I had this idea for a story after watching the episode "Hidalgo." As you can tell, I'm a sucker for angst, which we have plenty of in that episode. But I always thought we needed a final scene when Matt returned to Dodge. After all, he had been gone a long time and had to have returned looking pretty rough. So, this is a post-ep – plus a little more – for "Hidalgo." As with "Dry Route" I will vary points of view in each chapter.

Imperfection

A Gunsmoke Story

by MAHC (Amanda)

"Imperfection is the greatness of man."

Ernst Fischer

1899-1972

Chapter One: Not This Day

POV: Kitty

Spoilers: "Matt Gets It;" "Seven Hours to Dawn;" "The Badge;" "The Bullet;" "Hidalgo"

Rating: PG

Disclaimer: I didn't create these characters. Shoot.

Kitty Russell tried not to be too obvious as she stood outside the doors of the Long Branch and let her blue eyes search far past the last visible building of Dodge. She could almost see him, could pull from uncounted memories of him returning home on Buck, long legs astride the big dun, tall and broad and distinctive in the saddle. Even from a distance, Matt Dillon's form was unmistakable.

Sometimes he rode in at a brisk trot, horse and rider strong and eager to be back home. Sometimes he entered town slowly, cautiously, body braced for what dangers he might encounter. Sometimes, he and Buck plodded in, slouched and weary from the long trail. And sometimes – the worst times – Buck brought him in, slumped and bleeding and barely hanging onto the saddle horn. In fact, on more than one occasion, the caring hands of Festus and Newly and various other Dodge citizens had caught him as he slid from his mount, his body finally relinquishing its grip on consciousness when it sensed he was among friends.

Kitty's heart squeezed tight, her throat closed with the final vision and the possibility of his returning in a similar condition this time – if he returned at all. She lived in dread of that day, knowing just how likely it was. He had beaten too many odds throughout the years not to be pushing his luck. Of course, luck had little to do with Matt Dillon. He beat the odds because he was good – the best, they said – and Kitty knew it was true. Still, even the best weren't perfect. And imperfection allowed for mistakes.

His body was covered with evidence of years of mistakes. She knew them well, each mar on his skin from a bullet or knife or pistol handle or any number of make-shift weapons some outlaw had enlisted in an attempt to destroy Marshal Matt Dillon.

His left shoulder and chest seemed to have taken the brunt of the injuries, crossed and crisscrossed with the scars of enemies for the past 17 years. On their last night together before he set out on the long journey to track the murdering bandito called Mando into Mexico, she had lain by his side, her body still buzzing from his touch, from their passion, and trailed her fingers over those marks, remembering each one she had seen made and wondering about those that were created when she wasn't present.

XXXX

She lay with her head against his shoulder, her hair draped over his arm, her finger drawing slow circles across his chest. He was leaving in the morning, and as usual her heart arched, wondering if this would be the last time – the one she remembered in lonely years to come when she reflected on their final moments together. Almost involuntarily, her hand reached for the scars he had collected through the years, proof that he was still with her despite the efforts of so many.

She caressed that first one, faded to the point that it was almost invisible, put there by Dan Grat so many years ago when they were both young and raw. Sighing, she wondered what would have happened if she had known, if some gypsy's crystal ball had revealed how many more times she would witness such a scene. Would she have stayed or would she have run back to New Orleans as fast as she could to avoid the pain, the heartache of what was to come?

Carefully, she moved her hand to the worst of the four scars Mace Gore's men had left him with, sprawled out there on Front Street that terrible, terrible night. The horror of those hours still haunted her, the sick void that devoured her heart when she had thought him dead – had seen him dead. It was a loss, a despair she hoped never to feel again. But each time he headed out after some outlaw, each time he waded into a drunken melee at the Long Branch, each time some new, ambitious gun rode into town and squared off to test his mettle against Matt Dillon – each time, she re-lived that endless, agonizing night.

An involuntary groan bubbled up in her throat at the sudden, nauseating sensation, and he shifted to look down at her.

"Kitty?"

Matt didn't know – not really – even though he had seen and felt her immense relief when it was all over and he slumped in that chair, hurting and exhausted, but alive. She hid the terror that had gripped her ever since that night, every time he stepped into harm's way.

His left arm tightened under her head, the muscles flexing as he moved to pull her closer. "You okay?" he asked, but his voice revealed that he knew the answer already.

"Sure." They both heard the lie.

Letting out a deep breath, he kissed her temple gently. "Kitty, I'll be back in a few weeks."

A few weeks. A lifetime – she hoped not literally. "Sure."

Sliding across his chest, she placed her hand on that one scar, almost over his heart, that came closest to tearing him from her, the one that had dragged her from Dodge and from him in a futile attempt to escape the nightmares, until she realized that she couldn't get Matt Dillon out of her heart, no matter how far she ran.

"I'll be as fast as I can," he soothed, but they both knew that was an empty promise out on the trail.

The evening was quickly dissolving into a quagmire of depressing realities – not the way she wanted to leave him, or for him to leave her. With effort, she roused enough strength to break the solemnity of the moment and threw him a sensuous smile.

"Cowboy, you can be fast on the trail, but there are some things that just need to be done nice and slow."

As anticipated, her ploy worked. Desire flamed in his eyes, and he fell into the game willingly, running his long fingers down her back and over her hip. "I can do slow, too," he reminded, voice low.

Warm arousal flooded her as she kissed the scar. "Yes, you surely can."

With a pleased grunt, he twisted to bring their bodies more in line, but another grunt followed right behind, this one not pleased at all.

"Matt?"

"I'm fine," he insisted, but his tight voice betrayed him even as he let his lips nuzzle her neck.

She arched back and let him play – it was certainly no hardship on her – then ran her hand around his side to brush the newest scar, the one that had almost left him unable to do what they had already done twice that evening, and – from the feel of things – were about to do again. The one that had almost robbed him of his ability even to walk. Almost.

His hand caught hers and drew it back. "Kitty," he insisted, "I said I'm fine."

"Uh huh."

The back wound pained him still, she could tell, even though Doc had managed not to cripple him when he removed it on that damn gold train only a few weeks before. It was all too clear in the winces when he stood, the grimaces when he sat, and the groans at night when he turned restlessly in his sleep. He still fought the effects of that significant injury, and here he was about to head off again.

"Don't you believe me?" he challenged, but his voice, deep and seductive, also held a hint of pleading. He needed her to let it go, needed her to give him this night.

For a moment, she contemplated whether she should push the fact that he wasn't fully recovered or allow him the bit of transparent subterfuge. Those eyes, soft and boyish, met hers. What would it matter now, anyway? He was going, whether she protested or not. Besides, the promise of pleasure that he also held there was just as persuasive.

"Guess you'll have to prove it to me," she said, meeting the challenge.

The heat of his gaze burned her cheeks. "Guess I will."

And he drew her to him to do just that. As they moved together with growing intensity, she forgot about Dan Grat, and Mace Gore, and Amos Potter, and all the other inadequate competition, and focused on memorizing every inch of his hard body in case – in case.

Her hands found each mark and she told herself that they merely counted off each victory over death. One day, Kitty admitted in her stronger moments, there would be no victory, but not this day.

Not this day.

XXXX

She sighed, opening her eyes to Front Street again, her skin tingling with the mere memory of his touch. Flushing, she glanced around to see if anyone watched. As they had been doing for several weeks, now, the citizens of Dodge gave her a wide berth while she stood on the boardwalk, but their sympathetic – and worried – eyes were easily read. They knew how long the marshal had been gone. They knew that no telegram had arrived in Dodge to give reassurance or news of his whereabouts. And they knew that regardless of how worried they were, Kitty Russell was ten times as worried. So they gave her space, but she knew they watched, nevertheless.

Another glance down the street revealed nothing more than the usual bustle of the town. No big man on a big horse appeared between the buildings. Sighing again, she turned to step back into the Long Branch, fighting the despair that tried, with some success, to weasel its way into her soul.

"Kitty?"

She looked up at the familiar voice to see Doc Adams smiling tentatively before her. "Morning, Curly," she greeted, forcing a tease in spite of the fear and dread eating at her.

"Morning? Well, for you maybe. 'Bout lunchtime for us working fellows, though."

"I can't help it if you chose the wrong profession," she countered, her eyes showing gratitude for the distraction.

"Yeah, well, I'd like to see you set Moss Grimmick's leg next time that ornery mule of Festus' pins him up against the stall."

She gave him a pointed look.

"Oh," he remembered, "come to think of it, you did when I was out at the Hobson's place." But his eyes twinkled. "'Course it was a good thing he got hurt after noon, or he'd have been out of luck."

She swatted at his arm fondly. "Real funny, Curly."

The levity vanished too quickly, though, as they both considered each other for a quiet moment, before he touched her arm and asked, "Anything?"

Smile fading, she shook her head.

"Well, you know Matt," he reasoned, unaware that the very mention of the name twisted her heart as if it were in a vise. "He's been gone for long periods before. He's always come back.

So far, she thought. "Yeah."

"Listen, why don't we go inside and I'll buy you a drink? I have it on good authority that the owner of this establishment serves the best liquor this side of Saint Louis."

"That right?"

"Yep."

"Well, I don't see how I can turn down such an offer."

With a final look toward the south end of town, she took the physician's arm and stepped back through the swinging doors. But, even though her body was inside, her mind and heart remained somewhere out there past the outskirts of Dodge City, somewhere south, somewhere with him.

Because Kitty Russell had to believe that this was not the day when there would be no victory. Not this day.

Please, God, not this day.

TBC