Squinting through the dust and harsh sunlight, Ezra peered around the barrel he was crouching behind, looking toward the bank. The three would-be robbers inside weren't visible at the moment. All shooting had ceased; the thieves were probably conserving their ammunition for the coming siege. It would be a long one: the bank clerk had fled the building, so there were no hostages involved.
Staying low, he quickly moved behind the cover offered by objects in the street over to where JD was hidden behind a wagon. "I trust you are unharmed, Mr. Dunne?" he drawled, checking the young man over sharply from the corner of his eye. It wouldn't do to appear too concerned; that could ruin his image of nonchalant uncaring, and he had put so much effort in maintaining it for the past twenty years.
"Yeah, Ezra, I'm fine." The young sheriff appeared to be tremendously excited, but he was also in control of himself.
Repressing a smile, the gambler decided that JD would be fine on his own. "It appears that our compatriots have retired to the saloon in order to confer. I believe I will join them. I trust you are able to hand the situation alone?"
"Go see what they're talkin' about. I'll be fine. I'll yell if anything happens."
Ezra nodded, and quickly ducked around the back of the saloon. A fast glance before he did so assured him that the building had sustained little or no damage during the fire fight. He didn't want his investment to be shot to pieces before he amassed the funds to purchase it. As he entered through the back, he could hear several men speaking in low tones. The green-eyed man smiled inwardly. The other members of the group might be better at woodcraft, and at the duties of attending to a ranch, but he had grown up in the seamier sides of cities all over the East, and had learned some skills that served him well in the West as well. Experience allowed him to identify the voices: Nathan, Buck, and Chris. Vin was likely on the roof, and Josiah was no doubt somewhere else where he could be of help.
He approached silently - another talent picked up when avoiding trouble in other places. Ezra never cheated, at least not while playing cards. He was too skilled to stoop to that. That didn't stop disgruntled losers from accusing him of it, however, and on more than one occasion he had narrowly avoided ambushes laid by people out for revenge.
He could hear Chris clearly first. "I don't know what those idiots were thinking, trying to rob our bank in broad daylight."
Ezra had to agree. One would think that thieves would bypass Four Corners, and its seven guardians, but they didn't. It was one of the chief reasons he didn't keep his savings in the bank. What was the point? It was safer in his boots, or hidden in his room.
The man in black continued. "Vin's gonna keep them pinned down from the roof. Josiah'll stay hidden next door, just in case things get ugly."
"JD and Ezra are watchin' from the street," commented Buck. "I'd best go and back JD up."
Ezra stopped. That hurt; he knew the big man was protective of their youngest member, but that he didn't think that Ezra would be there for the kid if trouble erupted stung. The gambler reacted to the insult as he always did: absorb the hurt, and made sure it didn't show. Besides, if the usual pattern, held, that insult was only the first.
Sure enough, Nathan followed up with, "Get on out there, Buck. Chris, someone's go to try to get them to surrender. It should be you. If you leave Ezra out there, he'll just end up provoking them into something dangerous."
The casual contempt in his voice was cutting, but what hurt most was the other two men's reactions. Buck said nothing, and Chris said, "Yeah, I'd best get out there." The easy way in which they accepted Nathan's dismissal of him cut deepest of all.
Scuffing his boots deliberately against the floor, Ezra entered the room with a sardonic smile and a tip of his hat. "Gentlemen. Mr. Dunne and I were wondering if you had concocted a plan of action which you might be so kind as to share with us?"
Buck threw a disgusted look at him. "I gotta go check on JD." He hurried out of the saloon.
Nathan didn't say anything; he didn't have to. The look in his eyes was enough.
Ezra tried to defend himself. "The sheriff is behind more than sufficient cover, and he is qualified to watch the bank." The twin chilly stare, brown and blue, that met his protests silenced him. Retreating behind his image, he wave his had in the air in a careless gesture. "He is fine," he reiterated, but didn't try to push the point further. He knew it would do no good.
Chris left without saying anything more. Nathan followed him, tossing over his shoulder, "Why don't you stay in here and guard the whiskey?" Then they were gone.
Ezra shut his eyes for a moment, rocked by the words. They were certainly not the cruelest things anyone had ever said to him, but the southerner had begun thinking of the other six men as his friends. They were closest things to it that he had ever known. That gave all of their words so much more power over than him than was usual. Especially Chris - his lack of words could completely devastate the gambler.
The gunslinger had first capture Ezra's admiration, then his respect, and finally his heart. The gambler always knew that he preferred men to women; it was a part of his nature he acknowledged, but in which he rarely indulged. While he had felt attraction many times before, this was the first time he had ever fallen in love. He wasn't quite sure how to deal with the emotion. Acting on it certainly wasn't an option. Chris could barely stand to look at him as a person; there was no way he could ever look at Ezra as a lover. So the green-eyed man did what he always did with inconvenient emotions. He ignored it, hoping that it would eventually fade. The fact that it had refused to disappear over the past few months wasn't all that reassuring, but he knew it would in time. It had to, because he wasn't sure how much longer he could handle working with the man everyday and seeing the contempt and dislike in his eyes.
Enough self pity. Ezra shrugged out of his customary red jacket and carefully folded it over the back of a chair. It was too warm for the coat, really, but as it was a part of his southern gentlemen image, he was loathe to abandon it. Concealed behind the saloon's doors, he watched as Chris cautiously approached the bank. He couldn't hear the man in black's words, but they didn't appear to be going over well with the cornered thieves.
The gambler watched in horror as one of the men in the bank approached the window and took aim at Chris. The leader of the seven was too far from cover to simply jump away. Thinking quickly, and damning himself for a fool even as he did so, Ezra stepped out of the saloon, into the sunlight. He knew his white shirt would act as a beacon in the bright light. Sure enough, the robber altered his aim and fired at Ezra instead.
Even as he returned fire, Ezra heard the street erupt into gunfire. The bullet from the bank burned along his arm, causing the southerner to swear as he ducked back into the saloon. He returned fire from behind the cover of the doors, and was fairly certain that he dropped one of the thieves. Soon, all return fire from the other building ceased. Seizing the opportunity presented by the lull, the gambler turned his attention to his right arm. The shirt was a dead loss at this point, so he jerked the sleeve off completely. He could see that the bullet hadn't done more that cut a deep groove in his bicep. He tore a strip from the bottom of his shirt and quickly bandaged his bloody arm. He could deal with it later. He hurriedly hid the bloody sleeve behind the bar. He then pulled on his red jacket, and moved back to the door just in time to be seen lounging there by Vin as he came down the saloon's stairs.
"Enjoying the show?" asked the bounty hunter, looking at the gambler's casual pose.
"Very much so, I assure you Mr. Tanner. I am bitterly disappointed to see that it seems to be over. I trust you aquitted yourself well?"
"I got one of them, at least. The other two fell to the boys outside."
"Congratulations." Ezra walked over to the bar. The bartender was nowhere in sight, so he moved behind the bar himself and began to set up a row of drinks. He knew he could use one; his left arm was on fire. Playing cards was going to be devilishly hard for the next few days. He reflected that it could always be worse. It could be his right arm that was injured.
"Are you all right?" asked Vin, his voice hesitant.
"I'm perfectly fine, Mr. Tanner, I assure you. Why on earth do you ask?" He carefully poured the whiskey into the shot glasses. Had the other man seen something? He thought he was covering his injury fairly well.
"I thought I saw one of them fire in this direction."
Damn. "You must have been mistaken. I was of course doing my best to contribute to the fight, but I doubt any of the miscreants inside the back were able to see me."
"That's why you were hiding out in here?" asked Nathan, as he and the other four men entered.
"Mr. Jackson, I was merely following your suggestion. Would you gentlemen care for a drink?" He threw back his whiskey, finishing it as quickly as possible. He needed to get away. He could see that Chris was unhurt, standing by the bar as impassively as ever. He surreptitiously tucked the sleeve further out of sight; he'd have to retrieve it later. "If you gentlemen will excuse me, I find that this afternoon's excitement has been a bit much for my admittedly delicate sensibilities. If you have no further need of me?"
No one bothered to reply, so he exited the room with a quick tip of his hat. Once he was upstairs in his room, he removed his jacket. He pulled off the tattered remains of his shirt, and set about cleaning himself up.
It wasn't that he didn't respect Nathan's abilities as a doctor; in fact, he thought the other man was a fine healer, considering the conditions under which he usually worked. It was more the fact that Ezra couldn't stand the contempt in the other man's eyes anytime their gazes crossed. He preferred to take care of his own wounds rather than face it. Besides, it wasn't as though he wasn't accustomed to taking care of himself. He had been doing so for as long as he could remember; his mother had always been too preoccupied with the con games she was running to pay much attention to him.
After his arm was roughly bandaged, he lay back on his bed. Time to catch a little rest before going down to work in the saloon. Besides, shirking the clean up work was just what a lazy, shiftless gambler would do, and he would hate to disappoint the others.
Downstairs, Nathan, Buck, and JD had left to go take care of the bodies of the former thieves. The rest of the seven stayed in the saloon, finishing the drinks Ezra had left for them.
Vin was frowning in concentration into his drink, obviously preoccupied with something. Brow still furrowed, he moved to stand behind the bar, where he began to poke around at the shelves.
"What are you doing?" asked Chris.
"Something's not right. I know I saw one of the men in the bank fire at the saloon, and Ezra wasn't acting right."
"What was wrong with him?" asked the man in black sharply.
"I think...yes!" The bounty hunter pulled out a bloody strip of cloth. "I knew I heard gunfire down here. The damn fool got shot, and he's hiding it."
"Why? I know he and Nathan have had their differences, but I didn't know it was so bad that he wouldn't ask for help if he was hurt." Chris was surprised by how furious he was. He always had trouble controlling his emotions where the gambler was concerned, which is why he tried to avoid the man. The thought of him getting hurt, and not having anyone to take care of him was infuriating to him. He was torn between running up the stairs and shaking the green-eyed man, and running up the stairs and caring for his injuries.
"Hold on just a moment, Chris," Josiah said quietly. "Ezra is a private man; I don't think he has a lot of experience asking people for help. I get the feeling that he is used to relying on himself for everything."
"That doesn't excuse him for lying to us," Chris said stubbornly. How could Ezra do this? Didn't he know how much he worried Chris whenever he got hurt, got into any type of trouble?
"He probably doesn't think of it as lying," Josiah said, his tone sad. "You have to admit that we've always treated him as a bit of an outsider. I've gotten over what happened at the Seminole village, but I don't think I've let him know that. Hell, Nathan can barely stand the man. Is it anyone wonder he doesn't want to trouble us with something like this?"
Vin shook his head. "I don't like this either. If Ezra can't trust us enough to tell us when he's hurt, what's gonna happen to him in the future? He's gonna get himself killed because he won't ask for help." He sighed. "Someone's gonna have to talk to him."
Staring at the bloody cloth on the bar, Chris said, "I'll do it." He had to. He was the leader of the group, and one of his men was in trouble. Even if the man aroused feelings in him he would rather not acknowledge, it was his duty to try to help him.
"That would be best, I think," Josiah agreed. "I think you and Ezra need to talk."
Chris stared sharply at him. "What do you mean?"
"I try to be a man of God, brother Chris, and God is love. I try to recognize Him wherever he may be, or whomever he may be between."
"How did you...what are you talking about?"
"Chris," Vin interposed, "there is something between you and Ezra. Both of you hide it well, but it is there to see for anyone who take the time to watch. Each of you are too worried about the other finding out to see what is right in front of you."
The gunslinger glared at his two friends. "I don't like it when people team up on me."
"We're your friends, Chris." Josiah held up his hands placatingly. "God knows, I want to be Ezra's friend as well. What is between you is your own business, but you need to do something about it. Now, before we lose Ezra to whatever demons he carries with him."
The man in black poured himself another drink. Fine. He was attracted to Ezra. That didn't mean he had to do anything about it. Except now he knew the other man might feel the same. He felt a stirring of excitement. The thought of those green eyes, turned on him, filled with love and passion filled him with a warmth that was more than just physical. "Do you have any other helpful suggestions?" he asked, not looking up from his drink.
"Yeah. Don't try to talk to him in town. That'll give him too many chances to get away from you and avoid the whole deal." Vin grinned. "Lord knows, I've never been able to pin him down for any length of time while in Four Corners. Tell him he's going on patrol with you. Make up a story about rustlers in the area, or something."
Chris nodded. "I'm gonna do this. The sooner the better." He paused. "How many people know about us? Not that there's anything to know yet, but-"
"I know what you mean. I think me and Josiah are the only one's who've noticed. Buck's too wrapped up in JD to see anything else, and Nathan doesn't pay any more attention to Ezra than he absolutely has to. Your secret's safe with us. Not that it has to be a secret."
"We're your friends," Josiah added. "Friends stick with friends."
"Thanks. I mean that." Chris finished his drink, then glanced at Vin. "Anything else?"
"One more thing. Go slow. Take your time. Too many sudden movements, and he'll take off. He's one of the most skittish people I've ever seen."
The gunslinger nodded. "All right, then. I'm going to do this." He grinned. He was going to do it. If everything worked out...holding an image of Ezra's eyes, alight with emotions meant for him alone, Chris headed for the stairs.
Lying on his bed, Ezra was completely unprepared for the knock at his door. "Who is it?" he called, allowing some irritation to bleed into his voice. He didn't want to see anyone. He was too busy feeling maudlin and sorry for himself to make idle conversation.
"It's Chris. Open the damn door, Ezra. I need to talk to you."
Damn! Just what he needed: to be dressed down by the man he was pitying himself for loving. It would help to make the day perfect. Perfectly miserable, that was. "Just a moment." He scrambled off the bed and grabbed a shirt, and hurriedly pulled it on, concealing his bandaged arm. He walked over to the door and cracked it open. "Mr. Larabee, how may I help you? I was attempting to enjoy some relaxation." He kept his eyes on the other man's forehead, and did his best to sound bored.
The other man looked at him intently, almost as though he was searching for something in his eyes or his expression. "You'll have to relax later, Ezra. Word of rustlers just came in, and it's our turn to go on patrol."
Perfect. He knew he never should have gotten out of bed this morning. "There must be some sort of error. I am sure that Mr. Tanner would be delighted to go and search out these rumored ruffians. Have you asked him if he would like to go with you?"
"Vin's got things to take care of in town. Get some stuff together. We probably won't be back for a few days."
Days? Ezra wondered how he had managed to anger God so much that he was being set up for this torture. Going on patrol with Chris, where the other man could see how little he knew of roughing it in the wild, and grow to despise him more. Wonderful. He must have committed some grievous sin while he wasn't paying attention.
He tried again to reason with the other man. "Mr. Larabee-"
"Ezra, it's our turn." The blue-eyed man hesitated for a moment. "Please," he added, in an unusually soft tone.
That wasn't fair. How was Ezra supposed to resist him now? "Fine, Mr. Larabee. I trust you will be gathering the supplies we'll need?"
"I'll take care of it. I'll meet you in the stables in an hour."
"One hour, sir. I'll see you then."
The gunslinger hesitated a moment in the doorway, and seemed about to speak, then turned quickly and walked away.
Ezra sighed, and closed the door before collapsing onto his bed, cradling his head in his hands with his elbows on his knees. "Whatever I have done to offend you, Lord, I heartily apologize and I beg your forgiveness," he murmured. "If you are feeling especially generous, I have a request." The gambler had never had much luck with prayer before, but Josiah seemed so confident that it could help. "I would ask that you give me the strength to get through these next few days, without giving myself away." There was so much to hide: his inexperience outside of civilization, his wounded arm, his true feelings. "Help me to make it back alive, without losing any more of this man's respect."
With a sigh, he heaved himself to his feet and began to pack. At least he wouldn't have to worry about losing money while gambling because he was distracted by pain. Now all he had to worry about was losing his place in Four Corners, and as a member of the seven. Hardly anything to be concerned over.
He hesitated a few moments, then carefully placed a bottle of whiskey in his pack. He might need the help to get through the next few days. If nothing else, he could use it to keep the gouge in his arm clean. Crude, but effective.
He also made sure that he included a sturdy deck of cards in with his things. He rifled the cards through his fingers briefly, enjoying the feel of stiff paper scratching across his fingertips. The cards: his friends, his security, his livelihood. His salvation? They could be, if they got him through this excursion alive, with his image intact.
Or maybe he'd get lucky, and there really would be rustlers lurking in the underbrush. Getting shot would solve all of his problems.
He groaned. He knew that he was letting his melancholy thoughts linger too long when he began to contemplate suicide. That was going too far. He deserved to spend a few nights sleeping on the ground if he was thinking like that. He wasn't some adolescent girl, to pine away over love.
Shouldering his pack, he decided to treat the upcoming days as a test of sorts, an opportunity to see how well he could maintain his carefully constructed image. He had been slipping lately - most recently in the saloon, when Vin almost discovered his injury. He was getting soft, forgetting all the lessons that his mother and life had drilled into him throughout his entire life. He was letting people get too close, and allowing his own emotions to cloud his judgment.
It was this friendship business. He was almost thinking of himself as a real part of the group, rather than a hanger-on, a man passing through. Ignore the fact that he wanted to stay, and to earn the friendship of the men with whom he worked. To earn the love-
He shook his head, cutting off his own train of thought. Why waste more time wishing over impossibilities? Locking his door behind him, he headed down the hall and down the stairs. Vin, JD, and Buck were sitting by the bar, talking quietly.
"Hey, Ezra. Going somewhere?" JD was still slightly flushed, revealing that he still had yet to come off of the adrenaline high of the afternoon's gun battle.
"Astute observation, Mr. Dunne. Your work as sheriff is doing wonders for your powers of perception." He smiled slightly, keeping his tone light so to remove any possible sting from his words. It could not hurt to be cordial to the boy; he was friendly to everyone. He wouldn't be giving anything away by teasing him. Besides, he did not want to incur the wrath of Buck for being rude to the young man. "Mr. Larabee has decreed that I must venture forth into the wilds in search of some rustlers, who will probably prove to be completely apocryphal."
Vin choked on his drink, and began to cough. His coughs sounded suspiciously like smothered laughter.
"Mr. Tanner, did I inadvertently say something to amuse you?"
"No," replied the bounty hunter, his voice slightly hoarse. "Just swallowed wrong."
"Mm." Ezra doubted that, but he didn't have time to pursue the issue. He had wasted too much time lost in reverie while packing to do so. "I will see you gentlemen upon my return."
"You just watch out for those rustlers, now," Buck cautioned. The tall man cast an irritated glance at Vin, who was choking again. "Keep your eyes open, and watch Chris's back."
Ezra watched Vin with narrowed eyes, but didn't press the man for an explanation. Resisting a sudden mad impulse to tell Buck that he would keep a close eye on all parts of Chris's anatomy, he replied, "I will certainly do my best to be of assistance to Mr. Larabee. I hope you gentlemen have a pleasant afternoon." He touched a finger to his hat, and walked over to the stables.
Chris stood in the shadows in the alley beside the saloon, feeling like a fool. He didn't want to seem too eager to get going; that could warn the gambler something was up. So here he was, lurking in an alley, waiting for Ezra to walk over to the livery stable so he himself wouldn't get there first and be seen waiting for him. He was acting like a kid, mooning over his first love.
He watched as the man walked across the street, looking out of place in his immaculate red coat as his boots raised tiny swirls of dust with every step he took. The gambler looked completely self-contained, as if nothing could touch him. Chris shook his head; that wasn't right. Ezra had been working and fighting with the other six men for almost a year now. He had risked his life and shed his blood, as recently as this afternoon, for the town and for them. He should be touched and effected, by the events and people of the town, and especially by the rest of the seven.
With a rueful grin, he acknowledged that if he was the one to do the majority of the touching where the gambler was concerned, that would suit him just fine. Chris had found other men attractive in the past, both before and after he had met Sarah, but this was the only time he could recall any emotion besides lust being a part of the situation. With what could be love thrown into the mix, he wasn't quite sure how to proceed. A quick affair, a few sweaty hours together wasn't going to be enough. Hell, it wasn't what he wanted at all, not completely. He wanted to hear the gambler laugh, to see him smile and feel him relax in his arms. He wanted to know that he make the other man happy, as well as make him sweat. He reminded himself of Vin's words: go slow.
Waiting a few minutes more, he walked over to the stable, where he had already stowed his gear. He entered quietly, and stopped, not wanting to disturb the scene in front of him.
Ezra was stroking Chaucer's ears, smiling fondly at the horse. He definitely thought that he was alone in the stable, or else he never would have allowed himself to look so unself-aware. The man in black hardly dared to breathe, for fear of announcing his presence.
The green eyes were clear, not shuttered or guarded as they usually were. The gambler was speaking in a quiet, soothing tone. "It seems that you and I are to embark on an adventure of sorts, my friend. Do me a favor, and try not to let me make too many mistakes, hmm? It will be a difficult task, but would hardly do for such a fine animal as yourself to been seen being ridden by a common idiot, now, would it?" He laughed softly at himself.
Chris shook his head. The obvious insecurities revealed by the other man's words were something else he would have to address when he had his talk with gambler.
He watched for a few moments longer, enjoying the sight of Ezra being completely relaxed. There was a certain tension missing from his posture, and his facial expression was open and true. Chris couldn't recall if he had ever seen him look like that before. Of course, he had never spent much time watching the other man; at least, not consciously studying him. He now realized that his gaze often ended up resting on the gambler, as if the green-eyed man were some sort of magnet for his attention.
Thanks to the close scrutiny he was paying, he realized that the other man was about to look up a moment before he did, so the gunslinger moved forward, as if he had just walked in. "You ready to go, Ezra?"
"As I shall ever be, I suppose." The gambler sounded slightly flustered; he was probably worried that Chris had overheard him.
Ignoring it, the man in black led his already-saddled horse out of the stable, knowing that Ezra would follow him. After that single incident at the Seminole village, he had always been able to count on the other man to be right behind him. Oh, he might complain and make smart remarks the whole time, but he would be there.
It was about time that Chris let Ezra know that he realized this, and appreciated it. Along with some other information. Like the way he felt. Just as soon as he got the man out of town. Grinning to himself, he mounted his horse. He wanted to get this trip started.
Ezra was somewhat confused. He was the first one to admit that he was no tracker, but it seemed even to his inexperienced eyes that Chris was not even looking for signs that rustlers had passed through the area. He should know; he spent the entire ride watching the other man as he rode along behind him. It wasn't often that he could indulge himself like that, and he wasn't going to allow the opportunity to go to waste.
Chris rode well, easy and relaxed in his customary black. His hat was pushed back, giving Ezra a clear view of the strong, handsome features of his face as he glanced around every so often. He looked so completely at home out in the wilderness. The gambler smiled inwardly. As at home as he himself looked out of place, no doubt.
He glanced at the sun hanging low in the sky. Night would be falling soon, and he didn't want to spend half the evening fumbling around in the dark trying to set up camp. He had managed not to embarrass himself yet, but he had a suspicion this was because he and Chris had done nothing except ride on a steady course south. There had been no deviations to search the brush for sign, which he believed they should have been doing. That was the purpose of the excursion, wasn't it?
He cleared his throat. "Mr. Larabee, it appears that we are fast running out of daylight. If I may suggest that we find a place to camp for the coming night?"
"Hmm? Oh. Good idea, Ezra. There's a spot just a few more minutes' ride from here that should be perfect." The man in front of him paused. "That is, if you don't mind going on a little further?"
"Not at all, sir. I have complete confidence in whatever decision you make." At least, Ezra would usually follow any suggestion of Chris's, but now he wasn't so sure. The other man was acting oddly. Since when had he ever asked for Ezra's approval about anything, much less cared about his opinion?
Something was up. The gambler's instincts were screaming at him that he was being set up somehow. Still, he trusted Chris. The gunslinger might not like him very much, but Ezra couldn't believe that he would ever hurt him. He had too strong of an innate sense of honor to do so, just one more reason the gambler admired him. He decided to continue to go along with whatever Chris was doing, at least for now. He really didn't want to try to get back to Four Corners alone in the dark, anyway. His arm was beginning to throb, and he just wanted to stop riding.
After a few minutes more of riding, they reached a small stream and a relatively large clearing, ringed by trees and brush. A circle of stones to one side of the area delineating a spot for a fire revealed that it had been used before as a campsite.
Ezra nodded approvingly. "A most suitable location, Mr. Larabee."
"Thought you'd be disappointed that there wasn't a hotel waiting for you."
Was that a note of humor in his voice? Cautiously, he replied in kind. "Now, sir, why ever would you think that? I have a great love for the wonderful outdoors. The fresh air, the clear skies, the lack of shelter, the insects, the dirt..." He was careful to let the other man see him smile, so he got that he was joking. Well, mostly joking. There was no point in irritating Chris too much. Not until he figured out exactly what was going on.
He dismounted quickly, removing all his gear from Chaucer's back. He took his time rubbing the horse down. He didn't really want to help set up camp. Besides, he enjoyed the repetitive effort required in getting his mount ready for the night. In performing the ritual, he knew he was repaying Chaucer for his service. The horse enjoyed the rub down, and it wasn't all that often Ezra was able to purposely make another being happy.
After he finished the slightly drawn out routine, he turned his attention to Chris. The other man had a fire going, and was setting a kettle over the flames to boil water.
Wandering over, Ezra placed his bedroll on the ground, along with one of his packs. He asked as he sat down a careful distance away, "It is a trifle late for coffee, is it not?"
"Not making coffee," answered Chris, paying far more attention to laying out his bedroll then the task warranted. "Thought a couple mugs of tea would be nice. It's a bit chilly out tonight." He didn't look at the gambler at all.
Now Ezra was sure something was up. Chris didn't drink tea often, and he had never gone out of his way to make it before. As far has he knew, only he himself and Josiah regularly drank it. Pulling out his deck of cards, he commented hesitantly, "Yes, it is. Some tea would be most appreciated." He paused a moment. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." The other man cleared his throat. "It, uh, should be ready in a couple minutes."
Ezra nodded, and began to shuffle the cards he held, listening to the comforting sound of stiff paper cracking against stiff paper. He swiftly dealt five standard poker hands, then gathered the cards back to himself and began to shuffle them again. He quickly shifted the cards until they were in order according to suit. He then began to shuffle again, but this time he tracked specific cards as they moved through the deck; quite a feat, since the deck was unmarked. He dealt himself a hand with the cards he had been keeping track of: perfect. He never cheated while playing for money, but that didn't mean he didn't know how.
All the manipulations were done without any real attention or conscious thought. Instead, he let his thoughts focus on two things: the man sitting across the fire from him, and what the true purpose of this trip was. The best guess that he could come up with was that there was something Chris wanted to talk to him about, and that he didn't want to do it in front of the others. Perhaps he was going to receive a lecture, after all, and the gunslinger was doing him the kindness of doing it where there would be no audience.
"Ezra?" Chris's voice broke into his reverie.
"Yes, Mr. Larabee?" He didn't look up, keeping all his attention on the cards in front of him.
Was Chris's voice nervous? The gambler looked up, and was immediately caught by an intense blue stare.
Chris held Ezra's eyes for several moments before speaking. He had been trying to get the other man's attention away form the cards he was playing with, but he hadn't been expecting him to meet his gaze so directly, so suddenly.
He licked his lips out of nervousness, and was amused and a little aroused to see the gambler's eyes immediately drop to his mouth. Keeping his voice neutral, he said, "There's something I need to talk to you about."
Ezra looked away from him at once, back down to the cards. "Mr. Larabee, I can guess what this is concerning. Please allow me to assure you that I was attempting to return fire from in the saloon, regardless of my words to Mr. Jackson." He paused. "I gave you my word that I would not run out on you again, sir, and I mean to honor my promise."
Chris was distracted by the gambler's actions. Those strong, graceful fingers, manipulating the cards with complete mastery and skill. The way they moved, so quickly and with such confidence.
He forced himself to look away, to focus again on Ezra's face, which was turned away from him. "What? No, no that's not it at all. Damn it, Ezra, I know that wherever you are, you are trying to help." The other man looked up in surprise, but he kept on going. "See, that's one of the things I need to tell you. I...I trust you to be there in a fight, like I know I can count on Buck or Vin to back me up."
The shock (and was that hope as well?) on the gambler's face quickly became suspicion. "Mr. Larabee, I don't know what to say. Might I ask what has prompted this declaration?" He obviously didn't intend to take what he had heard at face value.
Chris swore inwardly. Words had never been his strong point, and here he was, trying to use them with a man who could manipulate them as well as he could control the cards in his deck.
"A couple different things, actually. Starting with your arm."
"Which arm? As you can plainly see, sir, I have two." Chris could hear the tension under the sarcasm.
The water in the pot had begun to boil, so he began to prepare the tea as he spoke. It always seemed to help him talk if he could do something with his hands at the same time. "Vin found your sleeve, Ezra, so don't try to bluff your way out of this. I know you got hurt today. I'm guessing it's not serious, since you've covered it so well. Why didn't you go to Nathan?"
"As you so astutely deduced, the wound is minor, hardly worthy of Mr. Jackson's time or attention." Ezra smiled and shrugged, as if to prove his words by not wincing at the motion.
"All the same, I'd like to take a look at it. To ease my mind, like."
"It is quite chilly tonight, as you yourself observed. I would prefer to remain fully clothed, if it is all the same to you."
Chris shook his head. "Sorry, it's not." He picked up the two steaming mugs, and moved so that he was sitting directly beside the other man. "If I know you, you've got a bottle of whiskey in that there pack. Why don't you pull it out, and you can put a slug in the tea, and then I can see about using it on your arm. The tea'll help keep you warm while I'm checking it out."
The green-eyed man began to protest again, when Chris remembered something that had seemed to work well that afternoon. "Please, Ezra? I really want to be sure you're all right. I won't take long, I promise."
Apparently 'please' really was the magik word, because Ezra stripped off his coat and began to pull off his shirt. Of course, he complained the entire time, but the gunslinger expected nothing less.
He caught his breath and stared for a moment. Ezra must have been doing something physical while no one else was looking, or else those cards of his were a lot more effort to deal than they appeared. For a man who seemed to do nothing except gamble and drink, he had a surprisingly well-defined chest and muscled arms. Chris watched, enraptured, as the other man twisted to open his pack and pull out the bottle of whiskey, as well as a few strips of cloth.
"If you could pick up the pace of your examination, Mr. Larabee, I would be most appreciative." His voice was tight with tension.
Chris shook himself, and took the whiskey and bandages. He poured a shot of the alcohol into the tea, enough to cool the steaming liquid so it was drinkable. "Drink this, it'll help." He handed the mug to him, then quickly unwound the clumsily tied bandages on the other man's arm. As Ezra had said, the injury wasn't too serious, but it looked like it hurt like the devil. It also looked a little too red for the gunslinger's comfort.
"Damn it, Ezra, this looks like it might be on its way to getting infected." He watched the other man jump and steadfastly look away, and regretted the harsh words. Softening his tone, he continued. "I told you, I count on you to be there when I need you. I don't want to see you sick because of something like this." He wiped down the wound with the alcohol, swearing to himself that he would drag Ezra to Nathan as soon as they got back to Four Corners, just to be safe. He bound the wound carefully, not wanting to add to the smaller man's pain. When he was finished, he left one hand on Ezra's arm, feeling the smooth, warm skin that was beginning to cool in the night air.
The gambler turned to look at him directly. "Is something amiss?" The firelight played over his face, turning his quizzical expression into something mysterious. Strange. Exciting.
Chris moved his hand to the smaller man's cheek, and leaned forward. He gently kissed his lips once. Twice. The third time, he ran his tongue across the gambler's lower lip. With an involuntary moan, Ezra's mouth opened under his. For endless minutes, Chris was completely immersed in the feel of the other man's, in the taste of him and the wet glide of tongue against tongue.
All that ended as he was violently shoved away. He opened his eyes to see Ezra pulling on his shirt with lightening speed.
"Exactly what the hell do you think you are doing?" demanded the green-eyed man, his face flushed, his tone furious. "What the hell?" He got to his feet and began to back away with his eyes narrowed. "This is some sort of joke, isn't it? Mr. Wilmington is lurking somewhere in the bushes, laughing himself sick now, no doubt." He shook his head in disgust, his expression angry and hurt. He grabbed his things and walked over to his saddle, obviously preparing to mount up and leave.
Damn it all to hell! Chris had completely ignored his friends' advice, and had just rushed ahead with what he wanted, instead of moving slowly. He had given Ezra no warning, no explanation for his actions, and now the other man apparently believed he was the victim of some sort of practical joke. Had he just ruined everything?
No! "Ezra! Please wait. Give me the chance to explain." He couldn't let it end like this. "Please?" He put as much longing and remorse as he could into his voice, and prayed that it would be enough to stop the other man.
Ezra paused, lips clamped tightly together. He wanted nothing more than to leave, to saddle Chaucer and be gone. He wasn't sure that he would even return to Four Corners, save to retrieve his things and be on his way. What was going on?
He had been concentrating so hard on the feel of Chris's callused hands brushing against his bare skin, surprised by the care and gentleness in his touch as he tended to his arm. He was also trying to be sure that the other man didn't notice his reaction to the touches. He knew his shivers could be attributed to the cold, but the temperature wouldn't explain his quickened breaths or racing heart.
Then, it was as if he had slipped out of reality and into one of his favorite day dreams, the one where he and Chris were alone, and the blue-eyed man returned his love. The kiss hadn't been like the ones he usually imagined; it was far more gentle then he had ever expected. The heat, and the taste were wonderful and arousing beyond the details any of his most treasured fantasies, and he had completely given himself over to the sensations that overwhelmed him.
It was the twinge in his arm that alerted him to the fact that he wasn't indulging in one of his many visualizations. He never imagined that sort of pain in his daydreams. Once he realized that he was actually kissing Chris, he had immediately pulled away, and pushed the man in black as far from him as he had been able in his state of shock.
He didn't understand why he had kissed him. The only explanation that came to him was that this was a practical joke. Chris would never be so cruel as to tease him about his feelings; Ezra was sure of this. Besides, he had hidden his emotions too well for the other man to know about them. At least, he hoped and prayed that he had.
Every instinct within him told him to leave. If experience had taught him nothing else, it was to know when life was about to kick him in the teeth. Again. All his reasons for running were over-ruled by Chris's voice, by his plea. Damn him. Why couldn't he just laugh, so Ezra could break, and flee?
Without turning around, he asked as evenly as he could, "What do you want, Mr. Larabee?"
"Ezra, please. Don't go. Come back."
He shook his head. "You have one minute to convince me to stay, sir. Starting now." He really didn't expect a response to his ultimatum. Words had never been the other man's strong point. He was surprised, therefore, when a gentle hand landed hesitantly on his shoulder.
He flinched violently away, and held his saddle up as a shield before him. "I told you to start talking. If you don't have anything to say, then I'll be on my way."
Chris raised his hands in a gesture of peace offering. "I will talk. Just come back over to the fire. This'll take longer than a minute." He eyes met Ezra's, sincere and pleading. "Let me explain. Please."
The gunslinger must have figured out that he couldn't say no to him, not if asked correctly. With an irritated sigh, he placed his things back on the ground. "Very well," he replied, pulling on his jacket. He moved back to where he had been sitting. When Chris began to sit down beside him, he shook his head. "Other side of the fire, Mr. Larabee, or else I will be on my way back to town." Ezra cursed himself for a fool. He knew that the other man's explanation wasn't going to be the one he wanted to hear, so why put himself through this?
The man in black sat down reluctantly a few feet away. It wasn't across the fire, but Ezra wasn't going to fight with him over it. They had more important things to talk about. If Chris would ever start talking. The other man was just sitting there, his eyes locked on the gambler's face.
"I'm trying, Ezra. Just give me a moment." He looked down for a moment, then back up at the green-eyed man. "This isn't about some sort of joke. There's no one else here, just you and me."
"Then why?" He couldn't finish the question. Not out loud, in front of the man who held his heart in his hands, albeit unknowingly.
"Because I wanted to," the gunslinger replied. "Because when I saw you sitting there, in the light from the fire and the shadows, I couldn't help myself." He reached out to Ezra, a move that died as the gambler scooted farther away.
The green-eyed man shook his head. "Might I remind you have seen me by firelight before, Mr. Larabee, and you were able to control yourself admirably then." He wanted to believe the words, but he couldn't it. The very fact that Chris had said them caused him to doubt his sanity - or his state of wakefulness. Perhaps this was a dream after all. He crossed his arms, and surreptitiously put pressure on his upper left arm.
Damn, but that hurt. He was must be awake. That meant that the next most likely scenario was that he was insane. The other man spoke, interrupting his confused thoughts.
"Yeah, I've seen you before, but that was before I admitted to myself what I was feeling for you." Chris paused, obviously struggling with the words. He reached out and picked up the deck of cards Ezra had abandoned in his rush to retreat from the camp. He slowly began to rifle them through his hands, with the care of one unfamiliar with the action. "When I found out that you were hurt, and you didn't tell anyone, I wanted to rush up to your room and check on you, make sure you were all right and do anything I could to help you." He smiled crookedly. "That, or kill you myself for scaring me, but I'd miss you too much to do it."
The gambler shook his head in surprise, but he returned the smile minutely. "I still don't quite understand."
"Getting so upset over you being hurt made me wonder why it shook me up so bad. I mean, I don't like it when the others are injured, but I take it personal when you do. That got me to thinking, along with some things Josiah said to me. I realized that I never want you to be hurt because I'm in love with you." He swallowed visibly. "As in love with you as you are with me, I think."
Ezra stared at him. There it was, the declaration he had been waiting for, for what was beginning to feel like forever. Everything he had been hoping for and wishing over, laid out in front of him like a precious gift. He felt a great rush of joy well up within him, a mix of happiness and hope and relief.
Then reality crashed in on him as he remembered who he was, and the rules that life had drilled into him. Looking directly at the other man, he shook his head firmly.
Chris stopped fidgeting with the cards, fingers stilled by shock losing their grip on them. He had barely managed to get the get the words out, but he had done it. Of all the responses he had been expecting to his words, flat denial of them wasn't one of them. "What do you mean, no?"
"I mean exactly what I said. You are confused, sir, and come tomorrow morning you will thank me for being the one to keep my head."
"What are you talking about?"
The gambler sighed, staring resolutely into the flames. "Mr. Larabee, you are the leader of our small group, and you do a commendable job. As the months have passed, you have no doubt come to feel a great deal of responsibility toward the rest of us, as your men. A man with a such a strong sense of honor as yourself could hardly help himself. Things have been relatively peaceful in Four Corners for the past few weeks. My injury is the first to befall any of us in quite some time. You are no doubt feeling guilty, for no reason, might I add. You have confused guilt and relief that I am not badly hurt for love." His tone was matter-of-fact, but his voice was far from steady.
"Please let me finish, sir. I am not certain how Mr. Sanchez discovered the feelings I have developed for you, or why he told you about them, but he should not have. In your confusion, you have decided that you must love me in return, because that will explain what you are feeling now." He smile painfully. "It is not that difficult to understand. You will agree with me when you wake tomorrow, and thank you from making a grievous mistake that you will no doubt bitterly regret."
"Damn it Ezra, you're not listening to me. I love you. Why do you think I kissed you?"
The other man cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Please don't take offense at this, but have you ever experienced such interest in another man, and acted upon it?"
Chris flushed. "Yeah. It's been awhile, but yeah."
Ezra laughed shortly, a sound devoid of amusement. "There is your answer, then, Mr. Larabee. I am aware that I am not unattractive. When you put that together with what you are feeling now, and what you have learned about me, your reaction is entirely understandable." He paused, refusing to look over at the gunslinger. "I feel that I should let you know that my emotions should cause you no concern. I have no intention whatsoever of acting upon them, and I am sure they will soon fade and pass. If you could conveniently forget what Mr. Sanchez told you, I am sure that we will be able to put this incident behind us."
Chris shook his head in frustration. "I don't want to forget tonight, or what I've said. I'm a grown man, Ezra. I've been in love; I know what it feels like. This isn't guilt or relief or anything else. It's love, Ezra, and I'm in love with you." He moved over closer to the smaller man, who to his relief didn't try to back away again. Staring earnestly into his face, he asked, "Why can't you believe me?"
The green-eyed man swallowed hard and shook his head negatively.
"Please, Ezra. Tell me."
"How can I believe you? Mr. Larabee, you don't even respect me, much less like me. How can you be in love with me?"
Chris stared at him. Not like him? Why did Ezra think that? Sure, he didn't spend as much time with him as the other men, but he and Buck went way back, and he and Vin had so much in common that they just naturally found themselves together. He didn't spend much time in the saloon, where the gambler could usually be found. That couldn't be enough to convince the other man that he didn't like him, could it?
He groaned. Of course it could be. One of the reasons he had wanted to talk to Ezra was to explain to him that he had more than compensated for his actions when they first met. He needed to do so because the green-eyed man still though his position as tenuous with the seven, with him, as it had been in his first weeks, else he never would have tried to hide his injury.
In his rush to tell the gambler how he felt, he had completely forgotten to tell the other man that in any more than passing, and to be sure that he believed it. His advances and his words must have seemed like they were coming completely out of nowhere to the gambler. No wonder he wasn't willing to believe what he heard.
He should have remembered Vin's advice. He had managed to stop the other man from leaving altogether, but he was clearly uncomfortable about staying. He needed to fix this, and fast. But how?
"What will it take to convince you?"
Ezra flicked a lightning fast glance at him. "I don't that you will be able to, sir. You may have temporarily lost your mind, but that does not mean that I am going to join you in your insanity. You will thank me for it, probably as soon as we get back to town." His lips were twisted into a bitter parody of a smile. "As soon as you realize how close you came to having to face your friends and tell them that you loved me, you will understand, and be grateful."
"It's a little late for that, considering that Josiah and Vin already know."
The gambler was startled into facing him. He stared for long minutes before speaking. "Oh, I am sorry, Mr. Larabee. Perhaps you will be able to pass it off as a joke. After all, if I don't believe you, then why should they? I am sure the situation is salvageable."
Chris held the other man's gaze with his own, trying desperately to read the green eyes. He saw hope lurking in their depths, which fueled the hope he himself felt. Ezra wanted to believe him, he could tell. Hearing that Chris had already told people had prompted the biggest response he had gotten from the man so far. All right. He could work with that.
"They believed me, Ezra. They're the ones who helped me to convince myself to tell you how I feel."
"Then perhaps it is you, sir, who has been the target of a joke. Although this is the sort of humor I would expect Mr. Wilmington to devote time and effort to, rather than the other two gentlemen."
Time and effort....With a sudden burst of inspiration, Chris knew how he could convince the gambler of his sincerity, and get him to accept his declaration of love. "It's no joke. Not to them, and not to me. And I'm gonna prove it to you."
He didn't give the other man a chance to again profess his doubt. Moving slowly, he leaned forward and carefully took one of Ezra's hands in both of his. "Ezra Standish, I have fallen in love with you. May I have your permission to court you?"
Chris refused to relinquish his hold on the other man's hand. "I told you I'm gonna convince you I'm telling the truth. When we get back to Four Corners, I'm gonna woo you, until you believe me and tell me you love me too."
Ezra stared at Chris, stunned into immobility. He wanted to court him? Where had this come from? He was more confused then before. The gunslinger seemed so sure of himself, of his emotions, that he wanted to believe him. That was the thing that scared him: how badly he wanted to be able to believe that the other man was telling the truth.
But Ezra knew how things worked in his world. The moment that he let himself hope, then everything would just come crashing down on him. Every time when as a child he thought his mother might stay with him, or take him with her on what she called her "grand adventures", he was disappointed. He usually ended up the unwilling guest of unwilling hosts, ignored and put up with until his mother again returned. That was the first, and hardest, time he had learning how the world worked. Other lessons had come in time, taught by the friends who abandoned him when his lucked turned and the money ran out, and the lovers who had never cared enough about him to stay.
He wanted to believe, but he couldn't let himself. He took refuge in anger once again. "You want to court me? Do I look like a woman to you, Mr. Larabee? A southern belle awaiting a suitor?" He tried to pull his hand away, but to no avail.
The other man didn't react as he thought he would. Instead of getting angry, he just smiled and shook his head. "No, I am very aware that you are a man. A handsome, intelligent man, who is too stubborn to accept what I am saying to him. You're no woman, Ezra, although you're a site more contrary than any woman I ever met. That's where the courting comes in. I don't know how else to convince you that I mean what I say."
Ezra continued to stare at him, rendered speechless by the light in the other man's eyes. The gambler made his living reading other people, learning to tell how a man was feeling, no matter how he tried to hide it. All his experience told him that Chris was entirely sincere, at least at this moment. He opened his mouth to speak, but Chris didn't give him a chance.
"It's late. I think I'm ready to turn in. How 'bout you?" He chafed the gambler's hand gently within his own. "It's getting colder. Did you bring enough blankets?"
Ezra began to sway toward him involuntarily. When he caught his own actions, he pulled himself back abruptly, but didn't try to again free his hand. "I assure you, sir, that I have adequate bedding for the temperature. I agree that going to bed would be a good idea. The sooner we sleep, the sooner this day will be over."
Chris nodded. "The sooner tomorrow will come, and I can prove to you how I feel." He didn't release the green-eyed man's hand; instead, he turned it over within his grasp and began to massage the palm with his thumb. "I'd like to kiss you goodnight," he said softly, holding the other man's gaze with his own.
Ezra licked his lips, but shook his head. "I am afraid that the kiss you stole earlier will have to suffice, Mr. Larabee. I am a gentleman, and have certain standards to uphold. Why, you have yet to even buy me dinner!" He smiled at the other man, hoping his joke would cover how much the soft kneading of his hand was effecting him.
Chris smiled in return, but still maintained his hold on the long-fingered hand. Lifting it, he brushed a quick kiss across the sensitize palm, then let it go. "Goodnight, then. Pleasant dreams." He moved over to where his bedroll lay and began to prepare for sleep.
Ezra stared after him, his hand curled into a fist, as though trying to hold onto the elusive kiss that had barely touched it. He came back to himself after a moment, and cleared his throat. "Pleasant dreams," he echoed, then turned his attention to his own nightly ritual.
The next morning, the gambler lay in his blankets, contemplating the events of the night before. He was reluctant to rise, fearing that the new day would prove his doubts to be true, and that the other man would be there, red-faced with embarrassment, begging him not to tell anyone about his words.
Finally, he decided he couldn't hide beneath his blankets any longer. He lifted a corner, and peered cautiously around the campsite. The gunslinger was nowhere to be seen.
Momentarily alarmed, Ezra sat up quickly. His head free of the blankets, he was able to hear splashing coming from the stream. That explained the other man's absence, then. With a muffled groan, he pulled himself free of his bedding. He quickly gathered his things together, because a man should always ready for a hasty departure. That done, he poured himself a cup of the waiting coffee, and looked off toward the stream.
He forgot entirely about the mug in his hand as he watched Chris. Bare to the waist, the other man was taking advantage of the water for a quick wash, despite the cold temperature. Crouching on the bank, he was splashing water up, and over the back of his neck, to run down through the hair of his hanging head.
The gambler's mouth went dry. He didn't even realize that he was staring until the other man looked up and caught his gaze. Chris smiled, and Ezra returned it without thought, until he realized who he was staring at, and that the gunslinger would know why.
Flushing, he turned away, and took a sip of his too-hot coffee. He spat out the burning liquid with a curse.
Footsteps behind him warned him a moment before the blue-eyed man spoke. "Is there something wrong with the coffee? I tried not to make it too strong, I know you don't like it like that."
"The coffee is fine. I was a little to hasty in my imbibing of it, that is all, Mr. Larabee."
"Ezra, do you think you could call me Chris?" His voice was plaintive.
Never having heard that tone form the gunslinger before, Ezra turned to face him, and watched as he pulled on a shirt. "Mr. Larabee, I would never presume to be so familiar-"
"But I want you to be, Ezra. It's an awkward thing to call the person who loves you, isn't it?" He raised his eyebrows a took a step closer.
"Chris. It's not a hard name. Hell, even Buck can handle it."
Ezra had to smile at that. "No, it is not a difficult name. Habit are hard to break, however." He felt a little burst of elation. The gunslinger was apparently going to carry through with his campaign, after all. He didn't allow himself to hope. Well, not too much anymore.
"I'll just have to make sure that you get plenty of practice using it, then."
For the rest of the morning, the other man was unusually solicitous and talkative. Ezra wasn't quite sure how to handle it; he was used to being the one to make conversation, and be ignored by the man in black. He didn't know how to act now that their roles had been reversed. In the end, he decided to just go with the flow for the time being. He was fairly good at that.
He was disappointed when the other man made no more physical moves toward him. Instead, the gunslinger kept a firm distance between them, as if respecting some boundary that had been set. Ezra knew that he had been the one to make the other man back off, but he was deflated all the same. The touches last night had been electrifying, and he found that his eyes began to glaze over if he thought too intently about the kiss they had shared.
As soon as Four Corners came into sight, the gambler began to wait for Chris to fall back into his former mode of behavior. To his surprise, the other man continued to make conversation as he rode deliberately beside him.
Once in town, Ezra quickly settled Chaucer back into the livery stable, although he didn't skimp on the usual grooming ritual for the horse. After he had put the curry comb away, he leaned against the animal for a moment, and murmured, "Old friend, I do believe that you may the only one of use who did not lose his mind on this trip." With a final fond scratch to Chaucer's ears, he left the stable and headed over to the saloon.
Josiah was inside, sitting at a table with Nathan and talking. The conversation ended as the gambler entered. "Ezra!" exclaimed the big man. "I didn't expect to see you back so soon. Is everything all right?"
Ezra cast a rueful glare at the other man. "Everything is fine, Mr. Sanchez. Surprisingly, we found no sign of the rumored rustlers, so we have returned. In all, it was an uneventful, fruitless trip." He kept his tone light, and careless. He knew that Josiah was hoping to hear something different, but the gambler wasn't going to oblige him. While he was grateful to know that the older man cared about him, he really didn't appreciate having other people interfere with his life. Even if his interference had brought Ezra closer to seeing his dream come true than ever before.
The preacher looked somewhat disconcerted. "So Chris came back as well, then?"
"Oh yes, of course. What, did you think Mr. Larabee and I had a falling out, or some such unpleasant incident?" He laughed, and grinned honestly to see the other man squirm with discomfort. He tipped his hat, toward them, and headed up the stairs.
Chris grinned to himself as he walked over to the saloon. He could tell that Ezra had been extremely confused by his actions today, and he was enjoying keeping the other man off balance. So long as the gambler was unsure of himself, Chris could maintain some control over the situation, which he needed to do if he was ever going to make the other man believe that he was sincere.
He was somewhat surprised to discover that he enjoyed talking to the green-eyed man. Usually he thought of conversation as a chore, an unnecessary act that people used to fill time. Talking with Ezra was different; the other man had a sly wit, and some truly good insights. He found himself opening up a bit to the other man. At first this had taken conscious effort, but soon he realized that it got easier with time.
In all, he felt that the beginning of his campaign was a success. The gambler still called him "Mr. Larabee", but he was no longer insisting that Chris was either part of an elaborate conspiracy, or insane. He knew things weren't going to be as easy as he had hoped, but now he was sure that his plan would work in the end. As big a show of aloofness as he was putting up, Ezra was just as obviously wanting to believe in him. He just need a bit of a push, a little more proof, which the gunslinger would be more than happy to provide.
As he entered the saloon, he could hear two men speaking. Nathan and Josiah were sitting at a table in one corner, talking intently. He walked over quietly, not wanting to disturb them.
"I don't like it," Nathan was saying. "We should probably go and check on Chris."
"I'm sure he's fine. Ezra didn't mean anything by what he said."
"Yeah, then why are you so upset? Damn it, I didn't like it when I heard that Chris was taking that no-account with him to go search for sign. What use could he be anyway? Chris has got to be crazy, thinking that he can trust him."
"Well, I don't know about that," Chris drawled, as he stepped closer to the table.
The two men jerked and looked up in surprise. "Chris! So you are back. I take it you didn't have any luck?" Josiah was hinting carefully, trying to sound him out about the trip.
"I wouldn't say that."
"Ezra said that you didn't find any sign," Nathan objected. "Not that I believed him."
"I don't know why you wouldn't. The man may be a card sharp, but he has never outright lied to us before." Chris had heard all of this before. Hell, he had even agreed with the other man at one time. Not anymore. Not after having stopped and taken a good look at the past, and the rest of Ezra's actions since their first trial by fire together.
"Back at the Seminole village-"
"Ezra made a mistake, Nathan. All men make mistakes. He's been trying to make up for it ever since, and he's done a damn fine job of it." He knew he was coming across too vehemently, but he couldn't help it. Not now, when he knew how deeply Ezra felt every criticism, how keenly every doubt could cut him.
"So besides not finding any rustlers, the trip went well?" Josiah cut in, trying to head off an argument.
"As well as can be expected. What is it people say? Rome wasn't built in a day." He shrugged. "You've got to wait and work for anything worth having. I guess I've got it to do." He smiled a little. "Thanks for your advice, friend. You were right."
"Of course I was." The big man grinned hugely. "I think I'm going to go work on the church some more. God is working his way toward a miracle, and I would like to show Him my appreciation." He pushed back his chair and was gone.
Nathan shook his head. "I don't understand any of this."
Chris took pity on him. "Look, this is mostly between Ezra and me. I'll let you know more about it when we're ready to tell you, all right?"
"I guess it'll have to be, won't it?"
A soft sound from the stairs distracted them. Ezra soon appeared, dressed in new clothing and looking freshly washed. He paused for a moment when he saw Chris, than gathered his thoughts together and stepped the rest of the way into the saloon.
"Mr. Larabee, did you by any chance pack away my deck of playing cards amongst your belongings? I seem to have misplaced them."
"I think I might have. I'll go check for you."
"There is no need to do so right now, sir. I certainly have other decks."
Chris shook his head. He wanted to press the other man about using his first name, but knew better than to do so in front of other people. That was a sure way to get the other man to bolt. An idle thought occurred to him. Why was the gambler so dependent on cards? Sure, he used them to earn his living, but he was never without them, even when there was no chance of initiating a game. The gunslinger resolved to ask the other man about it the next chance he got.
Which would be soon, if he had any say in the matter. He wanted to talk to Vin first, and get a little more advice before he put his plan for tonight into action. Staring at the other man, resplendent in a vest and white shirtsleeves, he grinned. The other man returned his smile, a bit uncertainly.
Oh yeah. This was going to be a challenge. But the prize was one he was willing to do just about anything to win.
And he was going to make damn sure that both of them had a good time in the process.
Ezra watched as the man in black left the saloon, not moving until he was out of sight. He was struggling to keep his face in its usual mask of amusement, instead of settling into an expression of amazed gratitude. He had seen Chris come into the saloon from his window, and had hurried down the stairs as quickly as he could, yet stayed silent, so the men in the saloon would not know of his presence. He wasn't sure what he had been expecting to hear, but he had wanted to know what the gunslinger had to say to Josiah about the events of the trip.
He had done his best to ignore Nathan's words about him; they were nothing new. What was new was Chris's reaction. Instead of ignoring the words, and implicitly agreeing with them, the gunslinger had instead defended him. He had repeated the same sentiments that he had expressed to the gambler when they were alone, only now he was in front of other people, with no way of knowing that Ezra could hear him.
Against his will, he was beginning to believe in Chris. He wasn't quite ready to trust in his declarations of love, but he now knew that the other man was sincere in his statement of trust. Why else would he be standing up on Ezra's behalf?
He didn't reveal himself to Chris. He didn't have any idea of what to say to the other man, so he just pretended as if he hadn't heard, and kept all elation out of his voice when he spoke to him.
Now that the gunslinger was gone, he turned his attention to the healer, as he was the only person besides the bartender left in the saloon. "Mr. Jackson, is there any chance that I can interest you into in a game of chance, to pass the time?" He question was a bluff; his arm was beginning to ache again, and he wasn't up to covering it while playing cards.
"No, sorry. I've got actual work to do today." He pushed back from the table and stood.
"The offer stands, sir, for any time that you have free." He smiled and spread his arms in invitation. While he and the other man didn't get along, he truly did respect him. He doubted they could ever really be friends, but it would be nice if they could be something less then enemies.
The healer shook his head. "Maybe later, but don't count on it." He left without a backward glance.
Ezra sighed. He had tried. Looking at the empty saloon, he shook his head. There was no point in staying downstairs, so after a nod toward the bartender, he went back upstairs to finish unpacking.
Hours later, evening had fallen, and Ezra had run out of excuses for staying in his room. There was nothing left to be cleaned, no long neglected letters to reply to, no weapon that hadn't been checked and cleaned.
He admitted to himself that he was reluctant to go down and have to face Chris. He didn't like not knowing what to expect, and the gunslinger had been confounding his expectations so much that he no longer knew what to think.
He stared at his reflection in the mirror. His red coat was free of wrinkles and dust, and every article of clothing was perfectly in place. For a moment, he looked at himself. Nothing about him had changed, not that he could see. His hair was the same golden color it had always been, his eyes the same green. His face was the same. He gave himself a carefully practiced smile. Good, that looked as good as it always had. He had been a bit worried that his inner turmoil might be showing, and was relieved to know that it wasn't visible.
He nodded at his reflection, and even threw a wink at himself.
He couldn't put it off any longer. Catching up one of his many decks of cards, he left his room, locking as always behind him.
The saloon was far livelier than it had been that afternoon, with men lining the bar and filling the tables. The table where Ezra customarily held court was empty, which was rare. Usually, there were people waiting for him to arrive, so they could try to win some of their money back from him, lost in previous games.
Head cocked to one side, he walked over to the table, after nodding to the bartender to signal his desire for a drink. The reason why the table was empty immediately was made clear to him. It was covered in wildflowers of every color, spread over the table's top in a beautiful blanket of petals. At the chair where Ezra customarily sat, two roses were placed on the right arm rest, white and red, their stems intertwined.
It appeared that Chris's campaign had begun.
The gambler shook his head, and began to carefully clear the table of its floral covering, placing the wildflowers on one chair. The roses he placed on the table beside his deck of cards. He hoped that no one approached him right away about a game; he was too distracted to play with any skill.
It wasn't the flowers themselves that were effecting him so much, causing the fluttering in his stomach, or the constant twitching at the corners of him mouth from the smile that refused to be suppressed. He had never been a huge fan of flowers; they were pretty, and he could appreciate their scent, but other than that he was fairly ambivalent towards them.
The thought and effort that Chris must have put into the gathering of them and arranging of them on the table were what moved him. The gunslinger must have spent a good hour just in the picking of them, not too mention the difficulty in transporting them to the saloon, and laying them on the table. Ezra wasn't even sure where he had gotten the roses from.
Touching the petals gently, he wondered if Chris had understood the significance in the colors of the roses: red for passion, white for regard and respect. The way that the stems were braided together...
Who would have thought that Chris was such a romantic?
He felt a presence at his elbow, and looked up. The bartender stood there, holding a glass of dark amber liquid.
Ezra took it with a smile, and sipped from it. He jerked back in surprise. "Sir, I fear there has been some sort of mistake, although it has been to my advantage. I ordered whiskey, and you have given me a fine vintage of scotch."
"No mistake, Mr. Standish. This is what I was told to give you, if you asked for a drink."
"Told by whom?"
The bartender just smiled and walked away.
Ezra grinned and took another sip. A very fine vintage, indeed. This was more like it. Chris was certainly pulling out all the stops. And the gambler had no objections.
Men gradually began to drift over to his table, and Ezra began to deal, slipping smoothly into his role as the amusing, amiable gambler, cheerfully separating the other players from their money.
Playing was a little difficult, because he was distracted, both by the gifts he had been given, and by his arm, which ached more the more he used it. Despite all this, he had a successful night, never losing more than a few hands the entire evening. Soon, he found again found himself alone at the table, as the other men lost interest in losing their money to him.
He sat there still, brushing his fingers against the rose blossoms from time to time as he worked with the cards, dealing out hands to non-existent players, or merely playing solitaire. He heard the chair beside him be pulled back, and he looked up.
Straight into Chris's eyes.
Chris smiled as he walked into the saloon, which was mostly empty, except for the dedicated drinkers and a few other people. He saw Buck and JD sitting at the bar; judging from the disbelieving stare on the boy's face and Buck's grin, the older man was regaling him with tales of his sexual escapades. Again. He caught Buck's eye, and nodded in greeting, but didn't walk over.
Instead, he focused his attention on the man sitting alone at the table in the corner. His smile grew as he saw the chair covered in flowers beside Ezra. As he walked over to the table, he watched the other man stop shuffling his cards for a moment and reach out to touch the roses lying on the table beside him.
The gunslinger was reassured that the time he had devoted to picking the flowers was well spent. He hadn't been sure that his idea would work, but Vin seemed to think it was a good one. He was also thankful that he had listened when Mary Travis had explained the meanings behind the different colors of roses to her son Billy a few weeks ago. At the time, he hadn't much cared, but he was glad for the knowledge now. Judging by Ezra's expression, he too understood the symbolism of the flowers, and Chris had chosen correctly. He had wanted to let the gambler know that what he felt was love, not just lust; hence the white rose beside the red.
He pulled back a chair beside the other man, who looked up and met his gaze. Chris was lost for a moment in the green eyes, shining in welcome for him. As soon as he realized he was staring, he broke eye contact and sat down.
"Mr. Larabee, it is a surprise and a pleasure to see you this evening," the gambler said, with only the slightest hint of hesitation in his voice.
Chris grinned. Keeping the other man off balance was no easy task, but it was worth it. As Vin had told him, Ezra was skittish; if Chris gave him too much time to think, he would probably over-think the situation, and take off. That was what had happened the night before, he decided. The gambler was an intelligent man, but he put too much thought into the situation and ended up coming to completely wrong conclusions.
"It's good to see you too, Ezra. I hope you had a good night?" He noticed that the other man's eyes and fingers immediately strayed to the roses beside him.
"Oh, it has been a most profitable evening, I assure you. Which is somewhat of a surprising, considering how very distracted I was." There was no censure in his voice, just amusement, and happiness.
"I didn't mean to interfere with your playing."
"Not at all, Mr. Larabee. As I said, it was a most profitable night." He paused. "Would you like to join me in a drink?" A sly smile. "Some anonymous benefactor has placed a supply of excellent scotch at my disposal, which I would be more than happy to share with you."
The gunslinger smiled. "I'd like that a lot." After Ezra signaled the bartender, and Chris had his drink, he watched in silence as the gambler finished his game of solitaire and returned to shuffling his cards.
Remembering his question from earlier that day, he asked, "Can I ask you something? Something serious?"
Ezra looked at him warily, but nodded. "I will do my best to answer you, sir."
The man in black shook his head. "Chris. My name is Chris. But never mind that now. I was wondering, why are cards so important to you? I can't remember a time I've ever seen you without a deck, even when there's no chance that you'll be able to play a game."
"Ah, but it is always best to be prepared for any eventuality, wouldn't you agree sir?" Ezra answered him glibly.
"I'm serious here, Ezra."
The other man grew still. "It really does not matter, Mr. Larabee. I don't see how it concerns you."
"Damn it, it concerns me because it concerns you. You matter to me, Ezra, you and everything that effects you. I want to know." he said intently, barely remembering to keep his voice down. "Please tell me," he added for good measure.
The smaller man licked his lips, and took a long swallow of his drink. "It's not all that mysterious, really. The first gift I can remember my mother giving me was a deck of cards she had picked up someplace. She gave them to me, and told me to amuse myself with them, and stay out of the way." His voice became distant, as did his eyes, as if he was looking into the past. His hands never ceased their skillful manipulations, however.
"I learned how to play poker before I could read and write proficiently, before I could even ride a horse. I was never able to keep many possessions with me as we moved from place to place, and I was passed from family to family while my mother was away. But a deck of cards is small, and easy to keep with you."
He took another drink, and continued. "I was not always a terribly welcome guest at the homes where I stayed, so I often found myself with a great deal of time to spend in solitary pursuits. Without other sources of amusement, I turned to my cards. Luckily, I found that I was not unskilled when it came to games of chance, so I was actually teaching myself a trade of sorts. The more I understood cards, however, the more I came to realize that poker isn't about chance. It is about rising above fortune and luck, about using one's skill to impose one's will upon the deck, and compel the cards to turn out the way in which you wish." Looking down at the cards in his hands, he said, "Every time I am able to control the way the cards fall, and the way the game turns out, I find myself hoping that I will be able to find the same control in my own life."
He looked up, as if suddenly aware that he was still speaking. He met Chris's eyes, and shrugged carelessly. "I suppose it has become a habit that I have not yet gotten around to breaking."
Chris stared at him. That was quite possibly the most honest thing the gambler had ever said to him, and the most revealing. "I don't know what to say. Thank you for telling me."
Ezra smiled brightly, but the gunslinger could tell the expression was false. "Why Mr. Larabee, it was nothing. No thanks are necessary."
"Don't do that."
"I am sure I don't know what you are talking about."
"Don't just brush it off like that. You told me more than I expected you to, and I appreciate it." He captured the other man's gaze with his own. "I told you, I want to know about you, all about you." He glanced around the room; besides Ezra and himself, Buck and JD were the only ones still in the saloon. Meeting the gambler's eyes again, he said, "I love you. Don't try to...to belittle anything about yourself. Not to me"
Ezra opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He reached out for his drink, but found that his glass was empty. He twisted in his seat to try to look for the bartender, but to no avail; the saloon was for all purposes closed, open only out of courtesy to the protectors of Four Corners.
Chris saw the wince that the green-eyed man tried to hide. "Is your arm still bothering you?" He cursed himself silently. He had been so engrossed in his plans for the flowers that he had forgotten to take Ezra to see Nathan, by force if necessary.
"The discomfort is hardly worth mentioning, sir. It is really nothing." The gambler tried to wave off his concern, but Chris was having none of it.
"Tomorrow you are going to see Nathan, so he can take a look at it." He silenced the other man's protests with a glare, even though it lacked any real heat. "It's late. Come on, let's go up to your room so I can take a look at your arm."
He waited for the other man's protests, and was surprised when none were forthcoming. Ezra merely nodded, and gathered up his cards. He also picked up the roses, cradling them carefully in his hands while casting a shy smile at the gunslinger.
Chris followed him out of the saloon, his eyes fixed on the figure in front of him. So focused was his attention that he missed the looks the two other men in the saloon cast after him; JD's confused, and Buck's appraising.
Once upstairs, Ezra found himself unsure of what to do. He reverently placed the still-connected roses onto his dresser, where he was sure they would be safe, and easily seen from any point in the room. He wanted to be able to look at them whenever he wanted to. He looked at Chris hesitantly, looking to him for a clue what to do next.
The gunslinger was leaning back against the closed door, a soft smile on his face. "Why don't you let me take a look at that arm?" he suggested, his eyes fixed on Ezra.
The gambler nodded, and stripped off his jacket, taking the time to hang it up within his closet. As he unbuttoned his jacket, he realized that the other man was grinning at his actions. He raised an eyebrow. "Maintaining sartorial elegance is no laughing matter, Mr. Larabee. It requires constant effort and attention to detail." He was pleased when the other man laughed at his words.
It took him longer than usual to unbutton his vest, his fingers made clumsy by nervousness. The man in black's presence was enough to disconcert him terribly. Finally, he had the garment off, and it too was hung in the closet. As he undid the buttons on his cuffs, he said diffidently, "I feel somewhat foolish, as I am the only one removing any clothing. You can remove you coat, if you wish."
Chris looked surprised, but he nodded. As he removed his jacket, Ezra gave him a careful once over. The other man was still dressed in his customary black, but his pants and shirt were spotless, and looked as though they had been pressed. He removed his hat as well, revealing hair that had been brushed until it shone.
The gambler smiled. While there was something to be said for the man dressing a little better, he missed the air of rugged toughness he usually projected. He was amused; not very smart, he warned himself, being attracted to someone who seemed to exude danger. But then, when had the heart ever followed the advice of the mind?
He pulled off his shirt, and stood facing Chris. The gunslinger approached him slowly, his gaze traveling up and down the gambler's body. Ezra shivered, and wished that he could pass it off to the chill of the air, but his room was warm, snug and filled with candlelight.
Chris stopped in front of him. He reached out, but didn't touch the smaller man. His hand hovered over Ezra's shoulder. "Why don't we sit down for this?"
The gambler nodded, and took a moment to grab a candle and a few strips of cloth, which he laid on the table beside his bed. He saw that Chris had filled his wash bowl with water, and had placed it on the table as well.
He sat down, and watched as the gunslinger sat beside him. He smiled a little nervously. "Shall we begin?" he suggested.
Chris nodded. He unwrapped the bandages he had so carefully tied the next before with even more care, if it was possible. Ezra stared at his fingers as they worked, living for each moment when the other man touched his bare skin.
When his arm was finally bare, Chris reached over to the table and grabbed the candle. He held the flame a safe distance from the arm in front of him. "It's still too red, Ezra. You need to go see Nathan tomorrow."
The gambler shook his head. "I'm sure it will be all right, sir. Just give it some time."
"No, damn it, I'm not going to do that."
"You don't have to do anything, Mr. Larabee. It is my arm. Not yours." He didn't want to go to Nathan, but he didn't want to fight with Chris either. He stared pleadingly at the other man, hoping that he would just let it go.
Luck wasn't with him. The gunslinger shook his head firmly. "You're going, even if I have to drag you there myself." He wet a strip of cloth and began to gently wash the gambler's arm. His touch was careful and caring, and Ezra felt no discomfort from his efforts. "You could get sick, if you try to ignore this. I'm not willing to take that risk." Blue eyes met green. "Why are you fighting me on this?"
The smaller man looked away. Instead of explaining, he said, "Very well. I will go seek out Mr. Jackson's aid tomorrow."
"I'll go with you." The man in black's offer came to quickly to have been calculated.
Ezra was grateful for the sincere offer, but he still cocked his head to one side and smiled. "Will you hold my hand?"
The other man blinked several times, then grinned. "If you want me to, I will. Hell, Ezra, I'll do whatever it takes to get you there." He re-bandaged the wounded arm, again with more care than a person would guess him capable, from his appearance. When he was finished, he again rested his hand on the gambler's shoulder. "I didn't buy you dinner," he said wistfully.
The green-eyed man licked his lips. "I do believe that the scotch is a more than ample substitute for dinner." His gaze rested on the roses as he spoke.
He returned his attention to Chris, to find that the man was staring at him fondly, and at his state of undress with obvious approval. The gambler flushed and glanced down.
A hand under his chin compelled him to look up. Chris was looking at him seriously. "I like to see your eyes," the other man admitted, gazing into them.
Ezra felt his blush deepen. "Mr. Larabee, I don't know what to say." He laughed ruefully. "You seem to have that effect on me almost constantly now."
"I know what you can say," the other man said huskily, sliding his hand up to cup the gambler's cheek.
"What would that be?" Ezra leaned into the touch, keeping his eyes locked with the gunslinger's.
"Chris," the man in black breathed as he leaned toward the green-eyed man.
Ezra jerked his head back. Was Chris calling his own name? "I beg your pardon?"
"My name. You can try calling me Chris." The gunslinger frowned at him.
The gambler laughed at himself quietly. He rubbed his cheek against Chris's hand, still on his cheek. "I think I can do that...Chris." He couldn't say anything else, because the gunslinger's mouth covered his own.
Ezra soon found himself completely lost in the kiss. His arms were wrapped around the other man, even as he himself was drawn into a strong, nearly crushing embrace. He buried one of his hands into Chris's short hair.
The gunslinger tasted even better than Ezra had remembered, and it was all over-laid with the fine taste of the scotch they had both enjoyed. He moaned low in his throat, and used his free hand to worry the buttons on Chris's shirt.
Chris had almost lost it when Ezra had rubbed his cheek against his hand. With his green eyes gone heavy-lidded in pleasure, he looked like some sort of exotic cat. And when he had practically purred the gunslinger's name...he couldn't hold himself back any longer.
When he heard the other man vocalize his pleasure, feeding his moan directly into his mouth, he had prepared to pull the other man into his lap, frantic to get more contact with him. He was brought back to himself by the feeling of fumbling fingers at the buttons of his shirt.
It took a massive amount of will power, but he pulled back, breaking the kiss. He let go of the gambler, and took those talented hands within his own.
The green eyes drifted open, dark with desire. "What? What is the matter?" he asked, leaning back toward the gunslinger.
Not believing that he was actually doing it, Chris shook his head. "I should go."
"Go? I was under the impression that you were enjoying the proceedings as much as I was." Ezra began to pull away on his own, hurt leaking into his voice.
"God, no, Ezra, it isn't that. I'm enjoying it too much, if anything."
The other man's brow furrowed in confusion. "I must admit that I don't understand."
"I promised you that I was going to court you."
"And you have done a commendable job so far, I must tell you."
"Thank you. But I haven't done a good enough job so far, because you haven't said it yet."
"I do believe that I just called you by your name."
Chris grinned, and brushed his fingers against Ezra's face. "I told you that I was going to woo you until you tell me that you love me."
The gambler looked away. "Mr. La - *Chris*. I-"
"You're not ready yet. I'm not trying to force you into a declaration. I just want you to know why I'm leaving. It's not because I want to - God, I don't want to. But I need you to believe that I love you, really believe it, before we do this." He knew what he was saying was right, even as his body screamed at him to take the man before him back into his arms and finish what they had begun, but he resisted. He wanted Ezra to have no doubts that he was loved, so he would hold nothing back when they finally came together. He wanted the gambler for the rest of his life, to be with him for the rest of their time on earth. Rushing into sex would only leave the door open for the other man's doubts to come in later, which he wanted to avoid if at all possible. What he felt was forever, and he wanted to do whatever he could to assure that it would last.
Even if it meant denying both himself and Ezra, and feeling like the biggest fool in Four Corners because of it.
He smiled at the gambler. "I'll see you tomorrow. After you wake up, I'll take you to see Nathan, all right?"
The other man shook his head. "Whatever you wish, sir. I will put myself at your disposal as soon as I arise."
Chris leaned forward and kissed him again, this time almost chastely. It was a promise, and a declaration of intent, as well as a farewell. He stood up, and looked down at the gambler, whose fingertips were resting lightly on his own bottom lip.
He had to get out of the room. Right now, before it was too late and he lost all will to leave.
He walked over to the door, catching up his coat and hat as he did so, and opened it. In the hall, he turned and looked back at the bare-chested man on the bed. "Pleasant dreams, Ezra."
"Frustrated dreams will be more likely, but I thank you for the sentiment." He smiled, dispelling Chris's fear that he might have upset him with his abrupt departure. "I wish you sweet slumber, as well."
The gunslinger closed the door firmly, and walked down the stairs. Buck and JD were still in the saloon. It was fairly obvious that they were waiting for him.
Buck leaned back against the bar and grinned widely. "Is there something you'd like to share, old friend?" He waggled his eyebrows, and winked at him.
Chris glared at him, but couldn't work up any real resentment. His friends would need to know about this. Even Buck might have some suggestions that could help him completely win the other man over. He walked over to the bar, and leaned against it, but didn't sit down.
"Right now, nothing is going on."
"Oh, I already knew that. You might not have my animal magnetism, my talent when it comes to the area of love, but you weren't gone long enough for even you to do anything serious."
Chris shook his head. "This isn't like that, Buck. I'm not out looking for a one night stand. This is bigger than that." He looked at his friend seriously. "It's important to me, and to Ezra, too. I'm asking you not to do anything to ruin it."
JD's eyes got big and round. "Do you mean you and Ezra really-"
"Care about each other? Yeah. And I'm not going to let anything jeopardize my chance with it. Buck, this means that you don't start teasing him about this. He's skittish enough as it is, and you don't need to go making it worse."
"Now, I wouldn't do that. Ezra is a handsome man." He winked. "You are a very lucky man. Why, I've half a mind-"
A sudden flare of jealously ignited within the gunslinger. "Don't get any ideas, friend. I'd hate to have to kill you."
"Whoa, whoa. Settle down. It was just a joke." The brown-haired man grinned at him, unfazed and cocky as ever.
Chris shook his head, a small smile on his face. He should be more used to his friend's teasing, but he wasn't exactly in complete control of himself where Ezra was concerned.
He glanced at the young sheriff, who was still staring at him. Had he ever been that young? "JD, is there something I can help you with?"
The other man shook his head. "It's just going to take a little getting used to. I thought Buck was just joshing me when he told me, and now it's true." He licked his lips and looked down at the bar.
Chris met Buck's eyes. The mustached man shrugged a little, a wistful smile on his face. "Don't fret about this, JD," the older man told his young friend. "Sometimes love shows up in the most unexpected places."
"It might help if you go talk to Josiah," Chris suggested. He didn't want the situation to cause any problems within the seven. The preacher could help JD with any questions or moral dilemmas he might have.
"Josiah knows?" The young man looked up.
"Yeah. Talk to him tomorrow." Chris nodded at the other men, and left the saloon. As he walked into the street, he paused and looked up toward Ezra's window. Even as he watched, the light went out, telling him that the gambler had gone to bed. The gunslinger stood in the street, wishing fiercely that he had been the one to blow out the candle, and then take Ezra in his arms and-
Shaking his head, he broke off his train off thought. Leaving had been difficult enough; he didn't want to make himself completely crazy. With a sigh, he walked off. Alone.
But hopefully, not for much longer.
Ezra scowled up at the sun, squinting as he stepped out into the street. The prediction he had made to Chris last night had come true, and he had spent most of the night drifting from one frustrating dream to the next. As a result, he had barely been able to drag himself out of bed, and the morning was almost over.
He decided to begin his search for the gunslinger in the sheriff's office. He strolled down the street, bowing to the women he passed, and nodding at the men. He didn't want to go see Nathan, but even the prospect of being under the healer's disapproving eye wasn't enough to dampen the good mood he was in.
He shook his head. He was awake before noon after a night of little sleep, and on his way to see a man who despised him, and he couldn't keep a smile off his face. It was all Chris's fault. His, and those roses', which were the first thing the gambler had seen when he finally gave up on sleeping any longer.
He knocked on the door to JD's office, and waited to hear a muffled call of greeting before entering. As a gentleman, he had certain standards of behavior to maintain, of course.
He was mildly surprised to see Josiah there, as well as JD. The younger man was blushing faintly.
"Ezra! How are you today?" asked the preacher, smiling in greeting.
"I am quite well, thank you, Mr. Sanchez. I am looking for Mr. Larabee, who is being his usual elusive self this morning. Have you by any chance seen him?" He watched suspiciously as the sheriff's flush deepened. It appeared that someone was carrying tales about himself and the man in black, and they had reached the younger man's ears.
He quirked an eyebrow at Josiah, who shook his head in denial. "I haven't seen Chris yet, today. I'm not sure where he would be."
"He said he was going to come by today," JD spoke up. "He should be here soon."
Ezra sighed. He didn't want to have to talk to the other man, but he was going to have to. If Josiah hadn't said anything to him, then Chris had. Was the gunslinger going about town and announcing the relationship between them to everyone? "If Mr. Dunne has no objection, then I will wait for him here."
"That's fine, Ezra." the sheriff quickly assured him.
Smiling faintly, Josiah stood. "I'll be going then. JD, if there's anything else you want to talk to me about, come and find me. Anytime." He clapped a hand to Ezra's arm; fortunately it was his right. "I'll see you around, Ezra." With a final nod, he was gone.
Ezra didn't take the chair the preacher had vacated; instead, he leaned against the wall, and looked at JD speculatively. How to begin? "Mr. Dunne, is there anything you'd like to discuss with me?"
The younger man cast a quick, nervous glance at him. "Um, maybe, Ezra. Uh, Buck and I talked to Chris last night, and he told us some stuff about you. You and him." He cleared his throat. "He said he was in love with you."
Ezra smiled, and was unable to speak for a moment. Chris was exceeding every expectation the gambler had ever had of him. He knew the gunslinger was a man of honor; it was one of his most endearing traits. But he hadn't ever imagined that he would ever be so up front about his emotions and intentions with other people. As he thought about it, he decided that it only made sense. As private a man as he was, the gunslinger was also intrinsically honest.
He realized that JD was waiting for a response. "Mr. Larabee has told me the same thing," he said, in a confiding tone, his smile still place. After the younger man had relaxed, he continued. "I take it that you aren't familiar with relationships between men?"
The sheriff shook his head. "Not before last night, I wasn't."
"I take it that you have talked to Mr. Sanchez, and that he has answered any questions you might have?"
"Oh, Josiah told me a lot." He paused. "Can I as you something?"
"But of course, Mr. Dunne." He hoped the other man would be able to get the question out. If he got any redder, Ezra would have to take him along to Nathan's, out of fear for his health. He was running the risk of a stroke.
"How can you tell? If a man might like other men, I mean?" His tone said that the question was terribly important to him.
Ezra shrugged. "I don't know if there is a definite way to tell. I suppose the best thing to do is wait and see if you feel the same sort of attention coming from him as you do from a girl who is interested in you."
The other man was about to say something, when the door swung open. Chris stood in the doorway. A smile instantly lit up his face when he caught sight of the gambler, and expression that Ezra echoed.
"Good morning, Ezra," he said warmly. "JD."
As the youngest of the three stammered out a greeting, Ezra tipped his hat toward the gunslinger. "Good morning, M- Chris. I trust you are well this morning."
"A little tired, but I'm doing fine."
Ezra laughed out loud, understanding exactly what the other man meant. "I suppose you have come to escort me to Mr. Jackson's establishment?" Even that couldn't detract from his happiness at seeing the gunslinger again.
Chris nodded. "You've got it. JD, I'll talk to you later." He held open the door, and allowed the gambler to precede him out into the street.
As they walked, Ezra glanced hesitantly at the man in black. "I must admit that I am quite impressed by how honest you have been with the other members of our group. I never expected you to be so forthcoming." He swallowed. "That said, I must tell you that I think it would be best not to tell Mr. Jackson."
"Why not? I've already told everyone else. We can't really leave him out. One of the others will tell him if we don't." He glanced at the green-eyed man in obvious concern. "What's the matter? What aren't you telling me?"
Ezra shook his head. He wasn't quite sure if he could put his feelings into words. He knew how little the healer liked him, and he didn't want to cause Chris to lose any standing in the other man's eyes because of his relationship with him. "It was just an idle thought. It doesn't really matter."
They quickly reached Nathan's. The healer was inside, and he let them in. "What can I do for you today?"
Chris's eyes upon him, Ezra spoke up. "I sustained a very minor wound during the skirmish the day before yesterday. I thought that it would heal on its own, but it has become slightly more red than it should be. I would appreciate it if you could take a look at it for me." He spoke deprecatingly of his injury.
"Let me see it." Nathan ushered him over to a window, so he could see better. As he looked at the gambler's arm, turning it carefully so to get a better look at it, he asked, "Why didn't you come to me about this sooner? It's not infected, not yet, but it will be if I don't do something about it." He walked over to a shelf, and began to gather supplies.
Ezra met Chris's eyes, but said nothing, even though he knew both men were waiting for an answer. He held his peace as Nathan began to treat and re-bandage his arm.
"Come on, Ezra. I want to know." Nathan's voice was low and serious. "Did you think that I wouldn't be able to help you, that I wouldn't know what to do?"
The gambler shook his head, but was caught by Chris's gaze, and the patient question in them. He sighed, and glanced up at the healer as he pulled his shirt back on.
Chris watched in concern as Ezra turned to face Nathan. He didn't want to push the gambler too hard to speak, as much as he wanted to hear the answer. He was relieved that the green-eyed man had allowed himself to be bullied into coming, and was getting help. He could be content with that, even if he too wanted to know why Ezra was so reluctant to ask for Nathan's help.
To his surprise, the gambler answered the third man. "Mr. Jackson, I assure you that I have the utmost respect and trust for your abilities as a physician, and that I am confident that you are able to handle any injury with which you are presented." He looked down, focusing on fastening his buttons.
"I try to avoid asking your assistance because I know how much you dislike me, sir. I don't want to burden you with my presence."
"So you're saying that I am so rude to you that you would rather suffer than come to me for help?" Nathan stepped away, offended.
"Not at all," Ezra said quickly. He licked his lips. "The situation is entirely my own fault. I am aware of your feelings concerning con men, and I completely understand them. I have heard stories about the terrible tricks played upon slaves attempting to escape, with men promising to help them reach the north, and then turning them in for rewards as escaped slaves. Your aversion to men of my dubious profession is entirely understandable, and I want to respect your feelings."
Chris stared at the gambler, sharing in Nathan's shock. Even though he was in love with the other man, he was constantly surprised by the new depths the gambler was slowly, constantly revealing.
Nathan blinked several times before he gathered his thoughts together enough to reply. "Ezra, I didn't know you thought that." He shook his head, remaining silent in thought for long moments. He looked up, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Will you be playing poker tonight in the saloon?"
"But of course, Mr. Jackson. Where else would I be?"
"Oh, I don't know. I was thinking that I might stop by, and I wanted to be sure you would be there."
Chris watched as a look of surprise, wonder, and happiness crossed Ezra's face. "Mr. Jackson, I will look forward to the pleasure of your company." All his clothes were back in place. "Thank you for your help, sir."
"Come back and see me tomorrow, so I can check that arm again."
Ezra bowed shortly to the healer, then turned to Chris.
The gunslinger smiled at him, and ushered him out the door. As they walked out into the street, he leaned toward the green-eyed man and murmured, "So you are going to be working the table again tonight. Am I ever going to be able to get you to myself for an evening?"
He watched in delight as the gambler blushed. "Why, Mr. Larabee, you know that I am trying to earn enough money to be able to buy the saloon. If I am going to be able to do so, I must work diligently."
Chris smiled. "I suppose I really can't object to that. Buying that building will help tie you to Four Corners, and there's nothing I want more than to be sure you'll be here with me for a long time."
The other man cast a side-long glance at him. "Mr. Larabee, your presence here ties me more firmly to this town than any building ever could."
Chris was caught without a reply, not knowing what to say. He stared at the gambler. Then he began to swear quietly.
"Why sir, whatever is the matter?"
"I've got to go out of town with Buck today, to go check out some reports of rustlers working on the ranches to the north of town. I don't especially want to go."
"Are these real rustlers, Mr. Larabee, or more figments of your imagination?" the green-eyed man teased gently.
Chris laughed. "Those other rustlers were a figment of Vin's, actually. I hope these are real. If I have to leave you, then I'd better have someone to vent my irritation on, and Buck's too good a friend to do that to."
Ezra grinned at him, then looked at him with open speculation. "Come with me," he said suddenly, grabbing Chris's upper arm and pulling him toward JD's office.
"What are you doing?" asked the gunslinger, still laughing.
"You'll see," the other man promised with a wicked smile. He pushed open the door to the sheriff's office without knocking, and dragged the man in black in after him.
"What? Chris, Ezra, what's going on?" asked JD, starting up out of his chair.
"Nothing to concern yourself with, Mr. Dunne," replied the gambler. "I would suggest that you close your eyes, however." He shut the door firmly.
"I don't understand," the young man protested.
"You don't have to, sir. You just have to close your eyes." Ezra grinned at Chris.
The gunslinger watched him warily. To his surprise, the gambler pulled him into his arms and kissed him. He quickly recovered, and began to playfully battle with the other man for dominance in the kiss. They warred idly for control, both winning in the end. He heard JD's startled gasp, but paid no attention to it.
After what felt like far too short a time, Ezra pulled away. "You have to go find Buck," he said softly, staring up into Chris's eyes.
"Damn you, Ezra." The man in black's voice was completely lacking in any real anger.
"Why, such language, Mr. Larabee."
"My name is Chris. I know you can say it," he chided gently.
"Mm. I find that I forget in the heat of the moment," the smaller man admitted, as he stepped out of Chris's embrace. "You need to go."
The gunslinger nodded. "I'll see you later," he promised. "Good-bye, JD." He left quickly, not wanting to give into temptation and linger.
Buck was waiting for him outside. "Morning, Chris," he said, raising an eyebrow. "What has you looking so flustered?"
At that moment, Ezra exited the sheriff's office. He tipped his hat to Chris, then ambled back to the saloon.
"Oh," said Buck knowingly.
"Let it go, Buck."
"Come on, you've got to tell me something. Is he as good at kissing as he is at talking? You'd think with all the practice he has in using his tongue-"
"Let it go, Buck."
"Chris, come on..."
The gunslinger shook his head. It was going to be a long ride.
Ezra caught himself whistling cheerfully as he walked back to the saloon, and he grinned as he realized what he was doing. He was fairly certain that the grin on his face was more than a little smug. He had managed to surprise the gunslinger in JD's office, and he was enjoying putting the other man off balance for once. Chris had been obviously enjoying the gambler's discomfiture; now it was time to turn the tables, at least for a little while.
Inside the saloon, he noted that the bartender had gone missing again. Wherever did that fellow wander off to? He decided to forgo a drink. Maybe he'd go talk to Josiah. Speaking with the preacher had seemingly helped JD order his thoughts. Perhaps he could do the same for the gambler.
He knew that he loved Chris. It was becoming more clear to him that the man in black loved him in return, sincerely and completely. Why else would he put so much effort into pursuing him?
His thoughts drifted back to the night before. He hadn't wanted Chris to leave. He would have far rather spent the night with the other man, exploring his body, and acting out any and all of the numerous fantasies he harbored about him. It was clear that the gunslinger hadn't wanted to leave either. Ezra shivered, remembering the hunger he had felt in the other man's kiss, the way those strong arms had embraced him in a near-crushing grip. No, Chris definitely had wanted to continue, as much as Ezra had.
And all it would have taken was three words. If he had confessed his love aloud to the man in black, he would have stayed. So what had stopped him? Why didn't he just say it? Chris had given him every chance to reciprocate, and he hadn't. For God's sake, the other man had been practically shouting his devotion from the rooftops, and Ezra hadn't done more than obliquely hint about his feelings.
As he stood leaning against the bar and pondering his actions, he heard someone enter. He looked up, and smiled in genuine pleasure. "Mr. Tanner, good afternoon. May I ask how you are faring on this lovely day?"
"I'm fine." The bounty hunter took up a near-identical pose, and tilted his head back and gave the gambler a look of speculation. "I guess you saw Chris before he left with Buck, then."
"Why, however did you know, sir?"
"You wouldn't look so happy if you'd missed him."
Ezra flushed lightly, and looked down. "Am I so very obvious, then, Mr. Tanner? Now I must fear for my performance at the poker table, if I am so easily read."
"Nah, it's not that. I just know you."
"And you know what Mr. Larabee has been doing. He has mentioned your aid on more than one occasion."
"Just helping out a friend." Vin fell silent, still gazing at the gambler.
After a few minutes, the other man became uncomfortable. "Mr. Tanner, is there some way in which I can be of service to you?"
"Maybe. I'm trying to figure something out."
"What is troubling you, sir?"
"I know that you love Chris. And you've got to know that he loves you. So why is he still wooing you? I mean, I don't understand what you are waiting for."
Ezra looked up briefly. "Perhaps I need a drink after all," he muttered, as he looked back down at his hand as it rested on the bar.
"What was that?"
"Nothing of any importance. It appears that you are sent here by fate, Mr. Tanner. I was just wondering the same thing. It seems that Providence is attempting to sway me in one direction, rather than the other."
"Which direction would that be?" The bounty hunter's voice was soft, patient.
"The more frightening of the two, of course. The one where I screw my courage to the sticking place and declare my feelings for Mr. Larabee, as he has so bravely done to me."
"Then what's the problem?"
"I told you it is the more frightening course to take, sir. And I am frightened."
Ezra shook his head. "That is my concern, Mr. Tanner, and mine alone."
"Now, I'm gonna have to disagree with you there. I think it concerns Chris as well." He paused. "I'm Chris's friend, Ezra, and I'd like to think that I'm yours as well."
The gambler looked up, surprised. "Mr. Tanner, I don't know what to say."
"Try telling me what's wrong."
"I am definitely going to require a drink to continue this conversation." The gambler walked around behind the bar and poured himself a shot of whiskey. With raised brows, he offered the same to Vin, who accepted. That task finished, he downed his drink and poured himself another.
"I am afraid," he said carefully, enunciating each word, "that if I tell Mr. Larabee of my emotions directly, and make that declaration to him, that all of this will become real."
The bounty hunger shook his head. "I don't understand."
The gambler struggled. Not to find the words, they always came easily to him, too easily sometimes, getting him into trouble. Instead, he worked to overcome a lifetime's indoctrination of the lesson that taught him never to reveal his fears, his true thoughts, to another person. He was slowly beginning to do so with Chris; with another person, it was immeasurably more difficult.
"At this moment, I find myself believing that everything that has happened is a lovely dream, one that I don't particularly ever wish to awaken from. If I tell Mr. Larabee that I love him, then all of this will become real, no longer a dream."
Vin's eyes lit up in sudden understanding. "And you can get hurt in reality, the way that you are safe in dreams."
Ezra nodded appreciatively. He was constantly surprised by the depths that the other man kept hidden from others. "Exactly. If it real, it can also be destroyed, the way that dreams cannot. I don't want to hurt Mr. Larabee: I dread doing so more than I fear being hurt myself."
"You can't live life ruled by fear, Ezra. Not if you really want to live."
"Very astute, sir. So I must tell Mr. Larabee, and soon, if we are to move forward, instead of remaining in this limbo of dreams." He smiled, a little shyly. He had opened himself to the other man, trusting in him, and Chris's opinion of him. "Of course, I will miss this attention. I have found it quite enjoyable."
Vin laughed. "There is that, I guess."
"Mr. Tanner, I must thank you for your help."
"All I did was listen."
"And for that I thank you." He bowed toward the other man. "I need to do some further thinking, but you have been an immense help." After saying his good-byes, he walked back up to his room and laid down on his bed.
It was time to come to a decision, and act on it.
Chris could see Four Corners ahead in the distance, and he had to fight down the urge to spur his horse, to increase his pace to a canter and reach the town that much faster. He restrained himself, although doing so was becoming more difficult with every moment he was away.
He had been taken completely by surprise when Ezra had dragged him into JD's office; he hadn't expected the gambler to take the initiative so abruptly. Not that he objected - his only complaint was that they hadn't had more time together.
"You know, you don't have to stare at the town like that. It won't disappear on you if you look away." There was open laughter in Buck's voice. The big man had been teasing Chris off and on all day, although he respected the gunslinger's command to stop asking questions.
Chris wanted to keep some aspects of his relationship with Ezra just between the two of them. It was too new to let Buck turn it into a joke, no matter how good-naturedly.
"You keep this up, Buck, and it won't matter to you, because you'll never live to reach Four Corners."
The mustached man laughed. "Right. As if you would take the time to kill me. That would just slow you down in getting back to him."
Chris had to laugh. It was true.
As they rode into town, Mary Travis walked out into the street. "Mr. Larabee? I would like to talk to you for a moment, if I could."
He nodded. "I'll see you later, Buck." He glanced back at the woman. "I'll be with you as soon as you as I take care of my horse." He did so quickly but thoroughly. He didn't especially want to talk to Mary; he would far rather get over to the saloon and find Ezra.
He walked quickly over to the newspaper office, where he could see a candle burning. He knocked at the door, then opened it. "Hello?"
"Mr. Larabee, I'm over here." Mary was standing behind her desk.
"Good evening, Mrs. Travis."
"What did you need to see me about?" he asked, working to keep any impatience out of his voice.
"I wanted to know what happened today. Did you and Mr. Wilmington encounter rustlers?" Her tone was more intimate than usual, and she stepped forward around the desk. "I want to be able to put any news into the paper tomorrow."
"We found sign of some riders passing through, but it didn't look like they were driving any cattle with them. It seems like the rumors were just that." He tipped his hat at her. "If that's all, ma'am, I've got to be going."
"Oh. Well, thank you, Mr. Larabee." She seemed disappointed, as if wishing he would stay longer. That signaled more than anything else that it was time to leave.
As he walked over to the saloon, he wondered what had just happened. Mary had always been fairly stand-offish. Why the change? He shrugged it off. He had more important things to think about. For a moment, he debated going to his room and cleaning up before entering the saloon, but decided that he didn't want to wait any longer to see Ezra.
He walked in, his eyes automatically searching for the gambler at his usual table. The green-eyed man was there, in his usual chair. Chris paused for a moment, just to appreciated and commit to memory what he was seeing.
Ezra's head was tipped back as he laughed, his hair gleaming in the lamplight. His green eyes were gleaming in pleasure, and as he dealt cards, his gestures were elegant and expansive, speaking eloquently of his good mood. Even with out hearing his words, Chris could gauge the other man's feelings, just by watching the movements of his skillful hands, which were nearly as expressive as the man's tongue.
His tongue...Chris shook himself out of the memory that threatened to engulf him. He strode into the room, and decided to get a drink before heading over to the table. He nodded at the bartender, who poured him a shot of his scotch.
"You're becoming a regular here, sir," commented the bartender, smiling genially.
The gunslinger nodded. "I guess I am." He sipped his drink, then carried it over to the table.
He stopped in the middle of the saloon as he realized who exactly Ezra was playing cards with. A couple of men from town, which was hardly a surprise. But Vin was there, along with Nathan. Even as he watched, Ezra said something to the healer, who laughed out loud.
Grinning himself, he finished the journey to the table, stopping to place a hand on Ezra's shoulder and squeeze gently.
The gambler looked up at him, pleasure plainly evident on his face. "Mr. Larabee. I am glad to see that you have returned safely to us." His tone reflected the good time he had been having.
"Buck and I didn't see any rustlers today. I'm beginning to think there may be some sort of conspiracy going on now." Vin laughed quietly, as did Ezra. "Is this a closed game, or can anyone join in?"
"Pull up a chair," invited Nathan. "Ezra's about drained me dry. He needs a new victim." His tone lacked its usual censure, Chris was pleased to note.
The gunslinger sat down. He looked up to see Ezra staring at him, a solemn light in his eyes.
"What?" asked Chris.
"I need to talk to you," the gambler said seriously. "Tonight."
The gunslinger nodded, his stomach knotting. Why was Ezra so serious? What had happened while he was gone? Suddenly worried, he picked up his cards with fingers that trembled minutely.
The gambler smiled in satisfaction as he won yet another hand. It was turning out to be yet another profitable night. The luck he was having with Chris and their relationship seemed to be positively affecting his luck at the table as well. Perhaps this was an unexpected benefit to being courted. He didn't believe that he was going to complain.
He glanced up at the gunslinger, but the other man's attention was firmly fixed on the cards he held in front of him. He had lost steadily ever since he had joined in the game, which wasn't usual. Although he rarely joined Ezra in a game, the gambler remembered the man as a player of more than average skill.
He was distracted by the departure of the two men who lived in Four Corners, who quit with good-natured disgust, getting out while they still had some of their own money. The green-eyed man thanked them genially for playing, as he always did, and invited them to come back. He winked at one of them. "Just try to be sure that your luck does not change, sir, else playing with you will not be nearly so pleasurable."
The man shook his head, but grinned as he headed over to the bar for a drink.
Ezra looked up at the three men who remained. "Gentlemen, do you wish to continue? There are less of you now for me to focus my attention upon, so your risk has grown considerably."
"Quit trying to scare us and deal the damn cards," suggested Vin, a small smile on his face.
"I will ignore your uncouth manners, Mr. Tanner, and continue the game," the gambler replied loftily. He dealt the cards quickly. Once again, Chris played an extraordinarily poor game.
Ezra looked at him closely. What could be the problem? The man in black had seemed so happy, so carefree when he had joined the game. He had seemed more serene than the gambler could remember him ever being before. Something was certainly troubling the other man, distracting him to the point where it seemed that he was paying only cursory attention the game in which he was involved. What had occurred between the time he sat down and now to upset him so much?
After a moment of reflection, it was only the gambler's long practice at keeping his poker face firmly in place stopped him from groaning aloud and smacking his head repeatedly against the table. What could be bothering Chris? Oh, could it possibly be his own potentially ominous statement that he and the gunslinger need to talk?
He glanced over at Chris, who was still staring at his cards, his brows drawn together in a preoccupied frown. Ezra knew he had to fix this. He didn't want the other man to sit and brood about this. It wasn't right, or fair. Besides, if the gunslinger worked himself into a completely awful state, it would ruin Ezra's plan's for the rest of the evening.
As the latest hand of poker came to a close, with Ezra as the winner, the gambler collected his cards to himself and began to shuffle them into order as he prepared to put them away. "Sirs, it has been a pleasure spending this evening in your company, but I fear that I must bring our time together to an end."
"No! I want a chance to try to win some of my money back," Nathan protested. His tone was pleasant, if a bit wheedling.
Vin didn't say anything. He just leaned back and looked back and forth between Ezra and Chris.
Ezra shook his head. "There will be other chances, Mr. Jackson, I assure you. You will have ample opportunity to try to reclaim your money from me." He grinned slyly. "Not that you will be able to, of course, but I will be more than happy to accommodate you and give you the chance. But right now, I am going to go upstairs." He pushed back his chair and stood. "Mr. Larabee, would you please join me?"
The blue-eyed man looked up, startled out of whatever thoughts were occupying him. "Hm? Yeah, yeah I will."
Nathan leaned back in his chair, his head cocked to the side. "I don't think I understand," he said carefully, looking at first Ezra, then Chris.
The gambler smiled. "It is really very simple, Mr. Jackson. I am very much in love with Mr. Larabee, and he has told me that he harbors the same emotions for me. For this reason, I wish him to accompany me to my room." He raised an eyebrow, arching it elegantly. "Do you have any questions?"
The healer said nothing; instead, he stared at the standing man, as if he had just spoken in a never-before heard language.
Vin chuckled quietly. "I think you just about answered any questions he might have." He met the gambler's gaze firmly. "Congratulations," he said softly.
Ezra nodded, knowing that the man was alluding to their earlier conversation. He then looked over to Chris, who was staring openly at him, making no attempt to hide his astonishment.
"Mr. Larabee, will you be joining me?" he asked, trying to hide his uncertainty. What if he had made a mistake, and said too much, too soon? Would his choice to take the more dangerous path hurt and taunt him so soon?
Chris seemed suddenly to come back to himself, and he smiled, a smile filled with hope and joy and smoldering heat. "Why, of course I will, Ezra. I'll follow you anywhere, anywhere you want to lead me, even to the gates of hell and back, if you asked me to."
Ezra grinned broadly, and extended his hand to the gunslinger, and pulled him to his feet. "I trust we will see you gentlemen tomorrow. Have a pleasant evening." He released Chris's hand regretfully, but walked beside him through the saloon to the stairs leading upstairs. His stomach tingled from excitement, and he had to stop himself from running up the short flight of stairs.
Once he reached his room, he quickly entered in and turned to face the gunslinger, anxiously awaiting the other man's reaction.
Chris walked into Ezra's room in a daze, hardly aware of where he placed his feet, or of closing the door behind him. The whole of his attention was concentrated upon the man in front of him, who had managed to surprise him flat-footed downstairs. He had believed that it would require much more time before the gambler would be ready to put his heart on the line and openly and verbally confess his love. He had been prepared to wait as long as it took, to do whatever was needed to be able to persuade him to admit what he was feeling. Now the other man had completely astounded him with his public declaration, so unexpected but definitely welcome.
He shook his head. "You are beyond a doubt the damnedest man I ever met, Ezra."
The other man cocked his head to the side. "I don't know if I should take that as a compliment."
"Do you realize what you've done? You just announced that you loved me to two of your friends, in public. You've told me, with witness, that your heart is mine." He was still having trouble believing the past few minutes had really happened.
"It is no less than what you have done, is it not? You have been completely open and honest about how you feel for me. How could I be any different, without dishonoring the courage and candor you have shown?" Ezra's eyes were clear and honest, and his tone reflected the admiration and surety he was expressing. He licked his lips in a nervous gesture, obviously not realizing how arousing the gunslinger found it.
Chris couldn't stay away from him any longer. Pulling his coat and hat off, he dropped them to the floor as he crossed the room. He stopped moving just in front of the gambler, leaving only inches between them.
Ezra smiled, and stepped into his arms, placing his own around the gunslinger's waist. He kept his head back, so he could look up a little and into the man in black's eyes.
Chris wrapped his arms around the gambler and stared down at him. The other man clearly wanted to speak. "What is it, Ezra?"
"M-Chris, you know that you have my heart, correct? You have my heart, my love - you have me, for good or for ill. You could break my heart now, with just a word." He shrugged a little. "I don't intend to sound like one of the heroines in that trash Mr. Dunne insists upon reading, but you now own my heart, and I would ask you to be careful with it." His gaze was without any of its usual shields or defenses, his soul and emotions utterly naked before the taller man.
Chris shook his head. "Ezra, love, you have nothing to worry about. If your heart is mine, then my soul belongs to you. I trust you with my life, and with my love. I think we'll be able to keep each other safe, don't you?"
He raised a hand to the gambler's face, trailing a finger down the line of his cheek. "I never expected you to tell me you loved me so fast."
"How long did you think I would be able to resist, sir? You already knew how I felt, and the campaign you staged was most persuasive." He smiled. "I doubt anyone would be able to hold out against you for long, even a person as stubborn as myself." He fell silent, his eyes widening a little, his pupils dilating to eclipse the green.
The gunslinger realized that he was staring at the other man's mouth as he spoke, watching the movements of lips and tongue. He laughed a bit. "I just can't seem to keep my mind focused on anything tonight."
"Oh, I do believe that I can come up with something that will successfully occupy your attention." His tone was mischievous, but the hunger underlying his words was easily audible. The gambler tightened his hold on the gunslinger, pressing their bodies close together.
Chris exhaled shakily. Placing his hands behind the green-eyed man's shoulders, he pulled him even closer, so there was no space left between them. Dropping his head, he pressed his mouth to Ezra's, moaning appreciatively as the other man's opened under his.
Ezra pressed himself closer to Chris, feeling as though he wasn't close enough to him, as if he would never be close enough. He was sure that removing their clothing would help, but he couldn't tear his mouth away from the other man's long enough to make the suggestion.
He could hear himself making noises low in his throat, but he wasn't able to stop himself from producing them. He ignored them and concentrated instead on the feel of the man in his arms, the hard, muscled arms wrapped around him and the mouth that was feeding eagerly on his, stealing his breath.
He was vaguely aware that they were moving together, crossing the short space until he could feel the back of his knees run up against the foot of his bed. He protested as Chris pulled back, breaking the kiss. Reluctantly opening his eyes, he looked up at him dazedly. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," answered Chris, husky voice from swollen lips. "I just thought it was about time we moved this over to the bed." With a sudden grin, he stepped back and shoved the gambler back onto the bed.
Ezra landed lightly. He glared up at the gunslinger indignantly, then shrugged mentally. He had wanted to be on the bed; did it really matter how he got there? He modified his expression, allowing his eyelids to droop lazily as he stretched languorously against the sheets. "You say we, but I seem to be the only on the bed. Don't you want to join me?"
He watched in fascination as Chris began to hastily remove his clothes. There was something to be said for a slow, seductive strip, but that could wait until later. The gunslinger was obviously in no mood to wait, and neither was Ezra. The gambler raised his hands to his vest, and began to undo his own buttons.
"Don't," growled the gunslinger, pulling his shirt off.
Ezra was completely distracted. Watching the ripple of muscle on the lean body as Chris worked at the fastening on his pants, he asked, "Don't what?"
"Leave your vest alone." Chris pulled off his boots, then began to slide his pants off. "Do you know what it is like for me, to see you walking around in a shirt, vest, and coat, now that I know what you look like bare-chested? To know what you body looks like, but not even to get a hint of it because you cover yourself up in all those damn layers? For the past few days, I've wanted nothing more than to get you out of all those clothes and finally see you."
Ezra's mouth went dry, and his arms fell back against the bed. It may have been the other man's words that so affected him, or it may have been his first sight of Chris naked. The other man's body was as he had imagined it, only so much better because it was real. Tall and lean, his body was smoothly muscled. The assorted scars scattered across his skin didn't detract from him at all; in the gambler's eyes, they were badges of honor, proof that this man had survived everything life had thrown at him, risen above to be living, and here, today.
Reaching out a hand, Ezra wordlessly invited the other man to come to him, as all his facile phrases had deserted him. Chris quickly moved to straddle the smaller man, kneeling over him and smiling down into his eyes. He quickly unbuttoned the gambler's vest, pushing it open. He then turned his attention to Ezra's shirt, slipping the button's loose and pulling the shirt open an inch at a time.
When all the buttons were undone, Chris bent and caught the other man's mouth in a searing kiss. Ezra leaned up into it, shrugging out of his shirt as he did so. He then wrapped his arms around the gunslinger and pulling him down to lie on top of himself. He ran his hands down Chris's back, moaning as the other man's fingers found their way into his hair. The gambler's hands began to wander lower, but Chris again pulled back.
Blue eyes crinkling at the corners as he smiled, he said, "I think you need to lose some more clothing, love." He pushed himself back up to his knees, and began to work at Ezra's pants. In a few swift moves, the gambler was naked as well, and back in Chris's arms. This time, when his hands began to wander, the gunslinger made no objection. Ezra slid his hands down to cup the other man's buttocks, and pull him closer. He still felt like he wasn't close enough. He wanted to crawl into the gunslinger's skin. Better yet, he wanted the other man in his.
He gasped as Chris finally released his mouth, and began to make his way down the body beneath him, kissing each inch of skin he encountered. When the gunslinger came to the tender juncture of neck and shoulder, he grinned fiercely, then sucked hard at the sensitive skin. Ezra arched beneath the other man, fingers clutching skin convulsively.
The gunslinger pulled back and looked down with a satisfied nod. "You're branded now, Ezra. Marked as mine."
"I have been yours for a very long time," the green-eyed man replied, before pulling the other man down and placing his own mark on his neck. When he was sure he had created one that would last, he let his head fall back to rest against the bed. "Now we are a pair," he said, feeling pleased.
"A pair of what?" Chris returned to kissing his way down the gambler's body. When he reached Ezra's chest, he paused for some time at each nipple, not moving on until each was red and hard, standing out wetly from his body.
"Oh, aces," Ezra forced out. He was losing all interest in conversation. Hell, he was losing all interest in rational thought. He felt the other man's tongue dip into his navel, and he buried his hands in the golden brown hair, doing his best not to pull too hard. When the gunslinger began to move down his left thigh, completely bypassing the hard ache of Ezra's groin, he groaned in protest. "Please," he murmured. "No teasing, not tonight, please..."
Chris was immediately up beside him again. "What's the matter?"
Ezra grabbed him and rolled so that he was now on top of the gunslinger. "Nothing, not any more." He grinned and began to work his way down Chris's body, returning the attention that had been so lovingly bestowed on his own. He lingered over every scar he encountered, kissing them gently and trailing his fingers over them with care.
When he reached the other man's erection he paused, looking up into eyes that were more black than blue. He wondered briefly if his eyes looked the same: dazed with passion, alight with love, shining with joy. He turned his attention to the hardness before him, and began to pay homage to it with his mouth. The other man's hands fisted in his hair, but he was barely aware of it. He was too caught up in the moment to care, more interested in the words of love he could here spilling from the gunslinger's lips.
Chris was losing his control. He was tempted to thrust up into Ezra's mouth, to bury himself in the wet heat until he came, but he wanted more. With massive effort, he released his hold on the gambler's hair and grasped his shoulders, pulling him back up until the other man was lying sprawled across him.
Puzzled green eyes stared at him. "Is anything wrong? I thought-"
Chris silenced him with a kiss. After long minutes, he pulled back. "Everything's perfect. I was too close; I didn't want to come yet."
A lazy grin spread across Ezra's face. "When were you planning on it, then?" he purred, rubbing against the other man in a rocking motion that rapidly began to quicken.
Chris almost lost himself in the rhythm, but again managed to come back to himself in time. "Ezra, please, stop."
"Stop?" The gambler sounded confused, and just a little outraged.
"Just for a moment." He cleared his throat, a little nervous. "Ezra, I want to, that is, I'd like...oh, hell. I want to be inside you."
The green-eyed man stilled for a moment, and Chris feared that he had somehow upset the other man. Then the gambler lunged forward and fastened his mouth to the gunslingers. In between kisses that spoke of renewed urgency, Ezra murmured, "The container on the table beside the bed will prove most helpful in a few moments."
Chris grasped the other man's arms and managed to roll them, so he was once again on top. "I want to see your face," he whispered, lips against Ezra's ear. He leaned back and watched in fascination as a blush began to move down the gambler's body. The other man's hips moved involuntarily beneath him, revealing his eagerness.
After another kiss, the gunslinger reached over to the table and retrieved a small jar of some sort of cream. He looked down at Ezra. "You're sure?"
"Yes, God, yes, please Chris, the magik word, please," the gambler answered incoherently, writhing beneath the blue-eyed man.
Chris grinned. He had managed to render the other man nearly incapable of speech. Silently, he vowed to do so as many times as he could in the future. Ezra was a sight to behold once he reached this stage: head thrown back, hair tousled, skin glistening with sweat. No walls, no defensive sarcasm or witticism.
Knowing that he could not betray the trust the gambler was placing in him, Chris carefully began to prepare his new lover, turning the process into a sensual massage that reduced the other man from broken words to helpless moans.
When he was sure that Ezra was ready, and would feel no pain, he quickly coated himself in the cream. He entered the gambler with one slow thrust, pausing once he was fully sheathed within him. He held himself motionless by shear force of will, reveling in the feel of the other man around him.
He remained still until Ezra began to beg him to move, and then he began to thrust gently, slowly building up force and speed. The gambler pushed back against him, then dragged Chris down for a hard, frantic kiss. Neither man was going to last long, so the gunslinger quickly moved to take Ezra's hardness in his hand and stroke him in rhythm with his thrusts, driving them both toward completion. Gazing down at Ezra, he watched the gambler's face as he came, and heard the other man call his name in a triumphant shout. The sight and the feel of the man beneath him combined to send him over the edge as well, calling out Ezra's name.
It took him a while to come back to himself, and be truly aware of where he was. He had collapse on top of Ezra, who had his arms loosely wrapped around the gunslinger. Raising his head, the blue-eyed man examined his lover.
The gambler's eyes were dreamy, and seemed to be looking at something far away. Chris gently kissed the corner of his mouth. "What are you thinking?"
"I am trying to recall the last time that I was this content, and I find that I cannot. I don't know that I ever have been." He looked up at the gunslinger. "I love you," he said, almost shyly.
Chris kissed the other side of his mouth. "I love you." He hesitated. "Um, are you all right? I didn't hurt you or anything, did I?"
Ezra laughed. "I am fine. I'm more than fine." He smiled tenderly at the other man. "I don't think that you'll ever be able to hurt me." He paused, and squirmed a little. "Of course, if you tell me that I have to ride out on patrol tomorrow I will kill you."
Chris laughed, and began to shift around, until he was laying on his back with the gambler nestled against his chest. "This all right with you?"
"Perfect." Ezra pulled out of the embrace for a moment, to pull the bedding up and over them, then quickly moved back into the gunslinger's arms. "Definitely perfect. I may never move again."
"Kind of an awkward position to play poker in, isn't it?"
The green-eyed man laughed. "Oh, I don't know. It would likely distract the other players enough to make winning much easier."
Chris chuckled. "Let's never find out."
"Hm. Agreed. I still don't want to move ever again."
"We're going to have to. You just have to look at it like I do. That if we move, we'll just have to do this again in order to get back into this position. And again, and again-"
"And again, and again. I like the way your mind works."
"Good. I'm figuring that forever will be long enough to make sure we really get it down." Chris tossed out the comment idly, hoping that the casual delivery would make the implied proposal easier for the gambler to accept.
"Forever?" asked the other man quietly.
"Or maybe a little longer."
"Mr. Larabee, you have yourself a deal."
Chris grinned, and kissed the gambler soundly. After, he said, "My name is Chris."
"I know your name. I just felt I should add some semblance of formality to our agreement and contract. One of us must think of proprieties."
"Pretty fancy talk for a naked man." He kissed Ezra again. "And lucky me, I get to listen to you for the rest of my life," he concluded sincerely.
"Lucky you," echoed the gambler. "Lucky us. Fate has indeed smiled upon us." His voice was fading, and he followed up his words with a yawn.
As he watched Ezra drift off to sleep, Chris thanked God for the chance he had been given with the man in his arms, and for the friends who had made it possible. He hadn't believed that he would ever find love again, and never in so unlikely a person. He wouldn't have it any other way. It had taken some work, but courting Ezra had been a pleasure, not a chore, the very act of making the other man happy more than making his efforts worthwhile.
Kissing Ezra's forehead, little more than the most delicate brush of lips against skin, he closed his eyes, ready to join his lover in slumber. He was a little reluctant to sleep, however. No dream could ever match the reality he held in his arms.
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