Memorizing to heart, his fingertips traced along the line of Ezra's jaw. He licked his lips.
"Would you tell me...?"
Josiah then paused, his own words surprising him into stillness as they dragged ellipses through the ragged italics of their breathing.
Then he smiled. 'Their breathing.' That he very much liked this notion derailed his first train of thought, scattering the debris across his mind only to have it weld itself into crooked repair when Ezra drew away from him with a lazily quizzical expression.
"Tell me..." Josiah's voice dropped now to a deliberate tease that trailed along with his meandering caress.
His smile widened to a grin at the 'Out with it, and it had better be good' that wrote itself across Ezra's face. He pressed a chaste kiss above Ezra's arched eyebrow, then a second, and then a third of descending placement and intentions.
"Tell me...what you want to do," he finished, as if they had all the time in the world and any room at all left between their bodies for confusion.
And yet—there proved to be a lean but crucial inch, which Ezra closed with a grasp of Josiah's belt. A tug and a thrust. Then a smile that Josiah swore could plant the seed of carnal knowledge into the minds of the Seraphim themselves.
"If you'll pardon my crudeness, I'd have to say my answer is: 'You.'"
Josiah let his smile touch Ezra's skin, his lips moving against Ezra's ear; he felt Ezra shiver. "I'll pardon yours if you'll pardon mine."
His hand slipped down to Ezra's waist, brushing against smoothly tanned leather and body-warmed wool, and over the hardening flesh beneath. His fingers fidgeted, impatient, wanting to be under and against. He breathed deeply to bring himself to heel. The scent of desert dust was pulled into his consciousness, spreading like creepers over the room's ever-present smell of paraffin and laundry powder, and over Ezra's familiar scent of aftershave and gun oil. He breathed in again, and the warring aromas crowded into catalog. He pressed his lips to Ezra's throat.
His mouth opened, pulling and pushing. The ocean tide of Ezra's pulse beat against his tongue. He felt an answering warmth just above his collar and a rhythmic squeeze at his hip. His grasp on Ezra's wrist slid up to his forearm and then down again, guiding both their hands lower, past belt loops and buttons to Ezra's thigh.
He drew back. There was a faint light of uncertainty on Ezra's face and in his hesitant hand that left Josiah's pleasure in the shadows, watching, feeling, urging Ezra on. A dark little spider of fascination hatched inside him, scuttling over the flush of arousal that masqueraded as an innocent blush across Ezra's cheeks, spinning webs around the sight of Ezra slowly stroking himself through his trousers.
His hand half-covered Ezra's, his eyes fixed on that sinful sight: Ezra's brows raised in shut-eyed hope, his teeth slowly scraping over his lower lip over and over again. Closer, and then they were blindly nipping at Josiah's. Wet. A slow, swallowing slide of a kiss followed by the gentle tangling of fingers. He watched the telltale coloring steal up to the tips of Ezra's ears and down to skirt the edges of his collar. Just a little closer, flexing, his hand clutched—
—his revolver, that comforting constant in the thick of the maelstrom of speeding steel. Ezra pulled the trigger before his mind consciously registered that his eyes had aimed. The satisfaction of the anticipated sound was lost amidst the sharp series from Josiah's gun, but he felt the reassuring reverberation up to his shoulder. The spark burned into his retinas as his eyes tracked the bullet to its final resting place in a red-bandanna'd throat.
Everything went muted, uncannily quiet as he watched the blood soak into the dirt. For one moment his gun shook in his grip, shuddering like a beaten dog until his hand clenched and it lay down awkward and obedient. His trigger finger twitched. He swallowed, the tail echo of Josiah's breathing and the ringing of the afternoon sun filtering through the eerie stillness. Focusing, he narrowed his gaze past his cover, letting the length of no-man's-land blur into periphery. The edge of a dust-colored homespun sleeve flapped nervously around the edge of a makeshift barricade, cleared squarely in his sight.
His heart lurched toward his throat, and in that instant, he absurdly drew a blank as to whom they were actually shooting at this time—could not remember for the life of him until the hot whistle of steel sang much too loudly in his ear. Then something slammed into his chest with shattering force.
GaineslikeMichael—Mississippi?—Ella!—Painhotfiregunfire—shot! The last word repeated itself, red-flagged, desperate and alone and burning.
As if from deep under water, Josiah's voice floated towards him. "Ezra, you hit?"
"I've..." His intention choked in his throat, blue stars shifting into unfamiliar constellations before his eyes.
How long did it take to slip from consciousness on the ebb of lost blood? It seemed an eternity passed, and the ground turned a blurry gray as he swayed, but then Josiah's voice was back, belying time and urgent.
"Nathan! Cover us!"
Josiah's sudden presence at his side, incomprehensibly close, triggered a shuddering, sobering breath that gurgled muddily in his aching chest even as it cleared his head.
"I've been cheated..." The air scoured his lungs. "Cut down in my prime..."
His words, read a thousand times in his youth, penned by a hundred dramatists, were paper-thin defenses against the cold black thought: shot—shot—there's—a—bullet—in—my—chest—metalinmychesthurts—I'mgoingtodiegoingtodiegoingtodie. The words had been lain out in his head from childhood, and he'd imagined them with perverse pleasure too many times to keep them back now—imagined nobly dying in the arms of a compatriot, or later, a lover. But even as he spoke them, he hated them for their meaningless sounds and their utter uselessness.
He felt a hand on his chest and winced at the shooting pain that accompanied Josiah's fingers pressing against his wound. The sharp pang faded to unsatisfied warmth, dull and itchy, and Ezra realized suddenly that off-balancing shoulder claps and rough fraternal embraces aside, Josiah had never really touched him. How long had it been since anyone had touched him, and now he was going to die, and he wanted Josiah's hand back on him, slaking that not-quite-ache in his chest. He pictured his blood on Josiah's skin, and briefly, madly thought that Josiah would look good in red.
Ezra winced. Must his final minutes be so pedestrian? But Josiah's words permeated. He backtracked through his thoughts: what had he said aloud? No blood on Josiah's hands? Don'tdon'tdon't let my blood spill on the ground...I don't want to be a body.
Pressure again on his chest, persistent but oddly gentle. He wanted to tell Josiah, make him understand that he didn't want to be a corpse; Josiah had to understand that. But his mouth mechanically followed the script laid out in his mind.
"...the best...years of my life..."
darkchurchwinecoldconfess—rites—lastrites. Would it make a difference—would it make a difference to God, to his friends? If he didn't see them again...
Gold. The thought suddenly glinted as brightly as its substance. He realized that Josiah was holding his newly won brooch in front of him. His mind cast back to Four Corners, up the saloon stairs, to the fourth copy of his last will and testament. Did Josiah know what promise he held in his hand? A terrible knowledge dawned in the darkness of his thoughts: that small fortune would go to far better use, there in Josiah's palm, after Ezra was buried...rotting...
"It hit the diamond." Josiah's voice was back, calmer now, and Ezra found himself taking a deep breath, steady and sane.
He breathed again, his fingertips entreating oxygen from his lungs. He realized he was still holding his gun just as Josiah's words tumbled and translated themselves into meaning. He stared dumbly a moment at the dull gold indentation where his diamond had been fixed. The brooch was dropped into his hand, oddly warm and...perceptibly lighter.
"My diamond...my diamond!"
Diving, his hands were grazing the rough dirt before he realized he'd spoken aloud, even before he was fully cognizant that the bullet was grounded and unbloodied. His relief, sweet as summer rain, was short-lived, however. The diamond, his diamond, his beautiful diamond that glittered little aspirations in its every facet.
He didn't hear the stark threat of the gunfire around him, nor Josiah's startled rebuke; didn't feel the pebbles embed themselves into his searching hands. His mind lived through his eyes, a hysterical world of cock-and-bull sparkle and dust-brown reality. If he blinked, he'd miss it.
"—you lost your senses?!"
He heard that, dimly surprised that Josiah could make himself heard over the shooting. He nearly fathomed how appealing a target he must look. But if he blinked, he would lose his diamond. He would lose everything.
"Worse, I lost my diamond!" Ezra shouted back, berating himself idiotically for having wasted his perfectly compelling last words now that he was so blatantly tempting fate. He'd stepped out of the shadow of death and had already forgotten the lonely chill of it.
There—he saw a glint of reflected sunlight, twinkling hopefully. His throat clenched in certain anticipation. He lurched forward, and then felt hands close around his legs, yanking him back in a violently kicked-up cloud of dust.
"It ain't gonna do you no good in the Hereafter!"
But it would, Ezra's mind insisted. It would, because that little prize of a stone could end it all: the whispers behind his back, the doubt in his friends' eyes. It was worth just enough to buy himself a little respectability, a little piece of a new life, and there would be a little left over to give to Josiah's poor box. And he wouldn't brag about it, no, but Josiah would tell them, and...and in his head it had been as perfect and as childishly futile as his curtain-closing monologue. He scrambled forward, trying desperately to gain some handhold in the sun-cracked earth. Another tug as the hands tightened their hold and, unbalanced, Ezra fell hard on his elbow, setting the nerves to tingling painfully beneath the bone.
As Josiah dragged him back behind their provisional blockade, Ezra caught one last metallic glimpse of the spent bullet in the dust.
"What in God's name do you think you were doing? You could have gotten your fool self killed! You tell me what the hell—"
Ezra held his tongue while Josiah drew his gun and turned angrily from him. His eyes combed the ground with a half-crazed hope... browngreybrowngrey—damn it!
The frustration welled up inside him, burning harsh and acidic in his throat. His muscles tensed as he prepared to dart once more into the crossfire, but Josiah's voice was deadly quiet.
"You move, Ezra, and I'll shoot you myself."
And if Josiah's words held more hushed fear than anger, Ezra didn't take notice. He recovered his gun and his senses. He could have been killed, thought he had been killed, but he was alive. He would be alive after this fight, when they took Chris home. He would be alive on Friday night, when he'd scrape together what hard cash he had left for poker with the ranch hands. And he'd be alive for their goddamned self-righteousness when he won.
He heard a ruckus rise up, too far past his cover to risk craning his neck to see. He blinked and let the darkness linger just a moment over his tired eyes. He felt his gun warm to his hand once more, and felt the pain darken where the bullet had bruised his winnings against his chest. But still, the fading warmth remained along his legs, as if Josiah's hands still hovered just above his skin. He held onto the touch like a miser to gold, even as his mind insisted—
—that Buck knew Ezra and he were both up here, and without new distraction would come pounding on the door when the Kiers sisters downstairs lost interest. And if Buck knew, then so did JD, and Chris... Had the door been bolted? Because he had a feeling he wouldn't be able to get his hand out of Ezra's pants quick enough for appearances should someone barge in. Maybe he wouldn't even try, he amended, as his deftly unfastened shirt fell away and the wet scrape of teeth dragged across his shoulder.
A chuckle rattled in his chest as his mind's eye conjured the varying degrees of shock and horror their friends' faces would wear if they happened on him ad Ezra. The hands on his shaking sides tightened.
"Should I be insulted?" Ezra asked, a little amused and a little breathless.
Josiah shook his head and squeezed Ezra's hip, biting back the laughter that bubbled up inside him. His mind offered up wildly inappropriate suggestions on the best possible positions for scandal's sake: Ezra down on his knees putting that clever tongue to good use, a thin dribble of white drawing an indecent line between his lip and chin...Ezra on his belly with his hips raised up...or on his knees again, behind Josiah, breathing hot and heavy in his ear as he thrust slow and steady...or afterward, when they were both sweaty and all over limp and satisfied...
Oh, it wasn't good sign when Ezra stilled his talented hands for something as trivial as talk. He shook his head, appraised his losses, and schooled his features into the overly earnest expression that always drew a quirk from the corner of Ezra's mouth. He cocked his head to the side, trying to convey every ounce of sincere innocence through his eyes, even as his hands worked determinedly at Ezra's suspenders.
He couldn't help it. His soulful gaze crumbled against the steel of Ezra's undaunted patience. How any man could manage such an imperious air with his pants around his ankles was truly amazing. He sighed.
"It was nothing." He caressed the skin of Ezra's back, warming his hands, a plan of last resort forming grudgingly in his mind.
"If you're laughing at my expense, I may have to—"
"It was nothing," he repeated a half-pitch from patronizing. His thumb dipped into the hollow of Ezra's hip. His fingers pressed into the familiar curve.
"Tell me," Ezra insisted, with enough of a tight swallow to bring a smile to Josiah's face.
And lest his grin dig him in deeper, Josiah made his move, his hand catching Ezra in a most vulnerable position. Ezra then gulped most audibly.
"Later?" Josiah asked, making it clear the alternative was just not sensible at all.
His palm slid upward, just barely brushing against Ezra's obvious interest, delighting in his attempt to still his hips mid-thrust.
"Later," Ezra agreed, his mouth shaping a silent addendum to his wavering word.
Reveling in Ezra's renewed reason, Josiah felt a low flush spread over him at the smooth sound of leather drawn over denim, the clatter as his belt buckle hit the floor. Kissing again, a rumbling moan reverberating warmly between his mouth and Ezra's. With tangled tongues and tangled legs, they stumbled backwards, scuffing the floor with their boots. A sharp, short nip at his lower lip, a scratching stroke along the waistband of his trousers, and Josiah found his unbalanced mental state extending to the physical. His knees buckled as he fell backwards onto the luxurious softness of Ezra's mattress, his muscles a spring-coil of relaxation and want as Ezra climbed atop him, thighs astride his hips.
His sigh was worn, almost breaking as it fell from his lips. The riptide of his coursing blood whispered its displeasure at Ezra's backward attempts to remove his own boots, and the knowledge that Josiah would have to wait as his own followed. His fingers tugged at the hem of Ezra's shirt, flashing between the white cotton shirt and the bare white skin underneath. Ezra's weight shifted much too lightly from Josiah's hips as he shimmied back and lowered himself to the floor. A tug to his left boot sparked irritation as Josiah's hands were left empty. The insistent pull in his loins tautened. The notion of hauling Ezra up to the mattress, flipping him over, and riding him hard seized him to the bone. His hands and his mouth and his cock didn't care about little niceties of decorum like lining up boots at the foot of the bed; they wanted contact, to be against Ezra's sweat-soaked skin, inside him.
His feet bare, he felt Ezra's hands make short work of the buttons of his trousers—the ticklish brush of fingertips on his stomach. Just a little lower, a little harder. He raised his hips and felt the sudden shivery reaction of exposed skin and air. Heat flared, much too fleeting, sinking into chill afterward. He raised his head and saw Ezra's smile run the gamut from saint to satyr. Heat, again, again, and lovely pressure. Flickering with crossed and buzzing thoughts, his head fell back against the—
—side of the church. The sky's depth swam dizzyingly, causing Ezra to blink his suddenly watering eyes furiously. It troubled him deeply in the way of dark and still waters that he wasn't sure what he meant to say. That his mouth strained at the leash of his good sense—whether to run away or beg, he couldn't know. It was a selfish weakness. The desire for comfort, for reassuring nonsense that led him to this doorway, not for the sanctuary of the church spire's shadow, not even for the fortune of assassin's loot guarded inside, of whose origin on the supernatural spectrum Ezra had yet to decide.
And yet, clouded feelings or no, if he dallied out here, well...for appearances' sake...as someone might misconstrue...he shouldn't, that was, he wanted to...
It was cool inside the church. Between fuzzy-edged shadows, he saw the floor had been swept clean of the last repair's remnants. His hand casually dragged along the back of a pew, his eyes not finding Josiah until their second pass of the room. He blinked, suddenly unsure; his mind stalled as his mouth dried. A tense, tightening instinct ran rabid inside him: towards Josiah, to join him in the angled concealment of the shadows, or to the door, as the silence loomed ominous in the rafters. His eyes fell on a blood-red polygon pane of the window, the image drawing a dim recitation of smooth, low Latin, and the alleluias of sweet-voiced choirs from his memory.
"Hark." He waited for a smile from Josiah. Hope whispered that it was merely hidden in the shadows, faint but present.
"You're always so willing to dispense advice to others in need," Ezra continued, marveling how smoothly his tongue had slipped around his admittance of dependence.
Silence still. But that was just Josiah, patient, listening. It was, but he felt rather rattled nonetheless.
"See, it's just that, um, all my life I've always gotten that...look, you know, that tilt of the head, that...that question in the eye: Can I trust him?" He was desperately grateful that no one else was privy to this crippled speech that limped lamely from his tongue.
He could hear Josiah's breathing, rather louder than usual. A muffled argument from the street battered at the door. An infantile frustration of miscommunication drew uncoordinated lines between his heart and mind and mouth. It had to be easier than this when what he wanted seemed so simple and clear: warmth, protection. For someone to tell him there was good in him, to make him believe it. Comfort. He felt, he realized, as he had that day in his twentieth year when he'd tried to engage in conversation with a young French woman, only to discover that his knowledge of the language had faded from childhood,and that the words stuck stiltedly on his thick and clumsy tongue.
"You know, I always hoped that my friends knew me," he prompted, anticipating, praying for the soothing of Josiah's reassurance.
But the voice that answered him was rough, forceful—a preacher who'd shouted his sermon from Genesis on and was finally closing in on the Revelation.
"Let the wicked forsake his ways, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. You think you know what kind of man you are?"
Ezra's hackles rose against the emptiness around him, and his last vestige of hope slunk away quietly. "I know I've earned some measure of respect, of trust." He'd reached out, and the sight of a turned back was all too familiar.
His words both intimate and intimidating, Josiah stepped forward, and Ezra had a sudden, unfocused worry that Josiah might actually hit him. "You blame your friends? Blame yourself! Look inside your own heart, Ezra. Face your own demons."
Even in this guarded mindset, a sense of the incredulous overtook Ezra. He replayed the words twice, three times, his jaw and heart and stomach dropping into a bitter sickness.
"Now, you hold on just one minute, Josiah," he protested, desperately trying to gather around him the stone and steel of the wall he'd let down. He wrapped a tight tourniquet around the betrayal he felt and swallowed hard against the feeling of blood in his throat. That would have its uses later, when the confusion was gone.
What the hell had gone wrong?
Words to regain the upper hand, or at the very least his pride, fitted together in his mind, then jumbled and reassembled themselves in a more poignant combination. But Josiah had the satchel of money in his hands, and Ezra, even through his fear and anger, had sensed how the man's presence had changed. The rough calm and the gruff poetry were gone, and Josiah's nearness triggered every strung-string alarm in Ezra's head. He understood now, why the ne'er-do-wells crumpled under Josiah's looming intent—the threat they sensed in the depths of their animal cunning.
Josiah's voice turned reptilian, cool and dangerous. "I am the serpent, Ezra. And this is the apple."
The satchel landed heavily in Ezra's numb arms. He swayed for an instant, refusing to step back.
"Take a bite."
He didn't quite shiver at Josiah's words—but the threat, the promise of it, slithered up and down between his shoulder blades.
"Will you wait—" he didn't know what he meant to say, why he stalled, why he stood for what Josiah had said to him. He didn't know why he thought he deserved it.
A memory, standing alone in the rain: Just tell me what I did wrong.
He left the church, feeling cold. It didn't hurt—no, not yet. It wasn't quite real yet. As he slumped against the side of the building, an obscure scrap of song swelled in his mind, tinkling with the tin sound of a music box. He stroked the leather of his temptation, composed his features, and tried to breathe steadily. He was familiarly etherized, dully making his way to his room. It registered, dimly, that the street of this little borough was uncommonly crowded, and that he might have just heard his name in the confused tangle of voices. Wrapped in warm cotton, his hands and feet and the satchel were the only clear constants to him.
In the breached sanctum of his room, he sat oh so still on his bed, resisting the compulsion to look over his shoulder for the third, the fourth, the fifth time. There was no one behind him but his own reflection, he knew that, but still he felt the hairs rise along the back of his neck. What harm could there be, just to touch? Those unbelievably thick stacks of rough bills, so tempting. The smell of ink and pulp, the harsh remnants of cigarette smoke; this was the smell of success.
He clutched a fistful of bills, fancying he could gauge the total by its weight. He flipped through the banknotes like a deck of cards, forcing his mind around the fact that he held over six thousand dollars in his hand. The stupid injustice of it was that even if he kept every red cent of it safe, there would be no adulation for him. And if he tucked some away for himself, a dollar, or a thousand, there would be no surprise.
He scored the edge of a bill and half-listened to the amassed crowd in the street. Josiah's stone-cold eyes and his spiteful tongue lay over the money, the compressed mass of conversation sitting heavily in his mind.
He wondered if John Sidler was in the gathering—John who still needed just a small investment with which to envoy his horses, bred to an art, to New York. He let the figures fall into place in his mind with the high gravity of years' practice. Food, handlers, plus train fare... How many horses would he send the first time? All right then, figure for two losses, three to be safe. How much had they been charging when he'd bought Chaucer? Account for the excess of profit...yes, less 50%. This time of year, with the quality of John's work, it was foreseeable he could make back his investment with a 20-30% margin of profit. If he pushed for an advance from the receiving company, he could get at least his investment back inside a fortnight.
The others would understand. They would.
His not-quite-voice of thought was weak and utterly unconvincing.
They might understand.
Still paltry, but hopeful. The memory of Josiah's breathing, harsh under his words, rattled between his ears.
He looked back one final time. The reflection was shadowed, and he felt something very fragile snap inside his chest, making his decision for him. With a barely restrained shove, his tightly wound muscles flipped the accusing eyes in the mirror away from him, quieting the needling whispers in his head. The lining of his jacket ripped easily along where he'd sewn it up only a few weeks ago. The cash fit perfectly, as it always had.
He brushed the newly faded bruise where Josiah's hand had lain. And it wouldn't occur to him until much later, the irony of another bullet stopped by another two-faced prize. And even then, as a man who'd long past learned the necessity of believing in signs, he would be lost as to what to make of it.
But that wouldn't come until later.
All he knew then, as he took the saloon stairs a brisk two at a time, was that it finally hurt: a squirming sharp-spined pain that wormed through his chest, taking tiny, fanged bites along the way. It was almost welcome, a fair and fitting tension like that first sweet stretch after a long bout in the sickbed. Tighter, like a harp-string it drew tighter in his belly as Ezra—
—lay so enticingly, hips to pillows, chest to mattress, raised up on his elbow with the languid mystery of an Eastern comfort boy in the inviting curve of his smile. Josiah took his sweet time, lightly scratching infinity signs end to end up Ezra's spine to where the softest ends of his hair curled at the nape of his neck. Then back down, tracing the faintly raised red with his tongue, watching the tiny goosebumps rise along the kiss-warmed and breath-cooled skin. A delicious little shiver, and Ezra's face was pillowed against his folded arms in surrender.
His lips descended again, again. Lower...lower. He lapped softly like a cat with cream once he'd gotten a firm grip on Ezra's hips. Grasping and spreading, a little roughly, but that was all right because Ezra was moaning those short little broken moans, sharp-edged and keen. Thrusting with his tongue to hear the moans merge into a long, low groan, to see the muscles tense in Ezra's legs as he forced himself into stillness. Though there was such a pleasure to the nights where he'd had to help Ezra along in the latter. A long, twisting lick, spiraling up and around Ezra's tailbone, then back down.
"Oh...oh yes." Ezra's sigh was a soft thing, barely shaped into words.
That uncarved plea, and then silence—shallow and fragile as his fingers slipped slickly into Ezra. They curled slightly, drawing out a familiar full-body stiffening, a quiet gasp. Ezra stilled and Josiah kissed those little curls at the nape of his neck again as he straddled Ezra's raised hips. He let some of his weight rest, bit by bit against Ezra's back, feeling the rise and fall and heat of respiration against his chest.
He took himself in a spit-wet hand, and then...Ezra gasped. It must have been Ezra, because Josiah's breath had idled, stalled in his chest at the smooth thrust, gilded by the barest edge of sweet friction. Man, woman, friend, lover, or professional, it never lost its thrill—those first building thrusts, the rush of blood and heat. And maybe it was just that much better being with Ezra, who rocked back so impatiently under him and whispered Josiah's name between hitching breaths.
Harder, slow and steady, pushing Ezra into the pillows, the smooth slide of skin against skin and flesh inside flesh. It was a leisurely climb of pleasure, maybe not the flash-fire passion of his youth, but it was dark and sweet and strong as black coffee with sugar. And it had the same effect, waking up his nerves and warming his belly. Swallowing, swallowing and holding himself still, feeling heat and live warmth around him. Perfect, raised a little on his elbows, feeling the familiar secret of a body under him, around him. Blood coursed through him with earnest purpose.
The arch of Ezra's neck was a graceful line of tension, relaying muscle to muscle until it passed between their bodies. His smile spread with his flush; a chuckle echoed from his chest against Ezra's back as he squeezed Ezra around the ribs. If he could stay just like this...in the state where the pleasure of the body was a drawn bowstring, delectably tight but promising release, and the pleasure of the soul lay in the simplicity of scent and sound.
"Josiah..." The body underneath him pitched forward, then rocked back needfully.
"Josiah..." Again—a singsong temptation.
Josiah grinned and stroked Ezra's hip, his fingertips working under, brushing...
"Tell me what you want."
"Jo-siah." Impatient now. A sigh, frustrated, but tinged enough with humor. "I say, Josiah would you—"
"—mind terribly throwing another biscuit this way?"
It was the third time Ezra had asked, but this time at least Josiah's gaze tore away from the sunset to half-focus questioningly on him. Slow as morning's light, comprehension dawned on Josiah's face, and he unwrapped his kerchief of food, letting Ezra have his pick.
Ezra rather regretted his choice after the first bite of half-burnt, half-raw biscuit. He wondered if Josiah had made them himself. It seemed likely. But the extra food would be handy for his trail-tired body once the sun disappeared behind that mountain range. Once night fell, he'd need all the energy he could spare to shiver; the roasted turkey he was chewing on already steamed in the evening air.
Josiah turned again to the west. The silence was teetering on the far edge of comfort, and Ezra would have commented on the prettiness of the sunset if he'd ever been able to lie smoothly to Josiah. The late November sun sank in a depressingly earnest attempt at winter. There were no vibrant colors to inspire the poet, just a swiftly darkening gray that died an unspectacular death above, leaving a faint red stain like watered blood. Mute, Ezra swirled around the watery coffee in his cup, debating whether to chance another mouthful of tin-flavored chicory.
His eyes followed the firefly sparks of the campfire for a minute, watching the little stars fade into the falling light. He shivered, cupped his hand over his mug to let the steam condense into warm water on his palm, and shivered again. Something heavy dropped suddenly onto his shoulders, and his gun was in his hand—a lightning bolt of cool fire shooting through his gut an instant before he realized it was a blanket that had been tossed so haphazardly onto him. Josiah's saddle blanket. In a blind grasp at uncharted etiquette, Ezra tried to palm his gun back into the hidden shadow of his sleeve before the other man noticed. Not that it seemed to matter, since Josiah was already settling back in his seat against the trunk of a fallen tree.
"Thank you," and wrapped the blanket around himself. It was coming apart around the edges, and it smelled strongly of hay and horse sweat, but it was thick and embraced him warmly.
Josiah didn't bother to turn his head, just took a sip of coffee and whatever he had so surreptitiously poured from a flask into his cup. "My pleasure."
Ezra fought the urge to sigh, casting an eye at the height of the mountains. Still an hour before he could beg off for sleep, even if Mr. Sanchez did again rouse him at dawn's first light. It was just one more day's ride to Christianford, and then a night's rest there in a promised hotel before testifying at the next day's trial. The unreadable mood he'd been picking up from Josiah the past two days aside, it was a pleasant little holiday from the seemingly non-stop action of their little town. He was almost thankful that he'd stupidly apprehended the very armed defendant, if it earned him this quiet, if strained, vacation. He couldn't even bring himself to protest much about his present company, even if he suspected that Chris had sent Josiah to keep him in line, and even if Josiah seemed none too happy about it. It was preferable to some alternatives. It was even preferable to being alone.
"Something bothering you, Mr. Sanchez?" Perhaps a short verbal spar could help to pass the time, or perhaps he really did want to know.
Silence. Two beats past closing of a response's opportunity, Josiah slowly turned to face him. He smiled over the rim of his cup. "What happened to 'Josiah'?"
Ezra smiled back. "All right, then. Is something bothering you, Josiah?"
"Nope. Just thinking."
Ezra's curiosity was piqued. "Oh, do tell."
Josiah seemed to consider this, tilting his head so the fire cast flickering red shadows on his face.
"I'm thinking...about temptation." Short, in the casually contemplative sort of way a man might say he was considering what to have for breakfast.
"A subject many great thinkers have tackled." Ezra tipped his cup in a little salute of recognition, hoping that he wasn't in for a sermon regarding their recent...serpentine discussion on the matter that afternoon in Josiah's church. "And your findings?"
It was a fight to keep his eyes steady on Josiah's under that searching gaze. Josiah's eyes swept lower, then away, and then he crossed his ankles out in front of him.
"I was thinking..." His words held a heaviness, for all their serenity, against the crackling of the fire and the hooting of an owl in the distance. "...that maybe temptation's only temptation when it's something a man knows he can never have. I was thinking that it might be temptation's not a vice at all, but the punishment for some other sin. Chastisement."
Ezra nodded, meanwhile searching the pauses between Josiah's words, hoping he wouldn't be leaving for Christianford tonight on his own. Neither of them had mentioned it—the heated words, the test or relay, or whatever the hell had been behind Josiah handing over that satchel of money to him. In the grand scheme of the day, in view of all the words he'd had with Chris or Nathan, it was such a minuscule thing. But it had been with Josiah, who'd always stuck up for him in his quiet way, and for once Ezra might have wanted to set things straight.
"That's all," Josiah said, and then grinned and shook his head in two short turns with a familiarity that gave Ezra's mind a little peace.
Ezra shook his head too in smiling admiration and caught Josiah's eye. "I'm sure many a philosopher has spent years in contemplation of what you've covered two days in the saddle." He paused, tightening the blanket around him. "But it's all a matter of perspective."
He left his statement open, waiting until Josiah granted him a sideways glance.
"Myself, you know, if I tried to see...God's hand in my life, I'd go crazy. The cards are good and I up the ante. The cards are bad, and I cut my losses. Some people, they spend their whole lives chasing something because they're sure it's just one step ahead of them. And some people think what they want will forever be beyond their means, and one day it falls into their laps?"
He didn't mean to lilt his words into a question, but Josiah had that effect on him sometimes. Ezra's words had always been his steel, easily forged into blade or shield, but Josiah's were golden, softer, and of far more worth. Ezra couldn't help but feel like a pretender, as if he'd been passing off gibberish for knowledge since long before they met.
But Josiah was nodding slowly, as if Ezra had said something far wiser than he'd intended to. And he stared at Ezra, a long, lingering stare that caught Ezra between drawing away and leaning closer.
"So what enticements have been plaguing you, Josiah?" His tone was lightly joshing, inviting the sort of men's campfire talk to which he'd never before been privy.
No answer, but Josiah had moved closer. He had to have because Ezra could hear the faint, moist sound as he licked his lips. And in Josiah's eyes there seemed to be something, a little spark of something with the parting of his lips; something that Ezra could almost recognize, but remained just out of his grasp, something...that might have merely been a reflection of the fire, but might have been something else entirely.
He blinked, and a thought ran quicksilver through his consideration.
Maybe it was the warm fire, or the rough weave of the blanket itching at the back of his neck, or the stars overhead so bright and clear and crowded as to blur... Or maybe it was that feeling...that feeling that came with being far from home and free from any pressing responsibilities, as if one were so removed from all one lived and knew that no action could possibly drag consequences home behind it.
"Tell me, Josiah..." he swallowed. "What tempts you?"
Closer and closer, far past the invisible bubble of space that surrounded civilized men. That he'd never before kissed a man with a beard was his first thought, even before the realization fully settled that he was being kissed at all. And it was that realization that robbed him of his freedom to enjoy the first hesitant press against his lips, the breath against his skin.
The second, he didn't miss.
And the third found him with Josiah's hands against his back and the blanket falling away as Ezra tried to free himself for touch. The kiss was awkward, but in a sweet and simple way, not demanding too much of either of them. Uncomplicated: mouth on mouth, and then the touch of skin on skin, and when it was over they lay—
—sweat-stuck and satisfied in matching sprawls. Josiah thought for a moment that he might be upside down, but his back was against the mattress and his chest was against Ezra, so he supposed all was well. He licked his lips. Water was a definite necessity...eventually.
Ezra's belly pressed against his side as he took a breath, and then his exhalation raised the hairs just under his left nipple. Tiny miracles that often occurred to him in these near-perfect moments. Closing his eyes, he could so easily picture Ezra's face: lips parted, eyes wide, almost disbelieving.
He could hear now past their breathing to the raucous singing and foot-stamping in the saloon below and wondered how he could have missed it before. Then he remembered, and grinned.
"Uhm." Ezra swallowed, sounding a mite addled, which did truly wonderful things for Josiah's confidence.
"Uhm," Ezra tried again. "Indeed. We should get up."
"All right then," Ezra muttered, rather sleepily, and Josiah felt such a wave of affection that his breath swelled painfully within his chest.
"Ezra?" He stroked along Ezra's shoulder, tracing the bones that lay so close to the skin then disappeared under solid muscle as his touch sloped down Ezra's arm.