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Riding The Storm

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The dust storm came in from nowhere, the wind picking up the small particles of fine desert sand and swirling them around until the air seemed too thick and heavy to breathe. Chris could feel the sting of the fine grains against the exposed portions of his face, and he blinked rapidly, keeping his chin pressed down and huddling into the upturned collar of his duster. He pulled his hat as low as it would go, grabbing for it every once in a while when the wind threatened to tear it from his head. The layers of cloth between him and the swirling air did little to keep the dust from trickling through and onto his body, and he could feel the fine grains drifting into every crevice. Its abrasive qualities irritated his skin, especially where the horse's movement caused his own body to sway in the saddle, allowing sensitive flesh to rub against sensitive flesh and rough cloth.

The bandanna was tied tight over his mouth but it had quickly become clogged and he found himself struggling to suck in each lungful of air. The temptation to rip the bandanna aside was strong but he knew that this barrier, flimsy though it was, was a necessary evil to keep the dust from filling his lungs.

Can you drown in dust?

Another gust of wind came hurtling through the canyon and, beneath him, his horse faltered, sidestepping on unsteady feet and snorting unhappily.

Chris took a chance and looked up. Vin Tanner was almost concealed within the thick cloud of dust that had been whipped up by the wind; his buckskin clad figure hunched over in the saddle. Vin turned back to check on him, and Chris wondered whether the tracker's acute hearing had heard Chris's horse falter even above the howling of the wind. He pulled up alongside Vin and felt the slap of Vin's gloved hand on his arm. Looking across, he caught a glint of moisture reflecting back from narrowed eyes before Vin looked to the side and pointed to a small fissure in the canyon wall. Chris knew his own eyes were watering. They were stinging painfully from the bombardment of those tiny grains of sand and, even though the hot wind whipped away most of those tears, his eyes were sore and gritty. He nodded his agreement and followed on behind.

The fissure turned out to be large enough for the horses to pass through in single file but it was the relief of not having that wind-whipped dust pelting his face and eyes that filled Chris's mind. Meekly, he plodded on behind Vin, assuming Vin had some plan in mind for getting out of this sudden dust storm, and so he was not surprised when Vin turned into yet another fissure, this one barely wide enough for the horses. The roof slowly closed in overhead, blocking out the murky dust-filled sky and pitching them into darkness.

Chris ripped the bandanna away from his face in relief, sucking in deep lungfuls of still, clean air as he waited for his eyes to become accustomed to the darkness of the cave. Dropping from his horse, he groaned as the movement caused more rubbing to his already tender skin, silently wishing he wore baggier pants as most of the chafing seemed to be in the groin area where his inner thighs met his torso. He narrowed his eyes, breath hissing, as a flare of light dispelled the darkness, and then watched as Vin set a small pile of kindling alight.

Chris smiled, realizing that this must be one of Vin's holing-up places, judging by the ready-prepared kindling and makeshift torches piled near the entrance. He found himself being drawn towards the fire; mesmerized by the flickering flames and the promise of warmth to ease the chill that was slowly seeping into his flesh. Outside it had been fairly hot, and even the strong wind had been warm, but here in the cave it was cold.

Chris dropped down beside the fire, too weary from the fight against the powerful wind and dust to stand any longer. He knew his horse needed tending to, but he did not have the strength left in him. He threw off his hat and scrubbed one gloved hand through his sweat and dust matted hair, trying to ease some of the itchiness of his scalp but to no avail. He bowed his head, almost in defeat, and sat still for a few minutes, knowing that Vin was mirroring his earlier actions on the opposite side of the small fire, dragging his agile fingers through his wild mane of wind-tangled hair.

Eventually, Chris narrowed his eyes, gritted his teeth and pushed himself to his feet, ignoring the chafing as he walked unsteadily to where his horse stood with neck bowed and head hung low.

"Sorry boy. Just needed to catch my breath a moment."

He whispered his apologies and patted the thickly muscled neck before urging his horse closer to the fire. Once there, he stripped off the saddle, dropping it to the sandy floor and then led the horse back towards the cave entrance. He caught a wry grin from Vin, seeing the light reflecting off the perfect white teeth, and answered with a tired smile of his own. Vin had realised he was too tired to carry his saddle from the horse to the fire, preferring to let the horse carry it there for him, but that did not bother Chris. With Vin he felt able to let down his guard, unafraid of being thought of as weak by this man.

As if spurred on by Chris's actions, Vin clambered to his feet and tended to his own horse, eventually leaving both horses standing side by side near the cave entrance.

Once Chris had settled his horse, he dropped back down beside the fire, using his saddle as a backrest, and he smiled at Vin's deep sigh of relief as he resettled against his own saddle. It seemed that Vin had the same amount of trust in him, able to lower his guard and let Chris witness his own exhaustion.

As the small fire took hold, the light pushed further into the cave, sending patterns of dark shadow dancing upon the craggy rock face, reminding him of the picture shows his father would create on the walls of the room during his childhood. He used to do the same for Adam, enjoying the giggles as Adam tried to guess what each shadow was supposed to be. He recalled how Buck had joined in one day, stunning them all with a perfect shadow of a galloping horse, until they noticed the paper cut-out he was holding. Chris smiled, grateful he could think of Sarah and Adam without the soul-deep pain that used to accompany such thoughts.

He glanced across at Vin, well aware that it was the presence of this man in his life that had slowly eased that terrible grief, giving him a reason to live again.

As always, Vin seemed to sense his thoughts. "You okay, cowboy?"

"Yeah. Just tired... and tender."

"Reckon I know that. Feels like my skin's been stripped raw in places."

Chris could only nod in agreement, his eyes closing as exhaustion gripped him. Silence descended once more, but it was the easiness of two men who were comfortable with each other and, therefore, had no need for words.

The heat from the fire quickly warmed the interior of the cave, and Chris looked up, noticing the small hole in the ceiling high above, realizing why Vin had set the fire in just this spot. It was venting the smoke perfectly, allaying his fears of being overcome by the fumes from the burning wood. He stripped off his duster, no longer needing the extra layer for warmth, and lay it on the ground beneath him. Slowly, he relaxed, grateful he was no longer fighting the desert storm. As the ringing in his ears from the harsh wind began to lessen, Chris thought he could hear the trickle of running water. He straightened up, head cocked to one side.

"Is that..?"

"Yep. But it ain't no more than a large basin full, though I reckon you could wash off some of the dust if you've a mind to. And it's clean enough to drink... once I got the strength to climb back there. Meantime..."

Chris grinned as Vin reached over his saddle and pulled his canteen free. He watched Vin's upturned face, mesmerized by the movement of throat muscles, the bobbing of the Adam's apple, as Vin swallowed several mouthfuls of water. The slight over-spill trickled from the corners of the generous mouth, cutting a path through the fine dust that coated Vin's face, the small rivulets glinting in the firelight. Chris pulled back into himself in shock when he realised he was staring at the beads of water, licking his lips as he imagined capturing those droplets as they slid down the exposed throat. He covered his embarrassment by reaching for his own canteen, hoping to assuage his thirst but knowing that it was a different kind of thirst that he needed to quench.

This desire was not new to Chris; he had been feeling it for months, ever since he had laid the ghosts of Sarah and Adam to rest with the knowledge of who had been the cause of their deaths. Ella Gaines was gone. A bullet from Buck's gun finding her blackened heart after she decided that she would rather Chris was dead than allow him to fall into the loving arms of another.

His thoughts of Ella still managed to confuse him.

He had not loved her, but his happy memories of the past they had shared before Sarah came into his life, and the joy of his rediscovery of that almost forgotten past had blinded him to that fact. The realization of her part in his life's greatest tragedy had come to him like a hard slap in the face. He had thought he would rediscover the love and belonging he had felt with Sarah in Ella's warm embrace, only to realize that she was coldness personified, her heart holding only a perversion of the love he had hoped to find.

After the shoot-out at her ranch, they had all assumed that Ella had ridden away, hard and fast, not realizing that she had holed up close by where she could watch him struggle to regain his health. The bullet wound was not that bad, but the despair of seeing all his renewed hopes and dreams of a brighter future crashing around him, had taken away his will to live. Even the death of Sarah and Adam had not brought him to this lowest ebb. Maybe it was because, at that time, he had a heart and soul full of guilt and sorrow - and a mind full of vengeance. After Ella's betrayal, he believed he had nothing left.

Surreptitiously, Chris glanced across the fire to the handsome face, eyes drifting along the square jaw, hovering over the slightly parted, softly smiling lips that seemed to beckon to him.

Chris wondered whether Ella had noticed the direction in which his affections had turned after the ill-fated rekindling of their former romance. Had she realised that it was the discovery of her actions that had sent him reeling towards his best friend?

Vin had been his lifeline when he had found himself floundering and ready to give himself up to the black depths of desolation. He had made him reopen his eyes to the world around him, refusing to let him hide in the darkness of his tiny boarding room, forcing him to face the bleak future with promises that there was always sunshine after every storm. Eventually, Chris had grasped the metaphorical hand that reached out to him, had allowed himself to shelter in the security of this unique friendship, and together they had rode out that particular storm.

And Vin had been right.

He was not certain exactly when he realised the kind of love he felt for Sarah, the kind of love he had hoped to find again with Ella, was already there, in hiding, within his scarred heart. It had disguised itself as friendship, refusing to acknowledge that there could be so much more to the companionship and the strange connection he felt with Vin. Once discovered, the feelings flowed over him like a dam bursting, drowning him in a torrent of emotions; fear and love tugging him first one way and then another. Eventually, he had pushed the fear aside, concentrating instead on the powerful feelings of love that drove away the darkness in his soul.

Had the very idea of him wanting to lie in Vin's arms brought about the rage that made Ella come gunning for him? Had she seen something in his gestures, even from afar, that told her she had lost his heart to another - yet again?

Whatever she had seen, Ella had decided that the game had come to an end. She had come into the town in the middle of the night and had crept to his room. She had pushed open his door and they had faced each other for mere seconds. In his despair he had not even bothered to raise his gun as she aimed the one in her own tiny hand. In some small way he believed she was, finally, putting him out of his misery. Every thing seemed to follow so slowly, as if each second had been stretched into an eternity. When the sound of a gun firing reached him he, honestly, assumed that he had taken a fatal bullet from her hand but there was no pain, and he could only watch, perplexed, as her small frame crumpled lifeless to the floor.

Strangely enough, he had expected to see Vin holding the smoking gun but, instead, it was Buck who staggered through his door, face ashen and yet those familiar eyes had held no compassion for the woman lying dead at his feet.

Buck had looked at him, eyes dead like a gutted fish.

"You ain't the only one needing to see her dead."

All these years Chris had been consumed by his own grief and had never paid too much mind to Buck's. Images flowed through him but for once, not of himself and Sarah and Adam. Instead he saw images of Buck kissing Sarah's hand in that gentlemanly way of his, holding Adam in the air while his child screamed with delight. He saw Buck hugging his boy, making him small gifts, holding him on his horse as they galloped around the corral.

Chris had felt sick. All these years Buck had been trying to reach him through the dark shroud of grief. All these years he had been trying to remind Chris how much Sarah and Adam had meant to him as well, but Chris had been too consumed by his own need for revenge to really take notice.

Buck had dropped to his knees beside him, tears glistening in his eyes as he almost begged, silently, for forgiveness and Chris had given it willingly. The bitch was dead and, somehow, it did not matter that it had not been by his own hand.

The only problem was that, with her death, Chris could no longer find any reason for living. The thirst for revenge had been quenched and he felt nothing but emptiness within him--until Vin managed to unlock the hidden emotions filling his heart.

His mind returned to the present, and to the figure seated opposite. He found those bright blue eyes were staring across the fire directly at him, narrowed and yet unreadable. Chris covered his embarrassment at being caught staring by stretching slowly and then delving into his saddlebag, searching for some of the trail rations he had stowed there. He pulled out a small bundle wrapped and tied in greasy brown paper, and used his pocket knife to slice through the twine. Unwrapping the package, he revealed two slabs of coarse bread around some beef. Chris cut the sandwich and offered one half to Vin.

Vin accepted the offering with a grin of thanks and a slight nod, and they ate in silence, then they leaned back against their saddles and lay quietly, only the occasional snort from the horses, and the howling of the wind, disturbing the natural sounds of the cave. Eventually, the irritation from the dust forced Chris to make a decision. He climbed to his feet, took the makeshift torch and ventured towards the back of the cave, honing in on the sound of trickling water. He grinned when he noticed a niche in the rock that had been fashioned into a holder, and carefully, he placed the torch within it.

The cave ended at this point, the ceiling having lowered until it was barely a few inches above his head. Just ahead of him he caught the glint of running water and noticed how the trickle filled a hollowed out piece of rock to form a small, natural basin. The overflow spilled down a small gutter, disappearing through a tiny aperture in the rock face. As Vin had rightly said, it was not big enough to bathe in but there was enough collected water to make a wash down possible. He dipped one hand into the water and was pleasantly surprised to discover it was actually quite warm. He half turned back towards the flickering flames, only needing to raise his voice slightly to carry the short distance to the supine figure.

"Never mentioned it was warm?"

He heard a small chuckle. "Reckoned that'd please you."

His passionate feelings for Vin made Chris uneasy as he started to strip off his clothes. His awareness of the proximity of the other man had already heightened his body's sensitivity, and was the main reason why he so desperately needed to wash away some of the dust that had managed to seep into the creases. His hardened flesh was pressing tightly against his pants, making the normally snug fit too uncomfortable to bear. Chris sighed softly in relief as he unbuttoned the fly, releasing some of the pressure, having already discarded his shirt.

****

Vin eased up slowly, tilting back the cavalry hat so he could see more clearly. He watched as, barely ten feet away, Chris hesitated before shrugging out of his clothes. The shirt came first, the broad back rippling as Chris eased out of the material. Vin smiled as it was quickly shaken and then placed carefully on a nearby ledge in the rock face. He frowned at the way Chris looked quickly over his shoulder, knowing that he must be the cause of Chris's unease. It was not as though they had not stripped off in front of each other many a time before although, Vin had to admit, that had been before he recognized his growing attraction to Chris.

Vin wondered if Chris had come to realize the new direction his thoughts had taken in regard to their friendship, and was concerned, momentarily, that this was why Chris was so uneasy about undressing in his presence.

Chris moved his hands to the front of the black pants, and Vin heard a small sigh of relief as the buttons were popped, wishing he knew if this was an ease to the chafing or the release of some other pressure that caused that sigh. The boots were toed off and kicked aside. Vin licked his lips as Chris shrugged out of the top half of his long-johns, mesmerized by the play of the flickering light from the nearby torch that cast red and gold patterns over the pale skin, sending the hollows of muscle and bone into stark relief. The light glistened off a fine sheen of sweat and Vin found his fingers itching to reach out and trace his own patterns on the fine skin.

Chris cupped some of the warm water into his hands and splashed it over his face, letting his head drop back until the short curls of sweat-darkened hair at the nape lay across his back. Vin longed to see the column of creamy throat, his own passion rising as he allowed his mind to supply images of that vulnerable throat offered up to his tender kisses. Another splash and the water was cascading down the long neck, running in tiny rivulets down the bare back. Vin licked his lips again, wishing his tongue was journeying with those droplets, his mouth sucking on one of those sharp shoulder blades that moved smoothly under the torch-lit flesh. He followed the path of one particular droplet as it trickled down the small of Larabee's back, disappearing inside the loosened waistband of the black pants. He knew where that droplet was headed, once again wishing he was with it, his tongue sliding down the crevice, between the firm ass cheeks, to that special place beneath.

The pressure of his own hardened flesh against his pants was becoming unbearable and, stealthily, Vin reached across for his blanket, unrolling it and spreading it over his legs and groin to conceal his actions. Beneath the cover, he loosened the buttons of his pants and freed his aching flesh, his fingers tracing along the hard length as he continued to watch Chris.

Chris's dark pants were slowly discarded, and Vin found his hand sliding faster along his shaft while he watched the lean hips wiggling to free themselves of the restrictive cloth. He bit down on his lip, moaning softly as the long-johns were tugged down with the pants, revealing the firm curves of those ivory globes. Vin longed to reach out, to cup each cheek in the palm of his hands, to press his body against Chris, grinding their hips and groins together.

The sight of Chris's own hard flesh and tightened sac, caught for just an instant as Chris splashed palmfuls of the warm water between his parted legs, was the final image that drove Vin's body over the edge. He bit even harder into his lip to stop a cry of pure pleasure falling from his lips as his hand became slicked with his own essence. Vin wiped himself off quickly and then tucked his rapidly softening shaft back into his pants. He lay back and sighed, relieved that he had taken the edge off his hunger for Chris.

His eyes never left the beautiful figure but he let his other senses roam, hearing the shrieking of the wind beyond the cave entrance mingle with the soft rasp of cloth on flesh as Chris wrapped his blanket around his wet, naked body. Vin identified all the little noises that followed: the jangling of spurs as the boots were picked up from the dusty floor, the rustle of the dark shirt and pants being gathered. He listened to the soft footfall of stocking-covered feet on the sandy floor as Chris made his way back to the fire.

Chris dropped everything to the ground, including himself.

"All yours, Pard."

Wish you were.

That thought sent a stab of pain through Vin. He had known he wanted Chris before Ella Gaines had turned up like the proverbial bad penny, and he knew it was the sight of her hanging onto Chris's arm that had fueled his own immediate dislike of the woman. He had actively sought out evidence that she was no good for Chris, determined to show her up in a bad light even before he knew for certain about her subterfuge.

Had Chris seen through his jealousy? Was this why he had refused to believe Vin when he came back with evidence of her duplicity? It had hurt him; those sharp words from Chris had cut Vin to the quick. The Chris he had spoken to, all dressed in fine clothes with his hair neatly swept back and tie knotted, had been a stranger, and he had felt like some hired trail hand who had interrupted a fancy party - out of place and out of class.

Hard to believe that three months had passed since that day. Hard to believe he had seen his worst fears realised, had seen Chris gunned down before his very eyes. Every moment of that incident was etched into his brain; the shock of seeing Chris's ashen face as he came off the porch, half-naked, gun blazing. He remembered the thuds of bullets landing all around Chris, sending tiny plumes of dust spinning into the air. He recalled the look of horror and indecision on Chris's face as he aimed his gun at Ella Gaines, just before a bullet took him down.

If Chris's wild dash into the open had been suicidal then Vin wondered how he could explain his own. He had raced across the space separating them, exposing himself to the same danger as he attempted to drag Chris to safety, all the while his mare's leg sent bullets flying. Yet, once the dust had settled, no one had remarked on his foolhardiness, no one had taken him to task over his ill thought out actions. Not even Chris, and he wondered what he would have said if Chris had asked. He knew what he wanted to say.

I'd die for you, Larabee. My life ain't worth squat without you in it.

"Vin?"

Vin looked across into concerned eyes that reflected the red and orange light from the flickering flames, giving them an otherworldly appearance. For one terrible moment he thoughts he had spoken out loud, but Chris gave no indication that he had heard any revelations from Vin.

"Sorry, cowboy. Missed hearing what you said. I'm tired."

Chris nodded sagely. "Ain't important."

"Like to know what you said, even so."

Vin saw the beginnings of a smile curl the soft lips.

"Said I hoped you wouldn't mind me staying wrapped in his blanket till we move on. Them clothes are full of that damn itchy dust."

Only barely did Vin hold back the grin of delight that threatened to break out across his face. The thought of Chris lying there but a few feet away, with only the rough wool blanket covering his firm naked flesh, sent renewed tingling down Vin's spine.

"Fine by me, cowboy."

He hoped his voice had sounded steadier than he believed, unable to prevent the tremor evoked by the thoughts of a naked Chris Larabee so close. He hid his embarrassment by drawing his hat back over his face, and bent the leg closest to Chris, hoping Chris had not noticed the rapid tenting of the blanket covering Vin's groin.

****

Chris cocked his head to one side, almost perplexed by the strange actions of this man he thought he knew so well. Since the very beginning it had seemed as if they could read each other like an open book, and if that were so, then what he had been reading these past months was the answer to his prayers.

A moment of fear gripped him. What if he was wrong? What if Vin did not return the strong feelings he had for the other man? He had taken so many gambles recently - and lost every one - that the thought of laying down his cards with Vin was terrifying. What if he had misread those cards? What if Vin threw down his own hand in disgust and stormed out of his life forever? Could he handle that?

Chris looked across at the silent figure, eyes roaming the lean length of the slightly smaller and yet hardier man. If he played his hand close to his vest then he would keep what was already in the pot: Vin's friendship. Was it worth the risk of playing for higher stakes?

Outside the wind seemed to have picked up even more, howling like a banshee and whistling through the twists and turns of the canyon, adding an element of preternatural tension to the air surrounding them.

Chris stared hard at what he could see of the handsome face, the square of the slightly stubbled jaw, the pink tip of Vin's tongue sneaking out every so often to swipe across the beautiful lips.

Vin's friendship alone should have been enough, but Chris could feel the lure of that greater prize. He swallowed hard, realizing that the time had come to show his hand - or fold. With stiff movements he clambered to his feet, padding softly towards Vin until he was standing close enough for Vin to reach out and touch him. He watched as Vin pushed the hat back from where it covered his face, saw the eyes widen in surprise at seeing him standing there then narrow in confusion.

Chris found himself frozen in place, all his uncertainty returning and, on the verge of taking the coward's way out and finding some inane excuse for his actions, he caught a quickly masked heat in the often too placid face. Drawing strength from that momentary lapse, Chris let the blanket fall to the ground, raising his chin defiantly as Vin's eyes rounded, those sensual lips gaping in shock. Chris could see, in the rapidly changing expression, that Vin understood exactly what was being offered, and he waited, desperately trying to ignore the hammering of his heart against his rib cage. He watched as Vin pushed aside his own blanket and climbed unsteadily to his feet, flinching slightly as Vin raised a hand towards him, half expecting a blow but, instead, Vin's long fingers reached out slowly to gently caress his face.

Chris found himself leaning into the palm of that hand, eyes closing, relieved that, no matter what happened next, Vin was not disgusted by his unspoken but obvious desire for him. The hand slipped backwards, carding uneasily through the dust and sweat matted hair until Vin was cupping the back of his head. His eyes flew open when he felt the first tentative brush against his lips, to find Vin's face only an inch from his own. The distance was closed again and Chris felt the renewed caress of lips upon lips. He sighed as he recognized this return of his affections, pressing his mouth harder against Vin's lips, tasting the sweetness of the other as they drank from each other. He shivered at the feel of rough cotton against his bare flesh, dragging across the sensitive nipples and sending delicious sensations in all directions until every nerve ending seemed to be tingling with desire.

As the kiss deepened, he felt Vin's hand sliding down his back, tracing the ridges of his spine. A single finger drifted between his ass cheeks and he moaned at the small intrusion, pressing closer to Vin as the finger rimmed the tight ring of muscle before pressing inwards. He groaned as Vin sucked harder upon his lips and tongue, aware that Vin was no shy virgin, his experience obvious in the expert touch of that finger as it eased slowly into his ass.

Vin pulled back suddenly, releasing Chris's mouth but letting his finger continue to tease the opening to Chris's body, his face shuttered but his desire-filled eyes betraying his need.

"Want you, Chris. Want to take you."

"Figured that."

A pleasure filled grin lightened the pensive features on finding no objection to his stated need. Vin stepped away, leaving Chris feeling bereft of his warm touch. With quick, economic movements, Vin pulled off his clothes, letting them drop unheeded in a heap on the dusty floor, and then he stepped back into Chris's arms, wrapping himself around the slightly taller frame, mouth seeking and finding Chris's. They kissed long and hard, glorying in their possession of each other.

Chris frowned when Vin stepped back once more.

"This some new fangled dance?"

"Easy, cowboy. Wanna get comfortable for what I got in mind."

Vin shook out his blanket and lay it flat on the dusty ground. He sat down, stretching one hand out to Chris in invitation. Chris grasped the hand and allowed himself to be pulled down next to Vin, unresisting when Vin pushed him onto his back.

"Gonna make it good for you, Chris. You ain't gonna have any regrets."

Firm lips descended onto his throat, sucking tenderly while those agile fingers tracked across his chest, mapping the contours of muscle and bone. Chris gasped as a fingernail raked across his nipple, catching on the stiffened nub and sending a warm sensation flooding southwards to his already engorged shaft. His cry of pleasure was swallowed by Vin's sudden possession of his mouth. He arched up against the firm body, desperate to feel heated flesh against his own fevered skin, moaning as his hardened shaft dragged across Vin's tight belly, his legs widening to accommodate one of Vin's as Vin half-straddled his body.

Chris murmured in appreciation of the hardness he felt pressing into his thigh, of the tickle of wiry pubic hair as Vin rocked slowly against him. Vin's tongue thrust possessively into him, forcing his own aside as it teased and tasted every inner surface from the soft palate to the hard teeth. He drew a moan from Vin as he captured the invader, sucking hard, sharp teeth raking the moist sides as he allowed Vin to escape.

His own hands busied themselves in the curtain of hair that draped around him, fists clenching around the long wavy strands, holding Vin in place as he counterattacked, arrogantly plunging into Vin's mouth. He deepened his possession as one hand swept down the surprisingly broad back to cup a firm ass cheek, pulling Vin tighter against his own demanding flesh.

His thrusts became more erratic, losing control as his body surged towards completion. He buried his face against Vin's neck as the warmth radiated outwards from his groin, rippling through to every nerve ending, turning to the white heat of ecstasy. New warmth flooded between their close-pressed bodies as his senses overloaded.

The muskiness of spent passion filled the air around them as Chris lay back in a boneless heap. He moaned softly as those long fingers slid through the sticky fluid, sending the smallest of tremors through his still sensitive flesh. He felt Vin's hands on his legs, coaxing them to part wider, and found he obeying. The fingers, slick with the evidence of his own release, teased at the relaxed entrance, pushing slowly inside.

His eyes were caught and held by Vin as that single finger was joined by another, feeling the slight burn as the strong muscle was massaged, willing himself to relax. He gave a small nod of agreement at the questioning in Vin's eyes, aware of what was being asked, unresisting as his legs were raised over Vin's shoulders. The blunt tip pressed against him and he groaned as it breached the virgin muscle, brutally forcing aside the urge to tense, to repel the invader.

Vin stopped moving, holding himself still, and Chris could see the strain on the sweat-sheened face as he was given time to adjust to the bulk filling him. As the burning began to ease, Chris gave silent permission and bit hard into his lip, drawing blood, eyes screwed shut as Vin pressed in further.

He gave a shuddered sigh of relief when Vin was fully embedded, feeling the wiry curls pressed hard against his own body, and when he opened his eyes, he found Vin's face only inches above his own, staring down at him in tenderness and wonder.

"Wanted this for so long, cowboy. Wanted you for so long."

Chris groaned as Vin started to pull out, clenching his muscles down hard to try and stop him from leaving, already missing the feel of the hardened flesh filling him. He cried out when Vin pushed back in, eyes widening as an incredible sensation rippled out from deep inside, reigniting his senses.

As much as he hated the loss as Vin pulled back, he found himself begging for each thrust that followed, slowly driven to the edge of existence by the pleasure that coursed through him. His own hand grasped his rapidly filling shaft, flying along the length of his firm flesh in rhythm with the thrusts into his ass. He felt the sensations climb higher and faster, his breath catching in his throat, his vision tunneling as he was swept into a storm, caught between pleasure and pain, every muscle straining as he reached for that sweet moment of exquisite annihilation before spinning slowly back into his own body.

He came back to awareness with the hot and heavy weight of Vin Tanner sprawled over his chest, feeling the rapidly cooling stickiness between their abdomens, and a strange new warmth deep inside his own flesh. Vin pulled away carefully, easing his softening shaft from Chris's body before slumping to his lover's side. The deep warmth seemed to trickle out of him, running down the inside of his ass cheeks and pooling beneath him.

With a little fear, he reached down and stroked his hand through the wetness, sighing in both relief and wonder that it was not blood that coated his fingers but something just as precious. Soft lips caressed his face, kissing his hair, his temple, and his forehead. He nuzzled against those lips, reveling in the intense lassitude that made his limbs too heavy to move. A strong arm was thrown across his still heaving chest as those lips nuzzled against his ear. He sighed as the warm breath tickled his oversensitive flesh, half-aware of the soft endearments whispered to him.

"Ain't in this for a one-time, cowboy. Want more than that. Want it all."

****

Vin drew back, raising himself up onto one elbow, as Chris stiffened in response to his words, and he stared down into the sea green eyes, reading the turbulence in their stormy depths. He'd never seen the sea for real but he recalled a tale he heard around the campfire during his buffalo hunting days. The man had the fabled Irish gift of being able to bring his words to life. He had been recalling his journey from Ireland to the New World, crossing the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean in mid winter. He had described the storm that rose up, tossing the ship around like a toy boat in a bathtub until Vin could see the wind rolling the waves into fifty foot towers that came crashing down, spilling over the deck and washing away anything that was not strapped down. But what Vin remembered most was the vivid description of the build up to that storm; the way the gray, green waters had churned around the ship, turbulent and chaotic as the wind and the undercurrent played tug-of-war with the swelling water, pushing one way, pulling another.

Vin could see that turbulence reflected in the green eyes, and he could see Chris's emotions tugging internally, pulling Chris in all directions, but Vin had no intention of taking back his words, of seeking a safe harbor. He intended to ride the storm, and to take all that it had to throw at him in the hope that they would reach those calmer waters, together.

Vin had never wanted much in his life but he wanted this; he wanted Chris, all of him, and he was not going to let the ghost of Ella Gaines come between them. He was determined to show Chris that it was possible to love again, and that he did not have to fear loving him.

"Ain't never lied to you, Chris, and I don't intend to start now. I want you for better or worse. In sickness and in health."

Another rush of emotion swept dark clouds across the stormy eyes and Vin knew that Chris was thinking about the golden future that he had thought to make with Ella before discovering the truth of her obsession. Vin spoke softly, voice so low he was almost certain Chris would have to strain to hear his words.

"I know what you're thinking, but I ain't like that bitch. You can call me names, kick me like a mangy dog. I ain't got no pride where you're concerned but, know this, I ain't ever gonna hurt you back, nor anyone you care for. Least not intentional."

Vin smiled at the look of horror in Chris's eyes, knowing it was the thought of treating Vin in such a manner that had shocked his lover.

"Don't mean I won't fight tooth and claw to keep you."

Vin watched the emotions rage across the often-expressionless face, seeing the external signs of the inner battle being fought. When Chris's face hardened, the green eyes turning to chips of glass, Vin feared the worst, suddenly aware of all that he may have lost by his declaration.

"Till death do us part."

The soft, flat words hung in the air, sending a shiver along Vin's spine. Chris had been here before, making vows and being the one left behind when death claimed his loved ones. Vin knew Chris had expected to make similar vows to Ella Gaines, and would have honored them even though he had not loved her with the same passion as he had Sarah.

"Yeah. Till death us do part."

"And when some bounty hunter comes for you? Or some real US Marshall?"

Vin licked his lips nervously, remembering that time when Eli Joe's man had impersonated a US Marshall, giving Chris no choice but to allow justice to be served. Even so, Chris had promised he would not hang, had promised to do everything in his power to stop that happening. Vin had spent the remainder of his time in that cell with visions of Chris being strung up beside him after making some foolish bid to help him escape.

As he looked deep into the hardened eyes, Vin recognized another truth. Chris had no intention of being the one left behind next time, would not be the able to pick up the pieces and move on as he had so many times before. There was only so much pain a man could take, and Ella Gaines had brought him to the limit of his endurance.

"Might never happen, cowboy. Might yet figure out a way to get rid of that bounty on my head."

"And if it does happen?"

"If it does then least I won't be standing there with a noose around my neck regretting all the days I could have had with you."

The tight lines smoothed away, the tempest calming in those stormy eyes.

"No regrets."

Vin leaned over, the back of his hand caressing his lover's stubbled cheek, allowing all the love he felt for this man to flow from his eyes.

"Not a one... excepting for leaving you. And who's to say you won't be first to go this time? Ain't exactly in a safe line of work, Larabee."

Vin sighed as he felt Chris relax, seeing a devil-may-care smile replace the tight slash of the kiss-swollen lips.

"No shit, Tanner."

Vin chuckled. Outside the storm was abating, the wind dying down and the dust settling, but Vin felt no urge to leave the comfort of his lover's warm embrace. He lay his head down on Chris's chest, listening to the steady beat of the strong heart, letting it lull him to sleep like a child in a boat rocking on a gentle swell. As he drifted away, his thoughts turned to their future. He knew life with Chris Larabee would never be plain sailing. There would be many a storm to weather, least of all facing the possible condemnation of their friends and associates, but Vin knew he would rather ride that storm held tight in Chris's arms, than float alone on calm waters forever.

He smiled as a hand stroked through his hair. Later he would trap a few rabbits, giving them no reason to head on into town, and then he would spend the night showing Chris exactly how much he loved him.

THE END