The air was hot and damp inside the barn, close. The sudden rainstorm came down like the wrath of god outside, tearing apart the heat of the night, and Nathan listened to it with an absent detachment. His back was on fire, the long crackling aches of wrenched muscles and the sting of abused flesh, and between that and the humidity of the air he felt as though he were swimming in hot treacle.
The hands moving lightly over his back were cool, though. Dry, as well. They moved carefully, almost fearfully, mapping out the extent of his injuries by touch and touch alone, flinching every so often when they brushed across older wounds, the whip scars across his skin.
'Tactile sensitivity', he remembered distantly. Reading the stories written on his back the way they read the turn of the cards. Ezra had always trusted his hands, as much or more than his eyes, to tell him the lay of the land and the name of the game. It was ... maybe one of the few things Nathan shared unequivocally with the man. Where all other senses might fail them, it was the hands that told them what they needed to know.
Like, perhaps, the hand drawing to a stop at his shoulders, cool and trembling faintly where it lay over his damp, heated skin. The hand that didn't try to hold him or pin him down, didn't try to tighten over him while he sat battered and aching before its owner. Just ... resting there. Cool, and careful, and trying in its own way to soothe, as best it could.
"I think it's only muscles," Ezra said softly, after a moment. "There's some grazing and some torn skin, but most of the damage seems to be a wrenched shoulder."
Nathan snorted, an odd little bubble of pained amusement, and turned his head into the wooden post beside him, closing his eyes and resting his forehead against the wood. "Reckoned so," he agreed. "Nothing for it, then." He squeezed his eyes shut until he saw white stars burst against the lids. 'Physician, heal thyself', wasn't that the saying?
Would that he could.
There was a pause for a few minutes, a hushed silence while the rain drove against the barn roof and Nathan breathed carefully through the burn, the air wet and heavy in his throat. Ezra's hand stayed against his shoulder, blessedly cool and still, and Nathan tried not to think too hard about it. About anything.
Then a throat cleared carefully behind him, and he felt his abused muscles tense faintly despite themselves.
"I could ..." Ezra started, uncharacteristically hesitant. "That is ..." His hand shifted a little, the pads of his fingers sweeping softly over Nathan's skin with a little more firmness, a touch more pressure, smoothing a little way along the line of one quivering muscle. Nathan's breath hitched without leave, his eyes snapping open. A wild stir of unnamed fear moved through him, anger, even as his body leaned automatically into the touch, seeking relief from pain.
"Don't," he snapped out, his voice hoarse and thick, fading abruptly. "Don't ..."
Ezra stilled, his fingers spasming briefly on Nathan's sweat-soaked skin, his breath stuttering in turn. Pain, maybe. Fear? Something. But his hand didn't withdraw. Reading stories in Nathan's skin, an unbearable violation, but not falling back.
"... As I recall," Ezra said, slowly and carefully, "the first service you ever rendered to me, Mr Jackson, was to fix a damaged shoulder." He paused, a thick breath of frustration. His thumb moved over Nathan's shoulder, an instinctively soothing brush of his fingers. "I would consider it no hardship to return the favour. If ... If you would like, that is."
Nathan bit his lip, a burst of pain and the taste of copper in his mouth, his hands curling into fists. Fighting. Not against Ezra, not against the man beside him, but against ... against the stories written into his skin. Against a dark barn on a hot, wet night, his back torn open and a white man's hand upon it. Against things that had no meaning anymore, things that shouldn't chain him still. Things that ... that somehow, even still, he never quite escaped from.
"What ..." he breathed, a harsh rasp of pain, staring blindly out into the darkness. "What do you want, Ezra?" There was a hard lump in his throat, a trembling fierceness in his voice, and Ezra's hand tightened instinctively, a flinch more than half of fear against Nathan's back.
"... To render you a service," the man said at last, moving carefully around the words, weighing them like gold or iron in the darkness. "To repay ... the safety and courtesy I have found at your hands." A huff of breath, and a soft, oddly quiet admission. "It was not what I had expected, when I first saw you."
... No. No, it hadn't been, had it. And Nathan might have bridled at that, might have spat something back, but there was a thread of pained honesty in the man's voice, something Ezra almost never let be heard, and Ezra hadn't been what Nathan'd expected either. Not for more than minutes at a time and never, not once, when it mattered.
He exhaled, his eyes slipping briefly closed and his head trying to fall forward to slump down onto his chest. It was arrested almost immediately by the crackle from his shoulder, and Ezra moved before either of them thought, leaning forward to cup the back of Nathan's neck and gently ease his head back up against the pull of screaming muscles. Nathan choked out a laugh, stunned and amused and more than a little chagrinned, and leaned back into the man's hand.
"... Is that all?" he asked softly, looking sideways into the pale face that hove into view in the darkness, Ezra's eyes all but invisible and only the pained crook of his mouth to give him away. Nathan smiled at him, a little crooked and a little pained himself. "An exchange of services. Is that all you want?"
Ezra swallowed, his fingers shaking faintly against Nathan's neck. He didn't look away. Once upon a time, that would have been more courage than Nathan would have credited him.
Once upon a time.
"I want nothing that isn't given to me," Ezra answered hoarsely, after a long, long minute. He ducked his head, lip lifting in something that was neither smile nor sneer, but something in between. Pointed inwards, Nathan thought. At Ezra himself, not him. "In that one arena, I do not take what isn't given. Even thieves have their points of honour, Mr Jackson."
Nathan drew in a breath, at that. Long and slow, the flutter of old fear and old anger in his chest ebbing slowly, his heart steadying into a newer and calmer beat.
"I know," he said, and maybe it was more courage than Ezra would have credited him, to meet the man's eyes. To hold Ezra's gaze steadily, and admit it. "Maybe ... maybe more than most, even."
Ezra blinked, stunned and startled, and Nathan closed his eyes. He slumped, his shoulder snarling in agony at him, and leaned almost incrementally sideways into Ezra, into the now-warm palm that pressed against his torn skin. He breathed, long and slow, and let himself ... surrender. Just a little.
"New world, Ezra," he explained, or tried to. Smiling crookedly behind his eyelids. "Out west where men are free. Ain't that right?"
And there was a beat, the sound of the rain outside, the warm darkness of the barn, the shaking strength of the hand against his neck. A beat, and then ... then that hand moved, sweeping firm and careful across his spine, following the crackle of wrenched muscle. A gambler's skill turned to a healer's art, and a hand on his back that he could trust not to write its cruelty into his skin. A mouth after it, a kiss so light Nathan only barely felt it, soft and hesitant against the damp skin of his neck. His lips quirked faintly.
Another story written between them, he thought. Sinking into the sensation, into the touch of those hands, the one thing they both trusted above all else. The one thing shared between them. Though perhaps ... not anymore. Perhaps not the only thing anymore.
"I certainly hope so, Nathan," Ezra murmured, wry and rueful at his back. "I most certainly hope so."