It was a quiet late afternoon, the town complacent in the summer heat, no one moving much more than they had to. Ezra was on his way back from the bar to 'his table', the one where he'd spent the past hour or so reading the newspaper and listening to Buck and JD grumble about the heat, and the stillness, and the lack of anything to distract them.
They were talking now, arguing, really, about JD's latest plans to spend time with Casey fishing, but Ezra's attention was caught by what he saw on the boardwalk.
The saloon window was dusty, mostly on the outside; Inez cleaned the inside regularly, but there was little use outside. The dust was thick and heavy, leaving a thick layer on flat services and a thick residue on the walls. It tinted everything he could see through it with a dull amber, so that things appeared grainier, grittier, and strangely colored.
Which was how he saw Chris, his black clothes looking faded through the filter of dust, and his hair, bright blond from the summer sun, looking almost red. He was standing on the boardwalk, facing the street, but he was turned just enough to one side that Ezra could see part of his face. His broad forehead was scrunched and the corners of his thin lips were pulled down, his eyes intense.
Chris' concentration was on the man beside him, who leaned against the tall support beam. Like Chris, he was angled to one side, but Ezra could only see his face when he moved. His buckskin coat looked as red as Chris' hair, but that could just as easily have been dust on the coat itself. The thick tangle of curls that was visible below his hat was cast in bronze, but the sunlight caught on the lighter tones of his long hair, bleaching them to a dark gold despite the veil of reddish grime.
The jealousy came fast and hard, materializing as a knot in the pit of Ezra's stomach. He wasn't surprised that they were on the boardwalk together, talking. It was a daily occurrence, so common that it was more remarkable - and more remarked upon - when they weren't. But the regularity of it, the familiarity of it, was like a knife in his belly. There they stood, close and casual, sharing things with each other that neither of them would share with anyone else. Not even with the ones they bedded.
The knot in his stomach grew heavier, denser, as Chris' frown slowly shifted, the lines in his face easing and the turn of his lips inverting. He didn't actually smile, but he relaxed.
Then, without a thought, he reached out and dropped one hand onto Vin's shoulder, as casually, as comfortably, as he caressed his horse.
It happened regularly, another thing that was commented upon in its absence. Ezra saw it almost daily, the physical rapport between the two men, the physical manifestation of their affection for each other.
Damn them. It seemed so innocent, so natural, that he barely controlled the desire to retch.
It was innocent, he reminded himself sternly. There was nothing between them but friendship. He'd been told that repeatedly, every time he'd made an off-hand comment intended to be light or joking.
'He's like a brother - you think that bad of me?' The comment would come with a chuckle, one of the low, throaty ones that always distracted him from his actual point, usually because it was accompanied by the stroke of a hand along the more sensitive parts of his own anatomy. Parts that were also bare. 'I ain't that bad with nobody but you.'
And they were certainly bad enough, doing things that would get them run out of town at the very least but more likely strung up. Things that, if discovered, would shatter that close friendship Ezra so envied. Things that made Ezra stay in this god-forsaken backwater, made him put aside his own dreams of wealth and comfort for this alien feeling to which he would not put a name.
It wasn't as alien, though, as this idea that these two men could be close, could share confidences and secrets, yet not their bodies. That required a level of trust that he couldn't fathom from either of them, a faith that he himself certainly didn't have.
But he was trying. Every day, every time he saw them together, he reminded himself that just because this innocent frendship was not something he had experienced, it didn't make it any less real.
"Hey, Ez!" Buck called, startling him back to the moment. "You go to sleep over there?"
Buck. Chris' friend, an old, close one, one who had known Chris' wife and child, who had helped Chris bury them. Chris and Buck were close, he reminded himself as he looked to the table, forcing his gaze away from the men on the boardwalk. And they were as familiar as Chris and Vin, touching easily and publicly. Josiah and Nathan, too, had that level of trust and closeness, sharing secrets and connections that weren't founded in a baser attraction.
Maybe it wasn't the friendship that worried him. Maybe the jealousy was from the fact that these men, these friends, could touch each other, show some level of their affection to the world, and that they did. Daily. Easily.
Because that sort of love was acceptable.
"Yeah, Ezra, you gonna deal?" JD chimed in even as he knocked Buck's hand away, preventing Buck from stealing his beer.
Buck retaliated by slapping at JD's hat, knocking it back on his head though not off. Easy physicality, playful yet affectionate.
Why could he accept this innocence from these two, from Buck and Chris, from Nathan and Josiah, yet question the men on the boardwalk?
Because this 'alien feeling' wasn't about friendship. Because JD and Buck, and Nathan and Josiah - all of them were 'brothers' in all but name, their natures more open and social than the two men outside.
Because JD and Buck and Nathan and Josiah smiled at Ezra, and smiled with him, with the same ease that they did with everyone else and with each other, because they laughed quickly and sincerely and talked about themselves the same way.
Neither of the man outside could lay claim to that openness with anyone but each other.
He wanted to walk through the swinging doors, out onto the boardwalk, and push his way between Chris and Vin, force them apart physically. He wanted to touch and be touched in the bright light of day, to feel the affection that was acceptable in the eyes of the town, to slap and smile and tease with the same openness of the men around him.
He wanted to put a name to this alien feeling, a name that wasn't tainted with sin and shame, a name that he himself could respect.
"What game shall we play?" he asked instead, taking his seat but turning it so that his back was to the window.
"Whist?" JD offered, pulling his hat into his preferred position on his head. "We can use the dummy hand, since there are only three of us."
"And that would put two dummies at the table," Buck shot back, but he grinned as he said it. "How about some good old-fashioned stud poker?"
JD made a face. "We always play poker, and Ezra always wins. How about we play something we all stand a chance at?"
Ezra couldn't help but grin. "Then what would you suggest?" he asked, drawing his deck from his pocket and opening the cardboard box.
"I know!" JD said, leaning forward. "Hearts! Ezra can't win as easily at that!"
No, Ezra thought, looking up as the door opened and Chris and Vin came through, golden in the sunlight, he wasn't certain he could win at all with that game.