The Fork in the Road

by Annie

What the hell had he been thinking--staying?

Stupid. Stupid and crazy and, hell--it was only a matter of time was what it was. He knew that. Everyone had to know that.

The bounty on his head wasn't that old, and though it wasn't the largest sum printed on the various wanted papers that came skittering across the desk in the jail every month, it wasn't something to just be shuffled to the side and left forgotten, either.

How many times during the past year and a half had he or one of the others pulled his likeness out from the stack they'd get sent and end up burning it to ash? As if that was all it would take to rid himself of looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life. As if the bounty hovering around his head could disappear as easily, wafting away in a plume of smoke. As if he could.

It was wrong staying in a town full of people. He knew that. Just that time Eli Joe had his fake marshals come round him up had been believable enough, took him easily enough, so what happened when the real ones came hunting?

And they would come. Had to--even Ezra would bet odds--and Eli Joe dead and his truths now buried made for slim chance of his own story ever being believed.

His fate was a sure thing now. Just a matter of when.

Never mind the past few months when those girl bounty hunters had ridden into town. No matter how safe he'd felt, no matter they weren't looking for him, the reality was either of those two could have dropped him cold for five hundred dollars.

That was just it--anybody could, any time, no questions asked.

Except, deep down, he knew Chris would ask. Wouldn't stop asking. Would do whatever possible to prevent any of it from happening in the first place, he was pretty sure.

Chris would do all he could to preclude that inevitable end, and grateful as he was to Chris for wanting to take up such a firm stance by his side in the whole fucked up situation that was his life, it was also a big reason why he'd been contemplating leaving. That bounty would come crashing down around him one day and oh, Lord, what might happen to anyone foolish enough to be standing by his side.

What might happen to Chris--

Hell, yes. He had to ride on.

So what was he thinking, staying this long? Well over a year now he'd been in town, putting these people in danger. Putting his face-- hell, his name--out there like a target, easy pickings to those in the know.

And someone would know. Someone had to, sooner or later. He wasn't exactly hiding in this town--peacekeeper, for God's sake--upholding laws yet wanted by the law. As if that wasn't fuckin' hilarious. Fuckin' ridiculous. He should be laughing--only he wasn't.

Apparently, neither was Larabee.

There he was, cup in hand and sitting across the fire, just staring into the flames. Quiet, had been quiet for an hour at least, the man remaining motionless in all his black silence. Or stewing in it. Hard to tell these days.

Definitely, hard to tell.

Not that it mattered. He told himself he was going this time. Had to go. No way in hell would he let someone possibly be harmed because of him--that being the main reason he tended not to stay anywhere too long.

And he'd definitely been too long in this place.

Long enough to feel a part of something, though. Long enough to think he might be able to stay somewhere for more than a week--the total amount of time he'd planned on being in this town, anyway, until that day he and Chris came to the aid of a stranger.


Lord, Nathan would shoot him on sight if he knew he'd ridden out here now.

But he was out here, though still not exactly sure why. Chris had asked him to come and he came. Now here they both were, yet neither breathing so much as a word to the other, Chris apparently not yet ready to voice what had to be on both their minds.

Vin decided he would wait him out. At some point words on whatever subject would roll forward, and he was fairly sure those words would lead to an eventual bulls-eye on his intention to cut out of town, though Chris had to know his leaving was what was best for everyone. Chris had to be in agreement, but a quick glance to the man still showed he clearly was no closer to breaking the silence around them now any more than he'd been an hour ago.

Just sitting there, still. Just sitting.

It surprised Vin just how much that heavy silence seemed to weigh in the air. Never had he felt as disconcerted about sharing quiet with Chris as he had during the span of the past several weeks. Hell, the last several minutes.

But in considering that, Vin figured he could pretty much understand the consistency of the man's less than affable moods. Chris's black silence now could stem from any number of events that had played out over the last several months--the fucked up time with the wagon train. Those girl bounty hunters and the ruin left in their wake. The godawful shit that happened after Ella Gaines came into town.

Ella Gaines, what a nightmare she'd wrought. Eight weeks past and the thought of it all still could fill his mouth with a bitterness to rival any of Nathan's wretched concoctions.

Yeah, he could understand how Chris would be feeling less than genial these days. Only, if he really thought on it, Chris had really been even less than that, off and on, since way before Ella Gaines.

Sometimes fine. Sometimes--most times--not.

Not that any of that should matter in the overall scheme of his leaving.

But it did.

Gone was that relaxed, unspoken connection between Chris and him. Just gone, as if Ella had taken it with her when she vanished into thin air.

Chris had been quiet, reserved. Like he still was right now.

And Vin didn't know what to say anymore.

The bar room brawl yesterday came on like a much-needed tension reliever, and he half grinned to himself thinking about it now. Fighting with those drunken cowboys was almost a near-perfect way to erase all that had happened over the past few months. Get rid of a lot of pent-up emotion. Felt good at the time, even if everyone involved was left bruised and aching. Some more than others, he thought with a grimace as he shifted yet again and suppressed a rising moan.

A sidelong glance told him Chris hadn't noticed. Chris hadn't noticed much lately. For weeks he'd just sat hunched in that chair on the boardwalk as he'd healed. Scowling. Then, the last couple weeks, he'd holed himself up in his cabin, away from everyone.

Regret was a hard thing to swallow sometimes. Especially when it'd been served upon such an aggressively bitter plate.

He ought to know, he thought. Had the bitch in his sites. How in hell had he missed?

He wondered if Chris wondered on that as well, that missed shot. If so, he gave no indication. Never asked, never brought it up, and except when he'd approached Chris there on the boardwalk to say he could find no trace of her trail, they hadn't spoken of the events again.

Hardly had spoken of anything at all.

Sure as shit weren't speaking much now. Chris still just sat there, stoically staring into the fire as if it held the meaning of life or some such, thinking what Vin wasn't exactly sure.

Though he had his ideas.

Still no words came from the man, though, on any subject.


Now what?

He let his boots shuffle in the dirt as he again shifted where he sat, the ground cold and hard and unyielding. Even the leather of his saddle seemed uncomfortable, and he squirmed a bit against it--back aching, muscles tightening no matter how he positioned himself and damn that fight, anyway. The dive he'd taken into the table hurt more now than when it had happened.

He was stiff. Crooked. Stiff and crooked, though was at least upright, which was a hell of a lot more than could be said of poor JD.

God, JD. Shot by those girls and finally fully recovered, only to be whacked hard enough on the head during the fracas yesterday to be, once again, flat on his back. He'd be okay, though, so said Nathan. That was a good thing.

At least none of the others had been seriously injured.

When Chris had suggested this ride out of town, he'd pretty much felt a wave of release at the thought and then jumped at the chance-- nothing better than getting out from under, and maybe it would give Chris and him a chance to say what needed to be said before he left town.

So much sadness and destruction--Ella, the wagon train, those girl bounty hunters.

Those bounty hunters.

Even thinking on them now made his throat tighten. He could empathize with the quicker outcome of that girl's death--

He'd rather be shot, too, than die swinging at the end of a rope.

All in all, horrifically tragic and riding much too close a path to his own situation, and as he unconsciously rubbed his own neck for the umpteenth time over the course of the past few months, he knew he was right.

He ought to be leaving.

Once he'd made that decision, though, instead of weight being lifted from his shoulders, he now was filled with a level of disquiet like he'd not felt in years. Or maybe he could fool himself and blame that ache on his back acting up. It was awfully damn sore--

Not that it would be an excuse to change the end result here-- decision made, he was planning on leaving. Was leaving. Had to leave.

Had said as much to Chris that morning, a passing remark, really, when he was thinking about it all--that his time was past due to ride out.

So much had happened. JD shot, then Chris shot, though they'd both been lucky. What if someone came hunting for him? What if the next time one of them wasn't so lucky? What if--

Whether he'd actually head to Tascosa, he wasn't yet sure--that problem a much more complex task than he'd first pondered upon. Chris was right in that the minute he showed his face there, he'd be hanged.

Not a fate he really wanted to tempt. It wasn't the aspect of dying, though. He wasn't afraid. He'd been honest when he'd said as much to Chris way back, but, hell, there was also no real good reason to push his luck any more, either. Running directly into a hangman's noose wasn't exactly an appealing thought.

But it was only a matter of time before someone else came looking to cash in on him, had to be, that sum of money too irresistible an amount to just let lie forever, so--

So he had to go. He knew it--Chris had to know it. It was time. He'd told Chris that, too--time to leave and get gone. Disappear up north, maybe. Or west--he'd never been to California. And it was warm there, he'd heard. So yeah, he'd told all that to Chris, expected him to agree, expected him to nod his head and say, yeah, 'bout time for moving on there, Tanner. Expected him to offer to ride along, even, not that he'd allow that. Never allow that.

But Chris hadn't offered, hadn't said anything except to give him a long, slow, unreadable perusal before asking him to take a ride out tonight. Man was downright closed mouth then--

And still was just sitting there now. Just as closed mouthed.

Where was that supposed connection?

What the hell did Chris want from him?

To argue about it all? To not?

Thing was, though, none of it was up for discussion, not that he was even sure Chris was here to discuss anything.

Besides, he was moving on--had to. It was time, or would be in a day or two, when his back could take that much more aggravation.

The ride out here about did him in, though he'd not let on. Man couldn't take care of himself was a man too dependant. And though Nathan did a good job patching him up, skilled hands working out the knots formed in his back from shoulder to hip, he wasn't about to go to him again just over a little increased discomfort--well, more than a little and okay, if he were being absolutely, truly honest, then outright pain. Yeah, he was hurting. But hell, Nathan had his hands full with the kid.

He plucked at a few strands of grass, picking up a stick and twirling it between his fingers. It was dark now, the sun finally dipping its way below the horizon, taking with it its muted evening colors and warmth as well.

Night and all its deep intensity surrounded them. The darkening sky usually found him soothed and settled, relaxed under its assurance of cover, but now, this night, right now, this minute--

He glanced again at Chris.

Unsettled. Definitely unsettled.

Chris hadn't said but two words to him since he'd arrived. Okay, maybe more than two, but not so much more.

"You're not going." That's what Chris had said, that was it. That, and nothing much else, and now here they were, the two of them, night fallen, all quiet, and yet somehow he could sense a storm brewing behind the supposed calm.

That pissed him off.

Not going, as if the words Chris spoke were justification for him sticking around. Stay because Chris told him to--

This was fucked.

Chris finally breaks whatever self-imposed quiet choking him the last few weeks, and that's what he says. All he says.

As if the man had any say in the decision.

As if the man wasn't the very reason.

Not that Chris knew that.

The acrid scent of burning cigar filled the night, a smell Vin would always associate with that man--always--and he again glanced over to him.

Chris was drawing the smoke into his mouth, slowly letting it release into the cool, crisp air. Still staring into the fire, still not talking.

Still driving him bat-shit.

The whiskey bottle rested on the ground near his hand, and Vin took a few deep pulls that slowly burned their way to the others sitting in the pit of his belly. Drunk, no. But the thought of getting that way--

Not to mention how much better it made his back and shoulder feel. Maybe a cracked rib, Nathan had announced--definitely bruised.


Thing ached like a sonofabitch, and he shifted yet again to try and get comfortable. It was hard.

Another deep swallow of whiskey, and his mind again tripped its way down a path strewn with what seemed like every minute detail to have happened over the past several months.

Drunk was sounding like the best idea he'd had in quite some time, bruised ribs or not.

Fucking drunken cowboy going after Ezra that way. Second time he'd pushed someone out of the way, only to find himself hurt in the process, crashing back-first into a table and then flipping ass over backwards to find himself eating sawdust off the damned floor. Lord, he had to stop playing the Ôhero'.

Had to stop caring about these people.

Stop caring about Chris. God. Shot, almost killed because of that lunatic woman. If only he'd managed to get Chris to listen when he'd found out about Ella's connection to Culpepper Mining. If only he'd managed to shoot the bitch when she'd ridden off--and, if only he'd managed to find her those weeks right after.

But Chris hadn't wanted to listen. Hadn't wanted to hear what he'd learned, was too far gone over that woman and her promises then, and now, even now, hadn't yet fully returned to be the man Vin had come to know, and come to--

Well. He just had to leave.

He let loose a sigh, not meaning to and shuddering somewhat when he heard how plaintive the sound as it broke the still of the night.

Chris was looking over at him now. Not asking anything, not questioning that release of emotion, just sitting there. Staring.

At least he was looking healthier.

Eight weeks since he'd been shot out at Ella's. Vin was just glad the man hadn't been in the bar during yesterday's fight.

He shifted where he sat, his back and shoulder screaming their disagreement. Chris was still looking at him. Watching him.

"You know it's what's best," he whispered, knowing Chris had to know that as well and figuring his departure was what was on both their minds.

"I never loved a woman after Sarah," Chris said next, as though that made any sense in the overall scheme of the subject of his leaving.

What the hell? What was he supposed to say to that?

"Okay," he did say, not sure what he was commenting on, exactly, or if Chris was even expecting a response. Clearly the shit with Ella was still on the man's mind, though nobody blamed Chris for his blindness. Who knew she'd been the one to have had his wife and son murdered those years ago.

Chris was still looking at him. "Not another woman," he said.

"I don't--" Don't know what you're talking about, was what he wanted to say, though he was pretty sure this was all about guilt and Ella Gaines and vanishing trails and so ended up just nodding and thinking Mary certainly was still up for giving the man a run, even if Chris didn't want to fully acknowledge her attentions.

"How come I never see you with any of the girls in town?"

"Think I'll move on in a day or two," he murmured in response, still unclear as to where Chris was heading with what he was asking, and figuring he'd go on ahead and get back to the issue foremost on his own mind. What had happened at Ella's place was over and done as far as he was concerned. No need to bring up any of those fateful events.

Guilt was what Chris was feeling, he guessed, though there was nothing to feel guilty over. Maybe his leaving for parts unknown had Chris reflecting on those words he'd said that night at Ella's, when he'd almost left out of anger after Chris refused to hear him out about Ella's connection to the mining company.

But he wasn't running now, not really. It wasn't like then, wasn't nearly the same thing. Man in his position had to keep moving-- dangerous to stand still for too long, and Lord, he'd been standing for well over a year.

His leaving had nothing to do with Ella.

"Head west, I'm thinking," he said, continuing along his own train of thought. He wasn't asking Chris to come along, didn't want that. Or did, but sure as hell wasn't going to allow it.

Never allow it--God, if Chris was ever hurt while on the run with him--because of him--

"Never--not once. Even when Wickes was set up here, before all that mess with Lydia and her girls--never saw you out there at his place, not one time"

"What're you askin' me, Chris?" Though the thought was there, those months ago when that godawful wagon train rolled through town. Hell, he'd been with Charlotte--he'd been with her.

As if reading his mind, or maybe the expression on his face just said as much, Chris said, "Only that married woman. That's the only time. Only her."

"A mistake," he muttered, the twig in his hand breaking in two. It had been. A mistake. Attention given when he'd not had any in so long, not any he craved, anyway. And he wasn't the only one. Chris and Mary--clear her interest wasn't settled there on that Gerard feller. Chris had to know that. Hell, the whole damned town knew that. Even after Chris had taken up with Ella, Mary seemed to be waiting in the wings.

Not that any of that made him feel any better.

Chris and Ella. Chris and Mary. Chris and whomever.

Yeah, he had to leave.

"Glad to hear it," Chris said softly.

Vin didn't want to talk about any of this, his mistake with that woman and the fact he'd almost left these men for whom he cared more than he'd ever thought possible. His almost leaving them again after Chris had refused to listen to the truths about Ella. Twice he'd almost left them, almost ridden away, left Chris--

Hell. He didn't want to drag all that up. His leaving now wasn't the same thing.

"Just what are you diggin' for, Larabee? If I like girls?" He grinned slightly, tipping the bottle to his mouth yet again and trying to lighten the mood surrounding them, hoping the question sounded enough like a joke. Hoping even more it would distract Chris from what he was sure would be a talk leading to his supposed near- desertions. But hell, he didn't want to be reminded of any of that time--none of it. "Reckon I like girls."


And back to silence. All that whatever it was seemingly over, and there was Chris, returned back to staring into the fire, an odd expression taking over his features and damn it, for whatever reason, now he was feeling a little anger boiling about this whole convoluted path of conversation.

His palms were sweaty. Actually, now he focused, his body was sweating--hot. When had this cool, crisp night turned so damned steamy? He twisted to shuck his jacket, wincing and biting back the groan threatening as his left arm struggled to slide free, never mind the pull on his ribs and back.

"I shouldn't have let you come out here," Chris said, watching again.

There, arm free and he could try and relax again, and so shifted back to lean against the saddle and tried to put a damper on the ire creeping up into his throat at the thought of Chris wanting to resurrect those awful circumstances with Charlotte and, God forbid, Ella. "You didn't let me do nothin'", he all but spat, feeling himself scowling as he glanced sideways at Chris.

He couldn't think.

So he'd almost left them at Ella's that night. It wasn't as if Chris wanted him around--that much had been painfully clear. Didn't even want to talk to him. Had, in fact, been clearly close to rage over just that small mention of Ella's set-up.

And so he'd fallen for Charlotte, or the thought of what being with her could be--and yeah, he'd almost left these men over that piss- poor decision--lust for one he couldn't ever have taking a form of release, of sorts, in another he couldn't possibly want. And neither outcome with either person something that could be considered even remotely in the realm of what was sane or possible given the circumstances of his life.

Jesus, what all hung over his head--or more like around his neck-- what still would be forever hanging now, thanks to Chris and his deadly shot at ol' Eli Joe.

If either of the two of them should be angry, it'd be him. He should be furious with Chris for that--gone was his one clear chance at freedom--making a right out of his life so wronged.

But he wasn't angry with Chris, not any more. Not over that, and not over the comments made during the time with the wagon train. Not over the circumstances with Ella--God, how could he have missed that shot-- Emotions were running high back then--his, everyone's.

And all of it the reason Chris was asking him about women now, he was sure.

Somehow Chris wanted to drag up that shit with Charlotte, was still trying to get over it all with Ella--

His running out on them--as though this situation was anywhere near the same.

It wasn't.

Let me know when I can count on you.

Those words Chris had uttered back then could still cut him to the quick, and reflecting on them wasn't doing him any good. Definitely leaving now was the thing to do, the only thing he could do--get himself long gone. He'd told himself he would once Chris was back on his feet. That, the image of Chris lying there, bleeding into the dirt, still haunted his dreams.

Thank God he'd come back when he had--almost leaving them--

Lord, his own guilt was now rearing its ugly head.

But this wasn't nearly the same situation. He wasn't deserting them, would never abandon any of them--especially this man. Wasn't then, wasn't now.

Meeting up with Chris out here tonight had been a mistake, though. He could see that now. Whatever Chris had on his mind, and with those questions about women, he was pretty sure there would be some sort of quick connection made to Charlotte and his leaving, Ella and his leaving--but Chris wasn't yet trying to talk him out of heading out. Wasn't trying to give him all the reasons he should stay, though, either. At least wasn't accusing--

Maybe Chris just wanted to hear why he was leaving. He wasn't running from them--

"You ever love anyone, Vin?"

What? "My ma, she--"

"No," Chris interrupted. "I know you loved your ma. I mean, anyone else."

His head was hurting. Too much whiskey, he should have eaten supper, and just where was all this coming from--love? It was on the tip of his tongue to say Charlotte, even though he knew that to be a lie. Chris knew too, he had a feeling, which rather made his deserting them then, at least in intent, so much worse a crime.

But Chris--had he loved Ella? Was that what he was getting around to with these questions? Doubtful. Chris hadn't really loved her any more than he'd loved Charlotte, he knew, and now with the ugly truth of that insane woman revealed--

Yeah, Chris had a ton of his own guilt to work through, that was sure.

He sadly shook his head. Love. "Not like that, not--not like you mean." And how pathetic was that? He couldn't even name one person that loved him that much--no one besides his mother. As far as him loving another, well--the name that might tumble from his lips would open a whole slew of new issues. And that definitely was a road best left dry and deserted.

Yes, from time to time he'd thought he found love. Thought, but that was before he knew what that word meant. And the love he held now would never be possible.

His heart ached as he looked at Chris.


Hell, yeah, it was time to move on. He had to leave, and the main reason for that was sitting there, staring him right in the face and asking him about love. Jesus.

If he were truly honest with himself, Chris was the reason he had to leave. He couldn't live around the man feeling the way he did--that hurt more than the thought of swinging at the end of a rope. Almost.

"I'm real sorry about what happened to your family, Chris," he offered, that as much as he could think of to say on the subject of love. Ella Gaines deserved a slow, painful death.

Chris said nothing as he sat there studying the glowing tip of his cigar. Maybe he nodded in some acceptance of his words, Vin thought, but it was hard to tell. Clearly, these past few months were weighing on Chris's mind. Weighing on his own mind, too.

Guilt. His intended leaving, first with Charlotte and then over Ella, weighed on his mind as well. What all might have happened to these men, to Chris, had he not returned.

But he had, and they were now all right. Beat up some, true, and Chris still appeared paler than he had since before he'd been shot. Quieter, more reserved these past weeks--but alive. Chris was alive.

That pang in his chest returned, the one that had him almost doubling over, the one that had nothing to do with the bruising of his ribs.

Time to move onward.

He tried again, thoughts redirecting their way back to the issue. "So, I thought I'd just let my wagon stay. Maybe someone Ôd like to have it--Ezra, maybe." That was a joke. Over the past few months, Ezra had commented about the state of his wagon more times than he cared to recall--leaving it for that man to have to deal with would be funny.

Chris wasn't smirking, though. He was back to looking at him sideways, that odd expression sending out a whole lot of confusion. The man looked angered and amused at the same time.

"Maybe ride out in a day or two," Vin began again, half indicating his ribs and back. "You know, this'll get to feelin' better Ôn' all soon, Nathan said."

No reply. Not even a nod this time, and he felt as though he were talking to stone. "I'll make a pass tomorrow out to Nettie's, see she's doin' all right. Make my goodbyes." That would be hard. If Chris wanted to know for whom it was he truly held love, it would be that cantankerous old woman.

"She'll miss you."

He nodded. He'd miss Nettie more--and that brought forth a separate pang of indefinable pain. God, between Chris and Nettie--

Shifting again. Where'd that whiskey go?

"Good of you to give your farewells," Chris said softly, then held out the whiskey bottle in offer as though he knew exactly what he'd been thinking.

Vin said nothing, just nodded once and grabbed the bottle, chugging a few deep, harsh swallows, somehow thinking there were more words coming--things on Chris's mind he hadn't yet brought forth. Certainly things on his own, though he'd keep them forever secret.

"She's been kind to me," he added, wiping suddenly over his face with his sleeve because something--ash, maybe--must have just flown right into his eye, making it water something terrible.

"You're not leaving," Chris whispered, his voice low enough it was hard to hear.

"I gotta," Vin replied just as softly, and for a long moment during which nothing was heard except the sharp shift and pop of the fire, he met the man's eyes.

Then looked away, too tired to think on it all and pretty much settled with the idea he was leaving these men. Leaving Chris, and that was anguish enough with which to deal--he didn't want his last words with this man to be a rehash of his past near-mistake with Charlotte, or the angry words he and Chris shared over Ella. He wasn't deserting them.

He didn't leave then, he had to leave now.

"They'll hang you, Vin."

Chris was right, staring intensely at him over the flickering light of the fire as if daring him to dispute.

But no, he wouldn't hang. "Said I was heading west--didn't say I was headin' to Tascosa." He shuffled his boots in the dirt, trying to find a position that didn't put hell into his ribs and back. Clearly, Chris hadn't been listening earlier. He returned the stare. "Nothin' keepin' me here--nothin' like you was speakin' on, love an' all that, I mean. I got no one who'll be pinin' away for me." Sad maybe, yet true.

"None of us want you to go."

"That's real nice Ôa you to say, Chris, but you all ain't got no reason to let a wanted man--"

"Jesus, Vin. You think we don't--you think I don't--" Chris stopped, shifting as if he, too, couldn't find a place of comfort, his barked words cut short and then he was reaching a hand out for the whiskey.

Vin handed it over to him after first taking another slow draw off the bottle.

This was harder than he'd thought. Harder than the silence had been. He'd been braced for some argument, for accusations from Chris about the last time he'd almost left them, about Charlotte, about Ella.

"Ain't runnin' out on you Ôn' the boys, Chris."

"I know that."

"What if--what if them girls what come to town had been after me? What if it'd been me the reason JD got shot?"

"It wasn't you."

He grimaced as a twinge of sharp pain seared through his back. "But it could be the next time. Or the time after that, or--"

ÒYou think you're the only one got enemies?Ó Chris loosed a half- laugh. "Hell, Vin. Ezra alone probably has more men looking to bring him down than you--"

"This ain't a little thing like cheatin' at cards, Larabee!" Dammit, why was Chris making this hard? "I ain't some little, nothin' bounty, you know that! Five hunnerd dollars brings a lot a' men come lookin'-- just a matter of when they find me." He paused, feelings of guilt eating at him for what might be--what would be. "An' when they do, don't think they'll hesitate to run you all down to get t' me."

"That won't happen."

"You ain't listenin', Chris. I been there. Both sides. Took my own fair share a' men down for the dollars I saw in my eyes--you think dead or alive means anything when there's money at the end of the line? Hell, dead is dead and a whole lot easier when you're haulin' in a body--Ôspecially if they're wanted for murder." He looked at Chris now, really looked, emotions beginning to ride higher than he'd like and Jesus, he had to get out. "An' that's me, Chris. I'm wanted for murder."

"You're innocent--"

Sardonic laughter burst from his throat. "You really think that matters to anyone? Hell, I'll be dead from a bounty hunter's bullet Ôfore I even get the chance to say wait, I didn't do it." Whiskey back in hand and he opened his throat, letting it pour down into his gut. "Innocent. Hell. Maybe you can get Ôem to 'scribe that on my grave marker: Here lies Vin Tanner. He didn't do it--just go 'n ask Chris."

"You're drunk."

Wasn't, but he was sure as shit working that way.

"You know me leavin' is the best thing can happen."

"No, you're wrong."

"Ain't wrong--can't be wrong to get m'self gone and let that town live in peace."

Chris was staring, no, glaring at him now, his eyes flinty and hard. Where was that anger coming from? Yes, he and Chris had a developing friendship--closeness with someone he hadn't felt in, well, ever. And yes, he had feelings about this man he could hardly admit even to himself, but Chris didn't know of them. Would never know of them. This wasn't about that--

Chris had to know this was what should happen--had to happen, no matter how much he didn't want to leave.

No matter that reason he held so secretly inside as to why he desperately wanted to stay.

None of that mattered anyway if someone were to up and shoot him dead in the streets. Chris had to know that. Chris knew that.

"Won't be much peace if you leave." Chris's voice held a hard edge.

"What the hell's that mean?" He was feeling somewhat riled, not understanding why Chris was getting so overly hardheaded over a decision so plainly obvious. Making things--this, his leaving--so damned difficult.

His back and ribs hurt to holy hell and the last fuckin' thing he needed right now was to have to beat Chris over the head with all the reasons why he had to leave.

He had to--was simple as that--

And the main reason he did was staring--no, glaring--him in the face.

Chris shifted to his feet. Anger there, Vin could almost feel it--

"This ain't got nothin' to do with you 'n the others, my leavin'," he explained, shuffling to his feet as well, not wanting to meet this man lying down. Something was going very wrong here. "I just gotta get on."

"You think we can't protect you?"

"Protect me?" His hands balled into fists, fingernails cutting into his palms, and Lord, standing made his entire back throb. "I ain't in that town to rely on the rest of you to--Shit, Chris. You think that's why I'm there? To hide behind you an' the others?"

He turned, angry and getting angrier and having this argument sure as shit wasn't going to change his mind. So much for having one last drink with Chris out in the quiet before he rode the hell out of town.

A hand pulled him around, fingers seizing him in a painful vice. Lord, for a man been shot just two months prior, he could still move faster than a striking rattler.

Blazing green eyes met his, and for the longest moment, the two of them just glared.

"You know I gotta go!"

"You don't--"

"I can't stay!" He couldn't--why didn't Chris see this?


"I'm gonna get someone killed!" He was yelling now, anger boiling up from the pit of his gut--raging against Chris thinking he was deserting them all, even if he hadn't come outright and said as much. Angry that this man above all others, was just not understanding.

"No, Vin."

"It's gonna happen--"

"Not if you stay--"

"'Specially if I stay! You know that, Chris--how can you not know that!"

"I won't let that happen."

Words he'd heard from Chris before and he laughed outright this time, feeling like something was keeping him on a tight spin. "You ain't got a say, Chris! You and your gun and your words and your black looks ain't gonna stop them from comin' after me. You can't keep me from dyin'!"

Chris moved so quickly he jerked backward, his neck, shoulder, arm and back seizing with intense pain. The air around them seemed charged, electric almost, as though lightning had just struck the ground at their feet and it didn't make any sense Chris was so seemingly in a rage over any of it.

"It won't happen. I won't let that happen," Chris told him again, jaw tight and his voice a deadly whisper filled with steel.

Vin knew if anyone could keep him from swinging, it would be this man--if he could stay. Which he could not.

Even if he could keep the bounty hunters and the federal marshals and anyone else looking to cash in on a five hundred dollar bounty away, he didn't think he could remain much longer in this town with this man. Not with what felt like a desperate wound lodged so deeply within his chest it might never go away. Not feeling for Chris the way he did.

"Don't matter, Chris," he said, shaking his head and biting off the words and letting his anger slip away. He could not torture his heart any longer over this situation--over this man. He had to go, and all that had occurred over the past months gave him good enough reason to drive his point home. "It just don't matter."

He suddenly felt wholly exhausted. Spent. Limbs shaking almost, he dropped to sitting again in the dirt, hardly registering the jarring of his ribs and spine when he fell. His head dipped, hands rubbing across his face. If he could find sleep, he'd be out for days.

"God, I'm tired," he muttered.

Chris was staring at him, the look on his face unreadable. He turned, Vin almost sure he was going to just up and leave, though as dark as the sky was, there was no way Chris would be able to see to ride anywhere, but then Chris turned back, stepping closer.

For a split second, Vin was sure he was going to be struck, but Chris only moved to drop into a crouch. Inches away. Face to face.

He looked at him, Chris staring directly back, and he found he couldn't read or maybe didn't want to read what was going on there behind Chris's eyes. "Don't matter, Chris," he said again.

"It does," Chris answered him and stretched both hands out to rest atop his shoulders. Connected.

He didn't dare move. Chris didn't move. Why was Chris doing this, coming so close, touching him--making this all so hard?

"What are you looking for, Vin?"

"I have to leave, Chris. It's what's best." He pulled away, Chris's hands dropping from his shoulders and seeming to take with them what heat was left in his body. He shivered.

"Why are you running?"

"What?" Hadn't he been saying the same thing over and over? Hadn't he explained himself enough as to why he was riding out? Someone was going to get hurt--someone was going to--Chris might-- "Ain't runnin', Chris. This ain't about Charlotte, or what all happened out t' Ella's. This ain't the same as then, my leaving. It ain't the same thing."

"I know that," Chris replied. "But I want to know what you're running from. Who."

"Who? Shit, Chris, ain't like I can see the future. Ain't like I know the name of whoever it is 'll finally drop me for the bounty."

"That's not gonna happen--"

"You don't know that!" He shifted and then Chris shifted. It was unnerving having Chris this close.

"So you'd rather go back to being on your own? Wouldn't you rather have us--have me--to watch your back?"

"Watch my back? You can't be with me twenty four hours a day, Chris--"

"Who says?"

He opened his mouth to protest, and then out of nowhere, swift as wind, Chris's lips swept across his.

Oh. God.

He pulled away, muscles wrenching and fuck! The searing pain in his back didn't hurt half as much as what just happened.

"What the--" he whispered, fingers half rising toward his lips. He pulled his hand away, feeling the rise of a deeply planted desire laced with a whole hell of a lot of confusion nearing panic, and Christ, if this was some sort of--what the hell was this? "What the hell was that?"

Chris stayed perfectly still. Not moving. Not smiling. Not scowling either, just there. Staring at him. What the hell just happened?

"Isn't that what you're running from, Vin?"

"What! I--" he started, cutting himself off because he didn't know what to say and what the hell was this? What was Chris thinking? Oh, God, he couldn't do this. Panic rose from his gut in choking streams.

"Isn't it me you're running from?"

"You're drunk, Chris," he whispered, because it had to be that-- could be the only explanation--


"Then it must be me that's drunk." And he'd been halfway there, only now, after that, he felt stone, cold sober.

Where was this coming from that Chris felt he could do that? No way had he ever given voice or action to his hidden desire--not subtly, sure as shit not overtly. No. Never. He could hardly accept it all himself, had pushed that whole part of him away to the furthest recess of his mind. Chris couldn't possibly know.

And yet--

He couldn't breathe. There was no room to catch a breath. His chest felt like it was restrained inside a vice, sucking away what little precious air he could get.

Chris's face was unreadable, features relaxed yet tense, as if there was anger still lingering there--anger and amusement and--Jesus, what the hell else? "I don't--Chris, I ain't--"

"What is it you want from me?"

God, what a question. How could Chris ask him this?

He looked into the depths of Chris's eyes--nothing there to show this was any misunderstanding--no hint of humor--

"I don't want nothin' from you." A lie, but none of this made any sense anyway, so what did it matter?

And then Chris's voice, soft and low, pulling him in as the man bent down to whisper words into his ear. Reeling him in like a fish on a line. "You sure 'bout that, Vin?"

He just reacted--hell, maybe he was some drunk after all--and reached out himself, grabbing and thrusting toward Chris, never mind the pain spiraling from his arm to his ribs and down the whole of his back because if he could just have a little more of this man, he was sure the hurt from it all would be silenced.

This couldn't be happening.

Tongue eager and searching, frantic, almost, and Vin felt an ache stirred up again in his gut, one that had been gnawing at him for months, one he'd pushed and shoved and drowned under, time and time again--

This wasn't happening.

He again pulled away, gasping for much needed breath, bending over slightly to lower his head to his hands. Couldn't breathe. He was lightheaded, dizzy--in pain--

Chris didn't want this. Couldn't want this.

"God," he wheezed, the back of his hand wiping over moisture collected around his mouth.

"Vin," he heard Chris say.

"What the hell was that?" He answered as he looked up, so unsure, so unsteady, his voice rising. "Just what the hell was that?"

Chris inched forward. "I don't want you to leave."

Not what he'd expected--nothing that had happened these past few minutes was what he'd ever have expected--ever--

"I can't--" His mind was whirling. "I don't know what--"

"You belong here."

That made him want to laugh, he'd never belonged anywhere ever in his life--and yet, somehow Chris was right and he knew it. Never had he felt more at ease--more at home--than with this man. He stared at Chris, trying to find some explanation--but Lord, Chris couldn't want him the way he wanted Chris--couldn't--

"You belong here, with me."

And then Chris rushed in, closing the gap between them, and he met him head on. Hands grasping, clutching, twisting at fabric and he thrust forward, Chris rolling flat to the ground as he tumbled over him.

His mouth roved everywhere, tasting, searching, riding over Chris' s skin as he nipped, sucked and bit him--he couldn't get enough. Chris's hands groped at him, finally wrapping the back of his head to still him, and they rolled over and over, then over again, Chris plunging his tongue down deep, filling his mouth with warmth and taste and everything he'd yearned for since that very first day they'd met.

This was happening--shit--

His hands came around Chris's back, his legs wrapping and wanting to imprison Chris forever against him, pulling him in, never wanting to let go. This was so right, he thought, felt so right--so right--and yet--

"Wait," he mumbled, pulling away as best he could manage with having Chris's weight atop him, because he didn't understand. Couldn't figure out-- "Stop." He looked at Chris as he braced himself on his elbows and somewhere in the back of his head registered his body screaming in agony. Didn't matter, though, that pain. He pushed it away, instead focusing on all this--this new pain. "Why, Chris--why you doin' this?"

Chris had that look on his face, that barely there grin he'd seen so many times. "You're askin' me that now?"

"What about Mary, Chris? What about--what about Buck, and the others?"

"Are you telling me you want Mary like this?"

"Me? Mary? No--no, I--"

"You want Buck, Vin? You want the others? JD, maybe? Or Ezra? That what you're saying?"

He frowned, confused, starting to roll away, but Chris's hands caught him and pinned him down. None of this was making any sense. "I just--this isn't--you ain't--"

"This isn't something you want, haven't wanted--is that what you're trying to tell me?"

Hell, this was everything he wanted. "No--I mean yes, I do want, I hoped, I just didn't think--"

"Then shut up, Vin," Chris all but hissed at him, then sank his tongue into his mouth again.

He moaned, some from the pain in his ribs, the pain in his back, the incredible pleasure in his mouth--but mostly from the searing stab to his heart.

This time, Chris pulled back, rising up just enough they could see each other. "You alright?"

No, he wasn't even half all right, but what was causing him pain had nothing to do with his back and ribs, and everything to do with this man.

"I gotta--"

"Stay. You gotta stay," Chris growled at him, though the burning behind the man's eyes seemed to reflect more desire than anger.

He sat up, or tried to, anyway. It was hard, moving. Hands braced around him and gentled him upright. Felt like pain wherever Chris touched him. A good pain.

This time he met the man's eyes, "I don't understand."

Chris turned to sit aside him, their thighs brushing one another. "Funny," Chris began, "'Cause I think I finally do."

"Do what?"

"I ain't blind, Vin."

Oh, Lord, he thought, maybe not so subtle after all. "What--"

Chris held out a hand to stop him. "No, listen. I've known for a while you were--well, let's just say it wasn't ever obvious to anyone but me."

Obvious. Hell. He sunk his fingers into the grass, ripping it out by the roots, which was only half as satisfying as the idea of ripping out his own hair. Less painful, though. "Chris, I'm--"

"I've never minded, Vin. In fact--"

He looked up at that, swallowing the word sorry before it slipped out. There was some measure of warmth there in Chris's eyes, half- surprised to see it, and he let that warmth seep into him. This was real. "You. Never minded."

A half grin stole across Chris's face, and then he was shaking his head. Chris was pulling up grass as well. "I think maybe I've always known, Vin--maybe wanted you as much--but then Charlotte. Ella."

"Mary," they both said.

Chris grinned, and Vin felt sure his heart was going to pound itself out of his chest. He said nothing, not trusting himself to words.

Chris seemed to be studying him. "You hurting?"

Before he could answer, Chris was up and moving, heading to dig into the saddlebags and finding and retrieving the bottle of salve.

"Nathan," Chris said with a grin. He glanced up and held out the bottle. "You'll let me help?"

There was a rock lodged so deeply in his throat, he could hardly choke out the words. "I don't understand what this--"

"Hell, Vin. I'm not sure I understand myself."

He watched as Chris moved nearer. Did what he could to help rid himself of his shirt, his and Chris's eyes locking as Chris started to help him undo the buttons.

"But I know you're hurting and I know I want to help ease that pain. I know I want to touch."


"And I know you aren't riding out," Chris whispered. "You aren't going."

Forget the salve, he thought, as the first touch of Chris's hands against his skin seemed to ease a whole hell of a lot of aches. He let his finger trace the bow in Chris's lip and shook his head. "This ain't right, you an' me."

"I know that, too," Chris agreed, not stopping. Not slowing. Not even wavering in his touch.

Hands skimmed lightly over the bruising around his torso.

"Shouldn't happen, this 'tween us."


Fingers brushed fleetingly across his nipples. God. This was happening.

"Don't make sense--" he gasped.

"None of it."

Them together like this, he and Chris touching one another--he tilted his head some, looking up. "This really what you want?"

"I'm here, aren't I?"

He loosed a quiet laugh. "Hell. I should just ride on--"

"That what you want?"

"Not hardly," he said and closed his eyes as Chris helped him ease prone. Fingers worked ointment onto his bared back, gentle yet firm.

A feather touch dipped just under the fabric covering the swell of his ass and he gasped again, softer this time.

Jesus. Him and Chris.

This was stupid. Stupid and crazy and--it was only a matter of time, was what it was.

He knew that. Chris knew that.

What the hell had he been thinking--leaving?