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1890

There was something about the dry desert winds that Sylvain couldn’t get used to. He shook out his arms and legs to stave off the stiffness from the cold as he walked up the slope of a small hill where Felix waited with their horses. “They suspect anything?”

“The way they’re drinking, they probably don’t even know their own names by now.”

Night had fallen hours ago and they had been waiting for quite a while without even a fire to keep them warm, so they wouldn’t be spotted in the darkness. In the distance, a group of about ten men were carousing around a bonfire behind a house.

Felix glanced at him. “How far did you take their horses?”

“Far enough,” Sylvain said as he walked up to his horse and opened his saddlebag. He grinned as he pulled out what he was looking for. “They ran easy too, in case we needed any other reason to do this.”

Felix let out a quiet huff as he struck a match against his belt, holding it out. “This is one of your stupidest ideas yet.”

Sylvain carefully held the stick of dynamite to the flame, the wick sizzling as it ignited. “You’re still here, so it must not be that stupid.”

Felix waved out the match and climbed onto his horse. “Just hurry up and throw the damn thing before you blow us up.”

Sylvain ran forward and chucked the dynamite, watching it sail through the air. It landed perfectly at his intended target. Seconds passed. Nothing happened. “Ah well, that didn’t go as expected.”

Felix rolled his eyes as he drew his gun. He tilted his head, squinting one eye, and then squeezed the trigger. The sound of the gunshot pierced through the merriment, but the men, who were only getting more drunk by the second, didn’t react; the bullet shattered a gas lamp near a wagon, the oil catching fire and spreading. A few moments later, the wagon went up in a spectacular explosion, glass and flaming wood raining from above.

“I do love dynamite,” Sylvain said, taking a moment to bask while Felix was already pulling on the reins of his horse and starting off down the hill.

Sylvain whistled for his horse, following Felix toward the men. As he neared, he heard them shouting in confusion, whistling for horses that weren’t returning. Some were still stumbling to their feet, trying to figure out what was happening. By the time any of them thought to go for their guns, Felix and Sylvain were already knocking them over with their horses, trampling the unruly ones underfoot. Felix drew his pistol and fired into the air.

“Keep your hands up,” Felix shouted, aiming his gun at the group. “We’re just here for one man.”

Sylvain climbed off of his horse, coughing through the acrid air. Even under the gunpowder, he could smell the alcohol. Gingerly stepping around the debris, he squinted at the faces of the men in the firelight until he found their bounty, the one who was snoring on the ground, having apparently slept through this entire thing.

“Bootleggers,” Sylvain muttered, shaking his head, hogtying the man before tossing him onto the back of his horse. He climbed up after, then looked at the other men; luckily, none of them seemed like they wanted to put up a fight. In fact, most of them just looked like they were seconds away from falling asleep. Sylvain clicked his tongue, pulling the reins. “A shame we had to blow up that moonshine,” he said to Felix as they left.

“What would you do with an entire wagon of moonshine? Drink it?”

“Obviously not all of it. At once.”

Felix snorted. “I suppose we could become bootleggers,” he said, keeping an eye on the remaining men until they were far enough to be sure they weren’t going to try anything. “I hear it pays well.”

Before Sylvain could get a word in, the man on the back of Sylvain’s horse let out a thunderous snore, still asleep.

“I think bounty hunting suits us just fine,” Sylvain said with a laugh. Even Felix grinned as they rode fast, kicking up clouds of dust far behind them.

 

-

 

This life was not one Sylvain thought they would ever be living.

“You know,” Sylvain muttered, sitting on a rock. “I distinctly remember that we were paid last night.”

Felix didn’t even look at him as he stood by the campfire, smoking a cigarette. Two hunks of meat roasted on a spit over the flame. “I thought you liked rabbit.”

Sylvain took out a cigarette of his own and put it to his lips. He pulled out his matches, then paused, looking at the fire, then at Felix, the cigarette held between his two fingers. Sylvain pocketed his matches and got to his feet, patting the dust off of his pants before walking over to Felix.

“Give me a light.”

Felix glanced at him, breathing out a soft fan of smoke before turning toward and tilting his head up. It was an easy, familiar movement, leaning over to light his cigarette on the end of Felix’s. Sylvain tossed him a wink in thanks; Felix hardly blinked an eye as he turned his attention back to their lunch.

“So where are we headed next?”

“The next bounty’s further west,” Felix said.

“And after that?”

Felix shrugged a shoulder. “We’ll find another bounty. Like always.”

Sylvain sighed, blowing out smoke. For a couple of aristocrats, they weren’t too picky. Though they still held to some comforts, roughing it like this wasn’t difficult to get used to; even before he went off to the officer’s academy, Felix was used to hunting and foraging when he went on long hunts with his father, and there wasn’t much Sylvain couldn’t endure. Sylvain didn’t mind letting Felix handle the money they earned for their bounties either; he didn’t know what Felix had planned for it, if he even had a plan, but he knew they definitely weren’t using most of it. There was only so much one could do to stave off boredom without money. “All work and no play. A man can’t live like this forever.”

“You know, you don’t have to follow me around,” Felix said, still looking at the fire. “You’re more than welcome to stay in some shitheel town and drown in booze and women.”

Sylvain hummed consideringly. “Well, that actually doesn’t sound too bad—” Felix cast him a dark look as he flicked away the remains of his cigarette. “Aw, Felix, you know I’m joking. You won’t get rid of me that easily.”

“If only I were so lucky,” Felix intoned as he knelt down and poked at the meat with his hunting knife. Apparently satisfied, he took the rabbits off of the fire and skewered them before waving one of them at him. Sylvain took it — he did like rabbit — sitting back on his haunches and waiting for Felix to sit before eating.

“We’ll stop if we come across a town,” Felix finally conceded as they were getting ready to move on. “We’ll have one drink.”

Sylvain grinned, quickly dropping it when Felix sent him a sharp look. “One drink,” he promised solemnly.

 

-

 

True to his word, when they ended up riding through a small town, Felix slowed to a stop in front of the local saloon.

The smell of tobacco, leather, and sweat hit them the moment they passed the swinging doors. A man banged at the keys of the piano in the corner of the room, the cheerful dissonant tones mingling with the sound of giggling women and clicking chips over at the poker table. There was a gun on the hip of nearly every man in the room. As they walked toward the bar,, Sylvain caught sight of a shotgun in the reflection of the mirror-backed liquor cabinet. Half a year ago, the two of them walked into a saloon much like this one, fresh off the train, tasked by their families with looking into business prospects in the west.

Needless to say, they had veered very far off that course.

Sylvain smiled as he leaned against the bar counter. “How nostalgic.”

Felix snorted beside him, flagging down the bartender. “It hasn’t been that long.”

“I wasn’t thinking about that,” Sylvain said as Felix ordered whiskeys.

Clinking his glass against Felix’s, Sylvain downed his whiskey while Felix sipped his. Felix glared but said nothing when Sylvain motioned for another. Felix would never admit it out loud, but Sylvain had better tolerance than him, a fact that Sylvain was sure bothered him immensely. Sylvain knew better than to rile Felix up, but it was just so easy, so fun; he tried not to laugh when Felix quickly finished his drink as the bartender was refilling Sylvain’s glass, putting the glass down in front of the bartender and glaring at him. On their third glass, Sylvain decided to show Felix some mercy, settling his arms against on the bar and nursing his drink. Felix, his face already flushed pink, mirrored him, his shoulders slumping down from his usual straight-backed posture.

“That’s the third time.”

Sylvain turned to him. “Hm?”

Felix was looking toward the end of the bar. “She’s looked over here three times now.”

Sylvain followed his gaze to see a woman. The woman was pretty, with long dark hair, wearing a very low-cut dress. Upon noticing them noticing her, she leaned her forearms on the bar counter. Sylvain looked, amused. Felix scoffed.

“She’s looking at you.”

“Probably because you look like you’re ready to stab someone at any moment.” Sylvain looked away, raising an eyebrow as he grinned at Felix over his glass. “Jealous?”

Felix glared at him. He finished the rest of his drink, the glass rattling as he slammed it down. He pulled a billfold out of his vest and tossed it on the bar. “I’m going out for a smoke. Do what you want.”

Sylvain’s gaze followed him as Felix went out the back door. He looked at the money — it was more than enough to cover their drinks, enough for a room too, with a little more to spare.

He felt fingers skirt across the back of his shoulders. The woman had wasted no time, sidling up beside him, her hand settling on his shoulder. “Will you be needing a room for the night?”

“Sorry, sweetheart, I don't intend to stay long,” he said, finishing the rest of his drink.

“It doesn’t have to be for very long,” she said, looking up at him through her long eyelashes, and he chuckled as he counted out money for the drinks.

Sylvain knew why she was talking to him. They had long abandoned their embroidered coats and spats, unsuited for the desert weather and too flashy among the cowhide and denim; now they looked like any other gunslinger with their sturdy leather belts heavy with weapons and ammunition — Sylvain with his two guns and Felix with his distinct daggers. But anyone who wasn’t distracted by their weapons would notice the fine material of their clothes, would know that they must come from some money. In some ways, the working girls weren’t much different from the noblewomen he used to know: they always wanted something from him. At least out here they were honest about it.

He’d be lying if he said he didn’t enjoy it every now and then, paying for a soft bed and a pretty woman on top of him. He wasn't quite in the mood, though he was certain he could work himself up to it, but the sound of a gunshot coming from the back of the saloon effectively ended that line of thought. People tended not to worry about gunshots so long as they were outside, but if Sylvain didn’t know where Felix was when he heard one, his first instinct was always to look for him. He pushed the woman away and immediately went for the back door, his fingers wrapping around the handle of his gun. Heart beating quick, he drew it as he opened the door, his eyes adjusting to the darkness, and saw—

Felix, a smoking gun in his hand, a dagger missing from his belt. Ten paces away, a man clutched his bleeding hand, his gun lying a little ways away; another man beside him rolled on the ground in pain with Felix’s dagger lodged in his shoulder.

Sylvain dropped his hand, holstering his gun with a sigh. He should’ve known. While he liked to wind down after a bounty by drinking and flirting, Felix liked to blow off steam by fighting some more — brawls, duels, whatever he could goad some poor fool into.

Felix seemed to concentrate very hard on looking at him. “They asked for it,” he said defensively.

Sylvain sighed again. This too brought back the memory of that first saloon, where Felix stabbed a man who just so happened to have a bounty on him. “You know, you were the one who said we’d just have one drink.”

Felix glared at him, his lips pressed together in a slight pout. “M’not drunk,” he mumbled, jabbing his gun back into his holster, missing a couple times before he finally got it in. The movement was enough to make him stumble back; Sylvain steadied him with a hand on his elbow before he could fall over. Felix fell forward instead, his face planting into his shoulder, and he mumbled something unintelligible.

“If you say so,” Sylvain said diplomatically. He glanced at the men on the ground before deciding to pull Felix along. They were bounty hunters, not lawmen, and a duel was a duel. He did, however, stop to pull Felix’s dagger out of the man’s shoulder; Felix would probably want it back.

They eventually made it to their horses, but a new problem quickly presented itself.

"Something's wrong," Felix determined grimly.

"I'll say," Sylvain agreed as he watched Felix attempt to climb onto his horse backwards. Felix took a wobbling step back, deeply perplexed by the sudden difficulty of it all. Having had his fill of entertainment for the night, Sylvain held Felix by his belt before he could attempt again. Duchess — Felix’s magnificent Arabian — seemed to eye Sylvain disdainfully, as if it was his fault her master was acting like this.

Without any other options short of putting Felix on the back of his horse like a bounty, Sylvain got onto Lucky, his Andalusian, and pulled Felix up. Felix remained blessedly sedate as Sylvain got one of his blankets and wrapped it around him; it was big enough to cover most of him. He pulled on the leather strap Felix used to tie up his hair too, his long hair spilling down his shoulders. This way, in the darkness, no one would look twice at them. Holding Felix upright between his arms and the reins of both of their horses, Sylvain started them off out of town slowly.

They rode for another hour or so until Sylvain found a suitable place to make camp. Felix, having sobered up a little, dug out some of their provisions for dinner; after they finished eating, they both crawled into their bedrolls, Felix to sleep off the alcohol and Sylvain to sleep off the unexpected rowdiness of the night.

“You need to stop drinking like that,” Sylvain chided as Felix curled up on his bedroll and pulled his blankets up to his nose, his hair a mess over his eyes. The insane desire to reach out and brush his hair away gripped him, but it passed as quickly as it came.

You need to stop drinking like that,” Felix shot back, his eyes narrowed at him.

“No more saloons for a while,” Sylvain conceded, smiling when Felix made a little grumbling noise that sounded like agreement before turning away.

Most days were uneventful, but they still managed to find some trouble every once in a while. Maybe it was just their nature; they were supposed to be following in the footsteps of their fathers, living in high society among the respectable folk, but the truth was that Sylvain had been one misthought fling away from getting himself killed by a noblewoman’s father, and Felix had returned from a four year stint at the officer’s academy so wholly uninterested with any of his family’s affairs compared to training and fighting that the both of them ended up getting sent here instead.

This was supposed to be a punishment, an attempt to scare them into obedience, but half a year ago, standing in the county jail and staring at the money the sheriff handed them for what would be the first of many bounties, they saw a chance to make a choice of their own, beholden to no one, and they took it. They were both different, changed in the four years they hadn’t seen each other, but still the same in the ways that mattered. Still found themselves getting into messes, still dragged each other out. Everything was new and unfamiliar, uncertain, but it was enough that they had each other.

 

-

 

1891

 

Bounties ran. Some tried begging or bargaining or both before trying to shoot them the moment they let their guard down. But most of them had just enough sense to run at the first whiff of trouble. Sylvain imagined it was like hunting or herding animals, though he wouldn’t know, since he’d never done either; so he tried to do whatever Felix told him.

Unfortunately, Sylvain had quickly learned that the officer’s academy was not successful in fostering any strategic sense in Felix or tempering his compulsion to fight. Felix’s plans tended toward Sylvain playing lookout while Felix snuck into hideouts and caves and other enclosed spaces by himself and that simply would not do.

“Sylvain,” Felix hissed. “I told you to wait outside!”

Sylvain took a step back as Felix shoved a body off of him, blood pouring from the dead man’s slit throat. “There were people coming back to the house. I didn’t want them to catch you off guard.”

Felix flicked blood off of his knife; he seemed unimpressed with the two dead men Sylvain had killed on the porch. “I would have handled it,” he snapped. “If I heard the gunshots, they would have too.”

Sylvain chambered two more rounds into his revolver. “You know, most people would say thank you,” he mumbled.

They both looked up as they heard footsteps above their heads, clambering down the stairs. Felix yanked Sylvain out of the hallway, shoving him against the wall just before the shots started, bullets piercing the wall where Sylvain stood a moment ago. Felix fired back blindly, peeking out into the hall once it fell silent.

“Thanks,” Sylvain said faintly, looking down at Felix’s hand still pressed against his chest.

Felix ignored him as he walked down the hall, looking out the front door. Sylvain heard the sound of horses galloping off. “They’re running,” Felix said, glaring back at him like it was his fault.

Sylvain sighed as Felix whistled for their horses. “They always run.”

Out of everything, they had spent most of their seed money — the money from their first bounty, the money they got from selling off what they had on them, the stipend their families left them — on their horses. They were fine horses, both suited for the long rides their bounties often took them on, but Lucky was bigger and better for close combat. Duchess was fast, suitable for chases like these.

They were catching up with the fleeing men now; there were three of them. They kept their distance as the men shot back wildly, trying to fend them off.

“Which one’s the bounty?” Sylvain shouted over the wind.

Felix leaned low on his horse. “The one on the right!”

Sylvain pulled his repeater out of his saddle holster. On a horse, he was the better shot. He waited for Felix to pull off to the right before shooting the first man, swinging the lever and quickly shooting the second, the now riderless horses drifting off. Drawing his revolver, Sylvain fired shots over the bounty’s head to distract him while Felix caught up with him, readying his lariat. Felix threw the rope, catching around the bounty’s waist, and made a quick knot around the horn of his saddle before he tugged on the reins to stop his horse while yanking the bounty to the ground. Felix swung off of his horse, quickly closing the distance between him and the bounty, digging a knee into his back as he wound the rope around the bounty’s wrists.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to rush in like a fucking idiot?” Felix grunted, continuing their conversation from the house as Sylvain pulled to a stop beside him.

Sylvain hopped off his horse, panting. “Just once more,” he said with a grin.

Felix glared at him as he pulled the rope hard, ignoring a cry of pain from the man.

It was true that Felix was the last person who needed protecting — he fought like a caged animal, fast and fierce — but Sylvain could never shake the habit. He would always be a fool when it came to Felix.

Sylvain hoisted the struggling bounty onto the back of his horse, giving the man a good whack on the head with the butt of his revolver so he wouldn’t have to listen to him complain and swear at them on the way to the nearest jail. Dusting himself off, Sylvain took a minute to catch his breath, legs sore, looking up at the grey sky. It looked like it was going to rain tonight. Felix looked even more disheveled than he did, covered in blood, coated with dust. Felix used to slick his hair back with pomade, but once they started bounty hunting, he started tying his hair up instead, careless of the stray strands escaping the tight bun. It was supposed to keep his hair out of his eyes when he was riding and shooting, but it came loose so often Sylvain wondered if there was even a point to it. Sweat trickled down Felix’s face, his hair matted against his forehead, and Sylvain felt a familiar stir.

They were a long way from polite society. They knew very well what was acceptable, what was expected, but they stopped caring about those things a long time ago. They only knew to chase after what they wanted.

“Well, all that’s left now is to turn this one in,” Sylvain said. “Afterwards, if you’re still mad at me, I’ll make it up to you.”

Felix glanced at him, his eyes narrowed, and Sylvain smiled.

 

-

 

He was always looking at Felix.

In between the long rides and the gunfights, there were times when it was just the two of them, sitting silently by the fire or resting under the shade of trees, and Sylvain could just look at him. Felix either didn’t notice or didn’t care, probably too busy thinking about their next bounty or pondering new ways to kill a man, so Sylvain was free to stare as he pleased.

Felix was beautiful. He always had been. Sylvain hadn’t let himself dwell on it before, back when all he could see in his future was getting married to a woman his father chose and having heirs, but it was impossible not to think about it now when Felix was the first face he saw in the morning and usually the last he saw before he fell asleep. Felix was beautiful in the conventional sense, with his sharp features and striking eyes, but in other ways too. He was beautiful in the way he moved, the way he fought, the way he smoked his cigarette, the way he loaded his gun. He was beautiful even when he was filthy, when he was covered head to toe in piss and animal guts after a day of hunting. He was beautiful even now when he was angry at him. Especially when he was angry at him.

Felix’s eyes burned holes in the back of his head as they walked up the stairs to their rooms. As expected, when Sylvain opened the door to his room, Felix followed, closing the door behind them.

Neither of them were strangers to Sylvain’s libido; it was Felix who was the surprise. Truth be told, Sylvain didn’t think Felix had any inclinations until one night started with Sylvain trying to furtively jerk off in their tent after a particularly frustrating bounty and ended with his cock in Felix’s mouth. Sylvain suspected it was adrenaline; when there was no one for Felix to fight, all of that restless energy still had to go somewhere. Sylvain had never seen him with a woman — or a man — and he knew Felix hated being touched by strangers, went out of his way to seem as unfriendly as possible.

So that really just left Sylvain.

Sylvain thought he knew what he liked, thought he liked soft curves and sweet words, until Felix. Felix was beautiful when he was stalking toward him, when he was shoving him down on the armchair in the corner of the room, when he was climbing on top of him, hand pressing against Sylvain’s chest, amber eyes glowering. Mind hazy with arousal, Sylvain wondered if the men Felix killed ever had the same thoughts before they perished.

“What do you need, Felix?”

Felix never answered him, only moved. They’d done this countless times now; Sylvain had touched him so often he knew Felix’s body better than his own. They’d done this in every way they could get away with: messy and hurried with their hands and mouths, groping drunkenly in darkened alleys, rutting in their tent with their clothes on like dogs in heat. Sylvain knew desire, the way lust burned bright and fast, but no matter how many times they did this, it never felt like it would be enough. His hands moved like they had minds of their own, rucking up Felix’s shirt to touch the soft skin of his belly, pushing his pants down further to grab his ass, his thighs, even with Felix hissing and cursing at him in his ear. They both knew they had to be cautious when they did this, to be quick, quiet, but with Felix in his lap, grinding down against him, he couldn’t resist pulling Felix’s hair loose, unbuttoning Felix’s pants and getting a hand around him.

“You’re incorrigible,” Felix growled, even as he thrust into the loose circle of Sylvain’s fingers. “You never listen to me.”

“I listen to the important things,” Sylvain said as he swiped his thumb across the head of Felix’s cock, relishing the hitch in his breath. “If you really want me to, I’ll be sure to listen the next time you tell me to die.”

“Sylvain,” Felix said warningly and Sylvain snickered.

“Oh darling,” Sylvain drawled, “don’t say you’re sweet on me now.”

Felix’s hair brushed against his cheek as Felix leaned in close. In a moment of wild hope, Sylvain felt his heart thump against his chest, only to swear when Felix bit him on the neck hard enough to draw blood. He groaned in pain — mostly — as Felix swiped his tongue across his latest mark, another consequence earned by his smart mouth.

“Quit calling me that.”

“Calling you what?” Sylvain asked, too distracted by how impossibly tight his pants were getting.

Felix rolled his hips. Sylvain felt his breath against his neck. “‘Darling’,” he said with all of the loving tenderness of an angry badger, but Sylvain committed it to memory anyway.

“You’re the one who’s always calling me names so I thought it was only fair that I have one for you. You don’t like it?”

Felix cast him a sidelong glare and then looked away. “I’m not one of your women," he spat.

They didn’t talk about this, what they did. They were men and men had their urges; it was a matter of convenience when it was just the two of them and days since they had seen another soul. They had known each other forever, spent nearly every minute of the past two years together — maybe it was inevitable. Anyone would reach for what was comfortable, what was easy, and Sylvain didn’t mind being easy if it meant being needed, if it meant Felix wouldn’t need anyone else. He knew he was lucky to even have him like this.

Sylvain tightened his grip on Felix’s cock, his other hand resting against Felix’s hip, touching the narrow strip of exposed skin. “I know, darling,” he said softly. “That’s why I save that one just for you.”

That only seemed to aggravate him; Felix didn’t say another word, buried his face in Sylvain’s neck, his hands gripping the back of the chair as he moved faster, biting back a groan as he came, spilling all over Sylvain’s fist.

It was beautiful, of course, the long line of Felix’s neck when he tipped his head back, the soft flush that painted his cheeks. He was beautiful even in the way he left, buttoning himself up and taking back his hair tie, sweeping his hair back up into its usual bun as he climbed off of him like nothing had happened, throwing Sylvain one last glance before leaving him aching and hard without so much as a good night.

Sylvain knew he could easily hire someone for the night, but he didn’t, hadn’t in months. It was enough to touch himself like this, his hand slick with Felix’s come, to think about the first time he had Felix — Felix’s hair tangled in his clenched fist, his clumsy mouth, red and spit slick, the little soft noises he made back when he didn’t know better.

Sylvain had always liked beautiful things — paintings, people — and he used to think ruining them was simply another way to admire them, to possess them. He’d always thought love was supposed to be something pure, something that made you better, selfless, but his feelings for Felix were bigger than just desire. He thought about the very things he used to laugh at coming from the women who told him they loved him — the sour jealousy that rose like bile in his throat when he saw Felix’s gaze linger on some stranger for just a moment longer than usual, how on those nights he would cover Felix’s body with his own and touch him the way no one else did, the way he wanted to believe no one else ever would. Felix wasn't his, never would be, but a dark, violent part of him wanted to ruin him, mark him until no one else could ever want him. He wondered, when he came thinking about how he wished he could know what Felix’s mouth felt like against his as it moved in the shape of his name, if this, too, was what it was like to be in love.

 

-

 

1892

 

This bounty had been a thorn in their side for the past two weeks. Bounties like these — men with no associates, no gang ties — always were. Felix usually didn’t take them, but money was money, and he enjoyed a hunt every once in a while. Sylvain didn’t care much any which way.

Entering yet another town, they headed directly to the general store. Barkeeps were better with faces, but general stores saw more people. Sure enough, they finally got a good lead; the owner recognized the man in the poster and directed them to a nearby homestead.

“I’m thinking about just shooting him,” Felix grumbled as they approached the homestead.

“Felix, you know I hate lugging around corpses,” Sylvain said lightly.

Passing the fence and continuing up the dirt path, they passed a pen full of braying pigs, chickens clucking as they roamed around the property. A rocking chair sat on the porch. They exchanged looks. It didn’t seem to be the home of a criminal.

“Maybe we made a wrong turn?” Sylvain joked as Felix swept his gaze around the property, frowning.

A shot rang out. On instinct, they went for their guns, but when Sylvain looked toward the sound and saw the shooter, he let go of his gun.

“Felix,” Sylvain said quietly and Felix dropped his hand too.

Around the corner of the house, a child no older than seven stared them down the barrel of a revolver, their hands shaking despite their determined gaze. A moment later, a woman came out of the house, blood draining from her face when she saw them. She quickly rushed over to the child, pushing the gun down and away.

“I-I’m sorry,” she stammered. “We don’t mean to cause any trouble.”

It felt like a stand-off, the two of them sitting on their horses, looking at the woman and child, uncertain of what to do.

“Hannah? Louisa? Is everything okay—”

A man, coming from the barn, yelped when Felix drew his gun and pointed it at him. Sylvain canted his head. Bounty posters did embellish details every now and then; while the likeness was certainly there, he could say with relative confidence that the man cowering before them had never made a mean face in his entire life.

“You’ve got a bounty on your head,” Felix said. “Says it’s for murder. Of a lawman, no less.”

The man didn’t look confused, which surprised Sylvain, but he still looked terrified. “I-It’s a misunderstanding,” he explained. He looked toward the woman and the child. “Please, I can’t go with you.”

“You think we haven’t dragged men from their families to face justice?” Felix said coldly. Sylvain almost felt bad for the way the man shook, but the man looked at the woman and child again and stood firm.

“I was defending myself,” the man told them. “The lawmen in that town are corrupt. Ask anyone there.”

Felix glanced at Sylvain, who only looked back, his hands resting on the horn of his saddle. They had certainly run into a few less than savory lawmen, but they were lucky enough to only have had bounties that were quite plainly guilty. They never had one say they were wrongly accused, at least not with any degree of conviction.

“We’ve been riding for a long time,” Sylvain finally said sheepishly, trying to break the tension. “Could we trouble you for a meal?”

 

-

 

“Jack was defending me.”

Smoking a cigarette and standing on the porch beside the woman — Louisa — Sylvain pulled his gaze away from where Felix was teaching the child — and Jack — how to shoot at a row of bottles lined up on the fence and looked at her. Louisa smiled faintly.

“My husband died a little over a year ago. That’s when one of the deputies started hassling me. The sheriff wouldn’t do anything about it, but Jack did his best to keep him at bay.” She looked at Sylvain. “We both grew up in that town. He always looked out for me.”

Sylvain let out a quiet huff.

“One night, I hear a knocking on my door and there he is, in a panic. He tells me the deputy won’t be bothering me anymore, but he has to go away for a while.” Louisa shook her head, letting out a soft laugh. “He was just a postman back then. He was shaking like a leaf, helpless as a newborn. I almost thought it was an accident.”

Sylvain glanced toward the sound of gunshots. “People find courage when they need to.”

“He’s a good man. Worked hard to get this place for me and Hannah,” she said. Her gaze turned contemplative, distant. “He did a terrible thing and it brought me peace. Isn’t it strange how that works?”

The world out here was different. What was right and wrong wasn't always clear, especially with the line of work they were in. “I know what you mean,” Sylvain said. “But it’s good that you have each other now.”

She smiled. “You know, we’re not married.” She laughed when Sylvain blinked at her. “I know it’s unusual. I suppose he thinks I’m still grieving. You’d think he’d get the idea when I followed him out here, but,” she leaned against the column of the porch and looking toward her daughter and Jack with fondness, “I suppose I can wait a little longer.”

Sylvain looked toward the sound of shattering glass. Hannah turned to Jack, holding the gun aloft, triumphant. Felix quirked a smile before pausing and looking up, his gaze finding Sylvain’s. Sylvain took another drag on his cigarette, hiding his own smile behind his hand.

 

-

 

They left once the sun started setting. Felix shook his head at the money Jack tried to give him but accepted the package of provisions Louisa prepared. Hannah fed their horses one sugar cube each and patted them goodbye.

“What did she tell you?” Felix asked him once they were out of earshot.

“The deputy.”

Felix nodded. “He heard the deputy talking in the saloon, about what he was going to do to her.”

“Some people ask for the bullet,” Sylvain said and Felix nodded again. Sylvain turned to look back at the family standing on the porch. He waved a hand, watching them go back inside.

“You didn’t try and flirt with her, did you?”

“Felix, I would never,” Sylvain said, scandalized. “Besides, she told me she was still waiting on a proposal.” Felix looked at him like he wanted to know exactly how that came up in the conversation, but Sylvain moved on. “What do they call that, ‘living in sin’?”

Felix cast him one last disapproving look before he shrugged. “He killed a man for her. I think that binds them stronger than any ceremony would.”

Sylvain looked at him slyly. "I didn’t know you were such a romantic."

"You're unbearable."

They went back to the town. Sylvain waited with their horses as Felix went into the general store to tell the owner they were mistaken about the bounty. He found his thoughts drifting back to that homestead and that family, seeing their silhouettes in the window, cast by the warm light of their home.

“Sylvain?”

Sylvain blinked, then looked up. Felix was back on his horse, a new bounty poster in his hand, his map spread out against his saddle. “Sorry, what were you saying?”

“Nothing,” Felix said. “I just thought it was strange when I didn’t hear some smartass quip from you when I told you where we were heading for the next bounty.”

“Oh. So where are we heading?”

“I suppose you’ll find out when we get there.”

“Feliiix,” Sylvain whined.

Felix paid him no mind as he folded up the poster and his map. “That’s what you get for not paying attention,” he said, clicking his tongue to get Duchess moving. “What were you thinking about?”

Sylvain looked at him, surprised, answering quickly when he saw that Felix was quickly regretting that he asked. “I was just thinking about how nice it was to have a homestead.”

Felix furrowed his brow. “I never thought a philanderer like you would ever think about settling down,” he said wryly.

“I just think it’d be nice. Living in a house again, maybe raising some animals. Y’know, making an honest living.”

“We make an honest living.”

“I mean an honest living where we don’t get shot at.”

Felix didn’t look at him. “Hmph. You can live that life. It’s not for me.”

Sylvain would be lying if he said he’d never thought about it, never thought about giving up this life whenever he saw a gun aimed at Felix or the bruises from the fights Felix got into. Together, they felt invincible, but he knew they weren’t. They could only be lucky for so long. But this was the life Felix had always wanted — a life of danger, yes, but a life Sylvain knew Felix would always choose.

“I guess that’s true,” is all Sylvain said with a soft huff before they went on, Sylvain following Felix, as he always did, as he always would.

 

-

 

Sylvain didn’t think himself a particularly violent person. He liked to think he’d learned better, having gone through the things he did growing up, but perhaps certain things simply ran in the blood.

He jolted awake at the sound of gunshots, and he already had his revolver in his hand when his door shook as someone tried to break it down, the wood frame splintering before finally giving way. He fired before the intruder could raise his gun, rolling off of the bed and firing twice when another man appeared in the doorway. In the hallway, footsteps pounded like rolling thunder — there were more men shouting, women screaming, more gunshots. He looked at the dead men on the floor, their faces covered with black bandannas, and his mind immediately raced to Felix in the room at the other end of the hall.

Scrambling to his feet, he ran forward, barrelling the next man trying to get into his room into the wall, jamming his gun against his gut and pulling the trigger. Sylvain shouldered the body off and turned just in time to catch a glimpse of Felix being dragged down the stairs, and his blood ran ice cold in his veins.

“Shit,” he hissed as more men appeared, forcing him to duck back into the room as bullets flew past. He reloaded his gun, counting the shots, before pulling out his other gun and firing down the hall before they could finish reloading. His heart hammering against his throat, all he could think about was Felix — needed to find him, needed to get him back — but he forced himself to stay calm as he took out every assailant, moving from room to room for cover, until it was finally quiet.

He checked the rest of the inn, stepping over the corpses in the halls as blood dripped through the wooden floorboards. Whoever attacked them didn’t leave anyone alive, not even the other occupants; some of them were still lying in their beds.

Slowly descending the stairs, Sylvain swept his gaze around the saloon and the dead patrons slumped against the bar or on tables. Something banged underneath the bar, followed by a whimper. Sylvain slowly walked over, his gun still raised, and then looked behind it. The barkeep let out another whimper when he saw the gun aimed at him.

Though he spent many years pretending to be one, Sylvain was no idiot. The unfortunate thing about being in this business was it eventually earned you a reputation. An attack like this was planned, coordinated. Someone recognized them when they came to town. Someone told their bounty they were coming for him.

The barkeep didn’t even bother to try and lie. “Oh god please, I’m sorry, have mercy—”

“Tell me where they went.”

The bartender stared up at him, shaking his head. “They’ll kill me,” he whispered fearfully. “They’ll kill you too, you saw how many there were—”

“I’ll make sure they don’t.” Sylvain put on an easy smile, turned his gun to the side as if to shrug. “After all, I'm still here, aren't I?"

The bartender looked at him, managing a nervous laugh. He shakily got to his feet, his eyes darting around. “There’s an old mining shaft, a half day’s ride north. I-I heard that they hide out there. Please, you can take anything you want here, you’ll never see me again, just make sure you get them before they come for—”

Sylvain kept his promise and pulled the trigger, walking away before the bartender’s body slumped to the floor.

Outlaws were plentiful, but blessedly stupid — fond of theatrics, compulsively drawn to gloating. They took Felix alive when there were few reasons to do so. Maybe they found out who their families were, thought they could get a ransom, but it was more likely that they just wanted the prestige among their fellow men, to be made legends for besting the best. He had heard the stories of bounty hunters and lawmen strung up to be found, to scare the rest of them, but he put it out of his mind, focusing on the task at hand.

Their horses were still tied to the post, Lucky idling restlessly while Duchess pulled wildly at her reins, distressed. Sylvain shushed her softly, waiting for her to calm down until he approached, putting a hand on her muzzle. “I’ll get him back,” he promised as he untied both horses, climbing onto Duchess and whistling for Lucky to follow.

He rode through the rest of the night, through the morning, through two small towns, and didn’t stop until he found the mine hidden in a pass. Despite every instinct telling him to go on immediately, to find Felix, he waited, surveying the area from a higher vantage point. There were three men outside the entrance, trading shifts every couple of hours with three others coming from inside of the shaft. With enough dynamite, it would be easy enough to collapse the entire shaft, leaving them to suffocate, but that wasn’t an option, not with Felix in there.

As soon as the pass was plunged into shadow by the setting sun, Sylvain pulled his shotgun out of the saddle holster and made his way to the entrance.

Felix always told Sylvain he shot like a blind drunk, but the truth of it was that in most cases, Felix just had a quicker draw. Sylvain made it a point to be prepared to shoot what Felix didn’t kill. With his shotgun in hand, he stepped over the three dead men and walked into the shaft.

The barkeep was a coward but at least he wasn't a liar: Sylvain thought he had killed enough of them back at the inn, but there seemed to be no end to the number of outlaws hiding down here, like vermin scuttling in the shadows. It didn’t matter to him how many men stood between him and Felix, though.

If he had to, he would kill every last one of them.

 

-

 

By the time Sylvain made it to the bottom of the mine, his vision was starting to waver. Falling heavily against the wall to rest, he counted the remaining shotgun shells he had, the rest of his ammunition long gone.

His left shoulder throbbed with pain as he pressed his hand against it. The blood was indistinguishable against his maroon shirt, spouting from a wound inflicted by a lucky ricochet. He clenched his teeth as he pushed off the wall, pressing on. He needed to find Felix.

Finally, he saw him, deep in the lowest level of the mine. Among crates and minecarts, Felix was tied to a chair, gagged, struggling to escape. When he saw Sylvain, he tried to shout through his gag, his voice muffled, his head jerking to the left.

From behind a minecart, a man jumped out, gun in hand, but Sylvain was ready for him and smashed the butt of his shotgun into his face. The man — their bounty, Sylvain realized idly — cried out in pain, falling backwards and dropping his gun. He tried for his knife, only to drop it the moment he heard Sylvain cock his shotgun.

“You can have him! You can take him back!” the bounty cried. “I’ll pay you double, triple my bounty!”

Bounties usually ran. Some begged, bargained, knowing the price they had on their head.

“I surrender! I’ll go with you, I’ll turn myself in!” He shouted desperately as Sylvain walked toward him, kicking away his knife. Sylvain raised his gun, pointing it at his head. “Please!”

Few pushed their luck like this, thinking they were smarter, better than the ones that hunted them.

“Sylvain!”

Sylvain tore his gaze away from the sobbing man to look at Felix, who had managed to loosen the gag. Felix was breathing heavily from struggling, but he didn’t look like he was in pain. There was a bruise blooming on his jaw, a deep gash on his cheek. Sylvain could see that Felix’s wrists were red and rubbed raw, bleeding.

Felix looked at the bounty, then at him. “It’s not—”

The blast from his shotgun echoed through the empty shaft.

Sylvain picked up the knife before stepping over the remains of the bounty’s head and toward Felix, cutting off the ropes. He was afraid to look at Felix, afraid Felix would look at him like he was a monster, but when he reached out to touch him, his fingers trailing down the side of Felix’s face, Felix didn’t flinch away, didn’t look away. Sylvain shivered, dizzy with relief.

“Felix,” Sylvain said, smiling weakly. Felix almost returned it, his lips turning up at the corner, before his eyes widened with panic when he finally saw the hole in Sylvain’s shoulder.

“Sylvain,” Felix breathed, catching Sylvain just as he stumbled to his knees. “Shit—”

“I don’t think this is the time for that, darling,” he said with a groggy laugh when Felix started taking off his vest. Felix took the knife from him and shredded the vest into a long cloth; Sylvain bit back a cry of pain as Felix tied off the wound tight.

“You idiot,” Felix said, his voice shaking. “You fucking idiot—”

His head lolled forward heavily; Felix held him up with a hand against his cheek and Sylvain leaned into his palm. “I’ll be fine,” he murmured.

Felix moved around him, grabbed hold of the back of his belt, and pulled him up onto his feet, slinging Sylvain’s good arm over his shoulder. “We need to get you to a doctor.”

It was a long way back up the mine. Felix didn’t say a word as they trudged past all of the men Sylvain killed. Sylvain tried not to lean so heavily on Felix, but he felt weaker with each step he took.

“Felix,” Sylvain whispered, his breaths shallow. “Do you remember the promise we made when we were kids?”

Felix grunted as he dragged Sylvain forward. “Be quiet. Save your strength.”

“Do you?”

Felix didn’t look at him, his grip tightening around his wrist. “You’re not going to die,” he said firmly.

“If I do,” Sylvain continued serenely, “I want you to live a long happy life. Get that homestead. Settle down.”

“I told you,” Felix’s voice wavered, “I don’t want those things.”

Sylvain let out a breathless laugh. “I know. It’s what I want for you.”

Felix fell silent.

It was still dark when they finally emerged from the mine. Felix whistled for their horses; he climbed onto Lucky and pulled Sylvain on. “Hold on to me,” Felix said, pulling Sylvain’s arm around his waist, holding it against him as he started off out of the pass, whistling again to his horse to follow.

“I’m bleeding all over you,” Sylvain mumbled, nonsensical, but Felix must not have heard him over their horses’ galloping, over the wind.

He slipped in and out of consciousness as they rode; eventually, he saw the sun rising on the horizon, the sky a bloody orange. His ears rang in the eerie silence of dawn, still hearing the echoes of gunshots, the dying screams of men whose faces he had already forgotten. Out here, it was easy to get lost without a compass. They tried to keep a code, lines they refused to cross, but there were times when Sylvain had no qualms with taking a life.

Sylvain leaned against Felix, his cheek pressing against Felix’s neck. Felix was cold, colder than he was, hand holding Sylvain’s tight, but he was alive. Maybe one day he would even be safe. Sylvain smiled to himself, feeling an odd sense of peace. If he had to go, he thought he would be okay with going like this, holding Felix, his blood staining Felix’s clothes. Maybe this way, at least Felix would never forget him.

 

-

 

When Sylvain opened his eyes, he was mostly just surprised he could. His mouth was dry and he felt like absolute shit, worse than the time he got sick after they tracked a bounty up in the mountains for four days, but he was alive. He groaned when he tried to move; in an instant, a man appeared in his vision.

“Oh thank god, you’re awake,” the man said, sounding more relieved than even Sylvain felt.

He sat up slowly, wincing when he put weight on his left arm. He still had an arm though, which he supposed was a good sign. He looked down at his current clothes — not his own, plain and a little scratchy, but at least he wasn’t covered in blood anymore — and then around the room. It looked like he was in a doctor’s office. “Where’s—”

“He’s outside,” the man — the doctor — said, looking like he had been struck by the fear of God. “You were lucky the bullet passed through. You’ll just need to rest and regain your strength.”

With some extra bandages in hand, Sylvain stepped out of the doctor’s office and indeed, Felix was outside. Upon hearing Sylvain’s footsteps, he turned around. His expression was carefully blank. His hair was tied low and loose and the clothes he wore were new but plain like his own. He held Sylvain’s shotgun in his hands. He was beautiful, as always, even with the dark circles under his eyes, the scabbed cut on his cheek, the mottled bruise on his jaw. He was still the best thing Sylvain had ever seen.

Felix’s gaze flitted to Sylvain’s bandaged shoulder. Sylvain managed a smile. “It’ll heal,” he croaked, his voice weak from disuse, and Felix nodded. Felix glanced past him — Sylvain heard the door behind him close with a slam — before he turned around and started to walk to the inn. Sylvain followed.

He didn’t know if he should say something or if he should wait for Felix to say something, so the silence simply stretched. Felix helped him up the stairs, into the room, and then disappeared, returning shortly with a plate of food. He even cut the steak. If the mood wasn’t so somber, Sylvain would have teased him about it.

By the time he finished eating, it was night. He laid down on the bed, exhausted. Felix stayed in the chair, still as a statue, his hands clasped loosely between his knees. He still hadn’t said a word, and Sylvain still didn’t know what to say. He knew Felix, knew him better than anyone else, but it didn’t mean he knew everything. Even when they were young, when Felix cried, as he often did, over things Sylvain didn’t know how to fix, Sylvain only ever knew how to stay with him, to hold him until he stopped. He didn’t know how to parse this silence. He couldn't understand looks he had never seen before.

“Felix,” he finally said and Felix only glanced at him. “Come here.”

There was a language to the ways they touched each other. All it took was a light tug on Felix’s wrist to encourage him. Felix climbed onto the bed, mindful of his shoulder, letting Sylvain pull and tuck him against his body with his good arm. Sylvain wanted to tilt Felix's chin up, to get Felix to look him in the eyes, but he didn’t, not wanting to upset the precarious position they found themselves in.

“How long was I out?” he asked instead.

"Two days.”

Sylvain rested his wrist against Felix’s hip, his fingertips brushing against his back. Felix touched his chest with one hand, trailed his fingers down his stomach with the other. He still wouldn’t look at him.

“Felix,” Sylvain said softly. “Do you need…?”

Felix closed his eyes, the shadow of his eyelashes a smudge against his cheek. “Yes,” he whispered, like a plea.

Felix unbuttoned him, unbuttoned himself, his mouth falling open in a noiseless gasp as Sylvain pulled their hips together. Sylvain watched Felix as he bit his lip, as he got a hand around the both of them and moved, slowly, carefully.

“Sylvain,” Felix sighed softly, his breath wavering. “Oh—”

Sylvain threaded his fingers in Felix’s hair as he bucked against him, chasing the friction. “It’s okay, Felix. Come on.”

Their eyes met for a moment, held for another, before Felix turned away, pressing his face into his neck. “You didn’t have to—” he heard Felix say, his lips brushing against his neck, trailing off. Sylvain didn't ask what he meant to say. There were many things he didn't have to do — didn't have to kill that man, didn't have to touch him like this, didn't have to save him, follow him for all these years.

Sylvain pulled Felix against him, ignoring the pain in his shoulder to touch him, his fingers splayed against the curve of his back. "I wanted to,” he panted. “For you.”

Felix came with a choked gasp, his whole body quivering in his arms as he exhaled, Sylvain following him soon after. Felix's fingers twisted around Sylvain's shirt over his heart. Something had changed again. They stared at each other in the darkness like they were waiting for something, an epiphany maybe, or God striking them down. They had all of this sin between them but it always felt holy. Everything he did, he did for Felix, and that had been enough for him to believe them to be righteous. Sylvain wondered if Felix knew too, that it had only been a matter of time before all of the things they had done caught up with them. They waited, counting their breaths like it would be their last, waited until they finally fell asleep.

 

-

 

Strange looks followed them out when they left in the morning, but Sylvain had a feeling Felix didn’t intend to return to this town.

Felix didn’t say where they were going and Sylvain didn’t ask. Felix set the pace at a slow trot and rode beside him instead of leading like he usually did. They rode in relative silence, nothing but the beat of their horses’ hooves against the ground. Sylvain couldn’t remember the last time they simply rode like this, aimless, watching the sun rise and fall, the sky turning from a dusky blue to a midnight black, the moon hanging high.

Felix found a place to make camp. When Sylvain tried to get their bedrolls, Felix stopped him, pointing at a nearby log.

"Sit," he ordered.

"I can—"

"Sit," he repeated, leaving no room for argument.

Sylvain could only watch as Felix set up camp on his own. Even without asking, Felix knew what he needed. Felix wrapped a blanket around him, gave him food, even handed him his own secret whiskey bottle that Sylvain was always trying to dig up. "Drink a little bit. For the pain," Felix said, even though Sylvain had been trying to hide it.

They ate in silence, watching the fire, until Sylvain started nodding off. Felix herded him to the tent, following him with a roll of bandages. Sitting on his bedroll, Sylvain let Felix unbutton his shirt to change his dressings.

"How does it feel?" Felix glanced at him. “Your shoulder."

It was stiff, even when the bandages weren’t holding it in place. It still throbbed painfully, but not as badly as it did in the mine. He probably wouldn't be able to shoot a rifle until it healed completely. He felt restless, useless, and he didn't want to be. "I've got my other arm," Sylvain told him. “I don’t need two hands to shoot a revolver.”

Felix looked pensive as he smoothed the bandage flat, his hand resting against his chest.

They were never good with words. Sylvain couldn’t take back what he told Felix in the mine, didn’t want to, but he knew it was too much to ask Felix to give up the life he wanted. He wanted to tell him he would still follow Felix, do whatever it was he chose to do, even if he still wanted to do this. He spent most of his life trying not to be anything, to not have anyone expect anything from him, but he wanted to be something to Felix, even if it meant just being another gun, a tool, a warm body.

“There’s land up north.”

Sylvain held his breath. Felix met his gaze only briefly, as if embarrassed.

“It’s close to the mountains and the forest,” Felix continued. “I can go hunting. I can sell pelts.”

His heart skipped. Sylvain tried to cover up his shaky exhale with an incredulous laugh, a joke. “Giving up your gun? I never thought I’d see the day.”

Felix didn’t rise to the bait. “I can’t do it anymore,” he admitted quietly. “I don’t want to. It’s not worth losing you.”

Sylvain wondered if Felix could feel the sudden pounding of his heart. “You’d be okay without me. You could find someone—better,” he forced himself to say, even though it hurt to say, hurt to think about. He looked away. “You’re the one who’s always taking care of me anyway. I can barely skin a rabbit.”

“I don’t want anyone else.”

Despite his surging hope, a sardonic laugh escaped Sylvain's lips. “You really want to be stuck with a good-for-nothing like me?” Sylvain asked, so quiet he almost couldn’t hear himself.

Felix’s hand clenched into a fist against his chest. “You really are good-for-nothing,” Felix said fiercely. “You’re a lousy shot, you don’t listen to me or take anything seriously, you’re always cracking stupid jokes and flirting with women, but I don’t care.” His face was bright red and he still refused to look at Sylvain as his voice dropped to a whisper. “I don’t care about any of that. I just don’t want to be without you.”

Sylvain didn’t trust himself to speak. He hadn’t thought it was possible Felix couldn’t know, not when Sylvain had so obviously loved him almost as long as he had known him. If he was honest, Sylvain didn’t think he could even remember a time when he didn’t love Felix, when he didn’t want him in even the most innocent way.

Sylvain reached out to brush the hair out of Felix's eyes, his thumb skirting across Felix’s cheek, resting against it. He swallowed the lump in his throat and said, “We’ll get some animals, more horses.”

Felix finally looked up at him, apprehensive, his gaze softening when he saw that Sylvain was serious. “We don’t know how to raise animals,” he mumbled.

Sylvain laughed. “I’ll learn. We’ll figure it out. We always do.”

Felix leaned into his palm, cautious. “Yeah. We do.”

When Felix looked at him, his eyes were bright like stars in the night sky, and Sylvain suddenly felt brave. Holding fast to his courage, he leaned forward slowly, his nose bumping against Felix’s, and briefly brushed their lips together, eyes wide open when they broke apart. When Felix didn’t move away, Sylvain closed his eyes and kissed him again, firmer, his hand cradling Felix’s jaw, the way he wanted to that first night all those years ago, the way he’d wanted to every single day since.

“We’ll have a place of our own,” Sylvain whispered in a shuddering breath, his heart racing. “Just the two of us.”

When he opened his eyes again, everything had changed. It took his breath away, the bare and bright joy on Felix’s face that Sylvain hadn’t seen since they were children playing out their fantasies of freedom. Before he knew it, Sylvain had the rest of the wind knocked out of him as Felix tackled him to the ground, hands reaching up to hold Sylvain’s face, looking at him like this was all he had been waiting for, all he wanted, before he kissed Sylvain again, his mouth moving clumsily against his.

“You’re not allowed to leave me,” Felix breathed against his lips. "I'll kill you before I let you leave me."

“Oh darling,” Sylvain said, his heart overflowing as he held Felix tight against him. “I wouldn’t know the first thing about leaving you.”

 

-

 

With the money they — Felix — had saved over the years, it was easy enough to buy the land, the materials they would need to start building, the livestock. After that, for the first time in their lives, they found themselves working hard. It was different from the business dealings of their families, different from the work they did as roaming bounty hunters — it was straightforward physical labor. Working from sunrise to sunset, they put their new life together piece by piece, collapsing dead asleep on their bedrolls at the end of each day and waking up at first light to do it all over again. It was grueling but satisfying, knowing what they would have once it was done, and it spurred them on, gave them the motivation to work until finally one day, it was done.

Most of the land was for grazing, for the cattle and the horses, but they had a cabin for themselves, just big enough for the two of them. One bedroom — at Felix’s suggestion. “You’re not going to use it,” he had said when the subject of a second room came up, his ears red, and Sylvain could only agree.

Making one last round about the property, Sylvain returned to the cabin, sighing at the warm air as he walked in; Felix must have already started up the stove. Sylvain wanted nothing more than to fall into bed, but Felix was standing in the doorway of the bedroom like he didn’t quite know what to do.

“Would you like some company for the night?” Sylvain whispered in his ear. Felix glared, then swore at him when Sylvain swept him up into his arms and carried him in. Sylvain dumped him on the bed, laughing as he climbed on after him, bracketing Felix between his arms.

It had been months of stolen kisses, mostly innocent touches; now that they were finally alone, not a single soul for miles, Sylvain could hardly stand it anymore. He stroked Felix’s cheek with the backs of his fingers before he leaned down to kiss him softly, slowly, pulling away thoughtfully before leaning down to kiss him again, his tongue slipping easily into Felix’s mouth. It was thrilling, hearing the shifting of their clothes, every breath between them, the wet sound of every kiss without the sound of the outside world, of other people.

"Felix," Sylvain murmured against his neck. "What do you want?”

"For you to hurry up and fucking touch me," Felix snapped, turning to hide his face in the pillow in a sudden bout of shyness, biting back a moan as Sylvain tugged lightly on his hair. Felix had been waiting a long time too.

Sylvain smiled as he unbuttoned Felix’s shirt. They were finally here, in a place they could call home, a piece of the world they’d carved out for themselves. He could take his time touching Felix, exploring the planes of his body Sylvain had never had time to linger on before. He slid his hands up Felix's chest, his thumbs rubbing against his nipples. Did Felix always make these noises — this whine in the back of his throat, this quiet sigh, whenever Sylvain touched him? He could feel the heat radiating from Felix’s body as a flush brightened his skin.

“It's just us now, darling,” Sylvain said as he leaned down to kiss Felix again. “And we’ve got all the time in the world.”

 

-

 

1894

When Sylvain woke up, the other side of the bed was cold.

He stretched, shivering as he got out from under the blankets and shuffled over to the wardrobe, pulling out his usual work clothes: a denim shirt, pants and suspenders, a neck scarf. Once dressed, he looped his belt around his waist, put his guns in his holsters, and headed out for his morning chores.

He yawned as he walked over to the chicken coop, his breath fogging in the cold morning air. He spread out the feed and picked up any eggs lying around. Dropping those off at the cabin, he headed over to the stable. As expected, Lucky was gone; Duchess greeted him instead.

“Hey, girl,” Sylvain cooed, patting her on the forehead. “Mad that Felix didn’t take you out today?”

She snorted and Sylvain smiled, saddling her up so he could take the cattle to pasture. He made a quick loop around the property to check if any of the fences needed repairs before he left, riding out toward the forest. Riding along the edge of the brush, he stopped upon seeing Lucky grazing nearby, a couple of fowls already hanging from the saddle.

“Guess you’re too big to go in with him,” Sylvain said with a frown as he fed Lucky an apple. Lucky simply looked at him, unsympathetic.

He waited anxiously, as he always did, chewing on his own apple and pacing around, until the brush rustled, a figure emerging.

Sylvain whistled low as Felix dragged something behind him with a rope. “That’s a big one,” he said, his eyebrows raised and then furrowed as Felix got closer. “What is it?”

Felix dropped the rope and sniffed, rubbing his nose with the back of his sleeve. “A black bear. Well, some of a black bear.”

“A bear?”

Felix nodded, putting his hands on his hips. “It’ll be worth a lot of money. The trader's been wanting a bear pelt."

“That’s not—” Sylvain started before he looked at Felix’s quietly pleased face, his clothes — really, Sylvain’s clothes — covered in dirt, blood, fur and other assorted bits, his ears and nose cold-bitten red, and sighed. “Nevermind. Let’s just get you home.”

After heaving the bear pelt and meat onto Lucky’s back, Felix let Sylvain pull him up onto Duchess. Sylvain held him close to warm him up. “The meat will last us a long time too,” Felix said, leaning back against him.

Sylvain sighed again into Felix’s hair, the messy ponytail poking his cheek, and flicked the reins. “That’s great, Felix.”

Once back on their land, Sylvain dismounted at the house, letting Felix put the horses back in the stable and sort out the animals from his hunt. “I’ll get the water ready,” Sylvain called as he headed into the cabin. “Don’t even think about leaving your clothes in the room.”

A luxury they’d allowed themselves when they built the cabin was room for a tub. One thing they truly wouldn’t miss at all about their old life was bathing in cold rivers. The tub was nearly filled by the time Felix came in, thankfully without most of his bloodied clothes. Sylvain turned his attention to the last pot of water heating up over the stove, listening to the sound of clothes dropping to the floor with great restraint.

“You’re not coming in?”

“Not today,” Sylvain said sadly, hearing the water slosh around as Felix stepped into the tub, sinking into the water with a sigh. “Is it hot enough?”

“Mmhm.” Felix was looking at him when Sylvain finally turned around with the last pot of water. “You know, it’s not like you haven't seen me naked.”

“I can’t watch you take off your clothes,” Sylvain said with a sigh, pouring the water in carefully. “It’s practically a free show and I’m only a man.”

Felix snorted. “Give me the soap.”

Sylvain handed him the soap and brush. “Want me to help with your hair?” he asked, and Felix only glanced at him as he started to scrub.

“Do what you want,” Felix replied, which usually meant ‘yes.'

Kneeling by the tub, Sylvain pulled Felix’s hair loose and lathered in the soap. Felix leaned back against the tub, his own soap and brush forgotten, relaxing as Sylvain rubbed his scalp, running his fingers through the tangles in his hair. It was hard not to kiss him when he looked like this, his eyes half-closed, his face flushed from the steam, so Sylvain did; Felix obliged him, turning his head for a better angle, sucking on his tongue. Sylvain tried not to laugh at the look of deep betrayal on Felix’s face when he reluctantly pulled away.

“I have to head into town for some supplies,” Sylvain said, biting back another laugh when Felix shot him a look that was somehow both aroused and murderous. “You could come with me if you’re going to miss me that much.”

It was too late to assuage him; Felix’s wet soapy hair whipped him in the face as he turned away. “Just hurry up and come back,” he grumbled as he resumed his scrubbing.

Sylvain sighed. Some things just didn’t change.

 

-

 

Sylvain still had a few more chores to do after returning from town, so he didn’t get back to the cabin until dinnertime. Tired, he walked inside to the smell of stew, a crackling fire in the fireplace, and Felix sitting on the pile of pelts they kept in front of it. Sylvain’s stomach rumbled.

“Did you eat already?”

Felix didn’t look at him. “Mmhm.”

The stew was a little spicy, but he was used to Felix’s cooking by now. He ladled himself a bowl and sat at the table to eat, looking over at Felix, feeling a little of his energy returning. Felix’s hair was down, as it usually was when he was home.

“What’d you do today?” Sylvain asked.

“Nothing really. Finished my bath. Took a nap. Made stew.”

“You sure live a charmed life,” Sylvain said enviously. “I’m out there doing all the hard work while you enjoy the fruits of my labor.”

“I’m the reason we even have this place,” Felix countered and Sylvain laughed. He didn’t really have anything to say about that. Finishing up his stew, he rinsed out the bowl before walking over to Felix, his fingers brushing against his hair as he walked past.

“Did that woman proposition you again?”

'That woman' being the perfectly nice young lady they met on their first trip to the nearby town who asked, understandably, if either of them were married. Felix had never forgotten it. Sylvain smiled. “Jealous?” he teased.

Felix glared at him. Sylvain felt like this had happened before.

“What else am I supposed to do?” Sylvain asked as he sat down beside him. “You’re the one who decided you wanted to be a mysterious brooding recluse. It was hard work convincing the town that I’m a ranch hand who lives in your stable because I’m in love with your horse."

“Apparently you’re not convincing enough.”

“Or maybe I’m just too irresistible.” Felix cast him a dubious look. “Hey, I don’t think you’re allowed to look at me like that when you’re the one who keeps me around.”

Felix stretched, raising his arms up high, his back arching. Sylvain stared, belatedly realizing that Felix was wearing another one of his shirts. And nothing else. Felix let out a sigh, leaning back lazily. “‘Irresistible’ isn’t the word I would use.”

Sylvain swallowed, pulling his gaze back up to Felix’s face. “Yeah? What word would you use?”

Felix thought for a moment. “Maybe ‘irritating’.”

“‘Irritating,’” Sylvain repeated in disbelief as Felix turned toward him.

“Infuriating.” Felix put his hand on his chest and pushed him down onto his back, pulling his suspenders off his shoulders. “Maddening. You’re lucky I tolerate you.”

Sylvain propped himself up on his forearms and looked at Felix kneeling between his legs, his deft fingers undoing Sylvain’s belt, the button of his pants, pulling his shirt loose. “Is this you tolerating me?”

Felix finally pulled his cock out, holding him in his hand. “Barely,” he said with feigned disinterest, his eyes raking down Sylvain’s body.

“Fuck,” Sylvain groaned as Felix took him in his mouth. “I hope you don’t tolerate anyone else.”

Felix sucked leisurely on the tip, pulling off with a wet pop. “You were gone for so long I almost started thinking about it.” He dragged his tongue up the length of him, his gaze heated as he licked his lips. “Tolerating someone else.”

Sylvain knew what Felix was doing, but he couldn’t stop the irrational, possessive jealousy that flared from the pit of his stomach. Felix watched him, emitting a pleased hum as Sylvain curled his fingers in his hair. "I thought I gave you a good fucking last night," Sylvain said roughly.

“That was so long ago,” Felix purred, letting Sylvain guide his mouth toward his cock before swallowing him down hungrily.

It was a good thing they settled down when they did. He didn’t know how he would have survived if Felix was like this when they were still sleeping in tents and rented rooms.

It was obscene, the shameless moans Sylvain could feel against his cock, the slick sounds of Felix’s mouth, the way Felix’s lips could meet his fingers, wrapped around the base. Sylvain breathed slow, trying to control himself as he alternated between fucking his mouth until Felix choked and pulling him off to let him lap at the tip, kiss and suck along the length, smearing drool and come all over his lips, his cheeks. Felix was beautiful when Sylvain made a mess of him like this, when he looked up at him in a daze with tears clinging to his eyelashes, still wanting more. It would be so easy to come like this, but he knew he had to give Felix what he wanted.

Indulging in a few more thrusts, Sylvain pulled himself out of Felix’s mouth one last time; Felix gasped for breath, still mouthing at the tip of his hard cock as it bumped against his chin. His hair fell over his eyes, sticking to the sweat on his forehead, the sides of his face. Sylvain resisted the urge to push his hair back. “Come here,” he said, tugging Felix up to gather him into his lap, his mouth crashing against Felix’s in a sloppy kiss. He dipped a finger between Felix’s cheeks, letting out a strangled noise when he found it already slick with oil, his finger slipping easily into his hole. “God, you really did miss me, didn’t you?”

Felix only sighed against his mouth, tilting his hips back to get his fingers in deeper. Sylvain flipped Felix onto his back, lifting Felix’s hips.

As much as he liked taking his time spreading Felix open, he liked this too — Felix gasping as Sylvain pushed into him in one motion, moaning as he settled inside him. Sylvain rolled his hips, testing the slow drag of his cock in the tight heat of Felix’s ass, before he started fucking him slowly, steadily, his thumbs pressed in the divots of his hips.

"I wish you could see yourself, Felix," Sylvain murmured, sighing at how good it felt to be inside of him. “Beautiful.”

Felix was a dream, his hair fanned out around his head, wearing Sylvain’s shirt, so loose on him that it left little to the imagination. His eyes were dark and unfocused, his cock hard and dripping, bobbing against his belly as he moved in time with every long deep thrust. Sylvain dragged a hand up Felix's flank, shoving up his shirt to tease his nipple, earning himself a little whimper. He loved Felix with a little fight in him, refusing to show weakness even when they had sex, like it was a competition that he wanted to win, but he loved Felix like this too, needy and desperate, soft and pliant underneath him, trusting him enough to let him do this.

"Is this what you want? For me to hold you down and fuck you until you're begging me to stop?" Sylvain leaned over him, tilting Felix’s head back so he could nip at his neck. "Oh darling, would you even want me to stop?"

“Sylvain,” Felix panted, his hands twisting in Sylvain’s shirt as he grabbed onto his shoulders. “Sylvain, harder, please—”

Bracing his arm by Felix’s head, Sylvain obeyed, snapping his hips forward and hitting just the right spot to make Felix cry out in pleasure. He tried to keep himself from coming as he pounded into him, listening to the cadence of Felix’s rising gasps, slowing down as Felix’s grip tightened, stopping completely once he was buried deep inside of him, Felix’s body shaking against him, a fractured moan escaping his lips as he teetered on the edge.

“Do you think anyone else could give it to you like this?” Sylvain whispered as he held Felix’s hips still. He gripped Felix’s hips harder when Felix struggled to fuck himself on his cock. "I want to hear you say it."

Sylvain knew he was being cruel, but he couldn’t help it. His chest heaving, Felix glared up at him with such wrath that Sylvain might have thought he would actually kill him once he got the chance, but melted with a broken whimper once Sylvain started slowly pulling out. “No,” he moaned, desperate, digging his heels into his back. “Only you. It’ll only ever be you.”

It sent a pleasant shiver down his spine. “That’s right,” Sylvain said tenderly. “Only me.”

Finally, he let go, fucking Felix hard and fast the way he wanted, savoring the gasps falling from Felix’s lips until he was rewarded with a very immodest moan, Felix clenching tight around him as he came. Sylvain let out a low harsh groan, his hips stuttering as he finished deep inside of him, Felix’s hole milking him through his orgasm.

Once spent and soft, Sylvain pulled out and rolled off of Felix, his shirt sticking to the cooling sweat that had pooled on his back. The fire kept him warm as he wound down, along with Felix, who almost immediately curled up on top of him, boneless and content and uncaring of the sticky mess between them, and started loosening his scarf. Sylvain wrapped an arm around his waist, his thumb stroking his hip. He wondered if his fingers would leave bruises.

“Did I hurt you?” Sylvain asked, running a hand down Felix’s back.

Felix leaned into his touch. "No," he answered lightly as he pulled the scarf aside to mouth at the hickeys on Sylvain's neck from the night before, already hard at work making a few more new ones. "It was good.”

“A ringing endorsement.” Sylvain huffed a breath. “You know, if you want me to fuck you like that, all you have to do is ask."

Felix lifted his half-lidded gaze, then looked away, a little guilty. “Sorry,” he murmured. “I wanted to see what you would do.”

“How cruel,” Sylvain lamented with a sigh. “Toying with my feelings like that."

Felix rolled his eyes. “Like you don’t do it to me all of the time.”

Sylvain laughed, reaching out a hand to stroke Felix’s cheek, to run his fingers through Felix’s hair. “You know how I am for you,” he said softly. "You know how unreasonable I get when it comes to you."

Felix flushed a little. “Don’t be so dramatic,” he mumbled, nosing against his neck. “You know I love you.”

A moment passed. Sylvain blinked down at Felix, whose eyes widened almost comically. In the next moment, Felix bolted upright, his face quickly turning bright red.

“Say that again,” Sylvain said, sitting up and wondering if he had, perhaps, passed out during sex and was actually dreaming.

Felix squirmed like he wanted to run but Sylvain held fast, wrapping his arms around his waist. “No.”

Sylvain tried to catch Felix’s gaze. “You were mean to me, so say it again.”

Felix ignored his eyes resolutely. “No.” After a second or two, he shot a quick glance at him, then mumbled, “You already know.”

“I don’t,” Sylvain insisted, trying to hide his giddy happiness. When Felix didn’t relent, Sylvain sighed again. “You know, you were so mean to me, maybe I’ll go back into town, find some solace in a certain—” he chortled when he saw Felix’s jaw clench in unbridled fury, “—okay, okay, I get it.” Sylvain kissed his cheek apologetically. “I won’t joke about that anymore.”

Felix huffed and stopped struggling. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Sylvain brushed his hair back and pressed a kiss against his jaw. Felix wasn’t shy about sex, but he was still unused to gentle pointless touches, batting at him and running off like a cat whenever Sylvain wanted to just hold him. Sylvain supposed Felix was feeling magnanimous today, staying put and looking at Sylvain expectantly when he drew back. Sylvain smiled, feeling impossibly fond, and leaned in, pressing kisses down his neck, the hollow of his throat, his collarbone. When he looked at Felix again, Felix had grown even redder, steam practically coming out of his ears, so Sylvain, helpless, kissed him on the lips.

“I love you,” Felix blurted the moment Sylvain pulled away. He looked away, then back again. Then, softer: “I love you.”

Sylvain smiled wide and kissed him again, his heart skipping. It was intoxicating, like a shot of whiskey, warmth pooling in his belly. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Sylvain teased gently.

Felix gritted his teeth, embarrassed, curling his hands around Sylvain’s collar like he wanted to fight. “You have to say it too,” he demanded, indignant.

Sylvain laughed as he pulled Felix against him, holding him as he stood, carrying him toward the bedroom. “I love you,” he said softly in his ear. “I’ll say it so much you’ll get sick of hearing it.”

“I won’t,” Felix promised, his arms winding tight around him, his face hot against the crook of Sylvain’s neck.

 

-

 

Winter had finally come.

When Sylvain stepped outside, Felix was leaning against the column of the porch, watching the snow fall. He had his belt on, just his gun and hunting knife these days, a habit Sylvain was usually grateful for. Felix glanced at him as he approached.

“Put on a jacket.”

Sylvain leaned on the wooden railing beside him. “You’re wearing it.”

Felix crossed his arms. “You have other ones.”

“It’s fine,” Sylvain said with a smile. He looked out. “First snow of the year.”

Felix hummed.

It didn’t need to be said: the snow always reminded them of their childhood. It didn’t snow here the way it did there — just an inch or two, often melting once the sun was high. Sylvain thought about it sometimes, the place they came from, but he didn’t miss it. They were out of place here at first, but they’d never felt like they belonged there either.

“Do you think we were meant for this?”

Sylvain looked at Felix. Felix wasn’t much for thinking about the past, always looking forward, but Sylvain supposed that even he thought about it every once in a while, what their lives would have been like if things had been different, if they obeyed their families, if they never walked into that saloon. What their lives would have been like if they didn’t have each other. They were once heirs to legacies they didn’t want or care for; now, they would not be remembered for the names they long abandoned, would not be remembered as anything other than lost sons, nameless bounty hunters that came and went. They forfeited their wealth and prestige, gave up their fantasies of glory, for this quiet life where no one knew them.

“I do,” Sylvain answered. “I think this is exactly where we’re supposed to be.”

It was natural to want for a greater purpose, but when he felt Felix’s hand on his neck, saw his quiet smile before he kissed him, Sylvain couldn’t imagine being meant for anything other than this.