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What Ails You

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Jake wakes up shivering. He cracks his eyes open to see that it’s in the middle of the night and the glowing embers of the fire are slowly dying. Across the campfire he spies Roland soundly asleep and lying on his back. He wonders how the man could sleep so easily and figures it’s because he’s a Gunslinger. He’s used to living in conditions like this and sleeping in the cold dirt. Jake, however, is still only a kid.

He pushes himself up in a sitting position and rubs at his eyes as they adjust to the darkness. A yawn escapes Jake and a shudder works its way through his body as goosebumps begin to prickle along his arms. He spares a look around the surrounding area of the woods, feeling the overwhelming sensation of eyes watching him. Jake gazes over at the Gunslinger, caught between contemplating if he should reignite the fire himself or wake Roland.

In the end, he decides to do the latter and makes his way over to the resting man. He stares down at the Gunslinger, being sure to be quiet as a mouse so as not to startle him awake. Jake kneels down beside the man and lays a hand on one of his shoulders. He’s surprised that Roland doesn’t immediately wake up, seeing as how the man is always alert, but Jake has to gently shake him awake.

“Roland,” Jake whispers softly, rousing the man out of his dreams (or rather, nightmares). “Roland, wake up…”

Roland bolts upright in an instant, grabbing a gun from his holster to have it at the ready. He expects to find Jake in trouble, but what he finds instead is the boy staring down at him with tired eyes. His eyes look black in the soft moonlight, pupils blown wide with nothing but a thin ring of blue framing them, making him look ethereal. Roland noticeably relaxes and lets out a sigh.

“What ails you?” Roland asks as he reclines back on his elbows.

“I'm cold,” Jake states.

Roland takes in the sight of the boy before him. His hair is all messy and disheveled and, sure enough, he’s shivering despite the fact that he has a jacket on. Jake’s arms are wrapped around himself in an attempt to keep himself warm, but it just makes him appear small and timid. The sight of Jake reminds Roland of his old friend Alain.

“Rebuild the fire,” Roland tells him, laying back down in the dirt.

“...and scared,” Jake adds immediately after.

He gives the Gunslinger an imploring look like he’s on the verge of crying and despite Roland’s best efforts, he finds himself caving in at the flash of puppy eyes. Roland doesn’t need to be psychic to know what the boy’s asking of him. He’d be selfish to deny the boy of what he wants, so he lets out a gruff sigh and sits up. He stokes the fire, antagonizing the dying flames, and feeds it a few token sticks and dry grass to restore it’s orange glow.

Meanwhile, Jake stands there shifting from foot to foot as he watches Roland doing his best to heat things up again. Roland twists away from the fire and lays back down against his coat. He reaches a hand out towards the boy and beckons Jake over, looking to be at the end of his patience, but Jake knows deep down inside Roland was a teddy bear. Or else he wouldn’t be allowing this.

“Alright, come on,” Roland sighs tiredly.

“Really?” Jake asks hopefully, eyes lighting up slightly.

“Hurry before I change my mind.”

Jake doesn’t think twice before he’s rushing over to the Gunslinger and dropping to his knees. Roland shifts over a little to make room for Jake on his coat as the boy lays down beside him by the fire. Initially, Jake lays on his back next to Roland, but the older man rolls Jake onto his side towards the campfire. Jake’s back is to the Gunslinger when he feels him slide up behind him.

He can’t help the shudder that quakes through his body when Roland drapes an arm over him, embracing him. Roland pulls him in close so that his body is pressed up against Jake’s slight frame. It’s only now that he realizes just how cold Jake is. It makes Roland tighten his grip on Jake, going so far as the rub his hand over the boy’s arm and chest to coax some heat into his susceptible body.

It’s only a matter of time before Jake is warmed up thanks to the acceptable fire and the Gunslinger’s body heat. Jake curls up against the broad body that easily eclipses his own and relaxes exponentially. The eyes he thought were watching him suddenly disappear and the cold atmosphere of the woods dissipates, leaving nothing but the overwhelming flood of warmth that seems to just radiate off of Roland.

“How do you feel?” Roland asks after a minute or two.

“Warm,” Jake replies, smiling contently.

“Still scared?” Roland adds.

“Kinda, but not as much,” Jake answers honestly, feeling no need to lie to the Gunslinger.

“You don’t need to be afraid, Jake. I'll protect you,” Roland vows, murmuring into the boy’s ear as he tightens his arm around Jake’s waist.

“What about you? You’re not scared?” Jake asks, shuddering against Roland as a chill creeps up on him.

“No.”

“Not even a little?”

“I was trained not to be,” Roland explains, recalling his lessons from Cort as a child. Suddenly, memories of Cuthbert came to mind, but he pushed those thoughts away. “Besides, I'm a whole lot scarier than anything else in these woods.”

“I wish I could be brave like you,” Jake says and he sounds forlorn.

“You are brave. You came to my world by yourself with nothing more than a vision and a drawing,” Roland points out, staring into the campfire as he holds Jake close. “You don’t have to be tough to be brave. Some of us are more soft-spoken. Like Alain.”

“Who’s Alain?”

“He was a friend. You remind me a lot about him.”

“Why’s that?”

“He was like you. He had the touch, or shine as some call it,” Roland recalls, feeling Jake shift in his embrace. “He saw things. Heard whispers of the mind.”

“Was he a Gunslinger like you?”

“Yes.”

“Dead,” Jake states, putting two and two together.

“Yes,” Roland concurs.

A silence passes over them. Jake’s eyelids feel heavy and he yawns softly, but he can’t fall back to sleep despite feeling comfortable in Roland’s embrace. He should be feeling relaxed in the knowledge that Roland will protect him from the things lurking in the woods and yet his mind still races. It doesn’t help that his thoughts often drift back to the Gunslinger, bringing to light feelings he didn’t realize he had until now.

A minute passes, then a couple more go by, and Jake is wondering if he should risk using the shine to delve into Roland’s mind. It’s hard not to now that he’s aware of it, but Jake is smart enough to not actually do it unless absolutely necessary. Instead, Jake figures he can just ask Roland the question he’s been itching to ask. I’ll say his name once and if he doesn’t respond I'll just forget about it, Jake promises himself.

When he finally musters up the courage to call out Roland’s name very quietly, it surprises Jake when the Gunslinger actually speaks up.

“What is it?” Roland replies, voice drowsy.

“Do you like me?” Jake asks him plainly, figuring there’s no reason to dance around it.

To this, Roland remains silent. As quiet as the dead, Mrs. Shaw would say, but that feels so long ago now. A long stretch of time passes by and just when Jake thinks Roland might have accidentally fell asleep on him, the Gunslinger’s warm embrace leaves him for only a moment before turning the boy over in his arms. Jake is facing Roland now, chest to chest, and the only place Jake can think to put his arms is against the Gunslinger’s broad chest and the other around the man’s waist.

Jake is staring wide eyed up the man, a look of shock on his innocent face. He feels Roland stroke a hand up and down the length of his back, coaxing him to relax and he does. Roland still doesn’t speak a word, something Jake ought to get used to, but he does something else by way of conveying his answer. Roland cranes his head down towards Jake’s face and plants a soft, barely there kiss upon the boy’s forehead. Suddenly, Jake’s whole body feels on fire. His skin is feverish and his cheeks are pink. The fire feels cold in comparison.

“Sleep,” Roland tells him.

And Jake does. His eyes slowly start to close and the vision of Roland looking down on him with soft brown eyes lulls him into a state of calm. He nuzzles his face into the front of Roland’s shirt and drifts off to a dreamless sleep. Roland stares down at the boy and waits patiently until Jake’s breathing evens out. Roland pulls Jake closer to him, prompting the boy to sigh and curl into the contact. The Gunslinger smiles down at the boy and presses a kiss into his messy hair. Moments later, Roland lets himself catch some shut eye and falls asleep.

And, for the first time in a long time, neither one of them feels so alone.