Disclaimer: The boys don't belong to me, and neither do the horses' names. I just went along with accepted facts.
Warnings: lotsa sap, angst and character reflections.
When I tell you now, I Mean Now! Chris roared, ruthlessly shoving the gambler. Ezra lost his balance and landed with a thud in the dirt, feeling like he´d been hit with a sack of potatoes. Ya got a hearin´ problem r some´in? Is that why you can´t even obey a simple order? Chris towered threateningly over him.
Chris, that´s enough. Buck firmly placed his hands on Chris´ chest and pushed him back.<p>
Chris would have none of it. What the hell´s your problem, Buck? He snarled at his old friend, slapping his hands away. Didn´ja see how close they were ta JD? He coulda been killed coz a this lazy bastard. We were all countin´ on him and he let us down. Again. He spat the last word like a bad taste in his mouth. Ezra visibly flinched.
Chris noted this with satisfaction. He turned furious green eyes back to the man blocking his way and was surprised to see his emotions mirrored in the normally happy blue eyes.
Goddamnit, Chris! Buck gave him a hard shove to emphasize his feelings. Chris stumbled back a few steps. He´s not Adam!
Everyone froze at the exclamation. Chris´ eyes narrowed dangerously. What did you say? He hissed.
Buck jabbed a finger at his chest. I know why you´re always pissed off at Ezra. I know why you ride him harder n the rest of us. I know why you get so fired up over every little thing he does wrong. Buck kept poking his finger at every statement. Coz he, Jab. Reminds ya, Jab. Of Adam! Every time ya look at him, you see how Adam would be grown up. Only what he does fer a livin´ ain´t what you´d want fer Adam. So each time he makes a mistake, you take it personally coz it reminds you of what kind of parent you were. It reminds you of your guilt that you weren´t able to save em and you take it all out on him. Buck stopped and took a deep breath, winded by his impromptu speech.
As he listened, Chris´ jaw clenched tighter and his eyes narrowed into slits. He reared back and swung a right hook at Buck´s jaw. The ladies´ man fell on his back.
JD was instantly at his side. Vin and Josiah grabbed Chris´ arms to keep him from going further. JD helped Buck to a sitting position. Buck wiped the blood from his split lip.
Chris tugged at their unrelenting grip. You don´t know anything. He grated out angrily.
Is that so, Chris? Buck challenged. What is it? Is it your green eyes? Sarah´s red-brown hair? The Irish complexion? The way he just throws himself into a project like Adam does? Tell me. Tell me why you don´t treat him like a human being. Tell me why you give him your way or the high way, you´re always right and he´s always wrong? Buck was on his feet now, goading Chris, pushing him towards the edge. Towards the light, just like the way he did when Chris had dived into the bottle. This was risky, especially with an audience, but Chris had to see the truth of his actions and it was now or never. The longer the subject lay untouched, the angrier Chris was bound to get for not understanding why he felt like this and all that fury would be unleashed on the gambler. And Buck wasn´t sure either of his friends could take any more.
You trying to make up for lost time, Chris? You weren´t able to teach Adam about life so you take Ezra as a substitute.
Chris shook his blonde head fiercely, whispering, Stop.
Buck ignored him. Every time he does some´in you don´t like, you get mad at him, hope it´ll cure im of the habit.
Chris began to quake, his features twisted frighteningly. Stop.
Each time he does something that could get im killed, you blow up at im coz it reminds you of the fire. Chris wrenched himself from his friends´ grips and clamped his hands over his ears. Buck´s face grew sad as his anger left him. Truth hurts, eh, pard? Chris didn´t answer. He ain´t perfect, Chris. And neither was Adam. But he´s also a human being and he ain´t done nothing to deserve whatcha did to him. He sighed. The kid probably stays up at night wondering what he did to make you so mad at im. Chris, it ain´t his fault he looks a lot like Adam and it ain´t fair ta do this to him.
If it was possible, Chris´ anger had increased tenfold, steadily climbing higher, notch-by-notch. Now he glared daggers at Buck and JD, who cowered behind his big brother´, and the other two members of his team. Uncontrolled fury danced brightly in his demonic green eyes. He wanted nothing more than to punch the daylights out of his childhood friend as if maybe the action could make his words disappear.
But he didn´t. Instead, he simply turned and walked away.
You´re running away again, Chris. You always run when things don´t go your way. Chris ignored him, getting on Valor. Running won´t solve anything! Buck hollered over the noise of thundering hoof beats.
The flying dust settled and Buck sighed and shook his head. He walked over to Ezra, still in the position he´d landed in, a stunned expression on his face. By his side was Nathan, watching over him throughout the entire episode.
Ya know, Ez, Buck gingerly took a seat beside the conman. I wasn´t lyin´ bout all that. Ezra didn´t look up. He was too busy composing himself. Buck let him be.
How´d you know, Buck? Vin and JD also plopped down on the ground, forming a protective circle around Standish.
I seen the way he looks at Ez when he´s done some´in ta be proud of, like the way he handled them Nichols brothers. He directed the next part to Ezra. He worries about ya, pard, he just can´t seem to show it. I think every time he wants ta congratulate ya or show he´s worried over ya, the fire comes back and the guilt that it was all his fault. That´s his crime, Ez. He tries ta punish himself by pushing you away, pushing his good memories away, but what he don´t realize is, he´s punishing you, too. For some´in you couldn´t help.
Ezra said nothing. He kept his face hidden, eyes firmly locked on a fascinating example of sedimentary, afraid that they´d see his conflicting emotions if he so much as looked away.
Ain´t it a bit strange, how Ezra looks a lot like Chris´ dead son? JD mused out loud. Buck answered without thinking. Yeah, it is wait, don´t even go there, kid. Buck quickly backtracked and shook his head. Chris ain´t that old. Adam´d be about ten by now.
You okay, Ez? Ya been awful quiet. Vin observed.
Ezra stretched and stood, still keeping his eyes carefully averted. Considering the circumstances, I am quite all right. But I recommend we return to our duty as Mr. Larabee will most likely be detained for a few hours and there is no one else to take his place. He said it lightly, but his eyes revealed his hurt and confusion.
Vin respected his independence by choosing to ignore it. Besides, he could see Buck was planning to have a word with him. So instead, he agreed with Ezra´s suggestion and they mounted and headed for home.
Buck maneuvered his gray beside Ezra´s chestnut. Clyde easily fell in step with Chaucer, both horses exchanging a friendly greeting. How are you really, Ez? Buck asked discreetly.
Ezra briefly glanced at him. Confused. He answered with a frustrated sigh. And rather disappointed in myself that I was so easily read, He added jokingly, trying to ease out of the conversation with humor.
The attempt fell on deaf ears. I´m serious, Ezra. The truth, for once.
Extremely confused. He makes me confused. Ezra sighed and looked away. I´ve never looked up to anyone before. Never have I felt this incessant desire to seek his approval He lowered his voice to a whisper. To make him proud of me.
He´s proud o´ ya, kid. Buck assured him confidently. He´s just afraid to show it. He´s afraid of you, Ezra, and what you´re making him feel. I reckon he considers Vin save coz they don´t ask anything from each other. But you The gangly gunslinger trailed off, shrugging powerlessly. Then he grinned. But after that bashing I gave im, maybe things´ll change.
A humorless smile crossed Ezra´s face. Yes, for once, we will find ourselves having to protect you from our formidable leader.
Well, anything to get him off your back, pard. Buck said flippantly, but Ezra had to wonder at the truth of his statement.
+ + + + + + +
Chris stared at the empty shot glass before him. He´d barged into the saloon a good thirty minutes earlier intending to get drunk, but he couldn´t bring himself to do it. It felt like he would be desecrating Sarah and Adam´s memory by turning back to the bottle so soon after he´d promised them he wouldn´t. Some role model he was. If Adam were looking down on him, he´d probably be thinking what a big liar his daddy was, going off and doing the very things he said was bad.
That train of thought led to the day´s earlier events. He could still picture the stunned look on Ezra´s face when Buck blew up, eyes quivering like a child who had fallen and hurt himself in play, and maybe it was his imagination his bottom lip dangerously close to sticking out. The moment had lasted for only a second, but it was enough to sear the image in his mind.
God, he looked just like Adam
He was going crazy. Yeah, that was it. Crazy with grief like Hank that he saw his dead son in every chestnut-haired, green-eyed person, child and man alike. And like Hank, he had let his sentimentality override his logic, exceedingly affecting those around him.
Which meant that every word that his childhood friend, his oldest companion, the man he wanted to punch only minutes ago, was perfectly and painfully right. He had been a sentimental fool, a father wishing for his old life and son, and punishing Ezra for his own sentimentality. Ezra´s only crime was being a tangible evidence of what he had lost, reminding Chris of his grief and guilt, two emotions that he hated and clung to. Hated them, but hung onto them because he deserved to be tortured.
The batwing doors opened and the six lawmen crossed the threshold. They halted momentarily at the sight of him seated at their usual table before altering their course towards the far side of the room. Chris paid them no mind, but he observed Ezra´s interactions like a hawk.
The young man looked like he was moving on autopilot, but the ease with which he mingled with the others only revealed his personality. Ezra was a likable person, with that mischievous little boy grin that had Gloria Potter and Mary Travis falling all over themselves to mother him. He´d seen Nathan crumble under that grin, his anger dissipating, and step aside to give way. Anyone who was mad at him suddenly found it difficult to maintain that anger when faced with that smile, but it had the complete opposite effect on him. The grin infuriated him to no end and usually, he had no idea why. Not that he ever bothered to dwell on it before letting his temper loose on the gambler. Now, he had an inkling as to why. Adam used to smile at him like that when he wanted things to go his way. That innocent angel smile, I´ve been a good little boy´ look.
He saw Ezra smile and nod woodenly, his mind clearly a million miles away. ´Three guesses where it is, cowboy.´ A gloating voice taunted him. ´And three more on who put him there.´
He put him there. He was the reason for that blank look in his eyes. Him. Him. Him. It was all his fault.
Chris felt nothing more than overwhelming guilt passing through in deep waves. If only he hadn´t been such a self-centered bastard. He was supposed to take care of his men, goddamnit, not cause them trouble. What kind of leader was he that was quick to turn on one of his own, unable to control his own raging temper?
He didn´t deserve to be a leader, but these men counted on him to be theirs. And he couldn´t let them down. Not when they believed in him after the countless mistakes he´d floundered through. But he could make up for his errors.
He could apologize.
Normally, Chris would cringe at the very mention of the word. But now was not the time for personal comfort. He had committed a great wrongdoing and if this was to be his punishment, then so be it. But he had to take away the ache etched behind the gambler´s impenetrable mask, or at least try.
Chris couldn´t clearly recall how he managed to cross the distance, but somehow, he found himself standing behind Buck´s chair, staring at Ezra. His presence was immediately perceived. JD was the first to react. He quickly got up from his seat, the action taking the other along with him as they all mumbled an excuse and made themselves scarce, sensing that Chris wanted to be alone.
Buck let his chair drop down on all fours, waiting until it was just the three of them. He rose unhurriedly, stretching. As he turned to grab his hat, his eyes locked with Chris´ and the blonde gunslinger saw the threat. ´You better not do anything to him, pard.´
Chris acknowledged the warning. It was quickly understood and respected. Buck slapped his hat on and swaggered off, whistling softly to himself.
Can I sit down? Chris motioned to Buck´s empty chair. The gambler paused briefly in his shuffling to shrug noncommittally. Chris took that as the affirmative and slouched down, extending his long limbs, boots crossed at the ankles.
Ezra ignored him.
Ezra? No reply. The cards swished rhythmically, manipulated by the gambler´s nimble fingers. Chris tried again. Ezra, could you put that down a sec? I´d like to talk to you.
Ezra snapped his cards shut and laid the deck on the table. His posture shifted from nonchalance to defiance, his arms crossed firmly over his chest.
Chris let out a small sigh. Ezra was not going to make this easy for him. I´m sorry.
No reaction. The gambler didn´t move.
A few seconds passed. Then a sandy eyebrow arched coldly. Is that all? Not waiting for a response, he went on, If so, then I shall bid you adieu for I have more pressing matters to attend to. He made to get up.
Wait! Chris blurted out. A look of exasperation crossed Ezra´s features but he complied. You´re right. That wasn´t enough. He hesitated. Ezra waited for him to continue.
I´m really, really sorry, even though that ain´t gonna make up for what I did to ya. Buck was right. I´ve been acting like an ass and for one thing, I´m glad he´s here to give me a good knock on the head when I need it. Chris ventured. I´m sorry.
There was a long silence. Chris held his breath and waited. For the first time in his life, he wished he could read minds. Ezra was staring him blandly, his head thoughtfully cocked to one side. His eyes were empty, giving no sign as to what was going through his quick mind.
Just as Chris was starting to feel the urge to squirm, Ezra blinked and nodded sharply once. I suppose it´s forgivable, considering rationality isn't one your greatest assets. Ezra amended. But don´t expect it right away, Mr. Larabee.
Call me Chris.
Ezra recognized the peace offering and accepted. Very well Chris. But I must admit that Buck´s revelation threw me a bit off-kilter as well. I´ve never been compared to something as precious as your son is to you.
You are a lot like Adam. Chris said softly. And not just physically.
Ezra hesitated in saying something. If-if it makes you feel any better, my real middle name is Adam as well.
Chris was startled, to say the least. Ya shure? He pressed warily. Ya ain´t jist making it up, are ya?
Ezra shook his head slowly, lifting his shoulders as if to say, ´Sorry to disappoint´. It was my father´s name.
Damn. Was all Chris could say.
They sat in comfortable silence, content to let sleeping dogs lie for now. Chris was all too aware that he was about to trek down a long and arduous road back to everyone´s good graces. As if he´d read Chris´ thoughts, a sly smirk appeared on Ezra´s clean-shaven features, making him look far younger than his years, reminding Chris of that hurt child he´d glimpsed earlier, a contrast to the normally cynical appearance he portrayed. Ezra was truly innocent when it came to sharing his feelings and vulnerabilities. A great asset when faced against a ruthless enemy looking for a weakness, but it also made him much more sensitive and easily hurt.
Chris vowed that no one would ever put that look into his eyes again. He was going to take responsibility for the southerner, take care of him, and in doing so, make Sarah and Adam proud.
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