By Faith and By Fire
The soft wet breathing of an animal in pain draws Jane into the stable even though she has important drinking business on the other side of the street. She's never been able to walk away from a dumb creature that's hurting, one of the multitude of things that sets her out from near everyone she's come across on this earth. She steps as quiet as she can onto the straw, careful not to scare the poor thing. A muffled fuck stills her for a moment but then she walks further in. She's been known to walk away from bleeding men -- hell, she's been known to cause the bleeding -- but she's got to be a lot more drunk or a lot more sober than she is right now to do it easy.
"You all right there?" she says. It's a piss poor question but she's not looking to be enlightened by the answer but just to make her presence known. A scared man is worse than a rat when he's cornered.
All men are born deceivers, she's heard that from more than one woman in her life, and she's tempted to believe it, because only a man will lie with hope of neither gain nor belief. This man is no different, because he mumbles, "Fine, go away," but the face he turns up to hers is bruised raw.
It's not a man's face, nor a boy's, but something in between, neither one nor the other. There's nothing sits easier with Jane than what lives in the in between places of this world, and so she hunkers down next to him and holds out the bottle she's carrying.
"I believe a generous application of this'll cure just about any fucking ailment's been heard of on this sickly Earth."
He smiles so fast Jane almost mistakes it for a flinch, and tilts the bottle to his mouth. When he coughs his swallow up Jane laughs and then flinches herself at the blood leaking from his lip.
He's quick to see it, quicker than Jane is to hide it, and he hands the bottle back to her and leans against the wall, holding himself up tight.
"Ain't what you expected, huh, kid?" Jane says, rough to make him relax. "Reckon you're used to a little better fucking quality."
When he turns back to her Jane hands him the bottle and it goes down smoother this time. "I been used to worse," he says, and then he coughs again, not on the liquor but like there's something deeper inside him he's trying to get rid of.
"Easy," Jane says, and lets her hand fall gentle along his sleeve. Even torn it tells against him, soft and fine and costlier than everything Jane's wearing put together. Maybe he's been used to worse, but not recently.
When the kid stops coughing he wipes the back of his hand across his mouth, red streaking against his skin, and Jane says, "I know you," before she thinks about where she knows him from. He looks up at her, something more than curious, and Jane knows he can't place her.
He'd been leaning against the door of the hotel when she'd seen him, his hat tipped over half his face, and Jane would've thought him just another rich boy come west looking for more, would've thought that and then forgotten him except for the low steady murmur that seemed to rise from the men walking past. It reminded her of something, though she couldn't remember what, and she sat down opposite to drink until she did.
An overstuffed suit spilled out of the hotel, gold watch chain straining across the vest to keep the man inside it, a man Jane would've called piggish but for the insult to pigs. Two tall men stood behind him, arms crossed and eyes searching the street for a fight. "Justin," the pig man said.
When he wrapped his fist around the kid's wrist Jane knew what the angry buzz from the men meant, and why it wouldn't ever rise to anything more. Jane would've gone back to her drink except just then the pig man said, "Justin," again, sharper, and the kid lifted his head up so Jane could see his eyes.
Once back in Kansas some damn fool Charlie Utter'd hired had found a wolf cub, half starving and on its own, and vowed he'd raise it to follow him like a dog, keeping it on a lead and tying it up whenever they were camped. Walking past one night Jane had heard a sound like none before or since, a wet gnawing and a growl pained and proud at the same time. When she stopped she found the wolf tearing at its own flesh with its teeth, trying to work free of the leash. By the time Jane pulled her knife to cut the rope, her hands clumsy with horror, the beast fell heavily to the ground, red bubbling through the wound with every breath. That night Jane slit its throat and the next day she ran the man off, taunting him into a fight and then whipping him in front of everyone. Utter had tried to stop her but Bill held him back. The night before he'd found Jane sitting with her bloody knife in her lap. "Was it fucking worth it, do you think?" she'd asked him, and Bill had said gravely,
"You're the last person I'd figure to have to ask that question."
Now the kid says, "You know me," and it's not quite a question. The eyes he raises to her face aren't pained and proud, but wary above his bruises.
"I must've seen you around," Jane says. "Every once in a while I open my fucking eyes," and she takes the bottle back from him and rips a strip off the edge of her shirt. She pours the whiskey over it, asking silent forgiveness for the waste of good or at least middling drink, and swipes at the blood on the kid's lip.
He hisses and puts a hand up to stop her, and Jane knows it must sting like hell but he keeps his hand gentle against hers. His shirt is expensive but his hands are calloused and rough like Jane's. Jane pushes his head back against the wall and wipes it clean. "Hold still one cocksucking minute, kid," she says as he fights her, and he opens his mouth and then shuts it hard enough that Jane can hear his teeth click.
"Now, there's no need to take what I said personal," Jane says. He looks at her for a minute and then he throws his head back and laughs until his mouth starts bleeding again.
"I was going to tell you not to call me kid," he says, and Jane laughs too and then says,
"Well, what should I call you, then?"
"Justin," he says, and holds out a hand for Jane to shake.
"They call me Jane -- well, most folk call me any manner of things but that's the one I'll repeat in mixed company," and Justin smiles at her. "So how long will you be sojourning in our fair fucking town?" Jane asks, and Justin's smile slides away.
"I guess a while," he says. "We -- I was just stopping on my way east, but now I guess ... well, I guess my plans have changed."
"You got a place to stay?" Jane says, and again he's quicker than she is, because he hears her concern in her voice before she can rough it away. He looks down and Jane gets to her feet and brushes off her trousers until he's ready to answer her.
"I'm fine," he says, which isn't what she asked but Jane doesn't push him. She nods and looks away again as he shoves himself up, moving like there's more to him hurt than just his face. "I'm gonna look for work," he says, and Jane nods again.
"Maybe I'll hear of something," she says. "What can you do?"
He hasn't forgotten the pity she couldn't hide, maybe, because he doesn't answer but lets his gaze move up and down her body and then wipes his mouth deliberately. She's been thinking that he's somewhere between man and boy but it isn't till now that she realizes that means he's both of those things. His look now is a man's look, hard and calculating, and Jane takes a step back and puts a hand behind her to the solid wall before she steadies her voice to say sternly,
"You'll find no need for that with me."
Justin meets her eyes and it's his turn to nod. "All right," he says, and Jane lets go of the wall.
"What else can you do?" she says.
He thinks for a minute, and then he says, "I can sing." His face is lit up and it's the boy in him she sees now. Even so, Jane knows to be careful not to let anything seep through in her voice when she says,
"I don't think you'll find much need of that in this Godforsaken town."
Justin wipes a hand across his mouth again and says, "I'll find something. I always do." He starts to walk past her and then stops. "Thank you, for the drink, and -- well, I guess I'll see you around."
He's at the stable door, peering out at the street like he's never seen it before when Jane says, "Wait. I've got an idea." Justin doesn't ask, just looks at her as she walks past him onto the street.
"Well, are you coming?" Jane says over her shoulder, and smiles as he runs the last few steps to meet her.
There are a few things Chris has never learned how to say no to, and all of them have caused him grief. He looks at the kid standing out in the street and says, "Jesus, Jane, I got three dogs you brought me eating their heads off out back right now. Can't you peddle your strays somewhere else for a change?"
"Now don't give me none of your lip, Kirkpatrick," Jane says. "When you get this establishment up and running and start reeling in the riches, you're gonna need a good guard dog or three. And if you're ever going to get this fucking place up and running, you're gonna need some help. This ain't charity I'm asking. You can put him to work."
Chris puts his hands on Jane's shoulders and turns her around so they're both looking at the kid. He's still standing in the street, but now he's got his hip cocked in his expensive pants and he's studying the three walls Chris has managed to get up like he's trying to decide if it's worth the fucking trouble to laugh. "Exactly what work you think I got for the likes of him?"
"Justin," Jane says, and when the kid looks over Chris can see his marked-up face. Chris swears softly. "Yeah," Jane says to him just as softly, and waves the kid over.
"I can't give you much past room and board until I get the place going, and even then there won't be a lot of money in it," Chris says quickly, but the kid just nods.
"You'll be doing the whole town a favor, helping Kirkpatrick bring some much-needed culture to the fucking masses, building this palace of delusion and folly."
"I should change the name to that," Chris grumbles. Justin's laugh surprises him, loud and raucous and nothing like the lean line of his body or the elegant cut of his jacket.
Jane smiles, too, and says, "You'll fucking thank me," and even though the kid nods again Chris knows who she's really talking to. Before she leaves she pulls the kid aside and talks up at him for a moment, grasping his sleeve tightly. From where he's standing Chris can't tell if it's Jane's hand on him the kid doesn't like or the words she's pouring steadily into his ear. Then the two of them turn and look at Chris, and he returns their gaze uneasily. When Jane lets go of the kid's arm he smiles at Chris, so widely Chris can't help but smile back.
"Can you swing a hammer?" Chris says abruptly while they watch Jane stumble down the street.
"Sure," Justin says, and when Chris looks at him he shrugs. "Well, how hard can it be?"
"Christ Jesus," Chris says. He shoves his hands in his pockets. "You can't work in those clothes."
"Gonna have to," the kid says quietly.
Chris tosses him a couple of coins and the kid catches them, big hand snatching them out of the air, and then looks at them like he thinks Chris is trying to pass counterfeit. "Go on up to the hardware, buy yourself something fit to work in," Chris says. "I'd lend you something of mine but we can just spare ourselves the fucking comedy of watching you try to fit yourself in anything I own."
"I'm fine as I am," Justin says, chin in the air. When Chris crosses his arms and looks at him, the kid's face drops. "I don't -- I don't like owing people."
"You'll pay me back," Chris says. "I'll see to that," and when he smiles Justin looks at him for a moment and then smiles back, fast and sweet.
When Justin comes back Chris sets him to work, watching him the whole time. He'd seen the kid around the hotel a few times, so it's not like Chris was expecting much, but you never know. Boys like him did something before they became, well, boys like him, but unfortunately whatever Justin did before it wasn't carpenter work. Justin splits a floorboard, ruining it, and Chris swears as vividly as he knows how and then says, "Look, I just got finished fucking telling you --"
"Just show me again, all right?" Justin says. He turns the hammer in his hand, adjusting his grip on it methodically, like if he can just manage to hold the damn thing the right way all his problems will be solved. "You won't have to show me a third time."
"I better not," Chris says. "This shit costs money," but he picks up his hammer. This time Justin watches so intently that Chris drops a handful of nails across the floor. Justin doesn't laugh, just bends down and gathers all the nails, offering them to Chris. "Thanks," Chris mumbles, more as a reflex than anything else. When he picks the nails up his fingers brush against Justin's warm palm. "Thanks," Chris says again, louder, and this time Justin nods. After Chris has taken the last nail from him Justin clenches his fist thoughtfully, then lets his hand open out wide when he catches Chris' eyes on him.
They both work silently until after the sun's dropped from the sky. "That's enough for a day," Chris says finally, and Justin stands up straight and stretches, arms high over his head, his shirt rising up a little over his stomach. "You hungry?" Chris says, and Justin nods and follows him to the little lean-to Chris has been living out of.
When Chris hands him a plate Justin waits, leaning against the wall, until Chris has started eating himself. Someone's clearly taught him manners, but when he thinks Chris isn't looking the kid hunches over his plate like he's afraid someone's going to take it from him. "There's more if you want it," Chris says, but Justin shakes his head and takes both plates away to wash.
Chris is sitting on the edge of the bed taking off his boots when Justin returns. "You can grab a blanket," he says, and Justin drops smoothly to his knees and unbuttons Chris' pants.
Later Chris would like to tell himself that for at least a moment he thinks of pushing Justin away, but it's been a long time and Justin's fingers are warm and insistent but nowhere near as warm and insistent as his mouth. And hell, Chris tells himself as he leans back on his hands and looks down at the soft obedient curve of Justin's neck, it's not like this is the first time Justin's done this. It's sure as fuck not the first time Chris has had a whore, far from it, but what he'd been able to afford was never more than a fast fumble in the dark. There's something maddeningly foreign, luxurious, about the slow slide of Justin's lips over his cock, the easy glide of Justin's palms over Chris' thighs, the soft encouraging murmur Justin makes when Chris slips a hand into his hair. Justin is taking his time, like there's nowhere he'd rather be, nothing else he'd rather be doing, and the idea of that is as lush and shocking to Chris as Justin's mouth on him.
Chris comes with a raw shout like he hasn't since his first time. For a moment he hides his face, his breath hot and damp against his hand. When he takes his hand away Justin is still kneeling, watching Chris so intently that Chris rolls onto his side.
"Go to sleep," he says roughly, shoving a blanket onto the other side of the bed, and holds his breath until he feels the mattress give under Justin's weight. It's cool enough that the warmth of another body would be welcome, but even in sleep Justin holds himself on his side of the bed. Chris keeps his own distance as he watches Justin's back rise and fall.
The next day their work is mostly silent. By nature Chris is not a quiet man, but in the morning sun his head aches and his skin itches, like he's spent a night in hard drinking. The weight of Justin's eyes bears down on him as he stumbles clumsily through his tasks. Justin works quickly, if not skillfully, and eats quickly, cradling his plate to his chest. The only slow thing about him is his mouth as he crouches between Chris' legs, coaxing Chris into strange long sounds that burn down his throat and twist through his insides. Chris keeps his eyes closed throughout this time, closed tight until Justin crawls under his blanket, far from Chris across the narrow bed.
In the morning Chris leaves Justin with a list of chores and tells him he's going to the hardware store for supplies, relieved to escape from Justin's careful gaze. It's a long while before he arrives at the hardware store. He walks himself out among the rocks and dust beyond the town limits, looking for some cleaner air to clear his head. There's not much clean to be found within a day's walk of Deadwood, though, and the sun is hot and high when he returns to his own scrap of land.
Justin's sleeves are rolled up past his elbows as he scrubs the huge filthy curtains Chris dragged west with him. It's a big job, and tedious, and Chris hadn't meant to leave it all to the kid, but Justin is smiling as Chris walks up. Chris has seen him smile before, several times, but he hadn't realized how careful those smiles were, how calculated, until he sees this grin threatening to spill right off Justin's face.
Chris has seen Justin smile before, but he's never heard him sing.
More than once Chris has sworn he's seen Justin bite back words, small talk, some easy observation like men share when their hands are working and their minds are left to wander free. He suspects that the near silence of their days is as unlikely for Justin as it is for him, but he's left Justin in peace. He expects fair value for what he pays out but he lays no claim to a man's private thoughts. With all his suspicions, though, he never thought Justin was hiding something like this.
The song is one Chris has heard before, an old ballad his mother used to sing to him, and he's surprised by that, surprised it's not something bawdier or more fashionable. Justin's voice is trained, Chris would swear, thin and sweet and if Justin were in a real city on a real stage Chris might not think it was anything that special. But Justin isn't in a real city, he's kneeling in the dirt in Deadwood squinting against the sun, and Chris finds himself standing as still as he can and breathing soft so Justin won't stop singing before he reaches the end. Suddenly Justin looks up at him, still singing, and Chris catches his breath because even in a real city on a real stage he's never been hit so hard. He's lifted high, high by Justin's eyes and Justin's voice, and he closes his own eyes because he doesn't know what will happen when Justin stops singing, when he's left alone and aloft in the silence. He knows it's a long way to fall.
Then Justin's song dies on his lips and Chris opens his eyes. "I'm almost done," Justin mumbles, looking down at the washtub.
"It's all right," Chris says, but Justin keeps scrubbing. "That song," he says, and Justin's shoulders stiffen although his hands don't stop moving. "I remember my mother singing that song. Did yours sing it to you?"
"I sang it to her," Justin says, and there's a trace of the smile Chris caught him with earlier. "To her, and -- other people," and the smile dies as quickly as his song. "I'm almost done," he says again, and Chris leaves him in peace.
That night when Justin reaches for Chris' belt Chris pushes him away. "No," he says, and Justin steadies himself with one hand on the floor and studies Chris for a moment. Then he stands up smoothly right where he is, just a breath away from Chris. His long fingers move slowly, easily down his shirt, the buttons spilling open beneath them and his shirt falling loose over his chest. There are purple shadows along his ribs, rising and receding with every breath, and Chris searches them for a shape. They've almost healed, though, and he can't tell what formed them, a fist or a boot or something else. Then Justin's hand drops to his own belt, teasing it open, and Chris looks back up at his face.
"No," he says again, and Justin freezes. "You don't -- that was a day's work, today," Chris says. "You don't owe me anything," and he rolls over to his side of the bed before Justin can answer. He pulls his blanket high but doesn't close his eyes until he feels Justin curl up on the other side of the mattress.
The next day is mostly silent, too, and the next, though they fall into a rhythm with their work. After a third day of it Chris thinks, fuck it, and just starts telling whatever story comes into his head. He's not a quiet man by nature, nor a patient one, and hell, if the kid doesn't like it he can find himself a new job. But Justin doesn't seem bothered by it. He even laughs once or twice, that raw harsh laugh Chris can't get used to. It catches him sharp where he's tender, and each time he half shrinks from it and half wracks his brain to think of some new tale that'll coax that laugh free.
One night as they're settling in to sleep Justin says, "Chris," and before he can think Chris rolls over toward him. Justin is facing him, too, though in the dark Chris can't see much more than the shine of his eyes. "Chris," Justin says again, "what are we building?"
Chris laughs. "What, you waited all this time? What if it's something you don't want to be building?" Justin makes a small sound, not a laugh but the polite substitute of someone who knows a joke's been made but not what it is. Chris doesn't want to think too hard on what Justin's been doing lately that he hasn't wanted to, so he answers quickly.
"Kirkpatrick's Palladium," he says, and he never can quite say it without smiling. There's a pause, and Chris says, "it'll be a music hall, a little song, a little dance --"
"I know," Justin says, and then, in an elaborately polite tone, "but what ... why ..."
"Why Deadwood?" Chris says, and feels the bed tremble as Justin nods. "This newest jewel of the West, a city awash in gold and citizens starving for a cultural life?"
"Deadwood?" Justin says, almost choking on it.
"That's what the fucking papers out east said, at least," Chris says. "And when I got here and it was, well, Deadwood, I don't know. I'd sunk all my money into it, not that that amounted to much, and I just figured -- what the hell. I'll give it a shot."
"Why not try it back East? It might be easier --"
Chris laughs, harsher this time. "I don't know about easier. Seems to me it's already so settled out there, there's no way a man can build up something new. Not without a lot more money than I'll ever see. Back East there's no room for a man to be anything but what he's always been, and I wanted -- I want to make something new, to be ... "
"Someone new," Justin says softly. The moon's risen or else Chris' eyes have gotten used to the dark because he can see just a little better, the hard pale curve of Justin's jaw and his eyes, half closed and the lashes sweeping down.
"No," Chris says, and Justin's eyes open wide to him. "There's no such fucking thing. A man's who he is, for good or ill and mostly for fucking ill, and there's no changing it. Not deep down, not for real."
Justin doesn't blink but Chris feels the bed shift, just a little, as he catches his breath. It's a cruel fucking thing, Chris thinks, to say to a kid like this, no matter that it's true. He can't bring himself to take it all the way back, though. "Maybe you're too young to understand --"
"No," Justin says, and this time it's Chris who catches his breath. Before Chris can say anything else Justin rolls over and pulls the blanket up high. Chris can tell Justin isn't sleeping but he leaves him alone. He sits up a long time in the dark, watching Justin lie awake and leaving him alone.
The next day Justin is even quieter than before, if that's fucking possible, and it's not an hour in before Chris drops his hammer and says, "Look."
"What?" Justin snaps, and Chris falls back a step when Justin spins to look at him.
"Nothing," Chris says, and Justin bites his lip before he turns back to his work.
An hour later and Chris tries again, gentler this time, walking up with his hands offered open in front of him, like he would to a dog he wasn't sure wouldn't bite. "It looks good," he says, and Justin nods shortly. It isn't an easy thing for Chris to speak on, and Justin sure as hell isn't making it any easier, but Chris keeps trying. He owes Justin, he tells himself, and even as he thinks it he knows it's not true. He'll say it because he wants to.
"It's good work," Chris says, and Justin looks over at him slowly, like it takes an effort to look but it'd take more not to.
"Yeah," he says.
"All a body can do in this fucking world is do good work, my mother used to say," Chris says, "and I'd like to tell you she left out the fucking but that'd make me a liar." Justin smiles and Chris says, "It's all a man can do in this fucking world, build something bright where there was nothing before."
Silence stretches out between them again, but it feels different to Chris this time. Finally Justin says, softly, "Make something new."
"Yeah," Chris says.
"And that'll be enough?" Justin says. When Chris looks at him he says, quickly, "For you, I mean -- that's enough?"
"It's everything," Chris says, the words surprising him as much as Justin. Justin's smile lights him up so that Chris has to turn his eyes away. "Yeah, well, I don't know. Maybe I'll fuck it up, but at least I'll be fucking up something new, not the same old thing I spent my life fucking up back home."
"No," Justin says. "You won't fuck it up. It's -- I think it's gonna be good."
"Yeah," Chris says. "Yeah, me too."
Chris isn't rushing to tell Jane, but she was right. Justin's a quick learner, and with the two of them working the building goes a lot faster than he'd been counting on. Though maybe it's not so much the building going faster as the time, Chris thinks when he finally gets around to counting up the days Justin's been working for him. He swears angrily at himself and goes out to the yard to find Justin.
"Here," he says, thrusting a folded scrap of paper at the kid. "And if I were you I'd fucking count it."
Justin doesn't open the paper, just stands there holding it in one hand and a piece of wood in the other. "What is it?"
"It's your fucking pay, is what it is. Going back to when you started, and it's a fair wage, ask anybody around, no less than what you'd get anywhere else and sure as fuck no more."
Justin stares at him stupidly, then pushes the paper into his pocket without looking at what's inside. "All right," he says finally. "I guess ... I guess I'll be pushing off then."
"Serve me fucking right if you did," Chris says, and then, "What?"
For the first time Chris hears the same anger he's feeling in Justin's voice. He'd thought he'd like it better than he does. "Are you not fucking paying me off?" Justin says.
"No -- no!"
"Then why ..."
"I meant to do it each week," Chris says, "but the time fucking got away from me, and I swear to you, every fucking cocksucker I ever worked for could always find the first excuse not to pay what he owed, but I never thought I'd be one of them. Though maybe if you'd fucking opened your mouth --"
"I thought when you were done," Justin says, and then stops. "I don't know what I thought."
"Well, it's yours, you earned it, do whatever the fuck you want with it. I'm only fucking sorry that I didn't think of it before. You should have what's yours," Chris says. "You should always have something yours."
"Yeah," Justin says. "Oh, hold on," and he pulls his money out of his pocket. "I owe you for the clothes, from the first day."
Chris waits until he can keep his voice steady. "I think we're even on that score," he says. Hell, he probably owes Justin money on that score, but he keeps that bitter thought to himself.
"All right," Justin says, but he doesn't meet Chris' eyes. As he tries to shove his money back into his pants he drops it in the dirt.
"I know I said it was yours to do with as you will, but I didn't think you were going to throw it away." Justin laughs and Chris says, "You got a job here as long as I got one, Justin," and again he has to turn away from Justin's smile. "Now let's get back to fucking work."
Finally there's nothing left but to hoist the sign. Justin paints it himself, tracing intricate curlicues around the letters while Chris leans over his shoulder and says, "Just spell it right, for fuck's sake," until Justin laughs and pushes him away. They hammer it into place together and then stand in the street admiring it. When Chris has stood out there long enough to feel like a damn fool but not half as long as he'd like, he pulls Justin by the sleeve to the lean-to. From underneath the bed he grabs a bottle of whiskey he'd been saving for the occasion. "Birthday present," he says, and Justin looks blankly at him and says,
"It's not my birthday."
Chris laughs and points back at the fine building they'd made. "It's its birthday. But since we did all the work, I think we deserve the fucking celebration."
According to Justin he's no stranger to strong liquor, but two drinks in and his smile grows a little sloppy and he leans into Chris' shoulder. Two more and his tongue loosens enough to start matching Chris' stories with his own, and in fifteen minutes Justin's told Chris more about himself than Chris has heard since Justin first walked up the street. Nothing too shocking and nothing too recent, just funny little stories about his momma's farm in Tennessee, but Chris feeds him liquor just to keep him talking, his breath warm and sweet in Chris' ear. For once Chris is happy to stay quiet.
When they've almost finished the bottle Justin falls into a deep sleep, so suddenly Chris has to hold him up or he'd drop to the floor. With a fair amount of huffing and grunting Chris gets the kid into the bed with his shoes off, and pulls the blanket up to his chin. Justin doesn't move, not even when Chris falls heavily onto the bed himself.
As a rule Chris sleeps like the dead and wakes even slower, and after the night's drinking it takes Chris a few moments to recognize the smell of smoke. With a yell he runs out to see the roof of Kirkpatrick's Palladium swallowed by flames. He keeps yelling his head off as he races for water, but it's the still deep hour before dawn, the one hour out of twenty-four when the town sinks exhausted into emptiness. Only Justin joins him as they fight frantically against the fire, and only Justin is with him when it finally subsides, leaving a blackened husk behind.
"I don't understand," Justin says. There's a black smudge over his forehead that makes Chris think of his childhood. One day a year even the meanest bullies, the worst thugs weren't afraid to let everyone know they went to church, walked around with ashes on their heads to show everyone where they belonged.
"It was a good fire," Chris says bitterly. "Controlled. Just big enough to fuck me over, but not big enough to spread to anything that really mattered."
"You think somebody set it?"
"It wasn't spontaneous fucking combustion," Chris says. "I heard a few things, but I didn't think ... Like this'd ever be any serious fucking threat to gambling and whoring, like they've ever gone out of fucking style." Chris kicks at the ground and watches the gray smoking ash coat his boot. "Fuck," he says. "I didn't think."
"Well, should I -- do you want me to get the sheriff?" Justin says. He's almost bouncing on his feet, he's so eager to go, but he stays standing where he is with his eyes worried on Chris.
"No," Chris says. "Fuck it, why bother?"
"But what are we going to do?"
"Nothing," Chris says, and walks away.
In his room Chris sits on the edge of the bed and pokes gingerly at his hand. He must have burned it without even realizing in the greater pain of losing every fucking thing he's ever had. Justin pulls his hand away and stands over him, holding Chris' wrist loosely. "Don't," Justin says. "You'll hurt it more."
Justin tears a shirt into strips and soaks them neatly in a bowl of water, then kneels in front of Chris. He cleans the burn carefully, his bottom lip straining against his teeth. He ties a bandage around Chris' hand and then pats it gently. "There," he says, and Chris closes his eyes. "That's better," he says, and Chris opens his eyes. Justin kisses him.
Justin tastes of ash like the night outside, and deep beneath that something sweeter, and even deeper something sharp. There's something else even deeper, Chris knows, something that's neither sweet nor sharp nor dark like ashes, something that's nothing but Justin, and Chris wants nothing more than to find out how deep he goes. He pushes Justin away and licks his own lips. His throat is raw with the smoke he's swallowed. "No," he says, and Justin kisses him again.
This time Chris is ready for him and he pushes Justin away, harder this time, and Justin falls back on one hand. Something sparks in his eyes. "Don't tell me what to do," he says, and stands up, easily, looming over Chris.
"What?" Chris says, all that's left of his voice a rasp in his throat. "You think you've got to fucking comfort me?"
"No," Justin says, and pulls off his shirt. "I don't owe you anything." When he pushes Chris back onto the bed, Chris lets him.
Chris' hands slide through greasy smudges of ash along Justin's stomach, his face, and the smell of smoke surrounds him with Justin's arms. Even with Justin's mouth moving like fire over his skin, Chris can't help thinking of all he's lost. Then he tells himself, "tomorrow," says it out loud, his voice leaking from his throat like blood from a scrape on Justin's hand. Tomorrow he'll add it up, everything that's lost, the cost of starting over that's always just a little more than he can afford. But that's for tomorrow. For this one night, he'll think of nothing but what he's found.
Justin rolls them over, his fingers digging into Chris' back. He grinds up against Chris, hard and fast, head thrown back against the bed, and if not for his wounded throat Chris thinks he'd laugh. It's something he'd almost forgotten about being so young, the desperate greed to feel now, to feel everything, the fear that if you let go of what you want for even a second you'll lose it forever. You lose it anyway, Chris thinks, and before he can tell himself, tomorrow, Justin lifts his head and bites Chris' lip until Chris tastes blood, bright over dusty ash.
"Easy," Chris says, his bandaged hand skimming up over Justin's back. He spits in his hand and Justin says,
Chris lets his free hand drift over Justin's mouth, smiling as Justin strains against him, and then Justin bites down, teeth cutting right through the cotton, right into Chris' burn, and the pain hits Chris' brain like it's boiling and slams him into Justin.
Justin yells, not like he's hurt but like he's won something, and the sound shoves Chris into him again and again, as fast and hard as he can, driven by a desperate greed. He hadn't forgotten it after all, hadn't lost it as he'd gotten older, just tamped it down so far he'd hardly felt it smoldering deep inside him. Now it's set alight and blazing all through him, and it only burns brighter when Justin yells his name.
When Chris rolls off him Justin reaches out but pulls his hand back at the last minute. He rubs it over his face and says, "Tomorrow we can get started --" and Chris puts his own hand over Justin's mouth, his palm throbbing where Justin bit him earlier. Justin doesn't bite him again and he doesn't keep talking, either. He leaves his mouth open a little so Chris can feel his breath, damp and gentle against his hand.
"Tomorrow," Chris says, and Justin closes his eyes. He falls asleep with Chris' hand across his mouth.
The next morning Chris wakes up alone in his bed with no respite of drowsiness, of confusion or forgetfulness. The night before is with him instantly, sinking into his skin like the smoke that's soaked into everything in the room. He sits up slowly, heavily, bracing himself to go out and count up everything he thought he had.
On the floor in front of him is a note in Justin's curling, careful hand. Went to the hardware for supplies so we can get started again. Chris folds it up carefully and slides it into his pocket when he's pulled on his pants. He walks outside and looks up at the mountains, his back to the wreck of his building. For once the air is crisp and clear, not yet sullied by all the sounds and smells of a Deadwood day. He stands with his hands in his pockets, his burned hand closed tight over Justin's note. He hears Justin return before he sees him, the breeze lifting the song Justin's singing under his breath.
Is it too much to fucking ask, Al thinks, that he be left alone to enjoy a quiet breakfast and the company of his fucking thoughts for one single hour? "You'll not find what you're looking for this morning," he calls to the tall figure in the doorway. "My barman's taken himself off on some sort of frolic and it's too early in the day for pussy. Whores are notorious late sleepers."
The figure steps out of the sunlight and into the darkened saloon. Al squints at him. "Not that you're here for pussy, I reckon," he says. The kid shakes his head, once, his face solemn. It's the boy whore that freak of a he-she picked up out of the goodness of her sodden fucking heart and delivered to that other freak of nature out on the edge of town. Poetic fucking justice of perversity, so perfect it'd make Al's head hurt if he could be bothered to think about it at all.
"Heard about the trouble out by your friend's place," Al calls, and the kid goes still. "Terrible thing, fire. These new towns are like fucking tinderboxes -- you all aren't careful, next time someone could get hurt."
"Yeah," the kid says slowly. He still doesn't move a muscle but stays standing just inside the doorway with the morning sunlight flaring around him. "That's why I came to see you, about next time. About how there shouldn't fucking be one."
"I think it's the sheriff you're looking for. Stopping fires ain't exactly in my line." Al takes a sip of coffee and smiles hard at the kid. "Especially when the fire takes care of a little fucking competition."
"Not much competition, to my mind. I never seen a man looking for a fuck who'd be satisfied by a little singing instead."
"Well, you'd know," Al says with a sweet smile, and the kid doesn't look away. "And why take the risk, is my way of thinking, if that cruel fucking cunt of a Mother Nature's going to take care of it for me."
"I got a deal for you," the kid says suddenly, and before he can continue Al cuts him off.
"Before you say another fucking word, allow me to enlighten you as to something that not one cocksucker in this town seems able to get through his skull. What a deal is not, is you fucking telling me your heart's desire in the expectation that I will put myself out of considerable time and trouble to fix it for you without any fucking recompense, out of a charitable fucking impulse and the hope of piling up enough virtuous acts to balance the scales of heaven against a previous lifetime of desperate deeds. A deal's the simplest fucking thing in the world, and the sweetest: I do, I get. You do, you get. Anything else is a fucking gift, and I warn you now: you will not find me a generous man."
"I got a deal for you," the kid says again, and despite himself Al is curious. It's early in the day and he hasn't finished his fucking coffee yet, is why his fucking defenses are down.
"And what it is you'll hope to get from me in this deal?"
"Don't you want to know what you'll get?"
"I like to hear the price first in any deal," Al says. "Keeps me from getting my tender hopes up."
"No more fires," the kid says, lifting his chin stubbornly. "No fires, no floods, no fucking tornados tearing the place up by its roots, no broken windows or bones, no acts of god nor man to do any damage at Kirkpatrick's place."
"Why, friend, hearing you a man might think I was to be held responsible for what was surely an unfortunate fucking accident."
The kid looks at him for a moment and then says, "Surely. But I figure a man like you, it'd be smart thinking for even Mother Nature to avoid pissing him off."
"You're not wrong," Al says. "And tell me, what wonderful fucking prize will be mine for exiling the gods of weather and random fucking chance from the streets of Deadwood?"
The kid steps further into the saloon and leans lazily against the bar, his eyes on Al's face the whole time. Al laughs. "You have been wildly misinformed as to both my tastes and my fucking sense of business. Of the two, I'm finding myself more insulted by the latter."
"Lot of new people coming into town," the kid says, his voice low and intimate. "Money does that, draws people from all over, big cities, all sorts, people with what they'd call more sophisticated tastes than you mostly find in Deadwood."
"A skill of that sort for making pictures with words shouldn't go unrewarded. You should look up Merrick, tell him to give you a column in his paper."
"I figure a man like you, he prides himself on being able to meet all the needs of his clientele. And on knowing all their needs. Sometimes the knowing, that's the more valuable in the long run."
Al looks up sharply. There's a pol in Yankton seems determined to cause trouble, but there's been a rumor or two set swirling about him recently. Knowing the truth of those rumors could be of great use in upcoming days. "Should I decide to pride myself, I'm not reliant on any fucking thing you can offer. I can import talent from Frisco, or train it up myself homegrown."
"But there's no need to import when I'm already here." The kid smiles. "And I already been trained."
"And all the salary you ask for this talent is protection against the elements for your colleague? That's a fucking price even if I were willing to pay. I'd be wanting to know I'd be getting value in return."
Al steps around to the side of the counter and the kid meets him at the same time. Al is ready to stare him down but the kid drops quickly to his knees, his fingers busy at Al's belt. He pauses for a moment, and if despite appearances the kid's a fucking amateur and ready to shirk Al will kick him across the room for wasting his time. But by the way the kid's mouth slips right down over Al's cock like silk he's no fucking amateur. A moment of respect was all it was, to see if at the moment of truth Al would shirk himself, but there's no fucking fear of that. When it comes down to it one mouth's much like another, and besides, this is fucking business. He grabs the kid's head and pushes hard into his mouth. He's pleased to see not a trace of a flinch.
"The most pathetic thing in the world," Al says, his hand heavy on the back of the kid's neck, "is a whore in love. It's like to shake my entire faith in the operation of human relations, in the bestial barbarity and savage selfishness that give me hope the world might just keep turning from one day to the next, as long as men keep finding reason to hope they'll take the advantage one of the other in the future. There'll be no denying from this fucking quarter that it's a pretty story, love, and that there are those who can't live without telling one, those that will never feel safe unless they build their house on fucking sand. But of all the cocksuckers willing and wary who walk the earth each day, you'd think a fucking whore would see the last unhappy chapter from the first fucking page, would remember just how easy it is to sink beneath the fucking sand. God has his reasons, I trust and pray, but they are far beyond the fucking reach of even so keen an observer as myself, because there is nothing more pathetic than a whore in love, and nothing more fucking common. Disheartened is what I am, when I think too long on it. It's like a man of science who denies gravity, or a man of the cloth who doesn't believe in passing the collection plate. It's against human nature, is what it is, and there is nothing I deplore more than that which comes unnatural, like virtue, like love. If nothing else I am a man of fucking nature."
Al loosens his grip on the kid's neck and he stands, his eyes fixed somewhere just south of Al's shoulder. "Well, you haven't wasted your youth," Al says. He wanders back behind the counter and takes another sip of coffee.
"Look at me," he snaps suddenly, and the kid looks. "You be where I tell you, when I tell you, and you do what I tell you, and you give me no fucking trouble at all. And if I hear a fucking whisper from any client that he's in the least dissatisfied, you'll regret your entire fucking life, peaking with the day you decided to walk your ass into my saloon. Nod your fucking head if you understand me."
The kid nods.
"Pleasure doing business," Al says. The kid walks toward the door and Al calls, "And if I find out he's running you or any other whore, boy or girl, out of his place --"
"I know," the kid says. "We'll end up dead."
"Well, he will," Al says. He looks the kid up and down coldly. "You got a couple more years of earning in you before you're not worth what it costs me to keep you." He's pleased to see the kid flinch.
"Run along now," Al says, and picks up his cup. "One way or another, you'll be hearing from me."
Chris is whistling as they finish up the day's work. They're almost finished; it's been going quicker the second time, partly because this time Justin knows what he's doing. Knows what he's doing more, he admits to himself, because there are still times when he watches Chris' hands intently not for the pleasure of looking at them but to figure out what the hell he's supposed to be doing. Still, they're almost finished, and Chris is whistling. Chris is happy.
For the first few days Justin thought maybe Chris wouldn't want to rebuild, that Justin would have to find some way to convince him. But Chris didn't say a word about the fire once they started again, didn't mention the possibility that it might happen again. Justin asked him once, carefully, if he thought there was a chance it might burn again.
"Of course there's a chance, Justin," Chris had snapped. "Jesus Christ, do you think I'm stupid? They'll probably burn the fucking thing right to the ground this time, but what the fuck do you expect me to do, lay myself down on the ashes and wait for sweet death to take me? I'll start again until I can't anymore, and what any other fucker does is his own damn business."
The anger in Chris' voice had soothed him. He hadn't been sure if Chris had maybe figured out how things had been taken care of. He hadn't been sure if Chris would keep his mouth shut about something like that. He hadn't known Chris as well then.
Chris' voice had soothed Justin for another reason as well. Lately Justin found himself content whether Chris was pissed, or happy, or drunk off his fucking ass, or just being a pain in the ass like came to him naturally, so long as he was loud with it. It hadn't taken Justin long to realize just how unlikely it was for Chris to be quiet, and it had taken him even less time to realize he didn't like it. The next time Chris subsided into silence, this time over a ledger book where he'd been figuring the same numbers over and over for hours, Justin set out to fix things a second time.
"Here," Justin had said. He handed Chris all the money he'd saved, which was just about all Chris had paid him, in the same folded scrap of paper Chris had given it to him in. Chris looked at him blankly.
"What the fuck is this?"
"It's costing," Justin said, "I know it's costing more than you thought, and I'm not fucking using it, so ..."
Chris let it fall onto the floor between them. "Now who's throwing their money away?" Justin mumbled as he bent to pick it up. "Take it," he said, holding it out to Chris again. "Take it, I want you to take it."
"Leave it the fuck alone," Chris said, his nose back in his ledger book.
"No," Justin said. He slammed Chris' book shut. "No, I want you to take it, I want to give it to you."
"Why?" Chris said, studying Justin with the same suspicion he had in his eyes when he studied the accounts.
"I want to, all right?"
"No," Chris said.
"Why do you want to?" Justin looked down and Chris said, his voice hard, "Yeah, I thought so. Go on out of here, Justin. You got work to do."
"Because I want to make something new," Justin said, low, his eyes still on the floor. "It's all a man can fucking do, and because I -- I want to. With you, I want to."
Chris didn't say anything and Justin didn't look at him. He wasn't easy in Chris' silence, but he was determined to weather it. Suddenly Chris jumped up and grabbed Justin's sleeve, pulling him through the door. When they got out to the street Justin yanked away from Chris' grasp, but Chris didn't slow down. He almost had to run to keep up with Chris, his money still held loosely in his hand.
At the hardware store Chris grabbed Justin's arm again and pulled him inside. One of the owners, the sheriff, said, "What can I do for you gentlemen?"
"You can watch me sign this and watch him sign this and then sign it your own self, and first before that you can tell him what it says so he hears it from someone else and not only myself." Chris near threw a piece of paper at the sheriff, who looked it over, frowning. "Well, what's the fucking holdup? Explain it to him."
The sheriff said, "This is a blank sheet of paper."
"Oh, for the love of fuck," Chris said. He snatched the paper back and helped himself to pen from the counter, scribbling with one hand while he held onto Justin with the other. "Here, here, fucking here."
The sheriff read over what Chris had written and then looked at Justin. "This says that in exchange for the money you're paying Mr. Kirkpatrick, you own part of his -- Palladium?" Chris nodded. "You're an investor in his company, with a stake in the property."
"I don't want it," Justin said promptly, and the sheriff looked like he had some sympathy with him.
"It's the only way we do this," Chris said.
"I don't want you to give me --" Justin stopped when he saw the look in Chris' eyes. "It's yours," Justin said. "I don't want you to give any of it up."
"I'm giving nothing up," Chris said.
"Technically, you -- " the sheriff said, and shut his mouth when Chris glared at him. He took a few steps toward the door.
"I'm giving nothing up," Chris said again, and when Justin opened his mouth Chris looked at him hard until he shut it. "How I feel," Chris said, low, so even in the quiet store only Justin could hear him, "how I feel, I'm giving nothing up."
Chris waited for Justin to nod, then turned back to the counter, his fist still clenched around a piece of Justin's sleeve. He signed his name with a flourish. He stood still until Justin signed his name, then bounced impatiently on his feet as the sheriff signed his own name and gave the paper to Justin.
"Thank you," Justin said. He wasn't looking at the sheriff.
"Don't be too grateful," Chris said. "Half of fucking nothing's still nothing."
Justin laughed, and Chris said, just as low as before, "Won't be nothing when we're fucking done with it."
Chris dragged Justin back out to the street, refusing to let go of Justin's sleeve until Justin protested that he was crumpling the paper. Then he released Justin's arm and let him walk at his own pace, whistling under his breath the whole time. At the yard Justin had paused before he turned in from the street. He folded up his paper carefully and put it in his pocket, keeping his hand closed over it. He'd never owned anything in his whole life before.
"You thinking the place could use a fucking coat of paint, now that you got a stake in it?" Chris said, laughing.
"I'm thinking that I got a stake," Justin said, and Chris stopped laughing. For the first time Justin felt easy in his silence.
Now Chris is whistling, and Chris is happy, and maybe in a minute he'll fall quiet but he'll still be happy. If ever he isn't Justin will be the first to know. Justin knows him now.
"I'm thinking it's time we start planning for the opening," Chris says, walking close to Justin so their sleeves whisper against each other. "I'm waiting on a letter from that singer I told you about, the French one -- I saw a piece about him in a paper from out East. A few months old, but people are starting to hear about him."
"Why the fuck would he come to Deadwood, then?" Justin asks, and Chris punches his shoulder.
"Because there's riches untold and fame beyond your wildest fucking dreams to be found among the new class of wealthy, culture-starved ladies and gents now flocking to Deadwood, Jewel of the West." Chris grins. "Or at least that's what I wrote in my ad. Here's hoping there's at least one other man in the world believes what he reads in the papers." Justin laughs and Chris bumps up against him again.
At the door to the lean-to Chris pauses. "I was thinking we could use some local talent, too."
"I hear there's a whore over at the Bella Union can sing. Kind of." When Chris doesn't laugh, Justin stops washing his hands and looks up at him. Then he stands up. "No," Justin says.
"J," Chris says, and Justin bites his lip. Chris only calls him that when Justin's said something that makes him very happy or very sad, and Chris doesn't look very happy right now.
"I don't do that anymore," Justin says.
"I hear you singing all the time."
"That's different. That's -- that's private. It's just for me."
"And me," Chris says softly. "Like I said, I hear you all the time."
"That's the same thing," Justin says, and Chris looks away quickly. From the side Justin can see his jaw work. "I just -- I did that before and I don't want to do it again."
"All right," Chris says. "I don't want you to do anything you don't want to do."
"I just -- there has to be something that's just for me, you know? I just want there to be something that's just for me." Chris looks at him hard, and Justin says, low, "And you. Just for us."
"All right," Chris says slowly. "I only -- I thought you'd like it."
"No," Justin says, and Chris says,
"It's all right, J," and Justin bites his lip.
Three days later Chris comes rushing in from the street and almost knocks a can of paint over. "Goddammit," Justin says. He's spent half the morning working on the sign and he's still far from done. He wants it to look even better than the first one.
"I got a letter from that singer," Chris says. "At least, I think it's from him. It's from New York, and I don't know who else would be writing me from New York. I suppose it could be a letter gone astray, but here's my fucking name, right on the front, although it's a common enough name, I suppose, though I think I'm the only one in Deadwood, which is written right below my name, so I think it's safe to say --"
"Oh my God," Justin says. "Did you not open the fucking thing?"
"I was waiting so we could read it together," Chris says.
"Well, you'll have to wait a little longer," Justin says, and Chris gasps theatrically. "I can't stop in the middle of this, or you'll always be able to tell where the paint dried different."
"I won't be able to tell."
"Well, I will," Justin says. "I want it to be perfect," and when he looks up Chris smiles at him and stuffs the letter back into his pocket. He leans over Justin's shoulder to provide what he calls constructive criticism and Justin calls pointless yammering, and together they've almost finished the sign when the half-wit from Swearengen's shows up in the yard.
"Justin," he says, and Justin nearly drops the paintbrush. It's not like it's the first time Swearengen's sent for him. But the other times he's sent Trixie or Dan, both of whom make sure Justin's alone before they call for him, Trixie out of consideration, he thinks, and Dan because he doesn't like to be seen talking to Justin out in public. Whatever the reason Justin's thankful for it. As long as he's alone it's easy for him to slip away. Once or twice he started to explain but Chris brushed him off, saying, "You're allowed a night to yourself, Justin." Now he just says that he has something he has to do and he doesn't even think he should feel bad about it, because it's not even like it's a lie.
"Hey, Johnny," Justin says. "Did you come to see me about the thing?" and even this ruse is too obscure for the poor idiot, because he says,
"No, Al just sent me to tell you he needs you tonight."
"Swearengen?" Chris says.
"Yeah," Johnny says as Justin says desperately,
"Right, about the -- the business I was asking him about."
"No," Johnny says, "no, it's because Miller's in on the stage and Al says he's got a taste for --"
"Fuck," Justin says, and it would almost be funny except for the stiff way Chris is standing over him. "Fuck, all right, thanks, Johnny."
"Yes, thanks, Johnny," Chris says as he walks away from Justin. "I think we've got the message."
"So you're coming --"
"Yes," Justin says, and then lowers his voice. It's not like Johnny can help himself. "You go ahead back. I'm gonna change my shirt and then I'll be right there."
Inside the lean-to Chris is waiting for him. Justin pushes past him, looking for his clean shirt, but Chris grabs his arm and yanks him around. "So," Chris says, and his voice is much calmer than his hand on Justin's arm, "exactly what business do you have with Al Swearengen?"
"Nothing," Justin says, but Chris won't let go.
"It doesn't sound like nothing."
"Nothing you want to know about," Justin says, and he knows it's a mistake as soon as he says it but there's no taking it back.
"What the fuck, Justin," Chris says, snatching his hand away from Justin's arm, "don't I pay you enough?"
"I don't do it for the fucking money," Justin snaps before he can help himself.
"Then why the fuck -- "
"To pay our fucking rent," Justin says, because he knows Chris in this mood, knows there's no way Chris will let go, knows there's no way out but to barrel straight through.
Chris is quiet a minute and Justin can see him think it through. "Oh," Chris says. "Oh, I see. But you don't mean rent, Justin. You mean insurance. I was thinking we'd had quite a run of good luck lately. I should have known better. I've never been fucking lucky."
"What the fuck did you expect to do? Did you think he was going to burn it down the once and then say, oh, well, if you're serious about it, I guess we'll just have to find a way to live and let live? It sounds really nice and pure to say oh, I'll build it again and again if I have to but how nice do you think it'll sound when you're building it again for the tenth time? How fucking nice will it be when you're in it the next time it goes up in flames?"
"You didn't have to do this," Chris says. "I never asked you to. You did it on your own."
"Yeah, I did," Justin says.
"There are other ways --"
"Not ways that work."
"It's not worth it," Chris says, low, and Justin says,
"Fuck you." He gives up on a new shirt and tries to push past Chris.
"He'll burn the fucking thing down again," Justin says. "At the bare fucking minimum. You know he will."
"Maybe so, but I don't think --"
"Are you telling me not to do it?" Justin says. Chris looks away, but Justin doesn't budge.
Finally Chris says, "Do whatever the fuck you want. I don't tell you what to do."
"Yeah," Justin says. "That's what I thought."
When Justin comes back the night is pitch dark and cold with it. He shoves his hands in his pockets and walks as quickly as can, but once he's back at the lean-to he doesn't go in. Instead he slides down the side of the wall and sits down in the dirt. There was nothing hard about the night, really. Al and Dan had accidentally on purpose walked in on him with the poor bastard, and Al was so tickled at the look on the man's face and the copious amounts of information he was willing to part with to ensure Al's silence that he was in a rare fine mood, even offering Justin a drink on the house. All things considered, Justin thinks as he rubs his hands together against the cold, it was a good night.
"Come inside," Chris says. He's leaning in the doorway with a blanket draped around his shoulders.
"I'm all right," Justin says. "I'll come in after a while."
Chris pulls his blanket closer and sits down next to Justin. "He's coming on the coach," he says. Justin looks at him blankly. "The singer. The letter," Chris says. "He'll be here in a month or so -- less, maybe. It's hard to tell with the mail. I think he already left."
"Oh," Justin says. "Oh, that's -- that's good."
"Yeah," Chris says. Then he sighs. "Look, J --" he says, and then he stops.
"Don't make such a fucking fuss about it," Justin says. "It's not even the tenth worst thing I've done in my life. Hell, it's not even the fiftieth worst thing."
"Yeah," Chris says, and sighs again. "But it's the worst thing you've done for me."
"Fuck you," Justin says. He pushes his hands into the dirt like he's going to get up, but he doesn't go anywhere, just digs his hands down farther. The top layer is hard and crisp with cold, but down deep his fingers sink into it easily. "You didn't ask me to do it. I didn't do it for you."
"I know," Chris says, and Justin hates the careful sound of his voice, hates the careful pressure of Chris' arm against his.
"You don't have to be fucking nice with me," Justin says.
"I know," Chris says. "I don't owe you anything."
When Chris kisses him, Justin tips his head back against the wall and closes his eyes, lets Chris' mouth move slow and hot over his throat, the side of his shoulder, catching his breath when Chris bites gently on his lower lip. He won't let Chris lead him back inside, though, shaking his head against the wall with his eyes still closed.
Justin opens his eyes when Chris doesn't say anything else. From the serious way Chris is studying him, Justin is afraid that Chris will be careful with him, coaxing him inside where Chris will lay him out on the bed and soothe him into sleep, his hands and lips careful over Justin's body. But instead Chris swears softly, under his breath, and pushes Justin back into the wall.
Chris fucks him like that, on his knees with his face pressed against the wood, one hand held tight behind his back and the other still clawing in the dirt. He bites his lip against any sound but Chris is relentless, his hand moving mercilessly over Justin's cock until Justin cries out and bangs his head against the wall. Chris slumps against him and buries his face in Justin's shoulder. "J," he says, his lips raw on Justin's skin, and Justin doesn't answer, just kneels in the dirt with his face against the rough wood.
Eventually Chris sits back against the wall and Justin follows. Chris doesn't say anything when Justin rubs his wrist where Chris held it, or when Justin slides down so he can rest his head on the wall right near Chris' shoulder. From where they're sitting they can see Kirkpatrick's Palladium, lit up by the lights and fires of a wild night in Deadwood.
"A man told me once," Justin says, "the most pathetic thing in the world is a whore in love."
"J, you're not --" Chris says, and stops. He's quiet for a moment, then he says, "I don't think there's anything pathetic about love." He takes in a breath and Justin thinks he's going to say something else, but he doesn't.
"It looks nice in the moonlight," Justin says after they've been quiet for a long time. "We should get some candles, maybe, string them up outside at night." Chris doesn't say anything. "Don't you think it looks nice?"
"Yeah," Chris says. "I just wish ..." He lets his words die off in the darkness, and Justin thinks he should just let them fade away.
"What?" Justin asks.
"I don't know," Chris says. "I just wish ..." He sighs. "I just wish I could've built it a better way, somehow. A cleaner way."
"There's no way to do it clean," Justin says. "Not and get it done."
"No," Chris says. "No, maybe not in Deadwood."
Maybe not anywhere, Justin thinks, but for once he manages to keep his mouth shut. Maybe Chris is happier believing that somewhere out there things are done better, cleaner. It's a pretty story, Justin thinks. Maybe he'd be happier believing it, too.
Chris pulls himself to his feet, groaning. "Come inside," he says, reaching a hand down to Justin, and this time Justin lets him pull him up and lead him inside. Just before he walks in the door Chris looks over his shoulder and then up at Justin.
"It's worth it, though," he says, and Justin follows him inside to their bed.