Three Weeks Later

It isn't much after four in the morning when Ezra slips out of his room above the bar.

He makes his way through the short corridor moving with a silent, shadowed grace he has never before displayed to his companions, but which is, in truth, more natural to him than any of the habits they would most readily associate with his personage. It is something that has always been a part of him, this effortless, flowing movement, something, perhaps, which he's inherited from his father, certainly there is nothing of his mother in the deeper, centered part of himself from which this ability arises, and it is something that he has never spoken of. He had been quite young when he learned to blunt his movements, how young he can no longer recall, for no better reason than an odd and awkward shame that even the movements of his body should set him apart from those around him. There have been times, hardly few and not at all far between, that he has been grateful of his body's seemingly perfect harmony of silence, and making his way past Inez's door (barred and locked against the chance that any of the Tavern's patrons might acquire some duly lewd thoughts about her person) he adds this moment to that list. By preference he would have gone out the window, an escape route he has long favored and one which would negate the risk of awakening the lovely Ms Inez, yet doing so now would only cause him to further injure himself. Hardly advantageous. Yet he quite appreciates the equal risk he runs by chancing to awaken her; should that unfortunate event occur she would not but be able to notice the saddle-bags he is carrying over his shoulder; at this hour, late or early as you would name it, their significance would not be lost on she who had fled her own home, and many places between here and there, in the dead of night. Whatever he feels for the exquisite young barkeep no small part of it has been inspired by the simple understanding that she does not wish for him to depart; she and Billy have been the only people, unburdened by the expectations of the Townspeople and each other, free of the cumbersome web in which he and the others are so firmly ensnared, to actively display such sentiments and each will remain with him until his dying day on account, but he has no desire to face her now, to quarrel over something that cannot be altered.

There is a small, one might say unremarkable, package he has left lying on the dresser in his now vacated room, her name printed clearly and cleanly across the brown paper wrapping, which represents all the farewell he intends to make.

Soon enough he's past her door and down the stairs, at the foot of which he pauses, letting his eyes wander over the empty common room. This is not the first time he has stood thusly, though he has refrained from doing so since losing the place to his Mother's schemes, and he cannot help but compare the overwhelming pride and...and...gladness, the sense of infinite possibilities opening before him that he felt during those previous vigils to the quietly wistful and achingly weary sorrow that now pervades his senses.

How he hates goodbyes.

Still he does not linger, to do so might well be all the catalyst required to keep him here, and to remain, to forgive the others, is the one thing he'll no longer excuse himself.

Giving the room one last, lingering look, the echo of late night laughter and drunken piano playing in his ears, he crosses the room and steps through the batwing doors without faltering or turning back. He can recall but one time in his life when he has done otherwise, years ago during a time he'd rather not recall, the consequences of which he can describe only as the singularly most appalling event to occur in the tale of his life. He has learned the price of hesitation and knows well its cost is more than he can afford.

Carefully he guides the doors back into place, they have a tendency to emit the most ghastly of sounds when left to their own devices and he cannot afford such an inconvenience at this particular moment. Inez's ears have grown so sensitized to the sound that, once again, she would awaken and discover this final misdeed if he does not take this simple precaution. He would have fixed them, long ago, or rather, would have talked Vin or Buck into doing so, if Inez hadn't made a point of requesting that he leave them be. He'd been curious about that, though he never did ask, and he finds himself regretting that simple fact now. He'd always assumed, paradoxically, when he has not for one minute believed his days here were not numbered, that he would discover the reason for such an odd request on his own.

There are so many small, inconsequential little mysteries that he shall, now, never see solved.

Glancing first up, then down, the street, seeing not a soul, he steps away from the place that he once hoped might become a home to him, feeling something almost tangible slip into the dark as he moves down the street. He refuses to look to the Inn across the street, the instrument of his mother's ultimate triumph.

There would be a concession in that, an acknowledgement, he is not willing to grant her, nor anyone else.

If he only he possessed a vengeful turn of mind, he thinks, he'd break into the Mercantile, take all the kerosene he could carry and burn the place to the ground. Yet, alas, he has neither the wish nor inclination to drive the current owner into bankruptcy, nor will he take the chance that performing such an act would bring an end to the life of his mother who continues to reside at her former establishment, conceding the quarters above the Tavern to himself and Inez.

Far from the act of consideration this appears Ezra knows full well that his mother would never be so foolish as to test the resolve of Chris and the others, nor be willing to make herself look so very selfish and uncaring, by removing him from his quarters at this juncture. If nothing else is certain there is no doubt in anyone's mind that even Josiah would find such an act, at least in the current crisis, beyond appalling.

He cannot, will not, would not voice how terribly suspicious and unnerved her continued presence makes him. There is no reason for it that he can see, it seems, to his eye, that she's already said all that she intends. Surely, if it were otherwise, she would not be so steadfastly avoiding his presence, as she has plainly been doing for well over a week. Her further lingering in this much detested town of...theirs...accomplishes nothing beyond additionally aggravating Chris's temper, and his own patience. He thinks possibly, is almost certain at times, that she is edging toward something, building toward some further confrontation or climax that he cannot name, but which he knows he wants no part of.

He is through with this town, these people, and That Woman.

Let her find another sad soul to play her games with.

He reaches the stable and his greeted by a sleepily subdued whicker from Chaucer, who is standing at the gate of his stall, throwing his head happily about. Chaucer, at least, is always pleased to see him, no matter the hour or circumstances.

It takes him far longer than he would've liked to saddle the sorrel, though he is grateful to be capable of performing even this simple and familiar act. Tonight, last night, is the first time Nathan has allowed him to journey downstairs, though it has been over a week since he convinced the others to let him return to his own quarters (Blackmailed actually. Sometimes it was better to let him have his way; he'd do what he wanted in any case as they were all well aware.) and already even the small exertions which he has allowed himself have set his entire left side to throbbing like some immense bruise, his ribs and his shoulder protesting every movement and he can feel the still-healing, still tender flesh of his abdominal wound stretch and pull uncomfortably. He can only imagine the internal damage he has no doubt wreaked, though, truthfilly, he'd rather not.

Luckily Chaucer, who is more than familiar with such late-night/early morning escapes, stands quiet and uncomplaining while his rider does the best he can.

When he is finished tacking the gelding up he hesitates, absentmindedly wiping the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his jacket, thinking that pride is one thing and stupidity quite another, looking around for the mounting block Yosemite keeps on hand for those too drunk or injured or feminine to mount without assistance, then, once he's located it, leads Chaucer over to it. This would be all together another story if he were being observed, as Josiah would say it is the watcher and the admirer who provoke us to all the inanities we commit, and as he launches himself into the saddle, clutching convulsively at the saddle-horn when a white hot tide of pain comes cascading through his body, struggling against the black wings fluttering across his vision, praying silently, that he does not pass into quiet oblivion, he is more than grateful to be both alone and unobserved.

Once in the saddle, his feet resting securely in the stirrups, he gives himself three...four...five heartbeats to recover, then nudges Chaucer ahead. Again he is certain of nothing save his wish to stay and will not trust himself enough to test his resolve. He appreciates the irony in his lack of trust; it is the inability of the others to trust him that, in large part, has driven him to this action.

He is halfway down the street, halfway gone, when the shadow detaches itself from the still deeper shadows of an alleyway. To say he is surprised by this sudden appearance of one of his fellow, no, the remaining, Peacekeepers would be a gross understatement. In point of fact he is so very startled by this newcomer that for one, wild, moment, the shadows cast by horse and rider merge in his mind and he is gripped by the certainty that the thing coming at him from the dark is not one of the Peacekeepers, is no MAN at all, but some crazy half-beast.

Yet it is only a moment, his rational mind reasserts itself quickly enough, reasoning that this must be either Nathan, who could very well have detected the slight aftertaste of the drug he'd added to their whiskey, or Chris, whose whereabouts he'd been unable to account for while serving up the altered liquor.

As the figure moves further into the street, becomes more visible, that rational part of him smirks.

The rest of him suppresses a sigh which would serve no better a purpose than to aggravate his already dissenting wounds.

There will be a sermon now.

This, though not alone, is one of the reasons he wished only to quietly slip away in the night, for Nathan has never allowed, WOULD never allow, so tempting a chance to demonstrate his superior moral fiber slip past without notice or action. After all, here at last, is the proof that he has been right about this Son Of The South all along.

He needs no more guilt leveled at him for his latest action, for the act he is now perpetrating; he is more than capable of drowning himself in that particular sentiment without further aide from this gentleman. In actuality there exists the very real chance that he may someday, distant or not, be overtaken by his guilt, though he sees no purpose in revealing such a thing to Nathan. Or to anyone at all, come to that.

More importantly, more PERTINETLY, despite their numerous differences, despite the hostility and the accusations and the newest wounding of his flesh, he has several memories of Nathan that will always be recalled with affection and there is no wish in him that their last contact be the unpleasant altercation he is rightfully expecting.

Not that he would, in this case, take exception to Nathan's righteous indignation. He deserves no better after drugging their companions so that he might steal away uncontested, they have been nothing but solicitous during his recovery and he doesn't need a better man than himself to point out what an utter bastard he is for committing such an act against them.

Yet when Nate speaks there is, to his near blatant shock, nothing of condemnation or reprimand in either his voice or words. There is, in fact, nothing more than friendly inquiry," And where do ya' think you're going?"

"Where the vast majority have wished me from the moment I set foot in this charming little municipality."

"Really.," He tilts his head to the side," Where's that then?"

"Away."

Morning comes early to the dessert, most especially in high summer as it is now, and already the cheap glow of predawn is seeping over the horizon, bleeding into the air around him; in this somehow surreal illumination it is obvious to him that Nathan is sucking on the inside of his lip.

Ezra has seen him do so no more than twice, it denotes an insecure and timid aspect of the Healer that he as never had direct contact with. The Gambler can but marvel at its sudden emergence, until this moment Nathan has always seemed very sure of what to say or how to act in regards the southerner in their midst, he would never have laid odds against so radical a change at so late a date in the game.

Releasing the tender flesh of his inner lip Nathan makes a gambit Ezra would not have anticipated from him, all things considered, "Not everyone wants you outta town."

Immediately his thoughts turn to J.D., to his stumbling, heartfelt and quite unnecessary apology, to Buck whose trust and friendship he has never doubted, not in his worst moment, to Vin and his claim that he could not love this town as he did without his presence, and to Billy, to Inez. No, not everyone wants him gone. "You are correct Sir, but I have always found the most prudent course is to acquiesce to the wishes of the majority."

"You should stay.," he insists, still gentle, still undemanding.

He must look to be in even more pain than he actually is, something of a feat that, for Nathan is rarely so deliberately kind to him unless there is something terribly, TERRIBLY wrong.

He feels his eyebrows ascend to his hairline, extending the swollen flesh of his face so much so that he nearly reverses the expression into a grimace, which would be no less appropriate to the situation. "Stay, Mister Jackson? To what purpose? I am afraid, you see, that I no longer lust to climb upon rotten boughs, nor can I condone the expenditure of my days in perusal of something that will never be offered me.," Three weeks have come and gone since his moment with Billy, the rampant goodwill and general feelings of forgiveness have faded considerably in the days since. It is far easier now, as he sits in the saddle facing Nathan, to recall those words which had sparked Billy's unthinking compassion; familiar, oft' repeated words, than it is to keep hold of something as alien and new to him as that which Billy's kindness has revealed to him.,"I have no fear of death, Sir, yet I refuse to sacrifice myself for no greater a purpose than proving myself. Not once have I faulted a single one of your proclivities, yet with less provocation than the dropping of a hat every suspicious eye and thought focuses upon my personage. Including those of my co-workers. Obviously no act on my part has changed this reaction, nor will it; I will not die in apology for being who I am. Further, I am BEYOUND tired of having to justify or explain or apologize for being myself. I am what I am Sir, and while you might not see that as something to be proud of I have quite finished apologizing for it.," He's repeating himself now. Time to make his exit. So deciding he brings to fingers to the brim of his hat, tips it politely at the healer," Kindly express my regards to Mister Larabee and the rest, will you."

"Chris is gone Ezra. He left about four days ago."

There is no change in Nathan's expression; though Ezra at last understands what it is that has gone so wrong that he feels the need to be kind to him. He needs no further elaboration; the irrevocability in his voice is explanation enough. For whatever reason he has left, Chris is gone and his return, though hoped for, is in no way expected.

As indifferently as he can with his world tumbling into such complete and utter disarray, beyond bewildered by this random and sudden turn of events, he fingers the reins and says," Well, I suppose that explains his absence over the last few days adequately enough, I'd merely assumed you were protecting the integrity of my stitches as my temper deteriorated as it so often does during forced confinement. Still," forcing himself to straighten his posture, hard pressed to disregard the various and sharp pains this causes, he lets a slanted, wholly insincere, half smile slide across his lips," this does negate the need to hide or disguise my tracks from ou...your beloved Tracker. I imagine he'll be far to occupied in finding Mister Larabee to bother with pursuing myself. How fortuitous. "

"Ezra..."

There is disbelief in Nate's voice and Ezra wants to sneer at him. He settles for saying, "What, exactly, do you expect of me, Mister Jackson?"

There is some satisfaction, small and spiteful though it is, to watch as Nathan realizes that his conversation with Buck wasn't as private as he'd thought it had been. He lowers his gaze, deflating.

It was not necessary for him to do this to the man, now that it is done, and cannot be undone, he finds himself shamed by it. He has never put his pain on display, never sought to bring guilt or shame or similar pain to those who afflicted it upon him and he knows he is less for having done it now. It is a small malicious thing he has done in these last few minutes with this man whose friendship and acceptance he has recklessly sought, and it is the final illustration of how impossible it is for him to belong here.

In complete honesty, letting the affection with which he regards the man before him portray itself though his voice he again tips his hat (though there is a sincerity to the act that eclipses the angry gesture of just a few moments before) and gives him a sad, regretful, smile," It has been a singular honor Mister Jackson, and one I'll not forget."

Not ever.

Nathan watches him draw Chaucer around him and his mount, knowing that it is too late to say or do anything that will change his mind. He doesn't know now what it is he feels, or has felt, for Ezra P. Standish, but he knows the man didn't deserve half of the things he laid on him. Not all Southerners were men like his former Owner, and very few men were like Ezra.

Ezra...

He hadn't really expected the man to leave. Not like this. Not at all. But they're both gone now, Chris and Ezra, and he knows, deep down, they won't come back. Going after them won't make it any better. They're gone and nothing will ever make it better again, and, at least in part, it's his fault.

Look in my face: my name is Might-Have-Been; I am also called No-More, Too Late, and Farewell.-Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Finis.