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Clearing the Way

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Vin came awake all at once and immediately bit back a cough when pain blossomed across his chest as he tried to take a breath. He froze, trying to take stock of his surroundings in a way that wouldn't let on he was awake, just in case anyone was watching him.

Even with his eyes closed he could tell it was dark wherever he was. He knew straight away that he wasn't indoors, not when he was lying on cold stone that had a thin layer of fine dirt over it and didn't feel like it had ever been disturbed by either sweeping or any consistent wear and tear of boots, but he also wasn't outside since there was none of the typical nighttime insect noises he'd expect in this area of Colorado and there was no breeze to speak of, let alone one strong enough to silence them. All of which meant what?

It was only when he took a careful breath in through his nose and he recognized the stale, yet sweet decaying smell under the dirt and dust that he was able to figure it out. A cave. He was in a cave. That was when it all came back to him in a rush- tracking the gang, the shootout that followed, seeing the dynamite incoming and shouting out a warning to the others while running for the crack he'd spotted in the rockface, and then… nothing.

A groan to his left had Vin abandoning his attempt at playing possum and, in one quick movement, he pulled gun while springing to his feet and turning towards the sound. Having his eyes open didn't help much though since the cave was blacker than pitch. The explosion must have either collapsed the cave entrance or covered it by a rock slide. He didn't know if it was blocked completely or not, it was possible that whatever time of day it was, the sun just wasn't in a position to peek through any cracks, but he'd need to survive until that could change so he began creeping forward, trying to find whoever had made the noise.

It hadn't been more than a few seconds before a very familiar voice called out, "Vin, that you?"

Vin sighed in relief. "Chris?"

"You all right?"

Was he? His head was splitting something fierce and he'd definitely taken a couple of good knocks, but he was on his feet and seemed to be staying there, so… "Busted up a bit, but not too bad. You?" he asked as he carefully picked his way towards Chris' voice, which was coming from the direction he suspected the entrance was.

"Fine." The tone was off though, clipped in a way Chris usually wasn't.

"But?" Vin asked.

"I'm stuck."

Feeling in front of him carefully as he approached, Vin finally made contact, the tips of his fingers sweeping up against Chris' shoulder. "Best stay as still as you can then til I can make sure it's done shifting about. Don't want to risk any more coming down on you if we can help it."

"No, we certainly don't want that."

Vin was used to moving about in low light, but no light at all was harder and used his skills in a way he hadn't honed as well, but he did what he could. He could tell that Chris was on his stomach, probably a result of diving for the cave entrance the same as Vin had done. There were some small rocks on his upper back, but nothing that didn't seem like they couldn't be moved. Chris didn't seem hurt; he didn't show any signs of pain in response to Vin's touch and there weren't any obvious damp areas where blood had begun to collect. The rocks got bigger the further Vin moved along Chris' body though and there were a hell of a lot more of them. Just about the small of his back or so they started piling on one another and the rest of Chris basically disappeared under the rubble pretty much past that.

"Yeah, you really are stuck good. I need to see how far this all goes now," Vin explained as he stepped away from Chris to get a sense of the shape of the pile and where it fell in relation to the wall. "Don't move none."

"I won't."

It was only a few paces from the edge of the pile to the side of cave from the right and a little less from Chris' left. The picture that was coming together in Vin's mind's eye wasn't a great one. Between what got blown up by the dynamite and what came down because of the rock slide that followed the cave's opening, which had been pretty tiny to begin with, was completely blocked. They weren't going to be getting out that way anytime soon.

With one hand on the wall as a guide he started inching his way around the cave, trying to map out the cave to get a better sense of the size of it.

"Vin?" Chris called out before he'd gotten more than a few feet away.

"I'm not going nowhere, I'm just getting a better idea of what we're working with here, Chris."

Chris huffed, obviously frustrated. "Tell me straight, how's it look?"

"Well, for starters, it's pitch black, so don't look like much," Vin joked, sliding and sweeping his feet in front of him as he walked.

"Hate to tell you this, Tanner, but you are not as funny as you think you are."

"I think I'm plenty funny," Vin countered, before sighing. He'd only taken eight paces before the wall had curved enough to put him on the far side, only another two before it began curving back, and only three move before hitting the start of the pile that was trapping Chris.

"You keep believing that." Chris was quiet as Vin worked his way around, but once he'd stopped he spoke up again, "So?"

"Ain't nothing here, Chris. I was hoping someone'd used this place and left some kindling behind, but only Ezra'd get lucky like that, so while I got tinder and matches there's nothing to keep a fire going and no real place to start it safely even if I did. Pretty sure we got enough air that we don't have to worry about running out, but there's no food or water. Don't think we have much choice other than me trying to get you out from under those rocks and hope it don't cause more of a slide."

"Yeah, let's try to avoid that, if at all possible." Chris paused for a minute before adding, "Not that I want to stay like this or anything, but if trying to get me out would be dangerous we could wait. The boys'll be working on it from their side as soon as they can."

"'Course they will," Vin replied, trying to sound like he thought it would happen.

"Vin?"

Not surprised that Chris didn't believe him, he never could get anything past the man, Vin explained, "They were throwing dynamite, Chris. You know just as well as me what that can do."

"You saw it coming though, gave the two of us enough time to get in here. Could be your warning gave the others time to get clear."

"Could be." Didn't seem likely, but Vin knew better than to voice that thought out loud.

"Well, just in case no one's coming to rescue us, we may as well try to clear as much as we can from our side of this slide."

Vin smiled at that, even though he knew Chris couldn't see him. "May as well."

"Just try not to bring the whole mountain down on me."

Vin stepped over, squatting on his haunches so he could clap Chris on the shoulder before running his hand down Chris' arm so he could grasp his forearm. "I will do whatever I can to keep you from getting hurt."

"I know. I don't doubt that. I don't doubt you, Vin, I never have."

Offering a last, quick tap, Vin broke the contact and got to his feet. Trying to picture how it looked in his head, Vin took a few minutes to feel the rubble before he started moving any of the rocks, figuring out what was atop of what and which might cause others to move if he lifted them off the pile. "All right, I'm going to start moving these now. Give a holler if something shifts."

"Will do."

He worked steadily, throwing the smaller rocks over his shoulder and into the back of the cave while using both hands to carry the bigger ones a pace or two out of the way. Grab, turn, toss. Grab, turn, toss. Lift, step, drop. Grab, turn, toss. Lift, step, drop. Grab, turn, toss. Without realizing it he let himself drift to the point that he wasn't sure how long he'd been working before he became aware of Chris calling his name.

"Vin? Vin!"

"What!" he yelled back before suddenly realizing how dangerous it was to have let his attention wander. "Shit, did it shift bad? Where are you hurt?"

"No, nothing's changed. Well, maybe not nothing; there's not as much weight pressing down now, which is nice."

"So what are you clamoring about then?"

"You should take a break. You don't got to do this all at once."

"It ain't gonna do itself," Vin countered.

"You still don't need to work yourself till you fall over. You can rest for a minute and catch your breath."

"I'm fine."

Chris didn't say anything in response to that, just gave a little snort.

The silence hung between them for a minute while Vin moved a few small rocks before saying, "You know that glare of yours doesn't work if I can't see you, Larabee."

"Worked enough you knew I was giving you it." Which was true enough that Vin didn't bother to argue. "The boys are coming, Vin."

"You can't know that for certain."

"I believe in them, same as I believe in you."

"Sounding dangerously close to Josiah there, Chris."

"There are worse folks to be compared to. Tell me straight, Vin, how bad are you hurting?"

"Head's ringing a bit more than I'd like but it ain't gonna fall off any time soon, ribs ain't broke but they ain't fine neither, and my back's bothering me a bit more than usual but it's tolerable."

"So why'd I have to call your name five times before you answered?"

Vin sighed, scrubbing a hand over his face. "I should have been paying more attention, sorry about that."

Being the prodding, noisy bastard that he was, Chris didn't let the matter lie. "And?"

"And I don't like small, dark spaces much. And I don't like the thought of us dying in here so I just…" Vin shrugged. "I dunno, got lost in my head a bit. Won't happen again."

"I wasn't making anything of it, Vin. I want out of here, same as you, and I don't like being stuck under all this with you having to do all the work, especially if you're hurting yourself trying to get me out."

"I ain't hurting myself."

"Pushing yourself then."

"You don't gotta hound me none."

"Didn't mean to be hounding you, I'm just…. Shit." Chris muttered something under his breath, Vin wasn't sure what but it might have been something about a damned fool. "Hell, Vin, I'm not one for rousing speeches like Josiah and I sure don't have Ezra's silver tongue so I'm just going to come right out and say it plain. You and me, we got something between us. I felt it that first moment in the street and I've been reminded of it over and over again every one of those times when you're there at my side, watching my back, slotting into my life, my world, like you've always been there. Like you belong there. I had something similar with Sarah and when she died I never thought I'd have anything like that again, but then you showed up and proved me wrong. I don't want to lose that, Vin. I don't want to lose you."

Stepping closer, Vin crouched down next to Chris. "You ain't gonna lose me." He reached out, finding Chris' face and then cupping his cheek in his hand. "I'm right here and I ain't planning on going nowhere."

"I didn't know you felt... this way. The same as me, I mean."

"Yeah, well, you never asked."

The angle was all wrong with Chris still pinned under all that rock and Vin's ribs aching the way they were, but determination was a powerful thing and the kiss that followed was everything Vin could have hoped it would be.

"Much as I like kissing," Chris drawled, "I like what comes after better so if you could…"

"Go back to getting these rocks off of you and us out of here?" Vin ran his fingers through Chris' hair, pressing their foreheads together for a moment before sighing and pushing himself to his feet. "Unfortunately, I reckon you're right."

"I'm always right."

"You keep thinking that."

They both chuckled at that as Vin grabbed another stone and tossed it with the rest. So far he'd been lucky and everything had stayed pretty stable as he worked. It had probably helped that instead of just removing the rocks trapping Chris he'd started at the top of the pile and was slowly working his way down, but he made sure to pay better attention to the work this time and not lose himself in the motions.

Time passed slowly, just when Vin starting to feel like he was going to need to stop for a bit when there was a slight shifting sound. "Shit, it's gonna slide. Cover your head!" Vin yelled and he dove on top of Chris, curling into as small a ball as he could while still trying to protect Chris' head and shoulders. He'd barely gotten himself into position when the soft scrapes became a clattering as rocks and pebbles and stones cascaded down around them.

Just loud enough to be noticeable over the noise of the slide was a bunch of muffled shouts. The only one Vin could make out was Buck's distinctive booming voice yelling, "Damnit, JD!"

Chris must have heard it too because he snorted and said, "Told you the boys'd rescue us."

"Yeah, well you don't gotta be all smug about it," Vin countered as he accidentally-on-purpose swatted Chris on the back of the head as he brushed some pebbles out of Chris' hair as he sat up.

"You're just—"

A loud crackle-crash drowned out whatever Chris was going to say and more stones came sliding down around them. A small gap opened up near the top of the slide. The amount of light it let in probably wasn't really all that much, but after however long in complete darkness it was practically blinding.

"Chris? Vin?" Josiah called to them.

"Yeah, we're here!" Chris shouted back and they could hear the others whooping and hollering at their reply.

Questions pepper them once the celebrating died down- asking if they were hurt, if they could climb out on their own, if they needed help - one after another without giving them a chance to answer.

Eventually Vin just interrupted, yelling, "Chris is pinned under some rocks and I could use a hand getting him out from under them."

"Pinned? He hurt?" Nathan asked.

"He says he ain't," Vin started to explain, only to have Chris shout over him,

"I'm fine, we both are, just get us out of here."

"All right, all right, hold your horses, we're coming," Buck grumbled back at them.

Vin shifted, about to get to his feet and resume his efforts clearing off more rocks, when Chris reached out and grabbed his forearm. "What we said before. About when we get out of here," he began before stopping and letting his words hang between them.

"You ain't changing your mind on me now, are you, Larabee?"

"Wasn't planning on it."

"Smart man. I've been thinking, it's been a while since you spent any time out at your ranch; the place is probably falling to pieces by now. I don't suppose you could use some help fixing the place up?"

"You know what, I reckon I do."

"Good, because it looks like we're actually getting out of here and it just so happens I know my way around a hammer," he said, offering Chris a smile that was in no way innocent.

Chris groaned and Vin couldn't help it, he started laughing.