The harsh, painful, dimly familiar taste stung in the back of Ezra's throat
The shadows in Bitter Creek were lengthening into a grey, dreary dawn. It was late and it was cold; the poker game had finished hours ago, he'd salted his usual profit away safely, he stopped to drink a while... and now he sat on this dirty, rustic, nameless porch and stared out at a night sky he didn't know, a town he didn't care about, a future he didn't want to face. And that taste from the saloon still lingered, a mixture of stale smoke and semi-cheap whiskey that tasted oddly like... like something he'd almost forgotten. Something he'd rarely known before meeting these six men, before fighting with them, before that day in the Seminole village where he'd turned and left... and come back...
The sour, burning taste of regret.
The fact was, he missed them. Even when he was home - what had passed for home, what he'd thought was home - he missed them. It was his own fault, he knew: he'd learned young how to avoid the people around him, he found it easy to distance himself in the same town, in the same room... all too easy. For which he was grateful now, of course, of course, but it now felt incongruously like - like loss. Buck and his expansive, uncultured warmth; Nathan's deep, rich voice, gentle hands and even his caustic judgements; Vin's silence and smile, JD's wide-eyed foolishness, exhausting enthusiasm, hell, even his bad jokes! - Josiah.
And Chris... Chris.
He wasn't sure what he missed with either of them, but he knew that acrid sense of what had been lost - what he thought had been lost - was mixed up with both of them. The harshness in Josiah's damning words still echoed in his dreams; the suspicion in Chris's eyes mixed in his half-waking thoughts till he wasn't quite sure what was memory and what was imagination. All he knew was that he felt that old, half-forgotten discomfort when around them - discomfort, discomposure, disquiet, distrust... dis-something.
He needed a drink. He needed something to take the taste away. He needed a reason to head back when the sun finally rose. He needed... something.
Something like the black shadow that detached itself from the darkness, a shadow whose movement he knew as well as the other five, as well as his own, but who should have been... back there, at home.
Chris slipped into the seat beside him.
"When are you comin' home, Ezra?"
"Mister Larabee?" Confused, wary, he plastered the same counterfeit grin on his face that he wore all too often now. "What are you doing here?"
"Askin' you when you're comin' home."
"But - Ah'm not expected back yet, you know that. Three more days -"
"Yup. And before this, it was six days takin' the deeds to Judge Travis in Silver City, and before that those documents that needed takin' to Yuma. Six more days."
"You agreed to it."
Chris leaned back, staring out at the darkening sky. "All makes too much sense not to, someone damn well has to go and no one ever wants to. I tried not to think you might not come back... didn't realise that even when you did come back, you - didn't. Some piece of you... it's been gone all along."
"Mister Larabee -"
"Been dreamin' about that rally, Ezra. 'Bout what happened."
Chris shrugged. "Nope, nothing at all. You just near got yourself killed." His dark, shrouded gaze, hazel and as hard as granite, flicked once to Ezra then back out across the street.
Ezra shrugged. "Occupational hazard of our gamblin' with death. We're all aware of it."
"Not talkin' about all of us, Ezra, I'm talkin' about you."
"It was successful, you can't deny that. It stopped -"
"It stopped a bullet," Chris suddenly snapped. "At least, you did."
"No." Curt and as cold as the death he'd though he was buying that day, Ezra went on insistently, almost glad of the short, sharp slap of the other man's infamous temper. "The money stopped it. The ten - thousand - dollars."
The temper, however, didn't always last... Chris sighed. "Damned good thing it did, doncha think?"
"Of course - Ah'm hardly the one of us all to embrace a heroic death."
"No? Coulda fooled me a time or two. And before you say it," with another sideways glance, less hard this time, "no that ain't what you've been doin' all along, you know it and I know it."
There was a silence, uncertain but less... bleak.
"Ezra," Chris's next words seemed dragged out of a rasping, harshened throat, "tell me the truth. If I gave you the money, would you come home?"
"You heard me."
"If you -" Sourness, a sharp, shameful sourness, gagged him.
"If we gave you the fuckin' money, then..." Chris fought down the roughened snarl in his voice. "Whatever. Would you come home?"
Ezra swallowed the acid in his mouth, closed his eyes, and fought against the honest truth. Honesty got you nothing but trouble, gave you nothing but pain... no profit in truth. Surely this whole ugly, unseemly, unsightly... agonising mess had taught him again not to trust anyone, not even friends, with a truth they wouldn't believe or care for...
The honest truth would only make things worse, but he was tired and his throat stung with tightness, and it was all he had now. "If you handed it to me - now - Chris, " he said softly, "Ah'd take it... and run."
"Then it's a good thing I wasn't plannin' to," Chris answered. "For God's sake, Ezra..."
He stopped, and Ezra knew why. They couldn't - oh dear God they couldn't - talk about it. Not them, not here, not yet. Chris would face a firing squad - a pit of rattlesnakes - hell, another damn hired assassin or fifty! - before laying even a sliver of his heart bare.. And Ezra had been less mortified walking down the main street in a tablecloth, or in purple lace, than by the prospect of telling a friend more of the honest truth without whiskey to dull the shame.
And not cheap whiskey either.
"Come back with me today, Ezra," Chris said finally. "Just... come home. It'll work out."
"How can you be so sure?" He asked, not even sure what 'it' was.
"'Cause if that's what going home takes..." Just as softly, barely breathed, but the words were touched with warmth, "it has to."