It's not anticipation. It's not anticipation, and it's certainly not fear that sets his heart racing so. It's not even Ezra that does it.
It's part of the sickness, he thinks: this rigid fusion of his bones, the way his skin fiddles and jigs over muscles too nervous to sleep. It's an arrhythmia, he tells himself; tachycardia's its scientific name if he's not mistaken, and it might have been brought about by the heat, or the late hours he keeps, or even the greasy meat pie he had for supper. For all he knows, it might have nothing at all to do with those sharp little memories that glitter under tonight's full moon, or the promise of more that shines dangerously bright from just down the hall.
His clinical regard gives a little shrug; it doesn't give much mind to the cause. It only squints its eyes and tilts its head a little as the knock-knock-knocking in his chest runs raucous circles around the scuffed hush of his oh-so-careful steps.
His boots, just picked up from the cobblers, haven't given him away, and he's not sure if it's relief or disappointment that coolly trickles along the nooks of his mind. He's not sure if it was the opportunity that chance served up on a plate that's brought him here, or if the urge has been building steadily with the tension in his body since the last time. He's not sure about anything, except...
He dallied in the saloon all evening, straight-backed and tense at a corner table, tilting back his glass until the whiskey barely touched his lips, then setting it down. Over the hours he thought thoughts that lie buried now, leaving only stone markers inscribed with rough and jagged wants.
The hours passed, and decent men went home, until the din died down to a few slurred conversations, and finally to one booming voice insisting its owner was perfectly capable of riding home alone. Never mind the fact that George Carson hadn't looked as if he could mount his horse, let alone stay in the saddle for a two-mile ride. So, softened by a pleading eye from Inez, he helped Mr. Carson over to his brother-in-law's place in town amidst much drunken stumbling and social commentary.
"I sure don't mind you, Jackson. No shiree, you wanna be a...a doctor and a darkie at the s-shame time, that's good for you!"
He's sure he wouldn't have returned to the saloon, nursing a bruised shoulder from one of Carson's exclamations, if he hadn't left his jacket slung over the back of a chair. But he had, and he did, and he came in just in time to catch the swirl of Inez's skirt around the corner to the back room. And he glanced towards the stairs, the moment so huge and glaring that it nearly slapped him upside the head, demanding he take the chance for which he was half-hoping those hours with that endless glass of Red Dog. And he stole for the stairs before his reason could find its voice.
And so he's here, halfway between safety and danger, and since his mind's already embraced the coming damnation, there doesn't seem to be much sense in retreating to the salvation of the street. The thick leather loudness of his newly re-soled boots rebounds off the thin walls of the saloon and the even thinner walls of his mind. It's far too tempting to grasp at fate's judgment, god forbid its blessing, and his fully worded thoughts insist his undiscovered presence is due to nothing so supernatural as tired ears deaf to the bright sound of new soles on night's floor. His footsteps fall close to the wall, slowly, one right before the other. A laid-out path just to the left of the floorboard that groans in the middle like a bellyaching patient.
A quiet bump of a closing door. A snatch of a soft-sung melody. Inez's muffled movements downstairs give him pause a moment. He stills, takes a deep breath while, rebelling, his heretofore mildly arrhythmic heart makes a mad break for his throat. It's a rough, dry swallow over the lump in his throat.
The mild glow of the lamps haloes the hallway from jaundiced ceiling to sepia walls, down to fading umber shadows that move along with his slowly stalking steps, conspiring. A matter of two doors, one soft-walked past, one quietly rapped upon, and then there's going be that breath-holding moment of half-heard shuffling where control over the night's course lies in wait on the other side of the doorway. Three steps, past the sketchy eye-level smudge where a fourth lamp was once fixed, past the twin spur scratches down deep in light-lost shadow.
Suddenly, wincing with the worrisome closeness, his ears catch the sound like a slap across the face, stopping him dead in his covert tracks. He freezes, every muscle seemingly startled into stillness save his heart, which opts for flight. He waits tensely for the length of a very long breath. Then he turns leisurely on his heel, forcing his face into a mask of innocence whose cracks the darkness might hide. He braces himself...
His distrustful eyes search the empty corridor suspiciously, across the floorboards and back, retracing his own path. The moment stretches catgut-thin to the point of snapping, and the silence drips down and begins to spill in. Then memory comes with its calming wave of logic. The floor is thinner here between the reinforcements of the ceiling beams below, and his footfall echoes out behind him like a shadow. He shakes his head and lets a smile tug at his mouth, poking fun at his own rivalry with the proverbial long-tailed cat under a rocker.
His footfall rings loud from here on in, sharp with the illusory threat of footsteps behind him. He hasn't turned around again, and he could ease his mind by slipping off his boots. But no opened doors and dark curiosity can cut through his deeply-cut pride in owning boots, in his earnings and in himself. No awkward excuses replayed through the rumor mill are going to make him turn up at Ezra's door a barefoot houseboy. His jaw tightens teeth to teeth.
But no matter.
He doesn't linger at the end of the hall. Quick and sharp, it's done, his knuckles stinging from their muted meeting with the solid oak. He wades hip-deep in that shrug of a moment, his eyes fixed on his boot, on the aureole of light that shines out from under the door and the flicker of shadow across it that lengthens with the sound of bare feet on bare floorboards. His hat is in his hands, turning over and over as he hears that pause of Ezra's hand on the doorknob, hesitating. 'Tachycardia,' he shoves the word insistently forward in his mind. Just a glitch in his sinoatrial node, this feeling that his heart is scrambling to burrow its way out of his chest.
His gaze holds low on the widening pie-slice of light dragging across the floor, then snaps upward as flesh replaces silhouette. An image burns an imprint on his eyes, the picture of Ezra's bare feet, pale under the brush of trousers and shadow. It juxtaposes stubbornly over what his sight is faced with. And was that a candle-flicker of a smile that just lit Ezra's mouth, his eyes?
There's no surprise in Ezra's voice, just a lowered smugness as he drawls a formal greeting, too warm to be called out. He extends his hand, a vague little gesture that might be him asking for Nathan's hand or just an invitation into his room. Either way, it serves its purpose well enough, a small step in what's been of late holding forth as ritual against the misunderstandings of silence.
"I couldn't sleep. I figured you might still be up," Nathan offers. And if the smile on his face is more important than the words in the air, it's no matter because Ezra's taken a step back, his hand still inclined in that tilted invitation.
"Would you join me for a drink then?" Ezra asks, with half of a determined smile.
And not until he's murmured his politest acceptance, and brushed past Ezra into the lamp-lit room, does he find his mouth and memory quirking in kind with a recollection of his last late-night visit to Ezra's door.
"Would you like to come in?"
"Don't think so, Ezra. It's getting late. Folks might talk." It was a feeble joke; the thought of anyone knowing what he and Ezra did made his skin crawl like an army of ants over his flesh. He glanced behind him down the empty corridor, but his hand lingered on the door frame.
"Well, would you care to join me for a drink? You'd be keeping a comrade from drinking alone. Quite commendable."
"Sounds fine!" A little too quickly, a little too eager, but Ezra looked so relieved, color belying his calm expression.
"But..." Ezra's face fell almost comically as he uttered that one short word, and Nathan had a suspicion his own expression was a mirror image.
"I'm afraid my personal stock is...depleted," Ezra finished with an embarrassed spread of a host's empty hands.
They stood there a moment, each staring over the other's shoulder, Nathan drumming his fingers on the wall. Until finally, Nathan caught Ezra's gaze, and hoping the heat in his face wasn't visible, he muttered hopefully:
"Anyone 'sides us two know that?"
And he'd liked the way that Ezra had smiled.
He watches now as Ezra slipped an iron key from his pocket, locking the door before Nathan makes the mistake of asking him to.
"Your 'personal stock' refilled yet?"
Ezra chuckles, a warm sound, and makes an eloquent motion of acquiescence with a flick of his wrist, confirming that they'd both been set to savoring that same fortnight-aged memory. A shiver seizes him when Ezra takes a step toward him; he's not sure he likes being privy to Ezra's thoughts before they're voiced.
"May I take your coat?"
Back then, on familiarly shaky ground, Nathan nods. His eyes pass idly over Ezra's unmade bed, to the cloth-bound book on the nightstand, and then back to the goose-down mattress with its flowered quilt and twisted sheets...the holster rigged to the headboard. Ezra's hands smooth expertly over Nathan's shoulders, sweeping off his jacket and taking his hat with the light touch of a trained valet. Nathan holds himself still, a tight tingle running up his spine, his heart giving a coordinated flutter while Ezra stands behind him, chest nearly touching his back. That bare offer of contact, it's...he wishes he had Ezra's, or even Vin's, fancy poetics to describe the feeling, and the intent he knows lies behind it, but sex is all his dully aching head can infer. Sex, the smell and taste of it, all in the press of clothed bodies and imagination.
Outside, the wind whistles a mild, keening note, and Nathan feels it through Ezra's breath against the back of his neck, light and warm with an edge of autumn that raises hairs. He thinks he might have felt Ezra's hand brush up against his hip, but his host is already retreating to the clothes hook on the far wall, hanging Nathan's coat and hat right beside his own.
Much pomp and circumstance accompanies the removal of a bottle of Irish whiskey and two mismatched glasses from Ezra's wardrobe. There's a comic flamboyance to Ezra's movements, too subtle for anyone who doesn't know him, and a break in his voice threatening laughter through the cracks that Nathan's learned to associate with a sleep-starved Ezra with coffee in his blood. Yes, sitting beside him now on the bed, he can see the spider web threads of fire against the whites of Ezra's eyes, and the coal-like smudges that lie like the bruised shadows of Ezra's eyelashes. Ezra blinks, shifting Nathan's broken stare to the lines around his eyes, etched deeper than they were the year they met.
Ezra's eyebrow quirks in inquiry, and Nathan dismisses it with a smile and a shake of his head, scanning the room for inspiration.
"What are you reading?" He nods past Ezra to the bedside novel, bookmarked with Ezra's watch chain.
Ezra looks lost for an instant, as if his mind was across the sea from the land of literature. At least, Nathan certainly hopes it was.
"It's the Bard. Shakespeare's 'Macbeth,' from 1605."
If he were a betting man, if he were Ezra, he would have put down money that he wasn't going to get just the title. He really did resent that in the beginning, the insinuation between the lines that he had no knowledge of books. But now, as he gains a practical sort of appreciation for the classic works, he's come to realize just how he would have felt if he'd had to ask.
"Shakespeare." He finds his tongue. "So it's a play?"
Ezra nods, his hands caressing the green cloth book jacket, his thumb tracing the spine with a quiet rasp. The book's flipped open to its title page, displaying the clear woodcut of a bearded "knights and castle" king, sitting on a throne, staring down in horror at his own ink-blackened hands.
With his fingertip, Nathan traces the king's jeweled crown, the ornate lettering of the title, marveling that the dry lines could be so bold and neat.
Ezra continues, a smile and sense of story in his voice. "That's the lead character, Macbeth. A man whose unchecked ambition and," he chuckles, "henpecking wife drive him to murder his own monarch and then his best friend."
His hand traces over the king's, closer to Nathan's on the cream colored page. "He eventually loses everything, of course. It's one of Shakespeare's tragedies."
Casually, Ezra's thumb brushes Nathan's cuff, gently stroking the material as he did the book's cover while he spoke. "And his hubris, his excess of pride, is his downfall in the end. He's given these obscure prophecies by some...wise women..."
The light touch glances his wrist now as Ezra's fingers circle the inside edge of his sleeve. Such a simple thing.
"These prophecies make Macbeth think failure is impossible, but as always, there are loopholes..."
Nathan's breathing, which was lulled along with the rise and fall of Ezra's voice, hitches now, and quickens its pace when it recovers its course. His heartbeat seems to double in time as Ezra so casually toys with his sleeve, tracing his finger here over the vein, inciting a little riot race of a pulse. Such a simple little touch that speaks such simple words to his blood and memory.
He covers Ezra's hand with his own, sealing his intentions with a loose caress of a handshake. The peripheral of his vision catches a glimpse of the men in the washstand mirror, shadowed black and white.
He's been damned from the first time he took those stairs one by one, his hat in his hands and that first sweet thrill of a flutter against his breastbone. He's damned because he knows just why he's come here tonight, just what he needs so badly, and just whose slow Southern voice and cool, pale hands are going to give it to him.
With his free hand, Nathan closes the book, the stark monochrome art disappearing in the clap of cardboard and cloth. He half-stands and replaces the book bedside. He feels Ezra cling a moment to his sleeve like a little child, but then his hand drops to his lap. He watches as Ezra turns from him; raises his glass off the floor; sets it back down; straightens up. Their eyes meet, staring dumbly. The moment to kiss, to take Ezra by the shoulders and push him back on the mattress has passed. If they stare much longer, Nathan's sure one of them will bust a gut laughing, knowing that they both want the same thing but neither can think of a half-decent, or rather, indecent proposition to set them on their way. And he figures it'll probably be him.
But Ezra stands, smiles once down at his hands. Puts out the light. That always makes it easier. Enough luminescence sneaks around the curtains: cold, bright starlight and warm, muddled streetlight to cast the real in silhouette that might clear when Nathan finds his night-eyes, but might not. He feels the mattress sag, hears his quickened breathing and Ezra's, rising and falling like the edge of a serrated blade; a prickle of sweat carps down his chest, urging him to do away with his shirt, but his hands, flexing once, lie still at his sides. He's forgotten already the feel of Ezra's hair.
Soft and sudden enough that he's not sure whether it's real, he feels a velvet-smooth caress along his cheek. Then, much more defined, a smooth slide around his neck, questioningly trying to ease him forward. His head tilts of its own remembered accord, and their lips barely touch at first, the lightest brush ensuring all is where it should be in the dark. And then, Ezra's mouth is roughly against his, and his is even more roughly against Ezra's.
It's trickier, he realizes not for the first time, as a shiver spreads outward from the tips of his teeth; it's trickier kissing Ezra than kissing a woman. He's not sure if it's divided along the line of gender, the few experiences he's had with other men being confined to below the waist, or whether it's simply Ezra, who's unable to keep his mouth shut for a second. With Ezra, there's never that slowly spreading, warm comfort, no melting of flesh into bone into flesh into bone. Rather, it's searing. Demanding. A hot desert wind that steals his breath in a barrage of smooth sand. No matter how he moves his tongue, Ezra's is there sliding alongside it, and he can feel Ezra's lips moving against his, not unyielding, just...dexterous, reminding Nathan of the life in them. Ezra's lips narrow, give briefly to a sweetly pliant crush, work softly around Nathan's lower lip as if he's trying to force unwilling and unspoken words into Nathan's mouth. Nathan pushes them back, his mouth feeling clumsy and ineloquent under Ezra's.
His legs are stroked by hands that soothe. Stall. Clutch, and then soothe again. That familiar tightening, heated and strained, as one of Ezra's hands caresses the ridiculously intimate inside of Nathan's thigh. Tense and hot, it feels so very good, and right too, holding Ezra by the arms, falling back and feeling Ezra's body on top of his. Kissing, yes, and feeling Ezra shift and rub against him, a surety fills him, warm with chilly depths. His body is certain now that it will get what it wants tonight, barring act of God. It is, as always, a frightening calm that lies down obediently when they're hard against each other, too far to turn back.
He closes his eyes, focused entirely for a moment on an unnatural sensation that cuts through his study of Ezra's mouth; he feels it in his chest, an echo to his heartbeat, a mimicry of a skip in each pulse. His mind clouds over in a brief, dark panic before insight flares like a lightning bolt momentarily lighting up a landscape. It's Ezra's heartbeat, racing alongside his own, thundering in that same arousing fear. He presses his lips to where Ezra's pulse hammers like a scared rabbit's, and feels a small sleepy sigh against his cheek.
A roll, a clutch of hands and bodies between them, and they're face to face, hips to hips. Ezra's eyes are on him, he realizes, an unreadable look of wide-eyed scrutiny that glints like diamonds in the dark. He thinks for one bottomless moment that Ezra might pull away—would he try to stop him?—but that magically deft touch gainsays Nathan's assumption with nerve-tingling skill. The room is loud for all the hush to its sounds: the polished clink of belt buckles, the cloth slide of buttons, breathing that tugs at its reins, and the thump of heartbeats through blood and bone.
The hot, then air-chilled wet glissade traces his lips and the underside of his chin. A steady flush spreads like warmed molasses over him, his hands in the cool softness of Ezra's hair, his hips trying to push into Ezra's skirting touch. He can smell it strong: Ezra's sweat, an odd mixture of seawater and wagon grease that doesn't smell good or bad anymore, just smells like a willing and wanting Ezra. He licks at Ezra's mouth, remembering through wine-coloured memory the night when he touched Ezra so long that sweat had dripped from around those lips.
Ezra's hand strokes Nathan's bare hip, and the heat in him sharpens like the noontime summer sun baking the earth. He closes his eyes against the intensity of it. Fever's what they liken passion to in those starry-eyed love scenes in adventure novels, and fever is what he feels now—but real fever, the sort they don't describe in any book about gruff and noble lawmen and pretty, blue-eyed ranchers' daughters. His head aches with dry heat as the bedding under him warms to his skin; his nerves shout fire all the way down to his bones, and at the blind sensation of Ezra's perfect touch, his mouth dries in the drought of helpless sickness. It hurts, the desperate straining of his body to Ezra's, like he can't get close enough, like skin's too thick a barrier to cross. An eviscerating slash bleeds out his belly at the thought of what Ezra feels like under his skin, but Ezra's hands are moving, and his passion refuses to dim.
Itching, red frustration soothed by cool blue as Ezra's hand slips under his shirt, rubs bone by bone, eases muscle by muscle. The luxury of a slow hand is something he merely tolerates at times like these when he knows he will only snatch a bare handful of sleep, or when a tryst on the trail echoes too closely toward the campsite. But how he craves it, those nights when Ezra just gives him a kiss and lies down on his stomach, nights he knows that Ezra wants to as always, just doesn't want to quite as much.
He kicks aside the fierce urge to roll atop Ezra, to vanquish that keen-edged need in him with a few easy thrusts. He lets Ezra touch him, touch him anywhere he wants to. The spiraling caress between his shoulder blades, and that hesitant trace of those long, raised scars; the clutch at his back, pulling them closer together. All these he suffers sweetly as Ezra's mouth works wet and loosely at his throat. It's quiet and calming in its own way, and he cards his hand through Ezra's hair: cool and soft as sand through his fingers.
The voice does it, makes him even harder with its rasp and lilt, like Ezra's taken a man right down his throat and enjoyed every rough minute of it.
"Yeah?" He winds his fingers tighter around a lock of Ezra's hair, tugs a little.
A sigh is his answer, and a roll of the hips that sparks a dry brush fire. Nathan doesn't bother to ask; can't imagine, in that instant, anything more important than tracing Ezra's spine with his fingers, crooking his leg over Ezra's. A wing-flutter of motion in the dark, and a wet sound, familiar. Even more familiar, the slick grip around his cock and the soft-skin stroke that tells him that Ezra's had himself in hand as well.
"Ohhh...fff..." Nonsensical and deliciously inarticulate, Ezra's moaned words are hot and breathy against Nathan's collarbone.
Again, the feeling of heaving sickness, the delirium of fever sensitizing his skin. The sheets' fine weave feels like burlap, and Ezra's smooth, smooth skin scrapes with delicious friction against his own. They move harder against each other, deceptively close in their rough embrace. Their mouths meet and move, latching tightly to taste and bite. And Ezra's mouth is delicious and dangerous as it presses teeth to Nathan's throat and sighs so hotly. Yes, Nathan knows his fingertips will leave those bruises along Ezra's hips, but his body also knows it needs to get closer, deeper. Even if he were inside Ezra, it won't be anywhere near deep enough.
He feels the hitch in Ezra's chest, feels the spit dry up in his mouth, the sweat raising a chill over his body like sunstroke. And when he feels his seed about to spill, it's with a quiet cry and the satisfaction of a pulled sliver. There's no dizzying senseless spiral, no metal-bright steel trap shutting suddenly and painfully tight around him as it overtakes him some nights, but it's satisfying. It's enough.
He comes, and gains his senses soon enough to watch the shine of Ezra's eyes disappear behind closing eyelids, to hear the hitching, choked sob. He shakes against Nathan, his grip loosening, shaking and slackening. And still Nathan holds them close enough together to feel the quiver of Ezra's abdomen against him.
Cool and sweet, the warm prickle of drying sweat; and warm and salty, the smell of their sweat and come. Nathan lies there, willing his heart to quiet down, to slow. A mild arrhythmia, caused by undue excitement. He knew the name just minutes before, but now it slips away elusively on the drifting ebb of his thoughts. He wets his lips and waits, rubbing soothing circles on Ezra's sweat-damp back. He waits until Ezra's breath evens, deepens, until Ezra's body sinks against his own.
Only then does he ease himself from under Ezra's sleep-weary limbs and over the sex-weary sheets. Ezra's breath catches slightly, unremarkable to the untrained ear, but enough to still Nathan's departure for one breath, two. And then he stands, awkwardly until he hitches up his pants. He buttons his shirt and makes for his coat and hat.
Ezra's breathing is slow, the rise and fall of his chest along with a perfect, healthy pulse. He might really be asleep this time, which makes leaving oddly easier and harder all at once. But he doesn't ponder on this, just shrugs on his jacket and stands by the bedside. He feels better now, truly. Gone is the itchy skin of a man too long off and on the opium, and gone is his lead-headed fever. His heart beats strong and steady in his chest. He brushes back a damp lock of hair from Ezra's brow, and tugs, best he can, the quilt from under Ezra to over him.
Slipping the room key from Ezra's pocket, he wonders just briefly what it would feel like to stay the night. To maybe wake up with his morning hardness nestled into the hollow of Ezra's hip, to see what that smooth skin looks like with dawn's rays slanting golden over it. In some small, square puzzle box tucked deep down in his mind, he maybe wants to laugh at Ezra's bed-tousled hair in the morning.
His footsteps still resound with a thick, leathery slap from the hallway to the stairs, from the stairs to the saloon to the street. But Nathan doesn't really notice. He's good in his skin now, as good in his skin as he'd been against Ezra's. He'll sleep deeply in the few hours he has, and he and Ezra will share a secret smile over breakfast. And the two will be comfortable in the friendship that they've had to fight for, inch by hard-earned inch. And neither of them will talk about the nights when Nathan goes to Ezra.
Because the sickness will return, as it always has, the need the physician cannot heal in himself. And his heart will race, and his mouth will run dry; his skin will flash fever and chills. And he'll take the stairs to Ezra's room, one at a time, with his hat in his hands. And whatever Ezra has to give him will be cure enough.