Pairing: Ezra/Chris, Ezra/OMC
Category: OW
Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: No copyright infringement intended, this story is strictly for fun, not profit.

Author's notes: This story is dedicated to Serena, without whom I would have been completely lost. My humble thanks goes out to Cyc who kick-started my brain when it shut down unexpectedly, and to my wonderful betas, Sherri, Ra and Karen, who did a fantastic job. Any final mistakes are mine. I would also like to thank Lumina and Erika for coming up with this amazing project. The line at the beginning of the story is taken from a song, 'Kindian' by a Portuguese band called Primitive Reason.

Summary: Written as part of the Red Jacket Diaries. Premise: White Indian - character that was taught how to handle bow, tomahawk, scalping knife, etc. by Indians. Lost his family to Indians but he himself survived.

'And I am all that surrounds me at birth,
And I am all that surrounds me in growth'


"Indians!" came the sudden shout from one of the scouts.

Six-year old Jeremy O'Connor watched with terror-filled eyes as a large group of riders charged swiftly towards the wagon train. It was the third attack in as many days and the train was rapidly losing ground. After the previous fierce battles, the men were short on ammunition, food, and forage for their animals.

"Damn it, not again," his father muttered. As wagon-master it was his job to watch over the remaining twenty wagons and the families traveling west, and Jeremy had no doubt his father would do anything in order to keep them safe. "Call every able man and woman who can handle a gun; take the others to safety," his father ordered one of the men, who rushed to obey.

Jeremy was whisked away with his mother to join the few who would not be engaging in the fight, while the men began to form a defensive circle with the wagons, a feeble attempt to better defend themselves.

They never made it.

The Indians were upon them in a second, a deafening cacophony of gunfire and war cries, making Jeremy's heart beat so fast and hard in his chest he was certain everyone around him would be able to hear it. His hands clutched his mother's dress in a white-knuckled grip as she held him tightly against her, as though her trembling body alone would be enough to shield him from harm.

He witnessed with growing horror as the Indians, armed with bows and rifles, broke through their weak defenses, slaying everyone in sight and torching the wagons, their few meager possessions burning to the ground, the flames reaching high into the darkening sky. Hot tears ran down his face as the warriors began to exterminate the wagon train party with cruel efficiency.

"Love you, mommy," he whispered, as he snuggled deeper into his mother's loving arms.

"I love you too, Jeremy," came the half-sobbed reply, her embrace tightening just before she let out a pain-filled moan. Her whole body convulsed violently and she fell heavily against him, her dead weight crushing him to the cold, hard ground.

"Mommy?" He managed to raise his head, tears falling harder as he saw the arrow sticking out of her back. Intense pain took over his whole body then, and he realized the shaft had somehow pierced him as well, having embedded itself into his mother's chest; deeply enough to have gone right through. Feeling numb and dazed he allowed his gaze to search for his father for what he was certain would be the last time.

His vision blurred as he saw his father's lifeless body lying not far from where he and his mother had fallen. It was over. Only the warriors were left standing; the settlers were all dead or fatally wounded. As one of the Indians approached with a smirk, Jeremy allowed his eyes to close and weariness to overtake him. With a little luck he would never regain consciousness.

Twenty years later

Hands bound tightly, ropes cutting into his flesh, body covered in shallow cuts and scratches that stung fiercely, and with a bullet graze to his left arm, there was little Ezra could do except pray for a miracle. He sighed softly, not wishing to draw further attention to his person, his mind focusing grimly on the events that had led to his current plight.

He'd been on his way back from Eagle Bend, where he'd gone on business for Judge Travis, enjoying the beautiful day and gleefully recalling the considerable sum he had won the previous night at the saloon. Too busy gloating, he had failed to notice the trap ahead. He ran straight into the three men watching out for him, realizing far too late that more had followed him from town, successfully boxing him in between them.

He had immediately recognized the leader, John Daggart, a ruthless, cutthroat bandit the Seven had apprehended in Four Corners some months back, and who should have been safely locked up somewhere. Desperate to survive the ambush, he'd struck back, but in the end resistance had been futile.

Six against one was hardly fair -- and although Ezra had managed to kill one of the riders -- once he'd been shot, he hadn't stood a chance. In the blink of an eye, he'd been pulled off his rented horse, tied, and dragged the few feet to Daggart's hidden camp. Once there, the men had proceed to have their fun with him, slapping and punching him until he was a moaning wreck on the desert ground.

Now it was nighttime and he listened as Daggart sat by the campfire, bragging to the others about how he was going to eliminate the Seven one by one, starting with Ezra; about how he would first take Ezra to Four Corners and only then shoot him, right in front of the other lawmen.

Ezra resisted the urge to roll his eyes, not wishing to aggravate the splitting headache caused by the outlaws' earlier beating; a criminal mastermind Daggart was not. Not if he thought Ezra would be able to resist making his life extremely difficult on the journey to the little hamlet. On top of which, he was supposed to have returned hours ago; Chris was probably blowing smoke out of his ears in frustration, and promising divine retribution to anyone who might have dared to hurt one of his men.

He couldn't help a slight smile at the thought of the gunslinger. Who would have thought that Ezra would find in Four Corners everything he secretly hoped for? A home, family, friends, and a potential lover. 'Potential' because Larabee was playing hard to get and it was beginning to grate on Ezra's nerves. Talk about mixed signals; one minute he was certain Chris was flirting with him, the next the man couldn't get away fast enough.

But there was no mistaking the desire and love shining within those stormy green eyes, and Ezra was content to allow the other man the necessary time to sort his feelings out. For the moment at least, as patience had never been one of his strong suits.

He stiffened suddenly, a prickle of awareness sliding along his spine as he understood they were no longer alone. There was someone lurking in the shadows. Before he could so much as breathe, two arrows shot out of nowhere, both finding their targets -- two of the men by the fire -- and striking them dead where they stood.

The other three rose with cries of alarm, rapidly drawing their guns, eyes narrowing as they glanced around, trying to spot the unknown enemy. A knife cut through the darkness, plunging through Daggart's heart before he could react, his body crumbling to the ground.

The remaining two men didn't wait around for their turn to die; they disappeared into the night at an impossibly fast run, leaving everything behind, including their horses.

Ezra waited with bated breath for whoever it was to appear. His silent hope that it might have been his friends had been dashed as soon as the first arrow claimed its victim; not even Vin, who handled a bow like he was born to it, could manage that kind of accuracy.

He swallowed thickly as a man walked into the firelight, a man who moved with the glide of a stalking cat. Even if the buckskin trousers, loin cloth, moccasins, and headband that held back the thick dark hair weren't a dead giveaway as to his unexpected rescuer's identity, the bow at his back and the tomahawk in his hand sealed it firmly in Ezra's head; he was in the presence of an Indian.

He remained perfectly still, watching as the Indian grew closer, startled to see pale, grey eyes looking down at him coldly, almost cruelly. A white Indian then. He'd never seen one before, although he'd heard stories told -- all of them horrifying. Wondering if he should speak or move, Ezra decided not to act unless forced to. After all, the Indian had saved him from Daggart, and didn't seem particularly inclined to hurt him.

He gasped as he was abruptly lifted onto the other man's shoulder with surprising strength. "Hey!" he exclaimed, affronted. "I demand you release me at once!"

The other ignored him -- not understanding, or pretending not to -- and sequestered him away from the camp. A horse nickered nearby and the Indian halted. His grip altered, and before Ezra could utter a complaint, he was tossed up over the saddle like a supply sack. His strange companion swung into place, squeezing Ezra's neck painfully for a second as if warning him to remain acquiescent.

Ezra nearly snorted at the other's gall. Despite his bound hands, he twisted until he managed to elbow his new captor and jumped off the horse without caring how he might land. He hit the ground safely, turned and ran away as fast as his legs could carry him.

He heard amused laughter from behind him, and before he could get far, the Indian was right there riding beside him. His arms wrapped around Ezra's waist and pulled him upward.

"Let go of me, you demented savage!" Ezra tried to break free from the hold, but the other man was strong and apparently prepared for his tricks now, for he handled Ezra's struggle easily. He settled Ezra down on the front of the horse, belly down and smacked his ass with a chuckle.

Furious at his manhandling, Ezra kicked the horse viciously. The animal reared up on its hind legs in response to the pain, but before Ezra could see to his emancipation, the Indian managed to steady his mount, patting the velvet coat gently until the horse settled down.

Ezra felt a hand grip his hair tightly, pulling his head back painfully until he was making eye contact with the other man. Whatever humor might have been showing in those grey irises was now gone, replaced with anger. The Indian snarled, hitting Ezra on the head with the handle of his tomahawk, and the world went black.

Chris downed his whiskey in one swallow, fighting the impulse to gaze at the saloon's entrance anew. Ezra should have been back from Eagle Bend late that afternoon at the most; it was well past one in the morning now and he still hadn't arrived. To say Chris was worried was an understatement.

While Ezra loved to aggravate him at times by being as 'fashionably' late as possible to every single occasion he could get away with, when it meant going out of town -- and on serious business -- Ezra never failed to warn them if for some reason he were to return later than expected. The fact that no telegram had been sent spoke volumes of what might have happened.

"Think he's in trouble?" JD speculated softly, concern clear in his tone.

Buck rubbed a hand over his face tiredly. "This is Ezra we're talkin' about, kid," he retorted without heat. "'Course he's in trouble."

"Leave at first light?" Vin managed to make it sound like both a question and a statement at the same time.

Chris nodded curtly. "Yeah."

He wasn't feeling much like talking, his mood getting darker with every passing hour. It was a relief that, with the exception of the six of them, the saloon was deserted. The last thing he needed was for some concerned citizen or -- God forbid -- Mary, to start questioning the sudden tension among the lawmen. It also helped that the others knew him well enough to let him be.

If Ezra was in some dire straits it was all his fault. The day Ezra left for Eagle Bend, the others all had had places to be or patrols scheduled. Chris had been the only one with the next few days free, and even though he hadn't wanted the gambler to go alone, he had been unable to make himself ride with Ezra.

Going with Ezra meant engaging in his favorite activity of late; Ezra-watching. Greedily taking in the fluid grace with which the other man moved, his dimpled smile, the barely leashed energy, the wondrous green eyes that seemed to promise so much, that complicated mind perpetually at work. Then he'd find himself flirting with Ezra again, enjoying the banter between them, sharing covert glances, a willing participant in whatever game they had been involved in for the last six months.

And he hadn't been ready to admit defeat. He knew what Ezra was waiting for, what he himself secretly wished for. But he hadn't wanted the game to be over, not then. He hadn't been certain if he was prepared to take on someone like Ezra, into his life, into his heart. Someone just as stubborn and unpredictable as Chris was, and Lord knew they butted heads enough as it was.

But now, because Chris had been too afraid to follow his gut feeling, Ezra was out there, alone, probably hurt or even... Chris swallowed hard at the thought of never seeing Ezra again, of never having the other man there to annoy the hell out of him. And he suddenly realized that while Ezra might be a thorn in his side on the best of days, his disappearance was like a knife to his heart.

Ezra opened his eyes with a reluctant sigh. He stared around his current location, squinting in the poor light, realizing it was dawn. He was in a cave, sitting with his back against the stone wall and, for the time being at least, alone. He was also hungry, thirsty, bone-deep tired, and perhaps even a bit feverish as he was beginning to shiver.

Of course that could have been due to the fact Daggart had removed his jacket and waistcoat, using a hunting knife to peel away layer after layer of cloth until Ezra was down to his shirt. Thank the good Lord he hadn't been wearing his red jacket; that jacket had seen him escape the most perilous of situations unscathed and he had begun to think of it as a lucky charm of sorts. On the other hand, if he *had* been wearing it, perchance he would have eschewed Daggart and his men in the first place.

But the fact remained that his shirt was ripped and torn in places, and the air was chilly, which might be causing the shivers. That, or perhaps the bullet graze on his left arm, or his numerous cuts and bruises had somehow become infected. Lord knew they throbbed enough, and his wrists -- still bound -- hurt beyond belief.

He allowed his eyes to close for a moment, knowing he should probably try to leave before the Indian returned, but his exhausted body refused to obey his mind's command. He startled as a hand abruptly touched his forehead, and his skull hit the wall behind him with a painful crack as his surprise caused him to rear back.

It was the Indian, standing so close Ezra could feel the man's breath on his face. The anger in the grey eyes was gone, replaced with what seemed to Ezra like curiosity.

"What do you desire of me?" Ezra croaked, swallowing with effort as his throat hurt, rattled by the fact he hadn't heard the other man come back.

Instead of replying the Indian moved away, reaching for a canteen. Beside it Ezra could see a dead rabbit, the sight of its bashed head almost enough to turn his stomach. The Indian brought the canteen over to Ezra, placing it against his lips.

"Tú," he spoke for the first time.

"Tú?" Ezra echoed, trying to understand. "Water?" The other gave him a slight smile, which Ezra took for confirmation. He nodded and the Indian poured some of the precious cool liquid into his mouth. "Thank you," he finally murmured when he'd had enough.

He leaned back against the wall, weariness taking over his whole being. The shivers grew more violent and he realized he was in deep trouble. He was in the middle of nowhere, with a crazy Indian, hurt and without the means or the strength to fend for himself. Although he knew the others were probably already out looking for him, he doubted they would find him in time.

The sound of a knife being drawn from its sheath broke through his reverie. The sight of a scalping blade glinting in the light as it moved to press against his neck sent fear racing along his veins. For some reason, and in spite of the strange situation he found himself in, he hadn't really thought the Indian meant him any harm. It seemed he was wrong.

He was turned on his side, the ropes at his wrists loosened suddenly and his arms were free. He sat up quickly, trying to rub life back into his tortured limbs, surprised yet again at this turn of events. Encountering the stickiness of drying blood he winced, squinting at his rescuer -- or abductor-- depending on how one looked at it.

"I wish you would explain what it is you want with me. You can't hold me here permanently. Why execute Daggart and his henchmen? Why not me? What is it that you require of me?"

He didn't expect an answer and he didn't get one. Instead, the Indian placed a hand on his shoulder, pushing him back against the wall. In one swift move Ezra's shirt was cut open, exposing his naked chest to the cold air.

Ezra shuddered. "Now what?" he mumbled roughly, trying not to squirm as several, very unpleasant hypotheses came to his mind as to what the Indian might want.

Knowing he was no match for the other man in a fight, he chose to remain still, allowing the Indian to poke and prod at his torso. Understanding dawned as he realized the Indian was checking his injuries. The tattered remains of his shirt removed, Ezra watched as the other man cleaned his wound and cuts with a cloth and water from the canteen. That done, the Indian reached into a small pouch, taking out a pot covered with some kind of animal skin. He uncovered the pot and Ezra grimaced at the foul scent of whatever was inside.

A slimy green compound was applied to the bullet wound, his wrists and all the scrapes. The balm might have smelled terribly, but Ezra experienced its effect almost immediately; the pain and throbbing diminished rapidly, allowing the tension to slip from his aching muscles for the first time since Daggart had caught him.

Fatigue took over at that point, and his eyes fluttered shut of their own volition. He felt firm, but gentle hands laying him down on a blanket and surrendered to a healing sleep.

He didn't know how long he slept, but it wasn't a peaceful slumber, his fever spiking dangerously not long after he'd fallen into Morpheus' arms. He did recall someone bathing his face and neck with a damp cloth, forcing him to drink some water and a concoction that vied with any of Nathan's for the worst possible taste, but beyond that everything was a blur.

When he opened his eyes again, the sun was high in the sky -- it was probably mid-afternoon -- and there was a wonderful aroma filling the cave. Turning his head, he saw the Indian had lit a fire at the entrance and was roasting the rabbit, adding some herbs to the meat.

Still feeling weak, but aware his wound didn't hurt anymore, and that he was no longer sore, Ezra sat up, waiting for the other to acknowledge he was awake. When that failed, he decided on a more frontal approach.

"So, I assume you have a name?"

The Indian turned and regarded him silently for a moment, before finally saying, "Navezgane."

"I'm Ezra." He returned the other man's intense look, something in Navezgane's eyes propelling him to ask, "Your name, does it have any particular meaning?"

The other cocked his head. "Ezra?"

Ezra chuckled, understanding what Navezgane was asking. "Ezra means helper."

"Killer of monsters."

Ezra blinked. "Excuse me?"

"Navezgane, killer of monsters."

Ezra ran a nervous tongue along his lips. "Ah. If I were to venture, I would guess that is not the name originally chosen by your progenitors?"

Navezgane shook his head. "Does not matter. Navezgane is who I am now."

"That doesn't exactly bode well for my person," Ezra muttered, knowing how fiercely some tribes hated the white man. He forged ahead, "But you are white."

Faster than Ezra could breathe, the scalping knife was dangerously caressing his neck. "I am Ndee!" Navezgane spat.

Ezra held out his hands in a placating gesture, trying to appear calm and collected when in reality his heart was hammering in his chest. "Ndee?"

"Apache." Navezgane sheathed the knife, his glare bordering on murderous. "Never again compare me to your people. All white men are liars."

"All right, I'll refrain from further mentioning your genealogical roots. That still leaves the reason why you brought me here."

"I search for a friend of yours. I have seen you together."

Ezra frowned in confusion. "A friend?"

"The one with hair the color of the sun. Tell me where to find him."

Ezra swallowed around the lump in his throat, as he realized the only blond friend he possessed was Chris. "What do you want with him?" he whispered.

Navezgane smirked, hand going for the handle of his knife. "To kill him."

They had been on their way to Eagle Bend, hoping to backtrack Ezra's movements to his current whereabouts, when Vin found some unusual tracks on the desert ground. After that it hadn't taken them long to find the abandoned camp or the three dead men beside it.

"That's John Daggart," Josiah stated, gesturing towards one of the bodies. "What the hell is he doin' out here? I thought the Judge had sentenced him to fifteen years."

"Apparently he staged a jailbreak," Chris muttered, furious that no one had thought to warn them. "Spread out, search the grounds for any clues. Daggart had to have somethin' to do with Ezra's disappearance."


Chris turned at Nathan's voice, breath catching as he saw the other man standing by a pile of cloth. He had no doubt whatsoever those small pieces were all that remained of Ezra's jacket and vest. "Shit," he exhaled in a gush, his hope of ever seeing the gambler alive dimming considerably.

Buck walked over to him, his face grim. "JD stumbled on 'nother body not far from here, and I found this near the fire." In his hand were Ezra's holster and weapons, including the derringer and its rig. "He wouldn't leave without 'em, Chris. When I saw Daggart dead I figured he'd escaped, but..."

Chris rubbed a hand helplessly over his face. "Have you seen the way these men died, Buck? Arrows and a hunting knife? This wasn't Ezra's doin'." Vin joined them then, holding a quiver, and Chris suppressed a shiver at the brief flare of fear he saw in the tracker's eyes. "Vin?"

"Found this behind some bushes. The Indian must'a left it behind, probably forgot 'bout it. Seen one like it before. It's made out of mountain lion's skin. The one I saw... was carried by an Apache."

"Sweet Jesus," Josiah whispered.

"Vin, look around; see if you can find any trace of Ezra or the Apache. We need to find them," Chris ordered, hearing fear and urgency in his own voice.

"What do you think an Apache wants with Ezra?" Nathan asked with a frown. "I doubt he'd go to all this trouble just to kill him. If that were the case, we'd find Ezra's body here, with the others. Why help 'im with Daggart and then take him prisoner as well?"

"Maybe he just let Ezra go," JD suggested.

Chris shook his head, heartsick. "No. Ezra would've found a way to let us know he was okay, if he could. The Indian took him for some reason."

"Found some tracks," Vin told them as he got back. "One horse, but the trail is clear. Reckon he wasn't expectin' anyone to follow."

Chris nodded. "Let's go. The sooner we find this Apache, the sooner we find Ezra."

There was a long, pregnant silence as both he and Navezgane ate some rabbit and shared the water from the canteen. When they were done Ezra had had enough time to ponder the situation, to know what he had to do. He would protect Chris no matter what, even at the cost of his life.

"Your friend?" Navezgane finally reminded him, the unspoken truce between them over.

"I don't recall having any such acquaintance," Ezra told him, relieved that his intonation didn't betray his inner turmoil.

"Lies!" Navezgane jumped to his feet, voice rich with threat. "You are no different from the other white men I met before. All you do is lie."

"What has this supposed friend of mine done to you?"

Navezgane knelt before him. "He and more of your filthy kind invaded my village, my tribe," he spat, angrily. "Waited until the men were out hunting, then attacked. Women, children, the elders... no one was safe from their hate, from their bullets."

Ezra refused to believe Chris would take part in such a monstrous deed. This had to be some kind of a mistake. "What makes you so certain you are searching for the right man?"

"One of the elders. He was badly wounded, almost dead. He drew their faces. I have tracked them, one by one, avenging my people. Your friend is the last one."

"Why would these men perpetrate such a despicable act?"

"The iron horse. White men came to our land, wanted us to leave. We refused," Navezgane replied, all anger having drained out of him.

Ezra nodded, disgusted. The railroad. He understood now. Greedy men who wanted the land at any cost, willing to go to any lengths to achieve their goals, just so their so-called civilization would reach further, and further, and further. And who really cared about a bunch of wild, dangerous savages? All in the name of progress.

He took a long, deep breath, biting his lip. "Navezgane... My friend would never have abided with such a terrible thing. It's impossible. You have the wrong person."

Navezgane shook his head, stubbornly. "No. Baya drew well, no mistake. I saw you and that dog at the saloon in Eagle Bend. It is him."

Ezra blinked, a ray of hope shining through the clouds of what had begun to sound like a desperate situation. Chris hadn't been with him in Eagle Bend. Navezgane wasn't after Chris; it was someone else altogether.

Feeling his whole being suddenly lighter somehow, Ezra went back to his last night at Eagle Bend, the only time he'd had the opportunity to indulge in a fairly decent game of poker. One of the players had been a blond man, calling himself Lionel Pitt. He remembered Pitt surprisingly well. Perhaps because he'd taken an instant dislike to the man. A heavy drinker, Pitt had made his views on women, slaves, Indians, and anything else he could think of, known to anyone who bothered to listen -- and playing a game of chance with the man, Ezra had had little choice. It had been a pleasure to liberate Pitt of every nickel and cent the man carried with him.

"If you tracked him all the way to Eagle Bend, why come after me?" Ezra asked.

Navezgane seemed almost embarrassed as he replied, "I lost him after he left the saloon. Saw you and him talking, knew you had to know where he was. Followed you the next day. Saw the ambush. Waited until it was dark to grab you. Your friend?" he insisted.

"He's not my friend, Navezgane, I merely engaged him in a game of poker. However, I am privy to his name, Lionel Pitt, and to where he is currently residing. But... I cannot allow you to execute him, no matter how justified your claim is. I am a lawkeeper. My employer is a judge, someone with connections in the right circles of our society. He can see that justice is done."

Navezgane snorted. "Do not insult me, Golinka," he rebuked. "Your kind hates all Indian tribes. They would not care about what happened."

"In spite of your beliefs, not all white men are the same. Judge Travis would do his best to see that Pitt paid for his crime." Understanding he wasn't getting through to the other man, Ezra sighed in defeat, "All right, but at least let me assist you. I will journey with you, see what kind of odds you will be facing."

Navezgane regarded him inquiringly. "Hat'ugha?"

Ezra tilted his head in confusion. "What?"

"Why? Why do you want to go with me?"

How could he explain it, when he didn't exactly understand it himself? He wasn't exactly prone to altruistic acts, and embarking on this folly was the equivalent of walking into a lion's den. But the idea of men murdering defenseless women and children... He couldn't think of a more hideous crime.

And if he was honest with himself, there was something about Navezgane that called to something deep within him. The thought of the other man going after Pitt alone didn't sit well with Ezra. Pitt hadn't seemed the kind of man to be caught with his guard down, and Ezra sensed that there would be trouble.

"I am still not certain what course of action to take, Navezgane. And to be perfectly honest, I may fight you if or when you attempt to go after Pitt. But I have no wish to see you dead or imprisoned. Pitt struck me as a dangerous man, and I seriously doubt he is not aware you have been... disposing of his former associates. Either you will accept my offer to travel with you..."

The other raised an eyebrow. "Or?"

"Or I won't reveal Pitt's whereabouts."

Half-expecting Navezgane to go on a rampage, Ezra was surprised to see him chuckle. "You are as slippery as a snake, Golinka. I like that." He nodded. "Very well. You can come. We will need provisions and another horse." He rose and walked over to the cave's entrance. "I will return soon. Be good. I would be very upset if you were gone when I came back."

Ezra gave him a cheeky grin. "I will be very good. Promise."

With an amused snort Navezgane disappeared into the afternoon sun, leaving Ezra alone with his thoughts.

After Navezgane rode away, Ezra sat up against the wall, shaking his head ruefully. What was wrong with him? A few years back he would have simply given Navezgane the information without caring one wit what happened to either the Indian or Pitt. But now... It would be easy to justify his actions, pretend he didn't want a man's death on his conscience, but it was more than that.

And what about Navezgane? Why did he care so much about the other man? Why did he feel there was something between them? There was no denying Navezgane was an attractive man, with his wide grey eyes, and his long, dark mane. But the pull Ezra felt wasn't lust or desire. He merely felt... close to the other man. He'd taken an instant liking to Navezgane in spite of their circumstances, and was reluctant to see him go without knowing for certain if he made it safely through his insane notions of revenge.

Ezra rubbed his hands over his pant legs and grimaced. Lord, but he was beyond filthy! Daggart and his men had dragged him along the ground, long enough for Ezra to be covered in dust and dirt from head to toe. His shirt was still discarded on the floor, ruined beyond repair, and his pants weren't that much better off.

Eyes suddenly spotted the saddlebags Navezgane had left behind, and Ezra wondered if the Indian could possibly have some garments that would fit him. He was desperate enough to try anything in order to feel clean. Rummaging inside the bags, he found a fringed vest and a pair of pants, both in dark brown buckskin. Hoping the other man wouldn't mind too much if he borrowed them, Ezra emerged from the cave, looking for a source of water. As soon as they reached a town he would purchase new attire, and return these to Navezgane.

He listened for a while, walking slowly, knowing there had to be a well or a stream nearby, as he'd noticed Navezgane leave to refill the canteen a few times. He found it a moment later, a stream deep enough for him to bathe in and submerge himself completely. He took his time scrubbing his body and hair as best as possible, enjoying the freshness of the water caressing his skin.

Finally satisfied, he walked over to the bank, standing still for a while, allowing the warm sun to dry him off. The pants were a bit difficult to put on; they fit like a second skin, riding low on his hips, and forcing him to forego his usual undergarments. They were comfortable, though, and seemed to adjust to his every movement, and he realized why Vin enjoyed wearing them so much. The vest was just as snug once fastened. The hem, at the sides, came about the top of his hips, showing just the barest hint of flesh, the fringes angling down to a point in the back and the front.

He looked down at himself and chuckled. All he lacked was the long, flowing hair and he could be Navezgane's sibling. Apparently he even had an Indian name, Golinka, although he had failed to ask what it meant. Realizing he had been away from the cave for too long, he hurried back along the path, frowning as he noted the two horses tied outside.

Recognizing one as Navezgane's mount he relaxed, only to stiffen up again as he heard snarling and the sound of objects being thrown violently against the cave walls. He rushed inside, to see Navezgane destroying everything in his way in a blind rage. Wondering what had brought that on, he took a step closer.

"Navezgane?" he called softly.

The Indian turned, face twisted into a furious mask, then froze in shock as he stared at Ezra. The fury was replaced by bewilderment, the grey eyes darkening considerably. He licked his lips, then finally spoke, his voice hoarse, "I would never expect you to dress in such a way."

Uncomfortable with the unexpected tension that seemed to thrum in the air between them, Ezra carded a hand through his damp locks. "Appearances are everything, Navezgane," he quipped awkwardly. "Better a groomed savage, than a filthy gambler." As he expected, the other laughed at his words, and mercifully the air cleared again. "Can we depart now?"

Navezgane nodded. "Yes, we can go. I..." He cleared his throat, looking at the destruction around them. "I need to pack again."

"I will aid you."

Together they made short work of gathering all of Navezgane's possessions, placing them in the saddlebags. Just before they exited the cave, Ezra touched the other man's hand lightly. "I made you a promise. I won't leave," he said, knowing now that Navezgane had thought Ezra had run out on him when he'd returned to the cave and found him gone, causing him to go into a fit of rage.

Navezgane's gaze locked with his, probably judging his sincerity. "I believe you," he finally stated.

As they mounted their horses, Ezra looked at the other man. "Now, if I were to hazard a guess I'd say we are in close proximity to civilization, correct?" Seeing Navezgane's surprised expression, he grinned and explained, "You took very little time gathering the supplies and procuring a second horse. Taking into consideration the locale where you found me, and where Daggart was keeping me imprisoned, there weren't any other burgs for miles around, except for Eagle Bend. I assume this cave isn't so distant from that charming town?"

"You are correct," the Indian confirmed, new respect shining in his eyes.

"Excellent. Accompany me to the outskirts of Eagle Bend. I will take it from there." He considered briefly going into the little hamlet to acquire a new wardrobe, but decided it could wait. The sooner Pitt was dealt with, the better.

"Where are we going?" Navezgane asked.

Ezra's grin grew wider. "We are to travel to a mudhole called Ward, roughly two days ride from Eagle Bend. I have visited Ward twice before, I am quite familiar with its intrinsic surroundings. Pitt owns a ranch there, 'The Snake Pitt'. Dreadful pun, but he isn't exactly a subtle man. Shall we?" he asked, and without waiting for the other to reply, started his horse forward, eyes taking in the late afternoon sun.

Chris glared at the early morning sun, the headache that had begun the moment Ezra went missing flaring painfully in the bright light. They had been up at dawn, following the single horse's trail to a cave. He was dismayed to find it empty, the feeling intensifying when he found Ezra's bloody, torn shirt inside.

"Well?" he questioned Vin, who was crouching down, eyes intent on the ground outside the natural haven.

"Two horses now. Either they have company or the Indian is trustin' Ezra to ride beside him."

"How far ahead are they?" Josiah asked.

Vin frowned, then shook his head. "Hard ta say for sure. Probably left yesterday, late in the day. Depends how long they kept goin' before stoppin'."

Chris scowled at the visible hoof prints. "Still easy to track?"

The tracker gave him a lopsided grin. "Pretty much, yeah. Least for now."

"Then let's go," Chris ordered, already heading for his mount.

"The sun will go down soon. We must make camp for the night."

Ezra nodded his agreement, eyes glancing around at the verdant wilderness around them. They had been making good time. They'd ridden well past Eagle Bend the afternoon before, and today had kept a steady pace, bringing them closer to Ward. He dismounted and flexed his shoulders, smiling fondly at the bandages on his arm and wrists. That morning, before they took to the road again, Navezgane had insisted on anointing his wounds with the green balm, bandaging them so Ezra wouldn't smear it all over himself. Ezra couldn't deny it helped that he could ride without feeling twinges of pain with every move. While most of his cuts and bruises were healing nicely, the bullet graze and his rope-burned wrists still ached somewhat.

He spent a few minutes taking care of the horses and going through their saddlebags, taking out what they would need to set up camp. Then he gathered up some kindling to build a fire, while Navezgane went in search of fresh water. Dusk had fallen and night was shrouding the forest in cool darkness by the time Navezgane returned to the campsite, both canteens filled to the brim. Ezra had taken the time to prepare a light meal and some coffee, sitting as close to the welcoming flames as he could without scorching himself. It really was an unseasonably frigid night.

"We should share our blankets tonight," Navezgane said as he sat down in front of the fire, across from Ezra. "It is cold."

"All right." He hesitated, then spoke the words that had played around in his mind all day, his voice low and beseeching. "Navezgane, by this time tomorrow we will have reached Pitt's ranch. Please, allow me to go into town and wire Judge Travis. He *will* help you."

"How can I be certain?" Navezgane countered. "All --"

"Don't even attempt to say all white men are the same," Ezra interjected angrily. "I'm still here, and I'm not planning on leaving." He sighed tiredly. "What's done is done; we can't bring the other men back from the dead. And the truth is, given the crime they committed, I can't say I fault your actions. But I also can't merely sit by and watch you kill another man. Even someone as despicable as Pitt. Please?"

Navezgane shook his head, expression torn between irritation and amusement. "I should never have agreed to let you come along, Golinka. You are ruining me. Very well. Tomorrow we go to Ward and send for your Judge." His eyes narrowed dangerously. "If he does nothing, I will. Understand?"

Ezra nodded. "If Judge Travis fails to accomplish anything, *I* will be right by your side."

Navezgane stared at him for a long while, then sighed. "Agreed. We should sleep. Tomorrow we rise with the sun."

Ezra groaned pitifully. "Not you as well. I must strive to understand why every single person I meet insists on rising at the crack of dawn. It's unnatural."

"If you are the only one against it, then everyone else is right," Navezgane told him with a grin.

Ezra grimaced. "Very humorous."

They spread a blanket on the ground, lying down together, two extra blankets shielding them from the early winter's air. Tired from the hard ride, Ezra closed his eyes and was instantly asleep.

He woke up sometime later, eyes scanning the horizon for something amiss. Finding no reason why his sleep had been disturbed, he snuggled back into the blankets, enjoying the warmth of the body lying so close behind him. A sudden curiosity overtook him and he turned, expecting to find Navezgane in deep slumber. Instead, the other man was wide awake and their gazes locked and held, neither breaking the silence.

Ezra waited with held breath as Navezgane cupped his face gently, thumb sliding back and forth over Ezra's stubbled cheek as they stared into each other's eyes.

"Dénzhóné," Navezgane whispered reverently.

For some reason Ezra's heart hurt. "What does that mean?" he whispered softly.

"Beautiful," the other man replied, the slightest bit of pressure from his hand bringing them close together.

Their lips met. Ezra opened up to welcome Navezgane's tongue into his mouth. The kiss deepened, growing in strength and passion, and Ezra felt Navezgane's hand let go of his face to slide across his shoulders and down his back, caressing his body with increasing heat.

Reality asserted itself and he pushed against Navezgane's chest gently, forcing them to break apart. "I can't do this," he panted harshly.

"You did not like it?" Navezgane asked with a frown.

Ezra gave a humorless bark of laughter. "Oh, I liked it all right; I liked it too much." He closed his eyes for a moment, feeling like a heel. "As I explained to a lovely young lady once upon a time, I'm but a man. My libido has a mind of its own. However..."

"There is someone else," Navezgane said with regret.

"Yes. No. Perhaps," Ezra replied, then snorted. "Well, that's certainly clear, isn't it?" He sighed. "There might be someone. I love him and I suspect he shares my feelings, but so far nothing has occurred between us." He touched his forehead to Navezgane's. "Forgive me? I never meant to hurt you."

"Nothing to forgive," Navezgane answered, and Ezra finally looked into his eyes again. "You are an honorable man, Ezra."

"Next thing you will be telling me you were wrong about us white men," Ezra quipped weakly.

Navezgane gave him a lopsided smile. "That would be impossible. There are too many of you to prove me right. But you have showed me that some white men do have souls." At Ezra's quizzical look, he explained, "The elders teach us that the 'pale faces' have no souls. But I can see yours." He brushed a kiss over Ezra's temple. "Go to sleep."

Ezra obeyed, mourning for Navezgane, knowing he could have easily fallen in love with the handsome, complex white Indian, if not for Chris. His heart belonged unconditionally to Chris and he couldn't really find it in himself to regret it. But it saddened him to think of Navezgane alone in the world, one of a kind -- not a true Apache, but not a white man either -- without anyone who cared for him. Ezra had known far too well what that felt like, and didn't wish it on his worst enemy. Because no matter what people said, loneliness could kill you just as surely as a bullet.

Another day, another headache.

Chris watched Vin read the signs surrounding the deserted campsite, wondering somewhat numbly if it wasn't already too late. For all he knew, they could be chasing two Apaches as they traveled aimlessly across the state; Ezra's body long buried somewhere in a shallow grave. The idea that Ezra might have been killed before they even left Four Corners to search for him made Chris shudder, a cold sweat breaking over his skin and making him feel feverish.

"Ya okay, pard?" Buck asked him, hand touching his arm lightly. "Ya went white as a ghost for a moment there. Worried 'bout Ezra?"

"Aren't you?" Chris retorted, still angry with himself and more than willing to share the misery. He should have told Ezra how he felt, he should have gone with him to Eagle Bend... He should have kept him safe.

Buck gave him a small smile. "Hell, yeah! It's different for you, though, ain't it? I love that silver-tongued devil to pieces; he's one of my best friends. But the two o' you... Ezra told me, Chris. 'Bout his feelings for you, 'bout how he thought ya might share 'em. He also told me ya weren't ready for 'im then. Think you're ready now?"

Chris sighed tiredly. "More than ready, Buck. But what if it's too late?"

Buck shook his head. "Don't believe that, and neither do you. Josiah's right, Chris. We -- all seven of us -- have a destiny together. We can hit bottom sometimes, but nothin' will keep us down for long. Ezra's alive and waitin' for us to come and get 'im."

Chris looked towards the horizon, feeling terribly lost. "Hope you're right, Buck," he muttered. "I hope you're right."

It never ceased to amaze Ezra how human beings adjusted to the unexpected crises life threw at them. He had been expecting things between him and Navezgane to become awkward after his incredible blunder the night before, but surprisingly they remained comfortable with each other. They had risen somewhat later that morning, but even with a brief stop at noon for some much needed nourishment, Ezra guessed they couldn't be more than one hour's ride from Ward.

"Jeremy," Navezgane said suddenly, shattering the silence.

Ezra stared at him, puzzled. "What?"

"My name, my *real* name is Jeremy. I had forgotten about my childhood, about my family. The more time I spend with you, the more I remember."

Ezra couldn't tell if that was a good thing or not. "Want to talk about it?" he offered softly.

Navezgane shrugged grimly. "I do not remember much, I was very young. We came from another country. We were traveling with a wagon train when we were attacked by the Comanche. They slew my family. I was injured, but they did not kill me. They took me with them to their village. That night I stabbed the Comanche that had killed my mother while he slept, stole a horse and escaped. The Apache found me two days later, wounded, hungry and thirsty. The diyi, the medicine man, spoke English. He healed me, adopted me, taught me the ways of the Ndee. He was the one that gave me my name, in honor of the Comanche I had killed." His troubled eyes turned to Ezra. "He is dead now. Most of the tribe died in the attack, the others went north. I am all alone."

Ezra led his mount closer to Navezgane's, and reached out a hand to squeeze the other man's shoulder tightly. "You are *not* alone, Navezgane. Never that."

"But who am I? I spent too much time with the Ndee to understand the white people, or to be welcomed among them. I am different. But I do not belong with the Ndee anymore. Jeremy and Navezgane are both at war inside me; I am a stranger to myself."

"You will have to create a brand new man from the mixture of both; I believe you are already doing so. Probably have been before we even met. In time you will learn to know and understand your new self. But I have to be perfectly honest with you; I like the man I see before me."

Navezgane gave him a grateful smile. "Ashoge. Thank you, my friend."

Ezra returned the smile. "How do you say 'you are welcome' in Apache?"

"A he ya eh," Navezgane replied.

"In that case, a 'e yah eh," Ezra echoed, purposely stumbling over the words.

Navezgane's laughter followed them for a long time.

Vin brought his mount to an abrupt halt, eyes narrowing as he gazed ahead.

"What?" Chris asked, sharing a confused look with the others.

Vin gave him a cocky grin. "Reckon I know where they're headin'."

Chris found himself grinning back. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. There's a small town ahead, Ward. Only thing 'round here for miles."

"How can you be so sure they're goin' there?" Nathan asked with a frown.

"They've been travelin' towards it since they rode past Eagle Bend; almost in a straight line. If we ride hard, we can be there in a few hours."

Chris gestured forward with his hand. "Then let's do it. There'll be no escapin' us today."

Ward was a small town, not even the size of Four Corners, and definitely not known for its beauty and cleanliness. The main street was covered in mud, dirt and garbage. The air stunk of rotten wood, human filth, and other odors Ezra thought best not to ponder too closely.

He gritted his teeth in both anger and fear as they made their way to the telegraph office, feeling every denizen's eyes boring holes in his back. Apparently it wasn't every day that two 'white Indians' made such a theatrical entrance into the not-so-quaint hamlet.

They pulled up in front of the telegraph office, dismounted, and Ezra did his best to keep his head down as he tied his mare's reins. He was relieved to see Navezgane follow his lead. He'd half expected the other man to snarl at their audience, threatening them with his tomahawk.

They stepped up onto the boardwalk, and Ezra took a deep breath to stop himself from reacting to animosity in the air. As a gambler and conman, he'd been subjected to such obvious displays of bigotry, but never this intense. It made him want to turn back and run for cover, especially as he was without his precious weapons. One thing was for certain; the garments he had been planning on procuring would have to wait. As soon as the telegram to Travis was sent, they would leave Ward as rapidly as possible. He didn't fancy a bullet wound or a knife to his back.

He avoided looking any of the locals in the eye, not wishing to cause a confrontation, and walked into the office, Navezgane close at his heels. The operator rose from his chair with a gasp, looking them up and down, his expression caught between awe and disgust.

"Yes?" he asked, voice wavering.

"I would like to send a telegram to Santa Fe, care of Judge Travis," Ezra replied coldly.

"Ah..." the man swallowed hard. "What's the message?"

"'Need your help, stop. Urgent, stop. Found man responsible for attack on Apache tribe, stop. Meet you in Ward, stop. EPS, stop.'" Wanting to make certain the telegram was sent, he reached inside one of his boots, took out a banknote and grinned as the man's eyes bugged out. "I expect you to send it immediately."

"Yes, sir!"

Ezra waited until the operator wired his missive before giving him the money. "Ashoge," he thanked the man, exchanging an amused look with Navezgane as the man nearly crumbled to the floor in fright. "We had better depart now."

Navezgane had obviously picked up on his anxiety, for he nodded. "Yes."

They rushed out of the building, and Ezra was forced to come to a sudden halt to avoid a collision with the town's sheriff, Phil Bridges. Ezra remembered the ex-military man well, even though his last sojourn to Ward had been over two years earlier. After all, despite his profession, it wasn't every day he got arrested and charged with disturbing the peace, only to be liberated once he had 'donated' half of his poker earnings to the local lawman. His credence in the man's ability to perform his job was less than favorable.

Bridges was in his late forties, tall and fit, and although he was no longer with the military, his stiff posture blatantly spoke of his background. At the moment he was standing with his hands behind his back, assessing both Ezra and Navezgane with a disapproving expression.

"Gentlemen," he greeted curtly. "Everything all right?"

"Of course, Sheriff," Ezra drawled smoothly. "We merely had some business to attend to at the telegraph office, which we have concluded successfully. We will be on our merry way immediately."

Bridges frowned. "Don't I know you from somewhere?"

"I don't believe so, no. Have a pleasant day, sir."

Ezra gestured to Navezgane, and before the sheriff could ask any more questions, they were mounting their horses and galloping out of town like bats out of hell. Only when they had left Ward far behind, did they slow down and let go of the tension coiling in both of them.

"What now?" Navezgane asked, patting his mount gently.

"We wait for Judge Travis to arrive. We might as well set camp for the night, even though there will be light for at least two, three hours more. After all, it's not as if we have somewhere pressing to go."

Ezra was stoking the fire when he felt Navezgane's eyes on him. Looking up, he cocked his head. "What?"

"Why are you here? I know you do not want me to go against Pitt. But is that the only reason?"

Ezra sighed, focus turning inward. "Not the only reason, no. As I've mentioned before, I am a regulator in Four Corners, a place I have found myself calling home of late. There are seven of us. Not long after we joined forces we had to intervene in this most queer affair, dealing with one of the local tribes and one Indian in particular, Chanu. I... am not proud of the way I handled myself. I allowed prejudice to cloud my judgment, to influence my actions and words. Instead of trusting a friend's instincts, I assisted in estranging him to the whole town. When all was said and done, and Chanu was found innocent of his crime, I finally realized what I had done. I am not one to linger on self-analysis, but when I looked in the mirror, I didn't much care for the man staring back at me." He smiled weakly. "Besides, I like you Navezgane."

Navezgane nodded, a slight smile curling his own lips. "I feel the same, Golinka."

Ezra shook his head ruefully. "What exactly does that mean? I've been --" He stopped talking suddenly, straightening his shoulders as something intruded on his awareness. Eyes wide, he scanned their surroundings warily. "Do you hear that?"

Navezgane stilled for a moment, then abruptly stood, snarling what sounded like a curse.

Obviously he heard it too.

Horses. Approaching rapidly.

Ezra saw them coming through the trees, a small group of riders, their rifles glinting in the late afternoon sun. Gunfire erupted all around them, and Ezra pushed Navezgane to the ground, both doing their best to become one with the grass.

"I don't suppose you possess an extra weapon on you I could borrow, do you?" Ezra asked, seeing Navezgane grab his tomahawk tightly. The other man handed him his scalping knife. "What I am supposed to do with this?" he retorted peevishly. "Get myself a toupee for my golden years?"

"Beggars can not be choosers," Navezgane told him with a scowl.

Ezra rolled his eyes before turning his attention to the horsemen. They were getting closer, still firing, but luckily Navezgane had decided to set camp on a slight elevation, which made it difficult for the five men to hit them. Seeming to realize just that, the men stopped shooting.

"Come out of there!" one of them shouted.

"Why? I'm quite comfortable where I am," Ezra drawled sardonically.

"Listen, wiseass, we can stay here all night, if we have ta. It's up to you. We can do this the hard way or the easy way. No point in prolonging your sufferin'."

"That's awfully nice of you gentlemen. Considering the situation, I believe we'll take the hard way. I have to say, though, this is hardly a fair confrontation. Five, strong men, armed to the teeth, against two virtually defenseless men... Quite a challenge, isn't it?"

There was a short silence, then another voice, "You callin' us cowards, Injun?"

"Perish the thought. However, if you feel offended, perhaps there is some truth to the matter," Ezra countered smoothly.

"That's it!" one of the riders snapped, the sound of a rifle being thrown to the ground loud and clear. "Come out here and I'll beat the crap out of ya with my bare hands!"

"Of course you will! Shortly after one of your associates fills me full of lead. I don't think so."

"You have my word we won't shoot you. There's five o' us and two o' you. Sounds like good odds... for us," the man finished with a laugh.

Ezra turned to Navezgane. "What do you think? His word means nothing, you must know that."

Navezgane nodded. "Yes. But it is better to die fighting than face life with dishonor." A decisively wicked grin lit up his face. "And besides, who wants to live forever?"

Ezra gave him a mock-offended look. "I do! But what the hell!" He heaved himself to his feet and began to move towards the riders, aware of the other man walking beside him. "Well, here we are. How about you exemplify what the 'hard way' entails?"

Before he could so much as blink, the riders were wheeling their horses, and seconds later both he and Navezgane were surrounded, the animals making a circle around them.

"Zastee!" Navezgane shouted suddenly, attacking one of the men, trying to throw him off his mount.

Ezra didn't waste any time joining the fray. He pulled another man from the saddle, breaking his neck with a single blow, just before he was pounced on by two of the brigands. They rolled around on the dirt, miraculously avoiding the horses' hoofs, trading punches and kicks, all three trying to get the upper hand. Ezra was beginning to tire when a gunshot echoed through the vicious fight and everyone came to a halt.

Ezra looked up from his sprawled position... and gasped. It was Chris, high upon Fury, looking like an avenging angel, dark scowl firmly in place, eyes dangerous and unforgiving. The other five regulators were a step behind, watching the brawl with unrestrained amusement.

"What the hell is goin' on here?" Chris thundered.

Ezra rose slowly, mentally counting the new bruises and sore points, before extending a hand to Navezgane. "Zastee?" he echoed.

"Kill," Navezgane translated, looking somewhat sheepish as he got up as well.

"Ah. Well said, my friend."

"Ezra!" Chris snapped impatiently. "Care to let us know what's goin' on?"

Ezra lifted a finger. "Just a moment, Chris." He picked up one of the bandits by the collar. "I assume you were sent by Lionel Pitt?"

"Yes," the man groaned, evidently still aching from the well-placed knee Ezra had driven into his groin.

"How did he discover we were in town?"

"The telegraph operator. He's on Pitt's payroll."

"And Sheriff Bridges, is he also toiling for Pitt?"

The man gave him a blank look. "What?"

Ezra rolled his eyes, but rephrased the question, "Is the Sheriff also on Pitt's payroll?"

"Nah. He just stays put, doesn't stir the hornet's nest, if ya know what I mean."

"Very well. I am allowing you gentlemen to go free, this time. You are to deliver a message to your employer; if he wishes to see us dead, perhaps he should do his own dirty work. Now, get out of here." He waited until Pitt's lackeys mounted their horses and rode away, taking the dead man with them, before turning to face a very angry looking Chris. "Mr. Larabee, it's always a pleasure to see you," he greeted with a ridiculously wide smile.

"'Always a pleasure to see you?' Ya go missin' for days, we have ta chase you halfway across the state, and all you have to say for yourself is 'always a pleasure to see you'?" Chris roared as he dismounted. "I ain't askin' again, Ezra; what's goin' on?"

Chris took great satisfaction in seeing Ezra's smile dim, then completely vanish at his words. Perhaps he was being petty, but he'd been making himself sick with worry for the last few, sleepless days, wondering if Ezra was even alive, and if he would have to live with the fact that he'd never voiced his feelings to the other man.

Instead, after almost running himself -- and the others -- ragged looking for the wayward gambler, they finally find Ezra, apparently having the time of his life with his new Indian friend. And...

"What's with the new clothes?" he asked, knowing he sounded hoarse but unable to prevent it. Ezra looked... damn good in buckskins. In very, very tight buckskins. Feeling his body react to Ezra's unconscious sensuality, and hating himself for it, Chris decided to settle on the one emotion he was more than familiar with; anger. "If you're okay, why the hell didn't ya let us know? And you still haven't answered my question."

Ezra glared at him, obviously annoyed at the questioning. "I didn't send a telegram to inform you gentlemen that I was all right, because by the time Navezgane freed me from Daggart's captivity and I felt rested enough to travel, I was certain you were already searching for me."

Chris nodded. "Okay. But you could've left a message somewhere. At the cave, for instance. You knew Vin would track you down."

Ezra rubbed his forehead tiredly. "It didn't cross my mind, Chris. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cause you undue distress."

Not ready to relent, Chris persisted, "And what about what you're doin' all the way out here?" He watched Ezra and the other man exchange a knowing glance, a whole conversation taking place without a single word being spoken. For some reason that only fueled Chris' ire. "Well?" he gritted out.

The stranger nodded and Ezra turned to him. "This is Navezgane. He was raised by an Apache tribe."

"One year ago, a group of white men attacked our village," Navezgane told them. "They waited until the men were out hunting, then killed or wounded all that stayed behind. When we returned..." He shook his head, grey eyes sorrowful. "One of the elders was alive, he drew the faces of the men responsible for the massacre. I have been searching for them, avenging those who lost their lives that day."

"Why did they attack your tribe?" JD asked softly.

"We refused to leave our land, for the iron horse. Later I learned that the men were hired by an important... chief?" He hesitated over the word, glancing at Ezra for confirmation.

"Big shot, head honcho, bigwig, leader, greedy bastard... Take your pick," Ezra replied with a grim smile. "Lionel Pitt is the sole survivor of the riders who assailed the tribe."

"What about the guy that hired them, the big shot?" Buck interrupted.

It was Navezgane who replied, a ferociousness to his eyes. "He is dead as well."

"Anyway," Ezra took over again. "I was unfortunate enough to meet Pitt in Eagle Bend. Navezgane saw us together and assumed we were more than casual acquaintances. When he lost track of Pitt, he decided I would be the one to supply him with the necessary information to find his prey. He killed Daggart and most of his men, and saw to my injuries."

"Okay, since we're here, I take it you knew where to find Pitt," Chris surmised, curtly. "Why the hell didn't you give the information to Navezgane and return home? Any other reason why you decided to come along for the ride?" he asked, looking from Ezra to Navezgane and back again, knowing his lips were curling into an almost feral smirk.

He watched as Ezra frowned in confusion, obviously realizing there was a hidden meaning behind Chris' words. His eyes widened as his disconcertion turned to understanding, then fury. "I have done everything, short of sitting on your lap and doing a belly dance in front of the whole population of Four Corners to show you how I feel about you," Ezra hissed with indignation. "And every time you looked away, every time you *walked* away, it hurt like hell. We are not together, we are not in a relationship, we are not committed to each other. What you are implying could have easily occurred last night, but it didn't. And it didn't because I felt it would be a betrayal to you, to what I felt for you. I'm beginning to wonder if you're worth it, though. Excuse me."

Ezra marched past him then, purposely bumping into Chris' shoulder, hard enough to cause him to step back to keep from falling. Everyone stayed silent for a long, awkward moment, then Buck finally tipped his hat back and shook his head sadly. "Good one, ol' dog."

"Shut up, Buck, I'm not in the mood." Chris scowled at the root of his current problems, Navezgane. "Is Pitt still alive?"

"Yes." Navezgane glared back at him. "Those men who attacked us work for him. They know why we are here. Ezra sent for your Judge Travis. If he helps, I will not kill Pitt."

"See that you don't." Chris made to stride over to his horse, when Buck maneuvered his tall frame until they were standing face to face. "What?" he growled.

"I don't care if you ain't in the mood, Larabee," Buck snapped. "You spent the last days drivin' us all crazy, drivin' yourself crazy playin' the 'what if' game. Ezra didn't deserve what ya said. Far as I can tell, there's nothin' goin' on between Ez and Navezgane, except in that pea-brained head of yours. So ya go out there, find that pain in the butt, and make things right. Or I swear ta God, I'll kick both your lily white asses all the way back to Four Corners. Got it?"

Knowing when to admit defeat and keep his mouth shut, Chris turned around, and went in search of Ezra.

Chris stumbled around in the darkness, cursing the thick forest and the moonless night that had fallen so suddenly upon them. Cursing Ezra. He knew he had more than enough reasons to be furious with the gambler, but his words and insinuations had been cruel and unnecessary.

And it wasn't as if it was the first time Ezra had done something like this; taking a bullet for Mary when he could have gotten away with the assassin's money instead, the way Ezra had gone out of his way to prove that the railroad foreman abused the Chinese laborers... Those and other times were more than enough proof Ezra had a good heart, no matter how hard he tried to hide it.

Chris also suspected Ezra had a thing for strays, perhaps because he had been one of sorts as a child. The gambler had taken an instant liking to Olivia, the six-year old daughter of Terry Greer, the ex-safecracker who had caused such havoc in the Seven's lives. Li Pong was another good example. Even if Nathan had been the one to get the ball rolling, Ezra had formed a strong bond with the Chinese girl, and had brooded for a long time after she'd left.

As for Navezgane... Jealous he might be, but Chris wasn't blind. The white Indian seemed lost, balancing between his roots and what he had been taught while growing up with the Apache. Being around Ezra, a white man, probably wasn't helping matters.

"Ezra!" he called. "Ezra, where are you?" No answer. "Ezra, I know you're out here, that you can hear me. Where are you?"

"Here." The tone was calm and even, and Chris followed in its direction until he found Ezra leaning against a tree, arms folded across his chest in a defensive gesture.

Knowing the words had to be said, Chris walked slowly over to him, until they were inches apart, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that."

Ezra remained silent for a moment, looking at the leafy ground, then his eyes finally rose to meet Chris'. "So am I. You were right, I should have thought of a way to let you know I was safe." He cleared his throat. "I know Navezgane wouldn't be against becoming intimate with me, but it's not what I wanted. He kissed me last night, Chris," Ezra told him, candidly. "And I put a stop to it. Because, although I did enjoy it, I immediately thought of you. I feel strangely comfortable with him, something I have only experienced with you and the others. But there isn't anything more on my part beyond friendship. I... I love you."

Chris took both of Ezra's hands in his. "I wasn't ready to say it before, but I love you too. Very, very much."

Ezra gave him a wide smile. "I guess we're stuck with each other, then. 'For better or worse'?"

Chris' hands flew up to Ezra's face and framed it tenderly. "Absolutely," he breathed, resting his forehead against the other man's. Then, wanting to show Ezra the depth of his love, he tilted Ezra's face towards his and kissed him full on the mouth, with total abandonment, and such an emotional intensity that it shocked him, a mix of terror and elation flowing through his veins. To care for someone this much was madness, but he was at last ready to face the future, one in which Ezra was right beside him.

"Good," Ezra whispered huskily, fingers playfully trailing down towards Chris' thigh, dangerously close to his groin. "We have been gone long enough. We should return," he said, withdrawing his hand and moving slightly away.

"Bastard," Chris huffed, his shaft having hardened at the gentle touch of Ezra's digits.

Ezra chuckled softly. "Once we reach Four Corners, you can punish me for being such a bad boy." With a parting wink he was on his way back to the campsite, leaving Chris torn between gaping at the retreating form or letting fly a string of expletives at the damn tease.

When they reached camp, the others were all sitting by the fire, eating or drinking coffee. Navezgane had some pieces of oak beside him, and Ezra frowned as he watched the other man use the scalping knife to chip away at the wood.

"Navezgane, what are you doing?" he asked as he sat by Chris' side. The last thing he needed after their conversation was to aggravate his future lover. He fought a smile at that thought; Chris had finally said the words he'd been dying to hear for months. He could hardly wait for this matter to be done with, so Chris could indeed 'punish' him.

"Arrows. Your Kiowa friend," he gestured to Vin, "has returned my quiver. I had left it behind, forgotten. I used the last arrows on the men that attacked you; I need more. I will not be ambushed again."

"What are we goin' to do about Pitt?" Nathan asked. "It'll take about two days for Judge Travis to get here. Pitt knows we're here and that his men failed to kill Ezra and Navezgane. We gotta do somethin' or he's goin' to run."

"I agree. We should go to his ranch in the mornin'," Chris replied. "JD and Josiah can go and have a word with the local sheriff."

"I'm not certain either suggestion will have any effect," Ezra retorted.

Buck looked up from his cup of coffee. "Meanin'?"

"I first stumbled upon Ward some years back, while attempting to place as much distance between Mother and myself as humanly possible. It wasn't paradise on Earth, but enough of a podunk for Mother not to risk a visit. During my second stay, and due to circumstances beyond my control, I became a most reluctant guest of Sheriff Bridges' jailhouse. While he might not be one of Pitt's employees, he most certainly will refuse to assist us. As for Pitt himself, if tried and found guilty, he will hang. I would not stay still and wait for it to occur. My guess is that Mr. Pitt is packing his most valuable possessions even as we speak and planning on abandoning his modest ranch for the sake of freedom."

"What did ya do?" Vin asked, a wicked smile on his face.

Ezra didn't pretend to misunderstand what the tracker was asking. "I had the misfortune to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. I was blamed for disturbing the peace, accused of causing a vicious quarrel at the saloon."

"And did you?" Like Vin, Josiah was grinning from ear to ear.

Ezra glared at them. "It is *not* my fault that some people are sore losers, sir. I did *not* cheat! Nor did I throw the first punch."

"But I bet ya threw the second," Chris quipped with a chuckle.

Ezra gave him a mock-outraged look. "I had to defend myself from that miscreant. He was twice as tall as Josiah and twice as round as well," he exaggerated, making the others laugh. "It's a miracle I didn't break my hand on his jaw. Of course, the sheriff didn't exactly take to my point of view." He sobered. "Bridges only released me after I very unwillingly divided my winnings with him. He simply can not be trusted."

"So what do we do?" JD asked. "If we go after Pitt in the mornin', we risk losin' him. But it's too damn dark to go moseyin' about in the forest."

"Not if we take care," Ezra disagreed. "I am familiar with the terrain, I can get us there safely. Pitt will no doubt wait for first light to stage his escape. He might know his way around his surroundings, but if he is to travel as far away as possible, he must wait or risk injury to his mount. Besides, he is probably assuming no one will dare to pursue him until morning; we would be catching him off his guard."

Chris nodded. "Okay, we'll go now. Pack up, ladies, we have a bad element to apprehend."

Ezra gave him a saucy grin. "I thought you were the bad element?"

"Ezra?" Chris called sweetly.


"Shut up."

The Snake Pitt was a cattle ranch nestled in a deep valley, amidst tall oak trees, making it the ideal place for seclusion. Ezra could count four structures bathed in the dim glow of the stars and the nearly imperceptible moon; the main lodge, a barn, the stables, and what had to be a bunkhouse for the cowhands.

He let out a deep breath, seeing it mist before his eyes. The night had turned cold; the air tasted fresh and clean, the breeze was crisp. A mountain dew was falling, dampening the grass and sharpening its scent.

Below, a small curl of smoke rose from an old chimney, the thin wisps disappearing into the dark sky. That, and a faint light shining from the south side of the main house were the only visible signs of life. He watched for movement from within the domicile, for any traces of a guard. He frowned as he saw none. That didn't make sense; even if Pitt wasn't expecting company until morning, there should have been a guard.

"Chris?" Josiah's whisper broke the uneasy silence between the eight riders. "What's the plan?"

"We leave the horses here. You see to the stables, Josiah. Nathan and I will check the bunkhouse. JD, you go for the barn. Ezra, Vin, Buck, and Navezgane, take positions around the main house. Wait until we have secured everyone in the other buildings before you do anythin'. We need to take down as many men as we can before they sound the alarm."

Ezra nodded his agreement, and traded a concerned glance with Chris, pleading with him to be careful without actually saying the words, then gestured for Navezgane to follow. The hunt was on.

Chris felt more than heard Nathan stalking behind him, both using the cover of trees to approach their target. He recalled Ezra's worried expression as they parted, knowing his own had mirrored his fear for the other man, his need for Ezra to be careful. He wasn't certain if allowing Navezgane to go with Ezra was the right thing to do, but Chris knew Ezra would be the only one capable of controlling the Indian. And Vin and Buck would be there to help.

They reached open ground and, at his signal, he and Nathan ran towards the bunkhouse. Guns ready, he kicked the door ajar, blinking as he found it all but deserted. Only two men inhabited the large space, sitting on the floor at the far end, backs against the wall, several empty bottles of whiskey lying between them. They were obviously out cold, heads touching, and snoring loudly.

Nathan chuckled silently. "Sounds like Pitt forgot to tell his workers he might be gettin' some company. Should we bother to tie 'em up?"

"Might as well," Chris replied, already reaching for some rope.

They made quick work of binding both men, closing the door behind them as they left. Josiah sprinted over to them, JD not far behind. "The stables are devoid of the two-legged animal variety," the big man stated with a grin.

JD scowled at him. "If that means there was no one there, same thing with the barn. What now?"

"We join the others, try to get Pitt to surrender. He must be inside with his men. We don't know how many they are, or even if they're aware of the kind of murderin' bastard their boss is, but as far as they're concerned we're the bad guys. They'll shoot first and ask questions later. Try not to kill anyone; we'll leave it to Sheriff Bridges to find the rotten apples in the bunch. Once this is over, he'll be forced to step in."

Chris hadn't taken more than a step when he heard something whistle through the air above them. Lifting his head, he saw what looked like several bright flames darting past, some landing on the barn and stables, some on the bunkhouse, but most hitting the roof of the house.

"What the --" JD cried out, startled.

"That son of a bitch," Chris muttered angrily. "Fire arrows; the little mongrel is using fire arrows!"

Ezra reached his position and crouched down against a wall in the hopes of remaining invisible. Turning to his companions, he grinned, "We made it. This far, at least." His smile vanished. "Where's Navezgane?"

Buck glanced back. "He was right behind me!"

"Damn it," Ezra muttered. "I'd wager he is going after Pitt. I should have known he would never abide by our plan."

"Oh, shit," Vin whispered suddenly. "Look."

Ezra held his breath as he saw arrow after arrow shoot through the night, all finding their marks, the buildings becoming engulfed in flames as the fire consumed everything in sight.

"Fire!" someone shouted from inside the house.

A group of men scurried out of the lodge at the cry of alarm, only to freeze at the vision of hell surrounding them. Ezra could empathize with them; the air was rapidly filling with smoke, the heat almost unbearable. The barn and bunkhouse were nearly burned to the ground, and Ezra sighed with relief as he watched Chris and Josiah exit the cowhands' living quarters, dragging two unconscious men with them.

As the sea of flames began to eat away at the wood in the lodge, Buck coughed. "We've gotta get out of here! We're too close to the house!"

They retreated to hide within the safe haven of the forest, watching as the ranch workers began to gather water from the well in a desperate attempt to stem the burning inferno.

Ezra grabbed Buck's arm, "We have to assist them!"

"It's too late, Ezra, the fire's destroyin' everythin'," Vin replied, having to shout over the frantic noise around them.

Ezra was about to retort when the panicked neighs of the horses reached his ears. "Oh, my Lord," he breathed. "The horses are still locked in the stables."

Without waiting for the others, he rushed to the stables, just as a shower of glass and debris exploded from the facade of the lodge. The upper floor was completely wrapped in flames and the whole structure seemed about to collapse. Vin was right; it was too late to salvage the ranch.

Focusing on the task at hand, he reached the stable entrance, and not wasting any time he ran inside, opening the stalls one by one, spooking the already frightened animals into bolting away to safety.

The building was now ablaze, the walls hissing with the sound of the fire. Ezra's eyes watered, the heat made it difficult to breathe, and smoke filled his lungs, forcing him to cough violently. Nearly blind, he turned to leave, only to find Lionel Pitt standing there.

"You!" the man snarled, surprised. "I remember you! You're the gambler from Eagle Bend!" Then he seemed to notice Ezra's clothes. "You're one of the white Indians I was warned about. Are you responsible for this?" He gestured towards the burning structure around them.

"Not directly, no," Ezra gasped, the smoke beginning to make him dizzy.

He saw Pitt's hand go for his colt, but before the man could complete the motion, a large beam fell from the ceiling, pinning him to the floor. Pitt screamed in agony and Ezra watched in horror as the man's suit caught on fire. Galvanized into action, he grabbed part of the beam not yet touched by the flames, trying to set Pitt free.

It wasn't working. The beam weighed a ton and Ezra was too weak from being exposed to the smoke for so long. The screams rose in volume, filling the air, the smell of scorched flesh making him gag. He kept up his struggle with the beam, his dazed mind never realizing that the screams had ceased.

He felt himself crumble to his knees, knowing he didn't have enough strength to escape from the stables before the whole frame disintegrated. Just as he was about to surrender to fatigue, strong hands gripped his arms and dragged him away from the intolerable furnace.

Chris' heart nearly stopped when he saw Vin and Buck extracting a semiconscious Ezra out of the stables' ruins. The two men sat the gambler against a tree, and even as Chris raced to join them, he could hear Ezra's labored breaths. Spotting Navezgane approaching provided the perfect outlet for his growing fury and fear.

"You fuckin' bastard!" Chris growled fiercely, hands gripping Navezgane's vest and shoving him flush against a tree trunk. "You coulda've gotten him killed!" He pushed the Indian against the tree a couple more times, snarling as the other merely gazed at him, taking his punishment silently. "I should put you out of your misery! What the hell were you thinkin'?"

Letting Navezgane go with a snort of disgust, he turned to Ezra, relieved to see Nathan was already there, hands searching for injuries, soothing voice ordering Ezra to inhale and exhale slowly, to calm down. Josiah appeared out of nowhere with a canteen and Chris watched as Ezra took a few grateful sips. He wasn't even aware of kneeling next to the other man, until he felt Ezra's fingers touch his hand in a display of comfort.

"I'm all right, Chris," he whispered, sounding hoarse and exhausted.

"Don't look like it," Chris remarked roughly, knowing his profound relief was showing. "What the hell happened?"

"I had freed the horses when I found myself face-to-face with our dear Mr. Pitt. He was about to shoot me when a beam fell on him. I attempted to liberate him, but the wood was far too heavy for me to lift. He died."

"And ya came damn close too, ya idiot!" Buck chided harshly. "You should've gotten the hell out 'a there as soon as ya saw you couldn't free 'im!"

Ezra nodded weakly. "I made an error in judgement, Buck. I apologize."

"I am the one who should apologize," Navezgane said, and Chris gruffly acknowledged the sorrow in his voice. "I never meant for you to get hurt, shils aash. My friend."

Ezra smiled. "It is of no importance, Navezgane. You might have been the one to set the ranch on fire, but I was the one that chose to help Pitt." He sighed gently. "So, your vengeance has finally been accomplished."

Navezgane stood proud as he looked at them. "Yes. Hi-disho; it is finished. It is time for me to leave."

Chris jumped to his feet, his wrath rekindled. "Leave? I don't think so. Ya lied to us, pretended to go along with our plan, murdered God knows how many men, nearly got Ezra killed, and arson is still a crime in this state. You ain't goin' anywhere, you son-of-a-bitch."

Navezgane glared at him. "They deserved it, all of them. Each man I 'murdered' as you say, killed many of my tribe. Defenseless old men, women, children. Should they go unpunished?"

"That's not the point, Navezgane," Josiah interjected calmly. "You can't appoint yourself judge, jury and executioner."

Nathan nodded his agreement. "You can't be the one to decide who gets to live or die, that ain't right."

"Why? Is that not what your Judge Travis and others like him do? What is the difference? By your laws those men would be hung. Different ways, same result. The Ndee have their own laws and I acted by them. I did not shed the blood of innocents, unlike those demons."

"You ain't an Apache," Vin countered quietly.

Navezgane shook his head sadly. "No. But neither am I a white man. I will go with you and accept my punition for what you consider my crimes. But I do not regret my actions."

"Chris, can't we let him go?"

Chris turned to see Ezra on his feet, leaning weakly against a tree. "Ezra --"

"I am aware of the crimes Navezgane has committed, Chris. Yes, he executed those men, but did they in turn not slay nearly a whole tribe for the sake of a few miserly dollars? Which is worse? And let's face reality; even if this case had been brought up to Travis, what could he have actually done? It would be Pitt's word -- a white man, and a wealthy rancher -- against that of an Indian. No jury in the country would find Pitt or any of those men guilty. There has been enough killing, let it go. Please."

"I'm not sure I can, Ezra," Chris breathed loud enough for only Ezra to hear. "When I saw Vin and Buck takin' ya out of that buildin'..." He swallowed hard, memories of another burned down house bringing forth a past he sometimes wished dead and buried along with his family.

"Oh, Chris," Ezra whispered gently, fingers brushing over his face. "I'm sorry this reminded you of such a horrid time in your life. But I am all right, and as uncivilized as it might be, a part of me agrees with what Navezgane has done. I would bring forth the fires of Hell on anyone who dared to hurt you or any of our friends. Navezgane lost virtually everyone he cared for, and he has such a difficult path ahead of him... Can't we just... give him a second chance, a second start at life?"

Chris looked at Ezra, knowing he would be unable to resist both the words and the plea in those bewitching green eyes. Turning to Navezgane, he asked, "Where will you go?"

Navezgane blinked in surprise, then shrugged. "I do not know. I had thought to track the survivors of my tribe, but they are long gone. Perhaps I will travel the west, while it is still untamed by the pale faces," he said with a slight smile. He took Ezra's forearm in a warrior's salute. "Goodbye, Golinka. Ka Dish Day; until we meet again."

He turned to leave, but Ezra was faster. "Oh, no you don't! You still haven't told me what 'golinka' means!"

Chris watched as an amused smile curled Navezgane's lips, until he was laughing softly. "Golinka," he began, "means skunk."

"Skunk?!" Ezra sputtered in a mock-insulted tone, as Chris and the others laughed. "You... you..." He threw a small stone at Navezgane, who avoided it easily. "Oh, go on. Get out of here, you annoying Indian." Turning serious again, he added, "If you ever need shelter or a roof over your head, Navezgane, seek us out in Four Corners. You will never lack for a friend."

Navezgane nodded. "I will. Farewell."

And as suddenly as he had stormed into their lives, Navezgane was gone.

Ezra stared wearily at the desolation around them. There was little left of The Snake Pitt except for ashes and rubble. The ranch had literally burned down to the ground. The men wandered aimlessly about the property, looking wary and defeated, many of them having noticed Ezra and the others, but never approaching them.

He took a deep, steadying breath, relieved that his chest didn't ache as much as it had, that he was feeling stronger. He was standing with the others as they waited for JD, who had gone into Ward for Sheriff Bridges. He hoped the confrontation with the sheriff didn't take long. He was absolutely desperate for a long, cleansing bath, fresh garments whispering upon his body, and a warm, soft bed. Even if he had to spend the night in Ward to obtain all three.

Thinking about clothes reminded him he'd never gotten a chance to return Navezgane's buckskins, which he was still wearing. He looked down at himself; he was covered in soot and dirt, and the scent of smoke clung to every pore of his body. Perhaps he could dispose of these clothes once he had acquired new ones; he had little doubt it would be a long time before he set eyes on Navezgane again, if ever.

"Keep 'em," a voice purred seductively in his ear.

He turned to Chris, brows furrowed. "Keep what?"

"The buckskins," Chris answered with a wide grin. "Since the first time I saw you wearin' them, I've been feelin' this urge to play 'cowboys and indians’."

Ezra laughed at that, delighted at Chris' whimsical mood. "Really?" he hummed, melting their bodies together. "So, am I supposed to scalp you?"

"I was thinkin' more along the lines of you havin' your wicked way with me."

Ezra chuckled, fingers busy toying with Chris' shirt buttons. "I believe that can be arranged," he drawled slowly. "But I thought you wanted to punish me for being a bad boy?"

Chris nodded. "That too. I've got a very active imagination, Ezra. Lots o' stuff we can try," he added, ruefully. "Plus, we've got forever to do it all."

Ezra felt his heart skip a beat. This was a side of Chris he had never seen before, one he hoped to see often from now on. "That sounds perfect," he whispered, voice wavering slightly.

He might have said more, but JD chose that moment to arrive with Bridges and his deputies. Ezra was more than happy to leave Chris and the others to deal with the sheriff, to let them explain the situation, and help take everyone into town. It was the early hours of the morning before Bridges finally permitted all the genuine cowhands to go free, and arrested Pitt's brigands. It was even later before he allowed the Seven to go, once every detail had been told and retold to his satisfaction.

Ezra dragged Chris to the finest hotel in Ward -- which wasn't saying much -- and, making use of the emergency money in his boot, paid an obscene sum for their best room -- again, nothing to boast about. After much cajoling he managed to have a bathtub sent over to their room, taking an indecent amount of time luxuriating in the tub before he let Chris take a bath as well.

Unable to keep his eyes open for another minute, Ezra dragged himself onto the surprisingly wide, and comfortable, bed and was instantly asleep.

Chris opened his eyes with a sigh, feeling wonderfully mellow and rested. Looking out the window he realized it was getting dark; they'd slept for over twelve hours. His gaze turned to the man lying next to him. Ezra was sleeping soundly, nude on top of the ratty sheet, having kicked the covers from the bed sometime during the night. Chris felt a smile widening on his face as his hungry gaze ran over the perfect body he loved so much.

Remembering he had yet to punish the little devil, he decided now was as good a time as any. He pushed himself up on his elbow, one hand traveling slowly down Ezra's firm chest, taking in the smooth, silken expanse, before reaching his goal. Pumping Ezra's cock with light, teasing strokes, he felt the other man arch into his hand with a groan. Knowing that wouldn't be enough to fully wake Ezra, Chris turned his focus on delicate nipples, alternating between them, breathing and licking at the two little pebbles, this time bringing forth a string of louder moans and mewls.

"Oh, Lord..." came the sleepy whimper. "Chris..."

Chris chuckled evilly, sliding his body sensually against Ezra's, using his fingers and mouth to chart the new territory underneath him. He kissed and nibbled on every bit of skin he could reach, branding Ezra as his, paying especially close attention to his navel by jabbing his tongue in and out in a semblance of lovemaking until the younger man was nearly out of his mind.

His hands skimmed over Ezra's inner thighs, forcing his legs apart so he could settle between them. Finally he took Ezra's cock into his mouth at an agonizingly slow pace, inch by inch until the head was resting against the back of his throat. Then he began to hum softly, enjoying the wild, unrestrained manner in which Ezra bucked under him.

Chris took hold of Ezra's hips while he sucked and licked at the hard shaft, allowing his lover to thrust into his mouth as he caressed Ezra's balls, rolling them gently in his hand. Soon he was rewarded with a muffled shout as Ezra climaxed in long salty pulses before falling back onto the bed in a totally boneless sprawl.

Chris gave the softening cock one last lick, feeling undeniably smug. "Consider yourself punished, Mr. Standish."

"Mr. Larabee," was the breathless reply. "If this is your idea of punishment, I will be sure to be a *very* bad boy from this moment on!" Ezra took a deep breath and then forced Chris onto his back, straddling him in an unexpectedly swift move. "I believe it is my turn to have my wicked way with you."

Chris opened his arms. "By all means, please do."

Never one to turn his back on a challenge, Ezra gave Chris a cheeky grin and leaned down to trail little kisses down the blond's neck and chest, stopping as he reached his nipples. He bit one lightly, running his tongue over it, while he used his thumb to excite the other, wiggling his eyebrows playfully as Chris cursed and arched off the mattress.

Satisfied that both nipples were now hard, Ezra proceeded with his torture, licking his way down Chris' taut stomach, enjoying the way the muscles rippled at his touch. His eyes fell on his lover's hard cock and he frowned. Chris had been aroused for far too long, and although he would have loved to keep Chris on the brink of release for a while longer, it would be cruel. There would be time later for fun and games; as Chris himself had said, they had forever.

His green eyes locking with Chris' darker ones, Ezra reached for the nightstand, taking out the small jar he had stashed there before going to sleep. He set it on the bed beside them, and ravished the other man's lips with a passionate kiss.

"Where did you get that?" Chris panted, once they broke apart.

Ezra chuckled. "Nathan. Told him my arm was still bothering me."

"Is it?"

Ezra shook his head, warmed by Chris' concern. "No. But I was certain we would eventually take this path. You know the saying, 'better safe than sorry', don't you?" He opened the jar, pouring some salve onto Chris' fingers. "Prepare me," he ordered as he spread his legs, opening himself up for his lover.

"You sure?" Chris asked, obviously not having expected this turn of events.

"I'm sure." Ezra bucked and whimpered as Chris stretched him, the fingers moving in and out with short strokes. The digits dug in a little deeper, finding his pleasure gland, and Ezra had to bite his lip to stop from crying out loud at the spike of fierce arousal that tore through his body. He glared at the laughing Chris. "Bastard," he muttered without heat. "That's enough. I want you inside me. Now."

Chris removed his fingers and Ezra slowly lowered himself onto his lover's shaft with a moan. Chris steadied him by placing warm hands at his waist, but remained still, and Ezra squeezed his muscles around Chris' cock as a warning.

"Oh, shit..." Chris groaned, his hips bucking, sheathing his erection deeper within Ezra's body.

"Move, damn you," Ezra whimpered, breathlessly.

Chris finally took the hint, and began to thrust his hips up, piercing Ezra's body again and again. Resting both hands on Chris' shoulders, Ezra started to move up and down on his lover's cock, their rhythm getting faster until they were both grunting in tandem. Eyes closed, wanting to experience their lovemaking to the maximum, Ezra felt Chris' hand around his erection pumping him.

It was too much. Chris' shaft rubbed against his prostate with every stroke; the added stimulation on his renewed hardness had him throwing his head back in ecstasy, his seed spurting all over Chris' hand and stomach. His inner muscles tightened around his lover, sending him over the edge as well, Chris' hot semen flowing deep inside of him.

Exhausted, Ezra collapsed onto Chris' chest, panting heavily. He sighed contentedly, snuggling closer to the body underneath him. "I could get used to this..." he whispered, feeling Chris begin to shake under him, until the other man was laughing heartily. "What?"

Chris gave him a blissful smile. "I was thinkin' the same thing." He looked out the window. "It's gettin' late. We should probably check on the others."

"Later," Ezra breathed against the blond's neck.

"Go get somethin' to eat?" Chris insisted.


"Go for a walk, stretch our legs?"

"Later," Ezra replied, fighting the urge to laugh; he could hear the annoyance in Chris' voice.

"Well, what the hell do ya want to do?" came the predictable, impatiently-asked question.

"This. Again," he replied, lifting his head to look at the other man.

"Again?!" Chris had an incredulous expression on his face. "You can't be serious!"

Ezra leered. "Oh, but I am. You may be the bad element, but I'm the bad boy. I have a reputation to maintain. Not to mention months of frustration to make up for."

Chris groaned. "You'll be the death of me!"

Ezra winked at him. "Probably. But what a way to go."



Magnificent Seven