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Rebuilding

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Josiah chatted casually with the woman in front of him in line, the two having discovered they would be seated next to each other for their flight as they waited for it to be their turn to board the plane, grateful for the distraction from his nerves. “So, what’s in Nevada for you? You don’t seem like the Reno type.”

Josiah laughed wryly, “No, I suppose not,” his hand moving to stroke the heavy cross hanging at his neck, “But I have to admit, it’s been some time since I was a man of the cloth. That's just a layover for me, I’m heading for a tiny ranching town in Arizona, called Four Corners.”

“Can’t say I’ve heard of it.”

“I’d be a lot more surprised if you had. I’ve got family there, my father and brothers.” His face grew solemn, a bit distracted, and his new friend eyed him with a mixture of sympathy and curiosity.

“Sounds like you’re looking forward to seeing them, been a while?”

“You could say that.” Josiah took a deep breath, “Seventeen years.” She blinked at him, not sure what to say, but knowing she had to say something.

“Oh, wow. That…is a long time.”

“And a long story. Where are you headed Rene; seeing family yourself?” Josiah wasn’t sure why he’d told her even that much, and sure wasn’t about to explain the details.

Seeing that he wasn’t going to share more, she shook her head, “No, I’m headed to a medical conference, I’m a nurse.”

“My stepmother was a pediatric nurse. Where do you work out of?” The two continued to chat for a few minutes when Josiah’s phone rang, and after asking Rene to hold his place in line he stepped away to answer it.

“Hello Daddy, I’m-Chris? I, yes, yes, I’m listening.” He felt like his hearing must be leaving him as he tried to understand the words, sure it couldn't be right, but it was. Josiah moved until he found a column to lean against, silent except for shaky breathing until his brother was done, “Of course I’m still coming, my flight will be there in the morning. If I’m still wel-” He was cut off there, wincing and then nodding at what was said, “No, don’t worry about getting me, I can make my own way to the ranch.” A deep breath, “Chris…I just…I’m so sorry Chris…tell the others?” Josiah could hear his voice breaking on the last word, Chris saying he would and hanging up quickly, voice thick with grief. He knew he should go back to his place in line, but instead Josiah felt himself sinking to the ground, leaning heavily against the pillar behind him. “What joke is this Lord? To get us both so close to the chance for forgiveness and to snatch it away?” It couldn’t be real, but it was. His father was gone. Almost instantly, Chris had said. Nathan had been there, able to provide medical care, but the heart attack had been so severe he’d been all but dead by the time he hit the ground. Nothing to be done. It couldn’t be real.

“Josiah?” It was Rene, hunched down next to him, concerned, “The line’s moving, it’s time to board.”

He looked at her, meaning to say thank you and stand up, but what came out was, “My father is dead.” He could read the surprise in her eyes, and then the sympathy.

“Are you still getting on the plane?”

“I need to. My brothers are expecting me.” He said it, but didn’t move and after a minute she reached out and took his wrist, tugging gently.

“C’mon. We’ll get you on, just have to get back in line.” Josiah followed her like a child, both going to the end of the line. She stayed with him, but didn’t talk, and even though part of him knew he was being treated like a shocky patient he was grateful. His brain was bouncing between whirling and blank, flashing back and forth from bits of memories to devastating knowledge to…nothing. Just nothing. The nothing was at least for now preferable to the pain. Josiah knew that he had handed the boarding pass over to the ticket agent, had heard himself respond to the questions, a part of him was even vaguely grateful that they had already passed through the TSA checkpoint, but mostly he was just blindly following where he was being led. He didn’t fully realize they were sitting down and awaiting take off until he saw the blinking seatbelt sign.

Later, when they’d been flying for nearly an hour, her soft hand was on his arm again, “You can tell me to shut-up and leave you the hell alone if you want, but I know when Momma died it helped to talk to people who didn’t know her. Less baggage.” Josiah blinked at her, and then to her surprise his eyes crinkled up just a bit and he chuckled. Hard.

Seeing her looking at him like she was worried he was going to dissolve entirely, he waved her off, “I’m sorry, I just got a picture my Daddy’s face if he heard me say that to any woman, let alone someone who’s been kind to me. I think he might rise up, at least long enough to drag me down with him. Doubt it would take him three days, either.” Rene laughed herself now.

“I had a Granddaddy like that. Didn’t matter how old you were, if you were his.” Suddenly the humor was gone, and Josiah swallowed hard, nodding. He’d always known. Always known, even amid the years of anger, of what he’d wanted to be hatred, the blame he’d placed on his father for Hannah, that if he’d truly needed him it would only have taken a phone call. Because he was his. The man had been so far from perfect at times it wasn't even funny, but that didn't make it any less true. Rene didn’t say anything for a few moments, letting him get his composure back, and then repeated her earlier offer. “If you want to talk about him, or anything really, I’m here to listen.”

Josiah opened his mouth to say thanks, but no thanks, then reconsidered. How often would he have the opportunity to talk to someone who didn’t know any of the family, had no vested interest one way or the other? No preconceived notions or ideas, no illusions at risk of shattering? Where he could spill family secrets without the risk of it coming back to haunt him? How often had he heard others confessions with no chance to share his own? It was tempting, and Josiah would be the first to admit he was not always the best at resisting temptation. He looked at Rene again, trying to gauge with his eyes whether or not it was worth it, finally deciding yes. Not knowing how else to start he began quickly, before he could talk himself out of it, “You have to understand, my Daddy was a good father to me and my brothers. I didn’t stay away for seventeen years because he abused or belittled me. But he asked me to keep a secret, both my parents did, a secret that grew too big for me, and even when I told him it was, and asked for help…well, I can’t say he didn’t offer help, but it wasn’t the help I wanted, and wasn’t the help she needed...” seeing that Rene was completely at sea, as much as she was pretending not to be, Josiah cut himself off, “A storyteller should start at the beginning not the end, I'm sorry. Let’s see…” Josiah closed his eyes for a long moment, gathering his thoughts.

“Mama was the daughter of a traveling missionary from Mexico, and Daddy was the son of a rancher in Four Corners. She was twenty-four when she met Daddy, and he was sixteen, though he told her he was twenty-one. Mama told me once, that she knew Daddy wasn’t as old as he said, but never did she dream that a man who looked like that could be so young. Not exactly what a teenager wants to hear about his Daddy, but that was Mama. It was just a summer romance, nothing was supposed to come of it, and they both knew it.”

“Somewhere in there I was conceived, but by the time Mama knew about me, she also knew Daddy was just a sixteen year old kid. She left at the end of that summer, not having said a word to him and I don’t think she ever would have either. Only, six years later, when I was about five, Abuelo was doing the rounds in Arizona again, and one night this great big man walked into the tent in the middle of the service and stood in the back, watching. Mama picked me up to carry me out to bed, and I could feel his eyes on us, staring, and at first it scared me a little. Only when I turned to look at him, his face…he was looking at me like Abuelo looked at his Bible, like I was precious.” His voice, quiet to begin with for this story, got even lower here, the next sentence clearly just for him, “He really did…he really, really, did.”

“He moved out of the tent before we did, and was waiting outside. Mama was expecting him to be angry I think, but he wasn’t, or at least not that he let me see…”

*.*.*.*.*.*

Josiah clutched at his Mama’s skirts as she set him down, not scared exactly, but shy, glad for the light of the tent and Abuelo’s booming voice behind him. “’Siah boy, Mama has someone she needs you to meet.” The two grown-ups hadn’t actually spoken yet, and he watched as the big man’s Adam's apple bobbed, swallowing as though what Mama had said was much more important than it sounded. He just stared at Josiah, and for a moment he was scared, but then the man smiled, real gentle and knelt in front of him.

“Hello Josiah, it’s nice to meet you.” He held out his hand for Josiah to shake, and Josiah automatically took it, stepping away from Mama just a little as he did so.

“You look like me.” It was true, the man’s face was long, his jaw square like Josiah’s was already showing itself to be. His tummy squirmed with nerves, and he realized he was still holding the man’s hand, but for some reason he didn’t want to let go.

The man glanced up at Mama for a second, then back at Josiah, “That’s ‘cause I’m your Daddy.”

Josiah stared at him. He didn’t have a Daddy, a Papi, he never had. Sometimes when Mama wasn’t around, and Abuelo was in one of his strange, scary, moods, he’d yell at Josiah about not having a Papi, say that he’d ruined his Mama’s life.

He always said sorry later, though, so Josiah didn’t tell Mama. It would just make her sad.

But this man said he was Josiah’s Daddy, so maybe Abuelo was wrong? Josiah didn't think he would lie to him, not on purpose. “Really? You promise?”

“I promise.” The man was smiling wider now, but there were tears on his face, and Josiah wondered why he wasn’t wiping them away. Didn’t he know boys weren’t supposed to cry? Josiah would have to tell him.

“Where’ve you been? Why weren’t you my Daddy before?” He didn’t plan to say it, but he does, loud and demanding, and he pulled his hand away, suddenly angry, and then realizing what he had done, froze, waiting for the man’s face to turn cold and disapproving, but it didn’t. Instead he just looked very sad, and kind of guilty, like Josiah looked when Mama caught him in the cookie jar before dinner and he didn't get to have any. Mama’s hand was on his head then, smoothing his hair away from his forehead and talking gently in Spanish, so only Josiah could understand her.

“That’s not his fault, baby. He didn’t know about you. Mama will explain more later, but for now, just know that.” Josiah nodded, not certain he understood, but he trusted his Mama when she said she would explain.

“Josiah?” Overwhelmed and tired, Josiah nodded again, but leaned back into his Mama’s legs. “I’m gonna be here to be your Daddy from now on, okay? Can I, can I give you a hug?”

The little boy looked at him, part of him wanting to shake his head, to run away and hide, but...he looked nice. He'd said he was going to be his Daddy now, and Daddies had to be be nice to their kids, didn't they? The man-his Daddy-opened his arms and before he'd decided to do it Josiah launched himself into them, squeezing tight, his Daddy squeezing him back for just a second before Josiah pulled himself away just as fast, turning to Mama with his arms outstretched, needing her to pick him up. She did and he hid his face in her shoulder, feeling tears in his eyes and knowing he should hide them if he couldn't make them stop.

Later that night, as he lay in his bed in their camper, Abuelo having stormed off in a rage when Mama had refused to make his Daddy leave, he heard them talking.

“You didn't seem very surprised to see me.”

“I've been half expecting it since Orin came to the meeting in Eagle Bend last week.”

“Anna, why didn't you tell me? I just...I don't understand.”

“Linc, you were a sixteen year old boy, little more than a child.”

“Didn't stay that way for long.”

A gentle laugh, some shuffling around, and a quiet, “No, no, I know you didn't. I just couldn't. Papa would probably have had a shot gun at your back by the end of the day.”

Good thing I'm already married, he can't try that now.” An awkward pause, while Josiah had been trying to figure out what Abuelo's shut gun-which Mama and Abuelo had made him promise to never, ever touch, even the box in the top of the closet in his camper where Abuelo left it, because getting shot could kill you, and they both thought he was much too young to go to heaven, and did that mean Abuelo would try and kill his Daddy? He hoped not. Josiah was pretty sure he liked him.-had to do with getting married.

“Congratulations. Let me guess-Colleen Marks?”

A startled laugh, and a gravely voice saying, “Now how the heck did you know that?”

 “She was a flat chested 16 year old and I was a buxom older women and I still kept catching you staring at her.” His Mama was laughing with his Daddy now, and Josiah didn't understand what was funny, but it made him smile to hear Mama so happy. She cried a lot, when she thought Josiah couldn't hear.

“Okay, yeah, guess I didn't realize I was being so obvious.” More laughter, and then silence for a second, “I'll be good to him. I will, I won't be like-”

“I'm going to hold you to that Linc.”

“Good. He isn't the devil I thought he was at sixteen, but...well, anyway I have to get going, I'm expected at home.” Josiah was suddenly awake-was he coming back? He'd said he was going to be around, but did he mean it? “Would it be alright if I took you and Josiah out to breakfast tomorrow?” He relaxed back into his pillow, feeling both relieved and excited, and kind of sleepy again.

“We'd love to.” There was more moving around, like people were standing and then his Mama's voice again, hard in a way he hadn't heard before, “I'd just like to make one thing clear before you go, Lincoln. Josiah is your son, and I won't try and keep him from you, I never should have. I've regretted not telling you for awhile now, wondered if it was a mistake and it looks like it was. But if you ever, ever, try and take my mijo from me, I will ruin you. You will regret the day you ever laid eyes on me.” A shudder ran through Josiah at that-what was Mama talking about? He didn't want to go anywhere away from her! If having a Daddy meant he left Mama he didn't want him at all!

“Anna, I wouldn't do that. You're his Momma and it's plain to see the boy adores you. He's a happy, beautiful kid.” A pause, and then a lower, angrier tone, the kind that Josiah knew meant someone was trying to keep their temper, “You're right, you never should have kept my son from me.” The trailer door closed, harder than it needed to be, and Josiah could hear the sound of Mama locking it and walking back to the alcove where she and Josiah slept, Josiah on the top bunk, and he quickly pretended to be asleep, like he was meant to be.

“Mama promises Nene, no one will ever take you from me. Ever.”

*.*.*.*.*.*

A now almost seven year old Josiah all but bounced excitedly in his seat as he waited for Mama to finish driving their pick-up up the winding road to his Daddy's ranch. They'd been in Central America, the farthest south Abuelo took his mission, when his brand new baby brother had been born, a month early (he was okay though, both Daddy and Colleen had promised him that), and now he was four months old. It had been a week after that that Daddy had been able to get the news to them, and Mama hadn't wanted to travel all the way back to the U.S by herself so they had to wait for Abuelo to be done, and he hadn't wanted to leave for forever.

Mama had yelled at him after he made them wait an extra month, that the only one he was punishing was Josiah, and he hadn't done anything, it was her and Linc he was mad at. His Abuelo's eyes had cut over to him, and Josiah had known for certain that she was wrong, it was him Abuelo was mad at. He just didn't know why.

Then they were at the end of the road, pulling into where it curved into a turn around driveway, Mama reminding Josiah again that babies were fragile, and he was a big boy and needed to be careful, Josiah nodding solemnly even though he thought she'd told him about fifty times. It was obviously very important. He saw Daddy on the porch, waving at him, and he all but ripped his seatbelt off the second the truck was stopped, opening the door and leaping out, running for him, not really hearing Mama's voice calling for him to be careful as he jumped and Daddy caught him, swinging Josiah up and into a bear hug. “There's my boy! Look at you, you must have grown a foot!”

Nope, just a couple inches.” Josiah tried not to sound too proud as he talked, but it had actually been nearly three inches. Mama had a spot she marked on the camper wall, and he had grown a ton.

“Pretty soon you'll be as tall as your old man, maybe taller.” Daddy tickled him for just a second, and he giggled, shifting away, and then Daddy was squeezing him tight again and Josiah squeezed back as hard as he could, before leaning back in his arms, looking the man straight in the eye and getting to the point.

“Where's my brother?”

Daddy grinned at him, “Inside, he woke up a little while ago, his Momma's feeding him.”

“Can I go see him?”

“Of course! We'll lay him down on his blankie and you can play with his toys with him.” Daddy's face stayed soft but got a little serious, and Josiah straightened up as best he could in his arms, because when Daddy's face got like that it meant you needed to listen. “Chris is still very, very little though, alright? I need you to remember to be gentle with him, and not try and pick him up on your own, okay? Can you promise Daddy that?”

Josiah listened gravely, nodding along, “I promise. Mama says babies are very fragile.”

“You're a good boy.” He looked over Josiah's shoulder at Mama, who was standing at the bottom of the porch, “Do you want to come in for coffee?”

“Oh, I don't know-”

“Anna. Trust me, Colleen wants to show off the baby, and you're about the only lady she knows who hasn't seen him yet. Come on. It'll be fine.”

Josiah turned around as best he could in Daddy's arms, giving his Mama his best pleading face, “Pleassseeee, Mama? I don't want you to leave yet!”

“Well, I can't say no to that, can I?”

*.*.*.*.*.*

“Five months later, while crossing the street Colleen was run down by a drunk driver. My brother wasn't even a year old. It seems that the story just continues that way. Don't get me wrong there was a lot of happiness in-between, good years, amazing memories, but somehow every story ends like that. I have four half-brothers and after today the only one of us to have a living parent, is the one who was first abandoned and later abducted by her,” Josiah closed his eyes, feeling about a hundred years old, “I am a man of faith, it seems whether I want to be or not. I believe in a way that can't be denied, though sometimes I have less faith in the goodness of God than I do in his existence. None of that changes the fact that sometimes life is just unfair, cruel and senseless.”

“It really can be. I'm not sure what I believe in, except maybe the power of human kindness, but sometimes it seems there is precious little of that in this world.”

Josiah nodded, having to clear his throat before he could continue, “Thank you for listening to me, for sharing some of your own kindness, but I think I'm going to try and sleep now.”

Rene smiled at him, “Your welcome. I was happy too.”

*.*.*.*.*.*

Chris scowled at the phone as he hung up, shaking his head.

“What now?” Buck mumbled, voice slightly hoarse.

“Idiot asked me whether he was still welcome.”

“It's been a long time, Chris, you can't blame-”

“The hell I can't! He left! Nobody asked him to go, or sent him away, he's always been welcome!” Chris stormed out of the room then, slamming the door behind him, and Buck sighed, letting his head fall into his hands. They'd been eating dinner. Just eating dinner. Daddy had been making them all promise they wouldn't give Josiah a hard time, and all of a sudden he'd grabbed at his arm and then he'd just-he'd just collapsed, like a puppet with its strings cut.

Buck had been out working in the hay fields with him yesterday, they'd planted late this year, getting in an extra rotation crop of corn before they'd put in the alfalfa, the farmer's almanac Daddy swore by(for all Chris had gotten his 'we ain't farmers, we're ranchers, and you're damned right there is a difference' stickt honestly from the old man) telling him it was a good year for it, and the last crop telling them both the soil needed it. He'd been fine. He'd been sweating and laughing and alive and fine.

Now he was gone.

Nathan was dealing with the hospital and the funeral home, the paperwork and he shouldn't have to do that, not by himself, but Buck couldn't make himself get up and move. It would make it real. He wasn't ready for it to be real yet. Instead he closed his eyes and pictured his Daddy walking through the field. Alive. Fine.

Anything so long as he could get rid of the image of those vacant eyes staring up out of his Daddy's face.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Chapter Text

Josiah shifted in the uncomfortable airline seat, wishing he could sleep, but he'd already known it probably wasn't happening when he'd begged off with Rene. It had been a nice idea, nice of her to offer to listen, but he'd found himself reluctant to go on, unable to tell someone who may or may not understand that within six months of Colleen's death Daddy had gotten her best friend pregnant-mutual grief and mutual comfort had led to one Bucklin Reed Wilmington.

Lord, Buck was over thirty. He'd been fourteen the last time Josiah had seen him.

He certainly didn't want to tell her about the uproar that had run over the small town when exactly how Auntie Rosie had paid off The Saloon had become common knowledge. So she'd made a few movies? If it bothered them people didn't have to watch-exactly what Rosie said to anyone who had the gall to say something to her face.

If the rumors that she'd done a bit more were true-well, Josiah wasn't a prude, and he wasn't a hypocrite either-if fleshy desires were a sin the whole planet was going to hell.

Daddy punching some asshole who'd asked him when he was going to sue for full custody square in the jaw, flattening him on the sidewalk in the middle of main street was still one of his favorite memories. Buck squealing in delight from the double stroller he had been pushing, shouting “Again, again!”, Josiah assumed thinking it was like a cartoon, just perfected it.

The Larabee boy's had come by their tendency to punch first naturally, that was for sure. Daddy had been an impulsive, emotional, man in general, quick to laugh, brood, or fight. Josiah had a long fuse, but once you burned it to the end even he would admit he came unglued. If he got liquored up that fuse pretty much disappeared, too. Nearly gotten himself in trouble a couple times when he was in the Marines, and had gotten himself kicked out of a monastery.

When he was a kid it seemed like he'd gotten into a fight almost every month-though he'd had nothing on Chris and Buck when they'd gotten into junior high. The way Daddy had talked he'd been getting a call from the principal at least once a week Buck's first year. Apparently the principal had gotten tired of Auntie Rosie inevitably asking, “What did the little shit do to deserve it?”, when they called her. The rules had always been simple when it came to fighting though-if you had a good reason you didn't get in trouble, if not your ass was grass. Of course, Daddy's interpretation of a good reason had often been a little narrower than his own.

Not to mention, at least when he'd gotten into his teen years, Josiah had often been of the opinion that such things were his business, not Daddy's...

*.*.*.*.*.*

“Josiah...son...if you won't tell me why you dumped Nathan's fingerpaint on your cousin's head and then shoved him on his rear you're spending the rest of the day in your room, and you're going to miss the picnic and the fireworks. Just tell me.” Linc was pinching the ridge of his brow, clearly getting to the end of his rope, but the 14 year old just sat stubbornly on the end of his bed, arms crossed across his chest.

“It's between me and Henry.” Josiah was still planning to black Henry's eye, had been about to do that when Uncle Orin had pulled him away from the older boy-he couldn't tell on him too.

“It quit being between you and Henry when you started something in the middle of the yard in front of half the family.” Josiah scoffed and his father's arms crossed, “Fine then. You change your mind we aren't heading for the lake for another hour, come find me. If not I don't want you leaving this room except to go to the bathroom, or get yourself some food later, understood?” He'd grunted in answer, flopping backwards where he sat to stare at the ceiling, hearing his father leave and shut his door behind him but not acknowledging it.

Today sucked.

Henry knew he'd asked Maria to hang out with him at the picnic, knew that Josiah liked her, and he'd still been kissing her behind the shed! Josiah wouldn't have done that to him. Like he even wanted to go on the stupid picnic now.

Crap, he was gonna have to spend part of his allowance to get Nate more fingerpaint.


*.*.*.*.*.*

Josiah slunk slowly in the back door into the kitchen, hoping Mama Clara wouldn't notice him as he made his way up the back stairs, as technically, he was supposed to be back half an hour ago, and also he hadn't had a fat lip when he left. It wasn't too bad, if he got up to the bathroom and put a cold compress on it it should mostly disappear, and if he came down the stairs when she called them for lunch Josiah figured Mama Clara would assume he'd been home when he should have. Hopefully.

Apparently he was later then he thought, because when he was three or four feet from the bottom of the staircase, too far away to slink up them before she saw, Clara came through the doorway, Nathan on her hip and Chris, complaining that he was bored with his partner in crime at his Momma's until the weekend, following behind.

“Chris, you saw Buck two days ago, and since Daddy is taking you all fishing tomorrow you'll see him then too. Mama promises, you'll survive.” She saw Josiah and smiled at him as she started putting Nathan in his highchair, “There you are, I was starting to get a little worried. Go wash up, lunch is ready.” Relieved, Josiah all but jogged up the stairs, crashing into a broad chest as he came around the corner at the top, nearly going over backwards until Daddy reached out and grabbed both his shoulders. Crap, Josiah had thought he was out doing repairs on one of the back pasture fences today, ordinarily he brought his lunch with him when he was out that far.

“Hey! What do you think you're doing running on the stairs?” Daddy looked a bit scared, but his face was starting to get that tight look that meant he wasn't happy.

“Um...”

“And what happened to your lip?” He pulled Josiah away from the edge of the stairs, over to the window, flipping on the hall light for good measure.

“It's nothing.” Daddy ignored him, tilting Josiah's face up so he could see his lip, examining it gently, even as he tried to squirm away from the touch.

“Doesn't look like nothing, but you'll live.” He let go of Josiah, and looked at him with a mixture of consternation and amusement, “Who were you fighting this time?”

“...Greg Mason.”

Daddy's face changed, anger growing, but Josiah was pretty sure not with him, “Nineteen year old Greg Mason? Who's got at least thirty pounds on you?”

“Daddy, it's not a big deal...”

“Like hell it isn't. What happened?”

Josiah sighed, then tried a distraction tactic, “Mama Clara asked me to wash up and come down for lunch, I should-”

“And I'm asking you to tell me what happened-trust me, she'll understand.”

Josiah sighed again, feeling more than a little put on the spot, and not wanting to tell Daddy what Greg had said, because he was pretty sure if Daddy beat up a teenager he'd wind up in jail. “I kicked his butt?”

Daddy definitely snorted at that, even if he tried to turn it into a cough, and the next second growled out, “Josiah.”

“He said some stuff, so I said some stuff...and then he said something even worse, and I shoved him, he shoved me back, and well,” He gestured at his face, “I gave him a bloody nose and he gave me a fat lip. I gave as good as I got.”

“Well, good. That's all you're gonna tell me?”

Josiah shrugged, “It's what happened.” Daddy shook his head, apparently deciding to drop it.

“Alright, but if he bothers you again, I want to hear about it, understand?”

“Yes sir,” was what Josiah said, but he was thinking 'yeah, right'. He didn't need his father to help him deal with somebody like Greg, he wasn't a little kid.

“Well then go wash up, and get down to lunch.” Daddy headed down the stairs then, and Josiah went to wash his hands, figuring there was no point in trying to hide the fat lip from Mama Clara, as Daddy wouldn't.

Nobody needed to know what that Mason piece of garbage had said about her, or her and Daddy being married, and especially about Nathan. He'd figured out he couldn't bother Josiah with comments about him anymore, and had immediately stepped over a line that meant Josiah couldn't have backed down if he'd wanted to. He hadn't wanted to.

He wished he'd done a hell of a lot more, but Mason had friends with him, and even though Josiah had seen a few of their faces blanch at the worst of the comments they still would have backed him up if Josiah had done more than swing back.

Done, and starting to feel hungry, Josiah went down to the kitchen, being sure not to run on the stairs this time, and settled down next to Nathan at his call of, “'Siah sit, 'Siah sit me!”, the toddler immediately patting his face with his soft, slightly sticky hand, loudly declaring, “Hi! Hi 'Siah!”, the few hours since breakfast apparently much too long for him.

“Hi, Nathan.” Josiah had been planning to go back to town after he did his afternoon chores, but instead he thought he was going to stay here, maybe do something with the boys. As Nathan attempted to tangle his hand in Josiah's curls, he extracted it with a laugh, pressing a kiss to the back.


*.*.*.*.*.*

Still, whether he'd liked it or not Daddy had generally gotten the answer out of him.

*.*.*.*.*.*


“Before I drag you to the barn by your ear you want to tell me what the hell you thought you were doing?”

“Fighting.” Josiah immediately regretted the flippant answer as Linc's face got angrier, ears going red, gulping and muttering an almost inaudible sorry, relieved when he saw the man take a deep breath.

“Your uncle just risked his job to keep you from getting arrested, you really think now is a good time to be a smart ass, Josiah Ramon?”

“No sir.”

“Better.” He took another deep breath, “You know, I'm not even going to ask what you were doing in the bar, I was sixteen once, but you will tell me what you think you were doing starting a bar brawl, and if you're smart you'll tell me now.”

“I was only fighting with one guy!”

“And you nearly put him in the hospital! Either way, you threw a punch and the whole bar went mad. If it weren't for Orin you'd be in juvy for assault, disturbing the peace, and probably inciting violence-and that's not counting being in a bar and underage drinking!” Josiah shifted where he stood in the driveway-he'd thought the utter silence from Daddy the entire ride home had been bad enough. Daddy hadn't even been this mad last summer when he'd told him and Mama Clara he was going to Ricky's for the weekend, and actually gone to a folk concert in Nevada. “I'd like to believe you didn't do it for no reason, but if you won't tell me what am I supposed to think?” Josiah hesitated, he wasn't entirely sure he'd seen what he thought he'd seen now, he'd only seen the man leaning over her drink for a second. What if he was wrong? “Josiah, I don't want to tan you, but I'm about to.”

“That guy I was fighting? I think he put something in a ladies drink.”

Daddy deflated before his eyes, his hand coming to squeeze his shoulder. “Alright then. You're not in trouble. Go on inside, let Clara know you're okay. I gotta call your Mama.” Then he tugged Josiah into a quick embrace, pressing a kiss to the side of his head-they were almost the same height now, he couldn't reach the top anymore-, “You're a good boy. You make me proud.”

*.*.*.*.*.*

Turning his head towards the window, sliding down in his seat as much as his height would allow, Josiah wiped his red eyes, willing the tears back mostly unsuccessfully. A plane, in this day and age, was not the place to have a breakdown. His relationship with Daddy had been far from perfect, the man had been a contradiction in some ways, but there were so many more good memories than there were bad ones. Now, the chance to make new memories, good or bad was gone. He was gone. Closing his eyes after a minute, he tried to fall asleep again, and exhaustion catching up with him, eventually fell into a fitful rest.

*.*.*.*.*.*

Chris leaned against the pillar in the crowded airport, hat tilted down to hide his eyes even as he scanned the crowd for Josiah's broad frame.

Only reason he knew what he looked like was because he'd sent Daddy a picture in his email, a week or two after they started talking again. Probably would have known him anyway, he looked enough like Daddy had at forty to be scary.

A week or two after seventeen years of silence. Seventeen years Chris couldn't understand and didn't really want to.

He'd understand the first time Josiah had taken off, when he'd been a hotheaded teenager, angry at his Mama's mind deteriorating, him and Daddy at each others throats all the time. Understood why Mama Clara had all but thrown Daddy out of the house when she'd come home that day.

It had been bad. It had been so bad. Chris didn't know what happened, what it had been about, even now, just that his father and big brother had been screaming at each other. There had been something different about that day, something heavy hanging in the air that eclipsed the previous tension. They'd been fighting for months, really, but this had been by far the worst of it, bad enough Daddy had made the little ones go outside. They weren't supposed to be listening, but Chris hadn't been able to move away, for all he couldn't hear any words, only the anger. Suddenly there had been a scuffling sound and a loud thumping noise. Buck, who at eight had seen far more in his mother's bar, peering over the railings and listening at doors when he was meant to be asleep, than either of his parents realized, had grabbed onto Chris's arm, tight. “Daddy hit Josiah.” It was all he'd said as he'd pushed himself against his older brother for comfort, but the way he'd said it, somehow both horrified and matter of fact, had left no doubt in Chris's mind. Daddy had hit Josiah.

Nathan had been over in the far corner of the yard, the four year old playing contentedly in the sandbox, but Chris and Buck had stood there, watching helplessly as Josiah had stormed out of the house minutes later, full duffle bag over his shoulder, and a livid bruise spreading across his cheekbone. Linc, distraught over what he'd done, had been following him, telling him he was sorry, begging him to stay, even telling him he would leave for the night instead, but Josiah had utterly ignored him, stopping only to give each of his brothers a hug. Nathan hadn't even realized anything was wrong until his hero had told him goodbye, the bruise and tears on his brother's face scaring him so that he began to cry as Josiah walked away. When Linc had gone to comfort him, Buck, big and strong for his age, had snatched the smaller boy up onto his hip and hurried into the house shying away from his father, both angry and scared. He was on the phone to first his mother and then Clara immediately, taking the cordless up to his bedroom with Nathan still curled into him.

Chris remembered just turning to his father and screaming, screaming that he had ruined everything, that he had hurt his brother and Daddy's weren't allowed to do that. He'd chased his big brother away, and he hated, hated, hated him. Why wasn't he going after Josiah? Why wasn't he making sure his brother knew he was sorry? Why had he hit him? Didn't he love him? Why wasn't he fixing it?! He was a coward and Chris hated him. Linc had just stood there in the yard, defeated and taken it. That had made it so much worse, his father, who had always seemed so strong, just standing there, broken. He'd never, besides that day, seen his father look like that.

It had been the only time, at least as far as Chris knew, that Daddy had ever raised a hand to any of them, not unless you counted the occasional smack upside the head, or 'discussion' in the barn if one of them really stepped out of line, and Chris didn't. He lectured, and he could yell like anything if you got him going, but he didn't hit.

Mama Clara must have driven like a bat out of hell, because she turned the twenty minute drive from the clinic into a ten minute one, and had marched into the yard looking like an avenging fury. She'd asked Chris in an almost too calm voice if Josiah had told him where he was going, and then when he said no, if he knew where the little ones were. Could he go inside and get Nathan and himself an overnight bag ready? Aunt Nettie would be here soon to take them to Auntie Rosie's for the night. Chris had been angry enough to rather enjoy the vicious look on Mama Clara's face, not to mention how pale Daddy got when he heard both Aunt Nettie and Auntie Rosie knew what had happened. Served him right.

They hadn't known where Josiah was for months, his grandfather hadn't helped at all, in fact, he'd eventually told them to quit calling as Josiah obviously didn't want them to know where he was. Anna, who had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers by then, certainly couldn't help. Daddy had been so miserable and guilty, plus worried out of his mind, it had made it hard to be mad at him, for all Chris had been.

A postcard had come in the mail the fourth month he'd been gone, and a month after Josiah's eighteenth birthday had passed without him. He hadn't said much, just told them he was safe, but he'd sent it from near a military base, and it had taken Daddy ten minutes of calls to figure out he'd signed up about five minutes after he'd turned eighteen. The next day Mama Clara had piled them all in the car, minus Daddy, because he still wouldn't tell her what he and Josiah had been fighting about, Aunt Nettie climbing in the front passenger seat while he'd gaped at them, not believing they were leaving him behind. To ten year old Chris it had been pretty funny.

Adult Chris, who had lost a son, wasn't so sure it was.

When they finally got there, a good four hour ride later, the three boys crammed in the back had been about ready to kill each other. Nathan, barely five, had been in desperate need of a nap and Buck and him had kept slapping at the other when the adults weren't looking and then telling on each other the second they were hit back. Probably, it had really been Clara and Nettie who'd been about to kill someone. They'd all piled out and since, of course, they were civilians with no escort, had been back to waiting all over again in the visitors' center. Mama had gone to work right away finding someone who would let Josiah know he had visitors, only to be told he was in the middle of a training session and they wouldn't even be able to pass along the message for another hour and a half. Nathan had burst into loud and noisy tears, wailing that he was never going to see his "Siah Brother" again, because they had stolen him, and he wouldn't be comforted, Mama Clara had started telling the poor guy stuck at the desk the last six months of family drama, and Buck and Chris had not so subtly begun looking for ways to get into the base proper, convinced they could find Josiah fine all by themselves.

Not that they would have been able to get more than thirty feet away from Mama Clara and Nettie without being unceremoniously hauled back by the ear, but it had been the intention that mattered, or at least the chaos that the Larabees were incapable of going anywhere without causing. That brochure rack should have been sturdier. Not more than an hour later a wary looking Josiah had been all but escorted into the visitors' center. He'd stood there awkwardly for about half a second before all three of them had dog piled on him, Nate not getting crushed was probably some kind of miracle. Mama and Aunt Nettie had hugged him and fussed over him, and then the yelling had started. Josiah had told him later, only half joking, that Clara had nothing on his drill sergeant.

After that though, things had kind of gone back to normal, though it took another six months before Daddy and him had seemed to have hammered things out. Josiah had still been gone of course, being a marine-God, Daddy had been so proud-but they'd been used to that, as he'd mostly lived with his mother. But he'd written, called, visited, he hadn't just disappeared. He'd been their brother.

Then four years later, two years after a brain aneurysm had taken Mama Clara from them, the son of a bitch had done it all over again. Disappeared.

Just left. All over again. This time he hadn't sent a postcard. This time he'd stayed gone.

Seventeen years later, not more than six months ago now, he'd sent their Daddy an email, started writing, calling and now visiting again and that meant Chris was just supposed to pretend none of it had ever happened?

The man had shut off his fucking cell phone. Nate had been staying up half the night for ages, sure that Josiah would log on to IM, emailing him probably five times a day, and there had just been nothing.

It was what Daddy had wanted, Chris knew that. Hell, he'd been making them all promise to try when-Chris drew in a deep breath, pressing his eyes closed for a moment as he held it. No. He wasn't going there. Not here. Not now.

He would try. For Daddy.

And because if things went the way they seemed to for the people Chris cared about, if he waited too long to forgive his brother, he wouldn't be around anymore.

 *.*.*.*.*.*

“Figured we’d put you in your old room,” Chris said quietly, leading the way up the stairs with one of Josiah’s bags over his shoulder.

“Sounds good.” Josiah could hear the tired heaviness in his own voice, and was just glad he didn’t sound relieved. It had been a relief to walk off the plane, expecting to have to rent a car, or pay about double the standard rate for a cab willing to drive all the way to Four Corners, and see Chris standing there. His little brother, with his determined stance and piercing eyes, stood out in a crowd and always had. It hadn’t kept the car ride home from being long and awkward, neither of them knowing what to say; even if Daddy’s death hadn’t been hanging in the air between them, 17 years of silence was hard to bridge.

Top of the stairs, turn right down the hallway and there it was, third door on the left. Josiah sucked in a breath as Chris took a step to the side, clearly expecting him to go in first. He let his breath out, stepped forward and swung the door open, walking inside only to freeze. Josiah took a deep breath in, staring as he turned in a circle, unable to believe his eyes. “Daddy wouldn’t let anybody touch any of it. First ‘cause he figured you’d be back. Later, well…” Chris shrugged, moving to lean against the door frame. Josiah wasn’t sure he’d ever stop staring. It was all here: his posters, his Steinbeck collection, the CD rack full of the folk music he’d adored.

“It’s been almost eighteen years…and it’s all exactly the same.” He shook his head in disbelief, choking up.

“What didja think, he was gonna turn it into a home gym?” Chris’s voice was as thick as Josiah’s though he covered it up with a scowl. “Told ya he wouldn’t let anybody touch it.”

Josiah had discovered something on the bed, “I forgot I brought this here after Mama…” A beat up stuffed owl was picked up, and the only reason Josiah did not cuddle it to his chest was because of the eyes on him.

“Expect you’ll want to settle in for a bit. Aunt Nettie washed the bedding, aired it out for you. I’m gonna be down in the den, if you need me. Buck's out with one of the hands, patching some fencing and Nathan will be home later.” Chris nodded at him, and then pulled the door shut behind him. Josiah sank slowly onto the bed, clutching the small owl tightly, shoulders starting to shake, fist coming up to his mouth as the first sobs burst out.

17 years. 17 years he’d scorned and denied his father, and for 17 years his father, his Daddy, had kept this shrine to him, this hope that he would come back.

And he had. He had come back. Too late.

‘My penance just keeps growing, doesn’t it Lord?’

*.*.*.*.*.*

Buck grinned as he saw the older man walk slowly down the stairs, not having noticed him yet, “Well, will you look at what the cows drug home. You got old ‘Siah!”

Josiah startled for a second, and then a broad grin spread across his own face, covering the second half of the staircase in half the time of the first, “Bucklin? I got old, look at you!” The two met in a giant of a bear hug, squeezing each other. “I wouldn’t have known you.”

“Funny thing that happens when you ain’t seen someone since they were fourteen.” The voice was as quiet as it was angry, and even though it sounded nothing like it did the last time he’d heard it he knew who it belonged to. Josiah turned to see his baby brother, taller than him now and built solid. He sucked in a breath, somehow shocked at not seeing the ten-year-old boy he’d left behind. “Hi, Josiah.”

“Hello, Nathan.” He could hear the hesitance in his own voice, not an emotion he was particularly used to, but he thought it was warranted. Nathan and he had always been closest to each other, like Chris and Buck were, even with the age difference. Nathan had also always been one of those people who was naturally good, the sort of kid who’d give away his toys or his lunch money without a second thought, but because of that he could view the actions of others with undue harshness, unable to understand that other people weren't like that, or at least unable to accept it. Josiah wasn’t sure there was a way to be overly harsh with what he’d done. Nathan held out a hand. Not a hug then. He’d hoped, but he would take what he can get. Josiah reached out to clasp his brother’s hand, felt it trembling, just barely, saw Nathan’s throat convulse as he swallowed and realized he was being an idiot. He might not be ten anymore, but Nathan was still his baby brother and he tugged him in, wrapping his arms around him in a hug that was a bit gentler than the bear hug with Buck. Nathan hugged back after only a second, but pulled away almost as quickly, with a smile which Josiah couldn’t say was more wary or weary. But he wasn't as stiff as he'd been, and he was smiling.

“It’s good to have you back ‘Siah. It really is.”

“It’s good to be back.”

“I gotta go change outta,” He plucked at his work clothes, his scrubs, “this, but I’ll be back down later, alright?” Josiah nodded, trying not to frown as Nathan rushed up the stairs, knowing he was rushing away from him and not blaming him. Buck’s hand clapped down onto his shoulder, and how was everyone but Chris taller than him now?

“C’mon old man, let’s go have some coffee and see what Aunt Nettie left for supper.” Buck wasn’t sure how to feel about Josiah being back, happy sure, but there were a whole hell of a lot of other emotions too, a lot of them decidedly less pleasant than ‘happy’. Didn’t mean that, for all it was obvious he’d splashed some water on his face, he couldn’t see that Josiah had clearly spent most of the afternoon crying. Buck had always been a sucker for tears.

He was completely ignoring the fact that he looked so much like Daddy it hurt, that except for a deep tan Daddy's fair skin never could have held and blue-gray eyes instead of green Josiah could have been Daddy sixteen years ago.

“Is Aunt Nettie here?”

“Eager or terrified?” Buck joked with a grin that faded quickly as Josiah swallowed with trepidation.

“Little bit of both.” He admitted sheepishly.

“Nah, she ain't here. Will be tomorrow morning though, just to warn ya. Daddy hired her to do a little housekeeping work, couple years ago. After Uncle Wallace died she needed the money, and you know Aunt Nettie-any chance she could interpret something as a handout and she wouldn't have a thing to do with it.” He chuckled, and started heading towards the kitchen, turning his head to talk over his shoulder as Josiah started following after him, 'til he'd caught up. “Doesn't feel like we could survive without her anymore, I'm pretty sure I've forgotten how to cook.”

“I remember that cake you made Daddy for Father's day. Pretty sure you never knew how to cook.”

“I was twelve! And Daddy said he liked it.” Buck was pretending to be offended but he couldn't keep the laugh out of his face. “Think he ate the whole thing.”

“Because you looked like you were gonna cry when you took a bite and realized what it tasted like.” Even now Josiah had no intention of telling Buck that most of the so-called lemon cake had been fed to Bowser, the family dog. Daddy had choked down the slice Buck had served him, forcing a smile the whole time. “How much sugar did you use?”

“Hey, sweets are supposed to be sweet, alright?” Buck turned his head a bit, catching Josiah's eye and then they were laughing, a full blown fit that had Josiah hanging onto the kitchen doorway and Buck hanging onto Josiah.

It didn't get rid of the elephant in the room. Didn't completely remove the tension.

But it helped.

*.*.*.*.*.*

“Hello, Aunt Nettie.” Josiah swallowed, surprised by the relief he felt at seeing her, looking much the same as she used to, hair gray and face more lined, but spry and tough looking like always, and, most importantly, alive and whole.

“Oh my word, look at you. You look so much like your Daddy.” Nettie was not one for overdone displays of affection, but it had been seventeen years since she had seen her nephew, and she allowed herself to fuss for just a second, pulling him down so she could see him better, running her hands over his shoulders and tutting at the hints of gray she could see starting in his hair. Satisfied that he was whole and well she pulled away and narrowed her eyes at him, “Now you listen to me and you listen good, Josiah Ramon Sanchez. I don't care where in the world you make your home, but don't you ever leave us to worry like that again, you hear me?”

Feeling himself flush, Josiah said quietly, “Believe it or not, I learned my lesson, a couple times over.”

Nettie's eyes filled with tears for just a moment, her hand reaching out to clasp his, and in the next instant she had blinked them away and was shooing him toward the table, grinning tremulously saying, “You better have, when you ran off when you were a teenager I told you when me and your Mama Clara found you, I'd paddle your behind if you did something like that again, and you know, I ought to.”

Josiah chuckled, grateful that she was lightening the mood, “Think I might be a little big for that now.”

“You just try me.”

*.*.*.*.*.*

The first round of snippy, snarky, muttered just under the breath comments didn't bother Josiah, not even when it seemed they must have been shooting out at least one a minute, he just did his best to ignore them.

That he hadn't forced his way into his brothers' company, that he'd been asked to come along on this walk, made it a little harder to take though. Josiah wasn't a fool, he knew how angry Nathan was at him, that even without having to deal with Daddy's death this would have been hard for the younger man, and that he had every right to that anger. It still stung, was starting to irritate him more than a little and finally, after the third sulky silence from Nate, Buck doing his best to hold up all three ends of the conversation, talking about the repairs that would need to be done to the outbuildings before winter, was interrupted by a mumbled, “Don't know why you're bothering, ain't like he cares about none of this.”, he couldn't ignore it.

Unable to help it anymore, he turned and growled out, “That isn't true, and I really don't appreciate you talking about me like that.” The look he got back froze him where he stood. He'd been wrong. He'd had no idea how angry Nathan was.

“You don't appreciate me talking about you like that?” Nathan laughed and it was bitter and painful and it hurt to hear it come out of his little brother's mouth, who had been so innocent when he left. It shocked him, knocked down his defenses, the rest of Nathan's words smashing into him like a battering ram, his temper draining from him much faster than it had built. “I didn't appreciate your cell phone suddenly not working one day, and not knowing why. I didn't appreciate that all my letters just got returned, when you'd always left a forwarding address before. Hell, Josiah you didn't answer your emails or log on to IM, and you and I used to talk nearly every night. You know you were supposed to come home? That weekend that your cell phone shut off, and you just dropped off the face of the earth, do you remember that?” Josiah nodded, not trusting himself to speak. “You remember why Josiah?” He nodded again. “Can't even say it, can you?” Nathan's eyes accused him of being a coward, and he hated it, but for this at least, facing what he'd done to a little boy who'd looked at him like he made the sun shine, he couldn't deny it. “It was a real great tenth birthday present, spending a couple of years wondering whether my big brother was dead or alive. Wondering if I'd done something to make him leave. Thanks for that.”

Josiah's mouth fell open in horror, “If you'd...God, Nathan, no! It had nothing to do with you.” He stepped forward, trying to hug Nathan, or at least get him to listen for a minute, but he took a huge step back, putting up his hands as though warding Josiah off.

“Don't-just don't.” Josiah froze, realizing he'd overstepped his bounds again, and waited for Nathan to make the next move. “I know that now-but I was ten. You weren't just my big brother, or even just my best friend-you were my hero. Probably was supposed to be Daddy, but as much as I loved him it wasn't-it was you. And then you just disappeared. You were just gone.”

“Nathan, I don't have a way to apologize enough or explain away my leaving, not in anyway that's good enough, but little brother, I am so, so, sorry I hurt you like that.”

“That makes it better, huh? That now that you can't run away from the pain and damage you caused, that once it was staring you in the face, it made you feel guilty? That just makes everything just fine, right?” Nathan shook his head in disgust, turning away to continue down the path, “Good for you for being sorry, Josiah. Don't know what difference it makes now. Next time you decide to come around, just keep your apologies. I don't want them. See ya.”

Josiah stared at Nathan's retreating back, guilty, angry, and hurt, “Well, I know he doesn't want me here.”

Buck sighed, frustrated, “Dang it, Josiah, that ain't true, he's just...”

“Just what? He all but told me to go!” He didn't yell it, but it was clear the large man was controlling his temper by a thread. Buck, who had never been scared of his brother, was not impressed and right about now he was getting upset too.

“It ever occurred to you that angry as he is, he's more scared?” Josiah opened his mouth, and Buck pointed at him, suddenly furious, “Don't you dare ask why, 'Siah! You know why! Nathan just told you why! You think it's just him? You think it's just him you left? Where in the goddamned blue blazes have you been, huh? For seventeen years! With no letter, no picture, sometimes no knowing whether you were dead or alive! You know how that feels? Do you!? And you, you come back and don't even talk about it. Don't say a damn word. I don't care what problems you had with Daddy, you don't do that to your family!” He pulled his hat off his head and dashed it to the ground in anger, stepping up close to Josiah, getting right in his brother's face, “You want to know what's wrong with Nathan? He doesn't want you to go, Josiah! That boy is damn well terrified that you will. Maybe for another seventeen years. Maybe forever.” Buck's chin quivered for just a second, and Josiah knew that if he grabbed his brother up in a hug right then that he'd accept it, but he hesitated and missed his chance. By the time he stepped forward Buck was scooping his hat off the ground and jamming it on his head, whirling away from Josiah and back towards the long dirt path to the farmhouse. Josiah stood there for a long moment, looking back and forth between the two opposite paths his brothers had taken before letting out a long low sigh and looking up to the heavens.

“I suppose no one said second chances had to be easy, did they?” Josiah chuckled dishearteningly. It was only what he deserved. He had hurt his brothers terribly in his stand-off with his father. More than he had hurt himself, and Josiah had realized since Daddy had gone just what he had lost. And for what had he given them up?

In the end his father had been right anyway. With Mama gone the best place for Hannah had been in a group home that specialized in the care of autistic children, and Josiah had not wanted to hear it. A seven year old child who was scared of strangers being sent to live with them? The very idea had horrified Josiah, infuriated him-Hannah had gone through enough, Josiah had had a hard enough time understanding what was happening to their mother, Hannah hadn't had a chance. It didn't change the fact that it had been the best option. Even with his naivety in believing that his grandfather was not cruel to Hannah as he had been to Josiah, that he would continue to at worst ignore her as he always had, even with a caretaker living with them, he still should have known better. He hadn't and Hannah had been the one to suffer for it.

He’d just wanted Daddy to be her father, the way he was Josiah’s, really. In a way, when he’d offered to help have her placed it had been the closest he had come to doing so, but it just hadn’t been enough for Josiah. Josiah knew his father hadn’t known what to do, hadn’t known how to connect with Hannah, and that with the distance between them Hannah might have never grown comfortable with him. But he could have tried. Josiah was doing his best to forgive his father for that one fatal flaw, but it was hard when he could not, even now, understand why. He knew his mother hadn’t helped, hadn’t wanted Mama Clara or Emilio to know what she and Linc had done any more than Daddy had, had wanted Emilio to be her father, insisted even when it was obvious he was not, had if anything been the real source behind the secrecy. As the secret grew, as they always did, Daddy had been trapped in it just as Josiah had been, unable to confess without risking a hell of a lot.

But it was Linc who had stayed away from his daughter. Who'd visited her less and less after Hannah had gotten scared when he tried to hug her and hid under her bed, screaming. Josiah'd heard him tell Mama he felt like he was tormenting her, and the anguish that had been in his voice when he said it-maybe he should have understood, but he couldn't.

Before that Josiah had thought of his father as someone who did what was right even when it was hard, and if he were honest, that disillusionment was nearly as hard to forgive as anything else.

To ask him to keep their sister a secret from his brothers? To only every refer to Hannah as his sister, his Mama’s daughter, to keep her parentage even from Mama Clara and Emilio? It had been the most unfair thing either of his parents had ever asked of him, and he still couldn’t understand the choices they’d made. Still didn’t agree with them.

In the end, none of that should have mattered. Even with the mess things had been, with his father not being a proper part of Hannah's life, even with the rage he'd felt over it, he should have damn well taken the offered help.

Then for years he'd blamed the man for his own failing, his own stubbornness. At the exact moment when he should have seen that his father had been right, or at least that he, Josiah had been wrong-when the best choice was moving a small child in with strangers no one was really right-was when he had decided his father's actions were unforgivable. Saw what had happened to his sister and thought that if his father had taken in his daughter when her mother grew too ill to care for her it never would have happened. That was true. But if Josiah hadn't fought against his father, hadn't told the man he had no right to suggest such things, it never would have happened either. That was also true.

Hannah never would have been there, for a bitter old man to turn more and more against, while the caretaker Josiah and his father paid for lined their pockets and said nothing.

Josiah would not lie to himself about that. Not anymore. He still felt guilty, was still angry with himself and probably always would be. He was still angry with his father too. It was just somehow over the years that anger had grown less important to him, less important compared to the part that missed his father. Josiah had finally come to understand something that some never learn-forgiveness had nothing to do with it being deserved or not, and everything to do with it being needed.

His brothers had had nothing to do with any of it. They had been innocents, just as Hannah had been, and they had suffered for his ignorance as well. Josiah found a rock to lean against and stared up at the sky for a long time, trying to find peace in his dark thoughts, hampered by the belief that he did not really deserve it. Finally, just as he was planning to move on, thinking he should head up the path, Nathan, still looking upset, came back down towards him. He halted in surprise when he saw Josiah, confusion crossing his face.

“You waited for me?”

“I was just about to head after you.”

“Oh.” Nathan came and leaned against the rock next to him, and Josiah hoped that meant they were alright now, at least enough to talk. For someone who had memorized many sermons on the importance of forgiveness, who had been thinking on its virtues for the last half-hour, he had a very hard time asking for it himself. Still, all he could do was try.

“I won't disappear again, won't abandon the family. Even if I don't stay on the ranch, or in town. I'm not going to leave again, brother. Not like that. I promise.”

There was a sharp intake of breath besides him, then Nathan spoke up, voice tight. “You made me that promise last time you came back, too. Only took you a few years to break it.” Josiah didn't know what to say, because Nathan was right. He had. Nathan moved fluidly away from the stone, swiveling so that he was standing square in front of Josiah, leaning in and putting his face in Josiah's. “Don't do it again. Next time I won't forgive you.” Then he was striding up the path to the house, not looking back. Josiah took the time to look at the sky and murmur a quick prayer.

“Thank you Lord, for a brother who has more mercy than I perhaps deserve.” Then he jogged up the path to Nathan, falling into step with him.

 

Chapter Text

Vin hummed to himself as he came in through the back door of the cabin, kicking off his shoes and tossing his coat in the general direction of the hook. He grinned lightly as he saw his little brother half-slumped over his bowl of cereal, looking for all the word like he was asleep if you didn't see his spoon slowly moving towards his mouth. Walking carefully, he snuck up behind him, putting his pointer finger behind his thumb and raising them to flick the center of the mass of black bed head. Chanu jerked his head away at the last moment, but Vin had half been expecting that and just flicked his ear instead. “Ow, jerk, knock it off!” Vin just smirked and flopped down in the seat next to him.

 

“Left me with all the chores this mornin'. How's the hangover?”

 

“Shhh,” Chanu glanced furtively at the back door, “Pa'll hear.”

 

“He helped ya t' bed last night.” Chanu's head whipped back to him, mouth dropping open in horror, a second later he was groaning as he grabbed at his face, Vin figuring from experience that his eye was pounding so it felt like it was about to pop out of his skull from the sudden movement. Looking even more miserable he shoved his cereal bowl away and dropped his head to the table. Pa had also gone into town early that morning, and at least for now wasn't about to talk the younger boy to death, but Vin figured it couldn't hurt Chanu to be expecting it.

 

“I'm a dead man walking.”

 

“Only 'cause ya were already grounded.” Vin supplied. He didn't know what Chanu had been thinking, when he'd snuck out in the first place. Pa had been wise to the pillow in the bed trick long before either of them had tried it.

 

“I'm eighteen, eighteen is too old to be grounded.” Chanu grumbled, getting up and walking away from the table, leaving his cereal bowl behind. Vin snagged it, checked to make sure it wasn't too soggy and leaning backwards in his chair towards the counter, pulled open the silverware drawer, plucking a fresh spoon out, and settled down, grabbing the box of cereal and dumping more in when he'd finished the last of Chanu's. He might have agreed with his brother, only Chanu had been doing everything he could lately to all but force Pa into it. Gotten himself kicked out of school, even. Pa said he was trying to prove something. Vin hoped one of them figured out what it was before Chanu got himself into trouble he couldn't get out of. If they weren't in BFA(BFE, but with Egypt substituted for Alaska. Vin grinned, remembered the look Ko'Je had given him when then twelve year old Chanu had started parroting that around, imitating Vin), he already would have.

 

Leaning back in his chair once he finished, thinking if he left the dish his brother would probably clean it up when he eventually emerged from the cave that was his room to disappear for the day, since it had been his in the first place and he didn't actually know Vin had used it, he contemplated what to do with his day. It was still tourist season, but Vin wasn't scheduled to lead a group out for another three days, and after he was back from that it was just day trips split back and forth between him and Pa, and then it would be the end of September and they would close until the season started again in May. Letting the chair fall forward with a thunk, Vin stretched and stood up, thinking he would coax the aging husky that was sure to be in Chanu's room if the kid wasn't feeling good out with the word walk. He got two steps before Ko'Je's voice seemed to materialize out of thin air, “Leaving your dish on the table?”, making Vin scowl, as no one else, not anyone, could sneak up on him, but Pa did it without even trying.

 

“It's Chanu's.”

 

“Yet, it was in front of you.” With a shrug and a small smirk, Vin picked up and rinsed his bowl and spoon, setting them in the dishwasher. Pa was sorting through a stack of mail, Vin wondering why he'd come home so quickly, as ordinarily he spent a while in town, not just running errands and getting supplies, but stopping to visit with friends or to eat a meal at the diner. As far out as they were, it made sense if you were going to make the drive to take advantage of it. The man flipped a letter at him partway through the stack, Vin catching it neatly, “That came for you, were you expecting something certified? Dana let me sign for it.”

 

Vin shook his head to Ko'Je's question, turning the letter over in his hands with a curious frown, before ripping it open along the top, pulling out a folded letter, reading it over slowly, and then looked up, frown growing. “Do ya know who Lincoln Larabee is an' why he woulda named me in his will?”

 

Curious looking himself now, Pa said, “No, the name isn't familiar to me.”, holding out a hand, silently asking if Vin wanted him to look. As he went to hand it over, a smaller piece of paper fluttered out and landed on Ko'Je's shoes and he bent down to pick it up, eyes scanning it as he straightened, and as Vin watched a play of emotions that made his stomach knot ran across his father's face.

 

“What is it? Does it explain?” Vin swallowed as Ko'Je's eye's met his.

 

“Yes. Yes, I think it does.” He passed the note back to Vin, taking a step closer and putting a hand on the back of his shoulder, which did not help with his anxiety at all, because if Pa were being this protective it couldn't be anything good. Vin read it carefully once, then read it again, sure it was somehow wrong, his reading was better, but not great, but it was the same, the words were wrong, but they were what he was reading, and then he ripped the damn paper in half, crumpled it into a ball and tossed it as far away as he could, breathing heavily. He'd known!

 

Vin's Momma had told him his Daddy was long gone by the time she knew he existed, that he didn't know about Vin. After she'd gone, when that had started to seem more important, he'd asked his Uncle what the man's name had been, and he'd said he didn't know. When he was adopted he'd seen both his original birth certificate and the amended one, where they replaced “unknown” with Ko'Je's name.

 

It had said unknown.

 

As angry as he had been, those years in foster care, after losing first Momma and then being taken from Uncle Vincent, as lonely and isolated, and damn angry as he had been, he'd still been a kid. He used to imagine that since his Daddy didn't know about him, if he found out he would come and take Vin away. Sometimes, when it had been really bad, he'd imagine him swooping in to save the day, knocking down the door and beating up his foster father, and then he'd take Vin off to this magical place, with woods and animals...and he'd just been a stupid kid, but he'd needed that, needed the idea that if he knew he would come, would save him. Would want Vin.

 

He hadn't. The man had known and he hadn't come. Vin surged forward, away from the calming influence of Ko'Je's hand, picked up the chair he had been sitting in and tossed it across the room, hard enough a leg splintered off, and then stood there, hands clenched into fists at his side, fuming and suffocated by the feeling. Chanu stuck his head around the corner, hair more mussed than it had been, like he'd gone back to sleep, confusedly asking, “What's going on? Dude, did you break a chair?”

 

I can't breathe!” Vin turned and headed for the back door, part of his mind aware of Pa saying something and Silver, their husky, streaking to his side and then he was out the backdoor, feet flying over the yard and off into the woods, planning to run until he lost himself, until no thoughts could fit into his head.

 

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

“Alright, I love you baby. Sorry about the fight.” Ezra forced himself not to grimace and pull away, as Alfred leaned down, instead moving forward into the kiss just a bit. His aching ribs reminded him it was better to play along instead of risking setting Alfred off again.

 

Besides, though the other man didn't know it, it was a kiss goodbye, and it hadn't been that long ago that Ezra had loved him.

 

“It's alright, love, you've had a hard week. Ah'll see you tonight.” He had already moved his most treasured possessions into his car safe, things that had been in the back of his closet, hidden. Once Alfred was safely out of the house he would pack the clothes he couldn't bear to leave behind, then pack Bogart's things, as he wasn't leaving the boston terrier here for anything. Alfred smiled at him, attentive and loving as he always was the day after a 'fight', and Ezra used every bit of his mother's training to say, “Ah love you too,” without having his breakfast revisit him, keeping the smile on his face until he'd shut and locked the door behind the law student he'd once thought was so dashing. Once the car had pulled out of the driveway he let himself sag forward against the door, smiling slightly as within a few seconds of Alfred leaving Bogart emerged from his hiding spot and proceeded to run around the gambler's feet in circles, before licking one toe and settling himself down like he thought Ezra's right foot was his chair. “Mah apologizes love, Daddy doesn't think he's up to a walk today. Ah'll let you out back in a minute.”

 

He knew it probably should have been what Alfred was doing to him, but it had been when he'd kicked the small dog who wanted nothing more than to please his master simply for existing, Bogart rolling over on his belly in submission, only to be kicked again, that Ezra had known he had to get out, and get out now. Bogart was actually Alfred's dog, he had bought him and registered him in his name, had held that fact over Ezra's head more than once, but he paid no attention to him, Ezra was the one who walked and played with him, bathed and groomed him. Last week hadn't been the first time Alfred had cruelly injured the small canine, though it had been by far the hardest he had kicked him, and if he came home to Ezra having left him and only Bogart there to vent his frustrations on, well, he wouldn't put it past him to kill the poor creature.

 

Besides, Ezra loved that dog, and he'd be damned if he let Alfred take anything else from him.

 

Ezra wasn't entirely sure how something that had seemed so promising, so full of potential, had turned out like this. Things had been good for a while, for a long while, almost a year, but the last six or seven months, it had changed. Alfred had always been a little possessive, but at first it hadn't seemed like it was a problem, he had seemed more protective than jealous, or distrustful.

 

It sounded pathetic, like something in one of the romance novels Cousin Martha had always been reading, but it had made him feel wanted. Needed. It was, Ezra would admit, if only to himself, not a sensation he was entirely accustomed to.

 

Sometimes, he wondered what he had done, what mistake he had made, signal he had sent off that had caused Alfred, who had seemed to love him so much, who he had loved so much, to change from the man he had played tag with at two in the morning on the beach, the lover who had made him laugh until milk shot out his nose, to this creature he didn't even recognize. This person who Ezra was honestly convinced would wind up doing him permanent damage if he didn't leave. Rationally, Ezra knew he could bear no blame or accountability for Alfred's actions, but he had always been of the opinion that emotions were not meant to be rational-that was why it was so paramount that one have control of them.

 

Simply put, it didn't feel that way.

 

The man had been so charming. Smart and funny, cultured, but not a snob, and lord, he had been so taken in. Mother liked him, adored him actually-while she should, she'd been the one who'd brought him in on the job that they'd met on in the first place, though she hadn't been thinking about him as a partner for her son. At least, he didn't believe she had been, though with that woman he never really knew what was going on in her head and which of the many schemes she was currently running would wind up involving him whether he liked it or not. Still, his mother's approval should have been forewarning rather than encouragement. Ezra had thought he learned all he needed to learn about fake charm and how to spot it from watching his mother at work, but apparently he was still missing a vast array of knowledge. Or perhaps, as Alfred truly seemed to believe what he was saying while he was saying it, it made it impossible to detect insincerity, in the moment there was none.

 

Ezra fully believed that the man had been in earnest when he told him he loved him that morning.

 

He also knew that the man had meant it when he told him he was a worthless whore who didn't deserve air to breath and knocked him to the ground, landing a few solid kicks to his ribs once he was down, the night before. Ezra didn't think any had cracked, but the bruising was quite painful enough.

 

Then he'd gone and had the audacity to climb into their bed, rolling over to go to sleep as though nothing had happened, while Ezra struggled to get his breath back and climb to his feet on the other side of the room. That letter had been both a blessing and a curse. When he'd opened it, surprised at receiving a certified letter and wary Mother had involved him in something without informing him first, he had found a letter informing him that a Mr. Lincoln Larabee had named Ezra Patrick Standish-Larabee-an addition he had never before seen affixed to his name and had no intention of seeing again-as a beneficiary in his will. It had gone on to inform him that there was a will reading, set in a weeks time, which he was required to attend in order to receive his bequest.

 

Ezra had been surprised by how it had effected him. He had not been grief struck, he couldn't be, he didn't know the man, didn't even know what he looked like. Still it had...unsettled him, he supposed. All his life he'd known that his father, this mysterious man who Mother would tell him almost nothing about, had been out there somewhere, a solid, living, human being. If he had been nothing else to Ezra, he had been a possibility. Now he was nothing. Gone. Further examination of the envelope had revealed a short hand written note from the executor of the estate, who said he was his father's brother. That was what he'd written, 'your father's brother'.

 

As though the man had been Ezra's father. As though Ezra had ever had one.

 

The note had gone on to list a number that he was to call if he had any questions, or needed help arranging transportation. It had finished with a declaration that this Judge Orin Travis was hoping he would come, was looking forward to meeting him. Ezra was simply relieved that it hadn't been signed 'Uncle' as he'd far too many so-called uncles over the years among the various relatives his mother had left him with, and he'd long grown sick of bestowing that title on those who had not merited it.

 

Then the possibilities the letter presented, the potential way out of a situation that had gotten far worse than even the stickiest of the cons he had run with Mother, had begun to occur to him, and he had moved fast. Alfred would have no reason to look for him in Four Corners. Ezra didn't believe in signs, and even if he did it seemed rather morbid to assume this was one as it involved a man's death, whoever he had been or not been to his son.

 

It didn't alter the fact that it had been earlier that very day that he had decided he was leaving, and that somehow it felt monumental that the two events had occurred at virtually the same time. Phone number quickly memorized, the letter hidden in a gap behind one of the cupboards that Alfred, who had taken to searching through Ezra's things, had yet to find, he began to plot. It hadn't been until early the next afternoon that he'd taken the risk of calling, knowing Alfred wasn't meant to be home until late that evening. Perhaps that had been a new way his now ex-lover had been testing him, because instead he had come charging in through the front door after Ezra had been on the phone for no more than a few minutes, the insults and accusations he had flung at him while he looked around for the man he was convinced Ezra had been talking to, despite the phone he held in his hand, making mortification course through him as his 'father's brother' listened to it all.

 

The question, “Who the hell is that jackass talking to you like that?”, had come out the end of the phone, surprising him with the indignation in the tone, decidedly less formal than it had been, and before he had gathered his wits about him, he'd heard his voice responding.

 

“Mah boyfriend.” Then he'd frozen, because well Ezra hadn't been in the closet since he was fifteen, he practiced caution as a rule of thumb. Growing up primarily in the south it had simply been a matter of self preservation.

 

“That's the last person who should be saying those things. Are you sure I can't arrange a flight for you?” The implied 'today', or at least 'soon', was heard loud and clear, and it had been tempting, but there were things Ezra was not willing to leave behind.

 

“Ah'll be fine, thank you.” Then he'd hung up, cutting off any protest before it could be voiced, right before Alfred had snatched the phone from his hand and smashed it against the wall. If it hadn't been the start of the weekend Ezra might have gotten out of there sooner, but instead, with Alfred home, he'd been trapped, attempting to appease a person who could not be reasoned with, until finally, it had escalated into the violence of the night before. Bogart yipped down by his feet, not used to being ignored when he'd asked Ezra for attention, and he pushed himself slowly off the door, one hand going to his side in a futile effort to offer support for his aching rib cage, Bogart letting out a different sort of yip as a groan involuntarily escaped from his master. “Ah'm all right, Bogey. Ah apologize for the
postponement in allowing you your morning necessities.” Moving slowly through the apartment, grateful that the open floor plan meant he didn't have to open any doors or navigate corners, Ezra made it to the back door, carefully pulling open the slider just enough for Bogart to get through and deciding after the effort that had been that the door could just stay open. No one was scaling the concrete wall that surrounded the patio and patch of grass.

 

Wanting to delay until he was sure Alfred would be at his office, busily doing whatever young junior associate lawyers did, before he attempted anything remotely close to resembling packing, Ezra took his stiffness off to the shower, hoping the heat would ease the bruises enough that he could move properly. While the handful of painkillers he'd downed earlier that morning had undoubtedly aided him in that matter, they were evidently wearing off, and it was much too soon to take more.

 

Two hours later and two full suitcases lighter then he'd expected Ezra made his way out the door for the third time, having first loaded Bogart's things, then his own bag, and now had the little dog on his leash to take him out to the waiting Jaguar, worried he'd drop him if he picked him up. Bogart clearly thought he was going for a walk, but he liked car rides equally well, and fortuitously hopped right up in the seat without balking when Ezra opened the door, for once not laying down a towel first, and, saying a silent apology to the convertible's upholstery. He unclipped the leash from Bogart's collar, and told him to, “Stay, Bogey.”, tossing it in the back. Slower then he liked under the curious eyes of Mrs. Takeuchi, a widow who was ninety if she was a day, out tending to the planter boxes on her front porch, he made his way to the driver's side of the vehicle. She'd called the police on Alfred once, and while he knew she'd meant well, it had not made the situation any easier to handle. The old woman merely waved at him and smiled though. Ezra considered waving back, decided it wasn't the smartest of moves and nodded at her, flashing his most charming smile, before turning his attention on how he was going to slide into the Jag's low seats without losing his breath. After a moments contemplation Ezra decided it was no use, just grit his teeth and moved, leaning his head back against the seat and panting for a moment once he was done. Mrs. Takeuchi had stood and was making her way towards his car with aid of her cane, concern on her wrinkled face, and though it pained Ezra to be rude, he slid his seatbelt on and started the car, acting as though he didn't see her approach. It was, Ezra thought as he backed the car up, probably safer for both of them if there was no discussion between them today.

 

A smirk played across his face as he wondered how Alfred would react to the message he'd left for him on the mirror, a bit cruder than he usually allowed himself to be, but ultimately satisfying to scrawl with the permanent marker, knowing Alfred would have no idea how to remove it,

 

Fuck you, you misbegotten, abusive

bastard. I'm leaving you, and I'm

taking the dog too.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Josiah shifted the dresser a bit so he could get to the tape behind it. At almost forty he was no longer comfortable having half naked teenagers on his wall and had started to feel a bit creepy, as reluctant as he had been to change anything at first. This place was like a time capsule labeled Josiah in the late 90's, and it meant something that his father had kept it like this. Unable to reach the tape he shifted the dresser out a little more and heard a thumping noise, something falling from behind it to hit the floor. He looked in the gap and could see whatever it was was small and rectangular shaped, and pushing the dresser even farther away from the wall, was able to squeeze in far enough to pull it out. He chuckled fondly as he saw what it was, Josiah's Private Journal, keep out!!!, scrawled in messy letters across the top. Mama had him start keeping it to practice his writing when he was about eight, and he'd kept it up pretty faithfully until he'd been thirteen, when having anything like that where Chris and Buck might find it became a definite risk.

 

Deciding the poster could wait for another minute, he moved to sit on the end of his bed, opening the small but thick notebook to a random page, grinning after a minute as nine year old Josiah's crush on a missionary who had traveled with them for a year or so's daughter was expounded in great detail and great length, going on nearly three pages. That must have been the year Mama introduced him to poetry too, because, good Lord, the sap! He remembered Ramona, she'd been nearly two years older than him, and had put up with his ridiculously obvious crush with a surprising amount of tact for an eleven year old.

 

He flipped through again, and came to a page where he'd been groaning about how Chris had puked all over a home school project he was working on. Mama had expected him to have completed it by the time she picked him up in a few days, and with both Daddy and Clara more than backing her up on it he'd finished it with time to spare. Just in time for Chris to spew all over it. Of course he hadn't been mad at his brother, Chris was sick. But that didn't stop the the twelve year old from bemoaning the fact that he had to do everything over again and it wasn't fair. When he'd complained to Mama on the phone she'd just told him it shouldn't be very hard since he'd already done the research and knew what he wanted to say and how he wanted to present it. Adult Josiah knew she was right, child Josiah had felt very hard done by.

 

Flipping back the other way he came to a page that made the smile drop right off his face, an angry, hasty scrawl, words far bigger than his usual hand writing, I hate her! I don't care if Daddy says I can't! I do hate her and I am pissed!

 

He closed his eyes for a second, sighing to himself. There was a reason, after all, that until Mama had gotten so sick he'd blamed her for having to keep Hannah a secret, at least blamed her more. After-well after, the only ones who had known the secret had been him and Daddy and so it had been on him. Before that though...

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

“Are we really having this conversation again Anna?” Josiah watched from the corner of the room, half behind the rocking chair, as his father moved away from the crib to confront his mother, voice quiet, shocked, but there was anger brewing in it. Both his parents seemed to have forgotten he was there for now and he had no intention of leaving. He trusted Daddy, but this was the kind of thing that made tempers flare. Not that the eleven year old was sure what good he'd be at calming Daddy down if he got upset, but he could try.

 

He'd figured it out about a month ago, when the baby's eyes had slowly begun to change from>lmknjb gv blue to a green just like his father's. Josiah knew he should have said something, at least told his mother what he suspected, told her she needed to tell Daddy...but how did he tell Mama that he knew she'd had an affair, or at least slept with, his father less than a year after she'd gotten married, and when she was friends with the man's wife? It was a terrible thing to accuse someone of.

 

“Linc, I already told you that she's Emilio's, what else do you want me to say?” Emilio was his mother's new husband, an okay, but sort of useless guy, at least in Josiah's opinion. It was probably the one thing Abuelo and him agreed on. The only good thing about him was that they weren't traveling with Abuelo's ministry anymore.

 

And, Josiah guessed he made Mama happy. That was good, even if Josiah thought he was a tool.

 

“She has my eyes! Emerald green eyes!”

 

“So does Emilio's mother! And they might not have been exactly emerald green, but my mother had green eyes as well. There is no reason my husband's and mine's child couldn't have green eyes.” Her voice lowered automatically as the child in the crib stirred, “We slept together once, and unless she was nearly a month late, before the conception. I slept with Emilio dozens of times in that time period, the chances of him being her father are so much higher than yours it isn't even funny.” Josiah made a face, ewww, he had not needed to know that. But maybe he had been wrong? He didn't think so though, Hannah, with what little you could see in a baby who was only ten months old, looked mostly like his mother, but it wasn't just the color, Hannah's eyes were shaped like Daddy's too. Shaped like Josiah's.

 

“Josiah was a month late, you told me so yourself, so obviously it can happen.”

 

“Linc, look a little closer. Look how dark she is already, do you really think Hannah is only a quarter Hispanic?” Josiah had to admit she had a point. He'd been asked more than once how a “white kid” had the last name Sanchez, Hannah would never have to deal with that. He watched his father hesitate and look back over his shoulder at his sister, squaring his shoulders as he turned back.

 

“I want a DNA test.”

 

Are you trying to ruin both our marriages! Emilio adores her, just the suggestion would break his heart, and I know what Clara told you would happen if this happened again. And since she's not yours it would be for no reason.” Daddy had cheated on Mama Clara before? Josiah felt a little sick to his stomach.

 

“We don't have to tell them until we know for sure, but I need to know, Anna.”

 

“Fine, you know what, fine, Linc. But no matter what any test says Emilio is her Papi. He's the one who cried the first time he felt her kick inside me, who took turns getting up for two o'clock feedings, who shows her off everywhere we go. Nothing changes that.” Mama squared her own shoulders as she said it, and Daddy looked kind of like he'd been punched in the gut.

 

“That's not fair.”

 

“It's the truth.” She turned to head to the crib, where Hannah had started to fuss and must have seen Josiah out of the corner of her eye because she turned towards him, stricken, “'Siah-boy, how long have you been there?” He shrugged, not sure what to say. Mama took a step towards him and he tore out of the room, and out the front door, not slowing until he reached the end of the second block and the park, finding a tree towards the back and climbing into the leafiest part of it, determined not to be found until he'd had time to think about everything he'd just heard.

 

It didn't work. About half an hour later Daddy walked up to the tree, looking up and quietly saying, “I can see your shoes, 'Siah.” He hadn't said anything and after a minute Daddy headed up the tree after him, to Josiah's astonishment, and settled down in a branch across from him, not saying anything himself, just sitting there.

 

I hate her.” Josiah blushed, but set his chin stubbornly as Daddy looked at him in surprise, then shook his head.

 

“Don't say that. Don't you ever say that. Your Mama loves you more than you can imagine.”

 

Josiah scowled and kicked his foot back at one of the branches underneath him. “Fine. I'm really, really, pissed at her.”

 

Linc raised an eyebrow, “And you can watch your mouth right now. My boy doesn't talk like that, you hear?”

 

After a brief stare off Josiah looked down, mumbling, “Sorry. I just...why would she do that?” His voice had raised almost to a yell by the end, but Daddy just sighed.

 

“I'm not the only person in the world who has the DNA to make a green eyed baby.”

 

I'm not stupid.”

 

“I never said that, did I? We're going to get a test done, and we'll go from there. You don't need to worry about it.” Josiah looked at him incredulously, how exactly did he expect him not to worry about it? Daddy grimaced and nodded after a second, “Okay, try not to worry about it too much.”

 

Josiah wasn't done and looked at his father with his most grown-up, serious, expression, “You cheated on Mama Clara. Twice.”

 

“That is adult business, and more complicated than you know. I'm sorry you heard that conversation, but all you need to know is it won't happen again.” If it had happened twice Josiah wasn't sure why he should believe that.

 

“Are you sorry?” He tried to hide the sniffle in his voice, but Daddy's hand reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

 

“I guess that depends on whether or not your sister is mine. I couldn't...”

 

Good.” If he'd said he was sorry about Hannah, Josiah might have tried to shove him out of the tree. That hadn't been what he meant at all.

 

No, he wouldn't have, not really.

 

But he wasn't sure he ever would have forgiven him for it either.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Only later, it had seemed at times that Daddy was sorry about Hannah.

 

Josiah sighed as he thought back over the rest of that day, a dusty memory, wiped clean and made visible. They'd stayed up in the tree awhile longer, and taken the long way back to the house, stopping to buy fruit filled ice cream bars from a cart. By the time they'd gotten back Emilio had been home, and playing with Hannah on the carpet, flying the baby through the air and then tickling her belly, Hannah laughing. Daddy had had this look on his face for just a second, that wasn't sad exactly, just...while at the time Josiah hadn't really recognized it, now he'd say it was a mixture of grief, resignation and gratitude. Mama hadn't been lying when she'd said Emilio adored Hannah, at least then. When they'd been driving back to the ranch Daddy had started asking him questions about Emilio, some of them he'd asked before, but most of them he hadn't, a lot of them about how he was with Hannah, and Josiah had felt strange, there wasn't really any other way to describe it, just strange, as he'd suspected what his father might be considering.

 

The DNA test wasn't done for another two months, both of his parents seemingly dropping it for the month that Josiah was with his father, and then everyone at his father's house had gotten the flu (Josiah's lips quirked as he recalled a phone conversation with an earnest four year old Buck, who'd avoided getting sick as the flu had hit the house during the week, when he was with his mother, much as Josiah had by leaving the week before, telling his big brother, 'it's lucky I got more than one house, if Momma lived with Daddy I'd be puking too', quite cheerfully. He'd then started to describe the last time he had gotten sick to Josiah, ignoring all his attempts to convince him he really didn't need to hear any stories that involved mountains of puke), and by the time the test was done and the results were back, Hannah had had her first birthday, it seeming like Emilio's entire extended family attended, and Mama Clara had announced she was pregnant.

 

The summer sun had started to bring out numerous previously hidden blonde highlights in Hannah's dark hair, hair that continued to lighten over the next few years, and Josiah hadn't thought Mama was as surprised by the test results as she acted, not by now.

 

Had wondered if she'd known all along. He didn't think so though. He'd seen the guilt on her face sometimes, when she looked at Emilio and Hannah, guilt at lying to her husband about something so important, and Josiah didn't think it had been there before that.

 

He'd come to accept it over the next few years, that Emilio was Hannah's father in the ways that mattered, that the thing that mattered most was that his sister had a father who was good to her, who loved her, whether he was blood or not. The secrecy had still bothered him, but even that he had begun to grow used to.

 

By the time Hannah had been three, it had become obvious that something was wrong-in hindsight there had been signs from the time she was even smaller, signs Josiah guessed they'd all ignored-, she was scared of all strangers, to the point that if she could she would run and hide if one approached or talked to her, just as scared of strange children as she was adults, so that taking her anywhere was a stressful ordeal for everyone involved, especially Hannah. Fire of any type terrified her, even the lit end of a cigarette, into a full out meltdown, and she almost never made eye contact when talking to people, and while she was obviously smart, her speech was severely delayed compared to her other skills.

 

She had loved to sing. She mostly just sang along with the tune, though there had been a few she knew the words to. Josiah would put on music when he was watching her, and it didn't seem to matter what type it was, Hannah had loved it. Sometimes, he'd even been able to get her to dance with him, though she'd liked it better when he danced for her, putting on a show.

 

Emilio hadn't been able to deal with it-oh, he'd stuck around for the first few rounds of testing and home therapies, but once he'd figured out it wasn't a quick fix, that it wasn't something that would go away, wasn't some sort of phase she'd grow out of, as he'd kept trying to insist at the beginning, he had started to distance himself, from both Hannah and Mama. It couldn't have helped that he must have been suspicious by then. Daddy hadn't paid as much attention to Hannah as Josiah would have liked to think he would have if Emilio hadn't been around, but he had paid more attention than one would have expected a man to pay to his child's half-sibling, sought the child out when he was picking up or dropping off Josiah, sent birthday and Christmas presents. Once, when Mama had been talking about some kind of behavioral therapy they could never have afforded, Daddy had just right in the middle of her sentence, said, “I could help out.” His stepfather had acted grateful-surprised, but grateful-but Josiah had heard him shout at his mother a few days later, when they had been fighting, that he 'didn't need some rich gringo to take care of his daughter'. Mama had fired back that that rich gringo was her son's father, and the evening had deteriorated from there. A few months after Hannah had turned five Emilio presented his mother with divorce papers, and within a year he'd quit coming to see his sister entirely.

 

Josiah had expected, perhaps foolishly, that his father would step up to fill the void left behind in his sister's life, and financially he had. Though nothing had actually been said about it, at least not where he could hear, he knew not long after the DNA results the child support his father sent had increased in amount, and had increased again when he learned about the divorce.

 

But he hadn't done what Josiah had expected, his efforts in other areas had fallen entirely flat, he had-he had given up, and without hardly trying at all. Perhaps after what his mother had required of him, had asked Daddy to do, it hadn't been, wasn't, fair of him to be upset about it, but it hadn't been about Mama, or Daddy, or even Josiah. It had been about Hannah.

 

It had always been about Hannah.

 

Josiah was brought out of his thoughts by Buck's friendly pound on his door, calling through the wood, “Hey old man, time for the meeting with Orin.” With an effort, Josiah pulled himself back to the present, moving to stick the journal in one of the drawers of his bedside table, shaking himself mentally before leaving the room. Orin wanted to see them today, the day before the funeral, and it was not only likely to be important, but Josiah had yet to see his uncle since he got back to town four days ago.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Buck grinned at his uncle; he’d been certain this would be another boring, depressing meeting, hadn't been sure what there could be to talk about with the funeral tomorrow, and the will reading three days after that, but news like this was welcome, “You found him? You found Ezra? Where is he? Did ya talk to him?” He cut himself off then, knowing he’d ask questions all day given half the chance.

 

“Yes Buck, I found him, and yes, I talked to him. He’s not that far away actually, has been living in Las Vegas for about a year and a half now-”

 

Chris broke him off then, “That close? Did Daddy know?”

 

Orin gave his nephew a look for the interruption, not that Chris paid it any mind, “Do you think if he had he wouldn’t have been on the next flight down? No, I was getting close-Maude was hiding him before, the only reason I was able to find him at all is that Ezra is not trying to hide. As it is, he seems to half cover his tracks just out of habit. I only knew for sure where he was around three weeks ago.” Chris just looked at him, not sure how to feel about that. Three weeks ago, a week ago, his Daddy had still been around. After seventeen years of searching he should have been on the next flight down.

 

Josiah, voice pained, said, “Daddy put off contacting Ezra because my visit was already planned, didn’t he?”

 

“Josiah…”

 

“I’m not a child, Uncle Orin, and I’d like to know.”

 

Orin did not think Josiah needed to know, whatever his likes to the contrary were, but his nephew was right. He was an adult, had been one for decades now, and if he wanted to know Orin had no right to keep it from him. “Yes. Linc had no way of knowing this was going to happen, and-”

 

A small, bitter, snort of a laugh escaped from the before now silent Nathan, and Orin closed his eyes briefly. He had known this was going to be difficult, but the way it was going it would be hours before they were though. “Yeah. Sure, he didn’t.” Nathan had already shared what he’d been able to learn from the hospital records with his brothers, and the other three nodded. He might not have known when it was going to happen, but Linc’s heart had been at risk for a while and he’d hidden how bad it was from all of them.

 

“Boys, please. We have a long, hard morning to get through and I still have a lot to tell you.” With various degrees of reluctance, they turned their attention back to him and Orin went on, pleased they’d listened for once. “As I said I talked to him, though briefly, and he is planning to come to the will reading. I’m afraid I can’t tell you much more than that.”

 

“Did he sound okay? Hell, what’d he sound like?” Bucklin was leaning forward, concern and curiosity plain on his face.

 

“He has a very strong southern accent, and when we were talking he was quite formal. I was asked to pass on condolences to all of you, though in slightly more ornate language. The boy talks like a dictionary, honestly.”

 

Buck interrupted, cheerful again, his natural state, “That ain’t a lick surprising, boy was already chattering away like a magpie before his second birthday.” If Orin didn’t know a steel sharp mind lay behind that goofy grin, he never would have believed it. Which was exactly the way Buck liked it.

 

“I remember.” Slipping even more from judge to uncle, he shook his head. “As for whether he’s okay or not, I would imagine he has no idea how to feel. I don’t think he knew much more about your daddy than his name. Certainly seemed surprised he’d been named in the will-asked me if I was sure.” Orin hesitated, wondering if he should mention the end of their conversation, when another man had started yelling, demanding to know who Ezra was talking to, and calling him names that had made Orin want to jump through the phone. It had sounded to Orin like tapes he’d heard played in his courtroom of domestic abuse, and the idea of his nephew being treated like that made him furious. Yet, Orin didn’t want to scare Ezra off, and showing up with a large group of what amounted to strangers already knowing his business was the sort of thing that could do it.

 

“Poor kid.” Buck shook his head, a frown curling over his face. No one said anything, the tension growing. No one had forgotten that Orin had said he still had a lot to tell. What else could there be with the funeral tomorrow and the will reading three days away?

 

“Boys…” Four bodies sat up straight in their chairs, knowing whatever came next was why they are really here. “Ezra is not the only other person invited to the will reading…you have two more brothers.” He stopped then, letting the explosion of voices wash over him, asking him what the hell he was talking about, telling him that he better not be serious, knowing nothing he said would be heard until they were through. Finally, when they seemed to be winding down he stepped in again, “Their names are Vincent Tanner and John Daniel Dunne. Vincent is 23 and John Daniel is 17.”

 

“Did you say Dunne? As in our babysitter?” Nathan was staring at Orin in shock mingled with disgust, “She was half Daddy’s age!”

 

“To be fair, she was my age, so she was only about sixteen years younger than him,” Josiah was shaking his head, apparently amused, though no one else was, except maybe Buck.

 

“Daddy and Jenna? You know I asked her to marry me once, when I was about ten or eleven? Guess that explains why she laughed at me.”

 

“Nothing at all to do with the fact that your prepubescent ass had been mooning at her obviously for months-remember when we caught him kissing that picture, Nate?” Chris smirked at Buck as Nathan tried to swallow a laugh.

 

Buck just shrugged, not at all embarrassed, “Did a lot more than that with that picture.” Nathan about choked, slightly horrified, and Josiah’s amusement had turned into a full-blown belly laugh, eyes streaming by the time he'd calmed, forcing a sentence out as he tried to get his breath back.

 

“I wouldn’t share that with John if I were you.”

 

“Yeah, just like you probably shouldn’t tell Ezra about how you used to follow his Ma around like a love-sick puppy.” Buck grinned as Josiah tried to glare at him, but he was still too busy wiping his eyes from his laughing fit to make a good job of it.

 

“Alright, enough.” The others settled at his words and Chris turned back to Orin, all business now. “Why weren’t we told about them? Did Daddy know the whole time?”

 

“Yes, he did. It’s a bit complicated-”

 

“So, explain.” Orin leveled a look at Chris, who leveled one right back. His uncle could be pissed all he wanted, Chris sure as hell wasn’t happy right now.

 

“That would be easier to do without interruptions.” They all stared silently and pointedly at him, and resisting the urge to strangle one of them, he carried on. “Both of the women involved asked your Daddy to keep his distance. I’m not sure why Cady Tanner did so, but I do know Jenna Dunne wanted a fresh start. As you’ve all said, she was very young.” When Linc had told him he’d gotten a woman the same age as his oldest son pregnant Orin had wanted to smack him silly.

 

“He sent support though, didn’t he?” Nathan was sitting forward, face anxious, and Orin hid a wince. Out of all the boys Nathan still had the most idealized vision of his father, and it had already taken a few blows since Linc had passed.

 

“They were both very proud women-”

 

“You’re fucking kidding me.” Chris hissed it out, suddenly reminding his uncle very much of a coiled snake.

 

“I didn’t say no, I-”

 

“Ya sure as hell implied it!” Buck snapped out, banging a hand on the table, “Just tell us!”

 

“If you settle down and listen, I will,” Four mutinous faces stared back, Buck muttering under his breath, but Orin had changed the diapers of all but Josiah, and was far from intimidated. “Ms. Tanner refused support, but they compromised on him setting up a college fund, as well as a small investment portfolio, both of which have done quite well over the years.” Feeling the tension starting to seep out of the room, Orin hated to share what he had to say next, “Unfortunately when his mother died when he was five the paperwork does not seem to have been passed onto his next placements, and I don’t believe Vincent knows of their existence.”

 

“Next placements?” Josiah was growling more than speaking, “Why didn’t Daddy take him? What happened?”

 

“Your father was never contacted, either by the Texas state department or any remaining family members. I can’t tell you why, he certainly should have been. It seems that Vincent was one of those children you hear about who fall through the cracks, and the only reason I know the details is your father asked me to start trying to find Cady and Vincent about a year ago.” Orin took a moment to look down at the papers on his desk, ones he didn’t actually need, realigning the edges. This was family business, far more than it was official, but he still couldn’t help but resent his little brother for having dumped this in his lap, and the looks on his nephews’ faces didn’t help. “Vincent was originally left with the great uncle he and his mother lived with-his namesake, and her business partner-at their home on the Reservation there. From the records I can access he did quite well there for the next two years, after which he was placed in foster care.”

 

“Poor little feller. Did his great uncle die too?” Buck’s voice was mournful, but next to him Nathan had looked up, face stricken.

 

“No. You would have said if he had. It was like what they tried to do with Rain’s cousins wasn’t it? When we were researching for their case, we saw Texas had a terrible problem with that for years. The reservation by Houston? That’s what it was, wasn’t it? They stole him. Just took him from his family.” Orin nodded, there was no denying it, especially after the advocacy work he’d found himself doing for the Seminole Reservation since the mess with that horrible social worker. Cultural differences and the poverty found in many Reservations sometimes led to well-meaning people making terrible mistakes-mistakes that tore families apart and ruined lives, no matter their intentions. Worse, just as in all other walks of life there were social workers who had motives of their own. Racists and xenophobes, continuing the work of the old boarding schools under a different name, and people like Ms. Jones, who sought to all but sell children they considered beneath the radar to the highest bidder. That abuse was no rarer there than it was anywhere, and many children did need a safe home to go to had made the whole thing a nightmare. He was still thankful he’d been able to get the girls home.

 

“I believe that is exactly what happened. Nothing in his records, medical or otherwise, indicates there was a reason to remove him from the home.” Nathan surged out of his seat, face contorting, and stormed to the window so fast Orin was half expecting him to punch it out, and had the thought that he was grateful they switched to safety glass. Instead he hunched over, hands tight on the window sill, trying to get control of his temper. “Vincent seems to have had a rough few years of it, moving between several different homes, and even being moved to a group home when he started middle school, but there is a happy ending. He gained a mentor named Ko’Je when he was about thirteen, he was placed with him later that year, and officially adopted when he was fifteen. The family moved to Alaska when Vincent was about seventeen, and started a business that leads hunting and other wilderness groups on expeditions. Your brother is a full partner, and they have a very good reputation.”

 

Chris snorted, “Guess we owe this Ko’Je a pretty big thank you, don’t we? Did more for the boy than Daddy ever did.” He was on his feet in one fluid motion, heading for the door, the others following after with varying degrees of swiftness.

 

“Where the hell are you going?”

 

“Saloon.” Orin rolled his eyes at the chorus, considered joining them, then sank back into his chair instead, calling after them.

 

“Back in an hour! We aren’t done.” They didn’t respond, but Orin knew them. They’d be back, late, and it would be because of a need for information, not his order. But they’d be back. He pulled open his desk drawer, pulling out a small flask and unscrewing the lid. This was one drink he felt he could honestly say he needed.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sitting in a circle around the table in the back corner of the saloon that Chris, Buck and Nathan had long ago claimed as their own, the four Larabee brother's stoically drank their beer, silent and brooding to a man. While Chris being silent as he drank was not unusual-though since he'd laid off the hard stuff, he wasn't there as much as he used to be-Buck was rarely less than boisterous, and, with a few drinks and his brother's encouragement, Nathan was often a toned down version of the same. All three quiet and, along with the long lost older brother, looking various degrees of miserable and murderous was more than enough to have other patrons of the bar keeping their distance.

 

But silence can only last so long.

 

“I don't understand...”, Buck said quietly, mustache almost drooping into his beer, “if somebody told me they were having my kid...I couldn't just stay away, not just 'cause they asked me too.”

 

Chris's fingers tightened around his beer bottle so tight that Nathan, in between him and Josiah, was wondering if it was going to shatter in his hand, “He should've fought for them.” Josiah drained the last of his bottle in two long drinks, reaching over to snag Nathan's empty, and retreated to the bar, coming back with another round a few minutes later, grateful nobody commented on the fact that it was probably a little early for the double shot of jack he'd had the bartender serve up.

 

Sitting down heavily in his chair, Josiah popped the top off his own beer, taking a long sip before speaking, “We should remember that we don't know the whole story, that with Daddy gone we may never know the whole story.” Chris glared at him, opening his mouth to protest, but Josiah continued before he could, “But for what it's worth, I agree with you. He should have fought for them.” His gaze went from his brother to his beer bottle then, thumb moving rhythmically over the curved top of the bottle, voice lowering so that his next words could barely be heard, “All of them.”

 

“Don't know that I blame Jenna for not wanting Daddy involved, what kind of man gets the babysitter pregnant? I feel like I didn't even know him.” Nathan's voice was low, more melancholy than angry, but there was a hint of venom in his voice and when Chris's eyes narrowed, sitting forward in his chair and pointing his beer bottle at him, Nathan just stared stubbornly back.

 

Now, you listen here-Daddy wasn't perfect, far from it, and maybe we didn't know him as well as we thought. But whatever else he was, he was our Daddy and a damn good one. There is nothing he did that meant a child should have been kept from him.”

 

Nathan glared and shook his head, “I didn't mean that, not the way you're taking it, but she's Josiah's age. Jenna would have been twenty-one, maybe twenty-two when they were together in order to have a seventeen year old, and Daddy would have been almost forty. You're telling me you don't see something wrong with that?”

 

“They were both consenting adults,” Buck put in with a shrug, “Sure, it's a little weird, but it's not illegal.”

 

“But she worked for him since she was a teenager, and-”

 

Buck cut him off before he could continue, voice outraged, “Hey now, wait a minute! Are you saying you think Daddy did something with her when she was underage?” Nathan looked shocked for a minute, then shook his head.

 

No, I meant that there is always a power imbalance between a boss and employee, and since she was so young when they hired her it would have been greater.” Looking uncomfortable, he carried on, “but, know that you mention it, we don't-”

 

“I oughta smack you a good one, you know that, right?” Buck was clearly fuming, and Nathan glowered at him, chin raising.

 

“What, all of you are allowed to be mad at him, and I'm not?”

 

“There's a hell of a difference between being mad at him for not being there for our brothers, and accusing him of taking advantage of a teenager!” Buck had half stood up, leaning forward, and Nathan slowly pushed back his chair, legs moving so that the balls of his feet were posed on the floor.

 

Josiah growled, “That's enough, the both of you.”, and was soundly ignored. The boys were looking for a fight, probably would have been even without the bombshell Orin had dropped on them, the turmoil of Daddy's death and his return pushing them past their limits, but they shouldn't be fighting each other, not right now. As Nathan began to push himself up, Buck straightening, he decided he'd had enough, and reaching his long arms out to either side of him, grabbed a handful of the bottom of each of their shirts and yanked them back down to a sitting position, “I said that's enough.”

 

“'Siah!”

 

“What the hell!”

 

“Beating each other up isn't going to make either of you less mad at Daddy, or make you miss him less either, knock it the hell off.” Voice gruff and face set, Josiah waited to see if the two would decide he'd overstepped his bounds and either tell him off or resume fighting, but to his relief they settled back into their seats, still angry, but done for now. For a few minutes there was nothing but silence again as they drank, Josiah unsure why Chris was smirking at him, finally raising a questioning eyebrow at him from across the table.

 

“Nice to know I'm not the only one around to knock their heads together when they're being jackasses.” Josiah snorted as Chris's smirk grew, Buck attempting to shoot them both a dirty look, but the way the corner of his mouth was twitching, clearly seeing the humor in it himself, it wasn't very effective. Noticing there was no reaction from him Josiah cast a concerned look over at Nathan, seeing his eyes were trained straight down on the table, as stiff as he had been when Josiah had returned him to his seat, steadily drinking his beer, and looking more miserable than ever. Just as Josiah was thinking about what he was going to say, and coming up blank, Nathan leaned forward and grabbed the empty bottles that had been pushed into the center of the table, taking the lot up to the bar and grabbing another round, setting three down where the others could grab them when he returned, slumping down in his seat.

 

“Buck?” The last of any anger seemed to drain away from Buck with the quiet, almost tentative, question, gaze lifting and softening at the same time.

 

“Yeah, Nate?”

 

“I didn't-I don't-” Nathan's voice broke on his last word, swallowing hard and clamping his mouth shut, ducking his head down as he tried to hide his shuddering shoulders.

 

“Aw, pard,” Buck was leaning forward again, stretching far enough over the table that it would have seemed ludicrous in any other situation, hand grabbing Nathan's off the table and squeezing, Josiah moving his hand to just below the nape of his baby brother's neck, letting it rest there, as Chris shifted his chair so he was blocking the view of Nathan best he could from the bar. “I know ya don't. I shouldn'ta gotten mad anyway.” Nathan's head shook sharply, just once, apparently disagreeing, and Buck frowned slightly, “No, I shouldn'ta. Not worth it, and I don't have any right to tell you how to feel, anyway.”

 

Nathan made no more protests, just did his best to steady his breathing until he started to calm enough to straighten up, pulling his hand away from Buck's to swipe quickly at his eyes. Josiah left his hand where it was for a second longer, before letting it fall back to the table. “Sorry about that.” Nathan's voice was still quiet, subdued, but before either Buck or Josiah could tell him not to apologize, Chris broke in, a clear order in his tone.

 

“Don't be stupid. Not something you say sorry for.”

 

“But-” Chris's hand shot out, popping Nathan on the shoulder, not particularly hard, but not soft either, Nathan's words cut off by a yelp of surprise. Josiah growled, and Buck snapped out Chris's name like a curse word, but Nathan just popped Chris back harder, looking more annoyed than guilty now. Chris shoved his shoulder, a hint of a grin on his face, Nathan's shove back accompanied with a glint of humor in his eye. “Jerk.”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Oh Lord.” Everyone looked towards Josiah as he shifted forward in his seat, “Is Greg Mason still as big a jerk as he used to be?”

 

“His type only get worse,” Buck said, turning his head over his shoulder in the direction Josiah was looking, cursing as he saw Mason heading their way, “Aw dammit, because that's exactly what we need.”

 

“He probably just wants to see if he can set me off the way he used to,” Josiah grumbled.

 

“Think he can?” Chris asked, not having bothered to acknowledge Mason's approach otherwise.

 

With a sheepish grin, Josiah admitted, “Probably. His fun-” He cut himself off mid word, suddenly much more annoyed with the situation then he had been. Mason sauntered over, not quite stupid enough to lean on the table, but snagged the fifth chair the boys had pushed away, pulling it so he could lean his elbow on the back. Contrary to Josiah's prediction however, he turned his gaze on Buck, a cocky grin plastered across his face.

 

“Hey, me and the boy's wanted to know if you had any miniatures available of that painting hanging over the counter out front?” Buck's eyes narrowed, turning in his seat so he was facing Mason more directly.

 

Why exactly would you want my Momma's portrait?” The portrait in question was done in bordello style to go along with the theme, Rosie done up in the sort of outfit a saloon girl might have worn, reclining on a fancy couch with a coy smile as her red hair tumbled down over one shoulder. Buck had admired it for nearly as long as he could remember-his Momma looked beautifully and happy and young.

 

It was also responsible for the first time he'd heard his mother called a whore, just a casual comment by a random drunk, overheard when Buck was too little to understand more than that the man's words were cruel.

 

“Well, it's just that it's a mite stimulating, if you get my drift, and I figured that you wouldn't want the mess if some of the fella's took care of it-” That was as far as he got before Buck tackled him with a roar, Mason crashing to the floor with Buck on top of him, pulling back just enough to land a solid punch to the man's jaw, getting a sharp jab in the ribs for his trouble. For a moment the others just sat there, it being pretty clear that Buck was winning, but after he got a few more solid hits in Chris pushed himself to his feet and leaned over, grabbing Back by the shoulders and hauling him backwards off of Mason who immediately started clutching at his bloody nose. Nathan and Josiah stood at the ready, glaring at a small group of Mason's buddies who were clustered together at the bar, obviously considering heading their way.

 

“Buck, this piece of shit ain't worth going to jail for.” As Buck nearly pulled loose from Chris's grip he jerked him back again, shaking him and then wrapping a tight arm around his chest, pinning his arms to his sides.

 

“Let me GO! Right now Chris, or I swear to God!” While Buck struggled, Mason glared through his bleeding nose.

 

“Ain't my fault your Momma was a whore.” As Chris contemplated letting Buck go, and possibly joining him, Josiah and Nathan swooped in from either side, grabbing Mason by the arms and hauling him off in the direction of the bathroom.

 

“Hey, what are you assholes doing to Greg?!”

 

Chris swore as three of Mason's friends made their way towards where he was holding a still struggling Buck, though he was calming a little with Mason gone, two more hanging slightly behind, “If I let you go, don't kill 'em?”

 

“Maybe.” Deciding that was good enough, Chris let him loose, stepping to the side of him so they were shoulder to shoulder. Buck glared, standing so his long body took up as much room as it could, but stayed where he was.

 

That lasted only until one of them snapped off, “Just 'cause your gigolo of an old man's dead don't mean you can just assault people. There's something wrong with your whole family, you know that?”

 

Chris and Buck looked at each other. “Could just kick them out, ban them.”

 

“Aw, c'mon old pard, where's the fun in that? We can take 'em.”

 

“True.” Chris nodded, before turning his gaze back to the speaker, staring hard into his eyes as he let his face settle into his most fearsome glare.

 

“There's five of us!” called one of the guys from the back, “And only two of you!”

 

“Chris?”

 

“Go ahead.”

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

“Feeling better, boys?” Orin Travis’s voice was a touch sarcastic as his nephews stumbled back into the room an hour and a half later, clearly worse for wear. Buck’s shirt was torn and he had a nasty scratch down one cheek, Josiah had the makings of a spectacular black eye and was favoring his left leg, and, in addition to a growing fat lip, he could see the bloody split in Nathan’s knuckles from here-he just hoped they hadn’t given them to each other. Chris followed behind them with the air of an amused parent, and not a mark on him-though Orin would be surprised if he hadn't been just as involved as the others.

 

“You know it,” Buck said, all but falling into his chair.

 

Josiah grinned, voice a happy rumble, settling down next to Buck this time, “We were defending the family honor.” Orin quirked an eyebrow for explanation, which a slightly tipsy Nathan gave, sounding very satisfied.

 

“Some asshole was being rude about Auntie Rosie, so Buck tackled him and punched him. Fool decided that meant he should say it louder, so me and ‘Siah carted him off to the bathroom and shoved his head in the toilet.” Orin couldn’t help it, he knew he shouldn’t encourage them, but he grinned. Rosie had been family to him and Evie just as much as she’d been to Linc and the boys, and really, anyone who spoke negatively about a dead woman in front of her son deserved what he got. That the idiot had done it in her bar just cemented that.

 

“How’d that lead to all this?”

 

“His friends didn’t like what we did. We decided we didn’t like his friends.” Josiah’s grin was still wide as anything, but he was leaning to the right in his chair, reminding Orin he’d been favoring his left side.

 

Hitting the intercom button on his desk Orin spoke to his assistant, “Tanya, could I get you to bring in some ice packs and the first aid kit please?” Getting her confirmation, he turned back to the four men, “Are the police going to show up here?”

 

“Hope not.” Chris shrugged, “Always such a hassle.”

 

Trying to hide another grin, Orin waited until Tanya came in, handing the supplies to Nathan without prompting, winked at Buck, and left the room as the young doctor started handing out ice packs and antibiotic wipes, not at all surprised when Chris's only injury was scraped and bruised knuckles. He frowned in concern when Nathan first cleaned a spot on the back of Buck’s head with a wipe and then had him hold an ice pack against it, before deciding he would have already taken care of it if it were serious. Orin cleared his throat, “Alright, do you have any questions, or should we move onto Mr. Dunne?”

 

Chris spoke for everyone, “Questions can wait, tell us what we need to know.”

 

Seeing no point in dragging this out, there had already been one bar fight today, Orin started talking, “Mr. John Daniel Dunne only turned seventeen this July, however he is a very bright boy, and graduated in June from the University of Massachusetts as one of the top in his class.”

 

Beaming, Buck broke in, “College graduate at seventeen, ain’t that something. Jenna must be awful proud.”

 

Nathan opened his mouth to ask if he knew what John had majored in when he saw the solemn expression cover his uncle’s face, and with a sinking feeling, waited for what he was sure he was going to hear. “Jenna Dunne passed away in February after a four-year battle with cancer. I’m sorry boys, I know there was a time you knew her well.” A long heavy silence followed, three of the brothers exchanging looks, while the fourth just sat there, slowly simmering.

 

“Do ya think we’re cursed?” Everyone but Chris looked at Buck like he was crazy, and he hurried to explain. “What I mean is, all of our Mommas dead except for Ezra’s-and I ain’t sure whether that’s a good thing or not, after what she did. That’s weird, ain’t it?”

 

Nathan looked at him angrily, “If you’re trying to be funny, you sure as hell aren’t.”

 

“You really think I’d try and tell a joke right now? Jenna was my friend-”

 

“The two of you shut it!” Chris barked, startling them both into silence, “Where’s John, Orin? You just told us he’s barely 17 and his mother’s dead, so where the hell is he?”

 

“John became an emancipated minor during his mother's illness, and is still living in their apartment in Boston.”

 

“He’s been living all alone in the place where his Momma was sick and dying?” Buck shook his head, swallowing hard, grateful when Josiah’s hand came to rest on his shoulder, squeezing. That’s when Chris’s fist came crashing down on the table as he sprang to his feet, leaning his long frame over the Judge.

 

“Since February! Nine months, a teenage boy has been on his own! How long have you known, Uncle Orin? Did Daddy know? The second, the second, you knew you should have damn well told us! Not waited for some goddamn meeting! He’s a child! A boy! You don’t leave children to survive on their own! You don’t!”

 

“Christopher, calm down and listen to me, now.” Chris glared, not moving, but shut his mouth, almost gritting his teeth as he did so. “I had no idea until I looked into contacting him about the will reading, four days ago. If your father knew he didn’t say a word, but I would hope you’d know him better than that.” Travis stared hard at Chris, he knew why the information was hitting the younger man so harshly, but this kind of reaction didn’t help anyone.

 

“What the hell am I supposed to think, Orin? When you tell me I got two brothers, one of them still a kid, that have been all but thrown to the wolves, you tell me, what the hell am I supposed to think? Noticed you didn’t mention anything about support for John, too.”

 

“Linc paid a modest amount of child support monthly, and would have provided more, but as I said, Jenna was a proud woman. Unlike Cady she maintained some communication with Linc himself-I believe there is a box of pictures you may find in his room, but that was as far as it went. He did try boys-I once assisted in the anonymous delivery of a bicycle. There was a week at space camp that John ‘won’. Oh, and the support isn’t drawn from his checking account, so it won’t have stopped with the death notification to the bank.” There was a pounding growing behind his right eye and he did his best to push it away.

 

“He won’t need it. John’ll be with us.” There was absolutely no doubt in Chris’s voice, and seeing the trio of nods that surrounded him at his words, Orin relaxed a bit. Four of the Larabee brothers were home again, and it seemed, at least for the moment, three more would be welcomed. Once you got Chris’s protective streak up it was impossible to fight against.

 

“Good. I was hoping you’d say that.” Chris looked at his uncle and after a minute nodded, the tension easing up slightly, and Chris sat back in his seat.

 

Josiah frowned in concern, “You never said anything about talking to either John Daniel or Vincent, did you hear from them?”

 

“Vincent, I talked to briefly. He was understandably angry, having assumed his father didn’t know of his existence at all.” A brief smirk flashed across Orin's face, “His vocabulary is as impressive as Ezra’s, but in an entirely different direction-and a few different languages. His adoptive father, Ko’Je, wound up taking the phone and finishing the conversation. He will, according to Ko’Je, be here.”

 

“You think he’s gonna listen to his Da-” Buck broke off here, an uncertain look passing over his face. Linc was his brother’s Daddy…only he wasn’t really. This Ko’Je was. Just like Mama Clara had been a stepmom to him and Josiah-the best stepmom-, but for Chris, she was his mother as much as she was Nathan’s, the only one he could remember. But it would be hard, if this brother stuck around, even just to visit now and again, to hear him call another man that. Buck sure as hell wouldn’t say a word to him about it, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t be hard.

 

Orin nodded, pretending that he didn’t notice Buck breaking off in the middle of the word (or Chris glaring at Buck for it, Josiah noticing and raising an eyebrow that Chris didn’t notice, and wouldn’t pay attention to if he did.), “Yes, I think he will.”

 

“And John?”

 

“I’m afraid boys, that I’ve been unable to get a hold of him. He didn’t call the office like the others, and the listed number has been disconnected since April according to the phone company. The notification for the will reading required a signature, so I know he was still present in the apartment, but that's it.” He'd contemplated having the local police do a wellness check, and if the boy hadn't at least contacted him by the will reading, Orin would do so.

 

“So we have no idea how he’s doing? He’s probably struggling to pay bills if he’s shutting off utilities. I’m sorry Uncle Orin, but I agree with Chris, you should have told us the second you knew,” Nathan was shaking his head, a frown growing prominent on his face. “One of us could have flown out by now to check on him.”

“Probably woulda scared the hell out of ‘im if we did that,” Buck waved a hand as though dismissing this idea, “Grown man he don’t know showing up on his doorstep. Besides, it’s too late now, if he’s coming to the will reading he’s probably already on his way here. Once he gets here, that’s when we gotta work on talking him into staying.”

 

“He’s staying,” Chris snapped.

 

“I know that, and you know that, we just gotta convince the kid of that.”

 

“Well, we can be grateful for one thing. At least he put them in the will. Otherwise we might never have known they existed!” Josiah stared hard into Orin's eyes as he spoke, standing up abruptly at the end of his outburst and walking out of the room without saying another word. The clenched fists at his side ensured no one tried to stop him.

 

“What the hell was that about?” Buck asked, bewildered, voice alone in the ocean of silence that seemed to have enveloped the room in Josiah's wake.

 

“While he's right, isn't he?” Nathan said, “We wouldn't have known they existed.” Next to him Chris's hands were slowly tightening back into fists, and he nodded sharply.

 

“No. We wouldn't have.” His words were simple, but his eyes were fixed on Orin and he was sure he saw suspicion in them, Chris likely wondering why his brother's words had been directed at their uncle.

 

“Let me see if I can talk to him, boys.” The old man pushed himself out of his chair and, heart feeling heavy, began the trek out of his office, ignoring Buck asking if that was really a good idea and Nathan saying that he would go. Neither of them had any idea what was really upsetting Josiah and Orin knew all too well. Tanya pointed in the direction of the back staircase with a sympathetic expression on her face, and with a quiet thanks he headed that way, purposely slowing his pace to give Josiah more time than the two flights of stairs would.

 

Orin knew a few things Josiah did not, not yet, knew that after Josiah had left, Linc had gone to some effort to make amends for not being there for his daughter. Whether making amends was actually possible, well...

 

In searching for Josiah, Linc had learned what had happened to Hannah, that a child who despite her disabilities had been a mostly happy little girl had been suppressed and neglected, lashed out at, until she had retreated deep inside herself. He didn't blame Josiah for blaming his father for that at all.

 

He hadn't blamed his brother when he'd come to him for advice, telling him that Anna's daughter was his, not her husband's, and what should he do? From what he'd described the child had already had a father, not just the legal claim and responsibility that comes with a signature on a birth certificate, but a daddy who loved her. Linc had thought because Orin's father had stepped back and allowed his stepfather to raise him that he would somehow have the answer, but it was not as though the two situations had been remotely the same. George Travis had been a workaholic who hardly seemed to know he had a child at the best of times, and while Michael Larabee had done his duty by him and Linc equally, he hadn't been a particularly loving father to either of them. A hard man, who had ideas for his son's futures, and didn't care or understand whether it was was what they wanted. Orin had been able to break away from that, Linc had not. Still, when he thought of his father he thought of Michael. Orin hadn't known what to tell him. Oh, he could tell him that even with a DNA test, with another man's name on the birth certificate, and Anna apparently uncooperative he'd have a fight if he wanted visitation. The question Linc had really wanted the answer to, whether he should fight, whether it was worth the potential break up of two families? Well, that had been an answer Orin just didn't have for him, an answer Linc could only find for himself. He honestly had no idea what he would have done in the same situation.

 

Of course, Orin had never cheated on Evie and therefore hadn't had to worry about things like that. A flash of memory that was nearly thirty years old hit him then, the sound of Clara sobbing broken heartedly into Evie's shoulder, hardly muffled at all by the closed bedroom door as he'd walked away. Orin had had a strong urge to go rip his brother's head off, but Stevie had been up from his nap and Clara had brought Chris with her and so instead he'd settled the boys down in the living room, watching Gummi Bears with them, his far too perceptive for a three year old nephew knowing something was wrong with his Mama and rather unhappy about it.

 

At least once more Linc had done the same thing, and as fertile as his brother obviously was-his mind corrected to 'had been' automatically, and Orin paused for a moment, hand tightening on the stair rail. That was going to come as a shock for a while, he supposed.

 

Well, he'd meant that he doubted it had taken him only two tries to get two different women pregnant. It was possible, but the odds weren't good. Oh, of course he knew Clara and Linc had been separated when Vincent had been conceived, he also knew they had not agreed to see other people. Carrying on with another women even once while trying to get back together with his wife was not something Orin could ever approve of, the affair he'd likely had far worse.

 

All that aside, Orin had been unable to make the decision for him, and unable to judge him on the choice he made.

 

When he realized that Josiah knew, that the boy was in on the secret, and therefore expected to keep it, he had disapproved, and let Linc know about it. Linc had done his best to deflect him, to tell him that he was just going along with Anna's wishes, but there was a difference between going along with her wishes and keeping such a big secret from his wife, let alone expecting a teenage boy to keep it from his stepmother, to keep knowledge of their sister from his brothers.

 

When Anna had been no longer able to take care of herself, let alone the children-though, he guessed Josiah hadn't really counted as a child by then-, Ramon had been living with her, having moved in to supposedly help Anna with Hannah. Josiah had once told him, quite resentfully, that his grandfather no longer did anything but sit in an armchair watching the 700 Club and religious Telenovelas, and declaring that everyone was going to hell. He'd had a great Aunt who did something similar with radio programs, though with her it had only been immigrants that were going to hell. He'd sympathized with the boy, but with what he knew now he wondered if Josiah had been trying to tell him more than he'd realized. The funny thing about getting older was it wasn't the arthritis, or the weakening vision, or any of that, that really slowed a man down, no, it was regrets that did that.

 

That had been the first time Josiah had run off. With Anna slowly dying, Emilio nowhere to be found, Josiah too young to take responsibility, and Ramon unlikely to fight it, Linc had wanted to have Hannah moved into a family style home for autistic children, only a few hours from the ranch. He technically had had no authority to do so, but Ramon wasn't a complete fool, the girl had his eyes, Linc had given her the same curly hair he'd given her brother, if not the color. If his brother had just let go of the blasted secret, if he'd gone to his wife and told her what he'd done, well, he might have lost her, but Orin didn't think so, and either way it would have been the right thing to do. He'd been the only parent that girl had left, and it had been past time to face the music like a man. Instead he'd not only maintained the secrecy, he'd presented the idea to his seventeen year old son in a way that put some of the responsibility for making the decision on his shoulders, as though a child who'd just helped move his mother into a home would be remotely emotionally capable of making a rational decision on such a sensitive subject.

 

Orin was ordinarily a calm person, even when he was angry he could usually maintain his cool. When his brother had appeared on his doorstep, in his defense seeming to expect anger, and had told him what had happened, that in the midst of a shouting match Josiah had shoved him and Linc had hit the boy, backhanding him hard enough to raise a bruise almost immediately, he'd lost it, and cracked his brother in the eye hard enough to knock him on his ass. Then he'd brought him in the house, got him some ice and let him ramble about the situation for hours. Even as disappointed as he'd been, Linc was always his little brother.

 

The man had decided, after Josiah had been gone for two months, that if his son felt that strongly that Hannah shouldn't be placed in a home than he would leave her where she was, with her grandfather. That Josiah's argument had been as much, if not more, about his father not taking her into his own home as having her placed into a facility, and even more about him not being a part of her life had been something Orin could not get him to truly talk about. The closest they'd come was when Linc had snapped at him that of course he regretted keeping knowledge of Hannah from Clara, but he'd done it, even as he regretted it, and now it had been so long there was no way out.

 

Orin had never had reason to think his brother was a coward before that, but he'd been struck with the sudden chilly knowledge that, at least in this, he was.

 

The truth was, Orin had no way of knowing for sure whether Hannah would have been able to deal with the chaotic, ever-changing landscape of his brother's home. The group home, with children more like her and adults both trained in therapies she could benefit from and who simply had years of experience with autistic children, might have been the best choice-and if that was true then Linc should have gone through with placing her there, whatever resistance her brother had to the idea. The responsibility to make that decision should never have been even partly on Josiah's shoulders in the first place. Even as Josiah and Link had patched things up, Orin had been sure his nephew still felt a great deal of resentment and confusion over it all. In many ways, when Linc had stepped back from the situation with Hannah he had been giving the child up again, only this time no one had asked him too.

 

He came to the landing at the bottom of the stairs, grateful as his knees needed a break, and followed the smashing sounds out the backdoor. There was a tall double stack of crates, likely from one of the buildings on either side, stacked neatly by the over large recycle bin, or rather, there had been a tall stack of crates. It had shrunk a bit and as he watched, Josiah picked one up, walked farther out into the alley, and raising it above his head, brought it smashing to the ground with an almighty crash. Then he kicked the debris over to the side, and started over again. Orin said nothing, just stood on the stoop, waiting. Finally, when there was only one crate left in the stack, Josiah stood still, back to Orin, not having bothered to kick the remains of the crate at his feet away, body heaving with his breaths, no other sound until he spoke. “I always knew you knew. Never talked to you about it, never brought it up, but I always knew you knew. Daddy told you everything.”

 

“I suppose he did.” Sometimes years after the fact, sometimes the same day, but yes, it had seemed that eventually all of Link's stories, secret and otherwise, had bent his ear, often more than once.

 

“But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever...He ever tell you what the hell made him think it was okay to pick and choose between his children like puppies in a litter?” Orin closed his eyes. He wasn't sure that was fair, but at the same time, what was Josiah supposed to think?

 

He wasn't sure it was unfair either.

 

“Josiah...”

 

“Did he? Did he ever tell you why it was so easy for him to give up my sister?”

 

“I believe the basic idea was that he'd thought he was doing the right thing, and by the time he'd figured out he wasn't he felt he was trapped.”

 

He was trapped? I was trapped. Hannah was trapped!” Josiah turned around to face him red-faced, chest heaving, fists clenched at his side, and then his face seemed to crumple, his rage being drowned out by grief, “I trapped her.”

 

Like hell you did.” Orin snapped, “You were a child, or hardly older than that, and that is on the adults you had every right to have trust in, your Daddy and your grandfather.” He'd been being cautious in what he said, not wanting to set him off more, but if there was even a chance he could get an idea like that out of his nephew's head he would take it.

 

Josiah shook his head, a bitter laugh leaving him, “I had no reason to trust Abuelo. Once he figured out she was a bastard like me...I should have figured out some way to bring her with me.” Orin raised an eyebrow, “Josiah, you were in the Marines. How exactly would you have pulled that off?”

 

“Hell if I know.”

 

“Josiah, I think there's something you should know.” Orin wasn't sure this was an appropriate time to tell him, when he was this upset, but there had been more than enough of hiding things to go around.

 

“I already know about the donations he made to Hannah's group home.”

 

Well huh. Orin had not been expecting that. “Your Daddy tell you about them?”

 

“No,” Josiah admitted, “The Sisters did.”

 

“Did they also tell you that he'd been visiting her regularly for the past sixteen years?” Josiah didn't react for a second, and then he was gaping at him, jaw dropping and eyes crinkling with confusion. After a long moment his mouth closed, his head slowly shaking.

 

“Why wouldn't he have told me when we started talking? How did he not know I needed to hear that? How would he even have gotten access...” His eyes closed, “I added him to her visitor list, when I first moved her in there. I couldn't take being the only name on it, and I couldn't think of anybody else to put down.” Orin bit back the automatic urge to express sympathy, getting the feeling that if he did Josiah would break down, and well he likely needed to, Orin wasn't sure this was the best place. Before he could come up with something appropriate, Josiah was talking again. “I've been trying so hard not to be angry...he's gone, and you shouldn't be able to miss someone you haven't had for that long, but I do. I don't want to be angry too. But I am...even hearing that, I am. Maybe I shouldn't be, but...” His words trailed off as he shook his head again, “Was he even going for her? Or just to appease his guilt? Or,” a caustic snort, “was he one child short on his apparent five child quota and she was the easiest to get to?”

 

Even as he winced a bit at the harshness of his nephew's last words, Orin was already opening his mouth, “Whatever you're feeling, that's what you should be feeling. Everybody grieves differently, and it's not as though he didn't give you plenty of reasons to be angry. Whatever you're feeling is fine.”

 

It's not fair.” Josiah's words were a whisper, a tight, angry, grief-stricken, whisper, “He's not supposed to be gone yet. Not yet.” Orin stepped forward and down off the stoop, putting him at a lower height than his nephew, but he took no notice of that, reaching up and pulling the larger man down, wrapping his arms around him as best he could, bracing himself as much of Josiah's weight transferred to him, not wanting either of them to wind up on the ground.

 

“I've got you...I've got you.”

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Nathan snorted in disgust as he looked around the room, filled with a strange mixture of their father's friends and family, relatives who were suddenly pretending Linc hadn't been the black sheep, and those who just showed up to every event in the small town, wake or not, “Look at all these people that came crawling out of the wood work. How many of them hadn't even talked to Daddy for years? Now they show up to eat free food and pretend they're heartbroken? Ain't right.”

 

“You,” Buck declared, from his spot holding up the back wall next to Nathan, “Need a drink.” He pulled a flask out of his suit jacket, unscrewing the lid and tilting it teasingly over Nathan's cup, waiting for his nod, “Just say when.” After a good ten seconds of him pouring and Nathan not saying when, he tilted it back up, fixing his little brother with a concerned look, “Or just drink half the flask, no skin off my nose.”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Nathan took a gulp out of his glass, then another one, “I'm just saying-Jimmy Dugan is here, why?”

 

“Daddy's mechanic's kid?” Buck looked around until he spotted him, frowning himself, “Who invited him?”

 

“Nobody! His dad maybe, they were kind of friends, but you know Jimmy just showed up.”

 

“I never liked him, there were rumors that he used to sell pot behind the middle school back when we were kids.” Nathan shook his head, knowing that Buck, at least back when Nathan had been in middle school and he had been in high school, would only have had a problem because it was the middle school. They hadn't been rumors either, not that Nathan had ever been interested.

 

“Like he's not where you got your pot.” Nathan smirked at a sheepish looking Buck.

 

“Yeah, well, I wasn't thirteen. Besides, doesn't mean I had to like him.” He took a long pull off his own drink, “You seen Chris or 'Siah?”

 

Nathan scanned the room, then gestured with his chin to a spot across the room, “Josiah's over there, looks like he got trapped by Great Aunt Birdie.” Nathan and Buck gave twin shudders. Birdie was their Grandma's sister, and about as different from that sweet woman had been as she could be. Birdie pinched your cheeks and gushed over you, then spat poison the second she thought you were out of earshot. She'd made Auntie Rosie, Buck's mother, and the toughest woman Nathan thought he'd ever met, cry once. It was probably twenty years ago, and he didn't think one of them had forgiven her for it.

 

“Hell, forget about Jimmy, she shouldn't be here. Daddy used to burn her Christmas cards.” Buck glared across the room at her, wishing she could feel it. It wasn't often a woman could earn his enmity, even those who probably deserved it, but Birdie had done it ten times over.

 

“Only after she said he was like an unneutered dog and we were his mongrel litter.”

 

“The Thanksgiving she drank all the sherry?”

 

“And got sick on the table and tried to blame it on the baby.”

 

Buck snorted, “I remember that! I thought Aunt Nettie and Maude were gonna tear-”, he stopped abruptly, taking another gulp of his drink.

 

“Weird isn't it?” Nathan dropped his eyes down towards his feet, “Ezra has been gone for so long. A couple days from now we're gonna see him for at least a day-after that, who knows.”

 

“What are you talking about?” Buck frowned, gut tightening uneasily, “You don't think he's gonna wanna stick around? For a little while at least?”

 

“I'm figuring he's got a life Buck. At nineteen hopefully he's in college or working towards a career, and even if he isn't he doesn't know us. And who knows what the hell Maude told him about Daddy or the rest of us, could have filled the boy's head with all kinds of nonsense.”

 

Buck grunted, “While I doubt she'd win any mother of the year awards considering she's probably still wanted for kidnapping.”

 

“That's what you get when you take off, leave your kid behind, and then come back and steal him six months later. Like Daddy wasn't gonna have filed for sole custody by then.” Nathan held out his cup, and Buck pulled the flask back out of his pocket and obligingly topped it off, adding some more to his own drink, shaking his head no at the teenage cousin who was standing about six feet away looking at him hopefully.

 

“Not happening Alice-girl, your dad would chop my nuts off and your mom would fry 'em up and feed 'em to me.” Alice made a face that looked like she wanted to puke and laugh her head off all at once, moving off only when Buck made a shooing motion at her. “Don't think I've ever seen him as angry as when we got back from that camping trip and Daddy realized that Ez had been alone all night. Don't blame him either, he was big enough to climb out of his crib by then, anything could have happened to him.”

 

“Not to mention normal people don't leave babies alone, period.”

 

“Yeah. Josiah still ain't gotten away from Birdie, can you picture that conversation?” Buck screwed up his face and did his best impression of a falsetto, “Oh it's such a tragedy that your father passed-even though I had nothing good to say about him before, now I'm just devastated.” He swooned a bit, “Linc was my favorite nephew, you know!”

 

Nathan snorted as he was taking a drink, splashing his shirt a bit, and wiping at it hastily. He thought for a moment, and then deepened his voice, “Vaguely insulting and obscure bible reference that only I understand.” Buck laughed out loud, slapping his leg, earning them a mixture of smiles and disapproving looks from the nearby tables. Buck waved at them, getting more smiles and some waves back from the sort of people his Daddy would have wanted at his wake, the others looking away.

 

“Oh you're so right, the good book is always a place to turn to in times of need!”

 

Nathan winced, Buck definitely had Aunt Birdie's shrill tones down, “Of course, one has to understand the meaning of the words, rather than just read them.” He did his best imitation of Josiah's righteous glare, Buck shoving at his shoulder, more giggling than laughing now, clearly tipsy and Nathan was pretty sure he was on his way to joining him.

 

“If he said that she'd probably beat him with her purse.”

 

“True.” Buck looked up as Nathan suddenly straightened, coming up off the wall.

 

“What, she's not really beatin' him with her purse, is she?” Buck looked over, but Nathan shook his head, pointing.

 

“Look.” Buck looked, and swore. Chris was over by one of the exits, clearly planning to get the hell out of there for awhile-Buck felt a stab of guilt, he should have been keeping an eye on Chris, staying off the hard stuff today of all days wouldn't be easy. Jimmy Dugan was for some reason standing in his way, clearly ignoring the very obvious get-the-fuck-away-from-me vibes Chris was putting out, and now Buck saw the man pulling out a flask, waving it enticingly under his brother's nose, ignoring Chris shoving it away, doing his best to not take no for an answer.

 

Of all the disrespectful crap Buck had seen that day, that took the cake, and Buck was already moving, Nathan by his side, as Chris knocked the open flask to the ground, his cry of, “I said no, dammit!” echoing around the church basement, as he shoved past the other man. One look let Buck know that Josiah was heading that way as well, the three brothers converging on a Jimmy Dugan who looked rather like he was about to piss himself. They swerved at the last second so they didn't run him over, Buck knocking his shoulder into Dugan's hard, as they went around him, intent on finding Chris.

 

Chapter Text

Josiah paused as they made it to the edge of the parking lot, Buck nearly crashing into him. “That guy in there, he drives a motorcycle?”

 

“Yeah, why?” Nathan's voice was apprehensive and as he moved around the blockage his brothers were creating, seeing what they were looking at, he groaned. “He tipped it over?”

 

“Looks like he kicked the kickstand up and just let it fall. Bastard deserved it.” Buck knew it probably hadn't been the smartest idea, but personally he'd pay good money to see the look on Dugan's face when he found it.

 

“Maybe, but Chris doesn't deserve to get in trouble for it,” Nathan countered, shaking his head.

 

“He won't,” Josiah said simply, moving to pick the bike up with a heave and a grunt, pushing the kickstand back down and balancing it. “There. Paint's a little scratched, but hopefully he won't notice.”

 

“Damn Josiah, remind me not to get you mad at me,” Buck chuckled, “That thing must weigh 500 lbs.”

 

“Not quite, 450, 460, I'd say.” He grinned a bit at the expressions on Buck and Nathan's faces, before sobering, “C'mon, we should be looking for our hurting brother.”

 

“Where do you think he went? Should we split up?” To his surprise, Josiah realized Nathan was looking to him to take charge, and he tried not to look too pleased.

 

“Let's stay together for now, and I'm not sure. Do you think he would have gone back to the grave?”

 

As he said it he knew it was true, a nod from Buck and a shrug from Nathan cementing it, Buck turning to head that way, calling over his shoulder, “C'mon, don't reckon it's a good idea for him to be alone up there just now.”, and though he wasn't quite sure he wanted to go back there yet, the service this morning still too raw, Josiah didn't hesitate to follow his brothers, like a shepherd following his flock.

 

Or possibly the lost lamb, rejoining it.

 

It should have been a pleasant walk, a ramble on a fall day that led them around the back of the church and down a path to an open field, but there was a somberness to their mission that wouldn't allow that. The graveyard wasn't actually part of the church, had been there before the church was built, and the Larabee's, who had lived there since the founding of the town, before it according to some, had a large section, that stretched from the older graves, with crumbling moss eaten headstones, even a small monument with an angel Josiah had always found a strange mixture of hideous and beautiful, to the newer, neat graves, with their inlaid plaques in the ground. They stopped at the far edge of the plot, far enough away Chris wouldn't be likely to notice them. Chris was crouched in front of the grave, boots sinking slightly into the fresh dirt of the hole, eyes dry and face shuttered, just staring, as though he thought he would find answers somewhere in the etched words, in the script of their father's name and the too short gap between the birth and death years. Buck went to step forward and Josiah found his hand falling on his shoulder, holding him back and shaking his head, “I think maybe we should let him be for a little while.” When he saw Buck's mouth open in angry protest, he spoke quickly, “I'm not saying we go off and leave him, just give him a little more time. I doubt he'd appreciate anybody approaching him right now.” Buck glared at him, but made no move to push his hand away, instead turning to look at Chris for a long moment and finally nodding, stepping back.

 

“What the hell do you think we should do then? He ain't gonna appreciate us standing back here staring at him any either, so what, we go for a walk? Check on him every twenty minutes or something?” Buck was being sarcastic, but Josiah thought that sounded like as good a plan as any to him and nodded.

 

“Don't see why not. Can't really think of a better solution. That pretty little clearing with the creek about a ten minute walk away I used to take you all to splash in still there, or did that get built up?” Four Corners was still a small town, and it was hard to imagine it any other way, but it had grown quite a bit since he was a boy.

 

“Yeah,” Nathan said, looking back and forth between a Buck who couldn't decide whether he was exasperated by Josiah taking his sarcasm seriously, or pleased that he had come up with the plan that had the best option of not either winding up with Chris punching one of them in the face or being left alone, without even trying, and a Josiah who didn't seem to quite get how tightly wound Buck was. Not angry, not really, just wound tighter than a two dollar watch. He'd been doing good, but taking care of Chris was Buck's territory, ever since Sarah and Adam, and Josiah was very definitely stepping on his toes. Nathan had been away at medical school for most of that, but had come home enough he'd seen some of it, had talked to both Buck and Daddy enough that he had an idea of how bad it had been, how bad it had gotten. Daddy had been the only one who could overrule Buck, even when it had started getting physical he hadn't wanted anyone else interfering.

 

It wasn't a particularly nice thought, but sometimes Nathan thought, knowing that Buck blamed himself for what had happened nearly as much as Chris did, that Buck had been setting himself up as a convenient target. He had had a need to look out for Chris, make sure he was alright, and if the other man needed a punching bag, Buck had seemed willing to provide that too, like he thought he had a penance to serve.

 

Daddy had put a stop to that though. Not Buck looking out for Chris, he couldn't have stopped that if he had wanted to, and he hadn't, but things had finally come to a head and whatever Daddy had said or done (Nathan didn't actually know, though he had strong suspicions) had actually gotten through to Chris. At least, he quit spending nearly every night drinking until he blacked out. He'd moved back to the farm like they'd been trying to get him to do, instead of holing up in that dingy little apartment he'd rented, acting like he was just waiting to die. Slowly, his brother had started to come back to them.

 

He would never be the same. How could he be? Nathan still missed his nephew and sister in-law, had had to excuse himself from the table not more than a month ago when Rain's little nephew Falcon had called him uncle so he didn't tear up in front of her entire family. To ask Chris to be the man he'd been before would be cruel and pointless. But for the past year Chris had been slowly healing. Even now, with Daddy and everything, Chris hadn't retreated, into a bottle or otherwise. If anything, he'd been being strong for Nathan and Buck, giving them someone to lean on.

 

Nate had been hoping he didn't insist on standing strong until he broke. This was, in a way, a good sign, meant Chris wasn't holding everything in. “Nate,” Buck's hand whacked idly at the back of his head knocking him out of his thoughts, not hard enough to hurt, but he still glared at him on general principal, “You been listening to a word we said? We're gonna go up and check out that little creek like 'Siah suggested, maybe even catch a couple crawdads, there were some mighty big ones down there when we were kids, remember? Stay up there for a bit, give Chris a little longer than we said at first-he's talking to Daddy now, see, don't want to interrupt that.” Nathan's eyes focused on Chris again, and, sure enough, he'd sat all the way back on his butt, knees drawn up in front of him, and you could see his lips moving. Good. That was real good. “C'mon, if you boys are lucky, I might even show you the first place Ol' Bucklin got lucky.”

 

“I do not want to know that.” Nathan said emphatically, following after Buck as he started walking away, wondering if Josiah had realized, because he was definitely letting Buck take charge now, “I already know way more about your sex life than I am comfortable with.”

 

“You used our crawdad fishing hole to get laid?” Josiah's head was shaking, a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth.

 

“Sure, build a fire, catch a couple crawdads to roast-the ladies love a man who cooks after all. What, jealous you never thought of it?” Buck grinned back over his shoulder.

 

“I hate to break it you Bucklin, but you aren't quite as original as you think. Had myself a fine time there more than once.” Josiah smirked at the look on Buck's face as Nathan broke in.

 

“I hope the two of you know you're sullying my childhood memories. I'm never going to be able to go there again without imagining one of pawing at some poor girl.” They both started laughing, Nathan rolled his eyes and just kept on walking.

 

“You popped your outdoor cherry yet?” Buck asked curiously a minute later, bumping into Nathan with his shoulder, “I mean, I know you're a prude, but Rain seems like she might be adventurous.”

 

“I am not a prude! And I already told you, I ain't telling you nothing about me and Rain like that.”

 

Nathan scowled and thumped Buck a good one on the shoulder as he turned his head to Josiah on his other side, saying in sotto voce, “Boy's a prude.”

 

Maybe I just don't think a man should talk about his future wife like that.” Nathan walked a few more paces before he realized he was walking by himself. Shit. He turned around to see both Buck and Josiah gaping at him, not sure what to say.

 

“What the hell, Pard! Why didn't you tell me?”

 

Nathan shook his head, “It isn't like that, I haven't asked her yet, was planning to wait until her residency was over even before all this...now...I don't know.”

 

“Hey, don't be holding back on account of anybody else Nathan, you hear? Makes sense you'd need time, but if she's it and you know it, you do what you need to do to hang onto that. Always did like Rain. She's good for you, makes you have fun. Smart enough to keep up with you too.” That was Buck, Nathan thought. For all his boasting, need to be the center of attention, when it came down to it he always put others first, always thought of what was best for them instead of himself.

 

“Thanks, Buck. It's still gonna be awhile, but...thanks.”

 

“Heck, that's what I'm here for.”

 

“So,” Josiah, broke in a moment later, “have you picked out a ring yet?”

 

Not yet...don't know much about jewelry, thought I might let Rain pick it out.” Nathan blinked, surprised at the almost twin looks of horror that appeared on his brother's faces.

 

“Your gonna ask the girl to marry ya without a ring? Are you crazy?”

 

Nathan, brother, no. The wedding set, that you definitely let her pick out, but you have to have a ring.”

 

“Lots of people do it like that,” He protested. What was wrong with wanting to make sure Rain liked her engagement ring?

 

“Yeah, wonder how many of 'em are married five years later,” Buck speculated, Josiah's hand impacting the back of his head a few seconds later. “Ow, jerk, you agreed with me about the ring, what was that for?”

 

“Knock it off, you're scaring him.” He turned his attention back to Nathan, “A ring isn't going to change the outcome of your marriage, Nathan.” His face suddenly became very serious, “But if you want her to say yes in the first place, you need one.”

 

“You know what? I'm not talking to either one of you jackasses about this anymore.” Nathan huffed and went to turn away, when a voice he hadn't been expecting to hear stopped him in his tracks.

 

“I let Sarah pick out her engagement ring. She thought it was thoughtful.” Chris nodded at Nathan, and walked around all three of them, heading down the path without another word. Nobody moved for a moment and then Nathan smirked triumphantly.

 

“The only one of you all to be married agrees with me. I'm sticking to my plan.” He turned around and followed after Chris, not quite catching up, having a feeling that had been all his brother was willing to contribute to the conversation, and grateful that he had done that much.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

JD stared intently out the grimy bus window as it pulled slowly down the small town's main drag and into the little “station” at the end of the street, just a ticket booth and a couple of benches under a concrete rain shelter, really. This was the town his father had lived in. It seemed nice, he guessed, small and old, but not run down. He climbed out of his seat, grabbing his backpack from the floor and the duffle bag from the overhead compartment and headed off the bus, standing on the corner to get his bearings. He could see his hotel from here, and the office where the will reading would take place-JD guessed that was one good thing about a small town. Main street was really main street. He yawned at the same time his belly growled, then stretched. He was so tired he could about fall asleep on one of the dirty benches, hadn't been able to relax enough on the bus to really sleep, but food had to take first priority, he hadn’t eaten since early that morning and it was almost nine. There was still half a slightly smushed banana and peanut butter sandwich in his backpack, and he contemplated just heading to his hotel room and eating that. They’d have a vending machine probably, too. Only he’d been alternating PB & J with PB & banana for three days now and something hot, that didn’t involve mushy brown bananas sounded amazing.

 

Well, the first day he'd had some chicken Mrs. Cela gave him, but then his seatmate asked if he could have some, saying he'd share his own food the next day. When JD said yes he'd snagged the two biggest pieces before he'd even held out the opened tin foil packet it was wrapped in, then the jerk got off the bus when it stopped that night, while JD was sleeping.

 

If JD were rich he could go to his hotel and then order room service, but that was not something in the realm of reality, not unless he used his emergency credit card, and that would be just plain stupid. He had exactly ten dollars in his pocket and it was almost a week until payday-a payday that would be decidedly light after his time off for this trip, even before bills. That there didn’t seem to be any fast food places on the main drag was disappointing, ten dollars didn’t go far at a restaurant, except maybe Denny’s…then he saw it. An older building, even for this street, made out like an old-fashioned saloon-not in a cheesy way, like at a themed restaurant, but it actually looked like a real saloon. JD grinned and started heading that way, hoping it wasn’t a bar bar. And that he could afford it.

 

He knew it was stupid, but JD loved old paperback books, the mass printed ones, especially westerns and sci-fi, or sometimes detective stuff, the cheesier the better. They might be set in entirely different worlds, but they all had action and adventure, good guys fighting together against villains, hard boiled cowboys or detectives taking down gangs of criminals, or sometimes just regular people, banding together against cattle rustlers or hostile aliens. In the end, even when bad things happened, when heroes died, there was still always, always a happy ending in those sorts of books.

 

He liked the classics too, the novels that made people take westerns and sci-fi seriously, but the adventures he could go on for just a quarter, trading his allowance in for one falling apart novel with a faded technicolor cover at a time, had had no comparison.

 

This coming west on a bus to hear what the dead father he never met had left him? That was the closest thing JD had ever had to an adventure, or a quest or anything like that. He didn’t know what he was going to find, what he wanted or expected to find, but he knew it would be something.

 

Truth is, he would rather have had a father than anything left behind to him in a will, but JD supposed that ship had sailed. It was his own fault in a way. Mam had given him a box when she had started to get really sick, when it was obvious the chemo and radiation weren't doing anything more than delaying the inevitable, told him that it had information about his father, that if he wanted she had his phone number. JD hadn't wanted it, not then, hadn't let her see it, but he'd even been kind of angry that she offered it to him-none of that had been important, taking care of her had been what mattered. His school counselor had helped him and Mam figure out the emancipation paperwork, had even found a judge that would look it over for free, had helped them figure out exactly what to set up so he would approve it. He hadn't needed anyone else.

 

Right now, something, whatever it was that was waiting for him, was better than spending one more dreary night in that apartment, one more wasted day punching numbers in an ill-fitting suit, feeling useless and alone and trapped. JD stopped, realizing he was right outside the building now. A quick glance at the signage told him that it was a bar, but the sort that had a family dining area in the front, open until ten according to the sign, so, after admiring the batwing doors, he headed in, taking in a moment to drink in the wood paneling, the beat up, but still cheerful gaming tables and the brightly colored painting of a half dressed woman sat in a recess above the long wooden counter, polished to a high shine. It was like a real saloon. He walked up to the bar stools sat along the front and plopped down, gratefully easing off his backpack and letting it fall to the floor beneath his feet. A tall, cheerful looking man with a giant mustache walked up to him and leaned on the counter, “Hey kid, what can I getcha?”

 

“A glass of milk, please.” It'd fill his stomach, even if he couldn't afford anything else, and most places wasn't more than a dollar.

 

The man grinned, “Sure, coming right up.”, and headed into the back, JD guessed to get his drink, and he leaned his head down for a second, his chin nearly on his chest as a yawn escaped him that practically split his jaw in two. He was so tired. He'd had to take out a draw to get the money he needed for the bus tickets, and he'd worked overtime every night until it was time to leave to try and make up for that, and all the days he was missing. Ayida, his friend and next-door neighbor, had kept trying to get him to call the number in the letter he'd gotten, saying they would probably fly him down, or at least pay for the bus tickets, that the letter had practically said that, but JD hadn't wanted to. Part of him had felt like he had to do it on his own, had to get there on his own, although he wasn't entirely sure why.

 

Part of him had been scared that if he asked for help it would be refused. It wouldn't be the first time, and sure, this judge was supposedly family, his father's brother...but that would have just made it harder if he'd said no. Arranging transportation wasn't necessarily the same thing as paying for it. JD didn't need that. He wasn't a kid, he'd gotten there just fine on his own, hadn't he? Besides, it's not like he had a phone with service. JD had had the landline shut down only a couple of months after Mam had passed, one less bill and all the calls had been from collectors anyway. He kept his old cell phone charged because it would still call 911, plus he could hack into the other apartments' WiFi and surf the web or watch TV on it, but it wouldn't help him contact this Travis guy. Ayida and her mom only had one of those pay as you go phones, and Mrs. Cela would have let him use it, but he didn't want to waste her minutes. Before he knew it the man was back, setting his milk down on the table along with a happy hour menu, “I recommend the sliders or the nachos, can't go wrong with either.” JD couldn't help but notice that the man smiled at him for an extra long moment, or that it faltered when he drained half his milk glass in one gulp, paying more attention to a random kid in a restaurant than he really should have, but for some reason it didn't bother him the way he would have expected it to. Something about the guy just screamed that he was-not harmless exactly, but he wasn't a creep either, and JD found himself smiling back just as Buck, that was what his name tag said anyway, was called over to another customer.

 

Sipping the rest of his glass slowly, knowing it would fill him up more that way, JD looked over the menu, rolling his eyes as he noticed that, except for french fries, the nachos and sliders were the cheapest things on the menu. They were still a little expensive for him, six dollars for the nachos, seven for the sliders, but nachos were generally a good deal and he put the menu down again. “Hey, you ready to order, kid?” He hadn't noticed him come back.

 

“Yes sir, I'd like the nachos, please.”

 

The man laughed, “Hell, ya don't have to sir me, name's Buck.” JD shrugged, his mouth temporarily full of milk-it was probably rude to have started drinking again while the man was talking, but he was hungry. “Got a question for ya, actually, if that would be alright?”

 

JD shrugged, feeling kind of nervous now, “Sure, I guess.”

 

“Is your name John Dunne?” JD's mouth dropped open as he stared into the other man's hopeful looking face, spluttering for a second.

 

“How'd you know that?” Who was this guy? What did he want with him? The widening grin on the man's face made part of him want to relax, his first impression had been a good one, but he hadn't grown up in his neighborhood without learning that even nice people could be...off.

 

“Hell I thought so, you look a hell of a lot like your Momma.” This guy knew his Mam? “Name's Buck Wilmington.” He clearly expected this to mean something to JD, who found himself staring at him blankly. “Lincoln Larabee was my old man too. I'm your big brother.”

 

JD knew his mouth was hanging open, but he couldn't help it, part of him embarrassed as Buck's-his big brother's?-smile grew kind of ridiculously fond and soft, trying to think of something to say. He just...he had a brother? Why hadn't his mother ever told him? “Really?”

 

Yeah, John, really. Actually, there's seven of us total, you're the littlest.” JD blinked, utterly overwhelmed, part of him wondering what kind of joke this was, then all of a sudden the idea of it, that he'd gone from no family to six brothers in the space of a minute, how genuinely, delightedly, pleased Buck seemed to be to see him hit him all at once, and he found himself desperately blinking back tears, horrified that Buck would see them and think him a baby. A hand squeezed his shoulder unexpectedly, and the tears started to brim over, but then the same hand was teasingly knocking his ball cap off his head and onto the counter, ruffling his hair, and JD thought he should have been affronted, freaked out, but found himself grinning, squirming away with a laugh, instead. “Alright John, just let me get that nacho order in, okay?”

 

John nodded, and let Buck get almost to the swinging door in the kitchen before he called after him, “Hey, Buck?”

 

“Yeah, kid?”

 

“Mam called me JD.”

 

Another incredibly fond grin and a nod, “Nice to meetcha, JD.”, before Buck disappeared through the doors again.

 

Well. Maybe his dead Dad had left him something worthwhile after all.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Buck had had to work hard to keep from rushing right over to the boy when he'd walked into his restaurant. It only took a second glance to convince him, no doubt, that was Jenna Dunne's boy. Jenna had been his first real “grown-up” crush, no way would he ever forget her face, and that boy, he was the spitting image. Not wanting to scare the kid, he stayed back, pleased that he settled down up at the counter where Buck was serving and taking orders. Being the boss, he could have easily just taken over whatever section the kid had wound up in, but this was easier. He headed over to take the kid's order, pouring Ronnie a drink on the way. John was a polite kid, with a friendly smile, but Buck couldn't help but notice that he looked a little too skinny, or that he had bags under his eyes that he really hoped were just from traveling. Or how quick he'd tossed back that glass of milk, like he was starving. As he headed back into the kitchen with it, planning to make sure this was the best damn plate of nachos the kid-JD-had ever had, Inez, his head chef/restaurant manager looked at him, and said, “Who is the nino?”

 

“Damn woman, doesn't anything get past you?” Buck asked, half laughing.

 

“Never. Now, who?”

 

“That's my little brother. The baby. We weren't sure he'd be coming, he never got in touch with Orin, but then he came strolling right through the front of the saloon. Thought we’d have to go get him. Looks like Jenna, and he's a sweet kid, too.” Buck was still grinning as he hung the order slips and went to grab the kid a second glass of milk.

 

Inez glanced out to the front, and frowned, “Oh, the poor boy...he looks so lonely.” She looked back at Buck in time to see the smile drop right off his face and his shoulders slump, as he looked out the viewing window and saw what she had. Well, Inez knew how to solve that, “What are you doing? Go, cheer up your hermanito. What is his order?”

 

“Nachos. Extra special?” Inez nodded briskly, she would have done that anyway. The chiquito clearly needed feeding up. “What would I do without you, darlin'?” Buck was back to grinning, as he always did when Inez took charge.

 

“Go out of business, of course. Go now, before the milk warms.”

 

“Yes'm.”

 

Buck went around the counter to plop himself on the stool next to JD, swapping the empty milk glass for the full one and started talking before the kid could voice the protest he could see forming. JD didn't have to worry about things like paying for an extra glass of milk anymore, Buck was going to make sure of that. “So, I know a little bit about ya, but not much, you graduated from UMass in June right?”

 

“Yeah, I went to the Boston campus.” He noticed JD seemed a little embarrassed for some reason and tried not to frown.

 

“Well, that's something to be mighty proud of, ain't it? What'd you major in?”

 

“Accounting, and I promise it's as boring as it sounds.” Ah. That was the problem. “Got me a good job, though. How'd you wind up working here?” Kid didn't want to talk about it, that was clear enough.

 

“Place belonged to my Momma, I'm the owner now, I do all the books and the ordering, payroll and all that, not counting helping out when we're busy or someone calls in sick. Rest of the time, I work the ranch with D-Chris.” JD perked right up, not noticing Buck's slip, or the way he swallowed at the end of his sentence.

 

“A ranch? With like, horses and stuff?” The kid looked genuinely excited, and between that and the fact that he clearly hated his job(which didn't seem right at all, why the hell had the pup gotten a degree in something he didn't like?), Buck was thinking it wasn't going to take much at all to talk him into moving down here.

 

“Yeah kid, we're a cattle ranch, so it's mostly cows and steers, couple bulls, but we've got about ten horses.”

 

“Alright, you think I could ride one?”

 

“'Course you can. Have to let me show you how if you haven't ridden before, though.” JD was beaming at him now, a far cry from the exhausted and lonely kid who'd walked into the saloon.

 

“I know how, Mam used to work for this rich family every summer, and I was a stable boy when I got old enough. It was my favorite job ever.” He hesitated then, “It's been a few years though, and it was English style, I know how you tell the horse to move is different in western riding.”

 

“Yeah, it is at that, good that you know it's not just the tack, but I'll show you and you'll get the hang of it pretty quick, I'm sure.” Inez deposited an enormous plate of nachos in front of him then, that had far more in common with the twelve dollar Nacho Platter Supreme than the happy hour nachos, JD's mouth dropping open when he saw it, his stomach letting out an audible growl even after the glass and a half of milk he'd downed.

 

“Wow, thank you ma'am, that looks awesome.”

 

Inez nodded with satisfaction, saying “You, chiquito, can call me Inez. And you are welcome.”, before moving off to check on other customers. Buck would have felt bad for leaving her to run the kitchen and the front counter, they were understaffed tonight, but he knew if he made a move to go back to work she'd have his head. JD didn't know it, but that 'chiquito' meant he'd just been claimed. The boy fell on the nachos like a starving wildebeest, Buck, who could clean a plate pretty fast himself, watching in almost awe as the kid didn't seem to do anything but bite, chew, swallow, repeat, for a good two minutes, even giving Buck a chance to send out a text to the others, letting them know the good news. It wasn't until after he'd stuck his phone back in his pocket that JD finally took a break to drain the rest of his milk.

 

“Damn pard, you remembering to breath there?” JD blushed, and Buck waved a hand, “I'm just teasing, not like I ain't ever been a hungry teenager.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

“Ain't nothing to be sorry for.” JD went back to eating, but slow enough they could talk a bit, trying to get Buck to share with him (“because there's no way I can eat them all,” even though he was making his way steadily through the plate. Buck was going to have to signal Inez to bring out another one in a minute. Still, he remembered him and Chris easily polishing off two or three pizza's between them when they'd been around JD's age), and he eventually took a few chips, just to make him happy.

 

Buck found himself plain delighted with JD as they talked. He needed to work on those jokes, though. Buck had considered pretending to laugh, but frankly he wouldn't have been doing him any favors.

 

JD was sweet, like he'd said, but with a good bit of cockiness and confidence mixed in that reminded Buck of himself-he didn't know JD at all yet, he knew that, but he already liked the kid.

 

Hell, when JD had let out that strangled “really?”, tearing up, damn if his heart didn't about seize up right there.

 

It had hurt Buck so bad when his Momma had been taken from him. Mama Clara had been bad enough-but his Momma, sometimes just thinking of it, how he'd found her, made him freeze and gasp, his chest burning even 16 years later. And he'd had Daddy, and Chris and Nathan. To have been alone, like JD was...he couldn't imagine it. Well, no more. Buck's jaw set, and JD looked up confused and a tiny bit wary and Buck forced his face back to a smile. He was going to make damn sure this kid didn't wind up alone again.

 

“Hey Buck?” JD looked nervous, an expression Buck had seen on his face more than once in the past half hour, and he just smiled, not making a big deal about it.

 

“What's up, kid?”

 

Fiddling with a nacho, JD looked down at the counter, head coming up halfway through his question, “I really have five more brothers?”

 

“Yeah, you do, though I only know three of them-Chris and Nathan live out at the family ranch, same as I do, and Josiah was coming for a visit-” Buck paused here, having to swallow in order to carry on- “when Daddy passed, so he's been there since. I'm not sure about when Ezra or Vincent are getting into town, but all of us are supposed to be at the reading, so we'll be meeting them together.”

 

JD frowned, the question clear on his face, “I'm not the only one you didn't know? How'd that happen?”

 

With an honest shrug, Buck said, “It's a pretty long story, and I'm pretty sure I don't even know the half of it, but basically Ezra's Momma stole him-seriously,”, he said to the questioning look on the boy's face, “Daddy had full custody, 'cause she was not mother material, long story there, but she straight up climbed in his window and stole him in the middle of the night. We thought a stranger took him at first, and it wasn't until right before Daddy died that they managed to track him down. Not fair, really. Ez is nineteen now, so closest in age to you.”

 

JD's jaw had dropped open with Buck's long recital, and now he said, horrified and a little mad, “He was kidnapped? And what do you mean, not mother material? Did she hurt him? Do you think he's okay?”

 

Buck didn't want to lie to him, JD was obviously a smart kid, and seventeen wasn't exactly a baby anyway, so he shrugged again instead, “She never hurt him when she was living with us, and I don't think she was the type to hit, but I can't say for sure. I don't rightly know if he's okay or not, but I sure hope so. Uncle Orin talked to him a bit, but all he said was that he talks like a dictionary, so I reckon he's a smart one, like you.”

 

“Hitting isn't the only way you can hurt someone. I hope he's okay, too.” JD's voice was fervent, and Buck resisted the urge to give him a smacking kiss on the side of the head, the way he'd done to Nate 'til the kid had turned thirteen and threatened to deck him if he didn't stop. JD was a sight older than that, and didn't know him to boot, so he doubted it would be appreciated.

 

“Vincent is the other brother I haven't met yet, from what I understand his Momma asked Daddy to stay away, even more than yours did.” He hesitated to go into details, even though he realized that the reason he didn't want to had a lot more to do with Ezra's story making Daddy look good, and Vincent's, well, didn't, than anything sound. Buck fully believed Daddy had no idea Vincent had wound up in the system, was sure if he had his brother would have wound up with Daddy years ago, but that didn't change the fact that Daddy was the one who had allowed that to be possible in the first place. Hadn't had a way to check up on him, a way to talk to his mother, or worse, hadn't bothered to if he had. “His Momma died when he was little, and at first he stayed with his great uncle, but then he wound up in foster 'til he got adopted when he was thirteen.”

 

JD shook his head, and then changed the subject, Buck getting the idea from some of the expressions that had crossed his face that he was avoiding saying something Buck might not want to hear, and he went with it. The kid started telling him about some sci-fi game Buck had never heard of and next thing he knew they were talking about Die Hard movies, both agreeing that the last two were garbage, but at least the fourth was entertaining, the fifth was just stupid (“Bruce Willis looks bored, and I don't blame 'im, the script was plain awful” “All I know is, John McClane wouldn't get out of a taxi without paying.” “Uh...right kid, sure.”), but JD actually liked the second movie better than the first, something Buck was happy to tell him was due to having been born in the wrong decade, both of them munching on nachos now, and neither one noticing when Inez switched out the almost empty platter for a smaller version of the original. Then they were talking about books, and while Buck wasn't much of a reader he'd had a girlfriend in high school who used to read aloud to him from Harry Potter, and gotten him hooked. It had taken him almost a year to get through the last book, but it was worth it. JD was chattering on about some sci-fi series when he suddenly stopped mid-word and looked down at the plate, confused.

 

“Kid? What's up?”

 

“I could've sworn we were eating off a white plate, and this one's red.”

 

Buck glanced down, shrugging, “We probably finished off the first one and Inez brought out more. Looks like we nearly finished off this one too.” To his surprise JD's head drooped, a blush staining his cheeks.

 

“I can't afford another six dollars.”, it was little more than a whisper, and Buck wanted to smack himself in the head for being an idiot, he should have made sure the kid knew he wasn't gonna have to worry about that, and he slung an arm around the kid's shoulder's before he could think better of it, squeezing him.

 

“Hey, hey, you think I'm gonna make my kid brother pay in my own place? Not a chance.” Before JD could get out more than a couple words of protest-he could pay his own way, okay, he actually couldn't this time, but still...he could pay Buck back, and he didn't seem to want to listen to Buck's protestations that he didn't need to pay him back, that there wasn't any need to pay at all-Inez was in front of them dropping down a plate with a huge slice of fudge cake and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. “Eat up, Nino, you are too skinny! And there will not be another word about paying, comprehende?” Then she was off to the kitchen, long skirt flouncing behind her, JD only able to nod.

 

“Ain't she something?” Buck was looking after her with clear admiration in his eyes, and JD glanced between them curious.

 

“Is she your wife?”

 

“God, I wish.”

 

“I don't know if I can eat any more.”

 

“Try, or she'll kill us both.” He looked at the plate and leaned over the the counter to grab a second fork from the tub on the shelf below. “I'll help you.”

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Nathan walked slowly down the stairs, yawning and still tired, but unable to sleep another wink. Ever since Daddy...while, he'd realized just how helpless he really was, for all his medical knowledge and the fancy degree on his wall, it hadn't done him any good when it really counted. Sleep no longer wanted to come, and when it did...he pushed that down, figuring if he was going to be awake he might as well make himself useful, and made himself concentrate on the matter at hand. JD. He'd told them the night before that he was an early riser, used to it for work, and Nathan wanted to make sure he ate something besides the pop tarts that were next to the toaster for breakfast. Kid wasn't just too skinny, he looked pale, like he'd been surviving off cheap TV dinners and spending all day stuck inside.

 

He was a damn good kid, seemed to be anyway, Nathan liked him.

 

Nathan knew he could be well, a bit anal retentive (Rain had another word for it), and he tended to worry too much about people, and his worry could make him both mother henish and short-tempered. It wasn't something Nathan liked to admit, but he knew he could be a little judgmental too. When Buck had decided he wasn't going to college and Nathan just couldn't wrap his head around it, wouldn't leave Buck alone until they'd wound up fighting about it more than once, Daddy had finally told him he needed to start figuring out everyone didn't think like him, didn't see the world the way he did. He certainly hoped he was better at it now then he'd been at fourteen, but Nathan would be lying to himself if he didn't admit it was something he still struggled with. He'd been kind of worried he'd wind up not liking one of them for no good reason.

 

Or worse, that they'd actually be terrible, and what was he supposed to do then? Plus, he'd never been a big brother before, not unless you counted Ezra as a baby and toddler, and he had no idea how to handle that dynamic. Being a little brother was difficult enough. JD was bright, cheerful, and though Nathan didn't think he was quite the lost, innocent pup that Buck did, that bit of world weariness in the back of his eyes would probably help him survive whatever this experience turned into a lot easier. He had no doubt that this could, and would, turn messy-he was hopeful that it wouldn't stay that way, but he wouldn't place a bet either way if there was a pool. It was all very strained.

 

Selfish as it probably was, Nathan wished it would all just go away. Even JD, part of him wished he'd never heard of the kid to worry about. 'Cause now that he had, the worrying, about the too skinny kid, definitely wasn't going to stop. At least, he wished Daddy were here, to be the parent the kid no doubt needed.

 

Yeah, if it could all go back to the way things had been before, Nathan wouldn't have a problem with that at all.

 

Grabbing the grocery list he added one-a-day teen vitamins to the list, then thinking on it a bit more, string cheese, pretzels, carrot sticks, graham crackers, and a couple other snacky things that JD could just grab for himself. Lunch meat was already on there, but, remembering his own ability to demolish half a loaf's worth of toast in one sitting at seventeen, Nathan added bread to the list even though there was both garlic and whole grain in the breadbox. He didn't know what kind of fruit he liked, he'd wait to ask him, but everybody liked cheese and pretzels, right?

 

As his eyes read back over the additions he'd added to the list, Nathan nodded with satisfaction and hung it back on the fridge. Once he got Aunt Nettie involved, JD would be fed up in no time.

 

Mostly, right now, Nathan did *not* want Josiah to leave. Made him feel kind of ridiculous to admit it, he wasn't a kid, but he didn't.

 

And he was going to. Not right away, and it wasn't that Nathan thought he would disappear again, believed him when he said he would visit, it was just...he had a life elsewhere, and they had no right to ask him to stay. He knew that, but dammit, Nathan hadn't had his brother in seventeen years.

 

Josiah was tiptoeing around the rest of them half the time, clearly feeling guilty about a variety of things, and the other half he was acting like he'd never been gone. Nathan didn't really know what to think about the big brother he hadn't seen since he was ten. He didn't know the man, not really.

 

Only he did. Josiah had changed a lot, that was plain to see, seventeen years did that, and there was a weight on him that Nathan thought only partly came from grief over Daddy and guilt over leaving in the first place. There was something else there, something his brother wasn't telling them, something had happened to him, maybe. Change didn't mean he wasn't still Josiah though, that Nathan didn't feel an ease with him. His laugh was the same, and his sense of humor, and he was still that solid wall of Josiah.

 

He'd been so angry when Josiah left. Well, at first he'd been terrified. Nathan had known, had had faith, in the way only a child who still believes in Santa could, that if Josiah could have come home for his birthday, he would have. When he hadn't...Daddy had eventually managed to find out for certain that Josiah was okay, but until then he'd been half convinced he was dead.

 

“Why do you have so much food? I mean there's gotta be enough of just canned and boxed stuff to last for months!” Nathan looked up in surprise to see that JD's voice was coming from the now open pantry. Boy hadn't been joking when he said he was an early riser. He walked over and leaned against the doorway, watching him for a second before he spoke.

 

“Winters can get pretty bad out here, storms, snow and ice, and we're pretty far away from town. That whole back wall is reserved for emergencies, plus the big boxes on the floor. We switch it out when it gets to the point you should use it, buy new stuff and eat the old.”

 

“Snow? In Arizona?” JD was highly skeptical and Nathan was highly amused.

 

“We're not exactly by Phoenix, JD, we get a foot or so most winters. Doesn't last long, but it happens. You want to help me make breakfast?”

 

“Sure. I can make eggs.”

 

The two started on breakfast together, Nathan wincing a little at the amount of egg that was sticking to the pan JD was scrambling them in, while he added green and red peppers to the potatoes he'd chopped, but not saying anything, then or when he dumped a gigantic handful of cheese into it. Nettie was going to kill them all when she saw the state of that pan. Buck and Chris, trudging their way past them to start on the morning chores, made appreciative noises at the smell, before snagging mugs of hot coffee and chugging the contents fast enough to make JD wince as he watched.

 

The silence started to feel less companionable and more tense and Nathan leapt for the first topic that sprang to mind as he started laying bacon out on a baking tray, “So, you just graduated? What was your major?”

 

“Accounting.”

 

Nathan was glad JD wasn't looking at him when he said it, because that was not what he had been expecting to hear. It was pretty clear that JD was a ball of energy most of the time, he kept bouncing on his feet as he was stirring the eggs, and last night he'd been half asleep and still trying to talk Buck into taking him out to the horse barn, talking a mile a minute around yawns. The kid must really like numbers.

 

Yeah? You found a job in your field yet?” JD nodded, feet suddenly still as he scraped the batch of scrambled eggs into the waiting bowl, and put the cover on it to keep in the heat, Nathan nudging him to scoot over a bit so he could open the oven door without burning him. He did not looking nearly as pleased as a kid who landed a job in his field within a few months of graduating should. “How do you like it?”

 

“Oh, it's pretty cool.” JD was trying to sound convincing now, but he didn't, and Nathan just nodded, not sure what to say. He guessed nothing was the right thing, because a second later JD was talking again, blurting like he'd been wanting to say it for awhile, “I wanted to go into video game design, I've designed a couple already, just simple stuff, but I'm good at, and I got accepted into this special program and everything, only, I was applying for all these scholarships, the FAFSA only covers so much, and there was one for accounting that I got, and well...you make more money in accounting, unless you hit it big, and most people don't...guaranteed future, you know? It was practical.” Nathan swallowed as he opened the fridge, getting into the fruit crisper. JD didn't say it, but Nathan was sure that the money concern had had a lot to do with piling up medical bills.

 

“You could always go back later. Lots of people do that.” Inwardly he was wondering if the nearly hour drive to the local university-they had a good Game Design program, he'd had a friend who'd done it, with a focus on digital graphics-would be too much for the kid during the long winter months.

 

“Yeah, maybe when I pay off my loans, oh, twenty years from now.” JD laughed as he said it, but there was a trace of bitterness in his voice that was impossible not to hear, that a boy as young as JD shouldn't have had to feel. Nathan felt a surge of anger at his dead father for the first time, hand clenching around the knife in his hand as he moved it automatically. He'd been confused, disillusioned, resentful, even disgusted and a little bitter himself, but this, right now, this was the first time he'd felt truly angry.

 

Nathan had gone all the way through medical school without having to worry about loans. 11 years of school was a hell of a lot more expensive than four; and sure he'd paid some of his own way with part time jobs, and done the fafsa/scholarship thing too, and living with Granddaddy Obadiah for most of the time he'd been in school had definitely helped. But there had never been any doubt that what he couldn't cover Daddy would take care of.

 

How much debt was JD in? Nathan made himself take a deep breath, looking down at the cantaloupe he'd been cutting, grimacing a bit at the mess he'd made of the last few pieces.

 

They'd agreed to let Buck handle talking to the kid about staying long term, as it was clear after about two seconds watching them together that JD had already latched onto Buck, and Buck seemed equally delighted with him. It had also been decided to wait until after meeting the other two brothers and the will reading to bring it up, just in case Daddy threw another curve ball at them.

 

But enough was enough. JD needed to know he had options. He needed to know that, yes, on the one hand they were strangers, but on the other they were family. It was pretty easy to stop being strangers with someone, but blood was blood. Well Nathan was becoming somewhat unsure if his father had actually believed in the lessons of right or wrong he'd taught him, Nathan knew he still did. “You know the local university has a good program for game design. It's nearby, so you could stay here and not have to worry about room and board, and if you're still taking classes you don't have to worry about loan payments or interest building up. I'm sure we could figure out a way to help with tuition. We’ll even feed you.” He turned to flash a grin at the boy manning the toaster and froze as he saw JD just staring at him, looking absolutely bewildered. “JD?” A moment. “JD? Are you okay?”

 

“I-just, you don't even know me. Why?” Nathan put down the knife and turned to face his little brother fully, focusing all his attention on him.

 

“I don't know you yet, but I want to. Either way,” Nathan ran a hand over his face, not sure how to say this, “We're brothers. We should have had the same shot in life and we didn't. Frankly, Daddy more than dropped the ball and it isn't fair. I know I can't change that, but I want to do what I can.”

 

JD frowned now, and Nathan could tell he had said something wrong, but wasn't sure what it could be. “You don't owe me anything, Nathan. Like you said, he's the one who dropped the ball,” A strange look passed over JD's face when he repeated his words, and Nathan hadn't meant it like that, “You were just a kid.”

 

“I don't have to owe you anything to want to be your big brother.” That seemed to fix what he'd said wrong before, JD beaming at him as he piled the newly popped up pieces of toast onto a plate, accidentally touching the hot metal as he grabbed the last piece and dropping it back into the toaster, yelping a little. “Careful, don't burn yourself now.”

 

Later, right before they sat down to eat, Buck pulled Nathan aside, out into the hallway, “If there's not enough bacon left, I'm eating your share.”

 

“Yeah, no you ain't,” Buck snorted. “I just wanted to say good job with the kid earlier.” He smiled at him and Nathan was torn between being pleased at the praise and more than a bit annoyed that Buck had been listening.

 

“Eavesdropping, Buck? Ain't you a little old for that?” Nathan raised an eyebrow, and Buck had the good grace to look a little sheepish.

 

“I'm sorry Nathan, but hell, I walked up and overheard a bit without meaning to, and I didn't want to interrupt. I could tell it was important, and I was worried if I walked back off the porch you guys would hear me...”

 

“And you wanted to hear.” Nathan was still annoyed, but a bit amused too, and he guessed Buck can tell because his sheepish face turned into a sheepish grin.

 

“Yeah, ain't gonna lie, I did.” He moved to clap Nathan on the shoulder, squeezing lightly. “Like I said, you did good.”

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Nettie came in the sliding glass door that led to the ranch's kitchen, taking off her overcoat and hanging it on one of the pegs next to the door, before turning towards the room, Chris, the only one who could see her from his seat, waving a hello. She stopped for a second as she realized there was one more head bent over a plate, shoving eggs in his mouth, than she would have expected. The boy turned a bit, leaning closer to Buck while he was talking, and as she caught his face her breath stole away from her for a moment. Lord, he was the image of Jenna...Jenna, who was gone like so many she'd known, and hadn't even been forty, just a girl really. Shaking herself out of her thoughts, Nettie stepped forward in time to hear the rest of their conversation. “Hey kid, what do you say we spend the day exploring the ranch? I’ve got the day off, we could even go fishing if you want.”

 

Really? I’ve never been fishing before.” Buck was half-jokingly, half-honestly appalled at this, and she stepped in before he could wax too long on the joys of fishing-it would inevitably turn into a tale of her nephew taking some poor girl fishing and details she did not want to hear.

 

“Who’s this, boys?”

 

“Aunt Nettie, this is JD. JD, Aunt Nettie.” Chris said, succinct and to the point as usual.

 

“Hello, Ma’am.” JD smiled, looking nervous and excited, and Nettie smiled back as she started unloading the box of new cleaning supplies she'd brought with her onto the counter. Polite, she liked that.

 

“Hello there, JD. I’m glad to meet you.” He bit his lip, and she waited, able to tell he had something in mind to say.

 

“Are you really my aunt? It’s just,” he hurried, apparently worried he’d offended her, “I thought Josiah said our father only had a brother, the judge who sent me the letter.”

 

“I’m not a blood aunt, but my family has owned the farm down the road for nearly as long as the Larabees have owned this ranch, a few generations now. Your Uncle Orin and I spent most of our time together growing up, with your Daddy following after like a shadow from the time he could toddle. After a while it just got easier to say, “this is my brother Linc”, then explain why a boy who wasn’t my relative kept calling me Sissy.” Though it had caused their parents consternation a time or two.

 

“That’s a cool story. I always wanted a friend who was more like a brother, but I never had one, my friend Ayida is kind of like a little sister. Finding out I’ve got so many real brothers totally makes up for it though.” Cheerful, and finished with his breakfast, JD gathered up his plate and silverware and carried it over to the sink, turning on the water to start rinsing them. Good, Nettie liked a child who picked up after themselves without being asked. When he began to load them in the dishwasher she was tempted to look over her shoulder at Buck and Chris (Nathan had always been a tidy person) and ask them if they’d like their younger brother to teach them this step, as they’d never mastered it. When he finished with his own and went back to take Nathan’s and Chris’s plates as well she frowned. It wasn’t that she was a woman who said they didn’t have a problem with boys doing housework, but still treated it as though they were going above and beyond when they wiped a counter-Nettie had met her share of those. It was more the boy’s mannerisms, looking to each of them for approval as he took their plate, relaxing as he found it. Casey had been like that when she first came to live with her, jumping to complete every chore she could see, determined to make herself as useful as she could be. To make sure she was too valuable to be sent away.

 

While, they’d tackled that one step at a time with Casey, and they could do it with JD too. Nettie finally spoke up when the boy went to start grabbing the pans off the stove, being careful to keep her voice light, “Hey now, don’t you go doing my job for me. You have a fishing trip to get ready for, I believe.”

 

JD grinned, the reminder of the fishing trip getting him almost vibrating with excitement, “Yeah, thanks Au-Ma’am.” He flushed, even with the grin still on his face, and Nettie spoke up briskly, not about to leave him wondering.

 

“You can call me whatever you like, as long as it’s polite. Aunt Nettie would be just fine. Now-”

 

“And you don’t want to call her anything impolite,” Buck broke in with a grin, “It will not be a fun day if you do.”

 

“If Bucklin were thinking, I’m sure he’d tell you it’s not the best idea to interrupt me either,” Nettie gave Buck a look, and he grinned back unrepentantly.

 

“Yes’m.”

 

“You go on and get ready too. If it gets your mischievous behind out of the house for the day, I’ll even pack you a lunch. Go on now, get.” Buck laughed aloud at his Aunt’s chiding tone, the affection in it loud and clear to him, and got to his feet, stretching.

 

“You heard the lady JD, let’s get to it.” JD was already at the top of the stairs by the time Buck had reached the foot, the older man chuckling as he followed, “This is going to be a right interesting trip, I think.”

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

“What the hell is that on your head?” JD looked up at the sound of Buck’s incredulous voice.

 

“It’s my hat.” He put a hand up to the rim of the bowler self-consciously, a slightly defensive tone coming to his voice, “You said to wear something to keep the sun off my face, and that my baseball cap wouldn't work.”

 

“That, son,” Buck said slowly, “is not a hat. That is an abomination.”

 

JD scowled fully now, “It is not! It’s a perfectly fine hat!”

 

“That thing ain’t gonna keep the sun or the rain off your face, it’s hardly a hat at all.” He took a playful swipe at his little brother’s head, knocking the hat to the ground, chuckling as JD shoved at his shoulder before he ran to grab it, “We’ll get you a proper one next time we go into town.”

 

“Ain’t nothing wrong with my hat, you get a proper hat,” JD muttered more than loud enough to be heard, and Buck just grinned at him.

 

“Hey Chris!” He called over to where Chris was in front of the barn, saddling up his big stallion, continuing when the other man looked their way, “Whadya you think of JD’s hat?” Chris looked over, saw the bowler perched jauntily on the teenager’s head, and the snort was out of his mouth before he could stop it. JD’s scowl got even more pronounced.

 

“You guys suck, you know that?” He stomped over to the truck, more annoyed than really mad, and climbed in. Once he was inside the truck and they couldn’t see him, he let a small grin tug at his lips, relaxing back into his seat with a sigh. This was exactly what all the TV shows and books said it was like to have brothers, good brothers anyway. They teased you, and messed with you like crazy, but didn’t really hurt you, or let anybody else do it.

 

For the first time in a long time, life was looking pretty good.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Ezra sat the small dog back in his passenger seat after they'd both stretched their legs and Bogart had quite gleefully marked every scraggly tree and patch of grass he could find around the edge of the parking lot, “Alright Bogey, stay, that's a good boy.” Well he was still sore and moving stiffly, all day in the car yesterday and today not helping matters, Ezra was feeling well enough, healing fast enough, that the ribs he'd feared cracked could only be bruised. He turned and headed for the convenience store, glad that he'd filled his tank earlier that evening, as the gas prices at this middle of nowhere place, the only thing on this stretch of highway but empty fields, desert and the occasional farm or ranch house, until you hit Four Corners, which, according to his directions, was still twenty miles away, were ludicrous. Twenty cents higher than where he'd stopped, twenty-two if you were paying with card, and he had to admit it was clever, both travelers and locals probably often had no choice but to pay the exorbitant price.

 

Hoping the bottled water wasn't equally overpriced, Ezra stepped into the rather dingy concrete building, one of the fluorescent lights flickering in an obnoxious manner, the other dimmer than it should be. Charming. He hurriedly found the water, ignoring the growling of his stomach as he was not eating anything that had been in this building, even in a sealed package. Most of it seemed to have a layer of dust, signaling that the majority of the customers felt similarly. On his way out, having confirmed with the gentleman behind the counter that unless he went off the highway into town all his dining options were behind him, he carried water and a small bag of dog treats, Bogart not being nearly as picky as he was. Oh well, it was not as though waiting until he was in town, not really far away at all now, would cause him to expire from hunger. Perhaps he would see how the room service in his hotel was, a small luxury of that type was due him after the trial he'd underg-

 

No. Ezra stared, wide-eyed, at the broad shoulders across the parking lot from him. No, it couldn't be him. He'd been so careful. Had told no one about where he was going. He had acquired more than adequate cash funds before he left the city to ensure there would be no credit card purchases, nothing that could leave a trail. Alfred should not have been able to find him, he had booked his hotel room under a false identity Ezra had never revealed to the man.

 

For a split second he had the wildly absurd thought the man had been able to track him simply because he was him, that no matter where he went Alfred would find him, that there was no getting away.

 

But no. Alfred was a man, just like any other. He had no real power over Ezra, no claim that drew him to him. He must have left a clue, something the other man could track.

Alfred's back was to him now, and he either hadn't seen the Jaguar yet or had already passed it. If he made his way there as quickly as he could, he might be able to drive away before he saw him. Slowly, but not too slowly, as that would draw attention also, he began making his way to the parking lot, keeping an eye on Alfred while doing his best to avoid looking directly at him. It would do no good to have the bastard sense his gaze.

He made it around the side of the store, made it halfway to the Jag, when he heard him, the sounds of his expensive leather soles, shoes Ezra had bought for the undeserving schmuck, slapping against the pavement, fast and angry. Knowing running would do no good, he was still too far from his car, and not wanting to give him the satisfaction anyway, he turned to face him, refusing to flinch as the red visage, contorted in fury bore down on him. Ezra said nothing, just glared, refused to say anything that Alfred would treat as an excuse, as though justification was required for his actions. "Did you really think I wouldn't find you? Did you really think I would just let you leave? You're mine Ezra, and clearly I need to remind you of that."

"What Ah do and where Ah go are nothing to do with you any longah, and Ah belong to no one. It's over Alfred and there is nothing you can do about it."

"No!" It was screamed in his face, Alfred stepping closer and as much as Ezra didn't want to show fear, didn't want to bow, he found himself back pedaling against his will, body taking over where his mind wouldn't work. "You're mine. I love you, and I know you love me, and I'm going to make you remember."

As scared as he was, Ezra now found himself angry, hands balling into fists at his sides. “No. Ah used to love you, but you destroyed that. And you never loved me, not as anything more than a favorite plaything that could be used as a punching bag when you grew tired of it, like a spoiled child who stomps on his teddy bear while throwing a fit. Ah am not your teddy bear or your punching bag-”, Alfred grabbed him by both shoulders in a vice grip, and next thing Ezra knew he was forcing his mouth onto his, forcing his tongue into his mouth, and for a split second he was frozen as he realized what Alfred likely meant by reminding him. Of all the abominable things the man had done to him, he'd never forced himself on him. Part of him had known, towards the end, that refusing him might be dangerous, but it had never gone that far, he hadn't tested it. He had to get away now. Ezra bit down on Alfred's tongue, hard enough that warm, red blood flowed into his mouth, and stomped down on the top of his foot, Alfred pulling away, his grip faltering, and Ezra spat the mouthful of blood into his eyes, tearing out of his hold and running as fast as he could, bruised ribs no match for the adrenaline coursing through him.

He should have run to his car.

He should have run to the front of the store.

He should not have run towards the back, but by the time he realized where he was headed it was too late. If he changed directions, he'd be caught. All he could do was keep running.

He tripped over something, a crack in the pavement, maybe, didn't fall, but he might as well have, it slowed him down and a hand tangled in the back of his shirt, a sob of frustration and terror forcing its way out of him as he was yanked backwards, tossed like a rag doll into the concrete wall of the gas station, Alfred pinning him there.

He should not have run towards the back.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Vin stretched, putting his hands to the small of his back and pressing, the pop-pop-pop noise music to his ears, enjoying the night air and chance to move around after all day in his truck. Ko'Je would be on him about damaging his back more than it already was, but it was Ko'Je who insisted he come to this farce, so Vin didn't much care what he had to say right now.

 

To be fair, when he'd started this trip he'd been kind of grateful to his Pa for all but making him go, but after three different ferry rides and four days driving cross-country in his ancient and rickety truck as the fast food wrappers built around him almost as fast as his nerves Vin was changing his tune. What the hell did he need with whatever Linc Larabee had left him in his will? Whatever it was, he'd gotten along just fine without it so far.

 

Right now, though, all he was worried about was taking a leak, grabbing some snacks and then deciding whether he needed to find a place to crash or if he was good to keep driving. He didn't have that much farther to go, but he hadn't got much sleep last night, mind running like crazy while he lay in the back of the pick-up staring up at the stars. Vin went in to the gas station and got the bathroom key, after waiting for the damn cashier to get off the phone with his girlfriend or whatever the hell he was doing and actually acknowledge he was there.

 

“Oh, fer fuck's sake.” The bathroom was tiny, smelly and disgusting even by gas station bathroom standards, the acrid smell of piss about enough to turn his stomach. He should have just used a tree. Trying not to touch anything, Vin finished and left the bathroom as quickly as he could. He was about to head back around to the front of the building when he heard it. The noise of scuffling feet and shoving, rising protests and the crack of a hand hitting flesh. Hard. Vin edged along the side of the building and around the corner cautiously, hackles rising as he saw a small man held up against a wall by a much larger one. Vin hated bullies. The hand cracked down again and the smaller man's head lolled towards him, into the pool of light left by the one unbroken fixture on the back of the building and Vin started moving closer, stomach sinking as he got a good look at the face. It was a fucking teenager, no older than eighteen or nineteen at the most, he'd bet. Chanu's age. He looked goddamn terrified. When the hand that had just smacked the kid started to stroke down his neck to his chest, he thought he was going to be sick. Vin had seen more than enough, marched forward intending to kick some ass, but before he could do anything the kid, smirked, outright smirked, with blood and saliva and all dripping down his chin, and flung a taunt at the jerk holding him against the wall.

 

“Alfred, Ah have told you several times now, Ah am no longah desirous of your company, and certainly not of your bed, no matter what delusions you may have going on in that empty orifice that makes up your rathah unfortunate cranium. Let me go!” Vin, almost there now, smirked as the younger man did his level best to connect his knee to his-ex-boyfriends?-crotch, even though it was clear the move was made as much out of desperation as anything. He didn't make it, but he did smash into his inner thigh pretty hard, making him stagger and lose his hold on the kid, falling back half a step and giving Vin a great opportunity to crack him in the face and then slam his head back into the dumpster behind him. Guy was a giant, if Vin didn't take him out quick he was gonna have a bad night. Still, he'd been getting into fights since he could walk on the Rez, and after that with the kids in his foster homes or at school, and he'd been small for his age most of his life. Vin was damn good at fighting people bigger than him. Hell, give him two or three of them and he was even better.

 

When the man was firmly unconscious, Vin testing it with a kick to the ribs that barely made him twitch, he put his hand on the dumpster, catching his breath and holding his hand to his side, where a solid punch had landed. Finally he looked up at the slightly wide-eyed kid, who was staring at him like he was an alien, looked down at the thug on the ground, and back up at the kid. “Ya know, I think ya can do better.”

 

To his surprise after another moment of staring, the younger man's lips twitched, and then a laugh that sounded just a little hysterical ripped its way out of his mouth, one hand moving towards his middle before he seemed to think better of it, “Ah assure you, sah, Ah agree.” He tried to take a step away from the wall and almost doubled over, Vin taking a half step forward and putting out his hands, worried he was going to fall.

 

Ya gonna be okay?”

 

Ah always am.” He looked up at him, smiling, though it looked painful, and nodded in thanks, “You have mah gratitude, truly. Ah doubt he would have ceased on his own.”

 

Ya want me t' call an ambulance, or the cops-”

 

No!” Vin startled at the shout, staring at the boy, “No, that will be quite alright, thank you.”

 

Vin wondered if the teenager was even younger than he looked, a runaway, maybe, and was kind of tempted to kick the jerk lying on the ground again. “Okay. Okay. Can' say I mind not involvin' the cops myself. I'se Vin Tanner.”

 

Ezra Standish.” Ezra shifted slightly and bit back a cry of pain, certain now that at least one rib had moved from bruised to cracked. “Thank you again.”

 

No problem. Ye're ribs messed up?”

 

Ezra hesitated. It was obvious they were, so to deny it would be pointless. Yet, he had already put this stranger out enough. To ask more of him would be to court an obligation. “A mite sore, but Ah will be fine.”

 

Uh-huh.” Ezra could see that this Vin was not convinced, and as grateful as he was to him he just wanted to get in his car and drive away before he did something foolish, like cry all over himself in front of a stranger, or kick Alfred's ribs until they felt like his. Not that he had any real illusions that he could manage the latter at the moment. “Lemme help ya into the store at least, get some ice for yer cheek.”

 

Well...his car was closer, but he was likely to need ace bandages and some painkillers, and it would be easier with this Mr. Tanner's help. But why was he offering? Ezra eyed the man, perhaps a bit more obviously than he usually would, wondering which of the possible intentions that were popping into his head fit him. Only, somehow, he didn't look the sort. Which was confusing, because in Ezra's experience everyone was the sort.

 

Still, he thought he could make this work. “Perhaps you could help me to mah vehicle?”

 

Alright, where's it at?”

 

Ezra told him it was in the side parking lot, and found himself grateful for the other man's gentleness as he guided him in that direction. Without him he wasn't sure he would have made it. It took forever and a day, but eventually they got to the Jaguar, his rescuer letting out a low whistle when he saw it, “Now, that's a nice lookin' car.” Ezra couldn't help but grin, and then regretted it as the skin around his swollen cheek and split lip was pulled.

 

It was a twentieth birthday present from mah Mothah last year.” Vin helped Ezra into the vehicle, looking dubiously down at him, and Ezra hoped he would not make a fuss about letting him drive away. He started looking around the car, quietly calling, “Bogey, Bogart, come here boy!” As he called one of his hands went to his side, his ribs jarring, and he had to stop himself from pressing down, having already learned that was not wise. Clearly, raising his voice was not a prudent idea, but Bogart always came when he called, and Ezra waited for his nose to stick out from under the seat, or for him to scramble with his little legs from the back to the front...only he didn't. Trying not to panic, Ezra looked around for the dog again, not sure what he would do if something had happened to him. Lord, if Alfred had harmed him in any way Ezra would march over and finish the job Mr. Tanner had started, he swore he would.

 

Hey little fella, it's okay.” Turning his head, he saw that Mr. Tanner had disappeared from view, but as his voice was still coming from beside him Ezra realized he must have seen Bogart under the car and he sagged, his relief all but palatable. “Ye're alright, c'mon out now.” His rescuer made soothing little sounds at the dog, praising him as he crawled out from under the car, “There's a good boy, that's right. Hey Ezra, can I give 'im a piece of jerky?”

 

You shall have a friend for life if you do, Mistah Tannah. Not too large, please.” There was a chuckle and then the sound of Bogart making a happy snuffling noise as he gobbled up his treat, and Vin was straightening up with Bogart in his arms, still trembling a bit from his scare, but with the way his body was pressed back into the man's chest, he wasn't scared of Vin at all. Ezra supposed he must have heard Alfred's voice, or smelled him, and hid under the car.

 

Want me t' put 'im in the passenger seat?” Mr. Tanner was tactful in his own way, not mentioning that Ezra would be hard pressed to reach up and take Bogart himself, or that just having him placed in his lap would likely be painful, and Ezra found himself extraordinarily thankful for the man's sensitivity.

 

Thank you, Ah'd be much obliged.” He tossed him a smile as he walked around the front of the car and sat the dog down gently, giving him a scratch around the ears and getting an enthusiastic lick across his hand as thanks.

 

There ya go, back where ya belong.” He grinned at Ezra, “He's a good dog.”

 

He is a loyal and steadfast companion.” Wincing slightly, he reached over and rubbed his palm around Bogey's head, the boston terrier arching up into it. “Aren't you, love?” Mister Tanner was still hovering at the door, and hoping to staunch anymore suggestions that he needed medical attention, Ezra decided it was time to request his kindness a last time. “Do you think, Mistah Tannah, Ah could prevail on you for one more favor?” At the man's nod Ezra shifted, reaching into his back pocket, Vin noticeably wincing at the muffled groan of pain he couldn't hide, pulling out his wallet and extracting a bill from it, dropping the wallet into the cup holder next to him when he was done, “Could you acquire some ace bandages, ibuprofen and a few ice packs for me?”

 

'Course, it ain't a problem.” Vin took the bill, tucking it into his pocket, and, unlike he expected, Ezra had no fear that he would simply take off with it.

 

Ah also dropped a bag with watah and some treats for Bogey, Ah'm not sure where, but-”

 

I'll look around fer 'em, no problem.”

 

Thank you again.”

 

Told ya, it ain't a problem.” As the older man walked towards the store entrance Ezra leaned back in his seat, not daring to truly relax-what if Alfred woke up?-, but trying to rest a bit before Mr. Tanner got back. Bogart climbed over so he was half on the seat next to him and half on his leg, and he slid his hand over so it was laying on the warm body, letting his eyes slide shut as a headache washed over him.

 

Lord, he'd convinced himself it was over, that he'd gotten away.

 

He wasn't sure it would ever be over now...the look in Alfred's eyes. Ezra fought a shudder, the word's 'You're mine' repeating in his ears. Bogey whined, squirming so he was even more on Ezra's lap, and Ezra jumped on the distraction, idly scratching his head as he fussed over the little dog, not as soothed by feeling of the short fur, somehow smooth and bristly at the same time, as he usually was.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Vin acted casual as he walked into the store and dropped the bathroom key on the front counter, ignoring the clerk's grumble of, “Took you long enough.” Whatever, he didn't care if the guy decided he'd been jerking off or shooting up in the bathroom, just as long as he didn't go around back for a good long while. He knew enough about the justice system to know that even if it had been defense of a teenage kid-Vin wasn't sure he believed that Ezra could have turned twenty a year ago, thought it more likely he just hadn't wanted to admit how young he was to a stranger when he was already vulnerable as hell-he'd likely suffer some pretty steep consequences if caught. Luckily, he'd noticed all the cameras on the outside of the building had been shot out, probably by kids with BB guns way out here, or maybe just rocks and a slingshot. Heading down the aisle with medical and bathroom stuff Vin grabbed a small bottle of ibuprofen, checking for an expiration date on second thought. He examined the different types of bandage wraps for a second, before grabbing a box. A thorough search of the aisle didn't help him find the cold packs, and he headed up to the front of it, calling out to the clerk.

 

Hey, do ya have any of 'em instant ice packs, ya know the kind ya squeeze t' make 'em cold?” The man blinked back at him, like he had no idea what Vin was talking about, taking a long moment to answer.

 

I think there's some gel packs on the shelf, and there's ice in the freezer.”

 

I need somethin' gets cold on it's own, and was hopin' fer somethin' that wouldn't melt.”

 

Sorry, pretty sure we don't have anything like that.” He looked more bored than sorry, but Vin just nodded at him, before going to grab his snacks. Remembering the kid had only gotten food for his dog, he grabbed a bag of trail mix figuring there would be something in there he would like, before finally heading to the freezer, hoping it wasn't all gigantic bags of ice, and cursing under his breath when he saw it was. Ezra couldn't put a five pound bag of ice on his face. Trying not to look too unhappy, because it really wasn't the clerk's fault they didn't carry what he needed, he headed back to the front and dumped the stuff on the counter, separating out the food from the stuff for Ezra.

 

Need t' pay fer this stuff first.” Wincing a little at the price of just some pills and bandages, he handed over Ezra's twenty, taking back the change and tucking it into his front pocket, then pulled out his wallet to pay for the food, picking up both bags and saying a quiet thank you to the clerk. Before he could turn away, the man held something out to him.

 

Here, I found these in our first aid kit. Seemed like you need them.” Surprised and grateful Vin reached out and took the two instant ice packs.

 

Thank ya, that's really great of ya man.” The guy just shrugged.

 

It's cool.”

 

Looking around the side parking lot he quickly found the discarded bag, nothing inside damaged, luckily. Ezra's eyes were closed as he was walking up, and he frowned, worried he had passed out, before they slowly opened and the younger man smiled at him, obviously in pain, “Hey, here's yer change,” Ezra took it and sat it on top of his wallet in the cup holder, “an' here's yer other stuff,” He leaned over, placing the bags on the seat next to Ezra, before leaning back and handing the ice packs directly to him. Ezra placed one on the worst of the bruising on his ribs, Vin's face blanching at the sight and he quickly smoothed it, having the feeling his fellow southerner's pride had taken all the sympathy he could handle. He thanked him again, and Vin accepted it, but hesitated, not feeling able to leave. “Look, are ya sure ya don't want t' go t' the emergency room? There's a hospital about twelve miles down the road, if ya want I could follow behind, make sure ya get there okay.”

 

Ah appreciate the offah, Mr. Tannah, but there isn't a considerable amount a hospital can do for a bruised cheek or ribs that ah cannot perform mahself.”

 

Vin stood considering him for a long moment, and could see that nothing he said was going to change his mind, “Yer a stubborn one, ain't ya? I got a little brother about yer age, he's a stubborn one t''.”

 

Yes, well Ah am not your brothah, am Ah?”

 

There was a tenseness in the other man's face now that told Vin to tread lightly, to not be too serious, so, smiling, he said, “Hell, if ya were I can tell ya we'd be goin' to the doctor's whether ya liked it or not-, but ya ain't, like ya said, so I guess it's none a my business.”

 

Ah do truly appreciate all the help you've given me this evening, Ah-well, Ah likely would be in need of a hospital without your interference. It is not often a person goes so fah for a strangah.”

 

Vin nodded, quietly saying, “Yer welcome,” but made no move to say goodbye or walk away. He had something he wanted to say, even though he knew it wasn't his place, was even less his business. But he had to say it.

 

Vin had had a foster mom when he was ten and eleven who was a real good lady, he'd called her Miss Dee, though she would have let him call her Mom. One of the few he'd had who actually liked kids, and had an idea about how to deal with difficult ones, like he knew he'd been. Her husband Harold had been pretty decent, a distant, quiet man, who spent most of the attention he had for others on his wife, but was always gentle and calm when he did talk to Vin. Sometimes when Vin and his little foster sister Mila were drawing or doing their homework at the table he'd see him looking over and smiling at them, almost like he was proud. When he'd joined the basketball team Harold had screwed an old beat-up hoop with a torn net to the top of the garage, bought him a basketball of his own, and Vin hadn't known a thing about it until he'd climbed off the school bus and seen the hoop, the ball laying loose underneath it for him to find. A couple times, he'd even played with him.

 

Then Harold had lost his job and started drinking and everything changed. At first he just moped around drunk, snarling at the wife he'd never been anything but loving to, but when she'd started pushing him to get help he'd started slapping her around. He'd stop drinking for a few days sometimes-the first time he'd slapped her he'd stayed sober for two weeks after-and would say he was going to get treatment, but he'd just start drinking again. When Miss Dee had come home from the store to see him holding Mila by her arm and shaking her, Vin sprawled on the floor where he'd been shoved when he tried to pull her away from him, she'd gotten them away from him and called the police herself. CPS took them, he had no idea where Mila had wound up, she'd been his sister for two years, but no one would tell him anything, and Vin had wound up the youngest and smallest boy in his first group home.

 

He'd tried to look Miss Dee up a few years ago, because while the last six months hadn't been great, she'd treated him the way no one had since he'd been taken from Uncle Vincent, not until he'd met Ko'Je. Like family. Like her son.

 

Harold had killed her. Shot her and then killed himself, about two years after he'd left their home.

 

Mistah Tannah? Are you quite alright?” Ezra looked concerned for him, which seemed kind of backwards, and Vin sighed softly, running a hand over his hair.

 

Look, I know ya don't really know me, but can I ask somethin' of ya?” A wariness immediately came over Ezra's face, but he nodded, if reluctantly. “Promise me ya won't ever go back t' that scumbag.” The wariness had mostly left his face, but the younger man looked shocked and somewhat uncomfortable, speaking hastily.

 

Ah have no intention of evah even seeing him again, Ah can assure you, Mr. Tannah.”

 

That a promise?” Vin looked at him seriously, and finally he nodded at him.

 

Ah suppose it is, at that.”

 

I meant it when I said ya could do better.” Ezra looked away, blinking, and Vin dropped his eyes to the ground for a few seconds, giving him time to collect himself, and when he looked up Ezra was opening the bottle of ibuprofen and then his bottle of water, popping a few pills and taking a long drink. By the time he looked back up at Vin he was perfectly calm, and smiling slightly.

 

Ah think fate mah agree with you Mistah Tannah,” He turned his keys as he spoke, starting the engine and shifting into reverse, “as around the time Ah started to seriously considah leaving him a missive from a dead man arrived and gave me both motivation to leave and a destination to go to, if temporarily, and even if it is a tiny ranching town called Four Corners of all things.” He flashed a grin at Vin, calling one last thank you as he started backing out the car, gone before he'd had time to fully understand what the kid's word's meant.

 

'A missive from a dead man' was sending Ezra to Four Corners. Slowly a smile began to cross his face as Vin realized that that could only mean one thing. Ezra was one of his brothers. Then it vanished as he remembered just how he'd found him. Turning around to face the back of the store and the dumpster he'd left the shithead passed out next to, Vin contemplated whether he should go have another word or two with the man. If he was still unconscious he could look in his wallet, get his name and address, any other information that could come in handy.

 

He shouldn't though, that was how you got caught, and if he wound up in jail during the will reading that would kind of ruin everything, would certainly keep him from making sure Ezra was okay tomorrow. Slowly, still wishing he was walking the opposite way, Vin made his way to his truck and

climbed in, resting his head back against the ripped leather seat for a moment before he slid the key in the ignition and started it.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Josiah stared up at his bedroom ceiling, the stars he'd pasted there a good thirty years ago now winking down at him, a handful still faintly glowing in the dark, his stomach rolling. It wasn't that late, just now eight, but with the will reading tomorrow no one had questioned it when he'd begged off the movie the others were watching, claiming an upset stomach that had become less of a lie as he lay there. John Daniel had been disappointed, though he'd tried to hide it, he'd have to find someway to make it up to him.

 

Josiah's mind was stuck on the end of his conversation with his uncle, Orin's words playing over in his head.

 

“I didn't say anything yet because I wanted to tell you first, but your sister is mentioned in your father's will, as his child. I'll tell your brothers when we go back upstairs-”

 

Josiah had told him no. That it was too much in one day, and he would tell them himself after the funeral, or the day after. Uncle Orin hadn't liked it much, but he'd gone along with Josiah's wishes.

 

It should make him happy, at least it should feel like justice, and it did, almost, only it was one more thing, one more decision on Josiah's shoulders. Did he tell his brothers himself or wait for it to be revealed? He was wishing now he had just let Uncle Orin tell them, because at least it would be over with.

 

It had been his father's responsibility, should have been him who told them, and there was something about letting it be his words that his brothers learned about Hannah from that felt right to Josiah, if in a sort of twisted way. But this had been hard enough on them, and it wasn't fair to have that sort of potential explosion, especially for the two brothers who hadn't met any of them yet, on such an important day, an important day that was already full of potential explosions.

 

Before JD had arrived he'd made the first step, told them all yesterday that when Buck got back from the saloon he wanted to talk to them about something important, but in the excitement that had followed it had been forgotten.

 

He needed to visit Hannah, it had been over a month and she'd be wondering when he was coming soon. If his father's visits had been as extensive as Uncle Orin had implied, if he'd actually built a relationship with her...Hannah didn't do well with change, with things not being the way she expected. A few years ago Josiah had been delayed for an expected visit, his plane grounded due to a storm, and it had taken two days before she'd interacted with him at all, furious with him for not being there when he said he would.

 

It had been years before she quit asking for Mama, unable to understand where she was, or why she couldn't be with her. Telling her their mother was in heaven, a better place, hadn't made any sense to Hannah.

 

Finally in a moment of grief and frustration, when she'd asked for her again, no matter how many times Josiah had tried to explain, he'd told her that she was dead, that being dead meant her heart had stopped beating and she didn't breathe anymore, that she wasn't in her body.

 

Hannah had stared at him, and then she'd wailed, wailed and wailed and wailed, and he'd been so sorry, and nothing he could do could get her to stop. Usually Josiah was one of the few people Hannah would let comfort her, but she hadn't wanted him then, hadn't wanted him to touch her.

 

But she'd understood. She'd quit asking.

 

He didn't want to have to tell her again.

 

Josiah closed his eyes, tried to will himself to sleep, but it wouldn't come, even when he rolled over and buried his face in the pillow. When the knock came at his door, two sharp raps that he knew was Chris, he was grateful for the distraction, though he had a feeling the conversation was going to be less than pleasant. He rolled over and sat up in bed, flipping on the lamp on his nightstand. “Come in.” Chris walked in, shutting the door behind him, and, without a word, walked over to grab Josiah's desk chair, pulling it towards his bed and sitting on it with the back facing Josiah, Chris's hands folded together on the top.

 

“You had something important to tell us.” It was a statement not a question, but Chris was clearly still expecting an answer. Josiah hesitated, not sure about this. It would certainly be easier to tell just Chris rather than all three of them, but it hadn't escaped Josiah that Chris was pretty fragile right now, that Daddy's death was already injury on top of injury, and he didn't want to hurt him. “Josiah.”

 

“I don't want you to hate him.” He hadn't meant to say that, the words had just tumbled out of his lips unbidden.

 

Chris just nodded, “So it's about why you left then. I thought so.”

 

“Chris...”

 

“Josiah.” He was looking solidly back at him, and Josiah knew very well that his stubborn little brother wasn't going anywhere, not until he got it out of him. It was time for the secrecy to end anyway, Josiah knew that, he just didn't know how to say it. Only...he leaned over and grabbed a silver framed photo off his nightstand, handing it to Chris.

 

“Look at that.”

 

“It's you and your sister Hannah, ain't it? When you were kids.” Chris's face was thoughtful, a little wary, as though he already had an idea of what was coming, or at least knew he wasn't going to like it.

 

“Look at her eyes, Chris.” There was a long pause, Chris's hand slowly tightening on the frame as he stared.

 

“That son-of-a-bitch.”

 

“Don't Chris. Please, just don't.”

 

“I know how old she was when your Momma died. He might not have known about Vincent but he knew about her. Can't really think of a more fitting word.” His hand tightened on the picture frame again, Josiah reaching out and taking it from him before the glass could break. “God, no wonder you left! I don't know how the hell you stayed so long!”

 

“She's autistic, Chris, a-

 

“That makes it worse, not better!” Chris was on his feet now, pacing the short distance between the desk and the bed.

 

“Dammit, would you shut-up and listen?” It was a roar, if a muted one, and Chris reluctantly, face still furious, faced him, expectant, and Josiah was suddenly not sure how to start, “Hell Chris...he didn't even know she was his until she was nearly a year old, and then there was Emilio, and he thought he was her father, Mama wanted him to be her father.”

 

“But he knew.”

 

“He knew. Insisted on a DNA test, actually, to prove she was his, not the other way around.”

 

“What the hell happened? Why didn't she come here when your mother died? Mama-”

 

“Mama Clara didn't know, anymore than Emilio did.”

 

Chris stared again, more looking through Josiah than at him, “Daddy kept her a secret. He made you keep her a secret.”

 

“He didn't want to lose his wife by telling her he had a child with his ex. And my mother had just as much to do with it.”

 

“Hell Josiah, I've had a wife and a child, and as much-as much as I loved Sarah,” Chris paused for a second, lips pressed together tight, shaking his head hard, “Adam came first. He always came first.”

 

“Daddy wanted to put her in a home for autistic children when my Mama couldn't take care of her anymore, and I fought him on it. I fought him hard. Hell, that's why I ran away.” Josiah wasn't entirely sure why he was defending his father now, when he'd been so angry, “It would have been the right thing to do, I know that now, but...Chris, she was seven years old, and I just had to put our mother in a home. I couldn't...she was a baby.

 

“You were a seventeen year old kid Josiah, no older than JD. If Daddy had done what he was supposed to do it would have been him and Mama making those decisions-”

 

“Or maybe she would have left him when he told her, and taken Nathan, and we would have lost both of them. You would have lost your mother again.” Chris shook his head no, but he didn't say anything. Maybe Chris was right. She might have stayed, because, for all the times Daddy apparently betrayed her, they were good together, had seemed so natural and right together. Whenever one had walked into the room the other had seemed to light up, Daddy had gotten her to relax, to play, and she'd kept him grounded, kept his head out of the clouds. Or, she might have stayed because Clara wouldn't have been able to leave Chris, the boy Josiah was sure she'd thought of as her oldest. But she might have left too, and sometimes he thought that had been the real reason he hadn't told her himself all those years, not any loyalty to Daddy, or fear of displeasing him and Mama. “I should have gone along with it, but because of me, Hannah wound up staying with Abuelo. Anything would have been better than that.”

 

“Did he hurt her?” Chris had sunk back onto the chair, hands wrapping around the faded blue paint of the rungs.

 

“Yes.” Josiah bowed his head, “He never had before, at least I don't think so. Hannah was always his favorite by far, at worst he would ignore her and storm away when he was in a mood-which is bad enough, really, when we're talking about a special needs child who would go into a meltdown and likely be miserable for the rest of the day. But after Mama...I don't know, it seems ridiculous to me that he didn't already know Hannah was Daddy's, but if he didn't know before he would have after. Daddy paid child support, and when I hired a caretaker he paid for a large chunk of that, and Abuelo would have seen where the money came from. He didn't...approve of children born out of wedlock.”

 

“Did he hurt you?”

 

Josiah said nothing for a long moment, before finally speaking, “Sometimes. With Mama around I was generally fine.”

 

“He alive?” Josiah had a sudden image of Chris fighting his grandfather how he'd looked the last time he'd seen him, sour, lined face, stooped back, cane that he used as much to whap people who annoyed him around the ankles as to help him walk, still armed with his best weapon, his razor sharp tongue. He thought the safe money was on Abuelo. “What the hell are you smiling at?”

 

“He'd be 89 by now, Chris, if he is. I quit giving a shit whether he was or not when my sister quit talking almost entirely for two years because of him. Haven't seen him since the trial.” Chris sucked in a breath, and let it out slowly.

 

“Two years?” Josiah nodded. “He better be dead.” He nodded again. There was a pause, and then quietly Chris said, “Where is she? Can I meet her?”

 

“She lives in a small group home with other autistic adults. And you can meet her, probably, eventually. Hannah often doesn't react well to strangers, especially strange men. She doesn't like change in general...Uncle Orin says Daddy's been going to visit her for years now...it's going to hurt her, that he's gone. I mean, I'm glad he went to see her, you don't know how glad, but...” He trailed off, shaking his head.

 

“Not an easy thing to tell someone.” Josiah remembered that Chris had been the one to tell him, to have to pick up the phone and call, and felt a surge of gratitude, that after everything, he hadn't let him walk into it blind, that he'd been gentle in how he'd told him, while still reeling from it himself.

 

“No.”

 

“You have to tell Nathan and Buck.”

 

“Yeah. He mentions her in the will.” Chris's eyebrow quirked, corners of his lips turning down.

 

“If I hadn't come up here is that how we would have found out about Hannah?”

 

“Maybe. Sorry.”

 

“Don't be.” The expression on Chris's face made Josiah fairly sure he was just saying that, but he nodded anyway.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

“How many times did he cheat on my Mama?” Nathan's face was angry, hands in fists on the kitchen table, but his voice caught on his last word, swallowing hard at the end of the sentence. Chris saw the way Josiah's eyes half closed, heard the hard exhale between his teeth, and opened his mouth to say something but Buck beat him to it.

 

“I asked Uncle Orin when Vincent was born, did the math, Daddy woulda been with his Momma when him and Mama Clara were separated, if that makes you feel any better.”

 

“Maybe...When the hell did they separate? Why don't I remember that?” Some of the anger had been replaced with confusion, and Chris did speak up now.

 

“Because you were three, Nate. They still lived together, and it was only for about four or five months. Daddy and Mama Clara only told me because I asked him, knew something was wrong because there was no way Daddy had that many business trips and fishing weekends to go to, and whenever he came home suddenly Mama was off to visit her sisters or Granddaddy Obadiah, or to go to a nursing conference.”

 

“That and he slept in the guest bedroom,” Josiah said, slightly wryly, Chris nodding.

 

“That too.”

 

Nathan shook his head, “You know what...it doesn't matter how many times, even if it was only once it's still terrible...Mama didn't deserve that, to be disrespected like that. He told me she was the love of his life-how could he do that to her?”

 

“Of course she didn't deserve it, Nathan.” Josiah soothed, not even attempting to answer Nathan's question, and Chris didn't blame him.

 

He had seen the little twitch Josiah gave when Nathan had said 'only once'.

 

Son of a bitch.

 

His mind went to the whiskey he knew was in the locked cabinet of his father's desk. When he'd moved back in Daddy had cleared the house of anything more alcoholic than the occasional six pack. The decanter of aged whiskey that had sat on his father's desk for as long as he remembered had disappeared too, but knowing the man had his own weakness Chris had gone looking for it. When he'd caught him Daddy had poured the contents down the drain, but the decanter was a heirloom. Months later, when he'd noticed a lock had appeared on the desk cabinet Chris had known what was likely inside it, but by that point he hadn't wanted it. Right now, he wasn't so sure.

 

He couldn't.

 

He sure as hell shouldn't.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

JD had tried to go to sleep after the movie was over, like Nathan had suggested. They were all going to do the chores together in the morning before they got ready for the will reading, and it was going to be a long day no matter what. But he couldn't sleep, no matter what he did. He was just too nervous about tomorrow, meeting the two brother's he hadn't met yet and finding out what his father's will said. JD had streamed a show on his phone(Buck had told him they didn't have internet, then had burst out laughing at the look on his face and given him the wi-fi password) and then tried to go to sleep, talked to Ayida on FB Messenger-which had mostly turned into him reassuring Mrs. Cela via Ayida that none of his brothers were crazy ax murders or creepy in anyway, and he really was just fine, he promised-and tried to go to sleep, read a chapter out of a book Josiah had lent him, and tried to go to sleep. Now he was unpacking some of the things he'd brought with him, hanging his shirts and coat in the closet, putting his other clothes in the dresser, setting a picture of his mother on the nightstand, her favorite rosary laid next to it. There was a wide plank shelf above the bed, a light chocolatey brown wood that matched the bed and the dresser, that he'd stuck the handful of books he'd brought with him on. Except for stuff like his toothbrush and shampoo that was all he'd brought with him, and as he laid his last pair of boxers in the top drawer-the dresser was deep enough he could lay them flat without folding, so he wasn't going to bother-JD felt a little more settled.

 

JD hadn’t wanted to admit it to himself, but he’d been kind of scared to unpack before. Now, the second night here, it was starting to feel a little more real, like he wasn't to wake up back in his apartment, his alarm going off, telling him it was time to get up for work.

 

It was a nice room, with green walls that reminded him of a granny smith apple, only not as bright, and two big windows with long, heavy, dark blue curtains to block out the morning sun, but it wasn't his.

 

Then again, without Mam around his room, the apartment, none of it really felt like it was his anymore. Or maybe it just felt like he didn't want it anymore.

 

He liked the bed, it was made out of big, solid pieces of wood, like something you'd expect to see on a farm or a ranch, and old, though you could see it had been well taken care of, the wood polished to a high shine. Buck had said neither Daddy or their Grandfather had believed in throwing things away, and that a lot of the stuff on the ranch was antique, maybe not the fancy, delicate sort of stuff rich people owned, but just as old. He'd have to ask him if his bed was one. JD had never had a quilt before, just the bed in a bag comforters that came with the sheet set. It wasn't as fluffy as they were brand new, but he bet it wouldn't be flat and worn thin by the end of the year either, and it was cool anyway, a dark blue denim background with a patchwork design on it that spiraled in towards the center made out of patches from old jeans and stuff, starting with pale blue and getting darker until it was almost black towards the center of the spiral. Nathan had said their Grandma had made it and it was his when he was JD's age, but he'd gotten it down from the attic because he thought JD would like it, and he really did.

 

It was really cool, but it was even cooler that his brother had been thinking about getting a room ready for him before he'd even gotten here. He'd been kind of worried that Nathan had been taking pity on him when he said JD could stay at the ranch, he had just blurted out a whole sob story right before he offered. But that kind of proved that they wanted him here. He wandered over to the window and leaned his head up against the cool glass, looking out over the yard. He could see the horse barn and the water trough from here, hay fields in the distance, and he used to read books about places like this, when he was a kid.

 

He was going to have to go back to Boston, he had things to take care of. He needed to get the photo albums Mam had put together, and some other keepsakes, the books he'd left behind, his computer, the rest of his clothes, not much else really, but JD loved his books, and he'd built that computer himself, and all the rest of it was too important to leave behind. There was the furniture too, and he supposed he could sell most of that, or give it away. He wanted her hope chest though, he knew it was sort of a girly thing, but Mam had kept it in the living room one half full of blankets, the other piled up with second hand board games and puzzles, and he'd always liked it. JD thought he'd put it at the end of his bed, it was a darker wood than the rest, black walnut, but he thought it would match okay. Mam's tea set with the fancy pot that his Nana had brought from Ireland would have to come, only he wasn't sure how to transport it. He'd never been allowed to touch it, and even after Mam died it was all JD could do to dust in its general direction.

 

He didn't know what to about her clothes and stuff. JD hadn't wanted to go in her room after she died, and the hospice people had cleared out all the medical stuff so he hadn't had to deal with that. It still seemed sort of weird to think about going through her personal items, which was probably stupid since Mam had washed his underwear for most of his life, but it was different.

 

He wondered if Buck would go back with him to get his stuff and clean out the apartment. Just, because, he figured they wouldn't let him borrow a car or anything, and he was going to need one to get all of his stuff...not like he needed him to come with him. He'd be fine, and he had to quit his job anyway-That could be kind of fun. He probably wouldn't actually do it, but he could imagine walking up to Mr. Knier and telling him where to shove his accounts-and get services shut off, and Buck would probably find that really boring...

 

JD wanted him to come with him. It made him feel like a stupid kid, but he wanted it anyway. But there was no way Buck would say yes if he asked, not when he had Rosie's Saloon to run, and work on the ranch to do...

 

He hadn't felt like a kid in a long time, hadn't wanted to be a kid in a long time. Not really. Sure, sometimes people treated him like a kid, but it was always just annoying because he didn't have time for being one. JD was busy balancing school with caring for his mother and trying to make sure nothing fell apart. He'd wanted to be an adult, so he could make the decisions, so he could do something about doctors who didn't approve experimental treatments for the poor Irish-Catholic single mother and did approve them for the rich man in the next room. Because there had been no one else to be the adult, JD had had to do it, whether he knew how or not.

 

Maybe that wasn't fair to Mam, because even at the end she'd always been worried about him eating and sleeping enough, was always trying to take care of him when she should have been saving her energy.

 

God, he'd come from class or doing the shopping more than once to find her doing the laundry or cleaning, and if she'd been up doing something he knew she liked, reading or playing the piano, or watching these cheesy soap operas her and Mrs. Cela loved to make fun of, that would have been great, but he hadn't understood why she couldn't just let him take care of the rest. Why she couldn't understand that it was his turn to take care of her, his turn to be the adult, and her turn to be taken care of.

 

Now everything was different. He didn't have to try and be the grown-up anymore. There were four other people that could do that. JD knew he could have wasted time being mad that they hadn't been there before, and if his Dad had still been around to be angry at...well, he wasn't, so there wasn't any point was there?

 

And his brothers? They hadn't even known about him. Shifting away from the window, suddenly cold, he pulled the curtains closed and went and climbed onto his bed, not bothering to turn off his lamp or get under the covers, still not sleepy.

 

God. He'd been so lonely. JD hadn't had many friends in the first place, that was what happened when you were years younger than everybody you went to school with, and after Mam had died he'd pushed the few he had away. Just kept getting up every day in the empty apartment, going through the motions of getting ready and going to work. Where he'd stare at a computer screen for eight terrible hours, come home, eat something he could microwave, and go to bed just to get up and do the same thing all over again. If Mrs. Cela hadn't had a key to the apartment, if she hadn't refused to let him, he would have shut her and Ayida out too.

 

Although, Ayida had told him in that sing-song voice that she used when she thought he was being particularly stupid that she'd been about to climb over to his window on the fire escape and let herself in, like she had when they were kids, if her mom hadn't done something.

 

Now, everything had changed. Even if everything went terribly, he sure wasn't gonna be lonely.

 

He hoped it didn't though. Go terribly. JD hoped, no, needed this to go well. He didn't need whatever his father had left him in his will. What he needed was people. Family.

 

Buck.

 

It probably wasn't fair to have a favorite after knowing his brothers for only a couple days, and he liked all of them an awful lot. But when he'd walked into Rosie's Saloon, not having anyone, and walked out of it with a brother, that had been down to Buck. He could have let JD go back to his hotel for the night, could have not acknowledged him in the first place. Instead he'd talked to him, let him know he was wanted, brought him to the ranch. Brought him home. A lump rose in JD's throat, and he wasn't sad, so why were there tears in his eyes?

 

He wasn't sure how long he'd been crying when he heard Buck ease into the room, hurriedly flipping over to hide his face from his brother and scrubbing his sleeve across his face. Shit, he didn't want any of them to see him like this, but especially not Buck. “Hey short stuff, why the long face.”

 

“M'not short.” A muffled laugh, and if it were anyone else JD might have taken offense, but coming from him for some reason instead he felt a smile trying to crawl up his face. The older man plopped on the bed behind him, purposely bouncing his brother a little, a grin tickling at his mouth when JD laughed.

 

“I dunno, from way up here...” Buck ruffled the boy's hair as he trailed off his words, laughing loud when JD rolled over to swipe at him, dodging and ruffling his hair again. JD was unlearned in the ways of brotherly roughhousing, but TV had taught him that both tickling and noogies were involved and he decided to try the former, getting pulled into a loose headlock and tickled back for his trouble. Before too long the both of them were in a giggling heap on JD's bed; occasionally shoving at the others shoulder.

 

“Buck?”

 

“Yeah, JD?”

 

“I'm gonna have to go back to Boston to get my stuff, pack up the apartment, and quit my job. I was wondering if maybe, you would go back with me?” He took a breath, preparing to launch into a speech about why he needed something like Buck's truck to bring his stuff back, and he wouldn't ask but he wasn't old enough to rent anything, but Buck spoke up, casual as could be, before he could, surprising him.

 

“'Course.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yeah, really, I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it. We can fly down, rent one of them u-haul trucks so we have plenty of room for all your stuff and road trip our way back. Should be fun.”

 

That sounded awesome. “That sounds cool. I've never flown before.”

 

Buck chuckled, “I've only flown a couple of times, but I've always liked it. Makes Nathan sick though, he puked all over Daddy and Chris once.” JD snorted, then frowned.

 

“You're sure you can take off from the saloon and the ranch? I mean-”

 

“JD.” Buck sounded kind of amused but also kind of exasperated and he pushed himself up so he was half-sitting, half-leaning on his arm, looking down at JD. JD shut his mouth quickly, but shifted up so he was leaning on the bed's headboard, Buck moving his gaze without missing a beat, “I'm the boss, and I don't work a regular shift anyway, I can take off whenever I want. Chris and me have plenty of help on the ranch, and he's got Josiah for the next little while anyway. Have you seen him, kid? Built like an ox. We should stick him with all our chores tomorrow, bet you he can do them in half the time we could.” He did his best to look earnest, nodding and holding his hand out for JD to shake, as though their agreeing on it would actually somehow make Josiah do all their chores in the morning.

 

“I'm not sure Josiah would like that very much.” He said, grinning.

 

Buck chuckled, “No, I can't imagine he'd be any too happy with us, so best not. But what I'm saying is they can do without us around here for long enough to pack up your old place, it's not a big deal.”

 

It was the biggest deal, but JD just said, “Cool.”

 

Alright JD, it's getting really late, it's probably time for both of us to hit the hay, otherwise we're gonna hate ourselves in the morning, or at least I'm gonna hate myself. Night kid.” JD opened his mouth to tell Buck goodnight, when a giant yawn escaped, surprising him and making Buck smile. “Yeah, you definitely need to get to bed. Don't leave your light on too much longer, okay?”

 

“Okay, night Buck.” Buck patted at his leg and pushed himself off the bed, stretching as he walked towards the door.

 

“Need anything, just remember, my room is just past the bathroom.” JD tried not to roll his eyes, biting back the urge to tell Buck he'd be fine, he wasn't a little kid, because saying that was guaranteed to make him sound like one.

 

“Okay.” Buck pulled the door shut behind him, hinges creaking a little, which JD actually kind of liked, the doors in the apartment had done that too, and then he was alone, staring up at the ceiling. After a moment he scrambled over so he could shut off his lamp, and then slid under the covers, still not quite sleepy, but getting there.

 

He wondered what it would be like to drive from Boston to Arizona with Buck.

 

JD was taking over the radio. When they'd driven out to the ranch's fishing hole he'd played sappy country music the whole time. He wondered how Buck felt about rap, or Lukas Graham...

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Buck looked up from over his eggs and almost started howling he was laughing so hard. JD stopped at the bottom of the stairs, looking utterly confused and kind of ticked off. “What are you acting like a hyena for?”

 

“Are you wearing suspenders? And,” Buck choked a bit on his laughter, “hell, I don’t even know what to call that shirt.”

 

“What's wrong with my suspenders? And my shirt?” JD snapped coming in to the room to stand across from where Buck was sitting, “You were already ragging me about my hat all day yesterday.”

 

Buck calmed down with what was clearly a great effort of will, “Nothing kid, you make a lovely hipster.” Then he dissolved back into laughter, now pounding his fist on the table. Without looking Chris reached a hand up and smacked him on the back of the head, hard. “Ow! Oh, c'mon, Chris, I can't help it!”

 

“Really, Buck?” Nathan said, giving him a side eye look.

 

Josiah turned from where he was stirring more eggs on the stove to smile at JD, “A worthy outfit for the day, son.”

 

With a last glare at Buck, JD headed over to lean his side on the counter close to Josiah, “Do you really think so? I wanted it to be, went out and bought it new and everything...figured since I didn't go to the funeral I should at least look good for this...but if it looks stupid...” JD bit his lip, stuffing his hands in his trouser pockets. Buck was no longer laughing, instead looking guilty while both Nathan and Chris glared at him.

 

“It doesn't look stupid at all, John Daniel.” Josiah reassured him, reaching out to clap the boy on the shoulder.

 

“I think it looks real nice, JD.” Nathan said. He kind of thought the kid looked like a hipster too, but it wasn't JD's fault people had ruined a decent outfit. At least JD wasn't trying to grow a flower beard like that guy in those videos Rain's nieces kept making him watch.

 

Chris just said, “Yep,” and went back to his eggs.

 

“Kid.” Buck said quietly, and JD turned toward him, still a little wary he was going to start in again, “I like to tease. Ya don't gotta take me seriously.”

 

JD considered this for a moment, realized Buck meant it, then grinned, “Don't worry, I figure when you got a big old hairy caterpillar on your lip, you have to take your hits where you can get them.”

 

Buck's mouth dropped open, shocked, as Josiah’s boom of a laugh filled the room, Nathan about falling off his chair he was laughing so hard, and even Chris cracked a smile for just a second. Still a bit surprised at the comeback, Buck barked out a laugh, “Someone who wears a hat like yours don't getta complain about other people's facial accessories.”

 

“There ain't nothing wrong with my hat Buck, you wish you had a hat as nice as mine.” The others rolled their eyes as the two continued bantering, having heard different versions of this exchange multiple times yesterday, and went back to their food, except for Josiah who was dividing the last batch of eggs between his plate and JD's and handed the latter to the boy, taking his own.

 

“Enough you two. Go eat JD, silverware is already on the table.”

 

Chris, already done, pushed back his chair and stood, heading to the sink with his plate. “Gonna go finish up outside.” Everyone looked at him, confused-they'd gotten up early and finished the chores together(this was supposed to make it quicker, but with JD constantly asking questions about everything he needed to know and a whole lot of things he didn't, it hadn't been).

 

“What are you talking about? We did everything.” Buck was giving Chris a mighty suspicious stare, which Chris acted like he didn't notice as he shrugged on his coat.

 

“Forgot to fill the troughs with water.”

 

“But I did-” JD cut himself off, shrinking back in his chair as Chris paused halfway through the door and just looked at him, eyes sharp and face mean.

 

“Kid didn't do nothing to you.” Buck said quietly, and Chris switched his glare to him, before stepping through the door and pulling it shut, surprising them all when he didn't slam it. Buck and Nathan exchanged a long unhappy look.

 

“Did you see what I did in his jacket pocket?”

 

“No Nate, but he's acting like it, don't surprise me.”

 

Josiah turned from where he'd been scowling thoughtfully at the back door, to ask, “What's he acting like, exactly? Besides a very unconvincing liar.”

 

Buck sighed, “Like he needs to get away to take a drink, and he doesn't care how he does it.” The man ran a hand over his hair, stressed, “I thought we were done with this.”

 

Josiah cocked his head to the side, as though considering something. “He have a bottle he was hiding in his jacket?”

 

Nathan, feeling as though he was telling on his brother, shook his head, “A flask.”

 

Josiah nodded. While his own tribulations with alcohol were not so much with dependency, but instead a at times dangerous unpredictability, he could relate. Besides, from the little Daddy had told him this was more to do with Chris covering up bad memories and grief anyway he could than true addiction. Like him, his brother was more of a drunk than an alcoholic. “I think I'll go and try to talk to him.”

 

“I don't know if that's a real good idea, Josiah,” Buck hedged, “I'm usually the one who handles him, and I'm not sure-”

 

“I heard the last few times you tried to talk some sense into our hurting brother, he rewarded you by application of his fist to your face. That doesn't need to happen again. Let me handle it this time, Buck.”

 

“That was a year ago, before-before Daddy interfered. And he's not even drunk yet, I'll be fine. Probably ain't even planning to get drunk, Uncle Orin would kill him if he showed up at the reading like that. It's just, one drink and-”

 

“I don't understand.” JD sounded confused and miserable, and it didn't help when everyone turned to look at him like they'd forgotten he was there, “Chris is an alcoholic? He beats up Buck?”

 

“Chris has been doing very well for about a year now,” Nathan said matter of factly, “It's just a hard day, I'm sure that's all that’s going on. We'll get on it. As for Buck,” he grinned at Buck who looked like he didn't get what the joke was, “After the way Daddy, uhh, nipped it in the butt last time, I don't think Chris'll be doing that again.” Buck cracked a very faint grin, but shook his head.

 

“You're full of shit, Nate, that's not what happened.”

 

“He practically dragged Chris to the barn, that's what happened.”

 

Josiah looked back and forth between them, disbelief mixed with a dawning realization, “No. He didn't.”

 

“They were out there for nearly an hour, longer than it took me to patch Buck up, and he was beat up good. Besides, I was in the kitchen when Chris made himself a sandwich later, he ate it standing at the counter.”

 

“Alright, maybe there's a chance...” Buck said, grin growing a bit. Josiah couldn't help it, he snorted. Nathan started chuckling, and before long all three were laughing.

 

“Okay, now I definitely don't understand.” JD complained. Josiah, pushing himself to his feet, patted JD on the shoulder.

 

“Stay out of trouble and you won't have to.”

 

What?” JD looked so confused, and so put out over being confused that it set Buck and Nathan off again, and while they were busy Josiah made his way out the back door, intent on finding Chris.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

 

Chapter Text

Josiah sighed to himself, a mixture of relief and consternation in it, as he came around the back of the tractor shed and saw Chris a couple yards away, leaning with his back up against the wall, staring intently at the open flask in his hand. He didn't say anything for a long moment, though he was sure Chris knew he was there. It was hard to tell whether his brother had actually started drinking or not, and as tempted as Josiah found himself to pull the damn thing out of his hands and dump it on the ground that would just set Chris off, guarantee he had no chance of getting him to talk. Didn't mean it wasn't damn tempting.


“You want somethin', Josiah?” Chris's tone was hard, and a bit scornful, clearly designed to either make him give up and leave him alone or start a fight. Which one Chris was hoping for, that he wasn't sure on. Well, he wasn't going to help his brother out there, he wasn't going anywhere, and he wasn't going to fight with him either.

“Wondering what the tractor shed has to do with filling the troughs?” He kept his face neutral and calm, but he wanted it clear he wasn't going to let him bullshit him either.

 

“Not a damn thing. Happy?”

 

“No. Can't say I am.” Josiah closed the gap between them, walking the few yards and moving so he was facing his brother. “What are you doing?”

 

“You're the one with the psychology degree.” The sarcasm and challenge practically dropped off Chris's tongue, and oh yes, he was definitely looking for a fight. Any other day, any other situation and Josiah just might have given him one, but this was too important, too delicate for that. Still, with Chris you couldn't completely back down, give in, he'd just steamroll right over you if you did.

 

“You want me to tell you what I think you're doing? Because I can do that, Chris, but I figured I'd give you a shot at figuring it out first.”

 

“Oh, fuck off, Josiah.” It wasn't as bad as a straight out 'fuck you', but to Josiah's way of thinking it wasn't much better.

 

“I don't appreciate that.” He said it quietly, voice low, and Chris glared fiercely at him, before he wrenched his gaze away and threw the flask on the ground, shouting as the clear brown liquid began running into the dry dirt.

 

“Goddammit! Shit, 'Siah, I'm sorry...I just...”, Chris shook his head, “...I don't wanna deal with any of this shit. I'm fucking done.”

 

“Chri-”

 

“Ain't saying I won't. Know my damn duty.” He pressed his eyes closed, then opened them without looking once at Josiah, starting to walk away, “Look, I'll be by the trucks when it's time to go. And I'll be sober. Ain't promising more than that.” Josiah let him leave, not sure it was the right thing to do, but deciding he had to trust Chris on this one. It was the only thing he could do without starting that fight his brother had been wanting so bad himself.

 

Looking up at the sky, he searched for...something. Finally, his eyes settled on nothing in particular, he whispered, “I could really use your help right now. Not sure what we need, but I know it's something.” He wasn't sure if he was talking to his Daddy or his Lord. Wasn't sure either if them were listening anyway.

 

Turning to leave, Josiah's eyes settled for a moment on the small puddle lying next to Chris's flask and felt his stomach start to settle. It wasn't a lot. Things weren't good, and wouldn't be for awhile.

 

But it sure as hell could have been worse.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

In the morning Vin was up and pacing in the crappy motel room he'd rented, so far on the outskirts of Four Corners he wasn't entirely sure it was technically part of the town, more nervous than he wanted to admit about this weird meet and greet he was invited too. He'd woke almost before the sun was up and couldn't get rid of his jitters. The fading silver and teal room felt like it was crowding in around him, pushing him to break free. He wanted to just take off into the countryside, but he didn't know the area, didn't know what was public and what was private, and farmers and ranchers didn't often take kindly to trespassers, not these days.

 

Jiggling his foot he pulled his cell-phone out of his pocket again, his finger hovering over the speed dial button programmed with his Pa's number. He wanted to call as much as he didn't. Pa had all but made him promise he would if he needed to, but Vin didn't like feeling like that, like a needy kid.

Besides, it was only half past six here, which meant it was four-thirty in the morning there. His alarm wouldn't be going off for another hour. He flipped it back and forth between his hands for a minute, debating, stuck it back in his pocket, and pulled it out again, flopping down in a dusty armchair as he pressed the button.

 

Ko'Je answered on the first ring, hell, he almost answered before it rang, and Vin felt a lot of the tension in his body draining from his simple, slightly sleepy, “Hello, Vin.”

 

“Hey, Pa.” He wasn't sure what else to say, wasn't sure how he'd say it if he did know, but somehow just hearing the man's breathing-his father's breathing, his real father's breathing, not whoever this Larabee jackass was-calmed him down, the sick, twisting feeling that was settling in his stomach easing just a little.

 

“Getting ready for the day?”

 

“Yeah.” Pa seemed to realize Vin wasn't up for holding an actual conversation, and started nattering on about what had been happening while he was traveling-they'd re-booked a big party they'd guided on a three day hike this last season, for a week this time, and a year in advance, his friend Donny, who always had been a wild one, had crashed his car into the side of the convenience store, he was fine, but if his old man didn't own it he would have been in even more trouble than he was, and Chanu had been sneaking around with that new preacher's daughter and both of them were thinking nobody was the wiser. Vin just listened, occasionally murmuring a question, or sighing about Donny and laughing about Chanu, but not talking much. After a good half hour or a little longer he knew it was time for Ko'Je to be getting up, the rabbits and chickens that they bred for meat for themselves and to sell in town would need tending to, and then he was taking out a small hunting expedition in the afternoon, one that would have been Vin's job if he were home. Vin would have to be getting ready soon, anyway, get his clothes and shoes on, get something to eat, if he wanted to be at the will reading by eight, and he did.

 

They said goodbye, but before Vin could hang up Ko'Je said quietly, freezing him as he listened, “You remember this-whatever that will says you are my son, you are Chanu's brother. We are your family-always.”

 

Vin choked a little, then cleared his throat real good, “Thanks.”

 

“You don't have to thank me for that. It just is. But I want you to remember this too-families can grow.”

 

“That son a a bitch ain't my family.” It was a growl, and a defensive one, Vin feeling wrong-footed and exposed. It was a very Ko'Je thing to say, but it sure as hell wasn't what he wanted to hear right now.

 

“I know. But what about his children?”

 

His mouth was open to say something smart-assed when Ezra's face flashed in front of his eyes and, slowly, he started to simmer down. One deep breath and he said, quiet, “I'm guessin' I'll figure 'em out, one by one, an' decide on that.”

 

“That sounds like a good plan to me.”

 

Then his Pa got all mushy again and Vin muttered back, “Love ya t''.” and got off the phone. He'd already showered and drank the hotel's instant coffee, putting in two packs where they said one because what most people drank might as well have been dishwater. Shit still hadn't tasted much better than he imagined dishwater would, but it was a sight stronger. Ditch water, maybe. He'd been waiting to put on his shirt and jeans until right before he left, because he had a natural talent for attracting dirt and stains, and it was a good thing, 'cause his undershirt had a big old toothpaste smear on it that didn't want to wipe all the way away no matter how wet he got the cloth. He slipped them on now, feeling kinda stupid wearing a button-up, even if it was just a regular old blue one he wore sometimes when he went to town for something at the community center. He checked himself in the bathroom mirror to make sure he was decent, and then walked out into the living room feeling his pockets to make sure his keys, and wallet and everything were where they were supposed to be. Stopping next to his duffle bag on the bed Vin hesitated for a moment, not sure, then bent down to unzip the small side pocket and retrieve his bolo tie, going back to the bathroom mirror and adjusting it around his neck. He lightly stroked the clasp, a cabochon made from a piece of blue and green ocean jasper, the outside wire-wrapped in a simple style that he thought suited him, framing the piece without any ornamentation. It had been a present when he graduated-a year late, but he'd done it.

 

Finally, after stopping by the vending machine and grabbing a Mt. Dew and Snickers for breakfast, it was time to go. He drove into town, letting the rattling and grinding of his old truck soothe him with its familiarity. It had definitely been worth the trouble of getting it on and off the ferries. He parked down on the corner and started walking up the block, hoping no one else could tell his heart was pounding like mad as he looked at the different businesses and shops. Part of him was saying there was no reason to care, whatever happened happened, he asked a few questions and maybe got some answers he wanted, and then he went the hell home, maybe a little richer, maybe not.

 

Rest of him knew it was a lie. Just because he knew damn well blood didn't make someone family, didn't mean he wasn't curious about them, and damned if he wasn't nervous about making a good impression. He'd even cleaned up his boots last night. They were so scuffed anyway that it hardly made a difference, but at least there wasn't any dried mud or rabbit or chicken shit on them.

 

When a Ford Explorer pulled up right in front of the office he was supposed to be going into, he stopped, watching to see if it was likely to be anyone attending the will reading. Two older men piled out, a large man, not overly tall, but with a broad, solid frame, and blonde hair peppered with gray, who frankly looked too old to be his brother, and another man, slender but with an air about him that said he didn't take any shit, all in black. A large truck pulled up behind them and three more people piled out, a tall man with a head of dark reddish brown hair and a large mustache-it suited him-, a young black man, also tall, and nearly as solid as the oldest, and a kid, who at least wasn't taller than Vin, and jeez, he really was a kid, only about sixteen. They all greeted each other, some of them seeming a little sad, and Vin frowned, not liking how his stomach dropped and hardened.

 

They all already knew each other. They were already a family.

 

Of course they did. Of course they were. It shouldn't be a surprise. Hell, it wasn't a surprise. Not like it would have been a better thing if Larabee had just let all his boys grow up without a Pa, like Vin had for so long, without a family. Not a good thing at all, would've just been another reason to hate him, so why the hell did he feel so, so...hurt. So hurt, and so fucking angry his chest felt tight, and...shit, Vin tried to take in a breath and felt it barely wheeze into his chest, the next no better. Vin's hand went searching to his pocket for his inhaler as he moved instinctively to lean against the nearest wall, thankful that even though it had been over a year since his last attack, he never went anywhere without it.

 

The first two puffs didn't seem to do anything, and Vin had a moment of fear that he'd grabbed the wrong one when he was packing, that it was expired, but the third opened his chest a little and with the fourth he felt his airways open up, medication speeding down them like a dry river bed hit by a flash flood. It took another minute and another few puffs before he felt up to straightening, waving off the nervous shopkeeper whose wall he had been leaning on, and to his surprise the group of men was still outside, as though they were reluctant to go in. Since Vin plain and simple didn't want to go at all he couldn't blame them. As they started to head towards the doors he started to back-up. Vin didn't want or need this. It hadn't been since the Deerings returned him for getting suspended that his heart had hurt like this. He didn't need them, and he didn't need these men either. He had a family. A dad, a little brother.

 

He couldn’t leave though, remembering Ezra, who was also not a part of this group, this family in front of him. Remembering the little bit of fear he’d seen in the boy’s eyes with that last sentence before he’d driven off. Vin couldn't bring himself to walk forward, but he couldn't leave either.

 

Then the man in black, the last one outside after herding the rest through the doors, turned and looked up the sidewalk, like he was searching for something and right at Vin, eyes focusing on him intensely. Vin was caught in that stare. He felt himself calming down, tension leaking out of his body, the last of the tightness in his chest easing away. Somehow, in just those few seconds, he felt he knew this man, knew who he was and knew he liked him, and he had no doubt that this man now knew him just as well. The man motioned with a jerk of his head for Vin to move his ass, and with a nod he began ambling down the sidewalk.

 

“Vin.” “Chris.” They shook hands, and, with an easiness that would make anyone assume they'd known each other for years, headed upstairs together.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Ezra ached as he climbed out of his car, dreading the walk, and hoping no one would notice the stiffness of his gait. More than that, he could hardly bare the humiliation of having to go into something as important as this, his father's will reading, with a hand print on his cheek-or as big as Alfred's hands were more like half his face. He'd considered covering it up with make-up but the damnable thing was such a livid color he would have had to have caked it onto himself. That would be even worse than the bruise, would have made it obvious he was concealing something and defeated the entire purpose. He looked around and saw that while the street had a number of cars parked alongside it, several of them in front of the Judge's office like his own, there was no one around, except for a few people sitting in front of what appeared to be a coffee shop across the street. A glance at his watch told him he wasn't late, not quite yet, but only because he had intended to arrive early. More than likely the others involved in the will reading had actually done so, not being hampered by a myriad of injuries inflicted by a boorish oaf. He paused to try and regain his breath, the climb out of his car and around to the sidewalk leaving him gasping a bit.

 

Others. Say what they are Ezra. Brothers.

 

He had grown up thinking there were four of them besides him, he'd managed to wheedle that much out of Mother when he'd been a boy. The oldest had already been out of the home by the time Mother had met Father, only coming back for visits, and another lived primarily with his mother, while the others had lived on the ranch. She had been reluctant, not understanding why he wanted to hear about his father and brothers(his sentimentality, Mother had always said, was his greatest weakness, and something she simply could not fathom), but he'd managed to get a few stories out of her about them. The veracity of these stories was suspect, of course, just as anything he learned from Mother was. The lawyer he talked too, the one that was apparently his father’s brother-likely half-brother or step-brother, because of the different last names, but he hadn’t gone into details-had let him know he was actually one of seven, but Ezra didn’t even know the other two's names.

 

Ezra refused to let himself wonder why a man who had apparently taken responsibility for at least four other children before Ezra had wanted nothing to do with him. Lincoln Larabee was dead, and no longer answerable to Ezra or anyone else. If the man even was his father. Knowing Mother that could very easily be a lie, one told to both him and Mr. Larabee, and doubts had been growing and spiraling in his mind since he'd begun his travels. At the least, one could not have blamed the man for being suspicious.

 

That would certainly have been a good reason to not want him.

 

Ezra took another glance at his watch and then forced himself to straighten up. Time to go.

 

It wasn't unbearable to walk, but painful enough that Ezra could have kissed somebody when he saw that the elevator was right inside the entrance to the building. He knew enough about first aid to be fairly certain none of his ribs were broken, but at least one on his right side was almost certainly cracked, and they were all bruised. He'd wrapped them (Yes, he knew that was often not the wisest course, at least as tight as he'd needed to do so to walk readily, but if he only left them wrapped for the meeting what could the harm be? Appearances took precedence.) to make it easier to get around, but Ezra didn't even want to think about how stairs would have felt.

 

Upstairs, he headed to the door Judge Travis's secretary had pointed him to, relieved to see it still open, and with a knock, he plastered his best face on and stepped into the room. “Good morning gentleman, mah name is Ezra Standish and Ah'm here for the Lincoln Larabee will reading?” He hadn't meant for it to come out a question, but he was soon distracted by the fact that even as they finished greeting him and he moved to take a seat the majority of the people in the room seemed to be staring at his face-and not just those on his left. Good lord, had the bruise spread? Judge Travis cleared his throat as Ezra set in between the one empty seat left and a man with salt and pepper gray hair who was smiling rather than gawking like a ninny.

 

“Good morning, Mr. Standish. We're just waiting for the last of your brothers to get back from the restroom, and then we'll get started.”

 

Introductions were briefly exchanged, the other men-and one boy, he noted-raising their hands and saying variations of 'hey' as the judge pointed to them in turn and said their names. A gesture was made to a small tray set up on the table with an assortment of pastries and a tureen of coffee, and he was told to help himself. Ezra was just opening his mouth to tell him that he'd already eaten-a falsehood, but eating was an impossibility with the nerves in his stomach apparently having turned into some sort of small member of the rodentia family-when the man smiled, a far more personal look than had been on his face before. “You have your father's eyes.”

 

Ezra stopped in the middle of shifting farther back in his seat, settling, and just stared for a second, not sure at all how to feel about that, other than very, very, overwhelmed. He slid his poker face back into place, and managed what he hoped was a neutral sounding, “Do Ah?” He bit down the, “Ah wouldn’t know.” that wanted to follow with a force of will, certain it wouldn’t be appreciated.

 

Ezra didn't see the look exchanged between Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Wilmington, or the angry glare Mr. Larabee was sending Judge Travis, but he did hear Buck's overly loud question, “So, Ez, do we want to see the other guy?”

 

Ezra was so relieved to be tossed this lifeline that he ignored the shortening of his name and just clung to it gratefully, making a bit of a show of touching a hand to his bruise, as though he was only just discovering it was there, “Oh, yes, Ah'd nearly forgotten. Ah apologize for any distress mah appearance may have caused you gentleman. Last night Ah was unfortunately assaulted by an uncouth brute when Ah stopped to replenish mah fuel tank on mah way into this fine town, but happily Ah was rescued by a good Samaritan before Ah could obtain further injury.”

 

“Hell, Ezra, you always use so many ten dollar words when you're nervous?” Ezra turned around, surprised to hear the familiar voice, and found himself smiling, genuinely delighted at seeing his rescuer again in person.

 

“Mr. Tannah! Ah was not expecting to see you again, let alone so soon. You are the seventh brother we were waiting on?” Ezra had to force himself not to wince at how much emotion he could hear in his voice; even as Vin nodded at him, a smile playing over his lips. Ezra P. Standish was only supposed to show his emotions like that when he decided to, when it would benefit him. He let his smile drop to something more neutral, shifting back a bit to allow Vin to take a seat next to him.

 

He must be more drained from his injuries than he thought.

 

Mr. Wilmington put the pieces together quickly, “Vin was your good Samaritan? Well, alright!” He opened his mouth to continue, but Mr.-no, Dr., Ezra, no need to insult the man-Jackson, who had been looking at him with an ever-sharper gaze since Ezra had admitted to being assaulted, jumped in before he could.

 

“He only got you the once?” Ezra turned a somewhat confused countenance on Nathan, who with a flash of smothered impatience said, a bit slower, “You said Vin stopped it before you got hurt worse. Does that mean he only hit you once?”

 

Ezra hesitated, putting on his thoughtful face, as he considered whether to continue the charade now that one who was partial to the truth was close at hand, “Yes, although Ah was manhandled a bit, Ah was only struck the once during the altercation.” The lie in that was small, the strikes to his face having been nearly identical in placement. The injuries to his ribs had occurred three days before-that being slammed into the wall had not just renewed, but about doubled the original pain Ezra figured was not something he had actually been asked. Really, it was no one's business but his own.

 

The man was still looking him over scrutinizingly, and Ezra felt a surge of annoyance at what he took to be suspicion in the doctor's eyes. “Manhandled?”

 

“Really just some shoving. Ah assure you, Dr. Jackson, Ah am fine.” Well, he'd gotten through it with only a few falsehoods. The doctor didn’t look particularly convinced, but he nodded, letting it go, for now at least. Ezra was just relieved that Mr. Tanner hadn't spoken up to contradict his story.

 

The Judge cleared his throat, “Now that we are all here and introduced, I see no reason not to proceed. I have letters from your father for all of you.” He passed them out, taking note of the way they reacted to them. The reactions of the nephews he’d seen grow up were as expected, Josiah taking his gingerly, grief on his face, but mostly guilt. Orin thought Josiah may have had reason for some of that guilt, but not all of it, not even most of it. Chris was stoic, taking the letter and tucking it quickly inside his duster, not showing anything. Buck, next to him, swallowed hard, eyes glassy, but held it together, possibly just for JD, who kept sneaking glances at him. Nathan took it with trepidation, but calmed once he held it, a funny little smile growing on his face, stroking across the letter once after he set it down, leaving his hand resting on it.

 

The easy going looking Vin, on the other hand, surprised him, an almost mulish expression on his face when he tried to pass the letter to him, absolutely refusing to accept it. The young man only took it when Chris had looked at him with an eyebrow quirked, face expressing the barest hint of disapproval. The aloof looking Ezra took his letter almost reverently, his face showing no more emotion than Chris had, but the way the barely shaking hands were held out so Orin had to almost lay the envelope on them, the letter pulled close to his body, then laid on his lap made it clear the emotions he wasn’t showing were strong. One of his hands stayed under the table and Orin imagined it was laid protectively on top of his prize. JD was back to what he had expected, the letter initially almost snatched from Orin's hands, the eager boy only not opening it because no one else had. Then as the knowledge of what he held, the weight of it, became real to him his eyes grew moist and a small sniff was heard, Buck’s hand almost immediately coming up to give a comforting rub to his shoulder. Orin fought a smile, as every single one of his brothers glanced at JD in the next few seconds, some with concern visible and open, some trying to make sure JD didn’t see them, but all of them looked. ‘Well Linc, I think we just might pull this one off, and without any of them committing murder either.’

 

At least, half an hour later, when the terms of the will had been explained, he still thought it likely they would only maim each other.

 

“There's more in the details, outside the will there will also be a small monthly allotment to each of you for working the ranch until the time the conditions have been met and your bequests released. And I have paperwork for you three youngest, on college funds your father had set aside for you, that are yours no matter what you decide.”

 

Buck, unsurprisingly, was the most practical about the whole deal, starting to think out loud while the others, besides Vin, who was swearing up a storm, and JD, who was looking at him in open admiration, were still staring at Orin like he had two heads. “Well, hell...we’re already gonna have four people staying full time at the ranch, and Josiah was gonna be coming for a visit every couple of months, anyway. We got plenty a room, and a year ain’t too long in the grand scheme of things. Shouldn’t be too hard to make it work.”

 

“Maybe I don’ wanta play happy fuckin’ families fer a year t' appease a dead man’s shame, any a ya ever think on that?” Vin’s voice was a snarl more than anything, and hurt flashed across Buck’s face, JD’s admiration quickly fading as he saw his hero wounded, a protective glare settling over his face that he centered square on Vin.

 

“Ain’t never said ya had to, just saying ya were welcome!”

 

“What the hell kind of a thing is that to say anyway?” Chris’s voice was just as much of a snarl as Vin’s had been, but colder and quieter in a way that seemed to chill everyone but the person it was directed at.

 

“I came here thinkin’ I might get some answers, never asked fer no damn bribe.” Vin’s voice rose as he spoke, not yelling, but forceful. Chris straightened up, glare deepening, but he didn’t say a word, just attempted to drill holes into Vin with his eyes, who remained stubbornly unaffected. Ezra, who had been having similar thoughts to Vin (Although he had every intention of taking the bribe, thank you very much. A million dollars was nothing to scoff at, and it wasn’t like he had anywhere else to go right now anyway. And land equity was always valuable, fifty acres more than enough for all sorts of enterprises. Even if he could only last the month that guaranteed him 50,000, that was far more money than he'd seen free and clear before), muttered in a voice he thought was pitched just for the man nearest him,

 

“Perhaps it was a bribe fah dealing with the youngah Mr. Larabee’s tempah.” Unfortunately for him, Mr. Larabee must have had the ears of a bat and his laser eyes moved to Ezra.

 

“I’d keep the smart-ass opinions to yourself if I were you.” Ezra stiffened, and Vin’s eyes narrowed, leaning forward and half blocking Ezra from view.

 

“Leave ‘im alone.”

 

“It is alright, Mr. Tannah, ah assure you ah have long been accustomed to fighting mah own battles.” While the barb was flung at Chris, it was Mr. Sanchez, on the other side of Ezra who was most effected, face suddenly old and sad, where before he had seemed almost amused. The pang of guilt the gambler felt at that was quickly pushed aside. “What exactly do you expect us to think, Mr. Larabee? If it is not intended as a pay-off or a bribe, tell us what is it? You knew the man, we did not have that privilege.”

 

“First off, name’s Chris. Second, you’re damned right I knew him, knew who he was, so trust me when I say it isn’t a bribe, it’s him trying to make things right.”

 

“What a surprise, anothah parent who thinks money fixes all ills!” Ezra snapped his mouth shut, glaring, aware that he had exposed far too much, but not willing to back down either. To his surprise Mr. Larabee didn’t tear his head off, but instead just stared at him, and even though his expression didn't soften, the fire behind it had gone out. Ezra wasn’t sure why, and that made him uneasy.

 

“I am not going to comment on the wisdom of our father’s actions in trying to see his wishes carried out,” Mr. Sanchez spoke solemnly, “I can see why you would feel manipulated. But I will say that I am certain that he was trying to give us a chance to know each other.”

 

“Ah believe you mean Mistah Larabee was trying to force us into getting to know each othah.” Ezra's voice was scornful, but quiet, not wishing to stir up the room again.

 

JD spoke up as an awkward silence descended around them, voice shy but determined, “I’d like a chance to get to know you, Vin, Ezra. It’s been real fun getting to know the others the last few days. Before it’s always just been me and Mam, and now that she’s gone…”

 

“JD was welcome whatever the will had said, and so are both of you.” Chris’s voice was hard, but not harsh, “there is room at the ranch for the whole family.”

 

Ezra did not understand this. This man didn’t know him, didn’t even seem to like him, why was he not protesting this foisting of strangers off on him and his brothers? That his inheritance was being split in more ways than expected. The boy he understood, he didn’t look as though he could be more than fifteen or sixteen years old and he had said his mother was dead, but why him and Vin? It didn’t make sense.

 

There was not a trace of a lie on the man’s face.

 

Well. They were his father’s final wishes. From his earlier defense of the man they had been close. That must be it, and Ezra felt his world straighten as the pieces slipped into place, as he began to see what the man’s motivations might be.

 

It had, he was sure, nothing to do with him. And there was one detail he had to know for certain before he would decide anything. “Ah have a small dog, a boston terrier called Bogart. He is friendly with both humans, as Mistah Tannah can attest, and othah animals, including cats. Would he also be welcome at the ranch?”

 

Mr. Larabee nodded, but it was Mr. Wilmington who answered, “'Course he is, ain't gonna make you give up your dog. Gonna have to introduce him to our collies though, we got two herding dogs, and the momma dog welped a couple weeks ago. But they both think everything is their best friend so it shouldn't be a problem.” Some of the large amount of tension in his body eased away, but only some.

 

It took almost another half hour before things were hashed out, and agreements made that they would all go back to the ranch for now at least. As the others began to file out, Ezra hung behind, moving towards the door slowly and slipping to the side in hopes he'd remain unnoticed.

 

He needed proof. He needed answers. Telling this man as much as he was planning to in order to make his point clear went against everything he'd been taught since he was old enough to speak. His mother would be appalled. Ezra had to fight a very inappropriate grin at that thought, his brain sending him a lovely picture of her suddenly looking up from whatever veranda she was lounging on, drink in her hand, with a look of utmost horror upon her face.

 

As the door swung shut behind Buck who was taking up the rear, Ezra turned around and cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Judge Travis? Might Ah have anothah moment of your time?”

 

Orin smiled at the nervous young man, having assumed he'd been hanging behind for a reason. At the nephew he hadn't been sure he would ever see again. The boy had a damn good poker face, one of the best Orin had seen from someone his age, but he'd viewed more than his fair share of them in his career as a lawyer and a judge. Most from men who were hiding something a lot worse than nerves over asking a question about their father.

 

He'd felt terribly when he'd realized he'd hurt him earlier, had seen the way Ezra had shrunk in on himself and Evie would have his hide if she knew. As though he hadn't already known the boy had Linc's eyes. “Yes, Mr. Standish?” It was more than strange to call someone he'd played peek-a-boo with “mister” but it was not as though the young man would remember that.

 

Ezra considered him for a moment, seeming to be building up courage, and when he spoke there were more ten dollar words in there than he'd used earlier-Orin supposed that Vin had the right of it, it was at least partially a nervous habit. “Ah am incognizant of if you are acquainted with mah mother? And the, let us say, more unorthodox means at her disposal to make a living?”

 

Orin blinked. “I may have some idea.” He could have said more, but since he had no idea where Ezra was going with this he decided to wait and see.

 

“She...she is often not entirely forthright, if it will be a boon to her in some way. Which Ah could imagine convincing a prosperous man like Lincoln Larabee he was my fathah would probably do.” Ezra bowed his head. “Ah have done a numbah of things in my life Ah am not proud of, sah, but Ah have nevah stolen from a dead man, and for all the cons my mothah and Ah pulled Ah've nevah pretended to be family to someone Ah was not.” Orin stared. That, that was not what he expected at all. He clamped down on a surge of anger-what the hell had that woman done to the boy? Cons? He wasn't even out of his teens yet! “Ah need proof, sah. Ah can't-” Orin cut him off right there.

 

“Even if I hadn't already known you were Linc's son before today, I would have known the second I saw those green eyes of yours.” Orin leaned forward, face serious, “And if I'd somehow been blind enough to miss that, that speech would have more than convinced me. Your Daddy wasn't a perfect man either, far from it, but when it came down to it, he generally did the honorable thing. That's what you just did, and I know he'd be proud of you.” A flash of deep confusion passed over Ezra's face then, before the poker face from before slammed over the top of it. By the time the neutral but charming smile had completely covered it, Orin had resigned himself to the conversation being all but over. “But if you need proof, I can give you proof.”

 

He pushed himself up from his desk and walked over to one of the large filing cabinets lining the walls to the side of him. “I don't know if you are aware of this, but when your mother left your father, she initially left you behind. Your father immediately had a DNA test done, not because he doubted, but as extra proof. It came in handy when he filed for custody.” He walked over to the young man who looked more than a bit shell shocked underneath his neutral smile and handed him a file, already opened to the relevant page. Ezra took it in hands that were decidedly not trembling by the time he grabbed it, but had been when he held them out. It was clear to Orin that he was holding himself together through sheer determination.

 

He was Linc's boy, alright.

 

“Custody?” Ezra started to say something else, then clamped his lips shut.

 

“Mh-hmm. He didn't know where your mother had gone, or why, not really, but he tried to prevent, well, exactly what happened...” Ezra still hadn't looked down at the paper in his hands and Orin casually tapped the edge of the folder, “DNA test. Custody papers. There is your proof.”

 

Ezra looked down, and for several minutes nothing was said as he pursued the contents, reading the first few pages over with almost exacting care. Orin turned away and began fiddling with some items that had been left behind on the table, putting stray muffin wrappers in the garbage can. He felt another surge of sadness as he saw the letter addressed in Linc's careful, blocky handwriting to Mr. Vincent Tanner laying in front of where he'd been sitting, “forgotten”.

 

'Lincoln Larabee, you left a mess for these boys to pick up, and you better hope they can do it or I don't know if any of them will ever forgive you,' He thought, annoyed, then a second later, he capitulated, just a bit, 'I'll do my best to look after them, just as I know you'll do your best to look after my Steven.' There was the sound of a folder shutting then and he looked back to Ezra, whose poker face, at least for now, had fled again in the wake of the information he'd learned. He looked confused, overwhelmed, a little bit angry and most of all tired. Didn't the boy sleep? “Thank you.” Ezra said it quietly and as he passed back the file he had already reapplied the poker face, the mask, though now there were cracks in it, the tiredness leaking out at the edges in waves.

 

Well, good. Maybe the others would be able to see past it if it was cracked.

 

They exchanged polite goodbyes and as Ezra exited the office, Orin was glad to see both Josiah and Vin waiting by the elevator for him. Ezra himself hesitated when he saw them, like he wasn't sure why they were there, but then Vin was calling to him, and a minute later Orin was alone except for Tanya, typing away at her desk. He wanted to go home for the day, was thoroughly done, but it wasn't even much past ten and not only would it put him behind, the hours would just drag on even longer with nothing to do.

 

Still, maybe he'd surprise Evie and take her out to brunch. Come back when his head was cleared.

 

Tucking the file back into the cabinet he'd pulled it from, Orin left his office, more than glad to close the doors behind him.

 

Chapter Text

“Now that,” Buck said, with an air of satisfied admiration, as he ambled over to where Ezra was unlocking his convertible, “is a mighty purty car.”

 

Ezra looked up, a mixture between proud and slightly horrified, over enunciating as he responded, “Purty, Mistah Wilmington?”

 

“Yeah, she's purty alright,” Buck grinned, “and you might as well call me Buck, 'cause I ain't calling ya Mr. Standish.” Ignoring the small frown his words had caused, he carried on, “Wondering if me and the kid could swing a ride back with you? Bet this baby rides pretty smooth, and that way you can go get your pup and don't have to worry about getting lost heading out to the ranch.” Seeing that the younger man was starting to bristle, and hoping it wasn't just because of asking for the ride, Buck spoke quick but kept his voice casual. “GPS's seem to send everybody about half a mile too far, and the driveway's right in the middle of a tricky curve and the trees around it need to be cut back again, signpost is near invisible if you don't know where it is.” He had a hard time keeping the grin on his face from widening knowingly as Ezra considered his words, stubborn frown fading a little. Kid was a Larabee alright, bet he was like Chris who would drive in circles for ages before he asked for directions too. Buck had always figured it was better to swallow your pride and get where you were going before it got too late to be getting there.

 

“Ah suppose that would be a practical solution to that potential problem.” Buck clapped him lightly on the shoulder and immediately frowned in worry as Ezra paled, looking pained. It only lasted for a second until he looked normal again, but he'd seen it.

 

“You alright? That where that asshole 'manhandled' you?”

 

“Ah'm perfectly fine.”

 

“Uh-huh.” He didn't believe that for a second, and didn't bother trying to keep the doubt off his face, but he dropped it. It would be easier to sic Nate on him once they had Ezra home. He turned, looking for JD, and cursed internally when he saw him hanging back by Josiah, looking at Buck uncertainly. Like he thought Buck wouldn't want him around because he was talking to Ezra. Lord, save him from insecure teenagers. “Hey, kid! C'mon, we're gonna ride with Ez in his sweet ride.”

 

JD bounded over to them, beaming, as Ezra, looking pained in another way now, told him, “Mah name is not Ez, Mistah Wilmington, it's Ez-ra . It is not an especially difficult moniker to articulate.”

 

Buck wondered how Ezra would react if he were to call him 'dictionary boy', and decided it probably wasn't a good time to find out, casually saying, “Pretty sure Buck's just as easy.” With a half-hidden huff, the younger man gave in.

 

“Ah imagine it is...Buck.” Grinning, Buck went to slap him on the shoulder again, and brought himself up short before his hand had raised more than an inch. JD, tired of being left out of the conversation, and a little wound up from everything, burst into it then, both figuratively and literally as he moved forward from where he'd been standing slightly to the side of them, almost bouncing on his toes.

 

“That means you gotta call me JD too, okay? Hey, do you think I could drive your car? Just for a little while?” Buck rolling his eyes, both at JD and the 'how do I tell him hell no politely' look on Ezra's face, and smacked JD lightly on the back of the head, not paying any attention to his annoyed, “Hey!”

 

“No, ya can't, you don't have a license.”

 

“Only 'cause I didn't need one in Boston, I know how. I had my permit, but it expired.”

 

“No, you gotta get it renewed before you can drive off the ranch, I told ya.”

 

“Ah'm afraid Ah must agree with Mis-”, Buck raised an eyebrow and mouthed 'Ez', and he changed it to, “Buck, Ah cannot allow someone who does not possess a license to drive mah vehicle.”

 

“Can I ride up front then?” Buck had to smile as JD changed tactics. He was a good kid. Persistent, but so far he didn't bitch or whine much the couple of times that Buck had had to tell him no.

 

Why the hell he had thought Buck would let him ride on top of the combine's cab when he was showing him the different equipment was a mystery, and one that had led to him keeping a very close eye on his little brother for the rest of that day-but he hadn't bitched when he told him no, he wouldn't ever be doing that, even when it was time to take the thing out and start harvesting.

 

“Ah can think of no reason to prevent you from doing so.”

 

“Cool!” Ezra had an air of indulgence about him as he watched JD run over to the passenger door and wait for him to unlock it, and Buck had to swallow, hard, because it was hitting him again, that that was his baby brother, all grown up, or close to it anyway. Baby brothers, and hell, he had four of them now. He had a feeling Vin and Ezra were both going to be very different creatures from Nathan or JD. As Ezra calmly answered JD's questions about engine horsepower and how fast the car could take corners, Buck felt Chris walk up to his side.

 

“You and JD going with Ezra?”

 

“Yep. Making sure he gets back to the ranch okay.”

 

“Good. I'm going to ride with Vin, Nathan and Josiah said they'd get the truck and the Explorer home.”

 

“Think it's gonna work?” Buck looked at Chris out of the corner of his eye, still mostly watching Ezra and JD, in time to see Chris smile one of his thin smiles, this one more to do with determination than anything else.

 

“We're just gonna have to make it, aren't we?” He stepped away, and raised his voice, “Alright, everybody load up, get what you need and get back to the ranch. Aunt Nettie texted me, she brought over a big spread for lunch so no need to worry about that, and we all need to talk some more.” Nathan and Josiah broke away from where they'd been chatting with Vin, Vin and Josiah comparing what looked to be tattoos and Nathan, who was quite proud of having none, shaking his head at what he thought of as foolishness, and headed towards the Explorer and truck. Buck felt in his pocket and chuckled, before calling out to his oldest little brother.

 

Hey Nate, you forgetting something?” Confused, Nathan looked towards him and Buck held up the Explorer keys, letting them dangle in his hand and then lobbing them through the air at Nathan, tossing them high enough that even with his long reach he had to jump.

 

Chris, impatient now, motioned expectantly at Vin who followed after him with a small smirk, saying in a voice just loud enough to carry as he passed Buck, “He always this bossy?”

 

“Worse.” Chris shot a look at both of them and then just kept walking, Vin saying something quiet to Ezra that made him grin and try to hide it as he moved to catch up with Chris. “Alright boys, we ready to go?” He chuckled as he realized JD was already in his seat, loaded and buckled and Ezra was walking-a mite slow and careful for someone who was 'perfectly fine'-around the front of the car to the driver's seat. The only one holding them up was him.

 

“Ah believe we are getting there, Mistah Wilmington.” Deciding to let the 'Mr.' go this time-if he started harping at the kid like a broken record he'd make himself anything but popular-Buck nodded and turned to JD, who was too busy playing with Ezra's stereo to realize he was blocking Buck from getting in.

 

“Hey, you either have to fold in half, which doesn't seem like a good choice, or slide out, so I can get in the backseat.” JD looked at him, slightly suspiciously.

 

“Are you sure you aren't just going to take the front seat?”

 

“Considering you'd have the same problem getting in the back I have? Ain't a roof for you to ride on, if that's your plan.”

 

“Just hop over.” Ignoring his teasing, JD flung a thumb over his shoulder into the backseat and Ezra paused where he'd been slipping into the car, scandalized as he looked over at Buck.

 

Do not hop ovah, please. Neithah the paint or the upholstery require any fresh damage at this time, thank you very much.” Buck held up his hands, still smiling as he shook his head.

 

“I ain't gonna hurt a beut' like this, don't worry. You heard 'im JD, move your butt.” With a tiny groan, JD unbuckled his seatbelt and peeled himself reluctantly off the seat and out of the car, like he still thought he'd lose it. Well hell, Buck thought, might as well give him what he wants, and he plopped himself in the front seat just long enough for JD's face to look as scandalized as Ezra's had before, then hauled himself back out of it laughing, shoving away the hand that slapped at his shoulder. JD rolled his eyes dramatically as a still laughing Buck pushed the front seat in half and climbed into the back, but there was a grin tugging at his lips. It was pretty cramped with his long legs, but he wasn't going to bitch, not yet at least. Make the kid switch seats when they got to Ezra's hotel, maybe, that should work. Ezra started the car once JD was in, and the stereo JD had been playing with came on at a deafening volume, almost shaking the car with the vibration. Buck's hand raced to his ears and smashed over them as an embarrassed JD grabbed for the volume control and turned it to zero. “Geez kid, you trying to blow our eardrums out?”

 

“More like mah speakers,” Ezra mumbled, then quickly, reading some sign from JD that Buck couldn't see stuck in the backseat, continued, “It's alright, no harm was inflicted.”

 

“Those ain't the speakers that came with this car are they, Ez? You install 'em?”

 

No, they are quite a bit more powerful than the originals, as well as having a superior sound quality. Ah must confess Ah like mah music at a louder volume than the average person, though not at such a volume as we were just treated to.”

 

Me too,” JD piped up, still a little pink-cheeked, but sounding cheerful enough, “some music just sounds better loud-more powerful.” Buck looked at the two teenagers in front of him, Ezra now navigating his way up the street, and Buck assumed back to his hotel, as the boys chatted about music, settling further back into his seat with a smile. He wondered if they were going to be treated to loud music thundering through the house at odd hours. It would probably be annoying as all hell when it happened, but at the moment it didn't seem like a bad thing at all, seemed fitting, even as JD informed Ezra that he was all wrong about some band JD loved, and Ezra retorted that he clearly need to have 'Dr. Jackson' check his hearing for defects. Chris and him had about drove everyone crazy when they were around the boys age, Buck blasting country and southern rock, and Chris blasting metal or hard rock, trying to drown the other out-only that loud when Daddy hadn't been home of course, or had been out working the ranch, because he would have killed them. Josiah's folk music had been annoying sometimes, he had had a tendency to play songs on repeat that Buck hoped he'd outgrown, but he'd never had the need most teenagers seem to have to make the house shake with it. Nathan had been really into headphones, probably because he'd been annoyed by their music so many times.

 

The week that the two of them had been arguing over who the better guitar player was, Toni Ioni or Gary Rossington, both him and Chris blasting their favorite songs at each other from across the hall, they'd come home to find the power cords for their CD players mysteriously gone. The CD players themselves hadn't moved an inch, but the cords had disappeared. The two of them had blamed each other back then, no matter how unlikely it was that they'd each separately had the same idea, and these days Buck figured Nathan was the culprit.

 

If either of these two liked emo, or screamo, or whatever it was that Casey had spent a good month listening to after her and that little snot Derik had broken up, Buck was buying ear plugs. Big ones.

 

Still, he found that he didn't really mind the idea at all, that he was likely to walk into the house and be hit by a wall of sound, that in fact, he was kind of looking forward to it.

 

“Hey, you like country, Ezra?” JD sounded surprised as he pawed through the stack of CD's that he'd opened Ezra's center console to get to, and Buck leaned forward, because that was what he was talking about right there.

 

“Ah did come by mah accent naturally, Mistah Dunne, and while Ah am selective in what Ah listen to some country artists make that list.”

 

“Yeah, even I like Sam Hunt-he's way better than that old, sappy stuff you play, Buck.” Before Buck could decide what to say to that, JD was talking again, “Can I pop it in?”

 

No.” JD recoiled away from the heated insistence in Ezra's voice, surprised, and Buck frowned, leaning forward a bit more. He'd give it a second, see if there was a reason Ezra had about snapped the kid's head off for a simple question, but if not he was going to say something. He wasn't mad, just a little worried after things had been going so well between the boys, and wanted to make sure they stayed on the right foot. Right when Buck was going to speak up, not liking JD's slumped, kicked puppy posture, anymore than he liked the icy stiffness that was radiating off Ezra, a voice so unemotional it sounded flat came from Ezra, and Buck wasn't sure he liked that any better. “Ah apologize...Ah have negative associations with some of the tracks on that CD, and did not realize it was still in the vehicle. Ah would have disposed of it if Ah had...Ah thought Ah had disposed of it...”, He trailed off as a hint of confusion and what sounded like bitterness to Buck, got mixed up with all that blankness.

 

“It looks new,” JD said, confused as well, “There's still plastic on the outside. Maybe somebody bought you a new one before you headed out here? ...And just put it in your car?”, in a quieter, muttered voice, he said, “That's kinda creepy...”

 

There was silence for a moment, and Ezra said, quietly, haltingly, “Yes...Ah suppose they must have. You may have it if you would like, Ah do not wish to keep it.”

 

JD glanced up in the rear view mirror, meeting Buck's eyes with a questioning look, and he nodded slightly, telling him it was fine, to just go along with it, mostly because his mind was too busy trying to figure out what the hell was going on. “Sure, that's awesome, thanks.” Ezra seemed more than a little freaked out, at least Buck thought he seemed freaked out, he was so stiff it was hard to tell. Buck thought it sounded like his 'negative associations' were caused by whoever had dropped the CD in his car. That was the sort of thing that was either romantic or, as JD had said, creepy, depending on whether you were close enough with a person to do it or not-Buck had left surprise presents for girlfriends or romantic conquests on doorsteps and things like that, sure. But only if he knew they would be welcomed, and he was modern enough to expect a woman to be held to the same rules. If someone asked you to leave them alone you left them the hell alone.

 

This was going to need an eye kept on it.

 

*.*.*.*.*

 

Nathan sighed to himself as he took the turn out of town, onto the winding road the ranch was off of. He was relieved that the will reading was over, and that it had somehow, miraculously gone as well as it had. Not perfect-damn, did Vin have a mouth on him. Nathan had thought with his older brothers he'd been thoroughly educated in curse words, but he thought he'd heard a couple new ones, and definitely some unusual combinations. Couldn't blame him though, with Daddy swinging that curve ball at them at the last minute. Hadn't he even thought that there was something wrong with making demands on their inheritance, especially for the three who didn't know him at all? As though they owed something to him rather than the other way around.

 

Maybe he had thought making those demands was the only way to make up for the things he'd failed in, but Nathan didn't know. Couldn't ask him, could he?

 

If Uncle Orin hadn't prepared them, if Daddy hadn't left instructions to do so, hadn't made sure they knew about the others and that they had every right to be there, it could have gone entirely differently. He wondered if his uncle would have told them anyway, and hoped so. He couldn't imagine how angry they would have been, finding out in the middle of it all, or the blow up that might have happened. Hell, there was a good chance some pretty unforgivable things would have been said or done, tempers had been flying as it was.

 

Despite knowing that, what he'd thought was, all his siblings had different mothers, Nathan had never considered his father a Lothario like Buck before all of this. After all, he'd thought all of them except for Buck had been conceived while his father was with either married or dating their mothers. And Buck had been with Auntie Rosie and they'd been comforting each over their mutual grief for Chris's mother, a normal human reaction. Ezra was something similar, Daddy looking for comfort after his Mama's death, but he'd tried to make it work with Maude. Now though...adding another three kids to his list, three kids who he'd failed, made Nathan wonder how many women there were he simply didn't know about.

 

Where there other kids, that his Daddy didn't know about? It didn't seem likely, unless the man was going for some kind of record, but at this point Nathan was prepared to believe just about anything.

 

If there were, were they alright? Or were they alone, like JD, so surprised anytime one of them did something for him, like Ezra, who blew off getting mugged like it was something he handled on a regular basis? Thank God, Vin had come along.

 

Thank God, Vin hadn't been left to rot in a foster system Nathan had very little trust in, despite his father's failures. Not for long, anyway.

 

At least Buck was responsible, had managed to live the lifestyle he enjoyed without leaving little Bucklins and Buckettes around half the damn country. Nathan thought so, anyway, and he would say he knew his brother well enough, especially after this, that if there were any, Buck honestly didn't know they existed. What Buck had said in the saloon, that he wouldn't be able to stay away from a child of his just because he was asked to, that was the truth.

 

With what he'd learned recently, that Daddy had cheated on his Mama, on his own wife, at least once, (and the thought, that he was just hoping it was once, that there must have been a reason his parents had separated, and couldn't it just as easily have been that Daddy had already met Vin's mother, had had an affair before they'd separated that simply continued afterwards, had been nudging at the back of his mind for awhile now-he could be wrong, but he could be right) he'd begun to wonder how he could have lived with the man for so much of his life, had him as his only parent since he was seven, and not known him at all. At least only known one side of him, the side he'd shown his children-the children he'd raised.

 

It wasn't the first time he'd had that thought recently, but he couldn't get it out of his head, how he'd thought he'd known his father so well, thought they'd been so close, and first he finds out he'd been lying about his health, and then all of this?

 

He still couldn't believe Daddy had been hiding the risk his heart was under, and why? Why had he done that? Nathan had believed him when Daddy had said he was going to stick with Dr. Abernathy because of familiarity, because the man had been his doctor for most of his life. Nathan had been hurt, but figured he could understand that, and well, frankly, it wasn't like he wanted to have to give his father a prostate exam or anything similar, and so after he'd thought about it he'd been a little relieved.

 

To find out that the real reason, or at least a good chunk of it, was because he hadn't wanted them to know he was having heart trouble, that one of the valves was showing signs of weakening, that was, that was....it was a betrayal. Whatever Daddy had thought he was doing, whether he was just putting it off, or trying to protect them, it didn't matter what his reasons had been, he should have told them.

 

As angry as he was, at least he had good memories to soften it, good memories that were his no matter what else he learned.

 

The look on Ezra's face when Uncle Orin had told him he had Daddy's eyes...

 

That was another thing to worry about, and a very important thing at that-the way Ezra had been moving it wasn't just his face that was sore. Just some shoving his ass. Nathan had been more than tempted to tell Uncle Orin to put a hold on everything and demand a look at his brother's middle, but he knew something about how an injured body, backed into a corner, could react. Human's weren't that different from other species when it came to that, and seeing that Ezra seemed to be breathing alright, that he could move well enough, if rather stiffly, he'd dropped it. Dropped it for now, anyway, once they were at home, that would be another story. It would be a lot harder for him to refuse treatment from him once they were under the same roof.

 

Nathan wished he could just skip, both mentally and physically, the next few weeks of adjustment, and wake up with everyone, including him, having found their footing and settled into this new reality. It felt like the foundations of his world had been rocked for the about the thousandth time in just a few weeks. He was generally good with change, didn't like it much, but was able to adjust given enough time. He didn't want to be mad at his father, didn't want to waste the time he should be spending grieving and moving on having to deal with all this information. With questions he couldn't get the answers for. Sighing, he flipped on the radio and turned it to an everything station, not really listening to the music. Only another five minutes or so and he'd be home.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Ezra hoped the relief wasn't as obvious on his face as it felt as he pulled into the parking spot in front of the side entrance at the Best Western-below his usual standards to be sure, but it was the only hotel or motel in the vicinity that allowed animals-and shifted into park. Things had been running along as best they could in this overwhelming circus of a situation for a few minutes there, it certainly wasn't a hardship to answer JD's stream of questions about his car, or to discuss music, and, except for that rather large hiccup, he thought he could direct them back that way. Ezra couldn't say he wasn't worried about Mr. Wilmington's having discovered his injuries extended below his face, but the man had dropped the subject at his deflection and if he could put both him and Dr. Jackson's concerns off for a day or two, Ezra was certain his body would have healed adequately. Really, when it came to that situation, his main concern was Mr. Tanner. He wasn't sure how long he'd be able to hold off that inevitable train wreck, but if he could convince the man his injuries were more superficial than anything Ezra might be able to ensure his silence on the details.

 

Of course, the way the scene had played out in the will reading, they all knew Mr. Tanner had been a first hand witness. It was unlikely to resolve itself in anyway Ezra was comfortable with, but at this point there was nothing to do but hope for the best.

 

If that wasn't a wretched enough situation, then he'd gone and let his emotions get the better of him, snapping at the teenager over asking to play a CD of all things. Third time in one day, in only a few hours, that he'd allowed that to happen, and frankly, Ezra was appalled with himself, however trying this predicament. He ruled his emotions, he did not allow them to rule him.

 

Ezra wished he wondered how it had gotten in his car, wished it was something he had questions over, but he wasn't a fool. Alfred must have placed it there. No wonder Bogart had secreted himself under the vehicle.

 

It was possible he'd left it in the car before Ezra's departure, of course. It was equally possible that he had done so after he assaulted him, had been outside either his hotel room or Judge Travis's office. He simply had no way to ascertain that fact one way or the other. Logically, Ezra supposed that at this point he should really be considering pressing charges, getting a restraining order, or something of the like, but that would mean involving the authorities and he had an ingrained distrust of the system as a whole. Even when the individuals involved meant well, such things had never gone in a positive direction for him in the past. It would also mean letting the people he was going to be living with know about his orientation and that was also something that had not always gone well for him in the past.

 

Not wanting to raise anymore suspicions about his physical state, Ezra did his best to get out of the car quickly and gracefully, and was swiftly regretful of this as his ribs protested and the pain made his left knee buckle just a little. Ezra was able to straighten almost immediately, stepping back and closing his door without another lapse, but that didn't prevent JD from having seen the first one and staring at him in open concern. Buck was still pulling himself out of the small backseat and didn't seem to have noticed. He did his best to give a casual, relaxed smile back, trying to exude 'everything is fine' with his whole body, and, as he'd thought it would, it worked. JD seemed like a clever boy, and, of course, must realize Ezra was sore, but he thought he'd allayed any fears that it was serious. “Mah room is just down the hall, and Ah imagine that Bogart is getting a bit impatient for mah return.”

 

“Lead the way, hoss.” Buck grinned over the car from where he now stood behind JD, reaching forward and snatching the young man's bowler, ruffling the hair underneath it, and jamming it back down, for seemingly no reason. Ezra wasn't sure how to react to this second and more unusual moniker being bestowed on him, or the horseplay, as JD attempted to step on Buck's foot and Buck playfully shoved him away. He was fairly certain that he did not look like a 'hoss'.

 

Mr. Wilmington, what is your fascination with addressing me with diminutives? Ah have gone the whole of mah life without acquiring one, and within a few hours of meeting you have had two imparted to me.”

 

Buck does that to everybody-he calls Josiah preacher, Chris stud, Nathan doc, and me kid-guess you're hoss.” JD grinned as he said it, his and Buck's impromptu rough housing having come to an end, wandering over to the sidewalk as he finished talking.

 

That's about right,” Buck said with a chuckle, “just seem to do it naturally. 'Sides,” he said, straightening a little, “gave you that nickname before you could walk, don't see no reason to change it now.” Ezra frowned, highly uncomfortable with this new bit of knowledge. Whatever relationship his brother-and yes, he would concede to that-had had with him as an infant, Ezra did not remember it, or him at all. What in the world did Mr. Wilmington expect, for him to call him, 'bro', and gaze at him in the almost worshipful way JD did? He didn't know the man. It was one thing for them all to build a cordial relationship that would allow them to get through the next year, or at least the next month, with minimal conflict and hopefully no bloodshed, but he had no more intention of playing happy families than Vin did. Instead, he would treat it like he had boarding school, do his best to get along with everyone while maintaining a certain amount of distance. That would be for the best.

 

Ezra firmly ignored the twisting sensation in his stomach as Buck pulled JD against his side for a quick, seemingly unthinking, embrace as the boy walked back within reach of him, “Yes, well, Ah prefer the use of mah actual name.” Buck raised an amused eyebrow at him, but nodded.

 

Yeah, I'm getting that, Ezra. I'll try, alright?”

 

Hey, I heard barking when I was over by the building,” JD announced, “think you're right Ezra, your dog misses you.”

 

Grateful for the distraction, Ezra said, “Yes, it has been awhile since his morning walk-about.”, and hurried as best he could to the sidewalk and the door that led into the corridor, realizing at the last minute that he'd left his key card in his wallet. At least he'd had the foresight to place his wallet in the jacket of his suit, so he wouldn't have to contort himself and worry Mr. Wilmington further, which would only bring increasing complications. Strolling as casually as he could down the hall once he'd finagled the door open he smiled when the tone of Bogart's barking changed, from plaintive to excited, as he recognized his owner was coming from his footfalls. Ezra didn't let his expression falter as he saw a few dents and scuff marks at the bottom of the door, and a tiny crack around the doorknob as he approached it, sliding his key card into the little slot and waiting for it to turn green. It was nothing too noticeable or unusual, but all decidedly not present upon his departure that morning. Still acting as though nothing unexpected was happening-it was obvious that Alfred, if it was Alfred, and not a random crime (though the lack of damage to either the door next to his or the one across from it made that unlikely), had been unable to breach the doorway, and could not be waiting to surprise them on the other side-Ezra let the door swing open, and bent to greet the excited ball of fur attempting both to wrap around and climb up his ankle.

 

Ezra would not think about the ramifications of Alfred knowing what hotel he was staying at, or his continued pursuit of him, not until he was alone to do so and could properly consider what his possibilities were. This was far more serious than a mysterious gift.

 

Mannahs, Bogart, what will your uncles think of you?” He took his time fussing over the little dog, obligingly scratching first a chin, and then a belly, once his pet had quit trying to use him for a jungle gym at his gentle scold. “Yes, Ah know, Ah was gone for what may have been two hours or may have been all of eternity, eithah way it was too long, wasn't it?” Ignoring Buck's indulgent expression as he stood, the man looking as though he thought he'd deduced something important while Ezra was greeting his dog, he introduced them, “Gentlemen, this is Bogart. Say hello, Bogey.” Bogart yipped twice and then moved forward to greet JD who'd knelt and was patting his chest. He was encouraging the boston terrier to jump up on him in a manner Ezra wouldn't ordinarily have allowed, but he was inclined to be tolerant at the moment, both of the beast and the boy. Each had had a number of upheavals in their lives lately, though he did not know the full details of JD's. Bogart looked as though he was rather enjoying washing JD's face, anyway.

 

Alright, Ezra, you need any help carrying your stuff out to your car?” Buck had moved past him and into the room while he had most of his attention focused on JD and Bogart, and it took Ezra a moment to formulate his response as the man looked around the hotel room.

 

Ah suppose if you are willing Ah have a bag you could carry,” He directed him to the bag holding Bogart's assorted items, bigger and heavier than his own, and then had him wait while he made sure nothing was left behind. Ezra had used the hotel's disposable bowls for the dog's food and water and allowed him the treat of sleeping on the bed, as it wasn't Ezra who would have to worry about laundering the sheets, so the only thing he needed to return to it was toys, specifically the racquetball that both rolled well enough for Bogey to be able to nose it about and chase it by himself and was small enough he could actually pick it up, and the chewed remains of the small blanket that the dog liked both to sleep with and to drag around with him, but they were nowhere to be seen. Growing slightly frustrated as his search proved fruitless, he realized the only place he had not searched that would be possible for Bogey to get to was under the bed, and there was simply no way he was attempting that feat, even if he hadn't had an audience.

 

He'd heard of captive audiences before, but as he felt Buck's eyes on him again Ezra felt like a captive, and unwilling, performer. Well, the only solution to that was to become a willing performer, or to switch the show to something he did not mind the other man seeing. Turning to where JD had seated himself directly on the floor, Bogart on his lap in apparent raptures as the spot where the front of his back leg met his side was scratched to his heart's content, Ezra clucked his tongue twice to get the dog's attention, then said, “Bogart, fetch your ball.”

 

It took a moment for JD and Bogart to disentangle themselves, but Bogart's ears had gone up at the word 'ball', and with a shake of his head once he was on all four paws, he was quickly looking. Applying his nose to the carpet and making a snuffling noise, Bogart headed where Ezra had expected, in the direction of the bed and completely underneath it, disappearing from view, and then reappeared on the other side with the edge of the ball pinched into his mouth and proudly trotted to his master's side. Ezra scratched his head and then tossed the small ball for him once, a fast, almost straight-up toss, that didn't require him to move his arm much, Bogart eagerly leaping up into the air to catch it. He held out his hand and the racquetball was dropped neatly into it, and stowing it and bestowing the required ear scratch, he repeated the command, slightly altered, “Fetch your blanket.” Bogart whined slightly at how quickly his playtime had ended, giving Ezra literal puppy eyes. “No, love, the ball is put away. Fetch your blanket.”

 

Buck guffawed slightly as Bogart turned to do it with an attitude that was a pout as clearly as if the dog could have worn the expression across his face, this time jumping up on the small armchair in what passed for a dining nook, and wriggling his nose inbetween the back of the chair and the cushion to retrieve the blanket he'd apparently 'buried'. “He's a right clever little thing, isn't he? Can he do any tricks?”

 

“Bogart has an entire repertoire of tricks, and he is an exceedingly intelligent canine.” Ezra said, a note of pride creeping into his voice, as Bogart settled at his feet, holding up his blanket. Taking it with some quiet words of praise, Ezra tucked it inside the travel bag and zipped it shut, Buck scooping up the handle and pulling it over his shoulder as soon as he was done. He considered sending Bogey to get his leash that was hanging on the coat hook by the door, but decided that was enough 'work' for the dog for now. “Ah only have the one othah bag, resting by the door, and Bogart himself of course, so Ah am ready to adjourn to the ranch if you gentlemen are in accordance?” Both Buck and JD stared at him as though he'd done something extraordinary, such as setting himself on fire and proceeding to dance about the room aflame. Well, he wasn't going to wait around while he was being gawked at, particularly as he wasn't sure why the gawking was occurring, and Ezra proceeded to the door, grabbing the leash off the hook before gingerly bending to scoop up his bag, listening as the others conversed quietly behind him.

 

“Huh?”

 

“He was saying he was ready to go when we were, just as fancy as I've ever heard it.” Rolling his eyes while no one could see him, and hoping that Mr. Wilmington had just been overwhelmed by his manner of speech, rather than actually unable to decipher it's meaning, Ezra clicked the lead onto Bogey's collar, before slowly straightening up. The canine had promptly settled at his feet, tail wagging, when he saw him pick up the leash, and Ezra felt guilty that for the second time in only a few days he would not be getting the walk he expected and likely needed. There would be copious amounts of room for him to run at the Ranch he assumed, but Ezra also knew there would be plenty of dangers that he could get himself into, and Bogart was a curious individual, even for a particularly curious breed of small dog. Ezra had to suppress a shudder as he considered Bogey getting kicked or stepped on by livestock, or caught up in some sort of farm equipment. His eyes landed on JD, and a small smile crossed his face. That would be his solution, and Ezra was quite certain that it would be JD asking him if he could take the dog out, rather than the other way around.

 

“Alright, let's load 'em up, boys.” Buck said, motioning to the doorway, after a moment of the three of them standing there awkwardly, Ezra unsure all over again whether this...experience, was the most appropriate word, he supposed...was worth the aggravation it would likely ensue. Still, it was likely less hazardous to his health than staying here would be, and Ezra was aware that this truly was a once in a lifetime opportunity. There would be no more departed relatives leaving him fortunes in his future. “You gotta check out, Ez? Sorry, Ezra.”

 

“Ah have an app on mah phone Ah can utilize to do so, and Ah'll simply leave the key card inside the room, we have no need to traipse all the way to the front desk.” Feeling pleased that the older man was at least endeavoring to use his preferred nomenclature, he set the key card on the shelf and stepped through the doorway, another click of his tongue reminding the pup to heel as he started to dart down the hallway. He'd tried to ensure that Bogart had gotten enough chances to run off his energy as they traveled, but with Ezra unable to play with him as easily as he usually did, it clearly hadn't been enough.

 

“Huh, guess since they get your credit card on file when you make reservations these days, they don't figure they have to be as careful.”

 

As they neared the backdoor Bogart surged forward again, straining against his leash with excitement and making Ezra stifle a cry of pain as the unexpected movement jarred his ribs. Taking a deep breath, he stifled the scold that popped to his lips, as it was not Bogart's fault he was injured, or that his slow movements were making everything take longer than usual. It was no wonder the dog was impatient. Instead he gave the leash a gentle tug and ordered, “Heel,” in a voice that was as normal as he could make it while his rib cage felt like it was stabbing through his innards. He knew it wasn't of course, that he would not be able to move at all and would be unlikely to be conscious if it was, but that did not keep the sensation from running through his torso or the thought from running through his mind. Ignoring the looks that were like a physical presence against his back, Ezra continued to the car like he hadn't a care in the world.

 

“Buck...?” It was a hushed whisper, but they were too close on the sidewalk for Ezra to have missed it.

 

“I know, kid, we'll get Nate on it.”

 

Damn.

 

*.*.*.*.*

 

Vin shifted in the driver's seat of his pick-up, the radio on, but so quiet it was hardly even background noise. He had something he wanted to say before they got back to the ranch, something he needed to make clear, but he wasn't sure how to say it without pissing off the older man. Vin liked Chris, and not in the casual way he 'liked' most people, giving them the benefit of the doubt until they did something to prove him wrong, but actually liked the man in a way he seldom did when he first met someone. Chris was the sort of person Vin could tell was going to earn his respect, but it was more than that too. There was an easiness between them that was right, that was natural.

 

Maybe his Pa was right, and there was something here worth having, something that was meant to be Vin's.

 

Only he already had a family, and a year was a hell of a long time to be away from them. Vin knew plenty of people did that, went a year or more without doing more than talking on the phone, and considered it perfectly fine, but that was too long for him. Most kids his age were on their own, he knew that too, and he couldn't really call himself a kid anymore, but Vin wasn't sure he was ready to fly the nest yet. Hell, he hadn't had it for that long.

 

'Sides, he didn't know if Pa and Chanu could keep the business running by themselves for a year, and Vin had put a lot of himself into it anyway, spent the last few years helping to grow it in anyway he could. It was really starting to take off now, and Vin Tanner was getting a name for himself as a knowledgeable and competent trail guide, had had a few places try and poach him away, and he wasn't sure he wanted to leave even if they could keep it running just fine on their own.

 

Maybe especially. If they didn't need him-Vin cut off that thought forcefully, scorning it, because he knew better than that. Knew that after how hard Ko'Je had fought for him, to be able to actually adopt instead of just foster him, that he was his. Stood by him in that mess in Tascosa when plenty of people would have walked away, had never doubted his word. Wherever he lived, that wouldn't change.

 

He didn't know what to do. Oh, he'd stay for the month, because he had said he would and he kept his word, and because he deserved at least a chunk of his inheritance. After that though...

 

“I already got me a family.” It came out harsher than he expected, harsher than he meant it to be, and he saw Chris glance his way out of the corner of his eye, before going back to contemplating the road.

 

Good.” He wasn't just saying it to make conversation, or because he didn't know what else to say, Chris meant it, Vin could hear the solidness behind the word, and the meaning underneath it all. I'm glad you weren't alone. The same relief he'd felt underneath his anger when he'd seen that not all of his brother's were like him and Ezra, that they hadn't been left alone, and he relaxed a little in his seat.

 

“Got a business t'. Might mean I can' stay.” A quick glance showed that the hand Chris had been resting on the window frame had tightened its grip, squeezing down. He didn't say anything for a long minute, and Vin stayed quiet too, waiting.

 

I know you didn't know him. But he was our father. These are his last wishes.” The words seemed to have been drudged up more than spoken, the sentences coming out slow and reluctant, but firm all the same.

 

“Weren't my father.” He said it like he meant it, and he did, and if Chris took offense, like Vin could see he was doing, that was his own damn fault.

 

“So what, you popped out of the earth like a damn cabbage patch doll?”

 

“What the hell ya expect me t' do, Larabee, go sit a' his grave an' thank him fer givin' my Momma his sperm?”

 

“Hell, if it weren't for that you wouldn't be here!”

 

Vin actually turned to gape at the other man, who had grit his teeth, whether in anger or to keep his mouth shut from anymore goddamned stupid comments like that he didn't know, before remembering he was on a curvy and unfamiliar road and turning back to it, stung. After a minute, he muttered, “No fuckin' shit. How far are we from the turn-off?”

 

“About another mile.” Silence descended on the truck, but it wasn't the mostly friendly, if awkward silence of before, instead Vin felt like the air in the truck was full of his and Chris's emotions, clouds battering back and forth at each other because there wasn't enough space for both. He got that the other man was mourning his father, that he wanted to see his wishes carried out, but was Vin supposed to give up his life for a man he'd never even met, and couldn't now even if he'd wanted to? Just because they shared blood? Hell, for what it was worth, he supposed he was grateful for his existence, better than the alternative, but he didn't see how he owed anybody anything for it.

 

Seeing the overgrown sign post Chris had said would be there coming up he slowed and put on his signal, navigating onto the narrow gravel driveway. The truck drove up a hill for maybe half a minute and when they crested it, Vin let the truck slow as he took in the picture before him, shifting gears as he rolled to a stop. The ranch and the hills surrounding the back of it were huge. Not many trees, but there was green spotting the hills, rolling fields with cattle meandering through them, and to either side of the house and barnyard that was square in the middle of it all, it seemed to stretch on forever, outbuildings and hay fields, and a big horse paddock that had a few animals ambling around in it. Vin missed horses, had grown-up around them except for those years in foster, but they'd had to give them up when they moved to Alaska, hadn't had the money to build a house for themselves and the sort of barn you needed to keep horses in what were often negative temperatures, and felt a little surge of excitement at the thought of getting to ride again. “Can't see everything from here, our land goes past and curves around those hills. There's a lake back around behind the hills in the middle of what passes for woods around here that's good for fishing, and then over there, all the way around the other side of the ranch, there's some canyons carved into the rocks that are worth exploring.” He grinned a little as Vin took it all in, “Something, ain't it?”

 

He had to nod, couldn't not, but remembering now he wasn't quite sure how to take what Chris had said before, but was inclined to be pissed, he stayed silent. Shifting the truck back into gear he started down the hill again. The gravel driveway divided off in two other directions as they reached the bottom of the long slope, but Vin kept going until he came to the loop of gravel that had been fashioned as a turn around in the back of the sprawling ranch house, pulling his truck up behind the two vehicles that had beaten them there. Not quite ready to get out of the truck yet after he switched it off, Vin took in a deep breath. “Look.” Thinking Chris was pointing something out, he rolled his head over to look at him, surprised to see that the man was just staring straight ahead, and then waited for whatever it was he had to say. “Can't decide anything for you, whether I like what you pick or not. But don't decide today.”

 

“Told ya all I'd stick it out fer the month.”

 

“Guess that's good enough then.” Chris opened his door and slid out, and Vin thought for a second, snorted, and did the same. It would have to be good enough, because that was all the man was getting out of him. Reaching into the bed of the truck, he pulled out the duffle he'd thrown in the back after he'd left his motel and trudged after Chris. Supposed he better figure out where he was sleeping before he did anything else. At least the house seemed big enough for seven men to actually live in, something he'd been worried about. It was a great big thing, and old, the porch's support pillars made out of rough hewn trees, worn smooth with time. The house was painted a sandy shade of yellow that seemed to fit its surroundings, though the paint looked like it could use a new coat soon, and there were white casement windows dotted along the sides, the one on the porch hanging partly open for the breeze. It looked big enough for fourteen men, and hoisting his duffle back up from where it was sliding down his shoulder, Vin made his way up the steps.

 

*.*.*.*.*

 

Chris groaned silently as he left the first floor bedroom that Vin was getting settled into, everything on the second floor full except for the master. Ezra could have the one next to his, they seemed to get along well, and that was it for bedrooms even in this place. Though at one point Nathan had declared his brothers too disgusting to live on the same floor as and moved all his stuff up to the attic, and he supposed he wouldn't stop anybody who wanted to try. It had only lasted about a week until Nathan had gotten tired of having to navigate down the pull-down stairs to get to the bathroom at night. Good thing it hadn't been Buck, he probably would have started peeing out the window. If the great-great-something or other grandfather who built this place hadn't had about thirteen kids he wasn't sure what they would have done about rooms.

 

He'd fucked up with Vin right quick, and it had only taken him a truck ride to do it in. Of course, if that boy weren't so damn ornery...when he'd brought up Daddy's grave like that Chris had been inclined to do more than snap at him.

 

Thinking about it now though, his comment hadn't been any better. He'd known damn well what Vin meant by Daddy not being his father, and it gnawed at him, bothered him, sure, but it was the truth. Chris couldn't deny that. Deciding he needed coffee if he couldn't have a drink, and he couldn't, he made his way to the kitchen, the family photos that lined each side of the hall suddenly seeming wrong and half-done.

 

Truth was, he wanted him to stay. He wanted them all to stay, because they were family, and because it was what Daddy had wanted. It was right, whatever wrenches it threw into the works. But more than that, for some reason, that he wasn't going to think too much into now, just didn't have the time, he was drawn to Vin. He reminded him of himself a bit, but that wasn't it. Stepping into the kitchen Chris smiled as he noticed the large covered bowl on the table. Probably bread of some type, or salad greens, something that Aunt Nettie could put out without having to worry about it spoiling. The coffee pot was full too, or likely full minus one cup, and if it wasn't still hot it would be easy enough to heat up. Grateful, he filled his cup with what turned out be lukewarm coffee and plopped it in the microwave, and after peaking into the bowl to see that it held fresh rolls, leaned against the counter as he waited.

 

Hell, he just plain liked Vin, and except for those who were grandfathered in, like his brothers, the ones he'd grown up with anyway, Chris hadn't found himself liking much of anybody for a long time. It usually took him a decent amount of time to warm to folks, and the last couple years...

 

Not that he disliked JD or Ezra. JD seemed to be a damn good kid so far, and well he didn't know Ezra at all yet, he respected the fact that the kid had been willing to stand up to him, even when it had been pissing him off. Kid had a smart-ass mouth, and he wasn't a bit scared of Chris, both of which would probably serve him well if he didn't take it too far. If he did, Chris had plenty of experience dealing with cocky little brothers.

 

He sucked in a big breath as the fact that Ezra was home and safe hit him, really hit him, because they hadn't known, hadn't known where he was or what the hell was happening to him for years , and for the most part you didn't think about it, couldn't think about something like that, but it wasn't because you didn't care, it was because if you let yourself think about it, it could consume you. Chris had never liked or trusted Maude, had learned to tolerate her, but that was it, and despite what Daddy had thought, it wasn't because he saw the woman as some sort of inferior replacement of his Mama. That had been part of it, he was sure, but Chris had a good gut for people, could read good or bad intentions pretty easily, and there had been something about Maude that had set off his radar, even as a kid.

 

Ezra had been dehydrated and terribly hungry, had had a diaper rash that had him almost raw, when they got home to find that the safe had been jimmied and Maude was long gone, so Chris would say his instincts had been right. The baby hadn't been crying, had cried himself to sleep so many times he'd given up, when they found him where he'd crawled into the master bedroom, looking for his 'Ma-uh'. Neither Nathan or Buck knew quite how bad it had been, Daddy hadn't wanted them to know, hadn't wanted Chris to know, but he'd been old enough to understand, to see how listless his brother had been. If Dr. Abernathy hadn't known him, hadn't known it hadn't been Daddy who left a baby alone for at least twelve hours, he would have called CPS on him, and as it was, his contribution to the police report against Maude had been damning.

 

That had been the first time, the first real time, Chris had felt hate. Had understood what it meant in a way that hadn't been possible before. He'd been furiously angry before that, burning, red-hot, mad, had despised people, detested them, but he hadn't hated. That she'd knowingly done that to her own son, to a tiny, helpless, baby...

 

No, Chris hadn't wanted to think about what might be happening to his brother, though sometimes it had felt like he had no choice.

 

If the worst she'd done was buy him off when she screwed up, instead of dealing with it, like Ezra might as well have said in the will reading, as messed up as that was, buying your kid's love instead of earning it, it was nothing compared to the things he'd worried about.

 

Realizing the microwave had gone off a bit ago, it still beeping at him every few seconds, he pulled out his cup, heading to the sugar bowl to dump a bit in, and then for the creamer in the fridge. Chris was just stirring it all together, getting ready to take his first sip, when he heard the sound of tires over gravel outside, and made his way out onto the porch, mug still in his hands, watching while Ezra pulled up behind Vin's truck. It was probably a little too hot for the coffee, but he enjoyed it anyway, taking a long, slow sip as he leaned against the porch rail next to the steps, watching as Buck opened the door of what really was a beautiful sports car, a small black and white dog jumping out and sniffing around with enthusiasm, before lifting his leg on one one the big terracotta pots that sat to each side of the porch. Chris chuckled, wondering how long before Bowser Jr. (Buck had thought he was being really clever) and Missy both came to greet the new arrival and to, of course, mark over his scent. Buck followed after the dog, chuckling as he said something to Ezra while folding his seat forward so JD could get out. Ezra looked annoyed as he climbed out of the driver's side of the car, saying something back to Buck a little sharply, but whatever it was, it just made Buck laugh even harder.

 

Annoyed, and also a little more sore than just shoving would warrant, Chris thought as he raised a hand in greeting to JD's hello, watching as Ezra stiffly made his way around the side of the car. How the hell hadn't he noticed that before? Too much going on he supposed, but that was no excuse. He should have been looking for it, with the bruise on the kid's face.

 

Where the hell was Nathan, anyway? And Josiah? He hadn't seen a hair of either of them since they got home.

 

Buck still chuckling, walked closer to Chris, and said, “Ezra ain't none too happy about gravel around his car, think he woulda flown it in instead if he could have, just to avoid paint chips.”

 

“Two words, Buck-be nice.”

 

“I'm plenty nice, pard, sure you shouldn't be saying that to the mirror?” Chris scowled a little as Buck just grinned at him.

 

“Yeah, yeah...you see Nathan anywhere as you were driving in?” Buck shook his head as his eyes immediately moved back over to Ezra, who was handing the dog's leash to JD.

 

“Nah, I didn't, but you're right, that boy's hurt. Doing a real good job hiding it for the most part, but ribs is always painful.”

 

“Hey Buck, Chris, I'm gonna go introduce Bogart to the other dogs, okay?” JD was already taking off, Bogart happily trotting in front of him, as Chris called out to him.

 

“Don't bring him in their kennel, call the dogs out if they're in there so they can meet!” The two border collies really did tend to greet any other dog they saw like a long-lost friend, Buck hadn't been exaggerating, but with their pups, the first and only litter Missy would have, still little it couldn't hurt to be careful. She was happy enough to show off her babies when any of them went out there, but she hadn't brought them into the house yet, though she'd started coming in and out again herself about two weeks ago, and while ordinarily the barn cats had free run of the kennel, according to Buck the only one she'd allowed in since the pups had come was Sunny, the mother of all the other barn cats.

 

“Okay!”

 

Of course, Buck had also been telling the cashier at the store the other day that Sunny was 'babysitting' for Missy when the dog 'needed a break from all them pups', grinning like anything while she ate it up, so it was probably just another of his tall tales. Moving his eyes back to Buck while taking another, deeper, drink of coffee, Chris smirked as he saw him scooping a couple bags out of Ezra's trunk, paying no mind to Ezra's claims that, “Ah appreciate your assistance, but Ah can manage the baggage on mah own”, Buck meeting his eyes with his own smirk as he started up the steps. Ezra was clearly stubborn, but he'd quickly learn that was a family trait.

 

“You know which bedroom is left, stud, lead the way.” With a nod, Chris straightened and turned on his heel, heading through the kitchen and past the bedroom closest to it and the Jack-and-Jill bathroom in between them to the last bedroom, and opening the door for Buck to carry in Ezra's bags.

 

“So, this is it, hope you like it,” Chris said as Ezra looked around the room, “Feel free to change what you like. That door leads to a bathroom, and after that is Vin's room. The den is across the hall, that's where the TV is, and you saw the kitchen.”

 

“Give ya the nickel tour later.” Buck inserted, “So ya know where everything is.” Ezra nodded, smiling wanly at them. “For now, we'll let you get settled in.”

 

“I'm gonna start laying out lunch, so come into the kitchen when you're done.” It came out sounding like an order, and trying to soften it a bit, he finished with a small smirk, and, “Otherwise Buck will probably eat your share.”

 

Me?” Buck said with a laugh, “Both Josiah and the kid can out eat me, I'm not who he has to worry about.” With a jerk of his head to tell Buck to follow him, Chris left Ezra to relax. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and shot off a quick text to Nathan asking him where he'd got off to and if Josiah was with him, and telling him they needed him, ignoring Buck's reading it over his shoulder. “Hey, yeah, where are Nate and 'Siah?”

 

“If I knew that I wouldn't've texted him, would I?” His phone rang then, a phone call rather than a text back, and a little concerned now, Chris pulled it out of his pocket.

 

“Hey, Nathan.”

 

“Hey, Chris, sorry, but right when Josiah and me pulled up Henry flagged us down, there was a scuffle in the bunkhouse.” Nathan paused as Chris swore fluently into the receiver.

 

“The Hiles twins?”

 

“Yep...only this time they took a swing at somebody else, and connected. David told them to take it outside, and Cody busted him square in the nose, nearly bro-”

 

They're gone.” David was not only mild-mannered and friendly, the last person Chris would expect to find fighting, he was slow. Not very slow, not enough to qualify for any special needs assistance, capable of living on his own and a competent worker, but even though he was in his late forties talking to him was often like talking to a teenager, and you always got better results with verbal instructions than written. “Those two have already caused enough trouble, that's the last damn straw.”

 

“Wait a minute now, Chis,” Buck said, “I don't think-”, and ordinarily Chris would have got his point, in addition to being good cowhands the twins were skilled in both mechanics and carpentry, the only reason they'd kept their jobs as long as they had, but knowing his brother's tune would change with the details, he talked over him.

 

“One of them hit David, Buck.” Buck paused, looking at him as disbelief spread across his face in a way that would have been funny ordinarily.

 

David? David, who wouldn't hurt a damn fly and spoke up for them the last time Daddy nearly canned them?”

 

“Yep.” Flaring up quick, Buck leaned forward and jerked the phone out of Chris's hand, ignoring his snapped, “Jesus, Buck!”

 

“Nathan, you tell those two to pack their shit and get the hell off our ranch tonight!” Whatever Nathan said back had Buck grunting, and then a moment later, saying, satisfaction in his still angry voice, “Went Old Testament on them, huh? Good, they could use a little wrath.” He listened for a minute to whatever was said back, Chris tempted to snag the phone back at least long enough to turn it on speaker phone, “Uh-huh. Yeah. Just make sure David knows this is something he could press charges on...he don't always understand...yeah,” Buck nodded, even though Nathan wouldn't have been able to see him, and then held the phone out for Chris to take.

 

“What's happening?”

 

Josiah's waiting here, to make sure those two clear off without anymore trouble, and I'm going to talk to David for another minute, like Buck said, make sure he knows he can press charges against Cody and we'll back him up if he does, and then head back. How's Ezra doing?”

 

“Not sure, but he's walking awful stiff.”

 

“Tell 'im I clapped him on the shoulder and Hoss about keeled over.” Buck said, still frowning, and Chris dutifully relayed the message to the doctor. Nathan made a worried noise, promised to be back soon and hung up, Chris sliding the phone back in his pocket and standing there for a moment, thinking. Hell, that had not been something he'd expected to have to deal with today. Rolling up his shirt sleeves, Chris crossed the room to the sink, washing his hands before he pulled out whatever Aunt Nettie had left for them in the fridge.

 

“Buck, if you shove your dirty hand in those rolls, the only thing you're gonna eat for lunch is a knuckle sandwich. I know you were petting that dog.”

 

How the-you ain't even looking at me!” Buck protested, as Chris dried his hands before turning so he was looking at Buck, who had snagged a roll from the basket despite Chris's warning. “I got it from the top, didn't shove my hand in anything.”

 

“When it comes to food you're predictable, and you better not have.” Buck huffed, before taking a pointed bite of his roll. Chris moved to the fridge with a shake of his head, pulling the note Nettie had left on the fridge off and reading it,

 

Boys,

 

There's enough cold chicken for an army and a couple of different

kinds of salads in the fridge. There is also a icebox cake in the freezer

for desert-Nathan don't let your brother's eat nothing but chicken and

cake. Good luck, and don't kill each other. You know how I feel about

blood stains.

Aunt Nettie

 

Chris snorted as he finished it, because Nettie was something else-though he wondered again, as he had when he got her text message, just how much she'd known about what Daddy's will had said before they did-and, handing the note to Buck, who'd shoved the entire roll in his mouth after his first bite so he could wash his hands, he pulled open the fridge to see a large glass baking dish piled high with chicken legs and thighs and wrapped in saran wrap and three covered salad bowls, one with a plate on top of it on the shelf above the chicken. Enough for dinner too, probably.

 

Carrying the dish to the table, he rolled his eyes as Buck peered into one of the two salad bowls he was carrying and made a happy noise. Probably broccoli salad. Buck had hated broccoli for years, but a girlfriend had made the salad for him and, being Buck, he couldn't tell her no. He'd apparently discovered that adding bacon, onions, dried cranberries, and coleslaw dressing to the mix made it an entirely different story. Nettie, who'd had him turn his nose up at at her version for years had been a little miffed by the sudden request for it, but had been willing enough to make anything that meant Buck would actually eat his vegetables. There would be a pasta salad dish of some type too, and a regular salad, and as he grabbed the plate he saw that it was filled with green and red apple slices and thin wedges of cheddar cheese. She hadn't been kidding when she said it was a feast.

 

Chris was setting plates around the table, Buck grabbing the milk jug and glasses, when Nathan came in, looking worn out, and Chris set down what he had left in his hands, giving him his full attention. “Hey, you get it sorted out?” Nathan shrugged, setting his first aid kit on the counter and scrubbing a hand over his face, before kneeling to unlace his shoes.

 

Cody and Corey are leaving, and without Henry or Juan killing them-or Josiah, he was pissed-, and David's calmed down. His nose hurts, and will for a bit, but he was more upset that he hadn't done anything to deserve the punch. Kept saying friends weren't supposed to do that...it wasn't an accident either, he didn't just get in the way...”, Nathan shook his head, disgusted.

 

“Well, it sounds like you took care of it the best you could,” Chris said firmly, knowing Nathan took things like this to heart. He'd be worrying about and checking on David for the next few days or Chris didn't know his brother at all. “Know you're tired, but-”

 

Nathan straightened, bristling-'getting his back up', Daddy would have said, “Of course I'm going to check on Ezra.” He deflated as fast as he'd swelled, guilt tingeing his voice, “I should have done it earlier, could see that he was hurt, but I was worried I'd scare him into taking off.”

 

Chris considered him for a moment and said, voice flat, “I didn't even realize he had more than a bruised face until we got back to the ranch.”

 

Hey, you two, no guilt competitions.” Chris swung a glare onto Buck, because, really? “Neither one of you are the reason he's hurting, so quit acting like you are. Nate, you might be able to do something about his hurts, though. Ezra's in the bedroom past the hall bathroom. I'm going to go call JD in for lunch.” Having dispensed his wisdom, Buck left out the backdoor, snagging another roll along the way. Knowing Buck had a point, Chris went to say something, only to see Nathan disappear through the kitchen doorway, first aid kit in his hand. Well, good. His stomach growling, Chris grabbed a roll to snack on himself, and on second thought, a chicken leg to go with it. He had a feeling it was going to be awhile before everyone was going to be ready to sit down to lunch.

 

“What happened to not eating until everyone's at the table?” Josiah's voice teased as he came in through the backdoor. He looked even more exhausted than Nathan had, but, unlike Nathan, Josiah seemed relieved as he walked just far enough to sink into the nearest chair and leaned back, like he thought that the worst was over now. Chris wasn't sure he was ready to be quite that optimistic.

 

“I'm not the one wearing my shoes in the house.”

 

“Point.” Josiah chuckled as he said it, and the little bit of familiar shorthand they'd shared growing up, that meant both that the other one's argument had a point, and that they admitted they'd had a point scored against them, had Chris swallowing hard and shoving the chicken leg in his mouth, taking a bite big enough he wouldn't have to talk for a minute. He pulled out the chair across from Josiah and sat down in it, it taking a moment to gather his thoughts.

 

“About this morning...”, Josiah nodded, then waited for him to go on, though Chris could see that his shoulders had tightened a bit, “...thank you.”

 

*.*.*.*.*

 

Nathan was wondering how exactly to start this conversation as he walked the short distance down the hall. He could just march in, tell Ezra it was obvious he was hurt and that Nathan was going to look at him no matter what, but tempting as it was, it wouldn't go over well, and would probably encourage the opposite of what he wanted, which was for his brother to want to come to him when he was sick or hurt. Nathan would have to make it clear he knew Ezra was hurt, without making him feel backed into a corner. At the same time, if Ezra lied and said he was fine, or refused to have Nathan help him, he couldn't just let it go. Injuries to the ribs could be serious, and while the fact that Ezra had been walking around was probably a good sign, it didn't guarantee anything.

 

At the door now, Nathan was raising his hand to knock on the half open door when he heard Vin's voice, and hesitated, not sure if he should interrupt or give them a minute. “Hey Ez?”

 

“Ah prefer Ezra, Mr. Tanner.”

 

“Uh-huh, I ‘prefer’ Vin. ‘Member when I said if’n ya were my little brother I'd make ya go t' the doctor?” Nathan paused at the word doctor, knowing that in his spot behind the door he wouldn't be seen, and wanting to hear a little more before he went in. Vin had seen at least some of Ezra being mugged, and this might be his best chance to hear the details, and if he'd been trying to get him to go to the doctor yesterday...

 

“Mistah Tanner, please! Ah am fine.” Ezra hissed it, sounding nervous. Apparently, saying you were fine when you decidedly weren't was a trait that extended to all his brothers.

 

Vin ignored him, “As luck would have it-ya are. An’ we got us a big brother that's a doctor. Mighty convenient, huh?”

 

“Ah swear to you, Ah am not injured to the point of requiring medical intervention. There is no need to alarm Dr. Jackson or the othahs.” At least he wasn't saying he was fine now.

 

“Don' look that way to me. Look pale an' like ya're hurtin’. Ya gonna tell Nathan or ya want me t' do it?”

 

A perfect queue if he'd ever heard one. Stepping out into the doorway, Nathan said quietly, “Tell me what?”

 

Chapter Text

Buck swallowed the last bite of his roll as the kennel came into view, grinning in amusement as he saw JD plopped on his butt in front of it, not caring at all about the dirt even in his fancy clothes, and with two tired looking pups piled on his lap. Missy was laying behind him, keeping an eye on her pups-and Buck wouldn't be at all surprised if the intelligent dog knew JD was really just a 'pup' himself, and included him in her list-and Bogart wrestling around, excited yips and barks filling the air. The boston terrier was a bit on the small side for his breed Buck thought, even for not being full-grown, but he was still quite a bit bigger than the seven week old pups, who almost seemed to bounce off him in their eagerness to play. Bowser Jr. was off in the shade of a bush, panting, looking less watchful and more tired, probably having been part of the literal dog pile before he showed up. Figuring they weren't in any too big of a hurry, no point in heading back now just to wait for Nate to finish up, Buck ambled over, JD looking up and grinning at him. “Hey! The dogs get along great, see?”

“I do see. Looks like they're all gonna be best pals. Sure you want to be dirtying up them fancy trousers?” JD shrugged, his smile turning a little sheepish.

“I was running around with them at first and had to stop short to keep from tripping over Bowser Jr., fell on my butt. After that I figured they were already dirty.”

“Makes sense to me.” Buck sank down to his haunches as Tinkerbell, the smallest and calmest of the litter, and a loving little thing, saw him and crawled off JD's lap to say hello. “Hey, pretty thing, you tired yourself right out, didn't you?” Her 'answer' was to place a paw on the hand he'd stretched out to her, and then, after giving it a lick as well, look at him expectantly. With a chuckle Buck picked her up, cradling her in the crook of his arm, and gave the expected belly-rub. They'd kept Bowser Jr. out of Pepper and Bowser's last litter and were going to keep one of these little sweethearts. Buck was definitely leaning towards Tink, but JD seemed to favor either Nessie or Scamp, and he was thinking it would be a nice treat to let him pick.

“Buck?” JD's tone was a little cautious, one he hadn't heard from him before, and got Buck's attention quick. Eyes shifting to his brother's face, he gave him his ears. “What do you think happened to Ezra?” Buck blinked. He wouldn't have been surprised if JD had asked if he thought Ezra would be okay, or anything like that, but he wasn't sure where that had come from.

“What makes you think it wasn't what he said, he got mugged coming into town?” Buck felt an uneasy tightening in his gut as JD gave him a 'duh' look, wondering what he'd missed. A random mugger wasn't likely to cause troubles for Ezra in the future, but if it was something else...of course, JD was seventeen and plenty excitable, could be nothing.

“Well, for one thing, a mugger probably would have punched his face, not slapped it, especially since it looks like they did hit him in the ribs. I got mugged once,” hearing that out of the baby's mouth, so matter of fact, chilled him, even as Buck had to admit he had a good point, “and trust me, the guy wasn't threatening to slap me if I didn't give him my wallet. Getting slapped, that's personal, humiliating even.”

Buck chewed on his lip for a minute, brow furrowing as he found himself nodding reluctantly, “You ain't wrong, that's for sure.” Shifting Tink, who was starting to squirm, down to his lap, he sighed, “So you're thinking it was somebody Ezra knew?” He ran a hand over his hair, not liking the tightening feeling in his gut at all as JD nodded at him. “And if it happened at a rest stop when he was most of the way here, that means they followed him.” Buck cursed quietly, the hand that had ran over his hair moving to stroke his mustache.

“Not good, right?” JD said, eyes still trained on Buck even as he stroked Scamp's head, giving him the sensation that the kid thought if he explained it properly Buck would be able to fix it all, and wouldn't it be nice if things were that easy? “And second, that's not the only thing I noticed, he still has his wallet; I saw it in his back pocket earlier. Why would a mugger not have taken it?” JD paused for a second, as though something had just occurred to him, and then said, voice a little reluctant, “I guess Vin could have got it back for him, but still, why'd he beat him up so bad if all he wanted was his wallet?” JD started fidgeting with his hands and looked over at where the dogs were now resting, the puppies who hadn't wandered back to their mother snuggled up with Bogart, except for Scamp, still snuggling in his brother's lap, and Tink, who was climbing all over his.

“Well, some people are just plain nasty and like violence for it's own sake, but that doesn't mean you aren't convincing me.” Shaking his head, Buck helped Tinkerbell complete the clumsy journey she'd started to the ground then pushed himself to his feet, “C'mon kid, I don't know about you, but I think better when I'm moving.” He waited for JD to set Scamp down and stand up, the boy letting the dog lick him all over his face first, Buck grimacing a bit, but not saying anything. He walked towards the horse barn, JD falling into place next to him, and a second later he heard patting feet, telling him that Bowser Jr. had decided to get his lazy bones up and come with them, the dog walking at his side a second later. Neither of them said anything for a minute, though Buck got the feeling that JD had something else to add, just maybe wasn't sure how to say it, the kid kicking at the ground now and again and stirring up the dust. Turning his head so he could see the kid and the path at the same time Buck said, “So, you had a first thing, and a second thing, generally they come in threes, don't they?”

JD nodded, a little reluctantly, his eyes moving over to his brother and Buck raised an eyebrow at him expectantly. “Well...three, that weird thing with the CD-seriously creepy. I figure, whoever beat him up is the one who put the CD in his car.”

Buck pursed his lips for a second, then let out a low whistle. “That kid, is why you have a college degree at 17, you're one smart cookie.” JD gave him a look, obviously thinking he wasn't taking him seriously, but Buck, busy thinking over what he'd said, ignored it. “How bad that handprint is on his face, and how big it is, I ain't sure the CD would be part of that. Figured that had something to do with an ex, or an unwanted admirer-definitely creepy, but, unless she's an amazon, ain't many ladies that could do that kind of damage, and their hands definitely don't tend to be that big.” His little brother's eyes were now trained on his feet, and if Buck didn't know any better he would say the kid looked guilty, which just plain didn't make any sense. “What are you seeing that I ain't?”

“You have to promise you won't hate him.” JD's voice was quiet, earnest, and kind of scared, and Buck, who couldn't understand what he'd done to make JD sound like that, let alone ask for that kind of promise, was shocked and a little hurt. Ezra and JD hadn't spent any time alone so far, it wasn't that Hoss had told him he was in some kind of trouble, and even if he was Buck wouldn't hate him for it. Stopping, he turned to face JD, grabbing his shoulder and turning him to face him, needing to make this point stick in the kid's head.

“Of course I ain't gonna hate him! Can't imagine any of you doing something so bad it would make me hate you, you don't have to worry about that, you hear?” JD shrugged, still not looking at him. “JD.” He put a touch of command in the name, wanting to know what the boy was holding back.

“I think maybe Ezra's ex is a man.” Huh. Hadn't really expected to hear that. Part of him wondered if JD just thought Ezra was gay because of his fancy clothes and talk, but it did put all the pieces together nicely.

Didn't explain why JD thought he would hate their brother.

“Do I look like a homophobe to you?” Buck said it plainly and pointedly, not mad, especially not when JD seemed upset, but wanting to be clear.

The question surprised the kid enough that his head jerked up, and he started spluttering as a blush came over his face, “No! I mean, I don't...I was just worried!”

Buck's face softened and he held up his hands in a placating gesture, “And I'm telling you you don't have to, that's all. The only thing that changes-if you're right-is that if the creepy son of a bitch comes near Ezra again I can beat the crap out of him myself, instead of seeing if I can get Inez to do it for me.” He leaned forward a little and made sure to really capture JD's eyes with his own before his next words, “You understand?” JD nodded and swallowed, and Buck wondered just what all he'd seen in the picture of the rough, blue-collar neighborhood that was forming in his mind the more he heard of the boy's stories. Wondered if he'd seen someone hurt, and then Buck started thinking about some of the closed minds that lived in his own small town, and if any of them touched his brother, hell, said a cruel word to him, when he'd already been hurt...

“Buck?”

Feeling wiped out suddenly, the roller coaster of a day finally starting to catch up to him, Buck still did his best to sound encouraging with his, “Yeah kid?”

“What about the others? I mean, Josiah is supposed to be really religious, right?”

“Josiah also got defrocked, don't think he can talk.” Buck's mouth was open to continue, to tell him that wouldn't be a problem, and if it was Buck would deal with it, but JD talked over him, horrified.

Really? That's terrible, that means he can't even take communion, or anything. You shouldn't go around telling people, Buck.” Buck blinked again, surprised at how defensive the kid sounded, and then he smiled a little sadly. He'd forgotten that Jenna was Catholic, and JD likely was too, probably had a better idea than the rest of them how much that had hurt Josiah.

“You're a really good brother for not having had any practice, you know that? Went from trying to protect Ezra to trying to protect Josiah without a beat. Making me proud, son.” JD colored a little and he gave what Buck thought was supposed to be a casual shrug, but the way his back had straightened at his words, chest puffing just a little with badly hidden pride, more than gave him away.

“What you're supposed to do, right?-c'mon, I'm starving, let's go eat.” JD veered off the path, running back towards the house, and with a chuckle Buck set off after him, it harder to catch up with him than he'd thought, kid was fast for having short legs. He cheered a bit when he beat Buck to the yard, turning around to watch as the older man came to a stumbling stop, panting a little as he put his hands on his knees. Damn, he hadn't realized he was out of shape until right then.

JD grinned at him, announcing, “I won,” a little smugly.

“When the heck did we say it was a race?”

“When you started trying to beat me.” He laughed out loud, shaking his head at his brother, then decided to concentrate on getting his breath back.

“Hey Buck?”

“Yeah kid?”

“Don't say anything to Ezra, yet, alright? At least not in front of everybody.” JD was earnest again, and Buck waved him off.

“'Course not, don't worry.” He'd see what Nathan had figured out before he said anything to anybody, anyway.

“Cool.” JD smiled at him, blurting, “C'mon, let's get inside before half the food's gone,” and reached out a hand to pull Buck up from his bent over position. Buck grabbed it and straightened with a groan, JD halfway up the porch about two seconds later, letting the screen door slam behind him.

Yep. That boy made him awful proud.

*.*.*.*.*.*

Shooting a quick dirty look at Vin, that Nathan assumed he was supposed to have missed, as he turned his head to face the doctor from where he was sitting on the side of the bed Ezra smiled a casual, 'don't worry about me' smile. It bothered Nathan more because he could see he would have fallen for it if he hadn't already known better than any other reason. “Vin is simply being a bit paranoid about the altercation Ah was involved in, but any type of examination Ah guarantee you is unnecessary."

“Hmm.” Ezra might think that would work, but at this point there was no getting out of it. He was hurt, looked worn out compared to this morning and there was just no way that Nathan wasn't checking him out. “Well, better safe than sorry, you don't look so hot and it won't hurt anything for me to get a look at you. Most folks have to pay for a house call.” He walked forward like the matter was already settled, dropping the first aid kit that he'd carried out to the bunkhouse earlier on the end of Ezra's bed and paying attention as the younger man processed that, but acting like he wasn't, just calmly unzipping his bag. Nathan could see he was getting testy now, but Nathan was used to that. He didn't have quite as much patience as he might have before the afternoon's mess, but he thought he had enough for this. Hell, long as he didn't try and bite him it would be better than his last shift at the clinic.

“Ah said Ah do not need a medical examination of any type nor do Ah desire one. As Ah am a grown adult and fully capable of assessing my own needs, Ah'd thank you not to question me.”

“Jesus,” Nathan shook his head as he spoke, “you might not use the same words but you still sound just like Chris when he's hurt.” He looked Ezra right in the eyes with his next words, “Makes me wonder if you've got the same habit of saying you're fine when you're anything but?” For a second the younger man's resolve seemed to waver and Nathan thought he might actually give in. No sooner had the thought crossed his mind then Ezra did the opposite with a will, glaring fiercely at Nathan and pushing himself to his feet, his mouth opening to no doubt tell him to mind his own business. Instead, what came out was a groan of pain, his brother's arm reaching out blindly for support as he started to sink right back down where he had been. Nathan, a few steps closer than Vin, managed to get close enough to ease him down the last little bit, so at least he didn't hit the bed with a thump, and then sat down next to him. He waited a long moment, until Ezra seemed to have ridden out the worst of the pain, the eyes he'd squeezed shut opening reluctantly, and said, “See what being stubborn gets you? Any fool can see you're hurt, ain't no use in trying to lie about it.”

“Ah merely stood up too hastily, and-”

“Ezra,” Vin didn't sound angry, or even frustrated, but there was a cord of resolve in his voice that Nathan noticed had Ezra shutting his mouth and listening, though he didn't look very happy about it, “let Nathan look ya over.”

“Vin-”

“I'll worry if ya don't.” That actually seemed to get somewhere, Ezra sagging a little and considering what their brother had said. Deciding to make things easier on him, or at least point out that he wasn't going to get his way, and was really just dragging things out, Nathan put his oar in again, voice firm.

“The second I leave the room I'm gonna have all of our older brothers, and probably JD too, wanting to know how bad you're hurt. I tell them I don't know, you wouldn't let me look at you, we're just going to wind up back in here, probably with Chris standing in the doorway to make sure it gets done.” Ezra looked slightly horrified at that, before his face smoothed to something mostly blank, though Nathan was pretty sure it meant he was about to give in. Good. The boy might be plenty stubborn, but Nathan could be just as much so-and he knew he didn't have a damn thing on Chris, and doubted Ezra did either.

If nothing Ah say can convince you, Ah suppose there is no harm in allowing a brief examination to take place, though there is little more that can be done for bruised ribs than for bruised cheeks.”

“Why don't you let me be the judge of that. I'm gonna need your shirt off to take a look at you.” Nathan waited as Ezra, after giving him a long measuring look that he returned relatively patiently, began unbuttoning his shirt, his fingers moving nimbly enough that Nathan wasn't worried about his circulation. His mouth tightened a little as the top of an ace bandage, wrapped tight enough it couldn't be good for the boy's breathing, came into sight. Nobody wrapped ribs anymore, anyway, it caused far more complications than it eased. Bruising become visible above the top of the bandage as more buttons opened and Nathan's brow furrowed as he noted the mottled colors, pretty sure just from looking that those weren't all from the night before. In fact, he would guarantee that at least some of them had had a few days to heal. Pulling the shirt down over his shoulders had Ezra hissing, and Nathan moved to help him ease it off, when the boy pulled away from him as best he could, even though Nathan could see it hurt him.

“Ah can do it mah self.” It was snapped, but there was more exhaustion in it than anger, and even if there hadn't been Nathan was suddenly back to being eleven years old again, trying to get his two-year-old brother to let him help him with his shoes.

Of course back than he hadn't had the accent, and he'd been missing a few words, but he might as well have said, “I do self!” A phrase that Nathan thought they'd all heard about ten times a day once Ezra had really started talking, a phrase Nathan had wished more than once he wouldn't have to hear Ezra say again.

Then he hadn't. For a good seventeen years he hadn't. Didn't sound half bad now. Seeing that Ezra had succeeded in getting his shirt off, Nathan swallowed the lump in his throat and said quietly, “I'm gonna need to unwrap that bandage,” pausing for a second as he saw what looked like another hand shaped bruise on his brother's shoulder, underneath a scrape and healed enough that it had to have been at least a week old. Ezra nodded at his implied request, muttering something under his breath that Nathan purposely ignored and holding his arms slightly away from his sides to give him access. Noting that the finger print bruises and nail marks on the inside of his wrist looked like they were somewhere in between the slap mark on his face and the bruise on his shoulder as he began unwrapping the bandage, Nathan was starting to come to a conclusion that he really didn't like. His newest injuries weren't from a random mugging, anymore than the older ones were, or at least it wasn't likely. Someone had been hurting Ezra, not some stranger, but someone he knew. Judging from the lack of bruising on Ezra's knuckles he wasn't just getting into fights, he was being attacked, beaten.

Since Vin had no reason to lie about stopping Ezra's attacker last night, that meant whoever it was had followed his brother to that gas station. Ezra was going to have to tell them what was going on, why the hell he was being targeted like that, whether he liked it or not.

Not right now, though. When he was fixed up, then they could start figuring that out. Nathan took a deep breath, not surprised as he uncovered what looked to be bruises from Ezra's sides being kicked as he got the bandage most of the way unwrapped. There was deeper bruising on his right side, it looking like he'd taken a punch there, probably the night before. Shifting back a bit on the bed he saw that there were was more vivid bruising on the back of the shoulder with the scrape, and a smaller amount on the opposite one. It looked, Nathan thought grimly, like he'd been thrown or slammed against something solid. Eyes trailing down from Ezra's shoulders, he stopped, taken aback, then swallowed. Christ. His eyes cast about the room for a second and latched onto Vin's. The lack of surprise there, the fact that he obviously knew what caused those sorts of scars without having to think just made it worse.

Well, there wasn't anything he could about something that looked like it had to have happened a decade ago, and with another swallow, he forced himself to move forward. Luckily, the only bruising close to his kidneys was what wrapped around from where he'd been kicked, and it wasn't close enough that he thought there would be problems. Still had to ask, though. “You had any problems passing urine?” He said it bluntly, hoping that would minimize any embarrassment, but the scandalized look Ezra shot him let him know that hadn't worked.

No, Mr. Jackson, Ah have not.”

“It's Jackson-Larabee if you're saying mister, Mama kept her last name so they hyphenated mine. Decided when I started practicing it would be easier for my patients if I only used one, and since Mama was in medicine I went with Jackson.” Nathan looked more carefully at the scrape on Ezra's shoulder. It wasn't deep, but it was a little red and puffy and he turned back to the first aid kit to grab a small tube of antibiotic ointment and a band-aid.

“Seems like that woulda made kindergarten hard work.” Vin said dryly, and Nathan chuckled a little as he smeared ointment over the scrape.

Well, I still remember not being able to fit my whole name on the paper for our first art project even after three tries, if that's what you mean. It was traumatizing.” Nathan grinned a little as he over-enunciated the last word, getting the laugh he expected out of Vin, but a frown from Ezra.

“Surely you could have been provided with a largah papah.”

Nathan shrugged, surprised, saying, “I got over it a long time ago, don't worry. Did you hit your head when you got slammed into whatever you got slammed into?” He noticed Ezra shooting a look at Vin, as though trying to see if the other man would rat on him if he said no, and deciding to forgo that complication altogether, slowly started to run his hand over Ezra's head, noting, but not reacting to the flinch. “Yep, you've got a bump on the back of your head, nice little goose egg. Did you get dizzy at all?” Ezra hesitated again and Nathan snorted, deciding his lack of answer was the same thing as a yes. “How long did it last?” Still nothing, and, a little more insistently, Nathan said, “It's important, now.”

“A few houahs on and off, but nevah fah more than a minute at a time. Ah was bettah when ah awoke.” Ezra's accent was getting noticeably thicker than it had been at the meeting and judging by the drawn look on his face, Nathan had a feeling he was going to start fading fast, and he wanted him to have some food in him first. He'd do his best to be quick.

“Shit, Ezra, I shouldn'ta let ya drive like that.” Vin sounded very guilty and Ezra rolled his eyes at him, Nathan hiding a smirk.

“Considering you were a veritable strangah at the time, Ah do not know what you perceive you could have done about it. Ah would have been unlikely to accept a ride from you, even befah Ah saw that monstrosity you call a vehicle.”

“Hey,” Vin protested, the word almost a laugh, “Don't go makin' fun of my baby now.”

Nathan, rolling his eyes himself, said “Sounds like you had a mild concussion, but you seem fine now. Eyes are fine, pupils are even and dilating like they should. You'll let me know if you have any more dizzy spells.” It wasn't a question and to his surprise Ezra merely nodded without any argument. Taking another deep breath, he smiled a little at Ezra, voice apologetic, “I need to check and see if any of your ribs are broken. I'll do my best to be gentle, but there is no way it isn't going to hurt.”

“Contrary to what is clearly the general opinion Ah am no milksop, and can withstand a little pain.” Nathan blinked, confused as Ezra clearly took his words as an insult, and then wondered, a little annoyed, if he was still trying to avoid Nathan giving him a proper check-up. If that's what he was doing, it wasn't going to work.

“Hell, Ezra, I don' have t' know what a milksop is t' know no one thinks that. Ya already withstood plenty, jus' getting here.”

“Vin's right.” Nathan said seriously, “I wasn't trying to call you a coward.” A long, appraising look and then a nod, Ezra speaking quietly and a bit stiffly as Nathan prepared to start looking over his ribs.

“Ah beg pardon for mah outburst, Ah am afraid Ah'm not quite myself today.”

“Don't think any of us are.” Nathan said quietly, and slowly began to lightly press around Ezra's rib cage. This was less to see if any of them were cracked, as the pain and stiffness with which Ezra moved made that obvious, and more to make sure none were badly broken, that no internal damage had been done that would require more than Nathan had here on the ranch. He listened for changes in Ezra's breathing as he moved his hands, and not surprisingly, when he touched where the bruising was the deepest, on his right side, the younger man gasped, even paling some. Nathan had saved that for last, knowing it would be the most painful, and pulled his hands away as soon as he was done. “You've got two cracked ribs right there, but nothing broken bad as far as I can tell. Here,” Nathan twisted around so he could reach into his medical bag and pulled out a small bottle, flipping the top off as he turned back to Ezra and shaking two pills out into his hand, “you aren't allergic to codeine are you?”

“To mah knowledge, Ah have no medical allergies at all.” Ezra was trying to sound casual, but the strain in his voice was obvious and Nathan noticed he was eyeing the pills with a hint of distaste he couldn't quite hide. Hopefully he wouldn't give him trouble about taking them. He hadn't wanted his reactions dulled while he checked him over, but a big risk of broken ribs was developing pneumonia or other lung problems from not being able to breath properly due to pain.

“Good. This is just extra strength Tylenol with codeine, it'll help with the pain.” Nathan tried to hand them to Ezra but he didn't move his hand to take them, and Nathan frowned a little. “I can see you're hurting, and you're breathing shallowly because of it, which ain't good for you at all. You need to take the pills.”

Ezra's face was still polite, but his eyes shown with pure stubbornness. “Ah have already taken ibuprofen several times today, and that is quite strong enough for me.”

“That why you had your ribs wrapped so tight? Because the ibuprofen was strong enough? Doctors don't even wrap ribs anymore, you know, if they'd been broken instead of just cracked you could've punctured an organ doing that.” Nathan heard the scolding slide into his tone at the end, and knew he should probably dial it back a bit, but, dammit, this was serious.

“Ah knew the injury was not that severe, and the wrap has only been on for the duration of the morning. Ah appreciate your concern, but am quite capable of determining the amount of pain relief Ah acquire.” The stubbornness was starting to look like plain obstinance, and Nathan fought a sigh. If the kid would just let him get some pain killers in him he'd let him alone, long as he rested, but he was going to get him to take them.

“Ordinarily I'd say you were right, you'd know best how much pain you can handle. But this isn't just about pain, this is about how breathing shallowly can make you sick. Have you ever had pneumonia?”

The hand that started to move towards his breastbone in memory let him know before the answer left Ezra's lips, slightly grudgingly, “Ah am not entirely unfamiliar with the affliction.”

“Well, imagine pneumonia and all that coughing along with the nasty set of bruises and cracked ribs you already got going. That's what not taking pain killers, wrapping your ribs like that, will get you.” He kept the pills held out towards Ezra expectantly, who finally took them from his hand with a disgruntled sigh, popping them in his mouth and swallowing them dry.

“Happy?”

“Yeah. Thank you.” Nathan smiled, satisfied. Ezra nodded at him, though Nathan thought he was a bit surprised that that really was all he'd wanted. Reaching over into his bag, he pulled out a small tub and said, “This is bruise cream, my own recipe, so it's all natural, if that's part of what bothered you with the pills. You don't have to use it, but it'll help if you do.” Ezra tried to wave it away, and Nathan set it down on the bed, “Keep it for a couple days, you still don't want it you can give it back.”

“Thank you.”

“That's what I'm here for.” He considered patting Ezra's knee, but decided against it from the stiffness he was pretty sure didn't come entirely from being sore, and slowly pushed himself to his feet, turning to gather his bag. Nathan almost left the room then, almost didn't say anything, but in the end, he needed to know. At least needed to ask. “Looks like the jerk who beat you up at the gas station had gotten you a couple of times before. Followed you a long way. Is he gonna be a problem?” He stood at an angle to Ezra as he asked, not wanting to box him in, and doing his best to sound as calm and matter of fact as he could, even though he was worried. Nathan saw Vin moving over so he was standing by the night table and Ezra start to look over at him, but he stopped himself before it was much more than a twitch. “Are you in some kind of trouble?”

Ezra seemed at a loss for a moment, then gathered himself with a will that told Nathan he wasn't going to learn anything Ezra didn't want him to know, at least not without it being like pulling teeth. “There is no need to concern yourself, it's nothing that will effect anyone here. Merely some unpleasantness from the past.”

Nathan frowned, not liking that answer, not at all, and letting it show. “If you could get hurt again, that concerns me, and last night ain't too far in the past. I can't make you tell me, but I really think you should.” The fact that Ezra hadn't said he wasn't in trouble spoke volumes to him.

The boy looked like he rather wished everyone else in the room would just disappear, or at least give up and leave him alone, when Vin spoke up, voice quiet, but carrying, “Don't think ya have t' worry about Nathan bein' hateful to ya, or nothin' like that.” Nathan wasn't sure whether or not to be offended when a steely look was tossed his way, Vin clearly letting him know he'd have something to say if he were hateful about whatever this was, but was leaning that way. He hadn't done anything to be looked at like that. Though...he supposed Vin had some reason to feel overprotective, the thought settling him a bit.

“Of course I'm not going to be hateful.” He kept his gaze steady as he looked at the teenager, but deliberately softened the tone of his voice. If Ezra had gotten himself mixed up in something stupid, something he shouldn't have, Nathan wouldn't be happy, but well, he was just a kid, really. As long as he didn't keep getting mixed up, let them help him out and then stayed away from...well, whatever sort of trouble a fancy dressed kid who talked like he'd gone to prep school could get into, Nathan would just be happy he was okay.

If he didn't keep his nose clean...well, they'd burn that bridge when they got to it.

“I mean it. Whatever's going on, it'll be okay.” Something shifted in Ezra's face, he looked almost amused, but in a way that said nothing was actually funny. Still, Nathan kept looking at him, waiting him out, and finally, probably more to do with Ezra wanting this over with than actually wanting to tell him, but right now he'd take what he could get, he spoke.

“The injuries are the result of an altercation with a former paramour, who was not willing to simply take mah word that our relationship had come to a screeching halt.” Ezra sounded tired, sounded older than his nineteen years, but most of all he sounded wary, and as angry as Nathan was when the reality of those words really hit him he did his best to sound calm, to keep his hands from clenching into the fists that a primal part of his brain was telling him to form.

“Your boyfriend was beating on you? He's the one who jumped you, because you left him?” Ezra was opening his mouth to say something when his eyes became transfixed on something over Nathan's shoulder, suddenly three shades paler, the bruises standing out even more against his pallid skin. Nathan turned quickly, not sure what he'd expected to find, but a Chris who was rapidly approaching boiling point, a dish towel being strangled to death as he twisted it in his hands, wasn't it.

“What's his name?” It came out a hiss, tight and deadly, and Nathan took a step forward, knowing this was the last thing Ezra needed, but Chris just stepped to the side, keeping his eyes on Ezra. “Where's he live? 'Cause I'm gonna kill him!”

To Nathan's surprise Ezra spoke up, clearly doing his best to sound collected, but there was a note of fear there that meant if Chris didn't knock this crap off Nathan was going to be doing something about it, such as shoving him right out of the room. “Ah do not believe that divulging that information to you at this time could lead to anything but disastrous consequences for a variety of people.”

“Yep. Very disastrous. For him.” Chris was snarling it as he took another step, the dish towel twisted into so tight a knot the fabric started to give, and Nathan felt Ezra shying behind him, Chris more than intimidating looking now, and that was enough. Vin must have had the same thought, because he moved before Nathan could, inserting himself between Chris and them, though he was being calmer about it than Nathan thought he might have been, and apparently wasn't intimidated by Chris at all. Didn't mean Chris was going to listen to him, not one little bit, as he told Vin in no uncertain terms that he was not going anywhere.

Oh hell, had Nathan just heard him call Chris 'cowboy'? Nathan decided it was his turn to run interference, before things exploded, and spoke up using his best doctor voice.

 

“Chris, this ain't helping. Ezra thinks you're mad at him.” Nathan kept his voice firm and no nonsense, raising an eyebrow when Chris swung his glare around to land on him, not letting his own nerves show. “Go on outside with Vin. He knows what the bastard looks like. Ezra doesn't need this right now.” Chris hesitated, looking both angry and guilty as hell as his gaze swung to Ezra, but still not moving, and Nathan scowled. “I said go outside.”

“No. I need to know what the hell is going on, just as much as you. What if this creep comes back?”

“You will, just not now, not until you've calmed your ass down.” Pointing towards the door, he growled, “Go,” close to the end of his rope, now.

Chris glared at Nathan, but nodded, though he didn't move towards the door until he'd said, “Ain't you I'm mad at, Ezra.” Since his voice still came out a growl Nathan wasn't sure how reassuring it was, but better than nothing.

Nathan pretended he didn't hear Vin's slightly over earnest, “If’n it makes ya feel any better I left ‘im knocked out behind a dumpster,” as he followed Chris out. Technically the doctor was supposed to disapprove of things like that-he was the “responsible” one. Right now, he utterly identified with the pleased sounding grunt Chris had let out when he heard Vin, hoped he'd hit him hard enough it took him a good long while to wake up. Still, he had more important things to handle, and he turned his attention back to Ezra, who had collected himself but was still a bit pale, and valiantly trying to pretend he hadn't been bothered by that at all.

“Chris isn't one you want to rile, but he has a protective streak like a bear. It wasn't you he was mad at, you know that, right?” Nathan moved a hand to Ezra's uninjured shoulder. Ezra nodded, but was clearly uncomfortable, looking at the bridge of Nathan's nose instead of making eye contact.

“Ah find mahself growing weary. Would it be alright if Ah were to retire?” Nathan sighed. He was gonna tear Chris a new one.

“Should probably eat something first. I don't know about you, but I was too nervous to eat much this morning.” A bit of an exaggeration, but there had been food left on his plate when he was done, which, except for when he was sick, probably hadn't happened more than a dozen times since he hit twelve.

“Ah have the feeling that if Ah were to declare that should is not the same as must, your interpretation of the necessity would suddenly shift to the latter,” Ezra grumbled as he said it and Nathan nodded.

“Smart man.”

When he went to help him up off the bed, the teenager declared, voice peevish, “Ah can do it mahself,” again, and this time Nathan couldn’t hold back his chuckle.

“Sorry,” he said to the annoyed look Ezra directed his way at the sound, “But once you started talking I heard that all the time-your first sentence.” Ezra looked at him, utterly confused, then closed his eyes, sinking back down onto the bad he'd just gotten off of, a muffled grunt he seemed almost not to notice himself leaving him from the movement.

“Ah lived here that long? Until Ah was old enough to be talking?” Nathan had just assumed he knew that, but now he wasn’t sure why. He wasn’t sure what else to do, so he just nodded, then realized Ezra couldn’t see him.

“Until a few months after your second birthday. You talked early, sentences by the time you were 18 months.”

Ezra just sat there, so still it was like he was frozen. Nathan wanted to reach out to him, but wasn’t sure if he should-with his eyes closed his brother’s face became much more difficult to read. “What happened?” He hesitated-knowing Ezra had a right to know, but he didn’t know where to start. He’d only been eleven and most of what he knew had been pieced together over the years. That his brother had been taken, kidnapped by his own mother was something that he wasn't sure how to explain. Nathan kind of figured Ezra didn’t need to know everything either-like that Maude had cleaned out the house when she'd left, of money, deeds and other papers, and anything else of value she could get her hands on-hell, she’d taken his mother’s wedding ring, though the police had found that in a pawn shop a county over-but left her son behind. Left him alone in an empty house, where anything might have happened to him, when he wasn't even a year old, and then just come and taken him when she decided she wanted him. Slowly, Ezra seemed almost to pry his eyes open, and pinned him with them, ell,and a“Judge Travis told me our father had custody, yet Ah obviously did not spend mah childhood with him.”

It might be hard for him to hear, but Nathan couldn't leave him wondering either, the unspoken 'why?' heavy in the air. “She came and took you. Your mother. Climbed in your window, and...you were just gone.” Ezra stared at him for a moment, eyes switching between emotions rapidly as his face stayed still.

“She kidnapped me?” He laughed then, a tight, jagged sound to it, full of disbelief, yet Nathan found himself sure he didn't actually doubt it at all, his head sinking into his hands at the end of it. “She actually went through a window and absconded with me? Was it in the dead of the night as well?”

Nathan frowned, not liking that Ezra almost seemed to be joking, sarcasm more than tinging his last sentence. At the same time, he sort of got where the kid was coming from. Being kidnapped by your own parent sounded like something out of a made for TV movie, no matter that it was probably the most common form. “Yeah. We thought a stranger took you at first.”

“Good Lord...” With a shake of his head, another small, disbelieving laugh left his brother. If Nathan had thought he didn't know what to say before, he really didn't know now. “Could Ah perhaps have some time to mahself? Ah will come out and join in the repast shortly.”

“Of course.” He went to pat at the stiff shoulder again, but stopped himself at the slight shift back, Ezra making it clear that he didn't want to be touched right now. “I'll head into the kitchen. You come join us when you're ready.” Ezra only nodded, not lifting his head, and the doctor turned to leave the room, not knowing what else he could do.

Nathan would give him twenty minutes, and then check on him.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Chris stormed towards the front room, his heart pounding in his ears. Vin padded softly behind him, silent since they'd left the room.

Ezra's torso had looked like a painters pallet if the only colors on it were shades of black, blue and purple...he'd looked small, sitting on the bed, young, even less than his 19 years. It was one thing for him to have been mugged, it was another for it to have been someone who he should have been able to trust beating him. He quickly flipped the lock and yanked open the front door as he reached it, hinges almost squealing on the seldom used door. Chris stepped onto the porch, the dry air hitting him, his hand going to his jeans pocket and grabbing for his lighter and pack of cheroots, lighting one as quick as he could get it in his mouth. It didn't help much, he was too het up for that, but it was enough for him to notice Vin off to the side of him, looking at him appraisingly. Not quite warily, but almost. Chris took another few drags, letting the nicotine calm him down a little more before he quite trusted himself to speak. “Didn't mean to scare him.”

“Didn't expect ya did.” Vin shifted a little, leaning back against the post on his side, but didn't say anything more. Chris stared out over the yard at the fields, part of his brain absently calculating how long it would be before they needed to start harvesting, while the rest continued to steam. Out of all the things he'd thought he might have to deal with with his brothers this was not one of them. Hell, he hadn't ever expected any of his brothers to be gay, though he didn't much care about that. Didn't understand it, but then he didn't much understand Buck's constant string of ever changing girlfriends either, and didn't suppose he had to. That whoever Ezra was with was good to him, that he found he cared about a lot. A whole hell of a lot. Vin was still looking at him, like he was waiting, and eventually Chris had his thoughts in order enough to give him something.

“Worried a lot. After Ezra's mother took him. Whether he was hungry, was being hurt. Police couldn't find nothing, P.I's found a few traces, enough we knew he was alive. Didn't realize how bad it would feel to see that he'd been being hurt.” A glance at Vin as he snubbed out the end of his smoke on the post closest to him, and he realized that Vin didn't know any of that history, didn't know that Ezra had been kidnapped or any of what went with it.

There was a question in his eyes too, so plain he might as well have said it out loud-'Why didn't he look for me?' Chris didn't know how to answer it.

“Weren't his Ma hurtin' him now.”

“No. But she nearly killed him once.” Vin looked horrified, and Chris figured he had to clarify. “Didn't beat him. We were off camping on the far side of the ranch, miles away and his ma just left him. Was another full day before we got back.”

Jesus...” Vin would have accepted that as enough, Chris could see that, but he could also see the question was still in his eyes. He understood the search for Ezra, but he still didn't understand why their father hadn't even tried to check on him.

“Your mother-she was good to you, right?” Vin stiffened a little, nodding fiercely.

“My ma loved me more'n anything.” Chris smiled a little because he could see the truth in it, the way Vin still held that knowledge close to him, before he grew serious again.

“Even...even without her abandoning and then taking him, there was something wrong about that woman. I knew, even as a kid. She had Daddy wrapped around her finger, but I think he knew deep down, and if he hadn't, after...when she left Ezra she cleaned us out, money more important to her than him. Turns out she had a history as a con woman, wasn't the first time she'd tried to take somebody for their last dollar. You don't leave a kid with a woman like that." Vin seemed to consider this, straightening up from the post, as he looked first at Chris then out over the yard and fields beyond, thoughtful, but disappointed too.

"An' I had a good mama who loved me. 'Til she died."

"I know it doesn't make it right."

"No. It don't." Vin took a step forward, starting to turn like he was going to walk off, but he stopped. “I know it ain't nothin' t' do with ya.” Chris nodded, and tilted his head towards the yard, asking Vin if he wanted him to come with him, a hint of a smile telling him yes.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Josiah saw Ezra take a step back, the activity of people washing up, and awkwardly deciding who would sit by who a little too much by the expression on his face and called out to him before he could retreat all the way with a cheerful, “Sink's free now, no need to head down the hall to wash up.” Josiah wasn't stupid, and ordinarily he'd let the boy have his alone time, but it had been a long day for all of them and everyone needed to eat. It had taken long enough to get everybody in here as it was. Besides, if Ezra did escape back to his room, Nathan would probably go and get him, wanting to make sure his patient kept his strength up. He waited to head to the table until after Ezra had started slowly making his way from the sink to the nearest seat, and cringed when he saw the only one left besides it was his father's place at the head of the table. They'd managed to avoid having anyone sit in it until now, but with all seven of them someone would have to. Josiah swallowed and headed that way, settling down and breathing through the memories of seeing his father in that chair.

All the meals where his father was at the head of the table, the days he'd spent sitting beside him when it was raining, learning all sorts of knots or how to tie fish lures, or a million other things. He'd been young enough the first few years, that missing his Mama or waking from a nightmare, he'd run from his bed down to the kitchen where his Daddy would be, working over the books for the ranch and sipping on whiskey, plenty of times. One thing you could say for Lincoln Larabee, he had never been one to tell his boys they couldn't cry. Never made Josiah feel ashamed or weak, like Abuelo had. He'd just scoop Josiah into his arms and rock him, kiss his head, and when the word baby had passed that man's lips it had been an endearment. Josiah hadn't known men could be gentle before his father, hadn't known it wasn't shameful to be gentle. A hand nudged his and Josiah looked up to see Nathan looking at him, understanding in his eyes. “You want to switch?” If he didn't see the touch of trepidation in Nathan's eyes he would be tempted. Instead he shook his head, flipping his hand over to squeeze the top of Nathan's for a moment.

“I'm alright.”

“So, why are you two ladies over there holding hands?” Buck grinned, “Having a Kodak moment?” Chris whapped Buck on the back of the head without looking up from his plate, only making him laugh. Josiah looked serenely back, but he was actually a little annoyed at how quickly Nathan had pulled his hand away at Buck's comment.

“Just because you are not secure in your masculinity, Buck-”

“Hey, I'm plenty secure!” Buck was laughing, and Josiah found himself grinning back. “Heck, I'll hold JD's hand right now.”

JD quickly yanked his hand away, laughing too, he and Buck horsing around until Buck knocked into Chris's chair and with a sharp, “Quit it,” they stopped, both still laughing. Josiah looked around the table, suddenly pleased to be sitting at the head of it. Things weren't perfect, the fact that Vin was just watching the rest with a slightly wistful expression on his face, and that the inscrutable look Ezra had been wearing for most of the day was cemented firmly back in place, definitely proved that. He thought though, that his father would be pleased. 'It's progress.' Then he got a glimpse of Ezra's eyes as he looked away from where JD is still stifling his giggles.

He did not think he had ever seen such intense longing in someone's eyes, especially when the rest of the face was so blank. So carefully blank. To look like that over just a bit of horseplay, what did that say? What all had the boy been deprived of? 'A lot,' Josiah found himself concluding grimly, 'A whole hell of a lot.'

'We'll work on it, Daddy.' His eyes wandered to where Vin was stabbing his fork into his pasta salad with a little too much force to just be hunger, and JD was all but soaking in Buck's presence. 'With all of them. The lost lambs have returned to the fold. They will not be abandoned again.'

And if his promise ended on a slightly bitter note...Daddy would have to understand.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Chris looked out the den window, coffee mug in his hand, at the almost impossible to see man tucked up into one of the tall scraggly pine trees that grew in a cluster off to the side of the front porch. Daddy had been going to cut them down years ago, but Mama had liked them and so he kept putting it off. Once Mama Clara had died…while, there had been no way anyone was going near them. Chris had spent many a lonely afternoon under those trees, missing his stepmother, and could understand Vin being drawn to them too. Still, while Daddy’s warnings had only kept him from climbing them when the man was around, his own common sense had kept him from climbing as high as his brother had. Damn trees started to bend under a high wind up at the top where he was. Yet, he’d seen Vin climb up with a seeming effortless grace and sure footedness that Chris found he couldn’t argue with. Didn't mean he hadn't been tempted.

Sore from the work he'd thrown himself into after lunch, he walked away from the window and did his best to relax, settling into an overstuffed armchair to read a few chapters in his book. Didn't even realize he'd fallen asleep until he woke up as his thankfully empty coffee mug tumbled to the carpet. Empty and sturdy, he thought as he saw it wasn't broken, bending to scoop it up. He was turning into-Chris cut that thought off before it could form all the way, standing with a curse.

Coffee. Clearly he needed more coffee. Stretching and letting out a groan as he stood Chris made his way down the hallway to reheat another mug. Going back into the den to read some more, a little surprised that he still had it to himself, Chris meandered over to the window again and frowned when he saw Vin was still up in the tree. It was starting to grow dark, and it could surprise you at the beginning of fall, one second plenty of light to see by and the next you couldn’t see your own fingers in front of your face. Chris figured he’d better see about getting the man to come down from his perch, and setting his mug down on the windowsill, started the trek to the front door.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Vin noticed the eyes on him right away, knew who they belonged to, but didn't move. He was not used to so many people anymore, and was starting to feel suffocated. Vin knew that compared to where he grew up, those years getting tossed around foster care, there was far more space here and certainly less people. Didn’t change the fact that after first moving to the tiny town of Tascosa the year after Ko’Je had adopted him, then when things had gone wrong there, the wilds of Alaska, the sprawling 5,000 people ranch town seemed huge. After about five minutes of those eyes on him steady Vin would have figured he’d be crawling out of his skin, but for some reason he felt himself settling. Relaxing. “Getting dark.” Chris called it up to him, but didn’t say anything else, just waiting, and after another minute Vin started back down, stiffer and slower than he had been, after sitting in the crook of a branch for hours. ‘Nothing to do with your brace still being packed’ said a voice in his head that sounds a little too much like Ko’Je’s.

As he lowered himself from the last branch to the ground, slowly, he could see from Chris’s face that he noticed, was watching his movements, and Vin was going to have to say something. “Scoliosis is a bitch.” Vin kept his voice quiet, trying not to let the pain show-it wasn’t bad, not really-but Chris narrowed his eyes at him, hearing it anyway.

“Aren’t you supposed to wear a brace for that?”

“Yep. Few hours every other day, but I’ve been busy.” How the man could tell he hadn't been wearing it Vin was damned if he knew.

Chris just looked at him, and after a moment Vin nodded. Yeah. He’d get the damned thing on tomorrow.

 

*.*.*.*.*.*

 

Nathan took a deep breath, and rattled off Ezra's injuries, going into details in a way he hadn't felt able to last night, when JD had been listening as intently as the rest, “Two cracked ribs on his right side, and just about all the rest of them are bruised, most from being kicked and about three days old, but the cracked ones are new, from a punch in the front, and from being slammed into a wall in the back. It's not bad enough that we have to worry about any kind of internal injuries, but it's going to be damn painful for a couple weeks or more. More bruising and a scrape on the back of his shoulders, and a knot on his head from the wall as well, and a handprint on the top of his left shoulder that's about a week old. Finger bruises on his left wrist, some with nail marks, that are inbetween the other bruises in age.” He stopped as he came to the end of the list, not sure what to say now.

"Do we know the name? Or where he lives?" Josiah was stiff, hands clenched into fists at his sides, and his voice so low and rumbly you could almost hear rocks grinding in his throat. Buck gave him a grin with no humor in it.

"Sounds like you're a man after my own heart, Josiah."

"Some justice should not be left to the Lord, brother."

Chris was silent for now, eyes laser sharp as he stared hard at nothing, but the truth is they all knew that no real plans would be made until he had his input.

"As much as I'd like to make his rib cage match Ezra's, I think the best thing to do right now is make sure Ezra feels safe. Boy's jumpy as hell, I got him to talk to me a little, but then," Nathan leveled a glare at Chris, "he got spooked."

Chris moved his laser eyes over to Nathan, who was immune to it after twenty-seven years, and just kept glaring steadily back, "How the hell was I supposed to react to hearing something like that?"

"By not flying into a temper right in front of a traumatized nineteen-year-old kid?" Nathan's words were straight forward and just a bit forceful, and Chris scowled back at him. Finally, to everyone's surprise, he nodded.

"Fine. What are we gonna do about it now?"

"Try and keep him comfortable, and entertained, give him space if he seems to needs it, talk to him. Let him talk if he needs it, of course. Problem is, we don't really know him, so it's hard to tell what he needs. Even if he weren't in a brand new place, with strangers, it would take him a while to feel safe. Seems like he feels pretty relaxed around Vin."

"Well hell, if someone saved my ass and I found out later they were my brother I'd be pretty happy.” said Buck. “Make him feel a little safer right there, I’d say.”

“The hand of Providence.” Josiah declared solemnly.

Buck grinned, a bit sadly, “Bet ya Daddy had something to do with it.”

“There a reason we ain’t talking about filing a police report?” Chris ignored the other two talking nonsense to focus on Nathan.

“Other than the part where Vin beat the shit out of the guy and in his own words, ‘left him knocked out behind a dumpster’?” Nathan shook his head despairingly at this even as Buck nodded approvingly.

“It would count as self-defense, surely?” Josiah asked, brow furrowing in concern.

“Not necessarily,” Chris said, shaking his head and biting back a string of cuss words, having realized what Nathan meant, “If he hurt him worse than the piece of shit hurt Ezra, they could both go to jail instead of just the piece of shit. For a long time, too.”

“Well, that ain’t gonna happen,” Buck said, scowl growing deep on his face, “no way in hell.”

“So, for now, no police. We handle this ourselves. I'll talk to Uncle Orin, see what he has to say. A restraining order wouldn't be a bad idea. Tonight, we need to see if Ezra has a picture we can see, so we can all keep an eye out for this guy. Ezra doesn’t go anywhere by himself ‘til he’s healed up and at least has a shot at defending himself. I’d like to say Vin probably scared this creep off, but after he followed Ezra almost all the way to Four Corners I don’t think we can count on that at all.” Chris’s voice was resolute, no question in his mind that what he stated would be what happened.

“Kid ain’t gonna like that,” Buck mused, but it was an observation not an argument and Chris just nodded.

“Don’t expect he will. With what Nate said, he don’t need to be doing much but resting anyway, so it doesn’t matter.” He turned to Nathan then, “Would Ezra be up for sitting in the back of the pick-up, sorting nails?”

“I suppose so, long as you watch to see if he’s getting worn out. Not anything more than that though. Why?” Nathan’s face was a bit suspicious. He hadn’t quite forgiven Chris for the fright he’d given Ezra, even if his brother had given about as close to an apology as he got.

“You've got work, Vin and JD are going for a ride, and didn’t you say you were going into town with Buck later, Josiah?”

Josiah nodded his head, looking solemn, “When we were in the Saloon I didn’t get the proper chance to pay my respects to Aunt Rosie.” Buck clamped a hand on his brother’s shoulder, knowing that whatever he felt about Josiah not having been around when his mother died didn’t meant it wasn’t hard on Josiah too.

“I’ve got fence to fix in the south pasture. It's the closest to the house, but I still don't want to leave him alone.” Chris didn't say it, but, to the ex-cop, the fact that this guy had followed Ezra set off all kinds of alarm bells. The ranch was isolated and if he were in the house alone...

Nathan considered this, “I went him to be rested, so if you can wait until he gets up on his own, that sounds like a good plan to me. He's gonna need help getting in and out of the truck too, and he ain't likely to admit it. And the south pasture might only be a little more than a five minute drive, but that'll be plenty with those ribs, no further.”

Chris nodded, “Don't worry. I got plenty to keep me busy until he does get up. See if I can get get Vin and JD to help me feed the yearlings we cut out from the herd after their ride, have Vin drive the truck and JD help with throwing out the hay-” He held up a hand to cut off Buck's protest, “I ain't gonna have him cutting the bales, don't worry, not the first time. Now, Nate has to eat and get to work and the rest of us have chores to get started on.” He made for the barn doors, and perhaps because he assumed they would, Buck and Josiah started after him without questioning the order. None of them saw that Nathan was hanging back, wrestling with some decision.

“Guys?” They turned back, Nathan's voice quiet enough to be concerning. Josiah sucked in a breath at the look on his face, and Buck took a step forward.

"Nate? Buddy?"

"He's got scars on his back, from a belt probably. Old, at least nine or ten years. Not a lot, three or four lines, but enough they're obvious." He took a deep breath, running a hand over his head, “and when Vin saw-he was pissed, but not shocked, not confused. He knew exactly what they were, from the look on his face. Which probably means he's seen scars like that before. I'm thinking in the mirror.” Then Nathan was rushing around them, gone before anyone else could say anything. Chris cussed and tore after him, but Nathan had gone straight to his truck, backing out by the time he got there.

 

*.*.*.*.*

 

JD bounced in front of a bemused, half-asleep Vin Tanner, “Hey Vin! I’m glad you’re up, did you sleep good? Are you excited to go riding? I can’t wait, it’s been so long. Three years, since Mam got too sick to work for the Utley’s, it was too far for me to go by myself. I was their stable boy during the summer, did I tell you that? Favorite job I ever had, even with all the mucking out. When did you learn to ride Vin? Do you think Chris would be mad if we just went and looked at the horses?” Vin blinked, tempted to just steer around the walking, talking, whirlwind in aim of the coffee pot he could see on the counter behind him, but the kid looked so damned excited and hopeful he knew he couldn’t risk hurting his feelings.

“Um, don’ really remember a time I couldn’t ride. My Momma and Uncle Vin traded ‘em for a livin’. It’s been a few years, though. Too expensive fer us t’ keep horses in Alaska.” Vin couldn’t imagine Chris would care if they looked at the horses, but he also wanted coffee and started to edge around JD, figuring that now he’d answered him it was okay.

“Yeah, it would be really cold for them, wouldn’t it? I never thought about people keeping horses in Alaska. Do you have to have heated barns? How the heck do you exercise a horse when it’s below zero?”

“JD?”

“Yeah?

“How much a that coffee did ya drink?” Vin tried not to sound too long suffering, but wasn’t sure he succeeded.

“Oh, I don’t drink coffee, never liked it. This is just milk, see?” He held out his mug, the one Vin had been staring at enviously during his dialogue, and true enough, it was full of milk. Vin looked from the cup to JD, and blinked. Vin had always been an early riser, but it took him a cup or two to get started. JD was like this naturally. With no coffee, no sugar even. Bouncing on his feet at six-thirty in the morning.

He couldn’t help it, he groaned.