Crying in the Wilderness
by Farad

Universe: Firefly universe but not a crossover (the Firefly universe that Charlotte C. Hill and I created)
Pairing: Josiah/Vin, first times
Warnings: slash, some violence, some age disparity
Author's notes: This meets the April 2009 Challenge: Write a sensual scene (can be graphic or not) where the guys are not at the same point in their romantic journey and where the scene brings them closer, yet may leave them pulling apart in greater conflict. Show us what happens when communication isn't always clear, and love isn't perfect.
Thanks to Dail, Kim, Mardi, Jen, and the many others who have helped to make this possible! All mistakes are my own.

Josiah hefted the last crate onto the pallet then wiped the sweat from his eyes. The last one had seemed heavier, but he suspected that it had been more his tiredness than a difference in the contents. One-hundred pounds of Etruscan potatoes was likely to weigh less than a hundred pounds, not more; he was more out of shape than he'd thought.

And out of spirit. The trips to see Hannah always made him weak, tired. Drained. The anger came in little spurts and shots, but not enough to keep him truly going.

"That the last of the transfer, Shepherd?"

He turned to meet the steely gaze of the ship's captain, one Dominic Rothran. Like Josiah, he was a big man, brawny from hard work. Unlike Josiah, he had no scruples, not even about cheating a shepherd, so Josiah was quite prepared to watch his every move, especially around their cargo. He hadn't wanted to switch ships, but it was necessary; the ship they'd taken from Boros, the Sandria, wasn't going to Paquin but was headed on to Silverhold. They'd had to transfer to Rothran's ship, the Corgi, two days out of Paquin for the final leg.

"We're the last ones in?" he asked, watching as the doors to the cargo slid toward each other, metal grating loudly against metal.

"That you are," Rothran grinned, dark holes evidencing missing teeth in the darkening gloom. "Last ones in, first ones out."

Josiah stiffened, hearing the threat in the words, but Rothran just chuckled and turned away. "Hang on!" he yelled to the hold in general. "We're breaking the seal!"

The ship was old and tired and whined loudly as she pushed away from the Sandria. Josiah found himself deep in this third repeat of the Lord's Prayer, the original Latin falling effortlessly off his tongue, when Brother Theodore touched his sleeve.

"Josiah?" the man asked softly, looking up to him. "Paulus and I were wondering, well, if you thought it wise for all of us to be away from the shipment. We were thinking . . ."

Josiah nodded his agreement even as he accepted what it meant. His two companions were good men, kind men, but men who had been little in the world of men. They had lived long in the abbey, coming out to help those who needed it, but rarely to trade.

He, on the other hand, had come to the abbey recently, at least in their terms. He had been in seclusion only four years, not long enough to forget the nastiness of the world outside, of the effects of the great war. And unlike them, he left the abbey at least once a year to make the trip to visit his sister. His yearly pilgrimage to watch her decline further into madness.

"You are wise, Brother," Josiah agreed, nodding. "One of us should remain with the shipment at all times for this last leg. Perhaps it would be best if I take the first watch." He wasn't surprised at the look of relief on Theodore's face. None of the abbey's brothers had the experience Josiah did of being in the 'verse - and that was one of the reasons he had been asked to meet up with them on this mission, wasn't it? The reason the Abbot had asked him to cut his visit short by one day to join the two other monks for the pick-up? Aboard the Sandria, Josiah had felt unnecessary; their cargo had been placed back in one corner, away from everyone and everything and the crew was polite and careful. He'd spent most of his time in his room or in the passenger areas, reading and praying and generally growing more frustrated that he had been called away from Hannah early. Hannah had seemed better this visit, knowing who he was more often than not. He hadn't wanted to cut the visit short, but he had promised the Abbot, so he had gone to the docks, forced the seller to keep to the original bargain despite the man's intimidation of Brother Theodore, then done most of the actual moving of the crates himself, due to Brother Paulus' bad back - and done it again with this mid-flight change.

But as he settled in on one of the crates, trying to get comfortable in the chilly cargo bay, he understood why he'd been asked to help in the first place. The Corgi was as different from the Sandria as Josiah was from the brothers who had made the trip.

Josiah had chosen, very consciously, to leave the 'verse, to get away from the politics, the issues, the war. He had wanted to learn to trust again, to find his faith and his balance. He'd wanted to find God. Instead, he seemed to be finding more of mankind than he could stand. He sighed, opening his Bible.

Theodore and Paulus stopped by several hours later, giving Josiah the opportunity to walk around a bit, stretch his legs and use the facilities, and eat the remains of dinner. But he wasn't surprised when they were relieved that he chose to continue on with the watch, offering to spend the night with the cargo.

"The Captain assures us that we will be docking at San Batista on schedule," Theodore smiled at him, "and he has waved Father Bernard to have someone meet us with the transport, so we should be set to go. Now, if you are set for the evening, Paulus and I would like to retire to our prayers."

Josiah half-bowed to his associates, glad that he had brought extra blankets in his kit. It was probably good that he didn't have a canteen of whiskey as well.

He didn't sleep deeply, partly because of the discomfort of resting on the hard crates and the cold, partly because of his guilt for Hannah, and partly because of his concern for the cargo. He'd noticed the captain peering in from time to time - the man's prerogative, of course, but he didn't much like the captain.

Thoughts of Hannah plagued him, as they always did; she'd been so young when they'd taken her to that special school, the one for gifted children, brilliant children. And she'd been crazy when she came back - when they'd been called to come get her because she'd 'turned bad'. That was what the doctors had told his father. 'Turned bad'.

They'd had no idea what it meant, not at that time. Later, in moments when she might have been sane, but even that was questionable, Josiah had begun to think that they - those people at the school, or those doctors, had done something to her. When he washed her hair, he could see scars in her head. When he had been able to ask, he was told that yes, there had been some surgery, but it was after she 'turned bad', attempts to 'make her right'.

But the surgeries had failed, and the ones they tried afterwards had, and so had the drugs - endless endless attempts to first 'make her right', then later, 'keep her the same'. Now, they just wanted her to have more good days than bad, more days when she didn't try to hurt herself or someone else, days where she stared at things and spoke quietly to herself in that monotone that most people could ignore.

She had been so smart as a child, so full of life. They had spent hours together before their mother died, playing and talking and laughing. They had had a few moments of that this trip, a few spare and precious ones. He tried to think of those, not the screaming fits or the curses or the horrible images she drew with her random words, images of hell, images that haunted his dreams.

When he heard the first creak on the raised boards that served as a flooring, he was instantly awake and aware. When he heard the second, he felt the tremor in the crates, felt the shift in the box above him.

The box that weighed too much.

He stayed still, his hand tight on the piece of metal pipe he had close for exactly this purpose. The cargo bay wasn't completely dark, the emergency lights casting it in a soft orange and yellow glow. It was enough for him to make out the figure of the man carefully pressing back the top of the crate.

He was slender and agile and incredibly quiet, managing to climb out of the box and to the ground without a sound.

Young, Josiah noted passingly, only someone very young could have done that.

He crouched at the foot of the crates, scanning the bay, looking for other people. Josiah had no doubt but that he was scared, but he held himself so still that Josiah could barely hear him breathe.

He moved slowly, turning his head from side to side, scanning everything.

Josiah tensed, flexing his hand around the piece of metal. The timing was everything - flip back the blanket and left the pipe at the same time that he rose and rolled off the crate -

"I ain't got a weapon." The voice was whisper-soft, but seemed far louder in the stillness of the hold.

Josiah almost dropped the pipe, and he did startle, jerking and catching his breath.

The boy faced away from him, and for a spare instant, he thought perhaps he had spoken to someone else. But as he looked past the boy to the wider gallery beyond his cargo, he saw no one.

And when he looked back, he was staring into the bluest eyes he had ever seen.

He swallowed, thinking to look away, to be on his guard, but something in the eyes held him captive.

"I ain't got no weapon," he repeated, still so quiet that Josiah wondered if he'd actually spoken or if he imagined it.

He was barely conscious of sitting up, all of his attention on the person before him. Slender, but muscular in that way that young men were in their teens. He was angular, sharp cheekbones, square jaw - huge eyes. Big ears, too, now that he noticed - no, not big, but noticeable because he had virtually no hair.

That point caught him, made him look closer. The clothes were hard to see in the dim light, but he knew the look - loose, baggy, blue - Alliance. Soldier's clothes.

The tags and markers were gone, ripped off, he imagined. The boy was running.

Just what he needed. "How long you been gone?" he asked, pitching his own voice low.

The boy blinked, surprised, Josiah could tell. "I came to you," he said quietly. "It doesn't matter. I'm here now."

It was Josiah's turn to blink. "I - what? You came - what?"

The youth tilted his head, as if he were listening to something else, and Josiah looked for a comm unit or chipset. There didn't seem to be one, but he wasn't familiar with current Alliance technology.

"I'm here now," the youth repeated more slowly. "With you. Where I am supposed to be."

The certainty in his words was more frightening than the words themselves.

"Here on this ship?" Josiah asked, frowning as the young man slowly rose from his crouch.

His lips were thin, and they twisted just a little at the ends, a sort of soft smile. "It's where you are, Josiah. That's where I will be."

Hearing his name in that soft rasp was disconcerting, but he reminded himself of the number of times Theodore and Paulus had been here, spoken to him. Hiding in the crate, the boy could well have heard it and now knew who he was. It was an easy ploy, a way to win trust.

"Running from the Alliance isn't the best way, son," he said quietly. He lifted the metal pipe, but brought it up and around slowly, letting it come to rest in his lap. "They catch you and your life is forfeit."

The smile twisted up just a little more. "They won't catch me," he said. "You won't let them."

He lifted a hand, holding it palm up, fingers open, out toward Josiah. A gesture of peace, a sign of his trust.

He knew what he should do: he should grab that hand, that skinny wrist, pull it up hard, and whip the boy around, pin him, tie him, and surrender him to the authorities. He was running, it was a crime. It was against the will of the Alliance, against the will of the church, against the will of God.

He steeled himself, flexed the muscles of his arm, drawing tight to make the move.

"I didn't know you would be here," the soft voice said, and there was just the faintest edge of innocence in it. "I didn't expect to find you so soon."

It was the innocence. He knew it even as the words were said, even as he knew he was being a complete idiot - even as he knew he was being played.

The hand moved closer, long fingers spreading apart. He could see dirt and grime, smell the sweetness of machine oil and metallic tang of weapon-fire and hard bullets. And when they touched him, sliding lightly along the curve of his jaw and over his stubbled cheek, he could feel the thick calluses of a trained fighter, the rough skin of someone who had been working outdoors.

He was warm and gentle as he moved in close, his hips barely touching the inside of Josiah's knees as he came into the space between his legs.

"What are you doing?" Josiah asked, but the words were cut off as soft lips were on his - those thin, agile lips.

The shock of it froze him, long enough for his body to register sensations it had long forgotten - the sweet pressure of a willing mouth, the hardness of a body pressed against his, the security of arms wrapping around his shoulders, holding him.

Then his brain kick started and his own hands were on the other, his own fingers closed around muscular biceps as he shoved the boy back, away.

He didn't stop there, forcing his body up so that he looked down into startled eyes, his arms locked to keep not nearly enough distance between them.

He had the presence of mind not to yell - no need to get that trouble going, not yet, but he knew his voice was hot and sharp as he demanded, "What are you doing?"

There was no fight or resistance, but even so, he gripped harder, barely mindful of the wince of pain that flashed across the stark features.

"We're to be together," the soft voice answered, losing some of its patience. "I'm here now, for you."

"So you keep saying," Josiah snapped, "but I don't have a need for you."

That seemed to get through to the youth, for he stilled completely under Josiah's hands, his eyes wide. They didn't leave Josiah's though, staring hard as if looking for something.

Josiah pushed back as he let go of the boy, trying to put more space between them. He ignored the tingling of the skin along his thighs where they had touched, ignored the stir of his cock at the implication of the words and action. "Who are you?"

He crossed his arms over his chest, standing his tallest and glaring down at the young man. He knew he could be intimidating and he used it now, as much to intimidate some answers as to cover his own confusion. He hadn't been out of the 'verse so long that he had forgotten the dangers of it or the various scams at play especially against men of the cloth.

The young man didn't look away from him, his gaze still direct as he answered quietly, "Vin. Vin Tanner." There was sadness in his voice, but Josiah wasn't certain if it was from the name itself or the fact of the telling.

"Running from service," he said calmly, watching more for the other's reaction.

To his credit, the boy still didn't look away. "Didn't choose it," he answered.

"That's why it's called conscription," Josiah countered. "No one wants to fight but it has to be done."

He wasn't certain what he was expecting, but it wasn't the sudden weariness that dulled the gaze. "No, it don't," the boy countered. "Ain't none of our business, telling people what to do - ain't none of our business killing them for it."

No, it wasn't, his rationality agreed. But this was not the time or place for a philosophical debate on the issue. "Regardless," he said, "you are breaking more laws than I can count, laws of God and man. Throwing yourself at me as a distraction is fairly low in the way of negotiating - do you think so little of yourself that you'd whore as well?"

The boy tilted his head to one side again, that strange habit that made Josiah wary. "Ain't a whore," he said calmly. "Ain't even a slut, though some might say otherwise. Ain't throwing myself at nobody but the one who's my mate."

The absurdity of the statement made him laugh out loud despite himself. "Son, I warrant that there are men of the cloth who have been out of the world long enough to fall for such nonsense. But you picked the wrong mark." Even in the dim light he could see the boy's face flush, his cheeks coloring.

"You ain't a mark - I ain't looking to scam you. We're bonded, you 'n me, we're gonna be together a long time - don't you know it? I thought you'd have it too, thought you was gonna 'splain it to me." Here, finally, was the hint of the whine, the petulance, and Josiah was relieved.

"You're good, Vin Tanner," Josiah acknowledged. "But I can't explain something to you that I know nothing about, and I won't be a dupe for your little ploy. Now, perhaps it's time for us to see the captain and get you back to where you belong." He took a step forward, expecting the boy - any person running, actually, to try to bolt away.

Instead, the boy stepped closer, his hands catching at Josiah's arms. "I ain't lookin' to use you," he said. "I can't. I . . ." He swallowed, staring at Josiah as he continued, "I thought you'd know about me, but you don't, so I reckon I gotta 'splain it. I know you're J'siah Sanchez, you been at the Southdown Abbey for the past several years, after you had had enough of the war, too. You ain't sure what you believe in no more, but you're gettin' an idea of what you don't."

Josiah arched an eyebrow, trying to keep his face impassive. The kid was good - and who ever he was working with was good. Someone from his own past? he wondered. Someone looking to create a scandal for the Abbey? But they hardly needed to set him up to do that - the Church was involved in enough trouble these days, and the Abbey had nothing that anyone could want . . .

"You was married once, you ain't got no kids, but you take care of your sister Hannah who's at the Sisters of Sorrow convent on Boros - hey!" He didn't realize he'd lifted the boy, was barely aware of slamming him down onto the crates he had been sleeping on. He was, though, aware of the rapid heartbeat under his hands, the feel of his fingers closing around that scrawny neck, and the shock of realization in those blue eyes staring up at him. The boy's fingers clawed at him, leaving scratches in his flesh that he hardly felt, and the smaller body struggled to push him away, giving a lot more fight than Josiah would have expected had he considered it at all. But he wasn't considering it. The anger - the fear for Hannah - was so strong that it blocked out all other thought. He had failed her before, letting them take her in the beginning, then leaving her with his father afterwards, not pushing to have her treated. When he had trusted the damned doctors. He gripped hard, feeling the air catch in the long throat, watching the darkening flush of the skin. Watching the way the blue of the Alliance uniform colored his own skin, reminding him of the doctors who had treated Hannah.

"My sister is off-limits. I'll kill you first, then track down every one of your little crew if anything - any thing - happens to Hannah. Where did you get that information, you little shit? Where?" He slammed the body up and then down, fast and brutal, two, then three times. The clawing at him stopped as the boy's hands were jarred loose the first time, the boy's head banging hard against the crate. By the third time, he gave no resistance, dazed and still. He wheezed when Josiah let go of his throat, his lungs trying to work even though the rest of him seemed stunned. Josiah leaned down, snarling. "Where the hell did you learn about Hannah?" he demanded, trying to get a rein on the rage. "Where?"

The boy was looking at him but he didn't seem to understand. The thought of him touching Hannah, his dirty hands on her white skin - without a thought, Josiah slapped him, the sound of it ringing through the hold. "Where?" he repeated, raising his hand again. The boy made a little noise, one of his own arms trying valiantly to lift, perhaps to block. Josiah caught it, pinning it hard to the crate, uncaring of the bruises he knew he was leaving. "I won't ask again," he seethed, ignoring his own spittle as it splattered the boy's face. "But I surely will make you wish you'd found another target for your little game."

"Ain't no game," the boy wheezed, trying to catch his breath. He flinched, though, as Josiah lifted his hand again, the intent clear. "I swear, I ain't playing you." He rushed out the last words, turning his head away and trying to draw up as Josiah hit him again. The sound wasn't as loud this time, the blow not as good. But he had the satisfaction of seeing a slim line of red trickle from one nostril as the boy gasped, then the greater satisfaction of catching the boy's arm once more, this time wrenching it up behind his partially-turned back.

"Tell me, you little -"

"I swear, I swear," the boy said, tears of pain finally spilling from his eyes. "I ain't working with nobody - nobody else knows 'bout yer sister." Josiah held him, pushing hard on the bony arm, hard enough to feel the shoulder start to give, to hear the little whimper the boy tried to catch. But the boy didn't beg, didn't really try to fight. He lay there, twisting as best he could to take as much pressure off his shoulder, the trickle of blood more substantial now, droplets dotting his lips and chin. Josiah watched his eyes, looking for the hint of a lie. There was none, just a strange wonder, a sort of uncomprehending disbelief. Whatever else was going on, this boy believed what he was saying.

Slowly, Josiah released the pressure, drawing the arm down and the boy flat on his back. Vin stared up at him, tears shimmering in his eyes a few clinging to the long lashes just before they fell. He was breathing hard, but the gasping was down to a slower wheeze. Blood smeared along his lower face, diluted by the tears, and he looked even younger. "I can't tell you how I know," the boy said, "I just do - no, please, don't hit me again." It was only then that Josiah realized he had lifted his hand, this time curled into a fist. "I swear, I can't tell you how I know 'cause I don't know how I know. I was hoping you could tell me how I know things - please." He had raised his own arm, not the one Josiah had twisted but the other one. The one Josiah had twisted was curled forward, resting along his hip. The muscles twitched, random spasms that left the appendage useless and uncooperative.

"You just know things," Josiah sneered, but his hand dropped, the fingers opening so that he caught the weakened arm just above the elbow, where the pressure would hurt most. "Just a little prophet?"

"Don't know what it is, where it comes from," the boy said in a rush, "just know that it is. I thought - hoped you could tell me. Help me." He swallowed, but he held Josiah's eyes. Still no lie, Josiah thought. If this boy was playing him, he didn't know it himself. "They cut on me," he said when Josiah didn't move. "To make my seeing better. When I woke up, I just - I just knew stuff. About people. Some stuff - it ain't happened yet. Some stuff has." He paused a second, breathing shallow. "That's how I know about Han- about yer sister."

'Cut on me'. He knew what that meant. The penlight was in his pocket, the one he'd been using to read; he had it out, and the boy's neck in his other hand, pulling the boy up to sit before he could object. The scars were there, his dark hair cut so close to his scalp that nothing was hidden. Two on the top of his head, one on each side, close to his eyes. Josiah dug with his finger nails, ignoring the little murmurs of pain as skin broke and blood oozed from the scars and the finer skin around them. No chips, no ports, no inserts. The boy wasn't a bio-bot. He ran one finger tip over one of the cuts he'd made, letting the blood drip off before bringing it to his mouth. The copper was there, and salt, the taste right. Real blood.

Like Hannah, the thought drifted through his mind, and he closed his eyes against the memory of her head, similar scars but bigger and wider. And she was crazier, he thought, choking on it. The boy moved, just a little, a flinch as blood trickled down the back of his head. It was enough to bring Josiah out of the past and back into this very bizarre present. He caught the boy's chin, bringing his head up and swiping his finger through the smear beneath his nose. It tasted the same. The boy watched him, but he didn't say anything, didn't fight. He did shiver, though, a faint movement Josiah felt more than saw.

"You just know stuff," Josiah repeated, more slowly this time, running the idea through his mind as the fury abated. The boy's Adam's apple bobbed, but he nodded once.

"Sometimes it's there when I . . . when I meet people. And sometimes it just . . comes to me, like I'm dreaming, but I'm not, 'cause I'm awake and they're not even anywhere around." He spoke fast and low, like he was scared of this thing about himself. And he was answering questions before Josiah had a chance to ask, as if he knew already what was in Josiah's head. A reader, he thought. "I ain't never told nobody - not the doctors, after the cutting, or anybody at the home - don't want them to know. They'd . . ." He glanced around then, crossing his uninjured arm over his chest, afraid.

"You lived in a home?" Josiah asked, relieved to get one out before the answer.

The boy didn't look at him, his eyes still peering into the false night of the cargo bay. "Studstill," he answered, "on Persephone." A State-run facility, the largest of the ones on the border planets. Thousands of orphans, the ones left from failed terra-forming attempts or space accidents, or any of a number of things that happened in the fringes. He'd been to Studstill, once. Didn't envy anyone there. And understood why, if the boy was telling the truth, he wouldn't have told anyone there. The State-run facilities weren't known for their tolerance of children with differences, even ones the State might consider 'gifted'. The boy could have ended up like Hannah . . .

The eyes were back on him now, he could feel their weight. "You don't know none of this," the boy said, his tone hollow. "I thought . . ." He closed his eyes, his 'good' arm dropping to cradle the one Josiah had hurt.

"You do realize how this sounds," Josiah asked, but he stepped back, watching. The first shading of guilt started, creeping in along the borders of the anger.

"Sounds crazy," the boy said dully. "I thought . . ."

"You thought your 'knowing' was something I would know, yes, I gather that. Well, it's not and I don't. Can't say I believe it either - would you if you were in my place?" He crossed his arms over his chest and caught sight of the scrapes the boy had left in his own flesh. They stung but no real hurt. Not like what he had done to the boy.

"No," the boy agreed. "Why I ain't told no one else. You gonna turn me back over to them?" The fear was real now, there, and Josiah understood just how sure the boy had been of his 'knowing'. And just how much faith the boy had just lost in his 'gift'.

He sighed, scratching at his head. "That's certainly an idea," he said, wishing this would all go away. "Seems to me you need help, son. If you believe this thing is real. But then, we both know it's not, don't we."

The boy looked up at him, blue eyes still wide. "But it is, ain't it, at least a little. I know about you, 'bout yer - well, 'bout stuff." He held up his hand, placating. "I ain't gonna tell nobody nothing - hell, who'd believe me? You don't and I know more 'bout you than anybody."

"So you say," Josiah said. He studied the small figure sitting on what had been his bed. "How old are you?"

The boy shrugged. "Seventeen or there abouts," he said. "Old 'nough to die for the Alliance, I reckon." The last was a little bitter, and Josiah looked again at the clothes.

Seventeen. The Alliance wasn't faring well in the war, he knew, but - seventeen? Of course, he'd been a State-dependent, he'd been optioned to the military as soon as he'd walked through the doors of Studstill. No wonder he was running. "Where are you going?" he asked, more softly now.

The boy blinked, looking down. "Was coming to you," he said in a whisper. "If you don't want me . . ."

"What would I do with you, son? I live in a monastery. If you wish to be an acolyte, you have to apply, go through the procedures, and I fear that skipping out on your military service isn't going to help you."

The boy shook his head. "They ain't gonna let me be a monk," he said softly, rubbing at his arm. "Don't think I could be anyway. Gotta believe in your god for that, and I don't reckon that's something I can do." This was firmer ground, and tamped down Josiah's anger even more. He knew how to talk about God, knew how to talk to young men about belief and fear and dying. It might have been what drove him to the Southdown to start with, but it was far safer ground now than what had started this.

"I can understand being afraid - war's a horrible thing. You're either worried about killing or being killed, and after a while, that wears on a mind. Especially one as young as you."

The boy huffed a little breath, perhaps in a sort of amusement, but before Josiah had time to take offense, those eyes were on his again. This time, they were infinitely old. "Reckon I know more about the ways a body can die than you want to think on," he said with a flatness that made Josiah step back. "And I reckon that no matter how this plays out, I ain't going back. What happened here, 'twixt us, don't change what is to be. I'm sorry as all hell that you don't know 'bout me and what we are, but that don't change the fact that it is what it is." He shifted, inching forward to ease off the crates. Unconsciously, he wiped at his face, smearing blood and tears over the flushed skin. Bruises were forming along the cheekbone that Josiah had struck, and the boy held his arm close to his body, protecting it.

The guilt stirred hard then, rising from the pit of his stomach in a wave of bile. But that reminded him of Hannah. "I can't argue with you about how you know about Hannah," he said. "And it might not matter. What matters is that nothing better happen to her."

The boy was moving gingerly off the crates, but as his feet hit the floor of the bay, he looked up. "Ain't nothin' gonna happen 'cause of me," he said, and Josiah saw the wariness and a little fear. "I ain't got much, but I got my word, and it means more to me than anything else. I ain't told nobody, and as far as I know, ain't nobody in my head but me." He smiled a little, the expression sad.

Josiah nodded, the words confirming what he already thought: the boy believed what he was saying. "Ship's docking tomorrow afternoon. How about we get some sleep and we can figure out what to do with you in the morning."

The boy blinked then slowly nodded. "You gonna lock me in the crate?" It was an idea, and he'd been letting it dart around in his mind; but the bruising was coming in strong, and the fear in the boy's eyes was stark.

Josiah sighed. "Should. But I don't think I'm gonna sleep all that well tonight, and I figure you probably won't either." He reached toward his blankets, smiling as the boy backed quickly away, his fear almost tangible. He gathered up one of the thicker throws and held it out. "Floor can't be that much harder than the crate you been in," he said, using his chin to indicate a spot several years away. It was in a little alcove created by several stacks of crates; the boy would be somewhat hidden and anyone getting to him would have to pass by Josiah first. Of course, the boy would also have to pass by Josiah to get out. He tilted his head just past it, toward a small hatch. "Urinal just back there. No running water, so you can't clean up, but you can eliminate - you been using the bottle?"

The boy nodded, glancing to the crate he had come out of. "Got sanitation capsules for recycling. Alliance thinks of everything."

Josiah shivered at the concept, but he'd had the same training. Just never had to use it. Something unsettling about the idea of drinking your own piss, no matter how many clean-caps you put it in. Something unsettling about having your brain cut into without your permission too, he thought, but that was a thought for another, darker time. He nodded, and the boy nodded back, then turned away. He limped a little as he walked toward the place Josiah had indicated for him to sleep, settling the blanket before going on toward the head.

Josiah had no idea what in the hell he was going to do with a stowaway running from the war and the very long arms of the Alliance. The boy was quiet when he came back, looking at Josiah but saying nothing, like he'd run out of words. Maybe he had, Josiah thought as he watched the boy wrap himself up tight in the blanket and settle down. His accent was heavy, one of the border worlds, somewhere that time in Studstill hadn't influenced. If he was telling the truth, the real truth, not just what he believed, then he'd have kept real quiet about most everything.

He gathered his blankets around himself and settled on the crate he had been using, but he sat, stretching his legs before him, facing toward the boy. He wasn't surprised that the boy was doing the same, sitting and leaning back, facing Josiah. For along while, he could feel the boy's eyes on him as echoes of the conversation drifted through his head. He wasn't aware of falling asleep, but he was very aware of waking up fast and disoriented, the memory of a cry jolting him into the present. The cargo bay was still dim, and silent of all noise not related to the ship's engines. His eyes functioned better than his brain, for they went immediately to the boy, searching him out in the darkness. He was where he had been, sitting against the crates, but he was moving a little, struggling, it seemed, and after a few seconds, Josiah understood. He was trapped in the blanket, caught, perhaps, and not quite aware enough to get himself out. He whimpered again, and Josiah remembered the way he had been carrying his arm - the arm that Josiah had hurt in his anger.

He pushed clear of his own blankets, shivering in the coldness of the cavern, his body moving reluctantly and not quietly over to crouch beside his 'guest'. "Here, now," he said, reaching out to gently shake the boy's shoulder. "Wake up, and we can get you untangled." The boy came awake with a start, his eyes snapping open even as his body curled on itself. It was good that he was trapped in the blanket, because Josiah thought he might have had his hands full of reacting soldier otherwise. "Whoa," he said a little more loudly, even as he backed away. "It's just me." The boy was breathing fast, his eyes wide and hard, searching to get his bearings. Didn't take him long to remember, though, and Josiah saw it in the softening of his gaze and the way he sat up. Josiah held out his hands. "You want help getting loose?" he asked.

After a few seconds, the boy nodded. "Thanks," he mumbled. "Didn't mean to get trapped."

"No, probably not," Josiah agreed, tugging on the edge where it wrapped around the boy's bent body. It was more difficult than either expected, part of the blanket caught on a metal clip from the crate. "How's the arm?" Josiah asked, noticing the way it hung awkwardly. The bruises seemed darker too, even though it was hard to tell in the dim light and the shadows of their location.

"Been worse," he answered softly. He winced though, shifting it slowly. Without thinking, Josiah reached down and caught the boy's wrist, lifting it. Vin tensed, but he didn't pull away or fight, didn't make a sound other than a low hiss as his arm was straightened and the shoulder pulled. Most of the pain was in the shoulder, as Josiah had expected, and he leaned forward as he drew the boy's arm past him.

Which was how, he thought thousands of times in the aftermath, he ended up with the boy in his arms. Vin. The name stuck in his mind, then, lodged as solidly there as the body pressing up against him. All too vividly he remembered the way those lips had felt on his, the way the slim hips fit between his thighs. The memory didn't last long, replaced quickly by the actual thing. Vin's good arm wrapped tight around his shoulders, those supple lips finding his with speed.

He wasn't balanced to start with, on one knee and one foot from unwrapping the blanket, and the boy's weight propelled him backwards before he could compensate. He hit the stack of crates on the opposite side, his body curving so that he was sort of sitting up. The impact stunned him a little even though his head didn't hit hard, and the stack of crates vibrated just a little, but hardly moved. The boy's arm took a lot of the blow, but he didn't seem to notice.

It was the momentary stun, he argued after the fact - he never would have allowed things to go any farther had it not been for the fact that as it started, he was completely unable to resist. The boy - Vin - tasted of sleep and protein bars and coffee beans, a soldier. His tongue was supple and quick, inexperienced, Josiah thought hazily, but enthusiastic. It teased at Josiah's tongue, coaxing, until it drew it out to play. Vin's mouth was warm and wet and perfect, sucking and licking and biting as if he knew exactly what Josiah liked, what he wanted. What it would take to make him do something he knew better than to do.

If that wasn't enough, there were the soft noises, little whimpers of want that reminded him of how long it had been since he had held someone close, given them pleasure. Josiah turned his head, trying to get free, to put a stop to this - Vin was a boy, old enough, maybe, but still, a boy. And he was all male if the pressure at Josiah's hip was any indication. It'd been a long time since Josiah had felt attraction for his own gender, since his own teen years, when he'd been about the same age as this one, and too horny to give a damn about where he put his dick. Worse, though, and most demanding in the part of his mind that was still working, was the fact that he had taken a vow of celibacy. He had made a promise not to do this, not to have sexual congress with another.

This was wrong, he had to stop it. One of his arms was trapped under him, under them, held tight between his back and the floor. There was a sort of irony in it, that he now found himself in the same position he had had the boy in not so long ago - pinned and helpless. But instead of hitting him, the boy was loving him into submission, that eager mouth latching onto his throat and jaw as quickly as he could get him off his own mouth.

"No," he groaned, "this isn't right - Tanner, boy, stop, get a hold of yourself." The arm around his shoulders pulled free, drifting down his chest, and he thought the boy had seen reason.

"Don't wanna hold myself," the boy said, his voice thick with need. "Been doing that for too long - wanna hold you, touch you, make you want me."

Even through the thick weave of his shirt, he could feel the tug of rough fingers, searching for his nipples and finding them, teasing them to sharp points of forgotten pleasure. He managed to extricate his other arm, getting it around the boy's body and pulling, drawing Vin back. Wrong, his brain chanted the reminder, this is wrong.

But the list of reasons why was long, too long, apparently, because they washed away as those inquisitive fingers took advantage of the space he had put between them and wandered lower, grazing below his waist and gliding to his groin. To the traitorous erection that took away whatever other reason he might have had. Those fingers, so agile, slid gracefully around it, the touch firm and direct and very different from the play in his mouth. Vin might not know how to kiss, but he knew how to handle a cock.

"Make it good for you," Vin said around finding his way back to Josiah's lips. "Make you want me."

From there, things locked into his mind in flashes of color and sound and sensation. He said 'no', several times, he was certain, but the sound of it was lost in Vin's mouth, at first, and later in the his own forearm as he bit himself to keep from crying out. He tried again to push Vin away, put distance between them, but his arms kept getting tangled up in Vin's, his hand pushing, but down instead of back.

Cold air on his cock should have brought him to the surface, but before it had time to take effect, those fingers were back and the contact was flesh to flesh, the touch sure and knowing. He arched, tried to, something he felt later when his back protested the attempt, but the weight of the one in his lap held him, and he was only able to free his other arm. He groaned, thought he might have tried again to say 'no', to push Vin away, and surprisingly, it worked. The mouth on his was gone, and he was gasping for air, the saliva on his face wet and chilling quickly. "Vin," he said, "don't do this, I - "

"It's all right," Vin whispered, the words blowing over Josiah's belly. "It's as it should be."

Josiah opened his eyes in time to see the blue eyes vanish as Vin looked down, then moved down, his attention on the column of flesh rising from the opening in Josiah's pants. Then his mouth was there. He was young, and in some ways innocent. He didn't know yet how to kiss, didn't know yet how to cope with killing, but he did know how to give head. He took half of it on the first attempt, almost all of it on the second. All the while, his tongue laved and swiped and teased the slit, creating flashfires that short-circuited Josiah's brain, razing up and down his spine. His hands fell to Vin's shoulders, trying to stop him - but not for long. One hand rose to stroke the back of Vin's head, distracted for a few seconds by the surprising softness of the short, short hair, the strange brush of it against his palm.

Until the rough pad of those fingers stroked over his balls, and he was coming with a force he hadn't felt in decades. He thought he blacked out, for his next awareness was of his pants being put back together, Vin still straddling his thighs but crouching now, his weight off of Josiah. He was smiling, but not looking just yet to Josiah's face, unaware, perhaps, that he was being watched. The smile was sweet, Josiah thought, satisfied. His touch was gentle, loving, even, and still without looking at Josiah, Vin leaned in close, his head brushing against Josiah's chest. It was an effort, but he gave little thought to it, lifting his arm to wrap it around the shoulders and pulling Vin against him.

"You shouldn't have done that," he whispered against the bristles of hair.

Vin pulled back enough to look at him, smiling still, his eyes warm. "I think you liked it," he said, edging up to settle along Josiah's side. "I'm pretty good. When I want to be."

"So it seems," he said, but the post-orgasmic indolence was fading, the pieces of himself that had shattered beginning to come together again. Sadness came first, for what he had lost before and again now, and for the boy who had just taken it from him. "You going to blackmail me?"

Vin jerked, looking up at him. "What? Why would I - about this?" The pitch of his voice rose just a little. With a sigh that might have been exasperation in someone older, he caught Josiah's hand with his and pulled it to him. It settled at Vin's crotch, which made Josiah blush with the thought that the boy - Vin - was asking him to return the favor. Until he felt the wetness there. He frowned, but before he could ask, Vin said, "You ain't stupid, but you sure take a heap of evidence, don't you. Well, I done told you we're meant to be together. We are, for - well, a long time. This ain't nothing compared to what we're gonna do when you finally get your head out of your ass."

It was brash and direct and Josiah thought he was finally seeing the real Vin Tanner. It should have made him mad, sitting here on this cold metal floor, thinking of all the ways his life was about to change, but all he could feel was relief. For the moment - this moment and perhaps the next few days - his life was in the hands of this boy. He really didn't have choice about what he would do, for even if, if, if, the boy's intent wasn't to blackmail him into something, then his own guilt would not allow him to let this boy go without doing what he could for him.

There was something amazingly freeing in that, and with another sigh, he pulled Vin closer. Vin let him.

It wasn't the guilt that got to him, making him leave the abbey. It was the lack of it.

Josiah had driven the hover, loaded with nine crates of Etruscan potatoes and one empty crate, formerly the hiding place of an Alliance gunner-cum-fugitive, back to the abbey grounds, helped to unload them in the large pantry, then accepted the abbot's thanks and commendations before going to his cell and packing all of his things together.

He wasn't guiltless - he had more than an abundance of it at the moment, to Vin, to God, and to himself. But he didn't feel any toward this house or this order or even toward the men he had lived with these past four years. And that told him more about where he needed to be - and didn't need to be - than anything else.

"You're - leaving?" The abbot was somewhat stunned, his eyes wide and his hands a bit nervous as they toyed with the cross he wore around his neck. "But - why? Oh, it was a mistake to ask you to cut short your stay on Boros, wasn't it - Brother Josiah, please, it was but one time, I promise that I shall not ask you to sacrifice your time again."

"Abbot," Josiah held up his hand, smiling at this man he realized he had come to despise, "you are correct, it is because of the trip. But it is not in the way you think. This trip merely hurried along a process I had already started here with you. My time here has served me well - it has reminded me that one can vacation from the 'verse, but the 'verse is where we are meant to be." He had said the words blandly, but he saw the glint of defiance in the other man's eyes. He didn't want an argument, though, so he bowed slightly. "Thank you for your patience and your wisdom. May the Lord keep you."

"And you, Josiah," the man agreed. "Where will you go? If you wish to wait, I can search through the orders for a suitable position - teaching, perhaps, or ministering in a local parish? This is all so abrupt."

The thought of teaching sent the first true spark of regret through him. He had given serious thought to it, not just for the challenge of it, but for the research as well. That, though, might still be open to him. Just not at a religious school, not as long as he was with -

He shut the thought down; he'd known the boy less than a full day on almost any planet in this galaxy. Just because Vin believed it true did not make it so.

"Thank you, Abbot," he said, realizing that he had been silent too long. "But I think I need to try a few things on my own first. Now, if I'm to catch the bus to the village, I need to be off."

They parted then, the Abbot to his evening prayers, Josiah to start his trek back to the 'verse.

Most of the people on the bus knew him, as they knew most all of the brothers of the abbey, and he chatted amiably with them for the short ride to the nearest settlement, Saint Ives. The planet, moon, technically, was small and had very little in the way of arable soil, but it did have a wealth of metal ore. Most of the towns on it were small and centered around mining ores and metals from the moon's crust. St. Ives was no different.

He left the bus on the main street, a small rut of a road more suited to the large ore trucks that moved from the mines to the docks and back. There was little going on in the town - miners worked two shifts here, and they were in the middle of the second one.

As in every town, the cheapest rooms to let were always close to the sleaziest bars. In St. Ives, there were five bars, and he had little trouble making his way to the one he knew best, The Harbinger, the seediest of the lot - and the loudest.

It was probably the most crowded, but there was still room to move through the various bodies and tables, room for even his large bulk, knapsack and all. More nods of recognition from various people, most wearing the dirty and rough clothing of the miners, a few wearing the brighter colors of other professions.

The bartender was a small woman with a big smile named Lavendar and she nodded to him as he approached. "Brother!" she called, pulling out a tin cup. "Your usual?"

"Thank you, ma'am," he nodded, smiling back. "Much obliged." He dropped his knapsack beside him and glanced around, searching the gloomier spots.

"What brings you out tonight?" Lavendar asked, wiping at the bar with a ragged cloth. "Don't normally see you boys before the end of the week."

He looked back at her as he took a sip of the whiskey she had poured - rotgut, but that was the way it was in a mining town. Pretty much all he could afford, as well. "Meeting someone," he said, drawing a few coins from inside his pocket and putting them on the bar.

"Well, now," she grinned, "there's a pretty little thing in the far back corner who also appears to be meeting somebody - biggest blue eyes I think I've ever seen. That your friend?"

So much for inconspicuous, he thought, but he nodded. "Sounds to be," he answered.

She tilted her head, indicating the corner to the far side of the bar, farthest from the door. "Don't blame him. We don't get many people - men or women - with eyes like that. He ain't caused no trouble, and he's spending just enough to keep attention off of him. If it weren't for them eyes, I don't 'spect I'd have noticed him at all, 'specially in them baggy clothes he's wearing." She smiled again, and when Josiah didn't respond to her comments, she reached out with the long neck of the whiskey bottle, topping off his tin cup. "He gonna be staying around here? I could make him feel right welcome - 'less he's one of the new boys up to the abbey."

The last part was rushed, as if she'd just remembered who she was talking to - and she probably had. In the four years he'd been at the abbey, he'd never earned - nor wanted to earn - the fear and wariness that the local people had for the brothers, holding them up as paragons of virtue. Lavendar spoke to him like one of her customers, not like one of the brothers, and he had always appreciated that.

Perhaps, he thought, that should have told him something long ago.

"He's not going to the abbey," he said, smiling at her. But as her smile brightened, he felt a little flutter in his own belly that he viciously squelched. For the second time in an hour, he reminded himself that just because Vin believed it so did not make it so.

He picked up his knapsack and the drink, nodded to her and turned in the direction she had indicated earlier.

It wasn't just Vin's eyes, Josiah thought as he spotted him in the darkness. It was his curiosity. The blue was vivid in the dim shadows, but it also moved, almost constantly. He watched everything, saw everything, and in this light, the movement of his eyes was clear.

He sighed as he met them, ignoring the way Vin smiled up at him, his face as open as the dawn sky. Ignoring that damned flutter in his own belly. "Have any trouble?" he asked, as he dropped into a chair, his knapsack falling into the chair beside him.

"I'm here, ain't I?" Vin asked, but he still smiled, and Josiah looked away, into his cup.

He had to. Somewhere along the way, in the space of time they'd been apart, Vin had cleaned up. He still wore the clothes Josiah had given him - clothes that were far too big on his smaller frame, but he had found a belt which helped, and he had found a couple of other things to wear under them, so that now, layered, he didn't look as much like a boy pretending to be a man.

He looked a lot more like a man.

A part of Josiah, a part that was a little louder in his head at the moment, chastised him for stopping here. After what had happened on the ship, he had no question that it was time for him to leave the abbey. Not only had he broken his vow of celibacy, not only had he had sex with someone young enough to be his child - who was still more or less a child himself - but he was also questioning his own faith in God, certainly in God's laws as translated by this Church.

But there was a huge space between leaving the life he had led and starting a new one with Vin. He could have left the old life and just kept moving, gone on to the port, picked up a ship, and started over somewhere else. Alone.

Could have. Should have.

"'Siah?" Vin sat forward, resting on his forearms on the table. His hands came together, long fingers overlapping. The nails were clean, but rough, jagged and uneven, the knuckles scraped. "You mad at me?"

He finished off his drink, but the bottom of the cup held no answers, just more thoughts of paths not taken. "No," he said, and it was true. He was angry with himself.

One of those hands started toward him, but he jerked away, and it stopped, dropping harmlessly to the table and curling into a loose fist. He heard Vin sigh and wondered what in the hell he was doing here.

"First bus out is at 5," he said quietly, still staring into his empty cup. "Arrives at the docks in time to make the morning leavings - "

"I know all that," Vin said quietly. Patiently. "I could have just stayed at the docks and gotten us a fare if that's the plan - "

"I don't know what your plan is," Josiah cut him off, finally looking up. "You can stay here - mines always need work and they don't look too hard at idents. Or you can catch a ship to somewhere else - makes no never mind to me where you go or what you do - "

"Stop." The hand moved toward him again, and again he drew away, starting to rise. "Wait," Vin said, and there was a hint of desperation in his voice. The hand withdrew, both of them leaving the table and falling below it, probably into Vin's lap. "I'm sorry this is so sudden - iffen you want to go back to the abbey for a while, sort it out - "

The first words Josiah found were unfair, and he knew it even as he said them. Didn't stop them, though. "You took that choice from me last night," he hissed, "when you forced me, breaking my vow to God." The metal cup clanged as be slammed it down on the table, and from the corner of his eye, he saw Vin tense, his shoulders hunching. "I can not, in good faith, spend another night in that abbey."

Several of the people around them looked toward them, but when there was no other violence, they looked away.

Lavendar was making her way through the crowd, and she bounced up to their table, bottle in hand. Either she hadn't heard Josiah's clatter or she wasn't intimidated by it, for she said, "Another one, Brother?"

Her eyes were on Vin even as she held the bottle out to Josiah's cup, and Josiah felt the distinct contrast of two different thoughts, the desire to let her have his companion and free him, and a true reluctance to part with the weird and unwanted conviction that Vin had that they were destined. It wasn't because he wanted Vin - wasn't because he wanted a long-term relationship with someone younger than he had been when he left primary schooling.

It was because he wanted to have the faith Vin did in what he was saying. Wanted to have that sense of purpose and conviction.

"Yes," he said a little louder than necessary, drawing Lavendar's eyes to him. "Please."

She smiled at him, pouring, then said, "So, Brother, who's your -"

Before she could finish, he said, "I'm not at the abbey any more, so you can just call me Josiah."

She blinked, and for an instant, he saw the curiosity flare in her brown eyes. But she didn't ask, more curious about Vin.

Vin who had yet to look up. In fact, Josiah was reasonably certain his table-mate had drawn down even more into the chair.

Lavendar was persistent. She took the opportunity, but Josiah once more cut her off before the first word passed her parted lips.

"Thank you," he said, tossing more coins onto the table before her. "We're good for right now."

As she moved away, still looking at Vin, Josiah sipped on the drink, the anger simmering.

"I'm sorry this is a problem for you," Vin said quietly. "I guess . . . I thought for so long that you'd know all of this that I ain't got my head together about that bein' wrong. 'Bout this bein' new for you. I thought you'd want it - last night was just so good, I been waitin' so long for you that I didn't think . . . "

"Seems like your head ain't wrapped real right around a lot of things," he said coldly, taking another sip.

That one scored a direct hit, he could tell by the way Vin jerked. By the few seconds that he didn't breathe before he rasped, "Maybe so. But it's the only one I got." He lifted a hand from his lap, rubbing at his eyes, and Josiah remembered how little sleep they'd gotten, how little sleep Vin had probably had in days.

"I reckon you want proof that I know things, so let me try this: we're gonna walk out of here tonight and get a room that's got one big bed in it. I'm gonna sleep on the floor - "

"Don't take a seer to see that," Josiah said dryly, even though Vin's words were a relief.

Vin went on as if he hadn't been interrupted. " - and you're gonna lay in bed all night thinking about what you're doing with your life and how to ditch me and how I don't have enough of life to know shit about what I want and what I'm doing."

Josiah smiled at that. "I repeat, don't take a seer - "

"Josiah." Vin's voice was soft, almost pleading now. "Get out your Bible."

Josiah frowned, turning to look at the other man. "You feeling a need right now for - "

"Get out your Bible," Vin repeated. "I ain't having a moment of spiritual need, but I figure I ain't gonna make you understand any damn other way. Go on, get it out."

With some reluctance, he did as he was bid, laying the worn book on the table. He almost offered it to the young man, but something in the way Vin was looking at it made him think that it wouldn't be appreciated.

Vin's eyes drifted back to his face. "Open it three times - anywhere you want. The first time, you'll end up in Luke, where Jesus tells that story about the man who planted seeds. The second time, you'll be in Chronicles, the second book, about Solomon bringing the Ark to the Temple. The third time, you'll be in Jeremiah, reading about God sending a cup of wrath to the other nations to drive them mad."

Josiah looked at his Bible, hesitant. "The first one," he said quietly as he tried to make sense of it, "is one of my favorite passages, so it would make sense that the book would fall open to it."

Vin shrugged but didn't say anything.

Josiah opened the book before him, letting his thumb determine the depth. He wasn't surprised when the book opened to Luke, the end of chapter seven and the whole of chapters eight and nine. Eight was the Parable of the Sower. His own notes were etched into the margins of the book, the script small and tight so he could get as much in as possible.

Vin said nothing, still, simply watching.

Josiah lifted the Bible this time, closing it completely then letting it fall open. Second Chronicles, chapters four through seven, Solomon building the Temple. Chapter Five discussed Solomon bringing the Ark to the Temple. It wasn't one of Josiah's favorite stories, the margins here barely touched.

He glanced up to find Vin still watching, his face impassive.

He closed the Bible a third time, but hesitated. If it fell open to the third place, the passage from Jeremiah, then it proved - what? Perhaps that Vin was clairvoyant, perhaps that he was damned lucky. That didn't make him a prophet nor did it make anything else he said true.

And if he was wrong?

That was an interesting thought - if Vin was wrong, what would he do? Would it destroy this insane idea that he had about having a relationship with Josiah?

He could make it open somewhere else - it wouldn't be difficult to do, just a matter of holding on to one corner as the book dropped. That might make all of this go away. It would certainly give him more room to argue with the boy, and more room to doubt,

But that was dishonest, his conscience reminded him, dishonest and wrong. Even if it was better for Vin, it was sin against his own soul. He didn't believe in small sins for a greater good - that had led to too many greater sins.

And then there was that strange and niggling thing in the back of his mind and the pit of his stomach. Curiosity, he called it, even though it was more. It was a spark of interest that burned a little brighter than he was accustomed to, a heat from it that he thought he'd forgotten. It was hope and want and - faith. It was the irrational desire to find God in this boy, in his words. To have the Bible open exactly where the boy said it would.

That was the worst of it, this betrayal of himself. But as he lifted it, slipping his thumb into place, Vin tilted his head to one side and his lips twitched. "Go ahead," he said, his voice low. "But it won't matter. The Bible is going to open where I said it would, whether you leave it be or try to make it fall somewhere else."

He glared at the boy, even as he felt the heat in his cheeks of a blush. Spreading the fingers of his hand so that his thumb was far from the pages of the Bible, he released it so that the spine hit first against the table and the book fell open on its own.

He wasn't truly surprised when, after the pages settled, Jeremiah chapters 24 though 27 lay before him, chapter 25 prominent.

A shiver started low in his spine, and despite himself, he shrugged deeper into his coat, ignoring as well as he could the excitement that was building. He picked up the Bible, closing it, then looked to catch Vin's eyes.

Vin nodded, then said very softly, "Matthew, where he talked about receiving the word of God."

He was still speaking when Josiah let the book fall. Vin wasn't wrong.

"He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. 41 He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward."

He stared at the page, letting the words drift through his consciousness as his reality swirled and his faith awoke. He looked up when Vin moved, but the other man was only reaching for his mug, sipping from whatever was in it.

His Bible had been with him the whole time, either in his pocket, or bag, or open, being read. He eyed the spine, looking for anything that might have been put in it to force it to open, then he flipped first quickly then more slowly, looking for anything that would set off those pages. Looking for the trick.

After a time, Josiah closed the book with a sigh. "How many times have you read the Bible?" he asked idly, his fingers caressing the leather cover, appreciating the indentations where his name was engraved.

Vin shrugged. "Never have. They ain't right partial to them in Studstill."

No, they wouldn't be, Josiah thought, not at a State-run facility. The one time he'd been there had been to pick up Hannah and he remembered the way the children had stared at his father's habit, curious about him, about them.

"So how do you know these stories?" he asked, picking up his own mug.

He had time to drink twice, half the contents gone, and was putting the mug back down on the table when he looked at Vin, waiting for the answer.

"You told them to me - or you will tell them to me," he said softly. "You're gonna tell me everything in that book over the time we're together. You're gonna teach me what it means - or try to, anyway." His smile was rueful, and a little sad. "I ain't the best student."

It was there again, that certainty, that conviction, the absolute faith in what he was saying. That was the part that scared Josiah the most. It was also the part that made him want to believe Vin's words.

He had to look away. "What if I don't want this?" he asked. "What if I have no interest in spending time with you or having this . . . this relationship? You're hardly more than a child - and even if I renounce my vow of celibacy, truly renounce it, I can't say that a long-term relationship with a male particularly intrigues me. I was married, as you already know, and to a woman."

Emma, sweet woman, sweet smile, soft eyes, large breasts - she had given head better than Vin. And had so many other attributes that he liked in a sexual partner, not the least of which were her woman parts. She was somewhere on one of the core worlds now, a professional entertainer last he'd heard. And doing quite well.

He shook his head, trying to shake it of the image of his former wife, of the memories of when that had been good.

Vin cleared his throat, and before he thought, he found himself looking once more into those eyes.

"I can't argue with you," Vin said, "I just know what I know. Like I knew which pages that book would fall open to, I know that you an' me are in it for the long haul. I don't know how it works, J'siah - that ain't never been something in my head, or, at least, nothing I recognize for what it is, maybe. I see a lot a'things that I don't rightly know what they mean until I'm in 'em, like getting in that crate a'taters, or walkin' into this bar today. I seen 'em, but I didn't know 'em for what they was."

Unbidden, another quote from Matthew came to mind, and Josiah shivered:

Therefore, indeed, I send you prophets, wise men, and scribes: some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city . . . "

Vin leaned forward, lifting his arms like he was going to rest them on the table, then dropped them again, keeping his distance. He looked down as he continued to talk, his words a little less clear. "I reckon you're the only one for me, I get thoughts from time to time 'bout what we do, what you make me feel. Get real good thoughts 'bout - well, 'bout what I want you to do to me. Don't have no thoughts like that 'bout nobody else, not that bartender you want to send me home with, not nobody. Just you."

He swallowed, looked up, and Josiah saw the blush in his fair skin. It was something strange, that this young man could be shy about such, and he didn't quite know what to make of it.

"I just assumed - like I have been with too much of this, I reckon, that you'd feel the same way 'bout me. But since you don't know 'bout me, then I reckon you don't . . ." The words faded away, and Vin looked back down at the table.

Josiah shook his head again. He didn't want to hurt the boy, he reminded himself, he didn't. One look at the top of his head was enough to remind Josiah of all the things that had been done to him already - things that had been done to Hannah. "Vin," he started, even though he really had no idea what he was going to say.

At his hesitation, Vin sighed as well. "Maybe I ain't the only person you gotta be with. Hell, I don't know - maybe you get a whole slew of people for keeping company, maybe you even get married again. Now that I think on it, I don't know that part. I just know 'bout me, and what you and me get up to. What we are."

"What we are," Josiah muttered. He went on, keeping his tone gentle to soften the harshness of the words. "I am a lapsed monk, a man who has broken his promise to God. You are a coward, running from your duty to the Alliance. We are two people with nothing in common except that we are running."

He picked up his mug, drinking down the rest of it in one long swallow. As he put it down, Vin asked quietly, "But that is something. Look, I know you wanna ditch me. Reckon in your place, I might feel 'bout the same. But as long as you ain't got nowhere else to be, and I ain't got nowhere else to be, can't we . . ."

"What?" Josiah asked. "Can't we spend time together, get to know each other?" In his head, the words had been snide and sarcastic, but somehow, by the time they got to his mouth, they were just tired.

"I don't think I'm that bad - am I?" Vin asked, anxious. "I can try to be better if there's something you want. I learn quick, real quick, 'cept when it comes to book-learning, but I'll try. Anything you want, 'Siah, anything."

He studied Vin, seeing the youngness in him. The bruises on his cheek were darker now, reminders of what he owed the boy. "Anything I want?" he heard himself ask.

Vin took a breath, relaxing just a little. "Any thing," he answered.

Josiah shook his head, horrified at the naivety of the promise in those words. "The first thing I want you to do is stop that, stop giving yourself away. Do you have any idea what someone could do to you?"

Vin dropped his head, but not before Josiah saw the grin. In his own moment of prescience, he heard the words in his head a half second before they came out of Vin's mouth. "Ain't offering nothing to nobody but you. You're the only one for me."

"And stop saying that," he said flatly. He picked up his mug, then put it back down, irritated that it was empty. "I can't make you stop believing it, even if there is no foundation for it, but I don't want to hear it anymore."

Vin looked up, the smile fading. But he nodded, once, before looking back down to the table.

"And no touching," Josiah continued. "What happened last night does not happen again, are we clear? I don't care what you believe on this, or how sure you are, you need to understand and accept the fact that I don't know you from Wu's singing lark. What you did last night," he started, then realized how loud he was becoming. With a quick glance around, making certain no one was paying them any mind, he leaned closer and said more softly, "What you did last night was damned close to rape, do you understand that?"

Vin jerked, his head coming up so fast that Josiah thought he might have whiplash. "Rape?" It came out as a little squeak. "I didn't - you liked it, you didn't stop it -"

"I tried," he said, keeping his voice even. "I said 'no', more than once - you heard me, you even answered me, telling me that you wanted to - to -" He blushed himself as he remembered the sound of Vin's voice from the night before, the desire and sheer want in it.

"You didn't mean . . ." Vin closed his eyes, and Josiah heard his breath catch. "I'd never hurt you," he whispered. "No wonder you hate me."

Josiah almost laughed then, the extremes in Vin's logic so very adolescent that it was amusing. But the devastation on the tired face was more than he could bear. "I don't hate you," he said. "But I don't love you - Vin, I don't know you." With some reluctance, he did reach out then, letting one hand fall on Vin's shoulder. "I'm not making any promises. But for right now, tonight at least, maybe a few days, I'll stay here with you, see how things go."

Vin nodded, his head dropping, and Josiah let his hand fall away. "Are we clear on the rules?"

Vin nodded again, then said softly to the table, "No touching, no offering, and no talking 'bout what I know."

It was a little more than Josiah had said, but now, more was probably better. "Sounds about right."

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Josiah wondering what in the hell he'd gotten himself into. Vin didn't move, and Josiah wondered what he was thinking. Maybe the rules would be enough to stop the scam. If it was one.

But looking at his Bible as it rested on the table made him wonder. And for the first time in a long time, he thought he felt the presence of God. Or, his reason challenged, Satan.

Everything hurt.

Josiah tried to find a comfortable spot, but resting on his back made his hips hurt, turning on either side made his shoulders throb, and being on his stomach sent spikes of pain down his spine.

Almost four weeks, he told himself, trying not to move but desperately needing to. They'd been working in the mines almost two weeks and his body still hadn't adapted.

Unlike Vin, who even though sore and very tired, was the one fetching them food and drink and keeping their cheap rented room as tidy as possible. He was out now, Josiah suspected, washing their limited supply of clothes, trying to get the inescapable layers of black silt out of them. It was an impossible task; even the monks' clothing was dingy with the black dust, and the abbey was clicks distant from the nearest mine.

He groaned when he finally moved, thankful that he was alone. Not that he could complain; Vin was as close to a perfect roommate as he could want. True to 'the rules' Josiah had dictated, the young man had not only followed them to the letter, but he had gone above and beyond. He hardly ever spoke at all, not unless Josiah spoke to him first. It had been odd, that first morning, to awaken to find Vin already up and dressed, standing in front of the room's one window, staring out. It had been that way every morning since then, Vin dressed and silent, waiting patiently. He would nod at Josiah when Josiah made eye contact, but he never spoke or made any noise until Josiah did first.

It was that way throughout the course of the day, Vin never interrupting Josiah's thoughts, always attentive, always polite, but never asserting himself. Not with Josiah, anyway. He was able to handle himself, Josiah had noticed that when they had gone to the mines that first day, investigating the possibilities of employment.

As Josiah had expected, the mining companies were always in need of day laborers and they weren't especially particular about the validity of identification, as long as some was had. Vin had hard-copy id cards, one issued by the military and one from Studstill, so he was recognized as a citizen of the Alliance. Most mining companies didn't make regular checks of the status - it cost too much to follow every guideline and reg, and in truth, most didn't want to know, not this far away from the core worlds. They needed the workers and they paid well for the work, especially as one of the other places they cut corners was in safety. It was unspoken that they wouldn't look too hard into their employees if the employees didn't look too hard into the safety issues.

The first day, they had both been offered shift work, hourly work paid at the end of the shift. It was physical and hard and dirty and for the moment, very welcome. It kept Josiah from having time to think too much, and he hoped that it made clear to Vin the type of life he was getting himself into.

That first night, they had staggered back to the room with hardly a word between them. Vin had collapsed to the place he had taken on the floor, barely moving the entire night. Josiah had managed a quick shower - water was expensive - before finding his way to the room's bed.

Most of their days so far had followed this pattern, Josiah rising early but not before Vin, a quick breakfast that Vin normally brought back to the room while Josiah was dressing, a long day of work, followed by a quick supper at one of the bars or cheaper foodbars and home to bed.

Today, though, was a day off ; even though the mine operated every day, almost everyone was requested and encouraged to have a day of rest. Josiah had chosen today because they really needed to wash clothes.

He pissed, groaning some more at the muscles he had to use to do it, and then he washed up and dressed. Still alone, he forced himself out the door to find breakfast and Vin, in no particular order.

Breakfast came first, a cup of hot tea and a half-loaf of cheese-bread, one of the things he had learned to love on this moon. The seller, Mr. Hi-Lee, was a small man who talked quickly about the weather and the morning and nothing of any consequence until he made some reference to 'your son, such a good boy,' and Josiah felt a little twinge of - something. He took a big swallow of the tea, forgetting how strong it was and how many muscles he had to use to swallow and not choke.

"Vin - he is off with my daughter, Chi-Sue - so polite, your boy. They wash clothes together, share large wash-machine, save money." Mr. Hi-Lee smiled, his teeth startlingly white in his dark face. "Chi-Sue like Vin. Not many boys she like. He very nice. Work very hard. Foreman Wei say he best worker."

"He is that," Josiah smiled back. "Where did they go to wash the clothes?" he asked.

"Ah - my sister, Li-Anna, she have wash-room down there," he pointed down an alley several buildings away. "Far end, clean, you can't miss."

Josiah nodded his thanks, moving off in the indicated direction. But as he neared the entrance to the alley, he slowed. He understood the indicators Hi-Lee had been throwing out. Chi-Sue was interested in Vin, not just for friendship. Perhaps he should let this be?

The thought was a good one, he should let Vin go and do what he wanted to do, let him take up with this young lady, lead as close to a normal life as a young man on the run could.

He saw them coming toward him, each carrying a large bundle of clothing wrapped in a sheet. They were close together, Vin leaning down a little to hear her. He smiled and nodded, talked, laughed, and watched out around them, wary.

He saw Josiah first, and his smile then was broad and sincere and so different from the one he'd been giving the girl that Josiah's heart sank - and his belly twittered. Dammit.

But just as quickly as it had been there, Vin's smile faltered and he looked down to the ground. The angle of the morning sun hit his head just right, and between the bristles that were actually getting long enough to almost be hair, he saw the little scars, one of them darker, the one he had dug into that night on the ship. Infected, yet Vin had said nothing about it - afraid, Josiah thought, worried that it would be a reason for Josiah to abandon him.

Josiah had tried not to look at them, tried not to think about them, or the similarities between this boy and his sister. But every time he thought about walking away, he thought about Hannah and what he owed to her, where he might have failed her. The scars were too similar, and Vin - well, he wasn't acting like Hannah, but then, once, Hannah had been young and innocent, too.


Chi-Sue looked back at Vin, her own smile faltering at whatever she saw on his face. Josiah sighed as she looked back and spotted him too, and her frown deepened. But she nodded, walking directly toward him with no hesitancy, despite Vin's hushed admonitions for her to slow down.

As they drew near, Josiah heard the last one, a hissed, "Leave it, Sue, don't go bothering him!"

"Good morning, Sai Sanchez," she said politely and with that slight bow that was common here. "You are well this day?"

"Chi-Sue," Josiah said, giving a slight bow himself. "I am well, and yourself?"

"Vin and I have been very busy this morning, Sai Sanchez, while you were still at your rest." Her dark eyes glared up at him with a hint of scorn, and Josiah found himself both amused and annoyed.

"So it would seem," he agreed, smiling at her. He didn't look at Vin but he could hear Vin hiss her name, warningly.

"Vin is a very good boy, a very good son. He will father many strong and hard-working grandsons for you."

"Chi-Sue!" Vin said loudly now, and Josiah looked at him, not surprised to find panic on his companion's face. "This ain't none of your -"

"Yes, you're right," Josiah said, smiling at her. "He will father many strong and hardworking sons. But hopefully not too soon, not before he can care for them. Now, if you can spare him, I need to take him to the healer."

He was peripherally aware of Vin's sudden rigidness, but his attention was on Chi-Sue, who blinked, her gaze softening. "He is unwell?" she asked, her voice carrying both concern, but a certain touch of worry. It was natural in a society this small that any hint of illness could cause panic.

"He hit his head the other night," Josiah answered, waving one hand toward Vin. "A minor thing, but it needs to be treated."

Chi-Sue nodded, her expression relaxing even more. "It is good you notice this," she said gravely. "A good wife would take care of your son. My aunt - "

"Do you need help with your bundle?" Josiah asked, effectively cutting off this line of conversation.

Chi-Sue smiled shyly at him, but shook her head. "You are most kind, Sai, but my bundle is small this day." She did her half-bow thing, then turned to Vin, her smile growing wider. "I will see you later?" she asked.

Vin wasn't happy, Josiah could tell, but somewhere along the way, manners had been beat into him. He nodded, sighing, and said, "Reckon so."

She moved off, her bundle sitting high on her shoulders, and Josiah couldn't help but chuckle. "Seems you found a defender, Vin. She'll make you a good wife."

"Don't want a wife," Vin said quietly. "She's just a friend, J'siah, nothing more."

Vin was looking at the ground, his posture slumped under the bundle he carried. This close, Josiah could see the infection in his scalp more clearly. Instinctively, he reached out, cupping the back of Vin's head and drawing it a little closer.

Vin tensed at the first touch, but gave no more resistance after that.

"Why didn't you tell me it was getting bad?" he asked, even though he knew the answer.

Vin shrugged, or tried to. The bundle shifted, slipping around one shoulder to bump against Josiah's arm. "Ain't no problem," Vin mumbled. "I had worse."

The sad thing was, Josiah believed him. Letting his fingers rub affectionately over the bristly head, he sighed. "Come on, let's get something for that. No need for it to get any worse."

He started off down the street, Vin just behind him. He wasn't surprised by the people who nodded and spoke to him; he had, after all, been at the monastery for while. But he was surprised by the number who spoke to Vin, many of them not as young as Chi-Sue, some as old as Josiah himself was.

"You're settling in right well here," he commented as they neared their destination. "Might be a good place for you to settle down, make a home for yourself."

"You stayin' here?" Vin asked, his voice still soft.

Josiah shrugged. "Don't know yet," he answered honestly. "But you've got to start looking out for you."

Vin didn't answer, and Josiah knew what the silence meant.

He stepped toward the opening of the healer's shop, extending a hand to push at the beaded curtain. But as his fingers brushed the first strands, something grabbed hard at his arm, pulling him back. He started to fight, then realized it was Vin, who was also saying, "No! Not there!"

He stumbled along for several steps, until they were in the alleyway two businesses down. Before he could open his mouth to ask what Vin was doing, there was an explosion that rocked the ground under them, hard enough to send tiles and debris from the nearby roofs down on them. Without a thought, Josiah pulled Vin close against him, turning to shelter them both against the nearest wall and covering his head with his arm.

A second explosion followed, this one not as loud or violent, but still causing a rain of debris on them. Josiah hugged Vin closer, aware of the beating of his heart, the rough bristle of his hair, the smell of his clean sweat. The feel of him pressed tight against his body, alive and shaking and precious.

As the aftershocks began to fade and people started yelling and moving around on the street, Josiah stepped back, clutching Vin by the shoulders and looking down at him. "Are you all right?"

Vin grinned a little, and Josiah noticed a little trickle of blood winding its way down his forehead. "Ain't no worse than you," he answered, and reached up, wiping something off Josiah's chin.

It was then that Josiah realized he'd been hit by something, and it had cut his cheek. He broke the contact between them and wiped at his face. There wasn't a lot of blood and he didn't feel any other injuries, so he looked back to Vin in time to see the young man moving past him, toward the mouth of the alley.

"Vin?" he called.

Vin looked back and slowed. "They're gonna need help," he said, leaning down to pick up the bundle of their clothes that he had dropped when they entered.

"How did you know?" Josiah asked, but even as the words left his mouth, he knew the answer he would get, so he held up a hand. "Really - were you involved in something I need to know about?"

Vin tilted his head, looking amused, but there was a little hurt in his eyes as well. "Didn't know anything 'til you reached out your hand to touch them beads. Then I saw it, and knew we had to get out of there."

Josiah studied him, looking for the lie. He couldn't see it, and he wasn't sure what unnerved him more, that Vin could hide it so well, or that what he said was true.

With a sigh, he nodded and they went to aid in the recovery effort.

It was hours later when they returned to their little room, tired and covered not only with their own blood but the blood of others. The bundle of clothes would most probably have to be washed again, at least the things on the outside as the bundle had been moved around in the streets, used several times as an improvised cot for some of the wounded and dying.

Josiah sighed, making his way to the small wash area to clean up. Vin dropped into a chair, his head in his hands.

"You did good out there," Josiah said as he washed off, hating the sight of blood on his hands. "You been in a lot of situations like that?"

Vin shrugged, but looked up. "I served as a front-line gunner. Saw stuff like that every day. Browncoats had no problem blowing up my gun-mount any chance they got."

Josiah turned and looked at the young man, trying to imagine what it was like to be that young and in war. In the worst of war.

As if sensing his stare, Vin looked up. He didn't look sixteen now, or anywhere in his teens. He looked like a man who had lived through hell, more than once.

It was getting harder and harder for Josiah to reconcile what he thought he knew of the boy with what he saw of him.

He closed his eyes, using a wet cloth to scrub at his face. He'd forgotten about the cut until he rubbed over it and it protested, starting to bleed again.

"Damnation," he muttered, holding the rag against it.

"Never got to a healer," Vin said. "You want me to run get something?"

"No," he said sharply, startling both of them.

Vin looked at him, frowning, and Josiah realized he didn't want Vin to go back out there alone, not tonight.

Once more, as if knowing his mind, Vin said quietly, "Weren't nothing planned. Way I heard it from one of the people we was helping, one of the 'prentices mixed some stuff she shouldn't have. That was the first explosion. The second one was when the fire got to some other stuff in the place."

It was the way Josiah had heard it as well, but that didn't make him feel any more secure. "There are laws against people having volatile substances in their businesses," he said, "laws about people handling things they aren't licensed to handle."

Vin smiled a little. "Laws 'bout forcing kids to serve in the military, too. Seems that laws are only as good as who enforces 'em."

It was cynical, and true, and Josiah sighed. He drew the rag away, hoping that the cut had stopped bleeding. He didn't feel the tell-tale tickle of blood dripping as he washed out the cloth.

They ate in, Josiah putting something together from the rations he kept in the room. The room was stuffy, the atmo-unit functioning as well as they could cajole, and more than once, Vin rose to open the door or one of the windows.

Each time, Josiah stopped him, not wanting the outside to intrude on them.

On them. He studied Vin, watching the way the boy moved, awkward at times, graceless in that way of teens who were still finding their bodies.

But alternately, graceful at times, his muscles hardening with the work and the life they were living.

He was pretty, going to be prettier as he grew into himself.

Vin was watching something on the old-style video system that was in the room. There weren't many choices, but Vin didn't seem to mind, absorbed in some Alliance-produced documentary about the history of mining and terraforming. It wasn't anything new to Josiah, but Vin seemed to have a deficit in his education, a deficit that Josiah knew was intentional. Cannon-fodder, he thought, the Alliance bastards had thrown Vin and more kids like him into the inferno of war.

Who needed to learn the basics of terraforming if they were going to be dead in a month?

He looked back down at the book he was reading - trying to read. The words kept blurring on the page, interrupted by the memory of Vin's hand on him, pulling him away from the shop just before the explosion.

The memory of holding Vin close, feeling the smaller body pressed close against his.

By unspoken consent, they went to bed early, both still tired and knowing they had to work the next day. Sleep didn't come easily though, and Josiah was awake long enough to hear the change in Vin's breathing, the rustle of the thin blanket Vin slept under, the dull, rhythmic bumping against the hard floor.

Young, he reminded himself with a sigh. An adolescent, with needs of the body.

He wondered, though, what Vin was thinking of, if it was of the girl from the morning, as it should have been, the girl who was infatuated with him.

A darker part of him wondered, though, if Vin were thinking of their time in the alleyway, their bodies pressed close together. Thinking of him.

The thought repulsed him. But not a lot. Not enough to stop the stirring in his own loins.

He rolled onto his side and forced himself not to listen. His dreams were less cooperative, though.

The second time happened six weeks later. It wasn't as dramatic or life-threatening as the explosion at the healer's, but in its way, it was more telling. It was more personal.

They were on their way back from the mines, dirty and tired and hungry. They had been walking side by side, not talking much, when Vin reached out his hand and caught Josiah's arm, drawing him to a stop.

Josiah turned to him, surprised and a little worried, as this had been the way it had started several days ago. "You all right?" he asked, and his worry grew as he looked at Vin.

He was tired, his young face lined with fatigue and dirt, but the more disconcerting part was the strangeness in his eyes. They were unfocused, looking past Josiah at nothing, his lips moving as if he were in conversation. There as no sound, though, just a soft whisper of movement as air passed between his lips. His first thought was of Hannah, of the times she acted like this.

"Vin?" Josiah said, a little more alarmed. He caught Vin's upper arm, holding him tight. "What's wrong?"

Vin blinked, then slowly, his eyes cleared and focused on his face. He studied Josiah for a second, then said quietly, "We need to get to the room. There was a fire."

There was. It had started three rooms over, but the building was old and the wiring faulty so that once the fire had started, it spread quickly.

They lost a lot, most of it Josiah's as Vin owned very little. Josiah stood in the center of the room, staring at the destruction. Little of it was actually from the fire itself, which had scorched one wall. The damage was from the efforts to put out the fire and keep it from spreading.

Josiah closed his eyes, scrubbing a hand through his hair. They were only things, he reminded himself, just things. Things could be replaced. No one had been hurt, no one killed.

"There's insurance money," Mrs. Shibon said from the doorway. "Not a lot, but maybe enough to replace some things."

If he'd been at the abbey, there'd be no need to replace anything. If he'd been at the abbey, he wouldn't be dirty and tired and hungry and now without many of his favorite books and the Bible he'd been given by one of his first and favorite mentors and -

"J'siah?" Vin's voice was hesitant, as was the touch to Josiah's arm.

He jerked, whirling, furious even though he knew he shouldn't be.

Vin flinched away, moving back several steps. Mrs. Shibon stepped further into the room, her dark face set in a frown. "There's room at the hostel down the block," she said, her tone even. "They're cutting the rates for the next day or so, until the insurance claim clears. You and the boy should go, clean up, get some food. We will have security here tonight, to make sure no one steals anything or plunders."

Josiah took a deep breath, pushing back his temper as he muttered a short prayer. It wasn't Vin's fault.

He nodded to Mrs. Shibon who stepped back, her bulk casting shadows on the stained floor.

Josiah followed her out the door, drawing a deeper breath of the cleaner air outside. They'd need clothes, now, everything was ruined. He wiped at his forehead, ignoring the trickle of tears from the corners of his eyes. Dirt and dust, he thought, not the pain of loss.

He started away from the building and the milling crowds, headed toward the hostel at the far end of the street. Vin wasn't beside him, but that might be a good thing for the moment.

He had carried most of his money with him, so he had enough to cover the room for the night - and it was discounted, even more than he'd expected. There was a large shower room at the end of the hall, and he used it, taking his time mostly to calm down.

Putting on the same clothes seemed to defeat the purpose of the shower, but he didn't have much choice. He went back to the room, expecting to find Vin. He was a little worried when the boy wasn't there. Maybe a little guilty.

He walked out of the room and down the stairs of the three-floor building. The main entry way was a large area with a receiving desk and a gathering room off to one side. Both areas were currently crowded with people, a few from their own building who were discussing their losses and grief.

Mrs. Shibon was there, and she broke away from the talking to the Nohn family as Josiah approached. "Here," she said, holding out a mesh bag. "Vin asked me to give you these, said he'd be back in a while."

Josiah took the bag and glanced inside; clothes, he saw, clean and decent, probably from the second-hand shop several blocks away. Josiah sighed; Vin didn't have much money, pooling his pay with Josiah's to pay for their living expenses. Josiah made him keep some of his earnings, the extra, for himself - seemed only fair.

"You should go change," Mrs. Shibon suggested. "Then find food for the two of you."

"Any idea where he is?" Josiah asked.

She shrugged. "He didn't say, just said he'd be back soon."

Josiah nodded, then retraced his steps to the room.

The clothes fit as well as could be expected; Josiah was a big man, bigger than most on this planet. But they were clean and right now that counted for a lot.

As he belted his pants, there was a soft knock at the door, two short raps, a pause, then a third. Vin.

"Come on in," he called, running his hands down the seams of the pants to settle them.

Vin came in slowly, wary, Josiah realized, and he sighed. Vin's hands were full of bags, which he set gently on the floor as he closed the door behind him.

"Shopping?" Josiah asked, keeping his voice light.

Vin turned back, looking even rougher now. "Went back to the room," he said, "found a few things that weren't hurt too bad." He leaned down and grabbed one of the bags, holding it out to Josiah. "Probably need a good airing to get the smell out, but figured it was better than losing 'em all together."

Books, Josiah knew as soon as the bag was in his hands. The one on top was his favorite Bible. It was damp from the fire-foam, but not ruined.

Under it were other books he treasured, several collections of essays on the nature of the spirit and God, his Strong's Concordance to the Bible, a modern copy of Lives of the Saints with the contemporary addendas. These were books he'd had since seminary, ones he'd never been able to part with.

Vin pushed another of the bags across the bare floor with his booted foot. "I got the strong box," he said quietly. "Don't look like it's been opened or nothing."

Josiah shook his head, both amused and annoyed with his own forgetfulness. "Thanks," he said, putting down the books to lift the security box from the bag. He pressed the locking combination and the lock clicked, releasing the door. From inside, he pulled out all their documents and what extra money he'd been storing there. Everything seemed to be intact. "I'm sorry I didn't think of it."

Vin shrugged. "I'm gonna clean up," he said, picking up one of the other bags on the floor. "Then I'll get us something to eat." He turned, his hand falling to the door pull.

"Vin," Josiah called, carefully putting everything back into the security box and closing the lid. He looked up as Vin looked over his shoulder, his eyes steady in the room's dim light. "I'm sorry I scared you."

Vin shrugged, but his lips quirked a little. "Sorry I didn't know 'bout the fire before it happened."

Josiah stared, unsure of what to say. From anyone else, the words would have been light. But from Vin, they weren't. Worse, though, was that his own reaction was to ask Vin why he hadn't known. It wasn't the question itself that bothered him, but its foundation: he was coming to accept that Vin had this power, this gift.

He stared at the door after Vin left, wondering when he had started losing his mind.

"Prophecy?" Brother Lawrence starred for just a few seconds before gathering himself. "You want to talk about prophecy?"

Josiah curbed the urge to glance around. It was Friday night at the Harbinger, and he'd known he'd find the several of the brothers there. He'd hoped, prayed, even, that Lawrence would be among them; like Josiah, Lawrence was curious and they'd spent time talking about their various pursuits.

Brother Lawrence, though, was fascinated by the charismatic sects and the idea of the spiritual gifts bestowed upon people, gifts such as ministry, teaching, leading - and prophecy. It had take Josiah almost a month to work up the courage to talk to him about Vin and he still wasn't certain that he wasn't losing his mind.

"Something came up recently," Josiah said, slowly, "and I thought I'd see if I could find out some details. You were the first person I thought of." He had managed to cull Lawrence away from the others, drawing him to a small corner table while the other brothers were playing darts against several of the locals.

Lawrence smiled at him, a quick flash of teeth in his dark face. "I got the impression that you weren't all that impressed with the charismatic beliefs," he said, picking up his beer.

Josiah shrugged, but he also smiled. "Not that I'm not impressed," he said. "My father was a missionary and with a few charismatic tendencies himself. I suspect it probably colored my view of them."

Lawrence nodded as he swallowed. Josiah hadn't spoken much about his father to anyone, ever, but almost all of what he had ever said had been to this man. "Well, the long and short of it is that every religion has prophets, people who God speaks to. They deliver messages from him to his people or they tell of dangers that are to come."

"Warnings," Josiah said.

Lawrence shrugged. "In a way. It's hard to tell. I think one of the trickiest things about being a prophet is that if you're right, and you foretell something that comes to pass, then you're held accountable for it. But if you foretell something, and it doesn't come to pass, then you're either a false prophet - or you've actually managed to change something in events so that it doesn't come to pass. So either way, prophets are pretty much screwed in the public eye."

It would have been amusing under other circumstances, but right now, Josiah felt a little cold. "Do you believe in them?" he asked.

Lawrence tilted his head to one side, his wide brow scrunching. "What do you mean? Surely you're not calling into doubt the prophets of the Bible and the religious texts."

Josiah shook his head automatically - but as he did, he caught himself. No, he wasn't. He believed in those prophets, in what they said and did and the why of it. He believed in the prophets of many religions and in many times.

As if understanding his thinking, Lawrence nodded. "So it's the prophets of the present that you doubt? Because they haven't been proven?"

Was that it? He looked down at his mug, twirling it about with his fingers, but not really seeing it.

Lawrence drank more of his beer then motioned for Lavendar. It was early in the evening, the place not yet crowded enough to make talking difficult but not so dead as to have everyone's attention. The most noise was coming from the area around the dart board.

As Lavendar nodded, heading to the bar to pull another glass, Lawrence said, "Strange, isn't it, that faith comes in so many shades of grey. We have faith in our God, but we question our fellow men so completely. In this service," he gestured toward his chest where his cross lay visible over his grey shirt, "we believe in God and try to bring people to him, yet we are forever struggling to determine to whom God speaks and how, which words attributed to him are true and which are not." He smiled as Lavendar approached, setting down his beer and bringing another mug of whiskey for Josiah.

"Good to see you back," she said to Josiah. "Where's your friend?"

Josiah grinned despite himself, not surprised she'd remember Vin, even though he was pretty certain Vin hadn't been in again since that first night. "He decided to stay in," he answered. It was true, but still a sort of misdirection. He hadn't asked Vin to come along tonight, because he needed to talk to Lawrence on his own.

"It is good to see you back," Lawrence agreed as he paid for this round of drinks. "We've missed you at the monastery."

"I have to admit," Josiah said quietly, "I've missed the place myself." He had, but only certain people - like Lawrence. Leaving had been the right choice, even if he was still questioning the reasons why. He nodded at Lavendar as she patted him on the shoulder and walked away, and he thought about that night, when he'd so seriously considered sending Vin home with her.

"So why this new interest in prophets?" Lawrence asked. "Have you met one?"

The question was curious, but under it, Josiah heard an eagerness that shouldn't have surprised him - and didn't, really, but it did make him feel a little unsettled. "I . . . I don't know," he said, honestly.

"Does he claim to be?" Lawrence asked, leaning forward a little.

Josiah noticed the use of the pronoun, and he knew that rumor of his leaving had spread to include Vin's presence here in the bar. Lavendar would not have been discreet, not with her regular clientele. "No," he sighed. "He doesn't seem to believe in anything having to do with religion."

Lawrence's eyebrows rose. "And yet, you think he's a prophet? Why, Josiah?"

And here it was - the test. "Because he has visions of things that happen," he said quietly. "I don't think they're false and I don't think he's making things happen - I don't think he can."

"But a prophet - he has to have a message from God. If he doesn't have a message . . . " Lawrence shrugged. After a few seconds, he frowned. "He doesn't believe?"

Josiah shook his head and sipped from his mug. After he swallowed, he said, "He was raised in an orphanage - state-run. Didn't get a lot of exposure."

"And since then? Has he been exposed?" Lawrence was leaning closer now, one hand on his beer and the other close to Josiah's hand. He was growing excited again and Josiah fought the urge to pull back.

His sense of discomfort grew stronger at the idea of discussing Vin in more detail - particularly his youth. "Some," he said, "but not as much as he should be."

Lawrence nodded slowly. "I've spent a lot of time studying the charismatic cults, and I've always loved the prophets and prophetic incidents. There's a secondary realm of study, about people who would be prophets if they believed. Some of the prophets themselves are people who were led to God either because of their visions or by someone who saw their visions for what they truly were - maybe that's what you're there for. Maybe it's your role to bring him to God."

Josiah stared at him. The thought was . . . intriguing. Frightening, in a way - but intriguing.

Lawrence was still talking, offering to send Josiah some information and references, and he felt another frisson of interest. A new thing to learn. A new thing to research.

Several hours later, as he stumbled back to the room he shared with Vin, he felt better than he had since he'd met the younger man. No, that wasn't right, either, he thought as he stared up into the cloud-covered sky. He felt better than he had in years. He hadn't been happy in the monastery, hadn't been happy before he'd gone there. Sure as hell hadn't been happy in the war.

Now, though, he had two new, possible interests: a new line of study and a new person to bring to God.

The third time Vin shared his visions - the third time was the key.

It was small, really, a simple suggestion at a restaurant. Two months after his talk with Lawrence, they'd stopped by for dinner on their way home from a long day in the mine.

"I'll have the rice," Josiah said, smiling at their waitress. "With a side of - "

"Pasta," Vin mumbled, but it was a little louder than his usual mutterings, and it drew the attention of the waitress.

"You want the pasta?" she said, turning to him.

Vin wasn't looking at her, he was looking past her, toward the wall - toward nothing.

"Yes," Josiah answered, trying to cover for the younger man's rudeness, "he wants the pasta - "

"Both of us," Vin cut him off, his voice a little harder this time. "We'll both have the pasta - "

"Vin," Josiah said, partly annoyed but partly confused. Vin had never been this way before. "Are you all right?"

The waitress was frowning, looking at Vin with a little alarm. Vin was still unfocused, his lips moving in the way that Josiah ignored.

Josiah frowned. Without a thought, he reached out, his fingers closing around Vin's wrist where it rested on the table, close to him. "Vin?" he asked again.

It might have been the call of his name, or the touch, but Vin tensed a little, blinked hard, then shook his head. His eyes moved, coming to rest on Josiah, and he said softly, "Please, get the pasta."

The anger was still there, but Vin looked away, at the table, and the waitress was still standing and staring at them.

"Yes," Josiah said, turning his attention to her, and smiling even as he tightened his hold on Vin's wrist, "we'll both have the pasta."

She frowned but nodded and with a last glance to Vin, she moved off.

Josiah waited until she was out of earshot before turning to Vin. "What the hell was that about?" he asked.

Vin was staring into the distance again, his wide eyes glazed, his lips moving.

Without thinking, Josiah lifted the arm he gripped and slammed it on the table - not hard, but enough to get Vin's meager attention. It was trick he had learned with Hannah.

Again, Vin stiffened, blinked, and came back to himself.

"What's going on?" Josiah hissed, leaning in close. His hand moved to grip Vin's upper arm, tight enough to bruise. "Why can't I have my rice?"

Vin met his glare, his voice soft. "Makes them sick," he said, looking slowly to a nearby table, where an older couple was sitting. "Bad rice, or something, don't know but - "

At that moment, the man at the other table stood up suddenly, holding one arm over his rather large belly. He took several steps, staggered, and then bent over and vomited all over the floor.

Before he was finished, the woman with him turned and added the contents of her stomach to the mire on the floor.

The sight of it, while repulsive, wasn't as bad as the smell. Josiah found himself covering his nose and mouth, wincing at the roil of his stomach.

The waitress cried out, running over to do something, help, maybe. Her cry drew someone from the kitchen, then a customer braved the dangers and came over, and someone ran for a healer.

Josiah shook his head, getting to his feet. He still held Vin's wrist, so that as he rose, Vin did the same, stumbling a little as he caught his balance.

Outside, the air smelled of the smelting metals and off-gassing of the mines, and so much better than inside that he took several deep breaths before he felt the need to cough.

Vin moved slowly along beside him, his head moving from side to side, his eyes hazy.

"How was the pasta?" Josiah asked after a few seconds.

Vin didn't seem to hear him, his lips moving as if he were speaking, but making no sound.

"Vin?" Josiah frowned. He reached out, catching Vin by the shoulder and pulling him still.

Vin slowly turned his head to look at him, but when their eyes met, Vin seemed to be aware. "What?" he asked, as if he hadn't heard what Josiah said.

"How was the pasta?" Josiah asked again, more slowly.

Vin looked at him blankly for a few seconds, until the question made sense to him, then he shrugged. "I don't know. I just know they got sick from the rice."

Josiah frowned. "You don't know how the food was?"

Vin shook his head once, the ends of his hair long enough to brush over his jaw. "The vision didn't go that far. Reckon if it had, we'd still be in there eating."

Josiah stared. "So, the visions don't tell you everything?" he asked. "You don't know everything?"

Vin actually laughed a little at that, but it was a faint sound. "Not hardly," he said. "I don't see nothing for long, just a couple of minutes or so. It's - well, it's like coming into a video in the middle, or somewhere, where you get just long enough to know something big's happening. Then the feed changes and you're watching something else."

Josiah knew he was still staring, his mind trying to catch up to the words Vin had said, to the idea.

The little grin on Vin's face faded under the scrutiny, and he looked down, his hands pushing deep into the pockets of his pants. Self-conscious, Josiah noted peripherally; they'd never talked about Vin's visions before, they'd talked little about Vin at all. It was a strange thought, given all the time they spent together and all the things he'd been learning from Lawrence, but Vin never offered information about himself and Josiah - Josiah had never asked. Not yet.

They'd been together over four months now, space standard, and all he knew about his companion were the basics: he'd been orphaned young, raised in a State-owned orphanage that had sold him off to the Alliance military machine as soon as he was old enough to hold a gun, and the military had cut on his head as soon as they had their hands on him, sharpening his eyesight and causing the visions at the same time.

They'd never talked about the visions themselves - because Josiah was afraid to believe in them. Because to do so would be to make Vin's truth his own.

He shook himself, trying to get some sort of control on his run-away thoughts. "Come on," he said gruffly, reaching out to catch Vin's nearest elbow and pulling him along. "Still need to eat."

Vin came along easily enough, following without argument or opinion. As he always did.

Josiah's mind was too busy percolating through all the things he had never asked, never said, never done. All the things he had ignored because he wanted to ignore the possibility that Vin was right.

But now . . .

They ended up at the corner deli, getting rice rolls and weak tea that they carried back to the room at the hostel, where they had remained since the fire even though it was a little more expensive and they had to share the bath with several others on the floor. The room had a balcony and they both liked to sit on it as night fell, watching the stars and enjoying the breeze that only blew above the ground.

They ate dinner on the balcony, Josiah in the rocking chair Vin had found for sale at a salvage shop, and Josiah had repaired well enough to hold his weight and still rock. Vin sat on the floor, his long legs folded before him, his back against the wall.

He didn't talk. Josiah watched him, covertly this time, noticed that he looked out into the sky, that sometimes his eyes drifted and his lips moved as though he were talking. But he didn't make any noise. Just as he had in the street earlier. After the 'rice incident', as Josiah had come to term it in his head.

These were the visions. The moments when he was not all here - when he was seeing some other time, or the snippets of it he had tried to explain earlier.

"Vin," he said softly, not sure what he wanted to ask but wanting to ask something. Ready to ask.

Vin didn't seem to hear him, his eyes still drifting. Josiah noticed that his hands were clenched tightly into fists resting in his lap, and that his arms were flexed, the muscles sharp under the thin fabric of his work shirt.

"Vin," he called a little louder. But there was still no response. It was as though Vin were lost inside himself, the way Hanna was.

Josiah stretched his memory, but he couldn't recall a time that Vin had been this way before, where he'd been this remote.

Carefully, he leaned forward and extended a hand toward Vin, calling his name several times. It was only as his hand made contact with Vin's shoulder that Vin reacted; he blinked, slow and deliberately, and when his eyes opened, they were focused on Josiah.

"Are you all right?" Josiah asked, his fingers tightening over Vin's shoulder.

"Sure," Vin said, looking a little confused. "What's wrong?"

Josiah looked at him, and Vin shifted, looking around. His eyes widened a little, and he looked back to Josiah.

"Where were you?" Josiah asked, his voice soft. "You weren't here. I called you several times."

Vin looked down, breaking the eye contact. He started to answer, stopped, then took a deep breath before looking back up at Josiah. He looked older now, too old, not the boy at all. His voice was older also, holding none of the hesitancy Josiah was accustomed to.

"I was here, but not now, not in this moment," he said. "You and me were talking, sorta like this, but it was a different day and we were talking 'bout different things." He paused before adding, "They been getting worse, lately, the visions. Sucking me in, making it harder to tell the difference between what's real and what's not real yet."

'Not real yet', Josiah noted. Vin's belief in his prophecies was absolute. But his immediate attention was on the first part of Vin's words. "Getting worse?"

Vin shrugged, finally looking away. "Reckon I've had these things going on three years or so now. Always been able to control 'em, or at least tell the difference 'tween what was going on in my head and what was going on - well, outside of me, where my body was. But lately, it's like . . . it's like my body is with me in the vision. I can feel things, taste things - ain't just hearing and seeing no more." He pulled away from Josiah, leaning into the wall behind him and drawing his knees up. "Scares me," he murmured, staring into the growing dusk.

Josiah sat back, looking at his companion. "Why didn't you tell me?" he asked, even though he knew the answer.

Vin's lips curled slightly at the edges. "You don't seem to want to know a lot about my visions. I reckon you're still fighting the truth of 'em." But the grin, slight as it was, faded and Vin looked away again. "Being with you helps keep me. . . well, centered, I guess, here. Usually, hearing you talk is enough to let me know what's real. But lately, lately you been in so many of the visions that I can't tell the difference no more." He wiped at his forehead with the back of his hand, and Josiah realized he was hurting.

"How bad is it?" he asked. "The pain?"

Vin's arm dropped and he shook his head. "Comes and goes, mostly after a real strong one."

"Like the one just now?" Josiah asked, watching Vin closely.

Vin shrugged, his eyes moving away.

Josiah sat back in the chair, staring out into the falling night. He sat thinking about it, night falling, the stars shining through the hazy clouds of mining dust and pollutants in the atmosphere. In so many ways, Vin was like Hannah, and the possibility that he could end up as crazy as she was scared Josiah.

But Hannah's descent hadn't been this observable, and he wondered again if whatever they had done to Vin had been what had happened to Hannah.

At some point, Vin got up and started inside, rubbing at his head. Josiah watched him, watched the easy grace he had, the confidence that he had grown into over the past month.

The boy was still there, but he was fainter, more a physical entity than a psychological one.

As he passed, Josiah caught Vin's wrist, drawing him to a stop. Vin tensed at his touch, but only for a second. Surprised, but not resistant. Never resistant. Wary at times, hesitant, especially when Josiah was angry or upset. But never angry or upset himself.

Never resistant. He stood now, looking down at Josiah, a slight frown on his thin face but not pulling away or asking. Just waiting.

Josiah stood, making the transition from looking up at Vin to looking down. He didn't look any younger from this angle. But the frown was more pronounced.

His eyes, Josiah thought. Vin's body was young, no way to argue that, but those eyes were as old as the galaxy, as old as Sol herself. They met his now, curious, and wary, and patient.


Vin didn't say anything, but he tilted his head, just a little.

It was as though they had been kissing for decades, as though they had been lovers for more years than Josiah could remember. Everything about it was right, the softness of Vin's lips, the pressure, the taste of him as he opened at Josiah's urging. He was solid and warm in Josiah's arms, his body hard where it pressed against Josiah's.

It took Josiah a while to find the sensation odd; the kisses were distracting enough, the pleasure of it growing stronger as his body awakened to the desire he had repressed for so long. But eventually, the absence of breasts and curves intruded into his consciousness, and he found himself slowly edging away.

He'd closed his eyes, and for the briefest instant, he thought about leaving them that way, going on and pretending that the body close against him, the one pressing so nicely against his erection, was someone from his past, Emma or Kiera or - any one of the women he had known.

But the hard length of cock bruising his thigh was impossible to ignore.

The arms around his shoulders tightened, holding him, but he shook his head. "I can't . . ."

"Why?" Vin asked. It could have been petulant and whining, but instead, it seemed mostly curious, as if he didn't understand.

Josiah sighed, shaking his head, not sure how to put words to it.

"It's all right," Vin whispered. "Just let me."

Let him what? Josiah wondered, but they were moving, Vin pushing him backwards. It was more the feel of Vin's cock that drove Josiah, a desire to avoid the awareness of it rubbing against him. He had to stop, though, when he reached the bed, the backs of his legs bumping against the side.

Vin pushed at his shoulders, urging him to sit - not forcing; he was hardly able to do that, but guiding him to do so.

Josiah did, and before his ass hit the mattress, Vin was on his knees in front of him.

"No," Josiah said, realizing what the boy - the man, he forced himself to think, was offering.

"I want to," Vin said, looking up at him with those old eyes. "Let me."

The memory of their first time, the way Vin had taken him on the floor of that ship, tore at him - reminding him that Vin knew what he was doing, but also bringing with it the memory of the shame of it, of the boy Vin had been.

It hadn't been that long ago. But it had been long enough for Vin to have learned something himself. This time, he waited, still looking up at Josiah, his hands resting on Josiah's thighs. His thumbs moved slowly back and forth, tracing small circles on the cloth of Josiah's pants, circles that sent jolts of heat up to Josiah's cock.

Josiah stared into his eyes, seeing nothing but desire there. He drew a breath, the word 'no' forming in his mouth, but it never came out. Instead, Vin leaned in, catching his lips in another kiss that swallowed anything he might have said.

When it was done, both of them breathing heavy, lips covered in spit, and Josiah's pants were open.

"Vin," he said, or tried to, but it came out as a groan as nimble fingers eased past the boundary of the fabric and touched his heated skin.

From there it was sheer pleasure, flashes of stark images that imprinted on his mind. Vin's mouth was wet and hot and perfect, sucking and licking, drawing him progressively deeper. His hands, work-roughened and sweaty, wrapped around the base of Josiah's erection, pumping in time to his swallows.

It didn't take long; he'd gone too long, avoiding even his own hand unless he couldn't stand it any more. It built from his balls, curling up his spine and exploding through him and out with such force that he blacked out.

When he came to, he was curled over Vin, his head resting on the top of Vin's. Vin was gently licking him clean, the sensation just on the border of 'too much' and he grunted. His hands were on Vin's shoulders, and he managed to get one to move, sliding it to cup Vin's chin and push him back.

Vin looked up at him, eyes dark and wide, hungry. He licked at his lips, and Josiah wiped at the rivulet dripping from one corner with his thumb.

"You shouldn't have . . . " He sighed, knowing that it would do no good; neither of them believed it anymore.

Vin came up, his hands catching at Josiah's shoulders as he pulled himself into a kiss. He tasted of Josiah now, and for an instant, Josiah was repulsed - but only for an instant. He knew his own flavor, had tasted it enough with other people - women.

Vin was flush against him, his hips fit snugly against Josiah's thighs, and Josiah felt the hard length of him. Vin was still aroused, and it was unfair, Josiah knew, for him to do nothing to reciprocate.

Even though the doing would open a door he wasn't sure he could close. Worse, wasn't sure, in this moment, he would want to close.

Vin didn't ask. He rubbed against Josiah in a quick, short rhythm, his tongue flicking against Josiah's at the same tempo. He wouldn't take long, and Josiah could let it happen without doing a thing, perhaps should just let it happen.

But he wasn't good at taking the coward's way out, and truth be told, he wanted to give something back. One hand tucked easily against Vin's ass, startling the younger man and breaking his rhythm. That made it easier to shift him to one side, so that Josiah could rub his other hand over the prominent bulge in the front of Vin's rough work pants.

He had nothing to be ashamed of, Josiah thought, except maybe his lack of stamina. All Josiah had to do was press the heel of his palm against Vin's shaft, his fingers closing around the outline of the cockhead, and Vin cried out, spilling into the fabric of his clothing.

So little, Josiah thought, it takes so little to please Vin - not just with the sex, but with anything. He never complained, not about the food, the living conditions, Josiah's moods or tempers or the work or the lack of - whatever it was that Vin wasn't doing that he might want to.

Josiah wasn't aware that he had moved, but as the rigor of climax eased and Vin's body relaxed, he found himself pulling Vin against his chest, soothing a hand through the thick tangles of his hair.

Vin shuddered a little in his touch, then nestled his head under Josiah's chin. Neither of them spoke for a while, Josiah because he didn't know what to say. He suspected that Vin was in a similar position, afraid of breaking the fragile peace between them.

Afraid of the rejection he undoubtedly expected.

Josiah didn't realize he had sighed until he felt Vin tense against him.

"Ain't sorry I did it," Vin mumbled, the words just clear enough for Josiah to puzzle out as they faded.

He cupped Vin's shoulders, easing him back so that he could see his face. He wasn't surprised to see the features set, Vin's eyes calm with just a little defiance.

He shook his head, but smiled despite himself. "Reckon I'm not sorry, either."

Vin blinked, the surprise catching at him, but only for a second. Then he smiled, too.

Little else was said, and they slept in their respective places. But Josiah slept better than he had in a long while.

The guilt - never quite settled. Again, like it had never settled after that first night, as it had never settled when he left the abbey. Like before, Josiah knew it should have, and he did feel it at times, deeply. Vin was so young, too young, and he had sworn to himself and to God that he wouldn't do it again.

But the times that it drove deep into his heart were few and in the days afterward, they occurred more and more rarely.

Partly, he knew, it was Vin. The innocence Josiah wanted to ascribe to him wasn't there. He couldn't see it in the person who was with him, couldn't see it when he looked into those blue eyes that stared back at him tiredly but knowingly. An old soul, ancient in ways. This was how he was different from Hannah; Hannah had never been this aware of the world around her, even before they'd done whatever they'd done to her head.

"Ain't sorry," Vin had repeated that morning as Josiah had tried to remain distant, to beat himself up for it. He had stood tall and met Josiah's gaze directly. No smirk, no grin, nothing but contentment and a sort of gentleness about him that Josiah tried, and failed, to ignore.

Josiah spent the next few days throwing himself into his work, both that at the mine and that at the library. There was a small facility in town, funded by the monastery, so he was able to access most of the works Lawrence had referenced him to as well as sources that were outside their faith.

What he found was interesting. And compelling.

"You aren't the first," he said quietly one evening weeks later as they sat on the balcony.

Vin looked up from the shirt he'd been mending and tilted his head in question.

"The first person to have visions, to see the future."

Vin grinned. "You think I'm one of them prophets you been reading about? I reckon your god has a strange sense of humor, if that's the case."

Josiah frowned, annoyed at Vin's tone. "Is it that hard for you to believe?" he asked, sharper than he'd intended.

The grin slipped away and Vin blinked but he didn't look down. "I respect you for what you believe," he said softly. "What's between a man and his god is - well, between them. But I can't believe in a god that lets so many bad things happen. I don't care what reason you want to give it, any body or thing who had the power to stop the suffering in the 'verse and didn't do it is just cruel - no matter what excuse it uses."

His gaze did drop then and Josiah found that all his arguments about people choosing their own paths, for right or wrong, didn't hold up against the fact that innocents - children, animals, even adults - still had bad things happen to them that they couldn't control.

It was one of the problems he found himself up against from time to time. But not one he was ready to share with anyone, not even Vin. Or especially Vin.

He pushed himself up, turning toward the door. But Vin wasn't done yet. He reached out, catching Josiah at the shin just below his knee. His grip wasn't tight, but it was strong enough to stop Josiah.

"I ain't calling you on what you believe," he said flatly, looking back up at Josiah. "And I can't tell you why I see what I do or know what I know. But if you want to say it's from your god, then I gotta wonder why it ain't more clear - and why I can't do a damned thing to stop any of it. And I'd hope you'd wonder the same thing, Josiah."

He stared down into the eyes he thought he knew, but there was stranger behind them.

Then Vin dropped his eyes and his hand. His voice was less sure when he went on, "I ain't saying I'm right - maybe that's why you're here, to teach me."

The words were so close to what he had been thinking that he wondered if he'd said something or given some indication. Or if Vin had seen . . .

He shook his head, trying to clear it. Vin couldn't have seen - he didn't see - he - he - he -

Josiah rubbed at his head. It was too much, because it was becoming too real.

"Vin?" Josiah reached out, catching him by the arm.

Vin jerked, looking at him. His eyes were clouded, but it was pain, Josiah saw. The headache was bad; the vision had been strong, so strong that Josiah had had to lead Vin from work and back to the hostel. Vin hadn't come out of the vision for several hours, and when he had, he had been unprepared for how long he had been in it - and how deeply.

Josiah was afraid to leave him alone during them, worried when his touches, his words, didn't seem to make a dent in Vin's distraction. This - this was too close to what he knew of Hannah, of her distraction, her insanity. The idea that Vin was going to become the same way . . .

Josiah had read the things Lawrence recommended, sometimes losing himself in what he was discovering. It was strange to find that the people he read about like Vin were written about by people like him, believers who had found themselves in the roles of protectors, friends, and, in a few cases, even lovers.

"Another vision?" Josiah asked, his voice low.

Vin shook his head. "Just the headache. Sorry - I don't mean to scare you."

Josiah watched him for several seconds. "You've never been in one this long," he said slowly, "have you?"

Vin looked away, but not before Josiah saw the worry in his blue eyes.

"It's all right," he said quietly. "I ain't gonna lose my mind or nothing - least, not real bad. I know we're gonna be together, and that we're going to be leaving here soon, when the mine collapses - "

"What?" Josiah's grip tightened, and he saw Vin wince. But his mind was on the words. "What did you say?"

Vin frowned, flinching back. "We're gonna be together - "

"The mine," Josiah pushed, irritating. "What about the mine?"

Vin tilted his head to one side, confused. "I told you already - "

"You haven't told me anything. Tell me now." He tried to keep the anxiety from his tone.

"I - " Vin's frown deepened, the lines of his brow creasing deeply. "I thought I did. I thought I told you and you said - "

"Tell me now," Josiah said, speaking slowly as he held on to his patience.

Vin looked away. "The mine. There's gonna be an accident - big one, kills a lot of people in it."


Vin shook his head. "Don't know. They don't work that way."

Josiah frowned. "What does that mean? How can you not know? You know about the explosion at the healer's, you knew about the rice - "

Vin looked back at him, a sort of hurt in his eyes. "It don't work that way, J'siah," he said slowly. "I don't get but glimpses of things, little pieces of things. Best I can tell is that this is gonna happen while we're still here, but I can't say when. Or why, not yet. But the visions keep coming faster and stronger. Could be soon, I guess. I don't know - ain't never had one act this way."

"We gotta warn people," Josiah snapped, "I can't believe you didn't say something sooner - "

"Won't make a difference," Vin said quietly, reaching out to catch Josiah's wrist. "I swear, I have tried in the past, to help people, to warn 'em. They never believe, and if they do believe, it still don't change nothing. They end up thinking I caused whatever happened to happen - I ain't kidding, it won't make a difference, other than to make 'em doubt us. The best we can do is try to help people when it comes."

Josiah glared at him, jerking his hand free. "If it won't make a difference, then how does our helping make a difference?"

Vin shrugged. "I think, sometimes, that we're supposed to be there to do what we can - to save some of the ones we do. But other times . . . " He sighed and looked down. "Hell, I don't know. That's what I was trying to tell you - if your god is sending me these, then why can't I do something with them?"

Josiah ignored the last question. "We can't let it happen without trying to stop it," he said sharply. "If you believe it's going to happen - "

"It is going to happen," Vin said, quiet but with conviction. "The visions are always true. We're going to help dig people out - "

"Not if we can stop it before it happens." Josiah pushed himself up, restless. Angry.

Vin didn't say anything, and as Josiah paced away toward the balcony, he glanced back to find the young man's eyes closed, his face pinched.

It'd been almost a month since they'd had the discussion about Vin's visions and his faith in God, a month in which Josiah had found himself unable to avoid noticing them. It wasn't just his new knowledge, even though that, in and of itself, would have been enough. It was that they had been getting worse. Vin had been getting worse.

And he found that he was coming to care, not just in the abstract, either. Dammit.

He hadn't let himself give into the desires of the flesh, not again, but that, too, had been hard to ignore. Vin was willing, more than willing if the looks and the touches were any sign. But he hadn't said anything, hadn't pushed his way into Josiah's bed. He'd learned after that first time, which said a lot about Vin's intellect. More about his self-control.

It was full dark when he went back in. Vin was stretched out on his pallet, an arm over his eyes, his other hand fisted on his belly. The room was lit only by lights from outside and by the light of the old-school monitor on the desk in the far corner. It was on the screen saver, swirling colors casting hues of red and blue and purple through the dusk.

Josiah walked over to the bed and sat down, leaning lower to work on getting his boots off. As he put the first one back on the floor, flexing his toes, Vin spoke softly even though he didn't move.

"It ain't as easy as you think. People don't like to believe in the future when it tells 'em bad things. Or when they can't explain it." He moved his arm from his eyes, dropping it slowly down to his side. He kept his eyes closed, though, and they crinkled some at the corners.

"Doesn't mean you should stop trying to stop these things - maybe that's why you have these visions, to - "

"You think I ain't thought of that?" There was a spark of anger in his words and he did open his eyes then, blinking a little before finding that ability to stare at Josiah. "You don't think I've tried to make things happen different?" He grimaced but got his hands under himself and pushed up into a sitting position. For a few seconds, he rocked slightly and Josiah reached down to catch him.

It gave him time to ponder the question. In truth - in truth, he wondered. He knew it wasn't charitable of him, but Vin was young, still at an age where his thoughts were more about him than about anyone else. Or they should be. And God knew he'd been raised in an environment that wasn't known for compassion, either in the teaching of it or the practice of it. He had little doubt but that anything Vin believed about helping others was some sort of aberrant genetic code.

Vin drew a deep breath but met Josiah's eyes. "I have tried," he insisted, as if he knew what Josiah was thinking. "I been scared of knowing this stuff, and I thought at first that my knowing was because I was supposed to stop things. But I couldn't - I couldn't stop the ship from getting hit and half my team getting killed, I couldn't stop them from doing them things to other people - I couldn't stop my sergeant from getting killed. I saw his death - and I managed to drag him away from it, keep him from dying in the first attack. But he did in the third one - just the way I had seen it, 'Siah. Different ship, different hall - but in those three seconds, same screaming, same words - same damned thing. I saved him the first time, maybe the second - but it was coming. Or hell, maybe it was always the third time I'd been seeing, I don't know."

He turned away, looking a little sicker, but this time, Josiah didn't think it was the headache. He tightened the hold he had on Vin's upper arm, squeezing enough to be consoling. "I know you tried." Vin wouldn't lie. Josiah let go and straightened. "We've still got to try, to try to save the people in the mine."

Vin sighed but he didn't argue. Instead, he said, "It starts with the conveyor, but it's because the whole system is weak. The conveyor stalls, but the engine keeps trying. It overheats and the steam release kicks in, which is stronger than they planned for. It blows out one of the main supports which collapses the tunnel, starting a chain reaction."

"You see all of this?" Josiah asked. "You're there?"

Vin shook his head once. "When we're helping people, we hear the stories, then see it on the news vids. It's at a shift change. I've . . . " He frowned a little deeper, then went on, "I've been looking at the conveyor belt when I can, but I can't see that anything's wrong. Other than that they overload it too much of the time."

Which would be the problem. Despite the safety protocols and the weight limitations, the belt was almost always over-full. Something would get stuck - it had happened before. "I'll mention it to Bailey," he said. "He's the one most likely to worry about the safety."

"Gotta be careful," Vin said quietly. "They'll remember that you said it, when they're looking to lay blame."

Josiah frowned at him, seeing the age in his eyes again. This was experience talking and he didn't like the sound of it. Of course, as he thought about it, he also understood that for all of Vin's cynicism, he had been looking himself, holding out some hope that maybe Josiah's belief that they could help was right.

It gave him pause, tempered the edge of his frustration. Vin had come to doubt his own hope, if he'd ever had any at all.

"How do you feel?" he asked, watching the crinkles at Vin's eyes.

"I'm all right," he answered. "Headache's ebbed a little." He tilted his head slightly. "Thanks for worrying, but I'll be all right. Pain ain't gonna kill me."

No, Josiah thought, it wouldn't. But it was making his life pretty miserable. "Come here," he said, sitting up straight. "Let me see if I can help."

Vin held his gaze, his eyes still old in his young face, and Josiah knew, as prescient as Vin at his best, where this would lead. He could stop it now, retract his offer in the words, and he saw in Vin's eyes that he knew that, and probably even expected it.

The moment stretched, Vin not moving, barely breathing. Some small part of Josiah knew that Vin had learned enough in the time they had been together. He had learned that anything he said, or even did, would be enough to drive Josiah back. So he sat silent and still, letting Josiah's desire battle against his good sense.

The flesh was weak, he told himself, but the litany of it became merely a dull background, like a tune that wandered aimlessly through his thoughts. It hadn't been that long, but his body thought otherwise. The hand that rose in invitation seemed to be someone else's, but it felt the light grip of Vin's fingers as they took it.

Vin went to his knees again, and Josiah caught his wrists. He didn't know what he wanted, but he did know that he wanted something more than Vin's supplication.

Vin stared at him, his eyes searching. He swallowed then said very softly, "I need you. I need you to make me feel something real, something - something here and now."

Questions rose like bubbles in boiling water, but he couldn't ask any of them. Vin leaned in close, and Josiah moved the distance between them, capturing his lips as easily as he captured the slender body, his arms pulling Vin close.

It started as it had the last two times, Josiah sitting on the bed, Vin between his knees, sucking him down.

But this time, as the pleasure and guilt twined around each other, Vin drew back. Josiah had his eyes closed, his hands on Vin's shoulders, so it took him several seconds for his blood to cool enough to recognize that Vin had drawn away from him.

He forced his eyes open to find Vin standing, his back to Josiah as he peeled off his pants. Long legs, well muscled, and a round, sweet ass, his libido registered, but his mind kicked into gear, shocked at the idea.

"Hold on," he said, uncertain. "What are you doing?"

Vin half turned, his eyes bright, his lips wet and shining. "I need you," he said again, his voice hoarse. "You ain't gotta do nothing, 'Siah, I swear, I'll do it all. But I need . . . " He swallowed, and the lines of his face seemed to tighten, as if in pain. "I need more. Please."

More. Josiah wasn't ignorant - he'd been with men before, long ago in his experimental youth, when he'd rebelled against his father's strict ways. He knew that there was more to sex with his own gender than sucking and hand jobs.

But the idea of doing this with Vin -

Vin turned completely, holding his pants in front of him as he took several steps back to Josiah. "I ain't no virgin," he said, as if he knew Josiah's mind. "I've done this before - I know what I'm doing. It ain't your decision or your responsibility - please, let me do this."

He stared up into Vin's eyes, too many thoughts whirling through his head. The idea that Vin had done this drew a strange jealousy and possessiveness - and dark, arrogant amusement. If Vin had done this before - if - then it'd been with other boys. Not with a man.

But that thought made him cringe with guilt; he was better than that - better than all of this. It was wrong that he should be doing this at all, any of it - letting Vin put his mouth on him was sin enough, he needed to stop everything that was happening between them, needed to get this boy dressed and put somewhere safe, protect him from people like - well, Josiah himself.

Vin went to his knees again, dropping his pants over his groin as his fingers curved over Josiah's thighs. He lowered his head but Josiah reached out and caught him, one hand under his jaw, the other catching in his hair. "It's not right," he heard himself say, "none of this - "

"It's the way it's supposed to be," Vin countered. His voice still held the tone of need, cutting, but there was something else in it, something Josiah hadn't heard before. It was conviction but it was coupled with a new authority. "We're to be together. Just as surely as those people got sick in that restaurant, and as surely as that medicine shop exploded, I know we're to be together. I ain't pushed you 'cause I don't want to scare you away again, but - you gotta fuck me, 'Siah, you gotta make me yours. So let me do this, let me make you feel good - "

He wasn't aware of pushing Vin away, of rising to his feet and stumbling away. He was barely aware of the sweat breaking out of his skin and the rush of discordant thoughts and impulses - to hit Vin, to laugh at him, to throw him out of the apartment and tell him not to come back, to pull him close and hold him, to fuck him through the mattress -

Pain exploded behind his eyes, the intensity of it driving away all thought, all chaos. He savored it for the small space of time that it dominated everything else, and as it slowly receded, its red edges giving way to the grey of the world outside him, he found himself facing a wall, his hand inside a hole he had created with a hard punch. His knuckles throbbed and his wrist and elbow ached, and his ears still rang with the echo of the impact and the crunch of plaster and pressed mud.

He drew his hand out, shaking off the dust and residue of his destruction, his mind turning to a calculation of what he would need to do to fix it, where to purchase what was necessary. It was easier than dealing with the why of it, of the mire of things still swirling around the outer layers of his thoughts.

But as he turned, he saw Vin standing, watching him with wide eyes. He held his pants, still, as if they were a shield. He'd never taken off his shirt, Josiah noticed, and he wondered if that was somehow supposed to make him feel better, that Vin was giving over only his ass, not his whole body.

The thought was just absurd enough to make him snort, and Vin blinked. But he didn't look away.

He was scared, Josiah saw that in the tension in his body, the slight tremble of his fingers. But the look in his eyes was one of weariness and acceptance, as if he'd expected this and now must endure it.

He waved a hand in the air, unable even now to say the word Vin had used, unable to put the idea into words. "You know how stupid that sounds?"

Vin took a deep breath before he answered. "Reckon it's about as stupid as everything else I say, 'specially 'bout my visions."

The idea was ludicrous. But even as he thought it, he realized that Vin was right - it was no more insane than anything else about this situation. And no matter whether it was true or not, Vin believed it.

It wasn't about gender, it was about youth and beauty and desire, and having that desire so focused on him that it overcame his rationality. Overcame all the restraints he had spent a lifetime learning.

"You believe that this relationship between us is to be - but why? Your visions say so - yes, I know that," he said, holding up a hand to stop the words he didn't want to hear. "But it looks to me like it's your conviction making it happen. Self-fulfilling prophecy," he said, glaring. "It's to be because you make it so."

Vin shrugged, not angered at Josiah's words, which made Josiah all the more frustrated. Instead, Vin said, "Don't matter how it gets to be that way, I reckon. Just know that it is. My visions come true. Always."

Always. Josiah snorted. Always was a hell of a lot longer than the few years Vin had had with his visions.

Vin held his gaze but stood still, waiting. He looked at times as if he would say something, but he held his silence. Leaving it all up to Josiah - who should say no, he should walk away, he should do all the things he should have done from the start. The things he'd not done at all to this point.

How many sins could he atone for in one lifetime, he wondered. Yet if Vin's visions were the work of God, was he not being told to do God's work? Were Vin's visions the work of God? It didn't seem likely, not if they couldn't do anything to change them or to help them or -

It was too much. He could spiral for days on these thoughts, had been, for months now, and they wouldn't answer the real point: what he would do now.

Vin's eyes narrowed and Josiah saw the crinkling at the edges and along his forehead. The headache, he remembered, the strange ones that seemed to come and go as of late. But Vin still said nothing, made no move or sound. He'd abide by what Josiah decided - and he had been, since whenever his visions had told him he was supposed to spread his legs for Josiah, but Josiah hadn't complied. Would God, Josiah's own God, want him to do this, want him to break so many of the Bible's tenets?

No, his God wouldn't. But his God . . . his God might not be the God that gave Vin these visions. Or his God might be and was now showing Josiah this side of things. Prophets had endured much, having nothing but their faith. Had not Moses almost sacrificed his own son? Had not Job suffered more than any man deserved? They had done things they knew were wrong even by God's own laws, but God had told them to. Was that what was happening here?

Would God want him to fuck Vin?

Vin certainly wanted it. His pants had dropped as his hands came to rest on his hips. Above the line of the fabric, Josiah could see the dark threads of his pubic hair, and he could imagine what else was there. Could feel it against his palm, his fingers wrapped around the heat of it. Male.

Wasn't right, wasn't what God wanted as he thought he knew God, wasn't what he wanted as he thought he knew himself. But damned if his body didn't have a will of its own, Satan's or something, for he found himself walking over to the bed, his dick slowly rising against the fluttering of his open pants.

He sat down, staring at Vin who was still staring at him. He held the gaze as he lay back in the pillows, folding one arm under his head. It was as much of an invitation as he was going to give - and as much of a dare.

Vin swallowed then slowly moved close. His gaze left Josiah's to track down his body, catching on Josiah's cock. He licked his lips, and Josiah hoped, prayed, that Vin was really looking at it, thinking about what he was offering to do.

The pants in Vin's fingers finally fell away. Josiah didn't look, not directly, but as his gaze skirted away, he was peripherally aware that Vin's arousal was even less than his own. It made him feel a little better. Vin came back to the bed but his movements were slower, a little less sure. He climbed up on it then paused, kneeling, and one hand brushed against Josiah's thigh.

"Close your eyes," he said, his voice low. "You'll like it more."

No way to argue with that. The part of him that knew this was wrong protested that if he were going to do the deed, he could at least acknowledge who he was doing it with. But that part, that conscience, was easily overcome by the part of his that was angry - at himself, at Vin, at God for putting him in this mire.

He didn't just close his eyes, he covered them with his arm, blocking out light and even sound to a certain degree. It left his attention for the feel of those hands on him, familiar and knowing, left it so that he could imagine that they were Emma's or Kiera's or any one of the women he'd known. They were adept enough, especially when they were covered in - slick?

The smell was soft and sweet, and it didn't take him long to recognize it: the lotion they'd been using for dry skin. At least Vin knew enough to know the - difficulties of what he was trying to do.

The bed shifted then settled as Vin moved to straddle him. He could feel knobby knees through the fabric of his pants, the bones sharp against his hips. Could feel the heat of Vin's body, the weight of him. Then long fingers caught the base of his erection, holding him in place and skin brushed against the tip of his cock. No, the voice shrieked from the depths of his mind, he couldn't, wouldn't let this happen.

But as he moved, drawing his arms down and forcing his eyes open, he was too late. Vin wasn't an innocent but he had all the impatience of youth. With no warning, he snugged the tip of Josiah's cock into place then pressed down, taking it in before either of them had a conscious thought of what was happening.

Tight, too tight, painfully tight - Josiah jerked, sitting up instinctively, his hands reaching out to catch Vin's shoulders, the flesh taut under the rough weave of his shirt -

Vin's eyes were closed, his brow lined and his lips twisted in a grimace. Pain or concentration or determination - or all three, and Josiah gripped hard, holding him still. But before he could command Vin to do anything, Vin took a deep breath and moved up, as if he would stop this. Josiah noticed the sharp lines of the muscles of his thighs, the gentle concavity of his hips beneath the frayed hem of the shirt, and the droop of Vin's slender, half-flushed penis.

Up, Josiah thought, and off - only Vin's thighs relaxed and he dropped back down, taking Josiah deeper, into a fire that burned and crushed and felt so good that he thought he might explode.

From there - from there it was a borderline of pleasure and pain, the voice of his conscience drowned in the overwhelming need for release.

Too good, too long, too tight - too many things whirled through his head, but all were distant, overwhelmed by the onslaught of sensations he had almost forgotten. He found himself moving, his hips jerking as much as they could, his cock controlling everything he was feeling.

The tightness gave way slowly to a pleasure more than pain. At some point, he became aware that the balance between them had shifted; while Vin was still on top, still pumping his strong thighs, Josiah was the one doing most of the work. His hands had moved to grip Vin's hips, holding him in place. Vin was stretched above him, his head thrown back and his back arched, his erection hidden in the folds of one of his hands. He pulled at it, only a few times, before his body locked, the tendons in his neck, lower belly, and thighs sharp in relief. The image was bright in Josiah's mind as his eyes closed, his body overwhelmed by the rolling contractions along his cock as Vin's orgasm pulled out his own.

Later, some time that he couldn't define, he came to himself to find Vin stretched out and curled along Josiah's side. Vin fit naturally into the space between Josiah's arm and body, and Josiah was holding him as he would a lover. It took him a while to remember that Vin wasn't, and as he shifted to draw away, Vin roused himself.

He didn't smile, but Josiah could tell it was a near thing, and it annoyed him.

"Thanks," Vin said instead, rolling away and sitting up. He winced, but it was a fleeting expression and Josiah refused to dwell on it past a 'serves him right' sort of thought. But the anger and annoyance that had started this mess was too hard to dredge up in the post-climax lethargy. "The headaches should ease back now."

By the time the words had worked through his brain, Vin was sitting up and stretching, his arms on the bed behind him. His shirt was askew and dotted with damp patches and his hair was mussed and sticking out, but there was a blush of color under his tanned skin. "Headaches?" Josiah asked, recalling the pain. "You think sex is gonna cure them?"

Vin did grin then, but the flush in his cheeks darkened. "Not sex - well, not just sex," he amended, rolling to his side and propping up on one arm. "Sex with you."

Josiah stared at him.

Vin's grin slipt away, but he didn't back down. "It's 'cause we're meant to be - " He stopped, swallowed, then glanced away. "Yeah, I know, sounds dumber than dirt, but it's true. I know why I been having the headaches and I know how stupid it sounds to you. But you watch - they won't happen again, not for a long time."

Josiah shook his head. "You're right. That's about as dumb as dirt. They're psychosomatic," he said shortly. At Vin's look of confusion, he went on, "You bring them on yourself, probably from believing that it's going to happen. Same way that you've convinced yourself about us."

Vin tilted his head, his eyes coming back up. The corners of his lips flickered, and when he spoke, there was humor in his voice - low and in the back, but there, and mixed with a confidence that Josiah might have thought was youthful surety. "You believe what you want, but they'll be gone, 'Siah. And they'll be gone 'cause as much as you hate me to say it, we're to be together." He didn't wait for an argument but settled back down against Josiah, his head resting comfortably on Josiah's shoulder.

This was the worst of it, worse even than the sex - which was more than bad enough. But even as he thought to move away, his traitorous arm curled around Vin, his fingers bending over Vin's bare hip. He turned his head but caught himself before he kissed the top of Vin's head, and he fell asleep thinking on the ways he was a fool.

It was exactly as Vin predicted. The conveyor snagged, the motor overloaded and a whole section of the mine collapsed.

It didn't happen while they were having sex, but it happened in the early hours of the morning about two weeks after that first time, when Josiah's dreams were haunted with his father's voice and the laughter of demons, and Vin's body was still pressed in close to his, a blanketing warmth that his primal instincts welcomed.

The noise of it, the collapse of the earth itself, was followed instantly by the shaking of the buildings in the town. They were almost dumped out of the bed, and as he jerked through the layers of sleep and into consciousness, Josiah's first thought, not conscious, was that this was his punishment, sent directly from God.

His eyes snapped open on darkness - thick and complete and so silent - and it took him a second to come out of the confusion to realize that there was no power. It was a rare occurrence to lose complete power and in that second, he felt terror.

Then emergency lights flickered on and the horns started blaring, so loud in the perverse silence that it made his ears hurt and his head pound.

The bed shifted and he felt Vin brush past him, saw his silhouette as he moved to the window. He knew before the words were spoken, felt it in his belly like the coiling of a serpent around his gut.

"Mine collapsed." Vin's voice was rough with sleep but flat. "We better see what we can do."

The next three days passed in a blur of conflicting impressions and emotions. Josiah lost count of the number of prayers he said, for the living and the dead, lost count of the number of times he washed his hands of blood and gore, lost count of the number of bodies they pulled from the mine.

He didn't see a lot of Vin and he didn't have any time to think on what had happened between them or why, his attention centered on life-and-death matters. On the fourth day, the worst of the crisis was past. The searchers would keep searching, but the odds of finding anyone else alive were slim to none. It was then that Josiah took more than two hours to sleep and made time to sit down and eat a meal that wasn't cold and tasteless - even though he barely tasted the hot food he was eating.

"Sanchez," a voice said from nearby and he looked up to see several people standing around his small table in the crowded restaurant. It took him a few seconds to recognize them, their clean clothes and bright eyes out of place.

"Mr. Sanjay," Josiah said, dredging the mine's foreman's name from the back of his mind.

Sanjay moved to the chair across from Josiah and took it with the sureness of authority. Josiah put down his chopsticks, knowing that this wasn't going to be a social call. "Your boy," Sanjay started, his tone sharp. "Where is he?"

Josiah took a long, slow breath, clearing his head before he answered. "Vin? Last I saw, he was asleep in our room."

"And where is that?" Sanjay asked, glancing to one of his companions, who Josiah recognized as Seth Barneke, the director of security for the mine.

Vin's warning came to him, as clear in his head as if he were standing right next to him, speaking. "Why do you need to know?" he countered, sitting forward in his chair and propping his elbows on the table. "Is there a problem?"

Barneke stepped even closer, and Josiah looked up at him. He tried to smile pleasantly, but he knew that it didn't come across that way. "You two have something you want to tell us?" Barneke asked, his voice cold. "Been reports that you were asking about the conveyor belt before this happened. You left the abbey with no reason, Sanchez - this your plan all along? To destroy the mine?"

That hadn't taken long at all, a mere three days. But Vin had warned him that they'd look for scapegoats. Just as Lawrence had - 'if you're right, and you foretell something that comes to pass, then you're held accountable for it'. He looked from Bernake to Sanjay. "We had nothing to do with that mine collapse," he said slowly. "If anything, we were trying to prevent just such a thing from happening."

Sanjay's gaze was cold and Josiah knew he would get no quarter here. "Where is he?"

This was it. If he told them, they'd arrest Vin, find out he was deserter and ship him back to the Alliance. At best. At worst - at worst they'd arrest them both and charge them when the destruction of the mine, lay the blame on them instead of on the faulty safety.

As if reading his mind, Sanjay said quietly, "This is a very serious situation, Sanchez. A man of your experience understands that, I'm certain. This will go much better for you if you help us. We're still searching for more information on your companion - but I gather he was not at the abbey with you. Is he a relative of some sort?"

The question he had no way to answer. He stared at Sanjay, aware that he was blushing, despite himself, aware that he was in more trouble than he'd ever imagined he could be in.

Barneke leaned down, resting his hands on the table. "Man of your history, a shepherd and all, would have been easy for you to be taken in by a pretty face. You tell us the truth and things will go easy on you, Sanchez. Sounds like it was the boy, anyway - you know any of his friends here on the planet?"

Chi-Sue, who certainly didn't deserve to be dragged into this. Especially as there was no plot - just Vin's damnable visions.

"He didn't do this," he said calmly. "It was something he - we - were worried about. There's no plot."

Sanjay shook his head, acting sad even if it wasn't in his eyes. He glanced to Barneke who said, "Let's go. You can show us where he is."

For an instant, Josiah thought about resisting; he even went so far as to jerk out of Barneke's grip when the man tried to catch his upper arm and draw him to his feet. But the other two with Barneke and Sanjay moved forward, flanking Josiah. They didn't draw their weapons, but Josiah knew they had them and that they would. It was a crowded restaurant, and resisting them would do little more than cause a scene, maybe get someone hurt who wasn't involved.

Reluctantly, he rose to his feet, Sanjay rising with him. "This is a big mistake," he said grimly. "We were trying to help."

"Yes," Sanjay said with a nod, "and one way or the other, you will help."

He led the way out the door, nodding politely to those people who spoke to him. People moved out of the way, most staring. Josiah saw the worry and the fear on their tired faces, and it touched him; the worry was for him.

Outside, dust still hung in the air, kicked up from the collapse. It was late afternoon and the light was bright after the relative shade of the restaurant. Barneke and one other flanked Josiah as they moved through down the crowded street, people parting for them with the same fear and worry he had seen in the restaurant.

At a break in the buildings, the crowds seemed to swell and for a few seconds, there were people between him and Barneke. A hand caught at his upper arm again and he started to shrug it off, as he had before. But even as he started to shift away, a low voice hissed, "Come on!" and he was being tugged through the crowd and into the space between the buildings.

As they broke clear of the crowd, Josiah heard calls and yells from behind them. Then the person guiding him hissed, "Run! This way!" and he recognized Vin at the same time that he understood what was happening.

They ran hard, Josiah questioning all the while what he was doing and why, praying in the intermittent seconds between breaths and curses as they stumbled along, hearing people behind them. As the alleyway turned, he thought they were going to be cornered in a cul de sac, but Vin led the way to one side and through a door that was almost too small for Josiah to manage. It put them into a large, dark building, and as they ran along, Josiah still following Vin, he saw that it was a housing unit and not in the best of shape.

They ducked down halls and twisted around in ways that Josiah never understood. They went down a number of different stairwells until Josiah was sure that they were well underground, but he knew enough to know that they were moving in one direction - he didn't know which one, but it was away and it was underground. The lighting was sporadic, emergency lights in places, dim enough to make out things in their path and for him to see cracks and lines in the walls and the stains of things on the floor. The air was stale and musty and he knew that where ever they were, it wasn't used often and it wasn't safe.

After a point, Josiah's breathing was forced and hard. He was slowing, and he listened closely for sounds behind them. He could hear voices but they were muted and seemed far away, even though sound seemed to travel oddly down 'here'. He finally slowed to a stop, bending over at the waist with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath.

"We need to go," Vin said, and Josiah was gratified to hear him sounding a little winded. "Ship ain't gonna wait long."

"What ship?" Josiah said.

"Ship that I got us passage on. I got most of our stuff, all your books and stuff. It'll take us as far as Ares, where we can hook up with another one or hide out. Don't reckon the mining interest can look too far, not once we're out of their hands."

Josiah looked up at him, not sure whether to be pleased or furious. He settled for annoyed. "You knew this was going to happen?" The import of the question didn't register until it was out of his mouth.

He couldn't see Vin's eyes in the darkness, but he could see the younger man shift then the shrug of his shoulders. "Yeah. That's how I knew about these tunnels. Saw it in a vision, yesterday."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Josiah asked, the annoyance building to anger. He straightened up, still breathing hard but not as much so.

Vin made a noise that could have been a laugh. "Figured if you had time to think about it, I might not like what you came up with."

Josiah glared, even though he knew Vin couldn't see it. "I thought your visions were fool-proof. Wouldn't matter whether I knew or not, right? We'd still be running down this hall and - and whatever else it is that you saw."

Vin hesitated a few seconds, and Josiah's breathing finally started to slow. When Vin spoke, his voice was softer. "I know we get to a ship, I know that you leave with me. But I'm tired of arguing with you about it, about trying to answer things I don't have answers for." He sounded tired, more tired than Josiah had yet heard. "And if I'd told you, it wouldn't have changed anything anyhow. You wouldn't have believed me - you'd have tried to argue your way out of it. We didn't have time for that."

He was furious - but he wasn't sure at what. Vin, definitely - but even in his fury, he knew that he was irrational. Vin hadn't lied to him, but he'd withheld the truth - but that was only if Josiah accepted that what Vin 'saw' was truth. If he accepted that these visions were real, which they were, then he had to go against everything he rationally believed - but wasn't that the nature of faith?

All the arguments he'd been having with himself for these past months collided, and the words that came out of his mouth seemed distant and vague. "You made this decision for me?"

Vin sighed again. "Yeah, I did. You want to stay with them? Let them ask you questions, probably lock you up? 'Cause that's what would have happened. They were going to make us the ones who did it - it's easier that way, for the company and for the Alliance. You got faith in your god, but I got faith in men - and men are always going to do what protects them - always."

There was no bitterness or anger, no emotion at all. Just a fact, a belief that he held to as strongly as he held to - Josiah shook his head, not wanting to think about that right now.

"We'd best get going," Vin went on, turning to look back the way they had come. "Ship's gonna leave soon - real soon. We don't want to give 'em no reason to take off without us."

"Thought you saw us on it," Josiah said shortly, still trying to sort through all the different angers. "Thought you knew - "

"I know we get on a ship," Vin interrupted, his voice hard. "And I know we get off this planet. But I don't know if it's now or if it's three days from now - time ain't a big issue with these things. For all I know, we could have to hide out for - I don't know how long. You want to do that or you want to try to get the hell out of here?"

Josiah hesitated. Vin was right - no matter how it played out, they were in danger. He forced himself to take a deep breath then said, "Lead on."

They ran - not as fast as they had been, but fast enough to keep Josiah concentrating on his body and not on anything else. It was even more effective when they reached the end of the flat and started the climb back up. The stairs were rusted and unstable in places and they had to climb over holes and other breaks in the way.

They came out in a warehouse as old and rusted as the stairwell but full of large shipping containers and what looked to be mechanical tools and haulers. None of them were new and Josiah thought they might have been in storage for future use.

"We're at the edge of the St. Bautista docks," Vin murmured, slipping easily through the high stacks of equipment. There was even less light in here than there had been in the tunnels and Josiah wondered if Vin had been here before or if this was another of his 'vision' memories. "There are probably security guys around - from the mines and the local police. Be best if we stay off the main roads for as long as we can."

"You know how to get us there?" Josiah asked, refusing to believe that he was trusting in Vin's visions. If Vin had brought their things to the ship - and paid their fare, and Josiah wasn't ready to worry with what, yet - then he had been here before. And it hadn't been that long since they'd disembarked here, off the Corgi.

"Come on," Vin answered, once more taking the lead.

They made it out of the warehouse and down the slender alley that separated several blocks of warehouses and storage facilities. At first, they saw no one, but as they moved toward the landing docks, movement increased, people driving haulers with cargo going onto or coming off of transports and passengers and crew moving about. Vin slowed his pace, thankfully, allowing Josiah to do the same. They walked close together, but said little, both watching for any threat.

They saw their first mine security agents as they neared the divide between the warehouses and the docks. They were mine security, wearing uniforms like Barneke's, and they were idling at an intersection, watching the thoroughfares that came to it. Vin slowed, not a lot, but enough to stall a little. Josiah glanced at him and for the first time since he'd been yanked off the street at the restaurant, he saw Vin in light: he was wearing a long kerchief, one that covered most of his hair, leaving only the curly ends showing. He was also wearing a longer swath of cloth over his pants, one of the multi-colored ones that were traditional on this planet.

Traditional on the women who wished to be recognized clearly as women. It covered from his hips to his ankles, flowing with his movements and accentuating the sway of his hips.

Josiah's steps faltered as he understood what Vin was doing - disguising himself. It was smart and right now, this early in the game, it might work - not just because Sanjay's people were looking for two males, but also because in this flowing and colorful cloth, Vin looked surprisingly attractive, enough like a woman to confuse Josiah's sensibilities for a second.

Enough so that without thinking, he reached out and caught Vin's hand, holding it tightly in his own. Vin looked over at him, startled, his eyes bright and wide and so blue that Josiah wondered if that, too, had been the byproduct of the Alliance surgery. He'd shaved closely, and his skin looked soft and tanned, as feminine as he could. From a distance, Josiah had little doubt but that they appeared as lovers, looking for their ship.

Lovers. They were, weren't they, after what they'd done. Even if he wasn't sure that he could or would do it again, even if he walked away from Vin right now, or after they got on this ship and left this planet, they were still lovers.

The hand in his tightened and he looked around, aware that they were passing close to the security people. One of the men looked at them, a quick glance, and Josiah saw his eyes sweep over Vin. It was a passing glance - and it saw what Vin wanted to be seen. It worked as they moved deeper into the docks, past three more checkpoints, right up to the ship itself.

Josiah knew which one it was before they got there; the engines were already thrumming and everything was shut up and locked down, even the cargo bay closed. A woman stood in the open doorway of the airlock, one leg crossed over the other at the ankle, her foot tapping restlessly. She straightened as they drew near and tilted her head, frowning. Josiah wondered if she was going to balk at Vin's appearance, but she merely shook her head and called out, "I hope he's worth it, sweetie. Get your asses in here, we're already behind deadline."

She barely waited for them to get inside before she shut and sealed the hatch, already talking to her pilot. Vin didn't say anything, directing Josiah to follow him with a glance. The ship was small, the passenger quarters tiny. Their room, such as it was, was crammed with the few belongings Vin had brought, and almost all of them were Josiah's.

As soon as the door to their cabin was closed, he looked at Vin, but before he could figure out what to ask first, Vin saved him the trouble. "I brought as many of your books and things as I could find," he said, his back to Josiah. "I got the security box - and I had to use some of your money for the passage. I'll pay you back - "

"Don't," Josiah said, reaching for irritation but finding it missing.

The ship jerked and a ship-wide intercom announced that they were getting ready to launch and that everyone should strap in. Vin gestured toward the bed, offering it to Josiah, and Josiah moved to it, falling on it as the ship jerked again and rose. As he rolled, bracing against the raised sides, he saw Vin settle hard against the floor and realized that there was nowhere else to sit in the cramped space. And that Vin was allowing Josiah distance.

In the din of the engines fighting gravity, he assimilated all that had happened in the last hours, in the last days. Vin's visions - were true. Down to the fact of them finding this ship and escaping, at least for the moment. Josiah knew, rationally, that he only had Vin's word about this last one, but he also knew, as much as he hated the truth of it, that Vin was right: had he stayed in Sanjay's hands, he'd never have had a chance to prove his innocence. The mining cooperative wanted 'terrorists' to blame, because it was easier than taking responsibility, and cheaper than following the safety protocols.

Vin had saved his life.

As the ship accelerated and he was pressed back into the thin mattress, it occurred to him that Vin had saved him more than once. Starting, as he knew now, with that day in the cargo bay almost a year ago, now. He hadn't had any guilt about leaving the abbey. And in truth, he had no guilt now.

Vin had never wavered in his commitment to Josiah - or in his faith in his own visions. In the time they'd been together, he had learned - he was curious and eager, asking for help in his reading and in his speaking, improving himself with Josiah's help. He was not shy - in truth, sometimes he was too willing to talk to people he didn't know. Josiah had thought it innocent trust, but he knew better now. Vin was sure of what was to be - so he had no suspicions of what is.

The pressure eased as they broke atmosphere but Josiah didn't sit up. Instead, he closed his eyes and prayed. But this time, instead of asking for guidance, he thanked God for making it clear to him.

He heard Vin rise, the whisper of cloth loud in the sudden silence after the burn-engines cut out. He opened his eyes in time to see Vin reaching for the cloth at his waist and without a thought, he lifted one hand, catching Vin's wrist. Vin turned a met his eyes, unsure, but he came as Josiah tugged, pulling him down onto the bed. "Where'd you get these?" Josiah asked, indicating the pieces of the disguise.

Vin smiled. "Chi-Sue and her aunt. They knew we'd be in trouble and they wanted to help. It was Chi-Sue's idea."

"She's going to miss you," Josiah said, catching Vin around the waist and pulling him down beside him. It was awkward on the small bed, but Josiah didn't care - and he was pretty sure Vin didn't either.

"Maybe," Vin said. "But once I told her about the visions, I think she was scared of me."

Josiah stilled. "You told her about . . . "

Vin shrugged as well as he could. "Seemed only fair - she told me all sorts of stuff about her and her family." He braced himself on one arm. "It's all right, I know who to trust." He tilted his head slightly, the cloth around his hair pulling loose. "Besides, I thought you might like this."

Josiah studied him for a few seconds, gauging the intent of the words. When Vin's lips twitched into a grin, he shook his head but couldn't stop his own grin. "Yeah," he said, catching the back of Vin's head in one hand and drawing him down for a kiss, "I guess I do."

The End

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