Jezabel Maeve Standish - aka Belle Winchester - is mine, but the boys belong to someone else. I'm just borrowing them to play with and will return them unharmed.
The world as Ezra P. Standish understood it ceased to exist on a cool spring day.
The saloon in Four Corners was mostly empty, except for the back table that had long been claimed by the seven peacekeepers of the town. There sat a tall, slender, blond man dressed entirely in black, whose sharp green eyes continually scanned his surroundings for danger. At his right, a slight, scruffy man dressed in dusty skins slouched under his hat, his hands comfortably resting across his flat stomach with the long fingers interlaced. Across the table from them, an unlikely pair bantered and slapped at each other in good natured humour. The taller, well built one roared with an infectious laugh as he slapped the hat off his shorter, younger companion. The dark haired youth merely rolled his eyes, groaning his moustachioed friend's name as he went to retrieve the lost headwear only to have it kicked further away by his mischievous friend.
Aside from the attractive, young Mexican barmaid, the only other occupants were three coarse, dirty men, slumped at another table. These men cast several surreptitious glances towards the other table before a slight nod sent one toward the back door that led to the privy and another to the bar. The last stood and hitched up his filthy pants before pasting an insincere grin onto his bearded face and heading towards the young man.
Bending to pick up the hat, the stranger extended it towards the youth. As it was gratefully accepted, he grabbed at the boy's wrist, spinning him so that he could be held in a vicelike grip, a sharp blade held to his throat.
Buck, Vin and Chris all reached for their weapons, only to freeze at the sound of hammers being drawn back and a sound of protest from Inez. The man who had been heading for the privy was suddenly holding a shot gun to the backs of the three at the table, whilst the man heading for the bar had vaulted over it and now held Inez against his chest with a revolver held to her head. His hand cupped her breast, squeezing it harshly as he ground his interest against her, his fetid breath washing over her as he panted heavily.
"Well then fellas, here's how I see things," boomed the man holding JD, "We've been watching your town so we know that the darkie and the preacher are out of town with them injuns and your fancy man is out on patrol, so it's just you four. Now we don't want no trouble. All we want is Tanner. But we's gonna take the boy as a guarantee that you two won't do nothin' stupid after we's gone."
"We's taking this whore too, ain't we, Pete? I know you're happy enough with that there boy for company, but it's been a long time since me and Paul had us some fun of the female kind," growled the one holding Inez, leering at his boss.
Just as Pete was about to respond and the peacekeepers were about to shout their disapproval, the batwing doors of the saloon creaked open and a figure entered. All heads turned to assess the new arrival, who appeared indifferent to the scrutiny and continued towards the bar. The person was slight of build, average height, wearing tan coloured pants, low heeled riding boots, a brown button up shirt over an undershirt, with a buckskin jacket very much like Vin's. A dusty flat brimmed hat was pulled low, obscuring the stranger's upper face, but the lower face was smooth. All noted that the person was armed to the teeth and that was just what they could see.
"Aw hell no, Belle. This here is our bounty, now," exclaimed Pete, recognising the newcomer. His hopes for an easy five hundred dollars plummeted with the appearance of none other than Belle Winchester, the most successful and ruthless bounty hunter he'd ever had the misfortune to meet. She only ever took bounties that were Dead or Alive and she only ever bought them back very dead. Despite her gender and build, she scared the spit out of him. He'd heard that she could kill a man with her touch alone.
Stopping in her tracks, the slender woman raised her head, drawing sharp intakes of breath from the three men still seated at the table. For a wild moment, they thought it was their gambler friend, such was the similarity in features. But the womanly curves that were blatantly apparent, despite her mannish attire and the long braid of chestnut hair snaking down one shoulder dispelled the illusion. However, the piercing emerald green eyes were an exact match for Ezra's, although there was a cold deadness in them that they'd never seen in their friend's.
Raking her gaze around the saloon, Belle sniffed disdainfully and replied, "I might have known that it was you, Mr Murphy. You have a very distinct and malodorous scent about you, which should have tipped me off to your presence. I can assure you, gentlemen – and I use the term very loosely – I have no interest in financial gain from fallacious bounties."
Buck's jaw dropped comically as he listened to the honeyed, Southern tones drip contempt on the men holding himself and his friends hostage. Suddenly he snapped his mouth shut before exclaiming, "Hot damn, it's a woman Ezra!"
Pete Murphy tightened his grip on JD as he tried to sift through the torrent of words that had just been poured over him. Shaking his head like a wet dog, he snarled, "Hell's sake, woman, talk English will ya? Are ya here for Tanner, or not?"
Fixing her cool gaze on the man again, Belle drawled, "I am speaking English, Mr Murphy. It is you and your brethren who slaughter it on a daily basis. However, just for the record, I am not here to collect on Mr Tanner. Unlike you, I research my bounties thoroughly and only ever collect on the guilty."
Vin straightened at this declaration, shooting a look towards Chris who raised his eyebrow in response. They wondered how this mysterious woman knew that Vin was innocent and whether she could prove it.
A frission of fear trickled down Murphy's spine as he found himself trapped by the cold eyes of the other bounty hunter. Swallowing harshly, he ground out through suddenly paralysed jaws, "So, why're ya here then?"
The smile that illuminated Belle's face was blinding, transforming it into an almost exact likeness of Ezra, as she announced, "I'm here for personal reasons, Mr Murphy, but since you're here as well I may as well dabble in some business too."
With that, three shots rang out. Not one of the peacekeepers saw it happen, but within seconds Belle had drawn her twin Remingtons and killed all three of the filthy men. Silence rang out in the aftermath as each one teetered a moment before they crumpled to the ground, almost taking their hostages with them.
Vin and Chris leapt to their feet, Vin going to check on the man with the shotgun, whilst Chris went to check on Inez. Buck leapt for JD clutching him to his chest for a moment in an intense hug. JD huddled up to his surrogate big brother for a few moments comfort before pushing him away. After releasing his friend, Buck ran to where Inez was spitting Spanish curses and kicking the dead man at her feet as Chris watched in quiet amusement.
"Inez, darlin', are you alright?" crooned Buck, as he pushed Chris aside and tried to draw the irate woman away and into his arms.
Pushing Buck away, she turned on him with eyes flashing fire and spat, "Of course I'm not alright, you idiot! I've had this animal's filthy paws all over me! I will have to bathe for a week to wash his stink off!" Turning to Belle, she smiled warmly, saying, "Gracias, Senorita."
Belle had understood every curse thrown by the feisty barmaid and had been quietly chuckling as she reloaded her guns and returned them to their holsters. When addressed, she gave a very familiar two fingered salute and replied, "De nada, Senorita. Technically, I'm a Senora but why quibble over such insignificant formalities at such a time. I am merely gratified that you have survived your ordeal unscathed."
"Inez, darlin', maybe you should let me take you to your rooms for a little siesta," suggested Buck, unable to help the salacious smirk that sprung to his lips at the thought of what else could be done in her room to comfort her.
Shoving the much larger man with enough force to land him on the floor, Inez began yet another interesting flood of Spanish before walking over Buck to get to the stairs to her room, carefully planting her booted foot on his stomach on the way.
Watching her storm off, her arms gesticulating as she continued her tirade against the dead men, Buck and men in general, Buck grinned from his position on the floor and announced fondly, "She's a handful that one but I think I'm wearing her down."
"Really, Mr Wilmington? I think you're delusional," remarked Belle drily, making her way around the bar to peruse the bottles hidden there, looking for the decent alcohol. Selecting a bottle of Ezra's best sipping whiskey, she then searched for a clean glass before moving to sit at the table Ezra usually claimed. Pouring herself a generous portion, she paused with the glass halfway to her lips and called affably, "You there. Boy Sheriff! These three lamentable creatures are all wanted for various atrocities and I'll be claiming their bounties. Be a good lad and arrange it for me, won't you?"
Vin and Chris exchanged a long look before moving over to Belle's table. Seating themselves without invitation, they stared at her curiously.
Returning their gaze complacently, Belle continued to sip her whiskey, savouring its smooth, smokey burn. Silently, she waiting for the inevitable inquisition to commence. She found her eyes straying back to the compelling blue eyes of the scruffy Texan, marvelling at how beautiful his features were for a man. Her fingers twitched a little as she thought about running them through his long hair, before she gave herself a mental shake and forced herself to continue her surveillance of the other men.
Vin was burning to ask this strange woman what she knew of his circumstances, had been since she announced that she wouldn't claim his bounty since he wasn't guilty, but he found himself speechless before her scrutiny. He was a naturally shy man, uncomfortable around people in general, but this beautiful women rendered him almost mute. Unlike most women, who saw only his dirty hide jacket and unkempt appearance if they looked at him at all, he felt like this woman saw him for who he was and liked what she saw. An unfamiliar warmth spread through him at this realisation and he quickly squashed down any hope. She was obviously related to Ezra, which meant that she would want only the finest in life not some half wild, illiterate, scruffy Texan like himself. The fact that she'd targeted Ezra's hidden hooch just confirmed that thought. Finding it impossible to maintain eye contact, he dropped his gaze to the table top to hide his disappointment and waited for Chris to take the lead.
Eyeing the woman across from him, Chris marvelled at how much she resembled their gambler. She had to be related to him, there was no other possible explanation for the likeness. He could feel how uncomfortable she made Vin, which got his hackles up, even though he didn't know why. Employing his usual lack of tact, he blurted, "You here to visit your brother then?"
Smirking as she leaned back, rolling her glass between her fingers, Belle queried, "My brother?"
"Yeah, your brother, your cousin, whatever. You have to be related to Standish somehow. You look just like him. You talk just like him. Hell, you even smirk just like him," stated Chris, refusing to show that he felt slightly intimidated by the woman sitting opposite him. He'd never met anyone who was faster on the draw than he was but this woman had him licked into a cocked hat.
"She dresses more like Vin though," piped up JD as he and Buck joined them at the table, having dragged the dead men outside and getting Yosemite to haul them over to the undertaker. "Draws faster than you, Chris. You sure there were bounties out on them three, Miss? Only I haven't seen any Wanted posters for them."
"Sheriff Dunne, I assure you that they are indeed wanted men, although not outside Louisiana, I'll grant you. In fact, I have copies of their posters with me here," replied Belle, pulling a wad of papers from her pocket, rustling through them to select the relevant ones and smoothing them on the table before pushing them towards the boy. Then her hand struck out like lightning to smack Buck's hand as he reached towards her bottle of whiskey. "Lay hands on me or my libations without invitation, sir, and I'll insert the offending limb so far up your posterior that you'll be able to scratch your chest from the inside. Do I make myself clear, Mr Wilmington?"
Gulping under the icy glare, Buck hastily snatched his hands back and sat on them, nodding as his face blushed a fiery red and mumbled, "Yes'm."
Chris had had enough and wanted answers to his questions, so he pasted his best menacing look on his face and glared at the woman as he growled, "You seem to know an awful lot about us, Miss, but all we know about you is that you're a bounty hunter called Belle and that you look just like our gambler. Care to expand on that?"
A slender, auburn eyebrow arched delicately at the implied order and Belle took another sip of her drink as she considered the man opposite her. She'd been forced to take orders from men for a long time, but after tasting freedom she'd be damned if she went back to servitude. Instead she gave a small smile and held her tongue, fully intending to answer the impatient man's questions but in her own time.
Chris was a little taken aback to note that his infamous Larabee glare seemed to have as little effect on her as it did on his Texan and gambler friends. Glancing sideways, he kicked the tracker when he saw by the look of amusement that Vin had noticed Belle's immunity too. Buck was also grinning like a fool.
Just as she was about to reply, the bat wing doors swung open to admit Josiah and Nathan who immediately headed to sit with the others.
"I hear we missed all the excitement," boomed Josiah, his face wreathed with a huge smile at seeing them all unharmed. Doing a double take when he realised that Belle was not Ezra, the big man rumbled, "Who's your new friend, brothers?"
"Ain't a friend and she ain't talking," snarled Chris, annoyed by the interruption.
Licking her lips now that all of her brother's friends were present, Belle took a breath and replied, "On the contrary, Mr Larabee, I'm perfectly willing to talk now that I have a full table. I simply had no inclination for repetition." Pausing to take a sip of her drink, she then continued in a low voice which carried no further than the men at the table, "However, what I'm about to tell you is to go no further than this table until I've spoken to Ezra. I'm afraid I must insist of having your word as honourable men that you agree to this condition before I will speak any further."
Intrigued, the six men glanced about at each other before nodding and offering varying statements confirming their silence. Curious at her trust, Josiah rumbled, "How do you know that we'll keep our word?"
Grinning at the big man cheekily, Belle answered, "Because I have skills that would put the Pinks to shame, Mr Sanchez. I know more about each and every one of you than you each know about yourselves. All your triumphs, all your shames, every part of your past has been thoroughly researched. I've also had someone keeping an eye on Ezra since he's been in this town, so I know of your deeds and your behaviour towards him."
Bristling at the intrusion to his privacy, Chris snarled, "And what right do you have to go sifting through our lives?"
A wistful look replaced the previous mischievous one, when Belle turned her gaze to the grief stricken man in black, noting that all six of the men were angry at her investigation of them. Staring down at the amber liquid she was swirling in her glass, she whispered, "Every right, Mr Larabee. I'm simply protecting what's mine to the best of my considerable abilities. I'm sure you can understand that desire. As I've tracked Ezra, I've noted that he has not always chosen wisely on the rare occasions that he's offered his trust and affection in the past. When I saw that he'd settled in this dusty little spot and opened up his battered heart to y'all, I had to make sure that you were worthy of his leap of faith. I can assure you all that anything I've learned will not be shared with anyone else. Your pasts are your own to talk about or not. I am not one to gossip idly."
Chris' chest contracted as he thought of how he'd have gone to any length to protect his family; how he still would for this new family of brothers who had managed to weasle their way into his heart. Chris swallowed hard, nodded in acknowledgement of her vow of secrecy and grated out, "Aren't you going to share that whisky? Seems we may need some bracing to hear your story."
Smiling again, relieved at the reprieve, Belle turned to JD and asked quietly, "Well, lad, think you can scare up some clean glasses for yourself and your brothers?"
Leaping up with his characteristic enthusiasm, JD called as he ran to the bar, "They ain't my brothers, Miss. We ain't related. Didn't all your snooping show that?"
Taking the shot glasses off him when he returned, Belle filled them and slid one to each of the men around her. Waiting until they'd all tasted the fine liquor, JD pulling a face and handing his to a happy Buck, she murmured sadly, "Family doesn't end with blood, Mr Dunne. Good friends often make more reliable and faithful family members than blood kin can ever be."
After tossing back the remains of her drink and refilling all the glasses, she started her story. "My name isn't truly Belle. I employ the pseudonym of Belle Winchester when I'm hunting bounties to avoid any unpleasantness filtering back to my family. I have other names as well. I'm known as Snarling Wolf by the People. My married name was Pendleton. But I started life as Jezabel Maeve Standish – Jez for short to my constant chagrin. Ezra's my twin brother."
More than one of the enthralled men murmured 'Jez and Ez', drawing a rueful smile from the woman. "Yes, my mother seemed to find the abbreviations amusing when she was naming us. Ezra is named for our Grandfather, an old family name, but mine was selected purely for the amusing rhyme."
"Ezra's never mentioned you," mused Josiah, thoughtfully running his thumb over his lower lip as he gazed at her. The similarities between the two were indisputable proof of her claim, but he wondered how they had come to be estranged. "In fact, he told me flat out that he didn't have any siblings when I asked him."
A wave of such heart-rending sadness swept across Jez's face that all the men at the table automatically leaned towards her. Josiah, who was sitting next to her, placed his hand on hers and received a small, genuine smile in return. It seemed that Jez either didn't possess the same ability to shield her emotions, or didn't see the need to employ it.
"Well, from what I've been able to trace, he would think that he was alone. To make a long story short, when we were eight years old, our Uncle Seth told Ezra that I died in a barn fire," explained Jez, her voice softening into the smooth, honeyed tones they were used to hearing from their friend when he was in a storytelling mood. "Uncle even killed one of his slaves' daughters to burn in order to have a body to show my poor brother. According to the old woman I spoke to, Ezra didn't react well to the news of my untimely demise and was whipped for his perceived misbehaviour. Lally told me that he almost died from fever afterwards, so it's possible that his mind just locked all memory of me away during his illness."
Nathan had tensed at the mention of the unfortunate slave child and now growled, "Your poor brother? What about the poor little girl who was burned up? Don't hear ya mournin' over her none."
All warmth fled from Belle's features and the glare she turned the healer's way was glacial. Of all the men, she'd liked the way Nathan treated her brother the least and was not in the mood to humour him.
"Mr Jackson, I don't believe I asked for either your presence or your opinions, so kindly leave or keep your sanctimonious and presumptuous thoughts to yourself. You haven't the first idea of how I feel or think."
Bristling at the sound of his past, Nathan started to reply but was cut off by the soft, drawling tones of their tracker.
"Hush now, Nathan. Give 'er a chance. I wanna hear the rest of the story."
Vin blushed scarlet when Jez smiled at him gratefully, quickly lowering his eyes and vowing to get even with Buck when the ladies' man snickered at his embarrassment. It wasn't that he was choosing her side against Nathan, he argued with himself, he just didn't want everyone sidetracked by a hissy fit about something that couldn't be changed.
Nathan growled and slammed himself back in his chair, crossing his arms and glaring angrily at Jez.
"Thank you, Mr Tanner. As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, " she paused to glare at an unrepentant and thoroughly incensed Nathan, "Ezra has probably forgotten that I even existed, wiped from his fevered, young mind in self protection. Which is why I'm telling y'all, rather than just approaching him myself. I don't want to hurt him or have him run from me. I was hoping that perhaps Mssr's Sanchez, Tanner and Larabee could apprise him of my existence gently and then see if he would be willing to meet with me once the knowledge has been absorbed."
Startled at being singled out, Vin's head snapped up and he blurted, "Me! Why me?"
Jez's eyes softened as she regarded Vin fondly. She'd been here for a week, surreptitiously observing the interactions of the men for herself to confirm the intelligence fed back to her by the people she'd hired. The laid back tracker had become one of her favourites very quickly.
"Mr Sanchez seems to have established a paternal bond with Ezra, so I want him to be there to provide support. From what I've gathered, Mr Larabee is one of the few men my brother has ever shown any respect towards, so I want him to deliver the news to Ezra. He will believe anything Mr Larabee says as I've overheard him say that he firmly believes that deceit is not something for which Mr Larabee has any patience or aptitude. He sees Mr Larabee as the stern older brother figure of your motley group and I've noted that he's someone whose opinion matters to Ezra. You, Mr Tanner, I want for your calming influence. Also, because you have shown genuine caring and acceptance for my beloved brother and he returns the sentiment," explained Jez, her eyes dancing with merriment as her words caused the three men in question to show varying degrees of embarrassed pleasure and surprise.
"What about the rest of us? We're his friends too, ya know," protested JD, gestured at Buck, Nathan and himself.
"Simply put, I don't want to crowd him. He may wish to discuss me with you later, but for now, I feel it best to stick with my original choices. Also, you are prone to being overly loquacious so may inadvertently muddy the waters. Mr Wilmington can be somewhat salacious and I don't want any comments of that nature, even in jest, made to Ezra regarding his long thought dead sister. As for Mr Jackson, well, he seems unable to overcome his ingrained prejudice for white southerners and I don't want him making any comments such as his earlier contribution to this conversation. In short, I don't feel his attitude would be conducive to the situation."
Totally lost, JD turned wide eyes to Josiah for interpretation. Vin and Buck looked just as lost.
"You sometimes talk too much, son. Buck goes around like a hound in heat and Nathan … well, Nathan ain't always that acceptin' of Ezra's ways," explained the large man, trying to be kind.
"Why can't you and Ezra just talk like normal folk?" complained JD, upset at having to have things explained to him again.
"Because a well developed vocabulary is a sign of good breeding and an excellent armour against the world," started Jez, before capitulating and continuing with a sly wink, "Also, because we like to confuse so called 'normal' folk."
Taking her watch from her pocket, the southern woman hastily threw back the rest of her drink when she saw the time and then looked around at the gathered men. The bottle was empty, so she threw a few coins on the table to pay for it. Then, with some trepidation, she asked, "So gentlemen, are we in accord? Will you help me and my brother find each other again?"
Vin and Chris shared one of their looks and then glanced at the rest of the men before Chris nodded.
"Excellent. I can't thank you enough. Since it's nearly time for Ezra to be returning from patrol, I'd best make myself scarce. I'm staying at the boarding house, in the room allocated to Mr Tanner. I thought I may as well appropriate it, since he only ever sleeps in that ramshackle wagon of his or under the stars. If someone could come and get me if Ezra agrees to see me…" she trailed off uncertainly, waiting for someone to reply.
"I'll come see you either way," promised Chris, seeing through her bravado to the fear of rejection underneath. It would seem that their outward appearance and verbosity were not the only similarities that the twins shared. "I have a lot more questions for you, like what happened to you when your uncle told Ezra you were dead, or why he did it in the first place."
Already half way to the door, Jez turned back to look at them as she said seriously, "Uncle did it because he was a selfish bastard who saw me as an inconvenient obstruction to his plans for my brother. As for what happened to me… I was sold."
With that shocking revelation she was out the door.
"Did she say that she was sold?" queried Buck, shocked.
Nathan, who had been seething the whole time Jez had been talking, fairly exploded from his chair to pace around in agitation. "What does she mean she was sold? White folk ain't sold! She's trying to con us, just like her brother and mother. I wouldn't trust her as far as I could throw her. I can't believe she just sat there, all calm, and told us that her Uncle killed a child. Don't no-one in that family have a conscience? I can't believe that y'all are fallin' for her lies…"
"NATHAN!" bellowed Josiah, who'd been trying to calm his friend quietly and given up on subtlety. "Sit down and try to calm down. Ezra will be in soon and you don't want to say anything before Chris talks to him."
"What would Mr Jackson have to impart to me that would in any way negate the wisdom of Mr Larabee? And why is he so agitated that I could hear him all the way down the street?"
Six heads snapped around to take in the sight of their friend standing in the doorway, idly brushing trail dust from his coat sleeves, as he eyed Nathan with ill-disguised concern.
"Uh, nothin' Ez, nothin'. Um, I've got to be going. I've got things to do in the clinic. See ya later, Ez," stammered Nathan, striding across the floor and edging his way around the gambler to get to the door before making his escape.
"JD, now seems like a good time to go check on your horse," suggested Buck, waggling his eyebrows when his young friend just gaped at him cluelessly.
"Huh? Oh. OH! Yeah. Sure thing, Buck. Uh, maybe you should come with me and help me to uh, check on my horse…" agreed the youngster after he'd cottoned on to what Buck was doing. Both men rose from the table and practically ran from the room, spinning Ezra around as they pushed past him.
Stunned by the suddenness of their departure, Ezra slowly turned on his heel to view his remaining three friends and asked wryly, "Something I said?"
"Come over and join us, brother," invited Josiah, indicating the seat that Jez had just left.
"Oh lord. What act have I perpetrated now to garner the wrath of my illustrious leader? I swear on the grave of my sainted mother that I'm innocent of all charges. I've been positively angelic of late," groaned the gambler, as he approached the offered chair with all the enthusiasm of one being lead to the gallows. Sinking into the seat, he spied the empty bottle and yelped, "Who gave y'all permission to drink my private stock?"
"Ezra. I need you to listen to me," started Chris, putting his forearms on the table and leaning towards his friend. Deciding to address the issue head on, he asked, "Ez, do you have a sister?"
Paling, Ezra gulped and shook his head, his emerald green eyes appearing huge and round. He had in no way expected those words from his leader's mouth. The serious look on Chris' face made him realise that this was not a casual question.
"Have you ever had a sister? A twin, maybe?" persisted the man in black, worried by the way his friend was reacting to his simple questions.
Seeing his friend's growing distress, Josiah put his arm around Ezra's slender shoulders, surprised by the way he was trembling and also by the fact that the younger man leaned into the touch.
"No. No, Mr Larabee. I never had a sister," denied Ezra, his accent thickening as he unconsciously moved closer to the comfort offered by the preacher.
Vin, Chris and Josiah were stunned to watch as all the defences on which the gambler prided himself seemed to have fallen by the wayside at the mention of a sister, leaving him looking very young and vulnerable.
"Are you sure, Ez? The name Jezabel don't ring any bells for ya?" urged Vin, moving to sit on the other side of his friend and laying a hand on his arm.
Turning to Vin, the stricken southerner struggled to control himself before he echoed helplessly, "Jezabel?"
Vin was stunned as the huge, emerald eyes staring at him with such bewilderment and pain suddenly filled with tears. As the whispered name left his lips, the tears overflowed, trailing down white cheeks. For the first time, Vin noted that Ezra had a pale smattering of freckles. Rubbing his hand over the gambler's arm, he tried to offer some comfort.
"Ezra?" called Chris, waiting until his friend's gaze had come back to him. "Do you have a twin sister called Jezabel?"
Slowly shaking his head, Ezra murmured, "No sir. At least I don't think so."
Pausing and rubbing the back of his neck nervously, Ezra licked his dry lips as memories started to flicker in front of his eyes. Everything around him seemed to fade as he whispered, "No, wait. That's not right. No, no, I did have a sister. But not anymore. She… She passed when we were children. There… I think, there was a fire? Yes. A barn fire. She d-died. Uncle told me that she was going to steal one of his horses to run away. He said she'd knocked over her lantern and set the barn alight. I denied it. Jezzie was so graceful, she never knocked anything over. I was the clumsy one. And she was too honest to steal anything. Drove Mother crazy, but Jez wouldn't take anything that didn't belong to her, no matter how many times she was beaten or locked up. Besides, she would never leave me. If she was running away then she would have taken me with her. She always looked after me, protected me from all that she could. She always said I was her sweet b-baby brother and it was her job to take care of me." Pausing to gaze around at the others, Ezra swallowed hard and gave them a small, faltering smile as he continued, "Silly really as she was only fifteen minutes my elder according to Mother. Nonetheless, that tiny age difference made a big difference to Jezzie, so I knew she wouldn't leave me. I screamed at him that he was wrong. That she wasn't dead. But he showed me her b-body, all b-blackened and twisted. But I still didn't believe him. She didn't feel dead. I'd have felt her die. In my heart. We were twins. Surely, I'd have felt her die... in here. Don't you think? Josiah?"
Tightening his hold on the younger man, as Ezra spoke frantically and hit himself hard on the chest over his heart, Josiah turned himself towards Ezra and lifted his free hand to thumb away the tears that had fallen from his heart son's emerald eyes. "There now, son. Calm down. You're alright."
Vin captured the hand that his friend was using to beat his chest and held it in his own. The gambler's hand was icy cold and long fingers wrapped themselves tightly around Vin's own warm, calloused fingers.
"Uncle was s-so angry. He was screaming back at me, telling me she was dead, but I wouldn't believe him. Even when he showed me the b…" Ezra gagged, the word catching in his throat, but then he hurried on, fixing his eyes to Vin's. "The… the body. It wasn't her, Vin. Tell me it wasn't her."
Desperately clutching Josiah's wrist and Vin's hand, Ezra fought against the onslaught of despair and desolation that he'd been repressing for fifteen years. Pinning the gunslinger with his gaze, he wailed, "Why Chris? Why are you bringing this up now? I don't want to remember. It hurts. Stop making me remember."
Unable to stand the anguish on his young friend's face, understanding it all too well, Chris stood suddenly and abruptly pulled the table away. Chris moved to kneel in front of Ezra, putting his hands on either side of the younger man's tear streaked face. Stroking his thumbs along Ezra's cheekbones, he tried to bring him back from the brink of hysteria by saying, "She's alive, Ez. Your sister is alive. She didn't die in the fire. That wasn't her body. Your Uncle Seth just wanted you to believe that."
"How do you know, Chris?" whispered the gambler, never once taking his eyes off those of the man in front of him, desperately wanting to believe him. Calming under the combined touches of his friends, his logical mind kicked in as it filtered through Chris' words. "Wait. I never told you my Uncle's name. Who told you his name?"
"Jezabel told me. She's here, Ez. At the boarding house. She's waiting for me to come and get her when you're ready," replied Chris, keeping his voice low and soothing, speaking to his distraught friend as he used to speak to Adam after a nightmare. His work roughened hands continued to caress the gambler's face as he registered for the first time, just how young Ezra was, almost as young as Vin and JD.
"She's here?" cried Ezra, stunned into immobility for a few seconds before throwing off the hands of his friends and sprinting for the door. Pushing past JD, Buck and Nathan, who had been eavesdropping at the door, he ran like the wind to the boarding house, taking the stairs two at a time and then stopping dead as he realised that he didn't know which room she was in.
All six of his friends had followed his flight and Vin called, "My room, Ez. She's in my room."
Flashing a grateful look back over his shoulder, the gambler ran to the room and then threw open the door before striding in crying, "Jezzie?"
Jez had been pacing the room, waiting anxiously on the outcome of Ezra's meeting with his friends. She'd heard his boots marking his urgent way to her side and had turned to face the door, unable to bring herself to open it. When it was flung wide open and her brother's form filled the doorway, she braced herself for whatever reaction he was going to throw at her.
Ezra moved slowly, his usually fluid grace marred by shock. The woman in front of him had his sister's face, the same face that had haunted his subconscious mind for so many years. Finally stopping within arms reach, he lifted his shaking hand but couldn't bring himself to touch her. If she disappeared now, he knew that he'd lose his tenuous grip on sanity.
Understanding his trepidation, Jez ran her fingers lightly over the back of his hand and leaned into the palm. Softly, using a voice suited for quieting spooked horses, she soothed, "It's really me, darlin' boy. I'm not a dream and I'm not going to disappear."
Silent tears were streaming down his face again and his body was wracked with violent shudders as shock set in. Feeling warm skin under his hand, Ezra raised his eyes to his sister's, staring into them and seeing all the love, warmth and understanding that he'd been craving since she'd been gone. A harsh sound, half sob emerged from his chest, raw and powerful. "Jezzie."
As her name was uttered desperately, Jez held her arms open and answered, "It's me, brother. I've found you at last."
Flinging himself into his sister's open arms, Ezra clung to her even as his knees buckled and they folded to the ground. Burying his face in her neck, he sobbed, "Jezzie. Where've you been? Uncle said you were dead, but I knew you weren't, even after he whipped me I didn't really believe it. Not deep down. Oh god, how I've missed you. Where have you been, Jezzie? I've been so alone."
Holding him close, Jez ran her fingers through his hair and hushed him tenderly. Pulling him almost into her lap, she rocked him gently, humming quietly as they both cried. After a few moments, she said, "I'm sorry, my brother, I had no choice. Uncle separated us and I've been trying to get back to you ever since. I'm so sorry it's taken so long. But it hasn't been all bad, has it? You've got family now. Six brothers who care for you and watch your back."
Nodding his head, he huddled further into her embrace, showing no signs that he would ever relinquish his hold on her. Whispering, he pleaded, "Never leave me again, Artemis."
"Never again, Apollo." A relieved grin split Jez's face as she beamed up at the six men who had filed into the room after her brother and now stood shuffling awkwardly. Except Josiah and Buck, who's smiles lit up their faces. Nodding to Chris, Vin and Josiah, Jez offered a heartfelt, "Thank you."
"What'd they call each other? Arty Muss and a poll low?" came JD's very loud and confused whisper.
"Artemis was the Greek goddess of the hunt and the moon. Apollo was the Greek god of the sun and music. Apollo was the younger twin brother of Artemis, I believe. No doubt our friends here drew that comparison and decided to nickname themselves," explained Josiah, casting a fond look at the siblings sitting on the floor in front of him.
"Excellent assumption, Mr Sanchez and a correct one," congratulated Jez, grinning up at the big preacher.
"Oh gawd. I've shamed myself in front of my associates, haven't I?" drawled the gambler as he became aware of the others in the room. Unwilling to let go of his sister, he discreetly wiped his wet face on her shirt.
"There's no shame in honest emotion, son," rumbled Josiah, coming in and squatting behind the gambler to lay his hand on his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.
Peering up at the bigger man, Ezra resembled nothing so much as a small child as he smiled shyly at him, then at the rest of his friends. "I take it that y'all have met my sister."
The pride with which he laid claim to the woman holding him made all the others grin like loons.
"Sure did, hoss. Made one hell of a first impression too," confirmed Buck, moving to sit on the bed, followed by JD. Vin slid down the wall near the door, making himself comfortable. Chris shut the door and then leaned against it. Nathan went to the farthest corner of the room and sat in the lone chair.
"You gentlemen appear to be settling in," observed Ezra, shuffling with his sister as Jez moved back to lean on the wall, her arms still around her twin. He twisted so that his back rested against her chest, with her arm around his shoulder and across his chest. Holding her hand with one of his, he searched his pockets and withdrew a handkerchief to try and mop himself up. "And don't even think about my sister in that way, Mr Wilmington. She's off limits."
"Well hell, Ez. It is my room, ain't I got a right to make myself at home?" protested Vin, lazily grinning at his friend as Buck made noises of indignation and innocence.
"I suppose you all want to continue the interrogation from the saloon," asked Jez, having wiped her face with her own handkerchief. Stuffing it back in her pocket, she adjusted her hold on Ezra so that he was once again secure in a full hug.
"Well, if you haven't got anywhere else to be, we might as well get better acquainted," invited Chris, shrugging out of duster and sliding down he door to sit beside Vin.
Tightening her hold on her brother, Jez smiled happily and murmured, "No, I'm finally where I'm supposed to be and I'm never leaving again."
Pressing back into his sister's embrace and hugging her arms to his chest, Ezra gazed around at the happy faces of his friends and felt complete for the first time in more years than he cared to remember.