Author's notes: Thanks so much for all the encouragement and patience. This one's a little bit longer and made better by May's astute input! Hope you enjoy.
Crane let the familiar drone of the engine soothe his frazzled nerves as the truck traced the road leading home. He was worn out, mentally and physically, yet wired at the same time. Fright and worry could do that to a man. Of course six cups of hospital coffee probably didn't do much for those jitters either.
Daniel moaned as Brian turned the vehicle onto the gravel and Crane tucked his wounded sibling closer to his side. Daniel didn't protest. In fact the kid hadn't budged from under Crane's arm the entire ride and his complacency worried Crane a little. Thankfully this trip Daniel was calm and lucid; not the struggling, confused and outright panicked little brother they'd accompanied to the emergency room.
"Sorry for the rough ride, Dan'l. You doin' okay?" Brian asked, reaching over and cupping the back of Daniel's neck. Apparently he was concerned too.
"I'm all right." Daniel mumbled, his words triggering a raspy cough.
Crane exchanged an anxious look with Brian. The kid had a concussion, smoke inhalation, five stitches along his temple and a knee too swollen to bend. The doctors who'd examined him had run every scan and test Crane had heard of and a few he hadn't. They had reassured the brothers everything was normal; no broken bones or internal injuries. That Daniel would be sore and have a killer headache for a few days, but all things considered, the kid was damn lucky. 'All right' wasn't even visible in a microscope yet, but Daniel was well enough to come home and that was enough for now.
Of course they had also stressed the urgency of bringing Daniel back if he became difficult to wake, started slurring his words or the pain got too bad. Crane had a list of things that could still go wrong typed out nice and pretty on the discharge sheet crumpled in his pocket.
The wheels ground to a halt at the front gate, Crane so lost in thought and sheer exhaustion he hadn't noticed the house coming into view.
"Hang on, I'll help you with him." Brian said, opening his door then pausing to scrutinize Crane. "You look ready to drop."
"I'm fine." Crane said, fumbling weakly for the handle that suddenly felt fifty-pounds heavier than usual. Brian opened the door from the outside and Crane almost hit the dirt.
The raised eyebrow and soft snort told him Brian wasn't buying into his lie.
"C'mon, let's go in." Crane whispered to Daniel, helping him slide across the seat.
"Get my crutches." Daniel motioned toward the truck bed.
Crane shook his head. "You're not gonna need 'em right now, they can wait."
He felt Daniel balk and smiled inwardly at the recognizable spark of rebellion. It didn't last long though and he relented, allowing Crane to help him out of the cab. Daniel hissed as his injured leg touched down then buckled and Crane said a quiet 'thanks' as Brian's quick reflexes stopped their little brother from hitting the hard earth.
Crane was grateful too that Brian had insisted he go along tonight. It scared him to think about trying to drive Daniel to the ER by himself. It turned out Crane had needed not only the physical backup, but the moral support as well. As crass as his older brother could be, Crane was sure glad to have him on his side at times like this. They rarely saw eye-to-eye on anything except their unwavering loyalty to family.
"Whoa, hold on there." Brian said, leaning over and draping Daniel's arm across his shoulders. Crane mimicked the act and they slowly picked their way toward the porch. Daniel endured the humiliation in silence, his deep, careful breaths telling Crane better than words that the kid was hurting.
By the time the trio had maneuvered the porch steps Crane's limbs were shaking, his muscles rebelling against the added strain on his exhausted body.
"You good there, sport?" Brian asked Daniel as he pulled open the screen door.
Crane hated the defeated tone and squeezed Daniel's neck in silent support, guiding him into the foyer. Their ever-vigilant family members swarmed them, desperate to see for themselves that Daniel was indeed alive and in one piece. Of course the only thing on Crane's agenda was getting Daniel to their room and settled for the night. Everybody could hold off on the questions until the poor kid had had a chance to rest and recuperate.
"You all right?" Adam cupped Daniel's face with one palm as they stepped inside, making visual inventory of their brother's injuries. Adam's voice a tightrope between concern and controlled anger.
Daniel nodded, his eyes squinted against the light and the obvious throbbing inside his skull the movement caused. "Where's Guthrie?"
That question again. Despite the calmness in his delivery Crane could still hear a hint of panic behind it. He knew Daniel had spent the afternoon in a whirlwind of confusion and he sympathized.
"He's sleeping in Evan and Ford's room, sweetheart." Hannah said, her fingers automatically carding through Daniel's hair and inspecting the bruise spreading from beneath the bandage. "He's tired, but fine."
Crane gripped Daniel's shoulder and ushered him toward the stairs. He knew he wouldn't be mobile much longer and truth was Crane wasn't feeling all too steady either. The sooner he got him settled the sooner they could both rest.
Adam took over Brian's place to help Daniel up the stairs and Crane held his breath. Big brother was pissed. Crane had really hoped Adam's adrenaline high from worry would spare Daniel and Guthrie until he'd had a chance to cool off or vent to Hannah.
As they finally made their way down the hall, Daniel stopped in front of his younger brothers' room, his eyes pleading. "Wait."
Crane met Adam's gaze, ready to overrule if there had been a hint of dissention. He understood Daniel's need to see that Guthrie was all right.
"Just a quick look." Adam said.
The door creaked softly and the light from the hallway illuminated a path to the bed Guthrie occupied. Crane took over supporting Daniel, guiding him slowly in the dim light toward the boy's sleeping form. He could feel the relief and gratitude rolling off Daniel as he dropped onto the side of the bed and rested a shaky hand on Guthrie's head. Crane recognized it; he'd experienced the same gamut of emotions earlier today.
Crane gave him a few minutes then pulled Daniel to his feet. "C'mon kid, you need some rest too."
He led Daniel into their room and eased him onto his bed. Crane could feel his own head spinning as he pulled his kid brother's boots off and tossed them against the wall. Adam leaned on the door frame watching as Crane helped Daniel undress. Crane could feel the tension pouring off Adam. He knew Daniel felt it too. He also knew from experience their eldest's propensity to let his fear turn into irrational anger would be inevitable.
"Mind explaining what the hell you two were doing on Chet Watson's property?"
And there it was. Damn. Crane hated being right sometimes.
Crane felt Daniel flinch and caught a flash of anger shining in the kid's pain-filled eyes. Adam was too upset and worried to let go and his accusatory tone did nothing but raise Daniel's defenses.
"Adam, this can wait." Crane snapped. He probably could have been more tactful, but stress and fatigue had worn his tolerance to a nub and his protective hackles rose as he stood between his brothers. He might not be able to prevent Adam's wrath, but maybe he could divert it for now.
"Didn't you ask Guthrie what happened?" Daniel shot back. "Or you just assuming everything was my fault?"
"He's just a kid, you're supposed to look out for him, not lure him into trouble. Trouble, that I might add, almost got you both killed." Adam said, his voice a restrained shout.
"Hey, give him a break." Crane said, letting his voice rise to match Adam's. "Hear him out, Adam."
"That's okay, no matter what the truth is he'll find a way to blame me." Daniel sat up, his face turning ashen from the sudden effort and Crane cupped a hand at the base of his neck to steady him.
"Try me!" Adam spat.
"Sometimes, Daniel, I swear, you're more of a kid than Guthrie." Adam countered, throwing his hands up in frustration.
Crane had had enough. This head-butting was getting heated and ugly fast and neither one of them were thinking straight.
"Adam, knock it off!" Crane stepped toward his brother, the aggressive gesture more to gain Adam's attention than an actual threat, but Crane wasn't about to let him steam-roll Daniel. Especially when the kid was neither prepared for or up to the verbal attack. "You both need to cool down and discuss this tomorrow. Like adults."
Adam started to retort, then stopped cold. Crane hoped the sight of their wounded and distressed brother caused Adam to think twice. Of course the drop-dead stare he was boring into him right now couldn't hurt.
"We'll talk about this later." Adam promised Daniel. "When we're both feeling better."
As Adam disappeared into the hallway, Crane let out a deep breath. He was afraid Adam had over-stepped some boundaries. At eighteen, Daniel still had not mastered navigating the perilous path between boy and man. And Daniel's oldest brother, the one he admired and looked to for parental guidance, was the last person who needed to point that out.
"Let him cool off, he might even be rational in the morning." Crane said as he turned back to Daniel.
Daniel nodded cautiously, dropping his head in his hands in what Crane figured was either distress or despair. Probably both.
"Hey, everything's gonna be okay." Crane squeezed Daniel's shoulder and gently pushed him back against the pillow. "You can tell us what happened tomorrow. Right?"
Daniel looked up at him with pleading, bloodshot eyes. "I don't remember, Crane. Maybe I was being a screw up and almost got him killed?"
The confession startled Crane. He knew memory loss was among the complications the E.R. doctor had mentioned, he'd just assumed with Daniel so distraught, so hell-bent on finding Guthrie that he must have remembered everything. It didn't matter that they'd said it was normal, Crane still found it disconcerting.
"You don't remember anything?" Crane tried to keep the concern out of his voice. The last thing he wanted was to alarm Daniel with his own paranoia.
"All I see is jumbled flashes of fire and Guthrie trapped in the middle of it. And it was my fault." Daniel's words trailed into a whisper.
Crane knew it was the exhaustion and the guilt talking. The same song he'd heard after the mine collapse. Daniel might not know it, but Crane would bet his life that nothing remotely close had happened this time. His kid brother had grown up a lot since that day.
"Daniel, unless you purposely set that fire, which is about as likely as you playing a gig on the moon, then I don't want to hear any of the self-incriminating bull, okay?" Crane sat on the bed facing his younger brother and draped his hands on the kid's shoulders. "Listen, you know how irrational Adam gets when he's scared. Give it some time; you'll remember when your brain thinks you're ready. So stop beating yourself up, okay?"
Daniel sounded less than convinced.
"And nobody thinks you're a screw up." Crane swatted him affectionately on his good knee. "Just ask Brian sometime about the outright stupid and dangerous things Adam used to do."
Daniel snorted. "Saint Adam?"
"Oh, yeah, one and the same. You younger boys don't remember how he was before…" Crane's voice trailed, not wanting to dredge up any more painful memories. "Let's just say Brian had a hard time keeping up with him in his wild days."
Daniel grew quiet and Crane hoped he was mulling over the idea of their astute and responsible older brother as a former hell-raiser. More likely he was choking on self-recrimination that nothing but time would soothe over. Daniel swallowed hard, his eyes glazed with unshed tears from emotion and the ache in his skull.
"Time to call it a night, Danny." Crane stood up, his hand resting lightly on the back of Daniel's head, hoping the simple gesture could somehow absorb his brother's pain. Feeling a little foolish for the thought he pulled the prescription bottle out of his pocket and handed it to Daniel. "Hang on; I'll get you some water."
Crane ruffled his brother's hair before heading for the bathroom and filling the water glass. Times like these he wished Adam had learned to be a little more tactful and lot more restrained when dealing with the boys. They needed a supportive shoulder first, discipline later. Something Adam usually got backwards.
"Never thought of Adam as anything but an adult." Daniel's strained voice greeted him as he stepped back inside the door. "A big brother…a dad." Daniel studied his fidgeting hands before finishing his thought. "He gave up a lot because of us, huh?"
Ah, hell. He couldn't help but feel he'd just added another mental burden and the pain behind Daniel's words tore at Crane's heart. Not that he hadn't often thought the same thing, but he'd never wanted Daniel or the others to feel guilty for something that was out of their control. Something that Adam had told him many times he had never regretted for a second.
"He did." Crane said. "But he'd be the first to tell you it was worth it; that he wouldn't have had it any other way. Just understand he gets bent out of shape when he's scared or worried because he cares so much."
"I know." Daniel said.
"You should…you're just like him." Crane grinned. "Heard a grumble or two from the squirts that you get a little bossy and over-bearing when you're stressed."
"I am not that bad." Daniel protested softly.
"Uh, yeah you are. But your heart's always in the right place." Crane laughed. "And so is Adam's."
"I know that too." Daniel said, a weak smile unsuccessful in hiding the pain etched on his face.
"Good. Here, take your meds and get some sleep. I'll wake you in a couple of hours."
"Great." Daniel groaned, swallowing the pills and easing back onto the pillow. "I will not be responsible for the names I call you."
Crane smiled and threw the blanket over his brother. "That's okay, I can always send Brian." He patted Daniel's covered leg and made his way to the door, turning off the light and pulling the door almost shut.
"Yeah?" Crane said, sticking his head through the crack in the door.
"Thanks." Daniel said softly.
"Anytime, kid. Get some sleep." Crane replied. He wondered just exactly what Daniel was thanking him for, but it really didn't matter. The important thing was both his little brothers were home and safe at least for another night.
Crane wanted nothing more than to be able to crawl into bed, sink into his wonderful pillow and close his weary eyes; but not yet. He let out a deep breath as he hit the last step and joined the controlled chaos that was his family. Yeah, he was beyond tired, but he needed to be among them more than he needed rest. Dealing with a crisis alone had never been the McFadden way. A strong reliance on each other had been ingrained into all of them and Crane realized tonight how much he counted on his brothers. How much just knowing everyone was nearby could soothe his rattled nerves.
"Hannah saved us some roast beef; want me to fix you a plate?" Brian called out from the kitchen as Crane plopped on the couch next to a dozing Ford.
"Nah, thanks. I'll grab something later." Crane said, his eyes fixed on Adam, wondering if their confrontation was about to continue or be swept aside.
"I know what you're gonna say." Adam started before Crane had a chance to ask. "I'm sorry, okay."
"You couldn't even wait five minutes could you?" Crane kept his voice low, not wanting to invite any other family members into the conversation. "Danny's hurt, he could have died and all you can do is kick him while he's down?"
Crane knew he was being unfair, but maybe a little taste of his own medicine might give Adam a little perspective. The expression of shock and remorse reflected in Adam's eyes told him he'd hit home. Crane didn't have the heart to reveal the kid didn't even remember what had happened. At least not yet.
"You're right." Adam dropped his head and took a deep breath. "I shouldn't have blown up like that, but I wanted him to know this was serious. That 'sorry' wouldn't have brought him or Guthrie back."
"I think he's fully aware of the severity, you didn't have to add to his guilt." Crane snapped.
Adam nodded, his eyes downcast and full of regret.
Any residual anger Crane might have carried downstairs disappeared. Crane understood Adam's point. He really did. He realized how much the fact that Adam couldn't always control what might happen to one of them and it tore him up. Hell, it upset Crane too. Short of keeping the boys under lock and key there wasn't much any of them could do to ensure their safety every minute of the day. Life didn't work that way; something they'd all learned way too early.
"I swear, these guys are gonna give me a heart attack before I'm thirty."
"We can get pacemakers together." Crane grinned and leaned forward to slap Adam's knee. "Maybe they'll give us a two for one deal."
"Maybe we should start saving up."
Crane was grateful Adam had calmed down enough for his sarcasm to surface again. He just hoped Daniel didn't let his big brother's words dig in too deep. "So anybody say what happened?"
"Before or after the barn burned to the ground?" Adam sighed.
"Huh?" Crane asked.
"After you guys left, Chet and I got into a heated discussion that nearly sparked a whole other fire."
The admission didn't surprise Crane. At all. Adam was hell on wheels when he got riled, and ten-times more volatile when you added a hefty dose of fear in the mix. "As I suspected." Crane laughed softly. "But did Guthrie tell you what happened to cause all of this?"
"Nope. He was pretty shook up. Besides, kid stuck to Hannah like a newborn calf to its momma. She wouldn't let me grill the pipsqueak." A hint of hurt and annoyance hovered in his flippant words.
Something else that didn't shock Crane. Guthrie had watched the rest of his brothers deal with Adam his whole life. Lesson one was to steer clear when he was in a mood; using Hannah as a human shield was something he picked up soon after she arrived. Smart kid.
"Not important right now anyway. They're both safe and relatively unscathed." Crane said, fighting to keep his eyelids open.
"This time." Adam said under his breath.
"All that matters for today." Crane said, a yawn finally confirming his body's insistence for sleep despite the overdose of caffeine in his system.
"Yeah. You're right." Adam said, standing and stretching his back. "Get some rest, you look like shit."
Crane smirked. "Thank you for noticing, but I've got a little brother to wake up in a couple hours."
"I'll do it." Adam said. "And I'll be nice…promise."
To be continued.