Title: Getting There
Author: Phantom Black Sheep
Disclaimer: Don't own them, enough said.
Warnings: Contains references to a het relationship but that's all in
Pairing: Ezra/Buck and Ezra/another of the 7 but revealing who will
ruin part of the story. Also contains Buck/Louisa, see warning.
AU: OW-- AUish (a post-7 what if...)
Summary: Half of the battle is getting there.
A/N: So I was thinking to myself, what would it be like after the
seven have split up and gone their seperate ways? This is my not so
fluffy version of what has become of a few of the group.
He showed up out of the blue. Standing at my doorstep with nothing but the clothes on his back and a docile expression. I knew almost immediately that he was dead. Maybe not physically, but inside, he had died long ago.
"I..." he began, voice small and hesitant. I shushed him with a gentle sound, a mixture of a hiss and a sigh.
We needed no words as I pulled him by the arms into my home, kicking the door closed with my boot. As we stood there, so close we shared our breath, mine quick from the shock of seeing him after so long and his unsteady from... from god knows what, I knew that he wanted me to hug him. Needed me to. Some part of me knew that I needed the same thing. I'd spent so long not knowing what had become of him, fearing the worst. Some part of me still feared that, even though he stood here before me, his arms solid but limp in my grip.
I pretended I needed nothing and pulled him further into my home, even as I pushed him away.
He moved easily, pliant in my arms as I lead him down the hall and into the kitchen, sitting when I told him to sit, drinking what I gave him and though he didn't eat the leftover broth I had stored from earlier that night, he made a good show of stirring it in the bowl and pretending to.
I stood with my hip against the counter and my arms crossed over my chest, my eyes trained on his every move. I felt like a mother supervising her child who had just returned from a month in the city. He pushed the still full bowl away from him, its surface, now cold, covered in a tacky surface of gravy.
"Not up to your usual standards?" I asked. It was the first thing I had said and he looked up sharply, as if surprised by my voice. Something flickered over his expression, something painful and sad, but it merged back into the previous emptiness as soon as it had appeared.
"No, I... it's not."
"Ezra," I smiled as I took a seat in a chair opposite him. "Calm down, I was joking."
The same look returned, but this time it remained as his eyes grew damp and so, so horribly sad. I felt his pain, even if I didn't know it.
"Ezra..." he repeated quietly. "I haven't been called that in so long..." I imagined him crying. I imagined his face crumpling as he bowed his head, wet droplets hitting the varnish of the table and for his shoulders to shake in silent sobs.
He just looked away, into a far corner of the room and shrunk down deep into himself, the dampness in his eyes slowly drying in the air. I reached out and took his hands into mine, holding them clasped across the table.
We sat that way in silence until it was well into the night and I excused myself to bed, offering him the spare cot in the bedroom.
He didn't come up all night, but when I came down the next morning, he was curled up on the chaise lounge. The one I never used, but couldn't remember buying. I probably never bought it, but I didn't want to think about the person who might have. Not now, not with Ezra right before me looking tired and vulnerable and beautiful.
Everyone expected us to go out in a blaze of glory. A final showdown with guns and explosions and blood and sweat and just about everything else that we'd faced practically every god damned day. We never did, on the day that the seven split, I don't think any of us knew it would be the last day we saw each other together again.
We parted quietly, with a smile and a back pat for all, maybe even a few hugs. There was some tension, yes. Most noticeably between Ezra and Josiah, but their differences were never admitted to, and as such, never reconciled.
I remember watching from the bar as Ezra and JD took off on an errand that no one knew they would never complete. JD returned a week later looking tired and defeated, but not concerned. For days we all asked where Ezra had gone and for days JD would shrug it off and mumble into his beer, until on the third day, he snapped. "He took off, okay? I don't know where and I don't know why. He just left!" JD thrust a letter into Chris's lap and stormed from the saloon. No one saw him cry, we were all too busy looking at the letter, the writing curved and elegant, so very Ezra. It was polite and friendly, but distant, a pleasant discussion of how he was moving on and how he was sorry but he had no choice but to. He never said why.
Within three months of Ezra's leaving, the rest of us were all gone. I was the second to leave; I was the only other one to have another place to be. The rest just drifted off gradually, leaving Four Corners as we had found it.
I don't think any one ever forgave us for that. I don't think anyone ever forgave us for not giving them their blaze of glory.
I was sitting out on the front porch when Ezra woke up later that morning, a porcelain cup of coffee tucked underneath my chair.
He stepped out of the front door dressed in the same clothing he'd worn the night before, even despite the fact that I'd left a spare change of shirt and pants at his feet. My clothing had always been too big for him; back in Four Corners it would have been just that little bit too baggy, the cuffs falling only slightly past where they should have been. But now they would have hung from him. Seeing him in the light of day, with his face a pattern of shadow and bone and the skin on his hands so thin, so papery that I could see every vein running down his once elegant fingers. It scared me. When was the last time he'd eaten? When was the last time he'd done anything past going through the motions?
"Sleep well?" I said, choosing not to comment on the clothing. I'd just hide everything of his that night while he was asleep; give them to Elsa to dispose of and give him no choice but to change. I'd take him into town later; let him stock up on those dandy frockcoats he had once loved so much.
Ezra gave an odd, awkward shrug and shuffled over to the rocking chair positioned next to mine. He grunted as he sat down, the tilted rungs creaking under the added weight, sounding so much like his tired bones.
"I think I almost went comatose at one point," he said, voice soft and breezy but still so empty. It was supposed to be a joke, but instead it sounded like a requiem.
"You know you could have taken the cot. It's separate from my bed if that's what you're worried about." I gave him a sidelong glance but he kept his eyes focused on the horizon, watching Elsa's small silhouette hang out the washing far below.
"No, it's not that." Ezra took a breath and nestled down in the rocking chair, his legs stretching out over the porch. "It was late by the time I went to bed. I didn't want to wake you."
"Hell, Ez. I've always slept like the dead and always will. Nothin' short a' the apocalypse would wake me. You know that."
"I know, Buck," Ezra said, saying my name for the first time since he'd arrived. "I know." His voice was no more than a croak on the last word and I followed his gaze, watching as Elsa made her way up to the house, a wicker basket propped against her waist.
We spent the rest of the morning in silence. It wasn't that we had nothing to say to each other. It was just that we didn't know how to say what we wanted.
To an outsider, I wouldn't have blamed them if they believed that Elsa didn't like Ezra. She stood hip shot, tapping one of her brown-soled shoes impatiently as I introduced the two of them, her chapped and worn hands brushing a course strand of greying hair away from her face as she looked Ezra up and down. She clucked her tongue after a moment and shuffled past, muttering something about fixing the two of us lunch shortly since we'd been so lazy as to sleep right through breakfast.
We hadn't really by normal standards. It was just that Elsa believe the day started at five am and anything eaten after six couldn't be considered breakfast.
Later that night, when Ezra was curled in the corner of the spare cot with a pile of blankets smothering his gaunt form, Elsa scowled, still muttering to herself and took his old clothing down to the coal shed, waiting to be burned the next day.
She used the heated water from the fire to run Ezra a bath, telling him if he were going to eat at her table, he'd have to get himself presentable. She said this whilst dragging the metal tub into his room and dropping a pile of lavender soaps and toiletries beside it.
I knew better than outsiders. I knew that Elsa only ever gave people she liked the lavender soaps.
On the third day of Ezra's arrival, I still hadn't asked him why he'd shown up or where he'd come from and he still showed no sign of revealing anything. Every night I'd go to bed expecting to wake up and find a neatly crafted letter on the kitchen table, the same kind of letter that he'd left for us back in Four Corners. I wasn't certain what happened to that letter, I thought that JD might have taken it with him when he went north with Casey, but I might have been wrong.
But every morning when I woke up, the very same thing happened. I'd look over to the far cot, see it empty and feel that familiar sinking in my stomach and pain in my heart, only to have them both swept away when I headed out onto the porch to find Ezra tucked up on the rocking chair, a steaming cup of coffee gripped in his hands. He never drinks his coffee inside anymore, always outside in the same spot, staring out at the same horizon.
He never used to be a morning person. I remember him being the worst night owl I'd ever known, but now, he seems to have the same idea of mornings as Elsa. Though he never eats anything, I suspect that sometimes he sits with her at the kitchen table as she eats hers, talking, or doing whatever the hell it is the two of them do. I imagine it's probably Elsa cussing him in her usual slow drawl with Ezra just nodding his head at her, as if in mute agreement.
On the first Sunday of Ezra's arrival, I headed down to Church with Elsa, leaving Ezra alone in the house. I'd casually suggested that he join us the night before but his eyes had grown stony and though he didn't answer, the firm set of his mouth said everything. I didn't ask him again after that.
Whilst in town I visited the local store and bought Ezra some new clothes, I couldn't bear to see him shuffling around in clothes that dwarfed him and only just clung to his shoulders. I wasn't sure what size he'd take but Freda, the store's owner gave me a hand and whilst we were fingering various fabrics, she casually mentioned how it'd been so long since she'd seen me outside of Church and how her and her husband prayed for me every night. She kept her tone light and breezy, the type of tone that hinted that the owner was expecting an invitation. I asked her around for dinner that night. Partly because it'd been so long since I'd talked to people other than Elsa and more recently Ezra, and also because I knew where the conversation was leading. I didn't want to hear about how worried she and her dear Erik had been about me ever since... ever since that 'episode'.
Ezra wasn't happy when he heard what I'd arranged. He didn't say anything because he was a guest in my home and no matter how much he'd changed since Four Corners; he was still a southern gentleman. And gentlemen never complained. He just looked down at the new clothing I had given him, fingering the fabric with his thin, painful looking fingers and flexing his jaw a little.
"Do you want me to...?" Ezra cocked his head down the hall to the bedroom.
"No... no! God no, Ezra. I want you to join us. Why would you even think that?"
"I don't know," Ezra said absently. "I guess I just thought that maybe you'd want to talk to your friends alone. I mean I don't even know them and..." He trailed off and it was then that I realised he'd hoped I'd ask him to stay in the bedroom. I gave him a tight smile that I didn't really feel.
"A friend of mine is a friend of yours, Ezra." I didn't really count Freda and Erik as friends... more acquaintances if anything, but somehow admitting to that at that moment made me feel pathetic and unimportant. I didn't want Ezra to know that I hadn't made any close friends after Four Corners. "Try these on and see if they fit. They'll be here at six."
Ezra turned away, still looking at the fabric, as he ran his thumbs up and down the weave. I waited until the bedroom door had swung shut behind him before falling back against the wall, my eyes tilted to the ceiling.
"Elsa? Could you see what's keeping him?" I muttered quietly to Elsa as she passed me, a bowl of potatoes cradled in her arms. She gave me a quick nod, placing the bowl in front of Ezra's empty place and then shuffled back out of the room.
I smiled at Erik and Freda, each of us sitting around the table, the fine china mapped out carefully and the food going cold in the middle.
"So, this guest of yours..." Freda began, clearing her throat in the uncomfortable way one did when trying to act anything but. "Have we met him?"
"No," I said. "He's ah, he's an old friend."
"Oh really?" Freda asked, a pleasant rise to her voice. "From where?"
"A while back. We uh, we used to live in the same town." I picked up the nearest bowl of food and handed it across the table to Erik, hoping to deflect the conversation without actually saying so. "I'm sure Ezra's on his way. We might as well start before it goes cold."
Erik picked at the food in the bowl, the wooden spoon clinking against the porcelain side. Freda remained undeterred as she reached for the potatoes, eyes still focused on myself.
"Did Louisa know him?"
The bowl she was holding clattered onto her plate as she froze, her mouth widening into a delicate oh as her hands flew to her chest. Erik glanced at me from beneath wary brows. I smiled at the two of them, though I knew it was tight and my skin had blanched a little.
"Yes, they. They did meet once, but I don't..." I made a motion with my hands that meant nothing but Freda nodded as if she understood.
"Louisa..." A voice said behind us and I turned to see a very pale Ezra standing in the doorway, Elsa hovering behind him, her usual scowl edged with a touch of concern. Ezra was wearing the new outfit I'd bought him and it fit better than my clothes, though the slim lines only enhanced how gaunt he was these days and the dark plum of the fabric was a sharp contrast to his pale skin. "I'd forgotten." His voice was a raw croak of emotion. Sadness, regret, fear and anger all churned together into one ugly mixture.
"Oh!" Freda squealed happily when she saw Ezra, unaware of the lurking undercurrent. "The clothes, I didn't know they were for your guest. Oh they look lovely!"
Ezra's eyes flickered away from mine and he looked at Erik and Freda in turn, giving the both of them a tight nod.
"I'm truly sorry, but I'm unable to join you tonight, I just thought I should inform you all before I head out."
"Oh dear," Freda clucked her tongue and she and Erik rose to their feet, arms outstretched. Ezra hesitated for a moment, glancing at me before he shook each hand in turn.
"It's a pleasure meeting you." He smiled, and I saw a hint of the same silky smooth devilish smile that had been readily available in Four Corners. Back then it had seemed fake and disturbing, now it was one of the most beautiful expressions I'd ever seen and my breath caught in my throat.
By the time I had regained my senses, Ezra had left the house and Freda and Erik were returning to the table, Freda bemoaning the fact that such a pleasant man had to leave so soon. I smiled at her and joined in with the conversation as it gradually grew more relaxed, but I found myself partially detached for the rest of the night, a familiar sick sensation lurking in my stomach.
I was afraid that that was the last time I'd see Ezra. And this time he hadn't left a note.
It took Ezra three days to return, by which time Elsa and I had all but resigned ourselves to the fact that Ezra was gone again. Maybe this time for good. I spent the first two mornings sitting alone in Ezra's rocking chair, my foot bouncing on the ground as the chair creaked back and forth in minute arcs. On the third day, when I drifted out of the house with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, the chair had disappeared, nothing but two slight grooves left in the wood where it had been. I glanced up to see Elsa staring up at me from across the land, her hand lifted up to her eyes, shielding them against the rising sun.
I thought dimly that maybe I should be angry with her, no, I knew I should be angry with her. But I was just too tired to care.
I turned around and went back to my room, curling up on the spare cot. Recently it had become a lot more comfortable than my own bed.
Warm hands running through my hair woke me up. They felt frail, bony knuckles catching in tangles and giving slightly before working themselves free. I rolled over on the pillow, moving closer to the hands. I kept my eyes closed, afraid that if I opened them, the hands would disappear.
A gentle voice, a cross between a purr and a breath whispered my name as the bed shifted beneath me. Somebody slid down next to me, the body still clothed and small. Too small, bones stuck out at angle where it should have been soft, digging into my back as arms wrapped around my waist.
It felt odd, a little bit uncomfortable, but good too. Or I thought it was good, I didn't want to move away from the contact if that meant anything.
"J'st sleep..." a voice mumbled into my ear. "Sorry, so sorry."
"Mmmm," I answered, it wasn't what I'd intended to say but it was enough.
"Just gonna' rest... 'til tomorrow. 'Til tomorrow then... sorry..."
"Ezra..." I mumbled and a chin nodded against my shoulder. A gentle waft of air curled around my neck as the body sighed and then settled down to sleep.
A small smile tugged at my lips before I too fell asleep.
The next morning, as I woke up I found that my arms were wrapped around a warm sleeping body. It felt good after so long and I nestled in further, burying my nose into their neck, snuffling into their skin. They smelt different, yet also similar, a mixture of new and old, good and bad. Happiness and sorrow.
The body shifted in my arms and a sleepy head turned around, hooded green eyes blinked up at me, partially obscured by the deep purple of heavy bags.
He looked a little worse for wear, a brushing of stubble over his cheeks and the whites of his eyes were more than a little bloodshot, but it was still Ezra. A little sadder, a little more haunted than before, but it was Ezra. Ezra lying in my arms.
"Hey," Ezra said, his voice a hoarse croak and I wondered not for the first time what he had been doing. It was with that thought that I remembered. I remembered the three days of knowing nothing, of being unable to do anything but wonder around neither wanting to morn him nor forget him. With the remembrance came anger and I pushed away from him, climbing to my feet.
"Where'd you go?" I asked, my voice thick with accusation.
Ezra averted his eyes, he swallowed, the tendons in his neck tensing and bobbing with the movement.
"I had to get away," he said finally.
Ezra shifted in the bed, he moved to sit up but I pushed him back down. Too long had passed without anything being said. We'd spent too long in silence and now it was time to talk.
"No, Ezra. Don't run. No more running."
"I told you," Ezra said, the first hints of irritation reaching his voice. It was the first time I'd heard Ezra get angry since... since as long as I could remember. "I had to get away for a bit. This," he gestured at the room with his hands. "All of this, it was too much."
"Get away for a bit?" I repeated, my voice not quite scornful but close. "Would you call four years a bit, Ezra?"
The room got very quiet all of a sudden. We both stilled, him half lying and me half lying on the bed, both frozen like rabbits cornered by a fox.
"What?" Ezra said, very quietly and very slowly.
I stalled. I hadn't meant to say that, not now. Baby steps first, that was what I'd told Chris. First limit it to two bottles a night, then one, then one every two nights. First one small demon, then another... But it was too late. Four years was a long time. Too long for baby steps.
"Why'd you leave us? Why'd you leave us with nothing but a fucking 'dear John' letter?"
"I..." Ezra was getting scared. I could see it in his eyes, darting back and forth and never quite meeting my gaze.
"You know JD never forgave himself. He thought it was his fault that you left. As though you were taken by force and he could have stopped it somehow."
"I never meant..."
"No, I guess you didn't." I stood up from the bed and stretched my arms up high over my head. Ezra scrambled up into a sitting position, his clothing was in disarray from sleeping in it all night, rumpled and twisted, it looked almost as pathetic as he did.
"Look, Ez. Tell me or don't, whichever. Just do something because I'm sick of waiting."
"Buck," Ezra said again, his voice was pleading again, a suspicious wetness coming to his eyes.
I stood waiting for a moment, giving him a chance to say something, anything. He remained tight lipped, caught in a silent staring match.
With a sigh I turned and walked to the door.
"Maybe later, right?" I asked, my voice scornful and so very bitter it stung even myself.
I closed the door behind me. Maybe if I had seen the tear that fell from Ezra's lower lid to his cheek, I would have stayed. Maybe.
But it wasn't likely.
Elsa didn't show much of a reaction to Ezra's return. She just took it all in her stride, running him another bath, the water once again heated by the fire she had started to burn his second set of clothes. She ignored Ezra's arguments that the clothes were fine and that really all they needed was a good wash, claiming that she knew what fool things men did when their heads weren't screwed on straight and there was no way she was having filth like that anywhere near any of her other washing. I thought it was best not to tell Elsa that Ezra had spent the night contaminating her clean sheets in those clothes.
On the night of what seemed to have become a tradition for introducing Ezra into the household, I was sitting out on the porch next to the rocking chair that had miraculously found its way back into it's old place.
The door behind me swung open and shut but I didn't turn around. I already knew who it was. I'd expected Ezra to amble over to his rocking chair straight away, and was caught off guard when he stopped just behind the chair, leaving no evidence of him other than the occasional sigh. Gradually, slow deliberate footsteps began moving around the chair and I followed him mentally, stubbornly refusing to move my head.
"You loved her, didn't you?" Ezra asked finally. I didn't need to ask who. I knew immediately, Louisa.
"As much as I could without..." I stopped. Ezra didn't need to hear this.
"Without what?" Ezra obviously thought otherwise. He kept walking slowly back and forth along the porch, never entering my vision. I found it easier to talk that way, without having to see anyone, it was almost as if I were just confessing to myself.
I guessed the Catholics really were onto something.
"Without being in love with her," I choked on the words. It'd been so long since I'd talked about Louisa. In fact I don't think I'd ever talked about her, not since giving my speech at-at her funeral.
"How'd it happen?" Ezra asked, as if reading my mind.
"I don't know," I answered honestly. "The doctors said there was something wrong with her... in her brain. They didn't know what but... by the end she was swearing something awful."
A phantom illness they'd called it. At first, when she'd started having the episodes they'd put it down to something mental. Trying to suggest that she was in some way insane. They'd wanted to lock her away in a mad house, but I wouldn't let them. I knew she wasn't mad; she'd always been spontaneous, maybe even a little wild. But never mad.
I could tell that my last comment had drawn Ezra's attention from the sharp exhale but he refrained from questioning it. I silently thanked him.
"The last night she... I don't know. There was something about her that was different. She was calmer, calmer than she'd ever been, even when she was healthy. I know it sounds crazy but... I think she knew she was going to die that night."
"It doesn't sound crazy," Ezra said softly, a thin hand falling down on my shoulder and squeezing. I knew it was a simple platitude, but somehow, coming from Ezra, it sounded sincere. It honestly helped. I reached up and took Ezra's hand in my own, squeezing back in silent thanks. I don't know if Ezra knew it, but it was also a veiled apology, I like to think he knew.
The next day I walked into the kitchen to find Ezra and Elsa conspiring quietly. They both looked intent, faces tight and serious, voices a hushed whisper.
Elsa was the first to notice me and she stopped talking, moving across the floor to the stove where a bowl of water was boiling.
"What was that about?" I asked as Ezra turned around. Ezra shrugged absently, and smiled.
"Nothing important." I waited for him to say more, but he just wondered past me, his movements a little hesitant, but otherwise dismissive. I frowned a little as I followed his retreating back with my gaze, and then looked over to Elsa. Elsa glanced away quickly, her eyes wide and a little nervous.
Whatever had transpired between the two of them was gone by that evening and they sat around the table, eating their meals quite happily, the moment apparently forgotten.
I was less willing to let it drop and couldn't help but spend the evening eyeing them suspiciously and feeling very much like a paranoid criminal. By the end of the evening I was thoroughly miserable and all but snapped at Ezra when he suggested they spend the evening out on the porch, choosing instead to go straight to bed. I couldn't help but feel a little guilty at the hurt look in Ezra's eyes, but my irritation won out and I ignored him.
"Buck?" A voice hissed quietly. I answered with a muffled ascent as I rolled over from under my blankets and glanced over to the crack of light coming in from the open door. It couldn't be any earlier than midnight, probably not much later since Ezra's bed was still empty. Elsa's face appeared in the doorway and she shuffled in. That alone surprised me. I don't think in all her time of being here that she'd ever referred to me as anything other than 'Mr. Wilmington'. I wasn't sure if I liked it, over the years I'd discovered that change quite often meant a bad thing.
"I've been talking to Ezra," Elsa continued. That wasn't unusual, Elsa had always called Ezra by his first name, even when he'd first arrived. "And he... well I. You see, I need to tell you something."
"I'm listening." I sat up in the bed, shifting my legs to the side to give her a spot to sit. She remained standing.
"You see, it's about Miss Louisa." She took a breath and glanced down at her hands, wringing back and forth feverishly. "Well, you see. You asked me once what happened to her medicine and I told you I'd thrown it away the morning after... after we found her."
I nodded, my brows lowering. I didn't like seeing Elsa like this, nervous and edgy, I was almost tempted to stop her and send her away just so I didn't have to witness it anymore. So I didn't have to hear what she was about to say. Afraid that it was what I suspected.
"I lied. The... that night, I brought Miss Louisa her glass of water and I found her trying to..." she stopped again and this time the breath was uneven, harsh and more like a sob. I closed my eyes against the darkness, my heart aching with a deep pain as I let my head fall back against the headboard.
"Elsa," I said softly. "It's okay."
"It was a new bottle, I remember that I'd only just... bought... it..." Even in the darkness I knew that she was crying and I reached up to her, pulling her down into a hug as I pressed my mouth against her brittle salt and pepper hair.
"I don't know why, I... she couldn't open it and I... her eyes were so..."
"Shhh." I rocked her gently as I stroked at her hair, she buried her head against my chest, her body shaking with each sob and I realised just how old and frail she was getting. Her bones, once so broad and strong were getting thinner, I could almost feel their brittleness.
"I'm so sorry," She whispered, voice muffled by my night shit. "I'm so sorry... Lord, I'm sorry..."
"Shhh," I hushed again, pulling her tight. It was strange, I'd always suspected this, but I'd never seriously thought it over, afraid that if I did I'd never be able to forgive her. But now, hearing it actually spoken, actually knowing it for definite, I didn't feel any kind of anger. Just... relief perhaps? All I could think was that at least she didn't suffer. Louisa's greatest fear had always been losing her freedom... at least she'd been able to choose when she died.
"It's okay," I whispered into her hair. I was surprised to realise that the pain in my heart was actually that of a weight lifting.
"Ezra?" I asked one night when we were sitting in our usual chairs. I wasn't sure where Elsa was, never really was. At first I'd been afraid that maybe she felt uncomfortable about that night, that maybe she was avoiding me. I'd even gone so far as to ask Ezra about it but he'd just laughed and asked when had Elsa ever spent more than a few minutes in someone's company without cussing them blue and moving on?
It was crude, perhaps more bitter than it should have been, but it helped.
Ezra hummed and turned his head against the wicker backrest, only one of his green eyes visible in the night shadows.
"Did you ever meet up with any of the others? Before you came here, I mean."
Ezra gave a wry snort. I wasn't surprised, he was quick at the best of times and it was almost a given that he would spot something so poorly veiled. Quite frankly I didn't care, I never was one for subtle, I remember Ezra and occasionally Nathan teasing me about it in the past, but sometimes blunt had its merits. I wanted-needed to know what Ezra had done after he left. What happened to him.
"Did you?" he asked lightly. I shrugged, the wood of my seat creaking against the movement.
"Kept in touch with JD a bit."
"Nah, not really, kid still had a lot of growing to do, ended up doing it away from me."
"And you him?" Ezra asked.
"He has Casey and I...had Louisa." I hesitated on the words, over a year ago and I still stumbled over the tenses. I wasn't lying to Ezra when I said I was never in love with her, but I still cared for her.
"You didn't correspond with Mr. Larabee?" I shook my head. Ezra arched a brow and looked away from me. "I'm surprised."
"Never have with Chris. We always ended up just bumping into each other, guess if it's ever needed we probably will again someday."
"You seem so certain," Ezra said quietly. Something about his tone caught my attention. I wasn't sure what it was but something made my head whip around and I scrutinised his side profile.
"Shouldn't I be?"
Ezra sucked on the inside of his cheek. He released it with a click of his tongue and shrugged.
"You know there's only really so many ways you can travel a straight road. Given enough time you're certain to find what you're looking for."
"The hell you talkin' about, Ez?"
Ezra pushed up in his seat, I thought he was going to stand and walk away but he just hunched over, cupped hands hanging over his knees.
"You were the first to leave after me, yes?"
"Yeah..." I began uncertainly. Ezra nodded sharply.
"I suppose Chris left soon after you then."
"You saw Chris?"
Ezra gave a bitter laugh.
"No," Ezra shook his head. "He saw me."
Ezra stood abruptly and the rocking chair swung back, jostled by the sudden absence of his weight. It creaked gently, back and forth and back again in a repetitive trance as I watched Ezra walk slowly past me and back into the house.
He paused in the doorway for a moment, muttering quietly, as if only to himself.
"I should probably apologise for that some day."
And then he was gone.
Chris was sitting with Vin at a back table when I walked into the saloon. I stopped off at the bar, knowing that neither of the selfish bastards would be willing to share their beer and then made a detour to their table with my own frothing mug.
"How do," I grinned and winked at the both of them. Vin was the only one who responded with a smile and a tilt of the head towards Chris. He was glaring at something across the room and I followed his gaze to the back of a stranger sitting at Ezra's table.
"Trouble?" I asked. Chris barely shrugged.
Vin arched a brow but didn't bother speaking. We both knew Chris would get around to clarifying eventually, always did.
"They didn't shake hands when they sat down," Chris finally said. Very profound...
"Meaning...?" I coaxed. Vin just frowned a little.
"Think they know each other?" he asked. Finally, Chris shrugged.
"Could be mistaken..." The rest of his sentence was left unspoken with a cocky air. The day Chris ever believe himself to be wrong was the day that a fish went to the desert.
At that moment Ezra and the stranger stood and walked past our table to the saloon doors. Ezra seemed to sense our eyes on him and turned to look at us.
And my breath caught in my throat. For one moment, one tiny, barely existent slither of a moment, I saw an Ezra I didn't recognise. Gone was the silver tongue, the grin and the sparkle, and in its place was something dark and lost. He was both vulnerable and deadly at the same time. But just as quickly as the moment was there, it was gone, not even leaving a shadow of darkness on his face.
"Good evening, gentlemen." Ezra grinned and tilted his hat to us. I felt rather than saw Chris and Vin giving their own salutations and so forced myself to give Ezra a bright smile and a wink.
When he had left, I wanted nothing more than to ask the other two if they had seen it, or if it were nothing more than my imagination acting up on me. But when I turned around, Chris was already on his feet and following Ezra out of the saloon. I moved to follow him, but Vin's hand on my arm stopped me.
"Don't," was all Vin said. I don't know why, but I listened to him, I sat with him for hours, drinking the last dregs of our beer and wondering just when Chris and Ezra would return. It wasn't until Vin tapped me on the elbow and nodded to the door that I realised they weren't coming back. Not tonight.
I'd never really thought much more of that night. Not until now.
Not until I can look back with a new light. A light almost as jaded and bitter as Ezra himself.
Not until I can look back and wonder.
It may come as a surprise to hear from me after all this time. For that I must apologise, but I have some news that I must...
I ripped the latest sheet of paper free from its binding and screwed it up, sending it sailing over my shoulder to join the growing pile. No matter what I put, nothing sounded right. I didn't know how to address JD, not after all this time. I'd always been told to write letters formally, always with a pleasant query of the recipient's health, but would that offend JD? Would he feel like I was pushing him away even further than I already had done? What if it had been too long for informality? What if he were annoyed by a chatty 'Hey, haven't seen you in ages but a really funny thing happened to me the other day...' as if doing so suggested I'd expected him to put his life on hold waiting for me to get in touch with him?
I didn't even know whether I should address him as JD or John Dunne.
Letting out a tired sigh I rested my head against fisted hands and stared down at the clean page, its bleached white surface slightly marred by the indentation of my pen. The ghost of words I didn't want to say.
Over the past few days I hadn't been able to stop thinking about JD. My talk with Ezra had brought up old memories that refused to be forgotten again. What was JD like these days? The last time I'd heard from him was in a letter a few weeks after Louisa's death. He'd inquired about her health, unknowing that she was already cold and withering in a grave. He'd described how he and Casey were trying for a baby, how he was both afraid and exited about this new responsibility.
I'd never replied to the letter, embittered and unwilling to accept that whilst I sat in an empty house with no one other than Elsa for company, other people were continuing their life. Other people wanted to continue living.
JD never sent another letter my way either. Really, it was just as much his fault we lost contact as it was mine.
Poising the shaped nib on the first line, I hesitated for a moment, shaping words in the air, then I pressed it down, letting the black ink soak into the page.
I'm aware that you may be confused as to why I would be contacting you as opposed to JD, but I ask you to please try and understand that at this time, what I have to say to your husband can only be communicated in person. Taking this into account, I'm afraid I have a favour to ask of you...
The letter was short and formal and perfectly worded for the wife of a friend. I sealed the letter in its envelope with a little more care than necessary, already making plans in my head. If Casey were to agree to anything within the letter, JD should be arriving in no more than three days time.
I refused to think about whether that would be a good or bad thing, knowing that if I did, the letter would only end up on top of the discarded pile.
"Usually when people are expecting someone, they find out what day they're arriving," Ezra said one day. He was leaning back in his chair, his hands resting across his stomach in a relaxed, content pose. Every now and then, he absently ran his tongue along the front of his teeth, clearing them of blackberry seeds from the pie most probably.
"What?" I asked, mildly baffled.
Ezra grinned a slow lazy gin and shrugged his shoulders just as fluidly. When Ezra was content, he acted very much like a cat, I'd never really noticed it back in Four Corners, but now, as he lost more and more of that awful emptiness in his eyes, I began to pick up on the little things that were so entirely Ezra.
"It usually saves money if you do. You know, making up only one special feast... but then what do people know, I suppose."
"How'd you know I was expectin' company?"
"Please, Buck." Ezra snorted. "I've made a living on reading people and you, my friend, always have been and always will be an open book to me. Plus," he rolled his eyes up to the ceiling and gave a good natured, self-depreciating smile. "Elsa told me."
Elsa, of course. Usually she showed no signs of being a busybody; in fact she despised most of the gossips of the town. But the minute I told her not to tell anyone, things spread quicker than wildfire.
"Is it Miss Freda and her dear husband again?" Ezra asked. "I have been meaning to apologise to her for the last time..."
"It's not Freda."
"Oh thank god." Ezra relaxed visibly. I gave him a look and he shrugged, still grinning. "So, not that I want to appear nosey, but who is it?"
"JD," I said abruptly. Ezra stopped grinning. His face went blank and he sat up in his seat, hands dropping down by his sides.
"Oh," he said quietly. "I... I thought you'd lost contact with him."
"I have. I did. He sent me a letter recently, said he was passing through soon and needed a room for the night. I offered him a place." It was a lie, one that I was fairly certain Ezra would pick up on but I wasn't sure how Ezra would react to the knowledge that I'd invited JD myself. I hoped that he'd respect the 'don't ask, don't tell' rule. I watched Ezra carefully from beneath lowered brows and asked, "You okay?"
Ezra blinked at me and nodded quickly. "Of course. I just... Does he know I'm here?"
"Not yet." I didn't ask if Ezra wanted him to know, I wasn't going to give him the chance of running away again.
"A surprise for all," Ezra muttered quietly. He looked down at his hands for a moment, then he looked back up at me with sober eyes. "If he punches me when he sees me, I'm holding you responsible."
I couldn't help but laugh.
I'd asked Casey for JD to come alone, so when he turned up with her and a restless young baby in her arms, I couldn't help but look a little disappointed. JD didn't notice as he pulled me into an awkward, but affectionate hug and over his shoulder Casey made small apologetic gestures. Slinging the baby up onto one of her hips she pointed at it and then JD mouthing something that I couldn't understand, but I'd already guessed that JD wasn't willing to leave her and the new baby alone.
JD happily introduced me to his 'beautiful baby girl', Catherine, and his 'radiant wife', Casey. Apparently in his fluster, he'd forgotten that Casey and I already knew each other. I smiled in the right moments, cooed at the baby when cued to and shook Casey's hand whilst sharing amused glances. But all the time I was never quite concentrating on what I was doing, too busy thinking about Ezra sitting nervously within the front foyer and wondering just how I was going to do this. Somehow, a casual 'Oh hey, look JD. Ezra isn't dead after all,' didn't really seem all that appropriate.
Casey, who seemed to pick up on my discomfort and already knowing that there was something important I needed to share with JD alone, if not what, excused herself up to their room with Elsa, claiming that they'd need to set up a last minute crib for Catherine. I was left alone with JD by the door. He grinned at me, looked around the entrance, and then grinned at me again.
"Nice place you have here," he said, obviously growing uncomfortable with the silence.
"Yeah," I agreed. "Louisa came from good money. Her stint in politics didn't hurt much either."
"Good. That's good. You know not many men would admit to that, to having their wife be the head of the family." He grinned cheekily at me and nudged me in the side with his elbow. I could tell that he too was a little uncertain of where he stood, turning light teasing into a pantomime of over acting to ensure I didn't take offence. "SO where is Louisa?" he asked casually. I froze. I'd forgotten that JD still didn't know about her death. I'd grown accustomed to being the talk of the town and had pretty much begun assuming that everyone knew me as the lonely widower.
"Ah," I began a little nervously, eyes darting to the door I knew Ezra was behind. "About that, I... well. She ah. She passed away."
"Oh..." JD breathed. "Oh god, Buck. I'm sorry. I didn't know! I-"
"It's fine," I interrupted him and placed a hand on his shoulder, giving him a tight smile befitting of a man who was still mourning but beginning to live again. "It was a while ago. I suppose I should have told you before. I just never got around to it..."
"Was that what you wanted to tell me? I mean Casey didn't say anything but she was doing that thing she does. You know, kind of saying how this was no more than a friendly visit so much that I knew something was going on."
"She's never been good at lying has she?" I chuckled. "I guess that's why you two are so good together."
JD paused for a moment, his grin growing in size as his eyes warmed happily. "Yeah, we're pathetic together like that." He sighed and patted me on the back. "So you're doing okay?" I nodded. "You're not turning into a hermit up here or anything are you?"
I shook my head and sighed, now was as good a time as any to say it...
"JD," I said. "I have to... Ezra's here."
"What?" JD asked, his question so sudden it overlapped my words. His smile shrunk into a tight line and his brows lowered but his eyes kept a warmth to him. It comforted me a little, no matter how desolate or empty the rest of us got, JD would never lose that light to his eyes.
"Ezra's here?" JD asked, his voice no more than a hissed whisper. "Right now?"
I nodded again.
"He came about a month ago, probably more. I can't remember."
"God... I..." JD shook his head and blew out a breath. "This is. Wow, Buck. Why's he here? I mean, I thought he was dead and... Jesus."
"Yeah," I agreed. "Pretty much what I thought too."
JD frowned at me, his eyes angry but I wasn't certain if it was anger at me, Ezra, or both.
"Where is he?" he asked.
I pointed mutely to the door although I was beginning to wonder if maybe I'd made a mistake. Perhaps now wasn't the right time for JD and Ezra to meet up again. Perhaps it never would be the right time.
I could tell from the way Ezra was sitting that he wasn't sure what to expect. His head shot up when JD burst into the room with me following meekly behind and he climbed to his feet, his shoulders squaring a little as he braced his feet. I was a little saddened to realise that Ezra was expecting JD to hit him rather than hug him.
JD took two distance-eating strides into the room, then stopped, hands flexing by his sides. They stayed a couple of feet from each other, just staring, both waiting for the other to move. For a moment I thought of stepping in-between things and continuing it myself, but instead I walked around the two of them and sat down in the seat Ezra had just vacated. JD's eyes flickered over Ezra's shoulder, meeting me and then he looked back to Ezra with a glare born of both confusion and anger.
"Mr. Dunne," Ezra greeted with a small uncertain quirk of his lips. The sound of his voice seemed to trigger something in JD and his eyebrows shot up a small hiss of air. Even before both Ezra and I had even realised he was moving, JD was standing right before Ezra, so close his nose was practically pressed against Ezra's.
"Just so you know," JD said in a low, dangerous tone. "I really want to hit you right now." Ezra flinched a little, but JD pulled him back, tugging him into a fierce hug. "I'm so glad you're alive," he hissed into Ezra's shoulder, eyes squeezing shut against the suspicious wetness. Ezra glanced behind him to me with a nonplussed yet mildly relieved expression.
All I could do was shrug.
JD was just closing the door to his room as I came up the stairs, he had Catherine cradled in one arm and a knitted blanket draped over the other. He looked domesticated and ridiculous and so happy it made my chest hurt a little.
"Hey," JD said in a stage whisper, even though Catherine was already awake and tugging at a strand of his hair.
"Yeah," I said as I stared down at Catherine, her face was a little squashed, her cheeks red and blotchy. Most babies were ugly when young, and Catherine was by no means an exception, but to JD she was like an angel. I thought maybe she should have looked like that to me too, but she seemed little short of an alien. I reached out, letting her wrap her fist around my thumb as I always did when trying to feel something more for her than just an appreciation of something small and vulnerable, but nothing happened. She was sweet, but I didn't lose my breath in an awed gasp as JD did, or grin inanely like I caught Casey doing on more than one occasion when cleaning up Catherine's mess after meals.
I suppose I would have felt a little better if I wasn't alone in my feelings of isolation, but the issues Ezra had with the rest of humanity didn't seem to transcend into the realm of babies and animals. In the short few days since they had arrived, Ezra had fast become Catherine's favourite person outside of her mother and father. It was cruel of me, but I'd idly hoped that perhaps Ezra had lost his gift with children over the four years; of course I immediately hated myself every time I thought it, but that didn't stop the sentiments.
At least I had Elsa, I supposed. She had given JD the lavender soaps of course, but the whole idea of baby-talk was lost on her, and so, after the third occasion of Elsa trying to make conversation with a drooling young baby only to have everything ending up in a big old mess of tears, snot and screams, Elsa had taken to spending most of her time either in the kitchen or outside and away from human company.
"You want to hold her?" JD asked, bustling Catherine higher in his grip. I hesitated for a moment, 'umming' and 'aahing' and trying to look like I was actually considering it so as not to insult JD. Before I could say no, however, JD had pushed her into my arms and I caught hold of her by instinct. Catherine let out a small gurgle of discomfort but soon settled down in my arms, her eyes drifting shut against her puffed out cheeks.
"JD," I said as I stared down at her. "She's drooling."
"I know, isn't it adorable?"
I just stared at him. JD moved past me and down the stairs, the idea that perhaps someone wasn't as besotted with his daughter as he was apparently a foreign concept to him. "So," he said over his shoulder as I followed him. "Did you want to talk to me about something?"
"Yeah, how are things with you and Ezra?"
"Huh? Oh we're fine." We walked into the living room where I quickly placed a still snoozing Catherine in her high chair and out of the way. "Yeah, he's real good with Cathy,"
"Yeah?" I said. "And what about the two of you?"
JD let out a short laugh and pulled a face at me.
"Buck, this subtle thing? You no good at it, just tell me what you're getting at."
I shrugged and dropped down onto the Chaise Lounge. JD followed me, crossing his feet at the ankles on the Indian rug.
"Just thought that the two of you woulda' needed to do a bit more talking than you have done. You know, clear the air."
I expected JD to defend himself, perhaps claim that they'd said what they needed to, instead he let out a sigh and nodded his head in sombre agreement.
"Yeah, I know." He dropped his head back against the couch and blinked up at the ceiling. "It's just, I don't know. I can't figure him out. Never really known what to say to Ezra anyway but now...?" JD turned to look at me, his left ear pressed against the couch as his lips tightened nervously. "What if I say the wrong thing, Buck? I want to know why he left, god knows sometimes I just look at him and get so angry. But what if I push him away or something?"
I didn't know what to say so I just gave him a tight smile and patted his shoulder.
"What'd you do, Buck?" JD asked. I frowned; not knowing what he was referring to and JD shrugged his shoulder under my grip in elaboration. "He came to you. Hell, he's stayed with you for over a month now. What'd you say to him to get through to him?"
"I don't know..." I began softly, my voice distant as I looked back to the time Ezra first showed up. To be honest I didn't think I'd ever said anything. I didn't think I'd even gotten through to him. If I had, I doubted Ezra would still be here.
The hand on my shoulder jolted me awake and for a moment I was completely lost. Then gradually things came back to me. Sunday... it was Sunday. But what time was it and... who?
"Buck..." A ragged voice whispered.
"Ezra?" I said, my own voice a whisper since it felt wrong to speak, like too much noise would shatter something delicate. The hand on my shoulder shook as it trailed over my neck and up onto my cheek, icy fingers brushing against the hair just above my ear as unsteady breath hissed out over my chest.
"Jesus, Ezra, you're freezing!" I whispered, moving to the side of the bed and pulling Ezra down next to me. He was still clothed but it was damp and I could feel him his back trembling beneath my hands as I tried to warm him.
His hands continued to stroke at my face, his eyes distant and somehow disconnected from the rest of him as he stared up at me.
"Buck?" he repeated, the tip of his tongue slipping out to lick at his chapped bottom lip. I could see spider trails of blood glistening on them, as if he had smiled too wide and they'd cracked.
He hadn't come back that evening but after the last time, I'd learned not to panic, Ezra always seemed to be slipping out every now and then. He never gave warning when it would happen, but he always came back. Most of the time after one of his disappearances he'd return by waking me up and curling against my side with nonverbal mutterings until he drifted off to sleep.
This night was one of those times; he never took his eyes off me as I moved down the bed to slip off his shoes and then gently work him free of his coat and pants. I never usually undressed him; it just seemed too weird and real for what often felt like a dream to me. But now, I knew that if I didn't get him dry and warm, he would more than likely grow ill. It was purely a matter of safety.
Not long after it had become an unspoken given that JD, Casey and Catherine wouldn't be going home anytime soon, normalcy returned to the house. It was a little strange how everyone seemed to adapt to new habits so easily. Ezra and I returned to our nightly ritual of watching the sunset on the porch. JD occasionally came out to sit with us but mostly it was just he and I, never really talking save for the few spoken thoughts or grunts of assent. Casey prepared meals with Elsa as Catherine, who now constantly carried the overpowering scent of lavenders, watched them from her highchair, holding entire one-sided conversations of nonsensical coos and squawks.
It felt normal, but also odd, like it was a normal life but a life I knew I shouldn't be part of.
It pretty much felt like Four Corners had all those years ago.
I sat at the kitchen table opposite Casey who was peeling potatoes with Catherine balanced on her right knee. Occasionally she would have to hold the knife at arms length away from Catherine's grabbing hands. It struck me as a little odd that she didn't just put Catherine in her high chair but I refrained from commenting. Casey really had grown up since I'd last seen her. Back then, she'd practically lived in her pant suits and should anyone have told her that in four years time she would be wearing motherly dresses and keeping a house, she would have laughed in their face, and most probably spat at the ground as well. But now, the only thing I recognised as the old Casey was her braided hair, no longer in bunches but in one long gathering down her back.
"Buck?" Casey asked, I blinked at her and she gave me a soft smile as she placed a freshly peeled potato out of Catherine's grip and reached for another. "You keep doing that."
"What?" I asked. Casey shrugged a little, working her knife around a knot in the potato skin.
"Going off somewhere in your mind. Where do you go?"
I shook my head and picked up the potato Casey had just finished, running my thumbs over its smooth, slightly tacky surface.
"Don't know really. A lot of space in there to go, I suppose." Casey let out a quiet chuckle but when she looked up at me, she was still frowning. A slither of potato skin curled around the poised blade of the knife.
"I'm sorry that it took us so long." At my frown Casey let out a soft breath of air and positioned Catherine more snugly against her hip. "I'm sorry that it took you asking us to get us here."
"Hell, Casey. There's no call for apologies. Figure that if there were I'd have far more to say than you."
"What do you have to be sorry for?" Casey laughed. My eyes travelled down to Catherine, she had one leg wrapped around Casey's waist whilst the other jerked back and forth in little kicks. She'd forgotten the potatoes in exchange for the tie on her mother's apron. Small, vulnerable, and still nothing more to me than oddly sweet.
"Yeah," I agreed, though it sounded weak. "Guess you're right."
Casey stared at me for a moment, until Catherine let out a small gurgling cry. I used the break to slip quietly out of the kitchen.
Over the days, and eventual weeks, it became more and more apparent that JD was up to something. He never had been one for subtlety and even now, when he had become a man, abandoning those much-loved Dime Store Novels of his in exchange for sharing his own personal tales with his daughter, he still acted like a fox in a chicken pen. Sneaking around the house in the middle of the day, shooting everyone small furtive glances as he scuttled from room to room. The rooms almost always seemed to include Ezra in them and although he made a point of stating just how much of a coincidence that was, it was fairly obvious that what ever he was up to, it included Ezra in some way.
It wasn't until a Sunday evening, a few hours after our Sunday dinner that I found out just what he was up to.
I was sitting out on the porch with a fresh cup of coffee and waiting for Ezra to join me when the porch doors swung open. I wasn't too surprised to see JD; Ezra didn't usually show up until an hour or so later. He always seemed to be a ghost on Sundays, staying hidden away until the evenings, I'd always presumed it was because he felt awkward staying behind whilst the rest of us went to Church like all God Fearing citizens.
JD shifted nervously in his seat and it wasn't until the third furtive glance cast my way that I realised he was waiting for me to make eye contact. Leisurely, I turned in my seat and met his brown eyes, raising my brows expectantly.
JD gave me a weak smile and bobbed his head, just as he always did when uncertain of an outcome.
"JD, spit it out."
"Okay," he said and bobbed his head again. "Right, yeah. Okay." Licking at his lips, he nudged the rocking chair around, using his feet to keep the chair still. "So," He clutched his hands in-between his knees, leaning forwards in his seat, as an adult would do when consoling a distraught child.
"I need to tell you something."
"Oh," I said. Oh indeed...
"I found something out and... and, well, I think you should know."
"You 'found something out'? And how did you do that?"
"I... I've been watching him for some time now."
"Watching? Don't you mean following, or stalking perhaps?"
"Damnit, Buck!" JD cried with growing frustration. He knew I was stalling-hell, I knew I was stalling, I didn't have the energy to deal with anything anymore and I knew that whatever it was JD had to say it would include dealing at the end.
"Okay, sorry, tell me."
""I think Ezra's in trouble."
"What kind of trouble?"
"Okay, um. You know when he disappeared all that time ago? Well I think he's still there."
I tensed in my seat, sitting up a little as my fingers tightened around my cup.
"What are you getting at?"
"I didn't go to Church today and I followed-stalked," he corrected with a wry glance at me, "him today. I mean we all know he doesn't just sit around here every Sunday and I just... I mean I've always suspected that there's been something going on. You know he's always been good at hiding things. It just seemed too-"
"JD," I interrupted. "Where did he go?"
"He-that railroad site just outside of town? He's been going there and... Buck, he's been taking stuff and... I think... it's bad, Buck. He's just, I lost him in one of the tents but Jesus Buck, some of the things..."
JD trailed off but I wasn't listening anymore. Memories were flashing in my mind. None of them in any order, everything merging into one, but it all made perfect sense.
I saw his hands, paper thin and trembling. Always trembling. Like hers. Coffee spilling over the sides falling down and down and down onto the floor. Staining it brown.
A dark, dark red. His eyes staring at me from the darkness, green over bloodshot red. Small welts running out... spider webs.
"Buck..." A word spoken on bloodied lips. Cracks parting as the lips stretch, squeezing the blood out into the corners where they bubbled.
Screaming. Her screaming. Screaming for him... for me.
The bottle, Elsa crying and snivelling, a pathetic wreck. "I don't know why, I... she couldn't open it and I... her eyes were so..." Stroking her hair, my hands in the brittle strands, spiking and crackling under my grip. Louisa's eyes were so empty at the end... no more pain, no more anger, no more happiness.
"I've been talking to Ezra,"
Eyes blazing, I pushed to my feet, my chair slamming back against the porch as I stormed into the house. I could hear JD calling my name behind me, his rushing feet as he skipped after me, shouting at me to stop. To listen. I didn't-I couldn't.
I tore through the house like a tyrant, slamming doors open and kicking at anything that lay in my way. A small part of my mind was glad that Catherine was safely tucked away in her bed upstairs. JD would never have forgiven me if anything had happened to her.
Elsa and Casey jumped away from the kitchen door when I barged in, they looked as though they half expected it to be a burglar, I don't think the revelation that it was just me with a frantic JD at my heels comforted them any. Casey barked a curse at me as I pushed my way none too gently past her and came to a jarring halt in front of a suspiciously calm Elsa.
"You knew," I hissed murderously, ignoring the shrill cries of Casey and yells from JD as they tried to pull me away.
Elsa lifted her chin and tightened her mouth, her aged wrinkles stretching taught with tension.
"You knew, God damnit! You knew..." I could feel hot tears in the corners of my eyes and raked splayed fingers down my face, scratching them away and leaving white scours over my cheek that soon turned red.
Casey and JD had stopped yelling at me and now stood a few paces away from the two of us, watching with pale, shocked expressions. Elsa's gaze flickered over my shoulder to them, and then refocused on me, a serene sadness shining within.
"I knew," she agreed.
Elsa had never dropped the cloth she'd been holding and she began to quite calmly fold it, draping it over her arm repeatedly as it grew smaller and smaller until it became a small, fat square.
"Laudanum is just Opium diluted. I know its smell... it's effects." She turned back to me, hands clasped. "I know it, Buck."
"Why?" I demanded, "Why didn't you tell me?" Elsa didn't react. She seemed to have been expecting the question and brushed past me to place the cloth onto the tabletop, smoothing it out with her weather toughened hands.
"He didn't want me to."
I snorted. An angry derisive snort.
"Didn't want you to?" I repeated. "Is that how Louisa... Do you always do what people tell you to?"
I'd hit a nerve I knew I had. Elsa froze, her hands clenching into the cloth, brittle fingernails scraping against the material as she slowly turns back to me. Nothing about her is fast, just sedate. The polar opposite to me She didn't say anything and neither did I. We just stood facing each other off, watching and waiting
"Buck?" JD's voice broke in. I grunted as he stood next to me and placed a hand on my elbow. Gently but firmly directing me away from Elsa. As I turned I caught Casey's eye, she was glaring back at me, her chest heaving from where she stood, the palms of her hands pressed against the kitchen counter. Her eyebrows furrowed in question and then she spun away, moving to Elsa who was still staring at me. I glanced at JD, JD's eyes were sad but compassionate, he pulled my other elbow into his grip and tugged on them both.
"You okay?" he asked. I almost laughed. Okay? Of course not.
"Yeah," I said and raked a hand through my hair, pulling free of his grip. "Yeah, sure. I just... shock, you know?"
"Yeah," JD agreed. "Yeah I get that. But listen, it's not Elsa's fault."
"But she knew."
"Yeah, and so did I." I looked at him.
"Okay, I told. Bad example. But Jesus, Buck. I was tempted not to. Hell, look at you!"
"What do you mean?" I frowned and rather stupidly looked down at myself. Nothing looked out of place, sure I'd lost my temper but they all had to of known that I'd never, ever hurt any of them, least of all Elsa. JD indicated me with a wave of his hands but it was abstract, indicating something other than my body.
"You're. Okay, there's no way of putting this nicely so I'm just gonna' out and say it. You're on the edge, Buck."
"What?" I snapped but JD continued as if I had never spoken.
"She didn't say anything because she was scared that it'd be the one thing to tip you over. We're all scared of doing that, probably even Ezra." JD suddenly looked so very apologetic, his eyes growing wet with unshed tears as he pulled me into a tight hug. It felt strange, but not entirely bad. "I didn't know how bad it was, hell, if I'd heard about Louisa back when it first happened I would have come here straight away. Why didn't you say anything?"
"I..." I began but JD squeezed me tighter and shook his head against my shoulder. I couldn't hear Casey or Elsa behind me but I presumed they had moved on, probably into another room to have their own talk.
"No, I shouldn't... don't answer that. Just...Jesus, I'm sorry Buck, really I am."
I could feel that JD was crying now. Though he tried to hide it his shoulders shook in restrained tremors. Distantly, almost numbly, I lifted my arms and wrapped them around him, returning the hug.
"It's okay," I said. For the first time in so long I was able to say it without feeling the need to just apologise in return. For the first time in so long I was able to just listen to someone. I felt my own eyes growing warm, but I didn't wipe the tears away.
That night I didn't go to sleep. Instead I lay in bed awake, waiting for Ezra to come back. He did eventually, at five in the morning, just when the night was turning from blue blacks into purples and the crispy ice of the air was warming into dew. It was then, with the new awareness that I realised what a mess Ezra really was. He definitely was putting on weight, returning from what had once looked like death to the appearance I recognised and missed so terribly. But the eyes... his expression. There was nothing there. Nothing of depth anyway, whatever happiness did flash in them when he caught sight of me lying in my bed was quickly chased away by whatever was eating him up from inside out. It made my breath catch in my throat and my chest burn.
"Oh, Ezra..." I breathed sorrowfully. Ezra froze in the middle of the room. He hadn't expected me to be awake and now he stood like a dear in headlights. Caught in the middle and completely lost on what to do.
I shifted to the side of the bed and threw a corner of the blanket aside.
"Come here." I gestured. Ezra hesitated for one tiny moment, before he stumbled towards me and collapsed onto the mattress. He shifted restlessly and for a moment it was uncomfortable with his elbows and feet continually digging into me, but eventually he settled down lying next to me with his head tucked into the crook of my neck.
"S'nice..." he mumbled quietly into my skin. I dipped my head in a nod, eyes staring out of the window at the encroaching dawn as I pulled him a little tighter against my chest.
"I know, Ezra," I eventually said. Ezra froze against my side. Neither of us had fallen asleep yet, it was probably too late to sleep now. "I know about where you go. What you do."
"Oh God..." Ezra groaned and tried to pull away from me. I hugged my arms tighter around him, refusing to let go and making damn sure he knew that by the solidness of my limbs.
"No, don't worry, I'm not angry."
Ezra continued to struggle.
"Damnit, Ezra! I'm not angry, just... hear me out, okay?"
"I'm sorry..." Ezra said and I could hear the anguish in the break of his voice. I silenced him by lowering my chin against his head that was still nestled against my neck. It made it easier talking like this, not having to see his broken eyes.
"You're a mess," I began and Ezra flinched against my side. "And I'm a mess too, I think you know that." I waited for him to give a meek nod before continuing. "You know when you first came here I thought it was because I should heal you or something, but now... I don't know." I began to stroke at the back of his head as the purples of predawn slowly changed to lilacs, which would eventually become golds and yellows. "We haven't been talking, Ez. That's our first mistake. I don't blame you, hell, I know I've avoided asking questions I knew I should of just because the answers seemed too daunting."
Ezra shifted against me, letting out a slow sigh and for a moment I thought he'd drifted off to sleep but then his head twitched under my chin, signalling me to continue.
"I think that we should start now. Talking I mean."
"What kind... what do you want me to say?"
I sighed and trailed my hand down from his hair to rest against the base of his neck, my thumb running along his shoulder blade.
"Suppose you could start with why you left Four Corners."
Every muscle in Ezra's body tensed and for a moment I thought I'd moved too fast, that I'd maybe pushed him back into his shell but then he relaxed into my grip again and shrugged. I could tell from his movements as they became more and more fluid that the drugs were gradually leaving his system. I supposed it was blind luck that I chose that night for this, one of the few nights it appeared that Ezra was actually aware of a bodily limit.
"You won't believe me. You'll think I'm sick-or something of that nature, I'm sure."
"Try me," I said.
Ezra pushed against me, his hands shifted on the mattress until his face was level with mine. In that position I could see his eyes, see the fear in them and the nervousness. It looked fresh and alive, nothing like the staleness that I usually associated with him these days.
"Okay..." Ezra breathed softly and kissed me. It didn't last long, there was no passion or fireworks or even groping. Our hands stayed where they were, mine resting on his back and his supporting his frame against the mattress. But the kiss wasn't empty; there was still something there. A slow, steady burn of warmth that comforted me, one that had two ends and I knew Ezra felt it too. He pulled away quietly, so slowly it took me a moment to realise he was no longer there and gradually, I opened my eyes to meet Ezra's.
"I'm sorry, Buck," Ezra said, looking down as if it were something to be ashamed of. "I never meant for you to know. You have to believe that I would never have tried anything, honestly. But then Louisa came, and I saw that-to you she was amazing and I wanted to hate her, really I did but, you just looked so happy." There was a minute pause, barely even there but enough to measure the sudden change in tone as Ezra tensed his lips and frowned across the room to the dawn creeping in through the window. "And then Chris found out."
"Chris?" I asked, remembering how oddly Ezra had always acted whenever I tried to bring him up, how oddly he acted even when he himself talked of the man. "Did he... run you out?" I whispered, not daring to believe it. Not Chris...
Ezra's eyes flickered a little in disbelief and he shook his head furiously, as if the very idea were ludicrous. "No... no! Of course not. Lord," Ezra frowned at me, "do you honestly believe that I would ever let anyone run me out of town without a fight?" He shivered a little under my touch. "No, Mr. Larabee was most supportive of my... interesting choices. Surprisingly so, actually."
"I can imagine." I nodded absently. Ezra arched a brow and his suspicion was obviously aroused but from my tight-lipped expression, he shrugged and let it slide.
"He'd decided to take it upon himself to become our... for lack of a better word, knight in shining armour, but I couldn't let him do that to you. Not with Louisa." Ezra sighed and let his head drop back down against my neck. "So I left," he said simply, then let out a bitter laugh. "I suppose I really should have taken better care of myself after that. I'll spare you the details but I can tell you that Chris shared my sentiments when he found me again. Old habits die hard."
"What happened?" I whispered.
"What? Oh nothing dramatic, I assure you. Your friend is alive and well somewhere or other but... I wasn't all that lucid at the time and. I suppose I might have made a few... disparaging remarks. I don't really remember much of it but when I woke up one morning, he was gone."
I could tell that there were things Ezra was leaving out of his tale. Things that were fairly obvious to me. Chris always had been the schoolyard type of crush; he lived by the golden rule that you were always hardest on those you liked best. Respecting Ezra's unspoken wishes, I kept quiet, refusing to question him about just what happened between him and Chris. If Ezra wanted to talk about it someday, he would, but not today.
Ezra shifted again in the bed, turning around so his back was pressed against me, his head using my shoulder as a pillow, I pulled my arms tight around me and his hair ruffled a little against my sigh. For a while the room was silent, save for the first few sounds of day outside.
"Buck?" Ezra said softly.
"What. What happens now?"
"Well, that and... well, what happens from now on?"
"JD and Casey will go home I guess. We'll both continue being messed in the head, and Elsa will keep on clearing up after the two of us."
"Oh." Ezra sounded a little disappointed. I felt his hands creep out from beneath the blanket and toy at my interlocking fingers.
"I was hoping for something else I suppose, for things to change..."
"They will," I answered. My fingers broke apart and weaved together with Ezra's, wrapping them into a small ball over Ezra's chest. "Just not yet."
"Is that... would you be happy with that? You won't..."
"Nah. I won't, I'm happy with just getting to happiness."
And I smiled, because deep down, lying in the same bed with Ezra and feeling his muscles slowly relax and his body gradually mould against mine, I knew I was happy with just getting there.