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The Devil You Know

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With gold weighing down his pockets and his horse, he made his way back to town, put up money at the nearest whorehouse, and fucked and drank and gambled until he couldn’t see straight, hoping the humiliation back at Sad Hill would pass.

It didn’t. It came to him at odd moments: when he was on top of some pretty thing paid by the minute, or digging into some fine meal that came with as many courses as they had in France, and then he’d remember the noose around his neck, the way he’d begged for mercy as he desperately tried to not lose his balance, the hope dying in his chest when Blondie had raised that gun. The fact that Blondie hadn’t killed him after all didn’t wash any of that away. That kind of dirty trick wasn’t something even a river of dollars washed away.

Blondie had done it on purpose. The filthy bastard had to have known Tuco couldn’t enjoy himself, not really, not with this sitting on the scales. Well, if he had counted on Tuco leaving him alone in peace, he was dead wrong.

It had been Tuco's considerable experience that almost no men could shoot like him or survive like him, but the one exception to that rule was the one he was tracking, so he needed partners. Fair fights were overrated, and Blondie didn’t fight fair to begin with.

There were a dozen of them. One hundred thousand dollars could buy a lot of friends.

The men didn’t need to know everything, just that that they were tracking another fortune, as big as his. He pulled them all together, the kind of dregs the war washed up in towns and camps across the West, all desperate and grizzled and mean. They had gold in their eyes, every one of them, and Tuco almost envied them. To still be chasing gold, to not know how easily some bastard could ruin even that for you.

They had tracked their quarry together for seven weeks across the desert, and the doused fires along the trail told them that they had almost overtaken him. The men did well. He thought he might actually split the money evenly with them. Probably easier, anyway. There were a lot of them. And if he had to admit it, this wasn’t really about the money.

They had been climbing for hours when they finally crested the mountain range, bringing the entire valley below into view. He went ahead while the other men doubled back to a spring to water the horses, and he arrived at the edge of an outcropping. He strained his eyes against the sun, air shimmering in the midday heat. There was a canyon right below him, and at that precise moment, like some kind of holy sign, a figure emerged. His hand twitched instinctively to his gun. He hadn’t expected to catch up with him for another day at least, but there was no mistaking that sinewy body or the way he rode, picking his way along the canyon floor with a lazy finesse. That stupid green poncho still on him, like he didn’t even know what to do with a fortune.

He hadn’t seen him. Had he? He slid behind a rock, so excited he didn’t quite know what to do. Blondie kept picking his way along, indifferent and unconcerned, not showing even a flicker of awareness of what lay above him.

He should get his men. His heart was pounding, and he had forgotten just how infuriating everything about the man was, from the way he sat in a saddle to—

“That’s him, isn’t it?” His tracker, Colby, was by his side with a raised gun. “Stand back. I got a clean shot.”

Without a word or even a thought, his hand shot up and closed around the barrel of the gun. Their eyes locked as he pushed it down. “We take him alive. That was the deal.”

Colby shook his head, determination spreading across his ugly face. “We been talking. All of us. He could spend that gold if he makes it to Las Cruces. We’re not gonna risk it.”

“You want to scare him off, huh? Why don't you talk a little louder.”

“He’s right, though.” Another man stepped out from the shadows, his pistol drawn. Harrison, was it? Tuco couldn’t remember. “That’s money you’ll owe us, Tuco, if we can’t get it off of him.”

Tuco forced his frustration down, forced himself to smile, all oily and friendly. “You think thirteen armed men can’t beat him to Las Cruces? He’s ours, my friends.” These bastards were all fixated on the money. Like they weren’t being paid enough out of his own pocket.

“We nearly had him back in Silver City, and we lost him then, because you didn’t want to shoot. Fawcett’s been thrown off his horse since then and Bill got killed in the pass, we’re still out here, all because you won’t shoot some bastard like a man.”

“We have old business to settle, and I need to do it more slowly than with a bullet. I pay you to help me bring him in alive.”

“We’ve decided to pay ourselves.”

Tuco knew a mutiny when he saw one. He had led his share. And just when he had been thinking about not betraying them.

Harrison looked a bit sympathetic. “Cheer up, Tuco. We’ll let you rough up the corpse.”

Colby walked toward the ridge and shouldered his rifle.

Harrison followed him to the edge. He kept his pistol steady on Tuco, but in the moment while the rifle was raised to fire, he craned his neck to look at the target. Stupid, really. Tuco's eyes flicked over them both, broad faces turning with interest on their prey, and chose his moment. Before they saw him raise his arm, he shot both of them right through the heart.

He should have chosen his moment better. Colby got off a shot just before Tuco's bullet stilled his trigger finger forever. He ran to the ledge, just in time to see Blondie sway forward in his saddle and fall to the ground.

He crossed himself and spit out a string of curses to call up the devil. All these weeks of tracking his prey, only for someone else to kill him. Tuco felt cheated, and something worse, hollowed out.

He tilted his head to the side. In the dirt down below, Blondie moved a bit, just for a moment, before his head fell back into the dirt, limp. It wasn’t much, but he was alive. Good. Good. He still had a chance to take him prisoner.

He glanced back toward the camp, where the other men in his war party would be coming to check out the gunshots any moment now. He had probably burnt his bridges there, and wasn’t planning on sticking around to see whether they were fonder of their comrades than him either. He swung himself onto his horse and urged it down the mountain, towards Blondie.

__

Blood was creeping snakelike down the path, but as he got closer he could see that the bullet had caught him more in the shoulder than the chest. He got off his horse and approached slowly. It never hurt to be too wary around Blondie. He crept up, craning his head and crooning softly.

“Blondie? Hey, Blondie?”

He drew his gun and feinted towards him, but when he was reasonably satisfied that Blondie wasn’t playing possum, he approached. Blood matted his hair too, and he supposed he must have hit his head when he fell, and was either out like a light or dead. To test, he raised his boot and pressed his toe into the bullet wound, and was gratified to get a long, low moan of pain.

“I’m proud of you, Blondie,” he said, and actually meant it. “You hang in there for me, okay?”

It was almost light work, to tie their horses together and ride off, Blondie flung sideways across the horse’s back like a bounty. That thought made him grin a bit. He urged the two horses on into the setting sun.

He spared one glance back on the horizon for pursuers. But there was no one on the sunscorched hills, no smoke in the sky, and no dust trail behind him but his own.

__

The shadows were lengthening when Tuco came across a small cluster of buildings, badly damaged by cannonfire. The town looked like it had been on its last legs before the war, and had held up its hands and surrendered completely once the first army rolled through. The windows were empty, the one street overgrown and abandoned. Tuco chose the closest thing to a fine house the town had to offer, with a roof and walls, intact, and decided they could stay there for the night. He put the horses away in the stable, out of sight. Just in case his friends (former friends) passed this way, looking for them.

He dumped Blondie on the floor of the main room. He had cinched his belt around Blondie's shoulder to keep the worst of the blood loss at bay, but it was still a bad wound. He frowned and scratched his neck, thinking. He decided he’d be damned if he was going to let Blondie bleed out from a bullet hole some other bastard had put in him. He found a wash basin pitcher that still had some water in it and a sewing needle. He didn’t like stitching himself up, but the thought of doing it to Blondie wasn’t so bad. He threaded the needle and tied off the thread.

Tuco pulled open Blondie's shirt and poured the water over his shoulder, clearing away the blood so that he could see the bullet hole. The bullet hadn’t gotten far, and it was easy enough to pull it out. He drew a shudder out of Blondie with it, and chuckled, half relieved. He had been a bit unnerved by how still and pliant Blondie had been on the ride across the desert.

When he pushed the needle in, Blondie groaned. It was a noise he would never have made awake. He decided he would be sorry to kill him, when it was so fun to have Blondie bleeding and on his back. Maybe he would keep him alive, although the longer he did, the more chances Blondie would have to recover and escape. Shoot, don’t talk, he remembered saying. But that only went for bastards who didn’t matter.

He sewed straight and nimble like his mother had taught him, back when she was still trying to shape him into a productive member of society, God rest her soul. He leaned his weight onto Blondie with his other arm to hold him still as he thrashed, and Tuco couldn’t even pretend he wasn’t enjoying it. He decided he forgave Colby and Harrison.

After he tied off the thread and snipped it loose, he helped himself to one of Blondie's cigarillos. As entertaining as it had been, he hadn’t done anything but patch Blondie up yet, and he felt the need to do something that couldn’t be mistaken for kindness or concern. After lighting the cigar, he smelled it for a moment, considering, then he pressed the lit end into the hollow of Blondie's throat. Blondie's body jerked under him. A small circular mark remained when he drew the cigar away. He grinned, a bit drunk on power, and took a drag from the cigarillo, feeling suddenly a bit more settled, the night ahead feeling real, and very full of possibility.

As the smoke curled up to the ceiling, he considered his options.

Bullets and burnings were nice, but he had already decided that it came down to the rope between them. It always did. Seeing Blondie sprawled out beneath him, he decided he wanted to see Blondie strung up, that long body stretched out like the pig he was. He looked up at the rafter beams, and formed a plan.

__

Blondie started to stir about an hour later. When he opened his eyes, he blinked at the ceiling for a moment, like he genuinely couldn’t place where he was. He must have noticed the pain at the base of his throat, though, because he moved to touch it, but was distracted when he found his hands bound in front of him. He sat up, eyes alert.

Tuco spoke. “A man might think you have a death wish, the way you keep double-crossing me and leaving me alive.”

When their eyes met, Blondie's narrowed to the width of a dime’s edge.

“You’re a hard man to find these days, Blondie. Not hard enough, obviously, because here we are. But hard.”

The wrinkles around his eyes grew wrinkles. Blondie shifted uncomfortably and nodded his head in the direction of his wounded shoulder. “Yours?”

“I wouldn’t have missed, my friend.”

Blondie's mouth quirked a bit at that.  He looked down at the rope around his wrists again, and this time his gaze followed the unused coil of rope several feet across the floor, where it ended in a noose. His eyebrows twitched, and he glanced again at Tuco.

Tuco decided not to explain.

“You hear that out there, Blondie?”

Blondie didn’t look like he was in the mood to listen to Tuco talk, but when was he ever?

Tuco cocked his gun. “What do you hear?”

Blondie squinted at him, the gears in his head churning away silent behind his eyes. “Nothing.”

Tuco grinned. “Nothing. No cannonfire. No war. No stagecoaches carrying packs of dead men. Nothing to save you this time.”

Blondie flicked his eyes over him, and seemed to be lazily sizing him up. “What’d you do with all that gold, anyway?”

“Backup,” he said quickly. “My partners. They’ve got you surrounded, and I’ve ordered them to shoot if you try to escape.”

Blondie looked around the room, unimpressed.

“Not here,” he snapped. “Out there.” He gestured toward the window.

“They do this?” he nodded at the wound in his own shoulder. Tuco paused. It’d make him look like he had let someone else bring him down to say yes, and Blondie might take the truth, with him saving his life, the wrong way.

Blondie shrugged and turned his head to examine the wound more closely. “Nice stitching.”

Tuco closed the distance between them and seized him by the shoulder, taking care to dig his thumb into the wound as he did. That got an actual wince out of him.

“You know, my friend,” he said, as he pulled Blondie to his feet, “there are two kinds of pigs in this world. Those worth killing, and those worth killing slowly. You’re worth killing slowly.” He had just thought of that now. He liked it.

Blondie, though. Blondie didn’t bother swearing or spitting or doing anything that would have been gratifying, just stood there like an enigmatic bastard. He looked him up and down like he was a book he could read and didn’t think much of.

When he was standing, he was tall (Tuco tended to forget just how tall, and he wasn’t sure he liked being reminded of it now) but he was bowed a bit from pain and weakness. It was a good look on him. He stepped back, and nodded Blondie over to the middle of the room, then raised his eyes up at the rafters. Tuco picked up the noose end of the rope that bound Blondie's hands and tossed it to him.

Unimpressed, Blondie turned the noose over in his hands. He raised his eyebrows to Tuco. Again?

“Some adjustments this time,” Tuco gestured with the gun. “Go on. You know what to do.”

Blondie did, and with some more encouragement from the pistol, he did it. He threw the noose over the rafter beam. It wasn’t a long rope, and it required straightening his arms above his head and standing on his toes to get his head to reach the noose, but he did it. He seemed to have some idea where this was going, and he seemed resigned to it. Tuco reached up to tighten the noose around his neck, and grinned out how perfectly it had worked out. Even with his arms held taut, the rope was too short for his heels to touch the ground. He wasn’t in immediate danger of hanging, but it was an impossible position to hold forever.

Eventually, he’d get tired, and his own weight would choke him.

Tuco's lips were suddenly too dry, and his pulse too fast.

He stood back to admire Blondie, stretched like a pig in a butcher shop, squirming to find an extra inch of slack in the noose. But of course, there wasn't any. Blondie grimaced, obviously uncomfortable, but still trying to look disinterested.

"Not easy, is it? Trying to keep your balance with a rope around your neck?"

He watched him sway on his toes, savoring the tightening expression on his face as the strain of his position built with every passing second. Remembering the way his own feet had danced on the edge of that cross.

Blondie wasn’t exactly quaking though. His eyes were, if anything, managing to look bored even as he struggled to breathe, which pissed Tuco off.

He pulled back his fist and punched him. That did it; instinctively, Blondie tried to double up, and caught himself on the tightening noose. For a moment, he couldn’t do anything but gasp in short desperate breaths.

Tuco tsked. "There, there. You're going to choke yourself if you do that."

He dropped his hand down to Blondie's shirt, straightening the collar a bit, a chuckle in his throat and a lightness in his heart he hadn’t felt in weeks. Blondie at his mercy. He liked it. He liked it a lot. He was a little hard from it, actually. Huh.

Huh.

Blondie spit and straightened back up. He almost smiled.

“Bastard,” Tuco hissed. “You deserve this, you backstabbing Judas, humiliating me like that.”

“Doesn’t take much.” Blondie was shaking from the strain of standing straight, but his eyes didn’t show it. “And backstabbing’s what you tried before we even got to the cemetery.”

True. Tuco had forgotten about that, truthfully. But, well, it didn’t matter, did it? If they went down that road, then Tuco was still the one whose back got stabbed first. He took a moment to enjoy the way the noose was starting to rub Blondie's neck raw, the way his eyes got a bit unfocused as he poured all his energy into grasping onto that thin passageway of air.

When he punched him again, Blondie lost his footing entirely and spun for a moment, his boots skimming over the floor like they were ballet shoes.

He worked Blondie over a bit longer after that. He watched that arrogance dribble away, as it had in during that march across the desert, to be replaced with something different, more animal. A will to survive. He knew a thing or two about being at the end of a rope. Knew something of what Blondie was feeling now. The lightheadedness snuck up on you. That desperate need to breath, to claw through the constriction. It did something to him, to his hard-on, as did the thought that no man had ever had Blondie on a rope and at his mercy before. His partner. His enemy. All his.

Then Blondie raised his eyes at him, dropped his eyes significantly to the growing bulge in Tuco's trousers, and actually tsked at him. “You’ll put someone’s eye out with that.”

“Don’t give me any ideas.”

Blondie just looked smug and unconcerned. Or as unconcerned as a bastard could look when he was dangling from a rope, bleeding and bruised. Which it turned out, with Blondie, was a lot.

Hell, Blondie knew as well as anyone that he was all man. It was Blondie who might as well have been a block of wood where women were concerned, Blondie who never went to whorehourses, like he didn’t even know what he was saving all that money for, since he sure didn’t know how to use it. Blondie, who maybe really was like that. Tuco’d always kind of suspected. Tuco tended to follow his impulses where they led him, and his impulse, at the moment, was to prove Blondie was human. That Blondie got hard for this shit too. He leaned in, so close their chests were practically touching. "You liked having me on the end of the rope, didn't you? Me dancing there and not being able to get loose. At your mercy."

His hand drifted down to Blondie's belt.

Something really did flicker behind Blondie's eyes, like he hadn’t believed Tuco would cross that particular line. It strengthened Tuco's courage like a stiff drink. He slid his fingers over the fly of Blondie's pants. He chuckled with malice and maybe a little relief, to feel that he was just flesh and rapidly stirring blood under all that arrogance.

Blondie's face went blank, which he hoped was how Blondie looked when he got abashed, but didn’t quite think that was right. Blondie's cock was rousing lazily to life under his hand.

He was fascinated and a bit appalled. He’d never done this with a man before, no matter what Blondie might think. Of course, he was doing it now, and the warmth spreading in his stomach felt as good as anything he’d ever felt, but he wasn’t going to think about that right now.

He stared up at Blondie stretched out on that rope, looking down on him. He squeezed his cock through the fabric this time, bordering on painful, and that made Blondie jerk a bit and the rope around his neck tighten. Blondie even got a bit of a dazed look in his eyes, his red face going redder. He grinned as he undid Blondie's fly, fingers tripping eagerly along the metal buttons. His hands closed around Blondie's length, sturdy and half-hard already and hot. Still nervous, his skin prickling all over, he tried to laugh, but it caught in his throat.

He had Blondie in his hand. Blondie, under his influence, with nowhere to run. He gave a few hard, graceless tugs. Blondie's eyes flicked over him, indifferently.

“Slower.”

He scowled and went faster, and Blondie stood still—he had to—and took it with his eyes half-closed, getting so very hard so very quickly that he began to suspect that’s what Blondie had wanted him to do in the first place. At which point he slowed down. But Blondie seemed to like that just fine too. As much as Blondie liked anything.

"I never would have thought you'd go in for this sort of thing," he said, trying not to babble. “To think, you, Blondie, but I guess it explains a few things.” Blondie had the kind of hair that was good for grabbing, so he sank his fingers into it and pulled his head down, forced him to watch as he jerked him off. Blondie took shallow breaths, the noose painfully tight now.

The whole thing frustrated him beyond the telling of it. His hand ached to drift down to his own pants, and but he resisted the urge to rub himself too. It seemed like it’d undermine the point he was trying to make.

Blondie's lips cracked into a smile, still bleeding a bit where Tuco's rings had split them. “Want help?”

He’d have to be crazy to consider it. On the other hand, it felt like a challenge, and Tuco didn’t back down from a challenge, especially when the dice were loaded. Tuco still had the gun, and Blondie was still injured. He could even keep him tied up. Sure. Let Blondie help him out, maybe think Tuco would show him mercy, if he did well. He was still in charge.

Before all the reasons why this was a bad idea could catch up with his fingers, he pulled out his knife and cut the rope that connected the noose and Blondie's bound hands.

Blondie's legs gave out, and his knees hit the floor hard, the sound ringing out in the empty room. He took hold of the severed rope that was still around Blondie's neck, and pulled him up. Blondie came along easily. Looking like himself, arrogant and cool, a bit of an ironic sneer on his face as he put hands on him. His other hand returned to Blondie's cock automatically. He told himself it was because he didn’t want to be the only one with his cock in his enemy’s hands.

He found himself thinking a lot of stupid thoughts as they jerked each other off, eyes locked together. Like how Blondie was a natural at this, even with his hands tied, and how long it had been since anyone had done this for him, not for money at least, and his fist tightened a bit around the rope, but not as much as he wanted it to, because truthfully, he just didn't want Blondie to stop. He could smell the blood and gunpowder on him, and he thought about all that money that had passed through those hands, gold and banknotes and cheap Confederate bills that had left their fingers black with ink for days. He thought about all the men Blondie had sent to their maker over the years, about doing the same to him, and it made him shudder. He panted and thrust against those long fingers, their hands roughly knocking into each other.

He wanted to make Blondie come first—but Blondie was too good at this, too—the lazy, deliberate way Blondie found the sensitive part just under his head and stroked it just right.  When he spilled into Blondie's hands first, it felt like a defeat.

It wasn’t much consolation when Blondie followed him a few moments later, especially since he pointedly made a mess on Tuco's jacket.

He dropped the rope and stepped away in disgust. That was when Blondie moved, like he’d been waiting for that moment since he first came to, and threw himself at him. They hit the floor with bruising force, rolling together in a confused tangle of swinging fists and boots and teeth. Tuco took a knee hard in the chest and a crooked floorboard to the chin, and when they came to rest they had both gotten their hands on one of Tuco's guns, each holding it straight and steady and cocked in the other’s face. Blondie sat on top, his knee digging painfully in between his ribs.

“Just like old times,” Blondie said, softly. He motioned with his gun. From Tuco's mouth to his. Tuco stared at him, wondering what that was supposed to mean, then realized he was motioning towards the still lit cigarillo that had somehow stayed between Tuco's lips this whole time. Blondie's knee tightened painfully against his ribcage. Tuco glowered, but took the half-smoked stub out of his mouth, and put it in Blondie's mouth. Blondie's lips closed around it as he pulled away. Their eyes never left each other’s face as Blondie took a drag and looked down at him. Tuco felt his finger getting sweaty on the trigger.

A gunshot broke the silence, and they both started, but knew instinctively the sound didn’t come from either man’s gun. Broken glass tinkled to the floor. A moment later, a hail of bullets erupted, ripping through windows and wood. They both rolled, and ended up flat on their stomachs beside each other, glass raining down on them.

Shit. He didn’t want to die like this. Their flies were both still open.

“Tuco, we know you’re in there!” a voice called from outside. A chorus of angry voices joined it.

Blondie glanced at him. “Your friends?”

Tuco shrugged. “Not such good friends anymore. They broke our deal, so I shot them.”

Blondie grimaced as another window exploded. “Not very well.”

“The ones I killed, I killed very well.” He felt the explanation being dragged out of him. “I had to. They were going to kill you without letting me make things even between us first.”

Blondie squinted at him. “That what you call it?”

Another hailstorm of bullets. “They must really want your money,” Tuco remarked.

“You think I still have it?”

Tuco frowned.

Blondie looked sideways at him. “It’s land now. Harder for rats like you to steal.”

Tuco scowled, wondering why he hadn’t thought of that. “Now they’ll probably come after my money.”

"Probably."

“Let’s just light the place on fire,” one of the men outside said impatiently. “Smoke em out.”

“Cut me loose,” Blondie said.

“You crazy?”

“How many are there out there?”

Tuco had to count in his head. “Ten.”

“Two against ten. Or one against ten and me.”

Tuco had to concede the logic of that.

“If you stab me in the back again, I’ll make you sorry.”

Given the way his attempts to make Blondie sorry had turned out so far, it felt like a pretty hollow threat. But he wasn’t eager to burn alive, and Tuco tended to live by the axiom that you're safer with the devil you know than the one you don’t, and there was no devil son of a bitch he knew better in the world than Blondie. So he cut Blondie loose and refastened his own fly so if they died he’d at least die without everyone knowing what he’d just been doing with that dirty bastard.

But he wasn’t that worried. No one got by Blondie except Tuco. They weren’t about to let these idiots kill them. He grinned. He had missed this.

Blondie nodded toward the side door, and they went outside to shoot some men.