by Amy


Chris Larabee stepped out of the Clarion front office and onto the boardwalk, scanning the darkened street with hooded eyes. The discussion with Mary Travis had not gone well. She'd been mighty upset with him for dragging the other peacekeepers off to help Ella Gaines, and rightly so -- their obligation was to this town, and if Chris had had a sane thought in his head at the time, he should have at least left a few of their number behind to protect Four Corners.

But when it came to Ella Gaines, Chris was far from sane. Chris had a suspicion that she'd put something in his coffee that day she'd come to see him out of the jail cell where he'd spent a drunken night, but he couldn't prove it.

At any rate, he felt he ought to apologize to Ms. Travis for his mistake; but she hadn't been in the mood for an apology. In fact, she'd been a dripping mess from some gizmo that had busted in her printing press and spewed ink all over her face and clothes, and had been icier than a rat's tit in winter.

She hadn't reamed him for his dereliction of duty, though. Actually, she'd raged at him about how she couldn't care less if some random outlaw burned this "Godforsaken backwater" to the ground, taking it's "gamblers, gunslingers, whores (he'd been surprised to hear that one come out of her prim Victorian mouth, but when a woman gets mad...) and the rest of it's filthy, foul-mouthed, un-Christian population" with it.

"And another thing," she'd snapped, taking a step towards him from which he unconsciously backed away before realizing he was a Man and thus ought to stand his ground. "As the so-called leader of your miserable farce of a group, one would think you could at least wear a discreet pair of pants! It's -- it's indecent, the way your -- your -- well, the way one can always tell -- well, it's disgusting! Spend an extra penny for a larger size, for the love of the Almighty!"

In the filtered lamp light outside the Clarion, Chris self-consciously tugged at his -- his -- well, he adjusted himself, and stepped off the boardwalk, crossing the street toward the saloon. Where the hell did that woman get off telling him how to dress? The tight pants were integral to his black ensemble. Plus, baggy pants only got caught on nails and such at the wrong moments. And besides, maybe one of these days the right person would notice his -- his -- well.

Sure, the snug fit made them a bit hard to get out of, but it wasn't as if he had much need lately to get out of them quick. Chris grimaced at the thought. The working girls had long ago lost appeal. He'd thought that might be because he needed a little change of pace, so he struck up a relationship with Ezra Standish on the side. The gambler was a notorious flirt (to put it mildly -- he hadn't gotten the nickname 'E.Z. Ezra' for nothing), and admittedly was pretty good in bed. But Ezra had an annoying habit of breaking out into self-flagellating tirades about how no one trusted him, or waxing long-windedly about his traumatic childhood. After a while, Chris couldn't handle it, not even for the most sensual, mind-numbing, ball-throbbing orgasms he'd ever had in his life.

Even Ella hadn't filled the void that seemed to be growing around his heart. Well, all right, no surprise there -- that psychopathic, ludicrous, reason-defyingly-characterized witch couldn't fill anybody's void. But still. Chris sighed, pausing just outside the saloon's batwing doors, and gazed wistfully into the smoky saloon.

It struck him, at the same time he saw ... HIM. Chris stood, rooted to the spot, hearing nothing, seeing nothing, feeling nothing -- his whole world was suddenly wrapped up in the vision in buckskin leaning languorously against the bar. Vin Tanner. The long, stringy hair; the thin lips; the too-squinty, nearly colorless blue eyes -- good God, he was beautiful!

Just then Vin glanced toward the saloon entrance, and Chris ducked to the side, flattening himself up against the wall beside the batwing doors lest Vin see him. All of a sudden, Chris Larabee -- black-clad, steely-eyed, quick-draw, most highly feared this side of Illinois gunslinger that he was -- felt shy.

He was in love. With Vin Tanner.

He knew that now. And with the knowledge came a terrible contradiction of feelings -- relief at understanding the reason behind his wistfulness of late; fear that the fiasco with Ella Gaines had destroyed Vin's respect and any potential love for him; and the realization that the tight black pants really were not constructed for the intensity of passion he was feeling at the moment.

First things first; Chris looked quickly around and, seeing no one coming, reached down and swiftly unbuttoned his fly, releasing the pressure on his -- his -- well. Then he fastened up his long duster to hide himself, and peered at his faint reflection in the saloon window. That worked. He looked kind of dumpy with the duster buttoned up -- it was more effective unbuttoned and in strong winds, when it could whip ominously around his legs -- but at least this way he could broach the subject of his feelings with Vin subtly.

On the other hand, what was going on with his hair? His hat hung down his back by its string and he stared at his bare head in horror for a moment before digging in his pocket for his tin of bear grease. He had ghastly hat-head. He slicked the offending blond wisps back as well as he could, and smiled at himself. Smiled a little smaller. Smiled again with less teeth. Narrowed his eyes, wiped the smile off his face, and glowered. Yep, that worked. Finally he took a deep breath and went into the saloon.

Chris's heart quivered in his chest; his feet felt as if they had a mind of their own, moving him inexorably toward the source of his soul's torment. Then Vin saw him coming and smiled that coy, sweet smile of his. Chris could hardly keep himself from throwing himself at the younger man's feet, crying out his love, and getting to work on Vin's -- on his -- well, by this time we do know what I'm talking about, don't we?

Instead, Chris sidled up to the bar beside Vin and ordered a whiskey.

"How you doin', cowboy?"

Chris suppressed a pleased smile; Vin had just used the little nickname he reserved just for Chris! It sent a warm feeling all through the gunslinger, and he replied,

"Doin' good. How 'bout you...Vin?" and gazed at Vin lovingly, putting all the passion he felt into the words and into his eyes, counting on that wonderful connection they shared to help Vin understand.

"Doin' okay." Vin paused, and squinted (rendering himself nearly blind) at Chris. "You sure you're okay? You look a little rough around the edges."

Chris froze. "What do you mean?"

Vin shrugged. "Well, for a minute there, you kinda looked like you was gonna pass out. You're eyes got kinda out of focus."

Chris nearly panicked. Pass out? Out of focus? Where was their connection? Why didn't Vin understand?

Suddenly Vin reached out and brushed the rough pad of his thumb over Chris's eyebrow. Chris almost melted with pleasure -- until Vin spoke.

"You oughta go easy on the bear grease, pard. Use too much and it'll run into yer eyes, and boy don't that sting like the devil."

Oh god. It was too much! Chris snatched up his bottle of whiskey and turned his back on Vin, not wanting the tracker to see the tears that sprang to Chris's eyes. After all that work he'd spent fixing his hair, for Vin to say that--

Vin must hate him, for what he'd done with Ella. Chris knew, with sinking certainty, that there would never be anything between he and Vin; no man would say something like that to a man he loved.

Chris wandered aimlessly through the saloon, changing his pace and direction only to avoid running into walls. Tears streamed down his face, and, in between swigs from the bottle, tormented sobs wheezed from his throat. Finally, through a bleary haze of saltwater and smoke, he saw Ezra sitting alone at one of the poker tables, watching him with undisguised concern. And with more than a smidge of invitation.

Chris looked at the empty whiskey bottle in his hand, at Vin watching him curiously -- but not lovingly, alas -- from the bar, and made a decision. He dropped the bottle, pulled the back of his hand across his wet eyes and smeared his dripping nose on the sleeve of his duster, and headed for Ezra.

"Let's go," he snarled. Yanking the southerner from his seat by his collar, he shoved him toward the stairs that led to Ezra's room above the saloon. As they ascended the stairs, Ezra cast him a sympathetic look.

"I saw the exchange between yourself and Mr. Tanner, Mr. Larabee. Allow me to express my condolences on the convergence between yourself and Mr. Tanner that unfortunately expired before even reaching parturition. In fact, you probably don't care, thinking as ill of me as I'm sure you do, but it brings to mind the mispent years of my youth, and the inordinate number of times I was abandoned by my own dear mother in the homes of relatives -- several of them maliciously abusive --"

Chris didn't hear the gambler's words. He was wrapped up in his own private Hell. As Ezra closed the door behind them and led Chris to the the southerner slowly removed their clothes and proceeded to spend the next several hours doing things that made Chris writhe and scream with pleasure...the same sorrowful thought ran endlessly through Chris's mind...

'Vin. I'll never love another....'