Disclaimer: The boys don't belong to me. And I bet they're real happy about that little fact. This story is for entertainment purposes only. No money involved.

Comments: I always seem to have a comment or two, or three, don't I? Anyway, this story was originally supposed to be the prologue to a longer story that I'm thinking about writing, but I wasn't too happy with the way it was playing out, so I decided to post it as a short story, by itself. I hope you all enjoy it. My daughter got a cactus needle stuck in her finger the other day, which is what gave me the idea in the first place. Mean Mommy, getting a story idea out of my daughter's booboo. <g> And BTW, those suckers are hard to get out! Anyway, feedback is always greatly appreciated. Now, on with the show...

by Tiffiny

Vin Tanner sighed and shifted restlessly in his saddle, trying to ease the ache of overworked muscles. Heíd been out to Miss Nettieís place every day for the past week, fixing fences and making repairs to the ramshackle old barn. The old lady scolded him for working too hard, but Vin knew how desperately she needed the help. Casey tried, but there was only so much a sixteen year old girl could do. Besides, Nettie held a special place in the trackerís heart. And the hours of physical labor left him too tired for thought. A few aches and pains were a small price to pay for that. Heíd been thinking too damn much lately.

The object of Vinís thoughts rode silently,just a few paces behind him. Chris Larabee had offered to come out to Nettieís place with him today and the young tracker had found himself unable to refuse. He didnít recall *ever* refusing the other man anything. Wasnít even sure he *could*, truth be told.

Theyíd spent the better part of the day putting up a new section of fence. Hard, hot work. Chris had removed his shirt in an effort to cool down while they were working and the memory of that sight made Vin swallow hard. Smooth, pale skin, gleaming wetly. The rivulets of sweat trickling down firm contours of chest and back, seeming to linger caressingly before completing their downward journey.

God, heíd wanted to lick the drops of sweat off the gunslingerís skin, tasting him. Wanted to tease the flat nipples on that muscled chest til they rose up in sharp, aching points. Wanted to explore the curve of spine and neck with lips and tongue.

/Yeah. Right, Tanner. Might as well wish for the moon while youíre at it. Or for the bounty on your worthless hide to up and disappear./

Looping the reins around his saddlehorn, he reached up and removed the kerchief from around his neck. Using water from his canteen, he wet the material and began wiping at his flushed face with it. The rangy young man wished there was some way he could cool down his thoughts as well. His brain, not to mention certain other portions of his anatomy, felt like they were on fire.

An ominous rattling sound jerked the tracker back to awareness. Too late. Vin found himself flying head over heels through the air as his horse reared and bucked wildly in reaction to the snake in its path.

He fell hard, right smack into the middle of a nice lowlying growth of cactus. He groaned as his hip and lower back began throbbing in response to the large rock heíd encountered upon landing. He could feel the sharp sting of the cactus needles as they embedded themselves in his flesh. He lay still for a moment, debating whether it would hurt worse to try and ease his way up slowly or just get it over with all at once.

"Vin? You ok?" Chris Larabee had dismounted and was now standing over the tracker, peering down at him with a frown.

"Well, I reckon Iím still in one piece." Vin replied ruefully. This is what he got for not payiní attention to things. Or rather, for payiní *too* much attention to certain things. Like the gunslinger loominí over him with his hand extended for Vin to grab.

Damn, but this was embarassiní. Falliní off his horse like some greenhorn. Lettiní his horse get spooked. Well, at least the older man didnít know the *reason* behind his inattention.

Pulling Vin carefully to his feet, Chris shook his head as he saw the tracker wince at the many cactus needles which decided to accompany him.

"Better let me help, Vin."

"I can do it. It aint as bad as it looks."

Chris snorted at the blatant lie and moved slightly so that he was facing Vinís back.

"Iíll do this side. You take care of the front." Chris wasted no time in taking charge of the situation.

"I can do it, myself. Donít need no help." Vin muttered, twisting away from the other manís hands. The gunslinger just shrugged his shoulders and looped the reins of both horses over a bush near the trail. Then he stood there, with arms folded and proceeded to watch Vin make a fool outta himself.

Vin could feel the weight of the gunslingerís eyes on him as he twisted and turned in a frantic effort to reach his backside, where most of the needles were located. The damn things were difficult to remove without being able to see. Especially through his clothes. He pulled off his shirt, hoping it would be a bit easier that way. He knew he should have worn his jacket. But Buck and JD had been teasiní him for the better part of a week about how he never took the damned thing off, so heíd finally left it in the wagon, just to get a little peace and quiet. He had a few things he wanted to say to those two, right about now!

A short while later, he was ready to howl with frustration, when he felt a pair of hands on his shoulders.

"Hold still. Iíll get the rest." Chrisí voice was soft and came from very near Vinís ear. He could feel the whispery rush of breath and the soft warmth of lips.

Vin made an attempt to free himself from the gunslingerís grasp, but the hands merely tightened on his shoulders in response.

"I said, hold still." The gunslinger snapped in annoyance.

"Nathan can look at it when we get back to town." Vin made one last effort to avoid the upcoming assault on his senses. His body was already starting to respond to the gunslingerís nearness.

Chris heaved an impatient sigh. "First of all, you canít ride like this. Second of all, Nathan is at the Indian village today. Heís not due back until tomorrow. Now do you want me to help you or not?" The voice spoke with exaggerated patience, but the underlying threat was clear.

Vin Tanner did the only thing possible under the circumstances. He gritted his teeth, clenched his fists, and held still.

The older manís hands were surprisingly gentle as they moved across his body. The touch of those fingers on his bare back sent shivers up his spine. This was what heíd been afraid of. Why heíd spurned Chrisí offer to help. The burgeoning erection that was now straining at the buttons on his pants didnít care about Vinís need for secrecy. It demanded to be released. The tracker thanked every god known to mankind that his friend was facing his back and therefore couldnít see the damning evidence of Vinís arousal.

When Chris had finished removing the thorns from Vinís back, heíd crouched down so that his face was on a level with the trackerís backside and began the process of removing the thorns embedded in that area. Vin thought heíd bust if the other man touched him one more time down there. It was making him crazy. He bit his lip hard enough to draw blood, hoping that the pain would distract him from the sweet agony of that touch. But Vin didnít think even a full grown grizzly would be enough to distract him right now. A groan escaped, despite his best efforts.

"Am I hurting you, Vin?" Chris questioned softly, his hands hovering over Vinís flesh.

The tracker just shook his head in response. He didnít trust his voice right now. The other man *was* hurtiní him. Killiní him slowly. But not in the way heíd meant. Not in any way that Vin could tell him.

"Letís move over to those trees, then. Thereís a few more thorns, but I canít get them out through your pants. I need you to take them off for me. I can check for other injuries while Iím at it. You fell pretty hard there, pard." The gunslinger got to his feet and waited expectantly for Vin to start walking. Only, Vin couldnít move.

/Need you. Clothes off./ The words echoed in Vinís ears. Mocking him. Heíd dreamed of Chris sayiní those very words to him. But not like this. Nothiní like this. He couldnít do it. Chris would see and know how Vin felt and nothiní would ever be the same again. Heíd lose the only thing he had of value. The friendship of Chris and the others.

"No need. Iím fine now." Vin reached down to grab his shirt and let out an involuntary hiss of pain as his side and back protested the sudden movement.

"Dammit, Vin. You got a bruise the size of Texas on your back. I need to take a look. Donít make me do something weíll both regret." Chris Larabee was like a force of nature. And just about as unstoppable.

"Letís get it over with, then." Vin sighed and moved slowly towards the scraggly stand of trees a few feet off the far side the trail. He knew when he was beat. But if he could just keep his back to Chris, everything would be okay. There was no reason for that sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

Vin watched as Chris grabbed his poncho off the saddle across which it was draped and spread it out on the ground.

"You can use this to lay on." He informed the tracker and then busied himself with looking in his saddlebags for the few supplies he deemed necessary. Vin sidled past the gunslinger, making sure he kept the shirt in his hands in front of his body at all times.

Vin sat down on the poncho and began removing his boots. It hurt to move. But Vin was gettiní used to beiní in pain. Nothiní hurt worse than the pain of wantiní somethiní, wantiní *someone* you could never have. Heíd been shot, stabbed , beat on more times than he could shake a stick at, and even snakebit once. None of it so far had hurt as bad as haviní Chris touch him just now. But then, none of it had felt so damn good at the same time, either.

Vin lay down on his stomach and pillowed his head on his arms. He could hear the crunch of Chrisí boots on the ground as the older man approached and knelt down at the edge of the poncho. He could feel the sharp sting of each individual cactus needle as his friend finished removing the remaining ones. He could smell the sharp sweet scent of Nathanís ointment as Chris carefully began dabbing it on the tiny, burning spots left by the needles.

Vin tried to focus on the pain, for all the good it did him. He was mortally afraid that he was going to come right here and now and embarrass them both beyond all redemption. The ex bounty hunter could feel beads of sweat pop out on his forehead as Chris turned his attention to the large bruise covering half his left side. Oh god. It hurt so good. Soothing coolness and the light touch of those slender fingers was gonna send him right over the edge. Please God, no. Think of something else, Tanner. Think of the look on Chrisí face if he knew. There. That helped a little. But not enough. Nothiní could ever be enough as long as those hands were touchiní him.

Then suddenly, the hands were gone, and before Vin could react to that, he was briskly and efficiently rolled over. "I want to see that bruise, Vin. It looks like it goes clear around to your ..front." There was a barely perceptible pause as Chris caught sight of the evidence of Vinís arousal.

Vin closed his eyes, mortified to his very soul. Maybe Eli Joe would come back from the dead and take Vin to Hell with him. No. Wait. He already *was* in Hell. Oh God. Surely no one could feel this much pain and humiliation and live to tell about it. He could feel the heat in his face and knew it must be burniní redder than a bonfire.

Since he seemed doomed to cling stubbornly to life, Vin figured he oughtta say somethiní. He opened his mouth, but kept his eyes tightly shut. "Iím sorry, Chris. I didnít mean...I tried not to..." The words tumbled out in an incoherent mass.

"Itís alright, Vin. A natural reaction to have when youíve been without a woman for a while." Chrisí voice was calm and matter of fact as he continued gently rubbing the ointment into the trackerís skin.

Vin cracked open one eye. The gunslingerís face was as calm and inscrutable as ever. No wayward emotions there. No siree. The bitterness of his thoughts surprised Vin. He should have been relieved by Chrisí nonchalant reaction. Instead, he found himself unaccountably angry.

Damn Chris Larabee for an unfeeliní bastard. If all Vin had wanted was a warm body, male or female, then there were plenty to be had around town. Did Chris really think he had no more control than a boy of JDís age? That he wouldíve had this same reaction to any pair of hands? Suddenly, Vin wanted desperately to escape the touch of these particular hands. To escape the unwanted, and obviously unreturned, feelings that plagued him night and day. He sat up abruptly and slipped on his pants, gritting his teeth against the pain as his body protested the sudden movement.

Chris leaned back on his heels and regarded the other man thoughtfully. Then he stretched out a hand. "Vin..." He began, but the tracker skilfully evaded both the touch and the words.

"Aint nothiní more to say, Chris. Like you said, itís been a while." The finality in his tone caused the older man to fall silent and slowly lower his hand to his side.

Chris got to his feet and gathered the horses and the rest of their belongings while Vin finished getting dressed. Then they mounted up and began riding back in the direction of town. Neither man said a word for the duration of the journey, but if Vin Tanner thought that was the end of it, and there was nothing more to say, he was in for a big surprise.

The End

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