Disclaimer: Not mine, though I wish to have Ezra to myself. Even Chaucer didn't belong to me.
Summary: Ezra is leaving after his thirty days, though he has a good reason.
Author Note: Please forgive me for my English, as it's not my first language.
His thirty days were over.
For once in his life he was torn; a dilemma between staying in town for the man with whom he was secretly in love, or leaving for a very different cause.
Ezra Standish had no doubt that some of the others would figure that he had finally run out of them if he left. After all, it's what everyone had been expecting him to do from the start.
The gambler walked toward the jail to collect his pardon, keeping his head down out of a strong desire not to have to look any of his partners in the eye. To his relief, no one was there. He found a sealed document with Orin Travis's name and his own printed upon it, waiting on the desk.
Somehow, having the paper in hand made things both easier and more difficult. He had no legal excuse to stay, and he was not sure his personal reasons for wanting to stay were enough.
Ezra loaded Chaucer's saddle, and then mounted his horse and left the town, trying to ignore the fact that he was literally riding into the sunset. Apparently people did not do such things only in bad dime-novels, after all. He would owe JD an apology next time he . . . but of course, he was not going to have the opportunity.
He was not stopping to say goodbye to anyone, afraid that if he did, he might never find the courage to go at all.
"Never expected to see the day when he'd actually be gone," Josiah mumbled, watching the black sheep of the group ride away with no looking back. He had stayed in the shadows, hoping Ezra would make the right decision on his own, and now he regretted not having said anything as he observed the rider's dejected posture in the saddle.
"Seems he finally ran out on us," Nathan said from beside the preacher.
"I am sure that you are pleased with the result," Josiah commented, the words sounding more than a little bitter even to himself. He left Nathan standing with a protest on his lips that dissolved into a sigh. Josiah walked to his church, not saying a word to Chris and Vin as he passed them.
The other men had also been watching the scene unfold.
"This is the first time he wouldn't face us," Vin muttered aloud. Finding Chris, Buck and JD looking at him, he shrugged. "It's true."
Chris Larabee only nodded, sighing heavily.
"Don't you think we should go after him and asked him to come back?" JD asked hopefully.
"It was his decision to make," Larabee said, taking a drag off his cigar.
"So? He made the wrong one. We should follow him and talk him into coming back home."
No one answered and the kid let the matter drop, unhappy but unwilling to go against the others.
Later, the six had gathered around the table that Ezra had once considered his own. JD couldn't hold himself back from repeating his earlier question. "Why can't we just go after him?"
"Because we can't, JD. We took upon ourselves to protect the town, Ezra left on his own without a word or even a note. We all knew that his thirty days were almost up, and even if we wanted him to stay, he was free to make up his own mind." Josiah explained.
Vin was listening to the exchange in silence. He didn't wish to believe that Ezra hadn't really cared for any of them. He knew better. After all, what was that phrase Josiah used sometimes?
Eyes are the mirror of the soul
Was Ezra hiding from them? Remembering how he had been avoiding looking anyone in the eye for several days, Vin was sure of it. But what could he do about it now? Ezra had left already.
They drank quietly, no one adding any more reasons why Ezra might have left or reasons why they might bring him back. Nathan was the only one who seemed to be even slightly happy, and even his self-satisfaction carried a hint of melancholy, as if he had not truly wanted to be proven right, after all.
Part 2: Missing
Vin sat in his wagon, and simply closed his eyes as images of Ezra ran through his mind.
He started with the Ezra he had always seen, smartly dressed and neatly groomed, brushing away dust that nobody else ever even saw. His thoughts moved up to center on Ezra's face, his bold green eyes and that particular grin that made his gold tooth glint; the one that always told Vin that Ezra was up to something.
Hesitating for a moment, Vin allowed memory to turn into fantasy. He tried to imagine how Ezra's body looked beneath all those clothes. Ezra was strong and fast, no doubt he had at least some muscle to show for it, and he always gave off a natural heat that made Vin want to stand closer to him and bask in that warmth.
Honesty compelled him to admit that he'd wanted to be close to Ezra for other reasons as well. Where had his courage, his honesty, been when he'd had the chance to do something about these feelings? Why did he not do anything now; track Ezra down, lay his cards on the table and make him come back?
Perhaps because he feared that Ezra would accept, almost as much as he feared he would refuse.
Vin was not sure when he had fallen for that wonderful mixture of southern charm and steely sarcasm, but he could not longer deny that it was true. Ezra made him laugh, cold talk to him in any mood, and his voice rang sweetly in Vin's ears, like a very peculiar brand of music.
The tracker could feel his cock hardening as he thought again of Ezra's body, and this time he did not try to squelch the emotion as he had every other time. If this memory was all he had left of Ezra, he wanted to experience it in full this time.
Moving his hand toward the sensitive bulge below his belt, Vin began to rub his cock through the material of his pants, not wanting to feel the roughness of his own palm as he imagined the touch to be Ezra's.
He rubbed his cock slowly, taking his time, until he could no longer hold back his release, and came hard, calling Ezra's name as he did so.
In the stillness afterward, Vin stared up at the stars overhead and wondered where Ezra had gone and why he had truly left in the first place. He knew that Ezra had felt at home here. And even if he really had wanted to go, it just was not like the gambler to do anything so quietly.
Vin tried to remember exactly how Ezra had looked as he left town. He had noticed that Chaucer seemed to be carrying more armory than usual, but had dismissed the observation. He owned a lot more guns himself than he usually wore, lots of men did, but Vin frowned as he realized something else. Ezra's extra weaponry had been the only extras on his horse. Shouldn't a man who was leaving town for good have been carrying extra provisions, maybe a carpet bag or two to carry all those clothes Ezra loved so much?
He told himself that he would wait and check Ezra's room at first light, but a niggling worry that something might be wrong was already gnawing at him.
He needed Ezra alive.
Somewhere at the same time...
Ezra made a camp, his eyes gazing over the horizon. He tried to plan his next move but his thoughts would not leave the man who had stolen his heart. Soon he gave up trying, wishing he could have explained his feelings to Vin, wishing he'd had just one opportunity to find out if any similar emotions burned in those melting blue eyes for him.
He had accepted that he was in love with Vin Tanner. That knowledge was part of the reason he had left. He had to do something for both of them even it meant leaving the only placed he had ever truly felt that he belonged. Leaving the one person that had managed to touch his heart.
The gambler missed Vin so terribly that he could felt the ache in his heart as a physical pain. If this worked, he would return to Four Corners and face whatever consequences his actions would bring from his companions, and whatever outcome revealing his feelings to Vin would bring.
He just hoped that he would be welcome back.
Part 3: News
It had been one month since Standish had gone.
The six men found that they still missed their conman, each in his own way. Chris missed the sharp, well thought out arguments and crazy strategies. Buck missed the gambler's reactions to his stories of conquest, and the hilarious tall tales of his own that Ezra loved to spin. Vin, in addition to his private longings, missed having the opportunity to watch his friend's back when he played poker, and have Ezra watch his own while he scouted. JD missed Ezra's stories about the past when he and his mother had travelled from place to place, and the wisdom that he had always been willing to share without condescension. Josiah had no one to talk with about philosophy and other subjects that had only interested the two of them. Nathan had no one to fuss at about injuries, morals and general day to day living, realizing only now how much he had enjoyed those debates with Ezra.
Mary. Travis walked toward the saloon where the six men had gathered after a fight with some local troublemakers. She held a piece of treasure in her hands, and wanted them to know.
When they noticed the Mrs. Travis standing in the saloon, all six straightened, immediately feeling that something had happened.
"Is there anything wrong?" Josiah asked.
"On the contrary, I bear good news for you, Vin." Mary was practically beaming with surprised excitement and joy as she handed the letter to Vin, who found himself taking it and just staring at the folded paper. Not even attempting to decipher the letters for himself, he handed his message to Chris.
"It's from Tascosa," Chris said. For a moment he looked reluctant to go any further, but Mary's continued smile encouraged him to keep reading.
"To Mister Vin Tanner,
It is my pleasure and privilege to inform you that your name has been cleared of all charges in the matter of the abduction and murder of Mr. Jess Kinkaid, on the date of 14-April, 18xx.
A witness has come forward with the confession of having been accessory to one Eli Joe Hollings during the event in question. Corroborating evidence has been provided to support his claim. As of the writing of this letter, all charges against you are hereby dismissed and it is with sincere apology that the State of Texas offers you its most humble apology and regrets for the wrongs you have suffered. The bounty on your head is hereby cancelled and all outstanding warrants have been recalled by order of the Governor of Texas.
On a personal note, I must tell you that my believe in your innocence would never have been so strongly supported without the tenacity and strength of will exhibited by your friend, who went bravely out of his way to bring the guilty party to justice. It took a true gambler to play such long odds and emerge victorious, but per his own words, he knows a sure bet when he finds one. You're lucky to have such a friend on your side, Mr. Tanner.
Best of luck with all of your future endeavors.
By my hand and seal . . .
The Hon. Judge Elias Washburn, 3rd district court of Texas."
Chris's voice faced as he read the final words, unsure how to feel as he allowed the magnitude of this simple letter to wash over him, seeing the same amazement and slowly growing happiness shining in every face. A wide grin, the likes of which few people ever saw on the face of Chris Larabee, slowly broke over his face.
"You did it, Vin. You're a free man."
Vin looked like he wasn't sure whether he wanted to laugh or cry, the expression on his face settling somewhere in the neighborhood of pole-axed.
"What was that part about your friend?" JD pressed. "You don't think . . .?"
"Ezra! It's got to be the reason why he left and didn't say a word," Buck declared, his bright grin widening still further. "He must have come across some information on this feller and decided to track him down personally."
"But why would Ezra go after him alone, with no backup?" Chris growled. "Didn't he know we'd want to help him?"
"Pard, he might not have wanted our help. We haven't exactly treated him with a lot of trust," Buck argued back.
Vin stood abruptly and left the table without saying a word.
"Vin?" Nathan called. "Wait, where you going? This calls for a celebration, don't it?"
Chris stared after Vin, seeing him launching up the stairs three at a time. There had been a strange look in his eyes. "I think that he's gone to check Ezra's room."
"Well, what are we waiting for?" Buck stood up, grinning as he hurried upstairs after Vin. Immediately, the other men stampeded after him.
"I knew it!" they heard Vin's voice shout.
"What?" Josiah's excitement faded as he entered the room and found it empty. At Vin's shout, he had somehow expected to find Ezra back home where he belonged. "What is it, Vin?"
Vin gestured around the room. "Look around you. It's all still here. All of Ezra's things, everything but his guns and whatever would fit in two saddle-bags." He abruptly sat on the edge of Ezra's bed, bringing a puff of dust up from the bed that had lain unused for several long weeks. "I told myself to come up and make sure, but I kept putting it off."
"If you didn't verify whether he was coming back, you didn't have to believe that he wasn't," Josiah said, the understanding in his voice enough to tell everyone that he had been doing something similar himself.
JD repeated Chris's question from earlier. "Why didn't he ask for our help? He had to know he was going into serious trouble if he took all his guns along. Shouldn't he at least have told Vin?"
"He didn't know if he'd succeed, and he wouldn't have wanted to risk Vin's life," Nathan said, surprising them all with the certainty in his voice. "He better not have got himself hurt doing such a damn fool thing, or I will kill him."
"You better not, Nathan, because he will have to deal with me first." Chris told him with a grin still marking his face.
Vin grinned back at the exchange, but his heart was hammering. His head spun with the enormity of what Ezra had done for him. Such a risk must surely mean that Ezra had come to regard him as more than just a friend, a 'compatriot' as he liked to put it.
But if that was so, then why hadn't Ezra come back to deliver the good news personally?
Part 4: Home is where the Heart is...
The road back was longer than he ever remembered it being before. His hand moved to press against his side as the pain seemed to grow with every step his horse took.
'Just a little longer... just a little longer...' Standish urged himself, not wishing to lose consciousness.
He hadn't even felt the bullet at first, so intent on getting back to Four Corners and the man who had increasingly haunted his dreams over the past few endless weeks. It had made the sudden pain even more excruciating when his shocked nerves had finally registered the impact.
Ezra had known when he went after the man who had helped Eli Joe commit murder and set Vin up for it, that there might be more of the gang to worry about, but he had been convinced that he'd incapacitated them all right up until the moment when the blood began pouring out of his body.
He had fired back, dimly hearing the grunt as his bullet struck, but he had not dared to stop and take a closer look. The lack of further shots behind him had been enough to make Ezra hope that he had finally seen the last of the gang.
Now he only had to keep moving forward. After all he had done, he could not let go his grip on life without seeing Vin's reaction to knowing that he had regained his own life. Without making sure that Vin knew why he had taken such a risk; without letting him know that he was loved.
The blood kept seeping from the wound, but Ezra couldn't maintain his hold on the saddle any longer. He fell toward the hard dirty road and the pain became too much to bear.
Everything faded to black.
Vin looked up from the branch he was idly whittling on, glancing up the street for a familiar horse, as he had been doing for hours. The other men had not bothered him, seeming to realize that he did not want to talk just yet, but hovering in his vicinity just the same.
For a moment, Vin thought it was his imagination supplying the image of Chaucer as he glanced toward the horizon. Then he realized that the familiar animal's saddle appeared to be soaked with blood.
JD charged outside as he heard Vin's frantic shout, yelling for the others as he also recognized the horse.
Within minutes, having led Chaucer to the livery and determined that none of the blood was his, six men rode out in search of their missing friend.
Barely a mile from town, Vin drew to a halt and threw himself from Peso's saddle to kneel beside the still, bloody form of Ezra. The gambler was so bloody and still that Vin was almost afraid to touch him, afraid that he might already be too late.
With shaking hands, he reached out to touch Ezra's pale skin, barely registering the presence of the other men as the dismounted and came to join him.
"Vin, is he alive?" Nathan voice cut through Vin's preoccupation like a knife.
"I think so, I just don't know," he replied helplessly. "I can't find a heartbeat."
As gently as he could given the urgency of the situation, Nathan shoved Vin aside and pressed his fingers to the pulse point at Ezra's throat. He held his breath, for a moment finding nothing, and then breathed a great sigh.
"Well?" Chris demanded, the tension too great to wait any longer.
"He's still with us... but I don't know for how much longer," Nathan admitted sadly, pressing his hands to the wound in Ezra's side. "I could barely feel his heartbeat, but this wound is still bleeding. Only one hole. I think he's still got the bullet in him."
Vin leaned forward to whisper something to Ezra's ear.
"What did you say to him?" Chris asked, frowning thoughtfully at the devastated look on Vin's face.
"Nothin' anyone else needs to hear," Vin said flatly. He gave Nathan a steady look, visibly steeling himself to hear the truth. "Is he gonna die?"
Nathan apparently also saw something of what Chris had, for his voice was unexpectedly gentle as he replied, "Not if I can help it. Josiah, get him up in the saddle with you."
"I could get a wagon," JD offered.
"No time," the healer snapped. "We need to get him back to town right now so I can get that bullet out."
Somehow, no one looked surprised when Vin said, "I'll take 'im with me."
Not bothering to take the time to argue, Josiah carefully lifted Ezra's still body in his arms, he, Buck and Nathan each helping to lift the gambler as gently as possible into the front of Vin's saddle as the tracker remounted and wrapped Ezra close against his chest with both arms.
Chris took the reins of Vin's horse and JD secured Ezra's. Together, the seven men travelled as fast as safely possible back to town. Once they arrived, the three taller men again took charge of Ezra, taking him out of Vin's saddle and up the clinic stairs like the experienced team that the were.
Over an hour later, Nathan emerged from behind the curtained area he used as a surgery and found the other five all anxiously waiting word on their friend's condition.
The fear in their eyes was unmistakable, and Nathan wished he could offer a guarantee but the best he could do was, "He's holding on, for now. I got the bullet out, but it had a lot of dirt in it and he's already running a pretty good fever. The amount of blood he lost didn't help."
The healer did not even attempt to talk them into leaving, even knowing that Ezra would not awaken for a long time. If he ever woke at all.
Six heads shot up, six bodies flinging themselves upright as the weak voice called out from the bed.
Vin was there first, taking Ezra's flailing hand anxiously between both of his own. "I'm here, Ezra. I'm right here with you."
"Forgive... me. Failed...I failed you..."
"No, you didn't, Ezra. You didn't fail. You come back to me. That's all I wanted. Didn't need all the rest."
Green eyes fluttered, searching, but it was obvious that Ezra was not really seeing them as lines of pain etched his face. "Wanted . . . tried . . . love . . ."
"He's passed out again," Nathan announced, answering the gasp of alarm that sounded from several people as Ezra tense body abruptly went slack. "We should leave him be, let him rest."
"I want to stay with him," Vin said quietly. "Just me alone."
"He needs taking care of," Nathan protested.
"And since when do you give a damn?" Vin snarled. "You always said he'd run out, that he didn't care about nobody but himself. He risked his life for me, Nathan. Maybe even gave it up, just to clear that bounty off my head! I'm stayin' with him, alone."
Josiah intervened, laying a comforting hand on Nathan's shoulder. "Let's leave them alone awhile, brother. I think they both need some time together."
In the saloon, JD was looking thoughtful. "They're pretty close, aren't they? I never really noticed before."
Knowledge passed from man to man. They had all seen what was happening with Vin since Ezra had left, and even more in the last day. It put Ezra's sacrifice for Vin in a whole new light. As their eyes met, all five realized that they had come to the same conclusion about the pair, and agreed silently to support them and to keep their secret safe.
Vin moved closer to cradle Ezra's face, then leaned forward to whisper in his ear. "You have never failed me. You've given me freedom, and you've given my heart a reason to fly. Please don't die, my love."
Ezra did not reply, nor did he magically regain consciousness at the sound of Vin's tender words, but he sighed softly and seemed to settle into deeper sleep. Vin smiled, dashing at a tear that had escaped to trickle down his cheek, believing that he had been heard and understood.
It was several long days and nights until the men finally saw Ezra's green eyes staring at them with full understanding of his surroundings.
Vin held a glass of water to Ezra's lips, assisting him as he had so often over the last few days. When he moved the glass away, Vin smiled. "Good to see you awake again, finally."
"Good . . . to be seen." Ezra grinned weakly.
"Standish," Chris greeted, trying not to sound angry as he continued, "what were you thinking, going off on your own with nobody to watch your back?"
Buck and Josiah both snorted back laughter when the gambler whispered, "I see your patience was not improved . . . by my absence."
Ignoring them, Chris leaned closer, resting his hand on Vin's shoulder as he did, partly to keep the annoyed-looking man from losing his temper, and partly to make sure that he had Ezra's full attention. "That was a damn fool thing to do, Ezra. You could have yourself get killed trying to clear that bounty. We might never have known what happened to you; why you left even."
"Wasn't runnin' out," Ezra murmured, eyes closing of their own volition. "Had to save . . . Vin. He deserves . . . better. Need him."
"Open your eyes Standish, I haven't finished talking to you yet," Chris ordered, unable to prevent the smile that twisted his lips when he saw Ezra struggling to obey the command.
Ezra pulled his heavy lids open with immense effort, unconsciously squeezing Vin's hand that was still entwined with his own.
"We need you both," Chris continued. "Forgive me for not saying this before, but you are one of my men, Ezra, same as the rest of them here. Thank you for what you did. I wish we hadn't made you feel that you needed to do it alone."
Ezra was speechless. He looked so astonished that everyone in the room grinned at the expression on his face. Ezra's eyes locked on Vin, then seemingly could not look away from whatever he found in those blue eyes.
A million words passed silently between them in the space of an eye-blink. When it was over, Ezra smiled the most peaceful, contented smile that any of them had ever seen, then closed his eyes and melted into a deep healing sleep.
One week later, Vin held Ezra closely as they cradled each other in the softness of Ezra's large feather bed. Ezra's still-tender wound would not allow for anything too rough or spirited yet, but as Vin's hands moved gently over the expanse of his smooth bare skin, Ezra sighed with pleasure.
"I've dreamed of this," Ezra murmured, sleepy and sated in the aftermath of the long slow round of lovemaking they had just finished. "But my dreams did justice to the reality of you."
Unable to help himself, Vin reached down to touch Ezra's cock again, massaging it gently in his hand and bringing a throaty sound of contentment from his partner. "Know what you mean." He kissed his shoulder and maneuvered him onto his side, spooning into Ezra's back and laying a light hand protectively over the recently healed wound. "Love you."
A contented sigh was Ezra's only response as he snuggled further into Vin's embrace, knowing this man would be there for him and watch his back, no matter what.
Vin knew that Ezra would do the same for him. He had proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt.