Disclaimer: The characters from The Magnificent 7 don't belong to me, they belong to MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy. I'm not making any money off them.

Pairing/Rating: C/V; NC-17 for explicit m/m sex

Notes: Thanks so much to my wonderful betas: Judy, Tarlan, and Kap. This is a continuation of my story Unlonely. It started as a short scene to tie up any loose ends left at the end of Unlonely. However, at some point it took on a life of its own and became The Neverending Story (not the one with Atreju and the big flying dog-dragon :).

by Stacie

Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner lifted a heavy wooden post and carried it slowly to the corral. Chris had dug the holes earlier, before Vin had arrived with the wagon of supplies, and they had been working under the sun all day, expanding Chris's small corral to fit a few more horses. Chris had his eye on a black mare for sale by a new widow over in Eagle Bend who was moving back East. The price was too steep now, but he had told her what he could afford and was waiting to see if she would drop her price. Vin had gone with him to the widow's ranch, and had been mildly surprised at Chris's choice. Even though the stoic gunslinger would never admit it, getting a mare was the next step towards ranching, and the next step in settling down, which Chris denied he was doing. Vin smiled as they eased the last post into the hole. Who do you think you're kidding, Larabee? he wondered. You got a house, a job, a bigger corral, and next a new mare. If that ain't settling down, then I'll cook supper for a month.

"What the hell are you grinning at?" Vin's thoughts were interrupted by Larabee's question as he struggled with righting the post.

"Supper," Vin replied, helping the gunslinger by holding the post while Chris went for nails. "I'm getting mighty hungry," he added as he watched Chris bend over for the coffee can of nails and the hammer. Both men had worked up a sweat throughout the afternoon, and had gradually shed their clothes as they worked, until each was clad in only pants and boots, and gloves. Vin wiped his forehead with a bandanna resting on the fence while Chris walked back over.

"There's cold stew inside," Chris said as he hunted in the can for the right sized nails. "Help yourself."

"Not exactly the meat I had in mind, cowboy." Chris looked up suddenly, and shook his head at Vin's grin.

"Help me finish this corral, and you can have whatever meat you want," he said, picking up a board and steadying it against the post. Vin took the hammer and nails and pounded the plank fast. They added another four planks to the posts, completing the corral, and then both leaned back against their handiwork, tired and sweaty but pleased with the effort. Vin leaned his head back and closed his eyes, and let the sun glide over his face, and Chris couldn't help but look. Vin felt Chris's eyes on him and lifted his head, opening his eyes and moving a bit closer to the gunslinger. "Supper time yet?" he asked with another grin, a grin almost salacious enough to rival Buck Wilmington's.

Chris had learned a lot about the sharpshooter in the two or so months since he'd showed Vin the wisdom of Ezra's teachings. He'd learned that Vin Tanner slept like the dead. Not heavy like the dead, but unmoving, on his back, with no sound, barely even breath. Once or twice Chris had leaned over him to make sure he was even alive, and then learned something else about the tracker: he came awake at the slightest movement. Chris had been lucky Vin didn't sleep with his gun, or he'd have a mare's leg-sized hole in his forehead.

He had also learned that Vin liked being cooked for. He'd never ask for anything, but when Chris made chicken and dumplings, on Sunday of course, Vin had literally licked the pot clean. When Chris had tried his hand at flapjacks, Vin had eaten all of them too, drowned in maple syrup to cover the fact that Chris had forgotten the eggs. He'd eaten a stack of four or five before Chris had sat down at the table and discovered the tasteless gritty mess-up. After spitting them out, he'd asked Vin why he'd eaten them. Vin had replied, "Because you made 'em."

Chris learned that Vin's back bothered him more than he let on, and that he had a funny crooked scar down his backside, which Vin had explained by saying only "Cactus. Don't ask." He learned why Vin kept his hair long; not because of his belief in Indian ways, as Chris had suspected, but because he had funny ears, a bit pointy. Chris had laughed at Vin's glare as he pulled the hair away from his ears, and then reached over to touch the vaguely pointy tip. Vin had pulled away like he'd been burned, and the jolt at touching Vin so intimately had scared Chris too. After that they'd kept their touching as it had been, one or the other on top, thrusting away until they both came, intensely pleasurable but not too personal. Vin seemed most comfortable with that, and Chris figured he was too. After all, when Vin and he were first together, it was about as impersonal as two people fucking could be, and they'd come a long way since then, but Chris couldn't help feel as though something was missing.

Most of all, Chris Larabee had learned that the shy quiet tracker was damn near insatiable, and had an "anytime, anywhere" grin that made Chris's cock twitch - the same grin he was wearing now as he edged closer to the gunslinger. Vin took a long sip of water from the canteen, and then offered it to Chris. As Chris lifted his head back to finish the water, he felt Vin's nimble fingers slide into the waistband of his pants. Chris swallowed the water and tossed the empty canteen. Both men looked around as Vin started unbuttoning Chris's pants, but the only prying eyes were from the horses standing near the two, expecting sugar or apples and nickering when they were kept waiting.

Chris closed his eyes and sucked in his breath as Vin reached further into his pants.

"Pants are too damn tight, Larabee," Vin said. "Best take 'em off." Chris nodded and slid the pants to his ankles as Vin undid his own pants and slowly walked behind the gunslinger, tracing Chris's crack lightly with his finger. Chris leaned forward, bracing himself on the fence.

Vin glanced around for something to lubricate with, and saw nothing, so he used the tried and true method of spit. He eased one finger inside Chris's tight hole, seeing a slight shudder pass through the gunslinger's lean body at the breach, and he waited until the shudder passed before continuing, widening the tight passage. God, he couldn't get enough of this man. He found himself thinking about Chris at odd times, upon waking and before falling asleep, when he was eating, cleaning his gun, hell, even in the outhouse. He wanted Chris all the time, but most times he held off, telling himself it was because he didn't want to spook Chris; but sometimes as he caught a look in Chris's eyes, when he felt Chris touch him gently or when he listened to Chris breathing beside him as he slept, there was a gnawing in his own belly that felt too much like fear. He shook his head, and concentrated at the task at hand, pleasing this man and pleasing himself. After that, he'd figure out the rest.

When he felt Chris was as ready as he could be, Vin tried to spread Chris's legs further, but they were trapped by his pants around his ankles. He pulled out his fingers and lifted one of Chris's boots to him, yanking it off his foot and then pulling Chris's leg out of the pants. He was suddenly in a rough hurry, tossing Chris's black pants towards the foot that was still encased in a boot and black denim before removing his own pants and boots. Chris was quiet before him, quieter than usual that is. The man spoke less than a tree on a talkative day, but now he stood braced against the fence, looking straight ahead at the trees lining his property. Vin hesitated.

"Chris?" he asked softly.

"Yeah?" he heard the equally soft reply.

"You up to this?"

The gunslinger grinned, then turned his body slightly, revealing his engorged shaft straining to his belly. "What do you think?" he asked.

Vin smiled in reply. "I think you got a problem needs taken care of." He turned Chris back to the fence, and placed his cock at Chris's entrance, then slid in with a low groan. "So good," was the only coherent speech he could mutter. "So good."

Chris closed his eyes as Vin filled him, gripping the fence as he waited for the pleasure to overwhelm the pain. He felt Vin grip his hips and start to move, slowly at first. Chris figured he must have permanent grooves on his hips from where Vin clutched him as he fucked him, because that was another thing Chris had learned about Vin: he liked being on top, and he liked going hard. It was always good, as it was this time, Vin hitting the special spot inside him over and over, fast and hard, and if that was all it ever was, Chris wasn't ever going to complain. Lately, however, he found himself wanting things he had no business wanting, no matter how many times he told himself not to. His thoughts were interrupted as Vin ground his hips into his ass, and the wave of pleasure that filled him overwhelmed him. He pushed back against the fence, driving Vin further inside him, his own cock weeping and needy, but he couldn't let go of the fence, his weight braced against it as Vin tried to drive him through it.

"Vin," he said through gritted teeth, and Vin reached around and grasped his rock hard cock, pumping him in rhythm. Both were panting, sweat rolling off them as they moved, and Vin pumped him harder, losing the rhythm as he tried to get Chris off first. Chris came into Vin's hand, his seed spilling through Vin's fingers on to the ground, and right after Vin followed, crying out sharply as his seed filled his friend. At the noise and the rocking fence, the horses who had come over for treats backed away sharply, ears back in suspicion of the two sweaty, moaning men.

When both were spent, they sagged against the corral, catching their breaths, Vin still inside Chris. Their sweat and seed started to dry, yet Vin didn't seem in any hurry to pull out.

"Vin?" Chris asked.


"You gonna stay there all day?"

He paused, and Chris could picture that anytime, anywhere grin. "Kinda like it here," he said finally.

Chris looked up and was met by suspicious glares across the corral. "I think we spooked the horses," he said.

Vin eased out and backed away. "Naw, they're just taking lessons," he replied, then bent to pick up his clothes, and Chris did the same.

They dressed in silence. Chris watched Vin as he dressed, his movements at once lazy and purposeful. The tracker seemed lost in thought as he buttoned up his pants and shrugged into his shirt and coat, his eyes on the horses as they settled down to nibble at the dry grass. Chris struggled to find something to say; he was never good with words and didn't care to be. He let his actions speak for him, and right now he knew what his action should be: walk away and let things lie. But then he thought, what the hell; the worst he can do is shoot me dead. Before he could talk himself out of it, he grabbed the front of Vin's coat and pulled him towards him, covering Vin's mouth with his own before Vin could react. Vin stiffened but didn't pull away, and Chris waited, eyes closed, for the man to either shoot him or kiss him back. He finally felt Vin relax, his lips soften and his mouth open, and Vin's hand wrapped around his neck, pulling him closer. Their tongues intertwined, and they tasted each other for the first time, taking each other in as much as possible before they pulled apart to breathe.

Vin looked at Chris with a question in his eyes. Chris grinned at his bewilderment. "If you're going to fuck me, at least kiss me after," he said, then grabbed his gun belt and headed for his house, leaving a shaken Vin Tanner to watch him go.

Chris watched Vin saddling his horse from inside his shack. He knew kissing him was a mistake, but he couldn't make himself regret it. Still, he figured he ought to apologize, or try to.

He stepped from the porch to where Vin was tightening the cinches of his saddle. "Leaving?" he asked.

"Yep," Vin answered.

Chris took a deep breath. "Sorry, Vin. Didn't mean to run you off."

Vin paused. "You didn't." His lascivious grin returned. "Yer a real nice kisser. Just surprised me, that's all."

"Then why are you leaving?"

"Been out here three days. Folks'll talk."

"Reckon you're right. I'll come back to town tomorrow."

Vin nodded, then started for his horse, and paused. He walked to where Chris stood holding a mug of coffee and held out his hand, and they grasped forearms. "Watch yer back," he said, then turned back and climbed on his horse, and spurred it towards town.

Vin rode slowly as he headed towards town, not in a hurry to get back to crowds that were trickling in more and more everyday, either on their way through as they headed further west, or looking to set down roots. Ironically, as their ragtag group of seven peacekeepers had made the town safe, more people gravitated towards it, and therefore made it more unsafe. Vin had learned early on in his life that lots of people meant lots of trouble. In fact, before he'd met Chris Larabee, he'd been content to stay as far away from people as possible; less likely to get into trouble that way.

But now, he thought, here he was, headed back to a crowded dirty noisy town, looking for trouble, all because some skinny mean green-eyed gunslinger had roped him in. And Vin had no illusions; he was caught. It wasn't the same as when he'd fallen for Charlotte. With her, he'd been anxious, desperate all the time. He wanted it to work. Maybe he did love her, who the hell knew what he was thinking. He chalked it up to bad bacon. Food poisoning was a hell of a better excuse for acting like a damn fool than losing his head over a married woman.

What he had with Chris was different, although he knew it sure as hell wasn't love. It was just...easy. It felt right, whatever that meant. They talked when they felt like it, and most of the time, they didn't need to; unlike Charlotte, who never seemed to be able to stop talking. He didn't mind it at the time, but he could see a few years down the road with her having to plug his ears with cotton to get some peace.

Peace. Maybe that's what he had with Chris, he thought, and maybe that's what Chris had with him. It wasn't just the fucking, although that was more than enough. He was himself with Chris, and Chris was starting to let down a few walls with Vin.

Maybe that's what the kiss was for. The kiss that had shocked him straight to his toes. It had been nice; he wasn't lying about that, but he didn't know what it had meant. Chris had been married, and was well on his way to putting together a right nice new home, but if he expected Vin to be his squaw, then he was mistaken. A faint worry started in his stomach, an itch that he got when he was feeling trapped. He'd had that itch a lot that first month in this town, but it had been gone a while. Besides, he was the one who wanted more from Chris; he'd been happy just to be mounted by the man, but when Chris had shown him how good it could be, he reckoned that was as close to heaven as he was ever gonna get. The kiss promised more, but he wasn't sure if he and Chris were headed the same direction.

Vin shook his head. He'd been thinking too much again, and that always got him in trouble. He could see the tops of the wooden buildings as he neared town. The itch in his belly settled as he thought about the job at hand, wondering what trouble had rolled in on the stage that day.

The saloon was crowded. It was past midnight, but nobody seemed in a hurry to go home. Vin sat in a chair a little behind Ezra, for all appearances watching Ezra's back against the rough-looking miners he was playing against, but also surreptitiously watching Ezra play cards, to see if he could pick up any pointers. He knew he had no hope of ever beating the gambler, but maybe he'd learn a thing or two and beat Chris once in a while. The gunslinger had a poker face to rival a brick wall.

Vin was watching Ezra bluff his way to winning on a pair of nines when the bat-wing doors opened and several trail dirty men entered, looking around before stepping inside. Inez called out to them she'd be with them in a minute, as she delivered beer to a table of rowdy actors who had come to town to put on a play that Ezra had said was a classic, while also expressing his doubt that the production would do the play justice.

The man in the front of the group nodded slightly to Inez, then lead the way to an empty table near the piano, pushing his chair against the wall. A man who watches his back, Vin noticed, as he moved his chair so he could see their table more clearly, leaning back so it looked like he was dozing when in fact he was watching from beneath the brim of his hat, a trick that had served him well many times. As he watched, the leader of the band, a scrawny man with straggly brown hair and a patchy beard, leaned back against the wall and pulled down his hat as well, mimicking Vin's posture, and although Vin couldn't see his eyes, he knew the man was looking at him.

Vin leaned forward so he was near Ezra's shoulder. "Ezra," he said softly as he could over the din of the saloon.

"I am otherwise engaged," Ezra said, smiling to the other men at the table. "If you wish to confront those ruffians who just skulked into this fine establishment, go conscript Mr. Wilmington or Mr. Dunne."

"Ezra, yer no fun. Don't ya think confrontin' ruffians is more fun than cheatin' miners?"

"As I've said many times, my skills are so superior I have no need of sleight of hand. Besides, I like my hands as they are-unblemished."

"Sissy," Vin said, earning a glare from the conman, but he teasingly slapped Ezra's red-coated shoulder as he stood. Vin took one last look at Ezra before he went to find Buck and JD, trying to picture the fancy gambler with Chris. He just couldn't see it. Ezra and Chris. He couldn't picture Ezra, being so neat and proper, doing the things Chris had said he had done, with such skill, and he couldn't help the small kick of protectiveness that appeared when he saw Chris and Ezra around each other. Stop being silly, Tanner, he told himself. Cut it out before you start buying the man flowers and candy.

He waded through the crowd, keeping an eye on the group by the table, until he found Buck and JD by the bar.

"You see, JD," Buck was saying to young sheriff, "There's a right way and a wrong way to do things. And what you just tried there, that was the wrong way."

JD rolled his eyes. "I suppose you're going to tell me the right way."

"Better than that, boy, I'm gonna show you." The mustached ladies' man stood to display his talents but was stopped by Vin.

"Boys, we may have trouble," Vin said.

Both Buck and JD scanned the room. "Who?" JD asked.

"Over my right shoulder, up against the wall by the piano."

Buck and JD glanced at the group of men, who had by now been served beers and looked a lot more at ease.

"You sure?" Buck asked. "They're ugly as the back end of a horse, but they look quiet enough."

Vin shrugged. "Just a feelin'."

JD was still looking at the table. "That one against the wall looks familiar."

"Like wanted poster familiar?" Buck asked.


"Well, sheriff, go check and we'll keep an eye on them," Buck said. JD finished his beer and headed towards the jail. Vin leaned against the bar next to Buck, nodding his thanks to the bartender who handed him a gut warmer.

"When'd you get back?" Buck asked.

"Few hours ago," Vin answered.

"Chris get his corral done?"


Buck glanced at the taciturn sharpshooter. Making small talk with him was like talking to a doorknob, so he motioned for another beer and leaned back to wait for JD, glancing around the room. He nudged Vin as his eyes met those of a brunette woman sitting at a far table. "You see that pretty little filly over there in the pink dress?" he said to Vin. "She's with that group putting on a play tomorrow night. She's an actress. You know what that means, right?"

"Means she can pretend she likes ya," Vin replied.

Buck's response was cut off as JD hurried back into the saloon, carrying a yellow piece of paper. He nodded and glanced at the table where the man still sat with his hat pulled low, watching them. He didn't move as JD walked to his table, Buck and Vin behind him.

"TJ Smithers," JD said to the leader. "I've got a wanted poster from the state of Missouri. Come with me quietly, and there won't be no trouble."

Smithers didn't glance up. "I was acquitted of that charge eight months ago. I'm a law-abiding citizen now."

"That ain't what this poster says," JD replied.

"Poster's wrong. Got my papers right here," Smithers said, reaching into his coat. Before he could pull out whatever was inside, three guns were pointed at his head.

"I wouldn't do that, mister," JD said.

"He's telling the truth," another of Smithers' gang said.

"Take the paper out slowly," Buck said. "Anything other than paper and we fill you full of lead."

Smithers did glance up then, a slight smile on his face. He reached into his coat and pulled out a folded document, opening it and spreading it on the table. JD leaned over to read it.

"See, Sheriff? I told you I was innocent."

JD stood back up and glanced at Buck. "Paper says he was acquitted. Don't say he's innocent."

"We ain't got a right to hold him then," Vin said.

"Can't we just put him in jail for the hell of it?" Buck asked.

"I wish. We can wire Missouri to confirm his story," JD said.

"Mister, why are you in town?" Vin asked the man, who once again leaned back and looked at Vin from under his hat.

"Thinking of relocating. Heard this was a safe God-fearing place to live."

"We'll wire Missouri in the mornin' to confirm your story. Until then, ya best watch yerself."

Smithers nodded. "I intend to."

Buck, JD, and Vin stepped out of the saloon.

"I don't like it," JD said.

"Me either, kid, but most we can do is watch him until we hear back from Missouri," Vin answered.

"We best post a watch outside the bank. Just in case," Buck said.

"I'll take first watch," Vin said.

"Good idea. I've got an actress to see to," Buck replied. JD rolled his eyes and followed Buck back into the saloon. Vin checked his gun and walked towards the bank, disappearing into the shadows to watch.

Vin slept for a few hours in his wagon, and awoke stiff from sleeping on the thick pile of blankets he had placed there. He missed the mattress that Chris had on his bed at the shack, then chided himself for getting soft. But as his bones cracked as he stretched, he had a sudden image of strong callused hands that could work out those kinks in his shoulders, and wondered what Chris would do if he asked the man for a massage. Laugh at him or shoot him were the two things that came to mind. Of course, he thought, pulling his coat over his shoulders, he could offer first. He'd noticed Chris rubbing his neck and temples after they'd worked on that corral all day, or even hunching his back after riding too long; old man like that might welcome a rub down. Sure, he thought, he could get some whiskey in the gunslinger then walk up behind him and....

Vin suddenly shook his head. Hell, Tanner, what are you doing? Trying to figure out how to seduce Chris Larabee? Might was well eat a bullet on your own and save him the trouble.

Vin hopped out of his wagon and headed towards the telegraph office, hoping whatever news JD had would take his mind off a black-clad gunslinger with stiff muscles.

JD was stepping out of the telegraph office as Vin approached, holding the yellow piece of paper.

"Any news?" Vin asked. He noticed Smithers and two of his men standing nearby, watching them.

"They said they're checking," JD answered. "Get back to us in a few days."

Both peacekeepers looked at Smithers. "Guess this means we can't lock ya up," Vin said.

"I told you, I'm rehabilitated," Smithers replied. "I haven't done one wrong thing since I left Missouri." He nodded over Vin's shoulder. "Those pretty boys are the ones you want to watch. They've been eyeing your bank since they got here."

Vin looked behind him at three of the actors from the traveling troupe stepping out of the hotel. They caught the end of Smithers' comments.

"You better watch your mouth, sir," said one of the actors, a tall beefy man with a handlebar mustache who was billed as David Sawyer, the most talented actor in the West, on the posters that had been plastered over the town. "Before I take umbrage at your insinuation."

"He talks like Ezra," JD said to Vin.

"Except Ezra wouldn't wear them sissy shoes," Vin replied, referring to the man's high-heeled Hessian boots.

"You couldn't take anything from me," Smithers replied, and his men, sensing a fight, fell in behind him.

The actors moved closer. "Think we should break it up?" JD asked Vin.

"Reckon we better." They stepped between the two groups.

JD held up his hands. "Look, fellas, we don't want a fight, especially not before breakfast. Why don't you all go your separate ways, and nobody gets hurt."

Sawyer looked down at him. "Least of all you," he said.

The young sheriff stood a bit taller. "Mister, unless you want to watch that show of yours from jail, I suggest you get moving."

The actor smiled, and appeared to think it over, then bowed dramatically. "As you wish," he said, and turned to go. A snicker from Smithers halted him.

When he turned back, the actor's smile was replaced with a sneer. He glanced at JD, then shoved him out of the way and ran at Smithers, knocking him to the ground. The others joined in, and JD started to jump into the fray, but was halted by Vin, who pulled his gun from the holster and fired it once into the air. All the fighting men stopped at the gunshot, looked at Vin, then moved as group, dragging him and JD into the fight. "Aw, hell," Vin said as he ducked a fist and returned the punch, connecting with somebody's jaw and hoping it wasn't JD.

From there, the fight turned into a free-for-all, and Vin actually found himself enjoying it. It had been a while since he'd been in a good old-fashioned knock down drag out fight, and although he took a punch or two to the jaw, he gave more than he got. He also kept an eye on JD, and saw the kid was actually holding his own. Suddenly Smithers was in front of him, and Vin knew the fight had just turned ugly. He saw a glint of metal; Smithers was palming a knife.

"That ain't right fair," Vin said, tensing.

"Ain't supposed to be. Supposed to hurt," Smithers replied, grinning. Vin grinned back and lunged at him, knocking the knife from his hand as they fell to the ground, rolling and landing punches. Vin felt himself jerked up by the shoulders and one of Smithers' men had his arms. Smithers came towards him, still grinning. He landed several punches on Vin's stomach before Vin kicked out at Smithers, hitting him in the groin, and then back at the man holding him, hearing an ankle crack under his boot. No one ever accused him of fighting fair, either. He saw someone approach from his left, but didn't have time to react as he was knocked off his feet. He thought he heard a gunshot just before he landed head first into a water trough.

When he sat up sputtering, Chris and Josiah had the actors and outlaws rounded up. Ezra appeared briefly in the window of his room at the boarding house, holding his Remington, but then disappeared and the window slammed down.

The cocky grin on Chris's face told Vin he was sorry he missed the fun. He walked to where Vin was slowly standing up in the trough as JD and Josiah herded the fighters to the jail.

Vin began squeezing out the water in his clothes. Chris stopped beside him.

"Reckon it's been a while since you had a bath," the gunslinger said quietly, glancing at his sodden friend. "You're supposed to get undressed first."

Vin glared in response. "You gonna help me out of this thing or you gonna stand there making cracks?"

The corner of Chris's mouth raised in a slight grin. "I got a few more cracks yet."

Vin finished wringing out his jacket then started to step out of the trough. Chris grabbed his arm to help. "I can do it," Vin said, trying to shrug him off.

"I know you can. Just thought it'd be nice to help you with your bath," Chris said.

Vin looked at him, surprised. "Don't think the middle of town is the place for it, though."

Chris looked around at the small crowd pretending not to watch. "Ain't so sure. This town could use a bit of scandal."

Vin shook his head and stepped all the way out of the trough. "I don't want a scandal. Right now all I want are some dry clothes and a whiskey."

Chris let go of his arm. "I'll meet you in the saloon, once you're dry."

Vin nodded, and watched Chris walk away. As he stood there dripping, he watched the black tails of Chris's duster swirl around his legs as he disappeared into the saloon, wondering. The man he'd been thinking of seducing was talking about taking a bath with him, and he thought he should be right behind him, half-undressed already and hollering for someone to bring them a tub. Instead, the damn itch in his stomach was back, and it was getting stronger.

The town was quiet that night, as nearly everyone was at the play, which had gone on despite three actors spending the night in jail for disturbing the peace.

Even the bar was nearly empty, both Inez and the bartender hurrying off to attend the show, leaving Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner to finish their whiskey alone.

"You didn't want to see that show, did ya?" Vin asked. He pushed the nearly empty bottle to Chris.

Chris grabbed the bottle and finished it. "Nope," he answered, sitting back and looking at the man across from him, slouched in his chair wearing a loopy grin. He liked to see Vin like this, relaxed, even if it was due to half a bottle of cheap whiskey. He was feeling the buzz himself, but it never relaxed him as it did the tracker. Instead, it made him remember, remember things he didn't want to, the family he'd lost, the bitch he'd nearly sold his soul to. Now here he was with Vin, doing God knows what. When he'd left his shack for town early that morning, he'd been looking forward to seeing the sharpshooter, not fucking him, not being with him, just seeing him, and then when he'd ridden in and seen Vin getting beaten on by two men, his heart had jumped to his throat. He knew Vin could take of himself in damn near any situation, yet he'd wanted to tear those two bastards limb from limb and only when he'd seen Vin clamoring out of the water trough did the rage and worry ease.

The whiskey helped the rage too, but it also made him remember his family, and made him wonder if he wasn't somehow dishonoring them by carrying on with another man. Admit it, Larabee, he thought, it's more than that, and you'd better put an end to it soon before it gets too far out of hand, before his worrying scared Vin off.

But one glance at the smiling blue eyes of the man across from him, and he knew that he wasn't going to end it tonight. His eyes met Vin's and he nodded towards the stairs. "We got the place to ourselves," he said. "Might as well make use of it."

Vin nodded in response and started to stand, balancing himself on the table. Suddenly Chris was at his elbow, propping him up. "Looks like you need some help there, pard," Chris said, and Vin leaned into him as they headed towards the stairs.

They entered the small room Chris rented that overlooked the street. A slight breeze wafted the thin curtains, and the town was quiet, the only sound occasional applause echoing from the opera house at the other end of town. Vin sat down heavily in the bare rocking chair, while Chris closed and locked the door, then lit a lamp, keeping the flame down low.

Vin felt himself sobering quickly as he realized he was here with Chris, alone, and he wasn't sure what to do. When Chris had kissed him, it had changed things, and he still didn't know if he wanted to be kissed again. If he said no, he knew Chris would respect that, but he'd also know he was denying the man something, although hell if he knew what. All this was new to him. He'd started this. He'd wanted Chris, and Chris had taken him. That first time had been hard and fast, and empty. Then Chris had gone and learned to make it nice for the both of them, taking another step towards something. Then another step was taken when Chris kissed him, but steps toward what? He had wanted Chris, but now he was thinking that having Chris was maybe a bit more than he could handle; the man had been married, and by all accounts a faithful husband. He wasn't sure now what was going on in Chris's head, and if he even wanted to know. He sighed. Hell, whatever happened would happen tomorrow, because tonight they had a soft bed and a quiet town all to themselves, and he wanted to take advantage of it.

Chris took off his hat and gun belt, and sat down on the bed, bending his head and rubbing his neck. Vin remembered his earlier thoughts of seduction.

"Neck botherin' ya?" he asked.

Chris didn't look up. "A bit. It'll be all right."

Vin paused, then plowed ahead. "Maybe I could lend a hand?"

Chris looked up at him warily, then relaxed a bit as he saw Vin was serious. "That'd be nice," he said. Real nice, he thought, as Vin stood and climbed on the bed behind him, placing his rough hands on the tight muscles of Chris's neck. He groaned as the sharpshooter's thumbs worked at the knots, awkwardly and not at all gently, but still the tension eased out of him. He could feel the calluses on Vin's hands, especially the one on the outside of his trigger finger. Chris had closed his eyes, so he jumped when he felt Vin's hand on the top button of his shirt.

"Relax, cowboy. Just tryin' to get to yer shoulders."

Chris could only nod as Vin reached around to unbutton the first few buttons on his shirt, and began kneading his shoulders, then pushed the shirt down so he could ease the tight cords of his upper back, also trapping his arms in the material of the shirt.

"That's feels real good, Vin, thanks," Chris said. He shrugged back into his shirt as Vin pulled his hands away, then he turned to face him. Chris reached out for the top of Vin's pants, tugging on them to pull him closer, but Vin resisted.

"What are ya doin'?" Vin asked.

"Thought it'd be nice to try something different," Chris said.

"You ain't been with Ezra again and his fancy notions?" Vin asked.

Chris shook his head. "Nope, but I bet he'd have some good ideas."

Vin sat back on the bed, pulling away from Chris.

"I'm not serious, Vin," Chris said.

Vin looked at him suspiciously. "Then what'd ya have in mind?"

Chris stood suddenly, heading towards a dresser. "Never mind," he said, opening a drawer and pulling out a bottle of whiskey.

"Tell me, dammit," Vin said.

Chris looked around for glasses, but not finding any, opened the bottle and took a long drink. "Don't want my teeth kicked in," he said, setting the bottle on top of the dresser.

"Unless yer askin' me to marry you or some silly shit like that..." Vin said. Chris glared at him from across the room. "So what is it?" Vin continued.

Chris took another long pull from the whiskey, and then a deep breath. "Maybe it'd be nice to...you know...forget it. There ain't a good way to ask a man to suck on you."

Vin smiled a bit, his cock twitching at the mental image Chris's words inspired. "How do ya ask a girl?" he said.

"I just ask, how much?" Chris replied.

"I don't come cheap, Larabee," Vin said.

Chris stepped back to the bed, but stopped.

"You ever done it?" Vin asked.

"Nope," Chris answered.

"Not to Ezra?"

"Nope," Chris said again, and Vin realized he'd been hoping for that answer. "You ever done it?" Chris asked.

"Nope," Vin replied. There was another long pause.

"You wanna go first?" Vin asked.

Chris glanced at him. "You mean go first...or get done first?"


"You choose," Chris said.

"You brought it up," Vin said.

"Wish I hadn't," Chris said under his breath. He glanced at the whiskey, then back at Vin. Chris saw the same hesitation and fear that he was feeling reflected in Vin's blue eyes. "I'll go first," he said.

"You mean go first or get done first?" Vin said. Chris heard a trace of amusement in his voice.

"I mean get your pants off, Tanner, before I change my mind." As Vin undressed, Chris walked back to the dresser and took another sip of whiskey, then turned back to see Vin unbuttoning his shirt, naked from the waist down, sitting on the edge of the bed. The sight nearly knocked him over. His own pants were suddenly too tight as he saw Vin's thick cock already semi-erect, and the unflappable tracker fumbling a bit over the buttons of his shirt.

He walked over and held out the whiskey. "This may help," Chris said, and Vin took the bottle gratefully, taking a long sip. He shrugged out of his shirt, and waited as Chris finished unbuttoning his own shirt, then removed his boots and unbuttoned his pants, but left them on. Chris grabbed the pillow from the bed and placed it on the floor, then knelt in front of Vin, not looking at him as he reached out to touch the man's cock, causing it to jump in his hand and Vin's body to stiffen in response.

"You ain't gotta do this," Vin said, but Chris didn't respond. He stroked Vin's cock gently, then leaned forward and licked, smiling at the groan that simple move elicited. He then placed his mouth over the head, sucking gently, dazed at the feeling of having a man's cock in his mouth. He ran his tongue under the ridge, grabbing the shaft at the base and pumping it, and relaxing his throat to take in more. His lips met his fist and he sped up his movement, smiling again as Vin fell back on the bed, the blanket clenched in his fists, low moans escaping every time Chris sucked him in. The taste was slightly bitter, the feel of the organ in his throat disconcerting, but he definitely liked having Vin writhing in pleasure beneath him. He glanced up as he continued sucking, seeing Vin's heaving chest dripping sweat, his knuckles white where he clutched the blanket, his breath coming in quick bursts.

"Chris, " Vin panted. "I'm gonna cum. God, yes, don't stop."

Chris wasn't sure what to do then, but he didn't have a lot of time to decide as a stream of cum hit his throat, so he kept sucking, the bitter liquid filling his mouth and dribbling out. When Vin was finished, Chris reached for his bandanna and spit out the warm seed, deciding swallowing was for another day.

Vin lay with his eyes closed, one hand resting lightly on his chest. "That was damn good, cowboy," he said, his voice raspy. "You sure you ain't done that before?"

"I'd sure as hell remember if I had," Chris said, reaching for the whiskey.

Vin sat up, resting on one elbow. "That bad?"

Chris thought about it as he sipped the whiskey. "Not really. Sure liked your reactions," he said with a devilish grin, then he shrugged. "Bet it just takes getting used to."

Vin sat up all the way, then patted the bed beside him. "Yer turn," he said.

Chris looked up at him. "Don't have to, you know. You ain't obligated or nothing."

"I know that. Now get yer scrawny ass up here."

Chris smiled as he and Vin changed places. "Hope that mouth is better at sucking than it is at talking," he said, removing his clothes quickly.

"Can't be any worse," Vin replied, then followed Chris's action earlier, stroking the gunfighter's cock until it was completely hard, then licking up and down the shaft, gauging the taste and feel of the muscle twitching beneath his tongue. Chris was quiet, as always, even when Vin engulfed his shaft, although Vin noticed he stiffened and grabbed the blanket as Vin had done. The cock slid in his mouth easily; he was surprised he didn't gag, as he expected to. He moved his head up and down quickly, but had to stop to catch his breath, instead sucking on the swollen head, and hearing a sharp intake from Chris as he did. He continued sucking and swirling his tongue, and remembering something he'd enjoyed from a saloon girl one time, he paused to spit on his fingers then reached his hand down between Chris's legs and lightly fondled his balls, earning him another intake of breath. Dammit, didn't the man ever make any noise? He squeezed the delicate sacs gently, then moved his hand down even further, to the sensitive skin underneath, rubbing it gently as he sucked. He thought he might have a heard a low moan, but then Chris lightly placed his hand on Vin's head, not pushing on him or pulling his hair, just his hand resting there as Vin's head moved up and down, lightly entwining his fingers in the long strands. Vin moved his hand back up to Chris's balls as he felt them start to tighten, just as Chris softly warned him with a single whispered word, "Vin," and Vin had to pull away, pumping Chris' shaft as he came, the seed dripping down on to his hands. He looked up to see Chris's eyes closed and his head thrown back, the column of his throat taut. A drop of sweat trickled down from his chin, and Vin had a mental image of following that drip with his tongue, amazed at the strength and power emanating from this man, amazed also that he had just had this strong powerful man in his mouth, in the most vulnerable position possible. And lastly amazed that he hadn't minded it at all.

"We should do that more often," Vin said.

"Yep," Chris responded, his breathing nearing normal. Vin sat up beside him on the bed. Chris glanced at him and saw the anytime, anywhere grin reappear on his face, then dropped his eyes to where Vin was already hard again.

"You're worse than a billy goat," Chris said.

"It's yer own fault. If ya weren't so damn desirable," Vin replied. Chris smiled slightly and stretched out on his stomach on the bed. He closed his eyes as Vin prepared him and pushed up to his knees so Vin could fuck him. It was good, as it was always good, but Chris couldn't help wonder how he could feel filled and empty at the same time.

When Chris awoke the next morning in the room in the boarding house, he was alone. He didn't recall hearing Vin leave, but knowing Vin it was probably soon after he fell asleep. He stood slowly, stretching his aching muscles, and cleaned up before dressing and heading down for breakfast. As he stepped into the saloon, Vin entered at the same time through the bat-wing doors, looking tired himself, a thought that gave Chris a small amount of pleasure; it was hardly fair if only he felt like shit on toast.

Vin saw the telltale glare on Larabee's face, and knew there was going to be hell for someone to pay that day. He wasn't feeling exactly chipper himself, and seeing Chris dark as a thundercloud made him feel worse. Maybe if they were lucky, somebody would do something stupid and both he and Chris could work off their bad moods on them.

Chris had already sat down, hiding under his hat, and Vin started towards him when a shout came from outside.

"Bank robbers! They're robbing the bank!"

Vin grinned at the answer to his prayers, but Chris looked less than pleased. Oh yeah, Vin thought, there was going to be hell to pay. He followed Chris outside, guns drawn.

The other peacekeepers joined them and they surrounded the bank, where the robbers were still inside. Vin climbed on to the roof of the mercantile across the street, while Buck and JD went around to the back. Ezra, Josiah and Nathan fanned out, taking a different position for when the robbers tried to escape. Chris waited until everyone was in position and the street clear of bystanders before yelling out, "Inside the bank! Come out peaceful and nobody gets hurt!"

"Least of all this pretty lady with a gun to her head!" one of the men inside replied.

Damn, Chris thought. He'd hoped everyone had gotten out.

"Let us ride away, and we'll let the lady go," the man inside continued.

Chris glanced up at Vin, who was stretched out on the roof, gun aimed at the bank. He shook his head, telling Chris he had no shot.

"OK," Chris yelled back, hoping he'd see an opportunity after the came out.

The first man to come out herded Mrs. Jones, the wife of the bank manager, in front of him. The man wore a bandanna over his face, but Chris could see it was one of the actors, Sawyer, who had most likely been let out of jail first thing that morning. Two other actors followed close behind him, and Chris could see Vin still didn't have a shot. Their horses were tied right in front, and in five odd steps they'd be on the horses. Chris tried to think of a distraction so Vin could get a shot.

Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Vin stand up on the roof. All three actors also looked at him, raised their guns, and fired at him, and Vin dove back on to the roof. At the same time, Chris, Ezra, and Nathan opened fire, while Josiah ran and tackled Mrs. Jones, covering her with his body to protect her from the bullets. The three actors fell to the ground, one moaning, the two others, including the ringleader, already dead.

Chris felt his heart pounding as he neared the carnage, kicking guns out of the way. Nathan was tending to the injured man, and Buck and JD came from around the back of the bank.

"Buck, JD, Ezra, go round up the rest of those actors. We need to talk to them now," Chris ordered. "Nathan?" he asked.

"He's hit pretty bad. I'll do what I can."

Chris nodded, not caring about the injured actor. He looked around for Vin. Josiah was slowly standing up and apologizing to Mrs. Jones for knocking her down.

"Nonsense, Mr. Sanchez, you saved my life. I'm grateful," she replied, brushing herself off. Mr. Jones joined her and hurried her home.

"Now that was worth a dollar a day," Vin called out as he came around the corner, grinning.

"If I gave a dollar for what you did, I'd expect change," Smithers said from the doorway of the mercantile.

"Shut up, Mister," Vin replied. "Didn't see you helpin' none."

"No need, when the situation was under control," Smithers replied.

Chris stormed to where Vin glared at Smithers. "What the hell were you doing?"

Vin took a step back at the vehemence in Chris's voice.

"You sure as hell weren't doin' nothin'," Vin replied. "Somebody had to do somethin'."

Chris looked at him for a second longer, then he turned without a word and headed for the livery. Vin watched him go.

"Looks like he's sweet on you," Smithers said. Before he could blink, Vin had thrown him against the wall with his forearm nearly crushing the man's windpipe.

"You need to leave town, now, before I end up doin' somethin' you'll regret," Vin said. Smithers didn't reply, and Vin released him and stalked off to the saloon, where he hoped he'd be able to make sense out of this whole damn situation.

Several hours and a good bit of whiskey later, he still hadn't figured it out, and he was sick of trying. He'd ride out to Chris's place and ask the man straight out what was wrong with him, and if he didn't like the answer, then he'd just keep riding.

When Vin arrived at Chris's shack, the effects of the whiskey were long gone. He knew Chris would have a bottle somewhere, but he had a suspicion he wanted all his wits about him for whatever was going to happen.

Chris didn't come out to meet him as he tied his horse to the corral, leaving it saddled in case he had to leave in a hurry, and that worried him. He knew the man was home. A thin curl of smoke wafted from the chimney, and the horses lazing in the corral had been recently fed.

Vin stepped up to the porch and stared at the closed door, not knowing to knock or call out or just walk in. He decided he'd been here enough times, so he slowly opened the door, calling out "Chris?" as he stepped inside.

Chris sat just inside the door, still wearing his hat and gun belt. He lifted his head, and Vin could only stare back at the force of the look. It was the first time he had ever felt the full intensity of the Larabee gaze, and it surrounded him like a wildfire. His breath caught in his throat as Chris stood, removed his hat and gun belt, then slowly, without a word, unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged it off his shoulders. His boots were next, then his pants, until Vin stood frozen, looking at the man in all his glory. Chris walked slowly around behind him, then closer, first removing Vin's hat, then reaching down to pull off his jacket and unbutton his shirt. Vin realized he'd been holding his breath, and he released it.

"Take off your boots," Chris said, and Vin complied without thinking. He still didn't know what was going through Larabee's head, but he was willing to go along until he found out. Chris reached around and undid the buttons on Vin's pants, and pushed them down so Vin could step out of them, then again pressed close against him, so that Vin could feel Chris's chin against his shoulder and his hardening cock against his ass.

He felt Chris's hands run softly down his arms, eliciting a shiver. The gunslinger moved his hands under Vin's arms, to his stomach and hips, then back around to gently drift over the curves of his ass, lightly cupping the tight globes.

"You got a nice ass, Vin," Chris whispered.

Vin didn't know how to respond to that. "Thanks," he said finally. "I'm partial to it."

Chris massaged his ass a bit longer, then reached around for his rapidly hardening cock, tracing along the head and lightly sliding back the foreskin. "You got a nice cock, too," Chris said.

"You feelin' all right, Larabee?" Vin asked, enjoying the gentle ministrations too much to pull away. Chris responded by angling his own hard cock so it rubbed between Vin's ass cheeks, and rubbing his chin on Vin's shoulder. "I'm definitely feeling all right," he said.

Chris moved his hand down lower, squeezing Vin's balls.

"You gonna say I have nice balls, too?" Vin asked.

"You got nice balls, too," Chris said.

Vin was getting spooked by this sudden change in Chris's demeanor. When he felt Chris's lips skim lightly against his shoulder, he pulled away, missing the light touch but determined to find out what was going on.

"What the hell is goin' on with you, Chris?" he asked, stepping away a few steps, keeping his back to the gunslinger. He shivered at the sudden cold that accosted his bare skin.

"I realized something," Chris answered. "I like being with you."

"Glad to hear it," Vin answered. "I sort of figured that when you were rubbing yer cock up on me."

Chris shook his head. "It's not just a fuck, Vin. If it were, then anybody would do. I like fucking you, I like your body." He moved closer, closing the gap between them. Vin could feel the warmth of his skin, and when Chris reached around to touch him, stroking his cock again, which had gone limp with the cold, he didn't pull away.

"I like watching your cock get hard," Chris continued. "I like hearing your voice, and what you'll say next. I just like being with you, is all, just the two of us."

Vin felt the itch tighten in his gut. "You ain't getting' soft on me, are ya?"

Chris leaned forward, and nudged Vin's balls with his cock. "Nope, definitely not soft," he replied.

"What brought this on?" Vin asked.

"Today, when you stood up during the bank robbery. Scared the hell out of me."

"I can take care of myself."

"I know that," Chris said, his touch still gentle and slow, as if he'd forgotten where his hand was. "But something could happen any time, and I don't want regrets."

"You regret what we done?" Vin asked.

"God no. I just want more."

Vin didn't understand what Chris was getting at. They already had more than the first time they'd gone at it. "I don't understand," he said, finding himself leaning back into the warmth of Chris's chest as he waited for the answer.

Chris paused. "Sarah used to say I was like a horse with only two speeds-full gallop and stop. At first, we were just having fun, and that was fine. But something's changed, I don't know what."

"So you want me to go?" Vin asked, stiffening.

Chris's hand stopped. "No, godammit." He sighed, and Vin felt him calming himself, trying to put what he meant into words. "I don't want you to go," he said finally.

"Then what do you want from me?" Vin asked. "I don't like the idea of bein' corralled."

"It wouldn't be like that. I wouldn't want you to feel trapped. Hell, I don't know what I want. But I'm telling you this so you know you can walk away. I understand about being afraid of losing your freedom. Took Buck and a rifle to finally get me to the altar with Sarah. But once I was there, it was like I could finally breathe, and not be alone anymore, share things, good and bad."

"That sounds real nice, " Vin said. "But I ain't real sure that would work for us."

"Maybe not, but we could try."

Vin was tempted, more tempted than he'd ever been. Chris hands on him, his voice soft but strong in his ear, the thought of not being alone, of not having to always be alert for trouble, all that was awful tempting. But the one thing he always valued was his freedom, being able to take off whenever he wanted and knowing he could survive, just him and the land, the open fields and teeming forests calling to him when the crowds began pressing on him. What if that happened with Chris? What if someday he felt Chris pressing on him, and he felt the need to run. He couldn't abandon this man who meant so much to him, but he didn't like the itch that was gnawing at his belly. Hell, when had things gotten so complicated?

Chris had waited patiently as he thought it over, not changing the pace or the pressure on his cock.

Finally, Vin answered, "I'll have to think on it."

Chris nodded. "You want to leave now?" he asked.

Vin shook his head. "Right now I want you to finish what you started."

Chris smiled. "You really are worse than a billy goat," he said, again gliding his lips across the skin of Vin's shoulder, inhaling the scent he had become so familiar with, of outdoors and sweat and leather. He gently pulled Vin's head back and covered his mouth with his own, relishing in the feel of the wary tracker relaxing under in touch, kissing him back with the intensity Chris knew lingered beneath his calm exterior. As they broke the kiss, Chris gently guided Vin to the bed, lightly pushing him so he sat on the edge. He took the small pot of oil they kept within easy reach, and knelt before Vin, looking up into his eyes as he slid his mouth over Vin's cock, sucking on the swollen head while scooping his fingers in the oil. He moved his head so he could slowly lick the long shaft, tugging Vin towards the edge of the bed and moving his hand to rub the oil in Vin's crack, tracing the hole. He enveloped Vin's cock in his mouth again at the same time he pressed one coated finger inside, and smiled at the groan that came from the sharpshooter, who started almost imperceptibly rocking on Chris's finger. When Chris added another finger the rocking increased, forcing his ass onto Chris's fingers and his cock into his mouth.

Vin leaned back onto his elbows, watching Chris suck on him, his stomach doing kicks whenever the gunslinger's eyes met his own. Chris was sucking him slow and even, his fingers gentle in their probing, and he thought he could just lay there in bliss forever. But soon he felt a slight nip on his cock, and he looked in surprise at Chris's devilish grin. Before he could say a word, Chris pulled out his fingers and leaned up to kiss him, the warm saltiness he tasted having to be his own essence, and he eased back further on the bed, not wanting to break the kiss as he stretched out, Chris's warm body covering his. Vin couldn't recall ever feeling like he did at that moment, as if he and Chris were the only people in the world, as if he and the man on top of him were one, not only physically but spiritually, as entwined as the clouds in the sky.

Chris pulled his head up and smiled down at him, and he started to turn over, but Chris's hand on his chest stopped him. "Let's try something new," Chris said, and grabbing the pillow from behind Vin's head, patted his ass. Vin lifted his hips and Chris slid the pillow underneath, raising one of Vin's legs then the other over his shoulders.

"Good thing you're real flexible," Chris said, smiling.

"I sure hope ain't no one spying on us," Vin said. "We must look mighty silly."

Chris adjusted his position so his cock lined up with Vin's hole. "You ready?" he asked.

Vin nodded, laying his head back as Chris eased into him. He'd forgotten what it felt like to be filled, since he'd done most of the riding since that time out at the camp. He'd also forgotten how good it felt, his insides filled and stretched as Chris edged slowly into him, the discomfort turning to pleasure as his body adjusted and he relaxed. Chris waited until Vin was adjusted before moving, slowly, in and out, angling Vin's body so he hit his prostate. Vin gasped as the wave washed over him, his eyes closing as Chris's thrusts increased, and his hand wrapped around Vin's cock. God, he'd forgotten how good it felt, and he let himself go, giving over to waves, arching his back so he could feel Chris further inside him, not trying to hold back the moans that escaped his lips, grabbing the blanket underneath him as his hips moved of their own volition up and down as Chris thrust into him. "Go, go," he muttered, as he neared the edge, the tingling and tightening starting at the base of his spine. He'd never begged in his life, but he was now, saying Chris's name, wanting more of him. Then all of his control was gone, and every cell in his body felt like it tingled with pleasure; Chris and he were coming at the same time, he could the warmth of cum inside him and on top of him. He wanted to watch Chris as he came, wanted to meet his eyes, but Chris's head was thrown back, his lips pressed together so no sound escaped. Then they both relaxed, Chris laying on top of him and nuzzling at his neck, sending additional shivers of pleasure through Vin. It was perfect, it was meant to be, and it scared the hell out of him.

Vin lay awake long after Chris had drifted asleep, one arm thrown across Vin's chest possessively. He was bone tired, having given all he could to Chris, and he'd lost control. He couldn't stop thinking about that, about the power that meant Chris had over him, the power to hurt and to control, things Vin had sworn he'd never let happen to him again. He'd trusted people, and he'd gotten burned, so he'd learned to always keep a distance, even with friends. He trusted Buck, Josiah, and the others to watch his back, but there was always that distance, and he'd thought he could keep that distance with Chris too, especially since Chris Larabee had more walls than San Antonio. He'd wanted Chris, there was no denying that, and now that he had him, his first instinct was to run. Great, Tanner, he thought. You don't want to be alone, you want to know what love and all that romantic shit is, and here it is sleeping beside you, and you're ready to hightail it to Mexico. But he knew he wasn't going to be able to talk himself calm; the gnawing in his stomach was too intense. He had to get out and away from here so he could think clear, without a warm hand resting over his heart. Besides, he reasoned, Chris had given him an out, said he could leave whenever, and it wasn't like he was leaving forever.

He climbed out of the bed as quietly as he could, grabbed his clothes and left the dark shack, dressing quickly on the porch and hurriedly climbing on his horse. He looked back once as he rode away, tempted to turn back, but then kicked his horse into a gallop and headed back to town.

Chris waited until he couldn't hear the hoof beats anymore before sitting up. He'd heard Vin climb out of the bed and sneak outside, and was tempted to call out to him, but whatever Vin was thinking, he'd find out soon enough. He lay back down in the bed, pulling the blankets to his chin to ward off the sudden chill.

Chris didn't come back to town the next day, or for two days after. Vin had almost ridden out to his place a few times, but then changed his mind. Damned if he was going to chase after Larabee like a smitten schoolgirl. If the stubborn gunslinger wanted to see him, he could come back to town. It was selfish of him to leave the rest of them watching out for things anyway, especially with the actor taking up the jail and that Smithers fellow still lurking around. Smithers got his dander up; he didn't know why exactly, but something about the man just wasn't right, and Vin trusted his instincts more than anything else. His instincts were why he stayed alive as long as he did.

Whenever Vin went to the saloon, Smithers followed him, and sat in the same corner by the piano. Nothing wrong with that, but he was mirroring Vin's movements. Whenever Vin ordered beer, Smithers would do the same, whenever Vin took a sip, so would Smithers. He eased back in the chair like Vin, pulling his hat low, and when Vin stood up to check who was riding into town, so did Smithers. He was about at the end of his tether and about to teach the man some Comanche learning when Chris finally rode back into town, draped in his black duster, looking like the angel of death himself. So Chris hadn't been sitting at his shack missing him, Vin thought; he'd been sitting at his shack getting pissed off. Well, Vin wasn't about to apologize to the stubborn bastard.

Chris entered the saloon, taking in every person before he stepped all the way in. He noticed Vin in one corner, sitting with his back to the wall, looking as if he was asleep. He really would like to ask Vin to teach him that trick, because Vin actually knew exactly what was going on around him. He stepped to the bar for a beer, then walked back to where Vin sat. Vin hadn't come back to the shack after he'd left, so Chris figured he must have had plenty of time to figure out what he wanted, and although it would be nice if the man had told him personally, he said he'd respect it, and so he would. Didn't have to be exactly happy about it, though.

Chris didn't sit at the table, instead standing in front of where Vin lounged at the table.

"Any trouble in town?" he asked, thinking of the man Smithers sitting behind him.

"Nope," Vin replied.

"So it's been quiet?" Chris asked.


"What are you pissed at?" Chris asked.

Vin looked up at him lazily. "Nothin'," he replied.

Chris gritted his teeth and turned back to the bar. "Whiskey," he told the barkeep.

Vin watched him go under hooded eyes. The man acts as if everything's the same as it was, and can't understand why it's not anymore. Part of him wanted to tell Chris he was sorry, that he wanted more than anything what Chris was offering. The other part that valued his freedom kept his ass in the chair. His eyes were drawn from Chris's tense back by the feeling of being watched. He glanced across the room at Smithers, who was grinning at him. When their eyes met, Smithers stood, glanced at Chris then back at Vin, tipped his hat, and left the bar.

After the wounded actor had been arrested for attempting to rob the bank, they'd had to keep him locked up until the Judge arrived the next week for the trial. Vin offered to take the afternoon watch of the jail, and he settled in behind the desk to wait. Chris hadn't spoken to him since that morning; in fact, he'd acted like Vin didn't exist. One thing Chris Larabee could do was make a person feel lower than toad shit if he set his mind to it, and apparently he'd decided to ignore Vin Tanner's existence.

He was getting antsy just sitting in the jail. He wanted to saddle his horse and ride out somewhere where he could see for miles without no damn buildings in the way, but as soon as Josiah relieved him at the jail he headed straight for the saloon instead of the livery. Tanner, you are like a fool who touches an oven to see if it's hot, he thought as he walked inside.

The saloon was crowded, smoky and noisy. Vin glanced around, but didn't see Smithers. In fact, he hadn't seen Smithers all day. He'd hoped the man had finally hightailed it out of town, but his instincts told him different. He thought to go look for the man, but then he spied the action going on in the corner. Chris and Buck were sitting at a table, several bottles of whiskey empty or well on the way scattered before them. There were also four saloon girls at the table, one smack on Chris's lap. Chris had unbuttoned the first few buttons of his black shirt, and his hair hung almost boyishly over his face. He laughed loudly at something Buck said, and the girl laughed with him, running her fingers through his hair.

Vin had never seen Chris laugh like that. Sure the man was drunker than a skunk, but whatever Buck had said caused the age and worry lines to disappear in laughter. His initial anger dissipated at the sound of Chris's laughter. Instead of heading to the table and yanking the contrary gunslinger outside, he turned to Ezra's customary table, where the gambler shuffled cards with one hand.

"Are you interested in joining our game?" Ezra asked.

Vin looked at the other occupant of the table, a local sheep farmer who was nodding into his beer. "Don't know if I can handle the competition, Ez," he said, taking the chair next to the gambler.

"Yes, Mr. Thompson here is a wily opponent. Unfortunately, he is also up past his bedtime." At that, Thompson's head sank to the table and he started to snore.

"So, Mr. Tanner, shall we proceed?"

"With what?" Vin asked.

Ezra held up the cards, and deftly fanned them from one hand to the other. "Poker, the sport of kings," he said, his gold tooth gleaming as he grinned.

"You done took all my money already," Vin said.

"So we'll play for IOU's," Ezra said. "Assuming I win, of course."

"That's like assuming the sun will come up in the morning. Deal me in," Vin said.

They played a few hands, which Vin surprisingly won, although he suspected it was just so he had enough money to lose back, and he felt himself relaxing in the gentle banter that always came from having a conversation with Ezra Standish.

"Mr. Tanner, discarding your king like that would be a grievous error."

"Why, Ezra? Makin' it harder to cheat me to winnin'?" Vin replied.

Ezra placed a hand over his heart dramatically. "You wound me, sir. If you weren't a crack shot, I may have to challenge you to a duel."

Vin grinned and discarded his king, and Ezra shook his head. Vin suspected that Ezra might be less gentlemanly than he let on; the man seemed to enjoy joining the fray too much, and only afterwards remembered that he'd gotten his clothes dirty. But for some reason he felt the need to fool everybody, or else he was trapped into it. Knowing Ezra's mother, maybe that wasn't far off. Vin Tanner knew a thing or two about being trapped, and that thought made him think of Chris. He'd almost forgotten he was there, except for the occasional raucous laughter from that side of the saloon. He glanced over to find Chris looking at him, not in anger, but almost sadly. When their eyes met, Chris grabbed a mug of beer and lifted it to Vin in a cheerless toast, then turned away as he drained the glass. Vin didn't know what to think of that. Anger he could deal with, indifference he could learn to live with, but what was Chris doing? Encouraging him to move on, with Ezra? Hell, Chris, he thought, what's going through your head now? Vin continued to stare at the now solemn gunslinger until Ezra interrupted his thoughts, reminding him it was his turn to ante up.

Chris saw out of the corner of his eye when Vin turned his attention back to Ezra. It hurt like hell to let him go, and that bothered him. He shouldn't feel that way about another damn man anyway. Besides, he didn't need distractions. He had a killer to find and a town to protect, and he couldn't do either if he was worried about what Vin was up to. Vin had taken care of himself for thirty-odd years before he met Chris Larabee, and he sure as hell didn't need a babysitter. He didn't need a problem like Chris Larabee either, so Chris silently said goodbye to the hope of happiness he felt with Vin, and turned back to the here and now, a willing woman on his lap and an old friend trying to out drink him. He saw the questioning look in Buck's face, but he ignored it. "I don't think you've told these ladies about the time you and I stole a tepee, Buck," Chris said.

"Hell, pard, we didn't steal it, just borrowed it for a bit," Buck replied.

"That's not what the Chief said."

Vin finally lost a hand, and pushed his money, which was really Ezra's money, towards the gambler. "Thank you, sir. Now why don't we up the stakes a bit?" Ezra asked.

"Hell, Ezra, unless you want my wagon, we can't..." Vin suddenly stopped talking as he spotted Smithers staring at him from the window. Bastard! Vin hurriedly stood and grabbed his gun, and ran out through the bat-wing doors. Chris instinctively stood to follow, but Ezra was already on the way outside, so he sat back at the table.

"Trouble?" Buck asked.

"Vin and Ezra can handle it," Chris replied.

Vin chased after Smithers, but when he got outside, he couldn't find him. He paused in the middle of the street, searching the corners and alleys. Ezra stopped beside him, gun drawn. "What is it, Vin?" he asked, trying to catch his breath.

"Smithers," Vin replied, stalking down the street. He couldn't tell the man's footprints on the dark crowded street. He was being played for a fool, and he didn't like it, and now something else bothered him. When he'd spotted Smithers outside the saloon, his first thought was that he was seeing his own reflection. Smithers was not only following him, he was starting to look like him. Maybe I should let him, Vin thought, in case any bounty hunters show up.

He took one last look around, and headed back to the saloon. Ezra was already seated back at his table and had been joined by some well-dressed men from out of town. The saloon was settling down. Buck was still there, surrounded by the girls, but Chris was gone, and so was the girl who had been on his lap. Vin was too wired to sleep, so he grabbed a beer and sat in a dark corner, every once in a while glancing upstairs as somebody entered or exited a room, but Chris didn't appear.

A few hours later, Ezra had relieved the gentlemen of their money, and they had left, grumbling but impressed. Ezra collected his winnings and added them to the bounty in his boot before standing and finishing one last sip of whiskey. "Do you intend to sleep here, Mr. Tanner?" he asked.

"Nope," Vin answered, also standing. The bar had emptied much earlier, and the bartender had been cleaning up around them. They stepped outside, and the bartender locked the door behind them.

"There is a strange satisfaction in closing the establishment behind you," Ezra said.

"Yep," Vin replied.

"Far be for it me to entice you to polysyllables," Ezra said. "Good night."

"Ezra, wait," Vin called. Ezra stopped and turned back, and Vin walked closer. He looked at the darkened street, trying to figure out what to say.

"Never mind," he said finally.

"Is something bothering you?" Ezra asked.

"You and Chris..." Vin said.

"Ah," Ezra replied. "You have a problem with it?"

"No, not really." He paused. "You still interested?"

Ezra hesitated. He wasn't sure where Vin was headed with his line of questioning, so he responded ambiguously. "Why?"

"No reason," Vin replied.

"There must be a reason. If you are not repulsed, then I can only assume you are either protective or jealous."

"I ain't jealous," Vin said.

"Do you have reason to be?"

Vin crossed his arms, but didn't answer.

Ezra adjusted the cuff on his shirt, while observing the man before him, who had answered his question without words. "I am not about to intercede in Mr. Larabee's romantic relations; I value my life way too much for that," he said.

"I don't belong to him," Vin said.

Ezra laughed. "Of course you don't."

"Forget it, Ezra. I was just curious."

"Curious about what? What Chris and I did, or how it is done?" He tried to contain a smile, knowing he was treading on dangerous ground.

Vin's glare softened, and he shrugged. "Hell, I don't know."

"Lessons will cost you extra, and I don't want your wagon." Ezra stepped closer, and put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Talk to him, Vin," he said, and walked off towards the hotel. Vin watched him go, shaking his head. He started towards his wagon, but he knew he wouldn't get any sleep, so he began to patrol the town, removing his spurs so he didn't wake anybody.

The town was dark and still that time of night. Even the street fires had burned to embers, only the sliver of a moon the source of any light. Vin walked slowly past the saloon, blacksmith, boarding house, and turned around to head back when he heard the whisper of a match strike. He tensed, then relaxed as he recognized the dark figure leaning against the post in front of the darkened saloon.

"Bit jumpy, aren't you?" Chris asked.

"Not jumpy, just vigilant," Vin replied, leaning next to him.

"Sounds like one of Ezra's words."

"Yeah well, don't tell him. I don't want him to think I'm actually payin' attention to his ramblin'," Vin replied, grinning.

"Secret's safe with me," Chris said.

They stood in silence for a while, the only sound Chris's occasional drag on his cheroot. Finally, he tossed it to the ground and crushed it with his boot. "We gonna settle this or not?" he asked quietly.

"Thought we already did," Vin replied.

"I thought you were thinking it over," Chris said. "And that you'd come back out and tell me," he added.

Vin glanced at him. "Reckon since I didn't come out there, you got yer answer."

Chris nodded. "Reckon I did." He pushed himself off the post. "See you tomorrow, then."

Vin reached out a hand to stop him before he could think about what he was doing. He grabbed Chris's arm.

Chris looked down at his hand. "You made your decision, Vin."

"It was yer idea to make me decide. Yer own fault if you don't like what I decided."

"I know that."

"Then fuck my decision. Let's just go back to how we were before you got this bee in yer bonnet."

Chris stepped closer, pulling Vin against him. "Things have changed," he said through clenched teeth.

Vin pressed back against him. "Some things ain't changed," he said, as Chris's burgeoning erection pressed against his own.

Chris closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then pushed him away. "Ain't that simple," he said. "I can't keep acting like a billy goat."

Vin sighed. "And I can't pretend to feel somethin' I don't," he said. He saw, for the briefest instant, a flash of sadness in Chris's flint green eyes, then it was gone, in its place the cold statue that struck fear into people.

"Then like I said, I'll see you tomorrow."

Vin nodded and walked off, passing his wagon and heading for the livery, saddling his horse quickly and riding into the cold night to where he didn't have to see people or buildings or hurt green eyes on a statue.

When Chris returned to his room, the saloon girl, Mandy, was still there, fully dressed and sleeping off the whiskey half-sprawled on his bed. He didn't feel like riding out to his shack, but he couldn't stay in the room with the lightly snoring girl, so he stepped back outside. Maybe Vin had the right idea-ride away until the horse damn near falls over. Hell, maybe Vin had the right idea about everything. You can't force somebody to like you more than they do, can't expect them to want to be with you just because you didn't like sharing. If being with him spooked Vin, then he'd just be with him in body, keeping his soul buried. He'd been doing that for over three years now anyway, walking and talking like a normal person when inside he was raging and sobbing against the unfairness of it all. Besides, caring for someone got you hurt; he'd had that lesson burned on what was left of his soul after the murder of his family, by their murderer.

He walked away from the boarding house; the sun was just appearing over the horizon. He passed Vin's wagon, considered catching a bit of shut-eye inside, but just as quickly dismissed the idea, and headed to the jail, where he could doze for a bit before the town woke up.

Chris must have slept, despite the grumblings of the hungry actor, because he was out of his chair with gun drawn at the door of the jail before he was completely awake.

Buck entered carrying a tray of food. "Good morning to you too, Chris. You shoot me, I just might spill these eggs."

Chris grinned sheepishly as he holstered his gun. "Sorry, Buck." He looked at the runny eggs and limp bacon. "Is this for him?" he asked, nodding to the prisoner.

"Yeah, Inez has got some real grub over at the saloon for you. I'll stay here while you eat," Buck relied.

Chris nodded, and started for the door, when a shout sounded from outside. Buck dropped the tray and kicked it towards the cell and followed Chris outside, both with guns drawn as they searched for the source of the yell.

A small crowd had gathered by the bank. Chris and Buck forced their way through and entered the dark building, where three people lay sprawled on the ground covered with blood.

"Go get Nathan," Chris said. After Buck ran out, Chris knelt by the figure nearest him, recognizing the starched white shirt, even without the red coat and arm rig. He placed his fingers on Ezra's neck and sighed in relief when he felt a faint pulse. Mr. Jones wasn't so lucky; the back of his head was shattered. Mrs. Jones moaned as Chris knelt by her. He grabbed her hand.

"William?" she asked, her eyelids fluttering.

"Just lay quiet, ma'am," Chris said softly. "Nathan's on his way." He removed a bandanna from his pocket and pressed it against the wound oozing from her shoulder. "Mrs. Jones, can you tell me what happened?"

Her voice was nearly a whisper. "We were asleep, and I woke up with a hand covering my mouth. He ordered us over to the bank." She paused to lick her lips. "It was dark. I couldn't see his face, but he wore a hat down into his eyes. That gambler, he saw us and tried to help, but the other man hit him or stabbed him, I couldn't tell. Then he had William open the safe, and then he pushed William down and started kicking his head and...Oh my God, William." Her voice started to rise. "William, where's William?" She tried to sit up, but Chris lightly held her down just as Nathan and Josiah arrived back with Buck.

"What happened?" Nathan asked.

"Bank robbery. Ezra's hurt bad, and so is she." Nathan glanced at Mr. Jones, and Chris shook his head.

"William," Mrs. Jones moaned.

"I think Ezra's hurt worse," Chris said. Nathan nodded and knelt by the unconscious gambler, while Chris continued to hold Mrs. Jones's hand.

"We'll find whoever did this," he said quietly. "We'll bring them to justice."

Vin added a few more sticks of kindling to the low fire he had built. The sun would be up soon, and he knew he should sleep, but he couldn't. His thoughts were still racing after what happened with Chris. The quiet of nature, the whisper of wind, the slight hum of frogs, was helping him settle a bit but not completely. He tried to see what the big deal was, but he wasn't even sure what Chris wanted from him. Weren't they already together, as often as they could be without raising suspicion? He wasn't going to nobody else for relief, and he was pretty sure Chris wasn't. So what more did the man want? To put a ring on his finger and an apron around his waist? He shook his head, clutching his jacket around him. Hell, Chris Larabee, for all his talk, wasn't any different than everybody else he'd ever known, telling him how to live his life and trying to change him to fit into their mold. The nuns in the orphanage, the sergeants in the army, even the elders of the Indian village had an idea of what he should be and got angry or disappointed when he wasn't like that. He'd promised himself he wouldn't change to fit nobody ever again, not since that pretty little squaw wanted him to kill her a buffalo, and when he did, she gave the skin-coat to a real brave. He tossed another stick on the flame angrily, trying to fight the slow boil rising in him. Things got too complicated when you get involved with people, he thought, but he knew he'd have a harder time leaving than staying.

As the first rays of dawn drifted over the horizon, Vin heard a soft sound from behind him, in a copse of trees near where he camped. It sounded like a scratching and squawking, maybe a bird with a broken wing. He stood to take a look, thinking maybe he'd have something other than jerky for breakfast if it were a quail or duck.

As he peered into the trees, the bird cried louder, and he saw it was an eagle, not yet fully grown, with one talon trapped in between two rocks. The body of a field mouse lay near its foot.

Vin stepped closer, and the eagle cawed loudly, flapping its wings frantically as it tried to escape.

"Hush, feller. Don't go hurtin' yerself." He continued to step closer, talking softly and calmly to the trapped bird. He slowly pulled out his heavy buffalo hide gloves and slid them over his hands. "That's it, I ain't gonna hurt ya. Just let me reach in there and get ya loose."

The bird pecked at his hands, flapping its wings. "Don't struggle now, you'll hurt yerself more," he said, ignoring the pecks at his hand as he tried to work the bird's leg loose. He was finally able to tug the eagle's leg free and the bird backed up, pecking at him one last time and hitting him above the glove, drawing blood before flying away with a final parting caw.

"Ungrateful bastard," Vin muttered, wiping the blood with his shirt and pressing it the wound. He stepped back out to his camp, and looked up to see the eagle soaring overhead, darting in between the lengthening rays of the sun, proud and alone. Vin watched the eagle fly higher and higher, and felt more and more he'd made a huge mistake. He cleaned up his campsite, saddled his horse, and headed back to town, hoping to hell Chris would listen.

Josiah had already carried Ezra up to Nathan's clinic, where the healer was frantically trying to close the four-inch gash across his ribcage, and had come back down for Mrs. Jones, when Vin rode back into town. The injured woman was in shock, mumbling about her husband, as Josiah scooped her up and carried her from the bank, Chris following behind, rubbing his eyes wearily. He looked up as he heard the horse, seeing what could only be Vin outlined against the rising sun, his distinctive hat framing his unkempt hair. Chris was glad to see him, then pushed it down; they had business to take care of, and he needed Vin to search around the bank for tracks. He started to call out to the tracker when Mrs. Jones screamed, pointing at Vin as he climbed off his horse.

"That's him," she screamed, her eyes wild. "That's him! That's who attacked us, that's him!" Every person gathered around turned to glare at Vin, who stood frozen by his horse. Angry murmurs started, and Chris heard a distinct "I knew he was trouble," from the crowd. As more people gathered, he needed to defuse the situation.

"Josiah, take her home," he said, starting towards Vin.

"What are you going to do about Vin?"

"Lock him up," Chris replied.

He strode to where Vin stood. "Chris, what is..."

"Don't say a word. Come with me," Chris ordered, grabbing his arm and pulling him to the jail. Vin started to pull away, but at the sight of what was growing into an angry mob, he followed Chris to the jail, where JD was already by the door checking the shotgun for bullets.

"What do we do, Chris?" JD asked.

Buck joined them in front of the jail. "Real friendly group," he said.

Chris took the shotgun from JD and thrust it at Buck. "Keep 'em outside," he said, and led Vin inside the jail. JD followed, closing the door behind him.

"What the hell is goin' on?" Vin asked, checking his own gun.

"Somebody robbed the bank," Chris said. "Killed Mr. Jones, and hurt Mrs. Jones and Ezra."

Vin glanced up. "Ezra gonna be all right?"

"I don't know," Chris answered.

Shouts sounded from outside, and Buck could be heard telling the people to go home, that they'd handle it.

"You'll help him escape, you mean," a voice responded.

JD peered out the window. "Crowd's getting bigger," he said.

"Plenty of room in here," the actor in the cell said.

"Shut up before I shut you up," Chris said to him.

"Why do they think it's me?" Vin asked.

"Mrs. Jones couldn't see who did it, only his hat," Chris answered.

Vin's eyes narrowed.

"Bastard," he spat. "That bastard Smithers. I knew he was no good." He stepped to the door. "You cover me and I can make my horse."

JD shook his head. "Can't do that, Vin. The Judge will be here in two days. He'll clear you of charges and..."

Vin didn't let him finish. His cold gaze fell on the young sheriff, and JD took a step back. "You ain't sayin' I should wait in jail until then, are ya?"

"I'm just saying it would keep you safe and the Judge would..."

"Like hell I will. I'm gonna find that bastard Smithers and the Judge can have what's left of him." He started for the door, gun drawn, when Chris's steel grip grabbed his arm and pulled him back. He lost his balance and when he regained it, Chris shoved him into an empty cell, slamming the door behind him.

Vin stood in shock for a second as the door closed, then his defiant eyes met Chris's unreadable ones. "Larabee," he said in a low growl. "Let me out."

"You're already wanted, Vin. Pissing off the Judge isn't a good idea," Chris said. He turned from the cell to the gun cabinet, taking out a rifle and extra bullets.

"Chris, you can't find him alone. This snake is slippery. You'll need me to track him, and someone to watch yer back."

Chris paused. He looked at Vin, and saw more than a man set on revenge. He saw a man who had started to make a name for himself, not in a showy way for fame, but as a good man, someone honorable and dependable, who would have made his mother proud, and now someone was trying to smear that name. For Vin Tanner that was worse than being shot in the back. Chris nodded, his decision made, and walked to the jail cell with the keys.

"You gonna let him out?" the actor asked. "You let me out too, and I'll help you hunt the guy down." The man's smile faded at the glare he received from Larabee, and he sat back down on the cot. "Safer in here," he muttered.

"You don't think the Judge will clear him?" JD asked.

"He'll be cleared when we bring back Smithers," Chris replied, swinging open the door. Vin headed for the cabinet and grabbed another shotgun.

Chris looked through the shade on the door. "Looks like Buck is keeping them calm, but that'll change if you come charging out," he said.

"So how do we distract them?" JD asked.

Both Vin and Chris looked back at the actor still in the cell. A smile crossed Chris's face. "Always wanted to be in show business."

Josiah stepped on the porch in front of the jail, where Buck leaned with a shotgun resting in the crook of his arm. "Josiah," Buck nodded. "How's Ezra?"

Josiah rubbed his eyes. He couldn't remember ever being so tired. "Nathan says he did what he could. He said I better pray." He looked at the drawn shade on the jail door, and then at the crowd still hovering in the street. "What's happening with Vin?" he asked.

Buck shrugged, just as the door opened. The crowd surged forward, but calmed as they saw it was Chris and the young sheriff with a different prisoner.

Chris stepped out, holding the arm of the actor, who was yelling at the top of his lungs. "This is brutality!" He lifted up his hand, blood dripping from his fingers. "I demand justice! These men have brutalized me. Cruel and unusual punishment!" Chris jerked his arm and led him away from the jail. Buck and Josiah watched as JD stepped out also, looking at the ground. They looked closer, then at each other, and tried to hide grins as Chris and Vin, under JD's bowler and checkered coat, hauled the shouting prisoner towards Nathan's clinic.

As soon as they were past the crowd, they darted into an alley. Vin immediately yanked off the hat and coat, pushing his own hat back on his head with a sigh. Chris glared at the actor. "You ever come around here again, I'll shoot you on sight, you understand?" The man nodded and hurried away down the alley.

Chris glanced out at the street, and saw the coast was clear. "Let's go."

"You don't have to do this," Vin said. "I can do it on my own."

"Ain't doing it for you," he replied, then led the way to the posts where their horses were tethered. They climbed on quickly and rode off in a cloud of dust that settled over the ignorant mob.

They rode until nightfall, stopping in the same campsite where Vin had freed the eagle. Chris was quiet as they unpacked and started a small fire. Vin watched him spread out his bedroll and lean back against his saddle, chewing on a biscuit and jerky.

"I got some jam Nettie made me," Vin said. "Make that dry biscuit taste better."

Chris didn't look at him as he answered, staring into the fire. "No thanks."

Vin leaned back against his own saddle. Damn stubborn bastard, he thought, don't you know a peace offering when you see it? "This is where I camped last night," he said, his own voice sounding loud in his ears. Making conversation wasn't his strong point, but for some reason he didn't want to just sit in silence. "There was an eagle stuck in them rocks back there," he nodded back into the copse. Chris didn't answer. "I freed it, although it raised holy hell while I was doing it." He pushed up his sleeve. "Took a chunk of my arm with him," he said, holding out his arm so Chris could see the wound. The gunslinger glanced over, then back at the fire.

Vin pushed back down his sleeve, and grabbed a biscuit. His first instinct was to throw it at the recalcitrant gunslinger. The thought of how Chris would react as the bread bounced of his forehead brought a smile to his face.

"Something funny?" Chris said softly.

"I was just thinking about throwing this biscuit at you," Vin answered. Chris raised an eyebrow but didn't reply. Vin sighed in exasperation. "Shit, Chris, why'd ya have to make everything so goddamned complicated? We were getting along fine, until you went and made everything mean something."

"Is that what I did?"

"Hell yes. Things were fine before. We don't know what tomorrow brings. One of us could end up dead."

"So we shouldn't get attached, is that it?"

"No, not exactly," Vin replied.

Chris sat up, tossing the rest of his biscuit into the fire. "Actually, you're right. You get close to somebody and you end up hurting," he said. Vin knew from the faraway look in his eyes he was thinking of his family as he watched the bread burn.

"I didn't mean to bring up bad memories. I just wanted us to have a good time, like we were before," Vin said.

Chris looked up at him. "You think I just bend over and that solves everything?" Vin shrugged. "Then let's go," Chris continued. He pulled off his hat and tossed it to the side, then undid his gun belt and started on his shirt. Vin watched him, the steady mechanical movements, without a hint of desire. Was this what they were like before, before Chris kissed him that day? Were they like billy goats, as Chris kept saying?

"Forget it," Vin said. "I ain't in the mood no more." Chris shrugged and re-buttoned his shirt, laying back and covering his face with his hat. "Be like fuckin' a statue anyway," Vin muttered as he lay back against his saddle and hoped for sleep.

Vin jolted awake from the dream he'd been having. In the dream he was again watching the eagle trapped in the rocks, but this time he couldn't get close enough to save it, because the rocks were surrounded by flames. He tried to run through the flames, but the searing heat kept him away, and he could only watch as the bird screamed as the flames neared. The bird had just caught on fire when Vin awoke.

He shook his head to try and clear it of the image, then looked at Chris to see if he'd woken him up, but Chris's bedroll was empty. Vin stood, glancing around the campsite; it was still dark, but a full moon showed that Chris was nowhere around. He hesitated calling out, in case there was trouble, and stilled his body, listening for any sounds in the night. He heard only wind, so he stepped cautiously to the copse. The horses were still tied. He walked past them to the rock, images from his dream flooding his head.

As he neared the rock, he saw Chris, silhouetted against the night, sitting on one of the boulders. He must have heard Vin approach, but he didn't turn, whether out of trust or indifference, Vin wasn't sure. Chris sat with one leg pulled up against him, his back straight as he looked off into the distance, staring at something only he could see, a trait of Chris's that Vin had noticed soon after they met. He'd never had the courage to ask Chris what he saw in the distance, good memories or bad, because he figured whatever Chris saw was his own, was what kept him going despite the horrors he'd endured. Besides, he'd always figured Chris'd tell him to mind his own goddamned business, but now he wasn't so sure. As Chris sat there, Vin realized his thinking Chris was a statue wasn't fair; the man had strength and honor enough for a dozen men, and he wore it like he wore that black duster, as a warning to those who'd do harm that he'd stop them, but also as a warning to everybody else to keep away. He said caring for people ended up with hurt, but he'd still wanted to let Vin in, to take another chance on sharing himself, leaving himself more vulnerable than if he'd walked down the street in Purgatory naked and drunk. If Chris was willing to take that risk, was willing to offer himself at the risk of being knocked down, then Vin was too.

Decision made, he walked to behind where Chris sat staring. He noticed the gunslinger tense as he approached. Vin reached out his hand and gently turned Chris's face towards him, and tenderly placed his lips over his, waiting until Chris relaxed before pressing harder, slowly tracing Chris's lips with his tongue, not with the urgency of sexual need, but with all the compassion and admiration he felt for this man at that moment, with all the gratitude for being a friend worthy of this trust, with all the love he had kept bottled inside him all his life, and all of that was returned by Chris. Their bodies shifted, molded against each other, no rush for relief guiding their actions as they simply appreciated each other. When they finally did join, their eyes locked on each other's, the union was of two parts making a whole, perfect rhythm of body, breath, and heartbeat that resulted in more sheer ecstasy than either had even guessed existed. They rested against each other, their flushed skin cooling. No words were spoken, because none could express what each already understood. They watched as the sun rose, trying to keep the moment a little longer before the harshness of reality forced them to separate back into themselves.

Vin and Chris followed Smithers' trail to a small mining town called Thunder Ridge, so named for the mine blasts that echoed off the high rock cliffs lining the town. Judging from the tracks, Smithers was traveling with three men. They rode into the town near sundown. The general store, telegraph office, and blacksmith were all closed. The only other building was the nameless saloon, which spilled out stumbling miners and tired thin whores.

Vin and Chris boarded their horses in the livery, and Vin nodded at a dun gelding in a far stall. "That's Smithers' horse," he said, his voice low. Chris nodded, and they headed for the saloon.

A thick layer of smoke and the odor of cheap beer hit the two before they even entered the saloon; inside, it was worse. They glanced at each other, asking wordlessly if they should stay or go, and decision made to get it over with, they stepped further into the smoky saloon, Chris slightly in front as the object of attention, Vin scanning the room for signs of trouble. They made it to the bar before a glimpse of color caught each of their attentions at the same time. Vin's hand went for his gun, but Chris stayed him with a light touch. "No use hanging for scum like him," he said quietly. Then he headed for the gaming table, with Vin following.

Smithers looked up from beneath the black flat-brimmed hat with a smile. "Gentlemen, can I interest you in a game of chance?" he asked, brushing a piece of ash of the sleeve of the red coat he wore. The outline of Ezra's arm-rig could be seen beneath the ill fit.

"That coat belongs to a friend of ours," Vin said, his voice a low rasp.

"Yes, I admired it greatly. I tried to purchase one of my own, but it's apparently one of a kind, so I took this one."

Vin took a step towards the man, intent on ripping his throat out, but again Chris stayed him. "Smithers, we're taking you back to stand trial for murdering William Jones and attempting to murder Violet Jones and Ezra Standish. You come quietly, and I won't break every bone in your body before you get there." Chris's voice was calm, almost monotone, yet the men at the adjoining tables left hurriedly, and the saloon emptied quickly. Smithers, however, didn't flinch. He pulled out a knife, shined it on the sleeve of Ezra's coat, and began cleaning under his fingernails.

"I've been threatened by some of the meanest bastards west of the Mississippi," Smithers said.

"I'm not surprised," Vin said.

"And you certainly rank in that group, Mr. Larabee. Your reputation as a gunfighter is quite impressive. I'd like to test it out." Smithers smiled.

"You want Chris to shoot you?" Vin asked.

"I want him to try."

"No deal. Let's go, Smithers," Chris replied, stepping towards the man. Suddenly three guns cocked, one from the doorway, one from the landing, and a third from the bar.

"Perhaps you'd like to reconsider," Smithers said.

"You got a death wish?" Vin asked.

Smithers shook his head. "You didn't read the wanted poster on me, did you, Mr. Tanner?" Chris glanced at him, and Vin looked away. "Pity. You should always know your enemy." He stood, straightening the red coat, which was stained with mud and beer. "I'll see you two at dawn, right outside town. May the best man win." He finished his whiskey and left the saloon, his men backing out behind him.

"Ezra's gonna be pissed about his coat," Vin said, sinking down into a chair.

Chris grabbed a bottle from a nearby table and sat down next to him. "You didn't look at his poster?" he asked, pouring them each a strong dose of whiskey.

Vin gulped his down. "No, JD had it. Telegram said he was acquitted."

"Acquitted of what?"

Vin shrugged. "Murder, I suppose."

Chris finished his drink and stood. "Let's see if we can get some beds for the night." He walked to the door. Vin took another drink and followed.

"Chris," he said, and the gunfighter turned around. "Sorry."

"For what?"

"Gettin' you into this."

Chris's smile was cocky. He stepped closer to the tracker. "Vin, you could never get me to do something I didn't want to do," he said, and stepped back out the door.

The two entered the small spartan hotel room. Chris checked the closets while Vin peered out the only window. Other than two narrow beds with army blankets, there was only a basin, nightstand, and a few hooks for hanging coats.

"Not real homey, is it?" Vin said, tossing his saddlebag on the bed. Chris didn't answer, walking to the window where Vin had checked. "Town's quiet," Vin said. "Think one of us should keep watch?"

Chris shook his head. "No, killing us in our sleep would take the fun out of it."

Vin sat down on the bed, bouncing lightly on the hard mattress. "Speaking of fun, these beds'll barely hold one."

Chris smiled slightly. "We should get some sleep anyway. Meeting Smithers at dawn." He tossed down his saddlebag and sat on the other bed, bending to remove his boots. "I never understood choosing dawn anyway. I much prefer noon," he said, tugging off the stubborn boot and tossing it on the floor, then unbuckling his gun belt. "Last time I did one of these at dawn, I ended up shooting blind in to the sun." He reached for his saddlebag, then paused as he noticed how quiet Vin was. He looked at him, and he saw Vin picking at the loose strands of the army blanket. "Vin, something wrong?"

Vin didn't look at him. "How many of these you done?" he asked.

Chris sat back against the wall. "Seven," he answered.

"And you won 'em all?"

Chris smiled. "I'm sitting here, ain't I?"

"I mean, you killed 'em all?"

Chris paused, a succession of deathly quiet silences followed by a succession of deathly accurate shots parading across his memory. "Yeah," he said quickly, reaching again for his saddlebag.

"Ain't nothin' to be ashamed of," Vin said. "They'd a killed you."

"I know. Used to be, it didn't bother me so much. Now, I wonder if some of those fights could have been avoided. If I wasn't looking for a fight, for a way to take out my anger or have somebody put me out of my misery." He pulled out the soft cloth and oil to clean his Colt. "Hell, I'm probably just getting old."

"Not from what I've seen," Vin replied, his smile reaching his eyes. "Looks to me like you can keep up with men half yer age."

"Good thing, too. You'll be the death of me yet, Tanner," he said. Vin's smile disappeared. "Didn't mean it like that, Vin," Chris said.

"I know," Vin said, starting to take off his own boots. "Just antsy, I guess."

"Don't worry, Vin," Chris said. "I've got a perfect record." He set to the meticulous task of cleaning his gun.

Chris's words didn't reassure Vin much. Chris Larabee had more quiet confidence than anybody Vin knew, but Smithers was trouble, and he'd be planning something dirty, Vin was sure. As he watched Chris slowly and steadily dismantle his trusty Colt, wiping each piece down with a practiced hand, Vin tried to think of a way out of the situation they'd ended up in. Or more accurately, Vin reasoned, that he'd gotten them into. Vin wasn't sure what he could have done differently, aside from following his instinct and shooting Smithers on sight, but there had to have been something he could have done to avoid getting Chris into this situation. If something happened to Chris, Vin would never forgive himself. Chris's concentration was solely on the task at hand, scrubbing out the old gunpowder and oiling the gun down so he'd have a millisecond edge, the difference between life and death.

Vin knew he was a good shot; he'd been told he could shoot the fleas off a dog a mile away, but he didn't know if he could do it staring down the man you were to shoot, who was also ready to shoot you. Chris had to have guts of lead to be able to do that, which Vin knew he had from the first day they'd met. As he fell in step beside him to save Nathan from the trail herd, he'd felt the strength and confidence ease off the man, and that made Vin stronger in the fight too.

Chris must have felt Vin staring at him, because he glanced up, his usually wary green eyes relaxed as they met Vin's, before he looked back down at the gun he was reassembling. Vin felt a strange contentment at that moment, strange because they were a few hours away from a gunfight, but the contentment due to his relationship with this man, built on trust and friendship, then billy goat sex, and now something more, something Vin couldn't or wouldn't name. Whatever it was, it amazed the hell out of him, even as he enjoyed the sight of Chris's nimble fingers playing over the hard steel of the gun barrel. Maybe they did have time for a bit of that billy goat sex....

"What hand is Smithers?" Chris asked, drawing Vin out of his thoughts.

"What?" Vin asked.

"Smithers. Is he left or right handed?"

"Right," Vin answered.

"Ezra's arm rig was on the left."

Vin thought about it. "He drank with the right, and wore his gun on the right."

"Could cross over," Chris said, giving the gun a final look before replacing it in the holster.

"He could, but I doubt it," Vin said.

Chris nodded. "OK, if you say so." He paused and lay back, closing his eyes. "His gun look filed down to you?" he asked.

"Not that I saw."

"You reckon he'll wear Ezra's coat and rig?"

"Can't say. The man likes to keep us guessing," Vin answered. Vin knew Chris was probably visualizing Smithers in front of him, trying to anticipate what Smithers would do at dawn tomorrow, and he again tried to think of a way out. Not that Chris would take it; he'd agreed to meet at dawn, and he'd be there, even knowing he was walking into a trap. Larabee was too damn honorable for his own good, so Vin would just have to play dirty for both of them. He'd been down that road more than once, and if it meant Chris came out of this mess unharmed, he'd go down that road again.

Vin's mind was still racing when he noticed Chris's even breathing. He'd fallen asleep sitting against the wall, ankles crossed and his hands resting on his stomach. His mouth hung slightly open, and his light hair hung over his face. Vin had an image of a much younger, and a much happier Chris Larabee, without the anguish of a murdered family and the pressures of protecting a growing town on his shoulders. He wondered if that Chris Larabee would have given a scruffy sharpshooter named Vin Tanner the time of day, then decided he would have. Even happier, Chris Larabee was still Chris Larabee, and although they might not have ended up sleeping together, Vin knew the connection between them would still have been there if they'd met ten years ago or ten years in the future.

He stood up and walked to where Chris slept, sitting down on the bed and trying to figure out how to get the man to lay down, so when he woke his neck wasn't stiff. He finally decided on the direct approach, and walked to the end of the bed and pulled on his feet. Chris roused slightly, but scooted down so his tousled head rested on the pillow. Vin lightly undid the buttons of his pants, tugging them off, and unbuttoned the black shirt. Then he pulled the army blanket from his bed and covered the sleeping man with it, and sat back down on his bed, lowering the lamp and staring into the darkness as he listened to Chris's breathing.

They were at the meeting place early, scouting for possible ambush hiding places. That end of town was deserted, with an abandoned hotel on one side and an empty grainery on the other. As the sun started to rise, Vin could see a dozen places for Smithers' men to hide, and he wasn't going to be able to watch them all. He hurried over to where Chris was waiting, leaning on a hitching post, calm as if he was waiting on a drink instead of a gunfight.

"I don't like this, Chris," Vin said. "That hotel is full of windows, and the grainery's got a balcony and a walkway on the roof. Plus, that abandoned mine is close enough for a rifle shot."

"I know," Chris said.

Vin grabbed his arm. "Chris, you ain't got to do this. I'm the one Smithers went after first. I'll deal with him."

Chris looked into his eyes. "You ever been in a showdown like this?" he asked.

Vin shook his head. "First time for everything."

Chris didn't smile. "Some things shouldn't have a first time. Let me do this."

"This is my fight," Vin said.

"If it's your fight, it's my fight," Chris said quietly, so softly Vin barely heard him. "You can watch my back," Chris continued. "Make sure Smithers' men don't gun me down after I blow the bastard away." That cocky smile crossed Chris's face, the one that sent chills up the spines of most men, and Vin nodded. He held out his hand, and they grasped forearms, holding for a second. Vin started to speak, but was interrupted by Smithers.

"That's very touching," he said. They let go of each other and turned to look at him.

"Bastard," Vin muttered under his breath. Smithers was back looking like Vin; besides the slouch hat, he'd also somewhere found a similar tan hide coat and mare's leg, which he strapped around the outside of the coat.

"You gonna fight me with that heavy gun?" Chris asked.

Smithers glanced down at the holster. "I thought I'd give it a try. Add a bit of challenge to it."

"Where are yer men?" Vin called.

Smithers didn't look at him as he answered, instead readjusting the hat in a move that looked so much like Vin Chris almost laughed. "They aren't early risers. I told them to sleep in, and I'd wake them for breakfast."

"Don't count on it," Vin said. He turned away so his back was to Smithers. "Watch out for the arm rig. Looks like he's still got it on the left arm."

"He's also got something tucked under that coat, I'm sure."

Vin nodded, and hurried into the grainery. He thought it would be his best vantage point, because he could see all the windows of the hotel and the old mine entrance, and he'd be facing Smithers, in case he tried something sneaky. The inside of the grainery was cool in the early morning; fine yellow dust covered his shoes and hat as he hurried up the rickety stairs and to the door to the roof. It was locked, but a strong kick broke it open, and he hurried to the edge. He checked the hotel first, his eyes alert for any movement, but he saw nothing. He then looked down at the street where Chris and Smithers stood facing each other. It looked to Vin like they were talking.

"What did your wanted poster say?" Chris asked him as they backed away from each other.

Smithers smiled. "Said I was wanted for murder and bank robbery. Also said I used to be an army sharpshooter, and suspected in several unsolved murders. I was acquitted because a man was shot in the back, and the prosecutor said the perpetuator was right-handed. My lawyer proved that I was in fact left-handed."

Chris glanced down at Smithers' hands; the holster was on the right. He'd have to watch both hands.

"But that's not why I'm doing this," Smithers continued. "You see, I never robbed any banks, not until that one in your quaint little town. I don't claim to be innocent of killing, but stealing, that's different. Somebody was pretending to be me, and that was drawing a lot of attention to my past. I couldn't use my own name anymore. Do you know what it's like to have your name stolen, Mr. Larabee?"

Chris thought about his time in a corrupt prison, trapped in The Hole with only his thoughts keeping him alive, his name taken and replaced with Inmate 78. He nodded slowly. "Yeah, I do. But that don't explain why we're here."

"If I kill you, then I get my name back. Nobody will care about the bank robbing anymore. I'll just be the man who killed Chris Larabee."

Chris shook his head. He'd faced down more than one man looking to beat a famous gunslinger, and all of them, young, old, or crazy, had wanted the same thing: a name. Chris understood a little better after his experiences in the prison, and even more after learning how important Vin's name was to him, but the difference was they'd each tried to do right, to put value to that name. Smithers wanted to earn that name in blood. Part of Chris rebelled against it, and thought about winging Smithers instead of killing him, but he had to reject that thought. He knew himself well enough to know that he'd aim to kill; his bullets went through the heart, as with Eli Joe. His concessions to peace were to try and avoid a fight as much as possible, but when there was no choice, he was going to finish it.

"Let's do this," he said. Smithers nodded, and they faced each other. Chris blinked at the sight before him. With the hat and coat, Smithers did resemble Vin. He forced that distraction out of head and looked Smithers in the eyes. A man always revealed himself in his eyes, and Chris watched the eyes for intention rather than the hands for movement.

Vin kept an eye on the two men in the street while watching the hotel. Chris and Smithers were still as statues; the sun had fully risen so they cast long shadows over the packed dirt of the empty street. Vin couldn't see Chris's eyes, but he knew the look in them: eyes narrowed and flint green, completely focused on the man in front of him, waiting patient as a spider. Smithers' hand rested over the thick handle of the mare's leg, his fingers twitching as he tried to goad Chris into drawing first. Vin smiled; he knew Chris would never fall for that.

Then all of a sudden there was movement, from different places. Vin saw two heads appear in different windows of the hotel, rifles raised, while Smithers raised his left hand and ejected the arm rig. Vin couldn't see Chris as he fired at one of the men in the hotel, but he heard gunshots, several, from all different directions. The man he fired at ducked. A bullet landed near his head from behind him. He rolled quickly, shooting from his back at the third man, crouched behind the door to the roof. Bullets landed on the roof from the hotel as he waited for the man behind the door to show himself, then he looked down. The man's feet were just visible beneath the door. Vin aimed at a foot and fired, and the man screamed, falling to the ground, firing at Vin as he fell. Vin returned fire, and the man jerked as a bullet hit his chest, then lay still.

Vin waited to make sure he was dead, then hurried back to the edge of the roof. Smithers lay on his back, a stain of red spreading across his chest. He saw both men over at the hotel aiming at Chris, who was still in the street, barely hidden behind a rain barrel and aiming up at the men.

Vin couldn't hit all of them, and Chris was a sitting duck, so Vin made a split-second decision. He stood up on the roof and waved his arms, intending to distract the men so Chris could find cover. As he stood, two pairs of eyes from across the way were drawn to him, and then a third pair of statue green eyes as Chris turned to look up at him. Time seemed to freeze; Vin's eyes met Chris's a millisecond before a bullet slammed into his back, knocking him flat to the ground.

"No!" Vin yelled, aiming his gun at the hotel and emptying it into the windows. One man fell instantly, plummeting from the window to land in a cloud of dust. The other man returned fire, but Vin aimed for where he hid behind the wall, the powerful force of the mare's leg's bullets piercing the crumbling plaster and wood, and Vin saw the man sink to the ground, firing twice more before he slumped over the window pane, his gun tumbling from his hands to the ground below. Vin was gone before it hit, running down the stairs, ignoring the dangerous wobbling and ominous creaking of the steps in his rush to the street. He jumped over the lifeless body of Smithers and knelt beside Chris, who was still lying on his stomach, eyes closed and breath coming in short pants that stirred the dirt beneath him.

Vin grabbed his arm. "Chris? Where are you hit?"

"High left shoulder," Chris replied. His eyes opened slowly. "Ruined my perfect record," he said with a wan smile.

Vin looked around. A small crowd had gathered near the saloon, and was edging closer now that the gunfire had stopped.

"Where's yer doctor?" Vin yelled at them. The crowd of miners in undershirts and working girls in tight corsets didn't answer. "Where's yer doctor, dammit?" he yelled again. Some of the crowd looked at the ground, others started backing up into the saloon. Vin raised his gun and aimed at a man in the front of the crowd, a young man with a full red beard. "You're gonna need a doctor too you don't answer me," Vin growled.

The man pointed across the street to a grizzled old man coughing into a handkerchief. The old man said, "Bring him to my office," then started slowly, hunched over, down the street. Vin's heart was in his throat. "Hang in there, Chris," he said. "Can you walk?" Chris nodded, and Vin helped him up. Chris stifled a groan as he stood, then took a few deep breaths. He glanced down at Smithers, still lying in the street.

"Get Ezra's gun back," he said. "And make sure it says Smithers on his tombstone."

The doctor's clinic was small, even smaller than Nathan's, dark, and dirty. Chris was alert, although pale from blood loss, and gritted his teeth to keep from crying out as the doctor started to remove his coat.

"I'll do it," Vin said, helping to ease off the black duster and the ruined black shirt. Chris lay down on the cot, and the doctor brought over his tools. Vin stopped him again, looking at the needle, scalpel, and forceps he carried. They looked clean, but Vin had heard enough from Nathan about keeping instruments sanitary.

"You boiled these?" he asked.

The doctor looked offended. "Of course. I'm not a quack. I haven't had a patient die on me in weeks," he said. "Now, unless you'd rather remove the bullet, get out of my way." Vin backed off, but stood near the head of cot, watching like a hawk as the doctor prepared to slice open Chris's wound.

"You got something for the pain?" Vin asked.

"Just whiskey," the doctor answered.

"I'll take it," Chris replied. Vin got the bottle from a dresser and Chris finished half of it in one swallow. He held on to it as he lay back down. "Ready," he said.

He sucked in his breath as the scalpel sliced into his skin. Vin stepped closer, and he felt Chris's hand wrap around his knee, then tighten as the doctor probed for the wound. Vin stayed quiet, but if the doctor didn't finish soon, he'd be treating a broken leg next, as tight as Chris gripped him.

Finally, the doctor pulled out the forceps, clutching the crumpled bullet, then rinsed the wound with whiskey from the bottle he pried from Chris's hand. Chris relaxed his grip as the doctor began stitching the wound, and Vin bent down to massage his leg.

"Sorry," Chris said, his voice barely a whisper. Vin looked at him, his face pale, his hair plastered to his head with sweat.

"Don't be. I got ya shot."

Chris looked at him. "You didn't get me shot, Vin," he said tiredly. "My own fault, for turning my back. Maybe I am getting old."

"Not from I've seen," Vin said. "You'll be back on yer feet in no time." He looked at the doctor, who nodded.

"He needs to rest a few days. He can stay here until someone else needs the bed, then he needs to go to the hotel."

"Thanks, doc," Vin said, and sat down near the head of the cot. Chris's eyes were already closed, and his breathing had slowed. Vin leaned back against the wall.

"It's not your fault," Chris repeated.

"Get some rest, like the doc said," Vin answered. He waited for Chris to sleep, then closed his own eyes, seeing again the bullet enter Chris's body as he stood distracting him on the roof.

Early the next morning, the doctor woke them hurriedly.

"Sorry to rush you, but you've got to go. Mine caved in."

Vin stood, trying to get the ache out of his back from sleeping sitting up against the wall. "You need help?" he asked, rubbing his eyes.

"No, no, just get him out of here." The doctor grabbed some equipment. "Get some whiskey, and watch for infection. He should stay in bed at least another week." The doctor rushed back down the stairs. Vin walked to the cot, where Chris was already struggling to sit up.

"How are ya feelin'?" Vin asked.

"Better than if I'd been trapped in a mine," Chris said. Vin helped him into his coat; the shirt was ruined and Vin stuffed it into one of the duster's pockets.

"I'll get ya a new shirt from the mine supply store," Vin said, helping Chris stand.

Chris grimaced, then gained his balance. "Don't get me one in those pretty colors you like so much."

Vin smiled at him. "I think you'd look real nice in red," he said. "Or maybe green, to match yer eyes."

"Are you turning into a woman on me, Tanner?" Chris asked.

Vin shrugged. "What was it Ezra said? Men aren't allowed to like pretty colors?"

Chris grinned. "Yeah, something like that."

They walked slowly down the stairs, pressing against the wall as two men covered in soot carried another man up the stairs. The man was moaning and clutching his middle, where blood and purple tissue oozed from between his fingers.

"Never thought I'd be thankful for just getting shot," Chris said.

"Amen," Vin said, and they continued to the hotel. The proprietress met them just inside the lobby, her arms crossed over her ample chest and a scowl on her powdered face. "I gave away your room," she said, blocking their way.

"Then we need a new one," Vin said. He dug in his pocket until he found a dollar. "We need it for a week."

The woman shook her head. "This ain't a hospital."

Vin made sure Chris was steady against the doorframe, then he stepped to the woman. "Ma'am, I would never in my life do nothin' to hurt a woman, except in this case my friend here needs a bed to heal up in. And right now I don't see a woman, but just you standin' in my way." His voice was low but the look in his eyes made the woman back up. She quickly snatched the dollar and hurried behind the desk.

"Room 301. Food and baths are extra," she said, grabbing a key and holding it out like it was a dead rat. "Any trouble and I'll get the sheriff."

The glare disappeared from Vin's face. He tipped his hat to her. "Thank you for your kindness, ma'am." Chris had already started to the stairs, and Vin followed behind, ready to catch him if he fell.

As soon as they reached the room, Chris lay down on one of the narrow beds, easing his boots off using only his feet. He sighed as he lay back against the headboard.

Vin walked around the room nervously; this room was only a little bigger than the doctor's clinic. He opened the small window, hoping for some fresh air, but the still heat of the day brought no relief. He could hear yells in the distance, of panic and pain as the men tried to recover from the cave-in. He took a few deep breaths of air before turning back into the room, hoping he looked calmer than he felt.

Chris watched him, realizing Vin was feeling penned in. "You don't have to play nursemaid for me, Vin," he said. "I'm just going to sleep anyway. Why don't you go down and get some food, maybe a drink."

"You don't want me to stay?" Vin asked.

"You look like you're about to jump out that window. I'll be fine. Go on and get some air."

"What about food?"

"Ask the owner if she'd send something up."

Vin nodded. He did really want to get out of this room, not just because the walls were closing in on him. The itching was back in his stomach, stronger than ever, and the more he tried not to think about it the worse it got. He stepped out the door, glancing back at Chris, his eyes closed, and shut the door behind him. He hurried down the stairs, past the empty desk and out into the street. He walked to the saloon, but it was already crowded, and he couldn't make himself go in, despite his thirst and hunger. Instead, he headed for the livery, quickly saddled his horse, and rode away from the town and the mine, trying to find a bit of quiet so he could think.

He rode hard until he found a small pool of water, surrounded by a few sparse scrub trees. He climbed off to let his horse drink and cool off, and leaned back against one of the trees. As soon as his eyes closed, the vision of Chris crumpling to the ground returned, and with it, the itching, the need for freedom, and something else, something he could only name as fear. Fear of losing Chris, fear of letting someone have that much control over his emotions. What if a bounty hunter came for him? Not if, he corrected himself, when. Chris would stand beside him, as he did when Yates caught him, and the thought of Chris swinging from a rope scared him more than watching him get shot. With Chris putting down roots, building a house and looking into breeding horses, he wouldn't want to give that up to help Vin clear his name. Again, Vin corrected himself. Chris would give that up without a thought if Vin asked him to, but how could he ask the man to give up his home, when it'd taken him this long to find one again. The best thing for them both would be if Vin left, headed out alone to clear his name or die trying. Hell, Chris had found someone twice now-first his wife and now Vin-so he'd have no trouble finding it again. He'd maybe even find a girl he didn't have to hide. Yep, Vin decided, best thing would be for him to leave.

But that thought pained him as much as the thought of staying. He couldn't leave Chris; he just couldn't. Ever since that first day they'd met, he'd felt like he belonged, in that small town with that ragtag group of peacekeepers, and especially at Chris's side. Before he'd met him, Vin was fine being on his own, never getting too close or staying in one place too long, but then he hadn't known what he was missing. Now, if he walked away, he'd miss what he no longer had, and he realized he couldn't do it. He couldn't leave.

"Aw hell," he said out loud. Quite a mess you've gotten yourself into, he added silently. Can't stay and can't leave. As his eyes drifted closed, he thought of the only thing that he knew for sure. Being with Chris was where he belonged.

Vin stayed out until past sundown. He was able to shoot a small rabbit and cooked it over a small fire. He knew he should get back, but he wanted to stay out a bit longer under the stars, allowing the clear air and night sky to purge all the doubts from his head. Then he'd head back and stay with Chris. He nodded at his plan, and with his decision made, he concentrated on getting rid of the slight itch that still tickled his stomach. Swimming in that pool might do the trick.

He quickly shed his clothes, banging them against his legs to get out the dust, then tested the water of the pool. It was still luke warm, and although only about ten feet across, it looked deep. He eased his way in. As the warm water glided over him, he sighed. It felt good to be clean, soaking in the water, just the stars over him and the light breeze tousling his hair. He lounged on a rock near the edge of the water, submerged to his chest, and breathed in and exhaled the calm of nature. He wished Chris were here with him; the man could use some relaxing. The thought of Chris naked in the water with him brought a smile to his face, and he brought his hand to his shaft, stroking himself to full hardness. He closed his eyes, picturing Chris with him, Chris's hand stroking him instead of his own, Chris lips on his, Chris's shaft rubbing against his. The memory of when Chris had sucked him was next, and he stroked quicker, his hand instead Chris's lips and tongue and the light nip of teeth. He came with a hoarse cry, his eyes opening, disappointed to find himself alone. A low rumble sounded in the distance, and Vin wondered if it was another mine accident, but then lightning speared across the sky, lighting the angry clouds that had rolled in quicker than Vin anticipated. He heard a terrified whinny behind him and the clatter of hooves as his horse broke free of the loose rope and ran, just as lightning flashed again and fat drops began to fall from the sky. Vin hurried out of the pool and looked around for his horse.

He saw the black gelding hiding under a tree, and walked towards it slowly, soothing the frightened animal with his voice. As he neared, another bolt of lightning slashed across the sky, and the horse took off again, with Vin running after it. His annoyance at the horse faded as his limbs moved in the light rain; he felt free and strong, and very much alive at that moment, all his doubts gone, his confidence in himself pumping through his veins with his blood. He hadn't felt like that for a long time. Not since he'd been with the Kiowa on the buffalo hunts, when he used only his body and mind, not his gun. He stopped chasing the horse and stood legs spread, arms reaching for the stars, his head tossed back as the rainwater coursed down his body. He listened to his own heartbeat slow and he smiled, all his doubts left in the mud at his feet. A low neighing made him lower his head, and his horse stood in front of him, pawing at the mud, head hung. Vin walked to the recalcitrant animal and rubbed its wet neck. "I understand," he said to it. "Sometimes ya just gotta run." He led the horse back to where his clothes were, soaked now, but he pulled them on slowly, letting the rain wash off the last of the dirt. He then grabbed the reins and started back towards town, not wanting to risk riding in the slippery mud.

The rain fell harder as he neared the town, and the frequent lightning had the horse ready to bolt again. He passed a small abandoned mine, and decided to wait just inside the cave, hoping another mine accident wasn't going to claim him. Inside it was dark and musty; whoever had mined here must have been desperate or stupid; even Vin knew this old hill wouldn't contain more than rocks. Maybe he'd been sold the mine by a shyster, someone like Ezra who could sell sand in the desert. When the rain didn't look like it would be letting up soon, he led his horse a bit further in and took off the wet saddle, lying on the wet bedroll to wait. He knew Chris would wonder where he was, but he'd told him to go. Vin sat up as he remembered what else Chris had told him: to ask the lady at the hotel to bring him some food. "Shit!" he said, earning a glance from his horse. He peered back out at the darkness, wishing the rain would let up just a little so he could get back to Chris.

The rain finally stopped early the next morning, and Vin hurriedly saddled his horse and galloped back to town as fast as he could on the still muddy trail. Miners were already on their way to the mines as he rode into the livery, tossing the reins to the sleepy stable boy and nearly running to the hotel. As he turned the corner, he almost ran into the doctor, who was stepping out of the store with bandages and whiskey.

"There you are," the doctor said. "Your friend was asking about you. Afraid something happened to you. I told him you hadn't ended up in my clinic, so you couldn't be too bad off. Then I told him to get himself back to bed before he fell over."

Vin's heart fell at the doctor's words. He thanked him and ran the rest of the way to hotel, taking the steps three at a time on the way to Chris's room. He burst in to find himself staring down the barrel of Chris's gun. He held up his hands and stopped in the doorway, grinning sheepishly. Chris didn't speak, as he reholstered his gun and turned around. He was already dressed, except for his hat, which he grabbed off the hook and placed on his head.

"Doc says you should be in bed," Vin said.

Chris stiffly bent and grabbed his saddlebag. "I'm getting the hell out of here," he said.

"But the doc said you should rest."

"I'll rest when I'm clear of this goddamned town." He stepped towards the door, where Vin stood in his way. "You gonna move?" His eyes met Vin's; they were the cold hard green of a statue.

"Chris, I'm sorry," Vin said, not moving from the doorway. "The lightning spooked my horse and...."

"Save it," Chris said, pushing his way past Vin and starting down the stairs. Vin shook his head and followed.

Chris rode out, not waiting to see if Vin was following but knowing he was. He'd also known Vin had a good excuse for not coming back all night, and it wasn't because of a storm. He was feeling penned in, but not by walls. By Chris. The more Chris had thought about it, which he'd had plenty of time to do, the more it pained him that that's what had happened. He hadn't meant to; he'd wanted the stability he'd had before with Sarah, and he'd forgotten that what he had was gone, destroyed, and he wasn't going to get it back no matter how hard he tried. He called himself ten kinds of fool for getting his teeth kicked in, but he asked for it. He knew better than to try and trap a man who valued his freedom as much as Vin; he'd have better luck trying to catch the wind in a jar. He also knew better than to expect happiness again. He'd had more of that than most men ever get; he'd gotten to feel the overwhelming pride and sheer joy of holding his son, of being called pa, of drying tears and rocking to sleep a human being that he helped create. Most of who he was inside died the day that was taken away from him, but the small glimmer that was left of that joy kept him from eating his own gun. He wasn't going to find that joy with Vin, and it was unfair to even ask him to try to fill that void. What people said about him was true; he was a cold bastard with a heart of stone. The glimmer of joy was his own, and he was going to treasure it in private, because if no one knew about it, then no one could take it away.

Vin rode up beside him. "Chris, I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have worried ya like that."

Chris shrugged. "You don't need a keeper. Besides, you were right. I made things too complicated."

"No, I wasn't. I didn't see that before, but I do now."

Chris reined in and looked at him. Vin thought he saw a glimmer of hope in Chris's eyes, but it was gone in an instant. "It won't work, Vin, and I'm not going to force it on you. We had best go back to how we were."

"Go back how far?"

"To not being together. It ain't natural anyway. Could both end up hung."

Chris looked at him, waiting for a response. Vin felt an incredible sense of loss, a need to fight Chris's cold logic, to tackle him off his horse and shake him until he stopped talking sense and instead kissed the breath out of him. But instead, he nodded. Chris nodded back. "We'd best hurry. Another storm's coming in."

Vin looked back at the clouds gaining on them. "We won't make it. There's some caves up a bit." Chris nodded, and they rode off to find shelter.

The cave Vin found was narrow, with a ceiling barely tall enough for Chris to stand up in. The rain came down in heavy sheets as they led the horses to some nearby rocks and hurriedly unbuckled the saddles. Water ran in streams off the brims of their hats and ran down the collars of their coats to chill them as it ran down their spines. Vin wrenched off his saddle and set it inside the cave, patting his arms to try and warm up. When Chris didn't follow right behind him, he peered out into the rain. Chris had the saddle half off his horse, and was struggling to lift it; the wound in his back must be ailing him, Vin thought. He rushed out to grab the saddle but Chris held on.

"I got it," he said through clenched teeth.

"Don't be a fool, Larabee," Vin said, pulling on the slippery saddle. "You're hurt and it's freezing. Let go."

Chris didn't let go. "I don't need your help," he said, pulling back. Stubborn bastard, Vin thought, as he let go, and watched in horror as Chris, not expecting him to let go, fell back against the rocks, dropping the saddle. He bent over double, trying to catch his breath. Vin rushed to his side. "Chris, you OK?"

Chris nodded. "I will be," he replied. He glanced up at Vin. "You can carry the saddle now," he said, standing slowly and limping to the cave. Vin followed, setting the sopping saddle next to his own to dry.

"We won't get a fire started in this," Vin said, peeling out of his wet coat and tossing his hat off, shaking out his wet hair. Chris started to remove his coat, but the grim set of his mouth and the paleness of his skin revealed that it must hurt like hell.

This time Vin didn't ask permission. He walked behind him and said, "Drop yer arms." Chris obliged. Vin gingerly removed the heavy duster and then walked around to unbutton Chris's shirt. It was the same one he'd been wearing when he was shot; buying a new shirt was another thing Vin had forgot to do. When he peeled off the shirt, he noticed thin lines of blood, mixed in with the rainwater, streaming down Chris's back.

"Stitches came undone," Vin said. "Don't suppose ya have needle and thread?"

Chris glared at him. "No, and if I did, I wouldn't let you stitch me up. I've seen how you sewed on a button. I'll just bleed."

"Godammit, Chris, you wanna be pissed at me go ahead, but don't take it out on yerself." Vin stalked to his saddlebag and pulled out a bandanna. "Sit down."

Chris sat, slowly, his back straight as a board. Vin thrust the bandanna on the wound, and Chris winced, which Vin took a small amount of satisfaction in. "Sorry," he said, suppressing a grin.

"I'll bet you are," Chris said. "Bastard," he said under his breath.

"What was that?" Vin asked.

"I said bastard," Chris said, wincing again as Vin pressed harder.

"That's what I thought you said," Vin replied. It was going to be a long night.

They settled into silence, watching the rainfall outside the cave, occasional thunder rumbling far off. Chris tried to relax, to not think about Vin so close, and he gritted his teeth in frustration. What was that saying? Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. That saying was bullshit. If they hadn't loved, then he wouldn't be sitting here thinking how easy it would be to turn around and love again. Vin wanted just the act, not the emotion; surely Chris could hide his feelings from him. Then he realized he was wrong; he couldn't hide anything from Vin, and if he could, then the sacrifice of their friendship would be too much. Better to stay apart, physically and emotionally.

Vin noticed the sudden slump of Chris's shoulders. He was so close, relaxing his defenses, and Vin wanted him more than ever. At first, he'd wanted whatever Chris would give him, and now, he wanted everything the man was. Vin pulled the bandanna away; the wound had stopped bleeding, and he wiped away the blood that had run down Chris's back. He felt Chris shiver at the motion. He tossed the bandanna, and reached out to lightly touch the knobs of Chris's spine, tracing them with his callused fingertips, eliciting another shiver from the proud man in front of him. He moved one hand higher, to his neck, running his fingers along just under his hairline, in a place he knew Chris liked, and as expected, Chris's head bowed. Vin moved closer, replacing his hand with his lips, running his tongue where his fingers had been. For a second, Chris didn't move, expelling a long breath at the sensation, but then he remembered himself and stood quickly, knocking Vin backward as he backed to the side of the cave. He didn't say a word, but Vin knew a fighting stance when he saw it, and if he got near, he'd end up with a fist in his jaw, so he shrugged and looked back out at the rain. It had slowed a bit, so he could see some trees and the hills beyond. The drops hit the ground in shallow puddles, doing a dance to their own music as they splashed and splashed again. He grinned as he remembered his earlier run in the rain, in the freedom and strength he had felt and how it had eased away the last of his doubts. What the hell, he thought. I'm already soaking wet. He stood and began removing his clothes and boots.

Chris looked at him warily. "What are you doing?" he asked.

Vin just smiled at him and took off out of the cave, untying the horses and running out into the puddles. He had a vague memory of doing this as child; he didn't remember when, but the memory was tinged with bittersweet happiness and pure laughter that was his memory of his mother. He stood with his head back, letting the water hit his face, until his horse knocked into him from behind, and he pet its wet nose before faking left and then darting right, running around the trees, the horse in pursuit.

Chris watched incredulously from inside the cave. "You've lost your mind!" he yelled at the naked figure sprinting in the rain.

"Hell, yer just figurin' that out now," Vin yelled back. He stopped running and stood again proud, his arms spread high to the sky, welcoming the rain as it ran down his body and cleansed him. Eyes closed, he felt again the strength of himself, his own blood and the rain, his own breath and the wind, his own skin and the mud and grass beneath his feet, and he smiled at the feeling of being alive.

Chris was in awe as he watched from the cave. He'd never seen anything so beautiful, and it didn't shame him that he was thinking of scruffy Vin Tanner as being beautiful. The man's soul was the purest and most courageous and generous of any he'd ever known, and he was witnessing that freedom of spirit that made Vin who he was. He knew he was being given a gift, not only of being allowed to watch, but also an invitation to participate. He envied Vin in that moment, wondering what it was like to be so free. As he wondered, the darkness of his reality came crashing back, the bleakness he suffered as punishment for failing his family rooted him to his place inside the cave, dry, desolate, and alone.

He wanted to turn away, but he couldn't, so he continued to watch, leaning against the wall of the cave to take in the image of the man before him; even if he couldn't touch, he'd have this memory forever.

Vin lowered his head, and wiped the water from his eyes. He looked at Chris watching him. "Come on, chicken," he called to him. "You could use a bath."

Chris hesitated, looking out at the rain. The image of Vin had been so perfect, and he didn't know if he could let go enough to be that free. But he also wanted it, not just to understand Vin but to achieve some of that peace that Vin wore like that old hide coat. He pulled off his boots and stepped tentatively out into the rain. "Damn, it's cold," he said. "Thought you hated cold."

"Quit yer bitchin' and get out of them pants," Vin replied. "Unless an old guy like you needs some help."

Chris thought about wiping that grin off his face, but instead slowly stepped out of his pants. "This old guy can still teach you a lesson," he said as he tossed his pants back into the cave, and turned back around to find Vin's eyes on him, the blue orbs looking at him like nothing else existed in the world. Vin's gaze strengthened him, gave him the confidence to walk out further into the rain.

"Close yer eyes," Vin said. "Listen to the music."

"What music?" Chris asked, closing his eyes.

"Just listen."

Chris did listen, trying to hear if there was some far off musician playing that Vin had heard; what would he think if he stumbled on two naked guys not smart enough come out of the rain. But he didn't hear any music.

"I don't hear anything," he said. Vin didn't answer, and Chris listened for him instead. He heard the horses, one pawing the ground. He heard a splash as the other stepped through puddles. He heard a whoosh as the wind rustled the nearby trees, and the crinkle as the wind loosened a cascade of raindrops from the leaves. He was about to tell Vin he was hearing things, when he heard it, an erratic pattering as the rain alighted on the earth, splashing into puddles or soaking into mud, or nearly silent as the water hit his skin, the feeling of the drops on him registering as sound, as musical notes that he heard like a song. He didn't even notice as his head leaned back to feel the drops on his eyes and lips, or when his arms raised to feel the drops on his palms. He wasn't thinking of anything, except being right where he was, and with the music came the first happy memory he'd ever had, of his son asleep in his arms, on a rainy evening like this one. That was the last time he'd truly felt alive, until now.

He was about to thank Vin for allowing him this experience, when he felt something wet and cold plop against his chest. He lowered his head slowly. Vin stood across from him, grinning and holding a handful of mud just like the mud running down his chest. "You're a dead man, Tanner," he said, grabbing a hand full of mud of his own. He stood back up and patted the mud into a ball.

"Them's fighting words," Vin responded, mirroring his actions. "Word is, old Chris Larabee's lost his edge."

"A lot of young punks thought the same are now wearing a coffin." He adopted his fighting stance, legs slightly bent and spread, hand held at his hip, eyes narrowed to only his target.

Vin followed suit. "On the count of three?" he said. Chris nodded.

"One." Chris's wrist flexed, and Vin raised his elbow.

"Two," Vin said. He took a deep breath. "Thr..." Before he could finish the word mud hit him square in the forehead. He wiped it from his eyes. "You cheat!"

Chris's grin was unremorseful. "I won," he replied.

"Not fer long," Vin said, and ran at him, thinking to tackle him into the mud.

Chris backed away quickly. Vin stalked him, his hands packing the mud. "Now Vin, remember, I'm wounded," Chris said, still backing away.

"Shoulda thought of that before ya cheated."

Chris kept backing up until he felt a tree behind him. "I wouldn't be hurt at all, except I was protecting you. And then when you shoved me into the rocks..."

"Shoved you?" Vin stopped walking.

"Yes, and my stitches came undone."

"Larabee, yer not only a cheater, yer a whiner too. But because I'm generous, I won't toss this at ya."


"Hell, no," Vin replied, and aimed the mud at Chris's head. Chris ducked, but it still covered his hair and ran down his back. He looked up at Vin, covered in mud and rain, and knew he must look just as silly, and laughed. He had mud in his mouth, and he could feel it sliding down his back, and that made him laugh more.

Vin walked closer. "Ain't exactly the reaction I was expectin'." Then he started to laugh too. "Do I look as silly as you?" he asked.

Chris nodded, reaching up to pick a leaf out of the tangle of curls above Vin's ear. At the touch, his breath stopped, and he let his hand run through the wet stands and around the pointed shell of his ear. It was right, what was between them. His eyes dropped to Vin's mouth, lips slightly parted, and all he wanted at that instant was to taste those lips again. He started to move his hand to trace those lips, but then a crash of thunder brought him back to reality and he pulled his hand back quickly. "We should get back inside," he muttered, not able to meet Vin's eyes.

Vin grabbed his arm as he started to turn away. "Chris," he said quietly, waiting until Chris looked at him. "Kiss me," he said.

Chris only hesitated for a second, and then pulled Vin towards him. The kiss, at first tender and tentative, quickly deepened, as they both tasted what they thought had been lost forever. They pressed together, Chris's back against the tree, tongues intertwined and rapidly swelling cocks brushing against each other.

Vin gasped as Chris's lips moved to his neck, his teeth nipping at the skin. "Think we better take this inside," he panted.

"Why?" Chris asked, nibbling along his collarbone.

"Because I'm about to fuck ya up against this tree."

Chris smiled. "Sounds like fun," he said. Their lips met again, and Vin wrapped his hand behind Chris's neck, moving the other down to his ass, kneading the taut flesh before teasing the puckered hole with his fingers. Chris's hands were moving too, one sliding between their bodies to cup Vin's balls and squeeze the full sacs. Vin groaned, and slowly slid one wet finger inside Chris, trying to concentrate as Chris gently sucked on his tongue and fondled his balls. Before he completely lost all his senses, he pulled his head away, panting.

"I don't want to be with nobody else but you," he said, staring into Chris's smoky green eyes, mesmerized by the tiny crystals of water caught in his dark lashes. "But I don't like being told I can't."

"Fair enough," Chris replied, leaning in for another kiss, and spreading his legs so Vin could enter another finger. Then he pulled away. "I don't share," he said.

Vin grinned. "Fair enough," he said, and with one last kiss, turned the gunslinger around, pulling his hips out and lining up his cock. He slid in slowly, holding his breath as the tightness enveloped him. He'd forgotten how good it was. He wasn't going to call it love, not yet, but it was right.

When his cock was all the way in, he waited for Chris to adjust, beads of sweat mingling with the raindrops that had slowed to a light mist. "Ya got a nice ass, Chris," he said.

Chris smiled. "I know."

"Cocky, ain't ya," Vin said.

"I think that more describes you," Chris said, squeezing his cheeks together. Vin groaned again.

"Reckon that means yer ready," he said.

"Reckon it does."

Vin started moving, slowly at first, sliding his full length in and out, the exquisite heat consuming him as he thrust faster, reaching around to stroke Chris in the same rhythm, thrusting faster and harder until he felt the explosion as he came, crying out as kept pumping until he was empty.

Chris was still hard in his hand, so he leaned against Chris's back and stroked him, Chris's hips moving his shaft into the hot friction of Vin's hand.

Chris let himself give in to the sensations, the strength of Vin's body pressed against his, the warmth of his cum and soft cock still inside him, the friction of his hand, all under the music of the soft raindrops he felt on his skin, the cool drops running down his heated skin made him amazed there wasn't steam rising from him. He leaned his head back, again catching the rain on eyes and lips, and let go, his orgasm washing over him like a tidal wave and he cried out, unable to contain himself as the intensity charged through him. Then he leaned against the tree, spent, his breath slowing. The rain caressing his skin, Vin's arms wrapped tightly around his waist; if this wasn't perfection, it was as close as he was likely to get.

Vin was dreaming of the ocean, although he'd never seen it, waves curling and rolling over white sand and a full moon painting it all with yellow light. From that deep sleep he was instantly awake and reaching for his gun before he realized what it was that had woken him up. Then the gun slipped out of his hand as his cock was engulfed again in a warm pliant mouth. "Jesus, Chris," he said, looking down at the tousled blonde head bobbing up and down.

"Morning," Chris said around his shaft, then resumed his actions, teasing his balls with his fingers. Vin could feel the slight scratch of Chris's morning beard along the sensitive skin of his shaft, and he stiffened, exploding into Chris's mouth with a hoarse cry. Chris swallowed and raised his head, a glint in his eye.

"My turn," he said, straddling Vin's legs with his own, then moving slowly up his body until his knees rested on either side of the tracker's head. He leaned forward, resting one hand on the ground before him, while Vin raised his head to take his hard cock into his mouth, relaxing his throat as it slid in. Chris held himself back from thrusting, instead closing his eyes and letting Vin set the pace, his tongue swirling around the swollen head as he sucked. Finally Vin laid his head back on the ground. Chris looked down at him questioningly, and Vin wrapped his hands around Chris's thighs and guided his cock back to his mouth, angling his head back so the long shaft slid in smoothly. Chris smiled at the trust Vin was showing in him, allowing him to thrust into his willing mouth as he wanted. He moved his hips, easing his cock in and out, tentatively at first, then as he judged how much the man beneath him could take, faster, bucking as Vin's lips closed around him tighter and he slid into his mouth to the hilt, Vin's lips buried in his pubic hair. He heard himself moan as he repeated the action several times, finally coming straight down Vin's throat, gasping as his cum was swallowed. He rolled away slowly, lying next to Vin on the blanket. "Holy shit," he said. Vin laughed beside him. They both lay panting for a while, until Chris felt a light touch along his arm.

"I could get used to waking up like that," Vin said. Chris looked over at him and smiled, and a sense of calm flowed through him. He never thought he'd find it again, and still didn't think he deserved it, but no way in hell was he letting it go, and anyone who tried to take it from him would regret it. He sat up and moved closer to Vin, whose eyes were closed. He reached out and gently touched the relaxed mouth, which smiled at the touch, tracing the lips, then moved down to the chin and shoulders. He moved his hand down Vin's chest, tickling the small thatch of hair before moving to one small brown nipple, tracing it slightly, then rubbing as it puckered at his touch. He moved his hand across Vin's chest to the other nipple, leaning down to take the first between his teeth and tugging gently. Vin responded with a soft grunt, and Chris smiled, growing bolder in his exploration of this beautiful body beneath him. He moved to the other nipple, teasing it with his tongue and teeth, his hand tracing the line of hair from Vin's bellybutton to his cock and back up again. He could hear Vin's breath quicken and his heartbeat start to pound in his chest as Chris traced the outlines of his chest muscles with his tongue, tasting the salt of sweat and the clean mist of rainwater and the taste that was just Vin. He moved on, higher, to his shoulder and neck, then his ear, swirling his tongue around the delicate shell and then flicking it along the slightly pointed tip. Moving back down, he kissed and licked along Vin's neck to the other side, to the juncture where his neck met his shoulder, and placing a kiss there, heard Vin whimper at the contact. He kissed the place again, and smiled as Vin raised his shoulder, silently pleading for more.

"You like that?" Chris asked, and Vin nodded so Chris leaned back into him, sucking hard and then nibbling at the tender spot, Vin's hand coming up to the back of his head to hold him in place as his teeth sank in deeper. Vin's other hand reached down to his own cock, stroking himself as Chris marked him, his knees bent and his hips raised off the ground as he pumped himself, a second away from coming. Then Chris let go, and cold air hit him where Chris's warm mouth had been, and Chris knocked his hand away from his cock, holding it down as he moved over him, covering Vin's mouth with his own. Vin had to cum so bad it was nearly painful; he would have begged but he didn't want to end the kiss. His hips were thrusting into the air, desperate for any contact, and then he felt Chris lower his full weight onto him, felt Chris's hard cock rub against his own, and he began rubbing against him wantonly, wildly, groaning as his breath was sucked out of him by Chris's kiss, his lips and teeth and tongue all tasted and explored by this man above him. His hips moved frantically against Chris's and when he thought he would die, he came, warm seed shooting on to his stomach. The kiss continued as Chris came right after him, his cum mingling with Vin's in between their sweaty bodies. When they were empty, Chris reluctantly pulled his head away, leaning his forehead against Vin's as each tried to catch their breaths.

"I ain't ever been kissed like that before," Vin said.

"Me neither," Chris said, kissing him one more time, almost chastely, then placed another quick kiss on the reddening welt on Vin's neck. His hand traced Vin's nipple then moved down his stomach, through the still warm seed coating Vin's stomach. He looked down, then moved his head down, looking to Vin like a cat with a bowl of milk as he lapped up the cum. Vin smiled; Chris obviously wasn't done yet, as he moved lower to lick more cum off Vin's cock, then lower still, to his inner thigh.

Chris licked and nipped all along his right thigh, leaving tiny red marks on the pale tender skin, moving down to his knee and flicking his tongue along the ticklish inside crease, using long licks on his calves, until he reached Vin's feet, massaging the instep so that Vin groaned; no one had ever touched his feet before, and Chris's strong fingers eased out tension he didn't even know he had. When Chris started sucking on his toes, he nearly bucked off the ground, but then he relaxed to the gentle motion. Chris was determined to taste every inch of him, and repeated his ministrations on the left leg, toes, heel, knee, and thigh, until he stopped, hovering over Vin's hard again cock, gently blowing and smiling self-satisfactorily as the weeping organ twitched.

"Please," Vin whispered, straining his cock towards that beautiful mouth. Instead, Chris lowered his head to once again lick along the inside thigh, so close yet so far, then moved to his heavy swollen balls, drawing in one at a time and tugging gently before letting them fall out of his mouth. He pushed Vin's legs up and laid between his knees, wrapping his arms through them and slightly lifting so he had access to the tight pale ass, and he ran his tongue, first over the curve of his cheeks and then along the sensitive spot between his balls and hole. But when his tongue touched his hole, tentatively at first, then swirling around, Vin knew he had lost any semblance of control. Chris tongue grew more insistent, probing inside him, and he writhed in the pleasure and intimacy of it, grabbing frantically at the blankets, repeatedly moaning and pleading as he was tongue fucked. He tried to wrap his mind around the fact that Chris Larabee, the man he had wanted for so long, the man he would admit he loved if he was ever able to speak again, was kissing him inside and out. When Chris's hands started roaming over him again, Vin was on sensory overload. Chris Larabee didn't do anything halfway and right now all that intensity and passion was focused completely on Vin Tanner.

Before Vin could cum again, Chris pulled away, resting his head on Vin's thigh as he tried to catch his breath. He couldn't believe what he'd just done; he hadn't intended to, but it just seemed like the next step. He also couldn't believe how much he'd enjoyed it, not just making Vin writhe and beg, but also making him his, possessing him as no one had and no one would. That possession didn't mean ownership. Instead, it made his heart swell that this free creature was coming to land long enough to let Chris possess him, and Chris was sure as hell going to make it worth it for him.

He moved back up to Vin's mouth, kissing him, letting Vin taste the wonder of himself that Chris had tasted, then whispered in his ear, "God, I want to fuck you." Vin could only nod. Chris kissed him again, then sat back between Vin's raised legs. When Vin started to turn over, Chris stopped him, spreading his knees and coating his own fingers and cock with the commingled cum coating Vin's belly. He moved his fingers to Vin's hole, but he was already relaxed, pulsing and ready, so Chris lifted his ass and slid his knees under, entering Vin slowly, leaning forward as he did, so he could kiss him, wrapping his hand around Vin's cock as he started thrusting, the tightness, warmth and friction making them groan in unison. Chris thrust faster and harder, rocking Vin's ass up and down and Vin pumping his hips hard on Chris's cock. Vin couldn't remember the time when he wasn't with this man, when he had doubted what he felt for him, when he didn't have Chris's mouth on him, didn't have his cock in him, didn't know what he looked like sweating and thrusting and groaning in ecstasy as he fucked him. Vin realized he'd never had an orgasm before compared to the one he had as Chris's cum filled him and he shot his load, their tongues still swirling as their hips still moved uncontrollably, wanting the rapture to continue.

Chris laid his head on Vin's chest, their hands clutched together. This is what it meant to belong to Chris Larabee, Vin realized, body and soul, and Chris would never let him go. And that didn't bother him at all.

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