Of Age

by K Hanna Korossy

Main character: JD

Note: This story originally appeared in the Let's Ride! 3 fanzine (2003 Neon Rainbow Press)

With the sunrise at their backs, seven men came riding along the cragged, uninhabited land. They were brave, intelligent, skilled . . . and worn out.

Life in the West didn't quite have the romantic shine those dime novels he'd grown up on had given it, JD thought listlessly. Sleeping on the hard, cold ground, eating dried meat and even drier bread, risking your life on a regular basis; it wasn't quite what he'd expected. Not that he would have opted out of any of that - well, not really. It came with the lifestyle and companions he'd chosen, and he wasn't about to give that up because of a few inconveniences. But that didn't mean he wasn't occasionally tempted.

Like the day before. They'd ridden out at the request of the sheriff of a town about twenty miles off. It wasn't something they did regularly - Four Corners had enough problems of its own without looking for more elsewhere - but the man had sounded desperate and things had been quiet around town, so Chris had agreed. It wasn't a big job, anyway, just rounding up or running off some cattle rustlers who'd been plaguing the area. Since rustlers tended to move around and could end up near Four Corners next, it even made sense to get rid of them before they became a local problem. JD had no qualms about that. It was what had happened after they'd gotten there he'd been stewing on ever since.

Okay, so he knew he was the youngest of the seven of them, by several years. And the least experienced. And, if he was honest, often the one who managed to get himself knifed or beaten up or shot, although that really wasn't his fault. So maybe a little protectiveness from the others wasn't unwarranted, even if it chafed him to admit it. But . . . but not the kind of obvious mollycoddling he'd gotten the day before. He'd held his own in a gunfight before, had gotten in some good shots, maybe even saved one or two of the others' lives. This was his job as much as theirs, for Pete's sake, and he'd earned the right to do it. So to be told to hang back and keep an eye out for any stragglers . . . well, it was humiliating. And there had been a lot who'd gotten away, just not in his direction, so he hadn't ended up doing any good at all. He might as well have stayed home, for all the use he'd been, JD sulked.

Buck Wilmington, probably tired of the silence, rode up next to JD, startling him out of his thoughts with a sly, "You thinkin' about gettin' back to Casey? I bet she missed ya."

JD's frown deepened. Maybe that was what bothered him the most; Buck's total obliviousness to how angry he was. No one could have told Buck Wilmington to stay out of a fight his friends were in, yet he thought it natural to expect JD to, and had been unusually blind to JD's resentment ever since. If your best friend couldn't tell how you were obviously feeling. . . "Go away, Buck," he said flatly.

At least that seemed to take the older man aback. He reined his horse in closer, giving them some small bit of privacy. "Something wrong, JD? You've been kinda quiet since we left."

Kinda quiet? - that was it? This was the man who'd so worriedly nursed him back to health after Maddie had shot him, who'd coaxed him into talking each time he was upset, who'd taught him far more about women than Casey had? Probably considered it fathering or something, the way he obviously looked at JD. He wasn't Buck's equal, he was his sidekick. JD's gloom deepened and he hunched down in his saddle, wishing Wilmington would leave him alone.

But he didn't, leaning closer instead, his voice softening. "Come on, kid, tell ol' Buck what's the matter."

That did it. JD reared up, blinking back his hurt. "That about sums it up, ol' Buck, doesn't it? This kid's tired of being treated like one." He spurred his horse before Buck could answer, calling sullenly over his shoulder, "I'm gonna go see Casey." And he rode off, leaving the six behind him.

His horse was happy to be given free rein for a while, and they galloped for some time before he felt her start to tire and eased back to a trot. The chill wind in his face and his concentration on the ride had cooled his temper some, too, and JD turned regretfully to look at the six small figures far behind him. He loved them - all of them, even Ezra. Not like he had his Ma, or Casey, but they were his new family and he would've fought Hell itself for any one of them. And he thought it'd been mutual. So why'd they have to treat him like some kind of tag-along? He blinked his wind-stung eyes.

And then rubbed them to make sure he wasn't seeing things.

In the distance, several other tiny figures had appeared around the six, popping up from behind rocks and two falling down from the trees. There seemed to be a lot of them, but as JD caught his breath and quickly counted, there were only a good dozen or so. That was still more than double the six, plus there was the element of surprise. Gloom formed into dread as he watched the brief face-off, gunshots carrying only as faint wisps of sound on the wind. One of the six was toppled off his horse, no doubt shot, and JD watched with breathless anxiety as the rest were soon overwhelmed and herded together. Captured.

It was instinct more than conscious will that led him to immediately head for the nearest cover, a small stand of trees close by. If he could see them, they could see him, although self-preservation was the last thing on his mind at the moment. JD sat in the shade, rubbing burning eyes and swallowing his nausea, the only one of the seven still free because he'd indulged in a temper tantrum. He shook his head hopelessly. Buck had been right, he was a kid. He didn't even know which was stronger, the shame or the worry. One of the six had fallen, and if it was Buck . . . oh, God, if it was any of them. . .

JD slowly straightened in his saddle. Self-pity and dwelling on what might be were indulgences he couldn't afford right now. Maybe he was the youngest and the least experienced in the group, but he was also the only one who was there and armed and free to help. At the very least, he had to try, and if he failed, well, he'd just face whatever fate with his friends. That was the way it should have been, anyway.

Decision made - not even a difficult one - JD clamped down on his worry and withdrew further into the shadows to begin to plan.

+ + + + + + +

It took a long time to cover the distance he'd raced across before. Of course, this time he was doing it mostly on foot, lurking behind trees and rocks and any other shelter that would hide his return from watching eyes. Only as he passed noon and the shadows started to lengthen, providing extra cover, did JD pick up his pace.

The situation became clearer as he got closer. First the faceless figures resolved into those of the enemy, a group unfamiliar to JD, and his friends, lined up on the ground to one side. Closer still and he could see their captors were thirteen in number, scattered around a sloppy campsite and more intent on watching their prisoners than their surroundings. So JD wasn't expected - that was good. He'd worried they would know there was supposed to be seven.

Then again, maybe they didn't expect much from the youngster in the group, either.

Willfully burying that thought, JD pressed on. The six all looked awake and upright, if sitting uncomfortably with their arms stretched behind them, no doubt tied. Although, as he looked harder, Ezra seemed to be listing a bit, some of his weight on Nathan, sitting next to him. The one who'd gone down before? At least he didn't look fatally hit, and JD breathed a little easier for that.

Their weapons were off to one side in a careless pile, also unwatched, and JD sat for a while in the relative cover of a boulder, studying the scene, calculating, thinking.

Vin's eyes, across the campsite, found him, his expression unchanging as JD met his gaze. Tanner's gentle nudge of Chris was almost as subtle, and Larabee soon saw him, too, eyes tightening a fraction. Warning him off, maybe, but JD didn't let himself bristle at the thought. It was true he was greatly outnumbered and probably stupid to try anything instead of riding off to get help. But even if he'd been so foolish to think he could raise a rescue party from their town and good citizens, from the little he'd caught of the captors' conversation, JD didn't have the time. There were plans for the six, unpleasant ones that were just waiting for the leader's arrival to be carried out. No, it was up to him and him alone, and if he botched it, well, no one expected much from a kid anyway, right?

Smiling grimly at Chris and Vin, and Buck, who'd also caught the silent exchange and now watched him with clear worry, JD slipped back from the rock and prepared to act.

The first part was almost too easy. The ambush had taken place in the trailing end of a canyon, and there were plenty of rocks and crevices and trees around to hide his movement, which was how the six had been caught off-guard in the first place. It didn't take much to slip around to where the discarded weapons lay, near a large boulder. The next part was a little trickier, but by waiting until no one was looking and moving slowly, he was able to lift one gun at a time from the pile, tucking them into his waistband and pockets as they fit. Most of the seven of them had more than one weapon, but he only took one for each, so when he was finished there was still a pile, albeit a smaller one, if anyone bothered to check.

Loaded down with all that metal, stealthy movement was a lot harder, but JD forced himself to take his time as he skirted his way along the edge to where the six sat. At least they were shoulder to shoulder, providing him some cover as he finally slipped behind the closest one, Nathan.

It was a bit of dÈj‡ vu, reminding him of the first time they'd ridden together. He'd been one of the ones chained up then, Ezra coming to their unexpected rescue. JD hadn't expected that from the con man, but Ezra had surprised him a lot since then. All of them had.

Maybe it was his turn now.

He'd liberated one of Nathan's knives from the pile, and set to sawing at the ropes that held the healer. It didn't take long - Nathan kept his knives well-sharpened. The bonds soon fell away, and he pressed Nathan's revolver into his cupped hands. Nathan sat motionless, unreacting even as his fingers curled around the weapon and JD moved on. Ezra was next, and JD could see the stain of blood on the gambler's red jacket sleeve, but Ezra immediately accepted the gun placed into his hand, clearly ready for action. Gladdened, JD moved on down the line, similarly freeing Josiah, Chris, Vin, and finally Buck. He could feel the tension in his friend, the desire to act, or at least say something, but they both knew it wasn't time yet. He silently patted the older man on the back in understanding, perhaps even apology, and was about to move back up the line when Buck's free hand reached back and touched him on the leg, as gentle as Buck could be sometimes. An apology, too, or a sign of support, JD wasn't sure, but encouraged, he moved back to behind Chris and very quietly whispered, "Wait."

The dark blond head inclined, then bent to one side as if he were just working some kinks out of his neck. JD slipped on, leaving Nathan the knife as he went.

Back around the way he came, testing every step to make sure it wouldn't betray him. The other men, apparently rustlers from the same bunch the seven of them had rooted out earlier, helped, laughing and talking loudly, neither listening nor watching for the ghost JD had become.

There was a heart-stopping moment when JD had to slink through an open space between an outcropping of rocks and a copse of trees, and the motion seemed to catch one of the men's eye. But even as he'd risen to take a closer look, Buck had broken into such an awful fit of coughing that the squinty-eyed rustler was distracted and finally shrugged it off with a surly growl at Buck to shut up. JD grinned in the shadows and moved on.

Reaching the horses, he moved even more slowly, not wanting to spook the animals before it was time. He'd learned a lot more about them since his arrival in Four Corners, mostly through Buck's tutelage, and he moved calmly and without any sudden motions as he untied the whole group, making sure their reins were free so they could run.

And then he suddenly began to yell and swat at the animals.

Chaos immediately descended. All the rustlers rose to their feet, their hands going to their guns, two of them already running toward him. None of them were facing the six, who had also jumped up and were wasting no time in emptying their guns at their captors.

Torn in two directions, some of the rustlers didn't fire at either, standing in helpless confusion. Others aimed for the obvious threat, the six men nearby, but they had already scattered and were no longer easy targets. And one large rustler, the one who'd nearly spied him before, planted himself and aimed for JD.

The cover the horses had provided was gone now, leaving JD exposed, and he leaped toward the tree they had been tied to, pulling his own gun. Not fast enough - he felt the streak of burning across his side as a bullet got too close, and a less-painful blow to his leg that nevertheless staggered him. He fell more than flew, but at least it was into safety, and righting himself, JD peered out to see the same rustler fall under Chris's very deliberate aim.

It didn't take the seven long to get the upper hand. Soon they weren't outnumbered, half the group cut down before they even knew what was happening, the rest picked off shortly after. The last two, realizing they wouldn't have much longer to live if they continued to fight, promptly surrendered.

JD sagged with relief. Then, gathering himself, he stood and limped back out into the clearing, one hand clamped against his bleeding side.

Buck immediately headed toward him, brow furrowed in the worried look of before, now openly and more deeply concerned. JD managed a smile for him, hoping it looked reassuring.

"Let me see," were the first words out of Buck's mouth, and he pried away JD's hand from his side, clucking at the sight of the wound. "Of all the dumb, foolhardy, suicidal-"

JD's euphoria at the success, at just coming out alive, was rapidly fading, and he suddenly felt tired and hurt. He pulled away from Buck's probing with a cross, "I'm fine," intending to stride over to where the others stood, their expressions wavering even as he looked at them.

He took one step and his leg suddenly melted in searing pain, giving way under him. JD clutched at it even as the ground slammed up to meet him.

And then he was firmly grabbed from behind, hands first digging uncomfortably into armpits and pulling at his torn side, then swinging him up into a more comfortable but dizzying position.

Buck was holding him. Like a little kid.

He had to speak through clenched teeth, his leg excruciating. "Put me down . . . I'll be okay."

"Shut up, JD," was Buck's answer. JD would have bristled again, except the pain was getting worse, talking becoming too much of an effort.

And Buck had spoken with such fierce gentleness, he couldn't argue, anyway.

"Nathan!" Buck was yelling, and the jostle of his rushing to get help made JD screw his eyes shut and work to keep from throwing up.

Between the nausea and the torment of his leg, his side barely registering now, JD was only dimly aware of being laid on the ground again, though on something more cushioned than Buck's arms or the hard earth. Not that anything mattered much other than stopping what had become excruciating torture. He twisted away from it, grabbing at Nathan's arms as the healer appeared, trying to make him understand he needed something now. Oh, God, how had it gotten so bad so fast?

"Easy, JD," a voice crooned from above. "It'll be better in a minute." Buck again, probably the same one who'd taken hold of his hands and to whom he was now desperately clinging. Why wouldn't they help? One dusty, denim-clad leg was next to his head and he buried his face against it, trying to escape the pain.

A different hand coaxed his chin back up and made him swallow from a bottle. Liquor, he realized, and even though it burned and made him cough and shudder, JD was frantic for relief and gulped at it. He wasn't allowed to for long, but it still made him woozy, and his injuries a little less consuming. JD opened his eyes to blink at the twisted face of Buck Wilmington above him, which smoothed into a smile as he watched.

"See, told ya." His words were warm, shoring up JD's worn-down mind. "Just lie still there an' let Nathan fix ya up. You're gonna be okay."

He looked so worried. JD couldn't seem to find his tongue to reassure Buck and so he just lay and tried to keep his friend's face in focus. It seemed to take all his effort. He heard more than felt the rip of his jeans as Nathan examined him, and heard his own moan as the wound was pressed. He would have reached down to push the healer away, but Buck still seemed to be holding on to him.

"Pay attention to me, JD," Buck was gently ordering. "Keep your eyes on me. I'll be right here."

Right here for what? JD wondered, trying to blink the fog from his vision.

"This is gonna hurt now, but it'll be over soon, I promise."

That was Nathan, and even though he wanted to protest that he hurt enough already, wanted it to be over now, and didn't want anything else done to him, Nathan slipped something into his mouth. Oh, God, they were worried he was going to bite his tongue off - what was about to happen? He struggled uselessly against the hands that held him down.

Buck leaned in closer, his face filling all of JD's field of sight. "You've got a bullet in your leg, JD, an' Nathan has to take it out. It's gonna hurt, but it's gotta be done and it'll be better after. I won't let go - I'll be right here."

Oddly, the panic receded. Taking out a bullet - he remembered vaguely how that hurt, worse than even this. But JD also knew full well it had to be done and . . . he was glad not to be facing it alone. He nodded raggedly, seeing a corner of Buck's mouth pull up in acknowledgment, and in affectionate pride. The large, worn hands holding his gave them a squeeze.

Pride - something else you felt toward someone you were looking after, like a kid. Funny, he didn't mind that so much. . .

Alcohol splashed on his leg, like liquid fire, and he arched against it, but it was only the start. Then the digging began, and anything he'd felt or thought before was washed away by the agony that filled his leg, his mind. He couldn't draw breath to scream, just choked and tried to curl in on himself. Oh, God, he wouldn't survive this. . .

And then more liquid burned right through his leg, and JD screamed even as the world threatened to fall away, senses fading.

Pain was a lonely thing - at its worst you weren't conscious of anyone there with you, only the suffering. It was only when it ebbed a little and he could think again that he realized he was curled up against Buck. Wilmington's arms were around him, no doubt to keep him still while Nathan had operated, but as he fell back panting and finally able to sob his pain, they were rubbing his back and arm, anxious to help.

With words, too, sounding almost as hoarse now as JD felt and a little frantic, but the same calming tone, soothing him. "That's it - it's over and nothin' else's gonna hurt you, you hear me, JD? You just rest now, I've got you. You're gonna be just fine."

It worked, JD winding down with a hiccup as he lay heavily against Buck. Or maybe he just didn't have any energy left, although it was hard not to respond to someone who was that worried about you. So much for independence, but he felt sick and his leg still hurt something awful, and JD was just too exhausted to care anymore. Rest sounded like heaven.

Someone pulled the wad from between his teeth, leaving behind it the taste of cloth and the bile that had risen in his throat, which the drink he was offered next helped with. A swipe of wetness over his face and then he felt Nathan puttering with his leg again, but it was a distant pain now.

Buck spoke again from far away. "That's it, you go on t'sleep. We can take it from here, pardner."

Partner, not kid.

Smiling faintly, JD fell gratefully into blackness.

+ + + + + + +

He awoke to more wetness on his face, and when he blinked his vision clear, saw Ezra sitting next to him, just putting a cloth down and contriving a look of detachment.

JD had seen through that one a long time ago, but he was still confused. He faintly frowned. "Ezra? Wha's goin' on?"

For an answer, the gambler put a finger to his lips, then pushed himself up slightly to look at something past JD. He sat down again with a slight wince, and it was then JD noticed the bandage around his bared upper arm.

"Y'all right?" he murmured. He was still tired and foggy, his leg and side aching.

Ezra leaned closer, talking softly. "Mr. Jackson assures me I will be dealing with both hands before the week is out if I follow his instructions to the letter and drink every last herbal concoction he can foist on me." Standish's nose wrinkled with momentary distaste. "However, considering the alternative, far be it from me to complain. It was you, my young JD, who caused us some considerable concern."

And to his surprise, Ezra looked it. He'd even called him by his first name. "Sorry," JD sighed, giving in to the urge to shut his eyes.

"That was not meant to be a scolding," Ezra said, a smile in his voice. "On the contrary, I believe we owe you some gratitude. Your plan worked admirably, except, of course, for getting yourself shot in the process. I believe Mr. Wilmington intends to have some words with you on that subject."

If he deciphered that correctly - and that wasn't at all a given - it seemed Buck was going to get on his back again. Didn't the man have anything better to do? "Treats me like a kid," JD muttered.

"Far be it from me to speak for Buck, but I believe you're mistaken there, JD. I would say, if anything, Mr. Wilmington has more respect for you than for most others I've seen, including," a wry smile, "yours truly. Don't confuse concern and affection with condescension."

JD screwed up his face. "Con-?"

"Condescension - looking down on one. I assume that is what you were referring to?"

"Well, yeah, guess so. Had me wait . . . for anyone who got 'way . . . 'stead of goin' in." The whole line tired him out, and his attention wandered for a second before Ezra's voice drew it back.

"Don't forget, the rest of our little group still has more experience than you in matters of strategy and gunplay. As for Mr. Wilmington's concern over your well-being, I should think that's a sign of how much he thinks of you, not how little."

JD tried to get more comfortable on the bedroll he was on, freezing when his leg put up an angry protest. He glared at Ezra, a convenient target. "'m not a kid," he ground out.

"Ah, the impatience of youth," Ezra clucked, shifting with another minute grimace. "Take it from one for whom the experience of being concerned about is unfamiliar - it is not a condition to be desired."

It was taking him even longer than usual to figure out what Ezra had said, but when he did, JD gave him a wide-eyed stare. "I was worried about ya."

The imperturbable Ezra Standish suddenly looked perturbed, his eyes anywhere but JD. His mouth opened, and then closed again, when the sound of nearby shots saved him. Even as JD startled, Ezra lay a reassuring hand on his shoulder and levered himself up to take another look past him.

Curiosity overcoming even fatigue, JD managed to turn his own head, but saw only rock. He rolled back toward Ezra. "What was 'at?"

"Gunfire." At JD's look, he gave a weak smile and added, "Apparently our bait has been taken. We were expecting some more company tonight, the leader of this band of heathens, and Mr. Larabee felt we should set an appropriately welcoming scene. I suppose the new arrivals have realized by now that the 'captives' were armed and the 'captors' are actually corpses."

And apparently the two of them had been hidden out of harm's way until it was over. For once, he didn't care. JD's head was starting to hurt worse, and he closed his eyes again, listening to the sprung trap. The shooting didn't last long, and was followed by a faint cry of "Don't shoot!" from a voice he didn't recognize. That would probably be the survivors giving up.

And JD suddenly realized he was listening for the sound of Buck's voice, not relaxing until he heard it call over the commotion. And that, if he'd had his way, he'd always have preferred his friend - all his friends - be out of danger. It was a new thought; they'd faced a lot of showdowns before at each other's side and he'd never wished himself out of it, or Buck, or any of the other five. Well, not really. But there was always that heart-stopping moments after, when he counted heads and checked to make sure he hadn't lost one of his friends in the fight. He'd have been lying if he said he never worried. But to actually keep someone out of the fight? Buck had tried that once before, sending him back to protect Maddie and her sister, and it had gotten JD shot.

It was too much for his worn-out mind to think about now, though, and sleep kept pulling harder at him. JD yawned, no longer quite able to bring Ezra into focus as he murmured, "Think I'll take 'nother nap."

"You do that." The amused tone was back. "I'll be right here."

That was what Buck had said, too, as if that would make all the difference. And, well, it had.

Weren't they all brothers of sorts, some older than others?

Was that so bad?

JD dozed off.

+ + + + + + +

A spasm of his leg woke him, but he was so drowsy and warm that he lay still and half-asleep for a long minute, soaking up the quiet conversation around him. The crackle and spitting of a nearby fire announced they were camping there for the night, and no doubt he'd been moved yet again from amongst the rocks where he'd been before. JD resisted a sigh. He was starting to think the idea of making all his own decisions for himself wasn't very reasonable. Then again, hadn't he been following Chris's orders all those months without chafing? It was just Buck-

His leg cramped again, and he moaned before he could stop himself, half-curling toward the limb.

"Easy, it'll go away in a minute," Nathan said quietly, rubbing around the injury site until the leg started to relax and JD began to breathe again. "Look who's joined us," the healer said with a smile over his shoulder.

Chris appeared, an easy smile splitting his own face. "So, the hero's awake. Don't you think it's a little rude of him to save our bacon and then collapse on us before we can thank him?"

The question was directed at somebody behind him, and Buck's voice answered cheerfully, "Long as he came back, I think we can forgive 'im."

JD groaned again, this time not from pain.

A sleepy glance around revealed Ezra already dozing not far from him, Nathan stationed between them probably to keep an eye on them both. Vin and Josiah offered ready grins from across the campfire, Vin also sketching a salute. It was a sign of respect, JD realized proudly. Chris was just settling back next to Vin, also looking more pleased than usual, and Buck. . .

Wilmington's bedroll was laid out close to his other side, but the older man was sitting just next to and behind him. JD couldn't see him easily there, and craning for a glance made him wince as it pulled on healing injuries.

Buck immediately moved farther down, in his line of vision. "Take it easy, now - I'm right here."

He almost gave in to his pride and argued he didn't care where Buck was, but that wasn't exactly true. Annoyed with both Wilmington and himself, JD finally made a face and screwed his eyes shut.

A gentle hand pushed his lank hair out of his face, and then settled protectively on the top of his head. Caringly.

"JD, 's it still bad? I c'n ask Nathan-"

He relented - how could he not? - cracking his eyes open. "I'm okay."

Buck's expression immediately cleared. "That's good . . . that's good,kid. We'll take you back to town tomorrow, then a few days rest an'-"

"I'm not a kid anymore, Buck," JD broke out, more exasperated than angry.

There was an odd look on Buck's face. "I know that. Who said you were?"

"You did. You keep callin' me a kid, an-and telling me to stay back, and that I was being stupid. My stupid idea saved everybody today, Buck."

He would have expected fire in Buck's eyes, or annoyance, and saw only a puzzled hurt. And then Buck's voice fell, for him alone, very serious and very solemn. "I'm proud of you for what you did today, JD. That took guts and brains, and you've got plenty of both. But any idea that almost gets you killed is still stupid. I've lost enough friends already without-" He looked everywhere but JD's eyes.

Dismay starting to creep through him, JD wondered how smart he really was, after all.

Buck gathered himself, giving JD a hard glance with eyes that shone. "There was a good reason for making you stay back yesterday. It was Chris's idea. We weren't sure we had all of them corralled and needed somebody t' watch our backs. You think either of us would pick a kid we didn't trust t' do that? Fact is, there ain't another person I'd trust more. An' turned out I was right, too." There was nothing in his expression but sincere warmth.

JD was starting to feel ten times the heel, every bit the kid he'd bristled at being called earlier that day. "Buck, I-I'm sorry, I didn't-"

Another cramp, more vicious than those before, and JD cried out, clutching at whatever was closest, which happened to be Buck's sleeve. Fingers quickly took its place, clasping his hand and inviting him to hold on. And he did, even as he felt Nathan knead the knots out, until he could finally breathe again.

"Try to go to sleep, JD," Nathan soothed from his other side. "You need t' relax, let that leg heal."

"Listen to Nathan an' go to sleep, JD," Buck echoed.

JD was getting tired just turning his head to follow the voices. "Buck-" He really needed to apologize, clear things up. Like the fact that he felt the same way about Buck, and he hadn't meant to be so mule-headed, and how hard he'd had to fight all his life to be taken seriously. Of course, now he was a paid peacekeeper, the only one of them with a badge, even. And since their first job together, none of the seven had given him any sign they didn't want him riding with them, least of all Buck.

One of those deceptively lazy-looking grins creased his friend's face. "Shh. Everything's okay. I mean it. Ya did good today, kid." He gave JD's cheek a fond pat.

"Kid" again, but that pride, too, and he said he didn't trust anyone as much . . . Ezra had said it was respect and he should be grateful for it. . .

His side tweaked and JD tightened his grip on Buck's hand, still there for him to cling to. Buck's thumb slid across the back of his hand like worn wool, distracting him, saying he was there and he cared. Did anything else really matter?

JD fell asleep, knowing he'd be watched over and grateful for it.