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Whatever Will Let Us Live

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Notes: wanted comfort fic, I deliver. Thanks to and for the vigorous beta. *g* Centered around "Advances, None Miraculous" and "The Whores Can Come." Please comment, if you feel moved to do so.

 

The camp seemed to hold its breath all day, as if saving what air there might be for one small, dying boy. Normally, there was constant noise, a steady thrum of drunks and miners, and all sorts who associated their businesses with them, banging around the camp, and while that had not stopped, the sounds were unusually subdued; no one wanting to disturb the child and his family as he lay in the doc's house.

Sol had waited down the street most of the day, watching the house from the telegraph tent, looking for a sign that the worst had come. Blasanov and Merrick waited quietly with him throughout, and did not seem to mind him taking up space. He eventually walked down to stand with Jewel, who had stood in the cold all day herself, and soon Trixie joined them both.

When he saw Seth's ramrod figure open the door, he made his way down.

Any lingering question of what had transpired in the Doc's house was dispelled by the look on Seth's face as he came closer. The dazed, stricken look could mean nothing else. Sol made his way to Seth's side, and took hold of his arm when Seth looked at him as if he had no idea who he was.

Sol guided him through the streets, ignoring the miners and shopkeepers staring at them, only concerned with getting Seth out of the way, out from under the eyes of all these people, and away from anyone who might step wrong at the moment. He brought him into the store, letting go of Seth only long enough to close and lock the door behind him and draw the shade. It didn't matter, as Seth still stood in the same place, staring off into the distance.

Taking Seth's arm again, he gently led him back to his own room, and kindly, but firmly made him sit. Sol then put his hands on Seth's shoulders and waited. If it had taken hours, he would have waited, but it was only moments. First one hand in his shirt at his side, gripping as if it was the last line sent out to him as he washed away with the rapids. Then Seth turned and pressed his face against Sol's chest, almost as if trying to suffocate himself, and his arms went around him, tightening. Seth did not make a sound, but his arms tightened more and more and his hands grasped harder into Sol's ribs until Sol was sure he'd have bruises all along his upper body by morning.

Sol knew he should have looked in on Mrs. Bullock, made sure she wasn't alone, made sure that she got home safe, should have even kept Seth there. Sol's sympathy was with her greatly, but Seth was good to no one right now and wouldn't be until these first, strongest gales of the storm had lessened. And while Sol was used to holding together Seth's life with one hand now and then, as Seth weathered storms by battering back against them, thereby causing more damage than the storm itself, he needed both hands at the moment to hold Seth together. So Sol stood still and tried not to make a sound or sign of pain as his ribs were compressed and he waited for the storm.

Sol closed his eyes against his own grief. He could deal with that later, but he couldn't deal with anything more than Seth right now. Not Mrs. Bullock, not the town, not Swearengen and his machinations. Seth was all that he had could deal with, and he could only pray that he was enough.

When they had received the news Seth's brother had died, it took the whole day for the storm to hit. Seth was quiet and distant all day, but once they were alone that night, Sol had laid down next to him and put a hand to Seth's back. As if that triggered something in the tense body, Seth had spun around, pinning Seth to the bed. The rest of the night was spent in violently sweaty grappling, Seth riding the waves of his sorrow against Sol. He had grasped back at Seth and consoled him as best he could until the tears neither mentioned pelted down onto Sol's chest. The grief then had been for lost opportunities as much as anything. Mourning for the fact that his brother would never be more than the near-stranger he was, a shadow on his mind conjured as much from his father's words as his own memories.

This was more regret, but ten times worse, for the potential loss had been ten times the worth. Losing William was like Seth had lost his brother all over again, as well as a son.

The sound that came out of Seth next would have drowned out any pained groan Sol could have made. It was wholly unhuman, and desperately human at the same time. It was the sound of an animal being skinned alive. It was the sound he'd heard his father make the day his brother fell off the dock and hit his head. It was the wind against the cellar door.

Sol let his hands go to Seth's hair and waited for the wail to end. It choked off, as if caught in Seth's throat, as if it was battling to see which would kill the other. The arms stayed tight around him, though, and the breathing against his chest grew harsher.

"My fault," Sol heard mumbled. "I should never have brought them here. If they'd stayed in Michigan..."

This, too, was as an inevitable part of the storm as lightning strikes. One more guilt to pile on, one more death he could not hope to stop.

Sol took a firm hold of Seth's head, and forced it up. He was nearly undone by the look on Seth's face, the desolation plain and open like a wound. Sol steeled himself, though.

"I will say this once only: You did nothing wrong." He put as much conviction and hardness into his voice as he could and prayed he could reach through, at least a little. "You did right by your brother and your kin. You could not have done more."

It was useless and he knew it, but it had to be said now, as soon as possible. The guilt would never leave, because Seth's guilt never left him. He struggled always between the man his father wanted him to be, the man his father saw him as, and the man he was. There was no middle ground with Seth. There was control and out of control, and nothing less.

Seth would say no more that night, but stayed with Sol until the morning, barely letting him go long enough so they both could fit on the too-small camp bed. Neither slept, and neither made a sound when, at dawn, Seth sat up, straightened his clothes, and left the store.

Sol watched him go and didn't try to stop him, because he knew he couldn't. He hoped it would be enough.

***

Throughout the day, he waited closer to the house. He watched for warnings and waited for a sign that he was needed or wanted. He kept most away; almost all were well-meaning, but none wanted to intrude on Seth's grief. While he couldn't stop Jarry, he waited and watched in case Seth slipped from control to none with him. But Jarry left, obviously scared but untouched, and the nod Seth sent Sol's way gave him hope that things would clear.

Later, at the funeral, Sol remembered a conversation with Seth several days before. It had been early, before the Seth left to take his usual tour through the camp, Trixie wouldn't be by for hours, and they were alone for the first time in days. With Seth's role as sheriff and all the other interests dragging both their attentions away, this was the first time they'd opened the store together in a long while, working in companionable silence.

"I do not know what I'm doing, Sol," Seth had said suddenly. "William needs a father who can hone him into a man. Someone my brother would be proud of. But I don't even know how to talk to him."

"Maybe if you stopped looking at him as a duty instead of as a son," Sol had said gently. Seth turned around startled. "He's a boy, Seth, not a blade. You raise him up to be a good man by being the good man you are as an example."

"My father--" Seth started, but Sol didn't want to hear anything that might follow that opening.

"You're not your father, which to my mind is all to the good."

Seth slammed a sifting pan down in irritation. "I'm not my brother, either."

Sol kept his tone the same as it had been before. "You're the only one who ever expected you to be."

Seth looked at him for a moment, then his gaze shifted to fondness. "Your meaning being I'm making this harder and more complex than it needs to be." It wasn't a question, but Sol answered anyway.

"It would not be an unheard of event."

But William would not grow up to be a good man. He was now in a box waiting to be put in the ground and would never see another birthday. He would never make more duck calls or ride a bone-shaker or make his mother smile again.

Sol felt that loss of a child the same as everyone in camp, nearly all of whom seemed to be standing in the thoroughfare, but he felt it more for the loss of his friend that it was. His friend who had started to relax into the role of father and husband as Sol had always known he would. Seth needed children about him, making noise and making mischief and making him see that he was not his father nor his brother nor their vision of him, but only himself.

When Martha broke, she shattered across the front lawn. Sol closed his eyes to give her what privacy he could, then looked around and noted all those close by standing with their eyes closed, or turned toward the ground as if in prayer.

Seth stood in the street, as if caught between impulses of wanting to go to his wife and not wanting to intrude on her pain, while the minister continued to preach, but she reappeared sooner than Sol could have hoped. Then the preacher announced the viewing of William, and Sol watched as some turned back to their own lives and business, but more lined up to enter the house.

When most had been through and dispersed, Sol joined the end of the line. As he finally entered the house, stepping aside to allow the last miner to pass, the smell of sage and underlying decay hit him. The branches piled up to the side of the staircase and in front of the small coffin where the child lay, a wild garden just for William.

Seth stood in front of the coffin staring down into it. His eyes had lost the sharpest edges of wild desolation, leaving behind only grief. Sol stood at his side.

"She's leaving, Sol," Seth said after several minutes.

Sol's chest clenched, though not in surprise. He waited for the rest.

"I don't know what to do. How to help," he said with desperation.

Sol looked at his friend's profile and said softly, "Be there. Stand strong and be next to her. Sometimes it's all you can do. Sometimes it's enough."

After a moment, Seth turned and looked at him, unshed tears back in his eyes along with something else. He nodded at Sol and turned to start up the stairs. On the landing, he stopped and turned partly back to Sol without looking at him. "Keep showing me how." Then he continued up the stairs.