The dawning sun glowed on Chris' back as he rode his horse down the meandering desert path. They were out in the middle of nowhere, and Chris hardly looked where he was going, or even lifted his head from staring at the back of his horse's neck. He should have been marking the trail, searching for landmarks to guide his way homeward when the time came and he had to go back.
But he didn't. Because he wasn't planning on going back.
You run and I'll hunt you down.
I'm not running, Buck, Chris argued with the man who until three years ago was his only really close friend. Chris had been talking to Buck all morning, reasoning things out. Buck's voice had answered every argument he made, pleading and yelling in the way Chris knew Buck to do such things, but all to no avail. Chris' mind was made up.
I'm not running, he repeated, imagining Buck riding next to him, that oh-come-on-Chris look in his eyes. Running is something you do when you can't face something, when you're yellow and you give up trying to right things. This was just the opposite.
Chris knew he should never go back to Four Corners. It was the right thing to do.
And how's that, Chris?
The blond man lifted his head, gazed into the brilliant desert landscape till it hurt his eyes, and they welled up. He felt desolate, empty, used up. He knew Buck didn't understand, none of them did, but up till now that had been all right, Chris was used to people not understanding, it didn't hurt anybody that he kept to himself and backed away and still dreamed of Sarah and Adam, her soft skin, those little-boy eyes. It was Chris' own screwed-up existence, and if he became jagged and dangerous, nobody paid for it but him.
Then, in one night, everybody paid.
No, he couldn't go back. He tried living, it didn't work. He tried holding the pain, the guilt, the anger, but they were like snakes, coiling around him and choking him, and he couldn't hold them anymore.
So he would let them go.
Now dang it, Chris, he heard Buck exclaim, that's just plain old crazy. Now what would Sarah say if she heard you talkin' like that? You'd scare the living daylights out of her.
But Sarah couldn't hear. Sarah was beyond pain, beyond the burden of the world. She and Adam were somewhere else, Heaven Chris hoped, forever young and light and unaware. She was dead, and knew nothing.
And Chris was so jealous he wanted to scream.
A ramshackle roadside inn appeared in the distance, little more than an adobe hovel thrown up beside the dirt road. Chris' insides clamored for a drink. He ignored that killing thirst, knew that if he picked up the bottle again he would drink himself to death, and Chris did not want to die that way. But his horse was thirsty, so Chris decided to stop.
If the inn seemed ramshackle from a distance, it was worse up close. A grimy, weed-choked building, two stories tall, with rags fluttering in the window and goats and chickens wandering the dirty courtyard. Chris rode his horse over to the trough, where flies gathered in buzzing clusters, dismounted and tethered the animal. There was a grimy wooden table nearby, under a lattice work arbor that sported one withered vine. Chris went over and sat down at it, and stared at nothing.
It was quiet out in the wilderness. The chickens squawked, the wind blew, rattling the dead leaves on the vine above him. After a moment the fat innkeeper appeared, and eyed Chris warily. Chris smiled to himself. Guess you can't be too careful these days.
The innkeeper was carrying a bottle of whiskey, and without even asking set it down in front of Chris and walked away.
For a long moment, Chris stared at the bottle. He didn't really remember the drunken binge that had ended with JD lying beaten in the alley; he did have hazy images of the saloon, lamplight glowing off of empty bottles. Then a red darkness.
He didn't touch the bottle. Instead, he reached into the pocket of his duster and took something out, stared at it, turned it over in his black-gloved hands.
His wedding ring.
Chris had kept it, why he didn't know. Maybe because it was the only thing of value he had, and maybe he could buy something with it someday; maybe he was sentimental. All he knew was that when he looked at it, he could ignore the whiskey bottle.
He was still holding the golden band, turning it over and over, when he heard a soft voice at his elbow and looked up. A young girl stood there, maybe fifteen, with dark skin and long, black hair. Her huge dark eyes looked at Chris, and he saw too much knowledge there, tired circles under the eyes of a girl of fifteen. Without a word, she reached out one small, soft hand and put it on his arm.
In halting English accented with Mexico she asked, "Sir, would you like to go to bed with me?"
Oh, Christ. Chris' heart sank within him, as if the world wasn't kicking him enough. He glanced back at the innkeeper, saw the expectant look in his eyes. That bastard, selling this girl for money. She was probably his daughter, and he was prostituting her. Jesus Christ.
The girl blinked at him, and Chris almost shrank back. Part of him wanted to pummel the innkeeper, rage against him for using this child to satisfy lecherous travelers. Hadn't he avenged such wrongs before? Didn't he used to be the sort of man who would rail against the injustice of shattered innocence?
Yes. But now he'd shattered some of his own. JD's blood was still on his hands, and Chris was exhausted and tired of fighting. He shook his head at the girl and looked back down at the ring, and didn't move when her hand slipped away.
His horse was done drinking, but Chris still sat at the table, mesmerized by that ring. Go into the tombs and the mountains, Josiah had said. Go where someone can find you who can help you. But Chris knew he was beyond help. At the end of it all, he'd fought for three years to live, only to be shown that the demons Josiah had mentioned were going to win. The tombs and the mountains. Well, a tomb seemed like a fine idea...
The sound of another horseman approaching reached Chris' ears. He didn't look up.
"Good afternoon to you, sir. Might you have some clean water to drink?"
An Irish lilt. Chris looked up.
A man was getting off a handsome horse, a tall man with broad shoulders and short, curly brown hair. His clothes were dusty, but a fine cut, and as he shook the trail dust out of his hair Chris saw that despite the heat and the long ride he still had a lot of energy. A lot of that energy went into the appreciative smile he gave the innkeeper, who handed him a tumbler of water and gave him a puzzled look.
"Oh, lovely," The newcomer said gratefully, handing the innkeeper a coin with one gloved hand, "Just perfect. Thank you."
The man wandered into the arbor, settled into a nearby table with a groan and a stretching of his legs. He gave Chris a friendly smile, which Chris scowled off. This man was obviously happy, and Chris hated him. And went back to gazing at his wedding ring.
A few minutes passed. Chris risked a glance at the whiskey, maybe it wouldn't be so bad. His demons might kill him, and save him the trouble.
From a few feet away, a soft voice said, "Sir, would you like to go to bed with me?"
Chris grimaced. Rotten world -
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!" He heard the Irishman exclaim, and Chris looked up to see the man taking the girl's hands in his own, with a look of absolute shock on his face. The girl stared back, frightened, and the man moved one hand to touch her face, said something to her in a voice too low for Chris to hear, but his expression was one of clear anguish. The girl nodded, and Chris saw the man's expression change to one he'd seen before, on Nathan's face and Josiah's, and the others.
The man stood up, still held the girl's hand, and Chris watched him lead the girl to where the innkeeper was standing puzzled at the door. Chris saw the innkeeper cower a little bit, and continued to watch, intrigued.
"Ye black-hearted wretch," the Irishman said hotly. "Ye've been selling this poor girl t' pay for yer whiskey."
It was a statement, not a question, and Chris saw the innkeeper shrug. "She doesn't mind it, señor. Her mother didn't either. I'm a poor man, how do you - "
"Ye worthless pig!" The Irishman seethed, putting an arm around the girl's shoulder and sheltering her at his side. "Ye'd barter away a child's innocence to cover yer debts. A mongrel dog would be ashamed to look ye in the face."
The innkeeper was squaring his shoulders now, spoiling for a fight. "You have a problem with the way I run my inn? Then get out."
"What do ye charge for her?" The Irishman suddenly asked.
The innkeeper blinked at him. "Pardon, señor?"
"Ye heard me, you miserable excuse for the lowest form of a human bein'. What do you charge for her - time?"
The man grinned. "She's a good girl, señor. Very talented. Fifty cents."
The Irishman let out a wordless growl, and as Chris watched he let go of the girl and plunged one hand into the pocket of his suit. He dug out a huge roll of bills, larger even than Ezra's, whipped off four bills, and thrust them into the innkeeper's chest angrily.
"That should keep her safe from the next five hundred or so pairs of filthy hands," the Irishman said sternly, and Chris could feel the heat of his glare as he stuffed the money back in his pocket. "You're the poorest excuse for a father God ever put on this earth. I'll be back in a week, and if you let one predatory hand touch this child in the meantime I'll break your miserable neck. Am I understood?"
The innkeeper was staring at the money; he looked confused, but overjoyed at all that cash. He nodded assent, but didn't look at the other man.
The Irishman noticed this, and leaning forward he gripped the man's collar in one strong fist, pulling his face close. The innkeeper squeaked; Chris heard it.
"Ye low-down pimping son of a bitch," the Irishman snarled threateningly. "It would be God's work I'd be doin' to rid the world of ye right here, but there's a chance even yer sorry soul can be saved, so I'll let it go. But if one hair - one half of one hair - is disturbed on this girl's head when I get back, ye'll be spendin' some long, long hours wishin' yer life had been a lot shorter."
The Irishman let go of the man, practically threw him back into the doorway, then, in a lightning flash, his face went to gentle softness and he knelt down to the young girl, took her sad face in his hands, and gave her a look of such sympathy that Chris almost heard the man's heart breaking. He said something else to her, soft and low, then gave her a gentle hug and, throwing one last murderous look to the innkeeper, walked back toward his horse.
Chris sat up, impressed despite his melancholy. As the other man passed him, Chris nodded. The Irishman nodded back, gave him a half-smile, his eyes darting for a moment to Chris' hands, something flashing through his eyes that Chris didn't quite catch. Then he mounted his horse and rode away.
Chris sat there for a few more minutes, then rose to go. He walked across the dilapidated plaza, saw the innkeeper still standing in the doorway, fondling the crisp bills in his chubby hands. The girl was standing a few feet in front of him, her sorrowful dark eyes on the road where the Irishman had departed. There was wonder in her eyes, and a kind of surprise, as if she knew something wonderful had happened to her, but her mind couldn't understand it. She had been saved.
Chris looked into those huge black eyes, felt a pang of guilt, brushed it aside. He'd tried saving the world. And failed. Let it go.
With one last look at the miserable little inn, Chris mounted his horse and headed out into the desert, looking for the mountains. And the tombs.
+ + + + + + +drifting.
Floating, quiet, calm and gentle, in no hurry. Plenty of time.
Edging closer to the surface, light and voices, they're worried about me, awful pain, wait, something's wrong, pulling back, no, stay here.
Stroking, soothing. It's all right. Tenderness and concern. Drawing close. It's been long enough now.
Something's pulling, getting stronger, but it hurts, hurts, it isn't right, clinging, frightened. Please don't make me.
I'm right here.
Spinning, falling, faster, faster, rushing, noises, louder, brighter, getting heavy, can't believe the pain, not where I'm supposed to be , don't let go, please please, I won't I won't holding gripping tighter tighter tighter tighter - waking -
+ + + + + + +
The early morning sun glowed weakly against the drawn shades in Nathan's room, casting bright halos around the dark squares of canvas pulled down to keep the room cool, and dim. Cheerful sunlight would be incongruous in that room today. Buck didn't want it, had no use for it now that his world was night; wouldn't need again until the wrecked youth who lay motionless in the narrow bed before him opened his eyes, until the youth's attacker had paid for what he'd done. Until those things happened, Buck didn't care if he never saw the sun again.
Come on, JD. Buck's blue eyes fell once again on the sleeping youth who had been occupying Nathan's bed for a whole day now. Open your eyes, I know you're in there. Move, dammit, say something. Anything...
Buck tried not to think about the way JD had looked when they'd first brought him in - his face swollen, his arms and legs limp as a doll's, his long black hair matted brown and crusted with drying blood. Buck had been scared then.
He was petrified now.
He hadn't thought it was possible to feel worse than he had when they'd first found JD crumpled and bleeding in the alley by the jail. But yesterday everything changed. Before Buck had seen Chris, JD's attacker was a rotten son of a bitch, a low down cuss Buck couldn't wait to get his hands on, a satisfying target for all the rage and distress Buck had felt on seeing his young friend thrown around like a child's toy. Before yesterday, JD's assailant was dead meat.
Now, he was Buck's best friend.
It just didn't seem possible. Buck watched the soft lamplight glow on JD's pale, battered face. Chris did this. Chris, Buck's buddy, his drinkin' companion, defender of women and children. It didn't seem to fit.
Then Buck sighed and drew one graceful hand through his dark hair. Yes, it fit. He'd fought it, fought the idea with every ounce of his strength, denied it till he ached from the effort.
But he knew Chris could do it. Because he had done it to Buck.
Oh, not this bad, Buck winced as his eyes fell reluctantly on JD's bandaged ribs, the ominous row of black stitches over his left temple, the red-blue bruises that blotted the fair skin on his forehead, his jaw, next to his left eye. Not this bad, but there was a night, not too long after they'd laid Chris' wife and son in the ground...
Too much whiskey. Shouted words. Fists bashing into flesh.
And then what? Buck tried to remember. He'd been sore as hell, found out he'd bruised a couple of ribs, tried to explain it away to the curious senorita who'd found him among the trash the next morning. Just a little disagreement, darlin'. Ouch, I'm all right.
God damn, Buck thought as he recalled that night. God damn.
He didn't think Chris even apologized for beating him; at least, he didn't remember that he had. Only a few mumbled words over more whiskey the next day. That night Chris was gone, and Buck didn't see him again for a long time.
But that was so long ago. Three years. In that time Buck had forgiven Chris, of course, told himself it was the booze, Chris wasn't really like that, he'd just gotten a little carried away. And maybe it was true, but Buck knew when he hooked up with Chris again that things could change again, for the worse. Chris Larabee, Buck's good buddy, had been replaced by Chris Larabee, hair-trigger maniac, and Buck had learned to walk the fine line that would ensure he landed on the one side, and not the other. And he simply ignored the maniac, and hoped he'd go away.
But he hadn't. He'd made appearances now and then, wearing Chris' face, and Buck always hated it when that happened, because he didn't like this new person in Chris' body, who frowned and growled and took swings at people. And then blamed them for not ducking fast enough.
And then Buck had found JD's twisted, beaten body in a dark alley, and Chris sleeping off a drinking binge with blood on his knuckles...
Buck took a deep breath and let it out, slow and sad. He wanted Chris to pay for what he did. He wanted the old Chris back, so they could talk about this and remark on how it would never happen again. He wanted to wake up next to Rita, and this all to be a bad dream.
He wanted JD to open his eyes.
The door creaked softly, and Buck looked up to see Nathan come in. The healer entered the room with a covered plate, and as he came in he nodded to Buck, his face reflecting haggard concern in the amber light.
"Anything yet?" Nathan whispered hopefully as he moved to where Buck was sitting.
Buck glanced at JD, then at Nathan, shook his head.
Nathan pursed his lips, poised the plate at Buck. "Here, I got us some biscuits."
Buck had no appetite, but took the plate anyway. "Where'd you get these?"
"Mrs. Travis." Nathan quietly moved around the bed as he spoke.
Buck put the plate down, didn't touch the food.
Nathan put one practiced hand on JD's bruised forehead. "She looked pretty wore out. Don't think anybody got much sleep last night."
Buck nodded agreement, watched as Nathan gently examined the stitches, then sat down in the chair on the other side of the bed. "You see anybody else?"
Nathan picked a clean rag from the table, dipped it in a basin of water nearby. "Few townfolk. They asked about JD."
Buck nodded again, felt the oppressiveness of the night, fought it. Nathan sponged the boy's face with the cool water, dipped it again. Buck watched in mortified fascination, wondering how anyone so unaware could still be alive.
There was a knock on the door, so low it could hardly be heard, and Buck went to answer it, realizing as he rose just how sore and stiff he was from sitting. How long had he been in that chair? A year? Two? He didn't recall.
He opened the door, saw Vin standing there, his head ducked low. The former bounty hunter hung in the doorway, his face sadder and more serious than Buck had ever seen it.
"Thought you oughta know," Vin drawled in a slow, monotonous tone, "Chris left town last night."
Buck and Nathan looked at each other, then back at Vin. Buck asked, "Who went with him?"
"Josiah saw him out to Baker's Pass," Vin replied, still in the shadows. "Then Chris went on by himself."
Buck nodded, didn't know what to say. Chris was gone.
Nathan left JD's bedside and approached the door. Vin backed up, and the two others walked out onto the wide wooden porch that fronted Nathan's room.
The rain from last night had left a humid, heavy mist behind, and Buck felt it deepen his weighted mood. It was Vin who spoke first.
"People around here are mighty riled," he said simply, hooking his thumbs into his belt. "It ain't gonna go easy on us till this thing is settled."
"How long till Chris comes back?" Buck asked.
"Josiah gave him five days," Vin answered, his voice noncommittal. "Till the judge gets here."
"And after that, then what?" Nathan said. "Even if Chris comes back, ain't no way folks round here gonna trust him again."
"He'll come back," Buck said in tight tones.
"Well, till he does," Vin posited, "we best lay low. Some folks never took too kind to us before, this just made things worse."
Buck shook his head in despair and put his hands on his hips. The whole thing was just too depressing to think about. He cast his eyes to the drifting clouds overhead and sighed.
Buck looked down from the blue-pink sky to see Vin eyeing him. Shifting his weight, the tracker said, "You look like hell, Buck. You get any sleep?"
Buck scratched at the day's growth of beard on his chin, shrugged tiredly. "I've gone longer."
Vin gave him a sympathetic look. "I can sit up a spell. You get some - "
Buck jumped at the loud noise that rang from Nathan's room. He jumped through the door before even thinking about it, and gaped at the sight that met his eyes.
JD was out of the bed, fully awake and sprawled on the floor, the bedclothes tangled around his bandaged legs. He was bracing himself against the front of Nathan's desk and looking around with wide, frightened eyes.
Buck couldn't believe it. "Hey, buddy!" he said happily as Nathan and Vin piled in behind him. He extricated himself from the crowd near the door and started toward his friend to help him up, overjoyed that JD was finally out of danger, and things could go back to normal. "Good to have you - "
JD looked at Buck and screamed.
Buck stopped, his hands frozen in front of him. JD was glancing around frantically, like a caged animal, scrambling to cram his injured body into the small space beneath Nathan's desk. His face, so still and quiet minutes before, was flushed and panicked.
"Hey, JD." Buck laughed nervously, not understanding, "It's okay, just calm - "
He took a half-step closer, and JD yelled out again, trying his best to move away from Buck with his one good arm. He stared at Buck, at all of them, in total shock, his huge hazel eyes almost bulging with hysteria.
"Hold on there, Buck," Nathan said softly, and moved around Buck, crouching down a fair distance from JD, but close enough to talk to him.
JD let out a small whimper and tried to push himself farther beneath the desk, his eyes fixed on Nathan.
"Now son - can you understand me?"
JD nodded, a quick, small nod followed by a huge wince, as if the effort hurt.
"You know where you're at?"
The youth glanced around quickly, shook his head no.
"You know your name?"
JD opened his mouth, hesitated. "I - I'm John- Daniel."
Nathan smiled as gently as he could. "That's right, son, that's good."
"What happened to me?" JD asked, his words choked and shaky, tears springing in his eyes as he tried to hide farther under the desk. With one trembling hand he fumbled at the bandage that bound his left arm. "Who are you people? Where's my mother?"
Nathan sat back a little. Vin and Buck traded looks, but Buck's was darker.
"Your mother ain't here right now," Nathan said softly. "But we - "
"You're a liar!" JD cried in a raw voice, one tear slipping down his cheek, "She was just with me! She was right here!"
Nathan paused. JD eyed them all with agonized, glazed eyes, then hunched over and started sobbing, hoarse, racking, hopeless sobs of pain and bewilderment.
Buck couldn't stand it anymore. He leaned forward a bit. "Now, just take it easy, so - "
"Get away from me!" JD shrieked through his tears, shrinking back into the darkness. He thrust his good hand into his hair, over where the stitches were, and sobbed louder. Then, twisting his eyes shut, JD turned his face away, and as he pulled himself tighter Buck could see how badly he was shaking in that small space.
For a few minutes there was no sound in the dimly lit room other than JD's hitching, ragged breath. Vin shook his head and ducked it low, and as Buck glanced over at him he saw the bounty hunter's shoulders sagging. The knot which had been creeping up Buck's spine since the previous morning finally reached his heart, and strangled it. He felt like dying.
Nathan paused, crept a little closer to where JD was cowering. "You hurtin', John-Daniel?"
The boy kept crying, seemingly oblivious to Vin and Buck and Nathan.
Nathan leaned back and whispered, "You two better leave."
"No," Buck said automatically, his face slack with amazement as he looked at the slight form trembling in terror underneath Nathan's desk. Leave? Impossible.
"Buck," Vin said in a calm voice that was nonetheless weighted with sorrow, "We're scarin' the kid. Let's let Nathan handle this."
Buck hesitated, squinted at Nathan, felt helpless. Finally, reluctantly, he walked with Vin to the door, pausing before he closed it to listen to Nathan's soothing words, heard low-toned responses punctuated by confused, racking sobs.
His eyes met Vin's, and for the first time since the events of the night before last he knew they agreed. No matter what the clock said, the night wasn't over.
It was just getting started. And the sun might never come up again.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan waited until he heard the soft thud of the door closing behind Vin and Buck, then turned his attention back to the quavering youth who was cringing beneath his desk. JD's sobs had quieted to soft whimpers, punctuated by an occasional hitching gulp. His face was still turned away from Nathan, his right hand buried in his long black hair.
"John-Daniel?" Nathan said quietly.
JD didn't answer, didn't move except to rock back and forth, hugging his knees to his chest.
Nathan licked his lips, tried again. "John- Daniel? You want somethin' for the pain?"
Slowly the hand came out of the hair, and JD turned to look at him. His face was red from crying, the vermilion blending with the dark blue and stark red of his bruises and cuts. He blinked at Nathan, his hazel eyes huge with alarm and amazement.
"You're a d-doctor?" JD finally whispered huskily.
"No," Nathan admitted with a gentle smile, "but I does know somethin' about healin' folks."
The frightened eyes darted back and forth, around Nathan it seemed. "Where's Doctor Bingham?"
Nathan paused, and in that pause JD looked at him and asked, "Where's my mother?"
It was a childlike voice he was using, higher and more plaintive than Nathan had ever heard before. Nathan thought for a moment and said, "Don't you want to come out from under there, son? It don't look too comfortable to me."
JD looked around the cramped space he was in, as if he'd just noticed he was in it. He started to scoot forward, but caught himself, giving Nathan a suddenly suspicious look. "You didn't hurt my mother?"
Nathan's head came back. "No, son, of course not. I wanna help you."
"Then where is she? I've seen men like you down at the coal docks. She wouldn't leave me alone with you."
The tone was getting tighter, and more frightened. JD seemed to be having second thoughts about leaving his hiding place; he began pushing himself back into it, eyeing Nathan warily as he did so.
Nathan shook his head, decided to try again. "Now son, listen to me. You been hurt, and your mama - asked me to take care of you."
JD frowned; he wasn't buying it.
"Now, listen," Nathan thought fast, "I know you're scared, and I bet you're hurtin' mighty bad. That other doctor, he couldn't make it, so your mama sent for me."
JD was blinking back tears of confusion and fear. "But I don't know you," he whispered in terrified self-defense.
"I know," Nathan continued. "And she knew that too, she told me, 'When JD wakes up he's gonna be mighty sore."
JD's eyes widened. Nathan smiled a bit; he'd been right. "'So you make sure to give him somethin' for the pain till I get back.' Now your mama calls you JD, don't she?"
JD nodded a little, the wayward bangs falling into those frightened eyes. "Nobody else does. Just her."
Nathan's smile grew gentler. "Now I could tell she'd be like to take my head off if I didn't do just what she said, so you want to help me? Come on out of there, please?"
JD paused, his eyes still unsure, but Nathan could see that pain and exhaustion were winning over suspicion and after a moment JD began to slowly work his way out from under the desk.
"You want some help?" he asked, reaching out a hand.
JD flinched away from Nathan, his eyes suddenly huge again, and frantically shook his head.
He's still scared of me, Nathan thought sadly. He backed away from the desk and stood up, walking over the the table that housed his herbs and tonics.
He mixed some of them together, came back with the glass to see that JD had managed to get about halfway out of the desk space. He had stopped to rest, and was leaning against the inside wall panting, his face shining with sweat.
"Here, son, drink this," Nathan encouraged, handing JD the herbal mixture. "It'll take away some of the pain, help get you back to sleep."
JD took the glass cautiously and sniffed at it, then took a sip.
"After you get that down," Nathan said, "we'll get you the rest of the way out of there and back into bed."
And maybe the next time you wake up, you'll know who we are again.
JD drank the rest of the medicine, handed the cup back, winced and began pulling himself out of the hole again.
"Easy there," Nathan directed, putting the glass on the desk and reaching down for JD's good arm to help him. As soon as the youth had cleared the tiny space, Nathan gave a gentle tug and helped JD to his feet, and started to walk him back to the bed.
Immediately JD stumbled, and fell against the desk, crying out in pain.
Alarmed, Nathan hastily lowered him to the floor, leaning him against the desk's wooden legs so he could see if JD had hurt himself further. The boy had closed his eyes tightly, and seemed to be trying not to cry.
"It's okay, JD," he soothed, trying to quell his own panic. "Is it your leg? Hurts to walk on it?"
JD shook his head, his eyes still shut, his breaths coming in huge, noisy gasps.
"You gettin' any new pain when you hit the desk? Like in your ribs?"
The gasps settled somewhat. JD opened his eyes and tried to focus them on Nathan, and shook his head again, black hair falling against dark bruises. "N-no."
Nathan sighed. That was something, at least. "Well, we gotta get you back into bed. Wanna try it again?"
There was real fear in JD's eyes, not the fear from before, but something else Nathan didn't recognize. But JD seemed to want to try again, and did his best to help Nathan lift him to his feet.
"All right?" Nathan asked as JD tottered uncertainly. The bed was only two feet away, but there was something in JD's attitude that -
Suddenly JD leaned far forward, and fell down again, this time bouncing against the edge of the bed before Nathan caught him around the middle, and settled him against the side of the bed.
JD was shaking from head to toe, in pain and terror that had him staring at Nathan with gigantic, stupefied eyes.
Nathan was alarmed too, but tried not to show it. Running expert hands over JD's shoulders, he said, "You hurt? Any - "
"What's the matter with me?" JD blurted in a voice that trembled with petrified fright. "I can't walk. I can't - "
"Now, calm down," Nathan said quickly, putting one dark hand on JD's face and praying that the tonic would take hold soon. "Please, JD? Stay with me here, son."
"I - tried and I just fell down!" Tears ran down JD's face as he began to shake harder. "I can't walk anymore? Is - is that - "
Nathan kept his hand on JD's face, began to gently stroke it in the hopes of calming the youth down. His other hand was on JD's good shoulder, and he kept it there. "JD? JD, just take some deep breaths with me, all right?"
JD looked at him, frenzied eyes in an ash-white face. He tried to breathe.
"It hurts," he said in a small voice.
"I know, son, and I'm sorry about that. Just breathe, deep as you can."
JD nodded, tried. One breath, shaky but deep. Two. The eyes were a little calmer, he was locking them on Nathan's.
"All right now," Nathan said in quiet, measured tones. "You been hurt. It's bad, but you just relax and we're gonna help you. All the help you need, you hear me?"
JD nodded, but the eyes.. "Why can't I walk? It's like..."
"Don't worry about that, it'll - it'll come back. You just need time is all. Now I'll get you back in the bed, and you get some rest and don't be movin' around. Hear me?"
JD was spent, exhausted. The tonic was also affecting him. He nodded, and closing his eyes rested against the bed, his breath coming slower now. But his face was full of pain.
Nathan tried hard not to show it, but he was going cold inside. Absolutely stone cold. His eyes involuntarily went to the bandaged legs, lying useless in front of JD, still covered in cotton underdrawers splotched with old brown blood; they were white a lifetime ago. Back when JD knew where he was and who his friends were, back when Chris was JD's hero and they were all still together.
And now JD was afraid of them, in awful pain, and he couldn't walk.
JD was shivering less now, his shoulders sagging with fatigue and surrender. With a heart heavy with the dread of tomorrow, Nathan stood up and without any protest from JD lifted him up and placed him carefully back into the small, narrow bed.
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