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"I told you to never run out on me again." The blond's voice was dangerously quiet.

"I'm not running out on you, Mr. Larabee. I merely intend to leave the unpromising prospects of this place and return to civilisation. And since I'm telling you of my impending travel plans right now, three weeks in advance, you have ample time to find a substitute to take my place. Forgive me if I can't quite share your point of view." Standish just raised his eyebrows in that familiar mocking way of his, designed to make Chris' blood boil with the need to hit the sarcastic Southern bastard.

He held himself back, barely. And snarled: "That's a fucking joke, and you know it. There's no one in Four Corners who's suited for this job."

"For what, exactly? Getting shot at at regular intervals? Send a telegraph to the esteemed Judge Travis," Standish drawled carelessly, "I'm convinced he can overcome this seemingly insurmountable obstacle on the true course of justice."

Chris seethed. He himself might not have Standish's way with words or his gift at reading people, but he was sensitive enough to realize when he was being made fun of. "Shove your hundred-dollar words where the sun don't shine, Standish. I ain't interested. We were hired to do a job, all of us, and that includes you." He finally lost the battle with his self-control and stood up so abruptly that his wooden chair tumbled and crashed to the floor. He hissed, "Whether you want to or not. Frankly, I don't give a shit about what you think." Unfortunately, since they both were presently in JD Dunne's office in the jail, he couldn't strangle the Southerner like he wanted -- the sheriff's desk was in the way. He made a move to go around it. "You'll stay." His hands clenched with the need to punch the con man in the face.

Standish jumped up, a new expression on his face now. Not the quick flash of fear, quickly hidden, that Chris had come to expect whenever he got in the other man's face. No, this time it was defiance, an open challenge to do whatever he wanted to... and face the consequences. "Mr. Larabee, I'm loathe to inform you..." he took a careful step back, "that I don't intend to suffer your slights on my person any longer. Nor your resorting to corporal punishment." He stopped in the middle of the office. With enough room to defend himself in all directions, Chris noticed, and while a part of him admired the gambler for both his skill and his brazenness, the larger part simply wanted to wipe away that smug, deadly smile.

"Is that so?" he returned, deceptively mild.

"Indeed." Short and to the point.

Chris had cleared the desk and the second chair in front of it, now shoved out of the way haphazardly, and moved to step closer. The small 'click' of a gun stopped him in his tracks.

The gambler's normally so amiable face was tight and drawn. As usual, it gave nothing away, but Chris got a good look at Standish's eyes, and they, more than the threat of the man's Remington, kept him still. They were cold, empty. Much like his own.

"So you're prepared to shoot me. I should have known it would come to that eventually. Never should have taken you back into our group after the Seminole village."

"Well, but you did," Standish returned hotly, but the fire in his words wasn't passionate. It was freezing. "That's one more reason why I simply can't wait to leave this dusty little hamlet behind. To erase it from my mind, plus the months of my life I wasted by staying here. To forget all about your merry little band of misfits, too. It's obvious that you've gained their loyalty to an astonishing degree. They'd die for you, and most of the time wouldn't even dream of doubting your decisions. Or actions. And I -- I am tired of facing a united front doing its best to keep me out!" His voice had risen to a shout in the end.

Chris could only blink. Where the hell did that come from?

But Standish wasn't finished. Not by a long shot. That damned man loved to talk for the joy of hearing his own voice.

"I could have dealt with that, you know. I've never had close friends, and staying on the fringes of your group felt... satisfying." He broke off suddenly, and Chris thought he'd seen a vulnerable spark in those eyes. Just for a short moment. When Standish started speaking again, though, that softness had disappeared completely. The man threatening him with his gun could have been a stranger.

"What I couldn't abide, though, was your appalling proclivity for getting violent. And no, I don't only mean you, Mr. Larabee. The rest of your troupe wasn't much better. Oh, and by the way, I'd recommend you step back slowly, carefully, and sit down in that chair." He gestured to the one still standing. "Keep your hands well away from your gun belt, or I will shoot you where you are. And believe me, sir, I wouldn't hesitate." The disquieting thing was that Chris believed it. He took three carefully measured steps backward and sat down carefully. His rage had disappeared. He didn't feel fear, exactly, but started feeling a mite uncomfortable. How had this happened? And did he even know the man now calmly levelling a gun at him?

Standish leaned against the wall in a seemingly careless slouch Chris would have associated more with Vin, not with the self-conscious gambler. He took out a sheet of paper from his breast pocket, using his left hand. His right one never wavered. The man unfolded it briskly and dropped his eyes to read the first lines.

Chris felt the overwhelming urge to jump up and take control of the situation -- disarm the other man and prove to him what 'corporal punishment' really meant -- but refrained. Standish was too close to the edge. He'd rather bide his time than get himself killed.

The next second he was glad that he had. Standish sent him a cold glance and read out loud:

"Punches in the face: Thirteen. Five by you, Mr. Larabee, four by Mr. Wilmington, two by Mr. Sanchez, one by Mr. Tanner, one by Mr. Jackson."

Chris felt cold. That many? In only two months?

"Other physical attacks on my person: Twenty-five. Although I might consider not counting eighteen of them. After all, they were 'in jest', as Mr. Wilmington would point out. Although I don't consider being thrown into the horse trough 'jest'. Or being shoved out of bed. Or being forced to leave the saloon by someone wrenching my arm behind my back so that I couldn't resist if I didn't want to risk permanent damage to my limb."

The left one most often, too, Chris thought, numbly. Dear God. The shoulder that dislocated easily.

"Times my game was rudely interrupted, most of the time by someone upending the gaming table: Eight. There are now nine men in this charming town who refuse to play with me since they don't intend to have to scramble for their money underneath the table, ever again." Standish's glare was chilling, his muttered: "Nor do I," loud enough to be clearly audible. "Money lost -- my rightful winnings, I might add: Approximately 890 dollars. I won't count the saloon since I carried more than a small amount of guilt in that loss, too. Still, that you all supported my mother's establishment wounded me deeply. But then, I rather doubt you ever realized that. Or would have cared either way. Most of this money got lost during the poker games I mentioned earlier; the ones that you and your associates forced me to abandon. And no, Mr. Larabee, not because I was needed elsewhere. Not because of an emergency like an attack upon this town. No, because honorable, upright citizens like Mr. Jackson saw fit to voice their displeasure with my way of making my living. They accused me of cheating and 'robbing them poor farmers blind', if I recall correctly." He was white with fury, "They had every right to interfere, of course. Why not? I need to be 'educated' in the proper way of behaving, needn't I?"

Chris only stared, cold to the heart. Hell and damnation. At this moment, he didn't even think the thoughts that would have come into his head any other time, before, like: Of course he gets upset most about the money; should have reckoned that. No, this time, he wasn't able to think any disparaging thought at all.

Not faced with Ezra Standish's tangible pain, not faced with his meticulous listing of past mistakes and callous wounds that had been inflicted, uncaringly, by himself and his men.

Standish fell silent, his throat working. He looked old and defeated, his usual animation and cheerfulness, his internal fire, extinguished. "I should have known it wouldn't work. After all, it never has before. Do you know that the longest uninterrupted time I ever spent at one place was one and a half years? That was in the summer of 1843. I was ten and my mother had given me into the care and responsibility of a distant relative -- some sort of cousin, I believe. He and his wife were good, caring people, and their children were thrilled at having another 'brother'." He broke off. Chris was willing to bet that the man had told more than he'd intended to, so he wasn't surprised when no more details were forthcoming. A young, ten-year-old Ezra Standish... that would have been a sight he'd have paid good money to see. That tangent brought him inevitably to the onset of the familiar downward spiral he always experienced whenever something reminded him of Adam. And Sarah, and everything he'd lost.

Fighting down that familiar depression and the desperate longing for a drink robbed him of the last of his anger. He almost missed Standish's next words. "That has been the only place I'd have ever been willing to call 'home'. It wasn't but transitory, like everything in life. Still, I dared to hope that I would be able to recapture that elusive feeling here in Four Corners." The bitterness was barely hidden behind the extensive vocabulary.

The following pause was uncomfortable for both men. Now that Chris had the opportunity to speak, he didn't know what to say. The silence dragged on.

Ezra's face became even more shuttered, if that was possible. Finally, he added stiffly: "Rest assured, sir, raised as a gentleman, I'm able to accept with equanimity the hand I've been dealt and cut my losses. One should never wish for unattainable goals. I don't intend to tear Four Corners' law apart by making my own shortcomings the object of public debate. So, you see, it's better for all parties involved if I leave immediately. Thank you for bearing with my embarrassing display of emotional abandon. I just regret I didn't give you much choice in the matter." With a disgusted gaze at the gun in his hand, Ezra lowered the weapon and holstered it. Chris was shaken to see it took him two tries.

"I sincerely hope you won't hold today's actions against me. Please believe me that I would have never been the cause of harm to you, Mr. Larabee. Good day." Standish left with his customary two-finger salute.

Chris could only stare after him, dumbfounded, tired, still at a loss as to what to say.

Quiet as a cat, a buckskin-clad shadow joined him in the sheriff's office. Vin, awake already, despite the early hour. Chris didn't even look at him. He just got up slowly like an old man.

"That went real well," the tracker drawled sarcastically.

Chris whirled around, white with fury and pain. "Shut the fuck up!" He hissed venomously. "I could have used you here a moment ago. Not sneaking around, listening, and making smart-assed remarks afterwards."

"Cowboy, t'was yer idea ta talk ta Ezra 'fore he'd been ta bed. Man's cranky after night patrol -- ya oughtta know that. Didn't help either that ya didn't interfere last night when Nate made them nasty remarks when Ez was playing against those farmhands. And... the rest."

Chris looked away. Yeah, 'the rest'. Getting drunk slowly but surely, not knowing how to approach the gambler and hoping to find enlightenment at the bottom of a bottle. Yesterday, talking it through with Vin, it had all seemed so easy. Find and corner Ezra. Get him to explain the reason why he was letting his room go. Get to the bottom of Standish's latent hostility that had seemed to increase from day to day, culminating in a shouting match between the normally so controlled man and Josiah. And, perhaps, finally find some sort of common ground with the most reserved of the Seven. "Should have known it wouldn't work," he muttered darkly. He roughly ran his hands through his hair and contemplated hitting the wall. Or Vin. Or both. "Never knew we... we..."

"Treated him that poorly?" Vin nodded, somber, "Wasn't all that better, myself. Remember that 'slithered off to' remark? Ain't proud of that, now."

"Yeah. But when he mentioned the times we -- I -- hit him, that made me..."

"Sick ta my stomach. Know what ya mean."

"I should have told him."

"Reckon so. Coulda hit ya, though."

"Better being hit by him, better him being all furious and open than that amiable façade he hides behind." Chris pressed the heel of his hand against his temple. Muffled: "Whenever he's like that, no one can get through to him."

"Besides, ya like'em feisty. Full o'fire." Vin grinned and elbowed his scowling friend.

Chris couldn't find anything funny about the present situation, but refrained from mentioning it. He felt hollow, resigned. Ezra would leave in less than a month's time. And he knew himself. Faced with a choice to reveal his feelings and most likely get ridiculed or at least politely refused, or to keep silent, he'd choose silence -- every time. Again, he craved for the sweet oblivion whiskey offered.

Before he dragged Tanner to the saloon, he said softly, almost to himself: "Yeah. Sure. Still, I'm a coward. Don't wanna imagine Ezra's reaction."

A noncommittal grunt from the tracker.

"You know, to me askin' what his face looks like when he's makin' love."

"Buck's reaction ta that'd be 'Yeah, wanna know from first-hand experience?!'," Tanner chuckled. "Chris, don't take it so much ta heart. Men lovin' men ain't a good idea. Town wouldn't like it."

"That supposed to make me feel better?"

"Nope." A grin, quickly fading. "But life ain't fair."

Chris pushed open the door to the dusty street and stepped outside, squinting a little in the bright morning sun. His own grin was even more twisted than usual, a snarl to hide the hurting inside. He sighed, regretfully: "Too bad you don't know, Ezra, that it's not only your dreams that never come true. 'Unattainable goals' -- how right you were..."

Neither he nor Vin saw the still figure of their Seventh standing just around the jail's comer, frozen in mid-step, hardly breathing. Ezra Standish waited until the two men had entered the saloon. The gambler's eyes glittered suspiciously, and his voice was rough as he also whispered a thought of his own: "It seems I might have been a bit premature in my decision to leave, Mr. Larabee. You possibly have just redefined the word 'unattainable' for me." Prayerful: "Good Lord, I never would have dared to imagine being dealt a hand like that!" He looked up into the bright blue sky and smiled, a joyous, carefree laugh bursting from his lips. "Thank you, God! Home, indeed!"

He rubbed his hands together and straightened his clothes, "Let's see -- a plan of attack is in dire need of preparation, I suppose. Mr. Larabee, I promise you won't know what hit you." Ezra chuckled and crossed the street, a spring in his step, the lines of sorrow and anger on his face magically erased.

He could deal with the other men's penchant for violence, with Chris' black moods, Vin's secret conviction that his best friend would be better off not pursuing his attraction to Ezra. Even with the town's puritanism.

Nothing tangible had changed save one thing: Now, he had hope.

But the day one of his associates raised a hand against him again, he'd fight back and wouldn't shy from spilling blood if necessary. If Four Corners didn't want to become his home, he'd make it his home. And Maude Standish's son had never backed down from a challenge.

"The Magnificent Seven" (TV series) ficlet by allaire mikháil, OW, 2.791 words, Chris/Ezra, Chris' POV, rated R (mainly for violence, though)

I don't know whether I should put this in the 'humor/parody' or rather the 'drama' category. Mag7 fanfic has become a bit of a caricature in certain respects. In the series, we never see anyone physically abusing Ezra. Sharp, hurtful remarks, sure, but no punches. Thank God. Still, it has become fairly common in fan fiction to make Ezra the victim of his associates' tempers, and end up with all sorts of injuries. Afterwards, once it's established that he holds no blame for whatever happened, everyone asks for his forgiveness, and Ezra, incomprehensibly, always grants it. Well, I wouldn't be that understanding. Some things shouldn't be forgiven, not if you want to cling to your sense of self-worth. And 'friends' who hit you aren't your friends.
Beta'd by Lumina~ (believe me, it needed that!) and declared fit to make it on its own -- thank you, honey! <g> I kept one anachronismn, though, because I couldn't think of a better way to express what I wanted Chris to say. Mea culpa.

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