Elder '05: Endurance

Buck's voice could penetrate even the most crowded of saloons, dense with smoke and rowdy laughter. Chris could pick out his voice at a whisper; this tone was sturdy enough to pass as an announcement.

"Evenin' Miss Annie, why don't you look pretty as a field of daises on a summer's day."

Chris could hear her practiced giggle that trailed after, a lilting study in flirtation as she wiggled into Buck's available lap, and then Buck's outrageous laughter as she whispered something choice into his ear.

Buck's expression was no less ostentatious than his voice as he stood, nearly toppling her, neatly catching her in time to sweep her off her feet. He spun her once, let her down softly, and she was the very image of startled amusement, fanning her face to cool her flushed throat and still her purposefully animated breath. Then he followed her up the stairs, the sound of his boots heavy on the creaking wood, and she squealed when he pinched her, as he knew she would, as she knew he would, and that was that.

Buck sure knew how to make an exit, or an entrance, or any other statement he wished to make given the circumstances and the audience.

Chris sighed once and returned to his stale beer.

It wasn't very late, but it was the end of a long week and the stage was in, all of which pleased Ezra to no end. All of which irritated Chris. More people, more money, meaning more opportunities for drunken routs and mischief at the poker tables, and he wasn't only thinking of Buck and Ezra, respectively.

Chris couldn't help his wry smile at his own uncharitable thoughts, and watched it gradually fade in the watery mirrors behind the bar. Ezra was no cheat, and Buck didn't start fights, but both knew how to end those disputes to their advantage with their own peculiar flare and efficiency. Buck's was bravado, Ezra's panache; and Chris, he knew his way of dealing with things bore little resemblance to either.

He turned his attention down into his mug as he tilted it and was startled into choking.

"Sorry pard, didn't mean to sneak up."

Chris cleared his throat and wiped his mouth. "Vin," he greeted. Damn that man and his Indian habit of rolling his feet from the balls to the heels whenever he was in a crowded room.

"Nice out. Gonna be a full moon."

Chris hadn't even noticed, but Vin would.

"Any trouble?"

This question Chris could answer. "Not yet." He swallowed another mouthful of watery beer and wondered why he even bothered. It never did him any good; never did him any worse either.

Vin left the conversation at that, sliding to one side and propping himself so as to keep one eye on the crowd. Chris let himself relax for a minute. He could see Vin nod, at Ezra, and felt he could probably spare a smile for that too. They were always aware of one another, knew where to find one another, mostly, barring kidnappings and the occasional reckless need to pursue either vengeance or justice without telling anyone. Some days, it really didn't pay to care this much. Some days, it was all that held him together.

"Buck upstairs?" Vin asked, breaking their unspoken vow of silence. Funny how that worked.

Chris swallowed any of a dozen acerbic replies, not needing to sound as sour as he appeared, and instead went with the usual, "Yep."

Vin nodded, processing. "I'm gonna take a turn around town, then." He waited for Chris' nod of approval, didn't need it really, but waited all the same. Then he strode off with that same nearly silent slide of his feet.

Chris wondered, not for the first time, why he was wasting another evening waiting for trouble that six other men could handle, drinking piss beer and gritting his teeth over what Buck was doing one floor up.

Ezra was winning, not surprising; Josiah was observing silently from a corner, as was his wont; and JD was approaching just now. Chris didn't need to see the reflection in the mirrors to make out the sound of his boots on the floor. The kid always walked like he had somewhere important to be, probably making up in speed for what he lacked in stride.

"Chris," he said by way of hello, and bellied up to the bar. Though it was more like chest-to-bar, but Chris wasn't going to point that out. "Everything's as quiet as a tombstone out there. Where's Buck?"

Chris had reached the count of three before that question was asked, almost religiously the first question out of JD's mouth. It was cute in a way, annoying in another, and without doubt the last thing Chris needed to be asked at that moment. He jerked his head upward, toward the stairs, and JD sighed in mock-disgust, drawing a breath before starting in to talk.

It was a running diatribe about crowds and cowboys and the fact that Buck never got turned down, ever, and he should just buy a pair of boots for each bed so he wouldn't have to think about where he left them last. Chris didn't listen with as much civility as he ever did listen, until the trilling of JD's voice in his ear made his heart ache. He stopped the kid mid-stride, setting his mug on the bar with more force than necessary and wheeling around.

"Gonna head out to the cabin, be there at least a day or two. You know where to find me if you need me."

"Alright, sure, Chris." JD looked ever-eager to help, to be the bearer of such news, or maybe he was merely happy to infer that Chris was trusting him with overseeing the safety of the town in his absence. Whichever, Chris was glad he'd stopped talking and began to weave his way out of the saloon.

Chris didn't begrudge the kid's mood, more like he knew he couldn't share it and it tired him to be around so much energy. JD was a good lawman, green no doubt, but good, unjaded and trustworthy. He was as innocently certain of truth and justice, and the pursuits thereof, as Ezra was confident in the inherent greed of man and the sovereign truth of the silver dollar. Josiah's outlook, Chris lingered on the thought, rested comfortably somewhere in between.

He swung through the saloon doors, pausing to cast one quick glance over at Ezra's table, meeting an equally swift glance from the gambler, and the flash of an acknowledging gaze as Ezra ascertained his position, his leaving, and then returned to his game without missing a heartbeat. Chris huffed a laugh to no one, and let the doors flap closed behind him.

The tinny piano faded behind him as he made his way to the Livery. Beneath the music, honest laughter and dishonest whispers, all were slowly drowned out by distance and Chris' introspection.

He knew why Buck did what he did; he could reckon more than one reason why any man would be willing to entertain the affections of a woman like Annie. That notwithstanding, Chris understood Buck's reasons and his arguments, and though he had neither the stomach or the patience for either, he had to endure them, just as he had to endure Ezra's peacock displays of haughtiness and JD's tireless hero- worship, and even Josiah's all-too-often fitting anecdotes and stories from the Bible. Nathan and Vin were the only two he could suffer with equanimity, and Vin liked to try to test that, from time to time.

His horse was a welcome constant, the ride to the cabin a familiar stretch of road; it was only as he arrived and the lightless windows greeted him with their gloom that Chris remembered he'd yet be alone for a number of hours. Alone he didn't mind; it was this blasted loneliness that nagged him, the knowledge that his boots would be the only pair by his bed until Buck saw fit to ride out, smelling of sex with someone else.

It wasn't until Chris opened his own door and crossed the threshold, inhaling the must of beds not slept in and floors unswept that he allowed himself a moment's self-indulgent pity, a moment to miss the smoky lanterns and the piano needing to be tuned, and the press of unwashed bodies hungry with a lust for sex or money. Same difference, Ezra would say.

Chris hated the saloon at week's end, resented knowing that it was his place to be there, with his men, his presence a talisman for the townsfolk, and he regretted it every single time Buck took those stairs and his footsteps faded out of earshot, but at least there, a man could forget himself in the distraction of company and alcohol. In that place, a man wouldn't have to remember that he what he was trying to run from, or why, or that he was running to a cold, one- room shack far beyond the reach of Buck's laughter.

Some things were better barely tolerated than merely endured.

Chris could tolerate Buck's reasons. He didn't know that he could endure his own bitterness, and the dark isolation of his home.

He rattled the ashes from the stove, started the fire, and warmed a pot of coffee, knowing Buck would ask first thing when he came in the door. Then he filled a pan of water and set it close by. The routine itself was a comfort: taking off his coat, placing his boots by the foot of the bed, lighting the lantern, consciously not counting the hours that Buck was emphatically not there.

By nature, Chris knew he wasn't the understanding sort, nor the forgiving sort, nor even the particularly kind sort. He was aware that he thrived most on anger, on guilt, and was in possession of more than his fair share of jealousy. Unapologetically, he recognized these things, not typically sparing a lot of thought to why Buck put up with him or stuck around. Buck had his own excuses and his own burdens to carry, and more than enough chivalry to do the right thing even if it killed him.

Ironic how this, this painfully illicit thing, provided the greatest cause for Chris' anger, his guilt, and his jealousy, all in one, and would be the thing that killed them both, were it commonly known. What they had between them was despised of both God and man, and it was the only peace in Chris' life, the one and only thing he couldn't live without.

Unmeasured time had passed since he stopped obsessing over what Buck was doing and with whom, imagining the words whispered into ears that weren't his or the touches bestowed on softer skin and recipients more deserving or amenable. If he stopped to reason with himself, Chris knew that none of those distracting ruminations amounted to anything more than an elaborate ruse, like Ezra with his cards, like Vin with his silent footsteps, like JD who chattered to hide his nerves. Like Josiah, who spoke with profound wisdom that he couldn't follow. Like Nathan who doctored as best he could, yet wouldn't bear the title.

If he stopped to reason, he knew that jealous ire couldn't dispel love, or conceal it, or make it any sweeter when they both knew that this is how it would have to be for the rest of their lives.

An hour or two hung tight around his throat until he heard a horse approaching, muffled hoof beats in the clay soil. Chris stood, added a log to the stove, poured a cup of coffee, and sipped in silence on his bed, listening for the sound of Buck's boots on the porch. Soon enough, he heard the familiar gait and settled back against the bed frame, his gun safely within reach, just in case.

"Chris? It's Buck." Buck didn't knock, but waited a second before easing open the door. "Whew." he crossed the threshold, clicking the door closed and shifting the lock into place. "Getting' chilly. Do I smell coffee?" His smile was warm, engaging, his eyes bright with the mischief that was always present whether he was entertaining ladies or threatening bank-robbers.

Chris nodded in reply, lowering his coffee, drinking in the sight of Buck instead.

"Annie's ma is come down sick with consumption, they reckon. Right shame. Says she's heading out to see her in a week or two and tryin' to save money. I tried to get JD to help her out a little." Buck chuckled at his words, knowing in the telling that JD didn't have the gumption or the thoughtlessness to bed a saloon girl. "But he's savin' himself for Miss Casey, and I guess I don't blame him."

Buck snatched a tin cup off the hutch and poured himself some coffee, taking his coat off one sleeve at a time as he drank. Chris could smell the girl's perfume hovering in the chill air.

"Think I might like to clean up a little. This for me?" Buck gestured toward the pot of water and the sponge beside it, his face perfectly mimicking honest inquiry.

Chris nodded. "Yep."

"You mind?"

Chris scowled. "That's what it's there for, Buck."

Buck made no sign of hearing the irritation behind the words. He simply smiled and began to take off his clothes, trail-worn, bed- worn, scented of dust and perfume and hours spent over a smoke-filled saloon. He shoved his boots next to Chris' by the bed, and he washed quickly but thoroughly, maintaining a running litany of idle chatter. It was no wonder he and JD got along so well.

Chris did wonder, though, whether Buck talked to hear his own voice, or because he knew it would calm Chris down, because he knew Chris needed to hear him speak. In the lamplight, Buck's expression was all ease and good humor, his tone lively and never failing to be self- amused. It was his own way of coping, Chris guessed, his own way of working through in words and humor what Chris worked through in silence and mounting frustration.

When Buck was done, both with washing and talking, he turned and stood there in the warm glow of the lantern and let Chris look his fill. What passed between them was as close to an apology as they would get, Buck apologizing for needing to wash a woman's scent off his body, and Chris apologizing for hating it. Then the moment was gone, and Buck's eyes narrowed, his smile growing.

"Let me love you tonight," he said, advancing on the mattress where Chris had yet to move an inch.

Chris couldn't help the snort. "Don't you usually?" Buck only ever came here for one thing, but the sudden severe grip of Buck's hand on his chin and the frightening light in Buck's eyes starched the breath out of his lungs.

"Always, Chris," Buck answered, ruthless and determined. "I always do, and you damn well know it."

It was as close as Buck ever got to calling him out, settling the record once and for all. Chris wouldn't put it past Buck to shoot him in order to prove his love, and some nights he felt that might suit both of them just fine. But not just then.

Instead, Chris suffered the slender fingers that undressed him and the tender caresses that stirred him. Chris lay himself down, spread himself wide beneath the solid weight of Buck's body and the heavier weight of a love and a loyalty that would stand neither being tolerated nor endured, but had to be accepted. And returned.

Dear God but he loved him, and Buck knew it, and he knew it, and if all he could do was surrender every inch of himself, then that would have to be enough – for both of them. They lay in the dark after the lamp had died, the oil spent and the stove hissing beneath the kettle, and Buck cradled him in arms still trembling.

"I have to keep up appearances, Chris. I have to." A warm, wet kiss graced the space between his shoulder blades. "I don't even do much, most of the time. They seem to know, or figure I'm courting some young thing." Buck sighed. "Half the time we just lie there'n talk. Not even naked. Just talk. They need someone who listens, who makes `em laugh, who shows `em tenderness." There was a long pause, thick as chimney smoke. "And if I were to stop, folks might wonder. Folks might talk. Hell, JD would be the first. Much as I love the kid, he'd never understand, and his questions'd probably be the death of us both."

Chris shut his eyes against the words but clung to Buck's hand beneath his.

"I know you know all that, Chris." Another soft kiss at the nape of his neck, and Buck's tone deepened. "But I keep reminding you, and one day maybe you'll either understand and make peace, or forgive me for loving you and move on. I always move on, just that most of the time I'm used to moving with you." There was warmth there, warmer than the hasty chill brought on by talk of leaving, and other ridiculous things. "That time ever comes and you need to leave, Chris, don't look back, just – "

"Shut up, Buck." By that point, his hold on Buck's hand was hard enough to wound, but Buck relaxed with a gusty sigh and nuzzled his neck.

Chris didn't know why Buck said these things, these crazy things, as if Chris leaving was an option, as if they both didn't understand the reasons why Buck kept bedding the saloon girls and flirting with everyone who came in on the stage. That was how it had to be, and the one thing Chris would never do as long as he lived was forgive Buck for loving him, though God only knew why he did.

Chris stirred and slid a hand behind, grasping at Buck's renewing arousal. "You say you always do, Buck?"

"And you damn well know it," Buck repeated, softer, pushing his swollen sex into the eager fist.

"'Cause I'm not going to forgive you. Not in this lifetime."

"Good. Now, you gonna do something with what you've got in your hand?"

"Nope," Chris replied on a grunt, turning face-down into the mattress and locking his fingers around the bed-rail.

Buck draped himself across Chris' back, covered him, and entered him, whispering words into his ear, touching him more softly than he deserved, making him feel for a little while that he deserved it.

It was enough that Buck was here with him, convenient since it had to be enough, yet Chris knew that for all the women in Buck's life, they never knew what it was like to have his boots under their beds `til dawn. They never knew what it felt like to have him endure the silence and the cold, tolerate the anger and the guilt, and still have him love them. Still have him there come morning.

The End