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