Author's notes: Thanks again for all the wonderful reviews and encouragement for my first 7B story. Your comments have kept me plugging away at this little piece of self-indulgent fluff. Thanks again to May for pushing, threatening, and motivating me to finish this! I have a bigger, more in depth story in the works and I promise that one has a plot. LOL Thanks again, hope you enjoy!
Crane shut off the alarm and reluctantly pulled himself out of bed. Five in the morning wasn't abnormally early for a rancher, but usually it was after a good night's sleep. Between members of the family coming in and out and Daniel's fitful tossing Crane hadn't gotten much of that. He'd gotten up more than a few times to quiet his brother back into a restless sleep.
Daniel had always processed problems in his dreams. Nightmares became an almost nightly ordeal for him for a good year after their parents died. Crane figured the emotional toll was too much for an eight-year-old to handle outright, so his anxieties would emerge in sleep. As time passed and the shock of that tragedy faded into the background, the nightmares dwindled until they'd become almost non-existent. Until the mine collapse a few months ago. And then tonight. Crane should have been used to it, but it still shook him to hear his brother fighting those demons in the middle of the night.
Crane let out a long sigh as his eyes adjusted to the morning light making its way past the curtains. He could see Daniel sleeping peacefully and a pang of guilt ran through him for having to disturb that rest once again. He was sure Daniel had definitely had enough of being roused and interrogated every two hours.
Slowly pulling himself from the mattress, Crane stretched the kinks out of his back and ran a hand through his hair, preparing himself for kicking the hornet's nest. He should have reveled in the irony of being the one to startle his little brother awake in the wee hours of the morning for a change. Often Daniel would feel the need to vent or boast about one of his late night adventures and Crane was always his main target. That Crane was unconscious wasn't a deterrent. Yep, getting pounced on at 3:00 a.m. deserved payback, but Crane couldn't help feeling bad considering the circumstances.
"Daniel." Crane said, patting his brother lightly in the stomach. "Wake up, buddy."
As he suspected, Daniel wasn't exactly receptive to the idea. "Go away." Daniel shoved off the touch and attempted to roll away.
"C'mon kid, doctor's orders." Crane gently pinned Daniel's shoulder against the mattress.
Daniel let out a frustrated groan, blinking hard and not trying to disguise the scowl etched in his face. Crane waited, letting him get his bearings, but he was eager to assess his brother's condition.
"Just a few questions and I'll leave you alone. Deal?"
"My name is Daniel McFadden, I'm 18, I live in Murphys California and I have six brothers. One of whom is getting on my last nerve."
Crane laughed softly. "Well at least you've retained that wicked wit."
"I'm fine, just let me sleep." Daniel snapped; his voice strained.
Crane considered it, but he wanted to check the kid over a bit first.
"Not yet, little brother." Crane countered. He caught the flash of a middle finger and grinned. Defiance was a good sign.
Daniel struggled to sit up, his face contorting and his eyes pinched as an 'oh, crap' hissed past his lips. Crane winced in sympathy. He'd been so concerned about Daniel's head injury he'd almost forgotten about the swollen knee and the bruises swathing his body.
"Wait a minute." Crane helped his brother position himself against the headboard, Daniel's heavy breathing and soft moans letting him know the kid was sore as hell.
"Sorry." Crane eased onto the mattress next to Daniel and guided the kid's face around to get a better look. A vibrant purple and orange bruise crept from the edges of the crumpled bandage adhered to his temple and this time Crane cringed. His fingers automatically touching the goose egg on his brother's head. "Wow, that's impressive. Hurts like hell, don't it?"
He knew the response before the words finished tumbling out. Daniel shoved his hand away and leaned back. "You think? Geesh, Crane, that has to be the stupidest question I've had all night."
With four little brothers, Crane had experience dealing with whining and petulance, just not normally from Daniel. The kid usually reserved that charming conduct for their eldest. Of course Crane had his own arsenal of behavior modifiers depending on the brother and the situation. This instance would require a little contrition served with a hint of guilt.
"You're right, it was. Sorry, I guess I need to work on my concerned and sympathetic responses."
Daniel's eyes clouded and he sighed. "No, I'm sorry. I guess I'm being a colossal pain in the ass, huh?"
Crane grinned and tapped his brother's good knee. "That's okay; at least it's a Daniel I recognize."
Daniel feigned annoyance. "Told you I was fine."
"Okay, okay, I believe you." Crane couldn't deny his brother seemed coherent, sharp even considering the night he'd had. He didn't see the need to annoy Daniel further with the same redundant script. "Just take your meds and you can go back to sleep."
Crane stood, handing Daniel the water glass on the nightstand and shook a couple of tablets into Daniel's shaky palm. A flash of panic reflected in his eyes as he furrowed his brow and looked up at Crane. "Guthrie? Is he…"
"He's perfectly all right, I promise." Crane interrupted. "You still don't remember?"
"No." Daniel sighed and shut his eyes tight. "Crane, why can't I remember?"
"Hey, don't worry about it right now." Crane squeezed the back of Daniel's neck. He felt for the kid; confusion and pain were a rough combination. He needed to divert Daniel's attention before it all overwhelmed him.
"Go on, take those." Crane motioned toward the drugs in Daniel's hand. "I know you need something stronger, but that head injury side-lined you to plain ole Tylenol. Might at least take the edge off a bit."
Daniel took the pills without complaint and handed back the glass. "Thanks, Crane."
Before Crane had a chance to answer the door creaked open and Guthrie poked his head inside. "I heard you guys talking."
Crane motioned for him to come in and Guthrie scrambled onto the mattress and flopped beside his brother. Daniel seemed a bit stunned, staring at the kid as if he couldn't believe he was really there. Maybe seeing firsthand that Guthrie was all right would calm the nightmares for a while.
The shock wore off quickly and Daniel reached for his youngest brother, his face breaking into a warm grin. "C'mere."
Guthrie didn't need coaxing and fell into Daniel's waiting embrace, his enthusiasm eliciting a deep cough and a painful grunt from their recovering sibling.
"Whoa, easy there, killer." Crane warned Guthrie, his worry dissipating as Daniel recovered and returned the kid's fierce hug.
"I'm sorry, Guth." Daniel reluctantly let go, holding Guthrie at arm's length and studying him again. "You all right?"
"Yeah, I'm okay. Are you?"
Daniel cleared his throat and nodded. His eyes remained riveted on Guthrie, but Crane noticed the wince of pain at the movement. "I'm sorry, buddy."
The hitch in Daniel's voice stabbed at Crane's heart. Although he could sense his brother's relief, he also heard the unmistakable tinge of guilt. Even though he had no memory of what happened yesterday Adam's words had struck deep and he had accepted full blame.
Guthrie said, "Why? You were just stickin' up for me; it was Bobby and Ricky that set the barn on fire."
Daniel looked up at Crane, his expression bewildered and full of questions.
"What happened, Guthrie?" Crane asked since Daniel hadn't yet found the words. "What were the Lancaster boys doing there?"
"I saw them sneaking into Mr. Watson's old barn. I told them not to mess around in there but they laughed and took off with my stuff. I didn't know they were smoking in there, honest, Crane. I just wanted to get my books back so Adam wouldn't get mad."
Daniel squinted hard, fighting back the headache Crane knew was growing in the kid's skull.
"Remember, Daniel?" Guthrie continued. "They ran off like scared rabbits when we got there, but then you fell through the loft. I thought you were gonna die."
Guthrie's voice cracked and tears welled in his eyes as he verbalized his fears. Daniel pulled him in for another hug. "I didn't, buddy. We didn't. "
Suddenly Crane felt like an intruder and edged toward the doorway. "You two hang tight, I'll make us some breakfast before I pass out over here."
Daniel nodded and Crane slipped into the hallway. He wasn't kidding about being hungry, but now that he had a little more info he planned to make sure Adam knew none of this was Daniel's fault.
It had taken a few seconds for Daniel to process the rush of emotions overwhelming him. Relief, elation and gratitude flooded his heart as Guthrie jumped onto the bed beside him. It wasn't that he thought his brothers were lying, but the darkness haunting his dreams throughout the night had shaken his confidence. The visions had been indistinct, but tragic and seeing the kid right in front of him seemed to lift the load of dread. Unshed tears blurred his vision and he tried to blink them away before either brother could notice.
"C'mere." The simple invitation was all it took for Guthrie to pounce. Daniel didn't have time to brace for the impact and it nearly knocked the breath out of him, but that didn't matter. The flesh and blood reality of his baby brother pressed against him trumped any physical pain.
Daniel grasped Guthrie's shoulders, making sure the boy was truly all right. The fear that had held him captive throughout the night bubbled in his throat as he choked out an apology. He could hear Guthrie talking, but his brain seemed to take its sweet time processing the information. The kid's words fell into order causing fragments of memory to rush past him like a movie in fast-forward. Still the images were a random mess. It didn't help that the pounding in his temples continued to beat out a rhythm that would have made John Bonham proud.
"…I thought you were gonna die." The kid's plea broke through the rush of visions and pain swirling in Daniel's head and he forced himself to focus. The devastated look in his little brother's eyes tore at him and he pulled Guthrie tight into his chest.
"I didn't, buddy. We didn't."
Daniel's memory might be full of holes, but he finally grasped the most important part. That Guthrie and he could have died last night. Thank God they didn't.
He looked up at Crane, his brother's features reflecting the same sentiment. Crane smiled then said something about breakfast before disappearing into the hallway.
Guthrie pulled back, frowning. "I left my coat in the barn."
Daniel grinned. Leave it to Guthrie to reduce the trauma and emotion of the night into a twelve-year-old's perspective.
"I don't think Adam's gonna care."
"But it was yours."
It took a moment but Daniel remembered which jacket Guthrie meant. "The denim one with holes in the pockets? Shoot, Guthrie, that thing needed burning three brothers ago."
Guthrie laughed. "Tell me about it."
"Guthrie, you know better than to pester your brother."
Daniel jerked at the sound of Adam's voice, his breath catching in his throat and a wave of dizziness making his vision blur. Damn, those dreams had made him jumpy. He was pretty sure Adam wasn't going to start in on him again, accusing him of something he didn't remember doing and maybe didn't want to remember. Still his nerves were on edge and having any kind of 'talk' was the last thing he wanted to do right now.
"I was worried about Daniel." Guthrie said, positioning himself between his brothers. Daniel felt his cheeks flush at the kid's protectiveness although it didn't surprise him. They were all defensive of each other, even amongst themselves.
"So was I, kiddo." Adam said, smiling and motioning for Guthrie to get up. "How about you go help with breakfast so I can talk to Daniel."
Oh great. He was really not up for this.
Guthrie hesitated; looking to him for permission and Daniel winked and motioned for him to go ahead. No need for Guthrie to be dragged into whatever this might turn into. Daniel ruffled his brother's hair and gently pushed him off the bed.
"Make sure Crane doesn't eat all the bacon before we get a stab at it, okay?"
Guthrie chewed at his lip then turned to Adam. "Don't yell at him, Adam."
Daniel choked back a laugh at the shell-shocked expression. Adam recovered quickly, swatting Guthrie on the seat of his pants as he slipped past him.
"I won't, but I might be yelling at you later!" Adam called out as Guthrie scurried toward the stairs.
The twinkle in Adam's eye let Daniel relax a bit. Chances were if he was going to chew his head off he sure wouldn't be this calm.
"You all right?"
Daniel didn't mention the distracting throb in his temple, the unrelenting dizziness or the constant ache in every muscle and joint in his body. He didn't think bringing up his frailties would strengthen Adam's confidence in him. After all, didn't his guardian so much as admit he still considered him a child? He didn't want Adam to see him as a whiny baby too.
Adam acknowledged his response with a raised eyebrow, but hesitated just inside the doorway, as if he hadn't quite made up his mind whether he wanted to come in. "Crane told me what happened."
Good, maybe you can enlighten me.
Despite Guthrie's verdict that he wasn't to blame, Daniel remained unconvinced. Adam's eyes were soft, downcast and unmistakably contrite.
"I owe you an apology, kid." Adam moved beyond the door frame, ending up on the bed facing him. "I jumped the gun…again. I shoulda kept my mouth shut, let you have your say. I'm really sorry."
Daniel could tell his brother meant it.
"That's all right."
Daniel meant it too. He and Adam clashed more often than not these days and sometimes he just needed to remind himself it was based in concern, not animosity. This time he didn't have to. Daniel could feel the sincerity in Adam's words.
"Why didn't you tell me you couldn't remember?"
Daniel shrugged; the annoying cough an unexpected cover for his lack of words. He didn't exactly want to confess that Adam's immediate reaction had cut deep. And he certainly didn't want to rehash those initial feelings of hurt and anger.
"Guthrie said you'd gone to help him get his books back from 'some mean kids from school'. Any of that ring a bell?"
Daniel pushed past the ache in his skull, searching for any familiarity in Adam's words. Instead, vivid images of fire, fear and chaos whirled in an endless loop. He could feel the heat, hear the panic in Guthrie's voice and sense the overwhelming helplessness. Despite Guthrie's explanation, Daniel remembered nothing about how or why he ended up at Watson's barn, only that Adam believed his actions had nearly cost Guthrie his life. Recalling the details wouldn't make a hell of a lot of difference now.
He gulped in air, finally coming aware that he had been holding his breath. Daniel's heart hammered painfully against his chest and his entire body shook from the inside out as he clutched the quilt, trying to hide the tremble in his hands. The worried expression on Adam's face told Daniel he had failed at that too.
"Hey, hey, it's okay." Adam gripped Daniel's shoulders, squeezing gently until the kid's glazed eyes met his. "It's all right."
Daniel's eyes were squinted and shadowed with dark circles from the headache Adam suspected still lingered. Empathy and guilt overwhelmed Adam and he pulled Daniel tight against his chest, the kid's trembling body vibrating in his arms.
Daniel choked back another cough, unsuccessfully masking the subtle hitch in his confession. "I almost got Guthrie killed."
The residual fear and culpability hanging in those words sucked the air right out of Adam's lungs. Damn, how could he have been so wrong? Crane was right; Daniel's self-recrimination had stemmed more from his big brother's first reaction than what actually happened at the ill-fated barn.
It ripped Adam apart when any of his brothers were in pain, especially when he was responsible for a lion's share of that suffering. The thought of their confrontation last night made Adam ill. He had never stopped to consider that Daniel too had been hurt and traumatized and that a fear-stoked tirade was the last thing the kid needed. Hell, Daniel couldn't have defended himself if he'd wanted to.
"No, Daniel." Adam took a deep breath, unsure of exactly how to set things right. "This was not your fault, believe me."
"But you said…"
"Forget what I said, okay? I was a complete idiot last night." Adam pulled back and cupped Daniel's face in his palm. "And I never meant to blame you."
Daniel's eyes were wet with unshed tears as he shook his head. "He's just a kid; I should have taken care of him." His hoarse voice held more than a hint of guilt, despite Adam's best efforts to relieve him of that burden.
"You were just sticking up for your brother."
A vision flashed through Adam's mind; his parents' beaming faces as they introduced him to this baby brother. The overwhelming protectiveness that he felt for all his siblings flooding through him as he cradled a so much younger Daniel. That the lesson instilled in all of them that family was to be treasured and protected. That family was everything.
"Like you were supposed to." Adam finished.
The irony of the situation punched Adam square in the gut. In the heat of the moment fear had made him as much of a bully to Daniel as those kids had been to Guthrie. Maybe more so since Adam was supposed to be his safety net, his protector. His family.
"Danny, I'm the one that needs to stop acting like a child. You prove yourself around here every day and I'm sorry I forget to tell you that sometimes."
Daniel dropped his head sheepishly, but the sparkle in his dark blue eyes gave Adam hope. At least he'd made some leeway in the apology department, now he just needed his stubborn kid brother to realize he wasn't the one in the wrong here.
"I also say things before I think. I apparently have a terminal case of 'foot in mouth disease' as Crane pointed out."
Daniel laughed at that one. That silly, high-pitched giggle that always made Adam smile in spite of himself. Apparently Daniel had heard that reference before, probably from the same brother.
"I think we all have that." Daniel confessed; his voice dropping low as the brief burst of adrenaline dwindled.
"Yeah, can't fight heredity." Adam said, his tone growing serious again. "You know it's hard for me not to see you as the hyper little runt always begging to ride with the big boys, then refusing to go to bed without being tucked in."
Daniel blushed. "That was a long time ago, Adam. I'm not that kid anymore."
Adam wanted to tell him he'd always be that kid.
That his responsibility to his brothers would last his lifetime. Although that truth had been brought home many times, it was almost surreal to realize he had been a father to the youngest four longer than their actual parents. And as much as he protested when the boys called him 'dad', the title evoked a sense of satisfaction, of purpose and he reveled in the deep meaning and emotion attached to it.
Another memory popped into his head. The night of senior prom. His mom fussing with his tie as tears welled in her soft eyes. He remembered how defensive he'd been when she called him her baby. The sentiment appalled him and he'd rolled his eyes when she kissed his forehead. "I don't care how big you think you are; you'll always be my baby." At the time Adam thought she was being ridiculously overdramatic.
He got it now.
"I know, Danny, but you've grown up too fast. You've got to give this old man a break, let my brain catch up to reality. Okay?"
"Okay. Sure." Daniel sounded amused, but sincere.
Any other time Daniel would have pounced on the chance to rag him about getting old and feeble minded. Ten years of raising these guys had taught Adam to read between the lines. One look at the kid's pale face and squinted eyes spoke louder than words and kicked his paternal instincts into gear.
"C'mon, lay down, I'll bring your breakfast later." Adam helped Daniel lie flat, carefully stuffing the extra pillow under his knee. Daniel winced then stiffened at the movement. "Damn, kid, I've seen buzzards pass up carcasses that looked healthier than you."
Adam hoped Daniel would remember this conversation. It might come in handy the next time they butted heads. And knowing his little brother…and himself, Adam was pretty sure there would be a next time.
It came with the territory.
"We good?" Adam asked.
"Yeah." Daniel grinned up at him, his eyes shutting as he settled his head on the pillow. "We're good."
Without thinking, Adam reached for the quilt lumped at the foot of the bed and spread it across Daniel's body. The act so natural it didn't register until too late exactly what he was doing.
"Geesh, Adam," Daniel's eyes flew open, his voice irritated. "Didn't we just cover this?"
"Hey, just give me this one. For old time's sake?"
Daniel rolled his eyes before closing them again and Adam laughed. Mom would have smacked him then planted a kiss on his cheek too, but Adam wasn't about to push any more boundaries.
"Go to sleep." Adam said instead, ruffling Daniel's hair and turning off the lamp.
"Hey." Daniel called out.
"Thanks, Dad." Daniel teased.
The kid sounded wrung out, but to Adam those would be the sweetest words he'd hear all day.