Alder '06: Forging Copper (part II)

They sat quietly in the saloon, no one particularly jovial even though Nathan had finally pronounced JD out of death's door. Buck and Chris were up there now, leaving Nathan free to grab dinner and collect a few things from Mrs. Potter's store. Vin sat with Nathan and Josiah, sipping on a beer while they picked at the beans and rice Inez had made, more interested in their own beers.

Vin didn't mind the silence - appreciated it even. He was tired, exhausted in the wake of the gunfight, the killing, the worry, and the tension of Chris' anger. And quiet with Josiah and Nathan wasn't like quiet with anyone 'cept maybe Chris - it was peaceful and easy.

So much so that it wasn't much different when Nathan rose, finishing off his beer, and nodded his goodbyes.

Or when Josiah did the same just a few minutes later, kind enough to clear the table for Inez by taking the plates and empty mugs to the bar before touching Vin lightly on the shoulder as he passed by on his way out the door.

He sat a little while longer, finishing his beer, then debating whether to have another or head off to his wagon. It was growing dark and he was tired. Chris was with Buck and would most likely remain there, which, truth be told, was here he should be.

He had almost gathered enough energy to rise when he felt someone approaching. His hand fell to rest on the grip of his gun as he turned to find Ezra walking up to him.

The other man carried a bottle of whiskey, a shot glass, and a mug of beer which he placed on the table in front of Vin. Without asking, he pulled up the chair Nathan had vacated, settling on Vin's left. He didn't look at the other man as he opened the whiskey bottle and filled his own glass.

"It would seem," he started easily enough, "that I owe you the debt of my life." He raised his glass and met Vin's gaze. "My thanks."

Vin stared as Ezra waited, his glass still outstretched in a toast.

Neither said anything for several long moments, until eventually, Vin relented and picked up the mug. "Don't owe me nothing," he said, but he took a sip.

"Au contraire," Ezra replied after taking a long pull on his own drink. "It would seem that I may owe you my life several times over, as it were - other than from your usual sharp-shooting talents."

Vin frowned, not comfortable with - well, any of this. He set the mug on the table and made to rise.

But Ezra reached out, his hand catching at Vin's wrist. "Please, allow me a moment of your time and a pittance of that sweet charity you surrender so freely to almost everyone else - forgive me, it is not intentional," Ezra rushed when Vin's jaw clenched. "I find that when I am nervous, I tend to . . . . rattle on more than normal."

Vin wasn't certain which caught him off-guard - the statement itself, the admission, or the soft uncertainty in the usually snide voice. Probably both.

But he sat back, then took the mug again. No use letting good beer go to waste, and Ezra certainly wasn't going to drink it.

"What you said to Chris today - well, certainly you said more than you had to. Just agreeing with the others would have been enough, I wager, given his trust in you." Ezra looked at his glass, focusing on it as if whatever he had to say was written there. It might have been, Vin thought with some personal amusement - if there had been words there, he wouldn't have known what they were, not yet anyway.

But the glass was clear - too clear, a situation that Ezra rectified with more amber liquid.

"But you said more, didn't you, even offered a sort of defense of my actions." He drank then, quick and deep, as if he needed the courage. "In your place," he continued, refilling the glass for a third time, "I would not have done the same."

Vin almost shrugged, almost let it go.

Ezra rushed on, unwilling, apparently, to allow the truth to remain unspoken. "You could easily have been rid of me," Ezra said, his voice low. "No one would have spoken against Chris had he lost control. He would have walked away - perhaps with censure, and perhaps with guilt, but you would have been shed of me and you would have been with him without my interference."

Vin took another sip of the beer, saying nothing. There was no point in denying any of what Ezra was saying - he would have been a fool not to think those things.

"Of course," Ezra continued, his voice still low, his eyes still on his glass, "you could just as easily have shot me during the fire - or any of a number of other possible things that I would have been unable to prevent. In truth, I spent a substantial amount of time making certain that I was aware of your exact location. I was quite nonplussed to find that you seemed to want to stay as far away from me as I did from you."

He drank again, but this time the swallow wasn't as big. "I was . . . unaware of his feelings for you - that they ran as deeply and as truly as they do. Otherwise, I . . . "

Vin looked at him. "Don't say what you don't mean," he said, matching his tone to Ezra's - quiet, even, direct.

Ezra grinned then, a golden flash in the dim light of the room. "Don't lie? You challenge me. I don't know that I can do anything other than that." He drank again, but there was still whiskey in the glass when he put it back on the table. "The sad thing is that I suspect that in this situation, I am lying to myself more - and that, sir, is a sin of more magnitude than any of the others I have ever committed." He chuckled before adding, "At least, in my own view."

Despite himself, Vin smiled as well. "Yep."

He felt Ezra's gaze settle on him but he didn't meet it.

"You are a most intriguing man, Mr. Tanner," Ezra commented. He took up his bottle again, refilling the glass. "I envy you your calm. I suspect that that is a large part of what draws Mr. Larabee to you."

Vin reached out for his own glass again. He was in the middle of a sip when Ezra said, "Do you wonder what draws him to me?"

He was glad that he managed to get most of the beer back into the glass, only a little of it spewing onto the table. Ezra's chuckle had subsided to a wide grin by the time Vin recovered, so he was less annoyed than he could have been, a fact he reminded himself of several times.

Wiping his mouth with the back of his shirt sleeve, he snorted, "I ain't actually thought about it."

Ezra did laugh at that, and Vin regretted stopping Chris earlier in the day.

"Now now, don't say what you don't mean - isn't that how you put it?" Ezra slugged back another shot, then looked at Vin. "Of course you have thought about it - you would be a fool not to, and if I have learned nothing else about you, it's that, despite how you often wish to appear, you are anything but a fool." There was an edge of irritation in the last, and Vin wondered how much Ezra had lost misjudging him.

Vin shrugged, letting his body recover.

"Tell me," Ezra started, twirling his glass on the table, his speech just a little hazy as the whiskey began to catch up, "is he gentle with you? Kind?" He picked up the glass, looking at the darker liquid, then through it to Vin. "Loving?"

Vin stared at him, unable to look away.

Ezra smirked, then moved the glass to his lips, sipping. He returned it to its twirling pattern on the table as he continued, "I suspect that he treats you with the utmost concern, handles you like the finest crystal." He smiled, another flash of gold. "An irony, really," he mused, and Vin knew he was talking more to himself than to Vin. "The wild, unkempt, beast of a man is treated as the most valuable of possessions, coveted, treasured, caressed and honored with the lightest of touches, the sweetest of kisses." He sipped again, then continued, "While the tamed, fashionable, polite and gentile of us is the one for whom he has the most disregard, the one subject to curses and degradation, the hard edge of a fist, the sharp slap of the crop."

His voice had taken on a lilt, as though he were reading poetry - which perhaps he was, Vin thought. He knew little real poetry, the stuff in books, certainly not the stuff Ezra read - or probably Chris, for that matter.

But it was what was behind the words that unsettled Vin, in several different respects. "What are you talking about, Ezra?" he asked, leaning forward.

For a second, he thought Ezra hadn't heard him; the other man continued to stare into his glass, that small smile playing across his face. Eventually, he picked up the glass, and like the ones before it, he downed the rest of the whiskey before turning to meet Vin's gaze.

"You, Mr. Tanner, are the love in his life." He leaned forward, putting the glass on the table. "I suspect that that makes me the hate." He smiled again, but there was no humor in it.

The statement annoyed him with its drama, and he thought Ezra was drunk. He was stupid to sit here and listen to any more of this -

"He doesn't fuck you hard, does he," Ezra said, his voice more a whisper now. "Worries that he'll hurt you, scare you away. Sometimes it makes you want to scream, doesn't it, makes you want to shake him until he's angry." He leaned closer and Vin actually sat back. "But you're afraid of that anger, aren't you. You know what it is. You know what it could do to you."

He stared into those eyes, bright with their own anger, their own hurt. "What he could do to you."

"Fuck you," he spat, finally finding his voice. "You don't know - "

"I know what it's like to have him angry - to call out that anger and take it. To feel him use it to its full potential, to use it as the weapon it is, the power it is."

Vin couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't look away.

"To feel it in its glorious, full passion."

Everything had stopped, movement, sound, time. The full import of what he had said hung in the air, wet and heavy and ready to throw a storm -

And Chris stood there, Buck behind him, his eyes looking from him to Ezra and back.

As he had the morning this all started, he ran.


"Vin! God damn it - stop it!"

He managed to twist past Chris, throwing his saddle bags over Peso's haunches. The big horse was nickering, nervous, responding to the tensions he felt from the two humans in his stall. Vin distractedly tried to sooth the animal when his hands weren't piling stuff on the horse's back - or when he wasn't dancing around Chris, pretending that he wasn't there.

That was getting harder as Chris grew more desperate, apparently losing his fear of Peso's teeth and hooves as it became clear that Vin wasn't going to acknowledge his presence other than to avoid it, much less to answer him. Finally, Vin's luck ran out and Chris' hands closed on his shoulders.

He didn't think, just reacted. The satisfaction he got from punching Chris is the face was only slightly muted by his guilt. The time it bought him to climb into the saddle and edge Peso out of the stall made it worth every bit of remorse.

But Chris didn't surrender easily, not even from the floor of the livery. Vin heard the slide of metal against leather, then the cock of the gun just as Chris called out, "I'll shoot your goddamned horse, Vin! Don't make me!"

Vin ignored him - until the first shot made Peso rear, the bullet raising the dust at his hooves. Vin clung to him, urging him forward, but a second shot, just under his belly, scared the horse worse and he bucked, a hard thing to do in the confines of the livery. It wasn't the bucking itself, though, but the sweep against the wall that finally knocked Vin to the floor, his hat swirling away to fall in a small cloud of dust. He landed hard, stunned enough not to be able to get clear before Chris was sitting on him, pinning him to the dirt floor. Peso was still wheeling around, no longer bucking, but his back legs kicking out. Chris seemed oblivious to the danger, leaning over Vin, gripping his wrists and pressing them firmly to the gound.

Vin blinked, trying to catch his breath, which made him completely vulnerable not only to Chris' physical demands but to the words he was speaking.

"I don't know what in the hell he said to you, but you listen to me, Vin, and listen good. Ain't nothing he said makes a damned bit of difference. I want you more than anything. Whatever he had to say was in the past." He was staring into Vin's eyes, and Vin saw the strength of will there, the will that had made him who he was.

And the will that had given him the anger that Ezra seemed to know so very much about.

He couldn't make himself think that, couldn't wrap his head around those implications - so he picked the other one.

"How many times?"

Chris blinked, caught unaware. "What?"

Vin looked up at him, studying hard as he repeated slowly, "How many times?"

Chris swallowed then, the question - and his answer, evident before he spoke. "Not . . . not many," he said, almost looking away but not quite making it.

"That morning wasn't the first."

Chris closed his eyes, but he didn't lie. "No. The first time . . . the first time was after Cletus Fowler."

Vin's stomach clenched and he thought he might be sick. "That long ago." Before him.

Chris had been lying since they started. Everything -

"It's not - I don't know what it is, Vin. I don't know why I have to have him - it's not love, it's not desire - hell, it's not even something I enjoy!" He sagged, looking old and worn and lost.

But Vin was feeling that way himself, and sick. He tried to pull away, feeling dirtier than he'd ever thought he could. No wonder Ezra was so angry. Despite himself, Vin was angry for him too. Damn Chris. "Get off a me," he rasped, "get off a me and away from me - "

"Please," Chris whispered, his eyes still closed. "Just . . . just listen to me. I'll tell you all of it, every bit. Just give me this chance."

"Another one?" The words were so bitter he could taste them. "Wanna tell me another tall tale, spin my head around with - "

"I've never lied about how many times, Vin, you never asked before - all right, all right," he rushed as Vin struggled. "It was a lie of omission, I should have told you. But I was so afraid - I am so afraid. I . . . I wasn't lying about not being with him ever again, though. I won't be. I haven't been." He opened his eyes. "I don't love him, Vin, I never have. I'm not even sure that I like him."

There was no tell here, nothing but desperation and pain, magnified perhaps by the long shadows cast by the flickering lanterns scattered about.

Peso had finally quieted, going back into his stall and munching on the feed. The livery was quiet enough that they could hear the approach of footsteps, an uneven stagger that told Vin that it was, again, probably Ezra. He waited for Chris to move, to at least free his hands in case he needed to draw, but other than a frown of hesitancy that crossed his face, he remained as he was.

He was that desperate, Vin realized. He'd let someone shoot him, shoot them, rather than let Vin walk away from him.

"My my," came the Southerner's drawl, confirming to Vin that his night was going to hell faster than even he thought possible. "Starting without me?"

Chris sighed. "Go away, Ezra," he ordered tiredly. "You've done enough damage for today."

Ezra snorted, stumbling towards them. He stopped, swaying slightly as he looked down. "Hardly seems equit-equit-fair, then, that I should be blamed for your mishandling of this situation, Mr. Larabee," he said with only a little slurring. "Had you been honest with either one of us - "

"Fuck off," Chris sneered. "I never lied to you at all."

"Well," Ezra countered with surprising speed, "I'm certain that's reassuring to Mr. Tanner." He laughed, and then swayed precariously, and Vin closed his eyes for a second, not wanting to watch as Ezra fell on them. Of course, it might get him free of Chris' hold, if Ezra fell just right. . . . "You lie to the one you love for fear that he may discover the real person and run away - as any sane person would!"

Chris jaw tightened, but this time, Vin knew it was in frustration. He almost laughed at the idea that right now, Chris was debating whether he could draw and shoot Ezra before Vin could break free of him.

In that way of drunks, Ezra rambled on, unaware - or more likely, uncaring of the danger. "Which, of course, begs the question of my own sanity, as I have submitted myself to you - what, on a number of occasions - "

"Five," Chris snarled. "Five times, Ezra, don't make it into more than it was."

Ezra laughed again. "Five times - how delightful that you recall every one of them! Of course, I do as well - my memories are aided by the lovely bruises and welts that - "

"You wanted," Chris said loudly, "that you wanted!"

Vin found that he was staring into Chris' eyes again, unable to understand what he was hearing. But he knew what he saw; the desperation was back, coupled with a depth of fear that was new to Vin. "I'd never hurt you, Vin, I swear, I could never - "

"Perhaps you should," Ezra interrupted, waving one hand airily. His shirt cuff was loose, the cuff link gone, and fine fabric fringed in lace wafted with his motions. "Perhaps if you offered him what you gave so freely to me, you wouldn't be in this quandary - "

"Ezra, leave."

Vin shivered, watching the change in Chris. The desperation and fear vanished as if they had never been there, replaced with the dead calm he had seen earlier in the day, in the jail.

As ever, Ezra droned on. "But you worry for him, don't you - worry that he won't appreciate the fine shades of sensation you create in your tempers, the fluid path between pleasure and pain - "

"You get off on that?" Vin heard himself ask, his eyes still holding Chris'. He couldn't avoid it any longer, they - no, Ezra, wasn't going to allow it. But he wasn't ready to think of Chris yet, not . . . like that.

So the question hadn't been for Chris and they all knew it.

Ezra stood for a second, weaving gently, before answering, "Are you asking me if I enjoy mixing pain with my sexual experiences?" Vin knew the other man was looking down at him, trying to catch his gaze, but he didn't care. He was watching for Chris' reaction, letting this growing awareness roll around in his head.

"Yeah," Vin said drily. "Do ya?"

Ezra chuckled. "Love it. And until I had the great fortune of angering Mr. Larabee, I never realized exactly how much or how potent the mix could be." He leaned down, his whisper almost as loud as his words. "If you haven't had the experience of his undivided attention in the throes of a temper tantrum - well, he has hardly given you all he has to offer."

Knowing now what to look for, Vin saw it, the tiny flicker in the depths of the green eyes he knew better than he knew his own. He couldn't decide at first exactly what it was, whether it was fury or want or fear - all three seemed suddenly to look the same. But the want was there. And with it, the confirmation of all that he had been running from.

"Vin has all my love," Chris said, the flicker burning brighter, his eyes seeming to glow, even as his words belied his eyes. "All of it. That's everything I am."

Ezra leaned just a bit closer, his lips so close to Chris' ear that Vin wondered if he had moved from uncaring to suicidal.

"Everything that you are includes the darkness," he murmured. "The part you hide from him, perhaps even from yourself." It was hardly a movement, but his lips were touching Chris' ear as he continued, "The part that yearns for me."

It was fast, so fast that Vin, looking right into the heart of it, didn't see it coming. Chris lashed out with his right hand, hitting Ezra with such force that the other man hit the opposite stall door with a distinct 'thud' then fell hard to his knees.

Before Vin could even blink, that hand was back, but not on the wrist it had left; instead, it grabbed at his shoulder, pulling him up, first to sit, then to his feet.

The fall had taken more out of him than he realized, his back, ever consistent in its obstinacy, twinging in objection to the movement. It twinged more when, as Vin started to step away from Chris, thinking to resist now that they were upright. Chris twisted, using his momentum to push Vin back into the wall; he traded the grips of his hands for slamming his left forearm against Vin's throat, trapping him.

Instinctively, Vin tried to free himself, but the more he squirmed and pushed at the pressing arm, the harder it pushed down, cutting off his air. It was finally, as he was gasping, his awareness getting hazy, that it occurred to him that this was exactly what Ezra wanted.

For him to see Chris angry, to have that anger directed at him - with all the sexual energy it carried.

To scare him away.

He stopped struggling then, relaxing against the wall and dropping his arms to his sides. Chris didn't lessen his hold, he didn't have to; Vin's new posture allowed him to draw somewhat deeper breaths.

"I'm not losing you," Chris murmured, the words cold, now, no longer desperate or hurt. "Not because of him, not because of this - this - thing. I can control it, Vin, I will control it. Whatever he's told you, it's done. It's gone. There's nothing now but you and me."

The emotions that had he had seen in Chris before had appealed to him at a basic level of compassion; his love for Chris, his own need for Chris would never allow him to let the man suffer.

But this - this spoke differently. This, Vin knew instinctively, was the Chris that Ezra knew, the hard man who would have what he wanted no matter the consequences. The man who would let them both be shot by a stranger instead of giving up Vin, the man who would kill himself and Vin here and now instead of watching him walk away.

The man who would hurt Ezra because Ezra enjoyed it - and because he enjoyed causing the hurt.

Over Chris' shoulder, he saw Ezra struggling back to his feet. Blood trickled from one corner of his lips and there was a bruise already growing along his cheek. But he was smirking, his eyes bright and decidedly clear.

Not drunk, despite all the alcohol Vin had seen him swallow.

"This is where it starts, Mr. Tanner - where it started for us - right here in this very place, in a manner very similar to this. Mr. Larabee was quite furious - mostly with the world, I think, the loss of Mr. Fowler and his knowledge of who had ordered the deaths of Sarah and Adam." There was an inflection when he said the names, a pitch to the words that drew an answering flare in the Chris' eyes.

It might have been only five times, but Ezra had learned a lot in those five times, a lot about how to draw out and feed the fire of Chris' wrath. Invoking the names of the sacred dead was probably an easy one - Vin himself never mentioned them, certainly never by name.

"But he was very angry with me. Oh, he was rather drunk at the time, as well, accusing me of the most uncivilized of behaviors - having designs on you, I believe." Ezra chuckled. "Even then, he had already determined to claim you for himself, even if he didn't know it."

He took a step closer, but Vin was watching the play of color in Chris' eyes. More bursts of light as Ezra talked. Ezra called it darkness - but he was wrong. It was more brilliant than Vin had ever seen, a brightness that burned through his eyes. A brightness he had never put there.

"He seemed to think that I had cheated you out of money - an amount he found to be quite appalling, but as I said, he was rather drunk." He took another step, and Chris tensed, his right hand resting on the butt of his gun.

"Shut up, Ezra," he ordered. "Leave Vin alone."

Ezra's voice dropped lower, almost melodic, as if Chris had said nothing. "Then he accused me of trying to entrap you in a large debt, one that you would feel honor bound to pay in a manner most . . . compromising." Ezra's smirk grew, the trickle of blood dripping off his chin. "He didn't believe me when I said that you were far from my first choice of a bed mate. It was only later, when he had me trapped against a wall, much as you are now, that he felt the evidence of my . . . . testimony, if you will. It was only then that he understood that you were far too innocent for my tastes." He edged just a little closer, his eyes looking over Vin's body, or as much as he could see beyond Chris. "What truly surprises me is that you aren't far too innocent for his."

"I like innocent." Chris voice was a rumble, low and grating. It as the voice that he used to sooth Vin when he was positioning himself, when he was in and trying to slip deeper, when he was trying to coax Vin to take him. It was the voice he used when Vin was wrapped around him, urging him on, wanting him hard and fast and deep - and Chris wouldn't.

It was a voice that contradicted the eyes.

Ezra laughed loud, and Vin wondered vaguely that someone wouldn't finally hear them. He wondered if that would make things better or worse, to be caught this way, in this argument.

"You covet innocence," Ezra said, "you protect innocence, you even try to convince yourself that you love it. Maybe you think it will save you." He laughed again. "But it's not what you want in your bed, Mr. Larabee. I don't doubt for a minute that Mr. Tanner was not a virgin when he came to you - while we know little of his history, what we do know leaves little room for his purity to have survived to the present."

It unnerved him that Ezra knew him this well, but more so, that he would make Chris think about it. As usual, the words wouldn't come, so he did the only other thing he knew; he edged in close to Chris, his body almost touching the other man's, wanting to distract him.

Ezra, however, had the words. "I suspect, though, that you treat him as though he were - or worse, you treat him as though his innocence is something that your patience and efforts can restore - is that not so?" The hand again, waving, but this time toward Vin. "All of your promises not to hurt him - are those for him, for his peace of mind, or are they for you - to preserve your own sense of honor?"

"Don't." The rumble was lower, deeper, filled with a malevolence that made Vin swallow. His skin itched with a different fear now, and he found that he was backed so far against the wall that he could feel the spaces between the boards. "Best be leaving, Ezra," that voice commanded, finally matching the wide eyes sparkling like a steady stream in the morning sun, "before you find yourself giving a demonstration of how much you like pain."

Ezra sighed. "So tedious, dear Christopher," he tugged at his jacket, letting it slide from his arms and catching it. He wasn't wearing his secret gun rig, something that should have bothered Vin more than it did. "Perhaps that is what we should do - show your little . . . angel what he has to look forward to if he wants to keep you all to himself." He draped the jacket over one of the stall doors, then started unbuttoning his shirt.

Vin found his attention drawn to the other man, fascinated despite himself.

Chris hissed as Vin looked away, his arm pushing harder, his free hand rising to catch Vin's chin. "You're mine," he hissed, closing the distance between them even as his hand rose to tangle in Vin's hair. "He can't have you, not ever."

Vin looked back, shaken by the thought. "I don't want him," he said, confused. "You do." But as the words left him, it occurred to him that Chris might not have been talking about Ezra.

Chris was shaking his head in denial even as his lips slammed into Vin's. The kiss was hard and rough - not familiar at all. Not the Chris he knew at all.

It wasn't just that it hurt - which wasn't bad, per se, because it didn't hurt bad. It was just - not the way things were with them.

"Mine," Chris said again, just before his teeth pulled on Vin's lower lip, then bit down.

It wasn't strong enough to break the skin, but it shocked him with its unexpectedness and its intensity.

Scared him. And in that, it aroused him.

He gasped when Chris drew away, stunned by the way he felt, the suddenness of it. He was light-headed, and it had nothing to do with the arm at his throat or the hand cupped under his jaw, holding his head still.

Someone laughed, and he remembered Ezra, glancing to find his shirt open, his chest bare to the waist. He looked away - then back, catching his breath.

He'd seen enough of Ezra to have a general idea that despite his arguments, the man did enough physical labor to be able to handle himself. Hell, he'd felt the man's muscle more than once himself, Ezra pulling him up off the ground after some rough-and-tumble or backing him up - literally - in the midst of some shoot-out. Ezra had some power of his own.

But what caught Vin's eye wasn't the musculature but the patterns that decorated it. Long, slender welts, some curving over his shoulders and around his waist, one running at an angle across his chest, just barely missing his right nipple. Welts, from a slender lash.

And bruises, some deep purple, recent, others fading to pale yellows and greens, some mere smudges on pale skin, other in circular shapes, like bite marks.

"I assure you, Sweet Vin, I was in no way teasing you about my predilections. Nor would I be so callous as to let you believe that it is only at Christopher's hand that I find my entertainments - I am not so attached as that." He spread his arms wide, giving Vin a complete view. "He was being quite truthful when he related that he has not touched me since that rather rude interruption last week. What you see before you is the work of several others - not bad work, mind you, but amateurish in comparison to what Christopher can do when he's in a true fit of pique."

"Vin." Chris shifted so that all Vin could see was his face. He was trying to say something, Vin could see the thoughts as they ran long behind his eyes, stumbling and tripping over each other. He could hear them in his own head, the denial, the promises, all the things that he had been saying for - ever.

That part of Chris, the part that would beg, was trying to come back. The part of Chris Vin knew.

That part of Chris that would simply take what he wanted - that part that Ezra knew, that part that Ezra wanted - that part was in control. That part that needed Ezra and not him. He was scared of it - no doubt about that. The marks he saw on Ezra didn't excite him at all. He'd had too much pain to think it could ever be good -

But even as he thought that, his back arched and his hips brushed against Chris', rubbing. It wasn't real desire, he knew that - it was jealousy and fear. His own fear of losing Chris, of not being what Chris needed.

Chris' breath caught and his face changed, becoming almost feral. His arm moved from Vin's throat, both hands reaching into his hair.

This kiss - this kiss was sexual, full of all the heat and possession and demand. Full of - Chris.

It was funny, he thought in the very short periods that he could think, that in all the times they'd been together - far more than five - it had been good, but he had always felt that something was missing, that somehow, in some way he didn't quite understand, not all of Chris was there.

Now, he knew what it was. Damn Ezra for being right. Damn Ezra for knowing this part of Chris.

When he couldn't breathe anymore, thought he might pass out, he pushed then strained to put some space between them. Chris relented, but only a little; his hands were all over Vin, sliding under his shirt to grab at his skin, twisting down the back of his pants, touching and holding and, at times, scratching and scraping. Consuming him.

"As I said," a voice whispered from so close that Vin twitched, "he's hardly given you all he has to offer. Exquisite, isn't it, the sheer magnetism of the man. Mr. Wilmington has barely a tenth of the charisma of our Christopher Wilson Larabee."

Vin was drawing air as if he'd run down a wild mustang, but the words caught up pretty quick, a drop in his stomach tempering his blood. "Wilson?" he wheezed, tearing his eyes away from Chris to find Ezra so close he could smell the whiskey on his breath and the musk of his sweat under the layer of his expensive cologne. "How did you - "

Ezra smiled, his eyes heavy-lidded as he leaned against the wall, facing the two of them. This close, the dark hair that trailed lightly down his sternum shown bronze in the lantern light, his nipples pinched and hard. "Christopher didn't share that with you? In all the times you've been together - "

"It's in a book of mine that he borrowed," Chris cut him off coldly. He was leaning against Vin, his hands moving but slower now, his tongue tasting and teasing on Vin's neck. "Nothing I told him."

Ezra chuckled, then casually, he reached toward them, one finger running slowly down the side of Vin's face. "I read it, Vin, read it. In one of those lovely books that Chris and I share - "

It happened again, that move that was so quick that Vin didn't see it. One second Ezra was leaning there, making fun of him, the next, he was sliding down the wall, the echo of flesh striking flesh rolling around the room.

"He ain't treating you like that," Chris growled. "I won't let anyone treat you like - "

"He ain't doing it for me, Chris." The reason was so clear that he wondered why he hadn't seen it already. "He does it for you - for him. He already knows how you're gonna act, how angry you're gonna get. What you're gonna do to him."

"Don't care," Chris said, still gritty. But something in him calmed just a little, Vin could feel it in the air around them. Could see it in the dulling of his eyes.

Slowly, Vin's hand rose to touch Chris, gently on the arm, then up to his shoulder. "You do like it, don't you. Hurting him."

The desperation lurked in the back of Chris gaze, and for a second, Vin saw the lie. But to this part of Chris, the truth didn't matter much anymore, where he was going to have what he wanted and admitting to Vin - and more importantly, to himself, was inconsequential. "Don't matter, won't ever do it again." He pulled Vin away from the wall and into a tight embrace. "Won't drive you away from me."

Vin let his arms slowly wrap around Chris. Something wasn't right, and as he watched Ezra once more pull himself off the floor, he knew that part of it was going to be Ezra. He wasn't going to leave them alone. Wasn't going to leave his darkness alone.

Chris had hit him in the chest this time, the imprint of his hand dark yet blending with the other marks that it crossed. He was smiling now, an unpleasant expression that made Vin cling harder to Chris.

"I wish you the very best of luck with that - both of you, actually," Ezra said quietly. "But when you find that despite your good intentions, you're bringing your demons to his bed, please know that my invitation has not been withdrawn." He started buttoning his shirt, his gaze never leaving Vin's. "As for you, Mr. Tanner, well, don't say that you haven't been warned." He tucked the shirt in with grace and an amazing discretion that seemed at odds with the situation, then walked with only a slight limp to retrieve his coat. "Good evening, gentlemen," he said. "Thank you for your . . . diversion."

It was sometime after he left before Chris relaxed and they broke apart. But Chris wouldn't release him, not entirely. "Let's put your horse to bed," he said quietly, one hand smoothing back Vin's hair. "Then I want to put you to bed."

Vin looked at him, his eyes clear but merely green. No fire.

Chris smiled a little, but it was tinged in worry. "I will not hurt you," he lingered on each word, drawing each one out in its own promise.

Vin nodded, turning toward Peso's stall, but he was stopped by the fall of that hand on his shoulder. He didn't resist as Chris turned him back then forced his chin up so that there eyes met yet again. This time, though, Chris was the one watching. "It . . .I couldn't tell you, Vin, 'cause like I said, I don't know why it is. It's just . . . something about Ezra. I've never felt it with anyone else before - certainly never with Sarah." He almost couldn't say her name, the word garbled and choked to the point that Vin almost didn't understand it. "I think . . . I think whatever it is, it's because of that - because of what happened to them. I think that when it's done, when I . . . when Ella is found and put down, it'll be done. This - this part of me. It'll be gone."

Gone, Vin thought, but the word seemed empty in his head.

"Vin?" He stroked gently over Vin's cheek, his touch soft. As if he were someone else entirely.

Vin hesitated, feeling like he were two people too - the one who knew better than to put up with this, the one who should do the smart thing and run as long and as hard and as fast as possible. The one whose voice had been talking all that time ago, in those first few days afterwards.

But the one who took control, the one who nodded to Chris and even tried to smile a little, was the one who was unable to walk away, no matter how much he knew he should.


"My friends," Josiah settled against the rail of the boardwalk, taking a sip of his coffee as Vin and JD nodded. "Gonna be a beautiful day."

"Hotter than he - blazes," JD said, catching himself. He was healing now, getting back to his old self even though it had only been a month of so since he'd been injured. His arm was in a sling, to take the weight off his healing shoulder, but he'd gotten to where he only wore it when he knew Nathan was going to be around. This morning, it draped empty over his chest, bearing stains from the coffee that he'd sloshed.

Vin nodded his agreement from the chair he was in, which was pushed up on its back two legs, resting against the wall of the sheriff's office.

Josiah merely smiled. After another sip, he asked, "Barn-raising at the Holbrooks by the end of next week. Count on you boys to help?"

"Wouldn't miss it!" JD enthused. "Casey said Ms. Nettie's making some of her famous pies - squash and tomato, and some with the wild berries that Casey's been picking - Vin, you're coming, right? Casey said Ms. Nettie's making a lemon pie just for you."

Vin smiled, feeling a blush. He'd mentioned once to the older woman that one of his few distinct memories of his mother had been lemons - he didn't know why, whether it was the smell of them or the taste or - what, just that when he smelled them, which wasn't often in these parts, it made him feel good.

Trust her to find some of the precious fruit and make something sweet - just for him.

"Brother Vin?" Josiah asked, pulling him back to the present.

"Reckon so," he agreed, looking up to the tall man. "Seem a waste of a good pie, otherwise."

Josiah grinned at him, a flash of straight white teeth. "Good thinking. Not that I think it'd go to waste if you didn't make it, but that's just about as good a reason as any other I can think of."

The sat for another minute or so, sipping, watching the sun struggle a little higher in the sky.

"They got that barn in place pretty fast," JD commented. "It's only been - what, six weeks since the fire?"

"'Bout that," Josiah agreed. "Have to get it up before it starts cooling off, though, gotta have somewhere for the animals and for storage. It's nice being in a place where everyone's so helpful. Town's come a long way in the time we've been here."

"Sure has," JD agreed with a laugh. "'Course, it's probably more your doin' than anything, Preacher."

Josiah smiled again, but shrugged. "Doubt that. Feeling safe helps people feel more settled, more friendly. Easier to love your fellow man when you're not worried he's gonna pull a gun and shoot you."

"True," JD agreed with a laugh. "Guess we have managed to cut down on some of that worry, haven't we - even if we do have bank robbers form time to time."

"We've cut down on a lot of that worry, son," Josiah nodded. Then, with a chuckle, he added, "Town people now only have to worry about one of us shooting them, instead of just anyone."

"Like Chris?" JD laughed. But the laugh died pretty quickly, and Vin looked up to see the other two exchanging glances.

He sighed. He'd been hoping that it was only him - hell, he was the one with Chris most of the time these days.

But with Chris, it was hard to miss.

The infamous Larabee temper was back. He wasn't quite sure when it had returned; he'd thought that the moodiness was just a part of the other man, something that came and went. For a while, it had come and gone. Then, the going had stopped.

And the moodiness had turned into a full-bore temper.

"Where is our anointed leader?" Josiah asked, not looking at Vin.

Vin shifted, not looking at Josiah as he said, "Last I saw, he was at his cabin. After that . . . meetin' with Mrs. Travis day before yesterday, he said he wanted some peace and quiet, some space away from the - 'natives', I think he said."

Josiah shifted his weight. "Thought you might have gone with him." He still wasn't looking at Vin, and Vin felt his spine tighten.

"Chris needs his space, so do I." He lifted on shoulder then let it fall. "Heat don't help none."

"No," Josiah agreed, "'spect not." He finished off his coffee then straightened. "You ridin' patrol this morning?" he asked.

Vin nodded, dropping the chair to all four legs and rising himself. "Yep, and best be to it."

He took a step to leave, but stopped Josiah sort of leaned in front of him. "If you see Chris," he said, finally looking Vin directly in the eye, "you might mention the barn-raising. Be mighty nice for him to be there."

Vin nodded, but frowned.

Josiah shook his head once, smiling just a little, then said more softly, "Might be nice for Chris to be there." It sounded like he was repeating himself - until Vin ran it through his head again, hearing the emphasis.

As if seeing the understanding on his face, Josiah nodded. "A new beginning, so to speak," he said. "Might be that Chris needs to be reminded that they can happen."

Vin nodded, started to say something but Josiah continued, startling him.

"Even though seems like he'd already know that - but sometimes a man can get forgetful, distracted by the heat, maybe, or the mundane problems of . . . 'the natives'."

Vin stared, not sure at all what Josiah was saying, implying, but before he could breathe, the older man was nodding a good morning to JD and moving along the boardwalk, away from them.

"He sure can be odd sometimes," JD said passingly. "But that's the way of a lot of the men of the cloth. Back in Boston . . . " He rambled on for a few minutes, but Vin wasn't listening. He was hardly aware that JD was still telling the story when he waved his own goodbye to him and headed to get Peso.

By the time he finished the patrol, it was after lunch, and the day was as hot as he had expected to be. He'd taken his time, stopping whenever shade or water was offered, as much to rest himself as his horse. In this heat, little was moving that didn't have to be, including trouble-makers of either the man or beast variety.

He could have ridden back to town, but he had circled back around so that Chris' place was on his way back - and one of the last places. He tried, at first, to convince himself that it was just the way things fell. But he knew better. As Ez had said so long ago - the worst thing you could do was lie to yourself. 'Course Ez had said it differently and more - well, more bullshittedly, but it was still, at its core, true.

As it was true that he wanted to talk to Chris. If Chris would talk.

Peso's steps were not quiet as they neared the cabin, but Vin still called out an identification as they got close. Chris nodded to him, acknowledging his presence even though he continued hammering on the fence he was working on.

Vin didn't rush him, staying in the saddle as Peso stopped under a tree near the clearing to the cabin, appreciating the shade and the thick grass that was there. For his part, Vin pulled the stopper from his canteen and drank, taking the opportunity to appreciate the sight of Chris half-naked, his body sweaty and his muscles tight as he worked.

Eventually, Chris stilled, letting the hammer drop to the ground beside him as he turned to look at Vin. "Problem in town?" he asked, and there was an edge in his voice that made Vin feel unwelcome.

He stoppered his canteen, looking away from the other man's body. "Just thought I'd finish up my patrol by here, see if you needed anything."

"Just to be left the hell alone," he snapped, turning his back on Vin and walking toward the pump.

Vin nodded, more to himself than to Chris, glad he hadn't made the effort to dismount. Gathering up Peso's reins, he said, "Barn-raising at the Holbrook's by the end of next week. Be nice if you would come, but ain't nobody gonna hold it against ya if ya don't."

With that, he clucked to Peso and turned him away, letting his spurs lightly touch his horse's flanks.

"Vin!" Chris called suddenly as Peso started away, "Where the hell ya going?"

Vin tugged slightly, pulling Peso back with an indignant snort - Peso hated contradictory commands just about as much as his rider.

Vin looked back over his shoulder. "Thought you wanted to be left the hell alone," he said, frowning. "Don't mean to be no bother."

Chris closed his eyes, and Vin was confused by the sense that he got that Chris was upset by what he had said. And frustrated.

"You ain't no bother," he said, but the way his teeth were grinding together made the words hard to understand - and certainly didn't make them seem honest.

Vin snorted. Shaking his head, he said, "I'm heading back to town. You want company, you know where - "

"Goddamit, get your ass back here!" Chris snarled, his eyes opening to glare at Vin.

A faint uneasiness settled in Vin's stomach. He didn't move, just looking down at the other man. There was a spark there, gold under all that green.

Chris drew a deep breath, his jaw still clenched. But his tone only grated as he repeated, "You ain't no bother. Hell, you're family. You can come anytime you want - don't you know that?"

The uneasiness was replaced by a warmth that made Vin feel good. "Ain't never had family," he said quietly, "so I guess I don't know the ways of it."

The hardness dulled, then vanished when Chris smiled just a little. "No, guess you don't. And guess I've forgotten how to talk without biting." He primed the pump, putting his hands under the water when it started flowing. "Put Peso out and come on it - I'll see if I got any tomatoes left that are still good enough to eat."

They sat on the cabin's small porch, Chris in a chair and Vin on the steps, leaning back against a support beam. The silence was heavy but not uncomfortable, both of them thinking their own thoughts as they made short work of several over-ripe tomatos with biscuits and hard cheese . Eventually, Chris wandered out of his own mind and ventured, "Barn-raising, huh. You going?"

"Ms. Nettie's making pies," Vin said by way of an answer, and Chris laughed. It was a good sound - one Vin hadn't heard in far too long, he realized.

"She knows you," he answered. "Guess I can't argue with that."

Vin glanced over to him and shrugged. "You want me to stay here with ya, you know I will."

Chris' smile lessened a bit, and he turned his head, looking at Vin. "Yeah, I know you would." His voice was quiet. "Know you'd do just about anything I asked you to, anything you could do for me, even . . . . " He stopped then, and Vin noticed a faint color rising up his cheeks.

Vin quirked his head, puzzling through the possibilities. It wasn't like Chris to be embarrassed, unless he was thinking of what had happened with Ezra.

As the thought passed through his mind, he wondered if perhaps part of the current problem, the current temper, wasn't somehow related to, well, Ezra. No, he amended, as Chris looked away and leaned farther back in his chair, his face darkening, if perhaps it weren't related to the thing they shared.

The thought of it worried at him as he watched Chris grow more restless, first his hands moving, sliding against each other, then up and down his thighs, them his legs moving, tapping on the porch floor in a sort of bounce. Eventually, he was fidgeting his chair, as if he couldn't get comfortable.

Vin knew the exact second that Chris moved to stand, and he did as well.

Before Chris could say anything about wanting to go check on the horses, or needing to work on the fence, or just needing to move around, he stepped up onto the porch and slid one arm around Chris' shoulders and the other behind him, so that he cradled Chris' head in his hand, holding him still.

He knew from the tension in Chris' body that he had surprised him; usually, Chris initiated their sex, his body craving it with more frequency than Vin's. But in those rare instances when he had, Chris had always been so happy that he refused Vin nothing.

This time started the same, Chris catching up quick enough to gather Vin to him, giving in to the press of lips, the demanding tongue. The hunger was there instantly, recognized in the hands that clutched at his waist, the ragged moan, the hard pants.

Vin rubbed against him, coaxing both of them to hardness and want, even as he lowered one hand to stroke over Chris' still-bare chest, pulling at the tips of his nipples and the smattering of hair that ran along his breast bone.

It was when he touched the waist of Chris' jeans that things took a turn he didn't know.

Normally at this point, Chris would push them apart long enough to remove their gunbelts and strip down, working so quickly with his own that he was usually there to ease Vin out of his pants. He seemed to love the act of stripping Vin, taking almost as much time and care with that act as he did with the touches and positioning afterwards.

This time, though, when Vin's fingers found the top button of his pants and worked it open, Chris reach around him and placed his hands on Vin's ass, pulling him in so close that Vin couldn't move. Chris' mouthed along his jaw then down his throat, his tongue licking away the sheen of sweat left by the day's heat, until he nuzzled past the collar of Vin's shirt and laved at the junction of Vin's neck and shoulder.

The pain was an explosion in Vin's head, jolting him with a mixture of shock and hurt. It took him several seconds to realize that what he was feeling was Chris' teeth locked in the muscle there, not only pressing like a vise but cutting as well, the flesh breaking and beginning to bleed.

He knew what was happening, all the pieces of the past six weeks coming together in his head as they had just a few seconds ago, when the reality of Chris' need had shown so clearly in the words. When Chris had almost said what they both knew - that Vin would, in truth, do anything he could for Chris.

Anything he could.

But he couldn't do this. While his mind tried to bring it to terms, tried to keep control, his body had its own reaction.

He jerked, the action unconscious and stupid, causing the teeth in his flesh to rip more, bruise harder. At the same time, he pushed with the arm between them and yanked with the one wrapped around Chris, drawing the other man off of him with a force that enlarged the wound even more.

They stared at each other, blood lining Chris' bottom lip, a thin trickle edging from one corner of his mouth reminiscent of the blood on Ezra not so long ago.

This time, Chris was the one who ran.

He staggered off the porch, pushing away as Vin tried to catch him, crying out when Vin almost got a hold then breaking free to run with growing speed toward the barn.

"Chris!" Vin called, giving chase, "it's all right - it's - "

He stumbled over a limb hidden in tall grass, nearly went down but caught himself, losing time. Chris made it to the barn, disappeared inside, and Vin made it to the shadowed doorway just as the sound of a gunshot silenced everything.

He'd never known a fear like this. The shot had deafened him, and after the brightness of the day, he stood blind in the darkness of the barn. He was breathing too fast, panicked in away he could only remember a few times before - and all of them involving Chris on the wrong end of a gun.

Air moved against his neck and he turned to it, finally catching movement. Slowly, sounds started to filter back into his awareness, first a low keening, then the sound of feet pacing through dirt and straw. Every so often, he'd catch a glimmer in the faint light, and knew that Chris' gun was out and he still held it up, too close to his head.

"Chris?" he whispered, not really aware that he had as he edged farther into the barn.

"Stay away from me," Chris cried - or at least, that was what Vin thought he said. The words were a garble of sound, more anguish than form.

But at least there were words. Vin stepped farther, his eyes adjusting. Chris was moving back and forth along the width of the structure, both of his hands at this temples, his right one holding the gun. It was hot and too close to Chris' skin; the smell of the burn was just under the acrid tang of the gunpowder.

He was frantic, moving like a caged animal, and Vin wondered if he had wounded himself somewhere. He swallowed, stepping closer but slowly.

"Chris, calm down, now, just calm down." He pitched his voice low, looking hard to see if there was any sign of a wound, but Chris wasn't limping, just pacing with that fast walk, quick turns, unpredictable movements.

"Get away from me," Chris grated out again, turning. "Just leave, go before I hurt you - Christ, go before I hurt you again."

"I'm all right," Vin said, still slow and soft. "You didn't hurt me." It was a lie, the spot was beginning to throb like a bitch and he could feel the blood as it worked its way into his shirt, sticking the fabric to the would and his skin.

Chris didn't believe him either. "Bullshit," he said, and it came out as a shriek that startled the horses outside and made Vin flinch. "Goddammit, I swore I'd never hurt you - and now this!" He was shaking his fists now, and Vin tensed as he noticed the trigger finger tightening on the gun.

"You're gonna hurt me more if you do something stupid to yourself," he said quietly. "Chris, please, slow down. Just . . . slow down."

Chris still paced, now hitting at his temples with his fists, but he slowed a little. "Don't know what happened," he said, his voice fast and rambling. "I wasn't thinking, it just - I can't believe I - "

"Chris, just . . .just slow down. It's all right." He waited a few seconds, then took another step forward. "Chris. Please. Just . . . just look at me."

Chris continued to pace, but again, slowed a little. He lowered his hands from his head, not putting his gun away yet, but at least now it was at his side. "I don't know what's wrong with me - I never used to feel this way, like I had to hit something or hurt someone or destroy something - and now I can't even keep it away from you - "

"I told you, I'm all right," Vin repeated. He was feeling annoyed as he always did with Chris' strange over-protectiveness of him, but he knew better than to show it right now.

"This time," Chris answered, but he slowed even more, wandering more now than pacing. "How long before I lose it completely, do something to you that you can't get away from - "

"You never will," Vin answered him. "Look at me - just stop and look at me."

He stepped another step closer, this one putting him within reach.

"Chris." He lifted one hand very slowly, knowing that the other man was aware of what he was doing. "Look at me."

He wasn't sure why this was so hard for Chris - or maybe he was. But he knew that it was what Chris had to do - to see him right here, right now, fine and complete and still here.

Chris slowed, then finally stopped. He stared at the floor, his whole body trembling, and Vin worried anew about an accidental shooting. But he knew better than to intercept the gun - one never touched another man's gun without clear permission. So instead, he let his fingers drift slowly toward Chris' chest. They stopped and hovered for several long seconds, giving Chris time to prepare before he stretched that last few inches to connect.

He touched just off the breastbone, over the other man's heart which was beating so hard he wondered how it hadn't come through his ribs.

For an instant, every muscle of Chris' body seemed to contract, and Vin thought that he was getting ready to bolt again or to attack. But instead, the trembling ebbed, then stopped, and though the heart was still beating fast, it wasn't quite as hard.

Chris' eyes were closed, and Vin took another step closer. He left his right hand in place, easing his left gently under Chris' chin and lifting the lined face. "Look at me," he repeated in a whisper.

He stayed still for the eternity that it took for Chris to finally comply, the whites of his eyes bright in the soft light.

Vin didn't say anything, he just let Chris look at him and feel him. After a time, Chris slowly returned the gun to its holster, his hand a little shakey but nothing that made Vin worry.

That same hand was still shakey as it touched his right hand, laying itself over his.

Vin let the fingers under Chris's chin wander up to graze along the other's face. He felt the dampness, knew how badly Chris was hurting and how close he was to letting go again. He took another, smaller step closer, giving himself the only way he knew how.

They stood, Vin waiting, knowing in the way that they shared, that he could push no more. He was offering all he had, and Chris knew.

After a time, Chris reached for him.

They'd made love in the barn before, but never with the strange mixture of hesitancy and urgency that they did now. Chris wanted it, needed it, but Vin had to lead; it was a role he took but with some reluctance - it wasn't right to his way of thinking. But for Chris, he would do anything and everything he could.

For now, that meant turning to one side as he pulled off his shirt, hiding the pain as he brushed at the wound and wiped away as much blood as he could, then keeping his shoulder as far out of sight as possible. Chris only tried once to see it, ruffling away Vin's hair before tracing along the line of flesh and muscle, but as he neared the place he had hurt, his eyes closed and he gasped, and Vin caught him in another kiss.

Then it meant stripping himself and doing what he could to prepare Chris, who lay on a slender pallet of loose straw Vin had covered with a worn saddle blanket. Chris had been hard, but even that seemed as much a curse to the older man as a pleasure. He wouldn't touch himself, couldn't forgive himself for what he had done, certainly wouldn't encourage anything that he thought might lead to more of it.

But he wouldn't fight Vin when Vin took him first in hand, then into his throat, knowing he didn't have the time to hunt down saddle oil or any other thing for them to use. Time was long but fragile now, any stretch of it could get Chris to thinking too much. So he slicked him with his mouth, knowing it wouldn't give enough to keep the pain away but perhaps enough to let him cover it up.

Lastly, he straddled himself over Chris, fighting down his own fear as he guided Chris to him, then into him. He ignored the voice that screamed from inside him, blowing up the memories of times before like smoke from a wet-wood fire, ignored his body's own reaction as his desire waned than fell away entirely, lost to a coldness that started where they were joined and spiraled up and through him, barely countering the burn of their joining.

Given the angle and the position, this penetration was the deepest they had shared. Perhaps it was that which drew Chris from his fear-induced lethargy, or that coupled with some awareness through their strange bond that Vin was reaching the edge of his own resources and his own will.

He groaned, low and long, then his hands finally curved over Vin's hips, balancing him. "Kiss me," he begged, "Christ, Vin, kiss me."

Vin leaned down, the angle changing and easing somewhat. Chris' mouth opened to him, but it wasn't long before Chris' tongue was thrusting into him with the same rhythm as his erection, possessing from both ends.

Oddly, it was this and the tentative touch of Chris' hand to his groin that rekindled his own desire. Oddly, he didn't last long, coming as hard as he ever had and with more satisfaction than he had since before it had all started. Chris was close behind, but even lost in his release, he was careful, hardly thrusting up, hardly clinging to Vin.

Afterwards, though, he held Vin unusually close, sheltering him against his chest. He shook again, and Vin felt the coursing wetness as it seeped into his hair.


He'd known it would come to this, had known since that morning after the fire, the morning in Chris' room when Chris had given him the oil.

He sat in the saloon, watching the sunset, listening to the prattle of JD and Buck, the soft laughs Nathan gave at the boys' antics, and quiet words of wisdom Josiah imparted. He sat as Nathan eventually drifted off to check on Mrs. Potter's girl, who was suffering from a mid-summer cold that wasn't healing as quickly as it should, then Josiah drifted off to light candles in some saint's day ritual.

He sat, nodding once as Ezra joined the three remaining at the table, even getting in on a game of cards, pleased at the flash of surprise on the gambler's face that he suspected only he saw - as only he knew to look for it.

They played for a while, neither Buck nor JD seeming to sense the undercurrent of discomfort between their companions, a sign, Vin suspected, of Ezra's ability to distract anyone from almost anything and his own ability to hide. After a while, JD yawned, claiming an early morning ride with Casey, and after another several hands, Buck was also distracted away by a woman, his more immediate.

Buck had hardly made it to the bar, the young lady in question draped over him like a blanket in winter, before Vin felt Ezra's eyes on him, cold and hard. But his voice was, as always, polite, too polite. It was the sweet politeness of cultured and polished hatred.

"A little over a month, then," he said, shuffling the cards without looking at them. "Even by my calculations, that is far faster than I expected - unless there was an anniversary or birthdate of which I am unaware."

The last was a question, one to which Vin didn't have an answer, but now, at least he had an idea of why and when those five times had happened.

"You ain't surprised," he said quietly, reaching for the beer sitting near him on the table. He'd been nursing it for a while, as much because he didn't want to be drunk for this conversation anymore so than he wanted to aggravate the pain that came every time he shifted in his seat.

Ezra shrugged, but the slight gleam in his eye and the light curve of his lips left Vin know he was feeling quite vindicated. "I believe that I did caution you as to what to expect." He shuffled some more, then quickly dealt two hands. "But you are wrong, Mr. Tanner, and you well know it. I am surprised. I am surprised that you are the one here, not him." He looked at his cards then back up at Vin, sorting the cards by touch, apparently. "Because I do not believe for one iota of a second that you are here to ask me for my counsel on this matter."

Vin studied his own cards, more a distraction actually. He didn't have to puzzle the words, he knew what Ezra was saying. It was clear in his tone.

"You're right," he agreed, tossing several coins onto the table to open the betting. "I ain't here to ask for no advice."

He waited as Ezra tossed coins on the table as well, then held out the deck in silent question.

Vin tossed away two cards, took the two that Ezra dealt, then waited as Ezra took two as well. Ezra glanced at his new cards, folding them into his hand while looking back at Vin expectantly.

Vin threw several more coins on the table, feeding the pot more than playing to win. He wasn't sure now what to say or how to say it. Words had never been his weapon, silence had been. But now, their roles were reversed - Ezra had the power of silence and he was using it well, leaving Vin feeling like he was looking at loaded gun while his own was not only empty but jammed.

Ezra called his bet, then held up a third coin to raise. But instead of tossing it, he said, "He hurt you."

Vin watched him, thinking. Debating. Even though there really was no need. He'd sold his soul before Ezra sat down at the table. Now, they were merely haggling about the price.

"Not bad," he shrugged, but he held Ezra's eyes. "Bit my shoulder."

Ezra blinked, the only sign of his confusion. He dropped the coin on the pile, his fingers left drumming slowly on the table.

Vin held up his own coin this time, rubbing it distractedly with a rough fingertip. "Scared him a hell of a lot more than it hurt me."

Ezra's eyes sharpened, his gaze more focused and Vin saw the instant when he understood. It was followed by the tilt of his lips, the grin of victory.

He dropped the coin in the pot, looking away. No help for it now - even if he never said the words, Ezra knew.

Ezra, of course, had to hear them. "So what, exactly, is it that you would have of me, Mr. Tanner?" he asked with more sugar in his accent, the words almost dripping. "As I said, certainly it is not to learn how to . . . accept his gifts and talents. That is not a learned skill, as you, I suspect, know as well as I."

As if he needed a reminder, his shirt rubbed over the raw place on his shoulder, and a sharp discomfort stung him where he sat.

Probably those more than Ezra's words wound him up, and he blurted, "If I could learn to take it, I'd be there, not here - " He cut himself off at the last words, not wanting to admit to them.

But Ezra's smile grew larger as he finished the thought. "Not here asking me for favors?" He laughed then. "And favors in the literal sense, I gather. How delightful, how utterly, wickedly delightful!"

Vin clenched his jaw, controlling himself. Ezra had every right to laugh at him, hell, if it didn't make his own heart hurt, he'd probably find it down right funny himself.

Gradually Ezra chuckled himself down to a smile and Vin waited. He was still smiling though when he said, "So what exactly do you propose, my good man? That I take Mr. Larabee back into my . . . . good graces? Entertain him in the ways that you are unable or unwilling?" He leaned back in his chair, curious. "I suspect that it must be something of that nature, for if you were a wise man and had done as a wise man would, you would have abandoned this morass entirely, and, as I suggested earlier, Mr. Larabee would be the one sharing this highly entertaining conversation with me." He smiled then, letting his cards fall from hand to hand. "So, are you willing to share him, truly share him? To take him back after you know he's been with me?" He glanced about the busy saloon, the noise loud enough to cover his next words, but he leaned close nonetheless. "Are you willing to take him back when he smells of me, tastes of me, when my blood is on his hands?" He leaned even closer, and Vin willed himself not to pull away as those lips brushed his hair. "Will you be able to spread your legs for him when you know he might be thinking of me?"

Vin didn't realize his eye were closed until he felt the cool fingers on his own hand, forcing it open to pull away the cards he had been holding. The cards he had bent in half as the images Ezra's words had forced into his mind.

"You might think of it as love," Ezra said, smoothing the cards back into some semblance of flatness. "Personally, what you call it to justify it to yourself hardly concerns me - as I said before, I have only one interest in this matter and that would be my own gratification." He looked over a Vin then, smirking. "So I ask again, Mr. Tanner, is this what you want? And, if so, are you quite certain?"

"Ain't it what you want, too?" Vin asked, his voice so low that it made his throat itch.

Ezra laughed again, still smoothing Vin's cards. "Certainly I want him, I thought I made that perfectly clear. But you see, he's not the one here asking. You are. Which I suspect means that he doesn't know you're proposing this little venture." He picked up one of the cards, turning it face up.

The three of spades.

Another followed - the three of clubs. A pair.

He grinned, looking at the cards as he continued. "So if he doesn't know of your plan, then you are either worried that he won't like it - feel some great, heroic guilt about - whatever it is that he feels great, heroic guilt about, or, worse, that he will like it." He picked up the pair of threes and tossed them to one side.

Vin swallowed. "Don't matter," he said, but his voice was tight, as were his fists.

"I beg to differ," Ezra said smoothly, flipping over a third card - the ten of diamonds. "It matters very much, sir." The fourth card - the jack of diamonds. He smiled. "While the stakes I would wager in this little game may not be as great as yours, they are important to me. I find that I am averse to being disposable - it offends my sensibilities." He tossed aside the two bents cards and reached for his own hand, laying it to the right. Carelessly, he flipped over all five - a pair of fives, and a pair of queens, with an ace kicker. "And while I don't mind being tossed about, especially by someone with the skill of our Mr. Larabee, I find it quite frustrating to be tossed about but not to a mutually beneficial conclusion." He drew the pair of queens from the hand - the queen of hearts and the queen of diamonds.

Vin stared at his hands where they rested on his thighs. "Chris don't know I'm here 'cause he'd . . . he'd think - hell, I don't know what he'd think. And like I said, it don't matter. I can't . . . I can't be what he needs. Not . . . that way. But I can be in most other ways and he wants me to be. So . . . yeah," he swallowed, "I guess I can take him back after you . . . after y'all do . . .after. I can."

Ezra continued to stare at him, and Vin closed his eyes. "I won't stop it," he said, "I won't . . I won't change my mind."

After a few seconds, he felt Ezra move and he opened his eyes to find the other man gathering up the cards and shuffling them with both hands. "So, we have reached an agreement, or at least the beginnings of one," he said smoothly.

Vin reached for his beer, taking a deep drink. When he set it back on the table, he felt the tug of pain and tried to remind himself that if nothing else, he wouldn't feel it again, not or a while, anyway. But that brought a different sort of hurt.

"There are, of course, a few other things we must resolve," Ezra continued.

"Of course there are," Vin said tiredly, rubbing at his temple.

Ezra's shuffling slowed a little and he canted his head to one side. "We are not speaking of a one-time event."

Vin shook his head. "If one time woulda taken care of it, then it'd be done."

"Indeed," Ezra agreed. "So then, how often? Several times a week? A month? Do you want to arrange it so that certain nights of the week are mine and certain yours - I'd rather not be committed on Saturdays as those are nights when I tend to stay late here in the saloon - very lucrative you know - "

"Godddamit," Vin swore, his fist hitting the table and making the pile of coins jump and his beer splash. For a few seconds, the roar of the saloon quieted a little, and Vin felt himself flush.

Ezra smiled to those immediately near. "Lost by a two," he said pleasantly, "always a painful thing, so close and yet so far."

It seemed to do the trick, people turning back to their distractions, the volume quickly rising back to its earlier pitch.

But Ezra was watching him again.

"It don't matter," Vin ground out, his jaw so tight he wondered if his teeth would break. "I don't get the sense that there's any regularity to it. That's . . . .that's between y'all." He rubbed at his forehead again, the dull ache growing stronger.

"Do you not think it would be easier for you to know when?" Ezra asked, and Vin was surprised at the sound of something in his voice other than the sarcasm. "Easier not to be wondering any time that he's not with you?"

He hadn't thought of it that way, and he took a few seconds to ponder it.

But he knew himself well enough. "Don't matter."

Ezra shuffled some more. "Because you would wonder regardless. Will wonder."

Vin didn't say anything, just reached again for the beer. The mug was empty when he put it down.

"So then, no constraints, for the moment, anyway." He shifted in his chair, placed the deck of cards on the table between them. "You will tell him of our agreement?"

Vin nodded. "Reckon so." He leaned forward, his hands on the arm of the chair as he prepared to rise.

Ezra held up one hand, stopping him. "There is one more thing," he said calmly, looking Vin in the eye.

Vin sat back, sighing despite himself. "What's that?"

Ezra smiled. "My price."

Vin stared. "What the - what the hell are you talking about?" he finally managed to choke out.

Ezra shrugged. "You have asked me to do you a favor, Mr. Tanner, one that is designed, if I understand it correctly, to benefit you. I hold no illusions that you are doing this out of the goodness of your heart or any generosity toward me - I believe that we eliminated those conditions over a month ago, in the livery." He arched one eyebrow. "Or was I mistaken?"

"Fuck you," Vin said, his voice hoarse. But he didn't hit the table, nor, more significantly to him, Ezra.

"So then, you are asking me to do you a service - one that, I might add, could have terrible consequences should it become known to others, even others close to us, wouldn't you agree?"

His head was pounding now, and he thought perhaps it would have been easier to just shoot himself.

"Do you not - "

"I agree," Vin spat. "What the fuck do you want, Ezra? Money? For me to take your patrols? Bring ya food, brush your horse - what, jist spit it out!"

He took several deep breaths, getting back his control.

Ezra leaned in, close again. "I think I want exactly that," he murmured. "The fuck."

"What?" He wondered if he could be any more confused. "Ain't that what - "

"Not from Mr. Larabee - or, rather," he corrected himself, moving in closer again, "not from Mr. Larabee alone."

Vin found himself unable to look away as he understood.

Ezra smiled slightly. "This first time, Sweet Vin, just the first. To show Christopher that it truly is all right with you. The three of us."

He sat back, but his eyes still held Vin's.

He tried to speak, but no sound would come.

Ezra chuckled. "I think it will be good for all of us - you will know more of what Christopher and I share, and I will know more of what the two of you share. I won't force you to my bidding, as I said before, what you offer has little appeal to me."

Sound finally returned to him, but it was more that of a mouse. "Then why?" he squeaked out.

Ezra looked away, and it was a physical relief.

"Perhaps, Mr. Tanner, you are not the only one who wonders. Perhaps I would like to see the side of Christopher that I can't imagine, this side that would care so deeply for someone as to sacrifice the pleasure I know he feels with me. That cares so deeply that he would willingly curb his own nature." He looked back to Vin, no smile on his face. "Perhaps I would like to see if he truly can derive satisfaction from giving pleasure and not pain. Perhaps . . . perhaps I would like to see what that part of him looks like."

At the far back of his mind, Vin heard something he thought was more than curiosity, more than this sick joke. It might have been hurt, but he wasn't able to think on it, still too stunned by this whole idea.

"Ezra," he breathed finally, "this ain't right. You can't - "

"Right?" Ezra's laugh was deep and long and real, and by the time it lapsed for him to drawn breath, there were tears on his cheeks and people close by were watching them with curiosity. "Oh, my good man, that was worth every cent of this evening's winnings - 'right'." He chuckled some more, wiping at his face with his sleeve. "Whatever would either of us know of 'right', Mr. Tanner?" He chuckled some more and Vin felt the heat of blood in his own face slowly recede. "So then, those are my terms. You may take them or leave them, obviously." He reached out and gathered the deck of cards and returned them to their box. "But the offer is only open until this time tomorrow. After that, I fear that as much as I appreciate your situation, I would find it out of my ability to aid you - "

"Goddamn you," Vin spat. "You want this but you'd still see me beg, wouldn't you. Fine." He pushed himself forward, sliding the chair back as he moved.

But before he could go to his knees, Ezra reached out, his hand catching hard on Vin's arm, the impact stilling his forward move.

"Not this," Ezra said, his voice calm and quiet, but his arm unrelenting. "Never this, Vin."

Vin glared, his anger still running in waves, but he held his seat on the very edge of the chairseat, his legs folded under it.

"My terms are what they are, nothing less, but nothing more. There's no begging, because I will not compromise the price. I am not asking you what you cannot give - I'm not asking you to submit to me or to his demon. I'm merely asking to . . . watch. That you can give. Whether you will or not is entirely up to you." With that, he let go. His hand rose from Vin to the collection of coins that still sat on the table, and he swept them easily toward the other man. "Your winnings."

Vin still glared, but he pulled his legs up and pushed himself to stand. "You had two pair," he said, not even registering the fact that Ezra would have known the game's winner as surely as he knew how to shuffle the cards.

"And you had three of a kind." He tapped the boxed deck. "Your fifth card was a third

three - the three of hearts, as it happens." He smiled, rising to his feet as well. "This time tomorrow - "

"I done told ya," Vin snapped, but the anger was harder to hold now.

Ezra studied him, then leaned down and pulled his hat from the chair beside the one he had been sitting in. Placing it casually on his head, he touched the brim in a light salute. "I look forward, then, to our next meeting on this matter."

He walked away smoothly, speaking to several people as he passed by them. Vin stood uncertain now, angry still, but confused. And tired.

He heard laughter as someone brushed past them, then Buck's voice fell warm in his ear. "God, Junior, you beat Ezra?" Vin looked to see Buck waving toward the money on the table, his companion laughing as she leaned on the table heavily, her breasts on proud display. "That don't happen often."

Vin shook his head. He put out one hand toward to small pot, but couldn't seem to touch it.

"Buy yourself a drink," he mumbled, turning away.

"Vin?" Buck called after him. "You sure?"

He waved a loose hand in the air, stepping through the door and into the night, feeling empty. He hadn't sold himself for the money, he knew that.

But right now, he wasn't sure what he had sold himself for.