Paradise Borrowed

by JoJo
May 2012 Desert Island challenge. Also fills Bingo prompt "Pacific Ocean".
Heaven and hell, needs and desires.

For a very long time after he pushed himself to a sitting position, Ezra sat on the sand unmoving.

First he had to let the ringing in his ears subside and the strange sensation that the ocean was still slopping about inside his skull. Then, when he could lift his head, he spent some time getting to grips with the fact that he was still alive. Not floating face down in the waves somewhere.

He knew the tremors that rocked him from time to time as he sat were not entirely from the cold. Although he was wet through, somewhat chilled, the sun beating down was a hot one. The twin sensations were not unlike some sweaty fever-chill played out in Nathan's clinic, complete with the queasy stomach. Typical that now he was on dry land he felt god-awful sick, whereas on the ship he'd been one of the first to get his sea legs. Indeed, he'd strolled up and down the pitching deck for much of the first week out of port, smug as the Admiral of the Fleet while some of the others groaned and cursed him below.

Not looking so damn clever now. He knew it was true, could almost hear one of them saying it. Buck maybe.

There were several points of heavy discomfort apart from his guts. His boots, for a start. Full of sand and water. Not to mention ruined. He hauled them off, clumsy with fatigue, peeled his sodden socks from his feet. And then there was his rig, cutting into his arm. He already knew the gun wasn't there anymore. Even knowing as much as he did, it was still some time before he could do anything more but stare at the water lazily lapping against the shell-sprinkled sand in front of him and think a sluggish way through each of his ailments. Half his brain told him he was in shock while the other half seemed determined not to engage too closely with his circumstances.

It was the cry of some unfamiliar bird overhead that brought him to his senses. The sign of life jerked him into action, made him start to struggle out of his wet, shrunken jacket. Then he tugged with wrinkled, unresponsive fingers at the bloody rig. When it was loose and he'd dropped the bent contraption down by his hip, he gazed without much concern at the deep cut along his arm. The salt water had rendered it painless for the moment.

The beach was empty. He saw that as soon as he stood up. His head turned slowly left and right, protesting the resulting vertigo. An exhortation to take courage bubbled up but he didn't give form to the words. Even though he was sure he couldn't be far from a civilization he knew, he imagined Robinson Crusoe and the possibility that some savage, who almost certainly wouldn't turn out to be friendly, might emerge from the trees up the beach, spear raised aloft.

Reluctant, his mind turned to acknowledgment of how he'd arrived here in such a parlous state. The last thing he remembered was being dragged, bodily, out of some hidey hole deep in the bowels of that cursed ship. Being manhandled. Knowing he was behaving stupidly, irrationally, but not being able to stop himself and being given short shrift by someone. By several someones. And then he remembered the water.

He didn't want that thought in his head.

Almost before he realized, with another involuntary jerk of nerves and muscles, his body wound itself up ready to move, just for the distraction. When he began to walk, his main thought was to get out of the sun. The soft sand higher up the beach gave under his feet. The heat of it stung his soles. In the shade he sat down again, listless.

"Parched," he said out loud, irritated, staring at the sun glinting off the water.

Then his gaze wandered along the beach again. From his new position he could see further, to where it curved around a corner, giving on to more sand. More shells.

He blinked several times, to clarify his vision, scrubbed at the grit still clumped to his eyelashes, but there was no doubt. A dark shape lay half in and half out of the gently lapping water. Not moving.

The skin of Ezra's forehead hurt as he frowned. It was tight with salt, tender from the sun and wind. He got to his feet, began to totter towards the shape.

He knew it to be human.

And then, as he drew nearer and nearer, he knew it to be familiar.

The little sound that escaped his throat hurt. A wave of panic greater than he'd felt at the height of the storm engulfed him.

Before him lay the last person in the world, his mother included, who he would ever have wanted to see stretched out dead before him. The growing anguish at the sight was overwhelming.

Something sharp cut into his knees as he dropped. After grasping at the nearest curve of shoulder and rolling the body towards him, his hands fell away in fear.

Chris, heavy and limp, paler than the sand, flopped on to his back, eyes closed.

"You... bastard," Ezra found himself croaking, almost voiceless with emotion.

Despite the maelstrom in his head he recalled being dragged across the deck. By his clothes, by his hair. The salt water wave that he was thrown into. His arms flailing in horror against the weight of the ocean as it closed over his head.

Here, lying before him, apparently drowned by that same ocean, was his tormentor.

Chris's face and hair were clogged with wet sand. His skin felt cold when Ezra touched it, but then he'd been in the water and Ezra knew from experience that it was frigid. He pressed his ear to Chris's chest and rested, heavy, against him, eyes shut.

He said nothing, knowing it was too much to ask, but the steady bump of a living heart answered him anyway. For a moment Ezra thought he was listening to his own heart thumping, didn't believe. But there were breaths too, when he checked. Regular, light breaths ghosting against the back of his hand.

Ezra uncoiled. He slapped gently at one cool cheek, and then a good deal harder at the other. It gave him some perverse satisfaction although the lack of response killed the feeling almost at once.

"Mr. Larabee?" He got a good grip on Larabee's jaw, shook it. "Chris? Come on now, wake up." It would have been amusing if he hadn't been so frantic. Since when had Chris Larabee ever taken any orders from him?

There was still no response. Ezra ran his fingers through the sodden, gritty hair, searching for some sign of head injury. Just as he knew Nathan would.

And there. Rising under his fingertips was a lump the size of a quail's egg. He had to admire the fact that Chris had apparently not succumbed to the injury until he was near enough dry land to survive. Being unconscious at this point was not helpful to either of them, however. It was just beginning to occur to him that he was going to have to put Chris first from now on, which would severely encumber any search for assistance.

"I do believe in your haste you chose the wrong person to save."

He removed Chris's boots and socks, set them in the sun to dry. For some reason he couldn't even explain to himself he spent half a minute rubbing the white, bloodless feet, trying to warm them. Then he unbuckled the empty, silver-studded holster. Having divested him of anything heavy, he dragged Chris up the beach, having too little strength to carry him. Once in a shady spot, hastily cleared of sharp objects, he settled him slightly on his side, some faint memory of Nathan's exhortations coming to him at the last. Trotting back along the beach he fetched his own wet jacket and the twisted rig, still discarded where he'd made landfall. The jacket he laid out next to Chris's boots and the rig and holster he put aside with a vague supposition they might be useful.

His twin crutches, the silver flask reputed to be his unknown father's and his favorite deck of cards, were still secure in the inner pocket of the jacket. He extracted both and gazed at them, already knowing he was going to need a willingness to be thankful for small mercies. Even though it went against the grain he made himself not unscrew the lid of the flask just yet, instead placing it carefully against the exposed root of a nearby tree. His cards, thank the Lord, were intact, if damp, the ends of the first few he picked from the soggy box bent, the pictures uncurling from the backs.

Trepidation curled in his belly at the thought of going deeper into the trees, but he knew fresh water was an imperative.

Checking Chris's breathing once more, he pulled his own heavy, soaking boots back on. Then, with a soft press to his shoulder, left him where he lay.

There was water.

Ezra found a little hollow after an hour or more's searching, a deep natural pond fed, he supposed, by rainwater pouring through the canopy of huge leaves overhead. Not exactly clear and pure, but not salt. He drank his fill, hardly caring at that point if it was clean, stagnant or poisoned. It was cool in the hollow, peaceful. He wanted to settle down and sleep, just for a while. The pull of the desire was fierce, one he'd never been good at denying. But he felt guilty and frustrated--about a number of things. He'd drunk, but had nothing in which to carry water back to Chris.

His steps labored as he returned the way he'd come. Halfway back he was seized by a sudden fear that Chris would have revived and attempted to get to his feet. Perhaps fallen again. Or brought up the seawater undoubtedly pooled in his stomach and been unable to move. Maybe he'd choked on it. Dear Lord, all alone and nobody to depend upon. His wayward steps quickened as far as he was able. Light-headed from lack of sustenance and fatigue, Ezra tripped and stumbled his way through the thick, rubbery undergrowth.

But back on the grass by the shore Chris was still out. More importantly, he was still breathing, and his color seemed better.

"You do me a great favor, Mr. Larabee. A great favor."

Ezra touched the stubbly cheek with the backs of his fingers, felt a peculiar, protective rush. Picking his jacket out of the patch of sun nearby, he shook out some of the stiffness in the fabric, tucked it around Chris's upper body. Then he unscrewed the lid of the flask, took a long draught. And then another. The burn was overwhelming, the taste sweet. It was home, and safety. As the liquor hit his stomach, it sent a pleasant answering heat up inside his chest, a flare of optimism. Regretful, he turned to tip the remainder away, then stopped at the last.

Chris was going to want some of this.

He looked at the lid in his hand. It would hold less than the suspicion of a nip. Nevertheless, Chris was going to want it. Ezra filled the lid, set it aside and then steeled himself to pour away the rest. The sand sucked it up like it had never been. And as soon as it was gone Ezra wondered at his wisdom. Perhaps he'd be grateful for a dash of liquor when the cold of the night came down. Perhaps he should have splashed a drop or two on his arm which was just now beginning to sting.

Too late now. He set off for the hollow again, retracing his steps as far as he was able. When the flask was full to the brim with water, he made good time back to the shore, already aware of the pitfalls, getting a sense of the quickest route back.

This time when he emerged from the trees, he could see that Chris had moved. Just a little. His head was at a different angle and he'd bent one arm up, had grasped the collar of Ezra's jacket where it nestled under his chin.

Carefully setting down the flask, Ezra scooted into position next to him.

He reached out a tentative hand, stroked the cheek once more.

Chris didn't open his eyes but his mouth moved. And then he groaned. A long, low guttural sound. Ezra wasn't in time to take avoiding action. Moved by the forces of physiology and the inevitable, Chris rolled. And vomited a foamy mess of seawater and stomach contents over Ezra's lap.

"Oh good God..."

Ezra couldn't help his revulsion, his dismay. Not to mention his resentment. As if he wasn't wretched enough…

Chris's forehead dropped weakly to the ground after the retching ceased. He groaned again, not quite so deeply as before. After a second or two more, he pushed himself up on one elbow, peered through his matted bangs. It was typical of him that he managed to appear both groggy and aggressive at the same time.

"What the hell?" Chris rasped. "Ezra?"

The apparent disappointment in the tone made Ezra flinch.

"We are washed ashore, Mr. Larabee, I do not know where and how." He began to get gingerly to his feet, the damp seeping anew through the mostly-dried material of his pants.

"Jesus Christ." Chris went on peering around him for as long as he could before exhaustion and sickness overcame him once again.

"Lie still," Ezra told him. "You've taken a knock to the head."

"Don't remember."


"Don't remember how I hit my goddamn head."

Ezra gazed down at himself, wondered if there was any point worrying about his pants. Even mentioning it.

"The boat, though? You do remember the boat? And the storm?"

Chris didn't answer at first. He crooked an arm over his eyes. Ezra supposed the images and the sounds were coming back, the same as they'd done to him earlier. "Yeah, I remember." The arm didn't move. "You say you don't know where we are?"

"There has not yet been occasion to discover." He made an effort to inject some brightness into his tone. "I did procure some water."

Almost as soon as he'd spoken he wished he hadn't sounded so pathetically eager to be praised. Chris dragged his arm down, licking his dry lips.

"Yes," he croaked.

Ezra managed to remember not to allow Chris too much, too quickly. Even so, what he gave him soon made a re-appearance. His instinct was to keep out of the way this time, but he didn't. Some greater force kept him close, unaccountably obliged him to rub clumsily between Chris's tense shoulder blades, aiming for comfort.

Chris submitted to it for a while and then growled, "You can stop now."

"With pleasure."

Ezra shifted backwards, moved several feet away. He watched without comment as Chris levered himself to a sitting position. Then put his head in his hands.

He stayed like that for some minutes, and then finally succumbed and lay down down again with a huff of defeat.

Ezra's stomach growled.

"I should go and find us some help and some food," he said.

Chris lifted his head and focused on him with difficulty. "Gettin' dark. No sense you goin' too far now." He raised a wayward hand to his head, rubbed at it, then let his hand fall, weak, back to the ground. "We need some shelter, Ezra." He breathed in and out a few times as if beating back nausea. His eyelids fluttered against sleep. "Get us some shelter."

It was something close to ironic, Ezra thought as he trailed off into the gloom, that Chris was giving him orders, even while half drowned and knocked senseless. And all too shameful that he himself had not been the one taking the initiative on such an imperative.

The night was cold, and the shelter inadequate. Ezra had done his best, grudgingly confessed he'd never bothered to take as much notice of Vin's example as he should. He hadn't managed a fire at all. They had steel, thanks to Chris's pocket-knife, but no flint for making sparks. While there was plenty of dry tinder to hand he couldn't sustain the energy to create friction for long enough between the chips of bark he found. Something didn't feel right about the wood he was using anyway but his brain was still too fogged it work it out. At any rate, he had found enough undergrowth and oversized leaves to keep them covered, provide a break against the wind that whipped in from the sea once darkness fell.

Chris had lain slumped against him, apparently unaware of his proximity and sleeping fitfully. Now, in daylight, with the warm sun creeping along the sand, he was curled up under Ezra's jacket, out for the count. The regularity of his breathing was a relief, something Ezra had found himself listening for most of the night.

Yes, there had been a chill, but not too debilitating, and no precipitation. Ezra was glad his boots were dryer now. He set off on a search for something to eat and some more water. And, he fervently hoped, to make contact with somebody.

By the end of the day he'd made several trips to the pond. In one of Chris's more lucid periods he'd taken instruction on the best way to get a fire alight. He'd gathered more useful material to make coverings and a roof. There had been some fruit, the remains of a fish that appeared half eaten, dropped by a bird perhaps, and which he laboriously cooked on the end of a stick and then mashed to a pulp on a flat stone.

Towards the evening Chris seemed to revive more. He seemed less sick to the stomach.

"I'll take some of your fish stew," he said and Ezra half smiled at the ironical description, helped him sit and then found him another little flat stone to scoop up the mess.

"Now," he said when the small amount of hot food had disappeared. There was a welcome firelight now, and it was almost--almost--as if they were sitting across from one another in the saloon after dinner. "If you could have anything right now, what would it be?"

"Hell," Chris said. "That's easy. Liquor."

"You don't say." Ezra smiled smugly, knowing he'd receive an answering scowl. Reaching round to the spot between a tree and a slab of rock sticking out of the ground, he found where he had secured the lid of the flask from ants and other invaders. "With my compliments." He held it out with a flourish and Chris took it, suspicious at first. When he lifted it to his nose and sniffed, one of those slow, hard-edged Larabee smiles came to his face. Ezra's stomach turned over in foolish pleasure to see it.

Chris inhaled again, then tipped the contents between his lips, swallowed.

"Ezra," he said, the bright of his eyes hidden in the shadows but somehow sounding in his voice. "You ain't doin' so bad."

The third day Ezra discovered where they were. It took him the whole day, he lost heart more than once, his arm hurt and he was dogged by a roiling lethargy. He trailed back in the coming dusk with pockets full of pieces of bark, flints and stones he thought they could use, a pile of different fruit wrapped in his shirt, some water in the end of a small hollowed-out log and the gloomy news they were apparently quite alone on an island.

He found Chris cooking a large crab over the fire. Looking damn pleased with himself too. Either he wasn't worried where Ezra had gotten to or else he had more confidence in him than expected. More importantly, he looked a good deal less peaked than he had this morning, and that took some of the ache out of Ezra's bones.

"An island?" Chris's good spirits dimmed somewhat to hear that. "You sure?"

"Indeed I am."

"What, you walked all around it?"

"No, if you must know, I climbed a tree." Ezra sank down, tired and bad-tempered. He un-looped the suspenders of his pants which had rubbed the bare skin across his collarbones raw, began to scratch on the damp sand at the edge of their makeshift camp with a stick which he'd secured to his belt. First he outlined a curved shape, not unlike a banana. Then he began to mark things on it. "This is where we are. There's a highest point right about here. I could see all around us from the upper branches of some species of tropical tree in the forest here. Sand and rocks mostly, the biggest boulders along this stretch, then something like a spit of land, nearly a natural jetty, out here to our west." He paused to swipe a hand across his forehead and through his hair, thick with dirt and sweat, which didn't feel like it belonged to him. Gritting his teeth, he plowed on. "Shoals of fish in the shallows all along here. A fresh water source and an abundance of foliage in the center. The trees contain mostly bird-life, but I do believe there may be some other creatures too. Snakes, lizards and such. Probably dangerous but possibly edible. Oh, and insects of course, all of them regrettably out-sized."

Chris just stared at him, apparently transfixed by his wild hair, un-looped suspenders and bare chest. Perhaps disconcerted to see Ezra, of all people, so untidily undressed. So exposed. Then his eyes dropped to the cartography at his feet. "Don't suppose you saw land?"

Ezra knocked sand off the tip of the stick, inserted it back in his belt. It had been extremely useful and he felt strangely fond of it. "I am afraid not. No land, no ships. We are truly alone. In hell and in paradise all at one time." He winced as the movement stretched the tender skin of the wound on the inside of his forearm. Chris was on the slight motion like a cat pouncing.

"What is it? You hurt?"

"Would you believe a scratch?"

"Lookin' at your eyes, no I wouldn't. How the hell'd that happen?"

"The rig. It must have become crushed against me in the... mêlée." Ezra extended his arm and showed him. There seemed nothing to be gained by keeping his infirmity to himself any longer.

"You cleaned it out?"

Ezra gave him an impatient look. "Yes, it has been dipped in the freshwater a number of times."

"Dippin' ain't no use. Needs a proper clean, else you're going to take bad and I'm going to end up wearing your clothes after I bury you."

The unsentimental tone did more than anything to refresh Ezra's spirits a tad. He waved an ironic hand at the grubby white frilled shirt acting as a basket.

"Believe me, you're most welcome to my clothes. I'm heartily sick of them."

Chris laughed one of his laughs from nowhere. The ones that were about as far from a belly-laugh as they could be. "Come here," he said. "Let's use that water you brought to scrub it out best we can. I can always go git some more."

"I'm not sure you're up to the walk quite yet. It is rather... trying."

"Hell, I'm doing just fine. You though... lookin' kind of spent." Chris narrowed his eyes. "Well come on, don't just stare at me."

Ezra got to his feet and came over, lowered himself down on the edge of their sleeping area. Chris squatted next to him with the hollow log of water and what seemed to be a square of white handkerchief. Ezra felt an unexpected flare of satisfaction to think that Chris had carried such a thing with him in one of his pockets. It was a mark of civilization and gentlemanly behavior that he appreciated more than just about anything else he'd yet discovered on this godforsaken lump of rock and greenery.

"I do not believe there to be infection," he said.

"I do not believe there to be either." Chris's reply was pure mimicry, but not, somehow, unpleasant. "Best not take a chance. It's full of grit and hell knows what. We need to take good care of ourselves here." The hand that curled around his upper arm to hold it steady was strong. The fingers that pressed down either side of the wound were cool and gentle. "You've only got me and I've only got you. Be goddamned stupid to put that at risk."

Ezra couldn't find a reply. It was a statement that made utter sense in their circumstances, and yet... there seemed an extra layer to it somehow. Something more personal, even philosophical. Perhaps Chris was letting him know it was all right he wasn't Vin Tanner... just about. Ezra looked up and met his eyes.

Firm, clever, and as disconcertingly all-seeing as they had ever been. One hand was still wrapped around his bicep, and each second longer the touch lasted Ezra's pulse was racing faster. It wasn't just that the human contact was a comfort. Hell, it was more like balm to the soul, and when it was withdrawn he felt quite bereft.

"Much obliged," he managed.

Chris made a gesture that asked him what else he would have expected.

Ezra let him get on with his cooking, went to lie down in his corner and attempt to manipulate cards. His wits felt scattered. How unutterably complicated to be stranded in the middle of nowhere with a man he regarded with so very much more than either fear or friendship.

A routine established itself soon enough. Being as he preferred to leave nothing to chance, Ezra quite liked routines. Chris did too, as long as he was in control of them, although even that changed after a while. They let the sun and the sea and the need for sustenance describe their days, soon discovering the extent and limitations of the life it appeared they were forced to live for the foreseeable future.

Every time they talked about what they missed--what they missed to near distraction sometimes--Ezra found himself being circumspect. Talking of food and civilization in a general way while in fact he was entirely fixated on the bath-house and a closet full of clean clothes. He feared his desire for both luxury and comfort might be close to a mania that he mustn't allow to get the better of either of them. Chris seemed pretty clear on the other hand. He always mentioned whiskey, a working gun and the others, especially Vin.

"Like I told you before, you chose the wrong person to save," Ezra sulked, stung by any mention of Mr. Tanner, who he knew damn well wouldn't have complained even a quarter of the amount he himself already had, about discomfort and hunger and the rest of it.

"Who'd you rather be here with than me?" Chris asked once. Ezra thought the question was designed to elicit some response he wasn't sure he could offer.

"By choice...? Well Mr. Sanchez of course. For the entertainment." He had intended some sly barb about Chris and his taciturn ways but it apparently missed its target.

"You only about entertainment, Ezra?"

Ezra rolled his eyes at that. Although, he was not sure what he was all 'about', truth to tell. Not practicality and gritty determination, that was damn sure. Or the wild outdoors.

"There is much to be said for a convivial hand of poker when life appears rather grim." He began to deal. They'd been using shells as chips, both got a kick out of scouting along the shoreline for the prettiest and most perfect. Of course, Ezra already had a good pile of 'winnings' on his side of the camp. Even the paucity of rations and rigors of exposure hadn't dimmed his skill in that regard.

The cut on his arm healed to a silvery scar that itched from time to time, hurt sometimes under the skin. Chris seemed to have no ill-effects from the blow to the head. An occasional night fever afflicted them on different occasions, probably from an insect bite. Both of them got sick from their diet, repeatedly, until a couple of weeks in when their stomachs seemed to become more lined. There were plenty of fish, and crustaceans. Chris was willing to try roasting and eating one of the giant-sized cockroach-type creatures that scuttled about on the edges of the forest.

"Be my guest. I'd rather eat sand," Ezra told him and was treated to another of those smiles which made his chest feel tight. Chris had bludgeoned his trophy with a stick, which Ezra thought impressive given the speed the loathsome creatures moved.

Their conversation was a general, mostly good-humored back and forth. They didn't so much spend all their time together as cross paths during daylight hours. As darkness fell they'd wander back to the camp, alternating food preparation duties. Ezra joked it was the easiest schedule they'd ever had to devise and Chris said he only enjoyed his dinner every other day. They sat in the firelight either in a not disagreeable silence that Ezra would nearly always feel obliged to break, or mulling over selected past doings of themselves and their five friends. It was mostly the good times they chose to recall, since in this new reality there seemed no point picking at contentious things until they argued. Like they always used to.

Ezra wondered if a time would come when they'd have no more hesitations in delving into the personal. If he'd be brave, or foolish, enough to ask about what he most wanted to know - the poor dead wife and child. What it was that went on inside that scoured heart now and if it would always be Vin.

He supposed the pain of past losses had dimmed just a little. In fact, Buck had said as much recently, and Buck was the one who knew. Buck was the one who'd been there, after all, who'd shared something that nobody else, close as they might become to Chris Larabee, would ever share. According to him, Chris had been finding a way to manage it all, long before the frankly lame-brained plan to accompany a herd of badly-behaved bovines down the coast of south America. But Ezra wasn't sure how deep the recovery went. All he knew was that Chris loped off alone a good deal, left Ezra kicking his heels, fretting and scanning the horizon. Sometimes Chris would return gloomy and short-tempered. Others he'd be strangely content, and then Ezra, who could recognize such things with unerring accuracy, knew he'd been away pleasuring himself in some pretty location on the other side of the island.

Which thought was enough to make his palms sweat.

For himself, such pleasure was not generally forthcoming. Mind and body would not work in concert somehow. Not like it would back in the comfort of his room, with his feather bed and the sounds of the saloon drifting up from downstairs. Here he was hobbled by anxiety and unhappiness, which he worked very hard to keep off his face. It was a source of many sleepless nights, a low-level but ever-simmering frustration, made worse by the fact that they spent much of the time clothed in very little. They should have grown accustomed and unmoved by the sight of one another, he supposed, lean and brown as berries, honed from the physical toil of forever searching for food, endlessly climbing, carrying heavy loads, hacking at tough, reedy plants and trees with inadequate tools. Only he could never quite get used to it. Either his own near-nakedness, which although pleasing in terms of comfort, was not as enjoyable to him as tactile layers of silk and linen. Or in Chris's, which he couldn't for the life of him ignore.

His mind would wander into the realms of fantasy sometimes, as he watched him engaged in mundane tasks or moving about the camp. The way his sun-lightened bangs fell across his brow, moving with the rhythm of his hands. The slide of tensile muscle under the skin across his shoulders. The darker hair in peaks under his arms and scattered enticingly across his belly...

"You know..." Chris might turn, unaware, fix him with an almost stern look. "There's going to be a rainy season most likely. We'll have to shore ourselves up for that. Maybe a cool season too. Need to store up some matting, some layers. Plenty of wood. Maybe find a more protected spot."

Damn him, Chris remained sensible, pragmatic.

For his part, Ezra did mostly as he was told, contributed original ideas for various tasks, some of which were near genius, he thought, and some, like his schemes for trapping small animals, which would have made Vin Tanner laugh his guts up. He also continued to be the entertainer. It pleased him that he could ignite those slow-burning smiles through nothing much more than some patter, some songs and a hundred and one ways with a deck of cards.

When Chris didn't want to be entertained anymore, and he wasn't tired or busy, he'd try and make things out of wood. Mostly useful things--handles, spoons, water carriers. It was a nail-breaking, long-winded affair as far as Ezra could see. Chris approached it like he approached everything on this miserable, insect-infested island--necessary work that you just had to get on with.

Ezra envied him his whittling knife. He had no weapon apart from the switch he still carried whenever he wore his belt. It wasn't clear who or what was going to attack him, unless the local arthropods formed a gang, but he wasn't used to being defenseless.

When he looked at the knife a little too long one evening, Chris grinned at him. A wolfish kind of a grin.

"You don't need to steal it off me," he said. "Ain't plannin' on turning cannibal."

Time passed. Days ran into weeks and then into months. Once or twice they saw, like specks of grit on a lens, what they supposed were ships far away on the furthest horizon. The specks never grew into shapes although Ezra tired himself out attempting get up enough smoke to try and send a signal. It wasn't that Chris wouldn't help, more that he thought there must be a good reason shipping didn't come too near. Maybe there were reefs out there, ones that had fatally compounded the vulnerability of their own ship when the storm broke.

The weather didn't change noticeably for a long time, but then there were some cooler nights, some days of cloud and sudden rainstorms that whipped up the ocean, threw driftwood on to the beach and meant more fish and more water. The sunsets were always stirring and sunrise was noisier and more interesting than town on market day. Amongst the undergrowth and branches of the forested area there were several jewel-colored birds Ezra liked to watch, and the crystalline perfection of the shallows around the island were always a delight. So, yes. There were a few things Ezra appreciated about being here, but many, many more he hated. Some of them he voiced often, like the insects, the lack of soap and the monotonous diet. Some, like the plunging despair that sat in his gut, he did not.

Often late at night he'd walk down the edge of the shore. Stare into the dark trying to catch a glimpse of the horizon, listen to the regular sound of the waves. Even without a saloon it was a time of day when he felt most alive, and simultaneously most unhappy. He would hanker miserably after the taste of tobacco, scratch discontentedly at the hated bristle on his face. It was just about possible to keep it to that, rather than a full beard, but he despised not being meticulously clean-shaven. Appearances mattered, even if it didn't count for much with the lizards.

Eyes fixed on the nothingness of the dark, he missed the company of the others terribly, all of them. He missed his room, his pillow and his nice, inconsequential things. He missed his damned mother.

Eventually giving into the natural fatigue of his own circadian rhythm he'd drag himself back up the beach. Mostly Chris would be asleep, his breathing steady and anchoring.

But then one night he wasn't asleep. He was lying on his back. Although his eyes appeared closed, his breathing was hitched. And his hand was moving under the matting.

Heat seared Ezra's face. Trying to be quiet, he made his way across to his own bedding, stepping carefully across the sand and scrubby grass in the low firelight. But for all his care he was not able to prevent the crack of a twig underfoot and Chris's eyes flew open.

"I do apologize..."

"Don't matter!" Chris snapped. There was a tense silence and then, "Ezra," he said in his scratchiest voice, "I'm tired of doin' this myself. Fuckin' tired of it." There was the sound of him taking a deep breath. "Do you reckon you could... just..."

Ezra's mouth was so dry he could barely speak. Something told him he should perhaps refuse, on the grounds of... well, he wasn't too sure. His own self-respect maybe, although somehow that didn't seem important in the here and now. And as for propriety, morals, custom, expectation... that could all go to hell. Nevertheless, Ezra took pause. There would a morning to face after all. If he did this thing--this thing he'd desired since the days of the Seminole village--perhaps the tentative security of their kinship would founder on the rocks of shame or misunderstanding. They needed one another to survive, Chris had said so himself. Even if he hadn't meant exactly what Ezra would like him to have meant. Surely, surely that was not worth the risk...?

But Chris needed.

And Ezra desired.

"It would be... it would be my pleasure," he got out at last, voice uneven.

Less careful than before he crossed from his side of the camp and crouched down. Chris lay still in the sheath of reed matting that served as a blanket and in the construction of which Ezra's fingers had been reduced, so he thought, to lumpen parodies of their former selves.

Swallowing, he pushed back the matting so he could see what he was doing. The need for caution shouted loud in his head once more, but his own need was beginning to burn him now, to lick up his spine and through his veins. And Chris was lying there so quiet, so trusting of him. The moment was here. It was now.

Heart hammering fiercely, he positioned himself looking up the line of Chris's body. It was a line he badly wished to stroke, thighs to belly to nipples to throat. To trace with a wet tip of tongue and cover with kisses. Only he hadn't been asked for that.

Chris sighed when Ezra touched him. Like it was the one thing he'd been waiting for, praying for. His fingers curled against the ground and he moved his hips, wanting more. "That's good," he stuttered out. "Just like that. Jesus Christ, Ezra... yes... that."

Ezra's head was spinning. Touching Chris in the sultry night.... Having permission. Feeling his smooth skin, all that warm, damp hair. The hardness, the delicate swell, the silky, slick heaven of him. Good God, it was almost more than he could bear.

But he knew, because he'd been told more than once and he'd seen the results, that he was something of an expert in this. Just the right pressure, the right rhythm and circle of thumb to both tease and satisfy. He told himself to make this about skill. Not about feelings. That was what Chris needed, and what might preserve their future good relations. Never having wanted to be better at anything in his life, and with all the concentration of a master potter shaping clay, Ezra worked first one hand, then the other... and then both.

Knowing the image would be forever branded on the back of his brain, he drew the messiest and goddamn prettiest orgasm he possibly could out of the man below him. The man he loved so hard and hopelessly he sometimes felt he was choking on it.

Chris cursed and begged, control crumbling with every whispered entreaty from Ezra's lips.

Until he was unable to form words.

And when he came, arching off the ground, his chest was heaving almost in panic. Ezra felt the hot splash against his face, about drowned in the sound of his name being shouted into the night. Then he mostly wanted to hold him. Just ... slide his arms under Chris's back and pull him close against his chest until he was calm and comforted. But he pulled away into the darkness instead, feeling the cold at his back. He wiped a sticky hand across his belly, squeezed shut his eyes for a second. The pain of it being over was more than enough to stifle his own needs.

Slowly, Chris's breathing evened out.

Ezra was relieved he didn't seem embarrassed, wasn't reaching to cover himself up again straight away.

"Seems like maybe I chose the right person to save after all," Chris said, voice hoarse. There was a short pause. "You sure seemed to fuckin' know what you were doing." Ezra wasn't quite sure if there was curiosity, praise or accusation in there. He thought it was probably much too boastful and possibly dangerous to say at this point that in fact he knew how to do it even better. And many other things besides. He wasn't expecting any contact and jumped when he felt a hand reach out and brush his thigh. "Here." Chris's tone had changed again. He was gruff all of a sudden. "I'll do the same for you."

Ezra pulled back some more, right out of range. "That won't be necessary."

"Won't be necessary?" Chris pushed himself up on an elbow. "What's so special about you?"

"Nothing special. I merely... I don't need any favors is all. In fact I am perfectly capable of... seeing to matters by myself."

"Ain't about capability." Chris was scathing. "Or favors."

He sat up, kicked away the rest of the matting. Ezra knew he'd offended him and he felt a sharp regret.

"Going to go clean up." Chris rose to standing. He headed off down the sand into the dark, saying over his shoulder, "Let me know if you change your mind."

Ezra wanted to call after him, to explain himself somehow. Only he wasn't sure he could.

Chris's shadow reached the water's edge. There came the sound of splashing, a few muffled curses. Ezra made sure that when Chris came back up to the fire, he was fully covered by his own protective layers, invisible as well as visible. Chris stood for a while looking at him before he settled back down with a soft grunt of discontent.

Ezra searched in vain for sleep, mind replaying all the mistakes he had ever made and hand curled against the flaky remains of a moment he hoped he'd never regret.

The next day was windy. It kept them busy, as the roof of the open-fronted shelter they'd constructed, blew in. That had to be fixed before they could think about food for the day. Chris didn't say much, and Ezra didn't say much back.

They were tired when the weather calmed, slept sound all night. Chris went off on his own the following day and Ezra deliberately didn't do much useful. He prepared the fire for later. Then went up to the highpoint as usual to see what he could see. The horizon was empty in all directions and the ocean looked turquoise in the sun.

Chris could swim well, but rarely entered the water just for recreation's sake. For some time after they'd arrived Ezra wouldn't go near it except out of necessity, although he'd often swum as a child. Lately he'd gone swimming more and more, found it a perfect antidote to his restlessness. Back in camp he dropped his frayed, rolled-up pants, and waded naked into the waves. Until he was up to his shoulders. Then he swam hard, straight out to sea, arm over arm, until his lungs burned with the effort.

Floating on his back, looking up at the sky--it was the closest to luxury he'd managed to find during their time here. And that was in spite of possible danger from the dark water below.

Swimming back to the beach a long time later he realized Chris had returned and was standing ankle deep in the waves, yelling at him.

At first, belly tightening, Ezra thought he must have seen some predator approaching from behind. Was shouting a warning. Then, as he swam strongly in towards shore he realized Chris was merely raging about something.

"What the hell do you think you're doing all the way out there?"

As his feet met the shelving beach, Ezra rose and began to walk towards him, the swell tugging at his knees.

"Well I wasn't fishing," he replied.

"Damn, Ezra, that was too far out. Too fuckin' far out. Don't you... don't you do that anymore. What in the hell point was there in surviving that goddamned storm if you're going to go get yourself drowned for good? What were you thinking?"

The tone got under Ezra's skin the same as it always had, made him disregard the reasons for it. Only irritated at the scolding, Ezra tried to walk past him. Chris's hand came out and slapped against his chest.

"I ain't joking."

"And I don't think a man who's walked into the line of fire as regularly as you can have anything to tell me about courting danger." Ezra began to sluice the water off his arms, dislodging Chris's hold.

"Listen." Chris remained close, didn't seem to want to move away. "The other night..."

Ezra's breath caught.

"The pleasure was all mine," he said, voice stiff with his effort to keep it steady.

"Believe me, the pleasure was far from all yours." Chris pursed his lips. "All the times I've been off on my own tugging on my sorry dick? It was mostly you I was thinkin' of."

Ezra's lip curled in spite of his surge of hope. That word hurt. "Mostly?"

"All right then... more and more."

"Well hell, that's just because I'm here, and I'm all there is."

Chris blew out a breath of frustration. "No, you jackass, it's because you're you and your eyes are so damned pretty. Besides, ain't no different for you. I'm all there is too."

"Well that is where you are wrong. Quite, staggeringly wrong."

Chris's face scrunched in confused impatience. "Meaning? Swear to God, I wish you'd quit not telling me what you want to tell me. And talking goddamned claptrap."

Ezra could feel the bitter taste of resent in the back of his throat. He was tired of his loneliness, his abject attraction to this man, of being such a source of irritation. So what the hell... double or nothing.

"All right then." He squared his shoulders, feeling the chill as the onshore breeze blew across his damp skin. "Even knowing the feeling you have for Mr. Tanner, and his for you... for a very long time now, Lord, even before your idiot plan landed us on this wretched outpost, far from being all there is, you have been ... in my eyes you have been more or less everything there is."

As soon as he'd said it he wished he hadn't. There was nearly always danger in showing your hand too early, terrible danger. He almost braced for a blow. Certainly he didn't expect the slow shake of the head, then that smile appearing, spreading over Chris's face like the sun appearing from behind a cloud.

"You jackass." Chris's voice was unaccountably soft, even fond. "I miss Vin like my goddamned right hand's been cut off, but it wasn't ever about... what you think. I never woulda thought of him that way. The way I've come to think about you."

There was a certain brilliance about his eyes all of a sudden. Ezra felt his irritation and resentment evaporate. Out of nowhere Chris's head dipped forward and he placed a light kiss on Ezra's mouth. Then licked carefully along his lower lip. Ezra's eyes fluttered closed in reaction.

"Salty," Chris murmured and Ezra felt a hand in the small of his back, tugging him close.

"I've wanted you and wanted you," Ezra heard his own rough voice say, even as his brain was still telling him to keep his mouth shut. "You've no idea how bad I've wanted you."

Chris's laugh rumbled hot against his neck. "Oh I think I have."

Possessive hands curved around his ass and Ezra felt the sting as his toes dug hard into the sand.

And that was it. That was as easy as it was, after all.

It was on a gray day with rain bouncing off the water that they saw the ship.

Chris spied it first, and hadn't even been looking. For a while it was only the usual speck which they expected to disappear at any second as if blown away by the breeze.

Then Chris said, "Reckon it could be coming this way."

Ezra didn't say a word. He didn't immediately make for the high point to begin signaling. He walked slowly down the sand, almost unaware of the light rain in his face. From the edge of the water he stared fixedly at what was now a faintly triangular shape.

Still he knew it could change, could begin to recede once more. He didn't know what he wanted it to do, just that he couldn't stop watching.

The triangle gradually grew a little more distinct until he thought he could see the white of its sails.

He heard Chris padding down the beach behind him, then felt the warmth as he arrived at his side. They both stood there looking out at the approaching vessel. Ezra's gut had twisted itself into a knot so tight he could barely stand up straight. He felt the slide of a cool palm against his.

"Don't make any difference, whoever it is," Chris said, fingers squeezing hard. "You don't need to worry. This is how it is now. Ain't gonna change."

The boat sailed ever closer, rising and falling over the white-crested waves, until they could see the shapes of men standing at the prow. Maybe they were fishermen who couldn't believe their eyes, maybe enemies coming to do them harm, or maybe it was their friends come at last to get them. It was something momentous, one way or another. Death or salvation. And very soon now they'd be able to see.