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Save a Horse, Ride a Connally

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As they poured a raving Sam Poteet out of the car, Travis pondered the fact that the difference between the Branch Connallys of the world, and the guys like him, the Travis Murphys, was that the Branches of the world always got away with it somehow. Even when they got caught, they still somehow got away with it.

He had to buck and scrape and grit his way into a football scholarship … and washed out of college because he couldn't make any of it click when he got there, even on the field, while Branch did not need a scholarship to go to school and he graduated.

Life never bit the world's Branches in the ass.

And yes, that made no sense, but yet, there it was, the truth the best way that Travis could explain it.

(Okay, life occasionally nipped them in the butt, but it never tore a chunk out as far as he could tell.)

The other thing was, Travis wasn't entirely sure that he wanted Branch to get caught, not this time. Once upon a time, he did, but that was then, before he was wrapped up in it.

What Travis did know was: (A) guys like him always worked and scrabbled for it, and earning it (like his football scholarship) didn't always lead to a happy ending, and (B) he was currently buckled in for the ride on the Branch Connelly crazy train, and (C) as much as he hated it, he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to get off.

And yes he knew that didn't exactly make sense, either.

He had no delusions that he would get away with it, whatever Branch arm twisted him into, but this tiny little voice kept suggesting that the ride might be worth the crash at the end.

So, when Branch showed up again and told Travis they were going for a ride in his car …?

~oo(0)oo~

"You know, I've never fucked a guy before," Branch said without any preamble as soon as he parked the car and killed the engine.

It was on the tip of Travis's tongue to say that he didn't think his old rusted-out bucket of bolts could handle a trip to Cheyenne or Casper (he didn't think Laramie was big enough to have a gay bar) or Fort Collins (down in Colorado), but then it occurred to him that Branch might be after something else.

Either way, Travis wasn't quite sure what to say, except that he knew that Branch would just bulldoze over his objections if he made any, so he kept his mouth shut on the grounds that it was just something that ran through Branch's mind, and that perhaps the filter between Branch's brain and mouth wasn't working so well these days on account of him being under so much stress.

(And on the grounds that his dick liked the idea more than he expected it to, which was something he didn't exactly want to deal with right now.)

The tired old engine ticked and pinged as it cooled down. The night out in this patch of scrub was cool, but not cold, and Travis suspected that if they sat here long enough they might hear an owl, or some little critter rustling through the grass and underbrush.

"Let's get out, look at the stars."

Travis never figured Branch for a stargazer, but it was a nice night, clear with no wind, and they were far enough out of town that there was no light over yonder. Gingerly he climbed out of the passenger seat, wincing at the horrible screech the door made when he shut it. (He really needed to WD-40 it.)

They leaned against the front of the car and looked at the mountains and sky for a few moments, and Travis was about to say something about how the Milky Way really did look like a streak of milk, when Branch's hand shot out and clapped his shoulder in a kneading, groping way

Holy shit! He really did mean it! the thought slammed through Travis's brain, a live wire jolt of adrenaline made his heart beat double-time, and a split-second urge to run for the bushes followed fast on its heels.

Only, the same jolt also hit Travis's dick, and it had decidedly different ideas about Branch + Fucking.

~oo(0)oo~

And Branch really did mean fucking, not a handjob, blowjob, or some bump and grind.

Arms outstretched, Travis's body draped over the hood, the warmth of it almost soothing against his chest and cheek as Branch's thrusts push-pulled his body against the car. He could smell the rust and warm metal, the old grease, and the sickly-sweet reek of the coolant from that hairline crack somewhere in the radiator. Those were the good things in his world right now. His asshole felt like it was on fire, stretched as it was around Branch's hefty cock.

(Of course Branch wouldn't have an average size dick like Travis. Of course not.)

The other source of pain was Travis's own dick, which ached from being so damn hard. As much as he wanted some relief for it, he couldn't bring himself to ask for a reach around the same way he couldn't bring himself to say no when Branch told him to turn, face the hood, unbuckle his britches, and bend over. And at the same time, it just didn't seem right to reach down there and take care business himself.

(And it was only a small mercy that like sort of evil Eagle Scout, Branch had brought pre-lubed condoms along.)

~oo(0)oo~

When it was over, Branch collapsed on him, breath a series of heavy pants in Travis's ear and against his neck. When he finally withdrew and climbed off, Travis rolled over, wincing as he did, enjoying the warmth of the hood against his back.

A moment or two later it felt like something leaked back there.

He told himself he should hate the feeling, despite the fact that it caused a fresh spurt of pre-come from his still hard dick.

He looked over at Branch, and for the barest moment there was something almost soft, almost tender about the look in his eyes. A blink later it had vanished so suddenly and absolutely that Travis wondered if he'd imagined it.

With a groan Travis pushed himself off of the hood, hitched his jeans up, and somehow managed to get his mother of all stiffys back behind the fly.

If Branch said anything to him during the ride back to Branch's truck, Travis didn't hear a word of it.

The next morning he tried to tell himself it was all a crazy dream, but the persistent ache in his ass and the rusty stains on his boxers said otherwise.

He threw the boxers away before Momma could see them and ask any questions.

~oo(0)oo~

Two nights later Branch scared the living shit out of Travis when he climbed in through his window.

He looked like fried roadkill, to put it kindly, hair all scruffy and three days worth of beard growth, but his eyes bugged Travis the most: red-rimmed with exhaustion but intense, like blue lasers shining out of twin hell pits. It would have helped if he smelled like whiskey, but nope, sober as a judge.

"I'm not going anywhere with you!" Travis hissed. "We're in shit up to our eyeballs if anybody finds out about that peyote thing." Not to mention, less said about the last time they went out, the better.

"Don't need you to go anywhere." Branch began working at his belt buckle.

HolyShitJesusFuckGoddamn!

"You are not fucking me," Travis declared in a voice that didn't shake … much.

Branch said nothing, just began work on his fly.

Travis' voice jumped an octave. "My mom is just down the hall! The walls are thin!"

Wrong damn thing for him to say, because the idea of having sex at home, Momma just down the hall? It had been a dream of his since high school. His dick still liked the idea, even if Cindy Taylor was no longer attached to it. (The idea of having sex at home with Momma just down the hall, not his dick. Cindy'd never been attached to his dick, much less seen it.)

Branch paused.

"What if she hears us!" Travis hissed as loudly and insistently as he dared, scooting back in bed, clutching a pillow … because that was going to be such a good defense against Branch.

"So?" Branch asked as he sat down on the foot of the bed and went to work taking one of his boots off. "What's she going to do, call the cops on us?"

Travis tossed the pillow aside and glared. "You tore my ass up something fierce, and even with nothing but soup, ducolax, pudding, bananas, and jello, it still feels like I'm passing shrapnel each time I take a shit, and Momma wants to take me to urgent care to get me checked out. So, no, you are not fucking me!"

"Oh," Branch said softly, tone apologetic. He took off his other boot and set it carefully down next to the first. "We don't have to fuck."

Un-uh, nope, you can leave now, not happening. "Like what?" Travis heard himself say. "And there'd better be something in it for me this time around."

~oo(0)oo~

What turned out to be bumping and grinding against each other like two horny teens either too scared or too smart to fuck without a condom, but still horny enough to want a full body contact orgasm.

Every squeak-thump and rattle-whump that might be enough to wake his Momma sent another jolt of thrill-terror racing up Travis's spine and only made everything that much better as he and Branch grappled and rutted against each other until they both came all over everything and make a huge fucking sticky mess. It took Travis about five minutes to float back down to reality.

Travis didn't dare open the door and tip-toe down the hall to the bathroom, because he knew he'd used up all his luck just not having Momma fling the door open while they were going at it, so they cleaned up with the only thing he happened to have in the room, a half-drunk bottle of Diet Mountain Dew. Branch slipped out the way he came in.

Travis woke up the next morning, raced the sheets down to the washer, showered, and actually felt good about the world until he looked in the mirror and noticed that, just like a horny teenager, Branch had given him a hickey.

Yeah, it was real fun getting his ass out of the house without Momma noticing that, or without her being offended that he didn't want any of the oatmeal she'd made for breakfast on account of his "poor sick tummy." On top of that, his manager down at the shop whooped, high fived him, and asked questions about "that hell cat" he'd been with. Fortunately, a grumbled, "I don't kiss and tell," did the trick.

~oo(0)oo~

Despite thinking through his alibi and the things he would say that would totally clear him and Branch when -- not if -- when the Sam Poteet thing came back around to bite them, it all vanished as soon as Deputy Moretti began talking to him. Pretty girls always had that effect on him, and Vic Moretti more than most.

(He didn't like to admit it was because of her badge …. The idea of it, combined with her ball-busting 'tude, put Travis in a state of perpetual distraction because of all the ideas that kept bubbling up from the back 40 of his brain … her being the bad cop at a traffic stop who'd let him off only in return for a very specific favor … the things she'd do with tazer if he didn't get on his knees right now … having her manhandle his clothes off before she climbed on top ….)

Well, fuck it. Done was done, and even though it meant he was going to be on Branch's shit list for pretty much the rest of his life, Travis took a deep breath and told himself at at least now, he would be off the Branch crazy train, and this was as bad as his part in the pile-up would get.

~oo(0)oo~

Nope.

Branch showed up at Momma's house a day later. "Pack your shit." He tossed a large duffle bag at Travis as soon as he opened the door.

Torn between being scared and angry, Travis stuffed clean boxes, socks, his last two pairs of clean jeans, a handful of shirts, his phone charger, comb, toothbrush, and deodorant in. Branch hustled him out the door before he could leave a note for Momma, but … what kind of a note could he leave? Bye Momma, on the run with a crazy cop. Love you, T

"So, where are we headed?" Travis asked after 10 minutes of hauling ass down the road, because as far as he could tell, this wasn't exactly the fastest or best way out of Absaroka County. They also weren't exactly headed for the far back country, either.

"You'll see when we get there," Branch said flatly.

~oo(0)oo~

There turned out to be the guest room at Branch's house.

"It seems I've got to keep you on a short leash." Branch crossed his arms and scowled.

Well, shit, he already knew about Deputy Moretti.

"You don't talk to anybody from the sheriff's office without me or my lawyer present." Branch paused in the doorway. "You don't leave my property unless I say so, and no visitors."

And like that, the Branch crazy train was back in service. Travis decided the best tactic was to ignore it. "Okay. Um. Since we're not on the run, can you take me back to my car? I got work in an hour."

"You just quit."

Travis shot off the bed. "What?! I need that job! I got bills!"

Branch shook his head. "You work for me now. Room and board included."

Travis flung his hands out in exasperation. "Doing what?!" he shouted.

"Guy friday."

Whatever the fuck that was. "How are you going to pay me? You make decent money, but not -" he indicated the house, which looked to be a custom build, "but not that good."

Branch smiled coldly. "Trust fund."

Oh. Of course.

~oo(0)oo~

Branch gave him the nickel tour. Linen closet. Kitchen ("food's all yours, beer and liquor's all mine"). Living room. How to work the TV (that cost at least 3 months of what Travis made at the shop). Washer and dryer. Garage. Woodshop.

Two things were off limits: Branch's bedroom and his laptop.

~oo(0)oo~

"I need something to do," Travis said on the third day, as Branch came home with an armful of mini camcorders and began hooking them up to his laptop.

"What?" Branch did not take his eyes away from the screen.

"I. Need. Something. To. Do." Travis bit the words off. "I'm dying of boredom! I can't afford any pay-per-view porn, you don't have any interesting books on that bookcase in the living room --" seriously, what kind of guy didn't have at least one Tom Clancy book? "I can't leave the house, I don't have my car, and I don't even have a real job anymore. So give me something to do here before I go bonkers." His voice broke a little on the next words, "I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I know that." (Branch's mouth twitched in amusement.) "And I'll admit I can be lazy as fuck, but I know I do better when I have something to do … as long as I don't completely hate it."

Branch nodded at that. "Fix dinner."

"What? Didn't you hear --"

Branch glared at him.

Oh. Yeah. Right. Something to do. Well, they did need to eat. "Okay, but it's not going to be fancy. Bobby Flay I am not."

He had a moment of pride, though, when Branch asked if there was enough left for a second tuna fish sandwich before he went back to watching his videos.

"Anything specific you're looking for?" Travis set sandwich 2.0 in front of him.

"I'll know it when I see it," Branch mumbled.

Travis watched him work for a few minutes. "What time do you get up in the morning?"

"Six. Why?" Branch jotted a few notes down.

"You'll see." Travis set the alarm on his shitty smartphone for 5:45 am and then wandered into the kitchen to see if Branch had one of those fancy coffee makers with a timer.

Just before he went to bed, he called Momma (she liked to stay up late and catch the 11o'clock news … from Cheyenne, so what was the point?). At least she appreciated the phone call even if she didn't think highly of Branch on account of him being a cop and a Connally. "I just don't know … what does he want with you, Travis? I'd be very suspicious," she repeated for the Nth time this week.

Oh, if only you knew what he wants from me. "I think he's lonely, Momma." Travis blurted before he could stop himself, but something about it rang so true, he continued, "He lives out here alone and he doesn't have a girlfriend." He doesn't seem to like his dad, either.

"But why you, Travis? We don't have anything the Connallys want."

He knows me from high school. He knows he scares me. He knows I can't make myself say no … much … to him. "I think that's it, Momma. What do I want from him? Nothing." Except his dick, more than I'd like to admit. He swallowed. "I mean, I'm not about to ask him for some kushy job at his dad's business."

"Well why not? Lord knows you need the work."

"Because he hasn't offered, so I'm not asking -- it's rude."

He could hear the smile in Momma's voice. "Well, it seems I did get some manners hammered into that head of yours."

~oo(0)oo~

Travis had coffee and toast ready for Branch. Oh, the coffee machine was already programed, so all Travis had to do was put coffee and water in it the night before, but at least there was a mug and a spoon waiting for Branch.

~oo(0)oo~

Branch came home and fucked his mouth, hard, that night, and then told Travis to beat off, "Because I can see you're about to bust your zipper, and I want to watch you come."

Travis went to bed wondering how it was you could be so fucking mad at someone you could throttle them -- because Branch had not been gentle -- and at the same time be happy and want it to happen again because : (A) ruthless Branch was hot, (B) Branch's eyes on him while he knelt, jeans and boxers around his knees, thighs splayed, showing himself no mercy was fucking hot, and (C) glaring back at Branch all the way through was extra sauce.

And now that he thought about it more, Travis realized he didn't feel ashamed at all about beating off like that, instead, he'd put on a show, and next time he wanted it to be so good, Branch drooled.

~oo(0)oo~

Branch hauled him along on a road trip with Cady Longmire that had something to do with going to a dive bar in Denver and exonerating Henry Standing Bear.

Travis seethed with jealousy almost the whole trip down, and berated himself for it, because, at the same time, it wasn't like he and Branch had some great romance going, so why the fuck was he getting all bent out of shape over Branch and Cady talking to each other.

And even if the day ended up with Branch and Cady in bed … Branch was a grown man who could make his own decisions. Hell, if the stars aligned right, Travis might even find a Miss Right-Now of his own.

Except, probably not. It went without saying that as long as he was Branch's "guest", he'd only get a woman if Branch was okay with it. Hell, Branch might even want to watch.

(His dick twitched at the thought.)

~oo(0)oo~

From his place at the rail with a cold Coors, watching Branch and Cady move through the bar pasted a grin on Travis's face like nothing else had in weeks. Talk about two people who stuck out like sore thumbs. He, on the other hand, dressed in a dark T-shirt, jeans, and a pair of black work boots, blended right in. However, people-watching Branch and Cady explained why he saw it when that hipster chick asked to take Branch's photo just so she could say she'd seen a real live cowboy -- oh, Travis couldn't hear the actual conversation, but he could damn well figure it out -- and a familiar looking guy a few feet back shifted in at the last second for some sort of photobomb.

~oo(0)oo~

Photobomb? More like photo nuclear inferno when Branch saw something on his phone out in the parking lot and completely flipped out about some guy named David Ridges stalking him. He came so unglued that Travis thought about seeing if he could score some Xanax or something to calm him down.

When Cady questioned Branch in a "let's get the crazy raving lunatic placated" way, Travis piped up, "I saw it. I mean, I definitely saw some guy I've seen before move in when she took the photo."

They both glowered at him.

He flung out his arms and shouted in frustration, "Well maybe if either of you had told me who you were looking for, or what you were doing, or anything else I might need to know, including some photos, I could've said something! You guys stick out in there. I blend in. I stayed parked at the railing like you said. I swear, Branch, I thought it was just some guy pranking you!"

"We have to find him!" The look in Branch's eyes shook Travis, and he saw the same fear mirrored in Cady's eyes. "We have to go --"

"Hey there, big guy," Travis said, squaring up, and putting a hand in the center of Branch's chest, "that asshole is long and gone, and at this point if the two of you go storming back into that dive, it's not going to work." He turned Branch around and with Cady's help, got him back into the truck for the long drive home.

Cady did most of the driving, while Branch sat in the passenger seat, almost comatose with rage.

~oo(0)oo~

"You need to talk to somebody about this," Cady whispered to him the moment after Branch walked through the front door, "that you're pretty sure you saw David Ridges in Denver."

"Who? Because Branch won't --" he took a breath and collected himself. "Branch has asked that I not talk to the Sheriff's office without him or his lawyer present."

Cady frowned in thought and looked like she was about to ask why, when she changed her mind. "I'll talk to my dad," she said softly before giving Travis a gentle push. "Go on in -- he needs to be with somebody right now. I'd offer, but it would just be awkward."

~oo(0)oo~

Travis found Branch in the kitchen, slumped over the counter, head buried in his hands, shaking ever so slightly.

Right. He went straight to the living room, poured two fingers of whiskey into glass, came back and gave it to Branch. "Medicinal purposes."

Branch bolted it down.

Glancing out the window, Travis could see the lights of Cady's car as she made her way to the end of the drive and turned onto the county road. He turned to ask Branch if he wanted anything else, like something to eat, before he went to bed, but Travis never got the words out because Branch was on him like mud on a pig, manhandling him to the living room couch, Travis barely had time to snag that bottle of Corn Husker's Lotion from the kitchen counter, as he heard himself say "yes" multiple times to things understood but not actually said along the way.

~oo(0)oo~

From experience, Travis knew that couches were surprisingly uncomfortable places to fuck, but somehow nobody ever seemed to notice or mind that until after. Case in point: all Travis cared about right now, with Branch's hands clenched around his hips as he slam, slam, slam, slammed into him, was the life-altering, mind-blowing discovery that apparently guys had some sort of G-spot because about 30 seconds into getting the high hard one, things went from the enjoyable push-pull pressure of Branch's dick ramming in and out, plus the sensation of feeling good and used as Branch hissed for him to "take it" to feeling like somebody was jerking him off, but somehow from the inside … on top of what he was already getting from having his cock chafe against the leather arm of the couch.

Branch's teeth clamped down almost hard enough to break skin when he came, and the shock of it made Travis blast hard.

The pounding of the blood in his downturned head 30 seconds later, and the way the wood of the frame (under god knows how many layers of padding) dug into his hip reminded Travis why he tried not to fuck on a couch unless he had to.

Emergency sex with Branch = had to, of course.

After a few minutes and a gasped, "You're crushing me, buddy," from Travis, Branch hauled off and flopped on the couch, not bothering to buckle, button, or zip.

Travis rucked his jeans up enough to tip toe into the kitchen where he used a paper towel to swipe at the worst of the stuff oozing out of him, no pink, so no blood. (Amazing what a slick finger or two back there before could do.) Yeah, he should've used a condom, but done was done, and honestly … given the number of buckle bunnies who'd like to get knocked up with a Connally kid? Travis was willing to bet this was the first time Branch hadn't worn a condom.

(And on top of everything, Travis liked the wonderful wicked little thrill of doing something frowned upon and getting away with it.)

Coming back from the kitchen, Travis took care of the mess on the couch (thank goodness leather wiped clean) and set a glass of ice water on the coffee table in front of Branch, who still sprawled bonelessly, his head tipped back along the top of the couch, eyes shut.

He looks exhausted. "Can we talk?" Travis asked.

Branch cracked an eye open. "'Bout what?"

Lots of things. "For starters, do you think you've gotten it out of your system, or can I expect round two?"

Branch smiled crookedly, eyes closed, and shook his head. "Cockslut." But there was no heat in it. He sighed heavily and sat up. "Probably not." He yawned, scrubbed at his hair, and rocked forward like he meant to stand.

Travis laid a hand on his forearm. "I'm not done yet." He swallowed nervously and continued, the next words tumbling out in a rush, "Are you gay, or bi or something?"

Branch blinked a bit at that. "You're asking this now? Bi … I think," he said after a long moment. "Heteroflexible?" He shrugged. "Mostly I'm just done coloring inside the lines."

Travis laughed bitterly. "Coloring inside the lines?! You draw the lines, Branch. Guys like you always have."

Branch looked at him with deep, sad eyes. "That's what you think, but from where I stand, there's nothing but lines hemming me in." He paused. "How about you? Bi?"

Shaking his head, Travis chortled, "No, just heteroflexible, too, I guess, when it comes to the right person … telling me what to do." His voice trailed off.

"So, you like it then, getting ridden roughshod?" There was a speculative glint in Branch's eyes.

"Sometimes." And even then, I don't want to like it as much as I do. "A part of me is always going to want to buck the system, though. I mean, I like it, but I kind of don't, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it and sort it all out."

"What about whips and chains?"

Travis shook his head. "Only if you want to laugh about how tacky that crap looks."

Branch smiled. "Like a cowboy vs. a rhinestone cowboy."

"Exactly." Though, Travis did have to admit to himself that he liked the idea of Branch wearing a pair of real chaps and not much else.

"Okay then." Branch once again rocked forward to sit up.

Travis stopped him. "We're not done. When do I get my first paycheck? I got bills."

Branch's forehead furrowed. "I hadn't thought about that."

"Well, the sooner the better, and I need to make $1700 to make ends meet." Not actually true. The shop had paid him $8 an hour, which meant that he cleared about $900 after taxes and such, but if he could talk Branch into an over $2 raise like that? And since it was salary, not hourly? Why not go for it? "Also, what's my job title? I'm not putting 'guy friday' on my 1040 form."

"That's easy," Branch replied. "Personal assistant."

~oo(0)oo~

"I need to borrow your car, " Branch said, storming out of his room after a marathon session of working on the David Ridges conspiracy.

Travis had caught a few glimpses of Branch's bedroom through the open door: a web of photos and notes, all wound through with bits of colored string and pushpins covered most of one wall.

Once they got the keys (along with a glare from Momma) and they got the old rustbucket running, Branch took the rifle from the back of his truck, and flipped him the keys. "See you back at the house."

"Where are you going?"

Branch shook his head vehemently. "You don't need to know. One way or another, this thing with Ridges ends today." He tore out, raising a huge cloud of gravel and dust.

~oo(0)oo~

About six hours later, Branch called him to come and pick him up from the Sheriff's Office.

Travis didn't even have time to turn the engine off. Branch came flying over as soon as Travis pulled up to the curb.

"I'm suspended!" he said as he opened the passenger door and hopped in. "Vic ratted me out and that piece of shit, Sam Poteet, identified me. They don't even fucking care that I tracked down David Ridges and can prove that he's alive and stalking me, and that Poteet and David Nighthorse are in on it!" He slammed his hands against the dash.

"Shit. So, what are you going to do?"

There was something downright scary in the way that Branch grinned. "There's another way to crack this case, and that's what I'm going to do. Hit them from a direction they're not expecting."

"Okay … do you need me to do anything?" Travis put the truck into gear and pulled away from the curb. "And, I'm going to say it right now. I'm driving us home, all the way home, because on top of everything else going on, we do not need an incident arising from me giving you some road head on the way."

Branch chortled at that and only now seemed to realize he still sat in the passenger seat. "No. I'm not in the mood, and that stopped being a fantasy of mine the first time I dealt with a high speed fatality because of it."

A few minutes later, Travis asked, "So, what's wrong with my car?"

"Nothing. Just ran out of gas."

"Really." Travis couldn't help rubbing it in.

Branch shrugged, busted. "I also kicked a dent in it."

Travis rolled his eyes. Because it wasn't like his car needed any additional embellishments to make it uglier.

"Besides, if you're working for me, we need to get you a new -- newer car to use. I can't have a hoopty at my place."

"Oh?" Travis perked up at that. He'd seen a sweet looking red Camaro for sale on the local lemon lot.

~oo(0)oo~

The next morning as Travis put two eggs, sunny side up on a plate for Branch (because he thought that after a terrible day yesterday, Branch might want something other than his usual cup of coffee, toast, and bowl of cereal) Branch shocked the living daylights out of him by coming out of his room clean shaven and dressed in an expensive suit and tie.

"Do you have a court date or something?" Travis asked.

"No, I'm headed for work." Branch sprinkled a little pepper on his eggs and tucked in. At Travis's look of confusion, he added, "Barlow's been wanting me to come and work for him for a long time, so I decided to give him exactly what he wanted."

(Something about the way he said it, plus the way he called his father by his first name instead of saying "dad" made the hair on the back of Travis's neck stand up.)

~oo(0)oo~

Branch came home from work with an armload of files. "Homework" he called it, and he barely looked up from them as he scarfed down a bowl of 100% from scratch chili that Travis had spent all afternoon making.

Travis simmered quietly inside. I could've served him a bowl of dogfood, for all he's paying attention.

Visions of dishing up Alpo vanished when Branch looked up between bites and said, "I found a car for you." The Alpo returned when he continued, "Buick. Guy's bringing it by tomorrow morning. His grandpa passed a few months back."

~oo(0)oo~

Travis mentally apologized for ever thinking about serving "prime cuts in sauce" to Branch the minute he laid eyes on the car. And he kind of regretted that he never got to meet the sort of grandpa whose idea of a nice, respectable Buick was a one with a leather interior and a supercharged engine. Yes, the low-milage black 2004 Buick Regal GS that Branch found was no bitchin' Camaro, but it wasn't some little biddymobile, either. As soon as he signed the pink slip, Branch handed him the keys. "No speeding tickets, or your next set of wheels is a bike."

When Branch left for work, Travis drove mostly sensibly to the nearest Walmart and bought the most expensive car wash, wax, and leather care they sold, because this was the nicest car he'd ever had, and he was going to try to keep it that way.

(Mostly sensibly … because there was that one little bit of seeing just exactly how much get up and go "Black Beauty" had. Yes, he named his cars … the ones he liked, at least.)

~oo(0)oo~

The gleam Travis had carefully buffed on to Black Beauty vanished a week later when he tore down the dirt road to Branch's father's house and skidded to a halt in the drive after getting a phone call from Branch. "I need you to come over. I just killed Barlow." And after that nothing. No replies to texts or voicemails.

On the way over, Travis wondered for more than a few insane seconds if Branch needed to hide the body in the Buick's trunk or something, but as he pulled in he could see that both Sheriff Longmire and Deputy Moretti were there.

He found them inside at the kitchen table, talking. Branch was disheveled and bloody from a wound where the neck met the shoulder. Powder burns covered his face and clothes. Since nobody seemed to notice or care about that, Travis leapt into action, grabbing the kitchen shears from the knife block, he started snipping at the neck of Branch's shirt.

"What are you doing?" Branch interrupted his words to the Sheriff.

"Duh? Cleaning your wounds. You're bleeding. It will get infected if we don't do something. Have you called the ambulance, or are we just going to drive you down to urgent care?" Travis finished cutting the neck and shoulder of Branch's shirt open and looked up to see three sets of eyes with an are you daft?! expression in them.

Finally, Branch said, "He's in full on mother hen mode right now. Don't even try to stop him, or he'll just put another heaping spoonful of tater-tot casserole on your plate and tell you that you haven't been eating right."

"Well, you haven't! And don't try telling me that it's just a scratch." Travis said as he scrubbed his hands extra good at the kitchen sink before coming back with a double handful of wet paper towels. From what he could see when he cut Branch's shirt open, the bleeding had slowed to an ooze, but it needed to be cleaned before it scabbed over and trapped anything in. Branch hissed slightly when Travis took the first swipe.

Sheriff Longmire took the pause in Branch's disjointed and somewhat incoherent narrative as opportunity to point out that oh, by the way, he had David Ridges' body in the back of his SUV.

Travis had to actually sit down when he heard that. "Listen," he piped up when he got his wits back, "why don't you all just let me finish cleaning this up a bit, decide whether or not a bandage and some neosporin with do the trick, or if he's still got some buckshot in there -- because this is from a shotgun, right? -- and needs a real medic to take a look at it."

For once, everybody actually listened to him. He couldn't see any sign of buckshot in the 3 deep gouges and the one actual hole that only had the tiniest bit of flesh over the top keeping it from being completely open. Travis washed his hands again and slathered on the antibiotic cream he found in the bathroom and before he covered it with gauze. It would do for now, but he still wanted a medical professional to look at it.

An extremely weird and awkward conversation followed, and midway through it, Branch's Uncle Lucien, the former Sheriff showed up, and just like Branch, he didn't look too torn up about the situation, either.

So, from what Travis pieced together, right around the time he got suspended, Branch had reviewed more video from his stash of cameras tracking Jacob Nighthorse and discovered that, contrary to everything his dad had said about hating Nighthorse, the two seemed rather chummy. A pile of documents from the office confirmed it. So, this morning, Branch had accepted Barlow's invite to do a little skeet shooting so that he could ask him a few questions.

And then the rabbit hole got really deep, ugly, and complicated. Apparently, by talking to Barlow, Branch found the link between three really nasty and snarled up cases: David Ridges, Henry Standing Bear and the murder of Sheriff Longmire's wife. (The Sheriff broke down at that point and cried for a moment while Uncle Lucien swore a blue streak.) As he continued, Branch's voice cracked and turned rusty, because his father had said that if his involvement came out, it would beggar him, destroy the family name, and ruin the business he'd worked all his life to build. He was too old to start over, but not too old to find another woman and sire another son. "So he triggered a bird to try and distract me, but the sound made me flinch, not turn, and his shot clipped me," Branch indicated his shoulder. "So I shot him." He drew a deep breath. "Take me in, if you must, but I don't think any jury's going to convict me."

Uncle Lucien broke the silence that followed. "Walt, I think this is as open and shut a case of self-defense as I've ever seen. Don't you?"

Sheriff Longmire nodded and that was it.

~oo(0)oo~

No. Really. That was it. No charges. No investigation. Branch's suspension became a resignation. The whole Sam Poteet thing just fell off the map and Jacob Nighthorse got told to take a long walk off a short pier. For once he listened. Because reasons.

Lots of reasons.

~oo(0)oo~

They buried Barlow Connally face down in his casket and drove a stake through his heart because Uncle Lucien turned out to be poetic that way.

(Uncle Lucien also pulled Travis aside at the funeral and said, "Son, I'm not going to mince words. What's between you and Branch?"

Travis thought about about it and replied, "Well, Sir, out of respect to you, I'm also not going to mince words. He fucks me and I feed him."

Uncle Lucien laughed and laughed at that one. "Remind me never to play poker with you, boy, it seems you're better at bluffing and bullshit than I gave you credit for.")

Branch and Travis burned Barlow's house to the ground the day all issues related to the Connally family trust settled.

"Isn't this arson?" Travis asked as they stood at the ready with hoses attached to two water trucks Branch had hired.

"No." Branch shook his head. "I don't plan to file an insurance claim, and I'm not burning anybody out. It's my house."

"But --"

"If Walt or somebody at the county office really gets a bug up their ass, I suppose they could cite me for demolition without getting all my permits lined up."

~oo(0)oo~

That night Branch fucked him on the rug in front of the fireplace. Sort of. Travis explained up front that he didn't want any rug burns. He pressed Branch to lie back, then sank down inch by teasing inch on to his cock before riding him like no tomorrow, cupping Branch's hand around him so that he could fuck Branch's fist and put on a show for him too. By the time Travis finished shooting, he could say that they'd both been ridden hard and put away wet.

~oo(0)oo~

Travis even got a business card with his name and "Personal Assistant" on it, as well as a desk tucked away in a little nook off of Branch's office. He thought it was odd at first, because Connally Construction had several VPs and a platoon of Administrative Assistants to do things.

Mostly he just had to wear a shirt with a tie, or a polo shirt with the company logo and chinos and get stuff for everybody in the office, or drive people around who needed driving around, but for $32K a year plus benefits, room, board, and the Buick, Travis wasn't going to complain.

(Even if Branch made him take the company mandated sexual harassment training 3 times in a row just to be sure he was crystal clear on keeping his mouth shut and his eyes and hands to himself.

"I get it!" Travis said after the third go-round. "My heart doesn't belong to you, but my ass sure does."

"And don't you forget it," Branch said, without even a hint of joke in his voice.)

~oo(0)oo~

"You know, people are starting to talk," Travis said when Branch took him out to a super expensive steakhouse two nights after Connally Construction closed a multi-million dollar contract to redevelop an old strip mine into an exclusive spa and resort. The family that owned the land had an old and cantankerous grandma, but Travis really had a great time listening to her "I know where the bodies are buried" stories, and she laughed at all his jokes as they drove around and looked at the property. Apparently, that counted for something, because it got a positive mention when Branch signed the contract.

"'Bout what?" Branch asked, washing a bite of steak down with what the sommelier assured them was a great wine. Not that Travis could tell. He still preferred beer, but places that charged these kinds of prices for steak didn't serve beer.

Travis glanced around. "Us." He whispered as loudly as he dared.

Branch rolled his eyes and shrugged. "Let them talk."

"But what if --?"

"But nothing," Branch cut in, not even trying to be quiet or discrete. "I have a construction empire to run. If somebody doesn't want to do business with me because of gossip, I won't notice the difference, because, frankly, I can buy or sell them any time I want." He grinned wickedly, "Besides, give it a month or three, somebody else will be the hot topic and and the speculation about us will be yesterday's news."

Travis took a bite of his steak, and as he chewed, rolled the next words over in his mind before speaking. "Buy or sell … so what does that mean for me?"

Branch gave one of his rare real smiles. "Think it through. Some things just don't have a price."

~oo(0)oo~

Travis did think it through. Branch was right. So what if people talked? They didn't have anything that he needed or wanted.

Like the house where he had his room and Branch had the other, and Branch took care of the big things while Travis covered all the odds and ends, and they watched football games, and ate tater-tot casserole washed down with PBR, and absolutely no fucks were given.

Except for good hard ones in the living room, the kitchen, the dining room, and on one particularly dreary February morning, on top of the washer.