Just a quick little one-shot explaining what I wish they'd shown at the end of Daniel's Song. Thanks as always to May for keeping me on track and making sure I don't embarrass myself. She also came up with the brilliant title and let me borrow her name for Daniel's horse. Hope you enjoy.
(WHN for Daniel's Song)
There was an empty seat at the dinner table. Again. Brian knew they were all concerned, but no one needed to ask where he was anymore; everyone knew.
It had been two weeks since Tally Dean had left for Los Angeles a second time and taken a nice chunk of Daniel's heart with her. Since then the kid had resumed working himself into the ground in a futile attempt to keep his mind off the ache Brian remembered well. The pain Brian had tried so hard to spare his little brother but ended up making worse.
They ate without the normal din of three or four different conversations that was always a constant with the McFadden's. Brian could sense Adam's growing agitation. Family meals weren't mandatory, but if you were on the ranch it was an unspoken rule that you show up for dinner unless you were sick or hurt.
Brian figured that just about summed up his middle brother's excuse these days.
"We should save Daniel something, he's been eating like a bird lately." Hannah said, reaching for the plate of fried chicken and setting a couple of pieces aside.
Brian glanced at his elder brother, watching his expression change from exasperation to concern. That was the other rule; missing dinner usually meant there would be no guarantee of leftovers. Unless someone took pity on you. And these days Daniel had the market cornered on that too.
Adam nodded, but Hannah had no intention of letting the subject go. "Maybe you could go get him?" And talk to him. Her unspoken words echoed in the silence.
Crane's chair scraped along the floor and Brian put a hand out to keep him in place. "I've got this one." Brian said, pushing his half-eaten plate aside and standing.
Normally Brian would give Crane the lead with Daniel, especially when it came to such delicate matters. The same birthday was about all those two didn't share. But this time Brian felt that he needed to finish righting a wrong; one that he had instigated by butting in where he should never have.
Crane met his gaze, apprehension swirling in his eyes and Brian gave his brother's shoulder a squeeze. "I'll take care of him." Brian said softly, hoping the sincerity behind his words would inspire Crane's faith in him.
He was certainly gonna need it.
Brian traced the well-worn path from the house toward the barn, knowing exactly where Daniel would be. The same place he always went these days once chores were done and everyone had gone inside. Brian hesitated inside the door, his heart sinking at the familiar sight. Daniel gliding a brush across Gibson's back, absently retracing the same area over and over. Even from the back Brian could tell by the dejected posture and the rote motions that the kid was lost in thought. And self-recrimination if he knew Daniel, and he did. Poor horse should either have the shiniest coat in California or be completely bald by now.
"Hey." Brian tried not to startle Daniel, but he still saw the kid jump before he turned around. "Hannah's afraid all the good stuff'll be gone if you don't come eat now."
"That's okay, I'm not too hungry." Daniel moved to the other side of the gelding and started brushing again.
Brian figured as much. He knew from experience that a throat tight with grief and a belly full of regret didn't leave room for much else.
"You want some help?" Brian knew what the answer would be, but he needed a starting point. He and the rest of the family had hoped that seeing Tally at Pony's that night would help smooth over a lot of the hurt and betrayal she'd caused. Instead, performing with her then saying goodbye again had torn Daniel apart for a second time. Damn that girl.
Daniel shook his head, moving on to the horse's neck and combing through his thick mane.
The kid was not going to make this easy. Brian didn't usually stumble on his words, but the last time he spoke his heart things didn't turn out so well. Still, he needed to do this.
"Sarah Thomas." Brian said, a slight smile crossing his lips.
Daniel eyed him from over Gibson's back. "What?"
"Sarah Thomas." Brian repeated, grabbing another currycomb and starting in on the over-groomed gelding himself. "The first girl that broke my heart."
"Brian, I really don't…"
"You remember her, don't you? Gorgeous brunette, tall with legs like, well, she was tall."
Brian decided if Daniel wouldn't open up on his own he'd just have to do it for him. It was an old, but effective trick. One of many his mother had used often.
"Not really, what has she got to do with anything?" Daniel turned his attention to the horse, trying to hide the hurt Brian knew clouded his dark eyes.
Brian didn't let Daniel's disinterest stop him; he was on a mission. "Man, when she and her folks moved to San Diego, I thought I was gonna die."
"Look, Brian, Crane's already covered the lost love talk." Daniel's frustration surfacing as he lit into a pretty fair imitation of their third brother. "There'll be plenty of other girls, she wasn't right for you anyway, you'll get through this… I promise."
Something about the change in pitch with Daniel's last words told Brian the kid was holding tight to that promise. Even if he didn't quite believe it yet.
"Just tell Adam and Hannah, hell, Crane too, that I'm fine and just let it go at that, all right?"
No, it wasn't all right. The distress in Daniel's voice broke Brian's heart and he had no intention of just letting it go.
"Hey, you're not still pissed at me, are you?" The remark took Daniel off guard, just as Brian planned.
"No." Daniel chewed at his bottom lip. "Maybe a little, I don't know."
The confession stung a bit, but Brian understood. Hell, he'd be miffed too if Adam had ever meddled in his love life. Brian nodded, moving around next to Daniel and resting his elbow on Gibson's back.
"Daniel, I know I said I'm sorry, but I'll say it a thousand times if you need me to. I just want you to know that, well; I thought I was looking out for you. You know?"
"I know." Daniel whispered, more to himself than to his brother beside him. Gibson stretched his neck and snorted.
"I thought I could spare you the heartache, Dan'l. I see now that it wasn't my place, that you're old enough to make those decisions for yourself."
Daniel turned to him, anger flashing in his eyes. "How did you know? How did you know I wouldn't be important enough for her to stay?"
Tears glazed Daniel's eyes as he fought to contain them. This was exactly what Brian had been trying to save his little brother from. That ripping, crushing, soul-stealing hurt that only a first love could cause.
Brian cupped the back of his brother's head and pulled him against his chest. "Because that's what Tally does, kid."
The kid's controlled breaths and muted sniffling told Brian he'd broken through that veil of bravado that had been ruling Daniel's world for the last few weeks.
It was arrogant and absurd to think he could spare Daniel that kind of agony. It's not like he could protect him from it forever. Sooner or later little brother would have faced that necessary rite of passage. Damn, but that ingrained protective streak Brian held for all his siblings wasn't easily deterred.
He held onto Daniel, resting his chin on the kid's hair and hugging him tighter until he finally pulled away. Daniel wiped at red-rimmed eyes with the back of his hand as a shaky sob bubbled from his throat.
"I'm sorry, Brian. I can't believe I'd punch my own brother. Over anything."
Daniel sounded appalled and his eyes filled again. Another burden the kid had been carrying around.
Brian had wanted to forget that awful night. Daniel so upset and hurt, and Brian's own thoughtless actions the cause.
"Don't sweat it, Dan'l. That's one of the good things about this family. Nothing can make us unlove each other." Brian slapped him in the stomach and smiled.
Daniel grinned and shook his head. "You shoulda laid me out."
Brian raised one eyebrow and snorted. "Damn right. But I figure between Adam and Crane I wouldn't have come out of there in one piece."
Truth was Brian would have let Daniel beat him to a bloody pulp before he would have struck back. Brothers fought, hell, he and Adam had duked it out on a regular basis in their teens. It was the nature of the sibling beast. But Daniel wasn't just his brother; he was his kid. And he could never hit one of his kids.
Of course Daniel didn't have to know that last part.
"Just don't do it again." Brian said, his tone deep and menacing. He grabbed the brush from Daniel and tossed it into the straw. "C'mon, let's go in before they all come looking for us."
Brian draped his arm around his brother's shoulders, walking him toward the house.
"Of course you do know you owe me payback with your lady friends." Daniel said, sarcasm rolling off his words. "Well, at least the ones you don't have to pay."
Daniel snickered as Brian grabbed him in a headlock.
"Hey, twerp, don't disrespect your elders. Especially when they used to change your diapers."
Brian laughed as Daniel's cheeks reddened. "You're never gonna let me forget that, are you?"
Brian didn't plan on letting his little brother forget a lot of things. Like how much he was loved and needed. And like how no matter how many Tally's came and went, his family would always be there to pick up the pieces.