Cold Grey Dawn
Author's notes: I recently had the great angsty pleasure of reading Zeke Black's Clear Blue Sky which is about as emotionally intense as it's possible to be. This is my own version of what the epilogue should have been, and yes, Zeke has not only read it, but suffered beta-ing it for me twice!
Warnings: Deathfic (of a sort)
"You can't leave."
The voice was soft, so soft that its usual rasp was absent, giving it a quality of innocence and desperation Ezra would never have imagined from this man.
He didn't turn, though, his hands working without his conscious awareness as they rolled shirts and under garments into his saddlebags. He was hardly aware of anything at present, other than the great hole in the center of his existence. He only needed to pack his saddlebags and the bedroll that draped behind the saddle. The rest he could have Inez pack into his trunks and send to - wherever he ended up. If he ended up somewhere long enough to want them -
"Ezra." The word was still quiet, but less a whisper now, with a faint moan beneath it that spoke of pain as agonizing as his own.
He knew better than to look, had already seen the devastation on the faces of the other five as they'd spread out around Chris' body minutes ago. And he'd seen the need in Vin's eyes last night, a need he'd put second to his own - for exactly this occurrence.
The sound of boots on the hotel room's hardwood floor startled him, evincing Vin's grief more than his voice had. Despite himself, Ezra turned defensively and found himself trapped, though not physically; Vin didn't reach for him or confine him, not with anything more than close proximity.
But his gaze caught Ezra's and held it. Vin's eyes, usually so clear and blue, were cloudy and pale, endless in the suffering they held. It was a suffering that reached to Ezra, bridging the distance between them as it found a companion there.
He'd touched Vin before, helping him in the rare times he'd been injured, then more when they'd worked together to help care for Chris in the past months, but their physical connections had always been distant and careful, polite in the way of men who knew each other but weren't intimate.
Despite that, he moved easily, reaching out and pulling Vin against him as if they were lovers, as if Vin was as familiar to him as the man he had held just hours ago.
Vin was only a couple of inches taller, close enough in height that Ezra reached easily to wrap his arm around Vin's neck and pull him close. He smelled of tobacco smoke and hay, the too-sweet pungence of animal hide, and the sweat of fear and exhaustion.
Fear of exactly what had happened, of this nightmare that he couldn't stop any more than Ezra had been able to.
'Don't want to die in bed.'
He held Vin against him, Vin's face pressing into the softer linen of his shirt collar. He felt the wetness of tears seep through the thin cloth of his shirt, knowing he was doing the same to Vin's hair and the collar of his jacket. But the echo of Chris' words to him, slow and stuttered and angry, played through his head like the refrain of an out-of-tune saloon piano. Chris had said so many other things, last night and before, but those words were the ones he clung to now.
Those words were the ones he'd have to give to the others, to explain why he hadn't done his part in their assumed agreement. Why he hadn't kept Chris in bed, or at least so delayed that they could stop the insanity.
Eventually, Vin's trembling slowed, as had Ezra's. He loosened his hold on Vin but didn't relinquish it.
"You can't leave," Vin mumbled, the words muddled, clogged with tears and desperation. "Cant lose you, too."
He spoke from grief and loss, Ezra knew; not just the loss of the man Vin had loved like a brother, but from the loss of a way of life that had been based in Chris. That world was gone, a fact Ezra had been trying to come to terms with since that horrible day in May when the events that led to this had started.
And for all Vin's pain, Ezra suspected that Vin knew that; of all of them, Vin was the most practical, the one who'd known that if it didn't happen this time, it would happen eventually. If it didn't happen under the gun of a bully like Charlie Pickett, it would have happened by Chris' own hand.
Vin pulled back and Ezra steadied him as Vin caught his balance and swiped at his face with the back of his hand. He looked old now, his face lined and thin and hollow.
But his eyes when they met Ezra's this time were startlingly clear, like his words. "You're all I got left of him."
The sentiment could have, should have encompassed all of them, the remaining men who had been part of the seven. Vin could not have known the way things were between Chris and Ezra, they had been too careful -
But even as he tried to reason it through, Ezra knew better. He recalled the way Vin had stood at the door the night before, his husky, distracted words: 'I reckon he's more used to you being there.'
The way he'd glanced at Ezra from the side, his eyes showing his knowledge.
Later, when Ezra looked back on this moment, he knew that it was pivotal, that he had stood at a fork in the road, a fork that he could have taken anytime over the next several weeks. At that moment, he should have argued, told Vin that he was wrong, that there was nothing he could give Vin that he didn't already have. Or he could even have agreed for the sake of appeasing Vin, letting him have some hope out of all of this. Ezra could then have ridden away at the first chance or at any of the chances that were presented to him in the days that followed. Lord knew that the town's devastation was almost as difficult as their own, and it seemed that the townsfolk felt a need to share their grief and shock with the remaining six men, burdening them even more. Several times in those trying days, Ezra found himself heading toward the livery, ready to abandon the demands of this place and these people, only to catch himself in the memory of Vin's desolation and in the memory of Chris' love for Vin.
It was that memory that came to him now, as he stared into Vin's eyes. He knew he was seeing what Chris had seen in Vin, knew that he was seeing what they had shared: the instinctive understanding of each other, and the trust that had bound them together, the core of the seven.
And he knew Vin's words were true in the inverse. Vin was what Ezra had left of Chris.
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