Searching For Mercy by honey
Past Featured StorySummary: When tragedy strikes and old friends are forced back into each others' lives, will they be able to find strength in one another? Will they find forgiveness for past mistakes and be granted the mercy they so desperately need?
Categories: Fanfiction > Backstreet Boys Characters: Group, Other
Genres: Adventure, Alternate Universe, Angst, Drama, Romance
Warnings: Death
Challenges:
Series: None
Chapters: 19 Completed: Yes Word count: 60322 Read: 9004 Published: 06/20/07 Updated: 11/01/07
Story Notes:
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I'm up for Best AU! Thank you to whoever nominated me!

1. Chapter 1 by honey

2. Chapter 2 by honey

3. Chapter 3 by honey

4. Chapter 4 by honey

5. Chapter 5 by honey

6. Chapter 6 by honey

7. Chapter 7 by honey

8. Chapter 8 by honey

9. Chapter 9 by honey

10. Chapter 10 by honey

11. Chapter 11 by honey

12. Chapter 12 by honey

13. Chapter 13 by honey

14. Chapter 14 by honey

15. Chapter 15 by honey

16. Chapter 16 by honey

17. Chapter 17 by honey

18. Chapter 18 by honey

19. Chapter 19 by honey

Chapter 1 by honey
Author's Notes:
Yay a new story! I'm excited about this one, should be interesting. :)
The laughter erupting from around the small campfire could have been heard from miles had there been ears to hear it. As it was, the seven people huddled around the flames had the entire northeast shore to themselves.

Jackson Lake is one of the largest most beautiful bodies of water Montana has to offer. The reservoir was quite the tourist hot spot in the summer, but because of the limited access through rugged terrain, the northeast shore remained practically undiscovered save a few locals and some serious four-wheel drive. Tonight it played host to a few of the most recent graduates of Mercy High School.

Among these new graduates stood the senior class president for the class of 1993. Kevin Richardson was a tall chiseled man born and raised on a cattle ranch just outside Mercy Springs, Montana. He was taught to work hard but play harder. He liked to keep things simple and be one with nature and it was his idea that he and his best friends spend grad night camped out under the stars instead of with the other 83 seniors in the high school parking lot.

The only thing bigger than Kevin’s bicep was his heart and as he looked at the glowing faces of his life-long friends he nearly had to choke back a few tears. In an attempt to regain his composure before the others learned of his girly flaw, he cleared his throat and glanced down at his watch. “Did you have something to say Kev?”

Kevin smiled at his cousin. Leave it to Brian to read his thoughts. Brian Littrell was Kevin’s only cousin, though their relationship was really more that of brothers. Brian came to live at the ranch with Kevin when he was 10 years old after the tragic death of his parents. He and Kevin were the same age and it was kind of like having an instant twin brother, just not the identical kind.

Unlike his tall dark and handsome roommate, Brian was a bit of a shrimp with a goofy smile. But with his killer blue eyes and soft nature, he never had to compete with his cousin for female attention. He owned the hearts of several girls around town but never once took advantage of it.

Brian had never really been the same since his parents’ death and had grown an irrational fear of intimacy. The only people he let into his life were the six present in his company now and there was no one that meant more to him than Kevin. “It’s nothing.” Kevin shrugged, “I was just thinking that I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend this night. You guys just mean so much to me. Thank you for coming.”

An arm was slumped around Kevin’s shoulder by the only other person in the group who could claim six feet tall. Nick Carter gave his friend a gentle squeeze and tried his best to produce a couple of mock tears. “Beautiful speech man. I think I’m gonna cry.”

The group laughed at Nick’s sarcasm, which served his purpose well. There was nothing that made him more uncomfortable than sentimental touchy-feely crap. No one could blame him though. He wasn’t exactly used to receiving love and affection. He rarely had a girlfriend and he certainly wasn’t getting it at home. Nick lived in a beat up doublewide with his four younger siblings and alcoholic parents. The Carters were the perfect models of dysfunction and it didn’t come without a price. Nick never showed his emotions but deep down his friends knew how much he cared. It was apparent in his loyalty.

And then there was AJ. “Aww, come on Nicky. You know you’re just dying for a group hug. I ain’t scared man, I’ll give you some lovin’.”

Alex “AJ” McLean wrapped his scrawny arms around Nick and lifted himself onto his tippy-toes in order to place a slobbery kiss on Nick’s cheek. Nick immediately responded with an elbow to AJ’s side and a truly disgusted grunt. “Ugh, get off me you homo!”

Again laughter roared around the campfire. Everyone knew how to get on Nick’s nerves, that was easy, but the brilliant thing about AJ is that no matter how hard Nick tried to taunt him back, nothing ever seemed to bring him down. AJ was always happy-go-lucky. It was just he and his mom at home and they got along famously.

Having such a close relationship with his mother taught him a lot about the opposite sex and in turn made him quite the ladies man. He could have his pick from just about any girl in town and at this point probably had. There were only a handful of girls that could honestly say they’d never fallen victim to the small town Casanova. Two such girls were standing to his left, Kristen and Leighanne.

Kristin Willits was a true Montana native but only got the taste of small town life at the age of eleven when her family moved to Mercy Springs. They bought the house next to Kevin’s so that Kristin could have room to ride her horse. The first time Kevin saw her prance that pony up the road past his ranch, he vowed he would marry that girl and has been trying to seal the deal ever since.

Kevin and Kristin were as perfect for each other as cactus and dirt. Kevin knew it from the beginning and never left Kristin alone so she quickly became one of the guys. Being the only girl in the group for so many years, Kristin turned out to be one strong willed, stubborn, firecracker of a woman. She loved to ride as much as Kevin and was every bit the Davey Crockett in the wilderness. They were peas on a pod, so although she’d never agreed to any of Kevin’s marriage proposals, everyone knew that’s where they would end up.

Leighanne Wallace on the other hand was a very different case, but she and Kristen had become best friends upon her arrival in Mercy despite their differences. The southern belle had grown up in Atlanta, Georgia and was the last to join the little band of brothers at the ripe age of 15. Her hotshot lawyer daddy had had a bit of a breakdown after failing to win a high profile case that had gone all the way to the Supreme Court. After much unwanted press Leighanne’s parents decided on a change of scene and Montana proved to be just about as far from the spotlight as you can get.

The petite little princess stuck out like a sore thumb in the dirty old town and that made her an ideal candidate for this bunch of misfits. The gang made Leighanne feel right at home and helped her adjust to her new lifestyle. It took a little effort sometimes but nobody minded all that much. She was, after all, the prettiest girl in town, which didn’t bother the guys’ one bit, and Kristin was grateful for the change in hormonal balance among her small circle of friends. “I think maybe it’s time we douse this fire and hit the hay.”

Kevin smirked as six pairs of eyes suddenly rested upon him and he dared each and every one of them to protest his rational suggestion. Nick of course, was the first to break the silence. “Sure thing Dad. What’s the matter? You think that just cause we’re graduated we have to start acting like adults now?”

“No, he’s right. If we’re going to hit the jug tomorrow before it gets too hot, then we should probably get some rest.”

Howie. Howie Dorough was always the first to be rational behind Kevin. He couldn’t help it; he was too intelligent to not be responsible. He was a pretty small guy thanks to his mother’s Puerto Rican genetics, but what he lacked in size, he made up for in brains. The class valedictorian was probably the smartest of the group, but his shyness was almost crippling.

His friends had always been his only comfort zone and even around them he had a hard time opening up. Most of the time it was simply enough for him to be in the presence of his friends and he had no problem letting Nick and AJ fight over the spotlight, which they did often. “He ain’t trying to be responsible Nick, he’s just trying to get Kristin alone in his tent. If you guys are gonna get freaky tonight at least have the decency to be loud about it. It’s sort of like getting free HBO.”

“AJ! How dare you!”

“It’s alright Leighanne. AJ’s just jealous cause he wont be getting any tonight. And for the record, neither will Kevin.”

AJ gave an obnoxious chuckle in order to make his disbelief of Kristen’s comment known. “What makes you so sure that Kevin and I have even had sex?”

For a brief moment the entire camp went as silent as the grave as looks were exchanged. Then simultaneously everyone burst into absurd fits of laughter. Kristin’s mouth dropped open and she slugged Kevin when she realized that he was snickering along with everyone else. “Well if that’s what you all really think.” She pouted, “We may as well just go to it then.”

More hysterical laughter followed Kristin as she dragged Kevin off to her tent in a huff. Once they were out of earshot Nick turned to his four remaining friends and grinned like the devil. “Did you see the look on Kristin’s face? Do you think that they are really not having sex?”

“Dude, no way. They’ve been together since they were like 12.”

“I don’t know man, that would explain why Kevin is grumpy so often.”

“And besides, not everyone is like you AJ. Some people wait until after the first date to be intimate.”

Nick and AJ had been so wrapped up in their argument that they were startled by the third opinion. “It’s been like six years. Just how long should someone wait?”

“Well the bible says you should wait until marriage.”

Nick and AJ looked at Brian with giggling faces. “Well I’ll be damned.”

“AJ don’t curse.”

“You’re still a virgin aren’t ya Bri?”

Brian immediately cast his eyes to the ground. Nick and AJ saw the redness creep into his cheeks and couldn’t hold back their laughter. “Geez Bri, if I’d have known that I could have helped you out. I know a ton of girls that would love break you in.”

“Yeah. I bet even AJ here wouldn’t mind. He’s the biggest slut this town has.”

“No, you lost it to the biggest slut this town has.”

“Paris is not a slut!”

“The bitch gave you crabs.”

“Did not.”

“Did too. Word of advice Brian, don’t let Paris Hilton know you’re a virgin. Find some nice little girl like Leighanne to help you out there. Or better yet, why not Leighanne? You could solve this problem tonight. We’ll never hear you over the noise Kev and Kristin will be making.”

“You know, that’s not a bad idea. Nice thinking J.”

Leighanne’s face turned as red as Brian’s as her anger heated up. “Quit being jerks you guys!”

“Aww come on Leigh, you know we’re just playing. The man has a point though. I’ve always thought you and Brian would make a cute couple. You have that whole blonde hair, blue eyes thing going on.”

An awkward silence filled the air and everyone was startled when Howie dumped a bucket of water onto the flames. “I think we should call it a night.” He said sternly.

He walked past Nick and AJ with disapproval oozing from his eyes. They watched him head off to his tent suddenly feeling a tiny bit of guilt. When they looked back Brian had walked off and though the flames had been put out, they could still see fire in Leighanne’s eyes. “Too far you guys.”

Leighanne walked off feeling more sorrow for her humiliated friend than anger towards her insensitive ones. She slowly made her way over to Brian’s tent where she could hear him whispering the end of a prayer. “Brian?”

“I’m fine Leighanne. Let’s just get some sleep. We have a big hike tomorrow morning.”

Leighanne heard the pain in Brian’s voice and sighed because she knew he wouldn’t let her in. That was just Brian’s way. Whenever he didn’t want to deal with something he shut people out and turned to the lord. It wasn’t a bad way to deal with things, but this time Leighanne didn’t want him to shut her out.

Leighanne decided to be brave and took a deep breath as she slowly pulled back the zipper on Brian’s tent. Brian was very surprised by the intrusion, but didn’t tell her to go away. Without saying a word Leighanne climbed in and closed the tent behind her. Brian turned on his lantern and Leighanne was quite surprised to see him already tucked into his sleeping bag and without his shirt on. She swallowed her nerves and then smiled at him as best she could. “Are you sure you’re alright? You seem upset about something.”

“I told you I’m fine. I know that’s just AJ and Nick being AJ and Nick. They mean well.”

“You know if it’s true, what they said, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Brian darted his eyes to his lap and began mindlessly twiddling the edge of his sleeping bag. Leighanne hesitated again and then scooted herself just a little closer to Brian. He shifted his weight becoming more and more nervous with every move she made. When she reached out and placed her hand on his bare chest he immediately shook his head in protest. “Leigh you don’t have to-

“I want to.”

Leighanne slowly leaned in and pressed her lips to Brian’s. At first he was frozen from the shock of her touch but his body gave way and he allowed her to give him his very first kiss. When she pulled away she could tell by the look on his face and the way he was slightly trembling that he’d never felt that before. “How did you manage to go 18 years without even kissing someone?”

Brian shrugged and the redness began to surface on his face again. Leighanne smiled and took his hand. He looked down at their fingers for a moment and when he looked up Leighanne kissed him again a little more aggressively. This time he kissed her back. He was shy at first but quickly began to relax. Leighanne felt his tension ease and she leaned all her weight into him, laying him back against the ground. When she climbed on top of him he quickly sat back up. “We can’t do this.”

“It’s ok Brian. I didn’t come here because of what AJ and Nick said. I’ve wanted this for a long time, but a girl could wait forever for you.”

Brian’s eyes grew wide at the revelation of her feelings. He was so shocked that he nearly gasped. “You mean you like me?”

It was hard for Leighanne not to giggle at Brian’s innocence because it was so cute and yet the whole situation was quite frustrating. “Why do you think AJ said what he said? I’ve tried to make it as obvious as I can.”

Leighanne searched Brian’s eyes for some sort of feelings and when she couldn’t tell what he was thinking she became scared and shrunk back, but it was all or nothing now. For nearly a year she’d wanted to tell him this and now that she’d started it, she had to finish it. “I don’t just like you Brian, I think I’m in love with you.”

Her confidence had left her and her voice had weakened to a barely audible whisper as if she were ashamed of her confession. She looked down at her lap suddenly wishing she’d never come tonight as she listened to the utter silence that filled the tent. So sure that she’d just ruined everything between them forever, she closed her eyes and let a few tears escape. Before she opened them again she felt Brian’s hands wiping the tears away. “Leigh.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Leighanne look at me, you have nothing to be sorry for. I had no idea you felt like this. You should have said something sooner. Things could have ended up a lot different.”

“What do you mean?”

Brian opened his mouth to explain but then stopped himself. He was tortured by the answers that were locked up in his heart and yet no matter how much he loved her back, he just couldn’t let her know it. Leighanne saw the pain and confusion in his eyes and knew she’d just given him a lot to process. “I should go now.” She whispered, “Good night Brian.”

Leighanne began to unzip the tent and Brian took her hand away from the door. “Don’t go.” Leighanne froze at Brian’s command. “Stay with me tonight.”
Chapter 2 by honey
Author's Notes:
Yay I finally finished this chapter! Trying to find a balance between this and my Smallville story, but I'm finding it hard to bounce back and forth between genres. Anyway, would love to hear your thoughts!
Chapter 2


Kristin’s eyes fluttered open at the first hint of daybreak, before the sun had even shown its face above the horizon. She stretched her stiff body and then tucked it snug against Kevin’s bare skin. Kevin awoke with a smile and quickly pulled his lover into his arms. “Well that was a good night.”

“Yeah.” Kristen smirked, “One of these days we’ll have to come back alone and try that again without the tent. Just you, me and the stars.”

“I’m free right now. We could get lost in the woods for a while.”

“That’d give Nick and AJ something to talk about all day wouldn’t it?”

Kevin sat up and gave Kristen a curious look before laughing. What was that all about last night? You know everyone knows about us.”

“I know, but that doesn’t mean I have to disclose every detail. I don’t want to share you with anyone, not even AJ.”

Kevin got a smirk on his face that Kristen knew all too well. She rolled her eyes, beating him to the punch, because she knew exactly what was about to come out of his mouth. “If you would just marry me already, then legally I would be bound to you and you wouldn’t have to share me.”

“Don’t tempt me. You keep proposing and one of these days I might just say yes.”

Kevin smirked again and then pulled a small box from under his pillow. “That’s kind of what I’m going for.”

Kristen stopped playing when she saw the ring sitting in front of her. Kevin proposed on practically a daily basis, it was sort of their thing, but never once did she expect it to be real. Kevin drank in the shocked look on Kristin’s face. To him, this moment couldn’t have been more perfect. “When I was sixteen I’d saved up enough money to buy my first car and when I went into town to pick one out I came home with this instead.”

“You were ready to marry me at sixteen?”

“I was ready to marry you at twelve, I just didn’t think our parents would let us.”

“You think they’re gonna let us now?”

“We’re 18. They can’t stop us.”

“Well that sounds romantic.”

“It could be.”

Kristin laughed but gazed down at the ring one more time, seriously contemplating the idea. “It doesn’t matter if you say yes right now or not. You can keep the ring either way. I know you’ll be mine someday.”

“So sure are you?”

“You know you want me.”

Kevin puckered up for a kiss but didn’t get one. Kristin simply laughed at him. “You certainly are one of a kind, but you’d better just hang on to that for a while.”

Kevin placed the box in Kristin’s hand. “I told you it’s yours.”

Kristin hesitated, but there was no man on Earth more stubborn than Kevin and fighting him was useless so she smiled and reached for her pack. “I’ll just put it here for safe keeping.”

She tucked the box safely into the very bottom of her bag and then smiled once more as she zipped it shut. “Thank you.” She whispered and placed a soft kiss on Kevin’s lips. “I’ll go start the fire. We need to get going if we want to reach camp before dark.”

With that, Kristin scrambled out of the tent. Kevin watched her go, not at all worried with her lack of an answer. He knew, he didn’t know when, but he knew. She couldn’t resist him forever and he would never give up.

Kristin gathered a small pile of sticks and dragged them over to the fire pit. As she began stacking them she saw Leighanne quietly sneak out of Brian’s tent. Their eyes made contact and that’s all it took for Kristin to know exactly what had happened. Leighanne was excited to see her and joined her by the morning fire. “So?”

Leighanne looked around to make sure no one was nearby and then sighed dreamily. “It was everything I imagined.”

“And you told him right?”
Leighanne nodded proudly. “You have no idea what a relief it is to have it out there after all this time.”

“And what’d he say?”

“He actually didn’t say much, he was pretty shy about it.”

“I can imagine. The poor guys is so dense when it comes to girls.”

“Yeah, but when we were together he was so sweet. I know I don’t have a lot of experience, but I’ve never been with someone like that before.”

“You mean you guys actually had sex?”

Leighanne gave Kristin a stern look. “AJ has sex. Brian made love to me last night. He couldn’t say it, but the way he touched me, and the way he looked at me? He loves me Kristin. I know he does.”

“I told you he did.”

“I can’t thank you enough. I never could have done it without you and you know he never would have.”

“So are you guys together then? Am I allowed to tell Kevin?”

“Well we didn’t define it, so I wouldn’t say anything just yet, but I think it’s safe to say that things will be different from now on. You know how Brian is. I don’t want to scare him off so we’ll just move at his pace.”

“You do know how slow that is, right?”

Leighanne sighed heavily. “He’s worth it.”

Kristin wrapped her arms around her best friend. “I’m really happy for you Leigh.”

“Yeah, me too.”

Kristin and Leighanne talked for a few more minutes until the rest of the camp began to stir. After that, it was pretty much strictly business until they were all packed. The group had quite the hike in front of them, a hike that had become somewhat of a tradition over the last few years.

They were headed to a place called Mercy Springs and it would take the majority of the day to get there. The trip consisted of a strenuous 10-mile hike down the side of a mountain where they would then follow a small stream for another three miles until they came to a valley with pools of natural hot springs. They would then camp the night, spending most of it enjoying the warm water by the light of the fire and then make the journey home the following day.

It was quite the trip, but growing up in Montana they’d all had their fair share of outdoor adventures. None of them compared to Kevin though. They often called him McGiver. He always protested the nickname, but he could truly navigate by the stars and live off the forest with nothing but a good Swiss army knife.

Kevin had practically been raised in the wilderness and over the years had done plenty of exploring. Montana is one of the few states in this country that still has vast amounts of undiscovered land. While it has all been mapped at one point or another, most of the state remains unpopulated.

When Kevin became old enough that his parents would let him go exploring on his own, he would wander off into strange parts of the forest and often dragged the gang along. When they were 14 they happened upon a small group of natural hot springs that had not been listed on any of the National Parks maps. They figured they were probably the only people in the world that knew they existed; therefore the place had very special meaning to them.

They originally referred to the beautiful secluded pools as the hideout because they all felt it was the one place where they could escape all their troubles and no one would ever find them. But, after a while Nick declared that it was pretty juvenile to be planning trips to a “secret hideout”, so the group decided on a new name.

They figured that since Kevin was the one who found them, he should get to pick. And having so much pride in his hometown, Kevin went a traditional rout and simply called it Mercy Hot Springs. He took a little heat from the others for his lack of creativity, but he stood his ground, and from then on the hideout became known as Mercy Springs.

As always, Kevin led the way and the group reached Mercy Springs by dusk. They quickly set up camp and had a traditional dinner of franks and beans cooked over an open fire. Then, after every last marshmallow had been consumed, they found themselves relaxing in a secluded paradise admiring the stars by the light of a glowing fire. AJ groaned a giant sigh of relief as the hot water enclosed around his sore muscles. “This is the only reason I make this stupid trip every year.”

“This trip is not stupid.” Howie protested.

“Yeah, some of our best memories have been these campouts.”

“Gee Kris, you’re starting to sound as cheesy as Kevin, maybe you two should get married already.”

“Gee AJ, you’re starting to sound as dumb as Nick maybe you guys should get married already.”

“Hey!”

“Sorry Nicky, but no offense.”

“Alright you guys, let’s not start a fight and ruin the whole point of this trip.”

It was amazing the way Kevin could command attention. No one was even sure why they listened to him, but they obeyed him more than most of them obeyed their own parents. The squabbling immediately stopped and the mood became serious. All attention focused on Kevin as he lit a candle. He smiled gently around the circle and then sat up straight and held the candle in front of him. “Every summer since we were fourteen we have come to this very spot and confessed one thing that no one else knows. Last year we decided to keep our future plans a secret and I don’t know about you, but I am dying to know what’s going to happen to all of us now that we’ve graduated.”

“Amen to that!”

“I guess we should start with Nick since he’s the only one that couldn’t keep it a secret.”

Nick pouted as Kevin handed him the candle. “It wasn’t my fault. I’m not the one who leaked it to the town newspaper. I can’t help it if I’m the first person from Mercy to make the UMT football team.”

The group all shrugged and then laughed as they congratulated the local celebrity. “What I can tell you that you don’t know, is that I have been awarded a four year full-ride scholarship as long as I remain on the team. I’m going to be the first Carter to get a degree. Then I’m gonna get out of the crappy town, no offense Kev, and I’m gonna make something of myself.”

There were congratulations and hugs all around and then Nick handed off the candle to the person on his left, which happened to be AJ. AJ took the spotlight and felt a little sick to his stomach as he divulged the secret that had been haunting him for nearly a month. “My mom got a job in Seattle and we’re leaving at the end of the summer. I’ll have to pay out of state tuition so I can only afford community college, but I want to major in English. Hopefully be a writer someday.”

There was silence for a minute as reality started to hit everyone. They always talked as if they were going to be returning to Mercy Springs every summer until they were all old and decrepit, but deep down they knew that it couldn’t possible end up that way. AJ’s news was just the beginning of a much different life.

Everyone looked around wondering what they could possibly say to comfort their friend. Finally Leighanne broke the silence and with tears in her eyes forced a beautiful smile. “You will AJ. The poems you write are amazing and someday when you get your first book tour, you’d better make sure Mercy is your first stop.”

“You can count on it.” AJ replied as he tried not to become choked up.

AJ quickly handed off the candle to Howie who nearly buckled under the pressure of having to be the one to lighten the mood. “Well,” he began as he cleared his throat. “I’m not going quite as far. I’m only going to Missoula.”

“You’re going to the University of Montana too? Man, we should be roommates!”

Howie laughed, but shook his head. “I don’t belong in a frat house Nick, and I’m not going to UMT. I can’t really afford college either. I’m going to get my real-estate license. There’s a place there and the program only takes like 5 or 6 months.”

“Oh well, it could have been fun to room together. But you’ll always be invited to the frat parties.”

Howie shuddered at the thought of having to attend a college party with Nick and quickly passed the torch so that Nick would forget the subject. Leighanne timidly took the candle and swallowed nervously. “I’m actually still undecided.” She shrugged. “I think I want to go into law like my father and I’ve been accepted to six different schools, but I was kind of waiting to see where everyone else was gonna be.” Leighanne glanced quickly at Brian and then back to the group. “It sounds like UMT might be my best bet so far.”

Brian was practically shaking when he took the candle from Leighanne. He knew his news was going to come as quite a shock to everyone, and he knew not everyone was going to be happy about it. “I’m going to Missoula too.”

Leighanne’s face brightened up, but Kevin’s dropped. “You’re leaving Mercy!”

“It’s only 2 hours away. I’ll be able to visit.”

This news wasn’t the least bit comforting to Kevin. “Kev, the ranch is your thing. I have to find my own place in the world.”

“I thought you liked living with us. We’re your family.”

“I love it here and you’re like a brother to me, but I think my calling in life is a bit different.”

Brian looked at Leighanne and her excitement and curiosity tortured him. His eyes glazed over with moisture as he broke the news to the group. “I talked to Father Paul and I start seminary next week.”

There was silence as heavy as when AJ confessed he was moving clear across the country. Everyone was shocked, but no one more so than Leighanne. She sat in silence, unable to move as her heart broke. Tears filled her eyes when Brian looked to her for approval. Kristin, who had betrayed Leighanne’s secret hours ago to her boyfriend, and Kevin both sat in silence attempting to control their tempers.

Brian had been the very last to know about Leighanne’s feelings for him. It had always been clear as day to everyone else, and it was just as clear right now to see that she was deeply hurt by his news. The air was thick and no one dared be the first to move except Nick. “You’re gonna be a pastor? Pastor Littrell?”

“Um, Father Littrell, actually.”

“But those dudes can’t have sex! Like ever!”

Brian glanced nervously at Leighanne again, but she couldn’t bring herself to look at him. “That’s right Nick. Once I take my vows I have to live a celibate life, but I’ve accepted it. The Lord has always been there for me when I needed him and I’m ready to spend my life in his service. I think it’s the right thing to do.”

“Good luck with that.”

The next in the circle to receive the candle was Kevin. He took a deep breath and somehow managed to lift the doom and gloom of Brian’s announcement. “Well I haven’t told any of you this, but I’m sure it’s no secret. I’m staying on the ranch and will one day inherit it from my father.”

The group laughed. No one was the least bit surprised by this. The Richardson’s ranch had been in the family for four generations now and nobody was happier there than Kevin. “My father gave the back forty acres as a graduation present and I’m going to spend the summer building a house on the property. Then I’m gonna find me a nice wife who will have me a million babies.”

Again there was laughter all around from everyone except Leighanne and Kristin. Leighanne never wanted to talk about marriage or having babies ever again seeing as how the man she’d just given her heart to had just rejected her for Jesus.

Kristen had somehow managed to lose herself in Kevin’s speech as she pictured sitting on the front porch of the house he was talking about rocking a baby to sleep in a chair that Kevin made himself. She wasn’t shaken from her trance until Kevin handed her the candle.

Kristin would be the last to make her confession, the last to take the first step into adult hood. She knew what she wanted to say; she just didn’t know where to start. “My parents want to retire, so I’m going to be taking over the shop for them. I guess that’s good news for Kevin because he won’t be the only one staying home. And you know, I have kept a journal of all the times Kevin has asked me to marry him in the last 6 years. So far the grand total, including this morning’s beauty, comes to 5,763. That means that to date, this poor man has been rejected 5,762 times.”

Kevin looked curiously at Kristin when the numbers didn’t add up. He didn’t remember her ever saying yes before and he was sure that a detail like that would not have slipped his mind. “I know you won’t all be here forever, but you all damn well better stick around for our wedding.”

Kristin pulled her hand out of the water to reveal the ring Kevin had given her this morning. While everyone gasped and offered their congratulations, Kevin just stared wide-eyed at Kristen. “Really?”

Kristin smirked at her astonished fiancée. “If you really want a million babies, then I figure it’s best we don’t wait much longer, don’t ya think?”

Kevin didn’t waste another second. He found Kristin’s lips so fast that he practically tackled her below the water. Nick frowned when Kristin didn’t hesitate to crawl into his lap. “I think you guys could wait five more minutes.”

Kevin, who was already breathing heavily, pulled his face from Kristin’s long enough to smirk at Nick. “This year’s meeting is officially adjourned so everyone go find somewhere else to be.”

Everyone gave Kevin and Kristin strange looks, but they were too busy making out to notice. They left the two lovebirds in the water, and everyone except Leighanne headed toward the fire to dry off. Leighanne grabbed her towel and quietly headed toward her tent. She stopped before she got there when she felt someone take her hand. “Can we talk?”

Leighanne looked into Brian’s eyes and could no longer take it. “How could you!”

“Leigh. I’m sorry. I just didn’t know how to tell you.”

“You could have tried! I told you that I loved you!”

Leighanne broke into furious tears and all activity in the camp took a time out to witness the spectacle. “For God’s sake Brian we made love last night! Did it mean nothing? Was I just an easy way for you to finally get some before swearing off women forever?”

“Leigh, please calm down.” Brian pleaded as moisture crept into his frustrated eyes. “That’s not what last night was about.”

“Then what was it?”

“I care about you so much Leighanne. I have for a long time.”

“Then don’t do it Brian. Don’t go.”

“I have to.”

Leighanne could feel her heart breaking all over again and she turned to leave but Brian stopped her again, pleading with his eyes for understanding. “If you knew you were going to go, how could you let last night happen?”

Brian sighed. He felt sick with guilt over the pain he was causing her, but he couldn’t regret it. “I dreamt about last night, about being with you, so many times. I didn’t plan for it, but you came to me and then you said all the things I wanted to hear and I just… I just couldn’t let you go. Please don’t be angry. Last night was the most special night of my life and I will remember it forever and I hope you feel the same way.”

Leighanne’s manner turned cold and her tears seemed to freeze as her blue eyes turned steel gray. Slowly she shook her head. “Last night was a mistake.”
Chapter 3 by honey
Author's Notes:
FYI, if you already read this chapter this morning, go back and read it again because I combine the next chapter with it since they were both fairly short. Thoughts and comments are always appreciated. :)
Twelve years later...

Nick sat down in his favorite armchair with a microwave dinner and a cold beer, then turned on the football game. He watched the screen with a hint of regret in his eyes then sighed as he looked around his small, lonely house. His eyes rested on an old picture of him in his college football uniform with Kevin and Howie on either side of him. They all looked so young and happy, and he was in the best physical condition of his life.

He cast his stare down to the body resting comfortably in the ratty, old chair that was now permanently shaped to fit his figure. He’d put on some weight over the years, as most people do, but it was hardly anything to be ashamed of. It wasn’t the extra pounds that bothered him as much as it was the thought of what he could have been, what he should have been.

Nick knew better than to reminisce about his life so he kicked back the rest of his beer and focused his attention on his favorite team. Montana had no team of their own, so he was forced to root for the Minnesota Vikings, which sucked because they never did that well. Tonight’s game was one of those where they were so far behind that it was almost painful to watch. And before he knew it, Nick had drifted off. He was soon wakened, however, by a loud knock on the front door. Feeling tired and lazy and assuming it was Kevin, Nick didn’t bother getting up from his chair. “Come in!”

When the door opened Nick took one look at the tears in Kristen’s eyes and he dashed across his living room and scooped her into his arms. “I can’t do it anymore.” She sobbed, “I can’t have this fight again.”

Nick sighed, but hugged his friend tightly while she cried. “You’re upset Kris. Sit down and relax. I’ll get you a beer.”

Kristin looked up at him and forced a smile through her tears. “Thanks.”

Nick returned moments later with a beer in each hand. He popped his open and took a sip and watched curiously as Kristin practically downed hers in one giant swig. “So I take it things didn’t go so well.”

“I spoke to an attorney.”

“What about the counseling?”

“The counseling can’t help if he’s not going to try.”

“But you can’t get a divorce, you love him.”

“It’s not about love. He’s not the same man anymore Nick. He hasn’t been since they told him he couldn’t have children. It’s like he blames himself, and I can’t live with the depression anymore.”

“It will kill him if you leave.”

“I can’t stay. I can’t watch him self-destruct. It hurts too much to see him like that.”

“Kristin.”

“It’s too late Nick, I’m done. I gave him the papers this evening.”

Nick was speechless. He knew Kristin and Kevin’s marriage had been rocky for several years now. He’d heard all about it from both of them every now and then, but deep down they were still clearly in love with each other, so despite the troubles they’d had, Nick never imagined he would see this day.

Kristin felt his disappointment and began to spill tears once more. “Am I a bad person Nick?”

“Of course not.” Nick whispered. “You guys have been through some rough times and Kevin hasn’t exactly been fair to you. I don’t want to see you break up, but I can’t blame you for wanting a better life.”

There was a reason Kristin always came to Nick when life at home got hard. She knew Nick understood family dysfunction. She knew he understood both her and Kevin. He was the closest friend they’d had since pretty much the beginning of time. She knew that no matter what happened, Nick was not going to judge her. In all these years he never had. He was always right by her side and right now, when she needed his strength the most, he was there.

Kristin let her emotions run freely, leaving a wet spot on Nick’s shoulder from her tears. She could feel his strong fingers running through her hair. She was confused, and scared, and his touch was very soothing to her nerves. In a moment of vulnerable weakness, she placed her lips to Nick’s, craving some kind of comfort.

Nick was shocked and immediately pulled back. They looked at each other in utter silence, each resisting urges that they knew they shouldn’t have. Kristin placed her fingers to her lips as if she were just now realizing what she’d done. Tears filled her eyes once more and her body began to tremble. “I’m so sorry Nick. I- I- I”

Nick swallowed a lump in his throat and stood, taking a step back to create a safe distance between them. “It’s ok, but I think the best thing I can do for you right now, for both of us, is not be here. You’re welcome to stay if you don’t want to go home, but I think I’m gonna go see Kevin.”

Kristin hung her head feeling awful that she’d put her friend in this position. “Maybe that’s best.” She whispered, “But you won’t find him at home. He took off when I gave him the papers and never came back.”

Nick released a heavy sigh and grabbed his keys. “I’ll find him.”

Just as Nick was about to walk out the door, Kristin lifted her head, “Nick? You won’t-“

Nick gave her a gentle smile. “I won’t tell him.” He assured her and then disappeared out the door.

Nick jumped in his jeep and headed across town. He knew exactly where Kevin would be. The news of divorce had surely broken his heart and he would no doubt be at Mel’s Tavern attempting to wash away the pain. When Nick pulled up, Kevin’s truck was parked right out front.

He looked bad this time. He was perched on a stool hunched over a shot of something very dark, and no doubt very strong. Nick had only seen him like this twice before. Once, the day Brian told him that he was leaving Mercy and not coming back, and the other, the day he found out that he was sterile and would never be a father. That was a pretty dark day, but tonight, if it was possible, he looked even worse.

Nick took a seat on the stool next to him and ordered a beer. Once it was placed in front of him he took a sip and then was the first to speak. “How you holdin’ up?”

“I’ve lost her. She’s the only reason I live this life and I’ve lost her.”

“You haven’t lost her, not yet, but you’re gonna.”

“She filed for divorce. Did she tell you that?”

“Yeah man, I heard. I’m sorry.”

“God man, do you remember the days when life was simpler, before Howie got too busy, and before Brian was a self-righteous ass hole? The days when we would all drop everything just to fulfill some stupid tradition.”

Nick smiled at the memory. “Those were some good times.”

“Yeah. We should go up there again, you and me. We should take a hike out to Mercy. When’s the last time you went out there?”

“Shit man, I haven’t been there since grad night. I think that’s the last time any of us went back besides you and Kris.”

Kevin’s frown returned at the mention of his wife’s name. He picked up his shot glass and smirked bitterly at a memory. “We should have known. We should have known that night at the springs, life never turns out the way you expect it.”

“Tell me about it. I was all-state sophomore year. They said I could have gone pro, that I had what it takes. Instead I wound up back here looking after my brothers and sisters because my drunk-ass parents couldn’t do it. Life’s never what you expect, but I didn’t let it beat me. My brother Aaron actually went to college because of me, and coaching high school football isn’t so bad. So you can’t have kids, life’s a bitch, but you can’t give up, Kristin still needs you.”

Kevin held up a fat envelope, “She’s the one who gave up on me.”

“You think that’s what she did? I hate to tell you this Kev, but you brought this on yourself.”

Kevin forced the liquor down his throat and slammed the empty glass down on the counter. “Who the hell asked for your opinion?”

“Damnit Kevin, your wife did! Do you think she wants this divorce?”

Nick’s question caught the attention of his drunken friend. Until he said that, Kevin assumed that’s exactly what she wanted. “Well she doesn’t man, trust me. She’s a mess right now. She loves you, she just doesn’t know what to do with you anymore.”

Kevin motioned to the bartender for a refill. The man refilled the glass and Kevin kicked it back like a pro. “She’s better off this way.”

Nick stood up from his stool and shook his head, disgusted with Kevin’s attitude. “You see? That right there, that’s why she’s leaving you man. And to tell you the truth, I can’t blame her.”

“Sure, fucking take her side. You’re probably sleeping with her.”

Nick was done trying to reason. It wouldn’t do any good as drunk as Kevin was right now anyway. Kevin was stubborn enough when he was sober and now Nick was angry. He placed some cash on the table next to the drink he’d only taken a sip of and looked down at Kevin who was downing another shot. A vision of Kristin falling apart in his arms flashed in his mind and he could practically still feel her trembling body. “Being an ass hole must run in the family.” He growled, “You don’t deserve her anymore.”

Nick slammed the door on his way out. After He left the bar, Kevin’s conscience started to catch up to him. “Fuck!” he yelled slamming the counter for a second time. “Hey man, can I get a double this time?”

“I’m sorry Kev, but I think you’ve had enough for one night.”

“What?”

“I gotta cut you off man. I’m sorry.”

“Shit.” Kevin hissed under his breath and then stumbled from his stool.

“You want me to call you a cab?”

Kevin glared at the bartender, but the man just shrugged. “There’s no way in hell I’m letting you drive home like that. They’d have my license for sure.”

Kevin grumbled, but shoved his keys on the counter and then staggered out the door.

When Nick arrived home he quietly crept into the house. Kristin’s car was still in his driveway and he knew she would have fallen asleep on the couch. As he slowly made his way through the living room she was there, exactly as he’d imagined. He smiled at the sight and then placed a blanket over her. He watched her for a moment and then gently kissed her forehead before retreating to his bedroom for the night.

It was nearly three hours later when Nick was wakened by his telephone. He woke with a jolt and squinted at the blurry red numbers on his alarm clack. He groaned at the thought of it being 4 am and rubbed his eyes before answering.

Kristin heard the phone ring and assumed, or hoped, that it would be Kevin, so she made her way into Nick’s room. When she walked in she saw him sitting straight up just holding the receiver in his hands and tears were falling from his face. It was the first time she’d ever seen him cry and immediately she felt sick. “What is it?”

Kristin’s voice pulled Nick from his state of shock and his tears only increased when he looked into her eyes. Kristin knew by the look on his face, she could feel it in her heart. She flew to his side shaking his arms. “Tell me god damnit! What is it?”
“It’s Kevin.” He whispered. “He’s dead.”

Mercy is a small town with only one medical center that housed a tiny morgue. The town was quiet enough that the morgue was practically for show. Every now and then it housed an old person who’d simply reached their life expectancy and was waiting for their burial but very rarely was it home to something so tragic. Normally it’s only guests were the morticians themselves, so Nick and Kristin found themselves standing along a cold white wall as they waited.

Neither could stop their tears and both were in shock as they were shuffled from one place to another and given bits and pieces of information. They’d not spoken a word since Nick hung up the phone and even then he simply told her that there’d been an accident and they had to meet the police at the hospital.

Though there was nothing that could take away the pain they were feeling, there was a little comfort in the fact that they were going through it together. They’re hands were cold and clammy but they refused to let go of one another, and as the town’s sheriff approached them Kristin’s grip tightened to a painful level. “Mrs. Richardson?”

Kristin couldn’t find her voice enough to give a verbal answer so she simply gave a weak nod of her head. The cop offered an apologetic smile and hated himself for what he was about to do. “I’m sorry to make you do this, but it is standard procedure.”

Kristin nodded again and followed the man down the sterile hallway, clinging desperately to Nick as she went. The room had an ominous feel to it, and when they walked through the door it sent chills up Nick’s spine.

From the moment he saw it, he couldn’t peel his eyes from the outline of a body hiding beneath a pristine white sheet. He heard Kristin take in a sharp breath and suddenly realized that he too had been holding his breath. This had to be the worst moment in either of their lives and as the sheriff placed his hands on the sheet, Kristin forced her stiff body even tighter against Nick’s. Nick looked down at her in concern. “You don’t have to do this you know. I can do it if you want.”

The sheriff waited for Kristin’s response as she starred lifelessly at Nick. She looked back down at the slab in front of her and slowly shook her head. “I have to see for myself.”

Nick put his arm around her and pulled her close as the sheet was lifted from Kevin’s bruised face. Kristin’s eyes widened in horror and with a loud gasp, she buried herself in Nick’s chest. Nick held her as tight as he was capable, and tears returned to his face as he choked out the answer the sheriff was waiting to hear. “It’s him.”

The man gave a respectful nod and quickly covered the body. “I’m sorry.” He whispered as he guided them out of the room.

The sheriff switched the light off and locked the door behind them. The action felt so final and so devastating to Kristin that she nearly collapsed. Nick caught her and helped her to the floor as she wept. “I think she needs a minute.” He whispered to the waiting sheriff.

The man tried his best to keep his composure, feeling it was his duty to do so, but the sight of Kristin was simply heartbreaking. He bottled his depressing thoughts and pulled Nick aside for a moment. “Why don’t you take her home and call her family. They might be of some comfort right now.”

Nick looked down at Kristin and nodded. He knew that the task of keeping her together was too big for him alone. It was getting harder and harder for him not to break down as it was. “Make sure she gets a little rest, and then come down to the station after it opens. We can go over everything then. There’s some paperwork involved, but there’s no need to do it right this minute.”

“Thank you.”

Nick helped Kristin in the car and took her over to the ranch. They sat in the car for a moment staring up at Kevin’s parent’s house. “How am I going to tell them?”

Nick turned off the car and opened his door. “I’m not sure, but we’ll do it together.”

Breaking the news to Kevin’s parents was torture, but being able to mourn with them helped Kristin to gain a little control of herself and took some of the pressure off of Nick. After they called Kristin’s parents, and had them sitting in the Richardson’s living room as well, Nick took the chance to get some air. “I think I’m going to go home and get cleaned up and then I’ll be back. Wait for me and we’ll go to the police station together.”

Kristin nodded, and before Nick let go of her hand he forced her to look at him. “You going to be ok?”

Kristin forced what little smile she could. “You’ve been my angel through this Nick. Hurry back ok?”

Nick forced back his tears and placed a kiss on her forehead. “One hour.”

Nick climbed into his car and took a number of slow deep breaths before driving the few miles to his house. It wasn’t until he got through the door that everything truly caught up with him. He fell to the couch heavily and looked around unsure what to do with himself. He was hurting deeply, and yet he couldn’t imagine what it must be like for Kristin right now.

He was exhausted, and the light was finally beginning to creep into the windows, but he knew there was no point in trying to sleep so he just sat there, drowning in morbid thoughts.

His eyes caught the picture of him, Kevin and Howie on the mantle. He picked up the frame and remembered the moment it was taken as vividly as if it’s been yesterday. UMT had gone all the way to the state championships and Nick threw an interception that ultimately costing them the game. Nick was so bummed and it was Kevin who raised his spirits and encouraged him to keep going.

The next season they were in the championships again and Nick was so afraid of a devastating repeat that he nearly had a panic attack before the game. Kevin gave him a motivational speech about how he’d always wanted his chance to make something of himself and this was it. UMT won the game that day and Nick had been named MVP. Kristin had snapped the shot right after the announcement had been made.

Nick stared down at the happy faces in the picture and his eyes filled with tears. His mind could only think of the last conversation he’d had with his best friend. His last words to him had been spoken in anger and were cruel and untrue. Kevin was the best man he’d even known and he needed support, not a lecture.

Nick couldn’t stop the rush of guilt that forced him to finally lose control. His body filled with anger and he threw the picture across the room shattering the glass. Then, in one quick motion, he fell to the floor and cried as if he were a 6 year old that had just been stripped of his family.
Chapter 4 by honey
Author's Notes:
Whohoo, another update on a story I haven't worked on in ages. I had to go back and re-read this one -lol. I hope you don't have to do the same.
Chapter 4


The thing about a small town like Mercy is that everyone really does know just about everyone. So when the Sheriff, who happened to be a close friend of Kristin’s parents, told Nick and Kristin the particulars of Kevin’s accident, things got a bit awkward. “Kristin.” He began, trying his best to remain professional, “I think its best you sit down.”

Kristin had been in a daze all morning, but there was something in the sheriff’s tone that forced her stare from the window and she complied without questioning him. Nick took a seat as well but there was an unsettling feeling in his stomach as if somehow things were about to get worse. He wasn’t sure how they could, but he braced himself anyway.

The sheriff looked back and forth between the two people sitting in front of his desk and dreaded what he was about to ask. “Is there any possibility that Kevin may have done this… intentionally?”

Kristin froze in horror at the insinuation, but Nick stood so fast it sent his chair flying across the room behind him. His temper was enraged and he pounded his fists on the desk as he yelled, “What the hell kind of question is that?”

“I know this is hard Mr. Carter, but please try and stay calm.”

“Stay calm? You’re suggesting that Kevin killed himself!”

“Nick.”

Kristin’s frail voice brought reason to Nick instantly. The way she looked at him, as if she simply couldn’t take anymore, made Nick’s eyes gloss over again. Kristin reached out her hand to him and he clasped it tightly. “Don’t you believe it Kristin, Kevin would never do it.”

The sheriff walked around the desk and picked Nick’s chair up for him. Once Nick was calmly sitting again, the sheriff heaved himself back into his own chair with a heavy sigh. “I don’t want to believe it either,” he said, “But it’s my job to look at all the facts.”

“What facts? What facts could you possibly have that would suggest something so insane?”

The sheriff sighed again, hesitating to answer Nick’s question. “You’re not gonna like it.”

“Dammit Sheriff my best friend is dead! I’m not going to like anything you tell me, but you can’t just suggest something so crazy and then not explain yourself!”

The sheriff looked up and both Nick and Kristin seemed so desperate for an explanation that he simply couldn’t deny them one. “Alright, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Nick and Kristin starred at him and when he was sure they weren’t going to change their minds he laid all the cards out on the table. “I have three witnesses that say he stepped in front of the truck on purpose.”

Nick filled with rage while Kristin gasped. She squeezed her eyes shut so tightly that her tears had a hard time escaping. “Mr. and Mrs. Myrtle were just getting back from Missoula and were driving past just as the accident happened and they said the exact same thing as the truck driver. They said he was walking up the side of the road and when the logging truck came over the hill he watched it for a second and then just walked right in front of it. They said the trucker never even had time to hit his breaks.”

Kristin broke down into tears again and Nick fled his chair, throwing his arms around her. “He was really drunk Kris. He made a mistake. He wouldn’t have done it on purpose.” Nick assured the devastated woman and then looked desperately back to the sheriff. “But the Myrtles are like a million years old and it was late, maybe they didn’t see what they thought.”

“I’m sorry Nick. Even if that’s the case, I’m not pressing charges against the driver. It simply wasn’t his fault.”

“What do you mean it wasn’t his fault!” Nick screamed, “The man drove a 35 ton truck into him!”

Kristin’s tears turned to uncontrollable sobs and the sheriff was beginning to lose his patience. “You’re not helping things Nick.”

Nick saw how distraught Kristin had become and settled into his chair once more, choking back his emotions. The sheriff again started with his explanation. “The man has an exceptional driving record. He wasn’t speeding and he’d just had a good sleep so he wasn’t tired. There was nothing he could have done; he broke no laws. Kevin’s blood alcohol level was .28. If he weren’t such a big guy he would have been suffering alcohol poisoning anyway. I also spoke to Mel over at the tavern and he told me about your fight.”

Nick’s face dropped at the mention of his last conversation with Kevin. Kristin was a little surprised to hear this and she questioned the guilty look in Nick’s eyes. Nick was overwhelmed with a sick feeling and could no longer hold back his own tears. “I’m sorry.” He whispered.

“I also found these at the scene.” The sheriff said pulling out a clear evidence bag containing a blood covered manila envelope.

Nick and Kristin both sat stunned as they stared at the divorce papers. Neither could take their eyes off the red smudges. The sheriff swallowed hard and then released all of his professional attitude and became just “Frank”. He came around his desk and knelt in front of Kristin. “Your parents never told me anything like this was going on.”

Kristin looked away shamefully and Nick placed his hand on the sheriff’s shoulder. “They didn’t know.” He said and then added, “And neither do Kevin’s parents.”

The sheriff understood Nick’s meaning and nodded his head. “It doesn’t have to leave this room.”

“We would really appreciate that.” Nick replied.

“This is hard enough for everyone anyway. His parents would be heartbroken and there’s no need throwing fuel on a fire that’s already blazing.” The sheriff sighed.

Nick looked at Kristin and knew immediately what she was thinking. “It’s not your fault.” He said forcefully and the sheriff nodded.

“What happened to Kevin was nothing more than a tragic accident.” The sheriff added, “And that’s how I’m going to write it in my reports.”

Kristin and Nick both nodded and then rose from their seats. Kristin was still very upset and overwhelmed and was a little weak on her feet. “Let’s get you home.” Nick suggested and then put an arm around her for support and led her to the door.

“Thank you for coming.” The sheriff said as he held the door for them, “If you need any help with funeral arrangements or anything.”

Nick nodded and then led Kristin through he door. “There’s just one more question.” The sheriff said before letting them go, “Do either of you have any idea what he was doing three miles up route 40 when he lives the opposite direction?”

Neither Nick nor Kristin had a good answer to that question. Kevin’s actions rarely made sense anymore. Nick shrugged and then said, “He was drunk. He probably just got confused.”

“That’s what I thought too.” The sheriff sighed. “Thanks again.”

“Later Sheriff.”

Nick and Kristin left the sheriff’s office in silence until they were almost outside. Just as Nick reached for the handle, the door was pushed open from the outside. Time seemed to stand still when they saw the figure standing in front of them and Nick’s face paled when they made eye contact. It’d been about six years since they’d last seen their best friend turned preacher, and the falling out that occurred was still a sore subject.

For a moment Brian seemed startled to see them but then offered a calm sympathetic smile to Kristin. She was less than thrilled to see him, but didn’t have the energy to fight so she forced a small smile back. “He missed you so much.” Kristin sighed and then suddenly became angry.

She balled up her fists and even though she didn’t have the strength to hurt him, she still pounded his chest as hard as she could as she cried. “How could you wait until now to come back!”

Brian was startled by her actions but he could tell she was releasing emotions that desperately needed to get out. Every time Kristin hit him she cried harder and harder so finally Brian wrapped his arms around her. She fell into them and even though she was angry with him, it felt so good to have him back that she couldn’t let go of him. “I’m so sorry Kristin.” Brian whispered in a shaky voice.

Hearing Brian speak brought Kristin back to the present and she pulled herself from his grip. She looked into his sad eyes with deep regret. “So am I.” she said coldly and then grabbed Nick’s hand. “Let’s go.”

Nick glared back at Brian who seemed to look at him with an equal amount of hatred and then led Kristin out the door. He helped her into his Jeep but when he put the key in the ignition Kristin placed her hand on top of his stopping him from starting the car. Nick looked at her concerned. “I can’t go back home right now.” Kristin pleaded, “I can’t face them yet. I need to go someplace quiet.”

“Ok.”

Nick thought for a minute and figured that by now the news of Kevin’s death had spread around town and nowhere would be quiet, so he switched his jeep into 4-wheel drive mode and headed for Jackson Lake. The north shore was always quiet. Once they were there Nick hung back by the Jeep a moment while Kristin headed down to the water. He told himself it was to give Kristin her space, but the truth was, some of his fondest memories of Kevin took place on this very shore and he didn’t want to have to face them.

Even after everyone parted ways, Nick still made it back every so often to have a barbeque at the beach with his best friends. For a while Howie would make the drive back with him but then as he got more into his work, the less time he seemed to have for weekend getaways and pretty soon it was just Nick, Kevin and Kristin. Now it would only ever be him and Kristin. Nick looked out at the water and shivered at the thought. He wasn’t sure either of them would have the heart to do it without Kevin, it just wouldn’t seem right, but he was pulled from his thoughts as a rock sailed out onto the water.

Nick slowly headed down to the shore and joined Kristin in skipping rocks. Kristin sailed another beauty gracefully across the water and Nick laughed when his rock went hop, hop, plop. Kristin couldn’t hold back her giggle either and laughed as she thought of Kevin. “He used to get so frustrated when we did this. It was the one thing he could never beat me at.”

“No one can skip a rock the way you can.” Nick teased.

“Do you remember that one time when he got so mad that he mistakenly threw his cell phone into the lake?”

Nick gazed out at the water watching the scene play out in his mind. “That thing really flew, didn’t it?”

Nick and Kristin both broke out into laughter and then suddenly found themselves lost in the other’s stare. “It feels good to be able to laugh.” Kristin admitted almost as if she felt guilty about it.

“Yeah.” Nick agreed.

Kristin hugged Nick tightly and then they sat down together. Kristin sat quietly for a moment and then breathed in the fresh air. “We’ve had some great times here haven’t we? I am so glad that you came back to Mercy after college Nick. I don’t know what I would have done if you became some big pro football star and I had to live without you these last few years.”

“You wouldn’t have had to.” Nick laughed, “With all that fame and fortune I could have tricked you into thinking I was a better guy than Kevin and then I would have stolen you from him and taken you with me.”

Kristin didn’t join Nick in his laughter this time; instead she smiled sadly at him. “You are every bit the man Kevin was. You’re just different. Together you might just have been the perfect man. In fact I should have just become a Mormon and married you both.”

“That’s pretty sick Kris.” Nick said playfully shoving her.

Kristin shoved him back and once again they found themselves lost in the moment. As they got quiet, they both thought of the secret kiss they shared just the night before and the tension became so thick that Nick rose to his feet. “Maybe we should get back.” He said extending a hand to Kristin.

Kristin let Nick pull her up and then got in the car with only a nod as a response. Once they were safely driving again, Kristin finally broke the silence. “Thank you Nick. I really needed that, especially after seeing Brian again. I can’t believe I broke down like that.”

“You have a right to be upset.” Nick said trying not to let his temper flare. “We both do.”

“Maybe, but Kevin’s death is painful enough. Now’s not the time to be adding 6 year old grudges on top of it. Like it or not, Brian was his family and he’s probably hurting as much as we are.”

“I doubt that man feels anything.” Nick hissed through his tightly clenched teeth.

Nick wanted Brian to hurt the way he did. Part of him hoped that he was suffering even more, but deep down he knew Kristin was right. Once upon a time Brian had been his closest friend and Nick decided, if only for Kristin’s sake, he would try and remember those days instead of what the two of them had become now.

Kristin could tell how upset Nick was, but it was also clear how much he was trying and she was grateful for it. She picked up his hand and squeezed it tightly. “It’ll be ok Nick. Somehow Kevin will help us get through this.”

As Nick turned off the jeep trail onto the highway, he smiled and held tightly to Kristin’s hand thinking just how grateful he was to have her to get him through this as well. They drove peacefully for a mile or two until Nick noticed the highway sign on the side of the road. He slammed on his breaks and pulled off onto the shoulder of the road starring up at the sign as if it were a ghost. “Nick what’s the matter?”
“Route 40. Three miles out.” Nick whispered. “This is where it happened.”

Kristin and Nick both stepped out of the Jeep and looked around with a sick feeling. When Nick saw the sign for Jackson Lake behind him his brain put two and two together and his body began shaking. He held it together though, wanting to be strong for Kristin. When she questioned him he pointed at the sign. “I know where he was going.”

“The lake?”

Nick shook his head. “Not the lake, he was going to Mercy.”

“The hot springs? We haven’t been there in years. What makes you think that’s where he was going?”

“That’s was talking about that last night we all went out there. He said he and I should make the trip again. He said life was simpler then, happier.”

“Maybe they were. Those were some of the best times he ever had. He really loved it out there.”

“Not just him,” Nick admitted, “I looked forward to that trip every year. Going to Mercy was better than Christmas.”

Kristin slipped her arm around Nick’s waist and hugged him tightly, knowing that a Carter family Christmas was probably not quite like you see in the movies. She knew Nick clung to his friends to get him through life and one by one they had all vanished, leaving him behind. Now with Kevin gone, Kristin knew that he really only had her. “You and me Nick.” She said, “Were going to make that trip out there for him.”

Nick was surprised but touched by the suggestion. “Are you sure?”

“If it’s what Kevin wanted then maybe it’s what we both need. Some sort of closure.”

Once again Nick was pushing back his tears as he pulled Kristin into his arms. “Count me in.” he said and then held the Jeep door open once more. Kristin climbed in feeling much more prepared to face anyone who might be there offering their condolences.
Chapter 5 by honey
Author's Notes:
2 in a row! Look at me :D lol.
Chapter 5

It had been several hours now since Nick and Kristin returned to the ranch and as suspected, pretty much everyone in town had come over to see if they could help. It was a nice gesture and good to know that Kevin was so loved, but all the shaking hands, the hugs, and the casseroles were getting to be too much for Nick. He snuck away as soon as he had the chance and locked himself in the den where he could have a few minutes to breath. He fell against the doors with a heavy sigh until his eye caught an old scrapbook sitting on the bookcase. He curiously picked it up and began turning the pages.

Nick smiled as he flipped through the pictures of Kevin’s childhood. There wasn’t a picture in the book that didn’t bring back some kind of memory and the more Nick looked, the harder it became. Finally he got to a picture of the entire gang at Kevin’s 16th birthday party. They’d taken Kevin’s horses out and it was the first time Leighanne had ever been on one. She was scared to ride alone so Nick and AJ spent the entire day in competition over who got to have her ride with them and in the end it was Brian who shared a horse with the beautiful city girl.

Nick smiled at the memory but tears filled his eyes. This time he wasn’t just upset about Kevin, he was upset about it all. Those six people meant more to him than anyone else in the world and it was painful to think about the way they fell apart so fast. Nick thought back to that last time they all went to Mercy Springs together and he got his first glimpse of the future. First Brian left and then AJ. Nick tried so hard to keep the rest of the group together and for a short while He, Howie, and Leighanne remained pretty close at school, but then Leighanne just up and left town without reason and Howie got too busy and eventually moved away. He still kept in touch every now and then but it wasn’t the same.

Nick knew things would never be the same again but he still wished he could see them all and wished they were here with him now, sticking together through the rough times the way they used to. Nick flipped through his cell phone and dialed Howie’s number. It was no surprise that he got his voice mail. Howie had found success in real-estate and was now a very successful, very rich, mogul in the business. He was still a nice guy and always excited to talk to Nick when he got the chance, but his work kept him on his toes and he traveled a lot. “Hey Howie, It’s Nick.” Nick began when the phone beeped.

Suddenly he couldn’t find his voice and had no idea how he was going to give him the news. His emotions caught up to him and he started to cry so he hung up the phone and got control of himself. He took a deep breath and wiped away his tears and then dialed Howie’s number again. When he got his voicemail a second time, he decided that he wasn’t going to say it over the phone, but when he heard the beep he figured that if he waited for him to call back, he might miss the funeral. “Hey Howie.” He began again, “Sorry about that, I’m just… um… it’s Kevin man. He was killed last night.”

Nick’s voice began to shake again but he continued to talk. “I thought you should know. The funeral is Tuesday morning. I’d love to see you and I know Kristin could really use the support. Well that’s it. I hope you can make it.”

Nick hung up the phone feeling exhausted but felt better that at least Howie would know. He looked back down at the picture of the old gang, sorry that AJ and Leighanne would never be the wiser and in a way he envied them. He felt guilty though and thought he should at least try to find them. He had no idea how to find Leighanne, but there might be a way to get a hold of AJ.

Nick had not talked to AJ since he left Mercy that summer after graduation, but about six years ago one of his books made the best sellers list. Until that point none of them ever knew that AJ had succeeded in becoming a writer. Nick wasn’t much of a reader, but Kristin said the book was wonderful. Nick put away the scrapbook and began browsing the other books on the shelf. He smirked when he came across a copy of, “Secrets And Lies” by Alexander McLean. AJ used to get so mad if any of them called him Alex, much less Alexander and now that was the name that everyone knew him by. He couldn’t help but wonder how much AJ had changed over the years.

Nick pulled the book from the shelf and flipped to the page with the publishing info. He called the publishing company but was given the run around a number of times. Finally he got to a person that was supposedly his editor and that was the closest he was going to get to him apparently. When he gave the woman the message she took pity on him and promised she would get the message to AJ. Nick wasn’t sure he believed her but he left his number anyway in hopes that AJ would call him back. He was surprised when not even five minutes later his phone rang to life with an unknown number. His eyes filled with tears when he heard AJ’s raspy voice on the other end of the line. “It’s so good to hear from you man! What’s it been, ten years?”

“Twelve.” Nick corrected.

“I hear you caused quite a stir at the publishing house.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I guess I have a bit of a short fuse right now.”

“I can imagine. How’s Kristin doing?”

“God, you should see her, it’s heartbreaking.”

Nick listened to a heavy sigh on the other end of the line and then AJ said, “I guess it’s time I make the trip back.”

“Really?” Nick said.

AJ could tell Nick was surprised and he was glad that Nick seemed relieved by the idea. AJ’s life turned so far from Mercy so fast when he moved that he never really kept in touch despite his promises to do so. He always figured they hated him for losing touch and even though he’d moved on, they all still had a special place in his heart. “Yeah,” he said, “It’s Kevin man, you know I gotta come. It’ll be good to see you again too. Is everyone else going to be there?”

Nick sighed. AJ had no idea what things were like now. He still remembered them being one big happy family. He didn’t want to be the one to break that news too so he gave as little details as possible. “Well Brian’s already here and I left a message for Howie, but Leighanne’s a mystery.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well she disappeared not long after you and no one’s heard from her since.”

“Wow, did Brian really mess her up that bad?”

Nick gave a bitter laugh and practically growled, “One of his hidden talents.”

“Nick? You ok man?”

Nick quickly bit back his anger and brushed off AJ’s question. “It’s nothing. But look man, I gotta go. Let me know when you get here.”

They said their goodbyes and Nick went back out to face the crowd. AJ on the other hand sat practically stunned as his brain processed what just happened. In grand Seattle fashion, he’d been standing in line at Starbucks when his editor called him. And when he heard the news he forgot about ordering coffee and found a table, suddenly feeling the need to sit down. He’d wanted to call those guys so many times over the years, but figured they long forgotten about him. Now suddenly they were back in his life. Well, not all of them. AJ couldn’t believe that Kevin was dead and he wasn’t sure how to feel about it. He did know one thing though, he had to go back home and he was going to have to face them again.

The longer he sat there thinking about it, the more upset he became. He was off into space but was pulled from his daze when a cute businesswoman placed a hand on his shoulder. “Everything alright?” she asked with a bit of a flirtatious smile.

AJ was startled and quickly looked up at her nodding his head. “I’m fine sweetheart.” He said flashing the woman a killer smile and then looked down at his shaking hands. “I just need a cup of coffee.”

The woman smiled again and offered to buy him a cup in hopes of getting to know him. AJ smiled kindly but rejected the offer. “Maybe next time.” He said politely.

After AJ ordered his latte he sat back down at the small table and pulled out his phone. He now had many calls to make.

***

All the way across the country and thirty stories up, Leighanne was pacing her large office looking out over the great city of New York. As head of the legal department for one of the country’s largest fashion magazines, she was busy yelling at someone on her cell phone when her secretary buzzed her. “Ms. Wallace, I have an author on the line who wants to speak with you?”

Leighanne looked a little frazzled and put her call on hold to answer the woman. “We don’t accept unsolicited work Mindy, you know that.”

“It sounds pretty urgent.”

“Writers will say anything to get a foot in the door, he’s probably just yanking your chain. Transfer him to publishing.”

“But he’s already a best seller, and he says he’s an old friend of yours. Alexander McLean?”

Leighanne gasped at the name. “I’ll call you back.” She whispered faintly to the person on the phone.

She then cleared her throat and pushed the button on her intercom once more. “Patch him through.”

The secretary transferred the call and Leighanne’s heart nearly stopped when she saw the red light begin flashing on her phone. She stared at the blinking light for a moment and then began thrashing through her desk drawer. When she couldn’t find what she was looking for she reached for her purse. With clumsy fingers, she pulled out a package of Niccorette and popped the gum into her mouth as if it were Asprin. She chewed fiercely for a moment and when the nicotine began to calm her nerves she picked up the receiver and pressed the flashing button. “AJ?”

“Surprised?”

“Wishing I hadn’t quit smoking, actually. God I need a cigarette.”

“I know the feeling.” AJ chuckled. “How are you?”

“I’m good… I’m… You know…” Leighanne answered completely flustered, “I’m a little surprised AJ. How did you find me?”

“Well,” AJ said, “About six or seven years ago I got a call from a certain magazine asking if they could see some of my poetry. I was a little surprised considering I was a nobody author and had never published any of my poems. It made sense when I found out that you were the one who requested them.”

“You knew all this time, and didn’t tell me?” Leighanne asked, beginning to relax a little.

She smiled remembering how scared she was to suggest the poems, but she’d always loved AJ’s writing so when the magazine said they were looking for some poetry for a story, she showed them some of his stuff. She was new to the company back then and nervous to recommend anything, but they loved his work. Leighanne hadn’t spoken to anyone from Mercy since she left Montana and made everyone at work promise to keep her involvement anonymous. “Well I wanted to call and say thank you,” AJ explained, “But the sweet little thing that told me it was you said she’d get fired if you knew she told me.”

“I should have known you could get it out of somebody. You always did have a way with the ladies. So what? You figured the statute of limitations had expired for the crime?”

“Not exactly. I got a phone call from Nick this morning.”

“Nick Carter?” Leighanne repeated astonished, “You still keep in touch with all those guys?”

“I haven’t kept in touch with anybody.”

“So why’d he call you out of the blue twelve years later?”

“Leigh?” AJ said suddenly becoming very somber. “Kevin passed away last night.”

“What?” Leighanne gasped, tears instantly filling her eyes. “How?”

“I don’t know actually, Nick didn’t say. He just said that Kristin’s a mess and it might be nice to have everyone make it to the funeral.”

Leighanne became upset again at the thought of going back. AJ could tell something was really wrong when he listened to the silence on the other end of the line. “Leighanne?”

Leighanne glanced at a framed picture on her desk of her and her eleven-year-old son and her face went pale. When AJ called out her name again she shook it off and answered with a quick, “Are you going?”

“I will if you will.”

“Oh God AJ, I don’t know.”

AJ sighed heavily and said, “Leighanne I don’t know what happened, Nick said you just up and disappeared. I didn’t tell him I knew how to find you, but I know I would love to see you again and I’m sure the others would too. Whatever it was, I’m sure it will be fine. Kristin was your best friend.”

Leighanne picked up the picture on her desk and her mind drifted into thought. “Are you really going to go?”

“I already booked my flight.”

“I suppose I have to face them sometime.” Leighanne sighed.

“So I’ll see you there?”

“Don’t tell anyone, incase I chicken out, but yeah. I’ll try to be there as soon as I can.”

“I hope you come.” AJ said again, “I haven’t seen any of them in 12 years either, so if you want, you can call me when you get there and we can face them together.”

“Thanks AJ.”

Leighanne hung up the phone and sank deep into her chair wishing desperately that she had a cigarette. Finally she grabbed her purse and locked her office. Her secretary smiled up at her confused when she approached her desk. “I’m going home.” Leighanne sighed.

“Ms. Wallace?” The woman replied sure she heard wrong.

“Cancel all my appointments for the week and book Baylee and I on the next flight to Montana.”

Leighanne suddenly looked about ten years older and the secretary offered her a sympathetic smile. “Right away.” She said and then added, “Are you ok Ms. Wallace?”

Leighanne smiled and nodded her head but when she answered the question, the word came out, “No.”

Leighanne didn’t actually break down until she got home. She walked in, threw her keys and the already half-empty pack of cigarettes on the counter and then pulled herself up the stairs to her room. She collapsed onto her bed and let all of her emotions hit her at once. She wept uncontrollably. She cried for the loss of a good friend, she cried for the pain she knew Kristin must be feeling, and she cried because she was overcome with guilt.

Leighanne had been running for her past for twelve years now and knew that going back would change everything. She had a secret that she knew she couldn’t keep hidden any longer. Having gone this long without telling him was bad enough, but to show up unexpectedly after all these years, and under these circumstances? He would know the minute he saw the boy that it was his, everyone would. Their similarities were unmistakable. Leighanne knew it was unfair to spring it on him like this, but now there was just no choice.

Her thoughts then turned to her poor son. What was this going to do to him? Baylee had been asking about his father ever since he was old enough to understand that he didn’t have one. Leighanne never told him who it was though. She was the only person who knew the true identity of the father and she counted on it always being that way, but now all that was about to change.

Leighanne stopped crying the instant she heard the front door slam. She wiped her eyes dry, though she couldn’t hide the redness in them and her heart raced as she heard the footsteps nearing her room. “Mom?” Baylee called, “Mom how come I had to come home early? Last night you said I could stay for dinner.”

Leighanne smiled as best she could as she turned to face her son. “I know I did sweetie, but instead we’re going to go on a little trip so I need you to pack a suitcase.”

All his life it had only been Baylee and his mom and no one knew her better. “Mom?” he asked staring at her puffy eyes, “What’s going on?”

“Someone I knew a long time ago passed away last night. I was hoping you would come with me to the funeral.”

Baylee frowned, “Do I have to? Can’t I stay at Jason’s house?”

“No.” Leighanne chuckled, “I really want you to come with me kiddo.”

“But funerals are just a bunch of old people crying and stuff. It’ll be so boring. Plus I really don’t want to see a dead guy.”

Leighanne sighed, part of her knew things would be so much easier if she let him stay home, but she couldn’t keep him a secret any longer. If she was going to go back, then she was going to tell them the truth. “Don’t you want to see the town your mommy grew up in? Aren’t you a little curious? I could show you my old high school. Plus, Kristin probably has a bunch of kids for you to play with.”

“Does she have a playstation?”

“I don’t know, but there’s a nice river on her property, you could learn how to fish and maybe even ride horses.”

“Fishing? Horses?” Baylee said wrinkling his nose.

“That’s it city boy.” Leighanne laughed as she shook her head. “We’re getting some fresh air.”
Chapter 6 by honey
Chapter 6


At the moment, everyone remaining at the Richardson house except Nick was sitting around the table trying to nail down the last of the funeral arrangements. Nick sat on a couch lifelessly nursing a beer. The fact that he’d not slept all night was now catching up with him and he’d long since tuned out the mundane ramblings of the people around him. Most of the townspeople had gone home by now and Nick was a little grateful for that, but at the same time that meant there was only Kevin and Kristin’s parents to play as a buffer between him and Brian.

Brian sat across the table from Kristin and instead of helping with the details, he was studying her. She reminded him of how he felt when his parents died. He supposed those were way different circumstances and he was a lot younger, but he was sure it felt very similar to the way Kristin felt now. She seemed empty inside, like she was simply going through the motions. And in a way, she was. Part of her spirit had died along with her husband.

The brochure for coffins and burial plots may have been sitting in front of her, but it was the four people on either side of her that were looking at it. She was looking right through it not hearing a word anyone said, and not caring either. The mere sight of her was enough to crush the spirits of even the happiest person and Brian had long since forgotten what it felt like to be happy. The pain she felt was so severe that you could see it radiating off of her and Brian and Brian fed off of her depression.

When he couldn’t bare to look at her anymore, his eyes turned to Nick. Nick was gazing out the window, wearing the same empty expression on his face that Kristin had. He looked lost and Brian knew that he probably was. He knew that Kevin was his closest friend in the world. That’s actually a lot of the reason Brian started having trouble with the two of them in the first place all those years ago.

Once upon a time Brian held the title of Nick’s best friend and he cherished it dearly. He came to Mercy after his parents died and aside from Kevin, Nick was the only one who never felt uncomfortable around him or tried to treat him special after he learned about his parents, at least not until he really got to know the whole gang. Brian asked him about it once and Nick confessed what it was really like for him in his sometimes-abusive household.

Nick knew what it was like to have people pity him and he felt he could always relate to Brian, so they had a special bond that Brian clung to all his life. But everyone deals with life in their own way and as they got older they chose different paths. Brian chose religion and Nick chose parties. Nick never got completely out of control, but Brian never went with him to the parties so he started spending more time with Kevin and AJ simply by default.

Then when Brian chose a life of service, the problems only worsened. Brian left for seminary and was soon replaced as Nick’s best friend by the only family he had. He felt somehow that Nick and Kevin were leaving him behind and it hurt. He felt betrayed even and like an outsider, so he started coming home less and less. He wanted to explain himself and patch things up with them so many times, but after their falling out six years ago, he lost that desire and never spoke to either of them again.

Brian watched Nick with a heavy heart. As a man of God he knew he was supposed to forgive and forget, but he was still human, and an emotional one at that. Brian felt guilty for the feelings of malice he had in his heart toward both Nick and Kevin and he knew he needed to overcome them. What made him feel the guiltiest though, was the way both Nick and Kristin looked. Their grief was obvious and Brian knew that he should probably look the way they did, but he didn’t.

Brian felt remorse for sure, but he was not destroyed the way Nick and Kristin were over it. He tried to tell himself that it was his faith in God and belief in a life after this that lessened the pain, but underneath it all he knew the truth. He was not close to Kevin the way Nick and Kristin were. He wasn’t a part of his life anymore. His own cousin, raised as a brother, and it took his death to make him come home. Realizing that made Brian loathe himself in a way he never knew possible and he knew that the grieving period would be long for him as he came face to face with him own sins.

Brian’s heart softened for a moment toward Nick and a piece of him wished they could set things right. Realizing that this might be his only chance, Brian got up from the table and very cautiously took a seat next to Nick on the couch.

Nick knew he sat down, but didn’t acknowledge his presence. He was waiting for Brian to say something about the beer in his hand or offer some scripture from the bible about how this was all meant to happen for a reason, and that was just the last thing he wanted to hear right now. Finally Brian broke the silence with a simple, “How are you?”

Nick gave Brian a disgusted smirk and replied, “A hell of a lot more messed up than you I see.”

Brian bit back his anger and said a silent prayer in his heart for strength and understanding before he spoke again. “We’re all grieving Nick, we just show it in different ways.”

Nick simply rolled his eyes at the comment and took another swig of his beer. He felt satisfied when he saw Brian frown out of the corner of his eye. “You really shouldn’t turn to alcohol when you’re depressed.” Brian said, “It only makes things worse.”

“Spare me your religious bullshit, father. You said it yourself, we all grieve in different ways.”

Brian sighed and slumped back on the couch. He’d seen people like Nick many times in his years with the church, and if a soul was not ready to be saved, then there wasn’t much could be said that would change their mind. They sat in silence again until Kristin startled everyone with a spontaneous outburst. “Enough!” she screamed slamming her hands down on the table and ripping up the brochure in front of her. “I can’t take anymore arguing! What does it matter the type of coffin he’s in? He’s DEAD! He’s not going to care if you get the extra padding on the inside!”

Kristin began to cry and four pairs of consoling arms reached out for her but she screamed again in frustration pushing them all away from her. “Stop it! Just stop it!”

Everyone stood there in an awkward silence not knowing what to say or how to act. Kristin sobbed for a minute and then lifted her eyes to meet Nick’s. “There’s only one place Kevin would want to spend the rest of eternity.” She cried helplessly, “And it’s not Oak Park Cemetery.”

“Mercy?” Nick questioned.

Brian practically gasped as he repeated the name again. “Mercy.” He whispered faintly as if it were some sort of dream he was remembering from another life.

Kristin nodded and fell into Nick’s arms. “I want to do cremation. If Kevin wanted to go to Mercy, then that’s exactly where I’m gonna take him.”

Nick nodded his head with tears in his eyes and for a moment everything felt like it was going to be ok. It was the most perfect suggestion he’d ever heard and once she said it, there was simply no other option. Nick and Kristin each wiped their tears and then turned to face the others. When they saw the disapproving looks they nervously clasped hands and stared everyone down with determination. “You won’t change my mind about this.” Kristin whispered.

“Mine either.” Nick assured them.

Both Kevin’s parents and Kristin’s knew better than to question them, but Brian couldn’t hold back his concern. “But cremation is…” He began to say until he met Nick’s piercing stare. He swallowed nervously, but Nick’s anger only made his anger rise to the surface and he began again with more confidence. “Are you really going to defile his body like that?”

“His body’s going to decompose in the ground either way.” Nick said trying to remain calm for Kristin’s sake.

“But it’s just not right. The bible says-“

“I don’t give a fuck what the Bible says!” Nick screamed. “Kevin’s gone man! The most we can do is what we think he would want and Kristin’s right. We’re taking him to Mercy, end of story! You of all people have no fucking say in this.”

Brian didn’t reply. He supposed Nick was right in the fact that he didn’t deserve an opinion, not after six years. The subject was dropped and no one in the room moved a muscle. The tension was so thick that they were afraid to even breath and everyone was greatly relieved to hear a knock at the door. Mrs. Richardson happily took her leave to answer the door and the moment was forgotten when everyone heard her gasp. “Oh my heavens, is that little Alex McLean!”

Nick felt relieved and excited to know that AJ was really here, part of him believed that that morning’s phone call was actually a dream, but Kristin was just plain shocked. “AJ!” she screamed and then bolted across the room.

She leapt into his arms with so much force it knocked the duffle off his shoulder. AJ held her tightly and tears filled both their eyes as they desperately clung to one another. “Honey I’m so sorry.” AJ choked through his tears.

“Thank you AJ.” Kristin whispered through sobs of her own, “Thank you so much for being here. God it’s so good to see you again.”

AJ rubbed a soothing hand over Kristin’s back as she wept on his shoulder. He was practically a stranger now and yet she couldn’t let go of him. She’d never expected in a million years that she would ever see him again and yet here he was when she needed him, just like the old days. “God,” she said again completely bewildered, “I just can’t believe it, how?”

“Little Nicky here, actually,” AJ laughed as he glanced up at the man who towered over him in height. “I about fell over when my editor said there was a Nick Carter trying to find me.”

Kristin smiled gratefully and let go of AJ so he could give Nick a hug as well. “If I’d have known it would be so easy, I would have tried it years ago.” Nick laughed squeezing his old friend.

AJ’s eyes then turned to Brian who stood there starring at him as if he’d seen a ghost. AJ was so caught up in the moment that he didn’t notice Brian’s uneasiness. With a big grin he looked Brian up and down, tugging at the dark suit. “So you actually did it huh? You’re a full fledged holy man?” He laughed pulling Brian into his arms as well, “Good for you!”

It wasn’t until AJ hugged Brian and felt his body tense up that AJ noticed the look in his eyes. In an instant AJ ‘s happy mood vanished. Brian knew. AJ hadn’t expected that, but the look in his eyes said he knew exactly what AJ had done. AJ’s face paled and he felt sick, confirming in Brian’s mind that it was the truth. Neither of them wanted the massive secret exposed right then so they each forced tight smiles and ignored what they were both thinking.

Nobody else may have seen it, but Nick was already sensitive to the subject of Brian and he noticed the interaction right away. He was as much shocked as he was angry to see that Brian had even managed to screw things up with a man he hadn’t spoken with in twelve years. Nick didn’t say anything, but he made a mental note to ask AJ about it later.

Though Kristin didn’t see the tension between the two, she noticed that Brian suddenly seemed as if the life was drained from him. She saw the pain he was trying to hide and realized that no matter what was wrong between him and Nick, he was still hurting and didn’t deserve such harsh treatment. He was Kevin’s only family and now with Kevin gone, Brian was, in a way, all she had left of him. She needed to at least try and gain back a piece of the relationship she’d once had with him. She watched him closely as he cleared his throat to address the crowd. “It’s getting late.” He said sadly, trying not to glance AJ’s direction, “I think I’m going to turn in for the night.”

AJ couldn’t take his eyes off of him as he left and Mrs. Richardson jumped up to make sure that the bed in his old room was made up and he had everything he needed. Brian smiled what little smile he could muster and then retreated to his room feeling defeated and more alone than he ever had in all his life.

Nick yawned and realized he too should probably try and get some rest and AJ was quick to follow his lead. “You have a place to stay?” Nick asked as he and AJ both headed for the door.

“I was just gonna check into the motel in town.”

“Forget that, I have an extra room.”

AJ smiled at the idea and Nick picked up AJ’s duffel as he stepped out onto the porch. Kristin gave AJ one more hug and then threw her arms around Nick. “Are you gonna be ok tonight?” he asked, “Because you know I always have room for you.”

“Thanks.” Kristin replied and then looked toward the hallway Brian had just wandered down, “I think I’m going to stay here tonight. I’ll be ok. Maybe we can all go to breakfast in the morning though?”

“We’ll be there, eight o’clock.”

When Nick and AJ were gone, Kristin sent her parents back to their house and told her in-laws she was turning in, but then headed straight for Brian’s old room. She knocked gently and when she didn’t receive any answer she slowly pushed the door open. She found Brian sitting on the edge of his old bed mindlessly fiddling with the cross he usually wore around his neck. He didn’t even notice the intrusion until Kristin said, “Can I come in?”

Brian jumped nearly falling to the floor but shrugged when the question finally registered in his brain. Kristin sat down next to him and then slid an arm around his back giving him a gentle squeeze. Brian became emotional because the simple hug was the most sincere gesture he’d received from anyone since he returned home. Even Kevin’s parents, thou they’d been the one’s to call him, were very angry with him and trying their best to put on a smile.

Kristin released a soft sigh and then said, “I’m sorry about this morning. I really am glad that you came. I know it must have been really hard for you.”

Brian was quiet for a moment as he choked back a few tears. “Thank you.” He finally whispered, never looking up from the trinket in his fingers.

“You broke his heart Brian, you really did. But had you shown up two days ago I know he would have welcomed you back in a heartbeat, and I should have done the same.”

“I never got the chance to say I was sorry.” Brian muttered letting a tear escape down his cheek.

Kristin wrapped both her arms around him this time and he gratefully relaxed into the embrace. “I’m sure he knows.” Kristin said trying not to become choked up again, “He would have gladly given his life to reunite you with all the people who love you. He worried about you so much you know. How could you say what you said to him?”

“I knew it was wrong, but I was so hurt and so angry. I wanted him and Nick to suffer. I wanted them to feel the pain I felt.” More tears trickled down Brian’s face as he recalled that horrific day. “What kind of person can have those kinds of feelings and still call himself a man of God?”

“The human kind.”

Brian finally broke down and let the floodgates spill open. “I am so sorry Kristin.” He cried, “God I am so sorry.”

“I appreciate that Brian, and I forgive you, but I think it would do you well to say that to Nick.”

Brian got his sobs under control and looked sadly down at the small cross in his hand again. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I wouldn’t mean it. I hate him for what he did to me.”

Kristin tried to hide the shock and the hurt that come from his comment but her voice gave her away as she pleaded with him. “That’s not true.” She croaked, “You don’t hate him and he doesn’t hate you. Deep down you both still really care about each other. You couldn’t still be this angry all these years later if you didn’t care about him.”

Brian sat in silence and Kristin began to get frustrated. “What did he do that was so awful? To be honest, I don’t think he even knows.”

“It’s not important.”

“How can you say that? Whatever happened between you guys, not only destroyed your friendship, but it destroyed your relationship with your entire family! Six years Brian! Not a single phone call to anyone. You gave up on all of us.”

“You don’t understand.”

“You’re right I don’t. And neither does Nick. This might be your only chance to fix things and I hate to say it, but if you don’t at least try to talk to him and explain yourself he’s never going to say he’s sorry.”

Kristin stood up to leave, but she stopped in the doorway and sighed heavily. “I would hate to see that happen. I want you back in my life Brian, I love you, but if you and Nick can’t work things out that’s never going to happen.” She said and offered a weak smile as she said goodnight.
Chapter 7 by honey
Author's Notes:
Yay! Kelly's writing lots again! Let's all be happy! Sorry this one's a little long.
Chapter 7

Never before was there such a sight to see in the small town of Mercy, as the pair of grown men huddled in a booth at a local breakfast joint looking like they had the world’s largest hangovers. The funny thing was, neither of them had a lick of alcohol the night before. Nick and AJ were both slumped low in their seats with dark shades shielding them from what little morning light managed to creep in through the windows.

For three nights now Nick only managed a few hours sleep while AJ was deprived of any at all. Since AJ’s return to Mercy it was like old times again for he and Nick. There was so much to catch up on and so many stories to tell that they spent every night camped out on the living room floor with scary movies and junk food as if they were 12 year olds having a sleepover. AJ was just the distraction Nick needed to keep his mind off of Kevin. And for AJ, Nick was especially good at avoiding Brian.

AJ loved being home again and seeing Nick was like a long overdue vacation, but AJ couldn’t shake the look he’d seen in Brian’s eyes days before. In those five minutes when he first saw him, AJ had become as big an emotional train wreck as he’d been twelve years ago. He spent the couple hours each night that Nick was sleeping, tossing and turning and reliving long forgotten nightmares.

Nick was dying of curiosity and tried several times to bring up the subject of Brian, but it was clear AJ was not ready to shed some light on the mystery. Whatever it was, AJ didn’t seem angry toward him. He didn’t really seem any kind of way actually. It was like he just got depressed and had this child-like fear. The topic seemed way too sensitive and although he wished AJ would open up to him, he figured it was best for now to just support his friend. He did everything he could to keep the two apart which worked out perfectly for him since he was more than happy with never seeing Brian again.

The only down side to the plan was that they only got to be with Kristin about half the time because she spent most of her time at home with Kevin’s parents and Brian was always there. Nick was a little disappointed about that and missed Kristin every time he had to leave her, but at the same time he couldn’t help but think it might be better that way since every time they were alone his thoughts floated into dangerous territory.

Tuesday morning came all too quickly for both men, but as soon as the sun poked it’s head above the horizon neither of them were able to keep their eyes shut, so they decided to head over to the café where they were meeting Kristin and get a jumpstart on the coffee. They were greeted by a perky young waitress who forced an awkward smile when she saw Nick. “Hey coach.” She said shyly, asking him with her eyes if he wanted coffee.

“Coach?” AJ replied, trying not to snicker.

The teen eyed AJ curiously and then smiled at the tattoo-covered man in the sleek leather jacket. She was surprised to see the gorgeous EMO rock-star looking stranger hanging out with her goofy cross-country coach. Nick saw the smile and was quite aware of the soon-to-be senior’s reputation at school. He smirked and coughed suggestively, earning her attention. “Good morning Gracie.” He greeted with a smirk letting her know he saw her looking.

The waitress blushed a little as she filled both AJ and Nick’s cups with coffee. “You been keeping fit in the off season?” Nick asked changing the subject.

“At least five miles a day. Sometimes I make it all the way out to the lake without slowing down.” The girl admitted proudly and then let her smile fade as she realized what stretch of road she usually ran. “I’m really sorry.”

“Thanks Gracie.”

The girl smiled awkwardly again and pulled out her notepad to take their orders. “It’s ok, we’re still waiting for one more person.”

The girl slipped her notepad back into her apron and before she walked away Nick stopped her. “You be careful on those runs OK?”

Nick’s concern was very real and the girl practically cried as she whispered a promise. Nick then dove right into his coffee, hoping it might calm his nerves as the waitress stepped over to the booth behind him. “Would you like a refill Ma’am?” she asked.

Nick smiled at the way his student sounded like she was all smiles again. “You can just keep ‘em coming.” A woman laughed, “Where’s a Starbucks when you need one huh? Can I smoke this in here?” The waitress nodded and the woman laughed again. “Thank God for small towns.”

Nick smirked at the stress in the woman’s voice until he heard a boy say, “Mom! You promised you were going to quit.” And then the comment didn’t seem quite so funny.

Nick wasn’t sure why he found himself eavesdropping on the conversation, but he was completely intrigued by it. Maybe it’s because strangers were uncommon in Mercy and this woman was obviously from out of town. Nick tried to subtly glance over his shoulder but he could only catch a glimpse of the boy. He was kind of cute and strangely familiar in a way, though Nick couldn’t place who he thought the kid looked like. He was pulled from his thoughts when he heard the woman sigh deeply. “I’m sorry Baylee.” She said, “Mommy’s just a little stressed out right now.”

Nick’s jaw dropped when he heard the kids’ response. “Is this about the guy who died? He wasn’t my dad, was he?”

AJ looked at Nick as if he was insane, but he couldn’t hear the conversation going on behind Nick’s head. Nick shushed him silently and waited for the woman to answer the question. “How did you get so smart?” she said sadly.

“You make me do my homework.”

Both Nick and Leighanne smirked at the response but then Leighanne released another sigh. “No.” she said. “He wasn’t your father.”

“Then he knew him right? That’s why you’ve never talked about this guy?”

“Yeah, he knew him. He was one of his best friends.”

Baylee’s face lit up with a hopeful expression. “Will he be here? Am I going to get to meet him?”

“Honey its not that easy.”

Nick heard a fork slam onto a plate and the hope in Baylee’s voice was replaced with anger. “He doesn’t know about me, does he?” The child demanded.

“I didn’t have a choice sweetie.” Leighanne replied, as she became a little choked up. “I was only 18. Your grandma and grandpa were very upset. I was scared and I ran away. After that I never knew how to tell him. I never knew how to tell any of them.”

“Them who?”

Nick suddenly realized who the woman sitting behind him was, and he couldn’t take it any longer. He jumped up from his seat and whirled around finally seeing with his own eyes what his mind was telling him was impossible. “Leighanne?” He gasped feeling almost faint at the sight he was seeing.

Leighanne was equally as shocked and spilled her coffee in her lap. “Shit!” she hissed under her breath as she jumped up from the table, pulling the hot stain away from her skin.

When she looked up she found herself face to face with both AJ and Nick but neither of them were looking at her. They were both staring at the young boy with the most striking blue eyes shining though thick locks of dark curly hair. The rich olive complexion suddenly made the Puerto Rican traits of the boy clear as day and Nick no longer wondered why he looked familiar. “Oh my God.” AJ breathed, “No wonder you didn’t want to come.”

Nick’s mouth dropped again as he realized that AJ knew she was coming. “Mom?” Baylee questioned, but the three of them were rendered speechless and all just stood there helplessly staring at one another.

When the bell on the front door jingled Nick turned around and the next scene seemed to play out in slow motion. Kristin spotted Nick and AJ instantly but her stride slowed as she recognized the woman standing with them. Her eyes welled up long before she reached the group and without words, the two women fell into a tearful embrace. Nick and AJ both took a step back, overwhelmed by the spike in estrogen. As soon as she could, Kristin opened her eyes and noticed the boy in the booth. She pulled away from Leighanne and clasped her hand over her mouth as she joined the ranks of speechless adults. “Mom?” Baylee said again, “You’re freakin’ me out.”

Baylee’s voice broke through the barrier and Leighanne literally shook herself from her shock. She quickly wiped her tears and smiled at her son. “I’m sorry Honey.” She shrugged still a bit frazzled, “Guys? This is my son Baylee. Honey these are some friends of mine.”

Leighanne sat down in the booth next to her son and AJ, Nick and Kristin all three slid into the other side still unable to take their eyes off of the pair. Nick was the first to break the silence. “He looks just like him.”

“Does he know?” Kristin asked.

“No.” Leighanne, Baylee, AJ and Nick all chanted together and then silence filled the booth again.

AJ was the next to break up the silence, “Does Brian know about you and Howie?”

Leighanne gasped at the mention of Brian’s name. She’d been so worried about seeing Howie that she hadn’t even once thought of Brian. “I take it that’s a no also.” AJ said answering his own question.

Tears filled Leighanne’s eyes as she reached for her cigarette with a shaking hand. “I forgot about Brian. I can’t do it.” She whispered, “I can’t face them both. Not at the same time.”

“You won’t have to.” Kristin said. “Howie’s not here.”

“And Brian?”

All three of them became uncomfortable and Leighanne knew there was so much she’d missed out on. They all sat in silence a little longer and watched Leighanne take drag after drag of her cigarette as if her life depended on it. They all pitied her and were still just so shocked. Not a one of them had any idea that she and Howie had ever been together. He never breathed a word of it and yet here they were staring at the mini version of him. “Well it’s really good to see you again Leighanne.” Nick finally said, trying to act as normal as he possibly could. “Welcome back.”

“Brian’s giving the service this morning.” Kristin added, “You probably can’t avoid him. But we’ll be here for you, you know that.”

Kristin reached across the table and grabbed Leighanne’s hand. “I can’t believe you’re here.”

“That makes two of us.” Leighanne said with a nervous laugh.

Finally everyone broke down and laughed and they all had breakfast together. They sat around the table catching up a little and yet skillfully dodging all the sensitive subjects until finally Baylee couldn’t stand it and spoke up. “Do you guys know my dad?”

AJ, Kristin and Nick all shifted in their seats and looked to Leighanne for some sort of guidance. Leighanne sighed and then shrugged as if to say go ahead so they all three slowly nodded. “Your father’s name is Howard Dorough.” Leighanne said heavily. “I’m so sorry I kept him a secret all this time.”

“Howard?” Baylee repeated only to have Nick correct him.

“We call him Howie.”

Baylee sat for a moment unsure exactly what to feel. This was a huge moment in his life. Finally after all these years he had a name. “Howie.” He repeated thoughtfully.

“It’s kind of a lame name.” AJ teased, “But he’s a really cool guy.”

“Plus he’s a multi-millionaire.” Nick added.

Baylee’s eyes grew wide with wonder. “He’s teasing you Baylee.” Leighanne laughed.

“Am not.” Nick insisted. “The guy has his own private jet. He’s probably on it right now.”

“Is he coming here?” Baylee asked hopefully.

“I hope so.” Nick sighed.

AJ and Leighanne exchanged looks and then AJ looked at Kristin. “Is that true? Is Howie loaded?”

Kristin shrugged a confirmation and laughed at the look on AJ’s face. “Ok Mr. Best-selling author.” She teased, “I’m sure you’re no stranger to green. Not like me and Nicky here.”

“Especially Nick.” AJ laughed, “A gym teacher? When you could have gone pro?”

Nick rolled his eyes; he’d been hearing this kind of torment for days now.

“So what does my dad do?” Baylee interrupted again. He was dying to find out everything he could about the man he’d dreamed of all his life.

“He owns a lot of stuff kid.” Nick laughed. “Rides his plane a lot. Orders people around.”

“Is he nice?” Baylee asked suddenly feeling nervous.

“You’re daddy’s the sweetest man in the world.” Kristin assured him.

“We used to call him Sweet D when we were kids.” AJ added.

Leighanne’s eyes became moist as she watched three of her oldest friends tell her son all about his father. She bore the burden alone for so long that she truly believed this day would never come and she knew how much it meant to Baylee.

Baylee soaked up all the information like a sponge and Leighanne was happy that he finally had something to hold on to, but she was terrified that he was only getting his hopes up. Her fears were heightened when Baylee silenced the group with a really difficult question. “If he comes, do you think he will be happy to see me?”

Their silence was enough to make Baylee’s good mood vanish. A tear rolled down Leighanne’s cheek when she couldn’t give him any sort of answer. After a minute Kristin smiled at the frightened boy. “He’ll be very surprised.” She answered truthfully, “But I’m sure he’ll love you.”

Baylee’s smile returned when Nick and AJ chimed in words of encouragement. Leighanne wiped her eyes and smiled, praying desperately in her heart that Kristin was right. On the bright side, facing him wasn’t going to be as hard as she thought it would be when her friends were all clearly behind her.

Feeling a sudden burst of confidence courtesy of her childhood friends, Leighanne decided that after she changed out of her coffee stained clothes, she was ready to see Brian again. She didn’t know if she was actually or just sick of the anticipation and wanting to get it over and done with. She told herself that it was years ago and surely a priest would be understanding. After all, she’d gotten over the heartbreak, so why wouldn’t he?

Kristin was happy to see her being so strong and she prayed that things went well because she knew Brian needed all the encouragement he could get right now. She was actually hopeful that Baylee might make things between them a little easier because Brian would see that she’d moved on.

Though happy to be reunited, the four of them were quite the depressing bunch as they entered the church where the funeral was being held. Nick pushed himself through the door clinging tightly to Kristin’s hand. Leighanne followed behind her keeping Baylee close, but she stopped short and started to turn around. Suddenly she wasn’t feeling so confidant, but Kristin grabbed her hand and tugged at the same time as AJ gave her a gentle nudge from behind.

With butterflies in their stomachs and tears in their eyes, they made their way to the front of the chapel where seats had been reserved for them. The town hadn’t changed much over the years and anyone of a certain age or older couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Nick, Kristin Leighanne and AJ could all feel the stares and the gasps from people when they saw the entire gang clinging to one another the way they did when they were kids. Seeing Kristin so devastated was bad enough, but to see the group together again after all these years mourning the loss of their fearless leader was like watching the people of Great Britain after the death of Princess Diana.

The atmosphere was somber and not much could be heard aside from the prelude music and sniffles. Kristin looked up at the large picture of Kevin that had been placed near the pulpit and the smile that stretched all the way into his eyes seemed to haunt her. The picture had been taken a few years back, before Kevin’s life secretly began to fall apart. Seeing it sitting up there as a representation of the man they were there to honor almost felt like a lie.

Kristin hated having to pretend that things were so great between them but she knew that’s what people wanted to hear. Nick felt her grip on his hand tighten and he looked down into her pain-filled eyes. He questioned her sudden remorse and she stared regretfully at the picture again. “It’s been years since I saw Kevin smile like that.”

Nick looked back at the picture and his stomach twisted into knots. He felt Kristin’s body start to shake beside him. “I loved him so much.” Kristin whispered as she began to cry. “How come I couldn’t make him happy?”

“How can you say that? You were the one thing in his life that made him happy.”

Nick’s words didn’t bring Kristin much comfort. Even though she knew he meant what he said she had a hard time believing it herself. She didn’t want to upset Nick because she knew how hard he was trying to take care of her, so she forced a smile and rested her head on his shoulder.

Leighanne felt Kristin lean over and looked up just in time to watch her pat Nick’s thigh. There was something about the way Nick slid his hand beneath Kristin’s and intertwined their fingers that made Leighanne do a double take. She watched them very curiously as Nick placed a kiss on the side of Kristin’s head and then leaned his against it.

Kristin and Nick were much closer to each other than any of the others, that was a given. They were grieving together and shared each other’s pain in a way no one else could understand, but Leighanne could see that there was more to it than that. She just didn’t know how much more. She continued to study them until she heard a voice that sent a chill throughout her entire body. It was matured now, but it was the same voice that once monopolized her dreams.

As Brian thanked everyone for coming and began the service with a scripture about death and moving on, Leighanne became flooded with old memories. She’d loved him so much that she thought her heart would never mend, but as time passed she was able to suppress those feelings and forget the very existence of the boy who broke her heart twelve years ago.

She braced herself for what she might feel and then looked up at him. He looked more handsome than she remembered with the same fierce blue eyes that used to hypnotize her, but she could tell that the last decade had put much wear and tear on his soul. As she stared at the dark suit and white collar her thoughts turned to that night.

Brian felt her gaze and the moment his eyes reached her his mind went blank and the words stopped flowing from his mouth. His heart jumped at the unexpected visitor and he couldn’t look away. “Mom,” Baylee whispered, “Why is that man staring at you?”

Leighanne didn’t notice Baylee tugging on her sleeve but he noticed the blood drain from her face. “Mom, are you ok?”

Leighanne finally broke eye contact with Brian and looked down at her son. “I’m fine sweetheart.” She whispered.

Once Leighanne looked away, Brian fought his panic and stumbled over a few words before finally continuing on. When he was finished the choir sang a song and Kevin’s father got up to say a few words. From the moment he sat down, Brian couldn’t take his eyes off of the love of his life. The feelings that came with seeing her again were so intense that he felt as if he were going to be sick. He quietly and quickly rose from his chair and slipped out a side door in search of a bathroom.

Nick, AJ and Kristin all watched him go until they heard sniffles and realized that Leighanne was crying. Kristin threw her arms around her distressed friend, but Leighanne’s chest felt as if it were closing in on her and her sniffles turned to sobs. She jumped up from her seat and ran down the isle looking for freedom and fresh air.

The group looked at each other and then AJ got up and calmly followed after her. He found her on the front steps of the church bawling hysterically. He sat down next to her and she threw herself into his chest soaking his jacket with her tears. “I spent so long forgetting him just to have it all come back to me in a split second. I shouldn’t have come AJ!”

“Shh.” AJ cooed, “It’ll be ok.”

After that AJ didn’t say anything else. He believed that sometimes crying was a good thing and Leighanne needed to let it all out. He rested his head against hers and closed his eyes. As he sat there with her a black town car with dark windows pulled up to the front steps. Howie jumped out of the backseat glancing at a watch hidden beneath the sleeve of his expensive suit and began to hurry up the steps. He was almost to the door when he whirled around. “AJ?”

AJ turned around and smiled when he saw who it was. “Howie! You made it!”

Leighanne shot straight up and Howie was shocked when he finally recognized her. “Oh my God I can’t believe you’re both here!”

Leighanne was stunned but AJ pulled her to her feet. He gave Howie a big hug and then pushed Leighanne into Howie’s arms. Howie squeezed her tightly forcing another round of sobs from her. He held on to her tightly but looked at AJ with concern. AJ mouthed the word Brian as he pointed at the church and Howie sighed. He pulled Leighanne back and forced her to look at him. “Forget him.” He said softly. “You’re back, that’s what matters. I can’t believe you’re back!”

Howie hugged her again still bewildered that he was talking to her. She began to gain control of herself until Baylee appeared looking for his mother. “Mom?”

She stiffened at the sound of his voice and threw her hand over her mouth. Howie was confused to see her turn white and followed her gaze. When he saw Baylee he froze. He and Baylee stared at each other equally wide-eyed until Leighanne’s knees buckled underneath her and she fell unconscious in Howie’s arms.
Chapter 8 by honey
Author's Notes:
Sorry, I've been in Supernatural mode the last week or two, but I haven't forgotten about this one! Enjoy!
Chapter 8

Brian flushed away the recycled contents of his stomach as he heard the door to the men’s room open and was surprised by the sound of tiny sniffles he heard. He slowly emerged from his stall and joined the upset boy at the sink. The kid wiped his eyes, ashamed of his tears, and looked away from Brian.

Brian rinsed his mouth and splashed his face with cold water before addressing the boy in the room. He watched the boy curiously for a second, having already figured out the big mystery and tried to keep his head on straight. He looked at his outfit in the mirror and remembered that he was best at helping others in their time of need and he had a special place for troubled kids in his heart. “Would you like to talk about it son?” he asked.

Baylee was startled and shook his head in response to Brian’s question. “God can’t help you out unless you ask him too.” Brian pressed.

Tears filled Baylee’s eyes again and his little body filled with a rage that surprised even Brian. “There’s no such thing as God.”

For a moment Brian felt pain in his heart, but he smiled through it. “So sure are you?”

“Have you ever seen him?”

“You don’t need to see someone to know they exist.”

Baylee became quiet again. He knew Brian’s statement was true. He always knew he had a father out there somewhere. But now that he’d finally seen him face to face it felt like the dad he’d created in his mind didn’t exist anymore and all he was left with was the face of a stranger that looked terrified of him. “If there really is a God, then why doesn’t he help everyone?”

“Not everyone asks for help.”

Baylee had never been taught a thing about God. His mother always said religion was a waste of time, but as he looked up at the priest he found him strangely comforting. Brian could tell that something was troubling him, but he was scared to talk about it. “Do you need help son?”

Baylee looked at his feet and in a meek voice whispered, “I think my mom does but she would never ask for help. She hates God.”

Brian felt like the breath in his lungs had been stolen away as his heart broke all over again. Leighanne must have suffered a lot in life for her son to say something like that. And to say that she hated God made Brian feel even worse. He knew he must be the reason for her resentment and inwardly cursed himself for leading her astray.

Brian wanted to let the tears behind his eyes flow freely, but he knew he couldn’t do that in front of a boy that was confessing in a desperate attempt to find some peace. When Baylee finally looked up and met Brian’s eyes Brian said, “If your mom can’t ask, then maybe you should.”

Baylee looked at Brian with wide eyes. “It’s ok to ask God to help someone else.” Brian assured him.

“I don’t think my mom would like that too much.”

“She doesn’t have to know. What you pray for is between you and the Lord.”

“But I’m just a kid. I’ve never been to church. He won't listen to me.”

Brian stared for a moment, seeing the likeness the boy had to his mother, then lifted the tiny cross necklace over his head. He held it out to Baylee and with a smile said, “If you have faith, the Lord will always answer your prayers. No matter who you are.”

“Does he answer yours?”

A smile crept across Brian’s face as he pictured Leighanne staring up at him from the front row of the chapel. “He did today.”

Baylee looked down at the necklace in his hands and pondered Brian’s suggestion. After a moment’s thought he slipped the necklace over his head and tucked it beneath his shirt. Brian smiled at him and Baylee surprised him with a sincere hug. “Thank you Sir.” He whispered shyly.

Brian hugged him back tightly, secretly wishing that the boy could have been his. “God be with you son.”

****

Leighanne woke up to find herself lying on a couch in the church foyer feeling a little disoriented. She was relieved to see that Howie wasn’t standing there waiting for an explanation. AJ smiled down at her and said, “How are you feeling?”

AJ smirked as she looked around the room. “Relax, I told him you might need a few minutes. He went inside to hear the service.”

Leighanne gave him a hint of a guilty smile. “And Baylee?”

“Bathroom.”

“Did they talk to each other?”

“They said hi, but I think they were both a little freaked out.”

Leighanne lied back down with a heavy heart but AJ pulled her back up. “Why don’t we get out of here? We’ll go for a drive or something and give you a chance to figure out what you want to say to him.”

Leighanne nodded her head and let AJ put his arms around her once more as they waited for Baylee to return from the bathroom. When he arrived, Leighanne was shocked to see who he was talking to as he rounded the corner.

Brian saw her and AJ sitting on the couch together and stopped dead in his tracks. Baylee saw his mother awake and shot her a smile that made AJ shudder because he looked so much like his dad. Baylee smiled up at Brian when he stopped walking and began dragging him toward his mom. “This is my mom,” he said pushing Brian in front of Leighanne and AJ. “Mom this is Father Littrell.”

“I know who he is Baylee.” Leighanne breathed.

All three adults forced awkward smiles for Baylee’s sake and when Baylee looked up at Brian expectantly Brian finally said, “Hi Leigh.”

“Hello Brian.”

“Are you guys friends too?” Baylee asked.

Brian smiled and started to nod until Leighanne said, “We were a long time ago.”

Baylee looked back and forth between his mother and Brian. He realized that there was tension between them and frowned when he saw how disappointed his new friend seemed. “Figures.” He snapped at his mother and then stormed away.

AJ and Brian watched Baylee walk out the door in surprise. He looked so upset suddenly that AJ and Brian both looked to Leighanne with questioning eyes. Leighanne laughed nervously and shrugged though her heart sank, “Hormones.” She said hopping they wouldn’t ask, “He does that all the time.”

That was the truth. Baylee wasn’t one of those kids that tried to sabotage all his mom’s dates. Or rather, he wouldn’t be if she ever had any. He wished all the time that his mother would find someone to make her happy. She was a good woman and she deserved it, but she always seemed to hate everyone and never let anyone get close. “He seems like a really good kid.” Brian said snapping everyone’s attention back to each other.

“He is.”

Things got very quiet all the sudden and AJ realized that he was as good as invisible at the moment. Brian nervously reached for the cross around his neck and then tugged at his collar when the necklace wasn’t there. “Leighanne, do you think maybe we can talk?”

“Brian.” Leighanne replied sweetly, forcing herself to be strong. “There’s nothing to talk about. It was years ago and we were kids. I’ll forgive and forget if you will.”

Leighanne’s body trembled on the inside as she smiled at him. She didn’t want to be nervous, but she couldn’t help it, and she hated the effect he had on her. She wanted to be angry with him, and she was, but she was also afraid that she would fall for him all over again if she gave him the chance to talk and she was not about to let him do that to her twice.

AJ saw right through Leighanne, but Brian was blinded by emotion. He was crushed thinking that she was completely over him and had been for years. He nodded even though he disagreed and felt there was so much to talk about. He had so much he wanted to say to her. There were so many things he’d spent the last decade thinking about and he swore that if he were ever given a second chance, he would set things right. As he stood there in front of her again all these years later he swore to keep that promise to himself, but now was clearly not the time, especially not with AJ standing there.

When Brian’s thoughts turned to AJ his eyes drifted his direction. AJ did everything he could to look Brian in the eyes but it was one of the hardest things he’d ever had to do. His look showed how sorry he was but Brian didn’t really care. “Maybe you and I should talk instead.” AJ whispered, longing for the chance to explain himself.

Brian’s blood began to boil within him and he clenched his fingers into fists as he attempted to keep his voice low. “Why? Researching for a good sequel? I’m afraid I’m not nearly as entertaining now.”

AJ flinched as if Brian’s pain tortured his soul and Leighanne was surprised to see him fighting back tears as he watched Brian walk away from them. She waited for AJ to explain but he just looked at her after a minute and said, “You still want to get out of here?”

Leighanne nodded and the two of them quickly exited the church before they could run into any more drama. They grabbed Baylee and found themselves driving clear to the neighboring town over 20 miles away just to ensure a peaceful lunch where they wouldn’t run into anyone.

AJ and Leighanne laughed at one another when they both cringed as they tasted the coffee in front of them. “Not exactly a caramel macchiato is it?” AJ laughed.

“I would kill for a double espresso right now.” Leighanne agreed. “I guess Montana really is the state that Starbucks forgot.”

Leighanne started to light a cigarette until Baylee glared at her. “Alright, alright, you’re right, I’m sorry.” She said as she put what Baylee called the "cancer stick" back in its package.

She fished through her purse and cursed under her breath when the package of gum she pulled out turned out to be empty. AJ smirked and then pulled out a package of his own and slid it across the table. “Something else we have in common.”

Leighanne smiled and thanked him as she popped the nicotine-enhanced gum into her mouth. “So how’d they get you?” AJ teased.

“When I was studying for the Bar exam actually. A friend of mine said it was the only way she got through the stress.”

Leighanne laughed at the ridiculousness behind her reasoning. “Sounded like a good idea at the time, but I’ve been trying to quit the damn things ever since.”

“I hear ya there.”

“How long have you been trying to quit?” Baylee asked worried that his mother might never accomplish the task.

“I kicked the habit about eight years ago actually.” AJ said and then sighed. “Right about the time the court ordered me into AA.”

Leighanne was surprised by AJ’s candidness but was very grateful for it. She was glad not to be the one explaining herself. “I’m sorry AJ.” She said sympathetically.

“Na.” AJ shrugged as he stared into his cup of coffee. “I needed the help. You’re not the only one with a few skeletons in the closet ya know.”

“I guess not.” Leighanne replied, “You ready to come clean about whatever that was with Brian?”

“You ready to tell me how you ended up with a mini Howie?”

Leighanne stared into AJ’s eyes for a moment. She could see that he wanted to spill his secrets, but he wasn’t quite there yet so she figured it might help to let him get a little closer to her first. She smiled at her son and then released a long woeful sigh. “I’m afraid there’s not really much to tell. We were new to college and Nick dragged us to one of his frat parties. It wasn’t really our thing so we grabbed a couple of drinks and found someplace quiet. One thing led to another and well…”

“He wasn’t even your boyfriend?” Baylee asked sounding a little hurt.

“I loved your dad squirt.” She assured Baylee, “He was one of my best friends in the whole world but it just wasn’t like that for us.”

“So why’d you take off?” AJ asked, “You know Howie would have stuck by you.”

“Yeah,” Baylee chimed in, “And how come you never even told me his name until now?”

Leighanne smiled at them both and simply said, “That’s complicated.”

“Why?” Baylee demanded.

AJ felt Leighanne’s stress levels rise again and came to her rescue. “Wow! Is it really already three o’clock? We’d better get back or Nick and Kristin will leave without us.”

“Where are they going?”

AJ’s eyes glowed with a hint of excitement as he said, “Mercy.”

Leighanne blinked a couple of times. “What?” she gasped. “They’re really going to go to Mercy?”

“Aren’t they already there?” Baylee whined, unhappy that he seemed to be very out of the loop all the sudden.

“Not the town,” Leighanne answered, “The hot springs.”

“Hot springs?” Baylee asked suddenly becoming interested.

AJ nodded. “They’re taking Kevin’s ashes out there in the morning, but they’re headed up to the lake tonight just like we used to do every year.”

“I can’t believe it.” Leighanne breathed. “And you’re going to go with them?”

“So are you.”

Leighanne opened her mouth to say something, her head already beginning to shake from side to side. “Leigh.” AJ insisted, “It’s tradition.”

“Are Brian and Howie going?”

AJ shrugged and Leighanne sunk back in her seat. AJ pouted and insisted again. “You can’t let me go without you. Nick and Kristin are so tight now, I need a fellow outsider.”

“But if Brian’s going.”

“I seriously doubt that Father Littrell is going.”

“And Howie?”

“It would give him a chance to get to know his son a little. You know he deserves that.”

Leighanne stared at AJ, reluctant to say yes and AJ looked at Baylee. “How about it? You want to hang out with your dad for a couple days?”

Baylee nodded and then looked to his mother with pleading eyes. Her mind raced with old memories of making that trip every year and suddenly there was a smile on her face. “I really did love it there.” She finally conceded.

AJ nodded, “And it would be kind of nice to be all together again, for Kevin. You know how much he loved doing it.”

“Yeah.” Leighanne sighed, “He did. I guess it wouldn’t be right letting Nick and Kristin go by themselves.”

“At a girl.” AJ said pulling himself from the booth.

He held his hand out to Leighanne and pulled her to her feet wrapping a comforting arm around her. “We’ll all help you out with Howie.” He said, “It’ll be good for ya, you’ll see.”

“Thanks AJ.”

AJ turned back to Baylee and smiled, “Come on squirt, we gotta go get you all geared up.”

“Geared up?”

“Backpack, sleeping bag, tent…”

Baylee stopped walking and frowned. “We’re going camping?”

AJ saw the look of disgust and laughed. “With dirt and rocks and bugs and everything.”
Chapter 9 by honey
Author's Notes:
Yay Sarah! Lookie, lookie! I finished tonight. lol.
Chapter 9

Aside from being late May and a little cooler than they all remembered, the North Shore of Jackson Lake was pretty much the same as it had always been. The lake was just as calm, the stars were every bit as brilliant and much to everyone’s surprise the laughter resounding throughout the valley was just as boisterous as it had been all those years ago.

Somehow as everyone huddled around the campfire things were just like old times again. The stress everyone was under was temporarily forgotten as they relived old memories and forged new ones. They were two members short tonight with the absence of both Kevin and Brian but having Baylee seemed to fill a small part of that gap.

Baylee was quite the entertainment for the group as he really experienced the great outdoors for the first time. Over the years Nick and AJ had turned roasting marshmallows into an art form. They were having a blast trying to teach their technique to the newcomer, but every time Baylee stuck a mallow over the flames he set the thing a blaze. “You’d better figure that out soon or the marshmallows will be gone before you even get to the chocolate.” AJ teased.

The group tried to hold back their snickers as Baylee pulled the charcoaled goop from his roaster and grabbed another marshmallow. This time he just about had it. He smiled proudly at the evenly roasted sides but when he pulled his stick out of the fire the golden brown beauty fell into the dirt at his feet. He simply had no words to accompany his frustration but the sight of him made the entire group burst into fits of wild laughter. “You’re just like your mom kid.” Nick laughed as he handed Baylee a smore with one of the marshmallows he’d roasted, “She could never roast a good mallow either.”

“Yeah.” AJ laughed joining in on the torture as if they were still best friends in high school. “She was every bit the city slicker you are, except she was worse because she was a little prissy.”

“I was not prissy!”

Baylee held back a smirk until the entire group was once again lost in laughter. “You were prissy.” Kristin shrugged. “But we loved ya anyway.”

“Do you remember the first time we brought you with us out here?”

“Oh come on!” Leighanne protested but the group only continued to laugh and laugh at her.

“What happened?”

AJ’s eyes lit up as he reached the back of his mind to pull out the memory. “The first time we took your mom camping we were kind of giving her a hard time.”

“Kind of?” Leighanne scoffed.

“Ok, we were giving the princess a lot of crap” AJ confessed with a laugh, “We were telling her all these stories about people being attacked by wild animals to get a rise out of her but she kept insisting she wasn’t scared.

“Which was a big fat lie!” Nick cut in.

“Wild animals?” Baylee repeated with wide eyes.

“Like mother like son.” Kristin laughed.

“We knew your mom was terrified.” AJ continued, “So we made a bet that she couldn’t sleep in her own tent all night long.”

“You slept out here by yourself?” Baylee smirked, “You can’t even go to bed at home without checking the alarm like five hundred times.”

“Traitor.” Leighanne muttered to her son when Nick and AJ laughed at her.

Baylee flashed his mom an innocent smile. “So did you last all night long?”

“I would have.”

Nick and AJ looked at one another and had to catch each other as they dramatically fell to the ground with laughter. Baylee watched them curiously until Howie finally spoke up. “She lasted twenty minutes longer that we thought she would.”

Baylee looked across the fire at the man who was supposedly his father, and he was surprised by his smile. Howie’d kept really quiet all night and pretty much avoided him and his mom since they showed up. Baylee was disappointed, but the guy looked so terrified that it was hard to be angry.

Baylee was excited by the eye contact and couldn’t help the hopeful smile he sent Howie’s direction. Howie starred nervously for a moment before pushing back his nerves and finishing the story. “About twenty minutes after the rest of us had all fallen asleep we hear this blood curdling scream and your mom started freaking out.”

“You should have seen her!” Nick said wiping tears from his eyes. “She was jumpin’ around and screaming and stuff.”

“Yeah.” AJ added as he held his aching stomach, “She was trying to get out of her tent but she ended up pulling the thing down on top of her.”

“There was a spider on me.” Leighanne defended herself pointlessly.

“Kevin was so worried that something was really wrong with her” AJ continued, “That he literally ripped her tent open with his bare hands and pulled her out. She spent the rest of the trip sleeping with one of us.”

“Never did find that alleged spider.”

“It was real!” Leighanne said in a half laugh half whine.

“Mm hmm.” Nick teased.

Leighanne playfully swat Nick and Baylee watched in amazement as his mom was hazed by her friends. She was laughing and smiling along with them and Baylee couldn’t help but think it was like watching a whole new person. He’d never seen his mom so relaxed and he really liked the transformation.

When the laughter died down Leighanne sighed. “Don’t you boys ever get tired of telling that story? It really wasn’t that funny.”

“Funniest thing I’ve ever seen.” AJ said winking at Baylee.

“It was really funny.” Kristin agreed. She looked around the fire and then released a long sigh of her own. “We’ve had some good times, haven’t we?” Heads bobbed up and down all round the campfire, “Thank you guys for coming with me to do this. Honestly I couldn’t imagine a better way to say goodbye. Kevin would have loved this.”

The laughter died, but the smiles didn’t disappear entirely. Nick put his arm tightly around Kristin and placed a peck on the side of her head. “I’m sure he would.”

“I’m sure he does.” Howie corrected. “I’m sure he’s up there somewhere watching us right now.”

“Yeah, he’s probably telling us all to go to bed.” Nick smirked.

Everyone smiled at the thought, but no one really laughed because they all suddenly realized that it wasn’t quite the same without him there. “Maybe we should.” Howie suggested. “We do have a long hike tomorrow and we’re not exactly eighteen anymore.”

No one could really argue with that so they doused the fire and all headed toward their tents. “Hey Leigh, who ya sleepin with this time? I’m pretty sure it’s my turn.” Nick called across the camp as a joke, but when he saw her face go pale he realized his blunder and felt like a world-class jerk.

Nick may have been talking about a certain spider incident, but Leighanne’s thoughts immediately turned to Brian, and everyone in camp knew it. Kristin walked past Nick, slugging his shoulder as she went. “Way to go Boner!”

“Oww!” Nick whined, but deep down he felt like he deserved it.

He wanted to apologize but somehow he knew Leighanne knew he didn’t mean it the way it sounded and he felt that talking about it might only make Leighanne feel worse so instead he smiled apologetically and wandered off to his tent. Howie watched Leighanne force a smile to Baylee and simply couldn’t let her go to sleep feeling that way so he turned to AJ and said, “I need to talk to Leighanne. You think you could…”

Howie motioned Baylee’s direction and AJ nodded. “I got your back dude.”

AJ moseyed over to Leighanne and Baylee and Leighanne cut him off before he could say anything. “I’m fine AJ. Really.”

“I know you are.” AJ replied, “I’m actually here to steal Baylee.”

Leighanne examined the devilish smile on AJ’s face and shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

“Aww come on. I have the master plan for Nick tonight, but I can’t pull it off on my own. I need a partner in crime.”

Baylee looked up at his mother, his eyes sparkling with anticipation. “Fine.” She said waving them off, “Just keep him safe.”

“Yes mom!” AJ said saluting sarcastically.

Once AJ and Baylee were out of sight, Howie took a deep breath and made his way across camp. “Leighanne?” He whispered nervously, “We need to talk.”

Leighanne’s heart began to race but she knew he was right. She looked around at all the tents full of curious ears and felt sick. “Why don’t we take a walk?” Howie suggested.

Leighanne looked out at the lake and then to the arm Howie was offering her. Slowly she wrapped her arm through his and let him lead her along the shore. Baylee saw them head off arm in arm and couldn’t take his eyes off of them. AJ followed his gaze and was also stopped by sheer curiosity. “Do you think they still like each other?” Baylee asked, secretly wishing his parents might find a way to make a complete family.

“I’m sure they still care about each other as friends.” AJ sighed, “I don’t know what she’s been through in the last twelve years, but as long as I’ve known her, your mother has only ever loved one man and I think it’s pretty obvious that there’s still feelings there. I don’t know if they’re good feelings, but there’s definitely feelings.”

“Do you mean Father Littrell?”

“He wasn’t a priest back then, he was one of us, and your mom was crazy about him.” AJ watched Howie and Leigh become smaller as they walked further down the lake. “Leigh and Howie happened after I moved away and to tell you the truth I still have no idea how that happened.”

Baylee frowned as he watched his parents together for the first time in his life. He wanted to have reason to hope, but AJ made perfect sense and he knew that some things just weren’t meant to be. AJ noticed his frown and couldn’t even begin to imagine what the confused kid must be feeling right now. Having had no father of his own, AJ felt like he might be the only person there who understood what Baylee was going through and he made it his duty to try and make him feel better. “Jut because they weren’t in love, doesn’t mean they didn’t love each other, or that they don’t love you. I’m sure Howie will make a great dad even if they never date.”

“I doubt that.” Baylee mumbled under his breath. “He won’t even talk to me.”

“Give the man some time.” AJ laughed, “You’re like what, 80 pounds? That’s a lot of weight to lay on someone all at once and Howie’s real shy. He’s terrified of us half the time and he’s known us all his whole life. Besides, if you haven’t noticed, the man hasn’t been able to take his eyes off of you since he showed up.”

“Really?” Baylee asked trying not to let his eyes give away his surprise.

“Really.” AJ said slumping his arm around Baylee. “Now come on, we have to catch ourselves a spider.”

Baylee stopped walking. “A spider?”

“A Daddy long legs to be precise. Big and scary but completely harmless.”

“Is Nick afraid of spiders too?”

AJ grinned like the devil. “Nope.”


***

Leighanne and Howie waited until they were, without question, beyond the hearing range of any humans before they had their long overdue conversation. “So, Baylee huh?” Howie said, daring to break the silence.

“Baylee Duane.”

Howie looked at Leighanne with wide eyes. “You gave him my middle name?”

Leighanne shrugged, “Seemed appropriate.”

“Does he know?”

Leighanne shook her head shamefully. “But I bet he’d like to, if you ever wanted to make conversation. He’s very curious about you.”

“I can imagine. I think I’m equally as curious.”

“You are?”

“Of course I am.” Howie stopped walking and Leighanne was startled by the hurt behind his big brown eyes. “Curious, but terrified.”

Leighanne’s heart ached as both guilt and sorrow fought to take control of it. “You shouldn’t be.” She said trying to keep her voice steady. “He’s a great kid. Really sweet, just like his daddy. He’s got your smarts too. Too much for his own good sometimes.”

For a moment Howie’s heart filled with pride but his fear came right back when he wondered how he could feel that way toward someone he didn’t even know existed 24 hours before. The emotions he’d been feeling as he watched the boy tonight were more than overwhelming and he wasn’t sure how to sort them all out. He didn’t know what to say to him, much less how to act toward him. He was so nervous he’d barely said two words to anyone all night. “God Leighanne,” He finally gasped, “I don’t know how to be a father!”

Tears filled Leighanne’s eyes as she thought she was hearing the rejection that used to play out in her dreams. “I’m so sorry you had to find out like this,” She whispered, “I mean the timing is horrible. It’s not exactly how I pictured breaking the news to you.”

“Are you saying you actually planned on telling me about this someday?”

Leighanne opened her mouth to say something but she was unable to lie to him. “How could you do it Leigh?” Howie pleaded, “How could you keep this from me? Did you think I’d be upset, that I wouldn’t help you? Did you think I wouldn’t want to be a part of his life?” Howie’s eyes drifted back toward the campsite. “That boy over there is practically a teenager. He’s had to live his whole life without a dad. Thinking that the guy who knocked up his mamma didn’t love her enough to stick around.”

Leighanne could no longer hold back her emotions and her tears turned to sobs, but Howie was so overwhelmed that he just couldn’t stop. “How could you do that to him? How could you do that to us? I have a son! And I’ve missed the first eleven years of his life. I can’t get that time back, and I can’t just become a father overnight.”

“I’m not asking you to be. I don’t expect anything from you.”

“Obviously.” Howie murmured bitterly.

In all her life, Leighanne had never seen Howie upset. He was always so reserved and quiet that to have him not only upset, but confronting her was too much of a shock. It was her fault, it was entirely her fault and in her mind she deserved it, but she couldn’t stand there with him any longer. “I’m sorry.” She cried.

Howie stood there speechless as he watched Leighanne walk away from him. He wasn’t even sure what just happened, but he knew he wasn’t ready to head back to camp. He was hurt and angry and yet as he heard Leighanne’s cries he somehow felt like he was the bad guy. He needed some air before he could go back to camp so he plopped down on the ground right there on the water’s edge trying to make sense of the things running through his mind.

When Leighanne reached camp she was crying fiercely and didn’t bother to hide it. Baylee was waiting in AJ’s tent with him when she came up and when he saw how upset she was he jumped up. “Mom?”

“Not now Baylee!” She snapped and then disappeared into her tent.

Baylee and AJ glanced at one another with worried looks Baylee started to go to his mother but AJ shook his head. Baylee stood helplessly at the door to his mother’s tent for a moment until he finally heard the shrill scream he’d been waiting for. Suddenly as his mother jumped about and struggled to free herself from her tent, AJ’s brilliant plan didn’t seem quite so funny. It didn’t seem funny to AJ either and it was only funny to Nick until Leighanne shook herself free of the eight-legged creature and he saw how upset she was. She glared at him and then noticed the looks on both her son and AJ’s faces. “Damnit AJ!” she screamed as she fell to the ground.

She found her purse and with shaking hands brought a cigarette to her lips. Everyone watched the meltdown with a bit of shock and Kristin decided to be the brave one. “Leighanne?” she said placing a hand on her shoulder, “Are you alright?”

No one was prepared for the outburst that came next. “Why would I be alright? Do I look alright?” she screamed, “Are any of us fucking alright? No! I’m not alright! OK? There, I said it. I’m not fucking alright, so quit asking me if I am!”

Leighanne took a long drag off her cigarette before stomping it out and then disappeared into her tent. Baylee stood there ashamed of the tears that were falling down his cheeks. Everyone felt terrible for him and he didn’t know if that made him feel better or worse. “Come on Baylee,” AJ said walking up to him, “Why don’t you stay in my tent tonight.”
Chapter 10 by honey
Author's Notes:
Yay, two in a row! And don't worry, I sort of leave you hanging a little, but it won't be fore long. I'm writing the scene you're probably waiting for right now. :)
Chapter 10

The air was pretty crisp the next morning when the sun started to show signs of it’s presence, but the campers at Jackson Lake felt cold for a different reason. One by one they woke up and began breaking down camp, but they were walking on eggshells with every step they took. It was quite the opposite feel from last night’s campfire.

Everyone was feeling pretty crappy about Leighanne. They all felt pretty much the same way she did, but they were each falling apart for their own reasons. The only difference was that they’d all been able to pretend so far that they could hold it together. Leighanne was the only one that hadn’t emerged from her tent this morning and no one wanted to be the one to wake her, not after last night, so they all just went about their own business wondering who would be the next person to crack.

Leighanne was not the only one people were tiptoeing around though, Howie was obviously not quite himself either. He’d come back to camp long after Leighanne’s little display, though he heard it from a distance, and he’d stayed silent as the grave since he woke up. Nobody knew exactly what had transpired between the two last night, and they weren’t about to ask. The situation was quite fragile and whatever happened left it cracked, if not broken.

Howie didn’t mean to be so upset. He even had sympathy for Leighanne, he just didn’t know how to show it. But Leighanne didn’t seem to need, or even want his help and it hurt. He wasn’t sure what he’d ever done to deserve such an attitude. He had never been anything but nice and supportive to Leighanne and would never in a million years have backed away from the pregnancy had she told him about it.

Howie loved family, and he loved kids. He was always visiting his nieces and nephews and had longed for years now that he had a family of his own. He was excited by Baylee but was sure the kid hated him. He wanted to embrace him and get to know him and maybe one day earn the right to be called his father, but he wasn’t sure Baylee wanted it, and for some reason Leighanne seemed dead set against it.

And then there was Baylee. Baylee was an emotional wreck, wandering around a camp full of adults he’d only met the day before. He’d never felt more alone and that was an awful way to have to feel when you were as scared and confused as Baylee was. Leighanne was right, he was a very smart kid, and not just because he had a pretty high IQ. Baylee was smart the way that most kids raised by single parents were smart. He’d been placed with a little more responsibility on his shoulders than most kids his age and as a result was a little more mature and a little less naive than other eleven year olds.

Baylee knew that his mother and Howie had fought last night and he knew he was the reason for it. He also knew that everyone in camp knew the same thing and were looking at him just a little differently this morning. He just didn’t know who was on what side. Everyone was nervous. Baylee could always tell when adults were nervous. It was a talent he’d acquired since his mother spent the majority of her life a nervous wreck.

If it weren’t for AJ, Baylee would probably be about as stable as his mother right now. AJ seemed to be the only one that really took any special care for Baylee and even though it seemed like he was just worried because Baylee was a kid, Baylee still clung to his attention. AJ helped him pack up and get ready for the day’s hike without making it seem like he was stuck with an extra chore. He genuinely seemed to like the kid and Baylee was grateful for it.

Finally when all was packed up and everyone sat around the campfire having some breakfast, Nick looked over at Leighanne’s tent. “It’s getting a little late. We’re gonna have to wake her up.”

“I’ll do it.” Baylee sighed and then started to stand up. “She won’t kill me.”

AJ pulled him back down and poured some coffee into a tin cup. “You know what, that’s ok. I’ll do it.”

Everyone was surprised by the offer, but no one protested it and they watched and waited nervously as AJ approached Leighanne’s tent. AJ quietly unzipped the tent and poked his head inside. Leighanne was tucked deeply under her sleeping bag sleeping as if she’d spent the night drinking. Her purse had spilled during the night and AJ immediately noticed the bottle of anxiety pills lying next to it. With a sigh he pulled the covers off Leighanne’s head and wafted the coffee under her nose. He tapped her lightly and she awoke with a deep inhale. “Is that a Terraza blend?” She groaned heavily.

“The one and only. Did you know it now comes in convenient little single-serving packets?” AJ smiled.

Leighanne took the cup gratefully and looked around as she sipped. “What time is it?”

“It’s getting kind of late, everyone else is pretty much ready to head out. Why don’t you get dressed and we’ll help you get packed up.”

Leighanne nodded and offered AJ a weak smile as he turned to leave. “AJ? How’s Baylee?”

“Poor kid had to stick it out with me last night. He’s a trooper.”

“Thanks AJ.”

AJ smiled warmly back and then kissed Leighanne’s forehead. “Have a better day today.” He suggested and then left her alone.

Once Leighanne was up and about they doused the fire and packed up the final touches, ready to make their big hike. They put on smiles as best they could, all more than happy to avoid everything that happened the night before. Then just as they were about to leave they heard the sound of an engine coming up the jeep trail. Not too many folks ever visited the North shore so they waited around curiously until the truck emerged from the trees.

Everyone watched with wide eyes as Brian took a deep breath, crossed himself and then slowly stepped from the car. He met six pairs of eyes and then cast his own to his feet. “I’d like to come.” He murmured, “If that’s alright.”

The tension in the air increased one hundred percent. Only Kristin, Howie and Baylee smiled, but AJ was just as relieved to see him there. Leighanne reached for the pack of cigarettes she’d given up on trying not to smoke and Nick balled his fists. “Are priests even allowed to camp?” He grumbled.

“Nick, please.” Kristin said reaching out for his arm, “I asked him to come.”

Kristin hugged Brian and helped him grab his gear from the back of the truck. “I’m glad you changed your mind.”

“It’s like you said, it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t come. Kevin would have wanted it.”

“The hell he would have.” Nick grumbled as he stalked off up the trail.

AJ watched Nick for a moment and then looked at Brian who already couldn’t take his eyes off of Leighanne. He picked up his pack and followed after Nick, pulling the cigarette from Leighanne’s mouth with a smile as he passed. He took a long drag from it and then handed it back. “This should be an interesting trip.”

Leighanne watched AJ a moment remembering the tension she’s seen between him and Brian and couldn’t help but steal a glance at Brian. Their eyes met briefly and Leighanne quickly jumped in line after AJ. “Come on Baylee.” She said, snapping her son out of whatever trance he appeared to be in at the moment. “Hiking’s not as bad as you think it is.”

Baylee looked back at Brian one last time and then to Howie before obediently following his mother up the path. Howie instinctively followed the boy but stopped after a few steps and smiled at Brian and Kristin. “I’m glad you came too.” He confessed and then went on his way.

Kristin tightened a strap on Brian’s pack and then turned him around to face her. “Thank you.” She whispered again, even more sincerely this time.

Brian studied her smile and slowly formed one of his own. “How is it that you more than any of us, are holding it together so well?”

Kristin tried not to let her eyes water up as she laughed. “I’m barely hanging on by a string Bri. I know there’s more problems than friendships between us all now, but the truth is, I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t all shown up. I can’t do this on my own.”

Brian wiped the moisture away from his own eyes. “Well then, I’m glad I came too.”

***

Two hours into their journey they reached the top of the hill that surrounded the lake and stopped to take a break. Nick pulled a bottle of water from his pack and laughed when AJ came huffing up behind him. “I never should have smoked all those cigarettes.” He gasped as Nick handed him the water.

“Is it just me, or did we used to get to this point in one hour, not two?”

“We’re not exactly eighteen anymore.” Leighanne groaned as she reached the top of the hill and threw her pack to the ground. “I really have to quit smoking.” She panted.

Nick shifted his eyes between AJ and Leighanne and just laughed at the pair of them. “City wusses.”

Baylee joined the group next and was very anxious to get his backpack off. “Mom?” he whined, “When is this hiking stuff supposed to get fun?”

“The exercise is good for you.” Howie laughed as he walked past the group to get a good look at the view. He looked down the backside of the mountain that they were supposed to get to the bottom of in order to reach the river and frowned. “I hope we go down hill a lot faster than we go up it.” He said looking at his watch, “Or else we’ll never make it to Mercy by dark.”

They all waited another moment to catch their breath and then started down the side of the mountain. About half way down, Nick and AJ both stopped when the sky went a few shades darker. They looked up behind them to see a dark cloud poke its ugly head over the hill. “Well where’d you come from, you sneaky little bastard.” AJ said, literally talking to the cloud.

“We’ve been getting the damn things all spring. Had a pretty wet winter this year actually, I’ll bet the river’s pretty high right now.”

“Yeah well we better not have a pretty wet hike or I’m gonna be pissed.”

No sooner did he say the words than a loud crack of thunder announced the sudden storm. Nick rolled his eyes at AJ as the rain began to fall. “Way to jinx it moron.”

Within seconds the rain was pouring, and the stinging companion the rain brought with it surprised everyone. “Hail!” Nick yelled back to the rest of the group but they didn’t need the announcement; they were already scattering to take shelter.
Nick and AJ ran to the nearest tree they could find and watched the others take cover a little further up the path. In the frenzy, everyone just sort of grabbed whoever’s hand they could and ran beneath the trees. Kristin grabbed Howie’s hand and pointed. “That one!”

Baylee was a little confused by the sudden commotion and Howie grabbed his hand pulling him beneath the large pine with him and Kristin. Leighanne, who had been lagging a ways behind the group for a while now, felt a hand tug her in the opposite direction and before she knew it, she and Brian were tucked safely beneath a tree yards away from the rest of the group. Leighanne squinted through the storm down the path at her son and started to make a run for it. “He’s fine.” Brian said pulling her back under the tree. “Howie’s got him. You can’t try to head down the hill in this and you know it.”

Leighanne looked down suddenly realizing that Brian’s hand was holding hers. Brian noticed at about the same time and dropped it with an apologetic look. Leighanne looked out at the storm wishing she could escape somehow, but the hail was nearly the size of golf balls so she leaned back against the tree in defeat.

***

Baylee leaned against the tree blinking widely at the violence around him. “What just happened?”

“It’s called a cloud burst.” Kristin explained.

Howie smiled when Baylee looked puzzled. “Basically it’s a really small cloud that packs a really big punch. Sometimes clouds build straight up instead of spreading out over more surface. Then they get really heavy really fast and suddenly burst with pretty much no warning. They move really fast and are extremely unpredictable.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“You don’t want to be caught out in the open in it, hail that size could do some damage, but we’ll be fine under this tree. We’re just gonna get pretty wet while we wait it out.”

“How long?”

“Could be five minutes, could be twenty. It really just depends. But we can’t head down the hill until the rain stops completely.”

“Why not?”

Kristin and Howie exchanged amused looks. “Because if you do, you’ll get to the bottom a lot faster than you’d like.” Howie laughed.

“Just ask Nick.” Kristin giggled as well.

Baylee smiled at the thought of Nick tumbling down a muddy hill but stopped suddenly and looked curiously up at Howie. “How do you know about all this stuff?”

“From hanging out with Kevin mostly.” Howie said sharing a sad smile with Kristin. “He was kind of like Davey Crockett.”

“We used to call him McGuiver.” Kristin laughed.

“He would lead us on all kinds of crazy adventures. He’s actually the one that discovered the hot springs.”

“He discovered them?”

“Yup. In fact the seven of us are probably the only people who have ever been there.”

“Really?”

Kristin put her arm around the kid and smiled. “Really. That’s why it’s such a special place to us. In fact, you’re the first person we’ve ever even told about this place, so I know you must be special.”

Baylee rolled his eyes. “You’re only bringing me cause you have to.”

“That’s not true.” Howie replied sincerely, “We wanted you to come.”

“After all, you are one of us.”

Baylee looked up at the smile on Howie’s face and realized that he was actually talking to his father. The man standing in front of him, telling him that he wanted him there, was his honest to goodness dad. After eleven years he was no longer a mystery. The realization brought tears to Baylee’s face and the moment became slightly awkward for all present. None of them was sure what to say next and as they listened to the silence only one thought came to Howie’s mind. He smiled down at Baylee letting him know that he didn’t have to be embarrassed by the tears. “So, your mom tells me that your middle name is Duane.”

***

“Can you see everyone?” Nick asked AJ as he scanned the trees through the downpour.

“Kristin, Howie and Baylee are right over there, but I think Brian and Leighanne are up there somewhere. I can’t see them though.”

“Brian and Leigh ended up by themselves?” Nick scoffed, “I’ll bet that’s interesting.”

AJ looked Nick over curiously. “I doubt it’s as awkward as if you and Brian had gotten stuck together.”

Nick was a little startled by the insinuation even if it were completely accurate. “What’s up with that anyway?” AJ finally asked flat out.

“It’s kind of a long story.”

“Does it look like we’re going anywhere? Come on man, how’d you guys end up hating each other?”

“He’s a jerk-off, that’s how.”

“The Brian I remember isn’t capable of being a jerk-off.”

“He isn’t the Brian you remember.”

AJ looked out into the rain with pain in his heart. Brian had always been so sweet, and so good despite all the awful things he’d been through. AJ hated to think that he was responsible for tearing him down, but somehow he felt, deep in the pit of his stomach, that it very well could have been all his fault. “So what happened?”

“Well I guess it started back in high school when he started going to church more and then he became a damn priest. He left Mercy and when he came home all he ever did was bitch about all the things we were doing wrong with our lives. Like he couldn’t just be a friend anymore, he had to be our savior or something.”

“That sucks man.”

“That ain’t half of it.” Nick grumbled, becoming more and more bitter as the memories became fresh in his mind. “About six years ago Kev and Kristin were having trouble getting pregnant. They tried everything, but as it turns out Kevin just didn’t have it in him.”

“Really?” AJ replied, trying not to gasp, “Like nothing?”

“Completely sterile. It destroyed the guy, you know?”

“I can imagine. All he ever wanted was Kristin and a house full of babies.”

“Kristin tried to tell him over and over that it was ok, but nothing worked. He went into this self-destruct mode, thinking that he was like not a real man or something and that Kristin blamed him for it. He was just a mess.”

“But what does that have to do with Brian?”

“Well Brian was like a brother to him right? And he was always so proud of his saint of a cousin so even though Brian was never around anymore he was went to him for help. I could have told him that wasn’t such a good idea, but you know Kev. I guess he thought maybe if he got closer to God, he might get a miracle or something.”

“That sounds like Kevin.”

“Kevin drove all the way out to Missoula to Brian’s church so that he could tell him what was going on and ask him advice. I’m telling ya he was so desperate he was ready to convert or something. And instead of making the man feel better, Brian got mad. He actually had the nerve to tell Kevin that it was his fault. That maybe he was being punished for things he did. Like he deserved it! Do you believe that shit?”

“That’s messed up.”

“Kevin!” Nick screamed, “What the hell bad thing did Kevin ever do in his whole life?”

“If that’s true, I’d hate to think what I have coming.”

“Yeah, well it mess him up. He went out and got so wasted that he didn’t come home until three days later when Kris and I went out there and drove his ass back. He was never the same after that.” Nick sighed thinking about the dark truth behind Kevin’s accident. “Never.” He breathed.

“So how come when Brian looks at you he seems like he’s trying to shoot lasers at your head.”

“Oh that’s another thing!” Nick ranted, nearly becoming irate, “I went to talk to him when I came out for Kevin and he was so pissed at me he could barely speak. He said I betrayed him and that I destroyed his life.”

“What’d you do?”

“Hell if I know? I asked him that myself, but he just told me that I would eventually have to pay for my sins. He fucking disowned me. Litterally. He said that because of me he could never show his face in Mercy ever again. He said it was my fault that he could never go home and that he wanted me out of his life for good. I told him to go to hell and he said there wouldn’t be room for both of us and he was sure I would beat him there. Some holy man he is, telling his ex-best friend that he was going to hell. Can he even do that?”

Again guilt swept over AJ to an almost destructive level, and he could only shrug when Nick looked at him for a response. He knew Brian’s secret. He knew why he didn’t want to go home, and it had nothing to do with Nick. “Anyway,” Nick sighed, trying to calm himself, “He never came home again. Never spoke to any of us ever again. Not me, not Kevin, not the Richardson’s. They were the only family the guy had and nothing. Not one phone call in six years. Not until the day Kevin died. The bastard! He’d better be right about God being forgiving, because I sure as hell ain’t. ”

Nick finally stopped talking and realized that AJ looked pale. “You ok man?” he asked just as AJ leaned over and threw up.

“Dude?” Nick asked again.

“I’m fine man.” AJ waved him off, “I’m just not used to so much fresh air and exercise I guess.”

“Wuss.” Nick smirked.

It wasn’t the most sensitive response in the world, but AJ was grateful for it at the moment. It was not the outdoors that had caused AJ’s breakfast to come back up and if Nick had cared at all, he would have seen right through AJ. That was the last thing AJ wanted. It was one thing to feel responsible for happened between Brian and Leighanne all those years ago, but finding out that he was in fact responsible of ruining the lives of everyone that he cared for was too much. If anyone needed forgiveness, it wasn’t Brian.
Chapter 11 by honey
Author's Notes:
Thanks to those of you sticking by this one. I know it's a lot different from your standard fanfic, and it's a little different pace from my normal stuff, but I've really gotten into this one and I'm glad to see a couple others enjoying it too. Thanks again you guys, you rock!
Chapter 11


Being alone with Howie last night and having that conversation with him was nerve-wracking but inevitable. But Leighanne had actually convinced herself she could go the entire trip without being alone with Brian. She didn’t know why being with him scared her so much, but it seemed to twist her inside out. She squinted through the storm down the path at her son and started to make a run for it. “He’s fine.” Brian said pulling her back under the tree. “Howie’s got him. You can’t try to head down the hill in this and you know it.”

Leighanne looked down suddenly realizing that Brian’s hand was holding hers. Brian noticed at about the same time and dropped it with an apologetic look. Leighanne looked out at the storm wishing she could escape somehow, but the hail was nearly the size of golf balls so she leaned back against the tree in defeat.

The little beads of ice danced a safe distance form them, but even the thick branches of the evergreen they sat under could only do so much against the rain that was coming down in sheets. Leighanne didn’t notice the wet hair that was hanging in her eyes, or the thin shirt she’d been wearing that was now clinging to her form. She didn’t even take notice when her teeth began chattering from the sudden chill of being completely drenched. All of her attention was focused on doing anything she could not to look at the man standing next to her. So far so good too, but now that Brian was done covering their gear with a tarp they were standing there in a deafening silence.

Leighanne was not going to be the one to speak first and she hoped that Brian wouldn’t have the nerve either, but she knew something was up just by the way they’d ended up alone and practically out of sight of the rest of the group. She knew she was in trouble when the first sound Brian made was the sound of a deep breath and a hard swallow. “Leigh?” His timid voice caused her to flinch. “Do you ever think about that night?”

Leighanne was suddenly grateful for the rain streaming down her face; otherwise the moisture that crept into her eyes would have been a lot more noticeable. “No.” she admitted, “Not in a very, very long time. At least not until this week.”

“I think about it.”

“I can understand why.” Leighanne replied still staring out into the rain. “But do what you have to, to make your peace. I don’t sit at home dwelling on the past and you shouldn’t either. It was a long time ago and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it anymore.”

“The only thing I ever felt guilty about was that I couldn’t make you understand. You never gave me the chance to explain.”

Brian was staring at Leighanne; she could feel him watching her, but she still couldn’t bring herself to face him. His voice stayed soft, but sounded just a little more determined now. “I think about that night a lot, everyday. And when I’m asleep it’s in my dreams. Even after the way things ended I don’t regret being with you, I can’t. I love you.”

Leighanne gasped from the sharp pain the shock of his words caused. Once upon a time she would have died to hear him say those words, but now she didn’t know what to think. She finally turned to meet his eyes and they seemed so sad it was almost pathetic. “Brian.”

Brian shrugged helplessly. This was beyond his control and suppressing it only seemed to make the feelings stronger. He needed desperately to get it off his chest. “I always did, long before you came to me that night. And apparently I always will, because seeing you again, having you right here in front of me…”

Brian instinctively took a step closer to Leighanne. Leighanne wanted to back away, but she felt her body pulling itself closer and closer to him and she couldn’t make it stop. His eyes still held power over her and as much as she wanted to fight it, part of her needed to feel his lips against hers just once more.

The internal struggle Brian was having as he watched Leighanne anticipate his kiss was unlike anything he’d ever felt. His heart and mind were in agreeance as to what he should do, what he needed to do, and yet his hand reached up and brushed the wet locks away from her face. He felt weak as his fingers graced her soft skin, just as he did in his dreams, but as he leaned forward his lips found their way to her forehead.

Leighanne squeezed her eyes tightly shut as she was overcome with emotion. Her entire body began to tremble and though his soul was tortured, twelve years of habit took over and Brian pulled her into his arms in a very fatherly way. Leighanne clung to him and cried, forgetting for a moment that he was the cause of her heartache because she needed the comfort he offered so badly. “I’m sorry.” Brian whispered.

Leighanne pulled away from him and got her sobs under control. “You can’t keep doing this to me,” she said, “It’ll kill me.”

Brian cast his eyes to his feet, letting a few tears fall, and Leighanne looked out to the storm that had already turned into just a light rain. She threw her backpack over her shoulders and as she synched it in place she turned back to Brian. “I’m sorry Brian, but please, just stay away from me.”

Leighanne began making her way down the mountain in the drizzle, spilling more tears as she walked away from him. Kristin, Howie and Baylee watched her curiously as she walked past them, failing to notice their greetings. Baylee started to catch up to her until he felt a hand on his shoulder. He followed Howie and Kristin’s gaze to where Brian stood frozen beneath the tree and frowned in confusion. Howie smiled gently and turned his gaze back to Leighanne. “Your mom might need a few minutes to herself right now.”


“What happened between my mom and Father Littrell?”

Howie really didn’t want to try and explain Leighanne and Brian’s history any more than he actually knew how too, so he did the only thing he could think of. “Hey, did you know that you have cousins?”

The change of subject worked for the time being and Baylee stared at his father with wide eyes. “I do?”

“Yup.” Howie smiled, “And aunts, and uncles, and even grandparents. Get moving and I’ll tell you all about them.

Howie helped Baylee get his pack back on and then guided him down the hill flashing a look of relief to Kristin as they went. Kristin smiled and then waited for Brian to catch up before following the rest of the group.

Not even ten minutes later, the tiny storm cloud had dissipated leaving pellets of ice on the now muddy ground, and the sky was just as brilliantly sunny as it had been twenty minutes before. As they hiked, Howie and Baylee were both relieved to finally be talking to one another and even really starting to enjoy each other’s company.

Kristin and Brian brought up the rear and Kristin spent most of that time trying to get Brian to tell her what just happened. Brian never let up though; he was a pro at keeping things to himself. He’d tried once to open up and let a friend share the burden of his problems and it ended him up on the best-seller’s list across the United States. After that he was quite convinced that he would never trust anyone ever again.

Leighanne walked quietly at the head of the party while Nick and AJ followed closely enough to keep an eye on her and yet far enough to give the poor woman some space. “Do you think she still loves him?” AJ wondered aloud, “After all these years? Even after he broke her heart?”

“I hope not, for her sake. If you ask me she’s better off with Howie.”

“Howie?” AJ snickered, “Are you kidding me?”

“Why not? They had a kid together.”

“And I wouldn’t have believed that in a million years if the kid weren’t the spittin’ image of the guy. How the hell did that happen anyway?”

“Beats me.” Nick shrugged, “Brian messed up Leighanne pretty bad and Howie got a little weird when we went to school. He was never really the life of the party to begin with, but I think he was depressed or stressed out or something. Talk about a couple of downers. We always stayed really good friends, but for a while there right before Leigh went AWOL I could barely stand to be with either of them for very long. Misery loves company I guess. That’s the only way I can explain the two of them hooking up.”

The pair got quiet again as they pondered the situation. They each watched Leighanne with puzzled looks until AJ’s thoughts escaped his mouth again. “What about you man, how come there’s no Mrs. Coach Carter?”

Nick rolled his eyes, “I didn’t see you booking a room for two this week either. Come on Mr. Hot shot writer man, at least tell me you got to hook up with Lindsay Lohan once or something.”

“I live in Seattle dumbass, not Hollywood.” AJ laughed, “Besides, you know me. The closest thing I have to a steady relationship is the morning cashier at Starbucks.”

“You sly dog. Found a way to get free coffee did ya?” Nick sighed, trying to remember the last time he got laid. “You know who’s probably getting all the play? Howie. The guy’s friggin loaded. He’s probably got some big yacht off the Miami coast full of honeys just waiting for him to come back.”

“I’d buy it.” AJ agreed, “Hell the guy scored Leighanne without a penny and you and I tried to do that for years.”

“Leighanne doesn’t count. She was rebounding.”

AJ watched Leighanne again and frowned. “She looks like she’s still rebounding.”

Nick looked up and watched Leighanne kick a rock as she passed it. “Na, that’s just Brian. You try spending ten minutes alone with the guy and see how you’re feeling afterward.”

The idea alone was enough to sober AJ up and destroy his playful mood. Nick only had a split second to question the frown before AJ asked one more question. “How long do you think we should let her stew?”

Nick looked ahead again and sighed. “You’re probably right. Maybe we should catch up to her.”

Nick and Brian picked up the pace, catching up to Leighanne, and at the same time each took one of her arms in theirs. “What do you want you guys?” Leighanne said rolling her eyes at their cheesy grins. “I am not dishing the dirt for the gossip queens.”

“We’re insulted.” Nick teased.

“Yeah! Maybe we just miss seeing that pretty smile on your face and came to bring it back.”

Leighanne tried to pout but still she cracked a smile at the goofiness of her friends. “You two.” She said shaking her head. “It’s like we’re back in high school.”

“It’s kind of nice though, don’t you think?” AJ asked, “Having us all back together again. Well, most of us.”

“Nice?” Leighanne laughed bitterly, “I don’t know if nice is how I would describe the last day and a half.”

“Maybe not for you,” Nick joked, “But I’m stuck in this boring town all the time and having everyone back has been entertaining to say the least.”

“Well I’m happy to entertain.”

“Seriously though,” AJ laughed, “I’m proud of you, bringing Baylee out here, facing Howie.”

“Confronting Brian.” Nick added dying to know what had just gone on between the two of them.

“Forget it Nick.”

“Aww come on Leigh! You can’t just leave us in the dark. Something obviously happened back there.”

“Nicky if you really want to know so bad, then go ask Brian because I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Yeah right. If he asks Brian anything, he’s gonna ask him with his fist.”

Leighanne stopped walking and looked at her friends with a puzzled expression. “You mean you have a problem with Brian now too?” She asked feeling sad at the thought, “Does the man have any friends left?”

“Doubtful.” Nick grumbled and then turned to AJ. “I know why Leigh’s pissed at him, but what’d he do to you?”

AJ glanced back up the path where Brian and Kristin were now walking with Baylee and Howie, and suddenly he felt as if her were in some kind of war and had to take a side. “He didn’t do anything, it was me.”

“You?” Nick and Leighanne gasped at the same time.

AJ shrugged and then sighed heavily. “I sort of used him as a character in one of my books and he’s pissed at me for it.”

“That’s not so bad.” Nick shrugged. “Hell I’d be honored if you used me in one. Just make sure I’m the man.”

Nick laughed, but AJ couldn’t join him. Leighanne began thinking back on all of AJ’s books, trying to recall the one he was talking about. She’d read everything he’d ever written but couldn’t think of any of that that sounded like Brian. “No man, I deserve it. I was a jerk. I never should have written it, and then the damn thing had to turn out to be an award-winner.

“A Cry For Help?” Leighanne gasped in disbelief. “He can’t be Bobby?”

“Who the hell’s Bobby?” Nick asked, but his question went ignored as Leighanne stared at AJ.

“I didn’t mean to, it just sort of happened.” AJ shrugged shamefully, “I guess I never expected him to find out. I didn’t know priests could read books besides the bible.”

“Yeah well, something tells me Brian isn’t the most holy of holy men.” Nick spat while he fumed over the “advice” the so-called preacher had given his best friend years back.

AJ was now dying to change the subject and he tried to lighten the mood. “Well apparently priests can read my books, but jocks can’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nick frowned.

“You know what it means.” AJ laughed, “Name one book of mine that you’ve even picked up.”

“I picked up one long enough to notice it was written by your evil twin Alexander.”

“Watch your mouth dude, before you get a beating. My publishers made me use it. I guess AJ sounded too juvenile.”

“Kind of like the writing?” Nick snickered.

“Kind of like your mom!”

Nick and AJ got wrapped up in a playful argument long enough for Leighanne to walk ahead of them, drowning in her own thoughts. Nick and AJ meant to cheer her up but all they’d done is remind her of Brian. And now it was worse, now she wasn’t angry with him, she felt sorry for him.

AJ’s award-wining book truly deserved all the praise it received. It was by far Leighanne’s favorite of all AJ’s work because it seemed to come from his soul, and now she knew why. Leighanne began to think back on every memory she had of Brian since the day she’d met him. Every conversation, every look, and every action he’d ever taken. Everything seemed different now. If even half of what AJ wrote in that book was true, then suddenly everything about Brian made sense.

Nick looked up just in time to see Leighanne bat away tears from her eyes. “What’s wrong with her?”

Nick looked back at AJ when he didn’t receive an answer and was confused to see that AJ was now just as upset. AJ walked ahead a little ways suddenly feeling the need for some space as well, and Nick just let him go, watching him curiously. “Damnit I’ve got to start reading more books.”
Chapter 12 by honey
Author's Notes:
Hey y'all! Here's the next chapter, sorry I was stuck for a while there. and I was a little distracted by my new story. In case you missed the news, I just started a new fic that I am co-writing with my favorite AC writer, starbeamz2!!!! She's as much a Brian girl as I am and we're super excited to come up with the superest, awesomest Brian story ever for your reading pleasure, so go check it out if you haven't already. It's called "In The Shadows" and you can find it under my AC name or Sarah's. (starbeamz2 and honey) Thanks again! The next chapter of this and our new one should both be posted hopefully by the end of the weekend! Until then, enjoy this update!
Chapter 12

Leighanne was the first to reach the river and she plopped down on a big rock to catch a breather and wait for the others. AJ was the first to join her and when he sat down a little ways from her there was an awkward tension that had never been there before. When Leighanne looked at him she was full of wonder, but the questions running through her head were ones she didn’t know she wanted answers to.

AJ knew she was wondering why. He knew it was why she was upset and he wanted to explain, but he wasn’t sure he could make her understand. He wasn’t sure he could make any of them understand. In fact, after seeing all the animosity he’d caused, he wasn’t sure his reasons for doing it were good enough anymore.

AJ and Leighanne didn’t sit alone for more than a minute though. Nick joined them and the others weren’t far behind. Nick studied them both for a minute with a frown and then couldn’t curb his curiosity. “This is driving me crazy,” He said placing himself between his friends, “What the hell did you write in that book?”

Nick looked at AJ, but he could only look away, so Nick looked to Leighanne for answers. Leighanne wasn’t about to explain everything, some things deserved to remain a secret, but she had to tell him something that would appease his mind. “It’s about him before he came to Mercy, about what happened with his parents.”

Nick thought for a moment and then did something that surprised both AJ and Leighanne. He curled his hands into fists and began to tremble slightly as his face turned red. “You did what?” he yelled furiously.

AJ and Leighanne stared wide-eyed as they realized that Nick knew about Brian, and he didn’t read it in AJ’s book. It made AJ feel even worse because he was sure now that the fight between Nick and Brian was because of him. Brian believed Nick had betrayed his secret and Nick had no idea.

Leighanne on the other hand, had quite a different reaction to the revelation. As bad as she felt for Brian, she couldn’t help but be angry with him again. Brian had never breathed a word of this to her. He claimed he loved her and yet he couldn’t be honest with her when he could obviously share with both Nick and AJ. The fact that Brian didn’t trust her with something that could have easily eased her pain all those years ago hurt just as bad as any of the heartbreak he’d already caused her.

“Who did what?” Kristin asked startling the three of them.

They looked at Kristin not wanting to explain themselves and Nick’s eyes drifted to Brian. He stared apologetically for only a second and then gave AJ a look that could have killed him. “Its nothing.” He hissed and then stormed off a safe distance from the rest of the group in order to gain control of himself.

Everyone was a little surprised, but no one was more confused than Brian. Nick hadn’t looked at him with anything but hatred since he returned to Mercy and the way Leighanne couldn’t take her tearful eyes off of him at the moment suggested that he had been the topic of conversation.

After the drama that had been going on around them over the last few days, everyone knew better than to pry, so they let the subject drop. Howie looked up at the sky, concerned at how low the sun appeared to be, and happily changed the subject. “You guys think maybe we should camp here tonight?”

“No way man.” AJ said, “If I can’t soak in those hot springs all night, I’ll be so stiff tomorrow you’ll have to med-evac me out of here.

“You always were a wuss.” Howie laughed.

“Yeah,” AJ shrugged, “Well now I’m an old, out of shape wuss with a bad knee.”

“We lost a lot of time going up the hill today, and then that storm set us back a little too. It’s not fun setting up camp in the dark.”

Kristin joined them looking up at the sky as well. “It’s only three or four miles. If we push it we could still make it.”

“All right. Then we’d better get moving.”

Brian joined them with a puzzled look. “Does anyone else remember that river being much smaller?”

“How are we supposed to cross it?” AJ said with a frown. “It looks too deep to wade across and I am not taking a swim.”

“You couldn’t just swim it anyway, it’s moving too fast.” Howie.

“Plus you’d get hypothermia.” Nick said, finally deciding to rejoin the group. “We used to wade through it in the end of August when it was only 2 feet deep and that still stung like a bitch.”

“How’d it get so deep?” Baylee asked staring down at the river curiously.

“It’s been like that ever since they opened the spillway at the lake.” Kristin explained, “We’ve had a lot of really wet winters over the last decade. The lake got too full and the dam started to give. They opened the spillway to relieve the pressure and it basically cut a new river. It’s moving pretty fast, so the spillway must be open again.”

“Well that’s just great.” AJ whined, “We came all this way and we can’t even get across?”

“Sure we can, Kev and I made a bridge last time we came out here.”

Kristin grinned when she suddenly had everyone’s attention. She cast her eyes upstream where what looked like a few logs had fallen over a narrow part of the river. Kristin grabbed her pack and headed upstream with the others falling in line behind her. She stopped at the foot of the so-called bridge her husband had rigged four or five years ago. It was three logs ascending from one bank to the other. It was held in place by big rocks and tied together with expert knots. “You actually made this?” Baylee asked rather impressed.

“Kevin did most of it, all I did was help lift the heavy stuff.”

“That’s pretty cool.”

“And you said being a boy scout is lame.” Leighanne laughed as she teasingly patted her son’s head.

AJ frowned down at the homemade concoction that spanned the river two or three feet above the rushing water. “I am not crossing this.”

“AJ don’t be such a wuss.” Kristin teased as she examined the condition of the bridge. Despite the moss that had grown over the surface that had once been sanded flat, it was still holding together as nicely as the day it was made. She set her backpack on the ground and then slowly made her way across to the other side of the river. When she was on solid ground again she held her hands out to ether side. “You see? Nothing to worry about.”

“Alright.” Nick said stepping up to the bridge. “Let’s get to camp before dark.”

“How come we’re leaving our backpacks?” Baylee asked when Nick and the others began removing the gear from their backs.

“We’re not leaving it, we’re just gonna hand it across.”

“Why?”

“That pack you’re wearing weighs close to forty pounds.” Howie explained, “Even more when it’s wet. You fall in the water with that thing strapped to your back, you’re not coming back up.”

“Oh.” Baylee said eying the water with a new nervous feeling that he quickly hid from everyone.

One by one everyone took off their packs and handed them to Nick who walked them across the bridge to Kristin. Once everyone had handed him their packs he crossed the bridge one last time. AJ slowly began to make his way across next and then Leighanne with Baylee close behind her and Brian right behind him making sure he was safe. “Hey guys.” Kristin called out as they made their way across. “You forgot mine.”

Everyone looked back to see her pack still lying on the ground where she’d left it. Everyone watched as Howie went back for the backpack and during the pause Baylee looked down and stopped walking. The tough kid from the big city hated to admit that he was scared, but seeing the dark rushing water beneath him made his body want to tremble. “The sooner you walk, the sooner it’s over. Brian said patting Baylee’s shoulder. “Just try not to look down.”

Baylee looked up at the man and his smile was reassuring. He took a deep breath and then slowly moved his feet, but his tennis shoes were no match for the moss beneath his feet and in a split second he lost his balance and plunged into the water. “Baylee!”

AJ grabbed Leighanne, holding her back before she could jump in after the boy and both Brian and Howie went in her stead. Without even thinking, both men dove into the water and AJ guided a hysterical Leighanne safely across the bridge. They immediately followed after Kristin and Nick who were already running alongside the river.

Brian was the first to reach the frantic child and he pulled him close against his body, helping him to stay afloat. “I’ve got you.” Brian shouted, “Lie back against the current. Try and keep your feet out, like you’re sitting.”

Baylee did as he was told and began to relax as he heard Brian muttering a prayer above his head. The words seemed to sooth him from the inside out and the panic left him. “At a boy Baylee.” Brian said when he felt Baylee’s body relax in his arms.

Brian did all he could to keep their heads above the water as the current swept them down stream. He kept his eye on Howie who was almost within arms reach of them now holding a rope that Nick had thrown to him. “I’m going to have to let go with one hand now Baylee.” Brian said as Howie was making his way beside him. “I promise I wont let you go.”

Tears fell from Baylee’s eyes and he clasped Brian’s hand with both of his as tight as he could. When he had a good grip, Brian let go of Baylee with one hand and reached for Howie. They clasped hands and held on with pure adrenaline as Nick and AJ pulled them to shore.

Leighanne plucked Baylee from the water and they cried together while AJ and Nick helped Howie and Brian from the water. No one said anything while they caught their breath. They were all still trying not to think about what could have just happened. Kristin noticed both Howie and Brian’s teeth chattering and Baylee was shaking violently in his mother’s arms. “I’ll start a fire if you guys go back for the gear.” She said to Nick and AJ. “We need to get these guys warmed up.”

AJ and Nick took off running again and Kristin got to work gathering sticks. Leighanne looked down at her son and dried his tears, unable to stop her own from falling. “I’m sorry mom.” Baylee whispered, “I shouldn’t have looked at the water.”

“Oh honey it’s not your fault.” Leighanne promised. She pulled her son even tighter against her and kissed his forehead. “I’m just glad you’re safe. What would I ever do without you?”

Baylee looked up into his mother’s eyes, never more grateful for her love and buried his face in her chest as he hugged her. Both Brian and Howie watched the reunited family with sadness in their hearts. Both wanted to hold them and comfort them but both knew they couldn’t. As much as either of them may have wanted it to be so, the fact is, neither of them were the man in their life.

Leighanne and Baylee were truly on their own, and as Howie watched them, he vowed he would change that. His heart nearly collapsed when Baylee fell into the river and in that moment he knew he would never be the same. He would become the father that that little boy deserved no matter what it took.

Everyone remained pretty quiet for the next few minutes until Nick and AJ returned. They each had a pack on their back and were carrying one in each arm. Kristin stood up from the fire that was now starting to come to life and smiled. “I guess we’re camping here tonight. If you guys want to start setting up tents, I’ll go back for the last pack.”

AJ and Nick both gave her puzzled looks. “But this is everything.” Nick said and then looked at the packs again.

“There’s only six packs,” Kristin stated, “Where’s the last –

Everyone glanced at each other and when it dawned on them that Howie had been holding a bag when he jumped in the river they all turned their gazes to Him. Howie’s eyes got really big as the realization hit and he looked out at the rushing water. The group followed his eyes and one at a time mouths began to drop open and Kristin gasped in horror. Howie felt sick to his stomach and turned to Kristin practically speechless. “Kris.”

Everyone watched tears fill Kristin’s eyes and waited for the emotional breakdown that was guaranteed to follow. Nick wrapped his arms around her but she pushed him away. Howie shrugged helplessly as he took a step toward her. “Don’t!” Kristin choked. “Just stay back.”

Howie’s eyes glazed over. He tried to apologize but nothing he could think to say seemed near good enough. “I’m so sorry.”

“You’re sorry?” Kristin’s tears stopped falling as anger took over. “Is that supposed to make me feel better? You dropped my husband’s ashes in the river! Kevin’s gone!”

Baylee finally realized what was going on and pulled his shivering body from his mother’s arms. “It’s my fault.” He whispered, “Please don’t be mad at him.”

Howie was stunned by Kristin’s attitude, but it was Baylee’s plea that hurt. He looked at the child just in time to see him wipe his cheek. Seeing the guilt and the fear in his eyes was too much. The boy nearly lost his life. He needed to be taken care of right now, not attempting to mediate a fight.

Howie was normally a very calm, very cool under pressure kind of guy, but everyone has their limits and the feelings of being a protective parent were a new discovery. “Damnit Kristin, how selfish can you be?” he screamed, silencing the entire camp with pure shock, “I’m sorry I dropped your bag, I am, but they were just ashes. Kevin is already gone and my son’s life was in danger! What did you expect me to do?”

Howie took a deep breath and lowered his voice. He grabbed a sleeping bag from one of the packs on the ground and wrapped it around Baylee. “It’s not your fault.”

Baylee starred at Howie, overwhelmed by the love that was being shown for him and without warning he dove into Howie’s arms. Howie was shocked at first, but tears finally fell from his eyes for the first time since he’d come to town, as he held the boy in his arms. He caught a glimpse of Leighanne and she was just as teary-eyed, but Howie couldn’t tell if they were the same happy tears that he was crying or if they were something else.

Tears once again returned to Kristin’s eyes and she finally allowed Nick to hold her. She collapsed into his arms sobbing uncontrollably. Nick ran his fingers through her hair, urging her body to stop shaking. “I’m sure it’s fine.” He assured her. “They were sealed in an airtight bag. The pack probably just sunk. It’s probably still sitting right under the bridge. I’m sure we can fish it out in the morning.”
Chapter 13 by honey
Author's Notes:
Hey! I know it's been a week or two, but Sam and Dean are finished, so I'm back on board with this one! Yay! As always, thanks for reading along!
Chapter 13

Once Kristin was calm, all was pretty quiet around the fire. Nick took her for a walk to gather more firewood and blow off some steam while AJ made some hot coffee for the three people who had taken a swim. Leighanne found Baylee’s pack and then sat down with her son holding a fresh pair of dry clothes. “Come on kiddo, we’ve got to get you dry. She pulled Baylee’s shirt over his head and stared curiously at the small cross that hung around his neck. “What’s this?”

Baylee’s eyes grew wide almost as if he were afraid of his mother, and he drew back covering the cross with his hand. “Father Littrell gave it to me at the funeral.” He whispered shyly.

Howie, Brian and AJ stopped what they were doing and watched the two carefully. They knew as well as Baylee that Leighanne was not going to be too happy about that. Leighanne stared at the cross as if it were a ghost. She instantly recognized it as the cross that always hung around Brian’s neck when they were growing up. The one she’d run her fingers over the night they’d made love, and the one he’d confessed had been a gift from his mother. “Sweetheart you can’t keep this.”

“Leigh, it’s ok.” Brian tried to explain, but stopped when Leighanne glared at him.

She looked back at Baylee and the disappointment he showed nearly broke her heart. “I’m sorry honey,” She said, fighting back tears, “But you need to give it back.”

Baylee looked into his mother’s tearful eyes and his little body filled with anger. “No.” he said firmly, grasping the necklace in his hands. Leighanne was shocked, but Baylee didn’t stop there. “Just because you hate him doesn’t mean I have to. You hate everyone!” Baylee began to spill tears. “Father Littrell gave it to me for you. He said it might help if I prayed for you and I think he’s right.”

Leighanne’s gaze turned to Brian and he paled under her stare. No one moved a muscle until Nick and Kristin walked back into camp startling everyone. They broke Leighanne from her trance when they dropped a bundle of wood by the fire. Everyone looked at them briefly and then Leighanne made her way to Brian. “You had no right.” She said with so much anger that she couldn’t keep her voice steady.

Brian started to explain but Leighanne reached up with a trembling hand before he could get any words out and slapped him as hard as she could. She broke out into tears as a surprised Brian put a hand to his stinging cheek. Then, without warning, she pulled his lips to hers, desperately kissing him with the passion of twelve years of pent up feelings.

Everyone watched in utter shock. “Can she do that?” AJ asked, receiving a shrug from Howie.

Brian was more shocked than anyone and at first he was helpless to do anything. He couldn’t kiss her, but he couldn’t fight her either. She’d been his first, and his only, and for twelve years he’d dreamt of her. Slowly his hands made their way to her face and he kissed her back needing the connection as much as she did.

They pulled apart stunned and out of breath, and Leighanne began to freak out on the inside as she realized what she’d just done. Brian didn’t say a word and he couldn’t take his eyes off of her. “Thank you for saving my son’s life.” Leighanne finally gasped and then walked out of camp, avoiding the looks she was receiving from everyone as she went.

Everyone watched her go before turning back to Brian. It was obvious that he was an emotional wreck, but he said and did nothing. He simply met the looks of his friends with a blank stare and then sat down next to the fire, wrapped in a sleeping bag, sipping his coffee.

Nick was the one to finally break the silence, but he didn’t dare bring up what just happened. “It’s going to get dark.” He said looking the direction Leighanne had just walked off in, “She shouldn’t be alone.”

“I’ll go.” AJ offered.

Brian and Howie needed to stay close to the fire and Nick didn’t want to leave Kristin so he nodded to AJ agreeing that that was the best choice. “Don’t let her go too far. Kris and I will start pitching the tents.”

AJ nodded to Nick and then wandered off into the woods after Leighanne. She wasn’t hard to find though because the sound of her sobs were just about the only thing disturbing the wilderness at the moment. She was sitting against a tree with her face buried in her knees as she cried and the sight of her broke AJ’s heart.

Without saying a word, he sat down beside her. Leighanne pulled her head from her knees and fell into AJ’s arms. AJ held her tightly, but was at a complete loss for words so he just let her cry. He figured after that display back at camp, she probably needed to let it all out.

***

Baylee watched Brian stare distantly into the flames of the campfire. He hadn’t been able to take his eyes off the man since his mother had kissed him. There’d been less than a handful of men in her life and she’d never kissed any of them the way she’d kissed Brian.
Baylee found himself torn. He really liked Brian, but couldn’t help feeling angry with him and he wasn’t really sure why, but more than that, he was mad at his mom.

“How you feeling?” Howie asked startling the boy from his thoughts.

“Better I guess.” Baylee shrugged as Howie sat down next to him.

“Are you sure? You look upset.”

Baylee frowned and cast his eyes back to Brian. “My mom is a total psycho.”

Howie laughed, but felt bad for the kid at the same time. “Your mother’s not a psycho.” He said with a tiny giggle.

Baylee wiped at a tear that rolled down his cheek. “Yes she is,” he grumbled, still unable to take his eyes off of Brian.

Howie followed Baylee’s gaze and took a seat next to him. “That wasn’t your fault.” He said, taking a guess at Baylee’s thoughts, “And it wasn’t entirely hers either. Your mom and Brian have needed to get that out of the way for a long time.”

“Why?”

Howie sighed and tried his best to explain it in a way Baylee might understand. “Well, your mom used to love Brian very much.”

“Did he love her too?”

Howie glanced nervously at Brian but he didn’t seem to be listening to the conversation. He lowered his voice anyway and then smiled a little as he replied, “I think so.”

“Then why did he become a priest?”

“You’d have to ask him that.” Howie shrugged, “It surprised us all, but your mom loved him so much that it broke her heart. They had a big fight and after that, they never spoke to each other again.”

Baylee’s frown turned into a look of wonder and Howie put his arm around the boy. “It had to be pretty hard for your mom to come back, especially with me being here, so you should cut her some slack.”

Baylee couldn’t stay mad when Howie’s arm was around him; it felt too good to have it there. He looked up to see Howie smiling down at him, still in awe at the fact that this man was his real dad, and finally cracked a smile. “Ok, maybe she’s only a little psycho.”

Howie and Baylee laughed together but were interrupted by Nick. “Hey guys?” He said breaking Brian from his trance as well. The two exchanged awkward looks and then Nick cleared his throat. “The tents are all up.” He said, “Kristin’s gonna stay with me tonight and she’s not feeling so well so I think we’re just going to turn in.”

“Alright.” Howie nodded still feeling awful for losing Kevin’s ashes. “Is she going to be ok?”

“I think she just needs some rest.” Nick looked at Howie and sighed, knowing how much he was tearing himself apart over this, “She’s not really mad at you, you know.”

“I know.” Howie sighed, “Tell her I’m sorry for yelling at her anyway.”

“I will man.”

Nick disappeared into his tent and Howie couldn’t help his sigh. Baylee frowned when he saw how upset Howie was and wished there were some way he could make him feel better. “Thank you.” He whispered when he couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“For what?” Howie asked pulling his attention back to his son.

“For jumping in the river after me.”

“I couldn’t just let you float away could I?” Howie laughed but then his smile turned serious. “I just found you, I’m not going to let you get away that easy.”

Brian watched Baylee grin and then throw himself into Howie’s arms. He figured the two could use some alone time and seeing them so happy made him sick to his stomach, so he quietly got up and went for a walk to clear his head.

***

It had now been nearly half an hour and though the sobbing stopped, Leighanne had yet to say a word. AJ hated to bother her, but the sun had almost set entirely. “It’s getting dark.” He whispered, “We should probably get back to camp.”

“Baylee’s right.” Leighanne replied, leaving a look of confusion on AJ’s face. “I do hate him. I hate him because I can’t hate him.”

“Do you still love him?”

“No.” Leighanne replied and then changed her mind, “I don’t know. That’s crazy right? I mean the man destroyed my life. Why do I still let him get to me?”

“He gets to you because you still care about him. Trust me, I know the feeling, but Leigh listen to yourself.” AJ took Leighanne’s hand in his and forced her to look into his eyes. “Brian didn’t destroy your life.” He said firmly, “You are a smart, strong, sexy, independent woman, with a great career and a beautiful son who clearly loves you. What more could you want?”

“I want to be free of Brian.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve never had a relationship last more than a couple weeks. I don’t hate everyone like Baylee thinks, but I am really good at making them hate me. I’m so scared that people are going to hurt me, that I shut them out before they can.”

“Well then maybe coming here was exactly what you needed. Maybe seeing Brian again will finally give you some closure.”

“Doubtful.” Leighanne scoffed as she reached for her pack of cigarettes. “I’m probably more screwed up now than ever.”

AJ watched Leighanne struggle with her lighter. “I don’t know about that.” He said taking the stick from her lips before she could get it lit. “You haven’t shut me out yet.”

Leighanne’s face softened and AJ met it with a smile. “Maybe coming this week wasn’t such a bad thing after all?”

AJ waited for Leighanne’s response, hoping he might finally get a smile from her, but he never expected her to kiss him. Leighanne couldn’t help herself. She felt so lousy and so confused and AJ made her feel better. AJ pulled back slightly, but Leighanne didn’t back off. “Leigh, what are you doing?”

“Kissing you.” Leighanne whispered as she continued to tug at his lips.

For once in his life AJ was truly speechless and all he could do was watch, shocked, as Leighanne climbed onto his lap. AJ took a deep breath, fighting to control the urges growing inside him. “Leighanne, I don’t think this is such a good-

“Then don’t think about it.” Leighanne said, now breathing very heavily. “I don’t want to think about it. I’m tired of thinking. Do you know how long it’s been for me?”

She kissed him again and for a moment he gave in to temptation, but only for a moment. His conscience took over and he gently pushed her back. “As much as I would love for this to happen, it can’t. It wouldn’t be right.”

AJ’s efforts didn’t come soon enough because Brian came wandering through the woods and stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of them. AJ looked up and nearly panicked when he saw him. “Brian!”

Brian immediately did an about face and headed quickly in the direction of camp. “Shit.” AJ hissed as he struggled to his feet. “Brian!”

AJ ran off to catch up to Brian and Leighanne followed quickly behind. “Brian wait.” AJ called when he saw him, “It’s not what you’re thinking. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Brian kept walking and AJ reached out to grab his arm. “Would you please just let me explain?”

Brian stopped walking and without warning swung as hard as he could, knocking AJ clean off his feet. “Brian!” Leighanne yelled as she rushed to AJ’s side but Brian didn’t look back.

“I’m sorry AJ, that wasn’t your fault.”

AJ glared at Leighanne as he wiped the blood from his nose. “AJ, we didn’t do anything wrong.” Leighanne pleaded desperately, “He had his chance ok? I don’t owe him anything!”

“He’s our friend, we owe him a little respect.” AJ snapped, more angry at the situation than anything.

“So what? I’m not allowed to have feelings for you because Brian can’t have me? He chose that life AJ, not me.”

“You don’t have feelings for me, I haven’t even talked to you in twelve years. You’re just upset and I’m not gonna let you use me to make him jealous.”

“You really think that’s what I was doing?”

“I don’t know Leighanne, you tell me. You don’t seem to be dealing with the situation all that well.”

“At least I’m dealing with it, damnit!”

“You call that dealing with it? Smoking like a chimney, crying every five minutes, screaming at everyone who looks at you wrong? Having sex isn’t going to make you feel any better, trust me.”

“Don’t you dare lecture me on how to face my problems. You’re walking around laughing and making jokes, and pretending everything’s fine, when you’ve got the biggest secret of all of us. I haven’t seen you try to make amends with Brian at all, and what you did was pretty shitty. Do you even feel guilty?”

“You have no idea how bad I feel. I wish to hell Brian would let me talk to him, but there is a time and a place for everything and we don’t need to have that conversation in front of everyone.”

“Is that really what’s going on? Or are you just ignoring it because you’re too damned afraid to say you’re sorry?”

“Listen to you Leighanne! You’re out of your damn mind right now, and I’ll tell you one thing, it’s scaring the hell out of your little boy. Your son just met his father. I’ve never met mine, so I can only imagine what that feels like, but I know it must be completely overwhelming for him and he hasn’t had his mother there to help him through it, so excuse me for trying to keep it together. And what about Kristin? She lost her husband. Kevin is dead! She’s been with him since the beginning of time, and now he’s never coming back. You were her best friend. Have you even once sat down with her and asked her how she’s holding up? I get that you’re having a bad week, we’re all having a bad week, but you’re just being selfish.”

AJ’s speech silenced Leighanne and tears streamed down her face. AJ felt bad when he saw the tears but he couldn’t take it back so he shrugged helplessly. It took Leighanne a minute to form the words because she was shaking so hard she could barely stand still, but when they finally came out, they were clear as day. “Fuck you AJ!”

Leighanne stormed off toward camp, humiliated and hurt, but more than anything she was scared. She was scared that everything he said was true, and she hated herself for it. AJ watched her go, feeling terrible about making her so upset. He wasn’t trying to hurt her, but he didn’t know any other way to help her anymore. He turned around and kicked the nearest tree as hard as he could and then took a seat leaning against it, needing some time to cool off.
Chapter 14 by honey
Author's Notes:
I think we're actually getting kind of close here people. Like 3 or 4 more chapters. (haha now that I've said that watch it go like 10 more.)
Chapter 14

Leighanne was really upset when she got back to camp, but she managed to hold most of it in. When she walked up, Howie and Baylee were standing over the fire laughing hysterically as they attempted to pop some campfire popcorn. She watched the two for a moment with painful regret and then saw Brian out of the corner of her eye. The look he gave her was that of a beaten man who no longer had the will to fight. He met her gaze with a mindless expression then headed to his tent without so much as a nod of acknowledgement.

Leighanne didn’t know what to think. It was unfair of Brian to do what he was doing to her, but she supposed it wasn’t entirely his fault. There were so many questions she wanted to ask him, so many things she needed to say, but Brian had suffered enough in his life and she didn’t want to cause him any more pain. She watched him disappear into his tent, having flashes of the night she’d followed him.

That night had been perfect. They’d had one perfect night together and that was all they would ever have. And instead of remembering it for the beautiful moment that it was, she’d chosen to remember it as a nightmare and locked it away in the back of her mind where it couldn’t hurt her. Now, all these years later she finally had to deal with it, she finally had to confront her own shortcomings and it hurt.

Leighanne was startled by the sound of her own name and looked up to see Baylee calling her. When she saw his innocent little smile, she remembered AJ’s reproach and quickly dried any evidence of her pain. She joined him at the fire with a big hug and kiss and even managed to laugh at the sight of the expanding tin foil. She stepped back, watching her son have a good time, and smiled her first real smile of relief in days. Howie saw the look and put his arm around her, squeezing gently. “You’ve raised an amazing boy.” He said with admiration.

Leighanne blushed and playfully nudged Howie’s side. “Well he has a lot of his father in him.”

Baylee looked over his shoulder to see both of his parents smiling down at him and he couldn’t stop himself from throwing his arms around them. It was the first moment they’d had as a family, and while Baylee couldn’t have been happier, it scared the hell out of Howie and Leighanne. They both knew that their lives would be different from now on, there was no way Howie couldn’t be in Baylee’s life after this, but they also knew that the reality of the situation was a lot more complicated than that. They gave each other uneasy smiles, knowing that they needed to talk, but Baylee brought up the conversation sooner than they would have liked. “Mom,” He said as he pulled himself out of their embrace, “Did you know Howie has a house on an island? He said he can see dolphins from his back porch sometimes.”

Leighanne held back a smile as she gave Howie a questioning look. He shrugged, trying not to laugh himself, and said, “It’s not that cool. It’s actually kind of small, and the Keys are pretty crowded, but you’re welcome to it anytime.”

Baylee’s eyes grew big and he practically leapt from his skin. “Can we mom?” He gasped, “Can we go visit him sometime? Maybe before school starts?”

“Hold on their kiddo.” Leighanne laughed.

“Yeah,” Howie laughed, “That’s just a vacation home anyway, I’m hardly ever there.”

“Then where do you live?”

“Well,” Howie said thinking really hard, “My house, house is in Orlando but unfortunately I’m not there very much either. I travel a lot for my work so spend most of my time in hotels.”

“Travel where?”

“All over.”

“Do you ever come to New York?”

“Sometimes.”

Howie laughed as Baylee’s eyes grew even wider and sparkled with excitement. “You have to come stay with us next time! We don’t have an extra room, but you can have my bed. I don’t mind sleeping on the couch.”

“Oh, well I don’t know about that, I think your mom-

“Please?” Baylee begged.

Howie and Leighanne glanced at one another and Leighanne smiled at her son before it could get really awkward. “We’ll see.” She said calmly, “I’m sure Howie is pretty busy when he comes to the city.”

“Well then he can come at a time when he’s not busy. Like Christmas! You don’t work on Christmas do you? You could come have Christmas with us and then we wont have to hear my grandma and grandpa talk about how my mom needs to find me a good dad anymore. They’re going to be really excited to meet you. We could be like a real family.”

Leighanne paled at the mention of her parents and Howie felt so nervous he could almost vomit. “Baylee.” Leighanne said softly, “Look, you’ll get to see your dad from now on, I promise, but it’s going to take us some time to figure out how it’s going to work.”

Baylee looked up at his parents and his heart sank when he saw the tension they were trying to hide. He looked up at Howie with big questioning eyes and shyly whispered, “I thought you said you loved my mom.”

Howie felt his body start to shake and quickly pushed back his nerves. “I do love your mom.”

“And I love him.” Leighanne added, “He’s one of my best friends, but we can’t just move in together and be a family, it doesn’t work like that.”

“Why?”

“It just can’t.”

Tears began to fill Baylee’s eyes, but he tried to be strong and used his anger to keep them away. “You mean you don’t want it too.” He said, glaring at his mother bitterly, “You want him to stay away! You’ve never wanted him to be part of my life, you didn’t even tell him about me!”

“Baylee.” Howie said, looking down at him with sympathetic eyes. “Your mom’s right. She’s not trying to keep us apart, it’s just not that easy.”

Baylee was shocked and heartbroken to hear Howie taking his mom’s side and he slowly backed away form them. “Don’t you want to spend time with me?”

Howie looked at the confused little boy, knowing that this was going to be a very hard thing for him to understand no matter what he said, and his heart broke for him. “Of course I do, and we can be a family, just not the same kind you’re thinking of.”

Baylee finally let a few tears roll down his cheeks and then ran off to his tent. Leighanne released a long heavy sigh once he was gone and sat down feeling completely overwhelmed. Howie sat down next to her and hugged her. “You know, I could probably come for Christmas this year. It would be kind of nice to spend some time with you. Or you could come to Florida. I’ll bet Baylee would love to meet his cousins.”

Leighanne was touched by Howie’s offer. Part of her wanted to have Howie back in her life more than anything, and she knew how much it meant to her son, but neither Howie nor Baylee knew what that meant. It was true, she had kept Howie out of her life on purpose, and she’d done so for a reason. Surely enough time had passed, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a really rocky road ahead of them and Leighanne knew it was going to be very difficult for them all. Just thinking about it was too much for her to handle when there was so much else going on around her and she began to cry, yet again.

Howie pulled her into his arms and held her tightly. “You’re exhausted.” He whispered. “You should try and get some rest. We’ll figure this all out and maybe even plan some kind of visit before we leave. Baylee will be ok. He seems like a tough kid.”

Leighanne sat up and wiped her tears. She nodded slowly and Howie helped her to her feet. “Thank you Howie.”

Howie hugged her again and placed a kiss on her forehead. “Everything’s going to be ok, you’ll see.”

After one last grateful smile Leighanne headed off to her tent leaving Howie alone with some peace and quiet.

***

Nick went through his pack and pulled out an extra sweatshirt, which he handed to Kristin since all of her stuff had been lost in the river. “Here. You’ll swim in it, but you won’t freeze.”

Nick turned his back in order to give Kristin some privacy as she pulled off the only shirt she had and covered herself in Nick’s sweatshirt. Kristin pulled the sweater over her head and held the cloth close to her face, taking in a deep breath to enjoy the scent he’d left behind. She smirked at the stiffness Nick displayed as he waited for her to be dressed again and then wrapped her arms around him, resting her head on his shoulder. “Thank you, Nick.”

Nick turned around and swallowed a lump in his throat. He was intoxicated by the look of her in his baggy old shirt and tried desperately to push away his sexual thoughts. “You can use my sleeping bag too.” He said, “I’ll be fine like this.”

“Don’t be silly.” Kristin said, waving him off.

Kristin unzipped the bag and covered the both of them with the blanket. Nick smiled shyly and then lied back tucking his hands behind his head. Kristin joined him and for a minute they both laid there listening to silence. “Nick?” Kristin asked propping herself up on her side so that she could see Nick’s face.

“Yeah?” He asked without opening his eyes.

“I’m really sorry that you never got to go pro, but I’m really glad that you came back to Mercy. I mean as crazy as this trip has been, I love having everyone back, but It’s like I don’t even know them anymore and you’re still the same old Nick Carter.”

As Nick adjusted himself on his side so that he could face Kristin, AJ came walking back into camp and heard the voices. “Twelve years is a long time,” Nick was saying, “People change. Hell, look how much Kevin changed.”

“Yeah, but Kevin had problems.”

AJ’s curiosity was so peaked by Kristin’s accusation of the man that could do no wrong in his eyes, that he stopped walking and listened to the conversation. “And the rest of us don’t?” Nick laughed, “Brian’s got more problems than any of us, AJ’s got problems, he’s just hiding them, and Leighanne’s straight up crazy. I’ve had my share of problems too, you know I have. We’ve changed as much as everyone else here, the only difference between us and them, is that we changed together.”

“Well I’m glad we did because I couldn’t have made it through these last couple years without you.”

AJ was now dying to know what had been so wrong the last few years with Kevin, but after the week he was having, he figured some secrets were better left alone. He began to head toward the campfire until he heard Kristin’s sigh. “Nick can I ask you a personal question?”

“Anything.”

The temptation was too great and AJ once again found himself eavesdropping. “Do you think there’s a chance for you and me?”

AJ’s jaw dropped so hard so fast that it nearly knocked the wind out of him. Nick wasn’t as shocked by the question, but he had no idea how to answer it. “Come on Nick,” Kristin said, “I know he was your best friend, but I haven’t been imagining it these last couple of years. There’s something between us and I think you’ve been fighting it as much as I have.”

Nick stared at Kristin morally torn. “Kris.”

Kristin waited anxiously for Nick to admit similar feelings but he just stared at her with tortured eyes. Finally he forced a smile and placed a small, sad kiss on her lips. “I think we should get some sleep.”

AJ stood there for a moment letting his thoughts organize themselves and the first feeling that rose to the surface was anger. Kevin was one of his closest friends and practically a hero he kept on a pedestal. How his wife and his best friend could betray him like that was simply unfathomable. He practically stumbled back into camp where Howie was sitting by the fire. AJ plopped down next to him and shook his head mindlessly as he let go a sigh. “You too huh?” Howie laughed.

“I am so glad there’s not a bar within a days walk of here,” AJ replied, “because I could really use a drink.”

“You’re not the only one.” Howie laughed and pulled a flask from his jacket.

AJ faced his temptation and then shook his head. “Thanks, but I’d better not. I’d hate to end an eight year streak.”

“Oh God, I’m sorry.” Howie said tucking the alcohol back in his jacket. “I had no idea.”

“It’s alright.” AJ smiled. “I guess we’ve all got our secrets.”

“Isn’t that the truth?” Howie agreed.

“So what’s yours?”

“Mine?” Howie asked, startled by the question.

“Yeah man, what’s your dirty little secret?”

“There’s not really anything that interesting.”

Howie forced a laugh, but Brian was intrigued by how nervous his friend seemed to be having this conversation. “Aww, you have to be hiding something. You don’t get to be as rich as you without a few secrets… Maybe a few illegal offshore accounts.”

Howie laughed at the comment and began to lighten up. “Hate to break it to ya, but I’m one hundred percent legit. I have a whole team of lawyers that make sure of it. But,” Howie hesitated as he tried to think. “I suppose I have taken over a few properties that put some people out of their homes or out of work. The cities always agreed that it was best for the community, but still, it’s kind of a grey area I guess. I always feel bad when it happens.”

“You vicious pit bull you.” AJ laughed.

Howie and AJ had a good chuckle and then AJ sighed, “Seriously Howie, that’s pretty weak. That can’t be your only skeleton.”

“You guys didn’t call me Sweet D for nothing. I don’t have many skeletons, I’m a nice guy.”

“Too nice. I think tonight was the first time I’ve ever seen you get angry.”

Howie’s smile faded. He felt absolutely awful about yelling at Kristin. “I don’t know what came over me.”

“I do! Leighanne dropped a friggin bomb on you this week. I can’t believe you held it together this long. Damn man, I don’t know what I’d do if someone dropped a kid on my doorstep.”

Howie instinctively took another sip from his flask. “It doesn’t really feel real I guess. It’s kind of cool though. I always knew I wanted one someday, and Baylee seems like a good kid. I just don’t understand why she never told me.”

“Maybe she didn’t know it was yours.”

Howie looked at AJ like what he was saying was impossible. “Leighanne?” He said with a laugh, “Are you kidding? She’s not the type to go sleeping around with just anybody.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.” AJ muttered.

“What?” Howie asked unable to understand him.

“Nothing.” AJ replied quickly, “I don’t know man, all I know is if I were you I would be shitting worry bricks by now.”

“Shitting worry bricks? It’s no wonder you’re a bestseller. Did you learn that term in a creative writing class somewhere or was that one all you?”

Howie managed to keep a straight face until AJ laughed. “Shut up man.” He laughed.

“I’m just playing.”

“I know.” AJ said as he stretched his tired body, “It’s kind of nice actually. Everybody around here is so tense. I think you’re the only sane one left.”

“I haven’t noticed any AJ melt downs yet.”

“I’m hanging on by a thread man.” AJ laughed and then rose to his feet.

“Well try not to crack huh? I can’t be the only sane one.”

“Yeah.” AJ laughed, “I better get some sleep then. See you in the morning dude.”
Chapter 15 by honey
Author's Notes:
OK people, we're finally getting somewhere, I promise! But, I know the chapter you're all really waiting for is the one after this one and I've already started it so hang in there and I'll have that one posted as soon as I can. In the mean time, enjoy and don't hate me after you read this. *bats eyelashes innocently*
Chapter 15

In the morning, everyone was feeling a little bit better after getting some rest, but they were also feeling just a little bit worse as all of the previous days events finally caught up to them. Everyone was mad at someone, everyone was worried about someone, and everyone was hiding something from someone. Emotions were running particularly high as they broke down camp and prepared for the short hike they still had ahead of them. All of them just wanted to be there already.

Aside from Baylee everyone was secretly looking forward to reaching the springs. In their minds Mercy Springs was like this magical place from a faded dream that was somehow going to make all of their problems disappear. All of them knew that wasn’t really the case, that it was really just some pools of hot water, but in their hearts they hoped it would somehow be more, they way it had been when they were younger. The mood was somber and the air was thick. It would have been easier for everyone to just quietly go about their business and pretend the others weren’t there because everyone was just so tired of fighting, but the guilt was starting to get to them all.

Brian had been the last to actually fall asleep last night and he’d been the first to wake this morning, but despite his lack of sleep, he didn’t feel tired. He didn’t really feel anything at all. Brian was now beyond emotion and simply functioning on basic instinct, going through the motions that his brain told him were necessary to stay alive. When he’d first decided to come back, he’d said a prayer that he might be able to find some peace and make amends with the people he secretly longed were still in his life. His journey however, had proven to be more like the punishment he felt he deserved for past mistakes and he was beginning to lose faith that his wish would ever be granted.

As he started a fire, Nick and Kristin were the next to emerge from their slumber. They were both feeling a lot better after spending the night in each other’s arms. It had been completely innocent, but it was just the touch of comfort that they’d both needed to get a good night’s sleep. They were both anxious to get back to the bridge to see if they could fish Kristin’s pack, and essentially her husband, from the water.

They quickly packed up Nick’s gear and then stopped by the fire before heading back up the river and Nick startled Brian from a trance when he spoke to him. Nick was still mad at Brian, but ever since he’d learned what AJ had done to him, it was hard to have pure hatred for the man anymore. He remembered too clearly the night he had snuck over to Brian’s house after his father punched him in an argument. He was upset and he was scared and he knew that out of everyone, Brian would not make fun of him for crying.

When Nick told Brian what happened, Brian came clean about the things he’d experienced before coming to Mercy, God awful things that no child should have to endure. He knew that having those events put on display for the whole world to see must have been just as hard as actually living through them.

Nick was sure that Brian hated him and didn’t want his friendship, Brian had made that perfectly clear years ago, but as he watched Brian robotically tear down his tent, he knew how badly he needed a friend at the moment. He just didn’t know how to get past the wall that they’d put up between them. Kristin waited, watching curiously as Nick approached Brian slowly. “Hey.” He called gently.

Brian looked up, startled to see that Nick, of all people, was talking to him. He gave Nick a questioning look, but was more curious about the lack of hostility than what he had to say. Nick pointed to Kristin and said, “We’re going to go back and look for Kristin’s pack.”

Brian nodded and began fiddling with his tent again and then froze when he felt Nick place his hand on him. “You wanna come with us?”

Brian was so shocked by the offer that all he could do was stand there, staring at Nick’s hand on his shoulder. Nick pulled back and then shrugged in order to hide his nervousness, “It could be helpful to have the extra pair of hands in case we have to wade in.”

In his heart Brian wanted to cry, he was so filled with emotion, but on the outside he barely nodded and set down his gear. He knew it wasn’t much, and he knew that their healing process would probably take years, but this tiny gesture of human decency was the only sign he’d received in days that God was hearing his prayers and he was once again filled with hope.

Neither man said a word as Brian followed Nick across camp. Kristin hugged Brian tightly when they reached her and the three headed up the river. By the time they got back everyone else was awake and avoiding each other as much as possible. Everything came to a halt when they walked back into camp with a wet empty pack. They managed to get the bag out of the water, but its contents were long gone.

No one knew quite what to say and Kristin looked like she was barely holding it together so no one dared breath a word. Howie saw the empty bag and then made eye contact with Kristin. The look of heartbreak on her face and the guilt of knowing he’d caused it was too much for Howie to deal with. He quietly walked off where he could get a grip of himself in private. He wandered into the trees and finally leaned against one, burying his face in his hands.

He jumped sky high when he felt a hand on his back and when he turned around to see Kristin standing there he couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. The tears made Kristin feel even worse. Howie had been the strongest on this trip despite everything that had been thrown at him and Kristin hated that she was the one to finally break him. “Kris.” He stammered, “I don’t even know what to say.”

“I’m sorry.” Kristin whispered.

“Well of course I’m sorry. You know I’m sorry, it just doesn’t feel like nearly enough.”

“No Howie.” Kristin said trying to smile, “I meant I’m sorry. I’m sorry about last night.”

“I shouldn’t have lost my temper.” Howie argued.

“No, you were right. I know it wasn’t your fault.”

“I lost your husband’s ashes.”

“We were gonna leave them out here anyway.”

Howie stared at Kristin, confused at how she could be so calm about this now. Kristin finally produced a smile. “Coming out here was about more than just Kevin’s ashes.” She admitted, “It was about going back to Mercy. It was what Kevin wanted. It’s where he was going when he died. Kevin wouldn’t care where his final resting place ended up, he would just want us all to get along.”

Howie was surprised, but somehow knowing that made him feel a little better. He took a deep breath and then hugged Kristin again and they joined the others with smiles on their faces, helping to ease the tension a tiny bit.

Once everyone was packed up, Nick and Kristin led the way; eager to reach the spot they’d set out for. Brian followed behind them and Baylee was quick to catch up to him. He was still upset with Leighanne so she let him have his space and watched him from a distance as he fell into conversation with Brian. Howie walked up beside her and followed her gaze to the unusual pair. “How’s he doing?” Howie asked, breaking her stare.

“The kid’s clinging to a priest.” Leighanne smirked.

Howie smiled but couldn’t help himself from teasing his friend. “Must be genetic.”

Leighanne was surprised by the comment, but cracked a smile unable to deny it. “God I really did love him once.” She sighed.

“Did?” Howie asked cautiously, hoping the question wouldn’t upset her.

Leighanne looked at Howie and then back at the man walking in front of her. She thought long and hard before answering and then confidently nodded her head. “It was a lifetime ago.” She said, “Neither of us are the same people we were back then. I think I’m in love with the idea of him, but we can’t go back to the way things were.”

Howie gave an understanding nod and then Leighanne laughed softly to herself. “The man’s a damn priest anyway.” She smirked.

“Still, that doesn’t mean you don’t love him.”

Leighanne stopped kidding and sighed again. “A part of me will always love him.” She admitted, “But not in the way I used to, and being here, seeing him again, I think I finally get it. I think I understand him now. I know he didn’t mean to hurt me.”

“Well I’m glad for that. I don’t how many times I tried to tell you that.”

“You tried to tell me a lot that semester.”

“You should have listened.”

“Tell me about it.” Leighanne laughed, “Maybe I’d have my own jet and a vacation house in the keys by now.”

Howie and Leighanne laughed and then fell into casual conversation the rest of the way to the springs. AJ lagged behind them, bringing up the rear all by himself. While everyone else was finally starting to get a grip on their emotions, he was finally starting to lose control of his. He’d tried so hard to keep it together and now, watching everyone else relax and even laugh with each other made his grief multiply.

AJ stirred in his own guilt and at the same time became angry at everyone. They didn’t understand why he did it. They didn’t have the full story and it seemed that they’d rather just hate him than listen to his explanation. But more than just his own sins, AJ was upset that he’d fought with Leighanne. He was only trying to help her and it blew up in his face. He was only ever trying to help anyone, and no matter what he did, things only got worse.

AJ was done trying to help. He was done trying to be everyone’s friend and keep people calm. It was his turn to be angry, and all of that built up emotion was being displaced on two people in particular. AJ tossed and turned all night over the secret he’d learned about Kristin and Nick. They appeared to be so broken up over Kevin’s death and everyone had come on this trip to support them, and then they turned around and disgraced Kevin’s memory in the worst possible way. His thoughts stewed on this subject until the river widened and the trees opened up.

Everyone stopped at the base of the valley, staring out reverently as if they’d reached a promised land. The sky was a bright blue and the sun shone down on the valley brightening the colors of the early spring wildflowers while steam rose from the hot pools scattered throughout the valley. It was their own private heaven on Earth and they all just stood there taking it in as they relived countless old memories.

Everyone walked over to the largest pool of hot water where they used to gather on a yearly basis and stared down at it as if it were a mirage. “Damn, is that a sight for sore eyes.” AJ said as he stretched his arms out in front of him, cracking several joints in the process. “And sore arms… and legs and back. I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna climb in that thing and sit there until I shrivel up completely.”

“Sounds good to me.” Howie agreed.

“Not me.” Nick said. “First things first, I’m starving and I’m not eating backpack food tonight.”

“What are you gonna do?” Leighanne snickered, “Snare a rabbit with a rock and a stick?”

“Yeah right.” Nick laughed, “I’m not Kevin ya know.”

“You sure are trying to take his place though aren’t ya?” AJ spat, becoming angry at the mention of his deceased friend.

Everyone immediately cast their stares to AJ but AJ only looked back and forth between Nick and Kristin. "How can you guys stand there and pretend that you loved him?” He asked when he met their questioning looks. “I heard you talking last night! How could you betray him like that?”

“AJ!” Leighanne hissed, but he quickly turned and pointed a finger her direction.

“Don’t you dare Leighanne! As much as you’ve visited the loony bin this week, don’t think for one second you have the right to tell me to stop. We came on this damn trip this weekend to honor Kevin’s life and support his wife and best friend who are supposed to be grieving.” AJ turned his attention back to Nick and Kristin, “But instead, while the rest of us are hurting, they’re off by themselves planning out their new life together!”

“AJ wait.” Kristin whispered fearfully, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know enough.”

“You don’t know shit.” Nick said, beginning to lose his temper.

“I know I heard you badmouth Kevin, and then talk about the feelings you’ve had for each other for years.”

There was a tiny gasp from the people just listening to the conversation and tears of guilt began pouring down Kristin’s face. When Nick saw the tears his anger reached a dangerous level. “Why don’t you go write a book about it then?”

“Tell me something Nick, have you eve screwed your best friends’ wife?”

Nick and AJ were about to come to blows so Leighanne and Kristin both tried to intervene, and it quickly turned into one big argument with everyone pointing fingers at everyone else. Howie watched them all fight for a moment and then took off his pack and jumped into the spring in front of him, surprising everyone with a giant splash. When he surfaced he looked up at the puzzled group and said the last thing that any of them ever expected. “I’m gay.”

After the initial gasps of shock and the sound of jaws hitting the ground, silence swept through the whole valley. As he stared into the faces of the people he cared about most in the entire world, Howie broke out into a sweat, wondering if he’d just made the right decision. “If we can’t spread Kevin’s ashes, the least we can do is fulfill his favorite tradition.” He explained nervously. “That’s one thing, one secret, that I’ve never told anyone.”
Chapter 16 by honey
Author's Notes:
Man these people are exhausting! I think only one or two more chapters to go until this story comes to an end, and I think I might need some good therapy after it's done. lol Enjoy! (And Brace yourselves! ;)
Chapter 16

Never was there a more stunned crowd than that of the people huddled around the spring. Entire minutes passed before anyone made a sound. Then, as usual, Nick was the first to break the very uncomfortable silence. “How long have you been…”

Nick’s voice trailed off, as he was still in so much disbelief he couldn’t manage to say the word. Howie studied his face and those of his friends and shrugged, keeping his hands below the water to hide the fact that they were trembling. “I’ve always been, I guess.” He said in a meek voice. “I just didn’t always want to believe it.”

“But…” Nick continued trying not to glance at Leighanne.

“I started to realize it in high school but still didn’t believe it. Then I got to Missoula and there was this guy that I really liked. I was so ashamed of it, that I just ignored it. I was also scared. I was sure that Brian would give me some lecture about fire and brimstone if he found out, and pretty sure Nick would think I had some kind of plague, so I pretended I was just like everyone else. I kept thinking I could change it somehow. I tried everything, even sleeping with a few women.”

Everyone followed Howie’s nervous glance to Leighanne who just stood there looking unwell. “But nothing helped.” He continued nervously, “It’s just who I am. Look, I’m still the same person, I’m just tired of hiding it from you, so, no more secrets.” Howie shrugged one more time. “I’m gay.”

No one knew quite what to say. Howie’d just dropped a major bomb and even though they couldn’t believe their friend was homosexual, they all knew exactly how he was feeling. All of them were tired of hiding. Kristin was first to make a move and slipped into the water to hug Howie tightly. She didn’t say the words, but Howie could feel it in her grip that his news didn’t change the way she felt about him and he took a huge breath of relief.

Kristin looked him in the eyes and he urged her to give in to what she was thinking. Kristin nodded and swallowed back the sick feeling in her stomach. “When I found out that Kevin was dead,” She began nervously, “After the initial shock wore off,” Kristin started to get emotional and Howie took her hands in his, letting her know he was there to support her. Kristin squeezed back tightly, took a deep breath and shut her eyes, “I felt relieved.”

Again, no one could believe what they were hearing and yet when they saw the hot tears stream down Kristin’s face, they felt nothing but concern for her. One by one everyone set down their gear and climbed into the spring, clothes and all, waiting for Kristin to explain herself. Kristin shrugged through her tears. “Kevin stopped being my husband years ago.” She whispered.

Nick took his place at her side and when he took one of her hands in his, she felt the strength to tell her story. “It turns out that Kevin and I couldn’t have kids. We tried everything but it just wasn’t meant to be. I accepted it, but Kevin never did. He got depressed, started drinking, stopped living his life.” Kristin gave Nick’s hand another squeeze. “The night he died I gave him divorce papers.”

Kristin tried to hold back her tears as she listened to the gasps of her friends. “I never stopped loving him, but I couldn’t stand to see him destroy himself any longer. I tried, I tried for years. I tried to get him help, I tried marriage counseling, but the more I tried the more he pushed me away. When I gave him the divorce papers he have me this look.”

Kristin broke down into sobs again and Nick pulled her into his arms. “I broke the only spirit he had left.” She sobbed.

“Kris, we talked about this, you didn’t have a choice.”

AJ watched Nick console the hysterical woman and felt bad for accusing them of having an affair when he realized how much Kristin was still struggling. “The truth is, it wasn’t an accident. Kevin stepped in front of that truck on purpose.”

“That’s a lie and you know it Kristin.” Nick assured her, “The sheriff was full of shit. Kevin wouldn’t do that!”

“He told me he was going to!” Kristin yelled through her tears and then broke down again. Once she had a tiny hint of control she said, “The last thing my husband said to me before he died was, ‘I’d rather die than live without you.’”

“That doesn’t mean he killed himself.” Leighanne whispered softly.

Kristin looked up squinting through her tears and shook her head defiantly. “I told him to go ahead then, because he’d basically been dead for years and I couldn’t live like that anymore. After that he took the papers from me, put his fist through the wall and walked out the door.”

Kristin finally got her emotions under control again and continued in a faint voice, sniffling every so often. “Of course I didn’t want this to happen, I loved Kevin, but you have no idea what it’s been like these last couple years. He tortured himself. He was in so much pain, all the time. Now he can finally be happy again. He can rest, wherever he is, and I can move on with my life.”

Everyone could see that Kristin was ashamed of her feelings, yet no one really blamed her. It was hard for all of them to imagine Kevin that way, but seeing how much both Kristin and Nick had been effected by him made it a little easier to understand her relief. Aside from Nick, Brian was the only other one in the group that had ever caught a glimpse of the Kevin Kristin talked about and the guilt from that experience drove Brian to speak up. “Don’t beat yourself up over it Kristin.” He said, “It’s perfectly normal to feel that way. You can’t blame yourself for wanting to be happy anymore than you can blame yourself for your husband’s death. If you want to blame anybody for Kevin, then blame me. I’m more responsible for the way he turned out than anyone and you know it.”

Everyone’s eyes now fell upon Brian. He met each one of their looks and then turned his gaze to the water. “There’s something you should know about me.” He sighed, “I made a lousy priest.”

Nick scoffed but quickly concealed his emotions when he received looks of death from just about everyone in the group. “No, it’s ok.” Brian said, “Nick’s right. I’m no holy man. That’s why I quit.”

Another round of surprised gasps and shocked looks swept the circle. “You what?” AJ breathed.

“You mean you’re not a priest anymore?” Baylee asked with a frown.

“Well, technically I haven’t been released yet. My Bishop told me I was just making a rash decision because of my cousin’s death and that I should take some time, but he’s wrong. It’s not about Kevin. My heart has never been in my calling and my emotions have always clouded my judgment. Kevin came to me for help, and being a man in my position I should have kept my personal feelings out of it. If I had helped him when he asked me to then we probably wouldn’t be here today. His death is on my shoulders.”

“You’re being too hard on yourself Brian.” Kristin tried to argue, but Brian wouldn’t have it.

“Whether I am or not, I can’t continue working for a man I lost faith in years ago.”

“You don’t mean that.” Baylee gasped.

“Son.” Brian replied with a sad smile, “I am not the man you should be looking up to. I want to believe, I really do. I joined the church hoping to find peace but all it did was take me away from the only people that ever brought me any. I’ve lost everything in my life and I have so much hatred in my heart that I couldn’t even forgive a man who was practically my brother and apologize until after he was dead. Does that sound like a man of God to you?”

“We all make mistakes Brian, but we’re all just doing the best we can.” AJ chimed in, terrified of starting an argument, but risking it because he desperately needed to clear his conscience. “Do you guys remember Penny Benjamin?” he asked addressing the group and not just Brian.

Everyone thought for a minute and then one by one began nodding their heads. “The hottie that worked in the Sheriff’s office?” Nick thought aloud finally making the connection. AJ nodded and Nick smirked. “She was notorious for being uncharted territory. Don’t tell me you got a piece of that.”

“Worse.” AJ admitted, “I’m the reason she got fired.”

AJ wasn’t surprised by all the confused looks and he dreaded the story he was about to tell, but if he was ever going to get forgiveness, then he had to start from the beginning. It was during the summer festival that last month I was in Mercy. I knew everyone in town would be there which meant Penny would be at the sheriff’s station alone, all night. Yeah, I went over there hoping to get lucky, what can I say, I was an ass. We were just talking at first and she seemed to think the idea of me becoming a writer was romantic so I recited some poetry and told her I would use her as a character in one of my books.”

Everyone smirked at the old Casanova, but AJ didn’t have the heart to laugh with them. “She said she wanted to be some kind of ace detective. I thought she was just going for a little kinky role playing so I played along and told her I would need a case for her to solve.”

“Spare us the details, will ya?” Leighanne said nodding her head to the eleven-year-old sitting next to her.

“We never got that far.” AJ shrugged. “She told me she had the perfect case and then just disappeared into the file room. She came back with a file two inches thick and I couldn’t help but be excited at the thought of seeing some honest to god crime files, so I read it.”

AJ got choked up as his mind wandered on the nightmare that was in that folder. “Penny said nothing interesting ever happened in Mercy, but there was one case file bad enough that it balanced out all the little stuff. She was right. It was an adoption file, but attached to it was the entire history of the boy who came to Mercy. Everything was there. Witness statements, child services reports, medical examinations, pictures, coroner reports, everything.”

At this point neither AJ nor Brian could lift their eyes to face each other, or anyone else. AJ didn’t see or even think about the fact that Brian was sitting right there because his brain had glazed over as it produced the painful memories. He’d witnessed the scene so often in his mind now that his mind was purely running on autopilot. “The things that man did to his son. Horrible, awful, unforgivable things. After years of abuse the boy finally came clean to his mother, but without proof the cops couldn’t help them. They tried to run, but he came after them. He came after the mother first, and in an attempt to save his mom’s life, the kid pulled a gun on his own father. He died on the scene, but it was still too late. The boy’s mother sustained such severe injuries that she died in the hospital later that night.”

AJ’s eyes glazed over, but no tears fell, his demeanor was almost robotic. Brian’s eyes were now clenched tightly shut and his body was starting to tremble. “I got half way through the file before I found out who the boy was.” AJ whispered. “I didn’t read the rest until months later. I was so angry at Penny for showing me that file. She’d obviously read it before and showed it to me as some sort of entertainment. She didn’t know who you were, and she didn’t know we were friends, but the thought of her showing it to anyone at all made me so mad. I didn’t want anyone else to see that, ever again, so I stole the file. Penny got fired a week later but she never did tell them what happened. I think she felt bad.”

Nick and Leighanne had known all along who AJ was talking about, but it wasn’t until that moment that Kristin and Howie caught up and having both read the book, they went pale from the revelation. Brian finally looked up and met AJ’s eyes with his own. The way AJ sounded so protective and the amount of anger he displayed over the situation all these years later confused Brian. “I never wanted to hurt you.” AJ said in a pleading voice. “After reading that file I realized why you were always,” AJ hesitated for a moment but there was curiosity in Brian’s eyes now. “Well, afraid of sex.” AJ stammered, “It made me sick. I gave you so much shit growing up about never having a girlfriend or never getting laid. And then that last time at the lake, when I gave you shit about being a virgin. God, everything that happened between you and Leighanne was my fault.”

“If you felt so bad, how could you ever write that book?” Leighanne asked.

AJ shrugged at her and then turned his attention back to Brian. “I left Mercy less than a month later and that was practically the only thing I could remember when I left. I always wanted to talk to you about it, and tell you how sorry I was for all the shit I gave you, but I couldn’t let you know that I knew so I just buried it. But it haunted me. I used to have nightmares about it, for years. I woke up one night with the images from those pictures so fresh in my mind it was as if I was the little boy in that room. I wanted it to stop, so I wrote it all down. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote until I’d written the entire book.”

AJ took a breath, needing another moment to collect himself and push back the forging emotions. “I never had any intention of letting anyone see it, but my laptop died. I was about to leave for the weekend for a book signing, so I left it with my boss to get it fixed and the guy that recovered the files from my hard drive gave him the disc. He’d read the manuscript before I got back. It took him months to convince me to publish it. He told me that it could help raise awareness and maybe prevent something like that from happening to someone else. I thought I was helping and I donated a lot of the profits to domestic abuse causes and battered women’s shelters, but no matter what I did, I always felt like shit that I gave in. Honest to God Brian, I thought I was helping. I never thought anyone would connect it to you and I never thought you would read it.”

Tears finally began to drip from AJ’s eyes and his plea was downright pathetic. “I’m so sorry Brian, for all of it. You have every right in the world to hate me, I deserve it, but I love you, and for what its worth, I wish everyday of my life that I could take it back. I would do anything to make it right.”

AJ took a giant breath when he was done. He didn’t know if Brian would forgive him and to an extent it didn’t matter, his secret was out in the open now and he’d apologized. That was all he could do, the rest was up to Brian. Of course he wanted to man to forgive him, but he would understand if he couldn’t. “All this time,” Brian whispered shakily, surprising everyone, “I thought Nick told you.”

“You what?” Nick growled.

Brian looked to his ex best fiend with big apologetic eyes. “There were things in that book that not even Kevin knew. You were the only person I ever told, what was I supposed to think?”

Nick didn’t want to get angry, not after everything that had just come out, but he was truly hurt. If there was one thing Nick prided himself on, one thing that he always got right, it was being a loyal friend. He’d been loyal to Kevin all those years no matter how much he didn’t want to be. He’d been loyal to Kristin at the same time, and he’d been loyal to Brian even after the man threw him out of his life with no explanation. “You were supposed to think that I meant it when I promised not to tell anyone. I didn’t even know about the damn book until yesterday. I would never do that to you, no matter how big a shit head you were.”

“I’m sorry.” Brian breathed. “All those things I said to you. I was so angry about that book and I thought that you had... And then Kevin showed up saying all sorts of things. I needed to take my anger out on someone. I never even asked you about it, I just decided to blame you for everything. I let my emotions get the better of me.”

Nick wanted to hate Brian but he couldn’t, not when he was guilty of doing the same thing. “We’ve all let emotions make our decisions for us.” He said with a heavy sigh. He looked around the circle knowing it was his turn to come clean. “Kevin came to me about six years ago after the adoption agency thing fell through. He said there was only one option left”

“Kevin wanted kids so badly, and he knew how much Kristin wanted them. He said the only other option was to let someone else father the baby, like artificial insemination. But he couldn’t stand the thought of his child being half Kristin and half some total stranger, so he asked me if I would do it. He said I was the only man he could even consider letting do this for him.”
Kristin watched Nick curiously and he sent a nervous glance her direction knowing she had no idea Kevin had thought about this and what was coming was worse, but he couldn’t stop now. “It shouldn’t have been a hard decision. Kevin was my best friend, and his happiness meant everything to me, but I let my emotions get in the way.” Nick cleared his throat trying to steady his nervous voice and then looked down so that he wouldn’t have to see the looks on his friends’ faces, especially Kristin. “I said no. I told him I was afraid it would be awkward, but I lied to him. I really said no because I was in love with his wife.”

Kristin covered her mouth to stifle her gasp. Nick heard her anyway, but couldn’t look at her. “I was jealous of Kevin and couldn’t give him what I wanted so badly. It would have killed me to pretend that our child wasn’t mine.”

There was complete silence for a moment and then Nick began to talk again. “Kevin told me he understood when I said I couldn’t do it, but that same day he drove out to Missoula to talk to Brian and didn’t come home until three days later when Kristin and I dragged him back. He was never the same person after that. If I hadn’t let my emotions get in the way Kevin would be alive right now and my two closest friends would be happy, but I was completely selfish.”

“It wasn’t fair of Kevin to ask you to do that.” Kristin said in a shaky voice. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“It feels like it.” Nick mumbled.

“Its human nature to look out for yourself Nick.” Leighanne said, “It’s not your fault Kevin’s dead. Just like it’s not Kristin’s fault and it’s not Brian’s fault. You were just trying to survive. We’re all just trying to survive, and sometimes people get hurt in the process.”

Leighanne sighed heavily and then looked around the circle. “I guess it’s my turn to come clean.” She said and then looked directly at AJ. “I’m sorry I got mad last night. You were right, I was being selfish.” Leighanne shrugged and then addressed the entire group. “I was a spoiled little rich girl, I’ve always been selfish. When I found out I was pregnant, I panicked. I did the most selfish thing I’ve ever done.”

Leighanne hesitated for a second and everyone braced themselves because they could tell by the look on her face that something was not right. “I told my parents that I was raped.”

“You what?” Howie gasped, suddenly turning a little green, “Leigh, you don’t think that I…”

“”Oh God no Howie!” Leighanne replied quickly, shaking her head. “Of course not. If anything, it was more me than you. I was just afraid of what my parents were going to say when they found out.”

The color started to return to Howie’s face and everyone present took a subconscious breath. “My parents are really old fashioned and I knew they were going to freak out, which they did, so I told them the only thing I could think of that would make them want to help me and not cut me off. I told them I was at a party and someone put something in my drink. I told them I didn’t know who had done it.”

“Do your parents still think that?” Howie asked.

Leighanne nodded shamefully. “I couldn’t tell them the truth. My father went to the school and tried to press all kinds of charges but there just wasn’t any proof of anything so instead he pulled me from the school.”

Leighanne looked at Howie, pleading with her eyes for understanding, “I didn’t want you to find out what was going on because I knew you would try to tell my father the truth and he would have crucified us both, so I ran away. My father of course found me within a week, but I told him I was scared to go back so he sent me to Georgia to live with my Aunt and Uncle while I had the baby. Everyone tried to get me to give the baby up,”
Leighanne looked at her bewildered son, with tears in her eyes. “But I couldn’t give you up baby, I love you too much.”

“How could you keep up a lie so big for so long?” Kristin whispered.

Leighanne shrugged looking once again to Howie. “I was selfish. I knew you would have done whatever you could to help, but you didn’t have any money you would have had to quit school and go to work full time. I also know that you would have tried to make things work between us and we both know that would have been a disaster. I tried to just to justify it by telling myself that you and Baylee both had better lives because of it, but really I was just scared to face my parents. I never thought about how I would be robbing you of your own son.” Leighanne got misty eyed and faced her son again. “I wasn’t a mom yet. I never thought about how much my son would need his father. I wanted to tell you about your daddy so many times, I just didn’t know how.”

Baylee wiped a few tears from his face and looked at all the people staring at him. His young mind was overwhelmed by all of the adult problems and he couldn’t stand to hear any more of it. “You people are all crazy.” He said in a shaking voice and then climbed out of the water.

Baylee headed slowly to the river and began to walk along the bank, stopping every now and then to throw a rock. Leighanne started to follow but Brian put a hand on her shoulder. “Let him go.”
Chapter 17 by honey
Author's Notes:
Only one chapter left!!! I think I am actually going to finish this by October. Yay, I don't have to leave you hanging for a month! Just FYI, I am going to participate in the National Novel Writing Month challenge this year. (Which is to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.) Sadly, that won't leave much time for my fan fiction next month, but if you want to check out some of my original fiction, I will be posting it here as I churn it out next month. Wish me luck, and when December rolls around, get ready for my fantastically fluffy Brian romance to take the front burner! =D Thanks again everyone! You're comments always mean so much to me and really motivate me to keep going!
Chapter 17


Things became quiet as everyone watched the innocent child walk away from them completely overwhelmed, and they all felt pretty bad for the kid. But when he was finally a far enough distance away, their attention turned back to one another and they suddenly realized just how awkward they all felt.

It was amazing how much better they all felt after having unloaded all the weight they’d been carrying for years, but at the same time that guilt was now replaced with fear. All of them felt exposed and none of them thought about the fact that the other’s were just as afraid as they were. Everyone’s emotions were raw by now and they all needed time to recover from this confessional before they could even think about dealing with the truths they’d discovered.

An unspoken understanding passed between them and after a few minutes they began to come to life again. One by one they climbed out of the water and busied themselves with setting up camp. Literally hours passed before anybody spoke a word and for once, it wasn’t Nick. Leighanne was leaning against one of the few trees in the valley keeping a close eye on her son. He was sitting on the riverbank clear on the far side of the valley and had yet to even think about joining the group again. “He’ll be alright.” Kristin said taking a seat next to Leighanne.

“It’s been hours.” Leighanne sighed.

“He’s had a big week. That’s a lot for a kid his age to have to deal with.”

Leighanne watched her son with sadness a moment longer and then finally smiled to herself. “He’s right though, we are all crazy.”

“Especially you.” Kristin teased.

The women laughed for a moment and it felt so good to them both that they held their giggles a little longer than necessary and then laughed at how silly they seemed. “God Kris, I am crazy.” Leighanne said as she calmed her giggles. “I have been so stressed out this week that I never even asked you how you’re doing.”

“It’s alright Leigh.” Kristin said with a soft smile. “I know how hard it must have been for you to come back. It means a lot to me that you did.”

“It was Kevin, how could I not?”

“Only Kevin could reunite all of us from the other side.”

“It’s hard to believe he’s gone.”

“I know.” Kristin sighed. “This whole week has been so crazy that I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. I think it’ll get a lot harder once I get back home ya know? I mean, it’s the house that Kevin built for us, it won’t be the same anymore.”

“Do you know what you’re gonna do?”

Kristin gave Leighanne a bewildered shrug. “I have no idea. Between you and me I’m kind of terrified.”

“If it helps any, I’m here. I promise not to disappear on you again.”

“I know. It does help having you guys back, plus you know, I’ve got Nick. He’s not gonna let me go crazy.”

“So it seems.”

Kristin could feel Leighanne’s smirk without having to look at her. Leighanne held back for a moment but laughed when she saw the twinkle in Kristin’s eyes. “So?” she asked.

“So?” Kristin repeated sarcastically.

“Oh come on Kristin, you know we have to talk about this. Nick just said-

“I know what Nick said.” Kristin stepped in quickly, trying her hardest not to laugh at the excitement in Leighanne’s face.

“And?” Leighanne whined.

“And…” Kristin shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Leighanne gave Kristin a peculiar look and then shook her head. “I was watching you and Nick at the funeral. You can’t tell me it’s all one-sided.”

Kristin’s cheeks turned a deep read and Leighanne laughed again. “Ok, ok.” Kristin finally conceded, “I mean we’re not just going to live happily ever after over night, I don’t think Mercy’s ready for a scandal like that, but,” Kristin shrugged becoming even more red than before, “I can’t say I haven’t thought about it.”

“I say go for it. That town needs a little gossip to be excited about.”

***

Men are naturally a lot more reserved when it comes to their feelings, therefore they’re much slower at reconciling with one another, but when Kristin and Leighanne burst into laughter Brian, Nick, AJ and Howie all looked up from their various activities and watched them with intrigue. The smiles were relaxed and the giggling between them was cute as hell and it made all four men wish they could be at ease too.

Nick decided to be brave and dug a mini tackle box from his pack. “I was serious about eating good tonight.” He announced to the other men as he held up some fishing line and a fly.

Howie, AJ and Brian all exchanged smirks and then AJ flat out laughed. “Sure Nick.” He laughed, waving him off as if he were being ridiculous.

Nick frowned, causing Howie and Brian to snicker along with AJ and Brian took the line from Nick. “You’d better let me do that.” He said making Nick hand over the collection of flies. “If we let you do the fishing, we’ll all be eating nuts and berries for dinner.”

Nick wanted to pout, but he knew as well as anyone that Brian was right so he handed over his gear with a shrug. Brian headed down to the river and AJ went back to the small note pad he had been writing in before the silence had been broken. Howie watched Brian walk off and then looked at Nick, “Did you bring enough tackle for more than one person?”

Nick reached into his bag and pulled out three more spools of fishing line. “Are you kidding? As much as I break the line, I learned how to come prepared a long time ago.”

Nick started to hand over the gear but then looked at Brian standing alone on the riverbank and grew a wide smirk. “Why?” He teased, “You cruising for a love connection or something?”

AJ looked up from his writing, curious of Howie’s reaction and was glad to see Howie smile as he shook his head. “I like to fish, jackass.” He laughed, surprised that he actually thought it would take longer for the harassment to start.

“Dude,” Nick grinned proudly as he handed over the fishing line, “I’ve got a lot of years to make up for, and I know a lot of gay jokes.”

Howie rolled his eyes and then headed toward the river. He stopped after a few steps and smiled back to Nick. “Brian’s not really my type anyway Nicky.” He said with a wink.

Both Howie and AJ burst into laughter at the sudden look of panic on Nick’s face. “You’re the man Howie.” AJ laughed.

“I know.” Howie said and then headed down to the river.

“You guys sound like you’re having a good time over here.” Leighanne said cheerfully as she and Kristin finally joined them again.

“Nicky’s got a new boyfriend.” AJ laughed.

“That is not funny dude!” Nick grumbled through crimson cheeks.

“He was just giving you shit, ya dumbass.” AJ laughed, “It serves you right anyway.”

“It sounds like we missed quite the party.” Kristin said and then gave Nick a sarcastic sympathetic pat on the cheek. “You shouldn’t tease him about Howie, AJ. You know how homophobic he is.”

“I am not.” Nick pouted.

“Would you rather I tease him about you?” AJ challenged.

The blood drained from Nick’s face in an instant and Kristin forced an awkward smile his direction. “AJ!” Leighanne said forcing a big cheesy smile while she glared daggers at the man. “Just the man I was looking for. You think we could talk for a minute? Alone?”

Leighanne pulled AJ to his feet and elbowed him hard in the side as she carted him off in order to give Nick and Kristin some privacy. When the two were out of sight, Kristin turned to Nick and tried to smile again but it was obvious she was nervous. Nick opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. What exactly was he supposed to say? “Well I guess I answered your question.” He finally muttered.

When he saw Kristin’s frown he explained himself further. “Last night you asked if I thought there was a chance for us.” He said shyly, “I don’t mean any disrespect to Kevin, but I really hope so.”

Kristin blushed as she watched Nick struggle to find the words he wanted to say. “I didn’t mean for you to find out like that,” He stammered, “I just, and everyone was… Well you were there. I think there’s something in that spring water that just makes people get all nutty. That’s probably why it’s not on any map. It might even be what made Howie gay. Maybe we should all see a doctor, just to be safe.”

As Nick rambled, Kristin’s awkwardness faded into a smile. “You talk too much when you’re nervous Nick.”

“I can’t help it.”

“I know.” Kristin laughed softly.

She reached for Nick’s hand and as she laced her fingers in his she pulled herself closer to Nick hoping he would kiss her the way she knew he wanted to. She frowned when he pulled away from her nervously. “What is it?” she pleaded.

“I’m sorry. It’s just that I look at you and I see Kevin, and he’s giving me that look. You know, that Kevin look, that cold, stern, warning one that scares the hell out of you. I’m sure he’s turning circles in his grave right now.” Nick stopped, with a puzzled look, “Or he would be if we’d have put him in one.”

“Yeah.” Kristin sighed, “I know that look, but he’s not here to give you that look right now.”

“It doesn’t matter. Kevin would find a way to reach through the veil and murder me in my sleep just for thinking it.”

“He could not.” Kristin said as she tried her hardest to keep a light attitude about the situation. “Nick.” She whispered more seriously. “He’s gone.”

“I know.” Nick replied, unable to crack anymore jokes as he fought back the million and one different emotions he was feeling. “But he was my best friend, and you were his wife, and I know how much you loved each other. I know he’s gone, but it still feels like betrayal.”

Kristin’s eyes became moist, but she gritted a smile. “Kevin,” She said firmly, “My husband, the man I loved? He’s been gone for years. The man that died this week was not him, and I’ve had more feelings for you than I’ve had for him for a long time.”

Kristin’s pained smile turned into a desperate plea. “We both know where this is going anyway,” She said, “So if you really love me like you say you do, then for God’s sake just kiss me! Right now. Please? Because I can’t remember the last time there was passion in my life and I don’t think I can take it much longer.”

A single tear rolled down the side of Kristin’s face and Nick could no longer resist the feelings in his heart that were now pounding clear through his chest. If anyone deserved to be loved, it was Kristin and Nick wanted so desperately to be able to give her that love. Wanting to give her every ounce of passion he had, he threw his lips on hers so fast it made her head spin. She returned the gesture hungrily and the world around them melted away as they finally shared the kiss they’d both been fighting for so long.

***

“Holy shit.” AJ laughed when he saw Nick and Kristin’s forms sort of blur together in the distance. “That didn’t take long.”

Leighanne watched them with an approving look. “I think we missed a lot over the last 12 years.”

“Maybe.” AJ shrugged, “But then again, you know what they say about funerals and sex.”

“AJ! You’re so bad.” Leighanne laughed.

“Me? What about you, little miss wanna get freaky in the woods?”

Leighanne tried to act appalled, but she was guilty and she knew it. When she had no comeback AJ laughed at her and she sighed dramatically. “You’re right, everyone has sex at funerals.” She laughed and then wrinkled her nose. “Except me. I can’t even get laid by the town slut in a place as romantic as this.”

AJ looked Leighanne over, almost regretting his decision, and then gave a slight chuckle as he shook his head. “Believe me, you almost did, but I wasn’t the one you were wanting to get it from last night. You know, if Brian’s not going to be a priest anymore, you could still get lucky on this trip.”

AJ raised his eyebrows playfully and Leighanne rolled her eyes. “Yeah, couldn’t you just see that turning out wonderfully?” Leighanne thought for a moment and then laughed a little to herself. “I think it’s best if I just stay far, far away from that.”

AJ studied her, trying to decide how much she really meant what she was saying. She saw his puzzled look and sighed. “I really am sorry about last night.” She said sincerely, “I wasn’t trying to make him jealous.”

“I know.” AJ said becoming serious, “You didn’t know he was going to be out there anymore than I did. I shouldn’t have said that. In fact I shouldn’t have said a lot of things I said last night.”

“I needed to hear it.”

Leighanne surprised AJ with an enormous hug. “I owe you a big thank you.” She said, “If it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have come here. This week has been hell but it’s changed everything. Baylee’s got his father now and I got my friends back.”

“And you’re stuck with us now.” AJ laughed, squeezing her tightly back. “You know, I’m in New York a couple times a year. I’ll have to call you next time I’m there.”

“You’d better.” Leighanne laughed. “You know I went to a book signing you had in Manhattan two years ago.”

“I don’t remember that.”

“You never saw me. I stood outside the bookstore for two hours trying to work up the courage to go inside. Six people asked me if I was alright that day, and we’re talking about New Yorkers so I must have looked really, really bad.”

“I wish you’d have come in.”

Leighanne and AJ smiled at one another and then Leighanne couldn’t resist hugging him again. “Can you believe this week? I was so scared to come here. I never thought we would all be able to walk away friends.”

“I really hope we do.” The smile faded from AJ’s face and he glanced down at the river. “I’m worried about Brian though.”

Leighanne sighed as she pulled herself from AJ’s arms and cast her glance across the valley. “He’s been through so much.” She said sadly, “And he has a lot more patching up to do than the rest of us, but I’m going to make sure he does. At least with me.”

AJ watched Brian and felt sadness in his heart. Even now, he was standing all alone, probably terrified to talk to anyone. “I think that’s a good idea Leigh. He could really use your friendship.”

“He could use yours too.”

“I doubt he wants mine.”

Leighanne once again found herself hugging AJ. “You never know.” She said nudging him softly. “You have to at least try. Whether he forgives you or not he needs to know that you still care, but I think he’s more Christ-like than he gives himself credit for.”

“Me too.” AJ sighed, “It’s kind of sad to see him quit.”

“Yeah,” Leighanne agreed, “If he can lose faith, then there’s sure as hell no hope for the rest of us.”

“Maybe someone should tell him that.”

“Maybe that’s what Nick’s doing.” Leighanne said, surprised to see Nick, of all people, approaching Brian.

AJ watched the two curiously, half expecting Nick to punch the guy. “I seriously doubt that’s what Nick is saying. Maybe we should go over there.”

“Maybe we should give them a few minutes.” Leighanne smiled, “They need it.”

“Eh, you’re right. Maybe we should go harass Kristin about making out with Nick instead.”

“Oh AJ,” Leighanne laughed as she let him slide his arm around her waist and lead her back to camp, “I really have missed you.”
Chapter 18 by honey
Author's Notes:
ok, you know what, you should just stop believing me when I tell you how many chapters are left, because apparently I never know what I'm talking about. Yep, after writing this chapter, there is still one more... I'm going to try my hardest to be finished by Wednesday, but I KNOW I'm going to be a little distracted tomorrow!! hehe. HAPPY BSB LISTENING!!!!!
Chapter 18

“Catch anything?”

Brian had been so deep in thought that he never heard Nick walk up behind him and the greeting startled him so badly he nearly ended up in the river. “Not much.” He muttered once he’d regained his composure, “But it’s not as easy without a proper pole.”

Nick looked down at the three good size trout lying at his feet. “Not much?” He repeated with wide eyes. “I don’t think I’ve ever caught three fish at one time ever.”

“You never were much of a fisherman.” Brian said.

There was a hint of a smile on Brian’s face as he thought back on previous fishing adventures the two had shared. Nick saw the smile and in a strange way it made him nervous. He couldn’t even remember the last time he and Brian had a civil, much less a pleasant conversation. He was still torn by his feelings about the man and yet he didn’t want to ruin the moment.

“I’m sorry.” Brian finally muttered through the silence.

“Na, you’re right. I suck at fishing.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Nick knew that, he was just trying to lighten an uncomfortable situation. “Do you remember that day Kevin took us out to the pond on his property?”

Brian glanced curiously at Nick when he blatantly dodged the subject. Nick avoided looking at him directly and finally Brian chose to cut him some slack and drop it. He knew Nick well enough to know that coming to talk to him at all was hard enough, even if he was only talking about fishing. “How could I forget?” he finally replied, letting his smile return. “Not only was it the first time I met you and AJ, that was your first attempt at the sport. The pond was stocked and you still couldn’t catch anything. Though, I still don’t understand how you got to be ten years old without ever having gone fishing?”

“My dad wasn’t exactly a boy scout master.”

Brian’s smile faded a bit at the harshness of Nick’s tone. “Well I’m glad you waited.” He said in a smaller voice. “I was so scared to come here and meet Kevin’s friends. Kevin didn’t even know the truth about my parents. My aunt and uncle told him it was a car wreck. I was afraid you guys would ask me a bunch of questions, but you were so bad at fishing that you took all the attention away from me that day.” Brian’s eyes glazed over at the memory and suddenly the smile was back on his face. “You fell off the raft.” He laughed. “And you screamed like a little girl.”

“It was a stocked fish pond. The fish were everywhere. One swam up my shorts.”

Brian released a hearty laugh and Nick slugged his shoulder. “I didn’t scream like a girl.”

Both Brian and Nick laughed at the memory until they realized they were laughing together. “That was a good day.” Nick sighed.

“Yeah it was.”

They stood there quietly for a minute both watching the fishing line Brian dangled from his hands. “Let me see that.” Nick asked and Brian handed over the line.

Brian smirked a little as Nick attempted to drop the fly in just the right spot. They again focused on the fishing line and then Nick looked up at Brian with a boyish smile. “You wanna know a secret?”

Brian wasn’t sure he did, he’d heard enough secrets for one day, but the smile on Nick’s face wasn’t threatening so he shrugged. “I fell in the lake on purpose that day.”

“You did not.” Brian chuckled.

“I did.” Nick insisted, “Kevin told me how you almost didn’t come because you were scared, and you hadn’t said much all day so I figured if I looked really stupid then you wouldn’t be so nervous.”

There was silence again, but for the first time in a long time it wasn’t awkward. Nick focused his attention on fishing and Brian lost himself in thought. He was startled again when Nick called his name. “Brian?”

“Yeah?”

Nick stopped worrying about the fishing line in his hands and gave Brian a perplexed look. “Why did you tell me?”

Brian thought about it for a moment and then smiled. “Because you fell in the pond on purpose.”

“I’m serious. You said Kevin didn’t even know man, and he was your family. Why me?”

Brian shrugged, “Kevin was like a brother to me, but he never could have understood, his life was perfect. Not that what my dad did and what your dad did was the same, but you knew what it was like to be living with a secret.”

Nick nodded in understanding but suddenly didn’t feel quite so chatty. “I’m sorry I thought it was you that told AJ.” Brian said again. “I should have known you wouldn’t do that.”

“It’s like you said, who else could have?”

Nick shrugged, trying to be understanding. Deep down he wanted Brian’s friendship back but his feelings were too hurt to ask for it. He’d never asked to be abandoned the way he was and not knowing why Brian disowned him, was what fueled his hatred all these years. But now that Brian not only had a reason, but one that made damn good sense from his perspective, Nick just wanted to be able to wipe the slate clean and try to rebuild whatever there was left of their relationship.

Brian wasn’t much different. He too wanted to fix what went wrong between them, but wasn’t sure how. As he stood there thinking about the past, he realized that just an apology wasn’t going to magically going to solve their problems. Nick and Brian began to drift apart long before the night they stopped talking. There was more to their past than just AJ’s book, and Brian wasn’t going to be able to just ignore it like Nick. “You were the very best friend I ever had,” he said, “But then things got different when we were in high school. You started spending more time with Kevin and AJ.”

“You started getting into all that religion stuff.” Nick said, trying his best not to become defensive. “You made it pretty hard to hang out with you sometimes, but I never stopped being your friend, that was all you.”

“Kevin told me about what he asked you to do,” Brian suddenly blurted, “About fathering a baby.”

Nick was so surprised by Brian’s confession that he jerked around to face him and lost hold of the fishing line in his hand. “Shit.” He mumbled when his source of catching his dinner slipped from his fingers and vanished into the river. “What?”

“It hurt like hell that he chose you. Not that I would have been allowed to do that for him, but he didn’t even ask. I knew I wasn’t part of the group anymore, but if Kevin was asking you to do something like that, then that meant that you and him had the friendship that I used to have with you.”

“That wasn’t my fault.” Nick was now trying not to let his anger get the better of him. “You left Mercy and you never looked back. How could I stay friends with someone who I hardly ever saw and when I did, all I got was a lecture about my evil ways.”

“I know,” Brian admitted in a broken whisper, “I treated you like shit because I was jealous. It was wrong and I’m sorry.”

“Can priests say shit?”

Brian was annoyed that Nick was again trying to avoid the subject and tried not to crack a smile, but it was funny and he couldn’t resist smirking. “We’ve already established the fact that I’m a shitty priest.”

Nick’s anger subsided again and Brian suddenly got quiet. It was obvious he was becoming choked up and Nick started to fidget nervously. “I miss having good days with you.” Brian whispered, staring at his feet as he fought the urge to cry. “Do you think we’ll ever be friends again?”

Nick thought about it for a moment and then, all joking aside, asked, “Are you ready to stop being a self-righteous jackass?”

Brian studied Nick for a moment and then released a long heavy sigh as he slowly nodded his head. “No more lectures.” He promised, “Unless you ask for one.”

“In that case,” Nick replied, “Maybe we should go see if Howie had any more luck with dinner.”

Nick’s response was indirect, but it was good enough for Brian so he picked up his string of fish and followed Nick downstream.

***

Baylee had now been sitting on a rock next to the river for so long that he was losing feeling from the waist down. He didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there, and even though he was out of his mind with boredom, he still felt like it hadn’t been long enough. He was emotionally drained and wasn’t about to subject himself to any more drama than he had to at this point.

When his mother first told him they were coming here he was curious, and even a little bit excited, but now he just wanted to go home. Meeting his father had been a dream come true, but he’d always had a secret wish in his heart that one day his mother and father would get back together and he could have a normal family. Now he at least had a father, and he was grateful, but with Howie’s confession Baylee knew that his family would always be a little bit worse than just not normal, it would always be a little weird and it frightened him.

Then there was the subject of his mother. Baylee hoped that coming here and seeing all her old friends might help her, not turn her into a thousand buckets of crazy. He’d been worried about her for a long time, but after this trip it was more than that now, he was tired of her being unhappy and he was angry with her for doing it to herself.

But all those feelings and all that stress didn’t even begin to cover how he felt about the rest of the people that had come on this trip. He didn’t worry about them the way he did his mother, and now, father, but he couldn’t stop thinking about them. They were all very nice people and they meant well. Baylee could tell they all loved his mom and he was relieved to see it, but they were all just as messed up as she was. He couldn’t help but think that maybe that’s just what happens to everyone when they grow up and if that were the case he wanted to stay eleven forever.

Baylee stopped trying to make heads or tails of everything going on around him when he heard voices. A while back his father had come walking down the river towards him. He sent a smile that Baylee didn’t respond to, but he kept a safe distance and turned his attention to the river so Baylee didn’t mind his presence. In fact, deep down he was a little comforted by it. True, Baylee had stormed off and was glad for his space, but even though Howie was pretending to fish, Baylee could tell that he was trying to keep an eye on him without being too intrusive and it gave him a little sense of security.

Baylee’s serenity had been interrupted when Nick and Brian joined his father. They were just talking at first, but they soon started to laugh about something and Baylee was torn up inside when he heard it. He was shocked that anybody was laughing about anything, and he wanted to be happy about it because laughing was better than fighting, but instead it made him angry. How could they just do all those crazy things and say all that crazy stuff and then suddenly act as if nothing had ever happened?

Well Baylee didn’t feel that way and seeing them having a good time together made him realize just how much he wasn’t ready to face any of them so he pulled his stiff legs from the rock he’d been sitting on before they had a chance to approach him. After a good stretch, Baylee began walking further down the river where he could once again be alone. Howie watched him walk off and looked to his friends for advice. “Do you think I should go try to talk to him?”

Nick shook his head forcefully, but Brian watched the boy for a minute before shaking his as well. “Would you mind if I give it a try?” he asked.

Howie glanced back and forth between Brian and Baylee and then shrugged his defeat. Brian smiled reassuringly. “I’ll meet you guys back up at camp.” He said handing his fish to Nick. “If you want you can even try telling the others you caught these yourself.”

Nick’s face brightened at the suggestion but quickly turned to a pout when Howie laughed. “As if they’d ever believe it.” He said and then he and Nick parted ways with Brian.

Brian began to follow after Baylee and when he caught up to him Baylee surrendered his retreat and plopped back down to the ground. “What do you want?” He grumbled.

“Your making your dad sprout grey hairs.” Brian teased gently, while purposefully keeping a little space between him and the boy.

“If he’s so worried, why’d he send you?”

Brian was not intimidated by Baylee’s attitude and he kept the smile on his face as he answered the question. “I asked him if I could come.” He said, “I wanted to talk to you.”

Baylee turned his body slightly away from Brian and threw a rock into he river. “Well I don’t want to talk to you.”

“Even if it’s for me to say I’m sorry?”

Baylee glanced curiously up at Brian but quickly looked away again. “What are you sorry for?”

“Lots of things.” Brian said as he slowly moved closer to Baylee. “I’m sorry that you had to witness all that. Kids your age shouldn’t have to worry about grown up problems.”

Brian sat down next to Baylee and mimicked Baylee’s example of throwing rock in the river. “I’m also sorry that your mom’s having such a hard time, I think that’s mostly my fault.”

Baylee looked curiously at Brian, but Brian didn’t elaborate. “But mostly,” He said instead, “I’m sorry for what I said about not having faith anymore, because it isn’t true. I know there’s a God and I know he’s looking out for us.”

Baylee tried his best to stay angry and not talk to Brian, but he was too confused to ignore him. “Then how come you said that?”

“Nobody’s perfect.” Brian shrugged, “Not even a priest. I get frustrated because a lot of bad things have happened in my life, but then I remember that Jesus suffered a lot more than me.”

“He did?”

“Yeah, Jesus suffered more than anyone, more than you or I could even imagine, and he did it because he loves us. That’s how I know that things will be ok.”

“Things don’t look ok to me.” Baylee muttered as he tossed another stone.

“I know it doesn’t seem like it,” Brian said trying not to chuckle, “I think this trip is what you call a blessing in disguise.”

Baylee wanted to believe that so badly, he just didn’t see how it possibly could be. “Do you really think so?” He asked timidly.

Brian smiled as he nodded his head. “Well look at you for example, you’re going to walk away from this trip with a father.”

“Yeah, but he’s… different.”

“That’s not going to change the fact that he loves you, and your mom, very much. You’re very lucky to have him.”

Brian’s thoughts drifted on the subject of Leighanne and he let the conversation die as he looked out at the water. Baylee noticed the change and could no longer resist asking the question that had been on his mind since Howie told him about his mother’s old feelings. “Do you love my mom?”

Brian was stunned by the question but quickly plastered a smile on his face. “Of course I do.”

“I don’t mean like the way you love your friends, I mean like the other way.”

Redness crept into Brian’s cheeks when he found himself at an utter loss for words. He stared down at the boy who was waiting very patiently, knowing that the answer was well beyond his years. Brian had no idea how to make him understand the complexity of the situation so he gave the best answer he could think of. “Priests aren’t supposed to love people like that. We’re not allowed to have families.”

“But you said you’re not going to be a priest anymore.”

Brian was once again rendered speechless. He was busted too, and he knew it. Baylee was sharp and saw through the façade right away. “I think you should tell her.” He said, “I think she really likes you.”

“Oh you do, do you?” Brian said as he took a deep breath in an attempt to keep his head on straight in front of the boy.

“Trust me.” Baylee said with a roll of his eyes, “My mom’s dated a lot of guys,”
Brian had to bite his tongue to keep from snickering, but he nearly bit right through it when Baylee finished that sentence. “But I’ve never seen her kiss someone like that before.”

Brian’s face turned deep purple and he laughed nervously as he stumbled over something to say. “It’s ok.” Baylee said, “But I think you should tell her, I think she needs to hear it.”

Brian finally calmed himself and the priestly smile returned to his face. He loved the innocence in Baylee’s thoughts and wished more than anything that the world really worked that way, but life isn’t that simple and he knew it. “I think she needs to hear it from you more.” He said. He glanced back to camp and then looked back at Baylee as if he were whispering a deep dark secret. “She thinks you hate her right now.”

Baylee looked back where the others were with a sad expression and Brian sighed as he rose to his feet. “Maybe it’s time we went back to camp, huh?”

Brian held out his hand to Baylee. Baylee thought for a moment and then allowed Brian to pull him to his feet. Brian started walking but stopped after a couple steps when Baylee didn’t follow. “Everything ok?”

“You go ahead, I’ll catch up.” Baylee said with a nod of his head and then looked around at his surroundings. He grinned at a brightly colored patch of wildflowers growing a few yards down the river. “Mom always says flowers can fix anything.”
Chapter 19 by honey
Author's Notes:
Wow, it's done. Pleas exit the ride on the left had side and don't forget any of your personal belongings. haha anyone else feel like they're leaving six flags? Well, just in time, I hope you liked it! Thank you so much for all the wonderful feedback and let me know what you thought over all! Thanks again guys! Now it's off to write and original fic!
Chapter 19


Baylee watched Brian curiously as he walked back to camp. He wasn’t sure what to think of the man exactly, but he was grateful that he’d come on this trip. Brian seemed to be the most estranged of the whole group yet Baylee found himself drawn to his faith. The faith that somehow everything would turn out ok was what Baylee needed more than anything right now.

The feelings his mother clearly had for the man were just an added bonus. It wasn’t that Baylee wanted them to necessarily get married or anything, but there was something real between them and even if it wasn’t meant to be, Baylee took comfort in the fact that it was possible for his mother to love. It gave him hope that someone, someday would be able to make her happy.

Baylee was pulled from his thoughts when he heard laughter erupt from the camp and while he finally went to collect the flowers he wanted for his mother, the laughter inspired more deep thought. Maybe Brian was right. Maybe this trip had been a blessing in disguise. They’d all suffered and maybe being forced into one another’s company was what they needed to get over it. Maybe now they could finally stop hurting one another.

The laugher stopped and Baylee glanced back to camp to see why things got quiet. He smiled when he saw everyone tackle Brian as he reached camp, immersing him in a giant group hug. They looked ridiculous, but they looked happy and it made Baylee want to be back in their presence.

He ran to a group of bright red flowers and began plucking the biggest brightest ones. He looked around and saw several different colors and began collecting an assortment and just when he thought he had enough, he noticed a small patch of purple ones just a little further down the river. Purple was his mom’s favorite color so he trudged downstream.

Once he reached the flowers he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. At the very edge of the valley where river narrowed again and the trees grew thick there was a large beaver dam that had caused the river to pool up. Upon closer look Baylee noticed what looked to be a women’s shirt caught within the piled tree branches and he immediately went to investigate.

***

Brian approached his old friends still feeling a tinge of uneasiness in his heart and when the laughter stopped upon his arrival, that tinge turned into major butterflies. It seemed everyone was becoming friends again but him. He swallowed back panic as they all stared at him funny, but when they tackled him to the ground throwing their arms around him, his doubt was replaced with tears of joy. Not wanting to be mocked for it, he quickly suppressed his emotions, but stood frozen, blindsided by the love he was receiving.

Kristin was the last to release him from her grip and the smile on her face looked a little sad, but there was still a twinkle in her eyes. “Brian.” She said firmly, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but we’ve all decided you need an intervention.”

Brian felt his heart jump inside his chest and all he could do was stand there, blinking a lot as he tried to figure out what was going on. Nick laughed and threw his arm around the shorter man just as he used to before things went wrong. “Bri, you’re a pain in the ass and a shitty priest, but it’s who you are and we think you should stay that way.”

“Would you stop that Nick?” Kristin giggled and then pushed Nick out of the way to hug Brian, “You’re not a bad priest.” She assured him. “We don’t want to see you give it up.”

“I don’t know what to say.” Brian stammered.

“Say you’ll at least think about it.” Leighanne replied quietly, “Your Bishop was right, you shouldn’t make such an important decision when you’re feeling so stressed out.”

Brian stared into Leighanne’s eyes and felt as if her words were crushing his heart. He never expected her to jump into his arms after hearing his news, but he’d hoped for it. Leighanne could read his thoughts, but she stayed strong and kept the smile on her face. “This was important to you once.” She said, “And it’s important to us now.”

“Yeah man.” AJ added, still very nervous to talk to Brian, “God handed you a bunch of shit and you turned around and devoted your life to the guy. I don’t know about the others, but I’ve always looked up to you for that.”

Brian looked at the heads of his friends all nodding along to AJ’s statement and was honestly shocked. He was so sure when he gave them the news all those years ago that they hated him for becoming a priest. “I always thought…” He began but wasn’t sure exactly what he was trying to say. “But that’s what pushed you all away from me.”

“Look around Brian.” Howie said, “It wasn’t you becoming a priest that made us fall apart. We all pushed ourselves away from each other. “Don’t let us be your reason for giving up your faith.”

“Can I say something?”

Everyone jumped at the sound of the tiny voice behind them and they stepped aside to give Baylee the spotlight. Baylee stood there timidly with his hands behind his back and gulped as he faced six pairs of curious eyes. He glanced at everyone and then focused on one person in particular, Brian. “I don’t want you to quit either, I think you’re a really good priest.”

Everyone smiled, but it didn’t help Baylee feel any less nervous as he began to say everything on his mind. “You all told your secrets,” he said, “I know I’m not really part of your club or whatever it is, but its my turn.”

Everyone waited curiously to hear what the boy had to confess, none of them having the slightest clue what it could be. Leighanne looked at the fear in his eyes and braced herself for something heartbreaking or scary, but she couldn’t have been prepared for what he said. “I believe in God.” Baylee confessed. “I didn’t used to, but I do now.”

Nobody dared breathe a word because they didn’t want to scare Baylee. His statement was so unexpected and innocent that they all needed to hear his reasoning. Baylee looked at his mom and tried to fight back tears. “I was scared.” He said faintly, “You’re always so stressed out, you won’t stop smoking, and I know the medicine you hide in your purse is for depression. I saw the commercial on TV.”

Leighanne’s eyes glossed over and Baylee looked at his feet when he saw his mother start to cry. “When we came here you started acting so crazy and Father Littrell said that praying for you might help.” Baylee glanced nervously at Brian and then looked at his mom again. “I didn’t know what else to do, so I did it. I prayed for you.” Baylee cast his eyes around the group. “I prayed for all of you. You were all just so mad at each other so I asked God to help make you friends again. I thought it would help my mom if she didn’t have to be scared anymore.”

Suddenly it seemed that everyone was fighting back the tears and not just Leighanne, but Baylee couldn’t stop. “I didn’t think he was listening when you all started saying all that stuff, but maybe that was his way of helping you. You told all your secrets, so now nobody has to be scared anymore.”

The only sounds that could be heard now were the sounds of sniffles, as the faith of a small child humbled everyone in his presence. Baylee looked at Kristin and drew an airtight bag from behind his back. “Mrs. Richardson? I prayed for you especially and then I found this in the river, it was stuck in a beaver dam.”

No one could believe what they were seeing, and tears poured from Kristin’s eyes as she precariously accepted the ashes that had been washed down the river the day before. She set the urn down and then pulled Baylee tightly into her arms. “Thank you.” She cried but Baylee pulled himself out of her embrace.

“Don’t thank me, thank God.”

Baylee turned to Brian and then threw his arms around him. “Thank you for teaching me about him.”

Brian knelt down to hug the boy properly but had no words for what he was feeling. He felt proud for the first time in his life, like he’d finally done something right for a change. All those years wondering if he’d made the right decision felt worth it for the moment.

Baylee drew back and smiled at Brian as he wiped the moisture from his eyes. Brian smiled back and then lifted his eyes to see everyone staring at him with smiles on their tear stained faces. They all stood quietly for a moment and then Baylee ran into the waiting arms of his mother. Howie soon joined them and Kristin took that moment to hug Nick, still shocked by the miracle she’d just been granted.

That left Brian and AJ standing there awkwardly, watching everyone around them kiss and make up, and they both knew they needed to do the same. They looked at one another and AJ waited for some sort of response from Brian. He wanted desperately for Brian to forgive him, and held his breath as he watched Brian struggle with the decision.

Finally, Brian looked again at everyone standing around him. Everyone he ever loved was there with him and deep down he knew that included AJ. It wouldn’t be the same without him, so Brian finally mustered a weak smile and held out his hand.

AJ was so relieved at the gesture that he didn’t just shake Brian’s hand, but pulled him tightly into his arms, not worried the least bit about looking like a chick or something. He was just happy to have his friend back. Brian was surprised but hugged him back equally as hard, finally feeling a little peace from six years of emotional turmoil. The two didn’t exchange words, but none were needed. AJ found the forgiveness he needed and Brian found the understanding he longed for.

Everyone stopped their own warm greetings to witness the reunion and when Brian and AJ finally let go of one another they found themselves standing right in the middle of an awkward silence. Nick stepped up to the plate for old time’s sake and held up the fish that Howie and Brian had caught. “I may not know how to catch ‘em, but I know how to cook ‘em.” He said causing everyone to laugh.

Baylee wrinkled his nose at the dead fish. “You’re gonna eat those?”

“So are you, kid.” Nick laughed.

Everyone laughed at the look on Baylee’s face except Brian, his gazed was fixed on Baylee’s mother. Leighanne met his eyes briefly and then looked away nervously. A very wise AJ noticed the exchange and tore Baylee from his mother’s arms. “I think it’s time for you to gut your first fish.” He said, winking Brian’s direction as he separated mother from child.

“What do you mean by gut?”

AJ grinned like the devil and everyone laughed as they fell into their own activities. Brian watched Leighanne find a seat against a tree, laughing as she watched her friends teach her son the joys of fish guts. He knew now would be his only chance, but he still needed to work up the courage. He smiled to himself and then walked off in search of a handful of wildflowers.

Minutes later Brian crept around behind the tree Leighanne was sitting against and surprised her with a few colorful flowers. “Baylee said flowers can fix anything.” He said with a nervous smile.

Leighanne was startled, but the smile on her face as she accepted the homemade bouquet was enough to make Brian happy forever. She patted the ground beside her and Brian took a seat. “They’re beautiful, thank you.”

“They’re an apology.” Brian admitted, “I haven’t really made this week easy for you.”

“Yeah, same here.” Leighanne plucked one of the flowers from her hand and gave it back to Brian. “I’m sorry too.” Leighanne paused a moment, but then had to ask the question that was plaguing her. “Are you really going to quit?”

“I think so.” Brian sighed.

He smiled, but he stared down at the flower he now twirled in his fingers and his thoughts were a million miles away. “Is this about me?” Leighanne asked, snapping him from his daydream.

“Truthfully?” Brian asked, still focusing his attention on the flower in his hand. “Yes.”

Leighanne smiled sadly, and the sigh she released wasn’t exactly the sign Brian was hoping for. “Brian,” she whispered as she placed her hand on his leg.

Brian looked down at her hand and knew that she was trying to let him down easy. “You have to let go.” She said.

“I don’t want to.” Brian said firmly, “That night with you was the best night of my life. I want that life back.”

“But what about everything you believe in?”

“I’ll always have religion in my life, but I’m not cut out for this lifestyle. I chose it because I was a confused kid and it seemed safe, but it’s not really who I am. I want to be loved. I want a family. I want to be a husband and a father someday.”

“But it is who you are.” Leighanne pleaded, “Look at what you did for my son.”

Brian sat quietly for a moment, deep in thought. It was true that part of him would miss what he’d spent nearly half of his life doing, but his mind was made up. “Baylee’s a really good kid, and I didn’t do that. Being a priest isn’t all bad, but this is something I have to do.”

Leighanne gave him a sad look and he cast his eyes back to his lap. “You loved me once.” He whispered, “Is there no chance you could love me again?”

Leighanne forced her stinging eyes shut. “You’re not going to make this easy are you?”

“I’m sorry.” Brian shrugged helplessly, “I still love you.”

“You love the Leighanne from twelve years ago. I’m not that girl anymore.”

Brian dropped his flower and took Leighanne’s hand. “Then let me get to know Leighanne the woman. I’m sure I’ll love her just as much.”

Leighanne sighed heavily and when she looked at him she smiled and pulled one of his curls out of his face. “You were right about that night, it was beautiful. I’m sorry that I ever saw it as anything different. We had a perfect night and I’m glad I can finally see it for what it was, but we can’t go back to that. Not after all this time.”

Biran closed his eyes as he nodded his head and let out a deep breath of disappointment. “Ok.” He said, “At least now I know.”

“I’m sorry.” Leighanne sighed. “I love you Brian, I do, but not like I used to. I just can’t see this working out.”

Brian nodded understandingly, but wasn’t really in a talkative mood any more. Leighanne took his hand again and smiled as best she could. “I meant it when I said I would hate to see you quit, but if it’s really what will make you happy, then you should do it. I just don’t want you to do it because of me.”

Brian nodded again and smiled, but Leighanne knew he was hurting. She gently put her hand to his cheek and pressed her lips to his. As sweet as the kiss was, it hurt because Brian knew it was a goodbye kiss, but he cherished it all the same. When Leighanne pulled away there was a layer of moisture in her eyes, but her smile was one hundred percent sincere. “You are a wonderful man Brian. You’ll figure things out. And no matter what you decide, I’ll be there for you, as a friend.” Leighanne hesitated a moment. “That is, if you want me too, but I’ll understand if you don’t.”

Brian’s heart was broken, but things had still turned out better than he’d expected they would before he came back to Mercy. He never expected Leighanne to be here, much less that she would be able to forgive him and offer to stay in his life. It was at least a step in the right direction and it was more than he could have asked for so he accepted the offer graciously. “I’d like that.”
Leighanne stared at Brian for a moment as she tried to figure out if he really meant what he said. “So, we’re ok then?” she asked.

Brian’s smile was a small one, but it was real, so Leighanne relaxed and smiled as she leaned back against the tree. Brian leaned back with her and they sat in comfortable silence, watching the others have fun around camp.

The rest of the evening went by a lot like it did when they were younger. They cooked fish, played games, told stories, soaked in the relaxing springs getting to know each other all over again and most importantly, they enjoyed one another’s company.

It wasn’t quite like old times though. Things were different now, better. They were different. They’d all been through so much and now they’d finally learned to not take what they had together for granted, something Kevin had always known and tried to teach them so many times. They hated that it took his death to finally open their eyes, but were grateful that his legacy would never get left behind. He loved them all so much and would not have wanted things to turn out any differently. He wouldn’t want them mourning over his death, he would want them celebrating his life, so that’s what they did.

After dinner they all gathered in the spring one last time and instead of each taking a turn to confess something about themselves, they shared their fondest memories of Kevin. They sat for hours laughing and crying and creating a brand new memory as they talked about all the old ones. Once there were absolutely no more stories to tell they climbed out of the water and stood over it, sharing tears and smiles as Kristin scattered Kevin’s ashes over his most favorite place on Earth.

It was hard to say goodbye, but somehow even though he wasn’t there, they could feel his presence. The stars shone down on the peaceful valley and a warm breeze washed over them letting them know that he was there, taking his place new in the world as their guardian angel and in that moment they knew that somehow, everything would be ok.
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