. Hudson was still watching, so he continued to play along.

As he closed the door to the boarding house behind them, he sighed. Instead of pulling away, though, Chris tightened his own hold on Vin.

"Thank you," he murmured. "I'm sorry for putting you - "

Unthinkingly, he raised a hand and covered Chris' mouth. "Stop it," he sighed. "Just . . . stop it." He drew away as much as he could given the hold Chris had on him. "You get on up to your room. Just let me . . . let me think."

But instead of letting him go, Chris held on tighter. "Don't want you to think, Vin. I need you. Now. Please." One hand slid down Vin's spine, rubbing at the small of his back where the ache had settled.

It was sort of cheating, Vin thought, that Chris knew how to use his own body against him. It wasn't even sexual - well, not at the beginning, anyway. But Chris knew where and how to touch his back, how to draw out the cramps in the muscles that twisted his bones. He didn't know how Chris knew - hell, according to Chris, he didn't even know how he knew.

And there is was, another one of those things that just couldn't be explained, that just was.

"Vin?" Chris had straightened a little, his face even with Vin's. "Come with me?"

The fingers dug a little deeper into the tightness, loosening it. As the muscles relaxed, the tingling that followed spread outward, replacing the discomfort with a pleasant warmth and a lack of sensation that was almost erotic. His limbs felt lighter, he felt almost giddy from the relief.

Giddy enough that when Chris applied just enough pressure to move him forward, he didn't resist. He even let himself be guided up the stairs, stumbling a little when his feet didn't seem to weigh as much and he tripped on a step. Or two.

It was only as those hands left him and the tension started to return that he realized that he was standing inside Chris' room, staring at the bed. It looked different now, empty, for one, and made, the quilt smoothed firmly over the mattress, the white, worn sheets hidden beneath. The pillows were placed at the head, plumped enough to look comfortable, no hint of who had lain there last.


He was vaguely aware of the door closing, the latch locking, then the hands were back on him, kneading. He closed his eyes, partly to focus his attention on how good it felt, partly to focus his attention away from the bed.

One arm caught around his waist, holding him in place as Chris stepped closer. His hand pressed harder into Vin's back, the pressure just at the threshold of hurting more than helping. Chris whispered against his neck, a warm breeze that tickled as it spoke. "Want you, wanna show you how much. Need you, Vin, now and always."

Always. They had never said it before, never needed to. It had been understood - well, he thought it had. But maybe not. Maybe Chris needed to say it, and maybe he needed to hear it as well. Maybe that was where things had turned.

The arm around his waist moved up, fingers catching at the buttons of his shirt. He didn't resist - didn't help, he wasn't sure he was ready for that yet - but he didn't fight it. Didn't move when the cloth was pulled off his shoulders, sliding down his arms to the floor. Didn't flinch when thin lips kissed along his bare back, a wet tongue licked along his neck.

Didn't balk when both hands fell to his pants, pulling them open with practiced ease.

He tried to like it when Chris moved around, dropping to his knees, tried to let the hunger control him as his pants were tugged away, his slowly growing erection pulled free.

Tried to feel only satisfaction as Chris' mouth took him, slid over his thickening head, sucked him to complete hardness. He watched as his cock slid between those lips he knew so well, watched as the long fingers clutched the base of his shaft, holding him still, creating a vice to complete the suction as Chris took as much as he could.

Not all; Chris had never developed the skill to open his throat and swallow Vin's length, to keep himself from gagging when the thick tip lay on back of his tongue. It was no different now, the muscular constrictions exciting, playing over him in a way that was purely physical, the grip at the base working back and forth, encouraging.

No matter how good it felt, how much he wanted it, he couldn't give in to it. Something about it just wasn't right to his way of thinking. To his way of perceiving Chris.

He managed to go a few more minutes, appreciating the feel of the hot mouth sucking on him, before the building orgasm was held at bay by the feeling of wrongness.

He reached out, his fingers running though Chris' hair and over the back of his head, curving over his cheek and into the hollow created by the suction. It was distracting and strange to feel himself through the taut skin of his lover's mouth, to trace the hard lines of his own swollen flesh as well as the whiskery warmth of Chris' face.

The rattle of his own groan brought his eyes open, the sight reminding him that he couldn't let this happen. With effort, he forced his hand lower, to come along the underside of Chris' jaw. Carefully, he canted the other man backwards and off of him, sighing in regret as the physical connection ended.

"Not like this," he rasped out, helping Chris rise to his feet. He ignored the flash of relief he saw in the other's eyes, knowing that it was mirrored in his own.

Chris leaned in close, his hands closing on Vin's shoulders, but Vin turned away from the kiss.

"Wanna feel ya," Vin reached for the buttons on Chris' shirt. He let them hold his attention instead of meeting the other man's eyes. Some part of him knew he should be embarrassed by how quickly he was forgetting, how willingly he was surrendering to what had happened, but the rest of him was still haunted by the idea that he could make Chris suffer. That Chris needed him as much as he needed Chris.

Chris caught his hands, pulled them to his lips and kissed each one on the scarred knuckles before pushing them away. Stepping back, he pulled the shirt over his head and tossed it to the floor, out of the way. Vin barely heard it hit the floor before he was caught in a hard embrace, his mouth taken by the other man's.

They had kissed before - not often, and almost always in course of their desire, but this time was different. Maybe it was the taste of himself on Chris' tongue - it had been there once or twice before, but never this strong.

Or maybe it was because Chris' tongue had never been this far into his mouth, this demanding or persistent. This consuming.

Chris nipples rubbed against his, sparking a kind of irritating itch that made him shiver. He pulled back, then fell back onto the bed, surprised; he hadn't been aware of moving - which was probably what Chris wanted.

Chris was on his knees again, this time pulling at Vin's boots. When they were off, he made short work of his own - then pulled off his own pants.

Vin stared. He loved to look at Chris, loved particularly to see him in full nakedness. He didn't get to see it often, not even when it was just the two of them in a private place.

No amount of anger or shame or - anything could make him feel anything but pure want for the man before him now, hard planes, sharp lines, sleek flesh. Proud erection, that was just for Vin -

It stabbed, knowing that now that belief was wrong, too -

Chris caught his face in both hands, kissing him hard again, invading his mouth and taking away the thoughts. Fingers trailed down, teasing his nipples with more force, making him arch and gasp as wildfire seemed to race through his body.

He knew Chris was grinning, the thin lips stretched thinner, but the shuddering of his body at the continued attention to his chest took his breath and his mind. At some point, he found himself stretched out on his back, his body explored and tormented with an attention he had never experienced - not even before, with Chris.

'Guilt' drifted lazily through his consciousness even as the hum of his body's own responses drowned his ability to think.

His pants were pushed away, then farther down, catching between his thighs and the side of the bed, but he hardly noticed the pinching as his erection was pulsing in time to his heartbeat. Chris bowed over it, taking it again into his mouth.

It was more right this time, Chris not submissive but in control of himself and of Vin. His hands gripped Vin's hips, keeping him still despite his attempts to thrust. This was familiar, the way it usually went between them - Chris on top, demanding even as he gave pleasure.

Vin surrendered, thrilling as the tide of orgasm rose again, riding nothing but the waves of carnal want. He was close, so close, just a little more -

He almost cried out as Chris stopped, that haven of warmth and wetness gone. Only the skill of many years of hiding kept him quiet and even then, he was deaf himself but to the drum of his heart and the whistle of his own lungs.

He didn't quite make out what Chris was saying now, only getting bits and pieces.

"Want . . . in. . . need to feel . . . . "

He nodded, assuming; Chris wanted them to finish together, or close to it, Chris inside him. It was all right - Vin had learned to appreciate the coupling; Chris might be in control, even in this, but he never left Vin unsatisfied, and he never hurt him. Not even a little.

Not even when a little pain, a little roughness, would have been nice.

He looked over as the mattress shifted, Chris reaching for the drawer on the small bedside table. The tin of oil he kept there, for this purpose. As he drew it out, Vin noticed that it was new, not the silver tin he was used to, the one like Nate had given him with the liniment for his back; this one was a clear glass bottle, the oil fluid and heavy, a light yellow that made him think of honey. He blinked, wondering where it had come, wondering if he had used it with -

"For you," Chris said quietly, holding it out. And Vin noticed that the stopper was still set in wax, the bottle unopened. "I bought it last week - Mrs. Potter had one open for Casey."

Vin frowned, not quite sure he liked the association.

"Open it," Chris smiled.

Vin was still frowning, but he sat up and did as he was bid, liking the way Chris' fingers brushed against his as he took the small bottle.

The wax was soft enough to give easy, and when he pulled the stopper clear, he knew why Chris had thought of him. The smell was light but brisk, a sort of cedar and mint combination that made him think of winter in the mountains. He smiled.

"Try this," Chris said, taking the bottle from his grasp and dabbing some of the oil on a finger tip. He reached up and ran it lightly over Vin's upper lip.

Vin blinked. "Tingles," he murmured, touching his lip.

"Too much?" Chris asked, a little anxious.

Vin grinned, shaking his head. "Nah, not too much." He leaned forward slowly, toward Chris, then kissed him on the lips. Pulling back, he tilted his head to one side.

Chris was still for a few seconds before grinning himself. "Not too much."

He poured a little of the oil on his palm then, with no warning, his hand caught Vin's slightly wilted cock.

The tingling had an instant effect - he was painfully hard before he could draw a breath.

"Fuck, Chris," he gasped as Chris' stroked him, teasing.

"That's the idea," Chris laughed. His hand kept its rhythm even has he pushed Vin back down and moved to straddle him, his body centered over Vin's thighs.

He bent over Vin, finding his mouth and kissing hard. Vin heard a moan, thought it might be himself, but felt a vibration through his groin that had to be Chris. Didn't matter, he was getting close again, and even though he knew what Chris wanted, a selfish part of him wanted to be first and only - just him this time.

Chris sat up, and his rhythm broke, letting Vin slip once more from the pinnacle. He sighed, the frustration becoming an actual pain, until he opened his eyes to find Chris reaching back behind himself, his eyes closed in a sort of concentration as he worked his hand over his own -

"What are ya doin?" Vin demanded, getting his elbows under him and propping himself up. The view was better at this angle and the sight of Chris touching himself there, easing his own fingers into his body - the thought alone was enough to make Vin ache. The sight of it . . .

"Told ya," Chris grunted, his eyes still closed. "Want to let you take me this time. Wanna prove how much I want ya - Christ, this stuff really has a bite, doesn't it."

Vin swallowed, feeling dizzy and sweaty and almost sick. "What?" he coughed out, not able to draw air. "You want me - are you cr - " He caught himself; he wasn't going back down that trail, that was what had got them here to start with. But the idea of what Chris was suggesting, of being in Chris . . . .

He swallowed again and tried to breathe - there wasn't enough air in the room suddenly.

Chris was still working on his own plan, his face set in hard lines of effort. Too much effort, Vin thought, and as much as the thought of what Chris was offering taunted him and excited him, it was even more wrong than letting Chris stay on his knees.

He couldn't. He wanted it - but only in his fantasies. Not now, not this way. Not because of this. That would be just another way that this business with Ezra had screwed things up. Maybe one day, when things between them were more secure. But not now.

He lifted on arm, catching Chris by the elbow and stopping the movement of his hand behind him. "No, Chris," he mumbled, "ain't right."

Chris frowned deeper as he opened his eyes. "What?" he asked, and Vin saw that his consternation was real. "What ain't right? You don't - dontcha want me?"

Vin smiled, something tight leaving his chest. "Every day since I metcha," he agreed. "And prob'ly every day for the rest of my life." He let his hand glide up Chris' arm to rest on his shoulder. "But it ain't what you want - I know you'd give it to me, and that makes it all the more special, that you'd give it to me even when you don't rightly want to. But that's not how I want it, and right now - right now I don't want nothin' that's gonna put us more outta sorts. Right now . . . . " He let his hand follow the line of Chris' neck up to again cup his cheek, holding the other man's gaze. "Right now, I wantcha in me, where ya should be."

Chris studied him, his stare boring into Vin so intently that Vin thought he must be reading the back of his skull.

"Are you - "

Vin let his thumb rub over Chris' lips, stopping the question. "I'm as sure now as I was the first time."

"I won't ever hurt you. Never - never that way."

"I know," Vin agreed. He grinned, thinking to lighten the mood a little. "Hell, you're so careful with me that I wonder sometimes if ya think I might break like some kinda fancy plate."

Chris grinned as well, and his arm slowly came forward to rest on his thigh. "I just - I know you been hurt that way and I never want ya to think of me like . . . like one of the others."

Vin shook his head. "Can't ever think of you that way. You ain't like no one else. Not to me." He lay back down then, his hand teasing down Chris' chest as he drew back. "Now, how 'bout ya fuck me like I'm one of them wooden trays Mrs. Hudson uses. You know, long, and hard, and a little rough."

Chris smiled down at him. "I can try. I always do try. But for some reason, when I'm in ya, I never seem to be able to last." He bowed down to catch Vin's lips, his hands resting on either side of Vin's head. "You got some kinda magnetism of your own there, Tanner. Draws the seed right outta me."

Vin grinned at that, one hand twisting between them to catch Chris' erection. "Works two ways," he said as he tugged. "Now gimme my oil."

Chris surrendered it with a laugh and another kiss, then shifted off of Vin so he could sit up.

"You like it?" he asked as Vin poured just a little in his hand.

"Nice," Vin smiled, meeting Chris' gaze just before he gripped the other man again. Chris hissed at the touch of the oil on his cock, but whatever discomfort he was feeling quickly passed. He closed his eyes, sighing.

"You really thinking of me when you got this?" Vin asked softly, stroking languidly.

Chris opened his eyes, his gaze heavy as it met Vin's. "Yes. I was thinking of you."

Vin nodded once, holding out the oil. "Do me," he rasped. "Want you."

But as Chris retook the bottle and Vin started to turn, Chris caught his wrist and held it. "I want . . . I want to see you this time. Want to look in your eyes."

They'd never done it face-to-face; Vin had been taken once that way, and it had hurt so bad that he'd never suggested it to Chris. Apparently, Chris had been doing some thinking of his own - or finding out in other ways.

Vin hadn't meant to show anything, but Chris knew him well, sometimes too well. He frowned. "I won't hurt you - I'd never - "

"Shhhh," Vin kissed him, then kicked his pants off before laying back down on the bed. Putting his arms behind his head, he put the foot farthest from Chris on the bed, opening his legs. "Think the oil's warm enough?"

Eventually Chris reached between his legs, his fingers almost tickling as they traced along his balls and past them, up the vulnerable space he guarded. He closed his eyes, willing himself to relax; it was always worst now, at the first touch.

Even though he was prepared for it, having had it on several of his own most tender places, the sting of the oil still made him start, even more than the brush against his opening. Despite himself, he tensed so that Chris' attempt to breach him was a harder than usual, and the other man stopped.

The worry on his face was more bothersome to Vin than the discomfort. "You're right," Vin said by way of explanation. "It does burn a might."

"Bad?" Chris asked already starting to pull away.

Vin clamped his muscles and pulled his legs together, holding Chris in place. "Just takes a space to get used to. Done now." He grinned, then shifted, settling his hips lower on the bed - lower on Chris' hand.

The discomfort grew just a little - a combination of the depth of penetration and the oil with it, but then Chris started exploring and it wasn't long before he hit that spot that made Vin see stars.

"Jesus," Chris whispered, pulling back just a little to add a second finger, "you're so tight, so . . . so . . . ."

Vin willed himself to relax, to enjoy the way Chris was loving him. He wanted it, he wanted to make Chris happy. He wanted to feel the way that this made him feel, after he got past the initial reluctance.

After the initial pain. And it was, no matter how well they prepared him, no matter how much he wanted it, there was always that first little resistance that hurt. It passed quickly - Chris was too gentle and patient for it to last, but it was always there.

Vin had decided that it wasn't real, but a memory pain, from all the times before, his body's way of reminding him of the past. The People believed that the body had its own ways of telling stories and this was one story that, while he tried in his mind to forget it, his body wouldn't let him. He just hated that it had to be told every time he wanted to be with Chris.

Chris touched that spot again, and his body joined his mind in the present. He arched, wanting more, and Chris complied. The stretching was greater now, and little more awkward, but Chris was trying to make it good. He kept brushing that place and even though he couldn't get the angle as good now, the contact still sent shivers through Vin, leaving him wanting still more.

"Pillow," Vin hissed, pulling both feet up on the bed.

"What?" Chris asked, watching his hand move between Vin's legs.

"Gimme a pillow," Vin commanded, stretching out one arm himself toward the head of the bed.

Chris frowned, his concentration broken, but he stretched as far as he could without pulling out of Vin's body and snagged the closest one. He dragged it toward them, even as he leaned down and let his teeth catch one of Vin's nipples.

"Fuck!" Vin moaned, his chest heaving.

"Yeah," Chris agreed. He straightened, watching, as Vin clumsily folded the pillow then shoved it under the small of his back. "You hurting worse?" he asked, the worry aging his face. Both of his hands were on his thighs now, his cock still rigid and shiny with the oil Vin had applied.

Vin shifted, settling himself more solidly. "Makes it easier," he explained. "I'm ready."

Chris looked down, his eyes widening and the worry washing away. He reached out with the oily hand, cupping Vin's balls and squeezing lightly. "Don't wanna hurtcha - "

"Yeah, yeah, I know," Vin interrupted, tired of this strange ritual Chris demanded. "Put your arms under my knees - it's all right, Chris, just do it."

"Bossy, ain'tcha," Chris said, but he did as he was told, his grin widening as the new position parted Vin's thighs even more. "Nice, though."

Vin closed his eyes, trying to ignore the pull on his lower back as Chris moved into position. He controlled his breathing, willed himself not to flinch as the bulbous head of Chris' cock stuttered toward his opening, willed himself not to think of any other time.

"You okay?" Chris asked.

Vin barely caught his anger at the disruption. "Damn it," he growled, not opening his eyes, "you gonna fuck me or talk me to damned death?" As the words left his mouth, he had a sudden flash of Ezra - was that what Chris had wanted, someone to talk to him? Ezra certainly could do that.

The disquiet of that possibility, the idea that that might be where he had failed Chris, jolted him out of his hard-won calm and he tensed just as Chris pushed against him.

The burn was razor sharp and he gasped, his hands clawing at Chris's hips.

"Christ!" Chris tensed, body rigid. "Vin - what - "

"'S'all right," Vin stammered, trying to catch his breath. "Just - gimme a minute, I - hold on - dammit, don't move, Chris." The last came out as a cry as Chris tried to pull out.

Chris stilled, but he was breathing almost as hard as Vin, and Vin already regretted his loss of control. He drew several deep breaths, then, getting hold of himself, he willed his body into compliance. As his muscles finally relaxed, Chris slipped a little father in. But this time, there was no burn, just the usual pangs.

"Vin," Chris said, swallowing.

"I'm okay," Vin interrupted, "I just - I - "

Slowly, Chris leaned down until his face was over Vin's, his eyes boring. "Don't think about him," he said. "I don't want to talk you to death - I don't want anyone but you. You talk all I want, Vin, I promise you that."

Vin started to nod, but the movement was stopped as Chris dropped the slight distance between them and took Vin's mouth, claiming it with less patience than he was showing on the other end of Vin's body.

It might have been the words or the action, or both, but whatever it was, Vin found his acceptance again, in his mind and body. Chris slid deeper in as Vin surrendered to the caress of the tongue in his mouth and the hands that had started tracing patterns on his thighs. His back twinged at the weight, and the angle made it harder to ignore the fullness and the heat, but his own need was building again, stirred by the light fingers moving closer and closer to his own groin.

Chris tugged firmly at Vin's flagging erection, and it responded properly. The first clear drops were slipping from the tip when Chris was fully sheathed, his balls slowly bouncing against Vin's ass.

"Can't last," Chris grunted, pulling up. He shifted, catching Vin's hips and pulling him a little farther up, changing the angle. For an instant, the burn was back, but then he pushed even farther in and caught that spot.

Vin barely caught the cry, trapping it in his throat so that it almost strangled him. He was hardly aware of that, though, for having found it, Chris was hammering on it, short, driving thrusts that pushed Vin past any other awareness. It was almost too much, the constancy crossing the fine line between pleasure and pain with more frequency and he was on the point of trying to pull away when Chris did instead, drawing himself almost all the way out before pushing back in.

He tried to make it smooth, but Vin's body wasn't quite relaxed enough yet and the burn started. It almost caught up to the ebbing currents of need still jolting through him, leaving a hint in his vague consciousness that he was going to be sore later, before Chris hit the mark again.

The next time, Chris didn't give him time to do more than feel the burn, which was lessening as his body accepted, before he was struck again by the current of hard want.

Twice more, faster, deeper, and he was over the edge, his body taking its own control.

He came back to himself slowly, consciousness creeping in on his other senses, Chris' muted gasp in his ear, the bruising force of his lover's last deep thrust into him, the complaint of his legs as they bore the weight of the other man, bending back more than his body tolerated. The tickle of sweat down his cheek, the itch of his own semen drying on his belly, the pinch on his ass where Chris held him split wide.

He waited as long as he could, until the cramping was so bad that he couldn't breath. But before he could speak, Chris drew in a shaky breath and eased back. Vin's legs started down but Chris caught them, holding them as he carefully pulled himself free. He was still partly erect despite the ejaculation, and the width tore a little, making Vin jerk.

But the relief as his legs were lowered was so strong that he forgot all else.

He lay still, complacent, as Chris settled him, moving from between his legs to lie beside him. He moved as Chris directed, letting the pillow under his hips be moved to prop his head, letting his body be pulled against Chris'.

They lay that way, Vin drowsing, letting himself appreciate the tender way that Chris always held him afterwards, touching him more intimately than he did during sex. This was why he allowed everything else - why he allowed Chris what he would allow no one else.

Why he would forget.


"Smoke fever?" Nathan arched an eyebrow, looking at Vin over the top of his beer. "This something you learned with the Indians you lived with?"

Vin felt the flush rise in his cheeks, but he held his voice steady. "Could say that," he answered, lifting his own glass of whiskey. Beside him, he felt Chris twitch and wondered whether it was amusement or embarrassment.

Nathan, fortunately, wasn't given to argument. "Well, as long as you're all right now - you are all right now, aren't you, Chris?"

Chris looked up, catching the healer's eyes. "Right as rain, now, thanks, Nate. Vin's got a touch almost as sweet as yours."

Vin almost choked on his whiskey, coughing as the others at the table - Buck, Josiah, and Nathan - all laughed.

"I'll be remembering that the next time you get shot," Nathan retorted, but he was still grinning. "I think my knives are finer, probably smaller than his, but if he's got such a sweet touch . . . "

"Oh, hell, Nathan," Vin started, worried suddenly that they had hurt the healer's feelings, "you know Chris don't mean nothing - "

"I know, Vin," Nathan grinned. "I'm just joshing with you."

"Speaking of which," Buck spoke up, turning to Chris with a grin, "you and Ez get everything worked out about Farnway's jewels?"

Vin looked down at his lap, letting the brim of his hat hide his eyes. He felt Chris tense beside him, and felt a certain satisfaction in it. The pain in his ass lessened just a little; Chris was his, not Ezra's.

"It's settled," Chris said shortly, reaching for the bottle of whiskey. "Better damned well be, anyway. You heard otherwise?"

Buck shook his head, but Vin noticed that he glanced toward Vin before saying, "Mighta seen some stuff, but no, ain't heard nothing."

Chris nodded, pouring himself another drink. He held out the bottle toward Vin, who shook his head. He was good at the moment. In fact, he wasn't planning on staying much longer. It was getting on into the evening and Ezra would be down soon. He wasn't ready to face the other man yet.

As if reading his mind, Chris said, "I'm gonna ride the early patrol in the morning. You boys okay to keep an eye on things here tonight?"

Buck glanced at Vin again, this time with a certain wariness. "Think so," he answered. "Should be a pretty slow night, being the middle of the week and all."

"Good," Chris said, draining his glass. He set it on the table and stood, stretching. "You riding with me?" he looked to Vin.

Vin looked up at him, surprised by the question. "If ya want me to," he answered as casually as possible.

"Let's go then. Don't wanna have to roust you outta bed in the morning," he grinned, and the others laughed.

"Like that would ever happen," Josiah said as Vin put his not-empty glass on the table and rose as well. "I think Vin here gets the chickens up."

Vin chuckled. "Nah, but y'all go on thinking that. Like to have the element of surprise."

"Indeed you do, Mr. Tanner," a familiar drawl sounded from Vin's left. "You are just full of them, aren't you."

Before Vin could answer, Chris did it for him. "Which is the way we want it, right, Ezra?"

Ezra stepped into Vin's view, smiling politely at Chris. But the smile didn't meet his eyes, and they were downright flat when they caught Vin's. "Why, of course it is. Mr. Tanner is our unquestioned expert on sneak attacks, after all."

Vin felt a slow boil starting, and before he could stop himself, he said, "Can't be sneaky 'lessen you got something needs attacking." His voice was low, but he'd learned that it could be intimidating.

Apparently it was now, as he was aware that Josiah and Nathan were glancing to each other and Buck had straightened in his chair, watching closely.

But it was Chris who spoke, his tone measured. "We don't need any attacks of any kind tonight. Ezra, you and Buck keep an eye on things here. I'm gonna take the morning patrol with Vin." He started away, but after a step, he reached back and caught the sleeve of Vin's jacket. "Come on, let's check on the horses. Pony was a little gimpy earlier today and I want to be sure he's not throwing a shoe - come on."

Vin let himself be pulled away, nodding to his friends at the table, as he passed, but his eyes came back to Ezra's as he reached the door. The other man just stared, his expression unreadable - to Vin, at least.

They were in the narrow alley by the livery before Chris spoke, his tone hard, his voice low, even though they were alone. "Leave Ezra out of this. What happened was my fault, not his. Don't take it out on him."

Vin stopped, simmering again. When Chris realized he was alone, he turned back, squaring off.

"Don't remember being the one who started it," Vin said evenly, resting his weight on one foot and letting his hip jut. "Maybe I ain't the one you should be accounting to."

Chris' jaw clenched. "You're the only person I account to, Vin. Ezra . . . . he didn't do anything."

Vin studied Chris closely, something finally rising to the surface of his mind. "He didn't know, did he. You didn't tell him about us."

Chris frowned. "No, I didn't tell him about us. But . . . " The frown deepened, looking a little like confusion now. "He did know about us. About you, anyway."

"What the hell does that mean?" Vin demanded, hooking his thumbs into his gunbelt. "How can he know about me if he don't know about us?"

Chris looked away, and Vin understood.

The boil turned into a bubbling that spilled out of his mouth in hot words. "You don't mind if he knows that I love you as long as he don't know that it goes the other way."

Chris looked at the ground, his shoulders slumping. "It won't ever happen again, Vin, I swear - "

"Yeah, I got all that," Vin cut him off. "I think I got it all, actually - you don't want ta lose me, but you don't want anyone to know that you might care about me more than is right. Or, as Ez sees it, it's all right to fuck me as long as you don't feel nothing about it."

He'd kept his voice low, but the choice of words were like the ringing of bells to Chris, who was looking around as if they could be heard by the entire town.

The sound of footsteps behind them cut off the conversation, both turning toward the newcomer.

Given the way things had been going, Vin was far from surprised to find Ezra sauntering up to them.

"Not quite the way I would have put it, Mr. Tanner," he drawled softly, "but not inaccurate, either." He came to a stop across from Vin, creating a third point in their triangle. He looked from Vin to Chris, then back. "So I would be correct in assuming that you and Mr. Larabee have a difference of opinion as to the nature of your relationship."

Before Vin could puzzle out exactly what he meant, Chris was answering. "No, Ezra," he said, exasperated. "We don't have a difference of opinion. I made a promise to Vin and I broke it with you. I don't plan to do it again."

Ezra smiled, his gold tooth glinting. "Ah, I see. So, you were planning to break it before - what, you got caught?"

It somehow unnerved Vin that Ezra was thinking the same way he had.

"No," Chris answered slowly and deliberately. "But I can tell you that it will not happen again."

"Because you always honor your promises - especially after you've been caught." He looked at Vin, a certain challenge in his eyes.

"Because I know what I stand to lose," Chris said softly. "And I'm not prepared to lose it."

Ezra looked at Chris, his eyes glittering in the fading sunlight. "You love him."

It was out in the open now, and Vin felt himself tense, prepared for the worst.

His tension grew as Chris remained silent, staring at Ezra.

Eventually, Ezra's smile widened and his gaze came back to Vin. "Perhaps you should ask yourself, Mr. Tanner, if you are worthy of a man who can't place a value on you."

Then he turned, walking away, leaving Vin unsure. He didn't want to agree with Ezra, but at the same time . . . .

He felt Chris move near, felt the words before he heard them blowing in his ear. "I do love you, Vin. You know that. So does he. It wasn't a question." He leaned down, the brim of his hat touching Vin's. "He knows where we stand now. Where I stand."

Vin continued to stare after Ezra, wondering how Chris could be so certain.


"Think I'm gonna head out to the cabin tonight," Chris said, as he pushed his plate away and leaned back in his chair.

Vin nodded, still chewing on his biscuit. It'd been a long day; their morning patrol had ended up growing well into the afternoon, tracking a couple of wolves that had taken down one of Hiram Nechaus' calves. The man hadn't asked for their help; since his wife had been accidentally shot and killed by a stray bullet from JD's gun when she'd been in the middle of a bank robbery, he'd refused to speak to any of them except Josiah. He only came into town on Sundays preferring to make the long drive over to Eagle Bend when he needed supplies.

Chris had heard about the calf when he'd stopped at one of the other nearby homesteads to check in, and Vin had been more than happy to have something to do other than ride the silent patrol with his silent lover.

"Wanna come?" Chris asked, the question quiet. "Be easier to ride patrol in the morning."

Vin looked up, curious.

Chris was staring at him, his gaze direct and unmistakable.

Vin felt the a stirring in his groin, and despite himself, he was amazed. They'd had more sex in the past week than they'd had in the past month. Every opportunity that presented itself seemed to be taken advantage of - and with them riding together in the mornings as they had for over a week, there were a lot of opportunities.

They hadn't this morning, the wolves taking all their attention, but the idea of Chris' cabin - a bed, where they could make noise . . . .

But something else was pushing at him as well, something that had been building for the past few days. "Sure you want company?" he asked after swallowing. "Think you'd be getting right tired of me by now."

Chris smiled at him, a slight turning of the lips but a strong flare in his eyes. "Find I like the company better than I expected," he said quietly. "You're easy to get on with."

Vin felt the blush crawl up his neck and he looked down to his plate. "As long as we're thinking the same way," he mumbled.

Chris leaned forward, his hand innocently brushing along Vin's arm. "We think more alike than not, Vin." He grinned. "But sometimes, it's nice when we don't agree."

Vin looked up, blinking. There was something in Chris' tone that was different, something hard. It sparked a flair deep inside him.

He was trying to think of a way to push the idea when the door to the restaurant opened and Buck, JD, and Ezra strolled in, and upon catching sight of them, headed over.

Vin nodded to them, pushing his own chair back to make room at the small table. He tried not to let it bother him when Ezra settled in beside Chris, a task made easier by Chris's evident discomfort as well; he also moved back to make room for the others, his chair coming so close to Vin's that their shoulders were touching.

Buck and JD were going on about some gun trick JD had read about in one of his books, and they didn't seem to notice the strange tension in the air.

A strange tension that seemed to grow as Vin felt Ezra's eyes on him.

"Well, Mr. Larabee, I hardly suspect that I speak for myself alone when I say that your absence has been keenly felt this past week. Mrs. Travis was asking me just this morning if you and Mr. Tanner had eloped together to parts unknown."

Vin looked down at the table, refusing to let himself lose control.

"Funny," Chris said casually, "she didn't mention a thing to me about it when I spoke to her just before supper." He leaned back in his chair, turning to look at Ezra. "I don't suspect there are that many people who've even noticed our absence - other than, perhaps, to be relieved."

Buck and JD laughed, and even Vin had to smile a little.

"Oh, I don't know, Big Dog," Buck piped up, "it has been rather quiet around here without your temper going off. I think Ol' Ez here is just bored!"

He and JD laughed again, but Vin noticed that while Chris was trying to grin, there was tension in the set of his shoulders.

It grew sharper when Ezra responded, "It is difficult to keep my repertoire of rebukes and admonitions timely and effective without practice. Certainly the company of the others is lacking in the ability to provoke many of my finer qualities." Ezra smiled, his gaze entirely for Chris.

"Careful, Ez," Chris responded, "that sounded an awful lot like a compliment."

The other man shrugged, a graceful gesture that emphasized the fine lines of his jacket and the perfect fall of the cuffs of his shirt. "At least you read books, Mr. Larabee - something other than the religious and philosophical. Did I mention that I received a copy of the first volume Gibbons Decline and Fall of Rome? Magnificent - the man's scholarship is astounding. I'm certain that you would find it as compelling as I do."

"Decline and Fall of - Rome, New York?" JD asked. "Who really cares about a little town in - "

"No, you cretin," Ezra said through clenched teeth. "Rome, Italy - the greatest of empires? The Rome of Hadrian, and Constantine, and Julius Caesar, and - "

"Hey, didn't they have some of them statues of women at their most beautiful?" Buck piped up, and this time Chris did laugh.

Ezra turned and glared at the other man, but JD had already picked up the thread. "You mean - " He blushed, but continued, "naked women?"

"The very ones!" Buck agreed happily. "Does that book talk about those, Ezra? If so, I think I want to read it!"

Chris snorted and JD burst into laugher as Ezra's glare deepened. "There are far more interesting aspects to such a grand and powerful history than its sexuality!"

"Well, if I remember what I've read, it did have an interesting history of that as well," Chris murmured, reaching for his coffee mug.

Vin knew little about this - any of this, but he did know enough about Ezra to see the surprise that he quickly masked.

"You think all that's true?" JD asked, making Vin feel even stupider. "All that stuff about - well, you know, about men being with other men and them - you know, them - "

"Orgies?" Ezra supplied the word, smirking as JD turned as red as Buck's bandana.

"Lord have mercy!" Buck whooped. "Now if they'd given me books like that to read in school, I mighta become a scholar just like Ezra here! No wonder you like reading so much!"

Even Vin had to laugh at that, as much at Buck's attitude as at the complete indignation on Ezra's face.

"Every culture is different," Ezra said as the laughter began to ebb. "What is right for some is not necessarily right for all. As Mr. Tanner likes to remind us, Indian cultures see things very differently from the way of the civilized world."

Vin felt the pull of anger again, but this time, it was Buck who intervened. "So Vin, these tribes you were with - they anything like the Romans? Anything I should know?"

He waggled his eyebrows, the suggestion as blatant as it could be, and despite his annoyance at Ezra, Vin found himself laughing again. "No, Buck, I don't know nothing 'bout no orgies. The Peoples are different in some ways, a little more open to some things, but when it comes right down to it, they believe that what happens between two people is between two people."

"Or three?" Ezra asked casually.

And before he even thought about what he was doing, Vin nodded. "Or three, or even four, I guess. Them hide tents are nice but they can get as cold as anywhere else in the dead of winter, I reckon."

Buck was waggling his eyebrows again. "I might just have to get me a hide tent then, before the winter gets here."

Vin was shaking his head at Buck's antics which had JD squawking again, so he was only vaguely aware of Ezra's gaze on him, vaguely aware of a sort of discomfort.

But he was aware of it later, as he lay under Chris, willing him to move, willing him to push, to thrust, to touch him harder, bring him off - willing him to stop whispering, "Mine, just mine. Goddamn him."


"Goddammit!" Chris stormed around the front of the jail, the small room even smaller in the wake of his anger and the press of five male bodies. "What the fuck did I tell you, Ezra? Did I tell you to try to talk to them? Did I tell you to negotiate?"

Vin watched warily, his eyes catching the twitch of Chris' fingers as they strayed near his guns.

"You did not tell me not to," Ezra countered, his voice remarkably calm for someone standing in the path of the full-on Larabee rage.

Vin wondered if the man was just plain stupid. Even he would have been a little worried facing Chris in this mood.

Or a lot worried, he corrected himself as Chris went dead still, his expression blank.

Killing rage.

Josiah was standing closer than Vin, who was leaning on the closed door, and when he straightened, something in the room shifted. Even better was when he spoke, his voice soft but steady - not placating, they all knew better than that, but calm.

"It wasn't Ezra's fault that JD got shot. That would have happened even if things had gone as you planned and as we wanted - JD was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Chris was still blank, his eyes locked with Ezra's.

But at least he hadn't drawn yet.

Buck was next, standing even closer to Chris, his voice even softer. "Ezra may or may not have been right in trying to talk to 'em," he said, edging closer, trying to get Chris to look at him - or at least look away from Ezra. For an instant, Buck's eyes caught Vin's and Vin saw real fear there. "But Josiah's right - what happened to JD had nothing to do with Ezra - and Chris, you know me, and you know how I feel about JD. If I thought for one minute that it was Ezra's fault that JD's laying up there with a bullet in his shoulder, you wouldn't have to be thinking about shooting Ezra, 'cause I'd already have done it."

Chris didn't move.

The silence grew heavier, until Buck took a step, his arm reaching out to touch Chris.

Vin spoke then, instinctively knowing that if he didn't, Buck was gonna be the one getting shot. "Ain't worth it," he said flatly. "Next time, Ez stays in the wagon, where JD was." He pulled himself upright, his thumbs hooking into his gunbelt. "I'm gonna check on JD. Call me if ya need help burying him."

With that, he turned and caught the doorknob, pulling the door open. He had managed to step through it when Chris finally spoke.

"You think the same thing they do?"

Vin paused, his eyes unconsciously scanning the street. He put one hand on the doorframe, leaning to one side as he thought, then, without turning around, he said. "Yeah. Nothing Ez did had anything to do with JD getting shot - 'cept maybe keeping him from getting killed. A minute or two earlier and he'da been hit by the guy first outta the bank - he shot before I could take 'im out and he hit right under where I was standing on the roof . If JD had been there, instead of a couple a feet up, where he was, that shot woulda gotten him straight through the chest." He shrugged. "Maybe." He finally glanced back over his shoulder, meeting Chris' eyes. "He fucked up, but he didn't get JD shot."

With that, he stepped onto the boardwalk and pulled the door closed behind him. He took it as a good sign that the sound he heard as he walked up the street wasn't a gunshot but the sound of Chris yelling.