by Polly Esther
Author's Notes: Thanks to Lumina for the beta and the inspiration. If you haven't figured it out already, you're the best.
Ezra Standish couldn't sleep. He'd been trying for hours, but sleep had eluded him. When he had reached one hundred and eighty seven, he had stopped counting sheep. That had been over two hours ago. The night continued to inch by in excruciating increments. A gentle breeze stirred up from the nearby river where they camped. The cool night air fell softly upon his cheek. He was wide awake.
He turned away from the drab orange-gray embers of the dying fire and shut his eyes tightly. Standish had already memorized every detail of the land surrounding the riverbank. There was no need to continue to stare out of sleepless eyes at the bare trees and craggy rocks that sprouted up along the muddy bank, or to shift his gaze to watch the two horses tethered to the nearest tree, as they snorted softly in their sleep.
Lying on the ground waiting for sleep to come, he became acutely aware of all of his senses. He felt the hardness of the earth beneath him. There was a discomforting sensation of heaviness where his body pressed against the ground. He fancied that he felt each little pebble and twig that dug into his flesh. Ezra sighed deeply with exasperation as he wriggled and squirmed searching for a comfortable position.
He tasted the fire when he opened his mouth, each wisp of smoke sticking in his throat, choking him. A violent spasm erupted from his lungs, gripping his throat. Ezra breathed in deeply as the coughing fit passed. The smell of wet pine needles and damp earth mixed with the smoke and filled his nostrils. He heard the river water murmuring comfortingly. Still he could not sleep.
Standish blinked his eyes, opening them wide. He turned over onto his back. The stars above him had the audacity to twinkle cheerfully. A falling star arced through the sky, blazing a trail. Surely an omen of some sort. Ezra couldn't guess what it might portend.
He glanced over at his companion who slept peacefully on the other side of the fire. There lay Buck Wilmington, not only sound asleep but snoring softly, the jagged rhythm of his noisy breathing playing a neat counterpoint to the melodious babbling of the nearby river. Ezra's lips parted slightly, and he nervously bit his lower lip as he regarded his friend.
Buck's tall, lean frame was twisted and tangled amidst his bedding, long legs splayed akimbo like a discarded doll. His face, always handsome, seemed peaceful and without any worries underneath the illumination of the pale moonlight. Ezra propped himself up on one elbow and leaned forward. He watched Buck's upper lip with interest as the brown hairs from Buck's mustache fluttered minutely with each exhalation of breath. Ezra's eyes drifted over Buck's face noting the dark stubble that stood out on his masculine cheek and the surprisingly long lashes that curled downward from his lowered lids. He watched as Buck shifted in his sleep. Wilmington's right hand, balled up loosely in a fist, came to rest against his cheek, innocently, like a newborn babe.
Ezra smiled wistfully at his friend. In all his nomadic, dishonest, and lonely life, Standish had never imagined that he would have alighted in such an unimportant backwater territory. It seemed even less likely that he would have chosen the profession of a lawman. As a betting man, he never would have gambled on such an unlikelihood; the odds surely would have been stacked against him. But here he was protecting this wild western territory with six other men at his side. And for the first time since Ezra’s distant childhood, he actually cared about something.
Of the six other lawmen, Buck in particular had sought out his friendship. Forced his friendship if truth be told. Ezra was used to being solitary, in fact he preferred it. He liked his self-reliance. Somehow that had changed. Something had clicked between him and the lanky gunslinger who slept soundly on the other side of the fire. Maybe it was because they both liked to talk a blue streak. When they were together they joked and laughed and slapped each other on the back. Ezra’s smile widened as he thought of the good times and fun that he and Buck had shared. But was there something more to it?
Ezra continued to smile as he stared at Buck's slumbering form. He watched the shadows of dark and light that played across his friend's face, a feeling of warmth in his chest. In Ezra’s disorganized childhood being passed amongst his mother's distant relatives and associates, it had been impossible to form any lasting bonds or attachments. As an adult, with his lifestyle as a card sharp and a confidence man, it seemed prudent to avoid any relation beyond mere acquaintance. Lying here in the outdoors, wide-awake, staring at the other man, Ezra had to admit that he cherished Buck's friendship. Now that he had a friend, Ezra Standish meant to keep him.
Ezra's smile began to fade and his brow furrowed as he recalled the cause of his insomnia. Once more, he sighed. It was all Wilmington's fault that he couldn't sleep. Ezra tossed over in his bedroll, angrily turning away from Buck. He shut his eyes forcibly, willing sleep to come. Perhaps he should try counting sheep again.
With his eyes shut, Standish couldn't stop the events of that evening from replaying in his mind's eye. Thoughtfully, Ezra reached up towards his face. One pale and graceful hand came to rest underneath his chin. Tentatively, he began unconsciously tracing fingertips along his mouth. He moved his fingers gently across the surface of his lips, remembering.
Ezra couldn't help thinking of the soft brush of Buck's lips against his; the faint tickling of Buck's mustache under his nose; the burn of their stubbled cheeks grazing against one another. He remembered the jolt of surprise and the faint taste of whiskey when Buck's tongue entered his mouth. Ezra shivered at the memory of the unexpected pleasure that had run through him, from his lips, to his chest and settling deep in his gut.
Buck Wilmington of all people! The self-professed ladies’ man. What could this mean? Ezra wracked his brain over and over again. They had been drinking whiskey all evening; that was true. Was the kiss prompted by too much alcohol? Would Buck even remember in the morning? Would he pretend not to remember? Ezra's brain raced to find an answer. Each question that sprang to his mind brought no answers, only more questions and a burning feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach.
Ezra rolled over onto his back again, eyes no longer closed. There seemed to be no hope of finding sleep. He stared at the stars intently, as if the answers to his questions could be found in the constellations. Orion blinked at him defiantly. The stars were silent.
Sitting up, he stared into the dull embers of the fire. This time his eyes avoided the still sleeping form of Buck Wilmington. Shifting his gaze, he looked down at his hands sitting loosely in his lap. Frowning slightly, he noticed a small worn spot on the plain brown woolen blanket that covered him. He poked his index finger at it experimentally. His finger popped through to the other side. Suddenly, an entirely new thought came to Ezra Standish as he sat there absent-mindedly fiddling with the hole in his blanket. It was something that he hadn't yet considered.
‘In vino veritas.’ The ancient Latin phrase sprang to his mind. Could it be that Buck actually meant the kiss? He glanced back at Buck with horror, a tendril of terror sending a chill down his spine. Ezra shuddered. Oh, why did Buck have to complicate their friendship with that soft, sweet kiss?
Ezra's brow furrowed and his frown deepened as he savagely twisted his finger in the worn spot of his blanket. A soft groan escaped his lips. Ezra flopped backwards, lying down. He pointedly turned away from Buck and stared into the blackness of the river as it shimmered faintly, glinting underneath the moon's beams.
Ezra tried to comfort himself by thinking about home. It eased his mind a little to think that by tomorrow night he would be in his room above the saloon away from the contradicting emotions that Buck Wilmington was stirring up in him. ‘A few hands of poker and a good night's sleep on a soft feather bed is all I need or want,’ he thought.
Eventually, Ezra was never really sure when, he fell asleep.
Ezra Standish was meeting another night of sleeplessness with great aplomb. Tonight he was in town and in his element. The saloon had closed its doors hours ago. Yet this had not disturbed the inveterate gambler. He had merely gathered up his night's winnings and smiled graciously to the other men at the table. He had tipped his hat courteously to Inez and made his way up the saloon's stairs to his room with a light tread and a heavy heart.
Now it was just past three o'clock in the morning and Ezra lay draped across his made bed, fully dressed, except for his black hat which sat at a jaunty angle atop his bedpost, and his plum-colored jacket which hung neatly in his closet. In his hands he held a brown leather bound book that he was reading by lamplight. “Great Expectations by Charles Dickens” was written across the front of the volume in bold gold leaf lettering.
Ezra turned a page and frowned. He realized that he had finished an entire chapter, yet he couldn't remember what he had read. He stared at the words on the page and discovered that he couldn't comprehend them. Ezra took a deep breath. The air felt heavy and close. Try as he might, he could not concentrate on the adventures of young Pip. Standish snapped the book shut with a sigh of frustration. He flung the book down upon the bed. He rose and made his way to the window which he opened wide, hoping for a breeze to relieve the stagnancy within the room. The night air hung motionless in the hazy rag-colored sky. The stars were dull and distant.
Ezra sat down in the rocking chair next to the window and gazed out sightlessly, not attending to anything in particular except his own thoughts. Inevitably his mind drifted towards Buck Wilmington, the tall, lanky gunslinger, his fellow lawman and his best friend. Ezra turned over the events of that day in his tired mind. Standish remembered how, in the morning, he had awoken to a gentle shake and, “Ezra,” being softly spoken into his ear, a warm breeze of breath falling across his face.
+ + + + + + +
“Buck?” Ezra sat up and raked a hand through his disheveled hair. “Why did you wake me?” Pausing, Ezra looked around with some confusion. “What time is it?”
“It's way past time for you to be up. We gotta get goin’. Shoot, I want to get back home some time today.” Buck smiled down at Ezra. He straightened his tall form and placed his hands on his hips as he looked down at his sleepy friend.
“Any particular reason you need to get back to town posthaste?” Ezra asked casually. He looked down and began picking at the hole in his blanket that he had noticed the night before; thoughts of Buck's many lady friends preoccupied his mind.
Seemingly oblivious, Buck laughed. “Well, for one thing, I sure would like to get a decent meal. No offense, Ezra, but you can't cook.”
“Yes, it runs in the family,” Ezra answered with a smile. Inwardly, he wondered why Buck was acting like nothing had happened last night. ‘The whiskey.... Maybe he doesn't remember.’
“And I’d like to get a bath. I haven't seen the kid in awhile either. He owes me five dollars and I aim to get it from him.”
Ezra stood up and began gathering his belongings woodenly as Buck babbled on. ‘Either he doesn't remember, or he wants to pretend that he doesn't remember,’ thought Ezra, not knowing which explanation was worse. He decided to oblige Buck. No need for either of them to dwell on a momentary alcohol-induced lapse of judgment. Perhaps he could successfully ignore the strange new feeling of butterflies fluttering in his belly whenever he looked at Buck.
Hazarding one more glance at his companion, Ezra felt a new and unfamiliar sensation assaulting him. His heart did a funny little somersault. His chest felt tight. Ezra was stunned as he realized that last night's kiss had been a revelation to him. Squatting down and turning his back to Wilmington, he busily rolled up his bedding, his elegant hands smoothing out each wrinkle. It finally dawned on Standish. He had feelings for Buck that went beyond friendship. That thought scared him to death. His hands shook as he tied up his bedroll.
He glanced over at Buck, who was smiling and talking about something. Ezra tried to pay attention, to focus on the words coming out of Buck's mouth. It was some story about J.D. and why he owed Buck five dollars. Buck was laughing. It seemed like a cue for Ezra to respond in kind, so he smiled and laughed.
Buck gave him a funny look. “You all right? You look kinda ... pale,” Buck said.
“I'm quite well, Mr. Wilmington. Thank you for inquiring,” Ezra replied steadily, and he even managed a smile.
“Are you sure?” Buck paused hesitantly. His mouth moved slowly as if he were struggling for the right words.
“I overindulged in the whiskey last night. That's all.” Ezra hefted up his saddle; the familiar weight of it and the smooth leather seemed reassuring to him somehow.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Buck said quietly. “So did I.” Buck's brow wrinkled and he stared at his friend intently.
Ezra turned away from Buck's thoughtful and probing gaze as he gently placed the saddle on his horse. There was something in the soft-spoken phrasing and the pleading gaze that made Ezra think that Buck remembered every minute detail from last night. Standish prayed that they could keep up the charade that neither one of them remembered. That would be much more convenient than losing a friend. His hands were steady as he tightened the cinch of his saddle, and Ezra even managed to whistle tunelessly.
Behind him, he heard Buck clear his throat noisily, and then the tall gunslinger began bustling around making the necessary preparations to saddle up and head home.
+ + + + + + +
Rolling thunder disturbed Ezra's reverie and brought him back to the present. He sat in the wooden rocker, rocking back and forth, back and forth. A storm was coming in. Another loud clap of thunder shattered the night. Ezra rubbed at his sleep-deprived eyes as he recollected the rest of the day. When they had returned home, Buck had slipped away to collect his five dollars from J.D. Buck had avoided him after that. No, really they had avoided each other, a mutual, unspoken agreement between friends.
‘Friends. Buck and I are friends. Merely good friends,’ Ezra told himself as he stared out the window.
Finally, Ezra had given up entirely on the idea of sleep. He had surrendered to his insomnia with abandon. A week without sleep, and he knew the signs were beginning to show. He had seen himself in the mirror tonight. Dark circles underneath his bloodshot eyes stood out in contrast to his pallid complexion. His brown hair was shaggy and unkempt. He'd forgotten to shave the last two days; the amount of stubble on his cheeks was appalling. He was disheveled and poorly groomed, abandoning all pretense that he, Ezra Standish, was a gentleman.
He gazed about the room and noted that his once tidy lodgings had fared no better. His kicked off boots lay discarded carelessly next to his bed. There was a half-eaten sandwich atop his dresser. His black string tie was wadded up in a ball and rested underneath the same dresser where he had tossed it two nights ago. His green jacket was flung haphazardly across the wooden rocking chair that sat next to the window. Surely it would be wrinkled and unpresentable by morning. Ezra shrugged as he realized that he wasn't sure where his hat had gone off to.
Standish glanced at the glass of milk, now tepid, that sat upon his bedside table. The beginnings of a water ring marred the oak surface. Ezra didn't care. He thought back to his conversation with Inez earlier that night. She had stopped him on his way up the stairs to bed.
“Senor, you do not look so good. Are you sick?”
“I am quite well; just a slight case of insomnia,” Ezra had replied with a friendly grin.
Inez had frowned at him. “You can't sleep?” she had asked as she looked him up and down appraisingly. Inez had clutched his arm and gazed at him sympathetically. “One moment, Senor Standish. I know what to do.”
He had been obliged to wait as Inez made him a glass of warm milk, since that had always worked so well for her mama and all her little brothers and sisters. Ezra had again smiled politely as he accepted the glass. “Gracias, senorita.”
The glass of milk still sat upon his table, not a single drop had he taken. It seemed pointless. He knew that he could drink all the warm milk he could stomach. He could count all the sheep in the world, and he still wouldn't be able to fall asleep until the morning light was slanting through the windows. And the life of a lawman in the untamed west being what it was, he knew one of his associates was likely to wake him up, for one thing or another, sometime in the morning with an admonishment following that Ezra ought not to keep such late hours because he was beginning to look like hell.
Ezra laughed to himself, mirthlessly, and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his confining shirt, loosening the stranglehold at his throat. He stared down at the cards piled neatly in stacks before him on his bed. He tried to concentrate on what he was doing. He reached out for the Jack of Spades. Slowly he placed the black jack atop the queen of hearts.
Ezra's thin concentration slipped out of his grasp when he heard the tread of booted feet in the hallway. Clomp, clomp, clomp. The sound echoed hollowly. The feet stopped outside his door. Silence ensued. Ezra frowned slightly and contemplated reaching for his gun, which was holstered within easy reach, slung over the post at the foot of his bed. He looked at the door expectantly waiting for the man on the other side to make a move.
A shuffling and shifting sound followed. The man cleared his throat. Ezra recognized the throat clearer to be Buck. An unpleasant sensation of being a caged animal went through Standish. Trapped, he was trapped. He prayed Buck would change his mind and go away. Ezra had been successfully avoiding Wilmington all week. Now Buck had him cornered.
A hesitant knock fell upon Ezra's door. He briefly and madly considered not answering, pretending he wasn't in.
“I know you're in there, Ezra,” Buck said through the door.
“Ezra, I need to talk to you. It's important.”
“It's late,” Ezra replied, not caring how rude it was to be holding a conversation through a closed door. The doorknob rattled as Buck tried to gain entrance. Ezra smiled, pleased with his foresight. He had locked the door.
“C’mon, Ezra,” Buck said quietly but loudly enough for Ezra to hear. It was that soft and low voice that Buck used when he was serious about something. To his dismay, Ezra found the pleasantly deep tones to be sensual, attractive, and even erotic. Paralyzed with fear, Standish remained motionless on the bed, his game of solitaire spread out before him.
“I'm not going away, so you might as well let me in,” Buck said.
Ezra contemplated all of the possibilities. He knew of Buck's stubborn perseverance. And although, he himself was stubborn, Standish knew that he would eventually have to leave his room, the half-eaten sandwich and glass of tepid milk not being enough sustenance to keep him alive for longer than a few days.
Ezra forced himself up off the bed and towards the door. His hand reached out for the lock. Numbly he released the mechanism. The door burst inwards as all six feet and three inches of Buck Wilmington blasted through the door.
“Listen to me, Ezra. We gotta talk. I know you've been avoiding me all week. And Lord knows that I've been avoiding myself for even longer than that. But we can't go on like this. We have got ta talk about things.”
“I believe we are conversing. It's not making a great deal of sense, but words are coming out of your mouth,” Ezra said with a forced smile.
“I kissed you,” Buck said abruptly.
The faux smile rapidly faded from Ezra's face. He stared dumbly at the l man standing too close to him.
“What's more, I want to kiss you again,” Buck continued.
“You were inebriated, Mr. Wilmington. As was I.” Ezra unconsciously stepped backwards as Buck stepped toward him. Wilmington towered over Ezra's compact frame. Standish inched away until the backs of his thighs banged up against his mattress. An irrational and contradictory feeling of panic mixed with lust beset him.
“You stubborn Southern fool. You are going to listen to me. Maybe I wouldn't have kissed you if we hadn't been drinkin’. It's true.”
Ezra snorted. Casting his eyes, down he began to study the pattern of the wood grain on the floorboards. It was exactly as he had expected. Ezra felt the sting in his eyes as they filled with unshed tears.
“But only because I never would have got enough courage to do it otherwise. I let myself get afraid. I was afraid I was gonna lose your friendship, and I couldn't stand that. And you've been avoiding me ever since. I couldn't get anywheres near you. You've been as skittish as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs,” Buck spoke in a rush, as if trying to get all his words out before Ezra skittered away again.
Ezra looked up cautiously into his friend's face. Buck paused for a moment as he regarded Ezra.
“I'm stone cold sober now,” Buck said earnestly.
Buck leaned closer as if for a kiss. Ezra flinched. Buck slowly raised left arm and placed his hand gingerly on Ezra's right shoulder. At the contact, once again Ezra felt the electric bolt of pleasure he had felt six nights ago in front of their campfire with a belly full of whiskey. Ezra felt a blazing warmth flare up along the nape of his neck. Goosebumps of passion erupted up and down his arms. His body felt as if it were made of fire and ice. Buck, his best friend, stood over him with a look that said ‘I want to ravish you on the spot.’ Ezra panicked. “Buck, I think you should leave now,” Ezra said.
Ignoring him, Buck placed his right hand on Ezra's left shoulder. He now held the smaller man by both shoulders. Ezra felt uncomfortably hot under the weight and pressure of those palms that were gripping him. Ezra shut his eyes trying to block out the onslaught of emotions. He knew of Wilmington's numerous sexual adventures. The ladies’ man had never tried to hide any of his escapades. In fact, quite the reverse as he frequently boasted loudly about all of his conquests. It was easy for Buck to fall into and out of any number of beds. He loved fun. He loved people. He loved life. Most of all, he loved sex. Ezra's face hardened.
Ezra wanted more than that. He wanted to at least hold onto their friendship. Ezra pressed his hands, palms outward, against Buck's chest to prevent Wilmington from coming any closer. “Please, Buck. I want you to leave.”
“Wait, Ezra. I haven't told you everything I came here to tell you. I just want to say my piece, and then you can tell me to go to the devil if you like.” Buck grasped tightly onto Ezra’s shoulders. The fine linen cloth of Ezra’s shirt crumpled in his fists as he shook Standish, pleading for him to listen.
“Why? Why should I listen to anything you have to say on this subject?”
“Because I'm crazy in love with you, you damn fool,” Buck yelled, almost angrily. Ezra's shirt continued to bunch up under his grasping fists, his knuckles whitened.
“What?” Ezra's mouth gaped open. He searched Buck's face as if for some sign that his friend was lying to him. Or joking. Somehow Ezra couldn't believe his ears; there was a part of him that perhaps didn't want to. “Unhand me, sir!” Ezra exclaimed, his voice hoarse with emotion. The hands that Ezra held up against Buck's chest in mute protest tightened into fists.
Ezra pushed. Buck pulled. Ezra lost his balance first as his legs fell against the bed once more, and then his feet slipped out from under him. He fell backwards. Buck had not relinquished his grip on Ezra's shirt and lost his balance too. Ezra's bare foot kicked up and caught Buck's leg. Both men fell down across Ezra's bed with one loud thump. The bed scooted across the floor and bumped into the bedside table. Milk sloshed and spilled; the glass tumbler fell on its side. A white waterfall poured from the table and pooled underneath the bed. The solitaire game scattered everywhere. Out of the corner of his eye, Ezra watched as the Ace of Spades slowly twirled and fluttered to the floor.
Buck's tall frame lay heavily across him. Ezra looked up into his friend's face. He watched as startlement changed to faint amusement and, finally, unconcealed desire in Buck's twinkling blue eyes. Ezra became uncomfortably aware of Buck's scent. He smelled of tobacco and sweat, yet faintly redolent of sweet spices, making Ezra think of warm apple pie. Ezra discovered that he liked the way Buck smelled. With Buck's full weight laying atop him, he felt his friend's burgeoning arousal pressed against him, and he felt his own body responding in kind. As his traitorous body rebelled against him, Ezra noticed Buck smiling down at him with a decidedly conceited expression.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn't throw you out this very second. I've already requested your absence twice,” Ezra said with wavering conviction.
“I love you,” Buck spoke more softly in that deep, serious voice that sent shivers down Ezra's spine and that made the heat rise in his blood.
Ezra felt his heart pounding wildly in his chest, the sound thundering in his ears. ‘He loves me,’ thought Ezra dazedly. ‘And I love him,’ Ezra admitted to himself. Standish smiled shyly up at Buck Wilmington, who was still sensually crushed against him. His eyes drifted towards Buck's generous lips, the lips that had pressed against his own a week ago. Ezra's tongue darted out as he licked his own dry lips nervously.
Buck smiled at Ezra as he slowly lowered his head to plant a tender kiss on Ezra's mouth. Buck’s hand drifted up and combed through Ezra’s rumpled hair. Buck drew back and caressed Ezra's stubbled cheek. Their eyes met. “You look like hell, Ezra. When was the last time you shaved or combed your hair?”
Ezra gave a short, rueful laugh. The two men smiled at each other. “I haven't slept in a few days,” Ezra confessed as he circled his arms around Wilmington, drawing him into another kiss.
“Well, I don't plan on getting much sleep tonight. How ‘bout you, Ezra?” Buck smiled down at him with a rakish and loving grin which Ezra found alarmingly attractive. Buck spoilt the effect by waggling his eyebrows.
“Sleep? No, I would have to say that sleep is the very last thing on my mind.” Ezra swallowed his laugh as Buck's mouth came to meet his.
“I do care for you, Buck,” Ezra spoke quietly as his friend began dropping light kisses along his jaw and neck. Ezra trembled with passion.
“I know,” he said rather smugly. Buck couldn't quite suppress a small chuckle.
Ezra didn't care. Eagerly, he embraced another night without sleep.
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