Summary: This is a story alluded to in "The Big Score" by Charlotte C. Hill and Maygra, the first of the trilogy that brings the seven together as a team. This story is set five months after Vin is forced out of the Army because of Eli Joe Whitney's duplicity. Vin has returned to the reservation in Wyoming, making him in his early twenties and well before the time that he meets Chris and Buck.
Dawn was sluggish this morning, the rain and cold keeping her at bay. Vin had kept watch, wanting to feel her heat, watch her glide across the mountain, waking the birds, showing off the spring colors of the trees, turning the world from dark to light.
Wanting her to do the same for him.
But perhaps they were too much alike, this late May day, too cold and tired to make the effort to scatter the clouds and drive away the gloom.
He sat in his grandfather's rocker on the porch though, wrapped in a blanket, mug of coffee on the split rail beside him. The steam rising from it was more energetic than he felt, dancing about in the wind that whipped around the corners of the cabin, creating drafts that played at the leaves and the sprinkles of rain still out there. At least he wasn't hurting, not at the moment, anyway. That would start again whenever he got up the will to get up. As long as his bladder held out, he was okay with not putting it to the test.
He wasn't really surprised when he heard the truck in the drive, recognized the high-idle of the engine before it came anywhere near enough to park at the house. This time of the morning only family popped into each other's driveways, and Chanu was the closest thing he had to family. Still too close in some parts of Vin's heart, but he tried to shut those down, especially now that Chanu and Claire had been married almost two years now and their second baby was on the way.
Not that it meant he wanted to see Chanu just now; the way the other man had been yelling when he left last night didn't give Vin much call to expect less than the same now.
He started, then cursed as pain shot straight through him at the movement. But since he was already hurting now, and since it was Claire, he struggled to his feet, trying not to trip on the long end of the blanket as he turned to greet her coming into his cabin through the kitchen door.
"Claire?" he asked, even though he knew it was her already. "What the hell are you doing out so early?"
She moved through the cabin slowly, feeling her way as he hadn't turned on any lights. He knew the place like the back of his hand and preferred to let the dawn light his way into the day, but Claire hadn't adapted to that part of the reservation culture. And he hadn't ever invited her here, so it wasn't like she'd had much chance to get to know his place, not since he'd moved in, anyway.
But she was learning something, he noted; she was dressed in jeans and one of Chanu's old buckskin jackets, comfortable and worn, from what he could tell, not those pretty dresses he remembered from the past. Her bright blond hair was woven into two long plaits that draped down her shoulders, even though the wind had pulled some of the shorter strands free. She was learning, maybe, coming to understood that some things here were more about practicality. That, and she was seven months along, her belly getting awkward with the weight of the baby.
"Chanu was pretty upset last night," she said, easing out onto the porch. "What the hell have you done to yourself this time, Vin?"
She moved right up to him, her arms reaching for his shoulders, rising to her toes to kiss him even as he stiffened at her touch. But he let her do the deed, trying to ignore the kindling of shame at himself, for letting her believe he wanted nothing more from Chanu that the bond of brotherhood they had shared since he'd been a kid.
"Ain't nothing for him to worry about," he said gruffly, using his good arm to help her keep her balance as she stepped back from him. "Wasn't expecting the guy I needed to talk to to have so many friends, that's all. They didn't take right kindly to my questions 'bout Whitney. But everything's fine."
She frowned, her pale hair bright in the slowly spreading light of the morning. "Except that you spent a night in a strange hospital and didn't even call us, then checked yourself out, or as Chanu explained it, snuck out against medical advice, and drove all the way back here in pain and bleeding - "
"Chanu don't know what he's talking about," Vin sighed, closing his eyes. "He always makes me sound like some kinda damn fool. I'm fine, just winged and with a few pulled muscles. Ain't nothing that a day or two on my own won't clear up, sure as hell don't need to be paying more doctor bills for something I can take care of myself."
"Sit down," she said, and it was her hands on him now, guiding him back to the rocking chair. "You look pale, Vin, how much blood did you lose?"
He glared at her even as he let himself be settled, the blanket pulled back into place. "Not enough for anybody to be making such a damned fuss. Ain't you got more than enough to worry about already, what with one baby at home and another one coming? You ought to be home, resting up or working on the baby's room - hell, did you leave Peta with Chanu?"
Claire smiled at him as she sat on the low bench in front of him, her back to the view of the Wyoming wilds. He'd never understood how she did that, turned her back on the beauty of the land they lived in, but every time she came to his cabin, rare that it was, she always sat facing him. It made him uneasy.
But then, so many things about her did, and almost all of them were not in her, but in himself.
"Everything's fine, Vin, even though I adore your concern for Peta. For the new baby, too."
She said it as if she thought it was a cute but weird thing about him, like it wasn't a part of the way he had been raised. Like concern for the tribe's children wasn't the reason KoJay had taken him in after his grandpa had died, treating him like one of his own. That hadn't been an easy thing for the Shoshone family to do, Vin knew, taking in a boy with as much white blood as he obviously had, raising him as their own.
He wondered just how much Claire really understood about life on the res; for all her education, she still seemed surprised by things that Vin thought to be obvious.
"Chanu send you?" he asked when the silence grew to just the wrong side of comfortable.
She tilted her head to one side and he looked away from her pale eyes, wishing she'd stop staring at him like he was a bug or something.
"He's worried about you," she said as if that were an answer. "We both are. You've been out of the Army for almost five months, but you're hardly ever here, and when you are, you're hurt or exhausted."
He took a deep breath, holding his anger close. "Ain't nothing for you two to be worried about. I can take care of myself. Been doing it a lot longer than he seems to remember."
She was still watching him though and he swallowed, feeling a tightening in his belly. "I bother you, don't I?" she said, her voice quiet. "You don't think I'm good enough for him."
He blinked at that, the idea not one he had ever considered in those terms. "Where'd you get that idea?" he asked, looking back at her. "I ain't never thought nothing of the sort!"
She sighed, looking away from him, out the side of the porch toward the mountain the cabin sat on. "But there is something, Vin, something that keeps a distance between us. I thought at first that it'd be easier to get to know you, because we had more in common, but in some ways, you're more a part of the reservation than Chanu is."
He shifted, hating this conversation. Hating that the last thing he could do was tell her the truth, not because it would hurt her, but because of what it would do to Chanu. "Reckon in some ways I am," he said softly. "And in a lot of other ways, I ain't. But it don't matter, Claire. Only thing that matters is that you and Chanu love each other and the family y'all are making."
She leaned forward then, resting her hands on her knees. "A lot of people tell me that, Vin, and for the most part, I agree. For the most part, I don't care what a lot of people think of me. But Chanu loves you. Oh, don't give me that, don't condescend to me and diminish how he feels about you by pretending I don't know. I know, Vin. You're his brother, closer in blood to him than I am." She leaned even farther, reaching out with one hand to adjust the blanket on his legs as the wind picked at it. "I know how hard it was for him to make the decision not to go back when you did. You think that he made the decision to marry me and leave you, but he didn't. I don't think it ever crossed his mind that you wouldn't stay here with us, that you would go back without him."
Vin stared at her; the first part of her words had scared him so bad that he'd almost missed the last part, and now, his brain was trying to play catch-up, while his heart tried to slow down. "What the hell are you talking about?"
She shook her head, again, and he had the sense that she was treating him like a slow child. "Chanu. He didn't think you'd go back into the Army without him. He thought you'd stay here, with us, maybe settle down yourself."
The hell of it was, knowing Chanu and the way he thought, he probably had expected Vin to do that. Wasn't like they'd ever done anything without the other one, not since his grandpa had brought him here to live.
But marrying, that wasn't Vin's way. He'd known it, come to terms with it slowly, but Chanu never had accepted it, not even that last time together, when Vin had told him how he'd felt, all of it.
Or maybe Chanu had accepted it; he'd met Claire right afterwards and fallen for her hard and fast, so fast that Vin hadn't had time to catch up then, either. Vin thought it had been Chanu's way of ending it with them without having to end their friendship. Not that it would have, but Chanu probably didn't understand that either, that Vin would never do anything to drive Chanu away. Not any further.
"That don't make no sense, Claire," he said with a sigh. "Chanu never asked me nothing, just told me y'all'd set the date for the week after he got out. If he'd wanted me to stay, he'd a said so, ain't like he's ever been shy about speaking his mind."
She smiled at that, be hard not to. It was the truth. But she had an answer, she always did. There were times, when Vin was feeling uncharitable, that he thought she cornered Chanu up and got him so confused with her constant words that he'd agree to anything just to be left the hell alone.
"He never said anything because it didn't occur to him that he needed to. He never considered that you wouldn't stay."
Something in the way she said it annoyed him. "You really think that's the way it is between us, Claire? That I follow him 'round like a whipped dog?"
She stiffened, sitting up straight her hands protectively over her belly. "That's not at all what I meant," she said, and her voice took on that calm quality that usually meant she was getting angry too. Without effort, she switched to Shoshone, as if they were having trouble understanding each other in English. "The whole point of this is that you and Chanu are close and that makes us all family. You are his brother and therefore mine. But you do not treat me with that honor, and you do not seem to want the same honor from me, so I should just go."
She was already getting to her feet, her one hand on her belly and the other pushing her up.
"Don't go," Vin held out a hand, trying to stall her. He sighed, then forced his mind to the English. "Reckon I'm a bit tetchy right now, sorry to be taking it out on you." He let his good hand cup her elbow and guide her back to sit. Fortunately he didn't have to take a lot of her weight; his own injuries were throbbing right good.
"You've always been 'tetchy' with me, Vin," she answered with her own frustration. "But I'm not your enemy," she said softly, folding her hands in her lap. "I know you probably feel that way at times. I waltzed in out of nowhere and messed up your friendship with Chanu. But if it hadn't been me, it would have been someone else."
It was true, and he knew it. Chanu would never have stayed with him, would never have disappointed KoJay or his responsibilities to the tribe that way, not in the long run. But that wasn't what Claire meant, and if for some reason it was, it wasn't something he had any intention of talking to her about.
"You didn't mess up nothing," he said, even though that was a lie. But it was his lie, not Chanu's. "I just ain't real good at letting people in. Reckon Chanu's told you that. It ain't you, it's me."
She smiled a little at that, the corners of her mouth turning up slightly and her eyes softening. "Well, he has told me that you're shy, especially around women."
He grimaced at that, not wanting to think about the conversations they'd had on that score.
"It's nothing to be ashamed of, Vin," she said, taking her own interpretation of his reaction. "Even though someone as cute as you are shouldn't have any trouble at all getting dates. I know five women right now in the tribe who would be more than flattered if you took them out. I can talk to any one of them you want - "
"Thanks," he cut her off, smiling as well as he could manage, to soften his abruptness. "I'll think on it. Right now, I think I need to see 'bout one of them pain pills that Doc Hardison put in my pocket last night."
"Where are they?" she said, pushing herself up faster than he could. "I'll get them for you."
It wasn't ideal, but it would distract her. "On the kitchen counter, probably by the sink," he said. "Thanks, Claire."
She came back just a minute or so later, carrying a big pill and a cup of water. He thought for a split second about palming it, but he really was hurting and if it started working quick enough, she might take the hint and head on.
She sat back down across from him, her posture more relaxed now. "Are you gay, Vin?"
He didn't mean to spew water all over her, and to her credit, she handled it well, closing her eyes as the shower splattered over her face and chest. She even leaned forward, patting him on the back as he tried to get his breath after the coughing fit passed, then got up to get a towel from the kitchen.
"What the hell kinda question is that?" he asked, blood pounding in his head in both fear and frustration. He tried to catch her hands as they brushed over him, catching the droplets of water that had scattered over the wool blanket around him.
"Chanu told me it was something I needed to ask you, not him." She sat back down, wiping at herself now, even though she did keep looking at him, waiting.
It started to come together then, and his respect for his friend's deviousness grew. Chanu had been pissed yesterday, his anger covering a lot of other things, Vin knew. This was his way of getting even, by setting Claire on him.
"He did, huh," he said, taking a small sip of the water that was still in the cup. The pill was stuck in his throat now, needing to go down.
"He did," she agreed. But there was something else on her mind as well. "And it's the only thing that makes sense, Vin. You don't date, you don't hang out at any of the gatherings, you don't have any real interest in anything going on around here except Chanu and our family. I thought for a while, conceitedly, I admit, that you were in love with me. Please," she held up a hand at the way his eyes widened, "I know it was wrong of me to assume such. But really, you live here, you stay in this cabin when you're not on the road, but you never go much of anywhere but to our house, maybe down to the tavern once in a while. If you're not in love with me, and you're not out looking for someone to date, then the only logical answer is that you're gay and you're afraid of what the others in the tribe will think. I know that there are problems that caused your discharge from the Army, that you got out early, and that it involves this Whitney person who you were teamed with."
Fuck all, he rubbed at his head. Her logic was flawless except for the great white elephant she had completely ignored, but he'd be damned if he brought that up.
"I'm not going to tell anyone," she promised. "Even though I think you underestimate the level of respect you have with the others. But I can appreciate that it's hard enough to be white in this community. Another social distinction would just make it more difficult, I guess."
"Claire," he started, but he had no idea how to finish it.
Not that he needed to, apparently. She'd already made up her mind.
"Well, I'll keep an eye out for any cute young men who happen to be lonely, surely there are one or two around here, besides you, I mean." She rose, and he tried to do the same, but her hand found his shoulder, keeping him still. "I hope that now that your secret's out, we can get closer, Vin. I know it would make Chanu happy. And it would make me happy as well."
She kissed the top of his head, then left, not looking back.
He wondered if he could take another pill or five, maybe wake up to find this had all been a horrible horrible nightmare.
He did sleep, but not enough to forget the early morning visit from Claire. It was almost noon when he awoke, mist from a heavy rain chilling his face and hands.
He moved like an old man, his steps small and unsteady as he made his way into the cabin, closing the door behind him. May, but it felt like a late-winter. Matched his mood.
But the cold did have one benefit; his arm and shoulder were too numb to feel pain. Unfortunately, the rest of him was numb too, and he needed to warm up.
The water heater was small but efficient and it worked fast; he could take a long shower and even though the water might cool down about half way through, as he exhausted the reservoir, the water coming through wouldn't be cold.
It was after one when he was finally dressed and moving at something resembling speed. He was feeling the pain again, but he didn't want to take another pill, not for a while. He had a few things he needed to do in town: a run by the bank to see if the money from selling his truck had cleared his account; a stop by Fred's Gun and Pawn to pick up some more ammo for his handguns, he was much lower than he liked; and a stop by the grocery store for some essentials like coffee and fresh bread and some more bandages, as he was almost out and the damned thing was bleeding off and on.
He was stepping out the back door when he saw the truck parked behind his grandfather's - no, his truck now that he had sold his own. Claire sat in the cab, waiting. He recognized her quickly enough that he didn't actually touch the grip of the gun at his hip, but his fingers did stroke over the soft leather of the holster.
Even as he thought about slipping back inside, she was already getting out, her door swinging wide open. She was dressed as she had been that morning, her coat - Chanu's coat - buttoned now down the to bulge of her belly. He remembered that coat, the softness of the hide, the contrast of the satin lining. He'd laid on it once, when he and Chanu had been -
He shook his head. He couldn't go there, not now. Especially not now.
"I came in but heard the shower running," she announced as she walked up to the stairs, carrying several plastic bags from the grocery. "I thought you might be planning to head into town. I picked up some things for you so you wouldn't have to." Her smile was wide and sincere and grated on his nerves with all of its good-intentions.
"Claire, you shouldn't have," he said, trying to be clear even though his jaw was clenched tight.
"Chanu said you'd try to take care of yourself," she grinned at him, "said you'd do something stupid like try to drive around and run errands you didn't need to be running. He's gone off to get your ammunition now." She said the last with a sort of disapproval, and he took a deep breath, counting a few numbers before answering.
"Wish you two wouldn't worry so much - and where's Peta? Surely you ain't leaving her alone already."
She looked at him, shaking her head but smiling. "Peta's with Magette, like she is most days. And this is no trouble, Vin, it's what family does," she said. "I left some stuff in the cabin already, the stuff that needed to go into the fridge, and I put the bread in the crisper. We really need to get you a new one, Vin, that old thing isn't keeping anything fresh, not with all that rust."
She went on about the state of his cabin, but he tuned her out, wondering if this was how Chanu did it. She certainly kidded her husband enough about not paying attention to her that Vin could see it.
He did have the presence of mind to take the bags from her, or try to; she frowned at him with her eyebrow arching, holding tight to the handles. "I don't believe you need to be using your arm yet," she said, "and I know you need your free arm to get the door for me."
She went on, then, as if his hand weren't there, brushing past him and stepping through the door he was holding open and into his cabin.
" . . . and bandages. I suspect you've probably used up everything you have. Do you want me to look at it? I bet it started bleeding again in the shower."
It wasn't the words but the absence of them that drew his attention to the fact she had stopped talking, that and the expectant look on her face. He replayed the last sounds he had heard, came up with her suggestion even as she put the bags down on the counter and turned to him, her hands on her hips.
"I'm all right," he said quickly, stepping back and out of her reach. "I done bandaged it up."
She did the head-tilt thing followed by the raising of her eyebrows, and he swallowed. "I ain't taking my shirt off for you, Claire," he said flatly. "I'm fine."
He was half surprised when she merely sighed, deeply, then started fussing with the bags she had brought in.
"Well, you can take off your coat," she said, "because there's nowhere you need to be going."
He took a deep breath, counting several more numbers before saying, "It ain't like I don't appreciate what you're doing, but I do have some things I need to be doing that you can't do for me."
"You can call the bank," she said without turning around. "They have automated account information numbers now, even the smaller banks like the ones here. Anything else can wait a day or so." She reached into the dish drainer and picked up a cup, then filled it with water, talking all the while. "You need to give yourself some time to heal, or you're gonna find yourself back in the hospital. If that wound doesn't put you there, then Chanu will. Here." She turned, holding out the cup she had filled and then holding out one of the pain pills.
He took a step back, feeling his temper rising again. "I ain't hurting, and those damned things just put me to sleep - "
"And when you're asleep, you're not pulling on that arm and you're not tiring yourself out." She didn't lower her arms, still looking at him with that look that he had seen her use with Chanu and pretty much any person who didn't do as she wanted.
It was hard; it had been years since anyone had told him what to do, anyone who hadn't already earned his respect. He liked Claire well enough, but she still had a long way to go to earn anything from him beyond what he owed Chanu.
He wasn't a fool, though; he was hurting again, and she really had covered the thing that was on the top of the list, the grocery store. If Chanu was getting his ammo, and actually bringing it back, then he could relax, at least for another day.
It was as if she were reading his thoughts, for as he arrived at the last connection, she lifted her hands just a little, offering. "You're right, you've been taking care of yourself for a long time. But sometimes, you need to remember that part of taking care of yourself is in letting yourself rest. It's not all about being on the defensive, especially here in your own home."
He sighed, surrendering. The need for the pill became greater as he instinctively used his injured arm to try and take it from her, and she rolled her eyes as she stepped closer to place it in his working hand.
"Slowly," she commanded in Shoshone, and he did as he was told, even though it was as much because of the pain as to appease her.
Afterwards, she took the cup from his hand as though he were helpless, then insisted on helping him out of his coat and settling him in a chair in the main room. She didn't touch his holster or his gun, but he was able to fumble those off himself, setting them on the table beside him even as she asked, "Have you eaten?" It was followed almost immediately by, "Didn't Chanu install a heat pump here? You can't be carrying wood with that arm." She was off then, fluttering about the place looking for the thermostat and he almost told her where it was, but at least this way she was off of him.
"Here it is! Good lord, Vin, no wonder you were in the shower so long! It's barely 60 degrees in here!"
The house thudded as the heat pump kicked in, and he sighed. He preferred the deep heat of the wood stove, which he had grown up with, but right now, he was too hurt to cart in the wood he kept cut for it. He didn't have the money to pay for a big electric bill, but he could afford it for a few days. And it was May; once this weather passed, it'd warm up enough to not need it at all.
She was back then, moving past him and nattering on about how men didn't have enough sense to come in out of the cold as she headed into the kitchen.
The pill worked fast, probably faster than usual coupled with Claire's unceasing chatter. He had started out trying to pay attention to what she was talking about, but as she moved around the kitchen, the words faded in and out and she didn't seem to require that he answer. By the time she appeared in front of him with a cup of soup and cheese toast, he was blinking back sleep - which only prompted her to settle in beside him and feed him.
Had he not had the pain pill, he probably would have shot her, but he was just relaxed enough that he merely sighed and closed his eyes, glad that no one else was around.
When he opened them again, she was gone and the cabin was so hot he was sweating. From the look of the outside, it was late afternoon or so, even though he could have been wrong; the rain had stopped but it was still overcast and there was a mist rising, the wind gone, which probably meant it was closer to early evening.
His mouth was dry, and he had to piss, so he forced himself up, almost cursing as his body resisted the movement and pain shot through his arm.
He stopped by the thermostat first, stunned to see it set on 80 degrees, and quickly turned it down. By the time he was in the bathroom, he had enough of his mobility back to do what was necessary without making a mess, and then he made it back to the kitchen to get water.
Which was where he found Chanu, leaning on the counter, his arms crossed over his chest.
"I could have shot you," Vin said in guttural Shoshone, stepping past the other man to the sink.
"I brought your ammo," Chanu returned in kind, unmoving.
"I am not completely out," Vin snorted, filling a cup with water and turning back to face his friend. "And as you've set Claire on me, it may well be a justified killing."
Chanu actually grinned at that, confirming Vin's suspicions.
"She sure does talk," Vin snorted, irritated. "How do you stand it?"
Chanu grinned more, though, as he answered, "She only talks when she's nervous, and you do bring that out. Perhaps if you take care of yourself - "
"I do take care of myself," he snapped. "Don't need anyone else doing it for me!"
He expected anger in return; Chanu's temper had been about as hot as Vin had ever seen it yesterday, and he knew that that sort of fire didn't fade out quickly.
But the other man surprised him, tilting his head to one side in a manner that was a little too much like Claire for Vin to miss. "No, you do not. But it seems that when you have someone at your back, you do not get into as much trouble."
Vin looked away from the eyes he knew so well, fighting back the words that came too easily to his tongue. Instead, he swallowed and said, "I'm all right, Chanu. Nothing for you to be concerned with."
"You need to give this up, Vin," he said quietly, in that low voice that made Vin's belly burn. "You need to settle down here and find a life. I don't care who it's with, I just care that you stop pushing your luck." He moved then, pushing himself off the counter and stepping in close, too close. Vin could smell his shampoo, some fruity thing that Claire had brought home, could smell the rain in his damp coat, could smell the smell that was all Chanu.
It didn't help his mood.
He lifted the cup to his mouth again, drinking deep, not meeting his friend's gaze.
Chanu waited, still and patient and damnably annoying. When the cup was empty and Vin couldn't stall anymore, Chanu reached up and took it from him, his fingers warm on Vin's. "I need you, Vin. I want you to come to work with me on the ranch, be my foreman. In return, when you go off on these little hunts of yours, I'll go with you."
Vin did look up then, too startled not to. "What?" he said, not certain he'd understood.
Chanu's lips quirked into a sort of half-grin, one that reminded Vin of all the trouble they'd gotten into as kids. "I need someone to help me, and you need someone to watch your back, Vin. I wasn't there for you this last tour, and we see how well that turned out. Now you spend too much of your time chasing after this Whitney man, on your own time and money, and you fund it by selling off the things that are important to you, your rifles, your truck - things you should never part with."
Vin looked away, letting his annoyance show. "I'll pay you back for the groceries and the ammo. You and Claire didn't have to go and - "
"That's not the point, Vin, the money's not important. You did enough for me in the past, all the money you sent to us after we got married." He shifted, crowding Vin a little more. "I thought we understood each other, about everything. I swear to you, I thought you were ready to get out when I was, before I was. That tour we did in Bosnia, all we talked about was getting back home, settling into the ranching and the horses. I thought you'd stay with me, with us."
With Chanu, yes. All those plans they'd had were true, all the talk. But they had never involved a third party, not in Vin's head.
He looked away, out the door toward the main room and beyond. "I guess I wasn't ready," he said instead. "That's not your fault. Or your responsibility." He started to shrug but the movement pulled at the injuries and he stopped.
Chanu's hands were warm on his shoulders, and despite himself, he relaxed. "You are my brother, Vin, in all the ways that matter. I can not go on watching you destroy yourself one piece at a time. I can't give you what you want, I was a fool to ever let you think so."
Vin pushed up, not wanting this conversation, the one they'd never had but both knew by heart. It was an effort to break himself away from the other man, but then, that was probably the thing he needed most to do. "That's all in the past," he said gruffly. "No use in worrying about it now. I am what I am, Chanu, and you should let it be."
"A stubborn fool trying to get himself killed?" Chanu sighed, following along. "What is it going to take, Vin, what do you want?"
They both knew the real answer, but Vin wasn't about to admit to that, not now. Instead, he lapsed back into English, his anger hot. "I want that son of a bitch to pay for what he did. I want him to pay for - "
"For not being me?"
Vin turned around, staring at his friend. Chanu stood in the doorway, one arm on each side of the frame. "You surely do think a lot of yourself, don't you?" Vin asked.
Chanu shook his head. "I think I'm jealous of him. Time was when you'd be as worried about me as you are about him. Now all you do is think about him. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were - "
"Don't say it," Vin growled. The idea of comparing what he felt for Chanu with what he felt for Whitney was sick. "You don't need my worry or my thinking, you done found someone to take care of all of that."
Chanu smiled then, but it was sad. "You think it's that simple? You think I just slid Claire into your place, a trade? If so, then I have the right to think that you did the same, traded Whitney for me."
"Hell, no, that ain't at all what I meant, and you know it!" He snorted, his head beginning to throb as much as his arm with the tension in his body.
Chanu tightened, something flickering in his eyes that looked a little like the anger Vin knew well. "No, Vin, I don't know. I don't know you or what you think, all I know is that what we are means nothing to you now. You'd rather get yourself killed than come to terms with the one difference between what we were before Claire and what we are now. We're the same as we were, Vin, nothing has changed in my love for you."
He didn't want to have this conversation - he'd just walked away from it in the kitchen, dammit. He waved a hand, trying to push it away, to push the pain away. But before he could get his mouth to form words, Chanu went on, the Shoshone sharp.
"You're better than this, and I won't help you flay yourself." He drew himself up tall, arms crossed over his chest. "If you really want to diminish what we had--and all of the things we still have, then yes, brother, you can do that. You go on and get yourself killed or worse, go on and let yourself suffer. But you lessen us both in the doing of it."
Vin ignored the pull of the wound as he straightened his shoulders, welcomed the flare of pain as the healing skin tugged. The words came then, hot and angry and splattering his pain between them. "I can't lessen something that wasn't there to begin with!"
Chanu stared across at him, his eyes flashing, but his words were measured. "You dare to say that all of what we've shared meant nothing?" He swallowed, glaring. "I would never have touched you if it meant nothing, Vin, and you know that. Certainly would not have touched you as often as we did, as often as I thought of you, wanted you. It meant something - it meant everything."
Vin stared at him, and the pain rose higher as the words came clear in all their meanings. It had meant everything, both in what it was between them, and the price of it, a price he'd always known Chanu wouldn't pay.
He closed his eyes, found himself swaying slightly, heard Chanu move. "Don't," he said, the word mumbled, but as he opened his eyes, he found his friend close enough to touch.
Chanu reached up, pushing at the strands of hair that had fallen over Vin's eyes. "Claire shares my bed now, and she has a very large place in my heart. But she didn't take it all, Vin. You're still there, taking up as much space as you always have. I wonder if I'm still in yours."
Everything drained away, like shadows in the dawn. He knew this, had always known it. There was no limit on Chanu's affections, and he had never lied to Vin about how he felt. These parts he was fighting now, they'd all been in Vin's own head, and he knew that, too.
Hearing it from Chanu put it all into place. Maybe he should have asked earlier, in those months before the wedding, when it was still just the two of them. But he'd made his own decisions about it, made them for Chanu, too. In the same way he believed Chanu had made decisions for him.
Chanu reached out again, more slowly this time, to catch Vin's good arm at the elbow. "Has your hatred of him - and your jealousy of her - taken all that we once had? All of it?"
Vin shook his head, his throat too tight to make the words easy. He choked them out anyway, more for Chanu than for himself. "You know the answer to all of that. How I feel about you - well, reckon that don't need to be said. It ain't changed, not much, though it needs to. Guess you're right, guess I thought that if I kept busy enough I . . ."
His brain stopped working then, and fortunately, so did his mouth.
"There's a world of difference between busy and dead," Chanu said softly, and the grip on his elbow loosened as the hand moved up his arm. "I spent a year and a half jumping every time the phone rang, waiting for someone to tell me you were dead. Especially after you told me about not trusting Whitney. I thought when you told me they were kicking you out, and we talked about you coming back here, that I was through with hating the sound of the phone. But now it's almost worse, Vin. Now you are here and I can do something to help you, but you won't let me. Instead, you keep coming back hurt or too tired to think straight - "
"You got family now," Vin interrupted. "I can't let you - "
"I had family before Claire, a brother who I miss a lot, a brother I used to spend a lot of time with. A brother I want to come back to me."
It was impossible for him to resist the look in Chanu's eyes, but he tried, one last time. "It ain't all about you, Chanu, some of it's about him, about what he did to me, what he did to a lot of others. I can't let him get away without paying for that."
"I understand that, I swear. But you can't take him on alone, haven't you seen that yet? And you need to have more in your life, more than the anger and the bitterness. I miss my brother, the one I loved, and who loved me. The one who was here with me, a part of my life, of this place."
His gaze was wide and clear and so soft that Vin couldn't fight. He sighed and closed his eyes, nodding once. The hand on his upper arm moved higher, to rest on his shoulder.
"Like old times, Vin," Chanu said, "you and me together. I want that back."
He knew it wouldn't be the same, not in some of the fundamental ways he had hoped for with Chanu. But in other ways, it would be the same: the loyalty and affection and closeness, the things that were woven between them, and always would be. For the moment, he let himself believe that it would be enough.
"Chanu?" Claire's voice called from the door of the cabin, and Vin sighed.
"In here!" Chanu called, but his hand remained on Vin's shoulder even as Vin opened his eyes. "Claire brought dinner," he said. "We want to talk to you about something else."
The hand on his shoulder squeezed but didn't move, staying still as the tread of Claire's boots on the hardwood floor grew louder.
Chanu held his gaze, held the touch, until Vin himself squirmed. "Go help your wife," he muttered, heat rising in his face at the thought of what Claire would see. At the thought of what Chanu was telling him in that touch. "We can talk about things later."
Chanu nodded, but the hold tightened for a few seconds before it eased away.
Then he was alone as Chanu left to help Claire with more of her stuff coming into his house.
Two hours later, he sat before a fire burning in his wood stove, listening to Chanu and Claire in his kitchen stowing away the rest of the surprisingly good vegetable lasagna that Claire had made.
It had been a good meal, the conversation easy and unthreatening, talk of local reservation news, the various projects Claire was involved with, the current status of the reservation's livestock, things on the ranch that Vin needed to know.
"Dessert?" Chanu came back in, balancing two bowls and a mug. Claire followed with two mugs and a third bowl. He set the mug on the table beside Vin then held out one of the bowls as well, and the smell of hot chocolate and raspberry wafted through the air. "Brownies still your favorite, or did that change?"
Vin grinned at the other man. "That ain't changed." He looked over at Claire who was settling back into the small couch, the mugs on the coffee table. "Thanks, Claire. I appreciate your trouble."
She smiled at him, then at Chanu as he moved to sit beside her. "No trouble, Vin. We have to eat as well, and I'll take any excuse I can right now to eat chocolate. Right, honey?"
Chanu snorted. "How much have you gained since the last visit to the doctor?"
She arched an eyebrow, lapsing into Shosone. "I know you're not complaining because if you were serious, you would be cooking your own meals."
"You are far too skinny, wife," he answered, digging into his own dessert. "We all know it."
Vin almost laughed but managed to keep it to a grin that he, too, could hide behind a spoonful of one of the best brownies he had ever had.
He ate several bites before reaching for the mug and realizing it was coffee. With a frown, he said, "I thought pregnant women couldn't drink coffee."
"It's decaffeinated," Claire said, matter of factly, the word coming out in English as there was no Shoshone equivalent, for which Vin was thankful. "You don't need caffeine either, not with all the medicines you are on."
Vin managed not to choke as he swallowed again, but Chanu was grinning at him when he looked back at them.
"And speaking of children," Claire continued, oblivious to Vin's surprise and irritation. Or ignoring it.
But at her words, Chanu sat forward as well, his attention letting Vin know that this was the heart of whatever had brought them here tonight.
He looked to Claire, who had set her bowl on the coffee table and was looking at him, her gaze open but considering.
"Chanu and I have talked about this a lot, Vin, talked about it a whole lot. We want you to be Peta's godfather. She's almost two years old and it's well past time, even in the tribe."
She paused then, watching him, but he was more lost in his own surprise. He looked from her to Chanu, reminded of her own strange ignorance about the reservation, wondering if she was mis-speaking in this language. Chanu, he knew, though, understood the significance of this, understood that this was something that was personal to him.
Understood that this was at the heart of who Vin was with the res. KoJay had adopted Vin when his grandfather died, becoming his godfather. He had fulfilled all the roles that entailed, caring for Vin, helping him in every way that mattered from that point on.
Being a godfather was taking care of a life, making it a part of one's own.
Chanu leaned forward, and for a space, he thought his friend would say something, but instead, Chanu looked at Claire and nodded.
She reached out and took Chanu's hand, but she looked at Vin. "Yes, Vin, I know what we're asking of you. I know how seriously you will take this, which is one of the reasons that we're asking you. Chanu wanted it from the moment we found out that I was pregnant with Peta. I . . . I had reservations about it. In some ways, I still do."
Chanu's face tightened at her words, and Vin knew his friend assumed the words were an insult.
Under other circumstances, perhaps they would have been. But in this moment, they actually gave him more reassurance than anything else Claire could have said. He set his bowl down on the table beside him and shifted, turning slightly in the chair to look her in the eye. Peripherally, he was aware of Chanu straightening, and he wondered distantly how much it would hurt for Chanu to back Claire up if this turned into the argument Chanu seemed to expect.
Fortunately, for now, Vin wasn't going to find out. "I'm glad to hear it," he said evenly, not looking at Chanu. "You should be careful about it. You're trusting someone to take care of one of your babies, Claire, if something happens to you and Chanu. I hope you've got some worries about me - hell, I've got worries about me!"
He grinned, pleased that she did as well.
"Well, the biggest concern we have is that you're going to get yourself killed. You seem to be putting yourself into danger a lot since you came back. We had hoped that you would - "
"Yeah, I got the message already about settling down," he interrupted, exasperated. "But I cannot change who and what I am, Claire, no matter how much I love your children."
The weight of her gaze was heavy, but he let her look and let her think, still avoiding Chanu. After a few seconds, she nodded and asked, "Are you going to help with the ranch, take the position as foreman so Chanu can get some rest?" Her tone of voice suggested that she wasn't entirely pleased with the idea, but she wasn't angry.
He tilted his head, realized what he was doing, then straightened back up. "Not just my decision. If he wants me to take it, I will not say no."
"You do understand that you cannot just up and run off on your little hunts now, we expect you to be here - not just for the ranch and the res, Vin, but to help take care of us, of Chanu. He is the father of my children and you are Peta's godfather. I need you both alive and whole."
"Claire," Chanu said, his voice even but strong, "I thought we talked about - "
"I am not going to run out on him," Vin said quietly. "Not just because he is the father of my godchild or because he is your husband, but because he is the best friend I will ever have."
Claire nodded, once. "Something else we have in common. I wager that there are many things we have in common."
He didn't want to think about it, and apparently neither did Chanu, as he took that moment to say, "We're in agreement, then? Brother? Wife?"
"You're going to take care of yourself as well?" she asked, ignoring Chanu entirely, her eyes boring into Vin's. "Spend more time working with us here, on the ranch? Helping with the reservation?"
He shook his head, but smiled. "Devious," he said. "You two have been around each other far too long, sharing bad habits."
She smiled at that, and Chanu sighed. "You will take care of - "
"Yes, I will take better care," he said, shaking his head. "And I'll work more here, take some of the strain off of Chanu - "
"Do I have any say in this?" Chanu snapped, standing up.
Claire stared at Vin for another few seconds, until, with a slight twitch of her nose, she turned her head and grinned.
Chanu groaned as, at the same instant, Vin and Claire answered, "No."
Vin stood in the doorway of the porch, staring out into the darkness. The rain was soft and clear, the wind back but slower, and he hoped Chanu and Claire got home all right. They'd left about half an hour ago, after making him take another pain pill. Claire had made some noise about Chanu helping Vin get ready for bed, but Vin had put his foot down on that one. His bedroom was one of the last places he needed Chanu to be.
Chanu had brought in more wood and stacked the woodstove and turned the vent down so that it would burn slow through the night. It was a waste of wood; Vin would have just let the fire burn down and restarted it in the morning, but Claire had been adamant that he be warm, and knowing her, she'd be here first thing in the morning, probably before he was ready. Probably before he was up. He could almost hear her laughing voice asking, 'What the hell is he still doing in bed?', just before she gave him another pain pill to put him back to sleep.
And he realized that he could almost hear her voice in his head. For the first time since she had waltzed into his life and turned it to ash, he could hear her lilt, not the vague, sexless monotone that he had given her for so long.
His stomach roiled a little, understanding before his head did: he was accepting it, accepting her. Coming to terms.
It still hurt, in its way as fiery and ripping as the knife that had whacked through his arm. He hadn't sorted it out in his head, whether it was good to know that Chanu had cared as much about him and he still hadn't been enough for Chanu to stay, or whether it was better to believe that it had all been false from the start. And maybe, probably, there wasn't a good or a better. Hurt the same, no matter which.
But it was what it was, and no amount of anger or jealousy or grief was going to change it. They had what they had, a kinship that was more than blood, more than friendship. 'Shared souls,' KoJay called it, two people so close that parts of them lived inside the other. A gift and a curse.
He listened to the rain for a while longer, until the pain in his shoulder smoothed out and faded, leaving him tired and sleepy.
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