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By a Thread, By a String, By a Rope

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Crier's Rock was a little husk of a town that had sprung up right in the middle of nowhere on the northern edge of the Arizona territory. It was quieter than Faraday preferred, as a man who liked his life to have a certain amount of noise about it, but the sky was wide open for miles and he had always been good at making his own entertainment.

The solitary saloon was nothing to write home about, but the booze was cheap, and the bartender willing to let Faraday plant himself in one of the rooms upstairs for a nominal fee so long as he dealt cards a couple of nights a week. Even in a farming plot as small as this there were men willing to test their luck and soak their bellies. As Faraday had a tendency to come up tops wherever cards were concerned and liked to be within stumbling distance of his local watering hole if he could manage it, this arrangement suited him just fine.

He'd started off dealing earlier in the evening, a few rounds of poker for the handful of alfalfa desperadoes looking to unwind after a day breaking their backs in fields that flatly refused to grow anything but weeds and cactus. It was late enough now that most everyone had gone home. Only the barkeep, knee-deep in the evening’s tidying, and one dogged Irishman, hoping eternally for a better hand, lingered aside from Faraday himself, thoroughly submerged in whiskey, with his head down on the table in front of him.

The table was at least mostly clean, Faraday considered distantly, slumped over with his cheek against its slatted surface. He took a few deep breaths through his nose and willed his stomach to settle. He wasn't usually prone to sickness when he'd been drinking, but there'd been a bizarre sensation in his gut on-and-off all night. It didn't hurt, exactly, but it was uncomfortable, like someone was tugging at his insides, trying to get his attention. Over the past half an hour it had gone from moderately irritating to fairly impossible to ignore.

A particularly sharp pull shot through him and Faraday grunted in discomfort, shifting his head to the other side. Across the table, his gambling companion let out a startled laugh, asking delightedly, "Is that a noose, boyo?"

Faraday flinched at the grating tenor, its natural Irish lilt hammered into submission under the thick twang of the Western backwoods. He'd had a mind to rest just for a second, give his stomach some time to settle, but Clay Allen, the stubborn cuss, couldn't let him be for five goddamn minutes.

He opened his eyes barely a slit and groaned.

Clay was an ugly son of a bitch, Faraday thought, perhaps unkindly though it was undoubtedly true. The immediate assault of his freckle-pocked skin and gap-toothed maw was not the most enjoyable visage Faraday had ever opened an eye to.

"The hell’re you on about?" he demanded, mustering the energy to heft himself up into a seated position, vision swimming through a haze of whiskey.

"Talkin' bout your pretty little necklace there," Clay said, whistling a laugh through the holes in his grin. He reached out a hand, fingers streaked with dirt, and tugged at Faraday's collar.

Faraday leaned back with a frown, peering blearily down at himself. He wasn't wearing any jewelry that he could recall, and nothing looked to be particularly out of place – guns at his hip, lucky cards in his pocket, vest undone about halfway down as it tended to be after four or five rounds.

"I thought nooses were all stories, I gotta say. Never seen one before," Clay went on, mightily amused. "And I sure wouldn'ta figured you for the type."

Faraday scowled and waved a hand at him.

"It's like you're talkin' Chinese at me," he grumbled irritably. "Speak plain or shut the hell up."

Clay had been soaking in whiskey at least as long as Faraday, yet he still appeared to have full control over his faculties. Usually by this point in the evening he was drooling onto the tabletop while Faraday collected both the cards and the winnings, but there he sat - going on about a necklace that apparently had him in fits. Something was off about it, but whenever Faraday tried to settle onto a thought his mind slipped boozily to the side.

Clay rolled his eyes and pointed to his own throat.

"Your ribbon, Faraday," he said, clearly disappointed that Faraday was too pickled to rise to his bait. He tapped his finger against the line of his neck, just above his shirt collar, wiry eyebrows jumping toward his garishly red hairline. "Sits awful high for a ornery ol’ fox like you."

Faraday stared at him for a long second and then huffed out an incredulous laugh.

"That's gotta be the worst bluff I ever heard," he scoffed, shaking his head and gathering up his cards. They were different than he remembered; or maybe he was drunker than he thought. "I ain't got a ribbon. Everybody knows that."

"Sure you ain't," Clay agreed with a broad wink, grinning wide like he was in on some great joke. He gestured to Faraday's neck and added, "Only you might consider buttoning a little higher if that's the way you'll be playing folk."

Faraday frowned at his cards. He'd never been much for reading, but he had a head for suits and numbers and this hand was distinctly different than it had been last he'd checked. He was sure of it, even through the rolling, rocking sway of the thoroughly well-oiled.

"Now it's just gettin' to be sad, Clay," he said absently, talking to buy his brain a little time to slog through his whiskey-saturated thoughts. "If you got a bad hand just fold it, give me my money, and head on home. I'm sure Betty'd like to see you before sun-up."

Across the table Clay frowned, confused.

"You serious?"

Faraday rolled his eyes.

"Well I assume," he said waspishly. "She married you, after all, even with that dime's worth of dog meat on the end of your neck. Stands to reason she'd want to see you."

"Faraday, that whiskey wash all the sense outta your head?" Clay demanded hotly, goodwill evaporating at the insult. He jabbed a finger in Faraday's direction, face all screwed up and gone unpleasantly ruddy with anger. "You got a ribbon 'round your neck, right there! Plain as the nose on your face!"

Faraday cut him a cold glare over the top of the piss-poor hand splayed out in front of him.

"Once was funny," he said slowly, keeping his tone purposefully light, "twice was irritating. Now you're makin' me mad."

Clay scowled, his chin sticking out, purple and quivering like an overripe plum.

"Barty!" he snapped, red-faced and furious, waving a hand at the impressively mustachioed bartender. "Barty c'mon over here and tell Faraday he's got a lover's noose strung up around his gullet!"

Barty, who didn't care a whit to be involved in town gossip and liked Faraday better besides, thankfully ignored him. Faraday reached out and slapped at Clay's hand.

"All right, all right!" he snapped. "Cut that shit out." He pushed himself to his feet, stalking over to one of the long mirrors hanging on the wall and glaring over his shoulder as he went. "I swear to God, if you touch those cards, Clay Allen -" he grumbled, but Clay waved him off, looking meanly satisfied.

Faraday narrowed his eyes at Clay and then turned to face the mirror.

"Aw, hell," he said, because it was the first thing to pop into his mind.

There was no mistaking it, even through the layer of dust and tarnish. Hovering beneath his ashen face, probably too high for his collar to cover even if he had cinched it all the way up to the top, was a thin band of bright red. It was no wider than a matchstick, ringing his neck as far as he could see. His stomach dropped down to his toes, chest clenching painfully as sobriety washed over him in a cold wave.

"Goddamn," Faraday breathed, reaching up to touch the mark with shaking fingers. It felt no different than the rest of his skin, warm and slightly damp because even the nights hereabouts were the sort of hot that crawled under your clothes and settled in to stay. He swallowed, and the red line moved with the motion, like it had been inked in place. He thought he might be sick all over his boots.

Behind him, Clay started snickering.

"I told you!" he hooted gleefully. "I done told you, Faraday! Some pretty little Angelica got you all strung up with a lover's noose and you ain't even noticed!"

“Shut up, Clay,” Faraday muttered. He let his gaze linger on the red mark for a long second, the hard white buzz of shock rattling his thoughts to pieces and sending them spinning.

His stomach twisted as he recognized the peculiar tugging sensation that had been plaguing him all night for what it really was – a magnetic pull toward whatever poor bastard was on the other end of this tie, some mystical accident of biology trying like hell to draw Faraday into the distant promise of a soul-mate.

Faraday swallowed the cold knot rising in his throat, the saloon tilting in a way that he was positive had nothing to do with his mostly liquid dinner. Behind him, Clay, who had probably had a ribbon wrapped neatly around the fourth finger of his left hand since long before he’d dragged his lovely bride to settle in this pitiful place, continued chuckling to himself.

“Oh how the mighty have fallen!” he crowed, wiping at his eyes. “Was it one of ours, Faraday? We got a lot of fine workin’ types in these parts.”

“Shut up,” Faraday said again, hoarse and low. He let his hand fall to his side. He felt sort of scooped-out and hollow, nauseous and a little dizzy. He’d hoped that he'd dodged this particular bullet, crossing over his last birthday with no inkling of a ribbon on any part of him.

The world was full of pesky notions like that - if you strung a red thread three times between you and your beaux you were ensured a ribbon tied to one another; if your ribbon was in the same spot as your soul-mate's, you were especially well matched; get to thirty without one and you were destined to be alone for the rest of your life, which, frankly, Faraday would have preferred. The ribbon itself wasn't so much an issue, though the fact that it existed at all made Faraday feel like he'd been plunged into an icy creek with no warning. The placement, on the other hand, was already proving to be trouble, as Clay continued to holler from the table.

“And a noose too!” he said around his wheezing laugh. He cocked an eyebrow. "I didn't know you had that kinda softness in you, boyo. You rattle mean as a diamondback but you're just a little corn-snake, ain'tcha?"

It had never quite made sense to Faraday, even as a child, that having a ribbon around your neck was taken to mean you were weaker in some way; tied more deeply to your soul-mate than someone with a ribbon in a more common place.

He vaguely remembered a little girl from the days before his ma passed on, standing in front of them at the general with a red line just barely peeking out from underneath her crisp white collar. She'd been the first person Faraday had ever seen with a ribbon somewhere besides her fingers or wrists. To this day, he could count the number of those on one hand - himself now apparently included. People had whispered, and pointed, and the little girl had stared despondently at her toes the whole time.

When Faraday - who had still been called Joshua then, though there was barely anyone left alive who knew him by that name - had asked, his mother had turned a sad smile on him, petting gently at his hair.

"It can be a terrible thing," she'd explained quietly, "for another person to have you by the throat like that."

The line in his stomach pulled, hard, and rage burst up through the frigid panic in a searing geyser. He wasn't sure whether it belonged to him or to whoever was on the other end of the damned ribbon, but he didn't particularly care in that moment.

He turned on his heel, gritting his teeth, and stalked back to the table where Clay had almost fallen out of his chair at the apparent hilarity of the situation.

"You really didn't know, didja?" He wheezed, cards clutched in his fist. "Damn Faraday, you're havin' a hell of a night!"

"Shut up!" Faraday spat, drawing his Colt in the space of a blink. Clay yelped, scrabbling up out of his chair so fast that he knocked it over onto the floor.

"N - now Faraday," he stuttered, with a weak imitation of a smile, both his hands up in front of him with his cards still tucked under his thumb, "I didn't mean nothin' by it. Just a bit of fun, you know? I've never seen a noo - uh, a ribbon that high, is all."

Faraday glared and stepped into Clay's space, tucking the barrel of his Peacemaker up under the shorter man's chin. For a farmer, Clay was a little scrap of a man, all knobby angles and limbs run lean with hard times. Faraday, who stood taller than most men he knew and was well aware of precisely how intimidating he could rightly be, allowed himself to loom.

"Show me your cards," he said, voice low and dangerous.

Clay's hands were shaking. He cast a desperate glance toward the bar, eyes rolling like a horse. Faraday used his gun to nudge Clay's chin back over.

"Don't go lookin' for help now," he laughed darkly. "This is your mess, you get the honor of cleanin' it up." He glanced to one of the mirrors positioned sparsely along the walls - though Barty was watching them critically with his shoulders drawn up high and tight, he had made no move to get involved, methodically wiping down a glass. When Faraday caught his eye he dipped his chin in a nod.

Clay swallowed, beads of sour sweat gathering at his temples and on his long upper lip.

"'C - 'c'mon now, F - Faraday," he started, but Faraday cut him off, pointedly pulling the hammer back to half-cocked.

"Show me," he said again, slow, "your cards."

Clay licked his lips and miserably held his cards out, shaking like leaves in the wind. Faraday plucked them up with his free hand, fanning them out, jaw going tight when he recognized the faces staring back up at him. He threw them down onto the table while Clay flinched and whimpered.

"That was foolish, friend," Faraday growled, smirking. "Do I look like a man who takes kindly to a rooking?"

"N - n - no," Clay whimpered.

Faraday pushed forward a few inches, reaching up to tug his collar open further and tap a finger against the mark he now knew was there.

"Does this," he pressed, with a grin like a knife-edge, "make me look any more likely to roll over while some lily-livered coward switches hands on me?"

Clay squeezed his eyes shut, but didn't answer.

"Does it?" Faraday demanded, hissing like a snake through his teeth. Clay whimpered and shook, and there came a little, warning noise from the bar. Faraday glowered over at Barty, who shot him a hard look, one eyebrow raised.

"He's just a farmer, Faraday," Barty said in his deep, rasping voice, eminently calm. "He got a little big for his britches but he's learned his lesson, ain'tcha Clay?"

Clay let out a high wail and nodded.

"I h - have!" He gasped. "I have, I sw - sw - swear!"

Faraday growled, a deep animal noise, and Barty clicked his tongue, reprimanding.

"Son, you recall that there's someone on the other end of that, don't you?" he chided, nodding pointedly to the ring circling Faraday's throat. "You really want all this to be the first thing she feels from you?"

Faraday's gut pulled again, stomach rolling at the thought of some unsuspecting soul experiencing the brunt of his animosity. He was angry, and Clay was maybe the stupidest son-of-a-bitch who'd tried to fleece him in years, but whoever had been dealt the terrible hand of being tied to Faraday for the rest of their life shouldn't have to carry that. After all, they hadn't asked for it any more than he had himself.

"The money's mine," he snapped, brooking no argument. Clay nodded desperately, head bobbing like a rag doll.

"Y - yessir," Clay whimpered. Faraday tucked the hammer back down, and lowered his gun a few inches. Clay very nearly collapsed with relief, heaving great, hiccuping breaths, his entire body trembling.

"Oh," Faraday added casually, bringing his gun back up, "and Clay?"

Clay stared at him, wild-eyed and terrified.

"You're gonna keep this dry for me, right?" Faraday asked coolly, gesturing to his neck. Clay swallowed, chin trembling.

"I - I promise, Faraday, I - I ain't gon' tell n- n - nobody!" he warbled desperately. Faraday nodded.

"That's good," he said amiably, dropping his gun again though he took care to keep the barrel loosely angled at Clay's shivering torso. "You were a mostly okay sorta fella, exceptin' the last hour or so. I'd hate to have to kill you."

Clay heaved a dry sob.

"I swear! I swear I won't tell!"

Faraday stared him down for a few seconds longer, just to be safe, and then tucked his gun away.

"Go on," he muttered. Clay didn't even wait for him to finish before scrambling off toward the door.

Faraday busied himself with scooping up his so-called winnings, giving Clay's glass a cursory sniff - there was whiskey in it, but not much, as he had cut it thickly with weak black tea, the jackal - and trying to settle his nerves. A warm, soothing pulse rolled through his chest and Faraday dropped the glass, eyes wide, whiskey and tea splashing all over the table and the cards strewn therein. He pressed gingerly at his sternum and nearly jumped out of his skin when Barty spoke from just over his shoulder.

"Startles you the first few times," he said knowingly, setting the glass to rights and mopping up the mess with a sad scrap of a towel. Faraday glanced down to Barty's wrist, the burned-black mark therein - an indication that his wife had been lost to time, or illness, or some other distant tragedy - and frowned.

"Sorry about the spectacle," he said, for lack of anything better to offer. Barty shrugged.

"Any man fool enough to get cheated by Clay Allen probably deserves it," he responded beatifically. He paused for a moment and shook his head. "But he shouldn'ta said a word about your ribbon. Ain't right, that."

Faraday flinched at the word, hunching his shoulders and tugging his collar up even though he knew it wouldn't do a damn bit of good.

"I'm leaving town tonight," he said. Barty nodded.

"Probably for the best," he agreed.

"What do I owe you for the room?"

Barty shook his head, gathering the glass up and heading toward the bar.

"Don't worry about it, son. You've got larger things on your plate at the moment."

It felt like pity, and it set Faraday to bristling. He scowled at Barty's retreating back with half a mind to pick another fight, when that same calming heat resonated through him.

"Goddamnit," Faraday muttered irritably, digging his knuckles into his chest and stalking moodily toward the stairs. "Would you cut that shit out?"

Behind him, he heard Barty huff a laugh.

Faraday didn't carry much as a general rule, saddlebags being what they were, so packing his things took all of five minutes - his hat, a spare shirt and drawers, an emergency bottle of whiskey he'd pilfered from downstairs earlier in the week. He wiped his palms against his thighs and gave a cursory glance to his belt. There was little in life that couldn't be replaced but Faraday would eat his own boots if he ever left Ethel behind. Seeing that both his sidearms and his knife were neatly in place, he raised his eyes to the washbasin against the wall, the little mirror glinting in the dim light of the oil lamp.

Even from this distance, he could see the thin red band that had started all this trouble. He took a few steps closer, turning his head this way and that, studying it. Though he couldn't see all the way around to be sure, Faraday had never heard tell of a ribbon that didn't go full circle. He half-heartedly splashed a little water on it, scrubbed at it with a hand just in case it might have been some harebrained part of Clay's scheme. It stayed firmly put, and Faraday scowled.

A goddamn lover's noose.

He sighed through his nose and tried buttoning his shirt. Like he'd suspected, the damn thing hovered just slightly above the top edge of his collar, patently refusing to be hidden. Faraday glared at it, and cast around the room for something to put around his neck. No way in hell was he wandering back out into the world while it was visible. He might as well draw a target on his back and carry a sign that read "Easy Pickins."

There was a red bandana tucked away in the back of a drawer - some forgotten piece of another man's wardrobe. Faraday looped it over his mark, knotting it securely in the front. He tugged it down with a finger, just a bare inch or so, and scowled at the ribbon in the mirror.

"You'd better be damn well worth all this trouble," he told it, tucking the bandana back up and sparing an extra second to make sure it covered every part of the ribbon he could see.

Clay Allen was halfway to the town drunkard already, so it was likely nobody would believe him even if he did decide to loosen his jaw and Barty wasn't the type to speak on such things. Breaking Jack out of the livery stable would be a simple matter of timing and speed, and by sun-up Faraday and his ribbon would just be another of those tall tales that sprang up beside the weeds in these prickly little farming settlements.

Faraday paused just beyond the doorway of the saloon, Barty having disappeared to the stockroom or some other mysterious proprietor's knothole to spare them both the indecency of a second goodbye, and briefly considered heading directly opposite to whatever direction his damned ribbon wanted him to go. There was a sharp, painful tug in his gut, and Faraday grunted.

"All right fine, you stubborn sumbitch," he grumbled, stomping down the pitch-dark street and kicking up clouds of red clay dust. He twirled a finger in the air, adding sarcastically, "California, here I come."

Chapter Text

Faraday wasn't generally a hasty traveler, preferring to take his time and allow room for unexpected adventures, but between the disastrous card game in Crier’s Rock and the last few lonely days on the road, curiosity had lit a fire under his boot-heels. If his own piqued interest hadn’t been enough, the tug in his chest would certainly have stoked the flame. Sometime in the last twenty-four hours, it had turned the corner from bothersome to downright painful.

It wouldn't kill him - nobody had ever died from being physically parted from their soul-mate so long as said soul-mate was still living, and even under more dire circumstances only the lover’s noose was rumored to be particularly fatal - but it made sleeping on the ground, or riding in a saddle for hours on end significantly less comfortable than Faraday would have liked. He took a breath and stretched, trying to alleviate some of the pressure, and grimaced at the pull of sore muscle.

A little bolt of soothing warmth shot down the line of his ribbon, and Faraday sighed through his nose.

His soul-mate was surprisingly empathetic, making efforts to alleviate his discomfort or settle his nerves whenever his temper got the better of him, which was frequent. The part of him that still bristled at the idea of some stranger knowing his inner workings balked at the attention, but he couldn't deny its effectiveness. The pressure on his ribs faded, the pain in his sides melting away under the heat.

He tried grudgingly to communicate his gratitude, though he couldn't bring himself to be particularly gracious about it. He had enough trouble parsing his emotions when it was only him experiencing them. He hadn’t quite figured his way around translating them yet.

Thankfully his soul-mate appeared to find his surliness more amusing than anything else.

Over the past few days, while Faraday had been making his way steadily across the arid California plains, his soul-mate had been picking their way down from the mountains with a hesitance that belied either cowardice - which no mysterious bond would convince Faraday to abide, no matter how painful it may wind up being - or trouble - for which he was eminently better suited.

“I s’pose I’ll find out soon enough,” he muttered to Jack, pressing the heel of his palm to his sternum and digging the pilfered whiskey from his saddlebag.

He didn’t prefer to be full liquored while on horseback, though Jack at least was patient enough not to grass him for poor posture and in possession of enough sense to stop and forage awhile if he fell off of his own accord, but neither had he expected the tug of his ribbon to become quite so unmanageable. He tossed back a few sweetly burning mouthfuls and sucked a breath through his teeth, raising the bottle toward the sun, hanging bright and ominous in the empty sky.

“Cheers to the walking lynched!” he said, with a hiccupping laugh.

It was strange – and a little miraculous, not that Farady would ever voice the thought aloud – to be able to point at the horizon line and know with certainty that a day’s ride in that direction was an individual that the powers at work had decided was particularly suited to his personal eccentricities. Faraday licked his lips and studied the sprawling plains, miles and miles of scrub and weeds bleeding into the hazy blue crest of far-off mountains.

His soul-mate was somewhere to the north, tucked up amongst the trees and the rolling peaks. Veering off to the west was the shimmering silhouette of a distant town, no bigger than an anthill from where Faraday sat. He gave it a long, considering look. Another sharp splinter of pain tugged at his chest, bad enough that Faraday hissed, breath punched out of him.

His soul-mate sent another calming lick of warmth and Faraday made his decision. He took a final, robust swallow of whiskey and clicked his tongue, urging Jack to the west.

Hopefully, he thought, his soul-mate’s goodwill would hold up under pressure. Faraday might be curious, but he also knew the value of stacking the deck in his favor.

 

 

 


 

 

 

It was perhaps in poor taste to dwell alongside the dead, but Vasquez had learned many years and many warrants ago that needs must. Besides, the corpse was not such terrible company, excepting the flies, and he had kept his cabin well stocked in life, which was a surprising turn of luck. Vasquez was quick with a pistol, but took no great joy in hunting. A sudden surplus of rations was a welcome gift for a man whose admittance into civilized society was so thoroughly worn out.

More troubling than his current sleeping arrangement was the man - and Vasquez was certain his ligado was a man - lingering in the mining settlement a few hours' ride to the south. Vasquez could feel him, prowling back and forth within the confines of the town like a mistrustful cat, uncertain and unwilling to wander into the mountains despite the red thread strung up between them.

It happened, from time to time, men bonded to men or women to women. The particularly devout had a lot to say on the matter, none of it especially kind. Though he hadn't considered himself a practicing Catholic in years Vasquez wasn't quite sure how he felt about it, beyond the unequivocal certainty that his ligado was sorely lacking a tempering influence that he very clearly needed.

He seemed to spend his days careening wildly between being so drunk he could hardly stand and so mad he could hardly see. The constant buzz of his dark temper and the mulish stubbornness that had him digging his heels in against the lazo’s pull reminded Vasquez of breaking particularly troublesome stallions a lifetime ago.

“Querido,” he said darkly, lounging on the rickety porch with a tin cup of coffee in hand, studying the brilliant red line of his lazo where it circled his left wrist, “you are trouble.”

He’d laughed when he’d first seen it – startling awake so many weeks ago in the small hours of the morning, shaking and furious for no reason he could immediately identify. When he had finally managed to wrangle the rage and the fear, felt the tug underneath urging him miles and miles back into the dark, through unkind country he'd already fled, it had struck him as funny.

Thirty-four years he’d gone without a lazo, without a ligado waiting for him in some distant part of the world, content to settle or run as survival dictated. It seemed fitting, somehow, that his lazo would appear while he had a king’s bounty on his head, leaving him helpless to do anything while his ligado quivered and raged so many miles off.

For a long moment, he had simply stared in awe at the thin red band, so bright it was nearly glowing in the light of the slivered moon, before collapsing back into the dirt with his hands over his eyes, howling into the night.

"Ay, Díos, por supuesto," he had wheezed up at the sky, elation warring with the distant, trembling fury in his chest. "Of course, you would come now."

He smirked at the memory and stared into the dark clusters of trees, shot through with buttery beams of late morning sun, sipping thoughtfully at his coffee and running his knuckles absently over the line of his lazo while he considered his options.

Waiting his ligado out hadn't worked for the past two days, and there was no reason to suspect that his willpower - more potent than the foulest tempered of mules that Vasquez had ever encountered - might wither or fade. Vasquez considered himself a patient man, having long grown out of his hot-headed youth, but it made his temper flare to feel his ligado hovering on the horizon, just out of reach.

Amador City was small enough that there was a chance word of the bounty on his head hadn’t yet reached it. He didn’t particularly care to risk it, but his ligado, for all that his emotions were a muddled knot most of the time, had made his position pertinently clear. Whenever Vasquez couldn’t quite manage to tamp down his frustration, sent a shard of it needling across their tie, his ligado would respond with a jumbled mix of amusement, anticipation, and something meaner, daring him to come closer like a wolf with its teeth bared.

He thought of the weeks he'd spent lingering too long at campsites, the past few days haunting the dwelling of a dead man in the hopes that his ligado's slowly shrinking radius would catch up to him before some gun-toting lawman did.

He drained the dregs from his cup with a grudging sigh, ducking back into the dark, rotten interior of the cabin to gather his few belongings and a meager handful of useful supplies. He would go, this time; bend to the whim of his ligado and be the one to cross the last of the distance, but his ligado had damn well better appreciate it.

“Trouble,” he muttered again, digging the toe of his boot into a stirrup and swinging a leg over his horse’s back. “Trouble all over.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

"This is all your fault," Faraday grumbled exasperatedly to no one in particular, picking his way down the loose gravel incline into the shallow ravine. He was probably less concerned than a man rightly ought to be, having three guns trained with various levels of skill upon his person. It was a bad habit he’d fallen into, talking to his soul-mate like they were standing there beside him, but he figured that they’d be facing his ire in person very shortly so he might as well start practicing. In the meantime it didn’t matter much what the Babbington brothers thought about the state of his sanity, as they had high hopes of killing him either way.

"Listen to him, Dickie," Bill Babbington hooted meanly, he and his brother all waxed up for reasons that Faraday didn't even bother to pretend he cared about, "talkin' to himself."

"Y'been drinking too much Busthead, Faraday!" Dickie Babbington agreed brightly.

It just about figured, Faraday thought sourly, that he would live through one of the more interesting would-be shootouts he'd ever been privy to only to be blindsided by the goddamned Babbington brothers while he slipped away with a table's worth of winnings. He spared a moment to be irritated with his soul-mate, too strung up between the tensions in the saloon and the sudden tug of their presence just outside the edge of town to notice the two idiots creeping up on either side of him.

He'd been distracted all morning, angling to bury himself in a few hands and a few rounds to keep from thinking too heavily on the rapidly dwindling distance between himself and his soul-mate. Apparently fed up with waiting for Faraday to venture into the mountains, they'd abandoned their ivory tower in favor of seeking him out in the city. At so small a distance, the pull was nearly unbearable, urging all his nerves up and to motion.

By the time the bounty hunter sauntered into the bar, Faraday had been teetering on the edge of kicking off a brawl. It was a matter of luck that the boys at the card-table, bad-tempered bunch though they may have been, had grown too used to Faraday's particular brand of obstinacy to rise to his jibes.

Sam Chisholm, all in black with his quiet justice and snake-fast draw, had been a blessing, and helping defuse that whole situation had been a much better distraction than any trouble Faraday could have found to get into for himself. He should have just waited there, he thought sullenly, or at least taken a cursory look around before attempting to drown his nerves in gin.

Bill - whose real name was apparently Earl, which Faraday was never going to let him live down, assuming he survived this interaction - was going on and on about “the Two-Gun Kid,” which was a mighty foolish nickname for reasons Faraday thought ought to have been fairly obvious. It was a real pity he was going to have to kill Dickie for besmirching his firearms - he was clearly the brother who'd inherited what little sense they had in their blood.

There was a jittery sort of anticipation bubbling in Faraday's gut; either the general rush that accompanied bluffing your way out of a winless situation, or some sort of call-and-return between himself and his soul-mate, no more than a mile between them now at his most generous estimate. He wasn't afraid, exactly - not of his soul-mate and certainly not of the Babbingtons, with all of fifteen teeth and half a functioning brain between them - but he felt keyed up, lit from the inside like there was lightning in his belly. His soul-mate must have cottoned to the trouble, because there was a sharp tug between them and Faraday could tell they were moving faster.

He wasn't especially concerned with the guns angled on him, though he would have preferred that his ribbon didn't keep hijacking his thoughts, spinning them outward to the stranger whose approach Faraday could feel rattling in his bones. He'd fleeced the Babbingtons out of fifty dollars, easy, and he was confident he could get himself out of this scrape, too. They were softheaded, both of them, and dumb enough to believe that the guns they could see were the only guns Faraday had on him.

More's the fool them, he thought, and dug his cards out of his pocket. He put on his best traveling showman's grin and fanned the deck out in front of him.

"Gentlemen, allow me to show you something quite miraculous."

It was like standing under a storm that hadn't started yet, everything abuzz with the promise of violence, the air thick and electric. God bless Dickie Babbington, Faraday thought meanly, and narrowed his eyes.

Fifty feet, a small, traitorous voice whispered in the back of his head, if even that.

His hands were steady while he cut the deck, folding Earl's chosen card discreetly into the palm of his hand, even though he felt like the earth was shaking under his feet. There was a little flare of anger from down the line, dark and violent and different from his own, and the ribbon pulled taut, making it hard to breath. Earl Babbington, fed up with Faraday's chicanery, slapped the cards out of his hand, and Faraday smiled wider. An unfamiliar fury fell over him like a wall of rain and lightning.

If he'd wanted to, he could have pointed without looking to the upper ridge of the ravine and followed the line of his finger to the face of the person he knew in his gut was standing there, roiling with rage at the scene below.

"Your card," Faraday said slowly, pointedly keeping his eyes on Earl's dirt-caked face, "was the king of hearts," and then he put a bullet right below the brim of Dickie Babbington's bowler hat.

At the same moment, there was the thunderous crack of a shot from off to his left, and Earl Babbington went hard into the dirt, limbs akimbo, glazed eyes pointing up at the open sky.

"You know," Faraday said loudly without looking up, stalking over to collect his guns from Dickie's cooling corpse, anticipation and nerves thrumming to life in his belly, "I had that handled."

There was a snort from behind him, a few heavy footfalls punctuated with a gentle, metallic ring, like a distant bell, and a low, thickly-accented voice responded easily, "That's not what it looked like to me."

A man, then, Faraday thought, probably more surprised than he should have been, shaking the sand off of his Colt and slipping it into the holster at his hip to buy himself a little time. The man snorted again and stepped closer, hovering at Faraday’s shoulder.

“What did you do to them?” he asked, sounding honestly curious as he nudged Earl’s corpse with the pointed toe of his boot. Faraday swallowed, and looked up.

The man was handsome, at least, which was maybe a foolish thing to be relieved about but Faraday had never pretended to be above vanity. He had dark hair and dark eyes, glittering knowingly under the wide, flat brim of his hat. He was wearing a vest, some pattern picked out across the back in velvet and curling just slightly over his shoulders.

Both his guns – and there were two that Faraday could see, though the confident slouch of the man’s body led him to assume there were probably other weapons in less obvious places – had white handles, and what little he could see of the barrels gleamed with obvious devotion and care. There were silver knots all down his dark slacks and a pair of matching hell rousers glinting dangerously at his heels.

He was broad, though Faraday probably had a few pounds on him, and an inch or two taller, which made Faraday’s stomach twist in a strange but pleasant sort of way. The sleeves of his white linen shirt were rolled up to his elbows, the brilliant red of his ribbon on display against the line of his wrist.

“Why do you assume I did something?” Faraday asked. The man arched a knowing eyebrow and tapped absently at his chest before wrinkling his nose and spitting onto Earl’s blood-soaked face.

Faraday huffed a laugh.

“Joshua Faraday,” he said but didn’t offer a hand. The man smirked at him, glancing curiously to his bare fingers and wrists.

“Eduardo Luíz Vasquez de Santiago,” he provided with a sly flourish.

“So you are Mexican,” Faraday said. The man didn’t bother responding, but there came a flash of amusement down the ribbon. He felt like his whole body was vibrating, humming beneath him, and was mercifully grateful that Vasquez hadn’t wandered close enough to touch.

“What now?” Vasquez asked, tucking his thumb into his pocket and leaning back on his heel. Faraday shrugged and went about collecting his cards up out of the dirt.

“I ain’t ever done this before either,” he said pointedly. He felt feverish, hot and sort of woozy.

Vasquez made a little, thoughtful noise and rubbed at his chin.

“I’m not exactly welcome in town,” he said slowly. Faraday arched an eyebrow at him, intrigued.

“You don’t say,” he pressed, waiting expectantly.

Vasquez just shook his head and started ambling toward the white horse posted up on the lip of the ravine. Faraday briefly debated walking the opposite direction before sighing to himself and stalking off behind Vasquez.

“I got a room at the boardinghouse,” he offered. “Not the finest of places, but it’s private, at least.”

Vasquez considered him for a long moment before nodding.

“Será suficiente,” he said agreeably, taking his horse by the reins. Faraday didn’t understand a lick of the verbiage, but the sentiment came through crisp and clear.

It was jarring, Faraday thought, to watch Vasquez mosey so casually along when he could feel in his gut the teeming roll of anticipation, the slow-burn of curiosity, both familiar emotions though neither of them was his. He led the way down a narrow alley, a somewhat circuitous route to get the to the boardinghouse, certainly, though Faraday was fairly well convinced that running into Chisholm would be the cherry atop a particularly short-lived cake.

“You some kinda outlaw?” he asked, taking care to maintain a few inches of cautious distance between himself and Vasquez. He wasn’t normally one for regrets, but he thought absently that he could have done with fewer rounds on Paul’s amiable coin-purse earlier in the day. Perhaps then he wouldn’t feel quite so much like his entire body was submerged underwater, every step forward sluggish and difficult. He suspected that if he were to move to the side, instead, cross the distance to where Vasquez was sauntering along beside him, it might be easier.

He wasn’t willing to risk it.

“Some kind,” Vasquez grinned sharp, a low, dark emotion rolling off of him like smoke; satisfaction, maybe, or pride of a particularly wicked variety. Faraday huffed a laugh and Vasquez grinned wider.

Faraday had never stopped to wonder if he might be interested in anything outside the soft, supple curvature of a woman. He was a decent enough looking fellow and had no trouble catching the eye of the fairer sex when he was in need of a warm bed or a little human comfort. There was something about Vasquez – the way he moved, the coiled strength in him – that made his mouth go dry.

Judging by the dark, heated looks that Vasquez shot him out of the corner of his eye, he wasn’t the only one so affected. It was strange and new, and Faraday wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

The boardinghouse was blissfully empty, but for the hard-faced woman manning the counter, who paid them little mind beyond waving a hand at Faraday in recognition as he walked in. Vasquez prickled with wariness when she slid her gaze over him, but she went back to her reading in short order and they made it up the stairs without any difficulty, leaving Vasquez’s horse tied to a post outside.

The room that Faraday had rented was small – luckily there were few enough men in town that he’d managed to avoid having to share – and with him seated at the edge of the bed and Vasquez leaning with his back against the door, there was maybe four feet of space between them. The entire room felt hot, like the boardinghouse was on fire around them. Faraday licked his lips.

“So,” he said, stupidly, and swallowed. Vasquez frowned at him.

“I feel you,” he said slowly, and held up his left arm, the poppy-red line around his wrist vibrant and alive. “Why do you have no lazo?”

“Lah-so?” Faraday frowned. “Or, wait, lasso?”

Vasquez rolled his eyes and tapped his ribbon.

Lazo,” he said pointedly. “This is lazo, you are ligado.”

“Lee-gah-do,” Faraday repeated. Vasquez snorted and shook his head.

“No,” he said. “Ligado.” He pushed off of the door and took a few steps forward, eyeing Faraday’s arms with open interest, brow furrowed. “The words are not so important. Where is your mark?”

Faraday swallowed and licked his lips again.

“Right in front of you,” he replied with a wink. Vasquez narrowed his eyes.

“No eres divertido, mijo,” he growled. He moved in close enough that their knees brushed, and Faraday closed his eyes, stomach swooping like he’d fallen over a cliff edge. Vasquez nudged him again and asked, voice low, “Will you show me?”

Faraday could feel his frustration, his excitement, all of it spun together, tangled around Faraday’s own pounding heartbeat, the nerves crawling cold up his spine. He glanced up at Vasquez and ducked his head in a little nod, reaching up with clumsy fingers to tug his collar down. He’d stolen the patterned neckerchief he wore from an untended clothesline on the way out of Crier’s Rock, the red bandana still in place underneath it. He fumbled with the knot for a few long seconds before Vasquez reached up to brush his knuckles against Faraday’s collarbone.

“Puedo ayudarte?” he asked, low and a little gruff. Faraday nodded.

Vasquez pulled the neckerchief free with a few gentle tugs and cast it aside onto the mattress. He made quick work of the bandana, picking the knot apart with sure, nimble fingers. When it fell open, he huffed a tiny breath, and dragged his thumb across the spot where Faraday knew his ribbon stood stark and solid against his throat. The motion sent a little cascade of sparks tumbling through Faraday’s limbs, and he shivered.

“Well,” he said, forcing levity with embarrassingly minimal success, “there you go.”

“Es bonito,” Vasquez breathed, quietly enough that Faraday didn’t think he’d been meant to hear it. He couldn’t understand the words, but the tone was hushed and reverent in a way that made Faraday want to squirm and pull back.

To keep himself from withdrawing violently out of Vasquez’s reach, he curled his fingers over the red line of Vasquez’s ribbon around his wrist, satisfied when the other man shuddered at the contact, gooseflesh prickling up his arm. His pulse was heavy and loud underneath Faraday’s fingers.

“Damn,” Faraday muttered, with feeling, and Vasquez laughed, a dark little chuckle.

“I didn’t think –” he started. Faraday shook his head.

“Neither did I,” he admitted, raw and honest. He felt drugged, fevered, poised at the best part of drunk, where the whole world slowed down like it was soaked in molasses.

Vasquez dragged his thumb in lazy, gentle strokes across Faraday’s ribbon, lighting little bursts of heat through his body with every pass. The tension that had been building over the many long hours and the crawling days dispersed like mist, burned away in the dawn. Faraday took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders.

“It’s good to meet you,” Vasquez said, amused. Faraday huffed a laugh.

“You too, I s’pose.”

“You suppose,” Vasquez snorted, teasing. “I come into the city with a bounty on my head and you suppose.”

Faraday couldn’t help but grin a little.

“I didn’t make you come,” he said.

Mierda,” Vasquez responded instantly, grinning that wolf-edged grin. That heady, stormy energy flared to life between them, and Faraday felt on the cusp of something momentous. Vasquez leaned in.

Faraday nearly broke Vasquez’s nose on his forehead, whole body flinching as there came a heavy, rattling knock against the door. They both turned to stare at it, Vasquez with the heavy mantle of suspicion settling around his shoulders. He had the hunted look of a wild thing, and he dropped his hand from Faraday’s neck to the gun at his hip. Faraday reached out to cup his hand over top of Vasquez’s, shaking his head and rising to his feet.

“Mr. Faraday?” came a familiar voice through the rickety slab of wood. “It’s Sam Chisholm. I’ve got a business proposition for you.”

Vasquez frowned and glanced curiously at Faraday, who sighed deeply, pinched the bridge of his nose, and muttered a hearty, “Well, shit.”

Chapter Text

Faraday had long prided himself on his quick wit. When the cards fell there was rarely more than a split second to make decisions, and he had built for himself a livelihood directly dependent upon his mind working better and faster than those of his fellows.

He weighed all of the immediate factors in front of him – Chisolm, a licensed warrant officer in more states than Faraday cared to consider, at his door with a job offer, while Faraday harbored a wanted outlaw, presumably in possession of a trigger finger quick enough to be dangerous – and didn’t like the odds.

There was, of course, the chance that Chisolm didn’t know that Vasquez was ducking the law; that perhaps whichever state court was gunning for Vasquez's blood wasn’t one of those that had Chisolm under their employ. Barring that, there was the even slimmer possibility that Chisolm, fresh off his successful subduing of Powder Dan, might not recognize Vasquez for what he was.

Faraday wouldn’t have bet against any of it.

Chisolm didn’t seem the type to let a wanted man slip beneath his notice, nor did he seem the type to take kindly to anybody lending aid thereof. It was a bad box, no matter which angle he approached it at. Though retreat might, in this instance, have proven to be the better part of valor, they were two stories up with nothing but flat clapboard between them and the hard-packed earth, which handily removed that option from the table.

Faraday cursed under his breath.

“Just a minute!” he hollered. He slid around Vasquez, close enough that their bodies brushed, and collected the red bandana from the mattress.

“Friend of yours?” Vasquez asked, voice a low rumble. He had his dark eyes trained on the door, predatory and sharp. His suspicion drifted off of their bond like a bright, cold mist, the bitter chill of it coaxing Faraday’s hackles to rise even further.

“Not exactly,” Faraday muttered, crossing the few feet to the tiny, dusty mirror above the pitiful washbasin. He looped the bandana around his neck, absently chewing his lower lip while he fastened it carefully over top of his ribbon. Once the knot was secured, he tilted his head this way and that, a quick pass to ensure that his mark wasn’t visible. A low twist of curiosity spiraled through his chest and he turned to find Vasquez studying him, brow furrowed.

“What?” he snapped defensively, pulling his shoulders up around his ears and loosing a narrow bolt of irritation down their tie.

It must have been fairly potent, because Vasquez's eyebrows jumped toward his hairline. He shook his head and held his hands up – the universal body language of a man who has just realized he does not, in fact, care to be poking this particular bear.

Faraday sighed, scrubbing a hand across his face, and glanced to the door again. He drummed his fingers against his own elbow and turned to give Vasquez a long, up-and-down look, frown deepening as his eyes traveled.

Vasquez was flashy in the way of most vaqueros Faraday had met – bright glints of silver scattered all across his person, from the shining can-openers on the backs of his boots to the gleaming buckle on his belt, all dark leather and intricate pattern work that would have marked him for a dandy if he didn’t carry his weight with quite such lethal confidence. When he finally came back up to Vasquez’s face, the dark amusement in his eyes and the knowing quirk at the corners of his mouth sent a hot, embarrassed bloom across Faraday’s cheeks.

“Sit down and take your hat off,” he muttered lowly, turning toward the door and flapping a hand at the bed. “And for God’s sake, try to look innocent.”

Vasquez snorted, but did as he was told, tossing his hat back onto the mattress and settling himself against the headboard, one heel up on the lowest edge of the wooden bedframe while his other leg stretched, long and lean, all the way to the floor. He crossed his arms casually over his waist, taking care to let the knuckles of his left hand curl against the butt of his gun, and raised a questioning eyebrow.

“It’ll have to do,” Faraday grumbled, and opened the door just enough to be polite.

Sam Chisolm was stood in the narrow hall with his hat respectfully in his hands, a pair of waifish white folk, rumpled and dirt-streaked in a manner that suggested they had travelled quite some distance, hovering awkwardly behind him.

“Mr. Chisolm,” Faraday greeted, inclining his head and casting a wary look at the strangers. “What’s all this about a job, then?”

Chisolm returned the motion, eyes flicking over Faraday’s shoulder for a second, undoubtedly taking in the figure lounging on the bed.

“I hope we’re not interrupting,” he said benignly.

Faraday shook his head, affecting the most freewheeling attitude he could muster while the rapacious sense of survival that Vasquez had apparently developed during his time on the run began chewing furiously at his spine. He opened the door a little wider, made a sweeping gesture at the minimal space.

“C’mon in.”

Chisolm stepped past him, nodding to Vasquez, who Faraday was relieved to see hadn’t been in the wilds quite so long that he’d forgotten the basics of civil communication. He nodded politely back though he took no further measure to introduce himself.

The pair that Chisolm had brought along with him were a funny couple – a baby-faced boy and a flint-eyed woman whose practiced, measured grace only barely covered up the rough energy of her motion.

She had her slender hands wrapped tightly around the strap of a black leather bag strung across her body. There was an opaque black cuff wrapped around her right wrist, lace-edged and fastened with a row of tiny ivory buttons – an adornment of mourning for those with soul-mates recently passed, not yet ready to see the reality of their loss burned into their skin. She wore her hair in a thick rope down her back, redder even than Faraday, whose coloring bore out the Irish heritage he frequently denied possessing.

The boy wore his hair long and tucked around his ears, jaw lined with fuzz that could generously be called a beard. He held himself with the taut reserve that indicated he carried a mighty chip on his shoulder, the way most men did before they’d truly grown into themselves. He didn’t have a ribbon that Faraday could see, but then a solid half of him was tucked deferentially behind the woman’s slim figure.

They both wore hats and dust-caked boots, their fair skin flushed with sun. Their clothes were sensible and simple – working folk, or farmers, maybe, which made their association with Chisolm all the more strange.

Interesting, Faraday thought. Very interesting.

“Ain’t much room,” the baby-faced boy opined quietly, gazing disapprovingly around the space. Faraday grinned at him, wide and affable.

“Well, we won’t be having a ho-down, but I figure we can manage a polite conversation,” he agreed brightly, leaving the door cracked enough to spare them all any impropriety while simultaneously providing the illusion of privacy.

Vasquez huffed a laugh from his spot on the bed and the boy went red to the tips of his ears. The woman sidled a few inches further over, positioning herself staunchly between the boy and the rest of the assemblage, which only made the poor kid go redder. Chisolm grinned a little at that, ducking his head to hide it and dramatically clearing his throat.

"I've got a job lined up," Chisolm said, gaze flickering to Vasquez so fast that Faraday wouldn't have seen it if he'd blinked at the wrong second. "Looking for some men to join me."

"Sounds mysterious," Faraday replied with a smirk. "Is it difficult?"

"Impossible," Chisolm responded, without hesitation.

Very, very interesting, Faraday amended.

He wasn't the only one who thought so, either – an electric spark shivered to life beneath the bone grinding gnaw of Vasquez's animal instinct for self-preservation. Faraday caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye as Vasquez sat up a little straighter, intent on the conversation.

"How many you got so far?"

"Two." Again, Chisolm didn't hesitate.

Faraday glanced to the couple at Chisolm's back and huffed a laugh. They were barely off their mothers' apron strings, by the look of them. Hardly the type of folk that Faraday would expect to be of any use in Chisolm's professed line of business.

"What, them?"

"Me and you," Chisolm corrected. He canted his head to where Vasquez sat on the edge of the mattress. "Three, if your associate is of a mind to join us."

Faraday looked over to Vasquez, surprised.

Vasquez appeared to be just as taken aback by Chisolm's invitation, caught out and obviously discomfited. He pinned Faraday with a weighty look, a heavy cloud of doubt and mistrust billowing out across their tie.

Faraday licked his lips, and turned his attention back to Chisolm.

“The particulars of that,” he said slowly, carefully selecting his words, “might be beyond what you’re paying, assuming there’s a wage involved?”

Chisolm tilted his head to the woman, who unslung the bag from around her shoulders. It jingled like bells as she thrust it forward, chin jutting out proud and willful. Faraday took the bag hesitantly and shook it open.

There was an impressive collection of coinage settled along the bottom, a few crumpled slips of paper money mixed in.

“That’s a lot of tin,” he murmured, closing the bag back up. He gestured with it toward Vasquez, looking at the woman. “You mind?”

She settled her steely gaze on Vasquez for a second and shook her head once, short and sure. Faraday tossed the bag over and Vasquez plucked it neatly out of the air, tugging it open and loosing a low whistle.

“Who's she?” Faraday asked, jerking his chin toward the woman and reaching for the bag when Vasquez handed it over.

“Joan of Arc,” Chisolm provided with a shrug. Faraday huffed a laugh and tossed the bag back.

“I’m Emma Cullen,” the woman corrected, catching the bag easily and looping it over her head. She settled in to clutch the straps like she was worried it might dissolve beneath her hands, tilting her head to the boy at her shoulder. “This is my associate, Teddy   Q.”

“So?” Chisolm asked. “What do you say?”

If it had only been him, Faraday likely would have jumped at the opportunity. Vague and amorphous as the job was, the variables he could see were interesting enough that it was sure to be miles more exciting than anything he could get up to hustling miners over cards and dice.

He looked over at Vasquez, scratching thoughtfully at the line of his jaw.

He could feel Vasquez’s interest, sparking hot underneath the biting wariness that urged him up and away and back to the mountains, beyond the prying eyes of the law. There was something else, too, sitting under it all like a stone in Faraday’s gut. Regret, maybe – hard and bitter.

Vasquez looked back at him, and it was a little astounding how easily Faraday read his face. For all that they’d known one another barely a full hour, it was as though he’d spent years learning every tiny tic and tell that illustrated Vasquez’s opinion.

Faraday sighed.

There was no way around the law – at least, no way that Vasquez had found yet. Besides, they still had quite a number of dealings to parse out between the two of them, not the least of which being where they wanted to go or what they wanted to do now that their lives were inextricably tied together.

Vasquez shook his head, just enough for Faraday to pick up on it, and a wistful pang of desire that might have belonged to either of them shot through him. He looked back to Chisolm, intent to turn him down, but before he could speak, Chisolm licked his lips and added pleasantly, “If the money isn’t enough to interest you, I’m certain we could come to another agreement.”

“Like what?” Faraday frowned.

Chisolm pressed his lips into a thin line, considering for a moment, and then started digging around in the pocket of his vest. Vasquez settled back into a slouch, which he intended to be deliberately misleading if the sudden rush of adrenaline that Faraday felt was any indication.

“I headed out to California with a handful of folk in my sights,” Chisolm said casually, producing a folded up scrap of yellow paper, shaking it out with slow, blatant motions. “One of whom bears a striking resemblance to your friend, there.”

There was a sudden surge of emotion, so fast and raw that Faraday was instantly submerged, squeezing his eyes shut while the sound of a hammer cocking back echoed through the room like a firecracker. He swallowed and took a deep breath, forcing himself to look up despite the rattling rage in his chest. He glanced over to see that Vasquez was scowling at the trio across the way. He had one of his pistols in his left hand, trained the same direction, right hand hovering and ready to pound the hammer back in quick succession.

Faraday licked his lips, turned his attention to where Sam Chisolm was frozen in the center of the room, one hand up, palm out with his fingers spread wide, while the other was curled over the top of a warrant poster, slightly frayed at the edges.

A passable caricature of Vasquez done up in ink glared out from the paper, settled neatly between the words ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive,’ his name, and a sum that made Faraday’s eyes go wide.

“Five hundred dollars?” he asked with a laugh, turning an incredulous grin to where Vasquez was bristling like a cornered wolf, sharp, desperate needles prickling across their bond. “What did you do?”

Guero,” he bit out. “Not the time.”

“Killed the rancher who hired him,” Chisolm said.

“Maybe he deserved it,” Vasquez grinned. It was a narrow, feral thing, dark eyes glittering with barely banked fury. There was a vicious current of something akin to glee that rolled through Faraday at the words – righteous and irreverent.

Faraday shivered. He wasn’t sure if it was because of the noose, or if Vasquez was just the type to feel things deeply, loudly, but he felt lambasted on all sides by the disparate waves of Vasquez’s emotions, thoughts gathering only to be shattered apart by the next crest of the wave. He swallowed and took a deep breath, wrestling all of his attentions onto sending a soothing current back.

Vasquez’s eyes jumped over to him, wide and surprised, and he sighed through his nose. There was a gentle, mollifying tendril, cool and lush, and then the wave ebbed, settling to a low buzz just behind Faraday’s sternum – still irritating but easier to ignore.

“I’m sure he did,” Faraday said agreeably.

Chisolm shrugged. Behind him, Emma Cullen and Teddy Q were still as marble statues, grim and stone-faced.

“I don’t much care about that,” he said. “Five hundred dollar reward, now?” He shook his head. “Lotta fellas’d do damnable things for that kind of money.”

“You intend to get that reward?” Vasquez scoffed.

“That depends,” Chisolm replied thoughtfully.

“On?” Faraday pressed. Chisolm glanced over to him, but when he spoke he was staring Vasquez dead in the eye.

“On whether you come along and help us or not.”

Vasquez considered this.

“If we come?”

“I tear the warrant up,” Chisolm said easily. “You’ll still have a lot of men gunnin’ for you.”

Vasquez huffed a laugh.

“And that should give me comfort?”

“It should,” Chisolm assured. “I won’t be one of them.”

It wasn’t a bad deal, Faraday considered. He’d seen Chisolm in action – the man was maybe the quickest draw he’d ever seen, and tenacious like a particularly ornery hunting dog.

Besides, while Faraday wouldn’t consider himself a man of honor by any definition of the term, he didn’t want to have to shoot these people. Chisolm was a genuinely good man, for the most part, which was rare enough that Faraday didn’t think he’d met but one or two throughout his entire life, and Emma and Teddy appeared to be folk a long way from home, who were rapidly realizing that they’d bitten off more than they could rightly chew.

He didn’t want to shoot them, he thought darkly, but he would, if that was the way the dice rolled. There was a line drawn clearly in the sand in this standoff and Faraday knew precisely on which side of it he stood.

Vasquez narrowed his eyes at Chisolm, studying him for a long moment. Faraday could distantly make out the rocking sway of his deliberation. He furrowed his brow and looked at Faraday, who shrugged.

“What else have we got to do?” he asked. Vasquez snorted.

He sighed and thumbed the hammer back down, sliding his pistol back into its holster and rising to his feet, tension slipping away like rain down a mountainside.

“I suppose it’s decided,” he said, drawing himself up to his full height and coming to stand at Faraday’s side. He grinned at Emma, who glared mutinously back and forth between the two of them. “Looks like you have three. When do we leave?”

Faraday sighed and went about gathering up his neckerchief and tucking it into one of his pockets. Now that the danger had passed, there was something niggling at the back of his mind, something important that he couldn’t quite make out the shape of.

“Now, if you can manage it,” Chisolm replied, folding the warrant poster up and tucking it away.

“Rose Creek is four days’ ride from here,” Emma Cullen provided. “The sooner we can get back, the better.”

Faraday came to settle just beside Vasquez, lost in thought, only half an ear bent to the conversation in the room.

“We have a detour to make first,” Sam was telling Emma. “Volcano Springs, about twenty miles east of here; maybe one other stop, if we can spare the time.”

“Aw hell,” Faraday muttered as his thoughts finally steadied and took shape. He frowned and glanced up at Vasquez, who was watching him worriedly.

“What?” he asked, warm flare of concern unspooling across the ribbon. Faraday sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose.

“It is possible,” he said slowly, hesitantly, “that I lost my horse in a game of dice.”

Vasquez stared at him.

“To a,” Faraday screwed his face up, thinking hard. Most of that evening was a gin-blurred smear in his memory. “A leprechaun, maybe?”

The room was dead silent for a long second, and then Vasquez burst out laughing, throwing an arm around Faraday’s shoulders and reeling him in so that he was pressed all along Vasquez’s side. Faraday felt his cheeks go warm and cursed his fair countenance, shoving at Vasquez until he let go.

“Of course you did, guero,” Vasquez grinned, still chuckling. He winked broadly, nudging his elbow against Faraday's while Faraday scowled up at him. “The good news is that in a Mexican standoff, the Mexican always wins.”

“We’ll buy your horse back,” Chisolm said pointedly. “Consider it an investment in your current avenue of employment.”

“So like a debt, you mean?” Faraday clarified. Chisolm settled his hat back onto his head and shrugged.

“Po-tay-to,” he said, “po-tah-to.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

By the time Volcano Springs appeared on the horizon, wavering in and out of existence through the glossy curtain of distant heat, Faraday’s mood had darkened considerably.

The adrenaline of all the earlier excitement had ebbed away, like the tide pulled out to sea, taking the lingering hum of Faraday’s liquor-saturated buzz with it and leaving a dim, throbbing headache in its wake. Even the glory of having Jack’s familiar sway under his hips once again wasn’t enough to lift his humor.

Between Chisolm’s to-do in the saloon, the ordeal with the Babbingtons, Vasquez’s slow wind into town, and the subsequent business negotiations on all sides, Faraday had spent the morning bouncing back and forth between one rush and the next – some more pleasant than others – like a marble in a bagatelle game. Weighed against all that, the sudden, hesitant peace their motley group had fallen into was jarring, rankling in the worst of ways.

Faraday did not hold any great love for the times when the world settled around him, calm and quiet like the companionable silence he found himself currently ensconced within. He had always been a creature of frenetic energy, laughing too loud and biting too fast, and the quiet ate at him in ways he couldn’t rightly describe.

He could feel Vasquez wondering at his ill temper. For all that he was apparently a cold-blooded murderer of some renown, Vasquez was also proving to be a man of distinctly sunny disposition, so evidenced by the gentle contentment rolling out from him like heat off a fire. Faraday shot him an unimpressed glare and dug a half-empty bottle of bathtub gin – no bigger than a deck of cards – out of one of his vest’s interior pockets, throwing back a generous mouthful. The fond curl of amusement this action pulled from Vasquez lessened Faraday’s bitter satisfaction somewhat, so he treated himself to another quick slug before tucking the bottle away.

It didn’t help matters any that Chisolm hadn’t been exaggerating when he said their task was impossible. Faraday had never met Bart Bogue, but he’d heard enough to know that the man was about as close to the Devil incarnate as mortal folk ever dared to wander.

He wasn’t afraid, necessarily, but with that particular knowledge, the chances of his remaining above snakes once all this was over had dwindled into practically nonexistence. It was bad enough that he might die of his own accord – at least there was some honor in that, and a sort of personal willfulness that Faraday appreciated. It rankled something fierce that Vasquez’s presence doubled the odds against him.

On top of all that, Emma Cullen wouldn’t stop touching her damn mourning cuff. It was a very fetching piece of jewelry – mourning accessories had a tendency to err on the side of ostentatious but hers was subdued and respectful. She brushed her fingers absently along its lace edge every few minutes, face darkening when she encountered soft fabric rather than the warm line of her ribbon. It was an obvious tell, first of all, which always made Faraday itch to think on as a man who done his very best to disabuse himself of the like. Secondly, it made Faraday’s stomach roll with sorrow to see at the same time that it stoked a bitter, ugly envy in him.

They didn’t make mourning cuffs for people damned with a lover’s noose, seeing as those unfortunate folk rarely lived long enough to wear one in the event that their soul-mate shuffled off this mortal coil.

He dug the bottle out again and emptied it, tossing it over his shoulder into the brittle scrub. Vasquez clicked his tongue, sidled his horse up next to Jack so close that his leg nearly brushed Faraday’s.

“You okay, guero?” he asked quietly, frowning. Faraday huffed a laugh.

“I’m just tops,” he said, grinning meanly. Vasquez’s frown deepened, a gentle lick of concern winding through Faraday’s chest. Faraday scowled and rubbed at his chest, muttering darkly, “Would you give it a rest for a goddamn second?”

Vasquez looked at him for a long moment, with an intense scrutiny that had Faraday mustering all of his willpower to keep from squirming beneath.

“If something is bothering you – ” Vasquez started slowly. Faraday didn’t let him finish, scoffing and shaking his head.

“Let it alone,” he snapped, mulish, and dug his heels none-too-politely into Jack’s ribs, spurring him toward the front of the line where Chisolm and his dark steed were picking their way forward through the sparse undergrowth. He could feel Vasquez’s irritation buzzing at his back, but he ignored it.

“So,” Faraday said amiably, slowing to match Chisolm’s pace, “what, precisely, are we looking for in Volcano Springs?”

The town was close enough now that Faraday could make out the signage along the side of some of the buildings, many of them still just wood-frames with canvas pulled taut around their skeletons. A newer settlement, then, or maybe one on the grow, judging by its size.

“Who,” Chisolm corrected, not taking his eyes off the looming buildings. “Friend of mine, a Cajun by the name of Robicheaux.”

Faraday gaped.

Goodnight Robicheaux?”

Chisolm cut him a thoughtful glance out of the corner of his eye and nodded once, sharp. Faraday whistled through his teeth.

“The Angel of Death,” he said approvingly. “Well that should raise our odds considerably.”

Chisolm shot him an amused look from beneath the shadow of his hat.

“That’s the plan.”

They raised some funny looks as they tromped into town, a more eclectic collection of folk than they likely saw this far West. Chisolm rode in like he owned the place, poised and aloof, hopping off of his horse in a shadowed alcove behind the livery stable and tying it off to one of the waiting posts.

There was a cluster of men gathered around a small fenced-in pen some yards away, the lot of them hollering and whistling every few seconds – precisely the kind of group gamble that normally would have drawn Faraday in the second it caught his eye. As it was, the news that they had come to court a war hero of sorts had lifted Faraday’s spirits somewhat, though not nearly enough to chase out the stubborn exasperation stuck firmly between his ribs. He slid off of Jack’s side with less grace than normal, some combination of the few shots of booze he’d taken on the trail, fatigue from the morning’s excitement, and his persistent bad temper robbing him of his usual ability.

Chisolm headed off toward the pen with Teddy Q at his heels, Emma following behind at a more demure pace.

While Faraday secured Jack to an empty post, Vasquez did the same with his white mount, lingering obviously enough that Faraday bristled under the attention.

“Thought I told you to let it alone,” he muttered angrily, turning to glare at Vasquez. They were stood close enough together that he could have turned the toe of his boot to the side and been touching Vasquez’s.

Vasquez shook his head and sighed deeply, reaching up lightning fast to curl his palm around the back of Faraday’s neck. Faraday flinched, surprised, his entire body going rigid. He snarled, tensing up to pull away, when Vasquez fitted his thumb neatly beneath the red bandana, laying it gently along the line of Faraday’s ribbon.

The surge of warmth was instantaneous, and Faraday shivered as it rolled through him, taking short, sharp breaths through his nose. He stared, wild-eyed, at Vasquez’s face, his fond smirk and the soft edge of hope in his gaze.

They stood that way for a long moment, tucked far back enough that none of the fellows gathered around the pen ought to be able to see them, Vasquez dragging his thumb back and forth along Faraday’s ribbon. Every sweet rolling current of warmth soothed a little of Faraday’s ire, until the line of his shoulders dropped and he found himself leaning into the contact despite his best efforts.

“Better?” Vasquez asked, low and gruff. Faraday swallowed, thick, and closed his eyes without bothering to answer. Vasquez obviously already knew, anyway, a smug tendril of satisfaction winding slowly across their bond.

Faraday sighed and straightened up, opening his eyes and opening his mouth to speak when he felt the heavy weight of a distant gaze on him, prickling along the line of his back. He turned, Vasquez’s palm still curled warmly around his neck, to find Emma Cullen watching them from some distance away, curious and steely-eyed.

Reality settled back in like a sudden, frigid rain.

Faraday stumbled backward, shaking Vasquez’s hand off and reaching up to check that the bandana was still in place. It felt like it was, but Faraday tugged self-consciously at his collar anyway, despite knowing that it wouldn’t help anything if he’d judged wrong.

“Thank you,” he said brusquely, and turned to stalk off toward the pen. Vasquez waited a few seconds – surprised and exasperated, a low undercurrent of hurt – before following behind. Guilt bubbled up in Faraday's chest, thick and cold, but he choked it back down. Better Vasquez learn now, he reasoned darkly, not to get his hopes up where Faraday was concerned.

He didn’t say anything to Emma as he passed her by, meeting her flinty gaze with one of his own, mouth halfway between a smirk and a snarl as he made his way into the gambling crowd.

She didn’t say a word, either, but Faraday felt her watching all the while.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Vasquez had never before met a man who shared a name with a popular expression to end an evening and wasn’t yet sure whether he cared for the acquaintance. Particularly when Goodnight – and it really was a ridiculous name – leaned over to Chisolm and said none-too-quietly, “Are you sure about this one, Sam?”

He was referring to Faraday, of course. Vasquez scowled and considered speaking up on Faraday’s behalf, though he sincerely doubted that his ligado would appreciate the gesture.

Faraday had gleefully set upon the saloon in Volcano Springs the very moment he’d seen it, ostensibly seeking to drown whatever dark humor had fallen over him that day in whiskey. By the time they’d gotten Goodnight and his companion on-board with their suicidal mission to free Rose Creek from beneath the thumb of a man who sounded like all of the worst parts of humanity, Faraday had been loaded for gunwhales, though considerably happier than when they’d arrived.

The man in question was currently swaying in his saddle more than made Vasquez entirely comfortable, and had been doing his damnedest to inspire a rousing chorus of trail songs for the better part of a half-an-hour.

He’d worked his way through most of the American folk ditties about miners seeking gold and had circled around to all the old songs about lazos.

“I knew a pretty little maid with ribbons in her hair,” Faraday slurred, fairly off-key and waving a half-empty bottle of some indefinable brown rotgut back and forth with gusto. “And flour on her fingertips, another ribbon there!” He turned to peer blearily at Vasquez. “You know this one?”

He had a flush high on his cheeks, the edges of him picked out gold in the dwindling sunlight. Bad-tempered as he normally was, his ligado was handsome – green eyes and copper hair, broad shouldered and strong. Vasquez hadn’t given much thought to what type of man he’d be attracted to should he ever decide to explore the avenue, but his ligado was certainly more than he’d hoped for. Drunk as he was, he had a boyish sort of joy to him that made affection bloom bright in Vasquez’s chest.

“No guero,” he said apologetically, shaking his head. Faraday scoffed, grinning, and turned his gaze elsewhere.

“What about you, Teddy Q?” he demanded, snapping his fingers. Teddy glanced back over his shoulder. “You know it?”

“Yessir,” Teddy mumbled uncertainly.

“Well, come on then!” Faraday said insistently, launching back into the verse. “I loved her so when we were small, but now she’s tied her line! Whichever way her ribbon pulls, I know that it ain’t mine!”

Teddy mumbled along for a few seconds before ducking his head and turning his attention away. The boy clearly didn’t care for either of them overmuch. Vasquez would hazard to guess that he was of the belief that his righteous quest deserved better than the likes of a gambler and an outlaw, regardless of their character or the speed of their draw.

“Oh my darling, give me a little hope!” Faraday warbled, taking a long slug from his bottle. “My love has got me all strung up, by a thread, by a string, by a rope!”

“He’ll attract all the coyotes thirty miles ‘round, howling like that,” Goodnight said with a laugh. Billy Rocks cut him an amused glance, mouth turning up on one side. Vasquez glared at them both.

“Can’t you shut him up?” Teddy grumbled, turning to look at Vasquez.

“Maybe I like his singing,” Vasquez shrugged. Next to him, Faraday laughed.

“That’s the spirit!” he said approvingly, hoisting his bottle so hard that some of the liquor sloshed out the top. “Tie your ribbon tight and strong or let it flutter loose! Wrap my wrists and fingertips, but please spare me the noose!”

Vasquez glanced over, concerned at the sudden spines of dark humor that pierced through the buoyant effervescence Faraday had been emitting since the third round that afternoon.

“Should the ribbon ring my neck, then let the pistol bang,” he sang, hard edge of bitterness under his lupine keen. “For I love you very dearly but I’d surely hate to hang! Oh my darling, give me a little hope! My love has got me all strung up, by a thread, by a string by rope!” He took another long swig from his bottle and collapsed forward a little, chuckling resentfully to himself.

“All right now,” Chisolm said from the front of the line, placid and calm and unyielding. “That’ll do.”

He gestured to a small copse a little way from a weakly trickling creek, shielded on one side by a rocky ridge, by a scraggly collection of palo verde trees and barrel cactus on the other.

“We’ll bed down here for the evening,” Chisolm said definitively. “Get a fire going, split some rations. We’re headed east in the morning.”

Teddy Q frowned from atop his dappled gelding.

“Rose Creek is to the west of here,” he said hesitantly. Chisolm nodded.

“There’s some big game to the east,” he explained easily, dismounting from his horse and unloading a thick woven blanket from the back. “I know a hunter up thereabouts. If we can convince him to ride with us, I like our chances.”

Faraday, still huffing a soft laugh every now and again, kicked one leg free of his stirrups and swung dangerously to the side.

“Espérate,” Vasquez chided, hopping off of his mount and taking Faraday by the elbow. Faraday grinned muzzily at him.

Ho-la, comb-paw-dray,” he drawled, patting at Vasquez’s hand. Vasquez shook his head and laughed.

“Almost, guero,” he said fondly. “Can you get down?”

Faraday scoffed at him and promptly proceeded to fall out of the saddle with enough force that he would have eaten gravel without Vasquez to prop him up.

“See?” he said triumphantly, swaying on his feet and coming to rest with most of his weight against Vasquez’s side. “Easy.”

“Claro,” Vasquez agreed with a snort. He settled his ligado down on a low, flat rock with some difficulty, as Faraday insisted on taking another long drink from his bottle midway through the process. He left his ligado there, nursing his booze, and chatting jovially with the rest of their party while he set about tying their horses off.

He ensured that both had enough slack in their lines to graze, and busied himself gathering up a blanket off of his saddle and one from Faraday’s. He laid them out side-by-side, closer maybe than his ligado would have allowed if he had been on the functional side of sobriety, but he couldn’t bring himself to feel guilty about it.

“I never did like that verse,” Goodnight was saying thoughtfully, Billy beside him working to stoke the fire crackling under a small cast-iron cookpot.

Vasquez wasn’t a gambling man – at least, not in the way that his ligado was proving to be, with every decision in his life based on a system of bluffs and antes that only made sense to him – but between the delicate red line ringing the first finger of Goodnight’s right hand and the black gloves that kept everything from Billy’s first knuckle to his wrist neatly covered on either side, he would bet good money on their sharing a lazo. It was funny, sort of, to find two odd pairs like them in the same traveling company.

Across the fire, Faraday snorted.

“Why not?”

“It’s terribly pessimistic, for a song about love.”

“That’s because it ain’t a song about love,” Faraday said, a dark edge to the amusement in his tone. He took another hit off the bottle, blinking slow and hazy when Vasquez settled down on the rock next to him, their bodies touching from shoulder to hip.

“What is it about, then?” Vasquez asked quietly, trying to draw his ligado’s ire away from the men across the clearing.

He knew from weeks of sudden, inexplicable bursts of fury that his ligado’s temper was particularly incendiary, and he didn’t care to get into a shootout with any of the assembled party. He’d seen Billy in action already, and while Vasquez might have been fast enough to outdraw his pig-stickers, he didn’t especially care to find out.

“’s about being lynched,” Faraday slurred with a grin. “Obviously.”

Vasquez narrowed his eyes, thoughtful, and carefully brushed his knuckles against his ligado’s knee.

“Is that what you think you are?”

Faraday tightened up against him, taking a slow pull from his bottle.

“All evidence suggests so,” he said casually, hard line of his gaze trained on some middle-distance between their rock and the fire.

“Guero,” Vasquez murmured softly, deep sorrow rolling through him. His ligado sucked a harsh breath through his nose, eyes falling shut like he was in pain. He reached without looking to wrap his free hand around Vasquez’s wrist, sending a bright, desperate spark out from Vasquez’s lazo.

“Don’t,” Faraday breathed, quiet and a little desperate. “Don’t feel like that.”

Vasquez’s chest tightened painfully and Faraday swallowed, a little twinge of motion. Vasquez took a long, deep breath, trying to settle his thoughts, focusing on the fond affection Faraday coaxed out of him instead.

“Lo siento, querido,” he said softly. “Better?”

Faraday sighed again, shoulders dropping, and opened his eyes.

“Yeah,” he said, and tilted the bottle back. He let go of Vasquez’s wrist, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Better.”

He started into the fire for a few long moments – either pointedly ignoring the way the rest of their company was making an effort not to watch them, or legitimately too far submerged in whiskey to notice – and then grinned easily, turning to say, “You know, you still haven’t told me about that rancher.”

Vasquez snorted.

“It’s a long story,” he replied. Faraday arched an amused eyebrow, gesturing to the space around them.

“We got time,” he hedged. Vasquez sighed and rose to his feet. Faraday frowned up at him. “What’re you doing?”

“Going for a walk,” Vasquez said, jerking his head toward the creek. “You coming?”

“And then you’ll tell me?” Faraday asked, eyes narrow, slightly suspicious.

“Sí, guero,” Vasquez agreed easily. “And then I’ll tell you.”

Faraday scrambled to his feet, so fast that he tripped over his own boots and nearly went over into the dirt, only managing to right himself at the last second. Vasquez couldn’t help but grin at him, the strange manic edge he had about his person when he was this deep in booze.

“Careful,” he said, amused. His ligado glared at him, ruffled like a wet cat, and pointed toward the lengthening shadows.

“Shut up and walk.”

 

Chapter Text

They kept on until they hit the edge of the creek, a fair distance from the flickering orange puddle of firelight spilling across the desert floor, comfortably within sight of their fellows though not so near as to be overheard. It was still closer than Faraday would have liked, as he suspected that whatever discussion he and Vasquez saw fit to enter into would be far messier than either of them could rightly predict, but it would be a worse folly to wander too far into the unexplored wilds. Particularly, Faraday thought, with the world swaying at the edges the way it had been for the last few hours.

He stumbled over to the lip of the creek, small but energetic, winding its way merrily through the sandy expanse, and dropped lazily into the dirt. The sky above was broad and fathomless, twinkling darkly overhead and bleeding riotous color out over the horizon. Faraday gazed up at it and gave a sigh, elbows balanced on his knees, before turning to watch Vasquez sidle his way over. He walked like a predator, all smooth, lean motion made to look more dangerous in the looming dark. The pale wash of fading twilight picked out stark shadows at the corners of his eyes, the edge of his fond smirk.

He settled himself down close enough that their shoulders brushed - his left against Faraday's right - and a small, interested ember started to glow pleasantly beneath the piqued buzz of Faraday's curiosity. He wasn't quite sure which of them it belonged to, but it burned in the sweet, comforting way that superior liquor did - a slow, subdued roll all the way out to Faraday's fingertips.

"So, what's your story?" Faraday asked. A crisp mist drifted off the edge of the burbling water, the cool brush of it soothing some of the whiskey heat in his face. Vasquez grinned at him, dark eyes glinting with amusement.

"So eager, guero," he chided teasingly, nudging his knee up against Faraday's. "What's the matter? Too drunk for finesse?"

Faraday scoffed, cheeks pinking, and hesitantly nudged Vasquez back.

"Hardly," he asserted, with the loose confidence of a man who has discovered that the answers to all life's difficult and terrible questions can be found at the bottom of a bottle. "I just know how these things go."

"Oh?" Vasquez pressed, arching an interested eyebrow. Faraday nodded.

"We get to jawin'," he explained, waving a hand between himself and Vasquez, fingers brushing the dark leather of Vasquez's vest, "and after awhile we've talked our way around to conveniently forgetting what we even came out here for in the first place."

Vasquez huffed a laugh and glanced cautiously over to their compatriots, huddled around the small blaze, occasionally lifting their heads to stare out into the darkness. Faraday followed the line of his gaze, unsurprised to discover Emma Cullen and Teddy Q peering curiously at them over top of their small tin plates. Teddy at least had the decency to flush with embarrassment and look away the second they were caught out. Emma just narrowed her eyes and set her jaw.

"I don't think they trust us," Vasquez rumbled, low like he was sharing a secret. Faraday could feel the heat coming up off his body, barely an inch or two from having his chin hooked over top of Vasquez's shoulder.

"I expect they're suspicious of our intentions," he drawled imperiously. Vasquez turned back around, grinning. His face was very close. Faraday raised his eyebrows and added conspiratorially, "Perhaps they imagine we aim to murder them and rob them of their valuables."

Vasquez chuckled, a thick, dark sound that stoked the warm ember in Faraday's belly.

"Too high a risk," he said knowingly. "Too many men, too well heeled to make it worth the effort."

There was something open and trusting in Vasquez's face when he spoke, an admittance of sorts. Even through the comfortable haze of booze Faraday recognized the words as an offering, an invitation to pry into his history.

"You're the expert," Faraday said slowly, smirking. "Right?"

Vasquez lifted one shoulder in a shrug.

"For robbing?" he said, considering for a moment before flashing Faraday a wild, canine grin. "Probably. Murder?" He wrinkled his nose distastefully. "Not so much."

"I thought you were wanted for murder," Faraday frowned. Vasquez snorted.

"Among other things," he agreed wickedly, eyes glittering dangerously. The spark in Faraday's belly flared and he licked his lips. "Hardly makes me an expert."

"But you killed the rancher?" Faraday pressed. It felt important that he know, though he couldn't quite say why. Vasquez nodded.

"Yes."

"He deserved it?" Again, Vasquez nodded, not hint of doubt in him.

"Yes."

Faraday chewed at his lip for a moment, considering. Vasquez's shadowed gaze flickered down to his mouth and back up, gentle warmth coiling lazily down their ribbon like smoke off a fire.

"Why?"

A complicated knot of emotion spiraled across their bond - scorching, roiling fury and guilt that rose, bitterly cold, through Faraday's chest, making his stomach twist while the sharp blade of satisfaction tore viciously through it all, saw-toothed and catching jaggedly on the tangled threads.

Vasquez tore his gaze away from Faraday and sat quietly for a long moment. He stared out into the brush, narrow and unseeing while the night came to life around them, the distant echoes of coyote song ringing off the high, flat hills.

"I took a job," he started slowly, as the moon drifted into place overhead, drumming his fingers against his knee, "two, three months ago. Big ranch in Kansas. Lots of money in a place that big - not for the workers, mostly, but - " he shrugged, faint curl of a smirk rising at the corners of his mouth, "I have better ways to ensure my wage."

Faraday huffed a little laugh and Vasquez glanced over, smile widening in a flash before the weight of memory settled back over him.

"The overseer was," Vasquez shook his head, searching for the words. He narrowed his eyes and spat into the dirt, baring his teeth as he snarled, "Mal. Cruel. At first, I think, nothing new." He waved a hand absently in the air. "Men with power always are this way. Hungry for it all the time."

He paused, squinting up at the stars for a moment before continuing.

"The workers are hungry too, but different - fed on scraps by men who think they need to eat less because they are Mexican, or Black. Chinese, sometimes. I learned early that it was better to help myself to my portion instead of waiting to be fed. To other portions, too," he grinned, glancing conspiratorially over at Faraday, "after awhile."

"You took it back from them," Faraday murmured, returning Vasquez's grin, drawn in by the open, joyous glint of it through the dark.

"Exactamente," Vasquez agreed, nudging Faraday's leg with his knuckles. He let his hand rest there while he went on, ribbon practically glowing against the skin of his wrist, and dragged slow, absent strokes across Faraday's thigh, down to his knee and back up. Faraday tried not to let the heat of it distract him.

"This time was easy." Vasquez huffed a dark laugh and admitted, "Usually it is. Hungry men don't think of much outside their appetites, too busy watching the hens get fat to notice the fox in the corner."

The vicious edge of amusement faded, and he stared out into the dark, gaze locked on something many weeks past and many miles away.

"The lady was gone - a pleasure trip to another property where the weather was better, half the staff with her to tend to her needs. So I let myself in. I think the overseer will be in the bedroom, chingado peresozo, sleeping always during the hottest part of the day." He went quiet and still as his face hardened, palm curled over the top of Faraday's knee. A desperate, wild fury rumbled to life across the ribbon, strong enough that it made Faraday's hackles rise sharply, sparking hot behind his eyes.

"I take it," he said slowly, forcing a breath through his nose and reaching out to brush his knuckles over top of Vasquez's in a small, soothing touch, "he wasn't."

Vasquez laughed, bitter and hard-edged, tilting his hand to the side so that their fingers caught.

"No," he muttered furiously. "He was in the office, with his money, and one of the girls from the kitchen. She was begging, crying."

Faraday's stomach lurched - he wasn't sure if it was him or Vasquez but he didn't particularly care at that moment.

"I had no intention to kill him when I thought him a man," Vasquez snarled, low with righteous fury. "Even evil men are usually too much trouble, but there is no sating a hunger like that." His smile was a bone-white blade in the dark. "Only thing to do is put it below ground, where it can't eat anymore."

Between the rocking sway of whiskey and the sudden, tempestuous fury rolling across the ribbon, Faraday felt like he was drowning. In search of an anchor, he tugged desperately at Vasquez's hand, shifting and pulling until they were clasped palm-to-palm, fingers intertwined. He could feel himself shaking under the weight of it all, hammered by the onslaught and dashed against the rocks.

As suddenly as the emotion had crested, it ebbed, fading into the background under a rising blanket of apologetic warmth. Vasquez was running his thumb back and forth along any part of Faraday's hand he could reach. Faraday realized absently that he was breathing in short, gasping pants, clutching Vasquez's hand so hard that his knuckles were white.

There was a distant, pleasant hum at the back of Faraday's mind, like a far-off echo. He glanced down to their entwined hands, the line of their forearms pressed up against one another, Vasquez's ribbon tucked securely against Faraday's skin.

"Well," he breathed shakily, "the bastard definitely deserved it."

Vasquez chuckled - a subdued, pitiful sliver of his usual mirth - and nodded. He squeezed Faraday's hand, a spark of warm fondness rising across the ribbon. Faraday licked his lips, and scrounged for something else to say - anything to draw Vasquez back from that cliff's edge of rage.

"Was that the first time you killed anyone?" he asked stupidly.

Vasquez outright laughed at that, shaking his head.

"No, guerito," he said, but didn't elaborate any further.

Faraday felt faintly dizzy and wrung-out, which was either the impressive amount of liquor he'd been attempting to consume all evening finally catching up to him, or more likely, some side-effect of very nearly drowning in somebody else's emotions. Either way, Faraday closed his eyes against the tilting line of the earth in the half-hearted hope that his stomach might settle.

"Lo siento, querido," Vasquez murmured, tone apologetic though the words were so much nonsense to Faraday. He carefully extricated his hand from Faraday's grip with a few lingering, soothing strokes of his thumb.

A few seconds later there came the hesitant brush of fingers against his neck. Faraday jumped and opened his eyes to find Vasquez watching him, expression caught somewhere between sadness and affection.

"Let me?" he asked gently, brushing his fingers against the edge of the bandana once more.

Faraday flinched away from the contact, gaze flicking instinctively over to the group assembled around the fire. Though even their steely-eyed patroness had apparently decided they were too boring to merit her continued attention, wary hesitance crawled up under the warmth in Faraday's belly and shivered out along their tie.

"Nobody's watching," Vasquez promised, voice a low murmur. "I won't take it off."

Faraday weighed the risks for a long moment and then licked his lips, nodding once - a short, sharp bob of his head.

This time, Vasquez didn't settle for just his thumb, shifting and nudging until he had his whole hand cupped around the back of Faraday's neck beneath the bandana, spread broad across the looping line of his ribbon. It sent a cascade of tingling sparks spilling down Faraday's chest, warming him from the inside out like his body was bared open to a golden wash of summer sun.

Faraday bowed his head forward, making a little closed-off noise in the back of his throat. He felt heavy, thick and light like he'd been stuffed full of cotton, shifting from dug-out and shaking to drowsy and content.

"Nice li'l magic trick, that," he slurred absently, clumsily fumbling his hand over until it was resting on Vasquez's thigh.

"One of the benefits, I think," Vasquez agreed quietly. Faraday snorted.

"Benefits," he said, a little meanly. "Right."

Beside him, Vasquez frowned and ran his thumb up and down, sending another prickling trail of sparks down Faraday's body.

"You don't believe there are benefits?" he asked softly. Faraday sighed, letting his eyes fall shut and tilting his bodyweight so that he was leaning against Vasquez from shoulder to hip.

"Maybe," he mumbled, muzzy. It was difficult to focus his thoughts, halfway swimming in whiskey and thoroughly ensconced in the warm, safe nearness of his soul-mate. He felt drugged, like he was under some sort of mysterious spell. "Not sure they outweigh the drawbacks, is all."

"I thought that was the whole point?" Vasquez murmured with a laugh.

"Sure," Faraday said easily, absently patting Vasquez's leg. "For you. Don' know about for me."

"Why do you say that, querido?" Vasquez asked, barely more than a whisper. A sharp pang of sadness reverberated across their bond, rattling around between Faraday's ribs and making his chest itch.

"'Cause it's true," he snapped harshly, cracking his eyes open and squinting up at Vasquez, who was peering worriedly through the dark at him. It was like he was seeing things from underwater - a step removed from reality. "You only got wristlets and rings in Mexico?"

Vasquez shook his head.

"All three," he assured, "but the word is the same. Lazo for all."

Faraday snorted.

"Well that's mighty sweet," he drawled. "Ain't so easy hereabouts."

Vasquez frowned, brow furrowing further, and shook his head.

"What do you mean?" he pressed gently, rubbing his thumb across Faraday's ribbon again.

Faraday sighed, shivering under the humming shower of sparks, and sluggishly pushed himself back up into a seated position, leaning away from Vasquez and carefully shrugging his hand off.

"Can't think with you doin' that," he explained softly, blinking to try and clear the fog from his head. He pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes and huffed a sardonic little laugh. "Reckon that's part of what I mean, right there."

"You don't like it?" Vasquez ventured hesitantly, confused.

"That ain't - " Faraday started, shaking his head, frustration burning off some of the sweet, lingering haze. He sighed. "I - it feels - "

He huffed a breath and shook his head again.

"It's a lot," he said finally, knowing the words were inadequate but unable to find any others. "Makes me - " he waved a hand at his own head, "fuzzy. Sorta like drunk, only worse."

Vasquez didn't say anything, just continued to frown through the dark, a cold current of sorrow and concern floating steadily across their bond to settle heavy in Faraday's chest. He sighed again and rubbed at his sternum.

"You feel - " he said slowly, searchingly. "You feel loud. Or the noose makes it loud. I don't know much about it, to tell true." He shrugged, a little gust of bitter embarrassment alighting along his shoulders, rushing out toward Vasquez. "They say if the sun greets you with your skin bare on your thirtieth birthday, you never get one. Kinda figured that was the case for me." He picked up an errant stone and sent it sailing out into the water with a pleasant, muted little plunk.

"Hoped it was, really," he admitted quietly, guilty and apologetic. Vasquez reached over, hesitant and slow, to settle his hand against Faraday's leg; a small, reassuring touch. Faraday sighed, a little of the tension in him bleeding away.

"Those are only stories, mijo," Vasquez said, voice low. Faraday laughed, picked up another stone and sent it careening into the dark.

"Well I know that now," he agreed, amused. He shrugged. "Been alone a long time. Guess I figured it'd be easier to stay that way."

"Easier," Vasquez repeated, smirking and huffing a little laugh. He settled quietly for a moment and hedged gently, "It's not always the same thing as better, you know."

"Maybe not," Faraday conceded, digging around for another rock and throwing it hard at the surface of the water, satisfied at the way it splashed and shattered the slick surface. "But I never spent a whole day shaking on the back of a horse before the damned thing showed up, so who's to say it's better?"

Vasquez snorted.

"I've seen you drink, guero," he teased. "I know that's not true."

Faraday sighed, exasperated, irritation rising along the line of his spine.

"You know what I mean," he grumbled darkly. Vasquez shook his head.

"I'm trying to," he corrected gently, and Faraday bristled at the hopeful curl of heat that spun out across their bond.

"Well you're doing a shit job," he muttered darkly, scowling, and sent another rock flying into the stream.

"Just tell me - " Vasquez started, low and soothing. Faraday's match-head temper sparked and ignited, gone off like a stick of dynamite under the gentle pressure of Vasquez's tone.

"I am tellin' you!" he snapped, pushing himself gracelessly to his feet, balance tumbling by the wayside under the anger and the booze. He stalked a few short paces away and turned back around, running his hands through his hair. "Everything you feel, I got no choice but to let in!"

"It's the same for us both, querido," Vasquez offered, rising to his feet slowly, like Faraday was a startled horse he ran the risk of spooking.

"It ain't," Faraday said, low and dangerous. Vasquez took a few hesitant steps toward him, curling his hands over Faraday's forearms with gentle care.

"It is," Vasquez said, soft but insistent.

Faraday grabbed desperately at Vasquez's vest, yanking on it and leaning into his space, snarling, "No, it ain't! You've seen what it does to me! You've seen what I turn into when you so much as put a hand on me! A pliable little nothin'! Weak as a kitten!" He pushed further forward and Vasquez let him, taking a conciliatory step backwards. "You know what it felt like? Trying to sleep, trying to ride while my whole body felt like it would shake apart if I didn't keep moving?"

"Guero - " Vasquez started, but Faraday cut him off with another step forward.

"No," he growled, low and mean. "Tell me what it felt like for you! Tell me how bad it hurt!"

Vasquez swallowed.

"It didn't hurt," he said, and Faraday felt the admission like a fist to his chest - a sudden, brutal burst of truth. He closed his eyes, pained. Vasquez curled a palm carefully around his wrist.

"It wasn't comfortable," he clarified, "but it didn't hurt. Not the way you say it hurt for you."

Faraday didn't respond. There was a hard knot of frustration, sadness, bitter vindication lodged in his throat. He swallowed around it, thick and labored, hands still buried in Vasquez's vest. They were quiet for a long moment, just the distant sounds of the desert trilling and humming around them.

"My mamá," Vasquez said after awhile, slow and unsure, "she was like you."

"What?" Faraday croaked, breathless. He glanced up at Vasquez, confused.

"Not - " Vasquez started, and sighed. He ran his thumb across the bare skin of Faraday's wrist. "Her lazo was here, like mine. Family trait." He smirked, a rueful little twist of his mouth. "But she felt it the way you do. Deep. Sometimes painful."

Faraday frowned up at him but didn't speak.

"I asked her once, when I was young, if it was worth it," he said, some distant memory pulling his gaze off over Faraday's shoulder. "She told me that it was a blessing, to know naturally what took others years to grow into. That she felt lucky."

Faraday barked a short, bitter laugh, and pushed himself furiously away, stumbling a little until he was out of Vasquez's reach. Vasquez wisely let him go without complaint.

"Well," Faraday said, grinning sharp and mean, shoulders drawn up high and tight, "the fellas at the card table always said I had the Devil's own luck. Guess they were right, after all."

He swung around and stalked back toward the campfire, hands in his pockets, stomach churning. His face was hot with a mixture of anger and embarrassment, and between the liquor, the conversation, and the sad, guilty twinge of Vasquez in the back of his mind, he felt sick.

The entire party watched warily as he approached, Emma Cullen narrow and suspicious, Teddy Q like he was about to expire of curiosity, Goodnight and Billy both with a sad sort of understanding that made Faraday feel like a cornered animal. Chisolm at least seemed fairly unconcerned, glancing up casually with the calm, measured eye of a man who doesn't care to meddle in the affairs of others.

"Everything all right?" he asked, placidly picking at a gritty slab of johnnycake halfway crumbled to pieces atop a pile of greasy red beans.

"Just goddamn keen," Faraday muttered darkly, beyond caring about the impropriety of swearing in front of a woman. He dropped down on one of the two empty blankets, not bothering to check and see whether it belonged to him or Vasquez, not that it mattered much. He laid out flat on his back, tipping his hat forward to cover his face and crossing his arms over his chest.

"Well," Goodnight murmured, thick with feigned affront. Faraday wondered vaguely if he was sharing one of those knowing smirks with Billy. It made his stomach twist, dark and covetous. A few seconds later a quiet, subdued chorus of sounds started up again as the group tucked into their evening meal.

There was the distant, bell-like ringing of spurs, the slow, measured fall of boot-heels in the dirt drawing gradually nearer, and then Chisolm inviting quietly, "Help yourself."

"Gracías," Vasquez rumbled, low but amiable. Faraday could feel him, shining like a beacon of light just a few feet away. He squeezed his eyes shut even harder, despite having his entire face under the cover of his hat, and dug his fingers into the meat of his arms to keep from reaching out.

There were some muted clanging sounds and then Vasquez settled on the other blanket, not quite close enough that he and Faraday were touching. He ate quietly, radiating calm and a low note of concern across the tie of their ribbon.

Faraday would never admit it aloud but having him there, a solid, steady presence between Faraday and the heavy, searching eyes of their compatriots, soothed most of the boiling anxiety in his gut. He sighed to himself, under the hat, and shifted a little, ostensibly to better situate himself over the rocky earth, though he made a point to press his thigh against Vasquez's knee as he settled.

Vasquez huffed a quiet, private laugh and leaned into it, just enough to assure Faraday that he had noticed. The ribbon gave off a soft, warm curl of fondness, undercut with the sweet twinge of apology. Faraday sighed again, letting it chase away the rest of the tension.

"Well, we are quite the motley party, aren't we?" Goodnight said affably across the fire. "Me a grey, Chisolm a blue. Billy, a mysterious man of the Orient. A Texican, a drunken Irishman. A female and her gentleman caller."

"No such thing as a Texican, cabrón," Vasquez corrected. "I'm Mexican."

Afloat on a rocking wave of whiskey and warm affection, Faraday snorted, amused despite himself. He was exhausted, sleep pulling at him from every angle, beckoning him down into the dark. Before he knew it he was drifting off, lulled by the thick rumble of Vasquez's voice as he bickered amiably with their fellows and the muted, distant crackling of the fire.

Chapter Text

Faraday didn’t dream often, usually too deep in the nearest rotgut he could stomach by the time he nodded off to do anything but pass into the calm, empty blackness of the thoroughly inebriated. Even so, he knew this couldn’t be real.

He was standing in the middle of the desert, nothing but open, empty sand and withered scrub as far as the eye could see. It was hot and arid and dusty, but there was something just slightly off about it – the sky too stark, the sun too bright, the air too still.

He blinked and suddenly his mother and Benji both were standing before him - his mother in a yellow gingham dress with tears streaming down her face, eyes puffy and red and sorrowful, while Benji gazed sadly on, stoic and disapproving in his dusky grey uniform, rifle at his side.

“I’m sorry,” his mother said miserably, her voice shaking. "I'm so sorry, baby."

Faraday tried to take a step forward, but a sharp, painful tug at his throat held him in place. He looked down at himself and saw that he was standing atop a high wooden platform, a square cut into the lumber all the way around his feet with a pair of rusty hinges at the back. He swallowed, unsettled, and realized belatedly that the pressure around his neck was a length of rope – bright and red like poppies – knotted at the other end around a beam so high overhead that it made Faraday dizzy to look at, stretching up and up and up into the flat blue sky.

“What is this?” he asked, confused.

His mother coughed a distraught sob and buried her face in her hands, too-thin frame wracked with sorrowful shudders. Benji put an arm around her shoulders, shushing her gently with little soothing noises, and pinned Faraday with a hard-eyed stare.

“Shouldn’ta let it happen,” Benji said, sad and resigned, shaking his head. He was twenty, same as he had been the last time Faraday saw him alive, but from this distance he looked desiccated - skin wan, cheeks sharp and grey, deep hollows pushing his eyes back into his face. “It’s gonna kill you, kid.”

“What?” Faraday asked again. He felt hazy and delirious, like he’d been in the sun too long without water, his entire body shaking. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, my baby,” his mother wailed, clutching at her handkerchief. It was dotted with crimson, stark and grotesque against the simple cream lace. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

“I don’t understand,” Faraday breathed, shaking his head. "What do you mean?”

He tried to move forward again, choking at the tug of the rope holding him in place. Realization flared hot in his mind, and he reached up and pulled at it, trying to work his fingers underneath though it sat flush to his skin.

"I'll take it off," he said desperately. He looked to his mother. "Ma, I'll take it off! I swear I will!"

Her face quivered, tears streaming down her cheeks. She sucked a breath and wailed. Even from this distance Faraday could see that the inside of her mouth was red, thick and bright and terrible, coating her tongue, her lips, her teeth.

He turned to Benji, scrabbling desperately at the rope.

"Ben! Benji, help me take it off!"

“Too late for that, kid,” Benji said with a melancholy shake of his head, standing tall and proud and skeletal. He had a medal pinned on his breast, its gleaming face made all the brighter by the dark burgundy stains pooling out through the thick grey wool of his coat. “'S gonna kill you. Kill you stone dead."

There came a sudden, horrified noise off to his right and Faraday turned, a yawning pit opening up in the bottom of his stomach.

Vasquez was standing a little way off in the brush, his face an ashen mask of shock and horror. Faraday’s chest clenched, cold and painful, as he was suddenly plunged into a twisting whirlwind of fear, roaring across their ribbon so ferociously that he worried it might snap under the strain.

“Guero,” Vasquez barked, terrified and frantic. He surged forward through the brittle grass, reaching out for Faraday with both hands. “Guero, no!

Faraday shook his head, once, vision blurring and eyes stinging hot. He opened his mouth - to cry out, to apologize, he wasn't quite sure what. The distance between them seemed to stretch and expand, like they were submerged in a slowly sprawling ribbon of molasses. As Vasquez shrank smaller and smaller, pushing madly forward through the scrub like a wild thing, the hinges creaked at his back, loud and damning. Faraday sank into the frigid torrent of fear, consumed by the tempest.

He was suspended in space for a long, frozen second as the world dropped out from underneath him.

Faraday fell.

The rope pulled taut.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Vasquez didn't come awake so much as he was catapulted viciously into consciousness, jolting halfway to a seated position before he realized that the whirlwind of terror ravaging his chest didn't belong to him.

Faraday had turned toward him in the night, face barely a few inches away, one hand tucked under his cheek against the rough-hewn blanket, the other curled loosely over the wrist where Vasquez sported his lazo. His brow was furrowed, copper hair dark where he was sweating at his temples, whole body twitching and quivering as he made soft, pained noises in the back of his throat, obviously trapped in the throes of some phantom horror.

It was miserably early – the stars not yet faded from the sky – and a quick glance confirmed that the rest of their misfit troupe was still out cold for the moment, the entire camp washed in the dirty grey light of dawn. Vasquez wouldn't venture that most of them were very deep sleepers, and had enough sense besides to know that his ligado wouldn't take kindly to rousing them all with his ruckus, tacitly inviting their attention to his person. He could barely abide having an honest conversation with Vasquez without tangling himself up in that dark temper; fielding the doubtlessly selfish curiosities of their traveling companions would snarl him so thoroughly that it would take weeks to unknot, and based on what little Vasquez knew about their mission so far, assuming that they had that kind of time seemed foolishly optimistic.

Gently, carefully, so as not to startle him any further, Vasquez reached out and brushed his knuckles against the rough edge of Faraday's jaw.

"Guero," he murmured quietly. "Wake up."

Faraday whimpered - a small, pitiful sound that made Vasquez's stomach clench - his entire body shuddering under Vasquez's hand. His fingers twitched against Vasquez's wrist in a brief flurry of motion, but he didn't wake.

"Despiértate, cariño," Vasquez continued softly, shifting a little closer. He dared to brush his fingers through the short, soft curls above Faraday's ear; the same soothing strokes his mother had used to rouse him from bad dreams when he was very small. "Come on, guero. Wake up for me."

Faraday twitched again, going still for a frozen second before an explosive burst of fear came roaring across their lazo as he startled awake with a gasp.

His green eyes were wide and shocked, gaze darting around wildly, chest heaving. He grabbed desperately at the nearest thing to him, fisting his hands in the fabric of Vasquez's vest like he was about to throw a punch.

Though Vasquez had long established that his ligado's emotions were tempestuous by nature, the rush of terror was more overwhelming than he’d expected, sudden and wickedly sharp-edged, brutally strong. Vasquez instinctively curled a hand around the back of Faraday's neck, shoving the bandana up and out of the way, seeking his lazo and the immediate comfort he knew it could provide.

Faraday reeled back, eyes darting unseeingly into the hazy darkness, gaze caught somewhere beyond this plane of existence. His grip twitched convulsively against Vasquez's chest. Vasquez held tight, tugging him closer and murmuring gentle reassurances as his fingers brushed over that thin red line.

The moment he made contact there was a distant echo - something warm and bright glittering in the eye of the monstrous, heaving storm of terror. Faraday choked out a tiny, clipped noise of distress and collapsed forward, burying his face against Vasquez's collarbone, gasping.

"You're awake, guero," Vasquez soothed, running his hand up the back of Faraday's neck, over the lazo and into his hair, and then back down again. "Everything is okay. You're awake."

Faraday didn’t respond. He was lying half on top of Vasquez, entire body trembling, breathing loud and harsh through his open mouth with his eyes screwed tightly shut. Vasquez risked a glance at the rest of their group – he thought Chisolm might be awake, something unnatural to the stillness of his sprawl, though if he was then he was good enough to grant them the illusion of privacy by feigning otherwise; the rest had shifted a bit at the commotion but remained blessedly lost to consciousness on the other side of the lowly glowing embers of the fire.

He ran his hand up and down in long, soothing strokes, lazy and gentle. Faraday made little desperate noises in the back of his throat every time Vasquez’s fingers passed over his lazo - the need in them, the frantic edge of terror, was like a blow to the gut each time.

“It was just a dream, guerito,” Vasquez breathed, cheek pressed against Faraday’s hair. "Sólo una pesadilla." He shifted his free arm, ringing it around Faraday’s shoulders and pulling him in close, tucked up against the line of his body. Faraday sighed - a shaky, rattling gust of breath - and went tense for a long second before he leaned into it, curling against Vasquez like he wanted nothing more than to crawl inside of him.

The steady hum of fear still ricocheted across their lazo in shivering fits, though it seemed to be ebbing some as Vasquez murmured gently to him. It was obvious, even without their shared bond, that no small part of Faraday desired the comfort of other people with a desperation bordering on painful, though he insisted on denying himself for reasons Vasquez didn’t pretend to understand. Some animal instinct made Vasquez immeasurably glad to have the opportunity to provide his ligado even a little of that reassurance, although he wished it hadn't come about only after Faraday had been made pliable by the battering force of his fear.

“Sorry,” Faraday breathed, so quietly that Vasquez almost didn’t hear him. His voice was rough with sleep, slurred at the edges in a way that Vasquez was learning to associate with the calming effect of his touch on Faraday’s lazo, akin to the loose slip of a drunken tongue, but muzzier, thicker.

“No te preocupes,” Vasquez replied. “Nothing to apologize for.”

Faraday huffed a bitter little laugh.

“Man acts like a fool coward, that deserves a word or two of repent,” he said darkly.

Vasquez sighed through his nose, tilting his face so that he could press his mouth to the crown of Faraday’s head, not quite a kiss but close enough to beg inquiry should his ligado’s mood prove dark enough to raise the issue. Faraday swallowed, his entire body tensing at the contact, and didn’t say anything.

“Don’t see any cowards here,” Vasquez shrugged. “Just men.” He considered for a moment, before adding, “Some horses. A widow I would not care to cross.”

Faraday laughed again, still subdued, though at least this was a sound of actual mirth rather than one of self-rebuke. They laid together in silence for a few moments, Faraday closing his eyes again and shifting the barest inch closer, putting himself nearly in Vasquez’s lap.

“Didn’t mean to wake you,” Faraday murmured absently, breathing in time with the steady pace of Vasquez’s touch.

“Way I remember it, I woke you, guero,” Vasquez said, amused.

“Still,” Faraday breathed, tilting his head so that Vasquez could reach more of his neck, drowsy and complacent. Emboldened by the uncharacteristic gentleness in his ligado, and not certain when he might get another opportunity, Vasquez ducked his head and brushed his lips against Faraday’s temple. Faraday made a little humming noise that Vasquez couldn’t quite identify, but stayed contentedly in place.

He was warm and strong in Vasquez’s arms, the familiar musk of the trail – tobacco, and sweat, and the faint scent of horse – cut through with the bitter, astringent tang of liquor on his breath. Vasquez sighed and closed his eyes, keen to lie there for a while longer, even if it meant risking his ligado’s wrath when the rest of their party finally roused.

“’S dreamin’ about my brother,” Faraday mumbled, out of nowhere. Vasquez blinked down at him, the shadows cut into his face by the thin light of the sun just beginning to bleed out over the edge of the horizon.

He looked half on the verge of sleep, eyes shut, hands curled gently against Vasquez’s chest, head on Vasquez’s shoulder.

“What, guero?” he asked softly, running his thumb across Faraday’s lazo and thrilling a little at the way Faraday shivered.

“My brother,” Faraday murmured again, sighing. Vasquez felt his eyebrows jump, tucked that bit of information away for discussion when Faraday was closer to consciousness. “An’ my ma. Y’were there, too.”

“Oh?”

“Mmhm,” Faraday assured. Vasquez brushed another quick, fleeting kiss to his temple.

“What was I doing?” he asked against Faraday’s hair.

“Tried to save me,” his ligado murmured, body going slack and heavy, teetering on the edge of slumber.

Vasquez frowned, keeping up the light, sweeping passes of his fingers over Faraday’s lazo, unwilling to risk the return of his ligado’s turbulent fear should he stop.

“Save you from what, guero?”

“Noose. Didn’t work,” Faraday said, and then sighed - a tiny little sound of pleasure – and patted his palm sluggishly against Vasquez’s chest. “Sweet, though. ‘s good.”

“Your noose?” Vasquez pressed, curious.

“Diffr’nt one,” Faraday mumbled. “Rope. Hanged me.”

A hard, cold weight settled just below Vasquez’s ribs. Faraday made a face, wrinkling his nose in displeasure, and shook his head without opening his eyes, cheek rubbing against Vasquez’s chest.

“S’okay,” he sighed, running his thumb back and forth across Vasquez’s vest. “Don’ be upset.”

Vasquez tightened his grip a little and curled the whole of his palm across Faraday’s lazo, trying to swallow down the painful pang in his chest. Faraday squirmed and shifted to get comfortable again, sighing warm against Vasquez’s throat.

“No one is going to hang you, guero,” he promised. Faraday huffed, a hot little gust of breath.

“Okay,” he agreed easily, already lost to sleep. Vasquez could feel the warm contentment of slumber drifting like a summer breeze across their lazo.

There was a saying his grandmother had used all throughout his childhood, about a cat, once scalded, always running from water even when it was cold and posed no threat. He was beginning to develop some notions about precisely who had burned his ligado in the past, and he didn’t particularly care for the direction his suspicions were angling. A sharp jolt of anger sparked in his gut and Faraday shifted, grumbling softly.

Vasquez rested his cheek against Faraday’s hair, hushing him gently, doing his best to tamp down on everything but the low ember of affection that his ligado unwittingly stoked every time he so much as smirked. After awhile, Faraday started snoring, wheezing quietly with his mouth half-open against Vasquez’s chest.

Vasquez lay awake for a long while, staring thoughtfully into the sky until the sun had driven all the darkness of night far beyond the distant mountains.

 

 

 


 

 

 

“I believe that bear was wearin' people’s clothes,” Faraday said slowly as Jack Horne's ursine form lumbered off into the woods. Although apparently not interested in their little crusade he was just as impressive as the legends promised, even if his self-imposed exile seemed to have driven him a few steps beyond humanity.

Behind him, Vasquez snorted around the stalk of grass he'd been chewing on for the better part of ten minutes, nudging his knee gently against Faraday's shoulder. He'd been hovering all morning, since Faraday had woken in the early sun, mortified to discover that he’d retreated to Vasquez’s embrace in the wake of that strange, terrible dream. Thankfully none of the others had stirred yet, giving Faraday ample opportunity to create some plausible distance though he’d been perhaps less kind than he ought to have been when he shrugged Vasquez off and stalked down toward the creek alone under the guise of freshening up.

He was having trouble shaking that dream, jumpy and frantic and balking a little at the way Vasquez wasn’t willing to venture further than ten feet from him, though he was still rattled, haunted by faces he hadn't thought on in years beyond the occasional wistful, nostalgic twist of memory. Vasquez's steady affection helped temper the gnawing sense of dread in his belly and soothe the feverish, jittery all-overs he'd gotten from diving so deep into the bottle the night before.

The vaquero offered him a hand up and he took it with a sigh, letting the other man pull him to his feet while their party milled about, slightly dispirited by the first refusal they’d experienced thus far.

Goodnight was passing a cigarette back and forth with Billy, who had already climbed into his saddle, the skunky tobacco they preferred wreathing their faces in thin white tendrils. Chisolm, meanwhile, was toeing absently at the corpse of the mouthier Pigeon brother, Teddy Q hovering awkwardly at his shoulder.

"What're we gonna do now?" Teddy asked, uncertain and the most obviously disheartened by Horne's reluctance to join them.

Emma Cullen had already mounted her horse as well. She didn’t appear to be personally offended by Horne’s dismissal, other cheek already turned, no doubt eager to return home and set up the defenses for which she had employed them all. She was considering the body of the other Pigeon brother from a distance, mouth puckered in distaste.

"Keep on as we originally intended," Chisolm said placidly.

"Even without your friend?" Teddy asked. Chisolm nodded and scrubbed a hand over his jaw.

"Bit of a long shot, anyway," he admitted. "But worth the detour if he'd been of a mind to come. Worth it, even so, I expect."

"You okay, guero?"

Faraday jumped, startled by Vasquez's voice, low and near. He glanced over, and Vasquez arched an expectant eyebrow.

"Not that I mind," Vasquez continued easily, grinning, "but this morning you were of a much fouler temper about these kinds of things."

Faraday frowned.

"What the hell are you talking about?"

There was a gentle pressure against his fingers and he looked down, face flushing with embarrassment when he realized he was still holding onto Vasquez's hand. He dropped it like it was a hot coal, taking an awkward, stilted step away. Vasquez smirked at him, amusement coiling across their ribbon, warm and fond, and clicked his tongue.

"Am I really so bad, guerito?" Vasquez asked, teasing. "What is it? Hands too rough?"

"Shut up," Faraday grumbled, wiping his palm against his thigh. Vasquez snorted and shook his head, tapping the toe of his boot against Faraday's.

"You're lucky I'm not easily offended, mijo," he murmured, low.

Faraday swallowed and hesitantly reached out to brush his fingers over the hem of Vasquez's sleeve where it covered his ribbon.

"If you were," he said quietly, "I sincerely doubt this would have happened."

"Probably so," Vasquez agreed with a little huff of laughter. He tapped their boots together again, pressing the barest inch forward into Faraday's space, careful and wary. "You are sure you're okay?"

"I'm fine," Faraday snapped, immediate and instinctual. Vasquez arched an eyebrow at him, and Faraday sighed, deflating a little. He frowned, making a show of collecting his hat from the weatherworn planks beneath their feet as he admitted hesitantly, "Just tired."

"You want to talk about it?" Vasquez pressed, tone gentle, concern brushing across Faraday's shoulders like a distant breeze. He swallowed, thick, and shook his head in a short, quick tilt. Vasquez made a low noise of concern, reaching across the minimal distance between them to nudge his fingers against Faraday's. "If it will help - "

"No," Faraday said instantly, head whipping back up and taking a startled step away. A low flare of hurt licked across the ribbon, concern rising to a steady wind. He could hear Benji's words, last curse of a dead man, ringing in his ears. He shook his head and repeated, voice little more than a dusty creak out of his dry throat, "No."

"Okay, guero," Vasquez said easily. "If you change your mind - "

It made something lurch deep in the pit of Faraday's belly. Unless worked up to a lather by external forces, Vasquez was relentlessly calm, every emotion he carried in him steady despite his vicious edge. It was maddening. It made Faraday feel like something wild and untamed, a wolf cavorting with farm dogs, mean and made stupid by his temper, longing for that same, easy simplicity.

Not, a low, dangerous voice murmured deep in the back of his mind, that it would be wise to mistake his soul-mate for anything quite so tame.

"I won't," he muttered, sharp and clipped. "So quit asking." He turned on his heel and took off into the grass without sparing a second glance to the man beside him.

Irritation rolled across their bond, dark and looming like distant storm clouds.

Good, Faraday thought nastily, shooting a sharp, pointed barb of bitter satisfaction directly back as he settled his hat on, more forcefully than was probably necessary. He unslung Jack's reins with brutal efficiency and swung a leg over.

"Where to next, o mighty leader?" He asked, smirking when Chisolm cut him a sharp glance.

"Rose Creek," he said, wiping his palms against his slacks and ambling toward his dark steed, "or nearabouts as we can get before nightfall."

Faraday nodded, surprised.

"Don't sound too difficult," he drawled, pointedly not paying attention to where Vasquez, atop his ridiculous white gelding, had drawn up alongside him, all banked exasperation and dark glower.

Chisolm huffed to himself, amused, as he hopped easily into the saddle.

"Lotta unkind country between here and there," he said, tilting his head at Faraday, just this side of condescending. "'Bout an hour or so, we'll see if you feel the same."

Beside him, Emma smirked, narrow-eyed and mean, like she had a secret.

A little flare of excitement bloomed in Faraday's belly, an echo of the same sparking in Vasquez.

Despite the argument humming between them, Faraday couldn't help but dart a glance over, grinning when he found Vasquez already smirking at him. The ghastly pall of his nightmare still clung to his shoulders, exhaustion and post-liquor jitters buzzing in the back of his head like some horrible descending swarm alongside Vasquez's exasperation, but now there was a bright light in the distance - one that promised excitement, adventure, and, if Faraday was lucky, no small amount of violence for him to sate his frustrations with.

"Let's get movin'," Chisolm instructed, casting a last, disdainful glance at the cooling corpses of the Pigeon brothers. "Wastin' daylight millin' around with this pitiful lot."

 

 

 


 

 

 

Indian territory, Faraday thought darkly, peering at the spiny wooden structures raising the dead reverently up toward the empty blue plane of the sky. The spires had every single one of them on edge, Vasquez a twisting snarl of nerves at the back of Faraday's mind. Even the normally unflappable Chisolm was darting quick, suspicious glances at passing shadows and soft, distant scuffling in the thin brush.

Faraday was toward the tail end of their meandering line of horses, Vasquez riding next to him and just barely further ahead, hovering despite the irritation he'd been nursing since they left the Pigeon brothers rotting in the woods hours before. His face was somber, the line of his shoulders tense. Even so, Faraday considered - trying to focus on something other than the gloomy rattle of leather-strung beads and feathers twisting in the breeze overhead - he was handsome.

Faraday had been caught up in his head most of the afternoon, trapped in his own miserable memories and shakily sweating out all the whiskey he'd consumed the night before. He was mulishly refusing to speak to Vasquez more than was strictly necessary and lacked the social lubricant of alcohol required to make the rest of his traveling company more palatable, not that he particularly cared to converse with any of them.

Goodnight and Billy seemed to have an interesting story, though neither of them seemed especially inclined to share any part of it. Emma Cullen wore hers like armor, every gleaming plate of it on display already. Teddy Q was too young, too new to be really interesting, and didn't care for Faraday besides, as far as he could tell. Sam Chisolm was the likeliest of all of them to be worth talking to, but Faraday had a feeling in his gut that in any conversation he was involved with, Chisolm always came out with more information than he'd offered, which wasn't a set of variables Faraday liked.

Vasquez, at least, was affable enough most of the time, though Faraday's pride stilled his tongue whenever he considered instigating a dialogue.

He wondered absently what his mother would have thought of Vasquez. She hadn't been especially devout, and though her opinions on soul-mates had been less than favorable, he thought she might have appreciated his sly humor, his slightly rangy good looks.

Benji would have hated him, Faraday thought, snorting to himself. Always trying to climb the ladder of social standing, so concerned with propriety, there was little doubt in Faraday's mind about what his opinion on the matter would have been. The lover's noose alone would've sent him into fits, never mind the fact that Faraday's soul-mate was another man. They probably would have had a brawl about it, and though there was no way to be certain, Faraday suspected he'd grown up just a little bigger than Benji would have been.

"What's so funny, guero?" Vasquez murmured, glancing back at him. Faraday shook his head and Vasquez rolled his eyes, returning his attention to the looming mesas above them.

Though the dream sat stark and desolate in his mind, the subsequent moments of latching onto Vasquez for comfort were hazy and dim. Faraday thought he remembered Vasquez kissing him, tender and sweet on the temple, but he couldn't be sure. The idea of it made his stomach twist in a funny sort of way.

He'd never lain with a man before, hadn't even stopped to consider it until Vasquez had ridden into town and shot Earl Babbington dead for antagonizing Faraday without even asking a single question. He studied the lean line of Vasquez's back, the breadth of his shoulders. He had big hands, Faraday knew from the way they fit around his neck whenever he allowed Vasquez to touch his ribbon. He wondered what it would feel like to have those hands wrapped around his wrists, his hips. A little, hot flare jumped low in his gut, and up ahead Vasquez turned around in his saddle, surprised and smirking.

Faraday glared at him, face heating. Vasquez's smirk widened to a grin, smug and wolfish.

"What?" Faraday snapped. Vasquez snorted, slowing his horse a little and falling into line next to Faraday.

"I think you know what, guerito," he said, quiet and dark.

Faraday swallowed, thick, and Vasquez gave him a long look, eyes trailing from Faraday's face, down his body, and back up again. Faraday bristled, hunching his shoulders and scowling, letting the hot pulse of his temper flare across their ribbon. Vasquez smirked and clicked his tongue.

"One day, guero," he said, leaning in, his voice a deep rumble, full of promise, "I'm not going to be so patient with you."

That low, sharp heat sparked in Faraday's belly and Vasquez took a deep breath, eyes dark and glittering, predatory.

"One day," Faraday grumbled back, embarrassed and irritated with a mild headache thumping at his temples, "you'll find out just how dirty I can fight."

A bright bolt of want lit behind Faraday's sternum. Vasquez grinned, unapologetic, when Faraday glowered at him for it and dug his heels into Jack's sides, spurring him forward and pretending he couldn't feel the warm weight of Vasquez's gaze on his back as they wended their way out of that godforsaken valley.

By the time they made camp, Faraday's all-overs had crossed the line from a nuisance to a problem, head pounding, body shaking, sweating like he had a fever. He was sitting despondently on a blanket with his elbows perched on his knees, Vasquez laying flat out beside him with his hat over his face, snoring. He had offered Faraday comfort by way of his ribbon when they first stopped, but Faraday had refused, unwilling to risk tilting his hand in their present company. Vasquez had given it up as a bad job, obviously irritated by Faraday's obstinance but willing to allow him the choice and what little dignity there was in it.

Faraday had drank some water, forced down a few mouthfuls of glutinous red beans and johnnycake before settling miserably a little way off from the fire, watching it hop and crack while Vasquez dozed. Goodnight and Chisolm were conversing quietly at enough of a distance that Faraday couldn't even hazard a guess as to the contents of their chat.

Billy Rocks was cleaning one of his many, many deeply unsettling blades while Emma Cullen reclined drowsily next to her compatriot, wrapped around a hunting rifle like a child with a favorite toy. Faraday pulled his deck of cards from his pocket, shuffling a few times and trying to amuse himself by summoning various cards from its depths, though the trick had long lost its novelty.

The third time that he pulled the Jack of clubs to the surface, Teddy Q mercifully conjured a bottle of deep caramel spirits from the confines of his coat, unstopping it with a squeak and tossing back a pitiful mouthful. Faraday considered for a long moment before carefully tucking his deck away, gathering up a pebble, and flicking it at the kid's shoulder.

Teddy turned, confused and irritated, but crawled hesitantly over when Faraday nodded an invitation.

"You a soldier?" he asked.

Teddy shook his head, darting a suspicious glance at Faraday as he murmured, "No sir."

"Ah," Faraday said, surprised. "Y'see I ask because you've got this," he tapped a finger against the handle of Teddy's gun where it protruded from its well-loved holster, "Army issue Colt at your belt. You know how to shoot it?"

Teddy lifted one shoulder in a recalcitrant shrug.

"Reckon so, if I needed to."

"If you needed to," Faraday echoed with a huff, ghost of a smile pulling at his mouth, memory thrust back into a similar conversation a lifetime ago, when he'd been younger than Teddy even and twice as sure he knew the ways of the world. "Tell you what. For a sip of your whiskey," he tilted his head toward the bottle Teddy had loosely grasped in his fist, "I'll give you a shooting lesson. How's that?"

Teddy hesitated, cutting a glance back to where Emma was watching them like a viper, narrow and mistrustful, coiled up and waiting for an invitation to strike.

"You got family?" Faraday pressed. Teddy shook his head.

"No sir. Not really."

"Got a soul-mate?" He glanced to Teddy's hands, fingers bare, had seen him with his sleeves rolled up high enough to know that there was no ribbon cut into them, either. Teddy hunched his shoulders, swallowing nervously, that silly red scarf of his bobbing with the motion.

"Don't reckon that's any business of yours, Mister Faraday," he said sharply. He paused and added quietly, "No disrespect, an' all."

A niggling idea in the back of Faraday's mind tumbled, shifted, and locked into place.

Oh, he thought. Oh you poor bastard. He held his hands up, appeasing, and flashed his most winsome smile.

"Ain't tryin' to be impolite, kid," he said gently. "Just figure if you do, you might wanna live long enough to meet 'em is all."

Teddy considered him for a long moment, gaze hard and mistrustful, before hesitantly offering up his whiskey. Faraday grinned and accepted it graciously, knocking back a shot with his pinkie extended - genteel like - before setting it to the side and producing his deck of cards.

The most meaningful skill that Faraday had ever learned was the art of misdirection. It had gotten him out of - and, admittedly, into - more trouble than he could rightly measure. With the airs he wore like a well-starched shirt, Faraday would bet his hand that nobody had ever taught Teddy Q the value of fighting dirty, and if the poor kid was damned the way Faraday suspected, the way Faraday himself had been, Lord knew it was a lesson he desperately needed.

He set his hands to dancing, kept his voice low and serious, intimate, lulling Teddy and drawing him in until that split second where Teddy's focus paid out, and he snatched the card from Faraday's hand. His proud smirk lasted for all of a blink before the loud click of the hammer registered, Faraday's little snub-nosed revolver staring him in the face. It was empty, at the moment, but Teddy didn't need to know that. All Teddy needed to know was that he had been so focused on the obvious that he missed the real danger.

"Lesson two," Faraday said darkly, taking extra care to move slow, Emma and Chisolm both leaned up and watching him, "it was never about the cards."

Teddy swallowed, gaze trained on the barrel of the little revolver, and Faraday tucked the hammer back down, slid it into his waistband.

"Now," he continued grandiosely, taking another swig from Teddy's bottle, "for lesson three."

"You know what?" Teddy interrupted, face dark and embarrassed. "Why don't you keep that, Mister Faraday. I think you need it more'n I do."

Faraday stared at him for a second.

"I think I will," he agreed easily.

Teddy Q shook his head, turned and clambered gracelessly down the craggy little hill, settling sullenly beside Emma Cullen, who shot Faraday a glare so frigid he swore he could feel the icy gust of it on his face. Faraday himself settled against the rock at his back, taking another slug of whiskey and turning his gaze back toward the fire. The kid's pride was wounded, sure, and he probably thought Faraday little more than a two-bit charlatan, but he would remember, and that was the point.

Vasquez, apparently roused by the conversation or the commotion, tilted his hat back and peered up at Faraday through the dark.

"That was a good thing you tried to do," he murmured, voice hoarse with sleep. Faraday shrugged, cast him a weak smirk.

"Maybe I just wanted his whiskey," he said slowly, taking another pull off the bottle. "Bit of a drunk, you know."

Vasquez snorted and reached out to pat Faraday's thigh with his hand, ribbon bright around his wrist.

"Lot of a drunk," he corrected, letting his palm stay splayed across Faraday's thigh, absently tapping his thumb, "But a good one, I think."

Faraday shrugged again, and didn't say anything. Vasquez studied him for a long moment.

"You think he is like you?"

He said it so quietly that Faraday almost couldn't hear him, and there was more than enough distance between the two of them and the rest of their merry band to ensure that it didn't travel, but Faraday still darted a cautious glance over just in case. Teddy was hunched in his jacket, scowling into the fire while Emma rested beside him with her eyes closed, fingers too tight around her rifle to be asleep yet but putting on a good show of it even so.

"Maybe," Faraday admitted. Vasquez hummed, thoughtful, and shook his head a little.

"I think, no," he said. Faraday smirked at him, curious.

"How do you figure?"

Vasquez shrugged, ran his thumb along Faraday's thigh.

"He is here," he said simply. "Maybe he has a lazo in the same place, but if he were like you he would have gone already, would have had to go, no? You said it was painful to stay."

"Oh," Faraday frowned. "But, I would swear, with the scarf -" He trailed off and shook his head. Maybe the dream was just getting to him. Maybe he was just jumping at shadows.

"You're not listening to me, cariño," Vasquez chastised gently. He reached for Faraday's left hand with his right, tangling their fingers together where they would be hidden in the shadowed alcove between their bodies. "Maybe he has a - a noose, but if he does, it is not like yours."

Faraday shook his head, brow furrowing.

"That don't make sense," he muttered. Vasquez sighed and ran his thumb across Faraday's knuckles, soothing.

"Guero, you remember I told you about my mamá, sí?"

Faraday nodded.

"She was like you," he said, heavy and deliberate, dark meaningful gaze trained on Faraday's face. "She felt her lazo the same way you feel yours, and my family has worn the lazo on our wrists for generations." He squeezed Faraday's hand, gentle and reassuring. "Maybe Teddy wears his lazo in the same place, but his is not like yours. Couldn't be, or he wouldn't have made it this far."

"Huh." Faraday said, for lack of anything better to offer. His whole brain felt empty, full of nothing but white fluff, stomach twisting sourly.

"Guero, no," Vasquez murmured soothingly, ducking his head and brushing his lips against the back of Faraday's hand. Faraday startled and tried to jerk away, but Vasquez held tight, shaking his head. "Is no - " he sighed, lying back down and scrubbing his free hand over his face.

Faraday swallowed and tried very hard not to think of how warm Vasquez's mouth had been.

"You know how to shoot," Vasquez said suddenly, staring expectantly up at him. Faraday barked a laugh.

"I'd damn well say so," he agreed. Vasquez grinned at him.

"But you learned this," he continued. "You didn't wake up one day and know."

"Yeah," Faraday hedged. "And?"

"For most, the lazo is this way. You learn, over time. For some," here he squeezed Faraday's hand again, turned that soft, dark gaze up on him, "they wake up, and they know."

Faraday licked his lips, throat suddenly gone dry.

"Who told you that?" He asked thinly. Vasquez seemed surprised by his question.

"My mamá, papá, my abuelita, the schoolteacher." He shrugged. "In my village, everybody knows."

"Didn't have a lot of formal schooling," Faraday admitted quietly. He knew there were gaps in his knowledge, things that didn't come as easily to him as they ought to most grown men, others that he had learned that the many unfortunate fellows he had met over the years would likely never encounter.

Again, Vasquez pressed a kiss to Faraday's knuckles, turning his head into the shadow between them.

"I'm not attracted to you for your brain, guero," he teased, leering up through the dark. Faraday laughed and, feeling bold, dragged his thumb across the line of Vasquez's ribbon.

Vasquez sucked a breath, body going tight for a second before he let it out in a long, slow sigh, eyes hooded.

"What does it feel like?" Faraday asked thickly.

"Good," Vasquez replied immediately. Faraday did it again and he let his eyes fall closed, breathing deep.

"So you do feel it."

Vasquez snorted.

"Of course I do," he scoffed. Faraday ran his thumb across the ribbon again and Vasquez made a small, contented noise in the back of his throat. When he opened his eyes again they were narrow and gleaming. "Just because I don't feel it like you yet, doesn't mean I don't feel it."

"Yet?" Faraday pressed. He shifted his grip, wrapped his whole hand around Vasquez's wrist, his entire ribbon covered by Faraday's palm.

Vasquez shivered, and cut Faraday a dark, meaningful gaze.

"Yet," he repeated.

Faraday took another sip of whiskey, keeping his left hand curled firmly around Vasquez's wrist, and settled down with the rock at his back. His headache was fading under the judicious application of Teddy's hard-lost booze, and Vasquez was sprawled out beside him, long and lean like a big, drowsy cat.

"You know," Vasquez murmured gruffly, "I tell you my stories. About the bounty, about my mamá." He cracked an eye open, peering teasingly up at Faraday. "You don't tell me your stories."

Faraday considered this for a moment, tilting his head.

"Yet," he promised with a smirk.

Vasquez grinned, wide and wild in the dancing light of the fire.

"Well," Goodnight opined quietly from across the fire, "we have heard the chimes of midnight," as off in the distance, warbling strains of coyote song wailed into the dark.

Chapter Text

Lord, but Sam Chisolm did have a flair for the dramatic, Faraday thought, making his way around the building as quietly as he could. The Blackstone agents were eating out of the palm of his hand, every addle-headed one of them drawn into the spectacle so deeply that they didn’t notice the wolves fanning out around them.

There was a low current of adrenaline buzzing beneath his skin – half of it his, left over from the rude awakening that morning, Jack Horne creeping down the mountainside while an honest-to-God Comanche came up through the scrub like a phantom out of the mist, and half of it belonging to Vasquez, a bright, vicious glee at the prospect of putting those flashy pistols of his to use.

He could feel his soul-mate carving his own path on the other side of the clustered buildings, making his way to the position that Chisolm had laid out for them before wandering into the city with nought but Billy Rocks’s quick hands at his back. It was strange, and reassuring in a way, to be able to pinpoint an ally so precisely without even needing to look, to know the exact measure of the distance between them with barely a thought.

Faraday let himself quietly up onto the porch ringing the building, walking casually so as not to draw attention from anyone inside. He couldn’t tell from the back what it was, but there was enough noise emanating from within to merit extra caution. All of his senses felt punched up, skin prickling all down his back, warm curl of excitement settling low in his belly. It was a rush unlike even the best bluff – pitting your own skills against those of another man and gambling that you’d come out ahead when death was on the line – and Faraday was betting Vasquez’s hand alongside his own, which pushed the stakes higher yet.

Across their ribbon, Vasquez echoed that same, eager burn.

Chisolm gave the signal and Faraday stepped out, sauntering casually around to the front of the building, footfalls heavy on the wooden planks beneath his boots. He leaned his shoulder against the wall, hips cocked, with a hand on his pistol. Across the wide road, Vasquez posted one leg up on the base of a column, chewing on a half-smoked cigarillo, looking every inch the predatory outlaw.

After a few moments of posturing and exposition – into which Faraday couldn’t help tossing a little quip, rewarded for his candor by a flutter of amusement from Vasquez – Red Harvest dropped the first body off of a roof and skewered the other with an arrow. There was a moment of still, weighted silence, and then all hell broke loose.

The first handful of rapid gunshots lit Faraday up like firecrackers, every round a glorious pulse of triumph. The air in front of him went hot and thick, gritty with bursts of black powder as he pounded the hammer back, angling for the fellows on the porch overhead. Behind him, Vasquez was prowling among the throng, a tilting needle to Faraday’s magnetic north. He must have landed a particularly good hit because there was a sudden, visceral rush of satisfaction that swept over Faraday in an all-consuming wave, lighting up his belly and making his head spin. He heaved a breath and stared into the middle distance, overwhelmed, frozen for a precious, desperate second.

There was the roar of a gunshot at his back and Faraday flinched, head breaking over top of the current. He turned to see a bearded stranger fall to his knees, rifle in hand, grasping at a bloom of red spreading out across his chest. He flicked his eyes over and found Chisolm watching him, wary and questioning. Faraday nodded his thanks and Chisolm reflected the gesture, turning to stalk into the street.

It was loud and brutal and thrilling – the world around them buckling and refracting into waves of sound and motion and sharp-edged color. Faraday fired, and fired, and fired, ducking around a corner every now and again to reload. He could feel Vasquez around him the entire time, struggled to maintain control in the face of his soul-mate’s exuberant glee, found himself laughing aloud at the sensation when it fizzed between his ribs.

At one point they came together in the middle of the street, back to back, Vasquez a warm and comforting presence for a split second before they broke apart to ferret out the rest of the Blackstone ilk hidden away in the shaded nooks and corners of Rose Creek. Horne threw one man through a window, tackled another off of a horse, Red Harvest making pincushions out of anyone foolish enough to try and escape.

Faraday turned, filled out to the edges of his being with monstrous delight, and found Goodnight Robicheaux twisting in the street. His eyes were wild and rolling, like a gun-shy horse. He had his rifle held uselessly in front of him, both his hands white-knuckled around the barrel. Trouble with his gun, maybe, though something about it brought Faraday’s hackles to a slow rise.

He picked off one, two approaching Blackstones, jumping back and out of the way when the chatty bastard from earlier thundered past on the back of an unfamiliar mount. Goodnight startled as the Blackstone clattered by, sweat pouring off of him, blinking like he was seeing something he couldn’t quite believe.

Faraday drew up behind him as the Blackstone made a break through the gate for the long plains, measuring the distance in his mind. He knew he was handy with a pistol, but there was no chance he was landing a hit at this distance.

“Take the shot,” he instructed, looming over Goodnight’s shoulder. The Cajun raised his rifle, lined it up. Faraday noted absently that his hands were shaking, and a dark ripple of doubt flared up underneath the vicious joy of the conflict. He narrowed his eyes and said it again. “Take the shot.”

Goodnight sucked a breath, steadied himself. The Blackstone was so far off now that any chance Faraday might have had to nail him was gone out the window. He’d heard all the stories though, and a distance like that ought to be chickenfeed for the Angel of Death.

Still, Goodnight hesitated.

“Take the damn shot!” Faraday snarled, suspicion sparking.

Goodnight turned to look at him, and the difference in him was startling. Gone was the smooth-talking war hero he’d been sent to collect in Volcano Springs. In its place stood a creature hunched and shame-faced. It felt like a betrayal, and Faraday’s temper flared. That was when Billy Rocks appeared at his elbow, silent as a ghost, and took Goodnight’s rifle in hand.

He flipped the chamber open and peered into it for a long second, eerily still, before slamming it closed and turning on his heel.

“It’s jammed.”

His tone brooked no room for argument. He strode back toward the center of town, cutting a sharp, dark glance back at Faraday, with Goodnight slinking along after him like a scolded dog.

Faraday watched them go, glowering as he emptied Ethel’s chamber into the sand, his own black rage warring with Vasquez’s heady thrill just behind his sternum. He swallowed it down as best as he could, and turned his gaze from the retreating duo to find his soul-mate stalking toward him.

He moved with a certain amount of brutal grace, dark eyes gleaming below the brim of his hat, mouth curled up in a victorious smirk. Faraday could feel him, bright and hot and joyous, and couldn’t help but grin back.

“Guero,” Vasquez breathed, settling a hand at Faraday’s waist and pushing him gently backwards. Faraday furrowed his brow, confused, but followed willingly as Vasquez ushered him toward the shadowed structure at his back – some kind of storage shed on the edge of town. “We won.”

Faraday snorted, sinking back into the dim interior of the little shed.

“We won part of it,” he pointed out, closing Ethel up and sliding her back into his holster. “More to come, yet.”

Vasquez was looming over him in the dark, palm hot where it curved over Faraday’s waist. He took another few steps forward, guiding Faraday back until his shoulders hit the wall.

“What are you doin’?” Faraday asked, throat gone dry. Vasquez’s grin was a pale shard in the gloom.

“We won, guero,” he repeated, tilting his head a little. “Deserves some kind of reward, no?”

Faraday felt his heartbeat kick up, a warm burst of want flaring out from Vasquez’s end of their ribbon. He licked his lips, hesitantly brought a hand up to rest at Vasquez’s belt.

“What kinda reward did you have in mind?” he asked, hoarse. Vasquez’s grin sharpened.

He leaned in, nose brushing against Faraday’s, eyes aglow. He paused there for a long second, mouth curled up at the corners, breath warm against Faraday’s mouth. Faraday swallowed, tilted his head to the side.

Vasquez grinned, wolfish, reading the intent in the motion, and murmured, “Something like this.”

The kiss was electric – warm and strange.

It was softer than Faraday expected it would be, even with the rough press of Vasquez’s scruff. His mouth was lush and warm, intent but undemanding. He shifted the angle, pressed into it, beard scraping just slightly as he turned. The fresh sensation of it dragged sparks across Faraday’s skin, dropped a bright point of heat low in his gut. He sighed, a sharp little breath, and let his eyes fall closed.

Vasquez licked at the seam of his mouth, bringing one hand up to cup his jaw. His palm was big and warm, and Faraday shivered a little at all-encompassing heat of it.

It was different than kissing a woman in a lot of ways, not the least of which being that Vasquez stood an inch or two taller, which meant Faraday didn't have to duck his head. Vasquez kissed with more intent than a woman, too, nudging and angling until he got Faraday precisely where he wanted him, satisfaction and desire twisting together as they rolled down along the ribbon, slow and syrupy sweet. Faraday was surprised to find that he didn't mind ceding control to Vasquez, willing to follow where he led, trusting his judgment.

He could feel every sweeping tendril of emotion that emanated out across their bond, the tiny shifts and nuances in them, every little piece adding up to something big and momentous that made his chest ache when he thought about it, mind glancing off the thought and veering away to spare himself the pain, sweet as it may be. If Vasquez's emotions normally felt like being swept out to sea, this was like suffocating, all the breath chased from his body, gone dizzy and stupid with it. He whimpered in the back of his throat and Vasquez hummed into the kiss, running his hand in a long, soothing stroke up Faraday's side and back down again.

He was broad and strong, still keyed up from the fight, setting his palm possessively over the arc of Faraday's hip. Faraday wondered absently what it would feel like to have Vasquez over top of him, and desire flared hot in his belly. Vasquez groaned, deep and desperate.

He skimmed his thumb along the line of Faraday’s jaw, tilting his head and biting gently at Faraday’s lip. A smoky roll of warm contentment, undercut with that same, slow burn of want, coiled along their ribbon. Vasquez rumbled, low, and Faraday felt it reverberate against his mouth. He made a little wanting noise in the back of his throat and Vasquez sucked at his lip, setting his teeth into it in a way that sent a charged shiver up Faraday’s spine.

After a few long seconds, Vasquez pulled away. He ran his thumb along Faraday’s jaw one last time and Faraday sighed through his nose, fingers twitching where they were curled over top of Vasquez’s belt.

“Felicitaciones, guero,” Vasquez breathed, voice a gravelly rumble. Faraday swallowed, thick, and opened his eyes. Vasquez was smiling at him, soft-edged in a way that made Faraday’s stomach twist. He huffed an amused breath and ducked his head, stepping back out of Faraday’s reach, hands falling away. “Vamonos,” he said, nodding toward the street. “We better get out there.”

“Yeah,” Faraday croaked, pushing himself up off of the wall. “We probably should.”

He followed Vasquez out into the sun, ribbon warm and tingling between them.

 

 

 


 

 

 

The locals were a nervy bunch, with a surprising amount of spunk for the way that they tread carefully at the periphery of the ragtag vigilante group's existence. They were none of them fighters, and Faraday realized fairly immediately that this whole endeavor was bound for hell in a hand basket, if their little shootout hadn't already bought it a ticket on an express train to the same end. Still, he appreciated a people willing to shed blood for their home.

Plus, he owed Chisolm for his horse, and Vasquez's freedom, besides, not that he had any intention of mentioning that particular motivation, even if pressed.

They spent most of the morning gathering up corpses, sussing out identities and helping the townsfolk delegate now that the entirety of their law enforcement had either been shot dead or driven out of town. By the time they retired to the cool, shaded interior of the Imperial Saloon to talk strategy, Faraday was fairly well parched.

He settled down in an empty chair next to Vasquez, trying not to think too hard on what had happened between them that morning. He took a long swallow of whiskey, trusting the pleasant burn to drive the memory out until he had some privacy.

Vasquez glanced over, nudging Faraday’s knee with his own, and asked quietly, “Early start, guero?”

Faraday shrugged.

“Gotta start somewhere,” he replied, smirking a little when Vasquez laughed.

Chisolm finished spreading a map out across the table, all of Rose Creek laid out before them in painstakingly crafted lines of ink, everything labeled in neat copperplate. The swirling loops and curves made it difficult for Faraday to parse, but thankfully Rose Creek wasn’t so large as to require much exposition.

Faraday leaned back in his chair, elbow out over the back, and took another deep swill of whiskey. He wasn’t much for planning, preferring the let the cards fall before making his decisions, but Vasquez was leaning over the table intently, one hand curled thoughtfully over his chin. Every once in awhile he jumped in with a helpful observation or clever suggestion. Between the seven of them – even Red Harvest, who managed to make himself understood with a well-developed system of asides to Chisolm combined with pointing – they had managed to work out at the least the beginnings of a plan.

“It’ll depend on whether we can salvage the church or not,” Chisolm said carefully, scrubbing a hand over his jaw. “Gonna have to scrap most of it if we can’t.”

“What about the farmers?” Goodnight asked. “Not a man among them is familiar enough with a firearm to suit our needs.”

“We teach ‘em, best as we can given the circumstances,” Chisolm said, as though it was the obvious solution. Across the table, Goodnight and Billy exchanged a skeptical glance. A small, amused grin flickered to life on Chisolm’s face and he waved a hand at them. “I know,” he said, as if there had been some silent statement that the rest of them had missed, “but it’s what we’ve got.” He shot a meaningful look at Goodnight. “We’ve made more with less.”

The Cajun inclined his head respectfully, huffing a laugh.

“That we have,” he agreed easily. He glanced curiously around the table, wagging a finger at the assembled men. “Any of you have experience with military shooting? I could use a hand whipping these fellows into shape.”

Faraday hesitated for a long moment. He took a deep draught of whiskey, hissing a breath past his teeth, and said, “I do.”

Everyone at the table turned to peer at him, most of them openly surprised. Faraday bristled, shoulders hunching, and nearly jumped at the sudden, soothing curl from Vasquez. He glanced over to find his soul-mate smirking at him, a strange hint of pride glinting in his eyes. He gave a little nod, short and encouraging, that soothed the sudden wary rattle in Faraday’s bones.

Faraday took a deep breath.

“My brother was in the 7th infantry, Missouri Greys. Taught me how to shoot,” he explained, clearing his throat and swallowing. “Reckon I remember most of the drills.” He shrugged. “Could probably keep some poor bastard from takin’ his foot off, at least.”

Goodnight nodded approvingly at him.

“I’d be happy of the help, son,” he assured.

He’d fallen back into that same, nonchalant ease that Faraday had seen after the knife fight in Volcano Springs, swapping cigarettes back and forth with Billy and chatting casually with the assembled group as they debated the relative merit of different tactics and positions. There was something not right about it, Faraday thought, still cautious of the hunted wildness he’d seen in Goodnight’s eyes out in the street, but the man had swallowed down all his tells. Now was not the time to play the hand.

Faraday tilted his bottle in acquiescence.

“Well,” he said, tossing back another sip, “looks like I’m your man.”

“We’re going to need some extra hands fortifying the structures,” Chisolm continued. “Rebuilding where necessary. The townsfolk have all offered to lend their labor on this but anything we can spare would be helpful.”

Vasquez raised a hand, offering himself up for the job, and Chisolm nodded his thanks.

“All right, then,” he said affably. “That just leaves Billy, trying to get a few fellows up to snuff on blades, and we’re all of us squared, assuming the church’ll hold.”

“Lord, but it is an honor to come to the aid of thy brother,” Horne opined in his thin, reedy voice, grinning beneath his outrageous beard.

“I think, gentlemen,” Faraday said with a grin, wagging his bottle back and forth, “it might officially be time for a drink.”

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

Dinner was a rowdy affair, the lot of them bolstered by home-cooked food and free-flowing spirits. The townsfolk watched them from a distance, peering out over their own plates, or leaning around doorframes. Vasquez felt loose and relaxed, belly full for the first time in recent memory, basking in the company of others the way he hadn’t been able to in months, his ligado settled into an easy, swaying contentment beside him.

Their party started to drop off after awhile – Horne the first to succumb to the hour and the booze, lumbering off to the camp he was keeping out in the tall grasses, the weather more than moderate enough for camping. Red Harvest faded away shortly after, having spent most of the evening staring despondently at the food in front of him and the men around him, obviously amused despite his stone-faced visage. Sam had retreated to the porch at the upper story of the Imperial, sitting quietly and watching life roll merrily on in the street below, while Goody and Billy excused themselves to a single room at the end of the long, upstairs hallway.

Vasquez paused at the top of the stairs and turned to look at his ligado, whose eyebrows were high and surprised as he watched the retreating line of their compatriots.

He turned to glance at Vasquez and said, low and loaded, “Well.

“How did you miss this, guero?” Vasquez asked, clicking his tongue. “I would not call them subtle.”

“Just didn’t think about it, s’pose,” Faraday snorted and held his bottle aloft. “Cheers to them.” He glanced over at Vasquez, uncharacteristically hesitant, a little sliver of doubt wending its way down the lazo, the whole of which had a swimming, rocking quality to it, thoroughly saturated in whiskey as Faraday already was. “Care to have a drink?”

Vasquez considered him for a moment.

“We’ve been drinking all night,” he pointed out, teasing. Faraday grinned.

“One more could hardly hurt, then, right?” he pressed. Vasquez snorted and tilted his head to the first door on the right.

When they’d been divvying up accommodations earlier, he’d half-hoped that he and Faraday might share, though he ought to have guessed based on his ligado’s general mulishness that that particular idea was little more than a dream. Farady had taken the room directly across the hall, though he hadn’t been in it beyond unloading his saddlebags before they’d all tromped down for dinner as far as Vasquez knew.

He followed along as Vasquez ushered him into the room, shutting the door behind him and then turning to offer the bottle to Vasquez. His eyes shone in the warm light of the oil lamps, glittering impishly over his grin.

“Cheers,” Faraday offered. Vasquez accepted the bottle with a smirk, knocked a slug of it back before returning it.

“Salud,” he responded easily. He unbuckled his gun belt, laid it out atop the dresser and set his hat down alongside it. While he did, Faraday made his way across the room, dropping down on the narrow bed and kicking his boots off. He hesitated for a moment, peering around the space, and Vasquez felt a distant mix of emotion flicker for a second across the lazo, there and gone too quickly for him to identify what it had been.

Faraday took a pull off the bottle and set to unfastening his own belt, laying it carefully on the seat of a wooden chair pressed against the wall between the bed and the washbasin.

“Nice room,” Faraday offered, as Vasquez shrugged out of his vest, left it folded alongside the rest of his belongings. He snorted and turned, arching an eyebrow.

Really, guero?” he grinned. “That’s your opener?”

Faraday rolled his eyes and shrugged.

“It is nice,” he insisted, but there was a sheepish tilt to his smirk.

Vasquez scoffed and strode over, waving a hand at Faraday who obligingly swung his legs up onto the bed and shifted to the side. Vasquez sat beside him, stretched his legs out along the mattress. There was little enough room that they brushed up against one another at the shoulder, the hip, the knee, though Faraday didn’t seem to mind the proximity now that there were no other folk around to cotton to it.

“Why are you really in here, guero?” Vasquez asked gently.

There had been a strange swirl of emotion flaring bright on Faraday’s end of the lazo and then fading away all evening, not quite strong enough to traverse the distance between them but lingering on the peripheral edges of Vasquez’s notice. His ligado shrugged again, and took another drink.

“Just figured we haven’t really had a chance to talk.” He cut a quick glance at Vasquez, and added, “Uninterrupted, anyway. Thought it might be polite to offer, at least.”

Vasquez’s eyebrows made a valiant effort to climb into his hair. Faraday rolled his eyes.

“Look,” he muttered, waspish, “I know I ain’t the easiest to get along with, but after – ” he hesitated, licking his lips. “After last night, and the one before, I figure you deserve to ask after a few of my stories, if you’ve a mind.”

“You want me to ask you about your life?” Vasquez clarified, skeptical. Faraday shrugged, a little defensive.

“I’m not promisin’ answers,” he snapped. “But you can ask.”

Vasquez studied him for a long moment.

His ligado was, by nature, a tense and mistrustful creature. He was a set of walking contradictions in many deeply baffling ways, and this sudden openness – or at least, the willingness to attempt such – was a mystery all on its own. He took in the tense line of Farady’s shoulders, the agitated drum of his fingers against his own leg. He wasn’t comfortable, but he was trying, which was, honestly, more than Vasquez had expected would get.

He reached out with a fond smile, gently retrieving the bottle from Farady’s grip, savoring the way his ligado tensed up when their fingers brushed, a tiny prickle of heat blooming low in his belly. He took a sip, enjoying the burn, and sighed. When he handed it back, Faraday let his grip linger a little – maybe not on purpose, but Vasquez noticed even so.

“You’ve mentioned your brother twice now,” he said slowly. Faraday snorted and settled back against the headboard, a tiny spiral of embarrassment ricocheting down the lazo as he undoubtedly remembered his nightmare, the way he had clung to Vasquez in its aftermath.

“Ah,” Faraday replied. “Yeah.” He huffed a little, amused breath, and swallowed, staring at the bottle in his hands like it held some unfathomable secret that he could uncover if he just caught it at the right angle. “He – uh. He died, some years back.”

“I’m sorry, guero,” Vasquez murmured, sorrow punched out of him in a low wave. Faraday shot back a burst of something bitter and hard-edged – the same emotion, but long festered, warped.

“It was a long time ago,” he said benignly. “He was a soldier. It happens.”

He handed the bottle back and Vasquez took it willingly, sipped.

“What was he like?”

Faraday glanced at him, quick and glittering with amusement, and picked at a loose thread on the comforter.

“If you think I’m a mean cuss, I got nothin’ on Benji,” he admitted, grinning. Vasquez smiled back at him.

“Benji?”

Faraday nodded, reached to take the bottle back.

“Short for Benjamin,” he explained, taking a long swill. “Mean sonofabitch, my brother. Good shot, though. Did his best with me after my ma passed.” His grin sharpened a little as he added lowly, “I was a bit of a troublemaker, you understand.”

Vasquez snorted.

“Why am I not surprised, guero?” he sighed, and Faraday chuckled.

“Runs in the family, I guess,” he admitted easily enough that Vasquez was a little surprised. “Ma always said we had the devil in our blood.”

“How did she die?” Vasquez asked, gentle, careful. Faraday cut his gaze away, swallowed down another mouthful of whiskey and bared his teeth at the sting of it.

“Consumption,” he said flatly. “Benji enlisted after that. The wage was too good to pass up, with both of us to feed.”

Vasquez studied his ligado for a long moment, the hard set of his jaw, gaze pinned on some long-passed history that Vasquez couldn’t see, hovering in the air in front of him.

“How old were you?”

Faraday huffed again, eyes fixed in the middle distance. There was a long, heavy moment of stillness.

“Ten.”

Vasquez reached out, brushed his knuckles delicately against Faraday’s where they were curled into a fist against his thigh. Faraday jumped and glanced over, flashing a thin, grateful smile and leaning back into the headboard with a heavy sigh.

“Your turn,” he announced, knocking back another slug of whiskey. “Or, my turn, I guess.”

“I didn’t know this was a game, guero,” Vasquez replied, amused. Faraday smirked at him.

“You were the one who wanted to keep it even,” he said breezily. Vasquez sighed, long-suffering, and Faraday laughed. It was a funny laugh, hooting and sharp, like it had been startled out of him. Vasquez liked it.

“What do you want to know?” Vasquez invited, hand still drifting just beside Faraday’s, fingers not quite tangled together but close.

Faraday considered this for a long moment, chewing at his tongue with his gaze fixed on the wall directly ahead. He glanced over, curious and hesitant, and knocked his foot against Vasquez’s.

“This morning – ” he started, voice a little rough, “ – when you kissed me? Was that the first time you ever kissed a man?”

“Sí, guero,” Vasquez nodded. “It was.”

“Oh,” Faraday breathed. He sounded surprised, maybe a little relieved. There was something warm and hopeful fizzing to life on his end of the lazo. It was sweet and light and made Vasquez’s chest pull. Faraday took another pull off of the bottle, visibly steeling himself.

When he turned to look at Vasquez, his green eyes were dark, intent, a tiny furrow etched between his brows. He chewed on his lip for a second, thoughtful, and asked, “Did you like it?”

Vasquez couldn’t help but laugh at that, and some of the tension in Faraday bled away at the sound. He rolled his eyes and reached over with his free hand to swat at Vasquez’s thigh.

“I’m bein’ serious,” Faraday said insistently.

“I’m sorry, guero,” Vasquez apologized, still chuckling. He took a deep breath, trying to wrestle himself back under control, and turned to grin at Faraday. “Did you like it?”

“That ain’t how this works,” Faraday grumbled, a delightful pink flush flaring across his cheeks, the freckled bridge of his nose, at the same time that a rush of embarrassment washed across the lazo. Vasquez sighed, leaning back and tilting his head, putting himself unequivocally in Faraday’s space.

“Guero,” he said, voice a low rumble, “if you want to do it again, you only have to say so.” He arched an eyebrow. “Is that what you want?”

Faraday hesitated, that same strange emotion kicking up for a second before the steady heat of want, rising up like smoke across the lazo, drove it out and away. He licked his lips, green eyes flashing down to Vasquez’s mouth and back up.

“I think so,” he said hoarsely. “Yeah.”

Vasquez grinned at him.

“What are you waiting for?” he asked. “I’m sitting right here.”

His ligado stared at him for a long second, like he was worried this might be some kind of bluff, before tearing his eyes away. He wiped his palm on his thigh and capped the little bottle of liquor, setting it down on the mattress beside him, before he turned to face Vasquez again. His face was even pinker now, cheeks flushed and lovely.

He tilted his head and leaned in, careful and slow. Vasquez met him halfway.

His ligado tasted overwhelmingly of whiskey, but his mouth was soft and gave sweetly under Vasquez’s, a hot ember of desire lodging behind his sternum.

Over the course of their brief acquaintance, Vasquez had begun to suspect that everything with his ligado was going to be a fight, and it stood to reason that would translate to matters of physical affection. He expected Faraday to bite, to goad, to come up swinging every time, though that had decidedly proven not to be the case.

Much to Vasquez’s surprise, Faraday kissed slowly, cautious and exploratory. He sighed gently when Vasquez used his teeth, and moaned when Vasquez licked at the seam of his mouth. He was pliant, in a way that Vasquez hadn’t expected to find him beyond that desperate, muzzy hypnotism that cascaded over him whenever Vasquez touched his lazo. It made heat spring to life in Vasquez’s belly, the idea that he could temper, even for a spare second, the rough edges of this man who had spent so many years raging at the world.

They kissed for long moments, side by side with their faces turned toward each other, slow and slick. Vasquez nudged at Faraday’s hand until it opened, slid their fingers together. He licked at the seam of Faraday’s mouth again and Faraday caved with a sigh, opening his mouth and letting Vasquez in. Their tongues curled together sweetly, heady and lush and wonderful.

Faraday moaned, and a sharp bolt of desire shot across the lazo, immediately followed by something cold and honed like the edge of a knife. Faraday broke away with a gasp, close enough that Vasquez could feel the heat of his breath against his cheek. He had his eyes squeezed shut, fingers curled tightly around Vasquez’s, breathing in shallow gasps as he reeled that strange, icy sensation back into himself.

He breathed, heavy and raw, for a few seconds, and then licked his lips and smirked up at Vasquez.

“Did you like it?” Vasquez asked, teasing. Faraday huffed a laugh, squeezed Vasquez’s hand with his own.

“You know, I think I did,” he admitted quietly.

Vasquez leaned in and kissed him once more, just the gentle press of their mouths together. Faraday sighed into it, tension Vasquez hadn’t even noticed melting away under the sensation.

They broke apart again and settled down next to one another, sat side-by-side with their hands still intertwined. Vasquez ran his thumb lazily across the backs of Faraday’s fingers, lazo buzzing with contentment and gentle arousal that he knew Faraday could feel. Faraday reflected the same back at him, whatever that chill had been apparently subdued for the moment.

They sat there for long seconds, basking in one another’s presence, before Faraday sighed drowsily, “’s late. Probably ought to get to bed.”

When Vasquez turned to look, he was leaned back against the headboard with his eyes closed, body slumping down a little bit, lazy and lethargic. Slowly, carefully, he raised Faraday’s hand to his mouth, pressed a kiss to his knuckles.

“Stay,” he murmured. “Just for a little while.”

Faraday hummed as he considered for a moment, without opening his eyes, and sighed through his nose.

“All right,” he agreed quietly. “But just for a minute.”

Vasquez smiled, content, and settled down beside him.

Chapter Text

As Faraday groggily climbed his way out from the hazy depths of slumber, he became distantly aware of a heat at his back. It was comfortable and all-encompassing, pressed up against him, a heavy line of it draped over his waist. It was early enough yet that the sun hadn’t quite risen - watery moonlight drifting in through gaps in the curtains, cutting stripes of silver through the gloom. He blinked blearily into the dark, trying to collect his thoughts, and stiffened when memories of the previous day flooded his mind in a rush - first there had been the shootout, he and Vasquez together in the shed with Vasquez’s palm curled, big and warm, over his hip; then later, seated side by side on the mattress, telling Vasquez truths about his past that he hadn't admitted aloud in years; later still, the gentle press of Vasquez’s mouth and the slick, hot slide of his tongue.

That memory in particular made Faraday’s stomach twist, warm and wanting, at the same time that it set his heart thudding anxiously against his ribs. Behind him, Vasquez made a little discontented noise and nuzzled against the back of his neck.

Faraday swallowed, glancing down to discover that the pressure at his waist was Vasquez’s arm, slung carelessly around him and holding him close. His shirt had come untucked sometime in the night and he could feel the warmth of Vasquez’s fingers where they were pressed up against his skin. Vasquez slurred something in Spanish that Faraday couldn’t quite make out and absently rubbed his knuckles against Faraday’s belly. A little spark darted up Faraday’s spine, pulse picking up speed.

He sucked a hard breath through his nose and pushed himself up, wiggling out from underneath Vasquez’s arm. Vasquez shifted and blinked up at him, dark eyes still half-closed, mouth pulled down into a frown.

“¿Que pása?” he rumbled, voice low and sleep-rough. Faraday shook his head, the muted beginnings of a headache throbbing dully to life at his temples. His mouth was dry, sour with the lingering taste of hours-old whiskey.

“Sorry,” he said quietly. “Go back to sleep.”

Vasquez frowned deeper, lifting up onto his elbow and reaching out to nudge a hand against Faraday’s leg. Faraday felt himself tense at the contact, swallowing thickly and shifting away from the warmth of Vasquez’s fingertips after a moment’s fraught hesitation.

“Guero?” Vasquez asked, confused, a slow curl of hurt spiraling out across their ribbon. Faraday closed his eyes, curled his palms into fists against his thighs, and took a deep breath.

“‘M fine,” he murmured, doing his best to settle the jittery roil in his chest, dragging it as deep into himself as he could, trying to pull it back and away from the electric hum of the ribbon.

“Don’t look fine,” Vasquez replied. Faraday opened his eyes as Vasquez sat up, heart clenching painfully when he saw the way that Vasquez was studying him through the dark, emanating concern along their bond, something stricken in his face. “What’s wrong, guerito?”

“Nothin’,” Faraday snapped, scowling. He hunched his shoulders up, shifted a little further out of Vasquez’s space and tried not to flinch at the whipcord lash of hurt that the action summoned forth. “Just - didn’t mean to fall asleep here, is all.”

“Nobody here to know but us,” Vasquez said gently, soothing, and offered a hesitant smile. “Besides, the others are sharing a room at the end of the hall. We are hardly so unusual, sí?”

A cold, jagged-edged spine of fear forced its way up through Faraday’s stomach. He remembered watching Goodnight and Billy meander to the end of the hallway together, remembered the knowing glance that Vasquez had shot him, the teasing curl of his smile as he'd asked if Faraday really hadn't known. He thought of how easy it was to see, now that he knew to look.

He wondered how easy it would be if anyone knew to look at him and Vasquez, and his stomach lurched.

Vasquez made a little soothing noise and reached out for him. Even though Faraday saw it coming, had plenty of time to prepare, he still jumped at the sensation of Vasquez’s fingers against his arm. There was an uncomfortable pressure building in his chest, the steady concern coming across their ribbon ratcheting it tighter still.

“Guero, what - ” Vasquez started.

Faraday shook his head, swallowing, and made to climb out of the bed. He maneuvered awkwardly around Vasquez, who blessedly kept his hands to himself though Faraday could feel his desire to reach out and touch, visceral and all twisted around with worry.

“It’s nothin’,” he repeated. “I’m just - ” he waved a hand at the door. “I’m gonna go.”

Vasquez opened his mouth to say something, but seemed to think better of it, shaking his head with a melancholy sigh. It made Faraday’s chest hurt to look at him - soft-edged with lingering traces of slumber, eyes dark with concern while Faraday collected his things and hesitantly came to a stop in the center of the room, drawn up like some skittish game before a hungry predator.

“Go if you want to,” Vasquez said, though Faraday could feel precisely what those words cost him, and they both knew it. He winced and stared down at the floor, swallowing thickly before he glanced up at Vasquez.

“Is my - ” he tried, and swallowed again. He reached up with a shaking hand to touch the edge of his bandana. “Is it still covered?”

“Sí, guero,” Vasquez assured, miserable and quiet. A dark, painful wave rolled out from his side of the ribbon to crash hard against Faraday, his knees nearly buckling under the force of it. “It’s covered.”

Faraday nodded, relief washing down his spine at the same time that shame burned hot through the core of him. He let himself out, ignoring the bitter tang of hurt in the back of his mouth as he fled.

 

 


 

 

 

The War of Northern Aggression had not been especially kind to Missouri.

It hadn’t been especially kind to anybody, in the end, but to Faraday - all of thirteen years old and clumsily fleecing old, drunken farmers out of their wages for his dinner while he waited for the next letter from his brother, the meager pittance it would contain undoubtedly too little to carry him through until the post came again - it had seemed that much worse. Most of his childhood was a haze of blood and loneliness and desperate, gnawing hunger, though those years seemed more saturated with it than most.

He couldn’t say for certain how many of his neighbors had fallen to the sudden, brutal violence of bushwhackers, though for the most part they had been well-meaning folk who welcomed a hungry lad to their table, or to sleep in their barn, in exchange for a handful of chores.

He remembered one night distinctly - a few months after he’d gotten the letter confirming that Benjamin Faraday had sacrificed his life at the Battle of Pea Ridge, after which he’d decided he might as well try and make his way out toward the frontier. He'd been a few weeks shy of his fourteenth birthday, working steadily across the state, and had spent most of the afternoon with a couple of homesteaders whose bones weren't quite what they’d used to be. Mostly they’d wanted help with menial tasks - lugging farm equipment, picking the horses’ hooves, splitting wood in anticipation of the upcoming cold snap.

They promised him a hearty meal and invited him to bunk down amongst the horses for his trouble. After supper he shared a few rounds of cards with the genial old couple and then retired for the evening, eager to get an early start. If luck favored him, as it occasionally did, he would cross the state border by the following afternoon.

A few paltry hours later found the homesteaders dead, their meager dwelling ransacked, and Faraday quivering with fear, pressed down along his belly in the hayloft. He had tears streaming down his face, both hands cupped over his mouth to keep from coughing at the smoke as a couple of renegade grays took torches to the horses’ stalls.

They looked so different - vicious and sneering, cast into harsh shadows in the writhing light of the flame - than Benji had the first time he donned his crisply pressed uniform, burnished buttons gleaming, rifle resting against his shoulder. He’d been full to bursting with ebullient confidence, swollen up with joy and pride for the first respectable work he’d had since that they buried their mother two years prior. His blond locks gleamed like cornsilk, blue eyes dancing as he grinned and tousled Faraday’s hair, bending at the knee to assure solemnly, “We’ll be alright, Joshua. Don’t you worry.”

They had been, for awhile; which was the unfortunate truth of it. A soldier’s wage in times of peace was a steady thing, and with only minimal responsibilities in his company Benji had been around enough to keep Faraday on the straight and narrow as best as he could despite being barely old enough to be considered an adult himself.

He was perhaps ill-suited to raising a child, particularly one as ornery as Faraday had always been, but he tried his best - keeping Faraday fed and clothed and reprimanding him when he toed the line of propriety. Like their mother, Benji wanted for greater things in this life than Faraday aspired to, and it was a constant weight upon his back, setting his shoulders straighter, tilting his proud chin higher.

Faraday had a fire in his blood, certainly, but it was easily soothed by a good meal or a good brawl, even when he’d been barely tall enough to get his chin over the bar. Benji’s fire burned slower, ate into him meaner than Faraday’s. Over time the war stoked that flame into something awful. The soft, tender edges that had moved his brother to hold him tight while they lowered their mother into the earth were all ground down and away under round after round of artillery fire, leaving Benji cut jagged and raw, rough parts likely to catch on anyone who so much as looked at him wrong.

There’d been a couple of bound fellows, in their town - little nothing place that it was. Faraday recalled one of them working as a shopkeep at the general store, always ready with an easy smile, never talking down to their mother despite the fact that she was raising two boys on her lonesome with a ribbon red as anything easily apparent around her wrist.

They were outcasts, both, or would've been if pickings weren't quite so slim in uncharted country, and both of them knew it. Nobody had seemed to mind much, aside from an occasional ugly remark every now and again - after all, in a place as sparsely settled as their hometown, the ability to refuse additional labor on ethical opinion was something of an unfamiliar luxury.

They’d strung the shopkeep up alongside his soul-mate on the edge of town while Benji was home on leave a year or so into the conflict, in one of the old oak trees just past the Miller farm.

Most folk had cleared out by then, driven off by the threat of violence or else dead and buried themselves. Though he'd been alone, mostly, Faraday had still had their little one-room shanty and their daddy's gun, which was enough to give him hope during the long circuits Benji made to the battlefield and back.

“They brought it on themselves,” was all Benji had to say about it when Faraday brought it up. The dark, angry lines etched under his eyes seemed cavernous, dug in deeper every time Faraday saw him, sinking into his face like the shadowed corners of his mouth. “Shouldn’ta flaunted it around like that.” He'd tossed back the rest of his tumbler and cupped a hand over Faraday's head, ruffling his hair. “Ain’t nothin’ you gotta worry about, kid. Now, c’mon.” He wagged a finger to the gun Faraday wore at his hip, comically large against his lanky frame, not yet filled out by time or age. "Let's get you some practice with that old thing."

The memories all tangled and knotted together, settling sharp and cold behind Faraday’s sternum.

Once he’d made it across the hall, safely ensconced in the veneer of privacy that having his own room provided, he collapsed back against the doorframe and let himself slowly sink to the floor. He was shaking with it, stomach rebelling against the overwhelming convergence of all his rough edges on one another, Vasquez’s concern ringing out like a warning bell underneath it all. He swore he could hear Benji’s voice, echoing around the shadowed corners of the room, words rolling into each other until they became a roaring buzz in Faraday’s ears.

“It’s gonna kill you, kid.”

He let his head fall back against the door and took a few stuttering, gasping breaths. After a long moment, the concern drifting from Vasquez’s ribbon ebbed, a warm, steady hum kicking up in its place.

It buzzed sweetly up under the surface of Faraday’s skin, soothing and swaying. He closed his eyes, reached out with a careful, fragile curl of gratitude, and breathed along with the gentle rhythm of it until the first thin beams of daylight spilled into the room.

 

 

 


 

 

 

There were repairs and preparations more than plenty enough to occupy Vasquez’s mind for the better part of the morning, allowing him some distance from the thoughts and suspicions that had been gnawing at him for hours. His ligado had been a tangle of messy, raw-edged emotions since long before dawn, awash in a maelstrom of his own making and clinging to the warm thread of Vasquez’s affection like it alone was keeping him from drowning.

Given what little he knew about his ligado’s side of their bond - overwhelming and intense enough on occasion to push Faraday to the point of physical pain - he thought it prudent to do what little he could to keep his feelings in check for the time being, so he busied himself with repairing fence posts and cutting lumber, hauling bales of hay and boarding up any number of minor holes and gaps in the clustered buildings of Rose Creek. He’d left his gun belt in the room above the saloon and a few hours into the morning found him abandoning his vest, too; untucking his shirt in a desperate bid to alleviate some of the sticky heat dripping down his back. He could feel his ligado prowling the field to the East of town - the occasional sharp crack of gunshots ringing in the distance - where he was lending his hand to the impossible effort of making fighters out of farmers. He was emitting a steady, low thrum of irritation that Vasquez had grown so used to by now that he very nearly found it soothing.

As he settled down on the back of a low wooden wagon, loaded up with rough-hewn planks and rattling through the streets toward the church, Vasquez allowed himself a moment to think.

It had been an unpleasant surprise to come awake in the small hours of the morning and find Faraday drawn up against the headboard, huddled in on himself with that strange chill coming off of him in frigid waves; more unpleasant still when he flinched away from Vasquez’s touch, pursued and pinched around the eyes. Though he was hesitant to put a name to the sentiment precisely, Vasquez could tell from the way it punctured any other emotion in its path, icy and sharp, that it shared a lineage with fear.

With the exception of shallowly delving into his history the night before, his ligado remained stubbornly close-mouthed about whatever distant part of his past haunted his waking hours even now, suspicious and mistrustful down to his bones. It was a condition that Vasquez would be more than happy to bear, provided that he had the time to commit to gently unraveling Faraday’s thickly knotted mess of feelings on the subject, which he wasn’t sure he did. After all, they had invited an army to their doorstep and while the remaining townsfolk were proving to be an enthusiastic bunch, Vasquez didn’t put much stock in their ultimate effectiveness.

Beyond the question of survival, Vasquez had been a wanted man for awhile now. He wasn’t operating under any delusions that there would be a quiet life of easy contentment in the cards for himself or for his ligado - both of them too wild to find much peace in it even if it had been an option - but there had to be something better than skittish, careful touches in the dark; Faraday only ever swinging closer on a pendulum, destined to pull away before he could settle for any length of time.

The wagon rumbled to a slow stop, and Vasquez hopped off the back of it. He dragged his wrist across his forehead, sopping up some of the sweat therein with the cuff of his shirtsleeve, and bent his knees to get underneath a sturdy wooden beam.

There was time yet, he assured himself. Maybe not much, and certainly less than he had hoped he might have, but he would take what he could get.

 

 

 


 

 

 

The townsfolk were a goddamn disaster, there was no two ways about it.

Faraday stomped into the restaurant just ahead of Chisolm and Goodnight, tugging his hat off and scrubbing his hand exasperatedly through his hair. It had been a long morning of hollering instructions and answering the same four questions over and over while he did his best to ignore the constant beacon of his ribbon, informing him of precisely where Vasquez was at all times. Even now, in the back of his mind, Faraday knew that his soul-mate was no more than fifty feet off, heading toward them from the direction of the church. He knuckled absently at the gentle pull behind his sternum, scowling.

He hadn’t seen Vasquez since that morning, the weight of his gaze heavy across Faraday’s shoulders as he studied him across the table. Though the icy hum in Faraday’s bones had mostly faded since he’d woken up in Vasquez’s embrace and summarily fled the room, there was something looming, dark and ominous, on the fringes of his mind that he hadn’t been able to shake. Rather than risk letting that venomous shadow spill out past his teeth, down across his ribbon, Faraday had kept his distance.

Though he was worried and obviously confused, Vasquez thankfully hadn’t tried to stop and talk before they split ways - just let a little, hesitant blush of affection flow out across the ribbon before they set off to their respective tasks. He’d spent most of the morning making an effort to hold himself back, Faraday could tell - his emotions banked to soft, distant embers that were easy enough to ignore.

It had been a mixed blessing to discover that their volunteer militia was functionally useless. On the one hand, it provided Faraday with a much needed distraction from the swirling tempest of his own mind, the gentle pull of Vasquez at the edges of his awareness. On the other, the pitiful display the hay-shakers had put up tilted Faraday’s assessment of his own survival from ‘unlikely but possible’ handily into ‘make your peace with the Lord’ territory, which was doing little to soothe his nerves.

How quite so many men couldn’t grasp a concept as simple as resting a rifle on their right shoulder was beyond him, which was to say nothing of their complete and total inability to handle the kickback after firing or, God help them all, to successfully aim at a target. And the poor bastard who’d wandered out to the fields with nothing but a straight razor? While Faraday appreciated his candor, it was about the best example he could think of to illustrate precisely why they were all likely to die here.

He stalked over to the table that their party had decided by tacit agreement belonged to them, dropping himself gracelessly into a seat and hanging his hat over the back of his chair.

“ - need motivation. Best we can do for them, really,” Chisolm was saying, serious and contemplative as he walked alongside Goodnight.

Faraday watched them, curious, a sick little twist in the pit of his stomach as he thought about Goodnight and Billy disappearing into the same bedroom the evening before. It was possible that Chisolm didn’t know, though unlikely considering his and Goodnight’s shared history, and unlikelier still with the way that Goodnight and Billy were quietly cohabitating here in town. It was possible, Faraday considered hesitantly, that Chisolm did know.

His stomach lurched and swooped, a chill roaring up his spine, mind twisting away from the thought. For all that Chisolm seemed an eminently reasonable man, and for all that the rules were often different this far out into the frontier, a dark, nauseous seed of fear took root in Faraday’s gut. After all, he’d seen firsthand that men who were friendly enough when pickings were slim would turn on the drop of a dime once the shooting started.

“I doubt most sincerely that motivation alone will be enough,” Goodnight said, sharing a slightly incredulous look with Chisolm. The other man huffed a laugh and clapped an amiable hand to Goodnight’s shoulder.

“We’ve made more out of less,” Chisolm said easily. Goodnight smirked, tilting his head in acquiescence and taking a seat on the other side of the table.

“Suppose that’s true,” he agreed, drumming his fingers against the tabletop, ribbon a bright red smudge against his skin.

“Hopefully Billy had better luck getting them to take up blades.” Chisolm sighed and dropped down into the seat next to him.

“Somehow, I don’t think that will be the case,” Goodnight said knowingly with a little, amused twist to his mouth, rubbing absently at his ribbon with the thumb of his same hand. A cold jolt needled through Faraday’s chest, and he cut his eyes away to glance toward the door.

A few of the townsmen meandered casually into the restaurant, dirt-streaked and moaning about the various aches and pains they’d accrued while fixing things up that morning but seemingly in good spirits even so. Vasquez was just behind them, and the sight of him made Faraday’s throat go tight.

His linen shirt was untucked, draped down over his thighs. It had gone thin in places where he’d sweat through it, the collar unbuttoned far enough down that the medallion that he wore was in full display against the hollow of his throat. His dark hair was curling over his ears, all of him flushed and faintly glistening in the early afternoon light coming in at his back.

A low, hot bloom of want flared through Faraday’s belly, and Vasquez turned, dark gaze beckoned by the sudden burst. He caught Faraday’s eye and smirked, the corners of his mouth tilting up soft and wicked. Faraday swallowed, thick, and his smile widened.

“ - you think, Mr. Faraday?”

Faraday started and turned. Goodnight was watching him with an expectant smirk; Chisolm with the flat, serious stare that seemed to be his standard.

“What?” Faraday croaked. As Vasquez approached the table, footfalls heavy but without the gentle, ringing chime of his spurs, Goodnight’s gaze flickered over to him, then back to Faraday, smirk going a little sharper. A hard, angry knot coiled itself tight in Faraday’s chest.

“I was simply asking after your assessment,” Goodnight provided casually, leaning back in his chair with one arm thrown over the back. “How did you find our fair volunteer militia?”

“Pisspoor,” Faraday snapped, lowly, glancing up as Vasquez came to a halt beside him.

“That bad, guero?” he asked. His grin was boyish and charming beneath his darkly glittering eyes. It made Faraday’s stomach twist, hot and bright.

He could feel Chisolm and Goodnight watching them, so he nodded once, quick, and turned away to glare down at the table. He hunched his shoulders up and angled his body in, away from Vasquez, as he snapped meanly, “Sí, muchacho. That bad.”

Something bitter and wounded rose up through the gentle, jovial affection, the simmering heat of want drifting, slow and sweet, across their ribbon. It got in under Faraday’s ribs, made his throat itch like too much smoke. He swallowed, hard, and tried not to flinch away when Vasquez sat down next to him, close enough that their knees brushed.

“Everything okay?” he asked quietly, leaning in. Faraday glared at him, darting a glance over to Chisolm - who had leaned back in his chair and was watching the comings and goings of the serving women with rapt attention, seemingly intent on identifying the contents of their coming meal - and Goodnight - who was still affecting that casual lean in his chair, drumming his fingers ceaselessly against the tabletop and staring across the table like Faraday and Vasquez were putting on a show solely for his amusement.

“Keen,” he assured lowly, clipped and harsh. Vasquez frowned at him, opening his mouth to speak, but Faraday ripped his eyes away again, looking beyond Vasquez’s shoulder and adding, a little louder, “Whenabouts d’you think we’ll see some grub around here?”

“I imagine it’ll only be another moment,” Goodnight said genially, rubbing his thumb absently along his ribbon and glancing over his shoulder to a passing woman bearing a plate in either hand. When he turned his gaze back on Faraday there was a flint-edge to it that crawled up underneath Faraday’s skin. He’d built most of his life on smoke and mirrors, illusions and misdirection - finding recognition so unexpectedly in a place he had desperately hoped never to see it rattled him right down to his bones. His face, already warm, flushed hotter still when Goodnight smirked at him, the pit in his stomach writhing mutinously while that dark, distant shadow slithered along the edges of his mind.

Don’t look, it hissed. Don’t look. Don’t look.

He jumped at the sudden brush of fingers against his knee, a cool, soothing tendril of calm spiraling across the ribbon, like the first drops of late summer rain after a long drought. He pressed his lips into a thin line, looking down and away as he shifted his weight, moving himself deliberately out of Vasquez’s reach and ignoring the sudden pinch of hurt biting hard behind his sternum.

“Better be,” he muttered thinly. “I’m damn near starved to death.”

Beside him, Vasquez settled into a muted rumble - a humming mix of worry, hurt, and irritation, buzzing down across the ribbon like a distantly approaching swarm. Faraday did his best to ignore it, though that didn’t appear to help the situation overmuch.

By the time the serving women had delivered them each a tin plate - piled with beans and potatoes and fatty cuts of salted pork, corn biscuits tucked into the edge to sop up the mess afterward - and a cup of water, Billy and Horne had meandered in from their respective tasks. Billy looked cussed as all hell despite generally seeming to be little more than a spare few seconds off from actively murdering his company at any given moment, while Horne was even dirtier than Vasquez. Neither of them, it appeared, had been having much luck as far as the townsfolk were concerned, although Horne and a few of the locals had reinforced the outermost buildings as much as was likely possible in the limited timespan they had been afforded. As far as Faraday could parse, Red Harvest had been sent off on some manner of delicate scouting mission for which Chisolm found the rest of them either too boisterous to promise success or else too useful otherwise applied here in town.

Faraday was fairly certain as to which side of that divide he fell on, though it didn’t especially bother him; he’d always been a loud sort, largely because he found it useful. After all, when one of a fellow’s talents stood out quite so starkly against the others, it was a simple matter of playing to the audience to allow the rest to carry on unnoticed below the table, so to speak.

Faraday spent most of the meal listening idly to the rest of his compatriots toss strategy back and forth across the table - apparently Billy’s run at getting the farmers to wield knives with anything approaching actual ability had fared worse even than their disastrous attempts at building a passable firing line, which was difficult to believe though from the flat-eyed glare that Faraday received when he voiced this opinion, he supposed it must be true.

He made a few helpful observations during the casual planning, which helped alleviate some of the roiling guilt that pitched to life in his belly every time he ducked Vasquez’s gaze like the damned coward he was. The vaquero tried to snare his attention more than once throughout the meal, and though Faraday would occasionally look over - gaze summoned by instinct or some heady pull of the ribbon - he would let his eyes skate away immediately. He could feel Vasquez’s irritation smolder hotter every time Faraday jilted him, but he swallowed it down and forced himself to keep his attention on the chatter drifting to and fro.

Eventually, work beckoned, all of them lured to their feet by the siren call of tasks yet unfinished. Faraday tried not to let it bother him when Vasquez crowded in behind him on their way out of the restaurant, close enough that he nearly stepped on Faraday’s boot-heels with every long, loping stride. They were all on the porch, Goodnight and Billy passing one of their little hand-rolled cigarettes back and forth amongst themselves while Horne, ever hungry, gnawed on a piece of salt jerky, when Vasquez brushed his fingers insistently against Faraday’s upper arm. Faraday turned to look at him, stomach jumping with nerves, shoulders tightening into a hard line.

“What?” he snapped.

“Guero,” Vasquez said, tilting his head toward the narrow alley between buildings, “can I talk with you?”

Faraday glared mutinously up at him.

“There’s work to do,” he said warningly. “Can’t it wait?”

“Now, now,” Goodnight drawled amiably.  “It’s just a few farmers with shootin’ irons. Nothing that Sam and myself can’t handle between us if you’d like to take a moment and,” he gestured back and forth between Faraday and Vasquez, arching an eyebrow, corners of his mouth tilted up, “settle your business. Isn’t that right, Sam?”

“Just meet us out yonder when you’re done, Faraday,” Chisolm nodded, toeing at the dirt with one of his boots. “We’ll manage without you, somehow.”

Faraday stared for a moment before nodding, sharp, and turning to look at Vasquez again.

“Well, come on then,” he huffed darkly, stalking off toward the alley and beckoning with a hand over his shoulder. “Let’s get this over with.”

Vasquez was silent behind him, the only emotions coming off of him the same solid rush of concern and irritation that he’d been emitting all through lunch. He followed Faraday around the corner into the shaded lane between the restaurant and the wainwright’s while their companions split off in different directions and headed into the distance.

When he was certain that they had gone far enough to afford them at least minimal privacy, Faraday turned on his heel to glower at Vasquez, arms crossed over his chest, and raised his eyebrows expectantly. Vasquez didn’t do or say anything beyond studying Faraday’s face for a long moment, dark gaze intent and shadowed, brow furrowed like he was working out a particularly complicated puzzle. The expression was one Faraday hadn’t seen on him before, and he found that he didn’t particularly care for the way it made him want to squirm like a worm on a hook.

“Well?” he pushed, when the anxious jitters beneath his skin got to be too much to bear. “We talkin’ or did you just want to stare at me for awhile?”

Vasquez shook his head, frowning, and asked a little desperately, “Why are you doing this, guero?”

There was a quick, hard punch of sorrow down the ribbon, and Faraday recoiled like he’d been slapped.

“What?” he breathed. “I’m not doin’ anything.”

Vasquez shook his head again and stepped forward, slow and deliberate, eyes dark and flinty and dangerous. Faraday swallowed nervously and took a step back, and then another and another until he came to a sudden, stumbling halt when he hit the wall of the restaurant with his shoulders.

“You are,” Vasquez grumbled lowly. “You’re shutting me out.” His frown deepened, concern ratcheting up to a furious drone, like somebody’d stirred up a hive of wasps. “Why? Did I do something?”

“No!” Faraday snapped immediately, sure and emphatic. Vasquez’s eyebrows jumped toward his hairline. Faraday sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. “No,” he said again, gentler. “You didn’t do anything.”

“Then why?” Vasquez pressed, stepping in closer. Faraday glanced nervously to the open end of the alleyway, relief flaring through his gut when there was nobody there. He looked back over to find Vasquez staring at him yet again, like Faraday was a letter written in a language he didn’t quite speak, like if he just looked long enough he might be able to make some sense of the symbols there on the page in front of him.

“I’m not - ” Faraday started, but stopped when Vasquez snorted and shook his head, lips tilting up into a thin, bitter smirk.

“Don’t lie to me, guero,” he murmured gently, reaching up to cup a hand around Faraday’s cheek, sliding his fingers into the curls behind Faraday’s ear. “Please.”

Faraday swallowed and licked his lips, mouth gone suddenly, parchingly dry.

“I - ” he tried again, and took a breath. “I don’t know. Or, I don’t know how to say it.”

Vasquez thought for a moment, absently running his thumb along the line of Faraday’s jaw in delicate, soothing strokes that made Faraday shiver, little warm embers flickering to life in his belly with every gentle pass despite his best efforts to tamp them down and smother them.

“It’s not something I did,” he murmured, considering, and tilted his head. “Is it...something we did?”

Faraday felt heat flood his face in a rush, swallowing instinctively and shifting on his feet.

“No,” he breathed. “It’s not - no.”

Vasquez pressed his lips into a line for a brief second, gaze flickering down to the bandana, and Faraday knew from the way he couldn’t quite keep himself from twitching, from the sudden flare of understanding in Vasquez’s eyes, that he’d tilted his hand. Vasquez slid his palm down just a little, just enough to worm his thumb under the edge of the bandana, touch it gently to the line of Faraday’s ribbon and send sparks flickering out from his sternum to his fingertips. Faraday breathed, deep and harsh, and let his eyes fall closed, leaning into the wall at his back.

“Is it this?” Vasquez asked softly, letting his thumb drift up and then back down again. Faraday didn’t say anything, just swallowed, thick, and kept his eyes screwed shut tight. Vasquez was a pillar of heat in front of him, tucking him away from the rest of the world for this one small moment, and Faraday reached up to take the soft linen of Vasquez’s shirt in his fist before he could stop himself. Vasquez brushed his thumb across the ribbon again and Faraday shivered, making a little, choked-off noise in the back of his throat.

“You fight it so hard, mijo,” Vasquez said sadly. He hesitated for a long moment before murmuring,  “Why? What are you afraid of?”

Faraday shook his head, and flinched when Vasquez’s nose brushed his. When Vasquez spoke, his breath was hot against Faraday’s mouth.

“Is it me?”

“No,” Faraday assured immediately. There was an electric heat underneath all of Vasquez’s irritation, all of his concern. It rushed forward across the ribbon, catching alight in Faraday’s belly and ricocheting back, over and over. “No, it’s not you.”

“Good,” Vasquez sighed, relief drifting up like a warm breeze, and brought their mouths together. The kiss was soft, but intent, Vasquez’s scruff dragging wonderfully as he tilted his head, darting his tongue, slick and warm, along the seam of Faraday’s mouth. He dragged his thumb across the ribbon again and Faraday made a noise deep in his chest, a needy, wanting thing caught somewhere between a whimper and a groan.

Don’t look, that insidious voice whispered from the shadowed edges of his mind. Don’t look.

“It’s okay, guero,” Vasquez murmured against his lips, gentle and reassuring. “It’s all right, te tengo a ti. You don’t need to be afraid.”

Faraday opened his eyes and ducked his head, tilting it to the side and breathing in short, shallow pants for a few seconds while he struggled to catch his breath. The spiny, frigid claws from that morning were creeping up through his belly, tempering the pleasant heat that Vasquez was giving off and raising swathes of icy mist in its wake.

“Guero, it’ll be okay,” Vasquez soothed, and Faraday shook his head.

“How do you know?” he hissed mutinously as he looked up at Vasquez, pinned somewhere between desperation and panic. “What if someone saw? Hell,” he laughed, a little hysterically and gestured to the distant end of the alley, “anyone could walk down here right now and catch us out!”

“Is that really so bad?” Vasquez countered. He brushed his thumb along the ribbon again and Faraday twitched, licking his lips.

“It could be.”

“It won’t be,” Vasquez assured and Faraday’s temper lit off like an ember at the powder end of a fuse. He twisted the hand he had in Vasquez’s shirt and yanked hard.

“You don’t know that!” he snarled. He could feel that looming drone of frustration rattling around in Vasquez’s chest as it kicked up to an almighty roar, charging down the ribbon and feeding into the slurry of raw fear in Faraday’s belly. “You can’t know that! We barely know any of these people! What would they think if they knew, huh? You think they’d just tip their hats and let us be on our way?” He scoffed a laugh and shook his head. “They might just as well turn their pistols on us as offer us a smoke!”

“Only way to know what people think of it is to take the bandana off,” Vasquez said darkly, dragging his thumb hard up the line of Faraday’s throat. A scorching spark licked up Faraday’s spine and he shuddered, gasping. “But you won’t do that, will you, guero?”

Faraday swallowed, face flushing ruddy hot with a volatile mix of anger, embarrassment, and shame. Vasquez swiped his thumb across the line of his ribbon again and Faraday breathed hard through his nose, did his best not to shake apart under the sensation. Vasquez studied him for a long, loaded moment before reaching up with his other hand and tugging, gently, at one of the knot’s little tails.

Faraday flinched and pulled away. Vasquez huffed an ugly, bitter laugh.

“Eso no lo pensé,” he snarled, hurt and anger roaring out along the bond, hard and painful, mixing in with the wicked knot of emotions already tangled in Faraday’s gut. “Not so keen to gamble without an ace up your sleeve, are you?”

Faraday tore his gaze away, staring down at the gravel beneath their feet. His face was hot, heart racing, stomach folding over and over on itself. Vasquez huffed a low, angry breath.

“Pensé que eras más valiente que este, guero,” he spat. He stared at Faraday for a frozen, weighted moment, and then dragged their mouths together, sharp and mean and brutal. He kissed hard, biting viciously at Faraday’s lip and slipping his tongue, hot and slick, past Faraday’s teeth.

Faraday clung to him for a long second, unable to do anything but ride along on the cresting wave of Vasquez’s rage, his desperate, helpless hope. When he finally pulled back they were both gasping, Vasquez’s eyes glinting dangerously.

“We’re living on borrowed time, guero,” he rumbled, low and warning. “I suggest you figure out what you want.”

He let his hand fall away and took a steadying breath while Faraday collapsed back against the wall.

“Let me know when you make a decision,” Vasquez muttered darkly, turning on his heel to go as a devastating lash crackled out across their ribbon. It hit Faraday hard in the chest, white hot and painful, as if he’d been neatly bisected down the middle of his being.

He sucked a desperate breath and turned, reaching out a hand, but Vasquez was too far gone, stalking back up the alley with thundering footfalls that seemed to rattle the ground in his wake.

Chapter Text

When Vasquez turned heel and stalked out of the alley, the fury lancing sharp and hot across their ribbon went with him, following in his shadow like a great wave drawing back to the sea under the pull of the moon. As that torrential anger withdrew, Faraday felt the ground begin to steady beneath him. There were voices murmuring indistinctly inside the restaurant at his back, though any of the windows settled low enough in the frame to give a clear view of what had just transpired between himself and Vasquez thankfully had their curtains drawn shut.

Faraday took a shallow breath, grateful for the moment's respite. He hadn’t expected to be quite so thoroughly overcome; tossed about in the gusting throes of Vasquez's surprisingly vicious temper, powerless as a leaf on the wind.

He could have guessed that his soul-mate had a fire in his belly -  had caught flickers of it during the shootout the day before, bright tongues of a familiar ferocity licking up through the adrenaline - but he hadn’t expected to meet that heat at so little distance, blistering against his face while Vasquez raged in front of him. He took another breath, this one a little deeper, steadier, the jittery edge that Vasquez had left about his person evening keel.

There was too much in him to sort, right now, even without Vasquez’s fury tossed into the mix. He felt dizzy and a little sick with it, yanked too hard in too many different directions, seams on the cusp of bursting. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the clapboard digging into his shoulders, sweeping his palms down his thighs a few times as if all of this unpleasantness was so much trail dirt that could be brushed off with a pass of his hand.

There was sweat at his temples, rolling down his back, cold despite the oppressive heat of the day. A low shudder coursed all throughout his body - the same rattling in his bones that preceded a particularly ugly bar brawl - while something dark and mean writhed in his belly.

He was distantly aware of Vasquez drawing away further and further still, carrying the tempest with him, ribbon straining steadily as his retreat ate up all the slack between them. Something pulled gently in Faraday’s chest, resisting for a beat before it gave like a stubborn stopper in a bottle. There was a sharp twinge, the sudden, bitter pull of a splinter coming free from where it was buried in soft skin, and then a bolt cut straight through him, white hot and so viciously painful that Faraday’s vision went grey at the edge.

Vasquez was too far gone now to hear the ragged gasps tearing their way out of Faraday’s throat, as, to his horror, all of Vasquez’s other emotions started to rush out and away, too - the soft-edged warmth of his affection, the effervescent glow of his humor, every light and lingering thing he'd been sharing with Faraday since their ribbon sprang to life days before.

Faraday jolted up and off the wall, eyes open, hands clenching in the air on instinct as he tried to hold onto it all, to fight against the sudden retraction. It was useless, of course. A tremor rose along his spine and Faraday stood there shivering, watching helplessly as every brightly flickering tendril of emotion banked to pitiful embers, withdrawing back into the shadows and settling on a distant shore that Faraday could see but not reach.

The void left in its wake was strange and unpleasant, slung across Faraday's shoulders like a yoke, heavy enough that he staggered back and collapsed against the clapboard again, knees wavering underneath its weight. The sudden absence needled under his skin in little pinpricks, his whole body buzzing painfully, hackles drawn up tight and wary. It was the startled awareness of waking in the night to a world without insects humming, without the distant echo of coyotes howling into the dark - the kind of sprawling emptiness that meant danger loomed on the horizon. It left the world tilting for another long moment, gravel rocking under Faraday’s feet like he’d been too deep in drink for most of an evening, while everything shifted around him and resettled.

The emptiness ached , throbbing like the raw edge of a new wound, his breath coming short and quick around it.  

All of his anger and doubt and shame seemed magnified in the looming silence, howling loud enough that Faraday's ears rang with it. Rage gnawed at his insides like wolves in a frenzy, teeth digging sharp into his bones and making his stomach roll. A bitter, nauseous seed bloomed in his belly, ice cold and sour, crawling its way up the back of his throat when he realized that the rattling fury was his and his alone.

He took a quivering breath and pushed himself up off of the wall, heels scuffing in the gravel as he stepped shakily forward. There was a loud, sudden burst of laughter from inside the restaurant and Faraday jumped, wheeling around with a snarl, ready to spit and fight and claw.

That there was nothing behind him - with the exception of a small cloud of dust kicked up by his own bootheels - was of little comfort, every inch of him alive with the animal need to bite first and bite hard, despite the fact that it would do no good. Vasquez had gotten in the first hit, and the second, handily, while Faraday had hissed pathetically like a half-drowned cat, too consumed by his fears to sink his teeth into anything worthwhile.

So, he thought absently, a little hysterical as he tried to wrestle some of that violent wariness back under control, this was what he was without Vasquez to steady him. This was the truth of his character dragged out into the light  - all mistrust and suspicion wrapped around a fierce, snarling rage; jumping at shadows as if there were villains lurking in every dark corner.

Well, a bitter voice rose up in the back of his mind, it was hardly news, was it?

Faraday was operating under no misgivings that he was a good man, or even a decent one on most days. He was a miserable cuss, as so many had told him before now; a right ornery bastard who put too much faith in luck and not enough in any number of other virtues. Certainly not in true love, or whatever horse-shit he was expected to swallow down to better justify the mark on his neck. He’d seen any number of folk die for even the more commonly placed ribbons in the past - whether at a hostile hand, or at their own when the grief of loss got too heavy to carry any longer - and here he was doubly damned by the lover’s noose.

He wheezed a miserable little laugh, a thin thread of bitter humor leaking out over top of the anger, the horror, the bone-deep validation that Benji had been right all those years ago. The noose was a curse, no two ways about it.

Well, Faraday thought darkly, Vasquez would have to do better than pulling this little parlor trick if he aimed to bow Faraday’s spine. He wasn’t about to lie down belly-up for a man who was still essentially a stranger, no matter what wisdom fate or God or whoever was responsible for saddling him with this damnable collar had to offer on the matter. If Vasquez wanted to go, he would hardly be the first person to leave Faraday behind. The framework of his life so far was all swinging doors and distant, fading silhouettes. He’d spent years enough alone but for all the ugly shadows of his past. Haunted though that may make him, at least those grim specters endured where flesh and blood continually failed.

Let Vasquez retreat back to his side of the bond, withdraw all of his affection like a carrot on a stick when the mule was misbehaving. Hell, if that was the hand he wanted to play, he had Faraday’s blessing. More folk than Faraday could count had tried - it was an old, tired gambit that hadn’t worked on him since he was a lost little boy stumbling his way out of blood-soaked corn country with nothing but ghosts left behind him.

He’d lived thirty years without a soul-mate and done mostly fine for himself, barring a few scars. What was a paltry handful of days tied to Vasquez, even fewer spent in his physical company, to an entire life’s worth of surviving quite contently on his own?

He’d sweated and shaken his way through any number of unpleasantries before now - booze run dry on a trip that took longer than expected, a blood fever contracted after a bad hand of poker and a bullet to the arm. While it might seem less than ideal at the moment - pain twisting underneath the riotous tangle of emotions taking up all the space between Faraday’s ribs, his lungs, his belly - Faraday had faith that his notorious stubbornness would carry him through this, too.

He huffed a couple of weak, shaky breaths, trying to soothe the burn in his chest, stinging like he was trying to take in air with his head underwater, and swallowed everything down as best as he could. After the haze at the edge of his vision had started to fade, he reached up with trembling fingers to test the edge of his bandana. It was still tied, thankfully, although there was no way to know whether Vasquez had left it so far askew as to tilt Faraday's hand to entire world.

Nothing for it, Faraday thought grimly, trying to catch his reflection in one of the restaurant’s dust-powdered windows. He breathed a little easier still when the only flash of red he caught was the thin impression of muted rust where his bandana ringed his throat.

There was a sound at the end of the alley and Faraday whipped his head around toward it, drawing his hand back to ready weight of Ethel at his hip, sudden and sharp. One of the local women was poised at the alley’s mouth.

Faraday hadn't bothered with names, as he mostly expected that he’d either be dead in a week or, assuming he and Vasquez managed to settle this latest unpleasantness, off onto the next grand adventure, significantly richer and undeniably luckier than he’d been when he’d first come into town even if it appeared that he would likely be alone on that journey.

The woman was older, all knobby joints and weathered skin with her short, stout frame drawn up angry and ready to fight, like a badger. Her white hair, streaked with gray in places, was pulled up into a tight bun on top of her head, and she had a wooden spoon in one of the hands that were curled into fists against her broad hips.

“That you rattlin’ our walls out here, mister?” she demanded in a thickly accented, gently slurred voice that suggested she was not in possession of all of her teeth. “People tryna’ eat inside.”

“Not only me,” Faraday muttered darkly under his breath.

“What’s that?” the woman snapped, leathery mouth puckered into a sour scowl. Faraday sighed.

“Nothin’,” he said, louder, turning and retreating a few steps back into the shadowed lane to retrieve his hat up out of the dirt, a casualty to the violence of he and Vasquez ricocheting off of one another. He tapped it against his knee a few times, little clouds of dust curling off of it in soft puffs and floating gently away. He settled it on his head and offered a half-hearted, “Sorry for the noise.”

The woman gave him a long, suspicious stare and worked her tongue over her lips a few times before replying pointedly, “Thought you boys was come to shoulder some of our trouble, not to make more of it.”

Faraday smirked at her, sharp and a little mean, and said slyly, “Ain't no reason I can see why it shouldn't be both.”

She made an affronted face and he tipped his hat to her before shouldering his way past.

He wasn't in the mood to play nice with anybody at the moment; particularly not a dour-faced matron with the grandiose sense of self-importance that seemed to infect any and all elderly folk in a podunk place like this. As though the fact that they had lived through fever and famine and heartache made them somehow worthier of his respect than any old cuss wandering the road.

As Faraday made his way out of the alley, he fought the urge to reach up and adjust his bandana again. Even if his ribbon wasn't covered all the way around, he’d very nearly put a number of holes in Clay Allen for bringing the damned thing up back in Crier’s Rock and he’d been in a much better mood then. May luck lie with any poor bastard fool enough to mention it in his earshot, today of all days.

If the majority of Rose Creek’s already paltry population hadn’t retreated under the looming threat of violence, there may have been more witnesses to Faraday’s less than graceful emergence from the alley. As it was, there were only a handful of folk milling about to see him stumble awkwardly past the scowling woman and out into the daylight, wincing at the tender pull in his chest. Most of the townspeople had been divvied up between making the necessary repairs to transform their peaceful home into a defensible battleground and learning how to handle a weapon to best effect, a spare few set to looking after the essential practices to keep the town running in the perhaps foolishly optimistic hope that they were all of them going to come through this alive and victorious.

He garnered a few stares as he stalked off toward the empty grasses on the edge of town, but he nervously reassured himself that that was only to be expected. Ever since they arrived the remaining inhabitants of Rose Creek had hardly been shy about displaying their curiosity, their terrified awe. It was more than likely that none of them had the foggiest idea what had passed between him and Vasquez only moments ago, that they were far more concerned with Faraday’s reputation as a quick draw and a man of somewhat dubious moral code than the way he hunched forward a little as he walked, curled over the miserable ache between his ribs that only seemed to flare brighter with every inch of distance he fought to put between himself and Vasquez, long retreated to the sprawling bones of St. Emmanuel’s church.

He paused along the furthest edge of one of the unpaved roads, at the tufted crest of the long, rolling sea of grass, skin prickling with the weight of somebody’s eyes on him. There were a couple of farmers down at the other end of the main drag, too far away to be paying any great attention to Faraday while they cut a dawdling line across the sun-bleached hamlet. He frowned and turned further yet, craning to peer back around behind himself and going frozen and still when he caught sight of Emma Cullen glaring out through one of the schoolhouse windows. Her eyes were frigid blue shards through the warped glass, narrow and suspicious under her furrowed brow, her pretty mouth was downturned in a fetching moue, Faraday knew better than to fall for considering the sharp tongue it housed.

He straightened up despite the aching tug in his ribs, the length of his ribbon twisting and vibrating, taut like he was wrestling some mighty beast up out from the depths of the river, line all eaten up by the power of its retreat. He raised his hand up to the brim of his hat and gave her a sloppy salute and a roguish little wink, let his grin sprawl lazy and carefree.

Her scowl pulled further, furrowed a sharp line between her brows, and she wheeled around on a heel, fiery spill of hair dancing around her like a cloak. Once her attentions had been successfully redirected, Faraday let his grin drop. As he turned back toward the rolling waves of grass, he felt himself start to hunch his shoulders again, curling in over the phantom hurts biting into all of his most tender places.

No, Faraday thought, and drew himself purposefully up. He was better than this, stronger than this. It was bad enough that Vasquez could reduce him to a whimpering, quivering wretch with nothing but a touch. He refused to allow it when the other man wasn't even around.

He rolled his shoulders back, took a few shallow breaths against the pain, and pushed forward into the grass, wading through the knee-high waves toward the makeshift target field they’d established the day prior.

They’d taken care to keep it far enough away from the city proper that no unsuspecting bystanders would catch any stray lead, and that none of the livestock would accidentally wend a path into the line of fire in search of better eating than the brittle crabgrass that sprouted up through the soft valley clay.

Goodnight Robicheaux held court over a long row of men, all of them crouched down behind stacked sacks of feed like particularly vicious pill bugs, while Sam Chisolm’s shadow of a silhouette reclined thoughtfully against the wooden posts of a horse pen a few paces behind, bearing silent witness to the progress - or more likely, the lack thereof - that their scrappy little fighting force managed to trundle through as the few remaining hours of daylight dwindled and burned.

As Faraday drew up, the volunteer militiamen let off another round of musket fire on Goodnight’s hollered signal. From this distance the farmers appeared to be just as pitiful behind their irons with a bellyful of food as they had been that morning, musket balls ricocheting off of the much-abused grass, kicking up little streaks of dirt as they scattered off into the winds.

“Looks like we mighta caught the wrong pig by the tail on this one,” Faraday muttered, settling against the fence at Sam’s side and patting at his vest until he uncovered his small stash of cigarillos. One of them was Vasquez’s, he realized with a sudden, sharp twinge in his gut - pilfered only the evening prior, the two of them pleasantly drunk and making amiable conversation over their booze before retreating to Vasquez’s bedroom. He pointedly selected one of his own and ducked his head as he set about prodding into all of the seams and pockets of his vest in search of a packet of matches, trusting the brim of his hat to shade the sudden, fierce bloom in his face.

Sam didn’t respond or bother looking over, and so he was spared the pleasure of watching Faraday’s traitorous Irish complexion belie his thoughts, face gone hotter and pinker than simple exposure to the midday sun could explain away.

“You and Vasquez get your business sorted?” he asked placidly, dark eyes falcon-sharp where the farmers fumbled through reloading their rifles. Faraday flinched and glanced at him, but Sam’s attention never wavered - focused raptly upon the performance as Goodnight hollered at the recruits, all theatrical gestures and pretty turns of phrase that had stewed too long in the brackish water of the bayou.

“More or less,” Faraday replied, clipped and sharp. Sam cut a glance over at him, a flickering and curious thing that flitted away a spare second later, though something about it still sent Faraday’s shoulders scuttling up toward his ears.

Goodnight shouted again and another wave of twanging musket fire went zinging toward the straw men standing sentinel a spare few feet away. Goodnight loosed a miserable, lupine laugh, bitter and appalled, and buried his face in his hands. After a long second, he raised his face back up and scrubbed his palms down his beard, shaking his head while every one of the cowards in the long row ducked his gaze, and then set his hands to his hips with a sigh. When he looked over and saw Faraday next to Sam, he jerked his head toward the pitiful line of grangers.

“How’d you like to take a turn, son?” he asked.

Faraday sucked down an acrid breath and sighed out a hazy cloud, scratching thoughtfully at his chin.

“S’pose I could give it a go,” he agreed pleasantly, edges of his words gone a little soft where they caught against the butt of his cigarillo. He pushed up off the fence, doing his best to ignore the hatchet-wound ache in his chest, and said sharply, “Let’s see if you fellas got anything in you worth more’n a hill of beans.”

 

 


 

 

Vasquez was not, by nature, a man of mild temper. His mamá had despaired of this when he was small, tutting ceaselessly about the vicious devil that sometimes pilfered coins out of the collection plate or started fights on the church steps, wicked little imp always grinning out from behind the face of her beautiful boy. That wild fury had cooled after a time, and to the best of his memory it had been years since raw anger churned in his belly the way it was now, excepting the hazy summer afternoon of months ago that had seen him slaughter a man who had blundered so far beyond decency or justice that the gravity of his crimes dragged Vasquez along in its slipstream.

He supposed it was no great surprise that Faraday should be what made him seethe after careful years spent learning the weight and balance of his rage as surely as any pistol he’d ever drawn. Your ligado roused your passions - so the old stories always said. Only fools and children were myopic enough to believe that all passions were sweet and benevolent things.

He knew what it was to house the kind of volatile, matchstick temper that simmered beneath his ligado’s skin, was intimately familiar with the way a tiny tinder spark could suddenly consume your whole being. He could feel it drumming in his bones even now, making his muscles clench and his hands shake while his gut twisted and bucked.

He dragged the shining crescent of his drawknife along the length of a long wooden post balanced atop a pair of sturdy, well-loved sawhorses, cursing under his breath when the stripe of bark he’d been angling to shave off split and cracked and came up in pieces, leaving shallow scores behind in the wood. He pressed at them with his thumb, frowning, testing their depth to be certain that any damage done was purely cosmetic and wouldn’t compromise the structural integrity of the planks this log would eventually be cut into. Concerns assuaged, he wandered back up to the center and dug the drawknife into the next brittle rind of bark. As Vasquez started working it down the length of the trunk, his ribs ached miserably, hands shaking with the pain. He grunted and paused for a second, reaching up to press the heel of his palm against his sternum though he knew it would do little to alleviate the pain.

It had been jarring all morning, trying to keep himself cut off from Faraday out of respect for his ligado’s sudden desperate need for space and solitude, Vasquez grown so keenly aware of his constant hum of emotion that spending the long, tedious working hours without weathering the low drone of Faraday’s ceaselessly buzzing agitation seemed infinitely stranger than shouldering it as he had been for days. He had become almost fond of it, in away - his ligado’s perpetually sour mood transformed over time and exposure into an endearing lull.

This silence was different from the empty stillness the lazo had so thoroughly shattered when it sprang up, not that he would have ever known that sprawling loneliness for what it was without the lazo to measure against. This particular solitude was Vasquez retreating back across their bond out of his own selfish desire, seeking to spare himself the deluge of whatever tempestuous battle Faraday was currently waging with himself. He told himself it was a temporary measure, a concession until he had a better handle on his own feelings on the matter, could guarantee he wouldn't make it worse, but he knew that at least some small part of it was driven by hurt, the bitter ache of rejection seeping up through Vasquez’s composure like fetid groundwater, saturating what should be bountiful with rot and decay.

He could feel Faraday, even now, keenly aware of his ligado prowling furious and pained out in the fields despite his commitment to keeping the line of their lazo securely shut. The distant rattle of Faraday’s emotions as he raged within himself only served to make the absence of his steady hum in Vasquez’s mind even more miserably, glaringly obvious. Vasquez rubbed at his chest again and considered guiltily that if it hurt this badly for him, on Faraday’s end it had to be nearly unbearable.

He rolled his shoulders and set back into his task, though his concentration was not a creature of astounding longevity today. He was halfway through stripping this particular length of bark, bringing it up in smooth, measured strokes when the distant ache behind his ribs tugged sharp and violent in the direction of Faraday out on the edge of town, the horrible pull hooking like a knife behind his sternum and sending a fierce spasm out to his fingertips.

The bark cracked, coming away and bringing a steep shard of wood out with it, sharp and long and peaked like a looming range of mountains had been turned on its head. While the drawknife clattered to the floor, Vasquez barked out an embarrassingly vulgar string of invective and kicked at the gathering pile of chipped bark. A few jagged pieces went skittering into the shadows, sending up fragile plumes of dust as they cut through the ash and grime coating the warped and creaking floorboards.

“Ribbon trouble?”

Vasquez jumped, turning to discover one of the other volunteer carpenters studying him with a knowing sympathy. He was an older man, with a generous sprinkling of white in his hair and a pair of delicate round spectacles perched at the bridge of his nose. There was a roundness to all of him, Vasquez realized, all of his features boyish and jolly despite the dirt and the sweat, some small amount of wariness at the tight edges of his smile, the tiny furrow between his  generous brows.

Vasquez took a breath, long and slow, and tried for a smirk that arced a little too sharp at the corners.

“How did you guess?”

The carpenter tilted his head, flicked his eyes toward Vasquez’s hands, and Vasquez followed his gaze to discover that sometime during his little fit he had curled his fingers possessively over the red band wringing his wrist, gripping at it so tight that his knuckles had gone pale, though he hadn't noticed the sting of his own grasp until now. He pulled away like he’d been burned, letting the arm bearing his lazo fall to his side, half-hidden behind him, while he wiped his other palm on his heat-damp shirt, as if there were some risk that the lazo would stain.

Well, Vasquez conceded to himself with a soft huff, that it would stain any more than it already had.

The carpenter clicked his tongue and nodded.

“Happens to the best of us, at times,” he commiserated easily, wagging his hammer shallowly in the air for effect - his lazo wrapped around his wrist the same way Vasquez’s did, poppy-bright even in the shaded interior of the church. He considered Vasquez for a long second, tugging absently at his ample beard, and squinted as he asked, “‘S it new?”

The question was polite, mildly delivered with a light touch that suggested the carpenter would gladly drop the subject if it were too invasive. Though Vasquez had only recently been blessed with a lazo of his own, he knew from experience that this was a fairly standard question from most folk seeking to enter into an amiable conversation - casual inquiries about the length of one’s relationship, the characteristics of one’s ligado. Even so, a tiny whisper in the back of Vasquez’s mind hissed at him, warning and wary. Vasquez scowled, rage twisting up hot because he couldn't be sure if it was the soft susurration of instinct that had kept him free from the law all these months advising caution, or if it was Faraday bleeding in at the edges of his being, that hunted paranoia that had ensnared his ligado so thoroughly slowly beginning to infect him, too.

He bent to retrieve his drawknife from the floor, doing his best to shake off the wariness buzzing in his ears as he admitted, “Sí, only a few days. A week maybe.”

The carpenter hummed, eyes twinkling knowingly over the crisp apples of his cheeks as he grinned.

“I remember those days,” he sighed, wistful and delighted. The pull behind Vasquez’s sternum twinged again and the carpenter caught his flinch, twisted his mouth sympathetically. “Got yourself a spitfire there, eh?”

Vasquez snorted.

“Something like that,” he agreed, bitter burn of his anger soothed somewhat by the gentle overture at camaraderie.

It had been months since he’d been able to comfortably spend time kicking around any of the dusty old frontier towns he stumbled through, to strike up a friendly conversation with a stranger without the danger of capture breathing down his neck, the thin shadow of the noose looming over him.

Vasquez considered for a long moment, drawknife poised to pick up where the sudden burst of pain across his lazo had interrupted his progress, before offering carefully, “My liga- uh. My soul-mate is -” he waffled for a second and settled on, “not so happy with me, I think.”

Faraday didn't seem to be particularly happy with himself, either, but that was hardly Vasquez’s information to share, especially with a fellow he had only just met.

The carpenter stared over top of his own half-finished woodwork for a moment and then threw his head back, baying a deep belly laugh up toward the chips of blue sky peeking through the blackened beams overhead. When he looked back at Vasquez, bold humor softened down to a low, hooting chortle, he shook his head fondly and replied, loud and gleeful, “Son, you’d best resign yourself to that, now.”

He dug around in a pile of flat-headed nails until he came up with a passable candidate for whatever project was currently demanding his attention, and continued merrily, “I don't think my damned ribbon’s been silent in the forty years since it first popped up, my Lorna loves to nag me so.”

There was something calming about his good humor, and Vasquez found himself grinning back despite the steady ache in his chest, the distant bolts of pain and frustration and stubborn, mulish determination ricocheting down the line of his lazo that Faraday couldn't quite dampen no matter how hard he seemed to try, and he was trying. Vasquez could feel the tension on the line between them, pulled taut while Faraday tried desperately to keep every shred of feeling clutched tight to him.

“It’s not nagging,” Vasquez huffed, working the drawknife through to the naked edge of the log, bark sloughing to the floor with a soft, hollow clatter. “It is - ” he gestured at his chest, searching for an appropriate way to explain without either giving himself away, or more importantly, betraying the unspoken trust that Faraday had afforded him not to bare their business to the world at large. “An accident? My soul-mate is loud, in here.” He tapped gently at his sternum, the raw, steady ache at the center of his chest.

“Less so out here.” He waved a hand in the air and sighed, turning his attention back to the task at hand, shaking his head as he murmured, “I want to help, but how can I when the tonto obstinado won’t tell me what's wrong?”

There was a moment of silence while Vasquez circled back up to the center of the log, prepared to dive keenly back into his task when a quick, sharp sting at his shoulder and the soft tinkling sound of metal tumbling to the ground stopped him up short. When he turned, the carpenter still had his hand poised in the air, hovering at the height from which he’d presumably thrown his carefully selected nail at Vasquez’s back. He had one eyebrow arched high above a knowing smirk, genial amusement shining in his curiously narrowed gaze.

“Boy, that valley sunshine bake all the sense outta you?” he asked, while Vasquez glared.

“I don’t - ” he started, but the carpenter clicked his tongue and shook his head.

“It seems to me,” he said, slow and thoughtful, ducking his attention back to the pile of nails in search of a suitable replacement for the one he’d sacrificed specifically, it seemed, to the end of irritating Vasquez when he already felt scraped raw at the edges, “that it ain't your soul-mate got any trouble with the telling. It’s you needs to learn how to listen.”

The easy truth of the statement settled like a lead weight in the pit of Vasquez’s belly, sinking down into the teeming seethe of emotions twisted up in his gut. The impact of it sent guilt rolling up his spine in a frigid wave. He felt the ground pitch beneath him for a second, rocking like he was on the deck of a pitiful little sailing boat in the middle of a choppy sea. Something of his rapidly dwindling composure must have shone through on his face, because when the carpenter looked back up his expression softened considerably.

“Don’t go beating yourself up for it,” the old man advised gently. “Takes us all a little time to learn how to put a ribbon to good use. No shame in not getting it right straight away, son.”

Vasquez swallowed, thick and dry, and tried for a nod. Luckily, there weren't an abundance of men in the church at present - most of them gone off with Horne to aid the lumbering bear of a woodsman in fortifying the pinch points and blockades they’d planned to better funnel Bogue’s men into the town in formations that worked to their benefit.

Aside from Vasquez himself, there was only the jolly old carpenter and a little, light-eyed boy who tried to pretend like he hadn't spent the majority of the day watching Vasquez out of the corner of his eye. He was soft, in a way the rangy children of the frontier usually weren't, clean and dapper by what passed for such in Rose Creek, with his hair mostly still slicked down, a few rebellious strands poking up now he’d sweated some of the styling oil away. There was a gentle sort of reverence in his gaze that made the guilt already gnawing at Vasquez’s belly dig its teeth in, mean and sharp. While he may not have been quite the monster his wanted posters might suggest, he had hardly performed any daring feats of heroism during his life, and certainly none of his recent behavior was especially worthy of any praise.

It had been tremendously unkind of him, he knew, to lash out at Faraday the way that he had. He had regretted his actions the moment he turned his back on his ligado’s stricken face, but raw fury and stubborn will had lifted one foot and then the other all the way back to the church.

They really were a matched set - both of them made out of wilder stuff than the majority of their fellows, with sharper teeth and a meaner edge to them. The difference between himself and Faraday, he thought absently as he stripped the last stripe of bark in neat, careful strokes, was that Vasquez had almost always had someone around to temper that fire in him.

His mamá had done it, when he was small - gentle admonishments and soothing touches cooling the flame that blistered under Vasquez’s skin - and later there had been a handful of doe-eyed local girls. Daughters of merchants, or sometimes farmers, who were lured into love by the same wildness they worked so hard to drive out of Vasquez at the end of the day. After that were the other vaqueros, brotherhood built on the long, hard road driving cattle along the dusty path between Texas and Kansas, their reliance on Vasquez for steadiness, for leadership, banking his temper to manageable embers.

Vasquez had never been alone the way that Faraday had apparently been for the majority of his life, not until all the trouble with the rancher. Before the danger that he courted had made it too costly to be worth the risk, Vasquez had always had people, by some measure or another. He was a social creature, raised by a woman who was quick to laugh and never knew sparsity when it came to love, and though he could live functionally all on his own he also knew how to make himself vulnerable to others in pieces and portions, knew how to gauge whether the risk would be worth the return.

He didn't think Faraday had ever quite learned that, to start with, and he couldn't begin to guess what it felt like to stand on the edge of a precipice where your only option was to expose yourself to the bone to another person for the first time in your life or suffer some immeasurable pain if you didn’t.

Vasquez had loved before, many times - loved hard and loved deep, despite lacking the riotous red line of a lazo to promise forever. For a long while, he had been fairly certain that he was one of those unfortunate few too rare to merit the dedication of another soul, that he would die alone because there was no one that could withstand the vicious parts in him for any great length of time, so he had endeavored to indulge the forever fleeting sentiment as much as he could when he was lucky enough to stumble across it. He didn't know if Faraday had ever been in love like that, want so raw he felt flayed open by it, hadn’t wanted to risk posing the question when getting any information at all out of the recalcitrant cowboy was already akin to digging a bullet out of a fresh wound. Even without that particular shared foundation, the way that Faraday bristled and snarled and spit when he was cornered was a bolder reflection of Vasquez’s own vicious bite, and more than enough common ground to build on.

Distantly, the carpenter started whistling a light, genial tune as he hammered away. Even further off, Faraday hummed and snapped, like someone had lassoed one of the furious summer storms out of the sky and trapped it in a bottle, all black clouds and lightning.

It had been a mistake to let his temper get the better of him, even magnified as it was by Faraday’s own righteous anger, but Vasquez had made his share of missteps in his life and managed to neatly recover from all except the one that had driven him to murder. Even that particular error had hardly been his most egregious, measured out against every place he had stumbled in his life.

He wiped the sweat off his brow with his damp shirt sleeve and considered for a moment a soft smile under a pair of warm eyes and raven-dark curls. Fondness unfurled in his belly, folding outward warm and bright, like the face of a wildflower in the first early rays of morning sun. His chest twinged and the memory curdled, dogged at the heels by the sudden, visceral reminder of the way the looming weight of responsibility had crashed through the rosy haze of young love, huge and monstrously heavy, down onto his narrow and trembling shoulders.

He had run, then, and while he had learned later that there had been no child, that knowledge did little to keep the shame in his belly from souring to regret when he thought on it too long.

He knew what it was to be on the edge of too much. He knew what it was to turn your back in cowardice, and though everything had shaken out well the last time Vasquez had let fear plot his course for him - for a given value of ‘well,’ considering his current predicament mired in a war that was decidedly not of his own making - he would spare anyone he cared for the pain of that error, if he could. Despite the limited length of their engagement to date, he knew he already cared for Faraday more than most, might have been halfway in love with him already even without the red thread weaving them together.

He drummed his fingers in a quick, staccato beat against the half-stripped surface of the log and looked up across the church to where the carpenter was bent low over his own project, mouth curled with mirth at the corners despite being narrowed around the reedy tune he was whistling to himself, lines at the corners of his eyes etched in deep, testament to a life well-saturated with good humor.

Forty years, he’d said, that he and his ligada had been in each other’s heads. Vasquez wondered enviously how long it had taken before that easy amiability had become the standard rather than the exception.

Probably longer than a week, he thought bitterly. And he doubted that the Lorna of whom the carpenter spoke so fondly had been even halfway as stubborn as Faraday.

Still, it had been churlish of him to withdraw from his ligado, especially under the circumstances, when he knew how much Faraday was struggling with himself. Rejection was a bitter and biting thing, but Vasquez was reasonable enough to admit in retrospect that he had let his stinging pride and his own looming doubts determine his path. He rolled his shoulders back, took a deep breath, and let go of the hold he had on his end of the lazo.

Almost instantly the pressure in his chest dissipated, the bitter ache reverberating for a few seconds but diminishing with every pulse, thinner and weaker with every pass like ripples rolling out across water. He took a long, careful breath, slow and deep, and let his eyes fall shut.

Faraday seemed louder, now. Like he was railing at Vasquez’s back rather than unleashing the brunt of his ire on the volunteer militia out on the makeshift training range. His stubbornness was a thick and choking rope, twisting up through the middle of the swirling tempest he was mired in. Vasquez could almost feel it writhing bare inches away. It was a dark and slithering thing, fear and anger and doubt coiled around Faraday like a great serpent, maw open wide and voracious. Its frigid breath was a perfect reflection of the icy pit nestled like a gem at the center of it all.

It wasn’t listening, not exactly. It wasn’t that simple, for one thing. It was more akin to weaving, or translating - taking shapes that were familiar but distorted, parsing out the places where they mimicked the language that Vasquez knew intrinsically and where they deviated, building up a vocabulary that he could use to make better sense of how they all fit together. While he stood there, cataloguing the writhe of Faraday’s emotions at his back, a powerful shudder wracked through the messy knot, cracking sharp and vicious.

Pain, Vasquez realized, gut rolling with guilt. Before he bothered to stop and think about it he was reaching out across the lazo with the same soothing warmth he had offered before he and Faraday had ever met face to face - back when his ligado had been a mule of a temper wending its way stubbornly across the desert and aching the whole while.

For a split second, relief curled out across the lazo in a swirling breeze, but just as quickly something hotter and meaner lashed out, whipcrack sharp. Vasquez grunted at the bitter bite behind his ribs, eyes flying open and hand coming up to his chest on instinct. As he moved, Faraday’s presence faded, pulling back through strenuous force, Vasquez could tell, as Faraday bottled himself up tighter and tighter.

“Still angry, I take it?”

Vasquez glanced over to find the carpenter smirking. He inclined his head.

“Still angry,” he confirmed, digging his drawknife into the beam with a vengeance. His smile was just this side of too sharp when he replied, “I suppose I will just have to try harder.”

He wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do, though he couldn’t see any better options from his current vantage point. Judging by the riotous laughter this comment inspired in the carpenter, he hoped he was on the right track, at least.



 

 

Though he seemed to be a foul-tempered sonofabitch on even his best day, Joshua Faraday was in fine form this afternoon. Goody considered the brute of a man from his position in the bed of the wagon perched at the edge of the horse pen, feet dangling just low enough to dip into the grass as he enjoyed a cigarette and a moment’s respite from laying into the sorry bastards Rose Creek had produced as her mighty last line of defense.

Broad and tall as he stood, Faraday cut an intimidating figure, and the visceral tautness to his entire body this afternoon was only adding to the effect of it all. He was coiled up like a viper ready to strike, watching the recruits with flint-sharp eyes from shadow of his hat-brim, sucking on the last pitiful inch of a cigarillo while he prowled down the line of crouching men.

While Goody watched, Faraday scratched thoughtfully at his jaw, announced casually to the assemblage, “You know, if you fellas think of it, perhaps send your wives out tomorrow. They’re miles braver’n you miserable bastards even with their bonnets.” He paused behind a particularly jittery recruit, knobby knuckles white around the length of his rifle, and leaned in. “You seem a little nervous.”

The farmer mumbled something and Faraday knocked the sharp toe of his boot pointedly against the sole of the other man’s.

“Speak up field mouse!” he snapped darkly. “Can’t hear you with your head in the sand.”

The sun was just barely beginning to dip below the horizon, all of them casting long, monstrous shadows across the gentle waves of grass. They were the lot of them tired and hungry and sweat-soaked, though Faraday seemed to be baring it a little worse than most. He’d been red-faced all afternoon, brow furrowed over his his scowl, and had abandoned his vest shortly after he’d arrived. Though, Goody noted with interest, quietly adding another tally in favor of his own personal suspicions, he had elected to keep his bandana on.

“I - I said, no, sir, I - I - I ain’t n - nervous,” stammered the recruit. He was a little fellow, on the younger side and with a certain wateriness to his eyes and quiver to his frame that called all manner of scuttling rodentia to mind.

“You ain’t nervous?” Faraday pressed, perking up like a wolf who had caught the scent of blood on the wind.

“N - n - no, sir,” the recruit insisted. Faraday cocked his hip, uncrossed his arms and put his left hand to his belt. Goody couldn’t see Faraday’s right hand from his current position, but he would put good money on its being curled over the handle of the smaller of Faraday’s pistols, the one he kept holstered just off from his belt buckle.

“Well,” Faraday drawled easily, “if you ain’t nervous, why don’t you give us a little de-mone-stration a’ your sharpshootin’.” He dragged the syllables out so they yawed, twisting and curling almost comically, but for the edge of menace underneath.

“ I - ” the recruit swallowed, blinking up at Faraday. “I don’t - ”

“Now don’t be modest!” Faraday said jovially, glancing down the line of entranced farmers with his teeth bared in something altogether too mean to be a smile. “Tell you what, why don’t we make a wager of it.”

The recruit swallowed again, adam’s apple bobbing miserably.

“A - a wager?” he croaked.

Goody glanced over and shared a long, curious look with Sam, who gave a tiny, barely perceptible shake of his head. Faraday nodded and took a long drag off of his cigarillo before plucking the butt from his mouth and flicking it into the grass, stomping it out with the toe of his boot.

“See that gentleman posted up directly in front of you?” he asked genially, gesturing to the nearest of the dummies out in the field.

“Y - yes?”

“I bet you that I can put my lead in that fella’s belly before you can catch him anywhere with yours.”

“I - ”

“Tell you what, I’ll even give you an ace up your sleeve. You go on and take two shots to my one.”

“B - but, I - ”

“I’ll give you to the count of five,” Faraday announced. “One.”

The recruit made a sound altogether too close to a squeak to be considered anything else and began fumbling with his rifle, digging for a musket ball from the little pile next to him in the grass and spilling powder all over his fingers.

“Two. Three.”

Rifle only barely loaded, the recruit sunk down behind the stacked bags of feed, angled the barrel carefully in the general direction of the dummy target, though from the way it shivered and danced there was no way in hell he was making the shot.

“Four.”

To the recruit’s credit, he didn’t let Faraday get all the way to five, firing off his first shot and sending a burst of dirt and grass tumbling up into the air a good ten feet in front of the dummy. He was a mite quicker on the reload, though it didn’t make any difference in the end as his second shot went far too wide. Almost at the same time there was the sharp crack of a pistol shot and a puff of hay dust went up from the dummy’s sackcloth gut.

Faraday whistled, long and low.

“Wouldja look at that,” he said approvingly. “I’ve just killed you.”

The recruit stared miserably down at his hands, and Faraday kicked at the sole of his boot one more time. Something shifted in the air, heavy and ominous like the electric promise of a coming storm.

“Again.”

“W - what?”

“Do it again.” Faraday’s voice was a low, warning rumble. “This time you only get one shot, and I ain’t gonna count.”

The recruit stared up at him for a long second, obviously waiting to be spared this final embarrassment, but whatever he saw in Faraday’s face made him go pale, kicked the fine tremor in his hands to a full blown shiver as he struggled load his rifle again. Goody started to push himself up off of the wagon bed, intent to intervene before Faraday lost that matchstick temper of his and hurt someone, but he caught a quick, concise motion from Sam out of the corner of his eye and settled back down.

“Move!” Faraday bellowed. “These bastards ain’t gonna wait for you to take a fair shot!”

When the recruit upended his packet of powder into the grass with a hoarse cry of dismay, the taut coil in Faraday’s shoulders finally snapped.

He loosed another shot into the dummy, hollering, “Dead!” over the thunderous crack of his pistol. He didn’t even pause to breathe before he slid the hammer back again, motion as easy and fluid as it had been during that first confrontation when they’d arrived in town, when he’d had to step in and rescue Goody, his own emotions so ratcheted up so bright and loud and overwhelming that Billy’s steadying presence in the back of his mind couldn’t contain them.

Another shot landed cleanly in the dummy’s chest.

“Dead!”

And then three more in quick succession.

“Dead! Dead! Dead!

The recruit was cowering, Faraday drawn up behind him, looming and incandescent with fury, face red, shoulders heaving, sweat cutting a dark V down his back. He seemed almost hypnotized, staring out at the target dummy like he couldn’t tear his gaze away.

Sam sidled slowly up next to him, a calm, careful shadow. When he curled a palm over Faraday’s arm, Faraday wheeled around and stumbled back and away, green eyes wide and hunted, pistol still in hand though he had its nose angled down into the grass. It made Goody nervous, even so, though in his experience Sam had never once missed an opportunity to place himself directly between the nearest source of danger and those who might otherwise be wounded by it. It was at once his most endearing and infuriating trait, though it had worked in Goody’s favor more often than not during the few fraught years of their youthful dalliance.

There was a gentle, curious twist in the back of his mind, curling tenderly over the tension behind Goody’s ribs. With half a thought he sent back an easy assurance. There was no need to pull Billy away from his nigh impossible task of imparting his skill with blades - carefully honed over years of study and practice - to a handful of nerve-addled farmers over the course of a few paltry days unless Faraday became an actual problem.

“I think that’ll do for the day, son,” Sam said benignly. Across from him, Faraday panted like an overheated barn dog, teeth bared and eyes glassy. “Why don’t you go on in and get yourself cleaned up for supper?”

Though he had posed it as a question, there was enough steel in the words that there was no mistaking it for anything but an order. Faraday stared at him for a long, precarious moment before he fumbled his pistol back into its holster and ducked his head.

“‘Bout that time.”

With this muttered agreement, Faraday stalked over to the wagon where Goody was still seated, though he didn’t bother to make eye contact with anyone as he fished his vest out of the wagon bed and stormed off into town.

Sam watched him go, dark eyes hawk-sharp and thoughtful, before kicked at the grass and turned back to the recruits.

“You lot might as well head in, too. Though,” he advised with a half a grin, “I might give Mr. Faraday a bit of distance.”

It summoned a few weak laughs from the line of men, though most of them seemed a bit too rattled yet to find the humor in the situation. Only Teddy Q didn’t appear especially cowed by Faraday’s little performance, scowling mutinously after the man like he’d been somehow personally betrayed by Faraday’s poor behavior.

While the recruits dragged their heels collecting up their belongings and talking quietly amongst themselves, seeking to let Faraday travel out of eyesight before making their own way in towards the meals awaiting them at home or in Rose Creek’s solitary restaurant, Sam wandered over to lean against the side of the wagon. He was scrubbing thoughtfully at his chin, the way he always did when he was worrying something in that tactician’s mind of his, brow furrowed and gaze fixed somewhere in the middle distance. Goody couldn’t help himself.

“Where on earth did you find that one, mon ange?”

When Sam looked over, Goody flashed him a grin and Sam reflected it back on instinct, half-rolling his eyes.

“Holed up at a boardinghouse with Vasquez, if you can believe it,” he said, glancing over his shoulder in the direction in which Faraday disappeared.

“Oh, I can believe it,” Goody drawled.

He remembered what it was like in the early days of the ribbon, everything fresh and new and exciting and more than a little terrifying. Though Faraday had yet to be forthcoming about the existence of any ribbon, he and Vasquez were hardly subtle, and Goody had the advantage of knowing intimately what it looked like when a man was trying to deny himself the best thing that had ever happened to him because he felt he didn’t deserve it. Though Faraday’s reasons were his own, Goody had seen that look often enough on his own face when he and Billy had first met to recognize it anywhere, even now.

“What I can’t believe,” Goody continued easily, while Sam smirked fondly at him over the wall of the wagon, “is that you lacked the sense to leave them there.”

Sam tilted his head back and forth, considering for a long second before he conceded, “By all accounts, Vasquez has been exceedingly handy up at the church. Faraday might be a bit,” he hesitated before settling on, “ spirited , but he’s a hellion with that pistol and he seems to have rudimentary knowledge of military tactics, at least.”

Goody snorted, unimpressed.

“Sam, that boy is a bear-trap in a vest.”

Faraday had just handily proven to the lot of them that he was all iron teeth and devastating pressure balanced on a hair trigger. Now, Goody had nothing against bear-traps, per se. They were perfectly useful tools when placed in precisely the right locations, but the danger lied in setting them wrong, or else forgetting even for a moment how much damage they could inflict should you misstep. Rose Creek was a tinderbox as it was. Despite his potential utility, Goody couldn’t help but be wary of the wisdom of inviting someone who burned quite that hot into an environment that was already prone to explosion.

“You think I ought to cut him loose?” Sam asked curiously.

It never failed to stir a little frisson of pride in him, even now, to know that Sam respected his opinion enough to ask after it. Goody considered for a moment.

He’d seen the same hunted wariness that Faraday carried in the faces of dogs who’d been struck too many times when they crawled close in the hopes of being fed. They had a tendency to bite, those dogs, driven halfway to feral, loyalty all burned out of them by the heat of betrayal simmering unchecked for too many years. As the adage went, it was monstrous difficult to teach anything new to a dog of a certain age, but as a tired old  hound who had come upon quite a few new tricks in his most recent years himself, Goody was willing to afford a certain measure of optimistic possibility to the sorry bastard.

“I think you ought to be more careful, cher,” he corrected. “I’d hate to see your carefully crafted revenge plans squandered because our Mr. Faraday couldn’t keep a handle on his temper.”

Sam huffed a laugh, scratched at his jaw again.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said demurely. Goody smirked at him.

“Sure you don’t,” he agreed easily, swinging his legs and half-hopping up off the wagon. He gathered up his rifle, patted the pockets of his vest to make sure his flask was still there, and fell into step beside Sam as they meandered back toward Rose Creek proper. “That’s why you’ve fallen back into the role of commanding officer with such a fervor after swearing up and down that those days were behind you.”

Sam cut him a small, amused smirk, but didn’t respond. They walked along in silence for some distance, Goody’s ribbon singing sweetly the nearer he got to Billy, making his own way in from the other side of town. He very nearly jumped when Sam spoke up as they rounded the corner of the general store.

“That ribbon looks good on you.”

When Goody looked over, there was a nostalgic twist to the curl of Sam’s smile, but his eyes were all dark, shimmering sincerity.

Goody ducked his head in a nod, pressing his thumb absently against the brilliant red line ringing the fourth finger on his left hand. There was a little burst of static heat, and a long, syrupy slow curl of affection floated easily along from Billy’s end.

“Best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he admitted quietly, letting the sentiment hang in the air between them for a second, bittersweet, before nudging Sam’s shoulder with his own. “Only by a meager margin, of course.”

“Of course,” Sam agreed, familiar low tone of teasing to his words. “Shame we can’t get Faraday saddled with one of those. Might help him settle somewhat.”

Goody clicked his tongue, frowning at Sam when he glanced over curiously.

“It isn’t like you to be so willfully obtuse, mon ange,” he admonished. Sam’s eyebrows jumped toward his hairline.

“You think Faraday has a ribbon?”

“I think if you weren’t so distracted by Bart Bogue you might have given a little more thought to what two men might be doing holed up in a room alone together,” Goody replied.

Sam barked a small, startled laugh.

“Even so,” he said pointedly, arching an eyebrow, “that doesn’t mean they’re soul-mates. Plenty of men without ribbons spend time alone in rooms together.”

Goody let his smile sprawl, slow and salacious.

“I remember,” he assured, voice low and teasing. Sam shook his head and laughed again. Though Goody wouldn’t trade what he had now for anything in the world, there would always be a little knot wedged stubbornly behind his sternum that belonged to Sam.

“What would Billy say if he heard you talking like that?”

There was the gentle shuffle of a boot in the dirt, Sam’s gaze slipping to the side, grin broad and amiable, and then a soft nudge against Goody’s elbow as a familiar voice asked, “If I heard him talking like what?”

When Goody turned to look, Billy was a vision, as always - raven dark tresses spilling in front of his face where they’d come loose from the knot he normally kept them swept up in, corners of his mouth just barely quirked, belying the inscrutability of his face to those who knew how to look. He still had his vest on, though it was obvious in places that he’d sweat through his shirt, and wore his gloves as always, considerably more reserved about publicly exposing his ribbon than Goody was though he didn’t hold any particular qualms about Goody’s preference for leaving his on display.

“I was simply ruminating with Sam on our shared history, cher,” he provided. A bright, brilliant burst of amusement, threaded through with an almost painful bloom of affection spiraled across their ribbon while Billy arched an eyebrow.

“I’ve heard the stories,” he said, and turned to give Sam a long, considering look. “Very impressive."

While Goody tossed back his head and laughed, Sam threw his hands up in the air and started up the steps to the restaurant, face flushed, muttering good-naturedly as he went, “You two deserve each other.”

Chapter Text

Faraday recognized a dismissal when he heard one, and while normally a contest of wills with somebody like Chisholm might merit a better showing of his particular hard-won flavor of obstinacy, between the raw ache pulling insistently at his chest and the effort necessary to keep his wildly gnashing emotions from catapulting across his ribbon, he didn't much fancy his chances of success. Instead he ducked his head and stalked past Robicheaux, who was watching from his perch atop the supply wagon with a knowing smirk that made Faraday’s gut twist viciously when he saw it.

He knows, a familiar little voice hissed on the periphery of his mind, but Faraday silenced it brutally, picking his way through the scrubby grasses toward the lone restaurant.

So what if Robicheaux knew? The sorry bastard had barely been able to keep himself together during their inauspicious entry to Rose Creek, no matter what that mysterious partner of his had said in the immediate aftermath. If it came down to it Faraday would put good money on the so-called legend being too caught up in wrestling his own demons into submission to spare any effort toward dragging Faraday’s many ugly shades into the light.

He could hear whispers kick up at his back as he made his retreat, growing louder with every inch of distance his boots dug into the dirt. Let the miserable churn twisters mutter amongst themselves about his hair-trigger temper and his sore-edged fury.

It was lucky, Faraday thought sourly, that he didn’t give a whit as to the opinions of a bunch of slack-jawed cow keepers with their fingers white knuckled around their daddy’s rifles. There was little weight to be found in the esteem of such men, would-be heroes threatening with every breath to buckle under their panic-edged bravado; toting poorly kept sidearms whose heyday had been decades or more past, so many years gone by since the last eye sighted anything down their grime-dusted barrels but a scrappy hare winding up through the grass that he doubted there was even the faintest memory of glory left in their rusted muzzles.

Faraday walked slow, despite the furious, humming need to move that was rattling up and down his spine, gait weighted down by the knotted jumble of emotions wedged stubbornly behind his sternum, digging into his ribs and making them ache like the bones were about to splinter apart. His temper had always been a powerful vicious thing, but the way it felt while it wrapped around his limbs, choking and noxious where it caught in his throat, was made exponentially worse by the miserable ache radiating out from his chest.

For a split second, and largely without his consent, Faraday thought longingly on the gentle warmth that had wended its way along the ribbon from Vasquez’s end earlier in the day, when the pain in his chest had hit its furious peak. Everything in him had coiled so tight that Faraday had been certain that either the ribbon was going to break, or he was. Little as he cared to acknowledge it, the sudden, blessed salve of Vasquez’s reassurance had been the single straw between holding all his brittle edges together and breaking the proverbial camel’s back. He shrugged the notion off as quickly as it had come - there was no point in wishing on things he wasn’t even certain that he wanted in the first place, especially with Vasquez’s end of the ribbon shining bright and open on the edges of his awareness, every emotion in him there for the taking if Faraday only cared to reach across the distance.

Besides, he’d only sunken into the gentle relief for a bare breath before he’d thrown it back at Vasquez and reigned his own tempestuous emotions in even further, uninterested in any paltry apologies and unsure what the vaquero was playing at, precisely. He hadn’t struck Faraday on first meeting as the type to play a bluffing hand, but the way that he had withdrawn so forcibly only to open himself back up after an hour or two’s sulking rankled mightily. Faraday was more than familiar enough by now with the reality that the best traps were the ones a man would walk into willingly, so drawn in by the promise of his heart’s desires that he didn’t recognize the bars for what they were until it was too late.

That was the trap that’d caught his mother, once; that had snared his brother in its razor-sharp teeth and dragged him through hell. Faraday wasn't about to let the damned thing take him, too.

The sun was sinking down beyond the squat array of buildings that made up Rose Creek’s bustling main drag when Faraday finally drew up to the restaurant. The sconces were all lit up already, buttery light spilling from the windows and the low, genial hum of conversation hovering in the air, audible even from out on the porch. He hesitated for a moment, some stubborn, mulish part of him gnashing its teeth at the idea of placidly taking instruction where his natural instinct had always run directly counter, even when the aforementioned orders were issued by such a man as Sam Chisolm.

He chewed on his tongue for a thoughtful second, savoring the sharp sting of his teeth where they dug into the muscle. He glanced at the faded spectre of his reflection in the dust-caked window and was surprised at what he saw. Skin sallow, eyes sunken, shoulders hunched up around a face he nearly didn't recognize, all of its features pulled low in an ugly scowl.

This wasn't him.

This wasn’t the man he’d spent so many long years shaping himself into, this wounded, slinking thing making its way where it was told to go with its tail between its legs. He felt more skittish animal than anything, today, the goddamned noose under his bandana winding tighter and tighter with every passing breath, until Faraday was too dizzy and lightheaded to think past his baser instincts. He was the rabbit, brought low by the snare.

He considered the drab, dusty door to the restaurant, and then glanced to his right, where a lively strain of pianoforte music was tumbling along the gutter from the saloon a few buildings down.

Well, Faraday thought a little meanly, rolling some of the tension from his shoulders and adjusting his hat, letting his smirk go sharp as he picked his way back down off the restaurant’s chair-lined porch, most of these dewy-eyed farmhands seemed to think him little more than a bad-tempered drunk anyway, and he so hated to disappoint.

 


 

 

When all was said and done, Sam couldn't rightly say he was surprised to discover that Faraday had elected to cart his patronage down to the local watering hole rather than supping in mixed company with the lot of their mismatched ranks. Goody had been correct in his assessment of the man as potentially volatile and unstable, though the esteemed Mr. Faraday was in many ways steadier than he likely believed himself to be. He was a simple read, which leant enough predictability to his rough-hewn character to tilt his hand further than Sam suspected Faraday would prefer, if he knew.

The most surprising thing about him that Sam had encountered thus far was the possibility that he might be strung up alongside Vasquez, of all people.

They were oddly suited to one another, it was true, and through the lens of retrospect Sam recognized Vasquez’s initial reluctance to venture too far outside of Faraday’s orbit as his own strange way of doting on his drunken counterpart, rather than the mistrust thereof that Sam had initially taken it for.

Sam didn’t much mind volatility in and of itself. It had proven to be useful in the past, so long as he was stood safely a few degrees beyond it's blast radius when it detonated. Besides, making snap judgments in the interest of basing a man’s worth on his stability alone would have robbed him of one of the defining relationships of his life with the very fellow who had issued this particular warning to him in the first place.

Back then, with the war still festering at their heels for all that everyone seemed so fond of loudly declaring the whole tragic mess done and settled, Sam hadn't exactly been a shiftless paragon himself. He hadn't been quite so close to rattling to pieces in the night - haunted as it was with blood and gunfire and memory - as Goody had been at the time, but neither had he tended his own wounds as carefully as he ought, too caught up in staunching Goody where he seemed likeliest to bleed out, for lack of a more poetic turn. It hadn't been the right choice - for either of them, maybe, though it had undoubtedly been to the benefit of Goody’s longevity - but here on the distant shore of memory, surface placid and still, finally free of all the ripples of the terror they survived, it was easy not to regret making the wrong choice.

Sam was a man rooted deep in soil tilled tumultuously throughout his life by the gnashing teeth of all his wrong choices, and though he didn’t mind it so much on the other side of fifty - stood taller and stronger and nearer to the sun - he remembered distinctly the weight of the anger he’d carried with him for so many years, starving for nourishment where he sought it in ground all torn and soaked through with blood. Faraday walked with the stoop of a man whose back had been bent under that damning yoke for too long without reprieve. It was a familiar gait, and one that Sam couldn’t begrudge too much without ambling into hypocrisy, which he endeavored to avoid to the best of his capability.

How much he had missed, so thoroughly hypnotized by the promise of justice, of retribution, that heavy pendulum swinging near enough that he was able to reach out and grasp it for the first time since the scales had tipped against him so many years before.

Shame unfurled in a bitter blossom in his belly while Jack Horne, half-caked in mud for no reason that Sam could pretend to discern, lumbered his way in to join them at the table. They had yet to be served, though Goody had spent the better part of a half an hour laughing uproariously into his flask at Billy’s low asides while they passed a cigarette back and forth between them, every curious eye in the room drifting over on the cresting waves of his good humor. The locals were wary of them still, only Miz Cullen socializing amongst their ranks with any real ease. Even her baby-faced companion gave them all a wide berth when he could afford to, lingering in the shadows and watching them from afar, with a sort of hollow sadness to his gaze that Sam hadn’t quite been able to suss out a root for yet.

Sam nodded to Jack as he took a seat beside Billy, and allowed himself to enjoy for a moment the full spectacle of Goodnight Robicheaux, Angel of Death, holding court in a roomful of strangers. His chest tightened for a beat as it always did at the “what-we-hads” and “could-have-beens” that the bright, familiar curve of Goody’s smile never failed to summon, though he didn’t linger on them long. It was easy to see, from this angle, how Goody and Billy belonged together, the rhythm of their interaction so well-practiced it was like a dance, both of them cutting fond, careful glances at one another through winding garlands of pungently sweet smoke.

There was nothing of that ease, that grace, with Faraday and Vasquez.

They sat closer than was perhaps traditionally expected and had slept near enough to touch on the trail, but none of that was particularly damning in and of itself. Days were long and nights lonely out in the scrub, and besides, the way that Faraday especially always seemed to be spoiling for a fight had leant Vasquez’s hovering an air of nuisance more than anything.

Sam could have believed it to be pigtail pulling, mayhap, though he had - apparently erroneously - assumed that the ribbon around Vasquez’s wrist tied him to some doe-eyed beauty back in Mexico. For all the sins that had put him in Sam’s sights in the first place, Vasquez didn’t seem the type of man to take a soul-bond lightly. The chances of his falling prey to Faraday’s particular obnoxious charms when he had a pretty señorita waiting on him were slim, or so Sam had believed. On the other hand, if Faraday was the pretty señorita, so to speak -

It made some measure of sense, Sam supposed. There was little enough reason that he had been able to decipher for Faraday to follow at Vasquez's heels when Sam had, perhaps somewhat forcibly, conscripted the vaquero into coming along on this adventure. Admittedly, Sam hadn't spent an abundance of time considering his party's reasons for lending their efforts to this crusade - a man was within his rights to offer or withhold aid as he saw fit, though some made their decisions under the weight of heavier consequences than others. If those consequences happened to work out in Sam’s favor, it would make him either a fool or a saint not to take advantage, and he had never claimed to be one or the other.

As if summoned by the beacon of Sam's thoughts, the outlaw in question strode into the restaurant. His shirt was untucked, face streaked with dirt and flashy boots caked in a powdery layer of sawdust. He was rubbing absently at the wrist where his ribbon sat, peering curiously around with his brow knit and mouth pulled down into a frown. He perked up a bit when he spotted them, dropping his arms to his sides with a stilted immediacy that told Sam the motion was deliberate. The glow of relief that had flooded him upon recognition of familiar faces dimmed somewhat as he drew nearer to the table, eyes skipping across the assemblage and clearly finding it somewhat lacking.

"If it isn't the esteemed Mr. Vasquez," Goody said genially as he approached. "Freed from the bonds of labor for the evening, I take it?"

Vasquez mustered a distracted grin and agreed absently, "It would appear so."

Sam made it a point not to dig too deeply into the particulars of the lives that had once belonged to the bounties he hunted, preferring to leave the uncomfortable business of judgment to men better suited than he considered himself to be, but he had shared close enough quarters with Vasquez over these past few days that it had been difficult not to notice the occasional detail that unearthed some telling clue as to his origins.

He spoke well, Vasquez. Well enough to suggest he'd had some measure of education, and he was clever, ducking the majority of the bounty hunters who'd been fool enough to charge after him like baying hounds with ease. He was intelligent, and a skilled enough craftsman that he'd been conscripted into rebuilding the church and taken to it with aplomb by all reports, which suggested that there had been some point in his life when he'd shouldered at least a portion of the responsibility for maintaining a property somewhere, though Sam didn't especially care to ask.

It was a lesson that Sam had learned early on in his career as the seeking arm of the law: when it was you stood between a man and the rope, there was little to be gained in studying the minutiae of his life. Ask enough questions to suss out the areas where his defenses might be softest, where a casual sidestep might kick him into desperation and carelessness, but don't spend too much time worrying about whether he was a good man or not, whether he had earned his fate. Judgment was a game meant for holier minds than Sam, who had spent hours, and days, and years of his life attempting to balance that damning equation - how many men had sunken below snakes by his hand in one manner or another? And of those, how many had deserved it?

He’d lost track of that tally in all the years since he first shoved his lanky frame into a set of Union grays, but he knew that one day he and the powers that be would have a reckoning over every mark he left on this life.

Sam very nearly jumped when Vasquez tugged absently at one of the chairs clustered around their little table, worn legs catching the grooves in the bowing boards of the floor and making it shriek and groan.

"Faraday is not here?" he asked, hovering as if he meant to sit, though it was abundantly clear from the way his gaze tripped searchingly around the room once more that his mind was occupied with matters beyond supper. For Vasquez, who had fallen upon every meal Sam had seen him eat with the verve of the starving damned, this was highly unusual. It must have been something powerful important if it was strong enough to draw his attention away from the charred saccharine of smoked meats and the earthy musk of stewed vegetables.

A little more of that certainty settled into place - in that moment Sam felt sure in his gut that the poppy-red line around Vasquez's wrist would loop its way back to Faraday if you followed long enough.

"Our friend had a bit of trouble with his temper out in the fields today," Goody drawled, easy but with a pointed weight to his words that made Vasquez flinch, quick as a pond-skimmer darting out of sight but not fast enough for Sam to miss it. "One would assume he's attempting to cool a little of that fire in his belly, though I can't rightly speak to the intelligence of pouring more in on top of it."

"The saloon," Vasquez murmured, cutting his gaze back to the doorway. "Debí haberlo adivinado."

"This have anything to do with your discussion earlier?" Sam kept the question casual, easy and unassuming. Everybody already knew that Faraday had a hair-trigger temper and though it seemed that Vasquez burned a bit slower, neither of them were the type of men that Sam would particularly care to light the fuse of, so to speak. A flash of something that looked remarkably similar to guilt flared in Vasquez’s face for a second before his expression shuttered, the thin, slightly forced smile not quite enough to cover the pinch of concern at the corners of his eyes.

“If none of you gentlemen mind, I think I will go and have a word with him,” Vasquez said, neatly sidestepping Sam’s inquiry and slotting the chair back in under the table.

Sam had coaxed information out of enough recalcitrant conversational partners over the years to recognize the right moments to pry and the right moments to step away. He nodded at Vasquez, and almost as if he had been waiting for Sam’s permission - though more was the fool who thought a man like Vasquez ever truly allowed another person to determine what he was and wasn’t permitted to do - turned on his heel and stalked back out the way he came.

As his silhouette disappeared out into the last fading wash of sunlight, Sam turned to look at Goody, who was leaned back in his chair so far that the front legs had lifted off the floor. He had his head tilted back, mouth open while a wavering curl of smoke in the shape of an ‘o’ floated toward the ceiling.

“I told you,” he said, smug and satisfied, without bothering to look over, and laughed when Sam kicked at his chair under the table.

 


 

 

 

Vasquez didn’t share the talent to pinpoint Faraday’s precise location, it seemed, which was something of a disappointment. Though he supposed it should hardly be surprising, considering that Faraday’s end of their lazo seemed to have sprung forth fully formed while Vasquez’s, like most folks’ did, was taking time to develop. It had been something of a white lie, his promise to Faraday that his end of the bond just wasn’t there yet. While it was true that the lazo tended to run strong in Vasquez’s family, it differed for everyone.

Vasquez had known ligados, back in his hometown, who could probably find each other across continents if they had to, and others who could barely manage the general direction outside of city limits; ligados who could expertly read even the finest threads of the others’ emotions, and some who never got more than a broad sketch. It was a crapshoot, the lazo business, and just as no two people looked the same, neither did any two lazos.

He wasn’t sure what theirs would look like, at the end of the day, but he couldn’t let it be this - himself yelling ceaselessly across the divide while Faraday huddled miserably on the other side of it and refused to even whisper. Listen, the old carpenter had said.

Well, for Vasquez to listen, Faraday had to talk. Whether he elected to do so with his mouth or his lazo didn’t especially matter to Vasquez so long as he got the chance to hear whatever it was that Faraday had to say.

The saloon wasn’t far off, but even the short jaunt was enough to remind Vasquez that he was sore and tired and hungry after a long day stewing in his thoughts, hefting beams and timber into place to support the bell they hoped to raise before week’s end - the crown jewel of Rose Creek, shining coronet atop a queen who would not yield lightly.

It was an honorable job that Vasquez was proud to lay his hand to, but most of his attention that day - barring the intrusive but startlingly enlightening conversation with a man whose name he had been too rude to remember to ask after - had been on Faraday, writhing distantly in pain and anger and fear. Vasquez was exhausted from the strain of keeping his end of the lazo contained for the brief time that he had managed it - he didn’t know how Faraday was managing to do it day after day.

He could feel his ligado still, a sharp, heavy pit in the center of his chest, the intensity of it flaring in slow turns like the beam off a lighthouse. He was being freer with his emotions, now; letting barbed frustration and that buzzing temper lick down the line every now and again, and Vasquez should have guessed by the way their paths swooped and wobbled that his ligado had settled comfortably into the task of thoroughly pickling himself.

The saloon was fairly lively, considering how early in the evening it was - a handful of local fellows having a drink to relax while a moderately skilled pianist worked his way through a catalogue of upbeat dancing tunes which, though probably better suited to a barn-raising bee or cotillion of some kind, were certainly helping to keep the mood high. He was surprised to find Faraday sulking at a table in the far corner rather than holding court with the handful of gentlemen seated in the center of the room, clustered around a small pile of miscellaneous spoils with their ragged-edged cards held tight in hand.

He didn’t look up when Vasquez walked in, or as he approached, though Vasquez made no attempts to mask his intentions, but once he was within earshot Faraday took a generous slug from his half-empty glass and said, “Knew you was comin’. Felt every goddamn step.”

There was a slur to his words, not totally unlike the rolled edge his voice took on when Vasquez curved a palm over his lazo, though they seemed to slip and tighten in a manner that was distinctly different to easy softness of his lazo-drunk verbiage. Vasquez hesitated for a moment, taking a seat a chair away from Faraday, because he knew enough by now to be certain that the other man wouldn't appreciate anyone invading his space without explicit consent right this second. He dithered for a moment before he admitted, “I thought you might be in the restaurant.”

“I know,” Faraday replied, sharp and short, finally looking up from his glass. “Or didn't you hear me just say so?”

His hair was mussed, from his hat or from tugging at it in frustration or simply from the abuse of the day, green eyes still sharp for the slight glassy sheen to them, liquor flush blooming in a wash of pink across his cheeks, the bridge of his nose, and throwing his freckles into starker relief than usual. He really was comely, even glaring at Vasquez with his mouth twisted down into a scowl. A quick, hot bolt of want panged low in Vasquez’s belly, ricocheting down across the lazo from his side before he could catch it. Faraday snorted, half-rolling his eyes and tearing his gaze away again.

“Flattery ain’t gonna get you where you think it is, hombre,” he said, a warning edge of menace curling through the words. Vasquez could feel the wild tangle of his emotions seethe around themselves at the far end of their lazo, something pulsing at the core of the storm for a beat before it was snuffed out. He couldn't rightly make out what had just flickered to life before it fluttered and died under the icy twist of everything else Faraday was carrying, but he hoped it had been something good.

Vasquez considered his next words carefully. For all that their acquaintance had been remarkably brief, he knew that he and Faraday were balanced on a knife-edge. He thought for a brief flash of a moment on his abuela, and cats, once scalded.

There was a second glass on the table, next to a half-empty bottle of rye bourbon, and Faraday must have caught Vasquez’s glance at it or sensed his curiosity along the lazo because he spoke unprompted to explain.

“Told you, I knew you’d be coming.” He paused for a moment, and corrected, “You, or one of the others, if you didn’t feel up to the trouble. Nosy bastards, the whole bunch of ‘em.”

Vasquez huffed a laugh through his nose, because truer words had never been spoken. He reached for the glass slowly, arcing a curious eyebrow at Faraday while his fingers still hovered in the proprietary space where he could withdraw them if necessary without overstepping Faraday’s good humor.

“You mind?”

“S’it matter if I do?” Faraday’s reply was instant, tone bitter and sharp enough that it had pierced painfully between Vasquez’s ribs before he had even fully processed what Faraday said.

He flinched back from the glass before he touched it, frowning at Faraday and clasping one hand with the other to keep from knuckling at the sore knot that had suddenly lodged behind his sternum. Faraday was busy throwing back the remaining contents of his own glass, sprawling in his chair as he did it with a lackadaisical ease that was too fluid to be natural.

“Por supuesto, guero,” Vasquez said quietly, not wanting a sudden shift in the timbre of their conversation to draw undue attention. “Of course it matters.”

Faraday loosed another sharp huff of humor, brittle sound pulled just taut enough to land on the miserable side of amused.

“Bullshit,” he muttered, mean smirk carving one side of his mouth up into a menacing point. “Didn’t seem to matter’at I minded this mornin’.”

Vasquez swallowed, thick, and tore his eyes away from the flint-edged accusation in Faraday’s glare. He pressed his mouth into a thin, miserable line and sighed, pushing irritably at the flopping cuffs of his blouse until they were rucked up to his elbows and tucked into themselves, fabric damp and heavy from the labor of the day.

“That was - ” he started, and then sighed again. “Mierda. I was - I behaved...poorly.”

Faraday snorted.

“Poorly,” he drawled, leaning back in his chair and shrugging with such force that some of the liquor in his glass slopped over onto his hand. “‘s a nice way to put it.”

Vasquez frowned, forced himself to look up to where Faraday was watching him from a few feet away. The air between them was thick, heavy in a way that made Vasquez’s hackles prick and jump. It was the same kind of electricity that preceded thunderstorms - the bad ones that split posts in farm fences and set pastures alight.

“I was upset,” Vasquez said, edge of his tone more clipped than he’d meant it to be.

“Yeah,” Faraday agreed easily. “I remember. I was there.”

“Guero, I came here because I wanted to - ” Vasquez started, but Faraday scowled and cut his palm through the air like a knife.

"You wanted’a what?” he asked, sneering meanly, leaning in and letting his voice go low and dangerous. “Talk? As I recall, that did not go especially well for either of us."

"Apologize!"

Vasquez and Faraday both blinked as the word catapulted into the air, so close on the tail of Faraday’s statement that Vasquez didn’t realize right at first that he’d been the one to say it. He glanced around, noticing sheepishly that the sharp bark had drawn a few curious gazes, and scooted his chair in a little nearer to Faraday’s before taking a deep breath and trying again, gentler.

“I wanted to apologize,” he said quietly, and he kept his eyes on Faraday’s face, the careful placidity that had fallen like a screen over the brief beat of shock. “I was upset, and I let my temper get the better of me. The things that I said to you, the things I asked of you - they weren’t fair.”

“Y’figure that out all on your own?” Faraday grumbled, swigging from his tumbler. It was a weaker bite than usual, which Vasquez elected to measure as progress.

“Not really,” he admitted, offering a tentative, sheepish smile. Faraday’s emotions remained a violent knot at the end of the lazo but they had stilled somewhat in the last few moments. Vasquez was willing to do whatever it took to keep them that way. “Had to have a little sense talked into me.”

Faraday hummed - a surprised, noncommittal sound - and cut his gaze away to peer into the thin layer of amber ringing the bottom of his glass for a long, thoughtful moment before he drained it dry. He grimaced a little at the burn and licked absently at his teeth, tilting his empty glass back and forth and watching it like he thought it might refill itself if he only stared hard enough.

Vasquez had a hand halfway to the bottle between them, intent on tipping a further dram or two into Faraday’s glass before finally filling his own, when Faraday sighed through his nose and asked, gruff and mean, “S’pose you think that oughta be enough to fix everythin’, do you?”

A sharp, angry sting snapped out across their lazo, catching Vasquez just behind his ribs like the hard-edged crack of a whip. It was a telling thing, to flinch, but he had never claimed the talent for playing it straight. He spared a brief moment to indulge a vague, wistful desire that he possessed that skill, considering for half a heartbeat that it might make this conversation easier before he recognized his own foolishness.

Some good it would do, both of them too tangled in their lazo to maneuver, poisoning themselves from the inside out because they were too wary to wear an honest face. He huffed a laugh to himself - dark, bitter little gasp of a thing - and hooked his fingers around the neck of the bourbon bottle, pulling it toward him with the whining scrape of glass on wood.

He didn’t bother tipping any into his still-empty tumbler, electing instead to swill a long, desperate mouthful straight from the neck of the bottle. He closed his eyes at the burn, the astringent perfume billowing up through his nose and making his eyes water. It was cheap bourbon, or cut with backwater throat stripper at least. Vasquez had seen more than one barman in his day refill bottles of fine booze with something that wasn’t worth the spit left in the glass at the end of the night to stretch their income, and it certainly didn’t seem like business in Rose Creek had been good these past months.

He screwed his eyes shut tighter against the sting for a long breath. When he opened them again, Faraday was watching him, expression all banked coals and angry cinders, though there was a wash of something new and unfamiliar flickering in his eyes at the same, unsteady pace by which it floated cautiously along their lazo.

"M'brother used to do that when he come to visit,” he said after a beat, gaze flickering down to Vasquez’s mouth when he brought his wrist up, dragging it artlessly across his face to wipe away the tingling, booze-slick feeling coating his lips. He blinked, stilling so briefly that Vasquez would have thought he’d imagined it if not for the stark contrast of the little shake Faraday gave himself, pulling his gaze somewhere inward and straightening up to clarify, “Drink hard anytime I asked a question he didn't like."

Vasquez frowned, brow knitting as anger sparked sharp against the shame already twisting in his belly. Faraday’s eyes widened slightly, surprised, as he caught the reverberation of it across the lazo.

“That is not - ” he started, cutting himself off with a harsh breath. He considered how best to word his explanation, irritated for the millionth time by the intricacies involved in appropriately expressing himself with a second tongue. “I’m not angry with you, guero.”

“Best not be,” Faraday scoffed in immediate, agitated agreement. “I ain’t the one - ” He cut himself off, bit hard at his lip and shook his head. “Don’ rightly matter, anyway.”

He raised his glass, as if to take another swig from it, realizing when it was nearly in front of his face that it was still empty. He set it on the table with a loud thunk, almost knocking it over in the process, and sneered down at the stained wood, “Just the crazy sum’bitch ruinin’ his ribbon.”

Vasquez cut his gaze swiftly to the side, the general wariness he’d carried with him since his name was first posted up above a tidy sum flaring sharper. Most of the patrons were focused blearily on their own tasks, be it pouring another helping from a bottle or stoically studying a hand of cards, but Vasquez knew better than to assume that meant they weren’t listening.

Slowly, carefully, he reached out and wrapped his fingers gently around Faraday’s wrist - warm and sweat slick, pulse beating heavy against the calloused pad of Vasquez’s thumb. The other man’s eyes snapped immediately to the point of contact, already downturned mouth pulling further still, into a snarl, while tension dragged his shoulders up and straight, tightened the lines of his body. Across the lazo, the furious knot of Faraday’s emotions writhed.

Vasquez took a risk, leaned in a little closer, and squeezed, just once, soft and affectionate.

“I don’t think this is a conversation you want to have here, guerito,” he murmured.

Faraday stared, face all twisted with fury, lazo whipping and coiling and shaking. There was a faint tremor in his arm even as he curled his hand into a fist so tight that his sun-pink knuckles glowed white. His gaze flickered toward the patronage surrounding them, skipping from table to table, hunted realization warring with the anger in his face. He heaved a breath and wrenched his arm out of Vasquez’s grip, pushing away from the table with the heavy groan of wood and the tinkle of glass.

He took two heavy steps toward the stairwell and hissed, “C’mon then,” over his shoulder, dark and ugly.

Vasquez stood more sedately, trying not to let the grim determination in his gut show in his expression. He plucked the bottle up off the table and flashed a thin smirk to the host of eyes now peering in their direction, nodding to the bartender, who was frozen in that way a rabbit stills when it sees a fox, hand hovering somewhere below the bar and undoubtedly in the vicinity of a shotgun or worse.

He eased a bit at Vasquez’s attention, and the vaquero turned toward the heavy tread of Faraday’s footsteps as he stormed his way upstairs to the array of rooms their party had taken. He felt firmly lassoed, terrified and stung like a man dragged along behind a wild horse. He wondered if this was what the pull between them seemed like to Faraday all the time.

He wondered, if it was, how he could ever change that.

Fingers tightening around the neck of the bottle, Vasquez steeled himself and followed. He took the steps two at a time, putting his long legs to use. He might be walking into a knock-down, drag out brawl, but he would take every lick that Faraday doled out so long as it got the man talking.

He had plenty of tricks at his disposal. Probably more, now, with the lazo to use to whatever advantage he could leverage. On the cusp of exploding as he was, Vasquez didn’t imagine it would take much to get Faraday going, and he’d had teeth knocked out over matters of significantly less import.

He made it up the stairs just in time to see Faraday’s back disappearing through the doorway of the room that Vasquez had claimed as his own; had hoped, perhaps foolishly, that they might share, before he’d so egregiously misstepped.

He paused, for a moment, casting his gaze heavenward with a silent prayer for guidance, took a deep breath, and then stepped into the room, pulling the door shut behind him.