Disclaimer: I SHOULD own them. At least if I did the show would still be running...actually, on that note, there are a lot of shows I should own, not to mention the actors involved therein...oh well...I guess I'll just have to make due without. More's the pity.

Author's Note: This is a sequel to "What A Mother Makes" . It's not really necessary to read that first, but it might help explain a few things, like how everybody got where they are, or aren't, what everybody's talking about, or, really, what THE HELL is going on. In any case, read that or this, or both or neither as suits your taste. Just thought I'd let you know what was goin' on. Oh, yeah, you really should read A Man Of The World. It's one of the most beautifully written stories I've found. Also, does NO ONE wonder why Chris just took off? I mean, not even a little?

The Thorns I Reap

By Theiry

Prologue

The sheriff sighed upon seeing the body, not a weary sound, merely a resigned one, and it was easy to believe from that sigh alone that such a seemingly random and violent death was not as uncommon a thing in his town as he might have wished it to be.

His muttered comment didn't really detract from that conclusion either," Well hell, it ain't even Friday yet."

And he sighed again, casting a somewhat harder look on the strangers, the one continuing to hold up the bar, sipping his whiskey as if all was right and well, the other still sprawled in his chair at the card table across the room, his back oh-so-casually angled toward the wall, than he had on the corpse.

An older man with a rough-hewn face and a tightness around the corner's of his dark eyes that spoke eloquently of too many nights spent in a fight he clearly wasn't winning, too many days of showing the world and the people in his town the things they wanted to see instead of the hard and ugly truths he lived with, too many hours spent reassuring the men with too much influence that all that could be done WAS and, blatant lie though it might be, that all was indeed well, the Sheriff considered the two Strangers in silence, recognizing neither of them, but feeling almost as if he should.

They weren't your usual drifters, that was for sure and certain, and he didn't think he was the alone in that conclusion, not even before they'd each put a bullet between the recently deceased's eyes. There was an edge to the both of them, a coiled readiness, that made him think of the soldiers, and God how few they were, who'd fought in the war from the first to last engagement; men who'd grown accustomed to walking with death, who found an awkward kind of comfort in it's presence, men who would for always and forever prefer that feeling to what they felt with those who had not seen the things they'd seen, had not been forced to act as they had in a cause that was so often not their own.

One such man, unknown, obviously capable and uncaring, was always bad enough, too such men more than he'd ever wanted to deal with, and if he was a little bit tense, a little bit wary, then what of it?

After all, he didn't see anyone else stepping up to do his job for him.

He cast a look at his deputy, far younger, far less perceptive, yet not stupid, not by any means, just to check that the man hadn't bolted, and signaled first to the man at the bar, then to the man in the chair," You boy's are gonna have to come with me."

They went, without so much as glace at each other, the one taking time enough to finish his drink before shifting his weight and turning to face the Sheriff, the other rising with the insolent disregard of a cat being made to do that which it did not wish to.

They said nothing to each other and nothing to him or his deputy, but remained where they were, but he didn't miss the way the dark clad man's eyes shifted, just barely, toward the man across the room, almost, as if in anticipation of a remark that didn't come.

Having learned some lessons better than others the Sheriff didn't draw attention, didn't acknowledge, the man's slip, but filled what he realized had become an expectant silence," I don't know just what went down here tonight, though I'm willing enough to believe that you boys didn't start it, but I do know the law, and the Law says murder's murder and you gotta stand trial. 'S not anythin' personal. Just aint my place to assign punishment or let you boys ride free."

Another almost look from the black-clad man, and then the man across the room, no more compromising than the first, opened his mouth and, through the use quite a few words he didn't understand and a liberal charm the Sheriff would've thought himself immune to, managed to gain both the assurance that their horses would be well cared for during their "internment", and , somehow, that their separate gear would be gathered and brought to them, minus of course whatever weapons either might have in their possession.

Somewhat dazed by the speech, unable to recall most of what was said, the Sheriff shot the man a narrow eyed, distrustful look before gesturing for the men to walk ahead of him.

Once they were secured (he decided to put them in the same cell, reasoning that they'd been quick enough to act in defense of one another that they ought to be able to get along, knowing that tomorrow was payday at the bigger ranches and he'd need all the cells he could get, and that it could take the Judge nearly a week to get there.) he sent his deputy to wire the judge, then, after a polite reminder from the Southerner, called him back and sent him to get the prisoners belongings as well.

The men, whose names he'd yet to get, but that was okay because he'd started to remember where he should know them from, settled into their cell quickly enough, as those used to finding themselves in unfamiliar and possibly hostile environments often do, the taller of the two taking the bed, the other taking the bench, leaning back against the wall, drawing his hat down over his eyes.

You could almost think he was doing that so maybe he could get a little sleep, but the Sheriff didn't think that was the case. It seemed to him more like he was doing everything he could so he didn't have to look at the man on the bunk, like maybe even the sight of him was more than he wanted to deal with.

And being as obvious as he could while he did it too.

After fifteen minutes of utter silence, wondering where the hell his deputy had got to, he asked them if they were hungry and earned a grunt from the one and affable assurances of the negative from the other.

Twenty minuets of further silence and he sighed for a third time, then said something that, finally, earned a reaction from the men," You know, I have this sinkin suspicion Judge Travis was right about you boys and this is gonna be the longest week of my life."

He'd never be sure if he saw the Gunslinger move, though his mind insisted that he HAD to have, but suddenly the man was on his feet and at the bars, the menace radiating off him in almost visible waves," Let me out."

"Can't do that Mister Larabee," then, with no malice aforethought," You ought to know that."

Not quite wincing the Gambler tipped his hat up, rose gracefully to his feet and intercepted what the Sheriff could see was one hell of a temper," Sir, our incarceration cannot be wholly necessary, there were well over a hundred witnesses to our supposed crime and I believe there are few amongst that number who would dare to claim our actions were anything other than necessary to our immediate defense."

Nope, it didn't seem much like Travis had been wrong, at least not about this one," True enough Mister Standish, but the law's the law."

"Indeed."

CHAPTER ONE:

Ezra P. Standish, Gentleman Gambler and conman at-large, fended off the steady thrum of the whiskey in his blood with a tenacity that would have surprised almost anyone, including most of those who claimed to know him. He'd been drinking since sundown, though the amount of alcohol he'd consumed was far less than that implied, and been having quite a time slipping back into himself . . . until he'd glanced away from the poker game he was enjoying to see Chris Larabee stroll through the bat-wing doors.

He'd very nearly smiled to see him standing there, had barely been able to check the urge before wrenching his eyes back to the cards in his hands.

His trembling hands.

Annoyed beyond recollection with both his foremost reaction and the sight of his shaking hands he'd reached for the shot-glass at his elbow, full to the brim with three fingers of the best whiskey he'd been able to find in this charming little dust pit, and tossed it back, grimacing as it slammed against the back of his throat, burning and searing the tissue.

He told himself he wasn't angry, not with Chris, not with anyone, yet his hands continued to tremble with the effort of restraining his impulses and he could feel the vivid, vicious pounding of his temper at his temples and behind his eyes, could feel the dark, simmering thing which he'd been ignoring almost since awakening in Nathan's clinic nearly seven months ago.

Yet his awareness of the man at the door did not falter and he knew, without turning so much as an inch, when Chris became aware of his presence, felt his gaze burning into him, felt himself dismissed as his once superior turned away from the poker table toward the bar. He felt him making his way through the crowd, didn't have to look into the faces of those at the table to know the menace Chris seemed barely able to control at times had not diminished in their days apart, could see the smile on his all to familiar face, that cool, slight, smirk of his, that told the world he knew they were afraid.

He'd had to fight the urge then, the immediate, nearly overwhelming urge, to turn and face him, look for look. To challenge that cool assurance and, at the very least, prove to the people in this barroom that there was one amongst them unafraid of the man who parted their number like Moses was reputed to have parted a certain body of water.

He could've done, he knew, could've driven Chris Larabee into looking away as he had never seen him do, because between them lay the knowledge that, expectations and intentions aside, Chris had been the first to leave, not Ezra, CHRIS, and, from all accounts, with out so much as a "Hope you have a nice life' to anybody concerned. The knowledge that, though he seemed to positively glory in his melancholy, there had been no sleepless nights spent agonizing over weather he should go, weather he should stay, that there had been nothing save the sudden decision and abrupt action. That he had demanded loyalty and dependability of Ezra yet, in the end, had proven himself capable of neither.

He could've turned and matched his will against that of Chris, could've finally sought a reckoning for the damages the man had so unthinkingly wrought in binding him to a situation designed to overtake and destroy him, could've faced his own guilt and recrimination in the hazel depths of his eyes and with little enough regret. Yet he fought the urge, conquered it, unwilling to allow anyone to dictate his actions, most especially not Chris Larabee.

Not again.

Not ever again.

The night wore on and with ever passing moment his resentment of the man at the bar burned and grew and ate at his concentration, and, being aware that this only FURTHER centered his attention on him had in no way diminished the raw and seething emotions he had been taking such pains to conceal.

Was it so very much then, he'd wondered, bludgeoning that part of him that wished to retreat into his most recently abandoned role against his own stubborn will, to want his life back? To retain some part of himself, any part of himself, that remained untainted by those men and that place? That belonged to him, free of their influence?

Through it all there remained an island of calm around Chris, an area which neither the drunks nor the rowdies nor the working girls would enter into, wary of drawing the attention of such an obviously hostile human being.

Whatever Ezra's thoughts on the matter he hadn't been amused as he once had been by the guarded reaction of the people around him, he might admit to having been comforted in some odd way, but never amused.

Nor was he amused when the instincts he had developed working as a Peacekeeper suddenly stood up and took note of an unkempt, travel –stained man as he entered the bar. There had been nothing in the least memorable about either the man's looks or attire, nothing to set him apart from the rest of the drunks and the rowdies and the drifters, yet his instincts had insisted the threat he posed was very real indeed, and Ezra had been helpless to ignore such a warning.

Only later, as the Barkeep had run to get the Sheriff, did it occur to him that Chris's near identical reaction to the man had not been overlooked on his part but subconsciously counted on, and, realizing that, for the first time in his life, he'd thought himself mad enough to spit.

In exactly those words.

And it took every ounce of his considerable, though already strained, control to keep himself from reaching out, taking a hold of the chair he'd vacated when firing, and flinging it across the room at the Gunslinger who'd so casually overturned what little equilibrium he'd managed to regain in the months since his departure.

There was some small pride in the fact that he'd done nothing of the sort, though he'd been unable to resist the urge to throw himself into the chair like a three year old having a temper tantrum, and an even smaller pride that he'd managed to refrain from flipping the bird at his one time friend when he'd given him that carefully sarcastic smile before returning to his liquor.

It was degrading to be brought to such a pass that even these infinitesimal acts of restraint were to be considered accomplishments of note, more so due to the fact that he was unable to convince himself of his subtly, unable to convince himself that Chris was unaware of his reaction.

So, after confronting the Sheriff in regards to their further imprisonment, he'd allowed the silence to stretch and grow between them until he could almost imagine himself standing on the edge of so vast and imposing a chasm that the limits were beyond his comprehension, though he knew, as he'd known it would be Chris standing in the doorway, a dark silhouette framed against the darker night from which he'd come, that somewhere beyond his sight was the opposite ledge and on that ledge a familiar black-clad figure.

He amused himself as best he could with a game of solitaire, stoically giving every impression of ignoring the Gunslinger's presence. Ezra had absolutely no idea why the local constabulary had elected to keep the both of them in a single cell, certainly Chris would never have allowed any such action...he ground his teeth, audibly, and reminded himself that HE would never have allowed two prisoners to languish in a single cell, no matter Chris Larabee's opinions on the matter, for various and obvious reasons, yet whatever this Sheriff's reasoning he found himself both further annoyed and inconvenienced by the situation, having been forced to take his seat on a splintering and uncomfortable plank bench, while Chris lay sprawled on the cot.

How the Gunslinger had managed that improbable arrangement he couldn't say.

"I didn't recognize him."

He didn't jump when Chris's voice broke the silence, washing over him like a cooling and much longed for wind, yet it was a near thing, and he found himself once again wishing he could throw something at the man, hating and resenting him still more. It had been easy until that moment to tell himself he had no particular wish to hear him speak, that he hadn't missed something so simple as the sound of his voice, and now, having been denied that small fallacy, he wanted nothing more than to silence him. Yet another want which would be denied to him, he thought, with some regret and not a little anger, Lord, but how he was growing weary of being denied.

" But I doubt I'd recognize even half the men," and women Ezra silently added with a mean little snicker the blond didn't see," with a grudge against me, so that's not saying a whole hell of a lot. What about you?"

"As you say," hating nothing so much as the dependency so recently birthed in his soul, Ezra kept his gaze fixed steadily on the cards laid out before him, refusing to look at Chris, refusing to give in to the urge to angle his body toward him as a flower might turn toward the sun, choosing his words with studied calculation," I too have made my fair share of enemies over the years. One must, in my profession, if one is at all accomplished."

Half expecting Chris to challenge the statement he was oddly annoyed when the man's only response was to snap," Did you recognize him Ezra?"

"I did not.," he snapped back, indifferent to the fact that his composure was slipping enough for his temper to show through, that his voice was, perhaps, harder, colder than Chris's. He continued, his mask of civility slipping still farther," Which I do believe has already been made apparent. I wonder if I've ever mentioned how greatly I detest having to repeat myself."

"You said you'd made your fare share of enemies, not that you didn't recognize the man. And if you hate repeating yourself so much, maybe you should learn to say what you mean."

"I always do.," He snapped. Again.

"I've never seen it."

"That in no way surprises me.," Even he was caught off guard by the venom in his voice, by the encompassing wave of spiteful malice that overshadowed his thoughts and intentions, that stole away the illusions he'd so carefully constructed in the days immediately subsequent to his leave-taking. He could feel it, searing across his nerves, burning like a fever behind his eyes, eating away at his thoughts like acid and had no difficulty in imagining it emanating from his person in visible, somehow oil-slick, waves.

How he hated Chris Larabee.

And god, how he loved him.

And Vin.

And Buck.

And J.D, Josiah, and Nathan.

And Mary and Billy and Inez and Casey and Nettie and even Gloria Potter, who pretended she didn't know he spent a good third of his income upon gifts and treats for the local children and the Children of the Seminole village he had so often been obliged to visit.

He'd left them; everyone of them, save Chris, who might well have been capable of convincing him to stay had he put forth the effort, and in doing so had thought himself aware of the depth and breadth of his attachment to them, had, in his arrogance, imagined himself capable of overcoming those cloying, suffocating ties.

He wondered then if he'd ever come to a more erroneous conclusion in the whole of his life.

He didn't need to look up to know that Chris had shifted his gaze to him, that he was probably no less taken aback by his response.

To know that Chris's own temper would have sparked in kind.

"What the hell does that mean?!"

Coolly, squaring his jaw in an unconscious parody of the man on the bunk, Ezra said ,"I have never doubted you intelligence Mister Larabee, nor do I believe understanding of my words to be beyond your understanding.," Then, in a near shout as his temper slipped it's collar and ran away with his tongue," Figure it out yourself!"

"Hey!," The Sheriff called from his position behind his desk,"That's enough!"

More appalled with his grammar than with the outburst itself Ezra settled back against the wall and once again pulled his hat low enough to obscure his vision.

Chris was still watching him and he didn't care.

Didn't care about the surprise no doubt reflected in the man's expression, or the temper which would still need to be dealt with.

He didn't care.

He didn't.

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In the aftermath of betrayal, we often have to struggle to maintain our grip on reality. Survival requires a source of self-respect, self-awareness, and self-honesty. We have to find a balance point before reaching out again.- Virgil