toastfic: (mag 7: chris & ezra)
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Continued from Part One.


The Hotel Mariposa was a fine establishment, hardly the most expensive in town, but still far better than Chris would have chosen for himself. His room was clean and neat with sturdy, age-darkened oak furniture and what looked like a real feather bed. Chris unpacked his kit, laying out a fresh shirt and pants to air while wondering if they were what the fussy little clerk would consider appropriate dress for court. He hoped they weren't.

It occurred to him that he hadn't the faintest idea which room was Ezra's, or if they were even staying on the same floor. Chris shook his head. He didn't want to be alone tonight. Buck would tell him to go find himself a willing woman, but it was Ezra he wanted in his bed, not some nameless bangtail. Trouble was, he didn't know if Ezra wanted the same thing.

Well. Only one way to find out.

He hunted through his gear until he found a blank scrap of paper and the stub of a pencil. Scribbling a terse reminder that they were due in court at ten the next morning, he folded the note in half and headed downstairs to the front desk.

The desk clerk looked up nervously as Chris bore down on him. "May I help you, sir?"

"Got a message for Ezra Standish," he said, holding out the note.

"I'll see that he gets it," the clerk replied, taking the note and tucking it into one of the wooden mail boxes lining the wall behind the desk.

Second row, third from the left.

Chris smiled. "Much obliged," he said.

It would be hours before the gambler came home to roost, and Chris decided to use the time to his advantage. Tucson was the territory capital and had a lot to offer in the way of distractions. It was tempting to hole up in one of the many saloons that lined the narrow street, but it would be to his advantage to remain sober tonight and he bypassed the bars with a regretful sigh.

Instead he wound up in a shop purporting to have a wide variety of imported French soap. He had no idea what the stuff Ezra used was called, only that it smelled faintly of almonds while most of this lot was heavy on the florals. Not wanting to wind up smelling like somebody's maiden aunt, he was headed for the door when he spotted a single cream colored box printed with the word L'Amande in bold black script almost lost amongst its brightly colored brethren.

He picked up the box and gave it an experimental sniff. Almonds.

"I'll take this," he said to the shopkeeper, "and directions to the nearest bathhouse."

An hour and a half later, Chris was thoroughly clean and ensconced at a corner table in the hotel dining room that afforded a good view of the front lobby. He ate slowly, just picking at his food, all the while keeping a careful eye on the front desk. When the clerk disappeared to assist a well-dressed woman with an enormous trunk up to her room, he rose and quickly headed to the desk. After a brief glance around the lobby to make sure no-one was looking, he leaned across the desk and snagged the spare room key out of Ezra's mailbox, tucking it into his pocket before casually returning to the table to finish his meal.

+ + +

The wooden bob on the end of the key had the number 203 etched into it, which was two doors down and across the hall from Chris's own room. He stood in front of the door for a moment, took a deep breath and knocked. "Ezra? You in there?"

No answer.

He knocked a second time, just to be sure. When there was still no answer, he pulled the key out of his pocket, unlocked the door and stepped inside.

The room was the same as his own, but with a westward facing window that looked out over the roof of the feed shop next door. He could see the Tucson mountains in the distance, their distinct, conical shape almost indigo against the backdrop of the setting sun.

It would be full dark soon, and he didn't expect Ezra back much before midnight, if that early. The man had the sleeping habits of a coyote, and much of the personality of one to boot. Chris smiled at the thought, imagining the flash of Ezra's gold-capped canine in the light of the waxing moon. Yeah, he was a Coyote, all right.

He prowled around the room, making note of Ezra's personal effects laid out neatly on the dresser: a monogrammed, sterling silver brush with matching comb, the small porcelain shaving cup with its boar-bristle brush, an ivory handled straight razor resting on a neatly folded white hand towel. And next to the shaving kit, inside a small paper bag, a cobalt glass bottle of sweet almond oil and three brand-new bars of L'Amande soap.

Chris shook his head, grinning. No wonder the shop only had the one bar left. Ezra had bought all the rest.

There was nothing left to do now but wait. Chris calmly unfastened his gun belt, then looped it over the bedpost within easy reach. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he tugged off his boots and socks, then stood and began unbuttoning his shirt. It felt awkward to be stripping down in the middle of another man's bedroom, as though the act was more intimate in such a genteel setting than dropping his trousers and rubbing himself to orgasm against Ezra's stomach ever could have been. It was more real somehow, and even a little frightening, though he shook it off quickly and tried to convince himself that the shiver crawling down his spine was from the slight chill in the room and not nerves.

Naked, he folded his clothes and placed them in a neat stack in the chair by the window. Turning back to the bed, he folded the quilt down and crawled beneath the covers. With the sun completely set, the room was dark and still. Chris considered lighting the bedside lamp, but was worried Ezra would see the faint glow coming from the gap beneath the door and refuse to come in. Instead, he settled comfortably into the mattress, folded his arms behind his head and waited.

V.

Chris was dozing lightly when the sound of a key turning in the lock brought him instantly back to full wakefulness. There was a creak of hinges and then light from the hallway spilled into the room, turning Ezra into a blank silhouette as he stood frozen in the doorway. After a moment the gambler sighed, closing the door behind him and locking it again with a quiet click. "You're nothing if not persistent, Mr. Larabee."

Chris rubbed sleepily at his eyes. "What time is it?"

"Just after one."

"Any luck at the tables?"

Ezra crossed the room and stood in front of the dresser with his back to Chris. "Some," he said, shrugging out of his jacket and hanging it neatly from a peg on the wall before turning his attention to his guns.

"That's good."

"Mm," Ezra said noncommittally. He slipped out of the waistcoat, folded it neatly and placed it inside the top dresser drawer. The suspenders were next, sliding down his arms to hang loosely about his waist.

Chris was mesmerized by the slow flex and roll of Ezra's shoulders as he carefully unbuttoned his shirt. "Tired?"

"A bit," Ezra replied, meaning he was probably exhausted. "It's been a long day."

"Yeah," Chris said, voice gone suddenly hoarse as Ezra pulled off his shirt and dropped it unceremoniously on the floor, revealing broad shoulders and a deeply muscled back. "Yeah, it has."

Using the dresser for balance, Ezra lifted his left leg and tugged off his boot and stocking, the action drawing the striped broadcloth trousers tight against the curve of his ass. Chris shifted restlessly on the bed as Ezra repeated the process with his right boot. "And what have you been up to this fine evening, Mr. Larabee? Besides the obvious breaking and entering."

"Took a bath," Chris said with a grin.

Ezra shot him a brief, comical look of surprise over one shoulder. "My, my, my, that's twice in as many days. Someone might think I've had a civilizing effect on you."

"They might at that," Chris agreed.

Ezra did not reply, hands busy unbuttoning his trousers before sliding them down to pool around his feet. Still with his back to Chris, he stepped out of the puddle of fabric and kicked it off to one side. Beneath the trousers he wore a pair of white silk drawers, tight as second skin and about as revealing.

Chris licked his lips and let his hand slide down his belly to his crotch, gripping his cock almost painfully. "Ezra—"

Ezra reached into the paper bag and pulled out the bottle of almond oil. Uncorking the top, he poured a small amount into one palm and began massaging it into the skin of his hands. "What do you want, Chris?"

"I want you to turn around."

Ezra hesitated a moment before complying, and the thin silk did little to hide the evidence of his arousal. Still working the oil into his hands, he leaned back against the dresser and stared: first at the flush Chris knew covered his face and throat, then down his chest and stomach to the spot beneath the quilt where Chris's hand moved with slow, deliberate strokes.

Ezra closed his eyes briefly and let out a deep sigh. "You are going to be the death of me," he said with some asperity, grabbed the bottle of almond oil off the dresser and walked over to the bed.

"If I wanted you dead, I'd shoot you," Chris said.

Ezra looked briefly skyward. "Please. Spare me your attempts at humor." Sliding beneath the sheets, he nudged Chris with his knee. "Roll over."

Chris's eyebrows rose into his hairline. "Pardon?"

"A little slow tonight, are we? Roll. Over." When Chris still made no move to comply, Ezra sat up with a scowl and folded his arms across his chest. "Mr. Larabee, you have made a point of pursuing my attentions over the course of these last several days. Now your tenacity is about to pay off and you have the sheer audacity to balk? Either get on your belly or get the hell out of my bed. I honestly don't care which at this point."

Chris opened his mouth. Closed it. Swallowed hard—and rolled over.

Ezra chuckled. "There. That wasn't so difficult, now, was it?"

"Ezra—"

"Not another word, sir. Not one word."

Chris snapped his jaw shut and pressed his face into the feather pillows, shoulders quivering with tension. He heard the unmistakable squeak and pop of a cork, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he felt the first touch of cold oil against his spine. "What—?"

"Relax, Chris," Ezra said in the gentlest tone he'd used so far. "I need you to relax and trust me. Can you do that?"

Chris took a deep breath, held it for several seconds, then let it out slowly. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I trust you."

Ezra pressed a soft kiss to the back of his neck. "Good."

Strong hands began to warm and spread the sweet-scented oil over Chris's skin as they kneaded the tightly corded muscles of his shoulders and upper back, smoothing out every knot and kink that had developed over the course of their journey. He felt himself sink further into the mattress as Ezra's fingers worked a steady path down his spine, only to arch up again when they reached the small of his back. Here the touches slowed, gentled. Became just the lightest brush of fingertips, flickering across his skin in ever-widening circles.

Arousal flared, bright and hot, catching in Chris's throat with a long, shuddering breath that rendered speech impossible. He reached out instead, groping blindly until Ezra caught his seeking hand and let himself be pulled up into a long, hard kiss that was equal parts desire, desperation and need.

"I want—"

"I know."

Chris levered himself up on his elbows and glanced back over his shoulder to see Ezra toss his drawers to the floor. Another kiss, swift and sharp, and then Ezra was behind him again, urging him up onto his knees. He dropped his head back down, hands knotting and twisting the poor feather pillow as Ezra mouthed a leisurely path down his back. Warm hands stroked up the inside of his thighs, then slid around to firmly grasp his hips as Ezra's tongue slicked briefly across his asshole.

"Jesus!" One hand shot out to grab the headboard with a white-knuckled grip while the other dug deeply into the feather mattress as Ezra continued to flick him with little catlike strokes, dagger-tip tongue turning his bones to jelly inside his skin.

All at once the teasing stopped. Chris brought his other hand up to brace against the headboard as he tried to catch his breath; lost it again when he felt the blunt, wet tip of Ezra's cock press against him.

"Chris?"

Ezra's voice was tight with strain. He had no voice to answer and pushed back instead, startling a curse from the other man that became a low, guttural moan as the slick head of his cock slid into Chris's body. "As you command," Ezra gasped, and pressed inside with a long, slow burn that robbed Chris of both breath and reason.

They began to rock, gently at first, then with increasing speed and urgency until they built into a swift, pounding rhythm. It lit a fire at the base of Chris's spine, spreading molten heat throughout his body until it coalesced behind his eyes with the strength of a July sun.

When his vision cleared again, he was lying flat on his belly, Ezra's body a trembling, sweat-soaked weight across his back. He shifted experimentally, heard Ezra mumble something incoherent against the back of his head that he hadn't the energy or the wits to decipher. It would keep till morning, he decided, and made a vague attempt to grab the quilt before it finished sliding to the floor. Ezra chuckled into his hair, then pushed himself up enough to retrieve the bedding, covering them both with the quilt before sinking back down again. "Am I too heavy?" he murmured into Chris's ear.

"No," Chris said, and pulled him closer.

Ezra continued to nuzzle Chris's ear, one hand sliding down to curl almost possessively around his hip. Chris shifted against him, rolling to one side so that Ezra could snug up behind him, crotch pressed firmly into the curve of his ass. "This is nice," Ezra whispered, feathering kisses down the side of his neck.

"Yeah." He let his head fall back, opening up the line of his throat as the kisses became small, nibbling bites. His cock was already beginning to stir again, hardening further when Ezra coaxed him onto his back in order to mouth a damp trail down Chris's chest. "We have to get up tomorrow," he gasped, fingers tangling in Ezra's sweat-spiked hair as the man moved steadily lower.

"And I do dearly love my sleep," Ezra said, eyeing Chris's fully erect shaft appreciatively before taking the head into the wet heat of his mouth.

Any further concerns vanished abruptly from his mind, along with his name, his age and his ability to form complete sentences. All that mattered was Ezra: the softness of his lips and tongue as they moved with languid ease up and down Chris's length, the maddening press of a finger that teased the over-sensitive entrance of his body.

Ezra pulled away suddenly, crouching down between Chris's widely splayed legs with an almost predatory look of want glittering in his eyes. "How sore are you?" he asked, reaching out to gently stroke the tender skin of Chris's inner thigh. Chris pulled his knees up and back in wanton invitation and Ezra gave a husky laugh. "Well. That's—remarkably eloquent."

Ezra reached out and snagged the cobalt bottle off the bedside table, giving it a brief look of regret as he took note of how much oil they had already used before pouring out a generous handful. Chris licked his lips with anticipation, watching the dark, swollen head of Ezra's cock appear and disappear beneath slippery fingers as Ezra slicked himself thoroughly. Then Ezra was moving again, positioning himself between Chris's thighs and biting his lower lip in concentration as he made the first, slow push inside. So careful this time, easing his way in by breathless increments, shoulders and arms quivering at the strain of keeping himself upright.

Chris let his eyes roll back in satisfaction, wrapping his legs firmly around Ezra's middle and holding him in place for a moment, wanting to savor the warm, solid weight of the man on top of him. It made him wonder if this was how Sarah had felt when they had made love, this strange sense of completion at having Ezra's cock sunk deep within his body.

He looked up into Ezra's face, watching the rapid shift and play of emotion going on behind the green eyes that Standish couldn't quite hide. Ezra swallowed convulsively, perspiration beading his forehead and upper lip. "Chris? Are you—?"

He nodded, wrapping a hand around the back of Ezra's neck and pulling him down for a long, deep kiss. "Move," he whispered.

Ezra complied with a lazy undulation of his hips that made Chris groan and kiss him again, hands moving restlessly across the sweat-slicked muscles of Ezra's back before finally settling on his hips and clutching hard. Ezra let out a small, broken whimper, burying his face in the join of Chris's neck and shoulder as he continued to thrust at that same unhurried pace, their bodies moving in perfect cadence towards the inevitable, sweet and slow like sun-warmed honey.

+ + +

Rain drummed against the windowpane, mixed with the louder rattle and tap of hail. Chris grumbled sleepily, pulling the quilt over his head in an attempt to block out the noise. It didn't work. Muttering a string of curses under his breath, he rolled over onto his stomach, flinging out an arm to catch Ezra and finding only cold sheets and an empty space on the mattress beside him.

It took a long moment to fully register the fact that Ezra was not in the bed, longer still to realize that the top of the dresser was bare, the red coat gone from its peg. It was as though the man had never been in the room at all, and Chris felt his sense of reality skew even further when he spotted his own kit sitting neatly beside the door.

Chris closed his eyes and pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose as the first dull stirrings of anger began to pound behind his eyes. "I'm going to kill him," he whispered, and meant every word. Because it wasn't just him that Ezra had run out on, it was Shelby Brooks as well, a seventeen year old boy about to be hanged for a murder he hadn't committed—couldn't have committed, because he'd been playing cards with Ezra in Four Corners at the time. Except, Ezra wasn't there to tell the judge that and, if the quality of the feeble light making its way in through the window was any indication of the time, Chris had overslept the start of the trial by a good two hours, thereby missing his own chance to testify that he'd seen both Shelby and Ezra in the saloon on the day in question.

"Son of a bitch!" he shouted, kicking his way out of the tangle of bedding and damned near falling on his face in the process.

He stalked over to the chair by the window that still held his clothes from the night before and mechanically began to dress. His chest hurt, a cold, hard ache of loss that he'd never thought he'd feel again, hadn't ever wanted to feel again. Not like this. He wanted to crawl deep inside a bottle and never come out. He wanted to rip Ezra's heart out with his bare hands and stuff it inside that sweet poison mouth until he choked.

He wanted to throw himself at Ezra's feet and beg him not to leave.

Chris placed both hands on either side of the window and leaned forward until his forehead touched the cold glass pane. "Goddamn," he said, voice barely audible above the relentless patter of the rain. "Goddamn it all to hell."

Someone knocked on the door. He ignored it. The knocking came again, louder this time. "Mr. Larabee? You in there?"

Chris frowned. That sounded like— "Shelby?"

"Yessir! Can you let me in?"

Baffled, Chris walked to the door and opened it. There stood Shelby Brooks, a little damp around the edges from the rain and grinning like a cat in cream. "Shelby?" Chris said again, utterly bewildered and more than a little dazed from having his world turned on its ear so many times in one morning.

Shelby's thin face furrowed. "Lord, I know Ezra said you was feeling poorly, but I didn't know it was this bad. Whyn't you go set back down? You're white as a sheet."

"You've seen Ezra?"

"Well, of course I seen Ezra." Shelby shook his head. "Maybe I'd best get a doctor."

"No!" He caught the boy's arm and dragged him into the room. "Tell me what happened. How'd you get out of jail?"

"Well," Shelby said, scratching his head sheepishly, "I don't rightly know all the details, but it seems Ezra ran into Judge Spicer last night at a poker game and they had themselves a little talk about my case. Met up for breakfast early this morning, and then they come and let me out after."

Chris closed his eyes and laughed silently. Son of a bitch, he thought. Goddamned ratfuck son of a bitch. "Where's Ezra now?"

Shelby looked thoughtful for a moment. "Reckon he'd be somewhere near the Rincons by now."

Of course he was, and in the middle of a driving rainstorm, too. "He say where he was headed?"

"Nope. Just asked directions to the old Spanish trail, and told me to look in on you around lunchtime as you was under the weather. Mr. Larabee? You sure you don't need a doctor? Your face done gone a powerful shade of red."

+ + +

Ezra wasn't headed for Old Spanish Trail. Chris was as certain of this as he was of his own name. No, Ezra was headed for Redington Pass, as fast as that fancy bay of his could go in this weather.

Standish had a good three hour lead on him, meaning he'd be up into the mountains by the time Chris hit the bottom of the pass. With any luck, the trail would be so bad Ezra would be forced to stop before he got too far, giving Chris a chance to catch up. And when he did....

"Gonna kick his contrary ass all the way back to Tucson and then hog-tie him to the bed," Chris spat at the elements. "Swear to God!"

Unimpressed, the rain fell harder.

+ + +


By the time Chris reached Redington Pass, he hadn't the energy to spare for cussing. All his focus was taken up by trying to keep himself and his horse from sliding off the side of the mountain as the trail wound steadily higher. It was like riding through an open stream, water sluicing over the rocks, coursing down the mountain in paths worn deep from countless heavy rains. At least the hail had stopped, but he knew that was only a temporary respite. There was likely to be sleet further up, and snow in the highest elevations.

He found Ezra's horse wandering near the bottom of a washed out gulch two miles in.

There was no sign of Ezra, only his horse, saddle and gear still on its back, reins hanging down to trail through the muddy water pooling on the ground as the bay paced nervously back and forth. Chris stopped a careful distance away, dismounted and ground-tied his own horse before cautiously approaching the fretful gelding.

"Easy, Chaucer, easy," he murmured, reaching out to take the dangling reins. "Gonna be all right now."

Chaucer whickered pitifully at him, tugging on the reins in an attempt to return to pacing by the gulch. Chris blinked the rain out of his eyes and peered past the horse, a cold knot of fear twisting his gut when he spotted Ezra's hat caught in the remains of an upturned mesquite.

Chris let go of Chaucer and walked to where the hat lay, squatting down to work it free of the confining branches. Turning it over in his hands, he stood and brushed the worst of the mud and debris away, silently praying that when he finally brought Ezra down off the mountain, it would not be wrapped in a shroud and slung over the back of his horse. "Ezra!" he shouted.

Nothing. Just wind and rain and the rush of water tumbling down the mountainside.

Frowning, Chris scanned both sides of the trail, hoping to catch the tell-tale flash of a red coat amidst the trees. "Ezra, answer me, goddamn it!"

"Language, Mister Larabee."

He whirled as Ezra stumbled out of the trees not ten feet behind him, looking like a muddy, bedraggled mess and swaying slightly on his feet. Dropping the hat, Chris closed the short distance between them and grabbed Standish's shoulders in a fierce grip. "Dammit, Ezra!" he shouted, giving the man a shake that set his head to bobbing on his neck. "What the hell were you thinking?"

Ezra's brow furrowed as he considered the question. "I lost my hat."

The non-sequitor caught him completely off-guard. "What?"

"My hat," Ezra said with exaggerated patience, his accent thick and slurred almost to the point of unintelligibility. "I cannot find my hat."

"Your hat," Chris repeated, noticing for the first time the dazed, unfocused look in Ezra's normally keen, bright eyes.

Taking a deep breath, Chris reached out one hand to gently card through Ezra's wet, mud tangled hair, carefully feeling along every inch of scalp until he encountered a large, fleshy lump just above and behind the man's right ear. Ezra flinched away from the touch, giving Chris a confused look as if he couldn't quite understand where the sudden pain had come from.

"Jesus," Chris whispered, pulling Ezra into a rough embrace. "What happened?"

"I fell," Ezra mumbled into his shoulder. "I fell and lost my hat."

Chris ran a soothing hand down Ezra's waterlogged back. "It's all right," he said gently. "I got your hat, everything's gonna be all right."

Ezra's arms came up, slowly winding their way around his waist and holding tight. "Chris?" he said, sounding so small and lost that it scared Chris more than the nonsense about the hat had done. "Get me off this mountain."

Chris pulled Ezra closer, trying to shield him as best he could from the cold, blowing rain. "I will," he said.

+ + +

They were going to have to go back to Agua Caliente.

Even if the road had been passable, Tucson was just too far way. Ezra needed warmth and shelter and he needed it now. Agua Caliente was their only choice.

Chris prayed the lady rancher's good humor extended far enough to allow them the use of her barn until the storm passed. There was no way Ezra could survive the night out in the elements, not with a head injury and soaked to the bone.

Just getting them both down from the pass in fading light was hard enough. Ezra could barely stay upright in the saddle much less guide his horse, his face ghost-pale and twisted with pain beneath its coating of dirt. Chris was forced to lead the pair of them, walking with one hand firmly on the bay's bridle, his own horse tied to the back of Ezra's saddle with a length of rope.

Finding the ranch was another problem, as Chris had only a rough guess to its location. In that instance, nightfall turned out to be a blessing as the lighted windows of the main house acted as a beacon, giving him something to aim for through the tangle of trees and seemingly endless sheets of rain.

His own strength had been pushed beyond its limits and then some by that point, but he had promised Ezra to see him safe and by God, Chris always kept his word. He couldn't feel his feet inside his boots anymore, and the wet leather of Chaucer's bridle bit deep into the palm of his hand, his fist clenched so tight he wasn't sure he could let go even if he wanted to.

He led the horses right up to the front porch and pried his cramped fingers loose from Chaucer's reins, hissing through his teeth at the pain. Ezra was only semi-conscious, slumped in the saddle like a sack of potatoes and Chris knew there was no way in hell he was going to get the man down without the both of them winding up sprawled in the mud.

"I need some help here!" he shouted, but the front door was already banging open, the lady rancher and a tall young man Chris supposed was her son spilling out into the wet, gusting night.

"Lord Almighty, what happened?" the woman said, reaching out to help Chris ease Ezra down out of the saddle.

"He hurt his head," Chris said, slinging one of Ezra's arms over his shoulder while the rancher woman took the other.

"Best get him in the house," she said. "Clem, see to the horses."

The young man—Clem—hesitated. "Ma—"

"Do what I say, boy!"

Clem obeyed, but not before giving Chris a look that promised trouble if he dared do anything to harm his mother. They were strangers, after all, and armed strangers at that, even if Ezra was in no shape to hurt a mouse. "I'm sorry," Chris said, as they half-led, half-carried Ezra into the building. "Didn't know where else to go."

"You did the right thing," the woman said, guiding them down a narrow hallway to a small bedroom in the very back. "Name's Vera, Vera Callard."

"Chris Larabee."

Vera looked at him sharply across Ezra's shoulder. "The gunslinger?"

He smiled grimly. "Yeah."

Vera whistled as they eased Ezra down into a chair by the door. "Lord," she said. "Clem'll be right pleased when he finds out you're famous." She nodded towards a trunk at the end of the room's single bed. "There are blankets yonder. Get out of them wet things while I take a look at sisterboy."

Chris wasn't about to take umbrage at the epithet under the circumstances, but Ezra had other ideas. He lifted his head and glared fuzzily at Vera. "Ezra," he slurred. "M'name's Ezra. Not s-sisterboy."

"Pleased to meet you, Ezra," she said, catching his chin with a firm hand to hold him still as she studied his eyes. "Hear you got your bell rung hard."

"I fell."

"Right into a mud puddle from the looks of you." She held up two fingers. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

Ezra blinked. Frowned. Blinked again.

Chris felt his stomach churn uneasily. "Ezra?"

"I can count them just fine," Ezra said. "I just can't say it."

Vera gave Ezra a gentle pat on the shoulder. "Don't you worry none about it," she said soothingly before turning to Chris. "He's concussed, but it don't seem too bad. Gonna have a great-grandmother of a headache come morning, but a few days rest should set him to rights."

Chris nodded. "You're a nurse?"

"Was," Vera said, "during the war." She jabbed a finger in Chris's direction. "I meant it when I said to get out of them wet things. You can undress him, too, while you're at it." She grinned wickedly. "Figure you don't need no help with that."

Chris blushed as scarlet as Ezra's coat.

+ + +

With Vera out of the room, Chris quickly shucked down to his jeans, carefully hanging his hat and duster from a hook on the back of the closed door before turning to Ezra. Standish had managed to sit up straight in the chair and was struggling valiantly to disentangle himself from his much abused coat. Chris sighed and bent to help, sliding the heavy, waterlogged wool off Ezra's shoulders before easing each arm from its sleeve.

"Thank you," Ezra said wearily as Chris hung the coat next to his own.

Chris nodded, then knelt on the floor to pull off Ezra's boots. "That was a fine thing you did for Shelby."

Ezra shrugged. "The opportunity presented itself. All I did was take advantage."

Boots and socks taken care of, Chris set to work on the straps of the spring-loaded derringer rig buckled to Ezra's forearm. "Would you have run if it hadn't?"

Ezra was silent for a long moment. "I would have waited until after the trial," he said at last.

Chris set the derringer carefully aside. "Still don't explain why you ran at all."

There was a brief warning knock and then the door creaked open, revealing a slim girl of about sixteen carrying a stack of clean, white towels and a pitcher of steaming water. "Mama thought you might like to wash up," she said. "She's making hot tea for you both."

Chris nodded. "Much obliged, Miss—?"

"Penelope."

She continued to stand at the edge of the room, eyes fixed on Chris's narrow hips as he knelt on the floor at Ezra's feet. For one disconcerting moment Chris thought she was staring at his rear until he followed the line of her gaze and realized she was looking at his gun. He raised an eyebrow and she blushed. "Are you really a shootist?" she asked with a breathless kind of wonder.

"Reckon so," he said.

Penelope gave him a shy smile. She was a pretty little thing, with her mother's dark, curling hair and wide, grey eyes and Chris found himself smiling back almost in spite of himself. A moment later Ezra smacked him in the shoulder hard enough to topple him over backwards onto the floor. "What the hell was that for?" he shouted.

"I am right in the room," Ezra snapped.

Chris closed his eyes and grabbed at his temper, trying to remind himself the man was injured and not entirely in his right mind. "You're the one who ran out on me, remember?" he said through gritted teeth.

"I was provoked."

"Provoked," Chris said slowly. "How the hell were you provoked? I did everything you goddamn wanted!"

He rose to his feet, dimly aware of Vera grabbing Penelope by the arm and dragging her out of the room before closing the door firmly behind them. "Explain it to me, Ezra. You wanted me to back off, I backed off. You wanted me on my belly, I got on my belly." He tossed up his hands in exasperation. "What else could I have done?"

Ezra cradled his head carefully in his hands. "I know," he said quietly. "I know. You've been—perfect."

"Then why did you run?"

"Because you've been perfect!" Ezra finally looked up at him, and his eyes were full of such sorrow that it almost hurt to look at them. "I'm in love with you, Chris," he said. "Have been practically since the day we met."

Chris sat down. Hard.

Ezra smiled wryly. "My sentiments exactly."

"I didn't know."

"I'm well aware of this." He laughed bitterly. "Now do you understand?"

Chris swallowed, then nodded. "You left before I could."

"Precisely."

"Just one problem."

"Which is?"

"I'm not leaving."

"Chris—"

"I'm not," he repeated doggedly. "You think I chased you all the way to Redington Pass just to tell you what a jackass you are?"

"And what happens when we get back to Four Corners?" Ezra demanded. "When you see the lovely widow Travis again? When we're back amongst the rest of our merry little band? No, Chris. This wasn't meant to last. It couldn't. And I—" His shoulders slumped, weary, defeated. "I am not strong enough to look at you every day, knowing what we shared, however briefly."

Chris moved across the floor until he was directly in front of Ezra. He placed a gentle hand beneath the man's chin, lifting the bowed head until he could look into to Ezra's tired, sad eyes. "I'm not leaving you," he said, quiet but firm. "Last night, I never done that before, let a man take me that way. But with you—" He shook his head. "I haven't felt like that since my wedding night, Ezra. If that's not love, then I don't know what love is."

Ezra blinked once; twice. Opened his mouth to speak only to be cut off when Chris leaned in and kissed him, soft and sweet and full of promise. "I'm not leaving you, Ezra," he whispered when they parted. "Not now, not when we get back to Four Corners, not ever."

"I believe you," Ezra said. "God help me, I believe you."

Chris smiled and smoothed the matted hair back from Ezra's forehead. "No more running away?"

Ezra shook his head, then winced and gagged. "Lord, I'm goin' t'be sick."

Chris scooted hastily out of range, grabbing the porcelain wash basin off the nearby stand and shoving it under Ezra's nose. "Easy," he murmured, running one hand down Ezra's back with long, soothing strokes as the man shuddered and retched. "Easy."

"Lord," Ezra said again, wiping his mouth with the back of one trembling hand. "Feels like I was kicked by a damn mule."

"I'll bet," Chris said, carefully setting the basin aside. "Need to get you in bed."

"I'm afraid I'm not going to be much company for a while," Ezra said apologetically.

Chris smiled again, brushing his fingers tenderly across Ezra's cheek. "We got time."

FIN.
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