The wind started blowing in from the west on a Sunday, sweeping through the streets of Four Corners and ruffling everything in its path. It wasn't a hard wind—nothing like the angry hurricane gusts Ezra remembered from boyhood autumns in North Carolina—but it was persistent. It blew incessantly, never once pausing to draw breath, and the faint but continuous whistle of it made him restless.
Dust accumulated in his hair and in his eyelashes, and when he slept, it was in fits and starts, dreaming and waking and dreaming again until finally he lurched from his bed entirely and sat up by the window the rest of the night, watching the lanterns blow out one by one.
In his dream, he is a small boy walking through a field of wheat on a farm in Alabama. He has never in fact been to Alabama, but in the peculiar and insistent logic of dreams, that is where he is and where he ought to be.
The day is hot, and the world is the color of pulp paper, the color of photographs. He is naked, and the ground is rough beneath his bare feet. The warm wind blows and ripples through the wheat, and it ripples through his skin.
Somewhere in the distance, a dog is barking. It's a deep, reassuring sound. He tries to walk towards it, but he gets turned around again and again. Though the heat is all around him, there is no sun above to navigate by, and he is too small to make an impression as he passes silently through the stalks. He soon realizes he is lost.
Ezra rolled over in his sleep and murmured unhappily.
In his dream, he is an orphan who has been cloistered away in a cramped and humid attic for many years. The light shines sluggishly through a dirty window, casting everything in a sickly yellow light. He is riffling through a steamer trunk full of silk dresses, looking for something very important, but whatever that might be keeps slipping from his mind like the cool silk slips through his fingers.
He kicked off the blankets and pulled the pillow over his head.
In his dream, he is a stage conjurer performing in an Atlanta theater for a faceless crowd. His hand is bleeding, and the drops of blood turn into copper pennies, which he neatly stacks on top of a velvet-trimmed dressing table that his mother once owned. His arm is throbbing, and the sound of lavish applause washes over him, leaving him flushed and mildly aroused.
"As you can see," he says, "there is nothing up my sleeve."
He opened his eyes, absently rubbing his hand against his thigh. He was half-hard, but that was quickly fading, and he sighed, hauling himself out of bed a moment later. He groped for his pocket watch and squinted at it in the sliver of moonlight that had sneaked in through the curtains. It was a quarter past two, only an hour and a half since he had gone to sleep in the first place. After a moment’s consideration, he put on a pair of pants under his nightshirt, pulled on his boots, and then stepped out onto the stairs.
The wind slammed the door shut behind him. It mussed his hair and hissed in his ear. Tired and sorely vexed, he rubbed his eyes and then spread his arms wide, addressing the heavens in desperation: "Would you kindly shut the hell up?"
If anything, the wind grew shriller, whipping around the corner. The saloon awning began to flap noisily, blowing him a raspberry.
"You too, huh, Ezra?"
It was a wonder he heard it at all above the bluster, but then, that voice had a way of carrying.
Ezra leaned over the railing and peered down into the darkness. The street was empty save for Josiah, who was passing by the saloon, holding his hat on his head to keep it from flying off into the night. He was dressed in the same clothes he'd been wearing earlier in the day, but they were rumpled as if he'd slept in them for a time, and his shirt was untucked.
Josiah flashed a grin and called up: "I don't suppose you've got anything to drink in there?"
The question made Ezra aware of his own thirst. He licked his parched lips, considering the late hour and then reconsidering it. He returned the grin despite himself. "As a matter of fact, I might."
Josiah tipped his hat and took the stairs with a spring in his step. Ezra retreated into the shelter of his room and changed into a proper shirt. He was just beginning to button it up when Josiah joined him. Back turned, he could nonetheless feel the man hesitate in the doorway a moment, blocking out the weather.
He paused, the odd heat of whatever he’d dreamt lingering in his loins. The particulars had already faded from his mind; he rarely remembered his dreams in any detail, save that in them he was always somewhere else and someone else entirely. Still, some half-remembered impression of being warm and being watched caused him to turn slightly, just a little capriciously, his shirt still half-unbuttoned. He stole a sideways glance. Lack of sleep had an unfortunate tendency to make him reckless, and perhaps it made Josiah unsubtle in turn, because he was being stared at in a way that was far too dangerous for a night when he was off his guard and the wind was blowing just hard enough to muffle the room from the world.
“Have a seat,” he said, hurriedly buttoning up to the collar.
Josiah sat down on the bed as Ezra rummaged through his chest of drawers in search of the half-empty bottle of whiskey he remembered bringing upstairs after last Tuesday’s game. He found it, but a further search failed to turn up anything to drink out of.
“I think my glasses are being cleaned,” he said, and after a moment’s thought, he dragged up the chair and sat opposite the bed.
“It's fine,” Josiah said, taking the bottle when it was offered. He took a long drink before handing it back over.
Ezra reclined and put his feet up on the bed as his lips touched the warm, wet mouth of the bottle. Outside, the whistle of the wind trilled as if it were turning loops in the street.
Josiah leaned back in turn, looking far too at home among the rumpled bedding, and almost put his feet up too before glancing down at his boots and seeming to think better of it.
Passing the bottle back and forth, they talked until the sun came up.
His back was stiffening up again, so he slept on one of the pews. The night was cool, and he let the candles and the lamps burn on. The flames flickered in the draft that sneaked in through the corners of the church, making him dream in red and black.
In his dream, he is lying in an opium den in San Francisco. The room is close with the smell of poppy smoke, and sweet oils, and sweat. He can hear the faint murmur of voices around him, a muddled blur of English and Chinese. Someone is whistling the same persistent note over and over again.
He takes a deep mouthful of smoke and holds it until his thoughts swirl and his body rises above the narrow, broken-backed bunk. There is a beardless, black-haired youth beside him whose dark eyes glow like live coals.
“Shh,” the youth whispers in his ear, and Josiah closes his eyes and wakes up.
He grunted and managed with graceless effort to flip over onto his stomach without falling off the pew. He pillowed one arm under his cheek and let the other fall, his fingers brushing against the cold floor.
In his dream, he is riding alone through the desert. It is curiously cold, for all that the sun is blazing overhead. The wind is blowing, obscuring the horizon and making his eyes sting with grit. He was riding with company not long ago; he knows this, although he cannot remember from one moment to the other who it was. Nathan, perhaps. Or was it his sister? Now and then, he swears he catches the sound of voices far ahead.
He urges his horse on, but no matter how he hurries, he cannot find his companion. Finally, he dismounts, trudging through the sand with legs like lead, straining to catch up and falling further and further behind.
His nose twitched, and he began to snore.
In his dream, he is floating in the Dead Sea. The water is as warm as blood, and it cradles him like the womb as he gazes up at the starry night sky. The constellations move before his eyes, zipping around like fireflies. His ears are submerged, and all he can hear is the slow, steady movement of the water, which contracts and eases like a giant heart all around him. It is peaceful.
Slowly, he becomes aware of a soft tapping sound. ‘Rain?’ he thinks.
He opened his eyes. The sea retreated, but the tapping continued. Someone was knocking softly at the door.
He swung himself upright and scrubbed hard at his eyes. He grabbed his gun from under the pew and cautiously answered the door. Ezra was standing outside, looking harassed, his hair rioting in the wind.
“I didn’t wake you, did I?” he said, holding aloft what looked like a bottle of brandy.
“No,” he lied, as if there were any other possible answer. “Couldn’t sleep.”
He stepped back and held the door open, and Ezra came into the warm glow of the candlelight. The door slammed shut as soon as it left his hand.
They sat down on the pew together and passed the bottle back and forth. He liked drinking with Ezra. He drank less when he had company, and Ezra had a way of keeping him talking right through the night, trading wild and dubious stories, recommending books, and mulling over things that only seemed to make sense when they were both mildly inebriated.
Outside, the wind sang, and the flickering candles and the warm brandy seemed to be working their magic on Ezra. As the night wore on, Ezra slowly unwound until finally he was stretched out on the pew looking like St. Sebastian himself, his eyelids drooping. He shook himself awake a few times with a mildly startled expression, but eventually he drifted off right in the middle of Josiah’s story about meeting Emperor Norton.
“...I’ll tell you later,” Josiah muttered. He picked up the bottle and gave it a shake. It was still respectfully full, but after a moment’s hesitation, he put it aside. Then he went in back to find a blanket to throw over Ezra.
The third night the wind blew was uncomfortably warm, as if spring had been herded in and the gate had been shut behind it. Ezra's room was stuffy, but opening the window was no idea at all, and sleeping on the cool floor was likewise out of the question since his neck still held a crick from a night spent on a pew. He went to bed early, naked and on top of the blankets, and he dozed shallowly, seeming to tumble into dreams before he was really even asleep.
In his dream, he has been caught stealing. He is somewhere he has never/everywhere he has ever been before. The streets are a hodgepodge of Atlanta and Charlotte, Chicago and New Orleans, Four Corners and Philadelphia. Familiar buildings both grand and humble loom like jagged teeth around him.
The crowd closes in around him, baying for blood, and he tries to explain himself, but his tongue is heavy and clumsy, and all that trips off it is gibberish. There is something hidden in his jacket, but he cannot remember the English word for pocket, and so he cannot reach it.
A tall, white-haired man approaches, holding a length of rope with a noose at the end. Ezra is nearly in tears trying to force the words out.
The rough hemp coils around his neck just like an embrace.
He was sitting by the window smoking when Josiah showed up for the third meeting of the Insomniac Society. Ezra had pulled on a shirt and pants in hopeful expectation of company, but his collar was too tight, and so he'd left it undone. His bare foot tapped against the floor, and he merely gave a nod as he spotted Josiah on the stairs with a bottle in hand, motioning for the man to let himself in.
Neither of them said anything as Josiah sat down on the bed. Ezra's leg continued its uneasy jigging.
Josiah opened up the bottle and handed it over, and Ezra took a very long drink, savoring the slow burn of it down his throat and into his gut. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath and then handed the bottle back.
"Once upon a time," Josiah said thoughtfully, his head cocked to one side and his hand brushing Ezra's as he took the whiskey, "there was a young man named Hyacinthus."
Ezra's shoulders relaxed a notch as the drink—and perhaps the voice—took effect. He eyed the man curiously. "Mm? Do tell."
Josiah grinned. He paused to take his boots off and then put his feet up on the bed. Ezra refrained from commenting.
"Hyacinthus was a Spartan prince, and he was the handsomest youth in all the land. Everyone who saw him fell in love with him. Women, men, and even a pair of gods."
Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Scandalous," he said carefully.
"Yep. One of the boy's two suitors was named Zephyrus, and he was the god of the west wind. The other was Apollo, who was the god of—among other things—sunlight, and poetry, and archery, and medicine, and music."
"I'll wager," Ezra said, playing along, "that the boy chose the suitor with the better credentials."
Josiah chuckled. "He did. Apollo mentored the young prince. Took him hunting, taught him to play the lyre, and even wrestled with him."
Ezra's lips twitched once, nervously.
"But Zephyrus was jealous," Josiah continued, "and one day while Apollo and Hyacinthus were playing with a discus, he flew into a rage and sent the discus spinning off course. It hit Hyacinthus in the head, and the youth fell down dead."
Ezra stared at the bottle and considered reaching for it. "A great loss, I'm sure."
"Apollo and Zephyrus sure thought so. Apollo made flowers spring up where the youth's blood had spilled out. And every spring when the hyacinths bloom, Zephyrus laments."
On cue, the wind softly keened, and Ezra stole the bottle. He drank. "The way I heard it," he said, licking a stray drop from his lower lip, "Apollo cursed Zephyrus and turned him into the wind itself so he couldn't touch anyone ever again."
Josiah looked surprised but pleased. "Where did you hear that?"
He ran a hand through his hair before he could stop himself. "I once knew a fellow who had studied Greek at Harvard University."
The motion, in addition to the casual caution in his voice, did not seem to go over Josiah's head. He could not tell in the low lamplight, however, whether Josiah's lips quirked or narrowed. "A friend."
"Of a sort." He took another drink out of turn.
It hung in the air between them, and Ezra's breath halted nervously in his chest as he waited for Josiah to ask something along the lines of, 'The sort of friend who told you stories like that?' That Josiah himself was a friend who had just told him a story like that flickered through his mind for a fraction of a second. But Josiah told all sorts of stories, to anyone who'd listen, didn't he.
But when Josiah finally spoke, reaching over and plucking the bottle from Ezra's unresisting hands, his voice was distant and quiet, and what he said was: "You ever love someone that much, Ezra?"
He blinked, and he fought the sudden urge to loosen his collar even further. He was antsy under his skin, and he wanted to do something stupid. Something that could get his clothes off and his mind silenced. Something that they wouldn't talk about tomorrow.
"If 'love' means preferring to see something destroyed rather than let someone else have it," he finally said, "then the only thing I've ever loved was my cousin Davy's Punch and Judy set."
Josiah sat back abruptly, letting out a loud laugh.
"Miss Recillos is just down the hall," Ezra had the opportunity to chide. The message seemed to carry. He gave a dramatic sniff and added, "Davy had the stage and all."
Josiah chuckled, and Ezra launched into the tale of the whole sordid affair. The conversation flowed from there, and so did the drink. It was still dark when Josiah left a couple of hours later, and Ezra undressed again and went to bed. He did not sleep, however. His hands idly, restlessly, roamed over his body as he thought about the madness that insomnia bred.
In his dream, he is lying in a field under a wine-colored sky. He is in Greece, the Greece of stories, which bears as little resemblance to the country he's seen in the flesh as the Wild West of dime novels bears to Four Corners. All the world is old and fresh at once, and the warm sunshine and soft earth smell like parchment and marble and olive trees.
His nose is buried in someone's hair. At this realization, he becomes aware that he is pressed against a man's naked back with his face buried in the crook of a neck and shoulder. His knee has nudged between two smooth thighs, and without conscious prompting, his hand rises and touches a firm chest. In the uncertain moment where he knows he's dreaming, he marvels at how real it feels: the crisp scattering of hair, the steady beating of a heart, and the warmth of sun-soaked skin.
His palm traces over one nipple and then the other. They harden under his touch and, encouraged, he rolls one between his fingers—softly at first, and then hard enough to make the form in his arms wake with a sleep-muddled sigh.
"Hush, Ezra," he says. And of course it's Ezra. Who else would it be? Within seconds, he has forgotten that the body was ever faceless.
Ezra is relaxed against him, limp and content in a way he never is in waking—
He frowned in his sleep.
When Ezra does move, it is toward him, closing up what little space is between their bodies while Josiah strokes his chest. A little pinch makes Ezra gasp sweetly. He tries it again, and Ezra pushes back hard against him, arching like a cat. He mounts a third attempt, but Ezra's hand catches his. Their fingers entwine, and Josiah moves their hands down Ezra's breastbone, his ribs, his abdomen.
Ezra arches again, slowly. The whole world moves slowly, as if it has been submerged in honey.
"Josiah..." Ezra murmurs again.
"Shh," he says. It's important that they be quiet, though he doesn't know why. Inez is just down the hall, he thinks, for all that they are surrounded by vineyards and fields.
"No," Ezra says, contrary as always.
The word makes something inside him tighten up in anxiety. For a moment, he loses his train of thought and the world threatens to slip away from him. He pushes himself back and tries to sit up, his stomach twisting until Ezra slowly rolls over to face him.
There's that smile. The scenery falls back into place.
Ezra takes him by the hand once more and pulls him down until they are lying sprawled together. In the way of dreams, he is weightless; there is no negotiation of elbows and knees and no worry of crushing Ezra beneath him.
"Tell me you want this."
In his dream, it is spoken, but he does not know which of them has said it. The wind blows through the fields, pushing the words around in the air and sending them scattering, filling up his ears and making him close his eyes. His answer is his mouth at Ezra's throat, and Ezra's is the hummingbird-flutter of his pulse under Josiah's lips.
Then Ezra cups his chin, and tilts his head up, and pulls him in for a kiss.
He rolled over, nearly waking himself with the creak of the bed. His fingers tangled up in the blankets.
It seems strange to him that they've never kissed before. They must have, he's sure of it. The rational part of his mind insists that he has never once kissed Ezra Standish, has never taken him to bed, has hardly ever let himself touch him. And yet...and yet, the taste of him is achingly familiar. It's the taste of brandy, and Ezra's lips are like the warm, wet glass of a shared bottle.
Ezra's chin is stubbled, scraping deliciously against his own. This is not the perfect, clean-shaven Ezra of the daylight hours, but the tired-eyed, sleepless Ezra caught unexpectedly with an eleven o'clock shadow.
He kisses Ezra's mouth, and his chin, and his cheeks. He kisses his brow, and the curve of his ears, and his eyelids. He is aroused, almost painfully so, but in his dream there is no urgency. They lie together in the warm grass, hard against each other, and Ezra is whispering words that cannot be deciphered but which nonetheless tickle over him like kisses.
He savors their nakedness, which feels more at home in Eden than Sodom in this long, sweet moment. Even here, across one sea and another, he knows how long it has been since he's felt a man's body against his own: a lifetime past.
Ezra's hands begin to skim over him, but he scarcely feels the motion against his skin. Rather, the pleasure comes from deep inside him, teasing him from the inside out. He touches him in turn, tracing his backbone from top to bottom.
His fingers are suddenly slippery, smooth as silk against each other and leaving glinting trails over Ezra's skin. They slip down further, and Ezra moans like a wanton, legs shifting. In his dream, it's so easy: smooth heat, and the effortless push, and the perfect pressure.
Ezra gasps softly and then whispers for him to go on. They tangle up together, his fingers pressing and twisting, making Ezra press and twist too. His other hand—in his dream, maybe he even has more than one—moves all over, trying to caress every inch of smooth, tanned skin that he can reach while Ezra wiggles and clutches at him.
"You're delicious," he murmurs, and it's true. The tang of salt makes his tongue tingle.
Suddenly, the world flips, and he is lying on his back, staring up into the depths of the blue-bronze sky.
He sighed, his hand fumbling under the blankets.
Ezra kneels astride his hips, cheeks flushed and eyes bright, and curls down to kiss him. Their mouths press hard together, and the heat is nearly unbearable as Ezra is suddenly over him, and against him, and then—with a delicious little breathy cry—around him.
He arches up with a moan that seems to rumble deep in his chest. Ezra slides down without a hitch, and all he can feel is a deep, needful throbbing all through him. He rubs the flat plane of Ezra's stomach, and his back, and then strains up to kiss his chest. Words crowd into his throat, held back by his tongue as he licks salt-sweat from Ezra's shoulder.
They're wound up in each other so tightly that by rights they should not be able to move, but somehow they balance. Ezra sinks down onto him again and again, slick and warm and nearly trembling against him. He clutches Ezra's waist and watches his face in rapt fascination as it tenses up in unreserved pleasure.
A dry groan rasped in his throat as he opened his eyes. He squinted blearily into the dim lamplight. For a moment, he was strung suspended between waking and dreaming, poised on the edge of coming. Then the moment began to retreat, leaving him with a nearly painful throbbing in his loins and a head full of dream-muzzled confusion.
Ezra was standing just inside the door, leaning back against the wall, his eyes hooded. "I woke you up," he said, slightly and oddly flustered.
Josiah sat up, yanking the blankets more firmly over his lap. "Never mind."
His voice sounded rough even to his own ears, and Ezra turned quickly, reaching for the door. He wasn't carrying any bottle.
"Wait," he said, and Ezra paused.
He wet his lips, still nearly able to smell marble and olive trees. He was, at that moment, not-quite-awake enough to look Ezra over slowly and say, simply, "Come here?"
And, as if urged on by a gentle breeze at his back, Ezra did.
In his dream...
Ezra stirred sometime in the small hours, cold on one side of his body. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly, sensing some faint light beyond the shield of his eyelids and unwilling to wake up entirely just yet. His hand cast out in the darkness, groping for the covers. He found the edge of a quilt and tugged until it finally gave way and covered him.
A heavy arm snaked around him from behind and pulled him closer. He leaned back with a sigh against a broad, warm chest before sinking into back into sleep and slow, comfortable dreams of little consequence.
Outside, the night fell quiet.