Ill Shuffled

by Farad
Notes: yet another "Obsession" story, attempting to explain so very much. It's set just before the last scene. The title is from Jonathan Swift: "I must complain the cards are ill shuffled till I have a good hand."
Thanks to the wonderful people at WEC, Mardi, Kim, Stan, Charlotte, and Dail, among others, and to the wonderful JoJo!! All mistakes are my own!

Ezra shuffled the cards, pretending to focus on them. Peripherally, he watched the man across the table. It was late on a week night, the saloon near empty. JD, Josiah, and Nathan were long gone, their mornings starting early, now that things were beginning to fall back into routine. Buck was at the bar; as it was a slow night, he had a woman on each side, all of them laughing and friendly, hands wandering in various places.

Chris sat across the table, a half-empty bottle of cheap whiskey at his right hand. He had a cheroot in the corner of his mouth, and he leaned back in his chair, one arm stretched out, his hand open on the table as he waited for Ezra to deal. He sat like that a lot these days, the wound healed but still sensitive. Stretching his arm out seemed to take some of the ache out of it - not that Chris would admit to an ache, but they all knew.

He looked relaxed, content, but he stared out over the saloon's swinging doors, into the darkness beyond.

Seeking the one of their number unaccounted for.

Ezra shuffled one more time, the cards falling fluidly into place.

Chris' gaze was heavy-lidded; he'd been drinking steadily for the past several hours - not hard, not fast, but steady. He had a high tolerance, they all did, but Chris had been off hard liquor for weeks now, and he was showing the first signs of it catching up to him.

Which made this the perfect time. "Five card draw," Ezra said, dealing out the cards. "Nothing wild."

He didn't look, but he didn't have to; he could feel the weight of Chris' gaze when it moved from the night beyond the door to him. "Nothing?" Chris said, the word languid. "That ain't like you."

Ezra shrugged, tapping the side of the deck on the table before setting it down. "To keep it interesting," he said. "Isn't that what you'd say?"

Chris reached up, taking the cigar out of his mouth and setting it on the edge of the table. Smoke curled lazily from it, a serpentine warning to Ezra not to rush this.

Ezra didn't look at him; instead he took his own cards off the table. "Ante up?" He picked up a nickel, twirling it between his fingers then catching it between his index and middle fingertips. "You want to make this truly interesting?" he asked, using a blend of casual and tease.

Chris had his cards in his hand but he hadn't looked at them yet. He frowned, the lines of his face, cut deeper in the aftermath of the Ella Gaines fiasco, drawing tightly together in the shadows of the flickering lights. "Depends," he said, careful even now. "What you got in mind?"

Ezra let his lips twitch, not grinning but playing it as if he were amused, and maybe, just a little reckless. "How about we play for something different. Something truly valuable."

One fine eyebrow arched in curiosity and question. It asked all the questions Chris had on the matter and Ezra gave it a few seconds before he answered. "Words," he said, choosing his own carefully. "You hold them very dear. How about we play for those?"

Chris looked down at his cards, fanning them one at a time. He picked the cigar up, knocking it once against the table to discard the ash, then he put it back in the corner of his mouth. When he spoke, his lips moved around it. "Don't seem fair. I don't use many, but you always have more than your share."

Ezra smiled at that, hearing the droll humor in Chris' tone. "Then I shall answer with four to your every one." When Chris' eyebrows rose, both of them this time, Ezra added, "Five? Six?"

Chris looked back at his cards, shaking his head once. "What's the ante?" he asked, the end of the cheroot flaring with orange light.

Ezra took his time, thinking carefully. It was a delicate thing, this balance between them. Before Ella, the nature of their relationship had been intense but simple - constant disagreements, passionate sex.

Then Chris had announced his plans to stay on with the woman. The announcement had been startling for many reasons, most having to do with this sudden change in Chris. But Ezra had been caught off-guard with his own reaction to Chris' declaration of his plan and, implicit in it, his love for Ella Gaines.

Ezra had allowed himself to feel something for Li Pong, allowed himself to care enough about her to see her safely back to her family. The idea, though, of changing his life, changing himself, had never entered his mind, and the idea that Chris Larabee would do such had stunned him.

The idea that Chris was doing it for Ella Gaines had been inconceivable.

What had happened afterwards had validated every bad feeling Ezra had had about it - including his shock at his own feelings.

Now Chris was back on his feet, his health returning, at least physically. His temper, however, was another matter.

Which was why, when Chris spoke, Ezra didn't bother to hide his surprise.

"It was stupid," Chris said, his voice low and flat. "I knew it at the time, but I - she . . . " The hand on the table knotted into a fist, the knuckles white.

Ezra waved one hand in the air. "That's quite the ante," he said, keeping his tone light. "I'm not certain what I have to offer of equal worth."

Chris' fist slowly unfurled and he reached for the shot glass. "Why don't you tell me why you're still here," he said as he replaced the cigar with the liquor.

Ezra glanced across the table. The look on Chris' face confirmed that the question wasn't general. An equal ante, then. He looked at his cards, spreading them in his hand. "I wanted to see how this played out," he said, sorting the cards in his hand as he forced himself past his own caution. With effort, he went on, "And I suppose that I don't want to leave you."

In his peripheral vision, he saw Chris jerk, his eyes snapping up to look at Ezra. Ezra didn't look at him, still moving the cards around in his hand - three of spades, queen of spades, five of diamonds, nine of clubs, jack of clubs. No hearts which seemed appropriate for this conversation.

"You're 'bout the only one," Chris muttered. "Reckon most of the others are here cause they got no where better to be." He looked down at his own cards, but Ezra saw the quick tilt of his head as he looked toward the door once again, staring out it as he dropped the stump of his cheroot into a spittoon on the floor.

Damn him. Damn them both. The anger came fast and hard, familiar - it hadn't been that long ago that he'd stood in the middle of Ella Gaine's property, bullets raining around him and the others because Chris had let himself believe in the woman's promises, let himself believe he could find again that fantasy life he'd had with Sarah.

Hadn't been that long since Ezra had had to confront his own feelings, his delusion that what he and Chris shared meant nothing to him other than physical relief and a mild fondness for someone he considered an intellectual equal. He'd been scrambling around in the dirt, Josiah's voice yelling in his ear, the big man's hand pulling at him, trying to get him back to safety, when he'd realized that his lust for the damned diamond had nothing to do with its value - negligible at best, which he knew - and everything to do with his feelings of loss and betrayal.

Just as they did now.

"Well, now that you're on your feet, perhaps - "

"Is that your first bet?" Chris cut him off, laying his cards face down on the table and leaning forward. "You must have a hell of a hand."

Ezra forced himself to look at Chris, meeting his eyes. "Only one way to find out," he said cooly.

"It wasn't about none of y'all," Chris sighed, hunching over the table. "I wasn't thinking about anyone but me, about the past, before Sarah. Hell, it hadn't worked then, Ella was - Ella was - well, I guess she was as crazy then as she is now." He closed his eyes, his face thinning as he grimaced. "I knew it was wrong - I was wrong. I knew I wasn't thinking right. But I just wanted . . ." He shook his head, not able to go on.

Ezra looked away, his own gaze falling to the door and the blackness beyond. 'Wanted'. That was the heart of all of this, wasn't it, wanting things that one shouldn't, that one couldn't have.

"How many cards do you want?" he asked casually, picking up the deck.

Chris swallowed, his face scrunching tighter for a second before he drew himself up. As he opened his eyes, he said, "Hell, I think this hand's too expensive for me."

Ezra wondered if the words, the thoughts behind the words, actually caused the man physical pain, as if each sound through his lips was ripped from a place inside his body. "You've already bought these, may as well see if they were worth the price."

Chris grunted, picking up his cards. His hands shook just a little as he pulled out two and tossed them to the table.

Ezra dealt two to Chris then three to himself. They sat in silence for a long moment as they arranged their hands. Ezra now held a pair of nines, the jack he hadn't thrown away, an eight of spades and the queen of diamonds. Still no hearts.

What was a pair of nines worth? More to the point, though, what was his last bid going to be? Technically, Chris should have opened the bidding, but Ezra suspected that Chris would live in the silence for - well, ever, if possible. So it would be up to Ezra, and if this bid was too high, Chris would walk away.

He shook his head once, amused at the irony of it, There was one thing he had to offer, one thing that would make Chris stay - and he was wasting it on a pair of nines. But then, this game wasn't about the cards, and never had been.

It wasn't easy, but he had to know. Before Ella, before he was forced to confront his own attachment to Chris, he'd been able to ignore it his concerns about Vin. He'd been able to ignore the fact that Vin was in love with Chris, because Chris, embarrassed by his own desires, couldn't see them in anyone else. Unless Vin said something, Chris would never know. And the odds of Vin saying something, Vin who was so much like Chris, were slim to none. He wouldn't risk losing the friendship he had with Chris.

Before Ella, Ezra hadn't worried, not seriously. Since Ella, things had changed. Chris had changed. And Vin's leaving had made Ezra uncertain. He didn't like it, didn't like wondering about something he wanted this badly. There wasn't a choice really; it was why he had started this game, to get the truth of it, even if he had to be the one to spell it out. Vin would be back, and like Ezra, he's be willing to risk everything because, like Ezra, he'd almost lost it all once already.

He folded the cards into a neat little stack, laid them face down on the table then rested his hands on top of them, his fingers interlaced. With effort, he met Chris gaze. "He'll be back," he said.

Chris stared at him, and Ezra watched the quicksilver progression of questions in the green eyes.. He saw the instant when Chris thought about playing dumb and asking who Ezra meant, he saw the instant that Chris wondered how Ezra knew he was anxious, he saw the instant when Chris accepted that Ezra knew him this well, knew he was this worried, and also, perhaps, knew more than he did about the situation. That Ezra might know the truth in what he'd just said.

And the instant when Chris realized that anything he said had to be carefully considered, any question carefully weighed. That was the instant he looked away.

The absence of his gaze was a palpable relief. But in place of its weight came a cold dread that permeated from Ezra's belly outward, radiating down his limbs and through his joints. He'd been right. Ella - Ella had been bad. But she had never been the one he truly feared. He'd been shocked with the turn of events with Ella , because she was not who he'd expected Chris to turn to, not in the end.

And now, he'd given that away, handed to Chris on a platter. The greatest gamble of his life, on a pair of nines.

"It ain't what you think," Chris said. "Never has been. We ain't like - " He bit the rest off, but Ezra arched an eyebrow.

"Like - me?" he said, keeping his voice low. But he couldn't keep the anger out of it and he didn't try. He put his hands on the table, thinking to push himself up, to gather his things and walk away, not just from this table but from everything in this damnable town. He'd gambled his heart on a pair of nines and lost.

With the speed that had kept him alive, Chris reached out, dropping a hand onto Ezra's. His fingers circled Ezra's wrist, his grip tight enough to bruise. Ezra tried to jerk away, but Chris shifted, pressing down hard enough to hold Ezra in place.

"No," Chris hissed. "Vin and me. We ain't like you and me. He ain't like - like us."

It confirmed what Ezra had expected, that Chris didn't know Vin as well as he thought he did. Ezra relaxed and the hold on his wrist eased.

Chris took a deep breath, closing his eyes, and his hand slid away. Ezra felt the absence of it, missed the heat and weight. The connection.

"Vin . . ." Chris shook his head but he opened his eyes, searching out the empty glass. He caught up the bottle, sloshing a stronger measure into the glass which he downed before it had stopped moving.

He'd come this far, forced himself to say it. It was too late to shy away from the bet - all or nothing. "He loves you," he said slowly and carefully, as if talking to a child. "He has for as long as I've known the two of you. " As they hung in the air between them, he was almost able to believe that someone else had said them - it couldn't have been him.

Chris was pouring more whiskey into the glass, but some of it dribbled on the table. He jerked the bottle, forcing the neck up. "What the hell are you - "

Ezra laughed, at himself, at Chris, at this whole mess.

The bottle made a sharp thud as Chris set it on the table. Carefully, ignoring the glass he had just filled, he reached down and picked up his cards. He leaned forward at an angle, so that he was close to Ezra, crowding him. It made it easier for his voice to carry. "Whatever you think about the way he feels, it don't matter. I care about him. But he's like a brother, Ezra. I want him back - I need him back. But not that way."

The relief almost made Ezra giddy. "Not what way?" he asked carefully.

Chris leaned just a fraction closer, barely noticeable to anyone by Ezra, who was now sharing his breath. "Not the way I want you."

He couldn't stop the smile - he wasn't sure he'd ever felt this way, wasn't sure exactly what it was he was feeling other than relief and warmth and desire. Charitably, he heard himself say, "It is why he left, after all."

Chris grimaced. "I - don't know. Maybe." He glanced again at the door, as if willing Vin to walk through it. "He didn't deserve what I said to him. He was trying to watch my back, and I - well, in his place, I don't blame him for leaving. I hope he can forgive me for it." He sighed and looked back to Ezra. "He's like my kin. He ain't like you."

Most of the times Ezra had heard that comment, it had not been favorable. He tensed without thinking, prepared for the worst. But Chris' hand was back on his, comforting this time. "He ain't the one I want to wake up in bed with."

The image of it, Chris and Vin together, rough and bristled, smelling of sweat and horses and gun oil, waking up on opposite sides of a bed not nearly big enough, made Ezra smile. "Well, I, for one, fold," he said, picking up his cards and tossing them carelessly onto the table between them.

Chris snorted, his fingers squeezing Ezra's hand. "Guess I win then," he said, reaching for the glass and downing the shot. He rose, grabbing up the bottle as he did.

Ezra started to gather up the cards, but as he did, Chris dropped a hand on them. "Think I got cheated," he said casually. "I'm pretty sure I said more than you did."

Ezra shrugged. "I shall have to make it up to you then - perhaps a bedtime story? I know several rather long ones."

Chris snorted. "Reckon you do. Lead on, then. My shoulder's aching a little and maybe your fine feather bed will help me sleep tonight."

"Indeed," Ezra agreed, rising.

He led the way across the saloon floor, nodding to people they passed. As he climbed the stairs, feeling the brush of Chris' body behind him, he glanced through the five cards he had palmed; five hearts. A flush.

As he grinned at the irony of it, he heard the creak of the batwing doors open behind them.

He didn't look back, and behind him, Chris' steps didn't falter.