~You can make me scream internally
You can make me breathe eternally
You see the things I cannot change
The things that make me plain
Lift me up my soul ’s so hollow~
There was a whole helluva lot Chris Larabee could tolerate when it came to their close-knit group.
One thing he couldn’t was Ezra turning his back on him again.
Chris’ temper was short enough that he didn’t much pay attention to words exchanged in arguments, learned not to dwell on them after the fact either, since it only made his head hurt stringing together bits and pieces whether he was hungover or not. That was another thing: he was usually more drunk than not whenever his temper decided to flare up, so you couldn’t exactly expect a guy to relate more than the general gist of an argument, if that.
Ezra’s heated words must have stirred up something deep within Chris, for the man to remember every word and every emotion that had been in Ezra’s eyes, ones he stubbornly would never show on his face.
And the words Chris had been wanting to say to the gambler since day one had exploded up out of his tightened chest and dry throat, feeling every bit like a fire with how much those words had burned, lying dormant for so long, and how much more painful they became when they were released, despite Chris wanting so badly to be relieved of their toxic burden.
Ezra turned his back, wanting to be rid of this town, their town, wanting to be rid of Chris just like that, washing his hands clean just like that.
“That’s just what you do, right, Ezra? Abandon everyone who ever gave a damn about you, skulk away when the going gets tough?” Chris realized suddenly that the bottle in his hand was empty after the last swallow, which hadn’t done a damn thing for him. He threw it down, watching with immense satisfaction as the glass exploded near Ezra’s perfectly shined boots. The gambler jumped back, a fire of his own reflected in his eyes, and Chris was relieved the man could feel a damn thing at all. He wondered how much more he could get out of Ezra before he made to bolt again. Feeling unsteady without a drink, the anger this caused pushed him to continue. “Is this what you want? Make us all feel like we wasted so much effort on you. Make me feel like shit for ever trusting you, for ever calling you my partner, my friend.”
Except Ezra was so much more than just a friend. He had cemented himself as the only one who could make Chris Larabee smile with his antics, the only one who could make him dream of some semblance of a bright future without Sarah. The only one who made Chris feel like he belonged.
And now there was nothing but this cold, haunted look in Ezra’s eyes, and Chris’ heart dropped straight out of his chest and into a puddle to drown.
“By all means, Mr. Larabee, reward me with further reasons to leave this godforsaken place.”
Ezra had started the argument in the first place, damn him to hell, shoving Chris back when he went after him, brushing the leader of their group away with words that didn’t make a lick of sense, acting like he hadn’t met Chris before yesterday. They had even thrown some punches, Ezra settling on Chris’ face and Chris on Ezra’s stomach, trying to prevent the gambler from riding away.
It was the words that had hurt like a shot to the chest though, throwing Chris back, stealing his breath, his head spiraling with no warning. He had felt little more than worthless in Ezra’s eyes, and just as bad, it brought to mind how little Ezra thought of himself to mold his hidden insecurities into bullets, and then to wield them against Chris. And just as sure as Chris refused to allow anyone to break up their team, even themselves, Ezra had become all too detached again, fire in his eyes gone, and Chris only thought of that fire burning him down, Ezra’s mouth desperately claiming his own… a wildfire.
But Ezra wasn’t moving closer, he was backing away. Half a minute later he was already up on his horse, and how could he do this to him after Sarah? Why couldn’t Chris say how he really felt? And why should he now, after all this?
“Goddammit, Ezra. Don’t you ever come back, you hear me? No matter what happens, don’t you ever come back!”
The sound of the gambler’s receding horse echoed beat for beat Chris’ own racing, sweat-soaked, though still intact heart.
Chris sat at the bar wallowing in his misery with his fifth shot of whiskey. The drink had burned going down the first few times, but now Chris felt as if nothing would pull him out of this numbness. Ezra’s haunted, agonized eyes were boring holes into his soul, ones that didn’t bleed but just blackened, and the whiskey sure as hell wasn’t working fast enough. He shouldn’t have said what he had, but more than that, he should have convinced Ezra to stay long before that point.
Nothing to be done for it now.
“Chris!” If it had been anyone else he wouldn’t have bothered turning around, but Vin’s crazed shout successfully shook him out of his lethargic reverie. The tracker was rarely rattled and it meant Chris had better pay attention pretty damn fast. Vin was up at the bar before Chris could ask what the hell was going on, ignoring the drink Chris slid over to him. “It’s Ezra, he just stumbled back into town. He’s with Nathan now, got a concussion and some mild bruisin.’” Vin took a breath and finished, “Nathan reckons he fell off his horse and hit his head on the way down.”
At this point, probably everyone knew that Ezra was gone. Chris had related it to Vin only, but JD had wandered in earlier remarking that he hadn’t seen Ezra’s horse in the stables, and easily drew the conclusion that he had left town even though Chris hadn’t said anything and did little more than ignore him. And Chris knew full well that kid couldn’t keep a secret if his damn life depended on it, so likely everyone knew Ezra had just up and left, and the only good thing about that was that they were leaving Chris the fuck alone. He had felt a pang of guilt once JD had left, because it wasn’t just Chris who had gone and attached himself foolishly to the gambler, but he sure as hell wasn’t preventing the kid from riding off half-cocked to find him; he was Buck’s problem.
As badly as he wanted to see Ezra again, he sure as hell wasn’t going after him. It wouldn’t serve any good other than having him make an even bigger fool of himself. Chris Larabee didn’t resort to begging, and he also wouldn’t tolerate the notion of rejection. If Ezra gave a shit about him, about any of them, then he wouldn’t have left in the first place. These feelings that Chris had bore for so long now… they weren’t reciprocated.
He had lost Sarah, lost his son, lost Buck, lost his life… and now when he had gotten the last two back undeservedly and fell for one certain gambler, he had up and left too.
Chris’ hand clenched around his glass, staring down at it other than at his friend’s wild eyes. Vin knew how he felt about Ezra; Chris had stopped hiding things from him a long while back. Vin was probably the least judgmental person he knew, he just got Chris in a way no one else did, but he didn’t love Vin like that. He and Vin were kindred spirits if ever there were any, but he loved Ezra. Didn’t know how the hell it happened, but it didn’t much matter either.
And now it really didn’t matter.
“What the hell do ya want me to do ‘bout it?” Chris slurred angrily, reaching for the bottle to pour himself another drink.
Vin’s hand slid over the top of the glass before Chris could refill, and Chris barely swallowed down his growl. “He asked for ya. He was pretty out of it, don’t think he rightly knows what the hell’s goin’ on.” Chris straightened before he knew what he was doing, because Ezra had asked for him.
And that was good enough for him.
Chris arranged for Nathan to help him move Ezra to his own room. There were things he wanted to say to him when he woke up, things it would be better if only the two of them were privy to.
Ezra looked so pale lying on Chris’ sheets. He looked young too once he had been stripped of his jacket and boots, dead to the world until Chris coaxed him back to consciousness. He was mesmerized by the barely perceptible rise and fall of his chest, scooting his chair closer until he could hear the man’s soft breaths. Chris’ hand more than once hovered over Ezra’s half-bandaged forehead, about to brush away the blond hair that had strayed there, but he was speechless at how handsomely vulnerable he was, and did no more than rest a hand on his shoulder.
His head had stopped bleeding before Nathan had allowed him to be moved, but the bandage there was a reminder of just how fragile the gambler was. Chris would have to chastise him for falling off his horse later, which had only just returned to town, and he knew the others would get a kick out of it once they heard, but he was just so glad to see him alive that he didn’t much care what had happened.
And Ezra was back. Ezra was back.
Nathan had reassured him more than once that there hadn’t been any signs of struggle, that the minor bruising was a result of his likely fall and hadn’t been created by human hands. It meant Ezra hadn’t been attacked, thank God, though it pained Chris to wonder just what frame of mind Ezra had been in when he had left. Enough to not care about his own life anymore?
Wanting him to know he was there, Chris’ hand squeezed his shoulder. Ezra hadn’t woken yet since Chris had answered his call, and he was sick with both nervousness and excitement to see how the man would react to seeing him again. Nathan didn’t think there would be any memory loss but he hadn’t ruled it out completely either.
Waiting was the hard part, in large part because Chris wasn’t a patient man.
As if sensing Chris’ growing anxiety the longer he was asleep, Ezra stirred. His head shifted on Chris’ pillow and he moaned in pain at the movement, eyelashes fluttering in his disorientation, spurring Chris to place a hand on his forehead, fingers straying onto heat dry skin. His other laid on top of Ezra’s, fingers curling around the gambler’s tightly. Chris waited for him to open those vibrant green eyes, hope igniting when he did, confused stare followed closely behind by a trusting one.
“I had the most surreal dream. I decided to leave this troublesome town and you… you told me never to come back.”
Startled, Chris searched Ezra’s pale, almost delicate features for traces of amusement. Finding none, he carefully schooled his face into one of only relief, squeezing Ezra’s hand to let him know he was back where he belonged.
“It wasn’t a dream, Ez.” The gambler’s eyes widened at that and he made to sit up, but Chris stopped him, body shifting so close to his that if he decided to move again, he wouldn’t have much room to maneuver. If Ezra thought he wanted him to go… Chris had to fix this. Now that he had him trapped, just the two of them in the darkened room, Chris could finally get his head out of his ass and hopefully do the same for the man he wanted to keep in his bed forever. “But I ain’t never lettin’ you go again. I’ll tie you to this damn bed if I have to until you let me say my piece but… Ezra?” Might as well come out with it. “I love you. I think I fell in love with you the first time you came back, when I told you never to run out on me again. You did, Ezra, and it hurt like hell this second time around. I never thought you hated this town… our town so much, never thought you wanted to get away from us. So, yeah, I loved you then, and I kinda wanted to kill you too, but now I just wanna make a home with you. Unless… aw hell, maybe you don’t…”
Ezra’s hand slipped over his mouth; Chris gently pulled it away but allowed him to say his own piece. “Mr. Larabee, do not have the indecency to presume to know how I feel.” Chris wondered how the hell he could still talk like that, with his head supposed to be temporarily scrambled and all, but he berated himself because Ezra was back as he should be, ridiculous speech and all.
“Ezra,” he breathed.
The gambler closed the few inches between them and Chris almost thought he was gonna try to run again, maybe assuming he had caught Chris off guard, but then a mouth covered his and the kiss was sweeter than all the whiskey in the world. Ezra tasted as sweet as Sarah had, from what time had allowed him to remember, and the gambler’s touch was featherlight but sure as his fingers skimmed over Chris’ waist. Chris would have kissed him harder if he wasn’t so worried about how Ezra was physically, how much pain he was in, whether he really needed to lay down rather than try to prove something to Chris they had the whole rest of their lives to prove to each other. It was Ezra who pulled back though, breathing shakily against Chris’ cheek. “Mr. Larabee, I believe I…”
“Will you stop with the damn formalities, Ezra, and just call me Chris?”
Ezra blinked in surprise, though his typical devious smile soon overtook that shock. He looked better: cheeks flushed, deeper breaths, fingers picking fervently at his bandage until Chris pulled them away. Ezra huffed, though his head burrowed against Chris’ neck for a minute to collect himself, Chris’ fingers all the while running gently, carefully through his hair. He waited until Ezra pulled away again, shy smile stirring something in Chris, and it almost reassured him that he wouldn’t bolt again.
“I was eager to disclose how fervently I wish to fuck you into this bed, so you’ll be feelin’ it all week, darlin.’ I suspected a ‘Chris’ layered on top of that would prove too much to endure.” His voice was a bit shaky but to Chris, who had been so sure he would never hear it again, it was like music and laughter and happiness all rolled into one Ezra-shaped bundle, wrapped up tightly for Chris’ enjoyment.
What the hell have I gotten myself into? He grinned, wrapping Ezra up in his arms and then pushing him down until he laid flat on his back, ignoring the disappointed look. “Not tonight,” he chastised. “Tonight you rest, otherwise I’m liable to make your concussion worse. We’ve got tomorrow and every day after that to have some fun.”
Chris joined him, and Ezra tucked himself against him like he was meant to fit there all along. “Yes, Chris,” the gambler purred, “now the thought need no longer consume my dreams.”