Last Breath of Wisdom
by VampyrAlex

Pairing: Ezra/Chris
Category: OW
Rating: R
Disclaimer: The characters from Mag7 belong to MGM, Mirisch, and Trilogy, which is a damn shame. <g> No copyright infringement intended, this story is strictly for fun, not profit.
Author's notes: Thanks to Sherri and Tess for beta'ing this. This is in response to Lisa's challenge of having Ezra woo one of the others.
Summary: Ezra decides to take a gamble with his heart.

Ezra Standish looked out the window of his room, wondering if he wasn't about to make the biggest mistake of his life. He watched as Chris Larabee strode deliberately towards the jail, smiling ruefully as he realized he spent a lot of time lately doing just that; watching Larabee.

He wasn't certain when his trust, his respect and his admiration for their leader had changed into something stronger, something more powerful and frightening. Realization came abruptly during a particularly nasty robbery attempt on the Four Corners' bank. He shuddered as he recalled the moment Chris was shot, dust swirling around the limp body as he impacted with the ground. It was then that it had finally hit, how much the other man really meant to him.

Chris recovered slowly from his injury and Ezra kept the newfound knowledge of his emotion to himself. After all, their professional relationship wasn't exactly smooth sailing. They butted heads constantly, both refusing to back down even when secretly admitting the other was correct.

But things between them had changed in the last months, for the better. Ever since the day Ezra had saved Mary Travis' life, Chris acted differently towards him. It was a heady feeling to be the recipient of the man's trust and friendship, of one of his rare smiles.

Suddenly watching wasn't enough any longer; he needed more. But how do you tell a man like Larabee you are in love with him? The man was unpredictable, to say the least. The situation called for some well thought out strategy.

Now, after weeks of careful plotting, he was ready to execute his plan. He was going to secretly woo Chris Larabee. Depending on how the man reacted, Ezra would either tell him how he felt... or not.

He controlled his trepidation as he adjusted his hat and prepared to leave the room. Taking a last, deep, calming breath, he pulled the collar of his coat up against his neck and walked out the door.

Chris strolled into the jail, nodding his head towards Vin as a way of greeting.

"Cowboy," Vin replied, a slight smile dancing on his face.

"Anythin' happen durin' the night I should know about?" Chris asked.

"Nope. That came for ya, though. Some kid brought it in not long 'go." Vin glanced at a tall, narrow box sitting on the desk.

Chris sat behind the desk, looking at the box curiously. "The kid didn't say who's it from?"

"No. Well, ain't ya gonna open it?" the Texan prompted.

Shrugging, Chris did just that, sharing a whistle with Vin at the expensive bottle of whiskey wrapped inside the box. Noticing a small card, he picked it up.

"What does it say?" Vin asked.

"'From a secret admirer'. Capitalized letters, there'll be no way of comparin' handwritings to see who sent it."

Vin tilted his head thoughtfully. "Who do ya think it's from?"

"Buck, probably. He and JD have been downright mysterious lately. Wouldn't put it past those two to try and yank my chain just for the laughs. I'll have a word with 'em just as soon as we return from Cedar Ridge."

"Still haven't changed your mind against takin' Ezra with ya?" Vin grinned lazily.

"Nope. Have to. Josiah and Nathan still haven't gotten back from the Seminole village and I need the rest of you here to watch over the town."

Vin chuckled knowingly. "If that's the only reason, I'll go with ya and Ez'll stay behind ta watch the town."

"Mind your own business, Tanner," he growled, although there was no real heat behind it.

Truth of the matter was he wanted Ezra to go with him. He knew Ezra had been about to leave Four Corners all those months back with the ten thousand dollars in his coat, but seeing him take the bullet meant for Mary was an eye opener. It forced him to face up to the fact that while Ezra wasn't perfect, he deserved his place amongst the Seven, and had actually saved their lives on more than one occasion.

Chris began to make an effort, to be friendlier, to make allowances for the man's profession whenever there was trouble in the saloon, to reach out for the man hidden behind the protective layers. The reward was unexpected; Ezra responded in kind, relaxing around him, smiling more, seemingly more at ease whenever they happened to be together.

Bridges built, a strong relationship began to form. He found he enjoyed the gambler's witty remarks, the sharp mind, shared some of his views on life, and even playing poker with him when Ezra wasn't out for blood. Or his salary.

And if, by any chance, he found himself recognizing things about Ezra that a man shouldn't notice about another man, that wasn't the other man's fault. Whenever they were in the same room it was impossible not to notice the graceful way in which Ezra moved, the strong, handsome face, the startling green eyes. Not that he would do anything about it; he had always been a ladies man, he had no desire to change the habits of a lifetime.

He rose from the chair. "Time to see if he's awake."

Vin grinned. "I'm comin' with ya, can't miss this."

They left the jail, but before they made it to the saloon, the batwing doors opened and Ezra walked out. Chris blinked, taken aback by the vision before him.

The only familiar item on Ezra's person was his hat; everything else was new and practical for a change. He had on a pair of black pants, snug and comfortable looking, a dark green shirt that, despite its somber tone, seemed to bring out the gambler's eyes and a black coat to the waist, very similar to the one Chris himself was wearing.

"What happened to 'em fancy clothes o' yours, Ez?" Vin asked from beside him.

Ezra grimaced fastidiously. "Those are the garments called for by my profession, Mr. Tanner. It became tiresome having to clean all the dust and dirt from such fine cloth every time we went out on the trail, so I decided to purchase something more adequate. I trust I chose correctly?" He looked down at himself.

"Yeah. Yeah, you chose well," Chris said, finally finding his voice.

"Excellent." Ezra raised an eyebrow quizzically, gazing at the bottle of whiskey Chris carried with him. "Something for the road?"

Chris found himself chuckling. "Why not? Heard it's gonna get cold tonight. Come on, we better get goin'."

He watched as Ezra gave Vin a two-fingered salute. "Mr. Tanner, I bid you adieu."

"See ya when ya get back, boys," Vin drawled, before disappearing into the saloon.

Chris followed Ezra to the livery, where one of the boys had their horses already saddled and ready for them. He swallowed as his eyes focused on Ezra's every movement as the man mounted, the pants stretching over firm mounds of flesh as the gambler straddled the saddle.

"Ready, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked, giving him a look he couldn't quite identify.

Chris cleared his throat. "Sure, let's go."

Maybe bringing Ezra along hadn't been such a good idea after all. If nothing else, it was going to be a long ride. A *very* long ride.

When they stopped for the night it was already beginning to get dark. Chris lit a fire while Ezra handled the horses, then they sat together by the warmth of the flames, sharing dinner in companionable silence.

It was when it was time to sleep that things took a turn for the worse; Chris realized he couldn't find his bedroll or the extra blanket he usually carried when the weather began to get cooler.

"Damn it!" he growled in annoyance.

"What's wrong, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked from behind him.

"I must've left my bedroll in Four Corners. Damn, I could've sworn I packed it..." He muttered as he settled back down by the fire.

"You can share mine, Mr. Larabee. It is big enough for the both of us, and so is the blanket. It will provide adequate shielding from the cold."

Chris looked at him, enjoying the way the flames seemed to cast shadows over Ezra's features. "I'm not sure --" he began.

Ezra met his eyes, a serious expression shining through. "Mr. Larabee, it is quite cold tonight and will probably get worse before the sun comes up. Besides," he added with a wicked smile, "I won't bite."

Chris chuckled. "Okay. I guess you're right, no point in freezin' ta death. Ya go ahead and lie down, I'll have a last cup of coffee before turnin' in."

He took his time sipping the coffee, watching as Ezra prepared the bedroll for the night and snuggled in under the blanket. "Goodnight, Mr. Larabee."

"'Night, Ezra."

He waited until he was certain Ezra was asleep and only then did he join him, snuggling against the gambler's back and sighing contentedly at the man's warmth. He was expecting to take his time falling into slumber, but after the hard ride, and surrounded by Ezra's scent and warm presence, he was asleep before he knew it.

He woke up hours later, only to realize Ezra must be having some kind of bad dream. The Southerner was practically glued to him, his back against Chris' chest. A few of the buttons on the green shirt had fallen open, revealing smooth skin, Ezra's lips were slightly parted as he murmured too low for Chris to make out what he was saying, and he was wiggling languidly, his buttocks brushing repeatedly over Chris' hardening cock.

Uncertain whether or not to wake Ezra, but knowing he was going to come if the maddening pressure against his groin didn't stop soon, Chris was nonetheless saved from having to act as Ezra suddenly ceased all movement, settling down with a soft sigh.

Chris waited a few minutes then laid down as well, cursing under his breath at his painful erection. There was no way he would be able to go back to sleep like that. Getting up carefully, he made his way to the stream running close to the camp, stroking himself rapidly to orgasm, trying to conjure the imagine of enticing breasts, long, blond hair and blue eyes as he did so.

Instead, his mind was suddenly flooded with the vision of green eyes darkened with arousal, a firm, masculine body writhing beneath him and luscious lips swollen from his kisses. He lay panting on the ground for a long time, shaking in denial. It wasn't going to happen. He was in love with Mary Travis, not Ezra Standish. This... lunacy he seemed to be suffering from, was just a passing fancy and he was too old for teenage antics.

He never did notice the wide smile on his companion's lips as he returned to camp and joined Ezra in the bedroll.

The remnant of the trip went without a problem and three days later they were back in Four Corners, bringing along with them a prisoner to be tried by Judge Travis. The man was part of a gang who had attempted to rob the bank in Four Corners. The lawmen managed to prevent the robbery, capturing or killing most of the bandits. All but one Stanley Pollack, who made it as far as Cedar Ridge before getting arrested in a saloon brawl.

Ezra left the job of locking Pollack up to Chris and made his way to the saloon, picking an empty table and ordering a drink. Not five minutes later the chair next to him was pulled back and someone sat beside him.

"Mr. Tanner," he drawled, without looking up from his glass.

"Well, don't keep me guessin', Ez. Did it work?" Vin asked, curiosity shining in his eyes.

Ezra grinned at the other man. "I believe the correct term would be that *it is* working. We shared the whiskey during the arduous journey to and from Cedar Ridge and on that first night I volunteered to unsaddle our mounts, which gave me ample opportunity to conceal Mr. Larabee's bedroll and blanket. Unfortunately he bought new ones as soon as we arrived at Cedar Ridge, but your suggestion of pretending to be dreaming worked like a charm." He hesitated, then asked quietly," You are certain he does return my feelings, are you not, Mr. Tanner? Because if he doesn't, this whole affair could turn very unpleasant and --"

"Trust me, Ez," Vin interjected just as quietly. "Chris is in love with ya, he just don't know it yet. I've watched 'im, seen all the signs. Reckon his heart already knows, but his mind is fightin' it. He'll come 'round, all ya have ta do is push him in the right direction. When are ya goin' to give 'im the second gift?"

"Tomorrow. Mr. Larabee is in charge of night patrol, so he won't be returning to his cabin. I had thought of leaving my latest attempt at wooing in the room he keeps above the saloon."

Vin nodded. "Good idea, Ez. Look, I gotta go; I promised Nettie I'd help fix her roof." He rose from the chair. "Let me know how's it workin' and if ya need anythin'."

"Certainly, Mr. Tanner. And may I once again express my gratitude for your assistance."

The Texan grinned. "Think nothin' of it. Least I could do for a friend." He gave Ezra a final wave and then was gone.

Ezra leaned back in the chair, wondering if his plan was working as well as he had made it sound to Vin. Chris was a hard man to read, and while he had definitely been aroused by Ezra's 'dream' that first night on the trail, that in itself meant nothing. Men's body responded automatically to stimulus, whatever the source. It certainly didn't mean that Ezra was responsible for Chris' erection. The simple friction of him rubbing against the blond's body could do it.

He sighed tiredly, wishing he could just go up to his room and rest for a while. Unfortunately, the latest gift he had purchased for Chris was quite expensive and he was without a penny to his name, which meant a few late poker nights in the near future. Again he wondered if he wasn't making a mistake, listening to Vin and to his own foolish heart. It had only gotten him in trouble before and it probably would again.

Chris marched into the jail with his prisoner, nodding towards JD and Buck as he pushed Pollack into one of the cells and locked it.

"Boys, everythin' all right?" He asked as he joined the two men by the desk.

"Not a single shot was fired since ya left, pard," Buck replied with a grin.

Chris nodded, his eyes narrowing as he glared at his oldest friend. "Buck, you do know what happens to those who try to mess with me, don't ya?"

Buck frowned in confusion. "What's wrong, ol' dog?"

"You wouldn't happen to be my 'secret admirer', would you?" Chris asked calmly, making sure his tone and expression exuded danger. He knew Buck wouldn't really fall for it, but JD was already squirming in his seat.

"What?" Buck seemed dumbfounded. "What are ya on about?"

"I received a bottle of whiskey the day I left for Cedar Ridge, anonymously. It came with a card sayin' it was from a secret admirer."

Buck chuckled. "And ya think it's me? Awww! I do love ya, pard, but not that much. Why would ya think it was me?"

"Maybe because you're the local prankster. And lately you and JD here have been very secretive, disappearing all the time. Makes one wonder."

"Nah! I've been helpin' the kid with Casey. Lord knows they need all the help they can get." Buck stated, ignoring JD's indignant 'Hey!'. "Never seen anyone as clueless about affairs of the heart as these two young'uns."

"And you being the expert, decided to help out." Chris drawled sarcastically.

Buck grinned widely. "Yep." His expression turned suddenly serious. "Have you considered the possibility of it bein' for real? That you really have a secret admirer? Let's face it, pard, you are a handsome devil. Maybe someone fell in love with ya and is tryin' to tell ya without havin' to come out face to face. I don't know, maybe that person is tryin' ta judge how ya react to a bit of mystery and seduction."

Chris seriously doubted that, but he was at least convinced Buck was telling the truth about not having anything to do with the bottle of whiskey. He left the jail with a parting nod, his mind still puzzling over the whole thing. Better to focus on his secret admirer than on what had happened with Ezra on the way to Cedar Ridge. Better not to think of that at all.

Chris walked wearily into his room, glad he had decided to keep it even after building his cabin. In times like this, when he had night patrol or something happened and it was too late to return home, having a room above the saloon came in handy, and he had even been given a special price, seeing as he was rarely there.

He sat on the bed, relieved that dawn had finally come and Josiah had taken over patrolling. All he wanted at that moment was to sleep into the afternoon and then have a hearty meal. But sleep first.

He was taking off his shirt when he noticed the small parcel resting on his pillow. He picked it up carefully, examining the outside for any clues on who might have left it there, before taking the plunge and opening it.

It was then he knew Buck was right; whoever his secret admirer was, whatever the reason behind all the secrecy, the feelings had to be real. Inside the parcel was a pair of spurs. And not just any spurs; these were expensive and custom made. They were perfectly weighted and balanced, the ten-point rowels made of pure silver, the straps made of the finest leather he had ever seen, the initials C.L. engraved on the band.

Serious thought had been put into such a gift; it could never be the result of a simple joke. But who could it be? The gift must have been placed there that day since the rooms were dusted every day. Inez would have told him something if she had found it.

Not that many people knew he would be sleeping in town; the other lawmen, Inez, Mary and... Mary. It had to be her. They had been going round in circles since their first meeting, a strange relationship blossoming between them, both too determined and headstrong, both seeing the world in different colors. But there was something there, at least on her part; he knew that.

He laid down on the bed, hands behind his head, eyes glued to the ceiling as he allowed his mind to wander. Maybe he should give it a try; Mary was a beautiful woman and he was feeling the loneliness more so than usual lately. He didn't love her, but maybe that would come later. He would have to pay her a visit.

He ignored the little voice at the back of his mind calling him a coward, telling him that it wasn't Mary he dreamed of at night, that it wasn't her warmth and scent he missed as he closed his eyes to sleep. He refused to listen to that voice; he just wasn't ready to face what it was trying to tell him.

By the time he walked into the newspaper, Chris already knew what he was going to do. Having a private conversation, especially regarding one's feelings, in a place where anyone could interrupt at any time wasn't ideal, so he wouldn't mention the gifts at first, or that he knew Mary was behind them. He would ask her out to dinner instead; then they would talk.

"Chris, hi!" She gave him a wide smile as he stepped into the newspaper. "What can I do for you?"

"I was wonderin' if you would like to have dinner with me tonight? I need to have a word with you about somethin' important," he told her quietly.

She blinked in surprise, a slight flush stealing over her features. "Umm... I'm afraid I can't tonight. Mrs. Potter and I are having a little get-together, a welcoming party of sorts for the new family staying at the old Reilly's farm. You know, the Plummers? But... perhaps we could have dinner tomorrow night? We could make it at my house; I'd cook something special for us... Billy is with his grandparents, so we would be alone."

Chris nodded. "That's a good idea. What time should I be there?"

"About seven," she replied, her smile warm.

He smiled back. "I'll be there," he promised, touching his fingers to the brim of his hat. "Mary."

"See you tomorrow, Chris."

He left the building, squinting at the bright afternoon sun. He took his time walking over to the jail, all the while trying to convince himself he wasn't about to make the biggest mistake of his life; it wasn't working.

Vin and Ezra were keeping Buck company at the jail, all three playing poker and laughing at Buck's dirty jokes when Chris strolled through the door.

"Were my eyes playin' tricks on me or did I see ya walkin' into Mary's newspaper a while ago, ol' dog?" Buck asked with a sly grin.

"Not that it's any of your business, but Mary and I are havin' dinner tomorrow night." Chris replied. "How's Pollock?"

"Behavin'. I don't think he'll give us any trouble." Vin replied, eyes turning to the man beside him. Ezra was ostensibly looking down at the cards in his hands, but the Texan could tell Chris' news had rocked him.

"In that case, I'll leave ya boys to watch over him. I need to have a word with Josiah."

"Anythin' to do with the fight he started last night at the saloon?" Buck asked with a grin.

"Yep." Chris seemed unable to prevent a smile from breaking through. "Inez is threatenin' to throw him out -- permanently -- if he ever gets drunk again. I'll be back later."

"Are you okay, Ez?" Vin asked once Chris was gone.

"I am fine, Mr. Tanner. However, I find I cannot concentrate on the game at this instant." He threw the cards on the desk. "If you gentlemen will excuse me, I believe I shall go for a walk."

"What's wrong with 'im?" Buck frowned as they watched Ezra leave, the gambler's whole posture exuding weariness and defeat.

Vin shook his head sadly. "Nothin', Bucklin. Nothin' at all."

Their eyes locked, Vin's conveying his sorrow for their friend, Buck's speculative. The Texan watched as Buck's blue eyes widened suddenly, a startled expression falling over the man's face.

"Pard, I just had this thought... Stop me if I'm wrong, but Chris seems to have gained a secret admirer recently and..." Buck trailed off and Vin realized his face must have given the truth away. "Shit! Ezra's the one and Chris thinks it's Mary."

"Got it in a nutshell." Vin said with a tired sigh. "Everythin' seemed to be workin' so well, and now this happens. Damn it, it ain't fair!"

"No, it ain't," Buck agreed, lowering his voice and leaning forward. "Chris don't love Mary, not really. I know 'im, I've seen the way he looks at Ezra too."

"So what are we gonna do?" Vin challenged.

Buck smiled knowingly. "Tell me everythin' that's been goin' on. I want details, ya hear? We have until tomorrow night to come up with somethin' to move Ezra's campaign one step up."

"Think it'll work?" Vin asked with a worried frown.

"Has to. It's about time Chris finds someone to make 'im happy and I like the idea of 'im and Ezra together. There's enough spark between 'em to set the whole town on fire."

Vin nodded, relieved they had someone else on their side and that despite having lost the battle, the war was far from being over. Ezra might still be granted his heart's deepest wish, with a little help from his friends.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

When would he ever learn? Things didn't simply happen to him because he wished it; that was not how life worked, at least not for Ezra P. Standish. It did him no good to fall in love with anyone, but to be so stupid as to develop this need, this desperate craving, for a man like Chris Larabee was too much, even for him.

He had known, deep down, that wooing Chris anonymously wasn't a very good idea. What had he been thinking? Break the ice with a few silly gifts, then suddenly throw himself into Chris' arms and spring on him the fact that one of his men was in love with him? And then what, they would have been happy forever after?

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

How foolish he was. He should have realized Chris would automatically believe Mary to be his secret admirer; after all the two had a strange relationship -- opposites attracting -- which could easily grow into love. Besides, Buck had once told him Chris had never shown any interest in men.

He knew Mary would eventually tell Chris she hadn't been the one responsible for the gifts, probably over dinner the following night. But it still didn't change the fact that she was the first person Chris had thought of after realizing the whole affair wasn't a joke.

It was more than likely that because of him, Chris and Mary would take the final step ultimately leading them into a romantic relationship, even after the fact that Chris' admirer was a third person became known.

So now there would be no telling Chris of his feelings. The secret admirer was about to disappear into nothing, soon to be forgotten by all but Ezra himself. He would just continue through life as before; loveless, lonely, empty.

Chris was exiting the church when he noticed Ezra walking down the street. There was something about the other man at that moment which drew him in. An aura of sorrow surrounded the conman, the usual grace gone, his whole being seemed to be weighted down to the ground as he dragged his feet.

He approached the oblivious man. "Ezra, are you all right?"

Pain-filled eyes looked up at him. "I'm fine, Mr. Larabee. A mere indisposition, nothing that will interfere with my duty as a lawman."

Chris scowled. "That's not why I asked. If you're feelin' sick, you can take the day off. We haven't had any trouble in a while, the six of us can handle lookin' over the town."

Ezra shook his head slightly. "No need, Mr. Larabee. If you will excuse me..."

Chris watched him go until the Southerner had disappeared around a corner, wondering why Ezra's obvious pain was so hard for him to witness. He had felt an almost irresistible urge to wrap his arms around the gambler and comfort him. And again that little voice in his mind made itself known, calling him a fool for not having seized the opportunity to do so.

Ezra was picking absently at his breakfast when he felt Vin and Buck sitting down beside him, one on each side, as if to prevent him from escaping. He looked at the matching shit-eating grins and sighed wearily.

"Why am I suddenly dreading to hear what you gentlemen have to tell me?" he drawled suspiciously.

"We got a plan," Buck stated, the grin never leaving his face.

Ezra raised an eyebrow quizzically. "A plan? What sort of a plan and whatever for, Mr. Wilmington?"

"Vin sorta told me about your idea to woo Chris, so I decided to help out." Buck told him quietly, looking around at the nearly deserted saloon.

Ezra groaned. "Lord, protect me! Mr. Wilmington, I --"

"Ez, hear us out, okay?" Vin interjected softly. "Ya tried to woo Chris anonymously, didn't work. So do it differently, meet 'im straight on. Show yourself to 'im, let 'im know who ya really are. Trust us, he does love ya."

Ezra shook his head sadly. "Vin, even if I were to try something like what you are suggesting... He is having dinner with Mary tonight, remember?"

"Not anymore." Buck stated, the infuriating grin returning full force.

"Not anymore? What do you mean, not anymore?" Ezra could almost hear the panic in his voice. "What the hell have you two been doing?"

"Well," Buck dragged the word out languidly. "I told Chris that I had crossed paths with Mary earlier and that she had to cancel dinner. Apparently one of her close friends in River Bend is very sick and since she's got no family, Mary is gettin' ready to go stay with her a few days."

"Are you insane?" Ezra hissed. "What happens when Chris sees Mary promenading down the street?"

"Ezra, Ezra, Ezra! I'm hurt, really!" Buck dramatically placed a hand over his heart. "We gave this some serious thought, didn't we, Vin?"

"Yep." Vin nodded. "See, we had some extra help from Horace. I remembered Mary mentionin' this friend of 'ers in River Bend, so he made it look like she had really sent a wire. Mary *is* goin' to River Bend."

Ezra closed his eyes in exasperation. "What have I done to deserve this, oh, Lord?" he bemoaned. "Are you trying to tell me you forced Horace to forge a wire and that as a result Mary is going all the way to River Bend on false pretenses?"

"I'd say that's 'bout it, yeah." Vin agreed, blue eyes shining with amusement.

"And when she comes back, what then?" Ezra snapped. "Horace will confess to the whole truth the moment someone leans on him."

"True." Buck said. "But we can handle Chris and by then it'll be too late. The road is clear, hoss, now it's up to you."

Ezra looked at the two men waiting eagerly for him to speak, not knowing if he should thank them or throttle them for meddling in his affairs. He settled for shaking his head and chuckling slightly.

"Since you gentlemen went to all that trouble, I guess I should take advantage of the situation," he finally stated.

Buck whooped. "All right! What are ya goin' ta do?"

"Chris was expecting to partake of a special dinner, so the least I can do is oblige him."

"You're goin' to cook?" Vin startled.

Ezra snorted. "I couldn't cook to save my life, I'm afraid. Inez, on the other hand..."

He saw understanding dawn on the two men. "Got it. Need us to help with anythin'?" Buck asked.

"Actually, yes, I do. I need you to keep Chris in town during the afternoon. Dinner will be at his cabin, so I need to prepare everything before he returns to his abode. It would be ideal for him to arrive exactly at dinner time."

"That could be a problem," Vin mused. "He might wanna stay here tonight."

"Which is why at precisely six o'clock, you will hand him a note from his secret admirer, requesting his presence at the cabin." Ezra explained. "He won't be able to resist the challenge. With Mary off to River Bend, he will undoubtedly realize he made a mistake regarding his admirer's identity."

"Good idea." Buck nodded. "Leave everythin' to us, we'll keep Chris busy the whole day just ta make sure. Come on, Vin, let's drive the ol' dog crazy. He won't be able ta stand the sight of us by tonight." He added, mischief lighting his whole face.

Vin chuckled and followed the mustached man out the door, while Ezra merely shook his head in fond exasperation. He couldn't help being grateful to the two men, even if their plan to remove Mary from the game was a strategic disaster. Never before had anyone cared enough for him to help him in anyway; it just confirmed the notion he had finally found a place where he belonged, with the friends he had never had before.

He saw Inez cleaning the bar and exhaled softly. Enough woolgathering; he had a dinner to plan. He wanted to make certain everything would turn out the way he needed it to. Even if he didn't have the slightest clue on how his unsuspecting guest was going to react to the whole thing.

Chris watched Buck crossing the street ahead of him, followed by Vin seconds later, coming from the opposite direction. He wondered briefly if he would be able to convince Judge Travis that killing the two men was an act of self-defense, a necessity to prevent him from going crazy.

They had been in his face constantly during most of the day, passing him by, waving, grinning foolishly, chasing each other, staging fights... Each time he tried to approach one of them, the little bastards had simply scattered away, refusing to face him. It was like watching a comedian's double act, only he wasn't finding their antics the least bit amusing.

He leaned against a wall as both men finally strolled down the street to meet him. He watched puzzled as Buck took a small sheet of paper out of his pocket and extended it out to him.

"'It is said that the first sigh of love is the last breath of wisdom. I seem to be the perfect example. Meet me at your cabin; I believe it's time we met. Your secret admirer'," he read, before looking at the men standing calmly before him. "I take it you know who's behind this?"

Vin nodded. "Yep. Not Mary, though."

"I take it you're not goin' to tell me who it is?" he insisted, already knowing the answer.

"Nope." Buck confirmed, smiling slightly. "But we can give ya some free advice; don't screw this up. You don't love Mary and ya know it. Come on, Vin, we've done our duty. I'll buy ya a drink."

"Never been one ta pass up on a free drink." Vin drawled with a grin. "See ya, Cowboy."

Chris exhaled sharply as his two friends disappeared inside the saloon, then made his way to the livery. Time to uncover a mystery.

When Chris arrived at his cabin it was already dark. He could clearly see light coming from the windows as he dismounted, but failed to see another horse or any signs of human presence around. He made his way inside, senses alert for any kind of unforeseen danger, blinking as he found the cabin empty; his secret admirer was not there.

However, someone had been there, and by the looks of things, recently. The table was set for two; the arrangement simple but tasteful, dinner was served, the scent coming from the food enticing to his hungry stomach. A three-candle chandelier cast its shadowy light on the room, there was a bottle of wine breathing on the table, and beside what was obviously to be his seat, sat a small package.

He walked over curiously, unwrapping it and once again realizing how much thought had been given to his wooing. His latest present was a box of cheroots, a brand he had never heard of, but which were undoubtedly as expensive as the spurs were.

"They are imported," a voice confirmed from behind him and he turned, startled to have missed the other man's entrance into his home.

"Ezra..." he whispered, surprise tingeing his voice.

He dropped heavily on the chair, unable to look away from the other man. Ezra was his secret admirer all along. Not Mary, Ezra.

It all made sense suddenly. The man's sadness the previous day, the strange glances thrown his way whenever Ezra thought he wasn't paying attention, the change from the fancy clothes into something more Chris' own style.

But why?

He refused to believe it was all meant as a joke or to provoke him. Considering how much Ezra valued money, he wouldn't have spent the small fortune he surely had on the gifts if it was a mere joke. And they had long past the time in their relationship in which they took pleasure in aggravating the hell out of each other.

So what was left? Love? Could Ezra really love him that much? He couldn't decide if he should feel flattered or offended.

Chris heard a soft sigh coming from the door; Ezra still hadn't made it fully into the room. He took in the renewed sadness in the green eyes as the gambler smiled weakly.

"Seems I have made a miscalculation," Ezra said softly. "I apologize, Mr. Larabee. I take it, it wasn't me you were wishing for?" he asked, the pain raw in his voice.

"I..." Chris cleared his throat, then tried again, "Ezra, why?"

The other man tilted his head curiously. "Do you have to ask? Have I not made it clear?" he retorted gently.

"Do you really love me?" Chris was dismayed to hear the puzzlement in his voice.

Ezra's smile widened slightly. "You are headstrong, determined, aggravating, mule-headed... What's not to love?" he quipped, then drew a shaky breath. "Yes, I do love you. I mistook your attention towards me of late... I believed you shared my feelings, but I see now I was wrong. Would it be possible for us to resume our friendship without my actions causing irreparable damage?"

Chris rose and walked over to him, fingers brushing over Ezra's cheek, smiling as the gambler recoiled in shock. "We've come a long way in the last months, Ez. No matter what happens between us in the future, that won't change. I gotta admit ya took me by surprise, and yes, I wasn't expectin' ya, but then I wasn't expectin' anyone in particular either. Not after realizin' the secret admirer wasn't Mary. How about this? Dinner is ready, we're both here, so let's eat. Let me give this some thought first." He reached for Ezra's hand, pulling him towards the table. "Come on, sit down."

He sat, watching as Ezra did the same, green eyes locking with his. He had always prided himself on facing life straight on, on accepting every challenge that came his way. And he owed it to Ezra to be honest, which meant having to deal with everything he had avoided thinking about lately, including his reactions to the conman.

So they would have dinner, and he would think things over, and hopefully by the time Ezra was ready to return to Four Corners, Chris would know the path to follow. The only thing he knew for certain was he refused to hurt Ezra by being careless with his emotions. If nothing else, the Southerner had become a good friend and didn't deserve to suffer for having fallen in love with him.

Ezra finished his meal, having to admit to himself that Inez had outdone herself. That, combined with the exquisite wine he had chosen, and Chris' quiet presence, had helped him relax and actually enjoy the evening.

So far.

As usual, nothing in his life occurred the way he expected it to. Though he had been uncertain of Chris' reaction upon seeing him, this easy acceptance was definitely a surprise.

He watched as Chris threw his napkin on the table and rose to make them some coffee. When the fragrant beverage was done, the blond poured it into two mugs, handing him one.

"Come on, let's talk outside," Chris suggested, opening the door for him.

They sat on the porch, side by side. For once foregoing appearances, Ezra slumped on the chair, resting his head against the back, eyes looking up at the star-filled sky. He waited silently for Chris to speak; it was his move now.

"I've been thinkin' a lot about you lately, dreamin' about you." Chris began softly. "Can't deny I'm curious either. I thought about..."

"About?" Ezra prompted when Chris seemed to hesitate.

Chris cleared his throat awkwardly. "I imagined us together, you beneath me, panting with arousal, writhing against me as I... take you. Imagined the other way 'round too." He captured Ezra's hand, placing it on his pants, his erection evident to the gambler. "I know I'm attracted to ya, and I know there's lust involved. But love..." He let Ezra's hand go. "I'm not sure, Ez."

Ezra nodded in understanding, surprised Chris was being this open and honest. "Let us attempt to define what you feel about me, then. Do you enjoy watching me?"

"Yeah," Chris admitted with a grin. "Been doin' that a lot lately too. Go half crazy when I lose sight of you durin' a gunfight. Want to hang around ya all the time; never spent so much time at the saloon as I do now."

"And when I'm away?" Ezra whispered softly.

There was understanding dawning in Chris' eyes. "Feel like there's somethin' missin... Damn," he whispered back.

Ezra smiled. "I believe, Mr. Larabee, that if nothing else, you are beginning to fall in love with me. Now, for the final test, imagine yourself in the future, say in ten years time, looking back at this moment. Imagine you have chosen to engage in a relationship with me. Then ask yourself if you are looking back with satisfaction, or with regret." He fell silent, allowing Chris to think it over. When he noticed Chris nodding to himself, he tilted his head curiously. "Well?"

Chris gave him a wide smile. "Satisfaction," he finally replied, and Ezra smiled back, his heart beating faster at the single word.

"So, now what?"

Chris chuckled. "You have my permission to continue wooin' me."

Ezra raised an eyebrow at that. "Oh, really? In that case, Mr. Larabee, do I have your permission to kiss you senseless?"

"By all means, Mr. Standish." Chris retorted playfully.

Ezra rose from his chair, sauntering to the blond and sitting on his lap with a saucy grin. He leaned down, slowly, giving Chris ample time to back away, then brushed their lips softly together, before kissing Chris, gently at first, then more hungrily. He moaned deep in his throat as Chris opened up to his tongue, kissing him back just as frantically, fingers running over Ezra's hair as he rocked against the gambler's body.

When they finally parted for air they were both flushed and painfully hard. "Damn," Ezra panted breathlessly. "You are one hell of a kisser, Mr. Larabee."

"You're not so bad yourself, Ez. So, now what?" he asked, echoing Ezra's words.

"Now we proceed slowly, giving you time to adjust to what I'm certain is a drastic change in your life. I will continue to woo you, since I have your permission, and you will lay back and enjoy it."

"Umm," Chris hummed softly. "I like your plan. Come here." He pulled Ezra down, kissing him thoroughly, a long, passionate kiss that left the gambler dazed and aching.

When Chris finally let him go, Ezra snuggled against his warmth, burying his face against Chris' neck, amazed such a position didn't feel awkward to him in the least. He knew his campaign was far from over; Chris had never been with a man before and society didn't exactly take kindly to male loving. They would have to take things slowly, adjust to each other, see to each other's needs.

But the worst was over; he had taken a chance with his heart and for once it had paid off. Chris loved him and he loved Chris, and that knowledge gave him the strength he needed to face the future.


Three months later.

Chris lay flat on his back on the bed, sheets tangled around his legs, his body sated and exhausted all at once. If a band of bandits came riding into town at that moment, they would have been able to rob the bank, kill the men, kidnap the women, and burn Four Corners to the ground and he wouldn't have been capable of raising a finger to stop them.

He looked at the man lying unmoving beside him and grinned. The last months were the best in his life. Ezra kept his promise to keep wooing him, but in true scoundrel fashion, had upped the stakes. Besides the romantic dinners, the midnight excursions to the nearby river for a naked swim in the moonlight, and even taking him to Denver for a short vacation, Ezra had found new and inventive ways of driving him crazy with need.

Thanks to the 'accidental' brushes against his crotch, the soul-shattering kisses, and the glimpses of skin Ezra allowed him to see at the most inappropriate times, Chris found himself with a near perpetual hard-on.

But the end result was more than worth it.

They had taken the final step in their lovemaking while in Denver the month earlier, with him taking Ezra first, the following night Ezra returning the favor. It had been good; more than that, perfect. And in that one moment of clarity in which Ezra was laying claim to him, thrusting into his pliant body, Chris realized he had found the person he was going to spend the rest of his life with. He had finally come home.





Magnificent Seven