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House II: Rebuilding

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Jesse was running on automatic now, his mind and body too numb to permit anything else. Get away from the fire, get Charlie and Maya, get away from the fire, get Charlie and Maya, get away…get away…get away… He dragged himself up the stairs, followed by the creeling baby pterodactyl, and staggered down the hall after Gramps and the little dog-worm Peppie. Somehow, Jesse managed to drape the old man’s body over his good shoulder and sling Peppie in the crook of his other arm. The pterodactyl obligingly picked up the Skull in its beak. Get Charlie… If the ghost town was still at the end of the hall…

He limped into the hall and stopped dead, oblivious to the smoke curling around him and to Peppie’s yapping. The far doors were ablaze with light, so bright it hurt his eyes; the crystal skull glowed warm in answer, and he seemed to hear Gramps’ voice, "That skull can give you what you want most…" Get away…get Charlie… Peppie barked happily at the light as they stepped toward it. Jesse’s eyes began to water—or was he crying? He didn’t know. Get Charlie…get Maya. One more step. Charlie. And one more. Maya. The light was all around him. Get away…

And then he was standing under the bright stars in the dusty street of the ghost town.

 

Charlie stared in amazement at the staggering figure coming towards the gallows, having been certain that the next person he’d see would be that dead outlaw bastard on his rotting horse. Beside him Maya squealed against her gag, and he shouted Jesse’s name through his own. If his friend heard either of them, he didn’t show it—but he didn’t stop coming, either. And when Jesse reached the foot of the gallows and gently laid down his burden, Charlie realized that Gramps was dead. Tears sprang to his eyes; he had liked the old man.

Jesse climbed up to the platform and wordlessly went to work on the ropes; as soon as Charlie’s hands were free, he left him and went to work on Maya’s. Charlie ripped his way out of ropes, noose, and gag with a speed born of fear, terrified not only by his friend’s blank-eyed silence but also by the spreading blotches of red on his clothes. "Jess!" he gasped, fighting the dryness in his mouth. "Jess, the bastard got you!"

"Huh?" Charlie’s voice, the fear in it, pierced through the numbing fog of shock in Jesse’s brain. "He got me?" He frowned, puzzled, and then memory began to trickle back in. "Oh, yeah. Twice," he said, and looked down at the hole in his leg…

…And found himself looking up into Charlie’s relieved face. "Bout time you woke up, Jess," Charlie said lightly, grinning. "Usually I’m the one who sleeps in."

"Huh?" Jesse started to sit up, but fell back with a groan when his body informed him that it wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had. A black cloud laced with sparks of red seemed to roll over his brain…

Cold metal touched his lips, and Jesse almost choked as his mouth filled with whisky; but he swallowed the burning liquid gratefully and opened his eyes again. Charlie was still there, minus the grin and holding Gramps’ dented sliver flask. "Better?"

Jesse nodded—carefully. "I think…the past three days just caught up with me."

Charlie pretended confusion. "What, you mean being kicked, beaten, strangled, stabbed at and falling out of a hundred-foot tree and through a ceiling? Those three days?"

"You forgot being shot twice and then pistol-whipped by a dead guy before escaping from a burning house."

"Oh. Sorry." Charlie took a belt from the flask and then tucked it inside his shirt. "I guess that explains why the saloon burned." Jesse stared at him, and he nodded solemnly. "Right to the ground. Nothing left but ashes." A silent moment passed, and Charlie focused intently on an invisible spot on the floor. "So…we’re not going back?"

Jesse found himself similarly occupied with an identical spot on the ceiling, and there was a lump in his throat as he answered, "No, I don’t think we can." He forced himself to look at his friend, and gritted his teeth to extend his hand. "I’m sorry, Charlie."

Charlie’s eyes were suspiciously bright as he took the trembling hand and grasped it gently but firmly before settling it back into place on Jesse’s chest. "Don’t be," he sighed. "My life was goin’ nowhere and we both know it; you were the one with everything to lose…"

"Oh yeah," Jesse interrupted. "A wife that didn’t love me and a career that was over before it got started—and we both know that, too. Maybe…" and his expression became thoughtful, "maybe this is our second chance, Charlie. Maybe this is our chance to get it right."

Charlie’s grin came back. "Why not?" he said. He stood up. "For starters, then, I think I’ll go shoot that dead outlaw bastard’s equally dead horse. Mind if I borrow your gun?"

"You found it?" Charlie picked up the gun and showed it to him; Jesse nodded. "Sure you can use it, but…Slim’s horse is still here?"

"Running all over the damned place," Charlie informed him. He checked the revolver’s chamber. "Hope three bullets will be enough…"

"Wait a minute." A blue spark had gone off in Jesse’s brain at the mention of the horse; and although he didn’t quite understand it, he knew he had to act on it anyway. Closing his eyes, Jesse gathered up all his willpower and forced himself to sit up. Every muscle in his body seemed to shriek with outrage, but he forced himself to stay upright and opened his eyes to have a look around.

He was sitting on a rough wooden table in a low-ceilinged room. A few feet away, Maya was staring at him wide-eyed from beside a dilapidated fireplace; some sort of meat was roasting there, and the sight and smell of it brought a surge of bile to the back of Jesse’s throat. He fought the nausea down and, gritting his teeth in anticipation of the pain, swung his legs off the table.

Anticipation proved not to be enough; a line of fire shot up from his left leg and exploded red inside Jesse’s skull, and he would have fallen if Charlie hadn’t caught him and held him up. "Thanks," he gasped, and tried to catch his breath. He looked up at Charlie, whose face was a mask of pure concern. "Where’s the skull?"

Charlie looked down at him wordlessly for a minute, then looked over to Maya and jerked his head towards the far corner of the room. He looked back down at his friend again, at the pale face beaded with sweat, the clenched jaw and look of grim determination. "Mind telling me what this is all about, Jess?"

"I don’t know," Jesse told him. There was a glazed, confused look in his eyes that Charlie didn’t like. He shifted his weight to the good leg and, with his friend’s help, took one awkward hopping step towards the door and then another. "But I know I need to see that horse."

 

Outside, the sight of the sun descending red-gold toward the horizon gave Jesse pause. "But it was night," he murmured. "The stars were out…"

"You’ve been out," Charlie informed him. "For a whole day. I really think you ought to go back inside and…"

"No." Jesse cocked his head, listening. "He’s coming."

Seconds later Slim’s horse galloped into view, its rotting body made even more horrific by the bloody red light. "Let me shoot it, Jess," Charlie said quietly. "Let’s put it out of its misery."

Jesse nodded slowly, his eyes on the horse. "I intend to," he said. Maya stood beside him, holding the skull, and he took it from her with a smile. Holding the cool crystal in both hands, he looked deep into its jeweled eyes; pain and weakness faded into the background. Detaching himself from Charlie’s supporting arm, Jesse took a step forward and lifted the skull high. Blue fire flared in its depths. "Get the horse to come closer, Charlie."

Charlie closed his mouth, which had fallen open at the sight of his friend suddenly standing rock-steady and ordering him around in a strong, clear voice. Gesturing to Maya to stay close to Jesse, he stepped out into the street and swallowed hard. Hope you know what you’re doing, buddy, he thought, and then began to jump up and down and wave his arms, yelling, "Hey, Horse! Yo…dead horse! Over here! Over…!" The horse saw him and, with a maddened shriek, charged. Charlie shrieked too, and fell over his own feet to land hard in the dusty street. "Jesse!"

Jesse didn’t hear him; his entire concentration was locked onto the skull, his mind focused on defining what he wanted, and the blue fire flared brighter. Not more than five feet from Charlie’s cringing body the horse suddenly stopped dead and reared up on its hind legs with a scream as blue sparks lodged within its decaying form and began to multiply.

Charlie rolled to his feet and took a step backwards, watching the horde of sparks rebuild the horse form the inside out. Organs appeared, muscle stretched itself over bare bone and was in turn covered by a ripple of skin and glossy chestnut hair. The horse—a stallion, Charlie saw—tossed its head and shook out a long black mane. The blue glow faded from its eyes and left them brown and calm. The completed horse neighed once and then stood quietly, twitching its long black tail against flies.

"Take the reins, Charlie, and tie him up somewhere," Jesse said; and then he lowered the skull, taking a shaky step backwards for balance. His dark eyes were still glazed and blank, but a ghost of a smile crossed his expressionless face. "We’ll need a good horse," he whispered, and then his legs gave way beneath him and he crumpled against Maya onto the dusty wooden sidewalk. His eyes fluttered closed, but both hands still gripped the crystal skull tightly.

Maya cried out Jesse’s name. Charlie threw the horse’s reins around the nearest post and leaped to the girl’s side, seeing his own fear reflected in her wide brown eyes. Thanking god for the second time in two days that he was almost a foot taller and nearly fifty pounds heavier than his best friend, he scooped Jesse’s compact form up in his arms and carried him back inside. Dumping him gently but unceremoniously back onto the wooden table, Charlie tried unsuccessfully to pry the skull out of the clenched fingers. He knew that one quick blow with his fist would loosen that grip…but it would also break a few of Jesse’s finger and hand bones in the process, and he didn’t want to hurt his friend any more than necessary—Jesse was hurt enough already. The idea, though…Charlie leaned close to Jesse’s ear and shouted, "LET GO OF THE SKULL, JESS! IF YOU DON’T, I’LL HAVE TO BREAK YOUR FINGERS! LET GO NOW!"

Not a flicker of expression on Jesse’s pale face showed that he’d heard, but his clenched fingers loosened just enough for Charlie to yank the skull from their grasp. Jesse became noticeably limper as soon as his fingers lost contact with the crystal, and Charlie couldn’t hold back a shudder. Wrapping the skull in a half-rotted piece of sacking, he stuffed it into a niche above the crumbling fireplace and turned his back on it, trying to pretend he hadn’t seen the blue-red glimmer peeking through the filthy material.

Jesse’s wounds were bleeding again. The one in his arm stopped on its own fairly quickly, and Maya tore a long piece from her dress to make a sling for it; but as Charlie regretfully tore his banana-print shirt into strips to replace the blood-soaked bandages on Jesse’s leg, he reflected that the quarter-sized hole had never actually stopped bleeding, and than meant…he was going to have to stop it another way.

He looked toward the fire. Half a dozen lengths of metal were lying by the woodpile, bits and pieces he had scrounged out of other buildings while trying to build the spit their dinner was roasting on. If he were to heat the end of one of those pieces in the fire…Jesse was already unconscious, so now would be the best time. Grimly, he finished with the shirt and went over to the woodpile. He was just setting his chosen piece in the fire when he looked up and saw Maya watching him.

The girl locked eyes with him for a moment, then gave the finished sling a final pat and came over to the fire. Seeing the metal she shook her head, then took it out and selected a different piece, smaller and flatter, to go in its place. She watched the metal intently, turning it occasionally until the end three inches glowed a bright, even cherry-red. Then, using another piece of sacking, Maya pulled the metal out of the fire and carried it over to the table. She said something to Charlie in her own language accompanied by a gesture, and he realized that she wanted him to hold Jesse down while she cauterized the oozing wound. Swallowing hard, he nodded his agreement and took his place, forcing himself to watch what the girl did—just in case.

It was all over in less than a minute. Jesse’s body jerked once and went limp again, and the smell of burning meat filled the dilapidated room. When Maya pulled the metal away and put it aside, Charlie took one look and ran outside to throw up in the street.

When he straightened, the horse was watching him intently from the hitching post. Charlie wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and walked unsteadily over to the animal, not yet ready to go back inside again. When he got close, the horse nickered happily and stretched its head closer for a caress. Charlie dutifully complied, realizing with a start that the horse had recognized him. It knew him.

Charlie walked around the horse and looked it over, appreciating its size and strength and beauty out loud so that it could hear him. He was back to patting its sleek neck and had named it Zombie when he realized that it was wearing a saddle.

With two saddlebags. And a bedroll.

He was so dumbfounded by this discovery that Zombie nudged him to see what was wrong, almost tumbling him over backwards in the process. Charlie patted the horse’s nose and went to investigate, hardly daring to hope that the contents had been reborn along with the horse.

They had been.

He put on one of the two shirts and modeled it for the horse, reflecting that while it fit him well enough the other one was going to absolutely swallow Jesse. Not that it would matter for long, though, since the money from the other saddlebag should be enough to buy a new shirt and anything else they might need for a while. And the bedroll had two blankets, a plate, a pan and a tin cup, as well as a fork and two spoons. They were rich! He took a swig from Gramps’ flask to celebrate and offered one to Zombie—who enjoyed it immensely—then gathered up his treasures and carried them inside.

 

When Jesse woke up a few hours later, it was to the soothing sensation of someone wiping his face, neck and chest with a cool, wet cloth. He smiled, and a voice—Charlie’s voice—said, "Hey, he’s coming around! Jess…" A hand touched his shoulder and shook him very gently. "Come on, Jess, open up."

Jesse opened his eyes and blinked against the fire’s glow, thinking fuzzily that something had changed but not being able to figure out exactly what it was. "Charlie," he tried to say, and was surprised when it came out as a faint, rasping whisper. "Charlie, where are we?"

Charlie looked alarmed. "We’re in a ghost town, somewhere in the Old West," he said slowly. "You don’t remember?"

Jesse sighed. "Of course I do," he rasped irritably. "I mean, where are we now?"

Comprehension dawned. "Oh, I get it!" Charlie patted his friend’s shoulder reassuringly. "The only thing that moved was you, Jess—from the table to a blanket on the floor."

"Where’s the skull?"

Charlie frowned. "Why?"

It was Jesse’s turn to look alarmed. "Is it safe?" He started to sit up, but two pairs of hands held him down. A note of panic crept into his voice. "It is here, isn’t it? It’s not lost…"

An icy lump settled in Charlie’s stomach. I was afraid of this; he sounds just like… He leaned over his friend and looked him square in the eye. "Jesse! It’s here and it’s safe. Calm down!" But it was too late; Jesse’s muscles went rigid under his hands and his eyes turned blank and unseeing. Up over the fireplace, a blue glow shone out from the niche between two cracked and broken stones. "Goddammit!" Charlie swore. He lifted a hand. "I’ll knock you senseless if I have to…!"

Jesse blinked…and cringed, throwing his good arm up to protect himself. "Charlie!?"

"Jess?" slowly, Charlie lowered his hand; Jesse lowered his arm with equal caution. Then Charlie blew out the breath he’d been holding. "God, Jess, don’t do that again! You scared me half to death!"

"I scared you?" Jesse looked at him like he was crazy. "What were you going to hit me for?!"

"For going off into a…a trance with that damn skull again!"

"I had to know where it was! It’s important…"

"Why?" his friend demanded. "What makes it more important than your life, Jess?" As soon as the words were out, Charlie knew he shouldn’t have said them; Jesse turned dead white. "Aw, Jess, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…"

"I know." He took a deep breath and tried, not very successfully, to push thoughts of Gramps and his relationship with the skull out of his mind. Finally he said, "We need the skull to find the Caves."

Charlie’s mouth fell open. "You mean, you want to…Jess, do you think he was telling the truth?"

Jesse smiled. "Yes—about the treasure being down there. As far as how much there is…well, there may not be a ‘billion dollars worth’, but I bet there’s a lot. Enough for us to be…"

"Stinking, filthy rich," his friend finished, enraptured by the idea. Concern crept back in. "But Jess," Charlie said worriedly. "Jess, what using that thing does to you…"

"I know." Jesse frowned. "I’ll just have to be sure I have my strength back before I use it again." He shook the memory of Gramps off again and changed the subject. "How’s the horse?"

Charlie’s face lit up. "Zombie? He’s great! He’s…"

"Yours."

"Mine?!" With a whoop of delight, Charlie leaped to his feet and rushed to the door. "You hear that, Zombie?" he shouted. "You’re my horse!" Zombie whinnied an enthusiastic response. Charlie looked over his shoulder at his friend. "I’m your slave for life, Jess!" he said and ran outside. There was another joyful whoop, followed by the sound of the horse galloping around in the street.

"You’re welcome," Jesse whispered. He closed his eyes and smiled, enjoying the sounds of the happy horse and rider.

"Jesse," a soft voice said fondly, and his eyes snapped back open. Maya instantly looked contrite and laid a hand on his forehead, shaking her head. She said something in her own language.

Jesse understood the tone if not the words, and shook his own head. "It’s okay," he told her gently. "I was just surprised when you used my name, that’s all. Don’t be sorry."

His dark amber gaze was warm, and Maya blushed; she liked this strong yet gentle man, and the touch of his eyes made her feel strange and wonderful inside. The old man had been pleased by that, and had told her it meant she belonged with Jesse and should be his wife. When she had delightedly promised to be a good wife, he had laughed and said that she could hardly help but be better than the bad wife he and Charlie had run off the day before.

Remembering the old man’s words reminded Maya of something else; he had spoken to her in her own language and had seemed to understand everything she said as well, but only when the skull was glowing. If Jesse could make the skull glow like he had before…

Her sudden bright smile dazzled him; Jesse watched, mystified, as she ran to the fireplace and came back with the rag-wrapped skull. Pulling off the dirty sacking, Maya carefully set the skull down between them and pointed first to him, then to herself and then back to him. She patted the skull with her hand and smiled.

It took Jesse a minute to figure it out and then he, too, smiled. He could use the power of the skull to talk to Maya—if he had enough strength left to pull it off, that was. He knew it would be taking a risk, and if Charlie came back…but he did want to talk to her. Jesse took a deep breath and attempted to center his concentration on the skull while at the same time remaining focused on his surroundings; to his amazement, it worked. "Maya, can you understand me?"

"*Yes! I knew you could do it!*"

Jesse blushed. "I didn’t," he admitted frankly. He pushed himself up on one elbow. "What gave you the idea?"

"*Your ancestor.*" She took a second blanket and began to fold and pat it into a fat cushion. "*When you first brought me to your house, the skull glowed and he spoke to me in my own language; he told me not to be afraid.*" Her beautiful chocolate eyes filled with tears. "*I am so sorry, Jesse. There was no way for me to tell you before now. I know you will miss him.*"

Jesse nodded. "I tried to save him," he said, more to himself than to her. "But he wouldn’t let me; he said he’d done all he could do…and he was so tired. I loved Gramps, Maya, he was the only family I ever had. I wasn’t ready for him to die…"

"*But he was ready,*" the girl said gently. "I had never seen a man so old. I was surprised he was alive."

"You don’t know the half of it." Maya tucked the makeshift pillow behind Jesse’s shoulders and he relaxed gratefully into it and rubbed his stinging eyes. "Where is Gramps now, Maya?"

She cocked her head at him, frowning, and Jesse realized that he had lost his tenuous rapport with the skull. He tried to get it back—twice—and failed, cursing the weakness that seemed to have saturated his mind as well as his body. If there were only another way to talk to her, some way that didn’t require talking…

…No, that didn’t require speaking. Speaking…

Jesse almost laughed—at himself. Why couldn’t he ‘talk’ with Maya the same way he ‘talked’ with the skull? If he could just get the rapport started… Jesse shut his eyes, aimed his thoughts and concentrated. He felt the skull respond, heard Maya’s sharp intake of breath, and knew it had worked.

The blue glow faded as he opened hopeful eyes. **Maya?**

Her face registered disbelief, and she shook her head as though trying to dislodge the new voice inside of it. "Jesse?" He nodded, and her expression became delighted. **How?** He shrugged, and she threw her arms around him. **You are wonderful!**

**No, I was tired,** he told her, grinning. **We haven’t gotten to ‘wonderful’ yet—but I’ll make sure you’re there for it when I do.**

She pulled back, looking at him adoringly. **Do you still need the skull? I should put it back…**

**Yeah, before Charlie comes back. I’m done with it for now, go ahead.** Maya rewrapped the skull quickly and took it back to the fireplace. **Maya, what did happen to Gramps—to his body, I mean?**

Maya bent to check the meat on its spit, shaking her head. **I do not know; Charlie told me to stay with you.**

**Oh.** Jesse watched her poke the fire with a stick, her skin gleaming softly golden through the remains of her white dress, and abruptly decided that he wasn’t quite so tired after all. **Maya, tell me about yourself…**

 

When Charlie came back, his face was still alight and he smelled distinctly like a horse. "I got Zombie all settled for the night over at the livery stable," he announced happily, making a beeline for the fire to poke at the meat. "You think this is done?"

"I certainly hope so," Jesse said, holding up the piece he was eating. He watched Charlie tear off a fat drumstick and plop down on the floor to eat it. "How did you manage to bring it down?"

Charlie’s mouth was full, but he managed to convey the concept of hitting the bird with a rock. He chewed some more, thoughtfully, and then swallowed audibly. "Tastes like turkey," he commented to no one in particular. "A little gamy, though…"

"This isn’t turkey?" It had never occurred to Jesse to think that the spitted carcass might not be a turkey, and now he was worried. "What is it?"

"A bird." Charlie took another bite and mumbled through it, "Sort of."

"Sort of a…oh, you don’t mean…" Jesse looked at the strip of meat in his hand with sudden distaste. "Pterodactyl."

Charlie nodded. "I was humane," he said defensively. "And we couldn’t exactly have kept him; he would have grown up and eaten us. And we needed food."

"You’re right," Jesse sighed. He decided to change the subject. "What happened to Gramps?"

Charlie choked and stared at him, looking concerned. "Gramps is dead, Jess," he began carefully.

"I know that," Jesse interrupted with some irritation, blinking hard to keep his vision from blurring. "I meant what happened to his…to the…"

"Body?" Jesse nodded, relieved; Charlie was relieved too. "I found a…coffin. It’s at the undertaker’s at the end of the street."

"Thanks."

"Don’t mention it; I wouldn’t have wanted him buried here either." It was Charlie’s turn to change the subject. "You’ll never guess what I found at the stables." Jesse couldn’t guess and said so. "I found a wagon! Isn’t that great?" His friend looked politely confused. "A wagon, Jess," Charlie explained patiently. "A horse pulls it, people ride in it? It’s not in too bad of shape; I think it will hold up until we get somewhere else. I mean, it’s not like Zombie could carry all three of us."

"No, of course not." Jesse tossed the remains of his dinner into the corner, where Peppie immediately pounced on it, and wriggled down into a more comfortable position. Reaching out to Maya, he found her looking at the stars and he watched them through her eyes for a moment before closing his own with a sigh. "So," he asked. "Where are we going?"

"Before I answer that," Charlie replied casually. "Do you know where we are?"

"The Old West."

"Cute. Okay, my idea was to head out of town on the southeast end—because the bad guy came in from the northwest—and then to just keep on going until we find something."

"Sounds good to me…"

"If we find something."

"Except for that part." Jesse shook his head and yawned. "We’re bound to find something."

 

Charlie was up at dawn the next morning, much to his own surprise, and with Maya’s help began to get ready to leave; when Jesse finally woke up, the preparations were mostly complete. He heard the wagon pull up outside and Charlie came in humming and grinned down at him. "Only one more thing and we’re all set," he said. "You ready to go?"

Jesse stretched as much as his still-sore muscles would allow, grimacing as he experimentally tensed the injured leg. "I need a stick or something to walk with but yeah, I’m ready."

"Good." Charlie took down the skull and stuffed it into one of the saddlebags slung over his shoulder, then went outside without another word. He returned a moment later and stood beside Jesse. "Sorry about you having to ride next to the coffin, but it’s a small wagon," he said. "You’re ready?"

Jesse pushed himself up straighter, irritated. "I need something…"

"No, you don’t," Charlie interrupted. Bending down, he quickly scooped his friend up and carried him outside to the waiting wagon. "You have a ride."

Jesse’s face flamed red, embarrassment and anger momentarily rendering him speechless. His voice returned, however, as soon as he was put down. "Charlie, I could have walked!"

Charlie ignored him, gingerly checking the bandages on his left leg. In a level voice, never raising his eyes, he said, "Have you ever smelled burning human flesh, Jess?" Jesse’s mouth fell open, acknowledging that he hadn’t, and Charlie nodded gravely. "Well, I have," he continued in the same conversational tone. "And until I forget about it or that leg heals, you don’t walk." He looked up, flashing a quick, strained smile. "Period. End of story. Enjoy being lazy, okay?" He patted his stunned friend’s shoulder and went forward to check the horse.

Jesse groped for Maya’s mind for an explanation…and got more than he bargained for. Luckily the sides of the wagon were low, but twisting his abused body around so he could deposit the meager contents of his stomach on the dusty ground triggered a wave of pain and weakness that left him trembling and barely conscious. He was dimly aware of hands supporting him and a worried voice saying something he couldn’t understand. Water filled his mouth and he spat twice before allowing any of the cool liquid to trickle down his burning throat. Jesse finally opened his eyes and looked up into Charlie’s face. "I’m getting really tired of seeing you from this angle, you know."

"Ditto." Charlie touched his forehead and frowned. "You’re hot again. We need to find a town or something, get you to a doctor so he can look at that leg."

A little shudder ran through the tall man at the mention of the injured leg and this time Jesse understood it. He wrapped one hand around Charlie’s wrist. "I’m sorry."

"It’s not your fault." Charlie saw guilty denial of that in his friend’s face and it made him angry. "No, Jess, dammit, it isn’t! This whole thing was just…was just fate, okay? You didn’t know what was going on when you took Lana to the house and in spite of what I know you’re thinking you did not ‘drag me into it’ - I invited myself, remember? I volunteered to help you dig up that grave, to go hunt down the big smelly barbarian in the jungle upstairs, to chase that bastard Slim out here into the middle of nowhere after he shot Gramps and took Maya! It was my choice to do all that - after all these years you should know well enough that no one makes me do anything."

"Unless it’s a pretty woman."

"Unless it’s a pretty woman," Charlie repeated evenly. "And last time I checked you weren’t one, so that doesn’t apply to this situation. No more apologies, I mean it."

Jesse saw that he meant it and nodded weakly - he just didn’t have it in him to fight with anyone at the moment. "I’m s…I won’t do it again."

His eyes had fallen closed, but he could still see his best friend’s smile. "You must be feeling really bad if you’re giving in this easy," Charlie told him. "Go to sleep, Jess; we’ll wake you when we stop, okay?"

Jesse nodded again. "Okay." And then he was asleep…but a faint red/blue light pulsed gently behind his closed eyelids and threaded its way into his dreams…