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If at First You Don't Succeed…

by Rhymer23

 

A younger Ezra attempts to master a new skill. The results are somewhat… unfortunate.

 

___

 

Light flickered in the crowded tavern. The table pulsed with shadows as men wove past with drinks in their hands. Jewellery glittered and silk gowns whispered, and somewhere, not far away, a woman was singing, the notes as perfect as a cascade of diamonds in a gambler's hands. Bright perfume mingled with duller, darker scents: sweat and stale whisky; steam from the riverboats, and gun oil and horses.

 

Ezra was aware of it all, in the way that gentlemen of his profession had to be aware of such things. More real were the faces of the men around his table, his own little kingdom. Most real of all were the cards in his hands. He was dealing slowly, making the cards glide across the table like dancers. Each one stopped exactly where he wanted it to, and he smiled to himself, imagining them bow: mischievous jacks and stately queens, with himself as their king.

 

"How do you do that, mister… I mean, uh, sir? You make them dance so pretty like."

 

Ezra turned a languid head to the boy to his left. Guided by touch, the cards continued to perform for their audience. "Some people," he said, "are blessed with manual dexterity. Others," he added, wincing at the distant sound of breaking glass, "were sadly absent when such gifts were being bestowed."

 

"When I deal," the boy said, "the cards go every which way but where I want them to." He was as eager and honest as a puppy. He had declared himself to be "nineteen, almost," which Ezra judged to mean barely a day over seventeen. In truth, Ezra was little older than that himself, but true maturity had little to do with chronological years. His mother made him feel tiny; places like this made him feel ageless.

 

"Can you do it fast, as well?" the boy asked eagerly. "I once saw a man who made them fly like… like flying things."

 

The song came to an end. Ezra paused for the applause, and shot a subtle glance at the man opposite him, tall, grim and silent. The man was occupied with swirling his drink, making sparks shine in it like gold. The next song was faster, the notes like darting birds. The cards in Ezra's hands matched their speed. They flew. They sang.

 

"Gee, mister, that's… that's… real clever."

 

Ezra had encountered his mother the day before, and the endless night that followed had felt bitterly cold. The boy's face was a picture of adulation, as sweet in its way as the growing pile of money at Ezra's right hand. Warmth unfolded in Ezra's chest, and he let himself grin. "But have you ever met anyone who could do this?" He twisted his right wrist, flicked an agile finger, and released the card like a leaf on the first winds of winter.

 

There was an unexpected click.

 

Something cold and heavy shot from his sleeve. His fingers groped for it, but brushed it late, far too late. The cards fell from his hand like broken marionettes. Something impacted, metal on glass. Ezra's hand closed foolishly over nothing, forming a loose fist. His eyes went from the scattered cards to the boy's face to the far side of the table. The big man's drink was no longer there.

 

The boy's mouth closed audibly. "Real clever."  He cleared his throat. "Uh… Was that a g-uh…" His voice trailed away into nothing.

 

The big man's knuckles were white on the edge of the table. His eyes pinned Ezra like a butterfly in a cabinet of curiosities. The sound of the crowd became harsh and hectic, scraping raucously on Ezra's ears, then faded into unimportance. The man blinked. Ezra gripped his fist tighter, his muscles tightening against the unfamiliar device on his forearm. He tried to tell himself that the faint drip-dripping sound of falling liquid was entirely in his imagination.

 

"Was that part of the trick?" The boy's voice was bright, struggling to hold on to its eagerness. "Can you… uh, can you teach me how to do it?"

 

Ezra realised that his mouth was far more open than was seemly for a gentleman of his profession. He closed it; moistened his lips. "I do apologise, gentlemen." He was well practised in the art of empty smiles. "A slight… malfunction. No insult intended, I assure you. Now if I could… er, retrieve my… er…"

 

Pushing his chair back, he hazarded a glance under the table. The large man's glass rocked from side to side at his feet, and dark liquid dripped from his flooded thighs. Sitting there, still and innocent at the man's crotch, lay Ezra's brand new derringer. Ezra rethought his half-formed plan of reaching for the errant weapon.

 

Ezra sat up, scraped his hand across his face, and prepared the marshal the words that would save him. He never got the chance to utter more than the first syllable.

 

With a roar, the man surged to his feet, hauling the table up and flinging it to the ground. As he ducked under a suddenly most insistent rain of fists, Ezra pawed for his winnings, and pawed again, but a booted foot held a contrary opinion about his right to them, and all around him people were shouting, suddenly everyone was shouting.

 

The next few minutes became very complicated indeed.

 

******

 

The grey-haired proprietor barely looked up from his ledger. "I assure you that all items are thoroughly checked before sale. If there was a fault, we would have noticed it."

 

It hurt to smile, but Ezra tried for his best ingratiating look. "You assured me," he said carefully, "that this device - this patent device which put you in raptures a few short days ago - would dispense the gun when I wanted it, and only when I wanted it."

 

The proprietor's finger paused over a price, and he tutted under his breath. The clock ticked loudly. Seconds passed before he appeared to notice Ezra again. "If it failed to do so…" His eyes rose to Ezra's face.

 

Ezra fought the urge to lower his gaze. The glass-fronted cabinets behind the counter showed him a picture of his bruises. "It failed to do so," he said. "You have my word on that."

 

"Ah." The man's upper lip showed the beginnings of a knowing smile.

 

"It was faulty," Ezra said, knowing that his own smile reached nowhere near his eyes. "Knowingly selling faulty goods--"

 

"--is something that a no-good fellow like you knows all about," the man sneered.

 

Ezra let out a breath, and the last of the smile fled along with it. He reached subtly for the support of the counter; for a way to stand that allowed him to breathe more easily. "Just examine it," he said, knowing that weariness took all the force from his words. He made to lay the contraption on the counter, then changed his mind, and placed it deliberately on the man's treasured ledger.

 

The man's fingers twitched, as if with the urge to push it away. "It reeks of liquor," he said, wrinkling his nose in disgust. "The fine mouldings look as if they have been stomped on. There's blood on the strapping. There's dirt in the workings." Righteous disgust was written all over his features. "If you treat an exquisite instrument this badly, then you only have yourself to blame."

 

"Said treatment," Ezra said stiffly, "was more the result of its faulty performance than the cause of it."

 

The man tugged his ledger free. A smear of dirt showed on the left-hand page, and he tugged a handkerchief from his pocket, moistened it, and dabbed at the stain. "Then the fault was yours," he said as he dabbed. "Such a clever device requires skill to operate. You are plainly lacking in sufficient manual dexterity."

 

Ezra had opened his mouth to retort. He closed it again.

 

"It was all explained when you bought it," the man said, closing the ledger reverently and covering it with a cloth. "I suggest that you read the manual."

 

If there was one thing Ezra's mother had taught him, it was how to recognise when a battle was lost. It always ended with her walking away.

 

******

 

The girl was as beautiful as a Della Robbia angel. Her hair was a torrent of golden coins beneath a summer sun, and her skin was as smooth as polished silver. Her eyes were sapphires fringed with golden filigree, her lips were as sweet as a pocket full of riches, and kissing them was like playing a winning hand, again and again and again.

 

"Oh, Ezra," she breathed into his neck. "You have such lovely hands."

 

He entwined his left hand loosely in her curls, and stroked the nape of her neck. She gave a shuddering sigh, melting against his body. Money crackled faintly, safe in the lining of his coat. He moved away a little, reminded of the man he had plucked it from. "Your father…"

 

"I'm sure he won't notice us," she whispered, her mouth moving to his ear. His knees sagged, and she dragged him deeper into the darkness of the doorway. People passed behind him, singing and shouting, lost in the delights of the festival. A slurred voice sang loudly of love and longing, and firecrackers sounded, down towards the shore.

 

"I find that… far from… reassuring," he gasped, even as his senses were screaming at him, telling him that he was stupid, idiotic, crazy to be saying such a thing, to be urging caution at a time like this, "I prefer… to leave… nothing… to the vagaries of… chance."

 

"He's busy," she assured him. How had he lived for nineteen years without discovering how glorious it felt to have someone running their fingers through his hair? "Besides, he's drunk. Now, use those clever hands on me again."

 

She practised what she preached, quick with her own fingers. He kissed her, kissed her again, and almost lost himself in the heady scent of her. But he was not amongst friends here, and he could not, oh, God, he could not lose control. "Not yet, my dear," he whispered, taking her glorious teasing hand in his own. "Not here. But let me show you what else my hands can do."

 

He danced his fingers across her cheek and down her neck. He ghosted them across her shoulders, teasing the lace at the top of her dress. He wove his fingers through her hair, playing it like a deck of cards. She shuddered, clinging closer, and he let his hands move inexorably lower, across the smooth silk to her waist.

 

"Such clever, clever hands," she sighed rapturously. "I knew… as soon as I saw you… win against my father… and all those men. When I saw how you handled the cards…"

 

"I'm capable of so much more than that, my dear," he told her. His right hand found the ribbons at the front of her dress, and he teased them like a magician, turning his wrist, tugging with his fingers.

 

There was an unexpected click.

 

He stiffened. His hand groped madly, and he caught the gun before it could fall to the floor. Polly's head snapped up, her mouth as round as an O. "Is that… Ooh, Ezra, is that your…?"

 

"No. No," Ezra hastened to assure her. "Not that I'm not… But I wouldn't… I mean…" Words fled from him, refusing for once to perform to his bidding. The gun remained between them, pressed against her hip. It was a very tiny gun, so it seemed entirely inappropriate that she would think…

 

He slammed a firm door in the face of that thought, and refused to continue it.

 

"It isn't…" he managed, flailing for dignity. "That is, it's…"

 

He took a slight step back. As he did so, she pushed his shoulders away and looked down. "It's a gun!" she squealed. He shook his head and tried to hush her, left hand rising to her lips, but she drew a sharp breath and screamed it. "A gun!" The singing crowds had reached the end of their chorus, creating a caesura of near silence. Her voice shattered it. "He's pointing a gun at me!"

 

"Hush!" Ezra hissed desperately. "It's just a misunderstanding, a horrible misunderstanding." She pulled away, struggling to free herself. Shocked by the sudden reality of her fear, he let his hand fall and stepped backwards. "I wouldn't. I didn't mean…" 

 

Behind him, the verse started again, then came to an abrupt halt. "A gun!" someone shouted, their voice thick with drink. "That scoundrel's pulled a gun on that poor sweet girl." Ezra shook his head, but the voices rose into a cacophony. Someone bellowed for someone to tell Big Dan that his little girl was in trouble. Big Dan roared. Big Dan had particularly choice things to say about "that thieving gambler who robbed me of all my money and is now trying to steal the life of my poor motherless child."

 

Explanations went sadly unheeded. Festival time, Ezra concluded fuzzily a short while later, was a hectic time, best avoided.

 

******

 

When all the inhabitants of a town take it into their heads that you are a murdering rogue who preys on women, your accommodation options are somewhat limited. The principal option involves metal bars and an appointment with a hangman's noose. Due to being one of the few of the said inhabitants who was moderately sober, Ezra had avoided that fate, but had quickly come to the conclusion that the alternative had little else to recommend it.

 

Grimacing, he perched on the edge of the rock-hard bed, and peered into the cracked mirror. It was dirty and distorted, making his face look… "Ah." He let out a stiff breath, and raised a shaking hand to his swollen jaw. "Perhaps the mirror does not lie."

 

Wriggling with difficulty out of his coat, he looked in vain for a place to hang it. The bed, he was sure, was full of fleas, and he had no intention of getting close enough to ascertain the nature of the stains on the pillow. The derringer rig reproached him innocently on his forearm. He glowered at it with silent eloquence.

 

His head sagged. He wanted to lean back on the bed, close his eyes, and rest. He wanted to throw the thrice-accursed thing out of the window and never see it again. He wanted…

 

You give up too easily, my boy, he heard his mother's voice say, smiling sweetly in memory. That's one of your oh too many failings.

 

He raised his head; stared at himself in the broken mirror. The warped glass made it look as if there was someone else with him, someone behind him, a soft hand on his shoulder. He resisted the urge to turn around.

 

With a sigh, he pulled the derringer from his pocket, and pushed it back into the mechanism that held it. For a while, he was too weary to do anything else. They were still singing in town, but it was faint now, on the far side of glass and distance. He scraped his hand across his brow, and kept it there, fingers kneading the side of his head.

 

The gun struck his temple with jarring force. He snatched his hand away, terrified of touching the trigger. The weapon clattered to the bare floor, scattering the dirt.

 

Ezra tried to clench his fist, but it hurt too much. Letting out a breath, he bent to pick the weapon up again, and slotted it back into place. His sleeve was shamefully dirty, he realised. He reached across to dislodge a fragment of mud, and heard an all-too-familiar click.

 

"God damn it!" he swore. Someone hammered on the ceiling beneath him, shouting at him to be quiet. The gun sat on the dirty floor like a smiling serpent.

 

"It is faulty," Ezra told himself firmly. "Lacking in manual dexterity, indeed!"

 

Unfastening the rig from his arm, he studied it in the fading light. If he tightened that piece there, and tweaked that bit there…

 

******

 

Another day, another town, another regrettable reception.

 

"I find your hospitality sadly lacking, gentlemen." He looked from face to face, a picture of wounded innocence. "A weary traveller, all I wanted was a quiet drink and a simple game of chance - for the love of the game, naturally, not for money."

 

"We don't want your kind here." The tallest man held his gun in an unwavering grip. The others were armed only in righteousness. They had stripped him of the gun he wore at his belt, and cast it away as if had teeth. No-one had patted his torso or his sleeves. I need to get a shoulder holster, Ezra reminded himself. If I live through this.

 

"My kind?" Ezra echoed, still playing the card of innocence. An appearance of innocence often got results; he had learnt that well as a child. He had been thirteen years old when his mother had informed him that he could no longer melt hearts with his childish innocence, and would thus be entirely useless to her until he developed the skills of a man. But old habits were hard to break. "I have to confess myself entirely ignorant of what you mean."

 

"No," the man said coldly. "You know very well."

 

There were four of them, and they were herding Ezra slowly away from the boulevard, away from the eyes of watchers. The stone houses were decaying at the back. The air was thick with the scent of damp vegetation, and the blue sky shimmered with thick haze. A bird cried from the bayou, and another one answered it, further away.

 

Did they plan to drown him, he wondered, or simply beat him to a pulp behind the blind back windows of these elegant houses? Either way, they would brush themselves clean, wipe away all signs of violence, and return to the sparkling façade of flawed gentility.

 

"Well, gentlemen," he said, with a practised sigh of regret, "I would hate to cause you any undue exertion. You will be pleased to hear that I have no intention of staying where I am not wanted."

 

He twisted his right forearm; moved his wrist just so.

 

Nothing happened.

 

The tall man frowned. The shorter man beside him smiled, showing his teeth. "On your knees, scum," commanded a portly fellow, his watch chain gleaming in the sun, thick and deliciously valuable.

 

"Scum?" Ezra said, raising his eyebrows in feigned shock. He went quite carefully to his knees, desperately wriggling his right arm inside its sleeve. He thought he might have heard something move softly, perhaps settling into its correct position. "Then you leave me with no choice, gentlemen, but to take my leave of you."

 

He jerked his arm, pretending he was untying a luscious damsel's ribbons, or executing an advanced card trick.

 

Nothing happened.

 

The tall man blinked. The short man openly laughed. Ezra decided that he did not like that man one little bit.

 

"We're a godly, law-abiding town," the tall man said, raising the gun. "Do you want to know how we stay that way?"

 

"I think I can guess," Ezra said, grimacing as he agitated his arm with ceaseless desperation. Surely it was free now! Surely that was the requisite click! "But I wouldn't let it worry you. I have no intention of staying to find out."

 

He raised his hand with a flourish. Nothing happened. "Damn it!" Ezra cursed, as he turned the flourish into a roll. Men shouted. The tall man fired his gun, the bullet smashing into the dirt between Ezra's feet. He rolled, and came up with a mouthful of mud. People piled onto him, pulling and snatching, and for the first time in his life, Ezra was grateful for those months living with Cousin Francis, whose chief pleasure in life had come from pounding Ezra into the ground, until Ezra had learned how to fight back.

 

But it was not quite the exit he had intended. "Less panache," he muttered to himself much later, when he could.

 

******

 

Of all the towns in all the world…

 

"Mother," Ezra said stiffly, looking up from his quiet seat in the quiet corner in the quiet room, far away from any game of chance, far away from any trouble.

 

"My darling boy," his mother said, kissing the air beside his cheek. As ever, her perfume stirred formless memories and a sharp stab of longing. "What ever have you been doing to yourself?"

 

"I didn't do this, mother." He shifted, seeking a more comfortable position. His left arm was in a sling, and his cards were untouched in his pocket.

 

"Then what did you allow them to do?" She perched on the chair beside him, in a way that shouted to all the world that she had no intention to staying.

 

"Nothing." He was playing with his right hand in a puddle of spilled drink, making patterns. With a sharp gesture, he wiped the patterns away. "I apologise, mother. I was not aware this town was yours."

 

"It is proving quite lucrative," Maude said, not disputing his attribution of ownership. "I trust that this time you will refrain from upsetting my plans. Last time you elbowed your way into my schemes, you--"

 

"Entirely ruined them, yes, I know," Ezra said wearily, not adding that he had been fifteen at the time, plucked from a relatively settled life and thrust, ill-prepared, into a scheme that was already unravelling at the seams.

 

"Are you sure you're all right, my dear?" His mother leant forward, enclosing his hand in her own. "You look quite dreadful. I blame myself." She dabbed at a dry eye. "I do believe that you are quite incapable of taking care of yourself. You're too young to live like this. You're… what? Seventeen?"

 

"Twenty, mother." Ezra dragged his hand away. His skin tingled with the touch of her. "And as for the way I live…? Did I ever have a choice?"

 

"Oh, Ezra, Ezra, Ezra…" Maude shook her head sadly. Replete with wealth, an elderly gentleman watched her from at the next table, and she sat a little straighter, smoothing her hair. "I want only the best for you, my boy," she said, turning back to Ezra only at the end of it. "I worked my fingers to the bone to build a better life for you. You are most welcome to share it with me, but you have a lot of growing up to do first. You're too young at the moment, too green." She touched his cheek, her hand as soft as any memory. "You have to learn how to win, Ezra. Only losers get hurt."

 

There were so many things he could have said, so many things he wanted to say, but he felt too wretched, and his mother was touching his cheek, and she might stop if he said the wrong thing. "It wasn't my fault," he said, knowing that he sounded five years old again. "My gun failed at a crucial moment."

 

"A gun is like a crutch," his mother said. "You should rely on your wits, my darling boy. I raised you better than that, surely. Rely on yourself - on nothing and on nobody else."

 

"Nobody else," Ezra echoed, like the pupil he had so often been. But he clenched his fist inside his sling, and that was all he said. His mother carried a gun. His mother had always used every weapon in her armoury.

 

His mother was not always right.

 

"Now, if you're sure you're hardly hurt at all…" His mother bent to kiss him on the cheek, held him tight for a few seconds, then withdrew. "Work calls, my dear." She patted him on the head, ruffling his hair. "My son," she explained in a stage whisper, looking beyond him at the elderly gentleman. "Perhaps you will treat me to dinner tomorrow?"

 

It could have been aimed at either of them, but Ezra answered first. "I believe I will have moved on tomorrow," he said. "Until next time, Mother." He touched the brim of an imaginary hat.

 

That night, after sitting silent for a very long time, he pulled out his derringer rig from the bottom of his pack, and set to work.

 

******

 

"So here we are, Dobbin. Shall we call you Dobbin?" Ezra patted the heaving flank of the horse he had temporarily appropriated from the unwittingly generous denizens of some town or other, somewhere back there, already forgotten. "This is the life, is it not, my friend?"

 

The horse made a grumbling sound. It was an awkward beast with an uncomfortable gait, "which is what one would expect," Ezra pointed out, "from a town so prone to producing angry mobs. With pitchforks," he added, when the horse did nothing but flap an ear.

 

The sun blazed down unpleasantly, and his sodden shirt cried out desperately for laundering. The world shimmered with endless, unrelenting scenery. A helpful sign, scratched by someone half illiterate, informed him that it was ten miles to the next town. To the next bath house. To the next soft bed. To the next opportunity to make money. To the next bit of God-given civilisation in this awful, hellish…

 

The horse grunted. Its lumbering walk grew slower and slower, then stopped altogether.

 

"This is the life," Ezra said brightly, remembering the train of thought that had accidentally drifted along an unintended turn. "The great outdoors. The sun so warm and pleasant on our backs. Unspoiled wilderness, as glorious as nature intended it." The horse did not look impressed. It looked as if it hated Ezra for making it run for its life from…

 

"I most emphatically did not run for my life," Ezra corrected the horse. "I merely thought it expedient to move on. The undoubted pleasures of civilisation begin to pall after a while, and a wandering gentleman such as myself always likes to seek out pastures new."

 

The horse started to trudge forward. The trail rose slowly, and the ground to their right fell away ever more sharply, turning from a steep slope into a veritable cliff. The view, Ezra reminded the horse, was spectacular.

 

Three weeks, he had spent in that little town. He had spent whole evenings gaming and drinking with a boy called Ben. He had spent whole afternoons flirting with a girl called Matilda. Ben had the wanderlust, and Ezra had almost thought that the boy might want to leave with him. He had almost thought that Matilda might beg him not to leave at all.

 

"But this is for the best," Ezra told the foolish animal. The sky was as blue as a dream of heaven. The West lay ahead, full of untapped markets. It was best to be forever moving. It was best to head always for the places where nobody knew your name.

 

"Just look at it," Ezra declared, and perhaps his own words had convinced him, or perhaps the grandeur of the landscape had worked a magic of its own. He pulled the horse to a halt, and sat on the cliff edge, looking out at the world below. "Marvellous," he sighed. "Beauty as far as the eye can see." He threw out his right arm, encompassing the world and everything in it.

 

There was a horribly familiar click.

 

His fingers were outstretched, in foolish, ridiculous, poetical celebration of the stupid glories of the hideous, godforsaken world. He had not the faintest chance on earth of catching it. The gun flew from his hand, teetered on the edge of the cliff, and very slowly fell over.

 

He dismounted quite carefully; walked to the edge with perfect restraint. The gun had caught on a rocky outcrop a few feet below. It was possible, with effort, to clamber down to it. Or perhaps he could get a branch, reach down for it, and hook it back up…?

 

Ezra stood looking down for a very long time, shifting his weight from foot to foot. A stone dislodged from the edge, and crashed down, narrowly missing the gun. Ezra fidgeted harder. The fourth stone hit the gun full on, knocking it loose. It fell out of sight, impossible to retrieve. Long seconds passed before Ezra heard a very faint crash.

 

"Oh dear," Ezra said, with a sigh. Shrugging, he turned to his appropriated horse. "It fell. That truly is a shame. Don't you agree, my four-legged friend?"

 

His heart felt strangely light as he climbed into the saddle again. "It was a stupid gun, anyway," he informed Dobbin with authority, "and quite unnecessary. Much as I will mourn its sad loss, I believe such a contraption has no practical use at all."

 

The horse gave no sign of agreeing, but plodded on with shameful lack of spirit.

 

******

 

The piano-playing was uncouth, the drink was terrible, but the takings, at least, were exceptional.

 

"I thank you for a most enjoyable game, gentlemen." Nodding to each of his defeated opponents, Ezra scooped up the enormous pile of money.

 

"Not so fast, sonny." The man in green rose to his feet, gesturing pathetically with useless, empty hands.

 

"I do believe I won this fairly," Ezra pointed out, "and I advise you…"

 

There was a soft click, familiar now from so many awful dreams. The man in green grinned as a derringer appeared in his hand. "Not so fast, I believe I said. I'm sure you must have cheated, a young 'un like you. I think this money--"

 

"--belongs to me," said the man in blue, a small gun appearing suddenly in his hand.

 

"I beg to differ," said the man in yellow, producing his derringer without visible movement.

 

"I'm sure you all have a very good claim," said the man in purple, "but I'm sure you will all agree that my claim is twice as good as yours." A gun dropped into his right hand, and another into his left.

 

Ezra looked from gun to gun. All eyes turned to him. They watched his hands, frozen on the money - his money! - and his sleeve, his empty, useless sleeve.

 

He moistened his lips. He considered and dismissed a dozen different responses. He swallowed. Slowly, very slowly, he raised his hand from the pile of cash. He began to speak, then thought better of it.

 

Abandoning the money, he ran. The gun shots started before he was out on the street.

 

******

 

"Hey, Ezra," JD said, sounding almost nervous. "How does this thing work?"

 

Ezra raised his head a little way, then let it fall back. Nathan had gone for water, and Buck was sleeping off his head injury on a pallet on the clinic floor. Ezra's shoulder throbbed like fury, but what could you expect when you were foolish enough to let yourself become involved in law enforcement; when you let people drag you into risking your life again and again in ridiculous gun fights?

 

"I've often wondered," JD said. "It looks so easy when you do it. There's nothing in your hand… and then, bam!"

 

Ezra tried again, blinking through the haze to see what on earth JD was talking about. Somebody had removed his derringer rig, he saw, and had placed it carefully on the bedside table.

 

"Can I try it?" JD asked, half shy, half eager, like a boy in a waterfront tavern so many years before.

 

Even now, after nearly two years in one place, instinct was to say no. Instinct was to grab his possessions close; to share nothing; to keep those secret things forever secret.

 

Buck stirred without waking up. Footsteps on the balcony outside showed that others were nearby: Chris, he thought, from the sound of it. He remembered grabbing Buck out of the line of fire. He remembered Chris and Josiah grabbing the two of them. He remembered gripping Vin's hand as he struggled to stay out of the black, and he remembered opening his eyes to see Nathan smiling down at him.

 

"Of course," he said. He tried to push himself up on the bed, raising the pillows, and JD knew enough not to help. He watched as JD strapped the rig onto his forearm. "Unload the gun first," he advised. "Trust me on that."

 

JD did so. "So how do you…?" He gestured questioningly. The gun sprang free and skidded across the floor. "Oh, gosh, I'm sorry." JD scrambled to retrieve it, and tried again. "So you just…?" This time the gun came to rest against Buck's forehead. Buck mumbled in his sleep, and raised his hand to his face with an amorous smile. "Sorry, Buck." JD scooped up the gun and stood looking at it quizzically. "How do you do it, Ezra? It's impossible."

 

Ezra wriggled down into the pillows. "Some people," he said, "are blessed with manual dexterity. It's a God-given gift. You know what they say: you've either got it or you ain't."

 

His eyes slid shut. He heard the others entering the room, and he smiled, and found himself suddenly, quite ridiculously, unable to stop.

 

******

 

END

 

******

 

Note: When I was first considering writing M7 fic, I wanted to find out exactly how Ezra's derringer was triggered, so I could write scenes in which he did it. I found a forum post online in which someone asked how a derringer sleeve rig worked, and the general consensus seemed to be that such things only really work in the movies, because in real life it would be too hard to create a triggering mechanism that went off only when you wanted it to, and not accidentally. And so this story was born…

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