And So This is Christmas by Sue M

Alternate Universe: Brothers Larabee

Disclaimer: Just playing. I know I can't keep `em…damnit!

Main Characters: JD, Josiah, All

Summary: Josiah's charity work and a few private trips turn out to be real eye-openers for the boys.

The four brothers knew it would cause a ripple of shock, but it needed to be said. At the dinner table, just eight days away from Christmas, Ezra, Vin, Chris, and Buck dropped their bombshells. They would all be returning the day before Christmas Eve, but just after the weekend before Christmas, four of the family would be traveling. Chris and Vin were heading to Texas to check out livestock and to visit a few places dear to Vin's heart, including his mom's grave. Ezra wanted to visit with his employees in Vegas to personally hand out their bonuses, and catch up with Maude, whose recent marriage had brought with it a casino and resort. His mother had urged him to come see her new kingdom, so he decided this would be a good way to visit with her, and then travel home to spend Christmas with the family of his heart.
Buck had met up with an old school friend when JD introduced him to the wonders of Facebook. Since their chats over the web, the pair had met in person, and she was every bit as beautiful as Buck remembered her…and still had the ability to cause his knees to weaken and his stomach to flutter, on sight.
Leona invited Buck to her cabin retreat, suggesting a good time to be around early Christmas week, and he accepted. Afterwards, he feared he'd done the wrong thing. Buck had always been a bit of a ladies' man, but since hiring Inez, and with the forming of their new family, the brunet's attentions had been focused elsewhere.
However, he was a man…with the normal appetites of one, and Leona had stirred those needs to the surface, so Buck accepted her offer. Chris had been supportive, but in typical `big brother' mode, lectured him on things Buck was more than aware of, but he'd let Chris prattle on, basking in the love and sentiment behind it. All Buck had to do now was tell the others…and JD.
He and the kid had so much fun last year in the run-up to their first Christmas…this was going to be difficult.
Dinner over, the news was broken. Josiah and Nathan nodded. Josiah would be busy with his volunteer work all week, so feared he might not see much of them anyway. Nathan's shifts cleared fully on the day before Christmas Eve, right until midway through the week, his first Christmas off in years, so the timing was good for him.
JD had simply said…'Okay', and very little else after. While he was in the kitchen loading the dishwasher, Chris and Vin cornered him
"JD, if you wanna come…"
The sincerity shone in Vin's eyes, but JD smiled and said an equally sincere, and grateful `no thanks'. Yeah, he was a little disappointed they would miss the run up to Christmas together, but he knew how much he loved doing things `one on one' with his brothers, especially Buck, so fully appreciated Chris and Vin wanting some quality time together.
"You guys take care and have fun. We're pretty much ready for Christmas anyhow." He gave them a genuine grin. "But thanks for asking."
Ezra brought in his dishes, rinsed them, and handed them to JD. "While admittedly an afterthought, please feel free to accompany me. I confess, I refrained from inviting anyone due to my plans to meet with Mother."
Turning to him, JD smiled. "Nah, I'm good, but thanks for asking. I'm not gonna lie, it wasn't the news I expected to hear tonight, but it's cool, honest. I guess it shows how much we've grown as a family."
Now Ezra was smiling, but with compassion and understanding. "We're not growing apart, JD." When huge hazel eyes fixed on him, he knew he'd hit the nail on the head.
"You think?"
Standish raised a hand and squeezed his youngest brother's shoulder.
"I know."
Buck paced outside the kitchen for a while. He smiled at Ezra, and then frowned when the southerner took him to one side. Buck nodded his understanding of Ezra's explanation and walked into the kitchen, while Ezra enlightened the others.
"Hey Kid."
JD took Buck's plate. "Thanks." There was a silence before both spoke at once.
"So…when are you leaving…?"
"Kid, about this trip…"
They both stopped speaking, and then laughed, shyly. Buck continued.
"Monday morning, around 11am. I don't know why I said yes…but…damn, she stirs feelings in me I'd buried since I last saw her. JD, I'm sorry…"
"NO!" JD took a step forward. "It's me who's sorry. I really don't mind, in fact, I think it's great, honest. I just reacted badly `cause we had such a blast last year…"
Buck, unable to help himself, pulled the smaller man into a clinch. "I didn't *not* choose you and the guys, okay? I insisted I come home on the 23rd…and I will."
"I know," JD mumbled, and then pulled back. "Just take care, okay?"
A little choked, Buck nodded. "I will. Try not to burn the house down, alright?" He chuckled at JD's punch to his arm.
"Oh har, har!" JD winked. "It'll be take-out, or Josiah's ass- burning chili. No cooking for me if I can help it!" Laughing, the pair joined the others in the big room for one of their few remaining nights together until Christmas.
The next day, and aware of someone standing in the study doorway, JD looked away from the computer monitor and smiled at Josiah. He could see his brother was dressed to go out. "You okay?"
"I'm about to head into town to the shelter." He noted JD's nod. "Come with me. We could sure use your help."
About to say `no', JD paused. He had nothing more to do. The chores were finished, and the remaining hands on the ranch could handle what was left of the day to day running of the place. JD shut down the computer and stood. "Sure, okay."
With a giant grin, Josiah walked on to the mudroom to put on his boots. Minutes later, the two brothers were heading to Four Corners.
Ezra could hardly believe he had just handed out checks worth thousands of dollars of his hard-earned money…and was smiling. His brothers would chastise him for those thoughts, he realized, for Ezra was assured he was a good and respected employer, and known for his generosity, especially around Christmas.
Standing in front of the rather spectacular, off-Strip Cascada Casino and Resort, Ezra couldn't help but be impressed. "Mother, you have most definitely fallen on your feet this time," he muttered to himself. On entering the impressive, marble and gilt foyer, and despite the fact he had called in advance, he was still shocked when Maude rushed to greet him.
"Darling, welcome to `Paradise'." Approaching, she kissed him on both cheeks before Ezra did likewise.
"I must say, Mother, you married well this time."
Maude grinned and tapped her nose. "I always marry well, sweetie, but this time, I've exceeded my wildest expectations." She slipped her arm through his. "Come, I want you to meet Ernest. He too aspired from the security business."
With dubious thoughts as to just what type of security business would bring a man this kind of affluence, Ezra nodded. "I can hardly wait."
After a short buying trip, Chris and Vin booked in at the Elm Creek bed and breakfasts' `True West' cottage, in Buffalo Gap, Texas. They figured it was worth having to share a king size bed to stay in an idyllic, private, wooded setting next to a creek they could fish from.
The first night and day the pair just chilled out, ate, played poker and took a hike, before sleeping again. The next day was for fishing, and that evening, as they cleaned their catches for a cook- out supper, Vin and Chris reflected on their time so far, and any upcoming plans.
"We could take a trail ride tomorrow," Chris suggested as he tossed the cleaned fish onto the grill.
"Sounds good," Vin nodded, handing Chris a beer before taking a seat on one of the two rustic wooden porch chairs.
"Thanks." The blond smiled as he took the bottle. "A little more fishing, then we visit your mom before heading home?"
"Yeah." Vin gazed out across the woodland and creek, inhaling the fresh, scented air as he sipped on his beer. He gestured to their surroundings, while glancing back toward the grill. "JD woulda loved all this."
Chris hid the smirk just in time. He was having a blast, but his thoughts had also drifted back to their brothers.
"I mean…all the guys would, but I guess I always think of JD `cause, like me, he had a tough childhood…and not a lot of money." Vin swigged at his beer. "Still can't get over that the kid never got outta Boston `til he came to meet us." He smiled shyly at Chris. "Sorry, I'm real glad we did this, it's just…"
Chris took the seat next to him and sipped his brew. "It's okay, I understand. I guess things've changed, huh?"
Vin raised an eyebrow as he glanced at Chris. "Yeah, just a bit." The same thought crossed both men's minds at the same time. `For the better'.
Nathan dished up the supper Nettie had left as he heard his two brothers enter the mudroom, and take off their coats and boots. By the time the food was on the table; they had washed up and were heading that way. Throughout the meal, JD was quiet, and had little appetite. Nathan and Josiah exchanged glances, before the former spoke.
"They'll all be home before you know it, JD."
The youth looked up from his food. "Huh?"
"The guys. They'll be home before…"
JD waved a hand. "No…it's…" He glanced at Josiah. "It's not that…well; it's partly that, but…" He struggled to articulate his feelings. "It was just the thought of all those men and women without homes an' all." He sighed and looked at the doctor in the family. "We actually had to turn people away, Nathan."
Josiah patted his hand. "They did eat, John, they just had to wait until some of the volunteers could get out onto the streets with the food."
"They eat outside?"
"Yes…it's the best we can offer. First into the shelter get a meal and a bed for the night, the rest just get a meal."
"Could *we* do that?"
"Do what?" Josiah asked.
"Go out onto the streets, instead of serving in the shelter."
The big ex-preacher smiled. "Yes, we most certainly can. I have to warn you…it's not an easy task."
JD nodded, finally eating some food. "None of it is."
The next afternoon, Josiah, JD, and another volunteer, Max, loaded up the shelter's van with foil trays of food, and headed out onto the small town's streets and areas where the homeless gathered. One stop was waste ground near the underpass. JD saw an all too familiar sight as they pulled up, taking in the vision of barrel fires, that cast eerie shadows against the underpass walls. Understanding how the schedule worked, raggedy, eager itinerants lined up at the erected trestle table in an orderly manner, and while Max kept a watchful eye on the proceedings, Josiah and JD handed out the polystyrene cartons of soup, foil trays of roasted dinners, and plastic cutlery.
Most were polite when they took their food, all were grateful. Josiah chatted casually with those who showed an interest, while many simply nodded and, clutching their heated container close, scuttled off to find a place to sit and enjoy what was possibly their only meal of the day. Someone took JD's attention and while Josiah was preoccupied, the youth snatched up a soup, tray, and cutlery, and headed off to an inner wall of the underpass.
Through hooded eyelids, while huddled up against the wall and enjoying the warmth of the edges of a barrel fire, Fergal McKee watched the neat but casually dressed young man in a hooded, brown leather jacket, and blue jeans, walk toward him. Excitement warmed his old bones as he realized the youth was bringing him food. Having suffered a chesty cough and heavy cold the past week, and after a short stay in hospital, from which he discharged himself, Fergal had no appetite, and so missed the past three meals. This evening, he simply had no energy to get in line, and resigned himself to a cold, hungry night, but now it looked as if his silent prayers had been answered.
"Hi there! My name's JD. I noticed you hadn't come over for food, so…I hope you don't mind, I thought I'd bring some over." JD handed him the treats, relieved when cold, shaky, fingerless-gloved hands reached out and took them.
"Thank you, son. I didn't feel like moving. Just got me all nice and warm for the night." He watched the smiling youth squat on his haunches in front of him, before setting down his foil tray and popping the lid off the soup. With a little smile as he inhaled the aromatic broth, Fergal sipped the warming, nutritious liquid, and his eyes lit up.
"Mmmm…tomato, my favorite."
JD grinned and nodded. "Mine too."
Fergal extended his hand holding the cup. "Would you like some?"
For a second, JD was lost as to how to react. He probably shouldn't take it, but how to say no without offending? He raised a gently dismissive hand. "Gee, thanks, but I had some before we left…to keep out the cold, you know?"
"Aye, good thinking." McKee was kinda glad the lad said no. He was real hungry, tonight.
JD watched the man with fascination. He looked tired, drawn, and, though it was hard to tell under all that grime…pale. "Are you okay, sir?"
`Sir'? Fergal smiled. He hadn't been called that in a while. He nodded. "Had a wee cold recently, but I'm better, now." He wasn't much better, but there was no point in complaining…no one listened. He raised the foil tray he was now digging into. "This is helping, thank you."
JD stood. "They're about to brew tea and coffee. Would you like one, sir?"
Amazed at his luck tonight, Fergal nodded. "Coffee, three sugars, thank you. Uh, son!"
Dunne turned back. "Yeah?"
"Name's Fergal…Fergal McKee."
JD smiled, nodded, and then continued back to the van.
Turning away from Max, Josiah was about to talk to JD when he realized the kid wasn't at the table. Scanning the area, the big man's heart lurched on seeing his youngest brother crouched down in front of a vagrant, right in the heart of `Cardboard City'. About to hurry over there, Josiah paused instead, and watched the exchanges unfold. His eyes glistened on seeing the compassion in the youth, before JD stood and headed back his way. As he observed, Sanchez's whole body warmed, and he reflected on the wonderful brothers he had come to know and love. Ordinary men, with extraordinary characteristics.
He straightened and smiled when JD approached. "Coffee and teas are ready." As he spoke, he rang a hand bell and a new line formed. Those who had finished eating deposited their litter in a trash bag next to the table, before stating their drink of choice. Once Josiah and JD served most of the vagrants, JD poured out a coffee into another Styrofoam cup, sugared it, added creamer, and snapped on a lid.
"I'm just gonna pop this over to Fergal."
Josiah nodded, and curled the fingers of one hand around JD's wrist. "What you did was very sweet, John, but be careful. These people, while mostly are good; there are likely several of dubious character."
Unable to imagine someone down on his or her luck being bad, JD nodded. "Understood, thanks."
"We're packing up now," Josiah called after him, grinning at the gloved wave back.
JD handed over the large cup of coffee, then, pulling across a piece of cardboard, sat down next to the old man. "Don't you have family, sir…uh, Fergal?"
Sipping on the hot coffee, McKee looked at him. "Somewhere. My wife left me, and took my boys with her." He sighed. "I got pretty screwed up after `Nam…drank a lot, ended up here, like this." He shrugged. "But I'm alive, that's more than I can say for some of the boys from `B' Troop."
"You were in `Nam?"
Fergal nodded. "Yup." He drifted off for a moment, clearly reflecting on something. His voice was soft as he spoke. "It was Thursday, August 17,1967. We left Base Camp one morning to offer first aid to a small village. We were all in line on a dirt road not far out...can't rightly remember how many tracks there were, but one track hit a land mine...a big one, and it lifted it right off the ground and turned it over on its top. It blew both shields off. The Sarge was still sitting in it when it hit the ground. He lost both his legs. Two other troopers lost their lives that day." He turned to his new friend. "Not a day goes by when I don't wonder why not me. The men that died...were just to my right."
JD had no idea what a `track' was, but he nodded and listened as Fergal shared a few more stories of his days at war. Josiah had said how Vietnam Vets felt that they were practically dumped like offensive trash when they returned to civilization, many living on the streets, their mental scars too deep to cope with the real world. Right here, right now, Fergal was living, breathing proof of that. Before JD realized, another hour had gone by, and Josiah was waving frantically at him to get his attention.
Collecting up McKee's litter, JD smiled. "I have to go now, but we'll be back tomorrow."
Fergal reached out and grabbed JD's wrist. The youth's stomach flipped, but he needn't have worried. "Thank you."
The youth nodded. "You're welcome. I have some blankets at home; I'll bring them with me, tomorrow." Feeling the cold from McKee's hand on his wrist, JD pulled off his gloves and handed them to the man. "I got another pair in the van," he fibbed. "Bye."
Fergal's eyes shimmered as he nodded his thanks, and while JD hurried back to the other two men with him, McKee hastily and excitedly pulled on the toasty, woolly accessories.
Once home, and after dinner, JD sent emails to his brothers of events so far. They already knew they were missed, and JD's frequent updates kept them in touch with life on the Double L.
Later that night, while JD, Nathan and Josiah ate dinner, the mood was quiet. JD's was particularly reflective, and when he began to talk, Josiah wasn't really surprised at the subject.
"It's not right."
"What isn't?" Nathan asked.
"People living inside cardboard boxes, and out in the cold. There were loads like it in Boston, too." He looked at his brothers. "See…as much as Mom and me had very little, at least we had a roof over our heads."
"You both did great work tonight," Nathan stated, understanding what JD was dwelling on. "The shelter is sometimes all that stands between a cold, hungry night for those poor souls."
Josiah nodded, sagely.
"Wish we could've done more," JD sighed. He told his brothers of Fergal's background, and Josiah promised he'd set wheels in motion to investigate, maybe get McKee some help…possibly even trace his family.
"We're going out again tomorrow, yeah?" JD directed his question at Josiah. He really wanted to know how Fergal got through the night.
"Yes," Josiah nodded, but a tiny concern was festering. JD had connected with someone. He also enjoyed getting to know these people, but Sanchez learned years earlier how one could suffer personally if they got too close. For JD, things could get complicated.
Lying on his back in a king-sized bed, Buck stroked the satin skin of the naked woman draped over him and gazing down into his eyes. She moved to nuzzle his ear.
"God, Buck…you're amazing."
The brunet grinned. "May I just say…so are you, darlin'." He pulled her in tighter, and she giggled as his eagerness was obvious.
"Again? Lord, you're insatiable." They kissed and he rolled her to her back. "Been waiting a long time to hold you in my arms," he whispered, while gazing into her bright gray eyes. "And it was worth every second." Their next kiss made it clear where they were about to venture…again.
Breaking for air, Leona smiled. "Maybe soon I'll get to show you around the place," she said, huskily.
"Was kind of enjoying this tour for now," he replied. They only had another full day before traveling back, and Buck wanted to make sure he never wasted a moment of it. In high school, he'd had such a crush on this woman, and could hardly believe they were here, together. This was one memory he'd hold close to his heart for a long time to come.
Later, Buck disentangled himself from his sleeping lover and walked to the kitchen for a drink and a sandwich. While sitting at the table, he checked his iPhone, smiling when he saw an email from JD in his inbox. While he sat and enjoyed his meager supper, Buck chuckled through the regular report from the home front by his little brother. Another day in `Paradise' and he would be going home. As he returned to bed, it occurred to Buck he was actually wondering if Leona would mind him leaving early.
Ezra had so far enjoyed his stay in Vegas. Maude was exceptionally happy, and the pair had toured the resort, eaten, and played the tables together. This was the most pleasurable visit for some time. That evening, at dinner, Ezra addressed Maude.
"Mother, forgive me for being inquisitive but…why is it we have yet to dine with Ernest Culpepper III? Is it something I said?"
Maude released a wry smile. "Darling, Ernest is an extremely busy man, and his time with me is limited, and precious. I knew this before we married, and is why I agreed to help him oversee all this…" Her hand traced a gestured sweep to their grandiose surroundings. "I get to be queen of his kingdom, with very little interference, and…" she jangled a dazzling diamond bracelet on her right wrist. "He finds the most exquisite way to express regret for his absences." She leaned forward over the table.
"Join me, Ezra. Leave behind the country bumpkins who are sucking away your spirit, your proficiency…all that I've taught you…and be with me, here, in our very own empire."
A flash of anger surged through the southerner. This wasn't the first time his mother had snubbed the men…the brothers…he had grown to know and love. Suddenly, he didn't want to be here anymore. He wanted to be…home. Ezra feigned a smile.
"Tempting as that offer is, Mother, I will graciously decline." He stood. "Forgive me; I need to get an early night. I have much to do at the office tomorrow." He kissed her on the cheek, and left.
Maude watched him go and smiled to herself before continuing on with her meal. "The gauntlet is thrown, sweet, baby boy. I may forfeit the occasional battle, but I rarely lose the war."
Seething, Ezra stormed into his suite and threw his valise onto the bed. To hell with his business class, scheduled flight, he'd travel economy if it got him out of Vegas faster. Halfway through placing clothing into the case, he walked over to his laptop on the room's desk, and flipped it open. It flickered and whirred into life from its sleep mode, and once ready, Ezra signed into his email account. Sitting there reading JD's newest account from home, he felt the tension ooze from his body. Once he finished reading, he typed a sharp and witty reply, then continued on with his packing, much more relaxed and no longer angry. Tomorrow, he'd go to the office as planned, enjoy a good night out on the Strip, and then next morning, be on his way to the airport, and home.
Vin grinned at Chris as the blond sat in a chair at the table, chuckling while he read something on his iPhone. "I can't believe JD talked you into buyin' one of those."
Chris smiled, but didn't look up. "Me either."
"Everythin' okay?"
Nodding, Chris tapped in a reply. "Yep. Nathan's last shift is tomorrow, and JD has been helping Josiah deliver meals to the homeless."
"Deliver?" Vin asked, walking over.
"Yeah, there are too many for the shelter to take in, so some dine `al fresco'."
Tanner literally guffawed, causing Chris to look up and chuckle. "'Al fresco'? Holy shit, Ezra ain't even here, yet I coulda sworn he just spoke."
Shutting down his email, Chris stood and switched off the lamps for the night. "I said that? Shoot, I must be missing home more than I thought." Retiring to bed, the pair had one more day of fishing to enjoy, before setting off the following day for home. It had been a wonderful break, but they both agreed, home sounded real good.
Next day, once the trestle table and thermal boxes containing the foil meals, and the large soup container had been set up, JD scanned the area for Fergal. Spotting the man in his usual spot, he poured out a soup and snapped on a lid. JD snatched up a tray and cutlery, and with the fresh blankets and one of Josiah's older coats in hand, the youngest Larabee trotted over to offer up today's goodies.
"Hey Fergal. Got Chicken and leek soup, and roast chicken with mash, stuffing, veg and gravy." Seeing that the man was lying on his side, sleeping, JD set down the tray, soup, and cutlery before opening out the big, warm blankets and approaching him. With his teeth, JD tugged off one of his gloves. "Got something else for you, too." Squatting down, he attempted to jerk away the dirty, tattered blanket draped around the man, but Fergal had a good grip on it.
"Can't swap it out if you hang on like that," the youth grinned, wrapping his fingers around Fergal's, to encourage him to unclench them. He gasped and stood bolt upright. Staring down at the unmoving form, JD's heart pounded, and his mouth went dry. He was already trembling when he reached out to touch the Vietnam Vet's face.
"F…Fergal?" The man was stone cold…almost rigid, and now the boy could see, his skin was tinged with blue. JD's breathing was coming in shallow pants as he glanced around, unsure of what to do, and horrified that what he feared, was true. He staggered two steps back and hollered. "Josiah! JOSIAH!"
About to start serving, the oldest Larabee glanced up at JD's frantic call. Alarm bells were already ringing in his head as he left what he was doing and, ignoring the angry calls of the people lined up and waiting on their food, jogged over to his youngest brother. Max watched him go, but was already prepared to make the call he had made many times before. Josiah reached the shivering youth, touched a hand to his shoulder, then moved to examine Fergal. However, looking at the man as he approached, he already knew the outcome of the investigation. Seconds later, he stood, turned to JD and squeezed the back of the boy's neck.
"Sorry John…he's gone."
JD's shimmering gaze never moved from the body. "No," he said, softly.
"I'm sorry." Josiah glanced back at Max and nodded for the call to be made.
"But…yesterday, he was…I mean…"
"Apparently, he's been sick. When Mr. McKee got out of the hospital, he refused help, and came back here. I was hoping, after my calls this morning, that maybe…" Josiah could see JD wasn't listening; his gaze was transfixed on the dead man.
Becoming aware of the situation, the itinerants left the food line and began gathering. All at once, several swooped in and a scuffle broke out for the food, blankets, and coat. Momentarily snapping out of his sorrow, JD stared incredulously at the people fighting around him, one or two accidentally kicked the body in their desperation to claim whatever they could. "Hey! HEY! What are you doing? Leave him be! Stop it…get back! KNOCK IT OFF!"
JD dove into the squabbling groups to reclaim Fergal's things before Josiah could react. In seconds, the punches being thrown had a new target, as the combatants joined forces to protect the spoils. Josiah waded in to shield his brother, while Max was running to help, and dialing 9-1-1.
Enjoying some down time, Nathan stretched while contemplating getting out of the comfy chair in the break room and starting back to the ER…such as it was. Being a small cottage hospital, it could deal with minor incidents, x-rays, and sutures, but anything bigger was diverted to the general hospital. When the buzzer sounded to notify an imminent arrival, Nathan groaned good naturedly, and mumbled something about having to shift his carcass now, anyway. He walked toward the ambulance bay and nodded to two waiting nurses.
"What we got Chrissie?"
"The cops are bringing in whoever it is. They stepped in to break up a scuffle with some hobos and decided it would be just as quick if they brought in the two who were injured."
Something in that sentence had the back of Nathan's neck tingling. "Not too bad, then?" He figured if it was, the casualties would be coming in by ambulance.
"I guess," was all the nurse could offer before they were moving their wheelchairs toward the arriving squad car.
Two cops jumped out and one helped a large, barrel-chested man out of the back of the car. Nathan groaned, while assessing that Josiah looked a little beaten around the face, and was favoring his right side, but other than that, seemed okay. When JD emerged, he looked a little more battered, blackened eye, bloody nose, and wasn't able to straighten, but…there was something more. There was something in the way Josiah was instantly protective of the younger man, but how JD was oblivious to it; and JD's expression, he looked…Nathan couldn't formulate the word he was looking for, so focused on his two brothers' conditions, instead.
"Nothing serious," Josiah assured. "Just need a little fixing up." Even as he spoke, there was a sadness in his eyes that Nathan would ask about later. The nurses guided the pair into the wheelchairs, and Nathan was shocked that JD didn't utter a word of protest. The pair was pushed inside, and instantly cleaned up, examined and assessed, then x-rayed, before any stitching, and abrasions tended to.
A half an hour later, Nathan and another doctor were examining the x-ray films. They concluded both casualties had suffered injured ribs, and JD had a bruised belly due to blunt trauma, but no head injuries or breakages. Discharged and given pain pills, Josiah sat quietly in JD's cubicle while Nathan gently finished cleaning their youngest brother up. Hovering over the quiet boy sitting with his legs dangling over the trolley bed, Nathan applied several surgical strips to a cut on JD's left brow. He smiled when JD glanced at him through his one good, and one blackened eye.
"Did I hurt you?" he asked, softly.
"No," JD said, quietly.
Dabbing at some abrasions, and apologizing when JD hissed, Nathan glanced between the pair. "You wanna fill me in on what happened here?"
Josiah stared at JD, and smiled when the youth nodded but made no move himself to explain. He took Nathan through the events of the afternoon. The doctor already knowing about Fergal McKee, was genuinely sorry on hearing the man had died. "Kid…these things happen all the time…"
JD's eyes flashed with guilt. "If only we had done more. He was cold…I could've gone back with blankets last night…paid for a room…anything."
JD turned his head to look at Josiah.
"We do what we can. Less than we'd like to, but more than many. You made Fergal's last night on this earth one to cherish. You fed him, sat with him, listened to him…that's more than anyone had done in years."
JD shuddered. "What the others did to him…he was barely even cold."
Standing, Josiah approached JD and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Don't judge them too harshly. It's survival of the fittest out there. They kind of take care of each other, but if someone leaves, or passes, their belongings are up for grabs. They never meant to hurt you, or me. It just got out of hand. I've already received a text from Max that several came to the shelter to apologize. They're not bad people…they just have it harder than most." The big man was relieved that JD seemed to take his words on board.
"All done." Nathan stepped back and passed JD a small bottle of pills. "I guess you know what to do with these. I'm off in ten…let's go home, huh?" He and Josiah helped JD off the bed, and the three brothers made their way home.
"Yes, so that's one way for the red-eye, confirmed? Thank you." Ezra snapped his valise closed and glanced around his suite. Time to go. Looping the strap of his laptop case over his shoulder, he threw some bills onto the desk, and left the room.
Earlier, he logged into his email for his daily dose of JD's home round-up, but when it wasn't there, he left a jaunty message as to them having too much fun without him. An hour or so later, on his next email check, Nathan had replied, and said little more than `All good, looking forward to you being home, soon'; and it was addressed to all the traveling brothers. Within ten minutes, Ezra was booked in for a late night flight. It didn't take a clairvoyant to work out something was up at the Double L.
The grunt from Chris had Vin at his side in an instant. The blond tucked away his iPhone and looked at the Texan. "You real keen to spend another night sharing a King-sized bed?"
Vin's eyes twinkled, but there was little humor in them. "Reckon I could pass. Trouble?"
"Nathan posted tonight after Ezra made a comment."
"Not JD?"
"What're we waitin' for?"
Chris nodded. "You pack up, I'll call the airlines."
"What is it?"
Leona pressed her naked form against Buck's exposed back and butt, disappointed when he tensed. She wrapped her arms around him. "Something wrong, Buck?"
Setting down his iPhone, Buck turned in her arms and kissed her nose. "I have to leave." He arched back his lower body when she reached for him, purposefully.
"We are…tomorrow." Leona smiled. "We still have all night to…"
"No." Buck disentangled himself. "Now."
She followed him into the bedroom and watched him dress. "What's wrong, Buck?"
The brunet shrugged. "Not sure, but my kid brother hasn't emailed tonight, yet my other brother did."
"Something's up."
"You can figure something's wrong from one brother posting an email instead of another?"
"Uh huh."
Leona frowned. "How old is your `kid brother'?"
Buck continued dressing. "Early twenties." His head jerked up when she laughed.
"Hardly a child, then. Buck…come on, you already told me he's not home alone, I'm sure one of your other brothers can…" She was interrupted by Buck's phone ringing.
He snatched it up. "Chris? Yeah, me too. See you later, Stud." He increased his speed. If Chris and Vin were heading home, and Chris confirmed Ezra was, too, staying here was definitely no longer an option. "Age doesn't come into it," he snapped, stamping his foot into a boot before softening his gaze and half-smiling. "I've had an amazing time with you, Leona. I'm flattered that you asked me up here, but I have to leave. Now, are you gonna get me off this mountain and to the airport, or do I start walking?"
Seizing her clothes, the woman huffed. "Honestly, Buck. You haven't changed at all. My friends told me you were a loser, always linking up with strays, acting the fool. You couldn't prioritize if your life depended on it." This beautiful, sexy woman wasn't used to being turned down, so she touched her body sensually in a last-ditch attempt to entice him to stay. "Seriously, you'd give up all this for a twenty-odd year old who may, or may not be in trouble?"
Buck leaned in, suddenly remembering why he had never dared get close to this girl in school…the ex-head cheerleader, and school superbitch. "In a heartbeat. Let's go!"
The morning before Christmas Eve and JD was sitting up in bed looking like he'd partied hard all night. In truth, he had suffered a restless night from a combination of aches and pains, and the thoughts and images playing through his mind over Fergal McKee's death.
The day before, they'd had such a great chat. The man had been sick, but seemed pretty good then. JD just couldn't fathom why the man had deteriorated so quickly. Why hadn't he seen it? Could he have done more? Josiah said there would need to be an autopsy, so after all he had endured, Fergal had one final, horrifying procedure before he could finally rest in peace.
Scrambling out of bed, JD jumped in the shower. Despite his heavy heart, as he stood under the steaming water, he reflected on how his week had gone. JD decided he couldn't change what had transpired, so he would keep a special place in his heart for a man he felt privileged to have met, and focus on the present; make sure his brothers knew just how much he was grateful for the love, fun, compassion, and friendship they had brought into his life. If he had learned anything from this experience, it was to tell and show people that cared about him, how much he cared for them, too…before it was too late.
With JD was still asleep, breakfast had been just Nathan and Josiah. Despite being mighty sore, Josiah was up at his usual time, and making the most of a glorious morning.
"Be nice to have the boys back," Josiah stated while they cleared the dishes.
Nathan nodded. "Yeah, it will. Sounds like they all were having a great time."
Studying his brother for a moment, Nathan approached Josiah and dropped an arm around the big man's shoulders. "Stop blaming yourself. JD wanted to help, and meeting Fergal, or others like him goes with the territory."
"But…it's Christmas. I didn't want to ruin his Christmas."
"You haven't."
They both turned to see JD padding down the stairs in his stocking feet. He approached the pair.
"I won't deny, it was…still is…a hell of a shock, and I'll never forget it, or him; but I thought about it a lot last night, and, I feel blessed that I met him. Had I not come out with you, Josiah, I never would have. Thanks for that."
His sincerity brought tears to the big man's eyes and he smiled and carefully pulled JD into an embrace, unable to tell him right then what a remarkable young man he considered him to be, and how proud of him he was. As if sensing Josiah's sentiments, or simply reciprocating the feelings, JD squeezed back.
"Can we go to the funeral?" JD mumbled into the ex-priest's chest.
Josiah gently pushed him back, still holding onto JD's shoulders. "I'd like that. Also, Max and I made some calls this morning. Fergal's military records were found, and it's been decided he'll be buried with full honors."
The younger man gasped. "Really? How did you swing that?"
Sanchez winked. "I have friends in…unexpected places. There will be a slight delay. The funeral will take place close to the New Year. Oh, and they found his sons." Delighted at JD's reaction, the big man again pulled the smaller man toward him.
Grinning broadly, Nathan coughed. "Uh, doc missing out on the hugs, here." The three chuckled and moved together in a group embrace.
"Room for a little one?"
On seeing the grinning brunet walk through the door, JD unhooked himself from the others and almost launched himself at the man, stopping just short when he realized what he was doing. Buck simply chuckled and pulled the easterner in all the way, not missing the bruises, or the way JD couldn't quite straighten, but that could wait. He was still too relieved to see all three safe, standing, and in one piece. Just as Josiah and Nathan approached and joined in the fun, Chris and Vin came in.
Chris walked over and smacked those he could reach heartily on the back, while Vin waved from a distance and wagged a finger. "None of that huggin' shit!"
"I heartily concur," Ezra echoed, coming in behind his brothers, but was instantly dragged into the mix, pulling the wary Texan with him.
Chuckles encircled the group as they parted and JD popped out from between Buck and Josiah. "You don't have to smother me if you don't want to buy me a Christmas gift, guys."
"Who says we got you gifts?" Vin winked, grinning at the face his kid brother made.
"How come you're all back so soon?" JD asked, his eyes narrowing. "And together…"
"We emailed each other and realized we'd all be getting in around the same time, so we got a taxi back together," Chris explained.
"Why not call us for a lift?" Josiah enquired.
"Wasn't sure what we would uncover on landing," Ezra said, softly, causing JD, Josiah, and Nathan to frown. "Each of us called last night, but there was no reply."
"Ah," Nathan nodded. They would have been at the hospital. His glance to the others assured them all would be explained.
"Coffee!" Chris insisted, hurrying to beat Vin to the kitchen. They wanted to drink it, not use it as a wood preservative.
Buck's gaze flicked between JD and Josiah, dozens of questions assaulting his brain. JD interrupted his reverie by appearing right in front of him.
"We'll talk later, okay? Right now, I just wanna enjoy this moment. I've missed you all like crazy."
With a nod and a smile, Buck draped an arm around JD's shoulders and the pair headed for the kitchen to join their brothers at the table. Peace descended over the home as they sat eating cookies and enjoying their coffees and, in JD's case, milk. Chris, Vin, Ezra, and Buck shared their experiences, well, only some in Ezra and Buck's cases, but no one pushed about what had happened at home, content, for now to know all seven brothers were safe, and reasonably unscathed, which was as much as they could hope for, and better than originally feared. One thing they all agreed on, it felt good to be home, and together.
Christmas had been reasonably boisterous, but not as much as the brothers' first year. Gifts were more thoughtful and personalized this year…they knew each other so much better now, and volume was replaced by worth in the personal sense. The exchanges saw some wonderful moments of fun, and gratitude, followed by hours of enjoyment with the more `youthful' presents.
They gave thanks that their family was thriving, happy, and intact, with a trip to the local Catholic Church on Christmas Eve, much to JD and Josiah's delight. It was enjoyed so much; they agreed it should become part of their new traditions. A trail ride rounded off their holiday perfectly, the whole event confirming Ezra's assurances of JD's earlier fears, ten-fold. This family was most definitely *not* growing apart.
Two weeks after New Year and JD, Josiah and their brothers were standing close to where Fergal McKee had passed away…the place he loved to sit…his sanctuary. The hobo attempting to sleep on the brand new wooden bench there grunted at his impromptu visitors, and turned his back to them. He was happy to be off the ground, and comfortable, completely unaware of the significance of the sturdy seat, or the brass plaque on the top edge of the bench that said `In honor and memory of Fergal McKee. A man who sacrificed everything to serve his country. May he and others like him, Rest in Peace.'
JD sighed after reading the plaque. "Nice."
Josiah smiled at JD's choked comment, and at how Buck slipped behind the youth and pulled him back into a clinch. "And soon, the extension to the shelter will be underway," Josiah confirmed. "By next Christmas, twice as many homeless people will be able to enjoy a bed and meal for the night." He nodded to Chris. The blond had rallied many local businessmen that he, and originally their father did business with, to donate generously, and they all agreed to apportion some of the family's money to the cause, also. Ezra and Nathan had successfully lobbied local government for funds, and Buck held an awesome and highly successful karaoke fund-raising evening at Rosie's. There was still money to be raised, but the pot was big enough to get the project well underway.
Driving home, each man reflected on the run-up to this year's holidays. Buck had made memories, but found they were not ones he wanted to keep close to his heart after all. On returning to his bar, he confided to Inez that, for the first time in his life, he realized chasing women was no longer something that made him happy. He was rewarded by a lingering kiss from the beautiful Hispanic woman, and a comment that caused his heart to pound. `At last. Now you are the man I saw you to be. A man a woman could trust with her heart'.
Vin and Chris always enjoyed their personal time together, but both agreed, being with their brothers, and maybe riding out together occasionally, would work just as well. During their trip to Texas, they planned to suggest that the boys all go to the cabin for fishing and some down time, soon.
Nathan wanted not to be working next Christmas and New Year, and intended, at some point later in the year, to take an extended and long overdue sabbatical. Ezra eventually called Maude, and the pair `kissed and made up'. But Ezra felt something was up, he knew his mother too well. He figured time would reveal all.
Josiah had every intention of continuing to aid the shelter's volunteers sterling work with those in need. His faith had taken a beating over the years, but since finding family, he was once again spiritually inspired, and had given thanks for his new lease of life many times over the past year. Losing McKee had been a blow, despite the situation occurring often. Josiah's goal was to see a winter through without losing another to the harsh realities of life on the streets. Maybe, now that his family and the community were more involved and aware, he would achieve it.
JD wanted to continue helping Josiah, but also appreciated his passion for the ranch and learning everything about running it, which Chris, Buck, and Vin were happy to support. JD was a city boy, born and bred, but living on the ranch, and having six wonderful brothers in his life had increased his appreciation of good health and an opposite lifestyle to which he was accustomed. Yeah, they were doing okay financially, but it was nothing without the other men. Over the holidays, JD often thought about Fergal, and while they traveled home he hoped the old war hero had found peace at last.
What they all concluded recently, was that although there would always be work, and trips, they were never truly happier than when together, and vowed that in future, every effort would be made to make it happen, especially around the holidays. To endorse their declaration, they began packing for a week's excursion to their cabin by the lake. It would be a cold trip, but one they were all looking forward to.
That evening, whiskey in hand, Chris walked into the study and stood before the portrait of their father, him, Buck and Nathan. It was replaced by the one that now sat above the mantelpiece in the big room, the one of Chris and all his brothers, sans Linc Larabee.
"Look what you did, Dad. You forced seven men, four of them strangers, together; and now we're so close, we hate being apart for too long." He raised his glass and smiled, wryly. "Thank you."
The End