Alder '06: Forging Copper (part III)


"Chris - "


Vin shifted, his hip jutting to one side. "It ain't like - "

"This discussion is closed." His voice was so low that Vin wondered if he'd actually heard the words or if they had just appeared in his head.

He sighed. "Please, just hear m - "

The slam of the fist on the hard wood of the table made him jump, despite the fact that he had been prepared for it. Or perhaps, he thought, because he had been. "I ain't cheating on you," Chris yelled. "Jesus Christ, listen to yourself!" He shoved the table hard, the thump of it hitting the wall almost as loud as the fist had been before.

Vin waited, giving Chris a minute to calm down. He had known it would be this way, had been dreading it even more than the conversation with Ezra two nights ago. He'd expected the worst then, and gotten more than he'd imagined. The thought that that would happen with Chris as well had helped him put it off a little longer.

That and his own fears. The thought of Ezra's price.

But it was too late now, he'd agreed to it.

Chris had stormed into the cabin's small kitchen area, his hands making short, quick work of washing up what little was left from their lunch. Vin wondered passingly if he had put the knife away already, the big one they had used to cut the loaf of bread.

"I can't believe you would even think such a thing - Christ, Vin, have you lost your mind?"

It was possible, Vin thought, but he didn't say it. Instead, he leaned back against the wall, feeling the familiar ache in his back. He'd spent most of yesterday riding, taking two patrols, then riding out to Nettie's to check on a horse she had getting ready to foal. Riding back late, then riding out early again this morning.

Avoiding this.

The silence stretched on, interrupted from time to time by the slosh of the water and Chris banging something onto the sideboard.

"Ya need him," Vin said softly after a while. He had rehearsed the words in his head for two days now, promised himself he could be brave when he said them. But each still had a shard of glass in it, cutting.

"Goddammit," Chris swore. He jerked his hands out of the water, grabbing at a drying rag on the sideboard and slamming across the small space toward the stove. One hand knocked at the stove itself, slamming down on it with a force that left the heavy iron structure rocking. "I swear to you, I'll never hurt you again, Vin - Christ, I swear - "

"It ain't about that," Vin said, loud enough to be heard.

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Chris was laughing. Vin was struck in a sick way by how much that sound was like Ezra's laugh from two nights ago - 'right', he remembered, about what was 'right'.

None of this was right, not one damned thing about it.

He turned, thinking to walk out the door, get Peso, ride away -

"You're getting better, Vin, you're starting to lie like you mean it."

He stopped just outside the door, looking at ground past the porch.

"Hell, pretty soon, you're gonna be just like him - lying so easy nobody knows what the hell you really want. Hell, maybe you won't really know what you want - is that it? Is that what you want, to be like him? You think - you think that's gonna make everything better between us?"

He knew Chris was angry, even knew most of it was at himself because he thought he was failing Vin.

But worse, he knew Chris was right.

He closed his eyes, rubbing at his head again. "I know what I want," he said. "I've known what I've wanted since that first time I looked into your eyes." He swallowed, wondering how much more of himself he was gonna lose before this was done. "And I know what I'd do to get what little piece of that I can have." The words almost choked him, but he plowed on anyway. "I can't be what you need, not on this. It ain't your fault - hell, it ain't even mine. Maybe if things'd been different for me in the past, if I'd not learned to be so . . . so damned scared of being with people, maybe I could let you do . . those things to me. But it is what it is, and it's something that ain't gonna change, not no time soon." He felt bare now, like he had nothing else to lose, no part of him that wasn't already out there. So it wasn't really anything to say it all - or almost all. "You're the best man I know, Chris, and I'll follow you for as long as you'll have me. But I won't stand by and let you kill yourself because . . . because I can't be what you need and you're too damned stubborn to take what I can give ya and get the rest - where ya can." He knew Chris was moving up behind him, felt the heat of him, smelled the sweat and soap and musk. "I can't . . . I can't live through the fear of hearing your gun go off again and wondering if I'm gonna find you laid out by your own hand because you were afraid of what you'd do to me. I can't, Chris. I'd rather die myself."

They stood, Chris so close he could touch him if he moved even a little - but he didn't. Couldn't . He couldn't give anymore than he already had and what he had already promised. There wasn't anything else.

In that way that Chris had, he knew. After a while, he said, "So I gotta sleep with Ezra to keep you alive."

Vin stood, the absurdity of the statement catching him completely off-guard. But the thing was - it was, in its own way, true. He had said pretty much that.

He started to laugh - a cough at first, then growing as he felt a certain relief, then a little hysteria -

But Chris was laughing with him. Together.

So hard that Chris slipped one arm over his shoulders to hold him up -

And then they were laughing into each other's mouths and Chris was holding him hard, so hard that it almost hurt, and the tears were washing down Vin's neck and Chris' chest.

It was so slow, when Chris took him, so easy, that he wondered if everything else - his past, the livery, the barn, the talk with Ezra - all of it had been some bad dream.

But afterward, as Chris lay warm against him, drowsing in the heat of the late afternoon and their love-making, he felt the sting of sweat as it trickled over the purple circle on his shoulder and knew no dream of his could ever be this fucked.


It was four days, probably the best four days of his life, he thought later. They stayed at Chris' cabin, Chris not leaving, Vin riding patrol, checking into town at the end of it, then heading back out to Chris.

Four days. It came up - but always with a laugh. At least at first.

But as the days wore on, the gentleness ebbed away and with it, the laughter.

He thought later that it was the same in town; those first days, Ezra was polite, gentle and easy, but as the days wore on, the laugh faded to a smile that grew more snide.

Chris needed Ezra and Ezra needed Chris, and Vin was trapped solidly between.

By the fourth day, Ezra was cold and Chris was just about afraid to be in the same room.

The morning of the fifth day, as Vin saddled Peso for the patrol, he said, "Billy's been asking after ya. 'Spect you need to make an appearance."

He felt Chris' eyes on him, but he kept working to get the saddle tight - Peso was teasing again, not wanting to let the cinch take.

"Been a while," Chris returned, and Vin knew.

"Meetcha in town for lunch?" he said, leaning down to pick up the saddle bags and the bedroll. His back flared, but didn't lock. First time in a couple of days. But then, last night had been face-to-face.

Chris didn't answer right off, and after a while, Vin knew it was because he was waiting for Vin to look at him. He tied the last notch, the bedroll tight, and swung up into the saddle.

"Mrs. Hudson mentioned something about ham and sweet potatoes," he answered, reaching down to pet Peso's long neck. The horse grunted, but turned into the touch, and Vin felt a momentary relief that at least he was still loved somewhere.

Chris was there, though, stepping up close and catching Peso's harness. The horse snorted and tried to jerk away, but Chris held firm, his eyes on Vin. "Don't have to come," he said softly. "Been good, these past days, so good that maybe - "

Vin forced his head up and stared into those eyes, crystal green with the soft ring of gold. "Ham and sweet potatoes. Last a man a long time."

Chris took a step closer, letting go of the horse but taking Vin's leg, just above the knee. He opened his mouth to say something, but Vin reached down, catching the back of his head with a hand and tilting it up. His back screamed for all of him as he leaned low, bent more than half, and caught any offered words before they took flight.

"Ain't nothing but lunch," he said when they finally broke apart. "We can come back afterwards."

But he held on a few seconds longer to the hair under his hand, letting his head rest against Chris' shoulder. It was only when Chris reached to him that he pulled away and spurred Peso forward, wiping the rough sleeve of his shirt over his face.


He was leaning on the bar, working on his third whiskey, when he felt the presence behind him. Instinct demanded that he turn - instinct had been demanding that he turn since he'd come through the door, whispering constant and annoying reminders that he should never have his back to a door, that a bounty hunter could walk in at any time and drag him off to Tascoosa - dead.

He'd managed to ignore that annoying voice with the thought that that might be easier, make this whole mess go away. Now, as someone moved close, he found that he was actually hoping that it was someone wanting to take him in.

"It would seem," a too familiar voice started, and Vin wondered if he had enough money to pay someone to come after him - would $50.00 plus the promise of the bounty tempt anyone?, he pondered, slugging back the rest of the drink. "That I have misjudged the situation," Ezra continued. He settled next to Vin, leaning on one side so that he had an eye on the door.

Ezra would probably do it, Vin realized as he picked up the bottle and poured another shot. Hell, he was surprised the other man hadn't done it already - but then, Chris would probably be pissed at Ezra if he did - or do something stupid and ride out to save Vin so that Ezra wouldn't get him anyway -

"Little early in the day for that, isn't it?"

He registered the question only as Ezra's hand grazed over his, stopping his from lifting the glass to his lips.

"You want me to - pay," Vin countered, pulling away from the contact with the glass, "you gonna have to put up with some liquor."

Ezra shifted beside him, a small snort of irritation hanging in the air. Vin ignored it, drinking.

"Well, as I was saying," Ezra started once more, his words long and hard, "it would seem that I have misjudged the need of our mutual friend."

Vin snorted this time, the laughter almost bring the whiskey back through his nose. "You know, Ez, I understand just about enough of that it know you're saying you was wrong 'bout something. How 'bout you jist tell me what you're trying to say - I ain't in the mood to figure it out today." He drank again - or tried to; this time, Ezra's hand was as hard as his voice as it slipped around Vin's wrist and tightened.

"He needs it now," he said, his voice rough in Vin's ear. "You can't be there now."

Vin stilled, the muscles of his arm relaxing. He let the glass go back to rest on the bar top as he looked into the cracked mirror on the wall. "You changed your mind?"

In the silence of Ezra's thinking, he felt a wash of relief, but it alternated with pangs of hurt - he didn't want to be in that room, didn't want to see Chris with someone else, didn't want to see him kissing someone else. But Ezra, damn him, had been right - the knowing would be easier in some ways than the imagining.

And he sure as hell had no interest in being on show for Ezra. Certainly no interest in the other man touching him.

He shivered, and the fingers around his wrist slipped off.

"No," Ezra said eventually, "I have most certainly not changed my mind. But perhaps there must be some modifications in the - "

Vin took a deep breath, tightening his grip on the glass he was holding. "What the fuck do you want now?" he grated out. "Maybe if ya ask him nice, Buck could fuck me - wanna watch that?"

Ezra stiffened and Vin smiled. At least he'd hit a nerve - meant Ezra had one.

"You seem to have missed the point," he said coldly. "It's not you I care to watch." He leaned close and Vin forced himself to remain still. "Though I am beginning to feel a certain desire to do to you a few of the things that Mr. Larabee won't." There was heat in the hiss, anger, a little like Chris'. It was disconcerting and Vin shivered again.

Ezra pulled back, his voice going cold again, controlled. "What I want requires that Christopher be in the proper frame of mind. If his behavior at luncheon were any indication, his current frame of mind - "

"He ain't in the mood to be gentle," Vin finished, lifting the glass to his lips. He took a drink - not long, but not a sip either, then set the glass on the bar and actually turned to face Ezra. "He's all yours, Ez, just the way you like him. Mean, angry, and - "

He caught himself before he blurted out anymore; it might be the middle of the day, but there were still others about in the saloon, Inez herself in the back but close enough to hear.

There was a blush of red in Ezra's cheeks, and his eyes threw daggers at Vin, but his lips curved in that little grin he had. "Indeed, he is all mine, at least for the moment. All mine."

It was like a fist in his gut - in truth, he wished it were a fist in his gut. That would've been easier to bear. The pain would have gone away eventually.

He turned back, unconsciously curling over the bar and reaching again for the glass. "He was at Mrs. Potter's," he said with as little emotion as he could manage. He emptied the glass and set it on the bar, pushing himself away. "Y'all have fun."

Again, Ezra's hand around his wrist stopped him and made him shiver. "One hour, Mr. Tanner," he said softly.

Vin looked from the hand on his wrist up the green velvet jacket sleeve to the green eyes.

Ezra took one step closer, not letting go. His chest rubbed against Vin's arm, long enough and close enough to let Vin know it was no accident. "My room, one hour." His other hand came to rest on Vin's back, sliding up quickly to catch the ends of several strands of his hair in a grip tight enough to hurt. He used the hair to turn Vin's head toward his, forcing eye contact.

"I think a bath would be an excellent way for you to spend the time," he smiled. "Let us consider it part of the price."

Vin stiffened at the touch. "Thought you weren't looking to have me," he said softly.

"I'm not," Ezra responded easily. He let go of Vin's hair, his fingers combing through the ends of it. "But as you will be on my sheets, I should like for them to remain somewhat clean." Again he leaned in close, his nose edging through several tangled strands to brush against Vin's ear. "Mr. Larabee might appreciate it as well, as he took advantage of a tub of water just before the noon repast - think he did that for you, Sweet Vin?"

Another sucker punch. Vin breathed through the pain, refusing to let Ezra see it. It was harder though as Ezra murmured, "Not to worry, my boy, we both know why he did it. Despite the protestations I'm certain he's made to you about the lunacy of this venture, he wants it. He wants me, enough to pay the small price I demand of him as well." He drew away, releasing Vin's wrist but still toying with the ends of his hair. Vin twitched, feeling more unclean than a bath would cure.

Ezra reached into the pocket of his vest and pulled out a coin. Laying it on the bar near Vin, he said, "One hour. Take your time, though - there's hardly a rush, is there. And I fear it may take more than one tub of hot water to put you at your best."

His hand stroked down Vin's spine as he walked past, a possessive touch that made Vin's fingers curl into fists.

Out of spite, he had another drink before picking up the dollar coin.

He resented this walk, this whole damned thing, but especially this control Ezra had over him. Reminding himself that it was for Chris, the memory of that day in the barn, was the only thing that got him to the bath house.

It was harder to open the door and step through, though, when he glanced through the mix of people along the boardwalks to see Chris and Ezra leaving Mrs. Potter's store, Ezra smiling and leading the way, moving easily through the people, smiling, nodding, touching his hat, and generally being everything Vin wasn't.

It wasn't him, though, as annoying as he was.

It was the man behind him. The man who was sauntering with the same ease Ezra had, nodding to people, touching his hat, smiling - smiling. Being everything he wasn't with Vin.

That smile. It looked like Chris was having a good time - no, Vin amended to himself, Chris was having a good time. The smile was sincere - even if it was predatory and chilling. It was still Chris, smiling.

He found himself leaning against the wall, trying not to throw up.

"Vin? You all right?"

A warm hand on his shoulder and he tensed, then steadied himself. Swallowing back the bile, he nodded. "Thanks, Nate, just heat, I reckon."

Nathan's grip tightened a little, and Vin winced; the bite mark itself was almost healed but the bruise was still tender and Nate's fingers were gripping right over it.

"You drinking enough water?" the healer asked. "You been taking a lot of patrols lately, and in this heat, you gonna burn out fast if you don't keep up with your water - "

"I'm good, Nate," Vin interrupted, pushing himself off the wall. "Gonna go in here and get into some right now." He tried to smile, but knew even to himself it was weak.

Nathan laughed. "Yeah, you need a hot bath 'bout like I need advice about women from Buck."

Vin couldn't help it, he found himself smiling. The nausea receded a bit.

Nathan's hand dropped off his shoulder. "Heard you got Chris back into town today."

Vin looked away, unintentionally glancing back to the street. They were still there, talking to Mary Travis. Well, Ezra was talking. Mary was watching Chris and smiling, while Chris was watching Ezra and smiling.

Nathan's gaze had followed his, and even though Vin looked away, feeling dizzy again, Nathan grinned as well. "Well, well - he looks better - at least he's smiling. Maybe some time away was what he needed."

"Yeah," Vin agreed, tiredly, thinking exactly the opposite.

"'Course, that smile's the same one he has right before his gun goes off," Nathan said a little more cautiously. "Think I've seen that smile on a couple of wild cats right before they jumped on something. Makes me wonder what Ezra's done to get him so riled." He smiled again, glancing at Vin. "Makes me glad it ain't me."

"Ain't that the truth," Vin said, thinking that it was far more true than Nathan would, hopefully, ever know.

He looked back, watching as Ezra and Chris tipped their hats to Mary and moved along.

"See you at the saloon later?" Nathan asked, stepping toward the street.

"'Spect so," Vin said. "Thanks, Nate."

But he stopped in front of the door to the bath house, hand on the door knob, and wondered what the hell he was doing. Going in to take a hot bath in the middle of a hot summer day so he could go to Ezra's room and have Chris fuck him while Ezra watched so that Ezra would agree to let Chris beat the shit out of him for fun.

Chris might not be crazy, but Vin was far from certain about himself.


"Senor Vin!"

He hesitated and almost lost his footing on the first stair. What the hell was Inez doing calling him -

"Ezra asked me to have you take this when you go up." She held up a bottle of whiskey - the really good stuff, he noticed, something from Kentucky, and three glasses. "He said that you and Senor Chris would probably need it when you joined them."

She wasn't smirking and she wasn't frowning; she was smiling, her dark eyes light and cheerful as they were every day that he saw her.

She had no idea what was going on in Ezra's rooms. For that, Vin was thankful.

"Thanks, Inez," he took the bottle and the glasses and nodded, trying not to blush - and failing.

But she grinned at him. "You are so polite. Your friends could take lessons from you."

Fuck no, he thought, hoping all his friends were smarter and braver than he was ever going to be. But he just nodded, turning back toward the stairs.

"Oh! Senor Vin? He said to remind you that his rooms are now on the top floor, the third one? He said to go all the way to the end of the hall in the back - they were going to be in the far room because it is cooler in the day."

He nodded again, feeling the heat rise hard to his face this time. But he made it up the first flight of stairs to the second floor, the 'guest rooms', without embarrassing himself or dropping anything.

The set of stairs to the third floor - what had been an attic but was now Ezra's private apartment, a gift from Maude - were at the end of the hall and through a small door that actually closed. It was unmarked, and, at the moment, unlocked, even though, after a few seconds of hesitation, Vin did lock it behind himself. He rather imagined - hoped, really, that if it weren't for Ezra expecting him, the door would have been locked now. The last thing they needed was for someone to find Chris and Ezra - well, doing what they were doing.

This stairway was more slender and closed, the only light coming from the crack in the door at the top. He didn't mean to hurry - he would have loved any excuse to delay this longer, but he hated the sense of confinement, and by the time he neared the top, where the light was brightening, he was moving faster than he had this entire day.

The third floor was hotter, sweltering almost, and he felt his wet hair curling even more. He was sweating again, and he smiled despite himself. No matter how many baths a body might take, there was only so much one could do in this heat. They were in a goddamned desert after all, even though this particular area was kinda at the border of things, hills and grasslands to the northeast, with water more available in that direction than to the south, toward Mexico.

But still - it was hot and humid and animals - men among 'em - were gonna sweat.

The hallway he entered was short - the third floor wasn't as long or wide as the entire building, most of it set back and away from the front. From the outside, Vin knew that the sign on the top of the building actually covered the third floor from the front - he'd been up here enough times when they were worried about trouble and he needed somewhere high and protected to shoot from. There were also no windows facing the front - these rooms had windows, but not many and almost all facing to the back. It was private up here, which was part of why Ez liked it, Vin suspected.

If you were gonna let men hit you around before having sex with 'em, best not to have too many ways for people to catch you at it.

There were only three doors, and they were all interior, so it was easy to find the third door. Like the ones at the stairwell, it was slightly opened, a crack of light drawing one to it.

An invitation, he knew, but he still stopped when he got there, hesitant. His hands were sweating now, and he knew himself well enough to know that it wasn't because of the heat.

He stood long enough for the sweat to affect his grip on the glasses he held, and there was the faintest sound of glass tinkling as he adjusted his hold.

It was enough; he didn't hear footsteps, but the light coming from the partial opening wavered just before the door was pulled open.

"Well! I was beginning to despair!" Ezra stood before him, dressed - sort of, pants on, but bare feet, and his shirt, while on, was completely unbuttoned , the cuffs fluttering loosely around his wrists.

His hair was mussed, his eyes were heavy-lidded, but it was his lips that drew Vin's instant attention. They were swollen - not just passion-swollen, but literally swollen, larger than they should be. Bruised, and in some places, still seeping blood, the crimson a contrast to their usual brown color.

"Please, dear sir, come in!" He gestured, his arm sweeping toward the inside of the room, and it was then that Vin caught the other marks, the bruises on his ribs and chest, the bites on his shoulders and nipples. Nothing obvious, a part of him realized, nothing that anyone else could see. That was how he had missed it. Him, the tracker who saw everything.

He stepped into the room slowly, his senses alert in the aftermath of their previous failing.

His first thought was one of disdain and dislike of the patent extravagance that was so terribly like Ezra. The walls were deep wood, strong and thick and probably more solid than any of the walls in the lower floors. He suspected that the floors were the same, but they were covered in rugs so thick that Vin felt his boots sink into them. The furniture was equally as nice, slender, carved woods with thick cushions in light colors that made Vin feel like he could break it just by getting too near.

"Vin? What the hell - "

He turned quickly to find Chris right at home here, sitting on some sort of chair that was also sorta like a couch, the back kinda dropping away as it got close to the near side. Like Ezra, Chris was partly dressed, his pants on, but not his shirt.

Like Ezra, his lips were swollen, his eyes heavy-lidded, but not from any violence. Vin knew this look, so familiar, and he felt the awful blow to his gut that this day kept giving.

But Chris' eyes widened quickly, and he was on his feet so fast that Vin worried that he might lose his balance on the thick carpet. Something fell to the couch he had been sitting on - a book, of course, one that was probably Ezra's, that Rome book that Vin knew he'd never be able to read.

Chris was in his face, grabbing at the bottle in one hand, the glasses in the other. "What the hell are you doing here?" Chris snapped, his eyes hard, the color of cedar under ice. Green. Purest winter green.

"Well well well," Ezra almost sang, then laughed, clapping his hands together. "Why am I not surprised that Sweet Vin neglected to mention this part of the afternoon's entertainment?"

Vin heard the door close, heard the lock catch and felt a pang of honed fear. But before he could do anything, Chris turned, placing everything he held onto a small table, then used the momentum of his arms to brush Vin to one side, out of his way, and out of the path between him and Ezra.

"What the fuck are you playing at?" he snarled in a voice so primal that Vin actually took another step back.

Ezra, however, smiled slightly and tilted his head to one side. "By now, Christopher, I should hope that you know that I play at nothing. Nothing." His shoulders rose in a lazy gesture that shifted the cloth on his chest. Vin noticed that his nipples were hard, seductively half-hidden as they were under the stark white cloth of the shirt. "No, my dear man, this time I would have to suggest to you that the man that you . . . love is the one who toys with your emotions." He gracefully waved one hand, the white cuff trailing as if on a breeze, accentuating both his words and the implications.

The snarl still held to Chris' face, but he looked to Vin.

The look was intimidating, as ferocious as any wild animal Vin had ever had the luck - or misfortune - to corner. His hunter's mind recognized 'wolf', but also 'cat', and he felt his hand drop to his gun as a matter of course. He also felt that part of his brain warn him that it was far too late; no gun could be drawn in the space of time this predator would take to spring.

He hadn't thought of this, he realized. He had been so preoccupied in actually having to lead Chris to Ezra, in having to control every instinct he had to stop it, or to walk away, or to do the rational thing, that he had completely forgotten that he was going to have to justify to Chris what he had agreed to.

Try to make him accept that he was willing to pay this price to Ezra because he loved Chris this much.

While Chris, of course, would shoot them both for the mere suggestion that Vin owed Ezra anything for this.

No, Vin corrected, Chris would shoot Ezra and Chris.

In that flash of clarity, it all came back to him, the memory of that lone gunshot. In that memory, that terror, he knew Chris had been right: he could lie as well as Ezra. If it was important enough, as this was, he could.

"You get to sleep with two of us," he said softly, trying to keep his voice level. "Why don't we get the same thing?"

He didn't mean it, of course - he had most certainly not been lying to Ezra when he said he had no interest in the other man's touch, and he doubted that Ezra had been lying to him - he knew he was no great attraction and had worried every day that Chris was gonna come to his senses and realize it as well.

But in this moment, he knew it was the one argument that would buy him time. Chris would have to battle with himself between his jealousy and his guilt.

He was right. Chris stilled completely, his eyes going wide with surprise and - under it, fear.

"Thought it'd be nice to see . . . " Well, what, he thought. He didn't want to see this, didn't want to be here at all. But he had to come up with something, and in the absence of words, he moved, waving his hand around in a gesture sorta like the one Ezra liked to use.

Ezra chuckled behind him, but he was smart enough to pick up the idea. "Mr. Tanner and I had a negotiation of our own about this little . . . venture," he said, stepping forward.

Vin flinched only a little as Ezra wrapped his hand around Vin's arm. He was coming to hate that word, 'venture'.

From the part of the brain that they shared, Chris found the words Vin couldn't. "This ain't no goddamned 'venture', you bastard." He reached out and caught Ezra's wrist, pulling it off of Vin. "It's - it's - it's - " He flushed with frustration, and Vin knew the rage was too close.

Without a thought, he put a hand on Chris' chest, over his heart, feeling the rise and fall of Chris' harsh breathing.

The room was silent, the edge dulling, until Ezra said quietly, "What, then, is it, pray tell?"

Chris' lips clenched in a thin line.

"It is what it is." The words were soft and slow, and it took Vin several seconds to realize he had said them. He was staring into Chris' eyes, watching the golden flickers trying to burst into full flame, thinking of the smoke and ashes and dirt a fire left behind.

A hand closed over his, squeezing so hard at first that Vin thought the bones might break. He tugged, trying to ease the pressure, only to have his arm caught under the elbow and pulled, drawing him closer.

Iced cedar twined within the molten gold, steam rising between them and seeping out, slipping into the space between their bodies.

Chris swallowed, started to say something, but Vin knew there was nothing left to say, not between them. It took little more than an easy tilt from his waist and his mouth was on Chris', taking the words.

An arm slid around his waist, holding him close, but he still felt hesitancy under his lips. He tried teasing with his tongue, licking across the soft skin at their joining, and as always, Chris let him in. The tongues clashed and dueled and played, and in the end, Vin surrendered, letting Chris have what he would. In the back of his mind, he had a vague awareness that Chris tasted of Chris - whiskey and cigar and coffee. One fear held at bay.

His mouth was empty, suddenly, the pulling of his hair bending him back and away. "I know it's not fair," Chris mouthed along his jaw, "but I can't share you, Vin, I can't watch him touch you - "

"No," Vin agreed in a little gasp as Chris' teeth grazed just along the soft spot under his ear. "Don't want him, just you."

"Then, why?" There was more space between them now, the steam cooling, leaving a heavy sweat sticking them together. Chris' had both arms around Vin, holding him close and tight, as much a trap, now, as it had been a luxury.

"Don't," he whispered, his arms circling Chris' neck. He tried to pull them back together, but the hold on his hair started to hurt.

"Why, Vin?" The tone was harder now, as were the arms holding him.

No words would come, none that would make this any better. He stared at Chris, watching the gold grow brighter, his mouth moving as it tried to find anything -

"Because he loves you more than he should," Ezra answered from somewhere in the back. "Because I wanted to see if he did, indeed, love you as much as he claims."

Chris' gaze went to the other man, and his lips curled in anger. "You got no right - "

"You did not come to me, Christopher, he did. To save your relationship, perhaps, I suspect, to save your life - "

Vin felt the muscles gather, knew even as Chris did that he was going to move -

And moved with him, against him clinging as Chris tried to thrust him away. "Don't," he said, his voice coming out as worried as he felt, "ain't nothing, Chris, just one time, just - "

"He loves you," Ezra said calmly. "Do you love him? You say you do, but I fear that I would never believe it possible - certainly not for your definition of the emotion and his to be anywhere similar enough to survive for more than - what, a month or two? Given your predilections, I would anticipate boredom on your part quite soon. Innocence can be so . . . predicable."

Chris was pushing harder now, struggling to get free of Vin. Vin held tighter, now trying not to look into those eyes, to watch the color he knew melt away in the forge of emotion. "Chris, no - dammit, Ezra, shut the fuck - "

"Why, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra's voice had taken on the slower, deeper tones of bitterness. "It would seem that I am quite correct my assumptions. Here he stands with you in his arms, you who are willing to do more than should ever be asked of anyone one loves, and all he can think of is hurting me. Your affection for him, however intense it may be, however sacrificing, is obviously not reciprocated."

Vin found himself almost falling; Chris was completely still now, no resistance.

"What?" The voice was a rumble, the vibration cutting through Vin's gut.

"I thought it was clear," Ezra sighed. "But perhaps you were distracted by your anger, so I'll repeat myself: Mr. Tanner does, indeed, love you. He is willing to whore himself to protect you in the only way he sees to save you. You, on the other hand, when faced with the prospect of demonstrating your affection for him, would rather work yourself back into an anger that will compel you to me - away from him, instead of showing him that you can sacrifice for him in return."

One part of him found it funny that he understood what Ezra was saying - a sure sign that Ezra really was talking down to them.

But a bigger part of him was trying not to hear the argument, not to understand it.

Not to believe it.

"It ain't that way," he heard himself say, even as he backed away from Chris and turned to face Ezra.

The other man sat in one of the skinny chairs, his legs crossed at the knee, his head propped on one hard. He looked bored, and at one point, even covered his mouth as he yawned.

"Isn't it, Sweet Vin? Oh, I have no doubts as to your feelings in this - but at this point, isn't it up to Christopher to explain why he'd rather work himself into another fit of pique - and have his way with me, than take advantage of the large, soft bed - softer than I know you are used to, and you, more than willing in his arms, for an afternoon of sensual pleasure? Why, if nothing else, I would think that he would be enamoured of the idea for the sheer pleasure of proving me wrong."

He sighed, uncrossed his legs and pushed himself to stand. "Perhaps it is better to discover this now? Before you sell some other part of yourself for him, some part of, perhaps, your soul that is unrecoverable?"

"No," Vin thought he said, knew he heard, but it was from so far away as the reality of this idea tore at him -

Arms reached around him, drawing him back - "It's bullshit, Vin, don't listen to him - "

"And why shouldn't he?" Ezra countered. He looked at them with a certain smile, his gaze catching Vin's. "What have you done to prove your love for him - hurt him one time, so that in the throws of some melodramatic angst, you could threaten to end your life, thus freeing him of the burden of your accursed love? Shakespeare would be envious of your creativity, your pathos. Only it would seem that your love for him, apparently, is just strong enough to bend him to your desires, such as having two lovers, as it were, but not strong enough to prove to him that your love for him, if not equal to his for you, is at least more than your affection - or need - for me."

"Goddamn you, Ezra, you're twisting everything around - "

Vin pulled away, and Chris' protest faded into the back of his awareness. It was harder now, the pattern of Ezra's words like a winding mountain road in a snow storm, twisty and obscured and cold, oh so damned cold - but as he moved farther from Chris, the more sense it made. The more his heart heard.

He walked between them, slowly, moving to the far wall. There was a picture there, some painting of a meadow, with a long fence on one side, and men on horses in the fancy dress worn by hunters who hunted for sport, not because they had to. Sport, he thought, chasing down and killing a fox. Small critter, hardly enough meat on its bones to keep itself alive, much less a group of men dressed up as pretty as women, and most looking like they could stand to lose a few meals anyway.


"Vin, you know - "

He held up a hand briefly, still staring at the picture. Chris fell silent behind him, but Vin felt the desperation - and when, he wondered, had he become so at ease with it that he could know it by its simple presence?

Green, he thought, the picture was green. The meadow was grass green with yellow highlights, reflections of the sun, maybe, and it was bordered by a forest, with tree leaves that ran from deep green to pale green, some even shading into the lighter colors of fall - brown and orange and red and, of course, gold.

Warm, grass green, deep river green, cold, winter green.

"Vin?" This time it was Ezra - startling, that he was using the short, one-word name, not one of his polite ones, or the damnable 'Sweet Vin'.

He didn't turn around, didn't move at all, even though he could feel Ezra closer to him, hesitant at his back. Another oddity - that was where Chris had promised to be.

"I came here because I said I would," he said slowly, thinking out each word. "I asked for your help, Ezra, and that was part of the price of my asking. I didn't come here for Chris to have to prove anything or show me anything - least, I didn't think of it that way." No, he hadn't. He might've if he'd thought at all about having to explain any of this to Chris - no, probably not even then.

But now, now that Ezra had put it in those terms. . . .

"I didn't come here with that in mind," he repeated. "But maybe you're right. Maybe I been stupid about it all this time." He waited, heard Chris moving now, and held up his hand once more. "Ezra don't believe in love, Chris - that's what this all comes down to. He don't believe that someone other than a complete fool, like me, could care about another person enough to put their own wants aside, just to make someone happy - because he don't understand how making someone else happy can make me - or you, or anybody else happy."

There was gold in the picture, gold and yellow, like the fire - but also like lemons and buttercups, and the late afternoon sunlight on white desert sand.

He turned, looking at Chris. "Never thought I'd ask this - never thought I'd want it." He shifted a bit, letting his weight rest on one hip, his arms crossing over his belly. "But I'd like . . . I'd like for you to love me."

Chris stared back, all the colors in the painting swirling in his eyes. "For him?" he asked softly.

Vin tilted his head, thinking again, weighing each word. "Maybe. But mostly . . . " He stopped, working his jaw; the words were hard, like rocks sitting on his tongue, and he didn't think they made sense when they finally rolled out. "For me."

Chris blinked, ready to ask again, to challenge - then stopped. He studied Vin - not long, nothing between them ever took long, making the decision with the speed and surety that had drawn them together from the start.

He nodded, then the corners of his mouth twitched in the little smile that was for Vin alone.

Vin straightened, stepping forward, and Chris met him. This kiss was warm and soft, tender in a way that Vin thought of more as after, not before. But he didn't mind - it was what he truly wanted. Chris did that thing, cupping his face between his hands as if he were some sort of treasure and all he could think of was the safety in those hands. When they rose to comb through his hair, tilting his head back, he went easily with their instruction, letting himself arch back as his waist was enveloped and held close against the other man's body.

Chris was on his neck again, teasing and tasting, finding the spots that made Vin drift. He had moments of focus - nipping at his jaw, a hand clutching his ass, teeth grazing his earlobe, fingers twisting his hair, teeth teasing at his ears.

He was aware, at some level, of where he was and what was happening outside of him and Chris - he'd lived too long in fear, in danger, and now, with Chris, in hiding. He knew Ezra was there, watching, knew they were trusting to Ezra's need to hide as well.

But this place, Ezra's place, was, if nothing, else, safe. They would know if anyone was coming - probably quicker and easier than when they were at Chris' cabin, certainly moreso than when they were in the boarding house.

Pressure on his lower back, digging hard into those muscles. He heard himself moan with the shock of it, knew he was flat against Chris, groins rubbing together as the other man worked that magic on his back -

He swayed, jerked for balance, but was caught by the shoulder. He forced himself to see and found Chris smiling as he unbuttoned Vin's shirt and slid it off.

Bare skin to bare skin, sticky with sweat but it didn't matter as those hands pressed hard, touching flesh. His own hands roamed as well, slipping on the slick expanse of skin.

He swiped a thumb over one of Chris' nipples, pleased when he felt Chris tremble. It took some effort to get past Chris' hands to lean down and suckle the small point - but the response was well worth it. Chris arched, one hand wrapping around the back of Vin's head and holding him close and tight, like a momma cat with its littlest kitten.

He moved to the other side, knowing that too much could end up hurting, and when Chris started pulling back from that, he dropped to his knees and tugged the buttons on the black jeans open.

Despite - whatever had happened earlier, Chris was ready now, his erection surging free as soon as Vin pulled at the thick fabric. There was a noise, a soft cry, but he didn't hear it clearly, his ears covered by Chris' hands as his mouth made a perfect fit.

He took him all in one smooth glide, opening his throat in the practiced way he knew so that there was no gag as the thick head mopped over the back of his tongue and plowed as far as it could go. It went until Vin's nose was buried in the thick curls at the junction of Chris' legs, his lips stretched wide but firm around the thick stem of him.

Chris was coiled, the muscles of his thighs like rock under Vin's hands. He was trying not to move, Vin knew, trying to control the instinct to force contact; this was one of Vin's favorite games to play, holding out to see how long it would be before -

Seconds, this time, before Chris' tightened his hold at the base of Vin's skull, his thumbs hooking in the smooth curve where Vin's jaw was hinged and locked, and he pulled back. His cock sloughed back, dense and pungent, until the expansive jut of the head rested against the back of Vin's teeth, pulling. He could open no wider, not with the pressure of those thumbs, but he knew he didn't need to; Chris was in control, even at this point.

A slight snap of his hips, a sort of test of balance, was the only warning before the long, heavy shaft punched forward. It was harder not to gag this time, but he managed it, only flinching as the slick tip banged against the back of his mouth before angling lower.

He willed himself to stillness, acceptance, letting Chris set his pace, breathing on the backside of each thrust. There was a pattern at first, steady and sure, the way Chris hammered a board or sawed at a timber or fireed at a target. He fucks like he lives- powerful, decisive, and direct.

It's only as the pattern began to skitter that Vin had to decide how much he wanted - but before he could, Chris already had.

Chris gathered his hair in one hand, leaving the other at the jaw, then pulled himself free. There was a hiss of pain as Vin's teeth didn't quite miss grazing him, but it wasn't not bad because Chris put Vin on his feet before the sound even passed off his lips. Those lips were on his, that tongue in his mouth, tasting, Vin knew; Chris loved to taste himself in Vin, to know the extent of his possession.

"Bed," Chris mumbled around their tongues. Before Vin can agree - or even think, Chris has shifted, strong arms catching him at the waist and knees, lifting.

He almost struggled- he hated to be caught unawares, hated more being lifted. But even as he gathered his resistance, Chris murmured against his hair, "Be still, 's not far." Slow, wide licks along his jaw, and up to his ear distracted him so that he was next aware of being settled in on something thick and soft. He opened his eyes to find himself in a dimly-lit room, no windows so that the only light was from several candles ranging on different surfaces. Their flickering light threw shadows onto the bed. Had he had a few seconds to concentrate, he might have been able to discern the room itself, but Chris left him no time for thought. Even before he was seated good, his back against cool, strange sheets that seemed to shine even in this poor light, Chris had his boots off, then his socks.

Vin blinked, trying to watch as Chris' pants dropped to the floor, his legs sharply defined, his erection proud. Unconsciously, he licked at his lips, reawakening the taste of it.

Chris made one elegant pounce and was on the bed, his legs straddling Vin's hips, his fingers pulling open Vin's pants. He was gripping Vin's erection as he caught Vin's tongue between his front teeth, trapping more than hurting.

The hand on him tugged knowingly and Vin arched into it. Chris sucked at his tongue at the same time, in the same tempo, and it was hard to think of anything at all, hard to do anything other than surrender to Chris.

Again the methodical, demanding rhythm, this time applied to Vin's body, ended when the stutters warned of pending climax. Vin was gasping, would have begged if he'd been able, only to have a sudden sense of nothing.

Not quite, though, for as he backed away from the chasm, he grew aware of his pants sliding off his body, his heated skin tingling as it brushed along these odd bedclothes.

"Want you." Chris crawled up the bed, this time between Vin's legs. "Want to take you."

Vin nodded, lost in the strength of that need. The eyes, clear and winter green, but not cold. There was fire there, he saw, gold, but banked behind a curtain of color so deep that it held the heat at bay.

He knew it then, the difference. It was what it was - it was what was between him and Chris and no one else. It was as much as either of them could give, and it was enough.

Chris reached for him, one hand tracing along his thigh, but Vin shook his head. He sat up slightly, smiling at the look of confusion that darkened the fire to emeralds. "Not this way, not this time."

The confusion deepened Chris' eyes even more, but Vin looked past him.

The candles had been arranged for a specific purpose, to light the bed. Like a stage, Vin thought, feeling a little flitter in his belly at the thought. But some of the light spilled backwards, and in it, he found Ezra. The other man was standing at the far corner of the bed, against the wall. The view, Vin guessed, was perfect from there.

Ezra's eyes glittered in the darkness, catching Vin's look. His face wore no expression that Vin could see in the shadows, but his hands hung low, one thumb hooked in the waist of his pants, the other hand resting on his groin. If nothing else, Vin knew he was enjoying the show.

The thought made him swallow, but it didn't deter him.

"From behind," he said, looking back to Chris. "Wanna feel you as deep in me as you can be. Want all of ya."

Chris frowned, and Vin thought he might argue. He held out a hand, catching Chris by the back of the head and pulling him down into a deep kiss. It occurred to him as he taunted Chris' tongue back into his mouth that he had learned at least one small level of manipulation with the man he loved. It wasn't lying, not in the way Chris had accused him of, but it was definitely a sin of omission.

A sin of commission, in a sense; it took no forethought to reach for the junction of Chris' legs and find the center of his concentration.

But they were - somewhere new. Even as he spiraled his grip, knowing that his touch alone was bringing Chris past the point of argument, he realized that he had no idea where there was any oil or - anything they could use. A part of him wouldn't put it past Ezra to withhold - how better for him to win than to have this hurt Vin?

At the same time, he knew better; Ezra might cheat at many things, but he was so assured of his own belief in this that he would probably surrender every advantage to Vin - because the person who stood to gain the most was Ezra himself.

"Christ, Vin," Chris groaned, " stop or - or - "

Vin tightened his hold at the base, gripping until the tremors passed and Chris was panting against him.

He started to ask, pulling long and slow on the nipple he was gnawing before letting go, when he felt Chris shift, stretching to the side.

"You sure about this?" Chris' voice was like gravel, so rough and gritty that Vin almost laughed. But as he thought it, something was pressed into his hand and he welcomed the familiar round metal shape.

No fancy oils in fancy bottles, he thought with a certain vindication. If Chris had bought something for Ez, it weren't nearly as thoughtful as what he'd bought for Vin.

"Vin?" Chris prompted, reminding Vin of the question.

Vin tilted his head up, sucking on a sweet spot at the base of Chris' neck as he struggled to get the top of the metal tin. When it was finally open and he was scooping soft lard onto his fingers, he pulled back and said, "Yeah, I'm sure." He pushed Chris back, getting to his knees. "Get behind me," he ordered, setting the tin on the bed close, and reaching behind himself.

Chris frowned again, his hands coming to rest on Vin's shoulders. "Just turn - "

"No," Vin stopped him, even as he angled his body forward to get a better reach. "Want him to have a good viewing," he said, cutting a quick glance to Ezra. "Want him to know how you make me feel."

Chris' jaw clenched. "Vin, it ain't about - he doesn't need - "

Vin straightened so that he was almost eye to eye with Chris. He stopped the movement of his hand, letting it rest on his ass as he said very slowly, "He don't think that you love me enough not to hurt me. He won't ever know better if he doesn't see you have the best chance you could ever have to do that - and not do it." He waited, searching Chris' eyes until the understanding came. "I trust you. You're the most gentle man I've ever been with. You ain't never hurt me, even by accident - not in the bed. I wanna show him now that someone can care that much - that they - you, can care that much about me. 'Cause if you can be that gentle and patient with me, someone can be that way with him."

Chris stared at him, and he wasn't really surprised. He didn't think what he'd said had made much sense - it did to him, 'cause he knew what he believed about him, about Chris, and about Ezra and why he was fucking with them this way. But he knew he wasn't good with words and suspected that he was speaking gibberish.

So when Chris leaned forward and kissed him, he thought it was Chris' way of shutting him up. It was only after the kiss ended and Chris' was leaning against him, their foreheads together, that Chris said, "You got a heart bigger than damned Texas, Tanner. If you can see anyway to find good in this - Christ." Chris kissed him again, but it wasn't sex this time, just slow, easy knowing.

When it was done, he whispered, "You don't have to - "

"I'm dripping this stuff all down my ass. This sheets is slidey enough as it is, Chris, you want me falling out of the bed before we can enjoy 'em?"

It was good to hear Chris laugh. Better to feel the weight of him at Vin's back, then the patient breach of first one, then two of those slender fingers finding their way home.

Vin started to go to his knees and elbows, then remembered the goop on his hand. Carefully and without turning, he stretched his hand backwards, finding Chris' erection. For a few minutes, they played with each other, Chris priming him, steady and deep, occasionally finding the place that made Vin lose time, Vin rubbing him with the perfect pressure and speed, building him slowly.

With a long moan, Chris bent forward, pushing Vin down. Vin drew his hand away, settling into the position, pulling his knees under him in supplication. Chris folded over him, searing them together. His mouth danced along Vin's spine, a feast of sensation, while his hands commanded Vin's lower back and hips, kneading, caressing, then once more seeking out the point of their joining.

Vin tilted his hips up, an invitation and to make it easier. Chris eased closer, his fingers curling over Vin's hips as the slick tip of his erection notched into place.

As always, there was the moment of anticipation, Chris getting himself to a point where he could last longer than the first penetration, Vin getting himself to a point where he could bear the first pains and control the fear -

No fear, he thought, no pain. Not this time. As the clench on his hips tightened, the warning, he lifted his head and searched, finding Ezra's eyes.

He held the gaze, level and open, as Chris pushed and he stretched, slow. The burn started, a soft grating flicker that warmed quickly to a blister, rubbing raw and swelling and ready to pop -

And Chris was in and still. No tear, no rip, just a fleeting discomfort.

A brush of air on one hip as Chris reached around and down, finding his cock with ease. A strong, knowing grasp redirected his attention, and as usually happened, Vin pushed himself up, giving Chris better access and also pushing himself father back onto the length inside him.

It wasn't far enough yet, he wasn't relaxed enough, but it made Chris gasp with want. Made him tug harder at what he held and Vin gasped as well.

They traded touches for a bit, every tug from Chris drawing enough distraction from Vin to slid him father back, taking Chris deeper. By the time Chris was as far in as he could go, Vin was on his knees, his arms over his head and around Chris' neck, his head rolling on Chris' shoulder.

He still held Ezra's gaze - except when the lightning caught him as Chris rubbed over that nub inside him and no force he knew could stop him from grinding back, whimpering, trying to get more, keep more of that feeling going.

It was the yearning for that continuing sizzle that made him ignore the minor disquiet of feeling Ezra's gaze on him, staring at his bare chest, his hard cock in Chris' fist, his scars and flaws and secrets.

It was the strength of Chris around him, holding him up and loving him with everything he had, giving him all that he had.

"God," Chris moaned in his ear. The hand not jacking him rubbed over his chest, pinching his nipples, tracing over his ribs, holding him up but touching as well. "Close, so close, gonna - " He pushed slightly deeper, and Vin arched back against him. He was close too, ready.

They knew each other well, their bodies, their moods, their needs. Chris kissed along Vin's neck, finding the places that Vin felt keenest, touching in the way that Vin loved most. His thrusts quickened as they both spiraled toward the edge, and his drifting hand went low, then lower, finding Vin's balls and holding them carefully, rolling them as Vin liked, tugging at them with the practiced force learned from many times before.

Vin turned, catching those trained lips with his own, sucking Chris into his mouth and letting himself go. Just as he tipped past the point of thought, he felt Chris shift, driving as deep as he could, as hard as he could, and knew that this time, Chris rode with him.

He came back to find Chris wrapped around him, flush against his back, arms at chest and hips, face nuzzled against his neck. His own hands were on Chris', holding him as well. The other man was still inside him, but diminishing; Vin felt trickles on his thighs, and on his own belly, tickling and itching as they started to dry.

"Christ," Chris whispered, moving his head so that his nose nuzzled behind Vin's ear. "You never give up, do you." There was a smile in the voice though, and Vin smiled himself, turning into the nuzzle.

"Too much to lose," he answered.

Chris sighed as he slipped out, then he levered himself back, bringing Vin with him. He settled first on his thighs, then on his ass, leaning back into the pillows; when he had his balance, he twisted, easing Vin onto his back beside him, stretching him out, and kissing his forehead. He turned to the table by the bed and picked up a damp cloth, using it to clean off Vin's belly and then himself.

Vin would have drowsed, used to the way Chris took care of him afterwards, but he felt the weight of the stare and remembered why they were here, in this bed. Blinking, he looked back into the shadows and found the other eyes on him.

The gaze was as he expected, blank, cold, intent. Ezra leaned as he had before, one hand on the waist of his pants, the other on his groin. It was as if he hadn't moved.

Chris was still moving, tending to himself, but Ezra was looking at Vin, and Vin only. Vin looked back, wondering what the other man was thinking, wondering if he had lived up to - or down to - Ezra's expectations.

Chris stilled and Vin knew the other man had turned his attention back to Vin - and thus to them. The bed shifted as Chris propped himself on his side, angled so that he was looking over Vin toward Ezra as well. His arm fell easily across Vin's stomach, comfortable and possessive and familiar.

"Ezra?" Chris asked and there was the faintest hint of challenge in his tone. "Get what you want?"

Ezra's head canted to one side, his eyes still on Vin. The hand at his groin fell away, and even in the pale light, Vin could see that the erection was still there.

He sat up slightly, putting himself between Chris and the other man. "That bad?" he asked quietly. "I know I ain't much to look at, but you were the one who wanted this."

Ezra straightened, pushing off the wall. "Actually," he said, and Vin noticed that his voice caught just a little, "it was exquisite - you underestimate yourself, my friend. At certain moments, you are . . . . stunning."

He didn't mean to blush, but the words were so unexpected, the sentiment such a surprise that even though he assumed, after a second of evaluation, that Ezra was talking down to him, he still felt awkward.

Chris' hold tightened, even more possessive, and Vin felt the low rumble of his snarl. "Watch yourself," Chris said flatly, rising so that his mouth was at Vin's ear, and he was looking over Vin's head.

Ezra's gaze was slow to move, but as it did, Vin saw the blankness change to a sort of anger. "How charming, Christopher," and Vin knew that Ezra had not been making fun of him earlier, because all of that harshness was in his voice now, "so possessive of him, while he so reluctantly shares you because you want it."

Vin winced as the arm holding him started to bruise. "Chris," he started, "it ain't no - "

"He doesn't want you, Ezra, and you've forced him to do enough." Chris voice was growing harder now.

Vin closed his eyes, the pull of it all wearing on him.

"Stop it," a voice sounded through the room, and in the echo of its silence, he knew it as his own.

With effort, he pulled away from Chris, rolled away, and sat up.

"Vin," Chris started, but Vin held out a hand, his fingers resting on Chris' lips.

He looked at Ezra, saw the anger still there, but something else. Confusion, perhaps, and pain.

He didn't say anything else, merely held out his other hand.

Ezra looked at it, the confusion more clear. Chris tossed his head, wanting to speak, but Vin pressed harder, asking silently for his patience. He knew it for the gift that it was when Chris stilled and said nothing.

And apparently, Ezra did too. He looked at Vin's hand, then over to Chris, then back to Vin's eyes.

He never took the offered hand, but he crawled up onto the bed, sitting on his knees.

"I have to admit," Ezra said softly, speaking only to Vin, "that I didn't believe you - not about you. I knew you loved him - any fool can see that, I saw it from the start. Never fear, Vin, no one would know it if they didn't know what to look for. But your love is simple." He smiled slightly, but it was to take the bite out of his words.

"Yours is the kind of love that finds itself trampled, the kind that gives and gives because it doesn't know how to do anything else. Because it's pure, I suspect, or some such thing. It's the kind so very few people are actually worthy of." His face looked tired then, perhaps a trick of the poor light and deep shadows, but his voice was also softer as he continued. "I won't pretend to any great charity - we all know that would be false, but I did consider that part of what I thought I was doing here was protecting you - again, that was not by any stretch my primary purpose, but I was not averse to using it as a justification as well. I am not immune to the beauty of such devotion. But even I do not like to see it shattered for so little, and my fear was that Chris could never return that love to you, not in a form that wouldn't ultimately destroy you."

Again Chris shifted, even snorted a little, but Vin tapped his lips and he remained quiet. His attention was on Ezra.

The other man shook his head, looking to Chris as he continued. "You're not worthy of him, you're hardly worthy of me." The edge was in his voice, but it was finer now. "But it would appear that I am wrong about your capacity to love. Insofar as you are able, I do believe that you love him - and that you will try to be what he needs." He looked back at Vin. "And you, sweet fool that you are, will take what little he has to offer and treasure it, won't you." He leaned forward then, placing one hand lightly on Vin's bare leg, just above the knee. "You do know that you are worthy of the same love that you give, do you not?"

The words were so gentle that Vin smiled. "Don't know what I'm worthy of, Ez," he answered, and the fingers on Chris' lips lifted to stroke Chris' face instead. "Don't rightly care. Just know that he's all I want."

Ezra studied him then shook his head. "You are an extraordinary person, to give so much and ask for so little in return."

"Maybe you're not looking it right," Vin countered. He let his left hand fall to rest on top of Ezra's, "As I said before maybe I like giving for its own sake."

Ezra just stared at him, and Vin could see the struggle it was taking for him to accept the argument.

It was Chris who laughed, a short chuckle that almost made Vin angry. But as he turned, frowning, Chris shook his head. "You've already torn out the foundation of his world, Vin. Don't try to help him rebuild it with frames that are invisible to him."

Vin inhaled sharply, ready to snap at Chris, but Ezra chuckled as well. The hand on Vin's leg squeezed slightly, reassuringly.

"I do admit that it is difficult for me to accept that someone could do things because the actual act of doing them is more fulfilling than what they get in return - but then, it's just another variation of selfishness, is it not?" He laughed again, and even though Vin's hand still lay on his, he slid his hand higher along Vin's thigh. "You are a genuine treasure. I suspect that had it been anyone else, my own estimate of Christopher's behavior would have been - dare I say - right on the money."

"Don't know," Vin shrugged. "It is what it is."

"Indeed," Ezra agreed.

He looked at Vin for several long seconds, then the hand on Vin's thigh moved a little, the thumb stroking slowly.

Asking, Vin realized. Asking for - him.

It was strange, he thought - until just a few minutes ago, the idea of sleeping with Ezra had made his skin crawl. That had been his big fear from the start of this thing.

But now, looking into those eyes, seeing the confusion and hurt - and want, he thought the actual want - he felt . . something else.

He wasn't stupid - he knew Ezra didn't want him. He did - but he didn't. He wanted to feel what Vin and Chris felt for each other, wanted to feel that someone loved him and that he loved someone else - and that that love was real.

He could play at it, suck Ezra off or even let Ezra fuck him - he'd sold himself for a hell of a lot less, and this time it would be with someone he actually liked. And as the realization passed through his mind, he knew that he could and that he could make himself like it - or at least tolerate it and give back.

But . . . but . . . it wasn't really what Ezra wanted or needed.

And as the thought drifted to him, he saw it pass through Ezra.

Ezra's hand pulled off - not fast, not drawing attention, but slipping away as if in darkness. The hiding, the shame, hit Vin in the stomach the way so many other things today had, and he reached out and caught Ezra's fingers as they left his skin.

"Don't," he whispered. He tugged at Ezra's hand, relieved when the other man relented and let him take a level of control.

He lifted the offered fingers to his lips, first kissing them, then slowly drawing first one, then a second, into his mouth.

Ezra's breath caught, and he ran a tongue alone his lips as he watched Vin. The thumb attached to that hand rubbed over Vin's lips, the touch so light that it almost tickled.

Vin licked along the fingers, sucking just enough to tease. Ezra leaned closer, his eyes drooping just a little -

The fingers were gone suddenly, the hand wrenched away from his face.

"No." The sound was cold and sharp, and Chris was between them, pushing Vin back against the headboard and Ezra down toward the end of the bed.

Chris was on his knees facing Ezra, his back to Vin, but one hand on Vin's shoulder. It was coincidental but still disconcerting that the hand was on the bruise, covering it but also reminding Vin that it was there.

"Chris," he started, but those fingers tightened on his shoulder.

"You got what you wanted," Chris said, looking at Ezra. "But you don't get any more. Not from him."

Ezra blinked, and started to say something, but he stopped himself. With a shrug, he moved off the bed, gathering up the clothes Chris had left in their wake earlier. Dropping them before Chris, he said quietly, "I should thank you, I suspect, for letting me have that much. But as you so pointedly observed, it has shaken the foundation of my world. I envy you for what you have - but I still do not believe that it is as secure as you think."

He glanced past Chris to Vin, then back to Chris. His tone was more defiant as he continued, "His love may be simple and very giving, but it is not endless, I suspect. He does deserve better than what he has now."

Chris' shoulders drew back. "You think you can give it to him?" he asked, his tone threatening.

Ezra shrugged. "Probably not much moreso than you can," he answered, and Vin knew it for honesty. "I have been quite candid in my statements that I have little interest in innocence - and even now, with the memory of the beauty of it etched clearly in my mind's eye, I can want to possess it, but once acquired, I suspect that I should place it on a shelf, looking at it every now and then, but unable to give it the attention it would need to thrive." He shook his head. "I would like to try, but unlike you, Christopher, I know better than to do so."

He straightened, his eyes catching Vin's again. "I shouldn't want to destroy such a thing of beauty."

Vin frowned, not sure what Ezra was saying, but before he could get the question to his mouth, Ezra had left the room.

Chris turned, his hand sliding into Vin's hair. "You want him?" The question sounded casual, but Vin knew it was anything but that.

He looked up, trying not to let himself be distracted by the soft caresses that were more significant to him than any words. "Told ya," he said, "only want you."

Chris' lips twitched in an almost-smile. "But you were sucking on him - "

"Felt sorry for him," Vin said, letting his eyes close as contentment. "He ain't all bad."

Chris leaned in close, kissing Vin's forehead. "Damned if you don't beat all, Vin. He blackmailed you into bed, made you pretty much whore yourself out, yet you'd give him a sympathy fuck 'cause you feel sorry for proving him wrong."

Vin shrugged, but it was a very small movement; he didn't want stop what Chris was doing. "He ain't all bad."

"Neither am I," Chris said softly, kissing him again.

No, Vin agree, he wasn't.


The barn went up with more ease than they'd expected - but then, with almost thirty grown men and at least that many women helping, the hardest obstacle was not tripping over each other.

Afterwards the shingles were nailed into place and the tough outer boards notched properly, the food was brought out, the musicians tuned up, and the whole thing turned into the party that it was supposed to be.

As was his want, Vin drifted around the outer edges of things, watching, talking when he had to, but mostly keeping his distance and enjoying the sounds of happiness.

The day was fading into dusk when he found himself leaning on the fence, staring into the area most devastated by the fire. It had been almost two months, now, and the undergrowth was just starting to edge back into the blackened dirt. The air still held the tang of smoke and ash, a certain acridness that made him edgy, made him think too much.

He heard the soft footsteps, but didn't turn. He knew them now, almost as well as he knew his own or Chris'.

"Lovely evening," Ezra said softly, coming to a stop near him. "The view could be better, but then, perhaps it's fitting."

Vin didn't say anything, but his silence wasn't wary or angry.

Ezra leaned on the fence as well, one foot rising to rest on the lowest plank. "I hope you know that I meant what I said yesterday about you, and about him not being worthy of you."

Vin's lips quirked in a sort of smile. "And about you not being either?"

He heard the soft chuckle. "Yes, I suspect that as well."

Vin shook his head. "As I said - "

"I know, it is what it is." They both chuckled then. But as the silence settled anew, Ezra shifted. "He will not be content with yesterday. It may take longer this time - "

"Ezra." Vin shifted his position against the fence but he didn't look at the other man.

After a few seconds, Ezra said quietly, "I gather that my point is not new to you. But perhaps it is something you don't wish to dwell on at the moment."

Vin nodded, once. "It'll be what it is, when it is. I don't want to borrow trouble. The day's been good. You can think about tomorrow all you want - and you will. Same way that he thinks about the past."

Ezra chuckled again. "You truly are an enigma, Vin. But fitting, I think. Me in the future, Chris in the past - and you in the middle between us. In the moment." After a few seconds, he straightened, pushing off the fence. "I understand that Mrs. Wells is seeking you, something about a rare and treasured pie."

Vin grinned at that himself. "Lemon, I reckon," he said, pushing up himself. "Don't want to keep that waiting."

They turned, started back toward the crowd gathered on the far side of the buildings, when a lone figure rounded the corner closest to them, headed their way. He was walking fast, his shoulders back.

"That certainly didn't take long," Ezra commented dryly. "I noticed that he's very aware of your location, but - "

"Weren't me," Vin said, tilting his head up once in acknowledgement of the man striding toward them. "He might always know where I am, but he didn't start hunting 'til he realized you were out of his sight as well."

Ezra's step faltered, and Vin glanced back to him. "Doesn't it offend you that he doesn't trust you?" he asked, watching as Chris drew closer, the silver of his gunbelt catching the last rays of light.

Vin shrugged. "It ain't me he don't trust," he said more quietly. "It's himself, and it's you. As you said," he grinned, "I'm just the one in the middle."

Before Ezra had the chance to address that, Chris called, "What the hell are you two doing out here?" It sounded friendly enough, but Vin heard the edge to it.

Beside him, Ezra called back, "Just waiting for the darkness."