Author's Note: I had no idea about the symbolism of dragonflies until it was already in the story, but was pretty happy to discover The Dragonfly Site, which has a page on the topic
As the two riders emerged from the shadow of the trees that lined the riverbank and moved back into the light, Lou couldn't resist the urge to tip her hat back and let the sun shine full on her face. These last days of spring were the perfect time of year to be out for a ride, she thought: the sun's warmth seeping into your bones but not burning your skin; the breezes stirring, bringing the sweet smell of the prairie grass; the birds singing. Even the horses seemed happy to be out and about. As they slowed them to a walk to rest after a long afternoon's ride, Lightning was still moving smoothly, looking around curiously. Lou could feel a silly smile on her face, and just plain couldn't be bothered to wipe it away.
At least until she opened her eyes. A movement at her side caught her attention and she saw her companion's head turned towards her. She waited a moment for him to say something, but when he didn't she finally prompted, "What?"
Except it wasn't, of course. Although he turned forward again to look at the trail ahead of them, the too-innocent tone of his voice gave it away, and when she looked she could see that under the shadowing brim of his hat the corner of his mouth was turned up. He was laughing at her, darn it.
"What?" she demanded again.
He just shrugged and shook his head, but the tilt of his mouth was even more pronounced than before. Lou looked around for something to throw at him, but when nothing she cared to lose came to hand, just huffed and turned away again. She'd just enjoy the sun, she figured, and he could mock all he wanted. She closed her eyes again.
"Hey, Sleeping Beauty." The teasing tone broke through her determination to ignore him and made her open her eyes and look back at him again. "Time to stop? I could use the chance to refill my canteen." As he spoke, he gestured to a sunny spot along the riverbank where there was a patch of grass wide enough for the horses to graze a bit, and good access to the water.
Not bothering to answer, she turned Lightning towards the spot and he followed. Once the canteens were refilled, Lou couldn't resist the lure of the long, soft grass and let herself collapse on the ground, letting the sun beat down on every inch of her, even through her shirt and pants. The sun touched the edges of the long blades of grass, tipping them with gold and dazzling her eyes, and she closed them and turned her face more fully up to the rays.
She expected him to maybe stretch his legs a little and then want to get moving again, but instead of moving off towards the horses the sound of his footsteps came closer, and then the grass rustled as he settled down not too far away.
Lazily, she opened her eyes to look over, asking silently if it was time to go.
He dropped his hat on the grass at his side and grinned at her. "You got somewhere to be?"
Not really, she reflected: they'd taken care of the errand she'd had in the next town, and for once until evening chores there was nothing in particular that needed doing. She shook her head.
"Well then," he said with a shrug. His satisfied smile saying she'd made his point for him, he lay back on the grass, closing his eyes.
Smiling, she did the same.
* * *
She let herself drift for a while, just feeling the warmth, listening to the sound of the breeze stirring the grass and the water flowing nearby. The sound of a bird singing close by made her open her eyes, and she turned her head a bit to see one perching precariously on one of the long grasses near the river. It seemed impossible that even such a tiny bird could be balancing on that flimsy support, but there he was, singing his heart out into the bargain.
She looked over at her companion to point out the sight, but when she turned her head she realized that his face was relaxed in sleep. The bird kept singing, but her attention was held by the change in the man by her side.
She'd known he was tired, that this was the first day off he'd had in a long while. When he'd chosen to spend it on the trail with her she'd almost protested. But it was hard not to want the company, and when he'd suggested coming along, she hadn't said no. Maybe she should have, she thought. His fatigue was clear in how quickly he'd fallen asleep, in the dark shadows under his eyes that a short nap wasn't going to be able to fade.
But then again, seeing the relaxed expression on his face, she thought maybe this had been what he needed. Although the town was home again now for him, maybe the only way for him to really be at ease was to get away from everything for a while.
She hadn't been certain he'd stay when he first returned to Rock Creek. When the boys had all gone their separate ways at the end of the Express - back to the South, to scout for the Army, to find their own paths - she knew it had seemed to him as if his family was being ripped apart, as if the only stability in his life was disappearing.
Since she'd been feeling much the same way when the wedding she'd planned on hadn't happened, she'd understood his pain, but hadn't been in much of a position to offer comfort. She'd watched them all go, stayed, and tried to make a home for herself and her brother and sister as best she could.
When he'd returned, it was as if he'd carried the weight of the last years with him: the burden of the things he'd rather not have seen, rather not have done. He'd come back a little older and a little harder and more than a little sadder than when he'd left, and she hadn't been sure if the ties that had bound the family together would still hold.
It seemed they had. He'd stayed, had settled in - as much as he could, anyway. Taken over as the town's Marshal when Teaspoon was ready to give up the job. Spent what time he could with Teaspoon, Polly, Rachel and Lou. Slowly, slowly started to show more signs of the man he'd been, and less of the man she knew he'd feared he'd become.
It had taken months, but one afternoon, out of the blue, over some silly joke that didn't mean a thing, there it was: the boyish grin she remembered. She hadn't realized how big a hole its absence had left in her heart until he filled it again. That one sign had given her hope that maybe there was more of the man she'd known left in him than she'd once feared, too.
Since then, she'd been trying to find that smile again whenever she could, to give him back a little bit more of what the years had taken. To offer him what he'd given her just by coming home: a friend, an ally, a rock when she felt a little unsteady herself. A shoulder to lean on when she thought about the demands of a brother and sister depending on her, a new life where she was making her own way.
And she was making it: slowly but surely things were coming together. She was starting to worry less as the end of the month and the bills it brought came closer, starting to think that there would soon be something to spare for the little extras she wanted to give Jeremiah and Teresa. And starting to feel the satisfaction of knowing she'd done it herself.
Oh, she'd leaned on him enough times, cried and complained and raged while he listened. And somehow she'd always found herself back on her own two feet again, moving forward, knowing he was there behind her if she faltered again.
She wasn't sure he fully realized what it meant to her that he'd never tried to fix things for her, but just to help her figure out a way to do it.
Until today, she wasn't sure even she'd understood what it meant. But watching him sleep, feeling the quiet satisfaction of seeing him rest - really rest - beside her, she realized that he'd become a part of her life that she couldn't ever imagine letting go again. That she'd be happy to look across her pillow and see that sleeping face every night for the rest of her life.
That epiphany didn't come without a measure of surprise. Of course she'd always been aware of him as a man - hard not to be when a woman only had to look at him to feel that pull. And there'd been a few times that it had come awfully close to being something more. But there'd always been something between them, a reticence, a reluctance to take that next step, for any number of reasons. It had never seemed to be the right time, the right place, the right choice.
It felt right now.
It had been a long time coming, but she realized that if she had the chance now, she wouldn't let anything stand in the way. She'd be his, make him hers, and never let go. Not for anything.
* * *
As she watched, a dragonfly skimmed in from the river, its iridescent wings shimmering in the sunlight. It circled, then finally landed on his cheek, of all places. She smiled at the sight, but when she saw his expression change, tense a little, she reached out to shoo it away before it could wake him from the sleep he obviously needed.
The dragonfly flitted away at her gesture, but she'd miscalculated a little, and now it was her fingers that just barely brushed his skin. She knew she should pull back before she accomplished what the insect hadn't and woke him up. But the heat of his sun-warmed skin, the little prickle where his beard was starting to come in had her lingering just a moment. Then another.
* * *
He'd been dreaming; he was pretty sure of that. The images in his head were familiar ones, ones he'd seen a hundred times. Only, always in his dreams.
But it was hard now to separate what he was still feeling from the dream that still lingered, as he kept his eyes closed to hold on to it a bit longer. The almost imperceptible brush of her skin on his face could have been a dozen things, some more welcome than others. But the scent was unmistakably hers: a mix of laundry soap, leather and woman that he inevitably found himself breathing in, as if he could hold it inside. And the indefinable jolt that he felt every time she touched him, even in passing, was pure Lou. The combination couldn't have been anything - anyone - else.
The touch moved a little, and before he realized it he'd shifted, almost imperceptibly, to follow it. She must have noticed, though, because it was suddenly gone, as if she'd pulled her hand back.
His deep breath was almost a sigh as he let the last of the dream drift away.
* * *
He wasn't quite prepared to open his eyes and find her still looking right into them. For a moment, he just looked back at her, but finally managed a quiet "Hey."
She smiled at the gruffness of his tone, though he doubted she realized the reason for it. "Hey," she answered softly. "You were tired."
He just smiled; he wouldn't have minded another half hour or so to dream, and better than that would have been perfectly happy to lie there afternoon, looking at her. But instead he sat up. Distracting himself, he took another look around. "It's a pretty spot."
She smiled. "We should come out here more often. It's a good place to think."
He turned inquiringly. "About?"
She shrugged. "Things. What's important. What we want in life, maybe."
He made a vague noise of agreement, though he was pretty sure he didn't need any help with that one, from this place or anything else. He'd known that for years. Now if this place could tell him how to get it, he'd be back every day. But somehow that didn't seem likely.
After a moment he reluctantly got ready to get up, but couldn't help taking one last look at her lying there, so close. Couldn't help lingering an extra moment. But then he finally pushed himself to his feet. "I guess Teaspoon would tell us to stop wasting time."
She sat up. For a moment she just looked at him, and he found himself trying to read her expression. Somehow, it seemed there was something new in her eyes he needed to understand, but it stayed elusive, just out of reach. He was still trying to figure it out when she laughed a little and started to get up. "I guess he would."
He held out a hand. Smiling, she reached up and placed her hand in his.
Author's Note: For Francesca, who wanted a songfic inspired by "Songbird" sung by Eva Cassidy. Thanks to her for the inspiration and feedback and to Raye for her help and comments.