~Heel to toe takes you from my side
In and out, every breath divides
My eyes to your head, I can ’t go the distance
But when you go you take me in an instant~
It was an unusually cold day in Four Corners for it only being the fall.
JD and Ezra were enjoying the quiet of late afternoon in the saloon, actually, it had been a quiet day overall, the latter fiddling with his cards and the former enjoying his second glass of milk. JD’s stomach tumbled at the cold beverage, and he wondered more than once whether he ought to put it down in favor of grabbing himself something hot. He had worked up quite a thirst patrolling the town for the last several hours, however, and milk was his go-to comfort drink. One that gave him happy memories of home.
He had been both surprised and pleased to catch Ezra in the saloon, pulling up a chair from another table after Ezra had gestured for him to sit down without once glancing up. They had exchanged no more than a few words before JD had arranged for a glass of milk, mulling over whether or not this cold spell would last through the night and into the week. Ezra offered no opinion either way, but it was soothing watching him with his cards, hand movements lulling JD into a calming state of familiarity. He didn’t much notice Ezra’s intense concentration until his second glass and even then, it took a few more minutes for JD to figure out something was wrong.
JD tapped his glass and watched Ezra’s frown deepen as he stared down at his cards. “What’s wrong, Ezra?”
The gambler glanced up, startled, though he gave JD a small smile. He was fairly certain Ezra had forgot he was even there. “I am apt to determine where my favored jacket has disappeared to, and am currently sorting through a list of possible locations.”
“You remember where you seen it last?” Ezra shook his head and went back to his cards again: just staring, not moving, something which unsettled JD. He shook off the feeling. “I’m sure you’ll find it,” he stretched, enjoying the quiet of the saloon and the sounds of Inez cooking something in the back that smelled like heaven. “And if not, I’m sure there’s plenty of other fancy jackets with your name on ‘em.”
Ezra shot him a hard stare and JD removed his feet slowly from the chair he had just dragged over. “That jacket is irreplaceable.” The edges of the cards made contact with the wood of the table, the noise loud in the mostly empty space. JD glanced around, again wondering where everyone was, but he had long since figured the cold was making them cranky enough to stay upstairs in their rooms. Except for Vin, who had relieved JD of his patrol a little while ago.
And yet… why was Ezra here when he had no reason to be?
The townsfolk must have had the same idea of keeping indoors, and JD suddenly got the feeling that maybe he should have gone back up to his room instead of coming here. If the town was closing up due to the cold, then it would make sense for trouble to hold off a day or two. He had a dime novel waiting for him on his bed, after all, not to mention warm blankets. It was just that he had hoped for some company rather than a lonely day indoors, and Ezra had never turned JD away before.
Now it seemed like that decision had led trouble straight to him.
“I’m sorry, Ezra. I just thought…”
The gambler cut him off, hands working violently at the cards now. “You assumed that my jacket has the same value as your ridiculous hat. Though I assure you, it has infinitely more value.” JD’s heart sunk at that; Buck and Chris had complained about his hat many a time, but never Ezra. He had always secretly hoped Ezra had taken a liking to it, having some class after all. Obviously he had been wrong and worse, unprepared for it, which made JD skittish at best and wishing he weren’t anywhere near here at worst. If he bolted now there was the slim chance that Ezra might go after him, and even if he didn’t, JD wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye the next time they crossed paths, which could be as soon as tomorrow.
But he feared angering him further if he stayed put.
He made to stand, slowly, but Ezra gestured for him to sit back down. Something about that made JD bite his tongue, and then decide he didn’t want to, surging to his feet. “Sorry for caring about your troubles, Ezra! But if you care so much about that damn jacket then why ain’t ya out lookin’ for it?” Every word was bit out until he could stand it no longer, and then he made for the door, not once looking back.
If he had looked back, he would have seen the gambler slumped in on himself, fingers absentmindedly stroking his beloved cards.
Ezra didn’t begrudge the boy for his impulsive outburst, he had enraged him after all, but he was irritated by JD’s young foolishness and his impossibility at reading others in the slightest, a quality he should have possessed even without reciprocating Ezra’s long-honed skill at it. It was as if he flat out did not want to, as he spoke without seeing, and spoke again when proved wrong. It was infuriating at best and swayed Ezra toward purposeless violence at worst. He would never hurt JD, but sometimes he sincerely hoped Buck would accelerate his tactic of knocking some sense into the boy.
The cards called to him again but he no longer felt their charms.
The jacket had been the only gift his mother saw fit to send him. The woman could not even pick up pen and put it to paper to grace him with a letter as to her well-being, and Ezra could not explain why he had taken such a liking to the jacket other than the simple, indisputable fact that he had. Unlike JD’s attention-seeking head garment, this had sentimental value. And the color, well, it suited Ezra perfectly if he were to say so himself. Even his mother had made note of that in the card she had so thoughtfully placed in the box along with it.
And now her jacket, his jacket, had simply vanished.
Not to dwell upon the fact that he had run the boy off, which he had not thought was even remotely possible.
JD seemed to bear an unpleasant tendency of whittling his way underneath Ezra’s heavily guarded skin. Perhaps this was what infuriated Ezra the most: that he had come to grudgingly accept that he could not simply hope to keep everything from JD. As horrid as the youngest of the seven was at reading others, his sheer reckless eagerness broke down even the best of Ezra’s barriers.
Nearly all thoughts of decent behavior and self-preservation had fled out the quadruple locked window the first time he had seen JD hurt. Upon being the first to reach the boy after the gunshot and subsequent shout, Ezra had felt faint when his wavering eyes had taken in the knife protruding from his shoulder. Knowing time was of the essence, he had lifted JD up quickly, bringing an arm to rest around his own shoulders before he froze as an unfortunate result of his entirely unexpected panic.
A mild form of catatonia hadn’t even revealed itself as his greatest concern, but the notion of outwardly displaying his panic had set his teeth on edge, as well as the thought of - within the earshot of others - cursing the bastards that had the audacity to hurt one of them; thus, relaying an attachment to their small, close-knit group that the gambler had scarcely a right to admit to himself, let alone risk its revelation to the other men.
Regardless of his concerns to maintain his immaculate persona, Ezra had been unable to dissuade himself from standing guard over JD as Nathan worked his particular form of magic, dare he call it, on the boy. He had certainly hoped the faint tremble in his hands would not be noticed, nor that his agitated concern would be betrayed by an abrupt paleness of his features.
Buck’s curt ‘what happened?’ had been barely heard and even less considered. He hadn’t been there, Ezra had, and Ezra could not have tolerated a retelling of events.
Watching JD in pain was something he never wished to experience again. Determined as he was to tear the memory from his mind, the boy’s milk white, sweat-drenched face haunted him in his waking dreams, his groaning tapering down into minute whimpering shredding Ezra’s soul until he was sure it bore his pain for all to see.
How had the boy managed to burrow so deep?
And why did Ezra not put up more of a fight to coax him out?
JD was walking off the effects of his and Ezra’s brief spar. However short it may have been, it had felt like an eternity to JD. He had fights with Buck all the time but that was a helluva lot different. For one, Buck’s teasing was always lighthearted, and even if they argued to the point of splitting up to cool their heels, they were making up within no time, usually in the same day.
Ezra had never before given him an angry glance, had never directed at him a harsh word, and JD wondered what he had done that was so terrible to receive both.
Well, if Ezra don’t want nothing to do with me, then that’s his choice. Not mine. I’ll cool off, and there’ll be no hard feelings on my side.
He was so caught up in his thoughts that he collided with someone walking toward him. “Watch it!” The sharp voice yanked him out of his head more than the body on body impact did.
JD tipped his hat in apology. “Mighty sorry, friend. Wasn’t watchin’ where I was goin.’ You have a good day now, ya hear?” He said a mite shakily, quickly walking away. He caught the big man shaking his head in exasperation when he glanced back, but he walked on and JD breathed a sigh of relief. JD would have completely brushed off the incident altogether except…
A flash of red caught his attention, and it wasn’t blood.
He whirled around abruptly to face his suspicions, and ended up pointing his finger at the man. “Hey, that’s my friend’s jacket!”
The man turned, allowing JD to get a good look at the front of the jacket and to see that, yes, it was definitely Ezra’s. But why the hell would this guy have it? Don’t make no sense. The jacket couldn’t have been more out of place on someone who obviously had no concern for his appearance, and not only that, but it was at least two sizes too small.
“And what’re ya gonna do about it, boy? ‘Cause ya sure as hell ain’t gonna take it from me. Judging by the looks of ya, ya don’t look fit to put on yer own boots in tha mornin.’”
JD bristled at the comment, but he had heard his fair share of petty insults since coming out west. It was nothing to weigh himself down about and yet… that wasn’t what got him so angry. That jacket was clearly Ezra’s. It fit the gambler perfectly, like it had been made especially for him, and JD wasn’t about to let it go so easily, not when Ezra had just made it pretty damn clear how much it meant to him.
And maybe he could make it up to Ez, patch things up with him and all that.
The man started walking away again, and JD drew his gun before he realized his hand was heading for his belt. “Stop right there! I’m the law ‘round these parts and I ain’t lettin’ you take that jacket, Mister. Turn around and put your hands up where I can see ‘em. Now!”
JD got off a shot as the man barreled toward him, but his shock caused his aim to shift too far left and the bullet hit wood instead of flesh. Before he could do much other than think oh shit, the man was on top of him, his weight slamming JD down into the dirt - which was much colder than he had expected - and his fists keeping him there. He managed to land in a halfway decent punch or two before he was yanked upright and thrown against something so violently it made his head spin, his vision exploding into sharp, jagged shards of blinding light. A second time it was his stomach taking the impact rather than his back, mercilessly before the world righted itself. The pain of it led his hands to alternately clutch at his stomach and his head when they weren’t pinned down against his sides.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough limbs to protect both simultaneously and fend off his attacker, and the latter wasn’t even an option at this point.
A third time and he heard a crack deep down in his chest. He was dragged down to his knees by nothing other than his own protesting body.
No one was around and even if his mouth could work to shout for help, it would take too long for anyone to get to him. Trouble had found the youngest of the Magnificent Seven once again, a hard fact JD was learning pretty quickly to roll with.
When his wobbly knees refused to continue supporting his weight, forcing him down onto his side and then his screaming back, something was thrown over him. And at least that something was soft and sorta warm. “Here’s the jacket, boy. If you’re so taken with it then why don’t ‘cha bleed all over it.” The man chuckled and JD could hear the sharp clink of boots fading away bit by bit, allowing him free use of his limbs again if only they would support his weight.
JD was left to bleed out into the dirt alone, his world a jarring swirl of blue and brown and red, his head only capable of producing…
Got it, Ez …
At some point shortly thereafter JD’s abrupt departure, the immense cold and silence of the establishment wore down on Ezra’s already frayed nerves, leading him to bid Inez a fair night and return to his sparsely furnished yet hopefully slightly warmer quarters. He was abundantly accustomed to being alone, though he never rejected company outright, and yet… after JD had fled the space felt remarkably hollow, even haunted, filled only with the sharp words each had exchanged.
Perhaps a short nap and a bit of reading would make him feel like himself again.
Ezra maintained little an eye on his surroundings other than to watch where he was treading. The usually bustling town that seemed to draw danger like a moth to flame had never seemed so quiet nor so dead. Ezra would have sworn he was wandering aimlessly through a ghost town if he did not know the others were taking a much-needed day off, and also if he did not know exactly where he was traveling.
He decided quite suddenly to take a shortcut, growing more and more dismayed by the lack of company. The alley to his right would shave a few precious seconds off his time, and his fingers brushed over the cards in his pocket in comfort.
The sight that greeted him drained that small ounce of comfort as surely as a leech drew blood.
“Oh, god….” Ezra choked on the remainder, though was unsure as to what he might have continued with. Perhaps expletives or stuttered words. Crouching down beside JD, he couldn’t have stopped the words even if he had every intention to. “Oh, dear lord.” He glanced around in an unaccustomed daze though saw no one else in sight, which meant no suspects and no witnesses, and no evidence save for the blood soaking the dirt around the prone boy. Ezra sucked in a harsh, half-breath. “Oh, JD. It’s all right. Everything shall be fine. I will make sure of it.”
Buck would know what to say if he were here now. He would no doubt be able to reassure JD as to his continued vitality, but here Ezra was, merely piecing together the only words that made sense to him at the moment.
Why must he lose JD now? And why had they parted on such disagreeable terms?
Terms which Ezra sincerely hoped the young man would not remember.
A hand that did not feel as if it were connected to his body found itself on JD’s clammy forehead, being the only portion of his face that wasn’t heavily bruised or sluggishly bleeding. He brushed back raven-black hair made darker by the paleness of his skin, far whiter than usual, as white as the milk he’s so fond of. Agonized gasps rose from the boy’s trembling lips, and Ezra felt he did not have the heart to coax him to open his eyes.
Another hand that felt somewhat more like his own grasped JD’s, the one that was scrabbling nervously at his blood-soaked stomach. Bitten down fingernails immediately carved markings into Ezra’s palm, though the touch was a lifeline to JD that he would not part with so easily for either of their sakes. It proved a necessary, albeit momentary distraction until his gaze drifted downward to JD’s other hand.
Clutched between his fingers was something red and something intimately familiar.
My jacket. How in the world …?
It would have been pieced together by a man considerably less quick witted than Ezra, though Ezra doubted one’s heart could twist and turn so violently in one’s chest as his own was currently doing, fortunately away from watchful eyes. He pried his jacket out of JD’s still miraculously clenched fingers, hushing his uneasy stirring as he did so, and then tucked it around him, hoping to stave off some of the chill that had seeped into the boy from the cold air and the dirt.
Ezra then pulled JD up with infinite care, one arm supporting his back and the other settling under his quivering, stripped bare and bleeding knees. JD cried out once then lay limp, and Ezra shifted quickly to support him further without jostling him too much.
He did not stop to ponder whether he could bear JD’s weight: it was of no concern compared to what must be done. Somehow, he found the breath to scream out Nathan’s name, preparing him for the work that lay ahead. It could not have been more than a few moments, but it felt like an eternity until Nathan came out onto the landing far above them, all the while Ezra lifting JD and adjusting him in his hold, and only then carrying him as quickly as he dared up the steps. Nathan met him halfway, wide eyes silently questioning the trembling gambler.
Ezra did not hand the boy over but did allow the healer to bear half of his weight. Even so, Ezra demanded more of it, for while the feel of JD’s blood soaking his once pristine shirt was nauseating, the loss of it would only serve to prove devastating.
He paced after they settled JD onto the bed, gaze flicking back and forth between watching Nathan work - and occasionally aiding - and gazing outside the filthy window at nothing in particular. The town seemed completely oblivious to JD’s torment, the cold not only keeping them indoors but molding them into inhumane cowards, and Ezra did not know what he would have done if Nathan had not been here.
“Blood loss ain’t fatal,” Nathan offered, after what felt like another eternity. Ezra had had quite enough of those for one day, thank you kindly. “Piece of wood pierced his belly, though luckily no splinters broke off. Got a couple cracked ribs though, and a whole lotta bruisin.’ Head’s pretty banged up too, but at least it stopped bleedin.’ Must’ve looked worse down in the street, huh?”
“It did,” Ezra admitted.
Trembling and bloody hands that could not, should not have been his ran through his hair, cold liquid coating his face which he promptly wiped away with his sleeve. A quick, discreet glance over at Nathan proved his certainty that the healer continued to work on JD, and both men exhaled loudly at the boy’s refusal to return to full consciousness. The blood had startled him, yes, but Ezra had enough experience in such matters to know what was life threatening and what was not. He had been more concerned that JD was lying down on the dirt at all, vulnerable and hurt, barely conscious.
Whoever had touched the boy this time would burn, and he would burn by Ezra’s own hand courteously lighting the match.
Nathan’s deep voice quenched some of the fire boiling within him, albeit momentarily. “You up to headin’ to the Church and gettin’ me some more bandages? I’m running low an’….,” Ezra was rushing through the door before Nathan could finish voicing his concerns. The cold air at first wrapped merciless hands around his throat, intent on choking him until he was taken down to his knees, but upon his first deep breath he rose again, his lungs and his head both remarkably clearer.
The doors of the Church were closed today, staving off the chill, and Ezra’s hands were still trembling so fiercely that without a moment’s thought his leg ascended to kick the door wide open. Josiah startled, turning around from his place in a pew in the front row, and he stood immediately upon seeing Ezra. If the gambler felt more like himself, then he might have possessed the decency to construct his customary mask of disinterest and calmness before barging into Josiah’s place of both leisure and work, though the blood rapidly drying on his hands only exacerbated the situation further.
“Ezra, what happened?” Josiah’s long strides served him well in that he was upon him in seconds, large hand grasping the gambler’s shoulder.
“The boy, he…,” Ezra swallowed. “I…,” he tried again, and Josiah slipped a dusty bottle - the label far too blurry for Ezra to even attempt reading - into his hand. Ezra guzzled at least half of it down before the preacher pulled it away, and Ezra ungraciously wiped his mouth off on the back of his hand, no doubt smearing blood over his chin. “Thank you kindly.” He took several panting breaths before continuing. “Mr. Jackson requires bandages and, I suspect, more liquor.” Or at least I will, soon enough. “For sterilization purposes, of course,” he added. Though likely more for the patient.
The preacher, however, did not seem to doubt him, apparent by his: “Say no more.” He patted Ezra’s shoulder once before moving away to gather the required materials. Ezra relieved him of some of his burden when he had finished, and they made the long journey back to Nathan’s quarters together.
Ezra’s own personal burden, however, was ever-growing, consisting of barely contained anger, deep regret and insufficient prayers.
JD clung onto consciousness uneasily. He could feel hands poking and prodding at his worn down body, and greatly wanted them to leave him be. There were voices too, indistinguishable at first but then Nathan’s as front and center. He swore he could hear Josiah too, but his voice was pitched too low to be sure.
If Nathan had found him, then he might be okay.
His fingers clenched, hoping to feel the jacket still within his grip, heart pumping loudly in his chest when he couldn’t feel it. He shifted, crying out loud at the agony assaulting his swimming head and tightened chest and even more so his belly, and warm hands closed around his own.
The thought that all he had done had led to nothing caused him to spiral back down into a bottomless darkness.
JD was dozing restlessly when Ezra returned, though the gambler’s heart was immediately warmed as the boy’s head turned toward his hovering hand. Nathan came between them, fretting over JD again, but the trembling in Ezra’s hands at last abated.
The guilt, however, would not leave him be so easily.
And unfortunately, he ceased to be able to withhold information pertaining to JD for long, Nathan’s well-voiced and Josiah’s unspoken though apparent demands disintegrating the last shreds of his ironclad will. Within minutes he had recollected - with a great deal of horribly concealed regret - their argument, as well as JD’s apparent successful attempt to acquire Ezra’s jacket, which had without a doubt landed him in his present condition. The boy must have fought someone to acquire the article of clothing, the only question was who?
Either way, Nathan made no efforts to conceal his enraged character, and almost literally pushed Ezra out of the room, his reasoning being that ‘his patient’ required a quiet, restful place to heal. It was a sound argument and one that Ezra would happily abide by; he had a suspect to track down after all. Josiah exited along with him before words could be directed his way, and Ezra almost smiled.
Never stand between a mother bear and her cub.
Chris and Vin, as it appeared, had managed to drag themselves down to the saloon for alcoholic beverages while JD had been bleeding out in the alleyway and Ezra likewise oblivious up until he had found him, fortune having seen fit to bestow favor upon him. Due to his once similar, although short-lived obliviousness, he felt he possessed no right to clench his fists and make his way over to the men at the bar stiffly. The animated voices and further ingestion of alcohol impeded his reasonable thought processes even more so, the diminishing effects of which had begun after stumbling upon JD bleeding, crumpled, broken...
“Gentlemen?” The leader and tracker turned in tandem, the latter offering him a highly desirable drink. Ezra reprimanded the demands of his thirst and outwardly shook his head in dissent. “Might I ask a favor of the two of you?”
Vin seemed to notice how each one of Ezra’s words was carefully chosen, and Ezra himself felt as if each one might regrettably be his last, for the younger man looked up at him in curiosity that consisted more of concern than amusement. “What can we do for ya, Ezra?”
The words erupted before he could prevent their ascent up his sore throat. “The boy has been attacked while acquiring an article of clothing for me.”
Chris sprayed the whiskey Ezra had not given him the courtesy of swallowing before confessing across the counter. He whirled around in his seat and Vin, already facing Ezra, tensed considerably. “What?” Chris demanded, hand slamming down onto the counter and rattling the assorted shot glasses. Ezra nearly jumped, though he possessed the good sense enough to fiddle with his ruined sleeves instead. His fingers were itching for movement, yet he knew full-well the cards tucked safely away in his pocket would award him with little contentment.
Vin’s senses were highly in tune, voice intentionally low and calm as he repeated the question. “Wha’dya need us to do, Ezra?”
“There was no one with him when I found him lying in the alleyway. No witnesses, no suspects…,” he trailed off, exhaled a shuddery breath and ignored Chris’ glare, as if Ezra had just personally offended him.
Though he could not hope to ignore his enraged words. “Damn, kid. Can’t sit still for one damn day.”
Ezra’s heart skipped a beat and then resumed but stuttered every several beats. He did not feel capable of reacting kindly to Chris’ hasty conclusion, which fit well with the man’s infamously short temper. As a result, he envisioned the use of first names as highly unfitting. “Now, Mr. Larabee. I assure you…”
“I don’t need your assurances, Ezra!” Another drain of his glass and almost a refill, if the other man had not echoed Ezra’s concerns and laid his hand over the top of the glass. “What the hell was he trying to prove anyway?”
“Chris,” Vin cut in, exiting his stool after draining his own glass. Chris didn’t aim for the bottle again, and while Ezra had his suspicions he could hardly read the expression on Vin’s features. “We should start askin’ ‘round, ‘fore Nathan finishes fixin’ up JD and reams us all fer ignorin’ this.” Dear god, thank you. It would have been highly inadvisable for me to have knocked some sense into our fearless and hopefully forgiving leader. Not only that, but there is a rather large certainty that my head would have make contact with some hard surface. His gratefulness must have shone through for a moment, for Vin put a hand on his shoulder. “How bad, Ez?” His voice was pitched even lower than before, the tracker wincing as if expecting terrible news.
He smiled assuredly, though he was certain it revealed itself as more of a grimace. “He will live.”
Ezra, however, might not if justice wasn’t seen to within a reasonably alloted time.
Meaning right damn now.
Vin did not brush Ezra’s turmoil away with the back of his hand upon hearing of JD’s sure recovery. His intentions were in all seriousness as he stepped away and held the door open for Chris, relaying to Ezra with a tip of his hat that he knew time was of the essence. Ezra felt a surge of respect toward the man: ever-observant, perceptive, considerate and kind. The first three which JD so clearly lacked and the last which he possessed in unfortunate abundance. It did uncomfortably sting, however, as he realized JD had been considerate through reassuring Ezra as to the loss of his jacket.
Their leader managed to tear himself away from the bottle, and the three men headed in different directions.
It didn’t much matter, however, as the night bore down on them far too soon, ending their unfortunate search until the following morning. More than once Ezra considered visiting JD before he retired to his quarters. He was at a loss, however, as to what he would say to him without aggravating his injuries or - another pressing concern - dousing JD’s frame of mind with any inkling of sourness given his actions. Ezra did not desire to lay judgment or questions upon the boy until Nathan cleared him once more for strenuous activity.
But good god, JD, why?
The night was plagued with reoccurring nightmares of stumbling upon JD, already perished but continuing to bleed out onto the dirt that their town seemed to have in ungodly abundance. The hand holding onto the jacket had long since gone limp, unseeing eyes fixed onto Ezra’s own as the world came tumbling quite literally down around his unprepared, kneeling form.
And until Ezra woke with a terrible taste in his mouth and a raging pounding in his head, he nearly drowned in the wish that he had kept his mouth sealed in that accursed saloon.
JD tried to breathe through the pain in his chest, the tight bandages Nathan had wrapped around the area increasing his discomfort. He stubbornly kept his eyes closed despite wanting them open to keep an eye on his surroundings; he needed to be able to concentrate to mold the pain into something bearable before opening them again. His hands clenched, heart hammering and only causing a further twinging of his ribs. He grimaced as he remembered the man’s unrelenting fists and startling vigor as he had thrown JD about the alleyway, barely having given him a chance to breathe between each impact and only allowing him to swing blindly, until he could no longer accomplish even that.
Should ’ve been smarter ‘bout getting that jacket back. Should’ve even gotten Ezra maybe.
He hadn’t been about to run for help like a kid would do though.
His eyes flickered more than once over to the discarded jacket, draped over a chair by the window. Even from this distance, JD noticed the deep gashes in and the blood staining the material, and each time winced at what Ezra would say. Would he just throw the jacket out, after all?
He swore, wondering why he cared so much, why every time he pictured Ezra’s eyes they seemed so soft one second but unforgiving the next. Was JD just the kid he and the others had to put up with, did his life really mean so little? Did he even really care what they thought?
JD heard someone making their way up the stairs and shut his eyes again, grateful that Nathan had left the door open for the simple necessity of returning with the soup he had promised for JD’s queasy stomach. His appetite had fluctuated for the better part of a day now: he had been ravenous when Nathan had insisted on food and now he felt too nauseated to eat anything.
Nathan hadn’t wanted to leave JD alone, even for ten minutes. JD supposed that was mere habit now after all of them had at one point lied about their injuries or somehow got themselves more injured when they were supposed to be recovering. He was starting to understand Nathan’s frustration, but after being unable to track down any of the others and cursing their lack of usefulness all the while, he had relented and told JD to stay put.
JD hardly felt that fair: why should the others feel obligated to look after him just ‘cause he was a little bruised and had cracked a couple of his ribs? It was probably his foolish stunt that was keeping them away in the first place. Still, he wished Buck had at least come back to town already to give him a good reaming for it.
He worked harder on getting the pain under control, blanking out his mind, not wanting to give Nathan any further reason to continue babying him. He needed to get the hell out there and do his job, just like everyone else.
The footsteps stopped far enough away that told him Nathan was in the doorway, not making a sound. Maybe he just thinks I’m asleep or something. “Not feeling much hungry, Nathan. Can I eat some now and save most of it for later?”
“While not bearing nourishment, I suspect that if I were I would find that desire highly inadvisable given your present condition.”
His eyes shot open at that familiar southern voice, and froze on none other than the source of all his panic and all his nervousness. “Ez?” He squeaked, inwardly cursing. “Ezra, look…”
The gambler shook his head and in that one simple though unmistakable motion, all the protests and explanations he hadn’t even had the time or energy to wrap his head around vanished in a rush, leaving nothing behind to help him with. He figured Ezra would eventually catch him off guard like this. His fists clenched around the bedsheets at the pain assaulting him again, too many places for him to focus just on one area. It was downright impossible to think about anything other than that Ezra was in the room and probably pissed. He shouldn’t be pissed, ‘cause JD had found his jacket and gotten it back for him, but JD knew Ezra was pissed at how it had been done. Or whatever other reason.
“I did not enter to pile additional weight upon your shoulders, young man. I am simply here to ascertain your condition.”
JD laid back, slightly. “Huh?”
Ezra licked his lips, though it didn’t appear as if he was gonna explain when of course he knew that JD didn’t understand those big, fancy words. Upon meeting the gambler, he had first figured Ezra just liked to show off, but now he wondered whether people were supposed to focus on those words instead of on Ezra himself.
Nathan burst into the room then, a bowl of soup cradled protectively in his hands. “Ezra, what the hell ya doing in here?” He shot an angry look toward JD’s first visitor but brushed past him quickly, sitting down on the edge of his bed and helping to further prop JD up before giving him so much as a warning.
“Merely observing our patient, Mr. Jackson.” JD startled, Ezra having said it like he belonged nowhere else when there were half a dozen places JD could think of where he should be right now.
“He ain’t your patient,” Nathan replied sternly, fussing with the sheets tucked loosely around JD - exactly how JD liked them because he did not need to be tucked in - as if Ezra himself had pulled them loose. “He’s my patient, and I don’t want you getting him all riled up now and aggravating his stomach wound or his ribs. Ya hear me?”
“I hear you,” Ezra replied, and if it were any other situation JD would have laughed at the way Ezra said it. As it were, he couldn’t even look him in the eye at this point. He felt more than just uncomfortable in his presence, grateful that Nathan had arrived, but he felt ashamed and sorta regretful that he hadn’t let Ezra take care of the problem himself. JD felt bad enough, and he didn’t want to see anything that would make it worse in Ezra’s eyes, so he kept them fixed at a low point, staring at the floor because Nathan’s ever-moving hands were making him dizzy. He tried to tune out the rest of what Ezra said but it wasn’t so easy; that dripping with molasses voice just wasn’t retreating like it usually did. “I assure you, I did not come to upset our Mr. Dunne. If anything, I came to thank him for his heroic efforts. And,” he added before Nathan could reprimand him further, “to offer my assistance.”
Nathan disregarded that last part. “Good,” he snapped. “I told the others the same thing, and that’s likely why none of ‘em are here.”
“Nathan…,” JD started. He was sick to his stomach from this conversation where neither of the men were letting him defend himself. He wasn’t used to people fighting over him and he sure as hell didn’t like it.
“Hush, JD. Eat your soup.” Which was pretty unlikely, since the healer was currently holding the spoon. The tone had been stern, but not harsh as it had been with Ezra.
JD didn’t understand why: he was wasting Nathan’s time and hogging his bed just because of his stupidity. Ezra should have left him down there in that alley, even though that voice had somehow kept him conscious, and Nathan should have sent him on his way by now. His thoughts turned briefly to the rivalry that had been brewing between Nathan and Ezra since day one, and thought that maybe Nathan wanted to piss Ezra off by taking care of JD, even if that didn’t make much sense, but JD also realized that Nathan was most comfortable healing people. He was good at a helluva lot else, but taking care of others… it wasn’t a hardship to him.
JD gave himself a reminder to thank Nathan and to remind the healer of all the good he did.
As soon as Ezra left.
His gaze flicked up, expecting to catch Ezra turning away. Instead, JD was shocked at how he seemed to have moved closer. It could have just been his mind playing tricks on him, but he was doubly glad Nathan was here. Also odd, Ezra appeared surprised. “Surely you don’t mean I am the first visitor?”
“I mean exactly that.” Nathan finally realized he was holding the spoon, and he dipped it into the soup and guided it to JD’s mouth. Despite watching JD, his attention never left Ezra, JD could tell that much by the tense set of his shoulders and because his other hand was clenched. He felt some strength returning with the first spoonful, but thinking of Ezra again made it all for nothing. “Just ‘cause a kid makes a mistake, and one with good intentions, don’t mean he oughta be treated like this.”
“I wholeheartedly agree.”
JD was glad he had decided to let his hair grow out a little longer. His bangs had fallen in front of his face and now obscured Ezra from view, meaning he didn’t have to turn his head away. He grimaced at the sound of Ezra’s clanking spurs as he moved about the room, though the additional pain brought on by the nervousness left him alone once he realized the gambler hadn’t moved any closer.
And he had taken more than he could handle on this conversation. “Can Mrs. Travis fix the jacket?” He asked, after swallowing another spoonful of soup. This last bite - broth mostly - tired him out more than the one before it. He could feel his eyelids growing heavy, and he wasn’t completely opposed to sleep since it meant he wouldn’t have to listen to Nathan and Ezra go back and forth any longer. As grateful as he was toward Nathan for just being around, he couldn’t be grateful for defending him.
Hell, JD couldn’t even defend JD.
The pain was leaving him be somewhat with the pull of sleep, but he held onto consciousness long enough for Ezra’s answer. “Yes. She has most graciously offered her services.”
“Good.” And JD promptly checked out.
Ezra came to the conclusion that Nathan must have dosed JD’s soup with laudanum, and he was rather relieved to see the boy sleeping, spared for a short time of his suffering.
To be entirely forthcoming, Ezra had completely forgotten about the jacket, or at least to the point of broaching the subject of repairing it to Mrs. Travis, the vast array of her skills having never occurred to him. JD’s question had sounded as if it were the most logical course of action, when it seemed the most inane to the jacket’s regretful owner.
The further consideration of the boy had amazed him, and he wanted to soothe his concerns by keeping the answer as a simple affirmative. Ezra also would have felt deeply ashamed to have said he forgot. After all the trouble JD had gone through, it would be nothing less than horrifically selfish to undermine his achievement, which had led to his current injuries and undeniable need for bed rest.
Nevertheless, Ezra found the whole matter of his jacket hardly worth bearing a thought over, when the repair of JD was of far greater importance.
What was worth his time was how enraged he felt that only he had graced JD with his presence. Josiah had accompanied him the day prior with the essential supplies of course, though from what he was gleaning from Nathan, the preacher had not returned. Chris and Vin had reasonable excuses, as they were searching for whomever had inflicted such grievous injury upon JD, though Ezra had caught sight of them up at the bar in none other than the saloon more than once today. It seemed entirely reasonable that one such time could have been spent lending their support to JD in person.
Then again, Ezra had left JD be for quite some time, due to both his cowardice and Nathan’s insistence.
It was yet another hit to the gambler’s once polished, now rapidly rusting veneer.
The task of finding JD’s attacker seemed dauntless, even more so given that their own Mr. Wilmington was carelessly out of town, having yearned for warmer parts. Ezra had contemplated sending the man a telegram informing him of JD’s condition, which Buck would likely beat him for if he did not disclose, but his anger at the situation prevented him from doing so. If any of the others were to send word then so be it, but it would not be he. Not while he continued his desperate, rigorous search.
During Ezra’s method of processing, Nathan busied himself with checking JD’s bandages and temperature with the back of a hand, before moving to a table to prepare more bandages. Ezra made to leave before Nathan could move to throw him out again, though the healer’s voice stopped him. “Ya ain’t plannin’ on leavin’ that jacket here.” The statement was apparent, and Ezra’s fingers skimmed over the intimately familiar article of clothing hesitantly. He could almost feel where JD’s cold, trembling hand had grasped, and his gaze lingered uncomfortably on the blood of the boy he had taken so unexpectedly under his wing, without any conscious knowledge of doing so.
He reclaimed the jacket with the intent of having it repaired, though only so he could enlighten JD as to how some things - like the boy himself - were meant to endure.
Mrs. Travis was quite willing to repair what JD had almost so willingly given his life for. Her face paled at the dark patches of red, though she courteously provided Ezra with an estimate of time, both of them knowing how much JD would appreciate seeing it in its somewhat renewed state before leaving Nathan’s bed.
Leaving the detective work to Chris and Vin, given his mind continued to be plagued by an analysis of the ever-expanding relationship between he and the boy, Ezra could think of no place more suited for him to seek guidance, or at the least a brief respite.
Ezra shivered as the cold followed him into the Church, turning and closing the doors quickly before making his way to the pulpit. “I daresay this unwanted chill is slowing us all down considerably.”
Josiah nodded, and Ezra balked at the excess of layers he wore. “You seekin’ advice tonight, my friend?”
The gambler had sought advice from Josiah on only one other occasion, though he was now warmly greeted by Josiah’s distinct lack of surprise. Then again, perhaps the preacher had known he would come to the Church to gain insight since what had occurred between him and JD had been revealed. Truth be told, Ezra wasn’t quite aware of what he was seeking.
Perhaps peace of some kind, comfort that could no longer be gleaned from a surety of mind or from something so simple as his cards, which he had not touched since yesterday.
So Ezra explained. He related in more depth the argument he had had with the boy, explaining his surprise and his uneasiness. Then he had tried to relate his conflicted emotions upon finding JD, ones that became increasingly more painful once noticing the jacket. Josiah remained silent throughout Ezra’s rushed words, and when the gambler was through he remained quiet and still, carefully mulling over Ezra’s words.
Thoughts so incredibly troubling Ezra had previously believed he would reveal them to no one but himself.
Usually Josiah was rather forthcoming with his well-versed advice, though his hesitation spoke volumes to Ezra. He waited patiently, as it was one of his more prized virtues, though when it came to JD he felt he had anything but this particular trait. Regardless, his eagerness to hear Josiah’s personal perspective was much desired, and Ezra must admit that the man did not disappoint. “Sometimes a man must do something foolish in order to show someone how much he cares.”
“Did you come up with that on the spot, dear preacher?” It also wasn’t lost on Ezra that Josiah had chosen then term ‘man,’ which in this instance applied to JD. Perhaps it was a fault of Ezra’s that he so often thought of JD as not yet a man, a fault not unique to the gambler alone though perhaps unfair nevertheless. A kid might have gone after Ezra’s once beloved, now perhaps accursed jacket; however, it seemed entirely as likely that a boy not yet a man would lack the sufficient interest needed to go after someone else’s property, even if they were to know that person.
Ezra still failed to ascertain whether JD was truly a fool or a hero, or perhaps a certain degree of both, or perhaps even both of equal measures.
Josiah hesitated for no more than a moment, and Ezra could easily see the tinge of embarrassment in his eyes that failed to be complemented by a flush to his cheeks. Then the man built like an ox, with such wisdom beyond his years, chuckled, and the astonishment at his own unique ability replaced that embarrassment he need not feel in Ezra’s company. “I believe I did, Ezra.”
Ezra had said it once and he would say it again: he liked this man. Quite a bit more now that they had worked together for some time now.
“I’m not saying don’t be mad at the boy, but understand where his motivation came from before you say something rash you’re bound to regret. And if the boy don’t wanna talk,” Josiah grinned, “that certainly don’t mean he don’t know his reasons, just that he ain’t too willing on spilling ‘em.”
“I will keep that particular revelation in mind.” And then Ezra realized something rather remarkable, startling Josiah as well. “Perhaps Mr. Dunne’s foolishness was constructed from more than a need to prove his loyalty to me. Perhaps it is a symbol of foolishness in another area, perhaps, shall we say, devotion?”
He left Josiah lost in thought, which had considerably deepened since his arrival.
Ezra was hovering in the doorway again when JD woke.
He wasn’t even sure whether he was awake at first, since the room was rippling instead of outright spinning this time around. And if he was awake, then he was having a really hard time trying to get to the point of full consciousness, since the pain was crushing him down into the bed and all the things he wanted to say to Ezra floating out of his head as soon as he remembered them. He kinda felt like he was a fish in a bowl, gasping for air because someone had just emptied out all the water. And here he was floundering, trying to get a handle on the pain again.
“Hey,” JD tried, realizing it was better than just staring at Ezra, waiting for him to explode with anger.
Ezra shifted, spurs clanking together. “Glad to see you’re back in the land of the living.” JD’s vision wavered, dipping and twisting until he moved his head over to the very edge of the bed ‘cause he was sure he was gonna upchuck all over the floor. His belly pulled at the motion and he gagged, swore he could feel bits of wood moving around in there.
He must have blacked out for a second because one moment he could hear the spurs, and the next he could see them inches away from his face. Ezra’s hand rested on his shoulder and pushed him back down gingerly, incredible green eyes and wayward hair nearly stealing what little breath JD had just pulled in. Even more surprising? The gambler’s mask was nowhere in sight; he actually looked concerned.
“Don’t ask me how I’m feelin,’” he warned, glowering at Ezra’s chuckle. “Nathan keeps askin’ me that and ’m sick of answerin.’
“My dear boy, I could not even begin to comprehend how you must feel.” Ezra’s tone was sorta mocking, but the way his eyes never left JD’s was oddly comforting. His hands weren’t busy like Nathan’s: checking bandages, fluffing pillows and preparing that disgusting herbal drink, but they rested unmoving over JD’s.
And any minute now, Ezra would ask what the hell he had thought he was doing.
JD’s eyes lowered, “I’m hungry.”
The hands slid down, tips of Ezra’s fingers for a moment brushing over his own. “Then I will fetch you sustenance.”
He shook his head, appetite down since he had surfaced from that pit of guilt and near death. Even in his dreams, JD was terrified of Ezra’s response, and even more scared that what he had done was just a meaningless act in Ezra’s eyes. “No, I’m just tired.”
“Then I will allow you to rest,” Ezra patted his shoulder and stood by the window. JD thought twice before shaking his now throbbing head again, growing more and more frustrated at how Ezra just didn’t seem to get it. He didn’t want to talk right now, and he sure as hell didn’t want to explain himself. There was no doubt as to why Ezra had come: to demand answers. Why else would he have visited me? I’m poor company, after all. Hell, JD didn’t even completely understand why he had done something so stupid for Ezra, out of all of ‘em. How could he ever think the gambler would appreciate it?
“No, Ezra,” he couldn’t keep the impatience out of his voice. “I just…”
And then he got it. “Shall I leave?”
JD nodded, biting down at his lip. He didn’t know whether he was disappointed to see Ezra so craftily cover up his own disappointment, or was frustrated with himself that he thought he could see it in the first place. It didn’t matter because no one could ignore how Ezra turned and walked right back out the door, never once turning back to look at the bed and who restlessly laid in it.
And damn, JD thought, but did I just break the guy?
Ezra closed the door behind him but didn’t depart immediately, resting a hand on the surface to regain his wavering balance. A blind man would have easily seen how uncomfortable JD was around him, and yet anyone else may have acted better than Ezra had. The boy merely needs some space - yet the words were anything but reassuring.
After speaking with Josiah, he had been so confident in his abilities to speak the right words, to keep his presence minimal though understanding and his touch gentle, but the young man who had so surely burrowed his way into Ezra’s heart had outright refused his company. He had held back his anger, his disappointment, yet it was this hurt, this guilt that was tearing him asunder, disallowing him to draw in a breath that ceased to seize his throat.
Was the boy truly so ashamed that he could not endure being in the same room as he?
And did he believe that Ezra felt the same way?
Before Ezra could ponder those questions, Chris and Vin ambushed him with excellent news once he made the tiring journey downstairs: not only did they believe the perpetrator remained in their dusty yet somehow prosperous little town, they had two possible likely locations. Ezra’s instincts told him to follow the first and so he did, and was amply rewarded for his simple consideration. The two men failed to question his decision, following behind him at an adequate and considerate distance, wordlessly offering their support and likewise determination to enact justice on whomever had injured their youngest.
He was touched that the men had come to him without laying it upon themselves to take care of the situation, and this relayed to Ezra both the depth and severity of his feelings for JD, and how ultimately the men knew of, or at least suspected both. At this very moment, Ezra should have been wallowing away in the saloon, enjoying a game until he was summoned to ride out with the others to embark on some new treacherous assignment. He was automatically the last to be called for the so called ‘dirty work’: roughing up hooligans, subjecting himself to the conclusion of a brawl, engaging in menial tasks.
Ezra had halfheartedly endeavored not to display his more than ample concern for JD, yet Chris and Vin leaving this unfortunate though necessary job to Ezra only too sufficiently displayed just how hard he had fallen for the boy, without even realizing it himself until now. This was a time for action though, not a time for shame or embarrassment or the multitude of additional emotions those would inevitably result in.
He would be the one to take the man apart with his bare hands.
His target was at the bar in none other than the saloon, the fateful place where it had all begun, currently nursing his beverage of choice. Vin had nudged Ezra’s shoulder and pointed the hopelessly unfortunate soul out. Giving himself a necessary way out, Ezra’s gaze slid to the table where he usually sat, empty save for a sole chair. It was waiting for him should he choose to take it, to leave this mess behind and return to the man of only a day prior.
Yet even that day prior he had experienced uneasiness, as if knowing inherently where the next would lead him.
JD lay bleeding and nearly unconscious, shivering from the cold. His bloodied fingers clasped a ruined jacket, and its owner wanted to tear it into shreds for what it had wrought upon the young man. JD looked broken beyond repair, and the man who held him without a thought of or care for anything else in the world… his heart was breaking in turn.
Ezra stepped up to the bar and ordered himself a drink, which Inez delivered promptly before scurrying away. If he did not acutely know his two partners were close behind, that would have been a dead giveaway. He turned his attention again to the man two steps away, watching him warily, noticing how he appeared completely oblivious to his presence, or more likely the world around him.
While JD was healing, hiding, no doubt believing everything was his fault.
And what could Ezra do to convince him otherwise?
“Fine day,” Ezra related, throat tightening on his lie, which led to his insistence that he take an adequate swallow of his waiting drink. He already felt more sure of himself as the liquid slid down his parched throat. He could still feel JD’s hand in his own: limp and cold, fingers curled around…
The man glanced over at him before returning to his own drink, giving Ezra time to collect himself. You’re not alone. Larabee and Tanner are directly behind, ready to step in should you require assistance. Another swallow and then - pull yourself together, Standish. That last demand was somewhat more difficult to accomplish once Ezra noticed the man’s heavily bruised hands and the broken skin of his knuckles. Those hands had pummeled JD’s face until…
Chris had quickly told him on their way here that Nathan had acquired a description from JD, and even though he had been in far too much of a hurry to be privy to said description, Ezra knew deep down in his gut that this was the man who had nearly taken JD away from him. Away from all of them.
“I have failed to see you around these parts. What brings you to our fine town?” And what am I likely to get away with, with those two men behind?
The man shifted and it was all Ezra could do not to kick his legs out from under him. “Ain’t much in the mood for talk, Mister. How’s about ya leave me be and lemme get back to my drink?”
“And I,” Ezra slammed his glass down on the counter, “am not much one for rudeness.” His hand rested on the back of the man’s neck for no more than half a second before he shoved him down, hard, until his face connected with the counter. The man yelped, stringing a hurried line of obscenities as Ezra released him, allowing him out of the sheer kindness of his heart to clutch his face. The gush of blood spurting from his nose was immensely satisfying as he turned toward Ezra.
“Bastard,” the man snarled. “What the hell do ya think you’re…?” Even quicker than Ezra, Mr. Tanner graciously came within eyesight and drove his elbow into the man’s stomach. Once he curled in on himself, Ezra finally went for his legs, not satisfied even after their prize was sprawled on the ground, continuing to kick any part of him he could even remotely see through the rage that had consumed him, black tunneling into his vision until Vin put a hand on his shoulder, drawing him back from the carnage he was all too set to enact.
Chris was a step to the right of the tracker, pistol pointed at their prey’s face, barrel almost touching him, and Ezra realized he had entirely forgotten about the man’s likely firearm. He removed the hand from his side and Ezra kicked it for good measure.
The gambler stared down at the cowering figure in revulsion. “Clearly, your mother neglected to teach you manners. Fortunately, this town boasts the protection of seven men to help you correct that grievous error. One of which you have so rudely taken it upon yourself to injure.”
The man looked back and forth between them in false confusion, that is, until Ezra raised his boot again. “He provoked me!” He protested, glancing back and forth at the three men with nervousness now. He was quite literally backed into a corner as he was still sprawled on the ground, wedged up between the counter and their intimidating leader’s pistol. Ezra would have expected more of a fight from a man of his size, though it most likely had to do with the solid bodies of Mr. Larabee and Mr. Tanner behind him, each clearly as furious as Ezra was. “There ain’t no proof that jacket was even his.”
Ah, so the man had tried to abscond with his beloved jacket. And JD, fool that he was, had not possessed the will to allow it to happen. Pride washed over Ezra despite JD’s gross sense of injustice: the theft of a jacket for god’s sake, and that pride was due to the sheer courage the boy had over a man nearly three times his size. And the argument he and the boy had shared… that had likely caused this.
Ezra would need many words to fix this tragic error or - as Josiah would inform - merely a few right words.
“Correction,” Ezra’s hand closed around the man’s throat, squeezing. “The jacket is mine.”
“Finely tailored,” Chris said, hard stare fixed on the man’s filthy, weather-beaten clothes in disgust.
“And fits like a charm,” Vin further backed him up. The tracker kicked the man’s legs out from under him when he pulled them up, and he slumped back against the counter.
Ezra’s hand released his throat, though dreadfully it allowed the man to speak again. “Finders keepers,” he sneered, though it appeared more as a hideous smile with the blood continuing to spill forth from his nose. “Found it draped over the chair over there. So ya fools got no right to keep me here. Got rid of it too, damn jacket never gave me so much trouble.”
Part of what had upset Ezra so much about the loss of his jacket was because he never let it out of his sight, and if so, then for no more than a moment. Even despite this fact, Ezra could tell he was lying through his teeth, an observation which Vin seemed to make as well. “Ya got some nerve, scum. Goin’ after a man’s property like that. Don’t matter if it’s his horse or his boots.”
“Fine.” He recoiled as Vin moved closer. “But that kid couldn’t ‘uv been the law in town. He weren’t no older than sixteen.”
Ezra paled. He had looked even younger lying on the dirt in that alley.
Chris growled. “You’re gonna get a bullet in your gut if you don’t quit with all your excuses. Law’s respected in a town like this, and ain’t no one above it.”
If any one of them had been attacked then the response would be the same, but it seemed a great deal harder to Ezra, and no doubt to Chris and Vin that it was their youngest member. Each one of them looked after JD in their own way, scolding him or providing him with advice or looking after him when his spirits failed to be at their usual, annoyingly high point. Going after JD… it was a deeper cut, and it could be seen in the way Chris gripped his gun, hands bleached white with strain, and it was written all over Vin’s usually shy features and in his stance. It was the slow but sure chipping away of youthful exuberance and innocence.
It was an attempt to snuff out JD’s light, which burned brightly in them all now.
A wad of blood was spat out near Ezra’s polished boots. “Left ‘im alive, didn’t I?”
Vin hauled him up and pushed him toward the door, Ezra and Chris following close behind. “That’s more’n I can say fer you if ya don’t get the hell out but quick.” His murderous glare chilled even Ezra’s heart, which he had believed turned to stone during this encounter.
Ezra’s own threat was boiling inside him. “You, horrid sir,” he raged, his fists aching to destroy the man’s face despite knowing it would never make him whole. “You best be on your way before I award you with a one way ticket to death’s door.”
Vin shoved him out into the cool night air, the man nearly slamming into Josiah, who righted him with rough hands and a hard gaze of his own. The preacher, however, grinned up at the three of them, having caught Ezra’s threat. “Hear he’s stayin’ up tonight, waiting for more damned souls.” Ezra could have sworn the man shivered at that.
Josiah, meanwhile, looked toward Chris for instructions. “Make sure he gets the hell outta here, Josiah. Five minutes. Then you got my permission to kill ‘im.”
The oldest member of their group nodded and dragged the man away, Ezra’s heart pounding painfully all the while.
Ezra knocked on the door this time, allowing JD to decide whether he was allowed to enter. The boy appeared alarmed, sitting up as well as he could with the multitude of pillows at his back supporting his small frame, but he nodded once he laid back against those pillows again.
Not that he enjoyed the thought of an unattended JD, but he was eternally grateful Nathan was nowhere within sight.
“Sorry ‘bout last time, Ez. I just didn’t really feel well.” Neither did I. He walked to the window first and glanced outside for several moments, giving JD ample time to adjust. Reassured, he slowly walked to the bed and planted himself several inches away. “Look,” JD said nervously, gaze flicking back and forth between Ezra and the sheets. “I really am sorry for driving you out like that. You just wanted to see how I was and I had no right.”
You had every right.
“No need,” Ezra quickly replied, hand reaching out to stop JD from palpitating his head. He released him thereafter upon noticing the boy’s increased nervousness. “I have come to apologize for my own behavior. You see,” he paused, weighing his words carefully, and JD staring at him so intently, as if hanging on his every word, spurred him on. “I am quite unsure when it comes to you. Mr. Jackson might have informed you that I stumbled upon you lying in the alleyway…,” he paused, waiting unnecessarily for the boy’s small nod before continuing. “And it upset me very much so, enough that I have been at a loss for words and for… anything truly. Gambling will not appease me, and drinking will not distract me. I believe I have exacerbated the situation in every way imaginable, both before it began and after, and your anxiety has only to do with my allowing you to feel it in the first place.”
JD appeared desperately as if he wanted to resort to his usual ‘huh?,’ but Ezra permitted him little space to answer. “If I hadn’t resorted to such a lack of professionalism and sheer rudeness in the saloon, then I might have explained the sentimentality of my jacket. It has value, yes, yet only because it was bestowed upon me by my dear mother, who has gifted me so little else during the course of my life. As often as the woman infuriates me, that particular item bears a piece of her that I did not dare wish to part with. Now that I have found time to reconsider, I feel quite differently, and it is you who has wrought this change upon me.”
The boy infuriatingly ignored the last part entirely. “You’re lucky then, I got nothing left of my ma. Nothing other than my memories anyway.”
“No, JD, you couldn’t be more wrong.” His knuckles tapped the pale skin under which JD’s heart still beat: strong and steady and fiercely. “Your mother will forever reside in here, encased in the most perfect possession of all, your heart.”
JD thought hard about that, eyebrows drawing together, and rather than have the boy torment himself for even a moment longer, Ezra cupped his cheek, bidding JD to come back to him. JD answered, a gasp escaping his lips when Ezra’s index finger trailed from his hairline down to his chin. He shivered, perhaps not entirely a result of the early morning chill, though Ezra still blindly adjusted the quilt which was slung low over JD’s hips. He pulled the soft fabric further up, if only to temporarily mask the bruises marring areas of JD’s stomach the bandages ceased to cover.
He could not quite face those yet.
JD could feel Ezra inching closer, crowding him back against the pillows. He didn’t feel much like bolting anymore anyway, and he wouldn’t ask Ezra to leave now, not when he had never seen this side of him before. Why was Ez telling him all this, and what was JD expected to do with it?
Whatever Ezra thought he was doing, JD didn’t feel like a kid anymore, like everyone else made him feel on a daily basis. He felt like something in Ezra’s eyes, almost like an equal, and while he didn’t know exactly what that something was, all he knew was he wanted more of it.
Ezra was leaning into him and there were just so many things JD wanted to say, things he didn’t know how to say. More than anything he wished his mama was with him now, giving him guidance, but hadn’t that been Ezra’s point just now? He wanted to tell her all about Ezra so much, about his voice that sounded like familiar places and the sunbeams in his eyes and the gold tooth glinting at him now, wanted to tell her all about Buck’s mother-henning and animal maggotism, and all about the other men who had taken him in too, and but he had to believe she was watching over him now.
He shot for something small and simple. “I don’t think you’ve ever called me that before.”
Ezra looked confused for a long moment before his lips quirked. “JD? Quite odd, as I’ve come to think of you by that name.”
“Probably ‘cause you’re an odd guy, Ezra.”
JD recoiled at those words until Ezra laughed, hand closing over JD’s as if it was the most normal thing in the world. JD could hear his mama now: Don’t push him away, hun. Funny, that was all JD could seem to do lately. Maybe it was because Ezra had pushed him away that day in the saloon, the day he believed he had lost Ezra as a friend, as a member of his new family and maybe even as a partner in one fell swoop. If the gambler was trying to dupe him now… JD didn’t have the capacity to understand why.
Ezra patted his hand, jerking him out of his thoughts. “Would you prefer I continue referring to you as Mister Dunne? Perhaps son or young man? Kid perhaps?”
“Hell no,” JD spit out, and Ezra ended up laughing again. It was one of the happiest sounds JD had ever heard, ranking right up there with his mama’s laugh, which sometimes he missed more than anything else in the world.
Obeying his mother, he let Ezra keep his hand, releasing a breath once he realized how nice it felt. Ezra’s hands likely wouldn’t have been calloused, doing the least work out of all of them, but JD hadn’t expected them to be so soft either. He didn’t think any less of Ezra for his usual hobbies instead of doing his job and patrolling the town, or any of the number of other things that constantly needed doing. There was a lot about Ezra that fascinated him, whether it was card tricks, the strained relationship he had with his mother, or that damn jacket he was so fond of.
Might as well get it over with and hope for the best. Thanks again, mama. “Ezra, about the jacket. You see… I uh…,” he cleared his throat, willing himself to look up at Ezra but unable to do anything but stare down at the quilt. “I saw the guy wearin’ it and I couldn’t…,” he broke off, swallowed, wanted Ezra to leave and stay at the same time. Why the hell does this have to be so damn hard. “I couldn’t let him have it,” he swallowed hard to prevent himself from choking again. “So please, Ez, don’t kill me over it. I know it was dumb, one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done, but you told me how much it meant to ya and I got to thinkin’ that maybe it would fix things ‘tween us and I didn’t think, hell, guess sometimes I don’t really think but I…”
Ezra’s arms wrapped around him then, almost squeezing the life out of him and choking off the rest of his not carefully enough rehearsed words. JD tried to breathe in deep, coughing in the process, and Ezra relaxed his hold just enough for him to move and get comfortable again.
The words whispered into his ear next were serious, but JD could read the affection in them too. It was so unlike Ezra… to say what he was saying, to actually give him a hug, but that didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate all that Ez was trying to do for him. “As appreciative as I am of your successful endeavor, if you ever pull a stunt like that again then I will ensure that Mr. Wilmington knocks some sense into that damn foolish head of yours.”
JD’s eyes widened at that, though Ezra’s smile when he pulled back to allow him to fully breathe again was playful. Still, JD didn’t doubt he’d make good on his offer, or at least tell one of the others so that they could. “And you?”
“And I, well, I have far too many concerns on my mind. Half of which involve thanking you.”
For what? “For a ruined jacket?” Ezra gave him a look that was meant as a scolding, but then gave him a peck on the cheek to deny that fact. He wondered whether Ezra’s small smile had to do with JD’s surprise at that brush of lips against his cheek rather than disgust. Then again, he didn’t really have any experience to feel anything other than surprise. “Ez... really, you didn’t need to come here just to thank me.”
“I assure you, JD, there is considerably more underlying my intentions than merely expressing my humble appreciation for your heroic success in acquiring my second most prized possession.”
“Huh?” JD had finally managed to fit the word in, trying to take in even half of what Ezra had just said, though he was also distracted by what Ezra meant by second.
“And yet I suspect the act wasn’t entirely humble on your behalf,” Ezra finished. “A man is not blind to favors, especially exaggerated ones.” And JD suddenly wondered just when he had jumped off of Ezra’s luxurious stagecoach, having absolutely no clue what the heck the gambler was talking about. “If I were not as sure as I am of your interest, then I would not be pulling you where I want to go, John.”
Okay … so that just happened.
JD bit down hard on his lip, drawing blood, and Ezra’s thumb pried it loose from his teeth, wiping the blood away. “Ez, you don’t mean…, you can’t possibly mean….” He had thought about Ezra seeing him all this time now, seeing the real him. He had thought about being the one to break Ezra’s mask so that he could see the real Ezra too. And sometimes when he lay in his bed at night thinking of his mama, he would think about Ezra saying so many damn intelligible words that it served as the perfect distraction, Ezra sitting beside him shuffling his cards, Ezra’s arm wrapped around him and pulling him close.
He had thought about so many things, not kisses exactly but other things, and he wanted to tell Ezra all the ones he could remember, but judging by the sparkle in his eye and the relaxed curve of his mouth, he already knew.
How could he have already …?
“Share my bed with me tonight, John? You already have my heart.”
JD grinned, deciding to keep his own feelings simple as he grabbed Ezra’s mouth with his own. Accidentally biting the gambler’s tongue, he pushed back to catch his exasperated smile, watching Ezra wipe his mouth off on the back of his hand, smearing blood on the skin. JD cringed, but also figured he was the best person at this point to ruffle a few of Ezra’s perfectly preened feathers.
“Love ya too, Ez.”
JD Dunne was happy.
He patrolled his town - his home - almost at leisure, though that was a lot to do with all seven men in town just as it should be, even more so to do with Buck perched nearby watching the ladies walk past, turning his head away politely at some and tipping his hat at a few. He always felt safer with Buck around, and more sure of what he was doing too. JD watched him out of the corner of his eye a while before approaching, once he realized Buck wasn’t gonna ‘catch any’ if he hadn’t yet.
Buck greeted him with a smile as wide as the space between his legs this morning, and JD knew the man wouldn’t be content if he didn’t take a break and take the spot Buck had just carved out for him specifically. Just as he was always happy to see Buck, he was always thrilled when Buck was happy to see him too.
“Heard Ezra’s lucky jacket got trampled on.” Buck grinned, though his amused eyes didn’t beg JD for further details. “It gonna survive to fight another day?”
“Oh….” JD looked across the street, blushing - and hoping Buck didn’t catch it - when Ezra caught his gaze and held it for a long minute before stepping into Mrs. Travis’ place. JD then remembered that he was picking up the jacket today, and because of it he wasn’t even bothered by Buck only figuring he had the whole story. “I think it will.”