Coming to Consciousness

by Farad
Notes: for the Mag 7 Daybook Bingo prompt, "Meanwhile, back at the bath house". Special thanks to the wonderful people at WEC for the betas and advice, Dail and Huntersglenn especially, all mistakes my own.
Inspired by Van, who mentioned on Daybook that Dale Midkiff suffered back pain.
Set right after "Wagon Train".

"There is no coming to consciousness without pain." - Carl Jung

It had been a long, hot, dusty, and in the end, frustrating trip - well, except for the dynamite. That had been as much fun as he had remembered from The War. More, really, since he hadn't been allowed to do the things he'd wanted with explosives during The War - certainly hadn't had the chance to slingshot them around!

But that had been the most fun of the trip, and it hadn't been enough to make up for the lack of receptive women, the lack of beer, the fact that the people they were there to protect were not happy to have them there, and worst - far worst - sleeping on the ground and sitting in the saddle, night after night, day after day.

His back was a fire of pain.

Which was why, when they made it back to town, all he could see was the bath house.

"You comin' to the saloon?" JD asked, sliding off his horse, as all of them were.

He glanced down to the younger man and grinned. "I'll be along - but you won't be there. Don't you have a letter to deliver?"

JD rolled his eyes, but even in the thick shadows of evening, his face darkened in a blush. "It's too late for me to be going out there - Nettie would have my hide!" He turned toward Tiny who was welcoming back the others, his employees gathering up their horses and guiding them away.

Now, all Buck had to do was get off his own horse.

"You coming?" Chris' voice was dry and low, and Buck looked down to find the other man looking up at him, one dirty-blond eyebrow arched in both humor and knowledge. Chris knew him better than anyone else here - than anyone else alive. "Or am I gonna have to drag you off that horse?"

Which was one of his ways of offering help. The other was that he was on the side of the horse Buck could most easily get down from, even though the horse wouldn't like it too much.

Buck grinned down at him but steeled himself. Slowly, he leaned forward, ignoring the flare of pain that burned up his spine at the movement. It was an effort, but he swung his left leg over his horse's back, less worried about that than about what would happen when his foot hit the ground.

The hand that came to rest on his back was warm and welcome and helped to hold him up as his back locked when his foot touched the dirt. For a few seconds, he clung to the saddle horn with one hand while he willed his legs to do what was needed.

"I'll have a bottle," Chris said, his voice low as he eased away from Buck. "You can get your own beer when you get there."

Buck nodded, too intent on keeping himself upright. Distantly, he heard Chris say, "Tiny, you see to the horses - Judge Travis will be looking for the bill."

As Tiny agreed, Buck's back slowly unlocked and he was able to breathe, and then to slowly ease his grip on the saddle. By the time Angus, Tiny's oldest boy, came close enough to take Buck's horse, he was standing on his own.

"You want your saddle bags?" the youngster asked, stepping over to pull them from the back of the saddle.

"Yeah," Buck said, taking a deep breath then slowly, carefully, reaching out one hand. He hoped his back would accept the weight, would let him save some face. He'd remembered to tie off the frying pan, coffee pot, and all the heavy gear to his saddle or given it out to some of the others. JD had carried the coffee pot, and Chris had taken the heavy frying pan . . .

Angus held out the bags, but his shirt was so thick that Buck couldn't tell how much effort he was putting into holding them.

Just before his fingers brushed Angus', another hand swept in, catching up the slender leather strap that connected the two bags. "I got this," a dry, raspy voice said softly, and then Vin stepped into the space between Buck and Angus. "Buck, you heading to the bath house?"

He turned - or tried to; his neck wasn't as loose as he'd expected it to be and before he could see Vin straight on, his neck caught. But he saw enough to know that Vin was hefting the saddlebags over one shoulder as he turned toward the main road. He already had his own on one side, and the two sets bounced rhythmically as he walked away, mirroring each other.

"You ain't gotta - " Buck started, but Vin paused on the other side a few feet away, talking to Tiny. By the time Buck caught up, Tiny was nodding and moving off, the echo of his 'We'll do it' fading into the late afternoon.

Buck started again, but before the first sound came out of his mouth, Vin cut him off. "Reckon I owe you an apology for what happened back on the trail," he said, his voice mild. He didn't look at Buck, looking ahead as though he weren't familiar with every step of the short walk between the livery and the bath house. "Shouldn't have let it get to me."

Buck would have laughed if he hadn't hurt so bad. Instead, he smiled. "You'd have been a strange sort of man if that had been the case. You got nothing to be sorry about - I should have known that things between you and her were - well, not just funnin'. Don't know that I've ever seen you with a woman before that, but I wasn't thinking about that."

"No reason for you to be," Vin answered, but he turned to meet Buck's gaze. "Don't reckon my love life's nearly as interesting as yours." He grinned, but there was something sad in his expression as he looked away.

They had reached the bath house, the air growing hotter from the large fireplaces where the water was heated, the smells of different soaps and shaving lathers mixing in the air and stirring memories of home and comfort in Buck. His back loosened just a little as he stepped up onto the walkway and he sighed.

As Vin reached for the door, it opened from the inside, and they stepped back to let several men pass, nodding and touching their hats in polite greeting. Then Vin led the way in, stopping at the counter and dropping a handful of coins onto it. "Two full tubs," he said to Charlie, the bathman on duty.

"Take a few minutes to heat up the water," Charlie agreed, scooping the coins off the counter. "Saturday's always busy. Two tubs in the back are free, though, if you want to head on back. Need soap?"

"I'm good," Vin said, glancing back to Buck.

"Me, too," Buck agreed, following Vin. As they moved through the big building toward the back, passing through the corridor created by sheets and towels draped over long lines of rope, Buck realized that it really was Saturday; he could hear the low murmur of women's voices from the front of the bath house, could smell the perfumes and lotions that were decidedly not for cowboys. His back loosened up even more as the blood rushed to other parts of his body, and he recalled the other reasons he had been ready to leave the wagon train.

But as they entered the curtained area at the very back of the large room, where the bigger tubs were kept, his mind drifted back to something he said earlier, something that he had meant at the time - meant even now - but had never given a great deal of attention to. He looked at Vin, watching as he walked to the tub in the far corner. Vin took off his hat then put down the saddlebags, his own to one side, but then he took up Buck's and turned around. When he saw Buck staring at him, he frowned.

"Where you want this?" he asked, his face tightening a little as he studied Buck.

Buck gestured toward the bench near the next tub, the one he stood near. "Here, thanks," he said. Some part of him, a big part of him, knew it was a stupid question and that he really had no right to ask, but before that part could get control of his mouth, the words were already out. "You're a good-looking man, Vin - damned fine looking. Why is this the first time we've seen you with a woman? Surely you ain't that worried about that damned bounty."

Vin straightened, squaring his shoulders. The blue of his eyes seemed to lighten, as if they turned to ice, and his voice was almost as cold as he said, "I guess I ain't as comfortable with women as most men," he said as he dropped Buck's bag on the bench. "And I do worry about that damned bounty - my ma learned the hard way that men with trouble from the law don't stick around, no matter what they promise, and I swore I'd never do that to a woman."

Which was why he had walked away from the Richmond woman when she'd gone back to her husband. Not because he didn't care for her - in fact, if Buck had to guess from the look on his face now and the set of his body, Vin had cared too much for her.

He held up a hand as he said, "I didn't mean no disrespect, then or now. All I meant was - " What? What had he meant?

But Vin turned away, shaking his head. "I ain't you, Buck - hell, none of us are you. Ain't nothing wrong with that, either, just - don't go thinking that we all want the same things out of life."

Which did sum up the thing that had started this whole mess, now that he thought about it.

Neither one of them said much as Charlie's boys started hauling in the buckets of water, dumping them into the big tubs. When they were about half full and the boys were coming back faster, cutting the hot with the cold, Buck struggled to get his boots off without having to bend over. As he unbuttoned his shirt and slipped it off his shoulders, he glanced over to find Vin already shimmying out of his pants. He was a fine looking man, long and lean, all muscle. But his back was a patchwork of scars, some old and faint, others newer and wider. And over them all were a fine lattice of thin red lines. Buck knew that pattern and those welts themselves.

Charlotte Richmond had gotten her claws into Vin in more than one way. As Buck glanced down, he saw the red lines fade, to be replaced by crescents that dotted the swell of Vin's ass. Oh, yes, she had gotten into him. And he'd gotten into her.

Which answered one of the questions, not that Buck had had a lot of doubt about it.

He was distracted from his musings about Vin by the effort of getting in the tub. He was barely aware of Vin doing the same, nearby, the splash of water and the long exhale of breath just registering in his awareness before he bent his knees and sank down, slowly, his hands clutching at the sides of the tub so hard that his knuckles hurt.

It was pain and pleasure, his back aching with the new position but his muscles loving the heat - and heat it was, almost too hot. His feet and the tender skin of his thighs and groin burned, and he almost rose back up, but his back caught and he could do nothing but sink further down into the steaming water.

After a short time, when his balls had stopped trying to climb back inside, he relaxed a little more. Slowly, for the first time in days, the pain in his back eased, and he thought it might just feel as good as sex.

Almost. It had been over a week - far too long. He was tired of taking things in hand - even though right now, his muscles completely relaxed, the pain gone, the water now at the perfect temperature, his fingers were moving slowly, rhythmically, back and forth -

"Nate has an ointment that will help with that."

Buck jerked, water sloshing over the side of the tub as he pulled his hand away. He turned to find Vin leaning back in his own tub, his eyes closed. The curls of his hair hung limp in the humid air and sweat beaded on his face, but he looked comfortable.

"An ointment?" Buck asked, thinking of some of the advertisements he'd read in the back of some of JD's dime novels, advertisements for lotions that 'soothed the skin on all the delicate parts of the body'.

Then he realized Vin had said it and he looked over again. But Vin's eyes were still closed, his head resting against the back of the tub. "For your back." Vin said and Buck could have sworn he saw a twitch at the corners of Vin's lips.

Buck frowned, his fingers reluctantly drifting away from their sport. "My back? What makes you think something's wrong - " He cut himself off, though, as Vin rolled his head against the back of the tub, turning to face him. Vin's eyes opened slowly, blinking slowly as if he were waking up even though Buck knew perfectly well he hadn't been asleep.

And he knew perfectly well that Vin Tanner was one of the most watchful men he'd ever met. Vin had probably known about Buck's back pain before it had set in good.

Amused at his own foolishness, Buck chuckled, then asked, "You really think one of Nathan's ointments will help more than it hurts?"

Vin shrugged slightly. "Works for me." He turned away, closing his eyes again, and Buck stared at him. He opened his mouth, the question almost off his tongue and over his lips, before he caught it.

Before his brain caught up with that had just been said. As the words replayed through his mind, he recalled the way Vin often stood, leaning against a wall or a railing, one hip cocked to one side. Even when he stood, he often leaned, and it occurred to Buck that there might be a reason. A reason similar to his own.

And that if it were a reason similar to his own, then Vin was sharing something with him, something that he didn't tell most other people.

Sloshing water drew him out of his thoughts and he looked to find Vin washing himself. He'd dunked under the water, his hair plastered to his head and water running down his face and shoulders. His eyes were closed and water droplets caught on the ends of his eyelashes, like tears.

For the woman he had lost, and the life he couldn't have. For the life he lived now, alone, afraid to love.

Buck stared, caught up in his own imaginings, until Vin shook his head and water sprayed across about the small space, peppering him like rain. Cold rain.

"Hey!" he said, turning away and raising his hands, and in the doing, splashing water himself.

"What?" Vin asked, sounding innocent. And maybe he was. "Water's getting cold - and I'm getting hungry. If you want to stay, you might get the boys to bring you back more hot water." He scrubbed his fingers through his hair, a sliver of soap trapped between one thumb and palm, then he ducked under the water again, his knees rising higher and the water sloshing.

Buck thought about Vin's suggestion of getting more hot water, but his back wasn't hurting as much and other parts of him - some of his favorite parts - were tingling more than they had been since before the stage had brought the Judge into town.

And he did miss the smell of beer. But as he started to finish up his own bathing, he thought a little more about what Vin had said, about apologies and about friendship.

Vin was already pulling on his pants as Buck caught up his towel and started to dry off. "Reckon Chris will be a little touchy for a while," he said, running the towel through his hair. "But don't let it worry you none. His barks worse 'n his bite, especially since - well, you know. He's lost so much that he don't take well to losing anything else, not once he's let himself get comfortable."

He pulled the towel off his head, moving it down to scrub at the water on his chest. As he opened his eyes, he found Vin looking at him, his brow scrunched into worry lines and his lips pulled into a thin line.

Buck wondered what he'd said, but before he could ask, Vin's face cleared and his lips twitched, the corners rising just a little into the smallest of grins. "Thanks," he said nodding to Buck as he turned to pick up his shirt. "I didn't think of it that way, but I reckon you're right."

"Well, hell, yes, I'm right," Buck said, chuckling. "You give him a little time and he'll be all right - hell, he'll probably buy you a beer tonight, or share his whiskey bottle. Just like nothing happened."

Vin nodded, pulling together the rest of his gear. Buck was still working on himself, trying to decide on which shirt and bandana to put on, but he slapped Vin on the shoulder as he went by. "See you at the saloon," he said. "Thanks for the bath."

Vin grinned back and waved his hat, which he was holding in his hand. His wet hair was starting to dry at the ends, curling in smaller rings. "Thanks for the advice," he said, and then he was gone, slipping out the door.

Everything was right with the world, Buck thought as he finally stepped out of the bath house. His back was barely a worry, he was on his way to the saloon for his first beer in what seemed like forever, and even though he needed a shave, he knew he was ready for the world. He said hello to the ladies passing by, smiling wide, and his smile grew even larger as he looked across the road to find Vin and Chris standing together on the boardwalk, talking.

Everything was right with the world and in an hour or so, it would be even righter.