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"Gentle Reader"

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“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother. I shall always delight to meet an ass after my own heart when I have finished my travels.”
― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

"Virtue never has been as respectable as money."
― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad


"I cannot believe you actually enjoy this nonsense." Ezra shook his head as he tossed the book back onto the table. "The man is an utter bore."

"I like him," JD said, picking up the book. "Oh! And this one is the one about traveling in Europe – can I borrow it when you finish?" He looked at Chris, toying with the book.

Chris nodded, puffing on his cigar. "Be a couple of days, if things stay as quiet as they have been."

"I'm not certain that we should hope for that," Ezra said with a sigh. "Perhaps some trouble would remind you that life's too short to read this – this - " He waved one hand in the general direction of the book.

"I find him to be a good judge of human nature," Josiah said from his seat further down the table. "Doesn't seem like the type to be easily swayed."

"Or parted from his money?" Nathan asked, sipping on a beer.

"That, too," Josiah grinned.

"That why you don't like him, Ezra?" Vin asked, leaning back in his chair so that his shoulders brushed against the saloon's wall.

"I do not like him because he's full of himself," Ezra answered shortly. "He's very critical of – well, everything. This very book is a diatribe against the greatest countries of the world, Italy, France, Austria, and even the Holy Land itself."

"How do you know if you ain't read it?" Vin asked, and Chris hid his smile in his beer. Vin might not be able to read himself, but he was still smart enough to understand the basics. And to call Ezra on them.

Ezra rolled his eyes, but he took a sip of whiskey before answering. Stalling. "Book reviews," he said shortly. "And word of mouth from those who have already read it. I do not always spend my days - "

"And nights," Josiah threw in, earning a glare for himself from Ezra.

" - in the company of the unrefined."

"Who's unrefined?" Buck asked as he walked up to the table, carrying a mug of beer.

"Those of us who like Mark Twain," Josiah answered.

"That writer guy?" Buck dropped into a chair beside JD. He set his mug on the table top then reached over and took the book from JD's hand.

"One could call him that, in a certain light," Ezra agreed.

"I read that story he wrote about the jumping frog," Buck said. "Man sure knows how to tell a tale. Heck, he's almost as good as me!"

Chris almost choked on the beer he was drinking. Fortunately, JD was squawking at the other end of the table about Buck's ego and his own memory of the story at issue. Hopefully no one had seen him -

Vin's hand was firm but not painful as it slapped Chris between the shoulder blades. Across the table, Ezra watched him with one eyebrow raised, even as he listened to the argument between JD and Buck concerning Buck's story-telling prowess.

The rest of the evening passed as most do. Buck was the first one to wander away, on his nightly quest for a warmer, more crowded bed than the one he had in the boarding house. When a group of newcomers wandered in, Ezra pulled out his deck of cards and offered them entertainment. JD went along also, interested in one of the men who claimed to be from Boston.

Josiah and Nathan called it a night soon after dark, Nathan reminding Vin of a plan to go herb-hunting at dawn. Vin nodded, finished his beer, and then rose silently, nodded to Chris, and vanished into the night as well.

Chris sat alone for a time, thinking about the evening, then he gathered up the book, slipping it into his coat pocket. With a nod to Ezra, he headed to the boarding house.

It was a pleasant evening, the heat of the day giving way to a warm evening, but a breeze was blowing in gently from the desert. He opened the windows in his room, stripped down to his longjohn bottoms and washed off the dirt and sweat. Then, pouring himself a measure of whiskey from the bottle he kept on hand, he lay down on the turned-down bed, the sheets cool, and opened the book.

He wasn't aware of falling asleep, but the minute the door knob turned, he was awake, his gun in his hand. The book fell from his chest onto the bed nearby, several pages bending at the corners as they landed against the sheet.

The door opened slowly, the hallway outside too dark to show the newcomer. But as Chris watched, he noted the silence from the town itself, the stillness that suggested it was very late, or very early, almost everyone returned to their rooms.

So it was no real surprise when Ezra slipped in through the opening, his hat in his hand as he closed and locked the door behind himself. Chris slipped the pistol back into the holster that hung over the headboard of the bed, then he reached for the glass of whiskey. He downed what was left in it as Ezra put his hat on the dresser than slid out of his jacket. He hung it carefully over the back of a chair near the door, then he unbuttoned his vest, placing it gently over the coat. His tie was next, then, as he fussed with the cuff links hidden in the ruffles of his white shirt, he said quietly, "A most profitable evening. A shame you didn't stay."

"How much you take off JD?" Chris asked, settling back in the pillow and watching as Ezra shrugged out of his shirt, then with quick efficiency, out of the arm rig. It was a fine show to watch, one he had become accustomed to as of late. And this was one of the highlights – the part where Ezra stood in his silk undershirt, the curve of his muscles catching the soft light of the lamp. He still wore his holster, the gun hanging low on his thigh. There was a sort of strange eroticism in the way he looked, half dressed but still heeled.

"Not much," Ezra smiled, his gold tooth flashing in the shadows. "He's becoming more proficient."

His hands fell to the buckle of the holster belt, his fingers pulling slowly on the tongue. He was teasing, they both knew it, but Chris didn't care. He couldn't take his eyes off of Ezra's nimble fingers as they separated the two ends of the belt, slowly drawing it off his hips. He turned, buckling the belt again then dropping it over the post of the headboard opposite Chris'.

His hands fell to the buttons of his trousers, tugging them open with ease. They dropped to the floor and he bent over, picking them up, folding them in half and putting them on the chair. He turned back to the bed, dressed now only in a matching silk undershirt and longjohns. Chris just looked at him, enjoying the combination of masculine lines and the nicely rounded curves of toned muscles. The first time he'd seen Ezra this way, he'd thought himself sick, perverse. Now, he thought he couldn't live without this.

Ezra stepped to the bed, then, with a frown, he leaned down and picked up the book that was still beside Chris. "I thought you liked this book."

Chris grinned, stretching out his arm across the pillow as Ezra settled onto the bed beside him, looking at the book. "I thought you didn't," he countered.

Ezra glanced up for a second, his eyes meeting Chris'. "The man is an ass," he said, but he smiled again.

"A consummate ass?" Chris asked, but he, too, was smiling.

Ezra laughed. "You have been reading. 'I shall always delight to meet an ass after my own heart'."

Chris touched the book even though it was closed. "You marked it with a pencil."

Ezra shrugged. "I marked several things." He flipped through the book, the pages making a 'whoofing' noise as they fell against each other. It was a little like the noise Ezra's cards made when he shuffled them. "Ah, here we go – the most important thing the man has yet to say: 'Virtue never has been as respectable as money.' Truer words were never spoken. Or, in this case, written." He held out the book to Chris, smiling.

Chris shook his head, glancing at the page and then back to Ezra. "Why did you lie, then? Why deny that you like his writing?"

Ezra tilted his head. "Tell me, what, exactly, have we ever agreed on? Outside this room, I mean."

Chris frowned, the idea winding around in his mind. Before he could answer, Ezra leaned back in the pillow, back against Chris' arm.

"We agree on very little," he said, his voice both amused and sad. "We especially agree on very little when it comes to our entertainments."

Chris turned slightly, so that he was looking at Ezra. The weight of his body against Chris' arm was familiar, comfortable. "So – why is that a problem? We can't agree on what we like to read?"

Ezra made a noise that sounded something like a 'tut tut'. "We can agree that we like – or don't like – Plato, or Edward Bulwer Lytton, or even Charles Dickens. They're classics, everyone has read them, or at the least, has heard of them. But modern writers . . . " He sighed and leaned back, closing his eyes.

It was a comfortable feeling, having Ezra warm and relaxed against him. Ezra's hair was dark against the white pillow, his skin golden in the lamp light. The idea of chocolate and butter and sweetness drifted through Chris' mind and came to rest on his tongue. Without a real thought, he leaned over, finding Ezra's lips with his own.

The kiss was almost sweet enough, Ezra tasting of liquor, better than Chris' own, with a sweetness of long fermentation. Ezra's tongue was warm and welcome and the kiss itself was almost as sweet as the flavor of it.

As it naturally ended, Chris settled on his sided, facing Ezra. "You ever been to Europe?" he asked, surprised that the question had never come up before.

Ezra frowned, looking back to the book he was still holding. "I spent a summer in Paris – long ago and at a time when I was not of age to appreciate all it had to offer. I would certainly love to go back, or to anywhere else in Europe. The Old World is so much more . . . " He tilted his head, his gaze becoming slightly less focused as he searched for the word.

"Virtuous?" Chris offered. His right hand was resting on Ezra's chest and he could feel the slow, regular beat of his heart.

Ezra grinned again, glancing to Chris. "That's one word," he said. "Have you ever thought of going abroad? Traveling?"

Chris snorted, but with amusement. Later, it would surprise him that his first thought had been at the idea itself, not at the idea of what he would be leaving, not at the idea of all the things left here, unfinished, but at the idea of heading to a far away place that he barely thought of most days. "Reckon I get enough adventure here."

"But what about the history?" Ezra asked, turning his head on the pillow to watch Chris' face. "What about the culture, the architecture, the art, the - "

"People?" He rubbed his fingers along the silk of Ezra's undershirt, appreciating its softness.

Ezra sighed. "They are different people," he said defensively. "Your reputation might take a while to catch up with you – especially if you don't wear your guns. There are places in the world where a gentleman doesn't go about ready to shoot it out over a disagreement."

Chris moved his hand to touch the inside of Ezra's elbow. There were calluses there, from the years of wearing the rig. "You saying that you wouldn't walk around with your pea shooter?"

Ezra shrugged, his arm moving under Chris' touch. "One should always be prepared. Even in the most civilized of places, people can be most uncivilized." He closed the book and set it on the edge of the dresser, nearby. "It would be nice, though, to travel to places where no one knows us, places with good food and comfortable beds, and all that beauty and history."

"We got that, here," Chris answered, tugging Ezra against him. "We don't have to leave the territory to find all that – hell, we could go up to San Francisco or down to Mexico City or - "

"That's hardly the history I was talking about," Ezra cut in, but he lifted one hand, touching the bare skin of Chris' chest. "Rome has thousands of years of history – great emperors who ruled all of Europe and even further, buildings that are older than this country - "

"Older than Europeans have been in this country," Chris cut in. "Vin says - ". "

"I'm talking about our ancestors," Ezra interrupted in retaliation. But there was no more heat in his words than there had been in Chris'. His hand stroked along Chris' bare flesh, touching with the ease and familiarity of long practice.

"You're talking about taking a long, expensive trip to places you've only read about." He kissed along Ezra's jaw, welcoming the roughness of the late-night bristle.

"I'm talking about the two of us trapped on a boat together, sharing a state room with no one questioning it – then sharing hotel rooms, and dinners, and operas and all the luxuries of a places where no one cares that we're doing – this."

'This' was another long, deep kiss that ended with more skin touching skin and the silk undershirt somewhere on the floor.

"Twain didn't seem to think much of the Europeans," Chris said as he tugged at the band of Ezra's longjohns.

"Really? I read that more as not thinking a lot of Americans in Europe," Ezra countered, one of his hands already trespassing into more private space.

"And you worried we'd agree on the book?" Chris asked.

"I worried that if we both liked it, we'd end up with others wanting to travel the world with us."

"Like JD?" Chris' breath caught at the end, not at the thought but at the feel of Ezra's fingers wrapping perfectly around the proper place.

"He would be the best choice, I suspect," Ezra answered, but the words were breathy. "He would hardly notice what we do. But if he went, Buck would have to go. And we can hardly share this," his fingers tightened and Chris barely managed to catch the groan of pleasure which would have drowned out Ezra's next words, "with Buck under our feet."

There were arguments to be made to this, but at this moment, Chris didn't care. The heat and passion overwhelmed every other thought, and he gave himself over to it with an ease and desire that no longer gave him second thought.

Afterward, tangled together and drowsy, Ezra said, "He could be a great writer one day."

"Yep," Chris agreed through a yawn. "Think he'd do better to write about things here than things abroad."

"Perhaps," Ezra said, shifting slightly to move closer to Chris. "Shall I start saving for our trip to Italy?"

Chris smiled, closing his eyes. "Best wait and see what JD thinks of the book."

"Oh, I'm certain I can persuade him that it's not all you think it is. After all, he's not a consummate ass, or even an ass after my own heart," Ezra said.

"No, there's only one ass after your own heart," Chris agreed, slipping into sleep.