A/N: Any comments or feedback is most welcome! There is one very short reference to CAWH, but you don't need to have seen the episode.
Tidings of Comfort and Joy
Muslin curtains twitched at the window of a tiny cabin, just beyond the muddy rim of the forest. Two grey heads bobbed at the leaded pane.
"I told you so. See how they're following the trail?" Cecilia, the younger of the two, pointed eagerly through the tracts of rain on the window. "And now they've stopped."
Her sister, Eudora, gave a quick chuckle. "They're coming here, I can feel it."
"He looks very nice, the one in front." Cecilia gave a small frown. "Do you think he'll recover?"
Eudora nodded so firmly the bun at the top of her head jiggled loose a pin and threatened to slide down to her ear. "I would hope so. I think they're the ones we've been waiting for."
Cecelia tickled the soft ear of the orange tabby sitting hunched on the arm of the chair. He opened one eye and gave a half-hearted swipe at her finger. "It's almost the solstice. They've traveled far."
Eudora drew her favored blue shawl tighter around her shoulders. "What if the travel proves too much? The past hangs heavy there, still. They might not be up to the task."
"They are," Cecilia said quietly.
"We don't even know their names."
"Scott and John Lancer."
"English?" asked Eudora.
"More so Scottish. With bits and bobs of French going back to the Normans and a delicious mix of long-ago Aztec and Spanish. Courtesy of both maternal lines."
"Two mothers? Now that is interesting. With such divergent paths, they may not belong in the large house together."
"Nonsense," Cecilia snapped. "They are both destined to be there."
A shrill whinny cut through the night air. The two pressed closer to the window. The rain had turned into sleet, tap-a-tapping on the thatched roof.
"They're very vulnerable now. They've lost much along the way," Eudora murmured.
Scott hoisted Johnny's weight against his shoulder strangely gratified that his brother was warm, and staggered towards the threshold like a drunk finding his way home. A woman opened the door for him and he carefully negotiated the door jamb so as not to hit Johnny's head against it. It wouldn't do to have two wounds there, not when the first was deadly enough.
He crossed the silent woodsmoke-scented living room to the room she was pointing out. A bed with embroidered white linen had its coverlets pulled halfway down and Scott lowered his brother's dead weight onto it.
Johnny, so still, had a livid bruise at his temple. Scott rested his hand on the iron bed frame, unable to go one step further.
The woman—women—for now there were two, clucked and tch'ed in sympathy over the ugly wound, even as they made introductions. One had the foresight of water and basin, some bandages.
Gently, Scott cradled Johnny's head in his hands while Eudora and Cecilia swabbed most of the muck away. The wet made his fingers ache again from the cold. He twisted around to see the wound as best he could. A long, angry red furrow planed itself from bruised temple to behind the ear. It had stopped bleeding long ago, but even with the manhandling, Johnny hadn't stirred.
Scott looked across the bedroom, unwilling to think. He always prided himself on considering the angles of statistics and probability. But this?
Johnny possessed a fierce self-centeredness that Scott admired. Albeit not from the start, but it had grown on Scott and that in and of itself, was amazing. He suspected Johnny's sense of self-worth was the one thing that had saved him. Self-centeredness, and now family.
But that was on the other side of a long, long bridge, arching across rock and winter air, suspended on faith as much as anything else. Faith in knowledge, faith in impossible chances. Faith in Johnny, when it came right down to it.
And it left him quite bereft of anything to say.
Eudora was saying something though, and he forced himself to concentrate, to make the words fit with the sounds. Her head tilted to the side, lips pinched together. "He's lucky, all things considered." He knew she was looking at the old puckered scar planted below Johnny's left clavicle.
Scott took those words and tucked them away, hoping it was the sort of currency he'd be able to spend elsewhere. Johnny was a lot of things, but lucky usually wasn't one of them.
Hadn't been the first time, or this time. His own bullet wound tingled, a present from one of the Strykers over eight months ago. The proclivity of getting shot seemed to run in the family. It was bad luck all the way and Johnny had been hit with it just the same as if he'd been standing in the middle of a street facing someone's bullet.
Only this time the bullet wasn't from a stranger. It had been Scott's.
So, maybe lucky the bullet had creased instead of plowing into the skull, lucky that Johnny hadn't died before they stumbled upon the cabin because things had been dicey, no one needed to tell Scott that more than once. But where was luck when two men came out of the dark demanding horses and money? Where was it when his bullet sliced into Johnny's head in the first place? When he was left with bloodied hands that would haunt him?
Scott didn't feel like being grateful, not when Johnny was so pale. Not when he just lay there. Not until Johnny walked out of the cabin on his own two legs would Scott be grateful. Maybe not even then.
Cecilia's eyes slid sideways assessing him. He hoped that it didn't show, but knew it did. For all he had done with his life, he had trouble keeping what he was feeling off his face. Moving slower than before, on bones stiff with age and extremes, she took a few steps and reached up, touched the side of his jaw, her eyes softening.
He sank into the chair beside the bed, fingers buried in his hair. "I'm here, Johnny," he whispered to the space between his knees.
Scott wasn't scared, not by this, not by something he couldn't see. He was, however, freezing and wet. His guard was down, though it was nighttime and raining. He and Johnny heard the men before they saw them, which ought to have given them some kind of advantage.
A man moved from behind a tree, in the darkest part of the night, and Scott found himself more irritated than anything else. Waiting for him to come out to the open seemed like a colossal waste of time.
There. Black against black. Felt the man move again, cautious, maybe scared. Waiting for him and Johnny to make the first move. A tiny, insignificant warning bell tinkled away in the back of his brain, with all the urgency of a fire alarm. There can't be just one, the bells converged enough to tell him.
Then, behind him, a hard voice rang out across the clearing, and they were caught. Scott turned immediately back to the forest, but all he saw were trees and Johnny slipping into them.
The tall one, neck as thick as Scott's thigh, came forward, his words turned to mist by the cold, difficult to tell anything about him other than his size, silhouetted against the forest as he was. Scott circled a little to the side, hoping to draw him off, get into a better position.
As he fired, another shadow leapt.
He shuddered awake to a few minutes of not understanding where he was, somewhere with Johnny bleeding, somewhere in the forest. Tinkling chimes from the clock on top of the bureau had woken him. Almost six a.m.
A cat had taken up residence on his lap when he'd been sleeping and was not amused by the sudden jarring. It stretched and batted at the blue tassels on the knitted shawl someone had thrown across his shoulders and chest.
Rays of light slanted in through the bedroom window. The mountain was just the same, like some framed print on his grandfather's hallway wall, all beams of light and frosty clouds. A new day was here and an absurd thought occurred to him—they would miss Murdoch's holiday party after all.
He turned away from the window when he heard a quick intake of breath.
The expression on Eudora's face was complex to say the least, hidden beneath folds of plump skin, much like a forgotten apple that had been left on a window sill. Her smile wicked sharp and wistful at the same time. She drew a finger to her lips and whispered, "He's coming awake."
Scott scrambled up and found Johnny, eyes a bit glassy, contemplating the ceiling. A cup of water was pressed into his hand and he drank gratefully, passing it back after he finished.
Eudora stood straight, surprisingly tall. "Hello young man, nice to see you looking so rested."
She turned to Scott, who had perched on the side of Johnny's bed. "And you look pleased."
He shrugged, not knowing what to say because the words were clogged like Boston city traffic. "I'm happy we can leave soon."
Johnny moved one hand across his chest, where cotton linen covered the old scars. Protecting himself and Scott knew it.
She stared suddenly at Johnny and Scott wished he was between them, for all that he trusted Eudora. "And you, John Lancer, did you accomplish anything?"
An odd question, straight to the heart, and Johnny was too pale for it. For a moment, Scott considered marching the old woman out of the room. His mouth opened and Eudora's blue gaze was all on him.
"You don't need to protect him, Scott. It's just a question."
Johnny gave one quick burst of laughter, a warning that Scott recognized immediately: Let it go. "Between us, we got the job done."
"Exactly so." She patted Johnny's hand, the one that wasn't sliding a finger under the tight bandage at his temple.
Cecelia held a red-patterned china bowl of something steaming, offered it to Johnny.
Eudora captured her hand. "Even on this holy day there is much work to do. My sister and I will leave you alone."
The room was warm, and Scott noticed the warmth, noticed the dampness in the middle of his back, a drop tip-toeing down to his tailbone.
"You winning the argument?" asked Johnny, fingers laced around the bowl.
Had he spoken out loud? Waved his hands around? Both? Scott looked at him then, braced himself for it. Johnny's eyes were flint hard. "One of the men was killed; the other took off for God knows where. We still have the horses and the money. "
One blink, then two. "Well, I guess we're square with whoever they were, because they bought the dance. And I guess we're square with Murdoch. 'Cause I wouldn't want to owe him anything." He nodded to the open door. "I'm sure we're square with those two ladies; since you're gonna take care of it." He took the bowl in one hand and edged up in bed, forehead wrinkling with the effort. "Who are they anyway?"
"The granny with her hair all pulled to the top of her head is Eudora. The cook is Cecilia. I saw the light from their window, commandeered the room and threw you into bed."
"So that's why my head hurts."
Scott grimaced. Johnny was going to cut loose, maybe starting now. "Johnny?"
"Yeah?" and his brother's voice rose a little, caused a rustle in the other room where Eudora and Cecilia were putting dishes away into the cupboard. If Johnny noticed, he didn't care. He gave Scott a quicksilver smile. "That man who died, he catch your bullet?"
"So he was behind me, then." Johnny rubbed the flat of his palm against the side of his head. The bandage tilted askew giving him the rakish look of Captain Kidd about to set sail. "Some fancy shooting out there."
Scott looked at the clock again, the numbers on the face wavered in front of him. He knuckled the fuzziness away. "I don't think anyone in their right mind would say that."
"Huh." Johnny had the uncanny ability to say so much in one single syllable. He shook his bowl a little, uncovered bits of meat hidden by congealing broth. They disappeared down his throat, the spoon clinking against the bottom. Once done, Johnny wiped his mouth and hands on the napkin, and adjusted his expression to something lighter. Maybe keeping with the fact that he was still alive—that they both were.
Johnny's attention flicked to the side, then back to Scott. Refusing to talk, but asking him something all the same. Telling him something. Finally, "I guess we're okay, too."
Scott shifted in his seat, but didn't break his stare. Neither did Johnny.
Perhaps it was out of place, but he started to laugh. It felt strange, like his throat wasn't used to it anymore. Maybe that's what happened when you first found family: everything a bit new and unexpected. Off-kilter.
It was a familiar understanding that death existed in life. He hadn't counted on it being so close, however, or by his own hand. He wanted to tell Johnny that.
But he was asleep, so Scott went back to his chair, gathered up the shawl and waited.
The two grey-haired ladies stared through muslin curtains at the brothers as they picked their way to the rim of the forest.
Eudora's fingers moved restlessly. "The father is waiting for them. Worried and impatient, as well he should be."
Cecilia studied the orange cat lounging on the arm of the chair, blinking with green-eyed solemnity. "Do you doubt me now when I say they belong to him and the grand house?"
Eudora shook her head. "The cattle will be plenty, horses, too. Troubles will spike along the way, but there will be three to stand together." She cackled with satisfaction. "Perhaps even a grandchild or two—or six—for old Murdoch."
"Their futures?" Cecelia bent over to retrieve her embroidery bag from under the chair.
"As if you don't know, Sister." Eudora tapped a finger on her plump cheek. "Young John will be quite content with a full stable of horses, known throughout the country for their breeding and quality. He'll run Lancer as his own, one day."
"And of Scott?"
"He won't soon forget what happened this Christmas. The brothers will take different paths after a time, but he will never leave Lancer far behind." Eudora sat to gather her needle and hoop, then smiled. "I just hope the state of California is ready for him."
Their threads claimed the rest of the conversation, thoughts leaching into the sun-baked, frost-cracked mountain trail the brothers traveled on. It was too beautiful a day for anything else.