They'd come in with the freight, exhausted, bedraggled, Joss' face purple and gray with bruises. Charlie Utter had delivered them in person to Agnes' front door, and the two of them had stumbled in to a hundred hugs of relief and welcome. Rose's rescue party was large. Agnes' house was overflowing with Emma and Sam, Kid and Lou, even Teaspoon had insisted on making the difficult journey to Cheyenne. Cody and Buck were in town too, buying supplies for the next morning's departure, when all but Emma and Teaspoon had planned to ride out to Deadwood in search of Rose.
Fortunately, there'd be no reason for anyone to go. Rose was back again, safe if a little shaken by her adventure. Emma'd whisked her away from the boisterous welcome and to a hot bath. After questions had been answered, the story of Rose's arrival and subsequent immediate departure from Deadwood told, Joss found herself suddenly a stranger in a house full of family. Teaspoon tried to draw her into the conversation but she was tired and quick-tempered and eventually said her goodbyes, slipping out the front door with some story about owing Charlie Utter a day's work for their safe delivery to Cheyenne.
She found a rundown hotel next to the livery and got a room, the two bits Teaspoon had slipped her enough for a couple of nights. She thought longingly of her room at Buck's ranch, the green and white quilt, the window that looked out over the plains. She was disappointed Buck had not been at the house when they arrived, irritated with herself that she hadn't stuck it out to see him return that evening. He would have been proud of her, that she'd done the right thing. She might have sold Rose out, she knew from experience that Swearengen paid his friends highly, but she hadn't. She was getting soft, sentimental. Her head was swollen and heavy, her stomach growled, but Joss was too tired to notice either. She fell asleep on the bed, fully clothed, exhausted.
She jumped at the knock on the door and stared at it warily. No one was expected and she was half tempted to ignore the knock and go back to sleep. "Joss?" she heard him call through the door and she wondered how he could possibly have tracked her down.
She opened the door and rubbed at her eyes grumpily, "What'd you want?"
Buck walked in without being invited looking at her face with concern, "You could've told somebody where you were going; I've been checking hotels for over an hour."
"I didn't know where I was going," she answered, slamming the door shut and stomping back to the bed. She flopped down onto the quilt with a grunt.
"Have you put anything on your face? It looks awful."
"Hurts like hell too," she spat back and yawned loudly, "I'm too tired to see to it; been ridin' for a couple of days."
Buck dug through her carpetbag on the chair, looking up guiltily after he'd already opened it. "You have something in here for that, don't you?" She nodded and he accepted it as permission to continue looking. At last he found what he wanted and kneeled beside the bed. "Sit up, let me see it." Buck gently dabbed witch hazel on her bruised face, "Who did this to you?"
"Swearengen," Joss answered, wincing as he passed over a tender spot.
"Can't believe he'd hurt you; you don't even carry a gun," Buck's voice growled lowly in his chest. Joss only shrugged, she didn't see any reason to disbelieve it. Buck turned her face again so that her bruises and the long gash along her cheekbone caught the light. "When are you going to stop this, Joss? Are you going to keep cheating people until someone kills you?"
"I didn't cheat Swearengen. He did this just out of pure meanness."
Buck sighed and took her shoulders so that she could not evade his gaze. "That's not what Rose told Sam. She told him you lied to Swearengen about the two of you being in together on some scam."
"Believe me, Rose was better off as a fake Hickok than a real one."
"Joss!" Buck cried in exasperation, "I'm serious. This has to stop. There's no reason for you to cheat and steal anymore. I set up that bank account for you in Sweetwater. I know that ranch life doesn't suit you, but you could always pull the money and set yourself up somewhere with something that does."
"That ain't my style," she grumbled back and tried to shake off his hands, but Buck held her firm. "Look, mister, I don't owe you nothin' anymore. I don't have to report to you, and you ain't got no right telling me how to live." Buck stared at her, and Joss was intimidated enough to drop her own gaze, but kept right on talking. "You made me be a partner in the ranch, and I told you I weren't gonna change, but you're damned and determined to save me -" Her words were cut off as Buck lowered his face and kissed her. It was sudden and fierce and drew the breath from her chest. He pulled back and let go of her shoulders as though burned by the touch of her.
"What the hell did you do that for?" Joss sputtered, jumping to her feet, a blush creeping up her neck and across her face.
"It was the only way to get you to shut up," Buck shot back, as surprised as she was.
They stared at each other in silence, feeling the hotel floor tilt and sway as the world slowly reorganized to accommodate the sudden charge in the air. Joss' arms were crossed over her chest, her chin tilted up, and though Buck held her gaze, he was irritatingly aware of her two lips at the bottom of his field of vision, remembering the peculiar sweetness of her mouth.
"Buck Cross, if you don't back up right now," she started, but did not complete the threat. Finally, with an exasperated sigh she pushed past him and crossed the room, putting some much needed space between them. "You are the single most infuriating person I have ever met, you annoying, self-righteous, bossy…" she stopped short trying to think of a name suitable to call him.
"You're no picnic, either, missy," he snapped back. Joss snorted angrily and stomped towards the door. Buck reached out and grabbed her elbow, "Where are you going?"
"It's none of your business."
"The hell it isn't," he said, strengthening her grip on his arm.
She struggled against him, "I've been on my own all my life; I know how to take care of myself."
"Well, you've certainly done a good job of it lately."
She stamped her foot angrily, "I kept Rose and I from gettin' killed, didn't I? I guess a beatin' is alright compared to that."
"You aren't going anywhere tonight; it's too late." Buck stated simply, letting her go and standing between her and the door.
"You don't get to tell me what to do," she answered coldly and stood toe to toe with him, her jaw set, her green eyes glaring, boring holes through his own.
They wasted time staring at each other, eyes steady but hands shaking. When at last he lowered his lips to hers again, the collision knocked the anger out of both of them and blindly they reached for each other's buttons, clumsily moving away from the door. They spoke no endearments and paused only once, disheveled and breathless.
"I'm a married man," Buck said sadly, holding her at arm's length, surprised at the softness in her features.
"I know who you are, Buck Cross," Joss whispered, leaning in and kissing him again.
Buck blinked against the morning sun, and with a shudder woke up. He looked across the bed to where Joss was sprawled. She had his shirt haphazardly pulled on, but unbuttoned, hanging off her shoulders. He ran a hand across his forehead trying to clear the morning cobwebs from his mind. He looked at her again. Her body was gnarled and pale scars stood out like islands in the sea of her skin. She didn't have the porcelain delicacy of Kathleen, or the healthy glow of Jennifer or Maya. Joss was different, broken and mended again, her body attesting to events he could only guess at.
As though feeling his gaze, Joss' own eyes fluttered awake, she mumbled groggily, unintelligibly, and Buck reached out to push the hair out of her face. "What are you staring at?" she finally asked, irritably.
"You," he answered simply, and she grimaced back. "You have a lot of scars," he observed, knowing as the words came out of his mouth that he wasn't saying what he meant. He had wanted to ask her what she'd been through, why her body was a roadmap of abuses.
"Yeah, I do," she said stonily, "You're not perfect, yourself," she added with a point at the faint diagonal line down his chest.
Buck sighed, "I didn't mean anything by it. What happened?"
She looked at him agog, "I didn't get them all at once. It wasn't like I walked into a thresher for Pete's sake."
"Okay," Buck tried to stay civil, their every interaction didn't have to end in a fight, "Tell me how one of them happened."
Joss grunted and sat up, pulling his shirt around her, as though embarrassed by her state of undress. She stood up and started pulling her ruffled bloomers on under his shirt. "I don't remember details," she said grumpily, keeping her back to him as she removed his shirt and pulled on her camisole, "You cheat people, sometimes they get mad. Sometimes you can't afford a doctor, sometimes there are fires and wagons turn over and dogs bite you."
"Alright, don't tell me," he snapped back, getting up and dressing himself. He crossed to her side of the room to retrieve his shirt.
"What?" he looked up at Joss to see her pointing to an almost perfectly circular patch of slightly raised pink skin on her shoulder.
She looked at him in exasperation, "Spider bite. A spider bit me and it swoll up and now I have this."
"Oh." Buck did not want his disappointment in the story to show. It was awful of him to wish she had been through anything worse, but he wanted so badly to believe that her unlikable personality was due to some rough knocks. And considering just how disagreeable she could be, very rough knocks; a spider bite just wasn't going to cut it.
"Why the sudden interest?" She was being disagreeable again.
"I don't think it's sudden," Buck retaliated, "We're business partners. We've known each other for years, and we just - well, I mean we just, you know," he paused, noticing the way she was looking at him with raised eyebrows and the hint of a smile, "We just shared a bed," he whispered loudly, his eyes and tone emphasizing the importance of the fact. "I hardly know anything about you. I don't even know your last name."
She looked at him, her expression inscrutable and then answered, "Neither do I. I've been on my own since I was little, and if I ever knew it, I forgot it."
"What happened to your parents?"
She grunted in frustration and resumed dressing, "Look, I don't go prying into your past, do I, Buck? So, please leave my affairs to me. It's not even an interesting story, and so long ago that I don't hardly remember it at all."
They took the train back to Sweetwater because Teaspoon couldn't have made the ride. To assuage the old man's feelings, Joss willingly said she was too worn out to travel any other way and Teaspoon accepted her word. There was chatter and laughter until Teaspoon lapsed into sleep, his snores causing most other passengers to move to different cars. Joss was uncharacteristically quiet as the train kept chugging along, and Buck thought he liked her better that way. He was aware of the brush of her skirt against the leg of his trousers as they sat side by side; looking across towards Teaspoon slumped in the opposite seat. He could smell the faint spice of the cloves she chewed. He marveled at the grace of her hands as she protectively draped her shabby coat over Teaspoon's sleeping form, and the tenderness of her lips as she kissed the older man's cheek lightly. Outside the sky turned grey, then a deep purple, and the landscape through the windows became soft and blurred, the hard edges of creek beds and rocks made malleable.
At last, Buck cleared his throat to speak. "Look, Joss, about last night -"
"I don't want to talk about it," she answered abruptly, and he could feel the fabric of her skirt change from silk to starch as she stiffened and edged away from him.
"Of course you don't." Buck turned away and he looked across at Teaspoon. The trip had taken a lot out of him, his skin had a grayish tint, and it was unusual for him to sleep so soundly. Napping was one of Teaspoon's favorite pastimes, but he was always alert, always hearing more than you wanted him to, always able to throw out some wisdom when needed. Buck furrowed his brow, unsure if he should be worried, and he let his concerns about Teaspoon distract him from Joss. He could feel her stare as she looked at him and he stubbornly refused to look back.
But then he felt her hand rest, feather light, atop his own. He was startled into shifting his attention back to her as she spoke. "I don't want to fight about it neither." She wouldn't meet his eyes, only hazarded a glance up from under her lashes and her face momentarily blushed pink. Buck, uncertain of what else to do, grinned back. "Don't mean I want you lookin' at me like a ninny neither," she said, but her hand stayed where it was and her look was as sweet as her words were tart. The train rolled into Sweetwater, and there they sat, side by side, silent, eyes looking forward, one hand atop the other.
That night, Buck awoke as something large and heavy fell downstairs. By the time his name was called out in a hoarse and slurred whisper, he was halfway down the stairs. Joss was not far behind, his blue shirt and her arms wrapped tightly around her. There was nothing awry in the parlor, and instinctively Buck ran for the door past the stairs that led into the tiny room Teaspoon had claimed for his own. "Teaspoon!" Buck yelled, his heart thumping wildly in his throat. Joss stood back, watching him, her face pale. "Teaspoon! Joss help!" he called from the room and she was beside him in a moment.
Teaspoon lay prone on the floor, his small dresser tipped on its side, the drawers halfway out. The framed picture that sat on top had fallen and the broken glass lay in glittering shards on the floor. Buck stepped on one and hardly noticed the sticky blood that started to seep onto the floor. Teaspoon was conscious but his eyes were unfocused. He opened his mouth to speak but little of any sense came out. He managed to say Buck's name but everything else was garbled. The two of them struggled to help him back into the bed. Buck stood in panicked amazement, tears filling up his eyes. He wasn't ready to lose Teaspoon. He knew it was coming, knew the man was old and getting older, but he could not let him go. Buck stared at the pale figure, so much smaller than when he'd first met him, so shrunken, but still just as tough, just as strong.
Joss brushed Teaspoon's hair from his forehead, her manner motherly and unfamiliar. She spoke softly, but Buck could no more understand her soothing words than he could the increasingly faint mumbles of Teaspoon. The older man seemed to have quieted down, and Buck could tell his breathing was still strong, even as his eyes closed and he appeared to sleep. Joss left the bedside and squeezed Buck's hand. "I'll go for the doctor. He'll be alright, Buck. Teaspoon's too tough an old bird to go out on us like this." Buck gulped and nodded. Joss left the room to dress and Buck found himself alone, clutching his medicine pouch with white knuckles. The front door opened and closed and a horse pounded out of the yard and into town. Buck righted the dresser and picked the glass from his foot. He forced himself to leave Teaspoon alone long enough to dress, taking comfort in the smell of Joss' cloves on his shirt. He sat on the edge of Teaspoon's bed and held the old man's hand, whispering prayers in Kiowa, bargaining with whoever would listen, offering anything in his power for the life that lie there.
*I don't want a chair. Think I'll just lie here and die * Teaspoon signed, giving Joss and Buck the evil eye from his bed.
"Speak up, Teaspoon," Joss scolded, continuing to prep the wheel chair beside the bed in a matter of fact manner.
*I sound like a baby *
Joss put her hands on her hips and looked the old man square in the eye, "I don't know sign, Teaspoon, and I don't plan on learnin' it. Now if you want somethin' from me, ye're gonna have to ask out loud."
Buck smiled. He was enjoying the contest of wills. Finally someone else was on the receiving end of Joss' sass. He understood that for Teaspoon, recovery had almost been worse than death. Teaspoon had fought his way to getting around on his own after his first illness, his speech had slowed but was clear. Now all that hard work was lost, and Buck knew that this time, no amount of fighting was going to make Teaspoon whole again. He spoke gently, "Teaspoon, the doctor said you have to talk or you won't get any better at it."
"'Course, if it's too hard for you, if you want to give up the fight, I guess that's your choice. I just thought you were made of tougher stuff than that," Joss badgered.
Teaspoon glared at her furiously, * Don't talk to me like a child. *
"Don't act like one," Joss answered calmly.
Teaspoon's glare softened and he started to chuckle, a faint and gurgly sound that made Buck smile even wider. Teaspoon opened his mouth and spoke slowly, agonizingly, the words coming out twisted and crippled. "You said you didn't know sign."
Joss winked at him, "I'm a liar, Teaspoon; you shouldn't trust me."
Teaspoon allowed himself to be helped into the wheelchair and pushed out into the fresh autumn day. Buck leaned back against the front door, feeling a peculiar warmth spread through his chest as he looked back at Teaspoon and Joss arguing on the porch. Maybe it was selfish for him to want them to stay with him. Maybe it was time to let Teaspoon go, rather than force him to endure the prison his body was becoming. Maybe it was wrong to wish away his marriage to Maya and to have Joss stay forever, instead of only visiting when her opportunities to turn a fast dollar ran dry. As the two in front of him fell silent, Buck reached out a hand to pull Joss back to him.
"Thank you," he whispered softly, not wanting Teaspoon to hear. Joss shrugged her shoulders as if it were nothing. Buck hesitated. There were a million reasons not to kiss her, and though a nagging voice in the back of his head urged him to consider them, Buck found he could not remember a single one.