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do i dare or do i dare? [userpic]

Magnificent 7 (tv) fic: Stupid Is (1/1)

December 21st, 2016 (03:01 pm)
dorky

feeling: dorky

Title: Stupid Is

Disclaimer: I own nothing.

A/N: Beta’ed by sockie1000. Fills my confession in a desperation situation prompt for hc_bingo.

Summary: JD can’t fix stupid, and he sure as hell can’t fix Buck. But he can ride.



-o-

“This is your stupidest idea yet,” Buck announces.

JD sighs and rolls his eyes, nudging his horse to start through the thin opening into the valley. For the time he’s been out here, he still ain’t used to it. The wide open spaces are nothing short of spectacular, and he never dreams of going back. “It ain’t stupid,” JD replies, keeping a cautious pace as they venture onward.

Buck’s right behind him, shaking his head. “It certainly is,” he says.

“The judge asked for someone to check out a lead,” JD explains, since it should be right obvious to anyone. “There could be stolen goods out here.”

“Sure, there could be stolen goods anywhere,” Buck says. “You’re forgetting the part where we’re taking the word of a criminal--”

“Who wants to save his own life,” JD points out. “What is there to gain from giving up false information?”

“You’re asking me to explain the mind of a hardened criminal?” Buck asks indignantly.

JD sighs again, leading his horse onward. The valley is opening a bit, and the sun is coming down, lighting the shadows unrelentingly. “The judge asked--

“Of course he did,” Buck says. “The stupid part is you volunteering. For a two-day trip with no promise of reward and absolutely no compensation. I swear to God, son, you have to learn how to make things worth your while.”

“It’s the right thing to do,” JD protests. “And hell, I’ll never get tired of riding out and seeing the land. It’s amazing…”

He trails off, and looks out to where a stream is trickling through, with foliage brushing up along the sides. It’s downright idyllic, and JD can think of no place he’d rather be. The edge of the world; untamed lands; endless possibilities.

Buck whistles low. “Yes, sir,” he says with a mischievous grin. “Stupider by the minute.”

JD glares and keeps on riding.

-o-

JD’s in the lead, but Buck’s the one who finds the stash.

“You’d have seen it ten minutes ago if you hadn’t had your damn head in the clouds,” Buck says snidely.

JD harrumphs. “I was appreciating the scenery!”

“No,” Buck says. “You were being stupid.”

Huffing, JD turns toward him. “You know, I put up with a lot from you, and I know I don’t have all the answers, but not everything I do is stupid!”

“Not everything,” Buck agrees. “But this--”

JD jumps off his horse and moves toward the rock outcropping that the prisoner perfectly described. “If I’m so stupid, then why is everything just like we were told?” he asks. “Because right now, I don’t feel so stupid--”

Buck grunts, slinging himself off his horse while he comes up beside JD. “It’s not about being right or wrong,” he says. “It’s about why you do the things you do. It’s about working harder than you need to, and putting yourself on the line when there are other options. This life is dangerous.”

“That’s part of why we do it, isn’t it?” JD asks, shifting some of the rocks away. He can see something underneath and grunts as he hefts another stone to the side. “Someone has to.”

Buck makes a sound of utter discontent. “You still think you’re a hero!” he complains.

JD pushes another rock aside before squinting back up at Buck. “But aren’t we?”

“Damn it all!” Buck says. “You’re so stupid that you’re going to get us both killed!”


JD scowls. “Well, I’d rather die a hero than die a coward.”

“And you think there’s no middle ground?” Buck asks.

Scoffing, JD lifts another rock away, revealing the full length of the crate. “Not from where I’m standing,” he says, grunting as the rock shifts and something gives way in the crate. There’s a crackle and a pop, and JD frowns-- “Now, what do you think--”

Buck swears, and he’s got a hand on JD before the younger man can blink. JD yelps, and Buck throws him hard, hissing angrily as the crate pops and fizzles before it explodes.

JD hits the the ground, Buck heavy on top of him while debris starts to fly, and before everything goes dark.

-o-

Darkness is thick and heavy; it falls over him and covers him and runs through him. He’s back east again; he’s coming west. He’s getting off at the end of the line and looking at the sunset until the stars come out.

His mama tells him to make himself presentable.

Buck rolls his eyes and tells him to find the middle ground.

JD looks up at the moon and the stars and the dark and the--

-o-

JD comes to with a splitting headache. For a second, he thinks it’s just Buck’s incessant criticism, but when he opens his eyes, his stomach rolls and he realizes it’s more than that.

Vomit comes up his throat and he pitches to the side, vomiting so hard that his ears ring and his vision dims.

Damn it all, it’s a lot more than that.

Flopping on his back, he closes his eyes against the sun and tries to breathe. His chest feels tight, and he wants to cough, but he just doesn’t have the energy. It takes a long moment for his stomach to settle, and even then, the pounding in his head makes him want to go to sleep and just never wake up.

But that’d be stupid, JD thinks.

Stupid.

Startled, he opens his eyes at the memory. Stupid. It’s stupid.

It’s…

JD sits up, ignoring the way the world spins chaotically, and forcing his vision to focus until he sees…

“Buck,” he says, the name slurring on his tongue. He’s disoriented as he tries to move, and he almost falls onto his face before he manages to crawl to his friend.

Buck’s not that far away, but it feels like miles. He’s been tossed on his side, away from JD.

There’s no sign of movement.

“Buck,” JD gasps, trying desperately to quell another onset of nausea as he coughs against the pressure in his lungs. He reaches out shaky fingers and rolls Buck onto his back. “Buck!”

Buck doesn’t answer, though, and his eyes are closed. There’s a gash across his forehead, dribbling blood down into his hairline. It doesn’t look good, but JD’s seen worse, and Buck should be waking up.

“Come on, Buck,” JD says, trying to sound insistent even as his voice cracks. “Buck!”

He shakes Buck’s shoulder, but the older man doesn’t rouse. The nausea threatens him again, and JD feels his emotions hitch precariously. He’s not sure what happened, but he’s pretty sure it’s his fault, and Buck--

JD’s eyes burn, and he feels acid in his throat again. He tips away, retching for a long moment before he collapses against the ground, head turned toward Buck.

And that’s when he sees the puddle.

It’s forming not far from his face, and it’s strangely dark. It’s getting closer to him, but JD can’t see where it’s coming from with Buck lying there--

Buck.

A puddle.

JD pushes up to his hands and knees, just enough to get a better look.

And that’s when he sees where it’s coming from. Because it’s not just a puddle, it’s blood, and it’s coming from the long splinter of wood sticking out from Buck’s leg.

Stupid, JD thinks as his stomach turns again and he vomits all over the ground. His body convulses so hard that his vision goes dark and he pitches forward.

It’s so, so stupid.

-o-

You have to make things worth your while.

This life is dangerous.

Stupid--

-o-

When JD wakes again, his head is still pounding but the ringing in his ears has diminished. His breathing feels tight in his chest, but coughing requires energy he just doesn’t have. The sunlight still makes him squint, but when he moves, his stomach manages not to rebel.

That’s an improvement.

Then, JD remembers.

The two-day ride, the word of a criminal, a favor for the judge. The explosion.

Buck.

Sitting up hastily, he swallows hard and crawls back over toward Buck. The older man is still unconscious, and JD winces as he looks down the length of his body. There are a few singed spots on his coat, but there’s nothing much to note there. Which is good, since the wood in his leg seems to be a much more pressing concern.

Steadying himself, JD leans closer to get a better look. The chunk of wood is like an oversized splinter and it’s no more than a few inches wide with several inches sticking out. It’s impossible to tell how deep it is, but given the amount of blood on the ground, JD knows it can’t be good.

Unfortunately, that’s about all he knows. JD’s got a basic education -- his ma had always wanted him to go to college -- but learning has never been JD’s thing. He knows how to read and write, but doctoring? He’s picked up on the basics from Nathan, and even then, he’s pretty poor with it. Truth is, he doesn’t have much of a constitution for it.

Yet, here he is. Two days from help with his best friend bleeding.

JD coughs, blinking his eyes hard to keep the world from spinning. What’s he going to do? This whole thing was his idea, but now that he’s here, he doesn’t have a clue what to do?

He feels himself start to panic, the anxiety building in his chest and churning in his stomach. Buck’s going to die, and maybe JD is, too, and for what? For what?

Tears sting his eyes, and his stomach starts to rebel. He’s about to cry or throw up or both when a shaky voice breaks his desperation.

“Well, damn,” Buck wheezes.

JD looks up, eyes wide and hopeful.

On the ground, Buck is blinking at the sky. He swallows with noticeable effort and tilts his head toward JD. “Guess that’s an I told you so.

-o-

For about two seconds, JD is relieved. Buck’s alive; Buck’s awake.

But then, Buck coughs, his entire body contorting. JD wants to roll him to the side, but with his leg in the state it’s in, he doesn’t quite dare. Instead, he sits uselessly by Buck side, watching hopefully as the coughing subsides.

Buck takes a stunted breath, grimacing. “Damn,” he mutters, even as he tries to move. “That feels horrible--”

JD shakes his head, pressing Buck back to the ground. “No, wait,” he says. “Your leg--”

Buck looks down for what seems like the first time. His eyes widen, and the color drains from his face. “Well, this just gets better.”

Guiltily, JD chews his lip. “Don’t know how big the wood is,” he says. “But it’s bleeding--”

Buck hisses. “And it hurts like a son of a bitch,” he says. Then he pauses, looking up at JD with something like worry in his eyes. “How are you doing, kid?”

JD gestures helplessly to Buck’s leg. “We’ve got to do something--”

“And we will,” Buck says. “But look at me, boy. Look at me.”

It takes JD a moment, but when he turns his gaze toward Buck, he realizes how shaky he is. He wants to hide it -- he’s a grown man -- but Buck’s always been able to see through him.

“Hell of a knock you took to the head,” Buck muses quietly. “You feeling okay?”

JD inhales sharply, summoning all of his self control. “You’re bleeding, and it’s my fault,” he says, feeling faintly hysterical. “How do you think I’m doing?”

“JD, listen to me,” Buck says with uncharacteristic seriousness. “It ain’t your fault--”

“But you told me it was stupid--

“Riding out two days with no reward, yes, that’s stupid,” Buck says, his breathing coming in wheezing gasps. “But the wood in my leg--”

“Never should have happened!” JD insisted, and there are fresh tears in his eyes. “Damn it, Buck, it’s all my fault.”

Buck nods wearily. “Well, then fix it.”

“But how? I don’t know nothing about doctoring--”

Buck hisses, shifting his leg slightly even as he slumps further against the ground. “The bleeding,” he says through clenched teeth. “You just got to wrap it. Control the bleeding until we can get back to Nathan.”

JD’s shaking now, and he feels light headed again. “But it’s two days--”

Buck takes a noisy breath. “Then we best get started.”

It makes sense. It’s practical and it’s straightforward and it just makes sense.

But nothing makes sense.

Two days from home, and it’s all JD’s fault, and there’s so much blood.

“JD,” Buck says, his voice cutting through JD’s panic. “You just got to focus, son. Just focus.”

“It’s so stupid,” JD says pathetically.

“No,” Buck says, shaking his head just a little. “The stupid thing would be letting me die. So don’t let me die, you hear? Don’t let me die.”

JD nods. That seems simple. That doesn’t seem like it should be so hard.

But then he looks at Buck, his pale face and straining breath. He looks at Buck’s leg, saturated with blood and bleeding still.

And he feels stupider by the minute.

-o-

The thing is, JD’s always been a little stupid. Not bright enough to get much of anything right, but just dumb enough never to know when to quit.

And he doesn’t quit.

Not ever.

Not now.

He’s shaking as he shrugs out of his jacket, and his fingers are wooden while he unwinds his bandana. It’s not the cleanest thing in the world, but it’s big enough, and he holds it out, hesitating at the still-bleeding wound on Buck’s leg. It looks worse now, blood all over everything, and the garish piece of wood stuck out.

He feels sick again, and swallows hard.

“Just do it,” Buck hisses, fists clenched at his sides before he coughs. “You got to stop the bleeding.”

“It’s going to hurt,” JD says.

Buck laughs, short and hoarse. “Hell, son, and it feels good now?”

He’s right. Of course he’s right; he’s always right. Buck’s right, and JD’s wrong, and it’s stupid…

Buck cuts off with a wheeze and a grimace. “You can do it,” he says. “Just do it.”

It’s confidence JD doesn’t deserve, but he can’t help but try to live up to it. His head is spinning and his vision is tunneling, but he forces himself to bend over and string the bandana underneath Buck’s thigh. Buck tenses, face going rigid, and JD’s either going to throw up or pass out if he doesn’t just do it now.

Mustering the last of his focus, he ties the bandana hastily, wrapping it around the wound. He’s as mindful as he can be of the wooden stake, but there’s not much to be done for it. He thinks about taking it out, but the thought of it makes him queasy and he settles for as much bandaging as he can scavenge.

Ultimately, there’s nothing to do but press the bandage down and tie it off and listen to Buck scream.

The cry out of the older man’s mouth is nothing short of agony, and his entire body convulses as he fights against the pain. JD barely makes a knot before Buck kicks him away, and JD hits the ground hard enough to make everything go white.

-o-

You’re going to get us both killed.

JD stares at the sun and wonders how the same sun shines over Four Corners as it does back east. As it does everywhere. He tips his hat to Orrin Travis and polishes his badge.

You still think you’re a hero.

JD closes his eyes, but the sun’s still burned against the back of his eyelids.

-o-

Then, JD blinks.

He’s vaguely aware that time has passed, but he has no idea how much. When he rolls to the side, his stomach disagrees but there’s nothing left to throw up.

Besides, JD’s okay. A knock to the head ain’t nothing. JD’s fine.

Buck--

He scrambles to his hands and knees again, trying to get his bearings. It takes him longer than it seems like it should to find Buck, sprawled on his back unconscious no more than three feet away. He’s breathing.

And he’s still bleeding.

JD’s stomach drops again, but this time it ain’t the same nausea. He crawls closer to inspect his work, and though his makeshift bandage is sturdy and in place, it’s already pretty clear that it’s not going to be enough. It needs to be cleaned and stitched. It needs a hell of a lot more than JD knows how to do.

Looking up, JD squints down the length of the canyon.

Two days from home.

He came out here on a fool’s errand.

He looks at Buck.

He’ll go home with the most important goal of all.

JD can’t fix stupid, and he sure as hell can’t fix Buck. But he can ride.

Even if it kills him, he will ride.

-o-

Getting to his feet takes work, and stumbling around nearly makes him pass out again. He doesn’t know where Buck’s horse ended up, but his own is close enough to get. He leans heavily on the horse while he limps back to Buck, and then he braces himself for the harder trial yet to come.

Buck is bigger than he is, and unconscious; that makes for a lot of dead weight. JD falls several times but manages to keep himself together, but by the time he flings Buck over the back of the horse, he’s about ready to pass out himself.

There’s not much fortunate about their circumstances, but it’s a small consolation that Buck’s injury is on the outer part of his leg, so he can still ride a horse.

Or at least sit on one. In his current state, Buck’s not going to be doing much at all.

Gritting his teeth, JD climbs on behind the older man, realizing belatedly how awkward this is. Sharing a saddle with a man is one thing; trying to hold an injured man upright while riding out is entirely another. It doesn’t help that Buck’s tall enough to obscure JD’s vision, and he’s going to be riding half blind out of here.

Not that he was apparently looking at all things clearly when he rode in.

It’s probably pretty stupid to think he even has a chance -- with Buck bleeding and JD ready to pass out and two whole days -- but JD’s always been a little stupid. This would be a hell of a time to start changing that now.

Blinking a few more times, he tightens his grip on Buck. Then he nudges his horse and starts to ride.

-o-

It’s a long ride.

On the way over, Buck had talked and joked. They’d told stories and discussed the nature of things. It had been fun, really. For all that Buck said the trip had no rewards, JD had always implicitly believed the time together had been reward enough.

The way back, however -- there is no conversation. There’s no familiar banter; there are no stories of what used to be. Buck doesn’t talk about the women he’s met or the places he’s been. JD doesn’t talk about the dreams he has or all the things he still wants to do.

JD rode out with hope.

He rides back in desperation.

Hitching Buck closer, he can feel the fluttery beat of Buck’s heart beneath his hands. JD narrows his eyes and rides faster.

-o-

The sun sets entirely before JD realizes it’s night. His vision has been dark since he set out, but when the light is dying, he realizes he’s made a mistake. He can’t ride through the night. Even if he tried, he knows he wouldn’t make it very far. He needs to set up camp; he needs to eat and drink.

He needs to help Buck.

Dismounting is nothing short of a disaster, and JD takes Buck with him and almost ends up on the ground. It’s all he can do to protect Buck’s leg, and even then, he decides to set up camp right there because he’s not sure he has any energy to drag Buck further.

He works numbly, gathering enough for a small fire and rolling out what provisions he has left on his horse. He gives the blankets to Buck, and checks the man’s leg as best he can. It’s still bleeding, but it seems to have slowed, and Buck is pale but he’s still breathing.

That’s something, at least.

Resigned, JD makes a small portion of the food before he finally takes a drink himself.

The water is hot, but it feels like heaven in his throat. After a few greedy swallows, he stops guiltily and looks to Buck.

His friend is still laid on his side where JD left him, but his eyes are open.

“Buck!” JD exclaims.

Buck smiles weakly. “You looked so damn happy that I didn’t want to interrupt,” he quips.

JD is almost giddy, and he moves over while Buck tries sitting up. It’s slow work, and Buck looks sickly, but soon enough he’s propped up against one of the nearby boulders while JD hands him the water.

Buck takes a small sip and winces. Coughing, he hands the canteen back. “How far we’d make it?”

JD looks out. It’s hard to see much in the deepening night, and he feels himself blush. “I sort of lost track.”

Buck gives him a look of consternation. “Then how do we know we’re moving in the right direction?”

“I’m not stupid--” JD starts, but he doesn’t manage to finish. He looks down. “We headed due west. I just used the sun back to go east.”

Buck nods, taking a few deeper breaths. “That’s not so bad.”

JD tries to nod back, but he can’t bring himself to look Buck in the eyes. Instead, he stirs their provisions over the fire and glances at Buck’s leg. “Bleeding’s slowing down.”

Buck hums. “Still hurts like a son of a bitch.”

“We’ll ride hard and fast tomorrow,” JD promises. “We’ll get back.”

Buck tries to look like he wants to believe JD.

Problem is, though, Buck ain’t stupid.

And JD feels ever worse.

-o-

After they eat, JD thinks to ride again, but he’s tired. He props himself up next to Buck with a sigh. “I never meant for this,” he says. “I just thought…”

Buck sighs, too. “No one ever does.”

JD turns to look at his friend. “You did.”

Buck looks back. “Only because there was a time I didn’t.”

Looking away, JD closes his eyes for a moment. The nausea still comes and goes, but the persistent headaches has never quite abated. “If I hadn’t been so stupid...I just wanted to do the right thing. I know there are risks, but I always thought that was the point.”

“Point doesn’t mean much if you’re dead,” Buck muses.

JD’s eyes snap open, and he looks at Buck in concern. “You’re not dying,” he says. “You’re not.”

Buck chuckles, the sound harsh and grating. “Not quite yet, kid,” he says as his eyes begin to droop. “Not quite yet.”

-o-

Buck falls asleep, and JD’s not far behind. He stokes the fire for a moment, and tells himself to stay awake. He thinks, they’ll just rest for a moment. Just for a few moments.

But the fire is warm and the night is black, and he can hear Buck breathing as his eyes close and everything slips away.

-o-

He dreams of home.

Except, funny enough, he doesn’t know where that is.

Buck’s there, though. Along with the rest.

This is your stupidest idea yet.

-o-

When the sun wakes him, JD startles. He gasps, sitting up fast before he remembers his head. It pounds less, but he’s stiff, like every muscle in his body has been strained. Last night’s dinner is heavy in his stomach, and he breathes through his nose for a long moment before he gets a handle on himself.

Then, he looks at Buck and feels sick all over again.

In the daylight, Buck looks horrible. His skin has an unnatural sheen to it, and he’s all but colorless. His breathing is noisier than before, and the blue of the veins on his eyelids is far too prominent. When JD smooths a tentative hand across his brow, he’s cool to the touch, clammy with sweat.

Worriedly, JD checks the wound. The bleeding is substantially better now, though it’s still leaking. He uses a blanket to tie another strip on, and even if it’s not doing any good, JD figures it can’t hurt.

At least, he hopes it can’t hurt.

While JD works, the other man moans slightly, but he doesn’t wake. JD wants to think that’s for the best, but he’s not as stupid as he seems.

-o-

Buck rouses sluggishly when JD lifts him to mount the horse. They work together in silent understanding until Buck is mostly upright, and JD is snug behind him.

“I swear to God, if someone sees us like this,” Buck mutters with a wet cough.

JD adjusts his grip and tries to get a good handle on the reins. “Looking stupid is the least of our worries.”

“For you, maybe,” Buck mumbles.

JD bites his lip and doesn’t dare disagree.

-o-

JD’s an adequate sheriff. He’s okay with a gun, and he’s acceptably clever when it comes to keeping the law. He’s bad with ladies, and damn it all if he has any idea what Casey’s all about, and he’s not great at reading people, but he makes friends all right.

He can read better than most, and his math’s not bad. His manners leave something to be desired, and he has a lick of common sense, but not much more.

But for all that he’s bad at, he’s good at riding.

JD’s always been driven to reach the horizon, no matter how far or treacherous it may be. He’s got himself this far, all the way from back east, and he ain’t never looked back.

Buck slumps in front of him, and JD holds fast, because the stakes have never been like this before.

This time, he doesn’t ride for what he might find.

This time, he rides for what he doesn’t want to lose.

-o-

JD stops long enough to relieve himself and let the horse drink. He tips Buck’s head back and lets water trickle into his mouth until he coughs. JD’s not sure he’s doing the right thing.

But he’s doing the only thing he can.

Because JD may be stupid, but he sure as hell doesn’t quit.

-o-

JD rides until the sound of hoofbeats is pounded into his skull. He rides until his vision blurs and he can’t feel his fingers. He rides until Buck pitches forward, and JD almost drops him. As it is, it’s all he can do to protect the other man’s descent from the horse, and the next thing JD knows they’re both on the ground.

Buck is wheezing, and JD’s head is killing him. His fingers are red with dried blood, and Buck looks mostly dead.

This isn’t what he wanted. This isn’t why he took this job. This isn’t why he left the coast and came west in the first place.

This isn’t it.

This isn’t--

Tears burning, JD chokes on a cry. When he swallows it back, his stomach refuses and he ends up curled up on the ground spitting bile. He sobs and heaves again, leaving him spent and aching on the sand.

Exhausted, he flops on his back and stares up at the coming night. Is this it, he wonders. Is this everything? Was he stupid to want for more?

“Kid, you’re still thinking too hard,” Buck says haltingly.

JD turns and sits up jerkily. “Buck!”

Buck is trembling in the dimness, and every breath seems to be a monumental effort. His pupils are wide, and his face is wan, but he’s looking right at JD. “Maybe you were right, though,” he says faintly, before a cough shakes his body. “Cause it looks like I may die a hero after all.”

JD’s heart skips a beat. “Hey,” he protests as his palms start to sweat. “What about the middle ground?”

Buck snorts and shakes his head. “You really are stupid.”

“I know, I am, Buck,” JD says apologetically. “Buck…”

But Buck doesn’t answer. His eyes are closed and his breathing quickens his pace even as it grows more shallow. The tremors are starting to increase, and JD knows just enough to see that time’s almost running out.

The apology is caught in his throat, but it’s not going to do anyone any good. JD can be sorry, but Buck’s still dying.

You’re still thinking too hard.

Because it’s not about what he did or didn’t do.

It’s about what he does next.

Summoning his strength, JD gets up on more time, dragging Buck with him. They’re tired and they need to rest, and JD’s horse is running ragged and JD’s vision is almost gone, but Buck’s not going to die a hero today.

Hell, no.

Because Buck’s not going to die at all.

-o-

JD doesn’t remember getting Buck on the horse. He doesn’t remember sitting himself in the saddle, keeping Buck close to him while his heart beats softer and softer against the cadence of the horse’s hoofs against the desert ground.

He doesn’t much remember the favor he did for judge or the rigged trap waiting for them. He doesn’t remember his idealistic energy or his desire to be a hero.

He just remembers his friends.

JD came to Four Corners with nothing, and after a year, he has more than he could have ever hoped. And it’s not about the land or the job. It’s not about wearing a badge or doing the right thing.

It’s about the people. About Chris and Nathan and Josiah and Ezra and Vin.

It’s about Buck.

It’s about family.

JD’s taken all that for granted because he’s a stupid, stupid kid.

-o-

Stupider by the minute.

Each minute.

Every minute.

Minutes.

-o-

When JD finally gets back to town, it’s something like a dream. He feels the ground beneath his feet as he calls for Nathan, and Chris and Vin are already out of the tavern and moving to the horse. JD blinks, and everything slows down, even as Ezra and Josiah rush up behind him and Nathan helps take Buck inside.

It’s late, or it’s early, JD doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care. Because he made it.

He made it back.

Buck can get help now.

That’s all that matters.

That’s all.

And then everything--

Stops.

-o-

Stupider by the minute.

You have to learn to make things worth your while.

-o-

JD wakes up with a splitting headache and a sore neck. In fact, everything sort of hurts and he feels inexplicably embarrassed.

Looking down, he realizes he’s been stripped to his knickers and put in a fresh shirt, and he’s currently on a bed in Nathan’s clinic with a sheet pulled over him.

His embarrassment isn’t so inexplicable anymore.

Turning red, he gathers the sheet up in some vain hope that he can salvage some of his dignity. He looks up to see Chris watching him with raised brows.

“Going somewhere?” the older man asks.

JD swallows, pulling himself up into a sitting position and sitting back gingerly against the wall. “Not without my pants.”

Chris’s expression doesn’t betray much. “You can get your pants when Nathan says you’re ready,” he says. He nods at JD. “You took a hard knock to the head.”

JD frowns and somewhat remembers this. But the memories are a bit fuzzy to him, and frankly, he’s not sure what’s real and what’s not. “Okay,” is all he manages to say.

Chris appears to want more. “You want to tell me what happened? You passed out before you could tell us anything.”

This seems entirely reasonable, and JD likes to oblige people. Hell, he’s always been throwing himself at Chris and the others, looking for any kind of approval. It shouldn’t be this hard. “We went out as a favor to the judge,” he begins, recounting the experience as best he can recall.

“On account of the upcoming trial, I know,” Chris says. “Something about a last minute appeal that needed to be checked out.”

“Right,” JD says. “The guy gave up where his stash was, and if we recovered it, he might get some leniency.”

“Sounds easy enough,” Chris says. “But it doesn’t explain how you ended up banged in the head.”

“Well, we got out there and it was all just like he said,” JD says. “Every last detail, except--”

JD falters, and he can still smell the smoke, feel the ash in his lungs.

“Except?” Chris prompts.

JD’s eyes widen. “It was stupid, Chris,” he says. “Buck--”

That’s when JD knows what’s wrong.

“Chris,” JD says with fresh urgency. “Buck--”

Chris shifts in his seat, looking away.

JD’s stomach drops, because sure, JD’s stupid.

But he’s not that stupid.

-o-

Chris starts with the good news.

The wound isn’t infected, and though Buck lost a lot of blood, JD actually made the right call by bandaging and leaving the wood in. All in all, that probably saved Buck’s life.

JD braces himself for the bad.

Because Buck still did lose a lot of blood. Nathan’s not sure how he managed to hold on, but much more and Buck wouldn’t have made it at all. Still, the blood loss left him weak -- recovery from that type of loss takes weeks under the best of conditions.

This isn’t the best of conditions.

Because the explosion didn’t just spray wood, it made ash. Lots of ash. Head first into the ground, JD had missed the worst of it, but Buck had breathed in more than his share. Having settled in his lungs and with his body already so weak from the blood loss, Buck just had no way of fighting off the pneumonia.

“There’s just no way to know which way it’ll go,” Nathan tells JD.

The weight of his words hit JD like a fresh explosion all over again. His chest is tight and tears burn his eyes.

It takes some effort to keep his emotions in check, and even then his eyes are wet when he looks back up at Nathan and Chris. “Can I see him?”

-o-

It’s a little unclear how JD actually gets to Buck’s room, but Chris tells him he’ll be right outside the door.

JD sits in a chair and watches Buck sleep. His friend is still pale, sweat slicking his skin and dampening his hair. His breathing is rattling, and he shows no signs of awareness as JD settles in next to him.

Sitting there is awkward, no doubt. This isn’t the sort of thing JD is good at, though at this point, he’s not sure what he is good at. He’s seen people die before -- his own mother wasted away, just like this -- and JD had been powerless to do anything but sit there and watch. He’d asked her to hang on, of course, but that had been a childish request. His mama probably hadn’t even heard him, but JD had been stupid…

He chews his lip and looks at his hands. He wants to apologize, suddenly, but he’s not even sure for what.

For not sensing the danger. For volunteering them for the ride in the first place. For coming to town and being part of everything. Buck had told him from the start how stupid he was, and JD had never listened. Not once, and now here they were.

He looks at Buck again, still straining for air on the bed.

Breathing deeply, JD does his best to control his emotions. “You were right,” he ventures finally, his voice thin and wavering. “This wasn’t worth it.”

Buck usually doesn’t miss a chance to gloat, but this time, he can’t.

JD squeezes his eyes shut and can’t swallow back the tears this time. He can’t.

“I’m sorry,” he says, because it’s all he can say. “It was just stupid. It was so, so stupid.”

-o-

JD doesn’t want to leave, but he’s good for no one when he stays. He lets his team badger him out, but somehow he always ends up back by Buck’s side. He eats, he drinks, he sleeps. He changes his clothes and takes a bath. His headache finally starts to fade, and the lights stop hurting his eyes.

Buck’s fever starts to rise, and this isn’t over yet.

-o-

Casey tells him jokes, and helps him down the stairs. Ezra teaches him card tricks absently, while Josiah murmurs prayers. Nathan checks his eyes, just in case, and Vin settles back in a chair like it’s the most natural thing in the whole world.

After several days, it’s Chris who sits him down and looks him square in the eyes. “You know this isn’t your fault,” he says.

JD just shakes his head. “I volunteered--”

“Two of us were going to go, no matter what,” Chris says. “That’s our job.”

“But it has to mean something,” JD says. “It should be worth something.”

Chris sighs. “Doing the right thing doesn’t always mean what you want it to mean,” he says. “We’ve all grappled with that and deal with it in our own way, even Buck.”

“But it’s stupid,” JD protests.

Chris manages a small smile. “Hell, yeah, it is,” he says. “But you should know that we’re all stupid.” He tips his hat at JD on his way out. “The rest of us just know how to hide it better.”

-o-

JD wants to believe Chris and the others. But he still feels the heat of the explosion and hears the ringing in his ears. He remembers the long hours on horseback and Buck’s blood on his hands.

It’s not worth it; JD doesn’t want to be a hero.

He just wants Buck to be okay.

-o-

Stupid, JD thinks.

Buck grows frail and his breathing is worse. The fever spikes and there’s nothing anyone can do. Nathan keeps the compresses cool and rolls Buck on his side. The congestion just gets worse.

Stupid, JD knows. So, so stupid.

-o-

Day and night starts to blur together, and JD thinks it’s been almost two weeks since they came back, but he’s not sure. He’s not sure when he last slept or ate, but he doesn’t care.

It doesn’t matter.

Buck matters, though, and he stays by his side, now more than ever. Each desperate breath seems to be closer to his last, and JD can’t let go.

He won’t let go.

“Please,” he begs, even if no one is listening. “Please, please, please.

-o-

They send up Casey, but JD doesn’t go with her. Ezra tries next, with Vin beside him. When Chris and Nathan come up, he shakes his head.

“I can’t leave him,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do.”

“I know you’re worried,” Chris says patiently. “But you’re being stupid--”

Stupid. JD laughs. The headache has been on and off, but it’s on again, in a bad way. “Of course I am! I’m always stupid! That’s the point, isn’t it?”

Chris sighs. “You’re doing this the hard way.”

Of course he is. “I don’t know any other way,” he admits. His pulse is thrumming; his head is light.

Chris takes a step forward. Vin and Ezra are at the door. Nathan looks ready to lunge at him.

“Then, maybe it’s time to learn,” Chris suggests.

JD panics, and starts to move. That’s when he realizes he hasn’t seen Josiah--

Right as strong arms encircle him.

He kicks and flails. Nathan yells something, but Josiah doesn’t let go. JD twists toward Buck, but he jars his head--

And--

-o-

This is your stupidest idea yet.

This life is dangerous.

You think there’s no middle ground?

I’m sorry.

-o-

JD wakes up in bed again.

This time, at least, he still has his pants.

Chris is glaring at him. “That was pretty stupid back there.”

“Yeah,” JD says, sitting up. His head is fuzzy but things are a little clearer now, even as he wishes they weren’t. “I’m sorry--”

Chris holds up a hand. “You were dehydrated and you’re still recovering from that knock to the head,” he says. “We should have made you step away a lot sooner.”

“Probably wouldn’t have listened,” JD mumbles.

“Yeah,” Chris says. “You are kind of set on being--”

“Stupid?” JD supplies.

Chris smiles. “Stubborn,” he says. “It’s not really so uncommon.”

JD tries to smile back, but he fails. “I just...wanted to do the right thing,” he says. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I wanted adventure; I wanted to find myself; I wanted to be a hero. That’s why I came all the way out here, and that’s why I volunteered to go on that ride. I wasn’t thinking about anything except the possibilities.”

“Not all the possibilities are good,” Chris reminds him.

JD’s shoulders slump. “I’d take it all back, if I could,” he says. “It’s my fault--”

Chris rolls his eyes. “I’ve told you,” he says. “We’ve all told you. There’s no way you knew what was going to happen. If it wasn’t you, one of us would have gone out there.”

“But there’s a middle ground,” JD argues.

“And who told you that?” Chris asks.

JD swallows hard.

Chris understands. Sighing, he shakes his head. “You really are stupid, then,” he says. “But not for going, but for thinking that Buck was telling you the truth.”

His anger flares, and JD shakes his head. “It ain’t good to talk about him like that--”

“No?” Chris asks. “And you think running around almost making yourself sick for him is so much better?”

“I wasn’t thinking, is all--”

“JD,” Chris says, firmly now. “None of this was your fault.”

JD stops, going rigid. He wants to believe it as much as he wants to deny it.

“And if you won’t believe me,” Chris says, getting to his feet. “Maybe there’s someone you will believe.”

-o-

JD’s a little hesitant, but considering that his stupidity has landed him laid up more than once over the past few weeks, he’s feeling a bit cowed into non-resistance. Besides, he’s coherent enough to know his friends mean him well. And he has to take some solace in the fact that they can’t be as stupid as he is.

Even so, he’s both relieved and worried Chris takes him to Buck’s room. Vin’s waiting outside, and he raises his eyebrows. “Sure the kid’s ready?”

Chris shrugs. “Do we really want to know what he’ll do if we make him wait any longer?”

Vin grins. “Good to see you up and about,” he says to JD. “Just try to stop passing out, okay?”

JD is somewhat compelled to argue -- they’re treating him like a child again, and he’s not a child -- but Chris is shoving him through the door before he can think of a response that doesn’t make him sound even more petulant.

All such thoughts stop before they can take form, though, because there, sitting up in bed, is Buck.

Looking straight at JD with a smile.

-o-

For a second, JD actually thinks he’s hallucinating. That doesn’t seem so unlikely, just given the way his mind’s been working the last several weeks.

“Damn, Chris,” Buck says. He’s still far too pale and his voice is weak, but the familiar cadence is there. “Haven’t you been feeding the kid?”

Chris snorts. “Been trying,” he replies. “He’s got a thick skull--”

“Not thick enough apparently,” Buck says. He swallows hard, coughing for a moment. “He looks terrible!”

JD just keeps gaping.

“You don’t look so good yourself,” Chris quips.

Buck tries to grunt, but it comes out as a cough. “I always look good,” he says, managing a grin. “Just--”

He breaks off with another round of coughing, and this time he can’t keep it under control. It rattles him, leaving him bent over and spent, and JD’s too dumbfounded to do anything but stare.

Chris stands next to JD, glancing from Buck toward him for a moment. When Buck’s coughs taper off, Chris inclines his head. “I’ll just give you two a moment,” he says. His gaze lingers on Buck. “Go easy on him.”

Buck makes a deep, incredulous sound in the back of his throat. “I’m the one laid up with pneumonia,” he retorts.

“You had it easy,” Chris says with a look at JD. “Trust me.”

JD doesn’t quite get his mouth to close.

Buck raises his eyebrows, settling his eyes back on JD. “Think we may need more than a minute.”

-o-

When the door closes, JD realizes he’s got to say something.

Problem is, there’s too much to say and not enough ways to get it out, and JD’s good at some things, but he sure as hell ain’t good at this.

Emotions.

It’s not that JD doesn’t feel, but he hopped on a train to avoid all the pain and loss from his past, so to come face to face with the things he can’t save is more than a little overwhelming. In that instant, JD realizes just how young he is -- and he’s never felt older.

Buck coughs again and clears his throat. His breathing still sounds strained, but when he looks at JD, there’s a clarity that JD has missed.

“You’re doing better, then?” JD finally asks.

Inclining his head, Buck wets his lips. “Nathan says I’m past the worst of it,” he says. “Still sort of feel like hell, but considering I don’t remember the last two weeks, I reckon it’s not so bad.”

JD nods and knows that’s reassuring. Hell, that’s the best news JD’s heard in a month.

But…

“I’m sorry,” he blurts. “You were right -- about everything. Going out there, taking that risk -- I never should have done it, and I never should have asked you to come, and none of this would have happened. It was stupid.” He falters, desperately trying not to cry because he has some dignity left, even if just a smidge. “I was stupid.”

Buck stares for a moment, then makes a noise deep in his throat. It’s hard to tell if it’s the lingering pneumonia or something else. “Going out there,” Buck says in utter incredulity. “You think that was the stupid part?”

JD hesitates. “Well, you said it, Buck,” he starts to stammer.

Buck’s face screws up. “Son, you’ve done a lot of stupid things, some I’ve told you about and a lot I’ve just not bothered to deal with. I mean, there’s your hat. The fact that you wear a badge like some sort of bullseye on your chest. There’s your inability to make heads or tails of what to do with a pretty girl falling all over you. And yes, your desire to go running off into the line of fire just because it’s the damn right thing to do -- those all qualify as relatively stupid in our way of life.”

Mouth open, JD’s not sure whether to apologize again or not.

Buck takes a deep, railing breath. “But you shouldn’t apologize for any of that,” he says. “Because those things are stupid, but they’re still the right thing most of the time.”

Now JD’s just confused. “But you said--”

“I say a lot of things!” Buck says. “And now you listen!”

“But you got hurt--”

“JD, the only thing truly stupid about all of this is that you sat here for weeks and nearly ran yourself ragged,” Buck confesses tiredly. “Yes, going out was stupid, but that was the sort of stupid we all accepted when we took this job. Most of us just aren’t quite so eager to go about. And besides, that’s not the reason I got hurt. That’s nothing but dumb luck.”

“But--”

Buck inhales noisily, and the look on his face is just short of exhausted. But his eyes are unrelenting, and he shakes his head. “You want to apologize? Then apologize for nearly getting your brains scrambled and not listening to Nathan. Apologize for making me worry when I can hardly breathe,” he says emphatically. He looks strained, but JD knows that look -- and there’s no stopping Buck now. “You don’t apologize for riding two days to save my life. You don’t apologize for not seeing the future. And you sure as hell don’t apologize for being a hero, stupid or not.”

It’s clear that the monologue took a lot out of Buck, and there’s no doubt that it’s hitting JD like a pile of bricks. The idea of it.

He shakes his head. “A hero?” he asks. “But you told me to take the middle ground--”

Buck’s brow furrows. “Of course I told you to take the middle ground,” he says. “You run around like you want to get killed half the time, so a little middle ground would do you good.”

JD nods in total agreement. “I was wrong before, and I know that now,” he says. “I’d be a hero, every time over, if it meant keeping you from getting hurt.”

“Yeah, well,” Buck says with a wheezing sigh. “I wouldn’t.”

JD frowned in confusion.

“When I knew what was going to happen out there -- when I knew the thing was rigged to explode and was a damn trap -- it scared the hell out of me,” Buck admits. He shrugs. “I pulled you out of the way, and I wasn’t thinking about me. I was just thinking about what might happen to you.”

“Wait,” JD says, tilting his head as he makes sense of this revelation. “You were being the hero?”

“Seems that way,” Buck says. He shifts on the bed, looking a bit uncomfortable now. “And as far as I’m concerned, you were just returning the favor.”

JD stares a moment longer.

He hadn’t even thought about that.

He hadn’t thought at all.

As it turns out, he really is stupid because he missed the crux of this thing from the start. It’s not that Buck thinks JD is stupid. It’s that Buck’s just as stupid as JD. This whole team -- that’s what they’re about. They’re all heroes, and their most heroic feats are trying to protect one another.

And Buck bitches and moans, but he’s the one who threw himself on top of JD -- he’s the worst one of the bunch.

After days and weeks of worrying and waiting, the relief is sudden and overwhelming, and JD finds himself smiling.

“So, wait,” JD says. “We’re even?”

Buck sighs. “I suppose we are,” he condescends. He narrows his gaze. “Until your next stupid stunt, anyway.”

JD grins now. “I think I can live with that,” he says.

Grunting, Buck settles himself back on the pillows. “That is the idea,” he says.

JD’s had a lot of stupid ideas, but coming to Four Corners and being part of this group of men -- that certainly has never been one of them.

No matter what Buck says.