DISCLAIMER: The usual statement. I do not own these characters. I made no money from the writing of this story. I barely make any money working at my "real job."

RATING: NC-17 for mild violence, some language and a m/m relationship.


NOTES: Spoilers for "The Trial". This is more h/c than slash, although an established relationship is implied. If you are seeking cute and cuddly, this ain't it. Comments are greatly appreciated.

The Trial - Epilogue
by Rita Clark

The knock on the door was so soft and hesitant that Chris Larabee almost didn't hear it at all. He had decided that he wasn't going to answer the door tonight, anyway, so he lay as still as he could on the bed in his rented room.

Tap. Tap. Tap. The knuckles rapping the door were more sure of themselves now. Chris waited; hoping that whoever it was would just go away. Maybe figure that he was asleep.

"I'm kidding myself. It's Vin. And he ain't going away." As if in answer to his thoughts, the knock sounded once more with the addition of the tracker's soft drawl.

"Chris, it's me. Brought you somethin'."

"Aw, hell!" Knowing that it was going to hurt when he moved, Chris wrapped one arm around his aching side and gently pushed himself up to a sitting position. Cursing under his breath, he swung his legs to the floor and rose unsteadily upright. He scanned the sparsely furnished room quickly for anything that would make Vin aware of how badly he was hurting.

The dim light from the single oil lamp wouldn't reveal much. A bloodied towel and washcloth lay across the washstand and the liquid in the bowl was stained red. He had used almost all the water in the pitcher to clean his face before he had collapsed on the bed without even removing his boots. Other than getting rid of his hat, coat and vest and hanging his rig on the headboard of the bed within easy reach he just hadn't bothered with anything else. He knew he should have at least emptied the dirty water and refilled the pitcher but he was just too tired to care.

Vin had already seen that his nose was bleeding. After the fistfight that had erupted when Judge Travis pronounced his unexpected verdict and unorthodox sentence, the men in the crowded makeshift courtroom had poured into the street from the Grain Exchange. All Chris could hope for was that Vin had been too busy with the enraged townsmen from Eagle Bend who had attacked him to notice the Sheriff's brutal kick to his ribs. Sheriff Stanes had gotten in the first punch to Chris's jaw and he had gone face down in the dusty street in surprise; too surprised to defend himself from the heavy boot to his side that immediately followed.

"The good men of Eagle Bend musta not kept him too busy."

Chris recalled, almost with anger, Vin's yell of pure joy after Obediah Jackson used his son's rifle and his own impassioned speech to effectively end the free for all. It was in this frame of mind that he reached the door and abruptly jerked it open.

Vin Tanner was standing in the hallway with one hand raised to knock again and a brown paper package wrapped with twine in the other. The relieved grin that had begun to form on his face when the door finally opened faded as he saw Chris's expression. It was that unmistakable "Go to Hell and don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out." look. Most men would have turned on their heel and left without even attempting to speak. But when it came to standing up to the deadly gunfighter, Vin Tanner was the only one who could get away with it unscathed. The impasse didn't last long. Surprisingly, it was Chris who gave in and stepped aside to allow Vin to enter.

"Maybe if I let him in he'll only stay a few minutes. I can pretend I'm ok that long."

Vin Tanner obviously had other ideas. He carefully placed the neatly wrapped package on the top of the dresser. Then he took off his beat-up excuse for a hat and tossed it on the room's single chair where Chris's own hat and coat already hung. His fringed leather jacket followed. Chris knew that the tracker missed nothing and had seen the mess on the washstand. He motioned Chris to open the package as he settled in the chair. Chris snapped the twine and was a little surprised to find a fairly decent bottle of whiskey and two glasses on the top of another, smaller parcel. When he turned to tell Vin that he just wasn't in the mood for company Vin had already pulled off his boots and set them beside the chair. He stood slowly, gracefully stretched like a cat and gave Chris an expectant grin.

"Pour us a shot. I think we oughta celebrate."

"Vin, I just ain't . . . "

Vin stepped forward to stand directly in front of Chris. Without the added height from his boots, he was a bit shorter and he had to look up to study Chris's face for a moment. He stopped Chris's feeble protests with a kiss, pulling Chris's head down with a hand behind his neck to meet his demanding lips. Chris responded immediately in spite of his intentions to get rid of his lover before the extent of his injuries became apparent. He knew he was in no condition to start anything but he couldn't resist slipping his hands through Vin's hair, twining his fingers into the soft curls and stepping into the embrace. After teasing the older man just a bit, Vin opened his mouth and allowed Chris's tongue to meet his own in a familiar dance.

Vin dropped his hands to Chris's shoulders, gently massaged the tense muscles he found there, then moved further down to wrap his arms around the other man's waist, caressing his back and pressing against him. Almost instantly, Chris hissed in pain and broke free. He stepped back, clutching his side. Instead of looking hurt, surprised or even apologetic Vin gave Chris a brief look of something suspiciously akin to triumph.

"I was right. You're hurtin'." It was a statement, not a question.

"It ain't that bad." The attempt at reassurance would have been more believable if it had not been delivered as a gasp of pain.

"Nathan check you?"

"Nope. And he ain't gonna. He's with his father right now. I ain't bothering him and you ain't neither."

"That's exactly what I thought. You disappeared mighty quick after the dust settled from that ‘fair fight'. Figgered I'd find you holed up here, too stubborn to ask for help."

"I'm fine."

"Don't give me any trouble, Larabee. I come over here to take care of you. You got nailed damm hard by that half-assed lawman. I seen your nose bleedin' and now you got that purdy bruise on your jaw. Besides that, you've probably got a couple of cracked ribs. We can do this the easy way or the hard way—it's your call."

Chris briefly considered putting up a fight. But he was exhausted, emotionally and physically. The trial of Obediah Jackson had taken its toll on all of the seven. Nathan had literally relived the hell that had been his early life. Then he had been forced to listen to his father reveal the reality of his mother's suffering and death. The other men had endured Nathan's ordeal with him through their own memories. Memories not just of the war but of other times, other places, other injustices suffered by other good men. Chris had, as always, attempted to take his responsibilities of leadership and guide his men through this with his own strength. The final physical conflict after all the emotional ones had been the last straw for him.

Chris held Vin's determined look with a defiant glare for a few more minutes. Then, with a sigh of resignation, he began to undo his shirt buttons and sat on the edge of the bed. Vin knelt and helped him remove his dusty boots. Then he gently slipped Chris's shirt off and finally saw the damage from the vicious kick to his side. Stanes's heavy boot had not only left a large bruise, but the taut skin along Chris's ribs had been scraped raw as well.

"Damm, cowboy! That's going to leave quite a mark for a while."

"Hell, Vin. It ain't nothin'. I've been kicked a lot worse by a green broke horse."

"Did the horse get your gun away from you too?"

Chris reacted to Vin's remark without thinking. He surged up from the bed and threw a punch that connected with Vin's jaw, staggering the younger man back across the floor and against the front of the dresser.

"Get outta here! Get outta here right now!"

Larabee's temper had kicked in and his injuries were momentarily forgotten. As was his close friendship with the man who he had just knocked to the floor.

Vin looked up at Chris standing above him still clenching his fists. Every muscle on his lean torso was rigid in preparation for retaliation. But all the tracker did was smile ruefully, give his jaw a quick rub and gracefully lever himself up to a standing position, hands down in a non-threatening stance.

"Chris, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. But I was so damm scared when I saw that Stanes had your gun. There were three men holdin' me. And I couldn't get to you. I thought . . . "

Chris relaxed from his fighting stance; the rage gone as quickly as it had come. He rubbed the rapidly darkening bruise on his left jaw and wiped away the trickle of blood that had seeped from his nose again.

"Yeah, I know. If it hadn't been for Nathan and his father, this whole thing coulda turned out a lot different."

"I still shouldn't have said that."

"I shouldn't have hit you. I'm sorry. You hurt?"

"Nope. Forget about it. Let's try this again."

Chris obediently returned to the bed and sat down gingerly. Vin went back to the dresser where Chris had left the bottle, shot glasses and the other parcel. Vin brought the smaller brown paper package back to the bed and opened it. It contained two small glass bottles and what appeared to be strips torn from sheets and neatly folded.

"You brought bandages?"

"Yep. I knew you'd need your ribs wrapped and there weren't no way you'd go to Nathan's."

"What's in the bottles?"

"One's got some liniment in it for your bruises and the other one's laudanum. So, just relax a minute and I'll get you taken care of."

Vin knew what he had to do and he did it efficiently and as gently as he could. First he cleaned Chris's bruised and scraped side with some of the remaining water from the pitcher. Then he applied the liniment, which stung like hell but would help disinfect and heal. Finally Vin knelt in front of Chris and had him place his hands on his shoulders to brace himself and draw in his breath while Vin wrapped the clean bandages around his sore ribs and tied the ends off neatly. Chris endured this part in stoic silence, gripping Vin's shoulders hard and staring at a point just above Vin's head until it was over.

"Now comes the good part." Vin returned to the dresser and popped the cork on the whiskey; poured two shots and returned to the bed. Chris raised one eyebrow quizzically at the whiskey but took the shot anyway and downed his as Vin did. He returned his glass to Vin as if requesting another but Vin only shook his head.

"Nope. One shot of whiskey for you. I get more whiskey, you get some laudanum."

"Don't need any. I'd rather have the whiskey."

"I'm gonna sip on the whiskey. You're gonna take your medicine like a good little boy and get some sleep."

"And what if . . . "

"Don't even think about it. I'm at least ten years younger than you and I ain't hurt. Plus I'm as stubborn as a mule. And you know I'm right."

"Can I at least have a smoke?"

"Sure. After you're settled in."

Chris knew when he was licked. Vin had that look on his face and Chris knew he wouldn't hesitate to call on reinforcements if he thought it was necessary. He kinda liked it when Vin decided to get tough with him. And he sure didn't want anybody else around.

"May as well get comfortable." He undid the buttons on his pants and slid them off. As usual, he wasn't wearing anything under the pants so pulling down the coverlet and sliding between the sheets was all the preparation he needed. Vin couldn't resist a sidelong glance at the leanly muscled torso and the long legs as he pulled the sheets up.

Vin poured a shot glass of the laudanum and brought it to Chris as he pushed himself up slowly on the pillows. Chris had sweet-talked his landlady out of some extras so that they would have plenty.

"I really don't think I need . . . "

"Drink it. One way or another."

Chris gave Vin a look that promised a payback in some form at a later date but he did as he was told—for now. He handed the glass back with a grimace of distaste and made one more try for another drink of whiskey.

"You know, that stuff tastes so bad that I could really use something to wash it down with."

Vin nodded and returned to the dresser for a moment. He brought the shot glass back to Chris. Filled with water from the pitcher.

"Vin Tanner, you are a mean, heartless son of a bitch."

"You're welcome, Chris."

Vin loosened his leather tiedown, unbuckled the gunbelt and laid the mare's leg on the chair with his hat and coat. He slid off his suspenders and began to undo his shirt. Like Chris, he wore nothing underneath. Unbuttoning and discarding the suspenders but leaving the soft buckskin pants on, he sat the whiskey bottle and a glass within easy reach on a small table near the bed and began rummaging for the wooden box of cheroots and the matches he knew Chris kept in the top dresser drawer. Vin walked over to the window and bit off the end of a cheroot, spitting it out. He leaned out and struck a lucifer on the rough wood of the sill. Chris watched as Vin slowly moistened the other end and held the thin cigar in his own mouth. He touched the match to the tip and puffed on it a couple of times until he had it glowing. Extinguishing the match, he handed the cheroot to Chris before making himself at home on top of the coverlet propped against the headboard with the rest of the pillows. He wondered idly what the landlady thought of Chris's request for extra pillows and blankets during the hot summer months.

Chris inhaled the fragrant smoke deeply and exhaled slowly to keep the pain from flaring in his side again. He tapped the ash into the empty shot glass and balanced the cheroot on top. The smoke curled up towards the lamp before dividing to lazily float out one curtained window and upwards toward the ceiling.

"Feel better?"

"Yeah. Thanks, Vin. Can you stay?"

"Reckon so. Never been no problem before. ‘Course, I'm usually gone ‘fore daylight. I'll leave my pants on and sleep on top of the spread. If anyone comes by to check on you it won't matter none that I'm here."

He was rewarded by a rare smile from Chris. Vin knew that nothing could happen between them tonight because of Chris's injury, but he hadn't missed the older man's appreciative gaze when he was preparing the cigar for him. He couldn't resist an affectionate gesture of his own. Resting his weight on one elbow, he carefully leaned over Chris and sought his mouth again. It was a gentle kiss this time, a gesture of peace now that he had won the battle of wills. As their lips parted, Chris suddenly became serious again.

"Vin, what you said before about Stanes gettin' my gun. I don't know how it happened. After I went down I couldn't think straight. Next thing I knew my own gun was pointed at my head."

"Chris, I saw how hard you were hit, you . . . "

"Ain't no excuse, Vin. All I could think about was that I was going to get killed with my own gun. And you were gonna see it."

Chris took another draw on the cheroot and held it a long time. When he let the smoke out both men watched it move lazily up towards the high ceiling.

"Chris, something could happen to either one of us. Any time. We both know that. Knew it when we started bein' together like this. But this is how we live. Cain't go into hidin' every time there's a chance of trouble. If we did that we'd be just as dead as if we'd been shot. We'd just die slower."

"I know. Sometimes I just think too much."

"So what are you thinkin' about right now?"

"Oh, I was just thinkin' about how much I'm gonna torture you for makin' me drink that damm medicine. I might not have lived with any Kiowas or Commanches but I know a few things about what gets to a certain long-haired tracker."

Vin glanced a bit apprehensively at the man laying beside him, sizing him up. The minutes stretched as the cheroot was ignored and went out on its own.

"Chris? You asleep?"

Vin's only reply was the soft, even breathing of the man beside him. Vin got up carefully and extinguished the single lamp. With the moon almost full and the windows on each side of the bed open it was light enough to move about the room. He took one more sip of Ezra's good whskey, given to him "for the care of our leader." Then he returned to the bed. Chris seemed at ease, one arm flung over his head. Even his face was relaxed. He looked younger and not as though he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Vin lay back on the pillows, close enough to feel any movement from the injured man if he awoke during the night and needed anything. He gracefully adjusted his body, curving it to accommodate Chris's injuries. They should both be able to sleep now. It had been a hard fight, but a worthy one. And as for tomorrow, who indeed knew what it would bring?

the end

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