Birch '04: Finessed

Ezra squeezed his eyes shut tightly as the bedsprings squeaked. This was going to be an excruciating night, he decided grimly, tucking his small compact body in closer to his side of the bed.

"Ezra? You still awake?" Chris Larabee's whiskey roughened voice was low.

No. I am not awake. I am deeply asleep, sir. Ezra gripped the thin worn edge of mattress with his right hand, keeping his body still and set. The confounded bedsprings on this bed were so old that there was a tendency to roll toward the center where the springs were the weakest. He fought that with his grip. Keeping silent, he listened as the gunfighter moved slowly on the other edge of the bed. He could tell that Larabee was removing his gun belt from the creak of the leather and small click of the belt buckle as the man lowered it to the floor, close at hand.

A few more rustling sounds, likely shirt and pants. Oh Lord! Ezra grit his teeth and blinked, his eyes popping open of their own accord. The dim gaslight from the far side of the bed barely lit the wall he faced. Larabee's shadow was large upon it. The sharp outline of that head and shoulders caused him to swallow hard and shut his eyes again, warning himself that this had better be a sleepless night because he could not afford to let his subconscious loose.

Through his eyelids, Ezra could tell that Chris had turned out the light, dropping the room into deep shadows, only the moon and starlight graying things a bit through the flimsy curtains on the one street-facing window of their hotel room. The last room to be had in Bell City. It was share a room, and a bed, or sleep in the stable. Ezra would have volunteered for the hayloft if he thought Larabee would have agreed but he knew the man would have wondered. Ezra could not afford to have Chris Larabee wondering. Not about anything like that.

He heard Larabee let out a short gust of air, a sigh, then the bed was moving again, springs moaning as Larabee rolled down onto the mattress. "Night, Ez," was softly uttered, clearly not expecting a response. Safest not to give one, Ezra decided in mute agreement.

Time passed slowly. Ezra tried to regulate his breathing. He listened as Larabee's own breathing began to deepen, not into snores, just slower and deeper. Movement had ceased. Ezra dared to relax his grip on the edge of the mattress. Pins and needles in his hand attested to the fierceness of his long, hard hold. He flexed the hand and carefully loosened the muscles in his back and shoulders, letting his body slump down a bit into the bedding. The adrenaline was seeping out as it became clear that Chris was sleeping soundly.

Their short trip up the Gate River to Bell City was only to meet with Travis, testify at a hearing for a miscreant who'd been caught here, but who they both witnessed attempting to rob the Four Corners bank. Unfortunately, only Ezra and Chris had seen the man's face clearly. So they went.

The trip had been quiet, Ezra had seen to that. No small talk to irritate the man who held his heart without knowing it. He wondered if he'd ever learn to breath naturally again after this trip of constant breathless moments.

His mind drew up the image of Chris bathing that second morning on the trail, he'd waded thigh deep into the slow moving river and scoured himself thoroughly. Had even invited a surprised gambler to join him. Ezra had pointed out that it was wiser to have one on watch and declined, heart in throat, eyes averted after one clear look. Temptation sorely tried him, but he not only loved the man, he respected him and would not even now take any advantage.

Oh, unhappy thought! Ezra mentally cringed as his body reacted to the image of Chris' lean narrow form, slick with river water, glistening in the sunlight. He wriggled experimentally, trying to subdue the heat at his groin.

And then Chris turned over, his far arm coming across and falling on Ezra's chest, trapping an arm as well.

"Chris?" he made the question soft, a breath of air, in case Chris was truly still asleep. No answer. Asleep and moving. Ezra's nightmare come to life. Trapped on a bed with Larabee and unable to respond. Oh Lord.

With a snuffle, Chris rolled further over, until he was neatly plastered against Ezra's side, his arm now firmly holding the smaller man to his own body. Ezra dared not move, nor speak for fear of waking the gunman. A most embarrassing pass that would be. He could imagine the grim look from those sharp hazel eyes. There would be the question, had Ezra somehow invited this? No, no, he had NOT. But he would not be believed. Ezra ground his teeth, biting in a groan of despair.

Hours passed or so it seemed. Then Chris nuzzled Ezra's neck, his breath hot and moist under Ezra's jaw. The hand that held him so firmly began to explore. With trepidation, Ezra felt the strong blunt fingers begin to stroke along his rib cage, until they encountered his left nipple. By now, Ezra was feverish and exhausted from fighting his own body. He felt his nipple tighten and tingle in response to the lazy fingers that toyed with it.

Chris grunted, then inhaled sharply - nearly a snore on the exhale, and fitted his face down into the pillow and against the joining of Ezra's neck and shoulder. Did the man do this with Buck or Vin or any warm body in similar circumstances? Holy mother of. . . Ezra suppressed a tremor as his traitorous body responded to the heat of Larabee, the touches. With a wince, Ezra bit his lower lip to stifle a cry, as Chris bit down on Ezra's shoulder, snorted softly, then bit again.

He lay stiffly, hell if one part of him was any stiffer, you could raise a sail and shove him out to sea. He wondered what would happen if Chris woke now. Perhaps he should firmly disentangle himself, be loud and offended? Push the man away. No, god, no, he couldn't do that. This was what he'd always dreamed of, snuggling in bed with the blond. But of course, with a willing, knowing partner, not a sleeping, unknowing bedmate. He swallowed saliva that had inexplicably gathered in his mouth, leaving it dry and wanting.

Ezra dared to turn his head slightly, eyes mere slits of green, desperately wanting a single look at the man pressed against him. What could it hurt? One look. Something to remember, warm his cold heart on lonely nights. The moon's silver light washed the blond hair nearly white, darkening already sun burnt skin beneath. Chris' face was buried, Ezra had to be satisfied with the view of a shoulder and an ear, a long arm that circled over him and held him. Sinews stood out, even in sleep, in that lean muscled arm, furred with silvery blond hair, exquisite. To touch and remember. . . would be to die. Not the tiny death, but a real one. For Chris Larabee loved no man. He was a widower, a man's man. He would surely shoot first and ask later.

Ezra memorized the feel of the man, the heat, the texture, he studied the length of him, the lines and form. Then Ezra closed his eyes and mentally locked the image into his inner most private spaces to be pulled out again when alone, gloated over. He shifted slightly, not thinking for a moment as he dallied over the image. Then froze as Chris tucked Ezra's body tighter to his and pressed a dry kiss to the spot he'd bitten earlier. And Ezra came. He felt the heat flood up and gush, pulsing out against the limp linens and scratchy blanket. With a near soundless sob, he carefully twisted away within Larabee's hold, so that none of the cum would dampen Chris, alert him, wake him. Goosebumps flared along his arms and legs, his face burned with the shattered feel of his own body's incredibly fiery betrayal. And then a deep, welling calmness overtook him. Sleep caught the weary man and pulled him under.

Chris slowly opened his greenly glowing hazel eyes and lifted his head cautiously. Ezra's breathing had finally eased into sleep. He gently pet the man. If he'd had any worries about Ezra's feelings, this night they'd been allayed. Ezra had responded to his touches beyond anything he'd anticipated. The man had actually cum while frozen like a rabbit under a stooping hawk's eye. Poor Ez. Chris leaned down and pressed a loving kiss on the alabaster shoulder that rose away from him.

Next time, we'll do it with our eyes open. Chris smiled and lay back, easing the sleeping southerner's body over on top of his own and cuddling the man close within his arms' circle. Yep, next time should be real good. . . too.


Lips nibbling softly on his forehead woke Ezra. Warm arms surrounded him. The rise and fall of his resting place informed him of the body beneath him, firm, long, warm. Chris. Ezra blinked lazily and shifted as he snuggled closer to his dream Chris, a sleep smile gracing his own lips. Then his mind caught up with his waking body.

Oh my god. Chris? Ezra caught his breath and tried to edge off the other man's body. The arms circling his body tightened prohibitively. Swallowing hard, Ezra opened his mouth to speak.

Thud. Thud. THUD. The hotel room door shook with the last, hardest pound of someone's fist. "Larabee! You in there, Pard?" Buck Wilmington's sharp call galvanized Ezra.

Chris Larabee had been feeling very good about life for these past few happy hours. The inconvenient testimony in Bell City had turned into his golden opportunity. For weeks now, he'd racked his brain, trying to come up with a way to approach Ezra. The gambler of their group had become very dear to the gunslinger, as he'd gotten to know the private man. Funny, it was hard to think of Ezra as a 'private man' and yet impossible to think of him any other way.

Ezra sighed in his sleep and one hand came up to brush the bridge of his nose. Chris captured the hand gently and pressed a kiss to the knuckles of the finely boned digits. He tucked the errant hand back down under Ezra's chin and rested his own head against Ezra's loosely tumbled chestnut locks. He breathed the scent of Ezra and smiled, still thinking. Remembering.

When the man first appeared in Chris' life, Ezra'd been in the middle of a very dangerous confidence game, stakes as low as a few bills and as high as the man's life. Larabee had recognized desperation and courage in the cocky man. Good qualities for his recruitment into the team that Chris was forming to help the Seminole villagers back then.

Of the courage, Larabee was never in any doubt, but it was hard to read Ezra Standish, the man put out a cheerful, money-hungry image that outsiders took on face value. Their small group had survived their battle with Anderson because of the man's courage. That he'd carelessly gone in search of that Indian goldmine and left them all unprotected, easy prey for the crazy-ass Confederate colonel and his raggedy boys, that was a fact that Ezra didn't deny. But Standish had heard the canon fire, the shooting and returned to save them and to face possible harsh retaliation for deserting his post.

Ezra's breathing changed, became more agitated and he moaned quietly. Chris flattened one hand on the man's back, soothingly rubbing up and down the spine. The tenseness eased. Chris wondered what dream Ezra was living.

Larabee wasn't quite the uncompromising figure that most folks assumed and he'd seen the grays in the Seminole village situation. He had given Ezra another chance with him and never regretted it.

Gradually, as the first thirty days of the group's existence drew to a close, Chris had come to realize the hidden man in Ezra. A sweet and generous soul buried beneath the sly, articulate exterior of the conman from the unrepentant South. Chris, whose own spirit was finally beginning to heal its savaged grief, recognized and was drawn to the inner Ezra while secretly delighting in the mischievous and worldly outward facing Ezra.

A fleeting grin flashed on Larabee's gruffly blunt face, the white teeth revealed against the sandy tan. Images of an outraged Nathan, a confused Josiah, a conspiratorial Vin, an excited JD, and a guffawing Buck rose to his mind's eye as he saw some of Ezra's many schemes and antics, caustic comments and shy flashes of eye contact fly through his memories of the past few months. He hugged Ezra briefly, then eased up as the sleeper squeaked unconsciously.

Chris wondered how much time he had until daybreak and Ezra's waking. He mentally shrugged, savoring this first time holding Ezra. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the feel of Ezra.

Knowing himself to be the 'bad element' as Mary Travis would label his sort, Larabee had grown into his role unawares as he staggered wrathfully through life. Blind to his bitter and deadly impact on others, he'd sought oblivion or at least surcease from the agonizing hole where once his wife and child had dwelt. Now his soul craved the love of another once more. He was ready. And, for mysterious reasons, his heart chose the gambler. The little bad boy in a man's clothing. Well, maybe not that mysterious, he realized as he thought back over this musings.

Once he had recognized the direction his affections had grown, Chris Larabee was all for taking what he wanted. But he was also smart enough to realize that this time it would be neither easy, nor necessarily welcomed. Ezra, his many masks always worn in quick succession, could dance through any situation, without giving anything of himself away. Chris had no idea of Ezra's feelings in the heart's country. Land he was navigating himself afresh now, with caution.

So it was with hope that he'd saddled up for the trip to Bell City, a journey of several days with only Ezra at his side. Surely an opportunity would occur, a time when he could pry Ezra out of his layered protections and discover if the man returned his attraction.

But Ezra, that irritatingly suave and smooth surface persona in place, had traveled silently by Chris' side, or, when possible, in his wake. Chris, never a very talkative sort, was frustrated at every turn. He'd even tried to inveigle Ezra into the river on the pretence of bathing. But the damn man insisted on standing watch - the other way. Chilled to the bone in the cold river water, Chris had not been in a good mood when they finally got to Bell City.

The news that the place was overflowing and only one room was to be had, gave him new hope. This could be his chance, maybe his only one. So he had taken it. And Ezra had shown his colors. Chris grinned ferally in remembrance of the way Ezra had actually cum with a few caressing touches as Chris pretended to accidentally fondle the man as they slept. It had been desperation and inspiration. He hadn't yet figured out how to ask Ezra outright, cautious with the fear that he'd drive the private man even deeper within his protective shell, even if Chris guessed right. And then there was the fear of what might happen if he'd guessed wrong. Would he be given the chance to woo the man in that case? Or, would Ezra flee from Chris, leaving him heartbroken?

Then, when he'd found Ezra already in the bed tonight, his course of action had sprung fully formed in his thoughts. The simple ruse had worked and he knew Ezra must care. The response had been incredible.

And, oh, there was the feel of Ezra's skin, the texture of the nipple as it hardened, wrinkling tight and tall under his touch, the smell of him exotic and spicy, the taste of him - oh, the taste. Chris had been unable to resist. His body rubbed tightly against his desire, the exposed neck and shoulder, so firm and delicate too, it had been too great a temptation for Larabee. He'd bit down, not hard, but enough to mark his possession. Ezra belonged to him. That was definite. The man might not know it yet, but he was Chris' now.

Chris licked his lips in memory of that taste of salt and soap and linen, smoky spices and flesh. Ezra. His Ezra. Unable to resist, knowing that when Ezra woke, they'd have to talk. Knowing that now that he'd confirmed Ezra's response to him, he could open up to Ezra and encourage the man to do the same. Knowing that soon they would be seeing each other with open eyes, and he hoped, open hearts, Chris indulged in another taste. He nibbled Ezra's forehead, lips moist from licking moved gently over the furrowed brow.

And then Buck shouted at him through the door.

One moment Chris was holding Ezra close to his heart, cuddled on his chest; the next moment, the man was scrambling off in a burst of elbows and knees, the normally graceful man an explosion of hard bony points and shifting weight. With an 'oof' that would do a horse proud, Chris jack-knifed in the middle of the old mattress as Ezra used Larabee's body as a spring board for a leap to the far side of the room.

Chris gasped for breath, hand to his now sore sternum and tried to speak. Facing him in baleful outrage stood the gambler, short knee-cut silk under drawers his only cover. The man's body was shaking, his normally green eyes were black holes, his face paled to a nearly transparent white blanch.

Before Chris could manage to capture enough breath for a word, Buck had put a shoulder to the door and burst it open. Larabee saw Ezra's eyes open impossibly wider and then Chris had to turn his head to face Wilmington, promising himself that he'd get rid of his inconvenient friend fast.

"Hey! Chris, Ez! Sorry to wake you up but we got trouble back in town."


Chris gulped in much needed air. Shoving stiff fingers through his dirty blond hair, he kicked his legs free of the bed coverings and squinted at Buck Wilmington. Buck hung in the burst open room door, hands clenched on the door's frame, as he leaned in from the hallway.

"Buck, what the hell are you talkin' about? What trouble?" Chris' sharp tone cut across the room; he was uncomfortably aware of the silence behind him.

Wilmington pushed his old battered hat back out of his eyes with one hand and cocked a hip against the doorway. "Not sure, Pard. Found a telegraph waiting for me from Josiah when I got to Bade's Junction."

Larabee nodded distractedly. Buck had been sent north over a week ago to meet up with a prison wagon, deliver Taylor Bent to the wagon, bound for Yuma prison by way of several other towns. The plan had been for Buck to meet up with Chris and Ezra for the return trip from Bell City.

The nerves in Chris' neck crawled. What was Ezra doing? Why hadn't he said anything yet? Chris stared at Buck and fought to keep from turning around to check on Ezra.

Oh Lord. How did this happen? Damnation, I must have been sleep walking! Shaking badly, Ezra stumbled to a halt and spun to face Chris Larabee. The pounding of the door stopped. Chris looked right at him, his face as unreadable as Ezra hoped his own was. The door crashed open and there was Buck Wilmington, half inside and already speaking.

Ezra sagged down on the wooden chair by the window as Larabee's attention was forced away and over to their intruder. A quick glance down had a red blush streaking up his neck and flushing his face. The stain of his indiscretion was plain on the thin silk drawers. With a swift movement, as his two colleagues engaged in an exchange of information, Ezra pulled on his shirt from the night before, the tails covering him. Then a tug and the drawers dropped though he had to peel the front away from the dried stickiness. Back to the room, Ezra quickly dampened an edge of the fabric and wiped himself clean, using the water from the ewer and bowl set that had been left in the room.

With short, savage moves, Ezra managed to drag on fresh under drawers, trousers, jab shirttails within, button hook his suspenders and thrust on his vest before turning to face the room again. Buck was still talking.

"Josiah's message just says that Vin's gone, they got a pack of renegade `pache and outlaws raiding the small ranches, and the Garson Brothers showed up at the saloon last night."

"Why didn't he send word here?" Larabee's question was muffled by cloth as he dragged his shirt on over his head, not bothering with buttons.

Buck crossed his arms and shook his head. "Lines are down here."

Larabee stood, grabbing his jeans and pulling them up, fumbling with the buttons and dropping his head as Ezra finally spoke.

"Mr. Wilmington, did Mr. Sanchez explain Mr. Tanner's absence?"

Voice sounds steady enough, Chris thought and finally turned his head enough to look at Ezra. The man was nearly completely dressed, working on his derringer rig. No sign of the panic Chris had felt when Ezra dove out of the bed moments ago. Shit. Now he and Ezra'd have to wait to come to an understanding. No way to do it in Buck's company and they had to ride. "You ready?" He asked his gambler.

Ezra's head came up and shuttered green eyes stared back with no expression. "Of course, sir. Let us depart."

Buck nodded from the doorway, face still grim. "I got your horses from the livery, see you down on the street."

Chris rose, feeling a reprieve in the few minutes that Wilmington had unknowingly granted them. "Ezra," he searched the bland countenance, unable to see sign of the passion he'd uncovered during the night, "Last night-"

"Mr. Larabee, we should be packing." Standish's sharp interruption was so unexpected that Chris blinked in surprise, his mouth still open around unsaid words.

Taking a deep breath, Chris strode over to where Ezra had swung away and was stuffing saddlebags with unusual carelessness. He leaned over and captured one of Ezra's hands. "Ezra."

Snatching back his hand, the shorter man backed away with a quick step and looked up into Larabee's face. "Mr. Larabee?"

"We've got to talk-"

Shots sounded out on the street and Chris stopped. Buck was out there somewhere. He took a long step over to the window, brushing up against Ezra who was turning to look out the casement. They could see two cowboys laughing and swinging whiskey bottles in the air. One had clearly shot off a few rounds into the air from the pistol he was waving about.

Both men relaxed slightly, and then Chris turned around toward the room and found himself face to face with Ezra. He inhaled the scent of the man, learning it again. Last night already seemed a lifetime ago. He leaned forward, intent on the half-parted lips so close.

Ezra had thought he'd covered himself well. Cleaning up and dressing in a nonce, he'd managed to make things look remarkably normal as Buck nattered on about Josiah's incomplete telegraph. He'd watched in disappointment as Chris Larabee's skin was covered with a shirt and swallowed hard, pushing such thoughts fiercely down and away. Bad enough that his body had betrayed him last night, he would not invite derision and enmity in the daylight.

And then Buck was gone again and Chris was coming towards him. Wanting to talk. Ezra panicked when Chris took one of his hands, the touch burning him. He pulled away quickly stepping back as well. But Chris followed. Only the gunshots from those wretches in the street saved him from the further embarrassment of a full confrontation. Maybe by the time they'd returned home, things would be back to normal. And he could continue his fruitless yearnings at the safety of a discreet distance.

Ezra flicked another glance out the window, sighing in relief that the shots had not involved Buck, then he looked up, and directly into hazel eyes. Chris had turned back from the window and was too close, his eyes intent, a look on his face that commanded, demanded. Ezra watched as Chris leaned in and his lips approached. Surely not. Surely he didn't intend to-? Ezra shook his head and ducked away, not wanting to reveal how much he wanted his cockeyed view to be reality. Certain he was reading this all wrong.

Chris clenched air. Slippery little weasel. He stifled a groan. How the hell did I fall in love with you? he thought as he shook his head. It would be funny if he wasn't so sure, so needy. But clearly Ezra wasn't yet convinced of Larabee's gentler intent.

No time to get things straightened out now, Chris thought grimly. He strode from the room, swinging his saddlebags onto his shoulder and removing a cheroot from his inner coat pocket. With a lift of his jaw, he signaled Standish to follow, confident in his man, even if they hadn't got to the rest of it yet. Standish, already moving, likewise encumbered with bags, touched his hat brim in silent acknowledgement of the order. Chris bit the cheroot tip off and spat it on the stairs as they clumped down them. Damn fool will follow me into blazing guns, certain death, but shies from a blasted kiss.

By the time they'd reached the street, Buck was there on his gray, their horses saddled and ready at the hitching rail. Larabee sighed and looked up at the brightening blue sky. "Let's ride."


Ezra inhaled sharply, enjoying the tang of fresh grass-sweet air as he rode following along behind Chris and Buck, traveling back along the trail to Four Corners. He tried not to think back on the night before. Even not thinking of it led to heat in his belly and a thickening below, uncomfortable in the saddle. He pulled his shoulders back even more, his seat as always, correct and proud as he was taught.

Ezra could not imagine how slumping in the saddle could be comfortable, despite the fact that all his cohorts seemed to do so. Of course, Vin, who probably spent more time horseback than the rest had back problems, of that he was certain. Man always slouched, leaned, sprawled. With a quirky smile, Erza realized his meandering thoughts had eased his heat, relaxed his body's frustrations.

He wondered how long they'd keep up the ground-eating canter. They were two days out of Four Corners, no matter how hard they pushed. His gaze returned to the dark shoulders rising and falling ahead of him. Chris. He licked his lips and raised one hand, thumb rubbing against his lower lip pensively.

Larabee wanted to scratch the itch between his shoulder blades. With a hidden smirk, he figured Ezra must be staring a hole there. Now that he knew for certain that Ezra had feelings for him, Chris realized that he had become sensitized to the gambler's moods and thoughts. Kinda like with Vin, only more a sense of what Ezra was feeling than just signals in a gunfight or parts of a plan that seemed obvious to the two of them, him and Vin. Seemed like he and Vin just plain thought alike.

Chris paused in his ruminations. No way. Ain't no way that Vin feels like that too. For Ezra. Chris felt a surge of black anger and jealousy, near to hate for the quiet Texan. Then common sense reared up and he shook his head at himself. No, if Vin had wanted Ezra, he was sneaky enough that he'd a'thought of a way to get to Ezra by now - and woulda done it. Nope. Ezra was safely his. Chris firmed his lips around the short butt of cheroot, nearly scowling. All he had to do was figure out a way to let Ezra know that.

Buck Wilmington rocked in the gray's saddle, at one with his horse. Like when he rode Miss Molly. He grinned and raised his head, sniffing in the fresh smells of the countryside. Sure beat the hell out of towns. Ladies were in those towns, though, and always smelling pretty, tasting mighty nice, and feeling oh, so good. Buck's face rounded in a smile of dreamy contentment, the ends of his mustache rising in a bow.

Chris thundered along just behind him and Ezra behind Chris. Wonder how they got along on the trip out? The smile slowly faded. Damn, hope they weren't getting too much on each other's nerves, those two never seemed at ease together. Not a question of meanness or anything, just seemed to rub each other wrong. Always a sharp word from Chris, a tart response from Ez. Click, clack, like flint on pyrite. Sparks flew. Might be wise to keep 'em apart on the trip back, so everyone would be ready for whatever nastiness might be waitin' on them. Mind set, Buck nodded to himself. Yep, he'd see that they kept the peace. He could be their fence, keep'em in their own paddocks like to bulls waiting for the heifers.

That got Buck on to another thought. Wonder if I can move that along any? Get Chris to spendin' more time with Mary? Do him good. Know he finds his way out to places, like that Wickes Town was, to ladies like Lydia, but the man is a family man at heart. Needs another Sarah. Needs to settle down. Figure Mary might just be right for him, smart, sassy, stand up to him and get him thinking. He shook his head, sounded just like old Ez. He chuckled that thought away and then looked sharply to his left as a pheasant took wing from some low brush. The bird was favoring a wing and flying low.

Mama out to decoy us away from her nest. Buck shrugged. He didn't think they needed game for the night's meal, not enough to steal a mama from her young. He clucked at the gray, moving the slowing animal back up to the pace they'd set, and wiped his face with the back of one hand. Was getting a bit warm, now that the sun was rising.

The men continued doggedly throughout the morning, pacing their horses, walking, trotting, short canters, then back to walking. It would be a long ride. Although nothing was said, none of them felt in any danger yet. Two days out of Four Corners was likely too far out from the troubles. But, come tomorrow, closer to the town, they'd all be more alert.

Chris decided they'd need to set up a watch for the night on the trail, no sense being bushwhacked so close to town when they already knew there was trouble in the area. He'd been watching the horizon, letting Buck pick the trail and lead. Waiting to see sign of smoke, a sure signal that the band of raiders of Josiah's message had struck again. So far, the sky was clear.

Ezra was irritated by his mood swings. He'd hoped that back on the trail, especially with Buck along, that he'd feel more himself. Each time he let his guard down, though, flashes of last night would return, scaring him with the intensity with which he felt them.

Chris risked a look to the rear, raising up in his saddle and turning, resting a hand on the cantle. Ezra was staring right at him from the back of his smooth-gaited chestnut. Chris smiled and nodded, tickled when Ezra's eyes widened, then glazed into that bland self-protective mask. Ezra touched his hat brim in acknowledgement and Chris winked. He couldn't help himself. Standish's bland look became a glare of suspicion. Chris turned back to face front again, suddenly not sure that he should have succumbed to that temptation. The hole between his shoulder blades began to grow. Nope, that wasn't too smart. Gotta stop teasing the man and put him out of his misery. With a gusty sigh, Chris vowed to himself. Somehow, tonight he'd manage time with Ezra, maybe while Buck slept. Got to clear the air soon. He twitched in his seat, feeling the tightness again down there. Yeah, very soon.

Now what in the world was *that* all about? Ezra stared blackly at Larabee's back. He WINKED at me. He doesn't wink at me. He doesn't wink at anyone. Chris Larabee doesn't wink. Maybe he got something in his eye just then? Perhaps it was just an automatic closing of the eye in response to a particle of dust. It looked like a wink. Ezra growled low in his throat. Chaucer threw up his head in startled surprise and Ezra had to pat the arched neck and murmur calming words. When the horse settled, Ezra returned to his thoughts. He didn't know if he should be insulted or curious, ignore the provocation or demand an explanation. He bit his lower lip and began to worry it with his teeth. Was there some significance to that wink? Did he wake during the night? Did he know that I lost control? Ezra paled at the very thought. Would he now think that fodder for jest? Over the fire tonight, will he relay the episode, with much chuckling and elbow ribbing to Buck? Whilst I sit, forlorn, an object of mirth, on the far side of the fire? He WINKED at me. Stunned, Ezra's mind reeled about, grasping for reasons for the uncharacteristic expression, and none of the reasons were good. I shall keep my distance tonight, give him no further grist for his humor mill. He and Buck can enjoy themselves at my expense, but I shall overlook it. Calm, yes, serene, uncaring, that shall be my tack. Oh Lord. He winked.


A very frustrated, downright exasperated Chris Larabee remounted his horse. The black's coat shivered in empathy with his rider's disgruntlement. The noon break had proved to be like some weird childhood game of musical chairs.

Every time he tried to sit down next to Ezra or get near him, something happened. First Buck damn near tripped over his own feet, almost landed in their small cook fire, and ended up sprawled nearly in Ezra's lap. Chris had hauled the man up but Ezra had already shifted away from the debacle and was settling across from them. Chris had crossed back toward Ezra's spot after making sure Buck was alright. Buck had laughed good heartedly at his own foolishness and suggested coffee to go with their hardtack. Since he was rubbing one shin as he said this, Chris found himself detouring to the saddle bags to retrieve his battered coffee pot and some ground beans in a sack.

Once he'd gotten the pot going on the fire, he turned back toward Ezra, ready to sit down next to the gambler. Gone. The weasel had wriggled away again. Flashing a look of irritation around the camp, he started to rise to his feet.

"Call of nature, Pard." Buck was stirring the fire now with a peeled stick, pushing the hotter embers towards the pot.

"What?" The question squirted out before Larabee could control himself.

"Ezra. Figured you were looking for him. He headed off into the trees while you were setting up the pot here."

Chris sighed and sat down on a crumbling log beside the folded bedroll that Standish had left behind. He'll come back to sit here, Chris decided smugly.

The two men sat in comfortable silence, waiting for the coffee to heat, Buck gnawing on a piece of hardtack. The small sounds of crushed dry leaves, a snapped twig, and a crunched snail shell foretold Standish's return. Chris stared straight into the fire, don't want to scare him off. Especially after that look he gave me while we were riding.

Tidy trousers with buffed boots appeared to the side and strolled lazily across the edge of Larabee's vision. He figured it was safe to glance over. Dammit. Ezra was leaning against a tree, clearly with no intentions of coming to sit by the fire. He was drying his hands on a handkerchief.

"Ez? You want some coffee?" Buck's casual manner crashed through Larabee's concentration. He realized he'd been staring. With a flush, he lowered his eyes.

"That would be most welcome, Mr. Wilmington," the southern sounds licked across Chris' belly, making it twist.

"How 'bout you, Pard?"

Larabee nodded and thrust out his tin mug. With savage satisfaction, he realized Ezra had left his own mug on the blanket roll. Now he'll have to come over-

"Toss me Ezra's mug, will ya Chris?" Buck had a feeling that his old friend had been laying in wait for Standish, and to judge by the gambler's cautious distance, so did Ezra. Buck would be a buffer, be safer for all concerned.

Larabee nearly growled as he hefted the mug across the fire to Buck. If he didn't know better, he'd think the two of them had planned this. Chris stood abruptly and stalked over to his horse, drinking down the hot liquid in one punishing, long swallow, then shoving the mug back into his saddle bag. "We should be going."

Blue and green eyes both swung toward him in surprise. But, no one spoke. Standish leaned over and caught up the pot, refilling Wilmington's mug and his own, then pouring out the rest of the coffee on the fire. He shook it and then set it down to cool.

Chris abandoned all pretense and stared as Ezra picked up his unused blanket and, still sipping coffee, walked over to Chaucer's place on the tether. Man walks with uncommon grace. Chris burned to touch him again.

Buck watched Larabee. Okay, gotta derail this train soon before we have us an explosion. "Hey Chris? Can you take your pot?" He managed a fairly convincing grimace, "My leg still smarts something-"

"Sure, Buck." Chris Larabee's voice grated. Both Standish and Wilmington took note, the gunman was not happy.

Chris reined over his black, waiting impatiently for Ezra and Buck to catch up. They had a long ride still before night camp, and then they'd only be halfway back to Four Corners. He had a feeling that tonight wasn't going to go well for his plans with Ezra. Well, he could just grab the man and shake him senseless, then knock some real sense into him. So they could share a bedroll. He didn't think he'd last the night if he couldn't touch Ezra, not now, not after last night. Somehow, deciding to force the issue seemed to ease his tension and he actually had a smile for the other two men when they finally rode up and joined him on the trail.

Buck and Ezra exchanged looks of confusion. Chris was smiling at them almost cheerfully. On Larabee, that expression looked downright dangerous. He nodded at them and turned his horse back to the trail, gigging it into motion. They followed, Buck a bit bewildered by Larabee's changeable moods, Ezra with the stirrings of an idea.

It couldn't be that-? In his mind's eye, Ezra reconstructed Chris' behavior at the noon camp. Maybe it could.

Ezra mulled over his new perspective. Larabee had tried to get near him repeatedly during the stop. Between Buck and his own actions, Ezra had managed to keep them apart. Now he began to wonder exactly what Chris' intentions had been. If he'd only wanted to mock Ezra, he could have just talked with Buck, rather like Ezra had originally imagined. Instead, he'd seemed determined to approach Ezra again. That smile promised something. Ezra wondered. He began to foolishly hope, unable to quash the feelings that were rising inside, warm and tender.

As dusk began to hide the trail, Chris cut off and into a group of trees where a brook sparkled with lights from the setting sun. It was a good camp spot, an old circle of hearthstones, blackened from multiple uses, testified to that. The others followed easily, all dismounting together and leading their horses to the stream to drink.

Setting up night camp was a more elaborate procedure than nooning. A watch had to be set, too. Chris would take first watch, then Ezra, then Buck. A simple stew and more coffee were supper.

They'd had a long ride today, Buck figured with the tiredness and having watches, he had no need to try to keep his pards apart. Didn't seem like they was busting to get at each other's throats anyway. With a grunt, he flipped open his bedroll and dropped down on to it, barely hearing the answers to his, "G'night."

Ezra had watched his ally desert him for the arms of Morpheus. He turned to see Larabee standing by the fire, smoking a cheroot, he seemed to be stargazing. Well. Ezra smoothed out a spot across from Buck on the other side of the campfire. He carefully unrolled his sleeping blankets, folding back the layers to let them warm a bit by the fire.

With a dusty plop, another bedroll landed beside him. Startled, he looked up to find Chris looming over him looking determined.

<><><><><><><> "Before you hightail it for the brush, let me just say a few words."

The strain in Larabee's voice froze Ezra where he knelt beside his blankets. Flashing a look over at Buck - still sleeping - he swung his hips over on to the blankets and pulled his legs in, crossing them closely. He tried for an attentive expression as he sat and watched the blond gunman sink down on top of the other, unrolled, set of blankets.

Once settled facing Ezra, Chris bit his lips. Hell, this wasn't going the way he planned at all. He snuck a look over at Buck - asleep - and crossed his arms tightly across his chest. He tried to look nonviolent but wasn't too sure of his success, Ezra's face for once was easy to read and what he read was fear.

"Ezra-" All right, that was a beginning. Chris frowned. Ezra flinched. Chris nearly shot forward to grab him but instead simply fisted his hands and tucked his crossed arms in tighter. "Ezra." Dammit. Why was this so hard?

"That is my name, Mr. Larabee." Ezra was leaning back a bit now, not budging from his seated position exactly, just ensuring a spot of safety. Mr. Larabee looked unhappy which did not bode well for this rather stilted conversation. With trepidation, Ezra decided to try to make this a bit easier, assuming, of course, that he was correct in his earlier guesses. "I feel I must tender an apology for last night."

"YOU?" Chris started, his arm muscles bulged inside the dark shirt, stretching the fabric as he strained against his own pose. Chris was a blunt man. Time for some home truths. "No, you don't owe me any apology Ezra. But I owe you one." He paused and dropped his eyes, then brought them up again to meet Ezra's. "I wasn't asleep."

Oh dear. So his first supposition had been right. Chris had awakened to see, hear, hell, probably even smell his embarrassing lack of control. Ezra blushed. His tongue came out, just the tip, between his parted lips, moistening them in his nervousness.

Oh god. I can't stand too much more of this. Larabee lurched forward, only to rock back when Standish raised a hand defensively. Shit. "Ezra, I don't know what you think you know, but I never went to sleep."

Ezra's mind, whirling at high speed, came to a clanking, clattering halt. "Never?"

"No. I-" Chris breathed deeply, "I've been in love with you for a while now-"

"-in love-" Erza stared.

"Yes. Only, I couldn't tell what you were thinking about me. I mean, I could," Chris shrugged, "Figured you didn't like me much."

"-didn't like you-" Ezra's mouth fell open.

"But I thought, maybe, underneath, since I cared so much for you," Chris paused wondering why he was shaking so bad, then plowed ahead anyway, "that you might, that is, that you could care - you know, for me too." Hazel eyes looked hopefully into glazed green ones.

"-me too-" Ezra felt like a stunned parrot.

Suddenly angry at the lack of progress they were making, Chris let his arms - now boneless - drop to his sides. "Can you please say something? Besides repeating me?"

Ezra worked his mouth but only a puff of air came out. He shrugged and shook his head. Overwhelmed, I am simply undone. He didn't know if he should be outraged or charmed. Resentment at Larabee's manipulation warred with relief that they both felt the same way and that Chris had taken the initiative to find that out. What Ezra felt most, was confused. Alright, yes, and irritated, resentful, um, and, oh the hell with it, I'm in love.

Chris sighed. He reached out one tentative hand and caught one of Ezra's, folding his fingers in between the gambler's graceful ones. "Ezra, last night, you responded to me. I know you did. I figure that means you care about me. Think you could say it?"

Ezra tipped his head to the side, staring deep into clear hazel eyes, eyes that burned for him. For ME. Tendrils of warmth unfurled within his chest. "You care about me."

Chris sighed, again. "Yep. Said that. Now," he edged forward a bit on the blanket roll, "how about you?"

There was another moment of silence. Ezra wanted to say so much, tell Chris that there were other ways he could have tried, to find out if Ezra cared. But somehow, he felt bogged down in his emotions, almost comatose with relief. He still couldn't seem to find any words.

"Fer gawd's sake, Ez, give the man a break and answer him or I'll never get any sleep here!" Buck's frustrated yell from the far side of the fire startled both men.

Ezra twisted around to try to see Buck and his boot tip caught on the blankets beneath him, tumbling him to the side and back. Strong hands caught his shoulders and righted him. Then pulled him back, away from the fire, into warm, strong arms.

"Go back to sleep, Buck," Larabee's voice sounded like a suppressed chuckle of relief.

"You got it, chief." Buck's grin could be heard in his voice.

Ezra found himself cradled closely in those encircling arms as with a nudge of a booted foot and knee, a long leg came out and around him on either side, knees bending up to fence him in. Suddenly, none of it mattered as much as these arms holding him close. "Is this entrapment, Mr. Larabee?"

"If that's what it takes, Mr. Standish." Chris spoke softly now, letting his warm breath blow directly into Ezra's nearest ear. Then he kissed said ear lightly.

Ezra shivered. "Ooh. That was nice." He relaxed back into the firm hold and felt Chris' chest supporting his back. He turned his head to try to see the man but their positions allowed him only a peripheral glimpse.


"Yes, it's true." Ezra P. Standish telling the truth. A truth that could have gotten him killed. Trust Chris. Ezra smiled into the fire and snuggled deeper into Larabee's hard arms. "I have cared for you from the first I saw you, when you discerned my simply ploy-"


"-con in the saloon." Ezra's smile grew and he tipped his head straight back. Chris nuzzled his hair.

"I want to sleep with you again tonight, Ezra." "The watch?"

Chris wrapped his arms tighter around his gambler. "We'll just sit here and watch together until it's Buck's turn."

"And then?" Chris could hear the smile in Ezra's voice.

"And then, we put these two bedrolls together."

"That sounds quite nice, I do believe I'll-"

From the dark came a known voice, "VIN, coming in!"


"Before you hightail it for the brush, let me just say a few words." Buck frowned. Shee-it. Maybe I done bowed out too soon. Buck listened, wide-awake again the moment he heard that tone in Chris' voice. Chris was really trying to say something, something that was hard to get out. Buck had been there when Chris was trying his damnedest to woo Sarah, stumbling over his own tongue, needing coaching from Buck to pick the right words.

Buck eavesdropped shamelessly. Chris was nearly strangling himself, trying to express himself to Ezra who wasn't helping at all. Fool seemed to have lost all his fancy words in the face of Larabee's struggle to find some. Buck regrouped mentally. So, not trying to tear each other a new asshole, nope, seems they like each other's just fine as is. Buck grinned to himself in his hump of blankets. Like that is it?

He began to feel a bit impatient though as Ezra choked on words and Chris tripped over them. He could feel the level of frustration rising. When Chris asked for the second or third time, "-how about you?" Buck decided it was time to give the recalcitrant con man a push.

He took a deep breath and bellowed into his bedroll, "Fer gawd's sake, Ez, give the man a break and answer him or I'll never get any sleep here!" He had to stifle the chuckles that wanted to break out at the silence that followed *that* little announcement.

"Go back to sleep, Buck." Buck could hear the relief and amusement in Chris' voice.

"You got it, chief." Now, maybe they'd settle down and he could get some sleep. He closed his eyes tighter and eased one arm up over his head, over his skyward ear, muffling anything more that might happen on the far side of the fire. Not what he'd expected, but if that's what the boys wanted, least he could do was step out of the way. He wriggled into a more comfortable position, a beatific smile etched across his face.

The quiet murmurings across the way had a lulling sound, so when Vin Tanner's voice called in, "Vin, coming in," rough, grating, and carrying, Buck shot up, wide awake yet again. Fuck. Buck rolled up to a sitting position, one hand full of 45, the other scratching at his head as he turned over to face the fire.

Tanner emerged from the shadows at the fire's edge, hands open and free of any weapon. Meant that whatever was going on, nothing was happening right now. Buck relaxed and spared a look over at his trail mates. Chris was sitting up, with Ezra's back against his chest, nesting the smaller man against him, cuddled up sweet as could be. Buck's mouth stretched into another half-smile. They got guts.

Tanner had swung wide of the encampment of raiders and slipped through the broken growth toward the trail from Bell City. Figured Chris, Ezra, and Buck were likely to be headed back soon, hoped to catch up with them. He'd smelled the fire before he spotted it through the screen of brush and scattering of trees. He knew this trail stop, had used it himself before. Good shelter, water.

Moving like a ghost, Vin Tanner was the embodiment of oneness with the land. Josiah might talk all spiritual about rocks and trees, but Vin could be one. He floated closer, could see the sleeping form, hear the muted sound of low voices, saw Chris sitting there. Holding Ezra. Vin worried for a moment that Ezra might be sick or hurt, but Chris' face was funny. If Vin were pressed to describe it, he'd a'said, tender. Vin, at the edge of the camp now, blinked. Readjusted his thinking, and took a deep breath. Better now than in a few minutes, if I read this right.

He moved into the light, calling out a warning. "Vin, coming in." Made sure his voice was loud and easy to recognize. No point getting' shot.

As it was, Tanner faced three guns when he came to a stop in front of low flames of the campfire. Chris uncocked his first, reholstering it as the Buck and Ezra lowered their guns. Looking down the bores of three pistols wasn't something Vin enjoyed. He gave them a moment to see him and then squatted on his haunches in the circle of light.

"Evenin' boys."

"Tanner, you could lose your cajones that way." Buck was gruff. Vin showing up like this meant the trouble was closer.

"Buck." Chris' one word warned off his old friend. They all knew what Vin was like. His appearance was typical of the man, emerging from the dark of night like a wraith.

"Mr. Tanner, your timing, as I have so often had cause to state, is impeccable." This time though, they all heard not admiration but regret in Standish's voice.

Ezra made no effort to move from Larabee's embrace. At the first sound of Vin's voice, Chris had shot an arm down over his shoulder, and chest in an obviously instinctive and protective move. Ezra rather liked that. At his comment to Vin, Ezra felt Chris' fingers dig into his ribs for a moment, but the man didn't remove his arm. Ezra relaxed and let his weight lean into Larabee as he holstered his Remington.

"Vin?" Chris stared at his best friend and waited.

Tanner was quick to see that Larabee wasn't the least uncomfortable with the way he'd been found, in fact, he seemed to have wrapped himself pretty thoroughly around Standish who looked mighty pleased in a quiet, cat ate the bird sort a way. Figure that's them now. Vin shrugged ever so slightly. Okay with me, Cowboy. Then he picked up a peeled thin branch that had been discarded near the circle of firestones. "Found the camp of the fellers been raiding outside a'town." He drew a few lines in the dirt. "Just northeast of us here."

Chris leaned forward over Ezra's shoulder, chin ending up resting on it as he studied Vin's quick sketch. "How many?"

"Maybe thirty. Hard to tell. Keep riding off in huntin' parties, then coming back."

"All Apache?" Buck asked. He was sitting up now, his long barrel resting across his lap as his fingers played with the trigger casually.

"No. Some renegade 'pache, but just as many whites."

"It would seem we have a vile group of filth to remove from our little corner of the world, gentlemen." Ezra felt - relaxed, at ease, *right*, in Chris' arms, surrounded by him. That Vin and Buck were both there and not saying a word was fascinating. Neither looked shocked nor outraged. Just business-like. And - ridding the world of such demonic citizens was their business.

It amazed Ezra that the world had changed for him in such a short time, he'd gone from panicked morbidity to comfortable coziness in just a few words, a few moments, a few touches. They still hadn't even kissed, yet here they were, acting like old lovers, casually intimate in front of their friends, and planning a campaign against marauders. Ezra grinned. Ain't life grand?