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Forging Copper

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ONE
He stopped dead in the doorway, staring. Unable to tear his eyes away. Unable to breathe.

They stared back, two sets of green eyes, different in depth and clarity and even shade of color, but no different in wideness and surprise and fear.

"Vin," Chris gasped, and the stillness was shattered as he jerked away - out - of the other man, frantically pulling at his clothes. "What - why are you - "

He answered, his words seeming to come from very far away, not out of his mouth. "There's a fire at the Holbrook place - spreading into the treeline. Buck said you were here . . . "

Chris was off the bed, Ezra also rising, wrapped in a sheet as white as he was -

And Vin ran. He heard Chris calling after him, the hard stamps as Chris pulled on his boots, harder stamps as he rushed after, still yelling for him.

Then JD's voice on the boardwalk as he rushed past the sheriff, "Vin? The others are at the livery - you find Chris? Vin?"

Peso merely grunted as he pulled himself into the saddle, then, ever aware, moved quickly into the full gallop that took them out of town, well ahead of everyone else.

*&*&*&*&*&*&*

He paced restlessly, unable to stop, not wanting to think. The fire was not out, but they had contained it, digging firebreaks and carting as much water as they could find to keep it trapped. The barn had been lost as had a good number of trees, but they had kept it away from the house and from the line of vegetation that would have fed it directly back to town. Now, as night fell, the blaze that had raged almost like a living creature was subsiding, turning on itself as nothing else was left to feed it.

"Vin?" Buck was close, handing him a canteen.

He took it with a nod, not meeting the other man's eyes. He wondered if Buck had known, if he had sent him there intentionally.

"You okay?" The question was soft, and Vin knew his concern wasn't because of the fire.

He nodded again, taking a long drink. "Where the others?"

Buck stepped closer, so that his voice was a little clearer over the thrum of the fire. "Chris sent Ezra and Josiah back to town with Nathan and the wounded. JD's gone to help Casey and Ms. Nettie and Inez with getting some supplies out here for the night. Chris is organizing some watches. He sent me to find you, see what you think - "

"He's in charge," Vin said. "Ain't got nothing to add." He handed the canteen back to Buck then reached down to pick up the axe he had put on the ground. The movement primed the muscles in his back and despite himself, he groaned.

"Hey, you okay?" Buck crouched beside him, picking up the axe when Vin's fingers wouldn't wrap around the handle. "Lemme see - "

"Ain't nothing," Vin muttered, trying not to let the pain show on his face and knowing he was failing. "Probably pulled something with all the digging." He tried to pull himself upright, but his back locked and he gasped.

"Vin?" Buck's voice was tighter now. "Take it easy, just relax for a minute - might make it loosen up." He edged closer, kneeling directly in front of Vin and looking up into his eyes. He let the axe drop back to the ground, then raised both hands, placing them on Vin's shoulders. "Rest on me for a minute or two - "

"I'm fine," Vin snarled, but he couldn't manage to pull away, his back shooting flares as he tried to move.

"Vin," Buck said in that soft voice that Vin hated, "you're not fine. You been working like there's a demon on your ass all day - hell, you did about half the digging yourself. Kept thinking you were gonna wear yourself out but you just kept goin' - "

"Had to be done," Vin said shortly, but he relented a little, drawing a deep breath. It took a few seconds, his lungs not giving any more than his back.

But it started doing the trick. The heat in his back started to ebb and he felt the first vibrations of motion start.

Buck's gaze flickered for just a second, the only warning Vin had before another set of hands touched him, sliding around his waist and taking some of his weight.

His body knew that it was Chris, giving in instinctively to the familiarity and desire only the other man could provoke so easily in him.

But his mind remembered, the image from that moment this morning scalded into his brain. It leapt at him now in razor-sharp clarity, half-clad bodies frozen in the act of passion, shocked faces staring at him, his world shattering into a million different glass-like pieces, each one cutting deep and quick.

He willed himself to pull away, and surprisingly, his body cooperated - insofar as it could. He lurched, stumbling clear of both men before falling to one side. He was breathing heavily, but he still managed to hiss, "Get away from me," before either man could touch him again.

"Vin," Chris stepped closer, leaning down. Vin didn't look at him, couldn't look at him, but he felt the nearness of that body, and knew when one of those hands reached toward him.

He pulled farther away, lashing out with a fury he hadn't felt in years. "Git away!" he yelled, or tried to. It came out raspy, his voice exhausted from the smoke and the heat.

But Chris caught the anger. He pulled back, even stepped back. But he didn't leave. Instead, he turned slightly toward Buck. "There's some liniment in his saddle bags - silver tin on the side with the rifle."

Buck nodded even as Vin snarled a protest, and was gone.

Leaving him alone with Chris.

He closed his eyes, focusing on the pain - on the physical. It was easier to deal with.

"I'm sorry," Chris said softly. "I never wanted to hurt you, God, Vin, I don't know why - "

"Seemed pretty clear," the voice that sounded like his said. Then more words came, from a part of him he knew well, the part that kept him alive. "You and Ez have been building to this for months now - y'all been grating at each other since that thing with the money. Seems to me ya figgered it out."

He kept his eyes closed, unable to look at the other man. Unable to look at the remnants of his world.

"It's not what you think," Chris whispered, an agony in his voice that made Vin wince.

He laughed though. "I know you think I'm some sorta innocent, but I can't see how what I saw can be anything other than what it was. You, him, your bed - " The same bed he had left mere hours before. The thought took his breath, which spurred his back to flare.

"That's not - that's not what I meant," Chris mumbled. "It's got nothing to do with how I feel about you, I swear - "

He found himself staring at the other man before he could get control of the impulse. It hurt, worse than the pain in his back, worse than that long ago bullet to his belly and the months of trying to survive it. Fortunately, that other part that seemed to be in control managed to ask, "Maybe I didn't hear right when you said there was nobody else but me - did I hear that wrong, Chris? Did you say there was nobody but me and Ezra and I just missed it? Or did ya say that there was nobody but me unless - "

"No," Chris snapped, his anger cold - and gone as soon as it had come. His face seemed to age, and his voice was rough as he continued, "I said there was nobody but you, and I meant it. I still . . . . I still mean it." He looked away, turning his head. His skin was streaked with soot and ash and dirt, and here and there Vin could see meandering trails of blood and the pock marks of burns. "I'm sorry, Vin, I swear to you, I never meant for it to happen and it won't happen again - please." He looked back, his eyes bright, his lips trembling slightly.

Vin turned away this time, his throat closing. He took several deep breaths, trying to get some control over the conflicting emotions, before he was able to say, "Gettin' caught make that promise worth more now than it was this mornin'?"

Chris said nothing, and Vin could feel the weight of his gaze. The sound of approaching footsteps finally spurred a hurried answer, "Yeah, it does. I never wanna see that look on your face again."

Buck was moving forward, the tin of ointment clasped in one hand. "Think I got it - but we might wanna hurry this up. Ez's back with a wagon and more barrels of water. Wind's picking up back toward town and probably headin' this way. We need to wet down as much as we can, then cover the rest with as much dirt as we can dig up."

He handed the tin to Chris, who nodded, turning to Vin. Before he could speak, Vin said, "Y'all get on it." He held out his hand, the demand clear.

Chris stared at him, defiant. For a second. Then, with a slight nod, he extended his hand.

Vin jerked the tin away, careful not to touch any part of Chris. He worked on getting the top off, hoping that Nathan's concoction would work better this time than it had the last few times he had tried.

Knowing they were still there, he said, "Go on, I can take care of this." He heard Buck start away, but felt Chris hovering. Unexpectedly, even to himself, he blurted, "Best not to keep Ez waitin'. He ain't as trustin' as some of us fools."

"Vin," Chris's voice was a whisper. "Don't - "

"Go on," Vin hissed. "Ya done enough."

He heard Chris finally turn and go away, and wondered how long those sounds would haunt his sleep.

*&*&*&*&*&*&*

"Vin?" Josiah ambled toward him, shovel balanced on his shoulder. "Been three days - think we've done all we can."

Vin stood up from where he was putting more dirt on a smouldering mound. The pain in his back had been constant, just another obstacle to work around. Easier than the sharp spike that drilled through him every time he saw Chris.

"Ya leavin'?" Vin asked, unconsciously sliding into a lean, one hip jutting out to the side.

"Don't think we can do much more, and I'd like to take a bath, maybe eat some food that's on a plate. Maybe have a beer and wash away some of this smoke." The larger man smiled. "Seems you and Chris are the only two who haven't made it back to town since this started - and I think even Buck's managed to get Chris pointed toward his saddle. Why don't you come on? Mr. Holbrooks promised to watch it close - him and his boys. They'll let us know if it gets started up again."

Vin was tempted. He had barely slept since this started, unable to lay down without images of that bedroom flashing before his eyes. It'd be nice to sit, though, maybe have some of Mrs. Hudson's chicken or -

Horses approached, but he didn't have to look to recognize the sound of Pony.

Or, damn them, the sound of Peso.

Anger was welling before Chris called, "Vin? Time to head back to town, get some rest - "

"I was just telling him the same thing," Josiah chimed up. He turned as the horses drew close, reaching out to caress Peso's muzzle. "Personally, I'm looking forward to a beer."

"Don't let me keep ya," Vin said, still staring into the desolation of the fire. "Wouldn't want ta keep ya from your funnin'."

It was rude, to Josiah anyway, and he regretted it almost as soon as he said it.

Regretted it even more when Josiah said, puzzled "Don't you think we can have a little now, Vin? At least a little rest?"

He shook his head, ignoring the dizziness that came with the exhaustion. "Sorry," he muttered, and he turned just enough to meet Josiah's eyes. "Rest might be nice." He reached out, catching Peso's bridle and moving around Josiah to stand beside his horse. He wasn't really surprised to find the reins leading away. He knew without looking that they were in Chris' hands, probably tied around the pommel of his saddle.

He sighed, wishing they would all just leave him alone. Wishing Chris would leave him alone. He was too tired for this.

"Let me take that," Josiah offered, his big hands closing around the shovel Vin was still holding. "I'm walking back to the house, I'll make sure they get back to the wagon of supplies going back to town."

"Thanks," Vin mumbled. With effort, he put his boot in the stirrup - he hated mounting from the right side, but he'd be damned if he'd get any closer to Chris than he had to. Not until he was better able to deal with it. Maybe never.

Peso actually allowed the mount, mostly because Josiah was still stroking his muzzle and probably, knowing Josiah, feeding him candy. He sat for a second, letting his back adjust to the position, which was only slightly more painful than standing, before sighing yet again.

He held out one hand, not looking at Chris. He wasn't really surprised when nothing happened.

"Could I have my reins please?" He worked to keep his tone even, the words polite.

"You coming back to town?" Chris countered, his voice quiet.

Vin didn't drop his hand, but he turned his gaze back to the ruins. He saw Josiah glance at him, then at Chris, then back. He wasn't surprised when the big man frowned, but stepped away from Peso and said, "I'll see you boys back in town. Tell Inez to have a beer ready for me."

He started away, hefting both shovels easily onto his shoulder, whistling softly.

Once more, Vin was alone with Chris.

"Vin?" Chris prompted after a while. "You coming back to town?"

Vin shrugged. "'Spect I'll be there at some point. My wagon's there."

Chris sighed and Vin felt a certain vindication in knowing that he was getting under Chris' skin. "We need to talk." The words were slow. Chris was working hard to rein his frustration.

Vin shook his head, once. "I ain't much of a talker, you know that. I said more than I shoulda already." He paused. "Seems like you found someone who likes to talk. And he talks real fine, I reckon."

"Goddamit," Chris spat. "Stop it, Vin, it's not like that - Christ, you know that. You know I - "

"No," Vin turned, glaring. "I don't seem to know nothin'. Now gimme my damned reins and stop worryin' 'bout your damned guilt. You want Ezra - fine, take him. Ain't none of my business."

Chris sat rigid, his hands in tight fists, his thumbs rubbing over the exposed index fingers. "Don't do this to me," he growled. "I'm sorry, I swear it won't happen again, I'll do anything I can to make it up to you - "

"Then tell me why it happened at all," Vin said coldly. "Tell me what made ya want him so bad ya forgot me."

Chris looked away, his fists opening and falling to his thighs. After a while, he sighed. "I . . . I don't know, Vin," he said simply.

"Then ya can't really promise it won't happen again, can ya." It was that voice again, the one that sounded like him but that he wasn't aware of using. Right now, all he was really aware of was that one last little vestige of hope dying away.

Something tickled at his cheek, but he ignored it. "Gimme my reins," he said, or tried to. The words caught in his throat, tripped over his tongue.

"I can promise, Vin, I do promise. I won't let it happen again. I need you. Please." He was begging, something Vin had never expected to see. Never wanted to see.

The tickling on his cheek grew faster and his vision was blurry. "Don't make promises you can't keep," he choked out, looking away but not seeing anything.

"God, Vin, please." It was agony to hear, not just begging but Chris was laying himself open, more vulnerable than Vin had ever known.

He shuddered, tried to stop and couldn't. He felt Pony edge closer, wanted to move away, but couldn't. Couldn't move as a hand found his shoulder, then moved slowly up to cup his cheek.

"Don't leave me," Chris whispered, leaning in so close that his words blew across Vin's nose. "I'm sorry."

The kiss wasn't his undoing - that had happened at the first touch. As he had known it would. But the kiss, soft and quivering on his cheek, was the sign of his own betrayal to himself.

The kiss that followed, the urgent, delving kiss against his lips, coated in the tears of his pain, was his own Judas kiss.

TWO

They rode mostly in silence, Chris occasionally asking him a simple, easy question - 'water?' or 'you okay?', or stating something equally as simple - 'I worried about you out there,' or 'you did more than anyone else, Vin, you deserve a long rest,' - gentle, concerned, scared.

Vin didn't care. He knew he had messed up, knew he should never have given in. But he was tired, so tired, and he so wanted. Wanted to wrap himself in Chris and find that it had all been a bad dream, one of the nightmares that haunted him from time to time. Wanted to wake up and find that everything was the way it should be - his faith in Chris untarnished, his world more right than he had ever hoped it could be.

It was early evening when they plodded back into town, the streets a little more lively than usual as people milled about, gossiping about the fire and the disruption it had caused. Chris nodded to many, Vin ignored and was ignored by most. Didn't matter. All he wanted was to get Peso taken care of and find his wagon and, hopefully, sleep for a day or so.

Hopefully.

But as they arrived at the livery, Tiny greeted them with questions; for the price of Chris' answers, and as reward for all their work, he took Pony and Peso and promised to give them the best of care. It was only as they were leaving that he mentioned the message for Chris - "Mr. Standish said he needed to see you at the Saloon," the large man smiled. "Said there was some unfinished business he needed to settle with you."

Vin felt his precarious hold weaken, but apparently so did Chris.

"It's not what you think," Chris said quickly and with the barest trace of panic in his voice. "Before the fire, before - well, when - well, - "

"Don't matter," Vin snapped. "I'm going to try to get some shut-eye." He started away, debating about bathing before sleep. But he worried that all that effort would wake him up just enough to start his mind to working again, and right now, he thought he might have been able to sleep even if Chris and Ezra were fucking on the floor of the wagon under him.

'Course, he might have been able to shoot them then, and wouldn't that have put his mind to rest?

Chris caught him by the wrist and he realized that he had made it a pretty good way before being stopped.

"Come to my - " But the words died on his tongue, as they should have. As they both remembered being in that room the last time.

Vin smiled, but there was nothing nice in it. "Think I like my wagon better. I never have to worry 'bout who's there."

Chris looked away, but he still held Vin's wrist. "Wanna be with you," he said softly, so that only Vin could hear.

Vin studied him long and hard, then, with a shrug, he said, "You know where the wagon is. But I ain't waitin'." He pulled his hand free and started away, but after a step or two, he turned around, not surprised to find Chris still standing there. "I mean that, too - I ain't waitin', never again."

Chris nodded. He understood.

Vin didn't watch him walk away. He was too busy getting himself to his own wagon, then, gracelessly, inside. It was hot, but he hardly noticed. The best he managed was getting his boots off and putting his gun close before collapsing into the small area that served as a bed. Exhaustion claimed him, pulling him into a sleep so deep that he almost shot Chris when the shift of the wagon prompted his instincts before his brain caught up.

"It's me," Chris said, one leg in, the other on the street, his eyes wider than Vin had ever seen them, the whites bright in the darkness of the night.

For an awful instant, Vin's finger tightened anyway - his body had its own anger as well.

Chris must've seen it, or sensed it, as his eyes got even wider, and it was only as Vin finally uncocked the Winchester, his hands shaking from the surprise, that Chris drew a breath.

"Tireder than I knew," Vin said by way of apology, setting the gun back down.

Chris slowly came the rest of the way into the wagon, moving back to sit next to Vin.

"Should be - nearly killed yourself out there." He reached out, touching Vin's hair. "How's your back?"

Vin made a spare movement, sort of a shrug. "Been better." He tried not to move under Chris' touch, but his anger met the equal force of his rare pleasure. Chris' gentleness was a gift Vin had never known, and he could no more stop the sweetness of these caresses than he could shoot a child.

"Let me put some of Nathan's brew on it - working those muscles might do more than anything to help it."

"Ain't got no more," Vin forced himself to say. "Used it all. I'll get more tomorrow."

"I'll still rub it for you," Chris whispered right against Vin's ear.

Some part of him realized that he had shifted, that he was now leaning on Chris' chest, the other man holding him tight, two hands combing through his hair and down his back.

He wasn't sure he ever answered.

When he awoke, he was alone and dawn was breaking through the little gaps between the canvass and the wood.

His back ached - all of him ached, his muscles unforgiving in the aftermath of disuse. He forced himself up, barely managing to control the groans as he pulled on his boots and clambered out of his wagon.

And almost tripped over Chris who was sitting in a chair nearby, sipping on a cup of coffee.

"Whoa," Chris smiled, catching Vin's arm and helping him to regain his balance. "Stiff?"

"Yeah," Vin said, his voice rusty from sleep. "Thanks." He drew himself up and tried to pull away, momentarily surprised when Chris' hand tightened on his elbow.

"Didn't wanna leave ya," Chris said softly, looking deep into Vin's eyes. "Thought it might not be a good idea to be in the wagon once it got light."

Vin nodded, then caught himself as the memory of all that had happened lightninged through his mind. It was a physical jolt, burning through his chest and abdomen.

Chris saw it, his eyes looking away, cast in a grief that dulled some of the shock.

Vin shook his head, then pushed at the hair that had fallen into his face. "You got more coffee?"

Chris looked back at him, the hope in his eyes as bright at the sun shining through dew. "Mrs. Hudson is up - I'll get ya some. Biscuit, too? She's making a fresh batch."

Vin nodded, scratching at his belly. "Thanks," he mumbled. "Be back." It took him several steps to get his body coordinated, but by the time he made it to the outhouse, he was able to piss without getting it on himself.

He was more awake, more coordinated, and more reserved by the time he made it back to his wagon. Chris was waiting, a second cup of coffee and a napkin of biscuits resting on the box just inside the wagon's opening. He smiled at Vin, the expression a little shy, and a little worried.

Despite himself, Vin smiled back.

He reached for his coffee and a biscuit, suddenly ravenous. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten or what it had been, but he knew it hadn't been a warm biscuit just out of the oven.

He felt Chris watching him as ate; normally it made him shy, the way Chris could stare at him. Now though, it made him feel . . . hurt. Embarrassed. All those times Chris had stared at him before, he thought it had been love.

Maybe it was just amusement. Maybe Chris was laughing at him, watching him so he could go tell Ezra all about how 'uncivilized' he was, how dirty and -

"I don't know why I did it, Vin," Chris said softly. "I spent all night trying to find a way to understand it - not just for you, but for myself."

Vin took a sip of coffee, but it didn't help; the biscuit was suddenly like dirt in his mouth.

"I can't understand it, but I swear to you, it won't happen again. If I have to move to the other side of the world, I'll do it - if you'll come with me."

Vin looked at Chris, then looked away. He couldn't stand the desperation on that face, in those eyes. He'd been drawn to Chris for his strength, his independence. He'd fallen in love with him for those same qualities.

To see him reduced to this. . . .

"No need for that," he said gruffly. He started to bite on the biscuit again, but the thought of it turning to sand in his mouth made him toss it away. "I need to think on it, Chris," he said as quietly as Chris had been. "I don't . . . I don't know what to think. Don't know what I'm doing. I never . . . "

He was no good with words, never had been. The only time he could remember even feeling a little like this was when his ma had died and that had been so long ago that it was barely a memory.

It was all new, this kinda of pain - which only made sense; the love had been new too. He'd never felt about anyone the way he felt about Chris, never known it was possible to feel this . . . this good. This alive. Only made sense that it was possible to feel this bad.

"You ain't lost me, Vin. I know I've hurt you, hell, I've hurt myself. The thought of losing you - of losing you and knowing it was my own damned fault . . . " He took a deep breath, but his voice still cracked a little when he continued. "I did that once, screwed up and lost everyone important to me because of something I did. I can't . . . you're the only thing that's made me be able to forgive myself, Vin, and if I lose you for the same damned reason . . . "

"Ain't the same," Vin said. "Ella Gaines was crazy. You had no way a knowin' that when you was with her."

Chris rubbed at his face. "Maybe I'm as crazy as she is. I let something happen that could destroy the only good thing in my life. And I don't even know why."

That wasn't what Vin had meant - hell, he couldn't begin to compare the destruction that Ella Gaines had brought on Chris to what - what - well, what? Surely him leaving Chris - hell, that wasn't it at all. Chris had left him - hadn't he?

His confusion was getting worse, he didn't know what he was doing, what he was feeling.

"Fuck," he hissed. He almost threw his cup down, then remembered at the last second that it was Mrs. Hudson's, and he didn't want to damage anything of hers. "Fuck all," he swore instead.

"I don't know what happened," Chris continued, and his voice sounded like a whimper. "You know how I feel about Ezra - oh hell, maybe I am crazy, or he finally drove me there. He made me so angry, all I wanted to do was shoot him, then suddenly - " His words cut off, and it was only then that Vin realized it was because he was leaning over the other man, his hands locked in Chris' hair, pulling him to his feet.

"Shut up, damn you ta hell, shut the fuck up." He was babbling, rambling, saying anything to drive Chris' words, Chris' pain, his own pain, away. "You ain't crazy, anybody'd wanna shoot Ez, he don't never shut up - oh, fuck all, Chris, don't do this!"

He pulled Chris against him, wrapping his arms tight around the shaking shoulders, cradling Chris' head against his neck.

"Hush now," he murmured against Chris' ear, "jist hush. Ain't goin' nowhere, not if ya don't want me to." He knew it was true, even though he couldn't say why. Like Chris taking Ez. Some things, apparently, just were.

He held Chris close, stroking his back as the shaking slowly ebbed. Before it was done though, he felt more than heard someone approach.

"Vin?"

He winced. Mrs. Hudson of course - no one else was up this time of the morning. He felt Chris stiffen against him, and try to pull away, but he held tight. He'd learned long ago that pretending something wasn't happening was worse than admitting to it, but explaining it another way.

"Smoke fever," he said softly over his shoulder to her. "Chris got too much smoke in his eyes and his lungs. Happens sometimes after a fire. His eyes are watering something fierce, and itching - I been trying to stop him from scratching."

Catching on, Chris coughed weakly against Vin's chest.

"Is he all right?" Mrs. Hudson asked. "Can I do anything?"

Vin tried not to smile as he answered, "No, M'am, I'm gonna get him back to his room, let him rest a while. That usually takes care of it." Adjusting his grip so that he had an arm around Chris' back, he guided the other man away from Mrs. Hudson.

"Well, you boys let me know if there's anything I can do. Oh, and Vin? I'm making fried chicken for lunch, with the seasonings you boys like. For all the work you did saving the town from the fire."

Vin looked over his shoulder at her, sincere in his appreciation. "Thank you, Mrs. Hudson. I'll be sure the others know. You know how much we all like your chicken."

She smiled at him, but her eyes were worried as she looked to Chris. "Should I get Nathan?"

"No, M'am, ain't no need in waking Nate just yet. Chris just needs some rest. I'll see to him and if it gets worse, I'll get Nate myself. I 'spect he'll be by later anyway. Mornin', M'am." With his arms around Chris, he couldn't touch his hat - which kept him from embarrassing himself when he remembered that he didn't have it on, either.

By the time they reached the boardwalk in front of the boarding house, Chris was under his own power. But he still leaned on Vin, and Vin didn't have the courage to pull away. Mrs. Hudson was still watching, so he continued to play along.

As he closed the door to the boarding house behind them, he sighed. Instead of pulling away, though, Chris tightened his own hold on Vin.

"Thank you," he murmured. "I'm sorry for putting you - "

Unthinkingly, he raised a hand and covered Chris' mouth. "Stop it," he sighed. "Just . . . stop it." He drew away as much as he could given the hold Chris had on him. "You get on up to your room. Just let me . . . let me think."

But instead of letting him go, Chris held on tighter. "Don't want you to think, Vin. I need you. Now. Please." One hand slid down Vin's spine, rubbing at the small of his back where the ache had settled.

It was sort of cheating, Vin thought, that Chris knew how to use his own body against him. It wasn't even sexual - well, not at the beginning, anyway. But Chris knew where and how to touch his back, how to draw out the cramps in the muscles that twisted his bones. He didn't know how Chris knew - hell, according to Chris, he didn't even know how he knew.

And there is was, another one of those things that just couldn't be explained, that just was.

"Vin?" Chris had straightened a little, his face even with Vin's. "Come with me?"

The fingers dug a little deeper into the tightness, loosening it. As the muscles relaxed, the tingling that followed spread outward, replacing the discomfort with a pleasant warmth and a lack of sensation that was almost erotic. His limbs felt lighter, he felt almost giddy from the relief.

Giddy enough that when Chris applied just enough pressure to move him forward, he didn't resist. He even let himself be guided up the stairs, stumbling a little when his feet didn't seem to weigh as much and he tripped on a step. Or two.

It was only as those hands left him and the tension started to return that he realized that he was standing inside Chris' room, staring at the bed. It looked different now, empty, for one, and made, the quilt smoothed firmly over the mattress, the white, worn sheets hidden beneath. The pillows were placed at the head, plumped enough to look comfortable, no hint of who had lain there last.

THREE

He was vaguely aware of the door closing, the latch locking, then the hands were back on him, kneading. He closed his eyes, partly to focus his attention on how good it felt, partly to focus his attention away from the bed.

One arm caught around his waist, holding him in place as Chris stepped closer. His hand pressed harder into Vin's back, the pressure just at the threshold of hurting more than helping. Chris whispered against his neck, a warm breeze that tickled as it spoke. "Want you, wanna show you how much. Need you, Vin, now and always."

Always. They had never said it before, never needed to. It had been understood - well, he thought it had. But maybe not. Maybe Chris needed to say it, and maybe he needed to hear it as well. Maybe that was where things had turned.

The arm around his waist moved up, fingers catching at the buttons of his shirt. He didn't resist - didn't help, he wasn't sure he was ready for that yet - but he didn't fight it. Didn't move when the cloth was pulled off his shoulders, sliding down his arms to the floor. Didn't flinch when thin lips kissed along his bare back, a wet tongue licked along his neck.

Didn't balk when both hands fell to his pants, pulling them open with practiced ease.

He tried to like it when Chris moved around, dropping to his knees, tried to let the hunger control him as his pants were tugged away, his slowly growing erection pulled free.

Tried to feel only satisfaction as Chris' mouth took him, slid over his thickening head, sucked him to complete hardness. He watched as his cock slid between those lips he knew so well, watched as the long fingers clutched the base of his shaft, holding him still, creating a vice to complete the suction as Chris took as much as he could.

Not all; Chris had never developed the skill to open his throat and swallow Vin's length, to keep himself from gagging when the thick tip lay on back of his tongue. It was no different now, the muscular constrictions exciting, playing over him in a way that was purely physical, the grip at the base working back and forth, encouraging.

No matter how good it felt, how much he wanted it, he couldn't give in to it. Something about it just wasn't right to his way of thinking. To his way of perceiving Chris.

He managed to go a few more minutes, appreciating the feel of the hot mouth sucking on him, before the building orgasm was held at bay by the feeling of wrongness.

He reached out, his fingers running though Chris' hair and over the back of his head, curving over his cheek and into the hollow created by the suction. It was distracting and strange to feel himself through the taut skin of his lover's mouth, to trace the hard lines of his own swollen flesh as well as the whiskery warmth of Chris' face.

The rattle of his own groan brought his eyes open, the sight reminding him that he couldn't let this happen. With effort, he forced his hand lower, to come along the underside of Chris' jaw. Carefully, he canted the other man backwards and off of him, sighing in regret as the physical connection ended.

"Not like this," he rasped out, helping Chris rise to his feet. He ignored the flash of relief he saw in the other's eyes, knowing that it was mirrored in his own.

Chris leaned in close, his hands closing on Vin's shoulders, but Vin turned away from the kiss.

"Wanna feel ya," Vin reached for the buttons on Chris' shirt. He let them hold his attention instead of meeting the other man's eyes. Some part of him knew he should be embarrassed by how quickly he was forgetting, how willingly he was surrendering to what had happened, but the rest of him was still haunted by the idea that he could make Chris suffer. That Chris needed him as much as he needed Chris.

Chris caught his hands, pulled them to his lips and kissed each one on the scarred knuckles before pushing them away. Stepping back, he pulled the shirt over his head and tossed it to the floor, out of the way. Vin barely heard it hit the floor before he was caught in a hard embrace, his mouth taken by the other man's.

They had kissed before - not often, and almost always in course of their desire, but this time was different. Maybe it was the taste of himself on Chris' tongue - it had been there once or twice before, but never this strong.

Or maybe it was because Chris' tongue had never been this far into his mouth, this demanding or persistent. This consuming.

Chris nipples rubbed against his, sparking a kind of irritating itch that made him shiver. He pulled back, then fell back onto the bed, surprised; he hadn't been aware of moving - which was probably what Chris wanted.

Chris was on his knees again, this time pulling at Vin's boots. When they were off, he made short work of his own - then pulled off his own pants.

Vin stared. He loved to look at Chris, loved particularly to see him in full nakedness. He didn't get to see it often, not even when it was just the two of them in a private place.

No amount of anger or shame or - anything could make him feel anything but pure want for the man before him now, hard planes, sharp lines, sleek flesh. Proud erection, that was just for Vin -

It stabbed, knowing that now that belief was wrong, too -

Chris caught his face in both hands, kissing him hard again, invading his mouth and taking away the thoughts. Fingers trailed down, teasing his nipples with more force, making him arch and gasp as wildfire seemed to race through his body.

He knew Chris was grinning, the thin lips stretched thinner, but the shuddering of his body at the continued attention to his chest took his breath and his mind. At some point, he found himself stretched out on his back, his body explored and tormented with an attention he had never experienced - not even before, with Chris.

'Guilt' drifted lazily through his consciousness even as the hum of his body's own responses drowned his ability to think.

His pants were pushed away, then farther down, catching between his thighs and the side of the bed, but he hardly noticed the pinching as his erection was pulsing in time to his heartbeat. Chris bowed over it, taking it again into his mouth.

It was more right this time, Chris not submissive but in control of himself and of Vin. His hands gripped Vin's hips, keeping him still despite his attempts to thrust. This was familiar, the way it usually went between them - Chris on top, demanding even as he gave pleasure.

Vin surrendered, thrilling as the tide of orgasm rose again, riding nothing but the waves of carnal want. He was close, so close, just a little more -

He almost cried out as Chris stopped, that haven of warmth and wetness gone. Only the skill of many years of hiding kept him quiet and even then, he was deaf himself but to the drum of his heart and the whistle of his own lungs.

He didn't quite make out what Chris was saying now, only getting bits and pieces.

"Want . . . in. . . need to feel . . . . "

He nodded, assuming; Chris wanted them to finish together, or close to it, Chris inside him. It was all right - Vin had learned to appreciate the coupling; Chris might be in control, even in this, but he never left Vin unsatisfied, and he never hurt him. Not even a little.

Not even when a little pain, a little roughness, would have been nice.

He looked over as the mattress shifted, Chris reaching for the drawer on the small bedside table. The tin of oil he kept there, for this purpose. As he drew it out, Vin noticed that it was new, not the silver tin he was used to, the one like Nate had given him with the liniment for his back; this one was a clear glass bottle, the oil fluid and heavy, a light yellow that made him think of honey. He blinked, wondering where it had come, wondering if he had used it with -

"For you," Chris said quietly, holding it out. And Vin noticed that the stopper was still set in wax, the bottle unopened. "I bought it last week - Mrs. Potter had one open for Casey."

Vin frowned, not quite sure he liked the association.

"Open it," Chris smiled.

Vin was still frowning, but he sat up and did as he was bid, liking the way Chris' fingers brushed against his as he took the small bottle.

The wax was soft enough to give easy, and when he pulled the stopper clear, he knew why Chris had thought of him. The smell was light but brisk, a sort of cedar and mint combination that made him think of winter in the mountains. He smiled.

"Try this," Chris said, taking the bottle from his grasp and dabbing some of the oil on a finger tip. He reached up and ran it lightly over Vin's upper lip.

Vin blinked. "Tingles," he murmured, touching his lip.

"Too much?" Chris asked, a little anxious.

Vin grinned, shaking his head. "Nah, not too much." He leaned forward slowly, toward Chris, then kissed him on the lips. Pulling back, he tilted his head to one side.

Chris was still for a few seconds before grinning himself. "Not too much."

He poured a little of the oil on his palm then, with no warning, his hand caught Vin's slightly wilted cock.

The tingling had an instant effect - he was painfully hard before he could draw a breath.

"Fuck, Chris," he gasped as Chris' stroked him, teasing.

"That's the idea," Chris laughed. His hand kept its rhythm even has he pushed Vin back down and moved to straddle him, his body centered over Vin's thighs.

He bent over Vin, finding his mouth and kissing hard. Vin heard a moan, thought it might be himself, but felt a vibration through his groin that had to be Chris. Didn't matter, he was getting close again, and even though he knew what Chris wanted, a selfish part of him wanted to be first and only - just him this time.

Chris sat up, and his rhythm broke, letting Vin slip once more from the pinnacle. He sighed, the frustration becoming an actual pain, until he opened his eyes to find Chris reaching back behind himself, his eyes closed in a sort of concentration as he worked his hand over his own -

"What are ya doin?" Vin demanded, getting his elbows under him and propping himself up. The view was better at this angle and the sight of Chris touching himself there, easing his own fingers into his body - the thought alone was enough to make Vin ache. The sight of it . . .

"Told ya," Chris grunted, his eyes still closed. "Want to let you take me this time. Wanna prove how much I want ya - Christ, this stuff really has a bite, doesn't it."

Vin swallowed, feeling dizzy and sweaty and almost sick. "What?" he coughed out, not able to draw air. "You want me - are you cr - " He caught himself; he wasn't going back down that trail, that was what had got them here to start with. But the idea of what Chris was suggesting, of being in Chris . . . .

He swallowed again and tried to breathe - there wasn't enough air in the room suddenly.

Chris was still working on his own plan, his face set in hard lines of effort. Too much effort, Vin thought, and as much as the thought of what Chris was offering taunted him and excited him, it was even more wrong than letting Chris stay on his knees.

He couldn't. He wanted it - but only in his fantasies. Not now, not this way. Not because of this. That would be just another way that this business with Ezra had screwed things up. Maybe one day, when things between them were more secure. But not now.

He lifted on arm, catching Chris by the elbow and stopping the movement of his hand behind him. "No, Chris," he mumbled, "ain't right."

Chris frowned deeper as he opened his eyes. "What?" he asked, and Vin saw that his consternation was real. "What ain't right? You don't - dontcha want me?"

Vin smiled, something tight leaving his chest. "Every day since I metcha," he agreed. "And prob'ly every day for the rest of my life." He let his hand glide up Chris' arm to rest on his shoulder. "But it ain't what you want - I know you'd give it to me, and that makes it all the more special, that you'd give it to me even when you don't rightly want to. But that's not how I want it, and right now - right now I don't want nothin' that's gonna put us more outta sorts. Right now . . . . " He let his hand follow the line of Chris' neck up to again cup his cheek, holding the other man's gaze. "Right now, I wantcha in me, where ya should be."

Chris studied him, his stare boring into Vin so intently that Vin thought he must be reading the back of his skull.

"Are you - "

Vin let his thumb rub over Chris' lips, stopping the question. "I'm as sure now as I was the first time."

"I won't ever hurt you. Never - never that way."

"I know," Vin agreed. He grinned, thinking to lighten the mood a little. "Hell, you're so careful with me that I wonder sometimes if ya think I might break like some kinda fancy plate."

Chris grinned as well, and his arm slowly came forward to rest on his thigh. "I just - I know you been hurt that way and I never want ya to think of me like . . . like one of the others."

Vin shook his head. "Can't ever think of you that way. You ain't like no one else. Not to me." He lay back down then, his hand teasing down Chris' chest as he drew back. "Now, how 'bout ya fuck me like I'm one of them wooden trays Mrs. Hudson uses. You know, long, and hard, and a little rough."

Chris smiled down at him. "I can try. I always do try. But for some reason, when I'm in ya, I never seem to be able to last." He bowed down to catch Vin's lips, his hands resting on either side of Vin's head. "You got some kinda magnetism of your own there, Tanner. Draws the seed right outta me."

Vin grinned at that, one hand twisting between them to catch Chris' erection. "Works two ways," he said as he tugged. "Now gimme my oil."

Chris surrendered it with a laugh and another kiss, then shifted off of Vin so he could sit up.

"You like it?" he asked as Vin poured just a little in his hand.

"Nice," Vin smiled, meeting Chris' gaze just before he gripped the other man again. Chris hissed at the touch of the oil on his cock, but whatever discomfort he was feeling quickly passed. He closed his eyes, sighing.

"You really thinking of me when you got this?" Vin asked softly, stroking languidly.

Chris opened his eyes, his gaze heavy as it met Vin's. "Yes. I was thinking of you."

Vin nodded once, holding out the oil. "Do me," he rasped. "Want you."

But as Chris retook the bottle and Vin started to turn, Chris caught his wrist and held it. "I want . . . I want to see you this time. Want to look in your eyes."

They'd never done it face-to-face; Vin had been taken once that way, and it had hurt so bad that he'd never suggested it to Chris. Apparently, Chris had been doing some thinking of his own - or finding out in other ways.

Vin hadn't meant to show anything, but Chris knew him well, sometimes too well. He frowned. "I won't hurt you - I'd never - "

"Shhhh," Vin kissed him, then kicked his pants off before laying back down on the bed. Putting his arms behind his head, he put the foot farthest from Chris on the bed, opening his legs. "Think the oil's warm enough?"

Eventually Chris reached between his legs, his fingers almost tickling as they traced along his balls and past them, up the vulnerable space he guarded. He closed his eyes, willing himself to relax; it was always worst now, at the first touch.

Even though he was prepared for it, having had it on several of his own most tender places, the sting of the oil still made him start, even more than the brush against his opening. Despite himself, he tensed so that Chris' attempt to breach him was a harder than usual, and the other man stopped.

The worry on his face was more bothersome to Vin than the discomfort. "You're right," Vin said by way of explanation. "It does burn a might."

"Bad?" Chris asked already starting to pull away.

Vin clamped his muscles and pulled his legs together, holding Chris in place. "Just takes a space to get used to. Done now." He grinned, then shifted, settling his hips lower on the bed - lower on Chris' hand.

The discomfort grew just a little - a combination of the depth of penetration and the oil with it, but then Chris started exploring and it wasn't long before he hit that spot that made Vin see stars.

"Jesus," Chris whispered, pulling back just a little to add a second finger, "you're so tight, so . . . so . . . ."

Vin willed himself to relax, to enjoy the way Chris was loving him. He wanted it, he wanted to make Chris happy. He wanted to feel the way that this made him feel, after he got past the initial reluctance.

After the initial pain. And it was, no matter how well they prepared him, no matter how much he wanted it, there was always that first little resistance that hurt. It passed quickly - Chris was too gentle and patient for it to last, but it was always there.

Vin had decided that it wasn't real, but a memory pain, from all the times before, his body's way of reminding him of the past. The People believed that the body had its own ways of telling stories and this was one story that, while he tried in his mind to forget it, his body wouldn't let him. He just hated that it had to be told every time he wanted to be with Chris.

Chris touched that spot again, and his body joined his mind in the present. He arched, wanting more, and Chris complied. The stretching was greater now, and little more awkward, but Chris was trying to make it good. He kept brushing that place and even though he couldn't get the angle as good now, the contact still sent shivers through Vin, leaving him wanting still more.

"Pillow," Vin hissed, pulling both feet up on the bed.

"What?" Chris asked, watching his hand move between Vin's legs.

"Gimme a pillow," Vin commanded, stretching out one arm himself toward the head of the bed.

Chris frowned, his concentration broken, but he stretched as far as he could without pulling out of Vin's body and snagged the closest one. He dragged it toward them, even as he leaned down and let his teeth catch one of Vin's nipples.

"Fuck!" Vin moaned, his chest heaving.

"Yeah," Chris agreed. He straightened, watching, as Vin clumsily folded the pillow then shoved it under the small of his back. "You hurting worse?" he asked, the worry aging his face. Both of his hands were on his thighs now, his cock still rigid and shiny with the oil Vin had applied.

Vin shifted, settling himself more solidly. "Makes it easier," he explained. "I'm ready."

Chris looked down, his eyes widening and the worry washing away. He reached out with the oily hand, cupping Vin's balls and squeezing lightly. "Don't wanna hurtcha - "

"Yeah yeah, I know," Vin interrupted, tired of this strange ritual Chris demanded. "Put your arms under my knees - it's all right, Chris, just do it."

"Bossy, ain'tcha," Chris said, but he did as he was told, his grin widening as the new position parted Vin's thighs even more. "Nice, though."

Vin closed his eyes, trying to ignore the pull on his lower back as Chris moved into position. He controlled his breathing, willed himself not to flinch as the bulbous head of Chris' cock stuttered toward his opening, willed himself not to think of any other time.

"You okay?" Chris asked.

Vin barely caught his anger at the disruption. "Damn it," he growled, not opening his eyes, "you gonna fuck me or talk me to damned death?" As the words left his mouth, he had a sudden flash of Ezra - was that what Chris had wanted, someone to talk to him? Ezra certainly could do that.

The disquiet of that possibility, the idea that that might be where he had failed Chris, jolted him out of his hard-won calm and he tensed just as Chris pushed against him.

The burn was razor sharp and he gasped, his hands clawing at Chris's hips.

"Christ!" Chris tensed, body rigid. "Vin - what - "

"'S'all right," Vin stammered, trying to catch his breath. "Just - gimme a minute, I - hold on - dammit, don't move, Chris." The last came out as a cry as Chris tried to pull out.

Chris stilled, but he was breathing almost as hard as Vin, and Vin already regretted his loss of control. He drew several deep breaths, then, getting hold of himself, he willed his body into compliance. As his muscles finally relaxed, Chris slipped a little father in. But this time, there was no burn, just the usual pangs.

"Vin," Chris said, swallowing.

"I'm okay," Vin interrupted, "I just - I - "

Slowly, Chris leaned down until his face was over Vin's, his eyes boring. "Don't think about him," he said. "I don't want to talk you to death - I don't want anyone but you. You talk all I want, Vin, I promise you that."

Vin started to nod, but the movement was stopped as Chris dropped the slight distance between them and took Vin's mouth, claiming it with less patience than he was showing on the other end of Vin's body.

It might have been the words or the action, or both, but whatever it was, Vin found his acceptance again, in his mind and body. Chris slid deeper in as Vin surrendered to the caress of the tongue in his mouth and the hands that had started tracing patterns on his thighs. His back twinged at the weight, and the angle made it harder to ignore the fullness and the heat, but his own need was building again, stirred by the light fingers moving closer and closer to his own groin.

Chris tugged firmly at Vin's flagging erection, and it responded properly. The first clear drops were slipping from the tip when Chris was fully sheathed, his balls slowly bouncing against Vin's ass.

"Can't last," Chris grunted, pulling up. He shifted, catching Vin's hips and pulling him a little farther up, changing the angle. For an instant, the burn was back, but then he pushed even farther in and caught that spot.

Vin barely caught the cry, trapping it in his throat so that it almost strangled him. He was hardly aware of that, though, for having found it, Chris was hammering on it, short, driving thrusts that pushed Vin past any other awareness. It was almost too much, the constancy crossing the fine line between pleasure and pain with more frequency and he was on the point of trying to pull away when Chris did instead, drawing himself almost all the way out before pushing back in.

He tried to make it smooth, but Vin's body wasn't quite relaxed enough yet and the burn started. It almost caught up to the ebbing currents of need still jolting through him, leaving a hint in his vague consciousness that he was going to be sore later, before Chris hit the mark again.

The next time, Chris didn't give him time to do more than feel the burn, which was lessening as his body accepted, before he was struck again by the current of hard want.

Twice more, faster, deeper, and he was over the edge, his body taking its own control.

He came back to himself slowly, consciousness creeping in on his other senses, Chris' muted gasp in his ear, the bruising force of his lover's last deep thrust into him, the complaint of his legs as they bore the weight of the other man, bending back more than his body tolerated. The tickle of sweat down his cheek, the itch of his own semen drying on his belly, the pinch on his ass where Chris held him split wide.

He waited as long as he could, until the cramping was so bad that he couldn't breath. But before he could speak, Chris drew in a shaky breath and eased back. Vin's legs started down but Chris caught them, holding them as he carefully pulled himself free. He was still partly erect despite the ejaculation, and the width tore a little, making Vin jerk.

But the relief as his legs were lowered was so strong that he forgot all else.

He lay still, complacent, as Chris settled him, moving from between his legs to lie beside him. He moved as Chris directed, letting the pillow under his hips be moved to prop his head, letting his body be pulled against Chris'.

They lay that way, Vin drowsing, letting himself appreciate the tender way that Chris always held him afterwards, touching him more intimately than he did during sex. This was why he allowed everything else - why he allowed Chris what he would allow no one else.

Why he would forget.

FOUR

"Smoke fever?" Nathan arched an eyebrow, looking at Vin over the top of his beer. "This something you learned with the Indians you lived with?"

Vin felt the flush rise in his cheeks, but he held his voice steady. "Could say that," he answered, lifting his own glass of whiskey. Beside him, he felt Chris twitch and wondered whether it was amusement or embarrassment.

Nathan, fortunately, wasn't given to argument. "Well, as long as you're all right now - you are all right now, aren't you, Chris?"

Chris looked up, catching the healer's eyes. "Right as rain, now, thanks, Nate. Vin's got a touch almost as sweet as yours."

Vin almost choked on his whiskey, coughing as the others at the table - Buck, Josiah, and Nathan - all laughed.

"I'll be remembering that the next time you get shot," Nathan retorted, but he was still grinning. "I think my knives are finer, probably smaller than his, but if he's got such a sweet touch . . . "

"Oh, hell, Nathan," Vin started, worried suddenly that they had hurt the healer's feelings, "you know Chris don't mean nothing - "

"I know, Vin," Nathan grinned. "I'm just joshing with you."

"Speaking of which," Buck spoke up, turning to Chris with a grin, "you and Ez get everything worked out about Farnway's jewels?"

Vin looked down at his lap, letting the brim of his hat hide his eyes. He felt Chris tense beside him, and felt a certain satisfaction in it. The pain in his ass lessened just a little; Chris was his, not Ezra's.

"It's settled," Chris said shortly, reaching for the bottle of whiskey. "Better damned well be, anyway. You heard otherwise?"

Buck shook his head, but Vin noticed that he glanced toward Vin before saying, "Mighta seen some stuff, but no, ain't heard nothing."

Chris nodded, pouring himself another drink. He held out the bottle toward Vin, who shook his head. He was good at the moment. In fact, he wasn't planning on staying much longer. It was getting on into the evening and Ezra would be down soon. He wasn't ready to face the other man yet.

As if reading his mind, Chris said, "I'm gonna ride the early patrol in the morning. You boys okay to keep an eye on things here tonight?"

Buck glanced at Vin again, this time with a certain wariness. "Think so," he answered. "Should be a pretty slow night, being the middle of the week and all."

"Good," Chris said, draining his glass. He set it on the table and stood, stretching. "You riding with me?" he looked to Vin.

Vin looked up at him, surprised by the question. "If ya want me to," he answered as casually as possible.

"Let's go then. Don't wanna have to roust you outta bed in the morning," he grinned, and the others laughed.

"Like that would ever happen," Josiah said as Vin put his not-empty glass on the table and rose as well. "I think Vin here gets the chickens up."

Vin chuckled. "Nah, but y'all go on thinking that. Like to have the element of surprise."

"Indeed you do, Mr. Tanner," a familiar drawl sounded from Vin's left. "You are just full of them, aren't you."

Before Vin could answer, Chris did it for him. "Which is the way we want it, right, Ezra?"

Ezra stepped into Vin's view, smiling politely at Chris. But the smile didn't meet his eyes, and they were downright flat when they caught Vin's. "Why, of course it is. Mr. Tanner is our unquestioned expert on sneak attacks, after all."

Vin felt a slow boil starting, and before he could stop himself, he said, "Can't be sneaky 'lessen you got something needs attacking." His voice was low, but he'd learned that it could be intimidating.

Apparently it was now, as he was aware that Josiah and Nathan were glancing to each other and Buck had straightened in his chair, watching closely.

But it was Chris who spoke, his tone measured. "We don't need any attacks of any kind tonight. Ezra, you and Buck keep an eye on things here. I'm gonna take the morning patrol with Vin." He started away, but after a step, he reached back and caught the sleeve of Vin's jacket. "Come on, let's check on the horses. Pony was a little gimpy earlier today and I want to be sure he's not throwing a shoe - come on."

Vin let himself be pulled away, nodding to his friends at the table, as he passed, but his eyes came back to Ezra's as he reached the door. The other man just stared, his expression unreadable - to Vin, at least.

They were in the narrow alley by the livery before Chris spoke, his tone hard, his voice low, even though they were alone. "Leave Ezra out of this. What happened was my fault, not his. Don't take it out on him."

Vin stopped, simmering again. When Chris realized he was alone, he turned back, squaring off.

"Don't remember being the one who started it," Vin said evenly, resting his weight on one foot and letting his hip jut. "Maybe I ain't the one you should be accounting to."

Chris' jaw clenched. "You're the only person I account to, Vin. Ezra . . . . he didn't do anything."

Vin studied Chris closely, something finally rising to the surface of his mind. "He didn't know, did he. You didn't tell him about us."

Chris frowned. "No, I didn't tell him about us. But . . . " The frown deepened, looking a little like confusion now. "He did know about us. About you, anyway."

"What the hell does that mean?" Vin demanded, hooking his thumbs into his gunbelt. "How can he know about me if he don't know about us?"

Chris looked away, and Vin understood.

The boil turned into a bubbling that spilled out of his mouth in hot words. "You don't mind if he knows that I love you as long as he don't know that it goes the other way."

Chris looked at the ground, his shoulders slumping. "It won't ever happen again, Vin, I swear - "

"Yeah, I got all that," Vin cut him off. "I think I got it all, actually - you don't want ta lose me, but you don't want anyone to know that you might care about me more than is right. Or, as Ez sees it, it's all right to fuck me as long as you don't feel nothing about it."

He'd kept his voice low, but the choice of words were like the ringing of bells to Chris, who was looking around as if they could be heard by the entire town.

The sound of footsteps behind them cut off the conversation, both turning toward the newcomer.

Given the way things had been going, Vin was far from surprised to find Ezra sauntering up to them.

"Not quite the way I would have put it, Mr. Tanner," he drawled softly, "but not inaccurate, either." He came to a stop across from Vin, creating a third point in their triangle. He looked from Vin to Chris, then back. "So I would be correct in assuming that you and Mr. Larabee have a difference of opinion as to the nature of your relationship."

Before Vin could puzzle out exactly what he meant, Chris was answering. "No, Ezra," he said, exasperated. "We don't have a difference of opinion. I made a promise to Vin and I broke it with you. I don't plan to do it again."

Ezra smiled, his gold tooth glinting. "Ah, I see. So, you were planning to break it before - what, you got caught?"

It somehow unnerved Vin that Ezra was thinking the same way he had.

"No," Chris answered slowly and deliberately. "But I can tell you that it will not happen again."

"Because you always honor your promises - especially after you've been caught." He looked at Vin, a certain challenge in his eyes.

"Because I know what I stand to lose," Chris said softly. "And I'm not prepared to lose it."

Ezra looked at Chris, his eyes glittering in the fading sunlight. "You love him."

It was out in the open now, and Vin felt himself tense, prepared for the worst.

His tension grew as Chris remained silent, staring at Ezra.

Eventually, Ezra's smile widened and his gaze came back to Vin. "Perhaps you should ask yourself, Mr. Tanner, if you are worthy of a man who can't place a value on you."

Then he turned, walking away, leaving Vin unsure. He didn't want to agree with Ezra, but at the same time . . . .

He felt Chris move near, felt the words before he heard them blowing in his ear. "I do love you, Vin. You know that. So does he. It wasn't a question." He leaned down, the brim of his hat touching Vin's. "He knows where we stand now. Where I stand."

Vin continued to stare after Ezra, wondering how Chris could be so certain.

FIVE

"Think I'm gonna head out to the cabin tonight," Chris said, as he pushed his plate away and leaned back in his chair.

Vin nodded, still chewing on his biscuit. It'd been a long day; their morning patrol had ended up growing well into the afternoon, tracking a couple of wolves that had taken down one of Hiram Nechaus' calves. The man hadn't asked for their help; since his wife had been accidentally shot and killed by a stray bullet from JD's gun when she'd been in the middle of a bank robbery, he'd refused to speak to any of them except Josiah. He only came into town on Sundays preferring to make the long drive over to Eagle Bend when he needed supplies.

Chris had heard about the calf when he'd stopped at one of the other nearby homesteads to check in, and Vin had been more than happy to have something to do other than ride the silent patrol with his silent lover.

"Wanna come?" Chris asked, the question quiet. "Be easier to ride patrol in the morning."

Vin looked up, curious.

Chris was staring at him, his gaze direct and unmistakable.

Vin felt the a stirring in his groin, and despite himself, he was amazed. They'd had more sex in the past week than they'd had in the past month. Every opportunity that presented itself seemed to be taken advantage of - and with them riding together in the mornings as they had for over a week, there were a lot of opportunities.

They hadn't this morning, the wolves taking all their attention, but the idea of Chris' cabin - a bed, where they could make noise . . . .

But something else was pushing at him as well, something that had been building for the past few days. "Sure you want company?" he asked after swallowing. "Think you'd be getting right tired of me by now."

Chris smiled at him, a slight turning of the lips but a strong flare in his eyes. "Find I like the company better than I expected," he said quietly. "You're easy to get on with."

Vin felt the blush crawl up his neck and he looked down to his plate. "As long as we're thinking the same way," he mumbled.

Chris leaned forward, his hand innocently brushing along Vin's arm. "We think more alike than not, Vin." He grinned. "But sometimes, it's nice when we don't agree."

Vin looked up, blinking. There was something in Chris' tone that was different, something hard. It sparked a flair deep inside him.

He was trying to think of a way to push the idea when the door to the restaurant opened and Buck, JD, and Ezra strolled in, and upon catching sight of them, headed over.

Vin nodded to them, pushing his own chair back to make room at the small table. He tried not to let it bother him when Ezra settled in beside Chris, a task made easier by Chris's evident discomfort as well; he also moved back to make room for the others, his chair coming so close to Vin's that their shoulders were touching.

Buck and JD were going on about some gun trick JD had read about in one of his books, and they didn't seem to notice the strange tension in the air.

A strange tension that seemed to grow as Vin felt Ezra's eyes on him.

"Well, Mr. Larabee, I hardly suspect that I speak for myself alone when I say that your absence has been keenly felt this past week. Mrs. Travis was asking me just this morning if you and Mr. Tanner had eloped together to parts unknown."

Vin looked down at the table, refusing to let himself lose control.

"Funny," Chris said casually, "she didn't mention a thing to me about it when I spoke to her just before supper." He leaned back in his chair, turning to look at Ezra. "I don't suspect there are that many people who've even noticed our absence - other than, perhaps, to be relieved."

Buck and JD laughed, and even Vin had to smile a little.

"Oh, I don't know, Big Dog," Buck piped up, "it has been rather quiet around here without your temper going off. I think Ol' Ez here is just bored!"

He and JD laughed again, but Vin noticed that while Chris was trying to grin, there was tension in the set of his shoulders.

It grew sharper when Ezra responded, "It is difficult to keep my repertoire of rebukes and admonitions timely and effective without practice. Certainly the company of the others is lacking in the ability to provoke many of my finer qualities." Ezra smiled, his gaze entirely for Chris.

"Careful, Ez," Chris responded, "that sounded an awful lot like a compliment."

The other man shrugged, a graceful gesture that emphasized the fine lines of his jacket and the perfect fall of the cuffs of his shirt. "At least you read books, Mr. Larabee - something other than the religious and philosophical. Did I mention that I received a copy of the first volume Gibbons Decline and Fall of Rome? Magnificent - the man's scholarship is astounding. I'm certain that you would find it as compelling as I do."

"Decline and Fall of - Rome, New York?" JD asked. "Who really cares about a little town in - "

"No, you cretin," Ezra said through clenched teeth. "Rome, Italy - the greatest of empires? The Rome of Hadrian, and Constantine, and Julius Caesar, and - "

"Hey, didn't they have some of them statues of women at their most beautiful?" Buck piped up, and this time Chris did laugh.

Ezra turned and glared at the other man, but JD had already picked up the thread. "You mean - " He blushed, but continued, "naked women?"

"The very ones!" Buck agreed happily. "Does that book talk about those, Ezra? If so, I think I want to read it!"

Chris snorted and JD burst into laugher as Ezra's glare deepened. "There are far more interesting aspects to such a grand and powerful history than its sexuality!"

"Well, if I remember what I've read, it did have an interesting history of that as well," Chris murmured, reaching for his coffee mug.

Vin knew little about this - any of this, but he did know enough about Ezra to see the surprise that he quickly masked.

"You think all that's true?" JD asked, making Vin feel even stupider. "All that stuff about - well, you know, about men being with other men and them - you know, them - "

"Orgies?" Ezra supplied the word, smirking as JD turned as red as Buck's bandana.

"Lord have mercy!" Buck whooped. "Now if they'd given me books like that to read in school, I mighta become a scholar just like Ezra here! No wonder you like reading so much!"

Even Vin had to laugh at that, as much at Buck's attitude as at the complete indignation on Ezra's face.

"Every culture is different," Ezra said as the laughter began to ebb. "What is right for some is not necessarily right for all. As Mr. Tanner likes to remind us, Indian cultures see things very differently from the way of the civilized world."

Vin felt the pull of anger again, but this time, it was Buck who intervened. "So Vin, these tribes you were with - they anything like the Romans? Anything I should know?"

He waggled his eyebrows, the suggestion as blatant as it could be, and despite his annoyance at Ezra, Vin found himself laughing again. "No, Buck, I don't know nothing 'bout no orgies. The Peoples are different in some ways, a little more open to some things, but when it comes right down to it, they believe that what happens between two people is between two people."

"Or three?" Ezra asked casually.

And before he even thought about what he was doing, Vin nodded. "Or three, or even four, I guess. Them hide tents are nice but they can get as cold as anywhere else in the dead of winter, I reckon."

Buck was waggling his eyebrows again. "I might just have to get me a hide tent then, before the winter gets here."

Vin was shaking his head at Buck's antics which had JD squawking again, so he was only vaguely aware of Ezra's gaze on him, vaguely aware of a sort of discomfort.

But he was aware of it later, as he lay under Chris, willing him to move, willing him to push, to thrust, to touch him harder, bring him off - willing him to stop whispering, "Mine, just mine. Goddamn him."

*&*&*&*&*&*&*

"Goddammit!" Chris stormed around the front of the jail, the small room even smaller in the wake of his anger and the press of five male bodies. "What the fuck did I tell you, Ezra? Did I tell you to try to talk to them? Did I tell you to negotiate?"

Vin watched warily, his eyes catching the twitch of Chris' fingers as they strayed near his guns.

"You did not tell me not to," Ezra countered, his voice remarkably calm for someone standing in the path of the full-on Larabee rage.

Vin wondered if the man was just plain stupid. Even he would have been a little worried facing Chris in this mood.

Or a lot worried, he corrected himself as Chris went dead still, his expression blank.

Killing rage.

Josiah was standing closer than Vin, who was leaning on the closed door, and when he straightened, something in the room shifted. Even better was when he spoke, his voice soft but steady - not placating, they all knew better than that, but calm.

"It wasn't Ezra's fault that JD got shot. That would have happened even if things had gone as you planned and as we wanted - JD was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Chris was still blank, his eyes locked with Ezra's.

But at least he hadn't drawn yet.

Buck was next, standing even closer to Chris, his voice even softer. "Ezra may or may not have been right in trying to talk to 'em," he said, edging closer, trying to get Chris to look at him - or at least look away from Ezra. For an instant, Buck's eyes caught Vin's and Vin saw real fear there. "But Josiah's right - what happened to JD had nothing to do with Ezra - and Chris, you know me, and you know how I feel about JD. If I thought for one minute that it was Ezra's fault that JD's laying up there with a bullet in his shoulder, you wouldn't have to be thinking about shooting Ezra, 'cause I'd already have done it."

Chris didn't move.

The silence grew heavier, until Buck took a step, his arm reaching out to touch Chris.

Vin spoke then, instinctively knowing that if he didn't, Buck was gonna be the one getting shot. "Ain't worth it," he said flatly. "Next time, Ez stays in the wagon, where JD was." He pulled himself upright, his thumbs hooking into his gunbelt. "I'm gonna check on JD. Call me if ya need help burying him."

With that, he turned and caught the doorknob, pulling the door open. He had managed to step through it when Chris finally spoke.

"You think the same thing they do?"

Vin paused, his eyes unconsciously scanning the street. He put one hand on the doorframe, leaning to one side as he thought, then, without turning around, he said. "Yeah. Nothing Ez did had anything to do with JD getting shot - 'cept maybe keeping him from getting killed. A minute or two earlier and he'da been hit by the guy first outta the bank - he shot before I could take 'im out and he hit right under where I was standing on the roof . If JD had been there, instead of a couple a feet up, where he was, that shot woulda gotten him straight through the chest." He shrugged. "Maybe." He finally glanced back over his shoulder, meeting Chris' eyes. "He fucked up, but he didn't get JD shot."

With that, he stepped onto the boardwalk and pulled the door closed behind him. He took it as a good sign that the sound he heard as he walked up the street wasn't a gunshot but the sound of Chris yelling.

*&*&*&*&*

SIX

They sat quietly in the saloon, no one particularly jovial even though Nathan had finally pronounced JD out of death's door. Buck and Chris were up there now, leaving Nathan free to grab dinner and collect a few things from Mrs. Potter's store. Vin sat with Nathan and Josiah, sipping on a beer while they picked at the beans and rice Inez had made, more interested in their own beers.

Vin didn't mind the silence - appreciated it even. He was tired, exhausted in the wake of the gunfight, the killing, the worry, and the tension of Chris' anger. And quiet with Josiah and Nathan wasn't like quiet with anyone 'cept maybe Chris - it was peaceful and easy.

So much so that it wasn't much different when Nathan rose, finishing off his beer, and nodded his goodbyes.

Or when Josiah did the same just a few minutes later, kind enough to clear the table for Inez by taking the plates and empty mugs to the bar before touching Vin lightly on the shoulder as he passed by on his way out the door.

He sat a little while longer, finishing his beer, then debating whether to have another or head off to his wagon. It was growing dark and he was tired. Chris was with Buck and would most likely remain there, which, truth be told, was here he should be.

He had almost gathered enough energy to rise when he felt someone approaching. His hand fell to rest on the grip of his gun as he turned to find Ezra walking up to him.

The other man carried a bottle of whiskey, a shot glass, and a mug of beer which he placed on the table in front of Vin. Without asking, he pulled up the chair Nathan had vacated, settling on Vin's left. He didn't look at the other man as he opened the whiskey bottle and filled his own glass.

"It would seem," he started easily enough, "that I owe you the debt of my life." He raised his glass and met Vin's gaze. "My thanks."

Vin stared as Ezra waited, his glass still outstretched in a toast.

Neither said anything for several long moments, until eventually, Vin relented and picked up the mug. "Don't owe me nothing," he said, but he took a sip.

"Au contraire," Ezra replied after taking a long pull on his own drink. "It would seem that I may owe you my life several times over, as it were - other than from your usual sharp-shooting talents."

Vin frowned, not comfortable with - well, any of this. He set the mug on the table and made to rise.

But Ezra reached out, his hand catching at Vin's wrist. "Please, allow me a moment of your time and a pittance of that sweet charity you surrender so freely to almost everyone else - forgive me, it is not intentional," Ezra rushed when Vin's jaw clenched. "I find that when I am nervous, I tend to . . . . rattle on more than normal."

Vin wasn't certain which caught him off-guard - the statement itself, the admission, or the soft uncertainty in the usually snide voice. Probably both.

But he sat back, then took the mug again. No use letting good beer go to waste, and Ezra certainly wasn't going to drink it.

"What you said to Chris today - well, certainly you said more than you had to. Just agreeing with the others would have been enough, I wager, given his trust in you." Ezra looked at his glass, focusing on it as if whatever he had to say was written there. It might have been, Vin thought with some personal amusement - if there had been words there, he wouldn't have known what they were, not yet anyway.

But the glass was clear - too clear, a situation that Ezra rectified with more amber liquid.

"But you said more, didn't you, even offered a sort of defense of my actions." He drank then, quick and deep, as if he needed the courage. "In your place," he continued, refilling the glass for a third time, "I would not have done the same."

Vin almost shrugged, almost let it go.

Ezra rushed on, unwilling, apparently, to allow the truth to remain unspoken. "You could easily have been rid of me," Ezra said, his voice low. "No one would have spoken against Chris had he lost control. He would have walked away - perhaps with censure, and perhaps with guilt, but you would have been shed of me and you would have been with him without my interference."

Vin took another sip of the beer, saying nothing. There was no point in denying any of what Ezra was saying - he would have been a fool not to think those things.

"Of course," Ezra continued, his voice still low, his eyes still on his glass, "you could just as easily have shot me during the fire - or any of a number of other possible things that I would have been unable to prevent. In truth, I spent a substantial amount of time making certain that I was aware of your exact location. I was quite nonplussed to find that you seemed to want to stay as far away from me as I did from you."

He drank again, but this time the swallow wasn't as big. "I was . . . unaware of his feelings for you - that they ran as deeply and as truly as they do. Otherwise, I . . . "

Vin looked at him. "Don't say what you don't mean," he said, matching his tone to Ezra's - quiet, even, direct.

Ezra grinned then, a golden flash in the dim light of the room. "Don't lie? You challenge me. I don't know that I can do anything other than that." He drank again, but there was still whiskey in the glass when he put it back on the table. "The sad thing is that I suspect that in this situation, I am lying to myself more - and that, sir, is a sin of more magnitude than any of the others I have ever committed." He chuckled before adding, "At least, in my own view."

Despite himself, Vin smiled as well. "Yep."

He felt Ezra's gaze settle on him but he didn't meet it.

"You are a most intriguing man, Mr. Tanner," Ezra commented. He took up his bottle again, refilling the glass. "I envy you your calm. I suspect that that is a large part of what draws Mr. Larabee to you."

Vin reached out for his own glass again. He was in the middle of a sip when Ezra said, "Do you wonder what draws him to me?"

He was glad that he managed to get most of the beer back into the glass, only a little of it spewing onto the table. Ezra's chuckle had subsided to a wide grin by the time Vin recovered, so he was less annoyed than he could have been, a fact he reminded himself of several times.

Wiping his mouth with the back of his shirt sleeve, he snorted, "I ain't actually thought about it."

Ezra did laugh at that, and Vin regretted stopping Chris earlier in the day.

"Now now, don't say what you don't mean - isn't that how you put it?" Ezra slugged back another shot, then looked at Vin. "Of course you have thought about it - you would be a fool not to, and if I have learned nothing else about you, it's that, despite how you often wish to appear, you are anything but a fool." There was an edge of irritation in the last, and Vin wondered how much Ezra had lost misjudging him.

Vin shrugged, letting his body recover.

"Tell me," Ezra started, twirling his glass on the table, his speech just a little hazy as the whiskey began to catch up, "is he gentle with you? Kind?" He picked up the glass, looking at the darker liquid, then through it to Vin. "Loving?"

Vin stared at him, unable to look away.

Ezra smirked, then moved the glass to his lips, sipping. He returned it to its twirling pattern on the table as he continued, "I suspect that he treats you with the utmost concern, handles you like the finest crystal." He smiled, another flash of gold. "An irony, really," he mused, and Vin knew he was talking more to himself than to Vin. "The wild, unkempt, beast of a man is treated as the most valuable of possessions, coveted, treasured, caressed and honored with the lightest of touches, the sweetest of kisses." He sipped again, then continued, "While the tamed, fashionable, polite and gentile of us is the one for whom he has the most disregard, the one subject to curses and degradation, the hard edge of a fist, the sharp slap of the crop."

His voice had taken on a lilt, as though he were reading poetry - which perhaps he was, Vin thought. He knew little real poetry, the stuff in books, certainly not the stuff Ezra read - or probably Chris, for that matter.

But it was what was behind the words that unsettled Vin, in several different respects. "What are you talking about, Ezra?" he asked, leaning forward.

For a second, he thought Ezra hadn't heard him; the other man continued to stare into his glass, that small smile playing across his face. Eventually, he picked up the glass, and like the ones before it, he downed the rest of the whiskey before turning to meet Vin's gaze.

"You, Mr. Tanner, are the love in his life." He leaned forward, putting the glass on the table. "I suspect that that makes me the hate." He smiled again, but there was no humor in it.

The statement annoyed him with its drama, and he thought Ezra was drunk. He was stupid to sit here and listen to any more of this -

"He doesn't fuck you hard, does he," Ezra said, his voice more a whisper now. "Worries that he'll hurt you, scare you away. Sometimes it makes you want to scream, doesn't it, makes you want to shake him until he's angry." He leaned closer and Vin actually sat back. "But you're afraid of that anger, aren't you. You know what it is. You know what it could do to you."

He stared into those eyes, bright with their own anger, their own hurt. "What he could do to you."

"Fuck you," he spat, finally finding his voice. "You don't know - "

"I know what it's like to have him angry - to call out that anger and take it. To feel him use it to its full potential, to use it as the weapon it is, the power it is."

Vin couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't look away.

"To feel it in its glorious, full passion."

Everything had stopped, movement, sound, time. The full import of what he had said hung in the air, wet and heavy and ready to throw a storm -

And Chris stood there, Buck behind him, his eyes looking from him to Ezra and back.

As he had the morning this all started, he ran.

*&*&*&*&*&*&*

"Vin! Goddamit - stop it!"

He managed to twist past Chris, throwing his saddle bags over Peso's haunches. The big horse was nickering, nervous, responding to the tensions he felt from the two humans in his stall. Vin distractedly tried to sooth the animal when his hands weren't piling stuff on the horse's back - or when he wasn't dancing around Chris, pretending that he wasn't there.

That was getting harder as Chris grew more desperate, apparently losing his fear of Peso's teeth and hooves as it became clear that Vin wasn't going to acknowledge his presence other than to avoid it, much less to answer him. Finally, Vin's luck ran out and Chris' hands closed on his shoulders.

He didn't think, just reacted. The satisfaction he got from punching Chris is the face was only slightly muted by his guilt. The time it bought him to climb into the saddle and edge Peso out of the stall made it worth every bit of remorse.

But Chris didn't surrender easily, not even from the floor of the livery. Vin heard the slide of metal against leather, then the cock of the gun just as Chris called out, "I'll shoot your goddamned horse, Vin! Don't make me!"

Vin ignored him - until the first shot made Peso rear, the bullet raising the dust at his hooves. Vin clung to him, urging him forward, but a second shot, just under his belly, scared the horse worse and he bucked, a hard thing to do in the confines of the livery. It wasn't the bucking itself, though, but the sweep against the wall that finally knocked Vin to the floor, his hat swirling away to fall in a small cloud of dust. He landed hard, stunned enough not to be able to get clear before Chris was sitting on him, pinning him to the dirt floor. Peso was still wheeling around, no longer bucking, but his back legs kicking out. Chris seemed oblivious to the danger, leaning over Vin, gripping his wrists and pressing them firmly to the gound.

Vin blinked, trying to catch his breath, which made him completely vulnerable not only to Chris' physical demands but to the words he was speaking.

"I don't know what in the hell he said to you, but you listen to me, Vin, and listen good. Ain't nothing he said makes a damned bit of difference. I want you more than anything. Whatever he had to say was in the past." He was staring into Vin's eyes, and Vin saw the strength of will there, the will that had made him who he was.

And the will that had given him the anger that Ezra seemed to know so very much about.

He couldn't make himself think that, couldn't wrap his head around those implications - so he picked the other one.

"How many times?"

Chris blinked, caught unaware. "What?"

Vin looked up at him, studying hard as he repeated slowly, "How many times?"

Chris swallowed then, the question - and his answer, evident before he spoke. "Not . . . not many," he said, almost looking away but not quite making it.

"That morning wasn't the first."

Chris closed his eyes, but he didn't lie. "No. The first time . . . the first time was after Cletus Fowler."

Vin's stomach clenched and he thought he might be sick. "That long ago." Before him.

Chris had been lying since they started. Everything -

"It's not - I don't know what it is, Vin. I don't know why I have to have him - it's not love, it's not desire - hell, it's not even something I enjoy!" He sagged, looking old and worn and lost.

But Vin was feeling that way himself, and sick. He tried to pull away, feeling dirtier than he'd ever thought he could. No wonder Ezra was so angry. Despite himself, Vin was angry for him too. Damn Chris. "Get off a me," he rasped, "get off a me and away from me - "

"Please," Chris whispered, his eyes still closed. "Just . . . just listen to me. I'll tell you all of it, every bit. Just give me this chance."

"Another one?" The words were so bitter he could taste them. "Wanna tell me another tall tale, spin my head around with - "

"I've never lied about how many times, Vin, you never asked before - all right, all right," he rushed as Vin struggled. "It was a lie of omission, I should have told you. But I was so afraid - I am so afraid. I . . . I wasn't lying about not being with him ever again, though. I won't be. I haven't been." He opened his eyes. "I don't love him, Vin, I never have. I'm not even sure that I like him."

There was no tell here, nothing but desperation and pain, magnified perhaps by the long shadows cast by the flickering lanterns scattered about.

Peso had finally quieted, going back into his stall and munching on the feed. The livery was quiet enough that they could hear the approach of footsteps, an uneven stagger that told Vin that it was, again, probably Ezra. He waited for Chris to move, to at least free his hands in case he needed to draw, but other than a frown of hesitancy that crossed his face, he remained as he was.

He was that desperate, Vin realized. He'd let someone shoot him, shoot them, rather than let Vin walk away from him.

"My my," came the Southerner's drawl, confirming to Vin that his night was going to hell faster than even he thought possible. "Starting without me?"

Chris sighed. "Go away, Ezra," he ordered tiredly. "You've done enough damage for today."

Ezra snorted, stumbling towards them. He stopped, swaying slightly as he looked down. "Hardly seems equit-equit-fair, then, that I should be blamed for your mishandling of this situation, Mr. Larabee," he said with only a little slurring. "Had you been honest with either one of us - "

"Fuck off," Chris sneered. "I never lied to you at all."

"Well," Ezra countered with surprising speed, "I'm certain that's reassuring to Mr. Tanner." He laughed, and then swayed precariously, and Vin closed his eyes for a second, not wanting to watch as Ezra fell on them. Of course, it might get him free of Chris' hold, if Ezra fell just right. . . . "You lie to the one you love for fear that he may discover the real person and run away - as any sane person would!"

Chris jaw tightened, but this time, Vin knew it was in frustration. He almost laughed at the idea that right now, Chris was debating whether he could draw and shoot Ezra before Vin could break free of him.

In that way of drunks, Ezra rambled on, unaware - or more likely, uncaring of the danger. "Which, of course, begs the question of my own sanity, as I have submitted myself to you - what, on a number of occasions - "

"Five," Chris snarled. "Five times, Ezra, don't make it into more than it was."

Ezra laughed again. "Five times - how delightful that you recall every one of them! Of course, I do as well - my memories are aided by the lovely bruises and welts that - "

"You wanted," Chris said loudly, "that you wanted!"

Vin found that he was staring into Chris' eyes again, unable to understand what he was hearing. But he knew what he saw; the desperation was back, coupled with a depth of fear that was new to Vin. "I'd never hurt you, Vin, I swear, I could never - "

"Perhaps you should," Ezra interrupted, waving one hand airily. His shirt cuff was loose, the cuff link gone, and fine fabric fringed in lace wafted with his motions. "Perhaps if you offered him what you gave so freely to me, you wouldn't be in this quandary - "

"Ezra, leave."

Vin shivered, watching the change in Chris. The desperation and fear vanished as if they had never been there, replaced with the dead calm he had seen earlier in the day, in the jail.

As ever, Ezra droned on. "But you worry for him, don't you - worry that he won't appreciate the fine shades of sensation you create in your tempers, the fluid path between pleasure and pain - "

"You get off on that?" Vin heard himself ask, his eyes still holding Chris'. He couldn't avoid it any longer, they - no, Ezra, wasn't going to allow it. But he wasn't ready to think of Chris yet, not . . . like that.

So the question hadn't been for Chris and they all knew it.

Ezra stood for a second, weaving gently, before answering, "Are you asking me if I enjoy mixing pain with my sexual experiences?" Vin knew the other man was looking down at him, trying to catch his gaze, but he didn't care. He was watching for Chris' reaction, letting this growing awareness roll around in his head.

"Yeah," Vin said drily. "Do ya?"

Ezra chuckled. "Love it. And until I had the great fortune of angering Mr. Larabee, I never realized exactly how much or how potent the mix could be." He leaned down, his whisper almost as loud as his words. "If you haven't had the experience of his undivided attention in the throes of a temper tantrum - well, he has hardly given you all he has to offer."

Knowing now what to look for, Vin saw it, the tiny flicker in the depths of the green eyes he knew better than he knew his own. He couldn't decide at first exactly what it was, whether it was fury or want or fear - all three seemed suddenly to look the same. But the want was there. And with it, the confirmation of all that he had been running from.

"Vin has all my love," Chris said, the flicker burning brighter, his eyes seeming to glow, even as his words belied his eyes. "All of it. That's everything I am."

Ezra leaned just a bit closer, his lips so close to Chris' ear that Vin wondered if he had moved from uncaring to suicidal.

"Everything that you are includes the darkness," he murmured. "The part you hide from him, perhaps even from yourself." It was hardly a movement, but his lips were touching Chris' ear as he continued, "The part that yearns for me."

It was fast, so fast that Vin, looking right into the heart of it, didn't see it coming. Chris lashed out with his right hand, hitting Ezra with such force that the other man hit the opposite stall door with a distinct 'thud' then fell hard to his knees.

Before Vin could even blink, that hand was back, but not on the wrist it had left; instead, it grabbed at his shoulder, pulling him up, first to sit, then to his feet.

The fall had taken more out of him than he realized, his back, ever consistent in its obstinacy, twinging in objection to the movement. It twinged more when, as Vin started to step away from Chris, thinking to resist now that they were upright. Chris twisted, using his momentum to push Vin back into the wall; he traded the grips of his hands for slamming his left forearm against Vin's throat, trapping him.

Instinctively, Vin tried to free himself, but the more he squirmed and pushed at the pressing arm, the harder it pushed down, cutting off his air. It was finally, as he was gasping, his awareness getting hazy, that it occurred to him that this was exactly what Ezra wanted.

For him to see Chris angry, to have that anger directed at him - with all the sexual energy it carried.

To scare him away.

He stopped struggling then, relaxing against the wall and dropping his arms to his sides. Chris didn't lessen his hold, he didn't have to; Vin's new posture allowed him to draw somewhat deeper breaths.

"I'm not losing you," Chris murmured, the words cold, now, no longer desperate or hurt. "Not because of him, not because of this - this - thing. I can control it, Vin, I will control it. Whatever he's told you, it's done. It's gone. There's nothing now but you and me."

The emotions that had he had seen in Chris before had appealed to him at a basic level of compassion; his love for Chris, his own need for Chris would never allow him to let the man suffer.

But this - this spoke differently. This, Vin knew instinctively, was the Chris that Ezra knew, the hard man who would have what he wanted no matter the consequences. The man who would let them both be shot by a stranger instead of giving up Vin, the man who would kill himself and Vin here and now instead of watching him walk away.

The man who would hurt Ezra because Ezra enjoyed it - and because he enjoyed causing the hurt.

Over Chris' shoulder, he saw Ezra struggling back to his feet. Blood trickled from one corner of his lips and there was a bruise already growing along his cheek. But he was smirking, his eyes bright and decidedly clear.

Not drunk, despite all the alcohol Vin had seen him swallow.

"This is where it starts, Mr. Tanner - where it started for us - right here in this very place, in a manner very similar to this. Mr. Larabee was quite furious - mostly with the world, I think, the loss of Mr. Fowler and his knowledge of who had ordered the deaths of Sarah and Adam." There was an inflection when he said the names, a pitch to the words that drew an answering flare in the Chris' eyes.

It might have been only five times, but Ezra had learned a lot in those five times, a lot about how to draw out and feed the fire of Chris' wrath. Invoking the names of the sacred dead was probably an easy one - Vin himself never mentioned them, certainly never by name.

"But he was very angry with me. Oh, he was rather drunk at the time, as well, accusing me of the most uncivilized of behaviors - having designs on you, I believe." Ezra chuckled. "Even then, he had already determined to claim you for himself, even if he didn't know it."

He took a step closer, but Vin was watching the play of color in Chris' eyes. More bursts of light as Ezra talked. Ezra called it darkness - but he was wrong. It was more brilliant than Vin had ever seen, a brightness that burned through his eyes. A brightness he had never put there.

"He seemed to think that I had cheated you out of money - an amount he found to be quite appalling, but as I said, he was rather drunk." He took another step, and Chris tensed, his right hand resting on the butt of his gun.

"Shut up, Ezra," he ordered. "Leave Vin alone."

Ezra's voice dropped lower, almost melodic, as if Chris had said nothing. "Then he accused me of trying to entrap you in a large debt, one that you would feel honor bound to pay in a manner most . . . compromising." Ezra's smirk grew, the trickle of blood dripping off his chin. "He didn't believe me when I said that you were far from my first choice of a bed mate. It was only later, when he had me trapped against a wall, much as you are now, that he felt the evidence of my . . . . testimony, if you will. It was only then that he understood that you were far too innocent for my tastes." He edged just a little closer, his eyes looking over Vin's body, or as much as he could see beyond Chris. "What truly surprises me is that you aren't far too innocent for his."

"I like innocent." Chris voice was a rumble, low and grating. It as the voice that he used to sooth Vin when he was positioning himself, when he was in and trying to slip deeper, when he was trying to coax Vin to take him. It was the voice he used when Vin was wrapped around him, urging him on, wanting him hard and fast and deep - and Chris wouldn't.

It was a voice that contradicted the eyes.

Ezra laughed loud, and Vin wondered vaguely that someone wouldn't finally hear them. He wondered if that would make things better or worse, to be caught this way, in this argument.

"You covet innocence," Ezra said, "you protect innocence, you even try to convince yourself that you love it. Maybe you think it will save you." He laughed again. "But it's not what you want in your bed, Mr. Larabee. I don't doubt for a minute that Mr. Tanner was not a virgin when he came to you - while we know little of his history, what we do know leaves little room for his purity to have survived to the present."

It unnerved him that Ezra knew him this well, but more so, that he would make Chris think about it. As usual, the words wouldn't come, so he did the only other thing he knew; he edged in close to Chris, his body almost touching the other man's, wanting to distract him.

Ezra, however, had the words. "I suspect, though, that you treat him as though he were - or worse, you treat him as though his innocence is something that your patience and efforts can restore - is that not so?" The hand again, waving, but this time toward Vin. "All of your promises not to hurt him - are those for him, for his peace of mind, or are they for you - to preserve your own sense of honor?"

"Don't." The rumble was lower, deeper, filled with a malevolence that made Vin swallow. His skin itched with a different fear now, and he found that he was backed so far against the wall that he could feel the spaces between the boards. "Best be leaving, Ezra," that voice commanded, finally matching the wide eyes sparkling like a steady stream in the morning sun, "before you find yourself giving a demonstration of how much you like pain."

Ezra sighed. "So tedious, dear Christopher," he tugged at his jacket, letting it slide from his arms and catching it. He wasn't wearing his secret gun rig, something that should have bothered Vin more than it did. "Perhaps that is what we should do - show your little . . . angel what he has to look forward to if he wants to keep you all to himself." He draped the jacket over one of the stall doors, then started unbuttoning his shirt.

Vin found his attention drawn to the other man, fascinated despite himself.

Chris hissed as Vin looked away, his arm pushing harder, his free hand rising to catch Vin's chin. "You're mine," he hissed, closing the distance between them even as his hand rose to tangle in Vin's hair. "He can't have you, not ever."

Vin looked back, shaken by the thought. "I don't want him," he said, confused. "You do." But as the words left him, it occurred to him that Chris might not have been talking about Ezra.

Chris was shaking his head in denial even as his lips slammed into Vin's. The kiss was hard and rough - not familiar at all. Not the Chris he knew at all.

It wasn't just that it hurt - which wasn't bad, per se, because it didn't hurt bad. It was just - not the way things were with them.

"Mine," Chris said again, just before his teeth pulled on Vin's lower lip, then bit down.

It wasn't strong enough to break the skin, but it shocked him with its unexpectedness and its intensity.

Scared him. And in that, it aroused him.

He gasped when Chris drew away, stunned by the way he felt, the suddenness of it. He was light-headed, and it had nothing to do with the arm at his throat or the hand cupped under his jaw, holding his head still.

Someone laughed, and he remembered Ezra, glancing to find his shirt open, his chest bare to the waist. He looked away - then back, catching his breath.

He'd seen enough of Ezra to have a general idea that despite his arguments, the man did enough physical labor to be able to handle himself. Hell, he'd felt the man's muscle more than once himself, Ezra pulling him up off the ground after some rough-and-tumble or backing him up - literally - in the midst of some shoot-out. Ezra had some power of his own.

But what caught Vin's eye wasn't the musculature but the patterns that decorated it. Long, slender welts, some curving over his shoulders and around his waist, one running at an angle across his chest, just barely missing his right nipple. Welts, from a slender lash.

And bruises, some deep purple, recent, others fading to pale yellows and greens, some mere smudges on pale skin, other in circular shapes, like bite marks.

"I assure you, Sweet Vin, I was in no way teasing you about my predilections. Nor would I be so callous as to let you believe that it is only at Christopher's hand that I find my entertainments - I am not so attached as that." He spread his arms wide, giving Vin a complete view. "He was being quite truthful when he related that he has not touched me since that rather rude interruption last week. What you see before you is the work of several others - not bad work, mind you, but amateurish in comparison to what Christopher can do when he's in a true fit of pique."

"Vin." Chris shifted so that all Vin could see was his face. He was trying to say something, Vin could see the thoughts as they ran long behind his eyes, stumbling and tripping over each other. He could hear them in his own head, the denial, the promises, all the things that he had been saying for - ever.

That part of Chris, the part that would beg, was trying to come back. The part of Chris Vin knew.

That part of Chris that would simply take what he wanted - that part that Ezra knew, that part that Ezra wanted - that part was in control. That part that needed Ezra and not him. He was scared of it - no doubt about that. The marks he saw on Ezra didn't excite him at all. He'd had too much pain to think it could ever be good -

But even as he thought that, his back arched and his hips brushed against Chris', rubbing. It wasn't real desire, he knew that - it was jealousy and fear. His own fear of losing Chris, of not being what Chris needed.

Chris' breath caught and his face changed, becoming almost feral. His arm moved from Vin's throat, both hands reaching into his hair.

This kiss - this kiss was sexual, full of all the heat and possession and demand. Full of - Chris.

It was funny, he thought in the very short periods that he could think, that in all the times they'd been together - far more than five - it had been good, but he had always felt that something was missing, that somehow, in some way he didn't quite understand, not all of Chris was there.

Now, he knew what it was. Damn Ezra for being right. Damn Ezra for knowing this part of Chris.

When he couldn't breathe anymore, thought he might pass out, he pushed then strained to put some space between them. Chris relented, but only a little; his hands were all over Vin, sliding under his shirt to grab at his skin, twisting down the back of his pants, touching and holding and, at times, scratching and scraping. Consuming him.

"As I said," a voice whispered from so close that Vin twitched, "he's hardly given you all he has to offer. Exquisite, isn't it, the sheer magnetism of the man. Mr. Wilmington has barely a tenth of the charisma of our Christopher Wilson Larabee."

Vin was drawing air as if he'd run down a wild mustang, but the words caught up pretty quick, a drop in his stomach tempering his blood. "Wilson?" he wheezed, tearing his eyes away from Chris to find Ezra so close he could smell the whiskey on his breath and the musk of his sweat under the layer of his expensive cologne. "How did you - "

Ezra smiled, his eyes heavy-lidded as he leaned against the wall, facing the two of them. This close, the dark hair that trailed lightly down his sternum shown bronze in the lantern light, his nipples pinched and hard. "Christopher didn't share that with you? In all the times you've been together - "

"It's in a book of mine that he borrowed," Chris cut him off coldly. He was leaning against Vin, his hands moving but slower now, his tongue tasting and teasing on Vin's neck. "Nothing I told him."

Ezra chuckled, then casually, he reached toward them, one finger running slowly down the side of Vin's face. "I read it, Vin, read it. In one of those lovely books that Chris and I share - "

It happened again, that move that was so quick that Vin didn't see it. One second Ezra was leaning there, making fun of him, the next, he was sliding down the wall, the echo of flesh striking flesh rolling around the room.

"He ain't treating you like that," Chris growled. "I won't let anyone treat you like - "

"He ain't doing it for me, Chris." The reason was so clear that he wondered why he hadn't seen it already. "He does it for you - for him. He already knows how you're gonna act, how angry you're gonna get. What you're gonna do to him."

"Don't care," Chris said, still gritty. But something in him calmed just a little, Vin could feel it in the air around them. Could see it in the dulling of his eyes.

Slowly, Vin's hand rose to touch Chris, gently on the arm, then up to his shoulder. "You do like it, don't you. Hurting him."

The desperation lurked in the back of Chris gaze, and for a second, Vin saw the lie. But to this part of Chris, the truth didn't matter much anymore, where he was going to have what he wanted and admitting to Vin - and more importantly, to himself, was inconsequential. "Don't matter, won't ever do it again." He pulled Vin away from the wall and into a tight embrace. "Won't drive you away from me."

Vin let his arms slowly wrap around Chris. Something wasn't right, and as he watched Ezra once more pull himself off the floor, he knew that part of it was going to be Ezra. He wasn't going to leave them alone. Wasn't going to leave his darkness alone.

Chris had hit him in the chest this time, the imprint of his hand dark yet blending with the other marks that it crossed. He was smiling now, an unpleasant expression that made Vin cling harder to Chris.

"I wish you the very best of luck with that - both of you, actually," Ezra said quietly. "But when you find that despite your good intentions, you're bringing your demons to his bed, please know that my invitation has not been withdrawn." He started buttoning his shirt, his gaze never leaving Vin's. "As for you, Mr. Tanner, well, don't say that you haven't been warned." He tucked the shirt in with grace and an amazing discretion that seemed at odds with the situation, then walked with only a slight limp to retrieve his coat. "Good evening, gentlemen," he said. "Thank you for your . . . diversion."

It was sometime after he left before Chris relaxed and they broke apart. But Chris wouldn't release him, not entirely. "Let's put your horse to bed," he said quietly, one hand smoothing back Vin's hair. "Then I want to put you to bed."

Vin looked at him, his eyes clear but merely green. No fire.

Chris smiled a little, but it was tinged in worry. "I will not hurt you," he lingered on each word, drawing each one out in its own promise.

Vin nodded, turning toward Peso's stall, but he was stopped by the fall of that hand on his shoulder. He didn't resist as Chris turned him back then forced his chin up so that there eyes met yet again. This time, though, Chris was the one watching. "It . . .I couldn't tell you, Vin, 'cause like I said, I don't know why it is. It's just . . . something about Ezra. I've never felt it with anyone else before - certainly never with Sarah." He almost couldn't say her name, the word garbled and choked to the point that Vin almost didn't understand it. "I think . . . I think whatever it is, it's because of that - because of what happened to them. I think that when it's done, when I . . . when Ella is found and put down, it'll be done. This - this part of me. It'll be gone."

Gone, Vin thought, but the word seemed empty in his head.

"Vin?" He stroked gently over Vin's cheek, his touch soft. As if he were someone else entirely.

Vin hesitated, feeling like he were two people too - the one who knew better than to put up with this, the one who should do the smart thing and run as long and as hard and as fast as possible. The one whose voice had been talking all that time ago, in those first few days afterwards.

But the one who took control, the one who nodded to Chris and even tried to smile a little, was the one who was unable to walk away, no matter how much he knew he should.

SEVEN

"My friends," Josiah settled against the rail of the boardwalk, taking a sip of his coffee as Vin and JD nodded. "Gonna be a beautiful day."

"Hotter than he - blazes," JD said, catching himself. He was healing now, getting back to his old self even though it had only been a month of so since he'd been injured. His arm was in a sling, to take the weight off his healing shoulder, but he'd gotten to where he only wore it when he knew Nathan was going to be around. This morning, it draped empty over his chest, bearing stains from the coffee that he'd sloshed.

Vin nodded his agreement from the chair he was in, which was pushed up on its back two legs, resting against the wall of the sheriff's office.

Josiah merely smiled. After another sip, he asked, "Barn-raising at the Holbrooks by the end of next week. Count on you boys to help?"

"Wouldn't miss it!" JD enthused. "Casey said Ms. Nettie's making some of her famous pies - squash and tomato, and some with the wild berries that Casey's been picking - Vin, you're coming, right? Casey said Ms. Nettie's making a lemon pie just for you."

Vin smiled, feeling a blush. He'd mentioned once to the older woman that one of his few distinct memories of his mother had been lemons - he didn't know why, whether it was the smell of them or the taste or - what, just that when he smelled them, which wasn't often in these parts, it made him feel good.

Trust her to find some of the precious fruit and make something sweet - just for him.

"Brother Vin?" Josiah asked, pulling him back to the present.

"Reckon so," he agreed, looking up to the tall man. "Seem a waste of a good pie, otherwise."

Josiah grinned at him, a flash of straight white teeth. "Good thinking. Not that I think it'd go to waste if you didn't make it, but that's just about as good a reason as any other I can think of."

The sat for another minute or so, sipping, watching the sun struggle a little higher in the sky.

"They got that barn in place pretty fast," JD commented. "It's only been - what, six weeks since the fire?"

"'Bout that," Josiah agreed. "Have to get it up before it starts cooling off, though, gotta have somewhere for the animals and for storage. It's nice being in a place where everyone's so helpful. Town's come a long way in the time we've been here."

"Sure has," JD agreed with a laugh. "'Course, it's probably more your doin' than anything, Preacher."

Josiah smiled again, but shrugged. "Doubt that. Feeling safe helps people feel more settled, more friendly. Easier to love your fellow man when you're not worried he's gonna pull a gun and shoot you."

"True," JD agreed with a laugh. "Guess we have managed to cut down on some of that worry, haven't we - even if we do have bank robbers form time to time."

"We've cut down on a lot of that worry, son," Josiah nodded. Then, with a chuckle, he added, "Town people now only have to worry about one of us shooting them, instead of just anyone."

"Like Chris?" JD laughed. But the laugh died pretty quickly, and Vin looked up to see the other two exchanging glances.

He sighed. He'd been hoping that it was only him - hell, he was the one with Chris most of the time these days.

But with Chris, it was hard to miss.

The infamous Larabee temper was back. He wasn't quite sure when it had returned; he'd thought that the moodiness was just a part of the other man, something that came and went. For a while, it had come and gone. Then, the going had stopped.

And the moodiness had turned into a full-bore temper.

"Where is our anointed leader?" Josiah asked, not looking at Vin.

Vin shifted, not looking at Josiah as he said, "Last I saw, he was at his cabin. After that . . . meetin' with Mrs. Travis day before yesterday, he said he wanted some peace and quiet, some space away from the - 'natives', I think he said."

Josiah shifted his weight. "Thought you might have gone with him." He still wasn't looking at Vin, and Vin felt his spine tighten.

"Chris needs his space, so do I." He lifted on shoulder then let it fall. "Heat don't help none."

"No," Josiah agreed, "'spect not." He finished off his coffee then straightened. "You ridin' patrol this morning?" he asked.

Vin nodded, dropping the chair to all four legs and rising himself. "Yep, and best be to it."

He took a step to leave, but stopped Josiah sort of leaned in front of him. "If you see Chris," he said, finally looking Vin directly in the eye, "you might mention the barn-raising. Be mighty nice for him to be there."

Vin nodded, but frowned.

Josiah shook his head once, smiling just a little, then said more softly, "Might be nice for Chris to be there." It sounded like he was repeating himself - until Vin ran it through his head again, hearing the emphasis.

As if seeing the understanding on his face, Josiah nodded. "A new beginning, so to speak," he said. "Might be that Chris needs to be reminded that they can happen."

Vin nodded, started to say something but Josiah continued, startling him.

"Even though seems like he'd already know that - but sometimes a man can get forgetful, distracted by the heat, maybe, or the mundane problems of . . . 'the natives'."

Vin stared, not sure at all what Josiah was saying, implying, but before he could breathe, the older man was nodding a good morning to JD and moving along the boardwalk, away from them.

"He sure can be odd sometimes," JD said passingly. "But that's the way of a lot of the men of the cloth. Back in Boston . . . " He rambled on for a few minutes, but Vin wasn't listening. He was hardly aware that JD was still telling the story when he waved his own goodbye to him and headed to get Peso.

By the time he finished the patrol, it was after lunch, and the day was as hot as he had expected to be. He'd taken his time, stopping whenever shade or water was offered, as much to rest himself as his horse. In this heat, little was moving that didn't have to be, including trouble-makers of either the man or beast variety.

He could have ridden back to town, but he had circled back around so that Chris' place was on his way back - and one of the last places. He tried, at first, to convince himself that it was just the way things fell. But he knew better. As Ez had said so long ago - the worst thing you could do was lie to yourself. 'Course Ez had said it differently and more - well, more bullshittedly, but it was still, at its core, true.

As it was true that he wanted to talk to Chris. If Chris would talk.

Peso's steps were not quiet as they neared the cabin, but Vin still called out an identification as they got close. Chris nodded to him, acknowledging his presence even though he continued hammering on the fence he was working on.

Vin didn't rush him, staying in the saddle as Peso stopped under a tree near the clearing to the cabin, appreciating the shade and the thick grass that was there. For his part, Vin pulled the stopper from his canteen and drank, taking the opportunity to appreciate the sight of Chris half-naked, his body sweaty and his muscles tight as he worked.

Eventually, Chris stilled, letting the hammer drop to the ground beside him as he turned to look at Vin. "Problem in town?" he asked, and there was an edge in his voice that made Vin feel unwelcome.

He stoppered his canteen, looking away from the other man's body. "Just thought I'd finish up my patrol by here, see if you needed anything."

"Just to be left the hell alone," he snapped, turning his back on Vin and walking toward the pump.

Vin nodded, more to himself than to Chris, glad he hadn't made the effort to dismount. Gathering up Peso's reins, he said, "Barn-raising at the Holbrook's by the end of next week. Be nice if you would come, but ain't nobody gonna hold it against ya if ya don't."

With that, he clucked to Peso and turned him away, letting his spurs lightly touch his horse's flanks.

"Vin!" Chris called suddenly as Peso started away, "Where the hell ya going?"

Vin tugged slightly, pulling Peso back with an indignant snort - Peso hated contradictory commands just about as much as his rider.

Vin looked back over his shoulder. "Thought you wanted to be left the hell alone," he said, frowning. "Don't mean to be no bother."

Chris closed his eyes, and Vin was confused by the sense that he got that Chris was upset by what he had said. And frustrated.

"You ain't no bother," he said, but the way his teeth were grinding together made the words hard to understand - and certainly didn't make them seem honest.

Vin snorted. Shaking his head, he said, "I'm heading back to town. You want company, you know where - "

"Goddamit, get your ass back here!" Chris snarled, his eyes opening to glare at Vin.

A faint uneasiness settled in Vin's stomach. He didn't move, just looking down at the other man. There was a spark there, gold under all that green.

Chris drew a deep breath, his jaw still clenched. But his tone only grated as he repeated, "You ain't no bother. Hell, you're family. You can come anytime you want - don't you know that?"

The uneasiness was replaced by a warmth that made Vin feel good. "Ain't never had family," he said quietly, "so I guess I don't know the ways of it."

The hardness dulled, then vanished when Chris smiled just a little. "No, guess you don't. And guess I've forgotten how to talk without biting." He primed the pump, putting his hands under the water when it started flowing. "Put Peso out and come on it - I'll see if I got any tomatoes left that are still good enough to eat."

They sat on the cabin's small porch, Chris in a chair and Vin on the steps, leaning back against a support beam. The silence was heavy but not uncomfortable, both of them thinking their own thoughts as they made short work of several over-ripe tomatos with biscuits and hard cheese . Eventually, Chris wandered out of his own mind and ventured, "Barn-raising, huh. You going?"

"Ms. Nettie's making pies," Vin said by way of an answer, and Chris laughed. It was a good sound - one Vin hadn't heard in far too long, he realized.

"She knows you," he answered. "Guess I can't argue with that."

Vin glanced over to him and shrugged. "You want me to stay here with ya, you know I will."

Chris' smile lessened a bit, and he turned his head, looking at Vin. "Yeah, I know you would." His voice was quiet. "Know you'd do just about anything I asked you to, anything you could do for me, even . . . . " He stopped then, and Vin noticed a faint color rising up his cheeks.

Vin quirked his head, puzzling through the possibilities. It wasn't like Chris to be embarrassed, unless he was thinking of what had happened with Ezra.

As the thought passed through his mind, he wondered if perhaps part of the current problem, the current temper, wasn't somehow related to, well, Ezra. No, he amended, as Chris looked away and leaned farther back in his chair, his face darkening, if perhaps it weren't related to the thing they shared.

The thought of it worried at him as he watched Chris grow more restless, first his hands moving, sliding against each other, then up and down his thighs, them his legs moving, tapping on the porch floor in a sort of bounce. Eventually, he was fidgeting his chair, as if he couldn't get comfortable.

Vin knew the exact second that Chris moved to stand, and he did as well.

Before Chris could say anything about wanting to go check on the horses, or needing to work on the fence, or just needing to move around, he stepped up onto the porch and slid one arm around Chris' shoulders and the other behind him, so that he cradled Chris' head in his hand, holding him still.

He knew from the tension in Chris' body that he had surprised him; usually, Chris initiated their sex, his body craving it with more frequency than Vin's. But in those rare instances when he had, Chris had always been so happy that he refused Vin nothing.

This time started the same, Chris catching up quick enough to gather Vin to him, giving in to the press of lips, the demanding tongue. The hunger was there instantly, recognized in the hands that clutched at his waist, the ragged moan, the hard pants.

Vin rubbed against him, coaxing both of them to hardness and want, even as he lowered one hand to stroke over Chris' still-bare chest, pulling at the tips of his nipples and the smattering of hair that ran along his breast bone.

It was when he touched the waist of Chris' jeans that things took a turn he didn't know.

Normally at this point, Chris would push them apart long enough to remove their gunbelts and strip down, working so quickly with his own that he was usually there to ease Vin out of his pants. He seemed to love the act of stripping Vin, taking almost as much time and care with that act as he did with the touches and positioning afterwards.

This time, though, when Vin's fingers found the top button of his pants and worked it open, Chris reach around him and placed his hands on Vin's ass, pulling him in so close that Vin couldn't move. Chris' mouthed along his jaw then down his throat, his tongue licking away the sheen of sweat left by the day's heat, until he nuzzled past the collar of Vin's shirt and laved at the junction of Vin's neck and shoulder.

The pain was an explosion in Vin's head, jolting him with a mixture of shock and hurt. It took him several seconds to realize that what he was feeling was Chris' teeth locked in the muscle there, not only pressing like a vise but cutting as well, the flesh breaking and beginning to bleed.

He knew what was happening, all the pieces of the past six weeks coming together in his head as they had just a few seconds ago, when the reality of Chris' need had shown so clearly in the words. When Chris had almost said what they both knew - that Vin would, in truth, do anything he could for Chris.

Anything he could.

But he couldn't do this. While his mind tried to bring it to terms, tried to keep control, his body had its own reaction.

He jerked, the action unconscious and stupid, causing the teeth in his flesh to rip more, bruise harder. At the same time, he pushed with the arm between them and yanked with the one wrapped around Chris, drawing the other man off of him with a force that enlarged the wound even more.

They stared at each other, blood lining Chris' bottom lip, a thin trickle edging from one corner of his mouth reminiscent of the blood on Ezra not so long ago.

This time, Chris was the one who ran.

He staggered off the porch, pushing away as Vin tried to catch him, crying out when Vin almost got a hold then breaking free to run with growing speed toward the barn.

"Chris!" Vin called, giving chase, "it's all right - it's - "

He stumbled over a limb hidden in tall grass, nearly went down but caught himself, losing time. Chris made it to the barn, disappeared inside, and Vin made it to the shadowed doorway just as the sound of a gunshot silenced everything.

He'd never known a fear like this. The shot had deafened him, and after the brightness of the day, he stood blind in the darkness of the barn. He was breathing too fast, panicked in away he could only remember a few times before - and all of them involving Chris on the wrong end of a gun.

Air moved against his neck and he turned to it, finally catching movement. Slowly, sounds started to filter back into his awareness, first a low keening, then the sound of feet pacing through dirt and straw. Every so often, he'd catch a glimmer in the faint light, and knew that Chris' gun was out and he still held it up, too close to his head.

"Chris?" he whispered, not really aware that he had as he edged farther into the barn.

"Stay away from me," Chris cried - or at least, that was what Vin thought he said. The words were a garble of sound, more anguish than form.

But at least there were words. Vin stepped farther, his eyes adjusting. Chris was moving back and forth along the width of the structure, both of his hands at this temples, his right one holding the gun. It was hot and too close to Chris' skin; the smell of the burn was just under the acrid tang of the gunpowder.

He was frantic, moving like a caged animal, and Vin wondered if he had wounded himself somewhere. He swallowed, stepping closer but slowly.

"Chris, calm down, now, just calm down." He pitched his voice low, looking hard to see if there was any sign of a wound, but Chris wasn't limping, just pacing with that fast walk, quick turns, unpredictable movements.

"Get away from me," Chris grated out again, turning. "Just leave, go before I hurt you - Christ, go before I hurt you again."

"I'm all right," Vin said, still slow and soft. "You didn't hurt me." It was a lie, the spot was beginning to throb like a bitch and he could feel the blood as it worked its way into his shirt, sticking the fabric to the would and his skin.

Chris didn't believe him either. "Bull shit," he said, and it came out as a shriek that startled the horses outside and made Vin flinch. "Goddammit, I swore I'd never hurt you - and now this!" He was shaking his fists now, and Vin tensed as he noticed the trigger finger tightening on the gun.

"You're gonna hurt me more if you do something stupid to yourself," he said quietly. "Chris, please, slow down. Just . . . slow down."

Chris still paced, now hitting at his temples with his fists, but he slowed a little. "Don't know what happened," he said, his voice fast and rambling. "I wasn't thinking, it just - I can't believe I - "

"Chris, just . . .just slow down. It's all right." He waited a few seconds, then took another step forward. "Chris. Please. Just . . . just look at me."

Chris continued to pace, but again, slowed a little. He lowered his hands from his head, not putting his gun away yet, but at least now it was at his side. "I don't know what's wrong with me - I never used to feel this way, like I had to hit something or hurt someone or destroy something - and now I can't even keep it away from you - "

"I told you, I'm all right," Vin repeated. He was feeling annoyed as he always did with Chris' strange over-protectiveness of him, but he knew better than to show it right now.

"This time," Chris answered, but he slowed even more, wandering more now than pacing. "How long before I lose it completely, do something to you that you can't get away from - "

"You never will," Vin answered him. "Look at me - just stop and look at me."

He stepped another step closer, this one putting him within reach.

"Chris." He lifted one hand very slowly, knowing that the other man was aware of what he was doing. "Look at me."

He wasn't sure why this was so hard for Chris - or maybe he was. But he knew that it was what Chris had to do - to see him right here, right now, fine and complete and still here.

Chris slowed, then finally stopped. He stared at the floor, his whole body trembling, and Vin worried anew about an accidental shooting. But he knew better than to intercept the gun - one never touched another man's gun without clear permission. So instead, he let his fingers drift slowly toward Chris' chest. They stopped and hovered for several long seconds, giving Chris time to prepare before he stretched that last few inches to connect.

He touched just off the breastbone, over the other man's heart which was beating so hard he wondered how it hadn't come through his ribs.

For an instant, every muscle of Chris' body seemed to contract, and Vin thought that he was getting ready to bolt again or to attack. But instead, the trembling ebbed, then stopped, and though the heart was still beating fast, it wasn't quite as hard.

Chris' eyes were closed, and Vin took another step closer. He left his right hand in place, easing his left gently under Chris' chin and lifting the lined face. "Look at me," he repeated in a whisper.

He stayed still for the eternity that it took for Chris to finally comply, the whites of his eyes bright in the soft light.

Vin didn't say anything, he just let Chris look at him and feel him. After a time, Chris slowly returned the gun to its holster, his hand a little shakey but nothing that made Vin worry.

That same hand was still shakey as it touched his right hand, laying itself over his.

Vin let the fingers under Chris's chin wander up to graze along the other's face. He felt the dampness, knew how badly Chris was hurting and how close he was to letting go again. He took another, smaller step closer, giving himself the only way he knew how.

They stood, Vin waiting, knowing in the way that they shared, that he could push no more. He was offering all he had, and Chris knew.

After a time, Chris reached for him.

They'd made love in the barn before, but never with the strange mixture of hesitancy and urgency that they did now. Chris wanted it, needed it, but Vin had to lead; it was a role he took but with some reluctance - it wasn't right to his way of thinking. But for Chris, he would do anything and everything he could.

For now, that meant turning to one side as he pulled off his shirt, hiding the pain as he brushed at the wound and wiped away as much blood as he could, then keeping his shoulder as far out of sight as possible. Chris only tried once to see it, ruffling away Vin's hair before tracing along the line of flesh and muscle, but as he neared the place he had hurt, his eyes closed and he gasped, and Vin caught him in another kiss.

Then it meant stripping himself and doing what he could to prepare Chris, who lay on a slender pallet of loose straw Vin had covered with a worn saddle blanket. Chris had been hard, but even that seemed as much a curse to the older man as a pleasure. He wouldn't touch himself, couldn't forgive himself for what he had done, certainly wouldn't encourage anything that he thought might lead to more of it.

But he wouldn't fight Vin when Vin took him first in hand, then into his throat, knowing he didn't have the time to hunt down saddle oil or any other thing for them to use. Time was long but fragile now, any stretch of it could get Chris to thinking too much. So he slicked him with his mouth, knowing it wouldn't give enough to keep the pain away but perhaps enough to let him cover it up.

Lastly, he straddled himself over Chris, fighting down his own fear as he guided Chris to him, then into him. He ignored the voice that screamed from inside him, blowing up the memories of times before like smoke from a wet-wood fire, ignored his body's own reaction as his desire waned than fell away entirely, lost to a coldness that started where they were joined and spiraled up and through him, barely countering the burn of their joining.

Given the angle and the position, this penetration was the deepest they had shared. Perhaps it was that which drew Chris from his fear-induced lethargy, or that coupled with some awareness through their strange bond that Vin was reaching the edge of his own resources and his own will.

He groaned, low and long, then his hands finally curved over Vin's hips, balancing him. "Kiss me," he begged, "Christ, Vin, kiss me."

Vin leaned down, the angle changing and easing somewhat. Chris' mouth opened to him, but it wasn't long before Chris' tongue was thrusting into him with the same rhythm as his erection, possessing from both ends.

Oddly, it was this and the tentative touch of Chris' hand to his groin that rekindled his own desire. Oddly, he didn't last long, coming as hard as he ever had and with more satisfaction than he had since before it had all started. Chris was close behind, but even lost in his release, he was careful, hardly thrusting up, hardly clinging to Vin.

Afterwards, though, he held Vin unusually close, sheltering him against his chest. He shook again, and Vin felt the coursing wetness as it seeped into his hair.

EIGHT

He'd known it would come to this, had known since that morning after the fire, the morning in Chris' room when Chris had given him the oil.

He sat in the saloon, watching the sunset, listening to the prattle of JD and Buck, the soft laughs Nathan gave at the boys' antics, and quiet words of wisdom Josiah imparted. He sat as Nathan eventually drifted off to check on Mrs. Potter's girl, who was suffering from a mid-summer cold that wasn't healing as quickly as it should, then Josiah drifted off to light candles in some saint's day ritual.

He sat, nodding once as Ezra joined the three remaining at the table, even getting in on a game of cards, pleased at the flash of surprise on the gambler's face that he suspected only he saw - as only he knew to look for it.

They played for a while, neither Buck nor JD seeming to sense the undercurrent of discomfort between their companions, a sign, Vin suspected, of Ezra's ability to distract anyone from almost anything and his own ability to hide. After a while, JD yawned, claiming an early morning ride with Casey, and after another several hands, Buck was also distracted away by a woman, his more immediate.

Buck had hardly made it to the bar, the young lady in question draped over him like a blanket in winter, before Vin felt Ezra's eyes on him, cold and hard. But his voice was, as always, polite, too polite. It was the sweet politeness of cultured and polished hatred.

"A little over a month, then," he said, shuffling the cards without looking at them. "Even by my calculations, that is far faster than I expected - unless there was an anniversary or birthdate of which I am unaware."

The last was a question, one to which Vin didn't have an answer, but now, at least he had an idea of why and when those five times had happened.

"You ain't surprised," he said quietly, reaching for the beer sitting near him on the table. He'd been nursing it for a while, as much because he didn't want to be drunk for this conversation anymore so than he wanted to aggravate the pain that came every time he shifted in his seat.

Ezra shrugged, but the slight gleam in his eye and the light curve of his lips left Vin know he was feeling quite vindicated. "I believe that I did caution you as to what to expect." He shuffled some more, then quickly dealt two hands. "But you are wrong, Mr. Tanner, and you well know it. I am surprised. I am surprised that you are the one here, not him." He looked at his cards then back up at Vin, sorting the cards by touch, apparently. "Because I do not believe for one iota of a second that you are here to ask me for my counsel on this matter."

Vin studied his own cards, more a distraction actually. He didn't have to puzzle the words, he knew what Ezra was saying. It was clear in his tone.

"You're right," he agreed, tossing several coins onto the table to open the betting. "I ain't here to ask for no advice."

He waited as Ezra tossed coins on the table as well, then held out the deck in silent question.

Vin tossed away two cards, took the two that Ezra dealt, then waited as Ezra took two as well. Ezra glanced at his new cards, folding them into his hand while looking back at Vin expectantly.

Vin threw several more coins on the table, feeding the pot more than playing to win. He wasn't sure now what to say or how to say it. Words had never been his weapon, silence had been. But now, their roles were reversed - Ezra had the power of silence and he was using it well, leaving Vin feeling like he was looking at loaded gun while his own was not only empty but jammed.

Ezra called his bet, then held up a third coin to raise. But instead of tossing it, he said, "He hurt you."

Vin watched him, thinking. Debating. Even though there really was no need. He'd sold his soul before Ezra sat down at the table. Now, they were merely haggling about the price.

"Not bad," he shrugged, but he held Ezra's eyes. "Bit my shoulder."

Ezra blinked, the only sign of his confusion. He dropped the coin on the pile, his fingers left drumming slowly on the table.

Vin held up his own coin this time, rubbing it distractedly with a rough fingertip. "Scared him a hell of a lot more than it hurt me."

Ezra's eyes sharpened, his gaze more focused and Vin saw the instant when he understood. It was followed by the tilt of his lips, the grin of victory.

He dropped the coin in the pot, looking away. No help for it now - even if he never said the words, Ezra knew.

Ezra, of course, had to hear them. "So what, exactly, is it that you would have of me, Mr. Tanner?" he asked with more sugar in his accent, the words almost dripping. "As I said, certainly it is not to learn how to . . . accept his gifts and talents. That is not a learned skill, as you, I suspect, know as well as I."

As if he needed a reminder, his shirt rubbed over the raw place on his shoulder, and a sharp discomfort stung him where he sat.

Probably those more than Ezra's words wound him up, and he blurted, "If I could learn to take it, I'd be there, not here - " He cut himself off at the last words, not wanting to admit to them.

But Ezra's smile grew larger as he finished the thought. "Not here asking me for favors?" He laughed then. "And favors in the literal sense, I gather. How delightful, how utterly, wickedly delightful!"

Vin clenched his jaw, controlling himself. Ezra had every right to laugh at him, hell, if it didn't make his own heart hurt, he'd probably find it down right funny himself.

Gradually Ezra chuckled himself down to a smile and Vin waited. He was still smiling though when he said, "So what exactly do you propose, my good man? That I take Mr. Larabee back into my . . . . good graces? Entertain him in the ways that you are unable or unwilling?" He leaned back in his chair, curious. "I suspect that it must be something of that nature, for if you were a wise man and had done as a wise man would, you would have abandoned this morass entirely, and, as I suggested earlier, Mr. Larabee would be the one sharing this highly entertaining conversation with me." He smiled then, letting his cards fall from hand to hand. "So, are you willing to share him, truly share him? To take him back after you know he's been with me?" He glanced about the busy saloon, the noise loud enough to cover his next words, but he leaned close nonetheless. "Are you willing to take him back when he smells of me, tastes of me, when my blood is on his hands?" He leaned even closer, and Vin willed himself not to pull away as those lips brushed his hair. "Will you be able to spread your legs for him when you know he might be thinking of me?"

Vin didn't realize his eye were closed until he felt the cool fingers on his own hand, forcing it open to pull away the cards he had been holding. The cards he had bent in half as the images Ezra's words had forced into his mind.

"You might think of it as love," Ezra said, smoothing the cards back into some semblance of flatness. "Personally, what you call it to justify it to yourself hardly concerns me - as I said before, I have only one interest in this matter and that would be my own gratification." He looked over a Vin then, smirking. "So I ask again, Mr. Tanner, is this what you want? And, if so, are you quite certain?"

"Ain't it what you want, too?" Vin asked, his voice so low that it made his throat itch.

Ezra laughed again, still smoothing Vin's cards. "Certainly I want him, I thought I made that perfectly clear. But you see, he's not the one here asking. You are. Which I suspect means that he doesn't know you're proposing this little venture." He picked up one of the cards, turning it face up.

The three of spades.

Another followed - the three of clubs. A pair.

He grinned, looking at the cards as he continued. "So if he doesn't know of your plan, then you are either worried that he won't like it - feel some great, heroic guilt about - whatever it is that he feels great, heroic guilt about, or, worse, that he will like it." He picked up the pair of threes and tossed them to one side.

Vin swallowed. "Don't matter," he said, but his voice was tight, as were his fists.

"I beg to differ," Ezra said smoothly, flipping over a third card - the ten of diamonds. "It matters very much, sir." The fourth card - the jack of diamonds. He smiled. "While the stakes I would wager in this little game may not be as great as yours, they are important to me. I find that I am averse to being disposable - it offends my sensibilities." He tossed aside the two bents cards and reached for his own hand, laying it to the right. Carelessly, he flipped over all five - a pair of fives, and a pair of queens, with an ace kicker. "And while I don't mind being tossed about, especially by someone with the skill of our Mr. Larabee, I find it quite frustrating to be tossed about but not to a mutually beneficial conclusion." He drew the pair of queens from the hand - the queen of hearts and the queen of diamonds.

Vin stared at his hands where they rested on his thighs. "Chris don't know I'm here 'cause he'd . . . he'd think - hell, I don't know what he'd think. And like I said, it don't matter. I can't . . . I can't be what he needs. Not . . . that way. But I can be in most other ways and he wants me to be. So . . . yeah," he swallowed, "I guess I can take him back after you . . . after y'all do . . .after. I can."

Ezra continued to stare at him, and Vin closed his eyes. "I won't stop it," he said, "I won't . . I won't change my mind."

After a few seconds, he felt Ezra move and he opened his eyes to find the other man gathering up the cards and shuffling them with both hands. "So, we have reached an agreement, or at least the beginnings of one," he said smoothly.

Vin reached for his beer, taking a deep drink. When he set it back on the table, he felt the tug of pain and tried to remind himself that if nothing else, he wouldn't feel it again, not or a while, anyway. But that brought a different sort of hurt.

"There are, of course, a few other things we must resolve," Ezra continued.

"Of course there are," Vin said tiredly, rubbing at his temple.

Ezra's shuffling slowed a little and he canted his head to one side. "We are not speaking of a one-time event."

Vin shook his head. "If one time woulda taken care of it, then it'd be done."

"Indeed," Ezra agreed. "So then, how often? Several times a week? A month? Do you want to arrange it so that certain nights of the week are mine and certain yours - I'd rather not be committed on Saturdays as those are nights when I tend to stay late here in the saloon - very lucrative you know - "

"Godddamit," Vin swore, his fist hitting the table and making the pile of coins jump and his beer splash. For a few seconds, the roar of the saloon quieted a little, and Vin felt himself flush.

Ezra smiled to those immediately near. "Lost by a two," he said pleasantly, "always a painful thing, so close and yet so far."

It seemed to do the trick, people turning back to their distractions, the volume quickly rising back to its earlier pitch.

But Ezra was watching him again.

"It don't matter," Vin ground out, his jaw so tight he wondered if his teeth would break. "I don't get the sense that there's any regularity to it. That's . . . .that's between y'all." He rubbed at his forehead again, the dull ache growing stronger.

"Do you not think it would be easier for you to know when?" Ezra asked, and Vin was surprised at the sound of something in his voice other than the sarcasm. "Easier not to be wondering any time that he's not with you?"

He hadn't thought of it that way, and he took a few seconds to ponder it.

But he knew himself well enough. "Don't matter."

Ezra shuffled some more. "Because you would wonder regardless. Will wonder."

Vin didn't say anything, just reached again for the beer. The mug was empty when he put it down.

"So then, no constraints, for the moment, anyway." He shifted in his chair, placed the deck of cards on the table between them. "You will tell him of our agreement?"

Vin nodded. "Reckon so." He leaned forward, his hands on the arm of the chair as he prepared to rise.

Ezra held up one hand, stopping him. "There is one more thing," he said calmly, looking Vin in the eye.

Vin sat back, sighing despite himself. "What's that?"

Ezra smiled. "My price."

Vin stared. "What the - what the hell are you talking about?" he finally managed to choke out.

Ezra shrugged. "You have asked me to do you a favor, Mr. Tanner, one that is designed, if I understand it correctly, to benefit you. I hold no illusions that you are doing this out of the goodness of your heart or any generosity toward me - I believe that we eliminated those conditions over a month ago, in the livery." He arched one eyebrow. "Or was I mistaken?"

"Fuck you," Vin said, his voice hoarse. But he didn't hit the table, nor, more significantly to him, Ezra.

"So then, you are asking me to do you a service - one that, I might add, could have terrible consequences should it become known to others, even others close to us, wouldn't you agree?"

His head was pounding now, and he thought perhaps it would have been easier to just shoot himself.

"Do you not - "

"I agree," Vin spat. "What the fuck do you want, Ezra? Money? For me to take your patrols? Bring ya food, brush your horse - what, jist spit it out!"

He took several deep breaths, getting back his control.

Ezra leaned in, close again. "I think I want exactly that," he murmured. "The fuck."

"What?" He wondered if he could be any more confused. "Ain't that what - "

"Not from Mr. Larabee - or, rather," he corrected himself, moving in closer again, "not from Mr. Larabee alone."

Vin found himself unable to look away as he understood.

Ezra smiled slightly. "This first time, Sweet Vin, just the first. To show Christopher that it truly is all right with you. The three of us."

He sat back, but his eyes still held Vin's.

He tried to speak, but no sound would come.

Ezra chuckled. "I think it will be good for all of us - you will know more of what Christopher and I share, and I will know more of what the two of you share. I won't force you to my bidding, as I said before, what you offer has little appeal to me."

Sound finally returned to him, but it was more that of a mouse. "Then why?" he squeaked out.

Ezra looked away, and it was a physical relief.

"Perhaps, Mr. Tanner, you are not the only one who wonders. Perhaps I would like to see the side of Christopher that I can't imagine, this side that would care so deeply for someone as to sacrifice the pleasure I know he feels with me. That cares so deeply that he would willingly curb his own nature." He looked back to Vin, no smile on his face. "Perhaps I would like to see if he truly can derive satisfaction from giving pleasure and not pain. Perhaps . . . perhaps I would like to see what that part of him looks like."

At the far back of his mind, Vin heard something he thought was more than curiosity, more than this sick joke. It might have been hurt, but he wasn't able to think on it, still too stunned by this whole idea.

"Ezra," he breathed finally, "this ain't right. You can't - "

"Right?" Ezra's laugh was deep and long and real, and by the time it lapsed for him to drawn breath, there were tears on his cheeks and people close by were watching them with curiosity. "Oh, my good man, that was worth every cent of this evening's winnings - 'right'." He chuckled some more, wiping at his face with his sleeve. "Whatever would either of us know of 'right', Mr. Tanner?" He chuckled some more and Vin felt the heat of blood in his own face slowly recede. "So then, those are my terms. You may take them or leave them, obviously." He reached out and gathered the deck of cards and returned them to their box. "But the offer is only open until this time tomorrow. After that, I fear that as much as I appreciate your situation, I would find it out of my ability to aid you - "

"Goddamn you," Vin spat. "You want this but you'd still see me beg, wouldn't you. Fine." He pushed himself forward, sliding the chair back as he moved.

But before he could go to his knees, Ezra reached out, his hand catching hard on Vin's arm, the impact stilling his forward move.

"Not this," Ezra said, his voice calm and quiet, but his arm unrelenting. "Never this, Vin."

Vin glared, his anger still running in waves, but he held his seat on the very edge of the chairseat, his legs folded under it.

"My terms are what they are, nothing less, but nothing more. There's no begging, because I will not compromise the price. I am not asking you what you cannot give - I'm not asking you to submit to me or to his demon. I'm merely asking to . . . watch. That you can give. Whether you will or not is entirely up to you." With that, he let go. His hand rose from Vin to the collection of coins that still sat on the table, and he swept them easily toward the other man. "Your winnings."

Vin still glared, but he pulled his legs up and pushed himself to stand. "You had two pair," he said, not even registering the fact that Ezra would have known the game's winner as surely as he knew how to shuffle the cards.

"And you had three of a kind." He tapped the boxed deck. "Your fifth card was a third

three - the three of hearts, as it happens." He smiled, rising to his feet as well. "This time tomorrow - "

"I done told ya," Vin snapped, but the anger was harder to hold now.

Ezra studied him, then leaned down and pulled his hat from the chair beside the one he had been sitting in. Placing it casually on his head, he touched the brim in a light salute. "I look forward, then, to our next meeting on this matter."

He walked away smoothly, speaking to several people as he passed by them. Vin stood uncertain now, angry still, but confused. And tired.

He heard laughter as someone brushed past them, then Buck's voice fell warm in his ear. "God, Junior, you beat Ezra?" Vin looked to see Buck waving toward the money on the table, his companion laughing as she leaned on the table heavily, her breasts on proud display. "That don't happen often."

Vin shook his head. He put out one hand toward to small pot, but couldn't seem to touch it.

"Buy yourself a drink," he mumbled, turning away.

"Vin?" Buck called after him. "You sure?"

He waved a loose hand in the air, stepping through the door and into the night, feeling empty. He hadn't sold himself for the money, he knew that.

But right now, he wasn't sure what he had sold himself for.

*&*&*&*&*&**

NINE

"No."

"Chris - "

"No."

Vin shifted, his hip jutting to one side. "It ain't like - "

"This discussion is closed." His voice was so low that Vin wondered if he'd actually heard the words or if they had just appeared in his head.

He sighed. "Please, just hear me - "

The slam of the fist on the hard wood of the table made him jump, despite the fact that he had been prepared for it. Or perhaps, he thought, because he had been. "I ain't cheating on you," Chris yelled. "Jesus Christ, listen to yourself!" He shoved the table hard, the thump of it hitting the wall almost as loud as the fist had been before.

Vin waited, giving Chris a minute to calm down. He had known it would be this way, had been dreading it even more than the conversation with Ezra two nights ago. He'd expected the worst then, and gotten more than he'd imagined. The thought that that would happen with Chris as well had helped him put it off a little longer.

That and his own fears. The thought of Ezra's price.

But it was too late now, he'd agreed to it.

Chris had stormed into the cabin's small kitchen area, his hands making short, quick work of washing up what little was left from their lunch. Vin wondered passingly if he had put the knife away already, the big one they had used to cut the loaf of bread.

"I can't believe you would even think such a thing - Christ, Vin, have you lost your mind?"

It was possible, Vin thought, but he didn't say it. Instead, he leaned back against the wall, feeling the familiar ache in his back. He'd spent most of yesterday riding, taking two patrols, then riding out to Nettie's to check on a horse she had getting ready to foal. Riding back late, then riding out early again this morning.

Avoiding this.

The silence stretched on, interrupted from time to time by the slosh of the water and Chris banging something onto the sideboard.

"Ya need him," Vin said softly after a while. He had rehearsed the words in his head for two days now, promised himself he could be brave when he said them. But each still had a shard of glass in it, cutting.

"Goddammit," Chris swore. He jerked his hands out of the water, grabbing at a drying rag on the sideboard and slamming across the small space toward the stove. One hand knocked at the stove itself, slamming down on it with a force that left the heavy iron structure rocking. "I swear to you, I'll never hurt you again, Vin - Christ, I swear - "

"It ain't about that," Vin said, loud enough to be heard.

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Chris was laughing. Vin was struck in a sick way by how much that sound was like Ezra's laugh from two nights ago - 'right', he remembered, about what was 'right'.

None of this was right, not one damned thing about it.

He turned, thinking to walk out the door, get Peso, ride away -

"You're getting better, Vin, you're starting to lie like you mean it."

He stopped just outside the door, looking at ground past the porch.

"Hell, pretty soon, you're gonna be just like him - lying so easy nobody knows what the hell you really want. Hell, maybe you won't really know what you want - is that it? Is that what you want, to be like him? You think - you think that's gonna make everything better between us?"

He knew Chris was angry, even knew most of it was at himself because he thought he was failing Vin.

But worse, he knew Chris was right.

He closed his eyes, rubbing at his head again. "I know what I want," he said. "I've known what I've wanted since that first time I looked into your eyes." He swallowed, wondering how much more of himself he was gonna lose before this was done. "And I know what I'd do to get what little piece of that I can have." The words almost choked him, but he plowed on anyway. "I can't be what you need, not on this. It ain't your fault - hell, it ain't even mine. Maybe if things'd been different for me in the past, if I'd not learned to be so . . . so damned scared of being with people, maybe I could let you do . . those things to me. But it is what it is, and it's something that ain't gonna change, not no time soon." He felt bare now, like he had nothing else to lose, no part of him that wasn't already out there. So it wasn't really anything to say it all - or almost all. "You're the best man I know, Chris, and I'll follow you for as long as you'll have me. But I won't stand by and let you kill yourself because . . . because I can't be what you need and you're too damned stubborn to take what I can give ya and get the rest - where ya can." He knew Chris was moving up behind him, felt the heat of him, smelled the sweat and soap and musk. "I can't . . . I can't live through the fear of hearing your gun go off again and wondering if I'm gonna find you laid out by your own hand because you were afraid of what you'd do to me. I can't, Chris. I'd rather die myself."

They stood, Chris so close he could touch him if he moved even a little - but he didn't. Couldn't . He couldn't give anymore than he already had and what he had already promised. There wasn't anything else.

In that way that Chris had, he knew. After a while, he said, "So I gotta sleep with Ezra to keep you alive."

Vin stood, the absurdity of the statement catching him completely off-guard. But the thing was - it was, in its own way, true. He had said pretty much that.

He started to laugh - a cough at first, then growing as he felt a certain relief, then a little hysteria -

But Chris was laughing with him. Together.

So hard that Chris slipped one arm over his shoulders to hold him up -

And then they were laughing into each other's mouths and Chris was holding him hard, so hard that it almost hurt, and the tears were washing down Vin's neck and Chris' chest.

It was so slow, when Chris took him, so easy, that he wondered if everything else - his past, the livery, the barn, the talk with Ezra - all of it had been some bad dream.

But afterward, as Chris lay warm against him, drowsing in the heat of the late afternoon and their love-making, he felt the sting of sweat as it trickled over the purple circle on his shoulder and knew no dream of his could ever be this fucked.

*&*&*&*&*&*&*

It was four days, probably the best four days of his life, he thought later. They stayed at Chris' cabin, Chris not leaving, Vin riding patrol, checking into town at the end of it, then heading back out to Chris.

Four days. It came up - but always with a laugh. At least at first.

But as the days wore on, the gentleness ebbed away and with it, the laughter.

He thought later that it was the same in town; those first days, Ezra was polite, gentle and easy, but as the days wore on, the laugh faded to a smile that grew more snide.

Chris needed Ezra and Ezra needed Chris, and Vin was trapped solidly between.

By the fourth day, Ezra was cold and Chris was just about afraid to be in the same room.

The morning of the fifth day, as Vin saddled Peso for the patrol, he said, "Billy's been asking after ya. 'Spect you need to make an appearance."

He felt Chris' eyes on him, but he kept working to get the saddle tight - Peso was teasing again, not wanting to let the cinch take.

"Been a while," Chris returned, and Vin knew.

"Meetcha in town for lunch?" he said, leaning down to pick up the saddle bags and the bedroll. His back flared, but didn't lock. First time in a couple of days. But then, last night had been face-to-face.

Chris didn't answer right off, and after a while, Vin knew it was because he was waiting for Vin to look at him. He tied the last notch, the bedroll tight, and swung up into the saddle.

"Mrs. Hudson mentioned something about ham and sweet potatoes," he answered, reaching down to pet Peso's long neck. The horse grunted, but turned into the touch, and Vin felt a momentary relief that at least he was still loved somewhere.

Chris was there, though, stepping up close and catching Peso's harness. The horse snorted and tried to jerk away, but Chris held firm, his eyes on Vin. "Don't have to come," he said softly. "Been good, these past days, so good that maybe - "

Vin forced his head up and stared into those eyes, crystal green with the soft ring of gold. "Ham and sweet potatoes. Last a man a long time."

Chris took a step closer, letting go of the horse but taking Vin's leg, just above the knee. He opened his mouth to say something, but Vin reached down, catching the back of his head with a hand and tilting it up. His back screamed for all of him as he leaned low, bent more than half, and caught any offered words before they took flight.

"Ain't nothing but lunch," he said when they finally broke apart. "We can come back afterwards."

But he held on a few seconds longer to the hair under his hand, letting his head rest against Chris' shoulder. It was only when Chris reached to him that he pulled away and spurred Peso forward, wiping the rough sleeve of his shirt over his face.

TEN

He was leaning on the bar, working on his third whiskey, when he felt the presence behind him. Instinct demanded that he turn - instinct had been demanding that he turn since he'd come through the door, whispering constant and annoying reminders that he should never have his back to a door, that a bounty hunter could walk in at any time and drag him off to Tascoosa - dead.

He'd managed to ignore that annoying voice with the thought that that might be easier, make this whole mess go away. Now, as someone moved close, he found that he was actually hoping that it was someone wanting to take him in.

"It would seem," a too familiar voice started, and Vin wondered if he had enough money to pay someone to come after him - would $50.00 plus the promise of the bounty tempt anyone?, he pondered, slugging back the rest of the drink. "That I have misjudged the situation," Ezra continued. He settled next to Vin, leaning on one side so that he had an eye on the door.

Ezra would probably do it, Vin realized as he picked up the bottle and poured another shot. Hell, he was surprised the other man hadn't done it already - but then, Chris would probably be pissed at Ezra if he did - or do something stupid and ride out to save Vin so that Ezra wouldn't get him anyway -

"Little early in the day for that, isn't it?"

He registered the question only as Ezra's hand grazed over his, stopping his from lifting the glass to his lips.

"You want me to - pay," Vin countered, pulling away from the contact with the glass, "you gonna have to put up with some liquor."

Ezra shifted beside him, a small snort of irritation hanging in the air. Vin ignored it, drinking.

"Well, as I was saying," Ezra started once more, his words long and hard, "it would seem that I have misjudged the need of our mutual friend."

Vin snorted this time, the laughter almost bring the whiskey back through his nose. "You know, Ez, I understand just about enough of that it know you're saying you was wrong 'bout something. How 'bout you jist tell me what you're trying to say - I ain't in the mood to figure it out today." He drank again - or tried to; this time, Ezra's hand was as hard as his voice as it slipped around Vin's wrist and tightened.

"He needs it now," he said, his voice rough in Vin's ear. "You can't be there now."

Vin stilled, the muscles of his arm relaxing. He let the glass go back to rest on the bar top as he looked into the cracked mirror on the wall. "You changed your mind?"

In the silence of Ezra's thinking, he felt a wash of relief, but it alternated with pangs of hurt - he didn't want to be in that room, didn't want to see Chris with someone else, didn't want to see him kissing someone else. But Ezra, damn him, had been right - the knowing would be easier in some ways than the imagining.

And he sure as hell had no interest in being on show for Ezra. Certainly no interest in the other man touching him.

He shivered, and the fingers around his wrist slipped off.

"No," Ezra said eventually, "I have most certainly not changed my mind. But perhaps there must be some modifications in the - "

Vin took a deep breath, tightening his grip on the glass he was holding. "What the fuck do you want now?" he grated out. "Maybe if ya ask him nice, Buck could fuck me - wanna watch that?"

Ezra stiffened and Vin smiled. At least he'd hit a nerve - meant Ezra had one.

"You seem to have missed the point," he said coldly. "It's not you I care to watch." He leaned close and Vin forced himself to remain still. "Though I am beginning to feel a certain desire to do to you a few of the things that Mr. Larabee won't." There was heat in the hiss, anger, a little like Chris'. It was disconcerting and Vin shivered again.

Ezra pulled back, his voice going cold again, controlled. "What I want requires that Christopher be in the proper frame of mind. If his behavior at luncheon were any indication, his current frame of mind - "

"He ain't in the mood to be gentle," Vin finished, lifting the glass to his lips. He took a drink - not long, but not a sip either, then set the glass on the bar and actually turned to face Ezra. "He's all yours, Ez, just the way you like him. Mean, angry, and - "

He caught himself before he blurted out anymore; it might be the middle of the day, but there were still others about in the saloon, Inez herself in the back but close enough to hear.

There was a blush of red in Ezra's cheeks, and his eyes threw daggers at Vin, but his lips curved in that little grin he had. "Indeed, he is all mine, at least for the moment. All mine."

It was like a fist in his gut - in truth, he wished it were a fist in his gut. That would've been easier to bear. The pain would have gone away eventually.

He turned back, unconsciously curling over the bar and reaching again for the glass. "He was at Mrs. Potter's," he said with as little emotion as he could manage. He emptied the glass and set it on the bar, pushing himself away. "Y'all have fun."

Again, Ezra's hand around his wrist stopped him and made him shiver. "One hour, Mr. Tanner," he said softly.

Vin looked from the hand on his wrist up the green velvet jacket sleeve to the green eyes.

Ezra took one step closer, not letting go. His chest rubbed against Vin's arm, long enough and close enough to let Vin know it was no accident. "My room, one hour." His other hand came to rest on Vin's back, sliding up quickly to catch the ends of several strands of his hair in a grip tight enough to hurt. He used the hair to turn Vin's head toward his, forcing eye contact.

"I think a bath would be an excellent way for you to spend the time," he smiled. "Let us consider it part of the price."

Vin stiffened at the touch. "Thought you weren't looking to have me," he said softly.

"I'm not," Ezra responded easily. He let go of Vin's hair, his fingers combing through the ends of it. "But as you will be on my sheets, I should like for them to remain somewhat clean." Again he leaned in close, his nose edging through several tangled strands to brush against Vin's ear. "Mr. Larabee might appreciate it as well, as he took advantage of a tub of water just before the noon repast - think he did that for you, Sweet Vin?"

Another sucker punch. Vin breathed through the pain, refusing to let Ezra see it. It was harder though as Ezra murmured, "Not to worry, my boy, we both know why he did it. Despite the protestations I'm certain he's made to you about the lunacy of this venture, he wants it. He wants me, enough to pay the small price I demand of him as well." He drew away, releasing Vin's wrist but still toying with the ends of his hair. Vin twitched, feeling more unclean than a bath would cure.

Ezra reached into the pocket of his vest and pulled out a coin. Laying it on the bar near Vin, he said, "One hour. Take your time, though - there's hardly a rush, is there. And I fear it may take more than one tub of hot water to put you at your best."

His hand stroked down Vin's spine as he walked past, a possessive touch that made Vin's fingers curl into fists.

Out of spite, he had another drink before picking up the dollar coin.

He resented this walk, this whole damned thing, but especially this control Ezra had over him. Reminding himself that it was for Chris, the memory of that day in the barn, was the only thing that got him to the bath house.

It was harder to open the door and step through, though, when he glanced through the mix of people along the boardwalks to see Chris and Ezra leaving Mrs. Potter's store, Ezra smiling and leading the way, moving easily through the people, smiling, nodding, touching his hat, and generally being everything Vin wasn't.

It wasn't him, though, as annoying as he was.

It was the man behind him. The man who was sauntering with the same ease Ezra had, nodding to people, touching his hat, smiling - smiling. Being everything he wasn't with Vin.

That smile. It looked like Chris was having a good time - no, Vin amended to himself, Chris was having a good time. The smile was sincere - even if it was predatory and chilling. It was still Chris, smiling.

He found himself leaning against the wall, trying not to throw up.

"Vin? You all right?"

A warm hand on his shoulder and he tensed, then steadied himself. Swallowing back the bile, he nodded. "Thanks, Nate, just heat, I reckon."

Nathan's grip tightened a little, and Vin winced; the bite mark itself was almost healed but the bruise was still tender and Nate's fingers were gripping right over it.

"You drinking enough water?" the healer asked. "You been taking a lot of patrols lately, and in this heat, you gonna burn out fast if you don't keep up with your water - "

"I'm good, Nate," Vin interrupted, pushing himself off the wall. "Gonna go in here and get into some right now." He tried to smile, but knew even to himself it was weak.

Nathan laughed. "Yeah, you need a hot bath 'bout like I need advice about women from Buck."

Vin couldn't help it, he found himself smiling. The nausea receded a bit.

Nathan's hand dropped off his shoulder. "Heard you got Chris back into town today."

Vin looked away, unintentionally glancing back to the street. They were still there, talking to Mary Travis. Well, Ezra was talking. Mary was watching Chris and smiling, while Chris was watching Ezra and smiling.

Nathan's gaze had followed his, and even though Vin looked away, feeling dizzy again, Nathan grinned as well. "Well, well - he looks better - at least he's smiling. Maybe some time away was what he needed."

"Yeah," Vin agreed, tiredly, thinking exactly the opposite.

"'Course, that smile's the same one he has right before his gun goes off," Nathan said a little more cautiously. "Think I've seen that smile on a couple of wild cats right before they jumped on something. Makes me wonder what Ezra's done to get him so riled." He smiled again, glancing at Vin. "Makes me glad it ain't me."

"Ain't that the truth," Vin said, thinking that it was far more true than Nathan would, hopefully, ever know.

He looked back, watching as Ezra and Chris tipped their hats to Mary and moved along.

"See you at the saloon later?" Nathan asked, stepping toward the street.

"'Spect so," Vin said. "Thanks, Nate."

But he stopped in front of the door to the bath house, hand on the door knob, and wondered what the hell he was doing. Going in to take a hot bath in the middle of a hot summer day so he could go to Ezra's room and have Chris fuck him while Ezra watched so that Ezra would agree to let Chris beat the shit out of him for fun.

Chris might not be crazy, but Vin was far from certain about himself.

ELEVEN

"Senor Vin!"

He hesitated and almost lost his footing on the first stair. What the hell was Inez doing calling him -

"Ezra asked me to have you take this when you go up." She held up a bottle of whiskey - the really good stuff, he noticed, something from Kentucky, and three glasses. "He said that you and Senor Chris would probably need it when you joined them."

She wasn't smirking and she wasn't frowning; she was smiling, her dark eyes light and cheerful as they were every day that he saw her.

She had no idea what was going on in Ezra's rooms. For that, Vin was thankful.

"Thanks, Inez," he took the bottle and the glasses and nodded, trying not to blush - and failing.

But she grinned at him. "You are so polite. Your friends could take lessons from you."

Fuck no, he thought, hoping all his friends were smarter and braver than he was ever going to be. But he just nodded, turning back toward the stairs.

"Oh! Senor Vin? He said to remind you that his rooms are now on the top floor, the third one? He said to go all the way to the end of the hall in the back - they were going to be in the far room because it is cooler in the day."

He nodded again, feeling the heat rise hard to his face this time. But he made it up the first flight of stairs to the second floor, the 'guest rooms', without embarrassing himself or dropping anything.

The set of stairs to the third floor - what had been an attic but was now Ezra's private apartment, a gift from Maude - were at the end of the hall and through a small door that actually closed. It was unmarked, and, at the moment, unlocked, even though, after a few seconds of hesitation, Vin did lock it behind himself. He rather imagined - hoped, really, that if it weren't for Ezra expecting him, the door would have been locked now. The last thing they needed was for someone to find Chris and Ezra - well, doing what they were doing.

This stairway was more slender and closed, the only light coming from the crack in the door at the top. He didn't mean to hurry - he would have loved any excuse to delay this longer, but he hated the sense of confinement, and by the time he neared the top, where the light was brightening, he was moving faster than he had this entire day.

The third floor was hotter, sweltering almost, and he felt his wet hair curling even more. He was sweating again, and he smiled despite himself. No matter how many baths a body might take, there was only so much one could do in this heat. They were in a goddamned desert after all, even though this particular area was kinda at the border of things, hills and grasslands to the northeast, with water more available in that direction than to the south, toward Mexico.

But still - it was hot and humid and animals - men among 'em - were gonna sweat.

The hallway he entered was short - the third floor wasn't as long or wide as the entire building, most of it set back and away from the front. From the outside, Vin knew that the sign on the top of the building actually covered the third floor from the front - he'd been up here enough times when they were worried about trouble and he needed somewhere high and protected to shoot from. There were also no windows facing the front - these rooms had windows, but not many and almost all facing to the back. It was private up here, which was part of why Ez liked it, Vin suspected.

If you were gonna let men hit you around before having sex with 'em, best not to have too many ways for people to catch you at it.

There were only three doors, and they were all interior, so it was easy to find the third door. Like the ones at the stairwell, it was slightly opened, a crack of light drawing one to it.

An invitation, he knew, but he still stopped when he got there, hesitant. His hands were sweating now, and he knew himself well enough to know that it wasn't because of the heat.

He stood long enough for the sweat to affect his grip on the glasses he held, and there was the faintest sound of glass tinkling as he adjusted his hold.

It was enough; he didn't hear footsteps, but the light coming from the partial opening wavered just before the door was pulled open.

"Well! I was beginning to despair!" Ezra stood before him, dressed - sort of, pants on, but bare feet, and his shirt, while on, was completely unbuttoned , the cuffs fluttering loosely around his wrists.

His hair was mussed, his eyes were heavy-lidded, but it was his lips that drew Vin's instant attention. They were swollen - not just passion-swollen, but literally swollen, larger than they should be. Bruised, and in some places, still seeping blood, the crimson a contrast to their usual brown color.

"Please, dear sir, come in!" He gestured, his arm sweeping toward the inside of the room, and it was then that Vin caught the other marks, the bruises on his ribs and chest, the bites on his shoulders and nipples. Nothing obvious, a part of him realized, nothing that anyone else could see. That was how he had missed it. Him, the tracker who saw everything.

He stepped into the room slowly, his senses alert in the aftermath of their previous failing.

His first thought was one of disdain and dislike of the patent extravagance that was so terribly like Ezra. The walls were deep wood, strong and thick and probably more solid than any of the walls in the lower floors. He suspected that the floors were the same, but they were covered in rugs so thick that Vin felt his boots sink into them. The furniture was equally as nice, slender, carved woods with thick cushions in light colors that made Vin feel like he could break it just by getting too near.

"Vin? What the hell - "

He turned quickly to find Chris right at home here, sitting on some sort of chair that was also sorta like a couch, the back kinda dropping away as it got close to the near side. Like Ezra, Chris was partly dressed, his pants on, but not his shirt.

Like Ezra, his lips were swollen, his eyes heavy-lidded, but not from any violence. Vin knew this look, so familiar, and he felt the awful blow to his gut that this day kept giving.

But Chris' eyes widened quickly, and he was on his feet so fast that Vin worried that he might lose his balance on the thick carpet. Something fell to the couch he had been sitting on - a book, of course, one that was probably Ezra's, that Rome book that Vin knew he'd never be able to read.

Chris was in his face, grabbing at the bottle in one hand, the glasses in the other. "What the hell are you doing here?" Chris snapped, his eyes hard, the color of cedar under ice. Green. Purest winter green.

"Well well well," Ezra almost sang, then laughed, clapping his hands together. "Why am I not surprised that Sweet Vin neglected to mention this part of the afternoon's entertainment?"

Vin heard the door close, heard the lock catch and felt a pang of honed fear. But before he could do anything, Chris turned, placing everything he held onto a small table, then used the momentum of his arms to brush Vin to one side, out of his way, and out of the path between him and Ezra.

"What the fuck are you playing at?" he snarled in a voice so primal that Vin actually took another step back.

Ezra, however, smiled slightly and tilted his head to one side. "By now, Christopher, I should hope that you know that I play at nothing. Nothing." His shoulders rose in a lazy gesture that shifted the cloth on his chest. Vin noticed that his nipples were hard, seductively half-hidden as they were under the stark white cloth of the shirt. "No, my dear man, this time I would have to suggest to you that the man that you . . . love is the one who toys with your emotions." He gracefully waved one hand, the white cuff trailing as if on a breeze, accentuating both his words and the implications.

The snarl still held to Chris' face, but he looked to Vin.

The look was intimidating, as ferocious as any wild animal Vin had ever had the luck - or misfortune - to corner. His hunter's mind recognized 'wolf', but also 'cat', and he felt his hand drop to his gun as a matter of course. He also felt that part of his brain warn him that it was far too late; no gun could be drawn in the space of time this predator would take to spring.

He hadn't thought of this, he realized. He had been so preoccupied in actually having to lead Chris to Ezra, in having to control every instinct he had to stop it, or to walk away, or to do the rational thing, that he had completely forgotten that he was going to have to justify to Chris what he had agreed to.

Try to make him accept that he was willing to pay this price to Ezra because he loved Chris this much.

While Chris, of course, would shoot them both for the mere suggestion that Vin owed Ezra anything for this.

No, Vin corrected, Chris would shoot Ezra and Chris.

In that flash of clarity, it all came back to him, the memory of that lone gunshot. In that memory, that terror, he knew Chris had been right: he could lie as well as Ezra. If it was important enough, as this was, he could.

"You get to sleep with two of us," he said softly, trying to keep his voice level. "Why don't we get the same thing?"

He didn't mean it, of course - he had most certainly not been lying to Ezra when he said he had no interest in the other man's touch, and he doubted that Ezra had been lying to him - he knew he was no great attraction and had worried every day that Chris was gonna come to his senses and realize it as well.

But in this moment, he knew it was the one argument that would buy him time. Chris would have to battle with himself between his jealousy and his guilt.

He was right. Chris stilled completely, his eyes going wide with surprise and - under it, fear.

"Thought it'd be nice to see . . . " Well, what, he thought. He didn't want to see this, didn't want to be here at all. But he had to come up with something, and in the absence of words, he moved, waving his hand around in a gesture sorta like the one Ezra liked to use.

Ezra chuckled behind him, but he was smart enough to pick up the idea. "Mr. Tanner and I had a negotiation of our own about this little . . . venture," he said, stepping forward.

Vin flinched only a little as Ezra wrapped his hand around Vin's arm. He was coming to hate that word, 'venture'.

From the part of the brain that they shared, Chris found the words Vin couldn't. "This ain't no goddamned 'venture', you bastard." He reached out and caught Ezra's wrist, pulling it off of Vin. "It's - it's - it's - " He flushed with frustration, and Vin knew the rage was too close.

Without a thought, he put a hand on Chris' chest, over his heart, feeling the rise and fall of Chris' harsh breathing.

The room was silent, the edge dulling, until Ezra said quietly, "What, then, is it, pray tell?"

Chris' lips clenched in a thin line.

"It is what it is." The words were soft and slow, and it took Vin several seconds to realize he had said them. He was staring into Chris' eyes, watching the golden flickers trying to burst into full flame, thinking of the smoke and ashes and dirt a fire left behind.

A hand closed over his, squeezing so hard at first that Vin thought the bones might break. He tugged, trying to ease the pressure, only to have his arm caught under the elbow and pulled, drawing him closer.

Iced cedar twined within the molten gold, steam rising between them and seeping out, slipping into the space between their bodies.

Chris swallowed, started to say something, but Vin knew there was nothing left to say, not between them. It took little more than an easy tilt from his waist and his mouth was on Chris', taking the words.

An arm slid around his waist, holding him close, but he still felt hesitancy under his lips. He tried teasing with his tongue, licking across the soft skin at their joining, and as always, Chris let him in. The tongues clashed and dueled and played, and in the end, Vin surrendered, letting Chris have what he would. In the back of his mind, he had a vague awareness that Chris tasted of Chris - whiskey and cigar and coffee. One fear held at bay.

His mouth was empty, suddenly, the pulling of his hair bending him back and away. "I know it's not fair," Chris mouthed along his jaw, "but I can't share you, Vin, I can't watch him touch you - "

"No," Vin agreed in a little gasp as Chris' teeth grazed just along the soft spot under his ear. "Don't want him, just you."

"Then, why?" There was more space between them now, the steam cooling, leaving a heavy sweat sticking them together. Chris' had both arms around Vin, holding him close and tight, as much a trap, now, as it had been a luxury.

"Don't," he whispered, his arms circling Chris' neck. He tried to pull them back together, but the hold on his hair started to hurt.

"Why, Vin?" The tone was harder now, as were the arms holding him.

No words would come, none that would make this any better. He stared at Chris, watching the gold grow brighter, his mouth moving as it tried to find anything -

"Because he loves you more than he should," Ezra answered from somewhere in the back. "Because I wanted to see if he did, indeed, love you as much as he claims."

Chris' gaze went to the other man, and his lips curled in anger. "You got no right - "

"You did not come to me, Christopher, he did. To save your relationship, perhaps, I suspect, to save your life - "

Vin felt the muscles gather, knew even as Chris did that he was going to move -

And moved with him, against him clinging as Chris tried to thrust him away. "Don't," he said, his voice coming out as worried as he felt, "ain't nothing, Chris, just one time, just - "

"He loves you," Ezra said calmly. "Do you love him? You say you do, but I fear that I would never believe it possible - certainly not for your definition of the emotion and his to be anywhere similar enough to survive for more than - what, a month or two? Given your predilections, I would anticipate boredom on your part quite soon. Innocence can be so . . . predicable."

Chris was pushing harder now, struggling to get free of Vin. Vin held tighter, now trying not to look into those eyes, to watch the color he knew melt away in the forge of emotion. "Chris, no - dammit, Ezra, shut the fuck - "

"Why, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra's voice had taken on the slower, deeper tones of bitterness. "It would seem that I am quite correct my assumptions. Here he stands with you in his arms, you who are willing to do more than should ever be asked of anyone one loves, and all he can think of is hurting me. Your affection for him, however intense it may be, however sacrificing, is obviously not reciprocated."

Vin found himself almost falling; Chris was completely still now, no resistance.

"What?" The voice was a rumble, the vibration cutting through Vin's gut.

"I thought it was clear," Ezra sighed. "But perhaps you were distracted by your anger, so I'll repeat myself: Mr. Tanner does, indeed, love you. He is willing to whore himself to protect you in the only way he sees to save you. You, on the other hand, when faced with the prospect of demonstrating your affection for him, would rather work yourself back into an anger that will compel you to me - away from him, instead of showing him that you can sacrifice for him in return."

One part of him found it funny that he understood what Ezra was saying - a sure sign that Ezra really was talking down to them.

But a bigger part of him was trying not to hear the argument, not to understand it.

Not to believe it.

"It ain't that way," he heard himself say, even as he backed away from Chris and turned to face Ezra.

The other man sat in one of the skinny chairs, his legs crossed at the knee, his head propped on one hard. He looked bored, and at one point, even covered his mouth as he yawned.

"Isn't it, Sweet Vin? Oh, I have no doubts as to your feelings in this - but at this point, isn't it up to Christopher to explain why he'd rather work himself into another fit of pique - and have his way with me, than take advantage of the large, soft bed - softer than I know you are used to, and you, more than willing in his arms, for an afternoon of sensual pleasure? Why, if nothing else, I would think that he would be enamoured of the idea for the sheer pleasure of proving me wrong."

He sighed, uncrossed his legs and pushed himself to stand. "Perhaps it is better to discover this now? Before you sell some other part of yourself for him, some part of, perhaps, your soul that is unrecoverable?"

"No," Vin thought he said, knew he heard, but it was from so far away as the reality of this idea tore at him -

Arms reached around him, drawing him back - "It's bullshit, Vin, don't listen to him - "

"And why shouldn't he?" Ezra countered. He looked at them with a certain smile, his gaze catching Vin's. "What have you done to prove your love for him - hurt him one time, so that in the throws of some melodramatic angst, you could threaten to end your life, thus freeing him of the burden of your accursed love? Shakespeare would be envious of your creativity, your pathos. Only it would seem that your love for him, apparently, is just strong enough to bend him to your desires, such as having two lovers, as it were, but not strong enough to prove to him that your love for him, if not equal to his for you, is at least more than your affection - or need - for me."

"Goddamn you, Ezra, you're twisting everything around - "

Vin pulled away, and Chris' protest faded into the back of his awareness. It was harder now, the pattern of Ezra's words like a winding mountain road in a snow storm, twisty and obscured and cold, oh so damned cold - but as he moved farther from Chris, the more sense it made. The more his heart heard.

He walked between them, slowly, moving to the far wall. There was a picture there, some painting of a meadow, with a long fence on one side, and men on horses in the fancy dress worn by hunters who hunted for sport, not because they had to. Sport, he thought, chasing down and killing a fox. Small critter, hardly enough meat on its bones to keep itself alive, much less a group of men dressed up as pretty as women, and most looking like they could stand to lose a few meals anyway.

Sport.

"Vin, you know - "

He held up a hand briefly, still staring at the picture. Chris fell silent behind him, but Vin felt the desperation - and when, he wondered, had he become so at ease with it that he could know it by its simple presence?

Green, he thought, the picture was green. The meadow was grass green with yellow highlights, reflections of the sun, maybe, and it was bordered by a forest, with tree leaves that ran from deep green to pale green, some even shading into the lighter colors of fall - brown and orange and red and, of course, gold.

Warm, grass green, deep river green, cold, winter green.

"Vin?" This time it was Ezra - startling, that he was using the short, one-word name, not one of his polite ones, or the damnable 'Sweet Vin'.

He didn't turn around, didn't move at all, even though he could feel Ezra closer to him, hesitant at his back. Another oddity - that was where Chris had promised to be.

"I came here because I said I would," he said slowly, thinking out each word. "I asked for your help, Ezra, and that was part of the price of my asking. I didn't come here for Chris to have to prove anything or show me anything - least, I didn't think of it that way." No, he hadn't. He might've if he'd thought at all about having to explain any of this to Chris - no, probably not even then.

But now, now that Ezra had put it in those terms. . . .

"I didn't come here with that in mind," he repeated. "But maybe you're right. Maybe I been stupid about it all this time." He waited, heard Chris moving now, and held up his hand once more. "Ezra don't believe in love, Chris - that's what this all comes down to. He don't believe that someone other than a complete fool, like me, could care about another person enough to put their own wants aside, just to make someone happy - because he don't understand how making someone else happy can make me - or you, or anybody else happy."

There was gold in the picture, gold and yellow, like the fire - but also like lemons and buttercups, and the late afternoon sunlight on white desert sand.

He turned, looking at Chris. "Never thought I'd ask this - never thought I'd want it." He shifted a bit, letting his weight rest on one hip, his arms crossing over his belly. "But I'd like . . . I'd like for you to love me."

Chris stared back, all the colors in the painting swirling in his eyes. "For him?" he asked softly.

Vin tilted his head, thinking again, weighing each word. "Maybe. But mostly . . . " He stopped, working his jaw; the words were hard, like rocks sitting on his tongue, and he didn't think they made sense when they finally rolled out. "For me."

Chris blinked, ready to ask again, to challenge - then stopped. He studied Vin - not long, nothing between them ever took long, making the decision with the speed and surety that had drawn them together from the start.

He nodded, then the corners of his mouth twitched in the little smile that was for Vin alone.

Vin straightened, stepping forward, and Chris met him. This kiss was warm and soft, tender in a way that Vin thought of more as after, not before. But he didn't mind - it was what he truly wanted. Chris did that thing, cupping his face between his hands as if he were some sort of treasure and all he could think of was the safety in those hands. When they rose to comb through his hair, tilting his head back, he went easily with their instruction, letting himself arch back as his waist was enveloped and held close against the other man's body.

Chris was on his neck again, teasing and tasting, finding the spots that made Vin drift. He had moments of focus - nipping at his jaw, a hand clutching his ass, teeth grazing his earlobe, fingers twisting his hair, teeth teasing at his ears.

He was aware, at some level, of where he was and what was happening outside of him and Chris - he'd lived too long in fear, in danger, and now, with Chris, in hiding. He knew Ezra was there, watching, knew they were trusting to Ezra's need to hide as well.

But this place, Ezra's place, was, if nothing, else, safe. They would know if anyone was coming - probably quicker and easier than when they were at Chris' cabin, certainly moreso than when they were in the boarding house.

Pressure on his lower back, digging hard into those muscles. He heard himself moan with the shock of it, knew he was flat against Chris, groins rubbing together as the other man worked that magic on his back -

He swayed, jerked for balance, but was caught by the shoulder. He forced himself to see and found Chris smiling as he unbuttoned Vin's shirt and slid it off.

Bare skin to bare skin, sticky with sweat but it didn't matter as those hands pressed hard, touching flesh. His own hands roamed as well, slipping on the slick expanse of skin.

He swiped a thumb over one of Chris' nipples, pleased when he felt Chris tremble. It took some effort to get past Chris' hands to lean down and suckle the small point - but the response was well worth it. Chris arched, one hand wrapping around the back of Vin's head and holding him close and tight, like a momma cat with its littlest kitten.

He moved to the other side, knowing that too much could end up hurting, and when Chris started pulling back from that, he dropped to his knees and tugged the buttons on the black jeans open.

Despite - whatever had happened earlier, Chris was ready now, his erection surging free as soon as Vin pulled at the thick fabric. There was a noise, a soft cry, but he didn't hear it clearly, his ears covered by Chris' hands as his mouth made a perfect fit.

He took him all in one smooth glide, opening his throat in the practiced way he knew so that there was no gag as the thick head mopped over the back of his tongue and plowed as far as it could go. It went until Vin's nose was buried in the thick curls at the junction of Chris' legs, his lips stretched wide but firm around the thick stem of him.

Chris was coiled, the muscles of his thighs like rock under Vin's hands. He was trying not to move, Vin knew, trying to control the instinct to force contact; this was one of Vin's favorite games to play, holding out to see how long it would be before -

Seconds, this time, before Chris' tightened his hold at the base of Vin's skull, his thumbs hooking in the smooth curve where Vin's jaw was hinged and locked, and he pulled back. His cock sloughed back, dense and pungent, until the expansive jut of the head rested against the back of Vin's teeth, pulling. He could open no wider, not with the pressure of those thumbs, but he knew he didn't need to; Chris was in control, even at this point.

A slight snap of his hips, a sort of test of balance, was the only warning before the long, heavy shaft punched forward. It was harder not to gag this time, but he managed it, only flinching as the slick tip banged against the back of his mouth before angling lower.

He willed himself to stillness, acceptance, letting Chris set his pace, breathing on the backside of each thrust. There was a pattern at first, steady and sure, the way Chris hammered a board or sawed at a timber or fireed at a target. He fucks like he lives- powerful, decisive, and direct.

It's only as the pattern began to skitter that Vin had to decide how much he wanted - but before he can, Chris already had.

Chris gathered his hair in one hand, leaving the other at the jaw, then pulled himself free. There was a hiss of pain as Vin's teeth didn't quite miss grazing him, but it wasn't not bad because Chris put Vin on his feet before the sound even passed off his lips. Those lips were on his, that tongue in his mouth, tasting, Vin knew; Chris loved to taste himself in Vin, to know the extent of his possession.

"Bed," Chris mumbled around their tongues. Before Vin can agree - or even think, Chris has shifted, strong arms catching him at the waist and knees, lifting.

He almost struggled- he hated to be caught unawares, hated more being lifted. But even as he gathered his resistance, Chris murmured against his hair, "Be still, 's not far." Slow, wide licks along his jaw, and up to his ear distracted him so that he was next aware of being settled in on something thick and soft. He opened his eyes to find himself in a dimly-lit room, no windows so that the only light was from several candles ranging on different surfaces. Their flickering light threw shadows onto the bed. Had he had a few seconds to concentrate, he might have been able to discern the room itself, but Chris left him no time for thought. Even before he was seated good, his back against cool, strange sheets that seemed to shine even in this poor light, Chris had his boots off, then his socks.

Vin blinked, trying to watch as Chris' pants dropped to the floor, his legs sharply defined, his erection proud. Unconsciously, he licked at his lips, reawakening the taste of it.

Chris made one elegant pounce and was on the bed, his legs straddling Vin's hips, his fingers pulling open Vin's pants. He was gripping Vin's erection as he caught Vin's tongue between his front teeth, trapping more than hurting.

The hand on him tugged knowingly and Vin arched into it. Chris sucked at his tongue at the same time, in the same tempo, and it was hard to think of anything at all, hard to do anything other than surrender to Chris.

Again the methodical, demanding rhythm, this time applied to Vin's body, ended when the stutters warned of pending climax. Vin was gasping, would have begged if he'd been able, only to have a sudden sense of nothing.

Not quite, though, for as he backed away from the chasm, he grew aware of his pants sliding off his body, his heated skin tingling as it brushed along these odd bedclothes.

"Want you." Chris crawled up the bed, this time between Vin's legs. "Want to take you."

Vin nodded, lost in the strength of that need. The eyes, clear and winter green, but not cold. There was fire there, he saw, gold, but banked behind a curtain of color so deep that it held the heat at bay.

He knew it then, the difference. It was what it was - it was what was between him and Chris and no one else. It was as much as either of them could give, and it was enough.

Chris reached for him, one hand tracing along his thigh, but Vin shook his head. He sat up slightly, smiling at the look of confusion that darkened the fire to emeralds. "Not this way, not this time."

The confusion deepened Chris' eyes even more, but Vin looked past him.

The candles had been arranged for a specific purpose, to light the bed. Like a stage, Vin thought, feeling a little flitter in his belly at the thought. But some of the light spilled backwards, and in it, he found Ezra. The other man was standing at the far corner of the bed, against the wall. The view, Vin guessed, was perfect from there.

Ezra's eyes glittered in the darkness, catching Vin's look. His face wore no expression that Vin could see in the shadows, but his hands hung low, one thumb hooked in the waist of his pants, the other hand resting on his groin. If nothing else, Vin knew he was enjoying the show.

The thought made him swallow, but it didn't deter him.

"From behind," he said, looking back to Chris. "Wanna feel you as deep in me as you can be. Want all of ya."

Chris frowned, and Vin thought he might argue. He held out a hand, catching Chris by the back of the head and pulling him down into a deep kiss. It occurred to him as he taunted Chris' tongue back into his mouth that he had learned at least one small level of manipulation with the man he loved. It wasn't lying, not in the way Chris had accused him of, but it was definitely a sin of omission.

A sin of commission, in a sense; it took no forethought to reach for the junction of Chris' legs and find the center of his concentration.

But they were - somewhere new. Even as he spiraled his grip, knowing that his touch alone was bringing Chris past the point of argument, he realized that he had no idea where there was any oil or - anything they could use. A part of him wouldn't put it past Ezra to withhold - how better for him to win than to have this hurt Vin?

At the same time, he knew better; Ezra might cheat at many things, but he was so assured of his own belief in this that he would probably surrender every advantage to Vin - because the person who stood to gain the most was Ezra himself.

"Christ, Vin," Chris groaned, " stop or - or - "

Vin tightened his hold at the base, gripping until the tremors passed and Chris was panting against him.

He started to ask, pulling long and slow on the nipple he was gnawing before letting go, when he felt Chris shift, stretching to the side.

"You sure about this?" Chris' voice was like gravel, so rough and gritty that Vin almost laughed. But as he thought it, something was pressed into his hand and he welcomed the familiar round metal shape.

No fancy oils in fancy bottles, he thought with a certain vindication. If Chris had bought something for Ez, it weren't nearly as thoughtful as what he'd bought for Vin.

"Vin?" Chris prompted, reminding Vin of the question.

Vin tilted his head up, sucking on a sweet spot at the base of Chris' neck as he struggled to get the top of the metal tin. When it was finally open and he was scooping soft lard onto his fingers, he pulled back and said, "Yeah, I'm sure." He pushed Chris back, getting to his knees. "Get behind me," he ordered, setting the tin on the bed close, and reaching behind himself.

Chris frowned again, his hands coming to rest on Vin's shoulders. "Just turn - "

"No," Vin stopped him, even as he angled his body forward to get a better reach. "Want him to have a good viewing," he said, cutting a quick glance to Ezra. "Want him to know how you make me feel."

Chris' jaw clenched. "Vin, it ain't about - he doesn't need - "

Vin straightened so that he was almost eye to eye with Chris. He stopped the movement of his hand, letting it rest on his ass as he said very slowly, "He don't think that you love me enough not to hurt me. He won't ever know better if he doesn't see you have the best chance you could ever have to do that - and not do it." He waited, searching Chris' eyes until the understanding came. "I trust you. You're the most gentle man I've ever been with. You ain't never hurt me, even by accident - not in the bed. I wanna show him now that someone can care that much - that they - you, can care that much about me. 'Cause if you can be that gentle and patient with me, someone can be that way with him."

Chris stared at him, and he wasn't really surprised. He didn't think what he'd said had made much sense - it did to him, 'cause he knew what he believed about him, about Chris, and about Ezra and why he was fucking with them this way. But he knew he wasn't good with words and suspected that he was speaking gibberish.

So when Chris leaned forward and kissed him, he thought it was Chris' way of shutting him up. It was only after the kiss ended and Chris' was leaning against him, their foreheads together, that Chris said, "You got a heart bigger than damned Texas, Tanner. If you can see anyway to find good in this - Christ." Chris kissed him again, but it wasn't sex this time, just slow, easy knowing.

When it was done, he whispered, "You don't have to - "

"I'm dripping this stuff all down my ass. This sheets is slidey enough as it is, Chris, you want me falling out of the bed before we can enjoy 'em?"

It was good to hear Chris laugh. Better to feel the weight of him at Vin's back, then the patient breach of first one, then two of those slender fingers finding their way home.

Vin started to go to his knees and elbows, then remembered the goop on his hand. Carefully and without turning, he stretched his hand backwards, finding Chris' erection. For a few minutes, they played with each other, Chris priming him, steady and deep, occasionally finding the place that made Vin lose time, Vin rubbing him with the perfect pressure and speed, building him slowly.

With a long moan, Chris bent forward, pushing Vin down. Vin drew his hand away, settling into the position, pulling his knees under him in supplication. Chris folded over him, searing them together. His mouth danced along Vin's spine, a feast of sensation, while his hands commanded Vin's lower back and hips, kneading, caressing, then once more seeking out the point of their joining.

Vin tilted his hips up, an invitation and to make it easier. Chris eased closer, his fingers curling over Vin's hips as the slick tip of his erection notched into place.

As always, there was the moment of anticipation, Chris getting himself to a point where he could last longer than the first penetration, Vin getting himself to a point where he could bear the first pains and control the fear -

No fear, he thought, no pain. Not this time. As the clench on his hips tightened, the warning, he lifted his head and searched, finding Ezra's eyes.

He held the gaze, level and open, as Chris pushed and he stretched, slow. The burn started, a soft grating flicker that warmed quickly to a blister, rubbing raw and swelling and ready to pop -

And Chris was in and still. No tear, no rip, just a fleeting discomfort.

A brush of air on one hip as Chris reached around and down, finding his cock with ease. A strong, knowing grasp redirected his attention, and as usually happened, Vin pushed himself up, giving Chris better access and also pushing himself father back onto the length inside him.

It wasn't far enough yet, he wasn't relaxed enough, but it made Chris gasp with want. Made him tug harder at what he held and Vin gasped as well.

They traded touches for a bit, every tug from Chris drawing enough distraction from Vin to slid him father back, taking Chris deeper. By the time Chris was as far in as he could go, Vin was on his knees, his arms over his head and around Chris' neck, his head rolling on Chris' shoulder.

He still held Ezra's gaze - except when the lightning caught him as Chris rubbed over that nub inside him and no force he knew could stop him from grinding back, whimpering, trying to get more, keep more of that feeling going.

It was the yearning for that continuing sizzle that made him ignore the minor disquiet of feeling Ezra's gaze on him, staring at his bare chest, his hard cock in Chris' fist, his scars and flaws and secrets.

It was the strength of Chris around him, holding him up and loving him with everything he had, giving him all that he had.

"God," Chris moaned in his ear. The hand not jacking him rubbed over his chest, pinching his nipples, tracing over his ribs, holding him up but touching as well. "Close, so close, gonna - " He pushed slightly deeper, and Vin arched back against him. He was close too, ready.

They knew each other well, their bodies, their moods, their needs. Chris kissed along Vin's neck, finding the places that Vin felt keenest, touching in the way that Vin loved most. His thrusts quickened as they both spiraled toward the edge, and his drifting hand went low, then lower, finding Vin's balls and holding them carefully, rolling them as Vin liked, tugging at them with the practiced force learned from many times before.

Vin turned, catching those trained lips with his own, sucking Chris into his mouth and letting himself go. Just as he tipped past the point of thought, he felt Chris shift, driving as deep as he could, as hard as he could, and knew that this time, Chris rode with him.

He came back to find Chris wrapped around him, flush against his back, arms at chest and hips, face nuzzled against his neck. His own hands were on Chris', holding him as well. The other man was still inside him, but diminishing; Vin felt trickles on his thighs, and on his own belly, tickling and itching as they started to dry.

"Christ," Chris whispered, moving his head so that his nose nuzzled behind Vin's ear. "You never give up, do you." There was a smile in the voice though, and Vin smiled himself, turning into the nuzzle.

"Too much to lose," he answered.

Chris sighed as he slipped out, then he levered himself back, bringing Vin with him. He settled first on his thighs, then on his ass, leaning back into the pillows; when he had his balance, he twisted, easing Vin onto his back beside him, stretching him out, and kissing his forehead. He turned to the table by the bed and picked up a damp cloth, using it to clean off Vin's belly and then himself.

Vin would have drowsed, used to the way Chris took care of him afterwards, but he felt the weight of the stare and remembered why they were here, in this bed. Blinking, he looked back into the shadows and found the other eyes on him.

The gaze was as he expected, blank, cold, intent. Ezra leaned as he had before, one hand on the waist of his pants, the other on his groin. It was as if he hadn't moved.

Chris was still moving, tending to himself, but Ezra was looking at Vin, and Vin only. Vin looked back, wondering what the other man was thinking, wondering if he had lived up to - or down to - Ezra's expectations.

Chris stilled and Vin knew the other man had turned his attention back to Vin - and thus to them. The bed shifted as Chris propped himself on his side, angled so that he was looking over Vin toward Ezra as well. His arm fell easily across Vin's stomach, comfortable and possessive and familiar.

"Ezra?" Chris asked and there was the faintest hint of challenge in his tone. "Get what you want?"

Ezra's head canted to one side, his eyes still on Vin. The hand at his groin fell away, and even in the pale light, Vin could see that the erection was still there.

He sat up slightly, putting himself between Chris and the other man. "That bad?" he asked quietly. "I know I ain't much to look at, but you were the one who wanted this."

Ezra straightened, pushing off the wall. "Actually," he said, and Vin noticed that his voice caught just a little, "it was exquisite - you underestimate yourself, my friend. At certain moments, you are . . . . stunning."

He didn't mean to blush, but the words were so unexpected, the sentiment such a surprise that even though he assumed, after a second of evaluation, that Ezra was talking down to him, he still felt awkward.

Chris' hold tightened, even more possessive, and Vin felt the low rumble of his snarl. "Watch yourself," Chris said flatly, rising so that his mouth was at Vin's ear, and he was looking over Vin's head.

Ezra's gaze was slow to move, but as it did, Vin saw the blankness change to a sort of anger. "How charming, Christopher," and Vin knew that Ezra had not been making fun of him earlier, because all of that harshness was in his voice now, "so possessive of him, while he so reluctantly shares you because you want it."

Vin winced as the arm holding him started to bruise. "Chris," he started, "it ain't no - "

"He doesn't want you, Ezra, and you've forced him to do enough." Chris voice was growing harder now.

Vin closed his eyes, the pull of it all wearing on him.

"Stop it," a voice sounded through the room, and in the echo of its silence, he knew it as his own.

With effort, he pulled away from Chris, rolled away, and sat up.

"Vin," Chris started, but Vin held out a hand, his fingers resting on Chris' lips.

He looked at Ezra, saw the anger still there, but something else. Confusion, perhaps, and pain.

He didn't say anything else, merely held out his other hand.

Ezra looked at it, the confusion more clear. Chris tossed his head, wanting to speak, but Vin pressed harder, asking silently for his patience. He knew it for the gift that it was when Chris stilled and said nothing.

And apparently, Ezra did too. He looked at Vin's hand, then over to Chris, then back to Vin's eyes.

He never took the offered hand, but he crawled up onto the bed, sitting on his knees.

"I have to admit," Ezra said softly, speaking only to Vin, "that I didn't believe you - not about you. I knew you loved him - any fool can see that, I saw it from the start. Never fear, Vin, no one would know it if they didn't know what to look for. But your love is simple." He smiled slightly, but it was to take the bite out of his words.

"Yours is the kind of love that finds itself trampled, the kind that gives and gives because it doesn't know how to do anything else. Because it's pure, I suspect, or some such thing. It's the kind so very few people are actually worthy of." His face looked tired then, perhaps a trick of the poor light and deep shadows, but his voice was also softer as he continued. "I won't pretend to any great charity - we all know that would be false, but I did consider that part of what I thought I was doing here was protecting you - again, that was not by any stretch my primary purpose, but I was not averse to using it as a justification as well. I am not immune to the beauty of such devotion. But even I do not like to see it shattered for so little, and my fear was that Chris could never return that love to you, not in a form that wouldn't ultimately destroy you."

Again Chris shifted, even snorted a little, but Vin tapped his lips and he remained quiet. His attention was on Ezra.

The other man shook his head, looking to Chris as he continued. "You're not worthy of him, you're hardly worthy of me." The edge was in his voice, but it was finer now. "But it would appear that I am wrong about your capacity to love. Insofar as you are able, I do believe that you love him - and that you will try to be what he needs." He looked back at Vin. "And you, sweet fool that you are, will take what little he has to offer and treasure it, won't you." He leaned forward then, placing one hand lightly on Vin's bare leg, just above the knee. "You do know that you are worthy of the same love that you give, do you not?"

The words were so gentle that Vin smiled. "Don't know what I'm worthy of, Ez," he answered, and the fingers on Chris' lips lifted to stroke Chris' face instead. "Don't rightly care. Just know that he's all I want."

Ezra studied him then shook his head. "You are an extraordinary person, to give so much and ask for so little in return."

"Maybe you're not looking it right," Vin countered. He let his left hand fall to rest on top of Ezra's, "As I said before maybe I like giving for its own sake."

Ezra just stared at him, and Vin could see the struggle it was taking for him to accept the argument.

It was Chris who laughed, a short chuckle that almost made Vin angry. But as he turned, frowning, Chris shook his head. "You've already torn out the foundation of his world, Vin. Don't try to help him rebuild it with frames that are invisible to him."

Vin inhaled sharply, ready to snap at Chris, but Ezra chuckled as well. The hand on Vin's leg squeezed slightly, reassuringly.

"I do admit that it is difficult for me to accept that someone could do things because the actual act of doing them is more fulfilling than what they get in return - but then, it's just another variation of selfishness, is it not?" He laughed again, and even though Vin's hand still lay on his, he slid his hand higher along Vin's thigh. "You are a genuine treasure. I suspect that had it been anyone else, my own estimate of Christopher's behavior would have been - dare I say - right on the money."

"Don't know," Vin shrugged. "It is what it is."

"Indeed," Ezra agreed.

He looked at Vin for several long seconds, then the hand on Vin's thigh moved a little, the thumb stroking slowly.

Asking, Vin realized. Asking for - him.

It was strange, he thought - until just a few minutes ago, the idea of sleeping with Ezra had made his skin crawl. That had been his big fear from the start of this thing.

But now, looking into those eyes, seeing the confusion and hurt - and want, he thought the actual want - he felt . . something else.

He wasn't stupid - he knew Ezra didn't want him. He did - but he didn't. He wanted to feel what Vin and Chris felt for each other, wanted to feel that someone loved him and that he loved someone else - and that that love was real.

He could play at it, suck Ezra off or even let Ezra fuck him - he'd sold himself for a hell of a lot less, and this time it would be with someone he actually liked. And as the realization passed through his mind, he knew that he could and that he could make himself like it - or at least tolerate it and give back.

But . . . but . . . it wasn't really what Ezra wanted or needed.

And as the thought drifted to him, he saw it pass through Ezra.

Ezra's hand pulled off - not fast, not drawing attention, but slipping away as if in darkness. The hiding, the shame, hit Vin in the stomach the way so many other things today had, and he reached out and caught Ezra's fingers as they left his skin.

"Don't," he whispered. He tugged at Ezra's hand, relieved when the other man relented and let him take a level of control.

He lifted the offered fingers to his lips, first kissing them, then slowly drawing first one, then a second, into his mouth.

Ezra's breath caught, and he ran a tongue alone his lips as he watched Vin. The thumb attached to that hand rubbed over Vin's lips, the touch so light that it almost tickled.

Vin licked along the fingers, sucking just enough to tease. Ezra leaned closer, his eyes drooping just a little -

The fingers were gone suddenly, the hand wrenched away from his face.

"No." The sound was cold and sharp, and Chris was between them, pushing Vin back against the headboard and Ezra down toward the end of the bed.

Chris was on his knees facing Ezra, his back to Vin, but one hand on Vin's shoulder. It was coincidental but still disconcerting that the hand was on the bruise, covering it but also reminding Vin that it was there.

"Chris," he started, but those fingers tightened on his shoulder.

"You got what you wanted," Chris said, looking at Ezra. "But you don't get any more. Not from him."

Ezra blinked, and started to say something, but he stopped himself. With a shrug, he moved off the bed, gathering up the clothes Chris had left in their wake earlier. Dropping them before Chris, he said quietly, "I should thank you, I suspect, for letting me have that much. But as you so pointedly observed, it has shaken the foundation of my world. I envy you for what you have - but I still do not believe that it is as secure as you think."

He glanced past Chris to Vin, then back to Chris. His tone was more defiant as he continued, "His love may be simple and very giving, but it is not endless, I suspect. He does deserve better than what he has now."

Chris' shoulders drew back. "You think you can give it to him?" he asked, his tone threatening.

Ezra shrugged. "Probably not much moreso than you can," he answered, and Vin knew it for honesty. "I have been quite candid in my statements that I have little interest in innocence - and even now, with the memory of the beauty of it etched clearly in my mind's eye, I can want to possess it, but once acquired, I suspect that I should place it on a shelf, looking at it every now and then, but unable to give it the attention it would need to thrive." He shook his head. "I would like to try, but unlike you, Christopher, I know better than to do so."

He straightened, his eyes catching Vin's again. "I shouldn't want to destroy such a thing of beauty."

Vin frowned, not sure what Ezra was saying, but before he could get the question to his mouth, Ezra had left the room.

Chris turned, his hand sliding into Vin's hair. "You want him?" The question sounded casual, but Vin knew it was anything but that.

He looked up, trying not to let himself be distracted by the soft caresses that were more significant to him than any words. "Told ya," he said, "only want you."

Chris' lips twitched in an almost-smile. "But you were sucking on him - "

"Felt sorry for him," Vin said, letting his eyes close as contentment. "He ain't all bad."

Chris leaned in close, kissing Vin's forehead. "Damned if you don't beat all, Vin. He blackmailed you into bed, made you pretty much whore yourself out, yet you'd give him a sympathy fuck 'cause you feel sorry for proving him wrong."

Vin shrugged, but it was a very small movement; he didn't want stop what Chris was doing. "He ain't all bad."

"Neither am I," Chris said softly, kissing him again.

No, Vin agree, he wasn't.

*&*&*&*&*&*&*

The barn went up with more ease than they'd expected - but then, with almost thirty grown men and at least that many women helping, the hardest obstacle was not tripping over each other.

Afterwards the shingles were nailed into place and the tough outer boards notched properly, the food was brought out, the musicians tuned up, and the whole thing turned into the party that it was supposed to be.

As was his want, Vin drifted around the outer edges of things, watching, talking when he had to, but mostly keeping his distance and enjoying the sounds of happiness.

The day was fading into dusk when he found himself leaning on the fence, staring into the area most devastated by the fire. It had been almost two months, now, and the undergrowth was just starting to edge back into the blackened dirt. The air still held the tang of smoke and ash, a certain acridness that made him edgy, made him think too much.

He heard the soft footsteps, but didn't turn. He knew them now, almost as well as he knew his own or Chris'.

"Lovely evening," Ezra said softly, coming to a stop near him. "The view could be better, but then, perhaps it's fitting."

Vin didn't say anything, but his silence wasn't wary or angry.

Ezra leaned on the fence as well, one foot rising to rest on the lowest plank. "I hope you know that I meant what I said yesterday about you, and about him not being worthy of you."

Vin's lips quirked in a sort of smile. "And about you not being either?"

He heard the soft chuckle. "Yes, I suspect that as well."

Vin shook his head. "As I said - "

"I know, it is what it is." They both chuckled then. But as the silence settled anew, Ezra shifted. "He will not be content with yesterday. It may take longer this time - "

"Ezra." Vin shifted his position against the fence but he didn't look at the other man.

After a few seconds, Ezra said quietly, "I gather that my point is not new to you. But perhaps it is something you don't wish to dwell on at the moment."

Vin nodded, once. "It'll be what it is, when it is. I don't want to borrow trouble. The day's been good. You can think about tomorrow all you want - and you will. Same way that he thinks about the past."

Ezra chuckled again. "You truly are an enigma, Vin. But fitting, I think. Me in the future, Chris in the past - and you in the middle between us. In the moment." After a few seconds, he straightened, pushing off the fence. "I understand that Mrs. Wells is seeking you, something about a rare and treasured pie."

Vin grinned at that himself. "Lemon, I reckon," he said, pushing up himself. "Don't want to keep that waiting."

They turned, started back toward the crowd gathered on the far side of the buildings, when a lone figure rounded the corner closest to them, headed their way. He was walking fast, his shoulders back.

"That certainly didn't take long," Ezra commented dryly. "I noticed that he's very aware of your location, but - "

"Weren't me," Vin said, tilting his head up once in acknowledgement of the man striding toward them. "He might always know where I am, but he didn't start hunting 'til he realized you were out of his sight as well."

Ezra's step faltered, and Vin glanced back to him. "Doesn't it offend you that he doesn't trust you?" he asked, watching as Chris drew closer, the silver of his gunbelt catching the last rays of light.

Vin shrugged. "It ain't me he don't trust," he said more quietly. "It's himself, and it's you. As you said," he grinned, "I'm just the one in the middle."

Before Ezra had the chance to address that, Chris called, "What the hell are you two doing out here?" It sounded friendly enough, but Vin heard the edge to it.

Beside him, Ezra called back, "Just waiting for the darkness."