by Farad

Warnings: inferences of het but not explicit. Some angst, of course.
Author's notes: For the October, 2009 challenge: "The episodes challenge: "Working Girls." Watch Working Girls once or twice, and write a missing scene or episode tag. Aim for under 4,000 words." I tried to make it under 4,000 but I came up about 260 over.
Thanks to Megan for insightful comments on Chris.

"Think it's wise for you to be out and about?" The voice was quiet and unmistakable, but coming out of the darkness, it scared her.

Instinctively, Lydia backed up a pace, almost tripping on the bottom step of the stairs that led up to the healer's rooms. Her hand went to her throat and her heart pounded hard even as her mind identified the speaker. "Chris Larabee, what the hell are you doing hiding out like that?"

The rasp of cloth and the faint jingle of his spurs prefaced the sound of his footsteps on the boardwalk. Then he appeared out of the darkness, first his hands, then slowly his face, which was shielded in shadows cast by his black hat. His black clothes blended so well with the night that for a second, all she saw was the hands and the faint impression of his jaw and cheeks above it, giving him the appearance of some partial ghost. Her heartbeat quickened once more, until the light finally caught the silver of his belt and guns, and the cigar between his lips flared, the orange-yellow flame, dispelling the shadows beneath his hat. His eyes were stark and pale, the color washed out except for the faintest hints of gold that caught the fire.

"Better question is why the hell you aren't," he said as he walked the short distance to her. "You looking to cause trouble?"

She stiffened, annoyed at his tone. "I ain't working," she said shortly. "Not unless your doctor-friend wants to trade for what we owe him for taking care of Nora." She'd slept with coloreds before, and he was nice enough, that Nathan, taking real good care of Nora, too. It wouldn't be a chore.

Chris snorted and made a little move like he'd stumbled, and she realized he'd almost choked on his cigar. The amusement rippled through his words in a way she usually heard only when they were in bed together. "I'd be damned surprised if Nathan took you up on that offer. But I'd sure as hell like to be there when you make it."

She shook her head, but her annoyance faded. It was hard to stay mad at Chris, especially when he was in a good mood himself. "I have to say, your boys are a surprise. Don't think I've ever been around so many gentlemen."

"Don't let 'em hear you call 'em that," he said, his hand catching her elbow and drawing her along down the street. "Most would take it as an insult, except Ezra, who'd be so goddamned smug we'd have to shoot him."

She chuckled, even though she wasn't sure if he was serious or not; Mr. Standish was a strange one, certainly not one she'd have expected to be working with Chris Larabee. Trying to train her girls to be ladies - it was amusing, not because he was trying but because he couldn't seem to understand that for most of her girls, that was the very last thing they wanted to be. "He's a smart one," she said, leaning a little closer to him. "Don't seem like the type to be staying in a place like this. But then, most of your gang seems, well . . . " She searched for a word, one that would fit but wouldn't be an insult, given what these men were doing for her and her girls.

"Reckon they are," Chris agreed, taking the cigar out of his mouth with his free hand. He blew smoke out, turning away from her while he did, and it reminded her that he had some manners, too, even if he didn't dress fancy like Standish. The very idea of it, though, Chris in a red jacket and bright vest, lace at his cuffs - she bleated a laugh before she could stop herself. "Something funny?" he asked, turning to look at her.

They were walking slowly along the dirt road, almost alone in the night. Music and voices drifted from the saloons, and there were a few other people scattered here and there, most walking along the boardwalk or sitting on it in chairs, enjoying the night, if they were still awake. Romantic, she thought, that's what someone might call it, someone who wasn't a jaded whore used to the ways of men and the world. All she saw was places that showed her at her best and put her in the path of potential customers, all the money that she could have been making if she'd been able to work.

"Just thinking about Standish," she said, and it wasn't quite a lie. She knew Chris well enough to know that he wouldn't be nearly as amused by her idea of Chris wearing such finery and right now, she was enjoying his company a little too much to piss him off. "How'd you end up with him?"

He shrugged and the hand on her elbow slid lower, catching at her wrist. Almost like they were holding hands. All she'd have to do was turn her arm just a little . . .

"He took the job, just like the rest of us," Chris answered, drawing on the cigar again. "Reckon he didn't have anywhere better to be, not right now."

"That why you're here?" she asked, looking at him. "Got nowhere better to be?"

He caught her eye this time, his lips turning slight. "Everybody's gotta be somewhere," he answered.

"But you don't want me and the girls to be here," she said slowly. And carefully; she didn't want to fight with him, but she wanted to understand. "You sweet on Mrs. Travis? I mean, it's all right if you are, Chris, I ain't asking to get in your business. But - well, you don't strike me as the sort of man who thinks much of other people's opinions. I'm just trying to make sense of it."

She saw the anger as it flashed through him and tried to settle in the corners of his eyes and lines of his face. But Chris was a good man, mostly reasonable when he wasn't drinking, and he sighed. "I ain't sweet on Mrs. Travis. And I don't agree with her about - well, a lot of things, most like. But I don't see any need in that kind of trouble, Lydia - and to be truthful, I do think you and your girls will be better off far away from Wickes and his lot. He ain't the kind of man who's going to take this lying down and as much as I'd like to protect you, I can't do it all the time. This town . . . " He shook his head, taking the cigar back out of his mouth and waving it, the tip of it creating streaks of orange against the dark, "This town has trouble enough. There's a reason Judge Travis was willing to pay seven of us to watch over it. It's gonna take all seven of us, almost all the time." He slowed and then stopped, turning to face her. "It ain't the laws or Mary Travis and what her kind want, Lydia." He drew a deep breath, looking away from her, and his voice was so soft that she had a hard time making out the words. "I don't want you on the list of people who I couldn't take care of."

It was a surprise, and touching and frustrating. It was hard to argue with a man when he was being protective and kind, all at the same time.

She reached up, dropping her free hand to rest on his shoulder. "Why don't you escort me back to the boarding house?" she said softly. "I seem to have a lot of free time on my hands, since I'm not working."

He blinked then grinned and shook his head. "Come on," he said, turning away from her to lead her on. But his hand dropped just a few inches lower, off her wrist, so that their fingers twined.

They didn't say much the rest of the way back, but they didn't have to. Lydia knew the language of bodies, and she knew Chris Larabee well enough. For all his distance these past few days, for all his words to the contrary, he was interested in more than casual conversation.

So was she.

Mrs. Ledbetter, the woman who ran the boarding house, was long in bed; she was hard of hearing and she went to bed early and rose early, which meant she had little actual knowledge of what went on late in the night. Lydia had figured that out the first night; if she'd needed to, she could have worked here. But she didn't need to and she'd promised Chris that she wouldn't. She did try to keep her word, as it was one of the few things she had yet to give away.

"You sharing a room?" Chris asked as they neared the outside door.

"We're saving as much money as we can," she said by way of an answer. "No use spending it on rooms if we're not working in them." She was in with Emily and Grace and she knew they were already up there, taking this time to repair clothes and doing little things that had stored up over time. And giggling about the walking lessons and other things Standish was trying to teach them.

Chris nodded his understanding. "This way," he said as he opened the door. He let go of her wrist as he stepped back to let her pass in front of him - a gentleman, even if he didn't believe it himself.

The boarding house had two floors above the main floor, where Mrs. Ledbetter had her personal rooms, and Chris' room was on the top floor. Lydia had made sure to know where Larabee and his men were staying.

When they reached the third floor, he turned back and caught her wrist, pulling her close against him. For an instant, she thought he was leaning in to kiss her, but he merely smiled. "This way," he murmured, and he drew her along down the hallway, his body hard and warm against hers.

They stopped at the last room on the right side and she stood back while he fished the key from his pocket and played with the lock. Once again, he stood aside when the door was open, letting her go first.

It was a small room, dark until he lit the lamp near the door, so her first impression of it was that it smelled like him: sweat - horses and man, leather, cigars, and a scent that was just Chris. When the lamp flared to life, she saw that the room was like him, too; spare and lean, necessary things, but not much more.

He set the lamp aside and pulled off his hat, tossing it to a small table near the window. "Whiskey?" he asked, and she saw the bottle on the corner of the long dresser. There was one chipped cup beside it, but that was all right. They'd be sharing more than whiskey soon enough.

He poured with the ease of long practice and handed the cup to her before lifting the opening of the bottle to his lips. The liquor burned her throat, but it was a comforting burn. Over the rim of the mug, she caught him looking at her, his eyes bright. When he set the bottle on the dresser, he reached for her.

The sex was - Chris Larabee sex; intense, demanding, hot, and and worth every damned cent she wasn't making on it. Better, maybe, because this time, it wasn't all about pleasing him, and he was as aware of that as she was.

It was almost dawn when she managed to pull herself out of sleep and then out from under his arm. Her clothes were strewn about, tangled up with his in some instances, but she managed to find them all - but only after she gave it some thought and recalled that she'd been more proper than usual last night, wearing more of her undergarments than she was accustomed to. The lamp was still burning low enough for her to check herself in the mirror, putting her hair together and straightening her clothes before she tiptoed to the door.

But despite herself, she couldn't resist turning one more time to look at him. He was sprawled out on his stomach, one arm, the one he'd draped over her, still stretched across the bed. In the soft light, she could see the hard definition of the muscles along his back and shoulders, the sloping rise of his ass under the dingy sheet. He was a man she respected, and a man she could, if she allowed herself, care for. Perhaps she already did.

She smiled to herself as she eased out the door, turning back to close it as softly as possible. Which was why she was unaware of the other presence in the hall until she eased away and almost ran into him.

He stood in the hallway, right in the center, so that she wasn't sure whether he'd come from the room across the hall or if he'd just come up the stairs. As she brushed against him, her first awareness was of his scent - sharp and animal, wet fur and sweat. The cry clawed up her throat, but she caught it in the second it took to recognize the smell. It was familiar - and instinct told her that it was 'safe' - and that awareness let her choke off the sound.

She still stepped back, though, too fast to keep from tripping on her skirt and it was his hand catching at her lower arm that kept her from falling on her ass.

"Sorry," he murmured, his voice barely more than a whisper. "I thought he was - " He caught himself then, but her mind, even distracted as it was, filled in the rest of it: 'alone'.

But he'd already released her and stepped back, toward the door on the other side of the hallway.

It was then that she registered his appearance. He was hatless and bootless, which made him seem smaller than she remembered. He wasn't much taller than she was, even though she had to look up to see his face. He wore his coat, though, reminding her of how cold it was this early in the morning; it was what carried the animal scent she knew, but under it, his shirt was open - not all the way, several of the buttons at the neck were undone and she could see the thin material of his longjohn top.

But it was his eyes which held her attention. In the saloon earlier, he'd seemed so confident, so sure. 'I look like a messenger boy?' he'd said with a hint of amusement.

Now, though, he looked like - like a woman newly come to them, forced into the job because she'd lost her man. Like someone whose heart had been broken.

"Vin?" she asked softly, uncertain of his mood.

For a second, he didn't seem to know her. But as she reached out to him, her fingers touching the back of his hand, he seemed to come to himself. At least enough to jerk back and look down at the floor, his long hair falling forward to hide his face. "Sorry," he mumbled, "didn't mean to scare you."

"I'm just glad it was you," she said, and she meant it, not only because it was someone she knew but because it was one of Chris' men - which meant that word of what they'd been up to wouldn't get around.

Vin didn't look up, though, and she had the strangest sense that he was upset about finding her here. Without thinking, she reached out and caught his coat sleeve, then she startled when he jerked back and away from her again, like she'd burned him. As she pulled her hand in, he finally looked at her. In the dim light of the lamp that was still burning at the top of the stairs, his eyes looked washed out and pale. "You want me to walk you back to your room?"

Another gentleman, she thought, and the thought of him in the fancy red jacket was even more amusing than the idea of Chris in it. "Thanks, but it's right downstairs. You go on to bed - surprised you're up so late."

He blinked and shrugged, looking away. "Call of nature," he said, and for a second, she almost believed him. Until she caught sight of his socked feet.

"Well, good night," she said, turning away and heading down the stairs. But when she reached them, she turned back one more time. He was still standing in the hallway, at his room, staring at Chris' door. She wondered if she'd read him wrong, wondered if Chris would have trouble. That didn't make any sense though; more like he'd been down visiting someone, himself, maybe one of her girls. She smiled at the thought that she wasn't the only one finding comfort where she could on these long nights with no pay.

But the next morning, she was the one getting the cold shoulder from Vin. Not that she had much time to think on it; she'd barely settled in at the saloon, still working on her first cup of coffee and listening to Vin's cool words about Whitley Pass when Nora came stumbling in to announce that Ms. Travis had been taken.

From there - from there, she'd had other things to think about, starting with the cold words from both Vin and Chris, and her own anger. Shooting Wickes, that had been the icing on the cake.

She hadn't thought a thing about riding back with Mary Travis, the two of them mounted together on a galloping horse, holding on to each other while surrounded by Chris and his men. And back in town, she hadn't thought much of being in the company of her girls and of Mary - as she wanted to be called now - and other women of the town.

But late that night, when she had five or six shots of whiskey under her belt and her hands had stopped shaking, when all the others were asleep but her, it finally came to her. It started oddly, thinking about Mary and the way her attitude had changed. She'd seen it before, when people realized that they had more in common with whores and drunks and other 'undesirables' than they'd believed.

But it also had something to do with the other thing they shared: Chris Larabee. Only now, as she really thought about it, she knew that what they had in common was a want for him - but not the possession of him. She'd had him, oh yes, and fine it had been. But what she'd had was only his body - and now, thinking back on the day, she knew that was all she'd ever have.

She'd watched him with Mary - the way he'd touched her and held her, worried about her, protective. Watched the way he'd controlled and protected them all, putting them all together - her girls and the townswomen - inside the boarding house and with his men stationed around it through the long afternoon and night. He was worried about retaliation, even though she'd promised him that without Wickes to lead them, those men didn't have the brains to put together a plan and probably wouldn't care enough.

She'd been proven right so far, but that didn't help her sleep. She stood at the window, staring down into the street. The scene before her was one she'd seen recently: Chris Larabee standing on the boardwalk, facing into the street. They'd lit more watchfires tonight, but the shadows were still long and all she could see was his face and hands and the silver of his belt and guns. The ghost she'd seen before - just last night.

In front of him stood Vin Tanner, his back to her - just as it had been that day - yesterday? - when she'd stood in Mary Travis' business, both of them looking out the window at the two men.

It had been clear then, but she'd been too preoccupied to notice, too convinced that Mary Travis was her competition. Now, though, it was obvious. Vin Tanner stood close to Chris. Too close.

And Chris' hand was on his shoulder, up under the collar of that damned coat.

It brought to mind other times she'd seen the two of them together, Chris' easy way with Vin, that arm slung around Vin's shoulders, his smile at the ready. Those weren't things she associated with the closed, controlled man she knew. He might have held her hand walking yesterday evening, but that was the most he'd ever done in public. Tanner, though . . . She watched as Chris smiled, seeing a happiness that was new to her.

Oh yes, she'd had Chris' body - and she suspected she could have it again. But his heart - his heart was not hers, or Mary Travis', or probably any other woman's ever to take, not again. It belonged to the lonely man she'd seen in the hallway last night.

He'd been going to Chris' room, as he'd probably done many times before. But she doubted that he - they - would have done anything like what she and Chris had done. Gentlemen.

In the street below, Vin lifted a hand, pushing back his hat. Chris' hand shifted off his shoulder and Chris stepped closer to the end of the boardwalk, closer to Vin. He leaned down and for the barest instance, they came close together. She thought - she thought they might be kissing, but if they were, it was impossible to tell and over so soon that there would hardly have been a point. But Chris' hand moved, pale in the darkness, and she saw it lift to touch Vin's face.

She'd had his body, could again, she suspected, suspected there were any number of women who could. But she'd never have that, the soft touch, the easy comfort of his conversation and affection. Vin Tanner could creep into Chris' room at all hours of the night, even share a room with him, two men together. But she suspected that he'd never have the chance to crawl out from under Chris' bare arm, never have the pleasure of the skin of their chests touching or the wonder of Chris Larabee's cock deep inside. If she walked in on them as Tanner had almost done to her and Chris, she'd find them dressed, their long, lean bodies covered and as protected from questions as their reputations.

Gentlemen. She knew men who preferred their own kind - in her business, she ran into all kinds, and often enough, she felt more at home with men who preferred men than with the upstanding women, who'd just as soon knife you in the belly as look at you. But those men, the ones she knew, weren't men like Chris Larabee and the men who rode with him, men who'd rather face a bullet than think on their feelings - especially when those feelings weren't feelings they thought a man should have.

A rustle of cloth behind her drew her put of her thoughts and she turned to see Mary Travis rising off the bed she'd been sharing with Emily. Her hair was loose and sleep-swept and her pale skin was showing the bruises from Wickes' rough treatment. She hadn't been assaulted, even though they all knew it had only been because of the speed of her rescue. She was still dressed in the clothes she'd changed into as soon as they'd arrived back in town - as many layers on her body as on Vin Tanner's.

As Mary walked near, Lydia held out her hand, partly in support and partly in comfort. Mary took it and they stood side by side for a while, watching the men outside. Larabee now stood on the boardwalk, leaning against the wooden beam, and Tanner stood dependably in front of him, thumbs in his gun belt. He was turned sideways, though, and they could see his profile in the dim light, the scruff of his whiskers glinting.

"I didn't want them here," Mary said softly. "I thought - well, I thought they were what Chris told me he was, 'the bad element'." She smiled and Lydia smiled with her. "Glad I was wrong." She turned her head, and Lydia could feel her gaze. "I was wrong about you, too," she said. "I'm sorry, Lydia."

Lydia knew those words didn't come easy, not to this woman. She nodded and glanced to Mary, but only for a second. It was more interesting watching the men below. "Me, too, Mary," she said, liking the way the name rolled off her tongue. They were equals now, in more ways than she suspected Mary Travis knew.

But even as she thought that, Mary proved her wrong. Looking back out the window, she said, "I was telling you the truth about my relationship with Chris. Strictly professional." She shifted, leaning a little closer to Lydia. "Not that I'd mind changing it, but . . . " She waved one hand, a slow, small movement, toward the window. She didn't have the words - they weren't part of her way of thinking.

Lydia nodded. "Chris Larabee's one hell of a man," she said. "But no woman will ever have more than a part of him, not ever again. Reckon he gave up on us after his wife died."

Mary drew a deep breath then nodded. "I couldn't settle for only part of a man, not in a man I was going to love."

Lydia smiled but nodded, too. "Me neither. The girls and I will be moving on, probably in a day or so. Need to get some things together, plan a route to take - "

"I . . . " Mary hesitated then turned once more to look at Lydia. "You can stay," she said slowly. "There's a farmhouse several miles down the road - "

Lydia stopped her with a squeeze to her arm. "I thank you, Mary. But I think we both know that this isn't right. You'll have to deal with working girls one way or the other. But it's not going to be me and my girls. We've fought enough, and truth be told, I don't think that what we want is available here."

She looked back out the window in time to see Chris tilt his head back, his teeth flashing in the darkness as he laughed at something Vin Tanner said. His hand came up again, knocking Tanner's hat off his head and ruffling the tangle of hair under it.

Mary sighed. "Yeah, I think we have that in common."

They stood silent and watching as Chris stepped off the board walk and slipped an arm around Tanner's shoulders as they walked down the street and out of sight.

The End

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