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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Mag 7 fic: Taking Things for Granted (3/3)

December 11th, 2015 (11:55 am)
full

feeling: full

PART ONE
PART TWO
PART THREE



-o-

It’s easier said than done.

Buck helps as best he can, but the minute JD gets him upright, he’s falling over again. Casey brings his horse closer, and Buck straightens enough to grab onto the saddle before promptly wilting against the side of his horse. JD coaxes him into putting his foot in the stirrup, but the act of getting on the horse takes all three of them.

When they’re done, Buck groans in the saddle while JD pants and Casey bends over and puts her hands on her knees in exhaustion.

“See?” Buck asks. “Nothing to it.”

Casey grunts. “We’re not going to let him ride alone, are we?”

JD looks up, a bit taken aback. “He said he can ride--”

“Look at him,” Casey says, gesturing toward Buck. “He’s barely upright.”

“But he is upright,” JD clarifies for her, ignoring the fact that he’s pale with sweat glistening in the moonlight. His breathing is wetter by the minute. JD shrugs, at a loss. “He said he can ride.”

“JD, you sure ain’t very good at knowing what people mean when they talk, are you?” she asks pointedly. “Just because someone says something, that doesn’t mean it’s exactly what they mean.”

JD’s nose wrinkles. “What are you talking about?”

“A trunk isn’t always a trunk!” Casey snaps. “And a man will always say he’s fine until he takes his last breath!”

JD gapes at her, not sure what to make of that.

Buck murmurs in the saddle. “Woman’s right, son,” he says.

“Wait,” JD says, looking from Casey to Buck. “You two agree? Since when is everyone against me?”

“Since when is it a contest?” Casey says. “Just get in the saddle and make sure he doesn’t fall off his horse.”

“But, you--”

“I’ll ride your horse,” Casey says reasonably.

“But--”

“I can ride a horse, JD,” Casey says curtly. “Now get on. We’re wasting time.”

She moves away to retrieve JD’s horse, and he watches her for a moment before looking up at Buck. He’s sitting with his eyes closed now, breathing through an open mouth.

Wasting time, it seems. If this is a contest, then JD’s willing to lose -- as long as Buck wins.

-o-

It’s fully night by the time they start to ride, and JD’s never felt more vulnerable. It’s one thing to be camped in the desert; it’s another to be riding through it at full speed. It feels stupid, is what it feels like, but JD know they don’t have much choice.

Not with Buck sitting drowsily in the saddle in front of him.

It’s awkward, to say the least, since Buck is taller and bigger in every way. It’s hard to see around him, but Casey wordless says a few strides ahead of him on the left, clearly in his line of sight. He doesn’t have to ask to know she’s watching out for all of them.

JD just has to keep Buck in the saddle and keep riding.

From time to time, Buck coughs, hacking weakly in front of him. When he finally tips his head back, it nearly cracks into JD’s skull and he smothers a curse while he adjusts his grip and works to keep the horse from spooking.

“What the--” Buck starts. “Are we--?”

“Riding,” JD tells him, not sure if he feels more annoyed or scared.

“Together?” Buck asks incredulously.

“You’re sick,” JD reminds him, working to keep his grip on the reins. Casey looks at them nervously as they manage to keep the horses as a determined pace.

Buck hacks deeply, shaking his head. “And you’re a man,” he protests. “I prefer not to share a saddle with anything less than a beautiful woman--”

JD rolls his eyes. “Casey wouldn’t be able to hold you upright.”

“Besides,” Casey chimes in. “It was my idea.”

It seems to take a lot of effort, but Buck manages to look at her. There’s a silence, and for a second, JD worries that Buck will go back to fighting him on this point.

But Buck tilts his head fondly. “Well, then,” he says softly. “Who am I to argue with a lady?”

It sounds smooth and flawless, but it’s finished with a sneeze. JD winces, and refuses to feel disgusted by the spray. “If you’re up for it, you think we can go a little faster?” JD asks instead.

Buck steadies himself, reaching up to hold the reins with JD. “Don’t know what your hurry is.”

JD forces himself to laugh. “Sooner I can get out of sharing a saddle with the likes of you, the better.”

Snorting, Buck gives JD a backward glance. “You should consider it an honor.”

“An honor?” JD asks mockingly. “Now you’re delusional.”

“That very well could be,” Buck says, his head tipping forward slightly as his voice starts to dip. “But this would be a poor choice of delusions to end it all.”

“Yeah well,” JD says, nudging the horse to go faster. “Then let’s not end it at all.”

-o-

The desert is eerie in the dark, with its deep shadows and vast emptiness. The sky is wide open, which might have been kind of pretty, except it only drives home the point of just how much farther they have to go.

Too far.

“Did I tell you ‘bout the time in Mexico?” Buck asks him.

“You have lots of times in Mexico,” JD says restlessly as he adjusts his grip and keeps a keen eye ahead on Casey.

The sound that follows is meant to be a laugh, but it sort of sounds like Buck’s choking.

JD tries not to panic.

Buck shakes his head. “I’ll have to take you there someday,” he muses.

“Of course you will,” JD says. “When you’re better, we’ll go. Just the two of us. And you can show me all your favorite places, and you can introduce me to all your favorite girls, and it’ll be great.”

Buck tips his head forward again. “Sounds a little like Heaven.”

JD’s gut twists. “Not Heaven,” he says, more stern than he intends. “Just Mexico. Okay? You’re going to take me to Mexico.”

“Sure, kid,” Buck murmurs. “That sounds like a plan.”

Somehow, it’s not reassuring as JD wants it to be.

-o-

JD is anxious in the saddle, but Casey keeps them as a steady pace. “Much faster and the horses won’t make it,” she reminds him.

Sighing, JD squirms restlessly, the heat rolling off Buck making him sweat worse. “Much slower and…”

He doesn’t finish.

Somehow he doesn’t have to.

“Listen to the lady, JD,” Buck says tiredly.

“You always say that,” JD shoots back, cross.

Buck coughs, taking a ragged breath that seems to be more effort than it’s worth. “And I’m always right.”

“We’ll still be there by daybreak,” Casey says, sounding hopeful.

JD holds Buck close and hopes she’s right.

-o-

The steady sound of hoofbeats becomes monotonous as the night wears on. The weight of the day is heavy, and JD feels the weariness deep inside him. His eyes are scratchy, and his head is swimming.

He just wants to sleep.

Just for a minute.

But when his eyes close, the darkness startles him and he jerks awake. Buck’s still in his grasp, and Casey still taking the lead.

Truth be told, he’s not sure which part’s the nightmare.

-o-

Buck’s murmurs taper off as his breathing worsens. JD can feel the pull of his lungs, the force of every waning breath that Buck manages to breathe. The fever burns hotter, and JD feels like it’s slipping away from him.

As if he ever had some kind of control over it.

That’s a fantasy, he knows. He’s been in over his head since the day he left his home back east, and the only reason he’s still alive is because of Buck and the others.

“JD?” Casey asks. “You okay?”

JD can’t bring himself to look at her. “Don’t you think that’s kind of a stupid question?”

“I didn’t mean--”

“I know you didn’t,” JD says. He shakes his head. “I just...I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Most people don’t--”

“But they do,” JD insists. “And I just go along pretending, hoping it all turns out. But one morning, I wake up and you’re just gone and Buck’s sick, and there’s nothing I can do to protect any of you.”

“Well, that’s life,” Casey offers gently.

JD’s eyes are burning but he doesn’t let himself blink. “I never told him,” he says. “I never told you. I never say the words to tell people what they mean to me. And then one day, everything up and changes, and I may never have that chance.”

“JD--” Casey starts to say.

But JD can’t stop now. He doesn’t know how. It’s all spilling out, and there’s nothing he can do. “I should have just said it,” he continues. “I should have made sense of it. I should have known. I never should have let you get taken, and I never should have let Buck come, and if I’d known -- if I’d just known--”

“JD,” Casey says again, more firmly now.

Tentatively, JD looks at her.

“None of this is your fault,” she says. “There are things no one can control, not even the seven.”

JD wants to believe her. But he shakes his head. “But I’ve taken it all for granted, Casey. You and Buck…”

“We always knew how you felt,” she assures him. “Sometimes the most important things are the things you never have to say.”

He holds her gaze, keeping Buck upright in the saddle. “I’d still like that chance.”

Casey smiles. “And you’ll get it,” she says. “I’m sure of it.”

JD looks to the path ahead.

At least that makes one of them.

-o-

By the time dawn breaks, JD feels ragged. He hasn’t slept in nearly a day, and the length of the ride has left him numb and spent. Buck is heavy and limp in his arms, head bobbed forward as the horse continues its tired ascent of the last hill.

At the time, the horses stagger, and JD squints out at the approaching day.

“We made it,” Casey says, sounding relieved. “We made it back.”

JD glances at Buck, feels the tenuous push and pull of his breathing, and wishes that one success would ensure another.

Throat tight, JD tugs the reins. “Come on,” he says.

Because they’re close, but for JD, close is never going to be good enough.

-o-

The town is just starting to rouse, but JD doesn’t pay the hour much heed. On the main street, JD can hardly wait as he dismounts and yells for Nathan.

Getting Buck off the horse is hard, and it nearly knocks him on his backside. Red faced, he fumbles, doing his best to catch Buck, but it seems like a losing battle.

Hell, it’s all been a losing battle, and maybe JD’s just been too stupid and naive to think otherwise. Because Buck’s sick and Casey got kidnapped and JD rode all night and everything JD has ever wanted was right here all along and he let it all get away.

Tears are burning in his eyes as he half cradles Buck. They’re on their way to the ground, a mess of limbs everywhere, and JD’s losing control when something stops them both.

He looks up to see Casey, bruised face set, and Nathan, right by her side.

“We got him,” Nathan says, confident and sure. “We got him.”

JD’s not sure if he can believe that, but then again, he also doesn’t think he can fight it either. The fight leaves him almost without his consent, and he’s powerless as Buck is taken from his hands. A shopkeeper comes up and helps Nathan with the load, while Nettie lets out a cry and runs down the steps to gather Casey in her arms.

JD is left standing alone.

That’s how he came to Four Corners.

He wonders if that’s how it’ll end, too.

-o-

It’s all rote after that. JD doesn’t quite remember climbing the stairs to Nathan’s clinic, but he remembers the sweat on Buck’s exposed chest while Nathan lays a flat palm on it to listen. His features are dark with worry, and when he looks up at JD, something indiscernible passes over his features.

“He got sick last night,” JD explains numbly. “I thought he was okay--”

“I told him he had influenza,” Nathan says with a tired shake of his head. “Of all the foolish things--”

JD barely understands, and he shakes his head. “But he’ll be okay,” he says. “We rode back all night so he’ll be okay.”

Nathan can’t look him in the eyes.

JD’s stomach plummets, and he steps closer, his agitation rising. “We rode all night,” he says again, as if the effort alone should be enough. “He has to be okay.”

“JD,” Nathan says, lifting his eyes to meet JD’s. “I’ll do everything I can.”

And suddenly JD is faced with another thing he’s taken for granted. He’s counted on Nathan, on the idea of a healer, as the fix it he’s needed. He’s set this goal in his mind, getting Buck back, as if it could fix everything.

That’s not how it is, though. Nathan’s just a man, and influenza is a nasty virus. Sometimes, people die.

Sometimes you can’t fix it.

He looks at Buck, skin ghostly pale in the morning sunlight. The smudges under his eyes are dark, and his hair is slicked with sweat. His breathing is loud and laborious, and just like that, all of JD’s bravado is gone. All of his confidence is spent, and every ounce of surety he’s ever had evaporates in the morning sun.

This is all JD has left, lying on a bed and standing bruised and crying in Nettie’s arms.

“JD,” Nathan says, like he’s been saying it time and again. He puts a heavy hand on JD’s shoulder. “Maybe you ought to lie down.”

If JD wants to protest, he’s damn well sure forgotten how. He’s compliant and empty as Nathan guides him to a bed and he curls up on his side, face turned toward Buck. The rasping of his breathing is like a terrifying lullaby that pulls him toward unconsciousness before he even thinks to fight it.

-o-

He wakes when someone lifts his head and puts a cup to his lips. “--just dehydrated,” Nathan murmurs. “He’ll be fine.”

“But he’s been sleeping so long,” Casey chimes in from not far.

“Well, he did ride for nearly 24 hours straight,” Nathan explains as the cool liquid splashes down JD’s chin. He manages to swallows a mouthful before Nathan lays his head back down. “And sometimes the body just shuts down in response to trauma. Sometimes sleep’s the most powerful healing agent of all.”

“He saved my life,” Casey explains quietly.

“That meant everything to him,” Nathan replies.

“I should have told him,” Casey starts, but stops short.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Nathan says. “JD’ll learn.”

“And Buck?” Casey asks.

There’s a pause. “I suspect he’s known that since the start.”

JD keeps his eyes closed and lets himself sleep a little longer.

-o-

It’s dark when he wakes again. For a moment, he stares at the dancing candlelight across the ceiling, afraid to look aside.

“You’ve been asleep for nearly 12 hours,” Nathan tells him.

JD doesn’t reply.

“You worried Casey,” he continues.

JD glances toward him. “Is she okay?”

“Bruises look bad, but she’s fine,” Nathan assures him. He’s seated in the middle of the room, positioned between the two beds. He’s tipped back, blocking the figure in the other bed from JD’s vantage point. “A little skittish, though. She’s staying in town with her aunt tonight. She’s going to need some support before she’s ready to head back out to Nettie’s farm.”

JD looks back at the ceiling.

“You did good,” Nathan tells him. “Casey has quite the story about you.”

“It was Buck’s idea,” JD tells him hollowly.

“Don’t take the compliment for granted,” Nathan says.

JD turns his head again, stomach going cold. There’s a lot he wants to say, more he probably should say. But the only thing he can get out is a scared, plaintive question. “Buck?”

Nathan’s countenance is composed. “The good news is he’s fighting.”

“And the bad news?”

“He’s still got a long fight left,” Nathan replies honestly. “Influenza has settled in his lungs. It’ll be a struggle to keep him breathing as the fluid builds there.”

“You’re saying he could die,” JD concludes.

Nathan sighs. “I’m saying,” he says, “that Buck needs you now. So don’t let him down.”

With that, Nathan gets to his feet and moves toward the wash basin. From the bed, JD looks at Buck, still breathing and still on the other bed.

Don’t let him down,
Nathan says.

Except JD feels like he already has.

-o-

Nathan’s busy, in and out with house calls. The sickness has swept through town, and JD doesn’t ask, but Nathan’s face is telling enough. There will be funerals over the coming week.

JD pulls a chair close to Buck’s bed and watches him sleep.

Hoping that Buck’s isn’t one of them.

-o-

The darkness settles with the stillness of night. Outside the street is quiet, and Nathan has drifted off to sleep. The candles are burning low, and JD’s not sure all of them will last the night.

In the bed, Buck sleeps. The fever rages, sweating across his brow and into his hair. His mouth hangs slack, the wheezing of his breath ever more fleeting as the long minutes pass into the stillness.

JD thinks about the ride, and how Buck had dismantled half of Malone’s gang without as much as a complaint. He thinks about all the times he’s listened to JD complain about Casey, and all the advice he’s offered that JD never took. He thinks about the gun tips and the words to the wise. He thinks about the smooth talking and easy jokes. He thinks how he’s never been alone since settling here, half a continent away and surrounded by strangers, JD’s never been more at home.

Buck’s always warning him about the dangers, trying to keep JD from getting himself killed.

JD had never worried about that, and he’d never even thought that it might not be him.

That it could be Chris or Josiah or Nathan or Ezra or Vin. That it could be Casey. That it could be Buck.

That JD’s a kid with good intentions but absolutely no control. That dreams are easy to want and impossible to hold.

The candles start to wink out, and JD doesn’t move as he watches Buck struggle for air. JD’s not afraid of the dark, it seems.

Waiting for the dawn, he wonders if he should have been.

-o-

Nathan checks Buck in the morning, and JD helps change the bedding and replaces the cool compress on his head. They trickle water into his mouth before Nathan stands back with a nod. “We just have to keep it up,” he says.

JD watches Buck, now turned loosely on his side. “It’ll help?”

Nathan looks away. “It can’t hurt,” he says. “Now’s about the time you should head down and get something to eat.”

JD shakes his head. “I’m not leaving.”

Nathan gives JD a measured look, as though he’d expected this fight. “Buck would want you to--”

Adamant, JD shakes his head again. “I’m not leaving.”

Mouth set in a line, Nathan sighs. “You really are Buck’s protege,” he mutters. “Stubborn to the end.”

To the end, JD thinks uncomfortably. He won’t deny it, even if he hopes it never comes to that.

-o-

Nathan leaves to make some morning house calls, and JD props himself back in the chair. He’s not sure if he’s tired or not, because the weariness deep in his bones seems to be something that can’t be cured by sleep.

Four Corners is fully awake by the time the door opens, and JD sets all four legs of his chair back on the ground as he looks up expectantly for Nathan.

But it’s not Nathan.

No, in the doorway, bruised and tentative, is Casey.

“Hey,” JD says, because for the life of him, he can’t think of something better.

“Hey,” Casey replies.

The silence that follows is punctuated by Buck’s noisy breathing. JD shifts, the legs of the chair scraping across the floor. This should be easier, all things considered. All they’ve been through, and JD still doesn’t know what to say or how to make things happen right between them.

Finally, Casey holds something out. “I brought food,” she says. “Just some fresh fruit down from the farm.”

JD looks surprised at the proffered bag. “You shouldn’t have.”

“It was Nettie’s idea,” Casey says. “She was so grateful, you know. For bringing me back…”

“Well, I wasn’t going to let them take you,” JD says.

Casey finally puts the bag down on a table nearby. “I just thought…,” she starts but doesn’t know how to finish. She retreats, head down again.

The guilt is sudden and strong. It’d be easier to let her go, maybe. Not as complicated, but he’s tired of this back and forth. They can’t keep it up forever. Especially when forever’s not something either of them can take for granted, not after all this. Not here.

“Hey,” he says again.

She looks up, a little hopeful.

“Do you want to stay?” he asks.

Her face brightens, the bruises stretching as she dares to smile. “Sure,” she says. “I mean, if you don’t mind--”

JD glances at Buck, then looks back to Casey. “I think he’d appreciate a woman’s voice anyway.”

Casey reaches for a chair and pulling it out. She sits down before rifling through the bag and picking out an orange. “Well, I’m not much of a woman,” she says, holding out the bag to JD again.

This time, JD takes it. “More than you think you are,” he says, picking out an orange for himself.

“JD Dunne,” she says. “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

JD picks at the peels and shakes his head. “Then we’ve got a ways to go.”

Casey just blushes, pressing her fingers into her own orange to pick away the skin.

-o-

They eat the oranges for breakfast and for lunch. Casey takes over the duty of caring for Buck silently, wetting fresh cloths and handing them to JD before he can ask. It’s a quiet rhythm, unspoken and easily known, and JD can only think how grateful he is that she’s here.

They talk some, discussing little things like the fences that need mending and the price of tools at the general store. When they brush against each other while working to feed Buck water, the touch makes JD shiver but not stop.

Mostly, though, they sit together. It’s funny like that, all the times they’ve fought and none of it quite matters. JD doesn’t understand Casey a lot of the time, but when it really matters, they just makes sense together. It’s a simple thing, devoid of context and decorum, as if beneath it all they’re just two souls that fit together.

That’s why no matter where she goes, he ends up following. That’s why no matter what she says, he keeps coming back.

That’s why he can’t take her for granted.

That’s why he never will again.

-o-

Buck rallies throughout the day, and Nathan looks pleased. At night, when Nathan goes to get himself some food, JD lets himself smile at Casey. She rolls her eyes back, and JD winces sympathetically. “You shouldn’t do that.”

“What?” she says, brushing an errant hair out of her face. “Not very lady like?”

“No,” JD says, reaching toward her face but falling short of the livid bruising. “Just looks like it hurts.”

She sobers a little. “Oh,” she says. “Well, it’s not so bad.”

She’s trying to comfort him, which is probably what makes him feel even worse. “I can’t help thinking but it’s my fault.”

“You had nothing to do with this,” Casey tells him.

“But I wasn’t there,” JD says.

“Well, why would you be?” Casey asks.

“That’s the point, though,” JD says. “If we figured us out, then maybe I could be. I mean, I don’t know much about any of it, but I could make a decent husband. You could use a man out on the ranch.”

Casey balks. “You’d marry me just so we’d have a man out there?”

“No,” JD says, his frustration mounting. It’s been a long day -- two days or more, he’s lost track -- and he’s tired and he’s weary. He doesn’t know where any of this is headed, and at this point, he figures there’s not much to lose. “I’d marry you because I can’t stand the thought of you being hurt.”

The confession comes with a force JD doesn’t expect. The implications come to him a second after as her eyes widen. “JD,” she breathes. “Are you saying…”

He wants to run, because this is terrifying. He doesn’t know know quite what he’s saying or quite why he’s saying. He’s scared and he’s tired, and he wants to take it all back and walk out that door. It’d sure as hell be the easier thing.

But he can’t. Not with Buck in the bed and not with Casey looking at him like that. Not when everything he wants is right here, and he’d be a damn fool to let it slip away again.

He inhales. “I don’t know what I’m saying, Casey,” he says. “I never know what I’m saying around you.”

“Words are hard,” she says.

“So where does that leave us?” JD asks, trying not to feel resigned by her abject understatement.

“Well,” Casey says. Then she shrugs, as if they’re both out of excuses. “We’re both still here, aren’t we? I think that counts for something.”

JD scoffs, but the noise lacks bitterness. It just sounds tired. “And you think it’s so easy?”

“I never said easy,” she admits. “But I think it’s a place to start.”

-o-

To her credit, she never said it’d be easy.

JD just didn’t think it’d be so hard.

But that’s life, in a lot of ways. Being hard is about the only thing he can count on. Maybe that’s why he’s not surprised when Buck’s fever spikes again, leaving Nathan pale and quiet.

“There’s got to be something we can do,” JD says, feeling the desperation build in his gut. Casey stands next to him, and she doesn’t say a word as her arm presses against his.

Nathan meets JD’s eyes. “Trust me when I say you’re already doing it,” he says. “Just being here.”

“It’s not enough,” JD insists over the railing sound of Buck’s breathing.

“JD,” Nathan says without flinching. “It’s more than you think. Don’t take it for granted.”

The words settle over him, and all his protests die on his tongue. He looks at Buck.

It’s the same decision Buck made when he went out on the ride.

It’s the decision he’s making now.

He’ll stay and fight.

Until there’s nothing left to fight for.

That’s what it’s about, after all. Being there when it counts.

JD just hopes it counts now.

-o-

They keep up the routine, and this time Nathan doesn’t leave. He monitors Buck personally, trading cool cloths as often as Casey can provide them. On the bed, Buck seems to be withering away. His cheeks are sunken and his complexion is ghastly. JD tries to remember how vibrant he’d been just days ago.

The night grows dark, and Buck’s breathing worsens. Each inhalation seems irregular and tenuous, and JD finds himself holding his own breath as he waits for Buck to take another. No one talks; no one leaves.

JD clings to the hope that things will get better.

Even as they just get worse.

-o-

Nathan takes to pacing and he shakes his head. “His body can’t take much more of this,” he says. “The fever--”

“We could get him in a bath,” Casey suggests.

“He’s too weak,” Nathan says. “The shock would kill him.”

“He’s dying anyway,” Casey says.

JD ignores them both. It’s not that he’s not scared -- because he is -- but there’s something bigger than that. Something stronger.

He steps closer to the bed, taking Buck’s hand in his own. “You said yourself, Nathan,” he interjects calmly. “It’s up to Buck now.”

No one speaks as Buck struggles for air.

“He’ll come back,” JD all but whispers. “I know he will.”

-o-

As the night wears on, Nathan dozes in a chair. JD sits up close to the bed, and this time, he’s not going anywhere. Casey pulls up a chair next to him.

JD closes his eyes. “I don’t know what I’d do,” he starts, but he doesn’t know how to finish. The words are choking him, and he’s too tired to fight the burn of tears. “If he dies, Casey. I don’t know what I’d do.”

A sob breaks from him, and he tries to pull it back but it’s too late. He ends up gulping for air, and he shakes his head.

Casey reaches up, smoothing the hair from his face as she shushes him. “It won’t come to that,” she soothes.

He’s shaking, blood rushing in his ears. “And if it does?”

“No one knows the answers,” she tells him. “You’re doing all you can.”

Another cry catches in his throat, and when it slips out, he feels himself breaking. “And if it’s not enough? He’s like family, Casey. He’s my family.”

“I know,” she says, pulling him close. “I know.”

JD knows nothing of healing, and he’s not much of a man of faith. He’s no good at gambling, and he’s not a great shot from a distance and he sure as hell ain’t no leader, and whatever animal magnetism is, he doesn’t have it.

Since coming here, he’s wanted to be strong, to prove his worth.

But family’s the kind of thing you can’t prove. It’s not something you’re worthy of. You can’t pray it into being, you can’t win it in a poker game. You can’t shoot it off a fence post and you can’t fix it with a knife. You can’t lead your way into it, and you can wink and smile it into existence.

You just have to acknowledge it and accept it.

And never let go.

-o-

JD doesn’t remember falling asleep. It’s a taut and dreamless escape, and he wakes with a start, his neck sore from being slumped over in his chair. Casey’s head is tipped against his shoulder, and it’s all he can do to keep from jostling her awake with him.

Blinking, he realizes it’s daylight and a guilty shiver runs up his spine. Frantic, he turns toward Buck when he realizes he can’t hear him breathing.

For days, that’s been the only constant.

The silence is terrifying.

Slipping away from Casey, he rushes forward, brushing his fingers against Buck’s brow in growing trepidation. The skin is dry; it’s cooling.

He blinks again, fearing the worst.

Except, he’s breathing. It’s an easier sound, but up close, JD can feel it. Which means…

“Fever broke sometime in the night,” Nathan says, holding out a cup toward JD. “He’s doing much better.”

Dumbfounded, JD can do nothing but stare. “But…”

“We just had to wait it out,” Nathan says, putting the glass down on the table when JD fails to take it. He looks back toward Buck. “These things usually take care of themselves, if they’re meant to.”

JD stares a moment long before he looks at Buck. Sleeping, it seems. Resting peacefully.

Then, he looks at Casey, bruised and recovering.

Disbelief settles in, and he almost laughs. “Yeah,” he agrees. “I guess maybe you’re right about that.”

-o-

Throughout the morning, Buck rouses from time to time, just enough to eat and drink and make a joke before slipping back into sleep. Nathan says he just needs time now, but he’s going to be fine.

JD almost wants to laugh out loud.

After all this, Buck’s going to be fine.

They’re all going to be fine.

JD’s not sure if it’s luck, providence or flat out hard work, but he’ll take it, however he can get it.

-o-

Nathan’s the one who suggests it, but it’s Casey who finally gets JD back to his room. They eat a quick meal together before she pushes him on the bed in no uncertain terms.

“Casey,” he says. “You probably shouldn’t be in here.”

She rolls her eyes. “I don’t plan on staying.”

Confused, JD tilts his head.

Shaking her head, her expression is amused and annoyed all at once. “Buck’s going to be okay. I’m fine,” she lectures.

“I know, that’s why--”

“That’s why you running yourself into the ground is pointless,” she cuts him off. “You’ve barely slept in days. You look horrible, JD.”

“Well, for what it’s worth, you look beautiful,” he supplies her.

She blushes, which just seems to make her more annoyed. “Now’s not the time to start being an actual gentleman!” she says.


“Then what is it time for?” JD asks.

“To sleep,” she says, gentler now.

“But I’m not tired--”

“You’re about to fall over,” Casey warns him.

The denial is stupid, but he’s rallying it anyway. “But--”

“But nothing,” Casey says firmly. “You’ve done everything you can -- and then some. I don’t know how it’ll all play out years down the line, but I think you’re probably okay to sleep for a little bit, okay?”

He stares at her as he tries to understand.

She smiles. “You’ve done everything, JD,” she says. “You can stop worrying. At least for now.”

For now.

The idea of it tumbles through JD’s consciousness sluggishly. Everything’s okay. Everyone’s going to be all right. JD doesn’t want to take anything for granted, but there’s a difference between appreciation and control. JD can’t trade one extreme for another.

JD can’t.

Not even if he wanted to.

He’s sinking back to the pillows, vaguely aware that he’s still dressed. The bed is softer than he remembers, and his eyes are fluttering shut before he can think to stop them. Casey lifts his legs and wrests away his boots. He watches her through slitted eyes as she stands for a moment at the foot of his bed, just looking at him.

It’s funny, after everything, to trust that everything is going to be okay. Maybe that’s the point, though. That’s why it’s worth fighting for.

Casey slips to the door, shutting it behind her. JD smiles as he dozes off to sleep.

-o-

JD sleeps. He doesn’t even dream. The thing is, the best things -- and the worst things -- are all in real life. Sleep’s no escape. Sleep’s not a refuge. It’s not a question of want or fear.

It’s just a question of what is.

Casey got kidnapped. Buck was laid low with influenza. The Malone gang is dead, and JD’s had a part in all of that, for better and for worse.

At least, JD’s been through the worse.

Now, he hopes, it may be time for the better.

-o-

JD’s not sure what time it is when he wakes up, but he can hear noise in the street below. But it’s friendly, upbeat noise, the kind he’s used to on a normal night in town.

A normal night.

Sitting up, JD gets his bearings. A glance toward the window confirms that it is indeed night, and when he stands, his head spins for a moment. He’s not sure if it’s from the sleep or the fact that he’s starving.

Before he stumbles out the door, he thinks to change his shirt -- even he can smell how bad it is -- and he puts his hat on his matted hair as he tentatively makes his way into the hall. No one seems to notice him much, and as much as he wants to go check on Buck, he thinks he may pass out if he doesn’t get at least a little something in his stomach.

Gingerly, he crosses the street to the saloon, and he’s going to discretely order himself a drink when he sees Chris already pulled up to the bar.

“Hey,” he says, a little surprised. “You’re back.”

Chris looks at him. “Got word down the trail that Malone’s gang wouldn’t be a problem anymore,” he says. “Josiah and Vin picked up the trail and should be back in the morning with whatever’s left.”

JD’s not sure if he should say nothing or everything.

Chris inclines his head knowingly, taking another swig of his drink. “But then, I think you already know what happened.”

“They hit Nettie’s farm night after you left,” JD blurts, because he’s a horrible liar and Chris always seems to know. They all do. “They took Casey.”

“And you and Buck went on a rescue expedition,” Chris says, and JD’s sure he’s heard this part of the story. If not from Nathan or Buck, from Casey -- from anyone.

“It was the only thing we could do,” JD explains. “They took Casey. I couldn’t -- I didn’t--”

Chris lets himself smile, just a little, lips turned up at the edges. “It was pretty foolish,” he says. “Taking on that many by yourself.”

JD’s conscience churns.

Chris takes another drink, pushing the empty glass back toward the bartender. “Probably the same one I would have made.”

JD’s eyes widen. “Really?”

Chris shrugs. “No reason to reprimand a man for doing what he knows matters,” he says. “Besides, did you and Buck really take out the entire Malone gang on your own?”

Funny, JD hasn’t even thought about it like that. “Well, Casey helped.”

Chris laughs again. “The kid, a sick man and a girl,” he says, nodding gratefully as the bartender fills up his glass. “Somehow that sounds about right.”

-o-

After his drink and a bite to eat, JD feels refreshed enough to face the rest of the world. The food has filled his stomach, and the drink has invigorated his blood, and talking to Chris has made him feel like things might actually be okay.

Course, that’s easy enough when he’s still in the saloon. There’s still the reality of the last few days, and JD knows he can’t hide from that forever.

Stepping outside, he takes a minute to breathe before turning toward the jail. On his way, a few folks smile at him, and JD nods as friendly as can be. It feels a little surreal, but he slides back into the normal routine as though he never left.

Until, of course, he sees Casey across the way.

Her eyes widen, and she swallows. JD knows that look.

It’s the look she gives him when she’s about to speak to him.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Casey could be in a reasonable sort of mood. She has those, quite often, but the trouble is, he can never tell when it’s one of those times and when it’s not. And given this morning, he doesn’t really want to find out.

Damn girls. JD wants to like them, but they make him so flustered. Talking to her might be the smartest option, but JD’s not always one for that type of action.

JD will face down any outlaw, but he’ll run chicken from a girl like Casey.

Not this time, though.

Taking a breath, he crossed the street, holding her gaze. As he approaches, she looks surprised, and JD has the urge to run again, but he stays steady. It’s hard not to look at the bruises, but he keeps focused on her eyes and does his best to smile.

“Hey,” he says.

Her eyes brighten hopefully. “Hey.”

“So, I was thinking,” he says.

“Yeah?”

JD takes another breath, presses his lips together. He looks down the street and thinks of one last time of leaving.

Instead, he looks at Casey again. He smiles. “I was thinking,” he continues, bolder than before. “Maybe we should talk.”

-o-

JD wants some privacy, but it doesn’t seem proper to take her any place private, so he settles awkwardly for the side of the road near the livery.

“Look,” he says. “I know I’ve acted…”

“Stupid?” Casey supplies.

JD’s cheeks redden. “I was going to say difficult,” he says. “But I mean, I guess, that’s not a terrible representation all things considered…”

She’s staring at him, the question in her eyes not quite yet on her lips.

Flustered, JD tries his best to continue. “I mean, honestly, Casey, I don’t understand you half the time,” he says. “You confuse me, and every time I think I’ve got it figured out, something else happens, and I don’t know.”

Her countenance wavers, a flash of insecurity in her eyes.

“But then other things happen, and I realize none of the rest really makes much difference,” he says. “Because I don’t get what you say. And I don’t understand what you do. But I can’t -- when I realized you were gone -- I couldn’t--”

He falters badly, taking a shaky breath as he diverts his gaze. He’s losing it again, and he doesn’t know how to get it back. He doesn’t know how to do this at all.

“JD,” she starts, and it’s not clear to him if she’s going to say she understands or she doesn’t, but that’s not the point.

No, this is his moment.

His clarity.

He looks at her again. “I just, I think maybe the thing I really don’t get is how you can make me feel everything at once,” he says. “I didn’t come out here for a girl. I didn’t come out here for any of that, but you’re the thing I think of most. You’re the thing that’s always on my mind, for better or for worse, and I could do without a lot, but you--”

His words fall short, half choking him in his throat.

“You,” he says again, wishing this were easier. Wishing he had the words. He doesn’t, though. He’s bad at this, and he’s not sure what he’s doing and none of it is probably enough. Casey almost got herself killed, and Buck almost died, and JD’s standing here, still trying to find the words. Desperate, he asks, “Do you know what I mean?”

Then, Casey smiles. “Yeah,” she says, taking his hands in hers. “I really think I do.”

“Really?” JD asks hopefully.

Casey nods eagerly. “I think you’re trying to say you love me.”

JD’s jaw drops. “What? I mean -- what?”

“Which is okay,” Casey assures him, coming closer. “Because I love you, too.”

And hell, Casey’s a girl. She doesn’t make sense a lot of the time.

But as she leans up on her toes, pressing her lips into his, JD has to admit this time she makes a whole hell of a lot of sense.

-o-

It’s tempting to think that everything is fixed now. That somehow one near-confession of love and one true kiss is enough to make everything perfect. JD knows Casey better than that, though. Relationships, as it turns out, are hard.

With girls or otherwise.

After bidding Casey farewell, JD finally sets his sights on Nathan’s clinic. It’s not that he’s been avoiding that issue; it’s just that it’s been perfectly okay with him not to face it.

And it’s not like that’s confusing or complicated in the same way. Buck doesn’t confound him, not like Casey does. But the bond he has with the older man is just as intense in its own way, and JD still has to reckon with the fact that Buck nearly died.

More than that, Buck nearly died helping JD.

For all that Buck pretends to be self-serving and egotistical, he never thought twice, not when JD’s heart was on the line, not when JD needed him most. Buck makes it easy to play that sort of thing down, but after the last few days, JD’s not sure he can anymore.

That scares him.

Which is exactly the motivation he needs to climb the stairs and open the door. Ezra almost runs into him on his way out, before tipping his hat to JD with his polished grin. “Ah, the hero of the hour,” the southerner croons. “Tales of your exploits are, needless to say, quite impressive.”

JD frowns, finding himself confused. “Uh, thanks?”

“Your eloquence is overwhelming,” Ezra says coyly. “We will have to address the nature of your delivery in order to perfect subsequent retellings of these events.”

“Look,” JD says. “I didn’t do anything.”

Ezra raises his eyebrows. “Not according to the loquacious Mr. Wilmington.”

“What?” JD asks. Then, he cocks his head. “Is he awake?”

Ezra seems disappointed and amused all at once. “Awake would be an understatement,” he replies. “He is entirely too vivacious for a man who just only recovered from death’s ominous door.”

The tension eases in JD’s chest. “Well, you know Buck,” he says.

“Indeed,” Ezra agrees as he makes his way out. “It appears this team is one of unlikely miracles. Present company included.”

JD’s not used to compliments. Then again, JD’s not used to a lot of things.

But he thinks maybe it’s just another thing he could probably learn to accept.

-o-

Things are going so well, that JD almost thinks this will be easy.

But then he sees Buck.

In the bed, Buck’s complexion is still sallow with sunken cheeks and dark circles under his eyes. His beard is unkempt after numerous days in bed, and his hair is stringy and unwashed. He looks horrible -- nothing but a ghostly version of himself with fragile-looking cheekbones that make it impossible to forget just how close they came over the last few days.

Except that’s not the whole story. Because Buck looks like death warmed over, but he’s sitting up and and smiling. Hell, he’s almost winking at JD with that stupid gleam in his eyes.

“Hey, pard,” Buck says warmly. His voice sounds thick, but it has its natural buoyancy again. “I was wondering if you were going to show up.”

For a moment, JD can only stare. He doesn’t know what to say. As hard as it was with Casey, he’s suddenly faced with a task even more difficult with Buck. He and Casey danced around the issue for months, but he and Buck never even pretended to say most of the things that mattered.

But they do matter.

They matter a lot.

“You’re okay,” JD says, and it seems like more of a revelation to him than Buck.

Buck just keeps grinning. “Course I am,” he says. “Did you expect something different?”

JD doesn’t know quite what to say, because he’s not sure how to admit that the answer is yes. “You...were pretty bad off,” he says finally.

“Nathan has already tried to lecture me,” Buck says with a flit of his hand. “But I’ve got a hearty constitution. Damn difficult to kill.”

But not impossible, JD thinks, even if he doesn’t say it. The rush of emotions comes back to him, and he finds himself looking at the ground.

“Well, damn,” Buck says, a little surprised. “I really did have you worried, then?”

JD swallows hard, blinking rapidly as he shakes his head. “It got bad,” he says, and even such an understatement is hard to force out. “And all I could think was how you shouldn’t have been out on that trail.”

“Hey,” Buck says, somewhat stern this time. “Not only are we apparently the law in this town, but we’re talking about Casey. She’s a good girl, and you and her have something. Wasn’t any way I was going to sit that one out.”

“But you were sick, Buck,” JD protests. “You made it worse--”

“I may have underestimated things a bit,” Buck relents. “But when things are like that, when someone we care about is in danger, there’s really only one option.”

“But you’re always telling me not to go running off,” JD says.

“That’s because you haven’t got a lick of common sense,” Buck says.

“Oh, and you do?” JD asks.

Buck looks down, duly chagrined. “Well, you may have a point,” he says. “Nothing like a little peril to put it all in perspective.”

JD wants to rail at that. He wants to chew Buck out, to tell him never to be so stupid again. He wants to tell Buck about the strained sound of his breathing or the heat of the fever as it rolled off him. He wants to tell him about the sleepless nights and the days of nagging, ever present fear.

It’s funny, though, because he can’t make himself say any of it. He can’t tell Buck how scared he is or how angry he is or how sorry he is.

All he can think to say is, “Thank you. For coming with me. For getting Casey home safely. Not many people would have done it, and you did, and -- thank you.”

Buck watches him, nodding with a slow smile. “Any time,” he says. “I do what I can to aid the cause of love.” Then he pauses. “Did you two talk, then?”

JD’s cheeks flush. “Well, I mean--”

“Come on, son,” Buck chides. “Don’t tell me I almost died for nothing--”

“We talked,” JD says, completely flustered now. “I mean, we talked about some things.”

Buck lifts his brows.

“Important things,” JD amends.

“And?” Buck asks expectedly.


“And we’re good,” JD says. “We’re really, really good.”

Buck’s face breaks into a smile as he beams. “There’s my boy,” he says. “You know, you can thank me for that, too.”

“Wait,” JD says. “What?”

“For bringing you two together,” Buck says.

JD gapes.

“Oh, don’t pretend like you don’t know,” Buck says. “Nathan told me about you two, spending long nights together nursing me back to health. I mean, without me, who knows where you two would be.”

It’s ridiculous.

It’s ludicrous.

More than any of that, though, it’s Buck.

JD shakes his head. “You really are something.”

With a grin, Buck winks. “Don’t you know it.”

JD does. He really, really does.

And after this, he’s never going to forget it.