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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Magnificent Seven fic: Something You Can Live With (1/1)

December 22nd, 2014 (03:06 pm)
weird

feeling: weird

Title: Something You Can Live With

Disclaimer: I do not own the Magnificent Seven.

A/N: For the amazing postfallen. Beta provided by sockie1000. This fills my sacrifice square for hc_bingo.

Summary: Because JD Dunne was a stupid kid with a bad hat and an over-eager sense of justice that perpetually got him into trouble. But he was Buck’s friend. And there was nothing he wouldn’t give for that.



-o-

It didn’t start out as much, a fall into the river and a cold ride back. These things happened, as the story went, and in all honesty, Buck found it to be more of an inconvenience and embarrassment than anything else.

He was quite pleased, however, that JD lost his hat in the ordeal. He couldn’t quite say what made the kid more miserable, being wet and cold or missing that darn ugly thing.

“It was a good hat,” JD sniffled, hunched over his horse as they plodded along through the night. “I don’t know why you always hated it so much.”

“It looked ridiculous,” Buck chastised him, flexing his own fingers around the reins of his horse. “And you don’t need help looking any more ridiculous than you already do.”

JD glared at him in the wan moonlight. The sky was clear, dotted with stars all the way to the horizon. They had miles to go yet, and the temperature had been dropping steadily since the sun went down. “I don’t look ridiculous,” he said, far too petulantly to even begin proving his point.

“Son,” Buck said. “Have you seen yourself?”

JD huffed angrily, drawing himself a little closer to his horse. “I look just the same as you,” he muttered. “Cold, wet and stupid.”

“Hey, now,” Buck said, refusing to shiver against the faint wind that stirred around them as they rode. “It wasn’t my fault.”

“How is this not your fault?” JD asked incredulously.

“The horses spooked,” Buck said. “Ain’t nothing I can do about that.”

“They spooked because of your shortcut,” JD said. “Because you said going next to the river would be the fastest way home.”

“And it is!” Buck insisted.

JD’s look was all but furious now, but the boy was too diminutive to pull off anything threatening as far as Buck was concerned. “You’re lucky we didn’t drown,” he said. “As it is, we’ll probably catch cold.”

Buck tossed his head, somewhat grateful for the hat pulled down over his own wet head. “If you ain’t got the constitution for this line of work--”

“I got the constitution for law work,” JD snapped. “Just not for being friends with an idiot!”

“Well, now,” Buck said. “That hurts. That really hurts.”

“Good,” JD said, sulking now. His smaller form was visibly trembling in the dark. “I still don’t see why we didn’t build a fire and dry out for the night.”

“Because,” Buck said, as long suffering as possible. “The Gamble trial starts in the morning. If we’re not back, that son of a bitch is going to walk free. We have the critical evidence to convict him, and his lawyer is damn good at this sort of thing. And here I thought you said you were a law man.”

JD sighed, almost pouting now. “That’s not fair.”

“Now that’s the first smart thing you said all night,” Buck said with a smirk.

JD grunted, picking up the pace a little bit. “I swear,” he said. “If I catch my death, I’m blaming you.”

Buck chuckled, watching his breath come out in small puffs in the night. “You do that then,” he said. “I think I can live with that.”

-o-

JD was angry, but the kid never could stay mad for long. He had a problem, that one. As hard as he tried, he just didn’t have the heart to hold a grudge.

Which was all well and good, because Buck was a bastard in his own right. If either one of them had much sense, they wouldn’t be very good friends at all.

All that said, JD looked relieved to be back indoors, and Buck couldn’t blame him. When they handed over the evidence, Ezra arched an eyebrow. “You two look like the very definition of hell,” he mused. “Minus, of course, the fire.”

“I could go for some hellfire right about now,” JD said crossly, blowing into his hands.

“Did you two encounter unexpected difficulties in obtaining this damning evidence?” Ezra asked.

“Not his gang, if that’s what you mean,” JD said.

Buck rolled his eyes. “It was fine.”

“Except for the shortcut,” JD said.

“Well, it did go faster,” Buck said.

Ezra glanced between them cautiously.

JD huffed, shaking his head. “The shortcut was short because it cut right along the river. There was hardly enough of a trail for the horses single file.”

“In my defense, it had eroded a bit since the last time I’d been there,” Buck said.

“And there are snakes,” JD said. “Lots of them.”

Ezra wrinkled his nose.

“Horses don’t like snakes, if you’ll recall,” JD pointed out.

“Hence the reason for your unexpected swim, then,” Ezra said.

“See,” JD said with a glare at Buck. “Even Ezra can see that.”

“What I mostly see is that you two are in an unfortunate state of dampness,” Ezra said. “Rather, it’s what I smell.

“Oh, come on now,” Buck cajoled. “It’s not like we left smelling like roses.”

“Do we at least have time to clean up before the trial starts?” JD asked.

“If you are enquiring about a bath, I’m afraid not,” Ezra said. “The judge is still on time today.”

“Great,” JD sulked.

“But I would say he’d be okay if you two took the time to change your clothes,” Ezra suggested. “Frankly, even if he’s not, I’d be happy to endure the consequences on your behalf rather than suffer from your odor any longer than possible.”

Buck glared at Ezra.

JD gave Buck a weary look. “This is your fault.”

“I thought we got past this,” Buck said, trying to sound convivial. “We had such a nice talk on that last mile back.”

“I was too cold to think about it,” JD snapped.

“So you really are going to hold this against me?” Buck protested.

“You saying it ain’t your fault?” JD asked.

“It was an accident,” Buck said.

“Ah,” Ezra said. “The best defense is always to blame mere chance. It’s hard to defend against, and it is rarely true.”

JD pointed at Ezra triumphantly. “See?”

“Son, you’re overreacting!” Buck protested.

Shaking his head, JD strode past Buck to the door. “I’ll say it again,” he declared. “This is all your fault!”

With that, he left with a huff, the door slamming behind him.

Buck sighed, then glanced toward Ezra. “You had to go and open your big mouth, didn’t you?”

“I was merely making an observation,” Ezra said. “As would anyone in a five yard radius.”

“It’s not that bad,” Buck said. “Some fresh clothes, some hot coffee: good as new.”

“Yes,” Ezra said, not sounding wholly convinced. “I’m not sure Mr. Dunne would agree.”

“He’s just sore because he lost his hat,” Buck said.

Ezra considered this. “Then maybe you’re right,” he said. “It might not be all bad after all.”

Buck chuckled. “I’m going to go clean up,” he said. “Meet you at the courthouse?”

“Indeed,” Ezra said. “Do try to avoid any bodies of water on the way. If there’s a shortcut by the water trough, I’d recommended circumventing it entirely.”

Buck shook his head. “Everybody’s a damn critic,” he muttered, making his way back into the street and back to his apartment.

The idea of a bath didn’t sound all that bad, but there’d be time for that later. Just like there’d be time to put away the bad guy, and time for JD to get over his indignation and start acting like a man again. By tonight, they’d be in the saloon, telling jokes about last night and embellishing the details. Buck would buy the kid a few rounds and make sure he got all the hottest water in the bath house.

And tomorrow, everything would be back to normal.

Buck was damn sure of that.

-o-

Buck wasn’t one to deny his faults, but nor was he one who relished them. But there was no way around it, Ezra was right: he was rank.

He hadn’t realized it, of course, being out in the cold all night long. He’d been more concerned with getting home and keep JD from sulking too much to worry about any other trivialities. But back in his room, he peeled off his damp clothes and knew they’d need more than an airing out.

It wasn’t so much the smell -- Ezra had exaggerated about that -- it was just the mustiness. The cold had numbed him enough to overlooked the fact that he’d still been quite damp the whole ride home. Now that he was inside with a fire going, everything was getting wet again, and Buck realized ruefully that he wouldn’t even be able to wear his hat.

He hung his clothes to air out as best he could, wondering if he could sweet talk one of the ladies in town to do his laundry for him sooner rather than later. Buck had many ways to repay such favors, some of which would even be appropriate for a wholesome married woman.

At any rate, Buck dried himself a bit, dressing again near the fire to let the heat warm him. He was still deeply chilled with the unseasonable cold, but by the time he was in fresh clothes and an old pair of boots, he was feeling pretty damn good.

On his way back downstairs, he charmed his way into a cup of coffee, which he drank piping hot to warm him from the gut out. Outside, the bright sun had made the weather take a turn for the better, and Buck was feeling downright chipper by the time he got to the courthouse.

Inside, things were just getting started, and Buck slide into the seat next to JD.

The kid looked drier, though some of his unruly black hair was still damp.

“Did I miss anything?” Buck asked, voice low.

JD startled, as if he hadn’t noticed Buck until just now.

Buck looked at him in surprise. “You must be more tired than I thought,” he said.

JD shook his head, trying to act nonchalant. “We did ride all night.”

“You have to learn how to endure night time activities,” Buck said suggestively. “Maybe when you’re older.”

Uncharacteristically, JD didn’t rise to the bait. Instead, he looked back toward the front where the judge was making his opening statement. “Just getting started,” he said instead.

Buck looked forward, eyeing the accused and listening briefly to the judge’s words. “The good news is that our evidence will make this entire thing pretty short,” he said.

JD didn’t reply, staring ahead vacantly.

Buck nudged him.

JD startled again. “What?”

Frowning, Buck gave the kid a closer look. “You okay?”

“I’m tired, cold and damp,” JD said. “What do you think?”

There was no petulance now. No, the kid was genuine about this much. “Maybe you want to head out early,” Buck suggested. “Don’t see how the judge would need both of us.”

JD shook his head. “I need to have this whole thing be worthwhile,” he said. He looked to Buck. “Otherwise, what did I fall in the water and ride wet through the cold night for?”

“Good times?” Buck suggested.

JD sighed, looking ahead again. “Sure, Buck,” he muttered. “Whatever you say.”

Buck had been ready for a grudge.

Indifference, though?

He settled back in the chair.

Well, maybe Buck had misjudged things.

Just a little bit.

-o-

Even if things with JD were going less than perfectly, at least the trial seemed to be right on course. As expected, with their evidence, the trial was short and a conviction was forthcoming, meaning the entire courtroom scene took a mere fraction of the time it took to get the damn evidence in the first place.

That was the way it was with law work, Buck had learned. It took so much effort, and the only payoff was the so-called greater good. Sometimes being the good guy was a pain in the backside.

“Well, what do you say, kid?” Buck said, giving JD a good nudge. “We got her done.”

“Wouldn’t have gone so well without your hard work,” Josiah said.

“I know the judge is pretty pleased,” Chris observed.

“And he ought to be,” Buck said with a grin. “But it’s all in a day’s work, right, JD?”

JD managed a lackluster grin. “Or a night’s work.”

“I heard you got mighty cold out there last night,” Josiah said.

“Coldest snap they’ve had in these parts for years,” Chris agreed.

“Just our luck,” JD mumbled.

“Bad luck is still luck,” Buck said. “Got to take the good with the bad sometimes.”

“And what was good about last night?” JD asked.

“The Lord does work in mysterious ways,” Josiah advised.

JD gave him a quizzical look.

Josiah almost smiled. “Better the cold that the fires of hell.”

JD did not look comforted by this.

Chris snickered. “Either way, you two take the day off, you hear?”

“Oh, I intend to,” Buck said.

“Good job again,” Chris said.

Josiah tipped his hat, following Chris toward the exit. Buck straightened his shirt, looking at JD again. “What do you say, pard? Head over to the saloon? First round’s on me.”

It was a generous invitation, the kind the kid was always looking for. JD could be a petulant child from time to time, but he was always looking to be treated like a man. And though Buck wasn’t keen to admit it, the kid had earned a drink or two.

But JD shrugged. “I think I’m headed home to bed.”

Buck frowned. “Passing up a drink? Son, that’s not even human.”

“I’m tired, Buck,” JD said, too weary to sound like he was protesting.

“Well, what about a bath?” Buck said.

“Is that an invitation?” JD quipped.

The glimmer of banter alleviated the tension. Buck smirked. “Don’t go getting any ideas, son.”

JD smiled faintly. “If it’s all the same, I really am tired.”

To be fair, JD wasn’t exaggerating. The boy looked tired. Hell, he looked exhausted. Buck had hardly noticed before, but the dark circle and pale cast of his skin made JD look like he needed more than a bath or a drink or even a good night’s sleep. He needed all three.

“Well, okay,” Buck said. “But the drink offer is still available when you wake up. You know where to find me.”

JD nodded, turning toward the door.

Buck hesitated, then said, “JD?”

Turning back, JD looked at Buck.

Buck worked his jaw, not sure what he wanted to say. “We did a good job, you know.”

JD nodded, far too serious. “Part of the job, right?”

“Yeah,” Buck agreed for the lack of something better to say. “Part of the job.”

JD nodded one last time before turning back to the door. Buck stood, watching him go. JD would feel better after some sleep. Buck would buy him a beer and get the kid in the bath and it would all be like normal by tonight.

Part of the job, Buck reminded himself one more time for good measure as he strode toward the door. This whole thing, all of it, was part of the job.

-o-

The kid needed time to mellow, Buck had no doubt of that.

As for Buck, he just needed a drink. That wasn’t so much because he was tired and sore -- which he was, not that he was going to admit that around JD -- it was just that Buck liked to drink. Alcohol was an elixir that didn’t cure all wounds, but it came close enough for him.

At the saloon, he ordered a beer. By the time he ordered the second, Vin found his way next to him, ordering himself a drink as well. They drank in amiable silence for a minute before Vin said, “Heard you went for a swim last night.”

Buck let out a breath and rolled his eyes. “I can’t believe he’s still stuck on that.”

Vin grinned wickedly. “Didn’t hear it from the kid.”

Buck raised his eyebrows.

“Ezra told me,” Vin reported.

“It was an accident,” Buck insisted. “I had no way of knowing the edge had eroded--”

“And the snakes?”

“Are native to the area,” Buck said. “Honestly, no one in this town has a sense of humor about these things.”

“Frostbite ain’t no laughing matter,” Vin said.

“We were literally in the water for 30 seconds,” Buck said. “JD longer, maybe, because the fool wanted to find his hat.”

“He lost the hat?”

Buck nodded. “Whined more about that than the cold.”

Vin took a drink. “Frostbite might be worth that,” he concluded thoughtfully.

Buck pounded his hand on the table. “Thank you!”

Vin laughed again. “Still,” he said. “Kid looked run down.”

“Well, we did ride all night,” Buck said. “I’m run down too.”

“No arguments from me,” Vin said. “Just thought you should know.”

“Oh, I know,” Buck said. “Kid’s not going to let me live this down.”

“You did cost him his hat,” Vin pointed out sardonically.

“Then someday he’ll thank me,” Buck said. “For tonight, though. I’ll buy him a beer.”

“Heard it was worth it anyway,” Vin observed. “Mary’s already running a special edition with the news.”

“See,” Buck said, nodding to the bartender to fill his glass again. “I’m a right hero.”

Vin chuckled, finishing the last of his own drink. “Well, drink up,” he said. “This round’s on me.”

-o-

He let Vin buy him the round, and then he stayed for a few more himself. He thought about a game of cards for lack of something better to do, but he ordered some food instead. Though the meal was hot, he found his stomach tepid, and by the late afternoon, Buck couldn’t deny that he thought JD might have had the right idea.

A little sleep might do him some good.

Part of him wanted to stick around and wait for the kid, but honestly, Buck couldn’t let himself feel guilty every time the kid decided to have a fit. Buck wasn’t inclined to feel guilty as it was, and with a kid like JD, sometimes a little tough love was needed.

That and a good cold bath.

Buck couldn’t help but smirk as he paid his tab and made his way back to his place.

-o-

It wasn’t until he was down to his underwear and laid up in the sheets that Buck realized just how tired he was. In fact, tired hardly seemed the word for it. He was exhausted, weary down to his bones. As much as he teased JD for being a lightweight about these things, Buck couldn’t deny that the last twenty-four hours had taken a bit out of him as well.

That was okay, though. Buck was a simple man with simple pleasures, and he knew there were many ways to enjoy a warm bed on a cold night.

He’d make it up to JD in the morning.

There was no way the kid could hold a grudge that long.

With that knowledge and the crackling fire, Buck slipped into sleep.

-o-

Sleep, unfortunately, wasn’t as restful as Buck had intended.

Instead, it was wrought with discomfort. He awoke with the wind whipping outside his window, a deep ache in his chest that no amount of coughing could dislodge. He coughed until he just about gagged, and then found himself too depleted to even get out of bed.

When he woke next, it was still dark and he was soaked through, damp in the sheets. At first he thought he’d forgotten to change his wet clothes after all, and then he realized it was sweat.

He was burning alive.

Confused, he sat up, squinting toward the fire only to find it at barely embers. That was odd, and maybe disconcerting, but Buck was already asleep before he could think about it again.

He dreamed, then. Of freezing water and the burning sun. He dreamed of JD shivering in front of him, teeth chattering and lips blue as he said, “If I catch my death, I swear to God I’m blaming you.”

Buck wanted to tell him how silly he was being.

But he was too cold, too hot, too miserable to open his mouth.

It occurred to him with vague trepidation that maybe the kid was right.

-o-

Buck wasn’t sure what time it was when he woke up again, sometime in the morning if the sun outside the window was any indication.

Though, honestly, he was more concerned with the fact that Chris Larabee was standing over him.

Buck muttered a curse, trying to heap the blankets over himself in vain. “What the hell?”

Chris inclined his head. “I was about to ask you the same thing.”

Perplexed, Buck tried to sit up a little. “Because I decided to sleep?”

“Because it’s almost noon,” Chris said. “And you look awful.”

Buck swallowed, noticing the thickness of his throat for the first time. “Well, for what it’s worth,” he said, trying and mostly failing to breathe through his congested nose. “I feel awful.”

“So you’re sick, too?” Chris asked.

Buck was about to nod in resignation when he realized what Chris had said. “Too?” he asked.

Chris looked somewhat regretful, but he wasn’t one to shy away from truths, even those of the most uncomfortable nature. “High fever, labored breathing,” he said. “Vin and Josiah already helped him over to Nathan’s.”

Buck sat up a little more, ignoring the nagging pain in his own head and chest. “Bad?”

Chris’ face belied no emotion. “I’m no doctor.”

“Chris--” Buck said, trying to push himself up.

“Nathan’s with him,” Chris reiterated, a bit more firmly. “And when he’s done with JD, I’ll send him up to you.”

Buck struggled to throw the blankets back. “I should go check--”

Chris grunted. “You should stay right where you are,” he said flatly, voice leaving no room for argument. “I’ll restart the fire and get you some breakfast. When I get back, I expect you to still be in that bed, you understand?”

Buck wasn’t a man to be coddled, and Chris Larabee wasn’t a man to do any coddling. “Chris--” he started, not sure what he wanted to say.

“Another word and I swear--”

“You’ll leave a sick man to himself?” Buck asked.

Chris almost smiled. “Nah, I’ll just send Ezra up here,” he said. “Make sure you don’t get a lick of sleep.”

Buck huffed, settling back against his pillows. “You’re a cruel man.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Chris said, gathering up some fresh firewood. “I do what I can.”

Buck watched as Chris stoked a fresh flame, poking the sticks until it caught. “The kid’s going to be okay, right? It’s just a cold.”

Chris glanced back, before looking at the fire again.

“Chris?”

Chris put the poker down, striding toward the door. “It’s just a cold,” he agreed. He tipped his hat, letting himself out.

Buck let out a breath and willed himself to relax.

A little cold was nothing.

More fodder for the kid to bitch about, maybe, but they’d be okay. So maybe the grudge would last an extra day, but that was nothing.

Buck coughed into his hand, swallowing back with difficulty.

It was nothing at all.

-o-

Chris came back with breakfast, and he stayed long enough to make sure Buck ate it. He suggested in no uncertain terms that Buck get some more sleep, leaving Buck with the assurance that Nathan would be by when he was done with JD.

With that, Buck allowed himself to rest, drifting in and out of sleep as his coughing and sneezing would allow. By the afternoon, he was a mess with bodily fluids, and he felt uncomfortable as his fever made him sore and sleep was strange and intermittent.

Chris stopped by a time or two with water and bread, but it was nearly dark outside by the time Nathan finally came by.

“Well,” Buck said. “About time. Thought you forgot about me.”

Nathan did not appear amused as he set down his medical bag. “Chris said you were more pathetic than sick,” he said. He shrugged. “His words, not mine.”

“And you accepted that as a diagnosis?” Buck asked indignantly.

“There ain’t no doctor in this town,” Nathan reminded him. “I’ve been busy.”

Buck nodded. “So this cold,” he said. “Something that’s going around?”

Nathan unpacked a few items, pulling out a thermometer. “There’s been some unseasonable illness,” he said. “Been watching the new baby down on the Ellison farm pretty close.”

Buck’s reply was cut off when Nathan put the device in his mouth.

“Now, be still,” Nathan ordered, getting out his stethoscope. He warmed one end, putting the tips in his ears. Then, he pressed it to Buck’s chest, listening for several seconds. He did this again, and Buck watched, waiting as patiently as he could.

Which lasted him just long enough for Nathan to take the thermometer out of his mouth. “So, JD,” Buck said, pausing to cough. “How’s he doing?”

“He’s sick, just like you,” Nathan commented, looking at the thermometer. He reached up, feeling Buck’s neck. “Is your throat sore?”

“Only when I swallow,” Buck said. “So the kid, he’s doing okay, then.”

“I’m watching him,” Nathan said. “How about your breathing?”

“I’m still doing it, if that’s what you’re asking,” Buck said.

Nathan rolled his eyes. “That’s not what I’m asking.”

“Well, it’s not like you’re answering my questions!” Buck blurt out. “Tell me about the kid.”

Nathan sighed, putting down his stethoscope. “JD’s sick,” he said. “And so are you.”

“But how sick?” Buck asked. “I mean, I feel okay.”

“You look pretty good, too,” Nathan said. “Some congestion and a fever, but so far not so bad.”

“Just like JD, right?” Buck asked, starting to smile. “Bet the boy is whining about it, though. Going on about the cold water last night.”

Nathan averted his eyes.

Buck’s smile faded, his bravado showing itself to be as thin as it truly was. “Nathan?”

Nathan looked up again, face set. “We’re taking care of him, all right?” he said. He lifted a bottle of medicine. “Now, let me take care of you, too.”

Buck shook his head. “Uh uh--”

Nathan sighed. “Buck--”

“I want to see the kid,” he said.

“Buck--”

Buck shook his head, ignoring the tickled in his throat. “Let me see JD,” he said. “Please. And then I’ll do anything you want me to.”

Nathan hesitated. “Anything?”

Buck nodded resolutely. “Anything at all.”

“Fine,” Nathan said, sighing in resignation. “Having you two in the same place will make it easier to monitor you anyway.”

Grinning, Buck threw the covers back and sat up.

Overcome by dizziness, he laid back down.

Sheepishly, he looked at Nathan. “Maybe a hand, doc?”

Nathan rolled his eyes, offering Buck his hand. “Damn fool idiots,” he muttered. “Every one of you.”

Buck snickered, bracing himself with Nathan’s support.

About that much, he knew, he couldn’t argue.

-o-

The walk over was painfully slow, and Buck almost regretted his insistence. His lungs felt about ready to burst after the exertion, and he devolved several times into coughing and sneezing fits that left him half doubled over, fingers clenched into Nathan’s shirt to keep himself on his feet. His head was spinning, and he felt flushed, and he was all but ready to collapse when they finally climbed the stairs to Nathan’s loft.

And that was when he saw JD.

On the first cot, the kid was pale and drenched with sweat, the strands of his hair plastered to the sides of his forehead. He was breathing rapidly with thick wet noises, eyes open but staring vacantly as he lay languidly beneath a pile of blankets.

That was when Buck’s knees really went out.

Because JD was sick.

JD was really, really sick.

Fumbling forward, he pushed Nathan away, almost tripping over Vin, who was perched in a chair by the kid’s side. Vin startled, reaching up to steady Buck, but Buck didn’t pay him any heed.

“What the hell?” he said, and it was as much a demand for answers as it was a question. Because the boy had been fine when Buck had last seen him, tired and worn down, but fine. “JD?”

JD’s breathing caught and his head tilted toward Buck a little, as if responding to Buck’s voice, but his eyes drifted above Buck’s head, missing him entirely.

“Fever’s climbing again,” Vin reported, glancing from Buck back to Nathan. “He’s been out of it. Was thinking about getting you if he didn’t come around.”

Nathan crossed toward them, circumventing Buck to run a hand over the boy’s forehead. He made a face. “I was hoping he’d have peaked by now.”

Buck looked incredulously at his friends. “You didn’t tell me he was this bad off.”

Nathan pursed his lips. “He hasn’t been this bad all day.”

“First time I haven’t seen him lucid,” Vin said quietly.

“You should have told me,” Buck said.

“And what good would that have done?” Nathan asked, turning toward Buck again. “You being worried wouldn’t have made any difference.”

“You can’t keep stuff like this from a man,” Buck insisted.

“He needs rest. You need rest,” Nathan said. “Ain’t nothing more you could do.”

Buck locked his jaw tight, looking back down at JD. If I catch my death, I’m blaming you.

I can live with that.

There wasn’t anything Buck could do because he’d done it all already. He’d already taken the blame and made a joke of it. He’d already acknowledged his part and then played it for a laugh.

And Buck could live with that.

Turned out, maybe JD couldn’t.

Nathan put a hand on Buck’s shoulder, squeezing it lightly. “Come on,” he said. “You promised to rest once we got you here.”

Weak as he felt, Buck refused to give ground. “He’s going to be okay, right?”

“We’re managing the fever as best we can,” Nathan said. “And the medicine should help with the congestion so we can keep him breathing all right.”

“Speaking of that,” Vin said. “I think the kid’s due for another dose. Been wheezing pretty bad.”

Kneeling down, Nathan put a hand on JD’s chest. Beneath the touch, JD flinched, eyes flicking from side to side but there was still no sign of recognition. With a nod, Nathan got back up. “Let’s wait just a bit,” he said.

“Wait?” Buck asked. “The kid sound’s horrible.”

“Believe it or not, he was worse,” Nathan said. “Besides, I’m running a little short on the medicine, and I’ve got two patients to take care of.”

Buck shook his head, ignoring the tweak of pain the action brought. “Uh uh,” he said. “I’m barely coughing. I don’t need any of it.”

Nathan drew a breath, looking perturbed now. “The deal was that if you came over here, you’d take the medicine.”

“That was before I knew how bad off JD was,” Buck said, looking back down at the boy.

“These things can spiral pretty quickly,” Nathan cautioned.

“You mean like with JD?” Buck asked. He gestured, letting the sound of JD’s ragged breathing prove his point. “Because he seems to be getting worse by the minute.”

“Disease works differently in different people,” Nathan explained. “Who’s to say when it will catch up with you.”

“Or if it won’t,” Buck said. “Look, I don’t feel great, but I don’t feel that bad.”

“And taking medicine now will make sure you stay that way,” Nathan said.

Buck shook his head, resolute as he kept his eyes on the boy. “He gets the medicine,” he said.

“And if I disagree?” Nathan asked.

Buck raised his eyes, still defiant. “Then you’ll have to force it down my throat,” he said. “Because I can live with a lot of things, but there sure as hell ain’t no way I can live with taking medicine that JD needs.”

Nathan let out a breath. “For now,” he said. “As long as you lay down and get some rest and drink your fluids.”

“And you’ll give JD the medicine?” Buck asked.

Nathan shook his head. “Well, I have to give it to somebody, and since you’re being a damn stubborn fool…”

Damn stubborn fool, maybe.

But he was going to make sure JD got better.

No matter what it took.

-o-

JD didn’t get better.

Although Buck had resigned himself to lay in the second bed, he couldn’t bring himself to sleep. Not with the weight of his guilt, and not with the threat of JD’s raging fever to press him on. Besides, with the way the kid’s breathing started to rail around midnight, sleep was damn near impossible anyway.

He could only watch, as it was, helpless and stupid Nathan maintained a near constant vigil, changing the cloth on JD’s head and supplying medicine in regular intervals throughout the night. Throughout it all, JD shivered violently, sometimes moaning and mumbling, but never quite conscious. There was no familiar glint in JD’s eyes, humorous or begrudging or otherwise.

Buck could only think how stupid it seemed now. A simple shortcut. A mishap with a snake. A cold swim on a colder night. Buck played everything for laughs when he could, because this way of life was hard enough as it was. Buck didn’t like to make sacrifices, not when sacrifices were demanded of him every day of his life.

No, Buck didn’t like to sacrifice anything. He held on tight and fast to what made him happy. Some called it happy go lucky; some called it being a bastard. Some called him charming; some called him a son of a bitch.

But Buck could count on two hands those who called him a friend.

And those were the things, hands down, he would never sacrifice. The things he would give up his happiness, his freedom, his very life for.

Buck had been joking. It’d all been a laugh back when JD was nothing but a whiny kid with a bad hat. But watching JD struggle to breathe; watching him fight the fever that just wouldn’t relent; watching him cling to life with every ounce of fleeting strength he had left.

That wasn’t anything to laugh about.

The kid could hold a grudge. He could blame Buck for everything. He could hate Buck, if that was what it took.

As long as he was alive to do it.

Because that was a sacrifice Buck would make.

That was probably about the only sacrifice he could live with.

Because JD Dunne was a stupid kid with a bad hat and an over-eager sense of justice that perpetually got him into trouble.

But he was Buck’s friend.

And there was nothing he wouldn’t give for that.

Absolutely nothing at all.

-o-

It was dawn when something changed. Buck was dozing, half drifting between sleep and wakefulness when he heard Nathan’s chart scoot across the floor. In a daze, he saw Nathan sit up straight, reaching toward JD as if to grasp his shoulder. “JD?” he asked. “JD!”

The surprise in Nathan’s voice was almost more than Buck could take. Because he’d grown accustomed to the rhythms of the night, of the quiet reassurances and the easy solace. He’d measured time by the labored sound of JD’s breathing, and it occurred to him now, that he couldn’t hear it.

He couldn’t hear JD breathing at all.

Gripped by terror, Buck shot out of bed, all his other promises be damned. Because he’d told JD this was nothing. He’d told the kid that everything would be fine. Buck was a liar about a good many things, but not about that.

God help him, not about that.

He was across the room before he realized how lightheaded he was, and the pressure in his chest threatened to choke him. Teetering, he almost fell over Nathan to get a look, because he had to see--

JD.

Big eyes, wide awake and clear.

Looking straight at him.

“Buck?” the kid asked, sounding hoarse and tired but damn good. “You okay?”

Shocked, Buck could only stare for a moment, dumbfounded by this development. “But--” he started and stopped. “He’s okay?”

Nathan sat back, grinning. “Fever broke,” he announced proudly. “You’re going to be just fine, JD.”

JD nodded, a little hesitant and confused. He looked at Buck again. “But what about Buck?”

Buck laughed at that, a short near-hysterical chortle that damn near keeled him over. He was more tired than he’d realized.

Tired and sore and exhausted.

And damn, when did it get so hard to breathe?

He inhaled sharply but his next laugh was garbled, and he braced himself on the wall while he tried to cough it free.

Once coughing, he found he couldn’t stop.

Hell, he couldn’t even think straight.

A cold chill went through his body, followed by a flash of fever that made his vision go white around the edges. He tried to breathe in, to clear it, but there wasn’t enough air and his lungs seized, sending him coughing some more.

There was the distant sound of a clatter, and a tight hand wrapped around his arm.

It didn’t do any good.

Buck was spiraling now, black spots filling his vision as he heaved fruitless for air. Everything hurt, and he didn’t have the energy to fight it anymore. His knees buckled, and he went down hard.

Blinking his eyes open, he found himself half cradled in Nathan’s arms with JD propped up in the bed, looking down worriedly.

“Fool,” Nathan muttered. “Told you to take the medicine.”

“Is there--” Buck started, wheezing badly now. “--any left?”

Nathan’s face was pinched.

JD’s brow furrowed. “Buck,” he said. “What medicine? Why isn’t there any medicine?”

Nathan let out a terse breath. “Gave it all to you,” he said. “Ran out a few hours ago.”

JD’s eyes widened.

Buck took an agonizing breath. “JD’s okay, though?”

“But Buck needs it, too!” JD said. “Nathan!”

“There’s nothing I can do,” Nathan protested. “I got some coming on the next stage but that’s not due for next week.”

“But--” JD said, eyes wet now. “But if he doesn’t get the medicine--”

Buck smiled, feeling himself start to fade. “I can live with that,” he murmured.

Even if, in fact, he actually couldn’t.

Some sacrifices, after all, just had to be made.

-o-

This time, Buck sure as hell slept.

The darkness was thick and pervasive, clinging to him stubbornly despite any efforts to dispel it. He was aware, from time to time, snatches of reality he couldn’t quite say for sure were actually happening or another figment of his imagination.

He remembered those snatches, though. Snippets he couldn’t shake, not even when he wanted to. He could still hear Nathan, terse and worried, barking out orders for more water and towels. Ezra’s southern drawl saying there was still no word on the stage, still no word on the medicine.

Josiah, murmuring a prayer while Vin hissed an apology and Chris lifted him clear out of bed.

And cold ice water fought at the heat, so stark and sudden that Buck cried out.

“Hold him down, hold him down--”

“We have to get his fever under control--”

“Damn it, Buck--”

“Easy now, easy, Mr. Wilmington--”

“Lord, Almighty, hear our prayer--”

“Buck? Please, be okay, Buck. Please--”

There was nothing Buck could say, though. Not much he could do either.

Except sleep.

-o-

He woke with a gasp, half arching off the bed. Inhaling desperately, Buck did all he could to catch his breath.

“Buck? Whoa--”

It didn’t help. He gasped again, wheezing badly as his lungs convulsed and air was squeezed out through his throat. The pressure in his chest expanding, and he coughed so hard that his body rattled so bad that someone had to steady him.

“Just breathe through it. Breathe now--”

But breathing was the only thing he couldn’t do. He coughed and wheezed, struggling and failing. He coughed until he gagged, thick vomit coming up his throat and burning through his nose. His eyes burned and he sucked inward, nearly gagging himself again.

“Roll him now, roll him--”

He was flipped on his side, mouth pried open as vomit trickled out. Breathing in wetly, Buck was too exhausted to fight.

Too exhausted for anything.

He was eased back, positioned on his side on the pillow. Through slitted eyes, he could just make out enough to see Nathan and Chris, working furiously at his bedside.

That was cause for concern, maybe, but Buck didn’t have the energy for that. Instead, his eyes drifted, almost closing when he saw JD on the other bed.

The boy was asleep, still a little pale but looking healthier. His head was tilted to the side, as if he fell asleep looking toward Buck.

Damn boy. Too earnest for his own good.

They would have to have a talk, the two of them. About proper hats and the risks they take. About accidents and jokes.

About apologies and the things they don’t say.

JD was breathing now, slow and steady.

That was what mattered for now.

That was all that mattered.

Because Buck, well, he could live with anything if that much was still true.

-o-

It wasn’t easy, but in Buck’s life most things never are. Still, he’d always been one to defy the odds, and it didn’t take much to figure out just how relieved his friends were when he was still alive a week later.

Chris said it wasn’t surprising that they couldn’t get rid of his damn face; Ezra said it was a bet he probably would have lost. Vin just said he was happy to see Buck looking better, and Nathan admitted that he was pretty sure they’d lost Buck a time or to.

Josiah summed it up best, maybe, calling it flat out a miracle.

Everyone was so happy and congratulatory that Buck couldn’t help but feel good despite how tired he still was. Propped up on pillows, drinking water, he had to take solace in beating the odds, in overcoming adversity, in living to tell the tale.

In fact, he was so damn pleased with himself that he didn’t realize until the rest of the seven had gone that JD was the only one among them that didn’t look pleased.

“Something wrong, son?” Buck asked. “Aren’t you going to tell me how relieved you are?”

JD scowled. “Of course I’m relieved.”

Buck raised his eyebrows, noting JD’s sullen disposition. “If that is you looking relieved, then I think we need to work on your emotional communication.”

JD’s brow furrowed darkly.

Buck huffed a laugh. “Come on,” he said. “What? Are you still sore about losing your hat?”

When the color drained from JD’s face, Buck realized belatedly that it was the wrong thing to say.

“Look, JD--” Buck started.

But JD shook his head. “No.”

“It was a joke--” Buck tried again.

No,” JD said, more vehemently this time. “You don’t get to say that.”

Buck made a conciliatory shrug. “I know you’re probably upset--”

“Upset?” JD asked. “What the hell were you thinking?”

Buck sighed. “I told you, it was an accident--”

“Not the accident,” JD snapped. “The medicine. You gave me all the damn medicine so I had to sit here and watch you die. For a week, Buck. I had to sit here knowing that you let me live so you might die.”

Buck stopped, surprised. JD was mad, but not for the reasons Buck had thought.

Hell, Buck hadn’t seen that coming at all.

He blinked, dumbfounded.

Working his jaw, JD looked down at his hands, blinking furiously. “You shouldn’t have done it, Buck. You shouldn’t have done it.”

“JD,” Buck said. “You needed it.”

JD looked up, eyes bright. “So did you.”

“Not as much as you did,” Buck replied.

“That’s not true,” JD returned.

“Son, I saw you that first night,” Buck said. “You were dying. If the roles had been reversed--”

“They were,” JD said. “One night; one week. You didn’t want to watch me die, but I didn’t have a choice.”

It was sobering, but Buck couldn’t back down from this one. Not when there was still a deeper issue that needed to be addressed. “It was my fault, though,” Buck pointed out.

JD’s face screwed up. “What?

“It was my fault you got sick,” Buck said, matter of fact. “It was my shortcut. I was the one who insisted we ride back instead of dry out. I practically gave you that cold.”

JD’s mouth hung open. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”

“You said it yourself,” Buck said.

“Well, sure,” JD protested. “Because I was mad about my hat.”

“You were right, though,” Buck said. “About the accident; not about the hat.”

JD shook his head. “Since when do you listen to me anyway?”

At that, Buck rolled his eyes. “Please, son,” he said. “Since when don’t I?”

JD stared at him for a long moment, finally closing his mouth. It was something they both knew, though neither of them would admit. It was something they’d known since the start, since the first time JD opened his big mouth and the first time Buck tried to keep him from getting his head blown clear off.

No matter what jokes they told; no matter what issues they made light of; that was the truth beneath it all.

Buck was JD’s friend.

And JD was Buck’s friend.

And that had been a sacrifice from the start, and it would be until the end.

More than that, though, it was a sacrifice they would both willingly make -- no matter what.

Finally, JD shook his head. “You are something else, Buck Wilmington.”

With the tension easing, Buck found himself grinning. “I get that a lot.”

JD snorted. “Not for good reasons.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Buck said. “They ain’t all bad.”

JD rolled his eyes good naturedly. “All the same,” he said. “Thank you.”

“All the same,” Buck replied. “I’m sorry it came to that.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” JD said. “Not really.”

Buck smiled.

“Except the hat,” JD added.

Buck’s smile widened. “Except the hat,” he agreed.

“Anyway,” JD said, getting to his feet. “I’m going to go get some food. Can I get you anything?”

“Nah,” Buck said. “I’m good for now.”

JD nodded, ducking his head and moving toward the door. He lingered for a moment, glancing back with a small smile before he headed out, closing the door softly behind him.

They ain’t all bad, Buck thought to himself, reclining in the bed. But none of them are this good either.

-o-

Buck was back on his feet in no time, and the rest of the seven had plenty of work to do. They were wanting for many things this far out, but crime was never one of them. Nathan was insistent, however, that Buck have plenty of time to get himself back to full health, and though Buck protested, he wasn’t opposed to a bit of pampering now and again. He’d be back on a horse with a badge soon enough, he reckoned.

Besides, it gave him time to catch up on one little errand.

It came in the next stage, special ordered from out east, because no place west of the Mississippi sold such atrocities. It was uglier than Buck remembered, and it went against his better instincts not to burn it the second he got it out of the box.

Still, some sacrifices had to be made.

He put the box at JD’s door, making sure that the hideous, pristine bowler hat would be the first thing the kid saw when it got back.

Sure, this meant Buck would have to see the damn thing every day for the rest of his life. But that damn hat meant something to JD; it made him happy.

All things considered, Buck decided without much arbitration, he could probably live with that.