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By SueN



SPOILERS: “Obsession” and “Wagon Train.”

DISCLAIMER: Not mine, no money, yeah, yeah, yeah. “Hallelujah” was written by Leonard Cohen. The version I’ve based this on is performed by Jeff Buckley on his album “Grace.” Some of you may recognize it from the movie “Shrek” (yes, “Shrek” <g>), in which it was sung by Rufus Wainwright.

DEDICATION: This for Jean, a dear, true pard, a fellow C/V addict and apparently the third partner in the “one-brain thang.” ;-) Thanks for all the times you’ve made me laugh and for all your tireless (and dare I say selfless? <g>) cheerleading. Happiest of birthdays, hon!

NOTES: First of all, Thanks to Miz Ruby for her expert beta work. You’re the best, sweetie! This is a sequel to the “Obsession” episode and is based on the song “Hallelujah.” I love this song in any version (and there are several). But you know you’re a slash writer when you’re watching “Shrek” with your kids, this song comes on, and instead of ogres and princesses, all you can think of is Chris and Vin <g>. For anyone interested, the lyrics are below.


From Jeff Buckley’s album "Grace"

(written by L. Cohen)

I heard there was a secret chord

that David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don't really care for music, do you?

Well it goes like this:

The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah Hallelujah

Hallelujah Hallelujah

Well your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

She tied you to her kitchen chair

She broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Baby I've been here before

I know this room and I've walked this floor

I used to live alone before I knew ya

I've seen your flag on the marble arch

But love is not a victory march

It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah

There was a time when you let me know

What's really going on below

But now you never show it to me do ya

But remember when I moved in you

And the holy dove was moving too

And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Well, maybe there's a God above

But all I've ever learned from love

Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya

It's not a cry that you hear at night

It's not somebody who's seen the light

It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah Hallelujah



By SueN.

He sat cross-legged on the roof of the boardinghouse, hidden in the deep shadows of the false front where the light from the rising sun couldn’t yet reach. Now and then he raised the battered harmonica to his mouth and blew into it, offering the broken remnants of his heart to the morning upon the low, mournful chords.

Sorry you didn’t shoot her when ya had the chance.

Another soft, sad string of notes floated upon the early morning air as his own words, faintly accusing, came back to him. That had been two weeks ago, and there hadn’t been many words spoken between him and Chris since. Larabee had drawn up into himself and away from the rest of them, away from him, torn by wounds that had nothing to do with the bullet that had pierced him. And leaving Vin more alone than he’d felt in a long damn time.

She lied to ya, up and down the line. The woman’s no good, Chris.

I'm gonna forget you said that.

His gut tightened in remembered pain as he heard again the anger and contempt in Chris’s voice when he’d confronted him with the truth he hadn’t been ready, or willing, to hear. The man had been so caught in Ella’s web that he hadn’t been able to see past her beauty, her passion, to the blackness, the madness, that had consumed her soul and was already starting to feed on his.

I’m gonna forget you said that.

Spoken in the soft, bitter snarl that Larabee reserved for his enemies but that he’d turned for the first time upon him, his friend, the man who’d never lied to him, the man who …

Loved him.

The pain gripped him again, wringing hard at his soul, and his fingers tightened convulsively about his harmonica as the wrenching tide swept through him. He did love Chris, had loved him for so long, and had gotten nothing but sorrow and torment from it. Had stood by in silence while the man gave half-hearted chase to Mary Travis, while he rode off to his whores in Wickestown and Purgatorio, while he’d declared his intention to remain with Ella …

And all the while the ground had crumbled a little more beneath his feet and the world around him had grown steadily colder.

You should all know, after this job’s finished I’ll be staying on here.

Somehow he’d managed to wish Chris luck, and part of him had truly meant it, even as the last, fragile scrap of his tattered hope had died within him. He’d been a fool to treasure that hope, he knew that, but what his head knew had no power over what his heart felt. He’d never allowed himself to have such hope before, had gone through his life alone and convinced he’d always be that way. Then he’d met Chris, had felt the man’s warmth and knowing reaching deep into him, moving through him, filling him and making him whole. And something inside him, something he hadn’t even known existed, had broken loose and risen from him, carrying the whole weight of his soul upon a single, silent, rapturous prayer …


He’d thought … he’d hoped … Larabee had given him reason to hope so many times and in so many ways. Chris actually seemed to need him, to crave his nearness and feel his warmth. The man seemed possessed by the need to touch him, a strong arm draping easily about his shoulders, a firm hand gripping his shoulder or resting against his back, long fingers curving about his forearm in the clasp that was theirs alone. The touch of flesh to flesh that had caught up Vin’s soul and bound it to Chris’s.

He’d never had that before, had never known it was possible. Never had anyone who seemed another part of himself. He and Chris seemed to move and think as one, to understand each other in ways so profound it sometimes scared him. Josiah called it a “communion of souls” and said it was something near sacred. And, in truth, there were times that Vin could almost swear he felt the Spirits moving with them, through them, could almost hear that whispered prayer rising from and wrapping about them both.

Only now the Spirits were gone, and the prayer was broken. Shattered and finally silenced by Ella Gaines.

True, Chris had pulled away from him before, almost as if he feared coming too close, as if he, too, sensed what lived and moved between them and couldn’t bear it. The man seemed caught in a constant struggle with himself, with Vin at the center of that struggle. He continued to dance around Mary, had almost gone running out to Wickestown, kept tearing off down to Purgatorio …

And when he didn’t or couldn’t find what he sought with those women, he always returned to Vin, planting himself more closely still by the younger man’s side, more deeply still in his heart. And Vin, sorry sonuvabitch that he was, just kept welcoming him back, repeating his prayer each time Chris returned, renewing his pain each time he left. And clinging to the love he felt for the man even as it chipped away yet another piece of his soul.

He’d never really known what love was before. He sure as hell didn’t like what he was learning about it now. He’d thought it would make him stronger, thought it would lift him up in triumph over the loneliness of his life before. He’d never imagined it would just leave him empty and aching, bleeding from wounds he couldn’t even see.

But even so, cold and broken as it was, he just couldn’t let go of the hope that kept him bound to the man who seemed determined to destroy them both.

He’d tried, though. Once. With Charlotte. He’d never thought about loving a woman before; men had always been his preference. But Chris had ruined him for any other man. So as he’d done all his life, he’d forced himself to turn away from what he couldn’t have and try to make do with what he could. And Charlotte had been turning away, too, had been as hurting and vulnerable as he. In their mutual pain, they’d just turned into each other …

Only she’d never reached him in all the places Chris had. Even when they’d lain together the one time they had, even when he’d moved inside her, he hadn’t felt her moving inside him. He’d held her close afterward, her body pressed against his, and still he’d felt empty and cold and achingly alone. Had breathed in her scent, and wished all the while it was Chris’s.

And Chris, damn him, hadn’t made it any easier. The bastard might not think he wanted him, but he wouldn’t let him go, either. He’d hovered just beyond Vin’s reach like a shadow, watching, judging, reminding him of what he wanted most and would likely never have. If he hadn’t known better, he’d have thought that Larabee was jealous. The man’s pursuit of Mary had been even more half-hearted than usual, done more from habit than conviction. He’d seemed more unsettled by Vin’s attraction to Charlotte than by Mary’s to Gerard, had seemed more upset by the possibility of losing the tracker than the widow. So when it had ended with Charlotte, Vin had taken some comfort in that realization, taken some hope from it …

Then had watched in silence as the man had gone back to sniffing around Mary, had gone back to his whores, and finally back to Ella.

You should all know, after this job’s finished I’ll be staying on here.

And he’d heard himself wishing Chris luck even as the last, broken whisper of his soul had died.

But even then he hadn’t been able to walk away. Something about Ella had bothered him, gnawed at him. He’d seen the cold, triumphant smile that had touched her lips as Chris had spoken, the hard glint in her eyes, and recognized them at once, recognized her at once, like instantly knowing like. She was a predator. He’d known it because he was one, too. And he’d sworn that she’d never get the chance to prey on Chris.

So he’d ridden to Red Fork and discovered that she owned Culpepper Mining, that she employed the men who were supposedly trying to terrorize her. And maybe something else besides. In his years of bounty hunting he’d learned how to ask questions without seeming to, and the questions he hadn’t seemed to ask in Red Fork had unearthed some ugly rumors. Like that maybe the death of Ella’s husband hadn’t been quite an accident after all. But he hadn’t shared that with Chris, didn’t think now he ever would.

I’m gonna forget you said that.

He hadn’t really wanted to tell Chris any of it, but he’d known he had to. Just as he’d known the man wouldn’t take it well. He’d expected anger, denial, but he’d also expected Larabee to listen to him; wasn’t like he made a habit of lying to him. What he hadn’t expected was to be cut off, shut out, treated as if he’d profaned some holy name.

I’m gonna forget you said that.

Part of him wanted to wish he’d never said it, either. But he couldn’t. He loved Chris too much and just couldn’t stand silently by and let the man give himself to a woman who wasn’t what she seemed. Or who had proved to be everything she’d seemed to him. He’d never lied to Chris before, had never been able to keep anything from him, had gained a name for being just about the only one who’d tell the man what he didn’t want to hear. And to keep Chris safe he’d known he had to do it one more time …

Even if it cost him more than he had left to do it.

Well, come sunrise then, I’ll be goin’.

Except that, true to form, he hadn’t gone, hadn’t been able to make that final break even then. Chris didn’t believe him, didn’t trust him, didn’t want him. Larabee had made his choice, and it for damn sure hadn’t been him. But still he’d stayed, watching, because even with nothing left and his last prayer silenced he hadn’t been able to walk away and leave the man he loved in that woman’s clutches. So he’d been there when she’d struck, when Chris had finally learned the hideous truth, had shielded the man with his own body when that bullet had struck him and ignored the bullets that had flown around him.

Or maybe secretly hoped that one would find him and finally put an end to all this when he couldn’t do it himself.

But he’d survived unscathed, or at least physically so, had helped tend Chris and helped bring him home, then had gone out after her, losing himself in the hunt. Or maybe burying himself in it. If he was chasing after Ella, he didn’t have to face Chris. Didn’t have to look into those haunted green eyes and see the shattered soul reaching out once more to his …

Except that he’d already seen it, two weeks ago, that day on the porch, when he’d finally admitted defeat and told Chris he’d lost Ella. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d lost a trail, yet it seemed oddly fitting that hers would be the one he did. He’d wanted so badly to find her, to kill her, to make her suffer for what she’d done to Chris, to Sarah and Adam, to Hilda, to Buck … to him. He’d thought of all the ways he could do it, had imagined himself dropping her body at Chris’s feet. An offering. A sacrifice. Proof of just what he’d do and how far he’d go for him.

But he hadn’t gone far enough, because she was still out there, still alive, and he’d been forced to admit his failure to Chris. Had been forced to look into those eyes and tell Chris he’d let her get away. And, in a last, desperate act of self-defense, had accused Chris of the same.

Sorry you didn’t shoot her when ya had the chance.

He’d tried to turn away with that but couldn’t, hadn’t been any more able to do it then than he ever had before. Had stood there helplessly, foolishly, while those eyes and the soul in them looked into his, reached into his, and drawn his forth in response. He’d told himself he should look away, should walk away, should take what little of himself he had left and just go …

But he hadn’t. Something in Chris’s eyes, apology and plea and promise all in one, had bound his limbs and his heart and held him in place. Like a fool he’d stood there, letting Chris reclaim him. A battered king on his broken throne, betrayed by his own heart but still able to command Vin’s …

Next time.

He groaned softly and bowed his head, letting his harmonica fall into his lap. He’d nodded at those words then, hating himself for his weakness but unable to do anything about it. Because he’d known then just as he knew now that there would be a next time, that Chris would reach for him and he’d be there, would always be there …

Or maybe he wouldn’t. He swallowed hard and lifted his head slowly to stare out into the distance, his gaze fixing on the rim of hills shimmering softly in the early morning light. Maybe it was time he put aside his hope and his prayer and just got the hell away while there was still enough of him to bother saving.

And what did he have to stay for? Chris was all but healed, at least physically; he didn’t need Vin hovering over him, watching over him, any longer. And if the man wanted to resume the hunt for Ella, he could take Buck. Lord knew Wilmington had his reasons for wanting to see the woman dead, but he could also be counted on to take care of Chris.

And was about the only one Vin would trust with that task in his stead …

He swallowed again and rose to his feet, pocketing his harmonica. He’d already stayed too long, lost too much of himself. And he just didn’t have it in him to watch Chris walk or ride away from him one more time.

For his own sake, this time he’d have to be the one to do that.

Chris leaned against the window frame in his room, his head bowed, his shoulders slumped. He told himself it was time he got moving, time he stopped hiding in this room and got back to work. All he’d managed to do so far was to stand here and listen to the snatches of harmonica song floating through the open window from above.


The tracker’s whole heart and soul poured forth in that tuneless lament, piercing him more deeply than had the bullet from the fight at Ella’s ranch. Jesus, what had he done? He knew with an instinctive certainty that he was behind every note of pain falling from that harmonica, knew he deserved every bit of pain the mournful sounds caused him.

Vin loved him.

He knew that, too, had known it all along. Had even come to rely on it, to take strength and steadiness from it. Time after time, as his world or his own chaotic soul had threatened to spin out of his control, he’d turned to Vin, reached for him, leaned on him … used him. Used him because he knew he could, because he knew Vin would always be there for him.

Because Vin loved him.

Yeah, he knew that. Just hadn’t ever bothered to acknowledge it.

He’d tried to convince himself his silence was for Vin’s sake. After all, what did he have to offer the man? A heart too broken and scarred to be of any real good, a soul so scorched and withered by grief and bitterness he barely recognized it as his own. Hell, he didn’t even know if he could love anymore! Not like he had before, with Sarah. Not like Vin deserved. So he’d never said anything, never done anything. Except keep the man shackled to him and feed off the love he pretended not to recognize.

And God knew Tanner didn’t deserve that, either.

He finally turned away from the window, unable to bear hearing any more, and crossed the small room to the bed, sinking down upon it with a weary groan. Leaning forward, he set his elbows on his thighs and dropped his head into his hands, awash in shame and guilt. Christ, he was a bastard! Just kept taking the heart Vin offered and handing it back to him in pieces, kept finding a thousand and one ways to keep Tanner with him without ever once giving the man the only reason he wanted.

And all because he couldn’t summon up the courage to tell him the truth. Hell, he was worse than a bastard. He was a goddamned coward!

He told himself it was because Vin was a man, that he just wasn’t ready to make that kind of leap, wasn’t ready to embrace a love that violated all the laws of nature and society. It was a lie. He’d never cared about such things before, never given a damn about propriety or conventional morality. His life had always been his own, and to hell with what the world thought. He wasn’t afraid to love a man. He was just afraid … period.

Afraid to love.

Afraid to lose.

Afraid to lose Vin.

Never mind that he might very well lose him anyway through his own silence …

He rose sharply from the bed and returned to the window, not wanting to hear anymore from that harmonica but unable to help himself. He knew he could close the window to shut out the sounds, but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Couldn’t bring himself to shut Vin out anymore than he already had. Couldn’t bear to break whatever fragile thread might still hold them together.

Even though Vin’s eyes had been pleading with him lately to do just that. A dying man begging to be set free from a life that had become intolerable.

A life that he’d made intolerable. He couldn’t bring himself to give Vin what he wanted, but couldn’t let him go entirely, either. Selfish bastard that he was, he gave Vin just enough to keeping him holding on, just enough to keep him hoping. Just enough to keep him where Chris so desperately needed him – at his side, in his life. Fed that starving heart with mere scraps from his own to keep it close …

And then he’d made a mockery of even that by giving himself to Ella. Had chosen her over Vin not because he loved her – love never really had entered into his relationship with Ella – but because she’d offered him an escape. She’d taken him back to a time before pain had existed, before he’d learned how quickly and how completely his world could fall into ruin, had reminded him how it felt simply to let go and be free. And then had told him it could be that way again. She’d made it easy to forget about responsibilities and obligations, about others’ expectations of him and the purpose he’d found in making those expectations his own, made it easy to forget about everything except her. Made him forget that he’d had to leave her once before just to keep from being consumed in the chaos their combined passions created. She’d gotten him drunk on her beauty and seduced him not just with her body, but with dreams of a life that could never be, a life built on the ashes of the one she’d ripped from him and burned to the ground.

She lied to ya, up and down the line. The woman’s no good, Chris.

Vin had known and had tried to warn him, tried to save him from himself. And he’d thrown that warning, and the love behind it, back in the man’s teeth, sneering at the pain and betrayal he’d seen in the expressive blue eyes.

Christ, it was a wonder Vin hadn’t shot him then!

But he hadn’t. He’d merely bobbed his head in that familiar acceptance of Chris’s cruelty and said that he’d be leaving. And even though he’d known – he’d known, goddamn it! – that the best part of him would be leaving, too, Larabee, bastard and coward that he was, had just stood there and let him go.

And had felt his soul wither just a little more.

Hell, maybe he’d deserved Ella; his sins weren’t all that different than hers. She’d twisted love into something dark and foul, and, in his own way, so had he. She’d killed Sarah and Adam, punishing them for loving him, and he was doing the same to Vin. Maybe he really wasn’t capable of loving anyone.

Except that he was.

He did.

Ella Gaines had ripped apart his world, his heart and his pride, leaving him nothing else to hide behind and forcing him to face the truth he could no longer deny. He’d been keeping Vin at arm’s length not for Tanner’s sake but for his own; a heart that couldn’t be touched couldn’t be hurt.

Never mind what he’d been doing to Vin’s …

He waited for another of the harmonica’s plaintive strains but heard nothing, and that silence held a sorrow all its own. Gripped by a sudden understanding, and a sudden chill, he turned away from the window and hurried toward the door, his heart lurching into his throat …

And a desperate prayer falling from his lips.

Vin tacked Peso with uncharacteristic abruptness, his hands unusually rough in their hurry to be done, his jaws clenched so hard his head was beginning to ache from it. A tight, almost painful pressure was building rapidly in his chest and an answering knot had formed in his gut. Breathing was almost impossible, and each attempt sent a sharp spear of pain right through his shoulder blades.

He had to leave.

He didn’t want to, Lord knew he didn’t, but he just couldn’t stay. Not any longer, not after all that had happened. And not with the certain knowledge that it would all only happen again if he let it.

And he would let it, he knew that, too. Chris would look at him, touch him, smile at him in the way that was both promise and betrayal, and, damn him, he’d give the man whatever he wanted.

Next time.

There was always a next time with Larabee.

Except that there wouldn’t be. Not this time. He just couldn’t bear it again. Wouldn’t survive it again. And might just take Chris down with him. One thing he knew about himself – after a while he got tired of dodging bullets and started returning them. And he was a pretty fair shot himself.

One more “next time” might just kill them both.

He buckled and checked straps and cinches, kneeing Peso in the belly to deflate his barrel and elbowing him sharply in the jaw when the gelding took exception to his brusqueness and tried to bite him. Expertly dodging the black rump that tried to shove him against the stall, he slung his fully-packed saddlebags into place, then secured his bedroll, amazed at how much of his life he could carry on his horse’s back.

And trying not to think about how much more of that life he’d be leaving behind.

He turned away from Peso to retrieve the rifle he’d propped in the corner, and again had to knock away the vicious teeth that snapped at his hip. “Goddamn it!” he snarled, spinning and seizing the horse’s fat lower lip in a merciless hand. “I ain’t in no mood fer this–”

“Doesn’t look like he wants ta go.”

Startled by the quiet voice, Vin released Peso’s lip and turned sharply toward the intruder, raising the Winchester and jacking a round into the chamber all in one smooth motion.

Chris stopped instantly between one step and the next and lifted his hands, chilled to find himself staring into that rifle barrel and two very cold eyes. “Easy, pard,” he soothed. “I didn’t mean to startle ya.”

Vin exhaled unsteadily as recognition hit and lowered the rifle with suddenly shaky hands. “What the hell are ya tryin’ t’ do?” he spat hoarsely. “I coulda killed ya!”

Chris lowered his hands slowly, but made no other move, not liking the wildness in Vin’s voice and eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “I figured you heard me come in.”

“Well, I didn’t.” He turned away from Chris and shoved the rifle into the boot at his saddle. “Reckon I had other things on my mind.”

Chris nodded and finally took a few steps forward, his gaze going to Tanner’s tacked and loaded horse. “Goin’ somewhere?”

“Nothin’ gits by you, does it?” he asked acidly.

Chris sighed heavily and bowed his head, knowing he deserved every drop of venom in that hard voice. “Can we at least talk first?” he asked softly.

Vin’s last hope of ever getting away died with that question, and the pain of it wrung a deep, anguished groan from him. He’d been so close!

Chris heard that sound, felt the torment in it as if it were his own, and wondered exactly how much harm his fear and pride had done. And if it could ever be undone.

“Whatta ya want?” Vin asked in a tired, flat voice, still facing away from Chris, his head bowed, his shoulders slumped. Defeat shone in every line of his body.

Chris’s heart ached at the sight and he longed to go to the man, but feared he’d get shot if he tried. Not that he didn’t deserve it … “I just wanta talk,” he said quietly. “I think I owe you that at least.”

Vin swallowed hard as the gentleness in Larabee’s voice shattered what few defenses against the man he had left. He was a fool, worse than a fool, but couldn’t help it. The concern and sorrow he heard in that low, warm voice brushed tenderly against his aching soul, making it Chris’s once more to bend or break as he would. With another groan he turned slowly to face the man, though he knew that in doing so he was sealing his fate for good.

Or for worse …

“Whatta ya want?” he asked again, knowing that, whatever it was, Chris would get it and despising himself for this weakness. Chris stood only a few feet before him, hatless, golden hair gleaming in the weak lamplight, green eyes deep and dark and filled with worry for him. The man didn’t even wear his gunbelt, as if he’d been in such a hurry to get here that he hadn’t thought or had time to put it on.

But then Larabee had never really needed a gun to do his worst to him …

Chris winced and shook his head slowly, hating the desolation he saw in the younger man’s eyes. Hating himself for putting it there. There were a thousand and one things he wanted to say to Vin, a thousand and one things he knew he should say. When he opened his mouth, though, all he could manage was, “I want you to stay. I need you to stay.”

And there it was. Next time. A sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob escaped Vin and he turned away from Chris to stare at Peso through burning eyes. He could still get on the horse and ride out, never look back …

Except that he couldn’t, and he’d been worse than a fool for ever thinking he could. His strength had deserted him, his Spirits had deserted him; he had nothing left. Except the the tiny, traitorous whisper in his soul that had breathed its broken prayer at Chris’s words.


Defeated by his own heart’s treachery, he exhaled heavily and turned slowly back to Chris. “Yer a bastard, you know that?” he whispered brokenly.

Chris was stunned to see tears sliding down the tracker’s pale face, stunned even more by the realization that Vin was letting him see them, that he was making no effort to hide them or wipe them away. “Jesus,” he groaned, taking another step forward and reaching instinctively for Tanner, “what have I done ta you?”

But Vin dodged that hand and, desperately needing to be out of the close confines of the stall, abruptly pushed past Chris to move toward the middle of the livery, absently rubbing his right hand over his left shoulder as the nerves there thrummed from even that brief contact with Larabee’s body.

This was what Chris had done to him.

“How long’s it gonna be this time?” he asked hoarsely, ignoring Larabee’s question to him.

Chris turned to stare at his back, frowning in confusion. “How long’s what gonna be?”

Vin stared into the shadows beyond the reach of the lamp, seeing the familiar scenarios playing out among them. “How long are you gonna pet me, stick close to me, show me how much ya want an’ need me, git me convinced I actually got a chance, before y’ go runnin’ off ta Mary or one ’a yer whores?”

Chris winced and looked away sharply, stung by the bitter resignation in Tanner’s soft voice. “Vin–”

“I could save ya all that time an’ money,” Vin went on as if Chris had never spoken. “I’m right here. Don’t have t’ chase me, wouldn’t even have t’ pay me.” He gave a contemptuous chuff of laughter. “Hell, I’m the cheapest whore you’ll ever find.”

Stop it!” Chris spat, lunging for the tracker and grabbing his shoulder, then turning him violently around to face him. Gripping both shoulders now, he jerked Tanner up close and opened his mouth to speak–

But stiffened and gasped instead when he felt the sharp point of a Bowie knife pressing into him just above the waistband of his pants.

“I don’t like t’ be grabbed,” Vin said calmly, staring evenly into Larabee’s shocked face. “Not even by you. Reckon I ain’t that big a whore jist yet.”

Chris swallowed hard and released Vin’s shoulders, but lifted one trembling hand and gently pressed it to the tracker’s tear-streaked cheek, shaking his head slowly. “Don’t call yourself that,” he chided softly, ignoring the knife still held to his gut and refusing to let Vin pull away from his hand. “It’s not true.” Never looking away from Vin’s eyes, he took a chance and slowly raised his other hand to lay it on the tracker’s shoulder; not gripping, just touching. And felt the knife fall away from his body as Tanner’s arm dropped to his side.

Defeated by the hands that touched him with such tenderness, Vin stopped trying to evade them, merely stood tight and trembling beneath them, a wild animal trapped and waiting for the kill. And still his weakness betrayed him. In all the times and ways that Chris had touched him before, he’d never touched him like this, and while his mind screamed at him to break free and run, his body wanted only to remain here forever and let those hands do with him, to him, what they would.

“I’ve done terrible things to you,” Chris breathed in sorrow and shame as he felt the tremors racing through the younger man’s body. “And all because of my own fear.” Unable to resist the urge, he let his fingers slowly stroke against Tanner’s whiskered cheek, rewarded, and pained, by the soft, broken gasp that tore from him. He gazed into Vin’s tortured eyes, eyes filled with love and anger and a hurt beyond bearing, and wondered how he’d managed not to see this for so long. “I couldn’t bring myself to give you what you wanted, but I couldn’t bear to let you go, either. You were right,” he admitted hoarsely, “I am a bastard. I told myself it was better to break your heart than risk mine.”

Vin exhaled unsteadily and bowed his head, closing his eyes and nestling his face into the warm hand stroking his cheek. Then, infuriated by that weakness, he gave a harsh cry and wrenched himself out of Chris’s hands, turning and stumbling away from the man. But the loss of that touch sent a sudden chill through him and he wrapped his arms tightly about himself, raising tear-filled eyes heavenward as a wave of self-loathing twisted through him.

“Goddamn it, Chris!” he groaned. “What the hell do you want from me? What the hell do you think I got left ta give that you don’t have already?”

“That’s just it,” Chris rasped, his soul a cold and heavy weight within him. “You’ve already given me everything, given me more than I ever had any right to ask or expect. And I’ve taken it, all of it, without ever once giving you anything, any part of me, in return. Not because I haven’t wanted to, but because I’ve been too afraid to. And … and I–” He took a step forward, then stopped himself, but couldn’t help reaching out for the man before him. “I’m sorry.”

Sorry?” The word escaped Vin in a savage snarl and he whirled around, impaling Larabee with a livid, glittering gaze. “Sorry?” he hissed again. He stared at Chris a moment more, then suddenly gave a hard, short bark of laughter. “Hell, I reckon that would seem like it’d be enough, wouldn’t it?” he spat bitterly. “I mean, shit, I ain’t ever even needed that much before! I’m like some half-starved dog. Jist toss me a scrap now an’ then – a smile, a touch – an’ I’ll stick around an’ let ya kick me whenever y’ want.” He laughed again and shook his head. “Jesus, mebbe I should ask fer money. If I’m gonna keep lettin’ m’self get fucked, I might as well get somethin’ out of it.”

Chris flinched at that. “Vin–”

“Hell, better yet–” He suddenly stepped back to Chris and grabbed the man’s hand, thrusting the hilt of the knife he still held into Larabee’s fingers and closing them about it, then jerked the hand up and set the deadly sharp point of the wicked blade against his own chest over his heart. “Whyn’tcha go ahead an’ cut the damn thing out,” he said bitterly. “Keep it with ya so’s you can play with it whenever y’ want. Ain’t like I need it anymore.”

Chris stared at Vin in horror, not at all certain he didn’t mean what he was saying. A strange calm seemed to be descending upon the tracker, replacing the shattered wildness that had gripped him only moments before. It was the calm not of peace, though, but of utter despair, of the absolute lack of hope, and it terrified Larabee to no end. He drew a slow breath and cautiously pulled the knife away from Vin’s chest and out of his hand, then tossed it several feet away into the straw on the floor, thinking it best to keep such a weapon away from Tanner just now.

And wondering if he should try to get the man’s gun as well …

But Vin had no intention of doing any harm to himself, didn’t see the need for it. All the worst harm had already been done, and all by the man before him. “The hell of it is,” he said quietly, tiredly, all bitterness and anger draining from him, “I still love ya. Always have an’ I always will. Found that out with Charlotte. We was talkin’ about goin’ t’ Brazil, y’ know that? Gonna run off together, leave ever’thing else behind …” He smiled slightly, sadly, then reached up and gently smoothed the bright golden hair away from Chris’s forehead. “Only it wouldn’ta done no good, ’cause I’da jist brung you with me. Jist like you was there when me an’ her were layin’ together. Mighta been her under me, but it was you I was seein’. An’ it woulda took more’n Brazil t’ change that.”

“Do you wanta change it?” Chris asked softly, half afraid of what Vin’s answer might be. The man had every right to say “yes,” hell, had every right to shoot him where he stood and then carve his heart out of his chest to use as a toy …

But Vin, who had every right and every reason to be vengeful, to seek to hurt as he’d been hurt, only sighed heavily and shook his head, as honest now as he had been all long. “No,” he breathed, wondering why the hell he kept laying himself open like this, but unable to stop it. “I don’t wanta change it.” He shrugged wearily. “Cain’t. I don’t wanta love nobody else. Wouldn’t know how. But I jist …” He searched Chris’s eyes intently for a moment, then winced and ducked his head, afraid to let the man see too much of what he knew lived in his own. “I jist don’t wanta bleed no more fer lovin’ you. Ain’t that far from bleedin’ t’ death as it is.”

Chris hesitated a moment, then reached out and slipped a gentle hand under Vin’s chin, lifting his head until their eyes met again. “What if I told you,” he asked quietly, “that I came here to stop the bleedin’? What if I told you,” he slid his hand down to Tanner’s throat and curled his long fingers tenderly around it, “that I don’t wanta hurt you any more?”

Vin sucked in a sharp breath and went very still, regarding Larabee with a deep wariness. “What … what’s that mean?”

Chris was pained by that suspicion, but knew he couldn’t blame Vin for it. The man had more than earned the right to doubt him. “It means that gettin’ over bein’ shot has given me a lotta time to think, maybe even more than I really wanted. What happened with Ella,” he winced and dropped his hand from Vin’s neck, turning his gaze away from the tracker’s, “made me see things I’d never wanted to before. Things about myself … I didn’t love her,” he said suddenly, firmly, abruptly turning his eyes back to Vin’s and snagging the tracker’s gaze with his own, needing the man to know that he spoke the truth. “I never loved her. Not the first time, years ago, and not this time.”

Vin frowned, startled and confused by Chris’s admission, unable to understand why any man would want to build a life with such a woman if not out of love. He’d been prepared to do it with Charlotte, but Charlotte wasn’t anything like Ella Gaines. “Then … why?”

Chris grimaced and only barely stopped himself from turning away. He wasn’t proud of this, but was through lying to this man. “Because it was easy. Because it didn’t take any thought or effort. All Ella wanted from me was a wild ride, in bed or out of it, and so long as I gave her that, she took care of everything else. I didn’t have to think, I didn’t have to feel, I didn’t have to worry about what was right or what was best. And I didn’t have to wonder what would happen if I lost another person that I loved, because I didn’t love her.”

Vin continued to stare at him, to study him. “Could you have lived that way?”

Chris sighed and shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought so, but,” he scowled, “I’ve also discovered that I’m real good at lyin’ to myself. She offered me a life without complications, and I jumped at it.”

“She’da killed ya, y’ know,” Vin said evenly, no doubt of that in his mind. “She never woulda let you get away with not lovin’ her.”

“Like you would,” Chris said softly.

Vin shook his head slowly. “Either ya do or ya don’t, Chris,” he rasped. “I ain’t askin’ you ta lie about it or t’ pretend ya feel what ya don’t. I’ll love ya ’til I die, cowboy, ain’t no help fer that. But if you don’t feel the same, then I need ya ta cut me loose, ’cause I jist cain’t live like this no more!”

Chris said nothing, merely gazed at him in a long, heavy silence, trying desperately to decide what was best for the younger man. He knew what he wanted to say, what Vin wanted him to say. It was the truth, and God knew the man deserved that much from him! But he deserved so much more than that, too, and Chris wasn’t at all sure he was the man who could give it all to him.

Surely, surely there had to be someone better for Vin than him …

Vin heard his answer in Chris’s silence and felt the world go dark and cold around him. His knees threatened to buckle beneath him and for one long, terrible moment he feared he would be physically sick. But the moment passed and, though he knew he was far from all right, would likely never be all right again, at least he had been spared some of his dignity.

“Fine,” he whispered hoarsely, having no breath nor strength for more than that. “‘Least now I know.” He turned slowly away from Chris, searched the straw dazedly for his knife and managed somehow to bend down, retrieve it and straighten back up without falling. He slipped the knife into the sheath at his belt, then turned and started slowly back toward the stall where Peso was tacked and waiting, never looking at Chris. Couldn’t look at him, or he’d never be able to do this. “Tell the boys I said goodbye,” he said in that same flat, breathless whisper.

Chris spun on his heel and watched Vin back Peso out of his stall, suddenly realizing what he’d done. The tracker stood by the big horse a moment as if gathering his strength, and panic exploded in Larabee’s chest. “God, Vin, no!” he cried harshly, rushing forward. “You can’t go–”

“Cain’t stay either,” Vin breathed, his head bowed. “Not with things like they are. Fer a minute there, I thought you was gonna say y’ loved me.” He shrugged. “Reckon I’s jist foolin’ m’self.”

“No, you weren’t,” Chris groaned. He stopped just behind Vin and reached out, setting an uncertain hand against the younger man’s back. “I’m the one who’s been doin’ that. I’ve been lyin’ to both of us, tryin’ to pretend that I don’t feel what I do. And tearin’ you apart all the time.”

Vin tensed at the outpouring of words from the normally taciturn gunman, his mind struggling to find the meaning in them. He knew what he thought he heard, but knew he couldn’t trust that because it was he wanted to hear. He turned slowly to face Chris, searching the deep green eyes intently for the answer he needed, but was still confused by the shadows he saw in them. “I ain’t sure I know what ya mean,” he said hesitantly, suddenly not sure he wanted to know.

Chris exhaled slowly, still mired in doubt. “I do love you,” he admitted softly. “I have all along.”

Vin gasped sharply at that, his heart lurching in his chest. But even as he started to reach for Chris, something in the man’s face stilled the gesture and he pulled his hand back to his side, curling it into a tight fist as a cold fear blossomed in him. “There’s a ‘but’ comin’, ain’t there?” he rasped.

Chris forced a weak, pained smile and did what Vin couldn’t, lifting a hand to the tracker’s face and brushing trembling fingertips lightly over his cheek. “I wish I could say no,” he sighed. “I do love you, Vin. But I just … I’m just not sure … that I can give you what you need.”

Vin stared at him for long moments, more confused than ever. But the more he turned the words over in his mind, the angrier he grew at the presumption behind them. Larabee, arrogant bastard that he was, had already made this decision for them, for him, robbing him of any say at all in his own life, in his own happiness. Anger erupted into outrage as he stared at the man still trying to destroy them both. “And jist what the hell is it, exactly, that you think I need?” he demanded hoarsely.

Chris exhaled deeply and turned away, running a hand through his hair. “Hell, I don’t know!” he groaned. “Somebody who’s not afraid ta love you, somebody who can love you–”

“Do you love me, Chris?” When the man didn’t answer, Vin swore under his breath, stalked furiously to him and grabbed his arm, jerking him around to face him and fixing blazing eyes upon him. “Answer me, you sonuvabitch!” he spat. “Do you love me?

“Yes, goddamn it!” Chris snarled, tearing his arm free. “I love you! But that’s not always enough–”

“How ’bout lettin’ me be the judge of that?” Vin seethed. “I been makin’ my own decisions ’bout what I need an’ what I want fer a while now, an’ I reckon I done all right. ’Til you come along an’ fucked that all up!”

Chris set his hands on his hips and returned Tanner’s searing stare with one of his own. “Look, Vin, I’m just tryin’–”

“No, you look,” Vin growled. He took a step closer and jabbed a hard finger into Larabee’s chest. “I know what yer tryin’ t’ do an’ I ain’t gonna letcha do it! Y’ ain’t shuttin’ me out again! Not after all you jist said. Hell, Chris, I know y’ ain’t perfect! Shit, there’s times yer barely human! But I love ya anyway, though God alone knows what that says about me–”


Shut up!” he shouted hoarsely, knotting his hands in Larabee’s shirt and shaking him fiercely, staring murderously at the man. “Goddamn it, you stupid sonuvabitch, I love you!” he spat. “You think I’da stuck around all this time if I didn’t think you was worth it? You think I’d sell myself that cheap?”

“Damn it, Vin, listen to me!” Chris protested harshly, trying to free himself from the tracker’s merciless hands. He had two inches and at least fifteen pounds on Tanner, but fury seemed to have given the younger man a desperate strength. “I just don’t wanta hurt you!”

“Yeah?” Vin sneered bitterly. “Well, yer too late!” He suddenly thrust Chris away, shaking his head as the man stumbled and only barely kept himself from falling. “Ya been hurtin’ me fer a long time now, cowboy. But I got news fer ya.” His voice shook, his whole body shook, from the force of his raging emotions. “If you do this now, you won’t jist hurt me, you’ll kill me. I’ve survived a lotta things, but I’ll never survive watchin’ you walk away from me jist because you think it’s what I need!”

“Vin, please–”

“I said shut up an’ I meant it.” His voice now was soft, pleading, as were his eyes. He moved slowly to Chris, stopping just before the man and laying an unsteady hand over his heart. “This is all I need, Chris,” he breathed, willing the man to understand, to believe. “Yer all I need. You may not think yer enough, but y’ are. Yer more’n I ever thought I’d have in this life or any other. An’ if I cain’t have you, then I won’t have nothin’ at all. ’Cause there jist ain’t nothin’ fer me without you.”

Chris stared at Vin for long, aching moments, his own doubts and fears churning within him. He knew too well his own shortcomings, the limitations of his own heart, couldn’t imagine why Vin, who knew him better than he did himself, couldn’t see them as well. But as those blue eyes, so steady and so sure, bored into his, he caught his breath and stiffened, his own eyes widening, his heart skipping a beat as understanding suddenly dawned. Jesus, Vin did know! Had known all along, had seen every one of them first hand, had suffered from them …

And wanted him anyway. Was willing to take a chance on him, with him, anyway. Knew exactly who and what Chris Larabee was and wasn’t …

And loved him for all of it.

“Oh, God!” he gasped in wonderment as understanding gripped him. Without thinking, he slipped his arms about Vin and pulled him close, holding tightly to him. “Jesus, I’ve been such a fool! And a coward,” he breathed, burying his face in the tracker’s throat. “I do love you, Vin. And I wanta be with you. More than you’ll ever know.”

“Then I reckon it’s up t’ you t’ show me,” Vin whispered tightly, winding his arms about Chris and clinging desperately to him, knowing just how close he’d come to losing him forever. “I’ve about had my fill of tryin’ t’ figger it out fer m’self!”

Chris gave an unsteady laugh at that and lifted his head, smiling wryly into Tanner’s deep blue eyes. “Haven’t exactly made it easy for ya, have I?”

Vin tried to smile but couldn’t, the nearness of his ruin still too painfully close. “You’ve damn near killed me, cowboy,” he rasped, his voice breaking.

Chris winced and shook his head slowly. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “God–” He saw a tear slip from one blue eye and leaned forward impulsively to kiss it away. When a second tear fell, he followed its trail down to Tanner’s mouth and tenderly kissed the tracker’s salty lips.

Vin gasped and shuddered as that warm mouth brushed so lightly, so lovingly, over his, and had to clutch at Chris to keep from falling as his knees again threatened to buckle. But new strength filled him as Chris’s lips claimed his with a mounting fervor and he wound his arms about the gunman’s neck, pressing himself more closely still against that lean, hard body.

Chris crushed Vin to him and buried his mouth in Tanner’s with a wrenching groan, feeling the last of his fears drop away as he finally recognized and surrendered to the rightness of this. Vin’s love poured through him, rushing into all the breaks in his soul and filling them, making him whole.

How could he ever have feared this?

With another groan he tore his mouth from Vin’s and gazed into deep, smoky blue eyes, chuckling as the tracker made a soft sound of protest and leaned into him to renew the kiss. “Not here, pard,” he whispered. “I ain’t lookin’ to give a show to whoever wanders in here next.” His smile softened and he lifted a hand to stroke Vin’s cheek. “Come with me out to my place. Let’s figure this thing out in private.”

“Done got it figgered out,” Vin told him. “Yer the one’s been fightin’ the bit.”

Chris chuckled and pressed a quick kiss to Vin’s lips. “Humor me, okay?” He winked. “I need time ta catch up. And we could use some time ta talk.”

Wariness crept back into Vin’s eyes. “Y’ ain’t lookin’ fer some way t’ talk yerself outta this, are ya?” he asked quietly, studying Chris carefully. “Or t’ think it t’ death?”

“No,” Chris assured him, understanding his worry. “I’m through runnin’, Vin.” He stroked a finger along the tracker’s jaw. “And I’m through hurtin’ you. Okay?” When Vin nodded, he kissed him again, then unwound his arms from the tracker and stepped back, immediately feeling the loss of that lithe body. “I’m gonna go pack some things, leave word with Buck. You saddle Pony for me?” Vin nodded again and Chris kissed him once more. “I won’t be long. Wait for me?”

Vin smiled softly. “Have been all this time, cowboy. Cain’t see me changin’ now.”

They writhed and thrashed together on Chris’s narrow bed, naked bodies moving as one amid the tangled sheets, their intent to talk having given way to this much more intimate, and much more urgent, means of expressing what existed between them. Vin lay atop Chris, the gunman’s arms and legs wrapped around him like bands of steel, and drove furiously into him, awash in his scent and lost in his heat. Chris drove his head back into the mattress, the cords of his neck standing out, and arched frantically upward to meet the tracker’s every thrust, trying desperately to force him deeper still. Wild and wordless cries tore from them as they loved, as they joined with and bound themselves to each other in ways more profound than they’d ever known was possible. Neither knew where he ended and the other began and neither cared. All such distinction had been forever shattered, the two made truly and forever one.

And as one they erupted into shattering climax, Vin’s seed jetting into Chris’s bowels, Chris shooting thick ropes of cum between their straining bodies. They milked each other dry, Larabee’s muscles clenching hard around Tanner’s cock, Vin’s hand pumping mercilessly at Chris’s, each wanting this time to last forever. But it couldn’t, not even for them, and with a shuddering sigh, Vin eased his softened flesh from the gunman’s body and collapsed atop him, trembling uncontrollably from the force of his passion. He closed his eyes and buried his face in Chris’s chest, a single tear falling from his cheek onto Larabee’s flesh.

Chris exhaled unsteadily and slid a shaking hand down to the small of Vin’s back, stunned by the tide of feeling this man had unleashed in him. The soul he’d thought withered and dead still surged with life and strength, the heart he’d thought broken beyond use was well and truly whole. He cradled Tanner to him, stroking his back and burying his other hand in Vin’s long, tangled hair, committing the feel of this man to memory.

Silence stretched between them and wrapped around them, broken only by the sound of their breathing. In that stillness, Vin felt Chris’s heart throbbing against him, within him, and knew the Spirits were still with him. With them. His soul shivered at that touch of the holy and, before he could stop it, the familiar prayer fell from his lips in a broken, joyous whisper.