They didn't wait for the rain to stop before moving on from the place of Jake's Drawing, only long enough for Jake and Susannah to shuck on some fresh clothes. Though the demon had fled and gone, the place still stank of ancient malevolence, and they could not put it behind them fast enough. But the going was slow along the muddied track of the road, and all four of them were deathly tired. They halted late that afternoon only a few miles from the stone circle, still in sight of the forest, making camp in a low bowl of land far enough off the road to Lud that they faded into the landscape.
A few hillocks to the southeast blocked their view of the city, and Susannah at least was glad of that; there was something in the look of the place that she didn't trust. The closest she could come to explaining it was that it smelled evil: it smelled like the Drawers, like the bear and the demon. She could tell Eddie had got his hopes all up, though, with the boy here and Roland whole again and a city on the horizon that looked like New York if you squinted and held your nose real hard, so she kept her trap shut. Good ol' Roland shared her mind at least, she was sure, and Eddie'd learn for himself, too soon.
The gunslinger went off, hopefully in search of dinner. Jake slung his pack down on the bare dirt and began to look curiously around.
Eddie dropped to his knees in front of Susannah and laid his arms across her thighs, looking up at her with a big worried frown stretched across his forehead. He was warm, and it felt so good after the coldness of that thing in her. She grabbed his hands and pulled up, wrapping her arms around his strong hot chest and trapping his hips between her thighs.
Warm, she thought. Warm, warm, warm ...
"Suze," Eddie whispered in her ear. "How're you doin', sweetheart?"
"How you think I'm doing?" she asked. Something halfway between a sob and a laugh caught in her throat. She nuzzled his hair. Not gonna cry.
"Oh, Susannah." The crack in his voice nearly broke her heart to pieces. "I wanted to run to you, pull you out from under that - that thing. But I couldn't. I couldn't."
"Stop it," Susannah said. "We each had a job to do and we did it, didn't we? I'm all right. So stop it."
"Suze, you -"
"Eddie. I'm okay."
"Yes," she said. No, she thought, but I will be. "Can you hold me for a while longer, Eddie? The fire can wait a bit."
"I can." Eddie pulled her out of the chair and into his lap, curling his body around hers like a shield. "That is something I can most definitely do."
Susannah burrowed her head into her crazy young man's chest, closing her eyes against the world and the sun just starting to skim the tips of the trees.
Jake had no idea what he was supposed to do now.
Oh, he knew what he was supposed to do in the grand scheme of things: he was supposed to help Roland find the Tower. The voices in his head had stopped and he'd made it to the world of blue sky and green mountains, which was more than he'd hoped for a week ago. He was alive and he knew it. And better still, he was here, and he'd promised he'd never let Jake fall again.
Jake wasn't sure if that was true, but he figured he'd rather be dead with the gunslinger than half-alive at the Piper School, or worse yet shoved in an asylum somewhere and forgotten about, so that was all right. He didn't plan to think about it much, anyway.
That was all fine - that was wonderful.
Jake just didn't know what he was supposed to do right now.
He'd spent a lot of time talking to Eddie while they walked that day. Jake sort of wished he'd gotten to know the young Eddie Dean in New York, when he was still the boy in yellow shorts Jake had followed through Brooklyn. He thought they'd've been good for each other. But he liked this Eddie too.
Right now Eddie was all absorbed in the black lady with no legs, Susannah whose father was not a railroad tycoon. Jake didn't know what to make of her yet; looking at her was like looking at one of those paper holograms from a crackerjack box. Look from the left, there's a picture; from the right, a totally different picture; but if you look straight on, it's a cracked and jumbled mess. He could tell she'd played a big part in helping him through the door, though, and she'd been nice when he took a turn pushing her chair, so he'd give her a chance.
Helplessly, Jake looked around. He didn't know how to build a fire. He guessed there must be pans and bedrolls somewhere, but he didn't want to poke through anyone's pack without permission. Roland had dropped a hand on his shoulder and given him a look before heading off, a look that meant - well, he wasn't quite sure, but it definitely meant something, and something good, because he'd felt it like a warmth going all the way down to his toes.
What Roland hadn't done this time was tell him to sit still and not move a muscle till he got back.
The rain had tapered off, and as the clouds rolled back a brilliant sunset was starting in the west. There was a herd of something like buffalo silhouetted against it, and between Jake and the buffalo was a copse of trees.
He probably should have been sleepy, but he wasn't; not a bit. Jake squared his shoulders and set off to explore his new world.
The gunslinger approached the camp from the northwest, quietly. He did not wish to disturb Eddie and Susannah, who he know would want to discuss the day's events outside of his hearing. (He didn't begrudge them their privacy; Roland had an inkling he would be left on the outside of many a palaver before this quest was done.) And he felt sure the boy would be asleep by now.
The voices of Susannah and Eddie came to Roland indistinctly over the crackling of a just-kindled fire. Good: they had finished their urgent talk. He regretted what he had asked of Susannah at the doorway; but she had done what was needed, and that better than most gunslingers. Eddie, too, had acquitted himself very well. The gunslinger felt a pang of pride and gratitude. He had fully expected to follow the trail of the man in black alone, until he reached the Tower or, more likely, died trying. This strange new ka-tet was far more than he deserved, and he swallowed around a sudden lump in his throat.
Roland cleared a rise, preparing to call out, but a frisson cascaded down the gunslinger's spine as he realized: Jake was not at the campsite.
Breath tightly held, Roland secured the fresh rabbit corpse with what remained of his right hand and dropped the other to the smooth sandalwood hilt of his gun. Slowly, carefully, his eyes scanned the darkening ground. Surely the boy would not have gone far. Surely he was -
Roland let out his breath. Jake was sitting cross-legged atop a large rock, in the midst of a copse of trees. He detoured in that direction, putting the campsite to his back.
Roland stopped just inside the copse, a few paces short of Jake's rock. The boy's straw-colored hair glowed brilliantly in the dying light, and folded as he was, hands around his knees, he looked very small.
The gunslinger felt a sudden urge to rush to the side of the boy, this boy who had made him whole, to lift him in his arms again and crush him against his chest, to plant kisses up and down his face until he knew down to the marrow of his bones that Jake was safe and secure and here and he would never be alone again.
He meant to stand silently there until the urge passed, but before it could do so Jake had called out. "I found something."
Roland moved forward until he stood next to the boy. He did not ask how he'd known the gunslinger was there, only set aside the rabbit carcass and leaned against the rock at Jake's side. He felt the boy's nearness like a tingle of static in the air.
"Look," Jake said, holding out his hand. "An arrowhead."
Roland reached out with one rough finger and outlined the triangular shape. "Yes," he said. "The Old People of the Forest left many traces behind."
"I didn't realize there were Indians in this world, but I guess it figures." Jake quirked a little smile that melted Roland's heart. "Since there's obviously cowboys."
"I don't know about - 'Indians.' But these people are long since gone."
"The world has moved on?" Jake looked up at Roland, finally. His eyes were questioning and his face golden in the sunset, and that smile still lingered.
"Yes," Roland said. He closed Jake's hand over the spear point. "You should keep this for them. To remember."
"I'll do that." After a moment, Jake pulled his hand away and stuffed the arrowhead into the pocket of his jeans.
"Roland - "
The boy had begun to shiver. The light shirt he'd brought with him from the world of New York would not do for long, the gunslinger thought. They should get a deer for leather before they traveled too much farther from the forest.
"You seem - different. From how you were - before."
Another man might have chuckled, but the gunslinger only nodded thoughtfully. "I'm older. I've traveled where time moves differently." Jake began to ask something. Roland held up a finger to stop his questions. "Soon we will hold palaver, and that tale will be told. Not yet."
Jake's penetrating eyes roamed the gunslinger's face. "It isn't only that you're older," he said. "You've changed, too. In other ways."
The gunslinger spread his mutilated hand across his thigh, looking down at his missing fingers. He did not think of them much any more; since his remaining fingers had learned to fulfill every task he'd asked of them, the ghost digits had grown silent. It had been still longer since he had taken a mental inventory; Roland had never been given to introspection, and even if he had, these last weeks his skull had been far too crowded and noisy.
It was blessedly silent now.
Jake gasped, and Roland did not look up from his hand. His voice when he spoke was low and gravelly, as though the words had no wish to leave his chest.
"Perhaps I have become a man who can swear on the souls of all his fathers that he will never let you fall again."
Roland meant those words more than any he had uttered since the day he earned his guns.
Crows cawed in the trees above the pair, and behind them the voices of Eddie and Susannah had faded to a low drone.
Roland let his eyes fall closed. He thought his old teacher, Cort, would have walloped him soundly for placing his heart so near this boy's hand, yet a second time. But the gunslinger did not let it trouble him overmuch; he was learning that Cort's lessons, wise though they had seemed in the courtyards of Gilead, would not always serve him well on the path to the Tower. If this were a trick of Marten's, he was lost. And gladly so. Roland had hearkened well the lesson of the beach and the doors and what lay beyond: a man who dares not love is less than a beast, and such a man ought not approach the Tower winding a horn; or he do so in peril of his soul. He would not go that way - would not. He had sworn an oath by his fathers, and he would live by it, and that was all.
If a tiny voice in the back of his mind whispered otherwise, Roland did not choose to listen.
Without warning the boy turned on the rock and hugged Roland fiercely, his head burrowing in the crook of the gunslinger's neck. "I missed you so much."
In answer, Roland wrapped Jake in his arms. The sandalwood revolver at his side knocked against the stone as he lifted his hand to caress Jake's face, and altogether the scene bore such resemblance to the vision Roland had felt upon him as he entered the copse that he did not pause before moving to plant a kiss on Jake's forehead.
Jake raised his head at that moment, and instead of smooth flesh Roland's lips encountered another pair.
(Cuthbert had kissed Roland, once, playfully, as boys do, in their hidey-hole beneath the stair outside the kitchens of his father's house. To Bert it had been a bit of fun, but he'd backed away at the intensity in Roland's blue eyes and vowed never to speak of it again.)
Cuthbert was not so much in Roland's mind now. Instead his thoughts filled with images of Susan, the girl at the window, his only love, whom he had not remembered so clearly in decades or more, and as Jake began to part his lips tentatively beneath Roland's, across the gunslinger's mind it flitted like the breeze that presages a hurricane:
The gunslinger stepped back abruptly. He looked away.
On the rock, Jake's lips were still parted, and his eyes were wide.
"I cry your pardon," Roland whispered. "Jake, Jake, I've missed you so, I did not mean - I cry your pardon."
"She burned," Jake breathed. "Roland, she burned."
Khef at work. Roland sighed softly: this was another tale he did not yet mean to tell.
"Yes," he answered simply, bowing his head. "I could not get there in time."
"Well, guess what, I'm not her." Jake reached his hand out and grabbed hold of Roland's shoulder.
"No," he agreed. Not yet, he thought. Is this what I chose when I chose love?
The gunslinger allowed the boy to pull him forward, and the tears came, again, as one of the only people in all the worlds who would have been permitted held him and stroked his grey-streaked hair.
Roland's heart sang through its fear.
Ka like the wind.
After a few long moments, Roland straightened, and turning, draped an arm around the boy's small shoulders, holding him close. The two of them rested there, quietly, Jake atop his rock and Roland beside, at peace within and without, until the light of the sky dimmed and melted into hearthlight, their flickering shadows stretched out ahead.
Eddie was jittery. Like really jittery. Like he needed a hit. Except different, because it only got bad when he glanced in one particular direction.
Susannah was warming herself by the fire. She looked at Eddie and grinned, like she could tell exactly what he was thinking and it was the best laugh she'd had all year.
Eddie scowled. His left foot tapped out a spastic rhythm in the dirt. He yanked a pot off the rope attached to Roland's pack and only scowled harder when, instead of a loud clang! when it hit the ground, all he got for his troubles was a small whhfffft sound and a poof of dust.
"Here, love." Susannah's eyes were kind and understanding as she passed him a water skin, but that infuriating smile still played over her lips.
With a huge sigh, Eddie started to pour some into the pot, though they wouldn't start it boiling till Roland got down here with the meat. If he ever did.
"You really don't think there's anything -- off about that?" Eddie hissed at Susannah. He risked a look up along the rise of the land. The trees were bent low like a fucking heart-shaped bower over the silhouettes of Jake and the gunslinger. His fingers itched. "I should charge up there right now and -"
As he watched, the outline of Roland's ridiculous, crazy-ass, not-quite-a-cowboy-hat bent sideways till it merged with the shadow of Jake's hair, and then - oh fuck fuck fuck they were FUCKING KISSING, WHAT THE HELL.
He leapt to his feet, already holding Roland's spare gun. "Suze!" Eddie hissed.
"Eddie, hold for a second, please." He turned to look at her. She stared dreamily toward the sunset, her mouth open in a soft little smile. "I think it's sweet."
"What?!?" Eddie looked from his wife to the pair of them and back again. "How - the kid can't be older than nine, Susannah!"
She shot him one of her patented reproachful glances and motioned for him to sit the hell down. "First of all, he's eleven, and he's been through more than most men will see in a lifetime. And secondly, Edward Cantor Dean - " Eddie swallowed and sat meekly at her side. "If that man ever harms even one hair on that boy's head, I'll - I'll eat my wheelchair."
The image this provoked was so startling that Eddie couldn't stifle a chuckle. "That I'd pay to see, babe."
"You done, then?" Susannah's hands were pulling through Eddie's dark curls. The firelight flickering in the depths of her eyes turned him on something fierce.
Eddie glanced up again, uneasily. There was at least a little space between those two now, enough to see through, anyway. He sighed and turned back. "For now, I guess. But Suze -"
"Good," she interrupted with a grin. "Then let Roland and Jake worry about Roland and Jake, and Susannah and Eddie worry about ourselves, hmmm?"
Eddie found he couldn't argue.
The sun was fully down and the stars had begun to emerge when Roland and Jake sauntered back to the campsite.
"'Bout damn time, boys," Susannah drawled. "We been gettin' hungry, here."
"I cry your pardon," Roland touched the brim of his hat and began setting the skinned and gutted carcass to boil. Eddie didn't overlook that half-smile, either.
"What the hell was that about, Roland?" he asked, more abruptly than he'd meant too.
The gunslinger paused in his work and regarded Eddie seriously, with those clear blue bombardier's eyes.
Susannah tittered. "Don't mind Eddie. He's jealous."
Eddie's mouth fell open. "... I am not -"
Jake looked up from where he'd started digging in his backpack and blinked calmly in Eddie's direction. "Eddie, if you're worried about me, don't be. I'm okay."
"Ah," Roland tilted his head to the side, a thoughtful expression on his haggard face, lit brilliantly in the firelight. "I see. You ken that I love you, Eddie?"
"Um," Eddie laughed nervously and rubbed his hands on his pants. "Sure, Roland, old buddy old pal, I love you too, but I don't go around kissing you - killing you, sure, that's one thing, but kiss -- .. oh no." The gunslinger was headed toward Eddie with that thoughtful, determined look in his eyes and a little smile that Eddie would have termed mischievous had it been on anyone but Roland. "Oh, no. Uh-uh. Oh, no you -"
But then Roland was there, and his hands were on Eddie's arms and his lips found Eddie's mouth for one long strange moment, and oddly enough what Eddie remembered most about it later was how actually short old long tall and ugly really was, when you got down to it, such a presence on the man but he had to be four inches shorter than Eddie at least -
- and then it was over and Eddie shared a crazed, giddy, knowing grin with Jake across the fire, and he didn't even mind that it was Susannah's turn, and she kissed the gunslinger with obvious gusto (and probably tongue).
Roland straightened from where he'd knelt to kiss Susannah. "Khef is restless tonight," Eddie heard him mutter as he stood.
The gunslinger looked around the fire, meeting each of their eyes in turn. "Now. Are we good?"
Susannah threw her head back and laughed. "Oh, yeah. We're good."
Jake nodded. "But I am getting hungry."
Eddie took a shaky breath and nodded once into Roland's gaze. All right. Everybody loves everybody. He guessed he got the message. He hoped that didn't mean what he thought it might, but - ah, hell, whatever, he was in it for good now. And he had to admit the gunslinger wasn't a bad kisser ...
Eddie laughed nervously. "So, kiss a gunslinger, what's that, seven years good luck? I figure he's gotta be worth at least three chimney sweeps, am I right?"
Jake grinned at him, and Susannah looked delighted. "I knew that film was gonna last!"
Roland just blinked. "Is it luck in your world, to kiss a sweep?"
Jake covered up a giggle. "Sometimes it is!"
"But only till the wind changes," Susannah chimed in, with a wink in Eddie's direction.
"In that case, we have about five hours." Roland stirred at the stew pot. "There's another storm brewing to the east."
"Chim-chiminey-fuckin-cheroo." Eddie shook his head incredulously.
The fire was warm but his friends' grins were warmer; the rabbit stew smelled delicious. Even the gunslinger had a twinkle in his eye and the ghost of smile on his face, and the little thrill that had started to form in Eddie's stomach bubbled up and out.
Eddie laughed out loud. "What the hell," he muttered, and with a quick glance at Susannah, began to sing.
Crows scattered as three voices rose in harmony, dancing with the fire's smoke all the way up to Old Star and Old Mother.
Before they curled up to sleep, it was four voices, and they'd moved on to Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
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