“Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared.” - Proverbs 22: 24-25
It wasn't the smartest thing he'd ever done – in fact, now that he thought about it, it might well be one of the stupidest. But the need to see him, to make sure he was, indeed, all right, had been building since Nathan had finally released Ezra to go back to his own rooms.
Now, Chris made his way slowly up the narrow stairway to the apartment that was Ezra's, located on the roof of the saloon.
He knew the way well. He'd been coming here for a long while, usually when the need grew too great to ignore, when the compulsion got to the point that he found himself picking fights with Vin or Buck or anyone of the others, just to have the excuse to hit someone. Ezra had been the one to figure it out – to figure him out. It wasn't what Chris wanted – in truth, it was something that he hated in himself.
But Ezra didn't, and that had made it less – horrible.
Now that Vin knew and seemed to accept it, the trip up these stairs had stopped seeming to wrong, so vile.
But now, this trip, those old feelings were back, the sense that he was betraying Vin, betraying himself. It wasn't stopping him though – in fact, it seemed to be pushing him along.
He paused when he reached the top, wiping his sweaty hands on his black coat. This – this was worse than anything else he'd done to Vin. He should turn, walk away, let this go now before it got any worse. Nathan said Ezra was doing okay, Nathan and Buck and Josiah were checking on him daily.
He wanted to turn around and go back down the stairs, out into the saloon and then through the doors and out to the street where his horse was waiting, already packed up with supplies, ready to head home. To the shack where Vin was working on expanding the fence on the far side of the corral. Home, where Vin was waiting.
But as he reached out to touch the wall, to brace himself to turn around in the narrow space, his hand brushed the door that opened into the hallway. It moved silently, the hinges well-oiled, and he found himself staring at the door to Ezra's bedroom. It, too, was cracked open, a blade of light reaching across the hardwood floor, drawing him in.
He resisted, though, trying to hold to what he knew was the right thing to do, the better thing to do. It left him caught, stranded here on the threshold, part of him drawn to the door ahead, the other part drawn to the door below. Undecided. Guilty. And angry.
"Nathan?" Ezra's voice was sharp, irritation, maybe, but Chris heard something else, a pitch that he'd never heard before. "How am I to rest with you constantly coming and going?"
The irritation also took on a harmony of whining, which Chris also knew, but even it had a pitch that was different and rang through the whole sound. Pain. Pain that was true pain, pain that Ezra didn't want.
The suspension broke, the pull of the outside, of his home, of Vin, giving way in a sudden flush of anxiety. A sudden concern that felt a lot like the concern he had for -
"Nathan? Is that you?" Ezra's voice was sharper now.
"It's me," Chris called as he heard the rustle of fabric. Ezra would be trying to get out of bed, which was the last thing he needed to do. The bullet had gone deep into his shoulder and Nathan had had to work to get it out. The bullet itself hadn't been deadly, but the blood loss, especially by the time the bullet was out, had been dangerous. "Stay in bed."
He was already moving down the hallway, the rap of his boot heels echoing off the wooden walls. Ezra had designed it this way, so that he would always hear people coming toward him. But it was annoying right now, each sound making him aware of how long the hallway was, how long it took to get to the other man.
For a second, he hesitated when he reached the bedroom door. But it was just a second. As he stood there, gazing through the small opening to the bed, he remembered Vin's bright eyes, his wide grin as he looked at Chris as Chris mounted up to ride into town this morning.
Then he heard a thud from inside the room and he pushed the door open. "Ezra? What the hell - "
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra said, but his voice was muffled. The bed was empty, the bedcovers turned back but the drape was wrong, pulled diagonally so that the far corner was hanging toward the floor. Toward the place where Ezra's voice came. "What are you doing here?"
Chris stepped into the room, sinking into the thick carpet that he tried hard not to love. Lately, he'd been having thoughts of getting something like it for the shack, thinking of how nice it was to get out of bed and not feel grit and rough boards under his feet.
Thinking of how nice it would be to roll around on the floor with Vin on something this soft.
That thought was distant at the moment, though, and it receded more when he reached the far side of the foot of the bed and saw Ezra. He sat on the carpet, his legs splayed in front of him. One hand was caught up in the bedcovers, twisting them tightly, while the other was still caught in the sling that Nathan was requiring him to wear. His gun lay off to one side, close to the arm with the sling.
He was wearing a loose pair of the lounging pants that Chris knew he slept in, but his upper body was more or less bare; the bandages were heavy, wrapped around his shoulder and his chest. In the process of extricating the bullet, Nathan had had to break a few smaller bones. The thick, tight bandages were as much to hold them in place as to control the bleeding.
"What the hell are you doing?" Chris asked, kneeling beside Ezra. "You're not supposed to be up."
Ezra's face was pale, almost white. Even his lips were bloodless, a light shade of pink that made Chris think of red clothes left too long drying in the sun.
"I wasn't expecting visitors," Ezra said. "I'm hardly prepared to receive - "
"I ain't a guest," Chris cut him off, pulling Ezra's hand out of the bedclothes. "Let's get you up."
"You most certainly are a guest," Ezra countered, but he let Chris move in close, draping his good arm over Chris' shoulders. "I can hardly entertain you in . . . any other way."
Chris had been bracing himself to lift, but at the words, he caught himself, startled. "What – no!" he said, turning his head to look at Ezra. They were so close that the brim of his hat brushed Ezra's hair, pushing it off his forehead. So close that he could see the gold flecks in Ezra's eyes, the light dusting of freckles over the bridge of his nose.
So close that he could see the confusion in the tiny wrinkles at the corners of Ezra's eyes and lips.
Chris drew a deep breath, then he went on more carefully. "I came here to see how you were doing," he said, measuring his words. "I didn't come for nothing else."
Ezra blinked and the lines in his face grew deeper, his forehead crinkling also. "You came here to check up on me? Did you think I was doing something - "
"I thought you were hurt," Chris cut in, annoyed. "I thought you were in bed, in pain, and I came to see how you were doing. Why is that so hard to understand?"
But even as he asked the question, he knew the answer. It had been eating at him for several days now, since he had come around the corner of the bank to find Ezra on the ground, blood soaking through his shirt and jacket, barely conscious, with one of the bandits standing over him and aiming his rifle for the kill shot. Chris hadn't even hesitated, shooting the man even as he'd run over to Ezra, dropping down to find to his great relief that the man was still alive.
It was afterwards, as things calmed down and the undertaker collected the dead and the living bank robbers were locked up tidely in the jail, as he'd paced on the porch outside of Nathan's, trying not to give into the temptation to open the door yet again, that he'd begun to wonder what he was doing and why.
It was more than just worry, more than just the concern they all shared for each other. It was – it was close to the way he worried over Vin.
"Well," Ezra said, his voice sounding thin, "I suspect that it's because it's unusual. Once I was out of danger, I didn't expect you to show up on my doorstep, just for a visit. Socializing is not one of your many interests."
Chris sighed, but there was little to be gained by arguing. "You ready to get back to bed?" he asked instead.
Ezra was weaker than Chris had expected, and it did take them a little time to get him to his feet then back into the bed. He was stoic, though, only the tightness in his jaw and the occasional inhalations of breath giving away the pain that he was in. It was an interesting contrast to their previous dealings with each other, but then, this was a very different sort of pain.
"Thank you," Ezra said as Chris pulled the bed covers over him, helping him tug them back into their proper place. "Does Mr. Tanner know you're here?"
Chris stiffened. "He asked me to check up on you," he said, which was true. Vin was concerned – they all were.
Ezra shifted, settling back into the pillows. They were covered in a cotton material, one that was soft and cool to the touch, as were the sheets, and they were also white, so much so that Ezra's features seemed to blend into them. It made the green of his eyes and the darkness of his hair all the more striking. "That's very kind of him," he said quietly. "But does he know that you are here?"
Chris glared at Ezra, several different answers running through his head. But none of them lit on his tongue before Ezra sighed and gave a slight nod of his head, looking away. "While I am highly flattered by your concern, as you can see, I am well enough. Now, if you don't mind, I - "
"Do you need anything?" Chris cut him off, trying to ignore the combination of relief and irritation that coiled through his belly. "Nathan says you need meat and greens for a while, to build up your blood. Vin's hunting – says he can get back with some deer meat for you - "
"He said that?" Ezra cut in.
Chris looked at him, holding his gaze. "Yes," he answered, keeping his voice even, his words measured. "He did say that. This morning, when he asked me to check up on you."
Ezra drew a slow breath, wincing when it was too deep and pulled at the wound. "Do you think he would be as generous if he knew you were here now?"
Again, too many words flooded his brain. This time, though, his mouth worked on its own. "Yes," he heard himself say. "He would." And as the rabble of thoughts in his head died down, he knew he was right. Vin would, because that was the way Vin was.
Ezra studied him for a time before he sighed. "Yes, I believe you're correct. He would." He rolled his head on the pillow, his forehead creased in either pain or confusion, but his lips twitched slightly as he sort of smiled. "Whatever shall we do with him?"
Chris found himself grinning as well, some of his tension leaking away. "Guess we should keep him."
Ezra's smile broadened for an instant, then turned down. "We?" he asked.
Chris swallowed, hearing his words in his head again. 'We'. He had said it. As if Ezra had a claim on Vin. As if he would willing share Vin with Ezra.
"Not to worry," Ezra said, and he smiled again, but this time it was different. This time, it was the smile Chris knew from their times together, the baiting, mean smile that warned of challenge. "As I have stated repeatedly, I have no designs on Mr. Tanner – though I must admit, I do see him in a different light now. Perhaps I was hasty in misunderstanding your attraction to him."
"Ezra." The word came out as a hiss, drawn from a part of himself that he couldn't control. He wasn't aware of moving, but his hand closed on the butt of his revolver, the cool wood soothing.
Ezra tilted his head to one side and his smile widened, a pale stretch of pink across his white face. "No need to get upset," he said. "He is, unquestionably, yours. Generous though his offer was, I know that he would regret it almost before anything happened. And while I can see a certain thrill in making him live up to his offer, I suspect that even I would regret the aftermath, the loss of his . . . " He hesitated and the smile slipped away. He was searching for a word, an event that Chris had rarely seen.
It was his turn to smile, because he knew the word Ezra sought, one that was very hard for Ezra's lips to form. "Friendship?" he said, his hand falling away from his gun.
The smile vanished as Ezra's lips came together in a moue of distaste. But the distaste wasn't in his voice as he said, "What a novel idea. Do you think he and I could ever be friends? That we could ever have enough in common to sit around chatting – oh, and perhaps sharing tips on fashion, books we've read, men we've slept wi - "
"This town and the people in it that you've saved?" Chris over rode him. "The good that you both have done here? The things we still need to do to keep this town safe?" He leaned down until he was in Ezra's face and the man couldn't look away from him. "The fact that he is willing to let the two of us do what we both need – want?"
He had the pleasure of watching Ezra look away, his distaste giving way to annoyance. But there was something else in his eyes, a softness that Chris wasn't sure he liked. "It was kind of you to come," Ezra said tiredly. "As you can see, I am fine. You may return home to your . . . your . . . to Vin," he choked out.
Then he closed his eyes, turning his head away.
Chris stared at him, the irritation fading as another thought eased into his mind. It seemed . . . it seemed as wrong as his own reasons for being here.
After a time, he sighed and turned to sit down on the edge of Ezra's bed. "I was worried about you," he said softly. "Scared the hell out of me, finding you there, bleeding. I thought – I thought - " He caught himself, forcing himself to breathe. Forcing himself to confront the thing he'd been avoiding. "Vin doesn't know I'm here. I didn't discuss it with him. It doesn't concern him."
Ezra's brow crinkled and slowly he opened his eyes and turned to look at Chris. "It does concern him," he said quietly. "Perhaps not where you are, no, but the fact that you are afraid to tell him. The fact that you, yourself, know that this is wrong."
Chris looked away, the guilt burning in his belly. But it wasn't stronger than the guilt he felt for the surrender in Ezra's voice. "It ain't wrong. Not the way you mean. I didn't tell Vin I was coming here, no. But I ain't cheating on him, either. He knows what we get up to. He knows that I . . . that I care about you."
It wasn't what he'd wanted to say – wasn't what he wanted to think. But as he wished he could recall the words, Ezra turned to look at him. His eyes were even softer now. "Do you?"
Chris sighed, wondering when this had all become so complicated. Once again, a number of thoughts ran around in his head, but the words that lighted on his tongue startled him. "Yeah, I do. I'm here, ain't I?"
Ezra stared at him then slowly, he smiled. "Yes, I suppose you are."
Chris shook his head, turning away. His gaze lighted on one of the prints on the wall, a still-life of flowers on a table which sat before an open window that looked out upon the sea. As he stared at it, wishing he could be in that room, smelling the salt and feeling the ocean breeze on his face, his hand drifted along the cool cotton fabric of the sheets to find Ezra's.
Slowly, Ezra's fingers curled around his own in the silence.