Missed Opportunities

by Kay

Note: I'd have to say that I'm blaming this story on Jesse (hey, Jesse). Oh, it's always Karen's fault that I'm writing - I firmly believe that she just thinks reeeeaaalll hard, and a plot bunny falls into my lap. But this particular bunny mutated on me half-way through the outlining process, and that mutation is all Jesse's fault. Thanks, y'all.

"Son of a bitch." There was no heat to the oath, no anger. He'd long since used all that up. All that was left was quiet resentment and lingering frustration.

Shifting for the thousandth time that hour, Chris Larabee changed position minutely, trying to find a way to sit that would relieve some of the lingering ache in his leg. It wasn't working; the damn thing seemed determined to hurt no matter how he sat. A determined man, he shifted again, refusing to give up.

He still couldn't believe he was stuck in this situation. And for no reason! Three days ago he had been walking with Buck, laughing at some ridiculously exaggerated tale of romance the mustached man had concocted, when he'd tripped over a rock. In trying to catch himself, he'd twisted and fallen. Nathan said that he had come close to tearing muscles in his knee, and that he needed to stay off of it for a week or two to give everything the chance to heal. That meant no walking any more than necessary, no riding, no stairs. Nothing.

Chris was going out of his mind.

He wanted nothing more than to get out of Four Corners, to saddle up and ride.To walk down the street. To do anything except sit and brood about how stupid the whole situation was.

With a weary sigh, he pulled himself to his feet and began limping toward the saloon. There was nothing else to do, so he could go and visit Ezra. The gambler had taken ill a week ago, and was still confined to town by Nathan's orders. He looked healthy, but was abiding by the healer's desire to be sure he was fully recovered.

After what felt like an eternity, Chris finally reached the saloon. Inside, he could see Ezra sitting at one of the tables, a deck of cards in his hands. The gambler was the only one of the Seven there; the rest were out riding patrol. Chris winced at the amount of noise he made entering the building.

The green-eyed man looked up. "Mr. Larabee! I did not expect to see you today. What brings you to my humble corner of this town?" His fingers never missed a movement; even as he spoke, the gambler was shuffling the cards, dealing them, then pulling them back into the deck to be shuffled again.

Chris could feel his bad mood lingering, and it seemed like too much effort to push it away completely. "Nothing. Can't a man have a drink without people asking him fool questions?"

Ezra blinked. "I beg your pardon, sir." He looked down quickly, focusing his attention on the cards in front of him.

Chris made his way painfully over to the bar and order a shot of whiskey. He then sat down at a table behind Ezra, so he could see the other man, but not have to face him. He sipped his drink in silence, brooding over his lack ability to do anything.

"Mr. Larabee?" The soft voice drew his attention back to the room he was in. Chris scowled and looked over at Ezra, who was twisted in his seat in an effort to see him. "What?" he asked flatly.

"Would you care to join me in a few hands of cards? Purely a friendly game, I assure you." The gambler smiled and wiggled the deck in his hands enticingly.

The gunslinger shook his head. "No. I just want to sit here and enjoy my drink. In peace," he stressed.

A slight flush stained the other man's cheeks. "Yes. Of course. Please forgive me for disturbing you." He turned back around, again bending over his cards.

Chris made no reply, but he didn't take his eyes off the gambler. He watched as the other man concentrated all his attention on the cards. Ezra shuffled them, sorted them into order, and then shuffled them again. Long fingers dealt cards to non-existent players. The man in black watched, bemused, as Ezra played a game against himself many times over, taking the part of each hand he had dealt.

As he watched Ezra, a stray thought crossed his mind: the man wasn't so undisciplined, after all. He might complain mightily when coerced into a task, but it wasn't because he was incapable of paying attention to a problem at hand. With a start, Chris realized he had been watching Ezra for over an hour, and the gambler had yet to break his concentration on the cards once.

Now somewhat interested, Chris began to watch Ezra more closely. This was more interesting than staring at the walls, at least. The gambler practiced for the rest of the afternoon. His face was more still than Chris could remember seeing it, as if all his energy was focused in his hands, rather than on smiling or laughter. Even his green eyes were serious, instead of mischievous, as was more usual. There was no nervous energy in him, either; Ezra sat still and relaxed, absorbed by the task at hand that he had set for himself, all of which revolved around the cards in his hands.

As evening began to fall, men from Four Corners, and some from the ranches and homesteads nearby, began to file into the saloon. As more people entered the saloon, Ezra became more animated, talking to everyone who passed by him. In contrast, Chris remained silent, and people picked up on that silence, and left him alone.

Soon, Ezra was ensconced at a table with four other men, all deeply involved in the poker game that had just begun. Chris could see Ezra and the game perfectly, and he watched with deepening interest. In contrast to the silent, focused manner he had displayed while alone that afternoon, the green-eyed man was talking and laughing constantly, telling jokes and sharing debates with the men he played against. He hardly seemed to be paying any attention to the game at all, instead focusing on the conversation that swirled around him.

Yet, far all his apparent inattention, Ezra won. Not always, but more often then not, and at a slow steady pace that gradually increased the amount of money beside him on the table. As players left the game, they left smiling, rueful over their losses, rather than resentful.

At the end of the evening, Ezra had amassed a nice bundle of cash, which he quickly concealed inside his jacket. The saloon nearly empty, the green-eyed man rose and stretched, working out the kinks that sitting over a table had built up in his neck and arms. He glanced hesitantly over at Chris. "Goodnight, Mr. Larabee," he murmured quietly, before disappearing upstairs to his room.

Chris watched him go, nursing his final drink as he considered what he had seen. He usually didn't hang around the saloon at night, and rarely played poker with Ezra. Perhaps he should have. From what he had seen, he was going to have to revise his opinion of the gambler. No matter what else he might be, the man was no cheat.

The gunslinger would know. He had come across plenty of cardsharps in his time, men bent on winning and taking their opponent's money, no matter how they won, or what they had to do. He knew all the usual tricks, and a few of the rare ones. Hell, he even knew how to do most of the tricks.

Watching Ezra, however, he had discovered that the other man used no tricks. It was pure skill that put money into the gambler's hands, rather than sleight of hand or tricks of shuffling.

For Ezra to win so much with no trickery on his part, the man had to be better than Chris had believed. Better than almost anyone Chris had ever played, or seen. To be able to gauge risk and recall cards so well was amazing; to do so while carrying on a few simultaneous conversations while drinking was even more impressive.

The gunslinger got to his feet and slowly limped out of the saloon, then headed down the darkened street to the room where he was staying. He had quite a bit to think about. The past few hours had opened his eyes were Ezra was concerned. The other man was not only an exceptional player, but also a terrific actor. How else could he seem so unconcerned about the cards he held, while he played game after game of chance that could wipe him out at any moment, stealing all the money he had worked so hard to earn?

There was more to Ezra then met the eye. With a small smile, Chris realized he had finally figured out something to do while waiting for Nathan to declare him ready to get back to his usual activities. It was time he took notice of the reticent member of the Seven, and figured out what else the other man might be hiding. It was better than slowly making himself crazy. Of course, he had no idea how well Ezra would stand up under the pressure, but better the gambler than him, losing his mind an inch at a time. The smile transforming into a wicked grin, Chris nodded to himself. This might even be fun.

Ezra strolled down Four Corners's laughably small main street, nodding amiably to the men he passed, and tipping his hat to the ladies. He really had no purpose for his walk, no destination. All he knew was that he had to get out of the saloon.

The smile very nearly slipped from his face, but he held onto it with the determination of long practice. Chris Larabee. The gambler was half-tempted to believe that the leader of the town's seven protectors had made it his purpose in life to drive him insane. The blue-eyed gunslinger had spent the past few days staring at him. Just staring. He didn't respond to any of the conversational gambits that Ezra threw out at him, never took him up on any offers of a game. All he did was sit alone at a table and watch Ezra's every move.

Finally, the green-eyed man hadn't been able to take it anymore. He'd gathered up his cards and fled the saloon, albeit at a dignified pace. He had nowhere to go; all he knew was that he had to get away from the feeling of eyes constantly upon him, of always being under scrutiny. It made the flesh on the back of his neck crawl, and it was destroying his nerves. He'd be useless when playing tonight if he didn't find a way to calm down and relax.

He ducked inside the door to JD's office. Thankfully, the young sheriff was gone, so he had the quiet room all to himself. With two men down, the rest of the seven had taken to working even harder to take up the slack. Sitting down in the chair behind the desk, he sighed. Alone. Finally.

The gambler used his time alone to compose himself. He had no idea what Larabee's problem was, but he hoped the other man got it out of his system soon. Otherwise, Ezra would be forced to hide out in JD's office until Nathan gave his permission for Chris to get back on his horse and the hell out of town.

The gunslinger's behavior was just odd. Ezra was sure he hadn't done anything to upset the other man, and yet Chris watched him like a hawk. Was he expecting Ezra to do something? What the hell was going on?

After an hour spent in solitude, the gambler felt composed enough to return to the saloon and face Chris and his strange intensity. Walking back to his usual haven, he wondered if perhaps the gunslinger was following some sort of strategy in order to beat him at cards. By unnerving him all day, Chris could finally take up Ezra's offer of a game, and automatically have the green-eyed man at a disadvantage. As keyed up as he had been when he had left the saloon, Ezra never would have been able to play at his usual level of skill.

Grinning at his thoughts, Ezra shook his head. He was too paranoid for his own good. Chris was probably just going stir-crazy, stuck in Four Corners instead of out on patrol with the rest of the seven. Perhaps he could speak to Nathan, and persuade the healer to give Chris a clean bill of health earlier than he had planned on.

Nope. Nathan would enjoy watching Chris make the gambler crazy too much to help. The others would likely react the same way. Hell, he'd probably find it amusing if it was happening to someone else.

"Mr. Standish?"

Ezra stopped walking and turned around upon hearing his name called. He smiled down at the small boy facing him in the street. "Young master Travis, what a pleasure to see you. Are you in need of my assistance?" He frowned thoughtfully. "Perhaps you need help with that blockage in your ear?"

The blond boy stared up at him. "What blockage?" he asked suspiciously.

Squatting down in the street, Ezra looked Billy in the eye. "This blockage. I can't believe you haven't noticed it yet." He reached out his hand toward the boy's ear and plucked a small coin from behind it. He handed it to Billy. "I can't imagine how you managed to get that stuck in there. I would suggest being more careful in the future."

Billy stared at him in open-mouthed wonder, then stared down at the coin in his hand. "How did you do that?"

Ezra shook his head, a sly grin on his face. "Now, Master Travis, you must never ask a magician to divulge the secrets of his tricks." He glanced up as a shadow fell over the two of them. "Mrs. Travis, it is, as always, a pleasure to see you again." He rose smoothly to his feet, and half-bowed to her. "Is there any way I can be of a service to you today, ma'am?"

She smiled and tilted her head as she looked up at him. "After you have so heroically removed a coin blockage in my son's ear? How could I impose on you by asking anything else of you?"

He laughed out loud, and bowed before her, even deeper than before. "It is never an imposition to aid a beautiful lady. How may I help you?"

It turned out that really didn't need anything; she had just followed Billy out in the street after her son had run off, intent on finding Chris. The boy's hero worship of the gunslinger hadn't abated over time, and the prospect of having the silent man around town, to talk to and question and study and learn from was nearly enough excitement to make Billy dance as he stood in place.

Ezra grinned. Here was a chance to distract Chris, and maybe gain some peace for himself. "Mr. Larabee is right inside the saloon," he told the boy. "He's been sitting at a table for most of the day, and I believe he seemed to be very bored. I'm sure he would great appreciate your company."

Billy ran off to the saloon, and Mary watched him go with a fond expression on her face. "I hope he doesn't annoy Mr. Larabee."

"There is no chance of that," Ezra assured her. He was speaking the truth. As much as Chris might try to appear indifferent to the boy, Ezra knew better. Chris liked Billy, and honestly enjoyed spending time with him.

His smile became slightly mischievous. "After all, his mother is such a captivating and charming woman, and he takes after her so much, how could anyone not enjoy his company?"

She laughed delightedly, and began to flirt back, delicately and somewhat hesitantly. There was nothing between them, of course. It was a game, one he knew how to play well. If it brought her a few minutes of pleasure, then what was the harm of it?

The answer to his last question glared at him from the doorway of the saloon. Chris stood there beside Billy; apparently, he had followed the boy out of the building for some purpose. The gunslinger did not seem pleased to see Ezra speaking to Mary. The gambler could almost feel the weight of the other man's angry stare.

Ezra did the only thing he could do; he smoothly broke off his conversation with Mary, bringing it to a quick end. She nodded to him, then crossed the street to speak to Chris. Ezra sighed with relief as the gunslinger transferred his attention to the blond woman.

As he slowly made his way to the back entrance of the saloon, he reflected that he had best be more careful in the future. He wasn't sure if his talking to Mary was connected to Chris's strange behavior, but he wasn't going to take any chances. If the gunslinger had marked the blond woman as his territory in some way, Ezra wasn't going to interfere. He enjoyed living far too much. It wasn't as though there was anything between he and Mary, anyway. He enjoyed flirting as another way to play with words, an idle pastime that she enjoyed as well.

Once inside the saloon, he sat down at his usual table and pulled out his favorite deck of cards. He had only run through a few forms of shuffling and dealing when he heard someone enter the saloon. He glanced up, dreading the sight of Chris returning, to continue his campaign of staring. In a voice tinged audibly with relief, he greeted the man who had just come in. "Mr. Wilmington, I take it you are back from patrol? I hope all is well?"

Buck nodded. "Everything's fine. I just came in to grab a few hours sleep." He looked around the empty room. "You seen Chris?"

Ezra nodded. "I've seen him. He is speaking with Mrs. Travis right now. I really wouldn't suggest interrupting him. He seemed to want to be alone with her."

Buck grinned, and shook his head. "Thanks for the warning, Ez, but in this case, I think you're wrong."

"Mr. Larabee wasn't glaring at you, sir. I assure you, his malevolence was very real."

Buck made his way over to the door leading to Four Corner's main street. "I'm still gonna have to disagree. I've known Chris for a long time now. I know him. Mary Travis isn't the one he wants to be alone with." With that, he was gone.

Ezra returned to shuffling his cards, but his thoughts were on Buck's final cryptic comment. What on earth had he meant? The way he had spoken had implied that there was someone Chris would rather be with. His mind occupied with the mystery, he absently worked with the cards. Who could it be?

Chris sipped his drink, knowing that he should stop, that it was too early to be drinking that much whiskey, but somehow he couldn't stop himself. Six days! It had been six days, and Nathan still wasn't relenting. He was still stuck in town. His boredom was increasing, and with it his bad temper. The alcohol he was tossing back wasn't helping matters, either.

He was fine! All right, so his leg bothered him a little. He'd been worse off in the past, he could handle. The inactivity he was forced to endure was going to drive him insane, a greater danger than walking on his almost healed knee.

A sound distracted him from his brooding. He threw an irritated glare over at the other man in the saloon. "Damn it, Ezra, do you think you could make a little more noise?"

The green-eyed man didn't even bother to look up from the cards he was shuffling. He gathered his cards to him and stood, still without acknowledging Chris.

"Where are you going?" the gunslinger asked.

"Up a flight of stairs. As I understand it, Mr. Jackson has forbade you to climb stairs, correct? I will go up, you will stay down, and I will not be forced to attempt to kill you myself." The gambler disappeared up the stares without a backward glance.

Chris stared after him. His first impulse was to shout after Ezra, to demand that the other man come back and face him. Fortunately, he reigned in the angry words. After a moment, he began to swear under his breath, cursing himself as a fool. He'd been taking out his irritation on Ezra all day. No wonder the other man was taking off.

He pushed his drink away from him. This had to stop. What was wrong with him? He didn't want to hurt Ezra; he was only watching the man in an effort to learn more about him. He didn't want to drive the other man away, or destroy the almost-friendship they had.

Not usually an introspective man, Chris paused to think about what he had been doing. Why had he been targeting Ezra? Thinking back, he realized that it had started when he saw Ezra talking to Mary. Flirting with her. The anger had appeared then, and had focused on Ezra.

It was ridiculous. There wasn't anything between Ezra and Mary. All the other members of the Seven sort of stood back from her, recognizing the pull, the connection that existed between her and himself. Ezra flirted with very nearly every woman he spoke to. It seemed like a reflex with him. Unlike Buck, he never seemed to expect to get anywhere with it, even if the woman he was speaking with gave him some encouragement. So why was he so upset over an innocent conversation?

He heard voices from the street, and slowly made his way over to the window to see what was going on. To his surprise, he saw Ezra standing in the sun. The gambler must have gone down the back stairs instead of staying in his room. Red jacket catching all of the sunlight, Ezra was hunkered down in front of Billy. Chris couldn't tell what they were talking about, but the boy was laughing, staring at Ezra with a half-delighted, half-disbelieving look on his face.

With a small smile on his own face, he nodded slowly. The gambler always seemed to get along so well with children. Even when he first met Ezra, he had seen the other man wrap the children in the Seminole village around his finger, talking and playing with them effortlessly, making himself a part of their world. Chris idly wondered where the green-eyed man had picked up his skill with children; nothing he'd ever said about his past included children.

Now Billy was regarding Ezra with a completely unbelieving stare. Chris wasn't sure what sort of tall tale the gambler was trying to sell the boy, but clearly Billy wasn't buying it. A few minutes more of talk from Ezra, however, and that disbelief disappeared, replaced by wonder and speculation. The gambler's silver tongue had worked; whatever he was telling Billy, the boy now believed. The blond boy grinned, and Ezra tipped his hat to him, watching as Billy ran off.

Chris's smile slipped, replaced by a scowl. Ezra would probably go talk to Mary now. Realizing what he was doing, he tried to figure out what was bothering him so much. He already knew that Ezra didn't mean anything by the flirting, so why should he care if they talked?

He was an idiot. He was getting upset over something that he knew didn't matter. If he kept this up, he was going to provoke the southerner into killing him. He considered going out into the street after Ezra, but the other man would probably just walk away from him. He had to find a way to apologize.

As he tried to come up with a way to do so, he saw Vin come riding into town. That was something else he needed to do - talk to the tracker. He wanted to know what was going on outside of town, to know what he was missing while he was cooped up in Four Corners.

He watched Vin stable his horse, then walk through the street to reach Ezra. He expected the two men to speak briefly, and then for Vin to come to the saloon to find him immediately.

His brows quirked in puzzlement when the tracker lingered, talking to Ezra for a minute, then two, then several. Chris watched as the two men drew closer together, speaking quietly with identical smiles on their faces. The smile slipped from Vin's face, transforming into an expression of concern. He began to clearly press Ezra about something, pushing him to talk about something. The gambler was just as obviously putting him off.

Vin reached out and grabbed Ezra's arm, holding him firmly while he spoke intently. Ezra shook his head at first, but finally relented with an exasperated smile, giving in to whatever Vin had wanted.. That was what was making him so angry - Ezra talking to other people. He wasn't jealous of Ezra's interaction with Mary, wishing he was in Ezra's place; he wanted to be in Mary's!

The gunslinger made his way over to a table and fell into a chair. He was jealous of Ezra's attention. What the hell was this? There was no way to deny it; what he wanted was for the gambler to pay attention to him, instead of talking to other people.

Chris had been attracted to men before. He'd had a few near-serious encounters before he was married, and felt the attraction to others even after that. He'd never been caught so unaware by it before. Why hadn't he seen it coming?

He could still see Vin and Ezra through the window. Vin asked a question, and Ezra gestured toward the saloon. The tracker began to walk toward the building, but stopped when Ezra didn't follow. The two men spoke, but Ezra shook his head and walked away from the saloon, leaving Vin to approach on his own.

Obviously, Chris had really upset Ezra, if the man wasn't going to come back to his usual haunt. He had to decide what he was going to do. He couldn't keep on as he had been, not if he didn't want to destroy their friendship. He was either going to have to act on his feelings, or get over them. He'd have to decide later, though. He smiled as Vin entered the saloon, welcoming his friend and pushing his problems away to a corner of his mind for the moment.

Ezra resisted the urge to scream. Gentlemen did not scream. Gentlemen did not throw their hands into the air and shout out their frustration to the sky. Gentlemen sat quietly and seethed, so that is what the gambler did.

He was more confused than ever. At first he had thought Chris was just irritable because of his injury, but even the brooding man in black was holding onto his bad temper too long for it to be that. He had finally concluded that Chris must hate him. Why else would the man go out of his way to be rude to him? Ezra had tried to stay out of the gunslinger's path, he had avoided coming anywhere near Mary so to not arouse Chris's jealousy. Nothing had worked.

Just when he had given up, and decided that no amount of penance was worth putting up with the gunslinger's attitude, the man changes again. The blue-eyed man had gone back to watching him constantly, only now his gaze held no anger, no threat of harsh words. Ezra tried to continue to avoid him, but Chris seemed determine to follow him wherever he went, and the gambler really couldn't allow himself to be chased all over Four Corners by a man who still limped a bit.

Which led to him wanting to scream. It seemed as though they were back at the beginning again: he was shuffling his cards at his usual table in the saloon, and Chris was staring at him.

Feeling his nerves begin to fray, Ezra tried something he was certain wasn't going to work, but he had to do something. "Mr. Larabee, do you think that you might be interested in joining me in a game? For enjoyment alone, with no profit motive, of course."

He was waiting for the gunslinger's refusal, the same refusal he had received every time he had asked in the past few days. To his surprise, Chris said, "Thanks, Ezra. I think a game might help to pass the time." He rose and slowly made his way over to the table. If he moved slowly, the limp was barely noticeable.

Swallowing his shock, Ezra dealt the cards. They played a few hands in relative silence. There was a sense of waiting about Chris, and the gambler remained moderately on edge. The man in black was leading his way up to something.

Finally, the blue-eyed man glanced over at him and caught his gaze. "Ezra? You mind if I ask you a personal question?"

"Ask away, Mr. Larabee. How else will you know if you will receive an answer?" He smiled briefly, and was startled and pleased to see the other man smile slightly in return.

"I was just wondering how you got to be so good with cards?" There was honest curiosity in his voice, and maybe something more, something Ezra couldn't identify.

The gambler shrugged. "Natural talent, Mr. Larabee. Or, if you listen to Mr. Jackson, slightly sticky fingers." It was his usual answer.

Chris shook his head. "I've watched you play. I can spot a cheat, and you aren't one. I think you might be one of the best I've ever seen." He smiled a little. "Natural talent can't explain it all."

Ezra shrugged once more, uncomfortable. "I don't know what to tell you."

"How about the truth," Chris suggested gently.

Eyes fixed firmly on his cards, the green-eyed man began to speak. "No doubt you still recall my dear mother's visit to this small pocket of civilization? She has always been as she was when you met her: completely free and always on the move. When I was a child, it was often...inconvenient for her to have to travel with a small boy, so she on a occasion asked a relative to take me in." Even as he spoke, they continued to play poker, the game as slow and leisurely as Ezra's words.

"She always left something behind with me, though. A deck of cards, so I would be able to amuse myself. The deck became my favorite toy, playing with them my favorite pastime. Those hours of play laid the groundwork for my current profession." Ezra swallowed the last of his drink. "So you see, it is mostly natural talent, along with years of practice."

The gambler hoped that Chris hadn't noticed all the little facts that he had glossed over in his version of past events: that he had never wanted to be left behind; that the people who took him in were often mostly unwilling to do so; that the hours spent in contemplation of the cards were hours that he had been ignored and left completely to his own devices.

Chris made no reply, save for quietly murmured thanks. They continued to play. After a few more hands, they were no longer alone in the saloon. The men of Four Corners began to file in, looking for a drink and perhaps a challenging game of poker with which to end their day.

After a final hand, Chris backed off. He walked slowly over to the bar, and returned with two glasses of whisky. Ezra accepted the offered drink with some surprise, but the pleasure in his smile was real when Chris sat back down with him. The two of them chatted idly, about nothing of importance.

As they finished their drinks, some of the townsmen approached the table, and after an apologetic look at Chris, Ezra allowed himself to be pulled away to preside over a game. Even as he dealt the cards, the gambler knew his thoughts weren't on the games at hand. Instead, he was puzzling over the afternoon he had just experienced.

It had been strange, strange but interesting. There had been times when Ezra had despaired of ever gaining the friendship of the leader of the Seven. He had thought that his mistake in the Seminole village had destroyed any possibility of anything ever existing between them except for cold civility and grudging dependence.

This afternoon had changed all that. It had come as a complete surprise, especially after the hellish past few days he had experienced as the target of the gunslinger's mood shifts and bad temper. If a person had told him this morning that they would spend hours playing card and chatting companionably, Ezra would have recommended that person consult Nathan to be treated for some sort of dementia.

Ezra didn't know what had prompted the change in Chris, but he was grateful for it. He was beginning to think that he had a real chance to gag between them except for cold civility and grudging dependence.

This afternoon had changed all that. It had come as a complete surprise, especially after the hellish past few days he had experienced as the target of the gunslinger's mood shifts and bad temper. If a person had told him this morning that they would spend hours playing card and chatting companionably, Ezra would have recommended that person consult Nathan to be treated for some sort of dementia.

Ezra didn't know what had prompted the change in Chris, but he was grateful for it. He was beginning to think that he had a real chance to gain the man in black's friendship, and maybe even his respect, two things he had believed impossible when he first began his stay in Four Corners.

Friendship and respect. As Ezra pulled the results of his latest winning hand, he permitted himself a small smile. The future was looking better.

Chris pulled his chair into the far corner of the saloon, losing himself in the shadows there. He was in too foul a mood to sit at a table; even the small amount of contact he'd have with people at one of the far tables was too much for him right now. He'd just lived through the three most frustrating days of his life. Not only was he still sequestered in Four Corners, but he was also completely stymied in his efforts with Ezra.

He knew the gambler couldn't possibly be as unobservant as he was acting. The man made his living by reading people when he played cards with them; he'd made a career of picking up on hidden signals.

So why was he so oblivious to the ones Chris was sending out? After realizing the turn his interest had taken, the gunslinger had to cautiously approach Ezra, to feel the other man out and see if the gambler might be interested in him as well. Unfortunately, the green- eyed man had yet to notice any of his hints.

Was he being too subtle? Or had Ezra noticed, and was ignoring him, revealing disinterest by not reacting at all? Brow furrowed as he considered this possibility, Chris slouched further down into his chair, his mood blackening.

He glanced upwards as he heard the sound of footsteps overhead. One of the upstairs tenants was evidently up and about. The gunslinger retreated even further into shadow, not wanting to be drawn into even the most casual conversation.

He almost relented when he saw that it was Vin. The tracker was dressed to ride, with boots and jacket on, and gloves in one hand. Chris's mood won out, however, and he remained silent, rather than calling out a greeting.

The long-haired man walked over to the door, his expression somewhat distracted. He gave no sign of seeing Chris, of knowing that he was there at all. He was almost to the door when a voice called to him.

The gunslinger looked back over at the stairs, and watched as Ezra walked down them. The gambler was focused on Vin, a small smile playing at his lips as he entered the saloon. He too gave no sign of seeing Chris.

"Mr. Tanner, you are in such great haste to leave that you are neglecting to take all of your possessions with you." He held up a blue bandanna. "You do not wish to leave this behind, do you?"

The tracker grinned. "No, I'd be right upset if I didn't have that with me." He stepped closer to Ezra, taking the small length of cloth. "Thanks, Ez. I appreciate it."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Thanks? I exert myself, walking all the way down the stairs in order to return this to you, and all I receive in return are simple words of thanks?"

"What, you think you deserve something else?"

"I think a reward would be most appropriate." Ezra's grin was growing.

"What kind of reward were you thinking of?" Vin inched closer.

"Oh, I have every confidence that you will be able to devise something suitable."

Vin laughed out loud and grabbed Ezra around the waist, pulling him close, pressing their bodies together. "I'll do my best," he murmured heatedly, and then he covered the gambler's mouth with his own.

With a happy moan, Ezra sank his fingers into Vin's hair, holding the tracker's head still. He threw himself into kiss, pulling Vin even closer as if wanting to crawl inside his clothing.

Tongues dueling wetly, the two men lost themselves in each other. Finally, Ezra pulled away. "You have to go. The others need you."

"I'd rather stay and finish this," the tracker murmured, sealing his mouth to Ezra's once more. The gambler put up a token show of resistance, but soon gave himself over to the kiss. A few minutes more, and he pushed the blue-eyed man away with more force. "You either have to go, or come back upstairs," he panted.

"Trying to get rid of me?" Vin grumbled, but he smiled as he said it. "I'll be back soon. Maybe by then you'll be up to a real welcome back celebration." A few more fleeting kisses, and the long-haired man walked away, a resolute expression on his face. Ezra looked after him with a fond smile of longing, then walked back up the stairs.

Alone once more, Chris was left shocked and confused. His frown had deepened as he listened to the playful banter. He'd had no idea that Ezra and Vin were this close, but they seemed to be very good friends, willing to tease each other when they usually held themselves so aloof from the antics of others.

Then he'd seen the kiss, and his shock had been complete. The way they just melted against each other, the heat he could practically feel coming off of them...he'd never expected to see that.

Long after both men had left, the gunslinger remained seated in his chair, staring sightlessly down at his hands. When the hell had that happened? How long had the two of them be together? Why hadn't anyone noticed?

This explained why Ezra hadn't reacted to his slight overtures. He was already taken. Irritation and jealousy built up inside of the gunslinger. He couldn't believe this was happening.

What the hell was he going to do now?

Ezra forced himself to stroll across the street, concentrating on moving in a loose, confident saunter, a small smile on his face.

Never mind that he felt like stalking across the street while muttering and gesticulating wildly to himself under his breath. That simply wouldn't be seemly, so the gambler restrained himself, and ambled across the street in a leisurely walk.

Chris had finally managed to push him too far. He was accustomed to the gunslinger's silence, to his short comments, to his general air of unfriendliness. Ezra had accepted these traits of the other man, knowing that Chris was the same with almost everyone. Now, however, he was constantly snapping at Ezra, jumping all over every thing the gambler said, finding fault in his every action.

The green-eyed man was accustomed to receiving a certain amount of criticism from those around them. He made his living in a way most people found highly suspicious, if not downright immoral. He and the truth were often on loose terms, and he was more than a little familiar with several nefarious ways to separate people from their money.

What he was receiving from Chris was uncalled for. He couldn't understand where the gunslinger's animosity was coming from; he'd stayed away from Mary Travis and he'd been cordial and polite to the other man. Ezra had no idea what he'd done to raise Chris's animosity to this new height.

He couldn't take it anymore. It had come down to the point where he either needed to leave town, or lock Chris up in a cell and leave him there until the gunslinger worked through whatever the hell was bothering him. Not wanting to actually try to force or coax the man in black into a cell, Ezra had set out to find Nathan.

The healer was in town, taking a break from covering both Ezra and Chris's patrols. Sitting in the shade outside of JD's office, Nathan looked like he was just trying to catch a couple minutes of relaxation. He raised an eyebrow as he watched Ezra approach. "Something I can do for you?"

"Mr. Jackson, I am imploring you: give me a clean bill of health. Please."

"Ezra, are you really that eager to get back into the patrol schedule? I would've thought that you'd rather I kept you in town as long as possible."

"I assure you, sir, all I want right now is to get out of town. I am perfectly healthy; all traces of the disease are gone. Please, Mr. Jackson."

Nathan laughed. "Chris must really be driving you crazy."

"You will most likely be preventing murder by letting me go," Ezra agreed.

The healer nodded. "I was going to track you down later and tell you time was up. Enough time has passed that you should be out of danger." He grinned. "Go on. Get out of here."

"Thank you, Mr. Jackson. I am forever indebted to you." With a tip of his hat, Ezra turned and made his way to his room, careful to take the back stairs. After a few minutes packing, he was back on the street. He ignored Nathan's grin as he led Chaucer out of the livery stable. He was getting away from Chris. He was going to see Vin. That was all that mattered.

As he mounted his horse, he heard his name called. Ezra turned in the saddle. "Ah, Mr. Wilmington. Welcome back to town."

"You seem to be in a good mood, Ez." The tall man squinted up at him.

"As you can see, I've been given a clean bill of health by Mr. Jackson. I am now free to leave town." He glared briefly toward the saloon. "Mr. Larabee will have to find a new target for his animosity."

Buck frowned. "Is Chris in the saloon?"

"He is, and I leave you to him gladly. Good day, sir." Nodding briefly, Ezra turned Chaucer and rode out of town. It was time to find Vin.

Vin...a small, triumphant smile crossed Ezra's face. The tracker had refused to do anything too strenuous with Ezra, citing the possible health risks involved in over-exerting himself. Milking that excuse, the blue-eyed man had teased him unmercifully for weeks now, falling back on it whenever Ezra pushed him to take things farther.

As Vin put it, if he was too sick to ride, he was too sick to make love. That was the real reason Ezra wasn't trying to extend his convalescence. He wanted his lover, wanted more than to just hold him, wanted more than frustrating kisses.

Not that being held wasn't nice, too. Ezra wouldn't trade the hours he and Vin had spent holding each other, exchanging slow lazy kisses as they lay entwined in his bed for anything. The gambler treasured those long hours...but they just weren't enough. It had been too long, and Ezra wasn't quite sure where Vin was finding the strength of will to continue to hold out against him.

It didn't matter any more. With an anticipatory grin, Ezra urged Chaucer to move faster. He had some plans to put into motion, if he and Vin were to celebrate his full recovery the right way.

Buck strode into the saloon quickly. It took him a few moments to find Chris; the other man was brooding in a corner, blending in with the shadows. The mustached man walked over and joined him. "Morning, Chris."

The gunslinger grunted in reply, barely bothering to look up.

"What the hell is wrong with you?"

"Nothing," was the short reply.

"Chris, we've known each other too long to play these kinds of games with each other. You're in a bad enough mood that you've managed to drive Ezra right out of town. Now, what's bothering you?"

Chris's head swung up. "Ezra's left?" A sour look crossed his face. "Looks like I've lost him again, then."

"What do you mean, again? I thought you hadn't said anything to him." Buck had figured out Chris's attraction to Ezra almost before the gunslinger had himself. One of the reasons he was back in town was to try to find out if Chris had approached the gambler or not.

"I hadn't. I never got the chance." Chris took a long sip of his drink. "He's sleeping with Vin."


Chris nodded. "I saw them together. Ezra's with Vin."

Buck shook his head. "I had no idea. Are you sure? Neither of them has said or done anything that I ever saw to show they're involved."

"I know what I saw." The gunslinger's expression became more sour as he remembered. "Trust me. They're together."

The tall man searched for a way to cheer up his friend. "You know, I bet you it's just a fling. It can't be serious - if it was, they would've told somebody about it by now. If they're keeping it a secret, then they must be just fooling around with each other." He grinned at Chris. "You've probably still got a shot, and now you even know that Ezra will go for men."

Blue eyes stared into his own. "You really think so?" There was the faintest edge of hope in Chris's voice.

"Would I lie to you? Now, I got some ideas about how you can go about winning Ezra over, if you'd care to listen."

The gunslinger leaned closer over the table, and Buck began to explain.

Ezra knew he was grinning, but he couldn't seem to stop. Everything was falling into place so very nicely. He hadn't managed to find Vin; his lover could disappear most thoroughly when he wished to, and Ezra had no illusions of being skilled enough in tracking to attempt to locate him.

Instead, he'd managed to track down Josiah. It had taken a bit of pleading, but in the end the older man had agreed to take Vin's next shift, so that the tracker could return to Four Corners that night.

Ezra was fairly certain that Josiah suspected what lay between himself and Vin. There was something in the way the preacher had smiled, something in the twinkle of his eye as he agreed that suggested he knew why Ezra wanted Vin to have the night off. The fact that Josiah had been grinning so hugely when he'd finally said yes also made the gambler think that the other man also approved of him and Vin.

Perhaps it was a sign that he should rethink he insistence that their involvement remain so very secret. Ezra knew that Vin would like to tell the others, would like to be able to relax when it was just the Seven, would like to stop hiding. The gambler thought it would be nice to be able to be more open, but he still wasn't sure it was a good idea. He could handle any rejection or recrimination that might come with the announcement of their relationships. Oh, it would hurt, cut deeply, but he'd been hurt before. He was a survivor, and he would get past it.

But Vin...he loved Vin too much to ask him to go through that, to ask him to lose a town he'd begun to think of home, to lose men that were his friends, his family. He didn't worry that Vin would leave him over that: he knew his lover's heart, knew that it belonged to him as surely as he had given his own to the tracker. He just didn't want Vin to be hurt in anyway that he could possibly prevent.

Ezra had accepted that the rest of the members of the Seven weren't quite sure if he could be trusted, and knew that there were occasions when they actually didn't like him very much. He didn't want their low opinion of him to rub off on Vin in any way.

But now that he'd seen how amused and happy Josiah had seemed about his desire to be with Vin, he might have to rethink his insistence on silence. It would be nice, if they could tell the others.

Ezra wrenched his thoughts back to the task at hand. Josiah would be sending Vin to Four Corners that evening. He had things to do, a few surprises to prepare for his lover. His grin widened. He owed Vin for making him wait.

The gambler stabled Chaucer in the livery, then made his way over to the saloon. He headed for the stairs immediately; there was no time to spend trying to lure anyone into a game of poker. He had important things to do.

A hand on his arm stopped him before he could mount the stairs. He turned, and couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice as he asked, "Mr. Larabee? However might I be of service to you?"

The gunslinger shrugged, removing his hand from Ezra's arm. "I was hoping you'd join in a game of poker." He stepped closer to the gambler, his eyes warm with hope and something else, something strange.

The green-eyed man shook his head. The question, the over-warmth with which is was asked, the fact that Chris even asked, all this set off warnings in Ezra's mind. This wasn't right. "I'm sorry, sir, but I have other tasks that demand my attention. Perhaps some other time."

"Are you sure?"

"Very, Mr. Larabee. I must still decline." He touched a finger to the brim of his hat, then continued his way up the stairs. He made a mental note to check and see if Nathan was giving Chris any sort of medicine to help heal his knee. Perhaps whatever herbs that were in the hypothesized potion were affecting the gunslinger and causing these strange mood changes. That done, he put Chris out of his mind, in order to concentrate on the matter at hand.

Inside his room, he hung up his jacket and hat, and began to prepare for his lover's arrival. He pulled candles out of the drawer he'd labeled as his "Vin drawer": it contained anything and everything that he might use in order to seduce his lover. Candles, oils, the usual...and a few other items Ezra was saving for a special occasion.

He set up the candles around the room, knowing that Vin liked to have them lit when they were together. He'd never expected his lover to be such a romantic, but if it made him happy, then Ezra would gladly set up the candles and have them lit and waiting for his arrival.

His room finally ready, Ezra pulled his coat back on and went down the back stairs, heading for the bath house. As much as he enjoyed the pure scent of his lover, the aroma of sun and wind and pure Vin, Ezra preferred himself to be freshly bathed before their meetings.

Besides, he was getting worked up just thinking about Vin and the coming night; a bath would help to settle him down. Hopefully.

Sinking into a tub full of warm water, the gambler stretched and allowed his eyes to slip closed. His thoughts turned to Vin - they always did, whenever he had a quiet moment. His lover's quiet sense of humor, his flashing grins, the calm serenity that he seemed to exude. The way he could be perfectly still, and perfectly content in whatever he was doing.

Ezra had slowly come to appreciate these qualities in the other man, and with the appreciation came attraction. When he had unbelievingly found an answering interest in Vin, he had begun to spend more time with him, and that attraction deepened and grew into love. The gambler could no longer imagine his life with Vin in it.

Without Vin as it's center.

Shaking his head, Ezra pulled himself out of the water. He was in so deep that he had no hope of rescue - not that he'd ever want to be rescued. He dried himself off quickly, then pulled on the clothes he'd brought with him. Crisp new shirt, freshly pressed pants, even a new vest. That done, Ezra returned to his room, again using the back stairs.

He spent some more time just puttering around in his room, killing time as he waited for the sun to set. When the last dying rays shone feebly through his window, Ezra left his room, returning to the saloon to wait for Vin. He knew his lover would come there first, looking for him.

As he reached the lower floor, he glanced toward the door, and saw Vin enter the room. Bandanna hanging loose around his neck, the tracker paused in the doorway. His eyes scanned the room, searching until they found Ezra. A slow, small smile crept across his face, discreet and proper. The light in his eyes, the heat and the hunger, however, were just for Ezra.

The gambler felt an answering smile on his own lips as he watched his lover cross the room. He took a few steps forward, intending to meet him, when he once again felt a hand on his arm.

"Ezra! I've been looking for you. How about that game of cards?" Chris sounded almost frantic, as if playing cards was the most important thing in the world.

Ezra shook his head. "I am sorry, Mr. Larabee. Perhaps another night. Mr. Tanner and I are going to finish a discussion we began some time ago, and I am looking forward to it."

"Can't believe you're passing up a chance to win some money," Chris persisted.

"You might want to make notation of this day for posterity," Ezra agreed.

By this time, Vin had joined them. "Ezra, Chris. Anything wrong?"

The gambler didn't give Chris a chance to answer. "Of course not, sir. Mr. Larabee and I were merely conversing." He definitely had to talk to Nathan about whatever he might be giving Chris. "Now if you are amenable, we may continue that discussion."

"Looking forward to it," Vin said, a wicked gleam in his eyes. "Talk to you later, Chris."

"Good evening, Mr. Larabee," Ezra echoed. He led his lover up the stairs, the nearness of the other man driving out all thoughts and concerns for Chris.

Vin didn't want to be caught staring at Ezra as he followed him up the stairs...especially not at Ezra's ass - which was right in front of him. He glanced back down the stairs, attempting to distract himself so he could avoid revealing what lay between them to anyone who looked over at him. He'd agreed to Ezra's desire to keep their relationship secret, and he wasn't going to break his promise.

It was because of this attempt at self-control he saw the way Chris stared after them, anger and helplessness written across his features. That expression set off all sorts of alarms in Vin's head, adding to the feeling of unease he'd been dealing with for over a week.

But then he was at the top of stairs, and at Ezra's door, and all thoughts of worry faded to the back of his mind. They didn't matter right now. All that mattered was that the weeks of celibacy he'd imposed on his lover, and himself, were over.

Ezra glanced back at him with a knowing smile, then opened his door. "Mr. Tanner, if you would be so good as to join me inside..."

Vin was through the door before the gambler had finished speaking, a pleased smile stretching his lips. Candles had been scattered around the room, their dancing flames casting flickering shadows against the wall, the furniture. The bed.

Ezra closed the door behind him. "You like it? I thought it might be nice to celebrate tonight."

Vin turned back around and pressed his lover up against the door. "You were right," he said, then moved forward and claimed the lips so close to his own. He pressed himself closer, forcing his lover backwards, not able to get close enough. He twined his fingers in the other man's short hair, angling his head to better claim his kisses.

Ezra moaned happily and responded, hands roaming over Vin's back, sliding under his clothes to caress the skin beneath.

Finally, Vin tore his mouth away from the gambler's. "Get on the bed," he said hoarsely. He knew Ezra probably had plans this evening; the candles revealed that much. Vin had some ideas of his own, though, and he was sure Ezra would enjoy them.

Ezra stared at him, for a moment, then nodded. He moved to the bed, pausing only to pull off his boots before climbing on top of the blankets that covered his bed. He stared at Vin, green eyes huge and hungry. "Vin..." he said softly, his voice urgent.

The tracker took a few steps forward, smiling down at his lover, loving the way he was staring, loving the way the light of the candles caressed his face. Loving him. He kicked off his own shoes, then knelt on the bed, straddling Ezra's hips.

He pushed the hands that reached up to hold him back down on the bed. "My show, Ez. At least this time." He could hear the need in his voice, making it thicker, deeper.

The gambler licked his lips, then nodded, leaving his arms by his sides, giving up control and direction to Vin.

The blue-eyed man rewarded him with a kiss, taking his time to savor the feeling of the other man's mouth under his, the way their tongues dueled together, the soft noises of pleasure that Ezra made. Nothing had ever felt like this, and Vin was never going to give it up. Never.

He loved Ezra. Oh, he'd wanted the gambler since he first saw him. How could he resist? Green eyes, so amused and intelligent, trying to hide secrets but revealing so much. That voice, warm honey and hypnotizing cadences. The way he smiled, the care he took with his wardrobe, his mannerisms, his every word.

Lust had slowly grown and changed as he'd grown to know the other man, transforming into consuming love. Vin had gradually come to see beyond the mask the other man presented to the world, and the soul he found there captured his own, drawing in inexorably in toward it.

To his delight, Ezra had fallen as well, slowly returning his careful advances. It had been interesting, courting the gambler. The other man was skittish, so Vin had moved slowly, coaxing and cajoling his way into his heart, until Ezra was just in love as he was.

Pulling his lover even closer, Vin slowly gentled the kiss they shared, his hands working urgently, but carefully, at the other's buttons. He'd only made the mistake of tearing at Ezra's clothes once: after they'd recovered from the explosive love they'd shared, Ezra had handed him a needle and thread, and had supervised Vin's work at resewing the buttons and mending the tears. Since Vin preferred holding Ezra to doing needlework, he took care with the gambler's clothing.

Quick fingers returned his actions, plucking dexterously at his buttons, sliding his shirt away from his skin. Vin redoubled his efforts, working frantically to divest both himself and his lover of clothing. Finally naked, he resisted the lure of the feeling of flesh against flesh, and pushed himself back, so he was kneeling above Ezra, staring down at him.

The gambler moved to sit up, hands reaching up to pull Vin back down into his embrace, but the tracker caught them in his own, holding them still. "My show," he reminded his lover gently.

A slight flush spread across Ezra's face, and he nodded. "Your show," he murmured, settling back down on the bed.

Vin smiled at him, appreciating his acquiesce. His gaze wandered over the body below him, and he began to appreciate the gambler's other qualities. Vin knew that Ezra had lit the candles in the room for him, even though the green-eyed man didn't quite understand why Vin liked to have them lit.

It was understandable - Ezra had never seen himself by firelight before. Vin had discovered that the sight was among his favorites. The way the heat of the flame called to the warmth of the gambler's skin, turning his skin to honey and gold, calling in turn to Vin to touch, caress, treasure. The way the flickering light revealed hidden colors of blond and red in his hair. The way his eyes glowed, their color heightened as they reflected the light.

But Ezra had never seen, so he didn't understand. That was fine with Vin. He didn't mind keeping a secret or two from his lover, and he didn't have the words to explain this to him anyway, not without embarrassing himself. He didn't much want anyone else to know how Ezra looked by firelight, either. It was a secret no one else needed to know.

Vin traced his fingers over the body beneath him, feather-light touches chasing the shadows that danced over the skin. Ezra shivered lightly, but remained still. His gaze was locked on Vin's, mutely begging for more.

The tracker leaned down kissed him lingeringly, a reward for behaving so well. Ezra responded hungrily, pleading with lips and tongue for Vin to hurry.

How could Vin resist?

Pressing his weight down upon Ezra, Vin angled his attack, dragging his lips down his jaw to his throat. He wanted to mark him, bite and suck and claim the gambler for his own for everyone to see, but he restrained himself. They were a secret, and as long as Ezra wanted it that way, that's the way it would stay. He tried to continue his journey downward, but a frantic whimper stopped him.

"Too close," Ezra murmured. "I'm too close, I want you too much. Please, Vin."

"Please what?" Vin asked, moving up his lover's body to stare into his eyes.

"Please don't tease. Please let me come with you inside me."

Vin inhaled sharply, then kissed Ezra hard. This man was his, his, and he wasn't ever going to lose him, wasn't ever going to let him go. He fumbled around on the table for the container of oil he knew would be there. Refusing to relinquish his lover's mouth, Vin prepared him quickly but with care, unwilling to risk hurting him, no matter how eager both of them were.

A few minutes more, and Vin was pressing himself into Ezra with exquisite slowness, drawing out the experience for both of them. Beneath him, the gambler writhed and pleaded and begged, and Vin responded, moving faster, and faster as Ezra pleaded for more.

Strong hands pulled him down to Ezra, and the green-eyed man lunged upward, sealing his lips to Vin's. The heat between them built, rising higher and higher. When Vin finally snaked a hand down to stroke Ezra's hardness, the gambler gasped and came, words of love spilling past his lips. The feeling and the words tore Vin's completion from him, and he collapsed down on top of his lover, panting and sweating and utterly content. They exchanged whispered words of love, promises they'd made before and would make again.

He wrapped his arms around Ezra and pulled him close as he rolled over to the side, not wanted to crush his lover, but not wanting to lose any contact with him, either. He kissed Ezra's sweaty temple several times, still caught in the fierce possessiveness that had gripped him earlier.

He'd never felt like that before, at least never to that extent. He wasn't sure what had caused it.

"Vin?" Ezra's soft voice distracted him from his thoughts.

"Hmm?" He didn't quite feel up to actually forming words yet.

"If you still want to tell the others, I think it's a good time now."

"Really?" Vin leaned back so he could look his lover in the eyes.

"I think Josiah already knows," Ezra said, an embarrassed smile on his face. "He seems like he's happy for us. I think the others should know, too."

Instead of replying, Vin kissed him, pushing him back into the mattress and straddling him once more. He licked his way to Ezra's throat, then gave into his earlier urge, sucking at the soft skin, leaving his mark on his throat, his shoulder, his collar bone, and on his throat again.

Beneath him, Ezra protested for a moment, then gave up and gave in with a shuddering moan. Vin thrust down against him, driving both of them hard toward orgasm once more. As soon as he felt Ezra come against him, he allowed himself release as well.

Settling down once more, he refused to allow Ezra to move out of his embrace. "Stay," he said quietly.

With a sleepy murmur, Ezra gave in, cuddling closer as he drifted off.

Vin stayed awake, not wanting to let go of Ezra. His embrace of the other man took on a decidedly possessive attitude. He couldn't wait for the next day to come, so he could tell the others.

Especially Chris. He didn't like the way the gunslinger had been looking at Ezra. Holding his lover close, the tracker closed his eyes, and waited for the dawn to come.

Chris sat in the saloon, leaning back against the bar. His gaze locked upon the stairs, he waited. He'd arrived as soon as the saloon was open, wanting to know as soon Ezra and Vin were awake and downstairs.

Watching the two of them go up the stairs to finish their "discussion"...Chris felt the anger and jealousy well up inside of him all over again, and he forcibly stopped himself from grinding his teeth. He'd left as soon as they'd disappeared upstairs, unable to stay in the building, knowing what they'd be doing.

Vin would be touching Ezra, doing to him all the things Chris could be doing.

All the things Chris should be doing.

It wasn't fair. He finally realized how much he wanted Ezra, and Vin was there, taking what should be his. When had this happened? How had it happened? He hadn't noticed it, and he couldn't believe that he could've missed it.

A presence beside him distracted him from his waiting for a moment. "What do you want, Buck?"

"Came by to check on you. You doing all right?" The taller man settled down on the stool beside him.

"I'm just fine," Chris answered shortly. He was fine. So long as he didn't think about how long it was since the sun had risen, how long the two men hand been laying in bed together. What they might be doing besides lying there.

"You don't look fine."

"Lay off, Buck."

"You knew they were together. You knew stuff like this was going on."

"Knowing it and having it thrown in my face are two different things." Chris knew he wasn't being fair; Ezra and Vin didn't know that he knew about them. They hadn't been flaunting anything.

It didn't matter. Chris didn't feel like being fair. He wanted Ezra, and right now Vin had him. He forced himself to relax his jaw once more.

Before Buck could say anything else, footsteps sounded on the stairs. Chris watched as Ezra and Vin entered the saloon, walking far too close to each other. How the hell had he missed this?

He hadn't. Something was different; the two men had never been so close before. There was no way they could have kept their secret if they had. Not even JD could have missed it if they'd been so connected before. Vin was damn near hovering over Ezra, and the gambler was making no move to put any distance between them.

The pair of them stopped walking at the bar. "Mr. Larabee, Mr. Wilmington. Good morning to you both." Ezra hesitated for a moment.

Buck nodded. "Morning. Guess I'll be heading out now."

"There's something I'd like to discuss with you," the gambler said. "Might I accompany you to the stables?"

"Sure," Buck answered.

What was this? Chris sat up as Ezra followed Buck out of the saloon.

"There's something I need to tell you," Vin said, standing squarely in front of Chris.

"What?" asked the gunslinger, head cocked to one side.

"Ezra and I've been keeping a secret from all of you, but not anymore. We've decided to tell you - we're...involved." There was a definite note of challenge in his voice, in the hard look in his eyes and the lift of his chin.

"Involved?" Chris echoed, keeping his face blank.

"I love him. He loves me. We've been together for awhile, and we decided it's time that the rest of you know about it. Ezra's telling Buck right now."

The unspoken words were clear between them. /Ezra's mine. Stay away from him./

Chris nodded slowly. "Thanks for telling me. Appreciate it."

Vin took a step back, getting ready to walk away. "So long as we understand each other."

The gunslinger inclined his head in a slight nod. "Yeah. I understand you."

The tracker held his gaze for a moment longer, then nodded and walked away.

Chris stared after him. He understood Vin all right - the blue-eyed man wasn't just telling him about his relationship with Ezra; he was also warning Chris to stay away from the gambler.

The man in black turned to the bar, trying to think, to come up with what to do next. Ezra was going around telling the rest of the Seven that he was in love with Vin. Damn it, he wasn't going to have a chance with the Southerner at all.

He looked up as someone sat down beside him. "Buck."

"Chris. Well, well, well. How 'bout that, huh?"

"You come back here just to talk about that?"

"Thought it might be a good idea." The mustached man glanced at him from the corner of his eye. "What are you going to do?"

Chris glared at him for a moment, then shook his head. Buck was trying to help; he shouldn't take out his anger on him. "I don't know." It wasn't fair. He'd never had a chance with Ezra. Vin was in the way, and now Chris would never have his chance.

"They sound kind of serious," Buck ventured.

Irritation rose up inside of Chris. "That's just because I haven't had a chance to talk to him yet." Buck had given him some advice he hadn't yet had a chance to try out yet. He hadn't really tried with Ezra, not yet.

"You think you can change his mind?"

Of course. "I'll never know if I don't try." He had to try.

He wasn't going to let Vin win without a fight.

Pulling the curry comb through Chaucer's coat in long strokes, Ezra smiled contentedly to himself. When he realized what he was doing, he shook his head ruefully, but didn't stop.

He never imagined it could be this easy. He'd made Vin swear to keep their involvement a secret from the beginning, knowing his lover didn't like it, but making him do it anyway. He'd wanted to protect the tracker from being tainted with his poor reputation, wanted to save him from the disapproving looks and disparaging remarks that were often sent his way.

After all, the rest of the Seven like Vin, without reservation. Why ruin that?

Ezra had seen how much keeping the secret galled Vin...and it bothered him as well. He didn't want to waste so much of the time they had together hiding; he'd rather just be with Vin. Seeing that Josiah knew and approved gave him the courage to tell his lover that the secrecy was over, that they could let the others know.

It had gone so amazingly well, Ezra could hardly believe that it had really happened. Vin said that Chris and Nathan had seemed surprised, but that neither of them were upset about it. Nathan even wished Vin good luck with the relationship, "in a kindly way" as the tracker put it, not as a slight against Ezra.

Buck had seemed a little confused by the news, but he congratulated Ezra just the same. The ladies' man was probably just trying to understand how two men could prefer each other's companionship to that the women Buck usually chased after.

The gambler grinned as he remembered JD's intense blush as the young sheriff finally caught on to what he'd been trying to tell him. After much stammering and widening of eyes, JD had finally gasped out what sounded like congratulations, before bolting in the direction of where he thought Buck would be.

And Josiah...Josiah had ridden into town, and had just laughed when Ezra had spoken to him.

"Hell, Ezra. I've known forever, now," the preacher had said. "I'm glad you decided to tell me, and the others, though. Love isn't something that should be hidden. I believe the good Lord intended us to share it, not hide it away."

"How did you know?" the gambler had asked.

"There's just something about being in love that does amazing things to people's eyes. When you look at Vin, or he looks at you...it's all there, in your eyes."

Shaking his head, Ezra began to finish up Chaucer's grooming. He and Vin had told the others a week ago, and life was better, he had to admit. No more hiding, no more worrying about saying the right thing at the wrong time.

The chance to steal kisses more often was a nice bonus, too. Vin apparently enjoyed it as well. The tracker would go out of his way to create chances to do so. Not that Ezra minded - the chance to be close to Vin was something he always treasured. He just thought it might be wise to be a little more circumspect, sometimes.

Heat rose in his cheeks as he thought back to that morning in JD's office. Using the excuse of having something in his eye, Vin had coaxed Ezra into coming closer and trying to see if he could spot anything. Of course, as soon as Ezra had gotten close enough, the tracker had pulled him close for a long, exploratory kiss. Ezra had given himself over to the kiss, enjoying the feeling of being so thoroughly claimed by his lover.

Once it was over, he'd been mildly embarrassed to discover that he and Vin weren't alone; Chris was also in the office. The gunslinger had looked irritated, but hadn't commented. Still, the incredibly pleased, somewhat smug look on Vin's face made any embarrassment completely worthwhile. So long as his lover was happy, Ezra wasn't going to protest.

Getting more of those deliciously devouring kisses was also a bonus.

Finally finished with Chaucer, Ezra put away the curry comb. With a final fond pat of his horse's ears, he walked out of the livery stable, blinking in the bright sunlight.

As he walked over to the saloon, Ezra pondered the slight change that had come over Vin recently. Always an enthusiastic lover, the tracker had become more...possessive in the past week than Ezra could remember him being before. He seemed to take delight in leaving marks of passion on the gambler's body that would linger for days.

Ezra's fingers tugged his collar a little upwards. Vin was also getting careless about making sure the marks could be concealed by his clothing.

The green-eyed man wasn't going to complain. It was an amazing feeling, knowing that he was loved this much. He'd take Vin anyway he could have him - and he liked this way very much indeed.

Entering the saloon, he headed toward the stairs, intending to wash up and change before trying to start a game downstairs. He was distracted by the sound of his own name. He turned, and stopped walking.

"Mr. Larabee, is there some way I can be of service to you?"

The gunslinger nodded slowly. "I hope so, Ezra. I need to talk to you. It's important."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. Chris sounded serious. "By all means, sir. Will you join me at this table?"

The man in black nodded, and the two men sat down in the otherwise empty saloon.

Ezra leaned forward across the table. "What is it that you need, Mr. Larabee? I'll do my best to help you."

"I certainly hope so," Chris replied.

Chris stared into Ezra's eyes, willing the other man to listen to him, to hear his words and agree with them. Ezra had to. He had to.

The gunslinger gestured toward a table. "Sit down, would you?"

Ezra nodded, a small frown of concern furrowing his brow. "Most certainly." As he sat, he continued, "I must admit, sir, you are beginning to worry me."

Chris sat down beside him, rather than across from him. "I don't want to worry you. I just need to talk to you."

"Yes, but about what?"

Chris took a deep breath. This was it. "I don't have a fancy way of saying this...Ezra, I've got some strong feelings about you." He hurried on, needing to get it all out at once. "I want you, Ezra. It's been making me crazy for weeks now, and I don't want to hide it anymore." He leaned forward a little, waiting for an answer.

Ezra stared at him, speechless for a moment. After visibly gathering himself, he shook his head slowly. "Mr. Larabee, I don't know what to say." He licked his lips. "Mr. Tanner did inform you that he and I are involved, did he not?"

Chris watched the nervous motion of lips and tongue and supressed a groan. Didn't the man realize what he was doing? "Yeah, Vin talked to me. I've seen you two, remember? You've been a little hard to miss." How could he have missed them? They'd been taking every opportunity to flaunt thier relationship, acting like brainless youngsters instead of adults. He quickly reigned in his rising temper. Getting upset wasn't going to help him any. He'd already done enough of driving Ezra away. "I know that you're...involved. But knowing that doesn't do a damn thing to change the way I feel."

He watched as the gambler stared down at his hands for a few minutes, taking time to think before answering. When he raised his head, his green eyes were troubled, and his voice was audibly flustered. "I never thought that this conversation could ever possibly take place. I don't know what to say to you."

Chris inched closer to Ezra. "Say that you know what I'm talking about," he suggested, reaching out to brush his fingertip across the gambler's cheek. "Say that you feel it, too."

That green gaze stayed locked on his, but the troubled look clouding them faded away, leaving them clear, sad, but clear. "I can't do that. I'm sorry, but I can't. I'm not just involved with Mr. Tanner. I'm in love with him. Believe me when I say that I am truly flattered by your interest, but I cannot return it."

"You say that now, but what about in a few more weeks?" Chris couldn't believe that Ezra meant to leave him with no hope.

"In a few weeks, I believe I shall be even more in love with him. This isn't a passing fancy for me. I hope and pray that I will feel like this forever." Ezra's voice was gentle, but confident. Sure. Offering no hope.

Chris shook his head. "I can't accept that." No chance? How could there be no chance in the future? He hadn't even gotten a real chance in the past!

"You're going to have to, Mr. Larabee." The green-eyed man pushed back his chair, and stood. "I don't want to lose the friend I hope I have in you, but friendship and respect is all that you will ever have from me."

Chris stood up as well. He couldn't let it end like this. He couldn't just let Vin win. As he groped for something to say, the sound of footsteps came to his ears. He quickly recognized the gait of the approaching man. A plan formed, complete and desperate, and he acted on it, not giving himself time to think or consider it for more than a moment.

Stepping forward quickly, he grabbed Ezra and pulled the gambler close, forcing thier bodies into close alignment. Before Ezra could do more than begin to sputter a protest, Chris sealed his lips against the other man's, silencing him.

The green-eyed man was absolutely still in his arms, held motionless by shock. Chris used this momentary pliancy to his advantage, deepening the kiss and pulling Ezra even closer. He was faintly aware of the sound of someone entering the saloon, but only dimly recognized this fact. He was distracted by the feel of the body in his arms, so firm and real, better than any fantasy. He was lost in the taste of the mouth under his, in its consuming wet heat.

Then the moment of shock was gone, and Ezra was fighting him, writhing against him as he attempted to break Chris's hold and free himself. The gunslinger held on, waiting for the signal he knew would be coming.

"What the hell is going on?" Vin's outraged voice sounded from the doorway.

With a convulsive shove, Ezra freed himself, and stood panting as he turned to stare at his lover.

Chris turned more slowly, arrogence in every line of his posture. "What's going on? Vin, I think it's sort of obvious, don't you?" Even he could hear the smug satisfaction in his voice as he looked at the flabbergasted tracker.

Vin wasn't sure what was stronger: his shock, or his anger. He'd come to the saloon, hoping to spend a few minutes with Ezra before going out on patrol. Instead of finding the gambler practicing his skill with the cards, he'd discovered him in an embrace with Chris.

Chris, who wanted Ezra.

Chris, who was staring at him challenging.

Chris, who was standing entirely too close to his lover.

He ignored Chris's challenging stare. He recognized that challenge in the gunslinger's eyes; it was the same that had been in his own the day he'd told Chris that he and Ezra were in love.

Vin focused instead on Ezra. The green eyes that met his were miserable, filled with surprise and fear and sorrow. He looked frightened. He looked guilty.

"Ezra?" the tracker asked, keeping his tone gentle, fighting to keep the rage inside of him contained. "What's going on?"

"I can't believe that you haven't figured it out," Chris taunted.

Before Vin could reply, Ezra rounded on the man in black. Continuing the motion, his fist flash forward, catching Chris high on the cheek. He watched the gunslinger fall, then glared down at him. "I strenuously suggest that if you do not wish to be shot where you lay, then you will keep your damnable mouth shut." He tone was low, venomous.

When he turned back to Vin, all the anger drained out of his eyes, leaving them filled with supplication. "Vin, he's lying to you. That...what you saw was only on Larabee's part. Not mine. I love you, Vin. I love you."

The blue-eyed man nodded. He could see the desperation and hope in Ezra's eyes, and knew that he was speaking truth. "I believe you, Ez. I love you, too." He held open his arms, and the gambler stepped into them, hugging him fiercely in return.

Vin stared over Ezra's shoulder at Chris, watching as the other man slowly regained his feet. "Listen to me, Chris-"

Ezra stirred, and stepped out of Vin's arms. "Let me handle this, Vin." A sad smile touched his eyes. "My show."

Vin nodded.

The gambler turned to stare at Chris. "Larabee, I will tell you this once more. I love Vin. I can't imagine ever not wanting to spend whatever time I can with him. I have no interest in anything more than friendship with you." His stare was contemptuous. "As of now, I am no longer sure that I am even interested in that. You are going to have to find someone else, some other way to slake your lust."

Vin stared steadily at Chris, reinforcing Ezra's every word with unspoken threats. As for as he was concerned, the slowly-darkening bruise on the other man's cheek wasn't enough punishment. He wasn't going to let anything come between him and Ezra. Not Chris, not anything.

"Ezra..." Chris said pleadingly.

"I have no interest in anything you have to say," Ezra said dismissively. He looked over to Vin. "How much time before you ride out?" There was a sly grin on his face. Vin could tell it was mostly for show, though. The gambler was still shaken, and probably wanted to make an escape with his composure intact.

"How much time do you want?" Vin asked, a similar grin stretching across his lips. He'd play along, whatever his lover wanted.

"Forever, actually. I want eternity, so long as I'm with you. But for this afternoon, I'll settle for an hour." He began to walk toward the stairs.

Resisting the urge to smirk at Chris, Vin followed his lover up the stairs. As soon as they were inside Ezra's room, Vin stepped forward and took Ezra in his arms, holding the green-eyed man close, almost crushingly so. The sight of him in someone else's arms.... "I suspected Chris might feel like that about you," he said, before leaning forward and pressing his lips to Ezra's. "I know it was him, not you. I'll always know," he promised, and then he claimed the gambler's mouth once more, pouring all his love and faith and want into the caress, his hands moving over the other man's body restlessly.

After a few long minutes, Ezra managed to gasp out, "So that's why you've been so possessive lately?"

The tracker stepped away immediately, feeling guilty as he remembered how many times he'd moved to claim his lover in someway, the possessive kisses, the lingering passion marks. "I'm sorry. It's just-"

Ezra silenced him with a claming kiss of his own. "Don't you dare apologize." A light flush stained his cheeks. "I find I rather like it," he admitted.

"Really?" Vin asked. He pulled Ezra away from the door and manhandled him over to the bed. He pushed his lover down, and climbed on top of him. "I always like doing the things you like."

"So you will accompanying me to the next theatrical performance that comes within a hundred miles of this god-forsaken outpost of humanity?" The gentle teasing in his voice caused the rest of the anger inside the tracker to ebb away. He had this remarkable man here, exactly where he wanted him: in his heart, in his arms, in his bed.

"Anything you want, Ez," he promised, without reservation. Anything and everything wasn't quite enough to give his lover, but it was a start.

As he bent down to kiss Ezra, he pushed all remaining thoughts of Chris out of his mind. The gunslinger was going to have to make his own peace with the situation. Vin had everything he could ever want or need with him right now, and that was all that mattered. He wrapped his arms around Ezra, gentling his kisses, wanting to reassure his lover and himself. Right now, all that he wanted was to be close to him, to breathe in his scent and feel his warm weight against his body. It was all right. They were together.



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