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One Inch from the Edge

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The day dawned, still and grey, same as it had every morning since Faraday had come galloping into Rose Creek with a company of mismatched hired guns, under the banner of Emma Cullen’s sharp-eyed vengeance.

He’d foregone drinking to excess the night before, in preparation for the day’s festivities — such as they were — but consciousness was still slow to take root. He scrubbed a hand over his face and rolled onto his side, stretching his free arm out across the lumpy mattress. It was empty, which probably shouldn’t have been surprising, considering that all the whores in town had fled for richer pastures on the coattails of Bart Bogue’s corrupt Blackstone agents, but struck him as unexpected all the same. He shuffled over as if on instinct to press his face to the thin pillow and took a deep, hopeful breath.

There was some scent still clinging to the fabric. Spicy and earthy and so masculine it might very well have been the lingering musk of Faraday’s own unwashed hair. His thoughts weren’t quite sparking hot enough yet to ignite into coherency, so Faraday heaved a sigh and nuzzled his cheek against the pillowcase once more before levering himself up to swing his legs over onto the floor. The warped wooden boards were cool under his bare feet, and creaked ominously beneath his weight when he rose.

Coffee, he decided blearily. And a smoke. Even foggy and distorted as he felt, he was reasonably certain that everything would make more sense on the other side of indulging his two least dangerous addictions.

He staggered over to his clothes, which were moldering in a haphazard pile in the corner of the room where he’d shucked them off the night before, and managed after a few false starts to extricate his long johns. They were powdered with dirt and stiff in more than one spot with dried sweat, but Faraday shimmied into them even so, pushing the sleeves up to his elbows. He pulled his trousers on next, and didn’t bother with a shirt, electing instead to shrug into his vest and button it into place.

His socks, if memory served, were balled up in his boots, so all that remained was to gather his hat from the bureau and dig up his neckerchief, wherever it had disappeared to—likely fallen down the gap at the back of the bureau where it stood a little way out from the wall, or kicked thoughtlessly under the bed as Faraday had wrestled free of his wardrobe the previous evening.

He pressed his fingers to his eyes, scrubbing the sleep from the corners, and plucked his hat up to settle it sloppily over the crown of his head. He was surprised to discover a little square of fabric neatly folded underneath. Not the garish paisley of Faraday’s usual neckerchief, but a piece of raw-edged linen that looked like it had been cut from a shirt. There was a faint pattern to it. Just a fuzzy sort of blue-grey striping against the familiar bleached white weave, but it was flashier than anything Faraday himself would generally wear, missing neckerchief notwithstanding. He’d nicked that particular piece off a clothesline in passing, when hay fever caught up to him something awful in the grasslands up near Oregon, and held onto it out of pragmatism more than any latent taste for finery.

He brushed his fingers over the innocuous garment that had presumably been left in its place and relished the texture. It was nearly as soft as the silk of Faraday’s own neckerchief, either from continuous wear and frequent washing, or else it really had been far too fine a piece of frippery in its previous life to be sacrificed for such banal repurposing.

Faraday stroked it once more, reverent, and then tied it clumsily around his neck with fingers still stiff from slumber. As he ducked his head, he caught another whiff of that familiar, spiced earth scent, so he brought the kerchief up over his nose and breathed deep.

Slightly more awake this time, a patchwork of memories flickered through Faraday’s mind in disjointed fragments. The smug white curl of a smile in a strong, tanned face. The practiced press of callused fingers, digging bruises into Faraday’s hips. The sweet, hot scrape of a well-manicured beard against the tender skin of his inner thighs.

Vasqeuz. Of course.

Faraday snorted and tugged the neckerchief back down to pool around his throat. It was just like that sentimental bastard to make a silent declaration like this on what may very well be their last morning among the living. He shook his head and tromped downstairs into the saloon proper, where he found a handful of townsfolk and Sam Chisolm himself taking a last minute look at a couple of maps they had rolled out across a table.

“Mr. Faraday,” Chisolm greeted, as Faraday came strutting up to his shoulder. “Good of you to join us.”

Faraday responded with a jaw-cracking yawn, after which he smacked his dry lips and blinked a couple of times, scratching his stomach through his shirt for good measure.

Chisolm didn’t even bother to roll his eyes.

“What’s a man gotta do to get a cup of coffee around here?” Faraday inquired, in a drowsy rasp.

Chisolm hooked a thumb over his shoulder without looking. “Pot on behind the bar. Carted it over fresh from the restaurant just a few minutes ago.”

Faraday tapped the brim of his hat in thanks and meandered over, helping himself to a tin cup and a hearty measure of a hot, dark brew that was so bitter it made his mouth pucker. He drained half the glass and refilled it, then started pawing through his pockets in search of his smokes. He had a couple of cigarillos still tucked into his vest, with a half-used cardboard sleeve of matches.

He slipped one free and slid it behind his ear, and then wandered back to lean over the table and peer down at the maps everyone seemed so enraptured by. “Everything alright?”

“Coming together nicely,” Chisolm confirmed, sparing him a quick, unconcerned glance. “Just revisiting some of the finer details before we put our plan into action.”

Faraday nodded into a sip of his coffee. “Where’d the Mexican get off to?”

“Down the church, I expect. Wandered through an hour so ago on his way out. I gather he wanted to check up on a couple of things that might yet need doing.” The pointed implication in the sentence being that Faraday ought to have gotten a similarly early start to his day, despite the fact that his greatest responsibilities in this mess were, one: setting off a minor explosion, and two: managing not to catch so much lead from the invading Blackstones that it put him below snakes.

He hummed an acknowledgement and took his leave without further comment, downing the rest of his coffee as he went. He left the empty cup on a table near the entrance and pushed through the swinging doors and out into the milky morning.

The church stood sentinel at the end of the street, the fire damage to its facade swiftly and inexpertly repaired, leaving gaps aplenty for the townsfolk who would be holing up in its consecrated protection to shoot through. The sun was low to the ground behind it, trickling gold through the long grass and spilling across the gravel in the churchyard in little, coin-bright points of light.

Faraday retrieved the cigarillo from behind his ear and tucked it over his lip, lighting it as he picked his way down the wide, unpaved avenue. He could hear Vasquez hollering when he was ten feet out, issuing instructions through his thick accent, interspersed with the occasional brisk aside in his native tongue and peppered through with barks of good-natured laughter.

A couple of townsmen came scuttling out as Faraday approached. They ducked their heads by way of salutation but hurried on without stopping to chat, scurrying in the direction of the restaurant on some last minute errand. Faraday spared them an absent wave and hopped up the shallow few stairs leading into the church proper.

They hadn’t replaced the doors yet, so Faraday contented himself with leaning against the jamb and taking in the spectacle.

Vasquez was about as done up as Faraday had ever seen him, in his usual black hat with a dark leather vest over a crisp white shirt, ostentatious buckle glittering at his narrow waist and spurs peeking out from under the hems of his finely tailored black trousers in vicious spikes of silver. He turned his head, just a little, and sure enough, there was a familiar scrap of paisley silk knotted at his throat. Faraday chuckled to himself, an amused stream of smoke curling from the corner of his mouth, and shook his head.

A few of the townsfolk glanced over in his direction, nodding at him or lifting their hands in greeting past where Vasquez was holding court. Vasquez, thus alerted to the presence of someone behind him, wheeled around to pinpoint the source of the disturbance, and his face split wide in a grin when he found Faraday loitering there. He crossed the floor in a couple of long, lazy strides and came to lean his shoulder against the wall next to Faraday, body angled out into the room.

“Buenos días, dormiloncito,” he greeted, dark eyes sparkling with amusement.

“S’too early for that Mexican shit,” Faraday muttered, turning his head up so Vasquez could see the fond tilt of his smirk. For a long moment, they just looked at each other. Faraday felt poised on the cusp of giddiness, which was unbecoming on such a morning for a number of reasons, though knowing so did little to dull the sensation. He laughed again, low and short with smoke streaming from his nostrils, and ducked his gaze down to his feet. He scuffed the toe of his boot against the floor, drawing a line through the faint lingering powder of ash, and reached up to pluck pointedly at the neckerchief around his own throat. “Think I’ve got something of yours.”

Vasquez hummed, putting his head to one side, and crossed his arms over his chest. He flicked his eyes down to where Faraday was still fiddling with the fraying edge of the fabric and then back up again.

“Did you come to return it to me?”

There was another question lurking just behind it. Faraday could barely make out the shape of it through the low rumble of Vasquez’s voice, the glint in his eye, the rich, welcome heat of his tone. He closed his lips over his cigarillo and sighed a breath, turning to exhale over his shoulder and peer out into the empty street at his back. When he turned to face Vasquez again, he tapped the ash off the end of his cigarillo and stubbed the cherry out against the wall, grinning when the other man reached up and slapped at his hand to stop him.

He returned the half-smoked stub to his vest pocket and straightened up to square off against Vasquez properly. He and Vasquez were almost of a height, but with the latter still slouching against the wall, Faraday found himself a good inch or so taller, and he took advantage of that to step in and loom.

“I came to get your help with something,” he said, gratified by the way that Vasquez immediately sobered, a small, serious furrow springing to life between his brows. “Gotta rerun one of the wires from that old plunger we dug up.”

Vasquez stood to attention with a short nod and ushered Faraday out into the brightening day. They made their way to the empty storehouse on the edge of town in companionable silence, shoulders brushing occasionally as they walked.

Realistically, replacing a wire was something that Faraday would have been able to handle well enough on his own, even if it had been true, but Vasquez seemed disinclined to mention this as he ambled along at Faraday’s side. When they made it down to the storehouse, he circled around toward the side of the building in Faraday’s wake, reaching up to inspect the twin lines of insulated cable they had draped up over the door frame a few days prior.

“Looks fine to me, guero,” he frowned, confused.

Faraday shook his head and jerked a thumb toward the gently rustling fields. “Something chewed through the insulation, out near the payload,” he protested, shouldering the squeaky little door open. “Might well render the whole thing a dud if the current’s interrupted. I’ve got a coupla spares coiled up in here. Won’t take but a few minutes to get it all sorted.” He beckoned Vasquez with a hand and disappeared into the shaded interior.

Vasquez ducked his head when he entered, hand perched loosely against the crown of his hat to keep it in place, and so he wasn’t looking to see Faraday where he was waiting just beyond the door, ready to pounce.

Faraday got his hands curled over the lapels of Vasquez’s vest, swinging him around and walking him backwards with quick, pointed steps that didn’t allow the other man to get his feet properly underneath him until his shoulders hit the wall so hard the little shack juddered around them.

“Guero, what - ” Vasquez started, but Faraday cut him off, leaning in to cover Vasquez’s mouth with his own.

Vasquez made a startled sound but melted easily into the kiss, bringing one hand around to the small of Faraday’s back and reaching up to curl the other possessively through his hair, hard enough that he knocked Faraday’s hat into the dirt.

“You think you’re real cute,” Faraday muttered into the wet heat of Vasquez’s mouth, and swallowed down the answering chuckle.

He sank his teeth gently into the pulp of Vasquez’s lower lip, mouth curling at the corners when the other man caught a moan in the back of his throat and opened up for him. There wasn’t time for much more than this — the slick, sweet slide of Vasquez’s tongue curling against his own — but Faraday was greedy enough for this strange, tender intimacy that had sprung up between them to take what he could get and covet it until such time as he could glut himself anew.

“Trading goddamn favors like maidens in a fairytale,” he continued, pressing against Vasquez from chest to hip and slotting a thigh between Vasquez’s slim, strong legs.

Vasquez grinned, broad and unrepentant, and fairly well purred when he observed, low and smug, “You look good in my things, cariño.” He slipped his hand free of Faraday’s hair and brushed his knuckles along the blade of Faraday’s jaw, down the column of his throat. He curled his fingers over the soft folds of the neckerchief and tugged it down to expose the hollow between Faraday’s collarbones, staring rapturously for a moment before he breathed, “Que bonito eres, amorcito,” and sucked a mark against the tender skin.

Faraday gasped, a pitiful little choked off sound that he speared with his teeth on its way out, and tilted his head back to provide Vasquez more room to maneuver.

It was unfair, he considered, that they were reduced to this — swapping spit in the musty gloom of an old, abandoned feed shed under the guise of resetting an unsprung trap — while Emma Cullen and all the rest of the cornpone farm folk in this little hamlet wore their devotion pinned at their breast, bald and unashamed. Faraday, who had never been one to fuss with words where action would do, ducked his head down to Vasquez’s, noses brushing as he sought the other man’s mouth once more. He closed his eyes and kissed Vasquez hard, with all the ruthless weight of his longing behind it.

Vasquez, for his part, had become surprisingly adept at translating Faraday’s bodily shorthand over the brief course of their acquaintance. He tightened his arm around Faraday’s waist, pulling him in even closer, and brought the hand at Faraday’s throat up to cup his cheek, tilting his head to change the angle and gentling the kiss to something slower and sweeter and infinitely more painful.

“I know, guero,” he soothed, when Faraday whined in protest. “I know.” He kissed him again, and let it linger.

Faraday clung onto the kiss until he was dizzy with it, reeling from the need to breathe. He pulled away just far enough to gasp, forehead nudging Vasquez’s and knocking his hat off kilter. Despite the fact that they were twined around one another like so much creeping ivy, Faraday couldn’t quite bring himself to look the other man in the eye. He took a couple of shallow, shuddering breaths and began the laborious process of unfurling his fingers where they were fisted in the supple leather of Vasquez’s vest so tightly they ached with the strain.

He flattened his palms against Vasquez’s chest, smoothing his vest back into place and marveling at the steady hammer of his heart against his ribs. Faraday licked his lips and risked a glance up at Vasquez’s face.

He was immediately pinioned in place by the open adoration gleaming bright and hot in that dark gaze. He swallowed thickly around the jagged knot that had sprung to life, high and tight in his throat, and shifted his right hand up just high enough to brush the familiar silk tucked into Vasquez’s collar. His voice was a ragged rasp when he breathed, “Best keep this safe for me. I’ll be wanting it back when we’re through.”

Vasquez caught Faraday’s hand and guided it up to his mouth, brushing a kiss over his knuckles.

“Por supuesto, querido mío.” His words curled warm and wet across Faraday’s palm, and he pressed a kiss there, too. “I trust you will take similar care, verdad?”

“Suppose I’ll have to,” Faraday agreed, aiming for louche and long-suffering though his voice was a little shaky yet to truly convince. “Can’t imagine what kind of punishment a dandy like yourself’d see fit to inflict if I return it with so much as a stain.”

Vasquez snorted, and kissed Faraday’s hand once more before letting him go entirely. Faraday retreated just enough to pull himself back into proper order, retrieving his hat from the dirt and brushing it off against his leg before he returned it to its rightful place. Vasquez stayed slumped against the wall, watching him, with his arms crossed over his chest and one side of his bee-stung mouth carving a dimple into the plane of his cheek.

“Quit looking at me like that,” Faraday grumbled.

Vasquez held his hands up and pushed to his feet. “Lo siento, guerito,” he apologized, stepping up into Faraday’s space and tugging playfully at the hem of his vest.

“Watch it,” Faraday snorted and swatted at his hand, though it did little to dissuade the other man’s attentions. “You’re fixin’ to get us run outta here on the end of a pitchfork, ‘fore the real fun even starts.”

“If memory serves, you were the one who lured me to the edge of town under false pretenses and pounced like a wildcat.”

Faraday narrowed a glare in his direction. “Don’t you have business to take care of at the church?”

Vasquez hummed, noncommittal, and curled his palm over Faraday’s hip, thumb sweeping in absent arcs from his waistband up under his vest and back. He heaved a deep, slow breath through his nose and canted his head, fixing Faraday with a dark, hooded gaze that he couldn’t quite define.

“What?” Faraday asked, low and wary.

Vasquez considered him for a moment more and then shook his head. He darted in to drop a kiss against Faraday’s cheek and then loped over to the doorway. He paused when he got there, and gestured to the neckerchief that Faraday was busily resettling to give himself something to do beyond trotting along at Vasquez’s heels like a hungry stray.

“I want that back, at the end of all this,” he reiterated. “No matter what shape it’s in. Me entiendes?” He arched a single, speaking eyebrow.

Faraday swallowed and nodded. His face felt hot and his fingers were shaking where he tugged the neckerchief into place, though Vasquez was, blessedly, just far enough away that he might not have noticed.

“Si, cowboy,” Faraday agreed, low and heavy with promise. “I’ll get it back to you. Little worse for wear, maybe, but.” He shrugged and nodded again, and Vasquez mirrored the gesture.

He stood in the doorway for a long, silent moment, the simmering sunshine limning his silhouette in bright, buttery gold, and then rapped his knuckles twice against the frame and turned to go. Faraday waited a few seconds and followed. It was a little early yet to pull his kerchief up over his nose, but as there was nobody around to give him grief about it, Faraday allowed himself the indulgence.

Bogue would be here, soon, with a veritable army of Blackstones and mercenaries at his back, but Faraday hadn’t survived the War Between the States just to kick the bucket here, in some podunk little nowhere, under contract to buy back his bad-tempered horse. He settled in a patch of sunlight and leaned back against the wall of the shed, basking in the heat and the light and that sweet, familiar scent while birdsong skimmed through the air around him. If he turned his head just so, he thought he could make out the faint, delicate jingle of Vasquez’s spurs as he returned to his responsibilities.

There was a funny feeling in Faraday’s chest — something tight and tender that he didn’t care to look at too closely until he came out on the other side of this conflict, preferably in a similar condition to that in which he found himself currently. Whatever it was, he was confident that it would keep.

For the moment, Faraday simply closed his eyes, tilted his head back, and breathed deep.