So Much To Lose

Written for Charlotte for the 2008 Ficathon. Request or prompt: a first-time OW story that doesn't occur until *after* the opening of the series, at least. A casual first-time that hints strongly at something more.
An epilog to Inmate 78.

"Boys, let's get the hell out of here."

Nobody argued with Chris when he said that. Buck watched Vin ride ahead, not waiting for any of them as they left the prison yard. Too close to real for him, Buck thought. He looked to his left as Chris rode by, urging his horse forward to fall in beside him. Neither of them spoke, but the nod from Chris as he pulled up to keep pace with Buck was enough.

When they were far enough down the road not to be able to see the prison behind them, Chris did look up at him. "Good thing you came along."

Buck looked up with a grin, ready to give a quick, glib answer, but held back. Damn lucky he came along, more like it. Damn lucky Mary Travis pushed at them all to see what had held Chris up. Damn stupid that he didn't figure it out on his own.

"Yeah." He wanted to say more, wanted to yell and ask just what the fuck had gotten Chris into that prison, and what he'd done to get himself half killed before they got him out, but he kept his silence. Some of the answers he knew. Chris was Chris, and once they got him there, Buck was sure Chris wouldn't have laid low. He'd likely have mouthed off, sure enough had to to get himself dropped in that hole. Glancing over at Chris again, Buck could see the strain, not fully masked by the feel of being free again. He wondered how much Chris would tell him if he asked, then he wondered if he'd ever have the balls to ask.

The road home took them back through Jericho, and it was there that Buck realized what had pulled this motley group together. As spread out as they'd been on the road, every one of them pulled back to ride close to Chris as they went through the town. Whether they were protecting Chris from the town or the town from Chris, Buck wasn't sure, but it was a gut-punch, seeing that these men were held together by more than a loose contract of $30 for 30 days work.

And the gut-punch was a doozey, since it came for him with the realization that this time, like that time a few years back, he could have lost Chris for good.

They passed through Jericho without incident, spreading out again on the road as they continued on. Buck stayed with Chris, letting the horses settle next to each other in that comfortable place of habit. He thought about how many miles these two had put in on roads together over the years and wondered idly if they missed each other during the years in between. Probably. Horses were creatures of habit. People, too, Buck thought. Easy habit to believe that your friends will come around again, that they'll always be there. He didn't like to think on the harsh lesson that this had brought home to him once more -- that there could come a time when your friends or family won't be there.

They rode straight on through, getting back to town well after midnight. Unsurprisingly, Mary was on the boardwalk in front of the newspaper office as soon as the horses could be heard on the street. She rushed forward, but Buck stopped her with a sharp shake of his head. Looking between them, she nodded and held her distance. "Good to see you back, Chris."

Chris looked up, exhaustion clear in the lines on his face. "Thanks." Buck touched his hat, offering Mary his thanks as well.

At the livery, Buck reached out to take Chris's horse, but was rebuked by a surly, "I can put up my own damned horse, Buck."

"I expect you can at that." He gave his gray a good rub-down and ration of grain, waiting at the door when he was done. Chris might be able to put up his own horse, but it was a slow task for him this night.

As each of the rest of them left the barn, they offered a word or two to Chris, a nod or a slap on the back to Buck. All but Vin. Vin stopped and stood with Buck for a moment, looking into the barn, watching Chris as he slowly put away his gear.

"You okay?" Vin asked softly.

"I will be," he answered, just as softly.

Vin stood for another moment, silent, then nodded once. "You need anything..." Vin trailed off, not finishing the thought, but Buck knew what he meant.

"Thanks." He watched as Vin walked off toward the boarding house. Now it was just him and Chris left in the barn, and Chris had just closed and latched the tack room, and was heading toward the door.

"You waiting on something special?"

"Thought I'd buy you a drink."

Chris scratched at the beard growth on his chin. "If it weren't so damned late, I'd get a shave and a bath."

"Ain't too late for that." He leaned close to Chris, lowering his voice. "I've got a key."

"How...? No, don't tell me." No, Chris probably didn't want to hear that story.

Closing up the barn, they walked down to the bath-house, and Buck dug into the back of his billfold to get the key. Fortunately, Old Henry banked the fire in the stove every night, and it was a matter of moments to bring it to life to heat the water. Digging around in the drawers of Old Henry's desk yielded soap, a shaving brush, a good razor and a nearly full bottle of whiskey. Holding up the whiskey, Buck grinned. "Everything a man could need."

"Damn near," Chris agreed, reaching out for the bottle, then hitching back as his stitches pulled.

Buck's grin faded at the reminder of Chris's injuries, but he forced it back to his face as he got up to hand over the bottle. "Let's get this tub full."

Chris shook his head. "Want to shave first."

"I'll do it while you soak. I owe you a shave." He didn't know why he put it that way, he hadn't intended to bring that up again between them, but Chris's sharp glance that faded into guilt made it worth having said. Chris put down the bottle and stood, picking up the closest bucket of clean water, pouring it in the tub and it wasn't long before the tub was full and the water warm.

Watching as Chris undid his shirt and dropped it to the floor, Buck was again flooded with combined guilt and fear. It looked like Chris's whole body was bruised or cut, some of them fresh and livid purple, some of them fading to yellow, all of them on skin that clung to protruding bones and too-visible ribs.

By the time Chris was naked and in the tub, Buck was angry, ready to go back to that town and kill anyone who had looked the other way as the sheriff and his ma and that damn idiot deputy had tricked innocent men into prison. He was going to start with the storekeeper.


"What?" He realized Chris had called his name more than once.

"We're home. We'll wire the judge in the morning about that town and those people. It's okay."

He chuffed out what could have been a laugh, but wasn't. Imagine that. Chris, who could have died, having to reassure him that things were okay. "Right." He shook himself, doing his best to let go of the anger, and gathered up the razor and shaving brush.

Settling in a chair at the head of the tub, he put one hand on Chris's forehead, pulling back gently. As he lathered up Chris's beard, he almost laughed. The extra whiskers loaded with soap made him look like some old miner just off his claim. All he needed was a mule and a pick-axe to complete the picture.

Working carefully and slowly, Buck cleaned Chris's face of that two week's growth, and when he put the razor aside for the last time, he took a wash rag and wiped the remaining soap away. A fading bruise showed on Chris's jaw-line, and without thinking, Buck leaned down and kissed it.

Chris tensed, but didn't pull away. To ease the moment, Buck said, "My ma, bless her, always said a kiss was the best medicine. Course that was when I was just a kid getting all kinds of scrapes and such." He dropped the wash rag in the water in front of Chris's chest and retrieved the bar of lye soap. "Why don't you get yourself scrubbed clean, now, and we'll see if there's anything needs doctoring."

Mostly, Chris seemed inclined to sit and soak, so after a few minutes of inaction, Buck decided this needed a more hands-on approach. He took off his shirt, then peeled back the top of his union suit, letting it hang behind him. He snaked a long arm into the tub, grabbing the wash rag and soap, startling Chris in the process. "Relax, just want to get you clean before you get all wrinkly in there." Nodding, Chris leaned forward, and Buck started on his back, wiping away weeks of sweat, grime, blood and bad memories.

As each part of Chris's body was cleaned, more damage showed, mostly bruises and scrapes. The cut on his head took the most gentle cleaning to clear the mat of blood out of his hair. The deep bruise on the back of his thigh made him flinch when it was touched. The stitches in his side showed the pink line of healed skin beneath them, and Buck would see to it Nathan took them out tomorrow.

But the unseen damage was what worried Buck, and that wasn't to Chris at all. That damage was to himself. And damned if he was going to let that wound fester, not again.

"Stay put," he told Chris quietly, "I want to get more hot water." Standing up and moving to the stove, Buck stripped off the rest of his clothes, dropping them where he stood, then carefully picked up the kettle of water. "Scootch up, I want to pour this behind you." Chris obliged, and after the water was in, Buck stepped in the tub, too.

"What the fuck are you doing?"

"What I should have done a long time ago," Buck said, "what we've been pussyfooting around for years." Chris started to rise out of the water, but Buck held him in place, sliding down behind him and loosely holding Chris against his chest. He knew without a doubt that Chris could feel Buck's hard cock pressed against his back.

"Why now?" Chris whispered.

"Because I almost lost you. Because you could have died in that hell hole." And because it's right, he didn't say aloud. Chris relaxed against him and Buck felt every knob of his spine and the points of his shoulder blades and gripped Chris tighter as the anger threatened to return.

"Easy, I ain't going anywhere." Chris rubbed the back of Buck's hand, and he forced himself to calm, taking a few long, slow breaths. Sitting there, feeling Chris strong and alive against him, he knew he could relax. They'd dodged this bullet, both literally and figuratively, and no doubt there'd be another some day, but not today.

Buck kissed the side of Chris's neck. "I know." Slow and gentle, Buck caressed Chris's body, letting his hands drift lower and lower until he was cupping Chris's cock, only half-hard at the moment, and his balls.

"Yeah," Chris sighed out, pushing into Buck's hands. He stroked, long and firm, until Chris was fully hard, his own cock aching where it lay trapped between them. "Do it, Buck, I know you want to."

He did want to, had wanted to do this for a long time, but how did Chris know? Maybe it was that they were naked together in the tub and both hard as rocks. Buck smiled wide. "Yeah, I sure do want to." He eased one hand between them, sliding his fingers down the crack between Chris's ass cheeks until he reached that place, and gently pressed in with one finger. Whether it was the warmth of the bath or his general exhaustion or if it was that Chris just wanted him that much, his body opened to Buck, letting in that finger and another, and before the moment was lost, Buck guided his cock to that place, pushing in, feeling as Chris groaned, holding on until he was deeper inside Chris than he'd been in any body in his life.

So good. So perfect. So damned tight. He pulled on Chris's cock as he started to move, rocking forward and back, setting up a wave in the tub that had water splashing everywhere and he laughed out loud. He was going to owe Old Henry for this, and that old man would grin from ear to ear as he let his imagination run wild. But now, he let that thought go and focused on Chris, on their joined bodies, on the noises they were making as the pleasure grew. He couldn't last long, he knew that. It would be harder for Chris, as worn out as he was, so he concentrated on that. Steady thrusts, firm strokes on Chris's cock, cradling his balls and touching that spot just behind them.

Chris pressed back against Buck's chest, legs spread as wide as the tub allowed, giving Buck the room to touch him. Panting moans told Buck that Chris was close, and it brought him even closer, speeding up his hand on Chris's cock, wishing he had the room or leverage for the long hard pounding he wanted to give Chris's ass, but this was what they had, so he made the best of it. And the best of it was pretty damned good. He exploded into Chris, pressing tight against him as he came. Chris pushed his hand away, taking hold of his own cock to finish, and Buck let him, putting his hand over Chris's to feel the rhythm, and seconds later Chris was coming, his muscles tight around Buck, his whole body shuddering with the feeling. Panting, heart pounding, Buck simply held on to Chris and rode it out.

He didn't know how long they sat there, but the water was chilling and his cock was soft. Shifting just enough to pull out, Buck smiled. Chris's eyes were closed, and the look on his face was soft and happy. Yeah, he thought, a good fuck will do that to you. "Hey." He moved the leg that was threatening to fall asleep on him. "We can't stay here all night."

Chris cracked an eye open. "Suppose not." He leaned forward, levering himself up off Buck and on to his feet. Buck frowned when he saw how much Chris was favoring his left leg, but Chris waved him off. "Just bruised. Sore as shit, but it'll be fine."

"All right." He'd take Chris's word for it. He stood and got out of the tub, rummaging again in Old Henry's things to find a couple of linen towels, handing one to Chris.

Neither of them spoke as they dried and dressed. Buck banked the fire in the stove and blew out the lamps, carrying the last one to Old Henry's desk. There, he pulled a five-dollar bill from his billfold and laid it on the desk, the razor on top to hold it in place. Old Henry would know what it was for. The key he kept. Never knew when he might need that again.

The street was deserted, even most of the fires had gone out, leaving little light to see by as they walked across to the boarding house. Chris's room was the first one at the top of the stairs, and he let himself in without a word to Buck. Buck stood for a moment, then shook his head and went down the hall to his own room. There was no figuring that man sometimes. He was half undressed when he heard the light tap on his door. Cracking it open, he had to step back as Chris pushed inside, carrying a small bundle.

"Wanted clean clothes."

Buck chuckled. Yeah, of course he did. He finished undressing, pulling his nightshirt out of the dresser and holding it up with an inquiring look at Chris.

"Hell, no."

Hell no, indeed. Chris stripped down, and Buck once again had to dampen down his anger at seeing the marks on his body. But once they were in his bed, Chris resting quietly against him, he could let go of it. Let go, and in a perverse way, maybe even thank the people of Jericho for showing him how much he had to lose.