Pairings: Chris/Ezra; Buck/JD
Warnings: I'm killing off a minor character. No, I won't tell you who right now. Email me if you really have to know before beginning to read this, and I'll tell you (but I reserve the right to call you a read-the-last-page-of-a-book-first-weenie). Also, there are some minor spoilers for the episode "Witness".
A few announcements about this story, before I post it:
This isn't a sequel to "The Wooing", or related to it in any way, except involving the Magnificent Seven again.
The beginning of this is inspired by Deanna's beautiful story "Don't Gamble With Love". If you haven't read it yet, stop reading this and check it out. It's wonderful.
Also, for anyone excited about a Buck/JD story... sorry. They're not the focus of the story, so they'll only be making brief appearances. I apologize if I got anyone's hopes up.
Finally, thank you to everyone who encouraged me when I was writing "The Wooing". It was your support that helped me finish that story, and begin this one.
Ezra leaned back in his chair outside the sheriff's office. He had felt the need to get out of the saloon, and into the sun for a little while. He had no desire to go riding out of town, so he had strolled over to JD's office. He had noticed the younger man spending an inordinate amount of time watching him lately, obviously wanting to say something. Perhaps if he put himself at the sheriff's disposal, the other man would finally come out and say what he wanted.
Legs stretched out before him, he shook his head as he surveyed the street. The dusty, sun-baked expanse was a far cry from the cool green avenues he grew up with in the south. He never would have imagined then that he would stay for any amount of time in a town like Four Corners, much less that he would have any desire to settle here. He had already stayed here longer than any other town he had visited as an adult, and he had begun saving his money, hoping to invest in the town's saloon, to buy it and run it as his own.
Hearing the door open, the gambler turned his head and watched JD come out of his office. "Mr. Dunne, I trust you are having a pleasant afternoon? Would you care to sit here with me, and perhaps converse?" He nodded toward the other chair beside him.
"Ezra! Yeah, that'd be good, I think." The younger man looked both eager and anxious. He glanced up and down the empty street. "Or maybe you'd come inside? There's something I want to talk to you about."
"I am at your service, sir." Ezra rose and followed JD into his office. He would have rather stayed outside, but the other man clearly wanted privacy to reveal whatever was on his mind. Besides, reflected the gambler, he was no more able to resist JD's requests than any other member of the seven. The combination of enthusiasm, innocence, puppy eyes was too much for even himself to withstand.
Once inside, Ezra watched as JD nervously prowled around the office, unable to sit or stand still for more than a few moments. The green-eyed man gave up on being asked to sit, and seated himself. Watching the sheriff pace around was exhausting to him. He waited several minutes more, then finally said, "Mr. Dunne, you indicated a desire to speak with me. Would you mind terribly enlightening me as to with what I may help you?"
JD jumped, startled. "It's kinda hard to say, Ezra. I need your help, but I'm a little scared to ask you for it. I don't want you to take it the wrong way, but you're the only one who can help me."
The gambler shook his head. If he didn't do something, JD would dance around the subject until they both lost patience, and he wanted to help if he was able. "Perhaps this will help, sir. I swear to you that I will not take offense at anything you say, and that anything said here, now, will remain strictly between the two of us."
"Really?" The sheriff looked at him gratefully.
"Truly. Just say it, sir. Get it out into the open, so that I may aid you."
The dark-haired man nodded, and took a deep breath. "I'm, I'm in love with someone, and I need your help. I know he loves me too, and I need you to help me to get him to admit it." He said it all in rush, words tumbling over each other so fast that he was barely understandable.
Ezra frowned. "Did you say 'he'?"
The other man blushed scarlet. "Yeah. Look, if you don't want to help, fine. Just remembered you promised not to tell anyone what I said."
"I will keep my promise, sir, I assure you of that. I merely wanted to be sure that understood what you said." Ezra took a deep breath. What was he to do now? Falling in love with another was never easy. The gambler had long acknowledged his own preferences for men, so he had some experience to draw upon. He didn't want the see the younger man hurt, and he very likely could be. Unless... "Who is it?"
"Huh? Are you going to help me?"
The green-eyed man nodded. "I will certainly do my best. Now, who is it?"
Of course. Who else? The gambler tilted his head back, staring at the ceiling as he considered the situation. He agreed that Buck likely returned JD's feelings; his protectiveness of the young man had crossed the line into possessiveness some time ago. That, taken into consideration with other observations, led him to conclude that Buck was indeed in love with JD. "I must confess, Mr. Dunne, I fail to see how I may be of service to you in this endeavor. I also believe Mr. Wilmington loves you. Why don't you just tell him how you feel, and let that be the end of it?"
"Because that would be the end of it. Damnit, Ezra, he sees me as a kid; half the time, I think he's forgotten my name, because all he ever does is call me 'kid'. If I tell him I love him, he'll just laugh me off, for my own good, to protect me." JD slouched and leaned back against the wall, dark hair falling in his eyes.
Ezra blinked, then nodded approvingly. It appeared that the other man had thought this through. He could well imagine Buck doing just that, pushing JD away in order to protect that innocence that was such an appealing part of his personality. "Then how exactly can I help you?"
"I thought you might have an idea for how I can approach him so he'll have to take me seriously." JD began to blush furiously once more. "Also, I thought, maybe, you could maybe tell me what it's like when, um, that is if we ever..." His voice trailed away, leaving him staring intently down at the ground.
The gambler was glad he was sitting down. JD wanted him to explain the mechanics of sex with a man to him? "Mr. Dunne, why is it that you believe I will be able to help you in this area?" How had JD known? He had thought that he had managed to hide his preferences - doing so was as much a part of him as dressing impeccably, or unfailing politeness. How had he slipped?
The other man refused to look at him. "Forget it. I shouldn't have asked."
"This is important, sir. Why do you think I can help you?" He kept his voice level, but it was an effort. If he had let this slip, what else might he have unwittingly revealed?
JD shrugged uncomfortably. "I don't think I would have noticed if I wasn't in the same spot as you. I...I watch you guys a lot, you ever notice? I figure I'll learn something from you if I do. When I watched you, I noticed something: you're just like me. No matter what I'm doing, I always find myself looking back at Buck. You're the same, only you're always looking at Chris. You're in love with him. And since you're older'n me, and you've traveled all over, I thought you probably know more'n me about it."
There it was. The one secret he had always hoped to keep safe, and solitary, discovered by the member of the seven he had always dismissed as the most naive. He could live with the others discovering his preference for men; hell, most of them probably had some experience in the area. But he couldn't face the idea that the rest of the seven knowing that he was in love with Chris. He knew what would follow, the jokes, the uneasy silences, and worst of all, the pity. Pity because he was mooning over a man he couldn't have. Chris was for someone else, probably Mary Travis, but not for him.
He had been attracted to Chris from the beginning; how could he not be? Those blue eyes, so striking, even in at their coldest and most calculating. The tall, lean figure always wrapped in enigmatic black. As he had come to know the other man better, that desire combined with admiration, respect, and friendship to become love. Chris's poorly hidden concern and worry for his friends and the people of Four Corners. The strict code of honor to which he held, and the idea of justice that he lived by, fought and killed for, and for which he was willing to die. His all-too-rare laughter, and his quiet, unexpected humor. Those were the traits that had proven to be the gambler's downfall, leading him to fall in love with the gunslinger, and to remain in love with him as the months slowly passed.
He fought his way through his blackening mood, and focused on JD, who was staring at him anxiously. He could try to deny it, but in doing so he would also be refusing to help the other man. And who was he, to stand in the way of love? JD had figured it out, and Ezra could face up to that like the gentleman he so easily pretended to be. He owed the boy that much.
Forcing a grin, he tipped his hat to the sheriff. "Congratulations, Mr. Dunne. I had no idea I was so very obvious."
"It's not like that, Ezra. Nobody else knows. The only reason I noticed was because I'm in the same boat."
The gambler chose to believe JD's words. No one else knew. His secret was safe. Savoring the feeling of relief that coursed through him, he asked, "Now, are there any specific questions you have, or would you prefer that I speak first, and then you can ask questions as the lesson progresses?" He kept his voice gentle. As amusing as the situation had the possibility of being, he had no intention of humiliating the young man for his own entertainment. He rather wished that he himself had had someone to talk to, someone from whom to seek guidance, when he first became aware of his own attraction toward men. Ezra believed that JD and Buck truly had a chance to be happy together, and he wasn't going to stand in the way of that for the sake of a few laughs.
Face still scarlet, JD said, "I think if you just start talking, I'll ask any questions that come to mind."
Ezra nodded agreeably. He spoke first of love, what it felt like, and warned that sometimes it doesn't last, all the time thinking that he wasn't the right person for this. He hardly knew what love was like himself, but he did his best, falling back most often on how he felt where Chris was concerned.
He then moved on to kissing, keeping the lecture moving at a snail's pace. He didn't want to rush past anything that could help JD. He noted that the sheriff was beginning to relax, actually moving to sit down behind the desk, leaning forward to catch every word.
The gambler then progressed to discussing sex. He did his best to be clear, but delicate. He seemed to be doing an adequate job: JD asked few questions, but his eyes kept getting larger and rounder as the conversation became more and more explicit. Ezra wrapped it up, than asked, "Any final questions?"
"Yeah, I think I got a few. The last thing you described, the one where, uh, the other guy is inside you," Ezra watched, fascinated, as the young man's face defied all probability and turned an even darker red, "um, you say it doesn't hurt?"
"If it is done correctly, then any pain will be minor, transitory, and completely worth it," the gambler assured him.
"Do you know because someone told you, or because you've, uh, done it?" JD was no longer looking at him; instead, he seemed to find his own hands intensely interesting.
Ezra licked his lips, and hesitated. That was quite a personal question, and his experience to him not to answer it; the information could be used against him later. Then he remember with whom he was speaking, and he nearly laughed. He couldn't imagine JD ever setting out to deliberately hurt another person.
He cleared his throat. "I will answer that, Mr. Dunne, with the understanding that this goes no further than the two of us." He waited for the younger man's nod, then continued. "Yes, I have, as you so succinctly put it 'done it', and I have done so both giving and receiving. Either way can be intensely pleasurable. So I can tell you that if shouldn't be so painful that the pleasure you feel doesn't completely overwhelm it, to the point that it no longer matters to you." He smiled. "Of course, there is no substitute for experience, as I hope you will find out."
JD nodded again. "Me, too." He looked at the gambler, head cocked to the side and those expressive eyes puzzled. "If you know about stuff like this, and you like it, then why are you so worried about Chris finding out that you love him? Don't you want to...don't you want him?"
Ezra closed his eyes. "Mr. Dunne, Let me preface my answer by saying that I hope you will not mention this again, not to me and definitely not to anyone else. I do not want Mr. Larabee to discover my emotions concerning him because he most definitely does not share in them. I would rather not be humiliated by his rejection, if I can at all avoid it. I would far rather remain a friend, than become an object of pity."
He saw JD's face fall, and hastened to explain, "My situation has no bearing whatsoever on your relationship with Mr. Wilmington. It is obvious to anyone who cares enough to look that the man loves you, sir. Don't allow my pessimistic views on my chances of successful love affect your hope for the future."
The younger man brightened up considerably. "Thanks, Ezra. I'm just so nervous. I keep trying to find ways to talk myself out of it, so I won't have to go through this." He sighed. "I don't even have a plan on how to get Buck to admit he loves me. That's the other reason I need your help."
Ezra laughed. "I never would have predicted that I would be drafted into a plot to seduce Mr. Wilmington. I will say this for you, sir, you never fail to continuously surprise me."
"Thanks. But this is serious. What am I going to do?"
The green-eyed man sighed and shook his head. "You're going to have to give me longer than a few paltry minutes to concoct a scheme. Allow me some time to ponder the problem, and I have no doubt that you and I will be able to formulate a strategy for snaring Mr. Wilmington."
The young sheriff smiled in relief. "Thanks, Ezra. I really appreciate it." He looked at the gambler seriously. "I think that you're selling yourself short. I don't think that the situation with Chris is as hopeless as you describe it." His voice was serious, and he leaned forward across the desk.
"Mr. Dunne, I thank you for your kind words. When it comes to Mr. Larabee, however, I will keep my own counsel." The gambler stood. "I think I should be going, sir. I will talk to you later this evening, and let you know if I have come up with any ideas." He shook his head when JD began to rise. "Don't get up. It is always a pleasure for me to be able to leave an office of the law under my own power, as a free man." He grinned, and tipped his hat.
"Ezra? I've got one more question."
The gambler turned, and walked back over to the younger man. He sat down on the desk, so that he was beside JD, and yet was facing him. "How may I help you, Mr. Dunne?"
"Is kissing a guy much different from kissing a girl? Not that I've kissed many girls, but I don't know if I should expect a big change or not."
"It's not very different at all. I think so long as you love, matters like that really have no meaning." He smiled slyly. "Would you like to practice before you try with Mr. Wilmington?"
JD swallowed, and his eyes widened, but he nodded. "I think that might be a good idea."
Ezra blinked. He hadn't really expected the other man to take him up on his teasing offer, but he wasn't going to back down. Leaning forward, he cupped JD's face with his hand, and bent down. He hovered for a moment over the other man for just a moment, before gently pressing his lips to JD's.
The kiss, that had begun so innocently, began to escalate. Ezra knew that he needed to pull away, to break it off, but he couldn't seem to find the will. JD's mouth was hot and sweet and eager, and it had been far too long since the gambler had been anywhere near as close to another person. He too began to press closer, and moved his other hand to JD's hair, even as he told himself to stop.
The decision to end the kiss was taken away from him as the door to the office opened. "What the hell is going on here?" demanded a very angry Buck Wilmington.
Ezra fell back as JD pushed him away. He barely caught himself from falling off the desk. He stood quickly, pulling his clothes back into place. He glanced at JD, then at Buck, and a plan formed, full-grown and ready to be put into action, in his mind. He didn't have any time to explain it to the younger man; he was just going to have to hope that JD caught on in time to follow along.
Raking Buck with his most disdainful stare, he drawled, "Mr. Wilmington, I do believe that the events taking place in this office are painfully obvious. Do you really need them explained to you?" He resettled his hat on his head. As he did so, he momentarily blocked his face from the taller man's view. He used the opportunity to wink at JD.
The sheriff's eyes widened for a moment, and he nodded minutely, which Ezra took to mean that JD would follow his lead, and trust him to put the situation to rights.
His hat back in place, the gambler then strolled so that he was standing beside JD, who was still seated in his chair. Buck hadn't replied to him, so he raised an eyebrow. "Mr. Wilmington?"
"I know what's going on, Ezra. I know what I saw. What I want to know is, what do you think you're doing with JD?" Buck's voice was low, and dangerous as he entered the office. He stopped a few feet away from the other two men, hands at his sides, clenching into fists and then relaxing, again and again.
Ezra sighed inwardly. This wasn't how he had wanted to do this, but it could still work, if he pushed Buck just right. The taller man was upset, but not upset enough for Ezra's plan to work. How could the gambler maneuver the other man into the precise position he wanted him in?
How indeed? He looked down at JD, whose attention was fixed on Buck. The younger man's hair was mussed, a result of the gambler's hand running through it. His face was flushed, and the lids of his eyes drooped seductively. Most strikingly, his lips were just the least bit swollen, redder than usual, and apparently more sensitive, as he several times reached up and brushed them gently with his own fingers.
If his heart was not already given, Ezra would have been tempted to try to sway JD away from his interest in Buck, and perhaps even win him for his own. The younger man presented such a tempting sight, the gambler couldn't believe that Buck hadn't yet shoved him away from the sheriff and taken up his place at the dark-haired man's side.
It was up to the green-eyed man to get Buck to take that step. If he could maneuver the other man into claiming his rightful role as JD's lover, than the sheriff wouldn't have to worry about being laughed off, or being treated as a child by the man he loved.
Looking at Buck, he didn't think the other man would be able to make that move peacefully. Oh well. He had agreed to help JD in his pursuit of Buck. Besides, was there any nobler cause for which to suffer a little than that of true love?
Smiling insolently, he replied, "Once again, Mr. Wilmington, I do believe the answer to your question is readily apparent." He dropped his hand to JD shoulder, and slid his hand around so that he cradled the boy's neck possessively with his hand. Staring mildly at Buck, he began to rub his index finger slowly up and down the side of JD's throat in an intimate caress.
Buck tore his gaze away from Ezra's, and met JD's eyes. "JD? What's going on?"
JD opened his mouth to answer, but the gambler didn't give him the chance to respond. He couldn't allow either of the other men to take control of the situation, or else he wouldn't be able to guarantee the outcome.
"JD," he did his best to coat the name with vocal honey, "was engaged in the same activity as myself, sir. It is one that requires two people if it is to performed correctly, and at all pleasurably." He cocked his head to one side. "Or perhaps you truly don't understand that, Mr. Wilmington. It certainly would explain why JD was available to act as the object of my affections."
"What are you trying to say?" Now the mustached man was beginning to shift where he stood, as if he could hardly hold himself in place.
"Have you always been this blind, sir?" He infused his words with as much mingled scorn and amusement as he could. "I find it difficult to believe that you could have survived so long being so handicapped, much less have any success at all in any endeavor of a romantic nature." He laughed mockingly.
Looking down at the youngest of the seven, he smiled, and again winked with the eye that wasn't visible to Buck. JD was looking at him anxiously, but relaxed a little after the wink.
Ezra continued to speak to Buck, even though he kept his eyes fixed on JD. "JD has been in love with you for quite some time, but you have been unmindful of his emotions." He continued to rub the sheriff's neck, trying to communicate comfort and confidence through the light touch. "He held his heart out to you, made it yours for the asking, but you never noticed. You just expounded upon your 'animal magnetism' and pursued any woman who crossed your path, ignoring what was so willingly offered to you."
He looked back up, and smirked a little at the other man. "I have grown tired of watching you remain oblivious of the treasure laid out before you. If you are unable to appreciate the remarkable charms of JD, than I am more than willing to step in. In fact, that is what I was doing when you so rudely barged into the room."
He watched, appraisal hidden behind his projected amusement, as Buck began to breathe heavily, and a flush crept out from beneath his color and spread up his neck. The tall man was almost to the point where Ezra wanted him to be, before he could give him the final push that was necessary.
"Now, if you would excuse us, Mr. Wilmington, I would like to return to what we were doing. If I am ever to get JD to abandon his childish fancy for you, I need to begin to work at it now. Please leave, and grant us some privacy." His tone was as dismissive as his words.
Turning his back on Buck, he bent down to once again press his lips to JD's. At least, that had been his intention. Before his lips could again brush those of the sheriff, he was grabbed from behind and flung violently away.
Unable to control himself, he fell heavily against the wall. Ignoring the pain in his shoulder, he shoved himself to his feet and turned to face Buck. The tall man was standing in front of JD, who had risen from his chair.
Buck stepped forward aggressively. "Stay away from JD," he said warningly.
"Now, why would I ever want to do that, Mr. Wilmington? He is quite a remarkable young man, and you have made it clear you have no interest in him." Shaking his head as if exasperated, he moved as though to return to JD's side.
Buck stopped him, placing his hand against the gambler's chest to hold him at a distance. "You think you're so smart, huh, Ezra? You think you know how I feel about JD? You don't. You don't know anything about it."
His voice as condescending as he could make it, the green-eyed man replied, "What is there to know? You have rejected him. That makes him available to other offers, and I most certainly intend to pursue my chances with him." He pushed the other man's arm aside, and continued to move toward JD.
This time Buck shoved him backwards. Ezra staggered back, and barely suppressed a groan as his shoulder again made contact with the wall. It hadn't become dislocated again, for which he was thankful, but he didn't want to push his luck with it much further.
"I told you, you don't know anything about it," Buck said, stepping forward. "I haven't rejected JD."
"You haven't? Then why have I been able to pursue him?" Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Face it, sir, you have missed your chance with him. Be a gentleman, and stand aside so that someone else may enjoy JD's charms, and all that he has to offer." He once more attempted to approach the young man.
He was pleased when Buck again moved to block him from reaching JD. The mustached man wasn't backing down. The gambler thought that the man was almost ready to take the final step, and fulfill Ezra's plan.
"Stay where you are, Ezra."
"Again, Mr. Wilmington, I fail to see how this is any of your concern."
"Damnit, it's my concern because I love JD. I don't want you anywhere near him. If anyone is gonna be kissing him, it's gonna be me!"
Ezra watched as JD's face lit up in absolute, complete joy as he heard Buck's words. That was what the gambler had been pushing for: the declaration of love, and possession. Buck had always been free and easy with his affection, but now he was committing himself, and staking a claim.
Now the green-eyed man just had to be sure that Buck would back his declaration up. He didn't want to leave the other man with any way to back out of what he had committed himself to; he wanted to guarantee JD's happiness, and ultimately Buck's, as much as was possible.
He laughed once more. "You say that now, sir. But you will lose interest in JD in a few weeks, and you'll leave him, breaking his heart. Go find a girl to chase, Mr. Wilmington, and leave JD to me." He dismissed Buck with a wave of his hand and approached JD for the last time.
He saw Buck draw his arm back, and decided to just accept the blow. How would JD and Buck be able to come together if he inadvertently injured the taller man?
Buck's fist slammed solidly into his solar plexus, driving all the breath out of his lungs, leaving Ezra gasping, trying desperately to draw in air. The second blow slammed into his chest, spinning him around before he fell to the ground.
Fortunately, Buck had begun shouting at the same time he first swung at Ezra, which drew the attention of Josiah and Nathan. The two men rushed into the office, and after a moment of shock moved to restrain Buck. After a few minutes, the mustached man had calmed down to the point where he could be released.
While the other men were concentrating on Buck, Ezra caught JD's gaze, and winked at him one last time. He also threw the younger man a careful grin, determined not to let him know that he had been hurt. He didn't want the sheriff to get upset and ruin the events he had just orchestrated.
Ezra pushed himself to his feet, and laboriously began to straighten his clothing once more, putting his appearance back in order. He cleared his throat. Buck's head swung around, and he found himself pinned by a deep blue stare.
"Mr. Wilmington, I think that you have made your position clear. As a gentleman, I have no choice but to accede to your wishes, so long as they coincide with JD's." He tipped his hat toward the taller man. He glanced over at JD. "JD, Mr. Dunne, I will always be here if you need me." He knew JD would understand his true meaning, just as he knew that Buck would misconstrue them as a delayed invitation.
"Why you-" Buck lunged toward the gambler again, but Josiah and Nathan managed to hold him back.
Tipping his hat toward the other men, Ezra made a quick exit. He wanted to get back to his room, and nurse his wounds.
Damn JD's puppy eyes, anyway. He couldn't build up any real feeling for the thought. He grinned to himself, even as he winced after drawing too deep a breath. The last glimpse he had caught of the men in the sheriff's office made it impossible for him to be truly upset at the events that had taken place.
He had seen JD hesitantly approach Buck, and Buck just as tentatively raise his hand to cup JD's cheek. Then all uncertainty had vanished, and the two men were in each other's arms, Buck leaning down to capture the other man's lips with his own.
Ezra overpaid the bartender for the bottle of whiskey he had bought, and told the man to keep the change. He grinned all the way up to his room. It had worked.
Too bad he couldn't come up with a brilliant plan to maneuver Chris into a similar position.
Chris squinted in the sunlight, and smiled as he made out the image of Four Corners on the horizon. He and Vin had been out settling a dispute that had erupted between two neighboring ranch families, smoothing things over so to prevent a full-fledged feud from developing. The arbitration had taken several days, keeping both men out of town for just over a week.
A soft noise off to his right caused him to turn in the saddle, and glare suspiciously at the tracker riding beside him. Had that been quiet laughter? "Something funny?" he asked.
Vin shook his head. "Not really."
"Then what are you laughing at?"
Chris shook his head. As much as he enjoyed the bounty hunter's company, sometimes he wished for a more talkative companion. A usually silent man himself, conversations could be difficult to keep going when he was with an equally laconic person. For a long ride, he would rather be with someone who could more than hold up his end of the conversation, who could compensate for his own quiet tendencies.
Of course, this person couldn't just prattle on, babbling about any thought that entered his head. Chris preferred intelligent conversation, discussions with well-reasoned opinions and thought-provoking questions. That didn't mean he wanted the other man to be boring. A sense of humor was important, almost vital, on long rides. But not one that was too broad. He found that he preferred a more subtle sense of humor instead.
His thoughts were interrupted by more suspicious noises coming from Vin. He glared at the other man once more.
"You're thinking about him again," said the bounty hunter, smiling at him sidelong.
Chris blinked. He didn't have to ask who Vin was talking about. The main topic of their conversations, besides how to stop the bickering between the two families from degenerating into violence, had been the gunslinger's feelings for another member of the seven: Ezra Standish.
The man in black wasn't sure when he had fallen in love with the green-eyed man. He figured that there probably wasn't one specific moment; it was more likely that it was a combination of things, that grew over time and culminated in the desire and passion he now felt for the other man.
When he first realized what was happening, he tried to ignore the emotions, to deny that they even existed. That failed to work, so he then attempted to distance himself from Ezra, hoping that by avoiding the other man, the feelings that he aroused would fade. That also proved to be useless; all it did was make him miserable, because he couldn't engage in one of his favorite pursuits: Ezra watching.
After he gave into temptation, and returned to watching the gambler as surreptitiously as possible, Chris had noticed something: Ezra seemed to spend an inordinate time watching him. This fact fanned the flames of hope that had barely been burning in his heart. He watched Ezra because he was in love with him. Could Ezra's motive be the same?
The gunslinger had just about convinced himself that it was the only explanation, but he couldn't trust his own judgment, not when he wanted it so badly to be true. For this reason, he had turned to Vin, asking for his thoughts and advice. The tracker had been surprised, and then amused, but he had also been helpful. Vin confirmed his hopes, agreeing that Ezra definitely seemed more than casually interested in Chris.
That settled, all Chris needed to do was decide how to approach Ezra. He wanted more than a few nights of passion and lust together. He wanted a lifetime of them, and of days spent in the other man's company as well. He had debated various plans with Vin, agonized over the words to use to convince the gambler of his sincerity, his love and his desire.
With Vin's help, he thought he had come up with a plan that would work. First, he would spend more time with Ezra over the coming days, and work his way up to a declaration. If everything went as he hoped, then the gambler would admit that he loved Chris in return. They might not live happily ever after, but the gunslinger was sure he'd rather live with the other man than without him.
Mind returning to what Vin had just said, he realized that he had been describing the gambler in his thoughts of an ideal riding companion. He grinned. "Fine, I was thinking about him. You want to make something of it?"
"Hell, no. But do you mind if I laugh a little?"
"Go right ahead. It could be worse, I suppose."
Vin followed his train of thought effortlessly, as he so often did. "Yeah. I could be Buck."
Chris barked laughter. "Who would promptly be off shaving love poems into Chaucer's coat, from me to Ezra, or some other damn fool thing." Buck might be his best friend, but he had no illusions about the other man's sometimes coarse sense of humor.
"I bet the first place you go is the saloon," Vin commented, referring to their imminent return to Four Corners.
Chris just shook his head. Of course it would be. It had been over a week since he had last seen the gambler smile, or watched his green eyes light up with mischief and deviltry. Where else could he go, but to the saloon?
The two men were back in Four Corners within an hour, riding down the street to the livery stable in the last of the afternoon sun. The town was quiet; it seemed that nothing had happened while they were gone.
True to Vin's prediction, the first place Chris headed to was the saloon. He walked quickly, eager to see Ezra once more. He pushed open the swinging doors, a smile already forming as he pictured what he would see: the rest of the seven scattered around the room, and Ezra already at the card table with a few of them, laughingly relieving them of their money.
The smiled faded as he walked in, and found a very different scene awaiting him. The five men were in the saloon, but that was the only similarity between his expectations and reality. Ezra was at the card table, playing with a few men of the town. He was smiling, but not laughing, and was lacking the usual sparkle and flair that Chris always associated with him.
The other four men were gathered together at a table across the room, obviously holding themselves apart from the gambler, shunning his company. Buck and Nathan occasionally cast baleful looks at the green-eyed man, which he did not seem to notice. Nor did Ezra react to the anxious glances of JD, or the concerned, confused ones from Josiah.
After a moment of hesitation, Chris walked over to the table where the other men sat. Something had obviously happened while he and Vin were gone, and he needed to find out what it was, and how it might affect his chances with Ezra.
The others noticed his approach, and all of them broke out in welcoming smiles, which were tinged slightly with relief. "Chris!" exclaimed Buck. "How did it go? Did you and Vin smooth everything over."
"I think so," Chris responded. He noticed how close Buck and JD were sitting to each other, the way all personal space seemed to have disappeared between them. He raised an eyebrow, and glanced significantly at his friend. "How've things been here in town? Anything happen that I should know about?"
He watched as JD blushed, but smiled a little smugly, and Buck did the same. Vin walked up to stand beside him, and he exchanged an amused glance with the bounty hunter. Both of them could well guess what had happened between the two of them; they had discussed whether or not it ever would during the few times Chris wasn't going on about Ezra.
He looked past the rest of the seven, and over to where Ezra sat, dealing out cards for a fresh hand of poker to the men he was playing with. "Any particular reason all of you are over here, and Ezra's over there?"
Buck clenched his jaw. "Oh, there's a reason all right." JD tried to interrupt, but the taller man gave him no chance. "Six days ago that two-bit con man tried to talk his way between JD and me, and wouldn't back off until I ran him off. With my fists."
Seeing Chris' unbelieving stare, Nathan spoke. "Buck's telling it like it happened. Josiah and I walked in on it. Ezra kept going after JD, even after Buck told him to stop, that he was in love with him. I wasn't sure he was going to stop, even after we pulled Buck off of him."
Josiah nodded, his eyes troubled. "It was very unexpected, but that's how it was."
The gunslinger shook his head, barely able to believe what he was hearing. They all knew that JD and Buck loved each other; it was the most open unspoken truth among them: the secret that wasn't. And Ezra had pursued JD, to the point where Buck stepped in with violence? How could that be, when Ezra loved him?
Conflicting emotions rushed through him. He was furious with Buck for fighting with Ezra, even though the gambler didn't appear to be hurt, and Buck's knuckles showed no bruising. The altercation couldn't have been too serious, but the fact that someone had tried to hurt the green-eyed man filled him with anger, and the need for revenge, which he fought down.
He also found that he was incredibly jealous of JD. Ezra had pursued him; judging by the younger man's blush and Buck's anger, more than words had been involved. How dare JD be touched by Ezra, when Chris was the one who spent sleepless nights fantasizing about the gambler's hands alone, their strong, slender fingers and skilled grace? What made JD so special, when he obviously didn't appreciate how lucky he was?
Most of all, he found that his rage was directed toward Ezra himself. Damnit, Chris loved him, and he thought those feelings were returned. Sure, they had never spoken or acted on them, but the gunslinger was sure he was right. So how could the gambler throw all that away, disregard it completely and instead chase after a man who was clearly in love with someone else?
After a few moments, he regained control over himself. He forced a smile at Buck and JD. "I suppose I owe you boys congratulations," he said, somehow managing to sound cheerful. Vin echoed his sentiments.
Chris talked with the other men for a few minutes longer, then left, pleading weariness from the ride back into town. In reality, he just couldn't stand to be in the same room as the other men, watching them ignore Ezra, even as the gambler also pretended that they didn't exist. He hadn't gone far before he heard footsteps behind him.
"Damnit Chris, wait up," said Vin irritably.
The gunslinger stopped reluctantly. "What do you want? I'm looking to turn in. I'm tired."
"You're not tired. You're running from what just happened. What about the plan and everything else we talked about?"
"What's the point, the use of it?" Chris demanded. "You heard what they said. Ezra wants JD, and he was willing to fight Buck for him, up to a point. I must have been wrong. If he wanted me, he would have done something to let me know, just like he did with JD. He hasn't, so I guess I was just seeing what I wanted to see, and not what was really there."
"You don't know that," Vin tried to argue.
"Don't I? Even Josiah agrees, and you know the preacher doesn't rush to judge unless he knows what he's talking about. Ezra wants JD, not me. I was wrong. End of story. I'm just glad I found out before I did anything to make myself a bigger idiot than I already feel like." Even as he spoke, Chris could hardly believe that he was wrong. The way Ezra's voice deepened whenever they spoke, the green eyes that subtly followed his every move: he must have imagined it all, projecting his own emotions onto the other man, willing himself to see what wasn't really there.
He met Vin's gaze steadily. "I just want to forget it, and try to get some sleep. It was a long ride."
The bounty hunter nodded. "You do what you need to. Are you sure-"
"Yeah, I'm sure. I'll see you tomorrow." Chris walked off abruptly, not able to handle any more sympathy.
He had made a fool of himself. At least he had done it in front of Vin, who he could trust to keep the secret, and not tease him about it. It could be worse, much worse. He could have told Ezra how he felt before leaving with Vin, only to have the gambler reject him in favor of the sheriff. That would have been far more painful, to have been truly rejected and humiliated by the man he was in love with.
He shook his head. He didn't want to think about it anymore. He just wanted to sleep, and pretend that the last half hour of the night never happened. He wasn't sure what he was going to do tomorrow. All his plans had to be discarded, forgotten never to be used. There was no point to them now that he knew Ezra's true heart.
With a silent curse, he wished that his love could be so easily cast away. It was just his luck: to have to sit and watch while the man he loved pined after another man, who love someone else. A perfectly horrible situation.
Squaring his shoulders, he resolutely pushed all such thoughts away. Ezra didn't want him. Fine. Then he would just have to move on, and get over the gambler, and he could start to do that by stopping his mooning over him. Things would get easier if he just began to avoid the other man again, and made himself stop thinking about him.
That decided, he continued walking down the street. He could do this. He had to. What other choice was there?
Ezra finished adjusting his coat, and looked at himself in the mirror. The man looking back at him looked tired. Tired, and sad, and defeated. That wouldn't do at all. Ezra Standish? Defeated? Never. At least not where other people could see him. He had learned that much from his mother. Never let anyone see you sweat, see you hurt, see you cry.
He shook his head, as did his reflection. He could understand why he looked so awful. The past two weeks were beginning to wear on him, and he was having difficulty concealing the strain. At first he had believed that the bruises he had sustained at Buck's hands would be the worst, and the longest lasting, consequences of his actions.
He hadn't thought that Buck would hold a grudge for so long, or that the rest of the seven would join him in it. He could understand Buck's feelings. He felt the same way every time Mary Travis approached Chris about a problem, or each time the gunslinger went off on patrol with Vin. He knew the hurt involved when the person you loved preferred the company of others to yours.
While he could understand, he also wished the other man would learn to forgive. If the gambler could be cordial to those Chris preferred, why couldn't Buck do the same? It wasn't as though Ezra had tried to continue to pursue JD. Hell, he hadn't even been able to talk to the younger man since that day back in his office. Buck hardly left his side, and when he did, one of the other seven was always there, so they had no privacy.
JD seemed to be thrilled by Buck's closeness. As far as Ezra could tell, the only thing clouding the young man's happiness was the rift that had opened between himself and the other six men. Whenever he was in the same room as the sheriff, those puppy eyes fixed on him, pleading with him to fix the situation, to come up with a new plan and make everything all right again.
The green-eyed man sighed. He wasn't sure he could do anything. He had a feeling that JD would have liked to just tell Buck what had really happened in the office, and clear the air once and for all. Ezra wasn't sure that was a good idea. Buck's vengefulness had surprised him, and he worried that if the other man found out he had been manipulated, no matter how good the intentions, no matter how wonderful the results, he would turn on JD, condemn him as he had condemned Ezra. The gambler didn't want to see JD hurt like that, and he knew that it would tear Buck apart as well.
He had been signaling JD to stay quiet, to continue to trust him, and so far the sheriff had. He just hoped that he continued to do so. Ezra didn't think he'd be able to come up with way to fix what he had done.
Things were getting worse, instead of better as he had hoped. The gambler knew that he could handle it, even if he wouldn't be very happy. He had been hated before in his life more times than he cared to remember. He had survived it before, and he would survive it again.
Of course, it had never hurt as much, before. In the past, he had never had any sort of emotional commitment to any of the people who disliked him. These men who disliked him now were the closest things he had ever had to friends. Oh, he had never been close to them, not as close as they were together, but he missed being included in their general camaraderie, no matter how marginally.
Now, conversations ended as he approached, if the other men didn't get up and leave altogether when they saw him coming. He hadn't been asked, or even ordered, to help with any problems, even if the others clearly could have used another person's aid.
He hated seeing the guilt in JD's eyes, and the only way he could assuage it, without letting the young man tell everyone the truth, was to act as though what was happening didn't bother him at all. It was something he was good at, something he had perfected through practice.
So he took a little more care in his dress, smiled more often, told more jokes, gambled more ruthlessly, and drank more. It was an act he didn't really enjoy maintaining, but he didn't see that he had much choice, as it seemed to reassure JD, which was one of his main goals.
He could see that it upset Josiah, however, and he regretted that. The preacher was a good man, and Ezra didn't enjoy having his confused, somewhat hurt gaze linger upon him whenever they met. Josiah had so far let him be, no matter how much he wanted to help and understand.
Ezra stared hard into the mirror. His reflection was still not looking up to his exacting standards. There was still too much hurt showing in his eyes. And he knew why.
Chris. It always came back to the man in black, didn't it? Of all the events of the past two weeks that were weighing him down, the gunslinger's reaction was the heaviest. He and Chris had never been close, but at least before the other man had tolerated his presence, and had even seemed to feel a certain reluctant amusement when the gambler was around. Now, it appeared that the gunslinger could hardly bear to be in the same room with him. They hadn't even spoken since Chris and Vin had returned from settling that dispute out of town. Every time Ezra approached him, the man in black turned his back on him, coldly made his disinclination to talk clear.
The gambler shook his head, trying to force the thoughts out of his head. He locked eyes with his reflection, and smiled in satisfaction as the man in the mirror's gaze slowly cooled, until it was as blank and cold as he wished. He leaned back, then smiled genially at his twin. "If you are the only one I have left to talk to, then I am glad you are such an intelligent, handsome devil." With a tip of hat, he was gone, leaving his room to head to the saloon.
Downstairs, he found the saloon empty, mildly surprising, even though it was only late afternoon. He didn't want to sit and brood alone; he had had enough of that in his room. He walked over to the door, and looked out at the street. Empty.
Perfect. He didn't really want to talk to anyone anyway. A short walk to the livery stable, and perhaps some time spent with Chaucer would help to relieve the loneliness that was beginning to overwhelm him.
As he neared the stable, he heard someone call his name. He turned, and saw Mary approaching him, an envelope extended toward him in one of her hands.
"Mr. Standish, this came for you on the stage. I hope you don't mind, but I told the driver he could give it to me, when he wasn't able to find you." She smiled a little hesitantly.
"Mrs. Travis, I consider it an honor to have a lady so lovely as yourself take an interest in so paltry a matter as my correspondences. I must thank you for your kindness." He bowed as he took the letter from her. He exchanged pleasantries with her for a few minutes, then she made her good-byes and left.
He took the letter with him to the livery stable, reading the envelope as he walked. It was addressed to him in Four Corners, but there was no clue as to who had sent it. He frowned; as far as he knew, no one knew where he was. Besides, who would write him a letter?
He decided to indulge his curiosity, so he sat down in a chair outside of the stable, and opened the letter. He recognized the handwriting immediately. Maude. What on earth could she want?
My dearest son,
I am sorry to be writing you under these circumstances, but you are a good boy, the best son a mother could ask for, and I know you will understand.
I have had a most profitable time since I visited you. One of my latest conquests has gone so successfully that I have married the mark; it made good business sense, and he is a handsome man.
So, Ezra, your mother is now Mrs. Richard Allenton. Yes, of the Savannah Allentons. I am now a member of one of the South's most prominent and wealthy families. I don't know that I've ever been so happy in my entire life.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to end. I always taught you this, and it is true. There is no easy way to tell you this, and you and I have always been frank with each other, so I will just come out and tell you.
I'm dying, son. I've got some sort of dreadful consumptive disease, and the doctors tell me that I'm not going to live for much longer. I didn't believe them at first - you know me, I thought I would be able to beat it. As the months have passed, however, I've gotten worse, not better. I've decided to face facts. I'm dying, and probably very soon.
I know this is a shock to you Ezra, but you need to know.
Now comes the hard part of this letter. Because my relationship with Richard began as a part of a con, I was not altogether forthcoming about myself, or my past. One of the things that I neglected to mention was that I had a son. I still haven't told him, nor do I intend to.
As Mrs. Richard Allenton, I am a major figure in Savannah society, and when I die I will be buried in the most historic cemetery in the city. If Richard finds out that I have lied to him, he won't have time to divorce me, but he may decided that I don't deserve to be buried in the family plot.
Ezra, you know that I have always dreamed of being laid to rest in Savannah, and I will have my chance. I know that you will understand why you can't come back for my funeral. It would just be too awkward, too embarrassing, even though I won't really be there. Besides, why you would want to come to such a dreary, depressing ceremony anyway is beyond me.
I'm sorry to be telling you all this in a letter, Ezra. I am having a box of some mementos I think you might like to have sent out to you soon. You should receive the package not long after this.
Don't try to rush back here to see me. I probably won't be here to greet you, and if I was, I wouldn't want you to put me in such a position of trying to explain your presence to Richard.
I will miss you, son. I love you.
your loving mother,
The letter fell from Ezra's nerveless fingers, landing in the dust of the street. He didn't notice the loss. All his attention was focused inward.
His mother was dying. And she didn't want to see him.
It was too much. The strain he had been under for the past two weeks had been almost unbearable, and this was the final straw. He could feel himself beginning to break down, to loose control. His eyes were burning, and his throat ached with the sudden threat of tears.
The sound of footsteps warned him that someone was coming. He forced the tears down, determined not to provide some sort of free show for whoever was coming. He saw the letter before him on the ground, and quickly caught it up and placed it in an inner pocket of his jacket, before standing and straightening up.
He looked up, and saw Buck, JD, and Josiah walking toward him. He automatically tipped his hat to them, and pasted a merry, false smile on his face. No doubt this conversation would proceed as so many others had the past two weeks: his overtures would be ignored, or thrown back into his face. He really wasn't in the mood for it, so the sooner he began it, the sooner it would be over, and he could be alone.
JD surprised him, pleasantly, by immediately frowning and asking, "Are you all right, Ezra? You look upset."
Ezra was about to respond, to give the other man a glib answer that would set him at ease and allow the gambler to make a clean escape, but he never got the chance.
"Ol' Ezra upset?" Buck asked, incredulously. "Oh, I doubt it. You got to have a heart, to feel emotions like a regular person for you to get upset. Since Ezra isn't like other people, you don't have to worry about him, JD. He's just fine."
Ezra held himself steady, and only allowed himself a cold smile as reaction. "What a very astute assessment, Mr. Wilmington. I am most pleasantly surprised that you managed to come up with it on your own." He tipped his hat, and smiled reassuringly at JD. He was ready to leave, when he heard Buck's voice again behind him.
"See, he's fine. Nothing phases Ezra. He doesn't love anyone, and no one loves him. He's untouchable."
The other man's words slammed into the gambler with a force that was almost physical. He flinched, and turned to face the taller man. "Do you have something to say to me, sir?" His voice was frigid, his words dropping from his lips like ice. They were as chill as he felt, as frozen as the cold fury that was building inside of him.
"Naw, I was just talking to JD here." Buck's tone was taunting, his smile lacking any warmth or humor. At his side, JD stared at the gambler with open worry, for his friend and for his lover both. Josiah was also looking back and forth between the two men, his entire face drawn in a mask of worry.
The mustached man wasn't finished. "Say, JD, do you remember when Ezra's mother was in town?" Although he spoke to the sheriff, his eyes were firmly fixed on the gambler.
After JD's reluctant nod, he continued. "I remember it. She's a beautiful lady, full of life and warmth. Hard to believe she produced a cold bastard like Ezra, isn't it? She knew what he was, though. I remember that she barely gave him the time of day. His own mother. What could he ever know about love, about feelings, if his mother doesn't really care too much about him?"
Buck's words broke the tenuous strand by which Ezra had any control over himself. Before he was really aware of what he was doing, he had already struck out, all the built up fury and frustration he felt in the blow. He was nearly surprised as everyone else as he watched Buck fly back and fall heavily to the ground.
Chris paused in the doorway of the general store, waiting for Vin to finish paying for his purchases. He glanced down the street, and saw a confrontation between Buck and Ezra beginning to shape up. As much as he wanted to avoid being anywhere near the gambler, he couldn't allow a fight in the middle of the street. The people of Four Corners would lose any confidence in them if they saw the seven fighting amongst themselves.
"Vin, we got trouble," he said, then headed out the door, knowing that the other man would be right behind him. Before he had gone more than a few steps, however, it was too late: Ezra pulled back his fist and sent Buck down into the dust.
Even as he hurried over, Josiah moved to hold Ezra away from the fallen man, and JD dropped to his knees beside Buck. The tall man stretched out in the dust seemed to be dazed, but otherwise uninjured, although his jaw was likely going to hurt like hell until the bruise faded.
Josiah's move to restrain Ezra was unnecessary; the gambler made no attempt to continue his assault on the fallen man. After a few breaths so deep Chris could see his chest heave, the gambler straightened, and jerked his clothing back into its usual perfect lines. He turned away from the other men and walked back toward the saloon, paying no attention to Josiah calling his name.
Ezra stared straight ahead, not even glancing toward Chris and Vin. The gunslinger frowned; Ezra always looked toward him, whenever they were anywhere near each other. It was just a fact of life that he accepted. The gambler's glances were as inevitable as the sunrise. That was one of the things that had given him hope when he was going to tell the other man how he felt.
"Ezra!" he called. The other man gave no sign that he had heard. "Damn it, Ezra, I'm talking to you." Still no reaction. The gambler just walked past, moving stiffly, until he disappeared into the saloon.
Chris exchanged a puzzled glance with Vin. A second constant in his life shoot to hell. Ezra always answered him when he called. Always, no matter how little he wanted to, no matter the circumstances. He started to follow the gambler, then changed his mind. Ezra's behavior unnerved him. He'd check on Buck first.
By the time he reached his friend's side, the other man was almost fully aware of his surroundings again. JD had his head in his lap, but the sheriff looked more angry than worried.
"What happened?" asked Chris, glancing back and forth between JD and Josiah.
"Buck pushed too hard, that's what happened," JD said. "He pushed Ezra too far, and he pushed back. Now maybe he'll learn to let him alone." He looked up at the gunslinger. "This...this thing between them has gone on too long, and it's partly my fault. When Ezra told me to keep my mouth shut, I did, but not any more. Not if he's upset enough to start throwing punches."
Chris shook his head in confusion. He didn't understand what JD was going on about, but he shared his concern. If Ezra was upset to the point where he was resorting to violence, then something was very wrong.
Josiah seemed to be less lost, as if JD's words had helped explain something. "What Buck saw in your office..."
"Wasn't real. Well, it was, but it didn't mean anything. Ezra did everything, said everything, to make Buck admit he was in love with me. I didn't know what he was going do, but he had promised to help me, so I went along with it."
The man in black stood. "Ezra's not in love with you?" He was torn between relief and horror. He wanted it to be true, but if it was...he had wasted another week, not letting Ezra know how he felt. What was more, he had spent that week pointedly ignoring the gambler, joining in the general shunning of the man, and all over a mistake. All for no reason!
"No. Ezra's a friend, a better friend than I deserve, but nothing more." JD looked down at Buck, who seemed to finally be fully recovered. "Buck, you and I need to talk. Now." He dragged the other man to his feet, his face set in lines of determination. "You're not going to like what I say, and I don't really want to tell you, but it has to be done." JD pulled his lover down the street and toward his office, with the look of a man set on doing his duty, no matter the cost to himself.
Josiah sighed. "I think I'm finally beginning to understand what is going on."
"Would you mind sharing with the rest of us?" Vin asked.
Chris could do no more than nod, inwardly reeling. Ezra never loved JD? It was all an act? Then he had wasted the past week. Beyond that, he had used it to try to destroy any chance he had with the gambler, by hurting the other man. What had he done?
"Let's go check on Ezra, first. That man is hurting, hurting bad." The preacher led the way to the saloon, with Chris and Vin trailing after him.
The saloon was empty, save for the bartender, who looked a little shaken. He stared as they came in. "Stop," he said. "Don't come in."
"Why not?" asked Chris, looking around, trying to find whatever was frightening the man.
"You're here because of Mr. Standish, right? He said he doesn't want any visitors, no matter who, no matter why they want to see him." He swallowed. "He was very clear about wanting to be left alone."
Chris stared at him for a moment, then continued to walk toward the stairs. He was stopped by strong hands on his shoulders. He turned, and found Josiah looking down at him, shaking his head.
"Come with us, Chris. Let him be. If he is upset enough to throw a scare into the barman, then he really doesn't want to see anyone. After running roughshod over him for the past two weeks, I think we can respect his wishes now, don't you?"
The man in black didn't want to listen to him. He wanted to go upstairs. And then what? Yell at Ezra for misleading him, for allowing the farce to play out so long and with such awful consequences to himself? Explain his own actions, confess his love, then take the gambler in his arms and try to soothe some of the pain away? Beg forgiveness? Try to finally shake some common sense into the other man?
He met Josiah's eyes, and nodded. He had no idea what to do next. He needed some time to think, to get his own thoughts in order, before approaching the other man.
The three men walked to the church. "For once, I'm glad this place is empty," Josiah commented.
"Yeah. You said you understood what was going on." Chris sat down gingerly, never quite comfortable in a church.
"I think I'm beginning to. This all started when we found out that Ezra was trying to seduce JD, and ignoring the fact that we all know that Buck and JD love each other. Hell, anyone can see they belong together. So when we heard that Ezra was trying to come between them, we were upset. I know I didn't think much of him, for being so selfish, so uncaring."
Chris nodded along with Vin, but admitted to himself that most of his anger came from jealousy, and hurt that Ezra didn't want him, but someone else instead. Truthfully, the thought of Buck and JD being separated really didn't even make an impression on him, caught up as he was in his own pain.
The preacher continued. "But you heard what JD said. Ezra wasn't after him at all. It was all some sort of ploy, a con Ezra was running in order to get the two men together. Only he ran it too well, and everyone believed it too much, and he ended up getting hurt."
"Damn it, why didn't he say something?" Chris shifted irritably in his seat, angry at Ezra, and himself.
"Did you see JD's face when he took Buck to his office?" Vin piped up. "He didn't want to tell Buck the truth. I know Buck loves him, but I don't know how well he's going to react to the news."
"Great. Another problem." Chris wasn't too worried. He knew his friend fairly well, and while the tall man might be upset for a while, he loved JD too much to do anything too drastic. He hoped.
The gunslinger looked at Josiah. "So you think the strain of the past few weeks, of living the lie, has been too much for him?"
"Yes. Buck said some things today that might well have been the final straw. Ezra's always been a might touchy about his mother, and when Buck brought her up, I can see that being all he could take."
"So now what do we do? Besides letting Nathan know, that is."
Josiah stood. "I think that you're the one who needs to handle this, Chris. Something tells me that if anyone can reach Ezra, and fix what has been done, it's you." He smiled, knowingly, gently. "I'll go let Nathan know what's happened."
Chris stared after him, and caught Vin smiling and shaking his head. "What?"
"I beginning to wonder if Ezra's the only one who hasn't realized how you feel about him," the tracker answered softly.
"He probably is. After the way I've treated him, I'm not surprised." He sighed. "This is a hell of a mess."
"You've faced worse odds before."
"Yeah, but never stakes that meant so much." Chris stood. "Whatever I do, it will have to wait until Ezra comes out of his room."
Two days later, Chris was ready to storm the saloon and drag Ezra out of his room. Repeated inquiries to the bartender revealed that the gambler hadn't left his room at all. At the point when the gunslinger wasn't sure he could stand to wait any longer, the green-eyed man reappeared, coming down the stairs the evening of the second day after his altercation with Buck and taking his usual place at his usual table.
His clothing and hair were as immaculate as ever, and judging by the money piling up at his elbow as he played, his poker skills were just as sharp. But Ezra had changed. As far as Chris could tell, there was no life in the other man, for all that he continued to move and breath. That spark, the light that usually glowed in his green eyes, making them so remarkable, so irresistible, was gone. In its place was a freezing emptiness, a wasteland in which no emotions, no life at all could be seen.
Chris found himself completely intimidated by the cold stranger who looked out of Ezra's eyes, so much so that he was unable to approach him. He knew that the rest of the seven were hanging back, counting on him to make things right with the gambler, but he didn't want to talk to the man who had appeared in Ezra's place. He wanted Ezra.
At least he didn't have to worry about JD and Buck. His friend had been upset when JD told him the truth, but Ezra's punch seemed to have knocked some sense into him. He got over his indignation, and accepted that what JD had done, he had done out of love.
Buck had tried to talk to Ezra, to apologize for putting him through two weeks of hell, but to no avail. It was as if the gambler had become deaf and blind where anything except poker was concerned. He had walked past Buck as if the other man didn't exist.
Knowing that any overture he made would be rejected, Chris decided to sit tight and wait. The other man had to break sometime, and when he did, the gunslinger would be there, ready to explain and try to rebuild what had been broken. Decision made, Chris spent his time watching Ezra, but the activity held no more joy for him, not with the gambler acting so strangely.
Like when he played poker. Ezra was still winning more than he lost, winning more than he usually did. His playing, as successful as it was, was very changed from its former style. Before, he teased and cajoled the men he played with into laughing, entertaining them even as he relieved them of their money.
Now he played as coolly as he did everything else, focused on winning with ruthless determination. No humor, no lightness, no joy could be found in his manner. Chris was almost frightened by the change. The poker table was the one place where Ezra had always seemed most alive, but now the same lifeless stranger had taken over there, as he had in all other areas of the gambler's life.
As Chris watched the changed Ezra, three days passed by, and he had yet to talk to the other man. Any time he had tentatively approached him, those cold green eyes passed over him, unseeing, giving the gunslinger the eerie feeling of not really being there, that he had somehow become a ghost.
He noticed that only one thing held Ezra's interest, besides poker: the stage. Every time one passed through Four Corners, the gambler made a point to meet it, asking the driver a question. Chris guessed that he was waiting for a package, rather than a person, and for the past three days he had returned empty-handed to the saloon.
On the fourth day, Chris took up his post in the chair outside of JD's office, watching the stage pull up and waiting for Ezra to make his appearance. He looked up as Vin came to stand next to him.
"Think he's going to check this one?" the tracker asked.
"He's checked every other one; why not this one?" Chris fell silent as Ezra exited the saloon and crossed the street to the stage.
"Mary tells me that Ezra got a letter, the day he hit Buck. The way she tells it, he would've just finished reading it about the time Buck ran into him."
"You think it had something to do with it?"
Chris returned to watching Ezra. This time, when he spoke to the stage driver, the man nodded. After some rummaging around, he handed Ezra a small package. The gambler took it and left, returning to the saloon.
The gunslinger and the tracker exchanged a glance. What was in the package? And did it have anything to do with the way the gambler had been acting? Something told Chris that he didn't have the time to sit and puzzle over the question. Time was running out. It was time to act.
Ezra strode quickly through the saloon, holding the package from his mother as carefully as he would a poisonous snake; he wasn't entirely sure that the box was any less dangerous than a serpent. He ignored the stares that he could feel boring into his back. They didn't matter, not any more. Nothing mattered except getting out of Four Corners, as quickly as possible.
He paused after opening the door to his room, as he had every time he had opened it for the past four days. He quickly entered in, and shut the door behind him. He didn't want anyone else to see the wreckage in which he was living.
He couldn't remember too much of his actions after he returned to saloon after striking Buck. He had purchased two bottles of whiskey from the bartender, and impressed upon the man how angry he would be if he had any visitors. After that, he had returned to his room and begun drinking.
It was almost a tradition, where he and his mother were concerned. After her visit to Four Corners, he had spent the evening on the day she left attempting to drink himself into oblivion. He had wanted to forget the way she had brushed off all his attempts to apologize to her, all his attempts to somehow create an emotional connection between the two of them. He understood that some of her actions had stemmed from her need to pay him back for his harsh, but true, words to her when they had argued, but the way she paid attention to everyone and everything, except him, hurt.
It was as if he was a child again, watching his mother sweep out of his life, full of laughter and vitality, leaving an aching void when she was gone. He still loved her with the same helpless affection as he had when a boy, wishing fiercely that he was good enough, some how worthy enough to hold her attention for longer than her short, erratic visits. And just as when he was a child, he failed to be of enough interest to Maude for her to stay with him.
He had holed up in his room after watching her stage leave, and had done his best to finish off as much whiskey as possible before he passed out. He felt it was fitting that he should do the same on the day that she removed herself from his life, so he had bought the whiskey.
Although the rest of the evening was a blur in his memory, he could tell what had gone on just by looking at the state of his room. The furniture had been torn apart, and the walls bore the marks of repeated blows. Judging by the state of his hands, which had been battered and bleeding when he had awakened, he had punched the walls as well as smashed parts of the furniture against them.
He hadn't woken up, and returned completely to himself, until late the following night. Ezra supposed that after getting drunk, he had destroyed his room, and then returned to drinking until he was unconscious and the whiskey was gone, but he wasn't sure. He spent the next few hours sobering himself up, and pulling himself together. He had lost control; fine. Now it was time to make plans, to see what he could do about the state his life was in.
The first thing he needed to do was leave Four Corners. He had out done himself, and screwed up the situation in the town far worse than even he would have believed possible. He didn't have the energy or the will to try to repair anything; he just wanted to get away, to find a place to start anew.
Not even Chris could hold him in town. The gunslinger had spent the past week blatantly ignoring him. Never let it be said that Ezra Standish couldn't take a hint. Chris couldn't stand the sight of him, so the gambler would remove himself from Four Corners. Besides, the man in black's obvious disgust and disdain were tearing him apart inside, and were a major part of the pain he wanted to escape.
He couldn't just leave, however. He had needed to wait for the package Maude had wrote of to arrive. Ezra wasn't completely sure he wanted anything that she would send to him, but a form of morbid curiosity wouldn't let him just leave and abandon the box. Besides, he was 'a good boy', and as such he should wait for whatever his mother wanted him to have.
The decision to leave made, the gambler had set himself to enduring the days he had left in Four Corners. He only left his room to gamble and check the stage for mail. The first day he had returned to playing poker, he had worn a shirt with longer cuffs than usual, not wanting to answer any questions about how his hands came to be so badly damaged.
Once he realized what he was doing, he laughed harshly. Who was going to ask? Who was going to care? He had shattered the mirror in his destructive rage. His reflection was gone, so he had no one left to talk to. No one left who cared.
As far as Ezra was concerned, his life in Four Corners was over. Once he got Maude's package, he would be gone, never to return. For this reason, his world narrowed to playing poker and checking the stage. He needed the money to pay for the damage done to his room.
Four days had passed in that fashion until the package finally arrived. Now that he finally had it in his room, he found that he was reluctant to open it. Shaking himself impatiently, he ripped the box open and emptied the contents out onto his ruined bed. Four items fell onto the blanket.
The first was a handkerchief, one he could remember from his childhood, embroidered with Maude's initials and a design of pale pink roses. She had always carried it with her, calling it her good luck charm. Holding it to his face, he inhaled deeply, and was able to catch the faintest lingering trace of her perfume clinging to it.
Delicately placing the handkerchief back on the bed, he picked up the second item: a small photograph of Maude, one from her younger days. She was staring into the camera, with that oddly beautiful coy/brassy smile of hers, the one he remembered so well. He trailed one finger down the side of the photo, before also placing it on bed beside the handkerchief.
It was the final two items that held his attention most. A delicate necklace, consisting of a thin gold chain of links, and a plain gold wedding band. He remembered both items from brief glimpses he had caught of them while a child. They were the only things his mother had that Ezra's father had given to her, besides Ezra himself. She almost never wore either of them; instead, she carried them with her as a sort of memorial to the man she never discussed with her son.
Ezra fingered the two pieces of jewelry, then opened the necklace. He slipped the ring onto the chain, then placed the chain around his neck. It slid down beneath his collar, with the ring coming to rest just below the hollow of his throat. The jewelry seemed to symbolize Maude best to him: bright, flashy, and never seen.
He looked down at the box. There was no letter caught inside. But why should she have sent another? She had said everything she needed to in the last one.
He was mildly surprised to find that he really didn't want to keep the handkerchief or the photograph. Maude lived vividly in his memory, and the handkerchief was just something that she had taken with her while she left her son behind. So what was he going to do with them?
Inspiration struck. Nodding to himself, he gathered up the two items and headed for the door. Once he did this, he would be able to spend the evening gambling, then pay off his bills in Four Corners, and ride out in the morning.
He walked down the stairs and through the saloon, not making eye contact with any of the men who had begun to gather downstairs. He strode purposefully down the street and over to the church. There, he slowed, and entered the building hesitantly.
After having used tent meetings as a con in the past, Ezra was always a little concerned that the Lord might make his displeasure with him known when he entered a house of worship. Nothing had happened so far, but that wasn't really reassuring. The gambler was sure that the Lord was patient, and just biding his time before striking.
"Ezra!" Josiah walked out of the back of the church. The preacher sounded both surprised, and flustered. "It's nice to see you. Is there something I can help you with?"
The green-eyed man smiled a little, the expression feeling strange on his face after so many days without doing so. Leave it to Josiah to still care, even after all that had happened. The preacher was always willing, even eager, to help someone he saw in need. Ezra thought that besides losing any hope of ever meaning anything to Chris, the other big regret he would take away from Four Corners would be losing the chance to be a friend to the tall man. Watching the other man smile at him, the gambler felt some of the chill that had encased him begin to melt.
"Mr. Sanchez, it is a pleasure to see you; indeed, it is always a pleasure to be in your company. There is something that I was hoping you might be willing to assist me with." He pulled out the handkerchief and the photograph. "As I recall, when my mother made her memorable appearance here in Four Corners, you expressed quite a bit of admiration toward her."
Josiah was clearly puzzled, but he went along with the conversation. "Your mother is a lovely woman, Ezra. I hope you aren't upset by anything I said."
The gambler shook his head. "Of course not, sir. It's just...because of your esteem for her, I thought that you might appreciate these." He handed the items to Josiah.
The preacher took them, and after examining them, he looked up in confusion. "I don't understand. Ezra, these belong to your mother."
"They belonged to her, Mr. Sanchez. She has sent them to me. Unfortunately, I find that I don't really want them. I can hardly be so churlish as to send them back to her, so I thought you perhaps might appreciate them." He dredged up a smile from somewhere within him. "She always spoke well of you, sir, and I think she would be very flattered and gratified if you would keep them."
Shaking his head, Josiah said, "I don't know what to say, except thank you, Ezra. This is an extremely generous gift. Are you sure you want to give these up? I'll understand if you change your mind."
"Thank you, Mr. Sanchez, but I'm sure." He tipped his hat toward the other man, and began to walk out of the church. He paused, and turned to face Josiah. "Mr. Sanchez?"
"Yes?" Ezra could hear the worry in the other man's voice, and he regretted causing it. Oh well. After tomorrow, Josiah wouldn't have to worry about him any more.
"I just wanted to let you know that it has been a pleasure knowing you, sir. You are by far one of the most remarkable men I have ever met." A man of many words, Ezra had never found it easy to speak his heart, so he soon fell silent. He shrugged uncomfortably. "Thank you."
"For what?" called Josiah.
Ezra didn't answer. He needed to get back to the saloon, before he said too much, something he'd regret. He wanted to make a clean break from Four Corners, and emotional speeches weren't a part of the plan.
Unfortunately, Josiah didn't seem to be following the plan. "Ezra, wait." The taller man followed him out into the street.
The gambler reluctantly stopped. "What is it, Mr. Sanchez?"
"Giving me these gifts, what you just said: they both seem like good-byes." His tone was almost frightened.
Ezra turned. "Very astute, sir. I am planning on taking my leave of Four Corners."
Damn it, why was this happening? "Soon, Mr. Sanchez. I was thinking of tomorrow."
"But why leave? I know things have been bad lately, but-"
Ezra cut him off with an impatient gesture. "It is time, time for me to go. I've outstayed my welcome here. I'm not sure that I've ever stayed so long in any place in my entire life. I don't want to talk about this. I'm not going to talk about it." He didn't want to be rude to the other man, but he was afraid that he would allow the preacher to talk him into staying, and he knew he couldn't. It just hurt too much.
Josiah fell silent, and just stared at him. Ezra nodded solemnly at him, then turned back to the saloon.
He stopped dead as he was confronted by Chris, with Vin a few steps behind him. He attempted to brush past the other man, but the gunslinger just moved to stand more firmly in his path. Ezra closed his eyes, and tried to find the strength he needed to face this man. He had hoped that he would make it out of town without a confrontation with Chris. That way, he would be free to remember the man as he wished. Now the foremost memory in his mind would be of the man in black venting his disgust at him.
He might as well get this over with. "Mr. Larabee, you seem to be standing in my way. If you would be so kind as to move to one side or the other?"
"I'm afraid I can't do that." Chris's voice was resolute. It was also completely lacking in any anger or recrimination.
Ezra wondered at the man in black's tone, but he didn't let it show. "Why ever not, sir? Your legs seem to be in working order." He knew he had to get away, and right then. The cold that he had been relying on to keep him feeling distant, and in control, had grown less intense during his conversation with Josiah. With too much exposure to the gunslinger, it would melt away and disappear entirely.
"Is it true?" asked Chris. "Are you planning on leaving?"
"I am more than planning on it, sir. I am leaving tomorrow, news that will no doubt come as a relief and source of satisfaction to yourself." He smiled nastily, but all his contempt was directed at himself. "You seem to be a prophet, sir. It seem I am running out on you again."
"No." Chris sounded agitated, but still not angry. Was that sorrow in his voice?
"I beg your pardon?" Ezra peered into the other man's face in the rapidly waning light cast by the setting sun. The gunslinger appeared to be very upset.
The gambler was confused. He didn't think his leaving would effect the other man at all. It seemed he was wrong. What was the matter with him?
"You're not leaving." Chris's tone was final, allowing no argument.
Not that it would stop Ezra. "I don't see why you care, sir, or how you can stop me."
Chris shook his head sadly. Ezra caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and knew he should have spared some attention for Vin. He had no chance to block the tracker's blow that clipped him in the side of the head. As he spiraled down into unconciousness, he had only two thoughts.
What the hell was going on?
And, damn, but didn't the Almighty know how to seize the moment and time out vengeance?
Chris lunged forward, and caught Ezra before the gambler could fall to the ground. He swung the other man up into his arms. As he did so, a folded up sheet of paper fell from the unconscious man's jacket. Vin bent down and picked it up.
"What are you doing?" asked Josiah, approaching them cautiously.
"I'm not letting him leave," Chris answered. "He's too stubborn to sit and listen to me, though. So I'm not going to give him a choice. We're going to take him up to his room, and he's going to hear me out, even if I have to sit on him."
The gunslinger stalked off toward the saloon, cradling Ezra close to him. He had known that he wouldn't be able to strike the gambler, not even as a part of a plan to keep him in Four Corners. Vin hadn't much liked the idea of hitting Ezra either, but as Chris pointed out, he wasn't in love with him.
He had pretty much explained the whole of his plan to Josiah. He needed to get Ezra into a position where the gambler would have no chance of escape, and no choice but to listen to him. Chris knew that if the other man found any opportunity to wriggle or talk his way out of the conversation, he'd take it. The blue-eyed man didn't want that to happen. He had to apologize, for himself and for the rest of the seven. He had to convince Ezra to stay, and had to tell him he loved him.
Ignoring the stares and dead silence that greeted him in the saloon, Chris strode quickly toward the staircase. He really didn't care what any of the people there thought; all that mattered was finding away to convince the man in his arms to say.
Behind him, he could here Josiah and Vin speaking a little too loudly to each other.
"That was a nasty fall Ezra took," Josiah commented.
"Yeah," agreed Vin. "He might be concussed. We should probably watch him tonight, make sure he's all right."
Chris appreciated their efforts, and knew that Ezra would as well. If the gambler ever deigned to speak to any of the seven again, he would no doubt thank them for their efforts to preserve his reputation and image in the town.
Once he reached the door to Ezra's room, he paused, waiting for the other two men to catch up. He nodded toward the door. "Could one of you open that, please?"
Vin nodded. "I got it." He stepped forward and pushed the door open. All three men stood in the hallway, shocked into immobility by what they saw.
Chris couldn't believe the state of the gambler's room. It looked as though a tornado had torn through it, or maybe just a large group of lunatics. The furniture had been torn apart and then battered against the walls. Even the bed had been destroyed: it now sat at a definite tilt, with the two legs at the foot of it having been broken off. Chris wasn't sure how that had been accomplished.
Beyond the furniture, other things, such as clothing, blankets, and other items were strewn about the room. It was unbelievable, that the fastidious gambler had been living amid such wreckage.
"What happened here?" asked Josiah.
"Someone tore the room apart. But who?" Vin sounded confused.
Chris was rapidly moving beyond confusion. He began to feel the first dull heat of rage. Who had done this to Ezra's room? The hatred and the anger of whoever it had been was clearly visible in the destruction of the room. When he found out who had done this, they would pay. It didn't matter if Ezra didn't forgive him; the gunslinger would still seek out vengeance on his behalf.
Josiah hissed softly, then stepped toward Ezra. Chris reacted, holding the gambler closer, and taking a step back. "Hold still," scolded the preacher, unamused. The big man reached out, and picked up one of Ezra's lax hands in his own. "He did it. Ezra did it himself."
"What are you talking about?" asked Chris.
Josiah lifted Ezra's hand, and placed it on the gambler's chest. Chris then understood the preacher's hiss. The green-eyed man's hands, so graceful, so talented, had played central roles in the gunslinger's favorite fantasies about the other man. The hand he could see was battered and damaged. The knuckles had been split, and bruises discolored the skin that had also been scraped raw in patches all the way down the fingers.
The damage couldn't have come from his altercation with Buck; one blow couldn't have caused so much injuries; besides, judging from Josiah's glances, Ezra's other hand was hurt as well. The gambler must have destroyed his room on his own.
Chris stared down at the other man, feeling slightly sick. Had the actions of the other men, of himself, driven Ezra to this? "Why?" he asked, unable to articulate his questions any further.
Vin's eyes widened, and he unfolded the sheet of paper that had fallen out of Ezra's jacket. "This might tell us. It's a letter. Maybe the one he got before he hit Buck." The tracker began to read. After he was done, he looked up and met Chris's eyes. "I know why."
"Why?" Chris repeated.
Vin handed the letter to Josiah. "You read better than I do."
Chris waited impatiently as Josiah began to read aloud. By the time the preacher fell silent, the gunslinger's gaze was fixed firmly on Ezra's face. He could understand the gambler's actions now, all of them. The man in black fought down his own anger. If Maude weren't dying, he would probably make the trip east and kill her himself. The grief and rage the other man must have felt, must still be feeling...Chris shifted his grip on Ezra, trying to make sure that, though unconscious, he'd be comfortable.
"He must be getting heavy," Josiah commented. "Do you want me to take him?"
"No," Chris said sharply, drawing back and clutching Ezra tightly. The gambler might be shorter than he was, but that didn't make him a light weight. Still, the gunslinger wasn't going to let anyone else hold him. Ezra was right where he belonged, even if he didn't know it yet.
The gunslinger shook his head. "He can't stay here. Not anymore. Where are we going to put him?" His nebulous plan had just fallen apart around him. Ezra was hurting more than Chris had known, and he wasn't sure that he'd be able to help him now. Especially now that he no longer had a place to do so.
"The church?" suggested Josiah.
"That could work," Chris said. "You'd be able to watch him there, too."
"No. It won't work." JD stood in the hall, watching as the three other men turned to face him. His eyes were fixed on Chris and Ezra.
"What are you talking about?" Chris reminded himself that JD had said there was nothing between him and Ezra, and he tried to keep from snapping at the kid. He didn't have any good reason to be angry with him. Except for the fact that JD had kissed Ezra. "Do you have a better idea?" he demanded.
The sheriff didn't flinch at his harsh tone. "The church won't work. Having Josiah talk to Ezra won't work. The only one who can reach Ezra at all is you." His gaze was serious.
"He's right," agreed Vin. "Take him to your cabin." He tried to smile. "If he gets away from you there, you'll be able to catch him before he can make it back to town."
Chris nodded, but kept his eye's fixed on JD's. "You really think I can do this?" he asked the younger man.
JD cocked his head to the side. "If you can't, then it's a lost cause." He moved forward and gently touched Ezra's face. He looked back up at Chris. "If you fail, I'm never going to forgive you. Or myself."
The gunslinger had resisted his automatic reaction, to keep Ezra as far from the younger man as possible. He thought about the other man's words, and knew he felt the same. "You'll have to stand in line."
JD nodded, then turned and left.
Chris looked at Vin. "How long do you think he'll be out?"
"I'm not sure. I'd give him another hour."
"Then we'd better move quickly. Could you grab some of his things, clothes and the like?"
Vin nodded, and Josiah volunteered to grab some provisions, which Chris appreciated. Once he got Ezra to the cabin, neither of them were going to leave until everything had been worked out and the gambler had agreed to stay in Four Corners. The gunslinger was also hoping that the other man would agree to stay with him, specifically.
On the journey to Chris's cabin, which was built some distance from Four Corners, the gunslinger only relinquished his hold on Ezra twice: when mounting his horse to leave town, and when dismounting once they reached the cabin. Both times he had allowed Josiah to hold the other man, but only for as long as was absolutely necessary
Riding to the cabin, he paid more attention to Ezra then to where he was riding, so he was thankful to Vin and Josiah for watching out for him. Instead of watching the trail, he stared down at the gambler's face. Ezra's head was resting on the gunslinger's chest, and was tilted back, providing a clear view for worried blue eyes. The smaller man's face was smooth, unlined, making him seem younger than he was.
Chris wanted Ezra to wake up. He trusted Vin not to have hurt him; after all, the bounty hunter had knocked men unconscious before. If it was anyone else, he would have been wholly unconcerned. But it was Ezra, so the man in black fretted, worrying that in his efforts to keep the gambler with him, he may have hurt him.
Once at the cabin, he carried Ezra inside, and carefully laid him on the bed, taking the time to arrange the other man's limbs in what he thought would be a comfortable position. He then directed Josiah as to where to store provisions, and helped Vin put the gambler's clothing away neatly.
Josiah looked down at the supine man. "He's going to be angry when he wakes up."
"That's an understatement," Vin agreed. "How are you going to keep him here? You know his first inclination is going to be to run."
"He won't get far without a horse," Chris answered. "I want you to take my horse with you when you go back to town. Come back in a few days, and make sure he hasn't killed me."
"That's all you're going to do?"
"What do you want me to do, tie him to the bed?" Chris glared at Vin's sly grin. He had been considering the question as he rode. He had given serious thought to tying the gambler to the bed; it would guarantee that the other man wouldn't leave. It would also guarantee that Ezra would refuse to listen to him, so great would be his indignation. The mental picture of a pliant and willing Ezra bound to the bed was one to hold on to. If everything went the way he hoped, perhaps he'd have the chance to see it.
Hoping that his thoughts weren't showing on his face, he looked at the other men. "Take his boots with you, too. If I know Ezra, he'll never try to walk back to Four Corners barefoot." He walked over to the bed and carefully removed the gambler's shoes before handing them to Josiah.
Vin nodded. "Sounds good." He stared at Ezra for a moment, then looked back at Chris. "You going to be all right?"
"It depends on what Ezra says," Chris replied honestly. "I'll be fine, now. Thanks for your help."
"We'll be back in three or four days. If you can't convince by then, you never will."
Chris nodded, and walked the other two men out of the cabin. "If I'm dead, I deserved it, and let him go."
Josiah smiled. "I don't think he'll kill you."
"I don't think he'd be able to hurt you any more than you could him." Vin clasped Chris's shoulder in a comforting grip before heading for his horse.
Chris watched them ride away, then walked back into the cabin. He built up a fire, heating the small building so the gambler would be comfortable when he awoke. He pulled off his coat, and threw it and his hat over the back of a chair.
That done, he walked over to Ezra, drawn inexorably back to the other man. He gently removed the gambler's coat, hanging it with care over the back of the same chair. Trying to make sure the unconscious man was comfortable, he then untied and removed his tie, and unbuttoned the first few buttons of his white shirt.
He frowned as he discovered the golden chain and wedding ring that lay about Ezra's neck. He couldn't remember ever having seen the gambler wear that jewelry before. Was it something new, or had it somehow escaped his notice?
He shook his head. He'd find out soon enough. That ring came from the past; he was too focused on the future to worry about it. He sat down on the bed, propping himself up with a hand placed on the other side of Ezra, so he was leaning over the gambler. He reached out with his other hand and traced the other man's features with a finger, his touch so light it bordered on non-existent.
He traced out an eyebrow, and smiled. For once it wasn't raised in that unbelieving quirk that Ezra had perfected, that wonderfully balanced expression of disbelief and good humor. From there, Chris traced the path of a cheek bone, the delicate curve of lips. Finger lingering at Ezra's lips, the gunslinger smiled again. If things went wrong, he might never have this chance again.
He bent down, and gently pressed his lips to the unconscious man's. He pulled back, and saw that the gambler hadn't awakened. Perhaps he wasn't Ezra's true love; in the fairy tale, true love's kiss had wakened the sleeping beauty. Of course, he reflected ruefully, as handsome as Ezra was, he was no princess. No one who had heard the man swear after the ruination of a favorite shirt could mistake him for a retiring, proper princess.
He rubbed his thumb across the gambler's lower lip, then stood. He dragged a chair over to beside the bed, and settled into it. Eyes fixed on Ezra's face, he began to wait for Ezra to awaken.
Ezra groaned. His head hurt abominably. Was he hung over? What had happened? The last thing he remembered was talking to Chris. Then...Vin had hit him? His head began to pound worse from the confusion. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes, half-expecting to find himself still in the street.
The first thing he saw was a ceiling. He was inside, then. And not in his own room, because the bed he was laying on wasn't at an angle. He glanced to his left, and recognized the small room. He was in Chris's cabin! What was going on?
He looked over to his right, suppressing another groan as his throbbing head protested. The pain was made worthwhile by what he saw. Chris was asleep in a chair, which was positioned between the bed and the fireplace. A fire there both illuminated and warmed the room. The flames also back-lit the sleeping man, painting blond streaks in his hair, and casting shadows across his weathered features.
It wasn't often that Ezra got to see the gunslinger in a state of relaxation. Usually, the other man was watchful and wary, face set in hard lines. Occasionally, he would laugh when he was with the other seven, but not nearly as often as Ezra wished he would. Asleep, Chris relaxed, and his face seemed more open, its angles less harsh. Of course, when he was asleep, the gambler couldn't see his blue eyes, so some of his enjoyment was gone.
Apparently it had been Chris who brought him here, but Ezra had no idea why. He could remember the other man telling him he couldn't leave. For a moment he entertained the fantasy that Chris meant that his leaving would hurt the gunslinger himself, and that was why he had to stay. It was only a fantasy, however, and the gambler knew it. Chris probably meant that Ezra couldn't leave with that warrant for his arrest hanging over his head. If he was going to leave the seven, the gunslinger probably expected him to stand trial first.
Ezra carefully swung his legs over the side of the bed. He could outrun a warrant; he'd done it before. He'd just go west, and introduce himself with a new name. Ezra Larabee? He was tempted, but knew it would be a bad idea. It would make him too noticeable; besides, it would also just be wallowing in his own misery. Kennedy was a good Irish name...
Whatever he chose, the decision could wait. He winced as his bare feet touched the floor. What had happened to his boots? He glanced around the cabin, but didn't see them. He did spot his jacket, hung over the back of a chair. He walked over to it, intending to pull it on and then go, taking Chris's horse and riding back to town. He had other boots in his room over the saloon.
"Going somewhere?" The voice was husky, a result of being asleep, no doubt. It was also gently amused.
Ezra turned around slowly, not wanting to aggravate the pounding in his head. "Why, yes I am, Mr. Larabee. I am returning to Four Corners." He wanted to leave as quickly as possible, before he slipped and said something he would regret. The cold he had been relying on to act as a buffer between him and everyone else was almost gone, and wouldn't last long against the heat he always felt when he met the gunslinger's eyes.
"And how are you planning on doing that?" Chris sounded more interested than concerned.
"I'll be taking your horse, sir. Because you have brought me here against my will, I trust you will be understanding when I am forced to relieve you of your mount in my efforts to return to town."
"I don't have a horse." The gunslinger smiled and sat up, but didn't rise from his chair. "I figured you'd want to take it, so I don't have one here."
Ezra glared at him suspiciously, and walked over to the door. No horses in sight. "Then I suppose I will have to walk," he snapped, exasperated.
"In bare feet?" The gunslinger stared pointedly at Ezra's feet, pale skin standing out against the dark wood of the floor.
For a moment, the gambler considered making a try for Chris's boots, but quickly decided against it. He had been disarmed at some point, so couldn't threaten the other man with a gun. He was no match for the gunslinger physically, not with his head feeling like it did. Besides, he'd never be able to strike the other man with any useful force. He wouldn't want to risk hurting him.
He faced Chris squarely. "It appears you have me at an impasse, sir. Would you care to share with me for what purpose you have gone to all this trouble?" If the gunslinger had just wanted to yell at him, he would have done so back in Four Corners. If he wanted the gambler to stand trial, then he would have thrown him in jail, not kidnapped him.
The blue-eyed man flushed a bit, or so Ezra thought. The firelight made it difficult to tell. "I told you, I'm not going to let you leave. Not without having a chance to talk to you."
This wasn't good. Between the pain in his head and the gunslinger's presence, Ezra was too distracted to maintain complete control over himself, and he knew it. If he spoke with Chris, he was going to let something slip, and end up regretting it. "What could you possibly wish to speak with me about that would be so important as to justify assaulting and abducting me?" he demanded. "I would think you would rather just stand back and allow me to be on my way."
"Damn it, Ezra, you've got it wrong. I care if you leave. I don't want you to go. No one wants you to leave."
"I think you may wish to consult with Mr. Wilmington before you make that announcement." The green-eyed man crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. Perhaps he could provoke Chris into becoming so disgusted he just let him go.
"Not even Buck wants you to go. JD told him what really happened between the two of you. He told all of us."
Ezra shook his head in disbelief. He had told JD to stay quiet. The sheriff might have ruined everything with Buck by speaking up. Why didn't he do as he had been told? "How did Mr. Wilmington take the news?" he asked quietly, hoping that the mustached man had the sense to see the remarkable treasure he had found in JD, and hadn't done anything rash.
"He was upset at first, but he got over it." The blue eyes seemed to read his thoughts. "Don't worry about him and JD. Buck's not going to do anything foolish, like hurt JD over it."
"Wonderful. So now that Mr. Wilmington is over his jealous tantrum, I am once again welcome as a member of your happy little group? No thank you, Mr. Larabee. I think I'd prefer to seek my future in a more hospitable location." He narrowed his eyes. "Why didn't you just tell me this on the street? Why bring me here?"
He was finally getting a reaction from the other man. Leaning forward, Chris answered shortly, "You didn't want to listen to me. You weren't going to stand still long enough for anyone to explain anything to you. The original plan was to get you into your room, and not let you leave until you heard me out..." his voice trailed away. "But then I saw your room, and knew you couldn't stay there any longer."
Ezra dropped his gaze to his jacket, and half turned away from Chris. He looked inside of it automatically for Maude's letter, which he had carried with him ever since he woke up after destroying his room. Every time he saw it, or heard it rustle inside his clothing, it had reminded him how important it was for him to get out of Four Corners as quickly as possible.
The letter was gone. He started to panic, then saw it in the inner pocket on the other side of the jacket. But he had never kept it there.
Chris cleared his throat. "Ezra," he said gently, "about Maude-"
Ezra turned back to face him, turned too quickly. The throbbing in his head intensified, and his vision went black at the edges, fading away. He staggered, sure that he would soon be on the floor, unconscious for the second time that night.
"Ezra!" Strong hands caught him as he began to sag. Chris helped him, half-carrying him, over to the bed. "Here, lie down. Are you all right?" The gambler felt himself propped up, so that he was half-sitting up, back resting against the wall. The bed dipped beside him under the gunslinger's weight. Cool hands patted his cheeks gently, then began to chafe at his hands.
The gambler felt the black tide slowly recede, and his head stopped spinning. Now it had returned to just aching, which he took as an improvement. He opened his eyes, and looked directly into Chris's face, only inches from his own.
"What happened? It is your head?" Worried blue eyes stared down at him, but the other man made no effort to pull back.
Ezra licked his suddenly dry lips. "My head is fine, aside from the throbbing, which I suppose is only to be expected. Remind me to thank Mr. Tanner, and repay him in kind for the blow he gave me." He paused for a moment. "I think I moved a little too quickly. I'll be fine, sir, and more careful in the future." He pretended that he hadn't heard Chris's words about his mother. Perhaps the other man would just let the matter drop.
No such luck. "Ezra, I was trying to tell you that I know about Maude. When Vin hit you, her letter fell out of your pocket."
"And you took it upon yourself to read my personal correspondence?" Anger was good. It was better than sorrow. He had no intention of breaking down and crying in front of the gunslinger. He didn't want to destroy whatever traces of respect the other man might still feel for him.
"We were worried about you. I was worried." Chris had ceased chafing at his hands. Now he merely held them within his own.
Ezra was in an agony of indecision. He had dreamed of being this close to the other man, touching, their breath intermingling as he was able to look into those blue eyes. But this was real, not a fantasy harbored in his heart, and Chris's hands around his own was too intimate a touch. It was the action of a close friend, or a lover, not of a man who cared about him in an abstract fashion.
He resisted the urge to roll his eyes heavenward, and perhaps tip an imaginary hat. The Almighty was certainly out-doing himself. Ezra was very impressed.
He tried to surreptitiously remove his hands from the other man's, to slide them away slowly, as if hardly aware of what he was doing.
Chris's hands tightened on his, not causing discomfort, but letting him know that the gunslinger didn't want to let go.
"Mr. Larabee, I said I am fine. Thank you for telling me about Buck and JD. Please convey my best wishes to them both. It changes nothing. I still intend to leave Four Corners." He smirked, but his heart wasn't in it. "You have done your part as leader, sir. You can return to the others and tell them you did everything possible, but I still decided to go."
Chris surprised him. He didn't get upset, or move away, as Ezra had hoped he would. He wasn't nearly as easy to manipulate as Buck. Instead, the blue-eyed man shook his head sadly. "I'm not doing this as a leader, Ezra. I'm doing this as a friend. As someone who cares." He looked down at their hands. "Someone who cares very much," he added softly.
The gambler was very confused. Hope was rising in his heart, and he was finding it difficult to fight down. He couldn't come up with any explanation for the gunslinger's behavior, except for the one he didn't dare allow himself to believe.
"Your hands," Chris said, voice still soft. "Look at what you've done to your hands. When I saw your room, I thought someone else must have destroyed it, that there was no way you could have done it on your own. Then, after Maude's letter, I understood." As he spoke, the gunslinger began to caress Ezra's hands, running his own fingers across the other man's, bending them, turning his hands over to see the damage and try to soothe the hurts with his own touch.
Ezra exhaled shakily. His eyes were also locked upon their hands. He no longer tried to pull away. He couldn't.
"I am so sorry, Ezra. Not just about Maude, but about the past few weeks. None of us understood. No one who needed to talk was saying anything, and things just kept getting worse because of it. You weren't talking, not that we gave you a chance, and JD was keeping his mouth shut." The gunslinger hesitated. "And I didn't say any of the things I had planned to. Instead, I just stopped talking to you."
Ezra dragged his gaze upwards, and looked at the other man's face. Chris was obviously struggling with something. "I don't understand," the gambler admitted.
"I'm not saying this right. Words aren't what I'm good at." He continued his soft touches and careful strokes of the green-eyed man's hands. "I'm more comfortable with actions."
"If you can't tell me what you mean, Mr. Larabee, or if you don't want to-"
"I want to tell you. I will. Too damn much has been left unspoken so far, and look where it's gotten us." He smiled a little, and squeezed Ezra's hand's gently. "I mean your being ready to leave, not where we are right now."
The gambler was confused. Chris couldn't be saying what he thought he was saying, could he? "Mr. Larabee-"
"Let me try to get this out, please?" After Ezra nodded, the blue-eyed man continued. "When I was with Vin, I worked out a whole plan of how to tell you this, but I blew it all to hell by refusing to talk to you. Now..."
Chris shook his head, cutting himself off. He began again. "I don't want you to leave Four Corners because you are a good man, and the town needs you. I need you." Blue eyes caught green and held them. "I don't want you to leave because I love you."
Ezra began to shake his head in disbelief. Chris didn't mean it. He couldn't mean it.
Chris smiled, and finally let go of Ezra's hands. He reached up, and laid one hand against the side of the gambler's neck. Ezra felt himself pulled forward, and went with the motion. The gunslinger stopped pulling when their lips were a finger's breadth apart. "I love you, Ezra. And I think you feel the same."
Ezra wasn't going to fight hope, not any more. The only thing he saw in the gunslinger's eyes was love, and it was all he heard in his voice. He had always trusted Chris with his life; now he would trust him with his heart. He didn't want to be alone, and the man he loved was here, offering his love.
He smiled, and pressed his lips to the other man's.
They needed to talk. And they would.
Ezra reached out and grasped Chris's shirt, using his grip to pull the other man closer. The gunslinger moved easily into his arms, as willingly as his mouth opened and admitted Ezra's questing tongue. The gambler wrapped his arms around Chris, trying to get still closer to him. Even as he did so, the pounding in his head began to increase, but he didn't want to stop.
The gunslinger began to pull back slowly. Ezra groaned a protest and moved forward, not allowing the contact between them to be broken. Instead, the gambler followed the other man's retreat, negating it.
Chris succeeded in breaking the kiss for a moment. Ezra met his eyes, and smiled before moving to join their lips once more. As he did so, he glanced for a moment at the fire, and winced as its light stabbed into his eyes, causing the pain in his head to throb more furiously. The gambler ignored the pain, choosing instead begin to loose himself in the feel of the other man against him, the taste of the mouth moving against his.
Only a few moments passed until Chris removed his arms from around the green-eyed man, and placed his hands on his chest, holding the gambler away from him. Ezra looked at him, eyebrows lowering in a puzzled frown. "Mr. Larabee, whatever is the matter?" He tried to pull the gunslinger back to him, but to no avail. The other man remained firm, and evaded his attempts to reinitiate the kiss.
"Is your head still hurting you?" the man in black asked, staring into his eyes worriedly.
"The pain is negligible, I assure you. Put it out of your mind." Ezra tried to move closer, but the other man still held him off. "Mr. Larabee, Chris, I give you my word that I am able to proceed, and it must be obvious that I am more than willing to do so."
Chris shook his head. "Ezra, Vin hit you hard enough to knock you unconscious. You almost blacked out a little while ago. We can't do this, not when you're hurting."
"I will be hurting far worse if you insist on stopping this," Ezra ground out between his teeth.
"And you think I won't? But I'm not willing to risk hurting you." The gunslinger smiled. "Besides, I'd rather that you be feeling good when we do this. I want to make sure that you enjoy this as much as possible."
Ezra wanted to be upset with Chris, but he couldn't do it. The gunslinger was only trying to look out for him, no matter how much the gambler resented it. The resentment faded as the other man reached up and cupped his face in his hands. He smiled grudgingly. "I suppose that I can wait. If you can," he added mischievously, rubbing his cheek against the gunslinger's hand, before turning his head to press a kiss to his palm.
He watched in satisfaction as Chris swallowed hard, but the gunslinger remained firm in his resolve. The blue-eyed man stood, removing all chance of them to continue the kiss, or move onto anything else.
"So," asked Ezra, leaning back against the wall, and crossing his hands, fingers laced, behind his head, "if we aren't going to continue with our previous activities, a decision I submit to under protest, might I add, then what are we going to do?" He stared mildly at the other man, and arched an eyebrow.
Chris didn't reply. Instead, he bent down and removed his shoes, then straightened and began to work at the buttons of his shirt. The gunslinger ignored Ezra's demands for an explanation for his actions, then slipped his shirt off his shoulders and let it fall to the floor.
The gambler knew he was failing to keep up his relaxed, amused pose, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Chris was standing in front of him half-dressed, and he felt lucky to be able to think at all. He had some idea of what to expect of the gunslinger's body: an image he had built, compiled from all the stolen glances over the time he had known the man.
His eyes drifted back up the other man's body, wandering over his flat stomach, up to his chest, and over his arms. Chris was covered in wiry muscle, and Ezra longed to run his hands over his skin, and see if the muscle beneath was really as hard as he imagined it to be. Even the scars that ran across the gunslinger's skin were beautiful to Ezra: they were a record of Chris's past, a past that had made him into the man the gambler loved now.
His gaze finally returned to the other man's face, and he flushed a little when he saw the amused smile the gunslinger wore. He was comforted by the fact that Chris was a bit red himself, and that his amusement was more than slightly tinged with arousal.
Ezra's gaze immediately dropped to the other man's pants when Chris raised his hands to rest at the fastening to his pants.
"No, better not," murmured the gunslinger.
The gambler's stuttered back up to the other man's face. "What did you say?"
Chris grinned, a little ruefully. "I said I don't think taking off my pants would be a good idea. Too much of a temptation." He stretched for a moment, throwing the lean lines of his body into sharp relief as he stood before the fire, then returned to the bed, and sat down facing the gambler again. Raising an eyebrow in imitation of Ezra, he asked, "Aren't you a little overdressed?"
"I thought you decreed that we weren't going to do anything?" Ezra asked, licking his lips.
"We're not. I don't like to sleep in my clothes. I didn't think you did either."
The green-eyed man smiled slowly, and raised his hands to the buttons of his own shirt. He began to undo them, gaze still locked with Chris's, but his fingers tangled with those of the other man.
"I have been undressing myself for most of my life, sir. I have become fairly proficient at it." he teased gently.
"I believe it, Ezra. But I've never had the pleasure, and I think that I'd like to begin practicing now," Chris countered, pushing the gambler's fingers away.
Deciding not to protest, Ezra allowed Chris to work at his buttons. Who was he to stand in the way of a man trying to learn a new skill, especially a skill he wanted him to practice as often as possible?
After the gunslinger removed the gambler's shirt, he pulled it down Ezra's arms. He then discarded the shirt on the floor beside the bed, letting it fall to the ground as if it no longer concerned him in any way, forgotten as soon as it left his hands.
Ezra didn't even try to launch into a sartorial complaint and scold the other man for showing such disregard for his clothing. He found that he didn't really care about the shirt either. Instead, he reached for Chris, enjoying the feeling of warm skin beneath his hands as he pulled him closer.
The two men kissed again. It began as a gentle exploration, but quickly heat up, igniting the passion between them. Ezra began to push forward once more, this time just in an effort to get closer to the other man, to feel as much of him as possible.
Once again, it was Chris who pulled away. This time, the gunslinger moved to his feet immediately. He reached out and pulled Ezra up to stand beside him. The gambler grinned, and turned to reach down and jerk the blankets back to the foot of the bed. The two men moved onto the bed, squirming about until they finally came to rest with Ezra laying half on top of Chris, so that he could look down into the other man's face.
It wasn't Ezra's preferred position, but he didn't try to argue or convince Chris to move. It seemed very important to the gunslinger that he be able to hold him, and the gambler thought he understood. After all, he had been ready to leave town, and Chris, forever. It was rather nice to be held, to have tangible evidence that he would have been missed, and of how much Chris wanted him to stay.
He leaned down and pressed his lips to the gunslinger's, but pulled back himself after a few moments. "And what shall we do now, sir? Say our prayers and go to sleep?"
"I don't know that you should sleep yet. You should probably stay awake a while longer, just to be safe." Chris reached up a hand to trail a finger across Ezra's lips. "I figure now would be a good time for us to have a talk."
The gambler started to shake his head in denial, but Chris pulled his head back down and kissed him. Slowly. Thoroughly. With great attention to detail. Just as Ezra's hand began to wander south, the gunslinger ended the kiss.
"I want to be able to do that, and so much more with you, without anything standing between us," Chris said softly. "This is forever, Ezra. Let's start it out right."
The gambler sighed. "If you insist."
"I do. There's too much unspoken between us. It has to end, so what we have now can begin."
Ezra smiled. He couldn't help it. He liked this side of Chris: it seemed that romance brought out the talkative side of the man, and he certainly knew what to say. He began to talk, to try to explain what had happened in the course of the past month that brought him to the point of leaving.
When he told Chris his version of what had happened in JD's office, he tried to gloss over kissing JD. While he had enjoyed it at the time, and it had ultimately helped to bring the sheriff and Buck together, he was rather embarrassed about the whole thing, and wanted to forget it.
The gunslinger wouldn't cooperate, however. He kept interrupting, asking questions about the incident, trying to get all the details. The gambler was at first annoyed, wondering why he was focusing so much on a single incident, when there were three weeks after it to talk about.
The truth came to him slowly, and when it did, he nearly laughed out loud. "Chris, I do believe you're jealous," he exclaimed, grinning widely.
Chris began to protest, then shrugged. "I am. I don't like the idea of anyone else touching you." Color rose on his cheeks as the gunslinger described his actions while Ezra was unconscious, the way he had only reluctantly allowed anyone else to touch him.
The gambler laughed, then bent down and rewarded the other man with a kiss. "Now that I have experienced your charms, Chris, I can tell you that I no longer want any other person to touch me. That chore is reserved solely for you."
Chris's arms tightened around him. "Never a chore, Ezra. It is my pleasure." He growled a little. "My pleasure alone."
Ezra stared, surprised by how affecting he had found the growl. He narrowed his eyes, and leaned in close to the other man, placing his lips just beside his ear. "The reverse also holds true, you know. As much as I am yours, you are most surely mine." He smiled in triumph as he felt the other man shiver beneath him.
The gambler pulled back and stared down at Chris, watching in delight as the other man's pupils grew larger, reducing the blue of his eyes to a brilliant thin ring. Ezra shifted his hips a bit, and his smile grew larger at what he felt.
"Ezra, if you don't stop this now..." the gunslinger said huskily, moving his hands to the gambler's hips, forcibly holding him still.
"I fail to see how you could possibly end that threat in any way that would deter me," the green-eyed man purred, but he relented. He knew this was important to Chris, so he would see it through - no matter how tempting the alternative distractions were.
Ezra began to speak again, telling Chris about when Maude's letter had arrived. His voice faltered, but he kept going, buoyed by the warm support he saw in the gunslinger's eyes, and the way his embrace tightened around him. Both were reminders that he was loved, and that Chris was there, would always be there.
"I suppose I should apologize to Mr. Wilmington for striking him," he sighed. He really didn't feel much like it, though. The other man had made his life hellish for a few weeks, and hitting him had been quite satisfying.
"I think Buck will understand," Chris said, his tone indicating his understanding.
Ezra nodded, and continued speaking. He didn't just recount the events; he explained how he had felt, and why he did what he did, leaving no more secrets between them. Chris held his gaze with his own the entire time, and the gambler could see that he was listening intently. It was strange; usually, he spoke knowing that his words were going to be dismissed as frivolities, and so he often spoke of trivialities. To have someone actually be so interested in his words was an almost unsettling experience.
As he told Chris about Maude's package, his hand crept up, and he began to play with the ring that was suspended around his neck. He barely realized that he was doing so; his actions only really came to his attention when the blue-eyed man reached up, and covered his hand with his own.
"So this ring was a gift from your father to Maude?"
"That is what she always told me." The gambler shrugged uncomfortably. "It's the only real link I have to him, now that she's..." He didn't finish; he didn't have to. After a moment, he cleared his throat. "You know the rest. Now it is your turn. Talk."
He half-expected Chris to refuse, or to put him off somehow; words were more his territory than they were the gunslinger's. Once again, the man surprised him, speaking candidly of his actions and motivations, and of his love. "And now here I am," he concluded, "holding what I want most here in my arms."
Ezra flushed; he could feel the heat in his cheeks, but he refused to look away from the other man. "Here we are," he agreed, wriggling a bit to further settle himself into the gunslinger's arms. The pain in his head had faded to a dull pounding, and he was beginning to feel tired. He laid his head on Chris's shoulder, rubbing his cheek against the warm skin. "What now?" he asked, sleepily content.
"Now, we sleep."
"Just sleep?" He began to slide his hands down once more.
Again, Chris caught his hands before they could move too far. "Just sleep. Your head still has to hurt."
Ezra thought about denying it, then abruptly gave in. Chris was right; as much as he would like to do something, anything, it would be better if it happened while he wasn't still hurting. "I suppose I can live with that." He raised his head. "But I do think that a good-night kiss would be in order, in keeping with propriety." He smiled hopefully down at the other man.
"I wouldn't want to go against propriety," Chris said decisively. He cupped the back of the gambler's neck, and pulled his head down, bringing their lips together.
As before, the kiss rapidly began to escalate. Ezra couldn't help himself; touching Chris was something beyond his most extravagant dreams. Every loving caress of hand over skin, each gentle curl of tongue around tongue, served only to heighten his desire. He buried one of his hands in the other man's hair, pulling his head up and his mouth closer to his own.
His movements became more frenzied, more frantic, as each moment passed. He could feel Chris's resolve disappearing. Unfortunately, the activity was causing his headache to return with a vengeance. He moaned, a sound of mingled pleasure and pain. He ignored it, pressing closer to the gunslinger.
Chris, however, pulled away immediately. "I heard that," he said, staring up worriedly at Ezra. "I'm not going to hurt you. Never again." He gently pushed the gambler's head back down to rest upon his shoulder. "Sleep it off. We've got three days until someone comes looking for us. We've got time."
Ezra complied reluctantly, relaxing against the other man. "I suppose we do. But having time is no excuse for wasting it."
The arms wrapped around him tightened. "I wouldn't call this a waste."
"Nor would I," he agreed, moving to press a kiss over Chris's heart. "Nor would I." As Ezra began to drift off to sleep, he knew he was where he wanted to stay for the rest of his life, and peace filled him. He had found his place. He belonged, loved, and was loved in return.
Perhaps the Almighty wasn't carrying a grudge against him after all.
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