Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep 'em damnit!
Thanks to Phyllis for Brothers Larabee / AU2
Universe: Brothers Larabee
Main Characters: Seven
Ratings/Warnings: None...aww, alright, some nudity!
Summary: Late growing pains can sometimes be eased by a loving family.
My thanks to Blackraptor for giving my stories a home.
This story follows an incident in 'Going Commando'
One hot afternoon saw JD wiping the sweat from his brow as he crossed the yard from the house to the bunkhouse. Being an East Coast native, the Nevadan climate was a revelation to the young man. Autumns were crisp, Winters were frosty, which he was used to; and snowy, which he loved.
Occasionally stormy weather closed in; Spring was a little rainfall, clear, blue skies and gentle breezes, and then there was Summer. Endlessly hot, sometimes humid weather would occasionally drain the energy right out of him, yet barely seemed to bother the others. JD figured it was down to their origins and consequent familiarity with the extremes. Either way, whatever the weather, between keeping company with six big brothers, and part-owning a busy, working ranch, he was never at a loss for company or chores.
Today, though particularly hot, tasks were complete, and his favorite part of the month was here payday for the ranch hands. Clutching the check-laden envelopes, he entered the bunkhouse, but stopped dead in his tracks on seeing almost all the men wet, and either wrapped in towels, or naked after their end of day shower.
While JD wasn't shy about nudity, the topic hadn't often come up in his formative years; except when his ailing mother needed to bathe and he helped her; so his dilemma when confronting a naked man God forbid he'd yet to be fortunate to stumble upon a naked lady, was where to look.
"Hey, JD! Hey guys, it's payday!"
Assistant foreman Jake Pendleton rallied his co-workers, and several men in various states of undress surged forward to accept their envelopes. Trying to maintain eye contact, JD happily doled out the deserved recompense, but inevitably his gaze, when lowering to pick out another pay packet from the satchel in his hands, occasionally found a 'moving' distraction. Convinced he was blushing he cursed inwardly, prompting typical bunkhouse humor. One particular comment however, took the good-natured banter to a different level, and caused JD, after excusing himself with a suggestion he needed to check on a computer program he was running, to leave the remaining few checks with Jake and scurrying back to the house.
Bounding through the door, JD almost took Vin off his feet as he hastily toed off his sneakers, snatched them up and jogged past him up the stairs to his room. Before disappearing, he called back an apology to the stunned Texan. Vin glanced toward Ezra who was exiting the study.
"Any idea where JD's just been?"
Standish smiled. "It's payday."
With a nod, Tanner left the house and headed to the bunkhouse. Inside, he glanced around at the men, some still walking around undressed. "Did JD just hand out the checks?"
Jake nodded, glancing briefly at another hand, Mike Henderson. The latter stepped forward.
"I was just teasing the kid. I didn't know he was gay."
Vin swallowed against a dry throat and took a step forward. "You called him gay?"
Mike made a face. "Not as such, but something I said had him take off like his tail was on fire."
Warring with having the knowledge that JD's sheltered upbringing was more in play here, and not divulging a confidence, Vin stepped back. "JD ain't gay, and I'll thank you not to comment on issues you know nothin' about."
Mike nodded. "Boss, I'm sorry. It's just when he took off I thought " The man shrugged. "It's not like it's an issue, it's just "
"Yeah, I know." Vin turned to leave, looking back as he did so. "All us brothers have had a lot of adjustin' to do since findin' each other. Some, more than others; and we ain't done yet. Can I take it this is over with?"
"No problem, Boss." Jake smiled. "Tell JD we'll see him tomorrow." Everyone nodded, happy to let it slide and move on.
Offering a lop-sided grin, Vin left.
Inside his room JD stared out of the window at the pastures and distant mountains. Deep in thought, the youth missed the knock at the door, and jolted slightly when Buck's voice broke through his pondering. He glanced toward the door to see Buck and Vin standing there.
"Something wrong?" JD asked.
"Was about to ask you the same question," Buck replied.
"I've just come from the bunkhouse," Vin added, inwardly nodding at the returned look.
JD sighed and hung his head.
"Kid, would you uh, like to talk about why you have issues with nudity?"
"I don't," he pleaded. "Not really. It's just not something I felt was important, that's all."
"It's not," Vin said, softly. "And we just want to get you past bein' uncomfortable is all. You wanna talk about anythin' in particular? Ask about somethin'?"
JD and Buck perched on the bed, while Vin sat in the rocking chair. The former stared at his hands for a few long moments before finally looking up to speak. "When I was a little fella, Mom had a job keeping me clothed. Apparently I loved running around, flapping in the breeze, and Mom loved to capture it on film."
The two men grinned. "So this album come with you to Nevada?" Buck teased.
JD made a face, then continued. "As I grew, and my body changed, I had no one but Mom to ask about things. She tried got books and such to help, but eventually, once she got sick, I quit asking. Sports at first weren't a problem. Most kids showered in shorts. I made a few teams, but after-school training took up precious time, so I'd usually grab my kit bag and run home to shower, and also check on Mom before starting my evening job. Then she got worse, and I needed to work more hours, so I ditched training. I dodged showering after Phys-Ed lessons when guys started talking about girls, and stuff way over my head." He chewed his lip.
"The internet told me most of what I needed to know, but being moved up two years and in a class with older kids, me and girls didn't exactly 'click'. Eventually, working, looking after Mom, and college, took up all my time, so I guess the issue never came up." He grinned, shyly. "Pardon the pun." His smile widened as his brothers chuckled.
"See I couldn't have kidded around like that back before I met you." He glanced between the pair. "I like being naked I sometimes stay undressed for hours after a shower, if I have the time. I just don't talk about it." He stood and walked over to switch on a floor-standing fan to ease the rise in temperature in his room.
"Y'all think I'm weird now, huh?"
"Oh, we've always thought you were weird, Kid."
JD looked at a smiling Buck and grinned before turning his gaze on Vin. "That day you took on those gunmen totally naked man that sure was something. I could never have done that."
Tanner shook his head. "Yeah, you could have. As I recall, we both took on the gunmen. You just had the good fortune to be partially dressed, is all."
When JD resumed his seated position, Buck tapped his knee. "With this weather being so hot, I got me an idea. Do you trust me?"
JD frowned. "Sure, you know I do."
Buck stood, and Vin did likewise. "Okay, leave it with me and Vin. Go shower, and we'll see you at dinner."
JD watched them go, a little nervous about Buck's plan, but also a little excited, too.
Outside JD's room, Vin looked at Buck. "Care to share?"
Urging Vin to walk, Buck nodded. "This weekend, can you arrange for the ranch hands to run the place?"
Tanner nodded. "Yeah, I don't see why not. Chris "
"I'll talk to Chris, and then the others." Buck grinned. "This is gonna be a blast."
Vin chuckled and shook his head. With Buck involved in the planning, of that, he had no doubt.
Late Friday morning and with the sun steadily beating down, seven brothers sat atop their gear-laden horses. With final instructions to Jake, and waving goodbye to Nettie as she headed off for a nice, long weekend off, the seven brothers rode out for a few days of cooling off and camping at the waterfall-fed Chiakowa Lake. It was one of several lakes on their land, but a place that they, as a group, had yet to spend time at. Chris, Buck, and Nathan had enjoyed many happy, sultry summers camping there with Linc, and felt sure their newest siblings would love the place just as much as they did.
The four hour ride was a hot and sticky one. Even wearing the Stetsons Vin bought them all for Christmas didn't offer much respite from the overhead sun. JD had slathered suncream onto his sensitive, fair skin, but was starting to feel his nose and cheeks tighten a little. Slowing Milagro, he reached into his saddlebag to re-apply the cream.
"Can't begin to tell you how happy I am we're heading out to Chiakowa Lake," Buck chirruped.
Chris and Nathan nodded. "Been way too long," Nathan stated.
Chris tried not to dwell on the fact that he planned to take his son camping there the year Adam and Sarah died. He clung to the fact that they hadn't made those memories, so he could hold close those he, Nathan, and Buck made with their father, and look forward to the fresh ones his newly extended family were about to create. "It's a great swimming hole."
"I failed to pack my swimwear," Ezra pointed out.
Vin chuckled at Buck's reply. The brunet waggled his eyebrows. "Who needs swimwear?"
"Good Lord," Ezra replied.
"Au natural I like it," Josiah chuckled.
"Who's talking of going 'au natural'?" JD asked, catching back up to the group.
Vin and Buck exchanged glances. "Josiah," they said in unison, causing the elder sibling's eyebrows to rise. The glance his way begged him to leave it there, for now.
"Sure hope you brought plenty of suncream, then," JD advised. "It's only been a couple of hours and my face is hot. A man needs to be careful exposing himself in this heat."
The unexpected dialogue made Buck grin, then full on laugh. While JD glanced at him as if Buck was crazy, Vin nodded and grinned also. This might work out better than he and Buck had hoped.
The approach to the vast, lush, green glade was down through a long-overgrown trail, but before descending, the seven horsemen stared down at, and over the vista. Chris, Buck, and Nathan smiled in fond remembrance of happy trips to a beautiful spot, while Josiah, Ezra, Vin, and JD stared in appreciative awe. JD finally broke the spell.
"Oh wow this is fantastic. I can't believe we own this."
"This and a hell of lot more," Chris reminded. "Granddad already had a lot of incredible land, and Dad added to it when a few neighbors decided to sell up. This place was his dream." Chris turned sad eyes to his brothers. "I only wish he'd told us the whole of it."
They all momentarily reflected on the image of all eight of them running this place together. Chris clucked his tongue and urged his black on. "Come on; let's get this little vacation properly underway."
Within half an hour, their gear was unpacked and laid out on the grass, and the horses hobbled and left to graze. JD had wandered over close to the waterfall. Its surging water tumbled majestically from high, casting a fine, prism-laden mist over the surrounding vegetation, the lake's surface, and an expanse of rock rising out of the lagoon. The imagery and its accompanying symphony of burbling water captivated the boy and his eyes sparkled at the spectacle. He hadn't even realized Buck was next to him until the brunet spoke.
"Something else, huh?"
JD turned to him, his pink nose shining in the late afternoon sunshine. He then returned his gaze to its original position. "It truly is," he whispered. "I've never seen anything so beautiful in my whole life."
"How can you say that?" Buck retorted, causing JD to turn to him, and frown. "You get to look at me every day?" His deep chuckle rumbled on the still air as JD playfully pushed him.
"Jeeze, Buck, how could I forget that daily image?"
They turned when Vin joined them. "The guys were thinkin' on gettin' the tents up, startin' supper, and goin' for a swim. You game?"
With enthusiastic nods, the three returned to the campsite.
An hour later, and after much hilarity over a task that should have come easily to them, though it soon became apparent neither Ezra nor JD had been boy scouts; seven hot, sweaty brothers admired their handiwork. Tents were up, a secure fire was built, sleeping arrangements were sorted, and a pot akin to a small cauldron hung from a Vin-designed tripod while its contents simmered nicely over the low-burning kindling. Josiah clapped his hands together, the sound echoing around them.
"Don't know about you boys, but this overheated, weary body is in need of refreshing." As he spoke, he stripped bare, exposing a large- framed, toned, tanned, muscular body. With a giant grin, he turned toward the lake and with a spurt to its edge, leapt into its welcoming water. On surfacing, he ran a large hand down his soaked features and grinned. "Magnificent!"
Chuckling at his actions, five brothers followed suit. Vin and Buck's clothes came off at speed before toned, semi-tanned bodies raced toward Josiah and dove into the inviting water. Chris and Nathan weren't far behind; their clothes left in a neater pile, while relishing in their nakedness as they ran toward their laughing brothers. Ezra stripped slowly, and folded each item of clothing before placing them inside a Zip-Lock bag. Surprised at how good the soft breeze felt against his bronzed flesh, he smiled at a slack- jawed JD, commenting on his actions before heading after the others.
"No point in encouraging insects to burrow into my attire, is there?"
JD answered the southerner, but in his head. He was, as yet, unable to make his mouth work. His eyes tracked the frolicking six while his body remained riveted to the spot. The water looked so good, and his brothers' laughter suggested they were enjoying letting their hair down, but he couldn't bring himself to join them. JD felt stupid as hazel eyes welled and his heart thumped in his chest.
'It's just your brothers, JD just swimming. Swimming buck naked, yeah, but just swimming. Go on you idiot, get in there.'
So deep in thought was he, JD hadn't realized Buck and Vin were with him until droplets of water spattered him when Vin playfully shook his drenched hair. Looking up, JD made a face before averting his gaze from certain body parts, to Buck and Vin's eyes.
"Thanks for that, guys. And just before supper, too. Sausages tonight then, huh?"
Buck chuckled. "Aren't you hot?"
JD nodded. "Sure I am."
"Then what're you waitin' on?" Vin asked. He smiled compassionately at the expected glare. "Kid, it's time. No one's judgin' you, or lookin' to poke fun."
"Time to cut loose, Kid." Buck extended his hand to JD, and the boy took it.
"Sure does look inviting," JD grinned.
"See you in there," Vin laughed, and ran back to the lake. JD watched him gracefully leap from the grassy bank and enter the water with barely a splash. He looked at Buck and started to unbutton his jeans shorts.
"Go ahead, I'm on my way."
With a smile and a wink, Buck rejoined his laughing, cavorting family. Following Chris and Nathan's example, JD left his clothes in a neat pile, more to make time to gather courage than to be tidy. Standing on the grass baring all, JD felt strangely liberated. He inhaled as a soft breeze cooled his heated body, and enjoyed the feel of the chilled, soft grass under his sneaker-less feet. Glancing at the six men in the water and relieved to see no one was looking his way to note his paler, slightly less-muscled self, JD padded down to the water.
Despite appearing as though they weren't watching, six men cast sideways glances toward the shore. Their relieved smiles said it all when they noticed JD was as naked as them and heading their way. Chris turned to the boy standing at the edge of the lake.
"Ready when you are," he smiled.
A familiar grin flashed back at them before JD 'whooped', and cannon-balled mere inches away from them all, sending a giant splash wave over each man. With howls of mock protests, the six brothers advanced on their youngest and the seven battled it out to be dunking champion for the day.
Evening saw flickering firelight illuminating the now clothed forms of seven damp-haired, well-fed, weary men as they sat around its mesmerizing glow. JD grinned when Vin handed out sharpened sticks, while bags of marshmallows appeared from saddlebags. Toasting the gooey treats, the Texan looked at the darkening sky, his gaze resting on the westerly mountain range and the cumulus clouds hovering over it, tinged pink by the lowering sun.
"Gonna be another blistering day tomorrow, I reckon."
Some nodded. The long-range forecast had predicted a dry spell.
Buck chuckled as a hot, squishy pink marshmallow disappeared into JD's mouth and the youth smacked his lips with enjoyment. He nudged him. "Having fun?"
JD nodded enthusiastically, dark, water-spiked hair flying as he did so. "Oh yeah, this is something else, y'know?"
"Yeah, we know," Chris replied.
Around another marshmallow, white this time, JD posed a question. "Have all you guys camped out much before?"
Ezra shook his head. "Absolutely not. Until my association here, I have never done so, or even entertained the idea."
"Why?" Josiah wondered.
"The prospect of being bitten consistently, while dining al fresco on food exposed to insect excrement has never appealed to me."
They all chuckled.
"You make it sound so invitin'," Vin ribbed.
Ezra saluted. "My pleasure."
"Josiah?" JD urged.
The big man paused for a moment, unsure of how much information he wanted to impart. "I've lived under canvas, yes. In `Nam, and also when my parents chose to travel to the more remote areas of the globe." He smiled. "This, however, far exceeds any previous experiences. This is fun."
Vin took up the question. "Some of my foster families took me campin'. I enjoyed it each time. Loved bein' outdoors, and under the stars. Took to campin' out sometimes when chasin' a bounty. Get to know the lay of the land better that way. Made catchin' the mark easier if you knew where they could hide or how they couldleave a place."
Chris stared at Vin, swallowing the lump in his throat at the solitary-sounding life his brother seemed to have led. JD's voice drew him back to the here and now.
"I guess you guys and Dad camped out over the years, huh?"
Buck nodded. "Yeah, we did. At first, never too far from home, but then he bought more land, and we discovered this place." He smiled, wistfully. "Dad loved it here hell, we all do." He pointed to the lake. "Caught my first fish in there. Man I was so excited. We ate it for supper that night. A fish never tasted so good."
The others chuckled and nodded.
"Did Dad like camping?" JD asked.
"Yeah, he did," Chris answered. "In fairness, he always made time for the three of us." Chris visibly winced at the pained expressions from Ezra, Vin, and JD. "I'm sorry guys "
Vin shrugged, Ezra waved it off. "Water under the bridge, boys. While I would dearly love to have shared in your upbringing, Linc did right by us eventually. We have each other now and that is indeed a magnificent prospect of its own."
While it was clear Vin and JD, the only two boys to never meet Linc weren't entirely in agreement with Ezra, it was also clear they didn't wish to dwell on it. In fact, JD seemed to be in a world all of his own. Buck nudged him.
"How about you? You ever go camping?"
Snapping out of his reverie, JD looked at the six faces he had grown to love and, lowering his gaze, shook his head. "Nah. Almost did, once. Got to know this guy who sometimes used the library computers." He looked up, grinning. "Well, I did spend all my free time there, until I won a laptop in a competition I entered and piggy- backed on the neighbors' Wi-Fi. Anyway, I learned he was a youth leader, and had organized a camping trip. He asked if I'd like to go." JD shrugged.
"Well, we barely had enough money to live, let alone some for trips, so I said thanks, but no. Couple of days later, he told me a kid had dropped out, and as there was a no-refund policy, I was welcome to take his place." JD leaned forward a little. "I think he made that part up, but I asked Mom, and she thought it was a great idea so she got to know the guy, signed forms you know, the usual. The morning I was due to meet the bus, Mama had a letter from the hospital. Her three-monthly scan had turned up something and they wanted her to go back in for tests." He rubbed at his eye.
"She was crushed, but insisted there was nothing I could do, and to go ahead with the trip. I got right to the meeting point I was right there. I could see all the kids chattering and excited; but all I could think of was Mom, alone in the hospital."
"You went home."
JD looked at Chris and nodded. "Yeah. Man, she tore me a new one when I walked into her room, but I could tell, under all that bluster she was glad to see me." He smiled through watery eyes. "I never regretted my decision."
Chris, Buck, and Nathan glanced at each other. Chris nodded.
"Well, I guess we can't turn back time, but we can make the most of what we have. One thing Dad always insisted on was taking time away from work for family. He worked extra hard when we were kids to make that happen. I propose we follow his example, and make the most of the summer. We can camp out, make use of the cabin make time for each other. If there's a stock sale, or a show, we try and go together, no matter where it is. Agreed?"
"A truly united season."
"I can't think of a better way to stay happy and healthy."
"You'll get no arguments from me."
"Just to clarify more camping?"
Everyone laughed as each brother stood to head for their tents and sleeping bags. Tomorrow was full of plans to fish, ride, and swim. They could hardly wait.
Despite a great trail ride, the seven brothers returned to their camp hot and bothered. No one needed persuading to go swimming, and after the initial excited play fights; they swam over to the flat rock rising out of the water close to the waterfall. Vin and Chris climbed it, and reached down to help others up onto its smooth, sun- warmed surface. With sighs of contentment, and not a care in the world to their nakedness, the seven lay on their backs in a line and enjoyed the breeze-cooled sun and its drying warmth.
After a short rest, JD and Vin took to diving off the rock into the water. They repeated the cycle for over an hour, while encouraging the others to do the same. They had so much fun it was decided the fishing would have to wait until the next day.
With no fish caught, they looked to their supplies for supper. Replete after eating, and exhausted from the day's activities, seven sun-kissed men yawned and decided to turn in. Laughter rippled around the camp to the sounds of Buck doing something to JD that only they were privy to, and which caused the boy to squeal, holler in protest, and chuckle until a collective 'Knock it off!' silenced the pair well, almost. The two could be heard giggling well into the night.
Sitting cross-legged outside his domed tent, Vin inhaled and gazed up at the night sky. He smiled, contentedly, and closed his eyes as he listened to the sounds of the outdoors at night. He was home. He smiled wider, never expecting to say that ever again. But here he was, and with six brothers to share his life with. His grandfather's words of wisdom came to mind 'just when all around is laid waste, one budding seed blossoms to create anew'. And he was right. Vin's life was becoming a drudge before the will reading then that seed blossomed. Nature, especially the human kind, surely was wonderful.
Josiah bid Nathan goodnight and muttered a short prayer of thanks for his family's wonderful day together. Lying there, he listened to the camp quieting down while Nathan's soft breaths slowly lulled him to sleep. Josiah's final lucid thoughts were of how lucky he was to have such incredible brothers, and how much he loved them. He could hardly wait for what tomorrow would bring.
Nathan said goodnight to Josiah, laughed at the muted giggles from the tent next door, and thanked all that was Holy that no one had suffered a mishap so far. He was having such a great time, and knew now, that his decision to take some time out from work was the right one. What they had together was better than any medication, and too precious to waste.
Ezra sealed another Zip-Lock bag and vigorously shook out his sleeping-bag before sliding in. He smiled to himself. Today, he had actually dived into a lake, naked, and from the top of a rock. Mother would be mortified. He however, was thrilled. Tomorrow, fishing. Lord help him but that thought excited him. Mother would have hated that, too. Wasn't life splendid?
Chris listened to his family settling. He still found it hard to believe that the loss of his father had eventually brought him so much joy. Before the reading of the will, Chris feared the ranch, and his then current brothers, would part company. The arrival of his four new siblings brought many trials and tribulations with it, but immense happiness and contentment, too. He looked forward to every new morning and savored every minute thereafter.
JD ducked inside his sleeping-bag, but it did nothing to stifle the cackles. Peeking out, he glanced at Buck and chuckled harder when the mustached man laughed.
"I reckon the sun fried your brain today," Buck grinned.
"Probably," JD nodded. He sighed, spun around on his side and, propping up his head, looked at Buck. "Man, it's been a great weekend. I wish it didn't have to end."
Buck mirrored JD's position and looked at him. "Yeah, but then, if it never ended, we'd just get bored with it. Times like these are fun because they're special."
JD nodded, and his eyes sparkled with affection. "Straight up every day's special here. I wish I could have gotten to know Linc but, I can't ever hate him for never meeting me I mean, look at what he's given me."
Buck's eyes glistened as he nodded. "You got that right, little brother." He settled down in the sleeping-bag. "G'night, Kid."
JD did likewise. "'Night, Buck."
A minute later, a noise disturbed the silence and after a short pause, JD shot up in his bag. He wafted a hand under his nose as he glared at the quaking sleeping-bag next to him. "Jeeze, Buck! What the hell have you been eating? That's disgusting."
Chuckling hard, Buck peeked out from his bag. "What? it's a natural bodily function." He laughed harder when a small pillow hit him in the head.
"There is nothing natural about that, big brother."
"SHUT UP!" five voices chorused.
"Buck let one rip," JD called back, grinning when the same five voices admonished a now hysterical Buck.
Mumbling, JD hunkered down in his bag. Seconds later, the camp exploded into laughter when Vin's lone voice called out. "Whatever you do don't strike a match."
Due to them having to leave that afternoon, the brothers decided any fish caught would go toward lunch. Six men were amused and delighted to see JD disrobe first, even before they had screwed their sectional fishing poles together. Five of the brothers fished from along the bank, while Vin and JD swam out to the rock and fished from there.
Several hours later, Josiah volunteered to cook the bumper catch, but not before they all enjoyed one more swim together. This time the brothers used the waterfall as a source of entertainment, but all too soon it was time to eat, and pack up their gear.
While the final bags were hitched to the horses, Vin dampened the fire for the last time, and the brothers walked the campsite to ensure nothing was left behind and that the area was left as they found it perfect. Conversation on the return journey was light as the seven sun-tanned brothers privately reminisced about their weekend. Almost home, JD glanced around at the others.
"The fish we caught tasted great, huh?"
"They sure did," Nathan agreed. "You're a great cook, Josiah."
"Actually, Buck and Chris cleaned them, Vin found some wild garlic, and Ezra seasoned them, so it was an excellent joint effort."
"I can't believe I actually caught a few," Ezra beamed.
"I can't believe I swam naked for three days," JD said, suddenly realizing he'd spoken aloud when six grins were his reply.
"It's been a hell of a weekend," Chris stated.
"More fun than you could shake a stick at."
"So never again, huh?"
All six brothers looked at Chris, and laughed again.
"Should go to the cabin, soon. It'll need airing," the blond reminded.
After a pause, and as they crested the ridge overlooking the Double L, JD's voice cut through the companionable silence. "At the cabin we have a speedboat moored at the lake there, right?"
Chris, Buck, and Nathan nodded.
He smiled, the action widening to a face-splitting grin. "Have any of you ever gone water skiing naked?" Urging his mount on, JD galloped for home to the sound of six voices howling with laughter behind him.
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