It just sort of…happened. That first kiss. Chris started it, which was that much more of a surprise. He wasn’t quite sure where it came from. Even looking back on it, he still wasn’t sure. But he was damn glad it happened anyway.
The rain had moved in, pounding for days on end until the streets had been turned into a mud pit and the rivers were swollen, overflowing their banks, rushing, churning. So it was natural that the saloon became a refuge to escape the relentless downpour. With so many men cooped up in one spot, tempers were bound to run high at some point. It was only a matter of time.
That time came after the seventh straight day of rain. Some knucklehead decided to cheat at cards with Ezra, no unusual circumstances there. But it was when the knucklehead decided he could outshoot Ezra to get his money back, that’s when all hell broke loose.
Bullets flew. Glass exploded. And when the metallic, choking smell of gun powder finally cleared the room, Vin lay on the floor, a bright red garish blossom of blood seeping across his chest.
Vin had been shot plenty of times. It didn’t scare him.
Chris had seen Vin shot plenty of times. It didn’t scare him either.
Chris dropped to his knees next to Vin and pressed his hands against the wound, calm and quiet and unhurried, as if this was a normal, everyday occurrence…which, in their line of work, it practically was. But he still had to fight back the bile that rose in his throat when his hands squelched in the pool of blood rapidly growing on Vin’s chest.
“I’m fine,” Vin croaked, trying, unsuccessfully, to hide a grimace. “Not as bad as it looks.”
He struggled to sit up but Chris pushed him back down gently. “Just sit still for a minute.” He looked up and located J.D. in the surrounding crowd.
“Go get Nathan,” he said.
J.D. nodded and took off. Without saying a word, Buck stepped forward to take Vin’s opposite arm. Together, Chris and Buck eased Vin to his feet and took him to Chris’s room. Vin did his best to grit his teeth and stay silent but Chris noticed how quickly the color was draining from Vin’s face, how Vin trembled with the effort it took to stay upright as they walked the short distance to Chris’s room.
Buck pulled off Vin’s boots while Chris tugged at Vin’s shirt. He sucked in a breath at the sight of the gaping red hole in Vin’s chest.
“Told you it wasn’t too bad,” Vin replied, his voice so hoarse it was barely a whisper now.
“Stop talking,” Chris replied softly. “Save your strength.”
J.D. hurtled into the room. “Nathan isn’t here,” he said. “He’s out at the Shaws’ ranch delivering a baby. Ain’t expected back until tomorrow sometime.”
One glance at Vin and Chris knew they couldn’t wait that long. Vin’s breathing was already too shallow and fast, a thin sheen of sweat slick across his forehead and throat. And that damn bullet hole wouldn’t stop gushing all over the place.
“How long would it take to get there?” Chris asked.
“Uh, I don’t know. Couple hours I guess. It’s past Nettie and Casey so it’s a good hard ride.”
Chris swore under his breath. Now he was scared. He didn’t like cutting it this close. It was one thing to put his own life on the line, but not Vin’s. He wasn’t going to gamble with Vin’s life.
“Go,” Chris told J.D. “Don’t stop for anything and come right back.”
J.D. disappeared again. Chris squeezed his hands into fists, willing himself to stop the faint tremors of fear pulsing through his veins.
“Buck.” Chris nodded towards the other side of the room and pitched his voice low. “Get some hot water and see if Nathan left any clean bandages in his room.”
Buck gave him the side eye. “What are you thinkin’?”
Chris studied Vin for a moment. Vin’s usual tan from years in the sun had faded to a pasty white. His breath was starting to rattle, wet and sticky and thick.
“It’s bad,” Chris said at last, finally meeting Buck’s gaze. “We can’t wait for Nathan.”
A flash of understanding filled Buck’s eyes. “You’re not seriously considering…Chris, that bullet could have done a whole hell of a lot more damage than what we can see. Nathan will know what to do. Just give him a few hours.”
“Buck. He’s bleeding out now. If we wait, he’s dead.”
Buck glanced at Vin. He sighed then nodded.
“All right,” he said. He opened his mouth to say more, shook his head and left the room.
Chris slipped to Vin’s bedside again, chin propped on his folded hands. This wasn’t like starting a brawl in a saloon or facing down the barrel of a gun. He couldn’t shoot or punch or fight his way out of it. A limp, agonizing feeling of helplessness grated at him, tried to sink its teeth into his throat and keep biting until he couldn’t breathe but he shoved it away. He’d felt that way once, after Sarah and Adam. Suffocating. Useless. But it wasn’t like that now and he couldn’t let himself slide into that dark place again. He wasn’t helpless. He could do something for Vin.
Buck returned with a steaming bowl of water and an armful of bandages. Chris pushed his chair back, grateful for the intrusion on his thoughts.
“I found some bandages,” Buck said, handing them over. “And I thought you’d need these.”
He held out a pair of forceps.
For a fraction of a second, Chris hesitated. What the hell was he thinking, pulling that bullet out of Vin? Chris could kill him if he wasn’t careful. Could he really stick that metal tool into his friend’s chest and probe around until he found that goddamn bullet?
Then Chris snatched the forceps and started to roll up his sleeves. “I’ll need you to hold him down,” he said.
Chris peeled away the rest of Vin’s shirt that clung to his skin with blood and sweat. He would be lying if he said he wasn’t scared. He was terrified. But he wasn’t going to stand by and do nothing while Vin bled out. Shooting and punching his way out of this mess might not be an option, but he wasn’t leaving Vin to fend for himself, no matter what.
Buck silently braced his arms against Vin’s shoulders and shot a sideways look at Chris. Chris’s hands hovered over Vin’s chest, trembling just the tiniest, tiniest bit. Blood was smeared like war paint across Vin’s skin, streaks of it down his chest, pooling in little puddles along his stomach, sliding down his ribs and blooming across the bedsheets.
“Chris?” Buck whispered.
Chris twitched slightly, startled, and met Buck’s gaze. “I’m fine,” he said.
Buck pressed his lips together. He knew better than to question Chris, especially when Chris had already set his mind to something. Every part of his brain was screaming at him to stop Chris, hold him down, whatever it took to keep him from digging into Vin’s chest. Instead, he held his peace and willed J.D. and Nathan to get here just a little faster.
The rain had slowed to a trickle outside, slithering down the windowpanes, a whispered, awed hush to match the tension in the room. Chris placed his hands on Vin’s chest, the metal tips of the forceps not yet touching the raw, open wound. Vin’s eyes fluttered for a moment. His hand came up to clutch at the side of Chris’s shirt.
“Do it,” Vin rasped out.
Without another word, Chris pressed the forceps into Vin’s chest, following the channel of marred flesh, bone, and muscle that the bullet had left in its wake.
Vin gritted his teeth against the pain. He knew he had to stay as still as possible, but the further those icy cold metal forceps went into him, burning a trail deeper into his chest, the harder it became to think straight.
Vin tightened his grip on Chris’s shirt, tugging him a little closer in the process without meaning to. His fingers scraped against Chris’s skin, digging angry red grooves into his side, marking him. But Chris said nothing. The pain felt good, in a way, as if he could ease some of Vin’s suffering by taking a little of it on himself. But he was listing to the side now, with how hard Vin was tugging at him, and he had to release his grip on the forceps, just for a moment, to pry Vin’s fingers off of him before he could continue.
It was taking every ounce of Buck’s strength to keep Vin pinned down. Vin used Buck’s pressure to push back, to ground himself when everything around him was hazy, indistinct, soft at the edges.
Vin’s head finally drifted back against the pillows and his body sagged into the bed. Hesitantly, Buck eased up, but Vin didn’t move.
“He’s out,” Buck said.
Chris registered the words, though they seemed far away, like Buck was at the end of a tunnel, miles and miles from this moment. Blood slicked his hands and made his grip on the forceps a tricky task. Vin’s blood. The blood of a man he had fought beside countless times.
The forceps hit something with a small snick of metal against metal. Chris’s throat constricted and his stomach surged towards his mouth, with relief or joy or nausea, he would never know.
“Almost got it,” he said, more to Vin, more to himself.
A small part of him had been holding back, careful to not go too hard or too fast in case he nicked an artery and the whole thing would be over in a heartbeat. The forceps were nearly entirely embedded in Vin’s chest now and still he couldn’t get a good grip on that damn bullet. Every time he caught it, it would slip a little deeper, a little further out of his grasp and he couldn’t pull it out.
“Damn it,” Chris growled as the bullet slid away for the third time. “It keeps…I can’t get it.”
In one final ditch effort, he drove the forceps deep, heedless of causing any further damage. He felt the bullet, firmly lodged now in his grip, and pulled. With a slight, wet pop in the silence, the bullet came free. Chris held it up for a moment, the small mangled chunk of lead gleaming red in the faint light. He let out a tiny, half-crazed laugh of triumph and his hands started to shake again, uncontrollably this time, but he didn’t care anymore.
Nathan arrived late into the night, soaked to the skin from the rain. Chris had his elbows propped on the bed beside Vin, watching every breath, in and out, in and out, to make sure he wasn’t slipping away in his sleep.
Nathan took one glance at Vin, at the pile of bloodied clothes and discarded bandages still on the floor and shot an appraising look in Chris’s direction.
“You got the bullet out?” he asked.
Chris nodded. “Didn’t have much of a choice. He was bleeding pretty bad. Couldn’t breathe too well either.”
Gingerly, Nathan peeled away the bandages to look at the wound. The bleeding had slowed and the skin was clean.
“Looks like you did a good job,” he said. “A bit risky but the right decision. Maybe I’ll get you to help out next time I need an extra pair of hands.”
Chris shook his head. “Oh, no. I’ve had my fill, thanks.”
Nathan nudged his shoulder. “I’ll take it from here. You deserve a break after what you’ve been through.”
Chris glanced at Vin, still sleeping, breath steady and even, before he stood and left the room.
Come morning, Chris headed right back to check on Vin, breakfast tray in hand, ready to relieve Nathan after a long sleepless night. He pushed the door open with one foot and stepped inside. Nathan dozed in the chair next to Vin’s bed, his legs stretched out in front of him, arms crossed, chin drooping onto his chest. Vin was wide awake, with a slight flush of color to his face now. He managed a small, soft smile as Chris nodded a silent good morning to him and set the breakfast tray on the bedside table.
“Nathan,” Chris said. “Go get some sleep.”
Nathan rubbed his hands over his face and blinked a few times. “Should probably change those bandages before I go,” he said.
“I can manage,” Chris replied. “Go on.”
Nathan chuckled a little. “All right, all right. But you holler if anything goes wrong.”
After Nathan had shut the door, a beat of silence passed before Chris picked up the coffee cup and handed it to Vin. Vin accepted it, wrapping his fingers around the welcoming warmth.
“Don’t remember much,” Vin said at last. “About what happened.”
Chris nodded once, slowly. “That’s probably best.” He fished around in his pocket and held up the bullet, pinched between forefinger and thumb. “This little bastard almost killed you.”
Vin’s fingertips brushed against Chris’s as he took the bullet and rolled it around on his palm.
“Doesn’t seem like much, does it?” he mused.
Chris said nothing. Vin glanced up and met his gaze. He held his coffee cup out and Chris took it. In one smooth motion, as if it was a perfectly normal, everyday occurrence, he set the cup on the tray, and as he turned back to Vin, he slid his hand along Vin’s cheek, the rasp of skin against stubble the only sound in the silence. Then Chris kissed him. Simple as that. Soft at first, to give Vin the chance to pull away if he wanted to. But Vin kissed him back, deeper, hungrier. Vin curled his own hand behind Chris’s neck and pulled him closer, insistent, demanding.
Chris pushed off the chair, propped one knee on the bed and pressed Vin into the mattress, one hand drifting down Vin’s bare chest. There was no blood this time, but his hands were shaking just the same, that he could touch Vin like this, slowly, reverently, trail his fingers over Vin’s exposed, smooth skin…
Vin’s free hand tugged at Chris’s belt, an unspoken invitation, a request for more. But Chris caught his hand and pulled it away.
“Hey, hey, take it easy,” he said. “Slow down a bit. You were just shot yesterday, in case you forgot.”
Vin gave a small huff of frustration despite the glint in his eye. “You’re a damn tease, cowboy.”
Chris grinned and kissed him again. Because he could. Because Vin was alive, breathing. Because goddamn, he’d wanted to do it for so long, he’d just never realized it before. But now that he’d started, he didn’t want to stop.
“If I have to take it easy,” Vin said, “it’s no use you bein’ all the way over there.” He latched onto Chris’s belt again and pulled him into the bed next to him. The bed was much too small for the both of them but they made it work anyway, legs tangled together, Vin’s breath warm and gentle against Chris’s collarbone.
As Vin drifted off again, Chris didn’t sleep a wink, too preoccupied with the feel of Vin’s heartbeat thrumming against his own rib cage. Vin would get shot again at some point in the future, he knew that, and the nightmare would come back in full force. Probably hit him harder the second time around given their current circumstances.
A ray of sunlight slipped through the window and fell across the bed, golden, soft, and comforting after the long, gray days of the past week. Raindrops glistened like jewels on the glass. Chris closed his eyes, only for a moment. Vin gave a small sigh in his sleep. Whatever hellfire waited for them outside this room, they’d face it when it came, side by side. Like always.