The first time Ted brought Dan home, he was barely more than a baby.
Dan had never meant to stop that night, too proud to ask for a second chance from the kind people who had sent him away. He was half-wild and defensive, feathers ruffled and a hardness settling around his heart. He didn't need them, not if they didn't want him. He had coped on his own before, and he could again, even if his ankle was busted and hurt like the very devil.
He had planned to head straight back to the city, back to his old job and never think of the Bhaers again and the warm home that had been open to him once upon a time. It was better after all not to think about what you could not have. But it had been cold out, so he had tried to take a shortcut, and lost his way and when he found it again he had been almost at the Bhaers.
He wouldn't have stopped, even then, but the memory of soft baby hands, of someone who smiled at him without so much as a sigh of exasperation, of Ted's crows of joyful welcome that drew him like a magnet to iron. Ted had never known enough to know that Dan was bad to the bone and should be avoided. Ted simply loved, and rejoiced in the older boy's presence. Dan could not resist stopping, just to look through the window and see the little boy's face one last time before he went back.
He was not sure himself whether he had intended Ted to see him - certainly the way the child's face had blossomed into a ready smile when his face appeared at the window had been enough to make Dan's light up. He had certainly not, however, intended that Ted should cry out to him and beat a hasty retreat into the bushes as his calls brought Mrs Bhaer to the door.
It was hard to stay hidden as she called, harder still not to appear when he heard Teddy's voice crying for "Danny, oh my Danny!" but fear and stubborn pride combined kept Dan in the bushes, made him keep his head down. These people had sent him away once already, and that had hurt more than he had able to bring himself to admit at the time. To show himself, to choke out the words that said he was sorry, he regretted his actions, to ask to come home and risk being refused - it came too close to showing weakness for a boy like Dan to be able to risk it. Freedom was meant to be his only goal, doing what he wanted.
But by the time the door closed again, and the welcoming light from inside was cut off, it was late - too late to keep walking, and Dan was too weary to try. He crept around the back instead to where he had seen the hay-cocks earlier on the lawn. It was not luxury perhaps, but he had slept in more uncomfortable beds in his life, and it would do until morning.
His dreams were invaded by memories of happier times, and when he heard his name called it seemed as though he had not yet awaken. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to open his eyes and see Mother Bhaer leaning over him, her face as concerned as though Dan had been one of her own dear boys and not the lost one, the bad one, the young devil that Dan was so certain he was for sometimes he could barely seem to help his own bad behaviour.
It took a moment for him to wake properly and understand that the gentle worry on her face was truly for him, and not someone more deserving of it. Even then, when he understood, pride might have held him back again if it weren't for the memory of the child inside who wanted so badly to see him that he had clapped his hands and cried for his Danny at the door.
Perhaps then he could accept the lure of kindness and warmth the Bhaers offered, for Ted's sake if not his own.
Limping, moving slowly with the pain of his injured foot, Dan came home.
The second time Ted brought Dan home, he was older, and Dan had lost his way in quite a different fashion.
He couldn't quite recall quite when things had begun to go wrong for him, only that when he knew they had gone too far he was already far too deeply involved to get himself out again. He had meant to do only good, seeing a boy in over his head in a card game. Perhaps indeed he could have done good had he chosen a different method - had he chosen to warn the boy, or pull him away from the games earlier. He had not wanted to interfere overly much though, and so he had watched instead, standing guard over the youngster and finally speaking up when he saw evidence of the cheating he had already suspected was going on.
It was help well-meant and much needed by the boy he protected, and yet it resulted in a fight, and at the end of the fight one of the cheats lay dead and Dan was in a cell, his well loved freedom taken from him in a crippling blow.
It would have been so easy then to call for help, and had he done so he knew he would be home quickly enough. The Bhaers would not leave one of their boys alone and in trouble.
It was help he would not allow himself to ask for though. Dan's pride, always a strong force in whatever path he chose to take, cut in at the very thought of it. To ask for help to get out of this trouble - trouble he had got himself into through his own foolish actions, and that he would blame no-one else for - would be a shameful thing, and he would not stoop to it.
He was determined in fact that the Bhaers should never know of it, and most especially that Ted should never have reason to guess at the trouble he had got himself into. Dan was not sure which he was most afraid of - that Ted should turn away from him in horror at the idea his idol could do such a thing, or that he should look upon the murder of a man as nothing more than another of Dan's exciting adventures, something to admire and emulate.
That idea disturbed Dan, somewhere deep down in his soul. That he might be unredeemable, unsavable was one thing. Hard as it was, he could talk his way into accepting that, give up on himself as though he really was the young demon he had pictured himself as so long ago. But that Ted might admire that, might copy that... no. That could not, must not be allowed.
And so he must never find out. Whatever it took, he must never find out.
Dan worked out his sentence in jail with that in mind, and yet even when it was over he could not quite bring himself to head for home and the comfort he had waited for, for so long. To his own eyes, he looked like a man who had recently been in jail, and the shame of it clung to him still. If he headed home, there would be questions he could never answer, explanations he would never be able to give, not so long as Ted might discover them. He must wait a little longer, until he had worked the deed away somehow, until he could look in the mirror and see something more than a convict.
He might have stayed away forever, making that excuse to himself each year and each year sending home empty letters that tried to convey his love for them while saying nothing at all. He might certainly have tried, had it not been for the fall in the mine. It had not been expected (for who expected a thing such as that?), nor had his response to it been planned, for there was no time to think of a plan. There was only time to see the dust, hear the shouts of alarm, realise that there were men still in the mine - some of them boys barely younger than Ted - and run to help.
And then there was pain, far too much pain to think properly, his freedom wings snapped and broken with pain and drifting fever-dreams of kind hands, friendly faces, a home he had been trying to make himself forget.
When you have had such dreams for a while, they come to seem like the natural thing in the world, and so it was not a surprise when Dan opened his eyes to see Ted's anxious face peering down at him. He greeted him with a smile, and a "Hullo Ted!", certain that in a moment the boy would fade and vanish away. All of the other dreams had,
But Ted stayed. Ted stayed and talked, and Dan barely heard what he said, so lost was he in staring at the boy, eyes hungry for the vision of what he thought he had lost. He was there that day, and he was there the next, and after a week Dan was almost prepared to accept that he was real and not some cruel hallucination that would be torn away from him when the fever passed.
Uncle Laurie was there also, but he watched the proceedings with his usual gentle good humour, and did not interrupt or speak as Dan lay and listened to Ted, noting how he drew every detail of home from the boy, desperate to hear everything no matter how trivial.
And yet, no matter how Ted urged, Dan was reluctant to return home. That Ted had not looked at him and seen instantly the guilt he was sure still lay visibly on him he took only as a sign of the youngster's innocence, rather than that any sign of that guilt might have been washed away. Ted begged and cajoled him to come home, to Mother Bhaer's cooking and love, and Dan longed more than anything to agree, and yet each time he found himself ducking out of it, making excuse after excuse. He was too tired, too ill to travel. It was too long a distance to attempt. Mother Bhaer did not need to be troubled by caring for a young invalid. (Ted snorted at the absurdity of that last excuse, for when had his mother ever viewed the care of one of her boys as a "trouble"?)
It took a letter from Mrs Jo to bring him home at last, and that was filled with as much love and affection as that motherly woman knew how to put into words. Filled with homesickness that suddenly seemed to rage out of control, faced with her pleading and Ted's coaxing to return, Dan finally agreed. He tried not to see how Ted's face lit up as he did so, silently promising himself that it should not be for long. Only for as long as it might take for his poor shattered body to finally heal and be whole again, and then he really must leave for the longer he was around those her loved so dearly, the harder it would be for secrets to be kept.
The second time Ted brought him home, there was more damage than a hurt foot to worry about, and Dan had to be helped out of the carriage to totter wearily into the house, silently swearing all the while to say nothing and leave as soon as he was able.
Of course, that was an oath that lasted only for as long as it took for Mother Bhaer to look at him, and get him alone. Not because of any imagined sign of guilt, for much as Dan might have imagined he was as marked as Cain any physical wear from his time in jail would have been lost in the much greater effects from the fallen mine. No, Mother Bhaer knew as any mother knows when something is wrong with her child, from the hurt lines around Dan's face, from the things that he said, and the things that he did not.
The confession was coaxed out of him with gentleness and love rather than any demands for the truth, and in truth, Dan felt better to have it out than to be holding it up inside himself, afraid that should anyone guess he might be back out on the streets and helpless. Still though, he begged Mother Bhaer to keep it to herself, to tell Father Bhaer and Uncle Laurie if she must (for Dan felt that surely those two deserved to know for themselves that it was a murderer they were introducing back into the Bhaer household), but no-one else. Most especially not Ted, Ted who had travelled so far to bring him back, who looked at Dan and talked of him as though he were a hero. Though he didn't feel he deserved the admiration, to see it change to revulsion would be too heavy a burden to bear. He begged, and Mother Bhaer promised, and Dan thought that should be an end to the matter.
As it happened though, Ted knew more than Dan was aware of already. A sick man cannot be blamed if he thrashes and babbles and cries out sometimes, and a curious boy certainly cannot be blamed if he listens.
He demanded the truth with a determination that was pure Ted; nudging and coaxing and guessing until Dan was reduced to laughter despite himself by the youngster's wild attempts to find the truth.
In the end he told him that he had killed a man, and lost nothing by doing so for Ted had guessed that much already. Watching the boy's face closely, Dan thought for a moment that Ted, as he had feared, might lose the seriousness of that deed in favour of making it a rousing adventure. Ted could read Dan better than that man ever realised though, and a few moments studying the seriousness of his expression told him that this might not be something to laugh and joke over. In the end he took it neither as an act of heroism nor of one of shame, but simply as something regrettable that had happened, and now need not be spoken of again.
He might never know just how much that reaction relieved Dan, nor have predicted how much more easily he would tell his stories to the boy in future, trusting that Ted was old enough now to begin telling bad from good himself, and not simply blindly copy things that his hero might have done.
For the second time, Dan knew, it was safe to come - and stay - home.
The third time Ted brought Dan home, it was a snowy night, glittering with frost and his feet crunching through half frozen snow. Dan had been gone almost a year, for much as Dan loved being home he could not stay there forever. Once mended, there was too much of an itch in his feet, too much of an urge to explore the world and spread his wings, and so he went and risked whatever dangers the world might offer him.
But he came home for Ted.
It had been a hard journey back, and yet still Dan was smiling a little as he stamped the snow off his boots. He waited patiently until the tousled head appeared, knowing that Ted would never be able to resist investigating who had arrived on such a cold night. The wild yell of joy was blessedly familiar, as was the way Ted hurled himself downstairs in greeting in such a way that had there been other observers, they might have worried that the young man might slip and break his neck.
Not Dan though. Dan just smiled, and allowed himself to be pulled into the warmth, let Ted tug his coat off, and listened to him pour out question after question - where have you been, what have you seen, was it fun, did you miss me, I missed you, I love you, I'm glad you're home - a long stream of words that left no room for answering.
The third time Ted brought Dan home, he didn't worry any more about any burden he carried with him. The third time, he knew that whatever burden he might carry with him, it would change nothing here, nothing at all. He was a hawk that would gyre and wheel free in the world and its skies, his jesses held by the gentle hand of one faithful friend and the only family he'd really known.
The third time was the charm because where he had pulled and fretted at those tethers of emotion, now he realised that they did not bind him so much as make him free.
Ted brought him home for a third time, and forever.