sparsenicjade
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Disclaimer: Don't know the boys of My Chemical Romance or Panic at the Disco or Pete Wentz, all fiction. Plot and pretty much everything taken from Catherine Anderson's Keegan's Lady. If you don't like the plot, it's hers. If you do, sadly, it is still hers.

Thanks: To Rossetti for the amazing beta, which she did despite having way too much happening in her own life, and for helping me hammer out last minute details even though she was on vaca. Any mistakes left are mine, and most likely because I ignored something she told me to do. Also to doll_revolution for not letting me let go of the idea that I wanted to write Bob/Ryan. Last but not least at all, foxxcub and harriet_vane for running harlequin_bands, without which this would have never been written.

Dedication: This story is all liketheroad's. Beyond the fact that her love and dedication to Ryan Ross matches mine in odd and perfect ways, and the way she held my hand through every step of this story, there is simply the truth that she makes my day brighter whenever I see her sign on to gchat, and that deserves much more than a story. But that's what I have to give.

Author's Notes: Title comes from The Dixie Chick's Cowboy Take Me Away. Yes, I'm serious.

As stated in the disclaimer, this is based off a previously written book. Unlike other responses to this challenge, this isn't loosely based, and it doesn't really deviate, it's pretty much a recasting. That said, I did change slight things--the original novel takes place in Colorado--so if you're having moments of "wow, that makes no sense" it's probably due to an amalgamation of band-canon and book-canon. Additionally, I made the choice to let this remain extremely problematic in the way gender is represented. I think, that due to changing the bio-sex/gender of the heroine, it's a different kind of problematic, but I felt that gender politics being deeply fucked up is sort of an important aspect of Harlequins, and while there are things I changed because they annoyed the crap out of me in the original novel, I left a lot of the stuff that I was like, "wow, seriously?" *eye roll to follow* because I chose to preserve what I think is genuinely a part of the genre. If that's going to bother you, I recommend you not read.

***


anna_luna made AMAZING AND WONDERFUL cover art for this:

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***


Prologue

Bob startled from the nightmare and froze for a second before sighing, melting back into the bed. His leg twinged with long-gone pain, but that pretty much always happened when his subconscious took him back to the night his stepfather had died. It had been happening a lot ever since he'd moved back to No Name.

Bob closed his eyes, but knew within seconds that he wasn't going to be getting back to sleep. He tossed the covers aside. The bedroom was cool, steeped in the night air of Nevada's deserts. It was colder than Bob remembered. He pulled a shirt on, some pants, a jacket and walked out to the Hanging Tree. Twenty years had passed since he'd seen his stepfather lynched on that tree. He'd buried the man next to it that night.

The marker he'd made was gone, perhaps eroded, possibly simply taken by the desert wind. Bob still knew the exact patch of land where he lay. He hunched down next to it, curling over himself and for a long moment, allowed himself to not think, not at all.

After a while he whispered, "I got the land, Pa. I got it."

It was a long time before he went back down to the house, even longer before he was able to sleep again.

***


Ryan woke suddenly and cringed. It took a second for him to realize that a noise from outside was what had caused it. It took him another second to realize there was still noise--a lot of it. It took a third second for him to remember that his father was dead, and couldn't possibly be the cause. He unwound just the tiniest bit. "Fuck. Fucking Pete."

Ryan loved his older brother, he really did. Pete had been there for him all the times when nobody else in the world had bothered, but ever since their father had died the year before, Pete had seemed to feel the need to keep the bottles of whiskey George had left behind company, and then some. Ryan understood, to a certain extent, or at least sympathized. With Ryan, at least he was the younger son. People didn't seem to expect that he'd follow in George's footsteps, be the "man" his father had been. It was different for Pete as the eldest. Ryan knew the twisted expectation that Pete would turn out exactly like George was in some ways driving Pete to prove them all right: if he could be worse than everybody expected, then nothing anyone said could get to him, or something.

Ryan didn't really care, though. He wanted his brother back. He needed him.

Ryan sighed and went to go see what kind of trouble Pete was causing now. It was late, and nobody else was going to take care of the cattle if Ryan couldn't get up in the morning. The one ranch hand who had agreed to stay on for the minimal pay Ryan could afford was deaf as a post and not precisely in his glory days of cattle farming. Ryan tied a robe over his pajamas, slid his feet into his slippers and headed out in the direction of the barn, where the noise was coming from. He stepped in the doors and started to ask, "What the--" then stopped.

Pete was in the middle of the barn on a great black horse that neither Pete nor Ryan owned. There was a noose around his neck and he was sobbing, quiet, frantic tears. Ryan felt his stomach turn itself inside out. He looked around then, noticing the other men in the barn. He didn't recognize them, which could only mean one thing. They were the new boys in town, the brothers that had set themselves up on Northern Ranch. Pete had lost the land in a poker game with the oldest brother, Bob Bryar, a few months earlier. Ryan had just about shot Pete over it.

Ryan hadn't seen any of the brothers yet, but he'd heard rumors. Bryar himself was supposedly one of the best gunslingers in San Francisco. Ryan didn't know if there was any credit to the rumors, but one thing was for sure: all of them had guns, and Ryan was standing there in his pajamas, unarmed, and, as of yet, unnoticed. He asked, quietly, lest he spook the horse, "What's going on? Pete? What happened--"

There was a quick shifting in the hay and a man said, "He shot my prize bull, is what happened."

Ryan had a hard time seeing much at all at night. A man stepped out of the shadows, though, into the light of the lanterns and it took everything in Ryan's body--and a fierce love of Pete--not to just up and run. The man--Bryar?--was easily twice Ryan's size, and had the muscles and hands to fit. One of the hands was resting on the butt of his pistol.

"Prize--" Ryan looked at Pete, because crazy was one thing, but a prize bull in ranching territory? That was... Well, that was a hanging offense. Fuck. "There must be some mistake," Ryan said, even though he wasn't entirely sure he believed it. Pete was gentle and kind as they came sober, but once he started drinking it was like all the aggression and anger and stupidity that he tamped down on with his rational mind came out to play.

"No mistake," one of the other men said, this one shorter than Ryan, but covered with ink and markings that made Ryan think twice about whether they'd be evenly matched in a fight. He had a gun, too. "I saw him."

"Even if there was some mistake--which there isn't," Bryar said; "It's hardly the first offense. He's poisoned two of my wells, not to mention taken potshots at my hired hands. 'Bout damned time someone taught the boy a lesson."

"Less-- Lesson? He can't learn anything if he's dead." Ryan knew he sounded a little desperate. That was okay, though, since he was actually completely and totally desperate. Pete maybe hadn't been much of a brother the past year or so, but the twenty-two before that nobody could have asked for a better sibling, and Pete was all Ryan had in the world, anymore.

"Maybe he should've thoughta that before he up and aimed at my stud, yeah?" Bryar looked away, as though to give the signal.

Ryan said, "No, please, no, look. I'll-- I can pay you. What-- I can pay you back."

"That bull cost me three thousand off the top and that's not counting the extra two I probably would've had coming through breeding."

Ryan swallowed. "Five thousand dollars?" He tried to keep his voice even. It had taken Ryan the better part of five years to save one thousand dollars, though, and Pete had already managed to find that and swim through it like a creek full of water.

"I'm guessing you don't have that on you, so I think I'd best just be getting on with this, here."

"No, no, I mean-- I can-- How about something in trade?" When Bryar didn't respond, Ryan tried again. "Please. Anything."

Ryan knew he'd miscalculated when Bryar turned his gaze fully on to him. Ryan blinked and stumbled back a bit, despite the fact that Bryar was really nowhere near him. There was a scar running from his eye nearly to his jaw, and in the light of the lantern, his face seemed slightly lop-sided with it. Bryar asked, quietly, "Anything, huh?"

"I--"

"Boss?" The question seemed unsure.

Ryan swiveled and saw another man, one he hadn't seen before, also small, but with the muscles of someone who herded cows for a living. There were so many of them, six that Ryan could see, one of him. Ryan fought to keep breathing. Bryar glared at the smaller man and then turned his attention back to Ryan. "Well?"

Ryan looked at his brother, silent and flushed with shame. Ryan was shaking so hard he was certain everyone in the barn had to hear it, but he managed to keep his voice mostly flat when he said, "Just. Just not here. Please."

Bryar made a noise that might have been amusement and strode toward him. He had a slight limp, but it did nothing to make him less intimidating. It was the hardest thing Ryan had ever done, standing his ground. He made himself not think about what he was doing, not think about how it had felt the first time, being held down, pleas for the man to stop ignored-- He made himself not think. When Bryar nudged him toward the barn door, Ryan stumbled. He said, "You-- You give your word? I do this and you let my brother free."

Bryar said, "You go through with this, and he's all yours." He looked back at the other men. "If you see this one running, hang the bastard." He all but pushed Ryan behind the barn, in the scant space between it and the ranching area. He lifted the lantern and said, "Well?"

Ryan blinked. Bryar made a noise of frustration. "C'mon, show me the merchandise. I wanna see if it's really up to the five thousand dollar bond I'm letting go."

Ryan knew better, but Bryar had said, he'd said-- It took Ryan four tries just to get the knot on his robe untied. He couldn't feel his fingers. He told himself it was from cold, not fear. He told himself the same thing about his shaking, and the sick thud of his stomach in time with his heart. Finally, finally the damn thing came loose. Ryan made himself push it off. Bryar was still just looking at him, unimpressed. Ryan grabbed the hem of his shirt with hands that were shaking so badly he was actually hitting himself. In one motion he tore it off himself, keeping his eyes shut, reminding himself that nothing lasted forever. Even this had to end. It would be awful and painful and humiliating, but it would end, and Ryan would still have Pete.

Bryar said, "I can wait all night. And into the day."

Ryan repressed a sound that was sheer terror and started to push at the hem of his pants. He'd just about lowered them over his cock when a hand landed on his wrist. Ryan couldn't help it, he fucking squealed in panic. Bryar said, "Relax. Seems my boys are ready to go. Guess I'll have to take a raincheck."

And just like that, they rode off, leaving Ryan freezing and half-naked and near to vomiting with fear. It was a long time before he could remember to put his shirt back on, until his fingers could manage the robe, even longer before his legs worked well enough to go get Pete--who was safe on the ground, no rope or horse in sight--and take them both inside.

*


Bob rode hell for leather back to his lands, only slowing when Ray rode up next to him and forced him to slow down. When they had come to a stop, Ray asked, "What the fuck was that back there? What in Jesus' name were you thinking?"

Bob's horse shied from the anger in Ray's tone, his carriage, and Bob couldn't blame it. Then again, he couldn't blame Ray, either. He wanted to answer Ray that he hadn't been thinking, hadn't been at all. Bob didn't lie to his brothers, though. He owed them better. Hell, he owed his hired men, who were looking at him with an uncertainty in their eyes, better. He let out a breath. "Mikey. I was thinking of Mikey."

Gerard frowned, clearly also irate and unsure. "What's Mikey got to do with anything?"

They were all protective of their youngest brother, but Gerard maybe the most so. They all shared the same mother. Bob's mother had had him with her first husband, killed in the Civil War. Gerard, Ray, and Frank shared both a mother and a father with Mikey. Or so they had all thought until tonight. Bob had always had his suspicions, but Ma had always been so firm on the fact that Mikey was her husband's son. Bob wasn't sure he should say anything. He didn't think he could keep it to himself. Sooner or later they were going to send for Mikey and their Ma, and people would figure it out, the same way Bob had.

Bob took a breath. "That night-- That--"

"The night they killed Pa?" Frank asked. Frank was the youngest, and even though Ray, Gerard and he had all been away at the creek, washing up that night, it was easiest for Frank, since he didn't really even have the memory of coming back and seeing Bob work a spade into the ground, over and over and over again until morning, when he'd managed to fill the grave, leaving an unnatural lump on the landscape.

Bob nodded tightly. "Ma, she-- She was desperate. She said, uh. She said she'd do--"

"Anything," Ray finished for him softly. Bob nodded.

There was a moment of silence before Gerard asked, "What are you saying-- Are you saying that they-- That Ma--"

"George Ross raped her," Bob said, trying to quell the roiling in his stomach. "He raped her and then he told them to lynch Pa anyway."

"But Mikey--" Gerard's face was crumbling. "It coulda been Pa, it coulda--"

"You didn't see Ryan like I did. His mannerisms, it's just...uncanny. And you heard him. You all heard him." Bob waited, seeing dawning--if reluctant--acceptance on their faces.

"Well, shit," Frank said softly.

It was Brendon who ventured to say, "But. But Ryan didn't do all that. He didn't hurt your Ma. I mean, it's awful that you had to..." Brendon petered out, biting his lip. It was kind of rare that Brendon spoke up like that.

"I know, I-- Fuck. I don't know what got into me." Bob had found Brendon in a saloon in San Francisco, trying his best to look old enough to even get the barkeep's attention. Bob had bought him a drink and asked what he did and Brendon had said, "Whatever a person needs, I s'pose." For reasons Bob couldn't even explain to himself he'd hired Brendon on. Brendon knew pretty much nothing about ranching, but then, neither did he and his brothers, really.

"Whatever else, this needs to be kept quiet. This gets out, that boy's reputation isn't worth the paper I wipe my ass on." Ray looked at all of them expectantly. Bob didn't miss the shading of disappointment that fell over Ray's face when he looked at Bob.

Bob nodded. He deserved that. He looked at Matt and Brendon. "You know I like havin' you on as workin' men, but if you speak a word of this--"

Matt leaned off to the side of his horse and spit. Brendon said, "Cross my heart."

"All right then," Bob said. "All-- I'll just figure out how to say sorry to him and what's done'll be done. Nobody that much worse for the wear."

They all looked a little doubtful. Bob didn't really blame them.

*


Pete had been too drunk to do anything with him but pour him into bed and take his shoes off the night before, but in the morning, Ryan made some coffee and woke him, not feeling all that sympathetic regarding his hangover. Pete made a face at the weakness of the coffee. Ryan didn't say a word. They both knew they couldn't afford much else. Coffee needed to last, everything did.

Pete asked, softly, "Did he hurt you?"

"No, he-- No. He didn't touch me."

Pete looked down at his cup. "I-- It was like I was just watching, like in a dream. The whiskey, I can't even tell you, it's like I'm not even in my own body."

"You have to stop," Ryan said flatly. He'd given a fair amount of leeway in the situation, but enough was enough. "We've got cattle out there, Pete, that we gotta move this year. We have to breed a new stock or we'll--"

"I know. I know, Ryan. No more, I swear. I made a promise when my neck was in that rope and he was-- I made a promise."

Ryan wanted to believe, he did. He just nodded. He knew too much about men and alcohol.

"I s'pse this means we owe him the five thousand."

Ryan closed his eyes. Five thousand dollars. And a raincheck, maybe. Ryan suppressed a shudder at the thought and made himself open his eyes. "I've been thinking, Pete, 'bout the money."

Pete looked up. Ryan said, "Maybe, maybe after this season we should sell the ranch. I figure that's enough and then we could get outta here. Start someplace new where nobody knows nothing 'bout us."

Pete said, "We can't, Ry."

Ryan bit the inside of his cheek. "I know it's Dad's land and all, but it'll be an adventure, we can go anywhere."

"We can't."

Ryan heard the anguish in Pete's voice. After a second he asked, "Why not, Pete?"

"I mortgaged the ranch."

The world around Ryan disappeared in a high pitched whine for a minute or two. When it came back into focus, Ryan said, "You, uh. What? I thought-- The money you took from me, I--"

"Borrowed, Ry. I borrowed that money. I'm paying it back."

Ryan had heard it before. "The ranch, Pete."

"I just, I got drunk, and I was talking to some of those railroad prospectors--"

"You didn't. You fucking didn't," Ryan said. "We agreed. We said it was wrong, buying that land at dirt cheap prices from fucking dirt farmers for fuck's sake to turn around and sell it at a premium to the railroad. We-- What the fuck, Pete? The ranch?"

"I was drunk!" Pete yelled, and stood, not as tall as Ryan, but threatening in his anger all the same.

Ryan stood his ground. "You gonna hit me? Because if you are, you go on ahead. But you aren't Pa, and I'm not taking it from you. You do it, it'll be the last thing you ever do to me."

Pete flushed and sat back down. "Sorry, just. You gotta be so loud? My head--"

Ryan didn't want to hear it. He slammed his way out of the kitchen, taking care not to catch the door on his way out. The freedom to be loud wasn't something he'd had before this year and he delighted in it. He took some small satisfaction in the revenge as well.

Fuck, the ranch. That meant Ryan was well and truly fucked, stuck in paying off a debt that would most likely take over twenty years--not to mention the mortgage payments--stuck in this town, stuck waiting for Bob Bryar to decide he was ready for that raincheck now, please.

Ryan took a deep breath and started making his way out to the range. There were cows to milk and breed and check for signs of illness. There were cows that Ryan would have to figure out how to get to market, seeing as how there was no rail and he couldn't exactly either send Pete off to herd them there or to have him stay and watch over the ranch in Ryan's absence. They sure as shit couldn't afford to hire someone to do the job for them. These were immediate concerns. The other worries, they would have to wait until later.

*


Before Bob was able to find a way to talk to Ryan, apologize and let him know he needn't worry about the money, he found an envelope in his mailbox, neatly labeled "To: Mr. Bryar." Inside was eight dollars and nine cents, all in change, and a letter.

Dear Sir,

This payment is being made in advance of the month given in order to show good faith.

Ryan Ross


Below the note was an accounting: $5000 - $8.09 = $4991.91. Bob stared at it for a long moment before crumpling it up and pitching it across the room. Since it was paper, it just didn't have the same effect as throwing something like, say, glass, or metal, the purgative crash he was looking for. Nine cents. The five thousand dollars wasn't even an irreplaceable loss to Bob. He would have preferred not to lose the bull--shipping cattle in and out of No Name was still a tricky business, what with there being no railroad--but he could afford to buy another one, and in time for mating season. But here Ryan Ross was, including nine cents into his payment, which told Bob exactly the state of his financial affairs. Nine cents could buy a loaf of bread and some sugar, a carding of fabric or other necessities, if you had it to spend. Ryan clearly didn't.

Bob ran a hand through his hair. He hadn't meant to do this, hadn't meant to take money from a young man who hadn't done anything wrong other than be born to the wrong father. And if he was going to hate Ryan for that, he'd best get on hating Mikey and that, well. That would happen when hell froze over and shat flying pigs from its mouth.

He needed to find a way to apologize, to put an end to this. Bob looked at the pennies, spilled out onto the table. He needed to do it fast.

*


Ryan had been looking forward to the church social for weeks. He and Spencer had spent hours upon hours putting it together for the benefit of the dirt-farmers whose land was being bought out underneath them by railroad prospectors--people, evidently, like Pete. Ryan made himself quiet the thought. Pete hadn't had a drop to drink in four days. He'd been outside, with Ryan, helping to run the ranch during the day, helping around the house in the evening. What was done was done.

The evening of the social, Ryan said, "Maybe, maybe I should just go in and help Spencer set up, come back for a nice evening in."

Pete looked at him knowingly. "Every evening is an evening in for us. You're just worried 'bout letting me get near temptation. You gotta trust me a little, Ry."

Trust wasn't Ryan's foremost talent and Pete wasn't Ryan's singular concern. Church socials were open to everyone, not just church members. As long as he stayed on the ranch, Bob Bryar had to come to Ryan to cash in on that raincheck. Going somewhere where he might run smack dab into Bob seemed, well, idiotic at best.

"C'mon, Ry," Pete practiced his best smile on Ryan, the one Ryan had always been shit at resisting. "You deserve some fun."

Not having the heart to tell Pete that simply wasn't going to happen, Ryan walked back to his closet to change into his Sunday best, the only thing he had anymore that wasn't meant for working the ranch. Ryan touched his fingers gently to the chambray, softened by wear. Pete had bought him the shirt for Ryan's seventeenth birthday. He'd worked for months mucking out stalls at one of the local horse breeders to afford it. Ryan was just glad he hadn't grown much since then. The shirt was a little tight across his chest--he'd finally started to show some definition from all the work with the cows--but mostly it fit him nicely, still. Certainly nice enough for the social. The folks who lived further out probably wouldn't even bother to change out of their overalls. The thought made Ryan smile.

He changed into the shirt and the only pair of jeans he had that weren't worn through in spots--he'd finally outgrown his trousers about two years ago, and hadn't had the ability to replace them since. He took a deep breath, said, "Fun. You deserve some fun," and then made himself walk out to where Pete was, where the horses would be saddled and waiting.

*


Ryan knew something was wrong the moment they tethered the horses. He smiled and waved at Charlie Connelly, whom he'd known since he was five, and Charlie turned away. Pete said, "Weird."

Ryan shrugged. "Maybe he just didn't see me." Ryan was good at shrugging off things that hurt.

When he went inside, though, people who had known him his entire life skirted away as if he was carrying small pox. Spencer found him almost immediately and took him into the kitchen under the guise of needing help with some of the dishes. Spencer was nervous, though, Ryan could feel it in his grip, and as soon as they were alone, Ryan asked, "What's wrong?"

"Ry. I-- I don't exactly know how to tell you this."

Spencer had been Ryan's friend since before Ryan could adequately remember. He was the only person in the world Ryan had ever told about the beatings he'd taken from his father. He was one of only two people in the town who'd ever tried to help Ryan. Ryan said softly, "Just tell me, Spence. It's all right."

"Well, um. Joshua, your Joshua?"

Ryan nodded. Joshua was his farmhand, the one who stayed on for a pittance. "Is he all right? Has something happened?"

Spencer ran a hand over his face. "Ry, he came in town tonight, went and got drunk over at the saloon. He, ah--"

If there actually was a heaven, it was a place with no alcohol. Ryan didn't really believe it existed.

"He's saying Bob Bryar ruined you. He's trying to get together some boys to go and teach him a lesson."

The words took a bit to actually reach Ryan. He put his hand on the counter nearby just in case the dizziness he was feeling got out of hand and he needed something to support himself with. "Oh."

"I hate repeating something like that, 'specially when I know it can't be true--"

"You shouldn't be here, Spence." A ruined reputation was like a virus. No wonder all the other respectable sons and daughters in town had steered clear. "You shouldn't--"

"I'm married, Ry, remember?" Spencer brought up a hand to show off the handsome gold band Ryland Blackington had finally put on Spencer's hand the year before. They'd been school time sweethearts.

"Doesn't matter." And it didn't. The last thing Spencer needed was people saying he was the kind of partner who would cheat on his husband. Not that Ryland would believe it, but that wasn't the point.

"Shut your stupid mouth, Ryan Ross. I'm not leaving you to deal with all those judgmental asses on your own."

"Spence--"

"What part of 'shut your stupid mouth' needs explaining?"

Ryan couldn't help it; he reached out and hugged Spencer. Spencer said, "I'm sorry. I truly am."

Ryan shook his head and didn't say a word. What was done was done.

*


When Bob had decided on the church social as the perfect place to apologize to Ryan--lots of people around, less likely to spook him--he hadn't considered that Ryan would be able to use the people to hide from him. Or, well, should have been able to. Bob frowned as he noted that everywhere Ryan darted, people seemed to fall away, scatter, really, in a sort of panic. The only person who seemed willing to stand by him was another boy in a somewhat eccentric outfit with a face that was almost as pretty as Ryan's, almost.

Bob shut the thought pattern down. He was not thinking of Ryan Ross--of any Ross--as pretty.

On the one hand, the social ostracization made Ryan easy to catch. On the other, it gave Bob a sinking suspicion as to what was going on. Sure enough, Frank caught up to him and said, "Problem, brother mine."

"Somebody squealed?" He was going to kill Brendon or Matt when he figured out which one it had been.

"The Ross's old farmhand. Drunk as hell and raising some 'bout teaching you a lesson."

"Fuck," Bob muttered under his breath. He wasn't sure he'd ever met anyone less likely to catch a break than Ryan Ross. He would have hated having to let go of either Brendon or Matt, but to have someone who'd worked for him for years betray him like that? Jesus.

"Thought you should know," Frank said, giving him an enigmatic look and slipping off into the crowd. Some girl with black hair and a pretty laugh had caught his attention.

"Fuck," Bob repeated to himself, mostly for emphasis, and then returned to his previously scheduled Ryan hunt. It was then that he noticed Ryan had slipped away. It didn't take him long to get outside, discover Ryan haring off on a horse. Bob untied his own and rode to catch up. It didn't take long. Rhythm was a full Arabian, made to run like hell, and Ryan was prancing away on a palomino that looked like it had seen better days. Additionally, there was some sort of pattern to Ryan's riding that Bob couldn't quite determine, almost like he wasn't sure where he was going.

Bob pulled up alongside Ryan and asked, "Where're we headed?" He then felt like a grade A asshole when Ryan startled, spooking the horse and sending them both flying forward. Bob spurred Rhythm faster and caught Ryan's horses reins, slowing them both down.

Ryan said, "Let go," his voice a little breathless, but sure of the command. Bob did. The horse had been slowed enough.

Bob said, "I didn't mean to spook you."

"Staying at the social would have made that a sure thing."

Bob couldn't help but smile. He remembered why he hadn't stayed, then, and winced. "Look, Ryan. I-- I'm not happy with the way we left things the other night."

Ryan nodded once, sharply.

"I just mean--"

"I get your meaning. We're almost to my place. If you-- I made some cookies today. Peanut butter, if you like that sort of thing. Maybe, could we-- Could we have some tea first, do you think?"

Bob frowned. He wasn't entirely sure why he couldn't apologize while having tea, but all right, if that was the way Ryan wanted it, he was owed an apology any way he pleased. "I guess."

Ryan's sigh sounded like relief, which made no sense. He said, "Thank you," his voice definitely shaking on the second word. Bob felt like he was missing something important. In any case, Bob was glad for silence in the last few minutes of their ride, time to consider how, exactly, you apologized to a guy for ruining any chance he had of a good marriage, or even a decent life, really, in the town where he'd lived since birth and probably would until death. At the very least, he had to make it clear that Ryan didn't owe anymore for the bull. It was possible he should maybe offer some money in exchange for-- But no. No, Ryan wasn't a whore.

Bob watched Ryan fumble to light the stable lamp and then take care of the horses before leading them into the house. In the moments of darkness, Ryan's movements were always more careful, less sure. Bob thought, oh, nightblind.

Ryan lit three lamps once they were in the kitchen and Bob held back a wince, knowing how expensive lamp fuel was, that Ryan was probably never that extravagant with just himself there. Bob took a moment to look around. The house itself was clearly in need of some repairs. The wood was worn, the appliances ancient. But over the sink hung green gingham curtains. From the ceiling, a tangled, lush ivy plant dangled. On the table, a dented food tin held wildflowers above a clearly homemade table cloth. It made Bob think of the nine cents, of the way Ryan must have scrimped and saved and gotten creative to make his house feel like a home, make it feel, well, pretty.

"Your rugs are nice," Bob said into the silence. He took a seat at the table, feeling like a giant--a threatening, intruding giant--in the space.

Ryan blinked at him. "Oh, ah. There was a remnants sale last fall. I, uh. I like making things."

Bob started to say something else, but Ryan said, "I'll just-- This won't take a moment," and put the kettle to burning on the stove. There was a sound of distress and something darted out at Bob, claws first. Bob took a startled step back and Ryan said, "Sorry, sorry, she doesn't mean--" Gently, he peeled what Bob could now see was a dog from Bob's chest. Ryan cradled the dog. "Sorry, I didn't know you were under there." He set her down carefully. And said to Bob, "Sorry, she-- I keep trying to explain to her that the stove is dangerous, but Hobo, she-- It's just, she's a little-- And it's a good place to hide."

Bob wasn't entirely sure what to make of all that, so he just surreptitiously set to trying to brush free most of the hair the dog had managed to leave on him. Bob said, "Ryan, it's me who should be--"

But at that moment, Bob heard stomping on the stairs and the next thing he knew, Pete was coming in the door, waving a gun in his face. "How dare-- How fucking dare you?"

The smell of whiskey coming off him was so intense, Bob actually blinked. He was about to go for his own gun, mostly to scare Pete, when Ryan got between them. "Pete, stop."

"He ruined you, Ryan."

"I think I know very well what he did," Ryan answered.

"He ruined you, and now he has to marry you."

Ryan snorted. "Over my dead body."

"Y'know," Bob said. "I think he has a point."

Ryan turned, in shock, and in the moment that it took Ryan to ask, "Are you out of your fucking mind?" Bob had Ryan behind him, out of the way of possibly drunkenly discharged bullets. Ryan struggled, saying, "No, don't, he's just--" but Bob said, "Maybe," in response to Ryan's earlier questioning of his sanity, "Maybe I'm completely crazy. But I have a sense of honor."

Ryan laughed, sounding a little hysterical, and okay, to be honest, Bob couldn't blame him. He wasn't entirely sure why he was doing this himself. Ryan said, "You don't have to do this. There'll be new gossip next week, they'll--"

"Forget the nicknames and the slurs and the way nobody will even touch you for fear of, I don't even know, whoredom being catching?"

Ryan blanched.

Bob swore under his breath. "You aren't a whore. I meant--" He tried to figure out a way to explain, to make Ryan understand why he had to do this. It wasn't like Bob couldn't disarm and take Pete out of the picture if he really wanted to. But if he did that, he would be leaving Ryan with his huge eyes to the mercy of a brother who clearly loved whiskey more than his own flesh and blood, and a town that had already branded him cheap. Ryan, who moved and spoke like Mikey, but with less fire, more fear, more desperation for even the smallest hint of happiness.

There was no way to say that in words, at least not for Bob, who usually just showed people how he felt in his actions toward them. He shook his head, knowing suddenly, but nonetheless surely for it that there was nothing for it but to marry Ryan and hope he could make him see, make him. . .smile? Bob couldn't have said why that was so important to him, only that it was. He took a breath. "So, Pete. Where does a man get married at this time of night in this town?"

*


Ryan was a pretty realistic person. He was generally good at noting the harsh vagaries of life and taking them in stride. All the same, he maintained that this could not be happening. There was no way, no way, that hardly a year after he'd finally gotten free of his father, his brother was forcing him--at gunpoint--into the only legal form of slavery left to a man who could break Ryan with his pinky finger, and, oh yeah, hated Ryan. Ryan's mind simply couldn't wrap around the idea.

And yet, there he was, standing on the porch of the one justice of the peace in town. Ryan had always suspected that Gabriel Saporta had got himself licensed so that he could be privy to the drama of the town's shotgun weddings--the others were generally performed by the Minister--and it galled him a little to be fodder for Saporta. Ryan forgave him a little bit, though, when Bryar asked, "What're your rates?" and Saporta took one look at Pete before saying, "Dollar for a wedding," and then lowering his voice, "Two for the special version, if you know what I mean."

And yes, yes, that was perfect, only as soon as Ryan began to nod eagerly, Bryar pulled out a dollar bill. "We'll take the authentic kind, please."

Ryan said, "No, that's not--"

"Wedding jitters," Bryar said to Saporta. "He loves me. He'll remember in the morning."

The only thing that could possibly happen in the morning would be for Ryan to wake up from this nightmare. Saporta smiled, and reached out to pat one of Ryan's hands. Then he asked, "Porch or parlor?"

Bryar said, "It's a nice night, here'll be just fine."

Ryan had always dreamed of an outdoor wedding. He would have started laughing, only he was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to stop.

*


Ryan couldn't really remember the ceremony. He must have said, "I do," but he didn't recall having opened his mouth at all. When Saporta had given him the pen to sign the marriage documents, it had fallen from Ryan's fingers. It had taken three tries just to sign his name. Pete passed out as soon as the deed was done, which was, of course, just late enough not to do Ryan any good. Bryar dragged him from the house and left him on the sidewalk.

Ryan said, "You can't just leave him there. I need to--"

"He'll be fine, Ryan."

"He'll be cold, I--"

"It's a little chilly, but maybe that'll help him sleep it off. He's not your responsibility anymore." The words were sharp, but the tone wasn't. It was, well, if it hadn't been Bryar, Ryan might almost have called it understanding.

Ryan took a couple of deep breaths until he was certain he wasn't going to vomit. When he could, he pulled himself onto his horse and said, "About that. There's something-- I should have told you before, but uh, things happened a little quickly."

Bryar laughed somewhat sharply and started riding. Ryan followed. This was his only chance. If he could get Bryar to agree to an annulment, then they could both walk away, no harm done. Spencer was still speaking to Ryan, and it wasn't as though much of anybody else in this town mattered to him. Doc Walker, but the Doc wasn't one to be taken in by rumor. Ryan hadn't had any real intention of getting married anyhow. Sure, it would make shopping in town and attending church and a number of other things somewhat uncomfortable, but Ryan was used to discomfort, both in small and large doses. He would take that any day over being married to Bryar.

"Well?" Bryar asked.

"Oh." Ryan nodded. "Just, you see, I've already been compromised, years ago. Actually compromised," he clarified, since Ryan's levels of ruin were becoming seemingly complicated. "So, you see, there's no need to marry me and we can get an annulment and everything can go back to the way it was."

Bryar was silent for a length of road. Finally he asked, "Did you love him?"

"What?"

"Or, I suppose it could've been a her, although that's unusual, but you're all kinds of unusual, so, did you love the person? The one who compromised you?"

"No!" Ryan couldn't help the horror in his voice. It would have been best just to keep his tone even, he knew, but the very thought made his skin crawl.

Bryar just nodded and kept riding. Ryan said, "Don't you see? There's no responsibility on your part--"

"We're married, Ryan," he said, just loudly enough that Ryan could hear him over the beat of the hooves. "Best get used to the thought."

Ryan wasn't ready to give up quite that easily, but he quieted for the moment. The road was dusty, and trying to talk over the horses was making his throat sore. They arrived at Northern Ranch faster than Ryan would have credited, but he knew how the mind played tricks with time.

Bob took him inside and showed him around. It was spacious and airy, with gorgeous wooden floors that Bryar explained had three coats of varnish with a pride that Ryan could kind of understand. Bryar and his brothers had built the house from the ground up, despite self-admittedly being fairly lousy at carpentry, but it was sturdy and handsome in a sparse way. Ryan mourned the loss of his colors. His father had never liked color, either. One year of getting to pick and choose what he got to look at in the morning when he woke up just hadn't felt like enough. If he'd known it was only going to be a year, he would have-- Well, he wasn't sure he could have cherished it any more than he had, but he probably would have tried.

There was only one bedroom finished, so Bryar's brothers were sleeping in the barn, and at least there was that. Ryan didn't think Bryar was likely to share him if he had to go out to the barn; probably not, anyway. Ryan hoped. One man was bad enough.

The night was cool and Bryar said, "I'm gonna get a fire going in the bedroom. We can have some hot chocolate while the room is warming up."

Ryan nodded, and waited until Bryar was out of sight. Then he ran. He'd seen a door in the back, if he could just get away for the night, maybe in the morning he could make Bryar see sense. People always thought better after they'd slept some. Ryan found the door, only to discover it was locked. He made a small noise of frustration and kept working at the problem until he managed to pull something loose, and the door flew open. Ryan took one step into the black of night and had just a second to realize that there was no porch. Then he was falling.

*


Bob heard the yell of shock when he was coming back down the hall to make good on his promise of a nightcap. It came from the back of the house, where Bob knew he'd locked the door to protect anyone from falling until he could get the porch in. The house was a good six feet or so off the ground to allow for an enclosed shelter in the case of sand storms. Frank was supposed to have boarded the door, but Bob had the sinking feeling he hadn't gotten around to it. Bob ran to where, sure enough, the door was open. When he looked down, Ryan was a loose pile of white limbs and a blue shirt on the wood pile below.

Bob's heart, if it could have gotten loose, would have fallen right out of him. He lowered himself over the side of the house and let go. Ryan moaned lightly at the vibration and Bob couldn't help letting go a breath of relief. He was alive, at least for the moment. Bob said, "Ryan? Ryan?"

"No...porch."

"I know. I-- That's why we locked the door." He had his hands on Ryan, then, checking for broken bones, and Ryan began to struggle, which, on the one hand, probably meant that nothing was broken. On the other hand, if he was bleeding internally, that was only going to quicken him bleeding out. "Ryan, shh, stop, stop, I'm not gonna hurt you. I'm just trying to make sure you don't need a doctor."

Ryan pushed himself up. "Don't," he said, sounding tired. "Landed on my hands and knees. Just knocked the wind outta me."

Even in the dark, Bob could see where Ryan's hands and knees were torn to bits, splinters everywhere. He said, "C'mon, let's get you cleaned up."

Bob tried to help Ryan get up, but every time he so much as offered a hand, Ryan jerked away, biting his lip. Bob sighed, and didn't give in when he needed to lift Ryan back up into the house. He climbed up behind him and said, "Sit," motioning with his head to the kitchen table. Bob got a bottle of whiskey, a sewing needle and some bandages. He took out his knife and cut slits in the knees of Ryan's jeans to pull them away from the damaged areas. Ryan made a sound, but didn't say anything. Bob said, "This is gonna sting like a bitch," and splashed both knees in the whiskey. Ryan went taut, but didn't so much as whimper. The silence, what it said about Ryan's pain tolerance, sickened Bob. He got to work pulling out the larger splinters, working the smaller ones out with the needle. He tried for calm when he asked, "What in Jesus' name were you thinking?"

Ryan's voice was a little thick when he said, "I figured you'd see sense in the morning, grant the annulment."

Bob heard all the things Ryan didn't say. How, certainly, if he stayed here, annulment wouldn't be possible in the morning. Bob sighed. "Ryan, I gave my word to G-d that I was going to love and honor you until death do us 'part. And while I suppose the love part'll probably take a while for both of us, I'm not gonna back out on that. If you really want to, well. You be the one to say."

Ryan looked stricken. "I don't go back on my word."

Bob had actually pretty much figured that out the moment Ryan had started to push his pajama bottoms down that night behind the barn. It was kind of a shit move, using it against him here, but it was that or send Ryan back to a lonely house in a town where he didn't seem to have any friends; for whatever reason, Bob just couldn't. His Ma called it his better half. He called it fucked up. Either way, really. "Then I suppose we're married."

The bleakness in Ryan's eyes when he said, "S'pose so," soft, and like he was trying to convince himself, almost got Bob to back down. Instead, he stopped looking, and made Ryan give him his hands, so he could clean them up, too.

*


Ryan hurt. His hands and knees were one big throbbing mass of pain and every muscle was screaming from the jolt of hitting the ground at that level of impact. It was far from the worst he'd ever had, but evidently he'd grown a little soft in a year of not having to regularly anticipate beatings. Bryar was being surprisingly gentle in his removal of the splinters, which was a kindness, or Ryan imagined he thought it to be, but Ryan would have preferred the honesty of carelessness up front. It was harder to duck if you couldn't see the fist coming.

When Bryar put the last bandage on, he said, "Mind if we skip the cocoa? I'm beat." In the light of the kitchen, Ryan could see that what he'd taken to be a lop-sidedness in Bryar's features was actually a paralysis, more defined in his exhaustion. Ryan knew he should have felt sympathy, but in his own drained state it only added to Bryar's aura of intimidation.

Ryan took a quick breath in and tried one last thing. "I, ah, I know the other rooms aren't finished, but I was thinking I could maybe sleep on the floor, just until--"

"We're married, Ryan. We decided that. And no good is going to come of putting off sleeping in the same bad. Just sleep, I swear. I couldn't do anything else if I tried, just about now."

Ryan bit the inside of his cheek, unsure of how to trust that Bryar was telling the truth. Bryar said, "C'mon. I think Gee has some pajamas that might fit, least length-wise."

Bryar found the promised pajamas and even gave Ryan privacy while changing. The pants slid right off of him until he rolled up the waist band a few times. They showed his ankles, then, but better ankles than legs and ass in total. Ryan crawled into bed, so exhausted that everything was blurred around the edges. The bed was perfect, too, not lumpy and flat in places like Ryan's bed at home. The mattress was clearly new, the pillows filled with down. It would have been heaven if it hadn't been representative of being married to Bryar.

Bryar knocked on the door. "Ryan? You decent?"

Ryan closed his eyes. "Yes."

He kept his eyes closed even as he heard Bryar undo his gunbelt and sling it over the headboard, work his way out of his boots, pants and shirt. By the time Ryan felt the depression in the other side of the bed, he was shaking so hard he knew he was moving the bed with it. He couldn't help it. Bryar didn't say anything for several long minutes, and then he got out of bed. Ryan bit back any questions he had. Out of bed was good. Bryar said, "Ryan. Hey, Ryan, look at me."

Ryan really, really didn't want to. Bryar said, "I know you're awake. Nobody can shake like that sleeping."

And yeah, okay, he had a point. Reluctantly, Ryan opened his eyes. Bryar handed him a scabbard with a knife sheathed in it. He said, "It's, ah, it's in there good and tight, but if I touch you, just pull it out and go for the throat."

Ryan looked at the offering. Finally he said, "You could just take it from me."

"If I go to hurt you, you have my word that I won't." Then, "C'mon. Take the knife."

Ryan looked at Bryar, hand outstretched in offering, and he knew it didn't really mean anything, that if Bryar wanted to keep from being hurt by Ryan, he could, but-- But it was an awfully nice thing to do. Ryan took the knife, wrapping one bandaged hand tight around the sheath and settling with it in between them, keeping as far to his side as he could. Bryar asked, "Think you can sleep now?"

Ryan doubted it, but when he closed his eyes, his body took over and proved him wrong.

*


Ryan woke up in a place he didn't know to sunlight and the sound of Pete's voice. It took him a second to put together all the clues he'd been given and then he flew out of bed. The pain in his knees reminded him of his mishap the night before, but he couldn't be worried about that right now. Bryar wasn't in bed, which meant he was probably out there, possibly ready to kill Ryan's brother. Ryan could hear Pete shouting, "...fucking coward, taking advantage of my brother--"

Ryan ran on to the porch, holding his pajama pants up as best he could and saying, "He married me, Pete. At your insistence."

"I was drunk!"

"Really?" Ryan asked. He was allowed anger. It wasn't Pete's freedom that had been drunk away by someone else.

"Come on, Ryan," Pete said. "Come home. We'll get it annulled, it'll be fine."

Ryan ignored the ache of desire in his chest, the one that wanted him to walk right off into the rising sun with his brother, back to the home he had always known, if never really loved. Instead he said, "I gave my word, Pete. I promised to love, honor and obey."

Something hardened in Pete's eyes. "He's done nothing but dirty our family name and humiliate us since he came to town and you're telling me you're going to take this sham of a marriage seriously?"

"It's still a marriage," Ryan said softly, but with intent. The word meant something to him, even if it didn't to anyone around him.

Pete said, "Mom knew better than to stay with dad and their marriage--"

"Mom left her two children to the mercies of a man who had none," Ryan said flatly. "I don't care to emulate her."

"Instead you'd rather just whore yourself out to a man who wants nothing more than your ass and your dignity?"

Ryan would not cry. He would not. He drew himself up as best he could in his ridiculous outfit and went to go back inside the house. Pete, though, grabbed at the hand not holding Ryan's pants and Ryan bit on his lip so as not to cry out. He turned at the pressure and when Pete brought his other hand forward to hit Ryan, he fell almost straight into it. It all but knocked him off his feet; it would have, except for Bryar catching him.

Bryar set him calmly on his feet, trying to assess the damage and Ryan just kept saying, "I'm fine, I'm fine." He'd had worse. Not from Pete. Not Pete.

The next thing he heard was Pete yelling and he looked over to see Bryar slugging him. Ryan yelled, "Stop!"

Bryar did, looking at him, but he said, low and deadly, "I see you on my land again, Pete, and I won't stop at one."

Pete spit in his face and then picked himself up, carrying himself off. Bryar looked up at Ryan and said, "He hit you," like that meant Bryar had the right to hit back.

Ryan said, "You just sent off one of the only people who's ever given a shit about me," and turned, changing his mind, intent on finding somewhere where nobody would look for him.

*


It took Bob a while to find Ryan. He hadn't gone to sit with the cows, nor was he near the garden Gerard had insisted they have for when their mother and Mikey came. He wasn't by the well or wandering the outskirts of the property. Finally, Bob found him curled up in the barn loft. Bob hadn't thought to check there because it was where his brothers slept at the moment, so he assumed Ryan would avoid it, but evidently the dark quiet of it had attracted him. Ryan's face when Bob climbed the ladder was not welcoming.

Bob sat across the loft from him and said, "I'm sorry."

Ryan shrugged. Bob shook his head slightly. "No, you're right. Hitting back wasn't the answer."

Ryan stayed silent. Bob bit back a sigh. "I was going to ride over there and apologize. Tell him he's welcome here any time he wishes to see you."

"I think it's best if you just stay away."

Heartened a little by Ryan speaking, even if the flat tones of his voice were dulled beyond usual, Bob said, "I-- I promise not to raise a hand to him. Promise."

"All right," Ryan said. His expression read differently, and Bob doubted he believed much in the power of promises. "I still think--"

"I'm going, Ryan. I just wanted to know if you wanted to come with me. Maybe get some of your stuff?"

Bob could see Ryan thinking about having the ability to get between Bob and Pete if it came down to that. Ryan said, "I-- Yes, please."

That was fine. Bob would just have to prove that Ryan wasn't the only one between them who could keep his word.

*


As it turned out, when the arrived at the house, Pete was passed out cold at the kitchen table, however much whiskey he'd drunk to fortify his visit to Northern clearly having taken its toll. Bob helped Ryan put him in bed and get his shoes off. He even put a glass of water on the nightstand. He propped up a note against it, giving his apologies and recanting the order of exile.

Ryan went to go pack his things and Bob went out to the stable to check that Pete's horse had been fed and rubbed down. It hadn't. The lack of care set Bob to thinking, and he went back inside, checking under the stove and in other small boltholes until he found Ryan's dog sleeping on one of the empty pantry shelves. Her eyes flew open when he started to pick her up and she stared at him with a frightened distrust that Bob was beginning to know all too well. Bob scritched behind her ears. "Hey girl. Hey, not gonna hurt you."

He rooted through the kitchen to see if there was anything to give her, and eventually found a carrot in the ice box. It had seen better days, but she whined after it quite vigorously. He fed it to her, petting her ears all the while. When she was finished, she let him pick her up without a sound, and burrowed into his chest.

Bob was sitting on the porch, petting a sleeping Hobo when Ryan reappeared, one carpet bag in hand. Bob frowned. "That's everything?"

"Yes," Ryan said simply. After a second, Bob nodded and stood, bringing Hobo up with him.

Ryan blinked rather forcefully in rapid succession and held out his arms. He kissed the dog on the face and accepted a thorough licking in return. He whispered something to her, hugged her to his chest, and then put her down gently. Bob just scooped her back up and began walking to where their horses were. Ryan asked, "What are you doing?"

"Taking your dog. I would have helped with the bags, but you only have one, so--"

"She needs to stay here."

"I don't think that's such a good idea. Pete forgot to feed his horse when he came back last night."

Ryan bit at his lower lip. "She-- I can come back and-- She doesn't handle change well."

Bob looked down at where Hobo seemed phenomenally unbothered by being on the back of a horse.

Ryan stuttered, "I mean, she-- It took a long time after--" Ryan clenched his reins in obvious frustration. "She'll pee in your house."

There was so obviously an ellipsed part of that sentence that Bob couldn't even stop himself from saying, "And then we'll beat her, right? Kick her? Starve her?"

Ryan's shoulders rose up to his ears. Bob ran a hand over his face. "None of us, none, would hurt a dog for being less intelligent--"

"She was smart," Ryan all-but growled. "She was, she knew exactly how to tell me what she needed and she even hunted and came to her name and everything. She just-- She just wanted to protect me, is all. I tried, I yelled at her to get out of the way, but he just picked her up and threw her and--" Ryan stopped, as if he hadn't realized he'd actually been talking all that time. He was quiet for a moment and then said, "You should leave her here. Pete's used to her."

Threw her. Bob wondered if Ryan had thought his pet was dead when it had hit the wall. Because it would have. There would have been nowhere else for the dog to land in a house that size, not with a man like George Ross throwing it. Bob wondered--the thought curdling in his stomach--if Ryan had cried, and if George had beaten him for that. When he felt like he could catch his breath, could speak in any sort of normal tone, he said, "Any pup who incurs war wounds defending my husband can do whatever she wants in my house, and nobody will so much as raise their voice to her."

Ryan looked at him for a long time, clearly unsure. After a bit, though, he seemed to accept that he wasn't going to win. He turned himself around so that he was sitting facing forward in the saddle, and nudged his horse in the direction of Northern Ranch.

*


Ryan set his bag near the bed--almost underneath it--and disappeared with Hobo before Bob could so much as introduce him to his brothers. Bob discovered this when he went to the room to see if he could cajole Ryan out into the kitchen, where they were having an afternoon coffee and instead found the bag and no Ryan. The bag had spilled open, the clasp evidently old and no longer all that good at doing its job. Bob stared at it for a long moment, saying to himself--aloud--"Turn around and walk out, Bryar."

He didn't. He knew it was the right thing to do, knew that marriages not built on trust could have no other foundations, knew every single reason why he should turn around, shut the door behind him and go nowhere near the open bag. And none of those seemed as important as the fact that if he couldn't figure out something about Ryan, this marriage was never going to have a shot anyway. He closed his eyes as he crossed to the bag, disgusted at what he was about to do.

Inside there were a few workshirts, some pants worn nearly to threads. There was a pair of pajamas, some soap that explained Ryan's sandalwood and desert sun smell. There was also the head of a stuffed cat. Nothing more, just the head. Oh, it was clear that once there had been something more, but someone had ripped that part away and all that remained was the head, carefully sewn at the neck so as not to release any more stuffing.

There was a copy of Little Men with a note on the inside in a child's handwriting.

Dear Ryan,

I'm sorry about your ankell. Ma sez it will be hard fer you to walk fer a bit and mabee you culd read insted. I hope you lik this book.

Yur best friend,

Spencer James Smith IV


Bob smiled slightly at the affected curls of a boy who had clearly just learned to write his own name. The pages of the book were yellowed and softened from use. Marking a page was a scrap of leather made into a bracelet with beads spelling out R-Y-A-N-&-P-E-T-E.

There was another book beneath it. The front was scuffed and it looked even more beat up than the Alcott. He picked it up and let it fall open to where a blue, worn ribbon was keeping a place. The date, written in clean, smooth handwriting, was for seven years earlier. Ryan would have been fifteen. It said, "Words are useless, nearly as much so as memories." There was nothing else, not on any of the pages further.

Bob, even knowing Ryan would have every right to take him apart piece-by-piece if he ever found out what he had done, flipped back a few pages. His eye caught on one, August 30, 1878, where Ryan had written, "Pete somehow charmed Mr. Salpeter from the general store into letting him buy all the ingredients for a butterscotch cake with what he makes over at the stables, which isn't nearly enough, not with all the other groceries he buys, and dad stealing from him whenever he can find the money. I tried getting Pete to tell me, but he just said, 'you love butterscotch,' and helped me make the cake for my birthday. It was a perfect birthday; dad even slept for all of it, and the cake came out soft and delicious. I saved some to take over to Spencer's later this week. He likes butterscotch, too."

Three months earlier, Ryan had written, "Pete got in between me and him again. I kept telling the Doc it wasn't my blood, but the words felt funny in my mouth."

Bob flipped through, noting how Pete's name showed up on nearly every page, Spencer's only a little less. He shut it, trying not to pry any further than he had. He put everything back the way it was, knowing that didn't really absolve him of the crime, and went to go find out the last of what he needed to know--why Ryan had stopped writing, what could have made a boy who had seemingly survived just about everything a child could be expected to choose to forcefully forget.

*


Ryan was introducing Hobo to the cows, one by one. He flushed when Bob found him, but instead of explaining, just set Hobo down to wander off and asked, "Did you need something?"

"I propose a trade," Bob said.

Ryan edged behind a cow, clearly trying to hide without looking like he was trying to hide. The cow looked at Bob nervously. Bob didn't blame it. Ryan was nothing but exposed nerves. Animals were sensitive to that kind of thing. Bob said, "You ask me a question, I answer honestly. Then I ask you one, the same."

"There's nothing I want to know," Ryan said.

Bob just looked at him, because Bob knew a lie when he saw one, even if he didn't have context to color in the bullshit with. He said, "You can go first."

Ryan said, "I told you, I--"

"Fine, all right. Um. What's your favorite color?"

Ryan was silent for a long time, but evidently couldn't find any reason not to answer, since he finally said, "Depends on what it's for."

"I don't understand."

Ryan petted the cow in front of him. "This brown, like this, like chocolate and tree trunks, it's what I like best. But I wouldn't paint my walls brown, or even decorate with it much. It would make everything so dark."

"Makes sense." Then, when Ryan didn't ask anything, "Your turn."

"My-- Oh. What's San Francisco like?"

Trust Ryan to pick something that had nothing to do with Bob, really. "Noisy, crowded, dirty. Plenty of places to find a job and even more to get into trouble. Sometimes you can't see in the morning and the evening for the fog rolling in, not even so much as your hand in front of your face. But the water in the bay is the bluest thing you'll ever see, and it stretches as far as forever. Why Hobo?"

"She showed up on the porch like a beggar. My dad said no way were we taking any hobos into our house."

Bob noted that Ryan had all the same. Ryan asked, "Why Rhythm?"

"His hooves make beats like drums. I like music. 'Nother good thing about San Francisco, honest-to-goodness music halls."

Ryan looked interested at the thought, at least, so far as Bob could tell. Bob asked, "What's your favorite treat?"

"Ice cream."

"What flavor?"

"Doesn't matter, really, but cinnamon's good. I get two."

"Sure."

Ryan opened his mouth, but then sat there, thinking for a bit. "Do you read?"

"Mostly just newspapers, but I know how. Gee's the big reader. Got another one?"

Ryan disappeared behind the cow's head. Bob asked, "Ryan?"

"No."

"Ryan."

Ryan peered out, looking straight at him. "You can go."

Bob tried to figure out what Ryan would want to know that he didn't feel he could ask. He hadn't a clue, but what he could share was something personal, something with shame and hurt attached to it. Something that was maybe worth Ryan being honest with him about the important things, maybe. "Bet you've wondered about the limp and what happened to my face."

People rarely mentioned it, seeing as how Bob had a reputation even among the serious gunslingers, but Bob knew that his limp, the slight paralysis to his face were both evident. Ryan said, "You don't have to tell me."

"Sure, no. Except as how you're my husband."

Ryan flinched. Bob pretended not to see. "When I was a kid I-- Fell. I fell into an open fire. I had third degree burns up my leg, and it took us a while to find a doctor, the leg was pretty infected by that time. The infection was supposed to kill me, it was so close to my brain, but I made it, just, have little reminders of it here and there."

Softly, Ryan said, "I'm sorry."

Bob shook his head. "I'm just sorry-- I know most people find it a bit unsettling."

"It's not-- I." Ryan looked down. "I don't really notice."

"My turn," Bob said softly, not entirely sure of how to handle that admission. It was rare to find people who didn't judge on physical appearance. Ryan went back to hiding.

Bob said, "As I see it, if you were compromised, there's no reason for us not to be getting to our marital duties. But I don't think you were. Leastways, not how you led me to believe. I need you to tell me what happened, otherwise, I'm gonna have no reason not to press for my, uh, inalienable rights." Bob winced, the words sounding wrong in his mouth the way they hadn't reading them on the marital contract.

Ryan was silent for a long time. Bob said, "Ryan?" moving around the cow to where he could at least see him.

Ryan said, "I think I'm going to be sick." He made it all of a step before dropping to the ground, dry heaving for all he was worth. It was a miserable sight. There wasn't much of Ryan to begin with, and his whole body shook and twisted in the grasp of the heaves. Bob said, "Shit," and knelt down next to him. He tried settling a hand on Ryan's lower back, but Ryan made a noise of panic, so Bob pulled back. When Ryan was finally able to stop, the arms that he was holding himself up on were shaking so hard as to be nearly worthless.

Bob said softly, "Let's get you inside. Get you something to eat."

"No. No, I-- Not hungry. I should tell--"

"It's okay, Ryan. I know."

"No, you, you said that if I-- I can't--"

"Ryan, I get it, I promise." And Bob did. "Just. Just tell me that he paid. Tell me that the bastard paid."

Ryan laughed, a small, broken, sickly sound. "He paid."

Somehow, the knot in Bob's chest didn't loosen at all. "C'mon. There's food inside."

"I really--"

"You can't have eaten since yesterday. Just some bread, all right? Maybe a little bit of coffee?"

After a long moment, Ryan nodded and slowly picked himself up. Bob waited to make sure he wasn't going to fall back down again, and then walked slightly behind him, all the way back to the house.

*


Ryan recognized the men in the kitchen from that night in the barn. His stomach gave another jerk and Ryan closed his eyes, trying to breathe. He was afraid he was going to bring bits of his stomach up if he underwent another round. The first one had hurt enough. Bryar said, "Ray, we have any coffee left?"

Ryan really wanted to be anywhere but in that room, but he also didn't think his legs were going to carry him much further. And he had a feeling Bryar would only pull him back if he tried to leave. Instead, Ryan took a seat at the kitchen table, hiding his hands in his lap where they couldn't betray how hard he was shaking. One of the brothers--Ray, evidently--set a steaming mug in front of him. "You take cream? Sugar?"

It had been so long since Ryan could afford to take either in his coffee he almost wasn't sure if he still did take either. He said, "Cream, please?"

The coffee smelled amazing. It smelled fully steeped, and like the beans hadn't been used over and over again. Ryan breathed it in, pretending to be the only one in the room. When he opened his eyes again, Ray was offering him a small pitcher of cream and a spoon. "Oh. Thank you."

Ray smiled a wide, easy-going smile. "You're welcome. I'm Ray. You must be Ryan."

Ryan nodded shortly before hiding his face in the mug. Ray said, "Nice to meet you, Ryan."

Someone came and sat down next to Ryan, not so close that he felt the need to move, but nearly. Ryan looked up and the man smiled at him, a smile that was full of teeth and somehow not threatening at all. "I'm Gerard. Gee, if you like. Hi."

"Hi," Ryan said softly.

Gerard said, "The guy across from us is Frank. You're allowed to ignore anything he says. It's probably not true."

"Asshole," Frank said.

"See, like that. I'm totally not an asshole," Gerard told Ryan earnestly.

Frank rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Glad to have you with us, Ryan. Someone needs to whip Bob into shape."

"Shut up, Frankie," Bryar said, with an edge to the warning. Frank made kissy faces at him.

There were still two other men in the kitchen. Ryan couldn't help peering over at them. The taller one peeled himself away from the wall. He had art inked on him as well, not as much as Frank, but a fair amount. He said, "I'm Matt, the munchkin is Brendon."

"Matt and Brendon came down with us from San Francisco. They've built as much of this place as any of us," Bryar told Ryan. It didn't pass Ryan's attention that Brendon beamed at the simple words.

Ryan did his best to smile at all of them. "Pleasure meeting you."

There were several long minutes of fairly awkward silence when Frank asked, "So, Ryan. You know much of anything about cows?"

And well, "This is ranching territory," Ryan said, somewhat perplexed by the question.

"Yeah," Frank agreed. "But other than Bob, we were all just about borned and raised in the big city. This here's a bit of a half-assed operation at times."

Ryan took a sip. "What do you want to know?"

"Oo," Gerard said, cutting whatever Frank was going to ask off. "People seem to think we should be able to know how much a cow weighs just by looking at it. Is that true?"

Ryan took a moment. He was not going to laugh at one of Bryar's brothers. That was asking for trouble. "Well, not exactly just by looking. There's a formula."

"Like math?" Brendon asked, excitedly. "I'm good at math."

"Really?" Several of them looked at Brendon at once. Brendon shrugged.

They turned their attention back to Ryan. He took a breath. "Get me a piece of paper. I'll show you."

*


As it turned out, there were plenty of things Ryan knew that the others didn't. He had better tricks for getting dirt and grass stains out of clothing, knew which household and ranch products were the best for each price range, and was much more at ease with the mating cycles of cows. While the others would just come get him if they had a question or needed help, Brendon took to wandering around in Ryan's shadow, learning everything he possibly could from him.

It didn't make it exactly easy, but easier to ask, "Why-- I mean. If you're all city boys, what made Bryar--"

"You should call him Bob. I think it kinda makes him sad, what with you being his husband and all." Brendon always said things like he didn't notice all the undercurrents of the suggestion he was making, but Ryan was starting to think better of him. Brendon picked up on everything Ryan told him all too quickly to be completely in the dark about everything else.

Ryan said, "You changed the subject."

Brendon smiled at him. "I did. Not my story to tell."

Ryan thought about pressing. In the end he asked, "Know how to lasso a steer?"

*


Ryan had never once asked for it, but there wasn't a night in the passing weeks of their marriage when Bryar didn't offer him the knife. He had never turned it down, either. The night that Ryan burnt dinner while cleaning up one of Hobo's messes--she just couldn't quite figure out how to get herself outside in the new house--when Bob offered, he said, "No, I-- Thanks, but no."

The dinner he'd been making had been fairly simple. A few chickens that Matt had traded for, some potatoes from Gerard's garden, summer squash that Frank had picked up from town. Ryan had made butter earlier that week, so he put the chicken and potatoes in to roast and planned to simmer the squash in the butter with some fresh cracked pepper. He'd learned that none of the guys expected miracles, and were often happy when they could eat something that wasn't raw or overcooked or stringy or just plain disgusting. Ryan could deliver on that front. Spencer was a better cook--he'd seduced Ryland with peach pies and tender roasts drizzled in gravies that Ryan could never quite manage to produce. But unlike Ryan's father, who had always pointed out the ways in which Ryan failed at being a youngest son, who was likely to beat him if a meal wasn't quite what it should have been, the men of the Bryar house just gave thanks and occasionally tried to help out.

With the exception of Ray, Matt and Bryar, they were all messes in the kitchen, so usually Ryan just did his best not to get stepped on, but even if their presence sometimes put him on edge, he appreciated the sentiment. And they never compared him in derogatory ways to their youngest brother. Ryan didn't know much about him, not much more than that his name was Mikey, and Gerard clearly thought he hung the moon, but they never said things like, "Mikey's pie would have better crust," or, "Mikey would actually know more than four basic recipes," or worse.

He put the chicken and potatoes in, adding some onions for flavor, and went to cut the squash when Hobo came into the kitchen, and Ryan asked, "Where you been?"

He looked down to see that she'd brought a set of wet footprints with her. Ryan bit his lip and followed the footprints. They led directly to one of the brand-spanking new rugs that Bryar had put in one of the almost-finished bedrooms. Ryan bundled Hobo up and put her with the cows, who were fairly good about watching out after her, and whom Bryar and the others were unlikely to be violent around, for fear of damaging their property. He went back into the house and went to work laundering the rug, putting to use just about every laundry technique he'd ever learned. In the end, it did come out and Ryan was just about to go hang it on the line when Bryar came out to the laundering area and asked, "Ryan? You cooking something?"

Ryan felt his heart stop, not stutter, not leap, just stop. "Fuck." He ran back into the house, but it was too late, the chicken was mostly a shell of crisp, the potatoes not far off. Ryan tried thinking frantically, there were some meats in the cellar, and he could maybe-- He didn't have any money to give them to replace the--

"Ryan," Bryar said, interrupting his thoughts. Bryar was pulling Ryan's hand from where it was still curled over the heat mitt and the handle of the pan. Ryan jerked back. "I--"

Bryar said, "Whoa, hey. Not gonna hurt you."

"I didn't mean--" And Bryar hadn't even seen his new rug, yet. He'd been amazingly good about Hobo, even the time Hobo had peed in one of his hats, he'd just made a face and said, "Gerard kept saying I needed a new hat anyway. Evidently Hobo agreed." But dinner was burnt and rugs were more expensive than hats and Ryan couldn't help cringing away from him, just couldn't.

Bryar said, "Well, I'd say dinner's ready, wouldn't you?"

Ryan looked at the floor. Bryar said. "No worries. It isn't burnt all the way through. Trust me, Gerard's done far worse. He forgets what he's doing all the time, which, when you're cooking doesn't go over so well, really."

Ryan moved cautiously to the cutting board, and said, "I can at least," before cutting up the squash and simmering the slices in butter. Bryar, in the meantime, went to go round up his brothers, get them washed up.

When he came back in he asked, "Something happen to that rug you've got hanging out there?"

Ryan said, "I got it dirty."

Bryar was quiet for a long time before he said. "Okay, Ry. Well, you did a great job cleaning it."

Ryan couldn't help it; he looked at Bryar in disbelief. But Bryar just sat at the table and helped Ryan serve the food. When Frank said, "Oh, we're doing things well done," Bryar said, "Eat up, or I'm letting Ryan make you for dessert."

They all helped clean up and Bryar went to find Hobo after dinner. He said, "I think she's learned her lesson, Ry."

Ryan took her in his arms. Hobo wasn't like him. She didn't understand that it was the things she did that brought down the violence on her. Ryan was beginning to sympathize. It was hard to know in this place what was going to trip it, hard to learn from his mistakes if he didn't know what was a mistake and what wasn't. Or at least, what mistakes were forgivable and which weren't.

Bryar started to hand him the knife but Ryan said, "I-- That's all right."

Bryar's eyes widened slightly. "You're certain?"

Ryan would never admit it aloud, but Bryar's smile when he said, "Y-yes. Certain," was kind of worth the risk.

*


Ryan was fiddling with the pipes to the tub when Bryar came in. Bob. Ryan was trying to remember to call him that. Brendon had been right, it made his eyes soften a little bit in a way that was both reassuring and simply nice to see. Ryan knew the niceness, the patience he had been displaying for months now had to come to an end eventually, but he couldn't help enjoying it. He had tried.

They had finished the bathroom the week before. There had been a few hitches, but Ryan had had to repair the sink pipes in his house enough times that he'd managed to figure out the problems and, with the help of Matt and Ray, get them fixed up fairly easily. They were working just fine, but with some extra coaxing, Ryan was fairly certain the pressure could be increased. It had been a project he'd been going at in his spare time.

Bob said, "Hey," and Ryan looked up from where he was lying on the floor, communing with the copper plumbing. Bob was clutching a parcel to his chest, plain brown paper wrapped around what seemed to be cloth. Ryan hoped he wasn't going to ask Ryan to make them clothes. Simple things like curtains and rug braiding and tablecloths--decorative measures--Ryan could do that, even liked creating in that sense. But he was awful at clothes, had neither the skill nor the concentration for it.

"I, uh. I got you something. If you wanted to see."

Ryan carefully tightened the pipe he'd been futzing with and stood, his hand still curved around the wrench. Bob's eyes flickered to it, but he didn't say anything. Ryan appreciated it. He sort of got that he didn't need the wrench, but it felt better, safer, like a backup plan. Bob led them into the kitchen, where he set the package on the table and asked, "Coffee?"

"Please," Ryan said.

He poured them each a cup and said, "Well? You gonna open it?"

Ryan set the wrench on the table and plucked at the twine keeping the package wrapped. It came undone easily and Ryan peeled back the layer of paper to reveal several shirts, pairs of pants and a vest. There was a pair of jeans and a pair of chocolate brown trousers, as well as forest brown corduroys. The two shirts were a sturdy cotton, one cream and the other a light blue. The vest matched the trousers. Underneath all of this was folded yards of fabric in blues and greens and some yellows, much like the colors Ryan had decorated his house in once there was nobody around to tell him he couldn't.

Ryan touched lightly at one of the shirts and Bob said, "I wasn't entirely sure about your size, but the man who runs the store said he was pretty sure this would fit. If not I can always go back for a different size."

"You--" Ryan's throat felt tight. "You got my favorite colors."

"Well. Sure. I mean, with the clothes, you're the one who's wearing'em and with the stuff for decorations, I'm willing to bet you have better taste than any of us, so I just thought-- Not that you have to make anything, but it seemed, when I saw your place and all, it seemed like you sort of enjoyed it. And let's face it, this place is sort of lacking when it comes to, uh, anything that isn't walls and a ceiling."

"There are floors, too," Ryan somehow managed, despite the fact that his mind was stuck on the quality of the cloths Bob had bought him, how he'd never had such materials before, not for clothes, and certainly not for ornamentation.

Bob laughed a little. "True. Good call."

When Ryan didn't say anything in return, Bob asked, "Should I not have--"

"No, no. Thank you." Ryan didn't know how to explain that nobody had ever bought him anything with him in mind before. Pete was really the only person who had ever bought him things before, and mostly Pete would buy him things that Pete thought were nice. Ryan had always appreciated them, but it wasn't the same. Ryan hadn't even known it wasn't the same until this moment, looking down at a table filled with items that were all for him and that made sense for him.

"You're welcome," Bob said gruffly, looking away from Ryan. "You, ah-- You know if you need, I mean, or want, need or want anything, you can just ask? Do you know that?"

Ryan needed a roof over his head and food and safety from violence. He wanted Pete to stop drinking and Hobo to be happy and to not wake up in fear that he had just been dreaming these past few months every morning. And no, he couldn't ask for any of those things. Even if he could have formed the words, he wouldn't have believed in their delivery. He said, "I'll just-- I'll put these away. We can talk about what you'd like me to do with the fabrics later."

"I want you to do whatever you want."

"Surely you must--"

"It's your house, Ryan."

"You built it."

"For you."

Ryan blinked. "That's ridiculous, you didn't even know--"

"I came back to this state to claim the land my stepfather--the rest of the boys' father--was cheated out of. To ranch it and raise a family on it, mine or the others', didn't much matter. I just, no, sure, I wasn't expecting you. But even mean gunslingers have to get lucky some of the time, yeah?" Bob's smile was clean, broad despite the paralysis in his face.

Nobody, nobody had ever referred to Ryan as good luck. He said, "I-- I'll figure out something nice to do," and got the hell out of dodge before he said or did anything stupid, like smiling back.

*


"I've been thinking," Bob said one morning, while he and Ray and Gerard were out herding the cattle. Frank was helping Ryan and Brendon milk the sows back at the barn, and Matt had gone into town. Bob would have preferred having Frank there, but it would have been kind of an asshole thing to do, leaving all the milking to Ryan and Brendon just so that Bob could have his druthers.

Gerard said, "No fair, you're always telling me I'm not allowed."

Ray snickered. Bob rolled his eyes. "That's because shit tends to blow up when you try it out."

Ray said, "To be fair, that was only that once."

Gerard said, "See!"

Ray continued, "It's much more likely that things will just crumble, or disappear, or, y'know, if it's Frank, run screaming."

"Frank doesn't count," Gerard pouted.

Bob looked to the side, where they wouldn't see him laughing. "I've been thinking about this whole railroad business."

"Last I checked, Brian said we're about set to go," Ray said.

"Yeah," Bob rode around to nudge at a particularly belligerent cow. "That's the thing."

Brian was Mikey's fiancÚ and the public face of Black Gold Railroad, Co., which had come into No Name nearly a year earlier promising the railroad that its ranchers had so desperately been yearning for over the past decade. Black Gold didn't exist, not really. It was a front company set up by Bob. He had made most of his money in rail investments, but nobody with any sense would build a rail through No Name as an investment. No, Black Gold's purpose was purely to find the bastards who were willing to profit off of poor farmers by buying their land out from under them and in turn, bankrupt those men when no railroad actually came through. It was a risky venture, which was why Bob had been careful not to connect his or his brother's faces with the company, and not to bring Mikey or his mother up until after they were done foreclosing on the investors. "I've been thinking about actually building the railroad."

The original plan was intended to avenge the theft of his stepfather's land and his murder by greedy, unethical men. Bob had been entirely sure that those same men--and equally unscrupulous kinds--would invest in the dirt-farmers land, intended to turn a profit on it. Bob had been waiting nearly twenty years for the plan to come to fruition, as long as he had been waiting to prove his stepfather innocent of the murder those men--George Ross, Benton Kerry, and the town Sheriff--had accused him of.

Gerard ran into a cow, horse and all. Bob said, "I know, I know what you must be thinking, and it's not that I don't care about Pa--"

"Whoa, stop right there." Ray was helping Gerard get his bearings back. "We've never thought that your grand plan had anything to do with caring or not caring about Pa."

Bob frowned. "But--"

"We weren't there that night, Bob," Gerard said softly. "We didn't have to-- We didn't have to see."

"But he was still your father," Bob said, feeling a little lost.

"Sure, yes. But he was also a pacifist." Ray pulled up alongside Bob. "No matter what those men did, he wouldn't have wanted this for you. Living your life for revenge?" Ray shook his head, hair bouncing everywhere. "No way in hell."

"Then you've just...been humoring me for twenty years?"

Gerard shrugged. "You're our older brother. If you ask Frank or Mikey, bets are they'd say you're almost a father to them. You've always been there for us. We weren't gonna turn our backs on you when it was something that mattered so damn much."

"Oh." Bob wasn't sure what else to say.

"That said," Ray said, drawing out the words, "actually building the railroad is a big commitment of money and manpower."

Bob nodded. These were the kinds of things he knew about. "It's also an investment in this ranch. Lord knows it'll be easier to ship the cattle if there's a rail. And it's-- It'll settle us in the community." He was quiet for a bit. "I want. I want this to be home. I want Ryan to be happy and safe here, and for us to be able to, I dunno, maybe have a family. Whatever. The point it, I know, Ray. I do. But I think it's the right thing to do." He looked at the others.

Gerard was beaming at him. "No arguments from me. I'm glad you're all in love with him and shit. It's sweet."

Bob blinked. He was about to ask what Gerard was talking about, to deny it, but then he realized he preferred not to sound stupid. He was about to let everything he'd held onto for twenty years go for the sake of Ryan Bryar nÚ Ross, and if that wasn't love, well, yeah, Bob had no idea what was. He said, "No telling, Gee. That's my thing to tell."

Gerard scowled at him. "I'm not stupid. You gotta plan for how you're gonna tell him 'bout all this? Because you gotta. Else he's never gonna trust you."

Bob sighed. He wasn't entirely sure Ryan would ever trust him anyway, but he said. "I'm waiting until after I've spoken to Brian, told him the plan's off. I don't want anything to go wrong. But yeah, then I'm gonna tell him, just explain and hope-- Hope he listens, I guess."

Ray was looking at him sympathetically, but all he said was, "You got a plan so the investors don't profit?"

Bob nodded. "Time's on my side. I offer to buy at cost and wait till they either agree or have to fold."

Ray grinned. "Well then. Let's build ourselves a railroad."

*


In any given day, the Bryar household could present Ryan with a smattering of kindnesses, clearly designed to break his will. For instance, there was the way Bob made sure to keep all the ingredients necessary for cinnamon ice cream on hand, just in case Ryan decided he wanted to make it. Or there was the series of days when sandstorms kept them all confined to the house, Ryan nearly going out of his mind with memories of what cabin fever could do to men, when Bob helped him hang curtains and do all the things around the house that Ryan could do by himself, but were easier with help. In the evenings, the brothers had settled down to play poker, Ryan watching. Bob asked, "Want me to deal you in?"

Ryan shrugged, "Don't know how to play."

"Come on then. Good life skill to have."

Ryan loved learning new things, but he was wary of the teaching, knew that it relied upon the teacher having patience. The patience of others was something Ryan had known precious little of in his lifetime, but Bob had just dealt him in and helped him through hand after hand, praising him easily when he did well, helping him to see his mistakes when he didn't.

Ryan was desperate to keep what few pieces of his wall still existed perfectly intact, but those last bastions blew away, insubstantial as pollen on the wind, the day Bob came home wearing a new outfit in shades of blue. Until then, Bob's wardrobe had consisted entirely of black. Ryan got that it was supposed to intimidate, supposed to warn people off a fight before they started one. Ryan had noticed that Bob much preferred to avoid drawing his gun if at all possible.

Bob took one look at what Ryan was sure was a mildly confused expression on his face and said, "No?"

It took Ryan a second to understand that Bob was asking for his opinion. "Oh, I-- It looks nice." It did. It brought out the blue of his eyes, which was already pretty indecent, left on its own.

"You don't like it," Bob said.

"No, no, just." Ryan rushed the words, "I don't understand," unsure if he should be admitting that or not.

"Oh." Bob looked a bit sheepish. "I just, I kinda felt foolish, going around with Hobo's hair all over me all the time. She can't help shedding, but it oughta be less obvious-- Ryan?"

Ryan could feel the sting of tears in his eyes. It pissed him off. He hadn't cried in years. Not since, not since That Night. And it was a stupid thing to cry over, Bob buying new clothes. So what if he did that rather than just throwing the dog out of the house? So what?

Ryan tried to say, "Excuse me," but he knew if he opened his mouth he would lose what little composure he had left, so instead he just slipped past Bob, to the bedroom, closing the door behind him. He sank to the ground and said, "Stupid fucking reason to cry," but did so, all the same.

*


Bob looked at the empty spot where Ryan had stood a moment before and said, "Fucking hell." Then he went to go find someone who made the least bit of sense to him. He found Gerard first, and muttered, "Close enough."

Gerard smiled at him, but the smile dropped a little as Bob got closer. "Something the matter?"

"Ryan didn't like the new outfit."

"Really? I think it's nice. Did you get tired of black? It is kinda hot out here in it."

"I got tired of always looking like I was wearing Hobo's second cousin."

Gerard grinned. "She does shed a lot for something so tiny." Then, "Ryan actually said he didn't like it? That's sort of progress, right?"

"He didn't." Because Gerard was right, that would have been something, at least. "No, he just started crying. Crying, for fuck's sake. I don't even know what to do anymore. I've tried everything I can damn well think of. I'm starting to think it would have been a kindness, letting him have the annulment."

"Mm."

Bob knew that sound. "That's Gee-code for 'you're an idiot'."

Gerard neither confirmed nor denied the charge. "It's sort of like when you were teaching me to ride, isn't it?"

Bob looked at him. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Well, I mean, you tried to cajole me into getting up there by myself, tried to reason with me, everything. But in the end, you just had to put me on the horse and hope that I got past my fear."

Bob asked, "Have you been saving that up?" Gerard loved metaphors.

Gerard grinned. "It was a good one, wasn't it?"

Bob huffed. Gerard said, "It's true though. Right now... Right now it's like Ryan's standing near the horse, not sure when it's going to possibly kick him, you know? He's used to that sort of behavior. From horses."

"Horses. Right."

Gerard said, softly, "You're a good husband to him." He went on his tiptoes, bumping his shoulder to Bob's.

Bob smiled a little, bumping gently back. "Wish to hell it felt that way."

Gerard said, "Mm."

*


Bob gave himself some time to consider his exact plan by helping Frank out in the barn. By the time he returned to the house, he'd worked out most of his frustration and worry, and was pretty sure that, given a hot shower and some food, he could work things out between Ryan and himself. Only, when Bob returned to the house, it was flooded. It took a moment for him to understand, blinking at the water pouring out the door and then he rushed in and shouted, "'What in the seven fucking hells?"

Gerard, Ray, Frank, Matt and Brendon were all in the house, opening doors, trying to get as much of the water out as they could with the mop, shirts, rags, anything on hand. Bob set to helping, asking, "What happened? Where's Ryan?"

"Ryan happened," Frank grumbled.

"What?" Bob asked. That didn't make any sense. Ryan got all afluster if he so much as broke a plate.

But Brendon confirmed, "He stopped up the bath and the sink and left them running. Said something about your precious fucking varnish before running off."

Bob frowned. Aside from the bathroom, the wooden floors--which were probably ruined--were his favorite part of the house. Just as he was ready to hit out at something, the words Brendon had quoted came back to him. Precious fucking varnish. Precious. He looked at Gerard, who was studiously trying to mop up some of the water and muttered, "Waiting for the horse to kick."

He said, "Guys, I have to--"

"Find him," Ray said.

"You might wanna mention that he means more to us than the floors of the house," Gerard said without looking up. "I mean, assuming he does."

"Fuck," Bob said, and left, the leather of his boots squelching. "Fuck."

*


He found Ryan on the furthest stretch of his land, as if Ryan knew exactly how far he could go and no further. As if Ryan would have crossed the barrier, if he thought there was anywhere to go, any place he could be safe. Ryan saw Bob coming and took a fumbling step backward but then held his ground, stood it until Bob was in front of him, facing him, so close he could see Ryan shaking, see the fear that was almost as strong as the determination in his expression.

After a long silence, Bob said, "That was quite the mess you made."

Ryan just crossed his arms over his chest, no apology, nothing. Bob sighed. "Way I figure, that little flood of yours was meant to force one of two things. I've already told you I won't give you an annulment, and I'm sure as hell not gonna beat you, so I can't say as to what you want, here."

Ryan's expression became confused and something else, something Bob couldn't quite determine. "But. I ruined your floors."

"They're floors, Ryan. They can be redone. Lord know I'm gonna make you help out, but they're fucking floors."

"I-- You--" Ryan pushed him. There wasn't much to the push, but enough anger that Bob, who hadn't been expecting it, stumbled back a bit. He caught Ryan's hands and Ryan struggled like mad until he realized he was well and truly caught. Then he just stopped altogether. It was one of the most heartbreaking things Bob had ever seen.

"Ryan," Bob said softly.

"You can't-- This isn't fair."

"What isn't fair?"

"Treating me like this. Making me believe I'm worth-- It's just 'cause you don't know and if you did-- You'll find out and then, then you'll stop being nice and, well, it's not fair," he finished weakly. Bob could feel most of the fight that had lingered in his arms draining out, leaving nothing but the fear.

"If I knew what? Try me, Ryan. Try-- Trust me."

Ryan looked so betrayed by the charge that Bob very nearly took it back. He didn't. Ryan said, "You think I'm worth more than your floors," and it didn't have the same lilt as a question, but Bob knew it was all the same.

"You asked me once, you asked me if the man who...hurt me, if he'd paid."

"You said yes." Bob had a bad feeling about this.

"He did. He paid. He paid for me."

"He--"

"Six cases of whiskey, to be precise." Ryan's tone was precise, clipped in a way it never was.

"Ryan."

"It was a bad year. Couple of cows got dropsy and it spread like wildfire. Pa didn't have enough money to keep himself wet, so he sent Pete off on a cattle run and this friend of his, he offered a trade. Six cases for me. Pa didn't even blink. Didn't even-- The guy took me in the study, over the desk, Pa behind it, happily breaking in to the first case."

Ryan's breathing was wet, but his eyes were dry. Carefully, he took his hands back. Bob let them go. His own felt numb. Ryan said, "That was what I was worth. I'm willing to bet those floors cost four, maybe five times as much."

Bob tried to find his tongue, wet his throat. In the moment it took him, Ryan turned and started walking away. It was dark out, and even in his shock, Bob thought, "Can't see. He can't see."

Bob started following, which caused Ryan to run. Not so far off, Bob could see where the fence, wrapped in barbed wire stood. Ryan was headed straight for it. He had a good headstart on Bob, but Bob found speed he couldn't remember ever having and caught up to him, jerking Ryan away from the fence, into his arms. Ryan struggled for a bit before realizing that he wasn't being hurt. Bob said, "Ryan, Ryan, the fence."

Ryan buried his fists in Bob shirt and Bob could feel the first of the sobs that took him, felt Ryan's effort to hold them back and said, "Jesus, just, it's okay. It's okay." Ryan struggled a moment longer and then let go entirely, his whole body crumpling. Bob tried holding him up for a moment before simply sinking to the ground with him, pulling him as far into Bob's grasp as he could.

It took a long time for Ryan to tire himself out. When he was leaning wholly into Bob, nothing but shuddering breaths and bones in Bob's arms, Bob said, "Just. Tell me his name. Please."

For a moment, Bob thought Ryan wouldn't. Then he said, "Kerry. Benton Kerry."

Bob snarled. "He's not worth the fucking dirt on my floor. Your father wasn't. You-- Ryan." Bob just held him tighter, hoping he understood. "D'you really think I could love someone as cheap as you hold yourself?"

Ryan stiffened. "What? You-- What?"

Bob smiled a little, but let Ryan have his way. "You heard me. I love you. Probably have since that damn night in the barn when you were shaking and scared and still too fucking honorable to leave your brother to his fate. Which, ah. About that."

Ryan looked up, lashes still wet. Bob flushed. He brought his thumb up to wipe at the tears still pooled on Ryan's lower lashes and felt a certain triumph when Ryan didn't jerk back. "Yeah. It was a notched rope."

"A-- What?"

"You know, so he would just-- When the horse ran, he'd fall. We just meant to scare him. Get him to stop shooting at us, and all." Bob tucked Ryan's hair behind his ear gently and prayed, prayed that Ryan could understand, forgive him.

"But. If you--" Ryan backed up again. "You were just going to take advantage of me anyway? Just let me keep believing?"

"What are you talking about?"

"That night, at the social--"

Bob gasped. "I was trying to apologize, Ryan."

"You were-- You didn't want your raincheck?"

"Rain-- What are you--" Bob stilled, his words of that night behind the barn coming back to him. He felt sick at the realization of what Ryan must have thought, of why he had offered tea, just trying to put it off, trying to give himself just a little more time before he was abused again. He was surprised his voice even worked when he said, "Oh, Ryan. Jesus. No. No."

"Oh," Ryan said, sounding small.

Bob reached out and pulled him back in. He wanted to kiss him, wanted to take him out of his mind with pleasure and reward him for simply being the man he was, but he knew that Ryan would more likely run in terror, so instead he just said, "See, that's what I'm talking about. You were scared shitless, but you weren't gonna back out."

"I thought you were gonna kill Pete."

"Brave," Bob said. Ryan shivered in his arms, and for the first time, Bob felt the night wind. Bob scooped Ryan up.

Ryan said, "I can walk."

Bob said, "Yeah, I'm sure you can," and started toward the house.

*


Ryan thought he might have fallen asleep somewhere between the fence and the house. All he knew was that when he woke up, he was in bed and there was daylight peeking right in through the curtains he'd hung. The house smelled like..."Is someone making French toast?"

"Probably Frankie," Bob said. He was sitting in bed, reading a newspaper dated a few days back. "It's the only thing he can make."

At the mention of Frank's name, pretty much everything came back to Ryan. "The others must be really pissed," he said quietly.

"They were insisting that you make ice cream, now that I think about it."

Ryan blinked, trying to clear the sleep from his head. He felt more well-rested than he had in a long time, longer than he could really remember, but the last dregs of unconsciousness seemed to still be with him. "I ruined your floors."

"Nah. We got the water out in time. After breakfast, though, you're on varnishing duty with the rest of us."

"I can do it by myself," Ryan offered. "It'll take a bit longer, but at least that way you don't lose the money and the manpower."

"There's seven of us on this ranch. Gee and Brendon, at the very least, can be spared to help out. We'll split the job. That sound fair?"

"No," Ryan said honestly. "I messed it up."

"Yeah, but see, you're allowed." Bob smiled down at him, an amused smile. Ryan thought about getting his hackles up, only somehow, he understood that Bob wasn't laughing at him. It was a weird thing to know.

After a few minutes of something like a staring contest, Ryan shrugged. "Guess it's your floor. Your ranch."

"You know what else is mine?"

Something in Bob's tone warned Ryan off of answering. Instead he just looked at Bob warily. Bob's, "My husband," was exceedingly gentle, careful.

Ryan admitted, "I don't know what you want," trying not to sound terrified. He wasn't entirely sure he succeeded.

"I want--" Bob's brows came together and for a second he just sat there, silent. "I want you to tell me what scares you most."

Ryan curled up a little. "That-- The other-- The first time, it. It hurt. A lot." He tucked his face down, stomach squeezing with the shame of the memories, of screaming, pleading for it to stop, please, stop.

"You're afraid I'm going to hurt you," Bob said softly, half-question, half-statement.

Ryan nodded from where he was still tucked into a ball. Bob said, "All right. Then I want to make a deal with you."

Ryan made himself ask, "What kind of deal?"

"I'm going to start touching you. I am, Ryan, because not doing so isn't helping either one of us. It's just allowing you to live with your nightmares and as for me, well, you're my husband. That means something to me. I didn't think it would, but it does."

Ryan asked, "How is that a deal?"

"The deal is in this: if I touch you in a way that hurts, you can tell me to stop. And I will, no questions asked. Other than that, though, you have to allow me to touch as I want."

Ryan thought about it, thought about the trust inherent on both sides in the deal. He had to trust Bob not to hurt him, but Bob had to trust Ryan not to lie about being hurt. Ryan took a long, long time before he nodded, one quick, short nod of agreement. Bob said, "Go back to sleep. I'll wake you when breakfast is ready."

Bob put a hand to Ryan's forehead, brushing back a lock of hair. Ryan stilled at the touch, but stayed silent. Whatever he was feeling, it wasn't pain.

*


Bob put his deal to good use. If Ryan was having trouble reaching something, Bob would settle his hands on Ryan's hips and give him a bit of a lift up. Ryan had to admit that it made his life considerably easier.

Sometimes, when Ryan would sit on the sofa reading at the end of a long day, Bob would use those same hands to rub at sore neck and shoulder muscles, and even when he dug in and it did hurt, Ryan couldn't bring himself to say anything, not when he knew, at the release of pressure, his whole body would feel a little newer, a little more whole than it did before.

Or there were the times when Bob would come with Ryan on walks, the two of them trailing behind Hobo, and Bob would reach out, curl his hand gently over Ryan's, their arms swinging between them.

The first time he kissed Ryan, it took everything Ryan had not to stop him, not to cry wolf, not to say, "hurts, hurts." It didn't hurt. It didn't hurt at all. Bob's lips were playful, cool and sweet from the ice cream they had just eaten together. They kissed at the corner of Ryan's mouth, sucked a bit at his lower lip. Bob didn't try to slip his tongue into Ryan's mouth, not like Kerry had. He didn't try to bite, or suck so hard it would leave bruises. He didn't go at it for very long, and when he was done, he said, "Thank you," polite as you please, and went back to eating his ice cream.

The second time, Bob was coming in from working with the cows, smelling of sweat and dirt and Ryan made a face at him, but he just swooped in and brushed their lips together, a quick claim, almost a "hello" and then he was gone, washing up for dinner. Ryan had pressed his hands to his lips, unsure of why they were buzzing. It didn't hurt, though, not at all.

The third time was while they were sitting on the porch with Hobo, Ryan staring off, considering whether Bob's mom would like him or not. His mom hadn't much liked him, so far as he could tell. At least, she hadn't taken him with her. Bob said, "Stop thinking so hard," and leaned over to kiss him. He curved his arm around Ryan's lower back, and whispered, "Relax, Ry, let me--" and then he'd worked his tongue into Ryan's mouth.

Ryan's first thought was, "ew."

Then Bob dragged his tongue, warm and confident, along the top ridge of Ryan's mouth and Ryan thought, "Oh. Oh."

Bob laughed a little into his mouth, and Ryan couldn't help it, he laughed a little as well, more relief than amusement, but it didn't matter, not really. When Bob shifted the angle of his mouth slightly, Ryan rose up into it, just a bit. Bob murmured, "Yes," and something that may or may not have been, "gorgeous." The word had never related to Ryan before, but he found he didn't mind, kind of liked it when Bob said it about him.

After that, Bob took to sneak attacking Ryan with kisses, sometimes short, peppered ones, sometimes long and lazy and taken with care and skill. The latter were starting to leave Ryan anxious for more, something else, something that he couldn't say because what he'd done before, it didn't seem like a good end to anything, but there was certainly something missing, something he wanted to ask for, and didn't know how.

Finally, when he just couldn't take it any more, Ryan settled on saying, "Bob," in a desperate tone, hoping he would understand. He did. He tucked his hands against Ryan's ass and pulled him in, their chests flush, their covered cocks brushing, and, "Oh, yes. Ye-- Yes."

The rhythm wasn't hard, wasn't fast, and in the end Ryan had to speed up against Bob. Bob said, "Fuck," and kissed along Ryan's neck. Ryan gasped and came, fully clothed, held up by nothing but Bob's arms. Bob followed right along and when they were both panting, breathless in each other's grasps, Bob said, "It gets better."

Ryan swallowed hard and said, "Show me."

*


Bob didn't, not at first. He just continued on as he had been until a couple of nights later, when Ryan won the poker game that they were playing with Ray and Matt. Bob said, "I think that victory deserves a prize."

Ryan said, with maybe a pointed amount of guilelessness, "I've already got the next week off of dishwashing."

Bob laughed and stood. "'Night, boys."

He took Ryan's hand and tugged him along behind. Ryan only hesitated a bit. When Bob closed the bedroom door behind them and began kissing him, most of that melted away as well. Bob said, "I'm going to undress you."

Ryan said, "The light's on."

"Yeah, well, I think there should be some reward for me undoing all these buttons," Bob told him, and went to work on Ryan's shirt, carefully undoing each button, one by one by one. Ryan couldn't help shaking, not a little, but he also noticed how different this was. Kerry had just torn his pants from him. The shirt hadn't even come into play.

Bob, though, Bob spent some serious time getting to know Ryan's chest, kissing and licking and making Ryan squirm in an attempt to get closer, have more of what Bob was offering. Ryan was so distracted he didn't even notice Bob undoing Ryan's trousers, but after a bit, Bob sank to his knees and then--

"Holy--" Ryan couldn't breathe, absolutely could not, there was no way anyone could breathe through something like this. Even without breath, he managed to get out, "Bob."

Bob evidently took it as permission to swallow Ryan's cock even further. Ryan moaned and scrabbled to find purchase with the wall. He managed to latch onto the door handle and held on for all he was worth. Bob was sucking and Ryan was pretty sure it was the best thing he'd ever felt in his life, no holds barred. Better than riding a horse, free and able to catch the breeze, better than that first taste of ice cream after not having had it in almost a year, better, even, than petting Hobo.

Ryan was going to die. There was no way for anything to get better than this. This was it. He made a noise and let go, coming into Bob's mouth. When he finished, he wasn't entirely sure how he was standing up, except that Bob was there, hands on his hips. "Safe," Ryan murmured.

"Yeah, Ry," Bob said softly. "Never gonna let anything hurt you, ever again."

Ryan blinked at the promise, at his own foolish belief in it. He couldn't help it. It had been so long since Bob had lied to him. Ryan said, "I-- I want, um."

"C'mere," Bob said, and they moved to the bed slowly, Bob getting Ryan out of his pants so that he wasn't hobbled. Bob undid his own pants once they were lying down and took Ryan's hand in his, wrapping it around his cock. "Just, is this--"

Ryan nodded. He said, "Like--" and moved his hand a little.

Bob made a noise. "Maybe, I mean, harder?"

Ryan squeezed a bit more, pulled with a little more strength. Bob said, "Fuck, Ryan, yeah."

Ryan grinned at what he was doing, the way Bob had his head thrown back, neck taut with pleasure. Experimentally, he ran his thumb over the head, and Bob made another noise, even more incoherent than the last. Ryan levered up a bit to where he could kiss Bob. He said, "Good prize," and squeezed his hand.

*


Ryan liked the way Bob's skin felt under his fingers. He liked that Bob let him touch where he wanted, and didn't mock Ryan for not being sure of himself, didn't take it as an invitation to necessarily touch back. Bob had ways of asking if he wanted to, and Ryan was learning that he rarely wanted to say no.

Which didn't mean he wasn't scared when Bob drew off his cock one night and said, "Ry, I want to do something. It won't hurt."

Ryan was a little hazy on how words fit together by that point, but he said, "What?"

"I want to put my fingers in you."

Ryan's stomach tightened under Bob's palm and Bob stroked at his skin. He didn't say anything, just waited for Ryan to respond. Ryan said, "He-- When he--"

"He's not here, Ry. He's never gonna come near you again." Bob took a breath. "I'm here."

Ryan put his fingers to Bob's bicep for a second before grasping it, holding on. Then he let go. "Okay. Okay."

Bob kissed him before moving back to his cock, working Ryan until he was in a state of utter abandon. Which, of course, was when Bob slipped a finger inside. It was a bit cool and wet with something and it didn't exactly feel good but Bob was right, it didn't hurt. Certainly it didn't feel like Ryan remembered anything like that feeling. Bob moved his finger around a little and Ryan was about to make a face when he brushed up against a spot and, "Oh!"

Bob's mouth and throat vibrated around Ryan's cock, like he was agreeing. Then he twisted his finger again and single syllables were a little too much for Ryan to handle. He closed his eyes and just rode the pleasure of it, sharp and almost painful except so, so very much not. When things finally started falling back into some kind of logical space he felt Bob curling up next to him. Ryan said, "Mm," and inched down a little to suck at Bob's cock lazily, still not really all that aware of his surroundings. He'd been trying this more and more, wanting to make Bob feel how he felt. He knew he wasn't as good as Bob--he couldn't go as deep and he didn't have the same tricks Bob had picked up along the way--but he didn't think it mattered, since any time he so much as touched his tongue to Bob's cock, Bob petted gently, frantically at Ryan's hair and never managed to hold off from pleading for more than a minute or so.

It made Ryan feel good at something. It made him feel wanted. It made him feel like the times when Bob murmured, "Gorgeous," directly into Ryan's skin, he wasn't lying. It made Ryan feel...worthy.

Even so, he liked afterward best, when either Bob or he would grab a cloth and they would clean each other up before curling up with one another, Bob's fingers tracing lazy lines over Ryan's spine, Ryan's face tucked into Bob's neck, where he smelled of laundry and dirt and the last vestiges of their exertions. Sometimes, in those moments, Ryan would mouth, "I love you," but he hadn't said it yet. There were promises he just wasn't ready to make.

*


Not that Ryan ever said yes, but Bob usually asked him if he wanted to come along on Bob's ventures into town. But this time Bob had things to do that he needed Ryan not to be there for, things to do so that he could be honest with Ryan, and put everything else behind them. He kissed Ryan on his forehead, drew the blankets up over him and dressed quickly. He sat and had a cup of coffee with his brothers, told them the plan and asked them to watch over Ryan. Then he headed out.

He made his way to Black Gold's office and ducked in, trying to avoid being noticed by too many people. When he walked in, Brian said, "Um. Hi. Was I expecting you?"

Bob shook his head. He looked pointedly at the letter Brian was composing. "Love letter?"

Brian gave him an unimpressed look. Bob smirked. "How is Mikey?" Mikey wrote to Gerard pretty regularly, but Bob would have bet his good name on Mikey saying different things to Brian.

Brian shrugged. "He misses all of us. Says it's lonely with just Ma."

"Yeah, well, all that's about to come to an end."

Brian stiffened. "Bob we agreed--"

"To keep Ma out of here until the ugliness wound down and that somebody needed to stay with her, I know. But there's not gonna be any ugliness."

Brian was silent for a second. "All right, I give, you've lost me."

"I'm building the railroad, Brian." Bob said it softly.

Brian tapped his finger against the top of his desk for a moment. "You haven't, uh, lost your mind, or anything, right?"

"Fallen in love, which is just about the same, I s'pose."

Brian blinked. "You-- With Ross?"

"His name's Bryar, now," Bob said firmly.

"You're serious," Brian said.

"As death and taxes."

"And you're just going to give all this, all your plans up?"

Bob shrugged. "Found something that meant more, y'know?"

Brian looked down at where the letter lay. "Yeah. Yeah, I know."

Bob said, "So, I'm gonna need you to start putting together a crew."

"That's, sure, I can do that. I know some guys up in Utah that have been looking for work. What are you gonna do about all the people who cheated those farmers out of their land?"

"Buy it off'em at price. Only thing to do."

Brian said, "I'll start drawing up that paperwork as well."

Bob nodded. "Say hi to Mikey for me."

Brian smiled. "I do as a matter of course."

"Sneaky," Bob said, and took his leave. No sooner had he stepped out of the office than he noticed Pete coming out of a tavern down the street. Their gazes caught, and Bob gritted his teeth and tilted his hat. Pete pretended not to have seen. Probably for the best, all told. Bob made his way to the self-same tavern, pretty sure the man he was looking for would be there. He'd done some basic scouting and found that the man's habits were fairly predictable.

He stepped inside and ordered himself a whiskey. It was early for it, but he was probably about to start a fight on the barkeep's property, so he felt like he should probably at least patronize the establishment a bit. Once he had finished it off, he walked over to Benton Kerry and said, "We're gonna have this out, you and me."

Kerry looked over. "I got no quarrel with you, Bryar."

"Beg to differ. You touched my husband. Touched him without his say so. I can't think of any bigger quarrel."

"That what the little whore is saying?"

Bob took a deep breath. "Well, that, and that he couldn't much feel anything. He wasn't even sure he'd been compromised you were so--" Bob had been in his fair share of dirty fights, so it didn't take him more than a second to realize he needed to duck when Kerry sent his whiskey flying right toward him. He still caught some of it, but not so much to fully blind him. Of course, while he was blinking it out of his vision, Kerry came at him with a chair, from behind, all but knocking Bob off his feet. He couldn't breathe very well, but he was paying attention now, enough so that when Kerry came at him with the chair a second time, Bob grabbed it straight out of his hands and rammed it right into Kerry's side.

Kerry went down, and while Bob didn't generally make it a policy to hit men who were older and in worse shape than him, let alone men who were already down, he kicked and he kicked hard. Then he let himself loose with his fists until the other people in the tavern were pulling him off, saying, "All right, I think he's had enough."

Bob knew it would never, never be enough, not even if Bob flipped him over the side of the bar and fucked him dry right there, because Kerry wasn't fifteen and defenseless and being betrayed by one of the people who should be his foremost defender. He said, "Yeah," and pulled himself away from the restraining arms. "Yeah, all right."

The sheriff was already there, but Bob could hear people testifying that he hadn't been the one to throw the first punch, so he wasn't too worried. Bob shook himself off, sent an apologetic look in the direction of the barkeep and went outside. He needed to go home, home to Ryan.

*


When Ryan saw him take off his shirt, an impressive bruise already forming all along his lower back, Ryan said, "What happened?" sounding more than mildly alarmed. Bob almost smiled, almost. It was nice to know Ryan cared.

"Nothing." Bob didn't kiss and tell.

Ryan called bullshit on the answer and pressed a hand to the bruise. Bob very nearly whimpered. Ryan withdrew his hand. "Care to try again?"

"Bar fight," Bob said.

"Bar fight?"

"You should see the other guy," Bob said.

Ryan went white. Bob frowned. "Ryan?"

"It was Pete, wasn't it?"

Oh. "No. Jesus. I told you I wouldn't raise my hand to him. I told you that."

Ryan still looked concerned. "Then who?"

Bob sighed. "Bentonkerry."

"What-- Wait. Benton Kerry?"

Bob shrugged. It hurt a little, but he didn't really notice, not when there was a smile spreading across Ryan's face, wide and unrestrained. "Really?"

Bob said, "He hurt you."

"Yeah, but. I mean, nobody ever--"

"I do." Then, "You're okay with it?"

"I wish I'd been there," Ryan said, looking more mischievous than Bob had ever seen.

"I-- You want details?"

Ryan settled on his stomach on the bed and rested his chin on one hand. "Everything. Even the tiny, inconsequential stuff."

Bob laughed. "If I'd known, I'da taken you along."

"But then I would've wanted to do the hitting."

Bob shrugged. "I'd've held him for you."

*


When Bob was done recounting the story for Ryan--a few times--Ryan kissed him, his fingers gentle on Bob's cheek. He pulled away and said, "It-- It doesn't have to hurt, right? I mean, that's what you-- Right?"

"It shouldn't hurt, Ry. It should feel good. Great."

"Can you-- I want to try."

Bob stroked his thumb along the line of Ryan's throat. "You sure? We could-- I could let you have me--"

"Later. I want to try that, too. But. I want to stop-- I'm tired of seeing him in my sleep. Feeling him over my shoulder."

Bob kissed Ryan slowly, not even as a prelude to anything, just to taste him, be fully there with him. He drew back and said, "I can't promise this will do that."

"I know." Ryan nodded. "I'm not asking you to promise me anything."

"I wish I could."

After a long moment, Ryan said, "I know."

Bob drew off Ryan's shirt then, pulling Ryan atop him. His back was pretty sore, and Ryan's weight was pressing him into the mattress and Bob really could not have cared less, not even if he had tried. Ryan was kissing him eagerly, his fingers everywhere they could reach. Bob was concentrating most of his efforts along Ryan's spine, at the base of his neck, the places where he had proven to be quite responsive. Ryan shivered and panted and rose up under the touch, so Bob just kept at it until Ryan was well past incoherent. Bob rolled him over then, onto his back and said, "Ryan, hey, Ry. Pay attention."

Ryan blinked up at him. Bob said, "Don't come, all right? It's important."

More blinking, but eventually, Ryan nodded. Bob kissed him before moving down to suck his cock, using the pleasure to distract from any discomfort there might be in the stretching. When he had Ryan loose in just about every sense of the word, Bob withdrew, rolling Ryan over one more time. Ryan made a noise, but Bob said, "It's easier this way."

Ryan's fingers scrabbled over the bedcloths and Bob caught Ryan's hand in his. "I'll talk. I'll talk the whole time. You won't ever be able to think it's not me."

Ryan squeezed his hand. Bob squeezed back, then pulled away so as to get Ryan settled, push a pillow under his hips, make sure he was comfortable. Then he licked a path straight down the line of Ryan's vertabrae and plunged his tongue into Ryan. Ryan made noises, but they were the right kind, nothing that made sense, nothing that sounded like fear. Bob fucked him with his tongue just long enough to get him nearly begging, then he said, "Okay, Ryan, okay," and worked the head of his cock in.

Ryan said, "Bob," and there was a little bit of fear in it.

Bob said, "I know. I know. Stings a little. Just give me a moment, okay?"

Ryan made a sound of agreement and Bob slid in smoothly, wanting to get the worst of it over. He adjusted his angle and tried again and Ryan said, "Oh, oh, yes."

Bob laughed softly against the back of Ryan's neck and kissed at the skin a bit. "See? This is how it should be." He punctuated the thought with a thrust.

"Bob," Ryan breathed.

"I'm here," he said, and worked his hand beneath Ryan, to take hold of his cock. Ryan made a needy sound, and Bob could no more ignore him than stop the world from turning. He kept his movements long and smooth, but with an intensity when he bore down, matching the strokes of his hand just so. Ryan was mumbling the entire time, nothing that made sense, but honestly, Bob couldn't imagine he was making any more sense with his whisperings. Ryan made any coherency he had a long lost memory.

They finished close to each other, both worn down to utter exhaustion, kissing lazily, unbothered, even, by the mess. Bob pulled Ryan close, and Ryan murmured, "I'll do laundry in the morning."

Bob said, "Not if I get there first," but Ryan was already asleep.

*


When Ryan awoke to Pete yelling, he would have been convinced that everything that had happened since that first day after his wedding had been a dream, except for the part where he was warm and comfortable in Bob's arms. Bob was clearly already awake, his body slightly tense, listening. Ryan sighed. "Fuck. You can stay here. I'll-- I'll talk to him."

Since Pete was clearly three sheets to the wind, Ryan didn't have much hope of actually having him see sense, but it was worth a try. Bob stood when Ryan did. Ryan said, "Bob--"

"Won't raise a hand, Ryan. But he hit you last time. No way is that happening again."

Ryan thought about it for a moment, and then went to his tiptoes to kiss Bob. He pulled on his pants and a shirt and went to go see what was wrong. When he got outside, Pete was waving a sheet of paper. "Ryan! I told you! I told you he wasn't any good."

Ryan ran a hand over his face. "Pete--"

"He's behind the railroad, the investments you hate so much."

"Wh--" There was a rushing in Ryan's ears, and it took a second for him to be able to think in words again. "What?" The question was soft; he felt like he couldn't breathe.

"Here. Read. It's a letter from Brian Schechter, the Black Gold proprieter, to his fiancÚ, Mikey, who seems to be--."

"Your brother?" Ryan's chest was actually going to squeeze so tight it would buckle in, collapse. Gerard, Ray and Frank had come at some point, too, were standing behind Bob. Gerard looked a little horrified.

Bob said, "Don't read that, Ryan. Brian was writing it yesterday before I came to see him, tell him plans had changed. Don't read it. I was going to tell you. I was going to, this morning."

Pete shoved the paper in Ryan's hand. "I'm sure," he said, snarling in Bob's direction.

Ryan looked at Bob, unable to feel his legs, his hands, and yet, somehow, he was still holding the paper. It was shaking when he brought it up to read. His sight was blurry, he wasn't even sure he could make sense of the words.

...not sure if you should come out here. I could go back to San Francisco, we could get a place there. I know it's not ideal, but you haven't seen the way this place makes your brother. It's as though he's consumed by the past. He married Ross, and I know, I know he's the man's son, but he's also innocent of wrongdoing, and I can't imagine any other reason for Bob to have done it other than as part of a revenge scheme. As if bankrupting these folks and leaving them without the promised railroad weren't enough. Mikey,

Ryan crumpled the letter and tossed it aside, unwilling to read any more. When Ryan was a child, when he didn't know any better, he always wished that promises could be real and people could be trusted to care about him. But Ryan had learned. He'd seen the knowledge in the townfolk's eyes, seen them look away so they wouldn't have to feel guilty for not intervening and he'd known, he'd understood that nobody was ever going to play hero in his life, or even partner. That the few people who would have tried--Spencer, Doc Walker--hadn't the ability. Ryan was on his own.

Until Bob. Until Bob with his stupid lopsided smile, and his way of listening, and his hands that were big but not abusive, and his laugh that made Ryan want to laugh to, for no reason at all. And it had been a lie. Of course it had been. Ryan was a fool to have ever thought otherwise. Ruining the floors had been Ryan's big test? The floors that Bob had more than enough money to replace, could even bring workers in to replace if he wanted? Of course Bob would have just let that go if his plan was to get Ryan to trust him, to lo--

Ryan couldn't finish the thought. It hurt just to start thinking the word, sent pain furling out through his stomach, burning at the edges of his brain. He had known better. He had. People weren't kind to Ryan, they weren't truthful. He had known.

Ryan swallowed once, nodded and said, "I'll go-- I have a few things. I won't take anything you bought me. Pete, just. Wait."

"Ryan," Bob said, and it sounded... Ryan couldn't say how it sounded, didn't want to think about it, wouldn't be misled again. Not this time.

He made his way to their-- To Bob's room, Bryar's room, and began to pull together the few things he'd brought with him. He was nearly done when Gerard ran in, looking full on frantic. "You have, you have to get out there."

"Ger--"

"Ryan, you have to! Pete's gonna kill him!"

That made no sense. "What?"

"You made him promise not to lift a hand. And he won't."

Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck. Ryan started running. "Why haven't you--"

"He made us promise."

Sure enough, when Ryan got to the front, Pete was laying into Bob, despite the fact that he was already bloodied, had been driven to his knees. Ryan's stomach lurched at the thought of what could have done that, but Pete wasn't even paying attention, was just hitting and hitting and hitting him. Ryan picked up one of 2x4's that were lying around the house, detritus of the work still being done. He walked up to Pete and slammed the board into his side. Pete fell away from Bob with a yelp and looked up at Ryan with an expression of utter betrayal.

Ryan closed his eyes for one second and reminded himself that this wasn't the Pete he had grown up around. This wasn't the man who had done his damnedest to intercept beatings, to see that Ryan had nice things now and then. This wasn't the boy who had told Ryan stories and attempted to give Ryan a world that wasn't the real one, ugly and drab and painful. This was a man no better than Ryan's father, a man filled with nothing but whiskey and self-pity. Given the choice between him and Bob, Ryan wasn't sure why he had even gone back in the house, had even believed that the letter Pete had given him was real and not a forgery. All of these things, they were what was true, now. Ryan knew that, he did. This was the right decision.

He made himself open his eyes and say, "What the fuck is wrong with you? You're not so drunk you can't figure out he's not fighting back."

Pete opened his mouth, but Ryan couldn't let him say anything, he couldn't. "Get off my fucking property. And don't come back."

"Ryan--"

"Go," Ryan said, and then shut his mouth before he could take it back, before he could cry. Changed or no, there had been a time when Pete had been the person he loved more than anyone in the world.

Pete stumbled to his feet and weaved his way toward the boundaries, looking back at Ryan occasionally in disbelief. When Ryan deemed him far enough away, he dropped his makeshift weapon and went to his knees in front of Bob. He brought a hand to Bob's face but couldn't touch it, for fear of hurting him. Bob mumbled, "Didn't raise...hand."

"You fucking moron," Ryan said, but there was too much relief in his words for them to hold any truth. "I know. I know you didn't. I know."

"You-- Leave?"

Ryan looked at Bob, barely upright because he had chosen to keep his word to Ryan over defending himself. He had made sure Pete was okay over himself because he knew Pete mattered to Ryan. Ryan brought his fingers to Bob's hair, just barely touching. "No. No, I-- I should have listened."

"Shoulda told."

"You can tell me now. Let's, we'll get you inside, get you cleaned up. Then you can tell me, okay? And I'll listen, I promise."

Ryan opened his mouth to tell Bob that he should have listened the first time, that he should have given Bob the trust he'd worked so hard to earn with Ryan, but before he could, Bob asked, "Believe?"

Ryan took a deep breath. "Yes. Yes, I'll believe you."

*


Bob wanted to get right to talking, but Ryan made him sleep a little after he and Gerard had managed to get the worst of the damage cleaned up. Ryan laid down with him, and while he couldn't sleep, it was reassuring to feel Bob's heart, the steady in-out of his breathing.

Ryan felt Bob wake a second before he asked, "Ryan?"

Ryan found one hand with his own and sneaked his fingers in between Bob's. "I'm here."

Bob buried his face in Ryan's hair for a moment, then brought his head up, chin resting atop Ryan's head. "I was going to tell you."

"I-- It doesn't matter."

"It does," Bob argued.

"Tell me now."

"My stepfather, he was a good man. Pretty much near raised me just like his own, never showed any favoritism to the other three, despite them being his. He was in the war, but afterward he wanted nothing but to just settle, have his family and some land. So, this man shows up in St. Louis and sells him a plot of land in Nevada. Northern Ranch. Thousand dollars is the price, and it's all we have, but Pa, he's just so certain this is what we're meant to do, where we're meant to go.

"Only, the moment we show up, the sheriff and a few of his buddies are there to greet us, saying the papers we have our false and that that land doesn't really belong to us. Pa was concerned about our safety, so he was gonna go into the next town, see if we could get ourselves some legal help, but before we could even leave, three of the four who originally swindled us came back and accused him of shooting the fourth man in the back. Louis Hamm. They go to string my Pa up, and Ma, she's begging, she's--"

"Yeah."

"Yeah. So your father, he-- He lets her believe if she just-- That he'll let my Pa go. So she does, only then Ross is all, 'I'm no adulterer, but widows are fair game. You boys need to make an honest man out of me' and I rushed him, I don't even know what I thought I could do, I wasn't even ten at the time, but I just, Ma, she was screaming and-- Well, he pushed me into the fire, and Ma, she pulled me out and I remember, I remember looking over, seeing Pa jerking, trying his hardest--

"I passed out, which was a mercy, I s'pose."

Ryan made a sound deep in his throat and rose up to try and kiss Bob, but Bob said, "Not yet. There's-- Not yet."

Ryan wasn't happy, but he let Bob have his way. Bob said, "I came here to get revenge. Your brother's right about that. I meant to bankrupt all the people who had been involved, knowing that the lure of an unsavory investment would draw them in. But I never, you were never part of the plan, not even after I saw you and realized Ma had been lying about Mikey all these years, that there was no way he was anything but your brother."

Ryan said, "Oh." And then, "Oh."

"I should've told you, but I wanted to wait until I'd squared it away with Brian that we weren't going through with it. That we were gonna build the railroad, instead. I wanted to be able to tell you that, too."

Ryan extricated his hand so that he could stroke it carefully along Bob's cheek, careful of the bruising. He said, "You didn't have to give it up. Not for me."

"Ryan--"

"You had your right to your revenge. Don't act like that's something I can't understand. If you'd-- I would've helped. Or, if I couldn't have, I would have kept your secrets."

"Ryan?"

"Yes?"

"You're-- You're the best thing that's ever happened to me."

Ryan blinked at the bluntness of the statement. Bob shrugged. "You should know. I won't drag you into revenge schemes, put you in danger, I won't. I want-- I want us to have a fresh start."

The stretch of Ryan's smile hurt, the breadth of it unfamiliar, but he didn't mind, not at all. He said, "I want that. I want that, too."

*


Ryan felt like he should have known better than to think he could have a fresh start when the sheriff came to the house a few mornings later. The sheriff didn't come alone. Oh no, he brought a whole group of men. Men Ryan had grown up around, grown up knowing wouldn't help him, not even if he ever actually got up the nerve to ask. He came and he shouted, "Bob Bryar, you're under arrest for the shooting of Pete Ross."

"Pete?" Ryan said, glad he was still in bed. He didn't think he could have trusted his legs. "Pete's dead?"

"Ryan," Bob said. "Oh fuck, Ryan."

Ryan looked at Bob. "I don't--"

Bob shook his head. "I'm gonna go figure it out."

Ryan leapt out of bed. "I'm going with you."

"No," Ray said, appearing at the door. "No, Ryan, I don't think that's a good idea."

Bob looked at Ray. "Trouble?"

"At least ten men with guns, so, yeah, I'd say."

Bob took Ryan by the shoulders. Ryan started to protest but Bob just asked, "Please stay here? Please?"

"The living room," Ryan said. "The window. I'm not letting you go out there without watching."

"If I give you a pistol, would you know how to use it?"

"I've only ever shot rifles, but I could probably work it out."

Bob crossed to the dresser and took out the promised weapon, pressing it in Ryan's hand. He kissed him quickly. "I'll be fine."

"Promise me," Ryan said.

Bob hesitated, kissed him again, and left, Ray following in his wake. Ryan ran to the window. Gerard, Frank and Matt were already out there. Ryan glanced around, and sure enough, there was Brendon, looking sheepish. Ryan asked, "You supposed to keep an eye on me?"

Brendon scuffed his toe on the rug. Ryan said, "At least come stand by me, then."

Brendon was there in a second. He said, "I-- Uh, sorry about Pete."

Ryan swallowed past the spike in his throat, nodding once. The last thing he'd told his brother was to go away, go away and not come back. The sheriff was talking, saying something about how Pete had been shot in the back, how he was lying near death--

"Near death? Are you a complete asshole? My husband was thinking his brother was dead!" Bob sounded more deadly than he had that first night, in the barn, with Pete on a horse. A horse with a notched rope. Ryan wanted to run out there, wanted to explain that Bob kept his promises, that he wouldn't raise a hand to Pete. That if Bob were to break his promise, he wouldn't have to shoot Pete in the back to do it. There was no contest between the two. Anyone with half a brain could tell you that. Ryan wasn't all that confident of there being half a brain between all ten men out there.

The sheriff said, "He wouldn't have to worry if his husband hadn't gone and shot his brother, now would he?"

Bob asked, surprisingly calm, given his outburst. "What proof is there that I did this?"

"Pete came into town three days ago, talkin' 'bout how he pounded you but good. One look at your face tells me he was telling the truth. Two days later, he's found with a bullet in his back. Same way your daddy killed my friend Louis these twenty years ago."

Ray said, "That's. . .coincidence." He sounded like he thought he might be having some kind of crazy (stupid) dream. "How can you be citing it as proof?"

The sheriff shrugged, as if actually finding the right killer was something he couldn't be too terribly bothered to worry about. "Ain't nobody else in town with anything against Ross, so far's I know." He dismounted and came toward Bob, which was when all four brothers and Matt aimed their guns. The other nine men leveled them right back. The sheriff said, "You can start shooting, but no matter how quick you are, at least a couple of you are gonna end up dead."

Ryan was gripping the sill so hard his knuckles had gone see through. Next to him, Brendon didn't seem to be breathing, either. After a minute, Bob nodded. "Put down your guns."

Ryan saw Ray and Frank hesitate. Matt and Gerard didn't. In the end, they all listened, though, and the sheriff's men swarmed the porch, taking not only Bob, but everyone else as well. Bob said, clearly outraged, "What are the charges on them?"

"Interfering with the law," the sheriff told him, smug enough to make Ryan want to raise the pistol and take a shot. He didn't.

The sheriff called, "You might want to get to the Doc's, Ross. Say your last to your brother."

Quietly, ever so quietly, Ryan said, "My name is Bryar."

*


"We have to get into town," Ryan said.

Brendon nodded. "C'mon."

Between the two of them, they had the horses saddled within ten minutes. They couldn't catch up to the group, and by the time they made it into town, there was a group outside the jail, calling for Bob's hanging. Ryan made himself keep breathing. There had to be a way to make it clear that Bob hadn't done this, there had to be. One problem at a time. Ryan said, "Brendon, can you--"

"I'll stay," Brendon agreed. "I don't know what the hell I can do, but--"

"Thanks," Ryan said, and rode on, on to Doc Walker's, the only place Ryan could ever remember being safe when he was growing up.

The Doc greeted him the moment he came in the door. "Ryan."

"How is he?"

"Not good. The fever's got him pretty bad. The bullet went straight through, didn't hit anything major, but he just can't seem to come out of the fever."

"Alcohol will--"

"Sure, but he was dry when they brought him in."

"He-- What? Are you sure?"

"Damn sure. Probably two or three days dry."

Ryan wanted to vomit. "Can I see him?"

"Course you can."

The Doc lead him into the room where Pete was on the bed, torso bandaged, one bright red stain seeping through. Ryan bit his lip and moved to the side of the bed. He brushed the hair from Pete's face, gently. Pete murmured something, but it was more sound than word. Ryan said, "Sh, sh Pete. I'm here."

Ryan heard a noise behind him and looked back to see Spencer. He said, "Thought you might need a friend."

Ryan held out a hand, and Spencer came, wrapping himself around Ryan. "I'm so sorry, Ry."

"Bob didn't do it."

Spencer looked at Ryan for a long moment. "Okay."

Ryan smiled at Spencer, just a little, just to let him know how much the belief was appreciated. Then Pete shouted, "Ryan! Ryan!"

"I'm here. Pete, I'm here, shh."

"No, no, you have to--"

"Pete, it's okay."

"Ledgers, Ryan. I looked. I looked. Not-- No sheriff--"

"Sh, Pete."

"He's been raving about those ledgers since he came in," Doc said quietly. "I thought it was the fever, but I'm starting to wonder."

"Ledgers--" Ryan thought back to what Bob had said, about the land, the thousand dollars. "Fuck. I have to-- Spencer, can you stay--"

"I'm here, Ryan, go."

"Doc, one of Bob's hired hands is out there, trying to keep the mob calm, can you--"

"I'll do my best," he said. Nobody much paid attention to Doc in town. He was seen as too laid back, and well, pretty. Odd. Ryan couldn't think of any nicer word for it.

Ryan said, "I'll be back as quickly as I can." He leaned down to kiss Pete's forehead. "You stay with Spencer, you hear me? Pete. I'm telling you to stay with Spencer."

Pete said, "Ryan."

Ryan said, "I hope you're right," and shot out the door.

*


Pete was right. Pete was right and all Ryan had to hope was that he wasn't too late and that people would listen. They were kind of big hopes, both of them, particularly for someone who had been taught just how dangerous hope could be. And yet, Ryan just couldn't give up on Bob, he couldn't. Bob loved him, had chosen to love him even though he had every reason in the world not to. And if Ryan was being honest with himself, he loved Bob in return.

He couldn't lose him. He-- Ryan made himself breathe. It was hard enough riding when one could take a breath.

When he came into the main street in town, it was to the sight of a crowd surrounding a makeshift noose, Bob sitting on a horse, the rope around his neck. Ryan's mind stuttered with absolute terror. He nearly fell from the horse in his efforts to get to Bob, pushing through the crowd. He was stepped on and elbowed and he couldn't feel it, not at all. The only thing that mattered was getting to Bob. When he managed, Bob said, "Go back to Pete, Ry. Go."

"No fucking way," Ryan said, sounding a lot more put together than he really was. Then he turned to the crowd. "Shut up! Just shut up!"

Most people seemed so surprised that demure, retiring Ryan Ross was yelling at them, it got them to quiet, somewhat against their will. Ryan glared at them. "You think you've got the right man just because you think you know something about his stepfather?"

There was a shuffling in the crowd that made Ryan hope he actually had their attention. "You know nothing. This book," Ryan lifted the ledger, "this book tells me more about what happened twenty years ago than any of you have ever known."

"What's in it?" Henry Statler asked. Ryan had noticed that most of the crowd seemed to be rallying around him--Ryan thought he might have been Louis' cousin, or something.

"My father's records. And there is definitely something off about the Way purchase of Northern Ranch. Bob says his stepfather paid a thousand dollars for it. But my father only records getting five hundred. Louis Hamm was one of the men who went to St. Louis to get that money, I'm betting, so if he cheated his partners out of the rest of the deal, I'm guessing they weren't all that pleased with that. Pretty good reason to kill a man, wouldn't you say?"

There was a murmur in the crowd, but Statler just said, "And we're supposed to just trust your word that he paid the thousand?"

"The original bill of sale is at the house. They kept it all these years." Ryan had no idea if that was actually true or not. He just hoped the bluff wouldn't be called for long enough to get Bob down, come up with a better way to keep him safe.

"You expect us to just believe that? From you, when you been spreading your legs for him despite everything he's said about your family, boy?"

Ryan was struggling to come up with an answer that anyone would believe when a familiar voice came from the back of the crowd. It sounded tired and worn thin, but Ryan would have known Pete's voice anywhere, anytime. "No, you probably won't believe him. But you should believe me."

Everyone turned. Pete was being held up on either side by Spencer and the Doc, both looking concerned. Brendon was hovering off to the side. Pete said, "Ryan didn't discover the ledger, I did."

"What are you talking about?" Statler asked. There were dissident shouts from the crowd, people ready to just hang Bob, others clearly starting to doubt the wisdom of such an action.

"See, the other day. When I bragged about beating Bryar? He let me. Stood there and took it. And I probably woulda killed him if Ryan hadn't had the sense to run me off. And I got to thinking, since Ryan's been the only person to care for me in this world, that if he was willing to do that, this Bryar guy must not be so bad. So I started looking through my father's records, and finding the discrepancies, took it to the sheriff, thinking that Benton Kerry had been the other man to go to St. Louis, to shoot Hamm to keep him quiet, only the next thing I know--"

"You shut your mouth, boy," the sheriff interrupted. When several members of the crown began urging him to continue the sheriff yelled, "He's raving. It's the fever."

"Fever's broke," Doc said. "He's lucid as anyone here." Doc looked doubtful about the lucidity of several members of the crowd. Ryan didn't blame him. The crowd was getting louder now, wanting to hear the rest of what Pete had to say.

Pete was clearly tiring, sagging in the grip that held him up, but he said, "It was the sheriff, he's the one who went to St. Louis, he's the one who shot--"

Pete never got to finish. The sheriff pulled his weapon and shot in his direction, Brendon pulling him and his supports down from behind. People in the crowd began shouting and running, trying to get as far away from the bullets as possible. Ryan only had a moment to worry about Pete tearing his wounds when the whinny of the horse next to him--spooked by the gun--brought him back to the immediate problem. The horse shot off, tearing through the crowd, down the street. Ryan said, "No, nonono, fucking no," as Bob dropped, rushing closer to him, pushing at Bob's feet so that he wouldn't choke. Bob was considerably larger than him, though, and Ryan just didn't have the strength necessary to keep him up, keep him from choking to death.

Though it couldn't have been more than a minute, maybe two, it felt like forever before Brendon got there, using Ryan as a ladder to reach the rope, cut it clean away. Bob fell to the ground and Ryan kneeled next to him. "You wake up." He pushed at Bob's chest, leaned over and breathed into his mouth, trying to hold off on the hysteria that wanted to crawl right out of him. "Bob Bryar you wake up this fucking instant." Ryan wouldn't cry, he would not. Bob wasn't going to leave him, he wasn't, he absolutely was not. "Come on. Come on, I-- Please, please, I need you. I need-- I love you."

Bob was still, and there were hands at Ryan's shoulders, but he shook them off. He shook Bob. Bob lay there, lay there while people said, "Ryan, it's no use, he's--"

Bob rose up, rolled over and coughed like he needed to get rid of a lung. Ryan pushed him onto his back and kissed him between coughs, not even caring that it was kind of gross. Clearly, Bob didn't either, because he buried his hands in Ryan's shirt and held on. He said, "Ryan? Ryan."

Ryan said, "Love you. Should have--"

"Pete," Bob said.

Ryan's eyes went wide and he ran over to where Pete was slumped on the floor, his head in the Doc's lap. The Doc smiled up at Ryan, though, and said, "He's fine. Or, well, he will be. It's just been a long day for him, is all."

Pete murmured, "Ryan?"

Ryan knelt down next to him. "Hey. Hey, you need to rest now."

"Did I-- Did it work?"

Ryan looked over to where several men were holding the sheriff, now disarmed. He said, "You did good, Pete."

"I-- I stopped drinking."

"Yeah, Doc told me."

"I'm gonna. I'm gonna be a good brother again. Gonna try."

Ryan kissed his forehead. "Sleep, Pete. I'll be around when you wake up."

Pete's eyes slipped closed. Ryan felt hands on his shoulders. He didn't shake them off. He knew this set of hands. Bob said, "Want me to get some rooms in town?"

Ryan turned into the embrace and didn't answer for a moment, just let himself feel perfectly, wholly safe in the circle of Bob's arms.

*


Ryan awoke in the early morning, unable to sleep, feeling jittery in his own skin. Bob was still dead to the world. Ryan touched gently at where Doc had bandaged the wounds on his neck and pressed a quick kiss to his forehead. Bob never so much as stirred. Ryan dressed quietly and crept from the room down to the parlor in the hopes of finding some breakfast.

Spencer and Ryland were there, at a table with Frank and Gerard. Ryan took a seat next to Spencer, who poured him some coffee and said, "'Morning. How're you?"

Ryan smiled in response, knowing Spencer would understand. He asked Frank, "Where're the others?"

"Brendon and Ray are at the Doc's. Ray wanted to keep anyone from trying to harm Pete, just in case, you know. And Brendon's got a crush on your town doc." Frank said it casually, and Gerard hit him in the arm. Frank rubbed at the spot but said, "What? He does."

Ryan took a sip of his coffee so as not to laugh. Gerard said, "Matt's back at the ranch. We figured we'd best have someone watch over it."

Ryan nodded. "Yeah, probably not a bad idea. Least until things. . .settle."

Gerard nodded. He poured himself more coffee. There was a comfortable silence until he said, "That was a brave thing, what your brother did. There aren't many men who would admit to bragging over something they had no right being proud of, who would risk their lives for a man they don't even like."

Ryan was thinking of how to explain who Pete was when they were children when Spencer said, "Pete wasn't always like the person you've met in the past year. When we were little boys, I was completely in love with him. He was always trying his best to protect Ryan and make people see how he was good, how being a Ross didn’t make him bad. But nobody ever paid attention, and finally he just gave up trying."

Ryan looked over at Spencer. He'd forgotten about Spencer's boyhood crush on his older brother. It made him smile a little to remember it. Spencer grinned back. Ryland scowled a little, but in that way that made Spencer laugh. Ryan tried it out, too, laughing a little to match Spencer's laughter, and found it shocked Ryland out of his scowl. Spencer squeezed Ryland's hand in a gesture that Ryan knew, a "see, told you." Ryan felt something settle in his chest. He couldn't have really explained it, but it was a nice feeling.

To the side, both Frank and Gerard were looking a bit perplexed, but Frank just said, "Well, he saved our brother's life, so I suppose that's as good a reason as any to give him a second chance."

Gerard nodded thoughtfully. Ryan kind of wanted to hug both of them. The impulse surprised him. It had been a really long time since he had wanted to hug someone who wasn't Bob or Spencer. He hadn't even wanted to hug Pete for a while now. Instead he picked up a muffin from the center of the table, and took a bite, chewing slowly to give himself some time. When he had swallowed he said, "Thank you," softly.

Gerard said, "You're welcome." Frank made a noise that seemed mocking, but his facial expression belied the sentiment, and told Ryan that he meant exactly what Gerard had said.

*


Bob awoke around noon. He had a headache that reminded him of some of his more virulent hangovers. At first he tried to remember why he'd been so drunk and then he remembered the events of the previous day and said, "Nngh."

Cool hands swiped at his forehead and he made himself open his eyes. Ryan was looking down at him, his eyes concerned. Bob said, "Headache," softly, to let him know it wasn't a big deal.

Ryan stood up and was back in moments, stirring something into a glass of water. He said, "Doc says it'll taste awful, but it'll help with the worst of the pain."

Bob took a sip, and, sure enough, it tasted like he imagined composting manure must. He chugged the rest and closed his eyes again, waiting for it to kick in. Ryan climbed onto the bed with him, curling in close to his side. He asked quietly, "This okay?"

Bob wrapped an arm around him and pulled him in closer by way of an answer. He thought maybe he should tell Ryan how happy it made him that Ryan felt safe enough to do this without being asked. He would later, when his head felt better.

He must have fallen asleep again, because he woke to Ryan pulling away and made a sound of displeasure. He noticed immediately that his head felt much better. Ryan said, "Sorry. I was going to go see Pete."

Bob blinked the sleep away from his eyes. "I'll come. Just give me a moment to dress."

"You don't have--"

"I wanna thank the man who saved my life. I think that's pretty reasonable. You?"

Ryan said, "There'll be time for that," but he was smiling and waiting, so Bob took it as a sign that he was welcome. He dressed as quickly as he could, his body still sore from jerking down off the horse, into the noose, but the pain medication was helping quite a bit. When he was ready they left, Ryan walking slowly at his side, keeping to his pace. Bob could feel the pent up energy in him, wished he had it in him to take Ryan back to the hotel and ah, leech some of that out, but for the moment all he could do was take Ryan's hand in his and squeeze. Ryan squeezed back and settled a little.

When they got to Doc's, Pete was sitting up, talking with Brendon. Doc was seeing some other patients, and he'd left Brendon to keep him company. Ray was keeping watch over the place, staying mostly in the area were Doc's patients waited when he was with another patient. Pete was pale and tired looking when they arrived, but when Ryan asked he said, "Doc says it'll be fine, I just need to rest a lot."

Bob said, "Brendon, can you and Ryan go--"

Ryan just pulled Brendon from the room. Bob caught himself grinning at the door they'd left through, simply because Ryan trusted him enough to leave him alone with Pete. He shook his head and sat down, facing Pete. He said, "I wanted to--"

"I'm sorry for beating you," Pete said. His cheeks were still a bit flushed, his mouth curved in pain, but his eyes were defiant and apologetic all at once. They reminded Bob of Ryan. Even if he'd wanted to hold a grudge, he couldn't have.

He said, "I think you saving my life pretty much ended the need for any apologies."

Pete looked down a bit. "I hit Ryan, didn't I? That morning after he-- I hit him."

Bob closed his eyes and wished for a brief moment that they could all go back, that he could have calmed Pete down, kept him there long enough to see what he'd done, could have made them into a family earlier. "He forgave you."

"Yeah, well, Ryan forgives a lot of shit he shouldn't."

That was true, but, "He knows when to stop."

Pete shook his head. "He's learned. He looked straight at Bob.

Bob was about to say something when the Doc came in and blinked, clearly surprised to see him rather than Brendon. Bob said, "He and Ryan--"

Doc said, "Just as well. How's your throat?"

Bob shrugged. "About as well as it can be, I suppose."

Doc said, "I'm gonna take a look, if it's all the same to you."

Bob would have preferred otherwise, but he stayed still and allowed the man to take a look and redress the wounds. He was just finishing up when Brendon and Ryan came back. Brendon said, "Oh, hi," with the biggest smile Bob had ever seen on his face, which was saying something.

Doc said, "Good, Ryan, you're here. Has Pete talked to you about arrangements?"

"I--" Ryan started.

Pete said, "Doc, it'll be fine."

"What'll be fine?" Bob asked.

"He needs somewhere to stay," Doc said firmly. "He needs people to help him until he's well, and there's nobody that can help like he needs out at his ranch."

"He's my brother-in-law," Bob said. "He'll be coming back with us."

Ryan looked at him, and okay, Bob knew he'd made that statement like there had never been any doubt, but in truth, if Ryan had asked--which he would have wanted to--Bob would have said yes, so it was a little bit like that was the truth. Pete said, "I don't know--"

Ryan said, "Hush, Pete. There's always enough people around Northern to help out, and I can watch over the cattle at our-- your ranch."

Brendon said, "I can help. I'm good at doing what Ryan tells me to do."

Bob snorted at the truth of that. Doc turned a little, and Bob was pretty sure it was to laugh. When he turned back though, he just beamed at Brendon and said, "Good, I'm glad that's settled."

Pete said, "But--"

Ryan put his hand over Pete's mouth and gave him a stern look. After a bit Pete nipped at his brother's hand. When Ryan pulled it away, more in surprise than pain, Pete said, "Tired."

Ryan said, "Sleep. I'll stay." Ryan looked over at Bob who mouthed, "Me too." Ryan held out his hand, beckoning to Bob.

*

One Month Later

*


Ryan was looking out the window. There was nothing to see, the fog was too deep at this time of morning. They'd been traveling through the night, and Bob was halfway convinced Ryan had never once closed his eyes. Bob thought he would have laughed at anyone else. He knew he would have laughed. But Ryan had a way of making the ridiculous seem better than the normal, of making Bob wonder what he was missing.

"What's it feel like?" Ryan asked.

"What?"

"The fog. It's pretty. Like...like a cloud that came down to earth."

Bob blinked. It was just fog. "Uh. It's kinda wet?"

Ryan nodded, seemingly pleased by that answer for the moment. There would be more questions. Ryan was a curious guy. Bob hadn't known that for the first few months of their marriage, but now that Ryan had evidently decided Bob was his, he'd also decided to show Bob all the parts of himself he'd been hiding. Ryan had a lot of awesome hidden parts, as it turned out. Gerard and Brendon were especially delighted by every new twist Ryan saw fit to show them.

Bob moved from his seat across from Ryan onto the one where Ryan was sitting. It was a bit of a tight fit with both of them, which was just fine by Bob. He pulled an unresisting Ryan onto his lap and said, "You're going to love it."

Ryan fitted himself against Bob, mouthed at his ear lobe and said, "Mm."

The train pulled in to the city's main station and Ryan bounded up, all but pulling Bob from their compartment. Bob had slept on the train, but he was still weary, train-sleep not being the most restful. All the same, Ryan's enthusiasm made him smile and quicken his pace a little.

The porter had set their bags on the platform. They weren't staying long; a couple of weeks, perhaps. Long enough for Bob to show Ryan the ocean and take him to the theater and let him roam in a few of the shops. Long enough for Ryan to get away and see how different things could be and hopefully still want to go back with Bob.

The thought should have scared Bob. It didn't. Ryan nearly jogged onto the platform, but when he got there, he stood, smiling back at Bob, waiting.

Bob took the bags from him, even though Ryan made a face, but he let him. Bob liked being a gentleman, and Ryan didn't mind letting him be one. A few steps off the platform, Bob saw his mother, waiting impatiently atop a buggy. Next to her, Mikey was staring off into space. Bob grinned at both of them.

His mother was off the buggy in seconds, running to throw herself at Bob. Bob laughed and lifted her, twirling her before setting her down. Then he said, "Ma. Ma, I want you to meet my husband, Ryan."

Bob knew that Ryan was well-nigh paralyzed at the thought of meeting his mother. He'd explained to Bob, "Mine had me and ran away two years later. She stood Pete for almost eight."

Bob had just said, "You mom didn't know a good thing when she saw one. Mine does."

His mom looked Ryan up and down and said, "So, you're the man I have to thank for finding my son's heart after all these years?"

Ryan looked at her blankly. "No, he-- It wasn't--"

She took pity on him, drawing him into a hug. "Welcome to the family, Ryan. It's so good to finally meet you."

When she let go, Mikey was watching him curiously. Finally he said, "Gee says we're kinda like twins."

Ryan's mouth dropped open for a moment. "Gee says that?"

It wasn't a big secret from anyone that Gerard thought Mikey was the sun, the moon, the stars and all terrestrial matter. Mikey smiled a little. "Gee's metaphorical, but I think--"

Ryan's lips curved up into a tiny, matching smile in the silence that followed.

Mikey looked over at Bob. "You finally come to take us home?"

Standing next to him, Bob could see Ryan, evidently waiting for an answer, even though he knew damn well why they were there. There were so many things Bob could say, warnings about the fallout from buying the land back from investors at price, the way Pete still struggled against the temptation to drink and Gerard spent more time helping him out with his ranch than not, staying with him when he was at his worst. Instead, Bob nodded toward Ryan as he told Mikey the most important truth. "Yeah. We've come to take you home."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile