'Til It's Gone

by Kay

This fic was previously published in the zine "My Seducer 1", edited and put out by Lumina~, who completely and utterly rocks. Come to think of it, so does the zine, which is still available.

Breathing in the cool night air, Chris Larabee viewed the sleeping town of Four Corners with satisfaction. Everything was quiet, and had been for days. He and his friends were finally beginning to see the fruits of their labor pay off: word had gotten out that the small town was protected by seven men and trouble had begun to pass Four Corners by, looking for less well-guarded locations.

He and the others had done good work here. It was nice, knowing that his efforts had paid off in a good way. His presence brought security, safety, to the town. The people who lived here had grown used to him and his friends and now greeted them as fellow townspeople, rather than shying away when they met on the street.

He liked the change.

Chris frowned a little as he surveyed the town. He could see light flickering through the shutters of the saloon, long after it should have been closed for the night. Wondering who was helping themselves to an after-hours drink, he walked down to the building. He didn't bother knocking; no need to warn whoever was in there, now was there?

He took a few steps into the saloon and stopped, puzzled by what he saw. The place was empty save one man, but all the lamps had been lit. The single person in the room stood behind the bar, pouring whiskey into a shot glass. The man glanced up as Chris entered.

Ezra Standish. Chris's confusion deepened. The night was fast becoming morning; even the night owl gambler should have been in bed by now. So why was he serving drinks to no one in an empty bar? And why was he impeccably dressed, including jacket and hat, at an hour when he should have been asleep? "Ezra?"

"Mr. Larabee!" Ezra's smile widened. "A most unexpected but welcome surprise. Please join me." He gestured grandly toward the bar stool in front of the place where he stood.

Chris moved slowly toward the stool, head cocked to one side. "Everything all right?" There was something off about the other man's smile: it was too wide, and it didn't quite reach his eyes.

"Everything is more than all right," Ezra assured him, nodding approvingly when he sat down. An almost bitter laugh escaped him. "It is perfect. Now, it is perfect."

The gunslinger was even more confused, but he sat down. "What are you doing up? This is late, even for you."

Ezra ignored the question and busied himself behind the bar. He set up a second glass beside the first, and poured a measure of whiskey into it as well. "Join me for a toast, Mr. Larabee. One can't have a proper toast with only one person, after all."

Chris nodded. He had no idea what was going on, but he was willing to play along for a while. Truth be told, something about Ezra had been off for almost a week now. The gambler had acted like a man wrestling with a decision; he had been given to long silences during which his attention was clearly turned inwards, which was quite a change for the normally gregarious gambler. Chris and the rest of the Seven had given him room, hoping that he'd work out whatever was bothering him, giving him the privacy they would have wanted. Now the gunslinger wondered if he was going to have to step in after all.

Ezra placed the whiskey bottle down on the bar and raised one of the shot glasses. He did so silently, a condition that was somewhat unnerving when found in such a talkative man. Chris mirrored the action, raising his own glass.

The gambler smiled distractedly at him, but he didn't actually seem to be seeing Chris. It gave the gunslinger the eerie sensation of unreality, as if he wasn't actually in the saloon.

"To opening one's eyes," Ezra said softly. "To facing the truth and accepting it." The smile slipped off his face for a moment, and he looked alone and sorrowful. Then he lifted the glass to his lips and swallowed the liquid quickly. When he lowered the empty glass, he was smiling once more.

Wondering if he had really seen that lonely expression, Chris drank his whiskey also. Why not? While strange, it was a good thought, echoing how the gunslinger lived his own life. Placing his glass on the bar carefully, Chris caught Ezra's gaze. "Odd time for a toast, don't you think?"

Ezra shrugged, somehow making even that simple movement look elegant in his red coat and lace cuffs. "As you yourself have observed, Mr. Larabee, I rarely keep what are considered regular hours. Why should I do so in this?" He cleared away the glasses and the bottle, putting them away.

He also didn't really answer the question.

Chris decided to let it go. Ezra was a grown man; he could take care of himself. He looked around the bar, but everything was in order. He really should get back to his patrol around town, look everything over once more before turning in for the night.

When he glanced back at Ezra, the gambler was staring at him, a wistful, rueful expression on his face. As soon as Chris met his gaze, the green-eyed man blinked, his face swiftly changing into its usual genial lines of good humor. "Good night, Mr. Larabee." More quietly, "Thank you."

"Good night, Ezra." Chris stood up and walked toward the door. He glanced back once, and saw that Ezra was blowing out the lamps around the saloon, plunging the bar into darkness. Having no reason to linger, the gunslinger continued on his way out into the street.

As he did his final walk through Four Corners, Chris found that his thoughts weren't on his actions; instead, they remained in the saloon, with the man whose window had just gone dark.

He hadn't expected it when he first met Ezra, but he had come to like the gambler and think of him as a friend. He never would have guessed that things would turn out like that; they had a less than auspicious beginning, after all. But in the months that followed the fight at the Seminole village, Ezra had proved himself time and again as trustworthy, a good man to have at your side in a fight.

Ezra had been withdrawn lately, to the point where Chris had noticed and had begun to worry. His brow creased a little. Why should he worry? Ezra was a grown man, capable of taking care of himself. Chris was sure of this, so why the worry? Shrugging it off, the gunslinger continued his walk through town, now heading for his own room.

He hoped the toast had helped Ezra with whatever was troubling him. He hadn't realized until now how much it bothered him that the gambler was upset. He had missed the other man's constant stream of observances and comments. He usually made out that they irritated him, but he had come to appreciate the dry humor and wit behind them. Hopefully, Ezra had figured out his problem and his unnatural silence would end.

A little uneasy about how concerned he was for Ezra, Chris decided to turn in. He was probably just edgy after the strangeness in the saloon. Things would be better, clearer, in the morning.

Ezra leaned against the doorway leading into the saloon, projecting an air of casual nonchalance. After all, perhaps if he looked the part, he'd begin to feel it. It could happen, right?

Sensing the melancholy path his thoughts were about to take, Ezra forcibly stopped himself from thinking. Instead, he breathed deeply, inhaling fresh air and soaking up sunlight. This was what he was supposed to be doing: getting back into the light, leaving behind the darkness he'd been wallowing in for so long. Wasn't that what the toast last night had been about?

A bitter smile twisted his lips as he remembered Chris's unexpected appearance in the saloon. He'd planned on performing the toast alone, a private ceremony to symbolize his conscious choice to make a change in his life. The gunslinger's arrival had added ironic perfection to the ceremony, however, and Ezra had never been able to resist irony.

He'd always known his attraction toward Chris was futile. When it was merely physical lust, he could ignore it. It was inconvenient at times, but for the most part had little impact on his life. When he got to know Chris better, as time revealed to him the honorable, steadfast spirit hidden in the gunslinger's black clothing, that attraction had deepened into love.

It was with a certain amount of horror that Ezra recognized his changing emotions. He was no stranger to unrequited lust; he was quite accustomed to hiding his attraction to men. All that he required to deal with attraction that wasn't returned was some time alone. He knew how to please himself, and fantasies about his lust object just added to his pleasure.

Unrequited love, now, that was an entirely different matter. Lust unfulfilled was irritating; love unfulfilled was a consuming, aching hole. It ate away at him, leaving him empty and hopeless. Chris barely liked him; love was out of the question.

Ezra was a realist; he was also fond of living in comfort. Both of these traits rose up in him a week ago, forcing him to realize his love was hopeless, useless, a source of pain that he did not need. He'd struggled to come to a decision. He had to end the pain, but how? Should he leave? Try to find someone else?

He couldn't leave. He'd made a commitment to the people of Four Corners, and he wasn't going to walk out on that. More than that, he'd made a commitment to the rest of the Seven. He was just beginning to earn their respect, and he'd worked too hard for that to throw it all away.

In the end, he'd decided to just push his love for Chris away. There wasn't anyone else in town that he was interested in; being in love made other people rather unattractive. Still, he was nothing if not creative. He could find a way to distract himself until his heart relented in its foolishness and gave up on Chris.

That was what his toast was for: a promise to himself that he was going to be honest with himself. Chris would never love him, so he had to move on, open his eyes and accept the truth. The fact that Chris had joined him in the toast, completely uncomprehending but willing to try to help, only strengthened his determination. Chris was beginning to look upon him as a friend; Ezra wasn't going to jeopardize that, no matter the ridiculous longings of his heart.

Now all he needed was a distraction. That in mind, he stepped out into the street, feeling the sun's warmth soak through his clothing. Turning his face up to feel the rays on his face, Ezra's smile became more natural. It was hard to maintain gloom on such a bright day. The sound of his name being called pulled his attention back to earth. He glanced over at the man approaching. "Mr. Dunne, how may I be of service?" He felt his smile grow. JD always did that to him, somehow. The younger man had grown up rapidly, but he hadn't lost his enthusiasm for life, a trait that Ezra envied and appreciated.

JD grinned at him. "This time I'm the one who's going to be of service," he teased. "I bet you haven't heard the news yet. We've got some new people in town."

"Really?" Ezra couldn't resist urging JD on. "Who?"

"A group of real actors! One of the ladies got sick, so they're going to stop here and wait for her to get better." JD stared across the street at the hotel. "Real actors, here in Four Corners. Think they'll do a play?"

Ezra shrugged. "Perhaps we will be lucky, Mr. Dunne." He kept his opinion about the likely talent of the troupe to himself. There was no need to crush the other man's enthusiasm. "Have they enlisted the services of Mr. Jackson?"

"He's at the hotel now. I hope she gets better. I'd like to see some real actors."

"Who cares if they can act?" asked Buck, joining them. He clapped JD on the back. "You know what actors in town mean?"

"I'm sure you'll tell us, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra's tone was dry, but he'd caught the twinkle in Buck's eyes. Apparently the taller man was aware of the poor quality of most wandering players, and was trying to buffer JD from disappointment by distracting him with another aspect of the actors' visit. He was willing to play along.

"Actresses, boys. Beautiful women, right here in Four Corners. They've been traveling around and now they've got a chance to rest. No doubt they'll be eager to meet some real cowboys who can tell them all about the country they've been missing by moving around so much." With a wink, Buck glanced at Ezra. "Don't you think so?"

"No doubt. I would be willing to wager that they'd be most interested in speaking to a real Western sheriff."

"You think so?" JD didn't seem entirely convinced.

"You can but wait and see." Ezra hoped between the two of them, JD would be content with whatever the actors did. He knew JD was an adult, but he still had an urge to protect him. He just didn't want the younger man to ever lose that energy that made him so appealing.

The actors were a bit of an adventure for JD, a break from the usual routine of life in Four Corners. Ezra doubted they'd prove to be the distraction he was looking for, but he was pleased for JD's sake. "Very droll, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra shook his head but grinned. There was no way he could leave. He didn't want to lose these men, these friends.

A noise drew his attention to the hotel, and he watched with Buck and JD as some of the discussed troupe appeared at the front door, surveying the town in which they had stopped. Ezra knew the other men's attention was focused on the three women who were pointing out different things to each other. They were certainly better dressed then the women of Four Corners, although he wouldn't say that they were especially beautiful. Good looking, yes, but not extraordinarily so.

His own attention was focused on one of the two men standing with them. For just a moment, he'd thought one of them was Chris. It was just a fleeting impression, gone as soon as it had formed. The other man was slim, yes, with blond hair and light eyes, dressed in dark colors, but he wasn't Chris. He was a little shorter, his hair lighter, and his face was less angular, less hard. The actor was handsome, and his smile as he turned his face up to the sun was startlingly appealing.

The actor looked back down at the town, and his gaze met Ezra's. The gambler smiled and tipped his hat to him in a gesture of welcome. The actor's smile widened, and he nodded toward Ezra. There was friendliness in that smile and a hint of promise.

Maybe the actors would provide the distraction he needed, after all.

Chris pushed his way into the saloon, the noise and light a welcome sign that he was back among people once more. He enjoyed patrolling outside of town, but he'd grown used to conversation with friends, and a few days with no response to his own words but the twitching of his horse's ears got old fast. He was actually eager to return to town and hear a voice besides his own.

He spotted Vin leaning against the bar and headed over to him. As he crossed the room, he glanced over to the table where Ezra usually held sway. He felt a small frisson of surprise when the green eyes didn't meet his gaze. He almost missed a step but caught himself and continued his path to the bar.

He hadn't realized it until it failed to happen: every time he entered the saloon, every time before, he would glance over at Ezra and meet the gambler's gaze. Every time. He hadn't noticed doing it, hadn't realized it was a part of his routine until it hadn't happened.

Vin looked at him, gaze slightly concerned. "You all right?"

Chris nodded. "Just glad to be back in town." He ordered a drink, then turned to survey the saloon. More truthfully, to survey Ezra. What held the gambler's attention so strongly that it broke their unspoken routine?

Ezra was playing cards, of course. Member of the seven he might be, gambling was still his calling, his profession. As always, Ezra was doing more than just playing poker with his opponents; he was also entertaining them, talking and laughing and joking with them. This time, most of his attention was focused on one other player, rather than being evenly distributed.

Chris felt the small smile he'd worn as he'd entered the building fall away. Ezra was being monopolized by the man sitting to his right. The stranger had blond hair, blue eyes, and an easy grin. He was also totally focused on Ezra. "Who's that?"

"You heard tell of the actors in town?"

"First thing people told me when I rode in." He took a drink and nodded sourly toward the blond. "That guy one of them?"

"Name of Tom Ireland. Most of the others stick close to the hotel. I figure they're a mite nervous of being in such a small town. Ireland's plenty friendly, though."

Chris shot a sharp look at Vin, but the tracker was concentrating on his own drink. How had Vin managed to speak Chris's thought? Ireland was friendly. Too friendly. He was distracting Ezra. Hell, he was probably going to end up making the gambler lose hands that he should easily win. The gunslinger looked back over at Ezra, but still failed to meet the green gaze. Ezra was laughing at something Ireland had said, probably completely unaware of Chris's presence in the saloon.

Hell with it. Chris wasn't sure why he was so eager to catch the other man's eye. It was probably just he was used to it, was all. No other reason.

At least, none that he wanted to think about.

He focused his attention on Vin, catching up on the events in town that he'd missed while out on patrol. Things were still quiet, and Chris hadn't gotten used to that enough so that he'd complain about being bored. The sound of his name being called distracted him, and he looked up to see Buck pushing his way through the crowd at the bar to reach him, JD trailing in his wake.

"Chris! Get this damn nuisance away from me!" Buck ordered a drink with a disgruntled look on his face.

He wasn't so irritated with JD that he didn't order one for him as well, so Chris figured there really wasn't much to worry about. "What's the problem, Buck?"

"Just tell him to leave me alone," Buck groused.

Vin grinned at their youngest member. "What did you do to him?

JD's smile was completely unrepentant. "I've just been asking him to show me which one of the actresses he's managed to charm. I mean, they've been here for a few days now." His gaze shifted over to Buck. "You should have gotten one of them by now, right, Buck? Between being a real live Western man and your natural animal magnetism you must have gotten one, right?"

Buck glared at him, then looked appealingly over at Chris. "You see what I have to deal with?" He took a long drink. "Those women just don't know a good thing when they see it. Besides, they never leave the damn hotel! I can respect wanting to be with a sick friend, but they should take interest in the town they're in, too."

Chris shared a wry glance with Vin. Buck never understood how anyone could resist him. The big man always bounced back quickly, though. Chris wouldn't be surprised to see him ensconced in a corner with one of the local ladies before the night was through.

Vin leaned back against the bar, surveying the saloon again. The sound of laughter rose above the general noise, and the tracker grinned. "Looks like Ezra's taken all your luck. At least he's managed to catch one of the actors." He nodded over toward the poker table.

Buck and JD laughed, turning to watch Ezra and the actor joke around as they continued to play cards.

Chris choked on his drink, feeling a nasty wrench in his gut as they laughed. He knew it was just a joke, on Buck, on Ezra. It meant nothing; Vin's sly sense of humor was asserting itself again.

Irritably, he ordered himself another drink. Why the hell should he care if Ezra was hanging around with one of the actors? Fresh drink in hand, he turned around to watch the poker game. Ezra was smiling down at his cards as he made his play. Chris knew that wasn't a slip of his poker face; Ezra didn't have a poker face. He kept opponents from knowing his hand by engaging them in conversation and seeming to concentrate on that rather than his cards. No, that smile was a result of something the actor had said.

At least Ezra was smiling. The gambler had been too solemn for the past few weeks. Between the toast and the actor, his mood had definitely improved. He should be pleased for Ezra, pleased that he'd pulled himself out of whatever dark mood had taken him.

With a sigh, he took another drink. Vin's joke was just a joke, but he still didn't like it. He'd never seen Ezra take to a stranger so fast. Watching the two men laugh and joke their way through another round of play, he scowled. There was something about Ireland he just didn't like.

Ezra leaned back in his chair and stretched. It had been a long night, but he didn't feel tired in the least. Instead, he felt energized, awake, more alive than he had in a long time. He looked over at the bar and caught the bartender's eyes. "Closing up for the night?"

The man behind the bar nodded. "You and Mr. Ireland are the only ones here, Ezra. Finish locking up the place for me?"

"But of course. Have a good evening." As he watched the bartender leave, he saw that his words had been true: he and the blond man were the only ones left in the bar. He turned his attention back to his companion. "Up for another round, Mr. Ireland?"

"I think I've given you all the money I can afford." The blond man grinned at him. "And call me Tom, please."

"Then, Tom, it would appear our evening is coming to an end." Ezra didn't want it to end. He'd found the past evening more entertaining than any in recent memory, and that was entirely due to Tom's presence. The other man had a quick wit and an even quicker mind, making his conversation and company delightful.

"It doesn't have to." Tom leaned forward and licked his lips. "There are other sorts of games we can play." His voice was husky, his gaze intense.

Ezra felt a flare of heat flash through him. He hesitated for a moment then said, "I could be interested in a different type of game." It had been a while since he'd engaged in this sort of conversation with a man, and he was unsure of what to do. He knew what he wanted, though. His gaze traveled over the well-cut blond hair, the handsome planes of the other man's face, the long-fingered hands resting on the table. Tom was a handsome man and, after getting to know him, the attraction had only deepened.

Tom reached out and ghosted the tips of his fingers across the back of Ezra's hand. "A game for fun? For mutual pleasure?"

A shiver running through his frame, Ezra smiled. "Of course."

"Mr. Standish, I would be delighted to join you in a game." Tom's touch became firmer. "Your room or mine?"

"Mine is just upstairs." Moving as one, they stood. "I have to finish closing up."

"I'll get the lights." Working together they quickly extinguished lights and locked doors.

Ezra led Tom up the stairs to his room, opening the door smoothly and leading the other man inside. He turned to face him. "It has been a while," he admitted quietly as he closed the door.

"We'll just have to make up for that then, won't we?" Tom stepped forward and ran his hands up Ezra's arms, resting them on his shoulders before pulling him close.

The feel of another body so close to his was devastating. Ezra had been alone for too long. His arms slid around Tom, aligning their bodies closely, perfectly. He leaned forward and pressed his lips against Tom's. Warm and soft, they parted for him and an agile tongue invited his to come out and play.

Ezra lost himself in the wet friction of their mouths, in the taste of Tom, in the delicious friction that fanned the low-burning flame inside him. He groaned hungrily and held Tom tighter, needing to feel more of him.

Clever fingers burrowed inside his clothes, making their way beneath jacket, vest and shirt. The feel of warm hands on his flesh provoked pleasant shudders in him. The fingers fanned out over his flanks, their light touch tickling just a bit. He wriggled a little at the teasing touch.

Tom pulled back and arched an eyebrow at him. "What was that?" he asked, an evil little grin on his lips.

"Nothing," Ezra said. "This," he said, pressing his erection against the other man, "this is something."

"It certainly is," Tom agreed. He stripped off his own shirt and then removed Ezra's clothing, leaving him bare-chested. They both removed their shoes. When Ezra reached for his pants, Tom's hands covered his, helping him slide them past his hips to the floor. Ezra tried to return the favor but Tom gently fended off his hands. "No, not just yet."

Standing naked before his prospective lover, Ezra cocked his head to one side. "What on earth can you be waiting for?"

"I want to investigate that nothing." He stroked his hands down Ezra's side in a teasing touch.

A startled giggle burst forth from Ezra even as he flinched away. "What are you doing?"

"You're ticklish."

"I most certainly am not." Ezra began to back away.

Tom followed him, backing him up until his legs hit his bed. "You are so. I'll prove it." His hands darted out, ghosting over Ezra's stomach in a move that pulled a yelp of laughter from the gambler. Ezra jerked backwards and fell on the bed and Tom followed him, covering the giggling body with his own.

Ezra tried to protect his vulnerable flanks, but Tom played dirty, using kisses to distract Ezra before mercilessly tickling him. Soon, the gambler was reduced to a giggling, panting heap and Tom wasn't much better, laughing as he dragged the helpless sounds from Ezra again and again.

Finally, Ezra gasped out his surrender. "No more! Please, no more." He glared affectionately at the man lying on top of him. "That was most unfair."

"Yes," Tom agreed unrepentantly, wriggling out of his pants.

"You should make it up to me." Ezra's words ended in a pleased murmur as he felt his lover's naked body fully against his own.

"Yes," Tom's grin became anticipatory. He made his way down Ezra's body, scraping his teeth across the smooth skin.

Ezra moaned, but reached down and pulled Tom up to face him. "I want to be able to kiss you," he explained, then demonstrated.

Tom groaned appreciatively even as he aligned himself on top of Ezra. Together, they began a mutual rhythm of thrusting that pushed them closer and closer to the edge. Gasping for breath, Ezra watched in fascination as Tom's eyes became gray with passion. The blond sealed their mouths together, and Ezra shouted his completion into Tom's mouth.

When he finally opened his eyes again, Tom was smiling down at him. "That's better."

Ezra smiled bemusedly at him. "What?"

"Your eyes. The shadows aren't there anymore."

"I'm afraid I don't understand."

Tom leaned forward and kissed him. "Sometimes when you're quiet, I can see shadows in your eyes, shadows of sorrow. They shouldn't be there, and I'm glad they're gone."

Ezra chewed on his lower lip. What to say? "I'm just getting over someone. Trying to forget, you know?"

Tom nodded. "Am I helping?"


"Good." He pulled Ezra closer. "As a temporary citizen of this town, I really can't allow the second-most handsome man in town to look so sad. I'll have to do my best to chase the shadows away."

"'Second-most handsome?'"

"Well, I am in town." Tom silenced Ezra's outrage with a consuming kiss.

The gambler subsided, giving himself over to the sensations. As he settled himself to sleep with the other man in his arms, he murmured, "I'll have my revenge."

"I'll be looking forward to it."

As he slowly fell asleep, he was grateful for the man in his arms, but his final thoughts were of a different set of blue eyes.

The feeling of hands landing on his shoulders startled Chris out of his reverie. As soon as it fled, he had no idea what had been occupying his attention so strongly. He tried to figure it out but it was gone. Shrugging it off as unimportant, he looked up from his seat outside the sheriff's office.

Buck grinned down at him. "Come on, Chris. You're playing poker with me. I need some good luck."

"What's that got to do with me?"

"I ain't been killed yet while I'm with you. That's a good enough sign of luck for me."

He had nothing better to do. He wasn't out on patrol, and the quiet stretch was lasting longer than he'd ever thought possible. "Why the sudden need to play poker?"

"I finally got one of those actress ladies to pay some attention to me. Trouble is, she seems to think I should be taking her out to dinner and such. I don't have the money for that."

"And you actually think you'll win some playing against Ezra?"

"A man's got to try." Buck's grin was wide.

Chris shook his head, but he stood up and walked with Buck over to the saloon. He knew Buck didn't really think he could win any money. He was just looking to have a good time and was dragging Chris along with him. Chris was willing to be dragged. He'd found himself in a bleak mood for the past two days, and he had no idea where it had come from. A few rounds of poker might just be the thing to snap him out of it.

He was still grinning as he walked into the saloon, teasing Buck about his chances. The grin faltered as he took in the sight of the people seated at the poker table: Ezra, one of the local ranchers, and that actor who'd been there last night.

Shaking his head, he tried to rid himself of his unreasoning dislike. He'd heard nothing but good things about the acting troupe in general and Ireland in particular. There was no reason not to like him; Ezra was a good judge of character and he liked the man. He firmed up his smile and followed Buck over to the table. "Afternoon, Ezra." He nodded toward the other men as he took his seat across from the gambler.

"Mr. Larabee, what a pleasant surprise. Mr. Wilmington, it is a pleasure to see you as well." He shuffled the cards in his hands. "May I deal you in?"

"I am looking to take some of your ill-gotten gains," Buck announced. "Deal me in and be prepared to lose."

Ezra shook his head and grinned at Buck from the corner of his eyes. "Crushing hope is never a pleasant task, Mr. Wilmington. Why force me into this?" Ignoring Buck's good-natured sputtering, he began to deal. "Gentlemen, have you met Tom Ireland?"

"Haven't had the pleasure, though I've seen you around." Buck extended his hand, as did Chris. Ireland shook hands with them both and exchanged pleasantries.

The game progressed smoothly, guided expertly by Ezra's always entertaining banter. Instead of enjoying himself as he usually did, Chris found his attitude worsening. He slowly stopped responding to conversational forays, growing quiet so he could watch and listen and try to figure out what was bothering him.

Ireland won the next round. Ezra shot him a disbelieving glare. "You bluffed. You bluffed and you fooled me."

The blond man shrugged as he raked in his winnings in front of him. "Totally unfair of me." He grinned. "I'll make it up to you later."

"Of course you will. One winning hand doesn't win you the game, Tom."

Chris fought to keep a frown off his face. What was this? The two of them were smiling over what were apparently private jokes. Was Ezra flushed? And since when did Ezra call people by their first names? Hell, he'd known the man for months, and he didn't think he'd ever been called "Chris."

Watching the two of them laugh together, Chris abruptly realized that he couldn't take any more. He was already in a bad mood, and he could sense it getting worse. He knew himself well enough to know that he had to leave, or he'd just end up taking it out on his friends. He cashed out quickly, refusing all pleas to stay. He was reaching the point where his temper was going to affect the people around him, and he didn't want to hurt Ezra.

That last thought rattled him. Hurt Ezra? Since when did he worry so much about hurting Ezra? As he pushed back his chair, he saw the smile slip from Ezra's face. Chris told himself the gambler was just upset about missing out on the chance to win more of his money but couldn't quite make himself believe that.

He hurried out of the saloon, head bowed in thought. He had to figure out what was wrong with him. Things were good: no problems in town, all members of the seven were getting along, everything was fine. There was no reason for the discontent he was feeling, no reason for him to feel like lashing out against the people around him.

He went back to his own room, closing the door firmly behind himself and laying down on his bed. He wasn't an especially introspective man, so he wasn't up to doing much soul-searching even though he wanted to know the cause behind his displeasure. All he could come up with was his dislike of Ireland. Never mind that the man was charming, amusing, and personable. Chris just couldn't get past his initial immediate dislike. There was just something about him, about how close he was to Ezra, which roused Chris's displeasure and distrust.

No less confusing to him were his thoughts about Ezra. He didn't know why he was so concerned with the gambler and his happiness or when the concern had grown so intense. In the end, all he could do was resolve to watch himself so he didn't end up alienating his friends. Perhaps with some more time he could figure out why he was acting like he was.

That decided, he undressed and went to bed. Perhaps a decent night's sleep would help to clear things up.

Ezra sank his hands into Tom's hair, fingers tugging gently at the short strands as he urged the other man's mouth closer to his own. They'd slipped away to his room when the crowd in the saloon had thinned out. After flirting subtly over the poker table all evening, Ezra could hardly wait to get his hands on his new lover. Add in the hurt he'd felt over Chris's dismissal, and he was nearly desperate for some distraction.

Tom acceded to his demand for a kiss, gifting Ezra with a generous caress of lips and tongue, hands wandering over the gambler's back. After a heated exchange in which most of their clothing fell to the floor, Tom pulled his head back and brushed a kiss over Ezra's cheek. He pulled him down onto the bed. "Not that I want to stop this," he said as Ezra stretched out on top of him, "but I have to ask you something."

"What?" Ezra asked, licking a lazy trail up Tom's jaw to his ear before worrying the lobe gently with his teeth.

"Is Chris Larabee the one you're trying to get over?"

Ezra jerked up, staring down into Tom's gentle eyes. "What?"

"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to." The blond man brushed Ezra's hair back off his forehead in an affectionate gesture. "It's just...the shadows came back into your eyes after he left the table."

Ezra sat up a little. "I'm sorry-"

"Don't be." Tom pulled him close. "You can't help what your heart feels. Don't make me recite soliloquies on love at you."

"Anything but that," Ezra said mock-fearfully. He sobered. "It's not fair to you. There was never anything between us...he's never even thought of me like that. He never could."

"How isn't it fair? We both know this thing between us isn't about love. You can't control what you feel. It's not your fault Chris is a fool, too blind to see what he could have. It's my luck that I get to cheer you up."

Ezra knew this relationship had nothing to do with love; it was about friendship and laughter. He was still in love with Chris, and so he felt only friendship for Tom. Well, friendship with a healthy helping of lust. He looked down into the blue eyes watching him and smiled slowly. "I suppose you could still cheer me up."

Tom's eyes went gray and crinkled at the corners as he smiled. "And just what would cheer you up?"

Ezra made a show of thinking it over. "Hm. I think the thing that would bring me the most joy is...vengeance!" He pinned Tom's arms to the bed with his knees and began to tickle him.

The blond man shouted with laughter and squirmed underneath him, stomach trembling and flinching away from the teasing touches. Only when Tom begged for mercy did he relent and free his arms.

Ezra grinned smugly down at him until Tom pulled him down and kissed the expression off his face. A bit breathless, Ezra apologized by placing biting kisses down Tom's chest. He scraped his teeth over pale nipples, laving them with tongue and lips until they became points of aching hardness before continuing his journey downward, across the quivering stomach until he reached Tom's erection. He slid his tongue down the hard length of flesh then up again, lapping at the leaking tip.

"So good," Tom whispered, hands caressing Ezra's shoulder. "God, so good, Ezra."

Holding Tom's hips down firmly, Ezra intensified his efforts, lowering his mouth over the heated length. An evil set to his eyebrows, he glanced upward at the ecstatic face of his lover before pulling out all the stops. Soon, Tom was murmuring endearments and curses with equal fervor. Ezra finally took pity on him and hummed, pushing his lover over the edge. Swallowing rapidly, he accepted the proof of the other man's pleasure before crawling back up the length of his body. Resting lightly on his chest, he waited for Tom to recover.

Dazed blue eyes stared at him. "You killed me."

"You are a most talkative corpse." Ezra leaned down and kissed him lingeringly.

"I am a most appreciative corpse," Tom responded, flipping them over. He began to mimic Ezra's actions with a few twists of his own. Ezra sank his hands into Tom's hair and fought the urge to push him downward faster.

Finally, the hot mouth gave up its teasing and closed about his erection. A few moments more, and Ezra wasn't sure which deity he was crying out to, but they took pity on him because Tom stopped teasing and let him come. He didn't black out, but he came close. As Tom pulled him into his arms, Ezra glared at him fondly. "Are you trying to turn this into some sort of contest?"

"You're just upset because you lost."

"Lost!" Ezra sat up in indignation. "Lost?" Before he could continue, Tom pulled him down into a kiss.

Soothing his lover with a long series of kisses, Tom wrapped his arms around him. "We'll call it a draw tonight. We can play again later."

"So eager to lose again?"

An anticipatory grin touched Tom's face. "We'll see about that tomorrow."

"Why tomorrow?"

"Because I have a surprise planned for you tomorrow."

"What is it?" Ezra asked, even though he knew what the other man would say.

"And you claim not to be a cheat. If I tell you, it won't be a surprise any longer, now will it?" He kissed Ezra, then relaxed back onto the bed and closed his eyes. "Go to sleep, Ezra."

Ezra settled down in his lover's arms. As he listened to Tom's even breathing, he sighed. Chris wasn't a fool. He wasn't blind. He simply wasn't interested. The gunslinger barely liked Ezra, barely respected him. Hoping for anything more was just foolish on his part, and selfish as well. He should be grateful for the friendship the other man had offered him. Still, getting over Chris was proving to be more difficult than he'd thought it would be. He was incredibly thankful to have met Tom; his friendship was the only bright spot in his life right then.

With a sigh, Ezra resigned himself to a long wait before he found sleep.

Chris threw a look up the trail, but Four Corners wasn't quite in view yet. He didn't know why he was looking for the town; he didn't especially want to be there. That was why, after a restless night, he'd woken Vin up and persuaded the tracker to go out for a ride with him. He'd hoped that some time outside might help to clear his head so maybe he could figure out what was going on with him. So far that hope had been wasted.

He'd managed to establish one thing: his irritation and concern all centered on Ezra. He was worried about the other man, wanting him to be as happy as Chris could remember he was in the first months of his stay in Four Corners. Now that the gambler had become quieter, Chris worried about him. His dislike of Ireland was based on the way the actor hung around Ezra constantly. Shouldn't he be with the rest of the acting troupe, instead of monopolizing Ezra's time?

Chris knew he was close to figuring out his problem. The answer was near...and for some reason, he didn't want to know what it was. His thoughts shied away from it whenever it began to come clear. It was frustrating.

His sigh drew Vin's attention. He steadfastly refused to look over at the tracker. He suspected that Vin had guessed what his problem was. Worse, the amusement tinged glances the other man kept sending his way suggested that Vin had figured out the answers he himself was avoiding. Keeping his mouth shut and his eyes open, Vin saw more than anyone usually expected. Or wanted.

A sound of interest forced Chris to look fully at the other man. "What?"

"Fairly fresh tracks here. Looks like they came from town. They head off into the trees." He jerked his head over to indicate a clump of trees off to the side of the trail.

Chris nudged his horse off the trail and headed for the trees. It might be nothing, but the people of Four Corners didn't often leave sight of the town. Best just to check it out. If it was nothing, they'd wasted a few minutes. If it was something, they could save a lot of effort and pain later by heading it off now.

He pulled up his horse when they reached the trees. Just inside where the shade began, two horses were tethered to a low-hanging branch. Chris dismounted for a closer look. He reached out and stroked a hand over the flank of the horse beside him. "What are you doing out here, Chaucer?"

The horse flicked its ears at him. Chris looked over at Vin. "Did you know Ezra was planning to leave town?"

"Was it my week to watch him?" the tracker asked with exaggerated surprise.

Chris shot him a sour look. "Come on. Let's see what he's up to." Whose horse was with Chaucer? Who was with Ezra?

Vin nodded and dismounted. "Might as well. Ezra's a big boy, but better safe than sorry."

Together they made their way through the trees, moving quietly. There was probably nothing to worry about but caution was a habit neither was inclined to get out of. Besides, there was some reason to be concerned. What was Ezra doing out of town? The gambler was a confirmed town-dweller, and he wasn't scheduled to be on patrol.

Coming upon a small clearing, Chris glanced through the trees before entering. What he saw made him freeze, arresting his movement before he could break cover. He must have made some noise because Vin was instantly at his side. The tracker froze as well, rendered motionless by shock just as Chris was.

Ezra was in the clearing, and he didn't look to be in any danger. A man in danger didn't look that happy. Sprawled beside what were clearly the remains of a picnic, Ezra was reclining back on a spread blanket, head thrown back and eyes screwed up in pleasure.

He was also completely naked.

Chris tried to remind himself to blink, but it was useless. His gaze wandered greedily over the expression of nearly agonized pleasure that contorted Ezra's face, the way corded muscle stood out in his neck as he gasped out broken words, the light sheen of sweat that covered the smooth skin of his body. The gambler was incredibly attractive, the sight of so much usually hidden flesh captivating.

It would have been perfect, an image to remember forever, except for one thing: the man on top of Ezra. Tom Ireland was sitting astride Ezra, rocking in time with the green-eyed man's movements. Chris swallowed hard. They were having sex, Ezra buried deep within the man on top of him, thrusting up into the actor's body as he ran his hands over the blond's slick skin.


The sound of Ireland's husky murmur snapped Chris out of the daze into which he'd fallen. Shock fell away, replaced with white-hot rage. He gathered himself to take a step forward, in order to do what he didn't know. Only Vin's iron grip on his arm stopped him. The tracker dragged him backwards, away from the oblivious lovers.

Once they were out of the trees, Chris pulled free. "We have to go back there. I have to stop that!"

Vin grabbed him by his shoulders and got in his face. "You have to get on your horse, Larabee. Now. We're going back to town."

Chris glared at him, shaking his head. "No." He jerked himself out of Vin's grip and turned around. He wasn't sure what he was going to do, but he was going to stop the tryst right then. An unholy grin stretched his lips as he figured that Ireland might just put up a fight. He certainly hoped so - he wanted to teach the actor a lesson. Before he could enter the trees again, he was struck from behind, driven to his knees by a body colliding with his own.

"You're not going back there," Vin hissed into his ear, pushing him down into the dirt.

"Get off me!" Chris tried to shake him off, but Vin refused to be moved.

"Think for a minute. You go charging back there and all you're gonna do is scare them and piss them off. You don't want to scare Ezra, do you? You don't want him mad at you, do you?"

The tracker's words penetrated the haze of rage that had descended upon Chris. He stopped fighting and lay still, panting heavily. "Fine," he said. "I won't go back." Vin climbed off of him, and Chris stood up. He still wanted to argue, but he knew Vin was right. "Back to town," he agreed grudgingly. As he rode back to Four Corners, the fury inside him mounted until he was almost shaking with it. As soon as he entered town, he abandoned his horse to the man at the livery stable and stalked over to JD's office, Vin on his heels the entire way.

He threw open the door, scaring JD and Buck who were inside. The younger man sat up so quickly he knocked his chair over backwards. "Chris! What's wrong?"

Vin started to close the door, but before he could, Josiah and Nathan arrived. Josiah looked quickly over at Chris. "We were on our way over to talk to JD and Buck when we saw you two arrive. Chris? You all right?"

Chris shook his head. "No, I'm not all right." He paced around the small room, too filled with nervous energy to stand still. Coming to a wall, he slammed his fist into it, barely feeling the pain.

Vin moved to stand between him and the wall, staring into his eyes with peculiar intensity. "Why are you so upset, Chris?"

"Did you see the same thing I saw?" Chris demanded, face flushed with fury.

"Yeah. No one was getting hurt. In fact, it looked like both of them were having a good time." Vin cocked his head to the side. "You got a problem with them? With two men?"

"No!" Chris tried to look away, but Vin's gaze refused to release him. "What two grown men get up to is their business."

"Then what's the problem? Why go back and ruin their afternoon?"

"It has to be stopped! I'm not going to just stand by while it happens, and I don't know why you're trying to stop me!" Chris tried to force his way out of the room, but Vin and Josiah resolutely blocked the doorway, refusing to get out of his way. He stared at them, feeling his hands clench into fists.

"Because I don't know why you're so angry!"

"Because Ezra is mine!" Chris didn't know what he was going to say until the words left his mouth. For a moment, he was as shocked as everyone else in the room. Then he realized what he said and several things came clear to him: the reason why he'd been so concerned for Ezra; the reason for his dislike of Ireland; the cause for his recent irritation.

He was in love with Ezra.

It felt so right once he admitted it. Ezra had proven himself to be a good partner and a better friend, for all that Chris tried to keep him at a distance. He was always right where he was needed, grousing and complaining all the way, sure, but he did what he had to in order to help. His sardonic humor, his quick intelligence, and his handsome face had done the rest. Against all expectation, Chris had fallen in love with him. Now he felt the need to be with Ezra and understood that need was what had made him so jumpy and irritable lately; not being with Ezra was making him more than a little crazy.

Vin nodded slowly, a barely perceptible smile in his eyes. "Finally." He stepped away from Chris and leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his chest and a satisfied look on his face.

"What the hell is going on?" asked Buck. "What did you two see? And what are you talking about, Ezra is yours?"

Chris licked his lips. "We saw Ezra and that Ireland outside of town. They were...." he rounded on Vin. "You act like you knew!"

"Knew what? About Ezra and Ireland? They haven't been hiding it all that much. About you and Ezra? Hell, Chris, the only ones that didn't know are you and Ezra." He glanced around the room. "And maybe JD."

The sheriff shook his head. "I knew." He looked indignant at the surprised glances shot his way. "What? I can't figure something like this out? I may have Buck giving me bad advice-"


"-but that doesn't mean I'm blind or anything."

Chris shook his head. "You knew? How could you know? I didn't know!"

"You didn't want to know," Vin corrected.

Chris opened his mouth to retort but nothing came to him. Vin was right. He hadn't expected to fall in love again, and definitely not with a man. He'd had encounters with men before; Buck could testify to that. He'd never fallen in love with one before, though, never thought he could.

JD righted his chair and shoved it behind Chris. The gunslinger sank down into it. "So now what do I do?" He glared half-heartedly at his friends. "Since you all know more about me than I do."

"First be sure of your heart," Nathan said quietly. "First thing you always have to do. You sure you're in love with Ezra?"

"Yeah. I am." This was awful. He was in love with Ezra, who'd taken up with that damn actor. So what did his feelings matter? Ezra was with someone else.

Josiah laid a hand on his shoulder. "Then tell him that."

"What good will it do? He's got Ireland."

Nathan sighed. "More good than you think. The man's in love with you." At Chris's unbelieving stare, he raised his hands. "I used to keep a pretty close watch on him, waiting for him to slip up and start lying and cheating folks. I watched a long time, but I never caught him at anything except looking at you. He was careful, but I saw the way he watched you, saw the look in his eyes. He loves you."

Chris began to feel a certain measure of hope. Ezra loved him in return...but then what was he doing with Ireland? He shook his head. "Maybe he did once, but-"

"But nothing," Vin interrupted. "The only people who couldn't see what was going were you and Ezra. He's just tired of waiting for you. Just don't make him wait any more."

Chris looked around at the men surrounding him. "You all are all right with this?" Then he answered himself. "No, of course you are. You knew about it before I did. Why the hell didn't you tell me?"

"Chris, we just couldn't believe you two never realized." Even JD looked surprised by the exasperation in his own voice.

The gunslinger smiled at the laughter that arose from his friends. He didn't join in the laughter; the shock hadn't faded enough for that. Neither had the anger; it was all he could do not to head back out of town and drag Ezra away from Ireland. Still, he resigned himself to wait. Ezra would come back to town and when he did, he'd finally have his chance.

Ezra rode back into town, his horse ambling beside Tom's. He glanced over at his lover. "I win," he said smugly.

Tom shifted in his saddle. "You most certainly did. Don't get smug, though; I fully plan on a rematch that will end very differently."

The gambler grinned. "Is it so very awful to have lost?"

"Not at all. All losers should feel this good." He shot Ezra a heated glance. "I'll meet you in my room tonight? I do have to spend some time with the rest of my troupe, or else they'll think I've gone native."

"I'll be there after the saloon closes." Ezra headed over to his room, intending to gather clothing and head over to the bathhouse. Having sex outside had been a fun surprise; Tom certainly earned points for creativity. The only downside was the scattered dirt he could feel on his skin, which absolutely would not do. A warm soak was just what he needed.

As he stepped up onto the boardwalk, he glanced to his left and saw Chris. The gunslinger stared at him, gaze and expression intense. Ezra felt a flush rise up in his face; he felt as though Chris knew exactly where he had been and didn't approve. Ezra wasn't ashamed of his actions, but he hated the feeling of not measuring up to Chris's expectations, of failing him somehow.

Gathering up his clothing inside his room, Ezra swore at himself for a being a fool. A better afternoon than he'd had in ages, and every bit of pleasure and serenity he'd managed to garner from the experience had fled with one touch of Chris's eyes. The gunslinger didn't even have to say a word. Oh, he was doing a fine job of getting over him. His entire mood was still determined by the look on Chris's face. He stalked over to the bathhouse, irritated and disappointed with himself. Instead of a leisurely soak, he washed himself roughly, quickly.

After he was clean, he returned to the saloon and was soon ensconced at his usual table. As he engaged various men in hands of poker, he was aware that he was off his game. He was rattled for several reasons, of which the irritation was just a minor one. He was also thrown off by the people watching him: the rest of the seven drifted in and out of the saloon, as they usually did, but none wandered over to talk to him. Instead, they stayed at the fringes of the room, gazes returning to him again and again.

It was one stare in particular that was making Ezra nervous, pulling his concentration away from the cards on the table and in people's hands and causing him to loose track of the conversation flowing around him. Chris leaned back against the bar, blue eyes tracking his every move throughout the course of the evening. Unused to such blatant regard, not sure of why it was directed toward him, Ezra found himself jittery, nervous.

The evening seemed to crawl by, minutes lasting longer than they should have, hours refusing to pass away. Practice and skill allowed him to continue to win at least semi-regularly, so he didn't lose any money. At the same time, he wasn't winning nearly as much as he should have from the men with whom he was playing.

Finally, the crowd began to thin out. Ezra resisted the urge to sigh hugely in relief. Soon, he'd be able to make his escape and try to forget the unsettling evening in Tom's arms. He watched the people gradually clear out of the saloon and head for home eagerly. As a rule, he was the last one to leave before the bartender, so if he wanted to be discreet about his activities he had to continue the pattern.

When it was only he and the man behind the bar, Ezra scooped up his cards and stood. A quick trip upstairs and he could be on his way. He stepped around the table, intent on his goal. The clearing of a throat startled him into stillness. Glancing around the room once more, he spotted Chris sitting in a tucked away corner.

Chris stood up and looked over at the bartender. "You go ahead home, Mike. I'll take care of locking up."

The man behind the bar nodded and left, casting a curious glance back over his shoulder.

Ezra shared that curiosity. While it was not uncommon for him to close down the saloon, the rest of the seven rarely did so. Oh, Buck and Josiah had both done it, but he couldn't remember Chris ever having done so. Still, this was a mystery he didn't have to solve that night. He nodded toward the gunslinger. "Good night, Mr. Larabee." He'd have to go down the outside stairs on the way to the hotel.

"Ezra, wait." Chris stepped out of the shadows and approached him.

Ezra felt weariness rise up in him. He didn't need this, not when he was feeling low and all he wanted was to be in the arms of someone who did care, even if it was friendship rather than love. "I have quite a few things to attend to before I retire, sir. Can this wait?"

"Not anymore." There was something new in Chris's voice, a sound of near desperate hope. Ezra turned around to face him, to better read his expression. "I know what you have to attend to. You're going to meet Ireland, but you're not. Not tonight, not anymore."

Ezra licked his lips. He hadn't taken any special precautions to avoid being discovered with Tom; it was a short-term affair and he hadn't thought there was much risk. Foolish arrogance was now coming back to haunt him. Still, he wasn't ashamed of his actions, and he wasn't going to deny them. "Mr. Larabee, I cannot possibly see how my activities are any of your business."

A strained smile crossed Chris's face. "I know it shouldn't be, but it is. Ezra, you can't go see him."

Ezra took a step forward, feeling his chin come up defiantly. "Mr. Larabee, while I may accept your leadership where the protection of this town and its citizens are concerned, do not presume that you have the same sort of authority in my private life. You are my colleague, not my conscience. I do not require your approval."

"This isn't about moral, or right and wrong. What you're doing with Ireland isn't wrong. He's just the wrong person for you."

"I don't believe this. If you're not objecting on moral grounds, then what on earth is your objection to Tom?"

"My objection doesn't have anything to do with morals! It's got everything to do with love." Chris's gaze met his, blue eyes boring into his soul. "I love you, Ezra."

The gambler stared at him for a moment. A short burst of unbelieving laughter escaped him. This wasn't happening. It was ludicrous. He had to leave, escape the madness or whatever it was in the room making Chris say things he couldn't possibly mean. He moved to step around Chris and go directly to the hotel. He needed to hide away from this day even more than before.

Strong hands closed on his upper arms, stopping him and forcing him to face Chris. The gunslinger looked nervous as hell but his gaze was sincere. "I know this is coming out of nowhere for you, Ezra, but it's true. I love you. I want you to be mine, to never go near Tom again. I want you to be with me for the rest of tonight, for the rest of our lives if you can stand me for that long."

Ezra tried to pull free but the hands on his arms were like iron. "I don't understand this. What are you talking about?" The words were ones he'd dreamed of hearing, never believing he really would. Was Chris ill? Was he? Had he fallen asleep at the table and was dreaming even now?

"I'm no good with words, Ezra. That's one of your strengths, not mine." Chris kept his gaze on Ezra's, refusing to allow either of them to look away. "I knew that I cared about you more than before - I'd gotten to know you, could call you friend, even if I didn't let you know that. But it went deeper than that, beyond friendship. I didn't know it was happening until it was already done. I'm in love with you. That's why your happiness matters to me so much, why I've been so worried about you for the past few weeks when you obviously weren't happy. It's why I count on seeing you so much, why a smile from you can change my whole mood. It's why I haven't been able to stop hating Ireland since I first saw him. He was getting those smiles, Ezra, the ones I need. The ones I want." Chris shook his head. "It wasn't until I was losing you that I knew how much I needed you, how much I love you."

The man was serious. Ezra could read it in his eyes, the tense lines of his body. "Have you talked about this with anyone?" He was serious, but confused. Maybe a long talk with Vin or Josiah would help to make him a little more rational. Ezra held to this thought, ruthlessly smothering the flickering hope that was trying to ignite within him.

"Yeah, I have. The others know how I feel, Ezra. Hell, they knew how I felt before I did. I never thought I was going to fall in love again, but I have." He pulled Ezra inexorably toward him, gaze burning with hope and desire.

Captivated by those blue eyes, Ezra allowed himself to be pulled forward. Then warm lips were covering his, moving over his mouth with hesitant curiosity and reverence. Ezra gasped just a little, finally where he had wanted to be for so long. That gasp acted as a spark, ignited the fire between them. Chris's tongue swept past his parted lips to explore his mouth with greedy intensity. Driven by the same rising flames, Ezra imitated the action, unable to get enough of the wet heat, the taste of the man in his arms. He began to lose himself in the kiss.

It was Chris's rough groan that startled him out of the sensual haze that enveloped him. He tore away from the gunslinger's grasp, barely able to hide the trembling of his hands. "No games," he said, shaking his head. "I can't do this." He pulled his clothing straight, marshaling dignity as best he could. "You're overreacting to Tom's presence. That's all. As soon as he moves on, you'll fall out of love with me as quickly as you fell in." He had to believe that, couldn't allow himself to hope. He was never going to move on, never going to get on with his life, if he allowed that hope.

"That will never happen," Chris said vehemently, moving to stand right in front of him once more. "Never. I love you and nothing will change that. Tom might have been the thing that opened my eyes, but that's all. My love isn't going to change, Ezra, and it's never going away. I will love you long after he is gone." He pressed his lips to Ezra's once more.

Ezra was caught up in the kiss before he quite realized what was happening. As he pulled Chris closer to him, marveling at how very right they felt in each other's arms, he thought he could taste the other man's emotions in the kiss: love and hope and desperation and truth and want and need, all burning through him.

Shaking as the kiss came to an end, Ezra looked up into Chris's eyes. "Don't play with my emotions, Mr. Larabee. Not with my heart."

"Never, Ezra. This is real." He brushed his lips across Ezra's. "This is forever."

In a voice that just barely qualified for a whisper, Ezra spoke the words he'd been hiding for so long. "I love you. Chris."

Blue eyes darkened, taking on a green tone as the heat behind them grew. "Ezra...."

The gambler straightened, pulling out of Chris's arms. "I have to go tell Tom I won't be joining him tonight."

He could see Chris didn't like it, but the blond man nodded. "I understand. Just hurry back?"

It was Ezra's turn to bestow a small kiss. "Wait in my room." He left, the sound of Chris blowing out the saloon's lights behind him. As he crossed the street, he could scarcely believe what was happening. His hopeless fantasies about the gunslinger were all coming true. It scarcely seemed real, but he'd seen the truth of it in Chris's eyes, felt it in his touch, tasted it in his kiss. For once, Ezra wasn't going to let his doubts and fears ruin his chances for finally finding happiness. He was going to trust in Chris, trust in what he felt and wanted and hoped.

He spotted movement in front of the hotel; Tom was standing outside, staring up at the sky. Ezra slowed his approach. "Tom?"

The actor turned, a wide grin stretching his features. "Ezra!" His eyes narrowed in speculation as he looked Ezra over. "Chris finally come to his senses?"

Ezra stared. "What? How?"

Tom laughed out loud. "An eye for detail, my lucky friend. You've been well kissed recently, and I know my lips haven't been anywhere near you for hours now. But mostly it's your eyes." He hugged Ezra and spoke into his ear. "The shadows are gone as if they were never there. Only one thing could put that much light in your eyes." He pressed a light kiss to Ezra's cheek. "Congratulations, Ezra."

"Tom...." For once, Ezra was at a loss for words. "Thank you."

"My pleasure." Tom pulled Ezra into a tight embrace, holding him close for a moment. "My pleasure, Ezra, especially to see you happy."

Ezra returned the hug, then stepped out of Tom's arms. With a final grateful smile, he turned and walked back over toward the saloon. Something made him turn around; the desire to take one last look at the man who'd filled his days with so much laughter, perhaps. He watched, a pleased grin growing larger, as he saw Vin and Buck approach Tom in front of the hotel. They spoke for a few moments, and Ezra was able to overhear the low conversation: Vin and Buck inviting Tom to join them for a drink and Tom's acceptance. The guardians of Four Corners led the actor back toward JD's office, and the breeze carried back the sounds of good-natured bickering between Tom and Buck over who was the best-looking man in town.

They deserved each other, Ezra decided, continuing his journey back to his room. He had to force himself not to run.

Chris paced back and forth in Ezra's room, resisting the urge to head over to the hotel. He was acutely aware of the possibility that Ireland could choose to try to make a play for Ezra, try to convince the gambler to stay with him and not believe Chris. Of course Ireland would do that; in order to hold onto Ezra, he believed a man might try anything.

"What is that noise?"

Ezra's voice had him whirling around, staring at the man who'd managed to sneak up on him. "Ezra!"

"Was that you?" One of Ezra's eyebrows was raised interrogatively. "Were you growling?"

Probably. A little embarrassed, Chris ignored the question and moved to embrace Ezra, reveling in the feeling of the other's heat in his arms. He maneuvered them over to the bed without breaking the embrace, not willing to be separated from Ezra for even a moment. Thinking of Ireland had intensified the possessiveness in his nature. Growling was probably going to be the least of his problems.

Ezra's skilled hands made quick work of their clothing, stripping them both with an eagerness Chris more than shared. He returned again and again to the gambler's mouth, unable to get his fill of tasting him, feeling the agile tongue wind around his own, seducing him over and over again.

Chris moved to lie on top of Ezra, wanting to look at his lover, finally see all that skin that he'd only glimpsed earlier. He looked down and froze. After a moment, he became aware that he was growling once more.

Scattered down Ezra's throat and across his shoulder were a series of bruises: passion marks left by Ireland's mouth. Another man's mark on his lover. The growling got louder.

"Chris?" Ezra asked, concern beginning to creep into his expression. He glanced down at himself and raised a hand to one of the marks on his throat. "Oh. Tom got rather carried away this afternoon." A smug expression crossed his face. "I still won."

Chris lunged forward and kissed him desperately. "I love you," he said, staring into green eyes. "I love you." His voice got rougher until he was growling once more. "You're mine." He lowered his mouth over one of the offending marks on Ezra's throat and sucked hard. Beneath him, Ezra cried out and bucked up against him, hands tightening on Chris's waist. Chris kept the suction up for a few moments more. When he pulled back, he stared down at Ezra's throat, watching as his own larger mark completely hid Ireland's. "Mine," he said with satisfaction.

He glanced back up into Ezra's eyes and watched in fascination as they darkened, green becoming black as desire overwhelmed everything else he could read in them. "Yours?" There was the slightest hint of challenge in Ezra's question.

"Mine," Chris growled, before lowering his mouth to cover another of the marks. Another. Another. Not stopping until he had obliterated them all, clearly staking his claim on the body of his lover, on his heart, on his soul.

Ezra thrust up against him raggedly, erratically, hands stroking over his skin, leaving trails of fire in their wake. Those bewitching hands moved over his back, over his flanks, slid down to trace the curves of his buttocks, then crept in between them to dance over his erection. Every movement was intoxicating, arousing Chris until he could wait no longer. He needed to come, had to come and claim his lover.

Chris licked his way down Ezra's jaw, then circled his tongue around the shell of one ear. "Please, Ezra. I want to be inside you, want to feel you around me, please."

Ezra bucked beneath him, eyes nearly black. "The bottle on the table," he said, glancing over to the table beside his bed. "There's oil inside."

Hands shaking with need, Chris prepared himself and his lover. He stopped Ezra's attempt to roll onto his stomach, wanting to see Ezra's face and watch him as he came and know that he was the one who put that expression of ecstasy on his face. He pressed inside his lover, feeling as though he were coming home at last.

Beneath him, Ezra shuddered and pulled him closer. Limbs entwined, Chris buried deep within him, it was difficult to tell where one man begun and the other ended.

With Ezra's erection trapped between them, Chris began to thrust harder, faster, needing to see Ezra's face when he came, needing to know that they belonged to each other now and forever. The heat between them rose until Ezra cried out, eyes brilliant with love and completion as he came. The sight was enough to propel Chris over the precipice and he came with Ezra's name a triumphant shout on his lips.

They lay in each other's arms, slowly recovering from the power of their joining. Chris returned once more to Ezra's mouth, feeding off the love and welcome and heat he found there. In between kisses, they exchanged promises of love and forever, swearing eternity to each other.

As his breathing returned to normal, his gaze wandered over Ezra's body. He felt a small surge of guilt as he took in the bruises scattered across his skin, bruises Chris had placed there with his mouth. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"Hm?" Ezra's eyes were sleepy, and it took him a moment to understand. "No, you didn't hurt me." A slight flush rose in his cheeks. "I find it rather gratifying that you want me so much that your need pushes you to the edge of your control," he admitted.

Chris began to grin; then he noticed the way Ezra was eyeing him speculatively, even as his green eyes darkened. "What?"

"You have proved your claim on me with an overabundance of marks," Ezra answered, rolling on top of Chris. "And yet, you don't wear any of mine. That hardly seems fair, now, does it?"

Chris licked his lips. "No, it really doesn't. It doesn't seem fair at all."

Ezra grinned. "I love you," he murmured, before fastening his lips over the pulse-point on Chris's throat.

Chris arched up into the pain-pleasure. "God, Ezra. I love you. I love you!" As Ezra's lips traveled over his skin, Chris vowed never to lose this man, never to let anything come between them. He'd found love again and he wasn't going to lose it. He was going to make sure Ezra never regretted trusting him. They were finally together and that was the way it was going to stay. Forever.

The End

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