Fevered Dreams
(Old West)

by Kay

Disclaimer: The Magnificent Seven and the character of the show don't belong to me in anyway whatsoever. I'm not that lucky. This story is written for enjoyment, not for profit. Again, I'm not that lucky. Litigation would be a waste of time, people. I'm a member of the Starving Student Sect.
Pairing: Chris/Ezra
Rating: PG
Warning: Parts of this are basically AU, but it is set in the premise of a dream, so don't worry, these are the same characters we know and love (well, as seen through my own little viewing lens).
Like I mentioned in the warning above, some of this fic is dream sequence, so I can put the boys in a new situation. They'll still be in the desert, don't worry, just not in the Old West. I hope this isn't a problem for anyone...
Um, other than that, there really aren't any other preliminary announcements. Sit back, be patient, and enjoy the ride .
And if you feel like sending feedback, well, that would be good too ;)
Feedback: Do you really want to see me beg?

Ezra swore and ducked around one corner of the house, wincing as he heard bullets slam into wood behind him. That was too close. He had thought the plan to stop a rancher who was trying to push a group of homesteaders off their land would have come together much more smoothly than it had so far. It had sounded so simple when Chris laid it out for them.

He must not have been paying attention when the man in black was explaining the part where Ezra would run out of ammunition and be chased by a man who was more than happy to demonstrate the merits of conserving bullets, mostly by firing them into Ezra himself.

The gambler decided to pay closer attention the next time a plan was being made; he wanted to be able to object to this part in the future.

He paused just around the corner, waiting for his pursuer to appear. When the man charged into view, Ezra grabbed his arm and used the other man's momentum against him, swinging him around and into the house. Not giving him a chance to recover, the green-eyed man hit him several times, before kicking him in the stomach and sending him crashing to the ground.

Ezra was feeling fairly proud of himself. Then his opponent started to stagger back to his feet.

Damn! Searching the yard frantically, he saw the remains of what had once been a watering can, but was now a rusting shell. He wasn't going to complain; he was in no position to be picky. He quickly grabbed the metal, swearing as he felt a jagged edge slice into his palm.

He took out his anger and irritation on the now-standing man before him, swinging the remains of the can with devastating accuracy against the side of his head. He watched in satisfaction as the other man went down, and stayed down.

Bending over his fallen opponent, he located a fairly clean portion of his shirt and tore it off, then used the cloth to quickly bandage his hand. He couldn't hear any more gunfire, so he was assuming the rest of the Seven had managed to subdue the rest of the men attacking the family who had asked for their help.

Catching up the unconscious man's gun, the gambler made his way cautiously back to the front of the house. There, the other guardians of Four Corners were busy tying up the rancher's remaining men, those that had survived the skirmish.

Leaning against the house in a careless pose, he drawled, "When you gentlemen get the chance, there is one more miscreant behind the house awaiting the application of your knot-tying skills."

Buck stared at him, then grinned and pushed his hat back off his forehead. "Hell, Ezra. He's your meat. You caught him; you can truss him up."

The gambler raised his bandaged hand. "I fear that I did not escape him without injury. I will at the very least require assistance." He raised his eyebrows hopefully.

Before Buck could continue the bantering, Chris picked up a length of rope and began walking over to the green-eyed man. "I'll help. Where'd you leave him?"

Ezra grinned, and turned to follow the gunslinger. He had known that Chris would be the one to volunteer to help him. Over the past few weeks, he had noticed that the other man seized any possible excuse, no matter how flimsy, to be close to him. Once he had noticed, Ezra began to invent excuses for the man in black, and the other man never let one pass him by.

The gambler was flattered, pleased, and elated. He had been attracted to Chris from the moment he saw him; how could he not be? Those blue eyes, the strong lines of his face, the low, quiet voice. As he had come to know the gunslinger, to have the chance to live and work with him, the immediate flare of lust had changed, transforming into what he thought might very well be love.

Judging by the way Chris was acting, those feelings were almost certainly returned. Ezra wasn't going to do anything, though, at least not yet. He didn't want to risk doing something that would scare the other man off. For the moment, he was content to wait, to let whatever lay between them develop at the gunslinger's pace.

For the moment.

The two men chatted amiably while Chris tied up the unconscious man, with minimal assistance from the gambler. Soon, all seven men were riding back to Four Corners with their prisoners trailing behind them.

"Ezra, do you need me to take a look at that hand?" asked Nathan, hanging back to ride beside the gambler.

The green-eyed man shook his head. "It's just a cut, Mr. Jackson. Nothing for you to concern yourself with, I assure you." The healer nodded and rode back up ahead. Ezra could see Chris looking at him seriously. "Mr. Larabee, I am fine. It is merely a flesh wound."

The gunslinger shook his head doubtfully, but didn't press the point. The two man shared a quiet smile, one full of promise for the future. Ezra was too focused on the future to worry about something so minor as a slight cut on one hand.

Five days later, Ezra was beginning to wish that he had taken Nathan up on his offer of help. He had begun to feel sick a few days ago, but had just thought he was coming down with some sort of cold. He had shrugged it off, and continued about his business, albeit a little more slowly than usual.

Yesterday he had felt completely awful, and had decided not to get out of bed. Chris had stopped by to check on him, but the gambler had waved off his concern, telling him he was just tired, and would no doubt be far better for the rest the next day. The gunslinger had stayed for quite awhile, sitting in a chair beside Ezra's bed and just talking.

Aside from feeling rotten, it was one of the nicer days the gambler had spent in Four Corners. And all he had done was talk to the man! Ezra knew he had it bad, no doubt about it.

Unfortunately, his prediction of feeling better after resting had proved to be completely wrong. He had slept far longer than he had intended, into the early afternoon, and he felt even worse than before. Ezra though he knew why. His injured hand was red, swollen and sore. The cut had become infected, and he believed that was what was making him sick.

With a groan, he hauled himself out of bed. Taking the time to get dressed properly was tortuous, but he managed it, complete with vest and perfectly turned out shirt cuffs. Meeting his reflection's eyes in the mirror as he pulled his jacket into place, he admitted that his efforts were mostly wasted. His skin was pale, and his eyes bloodshot.

At least his clothes looked good.

Ezra carefully made his way down the hall, and even more cautiously navigated his way down the stairs. He made it safely. Now all he needed to do was make it down the street to Nathan's, and he would be all right.

In the saloon, he heard his name called. He looked up, and saw Chris approaching him, worry clear on his face and in his tone. "Ezra, are you all right? You look awful."

The gambler raised his chin, in defiance of both the gunslinger's words and his own body's protests. He was preparing to make some sort of devastating reply, wanting to demonstrate to Chris that no matter how he looked, the man in black's remark had been completely out of line.

Unfortunately, his body chose that moment to decide that it had had enough. His vision went black at the edges, and his legs turned to water beneath him. Ezra tried to brace himself for impact with the floor, but it never came. Strong hands caught his upper arms, and lowered him gently to the ground. He thought he might have heard someone calling his name, but before he could try to answer, he knew no more.

Chris watched in horrified amazement as Ezra made his way downstairs. He didn't know it was possible for a man to look that terrible and still be able to walk. He said as much, even as he moved to make sure that the other man was able to make it all the way into the saloon. Fine tremors were running through the gambler's body, and his eyes were glassy and red.

He could see the affront in the shorter man's expression at his words, and saw him draw himself up in preparation for the delivery of some sort of cutting retort. It never came. Instead of stream of clever, scornful words, only a soft groan escaped his lips. His painful-looking eyes rolled back, and Ezra began to fall bonelessly to the floor.

Chris leapt forward, barely catching the gambler in time to gently lower him to the ground, rather than allowing him to collapse to the floor. "Ezra," he whispered, shocked. Then louder, "Ezra, come on. Wake up!"

The gambler didn't respond. Chris could see that he was breathing. Laying a tentative hand against the other man's face, he hissed when he felt the too-hot skin beneath his palm. Ezra was burning up with fever.

Sliding his arms underneath the pliant body, he hoisted the gambler up and into his arms. "Someone go get Nathan," he barked, not caring who went, only that his order was obeyed. "Tell him to get to Ezra's room as soon as he can. We've got a sick man here." He carried the gambler back up to his room, laying him down upon his bed.

How had Ezra stood to put on all those layers of clothing with a fever so high? Chris began to strip the green-eyed man out of the layers, pulling off his boots, and removing his jacket. He disarmed the unconscious man, then tackled his vest and shirt. He tossed everything off, over into a corner. He fully expected the gambler to give him hell for it later, but at that moment, he couldn't bring himself to care. He was debating over removing Ezra's pants when Nathan arrived, followed by JD and Josiah.

"What happened?" asked the healer, moving quickly to examine Ezra, hand carefully touching, probing, searching for an explanation.

"He came downstairs, looking awful. Then he just collapsed. He's burning up, Nathan." Chris couldn't keep the worry out of his tone. What was it? What if it was something deadly, like typhus?

Nathan swore. "Here's the problem," he said, holding Ezra's had within his own. An angry red cut slashed across the palm, lines of infection radiating outward from it. "Damn it, I knew I should have made him let me take a look at it. It's infected, and the infection's gotten into his blood. Made him sick."

"Can you help him?" blurted JD, standing anxiously in the doorway.

"I can try. I wish he hadn't let it go so long..." Nathan's voice trailed off. "JD, you go fetch me water, all right? A couple buckets of it, cold as you can get. And some towels, clean ones. I'm gonna go see what I got back at my place that can help."

"I'll stay and watch him." Chris wasn't volunteering; he was stating a fact. Nathan looked a little startled, but nodded.

"I think I'll go speak to the Lord on behalf of Ezra," Josiah said, pulling JD with him as he made his exit. "Prayer can't hurt."

"Say one for me," Chris requested absently, eyes fixed on the man on the bed. He wasn't going to leave, not until he knew that Ezra would be all right. He had to be. He couldn't lose the man, not now. Not after he had finally begun to make some progress with him, and was beginning to believe that the gambler might actually share in his feelings, and love him in return. Surely Nathan would be able to help.

A few hours later, Chris's resolve was just as strong, but his hope was somewhat dimmed. Nathan had been working constantly, trying everything he could think of to bring the infection under control, and to bring Ezra's fever down, but so far, nothing had worked.

The gambler had moved from boneless unconsciousness to restless delirium, caught in fever-induced dreams only he could see. He moved aimlessly, constantly; occasionally, soft cries or mumbled words passed his lips.

Through it all, the gunslinger sat by the bed, obeying every command the healer gave him, and ignoring every suggestion that perhaps he should rest, or take a break. All the other members of the Seven had come by to check on Ezra's condition. Chris had been vaguely aware of their visits, but nearly all his attention was fixed on the man in bed.

"What is he seeing?" he asked Nathan. "He's talking, and moving. What's going on in his head?"

"Who knows?" responded the healer. "Fever dreams are funny things. You never know what someone is going to see." He sighed. "I've done all I can for him now. The only thing left for us to do is try to keep him cool, so his fever doesn't get any higher." He placed a towel soaked in cold water against Ezra's chest, replacing an older one.

Chris echoed the movement, replacing a different towel, even as he wondered what Ezra was seeing. So far, he had only been able to catch a few coherent words: hot, thirsty, and help were among them. He hoped Ezra's dreams were pleasant, but feared that they weren't.


Ezra worked feverishly at the manacles that encircled his wrists, trying to pick the lock with nothing except a scrap of metal, desperation, and a few choice curses. None of them seemed to be helping, but he didn't give up. He couldn't.

The green-eyed man couldn't believe he was in this situation. He'd had to leave England rather quickly just over a year ago; he was too good with cards, too skilled with his tongue, and not quite fast enough to avoid the retribution of angry people that he had played with or conned. He hadn't had the time to wait for a ship back to America; he ended up on the first boat to anywhere. His luck had been bad every since, taking him farther and farther away from home as he left each port one step ahead of the law, or worse, an angry mob.

Finally, he had ended up in Egypt, in the middle of the desert. He had hooked up with a caravan of traders, who had promised to get him to a ship that would take him back to America. At that point, he was willing to take almost any chance to be able to get back to his native country.

He was never going to know if the traders were on the level or not; half way across the desert, they had been attacked by raiders. Most of the others had been killed; only Ezra and a few of the others had lived, and they were now shackled, stuffed in the back of a covered wagon of sorts, carrying them to god knows where.

The wagon stopped suddenly, and all the prisoners in the back were thrown forward by the abruptness. With a final curse, Ezra gave up on trying to free himself, at least for the moment.

Two of the raiders threw open the back of wagon. The American tried to shrink back into the shadows, but to no avail. He was dragged out of the wagon and into the sunlight, thrown unceremoniously to the sandy ground.

Furious, Ezra tried to push himself to his feet, only to be shoved back roughly to the ground, and kicked for his trouble. The green-eyed man glared at his captors, squinting in the bright light, but stayed down. He didn't want to be hurt any more than he already was.

One of the raiders leaned forward. "You, green-eyes. Learn you place." A malicious grin stretched the corners of his mouth. "Man coming. You master. *Slave*."

The gambler stared at him, uncomprehending, disbelieving. He couldn't really mean that Ezra was to be a slave, could he? "Slave?" he choked out, eyes wide. "I'm no slave. I'm a free man!"

"Gift, you. Slave, you. Master coming."

Ezra shook his head. This couldn't be happening. He was being given as a gift? As a slave?

No. He wasn't going to let this happen. The green-eyed man began to fight, uncaring of the blows that rained down upon him. This wasn't going to happen, not so long as he was able to resist. Hampered by the chains binding him at wrists and ankles, he was soon down, unable to do more than vainly try to rise, even as he was kicked and beaten.

A voice, harsh in anger, shouted out a few furious words, and the beating stopped. Ezra gasped for breath, but didn't try to rise. He couldn't. Tentative hands touched his shoulders, and he curled farther in on himself, trying to shield his aching ribs from any further damage.

The hands became insistent, and he was helpless to resist as he was gently rolled over onto his back. He looked blearily upwards, and saw the man crouching over him, dressed in the traditional robes of an Arab. He met the concerned gaze of oddly familiar blue eyes, before his vision faded to black.

Ezra struggled up toward consciousness, shoving off the heavy sleep that had enveloped him. The first thing he was aware of was freedom: for the first time in days, he wasn't shackled or restrained. His limbs were weighted down, true, but it was under the gentle pressure of soft blankets piled high around him. Where was he? What the hell had happened?

Where was easily answered: all he had to do was open his eyes. He was in a tent, dark colored walls meeting brightly colored rugs scattered on the floor. He was in a bed, a real bed with a frame and a mattress. This was a permanent home, then. He could see a sliver of sunlight through the opening of the tent.

The gambler tried to move, and immediately regretted it. Pain flooded through his body anew, lines of fire arcing through his muscles. The agony brought with it memories: the wagon stopping, the news that he was a slave, the beating...

The beating, and the man who had stopped it. The man with blue eyes.

He wasn't going to find out what was happening lying in bed. Gathering his will, he tried to sit up. Damn, but that was a mistake. He relaxed back into the bed. He'd rather just lay there and wait for whatever fate was coming for him. His new master would no doubt be along shortly.

Ezra decided to accept events as they came, at least until he was well enough to do something about it. He could hear voices approaching, speaking in Arabic. He had yet to learn the language, a failing he was beginning to regret. He debated feigning sleep, to buy himself more time before having to deal with his situation.

Delay sounded good. It usually worked for him before. Except when it didn't, and when it didn't, it usually failed spectacularly. Then, there was no more time for him to argue with himself. The voices were close, and shadows were blocking the light that had been leaking into the tent. Ezra let himself go limp, and allowed his eyes to slip close once more. He'd had plenty of practice play opossum; he was rather adept at it.

He could hear people entering the tent, and walking toward him. It was a struggle not to tense up, but he managed to resist the instinctive reaction. Careful hands touched his face, feeling his skin as if checking his temperature.

"Why isn't he awake yet?" English! One of the men was speaking with a definite American accent.

Startled by the last thing he had expected to hear, Ezra's eyes fluttered open. He looked up into the dark eyes of a black man, who recoiled slightly in surprise. An understanding smile stretched across the other man's face. "He seems to be awake now, Chris."

Slowly, the gambler turned his head so he could see the other person in the tent. A tall man stepped toward him, a concerned frown creasing his brow. Ezra was once again caught up in a disquietingly familiar blue-eyed gaze.

"How are you feeling?" asked the blue-eyed man, moving to sit on the bed beside Ezra.

"Confused," the gambler answered honestly, eyebrows quirked in a puzzled expression.

The other man laughed. "I can imagine. First off, let me tell you that you're safe. The men who had you are gone, and they shouldn't be coming back anytime soon. You can relax on that count."

The green-eyed man ventured a small smile. "That is a relief. I wasn't faring very well under their questionable hospitality." He tried to sit up a little, to be polite, but gave it up as a lost cause. The pain just wasn't worth it.

"They did a number on you," the seated man continued, catching the gambler's wince of pain. "Nathan here says you're lucky, though: no broken bones, just plenty of bruises. It'll take some time, but you should heal just fine."

"Yes, well, they could hardly hand over damaged goods to you, now could they?" Ezra was going to take a risk, and confront his fear head on. "I am correct in presuming that you are my new master, am I not?"

"You are not," Chris replied sharply, even as the dark man shook his head in a definite negative. "There are no slaves here. You were given to me, true, but I don't keep slaves. As soon as you've healed up, you'll be free to go."

"Everyone here is of their own free will," Nathan added, his tone firm and fierce.

Ezra nodded his understanding. "Then I must regard you gentlemen as my saviors," he said. "Exactly who do I have the pleasure of owing my eternal gratitude?"

The tall man smiled. "My name is Chris Larabee. This here is Nathan Jackson. There are a few more men around; you'll meet them later. We're all Americans." He shrugged. "We've sort of come together for our mutual protection, since we're all strangers here. We watch each other's backs while we're in this part of the world."

"It is truly a pleasure to make your acquaintances, gentlemen. My name is Ezra Standish. I was trying to reach a port, so I could book passage on a ship and return to America once more." He suppressed a yawn; he was feeling very tired. "So, Mr. Larabee, Mr. Jackson, what happens now?"

"Now? Now you'll rest, and heal up. After you're back on your feet, it may be a little while before I can let you go."

"Before you can let me go." He didn't like the way this conversation was headed.

"Yeah. Technically, you are a slave. By law you belong to me."

"Mr. Larabee, I distinctly remembering you saying that there are no slaves here. Do you intend me to be the exception that proves the rule?" Ezra began to curse himself for trusting the man. He knew better.

"No, that's not it. But if you just leave, and the men who gave you to me hear of it, they'd be insulted, and it could bring down more trouble on me, on all of us, than we can handle. You can go; it will just have to be carefully timed."

Ezra relaxed a little. What the other man said made sense. Laying back on the mattress, he allowed his gaze to travel over the length of his host's body. Lean lines of muscles cleanly defined his limbs. His face was rugged, weathered by time, experience, and the elements. The gambler thought his most arresting features were his eyes, which were at once so clear, so hard, and so beautiful. They haunted him a little, as if he was remembering them from a dream within a dream.

The green-eyed nodded slowly. "I shall be guided by your experience in this matter, Mr. Larabee." It wasn't as if he had much of a choice, not while he was still in so much pain. "Mr. Jackson, could you enlighten me as to the extent of my injuries?"

"Sure. They worked you over pretty good. You've got yourself some bruised ribs; those are probably what are hurting you the most. Your wrists are in bad shape, and they're going to hurt for a long time, but I think they'll heal without scarring." His voice was sympathetic, and confident.

Ezra nodded. "And the rest is just the expected contusions associated with a beating, I presume?"

"Yeah. But what with your ribs and your wrists, I promise that you really won't be noticing much of anything else."

"Wonderful," the gambler responded dryly.

The other man smiled, and patted Ezra's shoulder. "I gotta get going. If you need anything, send someone for me, no matter the time. Especially if you get to feeling worse." He waited until the green-eyed man nodded, then left the tent.

Ezra turned his attention to Chris, who was still sitting on his bedside. A memory tried to push itself into his awareness, something about a situation very like this one, but it never quite came clear. He gave up on it, shrugging it off. If it was important, it would come to him later. "It appears I am to be your guest for some time, then, sir."

"So it does." Blue eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled. "We'll get you set to rights soon. Think of this as a little vacation; it might help make the time pass faster."

Ezra grinned back at him. The other man's face changed when he smiled. All the harsh lines and planes became less harsh, and more chiseled. His eyes softened, becoming even more beautiful. Looking at the warmth in those blue eyes, the gambler wasn't sure he wanted his time here to pass quickly.

He decided to take Chris's advice, and try to enjoy the next few days, as much as one could enjoy healing from a beating. Maybe he'd be able to figure out what was so familiar about the other man. If nothing else, he could try and see if something would come of the attraction he was feeling for his 'owner'.

Cautiously, of course. Ezra knew better than to put his trust in his appearances. The men here seemed to be what they said, but he had learned that looks were often deceiving. He'd do his best to enjoy himself, but he'd also keep one eye open for danger. That was one advantage to being kicked in the teeth repeatedly by life: it did tend to teach a person the rules of reality.

Still, sharing a smile and a comfortable silence with Chris, Ezra hoped that for once his pessimism would be proved wrong.

Ezra was bored. Totally, completely, thoroughly bored, and it didn't look like things were going to change any time soon. He had been told, quite forcibly so, that he was not to get out of bed for any reason whatsoever by Nathan, and that order had remained unchanged.

For three straight days. Three days of nothing but lying in bed. The gambler had been accused of indolence before, but this was ridiculous. He still felt the pain of the beating, and didn't really want to move all that much, but still; it was the principle of the thing. He had never liked being told what to do, or being bored, and in this situation he was being forced to endure both.

His hosts had done what they could do to make it more bearable. Nathan came by often to check on him, and often lingered just to talk. Ezra had also met the other men living at the oases, and found that he liked them all. Josiah, for all his personal doubt concerning religion, had proven to be a most comforting person to speak with, no matter what the topic. A much quieter man named Vin came by less often to visit, but Ezra found that he enjoyed he company as well, the other man's presence quite nice, if silent. He almost always saw Buck and JD together; the two men were nearly inseparable, and seemed to be the best of friends. He enjoyed their boisterous visits, although they often left him feeling rather weary.

Of all of them, the visits Ezra looked forward to the most were those from Chris. The blue-eyed man came by often, spending hours at a time sitting on the edge of the gambler's bed, talking to him about anything and everything. Ezra's interest in the other man had deepened. He hadn't been able to figure out why Chris seemed so familiar to him, but he was going to just let it go. He had the same sort of vague recognition of most of the other men, just to a lesser degree.

He rather thought that Chris felt the same sort of connection that he did; why else would the other man spend so much time with him? Ezra knew he was busy keeping himself and the others safe; as the only Westerners in the area, they were targets for more than their fair share of trouble. Still, Chris always took so much time out of his schedule to talk to Ezra, which had to mean something.

Finally, the gambler could take no more of his enforced rest. The boredom was becoming more dangerous to his state of mind, and his health, then moving would be. As soon as he was alone in his room, Ezra pushed back the blankets and carefully sat up. His ribs still ached dreadfully, and his wrists were giving him hell, but he managed it. He felt very proud of himself when he swung his feet over the side of the bed.

After far too long a time, and overly-careful movements, he managed to haul himself to his feet. Once he was standing, things became much easier. He was dressed in only a pair of linen pants, so he looked around until he found a robe and a pair of slippers. Finally, decently covered, he walked out of the tent and into the sunlight.

He squinted in the bright light, and raised one hand to block out the painfully strong rays of light. The camp he was in was set up around a small oasis, the clear blue water ringed by brightly colored tents. He could hear voices, people talking and laughing, but he couldn't see anyone.

Moving slowly, taking careful steps, Ezra began to move away from his tent, searching for the other men he knew were in the camp. While he often held himself aloof from other people, he wasn't solitary by nature, and loneliness coupled with boredom gave him the drive he needed to keep moving.

As he walked, one voice came clear to his ears. Chris! The green-eyed man would know his voice anywhere. He made his way toward the line of tents where the voice seemed to be coming from. He was sure the other man would lecture him for being up and out of bed, but it would be worth it to be able to see him again.

The sand beneath his feet was hot, and he shot a sympathetic glance at the horses he saw tethered a short distance off. He was glad of the slippers he had found, and the robe that shielded his torso and arms from the power of the sun.

As he came closer to the tents, Chris's voice became clearer, until Ezra could understand what he was saying. The anticipatory smile that had been lighting up the gambler's face fell away as he realized the import of the blue-eyed man's conversation.

A voice, heavily colored by a native accent, said, "I understand congratulations are in order, Larabee."

"What for?" asked Chris, voice polite, interested.

"I spoke with Fareed's men before I came here. Many of them told me of the gift he gave you. I understand the green-eyed man has quite a temper, but his beauty more than makes up for it, eh?" Crude, leering laughter accompanied the words.

Chris laughed as well. "So they told you he was stubborn, did they?"

"Stubborn, and resistant, and angry. But they also said he was worth the trouble it would take to train him properly." There was a pause, then the voice asked, "So, is he?"

The blue-eyed man laughed again. "You'll never find out, so don't concern yourself with him. I will tell you that he is more than worth it, though, and that he will soon be far more tractable then Fareed found him to be." His tone was low, insinuating.

Ezra didn't hear anymore. He didn't want to, and he certainly didn't need to. He had been tricked, tricked like a naive boy just away from home, instead of a man who knew how the world worked. He was shocked, betrayed, and disgusted with himself. He knew better. Hadn't he warned himself to expect something like this?

It had all been a lie. The lovely picture of solidarity Chris and the others had painted for him was nothing but a fantasy. It was all part of a scheme, probably to win his trust before beginning to make him into the slave he truly was.

Slave? Ezra Standish? Certainly not. He wasn't going to let this happen. He had to think, to plan. He knew that there was no way he could pretend to be ignorant of his future; the shock was too deep, the betrayal too cutting. He'd never be able to carry it off. Staying here would only be going along with the bastard's plans for him. He had to get away.

Moving as quickly as he could, he made his way over to where the horses were tethered. He spotted a few full water skins laying in the shade on his way, and he didn't hesitate to catch them up and sling them around his neck. Once he reached the horse, he looked them over until he spotted the gelding that looked to be the most docile. Still in pain, he knew he'd never be able to handle a horse that would give him trouble.

Ezra quickly mounted up. He knew he was woefully unprepared to ride off into the desert, especially as he had no idea in which direction to head, but he couldn't stay. Any chance he took would be better than staying, and wait for the final parts of the trap he had fallen into to close about him.

Staying low and close to the gelding's neck, he sent the horse at a gallop out of the camp, away from the oasis. With every dull thud of hoofbeats in sand, the gambler damned himself as a fool. He had allowed an imaginary sense of connection to Chris to lull him into security, to blunt his instincts. Tricked by a pair of blue eyes and some long-desired kindness; he was pathetic. If his mother could see him now, she'd be completely disgusted with him, and rightfully so.

He accepted the fire that began to burn its way through his chest as no more than his deserved punishment. His ribs were protesting the abuse he was heaping upon them, but there was no help for it. He had been a fools, so what else did he expect?

Jaw set in a hard line, Ezra blinked determinedly at the moisture that threatened in his eyes. He wasn't going to let this effect him, other than to reinforce the lessons that he had already learned. Trust was for the naive and the foolish, and Ezra Standish was neither. He wasn't a child, to be taken in by a pair of beautiful blue eyes.

Beautiful blue eyes, a handsome profile, and a voice that had seemed to reveal hidden kindness in its depths. They were all traps, all parts of a mask designed to lure the unwary closer and closer, until it was too late for escape.

No wonder he had been told to stay in bed. Sure, his ribs were in agony as a result of the rough gate of the horse, but the main reason he was told to rest was to keep him out of the way, so he wouldn't learn the truth. He should have known that any apparent kindness always came with price. This price was one that was far too high; he was never going to pay it.

Shaking his head roughly, Ezra tried to thrust the thoughts away. He needed to concentrate, to make sure his escape worked. Perhaps he was back in Lady Luck's good graces, and she would guide him to safety.

Guide him away from those treacherous eyes.

Ezra staggered, barely catching himself before falling to the sand. He managed to regain his footing, and continued on, walking even though he had accepted that it was useless.

The sun was beating down on him, the heat a physical pressure, pushing him down, forcing all his energy and hope away. Water had long since become a distant, fond memory, and he had lost all expectation of surviving long ago. His ribs were a constant source of agony, his thirst was killing, and he would gladly remove his head if it meant he wouldn't feel it throb any longer.

He had ridden as far as he could, until the pain in his ribs became too much for him to continue. He had dismounted, then slung the waterskins across the saddle. He had intended to walk for a while, to move slowly and give his body some respite from the horse's rough gait. Of course, the gelding had chosen that moment to act up, rearing back, then taking off across the sands, back the way they had come. Ezra had stared unbelievingly after it.

Lady Luck was such a bitch.

He had continued walking, and was still walking. There really wasn't anything else for him to do. He had no hope, but that didn't mean he was going to quit. Not until he absolutely couldn't go on any longer.

The next time he faltered, he wasn't able to catch himself. He fell heavily to the burning sand, and lay still. He couldn't find the will or the energy to even attempt to rise. He lay there, waiting for death to take him. Hopefully, once he was dead, he wouldn't have to think about what a fool he was. He deserved this: stupidity was supposed to hurt.

With the last of his strength, he rolled over onto his back. Eyes closed against the daggers of light thrown by the sun, he gave himself over to unconsciousness.


Gentle hands touched him, running cool cloths over his skin, pushing his hair back off his forehead, softly stroking his cheek.

A worried voice spoke constantly. "Isn't there anything else we can do for him? Damn it, Nathan, he's still burning up."

"Infections are tricky, Chris. We've just gotta keep doing like we have been." A pause, and then, "Chris, you're gonna wear yourself out, man. You need to take a break, rest a little."

"No. I'm not leaving. Not until he wakes up. He's still delirious. Ezra, can you hear me? I need you to get better for me. Can you do that? Why'd you have to go and pick up that can? Don't you know better? Can you hear me? Ezra, I need you to get better. I need you. Ezra? Ezra!"

He wanted to answer, but he couldn't. Gradually, his awareness of the hands and voice faded, and he was alone in the darkness once more.


Ezra began to wake up slowly, confused. Why was he waking up? He had been dying fairly successfully, the last he knew. What was going on? He cautiously opened one eye.

He was back inside the damned tent. All that effort, and he was right back where he started. Bitch was far too kind a word for Lady Luck. He opened his other eye, and saw Vin looking down at him.

The silent man stared at him for a moment, then walked over to the tent opening and spoke quietly to someone outside. He then returned to standing and watching the bed-ridden gambler.

Ezra shook his head. Apparently he was going to be kept under guard, now that it was known that he might try to escape. Not that he would be trying again anytime soon. In addition to his previous injuries, he could feel a hellacious sunburn on his skin, and his throat felt swollen and sore.

Nathan and Chris entered the tent, both men looking very serious. The healer walked over and immediately began to check over Ezra's freshly treated wounds. "How are you feeling?" he asked, glancing up at the gambler's face.

The green-eyed man didn't answer. Why should he make anything easy on them? So they could patch him up and set him to work as a slave? He didn't think so. The bastards could work for it, with no help from him.

Nathan seemed startled by his silence. "Can you hear me? Do you understand?"

Ezra still made no reply, but he did raise one eyebrow, a wordless, mocking gesture.

"What the hell is going on with you?" asked Chris, impatiently stepping forward. "Why did you run off? And what's with this silent act?"

Cursing his temper, the gambler responded. "Oh, I do beg your pardon. Please forgive my reticence. I have no idea where my manners could have run off to. Please, tell me, did the horse I...*borrowed* return safely to camp?" Ezra kept his tone as light as he could, as if he were discussing the weather in the parlor of one of the finer families of Savannah. The effect was slightly ruined by the fact that his voice rasped painfully out of his aching throat, burning tender, abused tissues.

"The horse? You're asking me about the horse?" Chris sounded exasperated. "The horse is fine. We found you by backtracking him." He moved closer to Ezra, looming over the supine gambler. "Quit avoiding the question. Why did you run off?"

Ezra shook his head, his expression amused, as though by the antics of a small child. He didn't answer, and his gaze wandered away, as if he had lost all interest in the conversation.

Strong fingers grasped his chin, forcing him to meet the blue-eyed man's gaze. "I asked you a question."

The gambler knew any resistance he gave would be useless: he was too weak, and they were too many. Raising one eyebrow, he cautioned, "Watch yourself, Mr. Larabee. You wouldn't want to damage your latest acquisition, now, would you?" He made a disappointed clicking noise with his tongue. "Bruising me will only lead to my devaluation, you know."

The fingers released his chin immediately. "What the hell are you talking about? I told you-"

"I know what you told me. I also know what I heard." Ezra felt himself losing his temper, but he couldn't hold back the words, even though he knew he should. He had betrayed himself, forgotten every hard lesson he had ever learned, and all because of this man. Seeing confusion in the blue-eyed man's expression, he forced himself to laugh disgustedly. "How did your visitor put it? I may be stubborn, but my beauty makes up for it? Bruises will only take away from any attraction I hold, and I will be that much less valuable."

Chris stared at him. "You heard Ahaz? But how? You were in your tent."

"I am easily bored, sir. I decided to attempt a small constitutional walk around the camp. Imagine my delight at locating you by your voice." Ezra fixed him with a steady stare, not admitting to how much the other man's words had hurt him.

"Ezra, it's not what you think."

"Oh, but it never is, is it? I suppose I misunderstood. Of course, since English is my native tongue, I find it rather difficult to believe."

"Yes, you did. Not the words, but the situation." With a heavy sigh, the blue-eyed man hesitantly sat down at Ezra's bedside. "I was just agreeing with Ahaz, going along with what he said. If I had told him that you weren't a slave here, he would've gone running to Fareed. Fareed would've been insulted, and then he'd have no choice except to attack here, and we can't handle a feud. There aren't enough of us." His voice throbbed with sincerity, and regret.

The green-eyed kept a hard stare on the other man, even though inside he was beginning to thaw. It could have happened the way Chris said. But to believe him meant believing again, and hoping again, and hurting again...

Chris reached out and laid a gentle hand on Ezra's sunburned face. "I know you don't want to, Ezra, but please believe me. It was only a ruse, a lie, to keep you safe." His eyes begged the gambler to believe him.

Damn those blue eyes. Ezra couldn't resist them. Cursing himself as a fool even as he did so, he nodded slowly.

Nathan's voice distracted him. "What he says is the truth, Ezra. There aren't any slaves here. There aren't, and there never will be."

The fierce conviction in his voice was the deciding factor for the gambler. Licking his lips, he said, "Well. Seeing as you gentlemen are not the deceitful bastards I took you for, might I trouble you for some water? I am quite parched." He smiled a little at Chris, careful of the tender skin of his face.

The blue-eyed man grinned back at him, obviously relieved. "Anything you want," he promised.

Ezra suppressed a shiver. Anything? He wondered if he was going to get the chance to see if the other man truly meant that. Leaning into the hand that still lay against his cheek, he certainly hoped so.

Ezra scowled, and attempted to take some more of his weight onto his own feet. "Mr. Dunne, I assure you that I am more than capable of walking on my own. I appreciate your assistance, I truly do-"

The younger man shook his head firmly. "Don't bother, Ezra. Nathan told all of us that you're not up to walking on your own, and I don't even want to think about what Chris would do to me if he found out I didn't help you." He carefully took a better grip on the gambler, forcing the other man to lean on him and wrap his arm over his shoulders.

Ezra sighed, and conceded the point, allowing the other man to help him stagger over closer to the water. Last night, he had complained idly to Chris that laying alone in the tent made him lonely. This morning, JD had shown up, offering to take Ezra outside for a while, to get him outside. The gambler had agreed.

For all his protests, he was glad of JD's help. Collapsing in the desert had hurt; he ached all over, and wasn't sure he'd have made it on his own. Mindful of his sunburn, he had pulled on a headdress like he had seen Arabs wear, covering his head and face, so to give his skin the chance to heal.

JD had promised to take him near the water, which was the center of camp. The younger man stopped quickly, muttering an oath under his breath. Ezra staggered a little, but he too was surprised be what he saw. Someone had prepared a resting place for the gambler under a tree. A canopy of light-colored cloth was spread overhead to proved shade, and pillows had been strewn on the ground, so he'd be able to sit comfortably.

Ezra glanced at JD. Judging from the young man's response, he hadn't expected to see the set up. That meant neither he nor Buck had done it. The green-eyed man acknowledged to himself that he definitely had a wish of who it had been, as well as a good suspicion.

JD shook his head. "Come on," he said, guiding the taller man over to the pillows.

Ezra sank into them gratefully. He owed whoever had set them up a debt of thanks. He set about making himself comfortable, with some help from JD, propping himself up with pillows.

"Well, what do we have here? A visiting sultan? You didn't happen to bring your harem along with you, now, did you?" Buck wandered over, a grin spreading across his face, even as he raised an eyebrow inquiringly.

Ezra smiled back. "Unfortunately, I was forced to leave the harem behind. I will be sure to pass along your regrets, however." He watched the mustached man squat down to help JD move the last few pillows, and knew that the harem comment was meant completely in jest. The gambler was fairly adept at reading people, and the men here were no exception. If Buck's entire world wasn't wrapped up in the young man beside him, then Ezra would have to declare himself retired from the card tables forever.

He relaxed back into the pillows, content to watch the two men interact without participating. He saw JD, looking far too young to be so far from home, but here he was, and as far as Ezra could tell, he was doing just fine. He took care of himself; hell, he was even helping to take care of Ezra. As tempting as it was to dismissing the dark-haired man because of his youth and his open face, the gambler knew better. He had encountered too many seemingly open faces across the poker tables to believe that an innocent face necessarily indicated an innocent nature.

Watching the sly smile that JD gave Buck confirmed Ezra's suspicions about the nature of their relationship. No, young he might be, and inexperienced in some ways, but JD most definitely wasn't innocent.

Ezra transferred his attention to the tall man, smiling as he watched him tease his friend, occasionally engaging him in rough horse play. His affection for the younger man was obvious, and it brought out the best parts of his personality: his humor, his generosity, his concern for others. All these traits were already there, of course; it was just that JD's presence brought them to the forefront.

The green-eyed man laughed quietly, so not to draw attention to himself. The pain must have been mellowing him out, he thought. Under other circumstances, JD's exuberance and enthusiasm would likely grate on his nerves, and Buck's bluff, overly familiar friendship would feel intrusive. Now, he accepted them as a part of each man.

Of course, as soon as he got to feeling better that would probably change, and he'd be forced to try to kill them.

He waved them off when they offered to stay with them. He had taken up enough of their time, and he was sure both of them had things they needed to take care of. Besides, judging by the hungry glances JD had been throwing at Buck, the two of them really should be alone together.

He yawned hugely, and watched the play of sunlight on the water, allowing his thoughts to drift away. The sound of footsteps on sand pulled his attention back to his surroundings. He tilted his head back, and smiled up at Josiah as the big man approached.

"Mr. Sanchez. How are you on this lovely morning?"

"I'm just fine. It sounds like you're in better spirits today." He smiled, but his eyes were serious.

Ezra ducked his head and looked away. "I take it you are referring to my abrupt departure from this encampment?"

"In a round about way, yes I was." Josiah sank down to sit on one of the pillows the gambler wasn't using. "I figured a man willing to risk himself in the desert might have some things he'd like to talk about."

"I'm sure you've heard the reason why I left. I thought that Mr. Larabee had lied to me, that everyone had. I wasn't exactly in a position to confront him."

"No, you weren't," Josiah agreed. "But you were very willing to believe the worst." His tone was gentle and questioning, rather than condemning.

Ezra licked his lips. He wasn't accustomed to talking about himself, or confiding in others, but he was experiencing that odd deja vu once more, as if he had discussed such matters with this man before. "I have found, Mr. Sanchez, that it is safer to believe the worst." The older man's understanding smile told him that he had made the right decision to speak to him.

Like the others, Josiah did have other matters that he needed to take care of, but he stayed and talked to Ezra for quite a while. The gambler appreciated how willing he was to listen, and that he didn't pretend to have all the answers. By the time the other man left, Ezra was feeling better about deciding to try to trust Chris and the rest of them again. He wasn't going to pretend to understand everything about Josiah, so he was going to go with his gut instinct, and that odd feeling of remembrance, and place his trust in the man.

He went back to watching the play of sunlight on water, tracing the ripples of light as they spread across the surface of the oasis. It wasn't long before he heard someone walking toward him.

"Whose turn is it now?" he asked without looking up.

"Turn?" Nathan.

"Turn to baby-sit me. I assume you gentlemen are rotating the duty." He glanced at the other man and smiled. "It is that, or you are watching me to be sure that I don't try to escape into the desert again."

"No, I doubt you'll do that. You don't look suicidally stupid to me."

Ezra was tempted to take offense, but he realized that the healer was a blunt man. He didn't mean anything by his words; it was just his plain-spoken way. "So it is baby-sitting, then?"

"If that's what you want to call it. How are you feeling?" Nathan proceeded to quickly examine the gambler, nodding in satisfaction when he was done. "You're healing nicely. Don't do anything else stupid, and you should be just fine."

"I will try to keep that in mind," Ezra replied dryly.

"You do that. I don't want all my time and effort to go to waste." There was a pause, one which felt almost awkward. "Where're you from in the States?"

The gambler shook his head ruefully. "It would be easier to tell you where I'm not. My mother is an extremely mobile woman; we moved about quite frequently. I'm not sure I even know where I was born." He and Nathan compared notes of the areas of the United States they knew, and the awkwardness disappeared as they reminisced about home. Ezra found himself liking the other man, despite his bluntness. In some ways, it was almost refreshing.

After Nathan left, admonishing the green-eyed man to stay in the shade and out of the sun, Ezra sat and fiddled with the loose fabric of his pants. His fingers fairly itched to hold a deck of cards. He had lost all his decks when the raiders had hit the caravan, so he had none left. As he sat idly, the desire for one grew. Playing with the cards, manipulating them, passing them from hand to hand in an intricate dance of chance and skill...Ezra groaned. He was going to make himself crazy. It wasn't as though he could conjure up a deck just by wishing for one.

A deck of cards fell, landing on the pillow beside his right hand.

Ezra's head jerked up, and he looked into the smiling eyes of Vin Tanner. The other man must have approached him while he was caught up in his wishing.

"Mr. Tanner, you are a godsend. Is there some divine aspect to your nature that you have yet to share with me?"

"No," the other man answered simply. Ezra had expected as much. With Vin, silences did most of the talking, which worked for the brown-haired man. His silences said more, and said it better, than most men's words.

"Would you care to join me in a friendly game?" he asked. Vin grinned and nodded. They played several hands of poker, speaking only occasionally. Ezra could feel his skill returning, his fingers quickly remembering the feel of the cards, their delicate weight, the way they cut the air. He kept the game friendly, not playing as ruthlessly as he usually did. Few words were exchanged, but few were needed. Finally, the time came when Vin also had to go.

Ezra squinted up at him. Noon had come and gone, but the sun was still high and bright. "Mr. Tanner, thank you for the company. Thank you also for noticing my need and lending me this deck." He didn't want to give the cards back, but he would. He'd just ask to borrow them. Frequently.

"They're yours. And I'm not the one who noticed."

Ezra stared at him sharply.

A wide grin crossed Vin's face. "I'm just the messenger," he said, before turning and walking off.

The gambler knew it would be useless to try to call him back. The other man was determined to be mysterious, and nothing Ezra said would change that. If it wasn't Vin, then who? His heart had an answer, but he wasn't sure he could trust its judgment. He played with the cards, shuffling them absent-mindedly as he pondered the mystery.

He wasn't so unaware of his surroundings this time that he missed the man approaching him. Ezra smiled, a little nervously, as Chris walked toward him. "Mr. Larabee. It is a pleasure to see you." That was a good start, wasn't it?

Chris smiled back at him. "Good to see you too, Ezra." He looked at the deck of cards, then back at the gambler's face, searching his expression.

Aha. Ezra's smile became a grin. "Sir, I must thank you for this gift. I was at loose ends without a deck."

"Damnit, Vin wasn't supposed to tell you they were from me!"

Maybe he'd have to start listening to his heart a little more often. "He didn't."

The blue-eyed man stared at him, then laughed ruefully. He sat down on a pillow. "You got me. You really like them?"

"Very much. How did you know?"

"I could see you were missing something. You mentioned playing cards, and I thought maybe..."

Ezra listened to him talk, feeling warm inside. Chris had been watching him, had listened to what he said, and had taken the time and effort to connect them. He shifted, his ribs a little sore.

"What's wrong?" asked the blue-eyed man, leaning forward.

"Nothing, really." He could see that wasn't going to be an acceptable answer. With a sigh, he explained. "I can't quite lean back enough against the tree, so my ribs are beginning to ache a bit." He shrugged. "I don't want to go inside just yet, but-"

"I think I have an idea." Chris hesitated a moment, then moved so that he was leaning back against the tree, and Ezra was leaning back against him. "Is this all right?"

Was he joking? It was more than all right; it was wonderful. "This is much better," he answered, managing to keep his voice level through sheer force of will. He relaxed against the other man. It felt so good, so *right*, to be like this. He felt himself relaxing more, and more...

Ezra came awake slowly, unaware that he had even fallen asleep. He was disoriented for a moment, and then remembered. Outside, cards, Chris. Chris!

He started to move, and an amused voice behind him asked, "Going somewhere?"

Hell. He had done it. He had fallen asleep, practically on top of the other man. Judging by the sun, he'd been out for less than an hour, but still. "I am terribly sorry, sir. I-"

"You were tired. Relax; it's all right." Chris shifted, and Ezra realized that the blue-eyed man had loosely wrapped his arms around him.

The sound of laughter drifted across the water, and Ezra turned his head slightly, watching Buck and JD engage in some sort of mock fight, one that involved an inordinate amount of touching. He laughed himself.

"What?" asked Chris, warm breath flowing against his ear.

Suppressing a shiver, Ezra jerked his head toward the other two men. "Young love."

"Any kind of love," the other man countered, arms tightening around Ezra.

Still marveling over how very right everything felt, the gambler didn't reply. He just leaned his head back, and relaxed once more against the other man, content to stay in the moment as long as he could.

Ezra held his mug of tea up to his face, enjoying the feel of the damp steam heat against his skin as he inhaled deeply. The warmth was a pleasant contrast to the chill night air outside. As soon as the sun set, the desert temperature plummeted, sending everyone into their tents, seeking warmth from the blankets and small fires inside.

This was fast becoming his favorite time of day. Not because of the chill; the gambler liked his comfort, and cold rarely had any part of that. No, he liked the evening because it was the one time he could be sure of having Chris all to himself. Over the past week, it had become customary for Ezra to join the blue-eyed man in his tent after sundown, where they could drink tea, and talk, among other things.

Of course, it was the other things that the gambler was interested in. He hadn't been wrong about Chris being attracted to him. Two nights ago, after their customary conversation, the blue-eyed man had walked him back to his own tent. Instead of leaving as soon as Ezra went inside, Chris had followed him in. The gambler had been a surprised, and a little nervous. The taller man had seemed a little less than his usual confident self, as well.

That is, until he had stepped forward, and quickly pressed his lips to Ezra's. The contact was electric, but brief. He had backed off immediately, giving the shorter man space.

Ezra wasn't going to let him get away that easily, not after he was finally getting what he had been dreaming about ever since seeing Chris. He had followed the other man's movement, closing the distance between them, before claiming his mouth in a longer, more intense kiss.

For a few moments, Chris had responded fiercely, hands coming up to clutch Ezra's shoulders and pull him closer. Then he had stepped back, pulling away. The gambler had caught his eyes with a questioning stare. Smiling a little, the blue-eyed man had said, "There's something to be said for anticipation, Ezra. And for waiting until your ribs are healed."

The gambler had been ready to put up an argument; they were his ribs, damnit, and he would know whether or not they were up to anything strenuous. But he had acquiesced. There was a certain charm to waiting, and allowing the slow build of anticipation. He had nodded, and said, "It is fortunate that I am a fast healer, then."

"Yes, it is," Chris had agreed, before moving in for one last kiss. Then he was gone, leaving Ezra caught up in a delightful mixture of arousal, anticipation, and frustration.

The next night, Ezra had been able to coax a few kisses out of the other man while they were still in Chris's tent. Perhaps coax wasn't the right word; it wasn't as though Chris was in any way reluctant. The gambler had managed to wear down his resolved enough to be able to state with some authority that the blue-eyed man was one of the most seductive kissers he had ever encountered, with a most talented mouth....

Lost in the memory, Ezra was startled out of his haze by Chris coming into the tent. The tea sloshed about dangerously in his mug as he jerked with surprise, but no disaster occurred.

"Sorry if I startled you there," Chris said, a soft smile crossing his face.

Ezra waved away the apology. "The fault is entirely my own," he countered. "My thoughts were wandering quite far astray, I fear."

"Were they wandering in any particular direction?" The tone was knowing, teasing.

The gambler made no reply. He was too distracted by the sight of Chris stripping out of the native robes he wore, revealing the soft, loose pants and shirt beneath them. Ezra almost lived for this moment each night, when the blue-eyed man pulled away the concealing clothing that usually enveloped him, making it much easier to appreciate the long, lean body that had been hidden.

Chris laughed, and Ezra realized he hadn't answered his question. His cheeks heated a bit, but he hadn't made any secret of the fact that he wanted the other man, so he refused to look away. "Might I offer you a mug of tea?" he asked, holding up his own.

The blue-eyed man licked his lips. "It's not tea that I want." He crossed the space dividing them quickly, moving to kneel beside the pillows on which Ezra sat. He reached out and slid one hand around to cup the back of the gambler's head. With the other, he plucked the tea from Ezra's hand and placed it off to the side.

Ezra allowed himself to be pulled forward, giving Chris the lead in this. He was rewarded with the other man's mouth on his own. Groaning happily, he reached out with his own hands, sliding his arms around Chris's waist to pull him closer.

The taller man moved so that he was straddling Ezra, kneeling over his thighs, without ever breaking contact with his mouth. The gambler pulled him closer, wanting to feel more of him, although he wasn't sure that he would ever feel enough to be satisfied.

Chris pushed him back gently, laying him down on the pillows. Ezra immediately pulled him down on top of himself. With a startled laugh, the other man continued the kisses, only this time he reluctantly abandoned the gambler's mouth, making slow progress up the line of his jaw. Ezra shivered beneath him, and ran his hands down Chris's back, moving to cup the other man's ass.

Chris began to go to work on his ear, causing Ezra to very nearly lose all ability for coherent thought. He retained enough to strengthen his hold on the other man, before thrusting up against him. He gasped, able to feel Chris's hardness slide against his own, separated only by the thin linen pants they both wore.

It seemed that anticipation had just taken a flying leap across the desert, and Ezra couldn't care less. He vaguely hoped that it would crash into 'Lady' Luck, and maybe injure the harridan so badly that she'd stay out of his life forever. He was where he wanted to be; her interference was no longer needed.

The blue-eyed man had abandoned his ear, and was now hard at work removing Ezra's shirt. The gambler considered helping, for all of three seconds, then returned his attention to thrusting up against him again and again, reveling in the feeling of the long body pressed so close, the solid weight holding him down in the most delightful of ways.

He lunged upwards, capturing Chris's mouth with his own, claiming the moist heat. Nothing had ever felt this good. The combination of the hands roaming over his body, the tongue dueling with his own, and the intense sensation of connection he felt for the other man pushed his pleasure beyond anything else he had ever experienced.

All that shattered when rough hands grabbed him, dragging him out from under Chris, even as the blue-eyed man shouted and was thrown to one side. Men had entered the tent unnoticed while the two of them were so distracted by each other. With a start, Ezra recognized them as the raiders who had attacked his caravan.

Strong hands caught his arms in brutal grips, and he was slowly dragged toward the entrance of the tent. Ezra fought with everything he had, unmindful of the pain, desperate to get free. He could see Chris being restrained by several men. "Chris!" he shouted, twisting frantically, kicking and striking out as best he could.

The blue-eyed man roared, shouting threats at the men who held him, demanding to be released, ordering them not to dare to touch Ezra. The raiders paid no heed, and Ezra was inexorably drawn out of the tent.

"No," he shouted. "No, Chris! Chris please help me! I don't want to go, I don't want to leave you. I can't leave you. Not now, not when I've finally found you. Chris, help me. Please! Please, I don't want to leave!" His cries did no good; he continued to be pulled away from the tent.

His vision went black. What had happened? A blindfold? Terror increasing, he fought even harder. Suddenly, he was laying down, and the hands on him had changed. There was only one pair, and they were holding his upper arms. They were strong, but they no longer hurt him.

They let him go, but only for a moment. Then he was pulled into a lap, with arms wrapping around him in a strong, desperate grip. Ezra still tried to pull away, but found himself oddly weak, his limbs sluggish and reluctant to obey him.

The sound of a voice came to his ears, and slowly he was able to make out the words. "Ezra, come on, wake up. Ezra, you can hear me. You've got to hear me. Don't you dare leave me. I'm not going to let you, you hear me? You're not going anywhere, not without me, you understand? Now wake up. Ezra, I'm right here. Wake up, please god, wake up. Damnit. You can hear me - you've got to. Ezra, you're not leaving me!"

Chris? It sounded like Chris, hoarse and broken as the voice was. Ezra stopped struggling, and slowly opened his eyes. Everything was a blur, nothing he saw made any sense.

He heard a gasp, and then he was shifted in the arms of whoever was holding him. A gentle hand cradled the back of his head, and then he was looking up into a frantic blue-eyed gaze. Chris. He was back with Chris.

Ezra was confused, but relieved. He didn't know where the raiders had gone. All that mattered was that he was back with Chris, and that the other man was all right. He relaxed, and did his best to crawl into the blue-eyed man's arms. His arms and legs were still strangely weak, but he ignored that in favor of concentrating on the warmth of the embrace surrounding him.

Chris gathered him closer, obviously needing the comfort of contact as much as the gambler did. He murmured quiet words into Ezra's ear. "God, I was worried, so worried. I thought I'd lost you. I can't lose you. Thank god you're awake - I was so damn scared." The words went on and on. His voice was hoarse. Ezra supposed he might have hurt his throat yelling.

The green-eyed man turned his face into the other man's neck, rubbing his cheek against the warm skin, and inhaling his scent. His scent...something was wrong. He had learned Chris's scent over the past few nights, being held in his arms. Chris had smelled of sun and sand, all overlaid with clean masculinity. Now he smelled of horses and sweat, with some sort of herbs mixed in.

Ezra pulled back as far as he was able, and really looked Chris in the face. The worried expression was marring a face that was also lined with weariness, unshaven and careworn. But Chris hadn't had any stubble when they'd been kissing earlier; he could still remember the feeling of the smooth skin of his cheeks.

What the hell was going on?

The gambler took another look at his surroundings. He was in a narrow bed, being held by Chris. The room looked familiar...with a shock, he recognized it as his own. This was where he lived, in a room over the saloon in Four Corners. Not the vast deserts of Arabia. Four Corners. This was where he lived. This was his life.

The other had been a dream. Only a dream. None of it was real, not the raiders, not his injuries...not his relationship with Chris. Stomach clenching, he realized that the man holding him wasn't his almost lover. The past few days had never happened. Feeling sick and empty, he tried to pull away from the arms holding him, before he managed to embarrass himself any further. He had already done enough damage, latching onto the man like a leech or a needy child.

Chris's arms tightened around him, and then pulled him even closer, refusing to let him go. "No, you don't," he said, voice harsh, as though over-used. "Not after the scare you gave me. I thought you were going to die, Ezra. I thought you were going to leave me. When you started begging for my help, god, I thought I was going to go out of my mind." He dropped his head, resting his forehead on top of Ezra's hair.

The gambler stopped struggling. Did Chris mean what he thought? He knew that there was something between the gunslinger and himself. He'd been letting it grow at its own pace, at whatever pace Chris was most comfortable with. But now it sounded as though the other man had leapt forward in his thinking, his feelings.

"I've been going crazy for days, ever since you got sick. Don't ever scare me like this again, don't you dare. I can't take it. I can't take losing you too. Not without ever having told you-" Chris's voice broke, and he tightened his embrace, nuzzling Ezra's temple gently.

The green-eyed man relaxed completely. He was right; Chris just couldn't bring himself to say it, yet. Maybe his dream hadn't been completely false, after all. Settling into the gunslinger's embrace, he asked softly, "What happened?"

"You were sick," Chris answered, speaking into the gambler's ear. "The cut on your hand got infected, and you got sick. You collapsed in the saloon three days ago. You've been delirious."

Delirious? That would explain the dream, then. How could he have been out of it for three whole days? And why did Chris sound so awful? Ezra was the one who had been sick.

The gambler tilted his head back, looking up at the other man. Chris's face was drawn, almost haggard. His normally clear gaze was fogged with weariness, and his voice was almost painful to listen to. "What happened to you?" he asked, frowning with concern.

"Nothing," the other man said, reaching up with one hand to gently stroke his fingers down Ezra's cheek.

"Don't lie to the man," said a third voice. Both men turned to see Nathan standing in the doorway, an exasperated look on his face. Looking at Ezra, he continued, "This fool has been awake ever since you collapsed. Every time I tried to get him to take a break and rest, he threatened to shoot me. He just took care of you and talked to you, waiting for you to wake up. Maybe now that you have, he'll start to look after himself again."

Ezra stared up at Chris. He'd been watching over him for three days? The gunslinger really did love him. He shouldn't have been neglecting himself, though. No matter how warm the fact that he had made Ezra feel inside, at the obvious sign of how much he cared.

Before he could begin to scold him, Nathan interrupted. "And you don't have much room to talk, Ezra. You should have come to me, instead of letting things get so bad." His tone was rough, his words blunt.

The gambler knew that a week ago, he would have taken offense at the healer's words and tone, but now he realized that Nathan was just saying what he felt. Nothing was meant by it, except an expression of his concern and worry.

Ezra smiled. "Thank you, Mr. Jackson, for your concern. I will endeavor to show some more intelligence in the future, and come to you at the first sign of a problem." He transferred his gaze to Chris. "And thank you also for looking after Mr. Larabee. I'm sure now he will be more amenable to your suggestions."

Nathan laughed. "I doubt it. He's a stubborn son of a bitch." He paused, then grinned. "I think I'll leave you two alone."

The gambler smiled. It felt almost as if Nathan was blessing this thing between him and Chris. He never would have expected that, before. Now, as odd as it was, having his mind fogged by delirium had somehow clarified his perceptions of the rest of the seven. He felt like he knew them better now, could see them free of his prior misconceptions.

Feeling more content than he could ever remember, he placed his own hand against Chris's cheek. "You wore yourself out talking to me?" he asked softly. It was almost unbelievable; the gunslinger was usually so silent, so sparing of his words. To have talked himself hoarse for Ezra's sake...

The blue-eyed man flushed a little, but nodded, pressing his cheek into Ezra's palm. "I didn't know if you could hear me, but I had to. I was so worried that I would lose you, that you would slip away from me." He fell silent.

The gambler stroked his thumb across Chris's lower lip, in the gentlest of caresses. "I couldn't hear you, exactly. But I dreamt of you, so on some level I must have been aware of your words."

"What did you dream about?"

"Love." Ezra watched in delight as the other man's flush deepened.

Chris didn't back off, however. He licked his lips, and answered, "Good. Because that's what I was talking to you about." He tilted his head and leaned down, capturing Ezra's mouth with his own.

Ezra pushed himself upwards, wanting to deepen the contact. He pulled away after a few moments, reluctant but knowing he had to. "Lie down," he murmured.


"Lie down, Chris. You're about to collapse. I don't want you to cause injury to yourself. Not when I have such important plans for you later."

The gunslinger grinned tiredly, but followed the suggestion. He carefully laid back on the bed, and pulled Ezra down on top of him, shifting until Ezra was comfortably nestled in his arms. He opened his mouth to speak, but Ezra covered his lips with his fingers.

"I think you've done enough talking," he said with a smile. He took a deep breath, readying himself for taking the plunge. "Chris, I was trying to restrain myself, to follow whatever course you set, but I feel that I must do this." He met Chris's eyes directly. "I love you. I'm in love with you, Chris."

A beautiful smile lit up the gunslinger's face. "That works out great," he said, "because I love you, Ezra. That's why I was so scared. I couldn't take losing you, too, not after I just barely found you."

The gambler rewarded his declaration with a kiss. This time, he felt that all the important things had been said, so he felt no need to break the kiss. He opened his mouth wider, inviting Chris inside, enjoying the glide of tongue against tongue. When Chris tried to pull away, Ezra followed him, not willing to lose a moment of hot, wet contact.

The gunslinger finally managed to tear his mouth away. "We can't do this."

"Don't be foolish. We're already in bed." Ezra was talking beyond his abilities, and he knew it. He was feeling horribly weak, but he didn't want to stop. He had everything he wanted, at last, and he didn't want to waste any time before appreciating it. He was in the arms of the man he loved, in a town he was finally beginning to accept as his home.

"Ezra, you can barely move, and I'm not much better off." The gunslinger tightened his embrace, and brushed his lips against Ezra's ear. "Give us both a few days to recover."

"A few days?" the green-eyed man objected. "Your forbearance astounds me."

"A few days," Chris repeated firmly. "I'm never letting you go, Ezra. I can't; I know that now. We've got forever. A few days won't kill us." He kissed the gambler once more, a brief, sweet moment of contact, a promise of things to come.

Ezra admitted that the other man was right, and settled down in his arms, willing to wait. He didn't have the strength to push the issue, anyway. He lay quietly, feeling Chris's breaths deepen and even out, until the gunslinger was asleep. He smiled as he noticed that the other man's hold on him didn't loosen at all.

He didn't know what had brought on his strange dream, but he was glad he'd had it. It had opened his eyes where his friends were concerned, and given him the courage to finally declare his feelings. As he felt himself slowly drifting off into sleep, Ezra wondered what had ever become of the rusted out pail he had picked up, that had started this.

He wanted to find it, and place it *carefully* in a place of honor in his room. Somewhere that he would be able to see it everyday. He owed that hunk of metal, more than he could ever repay. Perhaps he could start by doing something about Buck and JD. He knew that they were in love, as in love as they had been in his dream. Maybe he could get them together. Maybe he could be their rusted watering can.


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