Stories in the Skin
by Farad
Universe: Drifterverse (Artisan447's wonderful universe!)
An answer to the July 2009 Challenge: Choice 1: The Take-their-boots-off Challenge! Any situation that requires one (or more) of the Seven to remove the boots of another.
Note: This is an out-take from a longer story that explains a lot more about what's going on, but I needed a minute of Josiah's perspective to set it in my head. So - this is that.

For all of his bluff and bluster, for all of his anger and worry, Vin was as weak as a kitten. His body was still fighting off the poison, and no amount of will was going to get him from the dining room back to his bedroom, not after the interrogation Josiah figured he'd had. Jonah-eh had stormed out long minutes before, cursing Vin's stupidity and Kojay's good nature. Chanu had come out a few minutes after that, his own anger more quiet but no less intense. The two brothers had gone outside, both too restless in their anxiety to be still.

Josiah waited until Kojay came out, then, at the clan leader's suggestion, he had gone in to assist Vin.

Vin, who was 'fine' until he tried to stand up. Had Josiah's reach not been as long as it was, the young man would have ended up in the floor.

As it was, he caught him and swept him up in his arms. Vin protested, but it was weak and Josiah could feel him trembling with tiredness and stress.

"Easy now," he murmured, holding Vin close. "Let's get you back to bed."

"Vin!" Chanu called, coming back inside the house as they left the dining room. Josiah nodded to him, a little worried to see the anger in Chanu's features still, under all the worry.

But Chanu followed them down the hallway and into the bedroom, pulling back the bed covers as Josiah put Vin onto the bed as carefully as he could.

"I've got him," Chanu said, his tone sharper than Josiah had heard it before, and he stood back as Chanu leaned over Vin, wrestling him into the pillows. Vin's feet were on the bed, but he still wore his house boots, and without thinking, Josiah reached down and tugged them off, setting them on the floor beside the bed as Chanu made low noises of disapproval and Vin closed his eyes, ignoring them both.

He wasn't needed here, he realized, his presence in some small way adding to the tension between these two. Without a word, he edged out of the room, leaving Vin to Chanu. But some part of him worried, and some other small part of him was curious. Being here, in a Drifter clan, was fascinating in itself, and watching these politics made it more so.

So Josiah found himself standing in the bedroom's doorway, watching the two men inside. It was a pretty picture, and under other circumstances it would have stirred a hunger in him that he usually fought to repress. Chanu, long black hair tied back in a faded rag, dark eyes focused on what he was doing, knelt on the bed, his nimble fingers working at the lacings of the long robe Vin wore over his bedclothes. Vin sat in the pillows, his own hair loose and lank, his eyes closed and his hands fisted into the bedcovers, white-knuckled.

Vin was in pain. He was a tough one, no doubt about it. Josiah had known that when he'd seen the welts from the Andron suit on the man's body that first night, so long ago.

But no matter how strong a man was, what had been done to him would suck the life out of any one. His face was a wreck, bruised from the beatings the APA bastards had given him before, during, and after, Josiah guessed, they'd held him down and carved him up, creating the tattoo that marked him as Andarchic.

Josiah had never thought of the tattoos as ugly before - in truth, it'd been a fascination to him, the stark lines of color that started beside the eye and spread down over the cheek and jaw and often as far as the neck itself. Each clan had its own symbol, one that all members carried somewhere, but the Andarchic, the ones who didn't bear the gene to tolerate Andron, wore the tattoo or a second one of the clan symbol on that part of the face.

Until Josiah had met Vin, he'd thought it was a way to protect them, to let others know that these people were functionally handicapped.

Now, though, he knew it was far more than that, and that he had been na´ve. It was a word he'd never applied to himself before and the feeling of it now was shameful.

The bastards who had done this to Vin had meant it as no honor - in truth, they'd set out to hurt him and the other Andarchic as much as possible, to scar them at best.

If what Nathan suspected was true, that the dyes they had used were infused with Andron, then the bastards had set out to kill them, slowly and from the inside. Fortunately, or not, Vin had proven to be allergic to something else in the dyes as well, and the tests of the substances to find an antidote had alerted them to the presence of the Andron.

Nathan had gone with the Clarion; there was little else he could do here for Vin, and he needed the equipment in his lab to thoroughly test the dyes they'd been able to extract from Vin that hadn't been adulterated by the other chemicals that were using to pull them from his skin and tissues. Jahnaavi, the clan's healer, was a genius, Nathan said. Or, as Kojay told Josiah, this was a skill learned from many generations of fighting off the Drifters' many enemies and their sadistic ways. What Jahnaavi knew how to do was something kept very secret, even within Drifter circles. The Council knew that there was a way to return Andarchic to their unmarked state, but so far, it hadn't found the secret. It was one of the reasons the Drifters were hunted, one of the reasons the government wanted to control them, to find them all and force them to compliance - a quest that was taking on a greater effort and a far more violent one now that Drifters themselves were divided..

After what he'd seen these past few weeks, Josiah was certain of the danger from the Council, certain that the government he had once thought of as benevolent did, indeed, have its own agenda.

He felt the air stir just before Kojay spoke. In the days he'd been here, he'd become accustomed to the clan-leader's sudden appearances, so his hand closed on his pistol but didn't draw it.

"Those two, I shall never understand," the older man sighed, peering past Josiah through the bedroom door. Chanu had managed to settled him back into the pillows and under the bedclothes. He was now beside Vin on the bed, their hands joined together on Vin's belly even as Vin tossed restlessly, his eyes closed and his face drawn tight. "They always need to prove themselves, each to the other, as though the strength of the love they have is not to be trusted. As though one day it might fade. This," he lifted a hand, and Josiah knew it indicated all that had happened to Vin, "this scares them both because it brought them, keeps them, on the point of what they both fear."

Josiah found his eyes on them, on Vin. It took him a few seconds of studying the scene to see the obvious: they were hanging on to each other, their fingers white with desperation. Vin hurt, but so did Chanu, lines cutting deep around his dark eyes. He looked as haggard as Vin, and while Josiah might have jealously said it was from spending long nights in his workroom, he knew better, knew why Chanu had spent those nights there.

Josiah wasn’t in love with Vin. Fascinated, yes, with him and with this whole culture. Intrigued, definitely - he'd never met anyone like him, with as much diverse information and interests.

Sexually attracted - unquestionably. Vin's kinks complemented his own too well for him not to feel a thrill of desire just from being close to the younger man and knowing what he'd do, how much he'd give of himself.

But love, love was something Josiah knew enough about to know that it wasn’t here. Not the passionate, commitment-forever love that Kojay was talking about.

Not the love he was seeing now.

"They're young," he heard someone say, and he realized it was him. But even as Kojay chuckled and commented that Josiah was, too, Josiah knew it had been a very long time since he had been this young.

Young enough not to understand that what he had, what he treasured, was worth far more than his own fear and feelings of unworthiness.

They misread each other because they were scared. It was easy to see - in truth, it was impossible to miss how much they loved each other, how much each would give up. But from inside, Josiah guessed that the fear each had was seen by the other as something else - anger, probably, and hurt. Vin had told him they had an open sexual relationship, and Josiah had heard from Kojay that Chanu had a clan-wife who had born one child by him already, with another one on the way. Chanu's clan wife was a part of his life, probably of their lives.

But Josiah wondered if Chanu had ever met any of Vin's intimate friends, and it occurred to him that Vin probably never brought them home. He had been worried enough to find Josiah here, and Josiah had seen the anxiousness in those bright blue eyes.

No wonder Vin was scared. He awoke in pain with only vague memories of what had happened, awoke to find himself in his home with his partner - and the threat of having brought danger to that partner and this home and to everything he cared about.

And with the clan angry at him, for those reasons and others.

Yep, he could see why Vin was scared. Chanu, as well.

"What are you going to do with Vin?" he asked, turning to look at Kojay.

The clan leader shook his head. He looked tired, his face more lined than Josiah had seen in the time he'd been here. "It will depend on how well he heals," he said softly. "He cannot go back out and mingle with the rest of you if the scars are there - they will show him for what he is, a Drifter. He will have to stay here, which," he shrugged, "would make Chanu happy, and perhaps Vin."

Josiah thought on it for a few seconds. "For a time. But it's not in his nature to be tied to one place."

Kojay shrugged. "His nature may have to change. Adapting is a means of survival." The clan-leader looked once more through the door, and he smiled slightly, a flicker at the corners of his thin lips. "He has the best reason he could ever have to stay. They both know that. This thing that was done to him, for all its horror, might be the best thing in the long run. For both of them." He looked back at Josiah and shrugged again. "Will you join me for dinner? I'd like to continue our conversations."

Josiah found himself hesitating. Part of him wondered if it would be a betrayal of his friendship with Vin, in light of what he'd heard from Jonah-eh after he'd stormed out the door of the dining room.

But there was so much to learn about these people, and it wasn't just because Chris wanted intelligence; he was fascinated himself, and he didn't expect he'd ever have a better opportunity than this one.

He nodded at Kojay. "Be honored."

But as the older man walked off, stopping at the end of the hall to speak to Jonah-eh, Josiah glanced once more into the bedroom. Chanu had settled up in the pillows, drawing Vin against his chest. He'd let his hair loose and it fell in a curtain around them, sheltering them from everyone else.

That was the nature of their love, a shelter against everything else. Except each other.

The End

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