Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep `em damnit!
Thanks to Sherry for keeping me straight :o)
Alternate Universe "Brothers Larabee"
In a dimly lit ICU room in Four Corners Memorial Hospital, JD Dunne leaned in and clasped the hand of the prone man in the hospital bed. His eyes glistened while he watched the rise and fall of the large chest through labored breaths, despite the hiss of an oxygen mask supplying precious air. To one side, monitors beeped and winked, and several tubes snaked ominously from under the bedcovers, but his focus remained on the waxen features of a brother he loved. JD silently prayed for a sign the man was close to waking, or to learn his other brothers were near. Either one would be good right about now. Nathan was already here, working his shift, but the rest of the family were scattered, Ezra in Vegas, and Buck, Vin and Chris at a horse auction in Wyoming.
JD wanted to accompany the latter three, but when Josiah stated he wasn't up to traveling too far, he made a decision to stick around the ranch instead. After all, the others were only going on a two-day trip and Nathan was just an hour or so away in town what could go wrong?
The youngest of the Larabee brothers stood to stretch his cramped muscles. A tear escaped dark lashes, to trail down his lightly stubbled cheek as he walked stiffly, and gazed out of the window. He noticed Josiah's clothes in a heap over a chair in the corner of the ICU, so the youth shuffled over to tidy them. While he folded a blue flannel shirt, his eyes tracked an object as it fluttered to the floor.
He squatted down and scooped up the feather the pair found when riding yesterday. JD vividly recalled the instant he discovered it and showed Josiah. That was the moment he noted how drawn the man looked. JD shuddered. Still crouching, he placed a hand over his eyes, and finally allowed the guilt and emotion that had threatened to surface all day, envelope him.
Two days before the others set off for their trips, the big man dismissed a sneeze as allergies; despite the fact Nathan was not entirely convinced. Josiah's harsh coughing while and he JD were riding their horses yesterday, suggested it could be more. The reason they had gone for a ride was Josiah's desire for fresh air. That motive overtaken by a need for rest, JD cut their plans short and insisted they return home. In no time, all hell broke loose, and between being worried sick for his brother, and the helplessness JD felt while waiting for news any news the fear of doing too little too late picked away at him.
While he turned the feather over in his fingers, he straightened and returned to his silent vigil. With a nod to the nurse who had entered the room to draw more blood from the unconscious man, JD's thoughts drifted back to yesterday morning.
ONE DAY EARLIER
Josiah pulled his youngest brother back against him and held him close, while the pair stood on the porch and watched Vin, Chris, and Buck hitch a horse trailer to the Ram. Satisfied with the job, the three declared they were ready to go. Neither man missed the cough that erupted from their oldest sibling before he could say `goodbye', or the way JD looked back at him in concern. Josiah again waved it off.
"Like I said boys, just allergies, nothing to worry yourselves over. The antihistamine will soon kick in."
Chris ambled over and shook Josiah's hand. "Not too late to join us, old man."
"The offer is appreciated, Christopher, " Josiah smiled. "But this old body feels it would be best to take it slow for a few days."
"You're not old," JD protested, earning him a squeeze from the big man.
"Alright, weary, then," Josiah corrected. He turned back to the others. "Safe journey, brothers."
Buck approached and touched a finger to JD's chest, causing the younger man to look down. With a chuckle, the finger traveled up to catch the end of Dunne's nose, eliciting a grunt from JD and a pat to his cheek from Buck. "Every time," the man cackled.
"Try not to step in horse shit, Buck," JD huffed, as he watched him walk to the truck.
Vin laughed. "With that cologne he wears, how could we tell if he did?"
With a final look back, the three jumped into the truck and disappeared down the drive in a cloud of dust. Stepping back into the house, Josiah smiled at his youngest sibling. "You should have gone, John, it would have been a good experience for you."
JD shrugged. "There'll be other auctions. `Sides, it's been a while since we hung out together."
Blue eyes glistened with affection and understanding of the real reason JD had stayed home. Sanchez checked his watch, and then pointed toward the barn. "I feel in need of some fresh air. How about we take a short ride before lunch?"
With a frown, JD looked back at him. "Hey, you know I love to ride, but are you sure you should be doing that? Nathan said you should rest "
"And I will, but I could use a change of scenery. What do you think?"
JD nodded and smiled. "Sure, but just a short one, yeah? Just to the lake and back."
"Agreed." Soon after, the pair was following a trail to the north pasture.
Conversation had been light well, more like one-sided, as JD made up for the lulls by chattering on. Occasionally he would glance toward Josiah, relieved to see the man was content with his banter, but grew concerned that Josiah did not return it with his usual enthusiasm. Near the lake, something caught in a bush they passed caught his eye, and the youngster bent over to scoop it up. He studied the object, then halted his horse and turned to show his brother.
"Would you look at this? What kind of a bird does a feather like this belong to?"
Pulling up next to him, Josiah leaned in, took the feather and examined it. "Hmm Vin's more your man for this, but, judging by the horizontal black bands and the white tip, I think it might be from a Cooper's Hawk." He glanced around. "Listen can you hear that rapid `eh eh' call?"
JD nodded, grinning. "Almost sounds like a monkey."
Despite his growing breathlessness, Josiah laughed. "Uh yeah, that one. It's mating season. I believe that's an alarm call. We must be close to their nesting area." With a slight wince, he offered the feather back. He was struggling. He hoped the fresh air and dazzling company would lift him from the pain-filled pit he was spiraling into, but it was not to be. Now they had stopped, he accepted this ride was a bad idea, but before he could suggest they head home, JD spoke.
As they rested there, and talked, JD noticed the man's gray pallor and labored breaths. "Josiah, come on, I reckon that's enough fresh air for today."
Sanchez started to protest, paused, then wearily bobbed his head. "I agree. Let's head back for lunch, shall we?"
With a nod, the pair wheeled their horses back in the direction of the ranch, and trotted home.
By the time they arrived, Josiah was in agony, and all but done in. Pain radiated through his chest, and back, and overwhelmed him when he lifted the saddle down from his horse. He glanced across to JD to call for help, but his lack of breath made it impossible to do little more than grunt. As sweat formed on his forehead, Josiah clutched at his chest and reached out to the younger man. Relief from JD's instant reaction overwhelmed him and sapped the last of his energy. Josiah sank to the ground, taking JD with him, vaguely hearing the boy talking to him, before he drifted into blessed, pain- free oblivion.
As JD removed Milagro's harness, a noise from Josiah caused him to turn his head, sharply. With an anguished cry, he hurried to his brother's side, hollering for help as he did so. Josiah's face twisted in pain. Sweat gathered and dripped from his brow as he clutched at his chest and gasped for air. Gratefully he clung to JD, but his greater size and lack of ability to stay upright, quickly took the pair to the stable floor.
"Josiah? Oh God help someone, help!"
Thankful when two ranch hands ran in, JD yelled for them to call for an ambulance. Scrambling back against a support, he somehow pulled Josiah back against his chest and talked gently to him. His hand rested on the damp gray curls of Josiah's hair; while he fought the rising terror at the terrifying possibility his brother was suffering a heart attack. After what seemed like an eternity, the paramedics arrived, but JD's concern was that Josiah hadn't been conscious since he collapsed. He watched and fretted while the EMTs prepared Josiah for transport; then tore off toward the house to lock up, before jumping into the ambulance with his brother. His last instruction before he left was for one of the hands to call Chris.
At the hospital, and seconds after JD watched Josiah disappear into the trauma room, a familiar voice from behind caused him to twist around. A surge of emotion made him wilt at the sight of Nathan rushing toward him. The doctor grabbed his swaying brother, guided him to a chair, and waited for JD to look at him. The expression he saw made him shiver.
"Not sure " JD stuttered, "But Josiah was clutching his chest and sweating and " He grabbed Nathan's forearms. "Oh God he was gray. Nathan what is it?"
Feeling the boy quake, Nathan slipped out of JD's death grip and held his shoulders. "Try and relax. I'm gonna go in and check on him, okay?" He smiled at the nod, stood, and walked into the ER room.
Despite desperately wanting to, Nathan didn't interrupt the doctors in attendance, he just stood back and observed. Within minutes, he had become aware of the prognosis, when a portable x-ray revealed fluid in the pleural cavity around the lungs. One doctor ordered blood tests, at the same time as he administered antibiotics, and painkillers, while another doctor inserted a chest drain to draw off the excess liquid.
In the waiting room, JD was going stir-crazy. What the hell was taking Nathan so long? He stood and stared at the ER doors, willing Nathan to walk through them. Surely Josiah hadn't suffered a heart attack, had he? He was way too young for that besides, he was always so strong, and fit. JD couldn't accept that was what had happened, and tried to figure out what else it could be. Josiah had coughed sneezed a little, seemed hot, then cold on occasion but mostly his oldest brother had looked weary. Before JD could ponder any further, Nathan joined him.
"Nathan?" JD's voice was little more than a squeak.
"Has Josiah had an accident recently?"
"In what way?"
"His chest shoulder back?"
JD frowned, and then nodded, slowly. "He had a smack to the ribs a week ago, remember? But he said he was fine."
Nathan recalled being told about the incident several days ago, after his shift at the hospital. "Oh yeah he said it did nothing more than take the wind out of him." After getting his breath back that day, Sanchez had been adamant he was fine, and his behavior after the event had given Nathan no cause to doubt him. He cursed to himself. "Damnit, Josiah damnit to hell "
"What?" JD's eyes were huge with fear.
"He's suffered a broken rib, which in turn has caused pleurisy. They're draining fluid from his chest now, and one lung has partially collapsed " Noting JD go pale, Nathan once again guided the younger man to a chair. Torn between the pain of having a brother seriously ill, and maintaining a professional demeanor, Nathan swallowed his anguish and continued.
"It's not good, but the doctors believe they've caught it early enough. Once his lung is fully inflated, Josiah'll be going on up to ICU."
JD trembled. "Oh, Jesus, Nathan." His face crumpled in misery, but when Nathan barely responded and appeared unaffected, he shook it off and composed himself. "I can go with him, right?"
Jackson nodded. "Sure. We need to call Chris "
"I already asked one of the ranch hands to do that." JD swallowed. "Nathan could you call him, too? I don't think I could " Emotion welled in his throat and stole his words.
Nathan nodded. "As soon as Josiah's settled, I'll do just that."
Three long hours later, and with night drawing in, Josiah was in ICU and hooked up to tubes, machines, and oxygen. JD was with him, and once satisfied both his brothers were settled, Nathan made his second call to Chris.
Three grim-faced men had traveled from Wyoming in record time. Well, in truth they had barely arrived when the first call about Josiah came in. Instantly, Vin called Ezra, who then proceeded to get the first flight out of Vegas. Unfortunately, that would not be until the next morning and not business or first class, but in a regular seat. Standish often commented how, since his brothers came into his life, compromise had become his new edict.
Nathan's last call eased their minds a little, but not by much. All four were grateful he was there with Josiah and JD. Buck had already been more than vocal about his concern for how the kid might be coping alone. With Ezra's flight due to touch down in an hour, the three brothers dropped the horse trailer off at the ranch, picked up some things, then headed out to the airport before going on to the hospital. Soon all seven would be together, and with that thought, Chris pushed down on the gas a little more.
Nathan stared into the ICU through the observation window. His gaze flicked between Josiah, and JD, and while guilt chiseled at his conscience, his heart constricted at the sight. He told JD his shift was still ongoing, when in truth he had finished over an hour ago. This doctor their sibling was finding it difficult to walk into that room and be the brother both men needed right now, and so he hid behind the professional mask which allowed him the luxury of distance.
A quick swipe away of a tear, and an equally fast glance around to check no one could see his despair, demonstrated his true demeanor. Why couldn't he just march in there and sweep the kid up in a big ol' bear hug, as he knew Buck would do the moment the guy arrived? Or simply sit next to Josiah and hold his hand?
He wanted to.
Had he really grown so detached to the people behind the symptoms he treated that only a practiced manner remained even for his family? Nathan sighed. No, none of the above.
For one, he was furious with Josiah for hiding his symptoms so efficiently; or maybe he was angry with himself for missing them. Had he not learned with experience to look beyond the words and uncover the facts?
Then there was JD. The kid was a bundle of incessant energy and a ray of sunshine; but the flares that radiated off him scorched all who were exposed to them metaphorically speaking. He was a trouble magnet of the highest order, and the sheer number of ways he could injure himself without even trying, exasperated Nathan. The result was that everyone felt the kid's pain, and wanted to protect their youngest, no matter how hard he resisted. His naïve charm, and easy going, sunny nature, had endeared him to them all, and softened the most brooding and skeptical of demeanors. This in turn opened up feelings and emotions that, except for maybe Buck, each man for whatever reasons, had been fighting to contain.
Everything at home had changed definitely for the better but those changes had hit Nathan harder than he cared to admit. For the first time since first his mother, and then Linc died, the doctor was terrified of losing one of his brothers; and had come to realize he had no inner mechanism to cope with being unable to save one of them.
And was now, with heavy heart, grudgingly accepting he had no idea how to work around that. He could really use talking to Josiah. Nathan almost laughed at the irony.
He watched as JD hunched over in his chair and rested his head in his hands. Shifting his gaze, he studied Josiah's breathing easier now, it seemed. JD then began talking to his unconscious sibling, and all at once, a surge of compassion overwhelmed the doctor. About to walk in, snatch up his kid brother and finally tell him how proud of him he was, a noise from the corridor caught his attention. He smiled with relief the cavalry had arrived.
Heads turned as four of the seven Larabee brothers swept through the corridors of the small, but well equipped Four Corners Memorial. They were an imposing group, tall, and strikingly handsome, radiating authority with each step. Anyone acquainted with the men knew them to be honorable, and fiercely protective of their family and friends. Those who had yet to be introduced were under no illusion of their position these men meant business.
Seconds later when the four men entered the ICU waiting room, onlookers would have seen a very different turn of events. Faced with Nathan halting them, the fear and concern blossoming in their hearts, reflected in their features. Chris spoke.
The doctor smiled a greeting, his hand raised to stop them. "Let me fill you in. Josiah's improving steadily. His oxygen level, though still a little low, is rising and he's being given pain meds and antibiotics via an IV. The doctors successfully re-inflated his lung, and the chest drain will remain a little longer, but breath sounds are good." He smiled again, forcing himself to remember this was his family, not some anonymous faces. He relaxed. "Guys, the prognosis is good, so lighten up. He's sleeping off the meds, but all signs show he'll be awake tomorrow." It warmed his heart to see his words having the desired effect.
"JD?" Buck's question came as no surprise.
Nathan nodded. "Okay, here's the thing. JD hasn't slept since before y'all left. He'll never admit it, but he's pretty brittle right now. Kid's scared half to death and looks like shit, so be prepared."
Buck went to move but Chris grabbed his arm. "When we're in there, let him come to you Buck."
"You know he'll fight it," Buck argued.
Chris nodded. "Sure at first." In silent agreement, all five quietly headed in to check on their brothers, and bring the family together again.
JD was bone weary, but sleep had taken a vacation and left him no forwarding address. Right now, if Nathan walked in and offered to punch him out, he'd likely let him. On the other hand, he wanted to be here for Josiah, at least until his brothers arrived. So he downed the semi-cold coffee from the Styrofoam beaker on the nightstand, tossed the screwed up cup into the trash, and leaned forward to rest his head in his hands. JD sighed. Considering Josiah was so sick, he figured Nathan would have quit his shift and been here with them; but the man insisted he could do more by remaining on duty, and so did. The youth wished he could be as strong. All he wanted earlier was to receive some kind of physical support from his brother, and now he felt bad for being so weak.
Trembling fingers pushed dark hair from his face and seconds later, JD took up Josiah's large, cold, slack hand in his and squeezed. "I'm so sorry," he whispered. "I should have said no to the ride. I can't believe I didn't see how sick you were are." He swiped at a tear. JD wasn't crying, but seemed incapable of preventing his eyes from welling up and spilling over. "I'll make it up to you Josiah, I promise anything just say the word, it's yours. Just " his breathing hitched into a soft sob. " just please, please wake up and be okay." He stopped for a moment and glanced toward the window, then shrugged. Odd, he felt as if someone was watching him. He brought up his free hand to rub at gritty eyes, stopping mid-action when he heard voices. His heart skipped a beat could it be ? The door to the ICU opened and JD's heart now seemed determined to jump upwards and flip-flop in his throat. The family was here. He glanced to the Heavens. Thank God.
Despite knowing what to expect, the four men were still shocked when they entered the ICU. Josiah wore a full oxygen facemask, and several machines monitored him. Tubes peeked from under the bedclothes, mostly obscured, but still partially visible by the bags attached to them and hanging from hooked poles, adding to the dramatic scene. The man was still, and pale, his large frame filled the hospital bed and stirred up the most agonizing sorrow and guilt in each one of them.
Hearts clenched tighter on seeing JD staring back at them. His stubble, though light in texture, was dark in color and highlighted his pasty features. Dark circles under his eyes provided evidence he was worn-out, in fact, his whole demeanor and body language screamed the need to rest.
"Jesus, Josiah." Buck's soft words though barely audible, broke into the shocked silence a second before another utterance was forthcoming. "Aww Kid "
Chris veered toward Josiah and urged Buck to do what the man did best take care of a soul in need.
Buck exhaled noisily. Josiah's condition had alarmed them all. As one always so strong and upbeat, to see him still like this was unnerving. His gaze moved from the man in the bed and locked with JD's. He wondered if the others could hear his heart shattering, because that was surely how it felt.
Screw waiting he decided, relieved when Chris nudged him in the kid's direction.
Three strides brought him next to JD and he hauled him up out of his chair and into a fierce embrace. JD momentarily stiffened as he contemplated fighting the comfort, but it was short lived, and Buck squeezed the smaller body tighter. Their kid brother fisted the back of Buck's shirt and released his silent, quivering anguish against the man's broad chest.
The other brothers honored the moment by leaving the pair, and surrounded Josiah's bed. Chris leaned in and whispered into the big man's ear. "Ready when you are, brother."
Vin's throat ached with emotion, and he struggled to swallow. While he knew Josiah was on the way to recovery, it still pierced his soul to see the gentle giant so poorly. At that moment, he struggled to imagine the man who hefted rocks as if they were pebbles so incapacitated, yet the proof was right before his eyes. Vin reached out and rested his hand on the man's blanketed leg in the vain hope he could reach him.
Ezra took up the hand JD had released and held it close. He, Josiah, Vin, and JD had arrived at the Double L as outsiders, and despite considering them no less close to Chris, Buck, and Nathan now, Ezra would always remember their earliest days, and a stranger who spoke softly, and kindly, and made him laugh. Words of comfort never came easy for the southerner, but he made a silent promise to tell Josiah how he felt about him when the man awoke.
Chris stared around at his brothers. It needed no stating that Buck was worried about Josiah, but Buck coped best by being a minder, and right now, JD needed that more than Josiah did. The brunet would more than make up for this temporary distraction when their brother woke up. Chris assumed by their expressions, they all felt as guilty as he did. Josiah had disguised his illness well or perhaps they had been too fired up about their trips to truly notice his pain.
"Sorry, big guy."
His words prompted empathic nods from the others. JD pushed back a little from Buck and stared him in the eyes. "I'm sorry."
"What the hell are you sorry for?" Buck asked, softly.
Leaning heavily against Buck, JD turned to address the others. "We went riding. I knew he was sick, but he insisted. I should have said no should have " His words stalled around the thickness in his throat.
Chris offered a tight smile. "There'll be time to analyze later. Bottom line it happened, and now we need to get him through it and move on." He flashed a glance at Buck, then to his youngest brother. "JD, you need to rest."
Dunne shook his head. "No, I'm fine," he stated, oblivious to the looks circling the room which suggested the others knew better, and totally missed Nathan's disgruntled huff. However, no one else did, but chose to ignore it, for now.
Thankful the hospital was small, and Josiah the ICU's only occupant, the brothers dragged in chairs and continued with the silent vigil JD had been undertaking. Tendering a meaningful nod to a concerned group, Buck dragged JD onto an oversized armchair, sat them both down, and pulled him close. Within ten minutes, the combination of body heat, a warm, quiet room, and exhaustion, saw the youth eventually lose the battle to stay awake. Satisfied his plan had worked; Buck pulled the slumbering, pliant body into a more comfortable position and relaxed for the duration.
Birds concealed in distant trees made odd beeping chirrups, while the airless hiss of a breeze surrounded him. Josiah gazed around from his prone position in a sweet-smelling meadow. Naked and a little cold, he wanted to get up, but someone or something had placed a boulder on his chest. He took a breath, relieved the weight didn't restrict him too much, but still, it would be nice to get the rock off him and stand. Josiah had yet to work out why he was here in the first place.
The aroma of wildflowers slowly changed into something far more chemical. While the word `plastic' formed in his mind, the beeping birds became more intrusive. Now the big man was uncomfortable and determined to get up. Decision made, he raised his hand to push off the obstruction holding him down, but someone held fast and a familiar voice whispered into his ear.
As soon as the monitors' bleeps accelerated, Nathan got to his feet and leaned into his oldest brother. "We're all here, Josiah ready when you are no rush." He glanced at the others and smiled. All but a slumbering JD, watched in earnest, as Josiah fought his way back to consciousness, to fade several times before blue eyes opened and focused on the black man smiling down at him.
"Right here," he grinned. "So are Chris, Vin, Buck, Ezra, and JD."
Josiah frowned, his words echoey behind the mask. "J D unwell sorry "
"He's sleeping right now," Nathan shared. "But he got you here. You're pretty sick, but doing great. Just rest, okay?"
"Rest " Command noted, Sanchez drifted back to sleep.
Nathan straightened, checked the monitors and grinned. "Guys he's back."
Soft laughter accompanied his words and five men relaxed. Buck placed his lips against JD's ear and spoke quietly to the resting boy. "Josiah's back with us, Kid sleep well."
Two days later, Josiah had been moved to a regular room, and his brothers took turns to visit. The man was pale, but much improved and in good spirits. Buck was in a chair next to the bed, feet up and channel surfing while they talked.
Josiah sighed. "Buck, is JD avoiding me?"
Returning his feet to the ground, Buck sat up and frowned. "What? Why would you think that?"
Josiah's eyes glistened. "I haven't seen him since I moved in here, is he alright?"
"Sure, but he was pretty tired. Slept a straight twelve hours here, until Chris insisted Vin, Nathan, and Ezra take him home. The kid protested and wanted to come back, but Nathan persuaded him he needed more rest and gave him something to help him sleep." Buck chuckled. "He did for another twelve hours. `Course, he looked like hell and Chris wouldn't let him outta the house until he appeared halfway to human " He winked " the jury's still out on whether he achieved it."
Josiah laughed cautiously, mindful of his healing lungs. "I must have scared him. I feel bad about that."
"So you should," Nathan admonished as he entered the room. "What the hell were you thinking? Denying your illness made each one of us look like idiots and scared the hell out of us." He ignored the glare from Buck and continued. "How many times did we ask how you were? But what's worse is knowing you were sick, you dragged your sorry ass across the north pasture and almost died doing it. What if you'd collapsed out there?"
Josiah dropped his gaze."You're right, I'm sorry."
"Damn straight. Jesus, Josiah, I thought JD was the leading idiot in the family when it comes to denial."
They all turned to see Vin and a shocked JD standing in the doorway. The latter mumbled something and hurried out past the Texan, whose face was like thunder.
Buck stood. "Get a grip!" he hissed at Nathan. "First you yell at Josiah, then attack the kid for no reason. You gone loco?" All three men stared in surprise when the brother who always seemed to keep his head in a crisis crumpled, covered his face with his hands, and sobbed hard.
Josiah gestured toward Buck and Vin. "Go find JD." Taking their cues, the stunned pair left. The man in the bed patted the covers. "Brother, come here."
Reluctantly, Nathan moved in. Josiah opened his arms and, mindful of the healing wound from the recently removed chest drain, Nathan relaxed into the warm embrace of his big brother.
"I scared you that much?" A nod. "I'm sorry. I'm flattered you care so much."
Pushing up, Nathan looked at him for a long time before speaking words he had held back for way too long. "I love you, Josiah all of you. Every day I live in dread one of you will get sick, or injured, and I can't help you." He swallowed. "I watched as you fought for every breath and while JD sat here alone, and kept vigil. I felt useless worse than useless. I couldn't do any more for you, or even comfort JD. It was like my body was here, but I was somehow watching events unfold from a distance." He glanced at the door, then back to Josiah. "You know I didn't mean what I said about the kid. I won't blame him if he hates me, now."
Josiah smiled. "JD could never hate you. Yeah, get mad, maybe, but never hate. I understand how hard it is to say how you feel about grown men. I mean, it's not like we were brought up together. JD and Buck well, they kinda make up for the rest of us but they, and we, all know, there's a lot of love in this family. We're proud, but we care, which is something we should embrace, and celebrate." He took a sip of water from the glass on his nightstand before continuing.
"Small steps, brother. No one expects to hear the words out loud. Chris rarely shows his emotions, but we have no doubts as to how he feels about us, right?"
"And we're all experiencing guilt over this. Me for not admitting to my ailment, and putting you all through hell, Chris, Vin, Buck, and Ezra for taking a trip. JD, for not insisting I rest, and you for thinking you failed to do your job. If we lived by hindsight, this would never have happened, but we don't. All we can do is learn from it." He lightly punched Nathan's arm. "For the record, I love you too and the others. I thank God every day for guiding me to you all." He laughed, softly. "I promise, you need never speak the phrase again." He touched a hand to his heart. "You won't need to, because I will always carry it here."
The two men sat in companionable silence while waiting on the return of their brothers.
JD hurried through the hospital, burst through the outer doors and into a courtyard. If ever he had doubts about Nathan's opinion of him, he didn't any longer. Sick to his stomach, he stared around him as he contemplated jumping into a taxi and going home. That thought caused him to drop down onto a bench and fold in on himself.
Home. A place he had grown to love, found a family, and security, would never be the same again. At least, that was how it seemed right now. Nathan's remarks would eventually filter through to all of his brothers, and JD hated the thought of being the cause of a bad atmosphere. He slumped further. Oh God what if Nathan was just voicing how they all felt? He groaned.
"Cut that out." Vin's voice sliced through JD's misery like a hot knife through butter. He and Buck had split up to search for the younger man, and Tanner had gotten lucky.
"Nathan's words were more about him than you," he continued.
Sad hazel eyes searched compassionate blue ones and found nothing but sincerity. "Really?" he asked, sarcasm dripping from the word. "He hid it well when he used my name." JD moved slightly to let his brother sit next to him.
"Yeah, I won't deny how it came out, but I overheard him tell Chris yesterday how, when family's hurtin', he struggles to stay professional enough to overcome the fear and make sound decisions. He said it don't help when we wave off a pain and tell him we're `fine'. He reckons it's gotten to a point where he thinks the worst, first so he don't miss nothin'." Vin shifted to get a better look at JD. "Always fearin' the worst must be hard on a man."
JD nodded. "Yeah, I guess." He shrugged. "I don't mean to misdirect him or anyone and I can't change who I am, either. Believe me, if I'm hurting that bad, my first aim is never to hide it. But I don't want to whine like some kid, either."
Tanner laughed. "Same here. I guess Nathan's gonna just have to compromise some like we will, huh?" He noted JD's face drop at the mention of Nathan's name. "Come on he can't apologize if we don't go back."
"How can you be so sure he wants to?" JD asked, his eyes searching for a sign he might be right.
"'Cause he'd rather shoot himself in the foot, than hurt either one of us with a dumb comment." Buck noted the expressions on his brothers' faces as he joined them. "He only fired it `cause he got all riled up about a whole other issue."
JD rallied. "Don't change the fact he thought it though, does it?"
Buck wagged a finger. "Ye who is without sin, cast the first stone "
JD stared, smiled, grinned, and then full on laughed.
"You channelin' Josiah there, Bucklin?" Vin chuckled.
The brunet rolled his eyes. "We done here? Only there's a basketball game about to start and Josiah and me had plans to watch it. Be kinda fun if we all did, together, huh?"
Deciding actions spoke louder than words, Vin and JD stood, and the three headed back to Josiah's room.
Reaching the door, the three brothers stared in fascination as, inside the room, they saw Chris pace, rant, and gesture wildly with his arms, while Nathan hung his head rallied to answer, to hang his head again. Josiah and Ezra calmly played a game of cards on top of the bedcovers, as if nothing was happening.
"Jeeze, it's like we just stepped into an episode of 'As the World Turns'." As they entered the room, JD snickered at the push to his head from Buck for his comment. Suddenly going shy at the abrupt silence that greeted them, JD glanced awkwardly at Nathan. The doctor approached him.
"I'm real sorry, Kid. I swear I didn't mean what I said. I've been so wound up about everything and I took my frustration out on the two people who least deserved it."
JD smiled, but before he could answer, Tanner spoke.
"What? You sayin' the rest of us do?" The twinkle in Vin's eyes made Nathan chuckle and he moved toward the Texan. Tanner grunted and the others laughed as Nathan teasingly snatched him up in a bear hug.
"I love you, man."
Mouthing the words `what the f ?' at the others, Vin attempted to push back. "Cool now get off!" The pair grinned as they parted, but the gaze from Vin was more than mere words could ever convey, and Nathan nodded his understanding.
He returned to JD, placed his hands on the smaller man's shoulders and smiled. "Kid, I shoulda told you this the other day. I was real proud of you when Josiah took sick. You hung in there despite everything, including me practically ignoring you through most of the ordeal." He smiled. "At times, you reminded me of dad."
JD's liquid eyes held Nathan's stare. He was proud to be a Dunne, it honored his mother and he wanted to live up to her expectations. But to hear he reminded Nathan of his father their father, meant more to him than he could have ever imagined. "Thank you." He offered a lop-sided grin. "Beats a hug, huh?" He chuckled as Nathan pulled him close.
"Nah I'm in the groove, deal with it."
As soon as Nathan released JD, he smiled at Buck, who raised his hands in defense. "No way, José " Chuckling, Buck then dragged Nathan to him and squeezed the man. "Oh, go on then!"
From his seated position next to the bed, Ezra turned to look up at Chris. "I fear our cool, outer demeanors may be under threat."
Larabee nodded, took a step back, and glared at Nathan, causing the others to laugh. Buck suddenly pointed to the muted TV and grabbed the remote. "Ooh game's on!"
They all settled down to enjoy each other's company and watch the televised game together. In another two days, Josiah would be allowed home, and they could all hardly wait, but right at that moment, Linc's boys couldn't have been any less the family unit had they been sitting in the living room of the Double L ranch.
A warm, sunny day seven days on, saw Josiah flanked by Ezra and Chris as they sat together on the porch and observed Vin, JD, Nathan, and Buck play football. Sanchez chuckled. "Who's your money on, Ezra?"
One eyebrow raised, the southerner paused momentarily, then grinned. "Ordinarily, my wager would be on Vin and JD but Buck has that glint in his eye, the one a predator has right before it strikes on its unsuspecting prey; so I fear that bet may not be as sound as I first thought."
Chris chuckled, and nodded his agreement. Buck was not even attempting to disguise the mischievous glance he shot Nathan. "Yep I'd say we're about to see one of Buck's subtle `end of game' wind-ups."
The long-limbed brunet was `guarding' JD, the pair giggling like loons as they tried to outmaneuver each other so as JD could take a pass from Vin. Deciding maybe it was time to call it a day; Buck snatched up the smaller man and with a howling JD thrown over his shoulder, he ran for an imaginary line. Vin and Nathan took off in hot pursuit of the pair, the four ending up in a mass of arms and legs as honor was defended. From under the heap of bodies, JD caught Chris's eye. "Little help!"
Once on the porch, the seven brothers decided they would go inside for refreshments. Josiah held onto JD's arm and smiled. "Got a minute?" With an understanding nod from the others as they continued on, JD took up the seat Chris had just vacated.
Josiah nodded. "Most definitely. John I haven't thanked you for "
JD held up one hand. "Sure you did."
Reaching up, the big man's large hand enveloped the smaller one. "Please I need to say this."
Nodding, JD relaxed back into the chair.
"What happened to me was terrifying. It was escalating and I could do nothing to stop it. But despite the fear, as I slipped into oblivion, I held onto your voice. I know now you were scared too, and although I can't recall your words, I do remember they comforted me. You kept me grounded, son. You gave me something to cling to. Thank you."
Choked with emotion, JD found his free hand interesting as he wrestled with the praise and the words to reply. Finally he looked up. "You're welcome. And I hope you'll understand when I don't say 'anytime, brother'." He frowned hoping Josiah understood. "'Cause I mean I don't want us to have to go, uh you know go through that again "
Josiah laughed. "I get it." Pulling on the hand in his grasp, Josiah hugged his youngest brother close for a little while, before whispering in his ear. "Now help me up so's I don't look like a total invalid and have Nathan on my back."
Laughing, JD did just that.
Within ten minutes, all seven men were sitting in the living room and enjoying some refreshments. The day's antics and the fresh air had sapped Josiah's energy and he called to JD. "Did you bring my book down earlier, John?"
"Sure," JD leaned down the side of the couch, grabbed the book he had placed there and held it up. "Got it right here."
"I was wondering I'm a little tired. Would you read it to me?"
With a smile and a nod, JD stood, padded over in his stockinged feet to the big armchair next to Josiah, and curled up. The others relaxed and sat quietly, while JD read aloud. Soon, their oldest brother was asleep and the youth marked and closed the book. Looks of satisfaction passed between the other five as Nathan stood to cover Josiah with a blanket.
In less than two weeks, another horse auction was scheduled in Phoenix. Nathan was sure Josiah would be well enough to travel by then, and if so, all seven brothers would be attending. This incident had stripped away another barrier between them all, and prompted them to put its lessons to good use.
Raising a deck of cards in the air, Ezra's enquiring stare elicited nods of approval. Five brothers stood and stretched, before heading to the dining table for a few hands of poker. With a smile, JD declined, and continued to sit and watch Josiah breathe, much as he had done a week ago.
However, this vigil held no fear, just contentment.