A/N: This is my new story. It's co-written with ZZ9PluralZAlpha. Thank you for helping me with this :)
Troy groaned, screwing his face up and wincing as the dull aches along his sides and backs throbbed with sharper pain, reacting to him contorting to a new angle. Heedless of the pain, He pushed his hands into his hips and arched his back further, determined to ease a few of the kinks from his seized-up joints. He had been working too hard, he knew, for too long. Yes, the fence needed building, and fixing up in a few places, but it wasn't smart to do too much physical labour in such high temperatures, especially when he hadn't been drinking enough, either.
Still, it was done now, and Troy felt able to take a step back and feel proud of himself, which was something he hadn't felt in a long time. The fence was a good piece of work, he knew: straight and sturdy, clear lines: it wasn't coming down in a hurry. He pulled the cap off his water bottle, took a swig, and grimaced at the sky. The vast expanse of sky above the ranch, normally a blue so deep it didn't look quite real, today thrummed an annoying, off-white glow, the colour of a headache. It was not a nice day: everything was too hot, and the heat was sapping the energy from everything. Even the horses were grazing slowly and lazily, and were irritable with all the staff. And it didn't look like there'd be a break in the weather to relieve the tension any time soon.
His satisfied smile, which had crept stealthily across his face as he surveyed his handiwork, faded as he wondered what to do next. As impossible as it seemed, the ranch was running out of jobs for him to do, and he needed to keep busy. He knew it wasn't fair on his Dad, Jack, or on the other staff working there, but for the moment at least, Troy needed to keep busy, to keep his mind away from certain subjects, and mostly to keep himself exhausted enough that his sleep went untroubled by dreams. Because in his dreams, Troy could only watch his wife die.
He sighed, patted a horse that had bothered to come close to him, and began the long walk back to the ranch, to what was left of his family, and to his son. The thought of little Kaden, nearly three now, brought a small smile back to his face. Kaden, he realised, made everything worth it. His pace increased ever so slightly.
The ranch was a prosperous, sprawling complex, really. With the amount of money his father had earned through building it up, he had been able to add considerably to the house which Jack and Michael, his younger brother, lived in. Now there was also the house which Troy and Kaden lived in and a guest house. Along with that, there were other buildings where farming and work equipment was kept for the animals and crops. Troy owned the smaller of the houses and had rightfully bought it from Jack for himself, Eloise and Kaden to live in. Troy had grown up on the ranch, just like Michael had done and Jack before them, so Troy wanted Kaden to grow up just like them.
Troy had grown up on the working ranch, but basketball had also always been very important to his life. Jack was the coach at the local high school, and it had been pretty much a given since Troy was born that he'd be the captain of the basketball team and the playmaker and the most popular guy in school; it was like his heritage, or something. He smiled when he thought of how Michael was exactly like he used to be. Although basketball was still important to him – he played regularly with Jack, Michael and even Kaden – he felt the reason he was alive was to help animals. He was a veterinarian at a small local surgery and on the ranch. It had been his dream ever since he saw a vet treat one of the horses he owned.
As he climbed the wooden porch steps, which creaked underneath his weight, he pulled his protective gloves off and threw them carelessly onto the floor by the glass door. He pulled his muddy boots off and set them by his gloves. With the fence built, and his body sore and aching, all he needed now was a long, relaxing shower. Of course, being a widowed husband with a three year old son, it was kind of impossible. But, Troy knew that Kaden was like his own personal relaxing shower that was always there. Even if his back and legs were bruised and throbbing, he would soon forget about it if he spent time with Kaden.
He pushed the door open and smiled to himself. His house always felt like he was where he was supposed to be. Despite losing his wife, he had Kaden. That meant everything to him. He still had a part of her. Actually, he still had a lot of her. Kaden had her blonde hair, her cheeky smile, her love of ice cream, heck, even her smell. The only thing Kaden had inherited from Troy was his gentle blue eyes, which had been the sign of a true Bolton for generations.
It was a relief to get into the cool, shadowy house after the oppressive heat of the day, but Troy noted immediately that it wasn't quite as much of a relief as it should be. There was tension in the air, and troy thought he could probably guess why. It wasn't immediate, though, not in his house. The main house... that was the source of it. As had become a kind of preparation ritual for him for the stresses involved in his life, he made his way quickly to the little room above the kitchen, next to his own. Kaden's room was empty, just as it should be, but he had always found that being here helped him to relax. Whatever the reason for the tension in the house, it wasn't present in this tiny oasis of calm. He could take a kind of strength from that.
As always, he avoided glancing at the photo of Kaden's mother, which was placed prominently where the little boy could see it when he woke up. Troy wasn't entirely sure why he bothered with the evasion, though. It wasn't like he didn't see Eloise whenever he closed his eyes. And, considering that he usually saw her as he last did, in pain and suffering greatly for the sake of their child, he might even welcome the sight of her, beautiful and 21, laughing at him as she posed. He remembered that day, sometimes: everything had been perfect. They were so in love, had been since they were sixteen, and now were married and so happy. He had thought they would have eternity together.
He blinked, concentrating on not altering the expression on his face, and turned back to the stairs. He headed for the kitchen, knowing that would be where everyone was. The house was the hub of the ranch, from where everyone who worked there set out to work, and to where they all returned at the end of the day before heading home, and the kitchen was the centre of the house in the same way. It was where everything happened, for as long as troy could remember.
He stopped off on the way in the den of the main house. The room was good, but it couldn't hold a candle to the real thing. He needed his son, now.
"Kaden!" The voice was stern, but Troy could hear the notes of amusement and affection present, and a grin ghosted over his face.
He rolled his eyes to himself and peeked around the doorframe. He smiled when he saw Kaden playing on the floor with Lucille, a co-worker on the ranch. Kaden was playing with his toy trucks and kept pushing them into Lucille's hands. He lifted his blonde head and grinned at Troy. He scrambled to his feet and stumbled over to the doorway. "Daddy!" he yelled out happily as he hugged Troy's legs.
Troy bent down and picked him up, resting him on his hip and walking into the den. He extended his free hand to Lucille and helped her to her feet. "Thank you so much, Lucy. I hope he hasn't been a terror." He ruffled his son's hair and kissed his forehead.
"He's never a terror. He's so sweet." She smiled warmly.
"I know," Troy whispered.
"I'd better go. I'll see you tomorrow. Tell Jack that I'll be a few minutes late, but not much," she said softly, her eyes never leaving Kaden all the time she was talking.
"Lucy, you've been working here since before I was born. If you turned up an hour late without telling us, we'd be fine with it. Sure, my dad would probably have a panic attack and call the police to report a missing person… it'll be fine. Now, go. Get some rest." Troy ordered softly.
Lucy smiled gratefully and kissed his cheek. "Don't worry about your parents, okay? Or Michael. And especially this little fella. Just worry about you." She kissed Kaden's forehead. "Bye, Kaden."
"Bye, Aunt Lucy," he said, waving frantically at the retreating back of the woman who had helped Troy through one of the hardest times of his life.
The twenty-six year old looked down at his son and smiled at him. "Shall we go and visit Grandpa, Granma and Uncle Mike?"
"Uncle Mike!" Kaden squealed excitedly.
Troy laughed at the little boy's enthusiasm as they moved through the house. Kaden loved everyone, and got equally excited over everyone, too. Troy wished, somehow, that he wouldn't lose that as he grew up. Not a realistic wish, he admitted to himself, but he found himself at least hoping that Kaden retained some of the amiable nature that was so obvious now.
"Yes, Uncle Mike. We'll go and pick him up from school soon, but I want to talk to Grandma and Grandpa first."
Kaden bubbled happily, while Troy's good mood faded a little. The tension he had felt earlier was increasing as they approached the Kitchen. He wasn't looking forward to this.
The kitchen was large and open plan, and the room focused on the massive circular table in the middle, the table that could seat an entire extended family or a large proportion of the ranch's workforce. Currently, it only sat Jack Bolton. Troy was shocked to realise that, at least in the low light, and with his face creased in a sad frown, his father looked old. Jack had always been such a lively man, always moving around the ranch or jogging up and down the basketball court: it seemed impossible that such a person could be so still, and so defeated too.
Meaghan Bolton was leaning against one of the counters, nursing a mug of coffee in her hands and her eyes were narrowed, staring intently at a small stack of papers piled on the table in front of Jack. It didn't miss Troy's notice, either, that she was as far from Jack as it was possible to be in that room. His heart sank a little.
Both grandparents caught sight of the newcomers at the same time, and Troy noticed again the difference in their reactions. Jack's frown transformed into a wide smile, and he instantly got up, reaching out for his grandson. Kaden reached back, and Troy handed him over with a tired smile at his Dad. Meaghan didn't move at all, but her already thing mouth tightened further. Troy hated being part of the reason for their break up, which everyone knew was inevitable now. He hated that it was his fault that a long and happy marriage was ending. And he hated that all of them were suffering so much because of it.
He cleared his throat, his eyes on his mother. "What's going on?"
Her eyes snapped to his. "Your father," she almost hissed the word, "is finally making it official. He's hired a lawyer. Finally getting rid of me."
Jack winced, Kaden held over his shoulder and bouncing, eliciting beautiful giggles from the toddler. "Meaghan, that's not fair. You've wanted this for months, I know that. And I'm sorry I've taken so long over this, but I didn't want to give up. Just a few more weeks, and you'll have what you want."
The calm facade broke. "Oh, so this is my fault? It's my fault you're cheating on me? My fault the entire stinking place is conspiring against me? My fault-"
"Mum, stop it," Troy interrupted, frowning at her. "For the millionth time, Dad has never cheated on you. None of us is conspiring against you. Stop being so damn paranoid." It was a testament to his poor mood that he had used language like that in front of his son.
Meaghan set the coffee down hard and advanced on him, the anger rolling off her in waves. "Oh, paranoid am I? Get off your damn high horse, Troy, because you know just as well as I do whose fault this really is."
Troy shut down immediately, his face growing blank and calm, his normally clear blue eyes gaining an icy tint. Kaden saw this and grew quiet. He didn't like it when his daddy went away like this. Jack stepped forward.
"That's too far, Meg," he stated firmly, and she took a step back despite herself. "You will not blame this on Troy. He has done nothing wrong, done nothing to deserve this. I think you had better leave."
Meaghan made a sound half-way to a growl, and strode out of the room. Troy took a deep breath, coming back into himself, and his eyes automatically sought out Kaden's. His son was supported on Jack's shoulder, looking somewhat wild-eyed, and Troy hastened to take him from his grandfather and give him a cuddle.
"Don't worry K, I'm here. I'm back." Troy knew that Kaden hated it when he blanked himself up like that, and was trying to stop it, but by now it was automatic. Whenever someone brought up Eloise's death, or the sad series of events that had led to his parents' ensuing divorce, he just couldn't face it and walled himself off. He wasn't himself at those times, and who he became scared himself just as much as it did Kaden.
"You ok, son?" Jack's voice was both concerned and tired, and Troy turned to give his father a reassuring nod, which Jack acknowledged gratefully. "Try not to let her get to you. I know it must be difficult, but it looks like she won't be around that much longer. She was saying today that she's got a job starting in a couple of months, in Chicago of all places. That's why we're pushing ahead with the divorce."
"And hired a lawyer already?" Troy kept his voice soft for Kaden's sake, but couldn't completely mask the guilt present there. Jack laid an arm on his son's shoulder, but concentrated on the question, rather than what he had discerned.
"I thought you'd guess. You do remember Kelsi telling us that her friend Gabriella from New York is moving here to set up a law practice? We're going to be her first case."
Troy grinned at the memory of the conversation. Kelsi Neilson was probably Troy's closest friend, even closer than Chad Danforth, and it was unusual for the small, quiet girl to get so enthusiastic about something other than music or her boyfriend, Jason. It seemed that, in her third year at Julliard College of performing arts in New York City, she had shared a small apartment with this girl, one Gabriella Montez, a law student at Columbia. They had kept in touch, and when Gabriella had announced her intention to move to literally the other end of the country, Kelsi had been ecstatic.
"That's cool, Dad. From what Kelsi was saying, she's really smart. I'm sure she'll do you proud."
Jack sighed. It hurt that he was now forced into this combative situation with the woman that he loved, but he wasn't even certain of that any more. Did he love her? He couldn't tell, now. She seemed like a different person. Still, it seemed wrong, somehow, to hope to get the best of her in some way. He looked at his watch.
"Troy, you'd better get going. Michael's going to be ready soon. You taking Kaden?"
Troy grinned. "I don't think he'd forgive me if I didn't."
Jack quirked an eyebrow as Troy moved towards the door, grabbing the keys of his station wagon. "Mike or Kaden?"
Troy let out a bark of laughter as he left.
Troy pulled his truck to a stop and smiled to himself nostalgically. He had been coming to this school since he was born. Even before he attended high school, Meaghan had, somewhat reluctantly he now realised, taken him to pick Jack up from work and to see the Wildcat basketball games. Those had been simpler times. When the most complicated thing he came across was math. But, now that he was older and he looked back on his life, things had just been building up over the years. He was simply the straw that broke the camel's back.
His high school years had been okay, too. He liked school. He needed school. Not only was it somewhere he escaped the building arguments between his parents, Eloise was there. And he knew he needed straight As to get into vet school so he defied the stereotype of a jock and had been Valedictorian. Those were the days. He had friends, good grades, and a beautiful girlfriend who he was head over heels in love with and 'as helpless as a puppy when she's around' according to Chad.
Too bad really good things happen in the blink of an eye.
Troy turned the volume up slightly on the radio and heard his favourite song by Rascal Flatts playing. He looked over at Kaden who was looking intently out of the windscreen, looking out for Michael, and bouncing rhythmically in his booster seat. Kaden knew this song as well as Troy did, probably better than Troy did. Troy sang him to sleep every night with this song and it never failed. If Kaden had his Wah-Wah bear, his nightlight and Troy was singing this song, he was out like a light.
Kaden looked over to his father and smiled. "Daddy, can you unclick my thing, please?" He asked sweetly, pointing to the buckle which secured his seatbelt.
Troy unbuckled his own seatbelt and unstrapped Kaden. He pulled him over to sit on his lap and brushed his golden hair from his eyes. "You okay, Kaden?"
Kaden nodded happily. "When's Uncle Mike coming?"
Troy checked his watch. "In about five minutes."
Kaden giggled with excitement and twisted his head to look out of the window. "I like this song, Daddy."
Troy felt his eyes water and leaned forward to kiss his son's head. "Me too. Shall we wait outside?"
Kaden nodded enthusiastically and allowed Troy to help him out of the car. Troy had rolled the window down so when he leaned against the door with Kaden resting on his hip, they could both still hear the beautiful song that was playing. "Daddy?"
Troy smiled down at Kaden. "Yeah, buddy?"
"You're my best friend." He gave his father a toothy smile.
Troy smiled brightly at the simple compliment. "Thank you, Kaden. You're my best friend, too."
"I thought Auntie Kelsi was your best friend?" He asked, scrunching his nose up cutely.
Troy chuckled. "She is. But, you'll always come first." Troy whispered. He kissed his son's forehead and began singing softly.
You save my life
Kaden rested his head on Troy's shoulder and his breathing began to even out. "You, too." He muttered tiredly.
Troy smiled to himself as he rocked slowly from one foot to the other. It amazed him how he never grew tired of Kaden. Playing with him, listening to him, hearing him say 'I love you, Daddy' and even watching him sleep. He was all he had left of her. He released a quiet chuckle when he thought back to Eloise's pregnancy three years ago. She had been so excited. Not just because she and Troy were having a baby together but because Taylor, Chad's wife, had found out she was pregnant at the same time. The two women had been so excited. Neither couple had found out the sex of their children but they had already decided that they would be best friends no matter what. And, if by any chance, one was a girl and one was a boy, they were getting married. Their wedding was practically planned!
Troy suddenly smiled wider when he spotted a tall boy moving swiftly through the crowds of students towards them. "Kaden…" He sang softly. "Guess whose coming."
Kaden lifted his head and yawned sleepily. He suddenly became more awake and squirmed in his father's arms until he was set on the ground. "Uncle Mike!" He scurried away and ran straight into Michael's legs.
Michael, a tall muscular guy with dirty blonde hair and blue eyes just like Troy, picked Kaden up and ruffled his hair. He slung his bag more comfortably onto his shoulder and continued towards Troy. "How are you, Kaden?"
Kaden grinned brightly. "I'm good. I've been playing with Auntie Lucy today."
Michael looked at Troy. "Really? Where was Dad?"
Troy grew quiet, his smile faded and he folded his arms.
"Troy?" Michael stepped closer and looked into his eyes. "Tell me."
"You know, it's not important. Kaden, do you want some ice cream and then we can go and visit Naomi." Troy smiled at his son but he knew that Michael would see through it.
Michael sighed and reached past Troy to pull the door open, setting Kaden on the seat. "Just stay there for a second, okay?"
Kaden nodded faithfully, not wanting to disappoint either Troy or Michael. "Okay." He whispered.
Michael shut the door, allowing Kaden to dance happily to the radio. "Troy, what's going on?"
"Dad's hired a lawyer." He whispered.
"It's happening? Really? Are you sure?" Michael asked.
Troy nodded. "Yeah. Dad finally gave up." He moved his eyes to meet his brother's. "I'm sorry, Mike."
Michael nodded with understanding. "It's not your fault." He mumbled.
Troy shrugged. "She thinks so."
"Is Dad's lawyer Kelsi's friend?" Michael asked after a moment.
Troy nodded hesitantly. "Yes…why?"
"I was just thinking. Maybe she's hot." He said thoughtfully.
"Dude!" Troy exclaimed. "My three year old son is in the car. And you're only seventeen. She won't go out with you. It's not legal and guess what? She's a lawyer. She's supposed to keep the law! Besides, aren't lawyers supposed to be geeks?"
"Yeah, let Kelsi hear that." Michael joked.
Troy ruffled his hair and laughed. "Come on, let's get home, bro."