Disclaimer: The following work of fan fiction isn't intended to infringe on any copyright or to make a profit. I don't claim the characters, setting, concept, but the story is mine. Please don't reproduce, link to, or sue without permission from the author.

Notes: Written in answer to the Characters of Color Ficathon on the Choc_Fic Livejournal community.

Greatest of These
by Katie

When Kurdy was old enough to go to school and play outside by himself, but still young enough that he didn't have all his grown-up teeth and his winter pajamas had feet in them, he hid in a closet and watched his father lift up a gun and send a bullet through his mother's brain, then put the barrel to his own head. Kurdy watched the redness seep into the carpet and knew only that he was horribly alone.

He didn't understand that he was seeing love, with all the terrible compassion it entailed.

The hill was steep, covered with dead leaves and vines and fallen branches, but the only other way down to the stream was to walk back a quarter of a mile. Being tired and a little pissed off, Kurdy had no intention of backtracking anywhere. He wanted to fill his canteen and clean off a little bit, then head upstream toward the road and hopefully catch up with his two partners. Who should have met up with him more than two hours ago, but who was counting?

When his foot slipped, he almost managed to catch himself on a low bush that clung to the side of the hill.

Then the bush gave way.

Flashes of brown and green, a moss-covered boulder vividly close and then gone. Kurdy tried to dig his fingers into the ground; they burned as he fell too fast to stop. And then he did stop with a pain so blinding that the only thing he could do was pass out.

He woke up cold. Freezing from the waist down and shivering so hard his muscles hurt with it. There was a dull, sickening pressure against his leg, but when he tried to move, the pressure suddenly flared into agony. He rolled upward, somehow managing to keep his legs still. Squinting against the fireworks going off in front of his eyes, he saw that he was lying with his legs in the stream, the right one twisted slightly to accommodate the jagged branch jutting into his calf.


Kurdy grabbed for the branch, but the angle of the stream's bank made it impossible to grab without moving his leg, and that was unbearable. Even sitting still, he was almost sick with the pain radiating up into his stomach. The tremors that ran through him only made the sensation worse.

Gritting his teeth, he tried again to grasp the branch. His fingers fell inches too short. Cursing himself, he dropped back to lie on the ground, breathing heavily through his teeth to keep control.

He was fucked, no doubt about it. Between the huge piece of wood piercing his calf and the near-freezing temperatures of the water, he wasn't going to survive this if he didn't find some way to get himself loose. It didn't look like he'd be able to pull himself out of the stream until he got his leg free. The branch was attached to a long, heavy-looking submerged log that wasn't going to move any time soon. His only chance was to pull his leg off the branch, then bind it up so he didn't bleed to death before he found help.

Except for the part where he nearly passed out if he so much as twitched anything below his waist, he had a workable plan. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm the nausea that was creeping up in his throat. He was strong. He could handle pain. He'd survived worse, and this time, he had two partners somewhere nearby who'd come looking for him as soon as they realized something was wrong. All he had to do was get himself loose and hang on until they arrived. He could do that.

Only it turned out that some pain was bad enough that his brain turned chickenshit and hid from it. The first tentative pull of his leg away from the branch sent him screaming into darkness.

"God says we need to go."

Jeremiah looked up, more than a little irritated at both the Almighty and His messenger. Even though Jeremiah had grown to trust and even like Smith, there were still occasions when he thought the other man's timing sucked. Like now, when he was trying to finish up negotiations with the governing council of Locklie to bring them into Markus's Alliance and really didn't need the interruption. Or the crazy God-talk.

"God's going to have to wait," he muttered, and flashed a reassuring smile at Milla, the head of the council.

She frowned at him, probably wondering if insanity was contagious.

"No. Kurdy's in trouble. We need to go, or we'll be too late."

Jeremiah turned to look at Smith, seeing nothing but earnestness and worry. After all this time, Jeremiah still didn't know what to make of Smith's "communication" with God, but he could at least believe that Smith believed what he was saying, and the man did have an uncanny way of knowing things he shouldn't.

"Damn it." Jeremiah turned back to Milla, already standing. "I'm sorry. I'll be back to finish up with you as soon as I can, but I've got to go check on my partner."

He was out the door, Smith right behind him, before Milla could agree or object. It didn't matter one way or the other; he was going to find Kurdy no matter what she thought.

"What kind of trouble is he in?" he asked Smith as they jogged toward the truck. He did a quick mental check of the supplies they had--blankets and first aid gear had been packed back at Thunder Mountain, and he and Smith had added some food and water they'd bought from the townsfolk this morning in preparation for leaving this afternoon. They were set to go at any time.

Smith climbed into the truck, answering once Jeremiah was in the driver's seat beside him. "I don't know. I just know he needs us."

Elizabeth was a beautiful woman, her skin the warm color of coffee and her eyes deep pools of humor and compassion. Kurdy loved to sit and watch her, comforted by her presence as she toyed with the clear glass cat in her hand. But she never looked up at him, never seemed to notice he was there. Disturbed, he reached out to her.

He was clumsy. The cat fell from her hands to shatter on the floor. She turned to him then, but her eyes were filled with anger, betrayal, loss.

"Elizabeth," he tried to say.

She turned away. Walked away. He tried to catch her, but she ignored him. Slowly, the distance between them grew until he was alone.

He ran faster, desperate to find her. He called her name again and again, but she didn't answer. He turned around, hunting the darkness for a glimpse of her, and saw faint lights coming through the slats on the door.

He didn't want to peer through. He knew that horror awaited him on the other side. It was safer in here, alone but sheltered, not having to see the spreading pool of redness soaking into the carpet.

"You spill it, you clean it up," his mother said, looking through the slats at him. "If you love me . . ."

He did. He did. He loved her so much, and he didn't understand why she wouldn't come and get him out of this closet and hug him and tell him it was all a bad dream, and did he want some cocoa before he went to back to bed? Didn't she love him anymore? Why had she left him alone?

He stepped back, away from the door, and heard painful, rasping breaths coming from the other side of the room. Part of him wanted to hide, but the other part had to help. He knelt beside her, smoothing her hair from her face.

"Elizabeth," he whispered, a sob choking him as he saw the lesions on her face. He knew, everyone knew what the Big Death looked like. "I'll fix it, baby. I will."

"God says it's time," Smith said.

Kurdy glared up at him, hating the impassivity he could see in Smith's eyes. "Help me. Tell God to help me."

Jeremiah coughed, his body jerking painfully beneath Kurdy's hand. Kurdy smoothed his hair back again, careful to avoid the painful lesions.

"We're safer," Jeremiah whispered, his voice so thin that Kurdy could barely hear it. "Together."

Jeremiah's eyes closed.

Kurdy knew death when he saw it.

He was alone.

When Kurdy was old enough to claim a man's place in the world, but still young enough to believe he could change that world if he tried hard enough, he knelt beside a dying woman and watched the life drain from her, breath by torturous breath. He wanted to tell her how he felt, how much she meant to him, but instead, he listened as she told him to find Jeremiah, to stay with Jeremiah because she knew they were safe as long as they were together. He watched as she died and knew only that he was horribly alone.

He didn't understand that he was seeing love, with all the heart-wrenching sacrifice that it entailed.

"We're close."

If Smith hadn't already said that three times, Jeremiah would have been more happy to hear the statement. As it was, he just rolled his eyes and pressed on through the fallen leaves that lined the bank of the stream they'd been following since they left the truck five minutes before.

"How close is close?" he asked, adjusting the pack that held their first aid supplies and extra blankets--just in case.

"Right there."

Smith pointed, and then Jeremiah was running, his heart pounding as he drew near to the man lying partially in the water. His mind was already demanding He's all right as his fingers pressed against Kurdy's neck.

The reassuring throb of a pulse let Jeremiah breath again. Smith grabbed his arm as he moved to pull Kurdy out of the water.

"No. Look."

It was obscene, the violation of Kurdy's flesh by the branch that had speared through him. Bile rose in Jeremiah's throat, but he swallowed it back. This was no time for weakness.

"We need to get that out of him before we try to move him," Smith said.

"No shit, Sherlock." Jeremiah took a deep breath, forcing himself to be calm. "Okay. Any suggestions?"

Smith eased into the water, gasping at the cold as he inspected the wound as best he could without moving Kurdy's leg.

"I think I can just pull his leg off it," he said after a few minutes. "It might be better to remove the branch from that log before we try to get it out of his leg, but we don't have anything but pocketknives to do that with. I don't think sawing at the branch is going to help anything."

"We need to have a bandage ready. He'll start bleeding bad as soon as the branch isn't there to hold in the blood." Jeremiah started to shrug out of his coat. "Damn, he's cold."

"This water feels like it's straight off an iceberg," Smith said. "Hurry up, will you?"

Jeremiah just grunted as he spread his coat over Kurdy and went to dig bandages out of his pack.

It worried Jeremiah that Kurdy still hadn't awoken several hours later. Once out of the water, his temperature had spiked; he'd thrashed and muttered, but never truly woken. Jeremiah and Smith were taking turns sitting with him and doing the chores needed to make their camp ready for the rapidly approaching darkness.

"We need to get him back to Thunder Mountain," Smith said from the other side of the fire where he was cooking the fish he'd caught earlier. "He'll need antibiotics and someone to stitch up that hole in his leg better than we can."

"Tomorrow," Jeremiah agreed. "Hopefully he'll be awake by then."

Kurdy shifted his head, murmuring something that sounded like "somebody" and "please" and "no." Jeremiah placed a hand on his chest.

"Take it easy, man. You're safe now."

Whether it was the touch or the sound of his voice, Jeremiah couldn't say; the important thing was that it seemed to make Kurdy relax. He transferred his grip to Kurdy's arm, rubbing gently from time to time when Kurdy started to stir.

Knowing he wasn't going to sleep well anyway, Jeremiah took the first watch. After Smith had settled down to sleep, he leaned back against his pack and patted Kurdy's arm.

"You're a hell of a lot of trouble, you know that?" He studied Kurdy's sleeping face for a moment and sighed. "Guess we're about even on that, though, aren't we."

He'd long ago lost track of the number of times they'd pulled each other's asses out of the fire. It didn't matter anyway; neither of them was keeping score. What was important was the knowledge that Jeremiah carried, bone-deep, that when everything went to hell, Kurdy would have his back and he'd have Kurdy's. No questions, no conditions. In the world they lived in, it was a rare thing.

Kurdy interrupted his thoughts with a low moan, pushing at the blankets that were pulled to his chin. Jeremiah leaned forward, smoothing the cover back into place and frowning as he noticed that Kurdy was starting to shiver.

"No," Kurdy whispered suddenly. He pushed against Jeremiah's hand as he struggled to sit up. "No, I'm sorry. Please."

Jeremiah wasn't sure which bothered him more, the anguish in Kurdy's voice or the ease with which Jeremiah was able to hold him down.

"It's all right," Jeremiah murmured. "Kurdy, it's all right. You're okay now."

Kurdy stared through him, the fire glinting off his fever-glazed eyes. "Come back. Please?"

"It's all right. Everything's all right."

Kurdy gasped, the sound so close to a sob that it made Jeremiah's chest ache. Tenderly, Jeremiah rested his hand on Kurdy's forehead, the way he thought he remembered his mom doing when he was sick.

"Hush," he whispered, just like she might have. "Try to rest."

With a soft sigh, Kurdy went still, his eyes drifting shut again. Jeremiah didn't move for several more minutes, partially to make sure Kurdy was truly asleep, and partially because his own tension had eased with Kurdy's steady breathing.

When he did sit back, he saw Smith watching him from his blanket a few feet away. Jeremiah stiffened, old instincts telling him he had left himself vulnerable. But then Smith nodded, approval and concern mixed in his eyes, and Jeremiah relaxed.

"Everything's all right," he repeated, and settled back to keep watch over his friends as they slept.

When Kurdy was old enough to have led a war, but still young enough not to have lost one, he awoke in the midst of a fever to find himself being cradled against Jeremiah's chest, wrapped in a blanket with Jeremiah's coat draped across him. His gaze wandered tiredly toward the source of his pain, only to see Smith easing a bandage around his swollen leg. Kurdy tried to bite back a groan, but the sound escaped in spite of him.

Smith looked up, smiling gently when he saw that Kurdy was awake. At the same time, Jeremiah's arms tightened, pulling him more securely into the warmth of the blanket.

"I've got you, partner," Jeremiah murmured close to his ear.

Kurdy glanced from Smith up to Jeremiah, who was watching him with grave relief.

He knew that he was seeing love.