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Once he saw that the damage was not life-threatening, Nathan relaxed enough for Chris to persuade him that he would heal faster in the privacy of his own hotel room, though Chris could see shadows of concern painted in the dark eyes.

"Ain't planning on bucking broncos, Nathan."

The crooked smile he offered put a grin on Nathan's face as he recognized the truth in that. Chris was bruised and sore all over from the beating he had taken at Marlen's hands. In addition, the knife cuts, though shallow, still pulled at his battered flesh. Although Chris could be pigheaded about a lot of things, he knew when it was best to let his body heal up but Chris could see a lingering concern beneath Nathan's bright grin still.

"If you're worried, I can get Vin to fetch and carry for me for a day or so."

Nathan's eyes narrowed at this concession to his general disability and Chris wondered if he should have spoken at all when he would never have admitted a weakness under normal circumstances. That grin softened as Nathan nodded, and though the concern was still visible, Chris read peace in those eyes too, appreciating the privacy Nathan allowed by leaving while Chris dressed.

A short while later, as he slowly made his way down the stairs to the street below, Chris realized what he had seen in Nathan's eyes, recognizing the small changes inside himself that had revealed the trust and respect he had placed in Nathan and his healing skills, and in their friendship. He had been hurt before and relied upon Nathan's skills to see him right but never had he let down his guard before, preferring to remain stoic and in control. Admitting weakness was like a dog rolling over on the ground to reveal its soft belly to another dog, something an alpha dog would never do. With Nathan, hell, with any of the six men he had come to call brother if only in his heart, he knew he could trust them with his vulnerabilities, with his weakness, and not lose face. They would protect him until he was back to full strength just as he would protect any one of them. It was a humbling feeling to finally recognize this truth and accept it.

A small shuffle and slight movement from close by sharpened his senses and he turned a little faster than his abused body would allow, grimacing at the twinge of bruised muscle and the pull of cut flesh.

"Hey Cowboy, didn't mean to startle you."

Chris let out the breath he was holding and gave a soft, self-deprecating grin but he could not fault his fast reactions; they had saved his life too often to be considered a burden. However, he ought to have noticed Vin standing in the shadows beneath the staircase. Vin fell into step beside Chris as he continued on towards his hotel.

"Spoke to Nathan. Reckons I'm gonna be your errand boy for a day or two."

Chris felt a slight flush rise in his face as he ought to have asked Vin rather than simply presume upon their friendship. He slid a glance sideways to gauge Vin's soft words by his expression and was surprised to catch a smirk that lifting the corner of Vin's mouth. Blue eyes danced at the embarrassment that few would ever read from Chris's face but Vin had known him too well even at the start of their friendship. Somehow, Vin had always been able to read him, with a single nod or a flick of an eye telling him more than most people managed in whole sentences. It ought to have fazed Chris, made him nervous of being so open with another person, with his thoughts laid bare for Vin to pick through, except that ability seemed to go both ways. If one hurt then the other knew it with a glance.

The only time their second guessing at each other's motives and thoughts had gone adrift was when others had stepped between them, blinding them to the hurt they were causing with mixed messages. Others like Ella Gaines and the way she had manipulated Chris into wanting her by preying on his vulnerability on the anniversary of Sarah's death. Or like Charlotte Richmond, a wounded bird looking to be freed, calling on Vin's own need for freedom away from the constrictions of the ever-encroaching settlers.

They had both come to their senses, barely in time to save their unique friendship.

By now, Chris had reached the bottom of the stairs leading up to the first floor landing where his room lay near at the far end overlooking the main street. The short walk had taken more out of him than he would have guessed at he gritted his teeth as he prepared to take the first step upwards only for Vin to lay his hand on his arm.

"Got a hankering for a cup of Mrs. Jenkins's coffee," he stated softly. The invitation was there to join him, written in blue eyes, and Chris recognized that Vin was giving him the excuse to hide his weakness before others saw him struggle with the stairs.

A small part of him felt resentful, wanting to snatch back his arm and push on upwards against the pain and fatigue, not wanting to see pity in Vin's eyes. Except, those eyes held no pity, just a deep concern for a friend, and maybe something else besides; something that skittered at the edge. He had seen it before, when Vin raced to his side after Jack Averal put a hole in his chest. He had seen it in that run-down adobe as Vin tried to inch his way to his side despite the bonds that tied him. He had seen something desperate and alive, something needy and vulnerable.

Chris nodded towards an empty table and they sank down into comfortable chairs while Mrs. Jenkins fussed around them with coffee and mugs.

Neither of them spoke at first, not needing to fill in the companionable silence with unnecessary words and platitudes while they sipped at the hot coffee. Then Vin tilted his head slightly, a small smile playing at his lips.

"Josiah went back into Purgatory for the buckboard. Taking it back today with Buck riding shotgun. They head out a few hours ago and should be back by nightfall."

"The kids?"

Vin raised both eyebrows. "Weren't sure if you noticed the extra passengers."

Chris gave a wry grin, knowing he'd been unconscious for most of the journey back to town, and barely conscious for the rest of it, yet he recalled the small hands that hooked into his clothing during the bumpier parts of the journey.

"Maria's kids?"

"Yeah. Kind of figured she weren't always a saloon girl. Plenty of them turn to that life to feed kids, especially if the father gets himself killed or ain't no good at providing."

Chris nodded recalling some of the histories of the girls from Wicks Town, how they had come looking for a better life to feed the families they'd left behind, or tried to escape the poverty and starvation from scratching out a living on poor land. Instead, their dreams of marriage had ended with a line of strangers outside a grubby tent, looking for any female body to give them a few minutes of sweaty pleasure. He felt a stab of guilt, knowing how Lydia had put her faith in him and how he had let her down, unwilling to help her out of her predicament when she came to him for help until the needs of the town forced his hand. Maria's betrayal was divine retribution, and he could not fault her for putting the needs of her hungry kids before him, someone who was little more than one of those strangers that lined up outside those grubby tents in Wicks Town.

"The Jamison's took them in."

Chris nodded, knowing the couple would take good care of them.

He drained the last of the coffee and set the mug down, glancing up quickly to catch that strangely familiar look in Vin's eye again except, this time, Vin did not let it slide away. This time he let Chris read the emotions, heart open and vulnerable, stoically awaiting condemnation but hoping for something else. Memories of hot days down by the creek with Billy Preston flooded through Chris, recalling their adolescent fumblings as they played with each other's bodies, learning the touches they liked even as they talked of girls and running away from the hard farmers' life. Billy had succumbed to Scarlet Fever that winter, his dreams unfulfilled, and Chris had never sought the touch of another boy... or man.

He understood what Vin was offering and he swallowed gently, his stomach flipping from the desire rippling through him in answer to Vin's silent question. He knew this feeling. He had felt it for Sarah, and for Billy but not for Mary or even Ella. This was more than lust, more than physical desire or a reaffirmation that he still lived following this harrowing week. This feeling was real, tied up to his mind and heart, a physical manifestation of the love that he had for this one man.

The smile that blazed through Vin's brilliant blue eyes told him that Vin had read his response, a faint heat darkening Vin's cheeks as he drained the last of his coffee before setting the mug aside and pushing up from the table. They took the stairs slowly, with Chris acutely aware of the warmth radiating out from the man walking beside him.

For once, his deft fingers trembled as he unlocked the door and pushed it open, stepping inside with a little hesitance as Vin followed him in and gently closed the door behind them. He slipped the key back into the lock and made it secure before looking across the room to where Vin stood waiting in silence.

"Haven't done this in a while," Chris stated, then snorted softly as a twinge reminded him of his injuries. "Not sure I'm going to be up for much this time either."

Vin pulled off his hat and dropped it onto the top of the sideboard, that soft smile of his easing the tension from Chris.

"Just take it as it comes, Chris. Slow an' easy."

Chris watched as Vin began to undress, taking off his gun belt and boots before his agile fingers started to work on the shirt buttons. His eyebrow arched up when Vin realized he was performing to a frozen audience, the gentle rebuking laughter bringing heat to Chris's face. His fingers froze again when he looked up to find Vin standing naked before him, his own progress hampered by sore muscles, Chris swallowed hard, unable to stop his eyes from traveling the length of the body exposed before him, the smooth pectorals with just a smattering of hair, the firm stomach and lean hips and thighs, the thick bush of dark hair beneath the firm column of flesh that jutted upwards, and the strong hand curve around it, stroking with light, delicate caresses. His own erection was pushing at the confines of his pants, trapped by heavy material as if desperate to break free. Chris dragged his eyes away from the beautiful body at Vin's chuckle. Strong fingers reached out to snag the buttons of his pants, flipping them open before helping to ease the material down with infinite care.

Chris let him. He let Vin undress him, let his busy fingers brush against his flesh through clothing, let him draw the shirt from his back, for once grateful that he had decided against underwear for the short trip from Nathan's clinic to his room. He let Vin drink his fill of his body, seeing the bright eyes and gentle fingers pause over particularly deep bruises and skirt the knife cuts before Vin noticed how Chris was trembling from fatigue and pressed him to sit on the edge of the bed.

Vin knelt between Chris's legs, coaxing his legs further apart, his hands running along Chris's thighs, thumbs brushing into the join of groin and thigh, catching on the wiry hairs before Vin leaned over and lapped at the dewdrop beading on the tip. A jolt of pure pleasure raced through Chris and he moaned, his hands reaching up to card fingers through the light brown waves of hair falling across Vin's face as Vin leaned over to suck the tip of Chris's cock. Chris brushed the hair aside, wanting to see the soft lips wrapped around his flesh, his pleasure mounting as Vin took him deeper, teeth scraping carefully, sucking and licking, drawing the need from Chris's body until he could take no more.

"Vin. Vin!"

He tried to warn Vin, fingers scrabbling in his hair, dragging at his ears but it was too late. The pleasure overwhelmed him, stars dancing before his eyes as he came hard in Vin's mouth, barely registering the slight falter before Vin carried on sucking and licking, drawing every last drop from Chris's body. Chris collapsed forward, head resting on Vin's shoulder as the final flicks of Vin's tongue sent tiny flickers through his oversensitive flesh.

Chris pushed back once he had his breathing under control, fingers catching at Vin's shoulders to pull him back up too, wanting to give Vin the same intense pleasure in return.

"It's all right, Cowboy," Vin whispered hoarsely when Chris's fingers found the stickiness coating Vin's belly.

Chris felt disappointed nonetheless but Vin smiled warmly.

"Next time," Vin stated, and Chris froze before relaxing completely.

Next time, he thought, and he could not hold back a grin from knowing there would be a next time... and a time after that, and a time after that, for as long as they both lived.